Wednesday, February 4, 2009

in medias res & f(am)ilial ambiguities: Cassavetes, Hou, Martel

"It has been rightly said that every scene in a Hou film is in medias res, coming in at the middle of things, the middle of an event, a situation, an interaction. ...Cinema has other great masters of the in medias res approach, and I will cite, in passing, two by way of comparison. Their hot styles are seemingly different from the cool Hou: John Cassavetes and Maurice Pialat. What must be emphasized, in this light, is a special, radical aspect of the mystery generated by this perpetual coming-in-at-the-middle-of-things in all three of these filmmakers. In the traditional catching-up work of backstory exposition, there is far more at stake than simple plot clarity or orientation for the viewer. Exposition is also a deeply social and ideological process. Conventional exposition is, fundamentally, a way of sorting out as quickly as possible, and unambiguously labelling everything and everyone we see - and this labelling always goes on in terms of given, standard, assumed social roles.

Think, as an example, of all those dinner or breakfast table scenes at the start of mainstream American movies, where the first words you hear from someone's mouth are invariably something like: 'Don't talk to your little sister like that - listen to your mother - your father has an appointment and will drop you off at school', etc. These words, in their most profound motivation, exist to stamp out or police any bothersome ambiguities about who's who, and who is doing what with who in the typical family setting.

This is exactly the kind of certainty, the system of assumption - socially prescribed and inculcated assumption - that Cassavetes denies us when he alternates between brother and sister (without telling us so) in Love Streams (1984), or that Pialat denies us when he starts a film like Get Your Diploma First (1978) with a travelling shot of a bot and girl whom we can't definitively say (yet) are lovers, siblings, friends, or simply strangers sharing the same space. And it is what Hou, more gently and slyly, denies us with (for instance) that business about the assumed-mother-who-in-fact-turns-out-to-be-stepmother in Cafe Lumiere. Once a filmmaker withdraws this easy, automatic recognition of social types and social roles, many things become possible, in the film as well as in our heads: all sorts of social and interpersonal relations can be experimented with.

Hou films his dinner-table or restaurant scenes with a kind of maximum suppression of expository, explanatory information, and by the same token a maximum openness to all the instant possibilities of interrelation, of reshuffling of intersubjective identities - what Jonathan Rosenbaum refers to as 'the glory and terror of becoming' in Hou's work."

HG (Haden Guest): The characters in your films always seem to already know one another.

LM (Lucrecia Martel): I’ve never thought about that, but it’s true. I never wrote anything where people didn’t already know each other.

HG This is really important, because there is always a certain ambiguity between your characters. We don’t know exactly what their relationship is, familial or otherwise. Often times, characters are vaguely implied to be “cousins.”

LM That allows me to return once again to the “What exactly is reality?” theme. The sociology manual says, for example, that this man is the father of this baby because he engendered it, and that this woman is this man’s wife because they’ve gotten married. But families don’t have any law, or rule book, and relationships can be anything at all! If you spy on your family through a camera, it’s not easy to tell who’s who.

HG Freddy and Helena, in La Niña Santa, for example, are side by side in some very provocative positions in bed. Naturally, one assumes that they are—

LM Lovers.

HG And we are left with that impression, even after we know that they’re brother and sister.

LM As a matter of fact, in Love Streams, the Cassavetes movie—

HG I wanted to ask you about Cassavetes.

LM First of all, a lot of Gena Rowlands’s characters remind me of my mother. She raised seven kids…. Women who dedicate themselves to their children, truly and with love and passion, go a little bit crazy. It’s inevitable. There are a lot of things in Cassavetes’s films that seem familiar to me. When I saw Love Streams, I sometimes said, “They’re brother and sister!” just thinking about my family. Gena Rowlands says, “Streams of love cannot be held back.” They go where they go, and I love that idea.

You can take an establishing shot of relationships, but I never take those shots because it’s very important to me that the spectator sees that things in the world are not as reason dictates. No one is a father simply because they have a son; they are a father because they care for a son. If you read the most orthodox American script guidebooks, by the tenth minute you’re supposed to know who all the characters are with clarity. They always give the example of Pretty Woman: by the tenth minute, I know that she’s a prostitute, and that he’s a rich man…

HG Right, they’re narrative formulas. Another way you reject that idea of defining characters is through their sexual ambiguity.

