Best of the Aughts

11 03 2010

Film Comment asked its readers to pick their twenty favorite films from the last decade and promptly send the choices via e-mail. The deadline was February 12. Below are my submissions:

Syndromes and a Century (2006, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
George Washington (2000, David Gordon Green)
Still Life (2006, Jia Zhangke)
24 City (2008, Jia Zhangke)
A.I: Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg)

In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong Kar Wai)
Time of the Wolf (2003, Michael Haneke)
Blissfully Yours (2002, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
L’Intrus (2004, Claire Denis)
Trouble Every Day (2001, Claire Denis)

Millennium Mambo (2001, Hsiao-Hsien Hou)
The Headless Woman (2008, Lucrecia Martel)
La Cienaga (2001, Lucrecia Martel)
Punch Drunk Love (2002, Paul Thomas Anderson)
Colossal Youth (2006, Pedro Costa)

Father and Son (2003, Alexander Sokurov)
Father and Daughter (2000, Michael Dudok de Wit)
Dream Work (2002, Peter Tscherkassky)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007, Cristian Mungiu)

Probably needs work. Probably needs Historias Extraordinarias. Probably needs The Tulse Luper Suitcases. Might need La Commune. All three potential omissions are immense, unwieldy, and demanding epics. I don’t quite know why they’re missing. Or maybe I do. I haven’t finished assessing them. They’re too large, too flawed, too spectacular, too filled with battles that haven’t even been fought yet, too fraught with details and problems and questions, etc.

At least with La Commune, I have reservations about its second half, where the non-professional actors are suddenly allowed to break character and debate the relevance of the film in view of modern events. It feels somehow wrong to criticize this part of the film because it’s so essential to what it is doing, but I personally don’t think it works, or rather, I personally don’t think it adds anything that wasn’t already apparent from the film’s performance up to that point.

In La Commune, a nineteenth-century popular uprising is recreated inside a sound-stage (an abandoned factory). We can see that it’s a sound-stage. Realism is not the point. It remains rather immersive. We had no problems immersing ourselves into wild worlds inside our bedrooms when we were children. The film asks us to play along and we succeed in doing so. This is made easier by the actors’ intensity. Each non-professional actor did his or her own research and built their persona. Then the camera was allowed to roam freely as each actor lived inside the sound-stage. It’s really beautiful. The camera even becomes a character itself, thanks to the conceit of a nineteenth century where television news stations are already in existence. This, in turn, allows for some satirical commentary about the role of the media.

Watkins — the film’s director — envisions his film as a new way of approaching history; not as the history of authority, not as the history of the victors, but as the history of the people recreated and lived by the people. La Commune is not only about the story it is telling, but also about how it is telling it, which is why the second half is there: the actors reflect on the meaning of their performance because part of the film’s theme is about the value of undertaking such performances. However, none of the connections they make with contemporary woes are new or interesting. Viewers have already made those connections. We have already seen the value of approaching history this way. The actors don’t need to reflect on the value of their performance, because the film’s performance is already a reflection on itself and on its value. The performance does not need an after-the-fact discussion. It is the discussion. La Commune is partly about its making and about the actors making it, so it could be argued that dispensing with the self-reflexivity (or forceful self-reflexivity, because a historical epic unashamedly filmed inside a sound-stage is self-reflexive from the start) would be like cutting off an essential limb. It seems important to know what the actors are feeling and thinking after engaging in a performance that is intended to get them feeling and thinking. The film is about the performers as much as it is about the performance they’re putting together for an audience. As an audience member myself, however, I am left with roughly two hours of people lecturing me about all the things the film had long ago managed to suggest. Dave Kehr has a similar complaint regarding the same sequences: “If the film has a single conceptual weakness, it is Mr. Watkins’ inability to distinguish between debate and hysterical assertion, the latter being the most frequent path of improvisational actors eager to call attention to themselves. Too much of the movie is played out in bursts of righteous indignation that seem far more like acting exercises than intellectual exchange.”

Despite this complaint, the film remains largely interesting. There is much life in it. Jose Luis Guerin could be talking about La Commune when he says, in his essay Work in Progress: “The reason I agreed to make a project like En Construccion was because it offered me the chance to shoot a film without a screenplay. To find out what kind of film I wanted to make. I didn’t want to know what the film would be beforehand; I wanted to find it. Every filmmaker should have a revelation about his film while he is making it. And of course, he should try to convey that revelation to the spectator. Because of that, my film is also the reminder of the search it involved. I would like to stress that, contrary to the absolute power of the classical filmmaker who controls everything, there is this notion of the modern filmmaker — who hands himself over to randomness, triggers the accident, forges a new contract with reality.” I have not seen En Construccion myself, though I will soon. However, the relation to La Commune, at least in the words above, should be obvious.

Watkins has his camera dance across a sound-stage. His actors are living their dramas and there are so many dramas. The space of the sound-stage is a playground of dramas and emotions and movements, and the camera explores the sound-stage and finds its dramas. This gives the film a sense of freedom. There is one parent film, La Commune. But we can also speak of dozens of smaller films, as each actor is a one-man or one-woman storytelling well. The camera stumbles about and falls into every well it can find, tasting its contents. There is something infinite about this, a profound brand of exploration. What made it possible for me, as a child, to cast my living room as an alien world, was my ability to incorporate every element in my living room — every piece of furniture, every wall, every bit of rug — into the drama, to use my surroundings as venues for storytelling, to know that every corner of the living room, or the house entire, was a potential well of storytelling, a new turn in my twisted improvisatory plot. La Commune is using my childish storytelling logic for political purposes. It finds its history and its narrative. It does not tell a story. The film exists within its story’s universe. The story happens, not in-front of us, but around us.

La Commune is about the manifold interpretations of history, the variety of perspectives and vantage points, how these perspective might clash, how these perspectives occupy a common universe, and yet, how this universe is subdivided and fragmented by these perspectives. This is more than an idea, it’s the texture of the world that the camera interacts with. We feel it because it surrounds us. This makes our appreciation of the theme much deeper than it would be otherwise. By allowing each actor to be his or her own storytelling vessel, the film does not need to explain the fragmentation, it can simply be a portrait of it. The camera observes the whole universe of the film, but in each actor is a personal interior universe — a hope, a mission, a dream. We watch the whole, then dive into the particular. Actors were chosen for their resemblance to the characters they were to portray. A real-life low-class worker, then, played his or her nineteenth century counterpart. This makes the interior universes even richer. Every stressed, jubilant, ecstatic character is performed by someone who feels similarly outside the sound-stage. There is a deeply seated connection between each character and his or her performer, so that hearing anecdotes from these nineteenth century characters always has a double meaning: no soulful exclamation is ever just an archaic nineteenth-century utterance, it is also a real pained exclamation made by the actor. The actors, one could say, are using their historical counterparts to talk about themselves, which brings them closer to history by living history’s modern-day relevance. To us, the audience members, this means effortlessly magnetic ‘acting,’ since every tortured celebration by a character doubles as the expulsion of pent-up frustrations by its actor.

All this results in, not an argument about the complexity of history, but history itself. La Commune is a new historical event, with all the complexities that implies. It is people brought together to act out their lives through a distorting mirror that returns their nineteenth century images. We walk amidst the resulting mess. The delirious thing about living history is that no matter how much we see and how many people we talk to, we can be sure that we missed something. And in La Commune, at the margins of the frame, behind an alley, lingering in the background, waiting unnoticed among the endless faces, we can be sure that we missed plenty.

I think that, in closing this post, I probably should have included La Commune alongside the nineteen other entries. What can you do?

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