The Films of 2015: No-No Sleep

I decided to look up Tsai Ming-Liang’s No-No Sleep after hearing Keith Uhlich name it one of his favorite films of the year on a recent episode of the Cinephiliacs podcast.  The first half of this wordless short (produced for the omnibus film Beauty 2015) depicts Tsai’s longtime muse Lee Kang-Sheng, dressed as a Tibetan monk, as he makes a slow journey across a pedestrian bridge high above the streets of Tokyo; the second half shifts to a series of interior spaces within a bath-house, where he briefly crosses paths with a younger man (Masanobu Ando).  I can’t really say what Tsai is up to in this film, which feels slight (and not just because it runs a mere thirty-four minutes), but the second half shimmers with the sexual tension of which Tsai has become a master.  If nothing else, No-No Sleep reminds us why Tsai is perhaps the most powerfully erotic of living Asian filmmakers.     


The Films of 2015: Heart of a Dog

In the wake of the digital revolution, which (whatever its faults) has allowed ever more specific film genres and sub-genres to find audiences, the distribution and exhibition of experimental cinema seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.  Where is the platform for work being done by video artists and contemporary avant-garde filmmakers?  Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is a rare example of an experimental film that actually got a theatrical run, however limited it may have been.  Anderson, primarily known as a musician and composer of electronic music, has constructed a beautiful and hypnotic collage film out of memories and observations about everything from her mother’s dying words and post-9/11 New York to Buddhism and surveillance culture.  Though Heart of a Dog meanders freely, weaving together the past and the present, reality and fantasy, it takes as its primary focus the life and death of Anderson’s beloved rat terrier Lolabelle.  It is in meditating on Lolabelle that Anderson conveys a series of related ideas about love and grief, heavily influenced by the teachings of Buddhist monks and ideas found in The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  (The film originated as a project commissioned for German television in which Anderson was to present her life philosophy.)  As Anderson narrates images of Lolabelle, her childhood, and her life in New York City, we are lulled by the dulcet tones of her voice into a state of meditative reflection.


The environments of "[Safe]"

Re-watching Todd Haynes’ [Safe] (1995) last weekend—a film that, upon each re-watching, I become more and more certain is a masterpiece of modern American cinema—I found myself more impressed than ever with Haynes’ uncanny command of mise en scène.  It’s perhaps easier to notice the lush period décor and costumes of Haynes’s Fifties films Carol and Far From Heaven or the flamboyant glam excess of Velvet Goldmine than [Safe]’s evocation of a more recent historical period (1987, less than a decade removed from the year in which the film was made).  But [Safe] is no less about its historical moment, and about the vertiginous textures of that moment, than any of Haynes’ other films.  The story of Carol White (Julianne Moore), a wealthy California housewife who begins to develop a debilitating allergic reaction to her surroundings, absolutely depends upon the creation of an entire world of signifiers, all of them loaded: pearl necklaces, rose gardens, baby showers; teal couches, pastel dresses, white milk; fashion magazines, permed hair, pop music; attractive white ladies having lunch and taking aerobics classes, generic white businessmen telling sexist jokes, brown domestics and laborers populating the edges of the frame.         

[Safe] is a film that explicitly engages the notion of environment.  Carol comes to be diagnosed with “environmental illness,” believing herself to be hyper-sensitive to toxins found in everyday consumer products.  Without discrediting this diagnosis, Haynes suggests that Carol’s social or ideological environment—her white, upper-class milieu—is equally as toxic.  A feminist film in the style of Chantal Akerman (by way of Stanley Kubrick), [Safe] presents us with a character utterly at the mercy of a patriarchal system in which her role as a woman is decorative, contingent.  It’s a world that Haynes conveys with a chilling and merciless precision.  Ostensibly “realistic,” the houses, costumes, and interiors are lit and framed as if in a sci-fi movie. 

