Stalker

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(Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1979)

Testing the Supernatural

With a canon made up of a mere seven feature films released over the course of three decades, Andrei Tarkovsky has incredibly built the most unshakable reputation based on the fewest number of works of any director in cinema, with perhaps the exception of Carl Theodor Dreyer (who, fittingly, is one of Tarkovsky’s greatest influences). His significance in the medium was likely solidified with his fourth film, the semi-autobiographical Mirror, a film that both reflected the personal struggles of an artist and the all-encompassing travails of a nation’s recent turbulent history. And, while that film is typically regarded as his opus, it is his fifth film – the satisfyingly opaque and unquestionably accomplished Stalker – that is arguably his greatest. It is surely the culmination of his efforts up to that point. It boasts the poetic flourishes of his debut Ivan’s Childhood, the scope of his historical epic Andrei Rublev, the glacial, contemplative pacing of his other sci-fi classic Solaris redefining the genre for an audience hooked on cheap thrills, and the impenetrable metaphorical draw of Mirror that invites innumerable repeat viewings.

And yet, Stalker is, of course, more than just the sum of these parts. While Tarkovsky certainly welcomed the idea of an authorial voice assigned to the director of any given film (a notion in full swing in the post-Novelle vague world in which he worked), Stalker represents not simply another chapter in a string of films forming some narrative arc, but rather the fullest exploration of metaphysical thought in his entire oeuvre. Like Solaris before it, the story that sets Tarkovsky’s film in motion is remarkably simple. Somewhere in Russia an extraterrestrial force has taken over a once populated region of the countryside and left the area – dubbed the Zone – mysteriously uninhabitable for humans, and those who enter are never heard from again.

The government has understandably sealed the area off with armed soldiers, barbed wire fences, and guarded entry points, but there remain those who still wish to venture inside. Thus, Tarkovsky introduces us to a guide, known as a stalker (a possibly mistranslated term that has nevertheless stuck with the film in the West), who has braved the dangerous unknown of the Zone, believes in the mystical powers of its presence, and smuggles in those willing to pay. The unnamed stalker at the center of this film (Alexander Kaidanovsky) agrees to accompany a desperate writer in need of inspiration (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and a quiet professor with hidden motives (Nikolai Grinko) into the Zone as they risk their lives on a quest through the unknown.

With a thirst for knowledge, a man of faith, a man of the arts, and a man of science each enter the Zone to either prove or disprove what he already believes. As more is revealed about this modern wasteland (which Tarkovsky brilliantly shoots in color as opposed to the sepia toned introduction and epilogue that take place outside the Zone), we learn that there is an equally unexplainable phenomenon that allegedly occurs in a location known as the Room. Inside, some believe the living, breathing space grants individuals their wishes. On the surface, then, it appears quite obvious why these three men might journey into the depths of this restricted area, following seemingly overcautious rules set out by the stalker that dictate their every carefully placed step. The promise of this wish fulfillment dangles in front of them, just out of reach, as the stalker leads the pair in a circular pattern and through a series of obstacles as they slowly approach the Room rather than head straight for it. Their guide insists the Zone must be respected; they are not allowed to simply do as they please, nor apparently what seems most logical.

This section of the film unfolds in this way as the trio circles the ruins that supposedly host the sacred-like Room. The stalker’s blind faith in the Zone and its unexplained intricacies keeps the other two on their toes as he insists on new rules to follow. At first, the professor follows quietly while the writer cynically objects. But, as their time within drags on, both professor and writer find themselves at odds with the stalker’s zeal for the Zone when his promise of the supernatural lurking behind every corner appears inconsistent with reality. Sure, an eerie atmosphere lingers throughout the lush ruins of the Zone, but aside from one major physics-defying misstep that the stalker labels a “trap,” the supernatural evades them.

As the three draw nearer to the Room, their motivations and desires become clearer. The writer, who has become disillusioned with both humanity and his craft, doubts the power of the Room, yet fears it. The professor, who at first appears to enter the Zone for scientific study, reveals that he wishes to destroy it for fear that someone with evil or destructive desires should enter some day. The stalker, too, with his own secrets reveals that he himself has never been inside. At the threshold of Room, then, in Stalker’s defining moment, the three choose not to enter. All three – the stalker included – begin to doubt any good could come from entering. What if the Room only grants its visitors’ deepest, subconscious desires rather than requests? What if entering the Room leaves them with no greater understanding, no further inspiration? What if nothing happens at all? These doubts, these unsettling questions, keep this trio from fulfilling their most dangerous of missions and threaten to leave Tarkovsky’s viewers unsatisfied.

