I might have been the only accredited journalist who did not see a single American film at the latest American Film Institute (AFI) Film Festival last November (6-16) in Los Angeles. A mainstream filmmaking school and a repository of Hollywood values, the AFI is not known for its experimental/avant-garde bias. With the brilliant exception of a “Special Screening” of Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves (2003), the most interesting US flicks – all docs – had already been “tested” in other film festivals, such as Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), a follow-up to their deeply controversial 1992 documentary (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer), this time completed after their subject’s execution in the fall of 2002, and Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003) (also “Special Screenings” before their upcoming theatrical release in Los Angeles). Or Rob Moss’ The Same River Twice (2003) and Judith Katz and Madeleine Gavin’s What I Want My Words to Do to You (2003) (both shown last year at Sundance). Among the narrative features, ironically, the “hot ticket” was a fictionalisation of the Aileen Wuornos story, Patty Jenkins’s Monster (2003), starring Charlize Theron in the title role and Christina Ricci as her wayward lover.
Yet, I did not see any of those. They’ll be released, eventually, at a theatre near me, as they say. No – what I was looking for was a way to get my fix of international cinema. The reputation of Los Angeles as a city with provincial taste entirely dedicated to promoting the most banal of Hollywood “products” is greatly exaggerated. The UCLA Film and Television Archive offers a large gamut of sophisticated programming from archival treasures to contemporary world cinema; the American Cinémathèque, various museums such as LACMA and the Getty or regular theatres like the Nuart, the Laemmle or the historical Rialto often present inspired programming. While they have disappeared in most US cities, repertory theatres (Beverly Theater, Academy) survive in LA. And the city boasts one of the oldest US organisations dedicated to the screenings of avant-garde/experimental work, Film Forum, as well as a few alternative spaces such as the funkier Echo Park Film Center or the newly opened REDCAT, whose film series are curated by Steve Anker and myself. So it is possible, even in “La La Land”, to see excellent, groundbreaking, illuminating films and videos from Iran, Peru, Europe, and every corner of the independent/experimental US “scene”. But you have to look for them.
And this is exactly what I was doing, driving my car through the meanders of the seven-story parking structure that serves the needs of a chic, integrated Hollywood shopping complex in which the hip “Arclight Cinema” is nested. Tickets and parking are pricey, but you get what you pay for: exquisite, state-of-the-art screening facilities, large theatres, the feeling you’re hanging out at the right place with the right people, that some of the glamour of the place somehow rubs on you. If you have a press pass and then get a coffee or some fettuccini-with-Mexican-shrimps at the restaurant in the lobby, you get to meet all your critic friends and bitch about the shortcomings of the program, while praising the few gems you have been able to catch.
I really, really wanted to see Sylvain Chomet’s Les Triplettes de Belleville – whose English title, Belleville Rendez-vous, is not as half as fun – after the French cultural attaché had mentioned it to me. France has a long tradition of “art” animation that seldom makes it to the US, but the hype generated at Cannes pushed Les Triplettes toward American shores. In a pale working-class suburb, Madame Souza, a music-minded grandmother/auntie type with a chignon (1) raises a lonely, nerdy little boy who flatly refuses to play the piano offered to him as a gift. A puppy – later called Bruno – generates more enthusiasm, but the poor animal is traumatised when an electric train runs over its tail. When finally Souza finds the boy’s secret diary, she understands his passion for bicycles (it seems that his dead parents had met during a bicycle trip), and a vocation is born. Years pass, and, with France’s grand architectural renewal of the 1960s well under way, the neighbourhood has been so industrialised that an elevated train runs with haunting regularity under Souza’s first story windows. The boy, now called Champion, trains relentlessly for the Tour de France under Souza’s stern-but-loving supervision (she massages his tired muscles with an egg-beater). Bruno, made overweight by his lust for food, wages a personal battle against trains, climbing the stairs every time one is approaching, to howl with a vengeance at the passing cars and their hapless passengers. Then, during the Tour, Champion is mysteriously kidnapped and his trail leads to an ocean-liner. Souza and Bruno follow on a paddleboat and arrive in Belleville, where, with the help of the Triplettes, a happy ending is coined.
