Sunday, December 19, 2010

The so-called "foreign cinema" as the precursor of the 21st century film? Two examples.

There seems to be a wide-spread consensus to dichotomize world cinema into US-American cinema, on the one hand, and „foreign cinema“ on the other. Going by this rather simplistic view, the past decade (the 00s) have brought forward interesting changes to this balance. While the US still dominate the film market economically, there seems to have been an undeniable artistic decrease in US cinema. While old masters and well established directors (such as Scorsese or Eastwood) have certainly created some further film pearls, innovations seemed to stagnate mostly throughout the entire decade (with an on-going trend).
Contrariwise, the „foreign cinema“ revealed some impressive spurts, especially when compared to the rather lame 90s (it goes without saying that not all countries have displayed identical progresses, considering that the „foreign cinema“-label comprises a far too heterogeneous mass of national film industries). Brazil and France are definitely among those countries with very strong increases in quality films. In order to illustrate this idea, I would like to have a closer look at two films- one from Brazil, the other from France- that are, at least thematically, not too different: Tropa de Elite (José Padilha, 2007) and Un prophète (Jacques Audiard, 2009).
Both films present circular structures: Tropa de Elite revolves around an elite squad, assigned to „clean up“ a favela of Rio de Janeiro. In vertiginously fast-edited action sequences and a constantly (and deliberately) discomforting atmosphere soaked with social misery and injustice, the screenplay examplifies how much the said elite squad is caught in this spiral of violence, just as well as the slum drug gangs they are supposed to fight.
Audiard’s Un prophète presents similar streaks, but the spiral here is rather one of crime than one of violence (although the latter is inevitably interwoven with the former). Following one of the essences of Edwin Sutherland’s sociology of criminality, criminal behaviour is an acquired, and not an in-born behaviour. The young protagonist Malik (amazing: Tahar Rahim) is locked up in a French prison, and learns the tough rules of this new microcosm very fast. (Thus, the protagonist here is an absolute novice gradually ascending in his “business“, unlike the expert main character of Tropa de Elite who is trying to quit his job.) The rules of the prison milieu (which, as the film astutely illustrates, cannot be held within prison walls) take effect and socialize Malik as one of its most important members. And here as well we come full circle.
As a spectator you tend to sympathize with both films‘ protagonists. This is a particularly ambiguous matter in Tropa de Elite’s case. Occasionally, the film’s depiction of violence tends to end in itself, thus lacking the necessary critical reflection which would lift it above self-righteous action films. Such moments are not too frequent though, and the intentionally bitter aftertaste the film leaves remains fortunately prevalent.
Both protagonists are victims of their circumstances imposed by the social apparatus. While the off-voice imprints this in Tropa de Elite, Un prophète’s technique seems a bit more elaborate. Reyeb, a follow prisoner Malik has to assassinate as part of an imposed rite of passage, returns as a ghost to Malik’s imagination, not to haunt him, but to reflect his inner space and conscience.
Another major point that both films have got in common is the naturalistic/sociological milieu study they present. The favelas/police world as well as the French prison are milieus dominated by a rough, stereotypical masculinity. In such milieus, women are reduced to passive or no roles at all. At the basis of both films lie partially harsh and acid, but rarely moralizing critical views on social processes and procedures.
Tropa de Elite and Un prophète are both breathtaking and impressive examples of recent quality works of „foreign cinema“. Narratively dense and stylistically innovative, both films are essential viewings of the past decade. Yet even here you can detect nuances of quality: Tropa de Elite is an excellent and very appealing film, but Un prophète is an astounding masterpiece and not to be missed.

