Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

친 절한 금자씨 (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance)

Directed by Park Chan-wook
South Korea

The famous film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that the 1955 film Ordet (1955) by Carl Theodor Dreyer had, “The most painful scene of medical procedure I have ever experienced in a film.” He was speaking about a childbirth scene where the audience could not see the actual procedure, but could hear the mother in the midst of death throes. Coming from a man who has had to watch and review many of the goriest and most violent films ever made, this observation may seem unusual. How can a scene where we don’t see any blood or gore go down as one of the most violent ever filmed? My answer is that violence in not something that can be easily quantified. A scene of a difficult childbirth can be more inherently violent than an onscreen decapitation. In some cases, extreme violence can be effective when it is only implied. Take the scene in Hitchcock’s last masterpiece Frenzy (1972) when he lingers on a woman entering a serial killer’s apartment. With a simple shot of a hallway, the audience immediately realizes that the poor woman will be killed. Though Psycho (1960) is Hitchcock’s goriest film, the aforementioned scene makes Frenzy his most violent.

So why have I brought all of this up? The answer is that I wish to set the stage for an examination of one of the most shocking, gripping, and yes, violent, films that I have ever seen. The catch is that as one of the most violent films ever made, there is relatively little gore. Instead, it is the implied violence and the psychological and emotional trauma that the audience is exposed to that makes it one of the most violent films ever made. The film in question is the South Korean 친 절한 금자씨, which literally translates to Kind-Hearted Ms. Geum-Ja. But it is more famous under its Western name, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.

The third and final film of director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, it is far and away the best of the three. Chan-wook describes the trilogy as films that deal with the themes of “revenge, violence, and salvation.” The first film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), deals with a father going after a young couple who kidnapped and accidentally killed his young daughter in a ransom scheme to get money for a kidney transplant. A fine film in its own right, it is nevertheless the weakest of the three, primarily because its famous violence seems out of place. Violence and gore play a strong role in all three films, but in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance the over-the-top violence is often unnecessary for the advancement of the plot and the development of the characters. The second film, Oldboy (2003), is easily the most famous of the trilogy, becoming a cult favorite in its own right due in no small part to enthusiastic praise from Quentin Tarantino after viewing the film at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. The film follows a man who gets locked up in a hotel room for a grueling 15 years only to escape and seek vengeance against the people who imprisoned him. Here, the visceral violence plays an important role in the development of the characters. The violence wreaked by the lead character documents his fall from grace. However, it relies too heavily on a twist near the end that somewhat diminishes the film upon subsequent viewings.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance focuses on a young woman named Lee Geum-ja. At the beginning of the film, we see Geum-ja leaving a prison yard having finished a reduced sentence for the crime of killing a young schoolboy named Won-mo. She is greeted by a Christian musical procession welcoming her upon her release. In prison, she was known as “Kind-Hearted Geum-Ja” for her kindness, delicate beauty, and her apparent conversion to Christianity. It is heavily implied that Christian lobbyists had a hand in reducing her sentence. So they joyfully greet her at the prison gate. They present her with a large block of tofu, saying that eating it is symbolic of her commitment to never sin again. Without flinching, she swats the tofu out of her way and mocks the procession. This scene has no gore, but watching the reactions of her Christian supporters makes it clear that this was one of the most violent actions that they have ever witnessed.

Geum-ja is not seeking salvation. She seeks revenge. In reality, she did not kill Won-mo. She merely confessed to the killing because the real murderer, a pre-school teacher named Mr. Baek, had kidnapped and threatened to kill her infant daughter. Her image and reputation of being “Kind-Hearted Geum-Ja” was merely a facade. For years she has plotted her revenge on the man who took away her life and her daughter.

But Geum-ja isn’t alone. During her stint in prison she made several friends by caring for some of the more emotionally weak inmates, donating a kidney to another, and even killing a prison bully by feeding her bleach. When she arrives at their various doorsteps, she is graciously welcomed and provided with food, shelter, and employment in a local bakery.

Through a strenuous process, Geum-ja manages to track down her daughter. After her incarceration, she was adopted by Australian parents and named Jenny. Now a young teenager, she only speaks English and has no recollection of her real mother. When Geum-ja visits, she only intends to see her and make sure that she is safe. But in another one of the film’s most violent scenes, Jenny callously rejects her adopted parents and goes back to Korea with Geum-ja.

