Wednesday, June 30, 2010


It's fitting that Criterion is releasing selections of the Stan Brakhage film catalogue as an ongoing anthology, as I view my interaction with his experimental short films as an ongoing educational endeavor. I finally viewed my dusty copy of By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One in anticipation of the release of this sequel, By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume Two, and as I noted in my review of that set elsewhere, it was actually my second time giving the DVDs a spin. I wasn't ready to go the first time, walking in cold was not the way to enter the Stan Brakhage library--at least not for me. I needed a tour guide.

To quickly summarize, Stan Brakhage was a filmmaker who emerged as part of the underground art scene of the 1950s. His short movies were abstract expressions of his philosophy and his life experience, using pictures and light and the very medium and raw material of film to provoke and inspire the viewer into deeper exploration. Most of his films were completely silent so that, under the right circumstances, he was creating a kind of cocoon around the person watching. It's just you and the cinema, make of it what you will. From what I gather, Brakhage had specific intentions with each piece, but his real goal was making someone watch and see for themselves, and what they took away from that was just as important as any plan he could come up with.

The first By Brakhage put twenty-six of his films on two discs; the second collects thirty films on three discs. The auteur's widow, Marilyn Brakhage, has put this set together, and her approach this time is to break the work down into six programs, showcasing specific periods of Brakhage's work arranged chronologically. This is a smart move, I say. Hitting "play all" on a full two-hour run of Brakhage can be a little overwhelming, and it can be harder to identify the evolution of his work without some notation of natural stopping points. This new archival system means two shorter programs per disc, which makes for a much more manageable intake. Also, as with the previous edition, Fred Camper's film-by-film breakdown in the accompanying booklet proved an invaluable map for knowing where I was and what I was seeing.

Program 1: 1955-67: Volume Two starts with four films from Brakhage's earliest abstract period, when he first broke from his more conventional "psychodramas" (and "conventional" is a term used loosely here) and into something less grounded in traditional moviemaking. The set leads with his 1955 film "The Wonder Ring," a commissioned portrait of New York's Third Avenue, which was scheduled for renovation. Rather than taking a straightforward walking tour through the neighborhood, Brakhage uses layered images and movement to convey the sense of the city's inherent rhythm and the hidden lives that make it so vibrant. These are like refracted observances of contained existences. A glimpse at a figure in a passing window, a street sign, an address number--endless pictures, endless patterns, everything is as one.

I didn't find the second film, 1960's "The Dead," to be as successful, despite employing some of the same techniques Brakhage developed in "The Wonder Ring." Here he uses positive and negative images, as well as color, to superimpose his reactions to a graveyard and its surroundings on top of the footage he took of them. I found it to be a little obvious in its imagery. The same could maybe be said of the longest piece of the group, the 64-minute "23rd Psalm Branch" (1967), except the outcry against war in this filmic collage is powerful in its cumulative impact. Brakhage layers together newsreel footage with words and bursts of color to create a stuttering image of combat that both replicates the flicker of a television screen and the staccato rhythm of a bomb attack. He moves the frame of reference from the battlefield to real, everyday objects, and then takes it deeper, practically examining life on a molecular level. Images are equated with ideas here, and what you see will hopefully make you think about why human beings are compelled to destroy one another. "23rd Psalm Branch" even ends with a question mark: are the images of children playing with sparklers meant to create a vision of hope, celebrating a better tomorrow, or is it a warning that this is a cycle that will continue?

Grouped together, these four films show a common interest in change/mortality, a passion for life, and a curiosity about man-made landscapes.

Program 2: 1967-76: If there is any obvious thematic connection between the four films in the second part, it's creation and simulation. These shorts all combine homegrown footage with color and abstraction to create intentional sensations and to convey the formation of life and art. In 1967's "Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One," Brakhage uses flickering red shapes to create his version of the fetal point of view, while the 1976 film "Desert" features the director creating his subject where there was none. Apparently, when he arrived to his shooting location in Riverside, California, he was surprised to discover it was a suburb and not a desert town. Using light, distortion, and extreme close-ups, he makes his own barren wilderness, a cinematic illusion.

Cinema and its tools and toys were an important component of the center films in this program. "The Machine of Eden" (1970) combines the concept of a weaver's loom with moviemaking, down to the very essential sprockets and film, while "Star Garden" (1974) explores the origin of light and image showing how the sun affects life and the motion picture frame. Interesting that, in both shorts, Brakhage is linking machines and nature, equating the things man has built to the cosmic construct that is our universe.

