Monday, September 26, 2011

Cabinet of Curiosities

Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum) (2011) - Brothers Quay
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Stephen and Timothy Quay's Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum) was shown at The Museum of Modern Art over the weekend (Sept. 24th), with the brothers in attendance as part of limited 3-city tour (Philadelphia, LA and New York). It had a world premiere at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia on Sept. 22nd and will be shown at Cary Grant Theater, Sony Pictures Studios, LA, hosted by The Museum of Jurassic Technology on Sept. 27th. Subsequent to the premiere screenings, the film will be available for purchase on DVD with an accompanying booklet.


When I first heard about the Brothers Quay Mütter Museum project, I couldn't think of any filmmaker who's more fitting. Situated in The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Mütter Museum hosts medical oddities, anatomical and pathological specimens, medical equipments and grand volumes of medical books. It's literally a cabinet of curiosities; a perfect playground for visionaries like Brothers Quay. Known for their Eastern European influenced, breathtakingly beautiful, found object stop motion animation shorts in the early 90s and the two gorgeous, feature length literary adaptations- Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream That One Calls Human Life (1995, from Robert Walser's Jacob von Gunten) and Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005, from Adolfo Bioys Casares' The Invention of Morel, of which, Alain Renais' Last Year at Marienbad was also loosely based on), Through the Weeping Glass is the London based (from Philadelphia originally) twin filmmakers' first American project.


The film opens with a young woman visiting a skeleton on display. The skeleton belongs to Harry Eastlack, a young man died of rare disease called Fibrodysplasia Ossificants Progressiva, where cartilage in your bones ossifies and you slowly become immobile. We are told by the narrator (narrated by Derek Jacobi) that young Harry could only move his lips when he died. The young woman is his sister, looking at a skeleton through a two way mirror, showcasing stunning visual sequences.


The brothers make use of the museum's many artifacts: the flip human anatomy books, photos, the skulls and fetuses in jars. But their approach is not of the morbid fascination of a teenager, but a compassionate one. They are aware that there are stories behind each skeleton, each body. The film ends with the story of famed conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker as we see the plaster cast of their bodies and their preserved shared liver.


Shot on HD video and lasting mere 31 minutes, Through the Weeping Glass is not quite up to par with their previous films. Starting as animators working mostly in miniature, their strength always has been their visual precision and impeccable craftmanship in creating painstakingly detailed netherworld. Even with the 35mm transfer from digital (thanks to MoMA), their visual elegance suffers greatly here. It is revealed through the Q & A session and following the 'making of' documentary that there was no funding available for shooting 35mm for them in a long while. So they resorted to using a small DSLR camera. Shooting in the narrow corridors and limited space of the museum also posed many challenges.


Next year, MoMA is planning the Brothers Quay retrospective, chronicling all of their works including their sculptures and drawings. Hopefully it will garner more interest in their works and make funds available for their future endeavor.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Paper That Lasts a Thousand Years"

Hanji (2011) - Im
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Hanji, a film about the traditional Korean papermaking, is the 101st film by the prolific Korean director Im Kwon-taek (Chunhyang, Chihwaseon: Painted Fire). It plays as part of MoMA's second annual Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, which runs 9/23-9/30.

Park Joong-hoon plays Pil-yong, a lowly government employee, newly appointed to the cultural bureau that oversees the economic revival of the hanji (traditional Korean paper) industry in anticipation of the restoration of The Annals of Choseon Dynasty: the chronological record of the last Korean empire, which is written more than 500 years ago. It is said that a good hanji would last a thousand years, hence preserving what's written on it. Pil-yong's job is to gather ragtag of hard-drinking, proud craftsmen to produce the best quality hanji for the restoration job. Without prior knowledge of paper making and facing layers of bureaucratic red tapes, it's an uphill battle for our hero. It's also no easy task while taking care of his sick wife at home and dodging advances from a beautiful and aggressive documentary filmmaker (Kang Soo-yeon).

Unlike other Korean films that showcase blind national pride steeped in sentimentality, Hanji actually makes the case with scientific facts. The world's oldest surviving printed Buddhist sutra (Dharani sutra) dates back to A.D. 751 from Shilla Dynasty, printed in hanji. From certain mulberry pulp, to the right glue, to the purity of water used, a lot of ingredients are factored into making the best quality paper. It literally needs to be fit for a King.

