FCMM: Into the 21st Century
Another edition of the FCMM has come and gone, and I can not remember an edition which featured as many programmers and organizers brimming with perennial smiles. With the usually filled theatre seats, pleasant atmosphere, smooth organization, and overall excellent selection of films, it was well warranted state of mind. As usual, Asian cinema led the way with the festival’s finest films, including Suzhou River (China), The Circle (Iran), In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong), and Eureka (Japan). While big screen film projection is still the main show for the majority of its patrons, the festival has smoothed the schism it began in 1997 with the introduction of the Media Lounge and its sound/image/music interplay. There is no question that for many of the festival goers the Media Lounge is the main attraction, with its presentation of cutting edge tech art played out within a laid back atmosphere. Though this relatively new mixture of art, technology, science, and hype has yet to establish a set of masters or a canon to match cinema, the festival has the advantage of being the only kids on the block when it comes to this type of selection. Therefore it will be a while before it has to compete for new media artists with other major festivals in Montreal, as it does for film.
The most anticipated film of the festival was no doubt In the Mood For Love, a pure romance which is undoubtedly Wong Kar-Wai’s most restraint and accessible film to date, and which easily places him among the most romantic filmmakers working today. To say it is his most restraint film is not to say it does not have elements of his earlier films, or resonate with an intensity and spark. It clearly does, only the spark is muted, owing partly to the story and emotions that are on display (simple people in extraordinary situations). The film begins in almost documentary fashion showing two people, Li-chun (Maggie Cheung) and Chau (Tony Leung), with their respective spouses moving into a boarding home on a hot Hong Kong day, circa 1962. The film’s epicenter is restricted to these two people. We only catch fleeting glimpses of their respective spouses. Li-chun and Chau discover that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Their mutual pain brings them together, but should they act as their spouses, or should they withhold the temptation and maintain the sublime beauty of their slowly emerging tacit love? Melancholy and the passing, fading chance at love not seized, played in their variously muted keys, are the film’s central emotions.
Kar-Wai communicates these emotions through the sensual properties of film form: swarthy images, lush colors, slow motion cinematography, languid camera movements, and popular music soundtrack that holds it all together (Nat King Cole singing three songs in Spanish!). For example, on one sweltering evening Li-chun and Chau sit with their doors open listening to the same song on the radio. The slow motion camera fluidly tracks from one open door, past the corridor wall separating them to the other open door. Even when they are not with each other the camera lets us know that they are still thinking about each other, still connected. Kar-Wai also uses costume to express inner sentiment. Most strikingly through the countless exquisite and vibrantly colored cheongsams that Li-chun wears which accentuates a surface stiffness that camouflages her bubbling interior emotions.
Although the film only approaches the visual flourish of earlier Christopher Doyle lensed films near the end (when we get splashes of garish and saturated lighting), the film is stylized is in treatment of temporality (Doyle is co-credited as cinematographer with Mark Li Ping Bing). Kar-Wai frequently uses slow motion cinematography to heighten certain key temporal moments. For example, moments where Li-chun and Chau pass each other on a staircase or hallway, lightly brushing each other or making eye contact. Kar-Wai takes these moments of close physical proximity and surcharges them with emotional drama. They become ‘what if’ memory-images suspended in time and space and protracted to attain a level of character subjectivity, not unlike the way Scorsese uses slow motion. Kar-Wai has always used slow motion, but here it renders a sense of the long take even to relatively short shots in the 20-30 second range.
