Thursday, April 25, 2013

Blind Shaft(Li, 2003)

Humanity in the way of industry.

The first act of violence in Blind Shaft is abrupt and unsettling. Three miners are on a break, sitting in a secluded area of the mine to have a drink. They refer to one another as “bro” and one man talks about what it’s like back home and the lonely women there. Suddenly one of the men, Song, thumps this man in the head with a pick, killing him. At first you’re not even sure it happened; there’s no warning and the camera doesn’t stylize the violence. Its not just the act itself, it’s the banality of it that gets to you. Song and the third man in the conversation, his partner Tang, are con-men of the nastiest sort, and this is just another day at the office for them. They pretend their victim was family, killed by a cave-in, and get paid off by the boss of the mines to keep it quiet. Once paid, they move on to the next illegally run mine, picking up another rube who will pretend to be a family member with the intention of killing him and getting paid off again.

Their next mark is a young 18-year-old kid, whose father abandoned him to find work six months previous. He has left school to earn money and find his father a sad but noble quest. His naive and trusting nature stirs sympathy in Song, making him apprehensive to go through with the murder. Of course this uncharacteristic compassion doesn’t go unnoticed by Tang, who spends the movie reminding Song that the kid is nothing - just like them. This rift between the two con-men is not only the source of drama but also raises questions as to whether a man who has been so horrible can actually be redeemable.

Blind Shaft is a film that transcends the culture and boundaries of China. It’s at once a story about capitalism and about humanity’s lack of respect towards itself. The first mine Boss doesn’t really care about the dead miner, he wants him the hell out of there and forgot, but his lack of compassion doesn’t stop with others, it even applies to himself. When his payoff is 2,000 yuan short, he offers to cut off two fingers to make up the difference. You don’t doubt that he’d do it, either, the fatalism among all the characters is clear. The second boss, when asked why he can treat the workers unfairly boils it down to a fairly simple line “China has a shortage of everything but people”. You could just as well remove China and replace it with “the world”. That line actually fuels Tang and Song’s personal philosophy that they use to justify their vile scams: “Why care for them if no one cares for us?” It’s a pretty tragic viewpoint, but the clarity in which this world is illustrated makes you understand it and even sympathize.

Don’t confuse sympathy with approval though. The two get paid pretty well from their schemes but the money doesn’t better their situation. They go whoring, sing karaoke, and eat pretty well,  and yet they’re continually covered in dirt, wearing the same clothes, and surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. Tang and Song may be working the system that created them but it’s clearly not paying off.

Li Yang, who directed the film and adapted it from the Liu Qingbang novel “Sheimu”, gets the most out of untrained actors and his low budget production. Shooting with a 16mm hand-held camera in a cinema verite style, the film is filled with the kinetic energy you find in French New Wave films, but the whimsy and romance of France is replaced with the desolate and downtrodden locales in the poorer areas of China’s vast landscape. The minimalism and intimacy of the production effectively illustrate the hopelessness of being deep in the mines, a place that posed legitimate dangers to the actors and crew during shooting. There are some great images found here, my favorite being the bright light coming down the shaft that gets eclipsed as people try to make their way out.

Recently I watched a documentary called Side by Side, in which many very important people in the film industry debated digital formats vs. film. While incredibly fascinating, I find the digital vs. film debate to be frivolous, an attempt to dictate the right way to make a movie. 16mm, the film format used for Blind Shaft, was considered to be the amateur’s film stock reserved for experimenting or, gasp, lowly television programs. This obsession with the tools used to make the art is detrimental to the artist, using the newest advances in technology to cover up how shallow the product is. At the same time it creates a false identity as to what constitutes a “real film”, making would-be filmmakers scared to create using what they have for fear that their work will be looked at as “amateurish”. Was it shot in digital or film? Is it high-def? Who cares?  I mention this because Blind Shaft is a strong example of how an engaging story that challenges the viewer rises above the limitations and biases imposed by “the pros” against a low budgets and “inferior” film formats. It’s not the tool it’s the hand that guides them, and Li Yang proves that with Blind Shaft.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Truth is in the Lens, Somewhere

