Update…

Sorry for the lack of updates the last two weeks or so–several things are in progress but I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to finish any of the up… but just a few things:

-Who’s attending TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) this year? I bought my plane ticket and now I’m just waiting to hear about whether or not I’ll get a press badge or have to buy a pass. But I really want to take advantage of this opportunity to meet up with people… so let me know!

-My review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cannes-approved Climates went up a few days ago at DVD Verdict.

-I’ve been told that I can no longer use the computers at work to access my blog. Blegh.

And because I love me some Amants réguliers:

Check back soon.

-jesse

“my mother told me to be wary of Fauns…”

Going into Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) I expected something more or less along the lines of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an unfortunate misconception on my part. Most seemed to be rather awed and quite moved by the film’s emphasis on the sadistic “reality” as opposed to the whimsical “fantasy,” but for me it felt like Ofelia’s supernatural journal was ever allowed enough time to really develop into any kind of truly vivid or meaningful experience. It would be like a film of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that kept cutting from her experiences in fantastic fantasy world to the banal realities of what was going on with her family and cat back home. That said, I can recognize its seductive qualities, but was turned off by what I found it to be one of the most uncomfortable theater experiences I’ve had since—well, a long time. I’ve read the arguments that the relentless depiction of the brutalities of Fascist Spain serves as a perfect counterbalance to Ofelia’s whimsical otherworldy adventures, but the escapes were far too infrequent for me as an audience member—the sadistic violence had me cringing for too long and too often to find much enjoyment in anything else. I suppose I was just disappointed that there never seemed enough time allotted for Ofelia, let alone audience members to explore this mystical realm, and certainly no room for it achieving any kind emotional relevance—it just becomes more or less a means of playing connect the dots between Ofelia’s two realities. By the end it seems to be little more than a depiction of a test (the pacing suggests an “another one down—next!” attitude) rather than a thoughtful exploration of what happens when the realms of fantasy and reality bleed into each other.

reflections on endless reflections…

So a long time ago (or what seems a long time ago) in my reflectionary post on Adrian Martin’s Cinemascope interview “Responsibility and Criticism” and an Italo Calvino book I had recently read, I stated that I had been inspired with an idea that I’d like to take a stab at when in my reviewing.

Despite appearances of the opposite, I never forgot about it, and have been working on this idea on and off since that time. It was an idea inspired by something else I had been reading at that time—the work of academic/poet/essayist Anne Carson (which I in turn wrote about here). Needless to say, I had been quite intrigued by a technique Carson employs—that is, an academically-minded essay or reflection followed by a poetic interpretation of the main themes and concepts that had been discussed. Taking to heart Martin’s comment that “criticism can take an infinite number of forms: it can be soliloquy, meditation, dialogue, polemical rant, patient description, a work of fiction, a text running ‘parallel’ to a film… etc” I thought I would attempt this technique myself.

Now mind you, I am not a poet. I love poetry and seem to surround myself with people who write poetry, but have always felt my occasionally-indulged creative talents lie in prose and reviewing/analysis. But I made the attempt, and came up with the poem found below. It went over well in the writers group I participate in, which gives me the confidence to post it here (in other words… be nice).

Anyway…

Reflections on Varda’s Reflections in Cléo de 5 à 7

I’m as guilty as anybody of indulging in hyperbole far too often than should be permitted, but I mean what I say that a recent revisit of Agnés Varda’s Cleo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7) was a rather rapturous experience, if not actually teetering towards the miraculous. The first time I saw it, years ago, the Novelle Vague was something just entering my cinematic consciousness—and I’ll admit, Cléo left me more than a bit disoriented (that was it? That is all?) But it was undeniable there was something about it… and it stuck with me. Vaguely.

As far as I can tell, most commentary on Cléo tends to run along similar lines: “is or isn’t the ending a feminist statement?” or otherwise an analysis of how the female perspective of the director manifests itself in the film (Pauline Kael declared that it was one of the few examples of a women directing where one can actually detect a difference). And while all of these topics and issues are of great interest to me, what I found myself most intrigued by during this viewing was the preoccupation with mirrors and reflections, and how Varda uses them throughout the film to demonstrate the growing internal and emotional fragmentation of the title character.

Which makes sense, of course, as the film is all about an afternoon where a beautiful young woman finds her world—and herself—falling to pieces. But the narcissistic function that the mirror serves in the beginning sections of the film—reflecting back reassuring images of health, beauty and vitality—is slowly transformed into a means for Varda to depict Cléo’s fracturing sense of herself and the world around her. By end of the film, the function of the mirror is shifted from a means of reflecting an external reality to giving a glimpse into a much more subjective, rapidly-shifting internal state.

Witness the early, extended sequence in the hat shop, surely one of the most famous in the film, and how Cléo moves in circles around the shop, openly admiring her reflection in the multiple mirrors (and windows) set before her.

Surely, Cléo seems most at ease among her own reflection, and she clearly revels in gazing at herself (which is in itself makes for an interesting counterpoint to the equally famous scene shortly thereafter where the gaze—albeit the gaze of others—takes on a highly sinister quality).

