“Each stranger is a figure of seemingly infinite potential, pinned down to a changing series of points.”
Given that the new director of the Melbourne International Film Festival, Richard Moore, has signaled a slight shift away from Asia and towards African films, it’s surprising that this year’s highlights were a Shohei Imamura retrospective and three superb Korean movies — all linked by spasms of wretched anger. There were some puzzling selections — the choice of Michael Moore’s Sicko As opening film didn’t set any kind of tone for the coming weeks — and last year’s streak of humor (Takeshi Kitano, Andrew Bujalski, Bong Joon-ho) wasn’t present, except in the Korean animation Aachi and Ssipak. Despite the sidebar of pulp, horror and sex movies, many of the notable films were challengingly grim and minimal — although in the case of Harmony Korine and Manoel de Oliveira, minimalism meant reducing a film to its thinnest, most luminous slightness.
Games of Inversion
Writer/director Anna Biller’s Viva sets two women, a blonde (Bridget Brno) and a brunette (Biller), in a re-creation of ’70s soft porn — exchanging poolside innuendoes, getting dolled up for endless photo shoots and orgies. There are a couple of intriguing Demy-style interludes — the blonde takes time out from a spa to dream of a white horse — but what starts off as an exploration of uncanny sexual behavior (the stilted poses of amateur porn) quickly turns tired. The film’s (deliberate?) two-hour drag forces us to inhabit all those bachelor pads and water-beds to the point of fatigue, so that we witness the decay of the hedonistic dream. One of the surprising — perhaps dismaying — revelations of Viva is the fact that the world of ’70s porn now seems like such a spacious place for women: a warm bath of erotica compared to mainstream TV and videos. The Playboy ideal — that curved, long-line silhouette — has become a purely aesthetic object, sampled in fashion and art, and by directors like Sofia Coppola. Viva isn’t remotely titillating, and maybe that’s the point. It’s as if sexuality that has no taint of disturbance — no meanness in it — no longer has the ability to arouse. Viewers need the charge of exploitation; otherwise, pornography has no frisson.
Nevertheless, one of the best films I saw, Kim Ki-duk’s Time, explored female imagery in more complex terms. As the film opens, a girl is undergoing a cosmetic procedure; her face is lovingly shaped by the hands of a surgeon. We get the sense that this doctor is no hack; a new set of features is beautifully and tenderly inscribed onto the face. With such a benign creator behind the scenes, could this be a fairy-tale transformation? Before we can see the results, we switch to the drama of Seh-hee (Park Ji-yeon) and her boyfriend Ji-woo (Ha Jung-woo) — a moody hunk who fields constant offers from women. Seh-hee is consumed by her lover’s roving eye. She has lost sight of her own desire, and become fixated on tracking his gaze, jealously following it to the exclusion of her own identity. However, it’s a losing battle: in a place like Seoul, a man holds all the cards. This is a city filled with countless lovely girls — there are rows of them wherever one looks, coyly glancing from beneath their hair. It’s a refined café society, which provides the male shopper with lots of options: pretty and manicured women sit in elegant bars and tea-houses, waiting to be approached. Seh-hee has no hope of harnessing her lover’s gaze; she can only become immersed in what he sees. Arguably, none of these girls is distinctive at first glance; they are all variations on the one type — pale-skinned, glossy, and beautifully turned out. It’s difficult to make a selection: each is desirable purely in terms of her slight deviation from the last. Seh-hee feels that, in order to compete, she needs to provide not only beauty but novelty in the face. She must be a constantly changing prism of a girl: someone who is differently attractive each time.
