Monday, September 25, 2006

Toronto: Jia Zhang-ke, etc.



Of the eight TIFFs I’ve attended, I think this year’s was probably the strongest. Unlike last year, I took my laptop with me and fully expected to blog the fest, but it turned out that many of the films I saw were not so casually bloggable. I’m still trying to figure out how to think about many of them.

Of the twenty-five films I saw in Toronto, there were two flat-out masterpieces: Jia Zhang-ke’s Chinese diptych Still Life/Dong; and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes And A Century from Thailand. Other favorites: Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (Portugal); Alain Resnais’s Coeurs (France); Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (Turkey); Abderrehmane Sissako’s Bamako (Mali); Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (UK); Hong Sang-Soo’s Woman On The Beach (S. Korea); Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host (S. Korea); Jafar Panahi’s Offside (Iran); etc.


* * *

Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life appeared in the Venice line-up as a last-minute ‘secret’ film, won the Golden Lion there over a weekend, and was added to TIFF mid-festival the following Tuesday, causing much (deserved) excitement. The film is set in the Chinese town of Fengjie, soon to be submerged as part of the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam project. There are two storylines, both having to do with spouses trying to reconnect after years of separation.

But the stories feel suitably casual, dwarfed by the breathtaking setting of the river and the mountains which nestle the town and its perpetually sludgy roads. Everywhere we look, the process of demolition is underway as the town prepares for its own disappearance.

Dong, which screened as part of the documentary program, follows one of China’s leading figurative painters, Liu Xiao-dong, as he paints two sets of multi-paneled portraits: one of laborers at the Three Gorges dam (thus its connection to Still Life—we see these laborers and occasionally the same footage in both films); and then of models, probably prostitutes, in Bangkok.

The filmmaker Jia and the painter Liu seem like kindred spirits, and Still Life/Dong is a two-paneled work that is rich in internal resonance. Though it showed on separate days in separate programs, I’d claim that these two films should always be shown on the same bill—they belong together. They also mock the fiction/documentary boundaries we erect around film-works. Yes, Still Life has a plot (however loose), and some professional actors, but most of the faces and all the settings we see in the film are as ‘real’ as in any documentary. On the other hand, as Darren pointed out, Dong has a sequence, in a ‘sub-plot’ involving one of the models watching television and rushing to the train station afterwards, that could easily have been scripted. There’s also the exact same shot of a tumbling wall in both films that is applied to entirely different ends, the exact same event meaning two different things in the two films.

Jia is fascinatingly drawn to the juxtaposition of ‘reality’ and ‘artifice.’ His last fiction film, The World, was set in a Beijing theme park with brazenly fake replicas of the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. The wind-beaten cliffs and weathered faces of Still Life could not be less fake, but there’s plenty of artifice tucked into the film if you look. Out of the blue, the two stories of the film are bridged not by a normal cut but (I kid you not) a CGI flying saucer that glides from one narrative to another like the bone-turned-spaceship in 2001. (Jia used a similar surprise CGI touch in The World, the candy-colored animations that can be seen in this trailer to the film introduced by Jonathan Rosenbaum.)

Going hand in hand with Jia’s penchant for blatantly—even joyously—inserting these markers of artifice is an attraction to performance. We saw actors mount spectacles in both The World and Unknown Pleasures, and Still Life opens with a gorgeous unbroken panning shot of the passengers on a ferry which includes magic trick acts and a palm-reader. A bit later, four prostitutes step out onto the balcony of a half-destroyed building, posing for a prospective client. A character makes like Chow Yun-Fat the way Michel Poiccard did Bogart in Godard’s Breathless. In Dong, a slow pan across the rain-splattered windows of a van on a ferry shows passengers in a variety of poses: sleeping, worried, reflective, as if each window were a little movie screen. We see the Three Gorges not just in its awesomeness but also in diminutive representation as a painting on a ten-yuan note. Finally, the laborers and prostitutes perform as models for Liu’s paintings in Dong, and Liu himself is performing for Jia as the subject of the film itself.

Jia’s great visual coup here is the use of high-definition digital video, the colors popping like firecrackers: the brownish-red rust of old machinery, the blazing green of grass, etc. In addition, he employs an almost agonizingly beautiful slow pan that tells stories by simply including new information in the frame as it crawls across the landscape or a room. Rob Davis pointed out the amazing depth of focus of high-definition video in these films (I had no idea DV by nature had significantly higher depth of field than film), and Rob’s wife Lorraine Vendrely remarked that the figures of the workers in Still Life were often pitched below the horizon line, with the mountains or the ruined buildings towering over their heads; their body postures even reminded her of the stooped gleaners in Millet. (As I've said before, it's rewarding to 'festival' with friends.)


* * *

Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma takes place entirely in a large building, the Teatro San Martin complex in Buenos Aires. The lead actors of his two previous films, La Libertad and Los Muertos (both set in the Argentinian rural wild), wander through the building looking for a screening of Los Muertos. The former gets lost, the latter (Vargas) makes it to the screening, which is attended by him, the security guard and only one other person, a woman who is a sort of stand-in for us, the cinephile audience.

