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Entangled iconography, 27 January 2015

kay so life is floating with shards of narrative, image, roles, history; obvious stuff that we all use to define self. There's nothing you can pick that doesn't entangle with threads going deeper, everything interdependent. The difference between lesser films and great is the first pick from the surface and arrange neatly into pleasant shape, diversions; great ones from deep within and disentangle the cluster, reveal our place.

This is muddled as one review here says because it drags out threads from a corner of its own world, it falls on us to familiarize ourselves or not. Dated too, perhaps, because they're political threads we've left behind in their mess as no longer relevant and holding answers, so focus on the effort of revealing a tapestry.

See here. A mountain bandit, last of his kind, and the bounty hunter hired to kill him, the place is a windswept plateau in a remote area of the Andes. But this is only the tip of the thread plucked from a popular folk legend in Brazil about bandits, as outlaws often are the subject of.

Now see what the filmmaker pulls out beneath this, the bandit preaching to a poor mob about jailing the jailers and feeding the hungry, against oppression. It was I think Bakhunin who said brigands were the first true revolutionaries, outside confines. A revolutionary then, but in this context the subject of myth, of popular belief in a tradition of heroism.

More entangling of iconography ahead. Instead of giving us a virtuous hero the way Soviets portrayed their Red Army officers and peasant heroes in the 1920s, he gives us a seething blowhard who proves to be below the heroic circumstances, as so often they do, fraying the symbol with life. No path is cut through oppression and yet it is his failure that inspires by revealing the extent of oppression.

There's a lot of theatric writhing in all this, dissonant dances, cacophony, this is Rocha's way of fraying everything as he drags it out of pageantry to have life; not as special as Pasolini, similar aim. There's of course a corrupt mayor who has the town in a stranglehold with his stooges, another symbol of oppression this time, but not probed beyond its cruelty.

No the real character who will have to brood over his place in a world and system where symbols prove to be small is the bounty- hunter, more reflection here. Rocha always questions, reflects in order to. But again how brilliantly he pushes out from the fabric images and iconography that question. The dead body is propped up on a tree as an icon anyway even if the actual person proved below the circumstances. The revolution does take place in the small village, the yoke of tyranny is overthrown, but what shape does it take? Rocha dips his hands in myth again and pulls out a whimsical western shootout with our hero shooting down dozens of henchmen, another iconic image, another narrative of popular belief.

So a more esoteric subject whereas Pasolini and Herzog strive for cosmic miracle, but as profound and similar in the transformative tangle of reality and myth.

I want to summarize Rocha here as I conclude my journey through his work with this. His main thrust is always political, not much interesting to me in itself. Ideals are rigid, mere devices on paper, hopeful signposts that turn rebirth into scholasticism. Rocha knows this, incessantly challenges both left and right, attacks the complacent views. Alert mind. So our worldviews are apart, he entangles the neatly arranged fictions, I'm looking for our ability to float free of them, but I'm glad to know him and always impressed when our paths cross.

Images of African air, 22 January 2015

An African film here about youth, about the thirst to escape from a place that parches it and the bike ride through dirt roads out to sea where a ship sails for Europe. But I want to avoid merely a museum visit or an aesthetic token from a faraway place, I want the heart that pounds behind appearances and gives rise to their breeze of color. What heart here?

First are the things he says about the home that is left behind. Symbolic cows being led to slaughter and cut to the young lead riding his motorbike with cow horns on the wheel. A stolen chest, supposedly full of money to pay for a DeGaulle statue but it contains a corpse.

These are the things he knows exactly what he wants to say about. They're also the least interesting to watch for me. The young lead being wrestled by leftist students intercut with cows being wrestled before the slaughter. The precious bike stolen by a savage white man and left broken while he's extracted with merely a broken leg. Not without nuance; a campy caricature of a rich gay but he can pick up a phone and get the police commissioner. But some of it is as didactic as we make fun of Hollywood.

More tantalizing is the journey through these to outrun them, even more so once you realize this is the same journey the filmmaker himself made from that same port. A yearning for freedom, but the desired freedom is a life of material comforts in Europe. Meanwhile the girl meekly tugs along behind her childish man. There's a sense that she quietly yearns for more; but she also looks pleased in the (stolen) pink suit and red hat. I like films where youth is embraced with its folly, this is one.

