Thursday, March 29, 2007

Le Chat Dans Le Sac

802_3.jpg

"The Canadians are like the Jews, they're continually examining their identity... Canadians have always understood that we have to go along with the United States to a certain extent. But even though article after article threatens us with the extinction of our identity, I don't think anybody in Canada seriously believes that we're going to become Americans. It's a curious kind of paranoia." --Leonard Cohen


With the advent of light-weight cameras and faster film, most every major national cinema saw the emergence of filmmakers who took to the streets to create more spontaneous forms of filmmaking. Whether referenced as Direct Cinema or Cinema Verite, most cinephiles are familiar with the films of the French, American, British, Polish and Czech New Waves. But what of the Canadians? What where they up to?

Starting Tuesday, the NWFF will be showing four films of the Canadian New Wave. Le Chat Dans Le Sac and Nobody Waved Goodbye from 1964, Entre La Mer Et L'Eau Douce [67] and A Married Couple [69]. As befits a country split between Anglo and French identity, two of the films are in English and two are in French.
With the exception of A Married Couple, the films were produced by the National Film Board. The NFB was created in 1939 by Parliament to "produce and distribute and to promote the production and distribution of films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations." Prior to the 60's most films produced by the NFB tended to be documentaries, animations, educational movies, children's films and comic shorts with titles like Adventure in Newfoundland and Beaver Dam. Dramatic narratives tended to be social problem films on topics like immigration, mental illness and labor relations.
In a sense, both Le Chat Dans Le Sac and Nobody Waved Goodbye stem from this tradition. Gilles Groulx and Don Owen, the respective directors, were each assigned to make a half-hour educational film on disaffected youth; both jettisoned the purely documentary approach to produce a narrative feature about a self-absorbed young man and his girlfriend; both created pieces with a fresh, spontaneous style. Of the two films, however, Le Chat Dans Le Sac is the one that bears the closer kinship to the reflexivity of the New Wave.
Despite a few visual flourishes, Le Chat Dans Le Sac possesses neither the giddiness of Godard nor the charm of Truffaut. There is no nudity, no spontaneous outbursts of song and dance, no doing the Madison in crowded cafe's, no running through the Louvre, no ironic references to American products, no cameos by Bridget Bardot. There is, however, plenty of smoking, philosophizing, le musique Jazz and eating breakfast in sunglasses.
Most importantly, the film has a semi-documentary approach and confrontational style that draws one into a distinction between the film as observation and fiction. The most Godardian scene comes early when Claude, a 23-year old Quebecois with a slight whiff of Delon, introduces himself via his library. Holding up a succession of books, he presents a cavalcade of 60's revolutionary, anti-colonialist thought. The Negro Revolt by Louis Lomax, The Cuban Revolution by Claude Julien and The Wretched of The Earth by Frantz Fanon. Close-ups of newspaper clippings accentuate the Godardian incorporation of actuality.
In addition, his girlfriend, Barbara, references Anna Karina to the point where she points to a picture from Vivre sa Vie and asks, "Do I look like her?"
In a interesting way, Groulx's film has an angle over Godard. Whereas Godard's characters tend to be bourgeois rebels, the protagonist of Le Chat, by dint of being French-Canadian, is something of a colonial subject. Granted, Quebec was not Algeria, but it was a period in which Quebecers began seeking economic and political autonomy from a predominantly English government and social autonomy from a predominantly Catholic society.
Despite the political setting, the film is not a discourse on the Quiet Revolution, but a story about what it is to be young, gifted and Canadian. Claude fancies himself a man of action, but his actions mostly amount to reading the newspaper. Disliking society, he freely admits the world doesn't engage him. Although fitfully applying himself as a reporter, he seems more intent on submitting philosophical ramblings than journalism. As an endlessly patient editor tries to explain that news comes from people and not books, Claude holds a rolled paper in front of his face like a shield.
Ironically, it is his unabashedly middle-class girlfriend who engages herself in living. A student at the National Theatre, she pursues acting with a commitment that alienates him. Whenever she tries to discuss a play she's working on, he buries himself in the news. Later, in what has to be a classic illustration of a relationship-killing argument, he berates her for spending time on her make-up before coming to bed.
Ultimately, sensing his moment, Claude takes action. He moves 942 kilometers away to the countryside, in the winter, to brood among the snowdrifts while listening to Couperin. He keeps up with the news and Barbara gallantly pays him visits, trying to keep the relationship afloat.
If Claude elicits our sympathy more than our impatience, it is because his predicament parallels the director's. Gilles Groulx grew up in a large working-class family. After studying business he worked in an office, but quit the white collar grind to study philosophy. He also began making 8mm films and landed a job as a picture editor at the CBC. After directing a few shorts he was hired by the NFB in 1958.
Although Le Chat Dans Le Sac wasn't his first film, it was his first narrative feature and among the first auteurist efforts of the French-Canadian scene. Throughout his career and life, Groulx continued to exert a strong influence on filmmaking in Quebec.
Whatever the ramifications of Le Chat as a historical document, it can be enjoyed as a cultural artifact. A b&w slice of 1964 Montreal with references to Brecht, de Beauvoir and Monica Vitti.
Le Chat Dans Le Sac plays at NWFF
April 3-4, Tues-Wed at 7, 9pm (74 min.)

