Monday, 22 June 2009

The last utopia

Saw Godwin's Law mentioned somewhere today, and it made me realize, blogs which avowedly exist as a launchpad to discussion (for films, which is what I know, the two obvious examples are Girish and Dave Kehr) consistently prove this wrong. It probably helps having something specific to talk about, but still, there's something beautiful about it.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Road Movie

One of the most interesting things about Christian Petzold's Yella is the way it reconfigures the car not as a living space or as a space of self-realization, but as a working place. In the US, the car is freedom and social status, or somehow dialectically linked to these ideas. No such approach here: the car is not limited to its social function of wealth indicator (though it is also that), it is mainly a place where economic relations (therefore power relations, since power is with he who wields balance sheets best) are determined, through deceit or its acknowledgement.
What makes the film intelligent is that it does all of this after having set up the car as an instrument of persecution (in the shot of Yella being followed from inside the car), and then violence (in the car crash). No wonder then that the only moment when the car is used for a journey (of sorts), and then driven off course (to Yella's home town), as opposed to the commuting seen until then, should lead to conflict: relationships are not defined anymore if the car is taken off its predetermined course...

Saturday, 13 June 2009


Coraline on Saturday, and one of the most pleasurable trips at the cinema I've had this term (not that I've had many). The film is great, but it has many flaws, and one of the most interesting is that which badly harms the last third of the film: the narration plays out like a video game.
Coraline is set a task, to find three eyes, hidden in three places visited previously in the film; she sets about doing exactly that, and finds them one after the other, with only marginal excitement thrown in; after that, she confronts the villain. It has the same feel as the tasks in Pan's Labyrinth: the episodic structure weakens the dramatic impact completely; one could take away any one of the three "eye" scenes without it affecting the way Coraline sets about doing the other two in the slightest.
That the same fault should appear in two films that happen on the frontier between reality and a little girl's imagination is quite interesting, I'm at a loss to explain it. Considering Del Toro's film's success (I need to revisit it, was underwhelmed when I saw it), it might be a case of influence, but even then, there is definitely a case of contamination of video game structures into cinema. One day, someone will write an in-depth study of video game video sequences, but what that will leave out is the overriding way of organizing narrative progression: levels, portals. Maybe even save games (could they be the logical consequence of the cliff-hangers of TV series?)?
What is interesting is that as much as the origin in both cases seems to be video games, upon further thought the structure is also reminiscent of exactly what Pan's Labyrinth wanted to be: fairy tales. The princess is given three nuts in which she finds three dresses which... The tailor is given three nights in which to find out why the seven princesses' shoes are worn out every morning... Pan succeeds in bringing up this image better than Coraline, but it's there.

Otherwise, the film is delightful. I haven't been following animation as closely as I would like (despite thinking it shameful that it is so often neglected), but this seems to me one of the best western animated films in a long time. The reason I say western is that Amazing Life of the Fast Food Grifters, Paprika or especially Spirited Away belong to the list of the best films of the decade, not the best animated films...
And, alas, eastern European animation, not to mention middle eastern, remains criminally unknown...
Which makes me think that uncovering this bountiful treasure should be one of the possibilities offered by internet. Here's a good place to start, I think.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Afrique 50

Back after a few days without internet, and before two weeks of revision (I might still post a bit). Managed to find René Vautier's Afrique 50 on internet today, which of course had me tremendously happy. Promptly downloaded it and watched it, here are a few thoughts.

-The film seems to me inextricably linked to its production, reminding me of Assayas's comment that L'Eau Froide was more important as an experience than as a result. This is not the case here, as the film is great seen today, but appreciation of how it was made (illegally, Vautier having run off from the French police in Africa to shoot it; when he came back, most of the material was seized except that fragments that make up the film I saw, for which he recorded the voice-over commentary while in the police station) definitely enhances the experience: here is, for real this time, that old cliché: filming as a weapon, as an act instead of a gaze.

-The voice-over. The use of "tu" for both the audience and the filmmaker, alternately, puts the words of the african subject, said by the filmmaker, and the words of the french citizen (turned dissident) on the same level. The"tu" of the African (note: there is not much indication of where the images come from, which is why I'm using African as an umbrella term) to the filmmaker is worth the same as the "tu" of the filmmaker to his audience. One wonders what the film would have been like with direct sound, which would have enabled Vautier to transmit the African "tu" directly.
The voice-over also provides a violent counterpoint to what I definitely did not expect from the images: their beauty. The sequence of the opening of the dam (around the 8 min mark) actually reminded me of Vertov's Enthusiasm more than anything else in its formal attention to bodies at work. But whereas Vertov praises the bodies who engage in voluntary work, Vautier admires the bodies of the African quasi-slaves while, with the voice-over, virulently denouncing what lies behind that image. The image could be admirable, but the voice-over reminds us that what we admire, in the present conditions, is quasi-slavery. Likewise for the children playing: they play because there is no school.
The voice-over therefore almost becomes an investigation into what we have a right to admire or not. The fervor of the ending minutes, which documents the insurrection and calls for its continuation, is the one moment when euphoric commentary on beautiful images is possible. The genius of it lies in the fact that that euphoric commentary is impossible for what the original target audience (the film was commissioned by the french state for educational purposes) would have considered beautiful, whereas it is necessary for precisely what that audience would not have wanted to face. By its very structure, the film describes the moral inversion at the heart of the colonialist gaze which would view the African as subject beautiful, but the African as citizen intolerable, and restores it to its proper place.

-The music. Possibly the only option to replace the African voice that Vautier could not get? The music here expresses all it should, and everything that western (classical?) music could, but has no right to.