Monday, February 20, 2017


Criterion fans know the name Ermanno Olmi from his excellent Neorealist films, Il posto [review] and I fidanzati [review], small dramas set in then-modern times (1961 and 1962) that are elegant, personal, and focused. And if that, like me, is all you know, then his Palm d’Or-winning The Tree of Wooden Clogs may be a bit of a surprise. Released in 1978, this three-hour-plus drama is modestly epic in scope, more open in approach, and yet surprisingly just as engaged with the personal.

Set in Italy's Bergamo province at the tail of the 19th Century, The Tree of Wooden Clogs tells a season in the life of a farming village. At the time, peasants lived as sharecroppers on a wealthy landlord's estate, working his fields, keeping 1/3 of what they produced, giving the rest to him (see also Bertollucci’s 1900 [review] for a similar scenario). The farmers shared one community building, four or five families per, individual tribes within a larger conglomerate. As his narrative progresses, Olmi dips in and out of different families in one particular dwelling, mining their collective stories. There is the young man looking to woo his neighbor's daughter, or the old timer looking to beat the others to the tomato harvest, and the various wives and mothers keeping their children in clean clothes and nourishment. Each action is individual, but it also adds to the whole. No one family, no patch of land, is an island. Or, to change metaphors, The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a tapestry, and each singular weave somehow ties back to the center, and you don't see the full tableau until you step back and take it all in.

The closest thing we have to a central family is the clan whose challenges give The Tree of Wooden Clogs its name. This incident is a small story embedded in the whole. The family’s young son, Minek, is a bit of a prodigy, and the parish priest insists his father send him to school, even if it is a four-mile walk each way. On one such trek, the same day his baby brother is born, the child breaks one of his clogs. His kindly father doesn't scold him or make a fuss. Instead, he sneaks out into the night and cuts a chunk of wood from a tree alongside the road. It's unclear whether he takes to this task quietly so as not to disturb the boy's mother, still recuperating from the birthing, or because he's taking the wood without clearing it with the landlord. All we feel is there is something momentous and heavy in the act, especially as he begins his carving while the rest of his family says their evening prayers. Is this plea to the heavens to be his absolution?

This is how connected everything is--religion, birth, survival. Within the relatively short period--short in the context of an existence, at least, because make no mistake, this is a long movie--we see the full circle of life. Crops are grown, animals slaughtered, children born. We see only a small sliver of the other side, a brief peek into the landowner's life. We see how faith holds sway, even when impractical. We also catch a glimpse of political tides to come. But as large as the land and the sky and the whole of the world may appear, it's still the little things that matter. The simple pleasures.

Olmi applies the Neorealist method to great effect. Like Roberto Rossellini did with the Sicilian fishermen for Stromboli [review], or even Michael Powell and the Scotsmen on The Edge of the World, the director worked with the real people of the Bergamo region, even having them speak in their native Bergamasque. The landscape of The Tree of Wooden Clogs is not populated by actors, but the actual citizenry of the world Olmi is capturing. Yet, they still are actors, aren't they, since they live in the now while dressing up to play their ancestors in front of a camera. Such is the illusion, and so powerful the effect, you'll be forgiven for how often you'll forget you are not watching a documentary. The details are real, and often not for the squeamish (if you've never seen a goose or pig butchered...), and the script so absent of point-A/point-B plotting, the final cut has the feeling of real life, not a cinematic construction. Like life, it can be a bit of a haul to reach the end, but hopefully we’ll all find both tasks worth it. (Though I’m not holding out much hope for this living business...)

The span of The Tree of Wooden Clogs only grows macro in its third hour, when the young couple we’ve watched court one another gets married and goes off on their honeymoon. Traveling with them, we see nearby townships, and people beyond the landlord’s property line. These new elements almost seem cartoonish by comparison, so used have we come to the quiet life within the farm. The honeymoon itself passes without much fanfare--at least until the newlyweds return home and, immediately after, other narrative threads finally start to pay off--some good, and some bad. I suppose it’s up to each viewer to divine where Olmi is coming down in terms of the divine and its relation to what happens to the peasants, or what that also says about the nature of small community. A sad fate befalls Minek’s family, one that is swift and without recourse. As neighbor turns away from neighbor and relies on prayer rather than intervening, I found myself caught between my empathy for their resorting to their faith due to a need for some kind of explanation of why life is cruel and my more visceral reaction. I can’t help but think they are using religion to sidestep their responsibility toward their fellow man, and that this is perhaps why the cycle of the wealthy oppressing the poor continues. (“I’ve got mine, let God take care of the rest.) One could surmise this is why Olmi includes glimpse of the socialist revolution on the rise. Certainly nothing happens on screen in The Tree of Wooden Clogs by accident, given that the director, in the truest auteur fashion, is credited with script, photography, and editing. Just as the hands of the farmers draw riches from the land, Olmi’s hands draw out this mis-en-scene. Soil has never been so beautiful, and yet so daunting. Soft and brown when giving life, dark and muddy as the day grows hard.

