Category Archives: 2011 Art House

A series examining the year 2011, the world over, in art filmmaking.

‘LOURDES’/ “UNCERTAIN CRAP” IN THE QUASI ART HOUSE

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“Miracles happen why play with if or if not. Why not have a movie that does not beat around the bush. Anyone can get healing at any time God wants and He does not jerk people around like secular writers of religious things who write about uncertain crap. He heals who He wants when He wants and it never hurts to ask. if He heals you you are healed – period. Also the half-assed level of faith displayed by many in this movie is frankly the most unreal part about it. The movie is just not how it is, which too bad because it would have been nice to see a more positive display of things. Basically the script is written by a struggling agnostic and represents the typical crap that wanders through their feeble non-commital minds. It is one of the Jesus got people to share the loaves and fishes rather than multiply types – crap. Miracles happen – the pretending what if or if not is literary crap not some dynamic cinematic twisty who can tell it is in the eye of the beholder thing. I can even tell you how the screen writer votes.” (sic) – Netflix User Review. 2 stars.

Some critics have noticed an increasing polarization in the cinema after the year 2000, with the art house becomes more “artsy” and the megaplex becoming more commercial. This is evidenced by the vigorous film culture alive online and at certain festivals, as well as the increasing laughability of any given year’s top ten (at the box office.)

If we take a year like 2011, which I have a noted admiration for, and look at the top ten grossing films, we get this:

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  3. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  4. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1
  5. Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol
  6. Kung Fu Panda 2
  7. Fast Five
  8. The Hangover Part II
  9. The Smurfs
  10. Cars 2

Well, fair enough with the top 5, I’d say. Hyper-visible, mega-budget franchise breadwinners. Crap, but tried and true and expected crap. Aside from the Tourette’s-like compulsion toward colons and sub-subtitles, nothing out of the ordinary. But what are we to make of the next 5 entries? Laughability turns to horror as we near Cars 2 and The Smurfs. (The latter enjoyed a 500% profit margin at the box office, virtually assuring a hundred years of Smurfs sequels and reboots.) What are we to make of this?

Business, as they say, is business.

And the deliverable product embedded in all of these movies is a kind of certainty. It’s a certainty that nothing will deviate from the sacred code of multiplex expectation. You can take your children and your grandma and no one will be in the least surprised by anything. The producers and directors and screenwriters are complicit, right down the line, and obediently oblige to undergo the transformation from artist to cog.

While the system that gives us The Smurfs 2 and eight Harry Potter films is practically predicated on its own eventual collapse (a blog post for another day) it remains muscular right now. The certainty it pedals seeps down into the farthest reaches of its mainstay audience’s subconscious (or barely conscious) expectations, creating a feedback loop in which the slave becomes the master becomes the slave. (Having formatively molded the wants of their audience, the studios are doing what they perceive their audience to demand of them, and experiencing (not-so) puzzling diminishing returns.)

But the proliferation of entries into the new canon of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema continues to demonstrate its potential for provocation.

When you look at a film by a contemplative director, there’s always a tendency to see their work at the art house as hanging in a naïve void. With art films becoming more durational, and requiring ever more intense commitment, patience, love, and attention, how frustrating it must be to mistakenly believe they exist as abstract or theoretical musings, off to the side of the arterial mainstream.

The truth is that the Cinema of Contemplation is a reaction against the certainty of the box office. Here, the currency is narrative ambiguity. This ambiguity seeds contemplation, because contemplation becomes the only way to derive meaning. The burden of creation is shared between artist and audience.

All that said, sometimes one who enjoys (apparently profoundly, even morally) the certainty sold by Hollywood stumbles across the Cinema of Contemplation. The wheels are greased for this accidental discovery, by online streaming. Netflix and Hulu Plus allowed the user above to stumble across Lourdes (2009.)

Now, Lourdes isn’t particularly demanding Contemplative Cinema. It’s got some of the tonal qualities, and has been clearly influenced by that tendency, but it’s hardly an exemplar. There’s a lot of great conventional drama, commentary, and some humor in Jessica Hausner’s film. The characters are expressive and a lot of the missing context is never called on, so you don’t really miss it. It’s quirkier than it is austere; sillier than it is theologically rigorous, or existentially morose… you get the point.

