14 May 2011

Time of the Wolf

A captivating aspect of Michael Haneke's art comes from his reluctance to offer audiences answers and solutions, and the way this works within his films to embolden instances of mistrust, uncertainty, fear, and violence. He keeps hidden the interior world of antagonists (Funny Games, Code Unknown), who can also be self-harming protagonists (The Piano Teacher, Benny's Video, The Seventh Continent), and/or the identity of antagonists (Caché, White Ribbon), to motivate us, with a high degree of success, toward self-analysis, and to omit shortcuts for reducing the film to a dramatic presentation.

Time of the Wolf is a curious film because the fact that a catastrophe occurred before the film began is undeniable, as is its secondary importance to the aftermath. The catastrophe's nature is neither investigated nor explained in order to fix the film in a world of total uncertainty. This is how it differs from other Haneke films, which are usually about disruptive or injurious acts puncturing otherwise normal existences. In this one, massive uncertainty is the only narrative certainty.

Although this one giant mystery seems to engulf tinier, more specific mysteries present in many of Haneke's other films, it also emphasizes Haneke's perennial theme: the grand mystery of the human spirit. When people group together in Time of the Wolf, so too do their flaws accumulate, and Haneke illustrates through his blossoming narrative the exponential complexities of justice and fairness. Here the reasons behind characters' actions are often painfully clear, motivated by ideas about self-preservation, and used to investigate protean tolls of human imperfection, the way each person carries baggage of selfishness, pride, greed, and other obstructions of communal bliss. Questions are raised about mankind's ability to function in harmony.

It's significant that would-be hero figures embody conflicting characteristics as well. The mother's (Isabelle Huppert) timorous frailty impedes her maternal goals, Koslowski's (Olivier Gourmet) leadership is based on rules he alone makes and enforces, and the leaders of the group who join later deflect interpersonal retributions for the sake of protecting the group as a whole. And ultimately, don't each of them rest their priorities on foundations of opportunity for personal, more than communal, self-preservation? This suggests that people cannot live alone, and they cannot live together.

The sentiment echoes from the movie's first scene. Recall it now: one family encounters another in a village house and a gun is fired.

Recall, from the same first scene, the screaming baby in the mother's hands. Remember their later (but not so much later) arrival at the train station. What happened to the provisions and car they stole? And where has the baby gone?

In the final scene the young boy is held in the arms of the nightwatchman who stopped him from throwing himself naked on the fire by telling him hopeful wishes about a man in a sports car arriving to announce that everything bad is over, everything is fine now. He feeds the boy wishes to encourage him, but we know they're lies, the boy must know they're lies, and the final, horrible mystery seems to be: why keep going? Why not throw ourselves in the fire? It must be to follow a great lie.

That then is the reason to respect and admire Haneke, because although he knows we each carry within ourselves catastrophes and raging fire resolutions, he refuses to lie to keep us from them, and asks that we encounter the ugly places in ourselves, so what we may return to the world with newfound awareness. And hopefully some kind of strength to endure.

10 May 2011

The Pleasure of Being Robbed

Most great reviews attempt to navigate sub-surface meanings by charting surface maneuvers, such as what a filmmaker did and how it was done. For some viewers the 16mm aspect of The Pleasure of Being Robbed is almost as important as the filmed in NYC aspect, equal also to the non-professional, naturalistic (and charismatic) actors aspect, and the natural rhythms and sounds of the city aspect. Seen a certain way these choices compose a beautiful and elegant song by the filmmaker to the subject for the audience, and with the right performer, right shots, right tempo, and right feeling, we see a real person in a city that breathes.

It's easy to find and discover main character Eléonore (Eleonore Hendricks), a lively woman alive in a living city, because Joshua Safdie, filmmaker, closely and intensely searches for her. Many features of traditional drama are stripped away, thinning the clutter between audience and film. Safdie asks Eléonore to lead and control her narrative's direction, and so the movie exists for her and because she does (exist). It becomes her. The way she extends her arm to defend herself from a car as she runs across the street to meet her friend illuminates parts of her character, vital things that expose deep-level personality traits.