Program 3: 1972-82: Brakhage's drive to challenge the expectation of perception and the mistaken belief that there was a single objective reality gave him a rich and varied toolbox. Any kind of footage was fodder for his cinematic missions. In this third set, for instance, we see him working with both children ("The Process" from 1972; "Duplicity III" from 1980) and animals ("Burial Path," 1978; "The Domain of the Moment," 1977). In a way, by warping these most fundamental elements of life, he was showing how easily our view of the world can be manipulated. The fact that the children were regularly his own also crosses a line between outside observance and personal confession. The way he cuts together the footage in something like "The Process" is just as dramatic a statement about cinema's ability to capture and change what can be contained in the scope of a camera lens as his photographs of nature in "The Machine of Eden." In "The Burial Path," he uses the combined montage of a dead bird and living birds to suggest that life is both impermanent and ongoing. Being mutable or cyclical is not that different, it's all flux regardless, as memorable and ultimately reductionist as the burning of the bird's coffin at the end. Here, then gone...but not gone, transformed.

Sometimes these tests can strain the interest of the audience. "Duplicity III" attempts at grand gestures, poking at our understanding of storytelling and the dishonesty of contrived presentation, but the seemingly endless footage of a school pageant eventually drags. I was going to say it's "like" watching a strangers home movies, but why equivocate? It is watching a stranger's home movies, it just happens to be a well-known artistic stranger. Some of the small touches, such as the ghostly images of the kids walking through the forest and shown as a negative image, seem like side thoughts, too brief to have impact. Almost like Brakhage is saying, "This is what you expect of me, so real quick, here it is."

The collage approach in "Murder Psalm" (1980) is far more effective for me. Using found footage from news programs, educational films, cartoons, and other less identifiable sources, Brakhage makes a facsimile of a dreamscape. Inspired by his own nightmare, it is a portrait of the brain that also serves as his impression of how the mind functions. Juxtaposing actual brain models and objects that looks like brains with images of violent people and imposing blocks of color and light, he suggests that the human mind is over stimulated, regressively selfish, and dangerous; at the same time, maybe the indulgence of these thoughts are what curbs them. In "Arabic 12" (1982), which begins to suggest at the more painterly films to come, Brakhage manipulates space in the same way he manipulated the assembled footage in "Murder Psalm." He reduces a room to glimpses of the light within it, to shapes and sparkles that pulse and flow like molecules of blood coursing through a body. It's as far from narrative as you can get, and a big step from the almost accidental structure of "Burial Path"--one could see the earlier piece as a funeral procession, from the finding of the dead bird to its ceremonial release.

Program 4: 1989-90: This fourth grouping, found as the back half of DVD 2, breaks from convention to present a quartet of films that complete their own series. While other movies in this collection have been parts of larger works ("Arabic 12," or "Duplicity III," for example), the four-part Visions in Meditation is the first such series to be given here as a whole unto itself. These interconnected films were inspired by Gertrude Stein's poems Stanzas in Meditation. Between them they share a common technique and form a sort of travel film, traversing North America and exploring different terrains and the elements. The first part sets the tone: movement, nature, and random images from life, like people walking on a beach or places once visited. This connects what we see to memory, as if the world were imprinted with our experience.

The second part juxtaposes various elements: desert followed by ice followed by blue water. The third part adds sound, matching a minimalist electronic soundtrack by Rick Corrigan to places where people sit in the glow of light bulbs and fairgrounds lit by neon. Brakhage takes his camera down into Carlsbad Caverns to evoke the philosophical concept of Plato's Cave--images of people projected on stone, do they exist? images on a screen, are they real?--while Part Four makes reference to D.H. Lawrence, going to his former home and burial ground in New Mexico. The final film in the series features dynamic skies, flickers of black blotting out the image, and movement that suggests rewinding, like we are going backwards over what we have seen. It also features the most commonplace images, including shots of suburban America. Is this meditation coming to rest? Once again, it comes down to our mortality.

