Still Worlds

With 24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami creates a film akin to a piece of ambient music. The key difference, however, is that Kiarostami works backwards; the image comes first, and then the expected sounds proceed rather than the other way around. Think of, for example, Brian Eno’s Music for Films in which Eno created ambient tracks for films that don’t exist. And yet, listening to each piece of Music for Films evokes a story that should be accompanied by an image. Using the image as a starting point allows Kiarostami to play with time, and thus, proceed from there to craft a mood. Similar to Chris Marker’s low-budget La Jetee (1962), there is little to no movement in 24 Frames. Kiarostami’s focus on the still image does more than point toward a flirtation with experimentation by highlighting a new form of storytelling. Comprised of twenty-four images, Kiarostami sets out to evoke the mood of each image by way of sound. The sound of wind, chirping, distant logging and soon thereafter, the fall of timber, accompanies the image of a bird resting on stacks of lumber. Nearly two-hours in length, there comes a point in 24 Frames where our gaze stops its incessant movement in search for secrets, and where our eyes become used to the stillness. If Kiarostami has always been a director who challenged how films were watched as he did in Close Up (1990), then with 24 Frames, his technique becomes more radical, minimizing the film’s visual aspect, and training us to hear a story rather than see.

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Film of the Week: Stalker

Like Andrei Rublev (1966) before it and The Sacrifice (1986) after it, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is a film about faith. What distinguishes Stalker from these two counterparts, however, is the lack of a miracle within the film’s narrative. Consequently, Stalker presents a much more bleak outlook on life. Yet, in the script’s dealing with anthropocentric issues, the lack of a miracle falls in line with the rest of the film. The story centers on the eponymous Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), a man who guides people through a paranormal area known as the “Zone.” At the center of the Zone lies the “Room” which is said to grant any person’s wish. The Stalker is hired by two clients—the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko)—to guide them to the Room. Despite its science-fiction trappings, Stalker is anything but the B-movie Soviet-film its plot sounds like. Rather, the film’s style follows the same poetic approach Tarkovsky had been known for previously. Stalker begins and ends in sepia-tone while its middle section is colored and filled with saturated greens and blues. Tarkovsky employs the Zone’s aural backdrop as a diegetic soundtrack. Both dialogue and silence are punctuated by the chirping of distant birds, the soft crunch of footsteps on grass, and the sound of water, whether its the sound of droplets leaking through a roof or a pool being disturbed by the trio’s movement. Nature is at the heart of Stalker on both a technical and thematic level. The Stalker decries the absence of God, and by extension, the industrial growth of Man. Detritus and decay pervade the Zone in the absence of human settlement, and so nature has reclaimed the area. Images of vines, grass, and weeds crawling over buildings, tanks, and telephone poles are littered throughout the film’s middle section. The Stalker deems his life a prison—colorless, drab, and silent. But upon arriving to the Zone, he greets the Earth in religious reverence as if finding freedom. But, this too will turn out to be its own prison. The Stalker places his faith in those he guides through the Zone, and the dialogue of the film devotes itself to exploring the nature of man. Of the many film posters for Stalker, one depicts the Writer wearing a crown of thorns, recalling the image of Jesus. The Stalker seeks such a figure, but by the film’s end can only exclaim, “My God, what kind of people are they?”

Archival Update

I’ve recently updated my archive with my earliest writings which can be found here. Access is also available via the link found under the “Archives” menu in the top-right corner.

The pieces here cover my writings for the University at Albany’s student newspaper, the Albany Student Press. They range from reviews of albums and concerts to comedy shows and films. The writings I’ve excluded are ones that can already be found on my first blog, AEDFilms.

Hovercrafts and Cows: The Black Avant-Garde of Adult Swim

The following is a transcript of a presentation I gave at the Graduate Center’s 2018 Lightning Talks.

Good evening everyone. My name is Anthony Dominguez, and I’m currently a MALS student in the film studies track.

Today, I am here to talk about the programming put on by the television channel, Adult Swim. Specifically, as you can see behind me, The Eric Andre Show.

