Brush Up on Your Film Studies With 'Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project No. 2'
Scorsese and the World Cinema Project are not only opening up international filmmaking to Western audiences but providing immaculate film quality and history, too.
Martin Scorsese has cobbled together something like his own distinct film school throughout the years. Aside from occasionally teaching classes at New York University and online as well as providing illuminating commentaries that accompany DVDs of his films, Scorsese has steadily rolled out a stream of quirky multi-volume film history sets. In 2002 he released My Voyage to Italy, a historically-informed personal reminiscence of the Italian films he encountered in the cinema while growing up. He emphasizes Italian Neorealism’s impact upon him with its use of non-actors, on-location settings, and mundane content that concerns the struggles of everyday people with particular emphasis upon the most marginalized like children, the elderly, and the mentally disabled.
In 2012, Scorsese released A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies. Once again, Scorsese chronicles mostly the films that influenced him throughout his childhood -- stopping by the mid-'60s since the production of his own films supposedly make him more biased in his account. It must be noted that Scorsese’s concept of film history often comes across as dated and hackneyed, as if gleaned from the dusty pages of Terry Ramsaye’s 1926 classic, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Movies, an entertaining but largely inaccurate account of movie history. He tends to repeat clichés such as sound only arrived by the mid-'20s in the United States and often marches out a hagiography of great male directors at the expense of more nuanced history, like pointing out women’s strong influence within early silent cinema as well as how experimentation occurring at the margins of commercial cinema influenced more mainstream fare.
Despite such historical shortcomings, Scorsese remains one of the most adept analysts of the moving image. When in action, he unpacks the multiple layers of a film sequence like an archaeologist excavates a site, layer by layer uncovering its hidden meanings and secret gems. I still recall -- though do not remember where -- seeing Scorsese once unpacking the famous “Here’s Johnny” sequence in The Shining where Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) batters apart the bathroom door with an axe while his wife (Shelley Duval) screams in terror. Scorsese speaks about Kubrick being one of the first directors to use the Steadicam, a stabilizing system rigged to the cameraman’s body to allow smooth camera movement over unsteady terrain. Within this sequence, Scorsese stresses, Kubrick adds to the horror by having the Steadicam move smoothly back with each axe stroke before chopping into the door, thus subtly drawing viewers into the sequence and complicity. Suddenly, with this brief observation, a new element of the film opens up, making visible that which had remained shrouded during all earlier screenings.
In 2007 Scorsese helped initiate the World Cinema Project. Its task is to restore both known and unknown cinematic works of art. Scorsese succinctly states the goal of the project in one of his introductions for the recent series: “to give new life to pictures from around the world that seemed to be lost to history.” A select few of these films are ultimately transferred to DVD and Blu-ray as high end boxsets for Criterion. The first volume emerged in 2013 and had such rare gems like Redes (1936), which I had only been able to see a few years earlier on 16 mm by visiting the Museum of Modern Art, and Touki Bouki (1973), which had been available commercially but only on a very low resolution VHS copy. Also, it introduced viewers to relatively unknown films like the amazing South Korean film The Housemaid (1960) and the sultry Turkish film Dry Summer (1964).
The eagerly anticipated second volume has now arrived. Again, there are many hidden treasures as well as masterfully transferred rare films. Although the overriding logic of what films are preserved and ultimately transferred to DVD remains a mystery, the work done by the World Cinema Project must be commended along with Criterion’s desire to make commercially available select films in dual Blu-Ray/DVD box sets.
Olga Breno in Limite (Mario Peixoto, 1931)
The most recent set includes the following films: Law of the Border (Lütfi Ö. Akad, 1966), Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 1985), Insiang (Lino Brocka, 1976), Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000), Revenge (Ermek Shinarbaev, 1989), and Limite (Mário Peixoto, 1931). Volume 2 heavily tilts towards Asia with four of the six films coming from Asian-speaking countries or communities. But other than that, the films seem randomly selected, left at the discretion of the viewer to weave any links between them.
