29 November 2008

The forsaken land (Sulanga enu pinisa)
FL DVD cover
written and directed by Vimukthi Jayasundra
2005 / color / 108 minutes (plus bonus items)
Sinhala with optional English subtitles
DVD from New Yorker Video, 2008

The forsaken land is a film at once strikingly beautiful and jarringly disturbing – writer / director Vimukthi Jayasundara demonstrates in this, his first feature, that he can be expected to be a visionary force that will both enthrall and shake audiences for the remainder of a career that, it can be hoped, will be a long and productive one. Taking as his subject no less than that of the effects of war and strife on not only individuals, but on humanity as a whole, and by extrapolation the very planet we inhabit, his work stands up to the task at hand very well indeed. There are images here – and the deeper thoughts which they inspire – that will remain with the viewer for years to come.

FL Jayasundara
A society ruled by war will always look for a solution,
be it through war or peace.
This film was conceived as a poem, where shots substitute for words.
– Vimukthi Jayasundra

Set in Sri Lanka, which has been torn apart for over thirty years by a civil war that eats away at the people and society like a cancer, Jayasundara’s film draws the audience into the lives and souls of his characters. There is little dialogue – in fact, the first spoken words occur some thirteen minutes or so into the film – but volumes are communicated in the subtle nuances present in life itself, which among the arts only cinema, through its inherent combination of elements, can translate so accurately into palpable feelings. A look, a gesture, a sigh – the very landscape itself, a village on the edge of a wasteland – convey the desperation, tension, societal and emotional isolation and alienation that are the horrible byproducts of an existence lived in a constant state of war…or, in the case of this film, a truce that is so fragile that even the audience senses that outright hostilities could break out again at any time. The recurring image of a tank at twilight, prowling the area at a crawl, stopping now and then, its turret slowly casting its single threatening eye about the landscape is enough to make one hold one’s breath in anticipation. Without a shot being fired throughout the length of the film, the sense of danger is no less than if bullets were flying all around. This is truly life lived walking the edge of the proverbial razor.
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The characters at the center of this agonizingly grinding maelstrom are few. Anura is a young man who is apparently in the hire of the military as a guard, but not actually in the army. His wife Latá is a restless, beautiful young woman who finds their interrupted relationship unfulfilling, leading her to seek companionship on the sly. Living with them is Anura’s unmarried sister Somá, who although seemingly the only character who is both grounded and aware of their circumstances, is resented by Latá but adored as a mother figure by Batti, a young pre-adolescent girl who lives nearby. In one particularly poignant and telling exchange, she speaks with Somá of her future – instead of saying ‘when I grow up’, she says ‘if I grow up’, a painful reminder of the pointed uncertainty under which they all live. Piyasiri is an older man who shares guard duty with Anura and regales the wide-eyed Batti with folk tales, one of which sheds both light and darkness on their communal past. The story has not-too-cloaked parallels with the reality they inhabit.
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The war itself – or at least the sense that it lurks in such proximity that one can hear its panting breath – is as much a character as the human beings in this film. There may be a cease-fire in place, but people disappear and killings occur at night, to be discovered when the sun casts its weary eyes on the scarred land once more. The director’s incredible compositional prowess packs quite a punch – a darkened pond, with heavy clouds obscuring almost all of the available moonlight, reveals the stiff arm of a corpse seemingly sprouting like the water-based vegetation around it. Latá awakens from a restless afternoon nap, clearly in a state of emotional and sexual clamor, to methodically throw open the shutters of the house – the wind almost rips a couple of them out of her hands, exemplifying her hopelessness in controlling her desires and thoughts, blowing through the rooms like a beast in the hunt.

When Anura and Latá are awakened in the middle of the night by a pounding on their door, the young man responds and receives a command from a soldier that will change his life forever – there are things those who serve are called to perform that will linger in their mind and soul until the day they die. The helplessness he feels, the rending of his sense of self, are as real as if they were occurring to us as we watch the events play out. Afterwards, as he runs toward his home in the moonlight, seeing physically but blinded by the trauma of what he has experienced, he stumbles and collapses into the dirt, laying his face against the earth as if to reassure himself that it is still there. It’s one of the most harrowing, piercing images of the film – and one that exemplifies the feeling of being ripped from all of the normal aspects of life, with little hope of ever regaining them. One reviewer wrote that the characters seem to be sleepwalking through the film – not implying any sort of ‘wooden’ acting, but that the horror of their existence has numbed them almost to the point of being animatons. Their pain is real, but it has become so great that it has replaced happiness and fulfillment as the compass by which they navigate their lives.
War is inarguably a horrible environment, whatever its intensity or form – out-and-out direct combat, guerilla war, or the war conducted by shadows under cover of darkness. It traumatizes all of those it touches – combatants and innocents alike – in ways that will affect them physically, psychologically and emotionally for the rest of their lives. Vimukthi Jayasundara has seen that trauma, and has eloquently and poetically translated it into a film that is both jaw-droppingly beautiful and viscerally haunting. It won the prestigious Camera d’or award – given for outstanding first directorial feature – at the Cannes festival in 2005. It’s available in the US through New Yorker Video, so it should be fairly easy to find either for rental or purchase – pass it up at your peril. It’s absolutely one of the most stunning works of cinema I’ve seen in the last ten years.