Program 5: 1982, 1992, 1994: As Brakhage moved into the later decades of his life and career, he continued to shift more into the abstract, getting more painterly in his employment of color and starting to work with his hands directly on the celluloid. His constant struggle was to replicate how the things he saw were filtered through his consciousness, to recreate the very act of looking on a primal, back-of-the-brain level. An early film in this stage, 1982's "Unconscious London Strata" is a good example of where he was going. Were the word "London" not in the title, you might not even know that was where this film was shot. Brief, distorted snaps of landmarks are only tiny clues along the path. Most of Brakhage's London consists of blurry sparkles and hues, like the literal mental record of that scene in The Rules of Attraction where a character's vacation in Europe is shown in a matter of minutes. (An unsophisticated comparison, I know.) Or maybe like the dancing galaxy on the astronaut's helmet in 2001. (Better? No?)

1994's "The Mammals of Victoria" is more grounded in its expression, at least in the fact that it's clear that Brakhage is depicting the ocean. The film keeps coming back to shots of water, spliced in the midst of more blank and spotty artistic impressions of the same. As the film progresses, Brakhage explodes the frame with sunlight, practically setting the sea on fire.

1992's "Boulder Blues and Pearls and..." once again uses Rick Corrigan's music to add an extra layer of sensation. Footage of nature, as well as one solitary image of a coffin, give way to explosions of color, leading into the direct painting of 1994's "From: First Hymn to the Night - Novalis." Brakhage creates a cinematic kaleidoscope with paint, like a modern art piece that the artist taught to dance. Laying in lines from a poem by Novalis also suggests--along with the earlier adaptations of Stein--that we shouldn't be looking at these movies as just visual media, but as poems as well. Color creates tone, images in sequence, like alien hieroglyphics.

Program 6: 1995-2003: As we shift into the last period of Stan Brakhage's filmography, the conventional boundaries of film discourse have essentially been obliterated. Necessitated partly by illness, but just as much part of his own creative impulses, Brakhage was creating more and more without actually shooting any film. 1995's "I Take These Truths" is a frenetic symphony of color--but it's not just paint that we are seeing on the screen. Brakhage is also scratching away the film emulsion and printing each frame twice, multiplying the layers of image to create effects that are both obvious and subliminal. At times, it looks kind of like the quickly passing graffiti as seen from the windows of a moving subway from a film set in 1980s New York. Other times it's like watching algae writhe under a microscope.

Not that the director abandoned the real world entirely. He creates his own version of "Wild Kingdom," going in as close as he could get to the garden and its creatures in "The Cat of the Worm's Green Realm" (1997). As the name suggests, the participants in this tale are a cat and a worm, and Brakhage's camera captures them amongst the foliage, with most of the film shot in extreme close-up, making that which is observed appear larger than life but also unreal, existing in a different space, unencumbered by the world outside of them. Made that same year, "Yggdrasill: Whose Roots are Stars in the Human Mind," combines the filmed with the hand-crafted to create a magical world that turns the everyday into the mythic. As in the second part of Visions in Meditation, there is an interplay between electricity, between neon and starlight and the visible ends of the spectrum, that is its own kind of mysticism.

The final film on By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume Two - Criterion Collection, and actually the last short Stan Brakhage made, was created by the artist scratching onto black film with his fingernail while he lay on his deathbed. "Chinese Series" (2003) was printed posthumously, and it's hard not to give it a morbid interpretation under the circumstances. The white and yellow scratches look like dancing bones--though they aren't sad or scary, but rather playful. In this, "Chinese Series" has something in common with 1998's "'...'" Reel Five." The fifth entry in the Ellipses series is a cycle of Jackson Pollack-esque splatters set to avant-garde music by James Tenney. The squiggles and squishes flit by at a jaunty pace, buoyed by the almost counterintuitive pacing of Tenney's piano.

What may be more striking about "'...'" Reel Five," though, is the openness of it. In between the jagged lines are big, empty white spaces. In "'...'" Reel Five," less is more. Anything can happen in those white frames. It's as if Brakhage has cleared the brush away, and he has given our imagination leave to run wild.

To be honest, I think I ultimately failed in my interaction with By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume Two. In working my way through the Criterion set, I did not become engaged enough, did not find my own path to understand what Stan Brakhage was trying to do. More often than not, I found myself explicating his experimental shorts rather than actually interpreting them through my own intuition--it's more like I was appreciating them in the way I felt I was supposed to, not in any real one-on-one fashion. Still, by Stan Brakhage's own mission statement, that might be enough. That I took the time to look and to think at all is really the only thing he would ask of me as his viewer. His tiny pieces of cinema speak large in terms of technique and in establishing a theatre of ideas, and in honor of that alone, everyone should at least attempt to give his work a go, even if you walk away confounded and swear never to go back again. I'm not there yet, I'll keep trying, but it's up to you in the end. Either way, By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume Two is Recommended.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Monday, June 28, 2010


"You see what you want to see."