Im's style may not be seen as flashy and hip as other Korean filmmakers, but he has been quietly chugging along, dipping into various subjects and producing quality films since the early 60s. Lately taking an anthropological approach to the filmmaking, Im has been chronicling the disappearing Korean culture- namely, pansori (traditional singing/storytelling in Seopyeonje, Chunhyang and Beyond the Years). This time, it's hanji, the traditional Korean paper.

The film is not without melodrama. Pil-yong's infidelity and the financial difficulties haunt him and his wife. But for him, hanji making becomes something that is bigger than himself. Im doesn't let the characters bogged down in their fears and insecurities though. The life goes on, so does the film. With well rounded characters, Hanji is a solid and mature film that celebrates the passion for something you love, even though that passion might seem a little nutty to others. As the couple and the documentarian follow one eccentric papermaker to the remote waterfall deep in the mountains under the moonlight, trying to recreate the old method of papermaking to a T, one character says to another, "We all must be little crazy to be here."

For tickets and more info, please visit Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today at MoMA website.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Outsiders

Few of Us (1996) - Bartas
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We are introduced to a vast wintry landscape below through the helicopter windshield. A young woman (Katerina Golubeva) is dropped off in the remote village where its inhabitants seem like the Eskimos in the far north. She shares a smoke with an old reindeer herder. There is a bit of magic realism with the bedroom overgrown with vegetation. But the welcome is short lived. At the gathering of the villagers at night, Kat watches their drunkenness in silence from one corner of the room. She sticks out like a sore thumb, since she is taller than everyone around her. Did she come to the place looking for acceptance or solace? After a knife fight with a couple of drunken local men, she flees the village on foot. No one helps her. Some even pretend not to notice her struggle.

Few of Us is no anthropological survey or gooey, touch-y feel-y travelogue where everyone gets along. It's a cold, unforgiving world for the Bartas' outsiders. Their loneliness is accentuated here with breathtaking scenery and the village's physical remoteness. The film is gorgeous as usual. Bartas holds the static shots for good 2-3 minutes, so they can come alive before your eyes . Again, his no dialog approach fits much better here with the isolation and sadness of the characters than other interloper films like Varda's Vagabond (which I love very much but now obviously not as much as this). I loved it. It surely becomes one of my favorites of all time!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fleeting Present, Free Future

The House/A Casa (1997) - Bartas
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Except for the brief narration in the beginning, the film is wordless. A young man wakes up in a grand decrepit mansion. The house is inhabited by various people in many different rooms. There is no decipherable communication among them. They eat and drink together at the table under the grand chandelier. One room is occupied by a man who plays chess against himself, one filled with naked giggling children, one with an accordion player, and so on, and so on. Everywhere you look, it's a beautiful decay. The house is steeped in cold, damp melancholia.

A Casa is perhaps the most visually stunning film I've ever encountered. Time stands still in this mansion. Yet present is too fleeting: one can't be sure if it really exists. Its dreamlike visuals are neither nightmarish or overly pleasurable. There is something deeper at work here. I resisted the temptation of regarding each room as some type of metaphor and seeing the film as a Mathew Barney style slick moving art installation. Watching the film, one can still feel the dark days of the former Soviet rule lingering in those soulful faces. They speak thousand words with their stares. And no one captures Eastern European melancholy like Bartas. The film climaxes with the Christmas Supper scene and fireworks. I was in non-narrative film heaven. A truly rapturous experience.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Waiting for the Miracle

Lourdes (2009) - Hausner
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Lourdes, a small town in the Southwest France, famous for the Virgin Mary apparition is the mecca for the handicapped or terminally ill pilgrims in the hopes of a miracle. A young wheelchair bound woman (Sylvie Testud) is one of them among others in one of the groups. She has multiple sclerosis. She can only move her neck and barely move her arms. You get from the small chats she has with the nurses and priests, she is a lonely woman and the pilgrimages are the only way to be out and about. She doesn't seem too religious.

Lourdes is a quiet film. There are no big show of emotions or a religious epiphany. But the film is in no way strictly procedural either nor is it straight out character study. With static shots and slow zoom-ins, Austrian Jessica Hausner's film creates both sense of security and limited mobility. When the supposed miracle happens, rather than the true jubilation, Hausner hints at uncertain future and only slightly points out the hypocrisy in true devotion- Why her and not me? I'm much more religious, and so on. Not quite sure what to make of this film. I didn't mind its understated approach and Testud's performance carries the human warmth, but it's quite underwhelming. Elina Löwensohn as the mother superior and Léa Seydoux as a frumpy nurse make up the supporting cast.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jungfrau

Blonde Venus (1932) - Sternberg
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Helen (Marlene Dietrich), a stage performer, first seen in racy skinny dipping scene with a bunch of other frauleins in a German town, is swept off her feet by an American scientist who marries her and relocate her to NY. They are not rich living in a small apartment but have adorable 5 year old son now. I guess back then being a scientist didn't pay for shit. Ned is diagnosed with the radium poisoning and in need of treatment. Helen volunteers to go back to the stage to make money, despite Ned's passive aggressive protests.

