Saturday, December 28, 2013

Gushing Prayer (Masao Adachi, 1971)

Gushing Prayer (1971)

dir: Masao ADACHI

I have not been this floored by a film since seeing Walter Hugo Khouri's Antonionian masterpiece, Men and Women ('Noite Vazia', 1964).
Sometimes, you see a film so groundbreaking, so radical, that you're in disbelief that you've even seen it, or that it was even made. This is the case with both, and only a few lucky others.

'Radical' sums up the director quite well too. He was one of the 'pink film' directors, artists who made super low-budget, softcore films that were shot in two weeks or so, and quickly released to make profits.

Producers cared little for what the content was (unlike the big studios), as long as there was an ample amounts of skin. There was actually a certain ratio, as well, for how much nudity had to be present--approximately a third or so of screen time had to have t&a.

Despite such seemingly lowbrow goals, this sandbox soon become a space for work of radical aesthetic and political experimentation.

Koji Wakamatsu is the most well-known name to come out of this environment. And in fact, his work inspired Stanley Kubrick, and SK admitted to this publicly.

The director of the film in question, Adachi, had worked for several years in this workspace, also doing documentary, but came upon trouble when his political activities ran afoul with the ruling order.

Adachi, like most filmmakers and artist, was caught up in the massive anti-militarist student movements of the 50's and 60's. And in the early 70's, he had already traveled to Lebanon and Palestine to make a documentary about the Popular Front for Palestinian Liberation ('Red Army-PFLP: Declaration of World War'), and soon became involved with the Japanese Red Army, a group that was more or less affiliated with the PFLP, though independent of its goals and leadership.

When the JRA had become implicated in terrorist attacks, his passport was revoked, and he was unable to return to Japan for nearly 30 years.
Though he is back in Japan now (after having served a short sentence for passport violations), this background is important to understand the director.
'Gushing Prayer' was made right before his departure from Japan, and represents the artist at the prime moment of clarity, radicalism, and austerity.

It follows four teenagers who embark on a quest of discovery. They observe the world of adults, and with some awkwardness, propose that they can 'beat sex', meaning that they can engage in this new, unexplored territory without feeling an emotional response.

This theme of self-control is of course an Eastern cultural theme. It is essentially the Buddhist philosophy, and the rigid, austere lifestyle of the samurai. But here, Adachi moves it away from the traditional, and instead defines this personal questioning as the very moment of developing political consciousness. The teenagers only come to know the world through engaging in what they perceive as 'adult behavior', but they do not examine the consequences of it.

In a sense, they move from innocent figures to units of exploitation. They, for the first time, develop a 'public life', and go into society/the capitalist system/reality, etc...

This is doubled by the four also deciding that one of them must engage in prostitution, since anonymous sex would be the best opportunity to discover whether or not the body can actually resist carnality, and if humans truly have control over their lives. Prostitution also provides a means of being, as an economic unit (literally and figuratively), you are then 'within' society.

The following investigation is where the film has the bulk of its value, as the teens, through eloquent dialogue and voiceover, relay the problems that they face in understanding this world and their bodies. It is, in a sense, one of the most cerebral and deliberated coming-of-age films, but done in such a way that it is more real than going the prosaic motions of 'maturation'. Through the showing of, and also through their critiquing and recreating of each pertinent moment, the teens, and we, the audience, come to a very high level of awareness. In fact, maybe we learn too much by the end.



Thursday, August 29, 2013

10 Reasons Why Film Isn't Dead

It's not something I hear as frequently as a few years ago, but there still persists this notion among the film community that "cinema isn't what it used to be," mostly among stuffy academic types.

I really take offense to this, because there's a whiff of racism behind it. Since the late 1980's, the greatest star in cinema has been the Middle East and East Asia.

Most who wail about the "death of cinema" tend to champion the Western European and Hollywood classics ONLY. When I have heard this opinion, they always say "Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut, Renoir!"