One of the themes of Time is that women are never the same after looking at their reflections; each girl becomes become unaccountably different — or distanced — after engaging with her self-image. In a culture made up of so many girlish, disembodied parts — ads for new skin tones and eye shapes — it’s easy to become lost in someone else’s vision. Seh-hee is no longer in control of her gaze; she only looks to see where Ji-woo might be attracted, or diverted. However, from a male perspective, retaining one’s focus is equally difficult. The girls in this film are all pretty, appealing, and carefully made-up — luminous eyefuls the camera instantly picks up on. So how is a suitor to choose? It’s only when Seh-hee goes under the knife that Ji-woo’s feelings start to deepen. When she disappears, Ji-woo looks everywhere for her; he glimpses a woman covered in bandages, and then another girl, who may or may not be a surgically altered Seh-hee. Each time he sees a woman with a hurt face, his curiosity — and even his desire — is aroused. Surgery gives one a glamorously unrevealing mask; in a society of immaculate girls, the bandaged face becomes a sign of romantic woundedness — eroticized sorrow, jealousy and despair. Seh-hee’s tragedy is moving to the extent that her own surgeon falls in love with her. In a world where beauty is held up as a placard rather than an expressive feature, this heroine wears a mask in place of mystique, a veil instead of desire. She becomes a version of Madeleine in Vertigo (1958): a vulnerable woman whose pain is concealed behind layers of apparition. Yet this very romantic film also has a realistic view of sameness and novelty in love — the desire to constantly present newness in a relationship. When Ji-woo meets the revamped Seh-hee, he initially thinks she’s a different person, and is delighted; she combines the excitingly new with the familiar. Is it possible that advertising has finally kept its promise: same girl, fresh new face? However, while strangeness does create a certain thrill, Ji-woo is unable to commit to this woman. Something is missing, or locking out his affections: what distinguishes her from all the other viable picks? From a fickle boyfriend, Ji-woo becomes a lover devoted to essence, pining over the unchanged, original face — the only one that unleashes and inspires love. As Seh-hee discovers, appearances do matter, but not in the way she imagined: the new face doesn’t elicit the same emotions even if the rest is identical (after the film, I found myself humming Cole Porter’s “It’s all right with me”: “Though your face is charming, it’s the wrong face nbsp;. . .”) Ji-woo is heartbroken; he keeps feeling the contours of her body to see if they enclose the same girl.
The idea of a loved one returning in a new form — like a ghostly maiden in another guise — is immensely suggestive; the girl who returns to test her lover’s devotion is a familiar theme in both Asian and Western fables. In most tales, the question is: who is this woman now — is she vengeful or yearning? This mythical context transforms Seh-hee from an insecure girlfriend into a kind of icon: a goddess who constantly rejuvenates herself, in order to be loved longer. When Ji-woo also undergoes surgery, both lovers are in the position of intensely desiring, yet not being able to recognize, each other. Seh-hee goes mad, scanning through faces like a flip-book, thinking every man might be her beloved. When she finds a likely match, she is still plagued by uncertainty (“Is it you?”). The dream of being able to re-encounter an old love behind a different face is a romantic trope — used to great effect in the Craig Lucas plays Prelude to a Kiss. But in Time, the ideal keeps retreating; for Kim Ki-duk, plastic surgery is something of a mystical bargain. When a face is removed, something else appears to take its place, as if the skull has been hollowed out — what is lurking behind those perfect, disembodied features? At the end, the lover’s voice is reduced to a craven whisper: “Is it you?”
Hong Sang-soo’s Woman on the Beach has a similar sense of romantic and timeless mysteries being set up through minimal plotting. The film has the looseness of a Murakami novel in which “nothing” happens; it starts with toy-like credits and cheery pop music, and a set of characters connected by minor events. However, these people instantly absorb us with their gestures, moods and perverse humor; whether it’s a fear of dogs, or an altercation over sushi, someone always asks a question to up-end everything — for instance, why did God divide us into male and female? This “trifling” talk of universality seems to impact on the film’s structure and feeling; the most casual remark makes a move towards profundity. Soon, the conversation turns surreal; a tall girl longs to cut slices off her face and legs, and ponders over the body’s unused muscles. The dialogue is persistently strange rather than quirky; accusations like “What’s got into you?” erupt out of light banter, and are then folded back into silence.