As Carol retreats to Wrenwood, a New Age treatment facility in the Albuquerque desert, the film’s milieu shifts.  Carol’s bitchy, skinny white-lady friends get replaced by a bevy of smiling, silken-voiced liberals who wear comfy clothes and preach the gospel of self-help; her McMansion gets supplanted by a series of smaller and smaller domestic spaces, culminating in the porcelain-lined “safe room” to which she eventually confines herself.  Haynes tempts us to misread this new milieu along with Carol as a healthy corrective to her toxic bourgeois life in the Valley.  Careful viewers will recognize, however, that Carol has only traded one toxic, claustrophobic environment for another.  Haynes doubles these two seemingly opposite environments in shots that reveal Carol to be isolated from those around her:

These shots come from two of the film’s most brilliant sequences.  The first is a nightmarish baby shower where Carol experiences a panic attack, causing her “concerned” “friends” to regard her with unease that borders on horror.  At the end of the film, during a Sunday dinner that becomes a surprise birthday party, Carol’s new friends at Wrenwood welcome her into their fold—on the unspoken condition that she learn to mouth the platitudes on which their philosophy rests.  (Carol’s final speech, ingeniously delivered by Moore, indicates that she already realizes that her acceptance within the community depends on such mouthing.)  Both sequences show us a Carol fated to remain shut out from any sort of community.  If the baby shower gives us a Carol who herself appears prenatal, devoid of personality or individual will, the party at Wrenwood suggests that she has finally been born.  But Carol’s birthday must be one of the most dismal in cinema.  She has been born into an environment that is no less oppressive than the one from which she earlier escaped—and that’s no cause for celebration.

In memoriam: Jacques Rivette, 1928-2016

Dominique Labourier in Jacques Rivette's hall of mirrors Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

I’m looking forward to spending this weekend at the Harvard Film Archive’s two-day screening of Jacques Rivette’s epic Out 1, which Jonathan Rosenbaum has called “the definitive film about ’60s counterculture.”  Now that news of Rivette’s death has broken this morning, that screening is shaping up to be about something more than just Out 1; I suspect that it will feel like a celebration of Rivette’s entire career and an elegy for the kind of cinema that he represented—richly imaginative, huge in its ambition and scope, endlessly experimental. 


The Films of 2015: Son of Saul

Hailed as a masterpiece when it premiered at Cannes last May, Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul has already won a place among the pantheon of films (Shoah and Night and Fog being two of the most significant) that successfully convey the horrors of the Holocaust.  Nemes’ film stars non-professional actor Geza Rohrig as Saul, a Hungarian Jew who has been designated a member of the Sonderkommando within the concentration camp where he is imprisoned.  As a Sonderkommando, Saul’s responsibilities include ushering other Jewish prisoners into the gas chambers, sorting through their belongings, and helping dispose of their remains.  When he discovers the body of a pre-adolescent boy who he believes may have been his illegitimate son, he sets off on a mission to find a rabbi who will help him give the boy a proper Jewish burial.    


The Films of 2015: 45 Years

While it couldn’t be called a thriller, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years had me on the edge of my seat like no other film this year.  Spare, focused, precise, it charts the almost imperceptibly subtle shifts within what would seem to be a stable and happy marriage.  As written by Haigh, and as interpreted by veteran British actors Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, those shifts come to feel as agonizingly tense as a set piece by Hitchcock.  The end credits reveal that it’s based on a story by David Constantine; even before I knew that I felt that the film resembled a piece of great short fiction, something by Alice Munro, perhaps, in which the weight of an entire life comes to rest on a single week, day, moment. 


