Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground


Review: THE TURIN HORSE (Béla Tarr)

I am surely not the first to say that Béla Tarr is unrelentingly serious, and I will not be the last.  Not since Alexander Sokurov’s The Second Circle have I watched a movie that felt so much more like physical endurance than an active intellectual and emotional experience.  I’m sure this will lead many viewers to call it pretentious.  It is certainly repetitive, quiet, minimal, long and, perhaps most crucially, very, very somber.  It forces you into its rhythm sooner or later, but you never get comfortable with the tone.

The Turin Horse is a punishing film.  The people in it are ugly and often cruel.  Their lives are repetitive and arduous.  There is little plot, little action, little change of scenery, but there are plenty of long, long takes in which no words are spoken.   When a talkative neighbor drops by to borrow some liquor, his speech, rather than providing new interst, quickly becomes tedious.

The prelude tells the apochryphal story of Nietzsche throwing his arms around a brutally beaten coachman’s horse, then reminds us that we know what became of Niteszche after this episode but we don’t know whatever happened to the horse.  I think this encourages some viewers to interpret what happens in the film as a punishment, but I would argue that this context is mere pretense.  It is a red herring.

I hate to use the word “allegorical” because I assume people immediately start thinking of The Matrix or some such.  The Turin Horse is allegorical, but it is absolutely not The Matrix.  The difference between the two kinds of allegory represented by both films is that The Matrix relies on static and clunky symbols, whereas The Turin Horse is rooted in physical reality and concrete details.

Just because it is an allegory it does not necessarily follow that every image is part of code that must be cracked.  So I would caution against the symbolic interpretation i.e. the potato represent this, the horse represents that.  How does one make a movie about death, about the journey into death, without resorting to symbols?  We are talking about representing the unrepresentable.  It isn’t what the horse or the potato represents that matters so much as the texture of the horses coat or the rippling of its muscles, the photographic reality of the act of peeling and eating a single steaming potato.

A narrative needs an engine, but we must not mistake the engine for the whole machine.  As Andrei Tarkovsky, no doubt one of Tarr’s great teachers, often had to explain when asked about Stalker: it is not a metaphor, it is a specific journey undertaken by specific people, and they have to confront challenges and negotiate obstacles along the way. He suggests, in short, that Stalker is not a metaphor for life; it is life.  The difference isn’t an easy thing to get your head around,  but if you can The Turin Horse will make more sense.



100-word Intro: Robert Bresson

The most daring inventor in the medium—or, more accurately, its most potent minimalist—and supreme exemplar of the visionary mode. Forsaking emotive acting, expressionistic mise-en-scene or visual/narrative explicitness, Bresson’s austere cinema of hands, passageways and disembodied sounds reveals spiritual essences through material substance. In Au Hasard Balthazar, a donkey serves as proxy for human suffering. In Pickpocket, dexterous hands perform a redemptive ballet. Behavior, bodies and sounds become freshly reinvigorated in his works. We not only learn to see with new eyes but, in the tension between alienation and immediacy, cultivate a physical awareness of the human spirit.

Feature: The Local Story – Kidlat Tahimik at JIFF

This year’s Jeonju International Film Festival featured a retrospective of Kidlat Tahimik.  In addition to showing all of his films, JIFF had scheduled for an event called “Cinetalk” to follow the screening of Turumba.  In addition, since he made himself available for a Q & A after Perfumed Nightmare, I assume that Tahimik did much more than his scheduled appearance.   He introduced Perfumed Nightmare saying, “I don’t make films; I let them happen.”  “If I make films,” Tahimik added, “then I make them with the cosmos.”

He was serene, thoughtful and deliberate during discussion, often mining gold out of superficial questions and staying on point throughout regarding the danger of losing local culture. His answers to questions often included the word “duende.”  The thing he said that I have been thinking about most was his advice to young filmmakers to tell the local story.

There are many cinema tropes we could apply to Tahimik’s movies.  Stan Brakhage once called it telling the tales of the tribes.  Murnau had a similar idea about the cinema as the means to create the new mythology.  Tahimik does make movies on this grand scale, yet his sense of humor, his do-it-yourself ethic and his self-taught, amateur filmmaking have also earned him comparisons to Ed Wood.  The mix of these is not only his charm; it is his genius.  Tahimik’s films show us how you can create a self in a global culture that seeks to eliminate such possibility.  They encourage us to do likewise as the fundamental means to effect societal change.

At the beginning of Perfumed Nightmare, Kidlat, playing himself, drives his jeepie across the only bridge in and out of his hometown.  In longshot we see the jeepie get almost all the way across then reverse.  This is the narrative trajectory of the film: leaving and coming back the way you came.  Shortly after this there is sequence that shows Kidlat working his way toward a state of readiness to depart.   He drags three versions of his jeepie across the bridge with a rope, first as a small push toy, next as a child’s peddle car and finally as the actual steel vehicle.  He announces, “I am Kidlat Tahimik.  I choose my vehicle and I can cross  this bridge,” then “I can cross any bridge,” and finally, when pulling the full-sized jeepie, “I can cross all bridges.”

