May 24, 2012

Le Havre

Aki Kaurismäki, 2011

May 1, 2012
The Norman Mailer Film School

Maidstone, perhaps the most recognized if not the most notorious of Norman Mailer’s films, is an exercise in experimental filmmaking if there ever was one. Using untrained actors, autonomous cameramen, and a narrative format only loosely under his control, Mailer created a film, which, in his words, was analogous to the journey down a river while most films sit on the banks watching the current drift idly by. 

Norman T. Kingsley (played by Mailer) is a sort of greasy purveyor of art house soft-core entertainment who decides to attempt a run for the presidency. His profession as a film director blends a heady dose of the avant-garde with explorations of free love. This, naturally, brings on the ire of the right wing, and a shadowy cabal of secret police plot his (potential) assassination, while Kingsley’s brother, Raoul Rey O’Houlihan (played by Rip Torn) concerns himself with the candidate’s safety.

The film ends innocuously enough, when Torn/O’Houlihan attacks Mailer/Kingsley with a hammer blow to the skull in an apparent betrayal, initiating a violent bout replete with profanity and hysteria. Mailer’s mortified wife and children stand by until the lady in question feels compelled to intervene. A furious debate between the two ensues over the “necessity” of the attack for the completion of the film (perhaps the fact that Mailer ultimately included the scene is indication enough). It is, in a way, the perfect end to Mailer’s cinematic experience: an act of violence that further blurs the line between the filmed and the real; between characters and actors. Mailer expresses his desire to put viewers in the film with his river analogy - what better expression of the outcome than a fight scene which he neither planned nor predicted?

The film can be trying to watch - shaky handheld camerawork (he gave his cameramen total control of their frames and subjects), and experimental editing give the film a decidedly incoherent and collage-like aspect. And, much as Mailer often writes about himself in the third person, Maidstone feels a bit like the same practice were it translated to filmmaking. His narcissism goes nearly unabated in his presumed character of the film director. Norman T. Kingsley is brash, arrogant, and more than a little chauvinistic with his slew of potential “actresses” for his brothel-film. But Mailer too was known for his sometimes scandalous conduct with women. 

So again the line blurs, as documentary-style footage is sufficiently ambiguous; where does fiction intersect fact? How much is planned, how much is improvised, and finally, how much simply occurred on the set in the process of making the film? Or, as Mailer might put it: is it even possible to make a distinction between the three, since the camera’s mere presence will illicit certain behaviors? Is it Kingsley or Mailer who comments that the film is “becoming too pornographic?” This, I believe, was precisely Mailer’s intent, and he makes no attempt to clarify. 

Lack of technical mastery and planning is a fact Mailer appears to celebrate; while he acknowledges the drawbacks of his spontaneous approach and haphazardly improvised cinematography, the gains, so he stipulates, far outweigh the losses. Freedom of expression is key for him - the film had to be made without a blueprint, a literary adaptation, a producer, financiers, etc. in order to truly escape from traditional constraints. This is the case Mailer makes in an essay he wrote shortly after Maidstone about the experience, which he titled A Course in Film-Making. 

The article is not only an interesting piece of film theory; it is also a companion to the film and a macro reflection on the experimental processes that begat Maidstone. Mailer’s conceptual preoccupations are perhaps more interesting than the film itself. A preface to the essay as it appeared in New American Review describes the work as follows: 

Mailer develops the ground of his intention, to make a “pure” film, one that makes the fullest possible use of the evocativeness, fluidity, and uncertainty  of the medium and that refuses to foreclose any of these possibilities by adulterating his film with the foreign agents of theater - a prepared plot, characterizations, dialogue, rehearsed performances, etc. So Mailer’s “argument” for Maidstone leads him into an investigation of the radical differences between film and theater (and its Hollywood counterpart, “filmed theater”), and then on to a definition of film that places it with its psychic counterparts, memory and dream, sex and death…

Here is the complete essay:

A Course In Film-Making (PDF) - Norman Mailer
In New American Review No. 12, 1971

March 22, 2012
St. Tula, Patron Saint of Cinema

St. Tula, Patron Saint of Cinema

December 23, 2011


David Cronenberg, 1981

December 22, 2011
Review: Sweetgrass

Living in Maine again has reminded me, as I make my way to work along winding rural back roads, of a film I saw some years ago made by a Harvard professor and visual anthropologist. 

Each day I pass herds of sheep as they pick over the hard and almost-frozen turf, and it was this that gave me pause to write about a movie that I first watched as a junior in college. The director, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, came to Bard to screen a 35mm print of his digitally recorded meditation on sheep herding in Montana. Introduced as the final chapter of a nearly decade long audio and video project called Sheep Rushes, it was the only part of the series intended for a theatrical screening. 