One way to view this film might be as a piece of conceptual art, in that the ideas generated by the film are as important—perhaps even more so—than the actual art object itself. The film is the third and final part of a closed circle trilogy which includes La Libertad and Los Muertos. The very subject of this film is (allegorically, humorously) the state of art cinema in relation to multiplex cinema. The fact that the screening is almost empty and that even the director doesn’t show up for the screening is sadly funny. After the screening, the cinephile walks up to Vargas and tells him how much she enjoyed the film. Vargas says, “I was entertaining myself….watching myself.” (Apparently, this was the first time Vargas had ever seen a film!) Another in-joke that resonates well at a festival: the building in the film is the setting of the Buenos Aires International filmfest, the Toronto equivalent being the Manulife Centre, where we spent most of our days.

I can do no better than point you to some great thoughts on the film by Harry Tuttle, including his assessment of it as “….a dichotomy opposing rural and urban, ancestral forest tradition and cold city anonymity, the personal and the industrial, and even, why not, Alonso's lonely Avant Garde cinema and the indifferent commercial mainstream industry.”

People fled our screening in droves, and afterwards I saw Alonso hanging about outside the theater by himself. Like the woman cinephile in Fantasma, I approached him cautiously and then wound up chatting with him for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Possessing none of Michael Guillen’s admirable interviewing skills, I rambled through some questions and forgot to take notes. Alonso said that his two favorite filmmakers were Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichtapong Weerasethakul and that Fantasma was a comedy and a sort of tribute to Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. I made the mistake of (albeit gently) bringing up the words ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’ in the same sentence in a question. He asked me if I liked the films of the Lumière brothers, and when I said yes, he said sternly: “They didn’t worry about whether their films were documentary or fiction, right?” Right.


* * *

The new Tsai film, I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, takes place in Kuala Lumpur and contains more than a few connections to Jia’s film. In Still Life, the town of Fengjie is half-destroyed but the large, ruined building in the Tsai film is only half-constructed, and then abandoned. In both films, migrant laborers are key characters and they have difficulty with spoken language or dialect. Partly as a consequence, there are long stretches of silence in both films. There is a stunning shot near the end of the Tsai film of a building upside down, and when a ripple starts to streak across the image, followed by a floating mattress, we realize that we're seeing the reflection of the building in water. Suddenly, this behemoth structure looks as if it were submerged, exactly as the buildings in Still Life will be....any day now.

Now, a critic’s gotta be honest and true to himself, right? So let me just say this. The Tsai film is terrific but there’s a part of me that misses the productive dissonances of The Wayward Cloud. (To get an idea of what wonderful thought such dissonances can produce, see Adrian Martin et al.’s brave grappling with the film’s ending in Rouge and Harry’s five-part exegesis.) Good though the new film is, it is unlikely to produce such rich critical thought. It feels like an aesthetically safer and more familiar work. But really—next to The Wayward Cloud, what film wouldn’t look safer and more familiar? So, please: ignore my nit-picking and see the new one. It’s a strong film, and I look forward to seeing it again.

64 Comments:

Anonymous Michael said...

As always, Girish, a wonderful post. You know, for me, the experience of TIFF was dominated by memorable, remarkable images (something I might explore even further in my own posts); and the three films you've mentioned here contain images I can't get out of my head. There's a magnificent shot early in Still Life in which one of Jia's amazing pans stops on a wide-angle view of the Yangtze and a humongous red bridge; it had the cumulative effect of his shots that began in one place and ended on everday objects (bottles, watches, etc.). That is, he re-maps things that we take for granted.

In a similar vein, I largely remember Fantasma as a visual study of an interior with human actors to give the place some extra dimension. I'd have to see the film at least once more to make better sense of Alonso's thematics, but the images have stayed with me. Given the sheer lack of dialogue in the film, our only choice is to watch, and this fundamentally reshapes the way we experience the cinema.

And the Tsai film -- well, aside from it being difficult, humorous, cerebral, entertaining, and absorbing, it had what was pretty much the single most fantastic image of the festival: that closing image of the bed.

September 25, 2006 11:22 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I'm very curious to see Fantasma. I don't think La Libertad ever made it to Frisco Bay, but Los Muertos still haunts me. That's really cool that you got to talk with him, girish. I'm not surprised to see him mention Apichatpong as a favorite, as Los Muertos seems in so many ways like an evil twin to Blissfully Yours.

September 26, 2006 12:59 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

No one saw a Filipino film, I assume.

Not disappointed, actually; The Bet Collector, judging from Jeturian's previous films, is more decent neorealist than anything really innovative. I'm really more bummed Lav Diaz couldn't finish Heremias in time for Toronto.

September 26, 2006 3:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"Given the sheer lack of dialogue in the film, our only choice is to watch, and this fundamentally reshapes the way we experience the cinema."

How true, Michael. Very well put. We could say this about so many of the films we saw in Toronto. I look forward to your exploring images in your posts, Michael. Perhaps I can try to join you as well...

Brian, I thought of you after the Apichatpong film because I know what a huge fan you are of his work. Frankly, Syndromes just blew us all away. It is sure to be (this sounds like a hyperbole but I don't think it is) one of the films of this decade. Still gives me the shivers.

Noel, alas I didn't get to see anything from the Philippines but I can't seem to remember now...perhaps one of us did, and could chime in...?

September 26, 2006 7:18 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Wow, what a post. Bravo.

About HD--maybe things have changed in the last three years, but the last I'd heard about it, there was a quiet panic racing through the documentary and fiction fields. HD gives astonishing clarity, yes, but the things people were worried about was how to force it to have shallow depth of field and, in the documentary circles, what to do about framing shots when the typical head shot will now show (in astonishing clarity) every pore on a person's face.

