‘Trance’ as mesmerising as its namesake

Director Danny Boyle’s film Trance begins with a man’s voice speaking to the audience: “No piece of art is worth a human life.” He repeats that a couple of times, making it seem like prophetic advice.

Simon Newton (James McAvoy) is at Delancy, his London auction house, selling Francisco Goya’s painting “Witches in the Air” for £27.5 million. That’s when the robbers strike. As smoke floods Delancy’s auditorium, Simon grabs the painting from its easel onstage and seems to secure it in a black bag, carrying it to a safety chute. That’s when the crime boss, Franck (Vincent Cassel), hits Simon on the head, and steals the bag.

But the painting isn’t in the bag. Not finding the painting, Franck and his goons ransack Simon’s apartment. When they confront him, Simon says he can’t remember where it is. Franck orders him to go under hypnotherapy to remember, which is when Simon meets hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), who promises to help him.

Boyle, known for directing Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, creates another psychological masterpiece in Trance. His direction, along with Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s script, leads audiences through mesmerizing twists and turns.

As Simon undergoes Elizabeth’s hypnosis, it’s hard to keep track of what are dream sequences and what’s reality. The hypnosis sequences are surreal, but the script itself carries an edge of lunacy, making the crazy believable. For example, in one scene, Simon tears white packaging paper into shreds, hoping to find his memory of that night, and as he does so, the tips of his fingers bleed. In the presumably real-life sequence that it’s based on, Franck and his cronies stand over Simon, prying off his fingernails with a knife.

Trance is as hypnotic as its namesake. Trying to unravel the mystery of the missing painting, you submerge into the plot, until pretty soon, it’s hard to see beneath the murky waters.

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‘Pasolini’s Last Words’: poetic, lyrical and relevant

A man walking through a tall field of wheat stands and beckons. The camera follows him, pushing stalks of wheat out of the way. The scene re-enacts an excerpt from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 book, La Divina Memesis, a word play on Dante’s Divine Comedy. “I watched him walk ahead of me, up a steep path overgrown by a bad and innocent weed,” reads the film’s narrator.

And so begins Pasolini’s Last Words, Cathy Lee Crane’s hour-long biographical and experimental documentary on the death and works of Italian writer, filmmaker, activist and intellectual, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Crane, an Ithaca College cinema and photography professor, produced, filmed and edited the piece over the course of six years. Pasolini’s Last Words was screened on March 27 at Cornell Cinema and followed by a question and answer session with Crane.

Although Crane is a filmmaker, she was introduced to Pasolini’s work through his literature rather than his films. After reading his unfinished novel, Petrolio (the Italian word of “oil”), she was inspired by the book’s fragmentation, a style that she adopts in her documentary. Told in 10 chapters shuffling between his death, interviews, essays, films, and books, Crane’s documentary offers a portrait of Pasolini and how he saw the world.

The film begins with Pasolini’s death. He was murdered on November 2, 1975, at the beach of Ostia, near Rome, his body driven over with a car until it was unrecognizable. Archival Italian news broadcasts replayed his death. This archival footage is followed by a clip of Pasolini’s last recorded interview, where he says that everything is political. Before his death, Pasolini had just finished his film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, based on the book by Marquis de Sade. The controversial film — a commentary on how humans become dehumanized — focused on four wealthy fascist libertines after the end of Mussolini’s Italy in 1943.

“That’s why I made this film. Because what he had to say is still relevant,” Crane said in the Q&A session following the screening. “That and making a film about historical reference: the possibility that he was murdered because he understood this right-wing attention that was not made public or acknowledged until 20 years after his murder.”

Through Crane’s lens, we re-discover Pasolini’s prophetic wit. Minus the news footage of his deaths, all the words in her film were written or once spoken by Pasolini. “How I look at reality springs from the personal, so all my films are how I see reality and my Marxist reality,” he says.