As in Time, the core of the film’s emotion is sexual politics: smiling girls who act abashed, and are determined to extract claims of love — women aware of their own acting, yet genuinely shocked and insulted when those claims are revoked. Dramatic spurts of anger occur when men encounter “too strong of an image to cope with.” The film director Kim (Kim Seung-woo) is seen as a virile presence — able to attract girls and win Mun-suk (Go Hyun-jung) away from the boy who accompanies her. Yet he’s a man who can’t bear the images presented by his racing mind; he’s helpless in the face of a powerful train of thoughts. The first event which disturbs him — and turns his face from hangdog to explosive — is his fury over the idea that Korean girls are sleeping with foreigners, and that plain local women are passing as beauties overseas. The outrage over this notion is laughed at, and later calmed — yet it becomes an undercurrent, which never completely fades. The film’s small talk — half-joking, half-offensive — often leads to subjects which can’t be forgotten; in a very realistic way, Hong deals with the persistence of images in everyday life. Whether it’s a jealous notion, or a hierarchy one can’t accept, people are at the mercy of ideas which cut to the core. The world seems to be full of unbearable thoughts: concepts which — no matter how seemingly abstract or distant — jerk people’s anger and pull them into narrowness.
All the characters can do is try to reverse the course of obsession. At one point, Kim draws a diagram to show how perception works: he believes that we never take in an object’s full shape, but tend to fixate on a few points along the outline (he joins these points into a fierce-looking triangle, a symbol of hot anger.) For instance, two women are thought to look alike by one man — and no-one else — because he is focusing solely on a couple of points of comparison. This rather impossible analogy is actually the structure of the film — in a similar way to Kim, Hong shows how emotional “crises” arise out of a loose web of relations. The most relaxed, humorous and mild conversation becomes reduced to a grid of specific points: sore points, when it comes to discussing sex and love. From banal courtesies, the dialogue suddenly escalates to “What’s wrong with you?,” or “Is this how you’re going to be?”
Kim’s diagram — a Murakami-like theorizing of irregularity — suggests how drama materializes out of a “random” series of acts and moments. Characters are seen shifting across the level lines of the beach and the blue window of the café, and every move appears to have implications. Each new person walking across the horizon presents points of similarity, difference and coincidence; whether it’s an anonymous power-walker, or the couple who abandon a beautiful and noble dog, they have features that seem instantly familiar or arbitrary. Like all the film’s characters, each stranger is a figure of seemingly infinite potential, pinned down to a changing series of points.
Another Korean movie, Family Ties, was corny and thought-provoking in equal parts; it shows anger bursting through placid soap-like scenarios in a way I find peculiar to Korean film. When a rakish, long-lost brother (Eom Tae-woong) returns to the family home, it’s all pleasantries before a sudden leap to “Should I just kill myself?” Like Woman on the Beach, Family Ties has a male figure of uncontrolled rage, with a frightening array of pulling and grabbing needs. Kim Tae-yong’s film occasionally resembles You Can Count on Me (2000) — and Eom has some of the charismatic instability of Mark Ruffalo — but without that film’s high-church sensibility.
Quiet Domes and Super-Structures
If there was a theme at this year’s festival, perhaps it was films whose quietness required a huge, pre-existing structure for support. Alexandra was an instance of Alexander Sokurov’s ultra-minimalist style: familiar, but still effective. A Russian woman (Galina Vishnevskaya) visits her grandson at a Chechnyan military base, and the film consists of her wandering through the camp, quaveringly interrogating the soldiers about military process and logic. As in The Sun, Sokurov uses varying degrees of blur and definition to suggest the protagonist’s state of awareness: the fact that perceptions are held off and certain stimuli are being muted. A muffled atmosphere surrounds most acts; however, some of the camp scenes are given a blinding and clear light — it’s as if events which are saturated with too much clarity are just as impossible to take in. The film is insistently repetitive, yet the image of a frail woman, thoughtfully stepping through the machinery of war, is striking and original. This woman is like an absent-minded duchess, or a dotty dowager — the soldiers guide her to bed as fondly as a character in a ballet.
Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely took minimalism to innovative and complex new heights. The first thing we need to accept about this film is that it is focused on rituals of movement, and that Korine has chosen the dance style of Michael Jackson — circa the album Dangerous — as its central template of moves. Everything Jackson does is regarded as an archetype of looking and being: the glittery thrust of the hips, the mask-like face and narrowed nose, and the speaking voice reduced to a coy whisper. The Jackson mannerisms are seen as a whirling matrix of movement: the androgynous, limp body directed with phallic precision (“Woo-hoo!”), and that special, pelvic over-emphasis. However, the film, which looks at the behavior of star impersonators — of Jackson, Monroe, Chaplin and Lincoln — is rarely snide. Korine seems to use celebrity wariness and caginess as a model for tentative contact, and enfeebled movement. As we watch the characters going about their daily chores, we question the extent to which it matters that these people are Marilyn and Michael, since the film maps their relations with the realism of a Mike Leigh movie. It’s as if “celebrity” is being engaged to highlight the characters’ shyness and delicacy of contact: the rarefied protective aura which surrounds them. This Marilyn (Samantha Morton) is not a sex bomb, but the fragile actress of later years, wrapped in a head-scarf; in her case, celebrity is worn like a thin luminous coating — a kind of reflective sheath. With Jackson (Diego Luna), it’s all about face masks and protective membranes: celebrity as a medium for hypersensitivity and recessive glamour.
Korine also has a particular interest in star couplings and their spawn. When the Marilyn and Chaplin impersonators pair off, a “Shirley Temple” is logically born out of the encounter. Marilyn says she only learned to act like a star after meeting Chaplin, and it appears that their child’s character has been produced in a similar way: as the closest thing to a celebrity match. On the island where the impersonators live, a little boy with an Afro is already working himself into a spasm of “freaky” talk: children are becoming superstars of self-narration, by compulsively reciting their own back-stories. All characters must go through self-talk to find their own voice; an anguished Lincoln (Richard Strange) agonizes over a moral dilemma, while the growlingly French Chaplin (Denis Lavant) vainly searches for pathos. Occasionally, one persona merges into another; Marilyn breathlessly tells her partner, “You seem more like Adolf Hitler than Charlie Chaplin.” On the other hand, Jackson himself never mugs: he always seems driven by an inner rhythm towards “Woo-hoo!,” and the gasp of the pelvic grind.
This isn’t a glib use of Michael Jackson — Jackson in Paris loses his tabloid aura, and becomes vulnerable beneath the mask-like exterior, with his paranoia about physical contact. The “humanitarian” scenes, involving universal love, food-drops, and a Deborah Kerr-like nun, are too strange to be mere piss-takes; they evoke infinite gentleness and patience, albeit in an oblique way. The film’s “chapters” — categorized according to Jackson hits and motifs — are like sections of a play-book, where the structure of each verse is modeled on idiosyncrasy. Wandering from one song to another — from, say, “Beat It” to “Man in the Mirror” — is like slipping into another section of code. With this version of celebrity castaways — fake luminaries stranded on an island — Korine has created a wobbly, precarious fantasia.
Two more films were given the leeway of being light, existing as slight forms pinned down by immensity. Honor de Cavalleria, Albert Serra’s stark play on Don Quixote, is set at a time when heroism has left the stage, and what’s left is the most meager of gestures. The Don is a limp soldier occasionally roused to action — vaguely saluting the vacant hills, and struggling to retain the dispirited Sandro. At times, the film is almost devoid of sound and movement — nearly nothing is onscreen — and most acts are shrouded in obscurity. The movie is explicitly set in a post-fictional universe, with the characters talking of Lancelot, and getting mixed up in competing traditions of chivalry. It’s a concept which I found suggestive at all times — the near-nothingness has the texture of Constable’s cloud paintings — yet I also felt it was no more than might be expected of a postmodernist take on Cervantes. The tropes are all there: the faltering attempts at energy or direction, the glimpses of transmission from God, and the Beckett-esque mumblings in a deserted world.
