Wings of Desire, Monsoon Wedding, and The Girlfriend Experience
Talking Out of Frame:
Roger Ebert has commented that once the summer blockbuster season is over, true cinema fans get treated to a rich autumn full of more delectable pictures, movies that are smarter, artier, more thoughtful. Some of the reason the fall is such a good time for going to the movies is that studios release their Oscar-bait and so we get films that are more about people than special effects. I think there is also something more instinctual about it, something akin to hibernation, resting, storing away something for our souls at the time of year when we might most likely want to stay inside and bask in the glow of whatever screen is serving up our entertainment at that particular time. This seems to hold true for DVDs as much as the cineplexes, as the last six weeks or so have seemed packed with good releases.
So, let's celebrate, and what better way to do so than starting off with a big family gathering? Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding has returned to DVD as a souped-up double-disc Criterion edition. Though on the surface Monsoon Wedding may seem like your average romantic soap opera draped in brightly colored saris, the more you look at the finely constructed story, the deeper the family revelations turn out to be. Director Mira Nair and writer Sabrina Dhawan have concocted a sweet confection that has lots of hidden treats at its center, making for one satisfying movie. It's a family tale, beautifully shot, draped in many tangled narrative strands. Love affairs new and old, family secrets, petty irritations, underlying jealousy--with all of these primal emotions swirling around, it's no wonder that the filmmakers would turn to a symbol as primal as the weather to represent them. In the days leading up to the wedding, the weather is as scorching as the drama. By the time the titular monsoon comes to drench the wedding party, it's not a tempestuous explosion a la the madness storm in King Lear but a full-on release.
If Monsoon Wedding is one candy, then that would make this new Criterion double-disc set a Whitman Sampler. A gorgeous new video transfer is joined by a bunch of great extras and seven short films directed by Nair. These are all rare pieces helmed by Mira Nair, spanning three decades, from 1982 all the way up to 2008, three documentaries and four fiction films, and they work many of the same themes as Monsoon Wedding (and really, that we see in all of Nair's work). Some of the fictional shorts are a little obtuse, but they are all intriguing. They are also quite lovely, shot with Nair's usual eye for detail and sometimes sporting more experimental framing than in her more conventional narrative pictures. The documentaries also shed some light on Nair's creative origins and how she used nonfiction to develop her incredible powers of observation. These are like the missing links in the cracks of a filmmaker's evolution.
Our next movie is far more intimate and detached that Mira Nair's. Though many might see him as the master of Hollywood glitz, the ever-wily Steven Soderbergh continues our Art House column this month with the neorealist verite of The Girlfriend Experience. This challenging film is, at its heart, the portrait of a call girl. The title refers to a particular high-end service where the escort acts not just as a sex partner, but in some degree as the client's girlfriend, be it out in public or private intimacy. In such cases, conversation can be as necessary as the buyer's particular peccadilloes. In the case of this film, the girlfriend-for-hire in question is Christine, who goes by the name Chelsea and is played by adult film actress Sasha Grey. Chelsea is a smoky beauty, a girl of quiet charms. She listens and responds and mostly leaves room for the men to indulge the illusion of being in charge. Most of her clients are well-to-do businessmen, and so quite a few of them give Chelsea advice about what to do with the money they pay her. This is of particular importance given that The Girlfriend Experience is set during the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election, when the financial crisis was just getting underway. There is talk of the impending bailouts and how they will not be enough. The hole in the system is seemingly too big to fill.
The Girlfriend Experience has the appearance of being a film largely composed in the editing room. Yet, the various pieces that Soderbergh, who both shot and cut this movie himself, dismantles and reassembles suggest that there is at least some kind of map, that writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman devised the tools with which he would need to work. The narrative is told out of order and jumping around various continued encounters between Chelsea and other people. Much has been made of the casting of Sasha Gray in the title role, and it would be easy to assume that Soderbergh chose a porn star just for the sake of publicity. If that were the case, however, one would expect him to be far more exploitative of her assets. Instead, the director smartly stays out of smutty territory. To have done otherwise would have been to have the focus fall on the wrong things. Instead, he wants to use Gray's image to his advantage as a storyteller, to play with audience expectations. Surely her chosen profession provides special insight into Chelsea's character, of projecting an image of oneself that appears to be showing everything but is really showing nothing at all. To say this is all the role requires, however, would be a severe misreading. The scenes where she cries or expresses herself more vehemently show obvious sparks of acting talent, but it's the times when the actress is alone that are the true tests. Gray has more than empty charisma. In simple, seemingly throwaway scenes where she crosses the street or silently enjoys a cocktail, she shows the full extent of her screen presence. The solitary world of this lonely girl is a complete construct, and here we see her peeking out from behind the barricade.