02 November 2008

L'enfance-nue (Naked childhood)
L'enfance-nue DVD
directed by Maurice Pialat
1968 / colour / 80 minutes (plue extra items)
in French, with optional English subtitles
2-disc restored edition from Masters of Cinema / Eureka (UK), 2008

Maurice Pialat’s 1968 debut feature, L’enfance-nue (Naked childhood), is by no means an easy film to watch – but past the discomforting events depicted, it’s one of the most compelling, vital, and ultimately ‘real’ works of cinema that I’ve ever experienced. The film follows a young French boy, François (Michel Tarrazon), on his travels (travails might be more appropriate) through the French foster-care system. Families were paid stipends by the state to take in children who had been abandoned, offered up for adoption for various reasons, or had been removed from the homes of abusive parents. Pialat wisely chose to use mostly non-professional actors in the film – and while many directors have taken this road in their work for one reason or another, it’s especially effective in this case, the result being a film that is so close to the feel of a documentary that the audience is drawn into the boy’s story far more deeply than might otherwise be the case. (In the spirit of both self-honesty and openness with any readers, I have to say that the fact that I was an adopted child myself most likely added immeasurably to the effect the film had on me as a viewer.)
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François is an intelligent child, but troubled. The film makes the point that almost any child who is adopted or placed in a foster home, no matter how much love and care is given or how hard the host family tries to open their hearts to them, will be affected by emotional issues stemming from their situation. These might be overt or subconscious, but their presence is undeniable. In the case of François, who was placed into the system at a very young age, and has no real memory of his mother, it’s particularly heartbreaking. His feelings of separateness, his inability to connect with his foster parents on a meaningful, deep level, engender within him a sense of hopelessness and inevitability – he will never truly belong to anyone, and feels that repeated rejection is his destiny. While he is given love, shelter and sustenance from his hosts, after a while his innate desperation causes him to act out in ways that leave them no choice but to send him back into the system, to another group home or foster family. It’s as if he feels that there is no reason for him to fight against his fate, so he commits misdeeds in order to speed up the process.
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He is shown at first in the home of a couple who appear to be in their late thirties or early forties – they have other foster children as well, and are troubled by François’ seeming inability to get along, to behave himself. He steals – both from family members and from local shops – and hangs with a gang of boys who seem intent on misbehaving in some very disturbing ways. In one scene, he and his mates are shown dropping his foster-sister’s cat down a multiple-level stairwell, apparently in a misguided ‘experiment’ to see if it will really land on its feet. (Needless to say, as disturbing as this scene is, it was shot in such a way that the animal was not really harmed.) The cat is, of course, injured gravely – when his sister is distraught over this, he promises to care for the animal, assuring her that it will recover. When it ultimately dies, and she inquires about it, he callously draws a finger across his own throat to indicate the animal’s fate – and receives a slap across the face from the girl as a reward. His foster parents see this behavior as the final straw, and call the social worker in charge of his case to request that he be taken from them.
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In a gesture that might be seen as calculated by some, François uses some of the money his foster dad has given him to buy a parting gift – a scarf – for his foster mother, presenting it to her as he is being led out the door by the social worker. The conflicting emotions on both sides are very honestly depicted – while the mother feels that she is making the only choice she can realistically make for the sake of her entire family, she feels the bond that she nonetheless feels for the boy tearing at her. As for François, I believe the gift was given from the heart – for one reason because he purchased it instead of stealing it – and his farewell look from behind the window of the departing automobile shows real regret and sadness, as well as resignation.

