The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Silent Light

Seeing Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (Stellet Licht) for a second time at the Wisconsin Film Festival yesterday morning only confirmed that it’s a truly great film. What surprised me, however, was how much more emotional this formal and austere film seemed on a second viewing. Reygadas somehow manages to imbue each scene with a sense of magical or ecstatic wonder – how is he able to do this? – only to set the viewer up for the intense internal conflict that his main characters suffer throughout the film.

The film begins with a spectacular opening shot that moves from a cosmic starry night to the break of dawn on a rural landscape, which suggests that we might be witnessing creation. Set in a Mennonite community in rural Mexico where Plautdietsch is spoken, the story turns out to be remarkably simple. We watch Johan (Cornelio Wall) and Esther (Miriam Toews) with their brood of six children at breakfast. They seem like a normal, happy, and religious farm family, but once everyone leaves except for Johan, the camera moves closer and he sobs uncontrollably as he sits at the empty table.

We learn right afterwards from a conversation with his auto mechanic friend Zacarias that Johan has renewed a love affair with a waitress named Marianne (Maria Pankratz). Zacarias encourages Johan to be true to his feelings and his destiny. Zacarias tells him: “Something very powerful has come over you. You’ve found the woman nature meant for you. Very few people know what that is.” After what seems like interminable silence, Johan explains that Marianne is the better woman for him. Zacarias suggests that this is something even sacred. A Spanish pop song shifts the mood of the scene from anguish to light-hearted joy as the camera follows Johan’s pickup truck as it drives in circular movements that suggest the power of sexual desire, while Johan sings along with the radio in anticipation of his tryst with Marianne. As Johan heads off, the camera holds on the shot until his truck disappears from the frame.

Reygadas cuts to a shot of a fantastic landscape that reminds me of certain paintings by Verne Dawson, punctuated by the sound of insects. In an extended take, the camera follows Johan’s feet as he tromps over yellow flowers in a field only to wind up on a woman’s leg. We see a medium shot of Johan and Marianne from the side as the two of them stare at each other longingly. She removes his cowboy hat, and they kiss passionately for nearly two minutes as light flares into the lens. Reygadas cuts to a shot of Johan showering inside a stone building afterwards. The camera heads into the dark space, in which his naked body moves in and out of shadow. Marianne will later remark after they make love again, “I smell of sex.”

Johan’s affair turns out not to be a secret to Esther. His inability to forsake his adulterous relationship is a source of pain for all three of the people involved. This is true in all romantic love triangles, of course, but it’s hardest on Esther, who remains a loving wife throughout the ordeal. It’s no wonder that she literally dies of a broken heart during an intense rain storm – as if nature is reflecting her inner turmoil and weeping as bitterly as her. The shot of her collapsed body at the trunk of a tree and her abandoned blue umbrella nearby is a particularly haunting image that lingers with us for a long time afterwards.

What follows – the direct reference to Dreyer’s masterful Ordet (1955) – remains a source of controversy among film critics and scholars. My esteemed colleague David Bordwell writes: “Ordet, suffused with religious debate, earns its miraculous finale, while Silent Light, for all its austerity, is a film of the flesh, and its spiritual coda seems to me somewhat forced. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.” Yet the theological fine points of the ending, at least for me, remain beside the point – I can live with the ambiguity. Whatever the case, Silent Light may be a film of the flesh, but it’s clear that the religious beliefs of the characters only heighten the sense of Johan and Marianne’s moral dilemma. Without the added contradictions of their religious beliefs, they wouldn’t suffer nearly as much.

When Johan later admits that he’s made a mistake in marrying Esther in comparison to his love for Marianne, truth be told, it’s really been compounded by six other mistakes born out of their union. And when, at Esther’s suggestion, Johan takes his kids with him when he visits Marianne at the restaurant and then slips off to have passionate sex with her, he’s really being downright sleazy, no matter what he tells himself. His brutal honesty with Esther about his actions with Marianne is actually a form of emotional torture.

Marianne announces that she’s breaking off their relationship afterwards. But as they rejoin his children who are watching TV in a van, Reygadas shoots them from behind, allowing us to view them clasping each other’s hand behind their backs. I always tells my film production students that you’re always looking for the very best place to put the camera within a scene, and damned if Reygadas doesn’t nail it every time – often in astonishing and incredibly unpredictable ways. This includes routinely flipping over the axis line. Rather than being jarring, here it seems like the most natural thing in the world.