Temporality plays an integral part of another film that played to sold out audiences, Aoyama Shinji’s Eureka. Sometimes an intended emotional effect is dependent strongly, if not entirely, on the temporal parameters outlining the events. This is why director Shinji found it necessary to expand the simple events of Eureka into an epic 3 hours and 37 minutes. Shot in a muted cinemascope black and white (actually sepia, since it was shot on color film stock), Eureka recounts the lingering emotional and psychological after-effects of a first-hand encounter with random modern day violence. The film opens with a seemingly quiet scene on a municipal city bus of Kyushu, Southwest Japan. Brother and sister Naoki and Kozue (played by real life brother and sister Miyazaki Masaru and Miyazaki Aoi) sit glumly side by side, Naoki caught up in a manga. A average looking salaryman boards the bus. He seems internally disturbed, restless. He mumbles something about wanting to be someone else. The scene cuts to the exterior parking lot. Everything appears fine. The film cuts to a shot of a bloodied hand lying on the parking lot floor (shades of the hand in the mouth of the dog in Yojimbo?). This is the first sign of the carnage that has taken place inside the bus, where the salaryman has opened fire and murdered all but three of the occupants: the brother and sister and the busdriver. The busdriver, Makoto, is played by Yakusho Koji, who starred as the detective leading the serial killer search in Cure (1998) and the mega-hit Shall We Dance (1996). Within a few seconds the calm center of normalcy has been shattered, but the film refrains from any display of horror, keeping the carnage offscreen in-between beats of the cutting. There is no exploitation of the pain, no victimization. The newspaper headline reveals “the killer is unknown.” The killer, who cracked under the apparent pressures of ‘normality’, dies without a cause, remaining a unknown, a disposable cog in society.
The film takes us very slowly through the struggles of the three survivors to readjust to life. Like war veterans trying to adjust to civilian life. The film flashes ahead two years. Makoto has drifted for these two years, leaving his wife and family. The children have also been deeply effected. Kazuo’s father committed suicide after he learned that his daughter may have also been sexually abused. Naoki has become sullen and practically mute. In fact neither the boy nor the girl speak a word the entire film. And neither has returned to school. Instead their older cousin Akihiko (Saitoh Yoichiroh), who we later learn also had a similar brush with murder, becomes their partial tutor and guardian. Makoto takes up a job at a local factory. Running concurrently with the events of the three characters is a series of seemingly random murders by a local serial killer. One of the victims is a woman who worked with Makoto and entertained amorous desires toward him. Consequently Makoto becomes a suspect. As part of his struggle to come to terms with the past, Makoto buys a rundown mini-bus, repairs it, and takes to the road with the Naoki, Kozue, and Akihiko. The film now becomes an existential road movie, with the parallel serial killer plot merging when it becomes more and more obvious that the young boy Naoki is the serial killer. As the journey progresses landscape is used by director Shinji as a symbolic barometer of the film’s emotions. For example, at a certain point near the end the four characters become divided, with Naoki imprisoned and Akihiko forced to abandon the bus by Makoto after making a callous comment about Naoki’s imprisonment being ‘good’ for him. The travelers are now down to two. Moments after this separation, Makoto and Kozue stop their bus next to the sea. An extreme long shot places the bus right next to two trees that are twisted into each other, and flanked on either side by single trees. The placement of the four trees, two together in the middle and two alone on either side of the widescreen frame, reflect the separation of the group from four to two.
How does Eureka justify its length? For starters, based on conversation with other viewers and from what I have read, the consensus is that Eureka could easily have been shorn of some of its length without aesthetic harm. I understand the criticism, since I also felt the heightened awareness its temporality. But temporal experience in cinema is one of the quagmires of critical objectivity. To begin, how does one evaluate the myriad of cultural values associated with temporal expenditure, and how temporal experience relates precisely to a film’ overall impact. An important element of Hollywood’s ‘invisible’ style is the spectator’s sense of time. If we are to be properly entertained we must be swept away from the humdrum time of our daily experience. REALITY TIME must not get in the way of cinema time. Hence narrative time must also be ‘invisible’ along with the other operative technical and formal means behind the popular/commercial narrative machine. This temporal bias is deeply ingrained into spectators, at least in North America, and has also influenced international cinemas almost everywhere. But with certain non-American national cinemas, especially where ancient and traditional values still hold some sway, this temporal efficiency can crumble when challenged by the right director. Japan is one case in point, where modernity and tradition are still present in the cultural sphere and national psyche. So what happens when REALITY TIME becomes part of what a film is about? Or when an element of REALITY TIME, perhaps ennui, boredom, or contemplation, becomes an integral part of the film’s theme? Well, in some cases you get films that are 3 hours and 37 minutes. Or even longer, as is the case with Bela Tarr’s 7 1/2 hour Sántántangó.
The latter is one of three reasons why I feel Eureka‘s length is justified. In other words, the emotional trauma of the horrifying experience and the psychological aftershocks weigh so heavily on the three survivors that time becomes lugubrious and tenebrous. The psychologically induced temporal slowdown is not something director Shinji felt he could treat casually. Which is why he brings his spectators into the temporal sphere of his characters, who feel each ticking second as if it were moving backward to the bus incident rather than forward to new life experiences. The turn back to a ‘normal’ experience of time only becomes possible when the characters finally achieve some form of reconciliation with the past.
A second reason that I find justifies the length is as a response to the usual flippant manner in which real violence is treated in mainstream cinema and television. In film after film we witness countless murders and deaths that quickly and all too easily are emotionally reconciled in brief moments of requisite mourning. Someone loses a loved one and a few scenes later he/she is back on track getting their life in order. Disregarding the necessary convention of cinematic expediency, Eureka comes closer than any film I can remember in capturing just how profound an impact death or murder can have on the human psyche.
The third justification for the length is the ending, which contains the sort of a wrenching, imagistic power that left me semi-numb and made the previous three hours and thirty odd minutes compress into one emotional wallop. Even when the 3 hours and 37 minutes elapsed, not many people had the energy to get up and leave, a sure sign that people were emotionally drained. Hence the ‘release’ from the temporal quicksand comes at the end for both the characters and the spectator. By the course of the film’s journey two of the three characters survive, Makoto and Kozue, while Naoki succumbs to his inner demons and becomes an unlikely serial killer. Once he is discovered, Makoto convinces him to turn himself in to the authorities. In the final scene we have the moment where we feel the two surviving characters can finally begin to live a life of new experiences and leave behind the lugubrious temporality they (and we) have been trapped in.
The sense of reconciliation comes in the shape of pure formal rapture: a shift from dull black and white to color and a transcendental aerial camera shot that cranes up and encircles Makoto and Kozue and then sweeps away laterally across the sublime natural beauty of a mountainous gorge. The formal shift creates a double-wallop: the continually moving aerial long take suggests their spiritual rebirth and the change to color the return of their emotions that have been dulled since the bus horror. The setting for the final is a gorgeous natural site, atop a hillside with concrete steps leading to two huge oval stone hedges overlooking an impressive gorge. The camera begins to crane skyward as Kozue walks back from the edge of the precipice -the second time she has ventured close to suicide. As she walks toward Makoto, standing at the top of the steps, the camera rises higher, encircling them as Makoto did with his bicycle around the young boy a few scenes earlier. Then the camera takes off left in a protracted space pan leaving the two characters behind for the natural splendor of the surrounding area. With this formal play the film recalls three other films that conclude with a similar feeling of emotional freedom and release. The shift to color recalls the end of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966/1971), the encircling aerial camera shot recalls the end of Aguirre, Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972), with Klaus Kinski standing triumphantly on a water raft, while the camera movement from the singular to the natural/social recalls Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugestu (1954).
Another striking Asian entry in the festival was Sixth Generation Chinese director Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, which can be described as French New Wave energy meets Vertigo-like narrative. This is not exactly a strange marriage given the influence of Vertigo on French semi-New Wavers like Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. It is interesting that two Hong Kong films, In the Mood for Love and Suzhou River, vie for the most romantic film of the past several years. Kar-Wai is clearly the reigning contemporary romanticist, but Lou Ye gets off to a competitive start with his film. River begins with an intentionally distracting a-rhythmic montage flurry of hand held point of view shots of the titular river’s debris-ridden, industrial mess portside commerces. The Suzhou river was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as an important waterway. The once majestic river and its ‘ugly’ sideviews are used as a core element of this romantic view of urban China: representing Shanghai’s position within the flux of time/history and modernity. Yet the chaotic cutting is in contrast to the continual flow we usually associate with rivers. As if the fragmentary style itself stands in for the conflict between tradition and modernity. The frenetic, jump cut opening gives way to an unusual narrative point of view where a video-artist, who we never see and hear only through voice-over, recounts one of the many stories captured by the inquisitive eyes of his video diary (a sort of Hong Kong “Man with the Video Camera”).
