Sunday, September 20, 2009
“I thought it was dream... what we knew in the forest. It's the only truth.”
-Captain John Smith
Why didn't I sense it before? Why didn’t I see what is so plainly the lifeblood and success of THE NEW WORLD… that it is a story written on the truth of a dream, one that leaves the trace of soil and breath upon the acres of our skin, that wets with its rains, soaks into the heart, and then warms with beat of its rays, saying "I will find joy in all I see." Never has a film so entered into me as though through my fingertips, so subverted my orientation as though a transposition, by its wholeness and grace and movement. I am transformed by the wistful yet rejoicing remembrance, the poem of textures, of senses, of thoughts, and of conflicts that is THE NEW WORLD.
THE NEW WORLD is a history (more explicitly a history of the Jamestown settlement and the initial tenuous exchanges between Settlers and Indians) as told through the mechanism of remembrance, what one might call a multifarious as-it-is-happening sense-memory; that of John Smith (Farell), Pocahontas (Kilcher), and Rohn Rolfe (Bale), in their experiences of one another and of their lives during this irrevocable epoch, imbued with apt distraction, curiosity, subjectivity, and introspection. THE NEW WORLD is a dream that addresses the amorphousness and poetry of its own nature, both in its spontaneous construction, visual juxtapositions, the constant interjections of natural imagery and landscape, as well as through monologue and through physical action that gain life in their overlapping. John Smith reflects upon the moments shared between himself and Pocahontas after living in her tribe for two seasons, saying “If only I could go down that river. To love her in the wild, forget the name of Smith. I should tell her. Tell her what? It was just a dream. I am now awake…There is only this, all else is unreal.” He makes a severe suggestion here; one that posits the "present" and the "pragmatic"- having to maintain the Johnstown settlement and its people - as the definitive reality, as opposed to a confluence of past, present, and future, of experience, perception, memory. He does this as a mode of emotional self-preservation though, to protect his fragile heart from the sting of separation from Pocahontas, the simplicity she embodied and expressed to him, the pain of loss he suffers from his encounter with the "natural," and the relinquishment of a state "pure experience" that was allowed in his relationship to nature and the linguistic tactility forged between he and Pocahontas.
“I don't know where or when, just that it happened. I have tried all day to recapture the feeling. There was a scent of trees. I was the world, the world was me. A landscape is like a face.” (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Jean-luc Godard)
A subjective and existential modality laced with historicity, Malick’s film is not stringently historical. This is not to say that THE NEW WORLD is not an exceptionally researched and accurately designed film, particularly on the account of the Algonquin Indian’s representations, of Jamestown’s construction and its squalid degeneration, and the lifestyles enacted by both groups. But what Mallick aspires to, what makes this film the exception and the work of art that it is, more than a text-book accuracy, is the existential and spiritual themes that brim and flourish in the world we are exposed to, in the alternate clashing and coalescing of cultural anatomies, and in the cascade of questions, conscience, and prose that snare the wind like spores inside the mind, setting fly a felt stream-of-consciousness with the voices of John Smith, Pocahontas, John Rolfe, and on occasion others. And in this binary focus of a tactile history and its subjective experience, Mallick weds the polarities of the utmost external, with that of the utmost internal. History becomes diegesis, and emotion becomes something manifest.
“As the story is developed from something out of history; something that's been told over and over again, and told incorrectly in some peoples’ eyes, the most important thing…is to bring the body language of Indian people into this. To speak a language of memory… and remembering that we tell the story our own way, through our bodies.” Such is at the very core of ones experience of THE NEW WORLD, and also something embodied by settler and Indian alike, both steeped deeply in their circumstances. (Raul Trujillo; Tomocomo, Choreographer) Pocahontas varies this notion. She speaks to herself, “Come spirit, help us sing the story of our land.” And ‘sing’ she does, though not as the word commonly denotes. She sings on all levels; out loud but mostly inside her own heart, and through a private language of gestures, of natural evocations; pantomime that airs on the side of veneration and communion rather than mimic, of nature. She sings every time she touches her hand to a blade of wind, the roughness of a tree’s bark, or swims in cool waters. Even her analogies all sing a kinship with the natural world. “You flow through me, like a river,” she says of John Smith. “He is like a tree. He shelters me. I lie in his shade,” she relates of John Rolfe.