Reygadas is not known to be a filmmaker who relies on a traditional script. His films aren’t written, but rather conceived in purely cinematic terms. Dialogue, for instance, is kept to a virtual minimum throughout the film – he often employs the power of silence over words. It’s hard to imagine how Reygadas manages to get such affecting performances from non-professional actors, but he tells his story primarily through images and sounds. Like Antonio Campos’s Afterschool (which played at the festival) and Lance Hammer’s Ballasthe also avoids non-diegetic music, so as not to manipulate the viewer’s feelings. Reygadas pushes each shot in Silent Light to its maximum potential. The stifling subtext of the situation allows him to create dramatic tension simply by extending the temporal duration of individual shots.

When Johan visits his preacher father to inform him of the affair and his dilemma, the scene begins with his elderly parents leading cows into the milking parlor in a wide shot. We watch as the father and mother go through the elaborate process. Johan turns up unexpectedly and tells his dad: “I fell in love with another woman.” Avoiding eye contact, his father comments, “You’re joking,” but nevertheless suggests that they go outside. When the door opens onto a snowy landscape, it gives us a surprising jolt. As the two take a walk into the field, the camera follows them from behind, allowing the sound of the crunching of their feet in the snow to enhance the dramatic tension. When they finally stop, the camera moves past them and pans across the landscape, suddenly transforming into a point-of-view shot. His father remarks, “Planting will be delayed this season, Johan,” suggesting an avoidance of the issue at hand. After the pan continues, the father finally asks whether Esther knows about it. The panning shot continues until it winds up framing them in a two-shot. Reygadas cuts to a wide shot of the landscape again, as the father suggests that they should go inside.

Reygadas uses the awkward silence between the two men to heighten the drama of Johan’s revelation. As Johan stares at a calendar on the wall, and Reygadas’s camera focuses on it, the father finally tells him, “What is happening to you is the work of the enemy, Johan.” His son answers, “I think it’s God’s doing.” Johan sits down and asks his father to help him sort out which woman he should love. The camera focuses on an extreme closeup of the father’s face that crops off his eyes, as he discusses falling for another woman shortly after Johan was born. He forced himself to break it off and counsels Johan that the feeling will pass. While not wishing to be in Johan’s shoes, he also admits to feeling a sense of envy. The father doesn’t offer advice, but suggests that if Johan doesn’t act quickly, he runs the risk of losing both woman.

Throughout Silent Light, Reygadas uses sounds of nature – birds, insects, and animals – to convey the sense of a world that feels incredibly animated. Esther comments on this just prior to the rain storm. She expresses nostalgia for the past when the two of them were happy. Esther tells Johan, “However way it was, just being next to you was the pure feeling of being alive. I was part of the world. Now I am separated from it.” After a long pause, Johan answers, “I feel the same.” She responds, “How I wish it were all a bad dream. To close and open my eyes and be back in that time, in that feeling.” Shortly after that, raindrops appear on the front windshield.

In Reygadas’s pantheistic vision, the world is indeed a miracle. It is we human beings who manage to torture ourselves and each other with our inexplicable desires, thereby turning an earthly paradise into our own private hells.

Posted 5 April, 2009

Tokyo Sonata


The Wisconsin Film Festival always has had a stellar lineup of outstanding films from around the world. This year is no exception. Two of the films from the 2008 festival – José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia and Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life – were among my favorites of last year. Carlos Reygadas’s austere and Dreyer-inspired Silent Light (Stellet Licht), which is playing at this year’s festival, was another, so I very much look forward to an opportunity to see it again. A Mexican film about a Mennonite community in which people speak Plautdietsch and wear cowboy hats, Silent Light struck me as one of the weirdest films I’ve seen in quite some time. Yet Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata, which just played at the 2009 film festival, might challenge it for that distinction.

Tokyo Sonata begins like a typical art film – a family melodrama – but it slowly turns the genre on its head. During a storm, Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his middle-management position at the Tanita Corporation through downsizing. Jobs are being shipped to China for economic reasons – sound familiar? – where three workers can be hired for the same salary as one Japanese employee. As might be expected given the culture, Ryuhei doesn’t want to lose face at home. Dressed in a business suit and carrying a briefcase that seems an appendage to his body, he pretends to go to work each day, but actually looks for jobs and hangs out at the library and in the park with the other unemployed men.