The crosscutting between public events (a funeral, a beauty pageant, a wedding) and the lush countryside can seem disjointed, but it is establishing precisely the relationship between the two principle aspects of rural village life.  The influence of  the west is ever present.  The voice of America radio is but one major presence of the western world.  Kidlat leaves his country enamored with the West.  Indeed one would have to be to go off with such a cartoonish American dressed, as he is in shorts, safari shirt, sunglasses and a Smokey the Bear hat. It is unclear why the American takes an interest in him, and decides to take him to Paris.  I suppose it is enough that he is a comic representation of America and that as such he would take what he wants from the third world and think that he is doing someone a favor in the process.

The sense of humor, the light-hearted improvisational attitude about life is one of Tahimik’s most important qualities.  A local businesswoman hires Kidlat’s jeepy to haul a huge block of ice.  They don’t travel far before the block slides out the back of the vehicle and a chunk of is shatters on the pavement.  Children scurry around grabbing shards of it for themselves, and there is an insert shot of Kidlat himself taking a demonstrative bite out of a huge hunk and laughing.

One of his recurring interests is the way village culture adapts industry on a small scale.  In Perfumed Nightmare this is manifest in a long sequence of men working on old jeepies.  There are detail shots of grimy fingernails and dirty hands manipulating metal and swinging hammers.  The pings and crashes turn into soundtrack music.  “An old jeepie never dies,” he says, as the mechanics repair, replace and salvage.  Kidlat even makes a child-sized pedal-jeepie out of spare parts to give to his son.

From a Western perspective, which I take it upon myself to represent, there is a particularly excruciating scene that shows pre-adolescent boys “becoming men,” that is, being circumcised.  It is as graphic as it could be, complete with the isolated soundtrack noise of the “clap, clap” of the hammer on the handle of the blade as it slices through the tiny foreskins.

This may make you squeamish, it’s certainly difficult for me to watch, but the point is to paint a broad picture of the culture.   It is not meant to shock, but demands some negotiation on the part of the viewer to fit such a “primitive” practice into the world we have been getting to know so far.  It also will serve as a point of reference later, when Kidlat finds he cannot live in the wasteful and dishonest world of the West.

Kidlat seamlessly befriends people from all cultures. It should come as little surprise that the people he develops relationships with in Paris are the street vendors.  They constitute the community that is closest to what he left behind.  They are also the old world relics that are being pushed out of modern Paris.

However, it doesn’t take long for Kidlat to get over being enamored of the bridges in Paris, and the only thing left for him is to become a mythological being, to change the world with his breath.  He blows into the new incinerators, and they turn into spacecraft to take him back home.  Only it is not mere myth, for he does not proclaim himself a God.  Rather he declares his independence from the this world of limitless, unchecked “progress.”

Where Perfumed Nightmare makes a mythology of the local story, Turumba states it directly, and discloses the consequences of development explicitly.  Though it celebrates the local culture, Turumba also shows how village culture is exploited and threatened.

Turumba begins by detailing the village life focusing on the inventiveness and exuberance of the people.  The Turumba festival is the lynchpin of the narrative because it gives Tahimik a chance to reveal village life at its joyful best, but it also contains the seed of the familial disaster.  Because she appreciates their unique craftsmanship, the German antique dealer puts the family in business making paper mache dolls far beyond their traditional output.  They become rich and can suddenly afford television, phonographs and electric fans, but what begins as a positive boon quickly gets out of control. When business is good it begets more business and soon everyone is working overtime to meet the next order, skimping on quality and letting all other concerns, particularly the Turumba festival, fall to the wayside.

This is manifest most clearly in the character of the father who starts the film as an integral part of the traditional festival, but ends it as a callous businessman.  Tahimik includes several scenes of the father singing and leading band practice so that the audience can understand the loss.  It is a personal loss of his own values and a loss for the community because he is a revered participant in the festival.

In contrast to the father is Patí the blacksmith.  He uses technology as well but he does not let it use him.  In part Patí is presented as an alternative to the father because he is a proponent of rather old technology.  Metallurgy has been with us for quite some time.  The more salient aspect of his character, however, is that Patí is content to stay within certain limitations.  He has no lust for more, no desire to accumulate things.  His mind is rather one-track.  He loves steel, but he loves it for it’s potential.  Patí sees the trailer that has arrived to load the paper maché dolls into, and he thinks only of the machetes he could make out of its parts.

The fundamental tension in both films is between the positive and negative effects of progress.  Tahimik, after all, uses the most advanced technology of the time to record and preserve a culture that technology is destroying by progressing unchecked.   This was the predominant subject of Tahimik’s talk following Turumba.

