International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)
Vol. 8 No. 37, November 2004
Martha P. Nochimson
New York Film Festival 2004
The New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center this year sported a particularly felicitous array of films. While the NYFF is always helpful in breaking down the barriers erected against international imports that are not considered commercial, the 2004 festival did more than permit contact with a wealth of international film cultures. The aggregate of a wide variety of films posed with particular force the primary question addressed by all film festivals: what can cinema do?
In the darkened Walter Reade and Alice Tully Hall theatres, this year's answer came back decidedly polyphonic. Spectators could move through the comparatively recognizable spaces of classical film narrative, as with _Vera Drake_ (Dir. Mike Leigh); _Moolaade_ (Dir. Ousmane Sembene), _The Big Red One_ (Dir. Samuel Fuller); and _Infernal Affairs_ (Dir. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak). Or careen around the boundless shifts of reality in the documentary and documentary-like _Notre Musique_ (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard); _Miles Electric_ (Dir. Murray Lerner), and _Tarnation_ (Dir. Jonathan Caouette). Or puzzle through the reflexive, surreal, mythological layers of _Macunaima_ (Dir. Joaquim Pedro de Andrade); _House of Flying Daggers_ (Dir. Zhang Yimou), _The World_ (Dir. Jia Zhang-Ke), and _Bad Education_ (Dir. Pedro Almadovar). Or witness the small, personal stories of fictional characters breasting the tides of flowing narrative and liquid camera technique and editing -- reminiscent of the French New Wave -- as in _Look at Me_ (Dir. Agnes Jaoui), _In the Battlefields_ (Dir. Danielle Arbid), and _Kings and Queen_ (Dir. Arnaud Desplechin). Additionally, there was the option of looking, with the advantage of hindsight, at the tight, manipulative structure of propaganda through the screening of a few of the films unearthed by a project on which much time and extraordinary scholarship had been lavished: the collection of 795 prints of the 250 films that had been made between 1948 and 1953 to 'sell' the United States and the world on The Marshall Plan. (Note that this report covers a generous sampling from the New York Film Festival, 2004 -- I regret not being able to discuss all of them.)
CLASSICAL NARRATIVE STRUCTURE?
NYFF 2004 reaffirmed that classical narrative structure -- a yarn with a beginning, middle, and end, energized by stakes -- is not what it used to be. Or, at least not necessarily. Though Hollywood and some 'independent filmmakers' keep pumping out the old formulas in flashy new bottles, Mike Leigh and Ousmane Sembene brought to the NYFF a pair of tales that remind us that something interesting happens to narrative form when it is driven by female desire. For that matter, Samuel Fuller and the team of Andrew Lau and Allan Mak in their respective films, resorted to altered forms of narrative in order to portray male desire with a difference.
Mike Leigh's _Vera Drake_, a domestic melodrama centered on a female protagonist, reflects his love of the working class, which is far more the central focus of this film than the sensational issue of abortion that has been marshaled as the film's selling point, yet which becomes almost a maguffin in Leigh's hands. Shifting back to 1950, Leigh is able to indulge that love in the tender light of memory; Vera (Imelda Staunton), her husband George (Richard Graham), and their children, daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) and son Sid (Daniel Mays), lead the kind of lives of unobtrusive decency that Leigh is unable to find in his films about contemporary family life. The obligatory narrative menace, at first, appears to be Vera's sister-in-law, Joyce (Heather Craney), a social climber with outsized pretensions and very little decency. Joyce, with her shopgirl sense of fashion and her consumerist yen for domestic machines, is the herald of the chaos of consumerist modern life that has been the milieu of Leigh's cinematic poems about the *fin de siecle* working class. But neatly coifed and made-up, Joyce is only a set-up for the legal menaces to come, as by the time she arrives the opening frames have already put the spectator through hoops that will lead him or her to abandon the priority on the pizzaz that has become obligatory in the protagonists of current commercial entertainment. In order that we be weaned from our usual habits of spectatorship, visual details of setting and costume are all-important in our first encounter with Vera's story. The mise-en-scene is claustrophobic, dark, and cramped, as Vera walks up a dimly lit narrow staircase, wearing the frumpish hat and coat of the post-World War II lower class housewife, her clean, scrubbed face set in an expression of unassuming steadiness. Oh, no, one thinks, are we going to have to spend the next couple of hours with this woman in this place?
Mike Leigh then begins his project of moving the spectator away from culturally inculcated prejudices against the working class and in favor of glamour toward an expansive sympathy for ordinary life. Vera looks precisely the prosaic mum who has become familiar within the last two decades as the butt of jokes in the manic world of Monty Python. When Vera first appears, even as we watch her unselfishly comforting a neighbor whose life has been decimated by poverty and disease, it is hard to see her without flashing on the impertinent humor the Monty Pythons endlessly made at the expense of the all too sturdy British stock, savaging them for their narrow literalism. This aura hangs over the film long enough to strand the spectator precariously on the verge of sadistic laughter, not only regarding Vera, but also her colorless but good husband, children, and the almost pathologically repressed Reg (Eddie Marsan), another neighbor who benefits from Vera's generosity. But Leigh averts disaster through his relentless and effective insistence on Vera's simple goodness. And then he tests us by forcing on us the discovery that this unassuming, indeed unimaginative woman, is an abortionist.
Leigh made clear in his press conference his contempt for a legal system that kept in place so long an unthinkably wrong-headed law that gave women no legal access to medically safe termination of unwanted pregnancies, but the film encourages us to think less about the gender politics than about how poor people cope with social obtuseness to their needs and realities. Abortion is the issue in question; but it could have been almost anything else. Vera is in no way an ideologue; she doesn't much concern herself with the right and wrong of the situation. In this universe abstraction is the province only of the wealthier classes, and they manipulate 'principles' to their advantage. They are shown to provide discreet, safe, and almost luxurious facilities for their daughters when abortion is desired and to judge harshly the poor who have the temerity to try to level the playing field in their own way. In contrast, the police, as decent working people, understand that they are not dealing with a criminal, but they too are trapped by the system. Like the spectator, they see that Vera instinctively empathizes with the suffering of women who are already crushed by their domestic duties. Never taking a penny in compensation, she gives to them with the same undramatic openness that she gives love to her family. By the time that she is called to account for herself after an unexpected problem arises with one of her patients, the film has already primed the audience to stop thinking in the large, operatic tones that often inform pronouncements about abortion. Instead the film encourages us to experience her arrest and conviction within the simple terms of her life: Vera's arrest and conviction neither rid the public of a dangerous felon nor impede the work of a saint or rebel. Nothing more or less momentous has occurred than that a wife and mother has been removed from her home.