I hope the technology has improved since then; yes, I'm old-fashioned enough to think that lack of astonishing visual clarity can be a feature sometimes, rather than a bug.

September 26, 2006 6:29 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, I need to educate myself on the nuances of difference between film and DV; one thing that's become very apparent time to me is that the high-def DV of today seems to be a quantum leap above the best DV available (in terms of clarity) even 3 or 4 years ago. It was only well after seeing films such as Haneke's Caché and Ceylan's Climates did I realize that they were shot on DV.

If others would like to share their thoughts on DV, I'd love to hear them...

September 26, 2006 6:39 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

"alas none of us was able to see a Philippine film"

No loss, I suspect. I'm more excited about the October screening of Insiang in the Lincoln Center and Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos--easily my favorite of all Filipino films--in ImaginAisan, also in October.

September 26, 2006 9:44 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thank you very much for the kind plug Girish. I'm honored. :)

Great review. You make intolerable the wait until I get a chance to see these beauties...

Btw, I believe Jia already did this duet release : fiction + backstage documentary, with Pleasure Unknown + In Public. The latter being a 30' wordless short of location scouting.

September 26, 2006 10:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, I've only heard about In Public and have never seen it. Dong is Jia's first feature-length doc. He was present at the Q&A for the first screening of the film and spoke about his documentaries, but unfortunately we caught the second screening, and he wasn't there.

Some links:
--Owen Hatherley on Bolsheviks and 'Americanism'.
--Upcoming DVD release list at Acquarello's.
--At Andy Horbal's: vote for the single best American fiction film of the last 25 years.

September 27, 2006 12:40 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

How great to have you feeling better and posting, Girish.

I have a general question and this seemed like the best place to ask it with its high traffic of knowledgable souls. I'm interviewing Dito Montiel on Friday for his Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, which I saw last week. I very much enjoyed the film, acting-wise it's fantastic, however, was put off by the mic boom dropping into the frame every now and then. I know this was made on a shoestring budget but, nonetheless, I expect filmmakers to tie their shoelaces. Afterwards, talking to the publicist, he informed that many movies have mic booms dropping into the frame but that it is the professional responsibility of the projectionist to compensate.

Huh?

Is that true? That makes absolutely no sense to me. In every single review I have read of "Guide" there are no references to these technical glitches, which makes me wonder if it's inappopriate to mention them or if, as the publicist suggests, it's a projection problem, not a filmmaking problem. And yet, if I were a filmmaker, I can't believe I would let a scene through with a mic boom dropping into the frame. Thoughts anyone?

September 27, 2006 2:17 PM  
Anonymous andyhorbal said...

The theater at which I saw The Illusionist is notoriously bad at projection. Among other problems, at one point they had the picture about one third of the way down the screen. For the duration of the two or three minutes that this problem persisted the boom mic was constantly dipping into the frame.

It's my understanding that this is par for the course: that it's assumed the top and bottom of the full image will be cut off. But I'll let someone more knowledgable give a definitive answer.

September 27, 2006 4:29 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I'm sure there's someone more technical-minded than I who can provide more a accurate explanation, but the publicist is correct, Michael. It is no fault of the director. The standard method of creating a 35mm widescreen image these days is no longer the use of anamorphic lenses (While they are used sometimes, I believe it has become the exception to the rule), but for the cinematographer to shoot an academy-ratio (1.33:1) image that must be masked in the projection booth. In this process, the upper and lower portions of the physical image are intended never to be seen, which is why it's considered standard industry practice for boom mikes to be photographed in the upper portion. Any professional projectionist should be able to ensure that this happens. If you're going to blame the director, you're blaming him for sticking to standard filmmaking procedures (the reason why standard procedure risks this kind of thing happening is perhaps a more legitimate question, and one that I haven't the expertise to begin to answer).

September 27, 2006 5:21 PM  
Anonymous Barry said...

Tuwa, I need to educate myself on the nuances of difference between film and DV; one thing that's become very apparent time to me is that the high-def DV of today seems to be a quantum leap above the best DV available (in terms of clarity) even 3 or 4 years ago. It was only well after seeing films such as Haneke's Caché and Ceylan's Climates did I realize that they were shot on DV.

If others would like to share their thoughts on DV, I'd love to hear them...


Girish, there's a HUGE difference between DV and HD, greater than that between super 16mm and 35. Cache was filmed on arguably the sturdiest HD camera in the world, thus the beautiful play of the images.

There are characteristics associated with the nature of video acquisition that are seemingly unavoidable: a lack of latitude and a wealth of depth of field. The way the chips in the cameras interpret light is the cause for this...and to go into anymore detail than that pat summation would make one's head explode. There are a million blogs dedicated to just solving this riddle.

With the depth of field, the best way to combat this is to alter it before it gets to the chip. Thus, many startup companies have created mounts that allow cinematographers to attach still or cinema 35 millimeter lenses to their video camera bodies...both DV and HD...to replicate the shallow depth of field associated with cinema and then have the altered image recorded to the chip. These mounts run as cheap as 1500 dollars US or 10,000 dollars US with pretty much the same results. And even then there's an art to their employ, with even the depth of field characteristics of still 35mm lenses differing from cinema 35 mmm lenses in relation to the forground/background depth of field.

