Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 25, November 2000

 

 

Martha P. Nochimson

New York Film Festival 2000

 

 

 

New York Film Festival 2000 offered a selected group of internationally and

aesthetically diverse films. No trend emerged in the heterogeneous

collection of offerings. The spectrum of offerings included both

commercially viable and art house genres: the musical, the slice of life,

the bio-pic, the meditation on history, the melodrama, the

historical/political film, and the classics-on-film tour de force. Herewith

a report on eight highlights of NYFF's program: seven beauties and a

funeral, though not in that order.

 

_Gohatto_ (being distributed commercially in New York as _Taboo_) is the

first film made by Nagisa Oshima since _Max, My Love_ (1986). This latest

effort fits into the Oshima oeuvre as another exploration of intense,

offbeat erotica, but it also is honed to a political edge. Oshima is most

well-known for the spectacularly sexual _In the Realm of the Senses_

(1976), the story of a devouring, all-consuming affair that ends when

erotic intensity impels the woman to kill the man, castrate him, and wander

off distractedly clutching his penis. _Max, My Love_ was equally aggressive

in its testing of erotic narrative limits. It is the story of a menage a

trois, in which a husband resigns himself to the fact that his wife has

taken a chimpanzee for a lover. These films burrow deeply into the personal

sphere, defying all middle class concepts of normality and delving into the

wildest regions of the psyche, but not as a chic contemporary defense of

alternate life styles. Certainly this is not the case with _Taboo_: the

story of a Samurai community in 1865, a moment when the Samurai way of life

was on its way to extinction; it depicts this doomed Samurai community as a

rich network of explicitly denied homoerotic connections. The Samurai clan

serves Oshima as a study of a bankrupt power structure, in which death and

homosexuality are inextricably intertwined.

 

_Taboo_ concerns the entrance into the Samurai clan of a beautiful young

boy, Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), and the disruption his presence

causes. It unfolds in a somewhat leisurely fashion through scenes from

Samurai life which reveal the training the young warriors receive, their

relationship to the town, and to the local brothel. But a plot threads

through the daily activities, as Kano's affairs elliptically surface in

every scene. Kano's first affair is with Hyozo Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano),

the Samurai recruit who comes into the clan at the same time he does. But

this liaison (and all the rest that follow) are generally impalpable,

whisps of suggestion. Even when there is explicit representation of sexual

contact, it is ambiguously portrayed. The film encourages us to wonder

whether Kano has been seduced, or whether he is the seducer? In some

scenes, he appears to be surprised and perhaps shocked by the advances made

to him. Other scenes suggest his complicity. Still others define his cruel

amusement at the desperate desire he provokes. This matters because of

Oshima's larger purposes, the articulation of the social structure of

denial of the eddies and waves of desire sweeping the Samurai community.

Scenes in which Kano is discussed by older and younger members of the clan

alike are layered into overt statements of hostility to homosexuality and a

deep covert silence, in which linger indeterminate, unexpressed feelings.

The hollow ring of the repeated statement, 'I'm not like that', calls

attention to what is not being said, as the reference pronoun remains

forever ungrounded in an antecedent. The silence is visibly objectified by

both the fog that shrouds the landscape and by the mysterious murders of

members of the clan, all of which clearly relate to Kano. The spectator is

captured by the confusion of murder in night and fog, and only late in the

film, when Kano displays a sinuous blood lust as he unhesitatingly agrees

to kill Tashiro on orders, begins to wonder whether the Samurai are being

killed because of Kano or by him.

 

Kano is an homme fatale, a gender bender who explodes the gender specific

nature of the vamp. He is the incarnation of the mystique of love and

death, the effluvia of dead and dying institutions, packaged in Hollywood

solely in female terms as the film noir woman, or the tragic mulatta, or

the devouring man-eater, all of whom may in fact be male projections of

their own self-destructive impulses onto women. In contrast, Kano is a more

direct representation, an evolved figure of the kind of the male-induced

male agon of self-immolation imagined by Thomas Mann in _Death in Venice_.

Kano is an angel whose annunciation is not of birth but of death. His place

at the center of a ripple effect of sexual frenzy is Oshima's mode of

exploring how failing institutions are not invaded from without until they

are rotted from within. Kano is picked by the clan in the first frames of

the film out of a large number of would-be Samurai into the order that soon

trembles at his presence. The clan chooses its destroyer with tremulous

deliberation and pursues its immolation with all the intensity that passion

provides. With its gorgeous frames full of moonlight, cherry trees, and

indecipherable facial expressions, words, and gestures, _Taboo_ is a

visually complex, contemplative experience that utterly bewildered critics

at the screenings for whom meaning resides primarily in the logic of plot.

It is, however, Oshima's most evolved film to date.