And as if to emphasize the use of mirrors as a reflector of an external reality, Varda uses a mirror in the hat shop scene to briefly reflect the a world beyond Cléo through a glimpse of two policemen on horses somewhere outside the shop. Further emphasizing the mirror’s function as a reflector of external reality, it importantly stands as a glimpse of the world beyond Cléo’s own frame of vision.

But soon mirrors, glimpsed just as frequently, though not as overtly given pride of place, take on a more internalized quality, mirroring Cléo’s increasingly introvertedness, and her growing awareness that her world is cracking before her very eyes. This is made explicit in the café scene where Cléo, recently stripped of her costume-like hairpiece, turns on one of her songs on the jukebox and waits to be recognized (they don’t, wrapped up in their own little unseen lives and stories). Taking a look at the column Cléo is sitting next to. her reflection literally has gone to pieces—a much different situation that the countless mirrors she stared into not long before in the hat shop. It’s a remarkably simple visual metaphor (as Cléo emotionally begins to fall to pieces, so does her reflection) but one that is tremendously effective.

After the scene in the café pieces of mirror begin to appear frequently, perhaps most prominently when Varda’s camera lingers on the splinters of a small mirror that has shattered after Cléo clumsily drops her purse. Cléo and her friend crouch down over the purses’s scattered contents, and as her friend gathers items together, Varda camera watches as Cléo stops and silently stares into one of the mirror fragments. Only an eye (which is often labeled as the window of the soul) can be glimpsed in the tiny piece of glass. For one following the use of reflection in the film, it’s an extremely moving moment to recognize Cléo’s futile search for a full reflection, and indeed, a former sense of wholeness.

During the last section of the film, taking place in the Bois du Boulogne (and depicting what appears to be a budding, if unexpected prelude to courtship) the previous preoccupation with mirrors and reflections on both the character and director’s part is abandoned entirely. It appears as if Cléo is finally beginning to move beyond her narcissistic self-absorption, and that the tentative, rather awkward but completely genuine human interaction will help pull together the pieces of a damaged, fragmented self into something once again resembling a Whole.

[last ballad de la chanteuse]

Today is the beginning of the end of life (my life)
So I banish from mind
The sympathetic stare obscured behind thick skins of empty hospital white,
(they feed me lies)
“Cléo, Cléo, you’ll be all right.” I leave
and once reentering the land of the living
Motion sweeps me aside but I still hear beneath the clamor
That quiet whisper:
(death death)

But no! I pick up the pieces of the self
And fashion them into hats
And songs to sing
Some kind of imitation of the reckless living
Abandoned to the day before yesterday

 Spinning frantically around shops
Unable to stop, I wrap myself in reflections
Of mirrors and glass, a desperate attempt
To grasp youth that’s fleeting
Sunglasses slipped over my eyes transform the sunlight into a refraction of night
I wander the shadow-strewn wasteland Paris has become
Drowning in the sounds of the city and eyes that glare
Curiously
Unable, uncomprehending the ugly truth
Behind the beauty
Behind the bob of blonde hair and confident stride.
Alas! Pieces of self slip
out of hand
Scattered across concrete sidewalks, down narrow stairs.
Gather them quickly
Without thinking.
Without appearing that I care.
(But I do. I do.)

Car horns toll, toll for me
A cacophony of busy lives, of life
Surrounds, swallows what pieces are left of me.
And through it all I hear, quietly, incessantly:
(death death)

And from somewhere, a heartbeat.

-jesse ataide

reviews! at last!

It’s been a while, I know. Trying to get back into the swing of things…

As an introduction to Bruce LaBruce’s filmography, Super 8-1/2 (1993) poses an interesting dilemma—it’s obviously a systematic breakdown of the mythology that has sprung up around its creator, but being largely unfamiliar with that mythology, the film proved to be rather bewildering at times. As a film it’s all over the place—at once serious experimentation and playful, ironic parody—and the blonde-haired, fetal-like LaBruce displays no qualms in making obvious parallels between him and Andy Warhol (in all capacities—as an filmmaker, art icon, celebrity, even detached social philosopher). One way or the other, LaBruce plays it as a queer’s take on Norma Desmond, all self-aware tragedy, complete with countless close-ups. But despite how disorienting it can be, it’s disorienting in an interesting way—both outrageous and reflexive, and extremely erotic. A film I look forward to revisiting at some point.

The power of Juste une question d’amour (Just a Question of Love) (2000) is derived from the deep satisfaction of a straightforward, rather simple story told extremely well. Certainly its economy in terms of both its narrative and in the visual style is derived from its made-for-television origins (a rather shocking after-the-fact realization on my part), but there’s a distinct richness derived from its details, particularly in regards to its supporting characters. While the central boy-meets-boy and subsequently triumph over all hardships that come their way is certainly affecting, I found myself particularly intrigued (and impressed) by the cluster of characters that surround them—the supportive but weary mother of one of the boys, the other boy’s disgusted parents who feel guilty and betrayed, and the lovely Caroline Veyt as the girl who is fully aware of her unhealthy attachment to her gay best friend, but tirelessly plays his games anyway. It’s not hard to detect an admirable fairness, even sympathy in the script’s approach to these characters that are usually rendered as mere caricatures, as each in their own way are forced to come to grips with their views of homosexuality. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, and countless times at that, but that still doesn’t mean it’s not very, very good. I was quite moved, anyway.