But also a deeper heart, things which the filmmaker doesn't know how to express clearly but vaguely feels stirring. There are a few of these where the surface of the film is rippled by some hidden vortix that seems to rage in the deep, like when the girl thinks he has drowned. If the journey is Godard, this is Pasolini. This might be part of what some reviews note as sloppy technique. True. This is a man still trying to fathom how images can surround a feel.

So this is it here, a journey where as these two lovers flee, they get caught up in situations that tear from them images of who they are and what their surrounding world is like, images the air takes along which become the film. In the end one self is left behind, the one who has not outrun this world.

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Boddhisatva, 22 January 2015

This is that rare thing, a blockbuster that does more than just deafen with noise of its machinery. More on that in a bit. But I'm also amazed at how well it deploys that machinery, I want to quickly note this deployment that shows we are at the hands of excellent practitioners.

It's set in the near future, about warring alien invaders, but the template is from the past; a WWII movie about landing to France and the final battle that blows back towards freedom, a simple choice that made a difference in immersion from Star Trek stuff.

Setting it in the future allows for wider room in the story. They chose time travel, normally cumbersome when it mechanically props a story, but here fresh because it's about loosening up limits of it. This way we escape the war movie trapping where we know that the hero must dodge every bullet and survive to the end, here he dies again and again, some funny deaths in place of heroics; seriousness goes, expectation goes, it all becomes more fluid.

And Tom Cruise is marvelously casted, just brilliant use of him that helps so much usher us in. He's cleverly made to be at first the preening jerk that he grates everyone as, cowardly trying to avoid battle, instead of right off the bat the noble action hero he would normally portray. He's laughed off, fails, fate as cosmic joke, and in this way slowly emerges redeemed in the great crucible of war so that when he becomes the hero it feels earned and right.

This is all near perfect engagement to my mind, devices but so very well employed. The first is the draw-in, the other two ways of throwing the crank we'd like to; Cruise not a hero, thwarted heroics. Okay, now forget about aliens, gadgets, a war to save Earth.

The point behind it of course is the usual, redemption, but consider this with more depth. A man who would not assume his place in life, cast down there anyway but now stripped of his precious self, no longer above others. Interested viewers can observe the karmic underpinning of being reborn an endless number of lives, the successive round as Buddhist samsara, a cycle of delusion. That aspect of Buddhism which observes how present and future life is dictated by past action is the easiest to illustrate, so we see it often; Groundhog Day is the most known.

The more he pushes against the narrative, the harder it becomes, but just going along doesn't help either, he gets killed every time. No he will have to improvise a new self in the flow, this is sparked by a woman he meets and tells him to find her when he wakes up again.

So along the way there's another shift, even more powerful than all the others; during the drive to Lyons we suddenly notice that he's been further down the story than we have; suddenly it's a countless number of lives he has spent with her improvising a path, now they know each other as deeply as we can imagine. It's this easy (or hard) to deepen, you don't need eloquent speech. No device as intelligent as this in all the Marvel and Nolan bigs; but now one where gears part to create empty space.

It all builds up to a last mission of course, one last chance to get it right except this time they can both die.

The filmmaker delivers the expected climax, doing it well. But also delivers something else. She kisses him for the first time, having known him for only a day, trusting it is more. He watches her go away, having spent with her an eternity.

He comes back of course at the start of the first day, now redeemed, except no one knows he did it, it's her image on the wall. He goes to see her one last time, a first time for her, but now he knows her as more than image in a story (an image he made famous as part of the publicity narrative that inspires at the start of the film).

She greets him, now her superior, with the same defiant tone as ever. Will he stay or go? Is it a first day in this affair, last, is it even one? It's all in Cruise's baffled laugh, both the first day and last. Marvelous; but something you'll deepen with love as deep as you've known or can imagine, the pieces perfectly arranged for you to. My first thought was that there must be no better film about love last year, unless it's Malick.

Something to meditate upon.

Huey (1968)
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Being present, 19 January 2015

I've been deeply impressed by earlier work by Varda; when this happens with me the filmmaker's whole journey becomes a lifelong project. I have several of these running, open-ended affairs with creative, alert souls who I know I can always turn to for a far- reaching view.

This is a small snapshot, but no less part of the journey. It's among a few political films she did at the same time as Godard and others, with Vietnam booming in the distance.

It's a look at a rally party of the Black Panthers at the time of Huey Newton's trial for the murder of a policeman, but there's nothing more they can offer Varda's camera than sloganeering and Varda had no more time to devote into it, perhaps not the inclination to probe more and inquire. Possibly she was interested in no more than this glimpse in passing.