 

As spare as _Taboo_ is lush are two adaptations for the screen sponsored by

the Gate Theatre's Beckett on Film Project: Atom Egoyan's production of

_Krapp's Last Tape_, starring John Hurt, and Neil Jordan's _Not I_ starring

Julianne Moore. The more familiar _Krapp's last Tape_ is a stark rendering

of this portrait of the technologically assisted reminiscences of an old

man nearing the end of his life. The play is a stripping away of all the

more theatrical, action centered traditions of theatre; adapting it for the

screen is an even more revolutionary attack on conventional screen

practice, daring us to be engaged by the bleakest of characters and the

most minimalist of situations and settings. Egoyan takes minimalism to the

next step. His is an understated portrayal, inviting the spectator into

Krapp's junk laden room as an onlooker, distanced from the spectacle of

failing humanity. Egoyan is less interested in the comic and empathetic

possibilities of the script than in coolly exploring the discontinuities

and blockages that trouble memory. Krapp listens to the tapes that he made

at earlier times in his life, but manipulates the reels through the use of

fast forward, reverse, the stop switch in such a way as to make the machine

an externalized form of denial and selective recall. Egoyan emphasizes the

ironies of the interface between human evasions and technology rather than

the pathos of the impoverished finale to Krapp's early possibilities.

 

Ironically, considering the low-key film he has directed, Egoyan has a

passionate connection with _Krapp's Last Tape_. His father kept a tape

diary similar to Krapp's and Egoyan's discovery of the play caused somewhat

of a delirium in him at the resemblances. He aggressively campaigned to

direct the play for the Beckett on Film project, even though another

director (unnamed in the press conference) had already been assigned. The

film fell to Egoyan when circumstances intervened and the other director's

commitments made it impossible for him to work on it. Egoyan and Hurt made

collaborative decisions about the tone and feel of the film which

successfully transform the screen into the necessary claustrophobic

environment through the composition of film frames in which Krapp is

isolated in a single light that fades off into precisely graded forms of

darkness at the perimeters of the room. How dark is dark? There are

ascending layers of impenetrability as we reach the borders of the frame.

Egoyan double wraps Krapp and his lair inside the sound of rain.

 

John Hurt's greatest assets in his virtuoso portrayal of Krapp are his

commanding voice and the depth of his facial expressiveness. Hurt is the

poster boy for Bela Balazs's theorizing of the face and the close-up as the

essence of cinematic representation. In a film in which nothing takes place

(in the ordinary meaning of the words), Hurt's eyebrows, mobile facial

muscles, each crevice of his lines and wrinkles, and certainly his eyes,

are a thunderous series of events. His voice negotiates Krapp's fragmentary

statements trailing off into confused, premature termination, and the

periodic excitement of the rising crescendo of the word 'spool', as if they

were musical cadences.

 

Egoyan, as he tells the story, made the film under the shadow of a personal

fear, the fear that the commitment of Beckett to film entailed a

responsibility not true of stage productions. He imagines this filmic

version, a lasting interpretation impacted into a preserved image (while

stage representations dissipate into the air), would have influence on the

future of Beckett as a cultural force. Is this fear justified? Perhaps,

though not because of any lack on the part of the collaborators. Between

them, Egoyan and Hurt have done justice to the Beckett masterpiece, but

they have paradoxically monumentalized Beckett's radical drama of ellipses

and fragments into a cultural monolith. There is a perfection to this

version that will support the play's reputation as a cultural force, and

repays the spectator's attention, but Egoyan's cool mastery works against

the Beckettian experience of nothingness as language, technology, and

social conventions fail early and often in our lives.

 

Neil Jordan's _Not I_, also part of the Beckett on Film Project, is also a

tour de force. This less widely known, much briefer play defies the action

convention of commercial filmmaking even more stringently. If _Krapp's Last

Tape_ confines the viewer to one room and one barely animate character,

_Not I_ confines the viewer to a single mouth. The press kit summarizes the

project in this way: 'In this short Beckett piece, directed by Neil Jordan,

a woman's mouth is shot in extreme close-up, from various angles, as its

spits out stream-of-consciousness memories from an empty life;

cumulatively, Julianne Moore's lipsticked, mobile orifice begins to look

like a chattering hell gate.' Maybe. But there's an awful lot of moisture

for Hell, and there are an awful lot of teeth fighting the concept of

emptiness.

 

_Not I_ is a mesmeric experience, a true adventure in the relationship

between words and image/sound in the filmic context. Those things

resembling language exert very little influence on the fascination of this

short film project. Of plot, characterization, and exposition, there are

none in the conventional meaning of the words, locating this Beckett

significantly to the left of _Krapp's Last Tape_. In contrast, the screen

is suffused with image and sound, words becoming more a part of the sound

design than any rational construct defining the situation of the mouth.

Into a frame entirely black except for a spot lit, large wooden chair,

unquestionably suggestive of the kind of electric chair by means of which

electrocutions are administered, Julianne Moore steps, in a simple costume

of jeans and a black sweater, hair tightly drawn back from her face. She

sits in the chair. The camera then moves in extreme close-up to her mouth,

suddenly the only image within a very small spotlight. From this mouth

pours a barrage of words, and a bubbling flood of saliva, around two lines

of perfect, translucent teeth, bringing a reinvigorated meaning to the

phrase 'pearly'.

 

It would be impossible for any first time auditor to understand more than

an isolated word here and there spoken by the central figure, except for

the repeated caesura refrain, 'What? Spared that' and periodic references

to buzzing, which is arguably what human attempts to communicate have been

reduced to for this seething mouth. Even with some knowledge of Beckett's

text, the fascination is of an object of contemplation rhythmically

represented through the smoothly changing angles of vision of the mouth and

the drama of a part of the human face rarely so closely observed. For all

the limitations imposed on the film frame by the chosen object of scrutiny,

it is fullness, action, noise, busyness that we come away with, not the

impoverished sense of the _Krapp's Last Tape_ location. The spectator is

privy to every sprout of pale facial hair around Moore's mouth, every

reflection of light off her incisors, every pout of palely, pinkly

lipsticked flesh on her lips, and the exhausting muscularity of speaking

non-stop for such an extended period of time. If the life is empty, or full

of befuddlement ('what?') and incidents that never took place ('spared

that'), it is also supercharged with physical events. The body becomes a

source of infinite wonder, suggesting the manifold possibilities of other

areas beyond the small orifice in view. Even, then, in what may be

insanity, and certainly is frustration and deprivation, life remains a

spectacular (in the root sense of the word), rich thing.

 

The problem of adaptation for the screen, built into the Beckett on Film

Project, is nicely finessed by both Egoyan and Jordan in that, while

following the golden rule of the Project that the texts must be kept

absolutely intact, they have made cinematic experiences of Beckett's plays.

Will they please the Beckett purist? This is hard to say, and as irrelevant

as the attack John Simon, the irascible New York critic, made on Egoyan at

the NYFF press conference. Simon rose to remark that he had seen six or

seven theatrical productions of _Krapp's Last Tape_ all of which were

funnier and more touching than Egoyan's movie, and wondered if the choices

in the film were a matter of deliberate decision or incompetence.

Apparently *not* everyone's a critic. For the point is that, love it or

hate it, the Beckett on Film Project (if these films are an example) are

re-viewing Beckett's theatre language in the language of film. And that is

the crucial test of material translated from any other medium to film.

 

Terence Davies's _The House of Mirth_ fails that decisive test. A film

chock full of all the elements that are commercially *de rigeur* -- mass

media stars with broadly based fan appeal, showy costumes and sets,

Technicolor sex, heartbreak, and big music -- it can only claim kinship

with the other screenings in the NYFF through its attempt to film a great

novel of the kind generally avoided by mass market directors, and through

the reputation of its director as interesting, innovative, and

experimental. But it falls miserably between two stools, the language of

the novel, which it assassinates, and the language of film, which it never

achieves.

 

Davies has cast two television stars, Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully on

_The X-Files_) as Lily Bart and Eric Stolz (Dr Robert Yeats on _Chicago

Hope_) as Lawrence Selden, in his version of Edith Wharton's comi-tragedy

about a woman whose priorities are so skewed by her upbringing that she

learns her primary life lesson only as she dies. Davies was attracted to

the project because he found in Wharton a grittier Jane Austen, and because

he wanted to depart from his experimental probing of the random shifts of

memory in previous films like _The Neon Bible_ and _The Long Day Closes_,

and tell a linear tale. A subsidiary aim was to preserve Wharton's voice

and her language. The cruel fact is that Davies has fulfilled none of his

admirable goals.

 

On the deepest level, Davies has betrayed Wharton's literary language. The

core of Wharton's novel is Lily's growing understanding of the

artificiality of her hothouse world of status and greed and her growing,

but tragically belated apprehension of a world based on love and human

connection in the ordinary struggles of working men and women that occur

beyond the boundaries that mark the limits of privilege. Wharton calls

attention to Lily's struggle to see 'beyond' by embossing the word

enigmatically on Lily's stationary over the image of a ship. Wharton's Lily

attains that vision, ironically, as a drug induced sleep of death numbs her

senses at her journey's end. The penultimate moment finds Lily in the cosy

apartment of Nettie, one of the girls who once received charity from Lily,

where she sees for the first time a marriage based on warmth, support and

the love of children, a far cry from the financial arrangements perpetrated

by her class, doomed to boredom or the deceit of numerous infidelities.

Lily dies after returning to her room, imagining herself with a child in

her arms and as a person at last free from the once desired hollow world of

society. But neither the stationary nor Nettie's family is in this movie.

In Davies's version of Wharton, when Lily is driven out of the world of

luxury she encounters in ordinary society a world so ugly and mean that it

validates the urgent need demonstrated by the often feral upper class women

in the picture to hold on to their meal tickets regardless of the costs to

themselves and others. Davies's film disappointingly leads us toward an

identification with Lily's hysterical need to stay in the enclave of the

upper class rather than with her need for freedom. In this version of _The

House of Mirth_ richness is all, to pervert Shakespeare. Holy Smokes!! This

is the precise subtext of the generic MGM plot during the 1930s and 40s,

regardless of the plethora of pieties abounding in the empire that Mayer

built about the poor but happy.

 

Davies has 'Mayerized' Lily, equating the well-told story with the death of

values and with a linearity that is chillingly reductive. In order to use

Wharton (against her will) to demean the ordinary person, he has taken the

Old Hollywood tack of eviscerating the text of all but the lovers'

encounters. Without the brutal social satire that was an integral part of

the novel, the film is a bosom heaving sequence of overheated meetings

between Lily and Selden, who, without the strong sense of social mores,

become inexplicable (not ambiguous) in their inability to consummate their

love. This manipulative parody of the kind of couple-centered films that

were the stock and trade of Old Hollywood (which Old Hollywood portrayed

much more perceptively and subtly than Davies manages to do) leaves

stranded on second base the interesting chemistry between Anderson and

Stolz and on first base the potential of each of these actors to mature

into interesting film artists.

