Monday, April 30, 2007

Breaking Silence


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I've really been enjoying the 50th S.F. International Film Festival over the past few days. The filmgoing is fun of course, but at least as much of the fun has been found in meeting up and talking movies with discourse-hungry cinephiles, whether longtime friends I don't see as often as I should, or with folks I've only just met. This evening at the Kabuki the festival publicity department hosted a gathering of bloggers and other web-centric writers, many of whom I'd only ever been introduced before to through their work online. I swapped stories with Cathleen Rountree, exchanged a few words with Kevin Lee, and more, all only a day after finally meeting Lincoln Specter of Bayflicks, a major inspiration for this site. I particularly enjoyed a brief conversation with Tony An because he too had seen Sounds of Sand and, though our reactions to the film were very different, I found I finally had an outlet in which I could respectfully dislodge all my opinions on the film, and get a thoughtful rebuttal to boot. I don't feel I can really get into too many of the specifics, as the film is at "hold review" status, meaning I'm supposed to wait until it gets a commercial release before I say more than seventy-five words on it. But to put it briefly, I agree with others who have called the film "soulless", "predictable" and "self-congratulatory", though I must admit that because of a) its eye-popping landscape photography and b) the cross-cultural issues it brings forth through its very existence as a film shot in Africa by a European, an international film festival is perhaps the ideal environment for it to be seen and discussed in.

Another hold review film is Private Fears In Public Places, which I'd call a mediocre play, exquisitely directed. In other words, a real test to the limits of my auteurist predelections (not that I'm nearly as well-versed in the cinema of Alain Resnais as I'd like to be). My favorite new film seen at the festival so far has got to be the aptly-named Opera Jawa. (And no, it has nothing to do with cloaked scavengers other than the fact that back in the seventies a certain festival honoree took to appropriating names from the world's cultures for his creature creations, including the word Indonesians use for their most populous island Java.) But this New Crowned Hope film is something I feel I need to sit with for a while before being able to say anything substantial about. It certainly was beautiful on the big Castro Theatre screen.

No, the films I feel I can most usefully talk about at this bleary-eyed stage of festival madness, are the ones I attended in my capacity as a silent film devotee. Well, near-devotee, I suppose. A full-fledged devotee would never have let himself miss Saturday afternoon's Castro screening of the Iron Mask with Kevin Brownlow in attendance, even if he was scheduled to work and the film was screening with a sound-on-print score instead of a live musical accompaniment. I mean, I'm not the hugest fan of Carl Davis but he is the man the utterly tasteful Brownlow chose for the job of providing the music to the film he restored, and I'm sure the score has merit. Anyway, I wish I could have made it to that screening, which I hear was, of Brownlow's three festival appearances this weekend in honor of his hugely justified receipt of the Mel Novikoff Award for "enhancing the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema," the most delightfully anecdote-rich.

You probably already know what a legend in his own time Brownlow is. If he had only made his two so-called "amateur" masterpieces, It Happened Here! and Winstanley, his places in British and World Cinema History would be assured. But he has so generously recorded and popularized under-explored sections of cinema history through his unceasing efforts as a writer, interviewer, preservationist, and documentary filmmaker, that his impact is even more felt on the way we and future generations will be able to regard these histories. For my part, I can credit my borrowing of his "Cinema Europe: the Other Hollywood" miniseries from the local library, as much as anything else I can think of, for my interest in movies blossoming into a full-fledged cinephilia. I haven't read all of his books or seen all his documentaries yet, but so far I've been transfixed by each I've encountered. And the idea of seeing his 2000 restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon in a cinema, even if due to rights issues it has to be in another country, is one of my greatest cinephile dreams.

Seeing Brownlow speak in person, taking a rapt audience through a program of immaculately-projected, grandly-accompanied (by pianist Judith Rosenberg) short films and excerpts, at the Pacific Film Archive yesterday evening might have been another, had I the imagination to dream it. Some of the films and scenes he showed were great. Others were not terribly special beyond their status as relative rarities. But all were provided with fascinating context by Brownlow. Before showing the 1913 short Suspense, directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, he alerted us to take note of an early use of a three-way split-screen effect to acknowledge a telephone conversation and its subject (the splitting diagonals elegantly taking their angle from a lampshade in the center of the frame), but also ruled out the possibility of it being the earliest such use, as he'd seen an earlier Danish film employ a similar effect. He showed a film made in Frisco Bay's backyard, Broncho Billy's Adventure, filmed by the Essanay in a rather empty-looking San Rafael before the studio settled in at Niles in the East Bay. He showed a film promoting kit homes, made by the Ford Motor Company, that he suspected was a likely influence on Buster Keaton's One Week, and then he showed both complete reels of Keaton's comedy tour-de-force. Believe it or not, I had never before seen One Week, though it plays fairly often at Frisco Bay theatres, including a showing at last year's SFIFF. Somehow I'd never made it to another local screening, and I had resisted successfully the lure of DVD and youtube presentations of the film. Now I know why: to save myself for the privilege of experiencing it for the first time with a terrific live score, a laughing audience, and in the glow of Brownlow's marvelous enthusiasm and insight.