During the Q & A that followed the screening, someone asked Tahimik if the community he documents exits anymore, and can it be brought about in the places it does not exist.  As he was answering, I thought of how the rural areas and small towns in the States tend to emphasize xenophobia and racism as key components of community building.   I wonder if this is a Western problem.  In the West when we make the family the center, even and perhaps especially when that family extends to the small community, it tends to foster mistrust and fear of outsiders.

I also wonder if we are not past these kinds of communities as a global possibility.  It seems to me that everyone everywhere just wants to be able to access the Internet from his or her mobile phones.  Most people don’t want to really live among the trees and rivers the way Tahimik believes is necessary.  Some people want retreats; they want vacations, but they don’t want to live like that.  Hell, I doubt I could live like that at this point.

Maybe wholesale rejection of cutting edge technology is not the only answer.  The best thing about Tahimik is that he leads by example.  I don’t see how anyone could be in his presence for five minutes and not want to live the life he espouses.  Maybe we don’t have to change the world if we are willing to change ourselves.  Both Perfumed Nightmare and Turumba show that we do not have to submit to the march of progress.  There are always options.  We can do as Kidlat does in Perfumed Nightmare; we can reclaim our independence through acts of defiance and love.


Feature: Festival Report (12th Jeonju International Film Festival) Part I

A couple days before we were to leave for the Jeonju International Film Festival, DK and I were walking down the street trying to think of feature ideas for the event.  He’s been pressuring me to be funnier and less serious, which isn’t really why I got into film criticism.  I tend to oscillate between reverent and cantankerous.  But I try to play along, just saying whatever I can think of.  As Karl Pilkington once said: I find if you just start talking, you’ll say something.  Eventually I suggested that I could do a Bill Simmons-style running diary of the event.  DK’s eyes lit up, and I knew I had made a mistake.  Then again, what the hell?  The following is an account of our time at JIFF: the travel, the hotels, the food, the beer and even some movies.

DAY ONE: Friday April 29, 2011


We get on the train.  There are about seven people in the car, yet they managed to seat all of us together.  The rows in front of us and behind us are full, there is a guy in the seat across from us, and the rest of the car is empty.  I watch Mavericks/Blazers updates on ESPN.com, and DK tries to steal my Skype password.  He says that he just wants to call his parents, but I know what is really going on.


I wake DK and ask him if this is our stop.  My logic is that the white people in front of us were getting off, so I figure we must be going to the same place.  Instinct pays off, and we quickly gather our stuff.  On the way out of the train I snag a sleep mask.  The room where I stay in Seoul is too bright for sleeping at night.  It’s like trying to sleep in a hotel bathroom.


The first sign of trouble (or exhibit A if you prefer the legal metaphor) that it’s a good idea to plan things: we don’t know where the bus will stop.  We end up walking down the street a couple blocks to the bus station.  Judging form the shops we walk past, it seems that this entire town is in the auto-parts or auto-repair industry.

(DK: A recurring theme in this report will be DJ’s paranoia and xenophobia. As well as his aversion to physical exertion.)


I don’t know what happened, because I’m just following along.  Either we got off at the wrong stop or the bus stopped somewhere DK didn’t expect, so we take a cab the rest of the way to the festival.  There’s a big board next to the main ticketing set-up that shows the screening schedule for the weekend.  It seems that almost everything is sold out.  For a moment I consider forcing DK into a suicide pact, but then we find out that they reserve 15% of the available tickets for sale the day of the show.  All we have to do is get in line at 9:30 the next morning.  Fair enough.  We get a ticket for Ana at 8:00 and head off to look for a hotel.


After wandering around for a few minutes in the seediest neighborhood I’ve seen in this country, we reach the Hotel California.  How to describe it?  DK uses the phrase “Love Hotel,” and indeed the room number is printed on a heart-shaped placard attached to the door.  It’s fair to assume that this place has hourly rates.  Honestly I’m surprised that they have rooms with two beds.  Still, it will be a place to sleep.  There is even a balcony that is almost the width of my foot, so I can stand on it either sideways or on my tiptoes and enjoy the view of other sketchy hotels and gentlemen’s clubs.

(DK: How to describe DJ’s aversion to our admittedly sketchy accommodations? Like a guy taking his first shower in prison? I find his skeevishness mildly amusing considering his love of Fassbinder, Paul Morrissey and pickup basketball. I suspect that he is afraid I will try something on him while he is asleep. Latent homophobia will be another recurring theme.) 


The best bi-bim-bap ever.  DK promised and delivered.  It’s the first time I have eaten it with raw beef.  It continues to cook while you eat, trapped as it is in steaming hot rice and a burning hot pot.  Actually it never really fully cooks, but so much the better for flavor and texture.  If you eat meat, you should be willing and able to eat it raw.  I think it was my grandmother who used to say that.


We have significant time to kill before the film, so we wander through endless shopping centers.  Everything here has more floors than I expect.  In the States the only thing you will find in buildings taller that two or three stories are offices and apartments, but over here they jam everything in there.  Even the movie theaters we are going to all have seven or eight floors.  It isn’t like we are buying things, so we abandon the endless shopping centers and have some coffee at the unfortunately named Brown City.  Actually, I had a smoothie.


