Friday, April 21, 2017

La Libertad (Freedom)


LA LIBERTAD                    B-                   
aka:  Freedom
Argentina  (73 mi)  2001  d:  Lisandro Alonso

To me he’s a sage.  Someone who isn’t interested in society, who creates his own world.  People talk about Whitman, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and other names I’ve never heard of. 
—Lisandro Alonso, speaking of Misael, the protagonist of his film La Libertad

Narration is all but absent in Alonso’s first feature, where in his words, “I don’t want to tell a story.  I’m interested only in observing.”  The son of a cattle rancher, at the age of 25, Alonso decided to spend time in the country on land purchased by his father, taking him into Argentina’s Pampas region where he met the film’s protagonist, a tree cutter (hachero) named Misael Saavedra, spending 8 months with him before pitching the film to his former film school, Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires, immediately encountering resistance, as neither his family, his friends, nor his school liked the idea, so he financed it independently with $50,000 from family money, making his father the producer.  Using a 12-person crew, they shot for ten days, basically presenting a day in the life of Misael.  Told with lyrical power and a scarcity of information, the film is far from a documentary portrait, as you could imagine how this would be so differently presented in the hands of Werner Herzog.  Instead it resolutely refuses to provide any background information, where it’s 30-minutes into the film before a single word is spoken, providing an unflinching look at a man living a solitary life in the countryside, where the bold declaration of the title provides the viewer all they need to know, as it’s a question asked throughout the film, which is itself a conglomerate of fiction, documentary, and improvisation, where the camera, mostly in long takes, follows this young man around as he cuts wood with an ax and chainsaw, rounding up tree stumps, cutting off branches, marking tree trunks, then placing them all in a woodpile, as we see him walking through the high grass, even defecating in the woods, with the sounds of cows heard in background.  After a while he takes a break to eat, washing his hands, changing his T-shirt, warming up prepared stew in a pot, turning on a radio playing Latin Salsa music, while also gulping water and smoking a cigarette.  A rhythm of motion is established through simple means, and like the director’s other works, this exceedingly spare and minimalist film takes the form of a silent, solitary journey.

Misael greets a man and his son as they pull up in an empty pickup truck by his woodpile, loading the bare logs in his truck, while Misael rides in the back with a giant white dog panting all the way.  They get off at home, allowing Misael to continue by himself, reaching a rural lumberyard where he hops out and rolls a cigarette, where one hears the sounds of dogs in the distance as he waits for the owner to inspect his lumber.  Offering 15 stumps at two pesos each, he ends up selling them for one peso and 80 cents each, or 27 pesos (approximately $9 dollars).  After unloading his truck, he immediately spends 10 pesos on cigarettes and a cold soda, as well as a gallon of gasoline for his chainsaw that he pours into a plastic jug.  Returning the truck to its rightful owner, he heads off into the open fields, past cows and wheatstacks, disappearing into the treeline where he catches an armadillo, lugging it along with him as he ambles through the forest back to his tent.  Making a fire, placing a metal grill over it, he whacks the animal a few times before slitting it open and roasting it on the fire, skin down.  Later in the evening, he lights a pile of brush on fire in the woods before sitting down to eat his meal, illuminated by campfire, where the film opens and closes with mirror images of Misael eating the cooked armadillo with his knife, where lightning and thunder can be heard in the background, though at the end, he boldly eyes the camera with furtive glances before the film fades to black, showing the title sequence as the rains fall.  Interestingly, the credits actually play at the beginning, along with a bass-heavy, pulsating vibe of contemporary music by Juan Montecchia, where the opening credits to the glacially paced LA LIBERTAD and Liverpool (2008) both feature strangely uptempo music, where this is the first in a Lonely Men Trilogy that also includes LOS MUERTOS (2004) and Liverpool (2008), one of the more intriguing trilogies in contemporary cinema, as one wonders whether these solitary men operating in isolated rural regions, outside the constraints of society’s reach, are really more liberated, or does their extremely limited economic opportunity keep them in a neverending cycle of powerlessness and poverty?  While they answer to no one but themselves and have skills that allow them to survive in the wilds of nature, yet their silence is reflected in their absence of political power, remaining marginalized, and perhaps even exiled from the broader community that all but ignores them.  In a broader view, they may as well be invisible, which is why Alonso chooses to shine a light on them.      

The film screened at the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes in 2001, quickly becoming a festival favorite, largely due to its daring originality and almost complete absence of language, yet it is inexplicably listed as the #3 film of the decade by Cinema Scope magazine, Cinema Scope Top Ten Films of the Decade - Cinema Scope, which is a head scratcher, but an example of how well Alonso is received in critical circles.  Described as “a poetic meditation on labor and landscape,” the film is reduced to its barest necessities, which perhaps increases the observational focus of the viewers, with Alonso describing the experience, “It’s a mirror, but empty,” allowing each individual viewer to fill in the empty spaces with their own thoughts and reflections, projecting their own idea of liberty.  While the woodcutter is nearly self-sufficient, deriving his income and basic needs from nature itself, his isolation, however, allows him to be economically exploited, so that the wood that he cut so carefully ends up being sold cheaply, where he’s at the mercy of market prices set by the lumberyard.  Who’s to say they don’t continually take advantage of him, as he’s a small time operator, where the sale may even be off the books, as Misael is part of a continuing journey from nature to the market and back again, somehow balancing work and nature.  The film never romanticizes the labor, but this is the lengthiest section of the film, shown with cinematic realism, where the slow pace of the film seems to extend our time with a man alone in the woods, literally expanding our boundaries, taking viewers on a journey at the margins of civilization.  But like Flaherty’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922), this is a staged reality, a kind of fictionalized documentary, starting and ending in the same place, creating a mythical structure of a routine day in the life, as if every day is pretty much like this one.  Because of the relationship between Misael and his environment, there is a fine line between loneliness and freedom, where there may be days when he speaks to no one, but remains at a distance, preferring solitude to socialization, becoming a prisoner of uncertainty, subject to a different kind of inner life, something the camera never sees, that each viewer themselves must discover.  As an art film, outside the guidelines of commercialization, the director has already escaped the norms of traditional film language, driven by a desire to establish his own artistic freedom, refusing to follow the paths paved by others, using a radical stylization that is both provocative and informative, which may be uncomfortable to many, where each new generation will have to decide for themselves the worth of this kind of artistic approach, but as a first feature, it’s rare.     