 

Stolz fares better than Anderson, and that is not only because she had more

to do and to risk in the film. Stolz and Anderson are equally adept at

using their faces and voices, but Anderson needs to work on movement. While

Stolz is able to adopt a physical carriage that integrates with his

quasi-dandyish upper class gentleman, Anderson's body is not yet the

flexible instrument that her face has become in seven years of close-ups on

_The X-Files_. At the beginning of the film when she sashays out of the

puff of smoke from a steam engine at a railroad station -- a showy, cliche

of an image -- she moves like a parody of the way Ziegfield showgirls

carried themselves. Later, Anderson sinks into a considerably more plodding

body language, and at those times we seem to see the Scully beneath the

lace. Worse by far, as regards casting, however, is the use of Dan Aykroyd,

another television star adrift in film territory, as Gus Trainor. His near

rape of Lily is the catalyst for Lily's descent from the pinnacle of high

society, but Aykroyd's inability to portray the vicious, dark depths of

this seemingly affable patriarch threaten to turn this important moment

into a _Saturday Night Live_ sketch. Finally heaping insult on top of

injury, Davies adds pandering to old stereotypes to his list of sins. Sim

Rosedale (Anthony La Paglia), a Jew with an important social role to play

in Wharton's story, is here reduced to the all purpose Hollywood ethnic --

dark, sweaty, and beady-eyed -- where Sim was blonde and fair in Wharton's

groundbreaking representation (groundbreaking before World War I, that is).

Does Davies really believe that ethnic caricatures are mandatory in linear

narratives?

 

The powerful erotics of unconsummated love are much more successfully

probed in _In the Mood for Love_, a cinematic triumph directed by Wong

Kar-wai. _In the Mood for Love_ pushes the representation of contained

passion past the conventions of films epitomized by _Brief Encounter_, in

which the social pressures that circumscribe ardor are externalized into

melodramatic mechanisms -- like gossips and the arrivals and departures of

trains -- and ardor itself is a series of shot-reverse shots. Wong uses the

film frame as David Lynch used it in _Wild at Heart_, abandoning

melodramatic conventions for a cinematic portrayal of the very air as the

carrier and space of longing (unslaked in Wong's film, abundantly slaked in

Lynch's). Music and space represent internal urges, as Wong portrays a

social setting that allows an infinite number of opportunities for trysts

that never take place because of an infinitely subtle, interior set of

prohibitions.

 

The film opens in Hong Kong in 1962, when Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), a

journalist, rents a room in a crowded, unstylish, but very homey apartment

owned by the kind of middle class people who dress respectably but without

distinction, laugh a great deal with their friends, and always seem to have

abundant quantities of food on tap for whoever drops by (to play

mah-jongg). Simultaneously, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Chung), secretary to the

owner of a shipping company, arrives to rent another room in the same

apartment. Both are married; neither is accompanied by his/her spouse, each

of whom is at work. Chow and Su are each the kind of middle class person

who is quietly elegant, exquisitely groomed, and unlikely to accept casual

invitations to eat. Chow and Su also, coincidentally, move in on the same

day, also unaccompanied. Both scenes are chaotically full of furniture,

people, walls, food. There is barely space for either Chow and Su, and a

radical discrepancy between them and their surroundings. Why would they

want to live in this place so antithetical to their persons? The radical

displacement of the characters is intensified by their habit of separately

taking dinner at a local noodle house, very clearly a lower class,

workman's cafe, through which Su particularly wanders like a lost goddess

in her magnificent mandarin-style silk dresses. 'She dresses like that to

go for noodles?' asks one of the myriad guests of Su's landlord, a question

that thins into a voiceover on the soundtrack as Su floats into the

cavernous, steamy underworld of manual workers and their food.

 

A continuous motif of the film is the fullness of the frame, which is

typically filled to bursting with things and people. And just when it is

unthinkable that the screen might bear one more burden, the frame's

richness is increased by the non-diegetic presence of Nat King Cole,

singing in Spanish, often 'Green Eyes', or 'Ochos Verdes', in its

translated incarnation. Su and Chow swim in the eroticism of Cole's voice,

an eroticism that makes passion airborn, compressed into urgency by the

crowded spaces, as the physicality of Su and Chow's bodies silently cry out

for something different, something cooler, and more spacious. The

discrepancy between the two and their surroundings is resolved only when

they meet on several occasions in the coolly, impersonal setting of an

elegant hotel. These occasions also enigmatically radiate an erotic

subtext, as they simultaneously suggest a withholding by both Su and Chow

of any realized physical intimacy. We never see any overt sexuality between

these two.

 

The hotel meetings take place after Chow and Su discover that their spouses

are involved together in an affair, but they do not remove themselves to

the hotel to take revenge by having an affair of their own. Rather they

emphatically assert that they do not want 'to be like that'. They retire to

the hotel to work together on a story for Chow's newspaper. Their mutual

construction of a narrative as a professional task is mirrored by their

attempts to reconstruct the story of how their partners became lovers and

what their relationship is like. They repeatedly play out possible

scenarios that involve their intimate knowledge of their spouses.