It says something that she was there of course, yet she also makes it a point to ask some of the rapt faces if they know Huey didn't do it; they don't, but they're fervent just the same, it's all part of a war being waged on them, Huey is a prisoner of that war, he must go free, or else.

There's a much more sobering history prior to and as we move away from that day, based on what little I know; the obsession with territory and tribal law, and on the other hand police abuse and a youthful life without prospects that would turn Southcentral LA into worse than Beirut, but you have to remind yourself that this is all simmering behind the ideology and parades, the image barely able to contain a life that would soon spill from it.

Politics are thin, but maybe it is all here anyway for you to deepen? Politics aside, the glimpse is worthwhile. It's a day in that life, that place, that furor about injustice.

John Wick (2014)
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On the job, 18 January 2015

This is wholly forgettable, typical action and revenge, style as merely style.

The only way I can think of to describe it is this. An aging star or other has his agent fish around in the market for a script where he will have to look pained in spots, heroic in others. Liam Neeson seems to do this yearly. Denzel found a new franchise last year. Statham makes his living this way. There are probably any number of identical scripts floating around at any given time that fit the criteria, one is picked from an agency's hat or because it slightly stands out.

Someone is brought around to direct, a crew is assembled. Along the way a few spots open up for known actors to get a paycheck in return for a few minutes of screen time, a few of them here. Work is done, perhaps a hundred people go home with money to make mortgage, from set dressers to McShane. If decent enough, it makes up its money with some profit, viewers get their money's worth of gunplay.

There's nothing wrong with this, work is work, it's how anything gets done; it's that this particular one never convinces as anything other than what I just described, people dragging themselves out of bed to go to work, and this line of work has spoiled us to expect so much more than people simply doing it. When Dafoe talks with Reeves at a funeral within the first few minutes, that's not a conversation between characters who immerse themselves in the significance of some story, it's one actor standing where he was told to and repeating lines after the other has finished doing so.

Chained (2012/I)
Entry into mind, 14 January 2015

Lynch tried here to do something bolder than anything you'll find on the horror shelf these days, chilling as the title implies, but also with a sensitivity to it and desire to immerse the viewer in illusion rather than merely jolt. I like the effort.

A boy goes with his mother to the movies on a sunny afternoon, they watch a grisly horror movie his dad told him not to. They come out on the other end ('in one ear and out the window') to be whisked to a remote house where real horror will take place. The place is marvelously Lynch-esque, a bland suburban one-story house in the middle of flat fields that drown the screams.

This is all inside the mind where the horrific impulse first grows. The erosion of self as being chained to a wall and having to serve a surrogate father who thinks people are pieces to rearrange. The familiarity chills, how inside the horror the boy must still have a life, so that an offering of a candybar that he can eat in front of the TV challenges our own grip next to the boy's.

And then shift again to real life so that when captor and victim go out for their first spree together, the real night they and we encounter again hums with all that was lost for the boy and all that still awaits,a teenager who could be doing teen stuff that night. (can he still? is it too late for that life?)

Some potent stuff here. But there's a dumb last minute twist that ruins it. Lynch simply isn't her father. The twist makes perfect symbolic sense if you go back to the start, it's planted to be that way and sustained; a father who hides something horrible from the child. But it makes no sense as life.

This is what Lynch Sr. has been evolving his whole career, more and more fluid slips to and from illusion, because it's all the same desiring mind whether awake or not. Here Jennifer yanks us by the arm. It's still more imaginative than most horror these days.

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Human nature as sprinkling water on plastic plants, 14 January 2015

The film outright fails for me, because it's about all the vital stuff in life, love, loss and new discovery as each one nested in the capacity of our minds for vision. But Nolan is a logician, a geometer who has to know everything in his narrative world in advance before he can construct it. So he doesn't get any of it in an intuitive way, an allusive way, a fluid way for appearances to suggest things.

He cites Zerkalo as influence, next of course to 2001, a masterwork with an elusive logic, not wholly tractable, not complete, not causal, a spontaneous capacity for images and connections between them. But he does the opposite, 2001, something tractable, complete, causal, not spontaneous. Logical.

(Cool tidbit. One of the great discoveries of the past century is a limit in formal logic that implies there's more that is true than provable, something that every aware creative person knows intuitively, axiomatically to be true. It's why I think Malick abandoned philosophy for the cinema, proof for expression. Flipped around it means that if you stick to what is strictly provable within your narrative you must miss out on some expressible truth.)