Not to take away from those greats, but that represents a VERY SMALL portion of the world, and a specific historical era influenced by certain conditions. It shouldn't be seen as the "end-all, be-all" of cinema.

And it really insults so much of the great work from Brazil, Senegal, Algeria, China, South Korea, Philippines, Serbia, Czech Republic (and the former Czechoslovakia), Kazakhstan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Poland, Argentina, and so many more nations.

But I don't assume that everyone watches what I watch, so I've thought to make a short list with examples of films that I think are as strong as anything from a Western European-Hollywood studio canonical list (like say... the 'required' viewing list that Spike Lee presents to his students).

10 Films Made in the Past 10 Years That Are as Good as Anything You'll Find:

(not in any particular order)

1) The World - Jia Zhangke
This film is important, literally and figuratively, as it's astounding, but also reflects the rise of China, as an economic, geopolitical, and cultural center in the world. The film's title comes from a theme park, which may not represent the entire world, but the best of it - the landmarks. Some touching, memorable scenes are when a plane flies over head, and one of the workers (who make up the cast) says, "Who do you think flies on those?"
Also, scenes between the troupe of Russian theme park workers and their associations with the local Chinese (who come from all over China) provide for some measured, but sincerely done approaches towards international friendship. The film is one of the best to represent changes in culture due to globalization, and the shift in values due to East Asia's industrial renaissance.

2) Visage - Tsai Ming-liang
Second is another film from East Asia, from Tsai Ming-liang, the openly gay and one of the more Westernized of the Taiwanese New Wave (which includes Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wu Nien-jen, and the recently deceased Edward Yang).
Tsai takes his love of the French New Wave (and his repeating cast) to Paris, to film the story of a Taiwanese director attempting to make an art film in the city of lights.
The film is a tour de force of aesthetic mastery. It is filled with early 20th century Chinese songs, some sung by the beautiful model/actress Letitia Casta, and each frame could be a standalone painting.
There is not a "plot" per se, but more of a tour of Paris, a slow reminiscence on the state of film, and a threnody to the old masters (via one scene starring Nouvelle Vague poster boy, Jean-Pierre Leaud).

3) The Weeping Meadow - Theodoros Angelopoulos
The first entry from the Greek director's unfinished trilogy is just as exciting as any of his work from the past three decades. Angelopoulos shows such an ease in his style, and his near-endless steadicam/crane shots feel completely natural.
His historical competency is just as lucid as he takes us through the usual familial memories of war, political upheaval, and colonization.
This film follows Greek refugees from Odessa after the Bolshevik Revolution, and continues in part two of the trilogy, Angelopoulos' last film unfortunately, The Dust of Time.

4) Lady Chatterley - Pascale Ferran
I was hesitant to add this entry, but it really shows a continuation of some of the best traditions in French cinema: naturalistic cinematography, good scriptwriting, a character-driven narrative, rich dialogue, a sense of economy, and well-paced timing. I was never able to watch the television version, which runs about an hour long than the theatrical cut, but its a nice take on D.H. Lawrence's well-known story of a relationship crossing class and marital boundaries.
None of the English names are changed for the French-speaking cast, but it all comes off very naturally, and some of the most memorable and well-executed scenes are the ones between the eponymous lady and her beau, the gamekeeper, as they sneak away from the lord of the estate and engage in their love affair.

5) Star-Spangled to Death - Ken Jacobs
Not long ago, I finally embarked on this long journey, experimental luminary Ken Jacobs' near-seven hour rumination on American media, psychology, and well... just any topic imaginable.
It is the most avant-garde of features in that it is entirely composed of found footage. None of pieces really go together--he takes scenes from racist, ethnographic pieces of African villagers shot during colonialism, scientific films featuring animal testing, Richard Nixon's apology speeches, sound clips of protests, some footage from his early shorts, along with speeches from Black Panther members. Coalesced together, it becomes a mental journey through America. It comes off more as thought than visual storytelling. It could also be thought of as stream of consciousness editing. All of it comes together to maybe be an analysis of Jacobs' head than anything else, but it is an experience that cannot be missed and one of the most unique works of art from the United States.