Full control may benefit a director like Soderbergh, but sometimes maybe restraint isn't always a negative. Jeremy Mathews looks at The Jean-Jacques Beineix Collection: Roselyne and the Lions, a restoration of the French director's 1989 film to the original three-hour length he intended. As Jeremy discovers, however, such "fixing" doesn't necessarily mean the movie won't end up suffering from being too much. The restored cut "shows off [Beineix's] gift for visually immersive scenes and grand gestures. Where he falters is in crafting his characters, who lack the spark of the young dreamers they're supposed to be. I haven't seen the theatrical cut of the film, so I can't compare the two versions, but the problem lies less in the amount of time we see the characters and more in how they're written and portrayed. The undisciplined, troubled high school student Thierry (Gérard Sandoz) ditches out on detention one day to go to the zoo, where he falls in love with the world of lion taming and with the old tamer's apprentice, Roselyne (Isabelle Pasco). He starts doing janitorial work for Frazier (Gabriel Monnet) in exchange for lessons, but with no future ahead of him in school, he decides that he's ready to chase his destiny and head out for greater things."
In this case, greater things means joining the circus. "The film captures an air of nostalgic yearning, despite being set in contemporary times upon its 1989 release. There's a certain mesmerizing quality to the scenes in the lion cage, and not only due to Beineix's fixation on his heroine's breasts, thighs and ass, which peaks during the film's climax. The lion cage is a naturally gripping setting. When someone tells a mighty maned predator what to do, they're guaranteed a certain risk and a thrilling rush. Tension naturally surrounds every command. Will the lion obey as usual, or will it decide that it would rather have a snack? The film goes awry when it starts trying to grow some conflict between its characters as they grow nearer to their dream. It's not that conflict wasn't needed to fill out the three hours, but that it feels so utterly contrived. Our characters avoid having any sort of meaningful conversation about their feelings so that they can act like petulant jerks without good reason."
While some DVDs disappoint, others suprise, as Phil Bacharach pleasantly discovered with Tulpan. He says it right up front in the enthusiastic introduction to his review, "Tulpan is a gem of a discovery, one that deserves all the adulation it likely won't get. A Kazakh dramedy about sheepherders is a tough sell for movie audiences - even in Kazakhstan, probably - but this narrative-fiction debut of documentary maker Sergei Dvortesvoy spills over with warmth, humanity and a quirky charm that's difficult to define. The title is the name of a beautiful, albeit unseen, young woman who lives with her elderly parents on a remote steppe in southern Kazakhstan. She is not the focus of the story. Instead, Tulpan embodies an all-too-elusive dream for the true central character, an open-hearted, jug-eared Russian seaman named Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov) who has just ended a tour of duty. Now, he has returned to his native land to learn the sheepherding business from his older sister, Samal (Samal Esljamova), and his no-nonsense brother-in-law, Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov)." He goes on to say, "Wry and funny, the movie benefits from a documentarian's eye that Dvortesvoy brings to the script he co-wrote with Gennadi Ostrovsky. Events unfold quietly and at a leisurely pace. A veterinarian with an injured baby camel in the sidecar of his motorcycle is doggedly followed by the patient's irked mother. Ondas' young son listens to news on a transistor radio, memorizing it so that he can repeat it later, word for word, to his father. In this bleak and unforgiving environment, Tulpan celebrates - pardon the cliché - the indomitable spirit of humanity. Don't wince. Amazingly, Dvortesvoy embraces the resilience of these people without striking a note of fake sentimentality. Asa's perseverance and Ondas' grit are both illustrated by a mesmerizing pair of scenes involving the births of lambs. The film's characters have hard lives, certainly, but their weariness does not translate into defeat."
