27 octobre 2007

Two or Three Things I Know About Fontainhas: No Quarto da Vanda

Assorted thoughts on Pedro Costa's No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda's Room):

The similarities to Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her are striking.
Costa, like Godard, spends a lot of time observing the physical infrastructure of the place, not as an existent reality, but as a process, laying bare the essential components of construction/destruction involved in the realization of physical structure. In these films, we mainly see the machines involved in these processes, revealing their impersonal, structural basis (as in: the structures of capitalist development). The negative effects of this 'development' are explored in greater depth in Colossal Youth.

One interesting architectural component of the neighborhood was the mixing of public and private space. The ad-hoc construction of the neighborhood's buildings created porous boundaries between these spaces; Vanda's room is separated, in lieu of a fourth wall, only by a blanket. The result is a community connected by more than location or history, but also by the everpresent publicness of even private space. [This architectural structuring of community is lost by the demolition of the neighborhood and the residents' re-placement in public housing. One flaw of the bourgeois individualism enforced by the government's housing policy is the forced loss of this intimate sense of community.] The fluid lines between inside and outside are especially present in Costa's sound design, which is nowhere near as 'realist' as it seems; much of the construction noise heard offscreen was recorded separately and added after the fact (Note: I recollect Costa saying this, but don't have this in my notes. If you can confirm or deny, please weigh in. Update: see comments). Costa emphasizes the liminality of space in part through this sound design, which lacks the dialectical opposition of Godard's Two or Three Things in favor of creating a porous boundary between interior and exterior. Costa's construction and emphasis of this porosity focuses our attention on the Fontainhas community being lost by the 'upgrades' given to their physical environment. This community is rooted in their shared familial-historical-linguisticultural-socio-economic situation, but also in the solidarity created by the physical facts of their liminal situation.

Costa's interest in doors/rooms/liminal spaces is just one extension of his interest in the mixture of public and private space. Streets, per Costa, "can be more secretive than houses." The residents feel connected to their homes, to their space - a connection lost by the time of Colossal Youth. The neighborhood itself is like a secret world, harder to see than to look at. Costa approaches this world like a student, seeing oppositions - Vanda and the women in one world, the boys in another - that both insiders and outsiders would miss. As someone who has integrated himself into the community, but who can never fully lose his 'outsider' status for reasons of education, socioeconomics and profession, Costa is uniquely positioned to see both forest and trees.

Costa shot for 2 years and spent another year editing the footage to make the film. The story developed over the course of shooting, based on things that happened (Costa: "I dont have ideas for films"). Then a scene would be performed once, though the first take was always, according to Costa, bad. A week later they would shoot the same scene again, and it would be funny, interesting. Costa never wrote anything down; it was instead a mental editing process, an effort at improving what had been done before. One scene details the reactions of Vanda and another character to the death of Geny, who lived in the neighborhood. The first take, shot on the day of the event, was too emotional, full of too many tears. The scene was shot many times, once every week or so. The take used in the film was shot 6 months after the event. (The take used was emotionally understated, and Vanda was unhappy with it; she preferred the more emotional first take.)

Costa is allowed these liberties because he has integrated himself into the community. The neighborhood is, in a way, his office, where he goes every day to work. Costa told us about his dream of starting a TV station in the neighborhood, one that caters to and produces content from Fontainhas itself. But the neighborhood itself is moving toward the point when it no longer exists (the end result of the 'development' we see in No Quarto da Vanda is the transplantation and resettlement so central to Colossal Youth). Costa hopes to "test this impossibility" of continuing to work in the neighborhood: "the main work, I think, is still to be done there for me."

"Je ne sais pas d'autre bombe, qu'un livre."

"Je ne sais pas d'autre bombe, qu'un livre."
("I know of no bomb other than the book.")
- Stéphane Mallarmé

22 octobre 2007

Hannah Takes the Stairs

Hannah Takes the Stairs
is one of the finest American independent films I've seen. A perfect distillation of Mumblecore "realism" into actual realism by way of the presentation of people as they are, Hannah Takes the Stairs refuses to adopt the tics of adultescence as a raison d'etre, instead exploring a progression toward adulthood in which these tics are details on a larger canvas. Unlike the work of Bujalski thus far or Katz's Quiet City, Hannah takes place in a world that verges on the responsibilities of life begun in earnest. In their careers and their personal lives, these characters aim at something, even they fall short. Adulthood seems attainable, if we can just finish trying out the selves, jobs, and relationships that don't seem quite enough.

Joe Swanberg's camera is incredibly effective (if not formally rigorous). He occasionally zooms from 2-shot to closeup to extreme closeup, playing off of the performances and improvising along with his actors. The looseness of this style is a virtue, reflecting the 'playing it by ear' sensibilities of his not-quite-adult characters. Swanberg's shooting style and direction encourage a depth of performance by his (non-)actors that reaches a level of emotional authenticity rarely found in amateur acting. He's helped by a cast of filmmaker comrades and the luminous Greta Gerwig, who earns every frame of closeup she's given.

In his New York Times review, Matt Zoller Seitz called Hannah an "incidental swan song," a "graduation photo in motion" for the Mumblecore movement. It's at least partially true; unlike their predecessors, these characters seem to be taking the initiative in their own growing up. Where confusion and lack of direction were major themes of Mumblecore films (and defining traits for their characters), Hannah concerns itself with this as a jumping off point. It's episodic, three-part structure works as 3 (nontraditional) "acts": Mumblecore uncertainty, tentative commitment, and let's-see-how-this-goes near-maturity. Over the course of the film, Hannah sheds her adultescent insecurities and her own image of herself as a partially realized human being, becoming more confident in her own skin. Her final acceptance of human beings as works-in-progress seems beyond the grasp of previous Mumblecore characters; perhaps it's a signal that graduation is the beginning of the rest of your life.

