Taste of Cherry

Sunday, 26 August 2012

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #45: Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry.

Apparently, the en­tirety of Iran is a gi­ant gravel-pile con­struc­tion site. That’s the im­pres­sion given in this film, and con­sid­er­ing how lit­tle I know of the coun­try due to my own nation’s sanc­tions against it, I’m go­ing to choose to as­sume that Iran is a beau­ti­ful coun­try and Kiarostami made a styl­is­tic and the­matic choice to film most of this in lo­ca­tions where just about every­thing is dead and dy­ing, and dry earth cas­cades on all sides in crum­bling ruin.

Few the­matic choices could fit bet­ter for a plot re­volv­ing around a man who wants to com­mit sui­cide and have some­one bury him, or haul him out of his own grave if he fails to do a proper job of it. Godfrey Cheshire’s Criterion es­say ac­com­pa­ny­ing this film makes a point to dis­cuss this film in terms of life and death, but I in­ter­pret it in slightly more gen­eral terms. I don’t think this is a story about man ver­sus him­self; I think it’s a film about man ver­sus na­ture. Mr. Badii, for some un­stated rea­son, feels dis­con­nected with life. He tries, time and again, to get some­one to show him some mod­icum of at­ten­tion. Everyone he talks to is so busy liv­ing their lives, in­no­cently in the case of the young sol­dier; stu­diously, in the case of the sem­i­nar­ist; and fully, in the case of the old man, that none of them can be both­ered with Badii’s ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis.

A man do­ing what­ever he can to get even the small­est part of the world to no­tice him, even through sui­cide, is a man full of pride and mis­guided. His cri­sis would not oc­cur to some­one fully en­gaged in liv­ing life, or to some­one who knows their in­signif­i­cance in the grand scheme of things. I’d ar­gue that Kiarostami is mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion be­tween liv­ing life with in­dif­fer­ence to your in­signif­i­cance and be­ing un­able to ac­cept that fact and be­ing filled with de­spair in­stead. This doesn’t sound par­tic­u­larly pos­i­tive, but it is. At least as far as I’m con­cerned, en­gage­ment with life is much more pos­i­tive than de­spair at liv­ing in the first place.

The Great Dictator

Saturday, 25 August 2012

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #565: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Not Chaplin’s great­est work, but cer­tainly a strong pro­pa­ganda film. What struck me most is the ig­no­rance with which the prison camps and Jewish ghet­tos are be­trayed. There are some ob­vi­ous in­stances early in the film where it seems as if Chaplin hasn’t quite fig­ured out that he’s mak­ing a talkie, but once he gets that un­der con­trol the film ping-pongs back and forth be­tween Chaplin iconog­ra­phy and ef­fem­i­nate Hitler-mock­ing. Chaplin had great fun with names. Tomania (Ptomaine) for Allemania and Bacteria for Italia. Herrs Herring & Garbage, Phooey Adenoid Hynkel and Benzino Napaloni.

Chaplin did well to em­u­late the Riefenstyle of Triumph of the Will when Hynkel/​Hitler is on­stage and bal­ances it with a more rec­og­niz­ably Chaplin style in the Ghetto sce­nes, but it re­mains hard to watch this film and take it se­ri­ously know­ing what we know now about Nazi atroc­ity. Chaplin-style com­edy is well-suited to mak­ing buf­foons of the Nazis, and in 1940 it still made sense to treat them as a laugh­able en­emy rather than a vi­cious one. Despite these dif­fi­cul­ties with hind­sight, the fi­nal speech, where a Jewish bar­ber in­verts the mes­sage of the Double Cross party, is more tri­umphantly in­spir­ing than a thou­sand Riefenstahl films. Yet for all its clev­er­ness, the film seems now most no­table for its ap­palling in­no­cence.

Crepitations

Friday, 17 August 2012

the clouds are whitest at night
as I pre­tend cricket rasps change 
their shape. My il­licit cigar,
a scent of bour­bon in my
empty glass, dog’s fur
un­der hand, a fil­a­ment
for numb fin­gers
fum­bling while
ci­cadas sing. 

Insomnia

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #47:Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia.

Ever need a good night’s sleep so badly that you just stop car­ing about any­thing and every­thing around you? Your moral­ity fog­gily dis­in­te­grates, your goals be­come dis­jointed, your ego shriv­els, and even your id is only ca­pa­ble of short bursts of primeval ac­tion. That’s what life in gen­eral is like above the Arctic Circle, ap­par­ently. Even worse if you’re a dis­graced in­ves­ti­ga­tor from be­low the cir­cle and you show up dur­ing the Midnight Sun to solve a seem­ingly per­fect mur­der and you get so messed up on sleep de­pri­va­tion that you ac­ci­den­tally kill your part­ner while the mur­derer you’re hunt­ing watches.