Conversely, Manoel de Oliveira seemed to welcome the prospect of an open book and an open stage, where all the hard work of narration has been done in a previous text. While Serra’s heroes are afflicted with masterpiece fatigue, the characters of Belle Toujours revel in allusions to a shared, adventurous past. An excitement radiates from Husson (Michel Piccoli) when he gazes at Belle (Bulle Ogier), as if to say, “Look what we once did — it underpins everything.” In this case, the “work” completed earlier is of course Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967). Belle Toujours presents itself as a mere sliver of a film; it gives itself permission to be graceful and light. There’s the conceit that this is not even a movie, but a mere overlay, a transparency to be laid over the previous film. It’s a film designed to sit on top of a masterpiece, and absorb its reverberations: as such, it might be regarded as an ellipse, a tenth of a work. In fact, Oliveira builds the film out of layers of resonance; it’s impossible to watch it without coasting on echoes from Bunuel — as Husson and Belle do in the first scene. The opening shows the two leads at an orchestral concert; Husson watches the performance with a subtly moved expression, knowing that Belle is in the audience, as if he can sense her vibrations through the music. As former players in a “masterwork,” both their positions are secure; the narrative has been taken care of, and they have only to glide. So the initial orchestration has the effect of a replay of Belle de Jour; the characters are being briefed on a history which precedes them. This sequence is also about turning the whole movie into a kind of prelude: setting a film entirely in a mood of anticipation. Throughout Belle Toujours, there’s a sublime calmness which comes from knowing that all plot, all tension has been exhausted by the previous film. By now, the Bunuel film is a classic — as central to our imagination of France as any landmark. So it’s appropriate that when it comes to the images in this film, Oliveira chooses the iconic rather than the particular: for instance, the gilded statue of Joan of Arc at the Place des Pyramides. When a spotlight beams over Paris, it doesn’t come from an individual watchlight, but the Eiffel Tower — a restored icon which newly scopes the city. Neither of these are conventional “symbols,” as such; both tower and statue are dead-on archetypes — the central imagery of a culture.
Belle Toujours is even more serene than its predecessor; while the earlier film had an erotic charge, Husson now discusses his perverted pleasure with great tenderness. Piccoli is at his best here; he acts like a dying man aroused by life, inhaling everything to the max — enjoying the pleasures of the table, and attentive to every nuance of conversation. He’s a rich man who smoothes paths with money — his various helpers are like magician’s assistants — yet he is also inexpressibly, irrepressibly happy. Piccoli has the inner-directed smile of South American literature; his search for Belle is like the pursuit of a latter-day Lolita, now that the lech has become a connoisseur. In today’s world, sadism is an old-school game; it’s become a sentimental pastime to “recall our wickedness” by the firelight. As Belle, Ogier is a softer presence than the implacable Deneuve; she’s a woman no longer turned on by depravity. However, this Beauty is still a wordless enigma — though she’s uninterested in the eternal mystery of their relationship, she appears as sphinx-like as ever.
The film is utterly serious about its mantra of “beauty forever”; beauty must be courted, pursued, and recreated — everywhere. The legend of Belle de Jour has become a story recounted by bartenders around the city; Oliveira treats it as the story, a text which continually reforms and re-members itself, through endless combinations of storyteller and protagonist. Each time the tale is resurrected, the emphasis shifts and motives are re-examined. Oliveira’s final shot is especially mischievous; after Husson dines with Beauty, a rooster appears in the open doorway. It’s surrealism in the square: a nostalgic joke for an era of provocation, when art pranksters and absurdity ruled the world.
