30 novembre 2009

27 novembre 2009

Random Factoid 1 : decade

Just a reminder, a decade doesn't start at zero until 9... There was no year zero at Jesus' birth. The calendar went from year -1 to year 1. The last millenium started on year 1001 and ended in 2000, just like the previous one started on year 1 and ended on year 1000. The XXth century started on year 1901 and ended on year 2000, thus the name "Twentieth" while all years start by 19.

Contrary to popular belief, the first decade of the 3rd millenium started on 1st of January 2001 and will end on 31th of December of 2010. At least for people following a Gregorian calendar. Just saying.

But if a decade is any 10 years, why not make a list of the 1998-2007 decade? What would be the point to use a decade across 2 different milleniums?

25 novembre 2009

Backstabbing French Commission

Tsai Ming-liang's Visage (2009) was a film commissioned by Le Louvre, world famous museum (currently developing a franchise in Abu Dhabi!). Its production met some problems and delays... most notably the defection of its title star, Maggie Cheng, who put aside her cinema career after falling in love with a Hong-Kong billionaire. This incident is actually integrated to the narrative of the film, like a palimpsest where the auteur traces over his original project to tell the story of his own self-included sequel-remake. Like every great auteur, Tsai incorporates elements of his autobiographical working hours, more or less fantasised or transcended, to turn life into art. This is fascinating to witness and learn from.
The Louvre's "patrons of the art" wanted to hire a critically-acclaimed festival-darling to direct a feature-length infomercial on their museum... they wanted someone to film their historical collection, the sumptuous rooms, the former royal castle exteriors, the gardens à la française, the postcard perspectives, the touristic sightseeing... and this you could tell by the commentaries of the representatives speaking about the "difficult" production anecdotes and the "surprising" final result. They imposed a celebrity (Laetitia Casta) to replace Maggie Cheng, in order to convince other co-producers, French and Taiwanese.
But Tsai is a humble man and a stubborn artist. Intelligently, he didn't want to measure up with La Joconde, la Vénus de Milo, la victoire de Samothrace, or the contemporary glass pyramid added by Chinese architect Pei Leoh Ming. What caught his eyes after a VIP visit of the premises were windowless corridors, low-ceiling attics, steel ladders, fluid pipes, underground water reservoirs for fire emergency, dark bushes... to the dismay of the public relation team, you can imagine. The only vaguely scenic view he immortalised was the majestic basin of the Tuileries gardens that ends his previous film : What Time is it There? (2001); a film containing back then the key articulations of his latest project : a brief cameo appearance of Jean-Pierre Léaud and this ending image of a wild stag in the Tuileries.

What annoys me here is not Tsai's film, which I loved (even if it's not among his most successful), but the French co-production and reception.

France can pride itself for being a safe haven of auteurs, domestic or international. I doubt filmmakers benefit from a greater liberty and protection anywhere else. This said, we would expect the highest artistic standards from a French commissioned project and above all from an art-friendly museum like Le Louvre... this is far from the truth, unfortunately.
I thought the Louvre commission was only a fund granted to an artist, for an opportunity with no strings attached. Who could think themselves in a position to give directions to a seasoned artist with a solid œuvre under his belt? Who cares for profits and commercial appeal when you're a wealthy state-owned museum? When you get the chance to work with one of the greatest film artist of our generation, you don't ask questions, you just give him money, provide all he asks for and wait for the finished piece without pressuring him. Who would better understand that than the greatest museum in a auteurist paradise like France?

I'm appalled to see that this "philanthropic" commission only showed the typical Hollywood system behaviour instead...

Of course, the final film is far from a commercial movie, but as an obscure artfilm it is treated like in Hollywood with a confidential release. And I'm offended by the reception of the French market, and above all the Parisian arthouses circuit. Visage premièred the 4th of November 2009, on only 15 screens nationwide (6 in Paris). And today, on 4th week, is only continued by 7 theatres (2 in Paris : one is one show/day, the other is 1 show/week)... I've never seen such a poor enthusiasm for an artfilm that has everything to please the cinephile-friendly Parisian arthouses. For instance, this week, Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch (2009), also slow and challenging, is given a more reasonable, decent release on 54 screens (10 in Paris), which is closer to the usual treatment for the hard-to-please niche.