The family with whom François is seen living for the greatest part of the film is an older couple, M and Mme Thierry (René Thierry and Marie-Louise Thierry), called ‘Pépère’ and Mémère’, respectively, probably in their sixties. We learn that they were each married before, and have children and grandchildren from those unions, but were too old to have children together. There are other foster children in their home, but the only one we see interacting with François with any regularity is Raoul (Henri Puff), who appears to be in his early teens.
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Also living in the home is Mme Thierry’s aged mother, ‘Maman’ (brilliantly played by one of the only professional actors in the film, Marie Marc) – it is with this old woman that François bonds most closely, in a touchingly depicted but very believable relationship. Pépère and Mémère have seen a lot in their day – his stories of being a member of the French underground during the war captivate François – and have learned the lessons of patience over the course of their lives…and despite the honest, open love they attempt to give François, this patience will be stretched to the breaking point.
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Once again, he begins stealing and hanging out with groups of boys who are older and up to levels of mischief beyond that which might be expected from a boy his age. In one particularly destructive prank, he and some friends stand on a bridge and toss some pretty hefty stones down at approaching cars – one hits its mark and causes a serious accident, which gets the police involved and wakes the Thierrys up to the fact that they might not be able to handle this child, despite their best intentions. Once again, François has felt the subconscious need to nudge his fate along – there might not be a traditional ‘happy ending’ to a film such as this, but it’s an experience that will no doubt touch viewers very deeply, on varied levels (depending on their own background and feelings).

Pialat’s style of shooting and editing, which of course developed further as his career progressed, is fascinating to see in its infancy here. Rather than striving for smooth transitions from one scene to the next, he makes the audience do a bit of work, which I believe causes the viewer to become even more involved in the film than would otherwise be the case. Relation to the film’s timeline is not always apparent from scene to scene – just how long the break between them is, relative to the story itself, is not always clear. Is the scene we’re watching happening immediately after the previous one, or have several days or weeks passed? Pialat gives us very little chance to figure this out as the film plays out before us – it is only with hindsight that these aspects become more clearly defined. It’s one more technique that moves this film into a different category than most dramatic narratives – and one that causes it to burrow more deeply into the psyche of the viewer, ensuring a more lingering effect, giving cause for deeper reflection. Similarly, Pialat frames his shots unconventionally – rather than rely on close-ups and constant camera movement, he places the camera in a stationary spot, allowing it to take in the entire room. The characters move about in the space according to the story’s requirements (much of the movement and dialogue, while suggestions were made by the director, was improvised and spontaneous – a technique he used repeatedly in his career), giving the viewer more of a sense of actually being in the room with them, further heightening the feeling of reality in the film.

In one of the interviews included as a bonus item in this carefully-assembled two-disc release, Pialat appears on a French television show devoted to films that were well-received critically, but not commercially successful. The host introduces the film – which was apparently shown in its entirety – then speaks with Pialat afterwards. The director begins his discussion of the film in an almost self-deprecating manner, then turns the tables on the host, making the point that true creativity in cinema should never be stymied by the lack of commercial success – there are subjects to tackle and points to be made that are far too important to be ignored by such a vital medium. He even takes the French film-going public to task for not having the courage to support films that they might find ‘uncomfortable’ to watch. There are also other interviews included, featuring not only Pialat, but associates who have worked with him, discussing his art – as well as a documentary on the making of the film (a welcome treat, and unusual for a film made in 1968), which includes a round-table discussion by several former foster children who have formed a support group to aid others who have passed through the system in recognizing and coping with their resulting emotional issues.

The biggest treat for me, however, is the inclusion in the set of Pialat’s short film L’amour existe (Love exists), from 1960 – a stunningly effective 19-minute look at the numbing effect on French society caused by the emergence of sterile, nondescript suburbs which sprang up around the major cities after World War II. While rebuilding was a necessary occurrence, the short laments the lack of access to culture and recreation in these projects. The images are extremely moving, and the narration is right on target – there were aspects of society that were lost, never to be fully recovered…not the least of which was a sense of real hope for a productive and fulfilling life without the vitality and release provided by art and nature.

Masters of Cinema have done a wonderful job with this release – despite the age of the feature, their painstaking restoration has resulted in an image that is clear and compelling, with little visible damage artifacts. The restored sound tops off the presentation – it’s as if we’re viewing the film on its first release, in 1968. This is a great addition to their library (and to mine!), and a great service to film lovers.
Pierre de Bethmann