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Being John Malkovich

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH          A-                   
USA  (93 mi)  1999  d:  Spike Jonze

Not like anything else you’ve ever seen, this is a unique acid trip on identity, the determination of what’s real, and the idea of being yourself, which takes one through the contortions of personality, from doubt to slight interest to full-throttle obsession with the idea, all of which in this movie feels as if it’s just toying with the possibilities that come to mind.  Turning oneself into a carnival exhibit, complete with patrons standing in line paying for the experience, even if only momentary, of being someone else—believe me, this is a different kind of theater altogether.  Behind the mask, behind the reality, is a lonely puppeteer pulling the strings on a magnificently strange and despairing puppet act which no one wants to see, but which consumes the mind of John Cusack, looking a bit out of sorts and disheveled, while his frizzy haired wife, Cameron Diaz, has invited a wild kingdom of animals to come live in their apartment, including talking parrots and a monkey with bad dreams.  Continually down on his luck, Cusack tries to get real and takes a turn in the job market as a file clerk in a strange and mysterious organization that exists on the 7 and ½ Floor where the lowered ceiling forces everyone to duck their heads, as it was apparently designed for the comfort of midgets.  Not really fitting in, but fixated on a sensuous co-worker, Catherine Keener (never better), who makes it clear from the outset that she isn’t the least bit interested, yet he plunges his heart and soul in her direction anyway, but only gets as far as a quick after dinner drink, and only then because he could guess her first name in three tries.  But this gets him nowhere, leaving him a discombobulated slab of jelly in her presence until one day he accidentally finds a strange door behind a file cabinet.  When he enters, he experiences what it’s like to be inside the head of actor John Malkovich for 15 minutes, seeing and feeling what Malkovich experiences until he’s jettisoned out onto a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike.  

This is not the sort of information one keeps under their hat, as it must be shared and the portal must be experienced, soon enough by his wife, who discovers a strange sexual titillation when she, as Malkovich, makes love with Keener.  No sooner has Cusack discovered the secret phenomena of a lifetime, he’s soon discarded by his wife and Keener who want to canoodle together every fifteen minutes with Diaz as Malkovich.  Cusack couldn’t just stand idly by, feeling as though he must defend his honor, so he locks his wife up in the monkey cage and trots off into the portal himself and uses his puppeteering expertise to manipulate Malkovich to say and do what he wants, which is to canoodle with Keener himself.  After awhile, Keener soon discovers it’s been Cusack inside Malkovich, and not Diaz, so poor Cameron Diaz is discarded like day old bread, as Keener becomes fascinated by the power of the puppeteer.  John Malkovich himself, tired of being contorted into a glob of putty in Cusack’s hands, follows Keener one day and discovers the line of people waiting to spend fifteen minutes inside Malkovich.  So with much commotion, he jumps to the front of the line and insists that since he actually is John Malkovich, that he should get some special consideration as he wants in, which easily leads to the most profoundly peculiar sequence in the film where Malkovich is dining in a restaurant and everyone there is a Felliniesque version of himself.   Like a Twilight Zone episode, Malkovich stares into the world of Malkovich and becomes just as obsessed as everyone else, completely absorbed by the idea of himself. 

Time passes and Cusack has mastered his craft, as he’s figured out how to remain inside and gotten Malkovich to change his career from a master actor to the world’s greatest puppeteer, which is met with acclaim the world over, with praise from the likes of fellow actors Sean Penn and Brad Pitt.  Meanwhile he pals around with Charlie Sheen, who goes gaga when he hears Malkovich’s initial description of the lesbian force surging inside of him.  Keener and Malkovich are the new couple making the cover of all the tabloid magazines, popular the world over, and puppet shows are all the rage.  Life couldn’t be sweeter.  But of course, it’s all an illusion, as someone else is pulling the strings behind the mask, while John Malkovich himself has all but disappeared.  The sheer exhilaration of ideas here is stupefyingly ridiculous, as they just keep pouring out in astonishing fashion as the movie progresses, continuing right up through the end credits when Bjork sings her own hushed, barely audible personal anthem, Björk - Amphibian - YouTube (4:36).  Were it not for the somewhat infantile and adolescent expressions of love exhibited here, where a married couple sell each other out in a minute with little or no regard, or where it’s just as easy to step over someone to get what you want, where the concept of self-interest is literally raised onto the level of a Hollywood throne, with adoring and worshipping fans happy that you made that choice.  The finale is as cinematically lovely as it is perplexing, as older time traveling vessels (Malkovich) are discarded for newer and younger versions, making the idea of self resemble the evolving mutations of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which continually undergoes interior transformations that may not even be initially recognizable, but soon becomes the dominant force behind the person.