Tag Archives: General artiness

Review: Ida

It is not a new claim to compare Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida to the works of Ingmar Bergman. The inner psychosis, washed out black-and-white cinematography, quiet, haunted feel of the air around the film, and the contemplative characters are all Bergman down pat. Even better, the film’s clinical, dry exterior, carefully modulated framing, and highly static camera meant to box off characters at a distance for observation are all patented art-house techniques used piercingly well in Ida.

The shot selection is textured, operating form a well thought-out place of “show, not tell” and “show only what is necessary”. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous in a non-insistent,  chilly sort of way that just sneaks up on you and envelops the story, as opposed to insisting on the visuals for their own sake as many art films do. It’s a calm film that hides deep internal dissonance and fractured soul, and that is what just about any Bergman film was in its refutation of narrative cinema for elliptical beauty. The sense that we never quite know what perspective the camera takes is very much present here. When it comes to pure craftsmanship, it’s a hard film to knock down. Continue reading

Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Update 2019: Another viewing, and I’m still convinced that the central enigma of Anderson’s style is that it still feels as much like a reckoning as a refuge: for everything he asks of us, there’s as clear a sense that he is hiding more from us, and from himself. His brutally mannered style often feels like overprotective personal authoritarianism, the kind of excessive formalism of a director composing his characters’ worlds with an absolutist sense of extreme mastery. To that extent, this film’s style is actually more authoritarian than ever, the cleanliness of Anderson’s lines (both geometric and linguistic) all the more shielding and unyielding, all the more unforgivingly sculpted down to the most atomistic level. And, as with all of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom not only externalizes its characters expressionistically but defines those characters by their willfully expressionistic selves: at first blush, they simply refuse to not choreograph their very souls for us, to adorn their walls with markers of their core being, using style as a shorthand for self rather than asking us to figure out anything about them.

Moonrise Kingdom makes this manifest in the narrative as well: more than ever, his youthful protagonists’ childlike replication of emotional maturity and sensible domestication have the automatic quality of predetermined conclusions, children unthinkingly performing what they’ve been programmed to by adults. If Moonrise Kingdom is autobiographical, not necessarily at the level of narrative event mimicking his personal life but at the level of formal embellishment exposing his soul, then this becomes the first film where Anderson’s style finally peers back into itself to explore its own self-construction, and, more importantly, the nervousness underlying that construction. Perhaps because it meditates on the character Anderson might be or might become, it does feel as though Anderson’s aesthetics have stopped excessively signposting his characters and begun to tease out what they themselves don’t (or can’t) signpost for us. The effect of this is arguably to turn Anderson’s toyboxes into tragedies.

Rather than reassuring our own desires to manicure our personal images and govern our own personal spaces, his film (and his follow-up, The Grand Budapest Hotel) finally seems to actually delve into the chaos of the mind beneath the flattened diorama exteriors and precious costume shelters. The latter no longer seem representative of his characters’ souls but, rather, indicative of their anxieties, no longer expressing who they “are” so much as what they either refuse to admit or don’t realize they can’t admit. Their symmetrical equipoise (as domineering as ever in Anderson’s cinema) seems less the tyrannical domain of a dictator-director and more an admission of guilt on Anderson’s part, an acknowledgment of a cloistered soul whose personal directorial style has sometimes existed to protect him (and us) from recognizing our collective arrested development, from admitting to that which we can’t control, style, and comport with.

Moonrise Kingdom thematizes this tragic sense of self more eloquently than any previous Anderson film, evoking a greater sense of melancholic loss, of personal absence, his characters’ wounds starting to open for us to see. I, for one, still can’t tell that it doesn’t just amount to an overgrown child tidying up his soul with compositional tableau and cleansing his mind with figurines corralled, guarded, and stabilized rather than excavating his inner-self and exposing his raw nerves for us. In other words, Moonrise Kingdom tunnels so far down into Anderson’s personal underground warren that one can’t tell whether he is exposing new light or just hiding from it. But it certainly doesn’t feel like personal exhaustion, which is where I thought Anderson was heading circa 2010, and that alone suggests a director who still has crevices worth exploring.

