Masks for Films

Nathan Silver’s The Great Pretender is part of a bigger milieu of independent New York city-based films this year, joining its immediate predecessors, Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits and Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes on Appearance. All three films are concerned with White upper-middle class New Yorkers navigating thin lines between work, life, art, love and so on. While this narrative description might produce an eye-roll, and sound unoriginal, the direction displayed by all three is anything but. Perry, for example, bridges scenes through fades, blanketing Golden Exits in a dream-like atmosphere that calls attention to the miserable bourgeois reality of its characters. D’Ambrose on the tightest budget of all three utilizes unique sound and visual design to tell a larger story. An image of a map depicts the process of traveling, and the absurdity of a Q&A is represented by a rapid-montage depicting the sullen faces of its guests. Silver’s cinematographer Sean Price Williams1 films The Great Pretender with whimsical movements of the camera, lending the film a playful, sometimes absurd, comedic tone that lampoons its characters. The story may ultimately center on Mona (Maëlle Poésy), a French theater director attempting to reconcile with her ex-boyfriend, but the narrative jumps between the perspectives of its four characters. The addition of internal voice-overs for each “chapter” aid the film in establishing the psychological conflict between how the characters feel and how they act, ultimately coming to a climax in Mona’s play. As in the ending of Vivre Sa Vie (1962), The Great Pretender too suggests art as the most sincere form of communication. But of course by then, it’s too little, too late.

 

Williams has also worked as the cinematographer for Perry’s Listen Up Phillip (2014), Robert Greene’s (who served as the editor for Golden Exits) Kate Plays Christine (2016), and the Safdie brother’s (two more NYC-based independent filmmakers) Good Time (2018), all three which I highly recommend.

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Portrait of an Actress

In his latest film On the Beach at Night Alone, Hong Sang-Soo’s writing and direction displays a maturation from his previous work, eschewing somber ambiguity instead for emotional closure. This latter element in combination with self-reflexive topics taken from his own life, demonstrates how Sang-Soo has a nuanced understanding of his own work, further building his own auter brand of cinema on what he himself has previously established. One doesn’t need to have watched Sang-Soo’s previous films to enjoy On the Beach at Night Alone nor follow the real-life drama of Sang-Soo’s life in order to appreciate the film, but, in viewing On the Beach as a new peak for Sang-Soo, his previous films become keys in understanding how the director utilizes his trademark tools in refreshing ways here: the pan, zoom-in, and interior shots used to grasp the interior psychology of his characters, but within the context of the film’s story, done so in a way that culminates in what can be seen as Sang-Soo in conversation with himself and his audience.

The film centers on Young-hee (Kim Min-hee), an actress who had an affair with her director, and her subsequent travels in order to recover. If Sang-Soo’s narratives ever feel adrift then with On the Beach, he punctures that day-dream atmosphere, grounding his characters in a reality where actions must be repented for and mistakes learned from. Young-hee becomes the exemplar here, frequently prostrating herself in nature as if she were seeking forgiveness from sublime landscapes. Her gesture points towards a notable shift in Sang-Soo’s exteriors for this particular film. The first half of On the Beach takes place in Hamburg, Germany where Young-hee has fled to relieve herself from tabloid pressure.

A number of scenes take place outdoors which Sang-Soo emphasizes through the use of wide-shots as opposed to his more conventional zoom-ins where backdrops are erased. In the former movement, characters such as Young-hee aren’t subsumed by their larger surroundings. Instead, like his zoom-ins, Sang-Soo’s choice of outdoor landscapes here call attention to the inner psychology of his characters, specifically Young-hee who feels especially lonely in her desolate Fall surroundings. The juxtaposition of Young-hee’s body against the wider landscape gives her the appearance of being defenseless and vulnerable, shown no better than when she sits in the fetal position on the beach. A passerby warns her to be careful, but Young-hee seems to be somewhere else, taking comfort in her solitude.