There is more to the film than meets the eye. The Triplettes are a trio of maiden sisters living in a house by the swamp (the famous Belleville swamps – see below) where they survive by cooking grenade fishing frogs in stew, soups and even pastries. In their youth, during the 1930s, the Triplettes had a music hall act, introduced in the film-that-brackets-the-film, a faux TV documentary in which mock versions of Fred Astaire (eaten alive by his own tap-dancing shoes) and Josephine Baker are also featured. The original Belleville is a Paris working-class neighbourhood – once the legendary locus for torch songs and populist fiction, now gentrified and inhabited by artists and auteur filmmakers. A literal translation of the name would be “FairCity”, and, in Les Triplettes, Belleville is no other than a phantasmagorical version of New York City – akin to an alluring mixture of psychedelic drawings in a deluxe edition of The Arabian Nights or Borges’ Labyrinths and the most adventurous architectural designs for New York City. Indeed in 1978, architectural historian Rem Koolhas published a book, Delirious New York, a collection of such rejected projects, the New York that never was, but that we all dream about (2). Within these imaginary projections, Chomet inserts some healthy doses of Gallic humour – a skyscraper shaped like a bottle of gros rouge (ordinary red wine), the lair of the mafiosi dressed as a fancy wine tasting society, a drunken bum speaking French with a Québecois accent… This fantastic counter-universe suggests several levels of possible interpretation. The first one is inhabited with characters like Champion – a comical mixture of muscles and grunts – and the imaginatively-drawn mafiosi, that are… err… joyfully cartoonish, and the plot is cartoonish as well: Champion gets kidnapped; Souza, Bruno and the Triplette join forces; a fight, a car chase; Champion is saved. The second level is a para-feminist critique of narrative tropes and representation – opposing, in the opening sequence, the more brainy Triplettes music hall act to the exotic/erotic pageantry imposed upon the Josephine Baker persona as a condition of her fame, and blossoming into the bonding between Souza and the three sisters. Finally the whole story might be someone’s dream – that of a lazy young man living with his grandmother falling asleep in front of his television set or… Bruno, the dog. Of all the characters of Les Triplettes, Bruno is the only one followed by the shadow, the suggestion of a dream life: in black-and-white sequences, he imagines himself riding on the roof of one of the trains he hates/fears so much, while humans watch him and bark…
New York/Belleville, or maybe Meili Chengshi, was also a dream for Hong Yusheng, a dream carried not by delirious drawings but by the proximity of the sea in his dreary coastal town in Fujian Province. A dream fought for and lost, but still hoped for, a dream worth dying for because there is nothing left to live for. New York, the vanishing point of the fiction, stays off-screen, so the dream is kept invisible. Drifters (Er Di, 2003) (China/Taiwan) remains elegantly at the surface of reality, following minute details, often in long shots: illegal immigrants getting silently into a crammed boat at night; a simple family dinner in which dishes are shared and exchanged while tension is mounting; a couple of prospective lovers together in a room, taking a shower one after the other without daring to touch; a man getting slowly drunk, then into a fight, in an open-air market; three adults doing summersaults on a beach to amuse a little boy…
Soulfully played by newcomer Duan Long, Hong Yusheng (also called “Er Di”, which means “Little Brother” – hence the Chinese title of the film) aimlessly roams the streets of his hometown, living at his older brother’s house, from which he sneaks out at night to meet the tough-yet-lost young actress of a travelling opera company. A deeply wounded man, even his privacy is not respected – in fact the entire town is aware of his history, and at some point, public officials order him to lead a farcical “workshop” designed to teach the local youngsters the evils of illegal emigration. Yusheng once attempted – and succeeded – the trip to America. In New York he worked in a restaurant for richer Chinese immigrants, but fell in love with their daughter, who gave birth to their baby son. His in-laws then had him deported and kept the baby. Now Yusheng may or may not have been instrumental in putting one of his friends in touch with a smuggler for an ill-fated trip during which all the passengers die. Meanwhile, there are rumours that his young son has been brought back to Fujian to visit relatives. Attempts to resume his parental role prove violent and futile. The call of the sea is stronger, and the film ends as it had started, with Yusheng and his girlfriend boarding a boat similar to the fatal one shown at the beginning of the film, completing a desolate circle.