The videographer/narrator tells us how he loves to travel along the river filming its denizens, or viewing it from his overlooking riverside apartment balcony. The film’s narrating strategy for the 15 or so minutes plays like Robert Montgomery’s first person point of view Lady in the Lake (1946), selecting one of the many possible stories surrounding the river: that growing from a series of suicide jumps into the river. Once we enter into the ‘story’ the film loses the literal first-person narration, like the narrative slippage when we enter into the ‘pastness’ of a flashback and fall into a conventional storytelling mode. The videographer’s story within a story concerns a motorbike courier named Mardar, and Moudan, the young girl he is asked to courier to her aunt whenever her gangster father takes in a lover. Moudan falls in love with the ruggedly handsome, laconic Mardar, who in turn is in love with Meimei, who works as a mermaid in a gangster-run bar sarcastically called ‘Happy Tavern.’ Though they are made-up to look significantly different, Meimei with a long blond wig when working and tight sexy clothes when not, and Moudan as a sexually budding schoolgirl, the two women are played by the same actress (Zhou Xun). The courier is forced by the gangsters to kidnap Moudan for a ransom. When Moudan discovers that Mardar has in fact kidnapped her (and for a paltry fee!) she is so hurt that she jumps into the river to her death. Mardar is arrested. The story flashes ahead to his release from prison and this is when the film veers into Vertigo territory (replete with Herrmannesque score by German composer Jorg Lemberg).
He returns to his old haunts and comes across what looks like an older version of Moudan working as a mermaid at the Happy Tavern. In a twist on Vertigo, it is the woman, Meimei, who reconstructs herself to suit his feminine ideal, going as far as placing a fake tattoo on her left thigh. But her illusion is shattered when Mardar comes across a chance meeting of Moudan working at a convenience store. They get drunk on vodka and ride into the river together as a last gasp suicide pact to commemorate their troubled love. The intensity of their love inspires Meimei to leave to see if the narrator/videographer will search for her forever as Mardar did. The film returns to the opening black frames over which we hear Meimei asking the narrator this rhetorical question. There is little question that Suzhou River is an exercise in style, evidenced in the way it intentionally ‘slums’ about with a rough-around-the-edges quality and then stuns you with touches of painterly beauty. But in a genre where hackneyed formulaic love often substitutes for genuine emotion, such formal expression of unrequited love is more than satisfactory.
Continuing with the Asian gaze, but shifting our attention to the middle east, the two (of three) finer Iranian films at the festival this year were The Circle (Jafar Pahani, 2000) and The Time of the Drunk Horses (Bahman Ghobadi, 2000). The latter is a bittersweet account of the resolve of children living in a rural village community between the Iran-Iraq border. The story centers on a young boy who lives with his uncle, younger sister, and physically stunted older brother who only stands about two feet tall and depends entirely on his siblings for his life. The crippled, sickly boy takes weekly medical shots, but needs an operation that will, at best, prolong his life by 7-8 months. The healthy younger brother joins a group of Iranian contrabands that carry illegal material across the border to Iraq. It is a very dangerous, arduous task in blustery cold weather. So cold that they must give alcohol to the mules to keep them going. The boy decides that his only recourse is to sell the mule in Iraq and then take his brother to a hospital there for the operation. The trip leads to the film’s exciting climax.
On the treacherous trip they are ambushed by Iraqi border guards, and forced to run for their lives down the side of a mountain. The group disperses, each fending for themselves down the side of the steep hill with their goods and mules. Some are slowed down by mules that have succumbed to a drunken stupor. All hope seems lost for the boy, as his mule is lying drunk on the ground. Older men punch and kick the mules senseless in a frantic effort to awaken them. The quickly cut montage is a cacophony of sounds and agony: people screaming, mules hawing, and gunfire shots ringing in the air. Amidst the chaos the scene cuts to remind us of the poor sick brother sitting helplessly in the snow freezing and crying. But miraculously the boy’s mule wakes up and he manages to take it down with his brother travelling on his back. They come up to a clearing with a barbed wire: the border. He hops across, the mule follows, and they walk past the camera. The film fades out. He has won the battle, but will ultimately lose the war. Still, the film is hopeful in the strength and incredible sense of self-sacrifice that the young boy, not quite yet a man, possesses.
In an early scene a man gathers a group of children into his truck to help him cross the border with illegal books hidden under their coats. The innocent children sing a song about lost childhood. Clearly, this is what we see transpire: the loss of innocence. One of the greatest treatments of this theme is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962). While not in the same class, but thematically similar, The Time of the Drunk Horses displays children whose social or political situation force them to act beyond their physical and psychological means.