Ana (1984, Portuguese, António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro).

DK sleeps through much of it and then says that he didn’t think it was very good.  I have a rather more positive impression.  We have some discussion about whether it was mythic of allegorical.  I’ll admit that it could have been overly symbolic.  There were some inexplicable images – a baby laying unattended in the middle a road or a field, a woman dressed in rather pristine white who seems to be holding a fox as if it’s a pet, a rather explicitly staged Renaissance Virgin tableaux.   However, since I don’t know anything about Portuguese history or culture, I just chalked it all up to idiosyncratic visual metaphor, which I often hail as a major strength.  DK did point out that the adolescent daughter (I can’t remember if her name was given) wears the colors of the Portuguese flag, so I imagine that must stand for something.  But is it an obvious symbol?  I can’t say for certain.  I thought Ana was interesting, and I tend to automatically esteem films that are slow and quiet.  Also it seemed to be in direct dialog with Andrei Tarkovsky, even going so far as to quote quite freely from the end of Mirror as it reached its own conclusion.  Perhaps I’m a sucker for works that seems indebted to Tarkovsky.

(DK: In reality I slept for about ten minutes and was awoken to the sight and sounds of a gaggle of wildly cackling geese. This may have been partly responsible for my unfavorable impression. More to the point, it was not the slowness or the symbolism per se that turned me off. The film seemed more like an exercise in shot-making to me. Purposely stilted acting, a largely inscrutable narrative and langour for the sake of langour. Like Pasolini or Jodorowsky without the gusto. I’d give the filmmakers another chance, however, especially given my ignorance of Portuguese film.)


We caught the last throes of some sort of event in the main ticketing and information area.  There was free booze so we had some warm rice wine.  It was tepid and syrupy and it hurt my feelings.  There was a girl sitting by herself drinking a bottle of red wine like it was a forty.  I felt a little better because of that.

(DK: I tried to encourage DJ to interact with another female human but he steadfastly declined. It was at this time I began to suspect he was purposely withholding his bowel movements in order to ruin the festival for me.)


The neighborhood around the Hotel California is now almost completely neon.  Every door is a gentlemen’s club or a hotel.  You mix and match.  The clerk at the Family Mart where we buy our beers for the night seems far to young a woman to be working in this neighborhood, but I’m not from this country.


Loudness.  I thought beer would help me sleep, but no such luck.  Maybe I didn’t drink enough?  It happens sometimes.   Every time there is a breeze, which is pretty constant, the door rattles.  All night long it sounds like someone has a hold of the handle, and he’s just jostling it back and forth, trying to make as much noise as possible.  Does the breeze at least cool off the room?  Not even a little.  We have to leave in less than six hours to make sure we get tickets for tomorrow’s shows.

(DK: DJ complains incessantly about the room temperature while sleeping in front of the open veranda with a fan at the foot of his (larger) bed. I had no trouble sleeping whatsoever and did not notice any undue noise. In my heart, I believe DJ was anticipating intruders barging into our room and violating him. His disappointment spills over into his bitter words.)

DAY TWO: April 30, 2011


I slept a couple hours.


Pouring rain.  We have to figure out what to do with all our bags.  It would be annoying enough if it was clear and sunny, but when it’s raining like frogs and cats, the unwieldy turns burdensome.  Did I mention that you are only allowed to buy four tickets at once?  So I watch our stuff under a tent while Dave stands in line to get tickets for the Cine-Talk program with Kidlat Tahimik and Nostalgia for the Light.

(DK: I cannot trust DJ to acquire the correct tickets or to speak to the young volunteers at the box office without discrediting us with his misanthropy. So I let him stand under cover, as far away from other people as possible. Also, I borrow his jacket to quickly scour the surrounding area for some sort of convenience store selling umbrellas. DJ seems to take this as a given that I will scramble about in the rain getting drenched while he lounges in the lobby, checking his email. I regret our friendship.)


The rain stopped.  From where I’m standing I can see that in front of DK in line are a girl who looks like Harpo Marx and a guy who seems to be wearing an ascot made of white mohair.  DK and I alternately complain about the wait and bust each other’s balls a little bit when without warning a nearby English speaker inexplicably joins in.  “Is this line even moving?” I ask.  The guy, who’s wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt pipes up, “People are buying tickets to several different shows so it goes pretty slow.”  Okay.  Did you think I was just addressing all English speakers?  After I accuse DK of being lazy, he says, “I’ve been standing in the fucking rain for an hour,” and our new friend retorts, “It isn’t raining.”  Did I mention this fellow never introduced himself?  Just started participating.  He wasn’t even looking at us.   He was addressing an invisible person floating above the crowd, but always in response to the things we were saying to each other.  That’s borderline pathological.

