Saturday, February 21, 2009

Silent Light (dir. Carlos Reygadas, 2007)

From time to time, I'm at a complete loss to understand a film's critical appeal. Silent Light, a 2007 film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas recently released here in the US, dazzled the international film circuit, culminating with the Jury Prize at Cannes. Martin Scorsese exclaimed "I was amazed by Silent Light – the setting, the language, the delicacy of the interactions between the people on screen, the drama of redemption. And most of all by Carlos Reygadas’s extraordinarily rich sense of cinema, evident in every frame." NY Times film critic Manohla Dargis loved it so much that she saw it three times, and her colleague A.O. Scott listed it as his second favorite film of 2008. The accolades go on and on....

Silent Light examines the effects of an extra-marital affair on a secluded German Mennonite community in the heart of Mexico. Or at least it pretends to. Johan, a blond-haired, blue-eyed farmer, husband, and father of 5, falls in love with the young, spindly, Roman-nosed Marianne, who works as a waitress at a local diner. The mix of religious fundamentalism, sinful immorality, and cultural isolation spells the ingredients for a delicious existential epic, and in the hands of, say, Bergman, we might have feasted on just that. But Reygadas proves to be a less experienced chef, and instead of a meaty tome, we're left with a bland disaster - an immature exercise that places form over content, brushes its potential for spiritual crisis in only the most tangential ways, and ends with what I can only think of as an outright ripoff of Dreyer's Ordet masquerading as homage.

In the entire film, there were only two scenes that actually worked for me: the very first, and the very last. And neither of these scenes contain any human actors, or any narrative whatsoever. These scenes are beautiful, even haunting, time-lapse single-takes of sunrise and sunset, respectively. The slow pan and steady zoom, the enveloping sounds of night, the growing (or diminishing) photographic clarity - for all their transcendent glory, neither of these scenes actually add anything to the film's "story," such as it is. They might as well have been scenes from a high-def Nat Geo nature documentary.

Between these two scenes are two and half-hours of sheer torture. Somewhere along the way, Reygadas must have forgotten that a film like this needs a script, dialogue, tension. Without this, it's an empty exercise in form - and an immature one at that. We're bounced between various photographic techniques, which on their own might make for a short, interesting study in perspective, but which together simply deny a unifying aesthetic to what little story remains.

Perhaps I simply lack the appropriate film education to appreciate Silent Light, which in J. Hoberman's words, is "distinguished by its formal rigor." But then, isn't film (or art in general) supposed to transcend technique - isn't art a creative expression of the soul? Or is it simply a formal exercise?


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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Further Proof that Joaquin's rap career is a joke

If my first post didn't convince you, then check out his recent "appearance" on Letterman:


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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Platform (Jia Zhangke)

"The long and empty platform,
Lonely we can only wait.
All my love is outbound,
Nothing on the inbound train..."

This trite Chinese pop song from the 1980's serves as metaphor for the artistically castrated inhabitants of Platform, Jia Zhangke's second underground film. It's a three-hour tome on the tragedy of art both under Mao's authoritarian communist regime and under the rapid capitalist transformation that followed. Mixing a meditative narrative style with disorienting time cuts, we experience the upheavals and inertia of the times through a band of young actors, musicians, and dancers.

Platform opens with a performance of "The Train to Shaoshan" by the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group. In terms of artistic quality, imagine a children's propaganda musical written by Dick Cheney and performed by Texas A&M's Young Republicans for the West Bumblefuck elementary school. What could only come to fruition here in a deranged SNL skit was an everyday reality under Mao's China. Making the performance even more surreal to these western eyes, the Peasant Culture Group's audience wasn't school children - it was a large gathering of adult male farmers.

After the performance, we get to know the young troupe of artists. Jia paints a picture of perpetual children mentally stunted by the Party's black-and-white demarcation between "mental workers" and "manual workers." Time and time again, they're miraculously, even cruelly, oblivious to the suffering and injustice surrounding them, especially in their own families; aloof and self-obsessed, they're the communist equivalent of an American trust fund brat.

As Deng Xiaoping's market reforms transformed the Chinese economy, the Peasant Culture Groups underwent privatization. But instead of finding artistic liberation, they mutated from celebrated propaganda machines into vapid pop-culture reflections: traveling sideshows of jiggling girls and monstrous cover bands. A pivotal moment for art was wasted by a lingering ideological tyranny and a brainwashed generation of artistic parodies.

Cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai films this jaded epic with commensurate photographic detachment. I'm strained to recall even one principle closeup in the film's entirety. Yu also experiments with a panning approach that matures 6 years later in Jia's Still Life . It's a technique I've come to think of as a sort of cinematic "lazy eye": the unexpected, gradual drift of the camera's frame from action to the inert.

Jia Zhangke was forced to make his first three films - Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2000), and Unknown Pleasures (2002) - outside of the Chinese state-run film bureaucracy. Underground filmmakers in China play a risky game; there films are by definition illegal. Even if they find distribution abroad, they're still forbidden screening in China's cineplexes. To get their films in front of Chinese eyes, filmmakers pirate their DVDs on the black market. If they publicly screen their films in China, the government bans them from ever working under government approval.

Jia Zhangke is something of an exception; he successfully played the international film festival circuit against the Chinese authorities, making it hard for them to continue to deny state approval to an internationally celebrated auteur. Now that I've seen both his underground films and his "approved" films, I can honestly say that the state-seal has not blunted his commitment to "show Chinese Reality without distortion."

Check out Kevin B. Lee's slightly-out-of-date-but-still-illuminating article on Jia Zhangke's works over at Senses of Cinema.


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