Aug 20, 2007

The Light Warrior

Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha, The Shadow Warrior (1980) is not only about the philosophic meaning of a man's shadow but also about a powerful poetry with shadows experienced through behaviors and cinematic landscapes. Is not a coincidence that shadows are a constant in most of the shots. Just in the first shot we can see a dark ambient illuminated by a candle and a kind of magic source, creating different shadows as a "mother image" that anticipates what will be experienced through the whole film: ambition, submission, war and... shadows.

The light is justified in this first shot by that candle in the middle of the scene, even when we know that there is more light in the ambient that a candle can give. Kurosawa repeats the use of a magic source masterfully. He never shows ceilings, and especially in those Japanese scenarios, we never know if the characters are in a closed or open space. Every kind of houses and castles have the possibility of rooms without ceilings, gardens or courtyards. Thus, the director can play with the idea of a light coming from a lantern, a high lamp, a streetlight, or the moon. The fire is another resource that is used aesthetically powerful--and also appropriate for that age. There is a beautiful shot with the soldiers waiting outside the castle at night, near a tall old wall and some mountains, where big bonfires allow the hit of huge orange key lights mixed with soft blue fill lights justified by the moon's presence.

Maybe the most amazing -and famous- shot in the film is where the soldiers march under the sunlight in the dawn, where due to a sun just becoming visible, different kind of shadows are created and converted into giant soldiers. One more time the importance and detail in the cinematography and lighting generate new meanings. The shadow of an emperor, the shadow of the soldiers, the shadow of natural resources, are all over there unavoidably. In this specific shot the soldiers carry on big flags, most of them perpendicular to the sunlight, maybe used as reflection sources. The shadows are also used to emphasize the power of the character and his oratory. A great example is a discourse told by the Takeda's leader Shingen (brilliantly interpreted by Tatsuya Nakadai). While he talks under a light coming from a mysterious ceiling and some candles, the rest of the clan is seated in rows confronting him scarcely illuminated in the darkness. The shadows of the clan members are big enough to show that even when a fundamental figure is recognized as a leader, all of them are crouching tigers ready to emerge at any given moment.

The final battle arrives, in an open space during the day. Some shots are illuminated by the natural sun, others are opaque due to the presence of clouds, but all of them are like wonderful paintings--as most of the original Kurosawa's storyboards. Like any other Kurosawa's film, this story converges ambiguity, different layers, aesthetic splendor and powerful meanings: beneath the shadows lies the light.

Aug 13, 2007

Japón Sublime

“Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images”
(Exodus 20:4-6)

A black square fades to distorted images with blurred colors and lights. A distorted sound catches our attention. A few seconds later, we know that the images and sounds are those of cars waiting inside a tunnel. As they move, we see a white light in the distance, like the light of a near-death experience. A mother-image gives birth to a magically sublime story about a trip to death and the unavoidable encounter with life--and vice-versa. According to Jean-François Lyotard in Postmodernism, A Reader (1992, Ed. Thomas Docherty), the sublime can’t be put in words, representations or conventional forms. Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas does a great job in his opera prima representing the sublime with a defiant cinematic language. Released in 2003, Japón (Japan) features a nameless antihero (Alejandro Ferretis). Reygadas said that he wanted to have his film untitled too--perhaps the sublime can’t be named either. With a rough profile and an arthritic limp, this man in his fifties travels to a small and special village deep in the Mexican hills, to kill himself. In that difficult trip he meets Ascen (Magdalena Flores), a woman in her eighties that invites him as a guest to her humble home. Before arriving to the small village in the State of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City, a hunter tells him: -“The devil loads weapons and idiots shoot them…” The man won’t be able to commit suicide. He is not an idiot, and he is blessed finding in the elderly and extremely kind Ascen a stunning salvation.

