Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Ones That Got Away: Ajami and L'Intrus

Ajami. (2009)  Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani

The Intruder. (2004)  Claire Denis

Quite a few years ago I wrote a song called "Black Lips Saturday." It was an attempt at a poetic collage of lyrical ideas kind of twisted and thrown together, in a story about a friend and my hope for her in a moment of crisis. It received a little radio play in Europe and is probably the most known song I've written. It also received some airplay on Christian radio here in the states, although I'm still not sure exactly why. It did have a metaphor of hope in "the man of sorrows, laying in his tomb," on Saturday. And there was, somewhere in the back of my mind, the idea that Sunday is always better than Saturday due to the nature of its religious ramifications. But I certainly wasn't blatant about that in any way. It probably received airplay here because it was pushed by a friend more than any other reason. But it was a song I wrote for very personal reasons, and it simply won't be understood by just anyone who hears it.

The fact that you haven't heard of "Black Lips Saturday," says more about the range of my greatest hit than it does about your ability to remember alternative rock songs from the 90s. It's still one of my favorites to go back to though. It was a collaboration with several friends, and when I go back and listen (once a year at the most) I not only enjoy the hook (which I can't take credit for) and the lyrics (which I can), but I also enjoy the memories of writing it and singing it with friends. Songwriters share a bond that's hard to explain to someone that's never collaborated on a song with someone else. Songwriters who actually get a chance to record their own attempts get to treat it like a shared journal, scribed with friends. To go back and listen can be a gratifying and soothing link to one's past. Audio beats the memory star, or something like that.

The only reason I mention BLS is because I can't figure out a better personal point of comparison to two recent viewings I've had, both of which have been frustrating experiences to try and figure out. That they are foreign language films doesn't frustrate me as much as I feel like a foreigner in each of them. I'm willing to be persuaded on either of their accounts, as I'm certain they are both wonderfully crafted movies with stories that have reached out to others and made better contact than they did with me. Still, I'm left a little unsatisfied as an outsider to both, although I think there are different reasons for each one of them.

L'Intrus is the 2004 Claire Denis film that I simply can't shake. It's a gorgeous movie that I can't figure out. It feels like that song I wrote years ago, in that only a select few people will truly get it -- those in the "in crowd" --  but that it will play for many more who probably won't get it, and at that point they'll either love it for its mystery or rail and whine against the entire viewing process. And I'm fine with that because I love the director in question. L'Intrus just feels like a very personal film.

The pre-film real life story goes something like this: French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes a book called L'Intrus. It's a deep account of the traumatic experience of his own heart transplant, which affects him physically, mentally, emotionally and no doubt more. Along with a cancer that nearly ends his life, the transplant brings about a time which produces some of his greatest works in writing. In the book he considers the heart an intruder, and much of the work is a philosophical reaction to the intrus. (The first pages of this work are translated into English and found here.)

Claire Denis gets hold of the book. It isn't very long, not more than 30 or 40 pages, but it is riveting and she wells up with emotion. Her reaction to it is fierce -- she says it's the first time she's really, really felt the presence of her heart within her chest. She gets the idea to turn her reaction into a film. Note I said "her reaction." She isn't attempting to tell it as straight as it was written (and if you take a look, it doesn't feel like straight story as much as philosophy anyway). In interviews it seems there were places where even Nancy didn't recognize his own book.

To further complicate things Denis has also said in the interviews on the L'Intrus DVD that the film was built as a sort of homage to her central actor, Michel Subor, who plays a man in search of a heart. At the same time, he's also on a world-wide search for his long lost son, and he believes the heart extending his life will help to heal the broken ties with this kid. Denis shoots once again with imagination, a bold imagination that is unrelenting, much like the subjectivity I referred to surrounding Valérie Lemercier's character in my recently re-viewed Vendredi Soir. Like in that film, the main character's mind is prone to wander, and the viewer wanders along with him.

All of these elements -- the film not being about Nancy's direct situation but being about Denis's reaction to Nancy's writings about his situation, the scenes being crafted as a sort of homage to its central actor, the story being a search for a heart and a missing son with a combination of imagination, memory and subjective fear thrown in -- and the addition of a few strange characters like "Queen of the Northern Hemisphere" -- create a Lynchian world without the Lynchian nonsense, but a strange and quiet world nonetheless where one can't possibly understand every facet of every choice, or movement, or dialogue, or plot pattern.

It really is an impossible film to navigate unless you're Denis, or Nancy, or Subor, or maybe choreographer Agnès Godard, or a few hundred other people that are a lot closer to the situation than your average viewer. Outside of that tight-knit circle, you may not pay attention to how lovingly it was crafted, or how beautifully it was shot. There are a lot more eloquent and deeper thinking cinephiles than I that have walked out of a screening saying, "What a mess."

And yet, years later after a second or third viewing, they have changed their minds on yet another Denis film. (We always tend to do this with Denis. She is just too good to not trust. You don't write her off, ever, you simply realize that maybe a few years down the road you'll eventually understand what she was attempting to pull together.)

I'm mystified but unsatisfied with L'Intrus, but all of the above is why I'm willing to revisit it in a few years and find out whether I'll then change my mind. Certain films are meant to work on us over time, perhaps even a lifetime. To dismiss it from your first response to its final otherworldy -- ok, strange -- scenes, is to miss the larger point that maybe it wants to grow with us. Having already had this experience with other Denis films to date, I'm willing to give this auteur the benefit of the doubt.

Ajami, on the other hand, which is nominated for a foreign language Oscar for the 2010 awards, left me fully outside its drug-related world. With every passing frame, I became more and more lost, and rather than trying to care more and more, I finally gave up and couldn't care which of the gangsters or families would be next to get offed.

I know that is not the intent of that film. But as an outsider culturally, this is a tough story to penetrate.

You've got the subtitles (which I love) and the two languages (which I somewhat kept up with) and the different characters (many of them, and now I'm getting lost) and the Chapter by Chapter progression, only it isn't Chapter by Chapter, because that alludes to a chronology... but then we realize we're having that old Pulp Fiction plot device of bended and wrapping time around these chronological circumstances, and... It simply had no wit to keep me interested. Or rather, if it had the wit, it didn't translate to my foreign eyes and ears.

I simply couldn't keep up with the players without a scorecard.

I'm an average American viewer. I'm certainly not one of the deep thinkers that talk film. I'm left a little confused by Ajami's nomination at our awards show. If it beats out a work like Haneke's latest, I'm going to be as baffled as I am mad. The White Ribbon is a foreign language film that's more easily understood by other cultures that engage in its layers of meanings.

Ajami is a good film, I'm sure of that. In fact I'm sure the people of Israel actually loved it. It just doesn't transcend its cultural barriers the way a film like The White Ribbon does. These are the only two foreign language films that have had widespread distribution here in the states so far -- I guess you know which one I'll be rooting for on March 7.

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