In its sensuously ponderous method, Malick’s film expresses thus: that the “new world” is in fact bifurcated, that beyond the discovery of a new land to settle by the English and the subsequent shock of alarm sent through Indian life, it is the mutual rediscovery of “home.” The frontier is also the process of ‘loss’ and ‘reclamation,’ within and without the body. It is the settlement of Jamestown, the fleeting integration of John Smith into Indian society, and the integration of Pocahontas into settler society, and then her journey to England itself. The “new world” is all these things, and it is also not. What it is, most profoundly, more than a mere adjustment of attitude, is Pocahontas’s rediscovery of her own sense of life, and a sense of how to once again “find joy in all she sees,” purely and fully. To be able to say, roaming a vast garden of unnatural design, chasing her sun and feeling the dew in the air, “mother [earth], now I know where you live.”
For some, for those who see not borders, who build not walls, this “frontier” is a constant condition, a state that exists at the intersection of soul and earth, of man and men, of tactility and ethereality. For them, such as the Algonquin people, there is no separation… that is to say, until one is explained what a ‘wall’ is, until someone stands behind one and touches it and knows their distinction from what is on the other side… and then once changed, they understand all things in terms of walls, and places them into the abstract so that they can proliferate the symbolical damage that is the worser side of their intentionality. John Smith says of the Algonquin, “They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession. Real, what I thought a dream.” These will be taught to them, as we know.
“We often try to analyze the meaning of words but are too easily led astray. One must admit that there's nothing simpler than taking things for granted.” (2 or 3 Things I know About Her: Godard)
More than anything else, we take for granted that we will be understood, or that our words, once spoken, gain some importance despite their innocuity, or the arbitrary basis of their make. “The phenomenon of ‘automatic pilot’ is universal, and a common feature of our experiences. The formulaic call and response of the salutations between human beings ("how are you" ... "I'm fine, and you?"), usually chanted out of some unspoken compunction, is but one example. When done many times over, it looses a potential connection to any real, inward emotion from which one might be motivated to utter this formula, and does not reveal or express any actual relationship between the two interlocutors; rather, this chant merely serves to further a simulacrum of human connection.” (Mike Cifone)
But some conditions breath life back into our discourses. In college I had a Japanese friend. She was an exchange student, and native of Japan. What was so exciting about our exchanges with one another, more than the exhilaration of a tactile cultural crossroads, is how her “handicap” with the English language inversely challenged my own aptitude towards it. With her own linguistic sidestepping, she offered me a reactivation of the spoken word. In our conversations, I began to reduce my expressions, sometimes to a kind of relational poetry, in order to communicate ideas, feelings, and concepts of art and culture and emotionality. And even in what might have been the most banal topics, there was a vitality, a newness, a spark in the manner of how aware I was of each word, and of its placement, and of the breadth of its potentiality. This is a reality addressed not only in the intimate communion between John Smith and Pocahontas in the wild, but also between settlers and coping with their shattered expectations of “The New World,” in John Rolfe’s acquiescence to Pocahontas’s quietude and trepidation, and between Pocahontas and the friction of life behind walls; the wall of a dress, of shoes that make walking difficult, the wall of an imposed faith, of all the things that impede her experience of nature, her mother. All of these confrontations present individuals and groups alike with a challenge against their prescribed modalities, make them question themselves as much as they question what newly surrounds them, and forces them, by degrees, into adaptation.