Visage was selected in Cannes in official competition. Le Louvre was its godfather. Tsai Ming-liang has always been cherished by French cinephiles more than anywhere else in the world. It is an homage to François Truffaut, with 4 of his actors (Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jeanne Moreau, Nathalie Baye, Fanny Ardant). Laetitia Casta is featured prominently dressed by a flurry of haute couture costumes by French designer Christian Lacroix. Choreographed by Philippe Découflé. Its scenario was developed at the Cannes festival residence. It is shot on location in Paris. How more French could a foreign film be? It is a French co-production that should be supported by state subsidies and domestic exhibitors.
So if this kind of project is not embraced by the French market, where else will it be???

There is an artfilm "niche" in Paris too, like everywhere else, for "challenging" films like Visage, meaning that they will never get the sweeping coverage of a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, even in Paris of course! But there is always a base of art-friendly arthouses that support this kind of auteurs, whether the film is good or not, to give it a chance, to give the audience a chance to discover it before being taken down by the 2-week turnover release schedule. Usually there are at least a (couple of) dozen Parisian screens to champion this kind of films! I don't know what happened.
Les Inrockuptibles, Libération, Le Monde, Télérama praised it. OK, the snobbish Cahiers and Positif bashed it... but still.

It was already quite pretentious to "invite" an international auteur like Tsai Ming-liang to make a film in France... but given this ungrateful reception, he won't come back for sure.

We can tell the film was hard to make and struggled to come together under contradictory influences... too many ideas, not enough coherence. I agree it's not a clean achievement. I think Tsai is essentialy happy he could work with Léaud to make an homage to his mentor Truffaut. That's his main satisfaction. For the rest he filled with what he knows best, lip-synch choreographies and lavish compositions. And even from an admittedly "failed" project, I believe he pulled off a beautiful film that is nothing to be ashamed of, contrary to what detractors think.

Cinephiles celebrate Tsai when he makes sense, when he recycles pop culture, when he's provocative... but they abandon him when his contemplative aesthetic is too abstract, too experimental, to discontinuous. His adaptation of the story of the Salomé myth is what deconstructive cuisine is to fine gastronomie : a quintessential rendition of its dissociated elements. And on this level, it is amazing to observe how Tsai tailors this clever patchwork with precision and a very personal inspiration.

I command Tsai for not falling back on facile clichés and conventional narratives. He walked away from all incentives (by the production) to pigeon-hole him into a cliché of a "French auteur".

* * *

I was already disappointed by Hou Hsiao-hsien's "French film" : Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (2007); and Rithy Panh's eponymous adaptation of Marguerite Duras : Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique (2008). Both mishandled French co-productions because it was too heavy on the Frenchisation.

The 2006 Viennale Mozart homage : New Crowned Hope, was also a product placement failure bribing auteurs to promote Mozart in projects that were already almost finished. As if contributing funds to a film gave any right for artistic inputs or suggestions... maybe in Hollywood, but not in Europe!
Rich people bring in the money and get the eventual profits (or honorific credits to help the art scene) from a (risky) investment.
Art people bring in the artistic ideas because they don't need to be told how it works.
That's how it works as far as I'm concerned. When the roles are inverted it is disastrous, both for the art and for the industry.
Though, at least, the New Crowned Hope series didn't suffer from the commission requirements (to include Mozart music), and each film is wholesome and fully coherent with its auteur's identity. Because the Viennale co-production didn't intervene from the start of the project, like the French did in the 3 aforementioned examples.

Usually French co-productions are more discreet and sensible, leaving the auteur they fund and champion in control of their work. All the reason why I'm shocked by what happened with Tsai (and HHH and Rithy Panh) which was meant to be a film less commercial than the others from the get go.