Some may be tempted to assail _Vera Drake_ as an exercise in nostalgia that paints the good old days in over-sentimental terms, but if there is some ground for such an accusation -- the Drakes certainly bear no resemblance to the way such families were painted by the angry young dramatists of the 1950s -- Leigh saves the film by refusing the grand gesture at every point at which one might have occurred. He also blunts what sentimentality might have run rampant by opting for an indeterminate closure, at which point there are no messages. The final images leave us not with an abstract commentary on women's rights but with a very concrete embodiment of loss on the simplest level. Contrasting with the opening images in the film, our last sight is of Vera again walking up stairs, but now in the prison. She is at loose ends, lacking the focused and compassionate intentionality of our first glimpse of her. A juxtaposed final glimpse of Vera's family shows them at dinner, bereft and silent, a sharp contrast to the many previous scenes in which they have gathered at table in familial fellowship. Moreover, as we know through hindsight that the law remained in effect for seventeen more years, we are left to ponder what Vera will do when she has to face the girls and women still victimized by unwanted pregnancies after she gets out of jail. Vera appears to face the bleak choice between future incarceration or closing off her spontaneous sense of connectedness with other people.
If the conventional emphasis on dramatic plot points and intense closure has been deflated in _Vera Drake_ in order to accommodate its valorization of an unassuming female protagonist, something on the order of the opposite happens to the narrative structure of Ousmane Sembene's _Moolaade_, which, at least in superficial terms, puts forth its heroine through high drama, replete with brilliant color and huge gestures, in order to reach a rousing, victorious closure that bespeaks, in a thrilling voice, a very pointed message. _Moolaade_, which means protection, is about ritual female genital mutilation, a subject about which there is a paucity of films and no other fictional treatment that I know of. (There may be some, but if so the fact of the virtual obscurity in which they are shrouded is significant.) Therefore, unlike Leigh, Sembene is not working within a tradition that will produce audience expectations with and against which he can work, and there is a freshness to this film that is irresistible.
The story, which is simple, takes place within a social structure that will be unfamiliar to most of its audience. The film's locale is a Senegalese village within which polygamy is the rule, the wives bearing a specific relationship to each other dictated by a carefully articulated hierarchy. It is also a society that enfranchises and depends upon a female subclan, the members of which dress in distinctive ritual garb, who enable male tyranny over women by performing the rites of what the village calls 'the purification', that is, ritual female genital mutilation. Aside from this terrible tradition, however, the village is almost idyllic. Clean, prosperous, and beautiful, its architecture will remind Western spectators of that of the Spanish artist Gaudi. As such, it provides a contrast with so many cinematic African villages, portrayed as compromised and degraded by European imperialism.
Into this pretty setting, comes a peddler bringing wares and news from other places, at the same time that three little girls who are scheduled for 'the purification' run frantically to Mother Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the favorite wife of a prosperous merchant, to beg her for moolaade, protection. Mother Colle is chosen by the children because she has not allowed the village to 'cut' her daughter, who now uncertainly bears the stigma of being a Bilakoro woman, a woman 'unpurified'. The conflict in the film hinges on the fact that Colle actually has the power to protect the girls. Despite the obvious secondary status of women in this society, the village regards seriously the authority of a woman who invokes moolaade, which cannot be reversed except if she 'speaks the word'. Clearly this is not a word spoken lightly, and it is punctuated by a ritual physical barrier erected by Colle, the interwoven skeins of brightly colored threads which are wound across the entrance to the courtyard of her living quarters. Physically, the barrier is easily removed. But no one will do it. This would be a violation of tradition too egregious to contemplate. But the seriousness of Mother Colle's power places her in great danger, as by invoking moolaade she endangers the male power structure. Thus, extreme pressure is applied to Colle to 'speak the word'. Spectacles of brutality come into play, not only against Colle but in connection with the peddler, who knows too much of the outside world to identify with the village men. But there is also comedy in connection with the futile attempt to build an impermeable seal around the village in order to maintain the status quo: the spectacle of the men confiscating the women's radios is as absurd as it is repressive.
As with _Vera Drake_, the occasions are many on which Sembene could have fallen into a pit, in this case of dogma and propaganda. But Sembene rises above the pot-boiler trap by working through the peddler and Mother Colle to challenge the parochialism of the village. Primarily, beneath his brightly colored surfaces, he plays subtly with the invisible forces at work. Although the rituals are highly dramatic, we ultimately become aware of the barely seen traces of Colle's inner battles with herself about how to effect change within the parameters of her culture. Wordlessly, she deals with questions about whether she must defy not only the tradition of 'purification' but also the traditions governing 'moolaade' in order to bring into being a new way of looking at things. Colle's growing awareness of what she has to do to reverse the village's thinking about Bilakoro women takes place without explicit explanation, in contrast with the film's otherwise ostentatious narrative display. Thus the play between established social structures and new, potentially subversive thinking, exists both within the story and within the dialogue between audience and film -- an elating experience.
Something similar happens in _The Big Red One_, which features conventionally male centered action heroes within what seems a conventional narrative structure. (The title, which sounds phallic, and is, also refers to the literal red number one appliqued on the uniform of the battalion of soldiers in question.) First distributed in 1980 in badly truncated form, _The Big Red One_ was shown at this year's festival as it has been reconstructed by Richard Schickel and Brian Jamieson, who miraculously found a great many of the frames that had been excised for commercial distribution. In its current, hopefully pristine form, it is still a familiar looking narrative, but it is not just another celebration of our victory over the Nazis. Rather, it needs to be considered as a complex negotiation between the generic form of the Hollywood world War II picture and director Sam Fuller's reaction against the bizarre 'star wars' militarism of the Reagan years.
I will confess two things: I don't like war movies and generally avoid them; probably for that reason, I never saw the butchered version of this film. I do like this unusual war movie though, and the very reasons I like it lead me to speculate -- an admittedly dangerous game -- about what the audience saw in the release which was edited to force it into a more conventional genre mold. With these caveats, let me say that the part of the film that I imagine was emphasized in the studio cut, has all the makings of a 'boy's action film' that revels in the guts and glory version of war and soldiering. It's still all here, especially in Lee Marvin's great performance as the tough but tender, unstoppable Sergeant, who has the pro's attitude toward death in the trenches: it's awful but the fight must go on. But what's a father figure without some son figures? Sergeant has his four boys in this film, a group of naive kids who harden as they survive the most terrible situations together with him and share the collegiality of those breaks in the shooting when sharing women, wine, and song knit the brotherhood even closer together. Sergeant and the boys make it through Africa and Europe, avoiding the mines on the beach during the D-Day invasion, liberating a concentration camp, and dealing with a 'Nazi' sniper who is about eleven years old -- and they live to imagine a life back at home in the states. Hell, who would not like to have his or her life placed in the hands of an Emersonian hero who can tell the difference between a popgun and the crack of doom and knows enough to spank, not kill, a child holding a rifle who has been manipulated by an evil society. Go Americans!
