New Directors/New Films

Cinética has started publishing a series of articles in English about some of the films we saw at this year’s New Directors/New Films. The festival just wrapped yesterday, but as usual we’re taking our time (hopefully not too much time) to avoid the pitfalls of quick responses and allow for slightly deeper dives into the films.

As of now, Elie Aufseesser has written about Omer Fast’s Remainder and Zhang Hanyi’s Life After LifeI’ve contributed a piece on Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow. More is to come, including articles about the two Brazilian films in this year’s roster: Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Kill Me Please and Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull. 

The articles will then be translated to Portuguese and republished in the next issue of Cinética, coming soon.

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A Brighter Summer Day (Gǔ lǐng jiē shàonián shārén shìjiàn), Edward Yang, 1991.

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Based on a real event from the early 1960s, Edward Yang’s 1991 masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day, is set in the static tension found in the middle of a cultural tug-o-war. Taking place about 15 years after the end of the Japanese colonization in Taiwan, at a moment where the post-war geopolitical climate allowed for a growing influence of the United States and Western culture in general, the movie finds a very specific common ground between Yasujiro Ozu and Nicholas Ray, in a dilated epic where no parts are actually missing, but many of them are expressively kept out of sight. The scenes here are used as a clearing where the effects of the pressing surroundings are manifested, resulting in a relentless investigation at the heart of modern cinema: the dynamic between on-screen and off-screen space.

During the four hours of this pitted epic, the director tirelessly finds new ways to activate this magnetic field around the “stage”, starting with the early shot inside the film studio which neighbors the school where a good chunk of the film takes place: the inclusion of the work behind the camera and behind the scenes soon opens up with a tilt that reveals the two boys hiding on the roof beams, watching the scene from very unlikely “seats”, and eventually interfering with the action, as one of them drops a book and almost hits a crew member in the head. A Brighter Summer Day shows a world under the constant threat of its own unpredictability – Commoli’s “risk of the real” wouldn’t be an inappropriate description – where anything may suddenly invade the screen – whether its a pool ball, a basket ball, a punch or an army truck… or maybe even a young girl who breaks into a film set and ends up getting a screen test – but where the chance of disappearing from the screen is also just as likely – whether it’s by a car accident we never see, or by the many hidden holes and ditches where the characters fall into without any kind of warning, as if suddenly sucked out of visible existence.

What’s at stake is an experience of the world where everything that matters seems to happen at the very edge of visibility, emphasized here by the stunning use of blackouts, flashlights and candles, the key props forgotten by past residents in the attic, the inventive use of prosaic space (the bed “hidden” in the closet is only one of the movie’s many striking metaphors) or the ample landscape that exists only on the soundtrack, like the mockery when a boy-meets-girl awaits to happen in front of an entire class. Edward Yang’s mise en scène favors echo over action, and consequence over cause – like the gunshots against the trees cleverly illustrate – creating a centripetal world dragged violently towards modernity, but where traditions, mysticism and a crude representation of politics remains half-awake, waiting for a breach to leak back to the surface.

In a society that sometimes resists and other times gives in to the pressure of outside norms, the off-screen space is also the tool that allows an extremely specific choreography – one that isn’t necessarily led by the national anthem, the school protocol, the religious liturgy, the conventional territorial frontiers… one that often exists as a reaction to all of that. As in the cinema of Chantal Akerman, Straub/Huillet, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Pedro Costa and James Benning, Yang’s film is an active cinematic response to a drama where a very particular form of disappearance, cleverly flipped on its head by the film’s epilogue, poses a threat that questions the very existence of cinema: the disappearance of presence itself. In A Brighter Summer Day, Edward Yang finds a way to allow cinema to fight back.

Criterion Collection restoration, seen at BAM Rose Cinema Theater 4. 

Pendulum, James Nares, 1976.

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One of the first works a visitor encounters when entering MoMA PS1’s Greater New York exhibition is a huge projection of a digital transfer of James Nares’ 1976 Super 8 film, Pendulum. Set in the ground level shaft, the big screen stands against the museum’s exposed brick walls, creating a kind of trompe l’oeil effect with the Chelsea walls seen in black and white in the film, while also serving as a metalinguistic landmark for the exhibition, suggesting its start with a work that dates back to the year of foundation of MoMA’s contemporary art exhibition space. The connection between place and work is, therefore, immediately established.

As such, the context of the fourth iteration of the exhibition – as stated in the opening text, a show dedicated to the work of emerging and more established artists who live and work in New York City, a city “being reshaped by a voracious real estate market that poses particular challenges to local artists” – promptly lends meaning to the film’s opening scene: a jerky handheld shot approaches an alley, from where a metal ball hanging from a cable swings in and out (of frame). One doesn’t even need the hollow blasts very much present on the soundtrack to understand the analogy: is it a pendulum, like the title suggests, or a wrecking ball? If every wrecking ball is, in fact a pendulum, is every pendulum also a wrecking ball?

Nares’ approach to this opening shot actualizes an impression Thomas Elsaesser often states in his writings about the moving image in the museum: the intersection between cinema and the museum allows a gallery work to reveal something about cinema, at the same time that the contradictory presence of cinema in the museum reveals something about the museum. About a year ago, I came across a work that materialized that paradox with clear intensity, when Chinatown’s Miguel Abreu Gallery showed a masterful three-screen video installation by James Benning called Tulare Road (2010).