18 novembre 2009

Where the Sun doesn't shine

Manhola Dargis (NYT, 18 Nov 2009) : "First shown at the Berlin Film Festival four years ago, “The Sun” [Aleksandr Sokurov's Solntse] is finally receiving its welcome American theatrical release, which means that one of the best movies of 2005 is now also one of the best of 2009"
Why does it take almost 5 years (Berlinale 2005 première: 17 Feb 2005) before a major film d'auteur gets distributed on the American market? A film featuring a (glorifying) moment of American history (not the nasty part of WW2), with General MacArthur in a positive, self-aggrandising light... And it opens on a single screen in NYC (Film Forum)?
The New York Times at least acknowledges this gap, but doesn't even bother pondering on the causes of this delay. Is it not worth investigating for the NYT? I understand that a boring foreign art film will never be released worldwide within a week, like your typical Hollywood blockbuster... that a privilege of the universal mainstream entertainment. But 4 years before someone finds an available slot in the release schedule to show this great film on commercial screens is a lot of time in the film industry cycle. 1 year is a normal waiting period after its festival première. 2 years is already quite long for the major markets. Usually the smaller countries have to wait the longest to get access to films and have to watch them after everyone else. Now, why would America want to be ranked at the bottom of the release list, like if they didn't have the money to buy the rights, or the screens to show it, like it is often the issue in tiny countries? It's as if on the cultural level, the USA is an underdeveloped country, before industrialisation, before globalisation, before the instantness of the internet; while it is supposed to be the frontrunner technologically and culturally wise, a model to look up to, a leading force to show the rest of the world how to grasp the future... How can the leading economical empire on the planet be so backward, a-critical, self-indulgent, isolationistic culturally?
The access to American culture is a long tough road. And Americans are happy the way it is. So it's not going to change anytime soon.

16 novembre 2009

Branding Abu Dhabi, Israel and the USA

What's wrong with branding a conceited image for Abu Dhabi, the ex-nihilo city built with corrupt oil money in an inhospitable desert at a pricey carbon impact tag? If you're reading the pseudo-critics flown over, all expenses paid, like a typical Hollywood junket, there is nothing wrong with it. They wouldn't even question the existence of a wannabe-major scale international festival in a country famous for restricting the freedom of expression and with an insignificant cinema production.

Money can buy all, even legitimacy!

There is a nasty climate where spoiled cinephiles believe that bashing the major international film festivals is a higher priority for film culture than to unconditionally preserve any screenings of underexposed artfilms on the world stage and particularly small films coming from countries with a struggling domestic film market. However flawed the growing "commercialisation" of festivals might be (because they need to survive economically, and draw attention to the press which only cares for blockbusters and the star system in the first place!) they represent the least evil that cinephiles have to find out about new independent foreign filmmakers. If smaller festivals have the bolder luxury to focus on hardcore auteurism... they can't give these films nearly as much press exposition as Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto or Vienna do. So the naive claims to expect the mammoth mechanics of a global scale festival to be as friendly and supportive as your local "pseudo-international" festival is utterly non-constructive. Though, I already said last year all I thought about these attacks on "too many festivals".

I wish these frustrated festival-goers would put as much scrutiny in their everyday film consumption as they dare to fling in the face of long term institutions that single-handedly keep afloat the good name of selfless art films in a world obsessed with Box Office numbers and quick screen turnover. Of course criticism of big festival should be encouraged in the hope to improve the general standards and always push towards more advantages than less. Only insofar as you proved you are equally critical of alternatives to what you criticise : to the imperialistic lock-down of major studios, to the cultural censorship of the populist levelling field, to the domestic distribution conservatism and the limited access to diversity on commercial screens. Instead of barking desperately at the major festivals, the loud mouths should find a more pertinent cause to defend and a more effective war to fight.

If only there was less obtuse manichaeism among film critics... Every single problem is always simplified by a black and white mentality into a forced choice between pro OR con. Everything has to be turned into something sensational, something clear cut, something scandalous, something easy to understand and easy to take a position for or against. Are you PRO or CON major film festivals?
The fast food of critical thinking! All I'm saying is that disingenuous reviewers would have us mistake a bush for the forest. Demanding excellence from high-profile festivals is laudable, as long as you don't confuse taste preferences in certain areas of cinema (or contempt for others) with an elective selection of a small number of films limited by the scope of a given festival.
A few things to keep in mind : A festival cannot show everything they would like to, either because they don't have enough screens or because of première exclusivity at other concurrent festivals. So a line up is never an ideal sample of a years' production. There are always compromises. Spending more time than it deserves on what a festival shows and what it doesn't show is as pointless as to argue with Oscars winners and nominees... Get real, the important critical battles are elsewhere.
J. Rosenbaum : "I was tempted by [the Viennale and Filmmuseum directors' joint proposal], but various roadblocks stood in the way, most of them either logistical or ideological." [One of these roadblocks] "a reluctance to restrict [himself] to 'American cinema' after living through eight years of American separatism and exceptionalism as propounded and promulgated by the administration of George W. Bush"
Gabe Klinger writes a thought-provoking article on the ideologies of festivals, where he brushes wide strokes through the landscape of recent festival controversies. He opens with the self-critical confession of Jonathan Rosenbaum on the American-centric program he was commissioned to put together at this year's Viennale. Which is, for a change, a great critical insight on the self-indulgent ways of the American industry. Nothing wrong with showing commercial Hollywood films in itself, but the (political and economical) contextualisation of such gesture is what we expect from a true film critic. So the article started insightfully. But then, in the same breath, he links this type of valid criticism with the controversy over the Brand Israel operation at last year's TIFF... Unfortunate conflation.

