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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Le quattro volte (English critics)

So what do we learn from an anglophone review of Frammartino's Le quattro volte?
Acquarello plays out cosmic inter-connectedness, Davies gives a plot run down, Pipolo spotlights the ants, Scott wants to emphasize "complexity", Hoberman finds it wiggy, and Bordwell believes there is suspense.
The attention to form is lacking or clearly mistaken, confusing minimalism with classic dramatic devices and rhetoric. In this case, Frammartino's long and rich press-kit [PDF] certainly helped these guys to features some interesting pre-packaged ideas, otherwise it would have been as bland and empty as their reviews of Alamar... And these are the positive reviews admiring the film.
And the film only came out on one screen (Film Forum, not even a regular commercial theatre) in NYC... and nobody even cared to mention this outrageous injustice! What are critics good for nowadays?
Michelangelo Frammartino's name is as long as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, yet these critics never once feel compelled to use an alternate shorter nickname, like "Joe", to save space or for the "sake of variety"... (see Random factoid 2: Apichatpong)

"Frammartino gives equal weight between the organic and inorganic to convey a sense of cosmic, eternal interconnectedness"
Acquarello's micro-synopsis doesn't reveal all the plotpoints, and references Depardon and Iosseliani, but unfortunately plays along with the obvious metempsychosis theme.

"Our perspective shifts tremendously: where once we observed the goats from the herder's point of view, viewing them as little more than a seething, collective entity, our eyes are now trained on them as individuals, as we follow not only the small woolly white body inhabited by our protagonist-soul but also its companions. [..] Primal to the extreme, Le Quattro Volte re-orients narrative cinema's ur-focus on the human subject and concerns itself with the lives of animals, vegetables, minerals, and, finally, smoke, as much as it does with the affairs of human beings [..] The unsubtitled human dialogue is treated identically to birdsong, goat bleats, dog barks, the swaying of tree branches or the crackle [..] of the coal, as one layer of the sound among many."
Even if Jon Davies sticks to the press-kit talking points of animism and metempsychosis, this review is the most interesting of the bunch. He seems to be transcribing the script at times, noting every events in chronological order... but in the quote above, there is an attempt to touch the essence of the film and how its peculiar form influences our reading of the film. What most reviewers never mention is the shift of point of view of the film with each episode (aside from the change of "protagonist" through transmigration of the soul). Not only it affects the course of the storyline, but most importantly the nature of the camera gaze.

"[..] the single moment that brought me the greatest satisfaction was the long shot (long in both senses of the word) in Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte—a minor miracle of mise-en-scène involving a large cast of non-professional villagers, a truck, a pebble, and a small yappy dog who really deserves an Oscar. This quietly virtuoso sequence, building on the distinctively laconic, fragmented yet fluid storytelling style of Frammartino's debut Il dono, shows that one may mix fiction and "reality," do something unusually experimental and philosophical, and still make it funny and exciting. Let's hope it reaches audiences!"
Thanks for the attention brought on its underexposition. What's disappointing is that he remembers from this film the "virtuoso" plan-sequence, because critics are only attracted to superlatives. "funny" and "exciting" are not what best describe the mood of this humble film, in my mind.

"Serenely composed and paced as befits the subject it delineates, it seduces us with its gentle, assured manner, laced with charity and humor. [..]  They range from Tati-like tableaux of the human condition that only seem blissfully unorchestrated, to bird’s-eye views that recall the kind of landscape painting—e.g., of Bosch, or Poussin—that encompasses myriad narrative details." 
He also appropriates the press-kit talking points, but at least with enough critical distance to question them. References to Gertrude Stein, Siegfried Kracauer, Tati, Bosch or Poussin complement a standard review with a dose of art culture, unlike the other critics. And the last paragraph on the motif of ants is particularly interesting. I'm not sure ants are the key symbol that explains the film, but it was a pertinent angle to explore, to give substance to a review.

"“Le Quattro Volte,” an idiosyncratic and amazing new film by Michelangelo Frammartino, is so full of surprises — nearly every shot contains a revelation, sneaky or overt, cosmic or mundane — that even to describe it is to risk giving something away. At the same time, the nervous reviewer’s convention of posting “spoiler alerts” has rarely seemed so irrelevant. [..] You have never seen anything like this movie"
Scott thinks the film is built on the revelation of "surprises" (see Bordwell's section below)! This film could only appear "idiosyncratic" to the Hollywood-fed crowd, not to the familiars of CCC (Alonso's La Libertad/Los Muertos/Liverpool, Kaplanoglu's Honey, Abdykalykov's The Adopted Son, Epstein's Finis Terrae, Flaherty's Nanook/Man of Aran, Pálfi's Hukkle, Michel's Les Hommes, Peleshian's The Seasons, Depardon's Profil Paysans...)
Apologetic rhetoric : he tries to sell a spartan film as something somehow entertaining. "full of surprises", "revelation", "but there is nothing grim or dispiriting about this film", "packs more life into 88 minutes than movies twice as long", "epic scope", "And yet, perhaps paradoxically, that sense of antiquity gives the film its almost jarring freshness, its uncanny sense of discovery", "extraordinary formal sophistication", "hilarious", "The operations of cause and effect are as airtight as the outcome is absurd, as if the laws of the universe were rigged for comic effect", " completely accessible", " shocking". 
You don't need to exaggerate the effects of a film that tries its best to minimize effects and stay very simple...
"Each being or thing is examined with such care and wit that you become engrossed in the moment-to-moment flow of cinematic prose, only at the end grasping the epic scope and lyrical depth of what you have seen, which is more or less all of creation."
At least, he's not going against the grain of the film itself. If he talks about it with a very conventional discourse formated for mainstream movies and mainstream audience... he doesn't oppose the film's austerity (which is too often the case). But not enough original ideas to make it a pertinent review of the film.

"one of the wiggiest nature documentaries—or almost-documentaries—ever made. [..]  His minimalism is highly orchestrated. [..] I can see how, given its highfalutin premise, exquisitely shot recurring locations, and irresistible animal behavior, Le Quattro Volte could induce a nagging sense of calculated ethno-funk, but this skeptic found it pretty darn sublime."
Really? What's so crazy about it? (see AO Scott section above). Frammartino gives you a very simple and discreet, naturalistic and minimalistic, evident and straight forward film and all you can think about is "wiggiest"? Your sense of rationality has been totally fucked up by Hollywood dude. Even the metempsychosis (implicit and not assertive) is hardly anything out of the ordinary when the subject of the film is precisely the antiquated, millenium old folklore of superstition and animism pervading rural Europe traditions.
How is it "orchestrated" or "calculated"? The only order is the macro structure in 4 chapters which are not even signaled. The shots themselves, at the micro level, don't feel especially constructed. Except maybe the Easter procession, because of the camerawork, but it's far from the smooth blocking of a Brian De Palma plan-sequence where everything falls in place at every second. Orchestrated and calculated aren't the words that best describe Frammartino's intentions. Why would you want to over-complicate, over-hype something that tries to stay very simple? I guess nuance is not your style.
Other than that, he happily repeats the talking point from the press release, and recounts almost the entire succession of events in the film, without adding any critical value himself... If you didn't want to watch the film, there you have it, Hoberman tells you everything you need to know to be able to pretend having seen it to your friends at the watercooler. I wrote more than 9000 words on it, and didn't give away as much from the shot-by-shot run down than this guy in 600 words. So re-writing a synopsis is all you can do? Is that what your readers expect from "film criticism"?

To David Bordwell, this falls in a post about "suspense", as if minimalism was the best example to study infinitesimal traces of traditional dramatic devices... I don't think he would find this a successful treatment of "suspense" in a mainstream movie. After giving us a run down of the entire film, he warns us against spoilers! Spoilers for a plotless film, which plot he already revealed episode by episode.
David Bordwell : "In the rustic spirit of Rouquier’s Farrebique, we get the sheer successiveness of things, the fact that life is one damned, or placid, moment after another. So suspense can be replaced by sheer consecutiveness, but the task then becomes to make things interesting. Frammartino does so through careful framing, evocative sound, and crisp storytelling technique. [..] We should, then, never underestimate the power of suspense, even in those films which might seem to forswear it. Melodrama or pastoral, any genre can find a way to incite and excite us by asking what can come next."
So what suspense is there in this film exactly? No suspense at all in the charcoal making episode, pretty straight forward uneventful linearity. No suspense in the town celebration episode, pretty straight forward uneventful linearity (unless you count the catch of presents atop the tree mast as suspense, or the apprehension of one boy falling off...). By the way, what he calls a "Christmas tree" is in fact a maypole typical of spring days in European pagan folklore (La festa della pita; Alessandria del Carretto, Calabria, Italy, May 3rd, video). 
No suspense in the lost kid episode (unless you thought it was supposed to be a Disney movie happy ending). Is there suspense in wildlife documentaries? This episode ends on a kid falling asleep at the bottom of a tree. Black screen for night. And cut to the tree episode, with a tree going through the winter (without any goat in sight). So if the sleep was a metaphorical death for the kid, the film refuses to explicit the tragic of the helpless abandoned kid, unlike what a suspenseful movie would do.
The only remotely suspenseful episode would be the first one. The shepherd coughs, loses his placebo and the church door is closed... will he get his miracle dust in time for his bed time? Frammartino reveals in plain sight that his medication is pure superstition, so the audience shouldn't expect any hope from this side. He also cuts out the rest of the night, so he doesn't prolongate the onscreen psychosomatic "agony" of the shepherd to keep the audience on their toes. Against all dramatic rules, he leaves behind the "cliff-hanger", and cuts to a long sequence on something completely different, the Easter procession, which effectively defuses any tension built up until then. Without frequently reminding the spectators of the pending fate of the dying shepherd. So what was actually suspenseful about it? Is metempsychosis suspenseful? (see: Re-dramatisation of the undramatic)
Do you really think the film relies on the audience wondering at any and every moment : "what will come next?" Wrong film for this kind of dramatic build up. I'm not saying there is no dramatic tension at all... because Frammartino could have easily given the shepherd a sudden natural death if he wanted to exclude any protracted narration. But it would be difficult to compare how Frammartino constructed his film, by successive accumulation.
As I explained in my articleLe quattro volte could be seen as a didactic deconstruction of dramaturgy, progressively evacuating all dramatic elements from the film, towards pure documentary minimalism and contemplation. So the first episode is the closest to anthropomorphism and human drama, all things considered. But if there are traces of suspense early on, there is none in the rest of the film.


1 comment:

HarryTuttle said...

added: Geoff Andrew (Moving Image Source)