Passing Summer (2001)

29 06 2008

At last, Angela Schanelec has made a film that is truly reflective of her technical capabilities. Her later efforts, Marseille and Afternoon, are all crafted with an obvious understanding of the “nuts and bolts” of cinema but on the other hand, have felt slightly less perspective on the more abstract aspect of cinema: people. This film, however, is a perfect example of capturing the fleeting moments of happiness and enjoyment in life, juxtaposed to the true harshness that makes up most of one’s existence. Within the limited scope of eighty minutes, it fleshes out a plethora of characters, all treated with the highest amount of respect. Calling it an Ozu film for the twenty-first century would only begin to describe Schanelec’s accomplishment.

The film opens to a static shot of two women, Valerie and Sophie, at a coffee shop discussing the lives of people which we are completely unfamiliar with. Their chat is not expository, but rather the first signs of Schanelec’s observational approach. Not unlike Hong Sang-Soo’s most recent films, Schanelec often keeps the camera lingering on superficially unimportant conversations. It is these sequences that help build one’s idea of a certain character. I specifically say one’s idea as every person is handled so truthfully and by result, so abstractly, that one’s own conclusions can only be opinion. Perhaps this is true of most serious character-driven films, but the way in which Schanelec portrays every character is a way that is so full and yet, completely free of any prejudices. Every character really is a portrait, their own living and breathing creature, which leads to the main Ozu parallel.

Ozu’s aesthetic has been essentially dead since the director’s own passing, or perhaps sense Naruse’s but the influence of both has clearly been evident in the film world for as long as I can personally remember. Yoji Yamada and Hou Hsiao-Hsien make very “Ozu-like” films, but neither are slavish imitators. Now, I’m not saying Schanelec is a slavish imitator but rather that her abilities to fully realize every little detail, whether it be an alive one or not, is the true essence of Ozu’s intentions. Lots of directors try to do this, but none are as successful as Schanelec is with this film. The reason being that the balance of humanity is so delicate that the slightest emotionally disagreement can ruin one’s connection to a film. This was certainly true of my first experience with Schanelec’s own Afternoon, which I could relate to on a basic level but resisted due to the character’s ability to reach points where they were so confident in expressing their feelings. More than just suffering a break from realism, such “feelings talk” just breaks my own connection with a cinematic person.

Passing Summer, on the other hand, features none of this. Instead, every character has not only a difficult time expressing themselves, but also a difficult time comprehending the context of their existence. In one of the most breathtakingly poignant sequences of all-time, a character mentions that she “didn’t want things to change” which personally, hits all to close to home. We never want things to change, it seems. We all want to stay in our comfort zones, in our old habits, in our daily routine. Whether or not these ways of living make us happy or not seems irrelevant. Never is one eager to make a commitment or break a habit.

The film points to all these questions and like all great works of art, gives no definite answers. But the way in which Schanelec comes upon them is never artificial or dramatized. Every single thing about her masterpiece rings true but at the same time, it never sinks to the low of personal motivation or even wish fulfillment. It simply ends and in the process, gives the world one of the most perfect example of life in the twenty first century and all the complications that come with it. Simply stated, one of the greatest films of all-time and a perfect example of cinema’s power.

T-Men (1947)

29 06 2008

While this isn’t quite as mature as Mann’s later Westerns, it is also much more daring in a sense. For sure, there is a greater sense of stylistic indulgence. In addition, this was quite obviously made for a lot less money than a film like say, The Tin Star, and thus there is an inherent level of fakeness, a “B-movie sensibility” if you will. But all of that is rather superficial and a way, kind of charming. For all the blue screens and cheap sets, Mann and Alton still manage to craft as much cinematic beauty in each frame, enough so that their visual grace can rival even the artiest of directors.

As usual with Mann’s films, describing the plot would almost imply a very negative reaction, but I’ll attempt to do so anyway. Two treasury agents go undercover to break up a thriving counterfeiting organization. In the process, they become increasingly involved in the city’s “seedy underbelly.” In other words, a pretty textbook noir setup. However, some credit should be do in the efforts to downplay the Hollywood conventions of a cause and effect type of narrative. While this is certainly no nuanced or deep character study, it also isn’t an overly eventful or shrill melodrama.

The “inexperience” on Mann’s part lends the film some of its most inspired moments. There seems to be a complete misunderstanding, or perhaps disinterest, in conventional pacing. In that sense, I’m somewhat reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog which would come out only a couple years later. Like Kurosawa, Mann seems like someone who has heard movies described to him, but never actually seen one himself. This isn’t an criticism, instead its a compliment. For as (seemingly) conventional as the narrative is, it is executed with a disregard for the “right” way to make a movie. A great example is the fact that Mann rarely falls under the spell of the “shot/reverse shot” style and instead, allows Alton’s picture-esque cinematography to linger for prolonged periods of time. Calling this the first “minimalist” film might be exaggerating its strength, but it certainly has an austere sensibility.

On the other hand, the inclusion of voiceover narration does send the film down a few pegs. There’s some many problems with it, alone, that it makes me terribly angry just to think about. First of all, the voice itself is completely sterile and boring, not unlike the voice in NFL Films presentations from the early sixties. I suppose if there had been an attempt to add personality, the results would have been even worse. Then again, I guess that is the problem with a third-person voice of God style of narration. The voiceover seems to annoyingly disappear for fairly long stretches of the film. While its absence is welcomed, its eventual return seems all the more silly. I suppose this isn’t a really big factor in the grand scheme of things but it does stand as a giant wart on the film’s otherwise perfectly smoothed face.