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Archive for September, 2007

deconstruction.pngA recent Sunday afternoon I walked north up 21st street in Long Island City, Queens; three candy caned-striped smoke stacks standing tall above the industrial landscape immediately reminded me of the late Antonioni and his masterpiece Red Desert.

Large shadows blanketed 44th Road cast from the non-descript monstrosities flanking either side. What happened inside these buildings, who knows? But I did know what was happening at Local Project, located at 21-36: three young Chilean-born directors were to present four short films. Together they call themselves (and their blog) The New Canon (El Nuevo Canon).

A boney, ornery, orange cat sauntered past as I entered. Inside wide, white walls covered in candy-colored comic book-like designs lead me towards the screening room. A modestly sized crowd murmured before the lights dimmed and the first film—digitally projected onto a makeshift screen—reveled its opening images.

José Luis Torres Leiva’s Women Workers Leaving The Factory (Obreras Saliendo de la Fabrica) set the pace for the evening. The 28-minute film quietly observes a workday in the lives of four female factory workers. Each of Leiva’s weary, expressionless women are shown in a moment of quietude leading back into their clamorous daily tasks—the subtle ebb and flow of their simple existence. The end of the workday arrives, the women journey home, and end up strolling along the shoreline.

Leiva leans heavily on the aural: sounds of heavy machinery, over flying aircrafts, and the ocean surf suffuse the film. Nominally and thematically the film recalls the Lumiere Brothers’ Workers Leaving The Lumiere Factory (1895), one of the first films ever made. And like that 50-second film Leiva’s short unfolds like a silent. The problem is Leiva isn’t making a silent. His female characters are unnaturally speechless, marring the film significantly. Cloaked in silence certain scenes come dangerously close to pantomime.

To be fair there are some great photographic moments. One comes as the women walk gingerly home, the camera loses interest in them and pans up to reveal light dancing through leaves of nearby trees for an extended period, intoning the melancholic mood of the piece.

The final image focuses on the eldest woman. She peers longingly out to the sea. Leiva fades down and up on an old sepia photograph revealing the woman at a younger age (with a male). It ends again on the longing face of the woman.  A non-sequitur ending with forced elegiacism.

The following two films, Along Comes The Rain and From Afar (Lo Que Trae La Lluvia y Desde Lejos), were directed by Alejandro Fernandez, a true talent. Matt Pendleton at Cinema Stubble writes Fernandez “claim[s] to lack the talent of a great director. Hence, his careful attention and studying of cinema.” Fernandez’s modesty contradicts his work. Along Comes The Rain is the story of an elder country woman’s day and her preparations for a visit from her city relatives. Simple as it sounds Fernandez makes it simpler. The woman wakes up early with her husband, milks a cow, kills a chicken, cooks breakfast, makes and sells goat cheese on the highway, buys cookies (which we learn are for her grandson), and later welcomes her relatives.

Fernandez’s view of rural Chile is transfixing. The decaying, worn facade of the countryside—peeling paint, rusty machines, crumbling buildings—is brought almost to the level of a supporting character due to the stellar cinematography. (One shot of the old man walking through a field in early dusk is flawless) Without a hint of nostalgia Along Comes The Rain like an Ozu film hints at the encroaching modern world without exclaiming it. When a businesswoman, in a nice suit and nice car, buys goat cheese from the older woman on the highway we know she’s headed to some big city somewhere outside our reach (and Fernandez’s interest). When the young grandchild comes into the home, unthinkingly grabbing the cookies, and immediately turns on the television (to watch noisy anime) we understand that this world we’ve been shown is violently disappearing. Yet Along Comes The Rain is not a swan song it is an observation. The apathetic shot of the old man staring blankly through the cartoons speaks louder than words.

Fernandez’s second film From Afar isn’t nearly as interesting. It follows a middle-aged city man’s trip back to the country to visit his mother (who lives alone). She fixes him food, does his laundry, as he tries to fix her air pump and plays with the dog. The pace of the film mirrors the county setting and is dragged down by the nothingness that occurs. One conversation of note comes from the mother telling her son about a local group of women seeking to preserve some of the country rituals that are gradually being forgotten, she is pleased. (It is hard not to suspect this is also Fernandez’s modus operandi) From Afar is lighter in tone than Along Comes The Rain, with even a few attempts at comedy, but it doesn’t hold the emotive density I sense Fernandez is capable of.

Cercanos, the final film of the night, directed by film critic Jerónimo Rodríguez, was easily the most formal and ascetic of the bunch. Rodriquez’s view of Chile is seen mostly through the windshield of a car. And like Leiva’s film Cercanos borders dangerously close to being too minimal and ambiguous. None of the characters (three of them) identify themselves; illuminates their relationship between one another; nor explain what they’re doing. The film nonetheless holds your attention as the cityscape lethargically rolls past.

