Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Sweeter Than Wine: Alice Rohrwacher's THE WONDERS

Agnese Graziani, Maria Alexandra Lungu, Eva Lea Pace Morrow, and Alba Rohrwacher in The Wonders

Alice Rohrwacher's second feature film, 2014's The Wonders, was shot on location in the rural region of her native Italy where Lazio, Umbria, and Tuscany converge, a fittingly ambiguous place that feels removed from any nation, culture, or borders. Captured on Super 16mm film by Rohrwacher's regular cinematographer Hélène Louvart, the landscapes more closely resemble those of a distant, sun-blasted alien world than the over-romanticized land of villas and vineyards seen in so many sappy cinematic travelogues. Everything looks scraggly and overgrown - a Van Gogh painting run wild, vividly rendered by the rough yet undeniably beautiful quality of the film stock. In this strangely desolate place, a family of beekeepers happily spend their days living and working like solitary settlers, their home a grand old house surrounded by parched fields of brown and yellow brush, the only other signs of human life the sounds of rifle shots from nearby hunters, which anger the family's German father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) enough for him to yell at them in both Italian and his native tongue in his underwear in the early hours of the morning. We come to know this family through Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the oldest of Wolfgang and Angelica's (Alba Rohrwacher, Alice's sister) four daughters. Though Wolfgang has no scruples about getting all four of them to help out with the farm duties, he has clearly singled out Gelsomina as his favorite and trusted right hand. She is the one who boldly climbs a tree to brush a teeming swarm of escaped bees back into their hive with her gloved hand and capably sees to the safe extraction of the honey from the little creatures' combs, pouring heavy buckets of the sweet golden stuff into tall, rocket ship-like cylinders where it will be kept until it is time to jar and sell it. "We're better alone, aren't we, you and me?" Wolfgang says to her during a solitary moment between the two of them, both clad in their matching yellow beekeeping suits, checking on the hives while Gelsomina's sisters wait in the car. Beyond her loyalty, dedication to the farm, and love for her goofy, eccentric father (at one point she dutifully picks the bee stingers out of his back), we can sense Gelso slowly becoming more aware of his assorted quirks and faults - his quick temper, his at-times domineering nature, his paranoid ideas about the impending apocalypse and ineptitude in dealings with the outside world, both of which contributing to the hippie-ish paradise/exile ambiance that pervades the isolated, vaguely commune-like farm. However, Rohrwacher wisely avoids angst-driven confrontations and dramatic moments of truth, instead simply following this quiet, watchful, preternaturally wise girl with gentle, naturalistic ease. The filmmaker's evident lack of interest in the familiar beats and tropes that burden so many coming-of-age stories as well as the contrived sense of whimsy or charm that so often accompanies them greatly helps her film maintain a rare air of laid-back maturity and freshness throughout, something that she has upheld since her debut feature Corpo celeste (2011) through to her latest film, the eagerly anticipated Cannes hit Happy as Lazzaro (2018).

In some respects, The Wonders resembles another great film about fathers and daughters, beekeeping, and life in a dreamy countryside setting, Víctor Erice's sublime The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). But where that film masterfully maintains a  tone of haunted, austere solemnity, Rohrwacher decides on a warmer, more organic approach, sticking close to her actors and the rough, unkempt beauty of the spaces and landscapes they inhabit. Also tangible throughout is a slightly pungent earthiness reminiscent of Vigo or Pasolini that continually reminds us of the raw, messy physicality of the people we are watching, as in the early scene in which Marinella (Agnese Graziani), the precocious second-oldest sister, rouses the whole household in the middle of the night in her attempt to use the bathroom, or simply through the sight of the family members casually wearing their skivvies, or the visible wear and dirtiness of the farm's equipment and buildings. All of it is in keeping with the vivid sense of lived-in authenticity Rohrwacher achieves, partly through her careful selection of the film's costumes, which she didn't restrict to any single time period so as to suggest the sharing of clothing between the family members over the years. The various outfits and Wolfgang's beat-up old station wagon, its stereo usually playing some ancient psychedelic funk, suggest we could be anywhere from the 1980s to the early 1990s, the beautifully grainy quality of the film stock evoking worn postcards or old photos whose colors have faded yet still retain an alluring vibrancy. Even more suggestive of the film's situation within some self-enclosed bubble of the past are its inspired book-ending sequences, the dreamlike opening one following distant sets of headlights that appear like fireflies in a vast ocean of darkness. The headlights belong to a group of hunters, men with dogs and gear and rifles who happen upon an abandoned old house - the family's - in the night, their flashlights' beams shining through the windows, traversing years to land on the motionless limbs of Gelsomina and her sisters safely asleep inside. At the end of their tale, the home eerily reverts back to a dark, empty building, Tarkovskian curtains gently floating in the rooms inside. Afterwards, I found myself hoping that Gelsomina and her family were just as happy and content in whichever place they moved on to as they were in the house, just as I'd like to think the moments they all shared together in that house made it happy, somehow - warm and grateful for the life and joy that once resided within its stone walls and danced and ran upon its wooden floors.