The working title of the film was Sweetgrass, and it premiered in 2009 to nearly universal acclaim from the likes of the Manohla Dargis and J. Hoberman. Both their reviews laud the portrayal and characterization of Montana’s “last cowboys” - valid praise that is certainly substantiated by Castaing-Taylor’s cinematography and editing style. But what is all the more fascinating in the tale of the sheep, the landscape, and the journey itself - these are the aspects of the film that intertwine with the ranchers and create a truly observational documentary.  

Long panning shots of the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains add to the breathtaking scope of the film, which seems to capture the very essence of “big sky” while immediately juxtaposing it with the grueling nature of sheep herding. Close-ups of the beasts, coupled with their constant bleating and recalcitrant nature, leaves little envy for the cowboys’ vocation. But it appears to be a love-hate relationship that the herders share with their charge; it is the difficulty of the work coupled with the extreme landscape makes their undertaking all the more admirable. The long take features heavily in this film, and it is clear that Castaing-Taylor has been heavily influenced by another Harvard filmmaker: Robert Gardner. 

When the screening at Bard concluded, Castaing-Taylor, who calls himself the film’s “recordist,” spoke at length about the process of creating Sweetgrass. Principle photography had concluded years before its release, followed by a long and arduous editing process. Apparently, a friend of his, upon watching a rough cut, reacted by saying that there were two films at play: one about people, which was something of a joke, and the other about sheep, which was contemplative and beautiful.

Perhaps this is true. The sheep take on a monolithic nature, as their sheer numbers overpower the town they leave, the men who corral them, and even the mountains they traverse.  Nonetheless, the human element is often more than just entertaining - the cowboys’ relationship to each other is worth taking pause to examine. Their work will soon cease, and not just for the season, but forever. As the film draws to a close it is noted, rather ambiguously, that the practice of pasturing sheep on federal land has come to an end, making these images the last of their kind. I for one, am grateful to Mr. Castaing-Taylor for his work. 

Leviathan, a new film by Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel about the cod fishery in Northern New England, is currently in production. 

December 22, 2011
A Torinói ló
Bela Tarr, 2011

A Torinói ló

Bela Tarr, 2011

November 11, 2011
Review: Dead River Rough Cut

Having left the Eastern Bloc some time ago, I found myself at a bit of a loose end as I adjusted to a new setting for my writing. Maine is not exactly a bastion of filmmakers, but there are some, and I want to address one of my favorite films from my home state. That’s not to say that I will abandon Romanian cinema - on the contrary, I will continue to write about each and every new film that I decide is worthy of discussing. But since my conception of “Blocul de Est” has always been a double entendre of both Romania and the American Northeast, it seems only appropriate that I finally write about something pertaining to New England, or in this case, Maine. 

In order to do so, I have to delve all the way back to 1976, when Maine was even less populous than it is today. At the time, Maine’s relatively untouched Great North Woods saw only intermittent logging activity, and could truly be called a wilderness. Thirty-five years later, not very much has changed, but the circumstances in which the filmmakers crafted their story are likely bygone days. 

It is the story of two squatters who lived on the land of a logging company in tarpaper shacks built to house German prisoners of war. It has achieved a sort of bizarre cult status in the state of Maine - something of a local legend, but with very little viewership outside of Maine’s borders. But their unique tale reaches far beyond the frontiers of the 23rd state.

Bob Wagg and Walter Lane were solidly middle aged men when they became disillusioned with their lives as working-class Americans. By the time they reached their late forties, each had had a relatively successful life. Bored and fed up with city life, they sold the vast majority of their sedentary possessions and used the proceeds to acquire all the equipment necessary to retreat permanently into the wild. 

They chose an area near The Forks, in the densely forested area of Maine known today for snowmobiling and whitewater rafting. Full of small rivers and lakes, it was ideal for two men who planned to make their living off the land - in particular, through hunting and trapping. Prisoner of war huts left standing since the Second World War provided shelter, and their new life began.  

Richard Searls and Stu Silverstein were living in the area at the time. As I found out at the Camden Film Festival, it turned out that the two woodsmen were quite enterprising, and it was in this capacity that they approached the filmmakers, seeking instruction in the cultivation of marijuana. And, as Mr. Silverstein put it, “we were happy to be of assistance.” The woodsmen’s lifestyle proved too compelling a story to pass up, and Dead River Rough Cut was born. 