Following this defeat, he takes us outside the Zone where the writer and professor go their separate ways and the stalker returns to his wife (Alisa Freindlich) and child (Natasha Abramova). Crushing disappointment has left the man literally lying on the floor of his home, numb to the comforts of his concerned wife. The pair he led into his personal holy of holies ultimately leaves unaffected or, at least, unappreciative in his eyes. But, his own unwillingness to enter the Room exposes his own doubt with regards to its supposed power. Early on in the film the stalker journeys to the Zone to escape his ordinary life claiming, “everywhere is a prison to me” to his wife who’s opposed to his upcoming trip. Yet, now his devastation may be less related to again being forced to leave the Zone than leaving unfulfilled.

What, then, is the Zone? Tarkovsky, typically, offers no clearly defined answers. It’s an area where occasionally some unexplained incidents do occur, but in the end it proves to be mostly devoid of the supernatural. Interestingly, however, Tarkovsky chooses to shoot these scenes in color, perhaps painting the Zone how the infatuated stalker perceives it, or possibly hinting at something more than what we – and those who venture inside over the course of the film – see. As mentioned previously, Tarkovsky switches back to stark sepia toned palette for the film’s epilogue. Yet, there are two notable exceptions in color, both featuring the stalker’s unnamed daughter. The only information the audience receives with regards to this minor character is through dialogue between the writer and professor, one of which reveals the girl suffers from some physical ailment as a result the Zone.

In the film’s understandably much-discussed final scene, Tarkovsky’s camera rests on this young girl sitting at the kitchen table. Before long she rests her head upon the surface and begins moving cups and glasses across the table with her mind. It’s the first true moment of the supernatural caught on camera in a film full of doubts (not unlike the jaw-dropping miracle at film’s end in Dreyer’s classic Ordet). The film’s final scene could be interpreted as Tarkovsky acknowledging that though we may be disappointed in the Zone as well, there could still be hope for the existence of the supernatural after all. Here, in the stalker’s home outside the Zone the spiritual intersects with the physical. Of course, the three men who enter the Zone searching for answers miss it. While they are busy testing the supernatural, venturing deep within the unknown, all three fail to see what they’ve been hoping to find just outside the parameters of their search.

It’s impossible to know if Tarkovsky intends to confirm some specific Christian, or otherwise, belief system, but the film’s finale does seem to suggest that faith – in art, in science, in religion – is important, yet may not always yield the answers we’re looking for. The same is true for the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s part of what makes it so difficult to write about his work. There is certainly deep meaning there; it’s nearly impossible to finish one of his films unmoved, but he leaves the burden of interpreting his work to his audience. It makes him one of the most satisfyingly challenging filmmakers in the history of the medium, and Stalker the most rewarding feature he ever directed.

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White Material

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(Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2009)

Promised Land

Perhaps what is most impressive about Claire Denis’ late-2000s output is that 35 Shots of Rum and White Material were released merely a year apart. Both are major works in the director’s growing oeuvre, and though she must have been working on both in tandem, the two films couldn’t be more different. If 35 Shots was her most subdued work to date, her tender take on Ozu’s brand of domestic drama noteworthy for its atypical straightforwardness, then White Material is perhaps her fiercest film yet – bold in its non-linear structure, unashamedly political in its relevant subject matter, and brutal in its depiction of violent race relations in a post-colonial African nation fraught with instability. It’s fitting that Denis return to Africa for this late-career highlight, having only set her debut Chocolat and mid-career masterpiece Beau travail almost exclusively on the continent, for her increasingly visceral style and matured command of the screen fit this explosive and potentially divisive work perfectly.

The film follows the exploits of one incurably stubborn coffee plantation owner Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) who resists the encroaching civil war in an unnamed African country in the waning days of post-colonialism. Given the entire continent’s bloody history with loyalist and rebel factions vying for power in the wake of European retreat, Denis’ film really could take place anywhere. But, the specific national politics are not the point. At the film’s center is Huppert’s Maria. Not since Beau travail has a central performance in Denis’ work commanded the screen quite like Huppert here who convincingly plays a woman so lost in her own mind that she’s become oblivious to her own racial identity and shifting geopolitical allegiances, and is fiercely determined to keep her plantation running to the detriment of her workers and family. Maria loves this land and feels entitled to it. In an early scene, we see her riding a motorcycle through her property as she joyfully allows the wind to whip through her fingers only to be interrupted by a helicopter bearing French troops urging her to leave the country. Later while alone, Maria labels the fleeing Europeans as “dirty whites” who don’t appreciate or deserve the land. This failure to recognize her own hypocritical prejudice is ultimately her undoing.