Maria Alexandra Lungu in The Wonders

As in The Spirit of the Beehive, two intrusions from the outside world soon begin to further expand and influence our young heroine's perceptions of the world beyond her family and the farm, the first and more sensational one being a television crew that has arrived to host and shoot a competition among the local farmers called Countryside Wonders. Presided over by the ornately costumed TV personality Milly (Monica Bellucci), the whole production cheesily conjures facile, easily marketable images of "ancient traditions" and cornucopias of appetizing artisan foodstuffs, a humorously far cry from the grubbier realities of farm life through which Wolfgang and his family make their living. Even so, Gelsomina sees the potential good (namely prize money and much-needed publicity) the contest could bring them while Wolfgang views the whole enterprise with fearful skepticism; not for nothing does Gelso usually come across as the most mature person out of everyone there, and at one point is even introduced as the head of the family to a visitor! The second upset to their existence arrives in the form of Martin (Luis Huilca Logroño), a young German boy with a history of petty theft and arson who is assigned to live with them as part of a rehabilitation program that Wolfgang enrolls them in - without telling anyone! - just to shamelessly collect the support cheques it will bring. Later, once the small, quiet young man is awkwardly yet politely welcomed into the female-dominated family unit, Wolfgang takes him under his wing as his new go-to helper and son surrogate of-sorts, to Gelsomina's silent dismay. While nothing as typical or clearly defined as friendship or romance - or rivalry, for that matter - ever fully develops between Martin and Gelsomina, the two of them nonetheless share a mysterious bond that seems to only deepen once the latter matches Martin's odd gift for perfectly imitating birdsong with her own peculiar talent, a small bit of magic that makes her even more naturally suited to the world of honeybees than her father.

Rohrwacher introduces those and other such "wonders" into the fabric of her film casually and without a trace of overdone fanfare. This of course makes these occurrences all the more magical and curious once they arrive, as in the scene when a visiting inspector from Countryside Wonders is revealed to have different-colored eyes, one an enchantingly bright shade of blue. At the same time, the film finds wonders in each and every scene, the camera often drifting off on its own to eagerly show us something interesting or beautiful: patterns of light from various sources (fire, flashlights, the sun) dancing and shining upon various surfaces; a stream of Christmas lights circling the underground tomb where Countryside Wonders is filmed; a huddle of wizened grandmothers, lit in crimson, singing in harmony for the gathered contestants, TV people, and cameras. Delightful scenes generously spill forth one by one: Wolfgang's warm embrace of Adrian (André Hennicke), an old friend, in the orange rays of sunset (the other man's curse - "Fucking hunters!" - at the familiar sound of the rifle shots is irresistible); the two youngest sisters splashing around in rain puddles in the muddy road leading to their house; the tranquil, mesmerizing bee sequences; the bizarre spectacle of the Countryside Wonders show in the Etruscan tomb. One cryptic reoccurring motif involves Wolfgang falling asleep in his home surrounded by his family, only for the film to give way, with a single cut, to him outside on a mattress, alone, by morning. Surprise and humor abound throughout the whole film, a bit of one, the other, or both in every scene, while the fascinating relationship dynamics between each of the family members, including Martin and Cocò (Sabine Timoteo), Angelica's kooky sister, helps the whole thing stick together as a lovable, refreshingly idiosyncratic portrayal of work and family at their most inseparable and joyous.

In another great scene, Gelsomina issues one of her many orders to Marinella, this time to drink from a ray of sunlight piercing a dark room. Watching this film is like doing just that; like sunlight or honey, every bit of it offers warmth, nourishment, the essence of life itself. And yes, like the honey we see being carefully collected, it is very sweet indeed.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Beyond the Hills

Taste of Cherry

"The film [Taste of Cherry] is a kind of geography of my inner life."
                                                                                                                           -Abbas Kiarostami

 Much of Abbas Kiarostami's cinema famously hinges upon car rides and the landscapes through which they are taken. The late, great Iranian auteur was frequently compelled to place his characters inside cars - a reliable Land Rover, usually - and intently follow them with his camera as they drove over and across rugged terrain and paused to converse with the people they met along their travels, either though the rolled-down windows of their vehicle or inside the car itself, which would readily serve as an ideal space for solitary meditation or candid conversation. The double-framing of these landscapes and figures through the camera's frame and the car's windshield or side windows has become an all-too familiar sight throughout Kiarostami's cinema, with the latter serving to call attention to the inherent artifice of the former and, by extension, the cinematic medium through which all of it is brought to us. There is rarely, if ever, a single, simple narrative to Kiarostami's films; he was a highly intelligent, playful filmmaker who liked calling attention to the foundational components of his films: the layers of artifice and creation as well as the artists and technicians behind them, including himself; the slippery elusiveness of objective truth, further hidden or distorted by the presence of the camera and film crew even as they would work towards exploring or simulating that truth; and the mysterious properties of illusion, reality, and perception as it pertains to both cinema and life. Just as, in his driving sequences, the car, driver, interior space of the car, and windows looking outwards all mediate and influence our perceptions of the world outside, so too does the presence of the camera, film crew, director, and even the choice of the recording medium itself (Kiarostami worked with both celluloid and video throughout his adventurous career, experimenting with each with his characteristic inquisitiveness and ingenuity), far from disappearing into the deceptively passive role of invisible observer perfected by Hollywood films, mediate and influence our perceptions of the film we see, even taking on an active, catalytic role in the development of the proceedings that unfold before us. In the process, he skillfully prompts us towards a deeper consideration of the images and people shown to us and the blend of truth and perception bound up in their portrayals. From Kiarostami and his crew's roles and onscreen appearances in Close-up (1990) and Taste of Cherry (1997) to the fictional film crews at the centers of Through the Olive Trees (1994) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), the filmmaking process repeatedly becomes a key component in the flow of actions and events that unfurl across his films, most of which Kiarostami edited himself.