Discontinuous segments of roleplaying and working on the story merge and

blend, until reality is lost in the constructs. Set apart from the bustle

and hustle of a corrupt, but cosy jumble of ordinary life, their seclusion

in the quiet, cool oasis from everyday reality glows with the mysteries of

the imagination, as does the film. Wong is involved in constructing a mood,

a mood of a time and place, Hong Kong in the 1960's. But that mood is

animated by the bodies of Chung and Leung, which cease to exist

independently of each other and of the circumstances of their environment.

Magically, in a crudely material world, they breathe the elements of living

into oases of ineffability.

 

The film ends with a tag that underlines its dedication to magic islands in

a banal social universe. The narrative jumps elliptically to 1967, where we

discover Su, now divorced, visiting the old apartment with her son, about

five years old. Where did this son come from? Su's now defunct marriage was

childless, as far as we knew. Chow is in Anghor Wat in Cambodia at one of

the magnificent temple ruins. We see him hollowing out a hole in one of the

walls, which makes the spectator's memory race backward to a story told to

Chow earlier in the film of an ancient practice of dealing with a secret

that could be told to no one. The secret bearer was to go into the forest,

create a hole, whisper the secret into the cavity and cover it up with

earth, returning what must be hidden to the organic world. At this terminal

moment in the film, Su's child, the ancient practice, the ancient temple,

and the modern city of Hong Kong swirl in a vortex of implied meaning about

survival, endurance, and the creation of the future from the past. The

world is mood as well as structure, and in the mood there is the secret of

love.

 

The brilliance of the integrity of Wong's film grows surprisingly from an

unusual combination of production conditions: improvisation and

distraction. Wong worked without a script, over a period of a year (three

times the normal shooting schedule), at the same time that he was shooting

another film, _2046_. The extraordinary concentration necessary for a

director seems inimical to this melange of exhaustion, spontaneity, and

divided responsibility. However, that the resulting, magnificently unified

film was the result of circumstances recalling the centrifuge of the

Hollywood studio system -- sans the restrictions imposed by the Production

Code Administration -- forces reconsideration of conventional ideas about

the art film, auteurism, and the composition of films.

 

Composition is the overt subject of Ed Harris's production, _Pollock_, the

eponymous artist's development of new modes of artistic composition, while

his life decomposes around him. In this film, Harris, who also plays the

protagonist, seeks to represent the troubled life of Jackson Pollock

without descending the slippery slopes of the bio-pic. Harris and his

extremely dedicated cohorts do avoid many of the worst excesses of the

bio-pic, and do create a memorable and at times exciting film. And yet . . .

 

The American bio-pic conventionally falls into two categories, two sides of

the same coin, the up side and down side of success: how someone climbed to

the pinnacle and overcame obstacles, or how our hero was destroyed by

success. Either way, the push for success, that hard nut of the American

mythological universe, is the obligatory kernel of the Hollywood biography.

Lessons abound in the standard bio-pic, the Polonius of genres. Be true to

yourself and you cannot then be false to . . . Always believe in yourself

and you cannot then be false to . . . Never give up and you cannot then be

.. . . Hollywood bio-pics endorse success, take their power from the

American cultural imperative, turn the spectator into a cheerleader, and an

acolyte. But _Pollock_ teaches no lessons aimed pointedly at an American,

upwardly mobile student of the great and near great. It is a mystery story

about the human condition that is likely to engage across national

boundaries. True, it is a mystery story complicated by the drive for

success, but that is only one element in Harris's portrayal of a tormented

life.

 

The film begins near the end of the story in 1949, at the famous gallery

exhibition at which Pollock's action painting changed the face of the

American art world. The camera pushes in on an anonymous woman's

sweater-encased breasts, against which is nestled a picture layout in _Life

Magazine_ of Pollock and the canvases being shown in the gallery. The

faceless woman is struggling in the throng of admirers around Pollock

waiting to get his autograph. As Pollock signs the magazine, he looks up

distractedly, never actually seeing the autograph seeker, as we also do

not, and stares at some unknown object. The reverse-shot is delayed (for

two-thirds of the film) while we plunge into Pollock's earlier life as a

developing painter and family pariah. The breasts, the magazine, the

unexplained gaze drive us away from wondering 'how he made it' and toward

Pollock's confusion, from which we shall never emerge wiser, only more

experienced.

 

The flashback sequence that follows the gallery scene concerns Pollock's

development as a painter and the evolution of his marriage to Lee Krasner

(Marcia Gay Harden). True to its initial juxtaposition, _Pollock_ is

embedded with a challenging visual design that leaves us with a sharp

picture of the elements of perception, but usually not with a simplistic

understanding of how they fit together. As Pollock and another man stumble

drunkenly up the stairs in the throes of a tottering, manic embrace, we

could be looking at a homoerotic scene, but we are not, at least not in the

ordinary sense of the word. This is the struggle of two brothers in the

grip of family love, and family combat. Pollock's relationship with

Krasner, a fellow painter, is similarly enigmatic in its representation.

Clearly obsessive on both sides, but a mixture of so many complex needs,

drives, and limitations, it explodes glib categories, like co-dependence.

