Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Capturing the Essence of a City in time of Chaos

In the Last Days of the City (2016) - El Said
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It's 2009. This is before Arab Spring, pre-Tahrir Square Cairo. Mubarak is still in power, but there is a change in the air in a largely secular city of nearly million. A filmmaker Khalid (Khalid Abdala) seems to be making a personal documentary. With a handheld camera, he is seen documenting and editing various footage - a teacher in a theater group, his ailing mother in the hospital, his friends, and the daily hustle and bustle of the city. It coincides with him searching for a flat because he needs to move out of the place he shared with Laila (Laila Samy), his ex-lover, who makes frequent appearances on those tapes.

His childhood friends, one from Beirut, one from Bagdad and one from Berlin, are in the city for a conference and they exchange their perspectives. They make a pact that they will exchange their footage. Khalid is having a hard time finding a new space and also working on his films leaving his real estate broker and his editor equally frustrated.

In the mean time, the world is changing before his eyes. The mannequins on storefront display with western style clothes to bare with newspaper covered to the head to toe black hijabs. Daily street demonstrations with nervous looking cops in riot gear watching them contrasts with government propaganda on the radio blaring in taxi cabs. The news of heated soccer matches between neighboring countries add to the general fervor in the streets.

I remember seeing a film Microphone by Ahmad Abdalla which was a love letter to Alexandria in 2010. I remember how vibrant and optimistic the film was and how devastating to see what unfolded in Egypt right after. In the Last Days of the City, captured in real time by El Said, but released in 2016, is a lyrical, contemplative time capsule across the Arab world that is at once personal, fleeting and heart breaking in retrospect.

This film was recommended by Hany Osman. Thank you Hany.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Childhood as an Epic

A Brighter Summer Day (1990) - Yang
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Brighter Summer Day my ass, it's more like Grimmer Sad Day. Edward Yang's grand tale of coming of age in 60s Taipei might not match the other 4 to 5 hour sweeping epic stewing philosophical meanderings about life, time and space (there's War and Peace mentioned a couple of times by characters), but I guess that's the point. Life of the ordinary people as an epic. And an epic A Brighter Summer Day is: an epic downer.

Our expectations would be different if the English title of the film was the same as its Tawanese title, Youth Murder Incident at Guling Street. Based on the real incident in Taiwan, which explains everything. But because it was based on lyrics from Elvis's Are You Lonesome Tonight?, and I had no idea what it was about other than vague notion of it being coming of age film, it was all the more devastating.

It tells a story of Si'r (Chang Chen), a 14 year old night school student embroiled in two gang factions in the neighborhoods and his family, as well as his friends, enemies and about 100 different characters. It's a sprawling, novelistic work that plays out like a good book. Si'r's friends belong to Little Park Gang and sings in a band that plays American rock'n'roll. He finds himself attracted to Ming (Lisa Yang), the girlfriend of Honey, the missing leader of the gang. She turns out to be a femme fatale of sorts and Si'r fixates on her a little too much it stops to be cute but obsessive. There is a story with his parents coming from the mainland China and his educated father being harassed and discriminated at work in context of complex Taiwanese history.

There's a lot of details in this film that are just gorgeous cinematically- the local movie studio next to the night school provides plenty of great cinematic moments, the Gang raid and sword fight in the pouring monsoon night also present some excitiing visuals.

Yang had a great understanding of using childhood memories and making it universal, that this is not some random violence but each one of us are capable of the violence at the end. A Brighter Summer Day is a rich, beautiful filmmaking that needs to be watched and appreciated.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Misery Incorporated

Satantango (1994) - Tarr
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Bela Tarr's 7 hour 15 minute contemplation on individualism vs collectivism and power stretches beyond its initial take on the breakup of communism parable. In a very unsparing terms, Tarr paints a grim picture of human nature. Divided in 12 chapters, the film's narrative often folds into itself and start over, presenting a set of two different perspectives of the same setting or incidents- not for the different point-of-view but just to harp on the endlessness of its purgatory. This is satan's tango - two steps forward, two steps back. Repeat.

Satantango starts with a ten minute tracking shot of large cattle slowly moving about in the rain. It's late October and its never ending autumn rain has started. It's cold, muddy and unrelenting. This small farming village in rural Hungary is awakened by the ominous sound of church bells, even though the nearest church was destroyed long ago in the war. The village is in obvious decline physically and morally- the old houses are in various stages of disrepair, men are after each other's wives in public, everyone's drinking too much.... Also, everyone is scheming to take each other's share of money (from the farm collective?) and planning to skip the god-forsaken town and start over somewhere else.