“What is language?” “The house that man lives in.” (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her)
“If all we have created up till now are mere words...” (Eros + Massacre: Yoshida Kiju)
Monday, August 17, 2009
http://proofsoflove.blogspot.com/ is a new blog that I've produced, dedicated to the analysis of a singular film, Bernardo Bertolucci's THE DREAMERS. I make a full-blooded case for its formal and ideological excellence, particularly on its constant intersection of those two fronts. Among many things discussed are THE DREAMER's powerful examination of imitation as a tool of not only communication but of identity building, as well as an in-depth discourse on the film's highly competent visual language.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
"THE BLINDNESS OF THE PRESENT"
Vicky smokes, drinks, dances, has no job, and no real prospects. The best that can be said, is that she passes the time. MILLENIUM MAMBO (Qian xi man po) is a chronicle of the floating year of her life, 2001, where she drifted farthest from herself. Ensconcing in the neon bath and anonymity of the Taipei nightclub scene to escape the claustrophobia of her relationship and apartment, Vicky divides her affections between two divergent men. The first is Hao-hao, her live-in boyfriend. He is a neurotic and jealous recluse, constantly suspecting Vicky of infidelity. He enacts absurd investigative rituals upon her everytime she returns home; including stripping her down to her underwear and smelling her body for the scents of other people, rooting through her purse and wallet, and even calling the numbers of suspect receipts. Vicky resolves to break from Hao-hao once she has spent the NT $500,000 from their bank account. As arbitrary a marker as that may be, it is definitive, and therefore becomes the single fixed point of gravity in Vicky's amorphous, vice-ruled complacency. Her constant return to Hao-hao is much less a response to gravity than it is, as suggested, a complacency, a reflex to her fear of "fully being," of actualizing within a broader scheme of uncertainties (this having somewhat to do with a country, Taiwan, that is experiencing its own existential limbo). The second man in Vicky's orbit is Jack, though he doesn't distinctly overlap Hoa-hao's timeline. Jack is a rather sensitive and modestly expressive gangster who meets Vicky in the bar in which she then plays hostess. Their relationship is chaste, and there is a resonant caring that Jack emanates for Vicky, who is left reeling after her break from Hao Hao. One might liken it, emotionally, to the kind of disruption one feels after spinning in circles repeatedly, and then suddenly halting. For a moment, it seems as if the only relief may be to start spinning again, but Vicky lets the tremors run their course instead, allows those detached floating landscapes to coalesce back into a single image of her world without Hao-hao (at least, she begins this process). Jack's mind and inclinations are clear, and he is patiently wades through Vicky’s process of self-reclamation, something he helps to mend with a parenting affection. There is a tangible potential between them, but it is up to Vicky to take hold of it, or even to see it. She is however, like most of us, blind in the present.
MILLENIUM MAMBO is driven by the same mechanisms of spontaneity, naturalism, and immediacy that all Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films are. However, MILLENIUM MAMBO, more than any of his earlier autobiographical extracts, has the distinct feeling of having been structured in its aftermath, and in no other case is this tactical retroaction more appropriate than in MILLENIUM MAMBO, as it is manifested through the refracted structuring of one woman, Vicky’s, memories of her 2001 year. The additional layer of Vicky’s active recollection through voice over narration channels a dimension of post-modernism heretofore untapped in Hou’s career, save for the emotionally-infused spatiotemporal complexity of GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN (1995) which scrambles itself with a deceptively simple vignetted formula. What Hou has done with these two films, particularly MILLENIUM MAMBO, is apply his early generalized thesis of building intimately framed, retroactive historical clarifications of the 20th Century Taiwanese experience, to a modern context via a solitary person. In MILLENIUM MAMBO he mirrors his repeated enaction of that thesis, shared of course by most filmmakers of the first Taiwan New Cinema movement, through the narrative device of Vicky's own self-remembrance.
Like a master storyteller, Hou establishes MILLENIUM MAMBO's meandering atemporal platform in the opening shot; We are the floating lens that follows behind Vicky, strolling through a long enclosed skywalk at night, smoking a cigarette, a dull neon-blue light bathing her from above. She looks at the city around her through the incremental arched openings of the walls. She looks behind, past us, to where she has come from, and eventually Vicky leaves us at the top of a flight of stairs as she continues onward. In this act of stopping, Hou intimates that Vicki's world is not confined by the frame, nor the by the duration of a scene, nor the parenthesis of the film itself. This long uninterrupted shot is a perfect microcosm of MILLENIUM MAMBO, made most evident by the back-logging voice-over narration of Vicky’s future self. A kind of self-reflexive self-reflection is manifested as Vicky looks through the openings of the skywalk concurrent with her future self, peering through an incremental threading of memories. And of course, in a few fleeting moments of this metonym, we see a Vicky that moves forward while looking back.
A sustaining rule of observation is that Hou’s films manifest in an accumulation, rather than by causality. They tend to mirror actuality, though perhaps differently than, say, Italian Neo Realism. A film like BICYCLE THEIVES, though equal to MILLENIUM MAMBO in its reflection of a specific time and place, occurs around a clear conflict. But as per the reality of our more affluent modern times, MILLENIUM MAMBO’s conflict is appropriately ambiguous and intangible, residing in the emotive and psycho-existential, rather than in the strata of pragmatic survival. So, it comes down to the fact that Hou and De Sica aren't divergent in their aim, merely that they differ in the nature their own personal contexts.
