Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Last of the Mohicans

1992, US, directed by Michael Mann

Like so many of Michael Mann's films, The Last of the Mohicans depicts men at work, here engaged in the messy business of the the defence of their homes, as well as resistance to outside military rule. Although the film abandons the often claustrophobic confines of Thief and Manhunter for the forests of America in pre-revolutionary times, the locales are similarly fraught with danger; the woods are depicted as a place of sudden and even savage violence that can erupt at any moment to engulf the unwary.

From the opening scenes, it is clear that action as much as words will define this story: the film begins with a tremendous race through the forest, as viscerally exciting as any car pursuit, accompanied, as so often in Mann's films, by an intense and memorable score. That sequence and a bloody encounter which follows shortly thereafter deftly sketch in the three primary male characters (played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Means and Eric Schweig). As if to underline the ways in which these men define their skills, one of the trio has an almost wordless part, while all three prefer to remain silent unless there's something of importance to share.

It's hard to avoid the thought that there's a occasionally a certain amount of romanticization at work here, with the depiction of a prelapsarian idyll into which outside forces intrude. However, as the film progresses Mann's depiction becomes more sophisticated, with the Native Americans far from monolithic, and capable, where it suits them, of forming political alliances to play the French and British off each other for their own ends. The film also depicts their exceptional tactical intelligence, in ways which frequently surprise the colonising forces, and strip bare the latter's tactics.
As elsewhere in Mann's work, the film turns most of all on different notions of honour, which overlap and sometimes conflict with one another. The main narrative thread is motivated by one kind of basic honorable action, that of protecting the apparently weak - not to mention extending essential notions of hospitality to strangers - and that simple action draws the central trio into a much more complex web of interlocking loyalties and betrayals, through which they are constantly called on to define their own essential values.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


1971, Senegal, directed by Ousmane Sembène

Ousmane Sembène's first historical film, Emitaï focuses on the conscription of African soldiers into the French army during the Second World War, and resistance to that effort in the Casamance region of Senegal (the film was made around Ziguinchor, in Casamance, using many non-professionals). His later Camp de Thiaroye took up the story of soldiers returning from that war, and there's a striking parallel between the conclusions of the films, both of which are partly derived from actual events (the film has links with other entries in Sembène's filmography, with a key actor from La noire de... reappearing as a French officer).

Casamance is a culturally distinct part of Senegal, located south of Gambia and largely cut off from the rest of the country, and Sembène takes great care to depict the unique rhythms of Casamance agricultural life, from fishing to rice planting and coconut gathering, creating a rich portrait of the region (the scenes of tree climbing and field work are carefully integrated with the rest of the film; they don't simply feel like documentary trappings). Rice plays a key part in the film, for the French authorities seek to requisition much of the harvest for the war effort, prompting the villagers to conceal their stock in a beautifully filmed nighttime operation.

Though the tone could not be more different, I was struck by the way in which the idea of the rebellion of one small village against a seemingly omnipotent power has a resonance across cultures: while here the village chafes under French control, French popular mythology has adopted a figure like Astérix, whose village holds out against the Roman army, while a film like Goupi Mains Rouges to some degree dramatises the efforts of one clan to resist any outside interference during wartime (of course, these may also have been responses to the very particular emotions roused by the German occupation and associated accusations of collaboration or complicity).

As in many of Sembène's subsequent films, women represent the greatest source of strength in the African society depicted in Emitaï. They have a critical role in sustaining resistance to the colonial oppressors, and indeed they continue to hold firm after the village's male leaders have begun to discuss compromise; they even assume male cultural roles as needed when the men are either press-ganged or held under threat of force. The scenes of quiet resistance, with the women defiantly sitting in place in the sun, reveal both the women's power and the essential weakness of the colonial regime, reduced to such inhumane tactics. There's also an echo of Rossellini in the scenes where children observe the action, taking in the sometimes brutal attempts to impose control, but for the most part seemingly going about their own parallel business.

It's well known that Sembène turned to the cinema as a means to reach a wider audience, due to low literacy levels in many African countries, with his films consciously conceived as an alternative to Western film production (I don't agree entirely with Sembène's contention, however, that African audiences were served almost exclusively the dregs of the Western film industry (1); the cinema listing information from many West African countries doesn't bear that out, though I accept that he was making a rhetorical point). In the light of his own vision for the cinema, I'm very curious, as a consequence, to know how this film might have prompted a wider discussion about colonialism and African history when screened in Senegal, given the complications of using film as a historical tool, or as a means for historical education.