“he’ll erect barbed wire around his little ego.”

Politics and Muriel
(or: Reflections on how Alain Resnais has made me feel guilty about the War in Iraq
)

The other day I wrote and submitted to DVD Verdict a review of Alain Resnais’s 1963 film Muriel, in which I attempted to take on an analysis of Resnais’s complex cinematic sensibilities, and how this film rates when placed within the context of the rest of his career. Not that it wasn’t a bad approach to this film—honestly, it’s more or less a justification of the film to an audience that isn’t exactly the type to be eagerly anticipating the release of obscure foreign films—but after submitting it, I realized I failed to touch on the one thing that has provoked more contemplation on my part than any other.

So I figure that’s what a blog is for, right? A chance to expand on thoughts and ideas otherwise left unfinished, incomplete…

[…]

While performing some preliminary research, Doug Cummings’s analysis of Muriel at filmjourney.org was the articles that I latched onto the strongest, an insightful if all-too-short analysis of this complex film. And as I read more and more about the film, I found that this line stuck out to me more than any other:

Muriel was one of the first French films to address atrocities committed during the Algerian War of Independence… the film is without a doubt timely today in the US as the nation alternates between coming to grips or flat-out ignoring its own war of occupation and human rights abuses.”

A little background before I continue: though I think I keep up with current events and political issues more than most people (particularly those my age), I can’t and won’t claim to be a very political person. If anything, I’ve become apathetically apolitical since our current president’s reelection in 2004—staying up most of the night in a living room in London watching state after state being called for Bush was an experience that almost singlehandedly crushed any confidence or interest I had in American politics, both in politicians themselves, but most particularly in an electorate that could so easily and overwhelming condone an administration that seems to me so obviously wrongheaded, if not actually evil. That being the case, I’ve always maintained my rather vague anti-war stance regarding Iraq, though I can’t claim that my reasoning has evolved or progressed much more than the initial reasons I developed my freshman year of college, which are admittedly more theoretical (my thoughts run more towards pacifism) than specific in nature.

Needless to say, Cumming’s comment, which is rather offhandedly thrown in his piece, has really shaken me up as I’ve subsequently puzzled over Muriel. Cummings is right: Resnais’s film is extremely timely today, perhaps even more so than all those Iraq-centered documentaries that keep popping up in American theaters—if only because it hits upon my (and many others, I feel rather confident in saying) blissful, very intentional ignorance of the situation in Iraq.

Muriel is a film that depicts what are essentially trivial people flailing about in their essentially trivial everyday existence. Sure, several of the characters may be wrestling with deeper issues, particularly Bernard, who has just returned to France after serving in Algiers and seems to have participated in torture tactics. But on the whole, Muriel depicts a group of self-centered individuals wrapped up in their own cares, obsessions, habits and pasts, displaying only the occasional (and very, very slight) interest in anything other than themselves, let alone any kind of overarching political situation.

Could my own situation be summed up in more or less the same way? Errrr, yes. It can.

Admittedly, there are some differences between the world Muriel’s characters inhabit and my own. Novelist Jean Cayrol, who collaborated with Resnais on the script, has emphasized that the film’s location in the Northern port city Boulogne-sur-Mer was very intentional, as it was a city still undergoing the rebuilding process in the wake of WWII. The city, with its motley mix of crumbling pre-war buildings and newly constructed structures, serves as a potent, visual metaphor running throughout the film, a subtle reminder that this is a location, and indeed a society in general, still reeling from the affects of war and carnage. And even if Boulogne-sur-Mer is not being directly affected physically by the war raging in Algiers, there is the very physical presence of Bernard and other soldiers returning from the area to serve as reminders.

I guess what has surfaced is a sense of guilt over how easily I dismiss even the slight ways that the war in Iraq manages to touch me—I mean, I can’t begin to fathom how many times while watching a news network and a feature begins with a line like “today was the worst day ever for US casualties in Iraq” I think something along the lines of “it just keeps getting worse, doesn’t it?” and promptly switch the channel and end up watching the conclusion of an episode of Shear Genius that I’ve already seen once or twice before.

It’s rather disorienting to think one moment “god, these characters are clueless,” and then be aligned with them the next. It’s funny, I’ve read quite a few reviews that fault Muriel for not addressing the Algerian War more directly (though I’d be willing to guess that such comments are the result of not being aware of extreme government censorship during the time), when honestly, I can’t think of a film that more accurately nails the state of contemporary American society. And if the film itself is any indication, that’s a rather sad state indeed. I’ve been warned.

Now I’m off to edit my MySpace page…