But as compelling and rewarding it is to pull apart the self-reflexive layers of his radical techniques, I have been more content (upon my most recent viewings, at least) to get lost in the subjects around which the director and his crews convene - that is, the landscapes and people of his native Iran, whom he filmed with an inquisitive, open, and, certainly in the case of the landscapes, deeply affectionate frame of mind, and whom he was forced to depart from amidst the rising uncertainty over his ability to maintain his creative freedom and personal safety within the tense atmosphere of the Islamic Republic (Jafar Panahi's 2010 arrest and subsequent imprisonment and twenty-year ban from making films were an especially notable cause for alarm in the Iranian and global film communities, a worrying sign of the Iranian government's growing intolerance of its people's personal expressions and personal freedoms). Kiarostami would film the passing hills, trees, and fields of Tuscany through car windows in Certified Copy (2010), but even though the gesture is the same, the change in setting is noticeable, even painful. This new place he shows us may have its own special allure, the tone in which it is shown low-key and leisurely, but it still makes us long for Kiarostami's homeland, for him to be able to continue wandering and photographing there to his heart's content, gathering and weaving the faces, voices, and lands he encountered into more new films, new reflections of life in modern-day Iran. While it is a perfectly fine film - marvelous, in fact - to me the change in scenery that comes with Certified Copy also arrives with an unspoken weight of longing and sadness about it, perhaps best signified by the title of another transitional work made by a great artist in exile (also shot in Tuscany, Italy), also haunted by the memory of a distant, inaccessible home: nostalghia.

"The global screen is not for the films of only one country," the great Akira Kurosawa told Kiarostami when the latter visited the Japanese master's home in Tokyo in the fall of 1993. "Films make their viewers familiar with the cultural settings of their country of origin. If they are made according to a national culture then they will be welcomed abroad. My grandchildren and I made ourselves familiar with Iran and her people with your films." The Emperor's words ring with truth to this day: looking beyond the director's aims and intentions and the demands of narrative, films that hail from other countries beyond the viewer's frame of experience can be supremely enlightening just for the perspectives they provide on their places of origin, providing a window looking out onto the culture and people from that particular point and place in time, giving cinema the added, invaluable properties of anthropological and historical time capsules. Sometimes this facet of cultural representation can become dominated by a single filmmaker, group, or even a single film abroad when surrounding circumstances, luck, timing, and the sheer outstanding quality of the art or artist(s) in the spotlight combine to anoint a key film or group of films as the envoy for that national culture, as was the case with Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) and its landmark Golden Lion win at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and, years later, Kiarostami's own pivotal victory in Cannes in 1997 when Taste of Cherry was awarded the Palme d'Or, each moment essentially announcing the "arrival" of Japanese and Iranian cinema, respectively, on the world stage and triggering ravenous frenzies to seek, see, share, and learn more about this new source of fresh, vital filmmaking from that corner of the world. Of course, Akira Kurosawa is not all of Japanese cinema, just as Abbas Kiarostami is not all of Iranian cinema; however, for better or for worse, there was a time in each case when each director's work was, by a large margin, the most prominent representative of their national culture, their films serving as the most readily available access points to a whole other culture to outside viewers. Even though the phenomenal rise and evolution of theatrical, home video, and digital distribution networks have (more for some countries than others) gradually, film by film, reduced the problem of having access to just one or two filmmakers from a given country to watch - and those who appreciate Kiarostami and haven't done so already owe it to themselves to go further into Iranian cinema, especially for Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Forough Farrokhzad, and Asghar Farhadi - the power of those original gateways remains undiminished, those works still as potent, captivating, relevant, and potentially revelatory to viewers looking to expand their tastes beyond English-language cinema's offerings. Kiarostami's films will persist for some time to come as some of the great, unrivaled treasures of world cinema, and newcomers to his work and Iranian cinema are blessed to be able to turn to an artist as gentle, compelling, and mindful of his viewers' intelligence as Kiarostami to show them the way - should they choose to enlist Kiarostami as their guide. These days, thankfully, one is just as likely to start their journey with Panahi's Offside (2006), Farrokhzad's The House is Black (1962), or Farhadi's A Separation (2011) as Taste of Cherry; in such a case, all roads are good.