6) West of the Tracks - Wang Bing
Back to China! This nation really is producing some of the strongest work today, though it may be getting ignored (at least in America), due to cultural unfamiliarity. But this documentary, clocking in at a running time of nine hours, is one of the best in cinematic history. I would say that maybe the film I feel was the strongest of the postwar period of Hitler: a Film from Germany, and certainly, the only thing made since to match that epic experience is this, Wang Bing's analysis of social decay after the closing of a state-run factory in Shenyang.
For the first hour, we get the sense that something is amiss. Workers in a locker room (gleefully unashamed!) argue furiously with each other over nothing. I wondered whether or not the footage was staged, but it seemed it might be too hard get such detail and accuracy in the arguments, so began to accept it as a documentary. That feeling kept going throughout the film. If it was a documentary, it was incredible, but could I also be watching the best fictionalized drama ever?
Maybe this questioning of reality stems from the fact that the 20,000 or so members of the town also have their lives in question. Little by little, the men in the town begin to lose their factory jobs, and we see the decay.
The film is divided into three distinct sections: Rust, Remnants, and Rails, and by the end of it, the factory has closed and families are in question as we see the teens wander the streets aimlessly or chat up shopkeepers or try to coax young women into sex.
Being an outsider to Chinese society and never having had the opportunity to visit China, I can't affirm how accurate it is to Shenyang, or whether it truthfully portrayed the industrial decay of that city, but it was an experience I was more immersed in than any other. A film with no equal.

7) Death in the Land of Encantos - Lav Diaz
One of the greatest gifts of the 21st century and the best result of digitization in cinema is sudden, meteoric rise of cinema in Southeast Asia. There has also been a second boost in West Africa, after the collapse of state-funding during the socialist period, but those films have gone below my radar.
Anyhow, countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and especially the Philippines have had a liberation through the cheap access of digital technology.
In fact, there's an interview with Lav Diaz titled, "Digital is liberation theology."
I love the title for the double meaning it has. As cinema has been used to oppress the third world through negative media representation, yet it also has the capacity to liberate them through equal access.
And directors like Lav Diaz, Raya Martin, and Sherad Anthony Sanchez are doing just that all with the new opportunities through equipment.
There really is no way to not to stress enough the fact that we are seeing a CONTEMPORARY RENAISSANCE in the Philippines. Countries who did not have open cinemas before tend to make nationalistic works in attempt of self-definition, and this is what Diaz and others have done. Encantos, the first in Diaz' trilogy and Martin's A Short Film About the Indio Nacional continue this tradition of national reassessment and re-orientation after a legacy of European colonialism and a following period of dictatorship by militarism and a comprador bourgeoisie.
But what about the film?
Due to its richness, it could be easy to do an entire dissertation on this, Diaz' third entry in a trilogy, but to remain brief and allow room for other titles, it follows a group of three artists, focused on Hamin, a poet, as they traverse the Philippine jungle after the devastating Super Typhoon Durian.
The three engage in long, fulfilling discussions on the state of art, the meaning of it, the role of the artist, and the position of the Philippines in the world.
Never before has a director attempted to sum up the zeitgeist of his nation, and the world by extension, and so successfully nailed it at each step. The gargantuan running time (9 hours and 5 minutes) is just a requirement for all the work that Diaz must do. He is building up a new national cinema, by the way. Though the Philippines has been making films for decades, this is the first time that we have seen so many working in a time of general political freedom and able to work outside of commercial demands.

