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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Now Showing (2008/Martin)

Now Showing (2008/Raya MARTIN/Philippines/France)
Cannes 2008 - Quinzaine des Réalisateurs

Read part 1 of this review here

I was actually shocked to learn the film was entirely scripted and staged (shot in 6 days, edited from 40 hours of footage) because I totally believed I was watching Raya Martin's personal homemovies compilation dating back as far as the VHS era. The staging involved was, in my mind, the kind a member of the family would direct informally by requesting the "protagonists" would pretend the camera is not there, and keep doing what they naturally do everyday, sharing confidences like if nobody was listening. Though there are a few "extras" who occasionally look into the lens when the scenes require a larger crowd foreign to the household.
I could easily picture myself the evolution of a family-movie collection where the subjects learnt over time not to pay attention anymore to that boy in the corner with his camcorder constantly on. There is this very immediate feeling of proximity and integration of the camera in these slices of genuine life permeating from this strange immersion within Rita's family. She's named after Rita Hayworth for the same reason Camilla Rhodes names herself Rita in Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001), an homage to the timeless silver screen diva.

The first "epoch", in the nineties, with images (as if) from a cheap VHS [Hi8] camcorder, Rita might be around 10 years old (when a distant relative came for her birthday asks her her age, she doesn't answer). The visual aspect shows the amateurish jerky framing of an inexperienced filmmaker filming around for his entertainment and for collective family memories, excited about the smallest things, catching whatever comes in front of the camera, recording family reunions in a discontinuous way. We see random street shots at night, a ball game down in the neighbourhood alley, Aunts' arguments, Rita's Birthday, poetically rendered mundane whereabouts. All rings true, real life experiences both in the content (script) and enactment (non-actors), which is a prowess in itself.
It also includes home-made stop-motion animation with toys, which every teenager with a camera would do.

In her bedroom, Rita jumps on the bed and performs solo "karaoke" songs, but the sound is curiously erased. Maybe it's just to avoid copyright fees because even the a cappella "Happy Birthday" song is off (which is a song notoriously known to be copyrighted whereas it should belong to the worldwide public domain by now!)
Though we don't really miss it given the atrocious sound quality of this epoch. Raya Martin explained he duplicated the footage numerous times on purpose with low-grade equipment to artificially generate the quality loss endured by VHS tapes when watched over and over, to give a sense of distant worn out past.
I was compelled to view it with the patience and compassion we grant to a document close to our heart, and completely overlooking after a while the VHS statics and the grating noises. There is this strange captivation focusing our attention on the reality happening rather than its distorted appearance on screen, like for example for a sonography, a decayed silent film or the uncomfortable peeping through a keyhole...

One of my favourite scene is a static extended long take of Rita and her mother watching [listening to] a late horror program on TV [radio]. The camera is so positioned that we are looking at them sideways (framing the entire sofa [bed]), their faces bathed in the pale glow of the offscreen TV set. Rita seems tired and is cuddled up against her mum, she doesn't even look at the screen, but she listens to the frightening voices from the movie (like us, blind spectators) [radio program]. Her mother is amused by the silly sound effects, the threatening narrator, and the wincing faces of her daughter. Both are less than riveted by the show, and probably only stay there just to be together in a silent communion.
This is the kind of intimate moment with zero plot drive that gives contemplative films their unique realism. The significance of this scene could emerge from its cumulative combination with other mundane moments. We gather that Rita's father is constantly away for work, that she misses him even if this emotion remains repressed as evoking his absence is a sore subject. This mother-daughter moment condenses alone all the unspoken sedimentary tension in a "single-parent" nucleus family.
I think the horror show is also quite a clever psychoanalytical symbol for the lack of masculine education in the house. The father figure being there to help the child overcome fears and to nurse self-confidence. The attitude of Rita towards this exposition to horror reveals her juvenile regression in this respect, which incarnates the absent father in a scene where he's not even mentioned.

We also overhear that Rita's grandmother used to be a famous Filipino movie actress in her youth, before the news of her death closes Rita's infancy segment with another beautiful scene on the beach at dusk. Rita cries and dark silhouettes move around a boat on the sand, maybe the return of the estranged seaman father for the funeral. But I might have missed a subtitle line and misinterpreted the succession of events because Cahiers says it was the father's funeral...
The following interlude would be more significant in my opinion if it was an homage following the death of the grand-mother.

A structuralist interlude divides the film between the nineties and the present days, with an insertion of Black&White found-footage of the grandmother's movie. Even though it's a sound film from 1939 (see details in Oggs Cruz review), the sound is off (but the collage of clips is so random that we couldn't follow the dialogues anyway). It's like a best of collection of screen moments from her career. We see her in various scenes and dresses. The image is artificially altered by multiple copies of copies across different support, from 35mm to VHS [Hi8] to digital. Pushing the texture of the image to extreme contrast, as if going back in time to early silent film decayed by bad storage. This reminds Tscherkassky's aesthetics of found footage experiments. Raya Martin plays the footage (in a much quicker montage than the other parts full of long plan-sequences) alternatively backward, upside down, back to front or in slow motion... which appropriately convokes the vanishing impression of fragmentary memories, like a nostalgic foregone era, fading away relentlessly. This is the film-within-the-film that really questions the perceived reality of TV imagery.

[EDIT: correction made for the radio horror show I mistook for an offscreen TV show]

Part 3 continues here


HarryTuttle said...

Apparently I got the "TV Horror program" wrong too, as I see Cahiers and Variety refer to it as a "radio show"... I thought the mother was staring at something offscreen all the time. Anybody knows?

Alexis said...

Hi Harry, I believe Cahiers and Variety are right on this one. It looks to me like they were in a bedroom in this scene, and the only TV I recall in these Hi-8 shot scenes was in the living room. I believe there would have been a noticeable flicker of light as well coming from the TV if there was one there.

Am enjoying your entries on the film and looking forward to the next one!

HarryTuttle said...

OK thanks for the confirmation. It's the beauty of contemplative films, they say so little that we can project a lot of our own meaning into it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, even reviews now come in "trilogies"....

HermyBerg said...

Harry, fantastic review & depth of analysis. You're making my mouth water. The films sounds excellent. Looking forward to the rest. Thanks.

HarryTuttle said...

Thank you HermyBerg. I didn't have much time lately to finish this review. It might take another month because the Paris festival is starting now... sorry about that.