Tropa de Elite: ***

Un prophète: ****

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Czech Animation

When you think about animation films, the Czech Republic does not necessarily cross your mind immediately. You would rather think of the usual suspects, such as the works by Disney or Pixar or maybe even Japanese animes.
The following overview (which does not claim to be exhaustive or complete in any way, but merely to give a quick insight) should show quite plainly that the numerous pearls of Czech animation are easily as good (if not better) than the aforementioned.
The overview starts after World War II, as there is hardly any animation film industry in pre-WW II Czechoslovakia. Only few animated short films were created back then, of which most were interestingly enough co-productions with Norway.
Immediately after the end of the War, Jiří Trnka (1912-1969) and Eduard Hofman (1914-1987) found the ‘Atelier filmovych triku‘ (= animation film studio) in Prague. The studio is subdivided into two different entities. One is focused on marionette films, while the other (far more important) sector, called ‘Bratri v Triku‘ (= brothers of animation), specializes in cartoon and animation films. The studio’s first major success comes in 1947 with the film Zvirátka a petrovsti (The Animals and the People of Petrov, directed by Trnka himself), which also gets recognition in Cannes. Hereupon, ‘Bratri v Triku‘ starts growing rapidly. In the 1950s, further successful films follow (hailed by critics and audiences alike): Bajaja (Prince Bayaya, 1950, Trnka), Staré povesti ceské (Old Czech Legends, 1952, Trnka) and Sen noci svatojánské (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1959, Trnka), the latter being a wordless adaptation of Shakespeare’s eponymous play. Soon, Trnka is known as the ‘Walt Disney of the East‘, a certainly more than inaccurate sobriquet. Four years before his early death, he completes his last and most accomplished film, Ruka (The Hand, 1965), an 18-minute-allegory about a pottering marionette that tries to throw a vase for its flower. While doing so it is all the time interrupted by a huge, imperative hand wanting the puppet to create a sculpture of it instead. Quickly after Trnka’s death, the film was banned by the communist regime.
The singular style of the works by the ‘Bratri v triku‘-studios and especially by its founder Jiří Trnka are characteristic for the entire animation film industry of Czechoslovakia and the later Czech Republic. For instance, the characters are highly stylized, mostly with strong allegorical features. Language and words are far less important than mimic and gesture. The best example to illustrate this is the popular children’s program Krtek (Mole, 1957-2002), created by Zdeněk Miler, also a creative mind from the ‘Bratri v triku‘-studio. The characters and the poetic-positivistic stories take centre stage here. The style is simple, but witty; the narrative tempo rather slow and taciturn. According to the creators, the main concern was to procure a sense of aesthetics and beauty for the young audience.
In 1961, Munro, a short animated film from the ‘Bratri v triku‘-studio, wins the Oscar. After this decisive moment, the studio gets a number of remittance works from the United States, such as Tom and Jerry or Popeye. The main reason for this outsourcing decision though was less due to the remarkable quality of Czechoslovak animation film than to the far more inexpensive production possibilities and conditions in Eastern Europe. That way, the costs for one Tom and Jerry-episode could be reduced from 40,000 to 10,000 US-$.
After the Prague Spring in 1968 began the communist era of the Czech animated film. Under the pressure of the USSR, the studio was subjected to strict constraints, especially as for what was still allowed to be shown and was not anymore. Nevertheless, some artists, among them Jan Švankmajer (* 1934), were able to detect loopholes in the system and to continue denouncing the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union, albeit in a more subtle way. The positive side of the coin was the now much more intense financial endorsement by the State. For the communist regime, animation films were an ideal way of entertaining the people and thus distracting their attention from the defects and flaws of the system.
A second essential, though far less important production site for animation films in Czechoslovakia were the Zlín Studios in Moravia. The two pivotal artists here were Karel Zeman (1910-1989) and Hermina Týrlová (1900-1993), who already created some first films during the Second World War. Zeman, known as the ‘Czech Méliès‘, attached great importance to the poetic mood of his films. Mostly ‘real‘ people interacted with animated characters and backgrounds. In their style, his films were therefore close to the ‘Laterna Magika‘-theater in Prague, where ‘real‘ actors perform together with marionettes and a projected scenery. Among Zeman’s most accomplished works are films such as Cesta do praveku (Journey to the Beginning of Time, 1955) or the short Inspirace (Inspiration, 1949).