That's what I imagine the audience saw in 1980. Those lucky enough to see this film in 2004 -- and I might mention that it is scheduled for a one week run at the Film Forum in New York City beginning November 12 -- will discover a much more complicated vision of men at war. Fuller clearly intended to make an anti-war film that would somehow pass as a conventional battlefield saga and thus be widely distributed. For he seeded his cut with unsettling subversions of the conventional genre. The reconstruction begins with a mesmerizing evocation of the insanity and spiritual degradation of war. Although the rest of the film was shot in color, the opening frames are in sepia tones and show the young Sergeant at the end of World War I, isolated on a barren plane marked by an insect ridden cross, shooting a German who walks at him with his hands up waving a white handkerchief and attempting to surrender because, as he says over and over, 'The war is over.' At this point a riderless horse appears from seemingly nowhere, digging hard for Sergeant, who only barely manages to escape alive after the horse uses his hooves to pulverizes Sergeant's gun and runs off. Unbeknownst to Sergeant, a German hiding behind the cross, poised to shoot Sergeant, also runs off. When Sergeant wanders into a nearby trench and learns from his Captain that the war is indeed over, he is devastated at having shot the unarmed man, but the Captain consoles him, saying, 'You didn't know.'
The turns and twists of spectatorial emotion in these opening frames are many. Sympathy for Sergeant, whom we don't yet know at all, keeps waxing and waning: we feel for him as the target of the hidden German, against him when he shoots a man waving a sign of surrender. The cross and the horse are ambiguous: is the cross a symbol of the bad faith that caused the war or the desecration of faith by the war -- or both? The maddened horse is both victim and victimizer. We do learn, however, as we are staggering from his murder of an unarmed man, that Sergeant has been witness to more than one charade by a German soldier trying to kill the Allied soldiers by pretending the war was over. Oh. Indeed, like Sergeant, we don't know either.
But for the rest of the film, when it jumps to World War II, we seem to know. We seem to be watching the same old story about the Americans and resistance fighters in Europe, who are the good guys against the Nazis are bad. That's it. We cheer the heroes, boo the villains. This is the 'Good War'. Except that there are odd places at which the mad horse who is both victim and victimizer seems to return in other, smaller forms. This is particularly true when Sergeant and his boys liberate the concentration camp. One of the soldiers, Griff (Mark Hamill) sees the corpses of the camp's inmates and seems to go crazy for a while. He discovers a German soldier hiding in one of the ovens and shoots him repeatedly, firing long after the soldier is clearly dead, stopping only when Sergeant restrains him with a typically laconic, 'I think you got him'. Sergeant himself goes a little nuts when he finds a starving child in the camp and carries him around on his shoulders for a half an hour, desperately trying to communicate with him and to give him food. 'Jew? Polish? German?' he asks the terrified, silent child, who only relaxes over a silently shared meal. Brilliantly, Fuller never lets us know who this child is. But Fuller's crowning achievement is the moment when most Hollywood films collapse heavily into cliche, the closure. At that moment, Sergeant finds himself on the same plain on which he began the film and again he shoots a German soldier who tells him the war is over, and again he discovers, this time from 'his boys' that the war is really over. But this time he is able, with the help of the four young soldiers, to prevent the German from dying. This moment is wrenched from the jaws of stereotype by our knowledge of previous scenes in which this wounded soldier has been revealed as an extremely treacherous figure who plans to surrender so that he can live to fight another day -- for Fascism. Humanism teeters on the brink of futility within the framework of war; has Sergeant, with a gesture of kindness, unknowingly destroyed the victory of the 'good' war? In a further turn of the knife, there is a suggestion that our American boys have come out of this war warped toward the Nazi attitude when Zeb (Robert Carradine), the young soldier who has had the voiceover during the World War II section of the film and who has plans to go back to the United States and write, delivers his final words on war: 'Survival in war is the only glory, if you know what I mean.' How far is this from the Nazi's plans to survive as part of his Fascist ideal? How much do these swaggering words chillingly dishonor those who died bravely or simply overwhelmed by evil in World War II? To what extent does this young man represent a terrible new turn in the American media (he has written pulp fiction and wants to write movies)?
Pushing the indeterminacy of heroic male striving even further, _Infernal Affairs 2_ , a Hong Kong entry, fuses a modern angst about the impossibility of a unified ego with the gangster thriller to achieve a complexity that drowns the convention of sharply defined good and evil within this genre. _Infernal Affairs 2_ is the second film of a trilogy, that traces the convoluted paths of two young men Lau (Edison Chen) and Yan (Shawn Yue) recruited as moles in the battles between Triad gangsters and the Hong Kong police. This film narrates the younger years of the men shown as adults in _Infernal Affairs 1_, the first film of the trilogy, in which Lau and Yan were played by Hong Kong superstars Andy Lau and Tony Leung, respectively. The plot concerns of the first film are familiar: it's a long police battle to break up the drug empire of a Triad gang. However, there is a twist. Both the police team chasing the Triad gang and the gang itself are infiltrated by moles. Lau, the brightest star on the police team, is a sleeper mole carefully placed in cadet school by Sam (Eric Tsang) the boss of the Triad gang in question. Similarly, Yan has been ostentationsly expelled from the same class in cadet school in order that he may insinuate himself into Sam's gang under the control of police Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), and Yan has fulfilled all Wong's expectations by becoming Sam's right hand man. The first film delineates spiritual chaos through mind bending action scenes in which cell phone and computer technologies permit the audience to experience the ambiguous positions of both moles as they simultaneously work efficiently with their supposed colleagues and against them. The exhaustion and confusion of Yan and Lau about who they are becomes the audience's as well.
_Infernal Affairs 2_ flashes back to the formative years of these moles and focuses on the power games played with young lives by those in charge of them. This second begins with a meeting in the police station between Superintendent Wong and Sam to form the segue for the audience from the first to the second film, in which the main roles will not be played by the stars from the first picture. It sets the tone for the film by emphasizing the humanity of the policeman and the gangster despite the polar oppositions of their cultural positions. In a long opening monologue, Wong tells a story of the first time, as a police rookie, he encountered death: that of his partner at the hands of a gangster who after a brief stint in jail went on to a life of affluence and crime. Wong is courting Sam for cooperation with the police by appealing to what he hopes is a basic human sense of decency. Sam is not entirely unmoved by Wong's story, but asserts a different point of view. He owes his life to the bosses of his Triad gang; his own sense of decency and loyalty forbid working with the police.
This opposition of decencies, common to Hong Kong gangster films, initiates the film's portrait of how hard it is to draw clean lines, even in matters of an undisputed crime like drug trafficking. The audience that has already seen _Infernal Affairs_ will know that both Sam and Wong died horribly in the first film. Thus, as part of a larger composition, the opening scene of the second film holds a subtext of pathos that will haunt the film, as the young Yan and Lau break their hearts dealing with their own feelings of loyalty and right and wrong. Similarly, all scenes featuring Yan, who becomes Sam's right hand man and is in line to become an undercover policeman in the position of Triad boss, are tinged by knowledge that he will die, as we have already seen in the first film. (We will not know until the third film the circumstances of Lau's death, but at that point ironies proliferate since both heroes die because they want to be 'good guys'.)