The Wind Will Carry Us

I must confess here that, when Kiarostami passed away on July 4th, 2016, I was woefully behind on his work, the only film of his I had seen in its entirety at that point being Certified Copy. In the following months, I took it upon myself to play catch-up with the films he had made in Iran, starting with Taste of Cherry, then eventually moving on to Close-up. More recently, inspired by Janus Films' release of Kiarostami's final, posthumously-completed experimental work 24 Frames this year, I planned a first-time viewing of The Wind Will Carry Us along with a re-watch of Taste of Cherry with the hope of reacquainting myself with and becoming further immersed in his Iran. I was more or less successful, but not right away, and not as ideally planned, since I repeatedly kept falling asleep through my attempts to see both films - between my fatigue in the evenings and Kiarostami's calm, leisurely pace, I didn't stand a chance of fighting off the waves of exhaustion and deep slumber that would come over me. This was especially the case with The Wind Will Carry Us: I would keep returning to the film each night with the hope and full intent of taking in the whole thing (then eventually, as the nights wore on, the remaining portion) with a clear, respectful, appreciative frame of mind, only to nod off time and time again, reawakening at some later stage in the television director Behzad's (Behzad Dorani) prolonged stay in the remote Kurdish village of Siah Dareh, where he and two assistants arrive to document the mourning rituals to follow the approaching death of the village's oldest inhabitant, an unseen old woman referred to as "the invalid." Drifting in and out of consciousness, I would repeatedly have to keep backing the film up across several scenes I had missed before returning to the last point I recognized, then continue onwards once more. However, I soon came to appreciate seeing the film in this strange, disjointed fashion, so nicely did it compliment the static, repetitive nature of the film itself, which finds Behzad unexpectedly stuck waiting for the old woman to expire, whiling away the time left to him in the mountain village's various hushed spaces. One of the film's most memorable running gags consists of Behzad's numerous frantic dashes up to the settlement's highest point, a hilltop cemetery, in his jeep to maintain the flimsy phone connection that serves as his only means of contact with the outside world, just one of many routines and gestures that are carried out over and over again over the course of his stay. Gradually, the sounds, routines, and rhythms of Siah Dareh gently fill and occupy the film's rich sensory tapestry, in the process becoming more captivating than anything any more conventionally-plotted or -paced film could offer. Chores glimpsed through doorways and in silhouette, comical domestic squabbles, the herding and tending of livestock, and the omnipresent natural and architectural beauty of the little village and its spectacular surroundings soon cast their spell over me, making me grateful for the prolonged time I was spending in the film - in the village, as much a visitor as Behzad - as I struggled, night after night, to finish it. The film soon became anything but a sequence of narrative events to follow and comprehend in a logical fashion; instead, it revealed itself to be a compact sanctuary of space and time, positively teeming with life in every one of its scenes (animals and children abound throughout the film), inviting viewers to linger in its enchanting environments, gently beckoning them towards a finer appreciation of the gifts and pleasures laden throughout nature and humanity that this world contains.


Taste of Cherry

My experience re-watching Taste of Cherry was similar (also confounded and prolonged by my inability to stay awake during a single sitting), though made markedly more somber by the protagonist Mr. Badii's (Homayoun Ershadi) suicidal state of mind and ongoing search to find someone willing to bury his body or, should he choose to live, help him emerge from the grave he has dug for himself in the hills above Tehran. Driving around the dusty outskirts of the city in his Range Rover, Badii seems trapped in an Earth-bound purgatory that reflects his grim fixation with self-annihilation, especially when he makes a stop in what appears to be the dustiest, loudest construction site in the world, an uninhabitable place of shifting dirt and machinery that mesmerizes Badii with its ongoing, resounding invitations towards sure obliteration within the beckoning, all-consuming abyss of dirt and darkness upon which his frail shadow is cast. In his book The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Alberto Elena also recognizes the funereal quality of the film's settings: "An ochre, yellow earth - the color of depression in Persian tradition - is ever-present, as a recurring motif that constantly suggests the idea of burial, of the burial sought by Badii, a simple minute figure, shut inside his car, crossing these lands." But while the connotations of death and despair that arise from Taste of Cherry's parched landscapes are unmistakable, there is also an equally undeniable beauty to them that feels like a majestic yet plainly stated counterargument against Mr. Badii's death drive - an argument for life and the world drawn from Kiarostami's ongoing determination to reveal and share the natural splendor of his country. This is, in my eyes at least, perhaps most apparent in a breathtaking long shot (pictured above), seen from Mr. Badii's perspective, looking down upon a series of rust-colored hills smoothly spread out beyond the distant hub of Tehran. Huddles of apartment buildings, power plants, and high tension towers are arranged here and there in sparse patches of civilization across the otherwise bare layers of earth. Along a curving dirt road upon the hill closest to us, a distant phalanx of uniformed men jogs in formation, their chants dim but increasingly more audible as they draw closer to us and Mr. Badii. There are many such calm moments throughout Taste of Cherry, but this one has an especially captivating quality to it drawn from the shot's haunting evocations of the past - that is, Mr. Badii's fondly remembered time spent in the army years ago as well as the past to which that particular present-tense moment, that frozen, snow-globe-like vision of Iran in the late-1990s, now firmly belongs, a sublime moment plucked up by Kiarostami's camera and woven into the sensitive fabric of his film. In this shot, seen today, the specter of the past and the beckoning journey of the future ahead simultaneously hit home, intermingled with the spirit of inquisitive curiosity and deep respect for life's treasures as Kiarostami saw them, driving him to keep roaming and filming the numerous hills traversed by his characters, all of them in an ongoing search for the stuff that makes life worth living. A search that is repeatedly rewarded and affirmed throughout the films, the journeys up and over the Iranian hilltops yielding more hills, more layers of life in constant motion and progress, more questions and doubts, and more precious discoveries of simple, serene visions of the natural world and humanity that inspire and, in their gentle way, entice you to continue making your way through it with a greater sense of appreciation for what you find. In Taste of Cherry, the way Kiarostami filmed the land through which Mr. Badii travels (not to mention the fervent attempts made by the people he encounters to dissuade him from his goal) feel like a repeated cry to prevent him from carrying out his plan and leaving this world - a persistent "no!" spoken through images and sounds. In merciful contrast, the entirety of The Wind Will Carry Us seems to breathe a deep sigh of relief as it gently reveals the humble heights of contentment for those who back away from the precipice and join once more the ongoing flow of life - a gentle "yes" whispered with gratitude and appreciation.