LM Of course. Desire is something that can’t be governed, that someone can feel toward any person, really. It is always much easier to think of someone in terms of desire than in terms of sex. Everything is complicated if we think in terms of sex. Desire is always above the law, beyond limitations. Desire is precisely where we see that the world can be anything.
I always try to make the camera see like a ten-year-old child. I do that consciously, because in that way I can observe things without prejudgment, with more curiosity, without condemning. In La Mujer Sin Cabeza, it’s a little different, because it’s as if the whole movie were in her mind.
(BOMB, Issue 106, Winter 2008)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Framing, reframing, deframing In the City of Sylvia

José Luis Guerín's latest feature, En la ciudad de Sylvia (2007), has been referred to as a "silent film with sound". And the sound does indeed play a prominent (if not the central) role in this movie. Except for a relatively brief Marienbadian dialogue halfway into the film, most of its screentime is devoted - audiowise - to a dense (micro)polyphony of disembodied voices and other aural incidents: footsteps, passing trams, cars and skateboards, rolled bottles and spilled drinks, wind rustling through hair and notebook pages, diegetic music, etc. (Many of these sounds are acousmatic, i.e. detached from their visible sources). Such a veritable deluge of audio information imparts a schizophrenic aura (rather than a mere "cocktail party effect") to the film. Sheer density, "cloudiness", "clusteredness" of the audio track renders it akin to such voice-based compositions as Glenn Gould's The Idea of North or Ligeti's Lux Aeterna. Perhaps more relevantly, the parallels could also be drawn between In the City of Sylvia and the flourishing "musical" genre of audio travelogues/ urban field recordings. The film is even structured like a musical composition in three parts (here called three "nights"), with a short intro (1st night) and an outro (3rd night) sandwiching the main theme - a long 2nd movement. And it literally is a movement: a movement through the city of Strasbourg.

Thus In the City of Sylvia is a "field recording" not just in the musical sense. It is also a visual field recording in which the whole city becomes the playing field. By labeling (in interviews and Q & A's) his protagonist variably as a "dreamer" or as a "flâneur", Guerín inscribes him into the rich tradition of other literary and cinematic flâneurs, from Baudelaire's "gentleman stroller", Aragon's "Paris peasant" and Joyce's Leopold Bloom to Varda's Cléo and Rivette's Marie and Baptiste. In fact, just like Rivette's Pont du Nord (1981), In the City of Sylvia is a psychogeographical film par excellence. And its main character, the mysterious El, engulfed by the plethora of disorienting urban sounds, is possibly the first adequate cinematic representation of Deleuzian "schizophrenic out for a walk" - although he starts the movie motionless in his hotel room, lost in reverie, more like a "neurotic on a couch bed".

Speaking of reverie: in his recent essay "Reading, Rewriting Poe's The Oval Portrait - In Your Dreams"(2006), Jalal Toufic, armed with a Webster, dissects etymology of this word: "French rêverie, from Middle French, delirium, from resver, rever to wander, be delirious". With this in mind, the three movements of Guerín's city symphony can be thought of as three distinct trance-like states through which the protagonist gradually passes : 1) intense concentration (El in his hotel room staring out into space in search of a single line of poetry, later El in the sidewalk cafe focused on a solitary female face), 2) somnambulistic Nosferatu-like promenade through the city streets (following the elusive fugitiva), and 3) final catatonic delirium (El on the tram station transfixed by the multitude of faces reflected in the passing trams' windows, in the state also known as "every name in the history is I she").

El's mastery of concentration exhibited during the first "night" gradually dissipates in the course of the second one, ultimately disintegrating into vertiginous faceted vision, with reflective surfaces taking over his fragmented, out-of-focus world. One can think of In the City of Sylvia, especially its second part, as a case study of distraction. Probably the most remarkable sequence of the film takes place in the outdoor Café du Théatre National de Strasbourg. The hero catches a sight of a female face in the crowd of patrons and begins to contemplate it, sketching it in his notebook. Soon, however, his attention drifts to another face, then another, then another, and so on. Subsequently, his gaze is diverted by a reflection in the cafe's window and then - via slight change of focus - enraptured by a face behind that window. (I will return to this cafe sequence later to elaborate why I find it so remarkable). During the flânerie that follows, El becomes successively (and successfully) distracted by: a dress hanging outside an apartment's window gently trembling in the breeze; sunflares on the surface of the same window; a woman changing her clothes seen through the open window; shadowplay of tree branches on the blank pages of his notebook flapping in the wind; and, finally, by faces of passengers waiting for the tram at the station. This constant refocusing, reframing of attention distinguishes In the City of Sylvia as a unique species of "contemplative cinema with Attention Deficit Disorder".

That distraction is an important theme for Guerín becomes further evident from a ...Sylvia's companion piece - photo-journal Unas fotos en la ciudad de Sylvia (2007). In this latter film, the silent narrator returns to Strasbourg 22 years after a chance meeting with a girl named Sylvia, in an attempt to refind her. In his quest, the protagonist is sidetracked by (what else?) multitudinous female faces, which he incessantly photographs and from which he singles out one especially alluring woman, whom he promptly follows around the city, eventually loses her but (here comes the Ruizian/ Borgesian/ Greenawayan twist!) memorizes the names of all the streets he has passed in the course of his journey, writes them down (rue du Miroir, rue du Corbeau, rue des Aveugles etc.) and attempts to establish a meaningful connection between them. (A stroll from the center of the city to the periphery and its metamorphosis into a game is also reminiscent of Rivette's Pont du Nord). Moreover, our unfocused flâneur further entangles himself in a progressively vaster web of delirious connections, unearthing parallels between his own love story and those of Dante-Beatrice and Petrarch-Laura and ultimately ending up traveling to Florence and Avignon. A never-ending cascade of distractions pushes the dreamer further and further away from his initial object of desire - because distraction is inherently centrifugal. And, according to Bazin, so is its special case - cinema. The dreamer/flâneur loses himself in a labyrinth of his own reverie/delirium.