While Maria focuses on keeping the plantation running the rest of the world around her crumbles. The workers abandon her and her family threatens to do the same. In typical Denis fashion, the details of Maria’s life are revealed slowly over the course of the film. The plantation technically belongs to her ex-husband’s father-in-law (Michel Subor) who, in poor health, bequeaths the land to Maria and remains cooped up in the house as a symbol of a bygone era of colonialism. Though they’re no longer married, Maria’ ex André (Christophe Lambert) also lives on the plantation and helps her raise their grown and mentally unstable son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). André insists on them fleeing and acts as a force against which Maria relentlessly pushes. All the while, a gang of rebels – made up of mostly child soldiers – encroaches on the compound, lying in wait to ambush these former acquaintances who have now become nothing more than disposable white material.

Denis makes a risky move crafting a film today about Africa, filtered through the perspective of white characters. But, she gets away with it because of her personal experience as one who grew up as a foreigner on the continent and because the film concerns a fictitious conflict. If anything, White Material is less an indictment of colonialism as it is a powerful character study of one woman touched by its effects. The other characters are key to the story and provide telling symbolism – the rebel leader nicknamed The Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé) who slowly dies from a gunshot wound as if to foreshadow the rebels’ eventual demise, her father-in-law the last holdout of traditionalism, her ex-husband the fragility of the Europeans’ presence, the local mayor Chérif (William Nadylam) the future of a black-run Africa – but ultimately it is Maria’s story that we follow.

Perhaps the most significant secondary character, then, the one upon whom the narrative hinges, is Maria’s son Manuel. He is entitled and lazy, and therefore unpopular on the plantation, but his mother is quick to come to his defense. He appears ambivalent about whether they stay in Africa or return to France, but when he’s assaulted by two intruding boy soldiers, he begins to lose a grip on his sanity. He shaves his head, slings a rifle over his shoulder, threatens the house workers, and eventually deludes himself into thinking he’s the rebels’ new leader as he leads the late-film attack on his own home. Manuel is perhaps best understood as a microcosm of the plantation itself – he was born in Africa, but he doesn’t belong there; he once enjoyed a position of privilege and power, but those days are no longer and he – along with the plantation – perish at the hands of the ruling government. Thus, when Maria commits her final act of violence, she is exacting revenge not only for her dead son, but also for the loss of her promised land.

This seemingly left-field murder is reminiscent of another 2009 film’s climactic act of parental vengeance. But, while the mother-turned-sleuth in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother kills out of a desperate need to protect her son’s innocence, Maria’s murderous act is the culmination of a mind slowly rotting due to the strength of her unshakable will. Maria’s fate is intentionally left vague, but it’s clear that her Africa is no more. The days of the once mighty Vials – and their European brethren – have passed. It’s a definitive assertion, one that at first seems at odds with much of Denis’ other, more ambiguous work. Certainly, White Material is more direct than its two immediate predecessors, but Denis compromises none of the nuance, contemplative nature, or striking imagery indicative of her signature style. Claire Denis is on her way to solidifying a reputation as one of cinema’s greatest, and White Material is another near-masterstroke for this incredibly skilled filmmaker.

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Au Contraire: Birdman

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(Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, United States, 2014)

Say You Love Me

How much does Hollywood love movies about Hollywood? Enough to shower The Artist and Hugo with accolades and awards at year’s end back in 2011 despite the overwhelming critical opinion that several other films were much more deserving. Enough for the AMPAS to inexplicably anoint Ben Affleck’s Hollywood-fest Argo Best Picture for 2012. Maybe this explains the current enthusiastic praise and award season success of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). To say Birdman is a bad movie would be unfair. It’s technically accomplished to be sure. And, there are one or two novel ideas here, but it’s certainly not as clever it hopes to be. Thus, in the wake of Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel among others, it leads one to wonder, why Birdman? Are critics afraid to criticize it? It should go without saying that no film – even one crafted as a sly auto-critique – is immune to criticism. Just because an amalgam of Iñárritu’s detractors appears in the film as a self-righteous theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) doesn’t mean film critics shouldn’t weigh in honestly on Birdman whether good or bad.

Iñárritu’s film straddles the blurry line between art and commerce with a self-referential setup and a classic Hollywood story of a washed-up actor making a comeback. The actor in question – Riggan Thomson – played the superhero Birdman in a previous incarnation of his dwindling career and has set out to rejuvenate his reputation by adapting Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” for the stage. Riggan’s story should immediately register familiarly as the actor who plays him is Michael Keaton who similarly starred as Batman in ’89 and again in ’92. Likewise, Keaton’s career has remained largely under the radar since. It’s the first instance of meta that will go on to define the remainder of Birdman.