The Films of 2015: Chi-Raq

The title of Spike Lee’s new film Chi-Raq refers to a slang term for Chicago, so called because the number of deaths there in recent years have eclipsed those of American military personnel in Iraq.  Lee uses this statistic and this setting to spin a bold, witty, rollicking re-imagining of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata.  In an effort to hasten the end of the Peloponnesian War, the heroine of Aristophanes’ play convinces the women on both sides of the battle lines to withhold sex from all men until peace has been negotiated.  Lee gives us a street-wise Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) who struts down the sidewalks of Chicago in cut-off shorts and an Afro, “a gorgeous Nubian sister” (to quote Dolmedes [Samuel L. Jackson], the film’s one-man-Greek-chorus narrator), “as tough as Coffy and sexy as Foxy Brown, / Hell! Beyoncé Knowles herself had to bow down.”  When the film opens she’s in the thrall of a rap artist and gang-banger who also goes by the name Chi-Raq, content to wile away her time at the club and in the bedroom.  Then she’s given a lesson in consciousness-raising by a neighborhood matriarch (played with elegant gravitas by Angela Bassett), whereupon she organizes a sex strike in order to rid the city of the gang violence that so often claims innocent children as its victims.


Digging into "Velvet Goldmine"

After going to see Carol together a couple of weeks ago, a few friends and I decided to revisit Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) together last weekend.  The timing proved eerie: the next morning we awoke to news that David Bowie, upon whom Goldmine’s glam-rock superstar Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is obviously based, had died. While not among my favorite Haynes films, Goldmine is packed to the gills with information—visual, historical, cultural, musical—and is never not interesting.  As a way of beginning to decide what I think about it, I’ve found it helpful to index some of the film’s key contexts and points of reference.

Glam rock/performativity/queerness.  As a film about pop music performance as a state of being, and about the power of that music to transform oneself, Velvet Goldmine anticipates the fragmented selves of Bob Dylan in Haynes’ I’m Not There.  Both films find Haynes queering the very notion of identity, eroticizing and celebrating the ever-changing personae of Bowie and Dylan and hailing them as postmodern icons.  Even more so than I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine emphasizes the role that style plays in shaping the identity of the rock star: Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costumes capture the look of glam at its most sumptuously outrageous.

Oscar WildeVelvet Goldmine begins by supposing that Oscar Wilde was an alien—literally a man/baby who fell to earth—and that his spirit has been passed on to subsequent generations of dandies and aesthetes via a magical green jewel.  Not only do the flamboyant posturings of glam rockers hearken back to those of Wilde (near the middle of the film, Brian Slade responds to various reporters’ questions with a series of Wilde’s epigrams) but Wilde himself is depicted as a proto-glam-rock icon in his own right (when asked by his teacher what he wants to be when he grows up, the young Wilde responds “a pop idol”).   

Queer boyhood.  Some of the film’s most emotionally powerful moments involve journalist Arthur Stuart’s (Christian Bale) memories coming of age as a gay teenager while living under the thumb of repressive middle-class parents.  When Stuart’s father shames him for masturbating, or when Stuart must hide the excitement he feels for Slade when he sees him on the family television, it’s difficult not to think back to Haynes’ earlier portraits of gay boyhood—Richie in Poison, Lenny in The Suicide, Stevie in Dottie Gets Spanked

Haynes doing Roeg, Warhol, et al.  Haynes pays homage not only to glam rock in this film but also to underground and rock movies of the 1960s and ’70s: Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures; Antonioni’s Blow-Up; Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (starring Mick Jagger) and The Man who Fell to Earth (starring Bowie); Ken Russell’s Tommy; and the Andy Warhol films, especially those featuring Joe Dallesandro (whom Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild vaguely resembles).  A member of our viewing club also suggested the influence of Brian de Palma’s rock opera Phantom of the Paradise.          

Haynes doing Haynes.  A scene in which an unseen child uses two Ken dolls to act out a love scene between Curt and Brian becomes a joking reference to Superstar (1987), Haynes’ famously suppressed Karen Carpenter biopic starring a cast of Barbies.  Velvet Goldmine is not just a looking-glass world in which the lives of real-life people like Bowie are refracted: it mirrors back sexuality, identity play, and the pieces of Haynes’ own career.