The resulting film is highly experiential, grounded in the realistic portrayal of these men - a tribute to their authenticity. It is worth observing them if only to see their alternate way of life, of thinking, and of being. Their experiences are the simple trials of a bare bones, woodsmen’s life: survival, through hunting, fishing, and trapping. By selling the pelts of the beavers they trap, they can continue to resupply their shacks with the materials unavailable to them from nature itself. But most of their worldly comforts have been abandoned - indeed, all that they have serves a purpose (with the notable exception of their seemingly endless stash of beer and loose tobacco). They read Kiowa Trail and recite Robert W. Service - their heroes are the old pioneers of North America, who truly lived on the frontier (Louis L’Amour was one of the most prolific writers of frontier stories of all time, and The Cremation of Sam Magee takes place in the Yukon Territory). 

Most of all, they follow a simple moral code. Stewardship of the wild is the essential tenet that the men adhere to. Though they have a jeep and a snowmobile, the majority of their days are spent using neither, as they trek through the white woods on snowshoes or haul logs in the spring with their oxen. And of course, the lighthearted moments are many as the men discuss the shortcomings of modern life. Indeed, it begs the question: where else can a man ride a snowmobile with a blazing wood fire on the back as a source of heat? 

But why “rough cut?” The term in the film world means something of a first draft - it plays all the way through, thus distinguishing it from the seemingly endless drudgery of “work-in-progress,” but is nevertheless the most rudimentary form of the polished film that will eventually result. Some of the rationale may be in the style of Dead River Rough Cut. How much prior experience the filmmakers had is unclear to me, but their documentation of two men’s survivalist endeavor is executed with an often methodical pacing that matches their contemplative surroundings. The shooting style and lush recordings of the woodlands, coupled with a bluegrass soundtrack, carve an enclave out of the forest, bringing it to the screen with all the sensory richness it deserves. Daily tasks are balanced with the two men’s monologues to marvelous effect. But many of the scenes are almost interchangeable - the film could be reorganized, perhaps, in many different ways. Each scene is its own document, the plot is hardly linear, and in this sense the film embodies the premise of “rough cut.” 

The movie definitely falls in the vein of observational filmmaking - though something tells me that neither of the directors had likely heard or even cared about “direct cinema.” They were concerned with portraiture and the authentic representation of two very authentic men. The building of character and personality makes the viewer sorry when the film comes to its inevitable conclusion.

Their epilogue is an even sadder story of reintegration: evidently, the men were removed from the land by an incensed logging company. All good things, it seems, must come to an end. 

But then, the inevitable does not make their adventure redundant - on the contrary, the duo experienced a sort of true independence that few will ever have. Their experiment did not play out until the end of their days, but their time of solitude is an unyielding testament to man’s potential synthesis with the wild. For Mainers, those who love Maine, and those who are enamored of the Thoreauvian mentality, their story is a must-see.

The film was never really distributed, though it did come out of retirement, so to speak, for this year’s Camden Film Festival. The filmmakers have done surprisingly little after creating such a prodigious work, but perhaps theirs was a serendipitous moment that led to a one-of-a-kind film. I certainly think so. 

November 9, 2011
La Terra Trema
Luchino Visconti, 1948

La Terra Trema

Luchino Visconti, 1948

September 12, 2011
Review: Podul de Flori

Admittedly, it has been some time since I have reviewed a film for this site. Though I did not intend this lapse, it has been pressed upon me due to the distressing lack of new Romanian films that are worth addressing.  The scant few that I would love to review now reside beyond my reach since my departure from Romania. 

It is, however, my distinct pleasure to write again about Thomas Ciulei, in a retrospective review of an extraordinary 2008 film: Podul de Flori (The Flower Bridge). Keeping his approach firmly in the vein of Asta E, Ciulei once again trains his camera to the rural climes, this time stepping across the Prut river into the neighboring Republic of Moldova. The film takes place in a contentious region of the Moldovan frontier, in a historical principality known as Bessarabia. 

Moldova is not only the country known to most outsiders (the aforementioned Republic), but is also the term used for the northeastern portion of Romania - about a third of the country. Bessarabia (i.e. The Republic of Moldova) was at various times united with Romanian Moldova and later with the modern state of Romania. After the Second World War, the Russians, who had often dominated Bessarabia, once again took control of the principality, which became the Moldovan SSR. Despite the Russification of the region, the contemporary Republic of Moldova retains Romanian as its predominant  tongue, albeit with an accent heavily influenced by the presence and proximity of Slavs. 

Today, the Republic of Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Much of its populace, not unlike other former members of the Eastern Bloc, seek prosperity elsewhere. Many head to Romania for its relative economic success and better universities, but still more head for Western Europe - in particular, to Italy. 