The film’s story primarily centers on the days leading up to the play’s opening night on Broadway. Iñárritu – via Emmanuel Lubezki’s inspired camerawork – follows Riggan and the other performers and crew as they prepare for the widely anticipated premiere. Lubezki’s camera snakes through the darkened labyrinth of the St. James Theatre’s backstage featuring much-talked about long takes (brilliantly edited to give the appearance of one two-hour uninterrupted take) effectively pulling us into Riggan’s story and allowing this talented troupe of actors to act for more than a few seconds. To be sure, it’s probably Birdman’s greatest feat. Lubezki is a DP in a class of his own, at once capable of producing endless reels of gorgeous footage for Terrence Malick (The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder) and pushing the boundaries of digital cinematography for Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity).

During the film, Riggan battles his inner demon – his former alter ego Birdman – who presses him to throw off this hopeless ambition and accept fame and fortune by donning the cape and mask once more by returning for Birdman 4. His conscious egotism suppresses this urge throughout and propels him to continue with the play despite signs of potential failure – a loose cannon of a performer (Edward Norton), his daughter’s (Emma Stone) insistence on his increasing irrelevance, his manager/friend’s strict attention to the bottom line (Zach Galifianakis), and the threats to destroy his play from one stuffy critic (Duncan) who fittingly drinks alone each and every night.

Many a film critic has rallied behind Birdman precisely because of this setup. Of course, one could easily point to its technical achievements and solid performances, but the vast majority of the ink spilled lavishes praise upon Iñárritu’s willingness to confront the compromise of artistic vision in the face of dollar signs and mass appeal. It’s a notion as old as the Movies itself. What do we consider art, and what is just product? Which films seek to cash in the most each weekend, and which ones seek mostly to engage and offer something new? In crass terms, which ones are films and which are just movies? Do we consider Transformers in the same breath as The Tree of Life? One has certainly reached a wider audience and has raked in a pretty penny for its studio, but even its critical detractors would agree that Malick’s is the better film.

But, I would argue that it’s an over-discussed subject that may be perpetuating a false dichotomy. On one very crucial point, The Tree of Life, Birdman, and Transformers are all on an equal playing field; they are all movies – images and sounds captured by a film crew featuring actors – and are all thus subject to criticism, debate, and thought despite the intentions (artistic, financial, or otherwise) with which they were made. Would Riggan be selling out if he chose to don the cape again? Or, worse, is his bid for Broadway glory fueled by his desire to be loved again? Ultimately, the motivations lie within Riggan alone. Iñárritu, it seems, is too quick to exonerate him possibly in hopes that we too might like what he has to offer. Is it too much of a stretch to picture Iñárritu himself standing in Riggan’s spot on stage confessing his desire to be loved? As an artist, it should be nothing to be ashamed of. There are very few artists who can honestly say they care very little about what their public thinks. That notion is not more than a fan’s daydream.

Birdman, then, functions just as much as a portrait of its maker’s wrestling with his own art as it does for the characters that populate it. There are instances of bona fide filmmaking here, but Iñárritu’s film ultimately suffers from a few glaring missteps. For one, Birdman contains some downright bizarre dialogue, a few one-liners that fail to register as funny and more or less just weird. The film opens with Riggan’s scene-setting voiceover thoughts. He concludes that his dressing room “smells like balls.” Okay… The film is littered with these non-sequiturs that draw unwanted attention to a fairly clunky script. Later, during the intermission of the play’s premiere, attendees congregate outside the theatre and comment on the strength of the play’s first act, but there’s something unmistakably awkward about the dialogue. I haven’t been to a large number of shows, but do people really talk like that? I’m inclined to think not. The cringe-inducing dialogue hits a low point with Emma Stone stating “this is power” while showing her father a video of him running around NYC in his underwear going viral. Yuck.

