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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Opera Jawa : The Times says it stinks

Opera Jawa (2006/Garin Nugroho/Indonesia) IMDb

First a rhetorical joust of journalistic quote encapsulation (if you can't nail the entire film in a single all-encompassed catchy phrase you're not a real critic, or at least your editor will not greenlight the review...) :
Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT) : "A colorful and confounding head trip, “Opera Jawa” is guaranteed to test the fortitude of all but the most adventurous viewer."

Olaf Möller (Film Comment, Cinema Scope) : "honest-to-God masterpiece of mad invention"

Jonathan Rosenbaum (The Chicago Reader) : "audacious, undeniably challenging, in fact downright mind-boggling avant-garde masterpiece (...) dazzling bolt from the blue - something to see and savor again"

Jesse Zigelstein (LA Times) : "A spirit of political protest surges through Opera Jawa, which acknowledges Indonesia's troubled past and explicitly dedicates itself to victims of violence, tyranny, and natural disaster. But the real revelation here is the film's formal daring, its almost excessive flood of metaphor, movement, and unfettered audiovisual expression."

Nathan Lee (Village Voice) : "a surrealist Indonesian pomo-folkloric/funkadelic musical–slash–avant-garde pop-and-lock revolutionary romance–slash–Hindu song-and-dance-installation art extravaganza. (...) let's just call it a nonpareil Ramayana boogie-down gong drum, with a tembang gamelan xylophone huzzah and super-tight moves on the wayang orang tip."

Jay Weissberg (Variety) : "A beautifully mounted musical epic combining traditional myths with contempo meditations on violence and social inequality, "Opera Jawa" is bold and innovative. But it is so chock-a-block with metaphor and over-decorated with artists' installations that it veers into the too-earnest waters of an ethnic fringe "happening" at Lincoln Center."
Rosenbaum is right, the NYT review stinks! It's not even a thought-provoking dissent against the film, it's just a lazy passive-aggressive disdain without any critical analysis.
The New York Times returns to its philistine roots
by Jonathan Rosenbaum (The Chicago Reader) :

"I've been reflecting lately that the film coverage these days in the New York Times (...) But then I read the ugly, xenophobic, tossed-off review of Opera Jawa by Jeannette Catsoulis in today's paper, and I realize that in some ways we might as well be back in the 60s, when a barbarian like Bosley Crowther was smugly ruling the roost. (...)
Catsoulis is slightly less direct about insulting almost 235 million Indonesians, but the implication that what she perceives as their quaint customs are all pretty hilarious seems to hover over her review. In both cases, the assumption appears to be that if you're fortunate enough to be a New Yorker, no further education or level of sophistication is necessary; if you're unfortunate enough not to be, the farther away you are, the likelier you are to be ridiculed with impunity."
And here is the faulty exhibit :
Unrest, a Love Triangle and Swinging Hips
By Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT, January 16, 2008) :

"probably the first [film] to open with a song about pig livers (...) Filled with shadow puppets, leaping villagers, animal carcasses and tinkly gamelan music (...) impressive contortions of Mr. Supriyanto, whose résumé includes Madonna’s Drowned World Tour and whose hips deserve their own paycheck. Dancing seductively on a tabletop, wearing a jaunty fedora and red cummerbund, he generates a magnetism breaching cultural boundaries"
This is typical of the "negative review" where the critic is out to mock a complex artistic project by ways of simplificative enumeration of disparate innocuous details that are far from representing the essence of the experience offered by this filmmaker. I don't know how relevant is the Madonna name-dropping... probably a zeitgeist ceal of approval necessary to bait the NYT readers. Otherwise they wouldn't listen...
Plus the stream-of-consciousness note-to-self quoting a line of dialogue (or in this case lyrics) out of context to ridicule the whole piece and give a deceiving impression of the ensemble :
“My sperm sparkles in the heavens,” he warbles, by way of a come-on. Oh, well, I never said he was perfect.
At least Nathan Lee defends the film's achievements :
Freak Folk, Opera Jawa is the Indonesian morality musical of the year
by Nathan Lee (Village Voice) :

"Visually, the movie is a radiant folk fantasia, at once sophisticated and elemental, freewheeling and composed. Keenly observed naturalistic details segue into elaborate puppet nightmares (regional artists collaborated on the production and costume design); demonic pantomime mixes with proletarian breakdancing; erotic duets give way to egotistical solos staged beside a bloody slab of beef on a floor strewn with bright red candles in the shape of melting man heads. (...)
As do a maze constructed of coconut shells; an enormous ribbon of bright red fabric wound through an emerald landscape; a Javanese honky-tonk jam led by a fat man with tits nearly as big and impressive as his voice; and more—much, much, and marvelous more."
The last comment wasn't absolutely necessary (gratuituous and derogatory), neither was it gratifying the author of the review nor the auteur of the film. And at the end of the review, when you appreciated the fact he didn't even try to give a synopsis rundown yet he admits :
"yes, there is a plot, which I've avoided talking about since, having devoted all of my attention to gobbling up the sights and grooving to the music, I'm relying on Google to reconstruct what, exactly, this wondrous thing is "about""
More opinions :
SFIFF Capsules
by Darren Hughes (Long Pauses)

"Opera Jawa was simply an overwhelming experience for me. Full of images as powerfully imaginative as any you will find in Angelopoulos and late Kurosawa (I kept thinking of Ran), combined with a stunning gamelan score and dance sequences so strange and transcendent I expected Denis Lavant to make an appearance, this film has the effect of all great opera: it's epic, sensuous, and impossibly beautiful."
The most comprehensive and faithful rendition of the film in this lot of reviews is Jay Weissberg's at Variety.
Although he has some criticism about the content :
"No doubt there's more that a keen-eyed student of Javanese theater would catch, but even as it stands the identifiable symbolism winds up burying the characters, who have enough to say -- or rather, sing and dance -- without the need for such distractions.
Demonstrators with banners proclaiming "Down with exploitation!" are much too unsubtle a form of social commentary and just don't integrate into the rest of the story."
I think this is part of the musical genre (the title even says it's an opera, which is even more caricatural and archetypal, narrativewise). Symbolism is grandiloquent and characters are blatantly manichaean. This is all part of the lyricism of such overarching epics. We should take its message as a whole (without bothering with the continuity or relevance or realism of individual elements), as a giant and naive allegory (this is obviously a "popular street theatre" type of folkloric storytelling destined to the mass). If we only keep the love triangle without the symbolism, it's merely another melodrama.


weepingsam said...

I don't know - I think Matt Zoller Seitz's response (it's down in the comments, and on the Chicago Reader site, I think) was pretty reasonable - it's a 200 word capsule for the film, it's not really a negative review ("A colorful and confounding head trip, “Opera Jawa” is guaranteed to test the fortitude of all but the most adventurous viewer." - that's not negative, is it?), it tries to convey the flavor of the film, and makes it seem pretty appealing, really. It played in Boston in the fall and I skipped it, probably because no one bothered to mention the head trip part. It would help, I suppose, to know more about Jeannette Catsoulis, what she considers "colorful and confounding" but on the surface - she makes it sound lively, entertaining, sexy - and fun. It probably could have been better (Darren HUghes' capsule makes a similar [positive] impression in even fewer words), but I don't really see how that's a bad review by any means.

HarryTuttle said...

"lively, entertaining, sexy - and fun" is probably "positive" for a Madonna music video, but is it for a contemplative film?
She just emphasizes all the wrong (secondary, superficial, catchy, sensationalistic) aspects of the performance. And makes a conscious decision not to engage with what the film sets out to achieve on a poetical, ideological, cultural and aesthetical level.

What would you feel if a Matthew Barney film was sold the same way just to lure audience to buy or not a ticket?
Cremaster 1 as "a sexy Super Ball half-time show sponsored by GoodYear", Cremaster 2 as "a glimmering rodeo dance", Cremaster 3 The Order as "a riveting building climbing with nudity", Cremaster 4 as "a colorful motorcycle race with a guy with sheep ears", Cremaster 5 as "an opera with Ursula Andress, the actress from James Bond", or Drawing Restraint 9 as "a suspenseful Moby Dick hunt with dolphin mutilation, and a sexy strip tease of the singer Björk".

Just imagine a Bollywood movie described with the words she uses to focus on the star-sighting, fancy costumes and shaky hips.

How simplistic a capsule can get without become dishonest?

weepingsam said...

I haven't seen the film, so there's no guessing how much she distorts it. From the other reviews, it doesn't sound like she's too far off. If it is, in fact, a folk story musical, with puppets and dancing and extravagant camerawork, eye popping colors, wildly charismatic stars, and all of it strange and surrealistic - then better to say so.... If it's not, or that's a minor aspect of what's on screen, well, that's a different story. But from the sound of it - hers might be the most shallow of the cited reviews, but it's not really negative, and doesn't seem really unfair.

HarryTuttle said...

I'm not saying she's making up this stuff (if she was I would suggest she didn't see the film), these details are in the film one way or another, except the way she puts it is flat out insulting. She's not unfair because she didn't like what she saw, she's unfair because she reduces it to a musical video (and that's not what it is).
You know how easy it is to give half-truths to omit key elements and embellish/impoverish other aspects.
I don't know if she does it consciously or not (I hope she has control over her style), but she is duplicitous and/or sarcastic. Her review appears charming on the surface to those who haven't seen the film. But when you know what she talks about, it's obvious caricaturisation (cultural snobbism).

HarryTuttle said...

Discussion develops at Rosenbaum's blog and a new post is up at Alsolikelife's blog : Blogging Phantoms of the Opera Jawa NYT Review Controversy

Herman said...

Harry, nice to see you mixing it up on the Rosenbaum site and to see the discussion continuing here. The Times piece was pure fluff, total write-off. Her last joke seals that argument. I agree, Darren's capsule would have served much better. I detest these bon mot ridden reviews that are concerned more with turning a phase than actual critical analysis.

But who are we kidding? Movie "reviews," for the most part, are in the dumps. Rosenbaum and a few others (Scott, Dargis, Kent Jones) are solid but the majority of film writing in major periodicals or magazines is deplorable (or simply too short). I haven't seen Opera Jawa but I can tell it's not a film to be summarized in 200 words. And even if it can it wouldn't do it justice. Superlatives (postive or pejorative) aren't criticism.

Could you sum up a Parajanov film in 200 words? I think not.

That why one has to turn to blogs like yours (or David Bordwell's, Strictly Film School, Senses of Cinema, Long Pauses) for any substance on film now-a-days. I'm fine with that for now.

HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the good words Herman.

After our roundtable on synopsis, this NYT review just came in wrong. A good illustration of what we talked about actually.
I have to say I'm happy to see how the blog material slowly becomes to take teh lead, as print journalism sinks deeper into pure conservatism and entertainment. All because of the poor taste and populism of the new editors in charge. We definitely read more interesting things online now, mainly because they don't worry about pleasing (or not boring, should I say) a mainstream readership.

HarryTuttle said...

Doug Cummings (FilmJourney)
: "An impossible-to-classify film, this sensational mixture of gamalan music and dance with art installations and the Hindu myth of Ramayana (plus a bit of Mozart for good measure) is a wildly creative and haunting masterpiece. Fortunately, it's being released in the UK on DVD this month, and I'm very much looking forward to revisiting its cryptic and powerful symbols and motifs."

HarryTuttle said...

and the discussion continues at Rosenbaum's blog.