Heaven of Our Own / As If… by David Phelps

David Phelps rounds up the second half of the 2010 New York Film Festival, touching on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesMysteries of Lisbon,The Autobiography of Nikolai Ceasescu and some of avant-garde offerings.

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Still from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Courtesy Strand Releasing.

“This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo, / And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro.” — Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

“So if you’ve got a gal who likes to kiss and pet / Keep her away from that cottonpickin’ TV set” — Link Wray, “TV Baby”

“La vie n’a pas de sens” — André Malraux (apocryphal)

The coveted fun and benediction of an avant-garde film, Dorsky’s, Beavers’, or Gatten’s, can come clear in the display that anything that moves on-screen has as much life as anything else there, and that even a shadow’s play has the presence of light. The filmmaking seeking light arrays probably has an easier time of it than one confident of an ontological basis. One creeping notion of the catatonic kids transfixed by TVs in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Laida Lertxundi’s Llora cuando te pase is that they’re being watched by the television as much as vice-versa. The mystic idea that their consciousnesses are so fluent with the motions of these alternate universes that their bodies are the wasted avatars of waking life gets a simple validation in Llora as the TV signal (floating clouds and a song—The Fall’s Oh! Brother?) becomes the film’s own in a cut. Successive, Magritte-like compositions of the TV emitting a circumscribed, decontextualized, eternal sky against an “actual,” seemingly matted sky behind an LA motel and evening mountains give the metempsychotic feeling not only that these scenes are alternate variations of a real world held up to standards of a TV screen’s revelation, but that every shot of the film is an alternate universe and layer of consciousness unfolding as an object of attention from the last, and never methodically. In the zen clearings of Boonmee and Llora, kept spaces, their doors open to the horizon, are porous to alien entrances of sky, ghosts, stories, songs, and TV signals. The hypnotic contemplation of these elements by people so still in their space that they stop seeming to belong to it at all becomes the film’s own; the result is some sort of Rotorelief. With level soundtracks of crickets and traffic, choruses circulating like our characters and TV set among the films’ spaces, these movies seem capable of incorporating anything into their vortex as totems, the blander the uncannier

There are no spiritual platitudes about underwriting oneness in Uncle Boonmee, whose single fairy-tale episode involves a princess betrayed by her own, more beautiful image and seeking solace in a catfish’s fuck. Whatever divine essence it is being reincarnated, Apichatpong’s world seems vitalized by local sound cues, the entrance of a bird’s chirp at a cut to the landscape upon realization of a character’s death, and the incarnation of distant skies taking material weight in local actors speaking dialect in a familiar, mysterious world. The farm in Boonmee is openly a way station, not just for ancient spirits, the dead and living, but for migrant workers from Laos: the mythos of history hangs not only in the lovers’ physical treatment of each other as something beyond physical beauty, but in targeted comments about the stench of immigrant workers and a worker’s single phrase in French: “Vouz pouvez aller travailler maintenant” [“Now you can go back to work”]. A continent and farm that can hold these ancient loves and recent dissensions seems Fordian. But Apichatpong’s casual fascination with the ways men slip like shadows between identities and costumes—from a ghost-son in a monkey suit to a monk who takes a shower—sanctifies identity not as a social process but a ghost’s habit. The characters act like visitors from other planets; “how will I find you when I’m dead?” the dying Boonmee asks his ghost wife in a scene that seems more miraculous for being lazily everyday: two old people lightly clasping and looking at each other, any barriers between old friends, the living and the dead, dissolved years ago.