The constantly and marvelous spiraling camera movements shot by the Argentine cinematographer Diego Martínez Vignatti (also in his first long feature) causes no dizziness. On the contrary, the viewer can admire in the midst each amazing spot. As Reygadas said: “…I wanted to show all around… even in unmoving objects the world continues.” Shot in 16mm with anamorphic lens (another distortion of reality), the camera shakes during long trips; alternating between stillness and movement, sometimes blinding us with bright white light, other times with absolute black darkness. Similarly, Kasimir Malevich represented with white or black squares the sublime or un-representable, like emptiness or infinite. Making it impossible to see, it pleases only by causing pain. According to Kant’s aesthetics, beautiful can’t be something defined “a priori”. He argues that the sublime is an emotion that carries with it both pleasure and pain. With this ambiguity the Man and Ascen develop a powerful relationship as difficult to describe or show as the sublime itself. Reygadas makes, as Lyotard says, an allusion to the unpresentable (Kant’s “formlessness”) by means of visible representations. In a strange and almost magical effect the trees seem to shake and dance with the music, with a nature more alive than ever against the presence of death, evoking the unseen.

The unavoidable passage of time, roughness, memories, and permanent obstacles are symbolized through stones, beginning with the opening Japón title over a stone-strewn route. The man walks through those stones during his daily walks, with a sacrifice necessary to reach the sublime. Ascen, not only generous but almost holy, became an object of a paradox between sin and redemption while she accepts the man’s proposal of sexual intercourse before he abandons the village. A complex link is traced between the scene of two horses mating in front of many children, and the sexual scene between Ascen and the man, joining the private and the public, instinct and intention. She accepts but only if the act is postponed for the next day. He prepares at home anxiously and she goes to the church. Like a virgin, she appears in her home naked. And one of the most strange, strongly emotional, beautiful and tense sexual scenes of all times puts us on the limit again: pain and pleasure, rejection but desire, ugliness and beauty, anxiety and relaxation. Like in a first sexual encounter ever, difficult and emotionally painfully, love and lust go together, and guilt appears. He cries as a boy in his naked mother’s arms, while the Oedipus myth emerges. Ascen saves the man with a Christian sacrifice and reward, and she saves herself with her last opportunity for pleasure. Death and life merge. In one second, he is thirty years older. She becomes thirty years younger. This event marks a new destiny that drives them in opposite directions: he survives and she dies.

Constantly reaching for nature, from the beginning the presence of dead animals offer the viewer not only more death but also an immediate contact with a realism that becomes postmodernist by challenging some cinematic rules. Robert Bresson talked about actors only as human models in Notes on the Cinematographer (1975): “The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me, and above all, what they do not suspect is in them.” The film was totally performed by non-actors; the landscapes, weather events, and virginity take us back to basics. With a crass treatment between the village inhabitants--and the animals--as a natural law, the film chafes another challenging limit between the documentary and the fiction form. First we see a villager explaining something difficult to understand almost directing his view to the camera. Then the arrival of more residents to be witnesses gives more raw beauty and awkwardness to the strange moment. A long line of kids passes in front of the man, looking also to the camera, symbolizing hope in some way.

Lyotard says that “the avant-gardes are perpetually flushing out artifices of presentation which make it possible to subordinate thought to the gaze and to turn it away from the unpresentable.” Reygadas, in his own avant-garde and defying another rule, includes a great moment where a drunken person not only sings so out of tune--that the song becomes also sublime--but also he says in search of more drinks: -“They don’t invite us to anything… the people from the film.” More strange moments occur, declaring that life in itself is mysterious and many things have no explanation. The man is a painter that doesn’t stop painting, maybe as a way to survive. Ascen discovers a book about paintings. The man asks, “Which is the drawing you said you like so much?” Ascen chooses an abstract one with white squares (what looks to be a Malevich painting). He laughs. “I love comics”, she explains. This dialogue, one of the strangest in the film, takes us to a surreal trip, like when they suddenly take each of their hands in front of the fire, or when the man fails at suicide and falls aside a dead horse while rain mixes with blood.