There is a rumor going around that Irimias, the community's prodigal son, a wizard of some kind, who was presumed dead for two years, is coming back to set things straight. Things get tense and testy with the news. It seems everyone is fearful of this character. In the mean time, Irimias, out in some sort of parole, pledges to a local bureaucrat that he will work for them and report on the townsfolks. Some sort of a trickster, charismatic Irimias sets out to pull off the biggest swindle.

On the eve of Irimias's arrival, the townsfolk gather around in the only pub in the village to participate all night drinking, dancing and whoring binge. In true Bela Tarr fashion, this uncut/long take sequence is a mindboggling technical feat. This is where 'Satantango' takes place.

There is a long segment in the middle, involving Estike, a little girl who witnesses towns physical and moral decline. This could be a standalone film by itself. Neglected and abandoned, Estike takes her miserable existence out on a kitten, "because you are smaller than I am, I have power over you." It illustrates the whole theme of the film in no subtle terms. The prolonged torture sequence is hard to watch, especially for cat lovers like me. Estike with the dead cat tucked under her arm, walks endlessly in the rain, completely neglected, ends her life drinking rat poison.

Estike's death provides a big summon from Irimias to the townsfolk. In awe of his charisma and in hopes for a new beginning, they give up all their money to him who promises a new life somewhere else. Everyone packs up their belongings and starts a long road to the destination that Irimias promised. After long, wet, muddy trip on foot, they arrive at an abandoned mansion. Disillusioned and angry, the infighting begins between believers and non-believers. Some ask for money back when Irimias finally returns. And he spins it around as a test of faith. His stinging criticism of their less than perfect characters is at once intimidating and persuasive, they end up giving back the money to him and put trust in him, even though some see that this is a con game. The news on their final destination - some sort of a beautiful manor where everyone's going to live is not ready, so in the mean time, they will each get a small allowance money and be set up for a job in some village. You a butcher in this village, you a church hand, etc. Except for one, Futaki, the village's designated cynic, all of them follow Irimias's instructions and go separate ways. The cattle mindset is a scary thing.

The village's obese doctor, who was left behind after being hospitalized and still doesn't know everyone left, hear the church bell and decides to investigate. It turns out to be some jingoistic idiot who's been banging on the remnants of iron beams in a ruined church. Everyone misheard it as a church bell or did they?

So, does Satantango warrant its 7 hour running time? I do admit that there is magnetic qualities in Tarr's images, especially when viewing the film in proper settings - on the big screen in the dark. I can imagine its power in theatrical viewing (I myself viewed it at home). His use of sound - always a mechanical hum in the background, dialog fading out when the camera moves away from characters are all very impressive. I can see the devout fans indulging long hours in the communal setting whenever it travels around in repertory theaters and regarding it as one of the greatest masterpieces of our time. But I still personally prefer Werkmeister Harmonies which came out 6 years after over this in exploring the same themes. Werkmeister is more concise(?) and impactful. Satantango's miserablist sentiment and its unrelenting pessimism does have its place. But nah, I don't see the beauty in it.

