Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Apu Trilogy

The Criterion Collection’s difficulty restoring Satayjit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy too aptly coincides with what makes this set of films so powerful: their grasp of the joy of life that is enmeshed with its very fragility. As the accompanying booklet explains, restoring the films became a priority when Ray was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1992 Oscars.  The films were flown to London to begin the process and then lost in a fire that destroyed a number of original negatives.   The story itself feels like a fourth film in the set – the promise of life immediately faced with its impermanence.  In a documentary contained in the box set, watching the negatives be opened to reveal only melted remains speaks with the same power as the deaths that punctuate the films.

Ray’s Apu Trilogy could easily lapse into bleakness; over its near six-hour runtime, its title character loses nearly all of those that he loves.  The fact that it does not speaks to Ray’s ability to gather plenitude from fragility and place it on film.  Apu’s most aching moments come not from its deaths, but from Ray’s naturalistic filmwork: a set of kittens crushed beneath Auntie’s bag, a young Apu shivering in the middle of a rainstorm, a strongman swinging weights, a manuscript showering out over a forest.  In all of it, one sees the ultimately futile struggle against space and time.

Criterion’s painstaking years-long restoration of these films bespeaks a commitment Apu continuously makes throughout the film – the commitment to find a new road and struggle on in the face of great loss.  His sister dead, he walks to watch the trains.  His father dead, he walks on to a new home.  His mother dead, he walks to the train to return to school.  His wife dead, he walks carrying their only son.  That Criterion could restore a can of charred remains and screen it around the world says much about their understanding of these films and why the life they contain is so valuable.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Closely Observed Trains

In the opening moments of Jiri Minzel’s 1966 film Closely Observed Trains, the young Milos Hrma (Vaclav Neckar) stands between pictures of his grandfather and his great-grandfather.  Milos tells us through voice-over that his great-grandfather Lukas served as a drummer boy during the Prague Upheavals of 1848 and had his leg broken by student protesters throwing stones.  He collected a pension and spent the rest of his days drinking rum, smoking cigarettes, and harassing laborers.  Milos’s grandfather Vilem also evaded hard labor, instead taking up life as a huckster and selling his services as a hypnotist. We see Milos’s father, a locomotive engineer who retired at 48, sitting comfortably on the couch collecting a pension.  Jiri is proud to join his family’s line and his voice-over juxtaposed against humorous images of the men of his line feels ironic as if Minzel wants to satirize the foibles of military and civil service.

But, this moment is doubly ironic.  Minzel wants us to see this line of opportunists as both disreputably selfish and heroically selfless.  Milos’s grandfather stood up to the Nazi occupation, only to be killed by one of their tanks, and his father notes the arrival times of the titular trains carrying supplies to German troops.  He will pass on the information so that others can blow them up.  This line of men is simultaneously taking advantage of society’s offerings and resisting its darkest urges.

Minzel’s film deftly manages its tone – a dark humor that satirizes Czechs while also empathizing with their profound tragedy.  Minzel follows two plot strands: Milos’s quest to lose his virginity and the resistance’s quest to blow up incoming German supply trains.  Milos’s quest is juvenile and quixotic while the resistance’s quest is mature and honorable.  Minzel manages to not only maintain the tone of each strand, but sometimes even manages to swap them for great effect.

In one notable moment, Milos nervously backs down from a sexual encounter with his girlfriend Masa (Jitka Bendova), only to have the house they are staying at bombed from above.  As Milos leaves to go to work, he grabs his coat from a stand that is still upright in the midst of rubble.  The tragedy is comedy – Milos leaves for work more bothered by his sexual humiliation than the destruction of his town.  Later, Milos checks into a hotel, runs a bath, and slits his wrists.  Here, the comedy is tragedy – Milos’s sexual misadventures wound him so deeply that he seeks solace in suicide.

Menzel’s work continuously confronts our immediate critical impression of characters.  In Closely Observed Trains, lecherous and slovenly opportunists are the true heroes of WWII-Czechoslovakia.  They are the ones transforming the Nazis’ mechanical terror into joi de vivre.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Eros + Massacre

The third hour of Kiju Yoshida’s Eros + Massacre starts with Noe Ito (Mariko Okada), one of the lovers of Japanese anarchist and free love advocate Sakae Osugi, walking through a Japanese city in 1969.  How did she get here? What time machine brought her here from 1923?  The point of view shifts rapidly.  Is Jean-Luc Godard watching the cars circle the roads?  Is Michelangelo Antonioni staring at the humans eclipsed by architecture?  Is Federico Fellini following a paparazzo?

Eiko Sokutai (Toshiko Ii) struts across the screen.  Her walk, her outfit, her air – they all shout modern woman.  She, however, is not interested in the modern.  She is researching the past, the lives of Osugi and Ito.  They are the progressives – she wants to know what they think about the future.

But, how can Eiko and Noe talk about the future?  More importantly, when and where can they talk about the future?  Eiko and Noe find a spot in the reeds with the city in the background and a cross between them.  We are watching Eros + Massacre.  Eiko is asking Noe questions.  She asks, “What do you think of these past 46 years, from 1923 to 1969?”