If you think you're tough enough to tackle the Middle East conflict, you should use your "objective" scrutiny on the Abu Dhabi festival and the Hollywood hegemony too. That is if you're not a prejudiced critic, that your main interest at heart is the fairness granted to film culture and how the movie industry functions; not only in countries where you're emotionally/politically/ideologically involved, but anywhere similar problems arise. If you take a case out of context as an excuse to bash your victim, regardless for the degree of gravity the problem you single out rates on a global level.
And my answer to this is that Branding Israel has little to do with cinema or politics, and it's not for film critics to exploit this controversy for a discriminatory campaign that undermines the unconditional respect for people's culture. This is the central issue here : the right to promote your own culture on the international scene.

"Brand Israel" is a marketing campaign? Big deal. The Abu Dhabi festival is a marketing campaign too, and everyone pretends it is a film festival... Why act so naive? Cinema is a costly business and people who have enough money to support this art are few. Questioning the movie economy and boycott funds of suspicious origins (involving unjust wars, torture, human rights offences, money laundering, mafia, drugs...) would stop most film productions anywhere. Come on! don't pretend you're prude and shocked in one case, and totally fine with the dirty money behind the cause you support... What a hypocritical lynch mob!

Obviously, a marketing campaign meant to promote the local tourism business is going to emphasise the positive talking points and avoid mentionning the disincentive details. How immature do you have to be to expect California to advertize a sightseeing tour by pointing out to the risk of deadly earthquake? Or a Florida cruise advertising on the frequency of hurricanes? Should South Korea's tourism be brought to a halt because of the rampant threat of an attack by North Korea? Should Iran's cultural exchanges be embargoed because of its alleged nuclear program? Should the Holy sites in Israel be forbidden because of the peace process status quo?
Can't a country overcome the stigmata of a debilitating conflict, past or present? Do inhabitants of regions destroyed by wars, terrorism, dictatorships have to pay the price of a death toll and a wrecked economy, of which most had no direct implication in their causes, adding insult to injury to cultural alienation because spoiled overseas bourgeois fancy boycott activism? I'm baffled by the reaction of human acrimony...

Now, who wants to censor the expression of a nation's culture, even if it is a shameless self-promotional propaganda? Such tourism-oriented "propaganda" is to culture what diplomacy is to international affairs. You don't shoot the messenger! Even if we disagree with political representatives (fairly elected or not) from Iran, North Korea or China, we still invite them at the United Nation table, precisely to keep diplomatic negotiations open. Well, world culture is the same non-partisan scene, where every nation can promote their art, their heritage, their political tendencies. Film critics who begin to declare on the cinema stage that certain cultures are not welcome are simply fascist in my mind.
This is only cinema! Let political conflicts to competent people. It's already a miracle to find an objective, insightful, educated film critic giving a substantial analysis of a fiction film... Taking totalitarian positions on serious Real World matters goes way beyond their responsibilities, let alone legitimacy.

What is a boycott organised by the invisible niche of an art film festival going to do to resolve a millennium old conflict? There is no symbolic value in this absurd discrimination. The little symbol it has is negative, because it resorts to fascist ways. This is as ridiculous and counter-productive than the rally of filmmakers to support Polanski. It wasn't the filmmaker who was judged, nor his art compromised. It was the man himself, who has decided himself he was above the justice of California. Let the man deal with his karma, he's accountable for the choices he made in life. What should the cinema community do about it to pressure the judicial system or the public opinion either way? Not your business whatsoever!

The epitome of boycott absurdity, misdirection and censorship : "Freedom Fries"! There is a majority of smart people in the American congress who thought that it was a productive use of their time to REBRAND a typical American junk food because they didn't respect the right of a foreign country (not to mention, long lasting ally since the birth of the USA) to dissent and express an opinion in a democratic debate. Well done! Did it matter that the appellation was wrongly attributed to France, while its origin is Belgian? No, the priority was to make a powerful totalitarian symbolic gesture against international democratic diplomacy. See the documentary : The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004/Adam Curtis/UK).

