Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Archive for April, 2011

Alt. Feature: ALL MY LIFE (Bruce Baillie)

I have mixed feelings about the posting a video of such poor quality.  However, I think you still get an idea of how great this film is, and perhaps it will even inspire you to seek out a better copy.  I would start here: http://www.brucebaillie.com/

In the meantime please enjoy today’s film and our first Alternative Feature

Appreciation for All My Life:

The first time I saw Baillie’s minor masterwork, I was struck by the sheer beauty of it, but I concluded that it was a quite incomplete film, as if the single shot was but a small part of a film that did not exist.  Here, I believed, was something akin to a great contemplative shot from a film by a meditative master like Andrei Tarkovsky or Yasujiro Ozu, but without the narrative context it so much needed.  After watching Baillie’s film twice more in classroom settings with mostly first-time viewers I have found my initial response to be rather common, and I now understand that my first assessment of All My Life had more to do with my immaturity than the film’s incompletion.  The film requires a particular cinematic maturity on the part of the viewer.

All My Life is a film that will likely upset the friend to whom you recommended it.  A great sigh will come, then the question: “What was so great about that?”  Many people are unwilling to accept this because they want knowledge from their art.  They want some position about something to be declared by someone or something so that they can argue with it.  Scholars and students alike are unaccustomed to treating experience as a form of knowledge.  We all have a preference for the knowledge we can gain from an experience.  Consequently, we often forget to have the experience even while it is happening.

It is important to understand the difference between these two kinds of knowledge.  As Baillie once told an interviewer: “I have almost no data stored in my brain.  My life and my art are entirely noninformative.”  It is not a lesson learned or a message obtained; it is rather a state of being achieved.  All My Life provides an experience of time that is only possible in cinema.  A shot is a fixed chunk of time.  It is a preserved duration.  Baillie has eliminated the baggage of storytelling, and delivered only that essential element of cinema – the shot.  The lack of narrative is far from being a weakness; it is indeed the film’s great achievement.  One may even say All My Life is the only perfect film ever made.



Incomparable Moment: The Retrieval of the Ice Skates

Freeze, Die, Come to Life (Vitaly Kanievksy, 1989)

We at Cinema Underground are proud supporters of Mubi.com.  I don’t know what the odds are that you would know us and not know them, but if you don’t, click on “Mubi” in the links section, and check them out.  Before I begin discussing today’s film I would like to draw your attention to a list that one Mike Spence has posted at Mubi, which he calls, “Unavailable films whose release on (English language) DVD is more important than getting Kubrick’s work on blu-ray.”  Here is a link: http://mubi.com/lists/3383.

I bring this up because Vitaly Kanievsky’s 1989 masterpiece, Freeze, Die, Come to Life! is one such movie.  It is currently only available on VHS from New Yorker.  Perhaps there is some debate over the rights to release it on DVD?  I would like to write briefly about an “Incomparable Moment” in this film, which we plan to make into a recurring feature.  The tenets of this feature should become clear as you read on.

Freeze, Die, Come to Life! takes place in a Siberian mining camp/town in postwar Stalinist Russia and centers on the hijinks and predicaments of a boy named Valerka and his friend Galia.  It is a dreary and brutal setting, but Kanievsky’s project is to always be injecting light into what could quite easily be a socialist-realist picture of the old Soviet variety or a ponderous metaphysical vision along the lines of Béla Tarr, Theo Angelopoulos or Andrei Tarkovsky.

Freeze, Die, Come to Life! pits exuberance against fear, violence against calm, beauty against deformity and happiness against sorrow as matters of narrative structure.  There is never a final verdict upon the lives of the people in the film.  It is not a question of revealing the nature of their situation to be ultimately tragic or comic.  Instead Kanievsky shows that life is always both in balance, or if not perfectly harmonious then a pendulum that swings back and forth between the two states of being.

In one scene an old woman drowns kittens one by one, the implication being that she would not be able to afford to feed them.  Later Valerka’s mother gives him a pet pig, an animal that many people in the impoverished town would no doubt view as a source of food.  In another a joyful celebration of music and drinking turns into a drunken brawl that ends with two men, each missing a leg, helping each other up and hobbling off together laughing.

