Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Kidlat Tahimik | Mababangong bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare)

the sleeping typhoon
by douglas Messerli 

Kidlat Tahimik Mababangong bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare) / 1977 

When Philippines filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare was first shown in the United States in 1980, The New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby—despite somewhat disparaging the idea that any film might be described this way—characterized the film as being “primitive,” while also being “sweet, funny, witty” and “intelligent.” But, although Tahimik’s movie is shot in 8 millimeter film stock; presents it titles on hand-held cards; portrays numerous static images in a grainy, slightly washed-out color of the quality of a home-made movie; and casts much of its narrative in the form of fables, Perfumed Nightmare, in its humorously clever analysis of international economic disparities and in its unsentimental embracement of the handmade over what is industrially created, is highly sophisticated. Just as the director reveals the locally-made jitneys to be far more beautiful and useful than the Westernized modes of public transportation (the Philippine jitneys, moreover, are crafted our of war tanks and other leftover US weapons, machines of war being converted into things of beauty), and as he suggests the narrow village bridge of the small village of Balian to be just as wondrous as the great architectural feats of Charles De Gaulle Airport, so does Tahimik demonstrate that his little film is more pleasurably infectious and moving than many an grand American motion picture—and at a far smaller cost! 

Our hero, performed by Kidlat himself, is a naïve lover the new, an admirer of everything his economically backward community has no opportunity to offer. Born in the 1942 Occupation of the Philippines, the character Kidlat has spent his 33 years in “a cocoon of American dreams.” Working as a jitney driver in his primitive village, he is presides over a small group of young boys and girls as head of the Werner Von Braun fan club, listens nearly every day of his life to The Voice of America on radio, and dreams of visiting Cape Canaveral and witnessing the wonders of American and European technology.                      

     Wise elders attempt to warn him against his absurd idolatry, and his mother even recounts how his father died, in a furious reaction (mythically described as the breath of a typhoon) when, after fighting against the Spanish colonists, he is locked out of Manila by American soldiers. Yet Kidlat remains unconvinced. Why would anybody prefer the old over the new, and how can anyone not recognize that the new is encapsulated by the US?

     At the same time, however, the film slowly builds up a series of images of daily life in Balian that convinces us that these simple people are living, in many respects, a life richer and clearly more satisfying than many of us in the Western world. Sacred white caribous stare down at the natives; a patron saint, carried to the cathedral each morning, protects from evil; a rather painful-to-watch mass circumcision deep in the woods, welcomes the young boys in manhood. The beautifully decorated jitneys transport ice, statues, beauty queens, animals, and the citizens of Balaian through the town and across its single bridge in grand style. An old man with a mythical butterfly tattooed across his chest, weaves sturdy bamboo houses that stand up to the most violent of storms, and tells wonderful tales, including his personal myth that when the sleeping typhoon wakes up, it releases the butterflies to new life. 
     All of these images, moreover, are accompanied by a lush score composed of sounds, words, songs, and native music that utterly enlivens the narrative.

      Even a rich American visits Kidlat’s small village, disguised, outrageously as a boy scout leader who fails in his demand that he, who is willing to pay money to the organization, be designated as the head of the local troop, reiterating what we all know, that the US perceives itself as the leader of everything, no matter how large or small.

     The American in this fable, stomps out—wades out might be a better description—of this meeting to flag down Kidlat’s jitney to take him to Manila. In the director’s gentle satire the locals get their revenge as the jitney fills up with villagers and their animals, forcing the indignant would-be-leader to sit atop the suitcases trailing behind.

    Yet he takes a liking to Kidlat, promising to take him and his jitney with him when he returns to his castle in Paris. Suddenly the whole village is buzzing with news of the event. Kidlat get his picture taken (posing with a charming smile that expresses the joyfulness he will leave behind) and a celebration of their soon-to-be wayfarer—replete with marching bands, dancing children, and beauty queens—is organized. One of the few people of Balian ever to fly on an airplane, Kidlat is suddenly the town hero.

     His first views of the West are just as he might have imagined as he is awed by walkways that move people forward without their walking, doors that open automatically, and bridges, bridges everywhere he looks! Just as the director had created a kind of travelogue in the Philippines countryside, so now does he continue to film Paris: only the Paris he shows us, from Kidlat’s perspective, is quite the opposite of what we know as the stately tourist city. Everywhere he goes, things are crumbling; rooms are over- jammed with junk; buildings are scaffold, with pylons jutting up like ugly eyesores which block out the view of the great cathedrals and Eiffel Tower. The American, it turns out, is chewing-gum magnate, and immediately puts Kidlat to work filling his ugly gum dispensers placed at tourist destinations (including cemeteries) throughout the city. Kidlat’s Paris, in short, is the polar opposite of the glamorous city of lights depicted in most films.
     In his off hours, the likeable Kidlat seeks out the friendship, just as he had back in Balian, of local workers, learning snippets of French and befriending these figures by transporting them about the city in his jitney. He becomes particularly close with an egg seller (each egg containing two yolks) named Lola. Lola and her compatriots work at small carts parked by a mammoth new building project, a supermarket which is also soon to be fitted with several enormous plastic chimneys, that is also gradually eating up the space of the fresh-food vendors. Lola tells him of a dream in which she has been forced to close her stand. Finally, Kidlat begins to ask a few questions he has failed to perceive back in his unbeknownst Eden of Balaian. Why displace the beautiful produce of these simple vendors with lower quality foods sold in a vast department store? If the old chimney’s work, why replace them with a chimney big enough for 6 people to live in?    