This logic screams at me in one particular strand of plot, the ghostlike presence in the girl's bedroom, at first mysterious, but it's actually Nolan's way of creating the explanation of what he's going to do inside the black hole, which is his way of creating the metaphor about love as a powerful force. How? An actual force that transcends spacetime! (Btw, all that fuss about a renowned physicist assisting the production and they go ahead and film all that black hole stuff?)

In other words the only way he can create metaphor is by having it be a plot device, so that the profundity of what happens to us must be accompanied by its narrative explanation; it only succeeds in reducing the intuitions we have (about love, connectedness etc).

What's left is Nolan's own journey in space towards images that expand understanding. This would be his most ambitious so far. Does he do anything interesting? The Dustbowl interviews show he wanted a more grounded approach, a good idea to start among cornfields. Better action than before. But still unimaginative.

A big indication for me was the scene after Coop wakes up from cryosleep and checks his messages from Earth; an entire life has gone by, and among all the possible images that Nolan could have put there to evoke that life, in a time when so much of our vision is mobile and we carry with us cameras everywhere (even more so in that near future), he gives us static monologues before a desk. The same teary tone. What a tragedy of inexpression!

The mind at play here is like the spectral Coop trapped in that boxed space behind bookshelves and able to see only loops.

Nolan gambled here of course, tried to elevate himself to more than contraptions; failed. It turns out he can only roar about that night which great filmmakers gently recall without explaining. Why this man is held in high esteem in a medium that should celebrate visual ability while a modern calligrapher like Shunji Iwai is an unknown says it.

Le Bonheur (1965)
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Appearances; mind, 14 January 2015

This goes in my list of most important works. Varda soars, showing herself to be among the masters who truly understand appearances. They're no simple thing. Image is not just the depicted thing, for those who know how to use it, it's the whole space leading up to the eye that includes the mind that we bring to it, great filmmakers try to work that space.

If we arrive anywhere, it's because we walked. Lesser films comfortably carry us a little down the way, or not at all. This one will take you far and leave you there to ponder on what this new place is, but you have to walk through that space.

The departure point is an idyllic happiness given to us with pastoral colors in the countryside, a husband and wife with their two kids are frolicking under the sun, everything picture perfect, a mythic eden.

Now comes the journey. They drive back to the city, concrete begins to loom from the corner of the windshield, we imagine that here happiness will be tainted, surely life is more complex than that natural bliss. No dice, they're still perfectly happy in their little home.

The man meets another woman in the phone office one day, they go on a date. We imagine that now there's going to be some tension, duplicity. No dice again, the man explains to her that he loves his wife no less, that love for him only adds up to encompass both. He looks honest, she accepts it, we strain to imagine dishonesty just the same, some secret misgiving for her.

There's a paean here to boundless love, love that is not ego or possessiveness but simply joy, Varda renders this as couples dancing in a tavern and freely swapping partners. Politics of love are only a small part of its appeal for me, no there's something more powerful here.

So the wife queries her husband who looks even happier these days, they're back in that idyllic patch of nature, he can't lie, he confesses. Now finally we think there's going to be heartbreak, betrayal, hurt, but again no, she looks apprehensive but quickly accepts it, she's happy that he is, they have sex, fall asleep, Varda has taken care to show this like all the rest without any judgement. But when he wakes up something has happened.

This is the story in a hurry, the rest when you see it.

Is this happiness that we see? Or maybe a better question to ask, where is the unhappiness? At so many points in the story we imagine drama, expect it, that is how life comes to be, and yet at every point this drama is waved away, the worried mind is reassured with sincerity. We'd like to accept it, but do we, meaning we'd like for life to be this way, but is it?

So this is breathtaking work. Varda has filmed a story trusting that we'll imagine all the other things, which she can leave out. She teases out only enough, a brief look of disappointment in the two women, the notion that she carried flowers down to the river. We inhabit both stories, the one we see, the other which we foreshadow behind appearances, so that all the tension becomes ours, internal. We strive to see the lying man, the betrayed wife, maybe we do. Is this happiness? Is it not? Is it?

There's more than social critique here or this wouldn't haunt (even more than Vertigo). It does because it makes you walk, live, through your own mind all the way to the depicted life and you can't unlive it. In the end Varda films the last part from the river onwards without anything having changed between the two, but something has. Has it? Does he grieve? Does he not? What is this mind that you see?