8) Last Life in the Universe - Pen-ek Ratanaruang
This film isn't one that particularly needs promotion, but is tremendously important in the soup of titles.
The industrial essentialism of the Japanese meets the languidness of Thai culture in this Asian mashup.
World favorite actor Tadanobu Asano stars as a man with a mysterious past who arrives in Bangkok and tries to revive some sense of normal through his routine.
His hopes are soon shattered after he views a Thai teenager jump over a bridge next to a car crash. As a way of consolation, and through circumstance, he stays with the girl's older sister, and falls into the Thai way of life. Pot-smoking, staying up all night, leaving dishes unwashed, and other behavior ensues.
The highlights of this self-consciously arty film are the soundtrack from Small Room and the many oneiric scenes, such as the house cleaning up itself or some of the (rarely) well-done slow-motion shots.
Like some of the best films, but not enough of them, this one is more about the art then about the "what happens next."

9) Syndromes and Century - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
It would seem incredibly unfair to construct any list of 21st century favorites and leave out "Joe", the boy wonder from Thailand.
I never feel that I understand his films or his directorial choices, but I do enjoy them and always look forward to the next one. Maybe it's because his style is just so personal and unique that I don't have an "in". But you never can quite forget a film by Joe after you watch it.
It also was irrelevant which one I choose either. They are all EXTREMELY avant-garde, and it seems that somehow, he's found a place for himself within the international arthouse scene without conforming to any previously established expectation for cinema.
For this reason, I have to mention him though I typically feel a bit lost during his films, except the recent Uncle Boonmee, which was more straightforward.
One the face of it, this is a remembrance of Joe's parents, both doctors in Thailand during the 70's. That is what is in the synopsis at least, but the film becomes many things. It has an appearance by a Buddhist monk who wants to become a DJ (which is why the film had trouble with Thai censorship). It jumps to the modern era with robotic equipment and some beautiful, though unmotivated shots of new hospital equipment, and has new doctors take the place of the old.
I would more classify Joe and his cinema in the place of the fine arts. His films are easy to enjoy, but they are not pieces to understand. Only to have impressions of when they are over. The best thing I can say is that an image of his "gave me this one feeling," or "reminded me of one time..."

10) Crimson Gold - Jafar Panahi
There are several reasons for the international hostility towards Iran--some geopolitical, some because of its defensive stance against Israel and Western globalization after the '79 revolution, some unknown to everyone, and while I tend not to jump into the popular 'anti-Iran' protest that's promoted in the Western media, I was upset to find out that the regime had repressed some of my favorite filmmakers, even going so far as to place Jafar Panahi on house arrest and briefly imprisoning Mohamad Rasoulof.
This film does not resist the religious Shiite system that the nation is currently structured under or the lack of political options, but rather, the entrenched class system that exists in Iran.
Hussein, a deliveryman, seems to be born into a world that is set against him. He makes deliveries to an expensive jewelry store that contains not a single item that he can afford on his meager salary.
His conservative wife complains about bills and how he cannot pay them.
He spends much of his time stuck in traffic in the rush to make deliveries so he can barely keep things together.
And then what happens?
He snaps and robs the jewelry store that stands as an eyesore and a reminder of his poverty.
From that theft, Hussein becomes a frequent criminal, with an amazing finally in the penthouse of a young millionaire high above Tehran.
To see this film is to know the economic oppression that exists in much of the world.

These aren't all the films that mean cinema isn't dead, but just a taste. I tried to be as international as possible while remaining true to works that deeply affected me. I regretfully was not able to list any titles from South America or Africa, but this is also due to the fact that there is so much more to see. But I was able to add some titles that probably don't get a fair amount of attention as well as some that did well on the international film circuit. This list should just be seen as a starting point to why cinema is still strong, not as a new canon.

My Response to Paul Shrader's Film Canon

So, I finally read this attempt at creating a film canon by Paul Schrader.

I thought I had read it years ago, but hadn't. Once I sit down to read it, it's like this verbose, yet erudite confirmation of everything I'm tired of in academia and film criticism.

Schrader parrots up all the old musty names from the Catholic Church, even goes back to definitions by Dante, Plato, and Kant as to what art is.

Not that there's a problem to that, but... Really, the old school again?