Drifters is the sixth feature of Wang Xiaoshuai, one of the major exponents of the so-called “Sixth Generation” that jumped into “underground” filmmaking after the events of June 4 1989. Better-known for the engrossing yet more superficial Beijing Bicycle (Shiqi Sui de Danche, 2000 – also produced in Taiwan, one of the many paradoxes of Wang’s uneasy and complex relationship with the Chinese film industry), Wang is best when he acutely explores his generation’s societal malaise. His first film, The Days (Dong Chun de rizi, 1993), documented the disintegration of a young couple of artists – while the man unsuccessfully tries to sell his work to foreigners, the wife is secretly dreaming of emigrating to New York… Directed under the moniker of “Wu Ming” (“No Name”), Frozen (Jidu Hanleng, 1997) was inspired by the real story of a Beijing artist committing suicide as part of an art performance. Then So Close to Paradise (Yuenan guniang, 1998) followed the doomed loves of a coolie and a petty gangster for a Vietnamese singer/prostitute in a dusty industrial harbour town. Appropriately, Drifters takes place at the time when China is negotiating its entry into the WTO, therefore accelerating the process of globalisation that makes Yunsheng’s dilemma so poignant. “Real life”, said Rimbaud, “is elsewhere” – and the looming shadow of mass emigration and displacement makes this poetic statement truer in contemporary China that it had ever been. “Home” – this concept so essential to Chinese culture – is no longer an anchor, and exile is often the only way to survive. Drifters belongs to the growing category of mature, disturbing, thought-provoking masterpieces inspired by globalisation. Like the border-crossing Mexicans in Chantal Akerman’s documentary On the Other Side (De l’autre côté, 2002) (France), many Chinese stowaways die in the attempt, leaving bereaved families behind, but many will try again, and again, and again…
Gonaba, the protagonist of The Forest (Le Silence de la Forêt, 2003) (Central African Republic/Cameroon/Gabon), co-directed by Didier Ouenangare and Bassek ba Kobhio, is apparently a successful emigrant: having studied in France, he decided to go back to his native Gabon, where he secures a higher administrative position in education. However, he finds himself, in a classical Frantz Fanon equation, wearing a white mask over his black skin. Neo-colonialism has corrupted the political and cultural life of the country. Dress codes, modes of entertainment and social relationships are copied from France. Gabonese bourgeois occupy the positions once held by the whites in regards to their own oppressed classes and minorities; like the former colonisers, they call their male servants “boys”, and keep the Pygmies in a state of subjection, treating them as uneducated savages, cheap labour and tourist attraction.
Disgusted with himself Gonaba penetrates the depth of the rainforest, helped half-way by a Pygmy whose freedom he has just “bought” from a local chieftain. His goal is to “liberate” the Pygmies through education. In the months, then years he’ll spend sharing their lives, he’ll gradually realise, sometimes with humility, more often with unconscious anger and scorn, that, in this foolish, vain endeavour, he has cast himself, again, in the role of the white man. Often contemptuous of and insensitive to the indigenous culture, he realises the coloniser’s ultimate dream – a passionate affair with a pretty, “primitive” (and already engaged) woman – and behaves more or less, in his misguided efforts to “civilise” his hosts, like a grown-up, selfish, dangerous child who has to be controlled for his own sake and that of the villagers.