Friday, March 23, 2007

He Don't Use Jelly

MATTHEW BARNEY: NO RESTRAINT
(Alison Chernick, US, 2006, DV-CAM, 70 mins.)


[bjork]
Björk Guðmundsdóttir in Drawing Restraint 9

I know a girl who thinks of ghosts
She'll make you breakfast
She'll make you toast
She don't use butter
She don't use cheese
She don't use jelly
Or any of these
She uses Va-a-a-a-aseline.

-- The Flaming Lips, "She Don't Use Jelly" (1993)


[vaseline]

Even if you've only heard about Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 (2005),
you might assume the "9" was a randomly chosen number. From Alison Chernick's short, but informative documentary, I learned that his 11-part "Drawing Restraint" series actually began when he was a college student in the late-1980s.

Chernick's film is full of such facts. I can't say how interesting the uninitiated will find them, but the background she provides sheds welcome light on his work. I still find his dependence on Vaseline excessive, but it certainly confirms his iconoclastic rep!

[barney]
More Björk

In brief, Drawing Restraint 9 concerns the evolution--or devolution, depending on your point of view--of two "Occidental Guests" (Barney and his real-life partner, Björk) Most of the action takes place on the Japanese whaling ship the Nisshin Maru.

Being the unconventional director that he is, Barney didn't simply commission a making-of featurette. Nor has he even announced a DVD release. Instead he
allowed Chernick (The Jeff Koons Show) to produce her own film about his effort
to get this unusual cinematic/sculptural project off the ground--and onto the sea.

Because of his life-long interest in petroleum jelly as a sculpting agent, Barney decided to base an entire movie around its origins. He's as fascinated by the texture--liquid when hot, solid when cold--as its link with the prehistoric world.

After some casting experiments in New York, the production moves to Nagasaki.
Throughout Drawing Restraint 9, his Guest works on a vaguely cross-shaped piece made out of 45,000 pounds of the slippery stuff, while sailing on the Nisshin Maru. The ship's other Guest (Björk) spends most of her time preparing for the elaborate tea ceremony in which the two participate towards the end of the film.

During the shoot, the Nisshin crew has other concerns, like their goal to catch
440 whales for the purposes of research and "production" (a term left undefined).

In other words, this is an active whaling ship--reportedly one of the few remaining--and not just an over-sized staging platform for ambitious conceptual artists. So
when they're not working on Barney's thing, they're working on their own.

[knives]

Let the flensing begin!

As Barney explains, the ship represents Japan. The Guests represent land mammals. Once these foreigners board the vessel, their transformation into
sea creatures begins. In addition, he sees their metamorphosis as a love story.

Björk, who also serves as composer, seems to agree since she describes
Japan as "neutral ground" between Barney's America and her Iceland.

Aside from B&B, Chernick speaks with crew members, gallery owners, producers, critics, architects, relatives, and the head of the Japanese Whaling Commission,
who laughingly admits the project makes absolutely no sense to him.

Along the way, she doubles back to look at the Boise-bred, football-playing,
Yale-educated artist's early career--yes, as his dad notes, "Matt" was using Vaseline right from the start. And he modeled on the side, which was considered controversial (it made him a more compelling personality to some, less so to others).

She also includes family photos, pictures of sculptures, footage from performance pieces, and clips from his films, including the five-part Cremaster series and shorts, like "Radial Drill," in which Barney leaps about in gown, gloves, and high heels.