In MILLENIUM MAMBO, scenes are long, make very few cuts, and derive their dramaturgy from a language of minutia: hanging around in clubs, domestic quarreling, cleaning up an apartment, smoking, making a drink, all coupled with a natural un-manipulative sense of human sympathy and relatability. Hou's films carry the natural pulse and texture of their time and place, and he makes it clear in structure, by his aptitude for the peripheral world ( through diegetic sound, through absence, and through the acknowledgement by characters of places and moments outside of the immediate image), that the pulse extends beyond the formal confines of the narrative. For characters, like Vicky and Hao Hao, that are so lured, or lulled by the literal pulse of club music, they are completely out of sync with the pulse within their own lives and their relationship to the world. To an extent, they invent or adopt a kind of severity, a reaction to their claustrophobic floating lives, building conflict and suspicion upon vice and aimlessness. Hou is able to capture that feeling of emotional / biorhythmic divorce with a lingering but drifting camera, a visual distortion of characters by alternating shadow and neon, and by drowning out their words with the drone of diegetic techno music.
Because voice-over-narration is often a crutch, an escape, or a deliberate superfluity, one must be discerning of its functionality. In MILLENIUM MAMBO it is of a seemingly simple, but heavily compounded significance. The fact that future-Vicki is speaking of her past-self in third person suggests, first, that she no longer defines herself by her former standards or circumstances. She looks back on her actions of that year, 2001, and realizes what kind of spiral she caught herself in. She reflects on that year as a time that informed a transition. We don’t know how much she culled from those agonies, but we are aware of her self-awareness and of the distance that she required, as we all do, to gain any kind of inward objectivity. Vicky’s voice-over-narration touches on the idea that "hindsight is 20/20." She describes situations from her past before they happen on the screen, something that gently blindsides the audience on all its occasions. Future Vicky watches these events in stride with the audience. Her recollections are imbued, not with regret or judgment, but with an understanding and an earned clarity. Not only that, but under the insinuation that each scene is a “memory viewed from above,” v-o-n puts the film into a cerebral setting, as though we are witness to Vicky’s actual memory, as well as privy to her cognitive act of remembering.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, v-o-n is yet another way of showing, within the closed text opportunity of the film, that Vicki's world doesn't simply end in 2001 with the credits. It continues to exist outside of our ability to see it. She continues to have self doubt, to wander, and to seek the avenue back to herself. This lends an additional layer of realism to the film.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
TIME TO LIVE, AND THE TIME TO DIE (Taiwanese) is a work of nostalgia in its most considered, sensitive, and articulate form. It is a semi-autobiographical extract on the part of director Hou Hsiao-hsien, concerning a family that has relocated to Taiwan from China (taking place during the mass exodus of roughly two-million Chinese to the island of Taiwan with their Nationalist leader Chiang-kai shek after Mao established the Communist “Peoples’s Republic of China.” Spanning the years of 1947-1960, the film follows the maturation of young Ah-ha, as he and his family cope with the shock of leaving their homeland. Ah-ha acclimates quickly to his new conditions, but the strain of the move and the subtle cultural alienations that plague his parents, marry to the angst of his coming-of-age and build a wedge between them. This condition of a growing generational divergence, reveals itself through Ah-ha’s siblings, such as his older sister who contends with her mother’s inclination towards “domesticity over education.” Across the film’s 138 minutes, we experience a medley of incremental moments in the life of this family; steeped in a somehow ravishing domestic innocuity, composed of family meals, children studying for their exams, Ah-ha and his gang inciting a ‘bored youth’ rebellion, etc.
Many subtle decisions on the part of filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, help to embody and express the retrospective dimension of the rather personal material that composes the film, which in context with the Taiwan New Cinema movement (1980’s-90’s), becomes a retroactive clarification of the 20th Century Taiwanese experience, void of any mainland Chinese media filter or mandate. In this sense, A TIME TO LIVE…, alternately personal and microcosmic, operates by tenants that are not necessarily narrative. Hou instead, allows the visual and aural faculties of the film to communicate a quality of recollection. “His film proceeds by accumulation rather than synthesis.” (Corrado Neri) For this reason, the film cannot be discussed in the ways of “A leading to B.” What comes to the fore, in films of this design, are tones and ideas expressed through a particular language of framing and pacing. Time and place supercede explicit narrative, and therefore it is more constructive to discuss the filmmaker’s language as it carries commentary and content by its devices, often rather than, or involving, what happens in the particular.