Blonde Venus gets weird as it becomes a road movie in the middle. Its very melodramatic material is accompanied by the glamor lighting suited for its angular star. There are three musical numbers, the standout being 'Hot Voodoo'- an overtly Rudyard Kippling racist minstrel show but you can get to see Dietrich in a gorilla suit. It's enjoyable until the end comes around, because you get to hate Ned's baseless moral grandstanding. Young Cary Grant makes an appearance as a millionaire homewrecker as well. Luminous Dietrich is much better than the material that is given to her.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

No Medicine for Melancholy

Melancholia (2011) - von Trier
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A lot of people I know want to kick Lars von Trier in the balls if they were ever given a chance to do so. They think he is the biggest a**hole on the planet. That he is an arrogant, nihilistic artist constantly laughing at our expenses. His recent Hitler love at the Cannes didn't win him any favors either. Everything about him feels like a put-on, including his enfant terrible persona.


Personally I find his films to be quite simple, that there are no real depth or originality in them. Case in point, my favorites of his remain, to this day, to be Elements of Crime and Europa, both technical marvels from the cinematic filmmaking point of view. Over the years, he became one of the few filmmakers whose outside the movie set antics and their films are so entwined, I have a hard time separating them when reviewing. After watching two of his most recent, most 'personal' films to date and hearing about his crippling depression, I began to realize that he is indeed a hateful person and he's not faking any of it.


Accompanied by Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Melancholia begins with an overture, which tells the audience what to expect. Shot in the same glossy way on the super speed camera as the beginning of Antichrist, visually it's both fantastic and frightening- as the planet Melancholia is fast approaching the earth, birds are dropping like rain, a horse falls to the ground under the darkening sky, all the earth dwelling insects take to the air and Kirsten Dunst in her white wedding dress, floats in the stream. von Trier continues with his exploration of his fears in Melancholia, another deeply personal film. This time, the anxiety comes from facing the end of the world.


The film is in two parts: simply titled Justine and Claire - the two sisters who have very different outlook on life. The film starts with the wedding reception of Justine (Dunst) in a gigantic castle by the lake. The bride and groom are late for their own wedding reception. At first, they appear to be a sweet young couple but soon afterward, we realize that Justine is feigning her smiles and happiness. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her super rich husband John(Kiefer Sutherland), who arranged the wedding are getting visibly impatient with the non-cooperating bride. By the end of a long grueling reception, the unsuspecting, lovelorn-puppy groom (Alexander Skarsgård) isn't the only casualty of a heartbreak. And there is a planet small enough not to be threatening (yet), but visible to the naked eye in the sky.


The second part of the movie starts with the aftermath of the wedding. Justine, having failed at the attempt of getting out of her melancholic state by a marriage, is back to square one. She is an unresponsive, catatonic mess. It's Claire who takes an active mom role, taking care of her little sister. In the mean time, planet Melancholia from Scorpius Constellation is approaching closer to the earth by day. John, who knows about these matters tells concerned Claire that everything would be okay. That according to the calculations by all the leading scientists point to Melancholia squeaking by us and it would be a spectacular celestial show. Claire is not convinced. They have a young son and she wants him to have a future. Ironically, as the fateful day approaches, it's Justine who's calmer and more together than 'normal' Claire.


von Trier takes the visual cues mainly from the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, a German Romanticism painter who's known for his 'gaze' paintings where you as a viewer complete the painting by observing a figure gazing into the landscape in front of him. The old Flemish painting of winter landscape and John Everett Millais's famous Ophelia are also recurring images. There is a scene in the castle library, where Justine frantically replaces all the open art books containing abstract paintings with the images of the aforementioned paintings and other classics, a futile attempt to place an order in her chaotic mind landscape.