Something to meditate upon.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Appearances; desire, 12 January 2015

I took a walk after seeing this and felt cleansed like always after a great film, the night fresh. More so than womanhood or death, this is about having lived a life. She believes she's dying from cancer as the film begins, but of course we have to wait until the end to get the hospital results.

The Tarot cards of the opening are an entry; artifice, images in place of the real thing, and yet the old woman is spontaneous enough (or contriving) to improvise a story they supposedly tell, some of it vaguely correct, some not, but a story that just so happens to hit on the problem and unlock personal truth.

The problem is suffering, something we think is wrong with life. The filmmaker unveils in the early stages a marvelous space of desire, as poignant as any of Resnais' spaces on memory (the other debilitating facet of mind); the girl in a precious hat shop, safe on this side of the shop glass, gliding among and admiring trinkets we have come up with to dress life, make it more beautiful than it is.

Yet of course life has an ugliness we can't dress, but that's not out there, no hat will fix it. It's the constant vexation with things not being just perfect (which is desire for them to be other than they are), a lover who is not always there, a piano player who doesn't fawn over her singing talent. It's not just her of course, at a cafe we hear people complaining about all sorts of things.

What underpins this is ego, that self who must be at the center of things, the filmmaker playfully sketches this in the rehearsal scene, where as she sings, with a small pan of the camera we find her singing to us as if center stage for an imaginary audience.

But there's also, along the way, a bubbly friend who is open enough about things to pose naked for a sculpting class. Another marvelous image here, a naked body which does not have to overthink its place in the room, which can freely let others take away a glimpse that they can chisel into shape, something she can give of her that she doesn't lose.

It's all about the view we bring to life, the air through which we see, the appearances we cultivate. This is beautifully rendered in a film-within the two girls see, a silent where a man throws away his dark glasses that obscured the way things really were to find his girl alive and well, she had just tripped, no one died. It's this easy.

But how can it be easy when she's dying?

The film doesn't clearly reveal, the doctor's unworried look can mean either of the two things. But of course that day will come just the same, it could be months or decades away. What's left then? Having lived a day just like this, having taken walks like these with a soldier in the park, bus rides like these through the first day of summer.

This is beautiful stuff, more simple but as deep about the life of appearances as Hiroshima mon amour. It reminds me of the cheeky Buddhist saying that explains how there has never been anything wrong from the start.

Something to meditate upon.

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Confounded by dust, 12 January 2015

The gist of this, as always in good spy fiction, is rival storytellers engaged in overlapping fictions they spin, and so the question become about just whose story are we in any given time? You'll see this clearly when they're stalking the Amman house and a local affiliate is spotted on the scene, intruding in Dicaprio's story as a pawn being moved in Crowe's.

The aim of course is to apprehend evil, a jihadist cell operating across Europe, even more relevant now than it was then, but the whole is structured so we absorb the inhuman world that gives rise to just that mindless inhumanity.

The smug CIA director of course, who can manipulate a story from the safety of Virginia, we see him talk to his earphone while picking up his kids or in his lawn; all this to underscore the complacency and utter indifference to human stories on the ground that come with directing war from afar.

Another is the head of Jordanian secret services, always driving around in his entourage of shiny black Mercedes Benz, bought no doubt like the king he serves with American dollars; a ruthless man in impeccable dress who can pluck people from the street and have them lashed in some secret government basement.

Scattered along the way are fragments of broken lives; the Iraqi man with a PhD who doesn't want to be a martyr, the Iranian family that left there, the Palestinian camp with baleful refugees eyeing the American with suspicion.

This is done in the CIA thriller fashion that may tire some viewers, but if you lay back and let it weave itself it does so freely. All of it hard, without soft insight, just the way that corner of the world is, which happens to fit Scott's style.

The climax is worthy of Le Carre, with a whole story being authored around an unwitting innocent, with images of him being snapped and the narrative that incriminates circulated online, to lure out from hiding the opponent spymaster (a sort of jihadist Karla). It ends with DiCaprio letting himself be lured in a story he thinks is that spymaster's, with Crowe being duped and his satellite eye confounded by dust, or is this all part of another story being run all this time?

It's this image that exemplifies the larger dimension, all about human movements on the ground, the dust they kick up and how that confounds the bird's eye view that seeks clarity, but was that in this case ever about anything other than control?

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