The key figure of Czech animation film is, apart from Jiří Trnka, the aforementioned Jan Švankmajer, who has been active for the past forty years, enchanting young and old alike. His technically perfectly animated films take mostly place in a gothic scenery such as castles, caves or dungeons which could originate from an Edgar Allan Poe-novel. Correspondingly dark and gritty are the locales (and sometimes also the topics) in his films. At this point, Švankmajer’s obsession with and personal fear of the Dark and the Unknown shine through. His films are innovative, gruesome and chock-full of scornful, almost sardonic humour, disclosing at times even caustic and satirical traits. Other characteristics of his oeuvre, apart from the cranky sense of humour, are the astonishing playfulness of his topics and ideas as well as the evident, feminist tendency toward erotic moments.
All of these typical and constitutive qualities can be found in an especially acute way in his stop-motion-masterpiece Moznosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1982). The short film goes twelve minutes and consists of three chapters, each of them analyzing the possibilities and impossibilities of the phenomenon ’dialogue‘. The first chapter shows the encounter of two heads, consisting once of fruits, once of tools, once of weapons and devouring each other at the end. The second segment seems more romantic: it is the encounter of two fusing clay heads- another dimension of dialogue. The most interesting episode is certainly the third concluding one, in which two politicians or officials -depending on your view- are debating. The content of their conversation is visualized through various objects on their tongues: toothpaste, toothbrush, shoe, slice of bread, shoelace, pencil sharpener, etc. While the objects of both parties supplement each other at the beginning, misunderstanding and malentendus surface soon, ending in a total chaos.
The numerous ironic, erotic, satiric and even macabre elements which shine through even in this quick summary make clear that this film is a one-of-a-kind in the genre of animated short films. It rightly won numerous awards on international festivals, for example on the Berlinale in 1983.
The major influences for Švankmajer are obviously the visual arts, and especially painting. Švankmajer himself dabbled in the plastic arts and showed great talent especially as a sculptor. Particularly influential and crucial for Švankmajer’s films are the works of mannerism and surrealism.
The main mannerist source of inspiration for Švankmajer is the Czech artist Arcimboldo (1526-1593). His idiosyncratic paintings, composed of fruits and vegetables, have influenced numerous films by Jan Švankmajer, such as the aforementioned Moznosti dialogu.
Švankmajer’s early opus is above all affected by contemporary surrealist artists from Prague though. It is only after the events of 1968 that his works take their distances with surrealism and become fundamentally more realistic. The core elements generally remain surrealist, but the settings get closer to reality. Alice (1988), Švankmajer’s version of Lewis Carroll’s books, features, apart from the already mentioned erotic dimension, a range of dream sequences and elements- an essential component of surrealist art.
Another leitmotif to be found in his works is the principle of the living/animate objects. As for this, a key experience in Švankmajer’s life can be found in his time at the Laterna Magika-theater in the early 60s. In most plays here, the living intermingle with the animate, and the actually ‘dead‘ dolls and marionettes get through this interaction with ‘real‘ performers a kind of soul. This important aspect of Švankmajer’s oeuvre can be found in an absurd and utterly self-ironic way in Otesánek (Little Otik, 2000), where a desperate, infertile woman adopts and brings up a tree trunk, which develops a life of its own and starts devouring the neighbours.
However, the present situation of the Czech animation film looks far less bright than its past: This year, Švankmajer released his most recent and (according to himself) last film, Prezít svuj zivot (teorie a praxe) (Surviving Life- Theory and Practice, 2010). With Švankmajer, a true monolith will disappear from the Czech and the international stage of animated films. He has long ago found and inspired his international disciples, among which you find names such as Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam.
After the fall of communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the expectations for the future of the Czech animation film were great. A wide range of new animation studios were created, of which only few would survive the scant 90s. Between 1990 and 1996, the number of produced animation films in the Czech Republic sank from 140 to merely 50 films per year. The financial aids by the government stayed away. The Golden Age of Czech animation films was definitely over. But the lack of national financing is not the only problem here. The traditional animation techniques are more and more substituted by CGI-animation, a market almost totally dominated by the United States.
A third major problem is the distribution of the films. The companies show little interest in the production or the copyright of Czech animation films. Not even in the Czech Republic, where the market is by now also flooded by Disney productions, leaving no room for the slow, unconventional rhythm of such films. Especially important are therefore animation film festivals (such as the ones in Annécy or Trebon in Southern Bohemia), where aspiring and rising talents in the genre are still given a fair chance.