It wasn't all laughter and delight, though. When introducing a clip from Raymond Bernard's the Chess Player, Brownlow reminded the room full of silent film enthusiasts, with a healthy contingent of scholars and archivists, of a darker side to the history of film preservation. He told of how "we owe the existence of this film to the Gestapo," as the Nazis, who I did not realize had created the first film archive, confiscated the Chess Player among other films when they arrested Bernard during the occupation. They released the director on the urging of his famous father Tristan Bernard, but kept the films safe from destruction during the war (except for reel one of the Chess Player, which disappeared). The clip made the film look like a tremendous epic, but I'm not sure I'll ever be able to watch Bernard's film without thinking of how bitter a victory it is when great objects of art are saved while so much else is lost.

After the screening, there was a very brief question-and-answer session in which Brownlow demonstrated his quick wit and ability to oh-so-gracefully deal with a question asked in more of a spirit of showing off in than requesting knowledge, but before the house was cleared I was thankful to get a chance to approach the man and ask a question in person. I felt I had to ask something about the documentary he'd directed, Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic, since he'd had to bow out of the q-and-a after that 9:15 PM Saturday screening due to jet lag. I probably should have asked about the doc's absolutely breathtaking Elmer Bernstein underscore (according to imdb, it's the legendary composer's last credit), or about how his impression of DeMille had changed since making the "Autocrats" episode of his "Hollywood" miniseries in 1980. Or else just thanked him for the evening. But I couldn't resist posing an entirely too-big question about DeMille's sincerity, and he oh-so-gracefully gave an answer about how the director's cynicism was far more evident in the sound era than the silent. Though I doubt Mr. Brownlow intended it as such, I'm trying to take it as a lesson against wordiness.

Which should be my cue to wrap this post up. But before I do, I just want to point out a few more silent film-related offerings that are of great interest to me. While the SFIFF is still in full force, there are two more such programs: Notes to a Toon Underground, a May 5th program of old and new silent animations backed by live music from local indie rockers, and Guy Maddin's neo-silent Brand Upon the Brain with live music and Joan Chen as guest narrator on May 7th, both at the Castro.

This summer, the Niles Essanay Film Museum will show 35mm prints of Broncho Billy's Adventure and 56 more Essanay films of all sorts in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the film company's founding. It starts June 2nd when the 1915 Charlie Chaplin Essanay short His New Job plays in front of the first feature he directed, the Kid. Each subsequent Saturday evening will find Essanay films gracing the Edison Theatre screen, culminating in the tenth annual edition of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, June 29-July 1, which will include Essanay films featuring Max Linder, Gloria Swanson, Frances X. Bushman, Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson of course, and many many more. Niles is nestled in a remote enough corner of Frisco Bay for me to have only been there once, but I'd love to go again, and this series may just be the perfect excuse.

Then from July 13-15, it's Frisco's own Silent Film Festival, which has announced a sneak preview of four of the titles it's bringing to this year's edition: Beggars of Life by William Wellman, starring Louise Brooks as a cross-dressing railroad-hopper, the Cottage on Dartmoor, the final silent film directed by British director Anthony Asquith, the Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, one of the Ernst Lubitsch silent films that had been absent from the retrospective held at the PFA earlier this year, and the Godless Girl, clips of which were featured prominently in Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic. It looks to me like a great lineup as usual, but I have to admit my bias: I was recently honored to become a volunteer member of this year's film research committee, which means I'm charged with writing program notes for one of the films playing this July. Don't bother trying to guess which, since I won't tell, and it may not even be one of these four that have been announced so far. What I will say is this: the one I'm writing on is the only one I've seen as of yet, and as I'm learning more about the other researchers' films I'm growing more and more impatient to see them all on the big Castro screen.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Syndromes and a Censor


