Sunday, September 09, 2007

wavelengths 2 & 3; mira nair presents 4 views on AIDS in india; callas assoluta

Text on screen seems to be a hallmark of this year's Wavelengths programmed films. Butterfly in Winter by Ute Aurand and Maria Lang, from the Wavelengths 3 programme is a sublime portrait of ordinary everyday human experience in expressionist terms. The film begins with several title cards that read like excerpts from Lang's diary of caring for her 96 year old mother over five years. We then see it all expressed in visual terms: juxtapositions of images of mother and daughter in relentless routine of eating soup with bread, braiding hair and bathing the body. As they repeats themselves, the images gain new meaning and we are no longer watching them for any story value (a dilemma for western audiences: we simply don't know how not to do that), but just for the beautiful intimacy that can sometimes emerge from being so strongly connected to the person you care for. The blues and golds of dress and hair become almost serene, despite the banality of the same tasks repeated and repeated. And the rhythm of constant jumpcutting and overpacing, which can be so annoying when used without meaning, here serves the filmmakers beautifully.

Similarly, another Wavelengths film (from the second programme) uses text and familiar but beautifully realised shots of nature intercut, to say something about history. John Gianvito's stunning Profit Motive and the whispering wind is a silent portrait of landmark historic markers in the United States and the untold tale which slowly emerges of the history of the US labour movement, suffrage of women and civil struggle of African-Americans. As a cemetery-junkie (I walk my dogs in one daily), I appreciated how lovingly these markers celebrate the known and unknown heros of the American civil rights movement (which in its truest meaning applies to all peoples). Gorgeous waving grass and flowers are mixed with the heavy and weathered stone monuments, and as the film progresses, so does the intensity of the wind which is blowing through those natural elements. The gathering wind becomes a metaphor for the buried voices still speaking out for change. Eventually, the movie erupts into the present with violent sound as we see contemporary peace marches and individuals bravely moving for social change. Although it veers on the obvious from time to time (shots of Shell Oil and McDonald's marquees squinting through the trees), its message is mostly a quiet one and well-worth noting.

In his introductory comments, John Gianvito commended Wavelengths programmer Andrea Piccard for her thoughtful composition of films. He is absolutely right - this film stood alongside the short, Europa 2005, October 27, by French giant filmmakers Straub and Huillet, which documents by simply sitting in front of it, the transforming station in the Paris suburbs where two youths fleeing from police jumped to their burning deaths by accident. Although they can hardly be called heros, their deaths point to the necessity of examining the melting pot of social cultures that our cities have become.

In a similar vein, the Mavericks sessions are looking to expose the political energy of contemporary filmmaking. Yesterday's session brought together prominent Indian filmmakers to showcase views on the AIDS dilemma in India. The movies, by the likes of Nair and Santosh Sivan, are largely uneven, in that they seem to portray the epidemic from mostly a middle-class and above perspective, when perhaps what is needed is enlightenment for the castes who have less access to education. Nair is working in connection with the Gates Foundation, but the people around her seem largely steeped in privilege. I must commend such a wonderful idea and enterprise and all who want to illuminate this situation - I only lament that there does not seem to be an attempt to show average people in average situations. Sivan's film comes the closest, in its depiction of a young boy's stigmatization at school because of his HIV status. But even this submits to an unlikely fantasy finish in which the boy's triumphant return to school is treated as if he is a rock star. More earth-bound movies are needed on this important subject. Let's hope Nair's Jaggo AIDS project goes there.

The divine Miss M!!! And I don't mean Bette Midler (though that divinity can be seen in Helen Hunt's movie, reviewed yesterday). I am talking here about Callas Assoluta, Philippe Kholy's strange documentary on Maria Callas. Using rare footage of arguably the greatest bel canto coloratura of our time, the movie fails to live up to being the insightful portrait of its subject that it promises. As my friend Andrew noted, the scratchy black and white footage of openings outside crowded theatres is infinitely more compelling than the impeccable digitally mastered empty interiors of concert halls the world over where Callas performed. It is an error of filmmaking to think we could ever be more interested in something that is the "site of" a great moment than the actual moment itself. But this is not the worst of the movie's conceits: it makes outrageous leaps of supposition and conjecture and frankly ridiculous errors of artistic judgement. We particularly enjoyed a voiceover narration that told of how moments after Callas and Onassis had been blessed by a Greek Orthodox bishop, they fell into bed together. It is laughable and even offensive to infer that audiences might believe that these human beings would actually start a love affair because they had been "blessed". Still, the movie does offer footage well-worth the price of standing in line, particularly a long television interview with Callas and Luchino Visconti, which points to their complex working relationship, and a moment when Callas describes how her face reads a phrase of music to the audience before she sings it, so that her audiences will know how to hear it. In the end, a great artist transcends even a badly conceived tribute to her life.

No comments: