Sunday, September 27, 2020

Life's Little Disappointments

 The Disciple (2020) - Tamhane

the-disciple
Chaitanya Tamhane's follow up to his great debut, Court, is The Disciple, about an artist struggling with a life long self-doubt. It might be a more personal subject, but it's even more nuanced observation of life than his previous film. The Disciple shows Tamhane is wise far beyond his age portraying subjects such as ambition, devotion and pride as well as realizing life's crushing disappointments as we age.

Khayal, I am told, is a classical Indian singing style that puts emphasis on improvisation and micro-tonal changes. For devotees of this art, mastering it is an eternal quest. Young Sharad (Aditya Modak), practicing this Hindustani classical music is a vocation he was sort of born into - his father was a devotee of this music tradition even though he ultimately failed as a singer. Studying under his guru Alwar (Arun Dravid) and listening to lectures, given by legendary, reclusive singer Maai, who was guru to both his father (who secretly recorded her lectures) and Alwar. Maai was almost a yogi figure, preaching purity and discipline in body and mind to truly devote to the music. She never allowed recordings of her music nor had her images taped or photographed. Tamhane provides some great night tracking shot of Mumbai, of Sharad riding his motorbike in slow motion, listening to Maai's lectures on tape. Emphasizing the lonely road the young man has chosen. The year is 2006.

Sharad practices and practices while dealing with all the distractions of life - constant nagging of his grandmother, pressure to get a job, loneliness, lust, etc. He is not winning any awards at singing competitions, at least not yet.

Sharad now is a fat middle aged man with a mustache, still trying to get his music career off the ground. He teaches music at a school, still takes care of his now ailing guru, while seeing others, more talented than him passing him by, career-wise. One of his pupil's mother comes to the school asking him for his advice: should her son join a fusion band in his college? He tells them not to come back to school if the young man joins the band. Some TV singing competition shows a young woman's transformation from a homely classical singer to a Bollywood style pop sensation. Is purity of the music and personal pride that important? Even Maai's words get warped in his mind. She directly addresses to him that his guru loves him so he doesn't have hearts to tell him that he is not talented, just like his father.

In one flashback scene, meeting with a rare music collector who seems to have dirt on everybody crushes Sharad's idols, including his guru and even Maai, whom he recalls as a self-righteous, pretentious fraud.

The Disciple deals with any artist's nightmare - total devotion is hard to achieve while living in the real world. In the mean time, self-doubt eats you away slowly over the years. Modak gives a beautiful, heart breaking performance, transforming himself from a bright eyed young man to a defeated middle-aged schlub . Both Modak and Dravid are actual singers and the music in this film is truly glorious. Tamhane again, proves himself to be one of the brightest and most talented filmmakers working today.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Pushed Down the Road

 Nomadland (2020) - Zhao

nomadland
In the film's prologue, it is stated that the high desert mining town of Empire, seized to exist after the company shutting down its operation during the 2008 economic meltdown. The town's residents were forced to relocate and it became a ghost town. It lost its postal zipcode status even. Welcome to the dark side of corporate America. 

Frances McDormand disappears into the role of a woman living in her van in Chloé Zhao's affecting humanist sketch(es) from the seldom seen Americana. These are people without homes, living in their cars, moving up and down the American West, taking menial jobs to support their hands-to-mouth living in the margin of society. Mcdormand is Fern, a widowed woman first seen in a large Amazon facilities sorting out the orders during Christmas time. She, like many other Americans, take part in seasonal jobs like working in Amazon warehouses.

Fern befriends with characters like Linda May and Swankie, who are playing fictional version of themselves and who are not far from themselves. They all have stories to tell. They are in fact living the original spirit of America, on the road, in their cars, rather than having a picket fences and lawn and dogs and family. The difference is that they are forced to be on the road, not for the romantic notion of free spirited of the American West.

Hitting the road is an American concept. More so than a German (Autobahn and all that) one. I mention this because of I remember the talk I had with the great Berlin School director Christian Petzold whose films often present people in transit. There’s even a paper written about the role of the fugitive family’s white Volvo in one of his movies (The State I am in). He told me that his characters hit the road not because of the notion of some misguided freedom and romanticism which the post war affluence brought- in films of Wim Wenders for instance, but because of financial hardship brought on by global economic downturn. 