But often times we’re presented with visual truths that are difficult to explain, to understand, to reconcile. What kind of world is this movie happening in? It looks like a movie, it sounds like a movie, but occasionally it presents bits of evidence that contradict one another. Sometimes characters appear to have souls, concerns, doubts, and sometimes they experience profound difficulty communicating with one another. Sometimes what we see on screen is not clearly explained to us by the characters. One could almost say that Lourdes resembles real life…

But it does not resemble the world photographed (not even) in The Smurfs, nor the one in Harry Potter. For all their magic, you usually know just what’s going on in films like these.

My point is that it doesn’t take much ambiguity to provoke. If you read over the commenter’s problems with Lourdes again, you’ll notice that the hostility is almost always focused at the locus of ambiguity, at certain doubts about the way that the universe works, presumed to be complicit between artist and character.

-Max Berwald

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‘ELENA’/ IMPRESSIONS

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Elena‘s opening shot recalls Silent Light, with its real-time exploration of daybreak. In Elena we aren’t privileged with movement though. We sit still, among the branches of a wintry tree. However, Elena‘s opening does have an element of travel. There’s a slow rack-focus going on, creeping through the branches, so that over time, as more light filters into the world, we are forced to look deeper and deeper, through the branches. A crow eventually comes into sharp focus. This traveling may or may not be analogous to the tracking forward in Silent Light.

Either way, the world wakes up before Elena does.

“Shoot this film in black and white and cast Barbara Stanwyck as Elena, and you’d have a 1940s classic.” (Ebert) Well, not exactly. The tendency towards a Cinema of Contemplation has again changed everything. Here we monitor Elena’s waking with an objective stillness that recalls neorealism, while at the same time completely uprooting it. This is not dead time, but reclaimed time.

What we can say about the neorealism connection in Elena is that the camera’s voice seems forfeited. The aesthetic might be composed but it’s not really admirable, because it’s not mobilized to any particular end except “reporting.” It’s not crazy to ask for more from a film like Elena. It’s already got the Philip Glass score in there, driving at some sort of commentary. Especially given the first shot, there seems to be some sort of longing to communicate-via-camera.

But mostly we just get the variety of wide shots that leave details intentionally obscured, so that it takes some time to figure out who’s thinking what (facially.) And all of this without stretching into the kind of durational-endurance territory necessary for solid contemplation.

Although: as the film boils on, the cinematography does begin to communicate the sterile insulation of wealth. There’s melancholy to the blue grey cleanliness, the shine of everything in Elena’s husband’s home. Especially his car: a too-clean generic thing that successfully tucks its master away from the world, where he can switch manically between classical and bluesy-rock radio.

We can also see here a pleasant commitment (increasingly common) to selecting the focus of a sequence and holding that focus. You can see the tendency, and you want it to work, but there’s no commitment in Elena to this style of commitment. The trouble is this movie is never as radical as its, I’ll admit, difficult-to-pin-down posturing. (You do get the sense the film wants to be radical, although I’m not sure how. It might be Elena’s preoccupations with class that give the game away.)

It has to be said: the commitment to charting routine, and even, more trickily, filming extraordinary events methodically, bit by bit, as if they were a part of quite ordinary routines, begins to pay dividends right away.

The gym provides a place for Elena’s husband to engage artificial problems with simple solutions: the treadmill.

Another admirable thing about Elena:its great breadth. Hiking into the film’s world, you realize how constrained much of contemporary film is in its exploration of a few conventionally interesting cinematic spaces in the lives, or adventures, of its characters. The spaces explored in Elena are ordinary, but the filmmakers handle each with equal attention, so that we see the characters move through gymnasiums and churches and hospitals and homes in scenes that usually consist of normalcy, with a single signature twist of irony, or jolting comment. It’s an effective mechanism for reaching even a jaded viewer. We learn that we don’t know what’s going on. And when things are as complex as the real and ordinary world, they can take 110 minutes (easily) to understand.

The screenplay alternates between quiet mystery and fast-paced narrative gameplay. One fun example of the latter is a father daughter scene, in which a character is colored as suffering from a chronic inability to do anything but hungrily consume. “Drugs and alcohol only on the weekends,” she says, but we learn that she lives off the support of a hardly reluctant father whom she hates. She’s always seen hungrily smoking.

Troublingly, the quest for prettiness seems to have left the low-class, no-income household, well… easy on the eyes at best, and desirably cozy at worst. Since there’s a lot of thematic resonance riding on the contrast between high-income insulated living and low-class needy living, this is actually a big problem.

The film consistently devotes its attention to the coming and going of light, with entire sequences devoted to the switching on and switching off of indoor lights, and the shutting out or letting in of natural light. Curtains and fluorescents.

