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It is about time I watched another Jon Jost film. Speaking Directly is, like all of them, very creative. He takes quite an honest look at himself and some of the people in his everyday life. He points out contradictions in his personal life and asks others to do the same. It’s an environment I feel like I would like to be a part of. There is not a lot of doublespeak or mincing of words. Emotions and feelings are out in the open. Of course, as is pointed out, this is the case only during the course of filming. Life can never be this open and straightforward, but I loved watching this small segment of Jost’s life shown in such a manner.

Similarly, the world in which Jost lives is discussed in a straightforward fashion. He discusses an America that has been assigned to him as his country, one that an American citizen is supposed to think of as theirs. This notion, as well as many other concepts, is identified as an abstraction. On an average day, one does not think of how their nation has become what it currently is. Who has died for it, who has been displaced. It does not make sense for the average American to think of their role in the world. It would be ridiculous for them to question whether of how they may bear some responsibility for the inconvenience, abuse, or possibly even suffering of an ‘other’ off in some distant unknown place. Such matters are usually completely absent from everyday thought, sometimes due to apathy, blindness or unwillingness to confront them, or are left cloaked or purposely skewed by the talking heads on television and in the media generally. It is easy to say the film reflects this absence of thought, because the filmmaker, featured throughout, says so directly.

I’ve also been reading Jon Jost’s blog and reflections on the film, so I’m sure some of that has mixed in with my memories of the film. Here are some interesting things I read in his reflections (from his website http://www.jon-jost.com/).

“Along with its mixture of honest and direct introspection and political analysis – something certainly in its own time a rarity and perhaps even more so today – Speaking Directly retains many instances of pure cinematic power which are to my eye and experience as vital today as they were 30 years ago.”

This cinematic power was certainly real to me as I viewed the film. Hearing Jost discuss the complexities of his relationships and personal life definitely allowed me to take a deeper look at myself. Though I wrote that I sometimes desire the type of relationship Jost seemed to share with his friends (everyone is allowed to speak their mind, no-nonsense style), I’m not sure if I would be able to last long in such an environment. It is something I would be interested in experimenting with if I were to meet the right people. Either way, it’s something I thought about while watching Speaking Directly. Hearing from others how they see you, which might obviously shatter the image one holds of oneself, is an opportunity for growth. I began to wonder about my relationship with others and how they would describe me if given total freedom to do so. I think that is one example of the cinematic power Jost refers to in his writing about the film.

“But, far more importantly, perhaps it serves as an object lesson in the compelling force of tackling serious social-political-personal concerns with the gravity which they deserve.”

I agree entirely with his opinion that such concerns should be addressed with sincerity and honesty. The way Speaking Directly approaches this is by letting the viewer listen to the filmmaker spill his guts on various topics, as well as admit to feelings that may not be easily understood, such as not feeling like a genuine participant or even citizen–with its many definitions–in America. While watching, I was reminded of the abstract concept of being American, and therefore “unique” or “exceptional” which we are implicitly told to embrace since the time of our birth. I love this direct approach because I think it genuinely would allow one to confront all three of the concerns Jost notes in his reflections.

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A Man Escaped is a film that is enhanced by leaving out the usual embellishments of war-time pieces, such as elevated levels of action and violence, way-too-loud sound effects, character expositions and easy explanations.  In fact, it is my opinion that this is not really a war film at all. At least not to me. To me, A Man Escaped was about letting me experience Fontaine’s life in prison in a unique way. The setting, more than anything, helped to enhance the effect.

Fontaine is determined to escape captivity from the outset, when he dives out of the car that is carrying him to prison. This is an important addition because we are immediately familiar with this small aspect of his personality (one of the only things we are let in on, as François Truffaut notes in this great review). Indeed, Fontaine begins to acquire some escape tools as soon as he develops a tentative plan.  A metal spoon is eventually stolen. We can feel the risk in his actions. The camera closes in his wooden cell door as he carves away at it with the spoon. Without ever showing the source, sounds in the distance play a major part in creating the film’s tension. The footsteps of hallway guards become characters in themselves. They are recurrent and instill a great source of excitement–not the trivial type that an action sequence provides, but a kind that allows the viewer to feel as Fontaine does every time they are heard in the film. By the end, things like the spoon, the cloth rope, the mattress, the shards of glass, the wood panels in the door, the iron bars, taps on the wall, and the signaling cough of fellow prisoners, are all significant enough to, in a sense, become characters in themselves. This is one of my favorite aspects of the film (as well as the overall subtlety, the silences, the bursts of music, the facial expressions of Fontaine and Jost) and all I can really of think to write about for now.