*                              *                              *

"When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed," Kurosawa once said of the director who arguably did as much for Indian cinema during his, and Kurosawa's, lifetime as Kurosawa did for Japanese cinema. "But after seeing Kiarostami's films, I thanked God for giving us just the right filmmaker to take his place." When Kiarostami passed away in 2016, many were likely similarly left wondering, in the midst of their grief, just who would fill the place left by the fallen master in the landscape of 21st-century world cinema, now tragically deprived of one of its greatest artists far too soon. In my view, the filmmaker of the current cinematic climate who most closely follows in Kiarostami's footsteps in terms of innovative spirit, earned stature, productivity, devotion to his home culture, and artistic accomplishment is Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The internationally beloved Thai, who came to prominence just a few years after Taste of Cherry's victory in Cannes with his singular fiction-documentary hybrid Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), feels like a logical counterpart/successor to Kiarostami (the 2010 edition of Cannes marked Apichatpong's own Palme d'Or win for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as well as Juliette Binoche's Best Actress award for her work in Kiarostami's Certified Copy) not only because of his own fondness for driving sequences, but also his gift for showing, with a similar, seemingly magical sense of simplicity, openness, generosity, and intuition, the various people and places of his home country caught in scenes steeped in naturalism, humanity, and, very often and also like Kiarostami, light-hearted humor. At the same time, Apichatpong has beat his own refreshingly unique path through the dense brush of contemporary cinematic expression, fashioning an intoxicating world of spirits, beasts, and immersive jungle reveries seamlessly intermingled with casually presented slices of life, genuinely mind-expanding avant-garde techniques, and lush, loving homages to Thai pop culture, none of which even comes close to summarizing the singularly calming and provocative effects Apichatpong's films have upon the unsuspecting (or even well-seasoned) viewer; his films are a blessedly renewable source of surprise and bliss. From the riotously colorful lights adorning temples and karaoke bars to the  moon's pale reflection glistening on the surface of a jungle river to the sterile fluorescent sheen of hospital corridors and examination rooms, Apichatpong's cinema, like Kiarostami's, gives off its own special spectrum of light, drawn from the ancient beams of film's most primitive origins while brilliantly shining ahead to the wondrous possibilities of the future. Rather fittingly, given my nightly experiences with Kiarostami, Apichatpong is known for encouraging viewers to fall asleep while watching films so as to enjoy the pleasant effects that arise when drifting between the waking, dream, and film worlds - entirely in keeping with his own films' casual forays into dreams, fantasy, and the spaces in-between.


Jenjira Pongpas (left) in Cemetery of Splendor

Only now, in a troubling echo of the situations Kiarostami and Tarkovsky faced, Apichatpong has now also been forced to look abroad to make his next feature project, pressured by the rising tension, fear, and real danger from Thailand's military dictatorship - not to mention the problems with censorship his work has been subjected to at home, prompting him to withhold the domestic release of his most recent completed feature, Cemetery of Splendor (2015). His travels have brought him to the jungles of Columbia, where he will soon begin shooting his recently announced new film Memoria with Tilda Swinton on board as his lead actress (and where he was recently filmed and interviewed by Connor Jessup for the Canadian actor and filmmaker's documentary profile A.W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul). Yet despite the exciting promise of this newest adventure, the sadness and anguish from what is happening to his home country and the people still living under its regime is still there, illustrated in Cemetery of Splendor as a heavy psychic ache. In its most memorable image, several soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness must rest under the eerie glow of colorful light machines to fend off bad dreams while those still awake are increasingly affected by the growing melancholia creeping up around them. In the last moments of what may be his last Thai film for a long time, one of Apichatpong's beloved mass aerobics sequences set to yet another catchy pop tune (this one by South Korean artist DJ Soulscape) gives way to the unsettling sight of a bunch of kids kicking around a soccer ball in a patch of recently dug hills and craters as his frequent actress Jenjira Pongpas looks on, her eyes opened wide, forcing herself to take in and remember the sight of this vaguely sinister excavation. If the various cranes, trucks, and digging machines seen throughout Taste of Cherry suggest a place - or a national cinema - in the process of being build up or refurbished, then the orange digger seen and heard in Cemetery of Splendor represents the inverse - a place being slowly yet surely dismantled, reduced to an increasingly inhospitable environment. As Jenjira stares, a look of undiluted shock and horror upon her face, we too are compelled to take in and remember what we see here, shaken and disturbed by these tremors of change. Apichatpong may yet reach wondrous new thresholds of discovery in the hills and wilds of Columbia, but there is still something tragic about the move, all the more because it may be just the beginning of a long and uncertain term of exile. The wind, too, will carry him, but to where, and how far away from the place he was once able to call home?


Jenjira Pongpas in Cemetery of Splendor


Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Illumination: Barry Jenkins' MOONLIGHT

Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight

The soft, warm crackle of radio waves zeroing in on Boris Gardiner's voice cheerfully singing "Every Nigger is a Star" from somewhere in the lost year of 1973; the sleek blue hood of a car gliding towards the frame, the driver smoothly maneuvering his vehicle, bringing it to a halt; the heart-racing rush as the camera, following the man, Juan (Mahershala Ali), suddenly takes off, swooping at an exhilarating speed around him as he walks across the street to meet one of his corner dealers and the customer pleading with him for a front, executed as a graceful, seamlessly coordinated revolving ballet of fluid vision, movement, and interaction that nearly makes you gasp in your seat; then a fresh jolt as the film shifts to young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) being chased by a pack of bullies, the small boy and the world through which he races reduced to an abstract blur of motion and color by way of the camera just barely keeping up with the fleeing child, relaying back to us the bare essentials of the image: white shirt, blue backpack, black boy, green wilderness.

