Thursday, February 10, 2011

Brief Cinema Notes on the Status of the Commodity in Post-Fordism

What is the status of the commodity, the bearer of exchange value, the embodiment of labor, and the means of capital circulation identified by Marx at the center of capitalism, today, when the categories and processes outlined in Capital seem to be superseded and scrambled, decoded and recoded in a landscape aptly described as Post-fordist? These notes rely on 2 passages- from Capital and from the recent writings of Maurizio Lazzarato- and 2 recent films that are consciously oriented around the uncertain status of the commodity in our world (or, the status of the commodity in our uncertain world.) Jia Zhang-Ke's 2006 Still Life by its English title draws attention to the contrast between inert material objects and the teeming relational movements of lived existence. The film is set on the hypermodern margins of the present, inhabiting the ruins of underdevelopment literally being destroyed by the prerogatives of rising Chinese economic hegemony. Yet even in the majesterial setting of the fog-shrouded Yangtze River valley, Jia foregrounds the small, cheap, basic commodities that mediate social existence with unconventional textual superimpositions. Olivier Assayas's 2008 Summer Hours, on the other hand, dwells on the unsure status of the commodities in the historical core of modern capitalism, where material wealth has dissolved measures of value and boundaries of the material/immaterial/experiential. Sentimental in contrast to Jia's bracing materiality, it nonetheless speaks to the same contemporary reality, albeit from far across the developed/developing divide. What follows are small attempts to draw some lines of connection.


A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labor. It is clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, everyday thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than "table-turning" ever was.

The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use-value. Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labor, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, etc. Secondly, with regard to that which forms the groundwork for the quantitative determination of value, namely, the duration of that expenditure, or the quantity of labor, it is quite clear that there is a palpable difference between its quantity and quality. In all states of society, the labor-time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development. And lastly, from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labor assumes a social form.

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labor, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labor is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labor-power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labor; and finally, the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labor affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor...

Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 1, Sec. 4


Alighting from the ferry, Han Sanming is pressed into a scam-artist magic show, in which the shabby magician conjures up a wad of American money out of thin air. It is just this magic act that Marx exposes in Capital. Surplus labor-value expropriated from workers by capitalists is the very material mechanism that makes wealth appear. Commodities are the containers of dead labor that make it all work, the C in the basic formula of capital, M-C-M'. Our problem, then, is posed from the first scenes of Still Life: the sociality of the working class, crowded onto a ship bound up the Yangtze, immensely productive in their conviviality; confronted with and captured by the scam that perpetuates their poverty, the illusions of capital and its commodity-forms.

Jia highlights four commodities- cigarettes, liquor, tea, toffee- which, by being central to social negotiations of working class Chinese, are fine examples of Marx's commodity-fetishism. These four items, earthy and quotidian, mediate the interactions of the film's working class characters. The distribution of cigarettes and toffees ensures solidarity among work teams, liquor lubricates an awkward reunion. As Marx observes, the use value of commodities is not the source of their mystery. The mystery lies in the alienated labor that produced them and in their status under the law of exchange-value. In
Still Life Marx's classical formulation of commodity fetishism holds true. Basic commodities that ensure the collective productivity of labor and the reproduction of social relations, and that indeed are expressive of just that labor, are mystified as separate objects mediated by wages and money. That Han Sanming and his fellows in waged destruction cannot see their labor in the cellphones compared and toffees chewed is not an accident, but part and parcel of capitalist relations.

Most commentators, and with some justification, describe Jia as a poet of globalization, documenting with surprising beauty wrenching, massive economic and social change in China. It is the impressive creative destruction of previous economic modes to make way for the Three Gorges Dam that looms over and visually dominates Still Life. The dam is a symbol and concrete manifestation of a profound restructuring of capitalist relations; its construction has literally submerged a previously underdeveloped capitalism of small, shoddy cities and peasantry to provide power for high-rise cities which house both global financial functions and labor-intensive manufacturing facilities. It is on the other side of this transformation to immaterial commodities and precarious labor- information flows, computerized management of production, metropolitan wealth accumulation- that Jia can not help but acknowledge (visually presented most brilliantly with the night-time lighting of a new modern bridge over the ancient Yangtze valley.) Still Life does not lose its way, however, in the blinding spectacle of the massive, the novel, the high-tech. Like his two couples wrenched apart, a quantitative economic rupture does not render null the qualitative reality on either side of the break, or break a more fundamental continuity. Perhaps it is a strange new capitalism, but these toffees, tea, liquor, cigarettes would have been familiar to Mao himself.


As far as immaterial labor being an "author" is concerned, it is necessary to emphasize the radical autonomy of its productive synergies. As we have seen, immaterial labor forces us to question the classical definitions of work and workforce, because it results from a synthesis of different types of knowhow: intellectual skills, manual skills, and entrepreneurial skills. Immaterial labor constitutes itself in immediately collective forms that exist as networks and flows. The subjugation of this form of cooperation and the "use value" of these skills to capitalist logic does not take away the autonomy of the constitution and meaning of immaterial labor. On the contrary, it opens up antagonisms and contradictions that, to use again a Marxist formula, demand at least a "new form of exposition."

The "ideological product" becomes in every respect a commodity. The term
ideological does not characterize the product as a "reflection" of reality, as false or true consciousness of reality. Ideological products produce, on the contrary, new stratifications of reality; they are the intersection where human power, knowledge, and action meet. New modes of seeing and knowing demand new technologies, and new technologies demand new forms of seeing and knowing. These ideological products are completely internal to the processes of the formation of social communication; that is, they are at once the results and the prerequisites of these processes. The ensemble of ideological products constitutes the human ideological environment. Ideological products are transformed into commodities without ever losing their specificity; that is they are always addressed to someone, they are "ideally signifying," and thus they pose the problem of "meaning."

The general public tends to become the model for the consumer (audience/client). The public (in the sense of the user- the reader, the music listener, the television audience) whom the author addresses has as such a double productive function. In the first place, as the addressee of the ideological product, the public is a constitutive element of the production process. In the second place, the public is productive by means of the reception that gives the product "a place in life" (in other words, integrates it into social communication) and allows it to live and evolve.
Reception is thus, from this point of view, a creative act and an integrative part of the product. The transformation of the product into a commodity cannot abolish this double process of "creativity"; it must rather assume it as it is, and attempt to control it and subordinate it to its own values.

What the transformation of the product into a commodity cannot remove, then, is the
character of the event, the open process of creation that is established between immaterial labor and the public and organized by communication. If the innovation in immaterial production is introduced by this open process of creation, the entrepreneur, in order to further consumption and its perpetual renewal, will be constrained to draw from the "values" that the public/consumer produces. These values presuppose the modes of being, modes of existing, and forms of life that support them. From these considerations there emerge two principal consequences. First, values are "put to work." The transformation of the ideological product into a commodity distorts or deflects the social imaginary that is produced in the forms of life, but at the same time, commodity production must recognize itself as powerless as far as its own production is concerned. The second consequence is that the forms of life (in their collective and cooperative forms) are now the source of innovation.