19 octobre 2007

Don't Miss: El Verdugo

Luis Garcia Berlanga's El Verdugo screens at MoMA tomorrow (Sat Oct 20) at 7 PM and again on Thursday Nov 1 at 8 PM. This is a must-see.

El Verdugo is hilarious, politically important, and also tragic. It is Berlanga at his best, and should be on any short list of Spain's best films. Don't miss it.

Victor Erice calls it "Berlanga-Azcona's masterpiece" (thanks to Harry for mentioning that). Azcona is a screenwriter who worked extensively with Berlanga, and together they made a number of films that qualify as masterpieces. El Verdugo is tops on that list. Essential viewing.

16 octobre 2007

NYFF: The Man From London

Following the brief comments made by David Bordwell, I'd like to note some of the stylistic approaches that Tarr experiments with in The Man From London.

In Tarr's previous 3 films, the camera mostly has a viewpoint of it's own. It moves with often unmotivated zeal around its subjects, or trails them as they move. The duration of Tarr's shots heightens this sense of the camera's independent point of view, pulling us out of traditional methods of story-reception. Tarr's camera never hides behind montage to approximate psychological reality; instead, he approximates psychological reality through the act of seeing, and through this process identifies our consciousness as a viewer with the autonomous travels of his camera.

The Man From London finds Tarr's camera (literally) drifting closer to the realm of the subjective. While still autonomous, it resembles the viewpoints of his characters with a greater fidelity and frequency. There's also a greater commitment on Tarr's part to representing the mechanisms of observation, which also brings us closer to the subjective realm in that we approach information from the perspectives of the film's characters. [Here I point you to Bordwell's beautiful description of the first shot of the film, and his thoughts on the continuity of composition over Tarr's last 4 films.]

In spite of this more frequent near-subjectivity, moments of this film strengthen Tarr's use of the camera as a limited objective narrator. When Maloin walks to a hut late in the film, the camera follows him on the approach. After a lengthy traveling shot, the camera pauses as Maloin goes inside, leaving the viewer outside with no (literal or figurative) window inside the hut. The camera's trailing of Maloin seems to play by the rules of Tarr's previous work; by halting before the 'climax' to this journey, Tarr withholds information to amplify the narrative strategies (and mood) of the Noir genre he's drawing on.

Overall, though, I agree with Danny that Man From London is a minor film by a master filmmaker. At times the style felt too deliberate, as if Tarr were trying to make a "Bela Tarr film." On a formal level, his shifts in camera dynamics were not matched by the story, and elements of the film felt like self-pastiche (one comic dancing scene in particular reads as an artless ripoff of a beautiful scene from Sátántangó). Tarr may have stepped into a zone of self-conscious auteurism, but I've seen other great filmmakers fall into that trap and emerge with a better understanding of their own work. The visually stunning Man From London is by no means a failure, but from a titan such as Tarr it does come as a disappointment. I hope that Bela Tarr will soon return to the natural filmmaking grace so evident in his previous recent work.

04 octobre 2007

Important Books by People I Know

Jeanine Basinger's new book The Star Machine is being released later this month. It is likely to be essential for anyone interested in the mechanisms of the classical Hollywood star system.

That's certainly great news, but not quite as exciting as the fact that her Anthony Mann book is back in print as of November. As far as I can tell, it's the definitive Mann monograph, period. A welcome return for a terrific book on a true master.

In a more specialized aesthetic vein, Scott Higgins' book Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s will available Dec 1. For someone (like me) who is interested in the development of the use of color by Hollywood's top filmmakers, I can only imagine that this book is essential (I've studied many of the films in question with Scott, but have read only small bits of his writing on the subject).

Scott's next book will be Blood and Thunder: Form and History of the American Action Film, which I am looking forward to, but his next next book is the one I'm truly awaiting: "a book-length auteur centered study of "colorist" directors with chapters on Sirk, Minnelli, Jacques Demy, Yosujiro Ozu and Wong Kar Wai."

Finally, Lisa Dombrowski (whom I ran into at the Man from London screening this past weekend) is completing her Sam Fuller book as we speak (literally - she left me so she could work on the index). There's a surprising lack of good writing on Fuller, but I expect Lisa's book to help change that when it comes out in 2008. Unless the title has changed, it'll be called If You Die, I’ll Kill You! Samuel Fuller In and Out of the Studio System - which is both a quote from Steel Helmet, and quite possibly the best book title ever.

02 octobre 2007

NYFF: 'Preview'

A preview of posts in the works (New York Film Festival and otherwise):


The Man from London

Secret Sunshine*

Stellet Licht*

* pending my ability to get a ticket. If you've got one you can offer me - especially for Tuesday's show of Secret Sunshine - please let me know.
Update: Ticket concerns resolved for Secret Sunshine.

other posts in the pipeline:

No Quarto da Vanda

Where Does your Hidden Smile Lie

Hannah Takes the Stairs

Yugoslavian Black Wave:
The End of the World Is Coming

Yugoslavian Black Wave:
Early Works
Black Film

Honor de Cavalleria


The Birds

400 Blows

Antoine et Colette

I would love to be writing about more films, and to catch up on the backlog, but my current job is not writing about movies (If you've got one you can offer me - please let me know). Over the next few days I'm busy with Festival screenings, and then I'm off the San Francisco for a week. So blogging may be light here for a while, but I'll try to get my NYFF coverage up soon, at the very least. As for the rest, leave a comment if you'd like to see any particular posts first - I'll take your votes into consideration when I sit down to write.