The most important up-and-coming Czech artists are Jan Pinkava (* 1963), who won the Oscar for the Best Animated Short Film for his Geri’s Game (1998) and who works nowadays as a pioneer of computer-based animation at Pixar’s, and Jan Balej (* 1958), who won the Golden Reel for Best Animation at the International Festival of Tiburon (United States) for Jedné noci v jednom meste (One Night in a City, 2007).

Suggested for further reading: Czech Animation: Two Perspectives and Svankmajer E & J: Mouth to Mouth.

(Dedicated to a good friend. You know who you are...)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The two faces of a filmmaker

There is a Brian DePalma who made Dressed to Kill, Blow-Out, Phantom of the Paradise and Scarface. Then there is also a Brian DePalma who made Mission to Mars, Mission:Impossible or The Bonfire of the Vanities. Considering and comparing just these few among his numerous films makes you wonder how one and the same director can present such huge differences in the quality of his work.
The Black Dahlia
, his 2006-adaptation of James Ellroy’s eponymous novel cannot –for various reasons to be explained here- be classified neither into the first range of first class-films neither into the second one of rather mediocre works. The film revolves around the investigation on the horrific murder of a young woman in L.A. in january 1947. This is at least the pivotal story of the film, although it develops a wide range of subconflicts and secondary strands. The general mood is a very dark and gritty one, and it is exactly here that the film unfolds its strongest points. Close in style and narrative structure to the film noir, The Black Dahlia delivers a deep and three-dimensional portrait of the city during the filthy forties. It is an after-war world full of crime, corruption, obsessions, façades, lies and intrigues that is daedally depicted through a canny camera work and a very consequent colouring (amber and ochre tones being the predominant ones). On the formal level in general the film’s mise-en-scène is masterful. Another remarkable aspect is the strong acting, especially by the lead Josh Hartnett (in his best part here, along with the one in the witty Lucky Number Slevin).

Alas, the film presents numerous problems as for the narrative aspects. One major weak point are certainly the characters themselves that remain (with the only possible exception of Hartnett’s protagonist) rather intangible and puzzling. This might be to some extent intentional, but it nevertheless implies that the spectator is left utterly apathetic not just about the characters, but also about the story in general. The story itself is another problem, as it is often too complex and too proliferating. As already mentioned, the film features a bunch of secondary and confusing subplots, leaving the viewer behind with a vertiginous feeling and thus impeding any serious involvement. All in all, the range of characters is too wide and the development of the story itself is not very consequent. In the end, when all the parts of the story are (somehow) led together, the dénouement seems unsatisfactory (by the way, a constant problem in DePalma’s oeuvre in general).
In spite of some very intense moments, The Black Dahlia has nothing memorable or outstanding and is perfectly overloaded. It tries to combine a rather simple murder story with portraits of numerous characters (and their obsessions and neuroses, of the city of L.A., of the 1940s in the U.S., of the Hollywoodland film business, etc. and eventually fails on most of these.


Tuesday, October 05, 2010

They're going to get you

Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead is often considered to be one of the great low budget-classics of the horror film genre, alongside such masterpieces as Halloween or The Fog (both by John Carpenter). Needless to say that it is then rather difficult to live up to such a hype. Still, The Evil Dead succeeds doing so in many ways.