Maurizio Lazzarato, Immaterial Labour, (trans. Paul Colilli & Ed Emery)


Summer Hours weaves its family drama around a quite different, more ambiguous ensemble of commodities: works of art, books, affective experiences. How are we to measure the value of these by Marx's classic formulation, here in the heart of Old Europe that is the film's setting? It is a question the characters wrestle with, as they liquidate the estate of their late mother, holdings including paintings, decorative art pieces, sketch books, and a house itself. The liquidation is, of course, complicated by their own emotional, nostalgic attachment to the objects, a mysticism added to the unsure status of the cultural commodity, its value seemingly deriving from individual genius and critical reception. Assayas draws attention to the class nature of this determination: the state, with its heritage industry, considers the objects as a tax offset; the bourgeois family is torn between refined sentiment and cold financial calculation; the working class maid takes home a knick-knack, unaware of its "true" status as a valuable modernist work of art. What commodities, in turn, do these characters produce? Older brother Frederic is an economist vainly promoting his new book; sister Adrienne makes designer tableware; Jeremie holds a connection to industrial capitalism with a postmodern twist, managing a Chinese sneaker plant for a European corporation. And what of the key commodity, labor-power itself, which for these characters, who produce cognitively and creatively, is likewise unbound from traditional quantitative measures? This is the admirable mess that makes for such a compelling film. Concrete commodity production is a distant globalized function of an unseen proletariat and the vaunted art and ideas of the highly developed metropolis provides not comfort or security but confused calculations of value and benefit. One need not be swept up as the filmmaker at times falls into a melancholy here.

The passage from Lazzarato above offers some initial suggestions for rethinking the commodities of Summer Hours. First, in affirming their centrality, not marginality to post-fordist- these are indeed commodities, and we can work through an understanding of them as such without too much backtracking and buffering. The artworks are less helpful to us, although in their marginality to the economy as a whole, they indicate the extremities of postmodern commodity production and consumption. They carry enormous value, ideological value included, as their desirability to the state's cultural institutions indicates. But this value would seem to be determined by their role in the double process of creativity- the artist's genius, and the lifestyles, receptivity, etc. of the art consumer. Unlike a car, or a loaf of bread, which has a set value for state or consumer, for Assayas' family members, the works have a value, but a confused one based on affective reception, purely nostalgic and sentimental.

The Musee d'Orsee, where the estate's modernist furniture winds up, seems to align somewhat with Lazzarato's notion of ideological products. Perhaps a bit arcane, Assayas draws attention to the postmodern space of the museum by foregrounding a tour guide for global visitors cynically chatting with a friend on his cell phone, a detail at first watching extraneous. Indeed, the museum is a site of commodity production very much of an immaterial order: the experience of steeping oneself in priceless, famous art, in the center of a world-famous city, is the commodity. The tour of the museum is the ideological product. And it is an ideologically charged commodity, addressing a public attune to a specific world view, relation to aesthetics, class culture- and modulated by concerns of the state and the social imagination. Summer Hours' audience presumably would be familiar with these globalized cultural attractions, which indeed seem to trade equally on patrimony and cutting edge methods in the cultivation of their unique commodity, be it through new media or aggressive marketing.

Frederic, an entrepreneurial academic, would seem to also resonate with the above analysis, as a worker in immaterial labor, whose product is an economics book. Yet most conspicuous in the film is the diffuse nature of production; material goods ubiquitously litter the landscape (symbolized poignantly by the gift of a cordless phone left behind in the matriarch's emptied home), but the working class is not visible. The characters may all have jobs, but they are jobs that are creative, immaterial, and largely unbound by time and space- Frederic and Adrienne are "working" while pondering art or speaking with others; Jeremie has a foot in old-fashioned material production, but as a functionary in a global supply chain based as much on marketing, telecommunications, and organizational strategy. The opening sequence of the film, much as in Jia's Still Life, unlocks much of Summer Hours' secrets. The children of the family scramble around the estate looking for "treasure": it is clear that the intense social experience in common is the point, not the treasure itself.

The treasure hunt.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Don't Fuck the Boss!

A bourgeois man, his declasse mistress, early 1970s French-speaking Europe. To Eric Rohmer in his 1972 L'amour l'apres-midi they provide the material for moral meditation in the final of his Six Moral Tales. Middle class taste (turtlenecks, a simple yet elegant Parisian office, sexual and emotional restraint) defines the world of protagonist Frédéric, and indeed, here as elsewhere, the world of Rohmer's dramatic possibilities. Bourgeois by default, the political and social upheavals of the late 60s register in L'amour mainly in the variety of eccentric fashions displayed by the women Frédéric ogles on the street, and of course in the unrestrained, anarchic personality of would-be mistress Chloé. There is no indication of a return to normal, but rather a sense that nothing had ever happened, aside from the shortening of skirts and bold abandonment of the neck tie. Alain Tanner's Le milieu du monde (1974) likewise does not dramatize any explicit political struggles. This provincial Switzerland is cold and conservative, and his bourgeois man, despite running for political office, is similarly removed from evident social antagonisms. Yet Le milieu is a consciously, immanently political film in a way that L'amour is not- foregrounded above all by the director's interventional voiceovers. Rohmer may hide behind the mysteries of love. Tanner may cynically dismiss them. Yet the odd couples in both films reveal a similar fascination with the interplay of the personal and political in post-'68 Europe, in this instance especially the bearing of class on sexual relations. L'amour is undoubtably the more widely seen and commented upon film, but after viewing Tanner's masterful work, it is impossible not to group the two works, and to retroactively reread Frédéric and Chloé's daliance with and against the torrid affair of Paul and Adriana in Le milieu. The strategies for evading and engaging material and political conditions in cinema, in such an investigation, become just as important as locating the ethical imperatives issued by these auteurs.

