Sunday, November 15, 2015

Ulrich Seidl's new documentary "In the Basement" at Northwest Film Forum: Nov 27 - Dec 3

Opening for a one week run later this month at Northwest Film Forum. Those initiated in Ulrich Seidl's cinema are accustomed to the existential pleasures of the Austrian director's darkly humorous, richly humanistic explorations of the gulf between desire and happiness. It's in this space of modern society's abundance of diversions offered along our escape from isolation that he plumbs the human cost of globalization in "Import/Export", Europe's underside of drug culture, corporate holidays and anonymous sex in "Dog Days", and observations on media, loneliness and narcissism in "Models". Seidl's last major endeavor, the Paradise Trilogy consisting of "Paradise: Love", "Paradise: Faith" and "Paradise: Hope" possibly best describes his cinema of "Messy Humanity, Warts, Dreams and All". The complexity of our relationship as viewers navigating those interpretive spaces detailed in A.O. Scott's review of the first of the trilogy "Stripped of Clothes, Dignity and Maybe Shame". Scott Foundas also hitting the target dead-center in the pages of Film Comment; "His boldest and most ambitious work to date—a confrontational yet oddly compassionate meditation on the residual chasm between Europe and its former colonies, profound loneliness in the so-called communication age, and the infinite varieties of the human body." Those who would interpret his ingress as cynical in it's exploration of the western condition, are wholly missing the driving principle of Seidl's intimate, revealing body of work. The director himself addressing this common misinterpretation in the pages of The Guardian, "Ulrich Seidl: 'Those Who Say I Despise People Do Not Understand Me'".

With it's premier at the Venice Film Festival, Seidl returned to documentary filmmaking for the first time in nearly a decade with, "In the Basement" which on the surface can be described as a "Transgressive Hybrid Doc about What People Do ‘In the Basement’". But a deeper reading of "What Lies Beneath the Austrian Heart" characterized by the space and repository in our homes as an underground cache of passions, hobbies and ritualistic eccentricities, can be found in "Under the Skin: Nick Pinkerton on Ulrich Seidl's 'In the Basement'"; "Like his late friend and collaborator Michael Glawogger, Seidl pursues a practice that encompasses both documentary and fiction film, with exercises in each medium incorporating aspects that tend to be attributed to the other. The casts of Seidl’s fiction films, beginning with "Dog Days" mix professional actors with amateurs who bring an element of existential veracity to their roles. His documentaries, meanwhile, exhibit a degree of finicky, just-so compositional rigor that—particularly in the early years of his work, when every other doc discussion didn’t trot out the word “hybrid”—isn’t usually associated with nonfiction filmmaking. Among other things, "In the Basement" is a musky slog through the fundament of fear and desire in particularly feminine and masculine permutations. As in previous works like "Animal Love" and "Jesus, You Know" whose respective subjects are ardent pet owners and the devoutly religious, Seidl chooses a single fixed vantage point—in this case, the view from the basement—from which to look into the fantasy life of his countrymen."

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's new film "The Assassin" at SIFF Cinema: Nov 6 - 26

If you live on the west coast, this past year offered more than the infrequent twice-a-decade opportunity to witness the cinema of Hou Hsiao-Hsien on the big screen. The international touring retrospective of the director's entire oeuvre screened in weeks-long series at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive and in Los Angeles at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater. Without such prestigious academic support, The Grand Illusion Cinema and Scarecrow Video combined forces with Northwest Film Forum here in Seattle to present our own, "Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien". As appraisals of the significance of his contribution to late 20th Century cinema, polls conducted by Film Comment and The Village Voice named Hou director of the decade, and in the overlapping 1998 worldwide critics' poll he was cited as one of three directors "most crucial to the future of cinema". Yet it's the Museum of the Moving Image, "Hou Hsiao-Hsien: In Search of Lost Time" and their symposium introduction that still stands as the most succinct tacking of the paradox of this revered, yet rarely seen director: "It’s worth questioning, however, what Hou Hsiao-Hsien's admittedly rarefied brand of art cinema means to filmmaking and film history—even history itself —if he's not being seen anywhere but on the festival circuit. Just how can we support such grand claims for his importance, when he’s preaching to a ready choir and often empty pews? The answer is easy: wedding political filmmaking with a technique at once naturalistic and highly aestheticized, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has made films that wrestle variously, and either directly or metaphorically, with personal and national histories, the struggles between Taiwan and Chinese nationalism, the encroachment of capital on an ever-evolving way of life, and, most recently, the legacy of cinema itself. 'Essential viewing' couldn’t be more aptly applied to the works of any other living director." Kent Jones' chronicling of Hou's ascendency for Film Comment, from cult phenomenon to arthouse favorite and established auteur over the decade of the late 80's to 90's. "Cinema with a Roof Over its Head: Hou Hsiao-Hsien" probes the complex factors involved in how it is that a director as critically lauded as Hou Hsiao-Hsien remains largely unseen to this day. Foremost among them is that Hou's depiction of time and space eschews being quantified through populist criteria. Even those outfitted with an understanding of the past half-Century of Asian film, where western paradigms can occasionally be applied to fill in our gaps in knowledge, in the case of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's filmmography the bridge to meaning still requires intellectual effort. A indispensable resource in bridging that expanse, the Senses of Cinema archives host a in-depth Hou Hsiao-Hsien spotlight featuring lengthy and analytic articles on the active visual minimalism of his cinema, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Optics of Ephemerality". His homage of sorts to Yasujiro Ozu's love of "Situations Over Stories: Café Lumière & Hou Hsiao-Hsien", the nuanced depiction of different eras through "The Complexity of Minimalism: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times" and his intimate observations on the tribulations of contemporary Taiwanese women, "Hou Hsiou-Hsien’s Urban Female Youth Trilogy".