Ryuhei even meets a former high school chum named Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), who at first fakes being a high-powered executive. He’s programmed his cell phone to ring five times an hour – he claims it calms his nerves – to simulate still being in the business world. The two men realize the truth about each other when Kurosu’s hunger forces him to head toward the free food line that’s been set up for the homeless. Suspecting that his wife is growing mistrustful, he later invites Ryuhei to his house for dinner to play the role of a business colleague. Kurosu’s worried wife asks Ryuhei to look after her husband once the ring of the cell phone interrupts dinner. Kurosu pretends it’s a call from the company president. Returning to the table, he chastises Ryuhei for his lack of diligence on a work project.

Ryuhei also comes home each day as if he’s been at work, but his family life has become completely dysfunctional. There is little ostensible warmth between Ryuhei and his wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi). At the overcrowded employment office, Ryuhei is offered menial positions instead of the administrative post he desires. When he does land a job interview at a corporation, he’s asked what skills he can contribute to the new company. Ryuhei is so unprepared for the interview that he seems stumped by the question. He mentions being able to sing karaoke. Needless to say, the young interviewer berates him in almost as humiliating a fashion as Chad does to the intern, Keith, in Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men (1997). Kurosawa at least spares us by cutting the scene abruptly. Ryuhei explodes in the park afterwards, as Kurosu compares the two of them to a sinking ship. “The lifeboats are gone,” he tells Ryuehi – a remark that foreshadows the fate of Korosu and his wife later on. To survive, Ryuhei is forced to take a job in the cleaning crew at the local shopping mall.

As might be expected, Ryuhei’s younger son, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), already has started to act out. When he gets in trouble for passing manga during class at school, the teacher makes him stand in the back of the room. Kenji becomes angry that he’s unfairly being singled out and retaliates by announcing that he’s seen the male teacher reading porn manga on the train. One of Kenji’s peers later congratulates him for fomenting a “revolution” that has caused the teacher to lose his authority over them. When Kenji apologizes, the teacher suggests an accommodation – he wants nothing to do with his student. Kenji also announces to his family during dinner that he wants to play piano. Most families would be thrilled, but the tyrannical Ryuhei rejects it as a whim. In a parallel to his father’s duplicitous behavior, Kenji uses his lunch money to takes piano lessons with an attractive and recently divorced female teacher, Kaneko (Haruka Igawa), whom he has eyed previously on the way home from school.

Meanwhile the older son, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), whom the parents view as a “mess,” seeks to join the American army in order to create happiness through world peace. His family wants him to stay home. Against his father’s wishes, Takashi goes off to war, but comes back suffering from post-traumatic stress. In Tom Quinn’s The New Year Parade (also playing at the festival), the family disintegrates under the strain of divorce, but here the family crumbles under the duress of staying together.

In Tokyo Sonata, we sense that there’s something wrong with this picture, as evidenced by the trains that whisk by outside the window of the family’s modest dwelling. Megumi plays the faithful housewife, constrained by sexism and tradition as she welcomes the other family members home, cooks and cleans, and quietly endures. At one point, she extends her arms and asks Ryuhei to lift her off the sofa, but her plea goes unheard. As the shot focuses on her arms, she pleads, “Somebody, please pull me up.” Kurosawa cuts and then holds on a closeup of her face. Megumi discovers her husband’s secret one day, but after he beats Kenji she finally confronts Ryuhei and defiantly tells him, “Screw your authority.” When she later runs into Ryuhei, dressed in his red jumpsuit, at the mall, he runs off and the film flashes back three hours earlier in time. It’s at this point – nearly two-thirds of the way through – that the film goes bonkers.

Conventional dramatic films depend on believable character motivation, but once a masked thief (Koji Yakusho) tries to rob Megumi at knife-point in her home, these characters suddenly become capable of doing just about anything. As sirens blare outside, the thief takes off his ski mask by mistake, thereby revealing his identity. He then takes Megumi hostage in a stolen car. After the film loops back to the present – where she bumps into her husband at the mall – Megumi transforms into a verison of Patty Hearst. She tells the stunned thief who tries to let her go, “I’ve come this far, I can’t go home now.” The two of them drive to the ocean where Megumi wonders aloud whether she can start over – the same question Ryuhei also ponders as he lies in the gutter.

The plot threads get nuttier and nuttier. The deranged thief at one point mistakes Megumi for God. In a spectacular moonlit wide-shot, the tide washes over Megumi as she lies on the shore. Meanwhile, Ryuhei gets hit by a car in a hit-and run-accident, leaving him in a heap on the side of the road. Kenji, whose bug-like eyes and mop of hair have made him look anything but the child prodigy his piano teacher claims him to be, gets finger-printed and thrown in jail as a “fare-cheater” for attempting to sneak onto a bus. It’s no wonder that the film’s Australian screenwriter Max Mannix, who thought he was doing an Ozu-like film, is upset by Kurosawa’s treatment of his original script. He told Edward Champion: “The original screenplay that I wrote didn’t ask the audience to trust me here and there, then suspend belief when it was convenient for me. The script I wrote was a consistent piece about what appeared to be an average family. An average family that could not communicate, love, or trust one another.”