Before that, however, I’d like to place this discussion within proper context. The initial idea for this project was born during a Q&A celebrating Film Quarterly’s special dossier, Dimensions in Black. An audience member questioned the mainstream appraisal of Jordan Peele’s Get Out as a comedy rather than a serious drama. This, in turn, led into further questions not just about high versus low-brow art, but also the lack of critical attention on experimental works from Black artists.

With this in mind, we then find The Eric Andre Show in this dangerous milieu of critically overlooked Black experimental media. But, what is The Eric Andre Show?

A surreal riff on late-night public-access talk shows, The Eric Andre Show follows its titular host performing a variety of comedic acts, from destroying his set every episode, to street-pranks captured by hidden cameras, and finally, “interviews” with celebrities who are verbally—and sometimes literally—poked and prodded so as to be made uncomfortable.

Perhaps hearing that description, alongside this image behind me, you would find it easy to dismiss the Eric Andre Show as juvenile, low-brow, and without merit.

But, I argue that by combining absurd humor with camera techniques that point towards a self-awareness, Eric Andre deconstructs the talk-show host format. Consequently, Andre becomes a radical figure within the world of television.

We can continue from there by explicitly questioning: Why does this matter?

Well, to begin with, Andre is bi-racially Black. Certain jokes of his then take on a new and sometimes political meaning, such as when he smokes a bong outside a police station or when he arrives to a Civil War reenactment as a runaway slave.

But please, do not mistake that I am saying the virtues of the Eric Andre Show solely lie in its hosts’ racial identity. Rather, the ultimate goal of this project is to first: map out a portion of Black experimental media that hasn’t been discussed in order to preserve its cultural significance for future scholars and fans alike, and second: to perform an analysis of said media to show its merits and the historiography of its influences.

In this case then, it is not just that the Eric Andre show deconstructs the talk-show host format, but that he is part of a larger group of radical Black artists who have utilized Adult Swim as a platform to create art which ruptures conventions.

Thank you.

Recommended Reading: On the Oscar’s Popular Film Category

Over the past week a plethora of articles have been published decrying the Oscars’ addition of a “Popular Film” category, but the piece I’ve found to be most insightful (and to the point) is Richard Brody’s over at the New Yorker:

“The new category appears to be a play by the studios to siphon off some of the commercial benefits of the awards—to redistribute Oscar-related money upward from independent producers to the studios, from productions costing and yielding tens of millions to ones costing and yielding hundreds of millions.”

Wandering Women: Drifting as Resistance

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

– T.S. Elliot, Four Quartets

 

Unguided Tour
Dir. Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s Unguided Tour isn’t just about a woman (Lucinda Childs) drifting through a city, but that same woman drifting through her memories of her time there. Fitting then that the setting of the film is Venice whose architecture evokes the past around every corner. Based on Sontag’s short story of the same name, Unguided Tour centers on the crumbling relationship between a man and a woman, as told in an off-screen conversation between the woman and her friend. From the outset, Sontag establishes a bond between Childs and the city. In the opening, Childs walks around the edges of a building flanked by pillars. Rather than follow Childs’ movement, Sontag trains the camera on the building with Childs appearing every now and then. Sontag’s framing here suggests the city as a background a thematic tool. Venice is always there, decayed, rusted, and grayed, although in a beautiful kind of desolation. Despite her movement, Childs isn’t necessarily free, but rather trapped in the past of her failed relationship, symbolized by the constant presence of the city. At one point, Childs tells her lover (Claudio Cassinelli),“And then there’s a special kind of tourist. Attracted, above all, to Venice. The melancholy tourist. For that reason, a special tourist. Predestined to Venice. Venice is the capital of melancholy.” Both Venice and the past become prisons of comfort.

At Land
Dir. Maya Deren

Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) can be better understood by comparing it to the work of one of Deren’s thematic descendants: Chantal Akerman, specifically, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. To explain, in Jeanne Dielman, Akerman employs a static camera and horizontal framing to capture Jeanne’s domestic space. The lack of camera movement in combination with long takes and Jeanne’s repetitive routine shifts the audience attention to the mis-en-scene of the film. Consequently, Akerman subtly shows how Jeanne’s Sisyphean-like life is derived from the prison of her domesticity. On the other hand, Deren’s camerawork and editing in At Land function in the opposite manner. A film ostensibly without a plot, but not a story, At Land follows Deren playing an unknown woman journeying between a beach and a house. She encounters well dressed guests at a dinner party and later on, two women (and then herself) playing chess on the beach. Unlike Akerman’s camera, Deren’s is free; it floats over the dinner table, it spins around a sick-room, and when Deren is scaling a beach cliff, it captures her from all angles. Both Jeanne and Deren move through the spaces of their respective films, but whereas Jeanne is trapped, Deren knows no boundaries, thus, the match cuts of the film. When Deren reaches the cliff’s top, her hand comes to rest not on the smoothed edge but the previously mentioned dinner table; when she crawls through a bush, match cuts between the film’s spaces join them as one. Through editing, Deren breaks the physical boundaries of space, and later on when she begins to encounter herself, time. Just as in her other films Meditation of Violence (1948) and The Very Eye of Night (1958), Deren’s editing in At Land offers an escape from corporeal limits, thereby re-contextualizing both dance and gesture as radical movements for understanding our bodies.

0.5mm
Dir. Momoko Ando

0.5mm begins as a somewhat quirky black comedy. Sawa Yamagishi (Sakura Ando, Momoko’s younger sister) is an at-home nurse for the elderly. One day, the wife of Sawa’s current patient asks for a rather strange request: she wishes for Sawa to wear the kimono of said patient’s mother and to sleep next to him. With some hesitation, Sawa accepts and when she beds next to him, things seem to be all right. That is until, she awakens to find her patient licking her eyeball. In the ensuing scuffle, Sawa inadvertently knocks out her patient and a space-heater, the latter starting a fire. She attempts to drag him out but can’t muster the strength, so she runs down the stairs, trips, and at the bottom, finds the house mistress’ body hanging. Of course, Sawa is fired from the job, and the rest of the film follows her misadventures drifting and exploiting elderly men into letting her stay with them. If none of this sounds funny, that’s because I’ve left out descriptions of Momoko’s directing technique. For example, in the opening of the film, as Sawa is changing the diaper of her patient when he begins to urinate. In a rush, she grabs hold of a cup and holds it between his legs. Ando then cuts to a close-up, and we see imprinted on the cup is the face of a smiling cartoon. Meanwhile, urine sprays everywhere and Ando cuts between the face of the bewildered patient, and the uncomfortable Sawa who is attempting not get her face wet. There’s no musical accompaniment; only the dripping sound of urine. The result of Ando’s technique here—the designated cup, the cuts, the sound of urine—creates a farcical tone for the rest of the film. As Sawa’s drifting continues, however, her comedic relationships with those she exploits transforms into a sincere examination of the past and it’s continual haunting effects. One disgruntled professor finally opens up to Sawa after initial annoyance. He reveals that he suffers not only from dementia but from survivors-guilt dating back to World War II. In a harrowing goodbye scene, Sawa can only sit and listen as he repeats the final war-cries of his dead comrades—emperor banzai.

Vagabond
Dir. Agnes Varda

Vagabond is both the story of its protagonist Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), but also a story told through Mona. To explain, the film begins as a pseudo-documentary with Mona’s dead body being found frozen in a ditch. As the voice-over of Varda explains, the woman behind the camera wants to discover who Mona was, so she moves backwards in time, tracing the people who interacted with Mona in her final days. These interviews take on a conventional form, but they’re scattered throughout the film, serving as punctuation for Mona’s own narrative—that of her wanderings in the French countryside. After the opening scene, we bear witness to Mona, naked, walking out of the water at a beach. The image here conjures up the image of the original woman; as if Mona were being born from primordial ocean. Fitting then, that this image is preceded by that of a postcard, also depicting a nude woman. Yet the difference between the two results from the postcard’s nudity being pornographic. An implication arises then that Mona’s appearance will be one mediated through connotations of what a woman should be—and it is. Take for example the maid Yolande (Yolande Moreau) who sees Mona asleep in the arms of a fellow male drifter. Yolande watches the two with dream-like eyes, and we later learn she wishes her own lover would treat her in a similar romantic manner. Or, for another example, a wealthy heir whose wife won’t have sex with him. He berates her for her prudishness and wishes that she was more like Mona—free and uncaring about their surroundings. Of course, the Mona the characters of Vagabond see isn’t truly Mona at all, but simply facets of her or even misrepresentations. It’s this imprinting that Mona runs away from throughout the film perhaps best seen when she shacks with a family of farmers who endow her with land. Despite the comfort, however, Mona doesn’t care for working and eventually leaves. The words of the farmer resound with a haunting effect: “You’ve chosen total freedom but also total isolation.” With Vagabond, Varda creates her own rebel with a cause—a total resistance towards social, political, and economical establishments, but at a cost. A total sense of nihilism that drives its wielder to extinction.