In his article "Partial Vision: Film and the Labyrinth" (1979), Pascal Bonitzer, frequent collaborator of the aforementioned Rivette and Ruiz, claims that labyrinths, nature of cinema in general and of suspense thrillers in particular have one fascinating aspect in common: the existence of a blind spot, granting the spectator only "partial vision". The "point of horror", the unknown always resides behind the next turn of the labyrinth, in the off-screen (nonspecular, blind) space, or in the next twist of the plot. Guerín takes this concept up a notch. The scene at the Café du Théatre National de Strasbourg is a masterclass in partial vision and blocked points-of-view. (David Bordwell has recently analyzed this scene in excruciating detail, and I refer you to his blog entry to study the frame enlargements documenting many instances of "partial vision" in ... Sylvia). Bordwell writes: "Obtrusiveness is one of Guerin’s most basic strategies in the sequence. Inevitably <...> what the Dreamer is looking at is partially hidden in layers of faces and body parts". By orchestrating this multi-layered obtrusiveness, Guerín riddles the on-screen space with the blind spots (producing something akin to a topologically inverted piece of Swiss cheese), allowing the labyrinthine partial vision to dominate the frame and the blind space to invade the specular space, thus in a way subverting the Bazinian dialectics of cadre vs. cache, with complex masking now occurring within the frame.

Here it would be appropriate to bring up another important Bonitzer's concept, namely that of décadrage [deframing]: "abnormal points of view which are not the same as an oblique perspective or a paradoxical angle" (Deleuze), with "limbs suggestively truncated, the inadequate reflections in clouded mirrors", "partial invisibility of the decors and characters", "a perversion", "displaced angle(s), the radical off-centeredness of a point-of-view that mutilates the body and expels it beyond the frame". It has been noted on numerous occasions that In the City of Sylvia is a "study of the male gaze" or a 'study of the female face". I would add that, to even greater degree, this film (a contemplative psychogeographical near-musical polyphonic piece with a severe case of visual and auditory ADD, building its non-narrative suspense out of a lacework of blocked, partial, off-centered visions) is an exemplary study of framing, reframing and deframing.

P.S. I tried not to dwell on the actual plot because I believe that most of the published synopses (e.g. "a young foreigner... is looking for a woman named Sylvia who he’d met years before in the same city ... then one afternoon, he thinks he’s actually seen her, and he sets off through the city to confront his memory") are not so much overly revealing but rather overly simplistic. We only know of the protagonist's supposed romantic intentions from his brief dialogue with a beautiful fugitiva on the tram, and we have no way to conclude whether he is truthful or not. Taking at face value the story that he (and perhaps the author of the press release) feeds us, we may overlook other possibilities and potential hints (camera lingering over the newspaper headline referring to another woman murdered, the "name" of protagonist being identical to the title of Bunuel's film about "strange passion", his willingness to abandon his quest for a night of casual sex, etc.). Is El an artist, a pick-up artist or a serial killer? I sense at least three different movies packed into this one "dense little film".

P.P.S. While I commend Guerin for his use of sound (including that ingenious burst of silence after El thunderously spills a cup of coffee at the end of the first "night"), I cannot help but feeling dissatisfied with the bar scene. The songs played in the bar are "too diegetic", too literal in their illustration of hero's presumed emotional state ("...I want this woman", Blondie's "Heart of Glass"), even if this literality is intended to be read as ironic. This scene comes too close to run-of-the-mill Hollywood and "independent cinema" fare with their uninterrupted flow of fresh or recycled hits to be later released on "original soundtrack" CDs. I much prefer the earlier instance of diegetic music at the cafe, where crescendos and decrescendos of two Romanian violin players superimposed on exquisitely choreographed dance of shifting POVs and blocked visions work their Kuleshov magic.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Paradise Now! Essential French Avant-garde Cinema, 1890–2008

Impeccably programmed (by Nicole Brenez et al.) series of screenings will take place at the Tate Modern in London starting March 14th until May 2nd. Paradise Now! Essential French Avant-garde Cinema, 1890–2008 will present more than sixty films. Highlights are too numerous to mention but include Philippe Garrel's Le berceau de cristal, Philippe Grandrieux's selection featuring excerpt from his current project Un Lac, films by Straub & Huillet, Soukaz, Bokanowski, Ossang, Lemaître, Vaude, Hanoun etc. Full program can be perused here.

(Now if I can only sneak out to London for a month and a half...)