Pure Cinema: New Films by Celan, Zonca and Jarmusch
It's not that I'm indifferent to the new Star Trek movie--I'm so keyed up about it, I can scarcely type, what with my fingers locked in a Vulcan salute--but as the deadline for this article approaches, Paramount has not yet invited me to a screening, so I can't tell you on which notch the picture's been set: stun, kill or fizz. What to do? I suppose I'll have to report that the most exciting new film I've actually seen is a hand-crafted, microbudget production featuring four no-name actors speaking Turkish.
Although the doom of the art house lies upon it, this adventuresome film is presented in CinemaScope format, deploys special effects throughout (that is, postproduction adjustments to the photography) and draws you into many strange and mind-altering spaces--so it's not entirely unlike a science-fiction blockbuster.
There's even a thematic link to Star Trek, which (according to the trailer) has something to do with a young man's sense of responsibility toward his father. So, too, does Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys--although here the comparisons end. The crosscurrents of debts and evasions, guilty secrets and frustrated desires are so dense among all of Ceylan's characters that they seem to generate an atmosphere of their own: an envelope of heavy clouds shot through with electrical discharges, hanging over an alien world where we all happen to live.
Call it Istanbul. On the outskirts, overlooking the railroad tracks and a sea busy with freighters, stands the stalk of an isolated old apartment building, about five stories tall and one room deep. Here, edging past one another, live a handsome middle-aged woman named Hacer (Hatice Aslan), her layabout late-adolescent son, Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), and her thick-bodied, gravely mustached husband, Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl), who works as a driver for a political figure. The family can go up to the roof to watch storms gather or maybe contemplate jumping. They can eat lunch at a table jammed against the window and ignore the framed view of the sea, which resembles a picture postcard of a place they won't visit, though they're already there. They can spy on one another. (It can't be avoided.) And they can experience the change in atmosphere, inside and out, when the husband is subtracted from this place and then returns, almost a year later, having made a sacrifice for Hacer and Ismail--or perhaps having made a sacrifice of them.
Eyüp has accepted a bargain that was offered, or demanded, by his boss Servet (Ercan Kesal), who at the start of Three Monkeys has killed a man in a hit-and-run accident and thinks that with the elections coming up, it's not an auspicious moment to turn himself in. If Eyüp will take the blame for him, Servet will continue to pay his salary and then will provide a large cash bonus upon his release from jail. An outrageous proposition, semi-feudal in tone, made by a man who has the head of Mussolini and the bluster to match; and Eyüp, who's been roused from his bed before dawn, scarcely hesitates before nodding his creased and weary face.
It's as if he'd given in beforehand. Over the next months, in his absence, Eyüp's wife and son will struggle not to be such pushovers.
But as Ceylan knows, the decisive acts in our lives are often the ones we don't carry out: the brushoff that Hacer doesn't give Servet, the insistent cellphone call that she doesn't answer, the prison visit that Ismail doesn't make, the familial violation that he doesn't confront. To an astonishing degree, Three Monkeys is made up of such non-occurrences, which Ceylan has a freakish talent for converting into endlessly sustained moments of intense drama. The violence in his characters' lives, though omnipresent, has always already happened or is only now about to occur. You see it on the living room floor, in drops of blood that have fallen from Ismail's injured hand (the injury unexplained, the blood unmentioned), or on the kitchen counter, in a knife that is trembling in the breeze, literally, as if demanding to be used. And when Eyüp returns, sex too is deferred, and threatened, and made indistinguishable from the potential for murder, in a breathtakingly protracted scene that keeps two characters on top of each other, and the camera on top of the actors, and you on top of the customer in the row ahead.
What is it about Three Monkeys that pulls you out of yourself? The answer, which marks this film as pure cinema, is "Everything at once." Where other directors might set the scene with an establishing shot, Ceylan uses sound. Where others would use sound to fill out the emotional volume of a sequence, Ceylan uses editing. And where others would introduce a car crash, Ceylan holds the camera steady on Hatice Aslan's face and lets her show you the light going out of her eyes. There isn't an element, a gesture, a moment of Three Monkeys that doesn't lock in with the others and feel true--even when the emphatically real environment of the movie turns other-worldly and the atmosphere of the family apartment becomes even thicker with the addition of a ghost.
This film is set on "stun."
You could hire Tilda Swinton to put on a funny outfit and represent herself, as one of the coolest people you could invite into a movie; or you could hire her to create a character, which she can do right down to the fillings in her teeth. The distinction between these two approaches is more or less the difference between Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control (in its way, another exercise in pure cinema) and Erick Zonca's Julia, which is as impure as the tailpipe of an '87 Buick, and all the better for it.