16mm's reputation is weaved with low-budget woes, but its frequent, distinct use has generated a history of important reference points. Shooting in NYC on 16mm is a style associated with gritty urban reality, used for films like Shadows by John Cassavetes, Abel Ferrara's Driller Killer and Ms. 45, Basket Case, and recently Ronald Bronstein's Frownland, among others. Its use here nears romantic. The Pleasure of Being Robbed's camera is handheld and unsteady, reminding the viewer of the camera and cameraman; colors pop in a conspicuously filmic way and can remind the viewer of texture and physicality, light passing through celluloid; all about it is this sense of honesty and naturalism and a rare and intimate interaction with the filmmakers and subject. In Hollywood films seem made by machines. This is the exact opposite.

These creative decisions have certain qualities and meanings that help us understand Eléonore and her world. The film doesn't tell you everything about her, it shows you only what she does and some things that happen (the things she does are not necessarily a result of what happened), and it keeps secrets and guards solutions, and neither glorifies nor denigrates her. Eléonore's choices often seem desperate, miscalculated, or irrational, and she doesn't always do the right thing or the thing she's 'supposed' to do. The film offers a subjective realm in which you make either make decisions about what type of person Eléonore is, observe her without question and judgment, or experience life with her as she does (I prefer the latter of course).

04 May 2011

Therese and Isabelle

To be honest (and why wouldn't I be honest?), I wasn't sure which part of my body (penis, heart, or mind, in order of suspicion) would be most frequently stimulated while watching Therese and Isabelle, a lesbian love film from 1968 by Radley Metzger, a director of softcore sex films of an artistic nature. When it began in black and white I was even more curious, because for some reason I'd expected a color film. The other films I'd seen by Metzger, Score and The Image, were in color, but anyway Therese and Isabelle is black and white, and the answer is heart.

So much heart. Therese and Isabelle fits squarely in the tradition of boarding school romance narratives, and explores the meaning and makes subjective the experience of self-discovery that comes from investigation of the interior and/or physical world of another (and instigates all sorts of themes that I cherish).
It was Metzger's use of space and pacing that indicated to me what kind of movie this was going to be. The lead character Therese (Essy Persson) is sent to a new school in part because her mother has remarried some wealthy man whom she (the mother) enjoys making love to and traveling with. Therese isn't invited into their new lives, as she's made painfully aware, and so begins her time at the school questioning her perceptions on love, loyalty, intimacy, and self-identity.
I concede the point that my ~205kb cell phone photos, taken of my television from my couch, don't do justice to the beauty of the camerawork, landscapes, and architecture exhibited in the movie. While sometimes I question the meaning of background beauty in movies, in this one it's clear: why, when everything is so gorgeous, do I (Therese) feel so low?

The blocking sometimes evokes Michelangelo Antonioni, which, if you don't know, is actually not off base. Metzger began his civilian film career by cutting trailers for Janus, including Antonioni and Bergman films. Metzger once said that a compliment from Bergman about one of his trailers was the highlight of his (Metzger's) career (source needed, where did I hear this, did I dream it, am I making it up?). The dvd liner notes make studious mention of Georges Auric's contribution as composer for the film.
None of which matters or is important when the movie is on, because you can enter without cultural or filmic reference points, because the story is told with emotional precision and tonal accuracy. The POV is an adult Therese as she revisits the boarding school and memories of her and Isabelle's love affair are stirred by locations and objects around the grounds and school.

Isabelle (Anna Gaël) isn't the perfect romantic partner, which quality alone elevates the film into a realistic, painful, and imperfect realm. She also isn't Therese's only lover in the film, and the other encounter is poignant and necessary for emotional development, in case you still think this is some standard sex film.

Also, the movie really isn't very sexy. Most of what's explicit is narrated in voice over, and most of the voice over I had trouble finding sexy. This may have been purposeful in some instances, as their relationship is so clearly about more than sex, and their physical encounters are also about more than sex.
It's really about painful encounters with others, and it's really about the inherent instability and insecurity in our relationships with others (for me that's what it was about, maybe it'll say something else to you). Also the excitement, the nervousness, the adventure - all these things mixed up together. For example the above photo, wherein the girls stare at each other naked.
Or this photo, wherein Therese presses her ear against the wall and hears the sounds of others making love in the room next to the one she and Isabelle have rented to make love. You experience with Therese the process of learning about sexual identity, yours and others, and its ultimate value. To Metzger's credit you don't just experience it, you feel it too.