A word of caution: for those who are easily disturbed, I would recommend skipping to the last paragraph of this review. From here on, things will only serve to get more violent and harrowing. Upon her arrival back in Seoul with Jenny, she manages to track down Mr. Baek. With the help of his abused wife (another one of Geum-ja’s prison mates) she kidnaps Mr. Baek. To her horror, she discovers that he has killed several children over the years. This realization comes when she discovers one of Won-mo’s marbles on Mr. Baek’s keychain along with several other trinkets collected from his other victims. With the help of a detective who originally worked on Won-mo’s case, they track down the parents of Mr. Baek’s victims.

In an abandoned school, the parents are assembled and made to watch a series of snuff tapes of Mr. Baek killing their children. These scenes are not easy to watch. But if you approach them from the point of view of a cinematic craftsman, it becomes apparent that they are works of genius. We see only small snippets of each film. Usually we only see the kids crying for a moment and calling out to their parents. These are the most violent scenes in the entire film. But it isn’t because we watch the kids being murdered. No, we watch the parents watch their kids getting murdered. In one particularly devastating scene, a young girl is made to stand on a stool with a noose around her neck. As she cries, Mr. Baek pulls the chair out from under her. With a swift cut, we see her parents fall from their chairs and hit the ground. It’s horrifying, but ingenious.

Afterwards, the parents decide that the justice system cannot bring Mr. Baek to justice. So after a tense debate they decide to kill him. Donned with raincoats to protect their clothes from blood, they each take turns stabbing him. Interestingly enough, we don’t actually see them cutting into him. We see the parents lunge at him, but Chan-wook always cuts away to the parents outside waiting their turn. It is obviously not an easy experience for them. Again, by not showing the actual violence but the reaction to it, Chan-wook elevates the violence in his film to a work of art.

After the deed is done and Mr. Baek is buried, there is a powerful scene where the parents assemble in Geum-ja’s bakery and have a collected birthday party for their dead children. They share a cake and sing happy birthday. A silence falls over the crowd and the chandelier above them begins to rattle. One of the parents whispers that in France, when a crowd falls silent, it is believed that angels fly overhead. The chandelier continues to rattle as the parents sit in silence and begin to cry.

The film ends with Geum-ja presenting a white cake that resembles the block of tofu from the beginning to Jenny. She begs her to “live white” and not sin. Jenny takes a taste and tells Geum-ja that she should do the same. Geum-ja breaks down and begins to cry with her long lost daughter holding her.

Some may wonder why I am advocating such a violent, disturbing film. Well, the answer is that I believe that it should be watched and studied. Too often these days, directors depend on cheap thrills and gross out effects to draw audiences in. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance does not fall into this trap. Park Chan-wook knew better. He realized that character development can often be more tragic, more shocking, and more violent than any horror villain with a bloody knife. For all its intensity and disturbing visuals, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a masterpiece that most directors can learn from. But it is a masterpiece that should only be enjoyed by the strong of heart and those who can remember that they are just watching a movie.


Friday, July 30, 2010

빈집 (3-iron)

Directed by Kim Ki-duk
South Korea

Tae-suk lives a quite, lonely life. Silently, he rides his motorbike through town delivering takeout menus to people’s front doors. Later, he returns to the houses that have not removed the menus. He delicately breaks into them and takes up a tentative residence. Understand, Tae-suk is not a thief or a transient degenerate. The truth is much more beautiful. As he resides in the homes of stranger he cleans and fixes their possessions. A pile of dirty laundry here, a broken pop gun there, he always leaves his temporary quarters better than they were when he arrived. He leaves nothing but a small calling card to alert the true residences that he was there. He takes nothing except for a self portrait. He sometimes gets caught but he usually escapes unnoticed. His is a life of nonexistence. Tae-suk is a perpetual shadow moving through the homes and lives of people he has never met before.

Sun-hwa also lives a quite, lonely life. But her life is one of domination and fear. She lives in an expensive home with an abusive husband. Try as she might to please him, he never seems to be satisfied. The first time we see her, the side of her face is covered in a gigantic swollen bruise. She gets a phone call from her husband where he tries to apologize but ends up chastising her and blaming her for his own actions. It is clear that she is stunningly beautiful, but stress and beatings have marred her complexion. She lives a life of internal exile controlled by submission and isolation.