The framing of Boonmee is exact with landscape, as trees, caves, and porticos make their own frame on symmetrical fields and plains, but lets the characters stake the focal point in a few faraway dots in the corner or a torso drifting on the margins of the screen. When Antonioni and Yoshida composed these weight imbalances in the 60s, characters can become both relative to a scene and trapped in its décor, flat on an axis of pinstripes, patterned with the wall, their existence suddenly contingent on their appearance out of fog; in Apichatpong, cut at the midriff, shown from behind, drifting laterally from initial framing, characters can float discretely in and out of shadows and the scene. They seem to hold their own, yet a naturalist diegesis of shot-reverse-shot and fluid, scenic sound—crickets and lapping water—collapses on itself as the film goes on: soon the movie in the guise of inhabiting its characters’ space is culling one for them in a purgative drone and handheld camera panning across a cave wall like a passing flashlight, an aimless illumination outpacing any approximation of human sight. Yet within the naturalist set-up and scenery of this old, open-air fortress/stage, Apichatpong’s sight-of-hand puts the sleeping characters’ and audience’s consciousness in the camera’s. The drone rumbles on through the monk’s shower as if threatening another break in the film’s fault lines, but by the end the hypostatic catfish and depths of water, night, and sleep are defected to Thai delirium of an electric shrine’s LEDs—if that’s it—and the spectra of colored light at a karaoke joint. Again characters are so lost to spectacle that they become part of it.

A naturalist resurrection of cheeky TV myth ends in an artificial real-world of simulated lights and sounds, a joke-joint out of time. Boonmee, meanwhile, is some sort of altar image. The power of the fairy tale’s fractured time in Boonmee has something to do with the comedy of mistaken identity between image and reality in its world that however animated, and however much Apichatpong means for a throughline of rebirths and parallel universes, is a phenomenological muddle to its abandoned characters who end up bugs to light.

Bruce McClure’s half-hour Turn on the Headlights (part II) tries to distill the image: three projectors, paced across the room, projecting one frame of pure light to 99 black to the sounds of thrashing heavy metals, click without quite synchronizing with each other, the metals, or a beat. McClure’s operative puns, like Michael Snow’s, are not: not only is the figurative sense not reclaimed by a literalization of “heavy metal,” but the term is reinvented once the halting rhythm of clanking metal becomes its own industrial and concrete music to ears straining for a measure and melody even as the mind keeps seeing metallurgists. From the projectors’ tick making most of the noise for the first 10 minutes, McClure pits sense against the senses like a comic hero attempting with increasing desperation to maintain every basic illusion of watching a movie: that the image is light (half the time it’s black; here, most of the time), that light can have a perimeter, dimension, and depth (from three sides, the altered frames of light come as mirrored parallelograms and a rectangles taking on some sort of profundity in their alternations), that light can have motion over time (each still frame remains a still frame, sometimes as if contorting a previous one in ricochet, if never quite into full, sequential rhythm), that the image signifies anything (yet each frame of light is some sort of signal). Like McClure, the hopeless viewer struggles in anticipation to evince a form that’s not quite there for images and music that are not quite images nor music. As deconstruction the show is fully immersive, mostly for its Oedipal/Quixotic inadequacy to answer or defy central spectator issues of where now, who now, when now. Facing skeptical mind against visceral body as the music builds and breaks down in chaos, it’s visionary in its failure to see, transformative for the viewer filling in the blanks as, even because, the elements themselves won’t transform.

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Still from Ben Russell’s Trypps #7 (Badlands).

More shadow plays, trance films, hypnotics: Ben Russell’s Trypps #7 (Badlands) reverses the progress of the Trypps series in its start as ethnographic doc of someone else’s mediated, material hallucination (a girl staring off in the desert), to its middle as the camera, editing, and sound design approximate the pendular rhythm of a swinging watch (a gong, a panning camera), to its “phenomenological cinema” end as the image itself (a spinning mirror in the desert) recreates itself in a constant flash of light.

Jean-Marie Straub’s Corneille-Brecht comprises three DV shorts in which Cornelia Geiser reads snippets of Corneille in front of a window, then Brecht’s Trial of Lucullus in a chair from a script. Straub cuts fragments from different sessions (different light, different clothes) into a whole to foreground what Oshima Nagisa called the modernist movie sensibility of “a continuity of discontinuous things”. Each short has different language subtitles in identical form—same locations, texts, cuts, blockings, clothes—though sun and shadows can be traced creeping across the three movies in parallel shots along with Geiser’s quivering fingers. The classical-classic-revisionist texts, Lucullus, about a jury of shadow fishmongers judging a Roman general’s place in Hell (“even monstrous Rome couldn’t save me from monstrous Rome”), are base Straubian incitements of the artist to take the oppositional role of fathomless shadows against empire, names, placements, forms, and roles, fluidly assumed one to the other all by Geiser, so that when it’s not clear who she is, she’s simply herself as hammy expressivity. But Straub’s nearly-airtight movie submits as usual to material conditionings, so that language, clothes, times of day are all respected as well as displaced and the sum is beyond any form the actor cloaks herself in—including the text and swelling light.