Particularly wonderful is a scene in which Pollock gives Krasner a bath in

an old copper tub, into which he pours hot water from the stove -- their

house out in the Hamptons had no bathroom plumbing -- a rare moment of

contentment, affection, and peace, that changes precipitously into Uproar,

the game the whole family can play, when Pollock expresses a desire to

become a father. Krasner's cruel rejection of his invitation to 'make a

baby', is nonetheless profoundly rooted in a reality Pollock will not

recognize about his own immaturity. 'You need, and you need, and you need',

she tells him. She can't handle any more. And what does that make her? Is

she his reality principle or her own illusion of stability?

 

The searing honesty that made Pollock an artist never carries over into his

life, which is a tissue of self-deceptions, evasions, and unmonitored

urges. When at last the delayed reverse shot becomes available as the film

draws to a close, we learn that Pollock is looking at Krasner beyond the

breasts that support the magazine, but as if he has never seen her before.

Shortly thereafter, he wallows into infidelity. What did he see? He doesn't

know and neither do we. But that is not a flaw for this film. Rather, it is

an economical, bold subversion of the usually reassuring shot-reverse shot

pattern that generally permits the object of the gaze to be captured and

possessed, to portray Krasner slipping out of Pollock's orbit, as though a

star had detonated and disappeared. Subsequent young women that he pursues

seem to define Pollock's mid-life crisis, but the film delicately prevents

this from blundering into cliche. The pursuit of women in their twenties is

the symptom of inner disintegration, which the objects of his affection are

too young to understand, blinded as they are by his status as a great

painter. When Pollock drives to his death by crashing his car drunkenly

into a tree, we know we have watched him preparing for this moment, but not

why.

 

The refusal to label Pollock is a positive element of Harris's film, a

rejection of Hollywood's positivist attitude toward personality. It

promotes two brilliant, multi-layered performances by Harris and Harden

that carry us exactly where we need to go in imagining Pollock and Krasner.

But with all its grit and charm, simply by focusing on Pollock as it does,

it buys into the old American fear of unshackling the energy of imagination

and body that Wong Kar-wai so eloquently rejects. The film's very virtues

lead it by the back way into American terror of the imagination. Admirably

refusing to label Pollock's pathology, insisting that we engage it without

the dubious comforts of psychological categories (and thereby experience

Pollock's emotional rollercoaster) the film empowers the puritanical

American vision of the body and the imagination not as secret oases, but

rather as hysterical pathologies. Art is illness, the dazzling deceit that

draws the healthy into its aura.

 

Issues about the imagination, health, and disease also come up also in

_George Washington_ and in _Dancer in the Dark_, the last two films I shall

cover in this omnibus review. _George Washington_ is a lyrical, neorealist

film directed by David Gordon Green that has no literal connection with the

famous first father of the United States. As Green explains it, George

Washington's role as our first president 'was the first fact I ever

learned, even before my ABC's. When I was very young, I would try to

imagine what I could have had in common with a man so well known. Did he

like pizza or play the clarinet? Did he ever consider being a detective?

What was it like when he was young and tried to dress up old timey-like?'

Green's fascination with Washington is the model for his career as a

filmmaker, and thus the title for his first full-length film. His model of

art is not the visionary magical one proposed by Wong. For Green, the

imagination extrapolates from facts.

 

Filmed in North Carolina, _George Washington_ is about a small,

multi-racial town in Texas, much like the one in which Green was raised.

Surprisingly, issues of race are entirely muted. There are no instances of

racial tensions; such distinctions are barely noted by anyone. Here the

focus is on childhood and the attempts of growing children to deal with the

frightening external world of adults, and the daunting internal world of

their surging energies. We are asked to ponder how processes that are prone

to getting out of control leave facts, and take off into a universe of pure

fabrication. There's danger in child's play. Although it does not focus

rigorously on its central story, but rather weaves among the lives of the

people in the town, the film is primarily concerned with the relationship

between two young teenagers, Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) and George (Donald

Holden). George kills Buddy by accident while they are playing in an

abandoned amusement park. Play is not an unalloyed part of childhood. It

always contains the danger of straying too far from the facts. And that

leads to more straying. The early scenes in the movie establish existing

rivalries between the two boys that intensify George's guilt about the

accidental death, by complicating the act with the fear that in some way

the harm was intentional. Yet for all his guilt, George and the friends

that witnessed Buddy's death hide the child's body and successfully aid

George in evading prosecution. Buddy's murder goes unsolved and George not

only goes on with his life, but, because of another incident in which he

intentionally saves a little boy who is drowning, is celebrated as a town

hero.

 

Stated baldly, the situation seems to add injustice to the tragedy of

Buddy's death. But situated among tall weeds, the rusting machines of

industrial enterprises that no longer feed the people of this town

adequately, the blighted lives of the town's adults, and the perversity of

George's father and uncle, we are emphatically divorced from legalistic

thinking about orderly societies. George's father is glimpsed once, in what

may be the most powerful scene in the film, sitting silently and completely

unresponsively in his jail cell, to which he has been sentenced for the

crime of murder, when George visits him after Buddy's death. Speaking to

his silent father, who neither looks at him, nor moves except to draw on

his cigarette, George softly carries on a one sided conversation, born of

the need for communion in the wake of his accidental murder of Buddy and

blocked by the impossibility of parental support. He keeps his secret

locked away, never alluding to what he has done, and instead tells his

father that he used to blame him, but now understands and loves him so much

that it feels like he can't breathe. Neither he nor we can know the effect

of this confession on this impassive man.