Such are the lives of the main characters of Kim Ki-duk’s hypnotizing film 3-Iron. The original Korean title is 빈집, which literally translates to Empty House. A far superior title, Empty House creates an evocative image of both the main characters’ lives and they spaces that they inhabit. Though Sun-hwa lives in her own house, it is an empty one as she has no life of which to speak. This makes her the perfect foil of Tae-suk who lives in houses devoid of their owners but nevertheless enjoys a life of freedom. Here are two people who are missing something that only the other can provide. Is it any surprise that the two are destined to fall in love?

Tae-suk discovers Sun-hwa when he breaks into her house, mistaking it for being empty. The two exchange contemplative glances. Tae-suk flees from the house but later returns to find Sun-hwa being abused. Grabbing a 3-Iron golf club and a handful of golf balls, Tae-suk drives several high velocity slices into Sun-hwa’s husband’s chest. With him sprawled out on the ground, the two run away together. So begins one of the strangest and most moving relationships in recent years. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa never talk. In fact, Sun-hwa only has a couple of lines in the entire film. They don’t talk because they simply don’t have to. And so, where most romantic films cram themselves silly with flimsy dialogue, Kim Ki-duk was forced to fill his movie to the brim with fascinating plot developments. Tae-suk develops his golf swing (only to accidentally kill somebody in a passing car), Sun-hwa has to avoid her husband (who considers her to be a kind of property), and both of them have to escape from an apartment after accidentally getting caught by its owners (while sleeping and wearing their pajamas).

And so the film watches as Tae-suk and Sun-hwa go from house to house living off “the land.” Since what they do is technically illegal, they must avoid law enforcement agencies. But eventually their luck runs out when they break into an empty house only to find an elderly dead man. They clean his body and prepare to bury it. Sadly, they are caught by the man’s son and daughter-in-law. The police arrive and take Tae-suk and Sun-hwa into custody. Despite intense interrogations they are silent. Sun-hwa is returned to her husband and Tae-suk is accused of murdering the old man. After several failed attempts to woo Sun-hwa, her husband angrily pays off a policeman to let him abuse Tae-suk. What is his method of torture? And golf club and golf balls, of course. Tae-suk manages to fight through the pain and attack the corrupt police officer. This of course lands him in prison.

But it is while in prison that Tae-suk undergoes a kind of spiritual and physical transformation. He practices golf in his cell with pretend clubs and balls. He begins to practice the art of meditation. But most interestingly, he aggravates the prison guards by disappearing in his cell. He does this by hiding behind the door, above the door, and even in one instance staying behind the guard’s back so that he cannot be seen. Each instance ends with failure and a subsequent beating. But Tae-suk isn’t fooling around or seeking punishment. Instead, he is training himself in the art of invisibility. For once After Tae-suk is released from prison, he goes to live with Sun-hwa. The only problem is that she is still living with her jealous husband. So Tae-suk lives an invisible life literally behind Sun-hwa’s husband’s back as the two lovers are finally united again.

3-Iron is one of those rarest of love stories where the protagonists are not guided by the whims of pure, destined love. Their love is based in mutual needs and trust. They are not part of a movie guided by romance, but by love. It joins the ranks of some of the greatest love films ever made like Rainer Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987), and Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939). Director Kim Ki-duk, one of Korea’s greatest modern directors, knows how to balance atmosphere, character development, and storytelling through the use of showing, not telling. Just watch his legendary Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003) to see what he is capable of. A master of his craft, he filmed and edited 3-Iron in one month. And perhaps that was for the best. As it stands, 3-Iron is a lean, taut film that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It moves into our hearts without us even realizing it. In fact, it may just leave us in a better condition than we were when we first started to watch it.


