Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jonathan Rosenbaum: Desperate Measures [OUT OF SIGHT & THE BRIGANDS: CHAPTER VII]

by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Chicago Reader

Which would you rather see? A Hollywood thriller with hot stars whose director is so alienated from his material that he’s reduced to a kind of ingenious doodling while his characters disintegrate? Or a witty, despairing French-Russian-Italian-Swiss art movie set in 16th-century Georgia, Stalinist Georgia, contemporary Georgia, and contemporary Paris, whose writer-director is so much in command of his materials that he can plant the same actors in all four settings yet provide a seamless continuity?

My question is mainly rhetorical because it’s already been decided for most people reading this. Out of Sight, a major Universal release written by Scott Frank and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is playing all over town and will be around for weeks; The Brigands: Chapter VII, written and directed by Otar Iosseliani, doesn’t even have a U.S. distributor and is playing for only one week at Facets Multimedia Center before disappearing indefinitely.

I saw these movies on successive days and couldn’t give you a coherent synopsis of either one to save my life — not only because both pictures leap about in time with willful abandon, but also because they have much more to say in terms of style than in terms of plot. Both films strongly convey the estrangement of exiles — literal exile in the case of Iosseliani, a Georgian based in Paris, and vocational exile in the case of Soderbergh, hired this time not as an auteur but only as a journeyman director. He appears alienated from the story and cast he’s been assigned and from the reason (as opposed to the way) the pieces in his jigsaw puzzle are supposed to fit together. By contrast, Iosseliani — a wry, poetic filmmaker with about a dozen features to his credit — seems alienated from most ideas of human progress and maybe from human behavior as well, though when it comes to filmmaking he seems right at home.

Both movies last a little longer than two hours and require total immersion as well as frequent readjusting of when and where you are in the overall patchwork construction. I enjoyed both for most of their running times, but Out of Sight engaged me less and less, until by the end I no longer cared which of the characters lived or died. Not even the engaging Jennifer Lopez, George Clooney, Albert Brooks, Don Cheadle, and Ving Rhames or the talented secondary cast can survive the abbreviations and last-minute shoehorning their characters receive. The Brigands, which has no stars that I recognize, has characters that persisted for me throughout, even when they were transposed to different eras and identities — a 16th-century king (Amiran Amiranachvili), for instance, becomes an early-20th-century pickpocket and a contemporary homeless Parisian. The film engaged me more and more as I watched it, though not because I cared which characters lived or died. This is mainly because of the camera setups: Soderbergh is obliged by commercial practice to shoot close-ups as well as medium and long shots, thereby signaling which characters are more worthy of our attention; Iosseliani is free to omit close-ups and shoot all his characters in medium and long shots, thereby displaying an equal amount of affection or contempt for all of them.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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