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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Angel's Egg (1985/Oshii)


Pre-credit sequence (shot for shot; 5min48s) :
  1. Two hands in close up, one vanishes, the other one clench its fist.
  2. A translucent egg mounted on a wire pedestal, against dark clouds.
  3. Close up of the bird's eye that was inside the egg. The eyelashes twitch.
  4. Medium shot of the Man carrying a weapon on his shoulder, against a red sky with mechanical machinery behind him.
  5. Panning laterally over an empty sky with red clouds.
  6. Static shot of mechanical machinery pointing all toward the top right corner.
  7. Panning vertically over an empty sky with red clouds until an eyeball-looking spaceship slowly descends in the frame.
  8. Rows and rows of statuesque bodies standing on the surface of the ship.
  9. Close up a row of statues.
  10. Organ pipes steam machinery in a canted angle.
  11. Close up of the pipes blowing steam.
  12. Wide shot of the ship landing on the sea, with the Man turning his back to us watching it in the middle ground. Mechanical machinery in the foreground. As the landing disperses white vapor, the silhouette of the Man clashes with its cape blowing in the wind.
  13. Close medium shot of the Man facing us. "Who are you?"
  14. Rows of statues inside. 
  15. Rows of statues outside.
  16. Black screen. With a siren blowing.
  17. Close up of the Girl waking up.
  18. She gets out of bed dragging the sheet with her, revealing a big egg underneath.
  19. Overlooking shot of a stone bed surrounded by giant astronomical instruments.
  20. Low-angle shot of Her climbing stairs to exit.
  21. She appears through a round occulus. Wind in the hair.
  22. Landscape shot of a coastal city in the distance. Red clouds.
  23. Profile of the pensive Girl.
  24. Black screen. Credits.
24 shots in 348sec that's an ASL of 14,5 sec for the prologue alone. (see a list of ASL here) That's an editing style that lands between In The Mood For Love (2001) and Old Joy (2005)

This opening sequence is less perplexing than the film itself, and only introduces the two lone protagonists. First the enigmatic Man. Secondly, the little Girl and her egg. They are in separate locations, but it forebodes their eventual meet-up as the only spoken words are a flash-forward of the little Girl asking the Man who he is (which he will answer by the same question). Otherwise this introduction uses purely visual imagery and a musical score (or simply silence and diegetic sounds) to install the story.
A simple accumulation of wordless images to create an atmosphere of mystery and enchantment like a fairy tale. The environment seems a bit out of context, without any lively presence, without a population (except the fishermen and the tanks later on in the anime), without any sign of an outside world. And the final shot of the film (a homage to Tarkovsky's Solyaris; 1972 final shot), confirms it's a small world closed on itself.

The powerful symbols are all present from the beginning: The egg with the fetus-like chick embryo inside, symbol of fecundity. The Man with a big stick, a cross, symbol of virility and death. The eye-ball ship symbol of Noah's ark. The little innocent Girl, symbol of purity and faith. And the steam-punk environment, symbol of a decadent industrial world.
The first image might appear cryptic with the two hands becoming one which crushes onto itself. That could be interpreted as a summary of the film : two protagonists meeting with a distance between them. One vanishes and the other is crushed by force (the egg of the Girl).


Not much more is happening in the film, yet it is a fascinating journey through stylistic drawings, barely mobile, and a longing choir of laments. Mamoru Oshii enjoys animating this world, especially to move the attached white hair of the Man and the long white hair of the Girl. There are exquisite shots of strands of hair filling the screen, in an Art Nouveau style from the 1900s. Angel's Egg is Oshii's Ghost in the Shell's contemplative younger sibling.


How to review a contemplative film? How to write a contemplative text?

We could start by a run down of the opening sequence, but that's not a given. It's always a good start though, as the thorough description accompanies the entry into the review like the film does. With as much and as little information as is shown on the images themselves. The reader gets a sense of the universe encompassing this film and gets introduced to key elements (that might be metaphoric, meaning symbolic, or metonymic, a part for the whole). The elements are key to the prologue, but not necessarily key to the story. Because re-telling a "story" with plot-points and articulations is denaturing the natural flow of time between these elements. It doesn't make sense to summarize such a film, because it's a redactorial process that excerpts key-frames where something is happening and eludes all the dead-times where the pace of the film is pulsing its distinctive aura. Contemplative films don't fare well with pitch, abstract, summary, blurb unless it's contemplative writing that doesn't try to simplify its contemplative mode of narration. For instance, a haiku is a short poem that eschews explanation and describes elusively. That could be a potent blurb for a contemplative film. But generally the long form is more appropriate, in order to match the long sentences with the long takes, to take your time describing as the film takes its time recording images. Just to put the readers in the right atmospherical mood and not press them in a race to the finish line, zapping from one reveal to the next, telling the ending, devising some politics... A contemplative film is not a book. It's not reduced to its character study, its psychology, it's dialogue, its plot points, it's moral. And like a piece of cinema it must be reviewed in images and sounds, which corresponds to its mode of storytelling, paced and attentive.

What we ought not do when reviewing a contemplative film is precisely what I'm doing right now : explaining how to do it, or making its structure self-conscious.