Monday, July 26, 2010

La Vie est Belle (Life is Rosy)

Directed by Mweze Ngangura and Benoit Lamy

In the Zaire capital of Kinshasa, the lifeblood of two different worlds collide. The first is a universe of music and dance. Nightclubs and bars pulsate with the sounds of some of Africa’s greatest musicians. As the nights meld together into eternal bastions of sound, life is beautiful. Some might even call it rosy. After all, it is one of only places in the country where you can strike it rich overnight and become an international star. But the other world is one of slums and desperate poverty. Here, the music comes from the heartbeat of the streets as people strive to survive. The unfortunate inhabitants of this world live by the rule of debrouillardise, or “the art of hustling to survive.” Many of these people are musicians who have yet to break into the world of success and fame. But most are regular people who must fight everyday to pay the rent and eat. It is in this city of brash contradictions that the brilliant farce La Vie est Belle (roughly translated to Life is Rosy) is set. In it, both worlds collapse on each other as its characters navigate the chaos of life and love.

Such a film can only be described through its characters. A simple rehashing of the plot would not do the film justice. So we begin with Kourou, a simple musician from a rural village. We first see him taking a bus to Kinshasa, brimming with dreams of becoming a successful musician. But seconds after boarding, he loses his only instrument. Stranded in Kinshasa with money and no instrument, Kourou walks the crowded streets devouring kebabs and fruit with hungry, but penniless eyes. This must have seemed familiar to Papa Wemba, Kourou’s actor. One of the most successful and famous musicians to arise from the African continent, there is something eerily authentic about Wemba stalking the streets. We wonder how long he must have toiled before finding economic salvation.

Before long he is under the employ of a fiery woman named Mamou. The (vocally) jealous wife of local club owner Nvouandou, Mamou orders him around like a madman. But there is reason for Mamou’s jealously. It has been twenty years since her marriage and she has yet to bear a child. To cure his impotency, Nvouandou consults with a local witch doctor. The sight of Nvouandou, all dressed up in his sharpest suit, huddled in the doctor’s tiny cell, bears witness to the absurd contradictions of life in Kinshasa: the struggle between appearing modern while stubbornly clinging to old world traditions. Instead of seeking medical help for his impotency, he takes the witch doctor’s advice that he must take on a second wife. Of course she must be a virgin. How else would the remedy work? The catch is that they must wait thirty days after their marriage before they consummate the relationship.

So Mamou must deal with the encroachment of Kabibi, a virginal young woman whom Nvouandou takes on as a second wife. To get rid of her competition, Mamou tries to hook her up with Kourou. Unbeknownst to her, the two have already met and are deeply in love. Matters are made even more complicated when Nvouandou forces Kourou to keep an eye on Kabibi to make sure that she doesn’t break her vow of chastity when he catches him stealing money from his suits. How deliciously ironic it is that the stolen money was being used to woo Kourou.

It isn’t long until Kabibi flees from Nvouandou to go back to her mother’s residence. So when Nvouandou uses Kourou as a courier of gifts to attract Kabibi back, is it any surprise when they arrive at their intended destination bearing the name of a different sender? All of these elements mix together into a delirious farce that plays like Jean Renoir meets Frank Capra: a healthy stock of characters are introduced early on and we watch the ensuing chaos as they go about mistaking identities, confusing who is in which relationship, and jumping into romances behind the backs of proper spouses. And much like Western farces, the characters all end up happily paired off at the end with everybody achieving their own measure of personal success.

But there are two other characters that are essential to the film. The first is a dwarf who sells kebabs for Kabibi’s mother. Appearing almost as frequently as the other main characters, he acts as a kind of near-omniscient commentator on the action, much like the interlocutor from Max Ophüls’ La Ronde (1950). With a perpetual smile on his lips, he peddles his wares, crying out, “La vie est belle.” This simple phrase takes on distinct dimensions of its own as it is repeated throughout the film. When Kourou stalks the streets, it is a message of hope. When Kourou and Kabibi flee Nvouandou, it represents cynical sarcasm. By the end, it is an affirmation of all that is good in life.

But the other character is the song “La Vie est Belle.” As Kourou hustlers around town, we watch as a street band coalesces and give birth to the song. Kourou energetically joins in whenever he can. As the film progresses, the song becomes more defined and articulated as the musicians become better and better. By the end, it is a fully fledged song presented by talented performers. In a way, it is a tangible representation of the dream of making it big as a musician in Kinshasa. Much like the title track from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) it is a shape-shifting siren song that drives the plot forward and measures its progression.

Life is Rosy is one of those rare films that fill you with a complete sense of joy by the end. It isn’t the kind of manufactured joy that we feel when we finish a romantic comedy or a tense action film. Instead, it is a joy inspired by the film’s celebration of life itself. Life is Rosy explores the entire spectrum of human emotion and of life: joy, sadness, success, failure, fulfillment, disappointment. It cherishes each of these feelings as a precious experience integral to the human experience. As the film suggests, sometimes you just have to laugh and say that life is rosy.

http://www.kino.com/video/item.php?film_id=169 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094265/plotsummary

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra

Directed by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapić
The United States of America

What does it take to create a great film? Trained actors, expensive sets, impossible special effects? Does a director need three assistants, the cameraman three grips, and the actors personal hairdressers? Could it be that we have trained ourselves to believe that films can only measure up to the sum of its parts? To think so would be foolish. For decades filmmakers have proven that great pieces of art can be made on miniscule budgets. How many big budget Hollywood directors started their careers by making cheap horror films with their friends in their local woods? How many independent films have been created thanks to the dissemination of cheap camera equipment and film stock? In this age of digital video and Youtube, it is easier than ever for amateurs to get their cinematic visions made. But what about the time when the cinema was still in its infancy? Filmmakers like Griffith and DeMille didn’t have Super-8 film or PixelVision cameras. Murnau and Lang didn’t have access to Final Cut Pro. But that didn’t stop young filmmakers from making bold, brash, and innovative films. One need only look at the phenomenal The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra to see that even in the cinema’s youth filmmakers were not limited by their budgets, but by their imaginations.

Made in 1928, it had a budget of $96 (adjusted for inflation, that’s $1191.33). Sources say that the money was divvied up as such: Film Negative, $25 ($310.24), Store Props, $3 ($27.23), Development and Printing, $55 ($682.54), Transportation, etc, $14 ($173.74). The sets were made of toys and cardboard buildings that were projected like shadows. Paper cut outs and spare film stock litter the background to create a thriving metropolis. Notice that the expenses of the film didn’t include actors’ salaries. That is because the actors weren’t immediately paid, but compensated with benefits that they could claim at a later date. Quite simply, The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra was one of the thriftiest film productions in early cinema history.

From this tiny budget came one of the most challenging and stinging indictments of the Hollywood production system in history. The story begins simply enough: a man goes to Hollywood with the hopes of becoming a movie star. The man (played by John Jones) travels to the desk of the appropriately named Mr. Almighty, the Hollywood producer. He presents Mr. Almighty with a letter of recommendation. However, Mr. Almighty callously dismisses him after writing the number 9413 on his forehead. The number becomes his identity. As he joins the ranks of other Hollywood extras, he notices that they also have numbers. He meets #13, a pretty female extra. He also meets #15, a handsome man who eventually becomes a star.

We watch #15’s escalation to stardom in a curious sequence of scenes where he puts on a number of different masks. Each mask has a different facial expression on it. Eventually, it becomes apparent that the masks represent his ability to act and become different personas. #9413 approaches #15 and shows him his own mask. It is a flimsily made piece of paper and doesn’t live up to the standard of #15’s stately plastic masks. #9413 is spurned and forced out as #15 begins a terrible downward spiral beset upon him by his crushing popularity.

But we don’t have much time to focus on #15’s plight. The film is, after all, about #9413. As he moves from audition to audition, he becomes more and more depressed by his failures. In one of the film’s most inventive scenes, we see a montage of #9413 trying to climb a flight of stairs. But each time he almost makes it to the top, a jump cut deposits him back at the bottom. A modern Sisyphus, #9413 is doomed to be denied his beloved prize. Having lost his identity and money to failure and bill collectors, #9413 succumbs and dies. He ascends to heaven (with the aid of several paper cutouts and a long piece of string) whereupon he meets an angel. The heavenly specter wipes the number from #9413’s head, restoring the humanity that was stolen from him in Hollywood.