There are indeed several moments one could choose from in Freeze, Die, Come to Life! and call it “incomparable,” but for me, the scene that distills the tension I have discussed thus far and explodes it with chaotic exuberance is:


In short, Valerka’s ice skates have been stolen and Galia tells him that she knows who took them, so she takes him to get them back.  It is unclear throughout whether the clandestine operation is meant to be funny or frightening.  There is an expectation of the possibility of violence upon being found out that is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s favorite tactic in Halloween.  It is unclear how much danger they are in.  However, there is also something of Chaplin in Valerka’s body language, in the absurdity of the situation and ultimately in the resolution, when he finally opens the door to the shed where the skates are, a chicken bursts out as if attacking him, and as the two run away, a naked man emerges standing a screaming at them in only his boots.

I suppose it would be considered a jump cut, for the next thing we see are the two of them laughing hysterically, alternately pushing at each other and leaning against each other.  And there is another voice on the soundtrack, another person laughing along with them, an adult sharing in there moment of revelry.  It is Kanievsky himself.  We may conclude this because we here his voice in the beginning of the film singing and saying, “Let’s begin,” and then again at the end directing the enigmatic final scene.

As far as I know there is nothing like this in all of cinema.  Perhaps the closest analogue would be a painter inserting his likeness into one of his works.  The effect here is quite different, partly because it is so unexpected as to be disorienting, but also because painters do this either as a means of self-critique or as a wink to the spectator.  Kanievsky’s desire is somewhat simpler.  He wants to participate with his actors, and with his audience.  He wants all of us to share a laugh together.


Underviewed/Undervalued: CELSO AND CORA (Gary Kildea)

Since it is the express purpose of Cinema Underground to, in part, celebrate films that are rarely seen, I would like to discuss a documentary that is quite difficult to find.  If you don’t take a course in documentary film at university or you don’t live next to an art house theater that puts on a Gary Kildea retrospective, you have probably missed his classic, Celso and Cora.  I can’t even find images for it to dress up this post.

The only picture I could track down was at Icarus Films where you can buy a VHS copy of the movie for $440.  It is a shame that so few people have the opportunity to watch this ground breaking documentary.  In addition to being every bit as important as films like Sherman’s March and Roger and Me in terms of challenging the traditional documentary form by making it more personal, Celso and Cora possesses many other virtues that I shall enumerate below.

I have to begin by discuss what other people think of the movie.  This is part of what makes it “undervalued” after all.  I am often curious about audience reaction n general, but I think in the particular case of this film a misunderstanding about its content and purpose may contribute to its limited availability.  The first time I watched Celso and Cora I was in a course about documentary filmmaking, and I remember the consensus appraisal of my classmates being that the movie was exploitative, that Kildea took advantage of his titular subjects.  It was introduced to us, in fact, as a “problem” film, and the class identified the problem correctly.

It is typical of people who have never wanted for anything in their lives to find fault with anyone who tries to show them that there are people less fortunate in the world.  We have a rather narrow view of people who live in poverty and so we have a quite limited range of expectations from a film that features them as the subject. Celso and raises questions about the responsibility and honesty of the filmmaker to be sure, but accusing it of exploitation seems to me to reveal more of the viewer’s unwillingness to confront his middleclass liberal complacence than the selfishness of the filmmaker.

What are the responsibilities of the filmmaker?  He must present his subject in a truthful way. It is particularly significant in Celso and Cora that the truth runs deeper than revealing the economic hardships of poor people in Manila.  It would perhaps be more comfortable for us to watch a documentary simply about being poor.  Talking heads and found footage are often easy to distance. As it turns out Celso and Cora is as much about the communication breakdowns between people who are in love as it is about poverty.  It is actually less about the economy as it is about how hardship adversely affects marriage, family, friendship and love.

Celso and Cora is also about the relationship Kildea develops with the couple and their family. It shows that the filmmaker and his “subject” have become friends.   Kildea films the process of getting to know someone.  By doing so he adds another layer to the narrative so that the shift in Celso when he begins calling Kildea “pare,” is as important as Celso losing his job.  There is more than one thing going on in the movie.  There is more than one story and more than one tone.