Whether the film is Emitai or Michael Collins or Gettysburg, it seems to me that the tremendous power of the filmed image, which can sometimes be difficult to dislodge (I recall many articles in the Irish press clarifying that the conclusion of Michael Collins was not necessarily the manner in which Michael Collins met his end), brings a great deal of responsibility if it is to be used as an educational tool. Watching this film in the absence of a wider discussion, I found it hard to disentangle the film's politics from its educational usefulness, though perhaps they are one and the same.

Robert Baum teases out some of the historical issues in Emitaï in his essay in the book Black and White in Color: African History on Screen (2), which to my mind underlines the need to cast Emitai in a wider context: in Baum's account, for instance, the film's depiction of local religious practice reinforces the kinds of visual clichés that we associate with the worst of Hollywood stereotyping (human skulls next to the elders, something that had no basis in local religious practice); that may well have been a reflection of Sembène's own general distrust of organised religion of any kind.

While I do have reservations, then, on the film's usefulness as a historical account, it's a powerful indictment of the petty and large humiliations experienced by the colonised population, and there's no missing the point that French soldiers were no less likely than their German counterparts to misbehave in the name of a uniform and a flag. Indeed, when the film depicts the transition from Pétain to de Gaulle, there's no perceptible difference to the villagers (the film compresses time in this regard, though it's ultimately quite an effective strategy), despite the rhetoric of liberation, and Sembène makes ironic use of the statues erected by France to the memory of African soldiers given French treatment of those same soldiers. It's also a highly unusual depiction of the actions of a collective hero: our attention is focused not on one person - with the exception of one startling closeup in the aftermath of an incident of violence - but rather on the communal defiance of the villagers as a whole.

(1) Film Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, Spring 1973, pp. 36-42.
(2) Vivian Bickford-Smith and Richard Mendelsohn (eds), Black and White in Color: African History on Screen, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


2007, Ireland, directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Now that I live overseas, I'm no longer as aware of developments in Irish film, but Lenny Abrahamson's work in both Adam and Paul and Garage strikes me as something strikingly different in my native country's cinema; I'm intrigued, too, by what I've read of his 2007 television project Prosperity, scripted, like both of his feature films, by Mark O'Halloran. While Abrahamson is by no means the first filmmaker to take on subjects like urban poverty or rural disenchantment, his filmmaking style steers carefully around sentimentality, while he prefers a careful accumulation of details over the payoff of a more conventional narrative. He's also adept at crafting rounded portraits of people on the margins, and restoring some measure of humanity to them in the process: he seems to have a persistent desire to validate the experiences of those dealt a less fortunate hand by life, particularly against a backdrop of economic triumphalism in Ireland.

Abrahamson's storytelling method allows him to give an acute sense of the repetitive daily routines of Adam and Paul or, here, Josie (Pat Shortt), the sole full-time employee of a sad-sack petrol station somewhere in the midlands. Josie's a slow-witted man, though he has an agonising sense of his own limitations, and an desperate awareness of what is missing from his life - most obviously any sense of sustained companionship. As such, he has a tendency to cling to the smallest hints of friendship or tolerance, thus revealing the deep loneliness and - not unrelated - sexual frustration that often characterises small towns with few social outlets.

Abrahamson isn't interested in cliched portrayals of Irish life, refusing to depict the pub, for instance, as a place of refuge: instead, it's the theatre for some of Josie's most intense humiliations, whether at the hands of a local bully or, even more tellingly, through the complicity of the remainder of the patrons (the pub sequence in Adam and Paul was similarly fraught with tension). It's refreshing to see someone scratch well beneath the surface in this way - there's something of the sensibility of writers like William Trevor and, especially, John McGahern at work - and I wonder if, in Abrahamson's case, his clear-eyed depiction of Ireland is linked to the fact that he spent a number of years overseas, returning with something of an outsider's eye for detail.
For that matter, it's relative outsiders who are most sympathetic to Josie, whether in the form of a teenager who appears to be a fairly recent arrival in town, or an English truck-driver now locally resident who treats Josie with something approaching genuine warmth. The teenager is a part-time summer employee at the garage - though the establishment hardly needs an extra pair of hands, with so few customers - and he opens up a small new horizon for Josie in terms of social contact of a limited kind. The character also provides the trigger for the film's biggest plot development, which unfolds with spare Bressonian logic.
Even with some new window opening in his life, communication, though, is desperately difficult for Josie, as it is for many of the characters in the film. There's a uncomfortable scene where the great stage actor Tom Hickey unburdens himself, and Mark O'Halloran's script perfectly captures the way in which social niceties mask any real connection; there's no shortage of conversation, but it's often deeply unsatisfying.
As Josie, Pat Shortt is remarkable: he's an adept comic actor and a skilled social observer himself, including in his television show Killinaskully, which examines rural Ireland through a broadly satirical lens, but nothing in his previous work prepares you for the depth of his characterisation here. Abrahamson taps into Shortt's talent for physical performance, so that even when we first see Josie in a long shot, we're aware of the unique way in which he moves. That paunchy awkwardness is of a piece with Josie's way of bumping through the world, and while the overall tone is serious Abrahamson uses Shortt's physicality to craft some wonderful comic moments that enhance our sense of Josie's worldview (one sequence where he cleans up the aftermath of a teenage party is priceless).
Abrahamson seems as comfortable in a rural register as he has previously in urban settings, capturing down-at-heel locations like the garage in pitiless detail, but he's also capable of stunning painterly compositions, such as the shot which appears at the top of this post. Similarly, there's a gorgeous shot near the end that evokes a Constable painting, while the camera occasionally focuses in on the tiniest details of the landscape, as in the opening scenes of Adam and Paul (Irish people might be put in mind of the pastoral images that used to appear on the screen back when the national anthem concluded each night of television programming). His intention, however, is not to evoke a bucolic idyll; the often captivating settings serve instead as a counterpoint to the careful dissection of flawed people that inhabit that landscape, and perhaps a reminder that there's something more enduring that human frailty.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Syndromes and a Century

2006, Thailand/France, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatong Weerasethakul's fourth feature is preoccupied, in the best sense, with exploring the same stories again. That is most obvious here in the film's two-part structure, which occasionally replays entire sequences in new settings and from new perspectives - a medical diagnosis shown once from behind the patient's back, and later from behind the doctor's seat, for instance. In addition, Weerasethakul sometimes revisits scenes from earlier in his filmography, such as in the telling of a folk tale - subtly different in its conclusion - which was recounted in Tropical Malady.

I decided at the beginning of the year to be a little more systematic in my approach to several newer filmmakers, watching all of their work in a short space of time. It's a method that has proved particularly fruitful with Weerasethakul, for it has revealed - much more clearly than I think might have been the case with long gaps between viewings - many of the themes and aesthetic choices to which he returns time and again. In addition to sharing many of his earlier formal concerns, there's also an especially rich sense of human connection in this most recent work, perhaps because it is loosely inspired by the lives of his parents, both medical professionals.

As in his previous work, the director foregrounds the careful construction of atmosphere over narrative. Even when the settings appear, on the surface, to be busy urban locations there's often a languid, enveloping tone to individual scenes: there's a hint of bustle in scenes set in a big city hospital, but Weerasethakul searches out refuges from that more frenetic rhythm, in the hospital grounds or in a basement room where the doctors gather to relax and even continue their work, hidden from prying eyes.

Similarly, the meeting of tradition and modernity in contemporary Thailand is again a key motivator in this work. The shots of a statue of Buddha by a basketball court or set against a modern hospital structure exemplify this confrontation, which is also present in the warmly humorous account of a young monk who yearns for a career as a DJ, and whose visits to a clinic are a means of staying in touch with that ambition. On one occasion, he's serenaded by his dentist, prompting him to inquire whether he's there for a checkup or a concert; the monk, saffron-robed and barefoot, sits in a dentist's chair surrounded by the paraphernalia of a modern clinic.

An older monk features in the scenes that open the film's two different segments, and those sequences, which involve long medical histories - similar scenes in the offices of doctors and veterinarians recur frequently in Weerasethakul's films - underline the fact that there is more than one way of approaching medical problems: while the Western-style doctors attempt to provide a satisfactory diagnosis for the monk, the older man makes his own silent diagnosis of the doctors' needs and hands over herbs for a healing tea near the end of each interview. The idea of two parallel methods of perceiving medical issues is similar to the way in which Weerasethakul illustrates two entirely different ways of seeing the world in both Mysterious Object at Noon and Tropical Malady, which blend realism with fantasy, blurring the line between the apparently "real" world and its mythical parallel.

