Friday, December 12, 2008

Santa Fe: Some Highlights

I think I've probably violated some tacit blogosphere codes of conduct by posting the best of my observations from Santa Fe here on What Is This Light. Well, as I wise woman once said, tough noogies. I've gotta keep this stuff close by since that little Santa Fe Film Fest space, though successful in its moment (hotdog!!!), might go under something or get lost somewhere or just change a lot in the future. Ha, but of course this space right here will be around forever, right? Because, its not like blogging is at best a historically bound social movement and at worst a fad, right? Right then. Below are some of the things I wrote at the Santa Fe Film Festival 2008. There will probably be more reflection about the things I saw there, but right now those things are chomping up my mind-heart and can't yet be born into the world.

Santa Fe: Guerrilla

Predictably, I'm behind in my reportage and, predictably, I don't have much time to catch up. But, I must finally make time to scratch this pesky brain-itch left by the second half of Steven Soderbergh's Che.

In the piece I wrote about Che: Argentine, I described the inability of the first half of this epic to stand alone and, in Soderbergh's language, the strong 'response' necessary from Guerrilla to fully answer The Argentine's 'call'. Well, answer it did. For as much as The Argentine is a perfect climb, Guerrilla is a terrifying plummet and, as I had imagined (with the help of Amy Taubin and Steven Soderbergh--FilmComment Nov/Dec), the two films only make sense when read together. Indeed, they have a perfect inverse relationship, such that adding these films in the straightforward math problem they suggest, leaves one at an impenetrable zero. I have mixed feelings about this. I would have been brought even deeper if our gallant Che of The Argentine had been a bit conflicted about ANYTHING or at least faced a few more obstacles and, similarly, I would have sunk even further under the weight of Guerrilla if Che ever swerved from his march toward death. That being said, the mathematical problem at hand is a fascinating one, producing a symmetry that I'd like to analyze until my brain swells. I want to watch the movies on two screens side by side and then I want to write volumes and then I want to draw it and then paint it. For now, I'll just write some notes.

