Wednesday, February 15, 2012

WITHOUT A SCREEN - Proof By Contradiction

In response to the On-Demand release of David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, which enjoyed screenings at the 2011 Philadelphia Film Festival, Without A Screen curates a hypothetical series of sense-related cinema. Films of the Proof By Contradiction subset explore humanity through its negation, where various human biological functions are crippled to produce platforms of existential inquiry. In the case of Perfect Sense it is the senses themselves slain by a mysterious and indiscriminant epidemic, which sweeps the globe in stages. The consequences and adaptations, which stem from that loss, are expressed in intimate scale between a Chef named Michael (Ewan McGregor) and a scientist named Susan (Eva Green). Their lives, together and apart, are macrocosmic prisms for a global event. Our physical capacities (senses) are inextricably entwined with our cognitive and emotional being (identity). Proof By Contradiction films posit this mind-body contiguity by displacing it. 

The films selected for Proof By Contradiction affect as deeply and memorably as they do because they are, point of fact, human, universal. They appeal to our most corporeal and emotional selves, while challenging expectations and perceptions of the body and of personhood. The things at stake in such narratives are those most basic modes of our experience (the functions of the human body), and that which we accrue through experience and reform into identity. Incidentally, these functions (sensory perception, biological functions) are the things taken most for granted because they are as buried in the programming as instinct. Oppositely, society venerates those who gain mastery of the senses, and derides any compromise of those faculties. The most telling truths however reside in the revolutionary event of adaptation, wherein lies the proof of humanity. Proof By Contradiction collects films that document this event, in response to revocation, or to the introduction of new social paradigms concerning “the body.”

Dancer In The Dark (2000) – Selma (Bjork) works herself to the bone, saving money to pay for her son Gene’s eye operation. She keeps this fact secret from Gene, for fear of escalating his condition through worry. In the doldrums of work and a marginal existence, her imagination sets fly into elaborate musical numbers that incorporate the elements and sounds of her environment; ie the industrial machines at the plant, the nearby trains. Selma too is going blind, and is nearly so. Her ability to work, the joy she derives from seeing the world, and her elation about participating in a local musical production constantly decline. A tragic line of causality leads her into the direst circumstances, where her hard-earned money and therefore her son’s operation are in jeopardy. Lars Von Trier’s film is brilliantly manipulative on an emotional front, yet its unvarnished expression and life-imbued performances render Dancer In The Dark earnest and authentic. The dramatic use of the “musical film” form is all the more rending because of these qualities as well.

Children of Men (2006) - Women have stopped conceiving. A child hasn’t been born in almost 20 years, without any explanation. Societies and values crumble in reaction to the seeming inevitability of human extinction, raging against their powerlessness to stop it. A band of rebels aim to get a woman of unique importance to the coast as they encounter conditions reminiscent of the holocaust. Direcor Alfonso Cuaron creates a desperate world of remarkable tactility, wherein the tactility is its greatest sensationalism. Cuaron’s spectacle has gravity and he explores the experience of a world rendered infertile on the scale of individuals.

Love and Honor (Bushi no Ichibun, 2006) – Shinnojo is a young samurai with dreams of opening a kendo school for young boys. He lives peacefully with his wife in a modest but beautiful home. To his disappointment he is assigned as a food taster for his feudal lord. During a routine tasting, he is struck with fever and goes blind. Investigations reveal that an out of season shell-fish was the cause. Relegated to his home, Shinnojo undergoes an existential crisis, where his capacities as a samurai and a caretaker are challenged. He rises to the occasion however, when his wife is marred by a high-ranking samurai’s amorality. Yamada explores the drama as a subject and blindness as an object. Within a society of such fastidiousness, ritual, and formal precision, it is all the more compelling to observe someone navigate an incapacity to participate in that behavior. His film has a small scale, and is all the better for its lack of irony. With Love And Honor as example, Yamada is a master of negotiating the line between sensitivity and sentimentality.

The Fly (1986) - A reclusive scientific genius named Seth Brundle (Jeff Golblum at his absolute best) is troubleshooting a short-range teleportation device. When a fly is trapped in the machine during a test, the machine combines its DNA with Brundle’s, and he finds himself slowly mutating into a human-fly hybrid. Verinica Quaife, the journalist documenting Brundle’s experiments and falling in love in the process, is  powerless to stop the degradation. Cronenberg’s visionary work devastates as it dissolves a man’s humanity piece by piece, and yet invigorates the human spirit as Brundle feverishly works to undo the mistake and teach his machine the distinctness of forms.