By setting the first-half of the film away from South Korea, On the Beach takes on a self-reflexive element. Throughout the film, Young-hee uses nature to ponder on her affair and its aftereffects. With Kim Min-hee playing the lead role, the elements of autobiography aren’t lost. Last year, rumors began circulating that Sang-Soo was having an extra-martial affair with Min-hee. At the Seoul premier of On the Beach earlier in March, Sang-Soo confirmed the rumors to be true. Less interesting are the rumors and gossip and more the ways that Sang-Soo and Min-hee channel elements of their lives into their art-forms and the ensuing result. Young-hee as the protagonist of the film played by Min-hee doesn’t just bring to mind the real-life connections between On the Beach to Sang-Soo’s life, but also the connections between On the Beach to the more than usual masculine-perspective of Sang-Soo’s filmography.

As the writer of his own films, Sang-Soo shows an awareness for the lechery of his male characters but never more than an exchange of drunken chides that are glanced off. This time around, Sang-Soo doesn’t shy away from the drama that explodes over the eventual cup of Soju. Towards the end of the film, Young-hee runs into her ex-lover, simply known as “the Director (Moon Sung-keun)” and joins him alongside his film crew for dinner. Not long into the scene, Young-hee begins to call out the Director for his behavior, questioning why he surrounds himself with younger women and why his films seem to be so boring and personal. Young-hee’s question invites laughter, but Sang-Soo just as quickly transforms the tone from self-deprecating humor into a serious moment of self-reflection.

The Director reveals that he surrounds himself with younger women because they’re “pretty,” and it provides him romantic opportunities. A medium shot initially draws attention to Young-hee and the Director and the two serve to frame the table between them where the tension feels palpable. Sang-Soo then separates the two by way of panning to the speaker, mimicking a shot-reverse-shot. The camera transforms tension into anguish as the spat between the ex-lovers becomes not only the dominant focus of the scene but of the frame, pushing out the rest of the cast and thus removing any elements that this was initially a celebration.

The Director bemoans his regret for having ever loved Young-hee in the first place and despite being twice her age, Young-hee comes across as the wiser of the two: “Don’t regret it. Regretting won’t change anything,” she coolly tells him. In a final bid to explain himself, he quotes a passage from an untitled book about two lovers embroiled in an affair. “Love”, the protagonist describes, “must come from somewhere higher than happiness and unhappiness”. Coming from the Director, the quotation plays out like a cheap excuse for a man to commit infidelity, but he gives the book to Young-hee and therein lies an importance for understanding how Young-hee lives her life.

At the start of the film, Young-hee’s older friend Jeeyoung (Seo Youngwha) asks her what she wants from her life, to which Young-hee responds: “What I want is to live in a way that suits me. To be strong, and whatever happens, to live my own way.” Reckless, but Young-hee’s philosophy gives context to her actions and when viewed in relation to the advice given to her by the Director, functions as a guide on viewing On the Beach and perhaps Sang-Soo’s filmography as a whole. Like the protagonist from the Director’s book, Young-hee lives her life according to what she feels rather than logic. She’s adventurous, bold, and as her friends tell her repeatedly, charming. On the Beach’s narrative operates on a similar whimsical level. A composer Young-hee meets tells her that his piano pieces are simple but should you dig deeper, they grow more complex.

Sang-Soo’s films are equally simple not just in the stories they tell but in how they’re made. The latter element has arguably allowed him to make five films in the past two years. In the case of On the Beach at Night Alone, while an affair is no foreign element to Sang-Soo’s stories, the complexity of the film arises from Sang-Soo’s keen observational skills. Together with Min-hee’s subtle emotional turns, Sang-Soo paints a lyrical portrait of isolation dictated by equally lonely landscapes.

Mirror Mirror

Suite for Barbara Loden
by Nathalie Leger
translated from French by Natasha Lehrer and Cecile Menon
Dorothy Project, 123 pp., $15.20 (paper)

In Suite for Barbara Loden, Nathalie Leger mixes details of her own life with that of Loden’s in an attempt to tell the latter’s story. Leger supplements Suite with a bevy of other facts and anecdotes, including details of her mother’s personal life, a short history of mining in Pennsylvania, a tour through Holy Land amusement park, and a meeting with Mickey Mantle. In between it all, she describes the story of Loden’s directorial debut Wanda (1970) from start to finish.