Despite its short length (it only clocks in at about 13 minutes) and almost nonexistent budget, The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra is a miracle of early filmmaking. In many ways, its frugality was its greatest strength. The cardboard sets and paper cutouts make the film seem reminiscent of German Expressionism and the French avant-garde. Much of the film’s beauty comes from the masterful cinematography designed by co-director Slavko Vorkapić. Vorkapić, who would become most well known for his montage work in such films as David Copperfield (1935) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), had a true eye for filming special effects. As an audience weaned on CGI and high tech special effects, it is easy for us to identify when Vorkapić uses cutouts and projections. But despite this, they have aged so well that we don’t mind that they look fake.

But the true genius behind the film is director Robert Florey. Beginning his career as an assistant to Louis Feuillade (director of the infamous Les Vampires serial) and as an assistant director to Jose von Sternberg, Florey was one of the most diverse directors in early Hollywood history. He would helm as director the first Marx Brothers movie The Cocoanuts (1929), several low budget horror films such as the Bela Lugosi scream-fest Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), and the film noir The Crooked Way (1949). He was even chosen to direct 1931’s Frankenstein before it was reassigned to James Whale. Florey demonstrated his considerable skill before it was fully developed in The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra. Much like his later films, it is dominated by a moody, and often tragic, atmosphere that permeates each shot. What we are presented with is a cinematic vision of a life wasted, of potential extinguished, of dreams shattered.

Truly, The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra was a labor of love. A tale of great tragedy and redemption, it has become even more relevant in today’s society that so eagerly embraces the cult of celebrity. While no-talent hacks are paid millions of dollars a film just to stand around and look pretty, real professionals, real artists, struggle everyday to make ends meet so they can achieve their dreams. The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra is a tribute and a memorial to those who will never achieve their goals thanks to a cruel and unforgiving system. But it also serves as a beacon of hope for those who wish to pursue careers in filmmaking. Just as Vorkapić and Florey created a masterpiece with only $96, The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra beckons new generations of artists to get out there and create with all they’ve got.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

This is a History of New York

Directed by Jem Cohen
The United States of America

To this day I remember a poster that hung on the wall of my twelfth grade political science classroom. It said, “Don’t be a frog in a well.” The teacher, who had learned the expression while traveling in China, said that it was an old saying about how people see the world. A frog in a well has no perception of the world outside of what he can see. The point of the saying and the poster was that we should not be limited by our own personal worldviews. But does having an individual worldview constitute a bad thing? Shouldn’t independent perspectives on the world be studied and cherished? To those naysayers, I would like to point out the film This is a History of New York, a twenty two minute long experimental film shot on Super 8 stock by Jem Cohen. In it, Cohen used footage that he had amassed over several years to reconstruct his beloved home into a visceral mindscape of unimagined splendor and unspeakable beauty.

The film starts off with one of the most thought provoking opening shots in recent history. The camera approaches a giant concert wall and stares silently through a gaping hole. Beyond the wall we see a construction site. Our view is limited by our perspective, but the camera squeezes as much as it can out of the shot. And then it fades to black. The sequence remains an enigma in our minds as the film continues. What does it mean? My guess is that Jem Cohen wanted to point out that no matter who we are we have a unique vantage point on the world. Just like a camera, we can only see what we are shown. Our lives have predetermined that each individual will see the world differently. When there are 100 people in a movie theater, 100 different movies will be seen, even if they all witness the illumination of the same strips of celluloid. This speaks to the title of the film. Notice that it is a history, not the history. Cohen makes no claims that his is the definitive definition of New York City. Instead, it is his history, his film, his vision of New York.

And what is his history? It is a reconstruction of human history as seen through the eyes of New York City. The opening shot of the construction site can be seen as the Big Bang, or the birth of the universe. Afterwards, the rest of the film is divided up into sections that are named after the various ages of humanity. The first is entitled “prehistory.” One would imagine that this would involve pictures of Manhattan Island from before the settlers arrived. Maybe he would include old paintings and even a rare photograph. Instead, Cohen treats the audience to images of ferns blowing in the wind, the undersides of bridges, and abandoned locales next to the docks. The buildings are decrepit and full of graffiti. Construction equipment rumbles along in a matter reminiscent of woolly mammoths and bumbling brontosaurs. A few men are shown cavorting in the background as if they were involved in ancient rituals.