The excellent written commentaries on each film, along with a 20-minute extra where a person either central to the making, distribution, or restoration of the film, is interviewed often provides vital background information to assist one in situating the films into a longer historical terrain and more global scope. For example, we learn how the Project chose some films because they are representative of new waves of filmmaking. Lino Broka, director of Insiang, represents the Second Golden Age of Phillipine filmmaking along with Ishmael Bernal, Mike De Leon, and Kidlat Tahimik. Ermek Shinarbaev, director of Revenge, comes from the Kazak New Wave, a cinematic movement largely ignored globally since it rose precisely when the Soviet Union fell. Edward Yang, director of Taipei Story, comprises the ranks of New Taiwan Cinema along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Ang Lee.
Yet at times the project jeopardizes historical insight for romantic indulgences. This can be readily seen with Limite, an experimental film the Brazilian director Walter Salles drew to Scorsese’s attention. The film’s relative obscurity along with its director’s fanciful advertising by falsely claiming he started writing the script when he was 15 and forging a fake review of the film under Sergei Eisenstein’s name casts a certain allure over it. Limite gains further luster from being Peixoto’s only film.
In his article accompanying the film, Fábio Andrade identifies some of the historical influences upon the film like Robert Flaherty’s documentary and detailed approach to filming along with Man Ray’s exploration of film as a flat canvas. Walter Salles remarks during his interview how Peixoto watched much German Expressionist and Soviet avant-garde cinema. But Salles quickly back peddles, cautioning that Peixoto was “not influenced by Soviet cinema and German Expressionism,” which is essentially a load of rubbish.
Limite is firmly situated within the first avant-garde that emerged from 1919 to 1945. This movement originated simultaneously within the Soviet Union and Europe, namely in Germany and France. A swirling vortex of painters, filmmakers, poets, and illustrators comprised its ranks as they were swept up by the power of cinema to offer a new vision for a modern age. The first avant-garde had a strong international flair as it practitioners from multiple countries eagerly collaborated with one another and devoured issues of Close Up, an international avant-garde film journal that ran from 1927 to 1933. The movement quickly spread to the United States with the Little Theater movement in the '20s and other areas, like Brazil.
One can see the influence of Ballet Mécanique (1927) on Limite as we watch repetitive shots of a water spigot spout water not unlike the multiple repetitive shots that punctuate the earlier film. Low angle shots of towering human figures and objects indicative of German Expressionism provide a refrain throughout the film as well. Furthermore, as the male character becomes more anxious within Limite, montage is employed to relate such anxiety as we watch him cuff his hand and yell in multiple overlapping shots. The handheld camera that moves wildly to his mouth and body is undoubtedly innovative, a subjective form of montage that Sergei Eisenstein was only beginning to theorize during the early 1930s. But it does not arise from nowhere and is not unprecedented, since a film like Borderline (1930) was already experimenting with subjective montage a year before. Limite builds off the innovations of the first avant-garde but does not break from them.
If anything, the film at its best weaves together both continental and American influences such as the latter’s focus on pastoral imagery with the former’s more abstract tendencies and fascination with psychological depth as the film delves into flashbacks regarding its three protagonists’ past. Mesmerizing imagery frequently arises such as the suggestive shots of a fishing village: an oar propping open a fishing net overlooking the sea, a view between two rocks towards the beach as a lone figure walks to a boat, a palm tree standing at a distance as lines of netting gently wave in the breeze. Such sequences recall an imagistic poem, a visual translation of what poets like William Carlos Williams were trailblazing on the page a decade earlier.
But at 120 minutes, the film runs too long and has boring, self-indulgent stretches, not uncommon for a beginning filmmaker. This is not to discount its flashes of brilliance where Peixoto fuses together the best elements of the first avant-garde. Yet at other times, it is searching for a purpose, dragging on where it could be trimmed. To ignore such problematic elements places the film in a category where it does not belong and becomes a victim of the very charlatanism that Peixoto initially employed to hustle interest for the film.