trashWell, it’s an experience. Tired of glossy overproduced films? Don’t like to see movies pushed as products? Trash is a good option. The images are hard, some are ugly, but I don’t believe that it’s a merely pornographic production. It intends to shake you out of your comfortable state, means to have you question how deep your sympathy runs. These are positive goals. These are reasons films should be created. The camera work is very interesting, with intense imagery and events that are juxtaposed with dialogue that normally has no place with what is going on. The film has the viewer see an alternate version of everyday life with no intervals in between. There’s really not much I can say, except that if you want something new, you should try it yourself.

mbnNeon, glowing lights; blurred sense of time; melodramatic soundtrack; shifting senses of self; alienation; love; broken hearts; travel; policemen; lively urban surroundings; this is a Wong Karwai film. One of my favorite filmmakers, all of his pictures fill me with a deep sense of bittersweet anticipation. I have no idea why I feel this way. He is able to completely capture this mood along with a very strange sense of time through his visuals. While watching I always feel as if the characters are a step away from a life-changing development of some sort. However tragic, events that take place seem to be neither for the better nor for the worse. A broken heart allows for the pursuit of someone else. Ones death brings about self-discovery within another.

wkwMy Blueberry Nights is not my favorite Karwai film, but it is perhaps impossible to top what he has already created. Happy Together, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, In the Mood for Love, Days of Being Wild, 2046; all rank among my favorite viewing experiences. Besides, it really doesn’t matter that it is not the best; I couldn’t even choose a favorite if asked to. For whatever reason, I seem to be able to say the least about the works that I love the most. So, simply put–a master of creating an expressive aesthetic.

mynightatmaud'sI’m not sure exactly what I can say here. Films like My Night at Maud’s are kind of my version of film entertainment. There is something about a group of French smokers trading intellectual propositions that I find engaging. In this case though, this is not all that is taking place. There is much more to these characters than simply their austere philosophies on life, love and spirituality. Rohmer is able to tell us a lot about Jean-Louis, for example, by the way he gradually opens himself to Maud after simply spending a few hours with her. She asserts multiple times that he is secretive (she also indicates that he is only acting this way towards her, and that she knows that he already has a secret love in mind), but he insists that he is not, that he is simply a follower of a personal moral code. It is never easy to see who is right. Jean-Louis seems to be sure of his own dedication to his religious and moral lifestyle. However, when he briefly begins to make a move on Maud, and then hesitates, it is easier to see it from her point of view: he is indecisive, at least when it comes to interacting with her. Although they may feel open towards one another, she can tell that his desires lie elsewhere.

It is this elsewhere–another woman–that the film both begins and ends with. Presumably, the most important events of Jean-Louis’ life occur with Françoise, the girl Maud always knew existed; these would include getting married and having children. These events are relegated to the final portion of the film, however, as the interaction with Maud dominates the major parts of the movie and encompasses some of the most tense scenes. In effect, though they may seem obvious, many questions are left unanswered. I was certainly left wondering about the nature of many of the characters’ relationships with one another (we are never exposed to this, only that there are associations), if Jean-Louis and Maud would ever meet again and what this would entail, and the future of these peoples’ lives in general.

Sometimes it is easy for a person to realize that they are not fully content with their current situation. What is harder to acknowledge is that sometimes their current position is perhaps where they are meant to be, as dismal as it may seem. The most straightforward way for this to be realized, like many important revelations, I think, is through disillusionment. Are hopes destined to eventually materialize, or do they exist solely to remain as an indicator of where we should be heading?

Old Joy thoroughly captures all of the questions and none of the answers to these uncertainties. Of course, this is why I loved it. I knew I did as soon as I felt awkward just watching some of the interactions. Many subtle instances provide insight into a situation of which we are given no background. Mark’s wife looks disconcertingly at the telephone as a voice is emitted from the answering machine, summoning someone to pick up. It’s a past voice – that of Kurt, an old friend of Mark’s. It quickly becomes obvious that these two go way back and were at one time very close. They decide to go on a camping trip together. oldjoy

Mark and Kurt reconnect, but is it for the better? Much has changed between the two in the time that they’ve been apart. From Mark’s perspective, we are able to discern that he was once the free-spirit that Kurt continues to be. Now, however, he is a soon-to-be father who has become comfortable with routine. Looking through Kurt’s eyes, Mark has become integrated into a system that he still does not wish to be a part of. Nearing a lapse in emotional control, he even tells Mark that there is something between them and he cannot figure out what it is. Mark is visibly perturbed by the exchange that has just taken place but seems to shake it off. The mutual realization that things will not return to how they once were sets in as the two relax on their getaway. This does not stop Kurt. He desires a return to the past. His determination is enough to set it straight in Mark’s mind that, whatever the level of discontent that he was experiencing in his everyday home life, it is preferable to regressing into the sort of person he used to be; Kurt is the embodiment of this personality, and perhaps the two were meant to remain separated.