An angelical film score perfectly chosen strengthens these scenes: Johann Sebastian Bach (from "St. Matthew's Passion"), Arvo Pärt (from "Miserere" and "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten") and Dmitri Shostakovich (from "Symphony No.15, Op.14"). Reygadas explains that he was always thinking about sound. With models like Andrei Tarkovsky being a master in subjective sound, and Abbas Kiarostami a master in objective sound, Reygadas goes beyond, constantly crossing between the score being listened by the man or Ascen on headphones, to the music as film score. Then, it's suddenly broken by a hunter screaming to the kids: “Shut up we are trying to listen to some music.” The silence becomes present too, especially when images are everything: the man masturbates dreaming of a strange woman while kissing Ascen on a beach. Later we see the reality of Ascen kissing Jesus Imagery. Love and religion, nature and death, landscapes and paintings melted in a new dimension, all of them touching the sublime as we witness the raw beauty from the sky.

A person with disabilities comes to Ascen -confirming her power to save- asking for help to tie his shoes, and then we see him eating an apple with his feet. Disability is shown as normality in a place where everybody has his own disabilities. The man travels to end his own, but finds life. Ascen travels in search of more life and finds death in a trip that comes full circle; with different landscapes and a new point of view, a trip to a new unavoidable destiny. Simple in dialogue but complex in emotion, Reygadas’s work is a reflection of his main film influences, as he said: “you got so much emotion watching a car from a distance moving around… there’s a lot of things happening there… much more than two cars chasing each other and burning bridges, and crushing, and running over people”. Simple things are kings in the indomitable terrain of the sublime. A western hara-kiri, a source of living haikus, love for an elderly, quietness, vastness, maybe a disconnected title, a place far away, a rising sun after the storm, and mainly cinema itself imposing art over film industry laws, convert this film into Japanese philosophy. In his book Japan: Strategy of the Unseen (1987), Michel Random recounts his visit to the house of an important former General from the Japanese Army. He found a variety of artifacts from diverse countries. Then he asked the General: “What is Japanese here?” The General replied: “The invisible”… like the sublime.

Aug 6, 2007

Interview: Jorge Gaggero

While Live-In Maid (original title Cama Adentro) was released in the U.S. I met Jorge Gaggero, its writer and director, thanks to Cinema Tropical. We had a very long conversation in a traditional American diner on 9th Ave & 33rd St to talk about Argentine traditions.

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

Pablo Goldbarg: This is your first feature. Tell me please how the story came up, and how did you get the funds and actors.

Jorge Gaggero: In August of 2000. I studied in the U.S. at the American Film Institute. I was coming back to Argentina, and it really came just before this big economical collapse. And I was coming back to make mi first film. I realized that I couldn’t afford to make a very complex and it would be the one I would be making next (laughs). I remember I thought about this relationship for a while. I was at a party and the whole story appeared in my head, and I started writing it and checking if my idea would be possible to become a movie. I was always interested in this kind of relationship, because in my house there was a maid, and in my best friend’s house also, and it was a very strong figure for us as kids; they were very important. Our parents were professionals working outside the house, and we spend a lot of time with them. Also it was a way to learn about another world, another culture. They came from other provinces or countries. I thought there wasn’t a place in cinema for them, and there weren’t many movies thinking about this theme or relationship, at least these particularities in Latin America. I started writing the script and it took me two years. When I finished it we sent it to Norma Aleandro. I thought about making a smaller movie, because Norma Aleandro at that time was the biggest actress in Argentina, but she read the script and she loved it, and she wanted to be part of it. That helped in a way to get some finance. Then the other challenge was to find Dora, the other character. My idea was to look for real maids. I wouldn’t find in an actress all the things that I wanted. Perhaps you could do it if you have a few years to train an actress, but it was impossible with our budget in Argentina. We casted like a thousand women all around the country—maids and housekeepers. We were lucky to find her in San Luis. She was a real maid just coming from work, and it was great. I think both women made the film.