Other than Piccoli’s, this wasn’t a festival of major performances; the one instance of star power I saw was Juliette Binoche in A Few Days in September. I was attracted by the synopsis of a female James Bond, but Binoche is not the suave or angular spy one might imagine if the part were played by, say, Rebecca Romijn. Instead, she does something wonderfully different: an attempt at rumpled, weathered charm — normally considered a male trait, but here a viable and attractive form of expression. With her mischievous line readings (English is clearly a language she doesn’t take very seriously — it’s too literal for the kind of nuance she imparts), Binoche is no longer the ingénue of European cinema. Her character is debonair and methodical, but those qualities are made sensual and womanly. She’s also become one of the funniest actresses in the world — without being a comedienne — in terms of body language. There’s a playfulness in the way she embraces the conventions of acting: handily cleaning a gun, or posing as a boffin behind glasses. With Binoche, the style of a secret agent — which usually consists of being wittily abrupt or obtuse — is careless, rugged, and very female.
A couple of this year’s British movies — This Is England and Control— took on large historical subjects, yet both were underwhelming in the context of current English cinema. While watching This Is England, a much more adventurous film kept springing to mind. For the past few years, Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002) has been my standard for representing what appears, in retrospect, to be a definitive era. How does one go about portraying a period that now seems “decisive” and influential — but was dizzying and incomprehensible at the time? In depicting the Manchester music hub of the ’80s, Winterbottom seemed to give us the tools for chronicling any movement — or moment — in time. The film juxtaposed the “random” nature of the past with a view of events as they appear today: as historical episodes, complete with turning points. Winterbottom’s experiments with chronology were no mere game-playing, but a way of showing us how time alters perspective, so that unlikely people seem to be thrust into history-making. After all, this was the story of Tony Wilson, the maverick record producer, who was nevertheless, in his own description, a modest character in his own life. Most daringly, the film had a way of inserting history’s “significant” names as bit players into the stories of others; Winterbottom cast real-life figures in alternative roles — as if to suggest that an individual could no longer play “himself” once context had shifted. The film had a very excited sense of evoking a past with its strands in the present. (I’ve been longing for Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce to take on the early ’90s music scene — Seattle, Lollapalooza, and the mainstreaming of “alternative” values — and its simmering of ideas and energies within a commercial culture. Maybe the film could have Perry Farrell as ringmaster and narrator — with fictionalized versions of Thurston Moore and Eddie Vedder, and just the odd, elliptical glimpse of Kurt Cobain? As with 24 Hour Party People, some of the themes might be: how much of the emotion of that era was conventional and market-driven — and how much was truly anarchic? What’s it like for a culture to be caught up in an adolescent swirl of “empathy”? Where did those impulses come from — from what areas were they drawn? And more importantly: where did they all go? This is a period of recent history that has yet to be digested.)
Given the large-scale ambition of recent British movies such as 28 Days Later (2002),Dirty Pretty Things (2002), The Mother (2003), The Descent (2005), and Sunshine(2007) — all topical and intimate films, yet aesthetically overwhelming and bigger than life — I was disappointed by the comparatively narrow focus of This Is England. Despite its title, Shane Meadows’ film boils down to an isolated case; it tracks a young boy’s journey from a moony, despised kid into a James Cagney-style member of a racist gang. If the film is to depict the evolution of an England as well as an individual, it demands a creative rethink of events — yet Meadows’ opening montage of Thatcher, aerobics and skinheads doesn’t put history together in any new way. The images are predictable, and the editing doesn’t fire up fresh associations between them. The drama itself works on a fairly primitive level. Whenever we see an “ethnic” shopkeeper, we fear for his safety; when a band of skinheads forms a united front, a flag waves behind them as they stomp.
Similarly, Control, Anton Corbijn’s biopic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, takes its subject’s iconic status for granted. From the opening image, the film is immediately sunk in “period”: it conveys no gradual sense of what it was like to be immersed in those times. I found Sam Riley’s performance as Curtis too close to mimicry; however, Curtis does come across as an authentically mesmerized young man — someone to whom a phrase like “You’re mine, irretrievably” occurs as spontaneously as breathing. Thanks to Riley, these utterances emerge logically, if a little hazily — there’s a fuzzy, abstract space which surrounds the creation of music and lyrics. This Curtis looks like a rapt child most of the time — he’s a man who doesn’t seem to be “behind” his own looks and gestures of intentness. Part of the fascination of watching Curtis perform has always been seeing this figure of intense self-absorption, whose moves occasionally rise to coherence. (By contrast, current imitators such as Interpol are all honed stylings.) Nevertheless, as a casual fan of Joy Division — I like them without quite understanding why they’re archetypal — I didn’t get a feeling for their context or status. Even if we assume that Joy Division are radical, how does the film suggest this? The classy, black-and-white photography tends to depict history as a given, rather than a malleable, changing quantity. Both This Is England and Control had the opportunity to explore the question: what does newness feel like? What does it look like — how does it re-imagine what surrounds it? Do we know it when we see it? Neither film has the invention or formal distortion to represent the onset of something radical.
