Monday, May 30, 2011

The Decade That Was: Oxhide Supplement (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Pushing the shared formal preoccupations of the minimalist-realist mode in contemporary film practice ar far as any works of the last ten years, Liu Jiayin's Oxhide (Niu Pi, 2005) and Oxhide II (Niu Pi Er, 2009) occupy an unassailable position on the leading edge of latter-day international art cinema. As incarnations of no-budget, independent DV filmmaking, they establish both aesthetic and logistical strategies for the production of an artistically laudable self-made cinema. That is, Liu has made a set of films that engage deeply with the cinematic art of her precise historical moment, while also offering a template for the creation of comparably viable work under the most profound of restrictions.

Working in what appear to be the greater circumstances of poverty, Liu's twenty-three shot, 110-minute first feature Oxhide, filmed in the director's micro-sized family apartment when Liu was only 23 years of age, graphically magnifies the extraordinary limitations under which the filmmaker produced her first work: for each of the film's exceedingly small number of set-ups, Liu limits her visual field to an extraordinarily small fragment of what is already a very small space (fifty square meters, according to the film's US home video distributor, dGenerate Films). Within these gravely under-lit, static interior set-ups, Liu (a.k.a. Beibei) and her parents, mother Jia Huifen and father Liu Zaiping, playing with notable charisma what are said to be "fictionalized versions of themselves," eat, sleep, work and discuss (at times rather comically) the merits of discount pricing, squeezing into and out of Liu's highly constricted compositions; in most instances, the trio of non-professionals are only partially visible, with a set of hands or midsection all that appears on-camera. In one especially restricted framing, Liu shoots only the surface of a sparely lit desk, with a photograph flanking one edge and a laser print heavily cropped on the other. Throughout this, the film's lengthy second shot, father and daughter are audible off-camera, with Zaiping directing his daughter as she composes an advertisement for her father's leather goods store. Ultimately, the filmmaker gives her viewers a variety of pay-off, visualizing what had been only described heretofore, as the printer drops the newly authored notices onto the desk's surface.

Indeed, it is Liu's emphasis on off-camera space, procured through an exceptional reduction of the on-camera visual field (especially in proportion to what is signified off-screen - in a manner that has been eclipsed perhaps only by Abbas Kiarostami's more recent Shirin, 2008) that foremost marks Oxhide's contribution to contemporary minimalist art film practice. Considered as an aesthetic intervention, Liu's strategies shift the core of realist filmmaking from unaltered visual reproduction to the registration and indeed creation of space through primarily auditory means. At the same time, Liu's Oxhide methods no less indicate a filmmaker who has invented a style out of practical necessity: namely, that in shifting the emphasis from the visual to the auditory by means of reducing the scope of what is seen and what is brought into view through the film's exclusive use of a very limited natural lighting, Liu in effect masks (at least in part) the poverty of her micro-budgeted production. Oxhide's exceedingly restricted frame accordingly proves a polyvalent metaphor for the film's - and Liu clan's - comparable modesty.

Oxhide II opens with a twenty-one-plus minute static take, initially presenting Zaiping exclusively, as he forges another of his artisanal purses. Though the frame remains relatively tight, Liu's higher grade digital format (and even an on-camera, adjustable desk lamp) signal material advancements over Oxhide's relative visual poverty. Huifen soon returns from the market - she is heard of course before she is seen - and with Zaiping's present work complete, the couple proceeds to rotate the family's work table toward the stationary camera, thereby producing a proscenium as the surface of the now perpendicular table comes to fill much of the screen. In so doing, Oxhide II inaugurates its own presentational metaphor to stand beside the under-lit, constricted framings of Oxhide, which once again inscribed the earlier effort's material conditions in an equally allegorical manner. On and around this 'found' stage, the same trio of non-professionals spend the remaining duration of the film's 132-minute running time preparing, cooking and finally eating a total of seventy-three pork dumplings. (Their frequent debates about proper dumpling technique prove a source of charming, unexpected comedy that brightens the literally 'kitchen-sink realist' milieu.) While the home-made food items visually rhyme with the leather good that Zaiping is producing as the film opens, the commencing action seems ultimately to refer more to the first Oxhide; Liu essentially offers a negative scheme, in the film's opening as in its prequel, against which the director will work throughout the remainder of Oxhide II.