 

George is similarly unable to find guidance or support in his uncle, who

technically functions as his guardian. George's uncle is a chronically

angry man, who vents his fury indiscriminately on those around him, but

especially on dogs (an animal he hates for reasons that seem good enough to

him), by killing them. The scene in which he apologizes earnestly and

calmly to George for killing a stray dog George loves and has rescued, as

though he has lost a library book, is another masterpiece of insight into

the unpredictable and unfathomable human heart. George, by these standards,

is a hero. He surpasses both his father and his uncle, who have taken lives

without giving back a life. George has taken and given; he has balanced the

scales. As a social code, this would of course be dangerous and

unacceptable. As a personal vision it is at once troubling, touching, and

deeply human.

 

With its cast of non-professionals, people drawn from the town in which the

film was shot, _George Washington_ is exhibit A for Green's faith that art

is an extrapolation of facts. Green's art, spun out of his childhood

memories, the unretouched wild spaces of the countryside, and the untutored

improvisation of untrained children and local adults, has a captivating

sincerity and immediacy.

 

Final comments in this omnibus review have been reserved for _Dancer in the

Dark_, directed by Lars von Trier, the film that opened the festival. Von

Trier has made his film about factory workers in the American Northwest

(the state of Washington). Like Green, von Trier has also opted for a

diverse population, this one multi-ethnic rather than multi-racial. But

where Green's odd little town barely seems to note racial barriers, von

Trier's factory population is very much aware of ethnic differences, and

very prone to attacks of national chauvinism. The critical buzz about this

film is still in an impressionistic stage and it focuses on the most

obvious quality of the film: its emotional intensity. But this is also a

film with immense political subtext. This is a film about America: its

materialism, its greed, its xenophobia, but most of all the double meaning

of its gift to the world of the incandescence of Hollywood.

 

The film's story takes place in 1964, but it conflates within its vision a

spectrum of American historical motifs and themes: the materialism of the

50s, the economic deprivations of the 1930s, and the turn-of-the (20th)

century hopes of the waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Shuttling

among factory, community recreation hall, and lower income homes are Selma

(Bjork), a Czechoslovakian emigre, her 13 year old son Gene (Vladan

Kostic), and her friends and neighbors: Bill (David Morse), a policeman,

and his trophy wife Linda (Cara Seymour); Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), a

fellow factory worker and devoted friend; and Jeff (Peter Stormare), a

truck driver hopelessly in love with her. Selma has come to the United

States, where she lives with her son in a trailer she rents from Bill and

Linda, because she wants her son to have an eye operation only available in

America.

 

She saves everything she can from her meager salary to accumulate the money

necessary to buy a new lease of life for Gene. Selma is going blind, and

the disease is hereditary; the operation will mean that the biological

cycle of doom will be broken for her son. The intensity of this narratively

boilerplate self-sacrificing mother melodrama conjures up culture memories

of the classical D. W. Griffith-Lillian Gish vehicle. But instead of making

a silent movie, von Trier has tapped into the root meaning of the genre

(drama with music) to make a 'musical tragedy', as David Sterritt has

called it, that oxymoronically takes its inspiration from that most

carefree of all film traditions: the Hollywood musical comedy.

 

The musical part of the film is Selma's imaginative transformations of the

Hollywood musicals which she loves. In her imagination they are forged into

daydreams that solace her subsistence level of existence. Hollywood has

never seemed so magical. Forget white telephones and dancing check to

cheek. Real enchantment occurs when Hollywood's examples enable this little

dancer in the dark to transform the sounds of the factory into music on

which she rises with her fellow workers into a paradise of sensual delights

that are, as David Gordon Green would have it, extrapolated from the

seemingly impoverished facts of a techno-culture. Even as she flees from

the murder scene, several musical scenarios trans-substantiate her

suffering caused by crass cupidity and perverse selfishness into parables

of forgiveness and expiation.

 

The tragedy part is that _Dancer in the Dark_ explodes the American dream,

as endlessly retold in the immigrant success saga and in the Hollywood

musical, by conjuring up the United States as a pathetic and cruel betrayer

of its promises. The measure of America is taken in Bill, the seemingly

straight arrow policeman, whose clean, wholesome, blonde all-American good

looks recall that stunned response of the ancient Roman who greeted the

sight of some captured British barbarians with the reply, 'Non angels,

angeles'. But Bill is anything but a messenger of 'good news'. Proudly

displaying the American flag in his front yard, he is a master of the

hollow gesture of neighborliness; Bill is a prisoner of the fantasy of

upward mobility. He will do anything to perpetuate for his equally blonde

wife, Linda, her pathetic image of prosperity, and to accommodate her

ceaseless demands for the 'better things' in life. He tells a life lie that

he has an abundant inheritance, but the truth is that he is bankrupt, in

more ways than one. What inheritance he once had is long gone. So, in order

to buy Linda a new couch -- which will hardly bring the opulence of which

she dreams to their very modest frame house -- he steals Selma's hard

scrabble nest egg for Gene's operation. Taking advantage of Selma's

blindness and her openness with him, he spies on her to find her hiding

place when she can't see that he is there.