Morvern Callar
Dir. Lynne Ramsay

In Morvern Callar, the world falls apart. Morvern (Samantha Morton), a young Scottish woman, finds her boyfriend’s dead body in their living room. He’s committed suicide and left a letter of instruction for Morvern on their computer. “Read Me.” “Sorry Morvern.” “I love you.” In between, we learn that he’s an aspiring novelist and has left Morvern with instructions on mailing his manuscript out to potential publishers. Morvern finishes reading the letter, hangs around a train station, opens the Christmas presents left under the tree, takes a bath, and then goes out to party. These descriptions aren’t meant to give the impression that nothing is happening in the film but rather that Morvern Callar takes more interest in inward experiences than it does in external, marked narrative events. The narrative of Morvern Callar is one of mourning, and one of the techniques by which Ramsay allows the audience into Morvern’s head-space is through the film’s diegetic soundtrack. While the exact device by which Morvern listens to her music is never shown, the film was release in 2002, just a year after Apple’s iPod. The portability and mixture of songs—ranging from the vintage cheerfulness of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You,” to the drum-led tricked out ambient beats of Board’s of Canada’s “Everything You Do is a Balloon—bring to mind the advent and possibilities of new musical technology. In Morvern Callar that possibility is escapism, whether it’s the drudgery of walking into the 9 to 5, or the reminder that your boyfriend’s body is rotting in the room next over.

Wanda
Dir. Barbara Loden

Perhaps the most popular film in this program thanks to the recent revitalization caused by Nathalie Leger’s “Suite for Barbara Loden,” Wanda (1970) was also the most divisive upon its release. Loden plays the eponymous Wanda, a rebel, unlike Mona, without a cause. Wanda too isn’t interested in doing much of anything, but rather than perform any sort of action against the system, she merely lumbers along. Her husband divorces her at the film’s start, and when he takes her to court, she shows no interest in either the marriage or the custody of her children. Later on, she gets taken in by a Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins) who berates her for getting the wrong type of burger and forces her to commit a bank robbery, which, of course, goes awry. Critics decried the film for its portrayal of a passive woman who allows herself to be abused by the hegemony. But one forgets that there is indeed a moment of resistance in the film. Wanda meets a man at a restaurant; he flirts with her, gives her a ride in his car, and takes her to a secluded area. He begins to kiss her, and then, attempts to undress her. Wanda remains frozen until the camera pans out, and then, she releases a yell and begins to fight back. This singular moment can serve to explain the rest of the film. That is, Wanda’s passivity is an effect of exhaustion. What can she do besides nothing. But the fury builds, and Wanda displays a pro-activeness. At the end of the film, when she returns to slinking in a bar booth, we can only wonder when she’ll righteously explode again.