Friday, April 10, 2020

History/Story of Cinema and Us

Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-98) - Godard
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So one thing I am thankful for this time of worldwide pandemic, where we are witnessing our capitalist society slowly collapsing in real time, is it finally shoved me into watching the whole of Histoir(s)du cinema, Godard's monumental reflection on the 20th century and the role of cinema in it. It's been a long overdue, to say the least. Except for Numero Deux which Godard directed with Anne-Marie Miéville (1975), Histoire(s) is the precursor to all his later essayistic films. Clocking at 266 hours, although divided in 8 parts, it marks the longest among his films.
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With a cigar permanently fixed in the corner of his mouth, his electric typewriter always roaring its plastic screech in the background and forever blinking images testing us with our persistence of vision, Godard sets out to examine the 20th century riddled with war and destruction and cinema's place within it, or shall we say, our place in cinema. His repetitive themes throughout the whole series is that cinema is neither art nor technique but a mystery. He makes numerous comparison with art and cinema throughout. The difference between film theorist and their books, Godard has been a 'camera-pen' of the auteur theory in practice, churning out these visual essays for almost four decades now.
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Godard makes the convincing case with him being a French New Wave filmmaker and how that puts him in unique position to assess cinema history: Belonging to the Post-War generation, seeing enough films through the cinema's evolution and progression. Born out of the idea of image projection by a feverish Napoleonic soldier in Russian prison, Histoire(s) is also the (hi)story of French cinema.
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Godard's wordplay never stops. Besides the word histoire in French having two meanings (history and story), he dissects words and constantly rearranges them also. This project being started during the peak of video technology, he points out the implications of its terms - Master/Slave when describing master tape/file and its copies - the term we still refer in film post-productions and information technology. His assertion of the power of image throughout his filmography also hasn't changed - it seems, in Godard's mind, sequential shots of dead bodies in the atrocities of war and pornography reveals the duplicitous nature of cinema.
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In Deleuze's Cinema I & II, the philosopher makes a distinction between Movement-Image period and Time-Image period before/After World War II: and how Movement-Image oriented thinking gave rise to nazism and propaganda and ended up in the gas chamber. Time-Image concerns aberration of image and sound. And that more or less starts with Italian Neorealism which precedes French New Wave. Partly because they didn't have any reference point with total destruction of their surroundings, they had to think seeing images differently with sound as an independent partner, not just dialogue track. Obviously well-read, Godard knows this, and praises the films of de Sica, Antonioni and Pasolini because Italian filmmakers, with its long illustrated history and language, didn't remain silent during the war years (1941-45) and right after. In Cinema II, Deleuze also makes a point of the power of false; falseness in image, just as impactful but also dangerous. Godard says cinema is not entertainment nor communication device but rather cosmetics, a small industry of lies.
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Balkan War in the 90s really affected Godard and its continuation and repetition of atrocities since the war affirmed his cynicism toward humanity greatly and it show in the later part of Histoire(s). He continues to revisit the notion of 'newness of history' and 'history of news'. In the time of fake news, how do we see through all these falseness and dig out the truth? Godard seems to admit that we live in a corrupt state, but like poetry and art, cinema can see us through. And I really hope this is the case.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Technocracy

La France contre les robots (2020) - Straub
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This is a very timely text from 1945, as the whole world is going through dark times. You can watch it here in its 9 minute entirety. Well actually 4 1/2 minutes but two takes:

"The word 'revolution' to us Frenchmen is not a vague term. We know that Revolution is a rupture, that Revolution is an Absolute. There is no such thing as a moderate revolution, there is no such thing as a planned revolution—as one speaks of a planned economy. The revolution we are announcing will overturn the entire existing order or it will not take place at all. If we believe that the present system is capable of being reformed, that it can, in itself, check the fatal course of its evolution towards Dictatorship—the dictatorship of money, of race, of class, of the Nation—we will certainly refuse to run the risk of an explosion capable of destroying precious things that can only be rebuilt with much time, perseverance, selflessness, and love. But the present system will not change the course of its evolution for the good reason that it is no longer evolving; it is merely reorganizing itself with the view of lasting a little longer, of surviving. Far from professing to resolve its own contradictions, which are, in any case, impossible to resolve, it seems more and more inclined to impose them by force through strict regulation of individual effort that grows more rigid and more particular every day, carried out in the name of a sort of State Socialism, which is the democratic form of Dictatorship. Every day, in fact, brings us another proof that the purely ideological era has long since passed, in New York as well as in Moscow and London. We can see the Imperial English Democracy, the Plutocratic American Democracy and the Marxist Empire of Soviet Dominions walking, if not hand in hand—far from it!—at least pursuing the same goal, that is to say maintaining at all costs and even while appearing to oppose it, the system in which they have acquired wealth and power. For, in the end, Russia has profited no less from the capitalist system than America and England; it has played the role of the Member of Parliament who makes a fortune in Opposition. In short: regimes formerly opposed in ideology are now directly united by Technology. A world dominated by Technology is lost for Liberty."

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Religious Hypocrisy

Divino Amor (2019) - Mascaro
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It's 2027 Brazil. The country has gone full Christian fundamentalist. Gabriel Mascaro's version of it is all neon and electronic music. Joana (Dira Paes) and Danilo (Julio Machado) are a middle class couple. She is a notary public, working in a gigantic concrete government building and he is a florist, working in their ground floor apartment complex. They haven't been able to conceive a child even though they try every possible way and method and with gizmos. Something is wrong with Danilo's sperm. They belong to Divine Love, a Christian religious group exclusively for couples. It's a cult like therapy/support group for couples who's had marriage troubles before. They do trust exercises and share partners in bed. Joana, using her position of power as a bureaucrat, has been discouraging couples who seek a divorce at her job. Her sometimes aggressive tactics don't sit well with her clients as well as her superiors. She constantly visits a drive-thru church to seek advice from a pastor. The god is silent on her and her husband's infertility and her faith is waining. Then a miracle happens. She is pregnant. But who is the father?