I mean, there's quite a bit of romaticism too in Nomadland- because this land is just too god-damn beautiful wherever you go. Arizona's desert, Nothern California's Redwood Forests, Nevada, anywhere Zhao and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards point their camera at, there is poetry everywhere, even though in the next scene Fern and her colleagues are cleaning puke stains from the toilet seat of a public bathroom of the camp ground, shitting into the one gallon bucket inside their vans and scraping gunk off the grills of tourist trap chain restaurants. The cars of their choice is not Pontiac GTO from Two-Lane Blacktop or some gigantic RV, it’s modified non-descript van you see in construction sites.

There's a sort of love interest in there too for Fern, in the form of David Strathairn, who plays Dave, an aging dad and grandpa who's been running away from his sons and family but eventually goes back to the normal life.

Zhao is obviously very talented at getting unbelievably natural performances out of professional actors and non-professionals alike. McDormand's performance is undoubtedly immensely moving. Each stories of friendship and human connections are also extremely touching without being ever succumbing to cheap sentimentality. Too bad that music goes all extra gooey. With Zhao's documentary aesthetic of the film doesn't really need any soundtrack other than what mother nature provides, in my humble opinion.

Still, it seems Zhao is headed for greatness. Her ability to find an intimacy between a rock and a hard place is truly remarkable. I hope she keeps it up.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

A Prophetic Vision of Europe in Philosophical Terms

Malmkrog (2019) - Puiu Malmkrog Cristi Puiu, a director closely associated with the Romanian New Wave, of realist films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Aurora, take a very different approach with Malmkrog, a three hour twenty minute verbose chamber piece and a formalist cinematic daring-do that will certainly try patience of its viewers. Based on Russian philosopher's Vladimir Solovyov's texts in turn of the twentieth century, prior to WWI, Malmkrog's five main characters extensively engage in serious religious and political discussions in six chapters, named after the characters and István, the head of the servants in the wintry manor the film takes place in. 

There are three heady discussions they are engaging in: war and peace, grand vision of unified Europe and the existence of good and evil. It takes a dramatic turn and there is a big tonal shift after the second discussion. The last one-third of the film could be interpreted as a dream or imagined but Puiu decidedly leave it opaque. Malmkrog starts out in a large, opulent manor in the middle of a wintry forest. The structure is in pastel pink, giving it a whimsical fairytale look at its first impression. 

Inside, within very long takes in meticulous blocking, the actors crisscross the screen as they speak on and off screen. Camera pans slowly here and there, but otherwise it's stationary. Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), a wife of a Russian war general starts the film with her indignant support for military might. There is a good war and there is a bad peace, she exclaims. Her view is pitted against the youngest member of this wealthy, aristocratic group, Olga (Marina Palii). Olga is a good Christian and a staunch pacifist. And because of that, she becomes a target of constant belittling, albeit politely, especially by Nicolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), a former seminary student and the host of the manor they are gathered at. The group splits in either defending Olga or chiding her. Ingrida receives and reads a letter from her husband announcing victory over Ottoman soldiers on the frontline. In a letter, he justifies slaughtering the enemies in the most grotesque manner because they roast babies in front of their mothers in the villages they raided. She enforces her assertion that the war is necessary. Olga disagrees. With her faith, she could've turned those 'savages' around by praying. Near the end of discussion just before lunch, in an intense interrogation in defense of her position on pacifism, Olga faints. 

Lunch is served. They are back in another deep discourse. Edward (Ugo Broussot), a wealthy merchant and a gambler, espouses the grand vision of unified Europe. He says because Europeans are the most advanced, progressive, therefore they are superior civilization. And Russia can play a big role because of its proximity to Asia in fending off the influence of Asian nations. Then the discussion turns to the existence of good and evil with Nicolai chiding Olga with her interpretation of the bible verses. 

Of course, in accordance with the era and society, all dialogue is conducted in very proper French. Only other language spoken (very briefly) is German, when Nicolai cryptically whispers to Olga travel paths. Did he see what was coming? Is he planning an escape with the young believer? 

As the second discussion draws to a close, a drastic incident happens to break the otherwise tranquil gathering of the high society: a broken childish song that sounds like coming from a gramophone plays in loop all of sudden and all the servants disappear or not answer Nicolai's ringing bell. Panicked, our guests leave the room only to be gunned down from an unseen force. Next scene is a wide shot of the snowy landscape outside and people calling out Ingrida, who seems to be treading the snow away from the manor. Puiu keeps everything ambiguous from beginning to end. 

The next scene is business as usual. All the guests seem to be alive and well and carry on the subject on good and evil. How do we know that god is good? He can preach us to be good. But is he himself good inside? Olga is pushed to defend her positions. She seems composed but not able to speak anything remotely compelling. This dinner scene with five characters speaking back and forth, is a fine example of how you do coverage and make Bohemian Rhapsody's Oscar winning editing to shame. 