Celso’s attitude in general shows that a person can be happy even as his means to happiness are stripped away again and again.  When we finally see Celso unhappy, it isn’t because he is poor; it’s because Cora has left him.  Is it really his humanity that makes viewers uneasy?  Is the most unsettling aspect of the film the fact that people who live in abject poverty still live a very similar life to my own?  Celso and Cora and their children are not the Yanomamo in Ax Fight do not, and I think the chief reason is that Kildea thinks rather differently of humanity than Napoleon Chagnon and Tim Asch.

The way Bill Nichols describes the situation in Representing Reality this is indeed the fundamental problem with ethnography at all.  The subjects are humans, yet all the film seeks to do is expose their weirdness, otherness, inhumanity.  What kind of movie is that?  Is it not just a bit too easy to depict the Yanomamo as “primitives”?  Obviously they are different from “us.”  Instead of counting and cataloguing the ways in which they are so, why not save some room to show how they are like us as well so that we can understand them to be human?

Celso and Cora succeeds because its subjects are not a topic.  There is a reason Kildea did not call his film Poverty in Manila, or The Poor People of Manila.  It is not an issue film.  Celso, Cora and their children are not cast as primitives either by race or by social class, but presented as people very much like the audience that watches them.   They are emotionally complex.  They are hung up on heavy existential doubts.  They worry from day to day about how they will get by financially.  I’ll admit that this is not the point of ethnography or even “documentary”, but for Kildea and the couple who became his friends, at least it makes a good film.


How to Appreciate: Eric Rohmer

(In the first of an ongoing series of dogmatic featurettes, Cinema Underground offers some unique strategies and suggestions to help you toss off the chains of your accursed learning, and start recognizing the true greatness of some REALLY great artists! Get appreciating!)

Eric Rohmer. People are not so crazy about him. What a shame. I rank him easily among the highest tier of directors, just a hair behind the Supreme Masters of Film (TM).

But I understand that people don’t get him.

Oh they LIKE him just fine. His tasteful, mannered films are just the sort of thing that smart people bring up at parties or on their blogs to flout their own sophistication or to vet others for their respective taste, or lack thereof. There’s always plenty of beautiful women and rustic scenery in his films. And plenty of talk.

Those who dismiss Rohmer do so on the grounds of this talk, asserting that his films are little more than pretty lectures. He even named his most famous film cycles “Moral Tales” and “Comedies and Proverbs.” How pedantic! Indeed, all that dialogue about meanings, morals and feeling in a Rohmer film could make for a miserably cerebral experience… if you let it.

Instead, I’d like to offer three tips that should help provide insight into his particular genius:

1. Don’t get caught up in the dialogue!

Rohmer’s characters recite some of the smartest, wittiest dialogue in cinema. Whether debating the merits of vegetarianism or meekly blurting forth a confession of love, his characters revel in the joust of words and the interplay of ideas.

But as in Shakespeare and Chekov, Rohmer’s characters so often use words to dress, disguise and dissemble. They are works in process, working their selves out through words. Most, like Delphine from Rayon Vert, only ever partially know themselves and Rohmer generously reveals his profound truths through a lavish attention to appearance, idiosyncrasies and non-verbal behaviors.

We learn something about what his characters think by what they say; but we inevitably learn more by what they DON’T say and instead must live. What else is My Night at Maud’s but a weak man’s attempt to rationalize himself out of one relationship with a woman who’s all wrong…

…into another one with the woman of his prayers? (The fool!!)

2. Take a French approach to beauty!

To truly enjoy a Rohmer film, just channel your inner Gaul! Unleash your “joie de vivre.” Affect a certain “je ne sais quoi.” But most of all, cultivate a refined aesthetic and intellectual appreciation for the subjects, themes and rituals of French life, such as…

…the capricious aristocracy of beautiful young men and women

…the holy communion of public discourse and intellectual debate

…the sophisticated cathedral of Parisian culture, but also the rustic parish of provincial life

…and the consecration of certain elegant, timeless, aesthetic forms.

Like his compatriots, Rohmer is no mere hedonist in his deep reverence for the myriad facades of beauty.  His lush landscapes and cultured modern interiors are more than just pretty backgrounds; his actors are not attractive so as to be merely admired. Rohmer is both keenly aware of and yet seemingly indifferent to beauty–so rarely does he stoop to embellish. The use of natural light is perhaps his only signature flourish; yet each frame, each word and each moment is virtually suffused with the brilliance of his pleasing artifice.

