27 avril 2006

Pasazerka (1963/Munk)

Polish director, Andrzej Munk, died in a car accident in 1961, before completion of this film. Remaining footage and production stills were stitched together by Witold Lesiewicz in the most respectful manner, like an archeologist discovering a lost reel who puts it all together and investigates so to make sense of what could have been the final film envisioned by its director.
Like for other famous reconstructed films (Que Viva Mexico!, Bezhin Meadow or It's All True) the result is a "meta-film", a film describing itself, a new film beyond the original film.

Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico! (1932-79)
The american production of this epic silent documentary was interrupted by the Great Depression, the stock footage had been long shelved unedited at the MoMA. 47 years later, co-director Grigori Aleksandrov restored the film with narrative guidelines and a "making of" commentary, plus sound effects. The main fiction story involving a villager uprising against the tyranic landowners is easy to follow, but some interludes are lacking coherence, like the death carnival folklore, that become an abstract montage of dynamic compositions. Without the sophisticated "propaganda" of Eisenstein's final cut, we are left with another kind of film, one that is less didactic and more poetical, summoning interrogations (on the value of images) instead of self-conscious plot.

Eisenstein's Bezhin Meadow (1935-68)
Banned in 1937 by the Soviets, all prints were destroyed. Only production stills remain of this lost film, and were edited back in a slideshow with a commentary track by Sergei Yutkevich in 1968 according to Eisenstein's storyboard. The spare frames from Eisenstein's editing table, freeze each take at an awkward instant, although showing the powerful visual composition of his great cinematographer: Eduard Tisse. So this succession of random pictures from a lost film that we can no longer see, is like watching the original film through a stroboscopic projector. Quite an unfriendly way to follow a silent slide show despite the few titlecards, yet powerfully intriguing and riveting. The viewer's imagination must fill the gaps more so than with the conventional cinema ellipsis, and saves an extraordinary room to project our thoughts onto the potential film held back from our sight.

Orson Welles' It's All True (1942-93)
After a budget cut by the studio, the 3-fold documentary could never be finished/edited by Welles. 51 years later, Wilson (Director assistant), Krohn and Meisel edited the finished narrative segment "Four men on a raft", with the various documentary footage from the abandonned segments (the Rio carnival and a traditional veal christening). Four Men on a raft is already a fictionized adaptation of the extraordinary real-life journey of northern fishermen who became national heroes fighting for their rights, and one of them died during the reconstitution. Welles' own commentary on the debacle of his project and the end of the RKO adds another layer of meta-film, further put into perspective by Wilson's commentary of the reconstruction. Which fabricates a superimpression of 5 layers of reality at all time as we watch the film, our mind wandering from one to another, each layer interrogating the next one, which re-qualify the images depending on the perspective:
Real-world reality (Brazil history), reality of the (staged) documentary (Welles' vision), reality of the filmmaking (death of the actor, budget cut), aftermath hindsights (Welles' commentary), reconstruction (Wilson's commentary)

Thinking of it, Vérités et mensonges / F for Fake (1974) is also a meta-film, mixing reality and fiction, documentary and narration in an ambiguous riveting document disputing the credibility of real and forged images (but this time purposely meant that way and finalized by its auteur).

The meta-film (I'm not sure if this term is correct) is not quite a finished work, imperfect, truncated, elliptical. A posthumous glimpse at a work-in-progress, suspended in time for ever because we can only speculate on the auteur's final cut. What could have been modified on the set during the shooting of the missing scenes, or rearranged on the editing table?
This rare chance composes three films in one, a portion of traditional narrative fiction, the reconstruction making of and the sum of the two, an hybrid storytelling mixing fiction and reality for an experimental film where the failed project becomes a powerful device in another unforeseen drama.
Like F for Fake, Peter Jackson and Costa Botes did just that in the mockumentary Forgotten Silver (1995), although the lost reel and the reconstitution was only pretense. Knowing the interruption of the production in Pasazerka is not a plot device adds a metaphysical dimension to the experience of a regular fiction drama.