The three films cleave to Yan's life and his memory within Lau's life and memory. Although almost everyone in the trilogy is stradling numerous contradictory positions, Lau and Yan manage that balancing act with a particularly poignant complexity that sets off the unique purity of Superintendent Wong's moral leadership of the police and the cheerful, deadly, unalloyed pragmatism of Sam's gangster mentality. Ultimately, this film, and the other two of the trilogy, locate the system of justice and deviance within the boundless, timeless amorphousness of Buddhist Hell. As a post-script here let me add that while the better known Tony Leung and Andy Lau are deserving, Anthony Wong Chau Sang is the Hong Kong actor to watch. An artist of enormous power, range, and brilliance, whom I would compare to Kevin Spacey at the very top of his form, Wong is the Hong Kong megastar who most repays attentive consideration.
BOUNDLESS SHIFTS OF REALITY
Trouble with limits and slippage are also the turf, minus the tension with classical narrative, of the documentary-influenced films in this year's NYFF -- contributed by master filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, veteran documentarian Murray Lerner, and first time documentary filmmaker Jonathan Caouette. To give first consideration to the master, Godard's _Notre Musique_ ambiguously blends fiction and documentary, featuring Godard as himself within a fictional terrain that foregrounds, among many aleatory appearances of characters and symbolic presences, Sarah Adler (Judith Lerner), a young Israeli woman torn over the political situation in the Middle East. Godard's is a film that pushes forward the new wave in documentary which is currently hard at work rejecting old assumptions about unassailable facts that were once associated with the documentary form. If there are any lingering doubts, Godard pounds another nail into the coffin of the kind of documentary that meant pedestrian visualization of scripts resembling encyclopedia entries. _Notre Musique_ is an anti-war film full of Godard's raw yet excruciatingly beautiful anger with and despair about his desire to capture the world and its politics cinematically. Divided into three Dantesque sections -- Earth, Purgatory, and Paradise, in which Earth stands for Hell, and Paradise is guarded by American soldiers -- Godard's film begins with the Earth segment that is a non-linear montage of war, Hell on Earth. The images in the Earth segment are difficult to read, badly framed from a conventional point of view, a melange of scenes from a motley assortment of times and locations set to dissonant music. Images of American Indians thread the war scenes enigmatically. Eisenstein's fictional battle scenes contrast in their clarity with the swirling ill-defined real world images of war. Purgatory features a film conference in Romania attended by Sarah and Godard among many others, which considers the sad state of modernity, though Godard's opinion of academia is sufficiently clear from his juxtaposition of the scholars with fantasy images of books as library resources in a bleak empty room. Added to this are the American Indians who appear incongruously near the books, suggesting the purity of the land as text associated with Indian culture. The conference itself is a series of endless, sometimes eloquent, but often pointless conversations by the film scholars. Paradise, a verdant quiet wilderness, can be inferred to be a vision of Sarah after her suicide.
The emotional wallop of Godard's latest masterpiece, one of the NYFF entries that should not be missed, requires first hand spectatorial presence. However, there is a moment that distills the oxymoronic contrasts and juxtapositions of the film. In the Purgatory segment, during a meeting of young people and teachers, Godard's face is held in tightly framed close-up as an off-screen young feminine voice asks him if the 'new, little digital cameras' will be the salvation of cinema. The mixture of mute contempt, rage, and despair that convulses his expression is both riotously funny and deeply tragic, an arguable summation of the film itself.
_Miles Electric_ is a concert film that attempts to speak appropriately of the master jazz artist of the inconclusive: Miles Davis. The film is full of brilliant color, made possible by high definition stock originally on digi-beta, and it is rhythmically edited for maximum effect. The central focus is a concert Davis gave at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. We see the concert in segments, and around those segments swirl archival footage of Davis in performances, as well as in interviews with critics and fellow musicians. The film is a poem to the aleatory, climaxing when it permits us to witness 38 minutes of uninterrupted playing at the Isle of Wight. When Davis concludes his all-out performance, he simply drifts off the stage, packing up his gear much like a bus driver who has completed his route, while the other members of his ensemble finishes their riffs, each one wandering off with no fanfare when his conclusion is reached. The screaming audience gets no more than a glimpse of Davis, tentatively saluting them with a whisper of a gesture as he moves the fingers of one hand in recognition of their applause.
The interviews speak to the question of performance, each of the musicians -- a list that includes Carlos Santana, Dave Holland, Jack de Johnette, Chick Corea, and Joni Mitchell -- struggling with the limits of the English language in trying to express what their time with Miles Davis developing new music was about. Energy is privileged over technique, though brilliant technique is clearly on display. Being willing to plunge into the moment within performance, which is spoken of as 'being ignorant of what comes next', is privileged over preset format. There is talk about Davis's openness to being influenced by Betty Mabry, who became Davis's wife, and about his willingness to move into performance with electric guitar when that form of instrument was considered a vulgar part of disposable music. People flash by, but the music endures as the most tangible statement possible. Miles ultimately is color and sound; we must dig into them as a presence, while words convulsively seek to catch their breath in a vain effort to keep up with non-verbal cinematic expression.
_Tarnation_ reaches another limit where established structures crash and burn. Unlike _Miles Electric_, which is a meticulously crafted, beautiful film, but like _Notre Music_, it often contains bad images lacking definition and any recognizable frame composition as it recreates a life in ruins. This is technically a biopic, the story of filmmaker Jonathan Caouette and his mother Renee Davis. But unlike studio products, this biography, composed using Apple's iMovie software, reaches none of the preternatural clarity of the bio-pic genre, but rather, through discontinuity and fragmentation, immerses the spectator in Caouette's feeling of being overwhelmed by time and circumstances. Most biopics illustrate some kind of triumph over adversity, a drive toward the success that is mythologically within the grasp of every American; _Tarnation_ deconstructs that convention as early triumph drives Caouette's mother into dissociation and then madness, dragging her son into her vortex. His film is the record of his fierce resistence to the wake of her sinking ship.
The film, despite its frantic leaps in time and space, has a temporal shape. It begins with Renee's most recent meltdown and lurches backward in time to the beginning of her downward spiral, continuing from there to chronicle how she arrived at the point at which the film begins and what all this mean for her son. Resembling _Capturing the Friedmans_ in its composition, much of the film is constructed of the fragments of home movies that Caouette obsessively made as he grew up, clearly as his only bulwark against the insanity of his early life. Between his voiceover and the fragments of home movies sometimes altered by CGI, we glean a story that inverts the narrative of the American dream. Renee, a young beauty queen, daughter of a Jewish family living in Texas, staggers under the pressures of the exploitative life of the beauty pageant circuit. Her parents, a terrifying parody of the American mantra that you can be whatever you want to be, live on what I can only call Planet Bush, that Texas blend of macho posturing and ignorance of reality that renders its inhabitants puppets that lack even the stability of strings. Renee marries in a hurry, becomes pregnant, is abandoned by a husband who doesn't know of the child, and is remanded to the 'untender' mercies of the healthcare system, which drives her from anxiety and neurosis into insanity, by prescribing medicines and shock treatments that only exacerbate her condition. Meanwhile, Jonathan is farmed out to foster care where he is predictably abused and then 'rescued', only to live with his utterly disoriented grandparents.
