Friday, October 15, 2010

Arthur Penn

I heard of Penn’s passing just as I headed out the door so no time then to contemplate the career of a director who for cinephiles at least had a very hot streak from The Left-Handed Gun (1958), through The Miracle Worker, Mickey One, The Chase, Bonnie and Clyde; Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves and The Missouri Breaks (1976). That’s close to a couple of decades of remarkable film-making, all of them in some way peering under the skin of American history and society and finding a lot of pent-up lawlessness and violence.

Back in those long lost 60s when discovering new directors was the game and we awaited solitary events like the Melbourne Film Festival for our first glimpse of the directors that cahiers and Sight & Sound were praising, coming across an American director like Arthur Penn at the very start of their career and then watching in quick succession a run of increasingly assured films was then, still is I suppose, quite a rarity. But nowadays when maybe ten thousand new films are made each year and you have access to thousands more of them very quickly, the discovery doesn't have quite the uniqueness it had then. Penn was in that tradition of Losey, Aldrich, Siegel, Fuller, Anthony Mann, Nicolas Ray, Raoul Walsh and no doubt many others of lesser ability and reputation who did their best work on violent subjects, or maybe subjects where America's peculiar closeness to guns, brutality and death was most nakedly and simply on display.

In retrospect the fact that the run seemed to end with what on paper must have looked like a sure fire success, a western with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. But it turned off critics and the public alike, one of those ironies of the business. Bonnie and Clyde will preserve his reputation for ever and the line in Night Moves comparing watching a Rohmer movie with watching paint drying probably made it into all the obituaries.

We never saw any of the ‘live television’ which first made Penn’s name in the 50s That pre-historical part of his career may yet come to light but not so far. We did see The Left-Handed Gun, Penn’s film of Gore Vidal’s television play about Billy the Kid and it became apparent there that Penn had a sense of adventure. The long static shot simulating the taking of a photograph was repeated countless times by others, the shot directly into the sun which allows Billy to appear as a ghostly presence before he blasts one of his enemies into oblivion, these became signs of a director wanting to experiment within the confines of Hollywood film-making. When he got the chance, after his second film The Miracle Worker won a bagful of Oscars, Penn took the opportunity, with Warren Beatty, to attempt to be an American Fellini, with Mickey One. That film remains a fascinating artefact of its time. The Chase and especially Little Big Man were fine westerns. The former has one of Marlon Brando’s very finest performances in amongst its story of over-wrought Texas oilmen and its sub-text of the forces that led to the Kennedy and subsequent Lee Harvey Oswald assassinations.

In the end Penn just faded away. Towards the end he even made a movie with the magicians Penn and Teller but nobody I asked has ever seen it. Since I mentioned it David Stratton has been in touch to say he's seen it and has passed on his noted about what he saw. Not something to write home about. Still the memory of the films from that hot streak period will live on and his place in the Expressive Esoterica section of the Pantheon, I think, is secure and something to be admired.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eastern Promises

Vancouver’s special niche in the world film calendar has evolved, over two decades, from a small hometown event into one of the key portals for new films out of East Asia. Programmed by Tony Rayns and Shelley Kraicer, the Dragons and Tigers selection of 43 new feature films and 20 shorts, draws on productions big and small from 14 countries. The range is huge. Prestigious films from the major production centres Japan, China and South Korea, most previously premiered at earlier competitive events in Europe, repeatedly filled the festival’s biggest cinemas. At the other end of the spectrum, the eight film Dragons and Tigers competition for first time directors presented in the luxurious intimacy of VIFF’s own Vancity Theatre, again drew hardcore cinephiles and adventurous viewers. Neither element disappointed. Between these two groups were another set of movies having their international or North American premiere.

But first to the competition and the big shock. The jury comprised three of the biggest names around – Bong Joon-Ho, (the continent’s hottest director and one whose next film is currently the subject of much speculation even in the pages of the latest Film Comment which reports a rumour, not true says Bong, that he is teaming with JJ Abrams), supported by French-Canadian Denis Cote, a recent double prize-winner at Locarno, and Chinese master Jia Zhangke. They gave the prize, and the cash from local arts patrons Brad Birarda and Robert Sali, to Hirohara Saturo’s Good Morning to the World, a smart and beautifully directed story about a loner schoolboy searching for answers about a dead man he finds in the street. Honourable mentions went to Xu Ruotao’s Rumination, a very playful, neo-Godardian, portrait of China during the years of the Cultural Revolution played out in a desolate abandoned industrial estate by a troupe of actors summing up Chinese history in gestures and mime and to Phan Dang Bi’s Don’t Be Afraid, Bi!, a surprisingly frank examination of Vietnamese sexual desires.