Everlasting Moments was Sweden's official submission for the 2009 Academy Awards, and it's further proof that something was rotten in the Oscar pool that year for the Japanese film Departures [full review] to have taken the statue. Jan Troell's movie is a fully realized portrait of a working-class Swedish family doing everything they can to get by and to survive the violence and anger that sits at the head of their dinner table. The narrative begins in 1909 and spans across World War I, though the external strife of political upheaval and bombshells has nothing on the internal strife of the Larsson family. It's like a companion piece to Bergman's Fanny & Alexander, just without all the mysticism.

Maria and Sigfrid Larsson (played by Maria Heiskanen and Mikael Perbrandt) already have four kids when the movie starts, and by the end of it they have seven. The story is told by little Maja (Nellie Almgren for the early scenes, Callin Öhrvall for most of the movie), the eldest girl in the family. She is a watchful child, saying more in narration than she does in the events she relates. The Larsson apartment is cramped but they muddle through. Maria takes in sewing and other odd jobs, and Sigfrid works down at the docks. They are members of the neighborhood Temperance Society whenever Sigfrid manages to stay sober, and when he doesn't, look out! The brawny papa gets loud, likes to make his kids sing for his entertainment, and doesn't mind issuing punishment to those who get in his way. Sigfrid is a bit of a lost soul, his head swayed as easily by politics as it is turned by a woman. His flirtation with Socialism passes quickly enough, but his rough ways carry on.

It's up to Maria to hold her family together, something she does with sullen reserve. One day, while going through their closet, she finds an old camera at the bottom of one of the drawers. Thinking she can maybe sell it on the sly and get a little extra food money, she takes it to Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christensen), owner of the local photo studio. Impressed by the workmanship in the old machine, and taken by something he sees in Maria, Pedersen encourages her to learn to use the device. He gives her film and chemicals to develop her pictures, saying her camera is collateral for the payment on the supplies. He will sell it eventually, she just needs to take some snapshots to prove it's in good working order. >wink wink<

Maria first turns to conventional subjects, like her cat and her children, but the artistic bug bites her good. When a neighbor asks her to take a photo of her deceased child before the funeral, Maria not only realizes that she can use her camera for positive things (including making money), but she also shows that she has a gift for knowing the right moment to grab her shot. Pedersen is especially touched by her work, and his validation touches her. It's one of the most tender of many tender moments between them. Theirs will be an ongoing affair, but one that never crosses a certain line. The only kiss the two share is the one Maria gingerly places on his cheek as a thank you.

Though there is a will-they-or-won't-they quality to the Maria and Pedersen relationship, Everlasting Moments is not a will-they-or-won't-they romantic movie. Rather, it's a movie about loneliness and desire--and not necessarily the sort of desire that yearns to curb that loneliness with another person, but one that seeks to find solace in personal passion. For Maria, it is photography, and her bond with Pedersen--or Uncle Piff Paff Puff, as the kids end up calling him, based on his version of "Say cheese!"--grows out of their shared love of the captured image. He even takes up a movie camera and shows her the wonders of the moving image. The picture's most light-hearted family moment follows after Maria and the kids go to see a silent Charlie Chaplin comedy with Pedersen providing live violin music. When they go home, they draw on Chaplin moustaches and copy his routines. It's a lot of fun until Dad stumbles in and thinks they are making fun of him. The scene turns violent shortly after.

Sigfrid is like a ticking time bomb in Everlasting Moments. There is not a quiet moment he can't explode. In some ways, he is a monster, but in others, he is the most tragically flawed of all the characters. Troell, along with main writer Niklas Rådström, who based the script on the memoir of Maja Öman, portrays Sigfrid as sympathetic, caught in the same jail as everyone else but cursed to flail harder against its metaphorical walls. He can't see the good in Maria's photography, nor can he see a positive future for his children when his second-oldest boy has an opportunity to enter religious study and Maja is offered a German tutorial. It's only after he rescues an abused horse in the street that Sigfrid comprehends what it means to have something outside of yourself to care about. He is said to have a gift for understanding horses, and only he could see that this one was worth saving. Though no one makes the connection in the movie, this also says a lot about his relationship with Maria. No one can understand why she keeps taking him back. She's the only person that can see he is worth saving. Maria Heiskanen and Mikael Perbrandt play their characters with quiet courage. They don't need to voice their pain, it's obvious in their bearing. Everlasting Moments is by no means a dour film, but its greatest moments of vulnerability are when the characters are allowing themselves to be happy, not when they share their sadness. The acting is flawless.