"We live like students,"
Frédéric declares in L'amour, and indeed he and his adorable wife Hélène are a tasteful and understated bourgeois couple, quiet and content in their small world of cutting the pages of books and slightly animated dinner parties. Not like the students who animated the radical upheaval of May '68, however, no, not like those students at all. We even half believe Frédéric when he states that the objects of his horny stares are merely "extensions of his wife's beauty." Yet stare he does, pathetically channeling his repression into bizarre fantasies of seducing passersby with a glowing medallion. Later, he will flatly admit that marriage has robbed him of any actual ability to seduce. A petty rebel, Frédéric finds pleasure in sticking it to the business world by eating at strange hours, affecting non-sexist relations with his pretty young secretaries, eschewing business attire conventions. From our vantage point in the present, we may locate the origins of the current bizarre convergence of political correctness and corporate culture in this pathetic figure. This reading of Frédéric is against the grain of Rohmer's intent, one would think. His protagonist is an everyman, tormented by desire, yes, but ultimately decent and, as we shall see, capable of acts of redemption and transcendence. Unlike Tanner's Paul, Frédéric commands our sympathy, he suffers quietly, and just as quietly overcomes in a moment of grace. Given the director and trajectory of this cycle of films, it is not surprising the blatantly Catholic overtones. Rohmer is a master of characterization and emotional inflection (rarely is there anything approaching hysteria or rage in his films), and there is real dramatic and ethical heft in his broaching of the universal crises of love, fidelity, desire. These concerns may be left aside for the moment, for a big, brassy woman demands our attention immediately.
Chloé, a primal force in blue jeans, pants suit, or baby doll dress (played brilliantly by Zouzou) From her first entrance, she upsets the unspoken hierarchies in Frédéric's little world. The two demure secretaries of the office defer to Frédéric's every wish in obedience to the habits of waged labor, responding appropriately to the little flirtations and glances of the boss, because he is the boss, a banal patriarchal relationship par excellence. When Chloé shows up unannounced at his office, Frédéric is clearly uneasy at her presence, an attractive woman in the world of commanding businessmen, unbeholden to his whims (decent and restrained as they may be.) He reacts coldly to his old friend's girl, but the sexual frisson is immediately palpable. Not only is Chloé a liberated woman, unabashedly recounting her ability to wield her sexuality for her own ends, she also has forsworn obedience to the capitalist economic order, submitting to wage labor only sporadically and moving from place to place as the spirit takes her. The extended game of seduction she initiates with Frédéric is not just a matter of individual morality. It is a strategic struggle of wills between opposing orders, a codified, patriarchal, pseudo-egalitarian consumer capitalism versus the destablizing forces unleashed in the 1960's- feminism, the challenge to waged work, new demands for personal freedoms, critiques of social conformity. Rohmer would seem at times to sense an opening for this interpretation, and cautions against it through character dialogue. Chloé states that she wishes she too was bourgeois, but its easy to decipher a teasing remark from this vulgar, unfettered, confrontational woman. We may characterize her as lumpenbourgeoisie, at best. Some might have regarded the revolting students of '68 in the same terms; it is a subclass that has produced many great anarchists.

It is significant in comparing the two films in question to consider the treatment of work and the workplace.
Frédéric's bourgeois office, his site of command and power, is breached repeatedly by Chloé, who casually occupies it, smoking, sitting on tables, slouching in a chair. In capturing this stronghold, the remainder of the struggle is pre-ordained. Indeed, in a predictable inversion, Frédéric verbally commits to adultery with Chloé in the basement of her work place, a modest boutique, a stronghold of the feminine and petty-bourgeois. Le milieu's Adriana is spotted by her pursuer Paul working as a waitress in a provincial train station cafe, submitting to the small degradations of unwanted touches and verbal harassment by the customers. She is a working-class woman, and on top of that an immigrant, in a workplace openly characterized by humiliating submission to men. Paul, in spite of the gentlemanly nature of his overtures, is hewing to the essential pattern of patriarchal behavior in pursuit of Adriana. Whereas in Rohmer's film the male protagonist in under attack "unjustly," or in a way that upsets the established norms, in Le milieu Paul is merely following the imperatives of a patriarchal order. It should be noted that while Adriana accepts on her own terms, and is not a simple victim, Tanner takes great pains to underscore the marginality and vulnerability of her position.

Paul is a far less likable figure than
Frédéric, I would argue quite intentionally so, despite showing psychological weakness, flashes of pedestrian decency, etc. For one, we never are shown his wife and children, sequestered in a well-appointed Alpine home. He is also involved in the unsavory business of politics, running as a candidate for a bland technocratic law-and-order party of the right. He is an apathetic candidate, drafted solely for his image as a pillar of bourgeois society: a competent manager, family man, native son. The poisonous tension sustaining Le milieu derives from the systematic revelation of every one of these identities as empty hypocrisy. For who does Paul court at a wayside cafe while he should have been campaigning? Adriana- beautiful but scarred (literally), a working-class immigrant from Italy, with a family history of work place militancy. Unlike Chloé she has no interest in games, but does harbor a deep well of emotional strength with which to navigate Paul's maneuvers. And unlike L'amour, Tanner does permit flashes of genuine love and affection between the man and his mistress. Rohmer has a real feel and concern for love, but often in his precisely plotted films, the result resembles a game of chess, balanced and strategic. The relationship of Le milieu suggests an organic realism, yet one haunted by an explosive contradiction, a fatal imbalance emerging from the core of the lovers' subjectivities.

Adriana and co-worker

Le milieu's concluding voiceover obliquely accounts for the end of Paul and Adriana's affair with a vague humanistic note on diverging lives. An attentive viewer can not miss the real reason, which is immanent in the characters themselves, emerges slowly in the course of their affair, and is brilliantly, forcefully illustrated in the final sequences. En route to a tryst at a swank hotel, Paul rehearses a speech, full of dull platitudes of social cohesion and order. Adriana interrupts him, correcting his conservative nonsense. Later, she refuses to stay the night in such luxury, demanding to be returned to her tiny apartment to make love. The class gap between lovers lies latent while passions run high, even as the power dynamics of their relationship become more apparent. To Paul, once he has seduced Adriana, she is his, forever, and should be brought into the periphery of his false bourgeois world of small luxury and patriarchal "love." His worldview is blindly positivist, naive yet iron in its enforcement of normality. Indeed, we find some coincidence between the worldviews of the character Paul and the director Rohmer. Unfortunately, Paul is character not creator, and reacts with incredulity when Adriana tires of his narcissism and hypocrisy. Even as their trysts become an open secret around town, Paul continues to campaign, much to the dismay of the party bosses.

Paul and Adriana, after the election

On the morrow of his defeat, Paul retreats to Adriana, expecting consoling and more besides. He is shocked when Adriana shortly announces her departure, given the death of the cafe owner. What is the motivation of her decision, her decisive break with her lover? Significantly, it comes on the heels of a work place change- a familiar lever of working class decision, as she had noted earlier regarding her own family history. Registering as well is a certain disgust with Paul's casual disregard of his election loss- a reaffirming of his trivial engagement with the world, of the hypocritical gap between the speeches he can convincingly deliver and the reality of his single-minded desires. It is a masterfully ambiguous moment in the narrative by Tanner; by allowing space for the mysteries of individual agency, we approach the power of Rohmer's story-telling. Or, I propose, Tanner draws explicit attention to the embodiment of the contradictions of capitalism in Paul and Adriana's affair, but, like these contradictions writ large, one never knows where, when, and how they will resolve, explode, or be displaced. When the didactic thrust of the film resumes and drives it to conclusion, the political meaning crystallizes in a pair of matching scenes detailing the lives, post-affair, of the couple. Paul is back at work, surveying the workings of his factory in technical dress and authoritative demeanor. We then see Adriana at work in a factory in another city. Walking down the aisle is a supervisor, in dress and demeanor nearly identical to Paul as he was just shown. After the brief, unsustainable illusion of sexual dalliance, Paul and Adriana have returned to their essential lots in life: privilege and authority for the former, alienation and exploitation for the latter. Although Adriana may be seen to have conducted the affair of her own volition, for her own ends, she ultimately returns to her structurally imposed position as an immigrant working-class woman. She has been sleeping with the boss, an embodiment of the ruling class if not the same individual. Paul, pleasure won if broken-hearted, appears to have lost little. Like
Frédéric, he can safely return to the bourgeois bosom after dipping his feet in the exhilerating waters of another Europe.