Jonathan's home movies document his attempt to form an identity by roleplaying for the camera; he chooses to represent himself in all cases as an abused, hysterical woman. We see how leaving Texas gave him the opportunity to explore his gay identity, minus the lurid posturing that life in the margins chez his grandparents included, to form an affectionate relationship with a partner, to re-establish a much more loving relationship with his mother, and even to find his missing father. But even the good part of his life explodes before us as manically as the image of Caouette's early life, including some comparatively new film of his mother in which he holds the camera on her, as she babbles a spontaneous monologue, past the endurance of the audience to stand the nakedness of her radically regressive solipsism. Some will certainly find this cruel; but arguably Caouette's insistent use of the camera gaze on such a defenseless woman is a form of defiance of cultural norms. His refusal to turn away from her as she is seems to be both a commitment to accepting the love he feels for her and a demand that we too not avert our eyes, labeling her dismissively as abnormal. Perhaps so, but if Caouette has thereby wrenched victory from the jaws of defeat, the center cannot hold, even in what might be called success. Caouette's life wobbles from the first frames to the last on the shifting sands of moment to moment crisis. As an epilogue, the filmmaker was unable to be present for the press conference for _Tarnation_ because of some unspecified family crisis.
REFLEXIVE, SURREAL, MYTHOLOGICAL LAYERS
The thinning of linear time within numerous entries in NYFF 2004 is but one of the cutting edge issues reflected in another group of entries, those that are characterized by the way they play reflexively with surrealism and mythology. For example, there is the 1969 film _Macunaima_, directed by Joaquim De Andrade, a Brazilian director unfortunately unknown outside his country except by aficionados. Wildly popular when it was first released in Brazil, this is an extraordinary film with much to teach even the bravest of the current filmmakers about pushing the envelope. To sum the situation up bluntly, _Macunaima_ is a surreal comedy about cannibalism; but please do not skip down to the next film. This may be my festival favorite.
_Macunaima_ is based on a 1928 experimental novel of the same name, written by Mario De Andrade. The film, prodigious in its modernism, nevertheless reflects a humor reminiscent of the grotesque satires of Rabelais, Voltaire, and Swift as well that of the New Brazilian Cinema of the 1960s in its blend of folklore, radical politics, and the absurd. Many of the fantastic character inventions also remind me of Jean-Luc Godard's _Weekend_. Macunaima is the name of the hero of this tale of a mad society in which the rich are out to devour anything and anyone they can. (Does this sort of cultural milieu sound familiar to anyone?) The film begins with a jolt and never lets up. The first thing we see is a red screen and the first sound we hear is a blood curdling scream. The scream emanates from what is clearly a man dressed as an Indian woman giving birth, and what drops from between his/her legs is clearly a corpulent adult well into his thirties; he is black not Indian (Grande Otelo) and he is certainly not a baby. The 'mother' hates her 'baby' and intentionally gives him an unlucky name. Macunaima's 'birth' immediately turns the family upside down, as a result of his very unbabylike lechery. To increase her pleasure with Macunaima, his sister-in-law Sofara (Joanna Fomm), a witch, turns him from a black man to a white man (Paulo Jose), who is considered infinitely handsomer than his original black incarnation: actually they are each costumed like clowns and made up to look grotesque.
As Macunaima makes his way in this episodic film, he finds and loses love and comrades and continually bumps into convoluted methods by means of which the greedy devour people. Although the film opens in the jungle, the impassable chasm between nature and human beings soon becomes evident. Whether in a verdant setting or in the city to which Macuaima eventually travels, everything is constructed: racial identity, sexual identity, maternity, family, power hierarchies, art, and architecture. There is a whiff of something more grounded in some of Macunaima's relationships with people who do not want him for their lunch, but these relationships cannot stand the centrifugal pressures of cultural realities and come and go with frightening rapidity. When Macunaima returns to the jungle at the end of the film, although he has evaded all human interest in ingesting him, we receive a final shock: the cannibalism of human beings is an outgrowth of the natural world. After all, not everything is constructed. In the verdant paradise, Macunaima succumbs to a gorgeous spirit of the wilderness who entices him into the water from which he never returns. Despite the bleak, nihilistic hard core of this film, the images and conceits are so fresh, vivid, and full of life, that somehow this worst case scenario is transformed into a joyous assertion of all that is best in the human imagination.
A plentitude of invention is also the hallmark of Zhang Yimou's _The House of Flying Daggers_, but for highly romantic purposes. Yimou, like many other Asian filmmakers with an eye on an international market, plays with genre conventions reminiscent of those at the core of the Hollywood production; but always with a freedom uncommon in the United States. _The House of Flying Daggers_ is an action film, but it is also a cinematic poem. It begins with a theme common to Chinese kung fu films, the battle between police and secret societies in long ago China. But the mission of two fighters of the Imperial Guard, Tang (Andy Lau) and Leo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to subvert and destroy The House of Flying Daggers, a secret society that works in opposition to the corrupt Tang Dynasty, is soon revealed as a tissue of illusion in a world in which no one is what he or she seems. As the layers are peeled away, the film also turns on its axis to become a love story in which politics becomes all but irrelevant.
Originally, Tang and Leo seem bound and determined to succeed in their mission for the greater glory of their own careers, but one of them is actually a mole for the House of Flying Daggers -- I will leave you that discovery to make for yourself. And in the Peony Pavillion, a brothel of thrilling beauty and charm, to which Leo is sent in disguise to gain information for the Imperial guard about The House of Flying Daggers, unsuspected secrets lurk behind some of the beautiful and willing faces, among them the beautiful and lithe Mei (Ziyi Zhang) and the affable and conciliatory madam (Song Dandan), seemingly there only to give pleasure to paying customers. As Leo and Tang make their separate discoveries about the women and about each other, quests for military glory and political justice give way to obsession with erotic passion. This film tells us that on the most basic level, the quarrels we pick with each other have little to do with the apparent cultural reasons that seem to inform conflict.
Some cinephiles and cineastes (did _Film-Philosophy_ ever resolve *that* dispute?) will resist a film that at first appears to present human life as a Russian doll of concentric constructions, each one revealing another construction within it, but at last finds not a void at the heart of cultural posturing but an abundance of passion that renders all political struggle a displacement for the personal desires that really concern us. However, a great many viewers of all socio-cultural stances will be ravished by the beauty of this film, which thrillingly plays with the sensual aspects of color and sound so that, time and again, they almost relegate story to limbo. Frames designed around blues are succeeded by frames designed around greens. CGI is used to stimulate audience sensitivity to sound, most spectacularly in the Echo Game in the Peony Pavillion at the beginning of the film when Tang seems to be testing Mei to determine whether her arrest would further his political aims. Typically in this film, and unlike most Hollywood inspired use of special effects, the Echo Game is a breathtaking example of what CGI can do when it is subordinated to artistic goals rather than running off with the film as a demonstration of its own virtuosity. Ironically, however, the most spectacular transformative effect of all in the film only looks like an application of CGI, a tantalizingly strange case of life imitating art. The final, extremely bloody, conflict among Mei, Leo, and Tang takes place in a breathtakingly tinted autumnal landscape which suddenly frosts over with winter snow as they fight, piling them, with uncannily metaphoric impact, deeper and deeper into the white drifts as death overtakes them. Yet this seemingly impossible transition was a natural event. The on-location shoot was confounded by an unexpected snowfall in the middle of the choreography of the final battle. Yimou's appalled frustration turned to delight when he saw a rough cut of the magic that was a present to him from nature, the equal of anything he could create technologically.