In addition to directing the movie and contributing to the story, Jan Troell also shot Everlasting Moments alongside co-cinematographer Mischa Gavrjusjov. Not surprisingly for a film about a woman who is in love with images, Everlasting Moments replicates the look of old movies and photographs. Night scenes are often shot in natural light, so they look stark and grainy, while a couple of scenes are cast in sepia, reinforcing the importance of memory and how its preservation permeates everything. When Maria is developing her photos, the red glow of the dark room is really the crimson of an illicit tryst. Sigfrid is aware of it when he spies her working alone. It's this privacy that makes him a cuckold, not anything she might ever do with Pedersen.

As far as the drama goes, there is much about Everlasting Moments that is fraught with emotion. A few scenes are harrowing and make your heart jump into your throat for fear they will go the wrong way. After all, we can't remember the good times without remembering the bad. Yet, it's the good that will ultimately out. Troell finds just the right way to close out his story, bringing this troubled family to a place of peace that is both heart-warming and logical. There is real growth here, and like life, it comes on gradually so that, as an audience, we are surprised when it happens while also knowing deep down that all is as it should be.

As it turns out, Maria Larsson wasn't just a real person (the original Swedish title of the movie is Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick, or Maria Larsson's Everlasting Moments), but she is a distant relative of Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell, the director's wife and also the third writer contributing to the story. This real-life connection and a look at her actual photographs is the focus of the featurette "The True Story of Maria Larsson" (9 minutes, 15 seconds) and for part of the documentary "Troell Behind the Camera" (28 mins.). The former is actually narrated by Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell, who explains about the photos and shares some of the information behind them. The longer piece moves away from the source material and to the making of the movie, with Jan Troell letting us in on his process and sharing his obvious joy for moviemaking.

The director is also the full focus of the final extra, the hour-long feature Troell's Magic Mirror. This scholarly look at Troell's life and career reaches all the way back to his childhood and leads us into his rich cinematic life. It's not snappy by Hollywood standards, but the level of information is deep and worth the effort to watch it.

Watch the Everlasting Moments trailer.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Monday, June 21, 2010


"It's never still...I can't look at the sea too long, otherwise I lose interest in what's happening here on land."

It's been maybe two years since I first saw Red Desert. It was shown in town as part of a festival of movies about how the environment was affecting individuals and often making them sick. I had never seen the film, it had long been out of print on DVD and I kept avoiding VHS copies thinking eventually someone would put out a quality re-release. Seeing it on a screen in a movie theatre was too good an opportunity to pass up. I even convinced a couple of friends to go with me. They weren't too happy with me by the end of it.

Part of their dissatisfaction likely came from the oblique nature of the movie. Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 portrait of neuroses and malaise offers no explanations, it just plants the viewer down in the sticky mental muck and lets him or her untangle from the web. I would suspect, however, that most of their dissatisfaction came from the fact that what we watched was a horrible copy of the movie. I don't know if it was the old DVD projected or, as I suspected at the time, a digital file downloaded off the internet. Given the amount of pixilation and digital noise, it certainly wasn't a film print. It left me dissatisfied, too. Antonioni daring us to traverse his bleak cinematic landscape and find the meaning on the other side became too much to ask when also faced with a dark and murky image.

Oh, what a difference a good restoration makes! The newly minted transfer on the Criterion edition of Red Desert (Il deserto rosso) makes for an entirely different viewing experience. The widescreen image is crisply rendered, capturing the chilly aura of Antonioni and director of photography Carlo Di Palma's wasteland without sacrificing the heat of the bursts of color that occasionally dot the factory village where their story takes place. Midway through the film, when Monica Vitti spins a yarn about a little girl living alone on an island, the bright and beautiful interlude comes onto the television like the sun rising in the morning. The green of the foliage, the blue of the's just lovely.

Apparently the original title of Red Desert was actually Pale Blue and Green. These are the colors of nature, and by their nature, the most soothing stripes on the rainbow. They suggest order, rightness, and calm. Though the title has a basis within the narrative--Monica Vitti's character, Giuliana, is considering them both for the interior of her proposed ceramics store, a safe haven she is creating for herself--the phrase didn't have the effect on audiences the director felt was required. Red Desert was more evocative. It is incendiary and barren.