If you caught Drawing Restraint 9 and wondered how Matthew Barney made it
happen, No Restraint is your answer. For those who haven't seen the movie,
it serves as a nice introduction to this one-of-a-kind filmmaker. And though
it isn't a complete puff piece, Chernick is more flattering to Barney than not.

That said, she does leave a few mysteries unsolved. Since artists are a lot like magicians, that may be intentional. Consequently, I have no idea what happens to all that petrolatum when Barney's finished with it--and I'm not sure I want to know!

[drawing restraint 9]
The raw material for petroleum jelly was discovered in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania where it was stuck to some of the first oil rigs in the U.S. The workers hated the paraffin like material because it caused the rigs to seize up, but they used it on cuts and burns because it hastened healing. Robert Chesebrough, a young chemist whose previous work, distilling fuel from the oil of sperm whales, had been rendered obsolete by petroleum, went to Titusville to see what new materials had commercial potential. Chesebrough
took the unrefined black "rod wax", as the drillers called it, back to his laboratory to refine it and explore potential uses. Chesebrough discovered that by distilling the lighter, thinner oil products from the rod wax, he could create a light-colored gel. Chesebrough patented the process of making petroleum jelly (U.S. Patent 127,568) in 1872... Chesebrough traveled around New York State demonstrating the product to encourage sales by burning his skin with acid or an open flame, then spreading the ointment on his injuries and showing his past injuries healed, he claimed, by his miracle product. Chesebrough opened his first factory in 1870 in Brooklyn. The brand name "Vaseline" stems from the German word for water,
wasser...and the Greek word for oil, elaion.
-- From the Wikipedia entry on petroleum jelly




Matthew Barney: No Restraint plays the Northwest Film Forum
on 3/23-29 , Fri.-Thurs. at 6:30, 8, and 9:30pm. The NWFF is located at
1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here or call 206-267-
5380 for show times. Björk's new album, Volta, hits the streets on 5/7.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Miscellany


Just a quick note to let readers and authors know a few things:


1. Comments are screwed up. I still haven't been able to figure out why; I am working on it, but I don't have the limitless expanses of time needed to do a true line-by-line trace on the code to find the error. I have begun looking into professional hosting options for the site.


2. If professional hosting adds to my expenses too much, then the next resolution to the problem is to do a clean reinstall of Moveable Type; this also requires a system-wide upgrade of the operating system on the server, changing the local email-handling program, and fiddling with several other major webserver components. I would estimate the job would take about 16 hours total work time and basically a full weekend of fiddling, research, homework, fuckups, and rebooting. Thus, I'm a tad reluctant.


3. Another alternative would be for me to begin building a new server on an existing extra computer in my house. That's a better approach as it would involve less random rebooting and server disruption.


4. Site traffic has been holding steady at 250 to 300 site visitors daily. That is good news and what I was hoping to see for the project by this year. As a result, in with several other websites I run, I think I might be able to cover current hosting costs directly by implementing Google AdWords. Again, this is a research project for me and I will check in before I implement any advertising solution.


5. I don't think the RSS-based local movie times feed is coming back soon. I am looking at alternatives but do not expect to see a good solution. One which occurs to me is to simply gather the movie times manually and include selected listings as a regular content feature here. I feel that perhaps we should be doing this anyway - wouldn't it be convenient to be able to easily find the schedules for every local cinematheque in one place? Add regional silents to the mix (cough, David, cough) and the site becomes a crucial information resource for the audience we're writing for as well as a critical soapbox.



Deadwood


I have been thinking about westerns on and off this year - I'm working my way through Deadwood and a trip to The Searchers and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance seems in order. I might want to review the Leone / Eastwood Man with No Name stuff too but that material is much more familiar to me than the Ford / Wayne material.


The Ford stuff, if I recall correctly, presents a myth of the West in which good men compromise themselves in order to bring the benefits of law-n-order to the lawless plains. Having done so, these men find themselves unable to fit into the new framework, which turns out to be more compromised than they are (suits, showers, and building codes apparently greater burdens on the conscience than genocide and rapine). The fear and discomfort of the characters as they shift nervously in front of the newcomers, the feminized easterners, the women, is played for laughs but reflects an American media tradition of misogyny that was more actively damaging to the audiences of the time than the genocidal acts of their ancestors.