The next section is entitled “Hunters and Gatherers.” Cohen focuses on men and dogs scavenging the ruins. Bands of police patrol busy streets as if searching for prey. Beautiful rich women carry bulging bags from expensive department stores. We cut to “The Medieval Period.” Sounds of Gregorian chants accompany vistas of construction projects. Street preachers scream like prophets at passersby. Hard rock interrupts the chants as images of the mentally ill pervade the streets like men in explosive religious trances. We see leagues of the homeless sprawled on the ground in a kind of angelic splendor as a heavenly choir of monks sings of their ascension. In “The Golden Age” the screen is filled with the intricate designs of classical architecture. Statues of men long forgotten stand like the skyscrapers that pierce the sky in an almighty challenge to God himself. “Industry” harkens the coming age of progress by dwelling on the destruction of the old guard in the form of an old tenement building burning to the ground.

“The Age of Reason” dwells on Wall Street as we examine well dressed traders hurrying along to their next meeting. Sounds of the stock exchange can be heard like echoes of Paris salons where wealthy men and women discussed issues that would influence the rest of history. Long streams of the intellectual and material bourgeois stampede down the street. Finally, “The Space Age” abandons us with shots of old spaceships that serve as archeological tombstones in parks and industrial graveyards. A homeless man regards the camera as if challenging us to understand what we are seeing. After staring at New York through new eyes, it is finally staring back at us.

Perhaps many of you will think that I am overestimating this film and am making a mountain out of an allegorical molehill. Maybe these are simply random shots of footage compiled by an eccentric hack. That would be wrong. I fervently believe that every frame of this film was carefully selected and organized by Cohen. In an interview with Cohen, Rhys Graham explains, “Many of his films are purely subjective because they posit a unique way of looking at the world approached through his own camera-eye. In this sense, his films have the tone of memory, of words and images recalled, or of the act of sifting through personal archives.” Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the film itself is a kind of response to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera, a city portrait comprised of footage taken in cities like Odessa and Kiev. Both sought to redefine how the audience sees the world by using the camera as a kind of perfect eye that could explore, experience, and portray reality in a more truthful manner than any human could.

So does Cohen succeed in redefining reality? I believe that he does. This is a History of New York completely warps its viewer’s perceptions. It dares to speak in allegories and metaphorical images. René Magritte once famously wrote, “This is not a pipe.” Well, Cohen responds by saying, “Well, neither is this building a building. This homeless man isn’t a homeless man. This city isn’t a city.” To Cohen, New York is a museum, a testimony, and a witness to the collective human experience. He uses his camera to open our eyes to his vision, his reality, his history of New York.

Jem Cohen

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Taafe Fanga (Skirt Power)

Directed by Adama Drabo

Kuni: It’s not about power, but equality in our difference.

Among the Dogon people from the central plateau of Mali, there are legends that speak to an inherent duality that exists in all of nature. They believe that all of space-time can only be held together by a careful balancing, or “twinning,” of opposite forces. For example, the Dogon believe that each person is part male and part female. Whichever side is dominant determines the outward appearance an individual. The perfect balance of gender is thought to only be achieved in the birth of fraternal twins where one is a boy and one is a girl. One of the keys to a harmonious society is equilibrium between the two opposing genders. Famed ethnographer Marcel Griaule wrote that, “In the Dogon system of myth, social life must reflect the working of the universe, and conversely, the world order depends on the proper ordering of society.” Therefore, any imbalance that challenges the gender status quo in Dogon society can be devastating. Such a conflict is at the heart of Taafe Fanga (Skirt Power), a magnificent Malian film that is one of the most fascinating examinations of gender roles in human society ever committed to celluloid.

To many, Skirt Power will be a difficult film to watch and even more difficult to understand. Many African filmmakers, like Ousmane Sembène, tell African stories in the cinema through the use of Western cinematic techniques and structures. As a result, their films often play like they were made by Europeans. But director Adama Drabo veered away from such Western influences and created Skirt Power with the use of African storytelling idioms. As such, it is a distinctly African film made for African audiences. More specifically, it is a film made for West African audiences. The film’s story is fused with attributes of Dogon mythology that would be common knowledge for its intended audience but would be a confusing enigma to those who were unfamiliar with world mythology. But it would be foolish to suggest that such a culturally exclusive film is unimportant. Quite the contrary. Skirt Power could very well be one of the most important African films ever made because it is a perfect snapshot of Dogon culture. I will try to present the film’s story as succinctly as possible in this review. I have rearranged some of the events out of their chronological order so they will make more sense from a Western perspective. I have also added insights into the Dogon people as need be so that the film’s true meaning will have a full impact on those unfamiliar with their culture.