All of this is won­der­fully con­veyed through the ter­ri­fy­ing, evenly lit at­mos­phere of Norway, the con­stant white light, white fog, white sky, white build­ings is nearly sick­en­ing; the blur­ri­ness be­tween re­al­ity and hal­lu­ci­na­tion, of­ten con­veyed through spin­ning, dis­ori­ented cam­era move­ments, puts a viewer in nearly the same emo­tional state as Detective Engstrom. While we loll about pas­sively in our stu­por we watch him push him­self to both ap­pre­hend the killer and pro­tect his own ass.

While the story is a fairly typ­i­cal crime drama, the added con­ceit pro­vided by an en­vi­ron­ment where the sun just spins around the sky adds an­other layer of dif­fi­culty to the plot, and the ad­di­tional “what is real” adds a be­liev­able el­e­ment of un­cer­tainty to the film that is akin to some­thing you’d ex­pect from a psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror film but that doesn’t re­quire a sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief to gain pur­chase.

I have no in­ter­est in watch­ing the Hollywood re­make star­ring Al Pacino in Alaska.

Henry V

Sunday, 12 August 2012

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #41: Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.

There’s an aw­ful lot of British “Adieuing” in this play about the Battle of Agincourt. Had to get that out of my sys­tem. This is film that is best talked about in terms of its his­tor­i­cal con­text, which Bruce Eder’s Criterion es­say does and which you should read. I want to write about a few things that struck me most in this adap­ta­tion.

First off, the self-ef­fac­ing in­tro­duc­tion, which begs the view­ers in­dul­gence for the in­evitable lacks of the stage-per­for­mance, rings dou­bly true and pro­pa­gandic for the ra­tioned and war torn Britain in which it was filmed and re­leased. The film is the nat­u­ral choice for rous­ing the mar­tial spirit of Britain in a time in which it was sorely needed, and though the French are the en­emy in the play, the au­di­ence could eas­ily be ex­pected to trans­fer that an­i­mos­ity to­ward the Germans. The fit of Henry V into the role of pro­pa­ganda is al­most un­nat­u­ral in its ease.

Secondly, the pro­duc­tion it­self slowly draws it­self away from stage play and into the thick of things, cul­mi­nat­ing in the ex­cit­ing Battle of Agincourt it­self. Then, just as gen­tly, we’re drawn back into the stage play at the end of things. I thought this was a re­mark­ably hon­est way of deal­ing with the is­sues that can plague an adap­ta­tion of a play into a film.

Finally, I wasn’t a fan of all the lovey-dovey with the French sce­nes. I rec­og­nize their im­por­tance as pro­pa­ganda & the con­text within the play it­self, but in terms of all that was ex­cised from the play in or­der to make it fit into a film can­is­ter I think they could have made bet­ter choices. The pol­i­tick­ing felt tacked on.

Empire of Passion

Saturday, 4 August 2012

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #467: Nagisa Oshima’s Empire of Passion.

What goes around comes around; and in this tale of lust, mur­der, guilt, and in­san­ity, a cir­cle mo­tif ap­pears time and again as a re­minder. Many Japanese pe­riod pieces fea­ture char­ac­ters with the agency & power to change their world; or fail­ing that, the in­tel­li­gence to rec­og­nize their lim­i­ta­tions in that re­gard. The peas­ants in Empire of Passion have nei­ther agency or power, nor the in­tel­li­gence to cope with the dreams they mis­tak­enly think they can make re­al­ity. Placed in 1895, solidly within the Meiji era, the plight of Seki & Toyoji, their in­abil­ity to cope with the changes they’ve wrought in their own lives echo the changes that Japanese so­ci­ety was deal­ing with in its ef­forts to mod­ern­ize.

Toyoji, re­turned from mod­ern war to the tra­di­tional vil­lage, is rest­less at the pace of life and the com­pla­cency of the vil­lagers he’s sur­rounded by. He lights a fire un­der in­no­cent Seki, 26 years his se­nior, and mar­ried. They have lots of hot sex, but they’re all fraught, the first one is rape, the last, cov­ered in of­fal af­ter dredg­ing a well for the corpse of Seki’s hus­band, Seki begs Toyoji to kill her even as she comes.

The ghost of the dead hus­band just wants to pull his rick­shaw, and grad­u­ally haunts more than Seki in his rest­less quest to dis­cover why he can’t go on as he had be­fore. The ar­rival of the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tor, the burn­ing of Seki’s hut, sign af­ter sign re­it­er­ates the theme that the tra­di­tions of the past can­not en­dure mod­ern­iza­tion. The mit­i­ga­tion for this is man­aged by  the nar­ra­tor open­ing and clos­ing the tale to com­forted us with a feel­ing that though change is con­stant and in­evitable the life of a com­mu­nity con­tin­ues in spite of it.