Archive for the ‘1990s’ Category

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R.I.P., Sally Menke

September 28, 2010

Menke on her working relationship with Quentin Tarantino (published last December).

And the classic twist contest…

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“طعم گيلاس” / “Taste of Cherry,” dir. Abbas Kiarostami

October 10, 2009
Mr. Badi (Homayoun Ershadi)

Homayoun Ershadi (Mr. Badi) in "Taste of Cherry"

When I first saw this, I was bored and completely baffled as to what Kiarostami hoped to accomplish. After watching his other films, his ideas and methods finally took hold.

Whenever a filmmaker makes a choice in storytelling, it usually involves reaching out to the audience and taking control. At worst, it’s manipulative, just pushing the right buttons, but even done with a light hand, it’s still invisibly guiding the audience’s sympathies and emotions.

For Kiarostami, this creates an ethical dilemma, one that informs the conscience of his work as well as his style, and here, he inverts the conventions of filmmaking. There are a few exceptions (such as one late scene that tantalizes us with a potential reversal in the plot), but otherwise, Kiarostami deliberately avoids anything that smacks of manipulation; his choices in composition and editing generally do not nudge the viewer in any clear cut direction.

Active participation is a necessity, but it’s not meant to be alienating or challenging in an elitist way. What’s needed is immersion. There is no plot to unravel (we’re never given a concrete reason as to why Mr. Badii is trying to commit suicide), and this isn’t about sympathizing or grieving over a man’s choice to kill himself. Kiarostami provides only a skeletal framework, and to flesh it out is to figure out what it means for someone to be untouched by life, by surrounding beauty and to feel only a need to die.

With this morbid concept in mind, what otherwise seems mundane or opaque becomes incredibly evocative. It’s often subtle, like the way debris from a labor site suddenly disrupts a motionless shot, trickling down a hillside as Badii watches on. But a few striking instances do call attention to themselves: at the same labor site, Badii’s shadow is seen on a cascade of earth pouring down a grate, and the shape of his figure ripples like it’s in a constant state of disintegration even though it remains intact.

Most people generally avoid the questions at the heart of this picture, and the evasiveness one would expect from any viewer is reflected in the strangers’ unwillingness to assist Badii in his suicide (a fairly minimal task, mostly to confirm his death). One person, a soldier, flees. Another, a religious student, falls back on his faith. A third tries to relate through his own past experience but finds only a superficial resemblance.

When Badii completes his attempt, we’re literally left in the dark regarding his success. That’s when Kiarostami ends the picture with a clear reminder that all of this is fiction. Granted, it did get the film around Iran’s exhibition board, but the ending is far more than a practical necessity. Pulling the film from the brink of manipulation, the final sequence stays true to the film’s original intent, allowing one to walk away with a real lesson in spiritual renewal and not a sense of fabricated despair.

"Taste of Cherry"

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“Three Colors: Blue”/”Trois Couleurs: Bleu,” dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski

September 29, 2009
Juliette Binoche in "Blue"

Juliette Binoche in "Blue"

Blue is the first installment of Kieślowski’s Three Colors, where the ideals of the French tricolours are explored in a personal context, and when I first saw it as a teenager, I focused on the conceptual framework and not much else. The picture’s immaculate construction suits it for that sort of analysis – the color motif is very easy to pick out and just as easy to dissect. It was a nice way to approach film for the first time, but it was limiting, reducing it to an academic exercise.

For that reason, Blue seemed more like a picture to admire than something I’d ever relate to. Watching it now, it carries much more heft.

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The film centers around Julie (Juliette Binoche) and how she copes with grief. It’s almost enough to drive her to suicide, but when she rules that out as an option, she copes by running away. The first time I saw Blue, the logic seemed opaque and took some effort to understand, but now it seems very instinctive, not a matter of rationality but impulse.