Perhaps more egregious than a questionably written screenplay is Iñárritu’s arguably unfair treatment of critics and artists alike. The entire critical community has been reduced to one cartoonish peripheral character in Duncan’s Tabitha Dickinson. Not only does Iñárritu give her some of the film’s worst lines (“Aren’t you afraid I’m going to write you a bad review?” – each word clearly enunciated), he also paints her with a snobbish attitude toward the arts and dismisses her profession (not once, but twice!) with a “those who can’t create, critique” zinger and never revisits her character again. True, online publications are rife with critical vitriol that, to be blunt, deserves never to be read. Lofty and unexplained opinions are not befitting an intelligent critic (as Dickinson isn’t portrayed here), but Iñárritu’s view toward criticism in general is rather shortsighted. A large part of what makes art art is how the public interacts with it. A good critic, a thoughtful critic, should shed light on nuances, influences, issues, or particularly exemplary touches that casual fans of art may miss. We need critics just like we need artists. His willingness to take self-satisfying film criticism to task is commendable, but there is more depth to be found in the similarly themed, five-minute soliloquy at the end of Pixar’s Ratatouille. In that film, food critic Anton Ego recognizes that critics “risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to [their] judgment.” Edward Norton’s drunken Mike Shiner says as much in one scene spitting in Dickinson’s face, but it feels a bit more genuine from the mouth of the critic instead of a potentially embittered performer.

His portrayal of the tortured artist isn’t much better. Here again Iñárritu touches on that aforementioned false dichotomy. Art and poverty coexist where commercialization and wealth cannot. This widely accepted notion (extending into other forms of art too – notably current conversations regarding a suffering music industry) asserts that a true artist must forgo potential financial returns for their work lest they risk compromising their artistry. Birdman the alter ego comments that during his heyday Riggan was ignorant of his own insignificance in culture, but at least he was happy. Why? Riggan’s motivation for throwing himself wholeheartedly into this production is revealed as a desperate need to reassert his position in cultural conversation, but is this the only motivation an artist could possibly have for making the ever-controversial jump from screen to stage, or vice versa? And, why shouldn’t an ambitious artist expect to make a living off their art? Of course, the risk of choosing a career in film, music, or literature is that one may not reap monetary benefits or achieve fame, but is it really so wrong for him or her to aspire to it?

Iñárritu’s final error finds the director unfortunately retreading familiar water. Though his latest is nowhere near as guilty as the insipid Babel in this regard, Birdman proves that Iñárritu can’t seem to shake his need to achieve relevance. Comments about Twitter, going viral, current superhero movies, public perception in the age of social media, and the more-pertinent-than-ever discussion surrounding artists “selling out” abound in Iñárritu’s film as if to assert this is how we live now. It might rouse critical discussion today, but this plea for relevance may very well lead to his film fading ever so quickly when another film seeks to define the cultural climate come December 2015. Today’s buzz will always be tomorrow’s distant memory. So, shall we call Birdman art? If its creator thinks so, then sure. But, not every painting is a Monet.

(Writer’s note: This evaluation was originally written upon first viewing in January 2015 prior to Birdman‘s inevitable Best Picture win at the Oscars.)

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Au Contraire: Introduction

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Thus far my evaluations on this site have been resoundingly positive. There’s a reason: I tend to only write about films I like. And while for the most part I don’t intend to change this, I thought I might start sharing some less optimistic thoughts I’ve had about certain films. Of course, I by no means intend to begin writing about whatever blockbuster franchise hits the screen, but I wondered what it might be like to discuss a film that is either widely loved by the mass critical community or the more esoteric cinephilic community.

Consensus can be a powerful engine to drum up support for films or filmmakers rarely seen – the surprise Palme d’Or win for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives or the unlikely Oscar nod for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing or the inclusion of many great films from cinema’s past and present on the 2012 iteration of the Sight & Sound‘s enormous critics’ poll. And yet, consensus can also create immovable monoliths – works that detractors dare not comment upon for fear of being labeled a contrarian. Do online message boards ever allow negative reviews of Tarantino films? Even when his watery, so-called progressive politics are actually troublesome (Django Unchained)?

Well, in this new occasional column “Au Contraire” I’ll present an alternate viewpoint to the established opinion on any given popular film. My inaugural evaluation is of last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman – a film, that in this writer’s opinion, won far too many awards and garnered undeserved praise. Lest anyone think I’m taking the easy way out by picking an Oscar winner (as that institution carries very little clout for most cinephiles), my next entry is on a film from the seemingly critic-proof Béla Tarr. Let the angry comments begin!

A Brighter Summer Day

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(Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Lost in the World

A strong case could be made for Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day as the quintessential Taiwanese film as it’s concerned with the residual effects of the events that shaped this modern nation state in the wake of a severe split with its motherland. Yang’s film documents this crucial period in Taiwan’s history from the perspective of the next generation. The year is 1960, and political dissidents who fled mainland China in 1949 are now raising their children on this foreign island. Yang devotes some time to these aging individuals who still must cope with that jarring displacement, but he primarily focuses on Taipei’s youth – born into exile and forced to adapt despite their parents’ recurring pitfalls. It is no surprise, then, that Yang suggests these teens turn to street gangs to find their identity and Western pop culture to fill a void where there is none. They roam the streets after dark seemingly lost in a world not their own.