I'm especially excited by this exceptional opportunity to leave the audience with an underachieved film, as a "deconstruction happening". I'd argue the meta-film is almost more interesting than just another film, be it a supposed masterpiece, which Pasazerka could have very well been, up there with the best achievements of the Czech New Wave. This experimental reconstitution made of edited footage, still pictures and a multilayered narration (both the one of the fictional story and the one of the archeological investigation) produces a new kind of film that could hardly be factured intentionally. The real-life tragedy incorporates the fictional film all rolled up in one new entity. We venture in a surreal territory. And the production stills filling the blanks for the unshot scenes become a slideshow reminiscent of Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962).

Pasazerka / The passenger (1963/Andrzej Munk/Poland) ++++

A German woman, Liza, onboard a luxury cruiseliner with her husband she married in an unspecified south american ("friendly") country, back to Europe for the first time since WW2, notices a familiar face on one of the passenger boarding the ship in England, last stop before the final destination on the continent. The cruiseliner is first described in a documentary fashion as an "island in time" where people are anonymous and social/cultural/professional backgrounds are put aside during the offshore lapse.
Through the rest of the trip, Liza follows this unknown woman who reminds her of Martha a jewish prisonner she met in a concentration camp during the war. Distraught, she reveals to her husband that she was never a prisonner during the war unlike he was told, but in fact a Nazi officer in charge of a block of women prisonners in Auschwitz. Martha was her helper.

A first flashback shows a heroic version of the story she tells her husband. She saved Martha by granting her privileges under her protection, allowing her to meet her fiancé.
Then she recalls the true story, guilty introspection, later in a second flashback for herself only. Her kind favors to Martha actually hid a manipulative and torturous behavior meant to gain herself a promotion in Berlin. She thought Martha had been executed. The abrupt resurfacing of this familiar face brings back sore memories of her past she thought her lies had erased for ever.

The core of the film taking place in Auschwitz is the completed portion. But the bookend scenes on the ship are figured by a slideshow and voice-over commentary. One male voice is the external narrator explaining the gaps in the narration and the reconstruction of the film. One female voice is the inner mind of Liza. Production stills on the ship, that are apparently location scout photographs taken with the actors, give glimpses at what could have been the action. Incidentally, the absence of motion footage for this part, like in La Jetée, gives a formal distinction between the two eras in the film, arguably in a much more powerful way that a completed shooting could have rendered. That's how the meta-film transcends the incomplete film and takes it even further through the multilayered speculations we must ponder simultaneously, following the female and male voice-overs who both wonder what happened... one to the story, the other to the film.
Not only the fragmentary aspect of the film echoes the intentionally partial recollection of a former Nazi striving to forget, but it also takes on a meaningful allegory for the political taboo around Nazi activities during and after WW2 from the Germans, from the Allies as well as the victims of the death camps. The reconstruction of this film could be seen as a reconstitution of the Holocaust memory. There is a strong parallel with Lanzmann's Shoah (1985) that runs 9h without a single archive document. Staging this memory "black hole" (island in time) episode on a ship between England and Germany (on the way back from political exile by this Nazi deserter) is rather significant to contextualize spatialy this political drama.
Also noteworthy to point out the honest depiction of the horribles conditions in Auschwitz (openly showing diseases, summary executions, inhumane games, humiliation routines, spoiliation, trains and gas chambers with Zyklon B capsules) made by a polish filmmaker. The drama in the camp told in separate incidents, mostly commented by Liza's inner voice, is remarkably directed, with a mastered mise-en-scène both restrained and shocking.
I'm going to track down the other films made by Andrzej Munk.
Selected In competition at Cannes 1964 - Won a (posthumous) honorary lifetime achievement award.
Venice 1964 - Italian Film Critics Award

(s) +++ (w) +++ (m) +++ (i) ++++ (c) +++

11 avril 2006

The Wayward Cloud again (5)

A great close analysis of The Wayward Cloud just published :
The Round, the Flat, and the Impossible:"The Wayward Cloud"
By Chris Fujiwara in Undercurrent (new online magazine by the FIPRESCI)