Weerasethakul creates careful visual distinctions between the first and second halves of his film: while the first segment relies almost exclusively on medium shots, the second opens with an unexpected close-up, as if we're now primed to see a greater degree of detail in the scenes that we experience anew. Those repetitions are strikingly effective, compelling us to focus on the subtleties of his characters rather than simply sweeping us along in a conventional narrative. There's a tenderness to his depiction of both the patients and the young doctors, who are often endearingly tentative and shy, that has become a more important presence in his work as his career has progressed; there's a wonderful sense of watching real, fully imagined characters here, and there's a refreshing optimism in the director's generous characterisations.

The film ends with an open-air exercise session, a scene that refers back to Tropical Malady and which also recalls the conclusion of Claire Denis's Beau travail - except that Denis Lavant's solitary, improvised dancing is replaced by a collectively choreographed experience. It's as mesmerizingly strange an ending, however, as in that earlier film, apparently unrelated to what has preceded it, and yet of a piece with Weerasethakul's wonderful eye for the unexpected composition and incongruous juxtaposition.

Monday, April 21, 2008

All Through the Night

1942, US, directed by Vincent Sherman

A Bogart vehicle that was released a month after Pearl Harbor, All Through the Night is an uneasy mix of comedy and wartime murder centered on an unlikely confrontation between a cell of Nazi "fifth columnists" in New York, and a soft-hearted gangster, "Gloves" Donahue (Bogart), and his crew. The opening of the film is all breezy banter - with comics like Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason on the fringes - but once the plot kicks into motion things get surprisingly brutal: there's a sequence where a body falls from an elevator that is startlingly blunt, the corpse thudding to an unmistakable halt at ground level.
The problem is that director Vincent Sherman doesn't know how to handle the transitions, navigating uneasily between the two different modes, which sometimes clash quite jarringly, especially in a fight sequence in Central Park where Donahue's gang pratfalls while the Nazis remain deadly serious. A more recent director like Bong Joon-ho might make something fruitful out of these tonal shifts - though he probably wouldn't have gotten the job in old-time Hollywood - but in Sherman's hands they feel awkward, as if he's never able to make up his mind how to handle his material. The same uncertainty characterises a scene near the end that's awkwardly reminiscent of the climax of Fritz Lang's M, the deadly serious "trial", but a belabored back-and-forth between Donhaue and his right-hand man in mock German undermines the drama of the setting,
It doesn't help that the script is generally weak, with little ear for dialogue; the film is filled with clanging lines like "Boys, we're on the right track" and "This might be a clue", especially as the plot becomes more obviously problematic in the second half. In the end, the film's propaganda value comes to the fore, with Yankee ingenuity continually thwarting the bad guys (minimal reference is made, of course, to the fact that the war was already several years old for some other countries), though it's perhaps worth noting that Gloves is able to call on a gang that includes Jewish and Asian members (the film's one black character gets short shrift).
Early on, Sherman stages several scenes rather well, particularly a shot through a kitchen where a slice of cheescake is being prepared, or another in a bakery where the camera moves in tight to the actors, but things quickly become much more predictable; you wonder if someone else filmed these shots, since they're out of character with the rest of the picture. Most of the film's energy stems instead from its fine Warner Brothers' cast, whether it's the starring roles featuring Bogart, Kaaren Verne and Conrad Veidt (especially good), to top-notch supporting work from actors like William Demarest, Peter Lorre, Frank McHugh and Jane Darwell (several of the cast, and others not named here, were of course refugees from the rising tide of Nazism).

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bye Bye Africa

1998, Chad/France, directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun

Like Abderrahmane Sissako's La Vie sur terre, Mahamat Saleh Haroun's first feature narrates a journey home, from France to Chad in this case, and as in Sissako's film the line between truth and fiction is often rather blurred. Both directors play characters named after themselves, men who are reconnecting with family and the rhythms of life in their homelands, while the voiceover narration teases out some of the difficulties of life as an exile; both films even include quotations from the same writer, Aimé Césaire. Given the similarities of approach and tone, it's no surprise that Sissako ended up among the producers of Haroun's subsequent features, Abouna and Daratt.