When we left Che in Argentine, he was just settling into victory in Cuba and when we catch up with him in Guerrilla, he's making plans and getting ready to start the fight in Bolivia. The interim we miss is an active one: Castro's regime took some brutal steps to consolidate power and Che was very much a part of this; further, Che tried to export the revolution to the Congo and failed catastrophically. However political or controversial this ellipsis is, the toll of these years shows up in Benicio Del Toro's bedraggled face, in his gait, and in his tired eyes. The Bolivian color pallet is most often gray and bleak compared to the vibrancy of the Cuban and New York settings in Argentine. Guerrilla's camera abandons the artful (semi-distracting) close ups and fragmentation of the New York sequences and the hyper-sleek look of the Cuban battles in favor of hand-held camera whose first language is anxiety. This camera seeks out encapsulating details: a white wet horse in the blue night, Che's beard and hair grown wild, a bloody towel, dried leaves shaking with the wind. With Alberto Iglesias' score echoing through the mountains, these elements compose a death march on the level of Werner Herzog's haunting Aguirre, Wrath of God (1977). The Andean scenery is only the outer ether of these films' kindred spirits. Both Herzog and Soderbergh's men realize their fate and continue on their march, knowing that the futility of the thing might hit them if they stop. They watch things, minds, and bodies deteriorate as they climb through the mountains and force their minds into strange positions in order to carry on. Herzog's journey eventually moves so internal, goes so mental, that landscape becomes a reflection of the men's insanity. While Soderbergh doesn't go this far--he keeps us witness to the death march instead of putting us right in the center of its psychosis--he does slowly turn his movie into a horror film. This idea about war-film and horror-film is debatable (debate with me!) but there are a few scenes that speak the language of horror quite clearly. Most notably, when a camera follows at a distance behind three soldiers walking up a hill so that, while our three heroes appear oblivious, the audience and the camera seem to know something terrible is coming up the other side of that hill; and also, when a certain line of men assembles (and you'll know it when you see it) causing such terror to descend, such a feeling of being trapped that is exactly the same stuff of the They're-Calling-From-Inside-The-House realization.
All of that stuff up there in that paragraph, it builds a color, tone, and noise that's Argentine's opposite, but it doesn't get at the exact kind of symmetry I'm out to describe. Because within this tableau, Soderbergh has taken a fine edged knife to carve out moments and images in Guerrilla that are direct quotations of Argentine, just flipped. Of the most obvious, in Argentine Che makes protestations at allowing a 16 and a 14 year old to fight for the revolution but, met with the same situation in Guerrilla, Che simply states, "At 16, a man already knows what he wants." End of discussion. He gives the same speeches to similarly assembled men, asking them to decide now if they don't have it in them and if they want to leave. In Cuba, this feels inspirational (weeding out the garbage! hurrah hurrah!) and even gets funny. In Bolivia, it feels like a trap, like everyone wants to desert but for some reason they won't...or can't. In Cuba, Che's comments about perseverance come off as inspirational while in Bolivia they just seem criminal. The squabbles between Cuban soldiers are set up as jokes for the audience to take a breather from the action but disagreements between Bolivian soldiers spell real danger. While the Cuban revolutionaries help peasants along the way, giving them food and medical care, the Bolivian peasants get caught in the crossfire and are used and abused by both the Bolivian army and, due to their desperation and disorder, the revolutionaries. The times when Che and his men do help the peasants in Bolivia, we're shown a close-up of a grotesquely infected child's eye whereas the mantra in Cuba seems to be a happy "more meat and less work!" The deaths in Cuba felt somewhat expendable, even if sometimes they made Che very sad, but the deaths in Bolivia feel like portents. Che constantly pushed his willing and energized Cuban comrades toward education of all sorts, but in Bolivia one man seems to speak for all when he says, "We are too old to learn, when the wheel rolls down hill, let it go." Che's asthma in Cuba was proof of his heroics but in Bolivia it brings us to one of the most startling and tragic moments in the film. Argentine marks time only when switching between periods, but in Guerrilla, we watch the days tick by--at day 340, I found my jaw quite literally dropped. I should stop. But you get the idea.

The call of the Argentine is answered in Guerrilla. They belong only together. I have yet to navigate my affection for these films. Are they great? But until I have another 4 hours to spare, Che will stick with me as a formally and structurally entertaining film. I will also probably continue to wish Benicio Del Toro would walk through the door and look in my eyes and say, "What makes a revolutionary?...Love. Love."

Santa Fe: Kassim the Dream

Kassim the Dream comes to SFFF as part of the American Film Institute Project 20/20. A documentary, the film tells the story of Kassim "The Dream" Ouma, his past as a child-soldier in Uganda, his success story as a professional boxer in the United States, and his trip back to Africa. You can imagine the clichés a story like this could throw up and the sensationalist and exploitive tack a filmmaker could take, but I can assure you, you can't imagine the graceful balance of humor and sincere emotion with which filmmaker Kief Davidson succeeds in this project.

The film is well made. It knows when to pause and it knows when to party. It stays really funny, really serious, really adorable, and really sad without ever crossing into excess, an accomplishment that evidences the hard work and smart decision-making behind this film. Shifting from eloquent footage symbolic of Kassim's past, to professional boxing matches, to Kassim and his family, to interviews with boxing experts and Kassim's closest friends, to Kassim's return to Uganda, Davidson's work manages a number of different aesthetic and emotional demands quite seamlessly and maintains the spirit of the film. This spirit, as Davidson himself acknowledged in a post-screening Q&A, is Kassim's. And really, this is where the heart of the film lovingly rests. Kassim is magnetic. Through much of the film, he smiles a smile that made me sure I was right there with him laughing at his kids' Cuteness (that's a capital 'C') and sharing in his joy. He's a professional boxer and an ex-child-soldier, two worlds that--in obviously quite different ways--breed violence and one-track minds, yet Kassim persists in his complicated existence: he tears up at a devastating loss in the ring; he winces and squirms as his hair is tugged and braided; he believes in the choices he has made; he opens himself up to the emotional reality of his past and present with a courage and commitment I can't begin to describe here.