Concerning this recent debate around Bordwell's attack on the superficiality of film criticism in Cinema Scope (see over here for more links), I deeply believe only close analysis of filmmaking technique, even if some find this type of overanalysis clinical and boring, could help to shed light on the challenging film mastery that looks dull when summarized by a mere synopsis. Of course we need to get into details for some films, powerful films that can actually nurture a profound analysis on style, form and subtext. Only when the film is tested on details (composition, mise-en-scène, symbolism, dynamics, timing...) through a close observation of the cinema language would its genuine achievements be revealed and highlighted. Only film criticism focusing on such artistic accomplishments will help to educate the taste of the audience in appreciating the redeeming efforts, inspired talent and creative decisions of filmmakers developping subtle and understated skills.

Chris Fujiwara's insightful analysis, that I would like to comment here, further comfirms the film is indeed an anti-porn manifesto (contrary to Chris Fujiwara's own conclusion), deconstructing the tricks of simulation and staging at work behind the scene of a porn shooting. His clever description of how the porn scenes are carefully staged, in an alienating mise-en-scène, with use of a fruit as genitalia, the protagonist's "psychological need to separate sex from love", the fakery of the shooting props (shower), the oppressive camera crew, the disincarnated/numb bodies, the frustrating/castrating/objectifying conclusion, all concur to give a pessimistic meaning to Tsai's representation of porn. Or at least give a very cynical view of the immoral tolerance for pornography abuses in society. Thus incarnating the antithesis of Tsai's oeuvre that instead investigates the intimate roots of interpersonal disconnectedness between individuals, love being an impossible goal and pronography being a debauchery of flesh contact denying interiority and identity to the isolated partners.

The distortion of the wide-angle lens is exaggerated by the roundness of the corner of this underground intersection, which would lead us to believe the wall we are looking at is linear and straight, only deformed by a fisher-eye lens, bending a 180° field into 90°. If this tunnel was in a straight line in reality, it would mean the women could see each other when walking toward each other. The symbolism of this mise-en-scène suggests a showdown of the rival women, as if they walked to eachother, but they don't.
And the POV of this shot puts the audience in a position to look at both women advancing toward eachother within a single frame, without a parallel montage of countershots, a (literal) bending of reality to fit the facing sight lines on a plane.

I'd like to discuss his classification of layers of experience within the film diegesis. Notably the third one : "the representation of sex in scenes of which it is unclear whether they are part of a filmmaking situation (the watermelon sex scene, the mirror-masturbation scene); "
The contextualization is obviously ambiguous in Tsai's conscious mise-en-scène and editing, intentionally suppressing certain key continuity shots that would unmistakenably inform the ties between characters, the exact chronology between scenes and the logistical spatiality. Nonetheless, there is always a detail that hints to the logical relationship going on between fictitious layers.
I'd argue layer 2 and 3 are one and the same, with a variation in perception not in nature. The fantasy construct being limited exclusively to the musical scenes, perfectly identified by a distinct artificial style. The existence of another fantasy layer would complicate the understanding of the film unecessarily, which is already difficult to grasp. The understatement of the mise-en-scène requires a rigor/simplicity/clarity of formalism, and Tsai manages to hold it all together all along by establishing clear constructs and obvious hints.

The opening sequence in the tunnel isn't exactly "dislocated, unidentified, unreal" or "fantasy". In fact it links right away 2 layers of the film structure by showing in the same frame 2 characters that belong to distinct film layers throughout most of the film : Shiang-chyi to layer 1 ("the fictional narrative situations involving Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi, constituting") and Yozakura to layer 2 ("the representation of sex in scenes staged for pornographic videos"), who will only meet again in the last sequence.

The watermelon (recurrent symbolic motif in the film) and the nurse uniform also clearly link the first (layer 1) and second scene (layer 2) together. It is unclear if the second scene is a porn set, but the following scenes will comfirm since we'll meet again the same actor couple on other porn sets.
The mirror masturbation scene (layer 2) is also technically decontextualized, but subtle hints connect it back to the film reality. Yozakura is seen naked on a kitchen sink, and we'll see her again in this position in the infamous bottle cap scene (layer 2), shot from under her crotch, showing her onscreen with the porn crew, Hsiao-kang and Lu Yi-ching in the background. Hsiao-kang's masturbation is also a logical continuation from a preceeding scene when he is shown impotent in the bathroom (layer 2).