Mascaro, along with a fellow filmmaker from the region of Pernambuco, Kleber Mondonça Filho, somberly reflects on the life under the extreme right-wing, religious zealotry of Bolsonaro regime here with Divino Amor. Photographed by Diego García (Cemetery of Splendor, Our Time, Neon Bull), the film is perfectly framed and neon colors beautifully rendered. The film inserts in just enough details for us to see that the country has changed: women on the beach are wearing head to toe black garb - very much like burkini, every building, businesses and shops have customer identifying prompter at the door by their name, marital status and whether they are pregnant or not and there is no mention or show of homosexuality whatsoever anywhere. In true Mascaro fashion, sex scenes are very graphic and honest, but only limited to married couple or consenting adults, all heterosexual. The film is narrated by Joana's child who might be born out of immaculate conception and just might be the savior people have been waiting for, but left nameless and unregistered, because of he is born into religious fundamentalist country once was known as most culturally, sexually, racially diverse country in the world, Brazil, less than a decade ago.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Galician Fire

O que arde/Fire Will Come (2019) - Laxe
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O que arde starts with startling images of bulldozers logging at night, as trees violently shake before they pushed down, out of frame. It's deep in the rural Galicia, a northwestern region of Spain. Amador (played by non-professional Amador Arias) gets released from the prison where he was serving for arson. He is greeted by his old mother Benedicta (also non-professional Benedicta Sanchez)in their old cot, where she tends to her three cows and an old German shepherd named Luna. Their are some young villagers trying to fix up an old cottage, hoping the tourists will flock to the region. But otherwise, people lead their simple lives in a sleepy old hamlet. The news of Amador's return quickly spreads through village and some people are uneasy about the presence of the arsonist. Amador keeps to himself, tends to cows, make fire in an old school stove, checks on the mountain spring - the water supply for the village and tends to his mother. There is even a possibility of romance between Amador and a local veterinarian who tended to one of his cows. Then a forest fire happens.

Laxe observes his beloved Galician region and its people simply and quietly. There is obviously an environmental message with clearcut logging and our inability to deal with natural disasters that it will indiscriminately happen again and again, whether it's man-made or not. Nature doesn't give a shit about what we are.

Laxe captures some stunning images of beauty in Galicia. His mix of naturalism and documentary style depiction of forest fire and fire fighters combating it is highly commendable. The film is just as striking as Amador's face. Beautiful filmmaking.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Many Faces of a Woman

The Party (2017) - Potter
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Sally Potter's big ensemble chamber piece The Party has a Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration vibe. Both take place in a confined one house setting where its participants are exorcising their demons as the party/celebration progresses. But The Party handles it in a more mature tone; it doesn't put the blame on one patriarchal monster, instead, it spreads its blames around. And unlike unrelenting emotional manipulation of its Swedish counterpart, The Party, even with the plenty of cynicism and twists and turns, is uproariously funny and each characterization is superb, embodied by Kristen Scott Thomas, Tim Spall, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer and Cillian Murphy. It takes swipes at every archetype - unemotional career-driven woman politician, an old predatory academic and a student, a foreign mystic, a raging venture capitalist, a cynic who has something terrible to say about everyone.

Potter's reflections on what it means to be a career woman is in full display in Thomas's Janet, a politician who just achieved her goal of becoming a minister, while neglecting on her own marriage. Clarkson shines as April, Janet's best friend and a designated party pooper, spouting cynical comments to everyone and everywhere. She is the realist counterpart of the idealist Janet. Her cynicism is her only defense from hurt and heartache and defeat in life. Martha (professor played by Jones) and younger chef wife Jinny (Mortimer) are having babies (triplets) but the difference in their social background and age and sexual orientation give plenty of challenges staying together. 

Men, on the other hand - characterized as a submissive supporter- 'behind every great woman, there is a man' type, an aging hippie whose ideas are in vogue again against topsy-turvy world, and a hot-blooded capitalist, huddle together on the floor, like a wimping animals surrounded by female 'hysterics'.

The Party is a sharply observed, fun chamber piece that highlights Potter as a fine writer of human experiences that only can be learned from first hand life experience.