From the fate of the couples in these parallel narratives, we have distinct injunctions issued to their respective protagonists. "Don't fuck!"
Frédéric is commanded by his moral tale. Adriana is made to understand a supplemented proscription, "Don't fuck the boss!"

Frédéric (don't do it!) and Chloé


The salience of
Frédéric's proscription in the contemporary zeitgeist is most aptly seen in the Hollywood reinterpretation of L'amour l'apres-midi as the 2007 Chris Rock vehicle I Think I Love My Wife. We should not hold our breath for a multiplex release of I Think I Hate My Class Enemy, but return instead to our initial situating of the two films in the context of early-70's Europe. It is a period described by Tanner in Le milieu's voiceover as "normalization;" Alain Badiou has described the movement more colorfully as the "Restoration." Within this retrenchment of the established order, post the upheaval of the 1960s, two general trends may be identified. First, the beating back of radical groups and social movements, a process more successful in some places than others. Notably, the 1970's saw an intensification, not diminishing, of struggle in Italy- an enticing point of significance in Le milieu, which dramatizes the emigration of class-conscious Italian Adriana to the more pacified nation of Switzerland. Second, the recuperation and integration of oppositional cultural and social formations into the circulation of capitalism- both in the fulfillment of certain moderate demands, and in the proliferation of commodifiable identities, especially youth subcultures. Is there not a certain odor of this hanging about L'amour, with its veneer of risque fashion and new sexual sensibilities, but absolute avoidance of the political?

Tanner's work of the decade is dominated by the theme of 60s subjectivities cut adrift in the normalization of the 70s, in the demoralizing return of business as usual. "What now?" is the implicit question dominating the drama of nearly every character. Note, for instance, the unresolved fate of Adriana at the conclusion of Le milieu, in contrast to the happy return of
Frédéric to the timeless, unchanging family unit in L'amour. Le milieu thematizes normalization in more formal ways as well. Calendar date intertitles precede most scenes, a reminder both of the historical specificity of the moment, and the ever increasing distance from the event of '68, the grinding dead time of depoliticized existence, the time of work and capital accumulation. There is also a potent visual trope of a Swiss country field, alternatively fallow in winter and sun-splashed in summer. The symbolic gesture towards the immense power of change on a place and people is self-evident. Finally, the materialist marking at the film's onset, acknowledging both in mise en scene and voiceover the materiality of the film as situated artistic intervention and commodity, as product of a specific place and time.
Where then does that leave us to consider L'amour in the context of normalization? I argue above for a reading of
Chloé as an embodiment of some of the oppositional movements of the 60s, but in the form of a sexual predator that rationalizes her to an extent in Rohmer's ahistorical worldview. Rohmer does obliquely acknowledge the antagonisms of preceding years, but not the process of normalization. Rather, what appears on the surface of his film is recuperated debris of a capitalist counteroffensive, namely sexual mores, fashion, etc. As an aside, it is fascinating to review in Rohmer's work post L'amour numerous commendable period films that reveal a keen appreciation for the subtleties of history- be it in the stylized Medievalism of Perceval, or the perceptive Popular Front spy thriller Triple Agent. If only we could all be like Frédéric, and only have to furrow our brows to consider the singular quandary of whether or not to keep our pants on.

Frédéric, Hélène, and child, happily ever after...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Forman's Faces

I recently watched Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde (1967) for the first time, and although I've not viewed all his early output, I can safely say that the younger Czech director is the superior to the Hollywood prestige director. There's a case to be made for Forman as subversive, in his snarky early digs on Communist dogma and his later treatment of supposedly subversive material (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Hair.) Leaving this aside, I'd prefer to remark on a trademark visual technique of three early works- Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen's Ball (1966), and Taking Off (1971)- as a perhaps more sublime portrayal of a radical/humanist ethic. That is, the predominance of the human face in both mise en scene and narrative, an emphasis not at all avant garde, but certainly distinctive from typical film form.

This representative shot from Loves of a Blonde shows a typical Forman composition: a tight arrangement around one or several inert bodies, usually from the waist up, in which the facial expressions of the actors subtly push along a narrative in lieu of a continuous expository dialogue. In this instance, three young factory girls find themselves at a mixer to welcome a troop of middle-aged reservist soldiers to their drab provincial town. Three fumbling soldiers eye them across the room, and this one still expresses almost entirely their half-bemused, half-curious response. This sequence forms a bulk of the film's middle part, and like a silent film can be understood with the subtitles turned off. As girls and men look warily at their own and their awkward opposites, the audience is presented with a rotation of 9 distinct faces in unison or alone, and a coterie of anonymous mugs in various states tending toward the banal. An emotional force of small narratives emerges through these precise montages- a technique used in a similar way in the elongated, farcical party that constitutes The Firemen's Ball.

And the faces themselves? Perhaps the best can be politely called provincially pretty, but Forman's true delight at this time is a density of faces that express the full variety of eye, ear, nose, hair, and mouth variations in the Czech hinterlands. This holds his work apart from both silent film's adoration of expressive beauty and Hollywood's star fawning. Rather, there's a certain egalitarian beauty of "the people" broadly distributed over each individual face, such that one feels something of an appreciation of the true community in which these slight films are set, even as the physical locations are limited. It should be noted that Forman is not here obsessed with the face as such (as opposed to Warhol's screen tests, for instance), but rather deftly utilizes it for narrative and, I think, political/ethical purposes. The tension between individual and social interest (The Firemen's Ball), or economy and the erotic (Loves of a Blonde) take shape as much through facial tics as plotting. Despite the slightness of both films, a plethora of small themes and micro-narratives play out in the cinematic space between glances and smiles. This is not to say that Forman dispenses with story or some conventions of form (these are social satires, not experimental adventures), but rather to point to this particular technique as what I feel distinguishes these films and places them among the best of the late 1960s.