This reality is only compounded by the title of the film. The name refers to an event that occurred on the 6th of May, 1990, along the Prut river, which forms the border between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. The Soviet Union was on the eve of its collapse, and Romania had just overthrown its own dictator, Ceausescu, in December of 1989. The Soviet authorities opened the border to Romanians for six hours, in which time many families were reunited. As the video below shows, the demonstrators arrived with armfuls of flowers, which were thrown off the bridges into the Prut river, carpeting the waterway below.

Ciulei is of course referring to more than the latent brotherhood between the two states. Though common ethnic heritage is an interesting theme, the title has a more personal implication for the subjects of the film. For the principal characters of The Flower Bridge, the move toward economic ascension is a daily reality . An aging father is left to care for his three children while his wife seeks employment in Italy. The children balance school with the many needs of their peasant household and farm, helping their father in nearly every aspect of countryside life. As the film unfolds, the central metaphor of a “flower bridge” to the West (perhaps via Romania), becomes increasingly more poignant. The romantic image that Ciulei paints in evoking the historical event reflects the personal aspirations and dreams of the Moldovan family. Their mother has left for greener pastures - a possibility only realized just a year or so after the demonstration on the Prut. 

The beauty of the metaphor is articulated even further by Ciulei’s style in capturing the family’s life. His approach is to construct an image that does not linger too much on poverty or lack of opportunity, but rather an image highly pastoral and bucolic in nature. That is not to say that social issues are glossed over, or left by the wayside in favor of aesthetics. The father and children discuss often their work and obligations, with many references to the state of affairs in Moldova. The reason for their mother’s absence is made abundantly clear, if it wasn’t from the outset. 

But these issues are somehow secondary to the organic nature of the shooting. Life comes first: survival, and family, and afterwards the stresses of money, education, and opportunity. The thoughtful coverage of daily actions imbue mundane activities with a rhythmic, ritualistic nature. The clipping of a tree or a visit to a graveyard take on their own totality. 

Naturally, such extensive coverage was hardly possible in a single take, and The Flower Bridge thus steps into the verité arena along with its earlier cousin, Asta E. It is possible that Ciulei employed multiple cameras. But it is more likely that he merely stretched or repeated the actions of his subjects in order to create the involved style he affects - a camera without restraint. There is even a beautiful tracking shot that suddenly transports the viewer out of a film shot almost entirely with a camera that pans and tilts, but never travels. Ciulei has done this before, and he knows it works. 

Are the children happy? From all outward appearances, they are. They are hopeful, they write adorable letters to their mother abroad, and they are dedicated and polite to their father. They take school seriously. But their expressions belie little more than respect and perhaps even resigned contentment. In one scene, as the father kills a chicken, he has his daughter grasp its head while he lets fall with the ax. She looks on, impassive. Is she unmoved, disgusted… ashamed? It is unclear. Perhaps the presence of film cameras from Bucharest only exacerbated any embarrassment about rural life. Their father even remarks partway through the film: “In a way, I steal their childhood.” He regrets the amount that they must labor to help him run the household and farm with his wife gone.

But perhaps he is not such a bad father. At the end of the film, he reads to his two daughters while they fall asleep. He reads from a collection of the Russian poet Sergei Esenin’s writing. This is the first time Russian is spoken at length in the film (many Moldovans also know Russian, for obvious reasons). It is a sort of poetic memoir, a snippet of perhaps biographical reminiscence. Esenin refers to an incident in his youth when returned home with a broken nose. Upon arriving, his mother is horrified. He brushes it off, unscathed. But Esenin remarks that the impetuosity of youth has since calmed - his powers have waned, and his mother has gone. The text strikes home for a father whose powers have indeed waned, and whose children are without their mother. He turns to look at his sleeping daughters, and the story, like that of the book, comes to a close.

The story - one that could be spun as miserable poverty, but is instead a lesson on the working model of country life, bound to the seasons and to the earth itself. A trip to many of these villages may leave the visitor reeling at the level of poverty, struggle, and even seedier aspects like alcoholism and abuse. Ciulei touched on these issues in Asta E, but chooses to look elsewhere in The Flower Bridge, focusing instead on the rhythms of survival. The transformation from late winter to springtime is chosen wisely as the precipitous moment of countryside life - the time of renewal, certainly, but also the time of year upon which farmers and peasants depend for a season of prosperity. As spring dawns, hard work and diligent planning are an absolute necessity to ensure a successful year. And a father and his children are equal to the task. 

Fall has arrived. But for me, the characters of The Flower Bridge reside in a perpetual spring. 

September 12, 2011

Podul de Flori, 6 Mai 1990

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