At the center of Yang’s film is Xiao Si’r (Chen Chang), a young teenager on the fringes of these gangs that determine who you befriend, who you date, and where you go. For the most part, Si’r is a sad boy with only a handful of friends (each an outsider in his own way), problems at his strict school, and a troubled home life where his parents often pine for their former days in Shanghai. Yang beautifully balances these varying spheres of this boy’s life by devoting ample time to each of these peripheral characters. The plight of his parents (Chang Kuo-Chu and Elaine Jin) feels tragically real as his father is slowly ostracized from his government position due to his ties with mainland politics. His friends and siblings, fully realized characterizations featuring a stunning supporting cast, provide a much-needed relief from the dreariness of the film (namely in the character of Cat (Wong Chizan) – Si’r’s best friend who may lack stature, but never guts and has a penchant for belting American songs in his prepubescent falsetto) and alternate methods of coping with disillusionment (namely Si’r’s two sisters, the eldest (Chuan Wang) who acts as a third parent to her younger siblings and a younger one (Hsiu-Chiung Chiang) who has turned to Christianity to make sense of the disappointments of this life).

Amidst the familial strife that plagues the boy’s home life, more trouble befalls Si’r when he begins to take an interest in a fellow schoolmate named Ming (Lisa Yang) – a rather popular young girl who is claimed by the revered, yet absent gang leader Honey (Lin Hongming). Si’r attempts to cloak his feelings for Ming in a mere friendship and desire to help alleviate her equally troubled home life, but he soon finds himself in the middle of an imminent clash of gangs as tensions rise and Honey returns. Yang documents these increasingly violent skirmishes that ultimately lead to the murder of Honey and the bloody massacre of an entire gang through the eyes of Si’r who always stands on the sidelines. Several times the frustrated teenager entertains the idea of unleashing his own inner turmoil through violence, but each time his reputation of being “straight as an arrow” prevails.

There is a pervasive melancholy that looms over Yang’s film both in its near exclusive setting after dark and its heavy subject matter that explores the loss of innocence of youth. Signature long takes and intentionally shrouded shots mark A Brighter Summer Day allowing its full emotional impact to sink in. Not without a decent amount of irony, of course, given its sunny, optimistic title. Derived from the Elvis Presley song “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” the title references an incorrectly transcribed lyric as Si’r’s eldest sister translates the piece for Cat to sing. Elvis sings of “a bright summer day,” but the sister’s mistake uncovers Yang’s true intention: this desperate youth experiences nothing akin to the joy implied in a bright summer day, thus he suggests they’re still waiting for a brighter one to come. It’s a seemingly hopeless notion further embodied in the film’s tragic conclusion as Si’r’s pent up emotions ultimately drive him to a horrible act of violence – one that would sting even more without Yang’s last film Yi Yi to offer a late-career glimpse of hope.

It’s a feat of true filmmaking talent that A Brighter Summer Day, in all its sorrow, isn’t a more difficult film to digest. The lives of Si’r and those around him captivate until the very end, and Yang’s film more than earns every minute of its daunting four hours. It never sags or bores as Yang approaches this work with tenderness elevating it to a poignancy not often seen in gangster cinema. Favoring static wide-shots over the kinetic camerawork typical of much of ‘90s filmic output, Yang grants us a much more encompassing view of his characters and setting that focuses on his hefty narrative. This is not to say Yang’s film is devoid of stylistic flourishes. His tendency to use wide-shots throughout the majority of the film makes the occasional close-up that much more significant and intimate. Too, his attention to lighting as he plays with the relation of light to darkness underscores the internal struggles of his characters as they teeter on the verge of right and wrong. Some of the film’s most memorable sequences involve this interplay – a singular dangling light bulb illuminating a black screen to open the film, a basketball bouncing into the light from an archway of total darkness hinting at the menace lurking within, a climactic battle between gangs shown only through the dim glow of a wildly flailing flashlight.

By now, A Brighter Summer Day is probably more famous for its unavailability than the praise bestowed upon it from those who have had the privilege of seeing it. It stands as a landmark of ‘90s cinema and Edward Yang’s impressive career, and has in recent years been lauded as one of the greatest films of all time. That it has achieved this level of acclaim with so few repeated or even first-time views would suggest a truly profound filmic statement from one of Taiwan’s greatest filmmakers. The youth that populate A Brighter Summer Day may be lost in the world with no real place to call home, but the film’s premise could also unintentionally describe the film itself – a hidden treasure begging for proper restoration and distribution so that all may partake in this beautiful cinematic experience.