The scene of Shiang-chyi licking the watermelon in the fridge is linked to other scenes within layer 1 by the fridge that is seen in the watermelon glass scene, and other scenes in Shiang-chyi's kitchen notably the second last sequence when she picks a water bottle to refresh numb Yozakura.

The scene of Shiang-chyi bearing the watermelon under her shirt like a foetus ties up within layer 1 as she will be seen in the staircase (another staircase though) with Hsiao-kang when he dumped the misplaced cap (held with chopsticks in digust as retrieved from Yozakura's vagina in an earlier scene (layer 2). Shiang-chyi carries the watermelon in this scene. And the netting across the stairwell can be seen in that scene too, linking back to the decontextualized scene when Hsiao-kang sleeps in a fetal position on the net (layer 1).

note: Chris Fujiwara assumes the netting is to discourage suicide attempts which is perfectly credible. My assumption was the nettings were a protection against garbage fall, as people throw out the trash bags directly by the window into the courtyard (which is a custom documented in The Hole most notably).

Chris Fujiwara suggests the reality order (layer 1) could be perceived as fantasy (layer 4), although I'd argue the fantasy-looking scenes made surreal by Tsai's laconical mise-en-scène and editing should be seen as an outlandish aspect of reality. Unmistakably part of the real life of the protagonists, but affected with strange feelings (solitude, dislocation, awkwardness, unease) translated by a decontextualized editing, and little references for continuity in the diegesis, which skillfuly conveys directly to the audience the same feeling experienced by the onscreen characters (although for other reasons), achieving the goal to put us in their shoes : strange and disoriented.

Layer 5 : ("TV news broadcast") is also tied together with the first order of reality (layer 1), as the TV voiceover tells about many ways to declare love with watermelon gifts in the form of juice or whole fruit to express different feelings. Which will be utilized by Shiang-chyi (who was the one watching this TV program) with Hsiao-kang by offering him a glass of watermelon juice or chuncks of watermelon in a shy seducing parade.
But TV (including the porn DVD watched by Shiang-chyi in the second last sequence), acts indeed as an external construct separated from any other layers. The TV voiceover narration, giving explanations on the drought and the watermelon sales (which will inspire all the dream sequences on layer 4) could be mistaken for a narrator voice of Tsai film, as the TV narrator is not seen on the TV images (or is it?).
Btw, I believe we can see a cameo of Miao Tien (who usually play the father in Tsai films) eating a watermelon in a contest (?).

The theme of "impossibility" developped by Chris Fujiwara is interesting to deeper understand the disconnected relationship between the protagonists, especially in the final sequence when the wall and the grate materialize the distance impossible to cross between Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang. They are united by proxy of Hsiao-kang's penis only (unilateral and exclusively masculine sexuality) limiting their relationship to contactless carnality. The act of love is anything but sensual, the hands (that played a greater foreplay role in the videostore backroom) are totally inert and inactive here. Each protagonist remains isolated on their side of the wall, meeting physically for a mechanical performance of oral sex.
Although I don't understand his description of "impossible shots"... whiches are indeed unusual in a film mostly shot on real location (constrained by the appartments unmovable architecture). But the removal of the fourth wall in a tight room to get a deeper field onscreen is a common cinema trick, how could this be invested of a specific symbolic meaning in Tsai's film?