Giuliana is a wife and mother. She is married to Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), a manager at an industrial factory, and their boy (Valeria Bartoleschi) is of kindergarten age. The Italian town where they live is reliant on the manufacturing plants it is built around, but as with any aspect of progress, the move forward comes at a price. Not only is there strife within the citizenry (we are presented with the dual problems of a worker's strike as well as there not being enough able-bodied men around), but it also creates a tremendous burden on the local ecology. For every good thing these factories presumably make, they also dump waste into the environment. On one side of a tree line there are the bustling signs of creation, on the other destruction and decay.

This is Giuliana's problem, as well. She is a woman at odds with herself. She was in a car accident that nearly killed her, and despite some recuperation time in the hospital, she has never been quite right since. There is something just a little off about her. Monica Vitti, who also starred in Antonioni's breakthrough pictures L'avventura [full review] and L'eclisse, avoids playing Giuliana as "crazy," but instead portrays her as a bundle of raw neuroses. She has the appearance of never being comfortable where she is, but also not knowing where else to go. She chews her nails, hides in her hair, and at any time looks like she is either going to cry or fall asleep.

Giuliana is a woman out of sync with her surroundings. Reading about Antonioni's intentions with Red Desert (he co-wrote the script with Tonino Guerra), he's not suggesting that the toxic environment is responsible for Giuliana's illness, but instead an active symptom of it. The smokestacks, hazardous sludge, and industrial grays and browns of her village are like a living metaphor for the disconnect she feels. While her husband and even her son have adapted to modern life, Giuliana has not. In her is something more primal, a need to get back to a basic humanity--the pale blue and the green. (If this sounds familiar, it's because it was the inspiration for Todd Haynes' film Safe, starring another redhead, Julianne Moore.)

On a very basic level, Red Desert is the story of a love affair between Giuliana and a visiting business man who works with her husband. Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris, This Sporting Life [full review]) is a sort of nomad, traveling for work, following the money. He is out of sync, as well, but in a different manner. He is always moving and thus not tied down. He is like the water, whereas Giuliana is landlocked. Though Zeller will eventually express that he's not sure he's any better off for it, at least for a brief time, it at least makes him empathetic to Giuliana's problem. He settles long enough to hear her out, to listen to her complaints, and to seek out solutions.

There's a bit of opportunism in Zeller's kindness, however; for as much as he is trying to fix the wing of the wounded bird, he also ends up playing the jilted lover. Possibly because they are both separate from the rest, there is a magnetism between them, and they desire to connect on a sensual level that Ugo and his friends can only play at. In a crucial scene midway through Red Desert, Ugo and Giuliana join another married couple, along with a single woman of loose morals (Rita Renoir) and Zeller in a dockside shack where they circle around the idea of an orgy, but they never descend upon one another. It turns into a lot of posturing, who is sitting beside whom, etc. The whole scenario is a sad display of privilege. The shack belongs to one of the other man's employees, and this group uses it for what they will without permission. It's as if they need to slum in order to feel a thrill. Tellingly, they end up tearing down the interior walls to stoke their fire. They are literally destroying the structure just to keep themselves warm!

Events at this shack mark a point of no going back for Giuliana. Before the revelers depart, a ship comes to dock, sailing right up next to the house and startling her. (Does it, perhaps, remind her of the truck that nearly killed her?) That same ship also may be carrying a deadly contagion, and as the group flees possible infection, a heavy fog rolls in, separating Giuliana and Zeller from the others. It's a symbolic break, like the division between the factories and the land they are destroying. Giuliana is on one side of the malady, they are on the other.

Ships continue to appear throughout the rest of Red Desert, present in the background both visually and audibly, symbols of the escape Giuliana desires. The story she tells her son about the girl on the beach expresses this. (The girl's life has a true harmony. "Everything was singing.") She also tells Zeller a story about a woman she met in the hospital, who was there because she loved everything too much and thus could not accept that she must let any of it go. The natural flow of life continued onward, but she wanted to hold it back, to not change. Zeller correctly ascertains that Giuliana is speaking of herself, and this leads to a deeper understanding of what happened to her and also the greater meaning of Red Desert.