The film continues thinking.  Silence.  Noe smiles.  A funereal pipe sounds. Noe frowns.  Osugi walks through the city with his son trailing behind.  He is heading to his death.  It is 1923.  It is 1969.  Eiko is recording Noe with the city, the cross, and the reeds in the background.  The film is one long question that envelops all: can we be free?  Or, perhaps, it is another question: can we be free and be in love?

Film critics love thinking about movies.  They love to talk about the ideologies or the worldviews they represent.  It is hard to know what to do with a film that wants to be free to do the same.  The critical apparatus is suddenly useless – we can only think with the film and love it.  Eros + Massacre follows a line of thought for almost four hours without once becoming simplistic, tiring, or predictable.  It flips between forms, spaces, times, views.   Hopelessly adulterous, it uses what it needs to think and dispenses with it once it gets in the way. 
Like Osugi, the film wants to love freely.  It wants to love Godard, Antonioni, Fellini, Kinoshita, Ozu, Bresson, Bergman.  It does not want to be cinematically monogamous. It wants to keep going.  As the film tells us: “Love dies if it has no freedom.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Rules of the Game / Code Unknown

The Rules of the Game (1939)

The workers move through the woods banging the trunks of trees with sticks.  The camera shows us the rabbits.  They are real rabbits; they are not digital rabbits.   They are in the center of the frame.  One sits blinking, waiting.  Another curls up into a companion. One crawls beneath the leaves and hides. The workers continue to come and the rabbits begin to run.  The camera shows us the wealthy; they are waiting with guns out.  One of the women, Christine, asks another, Jackie, if she likes hunting.  Jackie is not hunting, but she says that she enjoys hunting.  Christine holds a gun and prepares to shoot.

Then, the cast fires their real guns and the rabbits begin to die.  They are not trained rabbits.  They run, get shot, fall, and die.  The final rabbit takes perhaps four or five seconds to die.  I watch.  His tail drops from a rapid twitch to nothing.  His paw curls up towards his body until, in a final move, his legs stretch out and then retract.  I feel sad that rabbits have died so that a film can be made.  It feels senseless.

The corpses are collected.  Christine, played by the actress Nora Gregor, tells her husband that she is no longer interested in hunting.  It is not because the rabbits’ lives are meaningful.  It is because, for her, they are not meaningful.  What is meaningful for her?  I am unsure. 

The director Jean Renoir is considered film’s great humanist.  We are to understand that everyone has their reasons as he tells us when he is acting as the film's character Octave.  I cannot understand Christine’s reasons.  The camera let me understand the rabbit.  It lived.  Renoir made a film.  His cast killed it and prepared it for display.  I look at the display.

Code Unknown (2000)

A woman sits at the back of the metro with her back to the camera.  Two young Arab men get on the metro and stand across from her.  One whistles at her.  She looks up.  He asks her if she is a model.  She looks away, but he continues to talk.  He moves in front of her, forcing her to look at him and flirts aggressively with her.  He sits down next to her as if they are on a date.  The other young man watches and laughs.  She believes if she pretends for long enough that he is not real that he will go away.

But, then he asks her: “How can you be so beautiful yet so arrogant?”  It is too much.  She gets up and walks to the foreground.  The other travelers on the metro do not look at her face.  They look out the windows.  They look at their magazines.  The camera shows her face.  I watch.  I know her from earlier in the film.  Her name is Anne.

The young man approaches the foreground. No one will look at him.  I must.  His face is always in focus.  His voice is louder than all the other sounds.  When he finally turns his back to the camera, he confesses to Anne: “I’m just a little Arab looking for a little affection, like everyone else.”

She does not give it to him.  He sits down next to her quietly.  The metro stops.  As the doors open, he spits in her face.  It is real spit.  It slides down Juliette Binoche’s face.  It is too much.  But, I do not feel bad that people must be spit upon for films to be made.  It feels sensible.

The old man next to Anne trips her attacker as he flees through the door.  The attacker returns and confronts the old man.  They are both angry, but, after only a few seconds, decide to ignore each other.

Anne wipes the spit off her face.  The metro reaches its next stop.  The attacker and his companion start to leave.  But, he gives a final scream shocking both Anne and the old man.  It is too much.  Anne begins to cry.  She thanks the old man.  He stares at the ground and says nothing.  She continues to cry.  And then there is nothing but darkness.  The scene ends mid-cry, jumps to black, and remains for half a second.

The camera has been static for the entire scene.  There have been no cuts.  The cut that ends the scene extinguishes the lives on screen.  The director Michael Haneke is film’s great anti-humanist.  We are not supposed to understand human beings; we are only supposed to see them.  No actor or human tells us this.  The camera tells us by remaining still.  It does not follow characters to find out more or cut to faces so we can see reactions.  Still, I can understand everyone’s reasons.  The camera has let me see people as they are.  They live and do not watch as others live.  Only cameras stay focused on people as they live.  They record the human beings and prepare them for display.  I watch until Michael Haneke turns the camera off.