In contradistinction to Oxhide, wherein Liu's static set-ups mark discrete, spatially and temporally unconnected narrative intervals, Oxhide II presents a single facsimile of real-time across its minimal quantity of breathlessly long, stationary takes. When Liu cuts in the latter film, she most frequently does so along a semicircular axis, rotating to a new vantage on the persisting action; Liu's circular strategies indeed conclude where they first began following the closing dinner. The set-ups themselves extend the earlier work's visual restrictions, with bodies again frequently cropped both above the image and below. Liu's compositions also rely on a very subtle choreography of movement, as in the first film, which ultimately reveals the logic behind particular shot locations well after the cut has occurred.

In terms of its formal emphasis, Oxhide II ultimately trades the earlier work's preoccupation with off-screen spatial articulation (though it is once again utilized in the sequel) for a far greater interest in the narrative possibilities of extreme temporality. Joining Béla Tarr and Lisandro Alonso especially - Oxhide and Oxhide II likewise follow the post-Kiarostami Alonso's La Libertad (2001) in blending fiction and documentary within the context of manual activity - Liu depicts her task in its complete duration, with Zaiping and Huifen carrying on a conversation that at times picks up where it leaves off followings gaps that on occasion span more than half-an-hour. In this sense, Liu's duration permits her parents, in their 'fictionalized' versions of themselves, to speak as they would in reality, as people who live together and spend large amounts of time around one another do in actuality. In this sense, Liu adds to the realist mode once more, in this case within a film that showcases noteworthy maturation from her already extraordinary work in the first offering in the series.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

New Film: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) + Blissfully Thai's Ploy (2007)

To add to an already thundering chorus, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) represents one of the more subtle, successful and indeed suitable applications of 3-D technology amid the current rebirth of the spectacle-oriented form: utilizing the `ugmented medium's palpable depth-of-field and tapping into its higher capacity to articulate volume, Cave of Forgotten Dreams conveys a feeling of the enclosed space's supreme vertical restrictions, while tracing the ample 30,000-year-old figures as they spread across the rippling stone. Though even in two dimensions it would  be possible to glean the genuine beauty of the Chauvet cave's nascent human representations - art attained a level of substantial accomplishment, it would seem, very early in its development, not unlike the point that cinema reached in the work of Auguste and Louis Lumière - the picture's powerful immersive impression, its admirable elucidation of one of the world's most singular places, in both its boneyard present and its proto-cinematic past, would wane without the technology's third dimension. Yet, even with this appropriately organic expansion of film form, Herzog understands that his art remains an experientially limited object as his non-fiction narrative sharply shifts momentarily to a master perfumer who processes the restricted setting through his prodigious sense of smell. 