He then strangely enough, bashes Marxists and feminists, repeating another scholar's view of them as the "School of Resentment."

Following this he throws up all his heroes, the ones you were forced to watch in film class--Ford, Welles, Renoir, and Hitchcock.

These guys are certainly masters, no one rejects that. But isn't it curious enough, that Schrader spending so much time to construct a rubric by which to judge films, and then only repeating the most hallowed, widely known, "acknowledged" masterpieces of the 20th century, kind of reek of exclusion and privilege.

To me, this also ties into the exclusion of the film industry. He may categorize my comments as the "school of resentment," but what other response can there be to an industry that did and still, continues to reject authentic views of minorities?

Does Schrader, who fails to mention a single title made outside the rigid demands of the studio system (Masculin, Feminin is a close exception, but not really) even stop to think of the system of privilege that IS studio filmmaking, yet also how this system rigidly stifles personal expression as a capitalist enterprise?

He kind of follows that French theory of auteur--that the studios sucked, but there were a few guys--Wyler, Wilder, Hawks, etc... who were successful in pushing some sort of personal vision, hence the auteurs.

But the period following the collapse of the studios, or rather, the weakening of their influence, DID SEE artistry return with the art film.

The art film was present since festivals such as Cannes and Venice since the 50's, but some of my favorite works were by those who were given full creative expression such as Angelopoulos, Eustache, and Tarkovsky, just to name a few.

Anyway, I really feel this is a marker of Schrader's age and his conservative upbringing. But then again, it's not. Because in the article, he even slams Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has done so much to promote overlooked films, by saying that Rosenbaum doesn't explain why they're good.

So, in turn, he presents a very unoriginal list, preceded by lots of bloviated talk about the "masters" and "classic aesthetics," but why does this not show up in his own cinema?

Why is a film like Light Sleeper fairly sleep-inducing?

Granted, there's some value to that film, but it hardly reaches the halcyon levl that Schrader's talking about.

Instead, let's think of the words of an artist who did live up to his expectations. Not an obscure name, by any means, but one who fits: Andrei Tarkovsky.

Shortly before his death, while location scouting for Nostalghia, Andrei filmed a documentary with Italian scriptwriter Tonino Guerra called 'Voyage in Time'.

There are many great lessons from this interview film, but one of the best, and one which I try to remember (paraphrased) is this:

Tarkovsky: "My problem is, I keep meeting directors who are nothing like their films. Your film should be an extension of yourself."

I'm not projecting this as a rule for film. Star Wars: A New Hope is a great movie, but George Lucas was never a jedi in real life. But I'm sure Lucas, in his fantasy, was that film.

Tarkovsky preaches for simple honesty in expression. I try to always remind myself of this while I'm making shorts, and some of the ones that turned out better are the ones where my ego, or some "idea" didn't get in the way. The ones where I was just trying to represent a personal experience or emotion were much better than anything intellectual.

And intellectualism is all Schrader has to offer. Why are his films so different from what he has to say in this article? That's the only question I pose. I think the answer is obvious.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Walter Hugo Khouri - Men and Women (Noite Vazia, 1964)

Men and Women (1964)

I'm really in pure disbelief that something this definitive in its subject matter (the old battle of the sexes) could have been made 50 years ago. It's one of the strongest statements on society's deeply rooted sexism and the complicity on both sides that perpetuates it.

In it, two married men prowl the streets of Sao Paulo looking for sex. They turn down some advances at a couple of bars, preferring something "unfamiliar". They finally find two prostitutes at a teahouse, and bring them back to a 'communal apartment'.

The two men, one a little older, fatter, insecure, and ragingly sexist, the other, younger, more handsome, and reluctant, then begin the game with the women. They swap partners, watch porn, even pay the two women to have sex with each other, ever seeking the more out-of-the-ordinary thrill.

The drama progresses as both parties, so strongly willed, engage in a game of progression and resistance/acceptance.