28 Days Later (2003) – The Rage Virus, an infection of the blood which limits the human emotional spectrum to unadulterated anger, spreads across England and presumably the world. Danny Boyle drops us into the middle of the melee, as confused and fearful as Jim (Cillian Murphy), who wakes from a coma to a desolate and littered London. He joins a small band of survivors that do whatever they can to stay alive. Along the way, Boyle expresses many attitudes towards this new paradigm of living, and the seemingly hopeless prospects for a future. The removal of emotions renders humans into a loosed rabid animal, and 28 Days Later wonders to what degree our emotional agency determines our personhood. Boyle shows rather than tells, with unrefined grit.

Womb (2010) – Rebecca (Eva Green) and Thomas (Matt Smith) are childhood best friends, and also each other’s first love. They are separated when she is relocated to Japan, but returns to the seaside town of their youthful days after college. Thomas still lives there, and they begin to reconnect, remembering the bond of their childhood. Tragedy separates them once more, but they are “reunited” when Rebecca makes a controversial decision to give Thomas a second chance at life. Womb is achingly beautiful, and cool to the touch. Its mood is rarefied, and its time is unfixable.

Never Let Me Go (2010) - As children, Ruth, Kathy and Tommy, attend an English boarding school, and director Mark Romanek entreats us to the devastating social and emotional turmoil inherent in such an environment. Now come of age, and placed in halfway houses associated to the school, the trio find themselves coming to terms with complexities of their reality and their shared histories. With time advancing on the guarded purposes of their existence, they prepare themselves for a haunting prospect. Like Womb, the future feels distinctly like the present (if not timeless), which makes Never Let Me Go all the more effective on an emotional appeal.

Without A Screen : Zaha Hadid’s Cinema of Form

Through March 25th the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perlman Building hosts Form in Motion; a groundbreaking exhibition of Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid’s sculptural design. Winner of numerous awards for her daring and originality, Hadid is under commission for the 2012 London Olympics. In fact, her creations are currently being built in 40 different countries. Her combination of protrusive organic formations, linear embellishments, futuristic sensibilities, and grand scale might well make her worlds first Naturo-Brutalist for all her forceful presence. For this unique site-specific exhibition – the first solo exhibition of her product designs in the US – Hadid orchestrates a “carefully controlled movement through space,” which suggests to the author, an analogy to the action of filmmaking, and to the experience of cinema. (Hiesinge) Where cinema creates form from movement, Hadid creates movement from form. Her objects and her environment are sinuous and continuous.

Without A Screen responds to the experiential exhibition and Hadid’s distinctly sensuous voice with a hypothetical film curatorial. These interpretive associations between Form In Motion and particular films are fluid and subjective, and not meant to insinuate deliberate references on the part of the artist. Some connections are obvious and material, others are abstract and stream of consciousness, but all are intuitive.  

More than a mere selection of Hadid’s sculptural objects – not all of which will be discussed - the gallery at the Perlman is rendered into an “interior landscape,” where structure, terrain, space and light are augmented to fuse a sense of inside and outside, design and nature. Though Form in Motion imparts an overall sense of sterility - due to its limited palate (black, white, grey/silver) and the laser precision of its surfaces - Hadid elicits entropy and erosion in her references. Whether remarking on her sofas, tables, “lounge” chairs, shoes, twisting neon chandeliers, or waveform architectural walls, Hadid’s formations are akin to those arrived at in nature by geologic processes like erosion. Hadid distills and refines her futuristic forms through the most advanced materials and fabrication techniques; a juxtaposition of organic resemblances and industrial processes.

One’s first encounter in Form in Motion is an open circular antechamber, the ceiling of which is partially domed. For individuals beneath the circumference of the dome, sounds made within that same space (ones own voice, footsteps, shuffling, breathing) amplify and reverberate. Hadid’s dome creates a privatized sensory event that envelopes the experiencer(s) with its cinematic fullness, as well as its finitude. In effect, she washes away the recent history of each viewer, prepares them for the exaggerated quality of her forms, and reminds the viewer of their integral part in the equation of art. The white floor is marked here with broad curling strokes of black, evocative of waves or even tribal iconography. The marks, flowing from inside the gallery proper, have both a coaxing undercurrent and an expulsive push. As if wading upstream in the ripples, one enters into Form in Motion where the artist presents a visual timeframe that is both primordial and ultramodern, wherein the individual provides the “present.”
Astride the futuristically chic Zephyr sofa at the fore of the main gallery, are two curving neon Vortexx Chandeliers that funnel down from the ceiling and bask a white stage in shifting colored light. They strongly evoke the neon-embellished industrial designs of Tron Legacy (2011) as much as they do the warped architectural forms of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926). Hadid’s association to Gaudi, appropriate to much of her work, can be fully appreciated in the visual documentary Antonio Gaudi (1972); director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s own poetic “carefully controlled movement” through beguiling manipulations of space and form. The Vortexx Chandeliers appear to be simple free-form spirals, but closer inspection reveals the elegance of Hadid’s tangles. Each Chandelier, varied on the same warped spiral movement, eventually twists up through its own center and back onto itself. The effect is Mobius-like. Filmmaker David Lynch comes to mind, having performed a similar act of inversion, in narrative terms, with the structure of Lost Highway (1997). While in prison for a terrible crime, a disturbed musician named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) undergoes an identity-fugue. By becoming a much younger man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), he finds himself living a new almost diametric life. Lynch convolutedly and terrifyingly leads Pete back around to his former identity, not unlike what Hadid does with her Chandeliers, and also with the gallery; returning the viewer to an experience of themself in the antechamber as they exit.