D’Est
Dir. Chantal Akerman

Unlike her earlier travelogue film News From Home (1977), Chantal Akerman’s D’est contains no dialogue whatsoever. What remains is Akerman’s sheer dedication to long-takes and frontal angles, and what’s born isn’t a meditative examination of images but rather, a rigorous study of people, places, objects, and things. The film is made up of footage Akerman recorded while traveling through Eastern Europe, following the fall of the Soviet Union. Four years earlier, Jean-Luc Godard made Germany Year Ninety Nine Zero, but there Godard mixed fiction with history to critique the West. Places were real, people were both (although even the historical figures were played by actors), and so Godard’s film comes across as a collage of the director’s own theoretical ideas concerning communism, capitalism, and so on. Akerman’s D’est isn’t absent of her own markings—individual shots returning to women in domestic spaces recall Jeanne Dielman (1983)—but Akerman’s film certainly has more breathing room to allow in audience subjectivity into the lives of its citizens. A balance between East and West.

Lost in Translation
Dir. Sofia Coppola

If the films in this series up until now have been defined by an atmosphere of weightlessness then Lost in Translation stands out for its world and characters being anchored. The film centers on Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a film star with marriage troubles currently shooting a commercial in Tokyo, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johanson), a college graduate on a trip to Tokyo with her photographer husband who’s on assignment. Charlotte, left with nothing to do, wanders Tokyo, and Bob, with too much time on his hands, does so too. After a series of accidental run-ins, the two begin to meet on occasion. Like Morvern Callar, the soundtrack here plays a major role in establishing mood. Produced by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine fame, the music of Lost in Translation takes its cue from the dream-pop and shoe-gaze genre, blanketing the film in soft guitar reverb and the fuzzed out noise of gently distorted vocals. Already foreign to its American characters, the city of Tokyo becomes layered in another veil of alienation thanks to Shield’s musical choices and compositions. And yet unlike the cold barren sets of Vagabond or the gritty Pennsylvania of Wanda, the sense of alienation in Lost in Translation becomes one of comfort, bridging the loneliness of its characters.

Wendy and Lucy
Dir. Kelly Reichardt

Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) isn’t rebelling against the “system,” although she does steal from a supermarket. She’s simply a vagrant traveling to Alaska with her dog, Lucy. Arriving in Oregon, however, her car breaks down, and when she’s arrested for the aforementioned crime, she returns to the scene to find her dog missing and sets out about town to look for her. Reichardt is exceptional for shooting on film when most directors have now moved on to the digital medium. While her films can be described by their “texture”, to do so would be reductive. Equally difficult is describing Reichardt’s directional technique, and the way in which her actors behave. Yes, there are gestures akin to the films of Claire Denis, but whereas Denis can be said to be more focused on the relationship between people as mediated by their geopolitical (Beau Travail) or immediate societal boundaries (35 Shots of Rum), Reichardt’s focus lies in a formalist and uniquely American rigor. The fruit would bear more strongly in her later film Certain Women (2016), but it almost seems that Reichardt is channeling elements of the American western in the way her landscapes are beat down by the sun, and in the manner that towns seem forever yellow and languid. Like a cowboy or blues-man, Wendy too is on the move. Armed not with a revolver or musical instrument, but instead, vigor, ardor, and man’s best friend—her dog.

Marseille
Dir. Angela Schanelec

Films are about watching, and the films in this particular series especially draw attention towards the ways in which women are watched, no apparently greater than in Angela Schanelec’s Marseille. Sophie (Maren Eggert), a photographer, temporarily exchanges her apartment with a student, moving from Berlin to Marseille. In the first half of the film, Sophie wanders the streets, taking photographs, and befriending the locals, and the audience is given vantage to it all. Schanelec places the camera in doorways, up top on hills, in between people, and other manners in which vision is mediated through the mis-en-scene. The result produces an effect of surveillance, perhaps a nod to the surveillance culture which dominated Berlin following World War II. Otherwise, Schanelec’s technique initially draws upon Laura Mulvey’s seminal theory on the male-gaze, but in this case, it may not entirely be correct. While the camera and by extension, the audience, attain a certain voyeuristic quality, it is never that of the sexual or titillating kind. Rather, it may be apt to compare the cinematography and blocking to that of observational or ethnographic cinema. Through Sophie’s wanderings, we become acquainted with her surroundings, whether it’s the locals at the bar, garage, or even street. But Schanelec’s camera which remains ever so distant, refuses any sense of intimacy. Sophie may be watched, but her interior remains protected, and so she, elusive.

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.

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.