Saturday, November 19, 2011

The milk of sorrow

I had very little knowledge of Peru. I knew it’s a third world country, that sits in western South America on the world map. Neither do I knew anything about cinema in South America. “Milk of Sorrow”,a fairly short 95 minutes film that came out quite recently, attracted my attention; II picked this film to watch first, among the suggested film list.

The film starts with a slow and sad tune with quite horrifying lyrics, “... A bitch with rabies must have given birth to you, and that’s why you have eaten her breasts, now you can swallow me, now you can suck me, like you did to your mother...” The picture slow fade in from black to a dying old woman lying in her bed. Shocked by her singing, I slowly observed every wrinkle on her face and her gray, loosely-braided hair. Her eyes are closed; I would be afraid to stare into her eyes if they were open. Hearing her shrieking voice, I started to realize that this film was probably about war, suffer and maybe desperation.

As I was thinking about this, a beautiful girl came in from the left into the frame. She sings in response of her mother, with her long black hair tied back and thin silver necklace hanging down from her neck. It was breathtaking, with the contrast between the mother and the daughter, hearing them singing to each other. I was immediately captivated in the scene and couldn’t even breathe. Then the mother died. Time froze.

The next scene is rather serene and reveals the family daily life of Fausta(the main character)’s uncle. I kept on observing, into a completely different way of life than my own, and still quietly thinking about the singing in the first scene. The next thing I knew, Fausta’s uncle was sitting in the hospital and the doctor told him that there was a potato growing in Fausta’s vagina.

I couldn’t think any more. I stopped watching this film and turned to do something else. I knew it would take me a while to handle this. I had never seen a film like this, or heard a story like this. It was disturbing in almost a surreal way.

I did some background research before I started watching the film again. According to the research, Peru is still trying to come to terms with the trauma of a two-decade conflict -roughly from 1980 to 2000-between the state and the leftist guerrilla groups. The warfare is thought to have claimed nearly 70,000 lives, most of them Andean peasants. To me, the factual information is cold and if I hadn’t watched the film, it would not have as much of influence on me. I appreciate the role of the director, especially, in making a history visual and let the world know and care about it. To Claudia Llosa, realism may not be a literacy genre or fimic device, but rather, an element of national identity and consciousness.

I finally went back on the film after a few days. The story unfolds as Fausta’s uncle was marrying off her carefree daughter but was not willing to pay for a burial. Fausta then went off working for a rich, white pianist to earn money for her mother’s burial. From a filmmaker point of view, I appreciate the balance between Fausta’s melancholy, depressing storyline, and her cousin’s marriage storyline, which is rather comical.

There are also other deep contrasts and conflicts: for one example, Fausta’s uncle tried to explain to the doctor that Fausta’s mother transmitted a strange disease to Fausta through breast milk that caused her to be depressed and fainting, ignoring the fact that the doctor suggested that Fausta’s unhealthy state has nothing to do with breast milk. For another example, Fausa’s hauntingly beautiful lyrical singing triggered the interest of her wealthy, classical pianist boss, who in return, treated her dismissively and deliberately gave her a rude introduction to the world of elite musicianship at the opera house.

In terms of stying, from the research I knew that the director draws upon influences ranging from the high European modernism of Antonioni to the short filmography of Barbara Loden; I can see it made in the style of “Cinéma vérité”: the camera is invisible and the line of staging and obeservation is blurred.

Although I do think that this film, unlike any other film, It builds its visual language from the ground, with an unforgettable story. It is indeed challenging for me to engage with it on its own terms.

Notes on Film art

3 points from the Film Art book:

  1. “When we watch a film that tells a story or surveys, categories, or makes an argument, we usually pay little attention to the sheer pictorial qualities of the shots. Yet it’s possible to organize an entire film around colors, shapes, sizes, and movements in the images.” This is a very inspiring remark for me because I have never carefully thought about what differentiate an experimental film from conventional genres.
  2. Abstract films are often organized in a way that we might call “theme and variations”. Abstract films also usually depend on building up greater and greater differences from the introductory material. Experimental filmmakers often start by photographing real objects.

This analogy of “themes and variations” that was originally a music term. “Theme” ,an important tune of the music piece, correspond to the real objects photographed as a starting point in an abstract film. “Variation”, a repeated but majorly changed version of the “theme”, correspond to the cinematic and conceptual manipulation of the original/real objects.

  1. Many experimental films draw on a poetic series of transitions that create what we may term associational form. Associational formal systems suggests ideas and expressive qualities by grouping images that may not have any immediate logical connection.

So far, two terms are described in the chapter- “abstract” and “associational”. These two forms have a number of similarities and differences. Similarly, neither involve narration; both lack order in which the images are sequenced. An abstract film is usually organized around visual features, in the way of “theme and variations”, while associational films share some qualities with abstract film, it involves interpretation-they often have a general meaning behind them but the viewers can interpret it their own way.