 

Bill then lies to Linda, telling her that Selma attempted to seduce him, so

that Linda will force Selma out of the trailer and out of striking distance

as he schemes to create the false impression that Selma's money is his,

freshly withdrawn from the bank. Bad enough. But his degeneracy literally

knows no bounds. Because he is both unable to fight cultural pressures on

him to 'be a man' who provides endlessly and unable to deal with the guilt

for his reprehensible deed, he physically forces Selma into killing him. No

one in the film ever guesses the truth about his death, for which Selma is

ultimately executed.

 

The rot at the core of this pretty policeman -- of America itself -- is met

by Selma with defenses provided by Hollywood and with the same

self-sacrificing spirit that has led her to deny herself even the comfort

of Jeff's love so that she can buy Gene a future. She refuses to disclose

what Bill has done, or even to reveal his confidence to her that he long

ago spent the fabled inheritance, restricting herself to doing no more than

proclaiming her innocence and becoming the heroine of her

Hollywood-inspired musical movie-in-the-head, another level of reality that

permits her to be loved and vindicated in the courtroom and at the place of

execution. And here we have the nub of the controversy that rages about

this movie: von Trier's propensity to unofficially canonize self-immolating

women. Selma's immense suffering, and ours, is justified, in the words of

the film's press release, since it leads to an 'unexpected hope' at the end

of the movie. Gene's eyes are cured by the operation and the evidence of

the cure given to Selma seconds before she meets her doom. The cycle is

broken. But. But. But.

 

The power of this film is immense. The audience with which I saw it was

audibly sobbing at the end. Yes, strong men too. The spectator of this film

is simply inundated by most of the emotional forces that can be conjured by

cinema: an exquisite neorealistic rendering of the simple lives of these

factory workers; a noirish evocation of the sinister power of the factory

machinery to which they tend; and above all the surrealistic, stupefyingly

lyrical beauty of von Trier's transformation of Hollywood's technology of

musical production numbers into the terms of everyday experiences. And then

there is Bjork, who carries off the part of Selma with such artless art

that she metamorphoses into a force of nature. She remains long after the

spectator has left the theatre.

 

But has it all been a manipulation on von Trier's part? He so capriciously

deprives Selma of any defense against Bill as the dark side of America that

the character of the villain slips away from its political moorings and

becomes a foil of what may be von Trier's unexamined, perverse, fatal

attraction to female suffering. Arguably, his films are marred by his

refusal to question his ecstatic embrace of Woman Victimized as a spectacle

seemingly so erotic that he cannot resist the temptation to twist loving

female generosity into a self-generating torture mechanism, as he does with

Selma and as he did with Bess (Emily Watson) in _Breaking the Waves_ (1996).

 

Moreover, if the miracle of Gene's restored vision is the movie's

unexpected hope touted by the spin doctors, it is cold comfort indeed. Such

a hope barely cracks a ray of light into a situation in which 'seeing' in

its largest sense is not an option. No one understands anything in this

film. If ever there were an incarnation of a 'darkling plain' on which

'ignorant armies clash by night', this is it. It is, under the

circumstances, hard to see Gene's cure as more than a technical triumph,

and the imagination with which Selma is generously endowed and the

contribution to the imaginative life by culture as much more than an

anodyne for a hopeless condition called life.

 

*

 

It's a truism to say that film festivals are venues that offer both an

occasion for the collapse of provincial limitations imposed on national

cinemas and high level exposure for movies sprung from personal visions

discouraged by mass production efforts. The festival film stands in

opposition to the run of mass market film collaborations tied to pleasing

Hollywood's (perhaps) phantasmagoric construction of a monolithic mass

audience hungry only for fast-food-formula entertainment. The risks of

challenging the formula for commercial success are generally thought of in

purely commercial terms. But festivals refresh our senses with the reality

that there are also hazards posed by the intense fragmentation of the

filmmaking process itself. Personal vision does not always lead to a

satisfying result. Certainly the New York Film Festival 2000 carries this

reminder.

 

Indeed the way of the personal vision is as fraught with sandtraps,

quicksand, and ruts as the major distribution deal, as we see in _The House

of Mirth_, for example, which is the result of a personal and not a

commercially driven project. Nevertheless, it is troubled by a lack of

integrity at the core that shatters the film into unintegrated shards.

Similarly, despite the fact that _Dancer in the Dark_ is a project of a

member of the Dogme 95 movement, known for its spartan commitment to

honesty, it suggests the possibility of a basic, more than troubling,

dishonesty at its center. (Oddly, while integrity is risked in both, the

creative impact is anything but similar. Davies's film is almost completely

negligible, while von Trier's demands enduring attention.) However, in

contrast, Wong Kar-wai and Oshima, and to a lesser but noteworthy degree

David Gordon Green and Ed Harris, Atom Egoyan and Neil Jordan, achieve

cinematic coherence, expressiveness, and radiance. On the whole, although

it does not indicate any dramatic new direction for film, New York Film

Festival 2000 attests to the continuing vitality of this art form, in a

time in which many bemoan the death of the cineaste and important cinema.

 

Mercy College, New York, USA

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

Martha P. Nochimson, 'New York Film Festival 2000',

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 25, November 2000

<http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n25nochimson>.

 

  

 

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