Hou is a master of obliquity, both by virtue of his non-causal narrative style, but by his aesthetic language of acknowledging the “outside of the picture frame” and the gaps of recollection. Translating to a brand of “indirectness,” Hou enunciates the limited capacity of memories, which are bound by the constraints of the individual’s dated subjectivities, by allowing the unseen to carry weight. Many impending social references are kept off-screen, or mentioned in passing, just as their consequences are suggested peripherally by disruptive sounds and presences; the roll of thunder, tanks rumbling on the road at night and the tracks that remain in the dirt the next morning, a startling punctuation of men on horseback galloping through the town in midday. By this manner of “omission through indirectness,” A TIME TO LIVE… suggests a certain lurking, subversive quality about the continuance of sociopolitical strife; undisclosed but particular to this time period, Taiwan has been left in the wake of the cessation of Japanese occupation.
The film also expresses these veiled realities in the terms of a child, Ah-ha, with only vague conceptions of sociopolitical issues. At the core of the film is the challenge against personal identity inherent in being severed from ones home, as well as the varied adaptivity exhibited by the older and younger generation. The children, raised in Taiwan instead of China, are almost fully detached from the existential severity of that strain. Ah-ha and his siblings are more or less born into a broken frame of reference, a convoluted impression of feeling “at home” while their parents are floating in realm of “homelessness.” This psychological conflict carries a reticent but profound violence. Those who suffer most from the detachment complex succumb to it and die; the tender but disoriented grandmother who left her heart in China (wandering, sometimes even forgetting that she is in Taiwan, asking for directions to places in her old villiage), and the Father, who’s best but ultimately exhaustive efforts were to keep his family safe and taken care of.
Like all of Hou’s films, A TIME TO LIVE… unfolds in long, lingering shots and sequences, which is a great service to the viewer by placing them on the same experiential level as the characters, sometimes literally. For example, during the “mourning sequence,” in which Ah-ha and his entire immediate family are gathered together, weeping and wailing in the room with their Father’s dead body, the camera, at one point, rests on the floor as if to say, we too have collapsed to the ground in sadness. The scene is so humbling and effective in this regard because the camera refuses to leave, distract with movement, nor was it cut to accelerate or artificially enhance it’s pacing. We get the full visceral experience unraveling in its own time. A TIME TO LIVE…’s inclusive effect (which is constantly at play) also occurs much earlier in the film during a dinner sequence. The camera rests lowly, alongside the seated family members, suggesting that the viewer is seated among them. In adopting this role, one is offered a kind of naïve omniscience. We learn things as the characters do, but are uniquely privy to everything that DOES occur, no matter how seemingly inconsequential.
Things come slowly in this film. Everything seems to happen at a naturalistic pace, due to the extended takes which exploit how long it actually takes for any dance of actions to complete itself (though I often thought they could go even longer). The visual makeup of each scene is incredibly intimate, though with a sensitivity is neither saccharine nor overly sentimental. In fact, “Hou carries out his work through a de-personalization of the narration, putting his intimate feelings at a distance and choosing a detached perspective, as if he were merely a spectator of his own story and not the protagonist.” (Corrado Neri) In effect, Hou and the viewer become synonymous in their designation. The intimacy therefore lies in a concomitance of visual proximity to the characters, and the degree of revelation concerning them.
Since most of the film unravels indoors, the camera captures low, linear, interior shots and compositions, often framing the simultaneity of interior and exterior spaces (and by extension of metaphor, public and private realms). Cinematographer PIN BING LEE mostly employs progressive axial cuts, and moderate pans (generally to keep characters in the frame.) rather than any boisterous or self-conscious displays of stylistic movement. All the self-conscious implications are carried by the viewers’ unflinching awareness of each situation. LEE's restraint helps keep the camera within a human range of motion, relating to the viewers’ own. It is also a beautiful response to the architecture of the homes, which informs upon so much of the culture. Lee’s cinematography is reflexive of the seeming simplicity of Ah-ha’s family’s lifestyle. The word “seeming” is important because the simple, calm, and ultimately gorgeous linear compositions by LEE are in fact a juxtaposition to the series of complex and affecting existential strains experienced by both the young and old; passing school, work, maintaining the household in the absence of a parent, illness, conflict of identity, adolescence.
Perhaps the most obvious visual tactic by Hou is the films palette. It is a collection of mostly desaturated greens, beiges, grays, and resonant whites (which effervesce a youthful, chaste ambiance inside the house.) Just as images degrade in time, so have these memories, the family structure, the sustainability of cultural maxims, ect. Hand-in-hand with the film’s piece-meal accrual, Hou’s muted palette evokes a sense of the passing of time by the vehicle of memory.