"In The Wayward Cloud, Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang are reunited on a two-seat swinging bench in a park. Tsai emphasizes the difficulty of this meeting (and the sharpness of the desire for it) by showing the stages that must be passed through before it can take place: first, Hsiao-kang is asleep, but Shiang-chyi apparently doesn't recognize him; next, she recognizes him, but he is still asleep; then, he wakes up, but now she is asleep. Here, two people who occupy the same space suffer a disjunction in biological time (or the time of awareness). "
I'm happy to see I had noted the same element of mise-en-scène (in a previous post) that Chris Fujiwara analyzes here. Which means I was right on this. :)

"And Hsiao-kang makes his body a bridge by wedging himself between the walls of the apartment-building corridor. "
This is a beautiful interpretation of a funny scene that initially puzzled me. Hsiao-kang playfully creates a gateway, suspended above the floor, when Shiang-chyi comes back from the grocery store with watermelon and food. She hesitates to cross underneath, worried about this unstable equilibrium, but does it several times to play along. Then she feeds him with watermelon chunks like a baby, as he's still suspended by the tension of his muscles. This senseless timebreak alludes to a young couple in love.
The bridge motif is also recurring element that structures the film as noted by Chris Fujiwara.
See also previously:

05 avril 2006

Renaissance (2006/Volkman)

Renaissance (2006/Christian Volkman/France) +++

Opening Sequence: Two teenagers are locked in a prison cell, steps resonate in the distance. Cross-cut between the corridors where a guard patrols and the cell where the kids try to escape by the broken window. Only one kid can get away before the guard opens the door. Enigmatic scene setting the climate of heroic crime (from the perspective of children) and cold authorities (jailhouse and cold guardians)
Cut to a hostage crisis on stale, the action team cannot storm the building, or they will execute the prisonner. Karas recklessly walks in unarmed, and manages to kill them with one of their weapon.

Here is an animated picture for purist fans of graphic novels, truly made in the spirit of panel composition, frame-to-frame ellipsis, graphical stylisation and expressionist ink filling. Exclusively black and white, the image is epured, white highlights against night background or black lines in an overexposed whitewashed environment. No gradients. Plain grey only used to distinguish glass reflection, computer screens or holographic ads. Punctual addition of CGI smoke (cigarette and sauna steam), maybe the only overdone detail betraying the traditional graphism.
The animation technique is revolutionary. Most sequences are acted by stunts in studio with motion capture sensors, and inserted in a 3D set, although they are entirely traced over and ink painted. The Black/White contrast cast simplified expressionist shadows on complex moving volumes restore a dynamic realism to the binary graphism. Making the most of both worlds, the real-time perspectives of 3D and the stylish touch of 2D drawings.
There is a surprise use of color in one plan, arguably justified, which I'm not sure was necessary. The all black & white concept works brilliantly all along. The soundtrack is also a let down.
Paris 2054, the city is under control of a sophisticated surveillance system to prevent crimes. Illona is kidnapped, a 22 yold genius scientist working for Avalon, a huge pharmacetical corporation, and Karas, a reckless supercop, investigates the case. Renaissance is a protocol researching a cure for progeria, a rare accelerating aging disease, secretly influenced by corruption, and Illona is caught in the midst of a global conspiracy. The historical architecture of Paris in 50 years is intact, the megapole has grown underneath supported by cyclopean metalwork columns giving an Eiffel tower style to every street. Wealthy penthouses extended in rooftop greenhouses. People use mobile phone implants, e-call, worn as a sticker in the neck.
The script can be a little conventional, obviously inspired by Akira (the secret genetic experiments on the progeria children), Blade Runner's neo-noir style (dark city with speaking luminescent billboards and hovering copters, Methuselah’s syndroma of Sebastian = progeria), Enki Bilal's anticipation (retro-futuristic underground Paris), and various manga (invisible gears, stylish guns and cars). Despite all this borrowing homage, the film stays genuinely original, with an ensemble of multi-faced characters confusing the plot resolution delightfuly until the end.

This is the kind of experiment I like to see when it comes to utilize CGI capabilities and special FX in animation. Unlike most recent 3D-hyperrealism animation creating crispier-than-life images that look so artificial because of the sophistication of reflects and textures, Renaissance develops powerful shots like a live storyboard without forgetting the artist imprint in the design.

(s) + (w) + (m) +++ (i) +++ (c) ++++

Check out the beautifully designed website for trailers and more info (french). Trailers.