Turning one’s attention from the Vortexx Chandeliers, Hadid’s creative inclusion of the floor becomes evident. The black graphic striations, continued from the antechamber, read like rippled reflections of the undulating wall structure that runs along the entire left side of the gallery. Her graphic references are to the ebb and flow of the nearby Schuylkill River, and its understated significance to the formation of the area. The opening shots of Rian Johnson’s High School set neo-noir Brick (2005) surface in thought. Indelibly imprinted with their bluish tint and tinkering incidental music, Johnson reveals a dead girl’s braceletted hand lapped by the soft ripples of a creek. This image sets the dramatic entropy of the film motion. South Korean filmmaker Chang-dong Lee’s film Poetry (2010) also begins and ends with the ebb and flow of a river that buoys yet another dead girl’s body. The girl’s cause of death bears great consequence for Mija (Jeong-hie Yun), an old optimistic woman raising her snide grandson, consumed by a late-life interest in writing poetry. Like Form in Motion, Poetry contains a liquid constancy throughout its deliberate anticlimaxes. Ruminations on Brick and Poetry infuse Hadid’s “river” with an unintentionally somber essence.

The river, and the aforementioned “waveform wall structure,” have a distinct relationship to one another. Built into the gallery itself, the wall functions as an object, a stage for other objects, and barrier to create a space-within-a-space; a concealed video lounge featuring computer generated models of Hadid’s architectural projects. The wall’s stacked topographical construction recalls sedimentary formations and the rivulets of dessert sands. No film has ever extracted greater poetry out of sand than Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964), about a nameless man on a quest to discover a new species of beetle in the dessert. He finds himself forcibly sharing a house with a woman at the bottom of a giant sand pit, and the film depicts his feverish stages of reaction to this situation. Looking up at the wall, one feels as the film’s nameless protagonist might; daunted by the imposing enormity. Teshigahara’s adaptation of author Kobo Abe’s existential masterwork is a visually textural experience (sand, flesh, water, sweat, wood), and for that fact, the smoothness and starkness of Hadid’s wall feels all-the-more like a polished abstraction of natural formations.  The river flows round the wall, responding to it and shaping it. All the objects placed on the floor space are also shaped roundly by the erosive flow of “water.”

Elongated barnacle-like growths emerge from the wall, around the far bend. Their pearlescent-grey scooped-out contours could almost cradle a human body, and inspire a vague recollection of Japan’s infamous capsule hotels. A much more subjective association to Hadid’s capsule forms is yet again from Woman in the Dunes. The nameless man sits inside a small abandoned skiff, slowly being consumed by desert sands. This existentially ripe image of a landlocked seacraft has appeared in numerous films - Never Let Me Go (2011), and Ki-duk Kim’s Samaritan Girl (2004) to name a few. The boat’s form, and therefore its emptiness are asserted by its unconventional locale, just as Hadid’s capsules raise curiosities about their proportional relationship to the human body vs. their vertical arrangement.

The movement of the exhibition – the overriding directionality of the wall / floor-piece, and the smooth curvature of all Hadid’s sculptural forms - has a kinship to the elliptical cinematography of Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien. In particular, Form In Motion recalls Café Lumiere, Hou’s homage to Yasujro Ozu. The film patiently revolves around Yoko, a young and suddenly pregnant Japanese woman researching a Taiwanese composer. The film is airy and crisp in its simplicity as Hou negotiates Yoko’s relationship with her parents, her quietly budding friendship to a bookstore clerk, and to the city itself. As always, Hou’s camera follows the movement of individuals in spaces from relatively fixed perspectives, without breaking continuity. The unblinking lens allows the viewer to enter fully into Café Lumiere’s environs, and to bask in the days’ softly diffused light. Café Lumiere draws parallels between the chaotic-yet-regulated beauty of Tokyo’s rail systems, and the chaotic-yet-regulated courses of individuals. It isn’t difficult to extract Hadid’s river from Hou’s rails.