Right there, in that astonishing, pleasurably varied succession of sensory discoveries and delights delivered in just a few minutes, writer-director Barry Jenkins, his cinematographer James Laxton, and the team of artists who worked to bring Moonlight (2016) to life, make one of their primary objectives known loud and clear: they are right there in it, in the distinct world of this film's story and characters (specifically the neighborhood of  Liberty City, Miami, where most of the action takes place), and they want you too to be right there with them, seeing and hearing and feeling this place not strictly as it is, but more as it is felt and processed by the people who live there, heightened and intensified by the tides and storms of subjective emotion that can render any place into sweetest paradise or darkest hell.

A graduate of Florida State University's film program, Jenkins gradually developed his natural talent and humanistic, multiculturally-focused worldview across a series of accomplished short films including My Josephine (2003), Little Brown Boy (2003), One Shot (2009), and Chlorophyl (2011)  as well as his 2009 feature debut Medicine for Melancholy, which has earned favorable comparisons to Agnès Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Richard Linklater's Before trilogy (1995/2004/2013). But Moonlight is something else all together, signifying a great quantum leap forward in terms of Jenkins' confidence, skill, instincts, and harmony with his fellow collaborators. Together, what they pulled off with this film legitimately amounts to nothing less than a miraculous achievement, deftly rendering Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue into the kind of viewing experience that effortlessly reawakens one's sense of wonder and respect for cinema's capabilities as an art form. The phenomenal, universally-adoring audience response, critical acclaim, and awards recognition the film has received since its 2016 release speaks as much to the outstanding quality and clarity of its craft as the timely relevance of its subject matter.

Not one to conceal his influences  - or resist a good opportunity to geek out, always with tangible and sincere love and respect, over everything from Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher (1999) and David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000) to, more recently via his active Twitter feed, Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread (2017) and Notting Hill (1999) - Jenkins has cited three filmmakers as being especially helpful in guiding him towards the best way to tell Chiron's story of self-discovery and -acceptance as a young gay black man growing up under adverse conditions. He has frequently declared Claire Denis his favorite filmmaker, drawing from her formidable examples of crystalline clarity and natural reliance on "feeling, instinct, and craft" to inform and shape his own passages of sensual, hard-edged lyricism - the way Jenkins portrays male bodies and physical contact in Moonlight isn't that far from the earthy, similarly tactile world of flesh, sand, and stone in Denis' 1999 masterpiece Beau travail (a picture posted by MUBI's Notebook of the two directors sharing a table and a bottle of red wine at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival no doubt sent cinephiles around the world into fits of euphoria). Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times (2005) gave Jenkins the idea to reorganize the temporally-shuffled events of McCraney's play into three concise parts, each one rooted in a different stage of young Chiron's life and appropriately titled with the name Chiron goes by in each stage (i. Little, ii. Chiron, iii. Black - this is a film very much bound up in the giving, using, and owning of names), while the sophisticated camerawork rendered by the Taiwanese master and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing across their many films together led Jenkins and Laxton to compose virtuoso shots like the aforementioned opener that follows Juan out of his car as well as more low-key but no less elaborate ones like the long take that depicts Chiron's entrance into Kevin's diner in Moonlight's final act. And Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong's maestro of melancholia, awakened Jenkins to the ravishing possibilities of cinema and romance, giving him the courage and faith to make Moonlight into a sumptuous, quietly expressive mood piece founded upon and driven by its characters and their carefully guarded feelings of heartache and longing. Telling traces of Wong's cinema pop up all throughout Moonlight in intriguing new forms: the bright blue, yellow, and white floral pattern worn by Chiron's mother Paula (Naomie Harris) that summons the indelible memory of Maggie Cheung's exquisite cheongsams in In the Mood for Love (2000); the smeary handheld shot of the fleeing Chiron that recalls the similarly abstract, step-printed foot chases in Chungking Express (1994); and, in a direct nod to the Buenos Aries-set gay love story Happy Together (1997), the use of Caetano Velosa's "Cucurrucucú Paloma" in the film's final act. These and other bits and pieces of Denis, Hou, and Wong embedded throughout Moonlight amount to more than simply a young filmmaker's signs of learning and gestures of appreciation for these three modern masters and the lessons their films have imparted. They also serve to remind us, as Jenkins realized through films like Chungking Express, Happy Together, and Park Chul-Soo's 301, 302 (1995), of "just how small the world is" - a realization arrived at by all of these worldly, word-class artists through their dedication to their art and the specific cultural, social, geographical, and psychological milieu of each film and the emotional worlds of the people who live there. Across works as diverse as Moonlight, Beau travail, Café Lumière (2003) and In the Mood for Love, one can clearly sense the devotion of each filmmaker and their collaborators to their chosen subjects and environments, their skills working to place us beneath the lush green palm trees and cloudy blue skies of Chiron's sweltering Miami, atop the harsh surfaces of rock, sand, and salt in Beau travail's Djibouti outpost, within the confining maze of stairwells, corridors, and rooms in Wong's tantalizing 1960s Hong Kong, and amidst the various avenues, walkways, apartments, and train stations Hou wanders through in his leisurely tours of cities ranging from Tokyo to Paris to, of course, Taipei. In all of these places, we rediscover with fresh eyes the prevalence of familiar, heart-rending human pursuits - affection, acceptance, the comfort of home and family, the intoxication of mutual desire, the agony of its elusiveness - and are invited to marvel at their myriad manifestations across this unlikely assortment of settings, characters, and circumstances - and the equally myriad ways of seeing them. Therein lies one of the sweet spots of exploring world cinema and finding artists as adventurous as these: that special place where cultural and historical specificity merges with the nebula of shared experiences and known feelings, striking chords of recognition and enlightenment alike.