One strong theme that runs throughout many films in the box set is that of alienation -- of being disconnected from others, your world, and even yourself. This is not surprising coming from a director like Scorsese where alienation runs like a stream through many of his films whether it be two-bit gangsters on the make but never succeeding (Mean Streets), a vigilante psychopath who envisions the world as one steaming cesspool (Taxi Driver), an overweight boxer plagued by his bad choices and uncooperative weight (Raging Bull), a son on an endless quest for revenge against his father’s murderer (Gangs of New York), a millionaire so overwhelmed by hypochondria and paranoid visions that he barricades himself into a hotel room The Aviator, or cops and criminals going undercover to become embedded in the very communities they detest (The Departed). An enterprising graduate student could write an interesting thesis on how some of the films within the World Cinema Project resonate with Scorsese’s work; but that is another essay altogether.
Alienation suffuses many of volume two’s films. Insiang stars a young woman (Hilda Koronel) who is constantly berated by her mother, raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and the victimized by the general sexism that suffocates Philippine society. It is deeply disturbing that her supposed savior, Bebot (Rez Cortez), apes the very same sexist excuse for his actions as her eventual rapist, Dado (Ruel Vernal): “I’m just a man.” Not surprisingly, after Bebot sleeps with Insiang, he leaves her high and dry where, ironically, her rapist seems to have more feelings for her as the narrative unfolds. The film chronicles Insaing’s gradual psychic hardening as she seeks revenge on her abusers by weaponizing her sexuality to eventually ensnare her rapist and employing her wits to entrap her mother.
Revenge, as the name implies, concerns one man’s overwhelming desire to invoke revenge on a drunk teacher who beheaded his daughter. Unsuccessful in his quest, the father, Tsai (Kasym Zhakibayev) has a son, Sungu (Aleksandr Pan), with a concubine for the sole purpose of creating a child as an engine for his revenge. The boy’s humanity grows warped and gnarled as he searches for his half-sister’s killer.
In a brief respite, Sungu attempts to connect with Elza (Lyubov Germanova), a young cook. They are two outsiders, one from Korean decent and the other from Romanian, both exiled by their own will in the Soviet Union. (Tellingly, Revenge is the first film to implicitly address the Korean diaspora in the U.S.S.R.). In a golden lit, tightly shot scene, the sexual attraction between them becomes palpable as Elza gently traces her finger over his brow after placing it between her lips. She states gently, “It doesn’t matter that you are not Russian. Neither am I.” She stands slowly and gracefully closes the room’s door and window in a ballet of gestures. It is a choreography of seduction. She eases back in bed, lying on her side, head perched on hand. A clock quietly ticks. Sungu begins to undress until we cut to a horrified look on Elza’s face. The camera cuts back to Sungu to reveal blood pouring from his loin, the curse of revenge ensnaring him, foreclosing any chance at intimacy, connection, and a life that veers from his father’s monomaniacal vision.
Taipei Story feel much like a Michelangelo Antonioni film in the way that its main couple of Chin (Chin Tsai) and Lung (Hsiao-Hsien Hou) fail to connect. From its opening scene their disconnection is related as they look at an apartment together. The empty space of the rooms relates their similarly hollowed out attitude towards one another. Rarely do they share the same space, often having to repeat sentences to one another. Even when sharing the same room, they stare out into a street, gazes averted from one another. Their bodies are divided by the sliding glass door frame.
Like Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard, Edward Yang similarly emphasizes the onslaught of modernity, rending the social fabric not unlike how the voracious construction that the film documents disembowels Taipei’s cityscape. Figures are dwarfed by buildings. City streets are often absent of people altogether. In one scene, Ch’en (Wu Nien-jen), a married architect who incessantly badgers Chin to get drinks, comments while looking at the city skyline: “It’s getting harder for me to tell which ones I designed and which ones I didn’t.”