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Last night I finally got to see the new film I’ve been anticipating with more fervor than any other in the past six months, Syndromes and a Century by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose Tropical Malady was Cinemarati’s #10 film of 2005). This privilege felt bittersweet, however, knowing that Thai moviegoers, who had been anticipating the film at least as fervently as I, had just been denied an opportunity to see it on local cinema screens. As reported by Kong Rithdee, the Thai Censorship Board has demanded that Apichatpong cut four scenes from the film before letting it be released as scheduled on two Bangkok screens April 18th. The director refused to make the cuts, stating in the introduction to an online petition:
If these offspring of mine cannot live in their own country for whatever reasons, let them be free. Since there are other places that warmly welcome them as who they are, there is no reason to mutilate them from the fear of the system, or from greed. Otherwise there is no reason for one to continue making art.
If you’ve seen Blissfully Yours and are imagining the censored scenes might bear a resemblance to the sexually explicit images in that film, you might be surprised to learn that the contested content actually involves scenes with comparatively tame images:

1. A robed monk plays an acoustic guitar.

2. A doctor kisses his girlfriend while in his office, both fully clothed. A close-up of his crotch reveals that he is sexually aroused.

3. Another doctor hides whisky in a prosthetic leg in a hospital basement, and offers to share it with her colleagues, some of whom oblige.

4. A robed monk plays with a toy flying saucer in a city park.

It seems that these images are controversial because they show a human side to authority figures that are normally expected in Thai society to be portrayed in a very austere manner, even if it runs counter to the reality of daily life in modern Thailand. I’ve seen Thai monks playing guitars and otherwise recreating. Apichatpong’s parents are both doctors, so if any filmmaker might know about the behavior of the Thai medical profession when patients are not around, it would be him. Not that Apichatpong’s films employ documentary realism, or should be judged by those standards, of course. But a quote from a representative of the Thai Medical Council, "drinking whisky in a hospital is not proper conduct by medical professionals," betrays a rather simplistic understanding of the function and force of art in modern culture.

Syndromes and a Century itself shows the friction between as well as the gravity connecting the traditional and the modern, which befits a work commissioned for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Perhaps it was somehow inevitable that the Thai government, currently at something of a crossroads following last fall’s coup that left the country in the hands of the military, might react negatively to some of the situations in Apichatpong’s unconventional film. Somehow this quote by George Bernard Shaw seems appropriate:
The first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.
I encourage you to sign the petition here.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

For those who have seen Tropical Malady


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Friday night's event at the Pacific Film Archive, in which Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul guided the audience through a screening of his 2004 Cannes prize-winner Tropical Malady, marked perhaps the first time I was thankful, with no reservations whatsoever, that a theatrical screening was being projected from a DVD rather than a 35mm print. Such a print had been shown the previous night for the benefit of those of us who wanted to soak up the richness of the film's images in their full glory, but this night was to be devoted less to pure aesthetic pleasure than to textual analysis. With Apichatpong (or "Joe", as he is often called) in front of a microphone with his hand on a remote control allowing him to pause, slow forward, or adjust the audio level at will, it was a unique chance for something like a live director's audio commentary only all the more illuminating for its flexibility. Not only did Joe provide his own personal reflections and interpretations on this famously enigmatic film at precisely opportune moments, but PFA curator Steve Seid also asked audience members to call out "stop" when we thought of a question to ask for ourselves. After putting forth a poorly-worded query fairly early in the process I found myself too shy to pursue more, but others had some very insightful questions triggering fascinating answers.

Joe made several disclosures that I'd never remembered reading in reviews or interviews (perhaps I've just read the wrong ones), or hearing in the audio commentary discussion with Chuck Stephens on the Strand DVD. Some are interesting little tidbits regarding production, while others feel right now something like world-shattering revelations that cast the film in an entirely new light. Maybe there's a bit of both in all of them. I'll share a few of them (in paraphrase), but I implore you not to read further unless you've seen Tropical Malady before. I get the sense that Joe would rather that these tidbits/revelations not interfere with anyone's first experience with this very personal film for him. a.k.a. SPOILER WARNING!!!

1. One reason why the film is credited to three directors of photography is that working with Jean-Louis Vialard (Investigations Into the Invisible World, Dans Paris) was frustrating and he was soon taken off the film. Apparently his aggressive style of persuasion did not mesh well with the Thai style of making a film (or Joe's style, anyway). Vialard was adamant that certain shots be captured just a certain way, which required very long periods of time to set up the lighting.