The writer-director of a brilliant 1998 debut feature, The Dreamlife of Angels, Zonca subsequently fell into a decade of silence. Now, with Julia, he's come roaring back with a long, harrowing, deliberately ungainly picture: part character study of a middle-aged, middle-class alcoholic careening toward the bottom in Los Angeles, and part thriller about an addlebrained kidnapping scheme, which is just competent enough to leave a 9-year-old boy in this woman's unsteady hands. Early reviewers noted with disapproval a superficial resemblance to Cassavetes's Gloria, in which a ferocious Gena Rowlands went on the lam with a child. (As Brahms retorted, when critics said the big song in his first symphony sounded like "Ode to Joy," "Any ass can get that.") I've also read complaints that the title character in Julia is too unredeemable; that she's too easily redeemed; that Zonca had no business making a movie in Los Angeles; that he should have kept the action in Los Angeles, rather than carry it into Tijuana; and that mainstream audiences (here comes the commercial imperative) won't sit through anything this tough.
How timid these objections seem, next to the spectacle of Swinton throwing herself recklessly into a character who throws herself recklessly against life. Almost unrecognizable in the first scene in her trolling-the-bars get-up, complete with glitter-dusted eyelids and a skimpy paillette dress, Swinton defines Julia by taking a blurry pause amid a crush of revelers, as if she'd forgotten why she was on her feet, and then launching herself forward again with an upward swoop of the arm (the one not holding the drink). The next morning finds her staggering out of a strange man's car; but it's a good car and he's wearing a suit, and so this opening degradation is actually Julia's high point. From here, using her amazing store of nervous energy, bile and bad judgment, she will make every disastrous situation instantly worse. When she's blown her job through chronic drunkenness and vituperation, she will borrow a financial plan from a psycho. When she's two thousand dollars in debt to a drug dealer, she will think it's a good idea to make it three. When she fears that cops on the street may be watching her, she will get rid of the uncertainty by stealing a car at gunpoint. Everything Julia does is appalling; and given Swinton's jittery, sweaty, dry-mouthed, lie-spewing performance, everything about her is immediate and physical.
In interviews, Zonca has claimed he got the idea for this character from a Helmut Newton photograph of a beautiful red-haired woman driving a BMW. "I immediately wanted to confront this glamorous image with something more violent," he has said, putting himself in the tradition of pretense-hating moralists. This attitude might have seemed corny when Julia had its premiere at the Berlin festival early last year; but since then, people have grown newly critical of the scams and excesses of the would-be rich. It's possible that audiences now will find pleasure, and even meaning, in watching a busted corporate player (in real estate, no less) drive herself into the wall and then keep going. But Julia also offers something like the elemental pleasure of drunkenness itself: a crazy, dirty vitality, which stops only with the blackout and then can get restarted with the next sip of vodka.
This vitality is what I miss in Jarmusch's The Limits of Control.
A kind of philosophical scavenger hunt through Spain, The Limits of Control stars Isaach De Bankolé as a lone, still, nameless secret agent who passes from place to place, rendezvous to rendezvous, receiving coded instructions and deep thoughts from a series of contemporary cinema's hippest actors. Tilda Swinton is one. The others include Gael García Bernal, John Hurt, Hiam Abbass, Alex Descas, Paz de la Huerta and the man himself, Bill Murray. Here are the singular personalities you're supposed to have in a movie. And here, too, are the other ingredients: suggestive objects and mysterious utterances, varied settings and gratuitous nudity, a musical performance, a threat of violence and much conspicuously gorgeous cinematography to capture them all. (The man with the camera is Christopher Doyle, who once again proves why "the great" is now part of his name.) This is about as pure, and self-conscious, as cinema gets--and so that you don't miss the point, Swinton's contribution to the code-talk is a speech about the joy of watching movies.
You could call this playful; or, if you're in my chair, you could say it's airless, repetitive and artificial. I ask, The limits of whose control? Not Jarmusch's, unfortunately. The epigraph he's chosen, from Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat," raises the hope of unmoored filmmaking: images and sounds more discovered than made, recorded on a voyage that has slipped out of hand. But in the end, the controllers referred to are the usual men in suits, whom Jarmusch opposes with buttoned-up bohemianism. He's made a pure object of modern art, all right; but ceci n'est pas un film.
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Your May Day Parade of Cinema: If you have grown nostalgic for actually existing socialism, or are too young to have known it firsthand, Anthology Film Archives invites you to step into a republic of balalaika orchestras, scientific beet farming, ringing proletarian dramas and voluntarily surpassed steel quotas, as seen in Sergei Loznitsa's documentary Revue. As in his 2006 film Blockade, Loznitsa re-creates a lost world by piecing together extraordinary archival footage, presented with no commentary other than telling juxtapositions. But whereas Blockade seemed to transport you into the siege of Leningrad, Revue is about happier and more confident times in the Soviet Union. Comrade Khrushchev addresses words of encouragement to the regional agricultural workers; Yuri Gagarin rides proletarian optimism into the skies; smiling though gloveless men (carted in from an undisclosed location) build roads across frozen Siberia; and first graders in a small-town school begin learning about the socialist future, which they have now outlived by twenty years.
Fascinating, droll, touching and mordant, Revue is having its New York theatrical premiere at Anthology from May 13 to 19, as part of a small retrospective of the films of Loznitsa. Moviegoers who cannot make it to Anthology may want to know that Revue is also available on DVD, released by Icarus Films.