In contrast, the constructed aspects of culture consistently dominate _The World_, another Chinese entry that examines modern mythos from within the hollow fabrications of a theme park in China that produces a simulation of traveling from country to country for spectators who in reality go nowhere at all. For those who, like me, have never heard of it, The World is an actual theme park in China, which eerily replicates Hollywood's iconography of international culture. Being in France, then, is equated with seeing the Eiffel Tower; in India with seeing the Taj Mahal; in New York with a skyline of skyscrapers; England with Big Ben. Jia Jhang-ke's film, embodied in both live action and animated sequences, casts an ironic eye on the lives of several young Chinese men and women from the provinces who have seemingly fulfilled their dreams by coming to work at The World. What is revealed about them indicates that they are infantilized or disoriented by the modern state of affairs that the theme park represents.
The main character is Tao (Zhao Tao), the equivalent of a Las Vegas showgirl in the musical extravaganzas of all nations performed many times daily at The World. Tao's words open and close the film, and the distance she has traveled from her first, screeching appearance onscreen to her last softly phrased whisper measures what development the movie deems possible within the shallow fantasy that is life in modern day China. Tao opens _ The World_ barnstorming through the dressing rooms just before a performance, mouth open wide and bawling in infantile tones for a bandaid. The disparity between her beauty and her repetitive, high pitched cries -- a repetition which verges on the pathology of perseveration -- prefigures the structure of the film, in which an attractive group of people behave like children, with distinctly foreshortened attention spans.
Further delineating the dystopian aspects of The World, is the discrepancy between the private rooms for the performers and the public display areas. Backstage, the performers drift through poorly lit, grungy halls, and live in rooms that are monastic in their lack of amenities, and Spartan in their colorless, functional furniture. In their private lives, the characters wear adolescent play clothes, much like the denim-tee-shirt-sneaker-wear that has invaded the wardrobes of adults in Europe and the United States. But in their professional lives, they sport snazzy uniforms and glittering, jewel tone glamour outfits as they step in pre-designed patterns through brilliantly lit, sleek, and/or vividly colored public spaces. Their banal conversations on cell phones morph into colorful animated fantasies in their deprived imaginations.
As the relationships of Tao and her friends slip, slide, and refuse to stay in place, some may find the film in need of cutting to forestall the drifting of the audience along with that of the characters. But other spectators will see in Jian Zhan-ke's decision a necessary immersion of the audience in the nebulous state of torpor that defines the characters' lives. Unlike many films depicting modern life as a series of dissociated, abortive attempts at meaning, this film does not end with a whimper, but with an actual bang, the explosion of a defective gas heater in the Tao's drab apartment which may or may not have killed Tao and her on and off boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Tai-sheng). The ambiguity of these final moments is emphatically represented in a cut from a penultimate scene of neighbors murmuring inconclusive, sorrowful comments about the explosion, to a final black screen over which we hear Tao's voiceover whisper to Taisheng that the two of them have not come to an end but to a beginning. Clearly something has come to a head, but it is visually unrepresentable so it is not clear whether _The World_ has arrived at a place at which it can begin to conceive of a life that has room for what supecedes cliched iconography, or whether that must wait for the afterlife.
The freedom and freshness of _The House of Flying Daggers_ and _The World_ outstrip the much touted, overheated new film by Pedro Almadovar, _Bad Education_, which was featured at the Festival, and celebrated at a special night dedicated to Mr Almadovar. Despite its beautiful cinematography and frame compositions, and its sexy, bravura performances, _Bad Education_ suffers from a superficiality that may stem from its director's propensity to overthink his work. Not only does he manage the details of his film with a firm hand, but he also rushes to control its interpretation, as is obvious in the monograph length, detailed notes he made available to the press, and his unceremonious, albeit charming interruption of his stars at their press conference. Almodovar's authoritarianism may be explained in this case not only by narcissism, but also by the extra personal charge in this film which has some roots in his personal experience of the abuses he and other children suffered at the hands of the priests who taught them.
_Bad Education_, a film virtually devoid of women, even in comas, begins as if it had been plotted by an NYU film student making the obligatory self-referential movie about making movies. An actor, Ignacio Rodriguez (Gael Garcia Bernal), shows up at the office of Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez) a rising, young director. Ignacio is a friend from the old days, who wants a part in his old friend's next film. The room is full of homo-erotic energy, as the director's assistant seethes with jealousy at the entrance of this young, sexy hopeful. But the original premise soon becomes a reflexive hall of mirrors full of portentous interior narratives woven by the characters. Not only does 'Ignacio' complicate things by insisting that he be called Angel, his stage name, but we find out as time goes by that he isn't Ignacio. In the first scene, Enrique is on to something when he expresses amazement about how his old friend has changed. The real Ignacio (Francisco Boire) shows up later. So the newly celebrated Gael Garcia Bernal is actually playing a person who calls himself Ignacio and Angel in the first scene of the movie but who really he is Juan, Ignacio's little brother, now grown up. Stay with me.
Interior narratives within the larger narrative frame run rife, as Enrique reads a script handed to him in that opening scene by Juan, pretending to be Ignacio, though he demands to be called Angel. The script is visually embodied in part onscreen so the audience can see what Enrique is reading. This prompts his memories of the 'real' Ignacio and the time when they were children together getting a very bad education from Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho) at a boarding school. These memories are visualized for us too. The interior narratives of script and memories are equally informed by Father Manolo's passion for Ignacio and his self-intrerested interference in the burgeoning love between the very young Enrique and Ignacio. But the script within the script also interpellates into its fictionalization of history a fantasy character entirely created by Juan/Angel. The filmscript version of Ignacio works as a female impersonator who has created for his act a smoky, blonde bombshell persona named Zahara. Zahara appears in Almadovar's film, portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal in drag, in both the embodied realization for the audience of the script, and the film Enrique finally shoots based on the script. (The real Ignacio has indeed grown up to impersonate women onstage, but he is not nearly so ravishing.) As the past returns in memory and on celluloid, fantasies of murder arise from the angers generated by the past. In juxtaposition, the present day narrative follows Enrique's wavering affair with Juan/Angel which lurches toward plans for a real murder.