The older generation offers no wisdom as Chin’s father is a hopeless drunk and worthless businessman who beats on her mother. The younger generation that follows after Chin and Lung’s immolates itself on American consumerism and cheap thrills. In between bouts of dancing to “Footlose” in a bar and aimlessly riding motor scooters across city streets, Chin’s sister needs money for an abortion. The name of the father is irrelevant. Chin doesn’t even comment on the fact that her younger sister is having sex. Sandwiched between an abusive past and an impossible future, Chin and Lung’s relationship logically stagnates.
Law of the Border takes place in a Turkish no man’s land. The inhospitable earth immune to farming and lack of legitimate employment force the local men to smuggle animals, objects, and persons across the border for a living. Hidir, played by the mesmerizing Yimaz Güney who will become a memorable Turkish director in his own right, remains caught between two worlds: the local community that he is a part of and the Turkish state that wants to improve local conditions, mostly symbolized through building a school house. Although he understands the necessity of smuggling, he wants conditions to improve for his young son, Yusuf (Hikmet Olgun).
According to Bilge Ebiri’s piece accompanying the film, Güney wrote the first draft of the script, which romanticized Hidir as an outlaw. Lütfi Ö. Akad, however, offered a rewrite that foregrounded setting and socioeconomic backgrounds of the characters. Even as Hidir attempts to follow the noble path, the recalcitrance of the locals to new ways and the general bureaucratic stupidity of the state to comprehend the rhythms and mores of rural life lead him to an impasse, poetically summarized by film’s end as Hidir runs towards his certain death into a landmine-ridden borderland.
Perhaps the most unifying element of volume two is the way that all the films challenge traditional cinematic forms. Law of the Border combines a neorealist approach with that of a Western. Limite is an avant-garde film that combines experimental tendencies of its historic moment. Revenge is in a part a historical epic, melodrama, and epic poem. This is most clearly related through its use of light that impressionistically imprints itself throughout many of its sequences. It provides a dreamlike quality as if its diffused images are swathed in memory. Tellingly, the sequence when Sungu attempts to exact revenge, we are confronted with monochromatic darkness, a rare moment that suggests a correlation between Sungu’s literal descent into an abandoned smoldering landscape with his own psychological fall.
Taipei Story reveals Edward Yang’s European modernist influences upon a Taiwanese locale. Insiang combines realism with melodrama, not unlike that found within the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The film uneasily teeters between self-reflective kitsch and low-budget abysmal filmmaking. What, for example, to make of the film’s repetitively obnoxious soundtrack: low budget necessity or emphasis of the repetitive sexism that drives Philippine society and ensnares Insiang?
And then there is Mysterious Object at Noon.
I save this film for last since it not only challenges genres far more than any of the other films, but it stands far beyond the others in its ingenuity and sheer will to remake cinema altogether. Shot on a bargain budget over the course of many years, Mysterious Object at Noon complicates the terrain of documentary and fiction, soundtrack and visuals to offer an ethereal poem of Thailand.
Its production background is well-documented. Weerasethakul uses the surrealist notion of exquisite corpse drawing to create a film. When applied to drawing, the exquisite corpse model encourages people to build upon the images of others often without fully seeing the earlier drawings to create some kind of grotesque but beautiful object. Similarly, Weerasethakul traveled the length of Thailand and had various groups of people build upon a tale of a disabled male student and female teacher. Rivaling the inventiveness of the story being told, however, are the locations and lives that compose it. The film dizzyingly shuttles back and forth between its fictional story and documentary impulses. At times, it visualizes the tale being told. Others times, it does not by instead overlapping an oral account of the tale upon unrelated imagery—the relation between sound and image increasingly suggestive as they drift away from one another. Additionally, different actresses play the female teacher throughout the film, making it unclear if we are being introduced to a new documentary character or continuing with the fictional tale.
Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000
The film ceaselessly slips between fictional and documentary registers. For example, in one sequence where the tale of the student and teacher are being visualized, the director intercedes and calls, “Cut.” The cast and crew banter with one another while sitting on the floor eating lunch. We seem to be peering into a behind-the-scene’s moment of the film; that is until Apichatpong Weerasethakul reveals in his accompanying commentary on the DVD that the break was all staged, too.