Documentarian Marc Isaacs looks at real lives in his art, and Chris Neilson looks across the ocean for a UK compilation of some of the filmmaker's work. "Lives caught between where they've been and where they're going is the transcendent theme of the recent release from the UK label Second Run entitled Three Films by Marc Isaacs," Chris writes. "The transience pervading Isaacs' documentaries is both physical and psychological: physical in that Isaacs's interviewees are literally in transit from one place to another; psychological in that Issacs' camera and questions prompt introspection from his subjects about past experiences and future hopes and fears." The three films in question are Lift, Travellers, and Calias: The Last Border, spanning three years of work, 2001 through 2003. In all of them, the camera explores very different lives that have all reached some kind of extreme. "There's apparently something extraordinarily disarming about Marc Isaacs that makes so many people of such different backgrounds willing to confide in him whether it be a wish for genocide, a desperate suicide pact, a plan to run away in the night from overwhelming debt, or a despondent confession of utter despair. Though I still can't explain how he does it, I'm in awe of his ability to draw his subjects out, and eager to see more of his work."
A more challenging experience is had by Casey Burchby, who undertakes the task of analyzing Peter Greenaway's new film, Nightwatching. "A densely layered experience such as Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching challenges a critic's ability to rearrange something that has been especially sculpted for cinematic presentation. Translating film content into prose is often easy; at least, a summary description is usually accessible to one used to working with words. But Greenaway has fashioned a film that unites so many ideas and textures - many of which are utterly foreign to mainstream filmmaking - that it is difficult to arrive at a fair representation of them for the purposes of a review...Rembrandt van Rijn (Martin Freeman) receives a commission from a local Amsterdam militia to paint their group portrait. In the midst of personal turmoil - including the death of his wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) after the birth of his son Titus - Rembrandt reluctantly completes the painting known as The Night Watch, but not before uncovering a conspiracy among the militia that has resulted in the assassination of one of their members, Piers Hasselburg. The painting is ultimately executed as an investigation of the murder and an indictment of the militiamen themselves."
The thing is, Greenaway doesn't give his audience just one film, he gives us two, breaking off from his main feature to explore theories of his own on a documentary on the second disc in this impressive set. "On Disc Two is Greenaway's indispensible companion film to Nightwatching, an art history documentary essay on The Night Watch called Rembrandt's J'Accuse. This is one of the best documentaries I have seen on a fine arts subject. Over the course of this 100-minute film, Greenaway himself (as both filmmaker and narrator) elucidates his theory that Rembrandt intended The Night Watch to reveal the treachery of Hasselburg's killers by examining 34 'mysteries' associated with the painting. Starting off with the assertion that contemporary society has an 'impoverished' visual literacy, Greenaway proceeds to teach viewers to 'read' The Night Watch as one would a text. In the course of reviewing the 34 mysteries - each of which comprises some facet of the painting, such as its setting or the individuals represented in it - the director performs an even more generous and valuable service by refreshing the way we look at art. In my experience, museum visitors spend more time reading the text panels adjacent to a painting or artifact than they do looking at the object itself. Greenaway reminds us that there is far more to observe in a work than any text can adequately summarize. This leads me back to the point I was trying to make in my opening paragraph. Impossible to encapsulate, these two films operate on many levels simultaneously; for that reason and others, I look forward to seeing them again. Taken together, Nightwatching and Rembrandt's J'Accuse represent a singular vision and a deep engagement with the many prisms through which art may be observed. Greenaway's creation is an odd, rare thing. He has pulled apart and reassembled a great work of art - and in doing so, has made another."