But what is so different in Forman's faces, then, say the Hollywood close-up? Whereas the close-up usually conveys a heightened emotional state in contrast to physical action or to punctuate important moments of narrative, Forman's faces seem to need no such justification. Indeed, they typically express the more banal emotions- boredom, awkwardness, embarassment, mild disappointment, slight irritation or anxiety, and petty joys of conversation. And, as in life, they hide as much as they reveal, even when what they have to hide may be of no importance. This prevents easy generic typing and colors these films with unique characterizations. Although we can recognize a few types- the anxious, bumbling authorities in both films (fireman and foreman), for instance, how are we to characterize Loves of a Blonde's Andula and friends? It is a testament to Forman's remarkable direction of expression that we feel for the characters of these brief films without really getting to know them. Every understated face at the party has a story to tell, it seems, and Forman has merely picked a few at random to spin out in past and future.

Taking Off- Forman's first American film- begins with a variation of his face forward technique. Throughout the title sequence and in subsequent bits, auditioners face the camera against a black background and sing, sing, sing! The second such sequence features dozens of young female crooners slogging their way through "Lets Get a Little Sentimental." Its an intensification of the his Czech faces- more rapidly sequenced, framed squarely against a black background- couched within a neat construct that introduces us to the wayward youngster Jeannie and presents the film's general theme of the counterculture's intrusion into traditional American society. What is not abandoned is Forman's determined embrace of facial variety- in this example the mean which could perhaps be averaged out as outer borough pretty. Significantly, these faces are performing, striving- a transposition perhaps of the overriding Czech communist anxiety for social harmony to the more American liberal concerns of individualist achievement and the mass media complex.

Nifty formal and aesthetic moves, but political as well. The lack of glamour and expressive beauty in Forman's faces is an expression of egalitarian solidarity, even more powerful in that it subverts the officially egalitarian dogma of Czech communism, and the anti-egalitarian spirit of American individualism. While perhaps taking a cue from socialist realism or even Italian neo-realism, Forman's faces are not mere vehicles for blunt politics or the weather-worn skin of workerism. Its a generous humanism, one that embraces kind-of-pretty shy young girls as proletariat and would-be glamour pusses as proletariat in denial. As is often noted, while social satire, Forman's films are almost never mocking, and certainly never cruel. As each of his faces has its flaws, every person, regardless of their ideological placement, has their foibles. It is good, these films imply, to be amongst these people and their faults, their small beauties and small ugliness. It is debatable how much this ethic continued through Forman's later films, but most certainly his faces largely disappeared into the rush of the conventional film format.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Very Nice, This Belgium

What is Belgium? What is its character, its flavor, aside from European bureaucracy and dikes? Dikes, right, or is that Holland? What I know of the place from the screen is fairly dour- Jeanne Dielmann's frightful frigidness, The Man Who Cut His Hair Short's ugly psychic landscape. Toute une nuit may have spiced up the mix, but the backdrop remained uninspiring. And now we have the Dardennes to seal the deal for provincial Americans who live by the screen- Belgium is nothing but an industrial plant peopled by Europe's morally challenged marginals, strange folk some of who may speak French, but do very unsophisticated things to their kin and themselves.

It just so happens that my two most recent theatrical viewings were crafted by Belgians, but one by a filmmaker no longer associated with that flat nation. The truly Belgian film, the Dardennes' newest Lorna's Silence, strikes at the heart of the European soul, while Agnes Varda's Beaches of Agnes lolls on its beaches and avenues.

Lorna's Silence trolls familiar ground for the Dardenne brothers, but I believe dramatizes the conflict between humanist ethics and capitalism's profit motive more powerfully than their previous works (granted, as several reviewers have pointed out, the narrative is more contrived and plotted.) Lorna stands at the crux of the contemporary European soul, half way between the promise of egalitarian liberty and slavery to an underworld increasingly integrated with the official economy. Although this Albanian immigrant in Belgium sees glimpses of the utopian, unified continent- in her ability to emigrate, possibly open a small business, seek protection from a welfare state (as when she is granted a speedy divorce)- she is not a true citizen of anything called Europe. Rather, she is a reified commodity- a source of profit for human traffickers and a name on paper that will hopefully be lost in bureaucratic shuffle. Centuries after the Enlightenment revolutions, the soul of Europe remains locked in struggle between the championed ideal of the free individual and the body reduced to commodity. Lorna's Silence, then, works most powerfully as a critique of reification, of the betrayal of the revolutionary-liberal tradition by capitalism's insidious commodification of citizenship and citizen alike.

The Dardenne brothers' realist style is matched by their insistence on ethical decision as more than plot device, an approach alien to Hollywood. Lorna's decision comes mid-film. Claudy is her husband of convenience, a shiftless junkie, who is marked by Lorna's trafficker to be disposed of by way of a lethal overdose. Despite their emotionless business-like sharing of an apartment, Lorna tries to stall for time until a divorce can go through, thereby saving his life. Her attempt to save Claudy while preserving her self-interested immigration scheme animates this section of the narrative. One night, she comes home to find a dealer in their apartment, with Claudy, who has kicked the habit, fiending for a hit. Brazenly, Lorna locks the dealer out, throws the key out of the window, and, shockingly, strips silently and offers herself to Claudy. Her insertion of bodily affection into this chain of casual cruelty and exploitation is a supreme ethical gesture, daring but curious. Why is it sex, that most crassly demeaned human experience, that which disrupts the functioning of the capitalist imperative? It's preeminent place is a sly surprise in Lorna's Silence, one that injects an air of the mystic and mythic into the film's resolutely quotidian comings and goings.

The trauma of Claudy's eventual murder is internalized by the still silent Lorna in a phantom fetus she imagines to be the result of their tryst. Despite her attempts to move forward with her role in the trafficking scheme and small dreams of entrepreneurship, Lorna has irreversibly tripped up the chain of exploitation. Although her gesture of solidarity with Claudy, that of recognizing him as a human worthy by that dent of life and not a disposable junkie, has ultimately failed, the pains from her womb undermine the plan to marry a Russian thug. As all her plans unravel, she is abandoned by all and prepared for either her deportation or death. Lorna flees her captors, but it is an uncertain
escape; the film closes on her in an abadoned cabin, swearing to her unborn child to protect them both. Allusions to other mysterious, virtuous pregnancies are unavoidable. After all, in a similar situation, shunned and desperate, Mary gave birth to Jesus in rough shelter. Lorna, ironically, has become like a virgin after copulation with Claudy, purified of the tainted money relations of the underworld. Perhaps she falls somewhere between the virtuous virgin of The Marquise of O. and the decidedly unvirtuous Queen Mary, killed by a phantom pregnancy tumor.

In another interesting inversion, the film's ethical impulse comes from Lorna, an Eastern European character, amidst Western Europeans corrupted by the scrappy pursuit of money. This challenges the long-standing geographical narrative of the Eastern and slavic nations of the continent only slowly emerging from a natural proclivity to servility and corruption, be it to feudal lords, Turks, or Communist dictators, and lagging behind the progressive prosperity of the West. The "spirit of capitalism" is capable of awfully vile things, Protestant or not.