We must not talk about the boredom to watch it, or any other negative aspects that detractors would oppose to the film, leave that for the unbelievers. A contemplative review must be positive and embracing the project of the filmmaker. "Ennui" is a metaphysical state described for Modern Cinema by the Existentialists. It's not a negative trope anymore, the 60ies conquered it, so CCC (Contemporary Contemplative Cinema : post 1994) shouldn't have to defend its legacy. I know Angel's Egg is from 1985, much earlier than the emergence of the contemporary iteration of Contemplative Cinema. It's more of a precursor that still uses a musical score. But it's also a fantasy world that doesn't match the more reality-grounded work of pure Contemplative filmmakers.


A list of recurrent details that punctuate the work (and not a list of most significant items, plot points, lines of dialogue...) is a legitimate descriptor of the contemplative mode. This is a way to present the accumulation of "pillow shots", that are pauses in the narration, also signifiers of an environment hardly developed otherwise.


Oshii likes to show water under its many forms : stagnant, ripples, drops or flow running down a fountain, the sea. As well as painting the reflections in the mobile water, undulating, waving, distorted, reflection of the light bouncing off of water onto the Girl. We see the water plants swaying underwater like in a Tarkovsky film. And all this is extra hard work for an animation, while a documentary or a live fiction only get to record water itself.

Water seems to be important for the Girl, even though her environment isn't particularly arid or deprived of access to water. Fountains, water tap are running with clear water, lakes and rivers are full of drinkable water, rain is pouring down. But the Girl seems obsessed with seeking water points and filling a glass jar everyday. This is her daily routine. That and caring for her large egg.

The European, say Parisian, architecture is a decorative but empty vessel. Nobody lives behind its many windows, nobody fills the street. The small lanes, the chimneys and rooftops, the cobble stones pavement, the street lights... compose the theater where the protagonists cross path, meet and wander. Yet the Girl, living on her own, doesn't seem lost, alarmed or desperate. She feels at home and knows the littlest passages like the back of her hand. Everything is monochromatic, dark and sinister like a street from a Bela Tarr film (Werckmeister Harmonies), but feels haunting like a folks tale.

The episode of the shadow-fishes (Coelacanth) turns this anime into a world of faery, the air becomes an invisible water, the invisible fishes are only seen projected on the facades or on the street as a two-dimensional shadow, and fishermen chase after these illusions throwing their spears in vain. The shadow-fishes slide against the facades but the windows don't carry their shadows, the fishes seem to glide underneath the windows, as if it was a vaporous black ink that printed only onto walls.


It is useless to re-tell in the review the monologues of the Man on the tree and on Noah's ark, it's for the viewers to discover during the film, and to start making their own interpretation like numerous are found online. But I will break the ideal model of a contemplative review to make a Freudian analysis of the story.
Some say the egg is symbol of blind faith. But the Girl carries it under her garments in place of a pregnant belly. An egg is itself a symbol of fecundity, whether it is fertilized or not. The chick embryo is also an image of the human embryo. When she holds the egg against her ear to listen to breathing sounds, she has an out-of-body experience where she is able to listen to her own pregnant belly. She protects the egg against the Man who wants to know what's inside. She wonders also. She imagines it's a bird or an angel, like a mother. There is a struggle between the Man and the Girl about this egg, like the father and the mother of a baby. Who knows best? The feminine intuition or the masculine reflection?


The Girl is of course too young to be pregnant, but this egg seems to be a proxy-pregnancy. And the Girl is intentionally younger to represent the innocence and purity of a woman before pregnancy. After the egg is broken by the Man (with his cross), she cries and jumps into the water to her death. As she hits the water surface, the moment is suspended in time and she can look at her reflection like in a mirror, except she sees herself as a grown woman (after pregnancy). The death of her innocence causes dozens of smaller eggs to resurface. It's not clear what are the intentions of the Man in finding out what's inside the egg, as if he wanted an abortion. In the end she is present on the eye-ball ship, amongst all the statues, as a sacred figure of the Virgin Mary (with an egg on her lap, instead of a baby Jesus) young as before, as she will always be remembered. Mary being the symbol of the miracle pregnancy, and mother of an angel, or rather a God.

That's all I will say about the film (I have already revealed too much with the psychoanalytic interpretation), to leave something to the imagination, so that readers could be tempted to become viewers and piece together the puzzle of impressions I just laid out, without explanation. (This wonderful anime can be seen on YouTube)

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Scholarly Contemplative Cinema

Here are some books, magazines or PhD thesis on slow cinema/contemplative cinema available online (latest addition to the Bibliography page):


Feel free to add more if you found others


Thursday, December 07, 2017

Makala (2017/Emmanuel Gras)



Opening sequence:

The back of a man walking across a village, carrying one tool on each shoulder. The camera follows him, staring at his nape like a Dardenne film. His body shakes at each step, moving up and down. We only see the tool handles hanging in his back. The camera overtakes her subject and pans to the right to show his profile. We discover his face, closed, focused on walking, and the end of one of the tools. It's an axe, which blade is hooked around his shoulder. A voice off screen says "Hello, you're already awake?" This must be quite early in the morning. And the camera pans towards this villager after seeing the face of our protagonist lighten up, the camera pans back toward the path he's walking on.
The film cuts several times during the progression through the bushes, pasting together several stages of this journey. Until he arrives at the foot of a big tree. The camera contemplates the summit of the foliage. Off screen we hear the impact of the axe that has already started to cut the trunk. The camera is spinning around the tree, slowly panning up and down as the loop around the tree comes to an end. This is when we see the origin of the sounds, he's cutting down the tree. The size of the trunk is too big for a man alone, yet he hits the tree relentlessly, opening a gap that will eventually fell down the tree and its high-reaching branches to the ground.