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"The blackness of [Moonlight] is inherent in that I'm black, Tarell is black, the neighborhood

 is black, and Chiron is black. But, saying it's not the point doesn't mean that I'm not aware
 that we're addressing this part that relates to the specificity of our experience. There are so 
many of us now doing it that we feel like we are creating this really expansive tapestry."
                                                                                             -Barry Jenkins, Film Quarterly interview


"Let me tell you something, man. There are black people everywhere. You remember that, okay?"

                                                                                                                                   -Juan, Moonlight




Whether you want to look at it as a bonafide Black New Wave or turn to Jenkins' eloquent counter-analogy of a tapestry of individuals working on their own facets of black identity, the recent, noticeable surge in strong, complex, compelling new works by black artists tied to the black experience in contemporary America has made up one of the most exciting and inspiring phenomena in contemporary media culture. Acting as a provocative response and necessary corrective to the dominance of white culture in the entertainment landscape, this terrific rise in high-quality black cinema is a hopeful sign of positive change finally taking hold in a deeply imbalanced system: not only are there more talented and driven black artists at work and rising to deserving places of prominence and influence, but also more means, resources, and collaborators available to help complete and distribute their projects and a bigger audience than ever before eager to experience these works and uncover and support the long-neglected chapters of essential black art that have been overpowered by the white culture establishment for so long (Slate's Black Film Canon and Black Star, the TIFF Bell Lightbox's recent program of significant films in the legacy of black cinema represent encouraging measures of recognition and rediscovery in this vital sector of film history). From Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station (2013), Creed (2015), and Black Panther (2018) to Ava DuVernay's Selma (2014), 13TH (2016), and A Wrinkle in Time (2018), Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro (2016) and the ensuing resurgence of interest in the influential black writer and critic James Baldwin (which will continue with Jenkins' upcoming adaptation of Baldwin's novel If Beale Street Could Talk) to the miraculous resurrection of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991) and the work that helped make it happen, Beyoncé Knowles' astonishing visual album Lemonade (2016), to notable television series like Luke Cage, Queen Sugar, and Spike Lee's Netflix series reboot of She's Gotta Have It to the success of Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017), the tapestry of black voices and stories has indeed become especially rich and comprehensive over the past few years, and at this rate is, thankfully, bound to only keep expanding.


Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome in Moonlight

Working away in his own Floridian corner of the world, Jenkins did something particularly special, groundbreaking even, in making Moonlight: without surrendering one iota of dedication to the specificity and delicate nuance of Chiron's story, the filmmaker actively resisted the tired, harmful, stereotype-riddled methods and tropes perpetuated by Hollywood for so long in its representations of black culture, arriving instead at an array of ingenious alternatives that bring refreshing measures of dignity, artistry, and liberation to the film and set an inspiring new example for the black directors of tomorrow to follow, beginning with the bold decision to have the cast comprised entirely of black actors. In a story that wades deep into the territory of so many reductive and malignant depictions of black culture - poverty, drugs, crime - Jenkins carefully establishes this setting by way of a few brief, sufficiently vivid brush strokes - a handful of short scenes at the street corner, the quick flash of a gun, signs of wealth in the form of the cars, clothes, and jewelry displayed by Juan and, later on, the adult Chiron - then quickly moves past them to, with his actors, fully flesh out the characters and layers of feeling and personality that define and drive them, as seen in Mahershala Ali's soulful, leonine embodiment of Juan, Janelle Monáe's serene presence as his caring girlfriend Teresa, the ferocity, desperation, and sadness Naomie Harris brings to the crack-addicted single mother Paula, and the depths of pain, fear, and stifled longing conveyed by Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders as, respectively, the child and teenaged Chiron living under her care, further developed and complicated by Trevante Rhodes's heartbreaking blend of swagger and vulnerability in the film's third act. After noticing so many films in which the black actors would be covered with unflattering layers of dry, powdery makeup (a trend noticed more recently in Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit (2017)), Jenkins made Moonlight into an "oil and sheen" movie by constantly spraying down his actors so that, on camera, they would convey a look of "shiny, moist, basically revitalizing and replenishing and alive skin." Instead of loading down the film with a collection of overused hip-hop or predictable pop songs, Jenkins decided on a more eclectic soundtrack that compliments both the setting and his characters' emotions ranging from classical (Mozart, Nicholas Britell's orchestral score) to trap music (a modified version of Jidenna's "Classic Man") to Barbara Lewis. And instead of having the darker story elements dictate a "gritty," realist-miserablist style for the project, Jenkins and his teammates made an unapologetically beautiful film replete with elegant compositions, breathtaking camera movements, rich sound design, and a bright, saturated color palette that pops with bursts of lush greens, blues, violets, and, of course, a diverse spectrum of rich brown skin tones, all proving with exemplary panache that tragic circumstances shouldn't - and sometimes simply can't - blight out beauty's intense bloom in the world around us.


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"This is the story of a lifetime."