P.G.: So, tell me about the experience of working with a non-professional together with one of the most professional actresses in Argentina.

J.G: In my short films I worked many times with non-actors and I was confident about it: if you cast well, it will gonna happen. And if you go slowly too, because with an actress you go through it in the set and you do the thing. I took like a year to know her (Norma Argentina). One month before the first day of shooting we met every day and worked. For me it’s one of the most interesting things about movies: the power to understand the uniqueness of each person and try to find the way to work with them, in a way that helps them for better. It was completely different the way I worked with Aleandro and Argentina. Aleandro is an actress, writer and she directs theatre. It was more like an intellectual work with the text and finding coincidences and other things. With Argentina was more instinctual and more aware of sensations, bodies, and making her confidence about her capabilities to spread things. Aso I worked with her to understand Dora’s different facets and moods. But she was such an intelligent woman, at the age of 66 to have that challenge it was really great. It would be fascinating f I would make a movie about all the changes that she had since I met her as a maid and now.

P.G.: What can you say about going to Sundance and Tolousse, two of the film festivals that Live-In Maid participated and even received awards?

J.G.: I couldn’t go to Tolousse but I was able to go to Sundance, which was very supportive of the film since early stages. I sent the script to the Screenwriters Lab (Sundance/NHK), it was finalist, and then when I had the movie ready they also wanted to screen it. It was the first year it was an international competition in Sundance, and it won the Special Jury award. In a way it helped the movie to come to the US today. I never expected that. It’s getting a lot of reactions in the US. Sundance is a nice place. It still has some kind of warm about the real thing of making movies. I hope it never lose the spirit.

P.G.: Talking about the experience in the U.S., your movie was picked up by Film Forum, and then it had an amazing review in the New York Times. I wonder if that’s a kind of flattery and pride for you. Can you tell me a little more about this current trip to New York?

J.G.: Yes, it’s really overwhelming. You make a film and you never expect this kind of reaction. I like the greetings and the things that happened. At the end, well, I deserved a little part of that. You have a great team, great actresses, I worked so hard… the film was possible for so many persons: people who worked, who saw it, who recommended it…To be here right now is amazing. It’s probably the most interesting thing. The critics are really useful to get the film known, and the film is still alive in some people. It’s about communication. When you feel that the critique is different and it catches some of the emotions in the film it helps people to find the movie, or the critic has the talent to express some of the things that shocked them it’s very important, because it’s the only way for these small films to reach its audience. I feel blessed. Also this city… New York always responds to these movies very nice.

P.G.: You said in another interview that you need to live a dialogue with the audience to finish the process-- with the film. How was the reception of the film in Argentina?

J.G.: In Argentina it was very well, it was kind of strange, because it was an opening with only ten copies and all the theaters were packed. The interesting thing is that it was a movie that people went to the bars and kept on talking about it in a way. I squeezed in some bars and it was amazing. Also it was a movie that in Argentina some people segregated, because if you have a big actress for some people it’s not an independent film anymore. There is a pre-judgment in it. But the people that really saw it got a nice energy. You have to get into the movie. I wanted to work this very thin path of the complexity of this relationship without being too “teacher”. I wanted to leave it with no conclusion, to leave it to the people to talk about how they see both characters, how much they see about their friendship, how much exploitation they see (laughs). In a way I wanted the audience to feel the movie, to get emotions, and reflect about these two women and their conditions. It was a challenge and I think I afford to make it. That’s the best thing… then, who knows? Now it’s public…

P.G.: What can you say about arts in general –in this case, film—as a response to social crisis?