Original Review:

And the story of Wes Anderson not so much reinventing or adding to his aesthetic but reigning it in continues.  When we last left him, he’d staved off a career of middling recreations of his first few films by turning to animation. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s return to live-action filmmaking, he seems to have learned a fair bit from his previous effort about loosening up and introducing a little fluidity and naturalism into his rigid formalism. The whole film is consummately Anderson-like – it would be a pale-faced lie to introduce this film as Anderson changing it up. But there’s a less suffocating air to the whole thing, more room for Anderson’s precision to breathe and infuse the wide open spaces of the New England vacation-land the film calls home. If Fantastic Mr. Fox was Anderson unhinged, this is him sitting back and relaxing, more comfortable than he’s ever been with himself and letting the wind take him any which way. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Vampyr and Viridiana

Update 2018: Uhhh these early reviews from my youth burn my eyes so. Vampyr is too sublime a film for the quality of review below to do it any kind of justice, yet there is never enough time to revisit even such a foundational film in writing. (I mean, it is only the banner image of my website!) Of course, part of the reason that I don’t have time to fully explain the film is that a work like Vampyr so capably resists any definition or sedimentation. All these years later, my favorite thing about it remains that, despite its heavily imagistic texture, Dreyer’s conjuration seems to resist imaging, to thrive primarily below the perceptual barrier, like a shadowy outline or impression discarded on an abandoned wall.

Dreyer’s work is quite pragmatic in this sense; its images burn into our brain not with the tendentious force of a grand theory but with a worrisome in-definition, a sense in which the images aren’t solidified enough to “represent” anything. They dislocate us with their refusal to additively mount-up as most films do. Instead, they seem to unfurl outwards without emanating from any perceived essence or center, not even a portal to hell. Thoroughly estranging in its refusal to declare, the only thing Vampyr mounts are moments of severe uncertainty, curiosity, active deconfiguration, ultimately effusing a bewildering refusal to illustrate certainty to us, a prophetic inclination to decline revelation.  Instead of subterranean tunneling toward essence, Dreyer’s films hover over unstable, constantly fluctuating foundations, in this particular case witnessing space as a diaphanous flutter while remaining thoroughly removed from it.

In this sense, the film’s modality is truly singular, resistant to any definitive statements. Despite frequent comparisons to German Expressionism, the film’s contours actually incline quite a ways away from that estimable Weimar tradition. Absent in Dreyer’s phantasm are any of expressionism’s aspirations to manifest the latent, to tear apart the exterior surfaces of the world and extract the psychological interior beneath. Vampyr holds no psychological pretensions, no suggestion of access to the furthest reaches of the human mind. Perhaps because psychology can so easily tilt from modernistic advance guard of the mind to rote regurgitation of heavily prescribed, obviously underlined meaning emboldened in cinematic boldface, carefully keyed to “tell us” what the characters are thinking and feeling, Vampyr’s resistance to the sublime actualization of crystalline imagery is all the more intoxicating today. Its meaning seems not locked in a time and a place, to have been actualized on the screen in the film’s present, but to come from some far gone past, or some alternate plane, and whisper into our future.

To the extent that this is frightening, it is quite a different psychic turmoil than Weimar Expressionism usually offers. If Expressionism tortures us with the realization that our psychological selves will never be as complacent and composed, as whole, as they seem on the surface, Vampyr terrorizes us with a more spectral appreciation of a more fundamental indefinite(ness), one which cannot be reconciled by “telling” us what psychologically dwells beneath that surface. Dreyer’s later films advance this question further, but already in Vampyr, his films seem not sculpted for accessible meaning, but rather divined, even necromanced, from another system of meaning entirely. A system, in this case, where characters are not so much inlaid with psychological architecture – the work of the film being to unpack this architecture as the “core” of the person – but iconographic. They are figures in the wider montage of an artist.

So if Vampyr’s images rhyme with the rest of the world, they are nonetheless all their own, allowed to freely resonate and reverberate on their own terms and at their own frequencies as a portrait of a specific imaginative location. Without any fashionable post-modern opacity, Vampyr lurches about alarmingly at a sinister, slothlike tempo, struggling to represent the seemingly unrepresentable, to visualize a seemingly occult knowledge that seems to be obscuring itself as it comes into being. Not because the film is trying to confuse us, but because it seems to have tapped into a genuinely uncomfortable, unsupportable base, to encrypt a truly ephemeral sense of ontological decomposition, to truly and unabashedly ponder cinema’s fundamental aspirations toward knowledge and truth.  Continue reading