A boycott is meaningful when its effect directly impacts the issue at its root, when the offenders are directly punished by the sanction. Even when the UN embargoes a country it is a stupid move... so imagine how disgraceful it is for a film goer to boycott a country. Leaders in Iran, North Korea, China (or even France!) are not affected by embargoes and boycotts, it's their common people that are starved, the image of their culture that is tarnished for no reason. A war of attrition might be good enough for the military; however it is not a sensible action for political activists, who should know better than to cut a tree to catch the worm in one of the apples.

People in Israel don't agree at 100% with the conservative government policies. Just like Bush gulf war was not approved by 100% of Americans. Were American films censored by the rest of the world during the stand off around Iraq? I don't think so. Just like the Iranian people is not at 100% behind Ahmadinejad. Should we boycott Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, Panahi, Pitts, Farhadi? Should we blame Iranian culture because we disagree with the policies of its government, because it threatens to nuke Israel? Is there any sense in boycotting Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse during WW2 (if they had been known in the West at the time)? Should Murnau and Lang be ostracised because they made film in Nazi Germany?

Should we refuse to watch Israeli films by Avi Mograbi (contesting the unjust treatment of Palestinians); Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir (a less than glorifying introspection on the Lebanese war); Eran Korilin's The Band's Visit; Joseph Cedar's Beaufort (on the Israeli army); Samuel Maoz' Lebanon? I don't think that Hollywood pseudo-introspective war films on the Middle East occupations are as interesting formally or narratively... Should we dismiss the fiction work on Israeli society's contradictions by : Amos Gitai, Ronit Elkabetz, Keren Yedaya, Shira Geffen, Etgar Keret, Raphael Nadjari for the sole reason they live and work in a country torn apart by religious hatred?

It's fascist authorities like the Nazi Germany, Franco's Spain, Staline's Soviet Union, the Catholic Inquisition that blame culture and believe that hiding culture makes its (more or less) related ideology go away. Why would anybody today want to resort to such anti-democratic, retrograde, censoring means to get a political point across?

You want to lambaste Israel's unjust occupation of Palestine, its warmongering theocratic government, it's imperialistic marketing campaign? Fine. Follow the money. Who gives military supplies and protection, economic support, diplomatic pressure on his enemies? You know it. It's another warmongering theocratic government, with imperialistic marketing campaigns throughout the world, and unjust occupations in a few sovereign nations... If you want your political activism to be any effective, put pressure on Washington D.C. not on Israeli films and tourist venues. This is beneath anyone calling them-selves art lovers.

Besides Israel is a country smaller than New Jersey and slightly bigger than Lake Erie, with a population 40 times smaller than the USA! Should we compare the questionable American military bases and prisons around the world that compare to the wrong treatments of Palestinians in Israel? Do the USA get nearly as much flack for Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo...? I mean, criticism they receive it (even if they discredit anyone disagreeing with their ways, abroad or at home), but how much effective political/economical pressure do they get, comparatively to the cultural alienation of tiny nation like Israel?

A misdirected attack against Israeli culture (instead of its political leaders) is most often a sign of latent anti-Semitism, concealed under false pretence of a Politically Correct (although intellectually dishonest and a blanket discrimination) vendetta against an all in all harmless cultural promotion of local tourism.
Maybe Glenn Beck could resort to such dodgy rhetoric to persuade an audience of ignorants... but could any art critic take part in such xenophobic agenda, while art is supposed to bring people together beyond all barriers?

So what about Abu Dhabi, messieurs les censeurs?

Is the carbon emission impact to go review The Informant over 10000 km away from NYC a sensible exercise of the profession of film critic? Domestic junkets aren't good enough? Is it even respectful of the local culture to act like a spoiled festival goer and expect to find the Cannes quality standard in a remote micro-country that is only recently embracing cinema? Is it an informed opinion to blame a poor Arabic culture while ignoring the subduction imposed by former colonial powers in the region?

10 novembre 2009

01 novembre 2009

Ironic Toys

Panique au village (2009/Aubier/Patard/Belgium)

Toy Story 3 (2010/Lee Unkrich/USA)