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.

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