(Writer’s note: This evaluation was originally written upon first viewing in 2011. Fortunately, the Criterion Collection has announced a much-anticipated restoration and release of Yang’s masterwork in early 2016.)

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Crimes and Misdemeanors

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(Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1989)

Living with the Consequences

Abandoning none of the dry humor and wit of his earlier triumphs, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors remains the director’s finest foray into more serious subject matter. Like Hannah and Her Sisters before it, Crimes balances parallel storylines that Allen wonderfully connects come film’s end. In the first, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a respected and honored ophthalmologist, finds himself in a devastating dilemma when his mistress, Dolores (Angelica Huston), threatens to expose their affair if he chooses not to leave his wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom). Following his brother Jack’s (Jerry Orbach) advice, the doctor decides to have Dolores murdered to keep their affair forever concealed. In the second story, struggling television producer Cliff Stern (Allen) faces the prospect of cheating on his wife, Wendy (Joanna Gleason), with a charming associate producer Halley (Mia Farrow). These two moral quandaries, one with presumably more severe consequences, the other no less significant, carry our characters through this existential drama recalling Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Throughout the film, these two separate stories connect only peripherally in the character of Ben (Sam Waterston), a patient of Judah’s and the brother-in-law of Cliff. Both are particularly fond of this rabbi losing his eyesight who serves as the moral gravitational center that these wayward characters haphazardly orbit. Allen’s own personal dichotomies – rationality and universal morality – are present in the split between Ben and our two protagonists. Both Judah and Cliff frequently recall their strict Jewish upbringings, but neither can seem to make room for God in the absurdity of life. “God is a luxury I can’t afford,” Judah admits whilst contemplating the decision to eliminate Dolores.

These struggles present in its characters posit Crimes and Misdemeanors as a heavyweight morality play. In one particularly striking sequence as Judah wrestles with his hefty decision, the voices of Ben and Jack run through his thoughts as if an angel and devil rest on his two shoulders tugging him in separate directions. When the doctor does indeed choose to silence his mistress, choosing the rationality of this “real world” over some far-off absolute morality, the guilt and terror that plague him drive him toward decidedly irrational behavior. The dilemma, then, becomes whether or not one can peacefully live with this secret abhorrent deed always in the back of one’s mind – something Dostoevsky’s conflicted Raskolnikov debated for the entirety of his seminal work. Conversely, Cliff’s problem is solved for him with Halley’s refusal to enter into a romantic relationship. His marriage still crumbles, but his character is not rewarded for his unwilling fidelity – Halley ultimately chooses his nemesis and other brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) – a representation of the artificiality of New York – over him.

Neither does Allen let Judah off the hook so easily. Haunted by the memories of Dolores and the despicable act that ended her life, the doctor visits his childhood home where he walks in on a family dinner from the past (a much more visceral and less comedic take on a character’s interactions with memories à la Annie Hall) as his relatives fiercely debate the existence of God and universal morality. Judah decides to weigh in, but finds no consolation when these staunch adherents to Judaism remind him of his sin. “God sees all,” they assure him.

When these stories finally meet at film’s end, Judah joins a miserable-looking Cliff, who has just discovered Halley’s engagement to Lester, on a bench at Ben’s daughter’s wedding. In the four months that have elapsed off-screen, Judah has come to terms with his decision and begins to move on – though we are left questioning his self-affirming rhetoric as Cliff verbalizes our protests: Judah was party to a heinous crime and has gotten away scot-free; where’s the justice in that? Here, Allen answers Dostoevsky with a rebuttal, no matter how unconvincing it may seem. The object of Cliff’s in-production documentary Professor Levy offers an explanation through a closing voiceover: “It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe.” Allen, it seems, rejects Ben’s religious notions (interestingly having this character go blind) in favor of the rational “real world” that exists in both Judah and Cliff. He makes no excuses for these characters, but he reveals his belief that they answer to no one but themselves. It’s a powerful notion – a troubling one – that has come to mark much of the filmmaker’s body of work (as well as his personal life) since. Allen’s worldview is profoundly pessimistic, and Crimes and Misdemeanors is an engrossing, if not wholly tragic, glimpse into its creator’s troubled psyche.

We leave Judah and Cliff with a neatly polished montage narrated by Professor Levy explicitly outlining Allen’s beliefs (the one minor misstep in an otherwise impeccable film). But, we are left to wrestle with these ideas and questions on our own – the mark of truly great philosophical art that only a few filmmakers as accomplished as Allen are capable of perfecting.