What happens to a deferred dream? It rots, of course (Langston Hughes), and Gonaba’s adventure ends with a taste of ashes and death. The film is an intelligent, sophisticated, albeit pessimistic acknowledgement that you need more than goodwill to allow cultures at different states of development to communicate. This melancholy theme was once the prerogative of “sensitive” writers from imperialist nations, for example Jane and Paul Bowle, whose conjugated oeuvre explores the pitfalls of such misunderstandings. Neo-colonialism, however, has imposed a deep fracture within African identity itself – some assuming, through their class position, what used to be the “white man’s burden”, some fancying themselves as missionaries or liberators. Seeing African filmmakers tackle such complex issues is yet more proof that while it may be the least-known non-Western cinema, African cinema has reached a stage of splendid maturity.
Yet, in a society as apparently homogeneous as Japan, you don’t have to go into the forest, or in another culture, to start dreaming – just leave your house. Such is the ultimate morality of The Blessing Bell (Koufuku No Kane, 2002) (Japan), directed by the elusive, idiosyncratic auteur Sabu. The hidden deceit of the film is that the first images of the full circle drawn by the narration (the man leaving his house) are missing. Instead, we are immediately thrown into what may prove a false lead – brief shots suggesting social conflict, strikes, unemployed men in an industrial setting looking for work. Our lonely protagonist continues walking, in an atmosphere that turns into a surreal nightmare. A chance encounter with a friendly yakuza leads to an accusation of murder; a hit-and-run accident ends up in a hospital, where the man in the next bed (smilingly played by veteran genre filmmaker Seijun Suzuki) is actually a ghost; a visit to the widow’s house uncovers a dead body and a winning lottery ticket; a sweet young lady in need of help is a thief… And at the end of all of this, the protagonist retraces his steps, meets the same people again, but with minute changes (the car does not hit him etc…) and then gets home where his placid wife, noting matter-of-factly that he did not return last night, prepares the traditional bath without asking questions.
At first, one feels slightly cheated; all of this, this splendid, disquieting staging of off-kilter events, and it was nothing more than an elegant version of the husband who gets out one evening to “buy cigarettes” and come back three years later. Or was it? Maybe the false lead of the beginning was not meant to deceive but was the index of a situation more troubled than the misadventures of the protagonist. In the post-Asian economic crisis, as Japan is plagued by financial scandals, the man may have been really looking for work. So The Blessing Bell would be a post-modern version of The Odyssey revisited by James Joyce and Shinsuke Ogawa (who documented so well labour and class conflicts in Japan). And this succession of happenstances was only a dream – to ward off the painful reality: one day looks just the same as the other, it is colourless and uneventful, it is another day without work.
In a recent text about the Jacques Tourneur retrospective at the French Cinémathèque, Pierre Alferi successfully argues that the articulation of Jacques Tourneur’s cinema does not depend on the Bazin-defined dialectic between what is on and what is off-screen, but on the “index” of the presence of the invisible within the visible, of the “without-image within the image” – the shadow of the panther on the wall of the swimming pool in Cat People (1942) for example – and this is the mark of its surprising modernity (3). Tourneur was a genius because he managed to do so from within the Hollywood studio system. We are lucky to be still exposed to such tropes – but differently. As Hollywood products become more standardised on the side of transparency and redundancy, world cinema seems to take the “burden” of giving a cinematic shape to the opaque, the invisible, the ambiguous – even if it’s nothing more than drawing the dreams of a dog called Bruno who wanted, against all odds, to ride on the top of a train.
- During the screening, I had understood Madame Souza to be the boy’s grandmother. English synopses of the film identify her as his aunt. The film’s minimal dialogue does not provide enough clues… it’s up to you, dear reader.
- Rem Koolhas, Delirious New York, Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, New York, 1978. The book was recently translated into French as New York Délire (Parenthèse, Paris, 2003) and Chomet may have been quite aware of it when working on the film.
- Pierre Alferi, “Tourneur, le goût de laisser voir”, Cahiers du cinéma, No. 586, Jan 2004, 83