It is almost as if, through this constant exposure, Rohmer wishes to both awaken and inure us to the power of beauty in the everyday. If his characters are sometimes compelled, perplexed or restored by this beauty, perhaps Rohmer still dreams that the viewer can yet attain a kind of elevated connoisseurship–both sensual and intellectual–capable of raising the experience of the mundane into the realm of the spiritual.

3. Embrace the comic resolution!

For all their urbane attractions, sometimes the endings of Rohmer films can feel inexplicably glib (My Night with Maud, Love in the Afternoon), artificial (The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque) or even absurd (Claire’s Knee); his plots often hinge on chance (A Tale of Winter), coincidence (Rendez-Vous in Paris) or a kind of light-handed manipulation (A Summer’s Tale); and certainly there is a farcical element to the ever-revolving mixups and misunderstandings of his lovestruck protagonists (Full Moon in ParisMy Girlfriend’s Boyfriend) that makes the films themselves seem… almost frivolous.

But look closely and you will see that Rohmer is simply operating in the rarefied register of Classical comedy, heir to the rich tradition of Aristophanes, Shakespeare and Moliere. His narratives serve the profound comic function of social tonic and spiritual restorative. The song that ends The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque, for example, and the device of the two daughters conspiring to create harmony out of political discord does not negate or absolve the measured scrutiny that Rohmer gives all sides of his provincial fable; rather, it simply elevates the viewer to a position where she may transcend the didactic illusion of a fragmented world.

The heavy hand of Fate is thus, not merely a writer’s convenient loophole, but the suggestion, the hope and the possibility of the existence of magic in our everyday lives. Like Hermione animating to life at the end of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Rohmer’s unlikely endings can be seen as the apotheosis of the same generous, witty, humane holy spirit that animates all of his lovely creatures.

Truly, Rohmer’s wind bloweth where it listeth…


Review: CERTIFIED COPY (Abbas Kiarostami)

It is difficult to begin writing about this film now without acknowledging the critical response to it when it was first released.  At first I am baffled by the chorus of dismissal; by those who think Kiarostami is out of his element.  But that is my more naïve and generous nature.  If I think about for five minutes, it makes sense that reviewers and serious critics alike would trip over themselves rushing to take Kiarostami down a peg.  We have no reverence for artists anymore.  Even artists like Kiarostami who has proven time and time again that he is among the world’s greatest filmmakers, doesn’t get the benefit of any doubt.  Apparently it’s still better to be smarter than the artist that to try to imagine that you may be missing the point of his work.

Granted, Certified Copy seems strange at first.  In many ways it is a hard turn away from the Kiarostami that we know.  Since when does he make films about communication breakdown between men and women in love?  And what’s with the absurdist conceit of the narrative clearly stating that the two principle characters just met, but they suddenly begin playing the roles of husband and wife, and arguing as if they have known one another intimately for years?

There are familiar Kiarostami-isms of course.  There’s a car ride with a shot through the windshield of the car interior and a shot of the exterior POV of the driver.  There are single medium shots that remain on one character throughout an exchange of dialogue instead of the typical shot/reverse shot strategy employed in mainstream films.  We are used to this from Kiarostami.

But then there are white people.  In fact one of the principles is one of the most famous actresses in the world.  One is tempted to say that Kiarostami’s camera treats her like the renown actor that she is, but all the close-ups and silent acting have characterized his film style, long before Kiarostami found Juliet Binoche, so it would be unfair to suggest that the filmmaker makes love to his actress the way Godard does to Anna Karina, Antoninoi to Monica Vitti, Fassbinder to Hannah Schygulla or Bergman to Thulin, Andersson or Ullman.  Still, has there ever been a shot in a Kiarostami film like the one wear she dolls herself up in the washroom at the café.

To my mind this is not selling out.  This is Kiarostami finding out that his style is capable of doing things beyond what he has accomplished so far.   Many critics have noted that the main actor, an opera singer with no professional acting experience, is stiff and mismatched with the effusive Binoche.  Well, that is precisely the point!  He is a drag.  He is serious, stuffy, boring, internal and inconsiderate.  That they are mismatched is not a mistake, but rather it is the crux of the narrative conflict.  The movie is about communication break down.  It asks us to think about whether men and women can really understand one another.  What is love if we cannot?  How do we stay together?  What do we stay together for?

All of us like to put things in categories; it is part of how we understand the world.  But we should make sure that we are using the right categories.  When you think of Kiarostami in terms of his subject matter and of the nationalities of the faces he usually photographs, a film about white people’s relationships may not make any sense.   The onus is on the viewer to make that shift; it is not incumbent upon the artist to make a film we can fit into our predetermined categories.  This is why Bresson critics don’t understand that Une Femme Douce is about love between men and women, and why Tarkovsky apostles so often fail to note the importance of the relationship between the two principles in Nostalghia.  We know what their movies are about and it isn’t that.  Yet, they are masterpieces.  They are nuanced and sincere explorations of a subject Bresson and Tarkovsky normally merely brush against.  Certified Copy now ranks alongside them, both as a masterpiece as an unexpected, misunderstood work.


Review: ANOTHER YEAR (Mike Leigh)

The first thing I said to my friend as we walked out of Another Year was, “Can you think of another filmmaker who has gone through such a lull like that, then come back to create masterworks again?” Twelve years passed between Life Is Sweet and All or Nothing, and in that interval Mike Leigh made his weakest films including Naked, a great critical success that was basically the opposite of everything he had done up to that point, and Topsy-Turvy which seemed to caricature his own style quite like Altman’s The Company.  Perhaps this context is unnecessary, but point is that I was doubly happy as I walked out of Another Year, happy to have seen such a great movie and happy that one of the greatest living filmmakers still makes masterworks.

First let us consider improvisation. I’m not talking about actors making up lines, but characters that are able to ride the flow of tones and moods, to play along with whatever that are given in human interaction. Gerri is a prototypical Mike Leigh heroine. Mary has passed out downstairs and Gerri and Tom are in bed. She confesses he concerns about Mary. There is a little back and forth before he blurts out (I am paraphrasing from memory), “You know, I never really understood history.” Gerri takes the abrupt change and runs with it. “Oh yeah?” she says, then they chat about his new topic. No more discussion of Mary, no resentment or annoyance about the change of subject. She just rolls with it.  This characterizes Gerri’s entire relationship with Mary, which accounts for how Gerri is able to remain friends with Mary, despite how desperately needy she is.  Leigh celebrates characters who are able adjust to the rhythms and whims of those around them.

In Another Year characters are multi-dimensional.   There is no “true” or “essential,” but who they are in different situations and with different other people. There are better and worse versions of each character depending on the context, but never “the real” person. Gerri showing sympathy for Mary is as equally Gerri as the one who chides her in a later scene. She always gives Mary the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes Gerri has to put her foot down. Perhaps she considers her harmless and childlike, but there is a point where her treatment of the son’s new girlfriend gets so rude that Gerri has to put a stop to it.

When Mary shows up unannounced and desperate, Gerri is actively annoyed. She even snaps at her, another color we have not seen before, “You really should have called first, Mary.” And Gerri actually looks bad here, she looks petty and impatient when she tells Mary she was disappointed in her. Because Gerri has not seen Mary as the audience just has. She didn’t see how desperate she was when she came to the door. She didn’t see that she was able to make Ronnie smile, an amazing moment! She didn’t hear her ask Ronnie if he wanted to cuddle. Was that an inappropriate question? Was she asking for Ronnie or for herself?

This is what Leigh does and has been doing for decades. He shows that a person is not the same person from morning to night every day. People reveal different parts of themselves depending on who they interact with, even people that we think are shallow like Mary. She is not purely selfish; she wants to give. She wants to be generous. She is not annoying to everyone; some people find her charming. Likewise, Gerri is not always nurturing and forgiving. Sometimes she is petty and fed up. They are paired as opposites, Leigh indicating through his style that Gerri’s approach to life is the one he espouses, but he has great sympathy for Mary. The film does not judge Mary; it tries to understand her and so it ends up being as much about her inability to improvise, to listen to others and to think about others, as it is a celebration of Gerri’s generosity and improvisational prowess.