As many stories do, Skirt Power begins with a storyteller. Sitting inside a cramped building filled with people segregated by gender, a griot (a West African poet; storyteller; musician) plays his kora and begins to sing. It isn’t long before a woman walks into the room and sits on the men’s side. Her defiance angers one of the men who try to strike her. But she resists. Inspired by this brave act, the griot tells a tale of a village living in a state of imbalance.

The men are lazy and treat their wives like servants. The women sorrowfully sing, “It's a world made by men, for men/A world full of confusion and suffering for the rest of us/In this world of uncertainty/peace and unity are empty words.” One young woman named Yayémé is beaten by her husband Agro when he is called a “woman’s slave” for bringing home firewood. She angrily storms out of the village to get her own firewood despite the fact that it is dark. The villagers have always been told to not go out after dark because they might see the Andumbulu, a group of malevolent African elf-like spirits with backwards feet who kill anybody that sees them.

As fate would have it, she witnesses the Andumbulu in the midst of a ritual. Before she flees, she manages to steal an Albarga mask (a symbol of unity and harmony) from an Andumbulu woman named Yandju. The next day, she wears the mask and orders the men to abdicate their societal powers over to the women. Believing her to be an Andumbulu, they quickly obey. The turnover of power is represented by the men wearing skirts and the woman wearing pants. The men are suddenly forced to work all day by taking care of the children, cooking, and collecting water while the women relax and drink. This situation leads to some great moments of slapstick that left West African audiences in stitches. But this humor translates for Western audiences as well. After all, you don’t have to be West African to take pleasure in the irony of a situation where the women demand sex from husbands who are so tired from the day’s work that they pretend to be asleep.

But despite their new-found power over the oppressive males, their society remains in a state of imbalance. For harmony to be achieved, both men and women need to work together and be equal. All that has changed in the village is that the women have become the usurpers of power. Caught in the middle of the struggle between the men and the women is Yayémé’s precocious young daughter named Kuni. The lone member of the village who won’t wear the clothing of the opposite sex, Kuni tries to bridge the gap between the two groups. In Dogon culture, girls are not considered women and men not considered men until after they are circumcised. Since Kuni is not yet of age for the ritual, she is still in contact with her twinned spirit. Therefore she is the perfect moderator between the battle of the sexes.

Kuni befriends Yandju who reveals that she needs the mask back from her mother. Yandju reveals that she stole the mask (which represents a proper balance between the sexes) in defiance of the men subjugating the women in her society. Only by restoring the mask of balance can both sides be reconciled. With the help of Yandju and some of the other village children, Kuni tries to convince Yayémé to return the mask. But she refuses. Instead, the village’s men find the mask and return it to Yandju. Almost in response to their actions, at that moment another woman goes into labor, uniting the village together in prayers for a successful delivery. Yandju sacrifices herself and the spirit of the mask for the sake of the newborns, and the woman gives birth to boy and girl twins, representing the new-found harmony of the genders in their village.

It is easy to misinterpret Skirt Power and what it intends to do. It can be misunderstood as advocating the idea that women belong in their place below men, as the village in Skirt Power only really starts to suffer when the women take over the men’s roles. But Drabo has another motive in mind. The film isn’t about one sex dominating the other. Instead, it is about both genders working together for a common goal. One character in the movie speaks, “The purpose of taking power is to make a better world…No nation is built without hard work – but it can’t be done by excluding men [or women].” And so, Skirt Power remains a film that gives a unique glance into the inner workings of a fascinating (and to many, alien) culture. It defines and advocates social harmony and equality between men and women. Many other cultures support the same ideals. But Skirt Power speaks to the specifically Dogon reasoning behind such an ideal. And really, that is the greatest gift of the cinema: the ability to bridge gaps between different peoples through the use of stories. Such stories prove that only by embracing our differences can we achieve a better future.

The editor wishes to thank Dr. Elisabeth Cameron for her invaluable help and insights into Dogon culture.