The story is -as expected and maybe necessary- very simple. A bunch of youths spend their holidays in a small cabin in the midst of the woods. In the cabin's creepy basement they discover a tape on which a researcher recites some mysterious formula. This formula conjures up an anonymous evil from the woods, an evil which remains faceless throughout the whole film. All that is visible to the spectator is its offspring, amongst others zombie-turned humans.
A first striking characteristic of the film is its (intentional) B-movie-look. Not seldom does the film wander very close on the border to the realm of the risible, without ever falling completely into the ridiculous element though. This act of balance is truly remarkable, and certainly due to the very effective screenplay and the canny camera handling, giving the film its numerous tense and thrilling moments. Naturally along with this B-movie-flair comes the fact that the fiilm is utterly unsophisticated. Soon the thin story and the generally rather flat characters become secondary, and the film rambles from one shock moment to the next. As already mentioned, the evil remains name- and formless, and there is no further explanation given throughout the film. Anyone waiting for a logical solution will certainly be disappointed. The film's simplicity is refreshing though, especially when compared to many recent horror films where the desperate attempts to make the film seem more plausible and thus more serious have in the end just counterproductive effects, by chasing away all thrilling moments. Accordingly to its B-movie-heritage, The Evil Dead avoids those traps and delivers thus plain horror fun. That is it, and there was nothing more initially asked for.
Still, this does not inhibit that there are some interesting observations that can be made on a level that goes beyond blunt entertainment. The aforementioned and -applauded camera work is definitely one of the film's most fervent points. Especially the zombie perspective is a clever technique to create tension and allow an intriguing -because unusual- view on the events. Another remarkable element which sets the film apart the mass of low budget horror flicks is the excellent make-up. Although much cruder, it can easily keep up -concerning effectiveness- with genre-captain The Exorcist. The splatter and gore-moments are few (and for some maybe too few). Still the ones that are actually in the film are highly admirable when it comes to artistic quality. Especially the slow-motion-effects of the finale are memorable.
On the level of the story's characters, the only one worth mentioning is the protagonist Ash (Bruce Campbell) who will also be the main character in the two official sequels. Ash is an antihero though, at least at the beginning: coward and uncharismatic. It is only as the film progresses that he gradually grows into the role into which the evil/destiny/Sam Raimi- or however you may call it- tries to put him. This evolution is interesting to watch and mostly comprehensible too (and definitely atypical for the genre).
Evaluating it from a thoroughly conventional and narrow panoply of criteria, The Evil Dead is certainly everything but a "good" film. Still, the film's true qualities lie far beyond these superficial expectations (and must be sought there) and eventually unfold a surprisingly effective horror film and 85 minutes of fun and pure entertainment.


Saturday, October 02, 2010

You Will Meet...Nothing New

What could be a more appropriate first entry for such a blog on socio-cultural ramblings than a post related to one of my favourite film artists.
His most recent film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, is certainly a typical Woody Allen. Yet, at the same time, it is not worthy of standing out as such a representative work. YWMaTDS has it all -to a certain degree at least- and, still -or thus-, nothing new. The episodic structure of the multifocal story; the urban, deeply neurotic upper class-characters in quest of romantic, sexual or artistic fulfillment; the poignant and sharp dialogues (although you can observe a certain decrease on this here)- Woody Allen delivers the whole package, and adds nothing new. There is nothing in this film- neither on the narrative nor on the technical level- that might "bite“ you, that might annoy or disturb or confuse you.
The pivotal character of the story is Helena (Gemma Jones) who suffers after having been left by her long-time-husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and seeks advice and consolation in a fortune-teller. Meanwhile, Alfie wants to revive his youth and believes finding the occasion to do so in Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a clichéd, rather featherbrained prostitute. The story also revolves around Helena and Alfie’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her husband Roy (Josh Brolin), who lead a rather unhappy marriage and who soon develop serious crushes on people from their environment (Antonio Banderas, as Sally’s boss, & Freida Pinto, as a new neighbour).
Just by reading this quick summary, one realises that the film’s story is rather uninspired. And while Woody Allen is definitely not best-known for having overly original storylines, he still usually manages to grow some precious things on such little promising grounds. And for sure, YWMaTDS has got such grandiose moments as well, but they are few.
The characters- as usual the bearing walls of his works- are written with a lot of routine and some wittiness and demonstrate a certain psychological depth as well. Still, we are miles away here from the dazzling profundity of Annie Hall or Hannah (and her sisters). Some characters like the one of Charmaine- a character that is meant to entertain and make laugh (and certainly succeeds in doing so), but without any depth at all- are very disappointing, especially if you consider that Woody Allen has already written much brighter roles for prostitute characters (e.g. Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite or Dianne Wiest in The Purple Rose of Cairo). Unlike some of its immediate predecessors, such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Whatever Works this film significantly lacks a charismatic character. Despite the good acting performances (above all by Josh Brolin and Gemma Jones), none of the actors is able to really profile and shape their character. It is obvious that this is, to a major extent, due to the restrictions that come along with the aforementioned multifocal structure.

YWMaTDS is 98 minutes of sterling entertainment. At one central point of the film Helena mentions that she believes in reincarnation. As a loyal Woody Allen-filmgoer, you tend to fully comprehend her feelings. The storyline, the characters, the plot, the dialogues, the narrative structure- everything seems familiar, as if you had already experienced it like 40 times before. It goes without saying that this is, at least in Woody Allen’s case, not necessarily something negative.