For the 60th anniversary of the Magnum photo agency, MIFF screened 19 documentaries on Magnum journalists. Some of these were interesting from a historical perspective — The Magnum Story 1: Decisive Moments shows how a central agency came to circulate images around the world — yet I was longing for a film which dared to question the medium as an art form. Many of the photographs shown appeared to go for the easy narrative: the portraits seemed too confident of capturing a “revealing” moment, rather than an accident of expressiveness. For me, some of the most mysterious photos are those which contain an element of uncertainty about staging: for instance, the masses of anonymous shots taken of a desolate Brooklyn in the ’30s — where bruises are bared accusingly to the camera, or children glower unaccountably with adults standing by their sides. The inexplicable narratives behind these images are what gives them their power, yet this mystique is sustained by our knowledge of context — or lack of it. That’s the issue with photography: so much of our perception depends on our way of “knowing” how the image has come to us. After all, what’s the difference between looking at an unidentified shot of Brooklyn, and one where the ambiguity is masterfully implied by an artist? The Magnum house style is generally knowing and sophisticated, admiring of geometry. However, photography doesn’t involve the same effort of dislocation as painting or film — it takes less to win a triumphant or decisive moment in this medium. Therefore a photo has to be critical of its own capacity to summarize: a portrait needs to acknowledge the complexity of identity. What does it mean if a person smiled in a particular way — or twisted their mouth at one point? If not “revealing,” what is the significance of someone looking foolish or incongruous for an instant? Harry Gruyaert’s famous 1996 shot of a Japanese man being riveted by pinball against a background of vending machines is arresting — and unforgiving. What, exactly, is being proposed here? The man is guilty of enjoying something banal, and unwittingly acting out a narrative for all to see. Does a moment of self-betrayal stand for all? So much of this ironic strain of photography seems to rely on people being caught listless, or incongruously passive — for instance, seen with sagging expression amid political upheaval, or looking unnecessarily animated by advertising. In these cases, photography needs to be suspicious of its own ability to satirize.
Yet the early Magnum ideal, with its focus on purity and evidence — the agency ordered magazines never to crop shots — remains an attractive concept. Photojournalism is perhaps at its most exciting when reporters set out to gather pictures as “information” — and then do more than that. Eve Arnold — in the documentary Eve and Marilyn, Magnum Story 1, and her own film Behind the Veil — exemplifies the attitude of the relaxed photojournalist, unconcerned about whether she’s seen as an artist or technician. In Eve and Marilyn, Arnold gets an easy, funny mood out of Monroe, more than any other photographer — yet she’s happy to attribute this to the actress’ star power. Monroe managed to control space in a manner Arnold herself found puzzling, leading her to contemplate the mystery of one-off expression. In Magnum Story 1, Arnold’s images of Harlem fashion shows depict scenes of fun, grace and zestiness backstage; there’s no angst about how much of the effect is due to the models’ own character. Staginess, spontaneity and “authenticity” are all present, and somehow, in the resulting shots, these qualities are inseparable. With Marilyn and the gorgeous exhibitionists of Harlem, Arnold captures a magical aura of half-play.