Latitude is the other option. Film is such a pure, chemical method of recording light that in the right hands a single image can burn both its brightest and darkest and retain the properties of both. Video recording is much like phonal recording: a digital sound recording is limited to a mathematical equation and will clip certain pitches once they peak the scale, rendering distortion rather than whatever unique sound the note reaches. Analog recording does no such thing, carrying a note for as high or low as it's produced within' a vast...but still finite phonal range (at some point white is white and black is black). Too much bright sun and a video signal goes pure white rather the true shade of the sky. Thinking of Cache, that film consists of interiors and overcast skies, a muted grey pallette perfectly suited to the limitations of HD. I saw a film called the Perfect Couple that did the exact opposite, playing to the weaknesses of HD and utterly drowning the scenes in murky, muddled video in reflection of the mental trickery at play (to respond to the issue of pores being too visible in video...only if there is light enough get the information to the chip...otherwise skin tones are muddled and blotchy. It generally takes MORE light to work with video, getting everything visible enough to be picked up by the camera's sensors and THEN degrading it to more natural specifications in postproduction. When you couple in added lenses to distort the image and render a shallower depth of field, which also erodes the light reaching the chip, you can see how proper use of HD/DV requires a TON more work than simple pointing and shooting). To get rid of the pores your have to diffuse the lense, again adding to the bulk of the camera pakage. The weird result is that actors take video recording more seriously because of all these add ons to the camera and such, they say it makes what they're doing feel substantial in a way the out of the box, simple dv/hd camera can't impart.

Then comes the issue of image recording (whether to an HD Tape or directly to a digital hard drive and means of projection, whether digitally or transferred to a print and run off a reel). So much of this informs what you see in the theater Girish, the possibilities are endless and the margin for error is undeniably artistic.

People will come around to these new looks sooner than later.

An Aside: I read a review of the Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Filipino!) in the NYTimes that lauded the film but ragged on its image quality by likening it to being shot on a cheap DV camera straigth out of the box. I saw it for myself at SFIFF on a huge screen from the balcony of a large auditorium and found it to be a lovely film with simple, pleasing imagery. There's a purist bent given to dismissing video aquired images outright that sometimes baffles me. At some point we need to adjust to the visual context of a film and move on...much like we do with cinema from film's earliest periods.

Lastly, with booms and such entering the frame...most times films are made with different avenues of distrobution in mind. Within the camera's viewfinder there are several frame markers, 1.85 to 1, 1.66 to 1, 2.35 to 1, etc., and many times the financers want their options open so directors are instructed to protect the frame, to shoot for 1.85 but protect 1.66 as well. An unruly director will sometimes purposely instruct the cameraman to get the boom into the 1.66 frame WITHOUT messing the 1.85, thereby protecting his vision of the films look.

Projectionists are meant to mask the frame in the booth depending on the exhibitors' request; the 1.66 information is there but never meant to get past the projector. If the wrong information is communicated...whoops, you get that boom in the shot. Which, of course, serves you right ;)

****My apologies for hijacking this thread G!

September 27, 2006 5:57 PM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

I had no idea that boom mikes were routinely at the top of frames. I love it when I learn something!

September 27, 2006 7:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Barry, that was a huge help.
Thank you for patiently taking the time to explain (and educate)!

Brian, I had no idea about the process of "masking in the projection booth".

Barry, if you'd care to, I'd be curious to know about a couple of your favorite technical (but still sorta-comprehensible-to-the-layperson) blogs about filmmaking...

September 27, 2006 8:43 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

An Aside: I read a review of the Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Filipino!) in the NYTimes that lauded the film but ragged on its image quality by likening it to being shot on a cheap DV camera straigth out of the box. I saw it for myself at SFIFF on a huge screen from the balcony of a large auditorium and found it to be a lovely film with simple, pleasing imagery.

Thanks; I'm sure cinematographer Nap Jamir and director Aureaus Solito will be happy to hear that. Solito does have a way with images, I think; his Suring at Ang Kuk-Ok (Suring and the Kuk-ok) is one of the loveliest animated shorts I've seen in recent years.

September 27, 2006 9:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

More on HD in Still Life in Dave Kehr's post+comments.

September 27, 2006 9:11 PM  
Anonymous Barry said...

G, the camera they refer to in the Kehr comments is the same camera for Cache. It may have been a different model as noted here:


The Sony CineAlta series of cameras are high definition video cameras geared toward motion picture production. They can shoot at the same 24 frames per second (24p) as film and have a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels (1080p). For comparison, some film scanners are capable of capturing up to 10,000 pixels horizontally from a standard 35mm frame.

CineAlta cameras (most notably the Sony HDW-F900) record onto HDCAM tapes. However, the CineAlta can only record 1440 x 1080 pixel compressed component video in this mode. Episode II of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy was shot with the CineAlta. Episode III was shot with more advanced HDW950 cameras which can record the full 1920x1080-pixel frame.


Re: the filmmaking blogs, they're pretty much all geared toward video filmmaking. People with resources enough to shoot on film tend to keep their secrets to themselves or paid zines like american cinematographer ;)

Most video film blogs are pretty dense. My two faves are:

http://hdforindies.com/
http://www.dvinfo.net/conf/

Noel,

Solito was there to introduce the film to a packed house despite it's playing opposite closing night film A Prairie Home Companion. This being SF, the film played extremely well :)

September 27, 2006 9:50 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Thanks for that explanation, Barry; that's awesome.

September 27, 2006 10:48 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Girish --

I really hope you have more to say on Bamako. I absolutely loved it, yet I was a lone voice at the NYFF press screening. Fellow bloggers I chatted with found it preachy and didactic. I have of course now labeled all of them racist neo-cons (for that is my wont). :-)

Sure, I've read my Chomsky on the subject, and even got arrested in Berlin years ago at an anti-IMF rally, but I still feel that the way the material was presented in the film was moving, powerful, and somehow slightly surreal given its setting.

September 27, 2006 11:34 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I heard about that, Filmbrain.

September 28, 2006 12:41 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

That's brilliant Tuwa! If only. . .

September 28, 2006 1:34 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Solito was there to introduce the film to a packed house despite it's playing opposite closing night film A Prairie Home Companion. This being SF, the film played extremely well :)


I've often thought it's a much better film than Brokeback Mountain myself.

September 28, 2006 2:44 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Barry, thank you very much for the words of explanation.

Filmbrain, like you, I thought Bamako really worked...I'll write something about it this weekend if you like; and I look forward to your NYFF coverage.

Clicks:

--I'd love to read Dennis' nice big post on The Black Dahlia but I haven't had a chance to see it yet; I will in the next day or two.
--Matthew on videoblogging.
--Walter on his relationship with Woody Allen's movies.
--David Bordwell's newly redesigned site. [Thanks, Jim!]

I've also added a bunch of new blogs to the blogroll, especially mp3/music.

September 28, 2006 7:23 AM  
Blogger girish said...

And Michael Guillen's wonderfully detailed interview with the makers of the punk rock doc American Hardcore.

September 28, 2006 7:28 AM  
Anonymous andyhorbal said...

Do we think that David Bordwell is actually going to start blogging?

September 28, 2006 9:58 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

I liked Bamako and certainly loved the idea of it, but I think my biggest reservation is really in the set-up of this trial being plopped into the middle of this village with no context. If its presence in the village is supposed to be metaphoric and not literal, then I can buy that, but then the interpenetration between the two "realms" could have been done better.

I guess for my two cents, I'd say that film needed a subtler touch to make the meshing work better, something that the late Djibril Diop Mambéty could have pulled off. Like Mambéty, Sissako has a gift for metaphoric imagery, and he should have trusted the power of his images more.

September 28, 2006 12:51 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I agree with acquarello. The film falls short of greatness just because the conception is somewhat clumsy in term of articulation. The cut could be improved for one. The main thing though is there are too many (good) ideas, and the structure is too weak to deliver them. The poetry is lost because of the "matter-of-fact" conflation.
For instance what do you guys think of the "Western parody"?
Sissako (who won public award in Paris) said he "had" to put in some melo (the side couple drama), with songs and the funny western to make the trial more digestible for the mainstream audience. And that it was intended for "northern audience" to tell the rich about the awareness of Africa.

September 28, 2006 5:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi there, Acquarello and Harry. Thanks for your thoughts on Bamako.

To be honest, the film worked for me. Let me gather some thoughts on it and put them in my next post (over the weekend).
Re: the western parody, it was my least favorite bit in the movie--it was too flip and pastiche-y and seemed designed to do little more than thank Danny Glover for his exec producing efforts. :-)

September 28, 2006 8:52 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I fail to see anything close clumsy at play here. For me, the film struck a similar chord as La Vie sur Terre -- how life goes on in the village, in a steady, constant beat, while the rest of the world is suffering pre-millennium tension.

I'm curious what it is about the structure that you find weak. That this trial, an impossibility in the "real" world, is taking place without explanation or context is, in my mind, what makes the film so special.

The village isn't oblivious to the trial, even though events -- from the simple (a child walking through in squeaky shoes) to the dramatic (a man dying, a couple breaking up, a lost gun) -- are taking place in, around, and through the proceedings. The villagers themselves even tire of it at times, and ask that the speaker be disconnected.

Though we may all count ourselves amongst the "educated" regarding the nefarious policies of the IMF, World Bank, etc., it's a message that bears repeating.

Isn't part of the beauty of the film that even though Africa is suffering these effects, there is still a sense of community, pride, and respect among the citizens of Bamako? Life in Bamako is almost contradictory to all the facts we hear, and I find this far more interesting than if Sissako had filled the screen with images of suffering and despair.

Perhaps my reaction was heightened by seeing Insiang a few days before, which left me horrified when witnessing the conditions those people lived in.

September 28, 2006 8:53 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

To answer your question, I wasn't crazy about the Western bit. Amusing, but didn't really serve as anything other than a distraction.

September 28, 2006 8:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Andy, your wishes have been answered. I noticed there was a blog at Bordwell's site and the debut entry is dated from 2 days ago.

September 28, 2006 9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, this is exciting! Film Art was my first ever book about film!

September 28, 2006 9:35 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Yeah, I'll probably get around to writing about Bamako over the weekend as well, so I guess I'll table it until then. Honestly though, I'm not that negative on it, I already said I liked it, but I also find some aspects of it problematic. The timing of the film with Black Gold doesn't help either, and I do think the monologistic aspect was probably better suited to a documentary film than the kind of half-fable/half social realist structure that Bamako employs

September 28, 2006 9:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, I see what you mean.

That clash actually came off as a dialectically productive one to me. Shall try to elaborate a bit in the post.

September 28, 2006 10:21 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I'd like to scratch a comment I left earlier.

I've spent most of the night thinking about Bamako and I actually now think the faux-Western is significant. I'll elaborate in my review.

September 29, 2006 12:25 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Well, this is very interesting. I was just working through a draft post on Bamako myself for my third installment of my TIFF coverage. I won't have too much to say, given that my memory of the film is gradually becoming hazier as the days go by, but I think it's a particularly complex film, as well as a visually arresting one. I liked the Western film-within-a-film. It struck me as slightly postmodern (e.g., the "credits" in which the "director's" and the "producer's" names are left blank), but I thought it was an interesting commentary on the West in general. Needless to say, though, it was surpassed by most of the other sequences in the film.

September 29, 2006 2:06 AM  
Blogger Ouyang Feng said...

Thanks for this post. I've seen Dong by Jia Zhangke too. I haven't posted anything on it yet because i want to watch it again. However, I thought the first part was more interesting, especially in terms of cinematography and frames (the paintings being the following of the landscapes, or perhaps the other way around, landscapes being also photographed like an ancient Chinese painting). I guess the fiction and the documentary must echo at each other.
Concerning The world, I thought it wasn't as powerful as his previous films.

September 29, 2006 6:07 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, folks.

--Check it out: Filmbrain files his first NYFF dispatch for Greencine Daily.
--This Dave Kehr post on Resnais' Coeurs from a couple of weeks ago has since collected interesting comments by Paul Schrader (about his canon article in Film Comment) and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
--Chris Cagle excerpts some Andrew Sarris.

September 29, 2006 7:47 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I agree with all you say Filmbrain (my quibble suggested it could have been greater, not that it was bad), even that the film-within-the-film is significant as an idea. But there is a sense of "too much" and no stylistic coherence or pace unity. What is important is the trial and keeping the interruptions, local life and sideshow drama to brief cutaways would have been enough to say the very same thing, without drag (the reverse is true too: keeping the trial to brief quotes once in a while, while developping a real life village drama). Focus and screentime is given to both aspects and ultimately it alters both instead of enhancing each.
Btw, the western bit was improvised during production. Sissako took the opportunity he was shooting in the desert the (real) story of the boy who fled in the desert, to set a western. And if I recall right it was Glover's idea. Its making is too farcical to be taken seriously, compared to the rest. I know it's removed from the mainframe because it's "on TV", but still. I don't know how to explain, but the patchwork of contradictory stylistic levels is counterproductive IMHO, instead of becoming a clever satire skit.
And for every subparts, it's a problem of missing the right "timing" by an inch... (comical timing, drama timing and documentary timing). That's the weak structure I'm refering to. But I repeat, I love the "idea" of setting an hypothetical trial in a village courtyard. I don't mean to pan it, but to argue the pertinence of some directorial choices to moderate in parts the overall praise.
The stylistic coherence is impeccable in Sembene's Ceddo (with a different political issue).

September 29, 2006 2:45 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Elsewhere (I can't recall where) somebody compared the film to both Moolaadé and Offside. While I admire both of those films, there is a certain "neatness" to them that results in a less taxing viewing experience, and with a relatively feel-good mood by the film's end. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but certainly the formalism of Offside is far less engaging than that which Sissako has crafted in Bamako.

The testimony we hear in Bamako is grim, to say the least. Yet Sissako's images are in no way reflective of that mood. Life in the village is (relatively) peaceful, and there is this incredible sense of community. It would be all too easy to make a film with the facts about Africa's debt to the World Bank and fill it with the most dire, depressing images imaginable.

When Al Gore made a film that was little more than a lecture on global warming, critics fell over themselves praising it and its importance. Yet here we have facts of equal importance, presented in a loose narrative format, and people (not you, Harry) dismiss it as preachy and dogmatic. I don't get it.

September 29, 2006 4:35 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

This is something of a segue of a conversation that also came up in the comments on Brian's blog. Basically, from my experience with indigenous African cinema, there's a general tendency for heavy-handedness - from Ouedraogo, to Sembene, to Sissako, to Yameogo, to Bekolo, to Kouyaté and I'm sure quite a few others - in some part, because of the need to engage the African general public. In a sense, that heavy-handedness has become an accepted (if not endemic) part of the aesthetic of African cinema, and isn't just something that's unique to Sissako's. So yes, I agree that it's unfair to "fault" Sissako for it and overlook the same stylistic devices being employed by other African filmmakers.

Brian's reminder on his site about Mambety is a good one because he definitely broke this mold. He made fables about crippled children and disgraced women but somehow, never felt as though the deck was being stacked for the great moral relevation. His death was a great loss to African cinema.

September 29, 2006 6:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Just my two cents here, and this is more about my own personal taste than anything else...

That's a great point about the didacticism of African cinema. I've seen just three films by Mambety and liked them all: Hyenas, Touki Bouki, The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun. Sembene is still my favorite African filmmaker and Ceddo the best African film I've ever seen. Films like Xala, Mandabi, Black Girl, Emitai are (for me) stronger than any other African films I've seen. Perhaps they contain some didacticism, but they transcend it with formal invention and merciless satire. (The weakest Sembene I've seen is Faat Kine, although it was great fun; the only one I haven't seen is Moolade--inexplicably, it never made it to R1 DVD).

Also, I did not find Sissako's two previous films, Waiting For Happiness, La Vie Sur Terre didactic. I was initially a little taken aback by how different Bamako was from them, although, as Filmbrain points out, there are many similarities and connections.