Ultimately, Father Manolo emerges out of the mists of time and memoir/fantasy in the 'real' present time of Juan/Angel, Enrique, and the 'real' Ignacio. Like everyone else, he now has an alternate identity: priest no more, he has metamorphosed into a married, but still homoerotically obsessed businessman who has renamed himself Berenguer and is played by a different actor, Luis Homar. Berenguer becomes the catalyst for an actual homicide and the resolution, such as it is, of the many colliding passions. (Perhaps it is the Manolo/Berenguer part of Almadovar that prompted him to resolve an issue about which none of the assembled press had inquired: even if there is an autobiographical edge to this film, he told us, he does not, like Enrique Goded, sleep with his actors.)
I hope it is now clear, even though you do not know who gets killed, that _Bad Education_ uses multiple layers of reality and fantasy, to weave one more Almadovar story about time, memory, sexual freedom, creativity, and religious repression. What remains to be seen is whether audiences will care. The intricate, lapidary crafting of this manifold reality left me cold and uninterested in the lives I observed; though I was fascinated by the artistry.
SMALL PERSONAL STORIES
_Look at Me_, _In the Battlefields_, and _Kings and Queen_ all deal in the undercurrents of ordinary life, employing the personal camera and editing styles emphasized by the French New Wave. In the spirit of the New Wave, these films employ a free use of the cinema echoed in their narrative concerns about freedom, emphasizing the point of view of protagonists who are constrained by cultural forces. _Look at Me_ was the film chosen to be shown at the opening night of the public screenings of the NYFF. One of four feature length features directed by women accepted by NYFF 2004, Agnes Jaoui's film focuses on Lolita Cassard (Marilou Berry), the twenty-something daughter of Etienne Cassard (Jean Pierre Bacri) -- a tyrannical, celebrated writer, and a number of his other acquaintances and intimates, who struggle to breathe in his oppressive presence. The film begins with an emphasis on the literal breath: Lolita, an aspiring singer, preparing for a concert is being instructed in the opening frames to breathe by her singing teacher, Sylvia (Agnes Jaoui). In good New Wave style, we have no idea who any of these characters are and continue for some time to ponder their identities as Lolita is bullied by a cab driver when she frantically rushes to arrive at an awards ceremony, where she is unceremoniously barred from entering by the guardians of the door. She covers with her coat a man completely unknown to her who has collapsed in the street outside this congregation of the famous, and leaves it there with him distractedly, as someone with influence finally arrives to shepherd her into the festivities of the cultural inner circle.
As we discover that it is her father who is receiving an award, we make other discoveries as well. Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), a lovely blonde woman slightly older than Lolita, is Etienne's lover not his daughter's friend, as it first appears. Etienne is able to subjugate the impertinent cab driver with a few well placed words, where Lolita was completely overwhelmed. And, most important of all, we are introduced to the main issues of the film: Lolita, a round, substantially built young woman with dark hair and Mediterranean features, is not only ignored by the culture in favor of slender, nordic, flaxen-haired sylphs, but also by her own father and her purported boyfriend. Even her singing teacher is not nearly as interested in her for herself as she is when she discovers Lolita is the daughter of the eminent Etienne Cassard.
The film meanders in and out of interesting locations as we watch Lolita's travails and disappointments echoed and refracted by the problems of others with Etienne. Admirably, Jaoui, with the help of a script delicately crafted by Jean Pierre Bacri, finds the dark and the light in all her characters. There are no deep dyed villains and no saints. Even Etienne has a charm and penetrating insight that leavens his autocratic narcissism. There are also no triumphal victories, but rather the small shifts in attitude and situation that taste of the real. The climax of the film is reached during a weekend in the country at Cassard's country estate, which permits Jaoui to use that convention imaginatively. During the course of the weekend, Lolita begins to separate herself from her father, to understand that his inability to give her his approval is his problem. She is helped in this move toward liberation by a new friend: the young man to whom she absentmindedly gave her coat at the beginning of the film has pursued her, in friendship, to her father's estate. She has, of course, written off his growing attraction to her, in the way that women who internalize social prejudices against their appearance will do, preferring at first to make herself miserable over a boyfriend who has rejected her in favor of a girl with the prescribed measurements and features. But as the film closes, Lolita finds the confidence to accept his affection and to value this possible new love affair. Sylvia, the singing teacher, disengages a little from the cult of celebrity when, exasperated with Etienne's cold dismissal of his daughter, she hits upon a delightfully bold stratagem, which I will leave for you to discover. Simple and spontaneous, it ensures that, if Etienne will not look at his daughter, he will for at least a few minutes be forced to pay heed to the talents of his embattled, emphatically non-nymphette, Lolita.
Not surprisingly, a daughter is also at the center of Danielle Arbid's _In The Battlefields_ (the situation of the daughter is an important subject for women). At the same time, Arbid is also interested in class and world politics, for the battlefield of a family in which Lina (Marianne Feghali), a 12 year old girl born into a middle-class Lebanese family, finds herself, is framed by a battle raging around them in the streets. The time is 1983; the place is Lebanon, torn by civil war. Brutal soldiers patrol the streets with little concern for civil liberties. To some extent they replicate on a cultural level what is going on in Lina's personal life. Inside Lina, the siege of hormones is raging; in her family, her father and mother are locked in bitter dispute because her father is a compulsive gambler who is impoverishing the family, as well as making them vulnerable to the violence of gangsters to whom he owes large sums of money. Despite the fact that Lina lives with her extended family, she is unable to find an ally within this unstable nest; the person who is most in control of herself is her aging aunt Yvonne (Laudi Arbid), a snob who abuses the family servants and ignores Lina, not out of meanness, but rather out of an obliviousness to children endemic to her class. Lina allies herself with Shahib (Rawia Elchab), the voluptuous working class family maid, thus crossing class lines but not for any political purpose. Shahib, who is in her early twenties, enjoys Lina's adulation and makes use of her when she sneaks out to see her boyfriend.
As in _Look at Me_, characters are defined with 360 degrees of complexity. All commit shameful acts that are contextualized by their situations; all exhibit attractive qualities, with, perhaps, the exception of Lina's solipsistic father. No one, however, learns anything. Rather, the film pushes the status-seeking and inhumane attitudes of middle class values to their limits by subjecting them to the pressure cooker of warfare, and draws a detailed portrait of a young girl under attack from the materialism and obsessions of her family. The film portrays people in reduced financial circumstances; hence there is a spare rather than a rich texture to the set and costume design, but the acting seems effortless and unhampered by cliché, and the frame compositions are striking, original, and often expressive of the characters's emotional situations. One stunning instance occurs when Lina is listening from the lower staircase, attentively trying to hear what is going on in the rest of the house. The shot is framed so that Lina's head looms large in the extreme lower right hand corner of the frame while a sterile, grey cement staircase seems to weigh heavily on it as it climbs in what seems like an endless ascent that masks the rooms to which it leads.