Haroun's film has a multi-layered narrative in which he simultaneously depicts himself as a director making a film - entitled Bye Bye Africa - complete with casting calls and attempts to persuade producers to sign on to the enterprise, while also conducting apparently "real" interviews with people in Chad, with a particular focus on their experiences of cinema. Early in the film, Haroun's father comments to his son that "your films are for the whites", and that they aren't even distributed in Chad. This is a dilemma faced by almost all African filmmakers: faced with what seems the impossibility of showing their work on the African continent, they are sometimes seen to be unwilling, rather than unable, to do so, and Haroun's filmmaking efforts - in this film - seem designed to reverse that trend.

The interviews explore the destruction of the cinema exhibition industry in Chad, through a long civil war and the systematic lack of investment by overseas distributors - a lack of investment that essentially killed the theatrical business, since consumers were ultimately unwilling to suffer the dreadful projection conditions. There's a sadness around the memories of old movie theatres in N'Djamena - the Normandie, for instance - which are, these days, tumbledown or bullet-ridden, and when they operate at all show scratchy old prints of cheap action flicks.

The documentary aspects of the film succeed to a greater degree than the fictional story interwoven with the interviews. While that story serves as a means for Haroun to explore some of his own feelings about his status as a returning exile, there's a current of melodrama that proves distracting. When Haroun simply turns his camera loose, Bye Bye Africa captures, to a sometimes remarkable degree, the texture of N'Djamena life, the sounds and rhythms of the streets, while the interactions with family are understated and touching; Haroun chooses not, for instance, to depict an emotional reunion with his father, but cuts instead to a scene where the two men quietly drink tea together, the reunion enacted offscreen.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Goupi Mains Rouges

1943, France, directed by Jacques Becker

Like Henri-Georges Clouzot with Le Corbeau, Jacques Becker made his first major film in 1943 (after, in Becker's case, a long period of close collaboration with Jean Renoir). Both directors chose the claustrophobic confines of a small country settlement as a metaphor for Occupation-era France. Becker's setting is even more restricted than in Clouzot's film, since his characters are all members of the same extended clan, the Goupi family; each member has a different nickname, ranging from Goupi Tonkin, a veteran of France's Asian adventures (part of a rich vein of commentary on France's relationship to her colonies), to the eponymous Mains Rouges (wonderfully played by Fernand Ledoux, the standout in a tremendous cast).

There's nothing bucolic about this country tale, however, which reveals spectacular jealousies and a mad dash for personal gain whenever the opportunity presents itself: like Clouzot, Becker never masks his cynicism about the motivations of many of his fellow-citizens during wartime.The film undermines the notion of a peaceful country retreat from the very beginning: when one of the clan, Goupi Monsieur, makes his way from Paris to his father's home -- a place he barely knows, due to the fact that his parents separated -- the atmosphere is about as welcoming as that of the opening segment of Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, when Harker journeys to Transylvania, a sequence that was surely in Becker's mind.

For all that Becker takes a dim view of human nature, however, his film is blackly humorous rather than dour, and there's occasionally an almost frantic tone, as family members steal from one another and desperately try to discover the location of what they believe is a hidden fortune. Despite their internecine strife, however, they're adamant about regulating their affairs themselves: at one point, the paterfamilias comments that "a gendarme will never set foot here," perhaps implying that even in occupied France there are limits to the Goupi clan's willingness to tolerate outside authority.

One of the most striking aspects of the film -- beyond, in retrospect, the fact that it was made at all in such conditions -- is Becker's sense of the French countryside. Whereas his son, also a film director, indulges in a soft-edged view of the past in films like Les Enfants du marais (1999), Becker père never romanticises the financial hardships of country life, nor the restrictions under which some of the clan's members chafe. In some senses, that desperate search for hidden treasure, unpleasant though it may appear, is a pragmatic response to the family's financial needs, as they endeavour to make ends meet. It's not hard to see the first stirrings of European neo-realism here, notwithstanding the difference in tone from the early Italian neo-realist films.

Becker confidently switches registers from deep seriousness to high comedy in several virtuoso sequences, without the transitions ever seeming abrupt: the viewer is constantly on the back foot, never quite sure what to expect either with regard to the story or the treatment of events. The final joke comes after all seems lost, and yet it simply underlines the ability of this self-contained community to regulate itself and ensure continuity in the face of adversity, either personal or political.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States