 I don't doubt that Malmkrog's script being as thick as Dostoevsky's Brother's Karamazov. It deals with dense, heady philosophical musings from another century. But context is everything. What these characters are discussing has relevance in pre-revolution, WW1 Europe as well as the age we are living in. 

Veering off the Solovyov's texts, Puiu reinforces its prophetic, dystopic view of Europe - decadent, spiritually hollow, hubristic, jingoistic and also on the cusp of violent upheaval. Puiu being Romanian, growing up in a country in the Soviet Bloc, Solovyov's texts are a good fit for him against anti-spiritualism associated with communism along with many other ills Europe and Russia are suffering right now. 

Malmkrog is a slog of a movie. But it’s truly one of a kind. If you are an adventurous spectator like me and stick to it, with a bit of background knowledge beforehand, the film is a very rewarding and satisfying cinematic experience. This will make a great double feature with Lázló Nemes's Sunset, as a frustrating yet richly rewarding cinematic history lesson and a prophetic vision of Europe.

A Quintessential Almodovar Plus Tilda Swinton in Short Form

The Human Voice Conceived as a short project during Covid lockdown, Pedro Almodovar's The Human Voice, based on Jean Cocteau's stage play, with its popping colors and its melodramatic theme, is a quintessential Almodovar film. It is also a great reflection on filmmaking in the face of a worldwide pandemic. And it's all Tilda. 

In his first English-language film, Almodovar puts his full trust in Tilda Swinton, who, over the years, has become a larger than life international movie icon, to carry the whole 30 minutes alone carrying on an imaginary conversation with herself. 

It starts with Swinton in various haute couture clothing walking around in what appears to be a big sound stage. The title sequence is made up of beautiful renderings of various tools, foreshadowing what's to come. Tilda is in her apartment, a bright colored, stylish multi room apartment that is the typical set-up for all of Almodovar's domestic melodramas. What is different this time is that we can see that these rooms are sets in the sound stage the film starts in. It reminds that everything we've seen in his films previously, however lived-in those rooms seemed, were elaborate sets, designed by Antxón Gómez, Almodovar's long time set designer, in the movie stages. 

It also reminds that his melodramas make you invest in his films to the degree that you suspend your belief that you are watching make-believe, that is, cinema. It doesn't really matter, because as soon as Swinton engages us in her tumultuous breakup story with her lover of four years, we are hooked once again, suspending our belief and being absorbed into the melodrama of her life. 

Swinton takes a quick trip to, of all places, a hardware store. She buys a large axe and puts it in her Gucci bag. When she gets home/stage, she tries to axe the man's black suit that is laid on her bed. Her border collie barks at all the violence. She shouts at the dog to shut up. She goes to a living room and picks up a ceramic tea set, which is obviously a movie set decoration and throws it out the balcony/stage floor. She then proceeds to take colorful pills and passes out on the bed. Then her phone rings. 

It's presumably her lover who she just broke up with three days ago. She carries on a long-winded conversation with him, cooing, pleading and yelling and apologizing into her air pod. It's a familiar scene of love and heartbreak. They had four years of a passionate, intoxicating relationship and now it's all over. They didn't even get to say a proper good-bye and she doesn't want to do that over the phone. But he is not even going to stop by to pick up his stuff. 

As film productions around the world slowly pick up again with limited crew and strict restrictions (daily testing for cast and crew, limited numbers on the set and in premises), this one-person show reflects the state of the film industry today very accurately. 

The Human Voice, in true Almodovar fashion, ends in satisfying conclusion: in flames, where the stage, the make-believe literally burns down. Hopefully, this isn't the first and last collaboration between Almodovar and Swinton, because this short film is an extremely enjoyable experience.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Sam Pollard's MLK/FBI Reminds Us MLK's Legacy Resonates Now, More than Ever

MLK/FBI (2020) - Pollard MLKFBI

Packed to the brim with historical documents and recently declassified materials, Sam Pollard, documentarian and editor of Spike Lee's films among many others (Mo' Better Blues, 4 Little Girls, Chisholm '72, Venus and Serena) brings us MLK/FBI, a searing indictment of government surveillance and a smear campaign on one of the most revered figures in American history. Based on David Garrow's book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From Solo to Memphis, where the author and King biographer accuses King of participating in a rape in a hotel room in 1964, based on the declassified, handwritten memo over FBI documents that is now on National Archive website.

With Trump's 'Law and Order' rhetoric rising amid nationwide protest against police violence and BLM movement during the worst pandemic in American history and the nation's top cop Bill Barr's threat to charge the racial justice protesters with sedition, MLK/FBI truly resonates now, more than ever.

