A few notes on some recently watched films:
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, U.K., 2011): The newest film from Terrence Davies isn’t his best—I’ll grant that distinction to The Long Day Closes (1992)—but The Deep Blue Sea is unique for the way it contextualizes memory as its main mode of storytelling. The elegant dissolves Davies uses are the perfect tool the propel a narrative that jumps back and forth through time. Images come and go with a graceful fluidity that’s not only a testament to Davies calculated mise en scene, but also David Charap’s editing chops.
It’s a style that differs from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), which also relied on the act of memory to contextualize story and emotion. For Malick, it was a rootless camera that articulated the sensation of memory. Davies, meanwhile, relies more on the rhythm of montage. Both styles work well, although Davies’s approach is more elegant, more tactile, which, to be frank, sometimes gave The Deep Blue Sea a less lively and less invigorating aesthetic.
Davies’s first three films, known collectively as The Terence Davies Trilogy (1976-1983), are more amateurish in comparison but possess a stronger thrust of personality than The Deep Blue Sea, thanks not only to their autobiographical elements but also their realist tone. However, they do fail in one aspect where The Deep Blue Sea does not, and that is the contextualization of memory. The crude pacing of each film—particularly the first installment, Children (1976)—render certain flashback sequences hamfisted and unrefined. The Deep Blue Sea made me yearn for a Davies film that merges both styles, not unlike The Long Day Closes or his other masterwork, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988).
Still, any Davies film is worthy of note. Even a less successful one is better than most. [B]
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2011): I have little patience for “slow cinema.” Not the stuff itself—in fact, I actively revere the work of such “slow” cinestes as Bela Tarr, Jia Zhang-ke, and Carlos Reygadas—but rather the notion that “slow cinema” is somehow different than “cinema,” and, even worse, somehow better. The thing I—and I imagine most other people—admire most about the work of Tarr and his ilk is the respect they show to time and temporality. In particular, Tarr’s films feel more “real” to me than any other filmmaker’s precisely because of their extended run times and lengthy, fully realized long takes. The Turin Horse, thus far the best film of 2012, is perhaps the finest example of contemporary “slow cinema” we have.
However, I’m hesitant to claim Tarr’s films to be more thematically resonant than that of, say, Robert Bresson, whose longest film is A Man Escaped (1956), which clocks in at a comparatively meager ninety-nine minutes. Lisandro Alonso, for my money one of the very best filmmakers alive today, also works with pithy run times. Comparatively, the absurd run times of a Lav Diaz or Jacques Rivette film are, frankly, in direct opposition with human nature. Out 1 (1971) might be the greatest film ever made, but no human being was made to sit indoors, in the dark, for 12 hours straight, and to require someone to do so is nothing short of pompous. Besides, as Hitchcock once said, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”
Meanwhile, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is among the finest purveyors of “slow cinema” working today, even if his latest Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a somewhat uneven effort. The first half of the film is its best, when its narrative is still ambiguous and its sweeping landscapes and breathtakingly deep focus frequently put the guy behind the film’s namesake to shame. Then it shifts to a more conventional and procedural narrative in its second half. Ceylan seems to be trying his hand at the sort of conversationalist drama that David Fincher has come to more or less perfect, but I found myself longing for the mysteriousness of the film’s open spaces. [B+]
This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2011): Jafar Panahi is a fascinating person. This was only made more evident in This Is Not a Film, which he made while under house arrest after the Iranian government targeted him for the insubordinate nature of his work. He was banned from filmmaking for twenty years (hence the title) but set out to document his imprisonment in an attempt to both quench his artistic thirst and also shed light on his precarious circumstances.
Panahi’s films have always straddled the line between documentary and fiction, efforts that have been rightly labeled by many as “humanitarian.” Indeed, as highly political as Panahi’s films are, references to and critiques of contemporary Iranian culture are tacit but no less crucial elements in what are predominately human stories, with The Mirror (1997) being perhaps the best example I can think of. In the eyes of the government, this made him, well, ungovernable.