Agnes Varda, although associated with France in every way, was actually born Belgian, as her autobiographical essay film, The Beaches of Agnes, tells. True to its title, the lively octogenarian Varda narrates a collage of her life and loves, which all lead back to the sea, suggested as the font of her imagination. The film works both as a personalized account in documentary fashion of her life and work, and as a sly, engaging exploration of creative existence broadly considered, in the manner of her life long friend Chris Marker (who appears in the form of a cartoon cat, why not?) Varda's considerable charm and intuition for successful cinematic experiments (she is clearly having a blast with the camera and montage after all these years!) raise it above narcissistic nostalgia to a true work of art, if a humble one. It is a work that will not be considered an after thought to her career, destined to DVD extra menus, but an essential part of her ouevre.

I noted in slight alarm today, that aside from these Belgian gems, my viewing and re-viewing list from the past week reads like an Amazon list of sociopathic murderer films: The Bridesmaid (Chabrol, 2004), The Honeymoon Killers (Kastle, 1969), Badlands (Malick, 1973), & Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986). I'm not sure whether to chalk it up to the DVD collection at my new local library branch, of some darker element of my subconscious rearing up. Oh yes, I can't forget the outdoor screening of Chaplin's The Kid last week- a beautiful saving grace.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Down and Out in Late Capitalist America

In case you didn't get the memo, the American dream is dead. It never really was, but what I think most approximates what people have in mind when they bandy about the phrase is the relative prosperity of the post-WWII decades. For the left looking back, it is a paradoxical time of an apparently ascendant working class gaining on the back of continued racism, imperialism, and cultural conformity. Stable employment at decent wages and a pension, affordable and relatively private housing (the white picket fence; Levittown), access to public higher education, law and order, increased standards of living for your children, a rich community and cultural milieu, a car in the driveway and chicken in the pot- this is the stuff of the American dream. What enabled parts or all of the dream for large segments of America was capitalism's state-sanctioned compromise with labor, backed by emerging American superpower status. Part Keynesian New Deal remnants, part militant labor demand (CIO, etc.) remnants, this compromise allowed for increasing real wages in exchange for peace and productivity in the workplace. The post-war global hegemony of the US ensured that this transformation to an affluent consumer society could take place on the backs of exploited nations and peoples. The ideology of American exceptionism and meritocracy seemed to be coming into focus with material reality for the white middle class and organized working classes.

Its a crude schema, for sure, but I present it because I do think there is something to "the American dream" beyond its ideological utility. There's a whiff of egalitarian possibility to it that can be deployed by both left (the Communist Party's "working class Americanism", the contemporary labor movement's rhetorical emphasis on middle class lifestyles) and right (the fable of a return to innocence via conservative morality). Needless to say, the material conditions for the dream have long since been destroyed in the neo-liberal turn (off-shoring American industry, destruction of organized labor, defunding social services, privatization.) This is another story, the very narrative we find ourselves in now, where the fumes of the dream evaporate into the sober tragedy of foreclosed subdivisions, historic unemployment, and the financial voodoo of Wall Street. Modern capitalism of steel and stuff is long gone in the U S of A. Now we stumble through a late capitalism of spectacle and speculation, awaiting the next crisis.

No one told Hollywood. New American Cinema's brief 70s afterglow made some room for bold explorations of the dream gone bust- Barbara Loden's recently rechampioned Wanda is my immediate association- only to fade into the banality of the 80s and 90s. This is not to say that socioeconomic reality is ignored by Hollywood, which has to make its requisite prestige pics and occasionally grasp for a sympathetic, verite gloss of the poor and downtrodden. Overwhelmingly, however, American society is schizophrenically portrayed either as a smooth, prosperous backdrop for various romantic foibles and heroics, or as a spectacularly dysfunctional country on the razor's edge of dystopia. Neither approach critically explores society. American cinema by and large has no incentive do so when the audience growth markets appear to be torture pics and postmodern quirk.

And so imagine my shock to have earlier this year viewed two contemporary American films in a single week that both attempt a critical, challenging portrait of late capitalist America. Its protagonists change their clothing in gas station bathrooms, and it is not sexy; submit themselves to humiliating acts of violence, and it is not funny. Indeed, the extreme sobriety of The Wrestler and Wendy and Lucy indicate what a grim task dissecting the decomposing corpse of the American dream must be for a serious filmmaker.

I'll examine the 2 films through their protagonists, using the scheme Wendy->adult experience in late capitalist America->Randy "The Ram". Kelly Reichart astutely casts Michelle Williams as a vaguely hipster-chic, scrappy, and attractive young Wendy who, although bearing an at times cynical attitude, is nonetheless fresh-faced and naive. Wendy and Lucy follows her through several days flat broke and busted somewhere in Oregon, en route to a supposed canning job in Alaska. Stylistically sparse, this is damn well not some sort of contemporary On the Road or Easy Rider. Wendy is not searching for herself, or for America, but for a paycheck. Neorealist allusions, especially to The Bicycle Thief abound. Like that film's unemployed protagonist whose stolen bicycle sets off a downward spiral of degradation, Wendy's bad luck dooms her within days to absolute penury, including the loss of her precious pet and only companion, her dog Lucy. Poverty and homelessness are mere missteps away from anyone, we are shown, even for the hip young things Hollywood pampers and adores. Pluck is not enough, and social ills can not be pathologized in inner city minorities. Wendy is a benchmark, a true hipster bum- not a slacker lost in a pot-clouded malaise a la Kevin Jackson or Richard Linklater, or an over-educated mumblecorer, but a victim of the cold, banal mechanations of the economy. The vagaries of capitalist society in crisis, corporate flights from existing communities and livelihoods, stimy her no matter her significant reserves of resolve.

Generally then, Wendy's experience is an anecdote contra the American dream. In its specifics, it portrays a very contemporary type of alienation- that of outwardly hip, intelligent, light-skinned young people from not only from personal fulfillment, but from the very means of subsistence. If we can chart the rising affluence of Italy in the evolution of its cinema from the material deprivation concerning the Neorealists to the spiritual alienation of Antonioni's characters, then we can likewise see in Wendy and Lucy the fall from relative affluence even seen in, say, the Singles of 16 years previous.

And perhaps the Singles/Wendy and Lucy example has more to it. The geography of Wendy and Lucy, although certainly originating in director Reichart's connection to the northwest, is significant for our analysis. Wendy has fled Indiana, which calls home reveal to be an unhappy place personally as well as economically. Indiana recalls visions of the heartland American dream, although its also part of the Rust Belt, its cities and towns convulsing from the death throes of the manufacturing economy. Significantly, she breaks down in Oregon, presumably near Portland, one of the capitals of the so-called "creative class", the heroes of a new post-modern, green economy. The cultural cache of Portland is well known. In addition to being a hipster haven, it is, like similarly touted places such as Austin, San Francisco, and Seattle, a hoped-for capital generator in an otherwise bleak national economic landscape. Yet Wendy finds it as inhospitable as anywhere else, bereft of opportunity and indifferent to her tough charm, perhaps not hip enough to find an outlet for commodification. It is, of course, a well-known reality that Oregon's economy sucks, and the state has long tried to persuade folks to visit, but not move there (echoes of the Joad family arriving in California?) Finally, Wendy heads north to the wilds of Alaska in a freight car, like the hobos of yore. Alaska in the popular imagination remains the last American frontier, a vast wilderness not entirely integrated into American capitalism, and perhaps for that reason appearing as a dim beacon of hope for the down and out of the lower 48. This myth, popularized by Jack London, has not diminished much; however, we can not help but dread as the credits role what miserable fate likely awaits Wendy there.