Pollard gets it right by framing the film with King's rise as a leader of the Civil Rights movement from Birmingham, AL days, to March to Washington and his famous speech, to LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act into law, to him winning the Nobel Peace Prize, to his opposition to the Vietnam War and the Poor People's Campaign, to his assassination in 1968 against the backdrop of the FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and the head of the bureau's Domestic Intelligence, Bill Sullivan, obsessing over 'the most dangerous negro in America' and figuring the way to 'neutralize' King.

Threatened by King's eminence as the leader of nationwide non-violence protests, Hoover, with RFK (then AG of New York and later the nation)'s blessings, ordered unprecedented surveillance on him, tapping his and his colleague's phones and bugging hotel rooms where he stayed. Hoover first wanted to tie him with the communists. Stanley Levison, a Jewish lawyer who served as King's advisor, has had a tie with the communist party. Media also played a big part creating the 'G-men' and FBI culture Hoover cultivated after his own image - a conservative Christian white jockey male. These government recruits were indoctrinated to see themselves as guardians of American way of life and perpetuate white dominance. Communists and their sympathizers were seen as direct threat to that racial hierarchy. It is amazing to see people still buy this belief, since we still witness this in this election cycle.

As the King is a communist narrative didn't bear any fruit, they then switched to more salacious material on his private life as these bugs turned up some goods on his extramarital affairs.

Interviews with the Civil Rights luminaries and King confidantes Andrew Young, Clearance Jones and historian Beverley Gage as well as David Garrow and unseen James Comey, Pollard poses a difficult question on how we handle information on a private life of a public figure, when the source is from a place as prejudiced and biased as Hoover's FBI. 

Pollard also rightfully sheds a light on many uncomfortable truths. However a maligned Hoover is in history books, he was in charge of the FBI for 37 years until his death in 1972. He had ears of the so-called friends of the movement in the highest power - JFK, RFK and LBJ and conspired against King. LBJ and Hoover are even on tape discussing sordid private life of King and what to do about it.

It all came down to a boiling point after King received a Nobel Prize and Hoover called him a notorious liar. Johnson arranged the meeting with the two to diffuse the situation. There is footage of King emerging from the meeting saying the polite conversations he had with Hoover. However, obsessed Hoover played the black deviant card, which dates all the way back to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and sent a threatening letter guised as one of his black supporters with a tape recording of one his hotel room encounters to his wife, Coretta Scott King.

Emotional impact must have been immeasurable to King family. But there were so much work to be still done- Selma, The Voting Rights Act and protests against the Vietnam War.

Pollard is quick to note that general public was on the side of Hoover, not King. Even Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an influential black organization and integral part of the Civil Rights Movement, was not on board with King's stance against the war. He didn't have any business having an opinion. Sounds familiar?

MLK/FBI strongly resonates with what we are going through as a nation right now: Hoover's notion of racial hierarchy is still very much in place in law enforcement mindset as police unions endorsing a candidate whose rhetoric is nothing but racist, so as irrational fear of anything that sounds like 'communism' or 'socialism', putting way too much emphasis on personal lives of elected officials, the list goes on and on. But more importantly, it resonates that no other social movement since King and the Civil Rights Movement, we had a real possibility of a fundamental change in this country, than Black Lives Matter Movement. Those sordid FBI tapes on King are sealed until 2027. We can deal with Martin Luther King Jr. a man then and there. It's his victories over insurmountable odds that we need to take lessons from and be hopeful, not the smear campaign designed to take our eyes off the ball.

Dustin Chang is a freelanc

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Finding Inner Peace in Wondering

The Calming (2020) - Fang
The Calming

The Calming, like its title suggests, is a quiet contemplation of life and on our relationship with nature. Song Fang, who played the Chinese film student nanny role in Hou Hsiao Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, is a gifted director with gentle sensibilities who has a great eye for landscapes reflecting the mood of her protagonist. It turns out to be one of the best kinds of a 'woman wondering around in unknown places' cinema, one of my favorites, if there's such a genre.

Lin Tong (Qi Xi) is a Chinese filmmaker in Tokyo for an exhibition of her film. It's winter. It is revealed in conversation with her Japanese curator friend (played by Ichiyama Shozo, who produced many films of Jia Zhangke, who also serves as the film's producer) that she has broken up with her long time boyfriend. She tells him that she will visit to snowy Niigata, a prefecture in northern Japan, the setting for Snow Country, a classic modern Japanese literature by a famed writer Kawabata Yasunari. This is where Japanese people go to find a solace and tranquility. Qi's tall slender figure sticks out in the streets of Japan.