Finally _Kings and Queen_ is a film built around a highly eccentric selection of characters that in some ways may be characterized as bifurcated between consumers and producers of art. A daughter is foregrounded in this film, too, but not from the perspective of a female sensibility, and the difference between the way men and women explore the relationships between women and their parents is telling. Jaoui's Lolita is an artist and Arbid's Lina is a bundle of sensate longings, both probed from within. But Nora (Emanuelle Devos), the daughter in Arnaud Desplechin's film, is scrutinized from a distance as a cold, thin lipped, pallid blonde who buys and sells art objects. The film begins with her examination of a painting of Leda and the Swan, which she examines with the exquisite detachment of a connoisseur and then buys for her father. Juxtaposed to Nora's story is the story of Ishmael (Mathieu Amalric), Nora's ex-husband, whose name echoes that of the famous outcast in the Bible, and not accidentally. Ishmael is an artist who lives at the edge of sanity, and indeed winds up in a mental hospital, to which he is committed anonymously by his own sister. Read: artists are the outcasts of society, and 'normal' women are the first among their tormentors. In the mental hospital, Ishmael has what is intended to be a therapeutic relationship with a doctor, played by Catherine Deneuve in an amusing cameo about another cool blonde, but which provides nothing useful to him. He more usefully initiates with Chloe (Nathalie Boutefeu), a suicidal woman much younger than he is, a fraught relationship that sizzles with sexual abandon. As the film rolls on, 'insane' and marginal women reveal themselves as more congenial to this artist, and Ishmael appears to be heading toward a permanent connection with Chloe, but not conventional marriage.
In contrast, Nora is heading toward conventional marriage, having had enough of the other kind of relationship with Ishmael and a previous lover, who in the film's backstory committed suicide. As the film begins she's attached herself to a very highly placed power broker who takes recreational drugs on weekends, is barely interested in sex, and has no interest in her son. Shrugging off his lack of emotional availability and addiction as what comes with the territory of being a successful man's wife, she marries him at the end of the film. But before she does that, she nurses her father who is dying of cancer and is rewarded for her efforts with a glimpse into his feelings for her in his journal which she finds after he expires. The journal reveals his hatred for and fear of her. In a particularly searing passage, the old fellow expresses a wish that Nora were dying in his place. Arguably, Nora's ability to move past this terrible insight into a home truth and go on with the wedding, which though opulent appears to be a fairly pro forma business, suggests emotional numbness.
Though this at first looks like it's going to be a multiplot story in which the protagonists of each separate story line do not meet, Nora and Ishmael do cross paths. Nora wants nothing to do with Ishmael, but he gets along very well with Nora's son and she wants him to adopt the child, knowing that her new husband will have little but material affluence to offer him. Ishmael entertains the idea, but ultimately rejects it as a form of dishonesty and the epilogue of the film shows him explaining his decision to the child. Ishmael is loving in his attempt to assuage the disappointment of Nora's son, but the fact of his refusal to become a father of sorts to a little one, who will not get the love and attention he needs from the new family his mother is now forming, is haunted by the fact of desertion.
In the final analysis, though Ishmael is far more endearing and sympathetically drawn than Nora, no one is sufficient to the task of nurturing or to anything else beyond self satisfaction. A clue to why this is so is not to be found in the dyad of cool, feminine, conventionality and hot, masculine creativity embodied by Nora and Ishmael, but in the opening image of Leda and the Swan. Director Desplechin prefaces all the doings of Nora and Ishmael with the image of the rape of a helpless girl by a disguised god, the archetypal father god, at that. If the film seems to cast Nora negatively as a stimulus to male desire whose own desire is barely alive, there is also a counterpoint that identifies the paternal as a roving, marauding selfishness.
SELLING THE MARSHALL PLAN
When the United States decided to make a large cash commitment to rebuilding Europe after World War II, it turned to filmmakers, both American and European, to persuade Americans that giving cash, animals, and machinery, as opposed to lending at advantageous terms and selling to the war torn continent, would be a prudent move. The hundreds of films produced for this purpose are impossible to evaluate in terms of cinematography or any other aesthetic criteria. They are flat, out and out propaganda. But they are invaluable as historical and cultural documents, especially now when waging war in order to acquire building contracts in Iraq and tax credits for companies shipping American jobs overseas are being sold to the United States in way very different from those employed in the mid-20th century.
If the films shown at the festival are typical, humor was the choice of the majority of filmmakers touting the Marshall Plan, the three I saw being: _The Story of Koula_, _The Shoemaker and the Hatter_, and _Whitsun Holiday_. _Koula_ turns into a charming tale of a boy and a mule (the Marshal Plan program imported into Greece dozens of mules to get the Greek farmers back on their feet). Manipulating the Italian neorealist agenda for capitalist propaganda purposes, the film uses onsite Greek locations, non-professional actors, available light, and absolutely no set or costume design. It does, however, employ a very controlling anonymous voiceover narrative, which by injecting into the film a passage about how American mules are much bigger and more powerful than the petite local Greek mules, loads the story of how a young Greek boy becomes attached to one of the American imported mules with a strange chauvinism. John Wayne-ism on the hoof. But personification wins the day when the child instinctively knows that the chosen beast's name should be Koula, and melodrama flares when he almost has his heart broken when another farmer draws the mule by lot. The film is calculated to defy anyone hard-hearted enough to want to save money by refusing to ship Koula to his new home and new young friend. With less emotional hype, _The Shoemaker and the Hatter_, an animated short, makes clear how important international cooperation is and how it benefits everyone. The shoemaker thrives because he understands this; the hatter, who is an elitist, ends up driving a taxi. Pride in craft goes down the drain in the process of the shoemaker's new, automated post-war prosperity, but the cartoon makes it all so cute and amusing. Finally, _Whitsun Holiday_, a British comic short, compares how capitalist and communist families spend leisure time. There is almost no attention given to economic issues here, but the subtext is heavily laced to suggest that if the United States doesn't rebuild Europe the Communists could overrun it. All the jokes in the film play on how enabling European families to continue a happy capitalist way of life is the best defense against creeping Marxism. Audiences may find the experience of the Marshall Plan films to be one of oscillating between historical fascination and aesthetic boredom, but the films do bring to life the climate of the 1950s.
NYFF 2004 made available a provocative opportunity to ponder the enormous aesthetic distance between these built-to-order Marshall Plan infomercials and _Tarnation_, a film that is personal and heedless of most of the traditions evolved in a hundred years of filmmaking. I assume that many, like me, were moved to speculate on whether this is a much greater distance than that between cultural traditions, say those of China and Brazil. True, in this idealized form of multiplex known as the film festival, some can neatly avoid occasions for escaping from the ever disposable, ever present mind-forg'd manacles of Hollywood. I can personally attest that at least one New York television critic saw only one film, the one he expected would receive commercial circulation of significant proportions. I still see clearly in my mind's eye the dismissive expression on his face when I asked which other films he had looked in on. Nevertheless, if _Macunaima_ and _Moolaade_ were presented on a New York screen and Channel 7 didn't review them; they were still presented.
Mercy College, New York, USA
Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004
Martha P. Nochimson, 'New York Film Festival 2004', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 37, November 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n37nochimson>.
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