I can see why so many great actors always flock to von Trier projects despite all the bad things he says about actors. These are hammy parts where you can exercise your craft. Dunst basically channels the melancholic director's outlook. Justine has hit the rock bottom. Her last attempt at happiness and normal life miserably failed. She's got nothing to lose. Therefore, impending doom of all humanity doesn't scare her. Gainsbourg is also great as maternal Claire, who loses her grip as the end approaches. Justine calmly informs Claire, "Don't you think I'm afraid of that stupid planet." Superb supporting cast includes Sutherland, Skarsgård, John Hurt as the jolly father of the sisters, Charlotte Rampling as the cynical mom whose world wary presence explains Justine's origin and Stellan Skarsgård as smarmy boss of the advertising firm Justine works for.


I'm not saying von Trier's dickishness is any way excusable on account of his deep depression. But I think I understand him better after seeing his latest movie. It's stark, nightmarish and without hope. As Justine says with conviction, "We are all alone in the universe. I know this." Therefore, there is no need for the empty human rituals like niceties and being polite. When it's all said and done, I have to admit, Melancholia is still an amazingly gripping movie going experience. Whether I like his films or not, I still find myself being a salivating lapdog every time he comes out with a new film. It might be the a**hole/sad clown side of me connecting with him.


*According to the interview came with the press kit, his new project is called Nymphomaniac and there's going to be a lot of self mutilating involved.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I Hate Kids

Gloria (1980) - Cassavetes
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My goodness. Gena Rowlands chews up the screen and spits it back out in your face. Gloria is no nonsense middle aged broad up in the Bronx. When her neighbors, a mixed race family (headed by Buck Henry) gets wiped out by the mob, she is left with the only survivor, 6 year old boy with wild curly hair, Phil. And she hates kids (especially hates her neighbor's kids, she tells their mother once). Gloria has a shady mob connections from the past and many times throughout the film contemplates ditching the kid. But for some reason, she always ends up shooting her way out with the smartass Phil tightly attached on her waist. On the run, they change series of holdouts, showcasing sleazy NY in the late 70s. In true Cassavetes fashion, the dialog is nonchalant and action immediate. It's all Rowlands though. Not exactly a dog, but she is definitely not a typical Hollywood pretty. Can't see anyone else playing this role.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fishbowl

La Face Cachée de la Lune/Far Side of the Moon (2003) - Lepage
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The 60s Soviet-American space race plays a big part in Far Side of the Moon, a poignant drama about two brothers looking inward after their mother's death. Philip and Andre (both played by director Robert Lepage) are brothers who are polar opposites. Philip is a hopeless Ph.D candidate whose thesis on space race as human's ultimate narcissism just got rejected for the second time. He works as a telemarketer and is always broke. Andre is a gay, vain, successful TV weatherman. Even though he is older, klutzy Philip can't manage life's problems and chastised by Andre all the time. Philip is the type who makes life more complicated for himself. Jealousy and envy play the part in their relationship.

Ever since I watched Robert Lepage's visually striking Le Confessional, I've been dying to see another of his films. Adapting from his play, the renowned Canadian theater director showcases his visual artistry. Using archival footage of USSR astronauts, constant visual jokes with washing machines and a fishbowl and great transitions btwn past and present, Lepage examines the complex relationship of our desire to explore outside world and being reflective of ourselves. It's a touching and contemplative work that is personable and full of creativity. A great film.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

My Sharunas

Three Days (1992) - Bartas
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It's a gray Lithuanian port town. Some young derelicts are trying to find a lodging (to sleep together?) but the town is full of groggy, unfriendly people. That's about it. Not many words are uttered and there is no music, other than the ones from the dance hall across the street. There are no distinguishable characters or names. Some unique faces here and there. It's also drama free. Decrepit lots, basements and cold, wet surroundings. Nevertheless Sharunas Bartas sees glimpses of beauty everywhere. It's in gestures, flickering lights, that uncontrollable, sad laughs of young Katerina Golubeva, the sight of a thousand years old blond street urchin smoking.

Unlike other films of this kind (Gus Van Sant's Death Trilogy comes to mind), Three Days feels deeper, that there is history behind this dreariness and quietude. It's not alienation nor loneliness I feel. It's a moment of awkwardness, a moment of kinship that counts. No words necessary. There is a scene right after they get kicked out of a lodging house. In the dark alleyway, Bartas camera first lingers on the three protags where baby Golubeva laughs hopelessly, then takes off to the side to show another vagrant eating an apple under the dim lights. We still hear her laugh but the camera remains on the old chum eating voraciously.

Bartas, where have you been all my life? R.I.P. Yekaterina, I'll miss you.