The plot is as follows: a brother and sister drive through the city; brother drops off sis; brother oversees a construction site; brother lunches with father; brother picks up the sister again. “How’s dad doing?,” the she asks. “Better,” the brother replies.

The seminal moment—and perhaps the saving grace—is the construction site scene. (Rodríguez informs me the brother is an architect though nothing in the film alludes to this) In this sequence we see the destruction of one building while another is constructed, side by side, adeptly summarizing Rodríguez’s muted view of Chile: a dualistic country transitioning into the 21st century. (One can also detect this duality by comparing Cercanos’ urbanity to the first three films) It’s a powerful sequence, perhaps the strongest of the night.

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Cercanos is a hypnotic experience. You watch it searching for answers Rodriquez is not eager to divulge. Is this film simply about a quiet family driving around Santiago? Is the father being “better” some metaphor for Chile’s development? I’m uncertain. Either way it must be noted, again, that it isn’t an enthusiastic better but an observational one. Rodríguez is a director who keeps his distance (maybe too far), more documenter than eulogist.

When an audience member inquired if Rodríguez ‘s film had a single viewpoint or was open to multiple interpretations he responded with a few words from Abbas Kiarostami: “The best cinema is that which questions. And it is left to the spectator to look for the answers to complete the unfinished work.”

One would be hard pressed to not admire what these filmmakers are doing, what they’ve achieved, and what they stand for. In a nutshell The New Canon seeks “to explore new directions in cinema and to call attention to a new breed of filmmakers…whose work challenge the way we usually understand cinema.” Although the films I viewed weren’t as revolutionary as the directors may have hoped for each is extraordinarily mature for first films. Not for a second would I be surprised to see any or all of these directors producing stronger, more sophisticated work in the near future.

But I left the screening scratching my head, asking that age-old question a film sage once asked: “What is cinema?” What does The New Canon really mean when it says it sets out to challenge the way we usually understand cinema. Who is this we?

I’d argue The New Canon is discharging their barrels in the wrong direction. There has been, and will always be, a cleft between high art and popular culture. Popular culture has its tropes and clichés as much as independent and art films do. And while popular culture has a vested interest in belittling, suppressing, and commercializing important works (and movements) of art there’s likewise a surreptitious glee the art crowd gets from lamenting the decaying state of cinema. Of course each new generation of artists must negate that which has preceded them in order to progress. The New Wave had to overthrow the “shabby hacks” & “profound nullity” of their cinema before forging new ground. But the specific approach to cinema The New Canon is interested in is not for the masses. They’re building on a foundation poured by directors like Bresson, Antonioni, and Ozu, carried on by Kiarostami, Tarr, and Hou. In the cineaste’s world these names majestically ring out, in popular culture those names are as foreign sounding as their films. So the battle The New Canon is proposing to wage is non-existent, if not futile. Besides, as a famous philosopher once wrote, “the crowd is untruth.”

Walking away from those smoke stacks I realized with the recent passing of Kubrick, Altman, Bergman, and, of course Antonioni, that there are major seats open for a new breed of filmmakers. There are countless stories to be told, thousands of rules to be challenged and changed, and acres and acres of unexplored cinematic territory waiting to be discovered & excavated. Pendleton points out that The New Canon “wears their influences on their sleeves.” This is one part blessing, one part damning. The path these ambitious filmmakers have chosen to take is certainly not the easiest, hardly rewarding; but I can almost hear Rodríguez stridently say, “it is the only path!” Admirable. And can one challenge the status quo while so blatantly paying homage to inspirational filmmakers? The answer put simply is yes.

At their roots The New Canon is calling and reaching for a purity of cinema. This purity they seek—masterfully demonstrated by so many of their influences—hopefully leads to deeper truths which cinema can reveal about the world which surrounds and baffles us. Frustratingly, as many modern directors have shown, these truths are often ambigous.

And although The New Canon directors may wince at this point, this purity, austerity, or minimalism, can be traced back to the very origins of cinema. Hence I’m not surprised that (at least in spirit) the Lumiere Brothers were evoked that evening—and all the better for it. So much of what those brothers did was about observation, cinema at its purist, its most truthful and revealing. And while The New Canon has chosen enormous footsteps to fill one hopes they will eventually trot out in their own direction…maybe to stray into some of that unexplored territory.

Cinema has taken major strides in the last two decades yet I feel this younger generation have yet to find their voice—a true voice. Granted these things take time. But these three filmmakers are well on their way. T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” I’d say The New Canon is closer to thievery than mimicry.

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Don’t Smile, Jedediah

DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES

“I will provide the readers of this blog with an in-depth investigation of the arts.  This promise will be kept.  I will show where we’ve gone wrong and where others have gotten it right.  I will be a fighting and tireless champion/critic who speaks honestly, and no special interests will be allowed to interfere with that truth.”

Herman Scherer Bergman

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“Solly!” 

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