Many of these social and thematic concerns meet in the locus of what is ostensibly Hou's take on the Wuxia genre. Adapted from the Tang Dynasty short story Nie Yinniang by Pei Xing, "The Assassin" is about a princess who was taken from her family by a Taoist nun, to make way for a marriage of regional military allegiances. The nun is herself the twin sister of an Imperial princess in exile, and Yinniang is conditioned as a vigilante killer for the sole purpose of assassinating corrupt political figures within the conflicting forces of the Imperial Court and growing independence of the northern provinces. Failing an early assignment due to sentiment of not wishing to commit murder before the child of the corrupt official in question, the nun sends her home to remove the influence of her cousin, Weibo's military governor Tian Ji'an. Beloved since their shared childhood, Yinniang was once betrothed to Tian Ji'an, and it is around this assignment that the tale of Nie Yinniang's conflicts of love, retribution and allegiance pivot. Reports from this year's Cannes described a festival of established auteurs in fabulous form, mirrored in the pages of Sight & Sound by Nick James' "Cannes: Hunting Season", Isabel Stevens' "Cannes: An Affair to Remember", and for Film Comment, Kent Jones' "Wonders to Behold: A Few Films Touched with Greatness Can Make All the Difference" on the sublime perfection of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's eight-years-in-the-wait period piece. Much of the festival's coverage focusing on the Best Director-winning Wuxia drama, the atmosphere of it's sumptuous setting heightened by the cinematography of regular collaborator, Mark Lee Ping-Bin and synergy of it's central cast, Chang Chen and Shu Qi. Though a Wuxia film, it's technical rigor and opacity of storytelling mechanics are the defining characteristics of the "Killer Technique: Hou Hsiao-Hsien's return in Full Force", that set "The Assassin" apart from everything seen in the decades since the genre came into it's own in the 1960's with 'King' Hu Jinquan's groundbreaking string of films for Shaw Brothers Studio. Hou's film is more an experiment within the constraints and conventions of genre filmmaking, rather than a work of said genre. The action is brief and fleeting, often viewed from the distance of an observer. He instead chooses to make it's focal point a series of decorous, elliptical scenes that describe the hierarchy of social class and conflict. And like much of his later cinema, there's a refusal to position himself in the role of storytelling dramatizer, preferring instead a removed indication of emotion to its direct expression. Such willful abstractions eventually push the film toward an inversely heightened plane of minimalist expression. The narrative firmly rooted in the tenets of reality even as the "Blending of the Fantastical and the Realistic" qualities of its sensory presentation begin to resemble something akin to a dream or fugue state. Finding us at it's conclusion, embracing the freedom found in the irreconcilable nature of Yinniang’s mission.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Kangding Ray's new album "Cory Arcane" & North American Tour: Nov 5 - 13

Next week Kremwerk, MOTOR and Decibel Festival host the Seattle date in Kangding Ray's November North American micro-tour. Having followed the Raster-Noton imprint and it's core artists of Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai and Olaf Bender since the latest 1990s, it's been illuminating to see them not only defy being marginalized by the fadishness of electronic music's short 'half life', but instead to evolve in ways transcending simple codification. Some 15 years of witnessing variations on their label aesthetic seen live in cities across the continent from San Francisco and Los Angeles, to Mutek Montreal and beyond, each time the occasion marked by an evolutionary leap present in each artists performance, as well as the larger audio/visual expression of the label's continuance. The second decade of the 21st Century has yielded some of the finest work to be heard from it's roster. The collaborative Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto albums are a high point, as is Carsten Nicolai's ongoing serial solo work, the Xerrox series. It's two most recent installations characterized by the enveloping vocabulary of distortion on "Xerrox Vol.2" and melodic beauty of this year's rapturous "Xerrox Vol.3". A project which when completed, will likely stand as the opus of Nicolai's recorded career. Frank Bretschneider's "EXP" was another high water mark, this boundary pushing multi-media set of abstract audiovisual sculptural objects has not seen another peer in his discography, and Olaf Bender's "Death of a Typographer" was an unexpected meeting of energized motoric Krautrock and 80's synth-pop inspired explorations.

Outside of the core ensemble that initiated the imprint, Raster-Noton has enfolded a global body of work. Ranging from Japan's urban experimental dancefloor duo Kouhei Matsunaga and Toshio Munehiro, as NHK to the DeStijl inspired dynamic austerity of Emptyset to the pure datamatic audio-visual sensory environments of Ryoji Ikeda and Vladislav Delay's improvisation and jazz-informed rhythmic wanderings. The parameters of the label's scope have expanded with the inclusion of the humor and retro-futurism of Uwe Schmidt's live sets as Atom TM, most recently seen on the media package, "HD+" and the melodic dream-ambulations of the abstract pop of Dasha Rush and this year's excellent, "Sleepstep", and the complex theoretical works of Grischa Lichtenberger "LA DEMEURE; il y a péril en la demeure", the first his proposed five-part explorations on the subject of isolation and privacy. David Letellier's Kangding Ray project has been one of the most prolific of these new artists expanding the form of Raster's conception. His recent rapid-fire trilogy of albums, "Cory Arcane", "Solens Arc" and the stylisticly divergent "Pentaki Slopes" EP that initiated his current sound. These albums marking a shift toward a more aggressive, dynamic sound comprised of pointilist digital patterns and disintegrated melodic textures that morph into suggestive rave anthems and abrasive club rhythms. The juxtaposition of these contrary elements are refitted into uneven patterns not unlike a sonic deconstructivist architecture, where industrial techno stompers dissolve into granular sound design and filtered synth pads. When it all comes together in a live setting, it's dynamic endless-detouring of the parameters of techno is something to witness.