(DK: The guy who looked like he was wearing the ascot actually had a plume of white chest hairs blooming from the neck of his shirt that reached his chin like a bird’s crest. It was simultaneously the most disgusting and fascinating thing I have ever seen involving bodily hair. Just repulsive. And didn’t those clueless hipster kids take their sweet fucking time buying their tickets due to the fact that they paid no heed whatsoever to the guy calling out the names of the sold out shows? In contrast, I completed my transaction in about 30 seconds as a long line of guests waited in the rain to purchase tickets behind me. Festival etiquette people!)


The clerk at the hotel we reserved lets us leave our stuff behind the desk since we can’t check in yet.  We get breakfast at Paris Baguette.  It is uncharacteristically cheap.  The must have a different price structure here in Jeonju than the have in Seoul.


Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Spanish, Patricio Guzmán)

On the way in two different volunteers stopped me to say that there are no English subtitles for the film.  The person who introduced the film once we got inside confirmed this.  I pretend this will be okay, because one of the people on the way in told me that either the language or the subtitles were in German.  I’m certainly not fluent, not even proficient, but it will be fun, I suppose, to see how far I get with my limited skills.  The movie begins.  It is in Spanish with French subtitles.


DK assures me that the movie was great.  He goes back inside to use the washroom and leaves me standing next to a guy wearing a Jacques Derrida wig.

(DK: The film is a Chris Marker-esque rumination on the nature of time and our place in the universe. Director Guzman skillfully weaves together quantum theory, astral projection and devastating oral testimony from survivors of the Pinochet regime into a poignant and expansive documentary-essay. Filmed primarily in Chile’s Atacama Desert, Nostalgia for the Light enacts its own Copernican revolution in displacing the viewer from its local setting among the array of astrological observatories under the clearest sky on earth to a cosmic awareness of our shared humanity across time and space. Unforgettable. )


In the Japanese noodle place where we eat lunch, there is a TV playing some truly horrific pop music performances.  I can’t tell if the past three songs have been performed by the same group of five girls who keep changing outfits, or if it’s a different set of girls every time.  Is that racist?

(DK: No, but your hatred of things and customs which are different from what you are accustomed to is.)


Hotel interlude (i.e. naps).


Perfumed Nightmare (1977, English, Kidlat Tahimik).

Tahimik shows up for the screening, though he is not scheduled to do so.  Actually, I had an inside scoop on this information, because he was standing in line behind me in the bathroom.  It’s a strange place to meet a filmmaker.  I saw this movie in 1995 in the first film course I ever took, and I have not revisited it or Tahimik since.


It was far greater than what I remembered.  I duck out the side door before the talk begins so I can meet DK for dinner.  He’s waiting for me in front of the theater.  Some old ladies at the dry cleaners told him about a good place to eat meat.  He doesn’t know where it is, but that won’t stop us, so we set off to look for a door in alley.  We can’t find it, so we eat the first barbecue we find.  There is mild disagreement about the quality of the pork.  I eat a couple bugs with the bonchon.  I can only describe the taste and texture as diverse.

(DK: It was the worst meal of pork I’ve ever eaten. I briefly considered converting to Islam after this meal. DJ seemed to enjoy it fine. My distrust of his taste grows.)


Turumba (1981, Filipino and Tagalog, Kidlat Tahimik).

The advertisements they run before every commercial are tedious and loud beyond what should be allowed in polite society: some guy who is utterly enamored with his own cuteness advertising tea which he believes makes his face thin, some sensitive type (you can tell by the length of his hair) taking a photo of a kitten on a rail and a bunch of high-pitched clams singing about texting.  Is it obnoxious that these commercials are so tonally inappropriate for the movies we are watching here, or do they provide counterpoint?

(DK: I agree with DJ that the trailers are annoying and effeminate.)


I love this guy now.  Not only were both movies great, Tahimik himself is about as peaceful a person as you will ever find.  He gives long rambling answers to mostly tedious questions, but in doing so he manages to turn banal subjects into avenues for pursuing wisdom.  Even though this room is unfriendly with heat and stuffiness, Tahimik remains utterly serene.


The first person to ask a question in English calls Tahimik a prophet.  Settle down, buddy.  The whole point of this guy’s personality is to neutralize those kinds of ideas.  Perhaps it would be better to describe his film as prophetic.  The difference is important.  The heat in this theater is now punishing me.  For what sins, I have no idea.


We are the last people to meet Kidlat before they shove us out the door.  We tell him his film was wonderful, but I don’t get time to tell him my little story about being able to revisit Perfumed Nightmare with new eyes after all these years.


Miller Time.  No, not the slogan from the television commercial from the seventies; it’s the actual name of a bar.  We drink a pitcher.  On the way out we get hung up by some middle-aged slob who, in his drunkenness, has found a way to simultaneously brag and complain about his English teaching job.   Have I mentioned that almost every white person in this country is Canadian?  We take his card and buy a couple Hoegaardens for the hotel room.

(DK: It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the North Americans over 30 at the Festival disgusted me.)