If festivals gave out awards for bravery, Jafar Pahani’s The Circle would win hands down. Of the many Iranian films that tackle the social subjugation of woman in Iran, this is one of the finest. In short, this is one of the most powerful and unremittingly political films to ever come out of Iran. After entertaining and reflexive films like The White Balloon (1995) and The Mirror (1997), which featured girls as lead protagonists, Pahani ups the ante by adding twenty or so years to his female protagonists. The basic motif here is that women are social prisoners wherever they go in Iran (suggested by the title, with the circle being Iran itself). The film begins with an amazing long take that begins with an elderly lady standing outside what appears to be a hospital delivery room door. The door has a square metallic shutter opening. She knocks on the door and asks whether her daughter has delivered yet. The nurse replies yes, a beautiful baby girl. She is shocked, having expected a boy. The grandmother knocks and asks again. The grandmother sighs, “Now the in-laws will insist on a divorce.” The camera follows her down the stairs, stopping as she plays dumb to her daughter-in-law, then on to the street, where another group of three women (Arezou, Nargess and Pari) appear in agitated state, huddling around a payphone, behind parked cars, looking out for the police. We learn that the three women have escaped from prison. The younger of the three women, the most aggressive, sports a nasty bruise under her eye. Why the three women were incarcerated is never spelled out, but the implication is for some form of insubordination, love affair, or effrontery to the male authority figure in their life.
The film then begins what will eventually form a circle, by following the linked episodes of five women. One of the women has escaped from prison and is pregnant. She is estranged from her family for taking on a lover and not being married. We find out that her lover was executed in prison. She tries in vain to get an abortion. Her only chance is an old friend who works at the hospital, but her friend “has changed” and is herself socially constraint from helping her (her doctor husband is unaware of her past, for she do was in prison. And to reveal this would mean losing all the social gains she has achieved). Another lady abandons her young girl on the street in the hope for a better life for her (the subject of the first episode in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Peddler (1987). A fourth, a prostitute, is arrested for accepting a drive with a married man. The man is set loose, but she is put into a paddy wagon. At the prison she enters a room and sits on the floor. The camera begins to pan away from her across the round room. We see three of the other women seated together. The pan ends on the door, a blue, metallic door similar to the one from the opening shot. The square window on the door remains closed. In hindsight, we now realize that the opening scene took place in a prison maternity ward! The circle is complete.
The world presented here is one where woman cannot go anywhere without permission from their father, brother or husband. Their sense of social oppression and entrapment is transmitted by Pahani’s constant use of the long take. I did not count the number of shots in the film, but my guess is that there were no more than 100-150 shots in the film, which would make the average shot length (ASL) about 30-50 seconds, considerably higher that most Iranian films I have seen. Also unlike most Iranian films, it is shot at night, among dark and neon-lit city streets and alleys, in close quarters. Women are often shot behind doors, windows, and bars, with frantic expressions, nervously looking around their shoulders for police authorities, guarding their every move. I am not in the least surprised to learn that this has been banned in Iran. Neither do I see the ban being lifted any time soon.
After a run of exciting or surprise discoveries on the Asian film front over the past several years, the odd disappointment is to be expected. Yang’s latest, Yi Yi, which comes bearing the usual critical pedigree, including best director prize at Cannes, was it for me. Yi-Yi is sprawling, simple, and elegant, but lacks the cinematic energy we have come to expect from the best of Asian cinema. In this case, the problem is that the well-intentioned emotions surrounding the ups and downs of a middle class Taiwanese family are too clearly stated through dialogue and plot. I am not saying that the common familial emotions are not honest or worthy of representation, only that my bias is for such emotions to be expressed in as off-handed and lateral a manner as possible. That is through formal qualities (color, camera movement, use of landscape or art direction, etc.) rather than having these formal qualities secondary to overstated plot points, dialogue, or narrative twists (i.e. Grandmother has a stroke, becomes comatose, then dies in the end; husband bumps into a former lover whom he regrets not having married and attempts to reconcile his past with her, etc.). Unlike In the Mood for Love, where the formal whole oozes the emotions the characters are unable to express, the emotions in Edward’s Yang Yi Yi are conventionally coded. If this were an American film it would have Academy Award written all over it.