This is the first film by Walter Hugo Khouri, and something that I could only imagine would have had its actors and director alike arrested in the United States if it were even attempted to be filmed here when it was made. It would certainly never have been approved within the Hollywood system, and judging by the reaction to the tame Lolita by religious groups, surely, the Right's collective head would have exploded if it were ever shown here. And on top of that, the sex and nudity that's present isn't even explicit, but just too . . . honest.

I could never, ever recommend a film more highly than this one.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Bring Back Cinema!

Please share on social media or something similar if you agree:
When will cinema come back? More and more, the masses of people are being sucked into television and the most routine genre pictures. These are nothing more than scripted dramas, a simple logical unfolding of events that bores in its predictability. When will we get back to something more subtle and abstract . . . i.e. the universal, the metaphorical? How much more beautiful is the face of a woman from the countryside or a certain sunrise than another formulaic celebration of the careers of lawyers, junior executives, or stockbrokers? Audiences are so submerged in these topical dramas that they are taught to hate cinema, and love the most rushed, poorly crafted entertainment. 'As long as there's a story, and it has a surprise!' some say. I hope the art won't die along with its audience.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Girl Who Picks Flowers and the Girl Who Kills Insects (2000)

When I first heard of Hitoshi Yazaki, I, as usual, perused his filmography on iMDb. I think it was Strawberry Shortcakes that was the first film of his I had seen, then March Comes in Like a Lion (aka flat-out masterpiece), and later, Sweet Little Lies.

The one elusive feature that seemed to stray away from me was the one that had the longest running time, The Girl Who Picks Flowers and the Girl Who Kills Insects, a feature of roughly four hours.

It wasn't until yesterday that I once again thought about this film. It's still on my list of must-see's from 90s/2000s J-cinema masters, including Makoto Shinozaki's Okaeri, Kaizo Hayashi's Circus Boys, and Naomi Kawase's Hotaru. All four have completely eluded attempts to locate them, despite what seems to be some rare VHS copies in the University of California System.

After being reminded of it yet again, I decided to dig up some information, if possible, on this very long Yazaki film. Searching the film's title in kanji, and then using Google Translate to decipher whatever info was written, proved fruitful indeed.

According to one website, the picture is about a group of people whose lives intersect around a ballet school in London. Two of them love a central character, a dancer, and there is also a Japanese visitor, as well as a black Londoner, in this tale that turns out to be a love triangle, or parallelogram of sorts.

That was about as much as I could decipher from the machine translation, but it was enough to keep me going. Other websites claimed that it was screened once at Keio University, with the director present. I'm also aware that the Japan Society had Yazaki present at a screening of Sweet Little Lies once, during which he wore his trademark shades and hat (this video is available on YouTube).

The other film by the director that is difficult to locate is Afternoon Breezes, but I have a hunch there is a copy floating around somewhere. Independent films from Japan are particularly hard to find because like America, there is hardly any distribution channels for them. The studios there are more interested in spewing out these below par manga adaptations that seem to be flooding the film radar, instead of taking a shot on unofficial talent

Experience also tells me that longer films tend to be better. This isn't always the case, but I have certainly found that films exceeding the 3-hour mark have the time, and therefore the ability, to get into all those details of character that I find interesting. One reviewer referenced it to The Mother and the Whore, but in running time and pacing only. There are a few films, of course, that manage to get into such depths as the ones that take their time, but I've only found this with the most precise and sparing of directors. Rohmer and Bresson come to mind as an example.

Regardless if this will ever turn up or not, I'd like to think it should something of an important film, maybe even a gem, because Yazaki is very talented. In one translation, a person likened something to "the masterpiece . . . " and referred to Flowers/Insects, so it leaves me hopeful.

I also feel that in putting info out there, or at least trying to dig up info, on films that haven't yet come to the English-speaking world, will help them to do so. After writing about how much I wanted to see them, several of Jissoji's Art Theatre Guild features became available online, with subtitles, no doubt. So in short, I think I'm helping.