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The setting had a very specific effect: when looking at the three often deserted stretches of road projected on the screens, every now and then the sound of a car would pop on the soundtrack, even though there was no sight of cars on any of the roads. Suddenly, a red truck would appear in the distance in, say, the middle screen, provisionally matching the movement that the sound anticipated. But the marriage that the viewer assumed between sound and image was then quickly disrupted by a car coming from behind the camera on the first screen, taking the sound away with it, again forcing the viewer to reorganize his relationship with what they’re seeing and hearing (and, as a matter of fact, sometimes the sound of cars was actually coming not from the surround speakers, but from the traffic outside the gallery, invading/interacting with the exhibition space in a way that it normally wouldn’t in a film theater). In a global context where cinema seems to be going through an intense process of de-dramatization – even in Hollywood blockbusters, with the rehabilitation of a cinema of attractions – those brief moments that the three-screen video installation produced between wondering where the sound is coming from, thinking that you’ve found the corresponding source and finally being surprised by its origin, generated and taught cinematic drama: “anticipation mingled with uncertainty”, in the canonic words of William Archer.

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In Nares’ super 8 film, it’s also a matter of drama, of questions stretched wide open: a pendulum or a wrecking ball? For about a minute, the revelation is withheld, until that image of apparent destruction is revealed as a tool of pure motion, swinging freely on an open alleyway. May this carefree movement not relieve the ball of its proper weight: the destruction hasn’t started yet. As a piece built on “anticipation mingled with uncertainty”, Pendulum is driven by a permanent impression of imminent danger. What looks harmless at first gets progressively more threatening, not only to the walls and the street, but also to the camera, at one point literally crushing the shadow of James Nares, who shoots in bird’s eye view from the same platform where the ball is hanging from.

All these elements could easily allow the film to be hijacked and used as an anachronistic piece of anti-gentrification propaganda – which, in a way, the museum’s textual presentation does. However, one central shot in the film states things as for more complicated than that: Nares attaches the camera to the ball, not only giving it a point of view, but also establishing a kind of complicity between the two. Pendulum, the museum card says, was the first film the artist shot when he moved from London to New York, at a point when the SoHo studios art scene was already a blooming reality, and the influx of galleries in Chelsea, the very neighborhood where the movie is shot, wouldn’t start happening for at least another ten years. As a premonitory piece (and every piece so clearly emptied out of interpretational meaning absorbs anachronistic appropriations as part of its very essence), the film’s main interest lies in revealing the ties that bind the many different stages and agents of a city’s transformation process, staging the contradiction that allows its existence and the responsibility it plays on the issue it problematizes: the pendulum, the wrecking ball, the camera and the artist sometimes get to be one and the same.

Seen on digital projection at MoMA PS1 Greater New York exhibition, which closes March 7th, 2016. 

France Is Our Mother Country (La France est notre patrie), Rithy Pahn, 2015.

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About three years ago, I was invited to speak at a round table at a Rithy Panh retrospective in São Paulo. The fact that the conference took place right after the screening of Panh’s 2003 masterpiece, S-21: the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, made me focus less on the formal similarities his films shared with Chris Marker and other canonic film-essayists, and more on another, perhaps less orthodox parallel, which held me by the gut during that projection: Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009), more precisely Aldo Raine’s (Brad Pitt) final monologue before slitting a swastika in Col. Hans Landa’s (Christophe Waltz) forehead – “But you take off that uniform, ain’t no one ever gonna know you were a Nazi. And that don’t sit well with us. So, I’m gonna give you a little something you can’t take off.” Panh’s film is by no means a revenge and his direct approach has very little to do with Tarantino’s theatrics, but it shares a similar discomfort with how history is conveniently shaken off to allow former criminals to walk around as regular civilians, carrying no trace of their perverse past. Not unlike Aldo Raine, S-21 reaffirms the moral duty of portraying past official murderers as murderers, until the last day of their lives, carrying their proverbial caskets with them for the world to see.

Interestingly enough, La France…, a very different film, also recalls Inglorious Basterds, but for a very different reason: while cinema was often used as propaganda for historical perversities, it is cinema, too, that now allows some sort of redemption – or, in Tarantino’s case, revenge. Presented as part of MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, Rithy Pahn’s latest film is a found footage tour de force made for French public television. With the exception of the prologue and epilogue, which bookend the film, La France… consists of newsreels, travelogues and other types of stock material that the filmmaker reedits and repurposes as an essay film about french colonialism in Southeast Asia, adding music and title cards (some of them clearly written for the film, while others, even if indeed written for the film, could easily pass as part of the original colonialist propaganda). In Rithy Panh’s most conceptual film to date, a simple displacement transforms images of colonialist propaganda into documents of oppression and, eventually, forms of resistance.

The filmmaker is very much aware of the paradoxical nature of this gesture, and the fact that it was made for French television only heightens this central contradiction. The soundtrack borrows equally from jazz, classical music and southeast asian indigenous folk music, establishing that the power of the film lies in adding “and vice-versa” to the end of every action. The road of irony is only a fruitful path when it goes both ways, and the film carries that awareness already in its title.

As often is the case with Rithy Panh’s films, there are moments in which the filmmaker goes out of his way to make sure the fairness of the gesture resonates, resorting to cinematic operations that are far too revealing of its desired effect to achieve them at all. The dialectic montage of a dog being trained and a native citizen being told to walk toward the camera by a foreigner, or the juxtaposition of the forced nudity of a native woman and the French vedette shyly covering her breasts from the camera are two all too clear examples of a kind of counter-propagandist approach that diminishes the terror of history as it were, and that Rithy Panh only rarely gives in to. Most of the time, reality takes care of retelling itself: footage of plant grafting can go from being an advertisement of agricultural techniques to a powerful metaphor by the mere change in context provided by the filmmaker. La France… is a much stronger piece when it trusts the strength of its basic, overarching concept (which is the case most of the time): to make a movie about cultural appropriation that relies solely on appropriation, repurposing the camera not as a window to the world, but as mirror of itself.

* Seen on DCP at MoMA’s Theater 1, as part of Documentary Fortnight 2016.