Straub’s DV O Somma Luce, considerately detailed here by Richard Brody, opens to a black screen with a piece from Varese’s Déserts—also half-natural, half-electronic—then matches it with a reading from Dante’s ascent. As Varese intimates a cosmos and pure “sound-mass” from single noises of concrete objects, Straub, with his atomized words and shots, approximates the pure image-mass of the sun in its disparate reflections on a landscape and man reading: another sort of harmonizing of dissonant elements, but literalizations only act as solvents and solutions to Straub’s equivalency test. Where Apichatpong fills out spaces in invisible presences of crickets, shadows, ghosts, Straub’s two flattened DV films, in which a landscape pan turns an arc of vision into a scroll, exist primarily in the space between shots, in the montage’s correspondence of unrelated times, costumes, and modes. This space is not a missing chunk of representational time in which an actress changed clothes for the next shot, but, within the movie, the point at which one Cornelia Geiser is held up to scrutiny next to an alternate in a series of variables without a control. The synergy between them, Corneille and Brecht, Varese and Dante, electric music and the landscape, still shots and primal movements of a pan, is left to the viewer’s intuition to feel out as worlds beyond space in spatial terms; the movies, respecting continuous time, let it unfurl into a few, circulating possibilities.

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Still from Mysteries of Lisbon.

Raoul Ruiz’s Camilo Castelo Branco adaptation, Mysteries of Lisbon, becomes a straightfaced parody of the precepts of early 19th century convention, the novelist’s and society’s, that can rule sleepwalking Ruiz heroes into roles. A boy’s search for his roots leads to a dozen more, and what starts out as an array of classic local color obeying functions from paintings and barroom gossip—a priest who studies his Bible as two men duel outside his carriage; a ruffian bounty-hunter hocking loogies in delight—ends up uprooting any plausibility of the determinism of one’s own genes as characters in systematic inversions of spouse-spouse-lover trysts are abandoned by wealth or offered it in the satin glove of an oversexed heiress. By the end, the narrative has forked and regurgitated itself enough times to have gone everywhere and nowhere and let the hero mutter what a waste of time the stories were: “my life doesn’t make any sense.” Still, the moral of nonsense makes the sense of moneyed fiction—Ruiz’s HD camera circles drawing rooms, balls, convents in imitation of sweeping neoclassicist prestige, though pageants of servants, girls, and duelists are never quite grand enough to be so entirely beyond the reach of the camera. The fictions of money: gold, mounting and toppling destines, making pirates into gentlemen and marquis into beggars, seems the only pin of class standing and position, even as it’s levied by jealous fathers and wives as a cult of personality.

Evidently, one escapes the influence of money in Ruiz by becoming just like it, a bartering chip circulating through the hands of all levels of societies. This is what Pedro da Silva does in Lisbon, laughing at his fate and exchanging it in for a new one, a perfectly sensical rendition of the peregrinations regained by other Ruiz heroes. The dying captain in Manoel, Ruiz’s other epic of a boy retracing time’s well-worn paths: “I am a trespasser and smuggler. I take people from one world to the next… I inhabit a submerged continent… I took great risks and one day you have to pay the bills.” Marx, purposefully or not echoing the Ruiz corpus in Das Kapital: “The exchange of commodities begins where communities have their boundaries, at their points of contact with other communities… We see here, on the one hand, how the exchange of commodities breaks through all local and personal bounds inseparable from direct barter, and develops the circulation of the products of social labour; and on the other hand, how it develops a whole network of social relations spontaneous in their growth and entirely beyond the control of the actors.” Ruiz’s commercial product, with its seeming interest in social values and stock melodrama, is more credible as a traditional Ruizian-folkloric account of minds exchanging bodies and images: a commodity of dreams.