J.G.: Always it’s inspiring. You reflect some things you try to live and happen next to you. In my case is “ten blows away”. I made two movies and they happened--God bless-- where I used to live, but I think in the film the crisis is an excuse. We always live in some kind of crisis. That pushes you forward, and that’s a good thing. At least something it’s common. The most important thing is that you have this external situation, and everybody thinks it’s external and how we could be as a country in this situation. In the film, what I wanted to achieve was to think about how much of that crisis are us. How much of Beba is the crisis? It’s not because the crisis, it’s because of Beba! (laughs), or something that Beba does… the crisis always pushes you a little bit further. You can’t hold it anymore and something breaks, and that’s good. It’s the consequences of something you built, in a way, or you let people build. My cinema tries to explore how everyday life affects us --the good and the bad ones (laughs). In everybody there is racism, in everybody there is violence. We are constantly fighting and trying to understand. I like character-driven stories; my cinema is very intimate.

P.G.: This story, as you say, is very character-oriented. Probably the screenplay and the acting are the most important elements you have in this film. Did you imagine that since the beginning or did you suffer some kind of transformation during shooting?

J.G.: Of course it suffered transformation, thanks God, because otherwise it would be so boring to make a film if you know from the beginning what you want to have. Yes, you have intuition, and you want some things aesthetically. But the good thing it’s that the process of filmmaking is so open until you finish the movie. And it still is after, depending of how you see it (laughs). I imagined this kind of energy, this mix of drama and humor. I tried to not have any pre-judgment about how the movie should be. First feature, two women touching the 60’s, an apartment, it was hard to me… the critics saying “what is this young guy doing with these themes?”. It was a strange first film, but I really believed in it. It’s that: to not have pre-judgments and enjoy it, and let all the energy and life get into it, and try things, and make new things. I’m really happy and proud. It was better than the ambition I had about it, probably because I let everybody contribute to it.

P.G.: Why did you decide to not use music?

J.G.: It was one of the most difficult decisions. I haven’t heard it, and that’s it. Even the producers wanted to put music at one point, but I refused it. Also when I tried music in some scenes I realized –perhaps because I didn’t find the right piece—that if I put music in this film I cut a lot of layers beneath this complex one-to-one. Music could drive me to a comedy or a drama or something else, and I didn’t want to drive to any secure place. Music is art in itself, and sometimes it could be misunderstood. Instead of complementing a moment or making it more interesting, it could suppress it. It was happening with this film. I love some films with music, and I love music itself. But you have to hear it or you have to find some work that really goes with the spirit of the movie and it’s very difficult.

P.G.: The storyline has a particular slow transformation. How did you work with the rhythm and tell me about some influences that you think may affect this?

J.G.: Rhythm is everything for this movie, because the plot is so small, and it’s built with even smaller things. In the editing we found the final rhythm. It was thought in the shooting. The screenplay was really careful about it, with all the speeches and silences. It creates all these moments and these pauses. Even with no music, I have a better ear than a good eye (laughter). Part of this was produced in the editing… About the influences, I always thought in John Cassavetes for this movie, in the way relationships happen in his films. I love that intensity and they way he understood relationships and human beings. Perhaps other influence and his humor is Roman Polanski, like in The Tenant. I have in mind these directors but I didn’t pretend to make similar films. Also I watched Joseph Losey’s The Servant, and I had to see all these films related with the film, but I never wanted to go there, and the references are more intellectual, and how you understand things. Aesthetically I wanted to find my own way.

P.G.: Tell me about the lessons you learned in your first feature, and your next project.

J.G.: Perhaps the only lesson is that filmmaking has no rules. To work hard on an idea, trying ideas as deep as you can. Let the shooting surprise you anyway (laughs). In a way, again and again with my shorts, things started to feel less fearful about the whole thing. It’s about digging and persisting, and if you do that it could be good or bad but you make it, and you finish the process, and it’s about that process. Each film has its own process. Then, be ready for the next one, although it’s not easy either. The next project is called La Seguridad de los Perros (Dog Security), and it’s a very challenging and different movie. It has eight leads and different stories. It happens in one neighborhood--close to where I live. It’s a very different film from Live-In Maid. I’m looking forward to try some different films.

P.G.: Thank you very much, you were very kind.

J.G.: Thank you.

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