But Panahi isn’t some politicized radical or capricious ne’er-do-well. He has the soul of an artist and a need to express himself. This is Not a Film may be an act of protest—indeed, it is an act of protest, and a fervid one at that—but it’s also a desperate yawp for the necessity of self-expression. Whether or not it’s a “film,” is irrelevant. The title is a joke, for starters, but ultimately, like any movie worth a damn, This is Not a Film is a statement. It might not be a “film,” but it’s a masterful piece of cinema. [A]
Twenty Cigarettes (James Benning, U.S., 2011): The film’s of James Benning present a special sort of problem for me. Namely, I don’t consider them experimental. I can see why others do, of course: Films like 10 Skies, 13 Lakes, and the much-lauded California Trilogy are so non-narrative that audiences are quick to label them as unconventional. What some don’t realize is Benning’s films do tell a story, often in the most pure and unadulterated way possible. As Jonathan Rosenbaum asserts in his review of the California Trilogy, “The linear thrust of narrative tends to be hypnotic. In contrast, Benning’s movies demand to be read rather than simply followed.”
In opening oneself to the nuances of a Benning film, one will find that “experimental” is inaccurate phrasing and something like “untouched” becomes far more apt. Before long, one might even find that, in comparison to Benning, narrative-driven films would be more accurately labeled “experimental,” considering the myriad channels of sight and sound that pulse through them.
Twenty Cigarettes, his newest film, is another simple concept: twenty people (friends of Benning’s), framed in a medium close up, smoking a cigarette. Benning set up the camera, placed the “actor” in front of it, and left the area until he or she finished smoking. The result is vintage Benning—with the added twist of it being the first time he’s worked in the digital medium—in that the images he captures are left to their own devices. The added human elements makes the film that much more stirring. My favorite aspect was the way in which the “actors” were usually hesitant to look directly into the camera, as if it made them uncomfortable—not at all unlike the way people avoid looking directly into the eye of another person. [A]
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, U.S., 2012): Prior to seeing this film, I knew very little about its source material other than that it was exceedingly popular. This put me in a minority, of course, but it didn’t keep me from more or less enjoying what I saw. The central conceit of the film is interesting if not a bit gimmicky: Forcing youngsters into a deadly battle royal (see what I did there?) is a disturbing prospect, but the film itself can’t be labeled as such.
In truth, most of the film’s most intriguing elements aren’t in the Hunger Games themselves. The socioeconomic backdrop of the film’s alternate reality bears striking resemblance to our own, a sort of 99% vs 1% configuration that juxtaposes the extravagantly wealthy against, well, every one else. To play this up, The Hunger Games boasts an extremely ornamental style. Each character’s class level is instantly recognizable by their costuming and manner of behavior—the peacocky garb and grand gestures of Elizabeth Banks as compared to the drab rags and timid movements of Jennifer Lawrence, for example. Whenever the film leaves the acutely realized world of the Capitol, things get considerably less interesting. [C+]
The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stoller, U.S., 2012): There’s a classic quality to Jason Segal I can’t help feel compelled by. He’s like Jack Lemmon, only more shlubby and inelegant, and, by extension, exceedingly sympathetic. I could easily see him slipping into the character of Buddy in The Apartment (1960) or even Joe Clay in Days of Wine and Roses (1962). At the same time, Segal possesses the sort of insecurity that leading Hollywood men of the ’60s and ’50s—or even the ’80s and ’90s, for that matter—simply didn’t have. The character he plays in The Five-Year Engagement—Tom, a gifted chef with aspirations to run his own kitchen—is emotional in ways that are unique to 21st century masculinity. In sacrificing his career goals for his fiance’s, Tom swallows much of his pride in an act of good faith that would have painted him as spineless in the age of Cary Grant. This, of course, leads him to resent his fiance and becomes the source of the film’s drama, but the act in itself is unique to modern masculinity.
For this and other reasons, Jason Segal is a sort of neo-classical actor, while The Five-Year Engagement is a nifty neo-classical romantic comedy that views the genre with a distinctly contemporary lens. For instance, if this film had been a Wilder/Diamond joint—Wilder being the film’s most noticeable filmic deity, alongside Howard Hawks and a dash of Frank Capra—the conflict that faces the couple would have had far more to do with their prolonged marriage rather than their divergent career goals. But Tom and Violet live a life that’s akin to marriage, in that they already live and sleep together.
When considering this, The-Five Year Engagement quickly becomes less about the politics between a man and woman on a romantic level and more about the politics between a man and woman, period. Ultimately, the film is a successful examination of reappointed gender expectations and their indisposition to classic Hollywood forms. Segal and his collaborator Nicholas Stoller likely didn’t intend for the film to be a deconstructionist effort, but that’s how I saw it. [B]