Throughout the film, reality conjures itself in remarkable ways that rivals its fictional elements. For example, a group of boys continue the story: a mysterious object appears from the teacher’s skirt and transforms itself into a boy. While they attempt to figure out their part of the story, the boys walk around elephants chained to trees. The boy’s small size juxtaposed against the elephants’ enormity is bewildering and bizarre. In a low angle shot, we watch a boy precariously riding on the head of an elephant. The sun filters through the trees creating a cascading halo of light around boy and elephant. The grainy black-and-white footage, 16 mm film blown up to 35 mm, further enhances the sequence’s unreality, more like a hazy dream than documentary sequence.
Often as compelling as the exquisite corpse story is the way it is being told. We watch a theater troupe perform an amazing musical rendition of the tale. Dressed in elaborate costumes on a wooden stage, the troupe configures the tale in more mystical directions where two teachers suddenly appear and the boy must determine the true one. Shortly thereafter, we watch a more minimalist rendition as two deaf-mute girls relate the tale in sign language. We see them playfully building off of each other’s ideas as they make the two boys wait tables in a club while the teacher becomes a singer. The girls excitedly sign the tale and affectionately pat each other on the shoulder to add details and further sculpt their story. Their compassion with one another translates into the tale as the boys bring the teacher flowers daily since she feels left out. In many ways, the tale is a Rorschach test of those telling it -- filtering their own secret abuses, desires, hopes, and fears through it.
Mysterious Object at Noon represents a playful upheaval of cinema. Credits start rolling as we hear the final incarnation of the tale through a bunch of school boys. The screen goes black. Then “At noon” suddenly appears, followed by another eight minutes of footage documenting the final location of the film. Weerasethakul refers to this sequence in his interview as the film’s bonus track, analogizing film more to music than theatrical narrative; this is an important insight since although the film has two ostensible narratives -- the exquisite corpse tale and the geographical documentary coverage of Thailand from north to south, they remain less important to the more impressionistic elements of the film: its imagery, human interactions, and complex crosscurrents between reality and fiction -- not only in film style but the ways in which each teller of the tale psychically invests him/herself into it, leaving an unconscious imprint on its development. The film represents a genuine cinematic breakthrough and challenge in ways that the other films of the boxset, all excellent in their own right, cannot measure up to.
Needless to say, this box set is a must have for lovers of world cinema. Yet I want to briefly mention a major gender issue of the two sets: there are no women directors at all. Furthermore, the stories between both box sets have a lot of women suffering: Insiang has the rape of its lead character and general abuse of other women; Revenge has a plot motivated by a girl’s beheading; Dry Summer chronicles the rape and abuse of the lead female character; and The Housemaid circles around the abuse of a wife and her war with younger women over the fidelity of her husband. Many of the other films like Law of the Border, Trances, and Redes have women play marginal roles or are absent altogether.
I do not provide this list here to offer a body count of misogynistic misdeeds of The World Cinema Project. But one hopes that future editions become slightly more aware of how women (and other gender affiliations) have contributed to world cinema. This absence is sadly not too surprising since Scorsese comes from the Hollywood New Wave, a group of male white directors who largely confined cinematic women’s roles to the margins or firmly lodged them in the cliché. Although one can see Coppola’s early film The Rain People (1969) and Scorsese’s own Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) as two notable exceptions. But more gender diversity would be welcome in future boxsets.
As always, the transfers are immaculate in volume two with the exception of Limite, which had deteriorating celluloid, and Law of the Border where videotape was needed to replace a missing a reel. To give Scorsese and The World Cinema Project credit, they are not only opening up international filmmaking to Western audiences, but providing immaculate transfers of these films along with well-informed written pieces on them to provide vital background material. What would have required a trip to the archive in the recent past or a search online for a subpar bootleg copy has now been made readily available. Let’s hope future editions can further expand our horizons even more than what these stellar boxsets have already provided.