Old Joy portrays this dilemma far better than I am able to describe it. Kelly Reichardt states on the commentary track that she wanted the viewer to bring their own baggage into the experience. This is perfectly stated as it exactly what I did. This is truly a great film.

ninelives1Rodrigo García is a filmmaker who is capable of capturing delicate moments. Not only are these moments incredibly human, they occupy the full time frame of two of his films; these are Nine Lives and Ten Tiny Love Stories. Both contain (relatively) short vignettes that form full length features when pieced together.

Nine Lives lets us peer into random segments of the lives of ordinary people. We are (thankfully) not exposed to banal introductions or back-stories of any of the characters; we are forced to make split-second judgments and observations based on their interactions with other characters, as well as the way they act when isolated, however briefly, from social interaction. It is this method of presentation that makes the film what it is: an experience. As in actual life, we come across across people who we know nothing about. We form opinions of them after overhearing a conversation or by the way they present themselves in public. This film allows us to experience every detail of a conversation in a grocery store that we wish we could listen in on. A verbal confrontation at a memorial service becomes something we can take part in as a silent observor. While such an interaction seems outlandish and disruptive when seen in public, the ability to acquaint ourselves with the situation via the camera allows for a whole new level of involvement that most of us are so interested in. What separates Nine Lives from something like a reality show, which claims to provide the same level of encounter, is the opportunity to see the moments that are left out of this perverse, insipid mode of experience; things that are labeled as “pointless” or “boring” are what enrich this film. To the sensitive viewer, who is hungry for deep intimacy, they are the richest and most satiating elements of a film. Never before has a stifled cry or an exasperated sigh of frustration been so provoking to the senses. A tiny remark leaves a stinging sensation.

García does not ignore a particular sex or age group. A grandmother visits the grave of a deceased relative. While this is certainly a painful moment for her, her spirits remain high as she is accompanied by her granddaughter. She is living life without forgetting the past, yet is able to remain in the current moment. Such a scene would provide any viewer with a sense of hopefulness. In another segment, a teenage girl must divide her attention between her emotionally needy parents. The camera follows her as she walks back and forth through the halls, tending to her mother and father. The two are apparently not speaking to one another and need their daughter for an emotional outlet. This is clearly taking a toll on her. Rather than have her state this explicitly, we are allowed to view her as she simply sits on her bed and catches a momentary break from providing counsel. Her facial expressions and body language tell us the story that we desire to hear.

Ten Tiny Love Stories is another attempt at intimacy, but with a different approach. The camera, rather than acting as a hidden observer, functions as an outlet for cathartic tales of relationships and love as experienced by 10 different women. Actors look straight into the camera and provide exactly what the film’s title suggests: tiny love stories. Once again we are given no background to the story teller, and it is still as appreciated as it was in Nine Lives. For the viewer, it is undeniably engaging to have an anonymous character expound some of the most intimate details of their lives without great reservation. While there is a willingness to disclose, emotions still run high. Stutters, pauses and sensitive silences express more than any cleverly written dialogue ever could. Though Ten Tiny Love Stories is the García film that I have most recently watched, it is recognizably the predecessor to Nine Lives. While the former is well worth a watch, it is not quite the near-perfection that is the latter.

kwaidan2Kwaidan is not a typical piece of horror. In fact, I’m not sure it could be classified as horror at all. I think the term nightmarish is appropriate, and each of the narratives explored are highly stylized in this vein. The film consists of four short films that share certain qualities. Their plots are highly reminiscent of folklore. They develop in such a way that the films’ central characters are slowly introduced to a horror that eventually consumes their lives. All are completely dreamlike in appearance; an ominous atmosphere pervades each tale.

For me, the most engaging aspect of each piece was the accompanying soundtrack. In the first tale, “The Black Hair,” dialogue is sparse and unexceptional. The viewer develops a certain sense of dread and expectation not necessarily through plot developments, which are also fairly standard, but through the odd ticks, twangs, and reverberations that one hears throughout the film. They effectively keep the pace of events and provide a foreboding atmosphere. This effective use of sound is not exclusive to the first tale and bleeds into each story that follows. kwaidan3

The general aesthetic of Kwaidan utilizes imagery that is representative of its folklore influence. One way it does this is through the use artificial backgrounds, especially when it comes to nature. In “The Woman of the Snow,” we can literally see the “eye of the storm” that the central character is trapped in. I suppose this could be considered an element of fantasy. The movies I like that could plausibly be classified as horror all incorporate this aspect to some degree. Suspiria came to mind more than once while I was watching. This has mostly to do with the highly illuminated colors that make up surrounding environments. A habitat gains animateness and becomes a character of its own.