Though Antonioni appears to be painting with the same opaque brush throughout, anyone who understands paint knows there is no one color that is "white." There is no single, definitive "red." Antonioni's film is both narratively and visually complex. His sets are full of codes. Colors and shapes signal shifts in the psychological landscape as much as a torn-up field points out the side-effects of industry. When Giuliana finally makes a run for it, the hull of the ship she means to board is painted blood red--blood being both life and death and the confusion being which the ship offers. Shortly after, Giuliana sees yellow smoke belching from the stacks at her husband's workplace, and she tells her son it is poison. The color is another signal; the quarantine flag on the contaminated ship was also yellow. Yet, can we be sure the smoke is really yellow, or is that her perception? Did the sight of the red ship mark the border of her delusion, and she has now crossed over in the same way the fog drew a line between her and the "healthy" ones? There would be precedence for this, since Antonioni has already used sound as an outer expression of what is inside his heroine. Vittorio Gelmetti's electronic music for the film is unsettling, arising at times when Giuliana is the most discombobulated with the intention of drawing the viewer into her state of mind. Why shouldn't we be privy to her vision, as well?

It is probably also fitting that Giuliana only wears her green coat at the beginning and the end of Red Desert, at the times when her psychoses are the most obvious to us yet when she is doing her best to mask them. It's as if she is wrapping herself in the warmth of nature. Of course, this is a subtle detail that is easy to miss when watching a bad version of the film. With a movie so finely tuned as this one, every detail has to be just right. What you see is the most important component, it provides all the subtext. If there is no difference between the green of Monica Vitti's coat, the red of her hair, and the gray of the sky, then it's all just pollution. Thus, I think even for devotees of Red Desert, this new DVD is going to be a real eye opener. Every detail of every frame is now visible, and as film fans, we can just sit back and let the movie work on us the way its makers intended.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

CLOSE-UP - #519

"You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!...All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

At the end of Sunset Boulevard, faded movie star Norma Desmond is lured from her house to answer for her crimes by a staged press conference and the promise of a movie that's never going to happen. Forty years after Billy Wilder made his classic tale of a Hollywood delusion, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has flipped the idea on its head. What if the movie is still fake, but the crime is real? What if instead of a movie actress trying to get back in front of the camera, it's a regular joe trying to get behind it?

Close-Up is the story of Hossein Sabzian, a print maker who convinces a middle-class family in Tehran that he is filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Makhmalbaf is a renowned Iranian director, at the time best known for his 1987 film The Cyclist. The fact that the identity Sabzian adopts is that of an actual person is one of the many layers that Kiarostami, who also wrote and edited Close-Up, overlaps to obscure the separations between fiction and documentary. Hossein Sabzian is even the actor's real name, and when we finally do see the real Makhmalbaf, they really do look alike. Which probably helped when he actually did pretend to be him once upon a time. Because, oh yeah, this is based on true events.

The film opens up on a bumbling sting operation, where a reporter (Hassan Farazmand, also playing himself, as everyone in the film does) leads two police officers into the Ahankhah home to nab the alleged con man. This kick-off introduces Close-Up as a narrative construct, albeit a Neorealistic one. From a writing point-of-view, it starts with a bang, as it does drop us right down into the action--though not a typical crime movie bang. It's more of a criminal whimper, with Sabzian being carted off in a taxi cab by the arresting officers while Farazmand runs around looking for someone who can loan him a tape recorder so he can record the forthcoming interrogation. Woodward and Bernstein this guy ain't.

Only in the second sequence does Kiarostami introduce the notion of Close-Up as faux documentary/docudrama. Having read Farazmand's magazine article about the story, Abbas Kiarostami himself shows up at the police station to try to gain access to the faker. He wants to film Sabzian's trial, and Close-Up follows the steps he takes to get permission, first talking to the meek criminal and then seeking permission from the presiding judge. Kiarostami also interviews the family members who fell victim to Sabzian's scheme, whatever that may have been. That's something they hope to figure out at trial.

Once the court proceedings get underway, Close-Up jumps back and forth between the "reality" of the courtroom and fictional staging's of Sabzian's interactions with the Ahankhahs. As far as criminal undertakings go, Sabzian's master plan seems rather undercooked. He meets the matriarch of the family, Mahrokh, on a bus and casually tells her he is Makhmalbaf. After that, he starts spending time with the family, and the worst thing he does is borrow a small amount of money off the youngest son, Mehrdad. It takes less than week for this tangled web to unravel.