The sixties stuff sort of dispenses with the idea of nobility save as the active principals in the tales exhibit an existential morality - thus the Good is true to himself, the Bad is a paid assassin and military man, and the Ugly is fundamentally uncertain of his alliegances. Eastwood's later Westerns exhibit a hybrid attitude between the Ford-birthed myth of the cantankerous misfit law bringer who retires to his hand-hewn cabin on far Olympus and the existential hero who only accedes to nobility when acting in the service of his own agonizingly accepted desires..


Deadwood seems to be engaged in birthing a new myth, not one that I find tremendously appealing (although the show itself I find magnificent). The show, for the uninitiated, depicts the transition from extraterritorial mining camp to incorporated American town of Deadwood, South Dakota during the Black Hills gold rush of the 1880s. As the show progresses the initial cast of bedraggled, mudspattered reprobates and refugees from the crowded metropolises of the East are increasingly joined by later arrivals, all of whom exhibit greater comfort with the day-to-day comforts and treacheries of civilization than the initial set of characters. The central hook of the show reflects a Fordian premise in contrasting the 'honest' savagery of the pioneer with the back-room evils of civilization. But the apparent contrast can also be viewed as a purely nihilistic view of humanity, and the theme of going along to get along is clearly the show's central moral perspective.


If we accept the thesis that Westerns have always functioned as a bellwether of America's self-image and value set, the show predicts a horrible and highly corrupt future for our nation. It seems unlikely that the show runners are constructing a deliberate reflection of the consequences of American actions in Iraq. They are clearly developing a self-justifying pseudohistory in which it is necessary for all members of the body politic to lie to one another and to themselves about their own actions with no sense of personal responsibility. Within the show, the only consequence of taking such responsibility is horror, death, and murder.


I would say that such a perspective appears to me to be the necessary underpinning of contemporary American corporate life, most especially including life in entertainment media.


But I exaggerate. I believe I will watch the show once more with this interpretation in mind and an eye for at the very least existential-style nobility - when a character knows their own mind and acts upon it, are they punished, or lifted up?



Saturday, March 10, 2007

To become immortal...

Army of Shadows / L'Armée des ombres
(Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1969, 35mm, 145 mins.)


Army of Shadows still resonates with the truth and
tragedy of its awful yet sometimes beautiful time.

-- Michael Wilmington, The Chicago Tribune

That rare work of art that thrills the senses and the mind.
-- Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

*****

Last August, I caught a screening of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows during its first-ever US release. I had a feeling, at the time, that I wouldn't see a better film in 2006. I didn't, and it topped my list for the year. (It also topped the lists of local critics Sheila Benson and Annie Wagner.)

[cover art]

Lino Ventura's Phillipe prefigures Gene Hackman's Harry Caul
Although this is the kind of action-oriented, yet elegantly composed wartime
picture that plays best on the big screen, a digital viewing is better than none
at all, so I was thrilled to hear that a release date has finally been announced.

The Criterion Collection will be issuing a double-disc edition of Army of Shadows
on May 15th. Extras include commentary by author Ginette Vincendeau and interviews with cinematographer Pierre L'Homme and editor Françoise Bonnot.

[Simone Signoret as Mathilde]

For more information, please click here for the Rialto listing (trailer,
reviews, etc.), here for the Criterion Collection listing (technical specs,
etc.), here for the Amazon listing, and here for my original review.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Bowie Eyed Dog (El Aura)

EL AURA
(Fabián
Bielinsky,
Argentina,
35mm, 2005,
129 mins.)


The Taxidermist with No Name



A black eyed dog he called at my door
The black eyed dog he called for more
A black eyed dog he knew my name.

-- Nick Drake, "Black Eyed Dog" (1974)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Nine Queens (2000), Fabián Bielinsky's first film, was like The Big Con
(1940) come to life. Two Buenos Aires-based con men (Gastón Pauls and
Ricardo Darín
) spend the entire time doing what they do best--separat-
ing marks from their wallets--but there's this disquieting tension through-
out. Is one also conning the other or is a dual-con in the works? The film is essential viewing for fans of The Sting, The Spanish Prisoner--even The Wizard of Oz. Released in the US three years later, it was one of my favorites of 2003, and I looked forward to seeing what Bielinsky would do next.

Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas)

The Argentin-
ian writer/dir-
ector proceeded to do something good and something terrible. First, he made El Aura, thus proving that Nine Queens was no fluke.