A Human in the Wild: Sandrinne Bonnaire's Mona is having a light lunch.
In David Lynch’s Lost Highway(1997) two police officers ask Fred Madison(Bill Pullman) if he owns a video camera. Madison and his wife, Renee(Patricia Arquette), are being tormented with videos that have been dropped off at their house - videos of someone wandering into their home and filming them in their sleep. When the officers ask if they own a video camera, a loaded question given the circumstances, it’s revealed by Renee that Fred hates video cameras He clarifies, “I like to remember things my own way....How I remembered them. Not necessarily how they happened.”
Lynch uses the camera as a symbol of truth, a tool that records events as they really occurred, untainted by our own point of view. Ironically this story is being filmed by a camera and the work itself is a fiction, manipulated by lighting, editing, script, etc, making the concept of the camera as objective recorder of truth a flawed one. The point in telling stories with film isn’t to document truth as it happened, but to find truth in ourselves through how we interpret what the camera shows us.
Agn├Ęs Varda explores truth and memory in her film Vagabond/Sans toit ni loi(1985). Varda was one of the directors, along with others such as Resnais, Marker, and Robbe-Grillet, who was associated with the Left Bank during the influential French New Wave movement. In Vagabond, Varda weaves techniques developed in her documentaries with her sensibilities as a still-photographer and fictional film maker. In the opening moments of the film we discover a young teen in a ditch who has died from exposure. No one knows where she came from; they only know she existed and that now, sadly, she exists no more. Varda comes in with a voiceover, much like you’d expect in a documentary, explaining the purpose of this film is to discover just who this girl was. The rest of the movie is comprised of moments as described from people who had seen her and spent time with her no matter how brief or personal. However, the reality the comes with a documentary style is challenged immediately; Mona, the dead girl in question is alive and reliving these moments for the camera - a corpse reanimated by memories and the power of film.
As we follow our young, doomed subject we watch her actions alternate between self-preserving and self-destructive. She is frustrating, pitiful, mysterious and unknowable. Sandrine Bonnaire, who deftly plays Mona with without irony or self-awareness, is a tabula rasa, taking on the characteristics endowed to her by the perspective of whoever is telling the story. Was she really unknowable, or did no one want to know her?
In a moment related by two mechanics, Mona sets up camp outside their building. The younger mechanic sees her as appealing and in their brief encounter Mona seems to be gazing at him seductively. Shortly after that, the younger mechanic looks out his bedroom window to witness, to his disappointment, the older mechanic exiting her tent with his pants down. The Older Mechanic explains in a confession to the camera that it was she who had a dirty mind, presumably bringing him into her makeshift bed. Varda’s camera pans down from the Mechanic’s face to his hands, big and dirty, and lingers there. Varda is purposely using her camera to suggest more without explicitly saying it, using our own perspective to formulate the message. The camera is only recording the grimy hands of a mechanic and the viewer must create a reason why Varda is showing it to them. While we never see what really happened in that tent, we can either choose to take his word for it and more importantly the camera’s word for it, or we can infer that it’s possible something more sinister happened there.
In another story, a Jewish squatter tells about how she lived with him in a nice vacant chateau for a short while, but she bailed when he was assaulted by thieves. She is physically affectionate with him but their time is mostly spent getting high. He tells us later “When I had grass, she was cool. But less so when I ran out.” Yolande, a caretaker for an elderly woman, and whose uncle guards the chateau, offers an alternate view of the two squatter. She stumbles onto them as they sleep and chooses not to disturb them or even let the owners know there are vagrants in their home. She envies them and sees warmth and serenity in the way they’re resting on each other. Maybe it’s really there, or maybe Yolande is projecting the love and affection she’s not receiving from her hoodlum boyfriend, who would eventually rob the estate and serving as a catalyst for their separation.
Varda uses Yolande differently than the other narrators of the film. Where most of them relay their experience in confessional moments that carry the context of a documentarian and a subject, Yolande breaks the fourth wall during scenes with other characters, blending the confessional with the narrative. It’s unsettling when Yolande, played bright-eyed and naive by Yolande Moreau, first turns to the camera as other characters go about their business, alienating the viewer in order to remind them that this is all movie magic. These events being recorded by Varda’s camera aren’t documents of objective reality, but dramatizations shaped by the perspectives of the people who saw them or imagined them - as may be the case with the rape in the woods. There’s no one to tell us about that sexual assault; it’s a product created by Mme. Landier who is overcome with fear and guilt after she drops Mona off on the side of the road. This can be compared to the Older Mechanic who may have actually raped Mona, but says it was her advances that lead to their sexual encounter. It’s a distinct illustration of not only the unreliability of the narrators but the camera as an objective recorder of reality.