I hesitate to call the more traditional dramatic scenes "re-enactments," because essentially the entire film is a re-enactment. Sabzian did pretend to be a famous director, and the Ahankhahs were the intended victims, such as they were. Close-Up is not quite real, not quite fake--almost literally surreal in how it stands apart. It's like a distant cousin to Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation in that you really don't want to know what is truth and what is invention, what is technique and theory and what simply is.

Abbas Kiarostami details this story in the most unspectacular of fashions, letting most of the juicier bits be told through Sabzian's testimony rather than staging the scenes as drama--quite possibly because these are the parts of the situation that are most up to interpretation. Who are we to believe? Sabzian's stated motivation is simple enough: he liked the attention and he liked the control that being a director allowed him, even on a small scale. He would have gone ahead with trying to make a movie if the fraud went on too long, and the reason he decided to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf is that he identified with the man's films. The Cyclist, in particular, depicted real problems he could identity with, it was like watching a movie of his own life. Ironically, he is now in one. (And judging by the extras, the real-life Hossein Sabzian was getting exactly what he wanted by being in Close-Up, as well; this is definitely art imitating life and not the other way around.)

As far as the probing eye of the camera, Kiarostami's is non-judgmental. If anything, he wants us to feel sorry for Sabzian. The man is devoid of his own personality, and his life is so full of hardship, he must resort to losing himself in fantasy. Very subtly, the filmmaker also lays down questions about exploitation. Sure, Hossein Sabzian was exploiting the Ahankhah family, but they were eager to be exploited. They were eager to star in his movie, even to give up their house for him. Mehrdad loans the trickster the money not out of kindness but in order to prove he's a good guy ready to do what it takes to please a big-shot movie director. It wouldn't be heard to remake Close-Up today. The fame-seeking that Kiarostami is depicting has only gotten worse. Haven't there been reality shows about wannabe filmmakers, and aren't all reality contestants would-be actors?

The good thing about Close-Up is that, in its refusal to create an obvious separation between what "really happened" and what has been "dramatized," the film goes deeper than any reality show ever would. The big picture here is less about fame and desire, or even about the illusory art of cinema; Close-Up is far more human than that. It's a movie about true remorse and forgiveness--not redemption, that is something else. The charity given to Sabzian at the end of the movie requires real empathy and honest emotion, and it hits the viewer as hard as it hits the "character."

At one point in Close-Up, when Hossein Sabzian is explaining what kind of films speak to him, he turns to Abbas Kiarostami, who is part of the courtroom interrogation, and acknowledges how he felt a personal connection to Kiarostami's debut feature, The Traveler. The inclusion of this 1974 film on DVD 1 of the Criterion edition of Close-Up makes this a double A-side disc, a dual film release, and one that sheds some light on the kind of Iranian cinema that Sabzian identifies with. (Shame we couldn't get Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist, as well. I'm so greedy!)

The Traveler is the story of a young boy named Qassem, played by an Iranian Jean-Pierre Léaud by the name of Hassan Darabi. Qassem is obsessed with soccer, so much so that he forsakes all else and even cheats the local news seller just to buy a new soccer magazine. He's got a bad reputation at school because his mind is always on the game, and his mother is fed up with him. When his favorite team is playing in Tehran, Qassem hatches a scheme to raise money to go see them. He cons school kids by pretending to take their picture with a stolen camera, and when that isn't enough, he sells his neighborhood team's goalie nets and ball. His journey to the city ends up being an eye-opener, a glimpse of disappointment, struggle, and isolation.

Even in this early film we can already see Kiarostami's thematic concerns developing. The boy who dreams of soccer is not all that far away from Hossein Sabzian and his moviemaking fantasies. In fact, that's what Sabzian sees as having in common with the kid in the movie: this desire for something more than what they have and whatever it is that compels them to do anything it takes to achieve it. Qassem's grift with the camera is even suggestive of Sabzian's cinematic misdirection.

The Traveler was shot in black-and-white and on location, and it has the same Neorealist aesthetic as Close-Up. Though the film is lacking in extraneous fat, that doesn't mean Kiarostami shies away from the quiet moments. He juxtaposes Qassem's anxious waiting in his bedroom with the more calm, eager waiting during the bus ride. He also takes the boy from small-town life where the locals trust his family name to the big city where no one knows or cares who he is. In the end, The Traveler is more cynical than Close-Up, Kiarostami has softened over the years. The lonely figure of the boy in an empty stadium has a long way to go after all if he is to become the weeping man finding peace in the arms of his fellows.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.