Nocturne, 2007

Pierre de Bethmann is a recent discovery for me – but like most jazz players who impress me, I’ve found that he’s been around for a few years, playing in various contexts stretching back, per the discography info on his website, to 1995. That list shows nineteen appearances as a sideman for assorted artists (including separate releases by two bandmembers, David El Malek and Michael Felberbaum), four as a member of the trio Prysm, and three with his current band (expanded from a quintet on their first two albums to a septet for Oui). With the formation of his current group, he moved more firmly into Rhodes territory, exploring and expanding the sound of the instrument, sculpting a personal expression from its possibilities with his formidable talents. I was listening to Oui the other morning while I was talking with a friend on the phone – I had to put the receiver down for a moment to tend something in the oven, and when I came back, he asked me, ‘Man, who’s that working on that Fender…?’ The style that de Bethmann has developed over his career is one that’s going to grab the attention of anyone who hears him – he’s moving the instrument into new territory both rhythmically and melodically.
Five members of Pierre’s group have graced all three of his albums – the mutual respect and empathy they share are immediately evident in the results. David El Malek is incredibly fluid on tenor saxophone, capable of swoops and arcs of notes that could induce whiplash in the listener. Michael Felberbaum’s guitar goes from beautiful chordal background work to chopping rhythmic urges to blistering solos and back again with seemingly effortless (anyone who plays an instrument knows better!) changes of focus and gear. The double-bass work of Vincent Artaud and drums of Franck Agulhon provide an invaluable steady foundation for the group, but like the great players they are, they’re not content to limit themselves, illustrating time and again that they not only have the constantly changing rhythms firmly in hand, but that their imaginations are working to add accents, counterpoints and fills to complement the work of the others as well. New members for this outing are Stéphane Guillaume, an excellent alto saxophone player, adding a nice balance / foil to David El Malek’s tenor; and Jeanne Added, whose wordless vocals are every bit as integral an instrument as the ones wielded by the others. Singing at times in unison with Pierre’s keys, or with the guitar or reeds, or providing a melodic or rhythmic counterpoint, her tonal control is about as perfect as one could imagine.

The set starts off with a vengeance, Pierre’s Rhodes setting the pace on ‘Shema’ with a repetitive 7/8 figure, joined after a few bars by the rest of the group. The vocals, reeds and guitar play off each other a bit before the piece slows down a bit – after a section of voice-alto interplay, Pierre’s Rhodes enters for a length extrapolation, leaving no doubt in the listener’s mind as to not only his compositional imagination, but the magic with which that extends into his playing. Listening closely, it’s easy to imagine someone thinking there are two keyboards working – he’s gifted with a high degree of ambidexterity, one hand delivering chordal clusters while the other explores the melody with breathtaking freedom and grace. This piece goes on for almost ten minutes – but it never drags, and the first time I heard it, I was surprised at the end that it had been going as long as it had. For that matter, there’s only one track of the CD that’s under six minutes long – and thanks to the constantly changing melodic landscape, wide dynamic range and fluid interplay between the participants, there’s not a wasted note to be found anywhere.

‘Singulier’, the second track, enters with a rolling chromatic figure from the Rhodes, joined soon by Jeanne Added’s beautiful vocals – the two instruments intertwine their melodies in an almost mesmerizing spiral until Agulhon’s drums and Artaud’s double-bass solidify the rhythmic element. Reeds and guitar accentuate the determined beat for a moment, before the tune shifts down again, with Jeanne’s voice this time alongside some lovely guitar work from Felberbaum. Focus shifts repeatedly, rhythm reasserts itself, with some very nice, more forceful lead playing from the guitar toward the end of the piece. The third offering, ‘Air courbe’, begins with quiet alternating chords from de Bethmann, soon joined by the voice carrying the lead, with the others alternately providing support, accents, and comments of their own.

The set is extremely varied overall, with no one rhythm or colour dominating for very long. Melodies are never sacrificed in the process, providing a great deal of beauty for the ears – but at the same time, these folks never settle for simply making ‘pretty music’. There’s a lot of fire and imagination at work here, with some envelope-pushing time changes and more than a few angular melody tangents – at times it almost sounds as if there are two signatures being employed simultaneously by ‘sub-committees’ within the band, with the rhythms coming around after a bit to re-join, rather like the polyrhythms heard in some African music.
This is pretty amazing stuff, folks – and like many ‘discoveries’, a little research shows me that there’s a pretty deep well here from which to draw. The interactive discography on Pierre de Bethmann’s website reveals a money pit of extreme proportions (I loves my music, so...) – but that’s often the case with jazz players, given their propensity to perform widely with other artists, offering their services in whatever form can be creatively rewarding for all concerned. The nine tracks on Oui alone tell me that I’ve found a new favorite here – I've already come across a couple of Prism CDs online at prices so low that I couldn’t pass up ordering them, and I’ve added some others to a wish list that seems to grow much faster than I can reduce it (how many years has that been going on…?). The more ‘new’ (meaning, ‘new to me’) players that I discover, the more comforted I am that creativity will always find a way to be heard (or seen, or read, or experienced in whatever medium it’s found) – and in our world, it’s always a nice feeling to be reassured.

Check out his website – you can listen to audio samples from all four Prysm albums as well as his three latest releases. Also – visit out the site's ‘video’ section, with some really high-quality offerings to enjoy.

Pierre de Bethmann – official website