Above all, this is one of the most viscerally and joyfully engaging movies I've seen in a while. Kassim's love for life is too beautiful and the tragedy beneath everything is too overwhelming for this film not to make an impact. There was a moment in this film, after Kassim has faced the terror of his past and the Uganda he left behind, where Kassim gives a glance and a strained sigh that showed me grief complete and brought me very near a feared edge. I imagine anyone could find a moment of that magnitude in this film.

Sant Fe: Las Meninas

Yesterday was wild fun. My afternoon started with Las Meninas, a film that hails from Ukraine and, more specifically, from the mind of painter Igor Podolchak and cinematographer Svetlana Makarenko. It's a disturbing poem that communicates a world of immense claustrophobia, darkness, anxiety, and hyper-aurality inspired, it seems, by both Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror and 18th-century still-life painting. While I can't speak much for the latter--except for the film's fascination with food on plates, grapes and other fruit in bowls, table-settings and especially silverware, clothing, fabrics, and the stylized lounging of women--I can comment on a few of the ways this film evokes Tarkovsky's vision in Mirror.

For one, Las Meninas takes an interest in how sound and images constitute one another. The sound of a fork scratching a plate is pushed to unbearable heights; voices and words layer and repeat; falling sugar cubes hit the ground with the sound of shattering glass; the sounds of opening a cabinet or closing a door are just amiss from their corresponding visual component. Through such an active and unpredictable auditory world, Podolchak not only gives us the chance to examine the relationship between sound and image but also meditates on the idea of silence and how it breaks.

This film also moves like Mirror in its constant linking of ideas and people through very physical substances and elements--water, urine, hair, metals, grapes--and more abstract threads--words, camera angles, colors. Further, these people live in a house of mirrors, windows, and other framing devices. They are perpetually not only themselves, but their reflection, the reflection of their reflections, reflections of objects in the house, and of each other. The most enjoyable part of this film for me was the commitment of the camera to interact with these mirror images in ever more clever ways. For about 10 minutes, all of the action takes place in a mirror on a far wall. We see people move in and out of this frame but the large and luxurious room around it remains inanimate. After a time, we begin to see only this mirror; even though it is reduced to about 1/16th of the "real" cinema screen, it holds the moving images and so we start to conceive of it as the movie. We fall into this illusion of these mirror images so deeply that it's a bit startling when the outer world of the "real life" room begins to interact with the mirror/mini-cinema screen. These moments (of which there are many) when the house of mirrors, or the clever drift and zoom of the camera, or a play with light and darkness create insightful illusions, but the film never reaches the dramatic heights and beauty that make something like Mirror so utterly mind-blowing (see the kind of strange poem-y things I have to scream out every time I see the movie in this older post). But, I realize that's like saying this review doesn't quite hit the mark André Bazin, or Pauline Kael, or J. Hoberman would have.

My only real complaint with Las Meninas was its rather grotesque treatment of the female body. The film renders all sexuality rather disgusting, a choice which adds to the effective and well-crafted discomfort of a lot of this film, but the men seem to at least be in charge of their grotesque behavior whereas the women are subject to A TON of skirt lifting and physical violation by male figures, including a difficult-to-stomach fetishization of the straps and girdles that keep them all locked up. Not to mention that many of the (crotch) shots put the viewer in a voyeuristic position, leaving me feeling both violated and predatory. One woman leaving the theater exclaimed, "I just kept crossing my legs!" But do go see this movie if you're willing to abandon any taste for narrative in order to check out how Tarkovsky's ideas live on through Podolchak, Makarchak, and contemporary Ukrainian cinema

Santa Fe: The Argentine

Well, consider this thing up and running. Last night Santa Fe Film Festival '08 kicked off with Steven Soderbergh's Che: The Argentine, the first half of his epic on Ernesto Che Guevara, that mythic giant in which filmmakers, authors, historians, and trend-setters continue to see endless intrigue, beauty, and profitability. I can't say I'm opposed; Che's life and transfixing gaze is the stuff film thrives upon:
I mean, Right?
As such, any new work on Che begs certain questions about its contribution to or detraction from myth-making and, more broadly, its engagement with history. I have to see the second half (Che: Guerrilla, which tells of Che's attempt to export the fundamentals of the Cuban Revolution to Bolivia and screens tonight in Santa Fe, same time same place) to think through these historical/cinematic questions. I will say, however, that Part 1 does nothing to challenge Che's star-status. In Benicio Del Toro, Che is shown to be a revolutionary, a soldier, a teacher, a doctor, a den-mother, an intellectual, a beauty, a gentleman, a disciplinarian, a symbol, a star, a snarky dude, and a man of unquestionable moral dignity. If reading that list was annoying, I only did it to conjure what I was feeling in The Argentine's least subtle moments. Soderbergh does a convincing job showing the day-to-day of these revolutionaries out there in the jungle, mustering enough faith and will-power in their moment-by-moment existence to ultimately make something HUGE happen, but at times, this quiet climb to power is broken by moments that can only be described as cute. I know, I feel weird about that too. I need both hands and a few toes to count the number of times Che scolds one of his soldiers for smoking something goofy instead of doing some math homework, or taking the enemy's convertible in victory, or calling each other names. He rolls his eyes at his kids' silliness and we all feel in good, strong hands. But, Che is so terribly good, it hurts. Sure, we see him change into the iconic images pop culture's taken hold of. We see him donning beret and smoking cigars with his comrades and soaking up the victory, but even in the moments when we most expect the saintly Che persona to fall and crash--or at least crack! splinter! show any sign of weakness!--he more fiercely maintains it. "Can I get my stuff and go home, Che?" a soldier asks, "No, the war is over, but the revolution is just beginning," he says, with the tenor of his voice and the glint in his eye pointing us back to all of his previous noble encounters with the sick, the tired, and the dejected.

Papa-Bear, Den-Mother Che
There is quite literally, however, a piece missing to these observations, namely the second half of the movie. In her 2002 Filmmaker and her 2008 Film Comment articles, Amy Taubin argues that the "structuring principle underlying [Soderbergh's] films is contradiction, not in the Marxist political sense but as an aesthetic according to which an object is defined by what it is not. Contradiction determines the shape not only of Soderbergh's individual films but also the relationship of one to another. The sexy, extroverted Out of Sight (1998) and the melancholy, introspective The Limey (1999), for example, are more dazzling as a pop art couple than either is on its own. What Soderbergh terms the call and response relation between The Argentine and Guerrilla is intrinsic to their form and meaning." Without even seeing Part 2, I'm willing to bet I'd rather think of Che as one movie rather than two, for the 'call' of The Argentine is much too lean and weak without a response, one that hopefully Guerrilla will provide. Standing alone, The Argentine is a story of climb and advance, climb and advance, etc, etc, etc, without any counterpoint. Of course we know the Revolution happens, of course we know our winners are going to win, but Soderbergh doesn't employ the strange sort of suspense commonly used in stories with obvious endings--Titanic or, perhaps better articulated, the recent Milk. And so, I don't really know what to do with the narrative of The Argentine. In a way, so much happens but nothing happens at all: Castro and Che decide to go for it, their success builds, and then they win. Since they do just win, this movie never approaches the stunning, narrative-bending circles of something like Zodiac, but it is, quite strangely, an action-film with a serious affinity for monotony. And even when the obvious does come, it's clear that's not really what we've been working toward the whole time anyway. The rather exciting routine of The Argentine calls, indeed screams out, for its other half.

All of that being said, I was pretty much entertained the whole time, an entertainment factor which, for me, was about 80% fascination and astonishment with the formal qualities of this film. Firstly, though the plot is excessively straightforward, it's told elliptically and at times has the sensibility of an amped-up Terrence Malick film in its will to unpredictably cut from or linger on images. (Malick wrote the initial version of the script and his influence flits and flutters throughout the film). It jumps from era to era, giving sometimes incongruent moments to make up a whole. To make matters more beautiful, scenes depicting Che at the UN in New York are shot in a black and white 16mm that will knock your socks off. I reached out to touch its texture and taste its richness, thinking the energy that film strip produced could not possibly be kept on the screen. The jungle scenes, on the other hand, are shot with a new digital camera prototype called The Red One, a camera that Taubin describes as "capable of delivering scope-dimension images with the lush, satiny beauty of 35mm." I have definitely never seen a camera that moved so quickly but captured so much so clearly and colorfully. The contrast and collaboration between these two delicacies is divine and I'd see it again (on the big screen, gotta see this one on the big screen!) just for the pleasure it wrought on my eye-balls.

So, onward and upward. I hope the Guerrilla leaves me jaw-dropped and wimpering, I really do. But first, so many more movies. I'm outa time and hope to get back here on the blog soon. Until then, then.

Santa Fe: Waltz With Bashir and the Fog of War

The Santa Fe Film Festival has the good fortune of screening Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir as one of this year's Gala Presentations. The film received six awards from the Israeli Film Academy-- including Best Film, Director, and Screenplay--as well as critical acclaim from festivals around the world.

As an animated war documentary, from the outset Waltz With Bashir operates on intriguing ground. After all, documentaries are supposed to at least tip their hats to that murky, malleable concept of objectivity, so why the cartoon medium in this business of uncovering truth? This film makes these somewhat contradictory modes of form and genre work in a strange kind of tandem by which animated images, film, dreams, individual and collective memory (or amnesia), and history all come under interrogation. Folman's findings show these soldiers' pasts, Israel's past, and--by explicit extension--all stories of war as mediated and re-mediated. Venturing through (and learning from) the layers of emotion, through the clouding forces of time, through attempt after attempt at self-preservation, through the mind's purposeful gaps and holes in its powers of repression, leaves Folman and all of us at last staring at the overwhelming and revolting truth--at least a far less mediated version of it.

An Israeli veteran from the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon, Folman opens the film with his realization that he has virtually no memory of the war and thus ventures on a personal and cinematic quest to uncover what actually happened. On this point, Waltz with Bashir embarks on the kind of fact-finding missions of more traditional documentaries and halts on familiar questions of post-war reflection, namely, who and how did I hurt. He interviews classmates, other soldiers, the first Israeli reporter on the war, and his best friend who also happens to be an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder. Slowly, the pieces start to come together around the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, an astounding incident that left thousands of Palestinians dead by the hands of Lebanese Phalangist militiamen and by the acquiescence of Israeli forces.

Such interviews and historical descriptive elements could have thrived on film/video as another talking-head/news footage documentary, but Folman’s movie demands more. Waltz with Bashir is made complete not by mountains of facts but by the fog of memory, the fluidity of dreams, and a severe emotional and aesthetic darkness. In other words, a revealing interview with the ex-reporter carries the same narrative significance as a friend's dream in which he jumps the boat to war and finds refuge on the curves of a giant naked woman backstroking in the sea. A pack of wild charging dogs, their ferocity other-worldly; a vague and repeating vision of silhouettes emerging from water; a surreal dance through gunfire–these elements necessitate the animated image in order to realize their full effect. “I knew it had to be this way,” says Folman, “if I couldn’t animate the film, I couldn’t do it at all.”

And so, Waltz with Bashir manages a difficult harmony of elements. The animated image pulls us into personal dream worlds that, side by side with interviews and bits of historical exposition, compose Waltz with Bashir’s truth, a truth which lies both in the hidden intimacies of one man’s memory and in the assertion that universally, war is hell.