Despite the film’s mission statement of trying to learn more about this dead girl, we can’t ever know her because none of these characters ever really knew her. The narrators are the ones we really learn about through their interactions with Mona and their interpretations of her. Yolande confirms her yearning for a human connection when she says to the camera “Being alone is rough...In Paulo’s arms I feel alone.” Mona is the mirror that reveals Yolande’s inner truth. Later in the film, Yolande takes Mona in, wanting to dote on her and provide for her because she admires what she previously perceived Mona to have and not have. She thinks Mona to have love but no home, while Yolande has a home but no love. However, when it appears Mona might be a threat to Yolande’s job (she’s not) and Paulo’s affections (maybe, but through no fault of her own) Yolande’s jealousy emerges and Mona’s character becomes uglier to her as a result. Whether or not Mona was actually disgusting to her is inconsequential, it’s that Yolande perception of her changed because of her own insecurities.
In Lynch’s Lost Highway the videotapes and video camera are the only reality. Everything else is a fiction created by Fred Madison in order to avoid or, in the case of the mob fantasy that takes place in the second half of the film, justify what he really did. The movie isn’t necessarily about finding the truth as to what really happened, as we learn those truths fairly early on - he brutally murdered his wife. Lost Highway is actually about Fred and how he mentally deals with and eventually accepts the truth of his actions. Similarly to Lynch, Varda is using her camera to illustrate the unreliability of memory and perspective and even the unreliability of the camera as a recorder of truth. Her manipulations are present throughout - the dolly shots dreamily moving down the road sometimes with Mona and sometimes without her. Varda is in the driver seat and it is her decision to push the camera or hold it back. She determines what details are hidden or revealed in order to remind you that this narrative, framed by a psuedo-documentary, is manipulating you. If Fred Madison is claiming the camera records events how they really happened, Varda is laughing in his face. For her the camera can record whatever event in whatever context one wants it to record, allowing the director to determine how a viewer interprets it. To find truth under these circumstances, a difficult endeavor to be sure, is the driving force and challenge to making films, and, for the audience, understanding them.
There are moments when we see Mona alone, moments that no one could have relayed to our pseudo-documentarians. In these often quiet and brief instances, Mona looks confused and conflicted, unable to comprehend the world around her. She looks tired, a weary zombie retracing her own demise so that we can relive these memories. As the film progresses she decays a little more and her death, while tragic, feels like a release from this horrible passion play being acted out for the benefit of those who didn’t care enough about her in the first place. She’s dying for us, so we can learn from the sins of those who had forsaken her. In the end, Mona is everything they want her to be - a freeloader, a wild spirit, a promiscuous drunk, a warm lover,  a victim - aimlessly walking on the roads to nowhere in particular. She can be all of these things no matter how contradicting because she is a human reflection of those around her: repulsive and beautiful, frightening and alluring.
At the end of Lost Highway, Fred Madison is shown the truth of what he’s done and accepts that it happened, but he doesn’t accept the consequences. He gives chase to the police and the film ends with him racing down the highway; where he’s going, we don’t know. There is no such moment of acceptance and realization in Vagabond. All the characters have a hand in her death, including Mona herself. One character, sent by Landier to find her and bring her back, decides to leave her be. She is publicly drunk and vomiting in the station and he repulsively sees her as a lost cause. He says he won’t even tell Landier that he found her like this; she’ll never know how close they were to changing, or possibly saving, Mona’s life. While Fred Madison has accepted his role and is now running off down that lost highway, the characters of Vagabond are slowly, ignorantly wandering down the same road.

An Introduction of Sorts

I'm going to write about movies, okay?

It's not going to be a run of the mill review blog where I hand out stars or turkeys or severed thumbs to movies. That's not my style, playa. The very next post I'm going to make is an essay I wrote about Agnes Varda's Vagabond. It's not a review but how I understand the movie using a concept from David Lynch's Lost Highway as a starting point. That kind of stuff, you see?

There will be spoilers in a lot of what I write because I want to discuss all of the movie, not around the movie. So if you haven't seen Disney's Beauty & The Beast yet, watch it before you read what I write about it. I recommend the original theatrical cut, not the extended edition. The extra songs muck up the pacing, and they're not that great anyway.

I'd love for this to become a dialogue about movies, too. That's a goal,anyway. You can comment here and on any post I make - I encourage it. If I get enough interest I'll even let readers control my Netflix Queue. It's an idea that sounds both fun and petrifying - but I'm getting ahead of myself. For all I know, no one will read this and it'll just become my own public diary about movies - which is probably the best way to describe it anyway.

Fun Fact: I named my son after David Bowie's character in the Labyrinth.

Oh and you can hit me up on the twitter: @jaekrenfrow
Or not. No pressure.