The Films of 2015: Arabian Nights

My Arabian Nights diary:

Night 1 (1/14/16) – Just returned from the first installment of Miguel Gomes’ sprawling Arabian Nights, which comprises three separate films and runs a total of six hours and twenty minutes.  I appreciated Gomes’ previous film Tabu as a striking and lyrical evocation of Portugal’s colonial legacy, so I was intrigued when I first heard about Arabian Nights.  I became even more intrigued when it placed fifth in Film Comment’s critics’ poll of the best films of the year (though it has been witheringly dismissed by such esteemed critics as Amy Taubin).  So it was with both curiosity and trepidation that I sat down with Volume 1.  The film is a panoramic view of modern-day Portugal set from 2013 to 2014, when a series of government-issued austerity measures left masses of people unemployed and impoverished, driving many of them to depression and suicide.  Gomes tells their stories using a mixture of documentary and narrative modes, serving up both with a healthy dose of Orientalist fantasy.  Mermaids and wizards rub elbows with bureaucrats and peasants; a willful rooster whose out-of-control crowing runs afoul of the local government becomes a cause celebre among the townspeople; and, in the film’s most amusing sequence, a group of economists are cursed with erections they can’t get rid of.  Not all of it works, but, like Scheherazade, Gomes gets his hooks in you and makes you curious to see (and hear) more.    


The Films of 2015: Carol

Todd Haynes’ Carol, an almost intoxicatingly beautiful film, is a romantic drama about a love affair that springs up between two women living in New York City circa 1950.  One is Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a shy, somewhat aimless retail worker with a budding interest in photography; the other, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), is a well-to-do suburban housewife who spends her afternoons lunching and shopping downtown.  They meet when Carol comes into the department store where Therese works to buy a Christmas present for her daughter.  The two women exchange a series of coy intimacies (“How do you know so much about train sets?”, Carol asks Therese suggestively).  Then Carol leaves her gloves behind (accidentally or on purpose?) and Therese sets out to return them.  And with that the film is set in motion, as Therese—for whom an affair this intensely passionate is uncharted territory—and Carol fall headlong into their desire for each other. 


The Films of 2015: The Revenant

At a moment when Mad Max: Fury Road is being hailed as not only the best action film of the year but also one of the best films of the year, period, Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant feels like a welcome alternative.  (Both films, incidentally, feature the talents of Tom Hardy.)  Where Mad Max piles on one baroque flourish after another, The Revenant succeeds by grounding its action in a realism so visceral that you feel like it’s actually happening to you.  That was also the case with Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, shot by The Revenant’s star director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki: watching that film’s chase scenes, many of which appeared to unfurl within a single shot, I felt like I was having a nightmare.  The Revenant achieves a similarly powerful effect.  Even as you begin to suspect that Inarritu is fetishizing the grittiness of his approach—that he’s getting off on the brutality of the subject matter at the same time that he’s aestheticizing it—the action sequences never feel fussy or overdone.  When Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass tussles with an enraged grizzly bear, or goes mano a mano with his nemesis John Fitzgerald (they’re armed with a tomahawk and a knife, respectively) the action feels messy, intimate, raw, and suitably terrifying. 


The Films of 2015: The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s aptly titled The Hateful Eight is a Western without a hero.  Its rogue’s gallery of characters consists of two sadistic bounty hunters, a leering murderess, a gormless would-be lawman, a retired Confederate general whose grandfatherly demeanor masks snarling bigotry, and various other varmints and louts.  The film is a fabulously gory nightmare vision of a post-Civil-War America riven by differences of race, gender, and regional background in which every social interaction is a hair-trigger away from exploding into ultraviolence.  Setting aside Robert Richardson’s cinematography (shot in 70mm and Ultra Panavision), which captures the crystalline grandeur of the Wyoming landscape, The Hateful Eight is an extraordinarily dark and punishing film—quite possibly the darkest and most punishing that Tarantino has yet made.