Wendy's America is one of no jobs and no opportunities, a physically ugly post-sprawl landscape of ubiquitous stand-alone drug stores and failing neighborhoods. Its people are worn, suspicious, yet generous in a pitch, as Wendy discovers in the saintly yet pathetic gestures of the elderly security guard she encounters. Unlike the guardian angels of old- those father figures, be it police officer or kindly stranger, who provide the crucial link that brings the struggling protagonist back into meritocratic society- Wally the guard's ultimate effort for Wendy is absolutely impotent (a fistful of crumpled small bills), for he too is just a paycheck away from destitution. But in a film as bleak and unsentimental as Wendy and Lucy, a little of the milk of human kindness goes a long way.

The levelling of the late capitalist American landscape moves us seamlessly from Wendy's anonymous streets to the same worn storefronts and broken concrete parking lots of Randy the Ram's New Jersey. For all its razzle dazzle veneer, The Wrestler's tone is remarkably similar to that of Wendy and Lucy. If Wendy is the still beautiful naif yet to feel the full grind of the machine, Mickey Rourke's Randy is the mangled lump of flesh that it has spit out. Wendy's ordeal still unfolds on the tension between the atmosphere of possibility (beautifully enhanced by the film's simple and haunting hummed theme) and the slog of bureaucratic indifference. Randy's struggle is dramatized on the body itself, where not even the occasional snatches of northwestern beauty afforded to Wendy can adorn.

It remains unclear in the narrative what drove Randy to the ring, but over several decades The Ram- the professional showman wrestler- has subsumed any previous identity. What Randy and his peers understand, but the fans don't, is that wrestling is a job like any other in capitalist society, with its hierarchies, potential rewards, and probable insecurity. While everyone knows pro wrestling is fake, Aronofsky's effort to absolutely strip it of spectacle is admirable. Of course, the director's over-reliance on conventional narrative devices, especially the redemption theme played out alternately with his estranged daughter and stripper love interest, builds up another form of spectacle. Fortunately we can leave The Wrestler's faults aside for this analysis.

In Randy the Ram we see an exaggerated account of the role of work and the worker. The slog of the punch clock might be replaced by the ultraviolence of the squared circle, but the exploitation, alienation, and harm to the person are amply on display. Fortunately, many of us do not have to undergo being stapled or thrown onto shards of glass at the office, but these are apt metaphors for the absolute sacrificing of personal autonomy we surrender. Indeed, as the Ram's personal confusion and pain dramatizes, our very sense of self and identity is fractured in capitalist society; divided between the alienated time we sell our labor power, the time we have remaining to pursue alienated pleasures, and the potential, tantalizing possiblity that hovers above all of finally uniting the interests of self and society beyond waged exploitation. The late capitalist twist of The Wrestler's portrayal of work is what Randy does outside the ring. There is the second job at a supermarket, as well as petty self-promotion and flea marketing of the fragments of his fame. Indeed, the trend from the single-paycheck American dream to today is one of holding more and more lower waged jobs, and in the off-time speculating in small time entrepreurship on EBay or the interstate flea market. Randy and his damaged peers selling dvds and personal photos at a VFW Hall reminds one of nothing so much as the dismal yard sales dotting state highways in the rural south on saturday mornings- families trying to sell off worthless junk for grocery money. Wrestlers don't earn pensions, but then again, who does these days?

Aronofsky sharply dramatizes this fractured identity and the violence of even the most mundane workplace in the crucial scene in which Randy has quit the ring to work at a supermarket deli counter. To the imagined cheering of fans he emerges- through sheets of filthy plastic and to work behind the counter, serving not pain unto his opponents, but potato salad to elderly penny pinchers. Following a quick montage in which it seems Randy has found his rhythm shovelling salad and slicing meat, a customer recognizes him. He denies he's the Ram, but the question of identity broached, he slams a fist into the slicer, effectively ending his brief grocery vocation and forcing him back to the ring. Although his outburst is extreme in its bloodiness, the humiliations and occupational dangers of this type of service job are very real. From the mundane to the extreme, the deli counter to the spectacular entertainment sector, the postmodern worker has not escaped from the dangers of the industrial workplace, but has been stripped of the benefits and job security won there. It should be added that Randy's only emotional connection is made to a worker in a similarly precarious, body-oriented line, over which the threat of violence hangs- the stripper Cassidy.

Wendy and Randy, then, despite their differences, both find themselves on the precarious shit end of late capitalism. Petty hustling and theft, extreme risk-taking, marginalized roles in consumption and production- these are not exceptions to their existence, but absolutely necessary for survival. Reichart's approach is more naturalistic and sparse then Aronofsky's, but both owe something to the dour humanism of the Neorealists. As Wendy abandons Lucy to hop a lonely train North, one is reminded of the memorable ending to Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D., also involving a desperate title character, their dog and a train. Whereas De Sica's classic protagonist is a discarded old man whose sole canine companion saves him in a moment of grace from suicide by train, Wendy is separated from Lucy with no clear resolution. Without even the consolation of a long life well lived, she sets off, alone, a youth whose potential stands to be wasted in a cold place far away from home.

Wendy and Lucy

Umberto and Flick

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Deep End

Cheers to Flicker for screening a film that is not just obscure, but also thoughtful and intelligent (ghettoed on a Monday night nevertheless.) Since the flickskinny guys took over, I gave a pass on Supervan and the blackploitation films screened, although sadly I understand the logic that kitsch is more appealing these days than quality.

Deep End (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970) is a dark coming of age drama set in drab working-class England, damp with misery and frustrated sexuality. Comparisons to Harold and Maude and Rushmore are common, but are apt mostly for narrative similarity. Whereas Wes Anderson operates in a postmodern pop culture dreamland, and Harold and Maude proclaims an anarchic new era of liberation, Deep End describes a society in deep distress and psychological confusion, even madness. Mike, its 15 year old working class protagonist, may share a good natured quirkiness with Harold and Max Fischer, but his fate is far darker, his sexual obsession with an older woman less love than naked lust. Thrust into an adult world unprepared, he finds a devious double standard where the young are sexually exploited but forbidden full access to adult sexuality. When Mike pursues this contradiction to its conclusion, tragedy is inevitable.