Yet what’s truly mind-boggling here is that Kurosawa shifts the tone of this family melodrama with a totally straight face. That’s what gives the film its utterly uncanny quality. Kurosawa shoots Tokyo Sonata in wonderfully cluttered compositions. His cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa often lights the interior scenes with a mixture of warm oranges and cool greens and blues. In terms of color, some shots are divided exactly in half, or between foreground and background, or as a rectangles within a rectangle as a way of suggesting the internal contradictions within the family.

In most films, we usually sense the film’s ending, but this one appears to end multiple times – as if we’re in a dream from which we can’t seem to awaken. Throughout the film, I kept wondering about the film’s title especially because there wasn’t any evidence of Kenji’s musical talent. His own father scoffs at the notion of Kenji being a prodigy, and thinks the teacher is praising him for purely monetary reasons. The question finally does get answered.

As this country lurches toward increased unemployment – now over ten percent in seven states – a film like Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) seems to be a social commentary on these bleak economic times. And it’s not hard to read Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s brilliant and eccentric head-scratcher as a film that resonates in the same sort of way. Tokyo Sonata depicts the disastrous impact that losing a job can have not only on a person’s identity, but also the rippling effect that it can have on one’s entire family.

Posted 3 April, 2009

The New Year Parade

This year’s Wisconsin Film Festival features its strongest-ever lineup of independent narrative features. The most notable ones include Ronnie Bronstein’s late-addition Frownland (the director will be here in person), Antonio Campos’s Afterschool – both of which I’ve written about previously and made my list of best indie films of 2008 – Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, Azazel Jacobs’s Momma’s Man, Sean Baker’s The Prince of Broadway, So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain, and Tom Quinn’s remarkable The New Year Parade. The New Year Parade won the Grand Prize at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival and it’s no surprise in these tough economic times that the film still hasn’t found a distributor, so locals would be wise to catch it at the festival. The New Year Parade represents a terrific debut effort, and it may be another year before it sneaks into a local theater, turns up in your Netflix queue or the rack of your video store. In the current world of indie cinema, blink and you run the risk of missing out on the best new films being produced out there.

Tom Quinn, who is still a fourth-year MFA student in Temple’s very fine production program in media arts, has a made a film that – like other major indie filmmakers, such as David Gordon Green’s George Washington (Winston-Salem) and All the Real Girls (Asheville, North Carolina), Lance Hammer’s Ballast (Mississippi Delta), Aaron Katz’s Dance Party, USA (Portland) and Quiet City (Brooklyn), Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories (Arkansas), Bahrani’s Chop Shop (Queens) or Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (Harrisburg) – remains rooted in a regional aesthetic that captures the ethos of a particular place. In this case, The New Year Parade uses the backdrop of the annual Mummers Parade – a tradition that dates back to the seventeenth century – to explore the working-class neighborhood of Irish and Italians living in South Philadelphia.

Quinn interweaves his story about an Irish-Catholic family, the McMonoguls, disintegrating under the painful strain of divorce amidst the year-long preparations for the South Philadelphia String Band’s attempt to win the annual parade after finishing a very unlucky thirteenth the year before. That the band, under the captaincy of the father, Mike McMonogul (Andrew Conway), has decided to use a highly theatrical Egyptian theme offers an ironic comment on the film’s own celebration of ethnicity. When the massive floats and gaudily-attired band members finally make their way down the street, it’s a totally surreal sight.

There are more crosses in this film than in any other one in recent memory. Yet all the crosses don’t manage to keep the McMonogul family immune to issues of divorce, drinking, and adulterous, pre-marital, and teenage sex that pervade everyday life. When the parents’ impending divorce surfaces, Jack, a twenty-five-old bartender and musician, tries to fill his father’s shoes – both financially and emotionally – within the family. He remains critical of the band’s new strategy for winning the top prize at the parade, and resents his father’s retreat from the family into drinking and Mummery. His father later attacks Jack for being selfish and “playing man of the house.” (Although it’s the mother’s infidelity that causes the rupture, the two children remain loyal to her.)