Cave of Forgotten Dreams sustains its self-reflexive spotlight on the cinematic art form through the picture's concluding passage, whether it is the director's early apology for his crew's presence in the frame or Herzog's citation of movement within and over the interior's multiple iterations of animal form. Indeed, the discovery of a vaginal figure occasions both comparisons between the libidinal end of cave painting and motion picture representation, while affording Herzog the opportunity of procuring a pornographic form of suspense in the lead-up to his graphic reveal. However, it is in the aforementioned closing scene, the film's "Postscript," where Herzog's self-consciousness becomes most conspicuous and cloying, as the director speculates on the mind of a mutated albino crocodile in his own signature manner - one it should be added that has long since become an irritating elite-pop culture cliché. Herzog's ravings burst the beautiful spell cast by the film's incantatory Chauvet setting. Though it is a misstep surely, an "unforced error" in the words of film scholar Lisa K. Broad, it is a strategy, nevertheless, that issues from the film's internal logic: Herzog's characteristically unhinged warning doubles the crooked little finger of art history's earliest auteur.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams accordingly joins fellow 2010 alum, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Lives, in detecting the origins of the cinematic medium within humankind's oldest form of artistic expression. The latter work, last year's best, will be presented May 22nd as part of the New York-based Asia Society's "Blissfully Thai" series (with Thailand's finest filmmaker scheduled to participate in a Q&A session following the screening of his dense masterpiece). Last night, "Blissfully Thai" opened with a screening from the second leading figure of the Thai art cinema, both in international reputation and on the level of artistic achievement, Pen-ek Ratanaruang. The rarely-presented Ploy (2007), from a screenplay by the director, finds Pen-ek working at approximately the same higher level of artistry that the filmmaker displayed previously in major-works 6ixtynin9 (1999) and Last Life in the Universe (2003) - and in formal territory that is familiar equally to both. In Ploy, as in Last Life in particular, Pen-ek belatedly suffuses an undifferentiated dream surreality within what had appeared an objective, existential present; the Pratt Institute-educated Pen-ek, like the "exquisite corpse" work of his Art Institute-trained countryman Apichatpong, borrows substantially from the West's Surrealist tradition. In thus subverting waking reality, Pen-ek manages to navigate generic registers, in the memorable pattern of 6ixtynin9, transforming Ploy over time (and from set-piece to set-piece) from marital melodrama to soft-core romance to serial-killer thriller.

Ploy's surreal strategies likewise register the picture's broader attempt to manufacture the liminal experience of "jet-lag" shared by the film's married travelers. With Ploy's narrative largely confined to a Thai hotel in the hours immediately before and after daybreak, Pen-ek adeptly instantiates the muddled cognition of the moment; Ploy provides a crystalline portrait of sleep deprivation at dawn, when the bright white light of the early morning sun suddenly begins to blaze below a set of bulky hotel curtains. Pen-ek's work is no less infused with erotic feeling, with Apinya Sakuljaroensuk's eponymous nineteen year-old the primary conduit for the film's inscribed, very palpable heterosexual desire - even as its most explicit sexual encounters prove the products of Ploy's subjectivity. While further correspondences to Apichatpong and Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) obtain in the hotel's corridors especially, Ploy herself seems to suggest foremost the reincarnated presence of Faye Wong in Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express (1994), with a pointed allusion to the expiration date of a romance a strong confirmation of the reference. Indeed, Wong, as scholar Broad has noted likewise, offers a valuable point-of-comparison for the highly achieved, if more middle-range art-cum-entertainment cinema of Pen-ek.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On Modern Romance (1981) & Albert Brooks's Reinvention of the Comedy of Remarriage

Having celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its release this past March, Albert Brooks's minor masterpiece Modern Romance (1981, Columbia) remains perhaps the definitive post-classical era reinvention of the Comedy of Remarriage, even if its marital restoration is nothing more than hinted at as a future possibility in the third of the picture's three concluding comedic titles. In fact, the film's literal marriage likewise appears only in this same set of on-screen updates, with the divorce following one month later - as is stipulated in title number two. Modern Romance accordingly plays as a slightly displaced, contemporary revision of the classical form, whereby the couple's break-up (that is, Brooks's Hebraic Robert Cole and Kathryn Harrold's W.A.S.P. Mary Harvard's) stands in for the sub-genre's defining marital split; their subsequent on-screen reunion - and retreat into California's Connecticut equivalent, Idyllwild - consequently marks marriage two and a second Midsummer's honeymoon. That their second on-screen tour as a couple - one of many the viewer presumes - ends in yet another split, however, gives lie, or at least modernizes the sanctifying break-up and reunion template of the studio period Comedy of Remarriage. In Brooks's later incarnation, the Catholic-coded faith that Cary Grant  finally develops in ex-wife Irene Dunne within The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey; 1937, Columbia) never seems to materialize.