Openly mourning feels too overwhelming, so she tries leaving behind all the things that fuel her pain – the memories that keep it in place and the marred emotional attachments that feed it. It’s even understandable when she tries destroying a commissioned work that she may have written (IMO, she probably did). It’s cauterization through withdrawal, removing all passions from her life to extinguish any raw sense of feeling.

When she tries living alone as a stranger, it doesn’t seem so odd anymore. Binoche’s performance always conveys torment that’s never far from the surface, and when reminders of Julie’s past life chip away at her protective anonymity, the moments are so agonizing, you almost hope she remains lost and invisible.

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She doesn’t, not for long. Her love for music stirs her too much, and eventually her withdrawal’s snapped by several key moments that set her on the way back…

Plenty of great films have covered similar territory (Last Tango in Paris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind come to mind), but as much as I liked those films, Blue cuts a little deeper, really understanding the collateral sacrifices made when anyone deals with pain in that manner.

Binoche said her performance was inspired by a friend who had suffered a similar loss, and she kept that a secret until the end of the production. Her performance is not only a remarkable gift to her friend, it’s a moving display of empathy that should leave anyone feeling a little less alone in their toughest moments.

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Juliette Binoche at BAM

September 22, 2009

Tonight, I saw Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue as part of a Juliette Binoche retrospective at BAM. First time I saw it was 1994, when I was just getting acquainted with film, and at the time, it was like solving a puzzle: every detail had to be broken down and analyzed over and over again until the characters and the whole picture could be easily explained. 15 years later, there wasn’t any need for analysis – everything was recognized and understood, easily and immediately. I credit this to familiarity, not from repeated viewing, but from experiences since then…

I’ll write more about this later (and about two films by Martin Scorsese – time for me’s a rare commodity these days), but I want to share one shot before moving on to Binoche:

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent

I’ve never noticed this until tonight, and it’s further proof of how much is lost when you see a film on a television set (or a computer screen). Projected in 35mm, the detail was obvious: Binoche is soft while Régent is in razor sharp focus. (FWIW, I doctored the image above to make this more apparent.)

The one on the left is escaping an enormous amount of pain and will leave behind memory and emotional attachment. The one on the right is in love with her.

The depth of field is so shallow, Régent only needs to be placed a few inches to Binoche’s right, allowing her shadowed features to dissolve ever so slightly, inching towards anonymity.

•     •     •

Binoche is currently performing a dance-theater piece at BAM’s Harvey Theater, just a few blocks down the road, and she showed up after the screening to discuss Blue and her career. She was kind to the audience and very articulate (not to mention radiant).

Possibly the most surprising revelation about Blue was that Kieślowski preferred ONE take; Binoche had to push for two. His initial excuse was to simplify the editing process with less options, but Binoche pointed out that Kieślowski made most of his films in Cold War Poland and tight resources in that environment would have influenced his work ethic.

When shooting for Blue began, Kieślowski apparently rehearsed each scene as many as five times before turning on the camera for a final take; towards the end of the film, Binoche convinced Kieślowski to flip the ratio around. (Binoche joked that whenever an unsatisfactory take fell short of a standard met in rehearsal, she would needle Kieślowski that they would’ve avoided the problem had they filmed their later rehearsals as actual takes.)

She also talked briefly about Michael Haneke (who saw right through her in Code Unknown but to her surprise couldn’t seem to read her in Caché), about Abbas Kiarostami (who offered to develop one of her ideas, a proposal she hasn’t quite accepted yet) and the creative freedom Hou Hsiao-Hsien gave her in The Flight of the Red Balloon (which apparently was improvised all the way through, with complete freedom given to the actors and the cinematographer). She clearly enjoyed working with all of them.