Yet, for the filmmaker to add any editorial or exposition would be to betray his motivating conceit. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is meant to be an observation, not an explanation. It’s a morality play without a coda. The staging, the lighting, everything is as natural and real as is possible in the confines of a motion picture construct. The camera itself seems to disappear in the crowd. The light is never brighter than the hazy grays the sun provides. The visual story is limited to what the eye can see, the same way it would be were this a newsreel. Olmi doesn’t dress the set, he doesn’t call attention to the design of his shots, he doesn’t zoom emphatically. His approach is as straightforward and quaint as the daily life he is chronicling. It’s also as intimate, and therein he finds his truth. From the supplements accompanying the movie on this disc, especially the British television special from 1981, we hear how the film was inspired by stories the Olmi’s grandmother told him about her life, and so we can see that the director’s exacting methods are born of a personal pride. He is reaching back into his own history, digging for the roots that would eventually put him on his own two feet and lead him here.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


After 25 years of filming other people’s lives--and other people’s films--documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson tackles the subject of herself. But not in a conventional mode. Cameraperson does not flip the lens around and capture the filmmaker out on her day-to-day. Instead, Johnson has assembled raw footage from various movies she’s shot, ranging from America-centric political tales like Citzenfour [review] and Fahrenheit 9/11 to studies of strife in foreign lands like Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Mixed in are the occasional home movies: scenes of her twin children, her mother when she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her father soldiering on. The result is something akin to a selection of The Qatsi Trilogy, but on a more human scale and driven by one point of view.

In the first six minutes, Cameraperson sets up its scope. We move from a shepherd driving his sheep in Bosnia to a lightning storm halfway across the world; backstage at a boxing match in Brooklyn to a medical clinic in Nigeria. While seemingly unrelated, as Johnson assembles her collage, parallels and patterns emerge. Since a lot of the material is fairly heavy--some of the source films are about ethnic cleansing and rape--much of what comes together ends up being about human mortality and death, but bubbling just underneath is also a celebration of life. Even as she has to let her mother go, Johnson keeps returning to Nigeria, watching a dedicated midwife help a late-born twin take his first breaths. As a mother of twins herself, I am sure the emotional weight is not lost on Johnson. What is this balance between two lives, where one sibling comes first and the other must struggle to emerge? Duality plays a strong role throughout: the boy with one good eye and one bad eye explaining his injury is particularly effective in conveying Johnson’s message. The seen and the unseen, the two sides of the camera.

It’s not just the narratives that start to come into view, however, but the titular cameraperson, as well. Since these are unedited takes, we witness Johnson setting up her shots, and also her blowing them. We hear her planning her next move, asking for clarification, or simply letting her guard down to talk to a boxing coach or ask a soldier for some watermelon. Perhaps the most endearing detail is in the credits sequence, when she sneezes while watching the storm roll in, and her sneezing shakes the camera. There is much here to dissect about the act of cinematic observation, and the right to observe. French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in an outtake from the 2002 Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering film Derrida, provides Johnson with a perfect moment. With her gaze so focused, he wonders, does she see much at all? He likens her to the philosopher who fell down a well because he was too busy looking up at the stars to spot the hole.

Of course, the answer is that Johnson sees plenty. Perhaps more than most. Cameraperson is testament to that. Though documentaries are supposed to be objective, Cameraperson reveals that they still require empathy and engagement. That’s why all these scenes remain important to Johnson, why she can’t let them go. What she has captured on film is now as much her as her home and family. She lives through the work, and there is no need for her to say more, or show more, about the woman pressing record.

Naturally, the presentation for Cameraperson puts most of its attention on the thesis of the film and the thinking behind it. There are two exclusive programs exploring how it was put together and grappling with larger moviemaking questions. There is also excerpts from talks Kirsten Johnson made at festivals. Picture quality is excellent on the Blu-ray, and the 5.1 audio is exceptional. For a film that you wouldn’t expect to have a particularly robust soundtrack, kudos for all the little details emerging in the back speakers throughout the movie.

Of particular note in the extras, though, is Kirsten Johnson’s 2015 short documentary The Above. Beginning with a U.S. Army blimp that has been floating over Kabul since 2009, the function of which is classified, the director takes different vantage points around the city to simulate what such a device might see. She also uses on-the-ground shots to show the ubiquity of the blimp and juxtaposes that with images of an identical blimp hovering over Maine, allegedly as a missile detection device. It’s interesting how differently one reacts to seeing this stationary object flanked by a Christian church and the stars and stripes.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.