     Yet Kidlat is still trapped in his “perfumed nightmare,” and granted a several-day vacation, he heads off to Germany to visit the home of his beloved Werner Von Braun. There he discovers the community about to celebrate a festival for which they each year build, by hand, an onion-shaped dome. The workers complain, however, that this may be their last year, since factories are now making the same domes out of plastic. Kidlat still cannot comprehend what he sees as their sentimentality: why would they prefer the old to the new?

     During the celebration a pregnant woman he has met in the town suddenly goes into labor, and Kidlat saves they day by taking her, presumably, to the hospital in his still-elegant jitney. Drivng back to Paris, he feels almost as if the newly-born child, who the woman has named Kidlat in honor of her savior, looks somewhat like him.
     In Paris, he discovers that Lola in no longer among the remaining vendors. The American, knowing that the nearby chimneys will soon be belching their smoke in the direction of his castle, announces that he has sold his chewing-gum enterprise, and is planning to return to the US where he has purchased a company which manufactures blue jeans, the logical next step—so he declares—in his rise to become a munitions and tank manufacturer for the US military. Once more, he promises to take Kidlat with him, suggesting he’ll be the first of his kind to fly on the Concorde.
     Before the two leave, however, this ugly American plans one final celebration, inviting some of the world’s leaders, who have come to Paris for a conference, to his castle.

     This is a handmade film, one must remember, with no budget for actors with makeup and costumes which might allow them to resemble those dignitaries. Kidlat presents the entire affair somewhat like a masked pageant of old, as each figure arrives decked out in archaic clothing one might expect to find in a film studio storeroom, a handmade mask representing distorted depictions of the celebrities hiding their faces.

     Introduced to these grotesque figures, the normally amicable Kidlat becomes terror-stricken, suddenly feeling that he, like Alice in Wonderland, is growing smaller and smaller by the moment. In reaction to his feelings, Kidlat, like his father before him, suddenly begins to blow up a typhoon, leveling all those before him and destroying the American’s castle. With seemingly nowhere to go, he escapes into one of the giant chimneys, closes it tightly, and flies off in what now resembles a Martian space ship, back to Balian.
      The following credits are presented on a series of letters and postcards, each of them bearing a stamp from a small country that features one of the US space ships, the last of them, a Philippines stamp depicting the chimney in which Kidlat has returned, proving the assertion as he has repeated throughout the film, “I choose my vehicle, and I can cross any bridge.”
     And so too does Kidlat Tahimik prove that he can create a stunningly profound film by his own means, without the help of wealthy financers.

Los Angeles, April 28, 2016

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira | Belle Toujours

woman of today
by Douglas Messerli

Manoel de Oliveira (writer and director) Belle Toujours / 2006

Manoel de Oliveira’s 2006 film Belle Toujours describes itself as an homage to Luis Buñuel’s intriguing Belle de Jour from 1967. But, actually, it first appears to be closer to an academic exercise in de Oliveria’s interpretation of the original, which also seems quite outlandishly outdated. We can perhaps forgive de Oliveria’s apparently misogynistic attitudes and interpretations of the behavior of the previous film’s central character, Séverine, as representing a combination of masochistic and sadist attitudes, given the fact that the Portuguese director was 100 years of age at the time of its release.

   In fact, many of the original viewers in 1967 also felt that it was necessary to explain Séverine’s quite unconventional behavior, in which the loving wife of a handsome young doctor slipped out each afternoon to work as a prostitute. The possibility that a beautiful woman, trapped in a pleasant, even loving, but totally uneventful housebound marriage might simply be interested—given her unconventional sexual and familial attitudes—might be fascinated by other sexual possibilities, particularly in a time when many males, including her husband’s best friend, sought out sexual liaisons apart from their marital relationships, evidently seemed impossible to imagine for most critics of the period. And the idea that Buñuel’s character, played by Catherine Deneuve, might be a proto-feminist figure, as I argue, might not have even been entirely apparent to the authors, Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, themselves. 
     And to give de Oliveria credit, he does have his elderly Séverine (Bulle Ogier this time around) admit to having no sense of guilt for her behavior precisely because of her unconventional moral values. The character who expresses what might be de Oliveira’s interpretations, moreover—the sexist, now alcoholic, and totally unappealing former blackmailer (in the original he demands sex for withholding the information about her sexual activities from her husband), Henri Husson (played with remarkable precision by the original Husson, Michael Piccoli) would surely be unable to conceive any other scenario; late in the movie he even attempts to cover over his offensive behavior by retreating behind the old saw that women are incomprehensive mysteries. The real mystery, it seems to me, is why even a young prostitute, who with her older friend who have plunked themselves down in a local bar which Husson visits three times during the movie, might even find him attractive. Séverine, for her part, spends the first half of de Oliveira’s homage in trying to escape any contact between the old lecher. 
     Even de Oliveria seems disinterested in actually getting these two back together, slowing his 68 minute movie down to such a luxuriously relaxed pace that one begins to wonder whether there might ever be even a glimmer of narrative, using the first 7-8 minutes of the work to present us with a nearly complete performance of Anton Dvorak’s Symphony #8 in G Major—a concert whereat Husson first spots Séverine—and following it by two or three languorous postcard views of the Paris landscape. Most of the film’s dialogue takes place in a local bar which, quite inexplicably, Séverine has momentarily stopped in search of a regular patron.