This opening sequence reminds me of Lisandro Alonso's La Libertad (2001). Whereas Misael in Alonso's film cut down trees and sold them as long pillars to a buyer who came on site with a truck, Kabwita in Gras' film makes charcoal out of the branches and go sell them to the nearest city, 50km away, in equilibrium on a rickety bike. What the opening sequence doesn't tell us is that Kabwita lives in Congo and that "makala" is charcoal in Swahili.
The episode with the traditional charcoal oven made out of dirt is reminiscent of Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte (2010) (analysis here). Smoke lifts off from places on the dirt mount, for a couple of weeks, to burn down the timber without oxygen and turn out cristal-sounding pieces of black wood.
But the longest part of this film is the road between his village and the city. He leaves in the dark of dawn and spends 2 or 3 days pushing this bike stuffed with dozen of charcoal bags, day and night. The night shots are only illuminated by the headlights of incoming traffic, backlit when the car is behind the bike, and shining on the bike when the car arrives behind the camera.
This journey is unbearable, not to mention the hard-hitting sun. Soon he joins other sellers who also slowly push their bike. They are stopped by a few men who demand baksheesh for permission to pass on a road, at a random point. The camera stays far back and watches the transaction from afar as if it was forbidden to film. Kabwita begs but gives up one bag of charcoal to pay the ransom.
This film is labeled a documentary, but the credits list Emmanuel Gras as the director, writer and cinematographer. So the film is written, staged, rehearsed and mis-en-scène. It's more a drama with non-actors acting under their own names, than a real documentary of real slices of life. And the camera viewpoint is indeed different, more aesthetic like a fiction, and less spontaneous like a documentary.



Les Cahiers du Cinéma deal with it like a pure documentary and blame the filmmaker for being a selfish bystander at the sight of a struggling man, pushing a mountain of charcoal under the sun. But it's a fiction based on this man's life, the scenes we see are fabricated and the trip is abbreviated.
I much preferred his first documentary called Bovines (2012), which, as I remember, was more contemplative with less cuts and longer shots, without human voices, only with shots of cows. Nothing like this 8h long documentary on sheep (which is strangely post-synch with ubiquitous sheep noises): BAA BAA LAND (2017)
Makala received the Grand Prix of La Semaine de la Critique in Cannes 2017.




Teaching Jeanne Dielman (The Cine-Files)

"I’ve taught Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975), nearly every year for twenty-five years. (...) Its sounds are sparing and punctual; you can also hear your neighbor’s fidgeting. It thus challenges what a movie is to look at and listen to, what cinema is as a way of bestowing attention. Like other time-based arts, Jeanne Dielman depends on rhythm; for a long time after watching it, I feel as if I am moving to a metronome. (...) Student responses have led me to realize that the patient, forgiving gaze that the film solicits is as filial as it is feminist. (...) Jeanne Dielman can make a formalist out of anyone, and it is a great lesson for would-be filmmakers about how setting limits can inspire one’s best work. (...) Jeanne Dielman has 223 shots averaging close to one minute each. (...) There are two pieces I assign whatever the course: Janet Bergstrom’s influential essay on Jeanne Dielman, written “for the Camera Obscura collective” and published in 1977 in the journal’s second issue alongside excerpts from an interview with the director, identifies the film’s unique “logic of viewer/viewed,” director and character, feminist and feminine, in urgent and elegant prose. (...)De Lauretis writes: “What the film constructs—formally and artfully, to be sure—is a picture of female experience, of duration, perception, events, relationships and silences, which feels immediately and unquestionably true.” (...)Over 25 years there are of course always new things to take into account when I teach Jeanne Dielman. Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes, Kelly Reichardt, and Gus Van Sant pay homage to Akerman in their work. (...)Students have told me over the years that the film was one of the most meaningful that they encountered in their film education—an unforgettable, sense-memory implanting experience. Jeanne Dielman is about routine and rupture, deep love and risk-taking—so is teaching."
Patricia White

full text at The Cine-Files (Dossier of Film Teaching)


Wednesday, December 06, 2017

NYT's 25 Best Movies of the 21st Century


  • A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
  • Silent Light (Reygadas)
  • Three Times (HHH)
  • Timbuktu (Sissako)
  • Wendy and Lucy (Reichardt)
5 Contemplative films out of 25, that's 20% of the best of the century (so far). 
Not bad for a mainstream journal that publishes Dan Kois (the bored philistine).