The Cats of Mirikitani

I always wondered one thing: What does it take to make a truly powerful, touching and meaningful biographical documentary? After watching “The Cats of Mirikitani”, I think I have got some answers:

First, the filmmaker him/herself might not know what he/she is getting into at first. It always just start with curiosity, and an urge to dig deeper. Everyone has some curiosity within them but not everyone is willing to take a step further. I have noticed that, since I came to the US four years ago, I always get assignments called “Self-portrait”, in all kinds of class i took: Drawing, Sculpture, Film, Animation, Poetry, English, even music composition class. But I was not used to being so self-absorbed and as I grew up in China, I often got assignments called “My Mother”, “My teacher”, or “My classmate” for composition class. I also observed and wrote about people whom I didn’t know, like a street musician who plays flute carrying his one-year-old son, the mailman who still sent newspapers riding his bicycle in the storm, or a distant cousin of my who just paid a visit to my house. Everyone around me is fascinating, no matter what he/she does. Just like Jimmy; he is just one of those street artists in Soho, but if Linda had not discovered him, an excellent documentary would have existed. However, if Linda had picked someone else, I believe there would be an equally meaningful documentary.

Secondly, Linda is a very good listener and truly bonds with Jimmy. I disbelieve that the filmmaker could be ever be invisible in a documentary, even if it’s in the style of

“cinema verite”. If the filmmaker doesn’t make his/her presence important to his/her subject, the film would be not real and personal, therefore the subject might seem really detached from the camera/filmmaker, and audience as well. Linda’s initial curiosity of Jimmy evolved into taking him in her apartment and living with him; this level of commitment needs more than simple incentives of good materials for a documentary film. She truly cared about him, and he cared about her as well. (It cracked me up when he was worried about her going out at night as a single woman)

At this point, maybe the “documentary: almost turned into “home movie”.

Thirdly, I always thought that it’s easier to report/document something already exist, than to create/shoot/direct everything from a storyline/script. Now I think they take different efforts.

Mitch McCabe’s “Playing the part”, from my point of view, is a staged film shot in the style of documentary. It may be based on true stories, but it, in a sense, detached itself from the audience, when it seemed obvious that it was staged. I was taken out of it and kind of bothered when I slowly realize it might not be a real documentary, though the was really interesting.

Some notes from the reading:

1.Cinematographic qualities involve three factors: 1)the photographic aspect of the shot 2)the framing of the shot 3)the duration of the shot

2.A very fast film stock means more sensitive to differences in color, texture, shape etc, produces a more contrasty look.

3 by manipulating the film stock lighting factors and developing prodedures, filmmakers can achieve enormous variety in the look of the film image.

4.The range of tonalities in the image is most crucially affected by the exposure of the image during filming. The filmmaker usually controls exposure by regulating how much light pass through the camera lens.

5.The speed of the motion we see on the screen depends on the relation between the rate at which the film was shot and the rate of projection.

6.Control of perspective is based on the focal length of the lens: wide-angle, normal, and telephoto etc.

7. Composite filming can also be accomplished by matte work.

8. every shot has some measurable screen duration, but in the history of cinema, directors have varied considerably in their choice of short or lengthy shots.

9.very often, frame mobility breaks the longtake shot into significant smaller units .

10.focal length not only affect the shape and scale, but also affects the lens’ depth of field.

11. A lens with a depth of field of ten feet to infinity

12.If the movement is to look accurate on the screen, the rate of shooting should correspond to the rate of projection.

One Step Away: a film from life”

The documentary film “ One Step Away: a film from life”, updated my knowledge about the “hippies” movement in San Francisco during the 60s; it’s made from such a fresh and realistic viewpoint. It almost seems unbelievable because none of the subjects/characters in the film seems to be aware of the existence of a movie camera. I was especially carried away by two aspects of the film:

First, the camera, or the person who held the camera, entered the scene without previous knowledge about what’s going on in the scene and did not know anyone in the scene very well. This was later confirmed by Ed Pincus, but even without his explanation, I could tell the alienation and the confusion at the beginning, which sort of conflicts with the unawareness of the subjects/characters, since normally it’s almost impossible or a filmmaker to capture personal lives of strangers so naturally. Maybe as Pincus noted, people at that time were not as media-savvy and self-conscious as people nowadays are about appearing on Internet/youtube.

Second, the way the film is edited is also different from common documentaries; it’s not linear and sometimes don’t make complete sense. It reminds me of that, when I shoot home video in my flip camera every now and then, and at the end of the year, I finally plug it into my TV and watch the whole sequence all together. While I do that, I do not necessary care about editing or refining because every shots makes sense when they are viewed together as a whole in the long run. It might cut from a scene of my mom cutting tomatoes in the kitchen to a scene of my brother playing basketball at his high school gym; the cut won’t make any sense at first to some one who doesn’t know my family, but after several scenes, he/she will start to draw conclusions about who the people in the scenes are. Watching Pincus’s film “Diaries”, gives me a similar experience, that instead having every scene contain a dramatic event, it captures the mundane activity of everyday life, with a rhythm that carries on the narrative. What’s different in this film though, from the first film, is that, the main subject, Pincus’s wife, was very self-conscious of her images in front of the camera, and was afraid of her problems exposed.