Just as challenging as the Greenaway is the new Eclipse release Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical, collecting the three earliest films from the experimental European director. Made in the mid-1960s, these freewheeling efforts, which span fiction and documentary in much the same way as Nightwatching, show a style that is coming into its own, marrying Neorealism and the French New Wave in an exciting new way. Man is Not a Bird, Love Affair, and Innocence Unprotected have all aged incredibly well. If what was radical yesterday was content on being merely radical and nothing more, it can appear predictable or mundane today; if it has a solid foundation to give the experiment something firm to stand on, the material can sustain its freshness and speak to audiences regardless of the era. Such is the case here. This trio is playful, creative, culturally rich, and full of insightful commentary on the human condition, particularly the way our personal lives become entangled with society's imposed restrictions. Dušan Makavejev proves himself to be every bit as inventive as his European contemporaries, and as full of cinematic whimsy and film knowledge as anyone who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema. This boxed set is a true treasure.
Makavejev's films have a political subtext that is quite potent, and Hungarian director Costa-Gavras proves you can take the politics out of the subtext and stick them up front and still make something powerful and thought-provoking. The 1969 film Z, out now as part of the Criterion Collection, was ahead of the curve in predicting how placing cameras in different places could show us the same event in different ways. Z is shot a lot like a documentary, an investigative procedural that has aesthetics in common with the Nouvelle Vague and the films of Francesco Rosi, and would in turn inspire Alan J. Pakula, David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh. Z could almost be seen as a stylistic fulcrum on which the two sides of that equation balance, the link between Salvatore Giuliano and All the President's Men, The Battle of Algiers and Zodiac. The new Criterion edition presents the movie with a beautiful new transfer and a handful of informative extras, shedding new light on an important picture.
Z is a remarkable recreation of a volatile political tragedy. The director sifts through the events before and after an attack on a Socialist leader (Yves Montand) in Greece, building his case and challenging audience perceptions without ever being dogmatic. Costa-Gavras takes us through the investigation step by step. He lines up each piece in their natural order, only taking minor detours into extraneous character stuff (a villain's sexual predilections; the heartbroken wife of the murdered man, played with stalwart grace by Irene Papas, and even glimpses of their marital strife). Working with renowned cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who shot the bulk of Godard's 1960s films (and who also shows up on the other side of the camera as a British surgeon), he shoots most of the action as if it were a documentary. Coutard's camera is rarely nailed down, but often moving with the flow of activity, acting more as a cold witness than an active part of the story. The fact that we can be everywhere at once creates a kind of hyper-naturalism. Z looks real, but it's not bound by time or space. Flashbacks are common, quick glimpses of memory, and even moments of minor comedy.
A fascination with a particular historical figure, even an artist, can lead a filmmaker in a variety of directions, as Chris Neilson points out in his review of 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris. "In 1991, jazz pianist and filmmaker Raymond De Felitta (Two Family House) heard 'Paris in Blue' on the radio and was instantly mesmerized by the melodious voice of the singer. After discovering that the song was written by Charles Mingus especially for vocalist Jackie Paris, De Felitta set out to find everything he could by Paris, but didn't turn up much beyond one Japanese import. After reading in a noted (but erroneous) jazz encyclopedia that Paris died in 1978, De Felitta mostly abandoned his search until March 2004, when De Felitta happened to read in The New Yorker that Paris, very much still alive, was performing two nights in Greenwich Village at The Jazz Standard. De Felitta showed up with camera in hand and recorded what would turn out to be Paris's last performances. Though Jackie Paris would be dead within three months of bone cancer, he graciously granted De Felitta several interviews over those final months.
"De Felitta's documentary 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris is partly a tribute to the memory of a great jazz vocalist whose fame never matched his talent, and partly an attempt to answer the question why that fame eluded him. In addition to the performance footage from The Jazz Standard and the subsequent interviews with Paris, De Felitta interviews a who's who of jazz performers and journalists, a devoted Jackie Paris fan and amateur archivist, as well as relatives and ex-wives of the performer."
Carlos Saura is another director who blends music and documentary to create something wholly different, though I found his 2007 performance film, Fados, to be less inclusive than his movies that focus more on dance. Fado, as it turns out, is a form of music most associated with Portugal, but that also has roots in Africa and Brazil. The songs are performed with guitar and voice as their spine. Other instruments are, of course, allowed, and more modern versions are more rhythmic, incorporating hip hop and rap. It's not a static art form, it flows with the times and the people. The subjects of most of the songs on this disc are lovers in peril, the day to day plight of workers, and fado itself. As the introduction to the film explains, it is the songcraft of immigrants and travelers. It's the only time Saura stops to explain anything, though. I learned more about fado from the back of the DVD case and a little independent research than I did watching Fados on its own. Saura is using this film to share something he loves more than he is to educate. As I've mentioned, it's one of many films he has made on Spanish dance and music, some of which are narrative driven and some of which are purely performance driven; this is the latter.
