Monday, February 13, 2006

The period of January and February in terms of the movies is always a curious one: it's the period when the round of "major" film festivals begins (starting with Sundance and Rotterdam) and it's the period when the final gasp of award-mania hits (leading up to the Independent Spirit Awards and the "academy Awards"). In this "lull" for major studio releases, it's also the period when a lot of smaller films get released or previewed.

At this point, release dates are getting hazy: I've realized that most of the films which I regarded as "the best" of 2005 were films which I might have seen in 2004, or even 2003, so retardataire are the distribution patterns for foreign and independent films. One such example is the German film "Head-On", which I saw in 2004; Fatih Akin's jagged and mesmerizing study of a relationship between two highly volatile young Turkish immigrants living in Berlin had seemed like a revelation when I originally saw it, but by the time it opened, even more urgent films had been released. 2005 turned out to be a huge year for Middle Eastern cinema, with such impresive films as "Paradise Now," "Walk On Water," "The Syrian Bride," "Nina's Tragedies," "Upizhin," "Turtles Can Fly," and others. What was surprising was that these films really created a dramatic context for the social and political dilemmas of the region; for many years, we've been seeing a lot of documentaries about the Middle East, but we're finally seeing this material used for dynamic narratives. (One of the offshoots of this dynamism is that so many of these films have been lightning rods for controversy; today, it was reported that a number of Jewish organizations have continued to protest the inclusion of "Paradise Now" among the Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Film, claiming that its designation as a Palestinean film makes it ineligible, since Palestine is not a "legitimate" country.)

Asian films, of course, were just astounding; as I've mentioned to many friends, when it came time to make my Ten Best list for The Village Voice Take 7 Film Critics Poll, I could have just listed ten Asian films, and I would have been satisfied: "2046," "The World," "Travellers and Magicians," "Nobody Knows," "Tropical Malady," "Pulse," "Tony Tanitaki," "Cafe Lumiere," "3-Iron," "Old Boy" were just a few of the numerous Asian films which had brief releases in the US in 2005. The situation for foreign films has gotten quite precarious: for thsoe of us who grew up in the 1960s (when going to foreign films was simply an accepted part of the general American culture: who didn't go to Fellini movies? Or Kurosawa movies? Or Truffaut movies? of course, there were always those of us who preferred Antonioni or Ozu or Godard, but it was a matter of taste, but the matter of choice was that there was no reason not to go to see a movie with subtitles), it's inconceivable that audiences would not want to follow the latest developments in international cinema. And the current Asian cinema has so much to offer audiences: genre movies, ethnographic studies, incredible spectacle, intimate human dramas, and some of the most glamorous movie stars now at work.

In December, before people began to tally up their lists for the various polls (The Village Voice, Film Comment, the Ten Best lists of various reviewers for NYC dailies and weeklies), it became common to hear that 2005 was turning out to be a surprisingly good year for the movies. And for the finale of the award season, the double-header of the Independent Spirit Awards and the Academy awards, this year's nominees for Best Film aren't negligible. Of course, there have been a lot of jokes because none of the films have been blockbusters, but awards aren't supposed to go simply for popularity, but for that elusive element, "quality," and, for better or worse, films such as "Capote" and "Good Night and Good Luck" and "Brokeback Mountain" (nominated for both Independent Spirit Awards and Academy Awards) certainly exhibit "quality."

What's also important is that these films (and films such as "Syriana," "Munich," and "Crash") have caused people to open up discussions about politics and media and civil rights. It seems to me an exciting time for the movies: this was J. Hoberman's conclusion in his introductory essay for The Village Voice's Film Critics Poll this year. It's especially odd, considering the challenges to traditional (theatrical) filmgoing posed by the revolution of digital technology.

Cinema has always posed a threat to traditional aesthetics: the classic definitions of acting, of dramatic construction, of narrative coherence can be circumvented with great conviction. Neo-realism posited that simply getting the right person was more important than getting an actor to play the part. Sergei Eisenstein theorized that there was a propensity in the cinema for what he termed type-casting, and that the key was to search for the right type. There are so many examples of people with little or no training who gave superb performances because of careful and conscientious direction. One of the problems, now, is that there are so many people in the movies with spotty training, who seem to be amazingly talented on the basis of their first few performances, but who soon reveal their lack of technical acting skills, and gradually wear out their welcome. Perhaps that's what people mean when they say that there are no "stars" in today's movies. But it should be remembered that the "stars" of yesteryear were (mostly) people of very limited abilities, but with the enormous resources of the major motion picture studios behind them. It's easy to build an image if you have an army of technicians behind you, doing it for you.

Movies have always been the art of the future. Jean-Luc Godard once wrote, "Literary critics often praise works like 'Ulysses' or 'Endgame' because they exhaust a certain genre, they close the doors on it. But in the cinema we are always praising works which open doors." Cinema has always been the artform which is (in Andre Breton's formulation) "aquiver with a sense of the future." To consider the cinema, one must be responsive to the possibilities which remain uncharted, to the new potentialities which can only be guessed at, to the continual future.

As I write this, I'm evading the remnants of the blizzard which hit New York City last night. In past year, I'm usually a real Olympics-junkie, but this year, I've read the reports in the newspapers, but watching an event has become torturous: an event is rarely shown from start to finish, and the constant interruptions and the sudden switching from one event to another (in the hopes of catching an American in the throes of victory) become wearying. The hyping of the winning of gold medals has become as inflated as the innumerable film awards which now abound. It is a demeaning way to look at an event which should be the epitome of sportsmanship. To do your best, and to be one of the finest in your field: that should be the essence of the Olympics. But now, with so much riding on winning a medal (in terms of endorsements and fame), it becomes a moot point. It was sad to see the press conference of Michelle Kwan, but it was an event which shouldn't have happened in the first place: if Kwan had been unable to compete in the Olympic trials, she shouldn't have been given a berth in the Olympics. But she was given special dispensation because she is a famed athlete in her field who had not (yet) won a gold medal. It didn't seem fair then, and it still doesn't seem fair, and playing fair should have been paramount to the Olympic committee.


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