Skolimowski's sense of mise en scene and tonal construction is compelling. The decaying landscape of crumbling Victorian bathhouses, red light districts, and dingy subways make for a sober palette broken dramatically by the passionate, expressive reds and yellows of Susan, Mike's object of desire. Extensive hand held shots explore the landscape while keeping the characters distant, alienated, despite their occasional flirtatious moments. This distance is further marked by the screenplay and John Moulder-Brown's portrayal of Mike that perhaps takes on a glint of madness too early, and runs out of steam by the spectacular final swimming pool scene. I liked Deep End, which I think deserves the tag of a lost classic. Although the symbolic use of color was a bit tired (hadn't Godard already established that red paint is blood in front of a camera?) there was a earnestness here that is still refreshing. In all the stories of sexual obsession that fill the multiplexes year after year, one rarely finds this nuanced perspective; namely, that such a story can be told, with verve and sympathy, outside of an aestheticized world where hard bodies and serial killers bounce off each other like popcorn.

Strayhorn magazine was the screening sponsor. I don't know much about it, but from what I've been told its a new local magazine bringing to light obscure and out of print film, music, and art. Right on. To track down a bootleg copy of a great film, and take the time to schedule, publicize, and screen, is righteous and should fill rooms, especially if given a better night of the week. My only wish would be that Flicker would get a new screen without wanky creases, and correct the keystone distortion somehow.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Syndromes and a Cine

Ciné is important as a cornerstone of serious film in Athens, and has presented an incredible gift to the town with the screening of films like Offside, Bamako, Killer of Sheep, Grbavica, and Climates. That said, in finding their way financially and artistically, their screening practices are not above reproach.

Take, for instance, last week’s scheduled run of Rear Window. In good faith, I assumed that they had acquired a print from the film’s theatrical re-release that I recall coming to the Manor in my high school or college days. I was prepared to pluck down $8, but on a whim I called ahead of time to confirm a 35mm screening, only to be told that it would actually be digitally projected from a run of the mill DVD release. I decided that I could watch a projected DVD at home, and of a film I’d not already seen, at that.

Ciné’s policy of DVD screenings is not always problematic- for a midnight movie, for instance, the ambience is lighter and more social, so a “cheap” format is acceptable (and I also understand that midnight shows can be cash cows for indie theaters.) Bamako, which was shown on a very limited, one night schedule, came digital with a slight pixilation- but, it was a first run film that we were lucky to have seen in Athens at all.

But Rear Window is a different story. Certainly many if not most in the audience were not watching this, an exceedingly popular and accessible movie, for the first time. Hitchcock is so familiar to most film goers that to charge full price for a screening indicates the opportunity to see them in their original, cinematic glory; a DVD projection for a classic film should not be charged for, or if so, only a few bucks, a la Tate Student Union theater. Perhaps I’d be more forgiving if their advertising included a note on presentation. Without even this, it seems like a cynical ploy to cheat viewers out of what they clearly have come to see. As a friend and Ciné employee noted, it’s like going to a concert and having the band put in their CD. While I can understand Ciné’s business imperative, if you have a gap in your scheduling and have to screen repertory digitally, why not dig up something more adventurous, less familiar- there’s over 100 years of cinema to pick from (with a warning to the public that’s about to lay an hour’s wages down.)

It’s easy to forget about all that when the following week Ciné brings to Athens a remarkable film like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century. Easily one of the best films I’ve had the pleasure of viewing in the theater, it is perhaps the type of film David Lynch would make had he at some point been humbled down from his ivory tower of cynicism and ostentation. That is, it unfolds like a game with ever changing rules, in which Weerasethakul appears to be always two moves ahead, not logically, per se, but aesthetically and subconsciously. At the end, we find it wasn’t a game at all, but a total reinterpretation of cinematic grammar that defies the rules we think we know all movies should follow.

The biggest rule to shatter is one of the West’s most essential: the expectation for a binary structure, symmetry, and repetition. Syndromes opens at a rural Thai hospital, sometime in the recent past or present. Surrounded by languid green fields and forests, the environment seeps into the behavior of the patients and staff- as they work or recuperate they tell stories, exchange folk remedies, play guitar, and feel their way towards love and grace. Eventually, the story focuses in somewhat on the young Dr. Toey who, to ward off a soldier’s awkward advances, points the film to another skeletal, digressive narrative, of her flirtatious relationship with an orchid grower. This story, or rather the fragments of time in this setting, comes to an end, but there’s still half of the movie left.

Then, we think we have Weerasethakul’s card- the story restarts, recreated almost scene by scene initially in another hospital, a high tech urban one of the present or near future. Although shots are reversed and the dialogue slightly different, we see the same actors in the same roles- the fresh army doctor, the cantankerous monk, the kind female doctor, the singing dentist. Yet after the initial sequence of shots, the symmetry crumbles, and we are led onto other paths- the new doctor’s possible relocation, a young patient’s corridor tennis practice, and the strange happenings in the dated basement of the building, including a prosthetics workshop and endless, ominous remodeling. The disappearance of a dialectical, logical game leaves the film open to the free play of memories, impressions, and seemingly unconnected scenes. To describe it as dream-like is inaccurate- Weerasethakul is not a surrealist or a freak-out artist. Avant garde is a more appropriate descriptor, but an avant garde of great humility and humanism; one that starts with quiet moments of the quotidian, building his work not to shock or confuse, but in a spirit of reverence and wonder. It is no surprise that much of the film was based on the memories of his doctor parents.

99% of contemporary films operate in a fairly closed and settled grammar that, while not always or necessarily bad, does little to expand the boundaries of cinema. Syndromes and a Century (like his previous Tropical Malady) is the 1% that confirms that cinema can and must remain a vibrant medium in the 21st century. It is a type of film-making that can surprise even the most hardened movie explorer, and will hopefully reach a wider audience upon DVD release. But, following the manner of Weerasethakul and to invoke for my own memory some of the most remarkable moments of the film, I’ll conclude not with clinical analysis, but with a list (from memory):

The blanched out color palette; going against conventional Western views of southeast Asia as a bright, colorful jungle paradise, the cinematography bleaches the sky white, and tones the verdant greens into paler tones.

We are treated to the uninterrupted performance of a festival guitarist- why not? A conventional film would deem this nonessential, distracting.

Matching shots in both “versions” of the story, both completely spell-binding but in absolutely different contexts: the solar eclipse of the first, the droning ventilation piping in a swirl of dust in the second.

In the second story, the new doctor reviews with his wife pictures of the industrial works to which they may move. The photos look absolutely dated, from the 1970’s perhaps, out of sync with the high rise landscape behind them. The image marking memory across bounds of time?

The concluding outdoor exercise shot, with its bouncing electro-pop, Niked-up Asian populace, smoggy urban backdrop, it has postmodern echoes of Jia Zhang-Ke’s The World.