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Nostalgia for the Light

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(Dir. Patricio Guzmán, Chile, 2010)

Remains of Remains

“The present doesn’t exist,” we’re told by one astronomer somewhat humorously commenting on the millionths of a second it takes for images to reach the human eye. By the time we’ve seen something, it’s already in the past. Fittingly, then, Patricio Guzmán’s appropriately titled Nostalgia for the Light is almost exclusively concerned with the past – both distant origins and recent memories. The Chilean filmmaker documents the lasting effects of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship on his fellow countrymen in a profoundly unique manner by juxtaposing two ongoing, seemingly unrelated searches in the nation’s Atacama Desert – a location, Guzmán tells us, boasting the driest climate on the planet. Though these conditions cannot sustain much life, they prove to be ideal for the study of astronomy; a scientific field that Guzmán reveals in the film’s early voiceover narration that he’s quite passionate about. Thus, the arid landscape made up of not more than cracked earth and sand is peppered with enormous observatories housing some of the world’s most powerful telescopes – described eloquently as windows to the cosmos.

Guzmán introduces us to these magnificent machines in detailed close-up and provides context for these cosmic explorations with wordy, yet engaging interviews with prominent astronomers. The enthusiasm with which these experts discuss their findings and hypotheses regarding topics as paramount as the origins of the universe is enough to keep viewers enthralled, and yet Guzmán grants us breathtaking still shots of the infinite expanse captured by these telescopes that accompany the entirety of his film. After setting the stage by directing our gaze skyward, Guzmán brings us back to earth and closer to home for this filmmaker by shedding light on another, less dazzling side of the Atacama. Sitting down now with a prominent archeologist, he uncovers a historical, treacherous use for this desolate wilderness. Stretching as far back as the 19th century with slave-like conditions for native Indian mining communities, the Atacama conceals the horrors of a violent past beneath its cracked surface. These mining shelters served another purpose during Pinochet’s rule; they became concentration camps for dissenters of the regime, and the land surrounding them became the burial ground for many.

Archeologists are not alone in their excavation of the desert. Aging women – widows, sisters, and daughters of the long deceased – continue to search for remains of their loved ones nearly forty years later. Guzmán interviews a few of these brave women who have lived a life plagued by loss and the absence of closure. These moments provide his film with its beating heart, emotional testimonies of an oppressive government that’s left an indelible mark on the many who have suffered most through the disappearance of those they loved and lost. In highlighting the plight and quest of these women, Guzmán ties these separate threads together. Despite their differing goals, both are united in their search for answers. These intellectual stargazers look up and wonder why we’re here. These determined women look around and wonder why any of this ever happened. Guzmán’s film poignantly reveals the human need to plumb the depths of the unknown – some out of innate curiosity, others for closure. In both scenarios, these seekers look to the past for answers to their questions.

Guzmán presses this pairing of his film’s subjects further by the astronomical revelation that the brilliant galaxies of the telescopic images are composed of the mineral calcium just like human bones. The stars that hover light years away are remains of some supernova or cosmic birth, and the bone fragments uncovered by archeologists and searchers alike are remains of remains, the lasting remnants of a catastrophic dictatorship. In one affecting sequence, Guzmán showcases a series of images of far-off celestial bodies and then rests on a few of the moon. On one such image, the camera slowly pans down and reveals that it is indeed an extreme close-up of a human skull. It’s a powerful move and a defining moment for Nostalgia for the Light. Likewise, Guzmán utilizes his camera masterfully throughout. The film consists of many lengthy wide shots and pans of the Atacama, both of the landscape and the expansive sky above. He magnificently uses great open spaces to inspire awe and convey depths of despair in turn.

Guzmán’s film ends with a fitting and touching wedding of these two strands as one of his interviewed astronomers assists two of the searching women into the seat of one the observatories’ gigantic telescopes. The scientist, likely hearing the women’s stories, is reminded of his country’s most recent past, and the searchers are given a glimpse of humankind’s most distant past as they stare into the infinite expanse above. Guzmán has covered Chile’s history under Pinochet’s rule at length before (his The Battle of Chile trilogy), and so Nostalgia for the Light reads less like a historical document and more like an exploration of the present in light of the past as well as a plea of sorts. Guzmán opines that his fellow Chileans would do better to follow the lead of the women of the Atacama and not so easily forget the past. Only there can we – as people the world over – learn who we are now in the present and work toward who we want to be in the future.

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