Tag Archives: contemporary cinema of contemplation

TRAVEL HIPSTERS IN PERIL/ ‘THE LONELIEST PLANET’

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Hard to write about a film I like so much as The Loneliest Planet, which finds Julia Loktev hiking the Georgian Caucuses with two of the best actors alive. Gael Garcia Bernal is certainly in love, or some modern equivalent, and his lover is experiencing some of the existential tremors associated with that condition. The trailer to this film left a lot of people leaning forward and still more begging quietly: wtf?

The Loneliest Planet absolutely refuses to disappoint.

What is becoming my most common complaint applies here: why the music? Loktev’s transcendent-ascetic-meditation on love and life and cold is so damn, well, meditative, that you hate to hear it ruined by self-important bursts of scoring. That they cut out in a way designed to draw attention to themselves works hard against every other strategy The Loneliest Planet is interested in (or capable of) deploying.

Some have criticized the film’s opening shot, which frames Hani Furstenberg (Yossi & Jagger anyone?) in agony or something-like-it, nude under a curtain of frigid water. How we know the water is frigid is either the great mystery of the magicofthecinema, artful color-timing, performance, or a cocktail (some would say a Lok-tail.) Whatever it is: it’s brilliant. The shot is actually typical of the Contemporary Cinema of Contemplation in that it tunes (hijacks) the viewer’s mind (and gut) to the frequency of the film. The quickest way to the viewer’s attention is the visceral. Once we (they) are looking very closely, quite unwillingly chained to the teeth-chattering cold-ness of a young girl’s morning ritual (actually, I hope not) then the narrative hits us behind like a train—a very slow train. Maybe it’s more like a glacier.

But no less forceful.

This film is extremely re-watchable. This film is the plaintive nightmare of the travel hipster. The reason people choose to backpack through remote wild (presumably) and not to ride tour buses around Trafalgar Square all day is that the real world still carries some allure. But they don’t call it that for nothing. The real world can occasionally puncture, subvert, destroy the conventions of the first world. Privilege, a few generations removed from the source of earned-wealth, can be a point of enormous weakness. And you don’t want to be reminded. You really– you just don’t. So toughen up you hipster pansies!

But really, the film is compassionate, and what’s better: far too smart to preach. Like the best of the CCC, The Loneliest Planet seems incapable of violating that deceptively old-fashioned platitude: show-don’t-tell. Rather than shout at you from a mountaintop, it whispers till you’re close, and then sticks its hands in your pockets. (I never said it was for the faint of heart.)

-Max Berwald

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SLEEPING WITH/THROUGH KIAROSTAMI/ ‘LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE’

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Hitchcock said something like: drama is life with the boring bits cut out.

If we’re to take him at his word, maybe we have less use for drama now than ever. Kiarostami is doing something different. I don’t think it’s radical to suppose there’s drama to what he does, but it’s surely life with the “boring bits” restored.

Kiarostami has talked openly about a cinema of naps (my own phrase,) suggesting that falling asleep during one of his films might add a level of experience. Tuning out becomes a radical type of “reading.” The work becomes a context to be lived and breathed inside, rather than a text to be read.

Such a philosophy is useful (at the very, very least) insofar as it gives us a context for understanding what’s so fun about a Kiarostami. Like Someone In Love may not be the director’s best, but it’s probably better than Certified Copy, a certifiably great movie that it seems decidedly in dialogue with. (They were both made in countries other than Iran, and address cultural differences only in the sense that they are there. The rest is about characters, some of their relationships colored somewhat mysteriously. Such relationships are distinct but comparable to those that David Denby described as “perversely ambiguous” in Certified Copy, if that helps you.)

Like Someone In Love is not so unfathomably opaque as some critics would have you believe. It only looks opaque when you try to read it out in Bazinian, Freudian, Kantian or Ebertian terms. Watching the film is not so much like staring at an opaque text as like putting on a prickly, woolen sweater. Maybe a family heirloom, but more likely an artifact from an old relationship.

The greatest gift the movie has to offer is its willingness to wander (unless someone really has broken down the mechanics of why everything-follows-everything in this odyssey.) We get really intimately acquainted with our small cast of characters, and we have plenty of time to see them being themselves.

That’s the medicinal quality of Like Someone In Love: there’s plenty of time. That restoration of time, the concession or discovery that the passage of time need not be feared—but that it can be savored—is something that is whispered to you, in the audience, until you resort to frantic texting or else leave the theater for Dead Man Drop. In a culture where “time is money” can, occasionally, be uttered without irony, there is perhaps nothing so unnerving as a film that suggests just being alive may be enough. That looking carefully at the things that surround us everyday might be worthwhile.

I think some have been reluctant to talk about Kiarostami in terms of a contemporary contemplative cinema because of his metaphysical/ surreal bent. But you find that in Weerasethakul-World as well. There is a way of being surreal, of leaving the world outside the theater outside the theater, and all the while keeping a firm grasp on the reflexive consciousness of the viewer. Kiarostami’s new film is uncanny in much the same way that Certified Copy was; you hold your breath at first, wondering what secrets are about to be explained to you, and all the while they explain themselves to your untrained ears. Whether you start feeling the film a fourth of the way through, halfway through, or in its final moments is not entirely up to you– but I believe it is partially up to you. Think of this like listening to narrative music.

If you’re looking for a thematic statement, you might look elsewhere. But for introspection, sally forth.

Kiarostami reminds us that in a culture sluggish with the weight of anti-realism, of pop-fantasy and dependably body/mind/soul-alienating commercialism, a film that grounds itself in the rhythm of real-life and real-unknowability, is radical.

-Max Berwald

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‘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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