I have to say: outside of Sembene, Sissako and Mambety [and Claire Denis :-)] I've seen very little African cinema. Unlike Acquarello, who is clearly the filmblogger who's seen the most world cinema of anyone I know. (Don't even try to argue against that, A.) :-)

September 29, 2006 7:18 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

My ears are burning. I haven't seen Bamako yet of course, but I can't pretend that when I first heard the premise of the film what came to mind was Mambéty's Hyenas, which includes a very memorable trial scene and references to the World Bank. Mambéty uses Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play the Visit as a framework to comment on the colonial legacy and the way Africans have bought into Western-style consumerism. Yet the characterizations are in fact more human and less metaphorical than those I've gotten out of reading or seeing productions of Dürrenmatt's play.

Reading this discussion, the other master filmmaker that enters my mind is Mizoguchi; upon seeing five of his films somewhat recently at the Pacific Film Archive I was struck, especially after seeing a double bill of Sansho Dayu and Street of Shame, how he can simultaneously make a rather didactic political statement come across loud and clear, yet do it without any of his characters resemble stock cut-outs existing only to make a point.

Does Bamako do this? I hope I get a chance to see for myself.

September 29, 2006 7:39 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Girish, Ceddo's one of the Semebene films I've yet to watch but I've now marked it as my top priority at the retrospective of his works in Berkeley next month.

Moolaade had a R1 DVD release date announced for this past summer, but it turned out to be "vapor ware". Hopefully it's just been postponed.

September 29, 2006 7:45 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, I casually passed on Moolade at TIFF 2 years ago, confident that it'd be released on DVD; a mistake. New Yorker owns the Sembene catalog as far as I know, but they don't seem eager to put most of it on DVD.

September 29, 2006 8:00 PM  
Blogger Ouyang Feng said...

Just wanted to add, as I've seen most of Ousmane Sembene's films during a retrospective, my favourite is The Camp at Thiaroye, very strong and to the point and after listening to him talking about his engagement in cinema and his aim, I have respect for him.
Otherwise, one of the best African films I have seen is Yeelen by Souleymane Cissé.

September 30, 2006 5:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I've heard a lot about Yeelen and it's even on DVD but I haven't seen it yet.

Links:
--Michael Guillen interviews the makers of A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints.
--Old but good: Adrian Martin's review, at Screening The Past, of Gilberto Perez's wonderful book The Material Ghost.
--I recently discovered this site on Indian cinema called Upperstall.

September 30, 2006 7:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of possible interest: Joseph Gaï Ramaka's Karmen Geï (2001), a rethinking of Bizet in Dakar.

September 30, 2006 7:59 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

G., you don't get around much, do you? :P Honestly though, I think it's just one of those things where, because I have a sun exposure allergy, I've had to spend more time indoors than normal people. Suffice it to say, I suck at sports. :(

I'm still wrestling with The Go Master, so hopefully, I can get to Bamako later today. When I saw the opening shot of the western scene, I actually thought it was an excerpt from something else I had seen. I'll have to think about it more, but I do think it's very significant.

September 30, 2006 10:54 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

As ever, such an informative and intriguing thread. Thanks for the responses to my query and I'm glad to read what others think about "Bamako."

I love what Doug Cummings says about the western within the movie: "Sissako's satire of transnational entertainments that use third world countries as exotic backdrops: the imagined 'Death in Timbutktu' clip (starring Danny Glover and Elia Suleiman) is a hilarious rebuke of Hollywood hegemony."

Thanks for relaying Sissako's comments from the Paris screening, Harry. I wasn't able to stay for the Q&A in Toronto, though I reallly wanted to hear what he had to say. I've already written that I think "Bamako" is a powerful piece, not only for presenting African citizens as informed and articulate, let alone various in their articulations, but also because it reminds of a form of oratory where an issue is encircled with many ideas in an effort to come to a solution. An indigenous approach that is way out of style. The time and patience involved in such oratorical practice would unquestionably be offputting to Western audiences. Notwithstanding, I'm impressed that Sissako endeavored it. All that talk really was just to realize the full impact of the elder's song and that you don't need a borrowed language to express a heartfelt complaint. If anything, the film is brilliant for playing with out expectations of language. Not only the failed capacity of the so-called justice system and its self-serving dictionary of terms, but the sad hint of how language is used to colonialize developing countries. What did you folks make of the guy learning Hebrew just so he could get a job at the Israeli embassy?

September 30, 2006 1:02 PM  
Anonymous Jim Emerson said...

You can get Moolade on a Region 2/PAL DVD from this company (from whom I just received a long-desired DVD of Mizoguchi's "Life of Oharu"):

http://www.moviemail-online.co.uk/films/15880

September 30, 2006 9:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Merci, mes amis.

Maya, I just had another thought about the Western. That it might also be read as a skeptical, ironic take on the World Bank/IMF, gunslinger/"saviors" breezing into town to clean it up of its problems, but leaving violence (in this case, socioeconomic) in their wake.

Links:
--Book meme: Chuck Tryon and Matthew Clayfield.
--Nice big links post from Matt Zoller Seitz.
--Jim Emerson on the Paul Schrader canons article.

October 01, 2006 9:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello reports from NYFF.
Also: upcoming DVD releases.

And the book meme is now at Zach's place.

October 01, 2006 9:50 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I wouldn't even say Bamako is heavy-handed (obscur rather, with all the legalise talk), on the contrary, I would reproach its melodrama aspect to be too cheesy and superficial, not strong enough.