Two auteur-driven feature films from France were Agnés Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000, Fr.) and Michael Heneke’s Code Inconnu (2000, Fr.). Introduced by the petite Agnés Varda, Gleaners is a playful documentary that begins in a traditional pseudo-scientific objectivity but then becomes a political essay on the morally reprehensible wastefulness of first world countries, and the job that gleaners do recycling that waste. The film gives considerable treatment to the legality of gleaning. Varda has a lawyer read from a Civil Law Codebook on ownership of waste, gleaning seasons, etc. Varda follows the fortunes of wasted vegetables and fruit not picked up in time during the harvest or those deemed not cosmetically marketable. Her camera follows both the rural and urban gleaners. Those who eat scavenged food as their main food source, including one who claims he does it purely out of ethics. Varda then relates the theme to its historical representation in painting, from the famous Francois Millet painting to lesser imitations.
Everything and everyone is a gleaner in one sense or another. For example, filmmakers who shoot so much unused footage; which she demonstrates in a scene where the camera continues recording after she has presumably forgot to turn the camera off and we are treated to “the dance of the lens cap.” Films like this tend to find their own structure. This one finds its dramatic end in the form of a Master’s in Biology major who scavenges food in open markets. She follows him and finds out he is a fairly articulate young man who lives at a half-way home and teaches French language/grammar to recent immigrants for 2 hours every evening.
The feel of languid pacing and long take style achieved by mise-en-scene in In the Mood for Love becomes a hard and cold structural fact in Haneke’s Code Inconnu. Code Inconnu contains approximately 60 shots in its 117 min. length, which equals to an average shot length of approx. 2 minutes per shot (1’58.5”). It presents an interesting formal structure, like Encore (1988, Paul Vecchiali) or Stranger than Paradise (1984, Jim Jarmush), where each ‘take’ is a self-contained sequence shot unit. The links between the long sequence shots occur at the larger, global level. That being the social and political changes brought on by forced exile, immigration and the resulting economic and racial pressures experienced by these transplanted people. The film allows us to sit back and look at the related segments of the principal groupings: a young actress, Anne, and her war photographer boyfriend George (Juliette Pinoche & Thierry Neuvic), George’s depressed farmer brother Jean (Sepp Bierbichler) and his son Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu), a poor Romanian woman who begs on the streets of Paris and sends money home; and an African family that includes a young man, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), who teaches deaf-mute children.
In the powerful opening plan sequence the camera tracks on a left-right trajectory following Jean after he casually throws a piece of crumbled paper at a beggar, Maria, which triggers the chance encounter of most of the players. Amadou, who witnesses what Jean has done and sees it as an act of disrespect, physically forces him back to apologize to the woman. Jean stubbornly refuses to admit any wrongdoing, and a scuffle ensues. Police enter, as does Anne. The police automatically assume the white boy’s innocence and let him go, but ask to see Amadou’s papers and force him to retrieve them at the police station. This triggers the film’s strongest social-political message: racism and the treatment of ethnic immigrants.
In a review of the film in Cinemascope #4 (Summer 2000), writer Mark Peranson writes that the film can be seen as Haneke’s response to Austria’s right-wing leader Heider. What is interesting is that Haneke can successfully put across this social critique while employing what on the surface appears to be an objective, critically distanced camera style. Another great scene is a static long take on the subway where a pair of young Arabic men harass Anne in full view of a crowded subway (the sequence recalls the 1967 film The Incident, directed by Larry Peerce). Everyone minds their business, until an elderly immigrant man stands up to the aggressive youth. The film ends with Amadou’s deaf-mute sister ‘speaking’ sign language to audience (code unknown). Not all the segments attain the power of the two described above, but they are all genuine and solemn.