Jack’s younger sister Kat, still in high school, tries to keep the family secret to herself. In a crucial scene early on, the camera focuses solely on her, as the disembodied offscreen voice of the school guidance counselor quizzes Kat about her emotional feelings regarding what’s going on with her family. Jennifer Welsh’s clipped responses, facial tics and gestures – especially the way she purses her mouth and tries to appear invisible – prove absolutely riveting. Welsh, a first-time performer, is amazingly natural in her role as a confused teenager. The guidance counselor suggests that she find a friend or someone with whom she can confide – a crucial piece of advice that will reverberate throughout the remainder of the film.

Quinn in many ways filters the story through Jack (Greg Lyons), whose Oedipal fantasies of betrayal in Mummery parallel that of his father in relation to the family. Jack stumbles into a relationship with a hairdresser named Julie (Irene Longshore), who seems not much older than his sixteen-year-old sister. There’s a wonderfully uncomfortable scene where the Julie and Kat wind up brushing their teeth together in the bathroom. Julie’s unexpected presence in the house comes as a surprise to Kat. Julie later tries to relate to her by asking whether Kat has a boyfriend and offering to be available to her for advice. Needless to say, this comes across as improbable as Detective Lu’s efforts to befriend Alex in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park.

Although the film deals with the effects that divorced parents have on their offspring, Jack’s relationship with Julie seems far less problematic than Kat’s initial forays into intimacy – it’s really Kat’s character that has the most complexity. Kat takes up with a hockey player named Paul (Paul Blackway). When Paul learns she’s still a virgin, he convinces her to start taking birth control pills so the two of them can have sex. Meanwhile, she flirts with her more nerdy and handsome cohort in the school audio-visual club, Curtis (Tobias Segal), whose fidgety performance suggests that he doesn’t quite feel comfortable in his own skin. At a party, Paul tries to initiate sex with Kat in the bedroom, but she resists. He responds with steroidal venom: “I can fucking jerk off by myself. What the fuck do I need you for?”

Shortly afterwards, Kat responds by leading Curtis into the basement. She throws her arms around his neck and begins kissing him. A month later, as they are about to do their morning TV show, the stress between them becomes unbearable. Curtis alludes to their making out and asks: “Could we please just forget about it and be cool with each other. The tension is driving me nuts.” Under questioning from Kat, he concedes that he likes her, but she storms off in anger. Although there are clearly strong feelings between them, the film like All the Real Girls suggests that timing is everything. Kat later falls completely apart and tearfully spills her true feelings to Curtis.

What’s so unusual about The New Year Parade is that Quinn is not afraid to go for big drama. It’s hard to think of another recent indie film that risks being this emotional. Nonetheless, his film employs an episodic rather than dramatic structure. Quinn is more interested in mining the depths of individual moments rather than in bludgeoning us to death with plot contrivances. The New Year Parade, in fact, is very different from films by Sean Baker or Aaron Katz. Like these directors, he depends heavily on improvisation – he reportedly abandoned his 105-page written script in favor of improvised dialogue – but Quinn’s particular brand of naturalism is far more dramatically inspired, even if he flattens the overall arc of his story. Because the loosely structured story transpires over the course of a year, Quinn provides realistic interludes that are heavily reinforced by pop songs and mood music.

Quinn’s camera remains remarkably close to his characters during the most intimate scenes – to the point where it almost seems as if he’s shooting a documentary. He fragments the story into shorter shots rather than relying on extended takes. Quinn mixes together documentary scenes of South Philly – of real people and situations, such as shots of the neighborhood, the Mummers practicing and preparing for the parade, or locals dancing in the streets – with scripted scenes. Like Sean Baker, he shoots lots of footage, which is one of the benefits of digital technology. The budget was reportedly a mere $7000, even if it looks like a million bucks. The scenes of the Philly skyline, fireworks, and Christmas tree lights show a rich and poetic aesthetic sense. Quinn gives as much weight to transitions and place as to his major dramatic scenes. The implosion of the venerable Veterans Stadium – the one-time home of the Phillies and Eagles – serves as an apt metaphor for the dissolution of the McMonogul family.

Quinn’s home-grown regionalism and exploration of Mummery represents an intricate part of the story of The New Year Parade in which his characters are inextricably bound up with a sense of place. Quinn appears to be quite philosophical about the current state of indies struggling in the marketplace by championing the benefits of regionalism. He told Filmmaker: “If the sky is momentarily drooping for large-scale independent film production and distribution, I find that liberating. The lack of money could encourage a boom in regional voices around the country and a new sense of self-reliance and independence. The tools are available and this generation is primed.”

Posted 22 March, 2009

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