Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Screening Log: Inorganic Transcendence Edition

            Hey look, the content on this site has already dramatically dropped! Hooray #GradSkool! But seriously folks, I am already knee deep in research, but it is my solemn duty to bring you something every week, even if it is short and incoherent and written after midnight (as tonight’s quite incomprehensible entry surely is). Again, as every two weeks, there is a new Cinephiliacs out there. This one has Bilge Ebiri talking quite intelligently about Bertolucci, Malick, Nolan, and especially Kubrick as we dive into Barry Lyndon. So check that out. Also, look for stuff related to the New York Film Festival soon! Press screenings begin Monday, and I’m going to have some exciting announcements soon related to it.

-The World, 2004. Directed by Jia Zhangkie. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Silent Light, 2007. Directed by Carlos Reygadas. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-/M/, 1931. Directed by Fritz Lang. Blu-Ray.
-Cooley High, 1975. Directed by Michael Schultz. 35mm projection at 92Y Tribeca.
-After Life, 1998. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. DVD.
-The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes, 2005. Directed by Stephen and Timothy Quay. 35mm projection at Museum of Modern Art. 

            Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light might be the definition of a termite film trapped in a white elephant body, to borrow a bit of Farber-speak, though I’m totally using that wrong. Everything in the film, which is built around small, almost silent moments, is embedded with extremely deep and complex meaning. No moment is meant to be just a moment, but actually a transcendent push toward God and beyond. And yet, the deeper meaning of those images seem almost fraught with only surface value once you realize it. This is a film quite big on metaphors.

            This is not to say I hate the film by any regards—I saw it because many people I respect  have written so eloquently about it—but I found Silent Light to be the type of film that demands my love for it without ever proving why. The film opens with none other than the origin of life itself, but without any of the special effects and grandiose music that Terrence Malick employs for The Tree of Life (not to say Reygadas does it better; simply differently). We begin looking up at the stars and the camera slowly revolves to the ground as the sun reveals it in a time lapse shot, and suddenly the sounds of life arise. The time lapse shot is beautiful because it’s not viewed as a time lapse—the shot lasts somewhere around six minutes. It feels like the world is slowly bearing itself into existence by a force greater than the camera could ever capture.

            As a short film, Silent Light’s opening shot could have been one to reckon for the ages, but as it turns out, we are in a small Mexican community known as the Mennonites, a somewhat Amish (but not cut off from contemporary society) and very religious community that speaks in a language called Plautdietsch, an old German dialect. The use of the Mennonites is one of the strange constructions in the film; Reygadas uses this community, but never explains it, so to say. We get some understanding of their culture—the importance of prayer, work, family—but there’s also a strange lack of specificity, and given the work Reygadas must’ve had to do to use this specific community seems quite odd (Victor Morton gives a good explanation that helps ease, but not muzzle, some of my issues here). Apparently, a sequence cut from the Cannes version included the actions of one of the community with the outsiders, and that lack of context could have seriously helped.

            Reygadas shoots Silent Light in the type of restrained, very still and very long camera work that is truly bravura at moments. He’ll hold a shot and truly make it resonate as something extraordinary, such as when its driving along inside a truck, and as the truck turns, the camera does not, as if it must stay facing north, or a tracking shot into a garage that suddenly lights up a once darkly revealed area. And the film ends with none other than an homage to Dreyer’s Ordet, both in the pristineness of its cinematic architecture (never has white felt so blinding), as well as its plot (more on that later).

            But so much of Silent Light is also built on taking tiny moments and emphasizing the tiniest detail with the full force of a sledgehammer, which might sound strange for a film that seems so subtle. One of the other most regarded sequences happens as the parents wash the hair of their children in a local pool, a moment of cleanliness, baptism, and whatever metaphors one may want to add here. Reygadas tries so hard to make this feel as naturalistic as possible, going so far to let the children look into the camera as if accidentally acknowledging it, that its spirituality felt forced upon the moment. And consider the shot that ends the sequence, as the camera slowly comes into focus on a pink blossom in a garden. The film is begging us to see the blossom as metaphor, and while Manohla Dargis explains that we are supposed to see and feel the beauty, again, it’s imposed upon, not discovered.

            A theory of cinema I’ve been working on, and its one that I’ve been trying to craft as my critical credo I guess, is the idea that the greatest cinema feels organic. What does organic mean? Well it can mean a lot of things, but what I’ve come to realize is that a film feels inorganic when the vision of the text and the image collide in disunion. Marclay’s The Clock struck me this way, with a director imposing his idea by sucking the imagery of cinema for a parlor game. Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister went from being a complete masterpiece to a highly problematic film by Shelton’s inorganic third act, which didn’t seem to flow from all the other creativity on screen. Some might strike Hitchcock or Kubrick films as inorganic, but they really aren’t—their texts are completely in unison with the vision of the directors telling the narrative.

            This is what Silent Light lacked for me. I wasn’t sure how far Reygadas planned to take his Ordet recreation—I thought the tear sitting on the face actually could have been a perfect final image—but I didn’t expect him to play it for the same transcendence. The problem isn’t remaking Ordet, but Reygadas forcing Ordet, forcing a vision of transcendence, onto this world. Besides that opening shot (and I guess the beautifully mimicked final shot), much of Silent Light feels oddly calculated, imposed to reach transcendence without ever questioning what exactly transcendence is. It’s a small world reaching for the stars, and Reygadas wants me to take a so-called “leap to faith.” However, he never gave me a reason to jump.

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