Then, a year later, he died of a heart attack. On the way to the press
screening, I was hoping against hope that his final film wouldn't disap-
point. I was also concerned that, even if it did live up to my expectations, I'd feel so sad while watching that I wouldn't be able to fully enjoy myself. Fortunately, I got sucked into the story so quickly I forgot all about Bielinsky's untimely passing--until immediately after it ended.

While it saddens me that his filmography consists of only two entries,
I'm thankful he went out with such style. El Aura starts out as a two-
hander, like Nine Queens, but soon segues into something darker and
altogether stranger. On the one hand, it's more ambitious. On the oth-
er, it's more difficult. It's also more of a character study than Nine
Queens
, and Bielinsky has conjured up one heck of a character.

In the expertly choreographed opening sequence, he introduces
an unnamed taxidermist (Joe Mantegna doppelgänger Darín) as
he goes about his work, bringing a fox to static life with the aid of
needle, thread, wire, plaster, and pelt. This is how he spends his
days, creating lifelike tableaux for natural history museums.

He's a craftsman--an artist. In his head, though, where he spends most time, the taxidermist imagines he's a master criminal. Because he has a photographic memory, he could pull off the perfect crime, if only he had the guts to try. At least, that's what colleague Sontag (Alejandro Awada) tells him.

After his
never-seen
wife aban-
dons him,
presumab-
ly because
he only has
eyes for his
virtual pets,
Sontag con-
vinces his
friend to go
on a hunting
trip to Pata-
gonia.


The taxidermist, who lives to stuff animals--not kill them--agrees that a vacation will do him good, but the plan goes awry. Out of desperation, the duo stays with a standoffish married woman and her surly brother. Then, during their first foray into the woods, the men argue, Sontag leaves, and the epileptic taxidermist has a seizure. As he convulses, he experiences a phenomenon he calls "the aura," a moment of intense clarity before the plunge into blackness.

When he comes to, the taxidermist is disoriented and startled by a
sound. Is it Sontag, the deer Sontag had been stalking, or something else? In his confused state, he opts to shoot now, ask questions later. As it turns out, the pacifist commits murder. Not only that, but he stumbles into the perfect crime. Near the body, he finds a cabin filled with plans for an ar-
mored car robbery. With his photographic memory, he absorbs every detail: names, figures, floor plans. He passes himself off as his victim's accomplice and sets out to score his share of the loot. He is not alone. The dead man left behind a dog, sole witness to the accidental execution.

El Aura then transitions from character piece to heist picture. Like
the hunt, all doesn't go as planned, but the film isn't a tragedy or a
morality tale. Bielinsky's psychological thriller borrows tropes from the
murder mystery and the film noir, but never tips its hand in either
direction (there's no narration, portentous music, etc.)

All the while, the black husky
mix follows the taxidermist a-
round. As with David Bowie, one eye is blue, the other brown. Unlike the Thin White Duke, however, he's shaggy and unkempt. Like the taxidermist (and pop singer), he's also different--special. I couldn't take my eyes off the magnetic mutt. Until he hit the scene, I thought Darín, with his dark-rimmed light eyes, had an expressive face, but he has nothing on this dog. Is the canine the manifestation of his conscience? He knows what the taxidermist has done, yet refuses to leave his side. Does he see the man as his master's replacement? Well, the dog can't talk and the taxidermist chooses not to. As in The Intruder, The Queen, and Notes on a Scandal, Bielinsky's quasi-sociopathic protagonist relates to animals in a way he isn't able to with humans.

Even without the dog, El Aura would be a good film, but his expertly de-
ployed presence elevates the proceedings. Weeks later, however, I still haven't decided whether or not it's great. Crisp cinematography, elegant score, and finely shaded performances aside, its aims are too humble for greatness. It's certainly less accessible than Nine Queens, but it's also richer and more complex. It isn't sad or depressing either--the film ends on a quietly humorous note that rhymes with that intriguing opening. The fact that there will never be another surprising, perceptive, keenly observed movie from its maker, however, is an undeniable tragedy.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Nine Queens opened up a path of tremendous possibilities
to me. My tribute to that film is to take a radically different
path, with all the satisfactions and the risks that that implies.

--Fabián Bielinsky (1959-2006)



"Black Eyed Dog" comes from Nick Drake's final recording session. The im-
age is believed to represent Death. El Aura plays the Northwest Film Forum
March 2-6, Fri.-Wed. at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave.
between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here.