Persistence of Vision


Two young Afghan refugees, attempting to cross from Iran into Turkey, find themselves surrounded by gunfire heard but not seen. The images onscreen blur into a frenetic whoosh of staccato, black-and-white motion — light and forms zigzagging about, evocative of some of the “found” imagery in Stan Brakhage’s film — while the soundtrack erupts with harried yelps and shouts. Shot using the night-vision mode of a consumer-grade hand-held video camera, the fearsome blindness of the moment is captured in a way a traditional film camera would be hard pressed to duplicate. (From Michael Winterbottom’s In This World.)


In Nicolas Philibert’s wonderful documentary To Be and To Have, the teacher of a one-room schoolhouse sits under a tree with a fat, tearful boy whose father is about to have his larynx removed. The teacher listens, asks questions, listens again. Then he says quietly, “Sickness is part of life. You try to stay healthy. But then it comes along, and you have to live with it.” No condescension, no palliatives, no false hopes. For the boy, there’s the solidity of having a steady presence tell him the truth, and hang in while he cries his heart out. Who wouldn’t want this man for a teacher — better yet, a dad?


There are two movie moments that haunted me this year. One is that final embrace between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Only a girl could have made that movie, and only an artist could have rendered a finale that comes so close to thudding cliché only to burst like fireworks into dreamy perfection. The second is a shot of the man-child Stevie, in Steve James’ documentary of the same name, as an expression of deep hurt wells up on his face, and is immediately suppressed. In that one shot, James makes visible Stevie’s life of pain and flawed survival, and reminds us of what even the simplest moving pictures can convey.


For those technophobes sickened by the dizzying swoop of ever smaller and more mobile cameras, Jacques Perrin and crew offered a vision of technology as a means to a storytelling end, not simply a way to destroy all sense of spatial relation. Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats and Jacques Perrin’s documentary Winged Migration tells of flight from the bird’s perspective: every wing muscle churning, head thrust forward, eyes casual, bemused. But the final grace of the film was not the spectacular in-flight scenes, but a patient, serendipitous long shot, of gannets diving for fish off a coastal shelf, their descents a series of interwoven planes more filmic than a thousand David Fincher dolly shots.


“Time destroys all things” is the mantra driving Gaspar Noé’s devastating Irreversible, but it’s space that the filmmaker dramatically reconfigures in this spectacular embodiment of human brutality. The film’s opening sequence seamlessly melds 30 shots into a single, penetrating dive headlong out a window, topsy-turvy down a wall, and then inside, where the camera furiously barrels through a maze of murky hallways. This fast drop straight into hell smashes together analog and digital to depict an emerging, terrifying sense of space, one both fabricated and yet entirely real, and a film about rape and masculine mayhem becomes an explosive allegory for an increasingly desensitized, cyber-saturated populace.


“Fi, fie, fo, fum! I smell the blood of Irish women!” the father (Paddy Considine) calls in Jim Sheridan’s In America while playing pretend monster with his young daughters. It’s a familiar family game, but suddenly the father stops short, realizing that for a moment there he was expecting to see his dead son dart across the room. Grief, the filmmaker reminds us, is the heart’s most insidious stalker, and yet, moments later, the mother (Samantha Morton) has wooed her husband into bed, where they appear to remember and forget their loss simultaneously, like alchemists transmuting toxin into life-propelling fuel.


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