We are introduced to a magnificent view of the beautiful snow county, as the train takes her up north. Lin walks in the snowy streets, observes people in the streets, looking into the windows of shops, taking it all in.

Then we are in Mainland China. Lin has just moved to her new apartment in Beijing. She spends some time in her work - talking to colleagues and selecting slides for her next exhibition and such. She visits her elderly parents in the country. Her father's not doing well. The window from her parents’ house gives a view of a forest. She doesn't mention her breakup with her boyfriend when asked.

She travels to Hong Kong for her film, which is about a documentary on forests. She gives a talk afterword and makes a case for watching films in cinema vs gallery exhibitions. The impact is different, she says. While in Hong Kong, she stays with her friend who has a white husband and an adorable son. Their apartment with a rounding terrace again also offers spectacular view of lush mountains, spread out like a backs of green sea serpents in motion.

It's summer. She is back at her parents’ home. They take a stroll in a big park where she used to go as a child. The scenenery with the trees, lakes and bamboo forests are all very beautiful. They go down the memory lane, about Lin as a headstrong child, who'd defied her parents to go to the park at night in the rain and wonder around.

The Calming doesn't offer that much dialog. Lin is not very kin on showing much of her emotions either. Only one scene where we see Lin being emotional is her attending an opera. We see her in the audience, her eyes closed, tears streaming down her face. It is Handel's Alexander Balus. It's an aria where Cleopatra sings "Convey me to some peaceful shore" when she learned her husband and her father's death.

Taking place in different seasons and regions, shot by Lu Songye, the film is a lush cinematic experience. With Qi almost always in the frame looking afar in profile but never in close up, there's a constant visual dialog between our female protagonist and her surroundings.

The recent Harley Quinn film Birds of Prey was criticized for the actions of its female protagonist predicated on her breakup with her man in finding herself. I believe The Calming lends something bigger than man-woman tit-a-tat. It is rather, relieving of various pressures in life through constant movement. It's a very personal, semi-autobiographical film and doesn't hide that fact. As a quiet observational drama, it has a kinship with many HHH, Akerman, and Varda’s films. With The Calming, Song Fang emerges as a major female voice in filmmaking.

I am privileged to witness the rise of gentle cinema this year and couldn't be happier with masterpieces like Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, Bas Devos's Ghost Tropic and now, Song Fang's The Calming. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth!

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Fast Train to Hell

I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020) - Kaufman Ending Things The film starts out with Lucy/Lucia/Amy? (Jessie Buckly)'s narration. She's met her current boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons) about 6-7 weeks ago (she doesn't exactly remember when?), but she is already contemplating dumping him. She agreed to go on a road trip to his parents who live in a rural farm. It's a long ride during the snowstorm. Does Jake hear her thoughts? He looks over frequently and asks if she said something. She likes him. He is shy, quiet, introverted but intelligent. She needs that. And they have a lot in common. She is a physicist and a poet and a painter and a waitress who needs to get back to the city to take her shift after the dinner at the farm. They have a lot of things to talk about - poetry, films, Cassavettes, David Foster Wallace... 

The awkward meeting with the eccentric parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette) who seem to be growing old and young as the night progresses, lending more to Jake's inner life. It seems pretty clear that Lucy and Jake are the same person and Lucy, however three dimensional she is, is a fantasy character of Jake, who himself might or might not be an old janitor at a high school which he was once a student of. Lucy is smart, assertive in her thoughts, a multi-talented brainiac who is pretty enough but not pretty-pretty - those girls in his high school who shunned him and bullied him. With talking animated pigs, dance sequences and Oklahoma!, 

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is filled with idiosyncratic moments very much like Kaufman's other films. But they can't overcome the film's overwhelming sense of existential dread. Kaufman's neuroses are in full display from traumatized, friendless high school years, consuming books and movies and becoming a reference of a person. Even Lucy, however quirky dreamgirl she is, is just a composite of whatever he got from books and painting and movies. It's a pity that we only see Lucy in the confined space the whole time. I do like Jessie Buckly the actress a lot. But she has given very little to express herself, unlike, say Clamentine from Kaufman scripted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Jake is a frustrated, extremely insecure man. Even his fantasy is considering dumping him. He sees all the niceties and family life lies. As he accepts a Nobel Prize, and give a speech from some cheesy Hollywood movies and sing a song from Oklahoma! on stage in front of his family and friends who are wearing heavy makeup, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is not Fellini's 8 1/2. It's not celebration of life. Life is a fast train to hell. I mean heck.