The shock however was that the judges completely ignored Jo Sung-Hee’s End of Animal which might just be the most remarkable debut film from Asia since well, let’s make it personal, Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu back in 1997 or Bong Joon-Ho’s Barking Dogs Don’t Bite in 2000. A broke down by the side of the road movie which might have been made by a young David Lynch, End of Animal is replete with enigmatic characters with psychic powers, last minute plot swoops, violent unexplained events, dark secrets, mysterious flashbacks and some blackly humorous collisions of all of the above. The assurance of its direction is extraordinary and it is aided immeasurably by the performance of young star Park Hae-Il’s performance as the mysterious stranger who knows all. Park, a star in the making with a couple of standout performances already under his belt was so impressed by the script that he agreed to do the movie for nothing. The film is next being screened in the London Film Festival so maybe its time will come in that neck of the woods.

While big names Miike Takashi (13 Assassins), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee who Can Recall his Past Lives), Sono Shion (Cold Fish), Lee Chang-Dong (Poetry), Jia Zhangke (I Wish I Knew), Hong Sang-Soo (Hahaha and Oki’s Movie) and Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock) expectedly delivered for their audiences, VIFF’s usual capacity to spring suprises was also on show with several international premieres. Imaizumi Koichi’s The Family Complete will make its name because of the seriously sexually explicit material it contains. A former gay porn star, Imaizumi’s third feature apparently continues his exploration of gay sexuality, this time around an SF plot involving a family struck down with a mysterious virus which firstly traps them into never aging but, more hilariously, produces sexual desire which causes all family members to only seek satisfaction with their own grandfather. Imaizumi, somewhat heroically given the context and the requirements of the plot, plays the grandfather himself, while his film riffs off Ozu and all the other Shockiku home dramas of Japanese cinema history. Very droll indeed but, as we were warned, only for the broadminded and maybe a tad too explicit for a nation which recently refused a local festival permission to screen Bruce La Bruce’s LA Zombie, a film which drew happy midnight screening crowds in straight-laced and innocent Vancouver.

Zhu Wen’s Thomas Mao is a droll two part exposition of the relationship between the esteemed painter Mao Yan and his long time friend the German art curator ‘Thomas’. Where the fiction begins and the documentary ends is the jokey sub-text to a movie which sets out to describe the friendship in two parts – the first in the wilds of Inner Mongolia and the second in Mao Yan’s studio where the painter makes yet another portrait of his fetish subject. Shades of Apichatpong.

Finally, leaving the intellectual world for a moment and the best for last, to a film that, literally I kid you not, caused among its large audience of young Korean women, gasps of pleasure, shrieks in fact, especially at the moment when its star Won Bin, last seen playing the son in Bong’s Mother, took off his shirt. He revealed both a bullet wound and torso of such honed and rippling musculature that the audience seemed to collectively swoon. But that was barely part of the excitement. Lee Jeong-Beom’s The Man from Nowhere, a huge domestic hit, posited a story of an ex-CIA (South Korean branch) hitman/agent, now passing his days in anonymity as a pawnshop proprietor, coming to the rescue of a drug addled neighbour and her child. Jokes abound, especially with the drug dealing community longing for a return to the certainties of military dictatorship, but it’s Won Bin’s magnetism and Lee’s breakneck pace direction and superslick editing that keep you on the edge throughout. There is enough plot for three movies but some seriousness as well in the background milieu of child prostitution and organ harvesting. You would like to think that the film’s reward might be as a sure fire international hit and something that might even attract the attention of American remakers.

For the record, Australia was represented at VIFF by Julie Bertucelli’s The Tree, a handful of docos and two shorts included in a compilation under the rubric ‘High School Stories/Teenage Hell – Felix Thompson’s (an expat) Bedford Park Boulevard and Alexander von Hofmann’s Tinglewood....unless of course you think we should claim Michael Rowe and his enigmatic Leap Year as one of our own.