My reaction: Maybe Vialard ought to have read a book like this before taking on the job? I must say, however, that the one shot Joe singled out as taking Vialard particularly long to set up (a half day), the one just before the end of the film's first half, in which Tong sits up from his bed, his body bifurcated by light and shadow, is particularly beautiful and perhaps on some level the key shot in the film.

2. According to Joe, one idea he had when making Tropical Malady is that all of the male characters in the film would be gay. Not only did he express this through certain casting choices and direction of actors, but also in design details such as posters adorning the walls of his locations.

My reaction: It's impossible not to notice the unblinking acceptance of homosexuality by the characters in Tropical Malady, including Tong's family who seem completely at ease with his interest in the soldier Keng, the sisters who offer to smoke the two lovers out, and essentially everyone else in the film. And there is definitely a lot of other flirtatious behavior with other men in the film, in scenes like the one in the pool hall for example. The entire first half of the film, at least up to the point of the roadside beating, feels like it exists in some kind of utopia. (Some have found the first half of the film to be so conflict-free as to be completely unsatisfying.) But it seems Joe's unifying idea behind this utopian state is one that never occurred to me at all. Fascinating food for further thought.

3. Tropical Malady has been praised for its sound design, in which the ambient sounds of the jungle and other environments are turned way up in the mix to a highly visceral level in a theatre with a good sound system. But according to the director, in Thailand there were many complaints that in certain scenes the dialogue was not audible enough to understand. Joe admitted that he didn't really mind that Thais couldn't clearly hear certain dialogue, an example being the conversation in which Keng tells Tong, "When I gave you the Clash tape I forgot to give you my heart."

My reaction: Though it might be tempting to use this disclosure as evidence that he makes his films for subtitle-reading festival audiences without thinking of audiences from own country, I think there's reason to conclude the contrary. In his DVD commentary with Chuck Stephens, Joe makes it clear that he's a little uncomfortable about the corniness of some of this lovestruck dialogue; it seems to me that he'd almost rather the audience not be let into his characters' private moment. Perhaps the Thai version, in which the dialogue can't really be made out, better represents his authorial intention in certain scenes than a fully subtitled version does.

I'm also interested in the way Joe deals with the foregrounding and withholding of sounds because I feel like his ideas on this front are interacting with the relatively short history of sound cinema in Thailand; as far as I know, no other country's film industry experienced a longer silent film era. As I understand it, it wasn't until the 1970s that Thai films stopped being distributed without soundtracks, with local troupes of voice actors providing the film dialogue in each village, a practice often seen as a holdover from the benshi-style narration practiced throughout East Asia until sound cinema displaced it, country by country, starting in the 1930s. What this has to do with Joe's films and videos is fodder for an entirely other realm of inquiry that I hope to explore someday.

4. The shot in which Keng rests against a tree was based on an old photograph of a resting hunter that Joe particularly liked. He asked the actor to hold the same pose as that of the subject of the photograph.

My reaction: More ammunition for a reading of Joe's work as postmodernist. He's clearly interested in a dialogue with imagemakers of the past, and not just those in the motion picture field. It's a great composition, anyway.

5. When you hear the sound of dogs crying in the distance, they were inspired by Joe's appreciation of hearing the same in Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry.

My reaction: I think this is the first confirmation I've heard that Joe has definitely been influenced by Kiarostami, though it's a contention that many critics have put forth. Even in this interview, in which he's asked to react to comparisons between his work and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's, Tsai Ming-Liang's, and Kiarostami's, Joe cops to a personal connection to Hou and Tsai, but essentially punts on the question of Kiarostami.

6. The shot of the tiger staring intently at Keng at the end of the film could never have been achieved naturally; tigers just don't do that sort of thing for the camera. Actually, the image was achieved through digital compositing by the German visual effects house that also worked on the ghostly zebu and the luminous tree effects. In fact the tiger's movements have been randomized and looped.

My reaction: Watch carefully the next time you see the film, and you'll definitely notice the loop. It's a pretty cool effect.

This event has definitely been a major highlight of my cinematic year so far, and I'm now all the more hungry to finally see Syndromes and a Century at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts next weekend. It gets six showings (five evening, one matinee) Friday through Sunday. Hopefully I can make it to at least two of them.