The low-income family the film tentatively works to build sympathy for, is interestingly unsympathetic. The potbellied dad (Elena’s son) walks about demanding beer and playing video games with his slacker son.

Finally, the most interesting thing about Elena might just be its strangely conservative politics, framing the low-income family as a bunch of moochers, sustained only by the willing violence of the titular character. Were it not for her risk, her amorality, and her charity, they might starve in their own laziness before, the film suggests, they would seek employment. If there’s an irony to this, a more nuanced statement about the paralyzed low-income strata of contemporary Moscow— it’s lost on me. Even the film’s final showpiece arrives as a scene from another film completely.

I didn’t understand this film.

-Max Berwald

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2011: GOOD OR GREAT YEAR FOR GLOBAL ART HOUSE?

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2011 was a great year for the cinema at large, but especially the art house. There’s been increasing complaint about the polarization of the cinema between the extremely commercial-commodity film and the extremely subsidized art house film (see Michel Ciment’s terrific SFIFF State of the Cinema address from 2003,) but so far, the polarity suits me fine.

For your consideration, 2011 gave to the international art house cinema:

Shame (McQueen) UK

The Skin I Live In (Almodovar) Spain

Certified Copy (Kiarostami) Iran/ Italy

Melancholia (Trier) Denmark/ US

Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt) US

The Future (July) US

Tabloid (Morris) US

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Ceylan) Turkey

Elena (Zvyagintsev) Russia

The Turin Horse (Tarr) Hungary

Miss Bala (Naranjo) Mexico

Hors Satan (Dumont) France

House of Pleasures (Bonello) France

The Tree Of Life (Malick) US

Long-takes, the continuing affectation of the Contemporary Cinema of Contemplation, were used to a variety of ends. Although, for most devastating, soul-rending long-takes, the award continues to go to Bela Tarr (this time for The Turin Horse,) they were also weaponized anew for some (somehow) Tarantino-esque existential banter in Ceylan’s incredible Once Upon A Time In Anatolia.

2011 also included new career highs for a number of prominent names/auteurs. Lars von Trier arguably doing his best work in years (and completely reclaiming science fiction as a genre) with the at once operatic, novel-esque and ceaselessly cinematic Melancholia.

The “thriller” got the art house treatment from Gerardo Naranjo, with his breakout political-adventure-suspense ride, Miss Bala (working overtime as a critique of body commerce and a send-up of girl-as-object psychology.) Miss Bala follows a would-be beauty-pageant entrant on a harrowing journey into the underbelly of a prominent drug cartel.

Almodovar and Kiarostami both delivered the perfect ratio of their usual preoccupations to the completely unexpected (The Skin I Live In, and Certified Copy respectively.) The latter: romance as narrative puzzle. The former: colorful saga of lust, revelation, punishment, and… art-design.

Miranda July outdid herself completely with the underrated The Future. The film merrily lampooned mumblecore self-indulgence by holding it tight, and mobilized that particular breed of hyperbolic narcissism to comment on a couple of tragic laptop-loners.

Shame was another home-run for Brit Steve McQueen: part soaringly lyrical take on hyper-modern malaise, part pitch-black character study of a handsome-urban-sex-addict.

Kelly Reichart continued to be the big-fat brain of the American indie scene. Meek’s Cutoff is a hugely effective as the most ascetic travelogue to ever be describable as “ very fun.” It’s also capable of making you very, very thirsty.

And of course, The Tree Of Life won the Palm d’Or. Terrance Malick’s long-awaited epic-of-epics offers the most expensive exploration of metaphysics in memory (although by no stretch the most interesting or the most fun.)

And that’s just the (glorious) tip of the iceberg!

With 2012 drawing to a close this month, we’ll be able to see how the years measure-up.

-Max Berwald

Others:

2011 was also the year of Drive, The Forgiveness of Blood, Contagion, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, A Dangerous Method, the ill-fated but storied Margaret, and the fucking The Color Wheel, all of which borrow (some) from the art house tradition.

And this is all on the European/North American front!

Unless I’m missing something huge, where were the Asian auteurs in 2011? I’m looking at you Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon-Ho (Korea,) Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang (Taiwan,) Wong Kar Wai (Hong Kong,) Shunji Iwai (Japan,) Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai (China,) Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand) to name a few!

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THE NEW ‘WEEKEND’

This is part of a series examining art house releases in 2011.