Rather than becoming a hindrance, Leger’s assemblage of facts results in a rich and nuanced book that breaks the boundaries of genre. Suite may first and foremost be a biography on Barbara Loden, but it is also a book dabbling in cinephilia, personal memoir, film-criticism, and feminist theory. Appropriately then, Leger prefaces Suite with the following exchange from Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective (1985):

What about this one, is it too transparent, or not transparent enough?

-It depends on whether you want to show the truth.

-What does the truth look like?

-It’s between appearing and disappearing.

Truth is the common thread running throughout Suite, and it is not that Leger doesn’t tell the truth—she describes firsthand the painstaking research she went through for the book—but rather, it’s the extraneous details to Loden’s story that Leger adds which results in questioning where the truth and consequently stories should end.

Leger references this particular trouble several times, but perhaps most succinctly when she writes, “What else? How to describe her, how to dare describe a person one doesn’t know?” The key to understanding Suite can be found here in the word “dare.” Leger’s use of the word points towards the potential anxiety in telling a story that is not your own. The details must be right, but even then, at what point does the subject become known and understood?

It cannot be at death. In the beginning pages of Suite, Leger provides a short summary of Loden’s life: born in 1932, died at 48, and a number of facts peppered in between. She directed Wanda when she was 38, acted in Wild River, and was born two years before Leger’s mother, and the same year as Delphine Seyrig, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The book could have stopped there, and indeed, Leger reveals that the idea of Suite initially began as an encyclopedic entry, but that she found herself caught up in tangents of research. To that end, one reason for the personal aspects and digressions of Suite can perhaps be found in the book’s final quote of Loden: “Everything that you do must be heard. That’s why I made Wanda. As a way of confirming my own existence.”

Lingering Ghosts

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed
an exhibition at the Met Breuer, New York City, November 15, 2017 – February 4, 2018

Edvard Munch The Experimental Self Edvard Munch’s Photography
an exhibition at the Scandinavia House, New York City, November 11, 2017 – March 5, 2018

The paintings and photography of Edvard Munch have arrived in New York City in two different yet complementary exhibitions. A sense of coherence runs through each collection stemming from a similar feeling of being haunted. Together, these works on display highlight the ways in which Munch experimented with art to express themes of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

In “Self-Profile of Portrait Indoors,” Munch moves during the shot, subsequently appearing as a blur. Munch’s close proximity and distorted visage work alongside a deep-focus that ultimately render him as an invasive object. One can imagine it were as if the intent was to photograph the room but instead finding a ghost in the frame. In another photograph, “Self-Portrait with Housekeeper,” Munch and his housekeeper sit posed, and once again, Munch introduces distortion so the two appear as if they were fading from existence. This time, it’s the camera that appears invasive instead of the ghosts. Propped slightly beneath the table so as to give the composition a slightly upward angle, the camera’s position and gaze mimic that of a submarine scope—secret and probing. Munch faces the camera and looks at it in a downward gaze, introducing a further element of eerie.

Complimenting the photographs such as these are his paintings displayed at the Breuer. Munch as the probing inquisitor resurfaces in “Night in St. Cloud” which depicts a solid-black figure sitting in the corner by a window. Moonlight falls so as to illuminate the figure, further revealing the room’s crampedness. Munch’s use of light and space here induces a sense of claustrophobia, and yet he paints the figure as slightly perched forward to gaze out the window. The dark-blues and blacks of the painting reinforce a feeling of isolation, yet the figure’s position undermines this, transforming that solitude into a feeling of comfort. Just as in Munch’s photography where subjects were disappearing, the figure of “Night in St. Cloud” hugs the edge of the frame as if to vanish but ultimately failing to do so. Consequently, his gaze through the window can be viewed as a self-awareness of his own solitude through the implication of an outside, broader world, but the ultimate impossibility to participate in it.

Street-footage shot by Munch himself and on display at the Scandinavia House reinforces this outsider-view. Munch shoots pedestrians and other citizens from afar, and the aesthetic here falls in line with that of early-cinema done elsewhere when the mere recording of cities could produce a spectacle. There’s a sense of excitement in Munch’s images here produced by the fast-pace of urban-life, which initially contrasts the other photographs and paintings of solitude. Yet when distance is accounted for and placed in context with the rest of Munch’s work, one can’t help but notice the solitude of the man behind the camera and wonder perhaps why he remains so far and closed off.