The festival showed over a dozen African features, although I can make no link between the disparate cultures of the three films I saw. The South African Bunny Chow Was a waste of time, consisting mainly of boys complaining about their nagging girlfriends — who are nevertheless easily appeased by sexual compliments. In Waiting for Happiness, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako creates an example of what I call “edge theater”: a drama set at the rim of the universe. Like Godard’s Contempt (1963), the film is situated at the end-point of myth; a white sea edge suggests a quadrant in the middle of nowhere. This is a city built on flyaway sands, where everyone is on the same drifting plane of consciousness: the actors’ gazes are averted from the camera, and children repeat “timeless” incantations and lyrics. It’s a visually intriguing film, if a little tedious. The Tunisian film Making Of focuses on a young would-be suicide bomber, who is later revealed to be an actor with qualms about his role. Director Nouri Bouzid uses the device of a film within a film as a metaphor for the making of religious conviction. When the actor (Lotfi Abdelli) has doubts about a scene, his director is forced to talk him into the script, strategically invoking the Koran to explain why “a young man like you” might be persuaded to perform certain acts. Even in a straightforward scene, the actor’s identity is itself unstable — he slips out of “real” and stated motives, and is reactive to props and fellow actors. He’s uneasy at engaging with both fundamentalist and liberal perspectives, and gets personally affected by the arguments he recites. Bouzid draws attention to the way that a person’s consciousness can be changed through acting — for instance, while one may be resistant to strapping explosives on one’s back, there’s also a sense of excitement at performing ritual gestures and inhabiting suspense. By featuring an actor who demands to be retold his intentions before each scene, the film provides a convincing analogy for the making of motives.
Finally, the retrospective on Shohei Imamura showed a director compelled to unsettle our perceptions of history. Like Nagisa Oshima, Imamura strips Japan of refinement and presents Tokyo as a hot, scalding city: the serial-killer drama Vengeance Is Mine has a scathing, caustic use of color. There are unrelenting scenes of ugliness — bad sex, gruesome animal imagery and unappetizing food — and the film has a dull dazzle. Imamura’s camera gazes cynically on female bodies — which are often white and gelatinous — and a supporting cast of wizened, strangely plasticized older women. However, Imamura’s supposed preference for “juicy,” chubby and short-legged actresses is undermined by his repeated casting of the stunning Mitsuko Baisho — an unusual Japanese actress in that she’s sensual, low-voiced and tawny. In her Imamura films, Baisho is romantically beautiful and pensive, yet almost Jeanne Moreau-like in her resolution and efficiency. Baisho appears as the adulterous daughter-in-law in Vengeance Is Mine, and as an alluring widow in The Ballad of Narayama (1983). Her peasant squat in the latter is one of the few humorous notes in a film where the refusal to die is seen as undignified, and the life force is an energy that perversely insists on renewing itself.
A similar mix of apathy and anarchy is seen in my favorite Imamura so far, Eijanaika(1981). The title roughly translates as “Why the hell not?” — an explanation of the film’s ten or so plot strands, including the end of the Shogun era, organized prostitution, the introduction of “America” and multiculturalism, as well as various romantic interludes and comic skits. Imamura’s intention to display many different cases and cultures is seen at the beginning, when we witness a dazzling parade of human marvels — a “freak” show where the participants have distorted necks and heads. The skewed camera angles, jazz soundtrack, and a rotating cast of banshees and bandits create a whirligig; Japanese people seem to be bearded, squat, colorful creatures — at the end, everyone is either masked, painted, or hairy. While some of the director’s familiar themes recur — the sexual masochism of women, where a callous brothel owner is at the apex of a cruel hierarchy — what’s new is the depth of political commentary. Although spontaneous chaos reigns during this period, there are also agents who have been sent to systematically sow havoc in the community. Eijanaika is not just a celebration of the postmodern “carnivalesque”; Imamura sees the exhilaration of style as a trap. An entire town performs a dance of resistance against the enemy, yet at the end, blood sails through the festivities and the human parade is dismembered into colored pieces. In an extraordinary, numbing sequence, the final credits show the ceremony turning into a greyed-out danse macabre. Since Richard Moore has hinted at more retrospectives in future, I’d love to see more films from angry, attacking history-makers. Ousmane Sembène? Claude Chabrol? Marco Bellocchio?