Flipping around, basically just looking for something in English, I find The Simpsons.  The first episode is god-awful.  Homer loses an eating contest; his opponent dies, and turns out to be a trucker, so Homer pays him tribute by making his last delivery for him.  Not a single joke in the episode.  Just coasting on characterisms.  But the next one is a dandy – Homer has to wreck Moe’s car so Moe can collect the insurance and keep showing his girlfriend the sweet life.  “Excellent, sir; lobster stuffed with tacos.”

(DK: Despite the rain and travel, and DJ’s annoying pretense that he is “working,” ending our second evening with Hoegaardens and The Simpsons is immensely satisfying. The atmosphere is film-festive!)

Incomparable Moment: the Baker Meets His Wife

Nenette and Boni (Claire Denis, 1996)

(Cinema Underground is walking on air right now! We have just returned from the 12th Jeonju International Film Festival where we met, listened to and flirted with Claire Denis! So beguiling, so impassioned and yet so unpretentious. We think we are in love.)

I could write for days and days about the cinema of Claire Denis. About how this tiny French woman makes movies about foreigners, Africans and Blacks where they are not “other” but herself (Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep, 35 Shots of Rum); about how so few heterosexual filmmakers, let alone a woman, make such knowing, erotic films about men (Beau Travail, Friday Night); about how she weaves so masterfully, so seamlessly and potently between dream and reality, between document and desire.

But then what will I tell her when we meet again to prove that my interests in her cinema are not merely intellectual? 🙂

So I will limit my discussion within the confines of our narrowest category: a single moment from one of her films. In this case, a scene from Nenette and Boni where the Baker (Vincent Gallo) as a young sailor first sets eyes upon the woman (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) he will marry. I don’t know that much more context is necessary. Everything I wish to discuss about her cinema is evident in the clip.


To understand the greatness of Claire Denis, you have only to imagine what a lesser director would do in her place. In the case of a scene like the above, it shouldn’t be too hard. Hollywood dreck is filled with such starstruck “love at first sight” moments. They usually employ attractive stars and catchy soundtracks just like Denis’ scene. However, often there is some inherent comic incongruence or stylistically heightened significance. In Hollywood parlance it’s called a “meet-cute” with an emphasis on a kind of attractive fatalism.

But what does Denis do?

First, the scene is a detour from the narrative proper–not merely a flashback but something more akin to an aside. It occurs outside the central narrative frame of either Nenette or Boni’s actions and concerns, delving into the background of the object of Boni’s obsession. But what is it? Is it a flashback from the Baker’s Wife’s consciousness? Such a strange lateral shift in the diegisis! At no other time is her character afforded anything like this central focus. Is it another of Boni’s fantasies? But why should Boni contrive such a convincing and sensitive portrait of a relationship he would be better served to parody?

Music begins the scene and the music is prominent, despite the fact that the Baker/Sailor only puts money in the jukebox part way into the scene. So the scene gains the significance of memory through its minor subversion of simple cause and effect but, more importantly, the song (“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys) tells its own story.

However, she is distinctly NOT making a music video. We know this because the music does not merely symbolize or accentuate the meaning of the action. She does not edit or choreograph expressly to the music’s rhythm. Rather, the song acts as a separate, distinct but additional stream of significance to the action, coloring or inflecting it. This is the very meaning of complexity and Denis expects her viewers to be able to contend with both disparate but complementary discourses. Image and sound perform a delicate dance, if you will.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself because her actors and her camera perform an even more bewitching number.

In this one scene, Denis basically gives the lie to the critical legacy of hogwash about “objectification” and the tyranny of the “male gaze.” It was always bullshit to begin with, silly formulas for stupid academics to frame films in their own image.

Denis’ gaze is nothing but her own and, far from objectifying, comes close to articulating the living, breathing soul of her actors through her signature lingering, close inspection of appearance and behavior. Her camera explores rather than indicates. She ably allows for depth to emerge from the surfaces.

Note the pan along Gallo’s arm and up his chest before settling in ECU on his face. This is the kind of shot usually reserved for women as seen from a male POV. Yet, here Denis seems willing enough to “objectify” her subject, utterly absorbed in Gallo’s angular face, his haphazard facial hair and his sleepy, sexual stare. Is Gallo even conventionally handsome enough to warrant this kind of attention? Denis does not care and this is where “objectification” falls apart. It is not his (perceived) beauty which makes him worthy to be subject to her camera; it is the (genuine) performance of himself that makes him, to Denis, beautiful.

Denis blurs the line between actor and character, between performance and documentary. Are we watching the Baker/Sailor in this scene or is Denis simply watching Vincent Gallo? The shot conveys a kind of intimacy and immediacy that subverts such simple formulation. Significantly, the camera is too close to correspond to a literal POV for anyone other than perhaps Agnes Godard, Denis’ DoP. The whole POV game is simply insufficient for understanding something so complex as the meaning of Gallo’s measured breathing or the flitting movement of his eyes. What is the “meaning” of the blueness of Gallo’s eyes? Denis’ fondly loitering camera ensures we meditate on this significant point.

Can the answer to that question can be found in the blueness of Bruni-Tedeschi’s low-cut blouse?

But, no, surely her little vignette only serves to elucidate the Baker’s Wife’s charms and subsequently charm the viewer into sympathizing with the couple’s inevitable union. But for that to be the case, as it would for most romantic comedies, Bruni-Tedeschi would have to be actually DOING something, no? Or, if appearance was her primary virtue, surely Denis could have cast someone more conventionally beautiful.

Yet, I can’t think of a woman in film more enchanting than Bruni-Tedeschi for these sixty seconds. Again, it’s unclear whether we are now watching the character or the actor, so varied and spontaneous are her expressions and so unembellished is their documentation. In just under a minute of screen time, she manages to suggest a fleeting galaxy of emotions–from affected indifference to mild embarrassment to joyful submission to bold reassertion. And while the actor deserves credit for such a seemingly unaffected performance, it is Denis’ inspiration to let her simply BE, confident in the power of the relationship between the viewer and the viewed to create such a complex dance of meaning.

This is what makes Claire Denis so great.

In a scene that is ostensibly about two people meeting, she dispenses with POV. Instead of jumping predictably between subjects from his view to hers, she shifts mercurially between modes–between memory and fantasy, between the viewer and the viewed, between indifference and desire. Her stillness animates, while her silence speaks volumes. Her play is not merely the bilateral shot-reverse-shot between characters but the far richer interplay between herself, the viewer and her subject. Finally, she delivers that rarest of cinematic promises: the revelation of a real lived experience. God only knows how.


Versus: the Brothers Dardenne vs. the Marx Bros.

(In the first of a recurring series of featurettes, CINEMA UNDERGROUND continues to scandalize the cozy, smug coterie of film critics and academics by impudently yoking together two entirely unrelated film artists/icons/works/motifs that will astound your senses and undress your prejudices! Prepare to be taken… by our insights!)

In this corner, hailing from Belgium, the tough-minded, docu-drama filmmaking brothers and multiple Cannes Film Festival Palme D’or winners, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

And in this corner, ha ha ha… in this co–cor–*giggle*–from New York City… Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. Ha HAAA HAAA! The sublime, the inimitable, the eternally entertaining Marx brothers, ladies and gentlemen!

Join us, won’t you, for this unprecedented pugilistic juxtaposition of two transcendent teams of cinematic titans!

1. ROUND ONE: Best Film

Brothers Dardenne: Rosetta

I learned everything I needed to know about the Dardennes the very first time I watched Rosetta. Their naturalistic camerawork positively swells and exhales with the powerful cadences of a marathoner’s respiration. The film’s relentless focus on its protagonist–summoned as much as portrayed by Emilie Duquenne–provides the immediacy of a blow to the solar plexus; yet Rosetta’s narrative is so richly observed, so truthful, so nuanced that I swear you could isolate any of the film’s minutiae–the huffing-puffing sound design, Rosetta’s harried gait, Ricquet’s culinary and musical skills (or lack thereof), the sad symbolism of her soft grey skirt and yellow tights–and you would still behold the entirety of Rosetta‘s living, breathing soul immanent in its DNA.

Young filmmakers should simply forego film school and apply themselves to repeated viewings of this naturalistic masterpiece.

Marx Bros.: Indeterminable

Everybody has their own favorite Marx Bros. film. Some prefer Monkey Business, others Animal Crackers, Duck Soup or A Day at the Races. It simply becomes a matter of whether one prefers the free-for-all gags and pacing of the earlier Paramount classics or the more structured lunacy of the MGM films.

It doesn’t really matter. All their best films manage to masterfully weave frenetic slapstick, virtuoso musical interludes and inventive comic tableaus into a slowly-winding apogee of barely-contained chaos. (Oddly, their best films all seem to have animal themes in the title, and most include Zeppo.)

Just as it’s perfectly understandable to favor, say, Groucho’s barbed mockery over Chico’s chicanery, or Chico’s verbal slipperiness over Harpo’s mercurial pantomime, it’s pointless to suggest that one is superior to the other or that the comic whole is not greater than the sum of their parts. Likewise, choosing a favorite film is only natural; but declaring a “best” Marx Bros. films is missing the joke altogether.

WINNER: Brothers Dardenne (1-0)

2. ROUND TWO: Cinematic Muse

Brothers Dardenne: Olivier Gourmet

Beady-eyed, balding and bespectacled Everyman. Appeared in all five Dardenne features. Featured as the haunted, saintly protagonist of The Son.

Marx Bros.: Margaret Dumont

Convivial, classy and civilized Grand Dame foil. Appeared in seven Marx Bros. pictures. Charmingly shocked, dismayed and befuddled in all of them.

WINNER: Marx Bros (1-1). Of course, Gourmet is the better actor, but aside from his moving portrayal in The Son and a strong under-stated role in Rosetta, he is under-used in the Dardenne canon while Dumont was rightfully referred to by Groucho as “practically the fifth Marx brother.”

3. ROUND THREE: Methodology

Brothers Dardenne: Start with a scene. An idea. An emotion. Develop those themes together in isolation. Then rally together familiar actors, a familiar crew, familiar locations. Rehearse your actors sans camera, sans dialogue. Allow no discussion of psychology. Then film them moving, working, resting, being–shot mostly with steadicam under natural light. Then observe closely the details of your careful orchestration for real flashes of truth or discovery.

Through strict adherence to proven methods, the Dardennes closely mirror the same workmanlike ethos evinced in the text of their films–Rosetta’s waffle making, Olivier’s carpentry–putting process ahead of product, the dignity of labor before delight in its fruits.

Marx Bros.: The many faces of chaos. Don’t naively assume there is a hierarchy of comic prominence based on screentime. Groucho has the most punchlines but he frequently plays straight man to Chico’s absurdist designs; Chico is easily undone by or enlisted into Harpo’s idiocy. The rock-paper-scissors egalitarianism of their comic indifference to convention merely assails order from differing vantage points, using tactics of varying consequence.

Much of their best material and many of their most memorable gags were carefully groomed through vaudeville and other performances to be effectively delivered regardless of context. An emphasis on plot seemed to hinder rather than help them. Better than most of their directors, the Marx Brothers inherently understood that their particular brand of comedy derived more from the pastiche of their personas than from the narrative relief. The stories were never more than opportunities for their own Marxist deconstruction.

WINNER: Dardennes (2-1). Art can be collaborative, but it is never democratic. It is uniquely individual or it is nothing–even if the individual vision is from a duo of minds. The Marx Brothers are the less for their declining scripts with their increasing emphasis on plot and the changing rotation of directors. To be truest to their chaotic art, they should have ironically insisted on stricter control.

4. ROUND FOUR: Bastard Children of…

Dardennes: Robert Bresson and John Cassavetes

Rigorous and spare like Bresson, with the same crackling undercurrent of spiritual commerce, but with Cassavetes’ restless roving camera and virtuoso cast of amateurs.

Marx Bros.: Buster Keaton and Harry Houdini

Not stoic like Keaton, but equally intransigent in the face of absurdity. Always only ever themselves despite the dissolution of the world around them. But also, masters of slipperiness, verbal and physical. Houdini-like in their ability to evade, escape and confound authority, logic and stillness. Atomic energy viewed as physical gag.

WINNER: Marx Bros. (2-2). After a long apprenticeship in documentary film, the Dardennes style sprang forth virtually fully-formed from the brow of their first feature, The Promise. I see little incentive for them to need to innovate stylistically when their efforts have already yielded several perfect films (Rosetta, The Son, The Child). Rather, the galvanization of their style allows them to selectively refocus their gaze on whatever contemporary subjects catch their fancy (such as the seedy world of illegal immigration in Lorna’s Silence), and continue to trust in the revelatory potency of the filmmaking process.

The Marx Brothers’ style, on the other hand, remains, simply, often imitated but never duplicated.

5. ROUND FIVE: Implied Politico-Philosophical World View

Dardennes: Socialist Materialist

They still believe in the dignity of labor and the rights of workers and the marginalized to be, if not embraced, at least recognized by society. They carefully document processes, environments and conditions as the real keys to revealing elusive personal essences. A person’s breath and walk and habits are as important as her motivations. Film as document. Meaning as process.

Marx Bros.: Democratic Dionysian

Vaudeville is essentially low-brow entertainment. In every film, the Marx Brothers deflate another institution of the upper-class and powerful: education in Horse Feathers, art in Animal Crackers, health-care in Day at the Races, government in Duck Soup. Is “deflate” even the right word? They essentially ignore the premise of their own films, while reveling in the endless space created between foolishness and exaltation, between excess and freedom.

WINNER: Marx Bros. (3-2).

Do politics work beyond the personal? It is fabled that the success of Rosetta resulted in the passing of labor protection laws in Belgium, but the Dardennes themselves deflect that statement, insisting that the bill was in the political pipeline long before the film debuted. And how to properly account for the spiritual significance of Olivier’s strange saintly pilgrimage in The Son, or the weeping, redemptive denouement of The Child?

The Marx Brothers give the lie to political meaning in art beyond what is felt outside one’s lived, visceral experience of the film. It is not that ideas cannot exist or be communicated through film; it’s that these things are best conveyed AS experience–and, in the case of the Marx Bros., as the violent ebb and tide of laughter.

AND THE WINNER IS: the Marx Bros!

In a fiercely contested match, the Marx Brothers’ anarchistic ballet closely edges the spiritual documentary of the Dardennes! Rather than a victory of the humorous over the serious, however, I hope that others will join me in recognizing the affinities shared by artists sure in their craft and willing to operate at the extreme margins of social concern. Win-win for the viewers!


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.