Also from France’s was J.L. Godard’s 13-minute short, The Origin of the 20th Century (2000), which continues his recent forays into personal cine-essays. This short can be seen running parallel to his ongoing History of Cinema series, with this one casting the focus on the 20th century history seen through Godard’s personal hierarchy of the cinema masters. The film begins in 1990, with Baltic wartime footage, and then travels in history like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five, ‘unstuck’ in time, from 1975-1960-1995-1930-1915-1900. Over a plaintive piano score, Godard splices together images from Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu), Roberto Rossellini (Rome: Open City), his own Breathless, Luis Bunuel (Land Without Bread), Stanley Kubrick (The Shining), Alexander Dovzhenko (Earth), the Lumiere brothers, Pier Paulo Pasolini, Ingmar Bergman, Jerry Lewis, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Stalin, and Hitler.
Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses (2000, England) takes its title from a line in the 1912 solidarity uprising of women workers who fought for their rights -and won. The film takes as its starting point a reality-based janitor strike/uprising that took place in LA in 1990. The narrative thrust of the film involves Sam (Adrien Brody), a young Jewish old-school leftist activist who works for a social rights group and makes it his mission to unionize one of the few remaining non-unionized agencies in LA, Angels. Maya (Pilar Padilla) has recently arrived from Mexico to live with her older sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), who is married with children. Rosa works as a charwoman for the Agency company and manages to get her younger sister a job at the same office building. Maya falls in love with the activist Sam, and takes to his political cause.
The film works emotionally as well as intellectually, by playing with the old Godardian theme of social prostitution. The film’s central political allegory of ‘prostitution’ comes out in the powerfully acted scene where the older sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) gives her younger idealist sister Maya (Pilar Padilla) a lesson in the social-political school of hard knocks. When it is revealed that Rosa was the informant who leaked their union activity to the management, Maya storms home to give her elder sister a mindful. Instead, Rosa tells her about the hidden sacrifices she has made for her family. She tells Maya about her five years of prostitution to send money home to feed the family. And that to get her the job she had to fuck the vile manager Perez. Which all come out in the following great dialogue: “When the family was hungry, I fucked. When my husband gets sick, I fuck. When my sister needs a job, I fuck..” Both cry their heart out. Maya goes out and robs a gas station to give a fellow co-worker Ruben the money he needs to assure his Law scholarship. She has learned her lesson: she sacrifices herself for someone else. When they are arrested for their planned act of civil disobedience and fingerprinted, she is matched to the crime and deported back to Mexico. She will in all likelihood never see Sam or her sister. Even though the workers succeed in forming the union, the victory has its price.
A film festival such as this is always an exercise in prioritizing and co-ordinating one’s schedule. Aside from several brief visits, I decided to devote one entire evening to the Media Lounge. Back in 1997 Thomas Köner and Jürgen Reber combined for one of that year’s finest performance pieces, Alchemie, a mesmerizing 40 minute performance with a film projector, a film loop, light, sound, and film chemicals poured directly onto the film’s emulsion before passing through the film gate. While in London earlier in the summer I had been to the Sonic Boom music exhibit at the Hayward Gallery, which included another piece by Köner entitled List of Japanese Winds (co-authored with Max Eastley). Based on my appreciation of these two pieces, I decided to attend the Lounge on the evening of Köner’s most recent performance piece, Daikan. Preceding Köner was Richard H. Kirk’s Subduing Demons.
If I could use a cinema analogy, the contrast between the two shows was like montage (Kirk) vs. long take (Köner). This turned out to be a perfect complement. Kirk was by far the more aggressive. His image set-up was three side by side video screens, with the outer ones looped to repeat. The footage, culled from a pop culture image bank Kirk as been collecting since 1979, were always adulterated (by color swashes, flash frames, etc.) and set to very loud and rhythmically pulsating music. The best description would be Ambient Dance with a Jamaican/African dub feel. The music was far more interesting than the imagery, which was your pretty standard dialectic of pop culture and politics (shots of politicians and street riots mixed with B-movies, film directors, etc.). Which shows some of the limitations of representational image manipulation in a non-narrative sound-image medium. With Köner there were no images, just pure soundscape. During Kirk’s performance the music was so loud you could feel the vibrations shaking from the floorboards up through your body. With Köner the minimalist music was one huge sonic wave slowly droning into a soothingly enveloping musical wall. I was seated on the floor not far from two speakers, and could see people around me grooving with the sonic wave. One guy standing next to me was miming the soundwaves moving through his body. Most of us just shut our eyes and imagined we were somewhere else. A sonically induced mindspace.