Watching Weekend is like watching a home run in slow motion. Andrew Haigh’s 2011 film, his second feature to-date, is a big muscular talky. It’s a simple premise played heartily: two very different gay men, very drawn to one another, talk, flirt, kiss and think over the course of a weekend- the same weekend they first meet.

I say that they’re very different from one another as as a form of endorsement. I shouldn’t have to say it, but LGBT individuals still live (on screen) in the purgatory of caricature. Gay men, while enjoying the most representation, still have a long way to go as far as representation. They can be this, or they can be that.

The shopping, fag-hags, lilting lisps: all absent here. Moving on:

The film pulls off the difficult trick of housing, within itself, the explicit discussion of ideas. These guys are liable to argue about representation while just hanging around the kitchen. If that sounds boring, it’s not. The trick is that you love Haigh’s twin protagonists immediately. And, as in life, they draw their beliefs about the way the world works (or should work) from very, very personal experiences. Learning about those is the whole journey of Weekend.

So much happens in this movie. In the discussion of ideas mentioned above, dialogue becomes action. The characters speak from their hearts (rooted in ways you’ll understand intuitively before you do concretely) and so force themselves into the world with words. They have presence, and take action, with what they choose to say.

The reason I get so excited about this: it’s the way actual, living-breathing, 21st century people take action in the world too. We talk to one-another. We’re talking to one-another, in fact, all the time.

I will say that there’s an uncomfortable struggle to wrap-up what is essentially a bottomless narrative with a neat, commercial bow. But you forgive the writer-director that. He’s got one foot in the uncannily real lives of his characters (the faux-documentary hand-held camera work seems to be the most shoed-in, insincere thing about this reality) and the other in the world of the cinematic romance. That he doesn’t topple into sentimentalism is so admirable that I’ll forgive him his urge to tie things up. It works in its own way.

As far as nestling the film into an increasingly global art house tradition: it’s not contemplative. Okay, it’s not usually contemplative (the scene of Russell at work– he’s a lifeguard at the local pool– is great, steady, and contemplative.) But it does slash bravely across traditions, offering a new way to be a movie. The slice-of-life has never yielded such a palatable mix of likability, contemporaneity, comment, argument, soul, realism, wit… I gush.

And anyway, if it isn’t a stylistic revolution, it’s a big meal. 

-Max Berwald

Weekend is streaming on Netflix.

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‘HOUSE OF PLEASURES’ 2/ NOTES ON SADE AND BIG CATS

This is part two of a two part series on ‘House of Pleasures’ (2011) by Bertrand Bonello. 

House of Pleasures also negotiates the morality of Sade.

Sade’s name comes up early: “My only books are Sade’s diaries, and the bible. And I haven’t read the bible,” says one prostitute.

To be coy about it, pain takes center stage only once, and stingingly. But the moment haunts the film as trauma.

Prostitution’s value comes from the individual’s transformation into pleasurable-object.

Pornography’s value comes from the individual’s image, and its transformation into pleasurable-object.

The prelude to the traumatic moment of pain includes a particularly Sade-ian yielding of power. A prostitute yields control, and allows herself to be tied up. She gives over her individual agency, in order to become an object.

Once an object, she no longer has the power to reject the agency of her customer. She has become a slave.

Then the customer takes pleasure in punishing her for her decision to become a pleasure-object.

But in Sade, there is no time for grieving; there is only the next pleasure, the next punishment.

In Bonello’s brothel, we dwell on the sufferer, as she travels back to the world transfigured, deformed.

She becomes an individual again soon enough, but her body has been damaged, and has become worthless in the economy of prostitution. Having been punished, she is no longer a suitable pleasure-object.

The film doubles back, and punishes the punisher. But the course of revenge is not as interesting as the poetry that here renders it.

One element of the brothel-as-fantasy-world: a panther, brought by one of the customers.

The panther haunts the film, waiting languidly on a sofa, watching impassively the alien world of people and pageantry and make-believe. This is nothing like the jungle, from which both man and panther, originally, spring.

I’m being broad because the film’s use of the panther is broad. It’s an apt symbol for the wilderness that pageantry (by which I mean both apparel and custom, neither necessarily period) can only attempt to cover.

The panther does not symbolize one act of punishment committed in one direction, but rather the beastly mode by which humans act when doors are closed and shades are drawn.

The physical House of Pleasures presents us with a paradox: an organized institution of commercial exchange, of extensive pageantry and custom, and a place designed to allow for man’s basest urges to be indulged, satisfied.