In Sembene's Ceddo, for instance, I liked how the 2 white figures (arms dealer and priest) are "muted", therefore at once excluded and charicatured, which gives a powerful statement on colonialism without even the need to elaborate dialogue or melodrama for these characters. And the whole film carries on like a trial, with its subplots. So I didn't mean downplay Bamako's achievement with a comparison to this masterpiece, but to show alternative directorial choices adding more power and meaning with a simpler setting.

Hyènes is a magnificent film too, where the melodramatic allegory says more than the matter-of-factly testimonial of Bamako's trial. That's why Sissako's decision to stick to "trial realism" (maybe to credibilize his hypothetical) fails to reach the dramatic force of the allegory. And his allegory, limited to the parody clip, feels weaker.

The Hebrew learning and the lost gun could be evocative allegories, but are too tangential to contribute to the main drama in my mind.

The triggerhappy mercenaries who kill civilians in the street and laugh out loud is a disturbing image. I still don't know whether Sissako mocks the past (western-style massacre of indians, european colonial wars...), or the present (economical imperialism and debt causing everyday death like AIDS, hunger...). The sniper (Glover) could refer to the resistance in iraq (African blowback)
It would be interesting to come up with a sound analysis of this Western parody by gathering all the comments here. Acquarello found an interesting film reference. "the socio-economic problems of post-colonial Africa are not only the residual legacy of economic imperialism and unfair trade, but also culturally self-inflicted in the naïve imitation of an unattainable western ideal."

The untranslated monolog, said Sissako, was a dialect almost nobody on the set could understand, so even the villagers are not familiar with it, and they too feel the emotion rather than the words.

October 01, 2006 12:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, to take the opposing view a bit, and add my two cents.

--The manner in which the film was assembled, by constantly cutting between the trial and the gradually mounted tapestry of village life had (for me) a dialectical force. By weaving this elaborate tapestry, Sissako was patiently painting a picture of African life (not in generalities, but in details that honored individual characters, faces, rituals and moments) that will soon be no more if the changes brought about by World Bank/IMF are taken to their logical conclusion.

--Also, it is not necessary to have 'naturalistic', 'well-rounded' characters to legitimize a film that deals with ideas. It's okay for characters to be abstract two-dimensional types in some cases. Think of Juliet Berto and Jean-Pierre Leaud in Godard's Le Gai Savoir, another pedagogical film. They are blatantly used as instruments (rather than being developed as flesh-and-blood people) for Godard's discourse.

--Perhaps I'm also attracted to this film because of what I do to make a living (I'm a teacher). Sometimes, subtlety must be sacrificed for the larger social good of reaching out and communicating clearly and unambiguously to a large group of people. 'Redundancy' is a key strategy to increase teaching effectiveness. Sissako's teaching methods move (the teacher in me) very much.

October 01, 2006 11:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow, it's been a busy Sunday in the blogosphere:

--Lots of good reading at Film International. (via David Hudson)
--Harry announces a Boring Art Film blog-a-thon. (But Harry--I never think of the films we love as boring!) :-)
--The book meme is now at Andy's.
--Doug on Kieslowski's documentaries.
--Great excerpt from a Bradley Eros article at Invisible Cinema.
--Steven Shaviro on The Science Of Sleep.

October 02, 2006 12:07 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Sometimes, subtlety must be sacrificed for the larger social good of reaching out and communicating clearly and unambiguously to a large group of people.

Excellent point Girish. That's what has been bugging me about some of these reviews. It's a bit of posturing - "Well, I already know all these facts, therefore the film was preachy, dull, etc." It's a refusal to see what good the film can do for others.

However, I'd like to emphasize that that excuse can not (and should not) be applied to Hollywood fodder like Little Children, one of the most insulting, god-awful films I've seen this year.

October 02, 2006 12:21 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Yes, it can be a slippery slope which can eventually lead to seeing films not through one's own eyes, but through an intended "other" audience.

I suspect it's how a lot of people view documentaries, especially political documentaries, actually: not so much thinking "what did I learn, what did I get out of it", but "what might someone else (someone less educated/enlightened, usually) get out of it?"

October 02, 2006 5:41 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Filmbrain and Brian.

A couple of other thoughts:

In didactic or pedagogical films, both fiction and doc, it is useful (perhaps even necessary) to try to separate to whatever extent possible the "what" (the content; what is being "taught" and "learned") from the "how" (the thousand formal decisions, or the manner in which that content is delivered). There was nothing new per se (for me) in the arguments against globalization and the World Bank/IMF in Bamako, but it was the "how" (the teaching "methods," as I mentioned above) of the film that moved me, not the screed itself, which was familiar.

Brian, that's an interesting point about political docs. I might try to think about that idea a bit and develop it as a question in a future post, i.e. what are the ways in which we evaluate docs, like political docs, differently from the way we do fiction films. It's something I've wondered about for a while.

Links:
Here's Filmbrain's post on Woman On The Beach at Greencine.
And Noel's got the book meme.

October 02, 2006 8:40 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael S. Smith on Clean.
Tom Charity on seeing Rivette's Out 1 in Vancouver.

October 02, 2006 9:57 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Thanks for the mention, girish. Ever read Starmaker?

October 02, 2006 10:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Never have, Noel. But admired by Borges--that's saying something!

New post almost ready to go--shall update this evening.

October 03, 2006 7:23 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Not just Borges, apparently--Virginia Woolfe and Winston Churchill also like it.

And CS Lewis hated it (mainly because of its thesis, that God is not Love). Make of that what you will.

October 03, 2006 11:53 PM  

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