Continuing with this theme of artfully captured reality, David Walker examines a long-lost film called The Exiles, directed by Kent MacKenzie. "Set in the Los Angeles community of Bunker Hill and shot in the late 1950s, The Exiles offers an intimate portrait of Native Americans that have relocated to the big city from the reservation. Spanning a little over twelve hours--just before sunset and shortly after sunrise--Mackenzie follows a small group of Indians as they go about the sad business of their lives after dark. There is not much of a story to speak of, beyond the pursuit of drunken thrills and looking for some deeper meaning to a life that is empty and meandering. Homer leaves his pregnant wife alone as he traverses the city in an alcohol-fueled sojourn that by his own admission has been going on for years. His wife, Yvonne, ponders her life and her marriage, recalling how she dreamed of something better while she was growing up on the reservation, but has yet to find whatever that something is. Rico wanders around, hoping to earn money by gambling with what little cash he has, while Tommy, who loves to just get drunk, is looking for action, be it a fight or making time with a woman. And therein lies whatever may pass for a story in The Exiles. That's to say there isn't much in terms of exposition or even character development."
"Written by Mackenzie with the aid of his cast," Walker continues, "The Exiles certainly has some the tone of neo-realist cinema, where real people essentially played themselves in films that sought to capture life as it was. The Italians had it down, but in America, where studio-produced films dominated both the industry and the market, the seemingly voyeuristic stories that unfolded as if the camera were simply filming real life have long been relegated to student films and arthouse cinema. As both, The Exiles came along just as John Cassavetes was first beginning to shake things up in American film. In many ways, Mackenzie's film was ahead of its time, while also sadly being all but lost to time."
Casy Burchby also found a compelling portrait of realistc struggle in Lake Tahoe, though one with a more controlled guiding hand: "...director and co-writer Fernando Eimbcke displays a gentle but controlled sensibility in telling a quiet story that has an almost universal resonance. To clear up confusion straight away, I should point out to those interested that the film's title has no relation to its locale. Lake Tahoe is set firmly in contemporary Mexico, although I can't be more specific than that. Nevertheless, there is logic behind the title, which I won't explain here. Eimbcke's film won major prizes at the Berlin and Cartegena Film Festivals, and at the Mexican Academy Awards (the Ariels), yet it only had a limited theatrical release in North America. We are lucky that Film Movement snapped up the DVD rights of this fine film.
"A young teenager named Juan (Diego Catano) crashes his little red Nissan sedan into a telephone pole on the outskirts of town. He spends the better part of the day trying to find a new distributor harness so he can restart the car, which is otherwise not terribly damaged. He patiently contends with Don Heber (Hector Herrera), a retired mechanic, and his pet mastiff; Lucia (Daniela Valentine), a female clerk at an auto shop; and her young martial-arts obsessed colleague, David (Juan Carlos Lara II), in trying to get his car fixed. When Juan takes a break from these proceedings to check in at home, he finds his younger brother Joaquin (Yemil Sefani) playing in a tent erected in their sandy yard, and their mother sulking and smoking in the bathtub. We come to understand at about this time that Juan's father has recently died. This set of circumstances drives Juan once again from the house, determined to get his car fixed and impose some sort of order on his life....Lake Tahoe feels less scripted than storyboarded. The camera takes us through the story with more authority than the dialogue does. Each shot is part of a series of shots; each series of shots is part of a longer cohesive sequence; and so on. The film feels simultaneously hermetic and organic. In my view, its visual and editorial composition represents a masterwork of storytelling economy, especially when taken together with the very limited dialogue. At a mere 81 minutes, Lake Tahoe feels fuller and richer than its short length might suggest...[Its] heart is Juan, and we follow him closely. His behavior, more than his words, is what interests us. Diego Catana, playing Juan, carries the entire film and is simply remarkable. He invests the role with an ego-free awkwardness endemic in many young men of that age. It's a seemingly effortless performance of a sort we almost never see from teenaged actors."