     There, with the help of several iceless whiskeys, Husson entrances the bartender with his vague and slightly dishonest narration of the events of the Buñuel film. Chalk it up to the director’s age again for the inability of the young, handsome bartender, living in a period that appears to be contemporaneous with the movie’s making, to comprehend the woman’s behavior, who also queries Husson about the existence in the late 1960s of apartment-complex houses of prostitution. That he is supposedly wise to all sorts of sexual information. given his occupation, where, he as describes it, many patrons feel to the need to confess their sexual peccadilloes to a seemingly disinterested stranger, makes it even harder to imagine that the young man might have any time to devote to the salacious analytical observations of a drooling old codger.
    The kid is anything but dumb, even proffering the observation to the obviously unreflective elder man, that men also do precisely what Séverine has. Perhaps he gets a certain sexual gratification from the numerous confessions over which he officiates.   
     Yet for all the seemingly “slight” Dvorak-scored “travelogue aerials of Paris” that demarcate Buñuel’s fantasy from the “factual” “affectations” of de Oliveria’s work—as Slant magazine described the whole affair—there is something so completely aesthetically fascinating about this film, particularly in the perfection of its images, acting, and sound-editing, that I was hardly able to take my eyes away from the screen.

     If Husson is a doddering old fool dishing out antique theories of Freudian behavior which never existed in real life, he is also still a dandy—at least in his own mind—a self-infatuated old cock who wanders the Paris streets in a Proustian-like fantasy as he stalks the woman from the past, peering in windows at bewigged female mannequins and his own image simultaneously. One imagines that he even posits the possibility that he and Séverine still might sexually come together, particularly when she finally (in a dialogue erased by streets sounds) agrees to meet him for dinner. He arranges a private dining room with candles, in which, once the couple have finished eating, he suggests they talk in only candlelight. 
      But if we might imagine this carefully organized dinner as a prelude to anything else, de Oliveira presents it as a near-completely unspoken affair, as the couple dine, Husson licking his lips in slightly obscene delight of each bite; all Séverine wants to know is whether or not Husson has really revealed to her husband that she had been a prostitute; it is not that she is ashamed of her activities—as she admits she now, in older age, a changed woman and she continues to feel no guilt—but, it becomes clear, she is still distraught over the fact that her husband might have been, before being inexplicably shot and paralyzed by one of her jealous clients, have suffered with the knowledge; she needs to know whether the frozen tear that formed at the edge of his eye was in sympathy with her or the result of a tortured vision of his wife.

      Totally unable to comprehend her dilemma, Husson has instead brought her a gift of a sexual toy-box whose contents, consisting of the sound of a buzzing fly, was never completely revealed in the Buñuel film. She is outraged by his present, and returns it to him, demanding he live up to his promise to tell her whether or not he has told her husband.

     In response, Husson merely reiterates the two possibilities, throwing the alternatives, suggesting that he may be lying in either case, back in her lap. Séverine rushes from the room, breaking a bottle of wine and glasses in her abandonment of the personification of selfishness who has sat across from her at the table. De Oliviera suddenly comments on the action by presenting, almost in surreal-like fashion, the image of a cock strolling down the elite hotel hallway, emblematizing the Husson character in a way that we now know has not at all represented in own personal interpretations. 
      In her escape, Séverine has also left behind her purse, from which the vengeful and now thieving monster takes evidently large denominations of money in order to tip the waiters. After he leaves, they, themselves, describe him as an perverted weirdo as they clear the tables and carry away the would-be romantic candelabras. Although Husson, now in possession of Séverine’s identity and some of her money, may have imagined he was won, Séverine clearly has again escaped his clutches. He may have destroyed her husband’s love and faith, but he has no real power over the opposite sex, especially a woman who has so successfully freed herself from his kind.
      Ultimately, de Olivera’s film, we perceive, has been an homage, not to Buñuel, but to his character Séverine, whom de Oliveria truly does portray as a woman of today.

Los Angeles, April 25, 2015