Who Do You Make Films For?

Like most writers, I'm frequently asked "Who do you writer for?" (Or, if they are sticklers for good grammer, "For whom do you write?" Okay, I don't get asked that one as often.) I have always answered, "I write for myself. I write in order to learn things about the films I write about and to convey to you." (There is a made-to-order pick-up line here, but I"m happily married. I offer to anyone who needs it, with my blessings.)

Now who, I wonder, does a filmmaker think of as the ideal audience member? I'm quite sure that Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times is not who Rafael Nadjari had in mind when he made Tehilim, his excellent new film which is having its theatrical debut at the Museum of Modern Art this week. (It's playing only one week, so hustle over and see it.) I have no idea what Catsoulis's religious upbringing is/was, nor do I particularly care. Not being a Catholic hasn't handicapped my understanding of Robert Bresson (although it does guarantee that I need to have certain nuances pointed out and explained). Likewise Lutheranism and Carl Dreyer. (Some might say that being Jewish hasn't helped me to appreciate Woody Allen, but that's another argument for another time.)

But her utter unfamiliarity with Nadjari's work and her obliviousness to his cinematic forebears suggests a complete and utter lack of sympathy.

Not to hold myself up as a role model (it's bad enough that we treat athletes as role models, if it ever gets down to film critics, I'll know America is doomed), but below is my review of Tehilim, from my New York Jewish Film Festival round-up earlier this year:

“Tehillim,” a new film by Rafael Nadjari, is startling and stark in its focus on a family imploding in the face of apparent tragedy. Nadjari, whose previous film, “Avanim,” is one of the most unfairly neglected Israeli films in recent years, takes a seemingly ordinary family, an Orthodox father and secular mother and their two sons, and throws them into a shattering crisis when the father disappears after a minor car accident. His family copes by gathering with friends to read Psalms and by trying to hold spirit together in the context of their community. But the mother is beginning to feel the strain and her sons are torn between their sense of obligation to both sides of the family and their helplessness in the face of an impenetrable mystery.

Nadjari shoots the entire film with a handheld camera -- he is fortunate that his camera operator is remarkably steady – and very little actual camera movement. As a result, even static shots have a faintly perceptible instability that amplifies the audience’s sense of a world gone out of kilter. “Tehillim” is probably a little more accessible than the rigor and formal perfection of “Avanim,” and it is a deeply moving and disturbing film.

A difficult film, but one that rewards heightened attention. Someone who will give it the concentration it deserves -- that must have been who Nadjari had in mind.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien is another filmmaker whose visual rigor is off-putting to some audiences and critics. He brings a certain, not-quite-chilly detachment to the melodramatic events he places on screen, and the tension between cool form and overheated subject matter is a highly productive one. On the other hand, when his subject matter is rather more desultory, as in his Ozu homage, Cafe Lumiere, the result is a bit disappointing, amiable but aimless.

So I approached his latest film, Flight of the Red Balloon, with a little bit of trepidation, despite the excellent word of mouth the film had garnered at the Cannes and New York festivals and from more recent screenings. The idea of a remake or re-thinking of the Lamorisse film namechecked in the title was not one I found even slightly attractive, but Hou's moving to the utterly unfamiliar world of Paris might recharge his batteries.

Happily, I was right on the latter count, and the references to the original Red Balloon are fleeting but witty, with the eponymous bag of helium following 7-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu) around the streets of Paris for the first few minutes of the film, a rather ominous spectre in the aftermath of 9/11. Hou is much more concerned with the interplay between Simon, his harried mother (Juliette Binoche in a splendidly nuanced and layered performance) and Song, his new nanny, a Taiwanese film student (Song Fang). In truth, the film is mostly about the mother, the head of a puppet theater who is bouncing -- just barely in control -- between worries about work, an obnoxious downstairs tenant and her long-absent novelist husband.

If you've seen enough of Hou's films, you have some inkling of how Flight works, although this feels like a looser, freer variant on his previous work. He elides or downplays key moments in the narrative, is fascinated by a view of the city from the front of trains (the Metro does nicely for this), and has an uncanny sense of the vibrant life of the urbanscape. Clearly, coming to Paris was a good decision for Hou; to my mind Flight of the Red Balloon is better focussed and more visually adroit than his last few films, his most fully realized work in several years. Binoche is as self-absorbed and neurotic as Shu Qi, but less shrill, softer-edged and more sympathetic. And Simon is an interesting litmus-paper character, a way of gauging the behavior of the adults. The result is a film that will undoubtedly still be on my ten-best list at year's end.