Back in the world of politics, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino goes full-tilt boogie toward a destination somewhere beyond realism for his 2008 film Il Divo. In terms of aesthetics, Sorrentino is as far away from Costa-Gavras as one can get. The term "Il Divo" means "star" or "celebrity," and it's one of the nicer nicknames given to Giulio Andreotti, a leading politician in Italy who served as Prime Minister seven times. The film begins with his final regime, and it shows the inaugural meeting of his cabinet. Andreotti's political capos gather around him to talk shop, while the big man gets his face shaved with a straight razor. I couldn't help but think of another reality-based movie villain and the scene where Al Capone is getting shaved in De Palma's The Untouchables. Thankfully, the barber doesn't cut Andreotti the way he cut De Niro in the other movie.
Il Divo doesn't follow any conventional narrative. Rather, Sorrentino employs a loose, vertiginous structure that he hopes will allow him to cram in as much information as possible. The first part of the movie piles on the characters, giving us the full role call of everyone involved in this monolithic tale. Even lively onscreen indicators aren't much help in keeping all the participants straight. Good luck remembering who half of them are or what they do. At its most basic, Il Divo is more like a tally sheet than a movie, the gathered footnotes of a much larger story. In some ways it's a procedural, in some ways it's high drama distilled into digestible chunks. Essentially, it's an elevated talking-heads picture. Seeing that this material would be fairly dry all on its own, Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (Bread and Tulips) have decided to keep 90% of the shots moving. The camera rarely stands still. It is always pushing in or pulling out or circling the room, sometimes doing more than one move without even cutting. It gets dizzying, and a little overwhelming, and it's very hard not to get lost in all the glitz.
The result of all of Sorrentino's stylistic jumping around is a movie that is not very human. For the final two discs this month, however, I'd like to look at two movies that are all about being human, with all the flaws and surprising ingenuity of living.
1987 must have been a good year to go to the movies, since it was the year that filmgoers got to experience the splendor of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, newly re-released in a stupendous double-disc package from the Criterion Collection. Wings of Desire is a film that could not be made by anyone else, that could not be made at any other time. This was two years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I think that fact alone would have changed the tenor of Wenders' masterpiece. Though there is very little mention of the political situation in Berlin at the time, the separation that city felt was very much a part of the subtext. Wings of Desire is about a world divided, about the line between the spiritual and the physical, the fanciful and the practical. Between the poetry of words and thought and the true poetry of life.
Bruno Ganz stars as Damiel, one of an army of angels assigned to Berlin. In this reality, angels act not as guardians, but as witnesses. They wander through our lives, silent and invisible, observing our activities and eavesdropping on our thoughts. They might follow one person in specific, or they might roam through a crowd, sampling a little something from each. Call it divine existentialism. Our earthly version of that philosophy ponders what it must be like to transcend the physical and join the divine; for an angel, the crisis of identity involves shedding your wings and eternity and becoming flesh. Damiel has grown tired of watching, he wants to start doing things. The final catalyst for "taking the plunge," the human idiom for what is essentially a fall from grace, is a beautiful trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), that the angel has become smitten with. She is his human analogue, soaring above the ground as she does, even wearing a pair of feathery wings. Marion dreams of flying, Damiel dreams of walking--opposites, prepare to attract!
Wings of Desire is the work of an artist who can see a better world on the horizon and is using his art to reach out for it, to pull it closer. His message remains in the abstract, but it's no less effective for not being spelled out. That angelic power of observance, the god's eye view afforded by the camera, equalizes all life in our vision, let's us find ourselves within it, and forever changes how we see things in the process.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. His most recent work is the forthcoming hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, drawn by the incomparable Joelle Jones. This follows his first original graphic novel with Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, all published by Oni Press. His next project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
Special thanks to Phil Bacharach, Casey Burchby, Jeremy Mathews, Chris Neilson, and David Walker for their contributions.
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