It is undoubtedly the style of Kwaidan that kept me so engaged. Noting that I am no good with terms and classifications, I have recently acknowledged that I’ve become less interested in films that seem to feature surrealism as a cornerstone; Lynch’s work would be an example. Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed the experience that this film gave me. Maybe this is due to the extended break I’ve taken from the use of style for the sake of it (probably not the intent, I know – it is just my predominant interpretation). While I prefer what I will equivocally refer to as reality, I do not mind delving into a dreamworld once in a while, provided it is as enriching as the one Kobayashi has created.

I was going to explore Fassbinder slowly. I usually prefer to go through a director’s work at a leisurely pace, mixing in the work of several different filmmakers in between. In the case of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I don’t know if this will be possible. This is the second of his films that I’ve seen, the first being Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (love that title).

One difference I found between the two films is that some of the characters in The Merchant of Four Seasons are more difficult to lend sympathy towards than in Ali. Hans Epp in particular acts brutally towards his wife, and tends to neglect his young daughter. The viewer is quickly convinced that his only concern involves his own problems. Following an episode of physical abuse, his wife, Irmgard, flees from home and seeks out Hans’ relatives. They mostly offer a  restrained sympathy for her, but they nonetheless seem to despise Hans. However, Anna Epp (Hans’ sister) seems to be the lone dissenter of the group. She attributes her brother’s troubles to the neglect he himself received. The disparaging attitudes of his close family drove him to join the military, and subsequently, to treat his wife and daughter with contempt. This assertion becomes wholly believable once we see the manner in which Hans is capable of acting. merchant

Fassbinder seems to genuinely care about all of his characters. Their movements (along with the camera’s) are deliberate, as are the lines they deliver. Everything seems to be carefully crafted and meticulous. This does not provide a sense that events are contrived, but rather it is an indicator of the importance of each complex relationship that develops along the way. The plot is melodramatic, but, as is obvious for anyone who has seen one of his films, there is certainly more going on in every scene than what is on the surface. I absolutely love the style of both of these films along with the way that the complexities of characters and events are expressed on screen. Things look bizarre with rooms of solid colors and rigid frames; it almost feels as if some scenes take place inside of a doll house. I have no idea if it is a style that is constant throughout his work, but I am always anticipating what I will see next. Every single shot feels important, emotional, and highly combustible. As mentioned before, I believe I will be delving into Fassbinder’s work at a greater pace than usual.

breaking the wavesBreaking the Waves was my first exposure to Lars von Trier’s work. I really had no idea what to expect. I assumed that I was going to get something full of sorrow, something intended to provoke and possibly offend the viewer’s sensitivities. Moreover I expected to be challenged in a big way.

My presumptions about the film’s content may have led me to view the piece in a skewed manner. The events that take place, while certainly nuanced, seemed to resemble a fairly typical story. Bess’ new husband, Jan, must leave her temporarily to continue his work on an oil rig. Bess cannot take this. Being a religious woman, or at least a woman who fully believes in what she is doing, she prays for his quick return. Predictably, Jan is injured at work, and is thus returned back to his wife, albeit in critical condition. He will most likely be paralyzed, the doctors say. Jan recovers to the point that he is able to speak but not move; Bess remains fully committed to her marriage and to fulfilling her husbands desires. This makes itself apparent throughout the rest of the film.

I do not mind clichés in film as long as there seems to be a reality underneath what is on the surface. However, I rarely felt that this was the case while watching Breaking the Waves. The developments were disturbing, the characters were real, and the acting was fantastic. I also loved the camerawork and the way many of the scenes were expressed. I was definitely impressed. It would be difficult for one to not be moved by the tenacity that characterizes the love that both Bess and Jan feel for one another. Each have a determination to fight to be together through whatever means necessary. I look for things in the films that I watch that I find difficult to put into words. Sometimes, as was the case for this film, while I may be enjoying what I seeing, I am not really experiencing anything. What I found absent was the aforementioned challenge that I was anticipating. My sensitivities were not challenged; I easily took in everything that I saw. Despite my minimal reaction to Breaking the Waves, I do plan to watch more of Trier’s work.