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Still from The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.

More genealogies and Marx, production, consumption, poesis, signs, traces, markets, trades: Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins and Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nikolai Ceasescu are “film essays” culled from doc footage and bundled under the POV of titular personas to let history reveal itself from the perspective of a constant, proverbial present-tense. The image and soundtrack of Robinson are the double ruins under Keiller’s mock-excavation. The image, snap-shots of signs and enclosed bases, each signaling out to covert government networks, and long-takes of actual physical labor by humans and animals (how natural is a mechanical furrowing against a spider’s weaving, remains a question). The soundtrack, a Benjamin/situationist-like montage of citations and occasional commentary on enclosures, agriculture, and the aesthetics of a laissez-fair economy, signaling out to networks of etymologies and historical ecosystems in which the present seems only the latest, most wide-webbed articulation of private interests prescribing laws of nature. But any meaningful, Marxist morals are redundant to actually looking around and seeing historical materialism at work. The movie is a lesson in the context of everyday life. The natural and political, image and sound, body and mind of the movie—more easily partitioned here than in Apichatpong or McClure—have passing glances, poetic or analytic, as though Keiller knows that to read the world straight as a thesis, and the material detail of once-imported lichen on a street sign as a symbol of flattened geopolitics, is to continue a discourse of direct signification politicians have written in history, turning fields and houses into cash and homes into symbols of cash, and to not read it is to ignore the evidence and foreplay of a historical plot.

Everything’s significant; the issue is how to orient a viewer in his own world and loosening enough perspective so that he’s not stuck there by the filmmaker for a movie. Keiller’s suggestive compendium of fine-grained detail and movements let stand for themselves is an effective shuffling of fact cards pointing to Oshima’s continuity of disconnections but for the big idea that these things were all connected a priori by historical patterning of greed, and that Keiller, shoring fragments from an abandoned world, is merely connecting the dots of history marked by More, Marx, and Jameson toward an end point at the horizon. There are no frictions to these facts of science, no disconnections or paradoxes except for the wayward worldviews of Edmund Burke, feigning inspiration in inscription (“the laws of commerce are the laws of nature and consequently laws of God,” but Burke’s fallibility is absolute and only needs reversing, an antithesis to the thesis), and the resignation to human rapacity that the preconditions of communist utopia, Rabelais’ “do what you want,” are the conditions of laissez-faire, conservative reapers. As in these moments, Autobiography employs the easiest technique of modernist self-interrogation to circumvent the dogma of information and false enlightenment: the unreliable narrator.

Ceausescu, a kind of knock-off Communist dictator preaching second-hand agitprop about how “in Romania… the people are their own masters,” can’t even dictate his own movie. The flurry of odd endpieces from home movies and state speeches have him lip-licking, squinting, smirking, a Church Lady public face boldly oblivious to the situations defining him and passing generations: dances, volleyball, teas, rallies, snow rides, funerals (a moment of anguish for pallbearer Ceausescu with his mother’s coffin before hoisting the weight on his shoulder), a Chinese half-time show with Mao and a ten-story flower of Chinese cheerleaders, a more diminished parade back home, and the provincial bakers applauding when a distrait Ceausescu picks up and replaces a roll of bread. Ujica’s decontextualizations turn the material against itself as public propaganda becomes private exposure of generational ideals as lived and failed. The onanism of personal parades is made empirical evidence of individual, imperial labor; as Ceausescu reveals everything by revealing nothing, from the soundtrack’s predominent silence, Ligeti is taken as naturalist soundtrack over footage from the ’77 earthquake rubble: the sort of identification with the material only possible in despondency. “Ceausescu was a construct of his people,” says Ujica, and Ceausescu turns out a puppet of ages hand-led by his wife through imitations of normal life as an institutionalized everyman for his nation. The movie’s a better example of historical materialism than any of Ceausescu’s voguish Marxist slogans.

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