Her most striking comments involved the filmmaking process in Hollywood. For starters, she didn’t want to differentiate between American filmmakers and others because each individual director was different for personal reasons, not just cultural. Having said that, she echoed the same sentiment I’ve heard from many veteran actors – that filmmaking had become more and more of a technical craft, to the point where it’s dissolving the relationship between directors and actors. Twice she mentioned “TV controllers,” and initially, I thought she was referring to video assists. The second time, she sketched out more details, of directors spending more time in a separate room, lined with monitors, while consulting with script assistants. Paul Newman used to lament this trend; it made it easy for an actor to feel lost right before a scene, as if they were abandoned by the director. This set-up was unusual to Binoche twenty years ago, and she compared it to Kieślowski’s presence on Blue, where he, like most of her directors then, would stake his place next to the camera. (Kieślowski also trusted his cameraman to follow through on their plans, enough that he rarely monitored his work.) The same with Hirokazu Koreeda – in a recent conversation with Binoche, he agreed with her sentiments and revealed that he never directs his films that way, preferring to stay next to the camera as well.

Technology was supposed to make filmmaking easier, to make it more accessible so that it can truly become an art form the way Godard once defined it (something as affordable as paint and brushes rather than an endeavor for the wealthy). In Hollywood, the tools seem to be taking over, inflating costs and dictating the methods of the filmmaker instead of the other way around.

When Binoche talked about her experience making a Hollywood film, she wasn’t trying to be critical, but she described a process that felt stifling creatively. She detailed a slow and bloated procedure weighed down by the demands of rote coverage (shooting a standard laundry list of shots as if they were following an instruction manual). This was in stark contrast to Kieślowski, who knew exactly what he wanted and filmed only those shots before moving on to the next scene. With the larger production, “making” a film was more like making a product.

To be fair, she did mention that Haneke’s methods were equally elaborate as well (I might have misheard, but it sounds like he uses some sort of sophisticated modeling to plan out his films). But I came away believing that filmmaking had become too dependent on its technological trappings, that it was time to shed them.

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“Before Sunrise” & “Before Sunset,” dir. Richard Linklater

September 1, 2009
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunrise"

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunrise"

I’m not a big fan of date movies. Most of them feel like bad Hallmark cards. Shallow, fake…something misguided fans would watch to distract themselves from the gray reality of their own relationships.

I didn’t feel that way about Before Sunrise. It’s utterly romantic, but despite the familiar set-up (two strangers meet in a foreign land), it doesn’t give into the usual artifices associated with romantic films. Instead, it builds a bare-bones plot around an overnight courtship, where both characters reveal how their ideas of romance colors everything else in their lives.

The dialogue is intoxicating in its sense of discovery. There’s no barrage of one-liners – that would’ve been too fanciful. Instead, the conversation unfolds casually, and neither character is afraid of taking a ludicrous turn. Pretty soon, their words overflow with sensuality, and it’s exhilarating how they never tire of each other’s thoughts. Their exchanges may be cerebral, but they’re not the least bit academic. Their intellect fuels their passion, and it relieves them of their rational inhibitions while keeping them within their senses.

When Before Sunrise closes, it leaves their story unresolved and hints at endless possibilities…

Then nine years later, in Before Sunset, everything’s finite. What was once promising feels out-of-reach. The characters have really aged and not just physically: they’re marked by nine years of pain and disappointment. Experience has left them apprehensive over the consequences left by their actions. Everything they do betrays a fear bred by that awareness, and the pacing fits this mood perfectly. The story moves in real-time, and the characters know they’re trying to outrun a schedule that will inevitably catch up to them.

The whole concept of romance lends itself to escapism, but nothing’s more detrimental to romance than self-deception – it could mean unrealistic expectations, bloodless compromise, settling for less or settling for something that isn’t there. Nine years after Before Sunrise, the characters take refuge in rationalization. “Maybe we would’ve hated each other,” they say, but it’s not an idea they fully embrace.

They can’t return to the same romantic ideals of the past, or live with the same reckless abandon, but they can’t let go of their idealism altogether. They hold on just enough to doubt their pragmatism, and maybe enough to ask for more.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunset"

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunset"