Three Formal Masterworks

'Taxi', 'The Forbidden Room' and 'Victoria'

by Michael Barrett

15 March 2016

These three films define the possibilities of cinematic form in the 21st century.
Taxi 

I’ve just watched two new masterpieces, one after the other, that pretty much define the possibilities of cinematic form in the 21st century. So does a third formal experiment, albeit less interestingly.

In Taxi (2015), which carries no credits because of its status as a clandestinely made film, Jafar Panahi plays himself driving a taxi around Tehran with a tiny digital dashboard camera. The 80-minute film or video takes place in “real time” (which took 15 days to shoot) and follows his interactions with various people who represent aspects of contemporary society, including two older superstitious women, a wounded man and his wife, a DVD bootlegger, a woman who’s a well-known human rights lawyer, and Panahi’s precocious niece, who’s shooting her own video for school. Every character is both natural and mysterious, arousing our interest. There are nods throughout to Panahi’s previous films.
  
This riveting, exhilarating movie is in the tradition of Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, which consisted of ten-minute takes about a woman cabbie and her passengers (an enclosed society, yet on the move), and it’s also in the tradition of Iranian cinema’s blending of fiction and documentary into a self-conscious form of postmodern storytelling that goes back to Scheherazade. Panahi has long been one of the world’s great filmmakers, and that hasn’t changed now that he’s theoretically under a sentence forbidding him from making films for 20 years. He’s simply become a great filmmaker morally as well as aesthetically, which leads to the vexing, profoundly ironic question of whether his sentence has been the best thing that’s happened to his art.

If this represents an extreme of profound social engagement, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room (2015) represents the hyper-aesthetic extreme of “art for art’s sake”, a series of absurd stories within stories with no pretense of sense but simply immersing viewers into its digitally treated universe of faux-silent and early talking films in a jumble of styles, all supposedly suffering from nitrate deterioration. Major props go to photographers Benjamin Kasulke (in France) and Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron (Canada) and editor John Gurdebeke.

The huge cast includes Louis Negin, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Marie de Medeiros and Amira Casar. Poet John Ashbery wrote the scenes about taking a bath. In their commentary, Maddin and Johnson explain that the fragmentary scenarios are inspired by lost movies, such as Allan Dwan’s 1914 film called The Forbidden Room. In other words, this feels like the most elaborately hip in-joke in cinema, one almost entirely disengaged from social or personal concerns, unlike Maddin’s My Winnipeg  and Brand Upon the Brain.

This film is the take-home artifact of a more complexly conceived project shot in two public locales where tourists wandered: the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Phi Centre in Montreal. It’s connected to an online project called Seances at the National Film Board of Canada, where users choose which lost films they wish to combine. This is avant-garde “new media” interactive brainstorming, and therefore alarmingly original within its retro masquerade.

Now we come to Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015), which applies the “real time” aesthetic to its most flexible limit by shooting the entire two hours and 20-minutes in a single handheld take that wanders all over a Berlin neighborhood. This gimmick is foregrounded in the publicity and packaging because the story and characters amount to little. Is the formal gimmick really a selling point to the so-called average viewer, or is that viewer given up on?

Our vapid heroine (Laia Costa) is clubbing one night, most likely addled by alcohol, when she makes what will strike most viewers as a colossally bad decision that just keeps coming as a marathon of lousy judgment. It’s a paranoid parent’s worst nightmare: talking to thuggish strangers leads to the armed robbery and shootouts of a melodrama we’ve seen many times, complete with sleazy new boyfriend (Frederick Lau). This is perhaps the familiarity needed to present an experimental form, but the single-shot gimmick through streets and elevators (requiring three attempts, according to Wikipedia) makes the endurance a slog even as it wishes to underline the point of how life can change in a short time. The most interesting choice is when it becomes a silent movie with music to acknowledge that hearing the improvised dialogue is unnecessary.

When Alfred Hitchcock pushed the single-shot possibilities of 35mm film to its limit in Rope, the result was a dazzling if under appreciated ballet of heavy equipment. This sense of complexity is what rouses our appreciation in many famous tracking shots, such as the opening of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, or contrariwise, Andrei Tarkovsky’s long, intense, hushed, rapturous shots. When Alexander Sokurov made Russian Ark inside the Hermitage, a smaller but still heavy camera was hefted through a complexly staged orchestration of mise en scène. With digital editing, Birdman fabricated lengthy takes across time as well as space.

Cameras are so compact, flexible and light-conscious, it’s no longer so remarkable to point one for a long time, and we need more than a stale, unsympathetic story about nitwits. That said, this movie won a slew of German awards and has its admirers.

Rating:

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