Bonello frames traditional period pageantry as being little more than the attempt to costume-away the selfish-pleasure drive that governs a lot of human behavior.

There are also women caught in the thick of this attempt at disguise.

And while they may attempt to find themselves in Sade (“…and I haven’t read the bible”) it’s not working.

It will never work, because their suffering is real. They see it in each other. In Sade, they are told their suffering is part of a natural flow, a currency of spectacle and consumption.

But Sade was writing pornography. A special kind of narrative pornography. A political pornography. Maybe even a moral pornography.

But the difference between the ideals of pornography and the realities of prostitution are so vast as to be intraversable.

Bonello’s work is presented as a missing link in this dialogue.

Bonello presents a moral depiction of prostitution, rendering the suffering, degradation, and danger of that trade. By rendering prostitution as prostitution, he offers to his characters an escape. They see in each other, maybe, what we see in the film.

Sade depicted one type of prostitution legendarily, as a myth, with only one character rendered morally (the pleasure-taker, the object-user, the rapist.)

Bonello renders the victims morally, thus offering some kind of balance.

And no such balance existed, at the time his film was set.

-Max Berwald

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‘HOUSE OF PLEASURES’ 1/ PAGEANTRY

This post is part one of a two part series on ‘House of Pleasures’ (2011) by Bertrand Bonello. 

Equally obsessed with the stripping away of pageantry, and with its authentic exhibition, Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures offers itself as a shining entry into the new international art house as well as a period gem. It’s not a puzzle film but a dream film, one that you can’t write-off on charges of austerity, stuffiness or thoughtless lyricism. Bonello’s camera endlessly circles, frames and reframes, the spaces in a turn of the century (1900) brothel in Paris. The girls who sell their bodies therein are an intensely insular family unit, and Bonello’s compassion for them is only tempered by his singular unwillingness to let them be defined by their suffering.

I could talk forever about the spaces in this film. We almost never leave the interior of the brothel. Twice, I think, and briefly. But the cameras approach to these very finite spaces are some balance between the repeating, and the infinitely new. We’re given a repeating track-forward, down a hallway, as a spatial backbone. There are also tableaux, each an attempt to capture the girls as a full-fledged unit, a living breathing creature somehow more than the sum of all its individuals. But on the whole…

…the movie favors closer and closer shooting. The last twenty-minutes offer up long sequences built on close-ups, faces turning in and out of mask, coming in and out of lush focus and golden light, each close-up becoming a world unto itself. Besides technical close-ups, I also mean close-ups defined oppositionally to shots that describe, reveal, or penetrate real/physical space. So, while there are plenty of drifting medium-shots and medium close-ups, they all act to obscure the space rather than reveal it. Put another way:

Bonello’s close-ups frequently obliterate the wider spaces that precede them, forging new squares of unapologetically digital shallow-focus where cotton and lace turn and touch flesh, humans flickering between character and texture, between furniture and the suffering soul’s we know them to be. Maybe this is a premonition of a “compassionate digital” gaze: one that will reveal to us the threat of its own neutrality, and then allow us to forget long enough to erect big and real characters, protrusions from the wasteland of cold (albeit only superficially) reality-recording.

Although I will say of this coldness: the turns of heads, in close-up, begin to remind us that this world, although it has been gobbled up by the past, was as real as any of ours.

Maybe less than other period films, this one really does seem to be about the past. That’s not to say that it doesn’t comment on the present, or carve out an awful lot of commentary on the present, but you can’t work so attentively to humanize the barely-free prostitute of Belle Epoque Paris without wallowing in the period a bit. There’s a present-ness to the past in this film that should be savored. Which brings us, again, back to the photography.

The film’s digital photography and digital aesthetics have not been lauded as a radical new way of “seeing” period action unfold, as was Michael Mann’s Public Enemies was in 2009. I think this is more because of the time elapsed than anything else. Then, digital was a radical choice that could be read as a comment on the material.

Now, it’s a more natural choice. I will say that the effect is similar. One reads, all of the sudden, the pageantry as a reality. The clothes that were once glowing under the fuzzy, broken-in nostalgia of 35mm, now are rendered sharply, crisply, freshly as clothes that, yes, may not have been that comfortable to wear.

Their (the costumes’) stripping-off (the “bodice ripping”) becomes itself a subject worthy of contemplation: people offering their bodies with such regularity that the erotic negotiation of pleasure is reduced inevitably to transaction. “Shall we have commerce?” is here an invitation to bed.

-Max Berwald

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