                                                                                              -Moonlight's poster tagline

While the above statement might suggest an air of ambition or even grandeur that hangs thick throughout the film it is attached to, Moonlight is in fact a feat of streamlined, naturalistic cinema, fully delivering on the promise made by that tagline in the simplest, most direct and effective manner there is. Jenkins and McCraney understand that the stuff of lifetimes (and definitely the stuff that makes great stories out of them) doesn't necessarily involve the full breadth of meaningful events, sensations, feelings, and details that accrue throughout a life. Rather, they know how to sift and sort through everything and pick out the pieces that for whatever reason linger in memory (ours and Chiron's): the group of boys running and tumbling together in boisterous, joyful play on a vast green field as a freight train passes a short distance from them, sounding its horn; Juan's first appearance before Chiron, big and bearlike but also patient and kind as he coaxes the boy from the derelict apartment where he's taken refuge from bullies; the justly iconic swimming lesson Juan gives him in the swelling waters of the Atlantic Ocean as a storm approaches above them; a rare scene of uninhibited bliss for Chiron as he energetically dances to the Performers' "Mini Skirt" all by himself before a mirror in a room packed with kids. Drawing from his and McCraney's similar, simultaneously- but separately-lived experiences growing up in the same neighborhood (just a block or so away from where Moonlight was shot) under the care of crack-addicted mothers, Jenkins also inserts some truly nightmarish images that haunt Chiron into adulthood, the most vivid of which being the sinister purple light that pours from Paula's room when she is caught in the grip of her addiction, staring and screaming at her son like a ferocious wraith. Her betrayal of Chiron, and Juan's by selling drugs to her, become hard lessons in the elusiveness of true trust, already so scarce in the pressurized environment of incessant homophobic taunting through which he must pass day after day, that will only be match by the tragic role his friend and potential romance Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) plays in the ambush set by high school bully Terrel (Patrick Decile) in the middle chapter, all leading Chiron further down his lonely road of fear, self-reliance, and extreme wariness of others.

As the film slips across the years via the points of blue and red light that skip and flash across a field of black between the film's chapters, we take note of the jarring changes that have overtaken the characters in their respective journeys, gradually registering significant absences, signs of growth and deterioration, adjustments in attitude and consistencies in character. True to the heavenly body of its title, Moonlight fully illustrates the ongoing cycles of repetition and change that make up the flow of time, bringing about lunar phases and the swelling and receding of the tides in a constant dance of regularity and variation. So it is with Chiron, who learns to hide his true self behind a protective cloak of silence, then all but buries it when he adopts the name Kevin bestows upon him in the second act, Black, emulating Juan as he too moves into a life of crime, adorning muscles, bling, and swagger that just barely hides the insecurity and sensitive sweetness that still lie within him like veins of silver in the bedrock of hardened masculinity. Even more than Juan or Teresa, Kevin is especially determined to help Chiron break out of his shell, popping up in his path at oddly opportune moments to seemingly guide him to the formative sexual experiences of his life (at times I wonder just how coincidental these occurrences actually are - just how neglectful was young Kevin (Jaden Piner) of the lock on the door Chiron finds and opens? What was teenage Kevin doing at the beach that night?), culminating in that pivotal moment at the water's edge, where a joint shared in the soft, pale glow of the moon, waves lapping at the beach's edge in the darkness, and the closeness of the two boys sitting together in the sand all merge into a dreamlike moment of open, shared affection.


Trevante Rhodes and André Holland in Moonlight

Years later, when Kevin (André Holland) calls Chiron out of the blue and invites him to his diner, the currents of life have taken the two men to different, separate places, delivering to Kevin a relationship that has run its course, a child of his own, a decent job he works with tangible dedication and pride, a newfound sense of responsibility, appreciation, and acceptance of what life has given him, and a firm grasp on who he is and where he is in his life. With Chiron's entrance into Kevin's restaurant - the whole film seems to build towards the ring of the small bell above the door - Jenkins dives head-on into the stuff of classic Wong Kar-Wai and never looks back, distilling years of lost time and unrequited yearning into the moving expressions of genuine surprise and delight that come over Kevin upon seeing his friend again (Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders' editing and Rhodes and Holland's performances all throughout this splendid sequence comprise a veritable symphony of layered emotion and crackling chemistry), the incredibly tender embrace the two exchange following the initial jolt of recognition, the sweet sound of Barbara Lewis' "Hello Stranger" played on a jukebox(!). Then there is the quintessentially Wongian convergence of food and romance: after numerous scenes in which Chiron is offered and served food, we finally get a good look at what he is eating when Kevin offers to cook him a special dish, the camera lavishing nearly as much attention as Kevin does upon a lime squeezed over something sizzling away on the griddle; a cup of fresh rice carefully placed onto a plate, making an appetizing white dome; a scoop of some delicious-looking blueberry creation ladled next to it. Chiron's persistent reluctance to speak throughout the meal and two bottles of red wine Kevin brings out isn't rude of off-putting so much as it is quietly devastating, anchored in his lifelong wariness of revealing his true self, his extreme hesitation to do so to the person he cares the most about, even though Kevin all but radiates the promise of true, unconditional acceptance (even as he expresses disappointment over Chiron's descent into the gangster lifestyle and the superficial trappings of gold fronts and a flashy car that it brought him). As you watch his eyes and face tell a different story than what his words and attire say about him, the real him, it becomes a simple matter of you so wanting Chiron to finally remove his armor and let the right one in.

Thankfully, we leave Chiron feeling fairly confident that, with some help, he will finally find some solace from all the silent suffering he has been through. He has arrived at a new place of acceptance of his true self and feelings, and also one of genuine happiness, one step closer to freeing himself of the burdens of shame, guilt, and fear that have followed him for so long, there on a fresh, moon-lit plane of his life. The dual impact of Moonlight's significant achievements as both a visceral, immaculately crafted cinematic experience and an invaluable humanist work that revitalizes the conventions of black and gay film leaves us with a similar feeling of hope and inspiration for the road ahead, which now seems a little clearer, lit by the bright, silvery sheen of pure cinema.