Brooks's inveterately suspicious Cole displays a no more flattering indecisiveness, revealing itself primarily in Cole's unending stream of break-neck reversals. Throughout Modern Romance, Brooks's Cole immediately follows basically optimistic declarations with pessimistic about-faces, whether in conversation with his assistant film editor Jay (Bruno Kirby) or as he monologues ceaselessly at home. The latter passages not only serve to reflect Robert's discomfort in being on his own - while, of course, also facilitating Brooks's unique, especially verbal comedic style - but they additionally set up one of the screen's most excessively deferred punch-lines (outdoing even the strategy's greatest exponent Jacques Tati): when Cole thereafter picks up a date in his ubiquitous sports car, the two sit silently in his front seat as they set out for dinner. His verbal torrent, as such, has stopped, thereby transforming the aforementioned passages of verbosity into an elaborate set-up for the pair's awkward, wordless drive. Robert consequently pulls back in front of his date's apartment complex - changing, or perhaps more accurately, making up his mind - without another word, until he confesses to being unprepared to re-enter the dating world.

Brooks's characterization ultimately proves both courageous and commendable in the very lack of positive values bestowed by the writer-director - and especially in Brooks's willingness to eschew facile growth for his protagonist Robert. Brooks, likewise, does not permit himself scenes in which he is able to demonstrate an intellectual superiority to augment his lack of moral or interpersonal intelligence, save perhaps for his encounters with James L. Brooks's director. (James L. is directing a George Kennedy science-fiction vehicle that that provides the negative image of the Albert's real-world take on contemporary romance.) In these exchanges, film editor Robert possesses the practical common sense that the filmmaker lacks, thus endowing the former with an inherent superiority. Then again, as James L. Brooks's character shares Albert's real-life directorial professional, this apparent break with the picture's character strategies in reality provides another instance of the writer-director-actor's self-deprecating humor. Robert is never really allowed to be in the right, except when it means that the film's director is acting irrationally. The Albert Brooks of Modern Romance accordingly emerges as the most singularly self-critical hyphenated screen persona this side of Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan recasting in Sudden Impact (1983, Warner Bros.).

Modern Romance shares further qualities with those of the actor-director's corpus.  For one, Brooks's film represents a commensurate attempt to grapple with its historical moment. (At the time of this writing, Brooks has just authored his first novel, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, extending this strategy within the current debt crisis.) In the case of Modern Romance, this effort crystallizes in the fundamental, intrinsically contemporary flaw that continuously destroys Robert and Mary's relationship: that they, two work-oriented professionals in separate industries - unlike His Girl Friday's (Howard Hawks; 1940, Columbia) newspaper man and woman - have nothing in common. Second, the very fact that Brooks attempts to remake a 1930s-era battle-of-the-sexes generic archetype shares with Eastwood's recent efforts to renew the screwball form in The Gauntlet (1977, Warner Bros.) and Bronco Billy (1980, Warner Bros.). Brooks's film is no less than saturated in both Hollywood's past and in the workings of its post-studio present.

Finally, and most notably of all, Brooks utilizes a classical shooting strategy that like his compatriot only rarely shows markers of post-classical, intensified forms of continuity. In Modern Romance, Brooks always seems to cut unobtrusively on rhythm. The director introduces spaces through mobile establishing shots that segue into medium two's, which themselves become over-the-shoulder shots and their reverses. When Brooks does experiment with telephoto lensing - when Robert decides to get in shape on an outdoor track - the technique is utilized so that Brooks is able to run toward the camera, before peeling off in the direction of a nearby phone booth in a moment of characteristic reversal. In other words, when Brooks varies his formal strategies, as he does in this instance, the result is a visual joke; film style is placed in the service of comedy in Brooks's comparatively classical (post-classical) disassembling of the Comedy of Remarriage. In spirit at least, Brooks, like Eastwood, belongs to classical Hollywood's immediate aftermath - rather than to the afterglow of New Hollywood. Despite Brooks's Heaven's Gate punchline (Michael Cimino; 1980, United Artists).