Pasolini’s ideas are still relevant — from his views on consumerism (“The language of things have not changed, but the things themselves have changed”) to his understanding of military governments (that by governments bombing women and children, people will want even more militarized and communistic governments). The latter, which he calls the “state of treason,” foreshadows Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism, where she agrees that “shock and awe” from natural or man-made disasters have pushed through negative capitalist change.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ideas fueled Crane’s experimentation, which ranges from the fragmented narrative to double exposures and multiple split screens. In an essay reflecting on his first film, Accattone, Pasolini wrote, “If I wanted to reshoot Accattone today, I couldn’t find somebody playing himself.” Taking those words as a challenge, Crane hired Bochay Drum to attempt to re-enact the character of Accattone from the film. Drum watched hours and hours of a scene from Pasolini’s film until his body could replicate it. Crane juxtaposes and loops the clip from Accattone with the modern re-enactment in the mise-en-scène. While Drum is sitting in a chair in a room, behind him, the exact same scene in Pasolini’s film is double exposed on a square screen. The images begin to overlap as the clip loops. Both Franco Citti (the original Accattone) and Drum rise and run toward the camera. Despite how closely the motions mirror each other, Drum lacks Citti’s spirit, proving that while anyone can replicate the gestures, no one can be Accattone like Franco Citti was.

The last couple of chapters in Crane’s documentary are re-enactments from scenes in Pasolini’s book Petrolio. The unfinished novel is about Carlos 1 (Drum), a religious bourgeois man employed by an Italian oil and gas company, and his sexual and lower-class twin, Carlos 2 (Amanda Setton). Crane employs an attractive femme fatale as Carlos 2 to tempt Carlos 1. In one scene, she walks closer to him, laughing and smiling until she turns just out of reach. In another, the two dance, and the camera follows, swaying as if it were dancing with them. The scenes are lovely and poetic, but also as elusive as the unfinished novel.

While Crane defined Pasolini through his ideas, words and impact, the documentary’s by no means a complete portrait. Pasolini’s Last Words doesn’t delve into all of Pasolini’s works. The film doesn’t offer biographical information about his family or childhood. At times, the fragmented style makes the film’s messages unclear. But the excerpts Crane has chosen are as engaging as the man — standing, beckoning and waiting for us to follow him.

Ai WeiWei’s never sorry for speaking up

Ai WeiWei is the guy who flipped off Tiananmen Square. He has painted over Neolithic artifacts, and smashed Han dynasty vases. He’s attached a condom to the genital area of a raincoat and bent a clothes hanger in the shape of a man’s profile.

American journalist Alison Klayman’s debut feature documentary, Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry, captures the controversial 55-year-old Chinese artist’s work and highlights his role as an outspoken activist using social media. The 91-minute 2012 documentary was screened on April 2 at Ithaca College as part of this year’s Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.

Ai is the Michael Moore of the Chinese art world. But unlike Moore, who in Fahrenheit 9/11 broadcast the Patriot Act from an ice-cream truck driving around the Capitol building (just so U.S. congressmen could hear it), Ai doesn’t have the First Amendment’s freedom of speech. He’s up against the Chinese government, who installed security cameras in his home and detained him for more than 80 days. Chinese police officers can and have shown up at his door, beating him severely in the head. Ai needed surgery to fix the damage.

Unlike Moore’s shenanigans, Ai’s antics could cost him his life. But he still persists in social commentary. When the 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed more than 70,000 people, including many children in poorly made government schools, Ai and his supporters compiled a list of 5,212 names of dead children. To honor the victims, he collected 5,000 colorful backpacks and arranged them into Chinese characters that read, “She lived happily for seven years.” That sentence is a quote from one of the earthquake victim’s parents. The display, called “Remembering,” hung from the sides of the Haus der Kunst (The Children’s House) museum in Munich, Germany. Ai blogged about the children until Chinese government censored his website.

When Ai was beaten up by Chengdu police officers in 2009, he tweeted pictures of the aftermath and surgery. After the beating, he went to police headquarters with his camera crew, and filmed his complaint. He told police that he was assaulted; police told him that they would conduct an investigation. When Chengdu police denied the altercations, Ai hired lawyers to file a lawsuit. Although Ai knows nothing will come of it, he says, “You can’t say the system is flawed. You have to show it through the system.”

When asked if he wants revenge for what police did, Ai responds like a sage teacher: “It’s not personal,” he says. “They need to learn that what they did is wrong and they can’t do that to people.”

Klayman’s documentary portrays Ai as a fearless rebel. When the Chinese government banned freedom of expression and art after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Ai and his friends assembled black and white covered books. Inside the blank covers, Andy Warhol works, photographs, poetry, artwork and expression flourished. The books were distributed secretly, like Emmanuel Goldstein’s Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism in George Orwell’s 1984. You had to be part of the “brotherhood,” or in this case, you had to know someone who had a book.

Klayman’s documentary welcomes us into the public life of Ai WeiWei — from his art and activism to his philosophy and cats. Forty cats roam the premises of his art studio; one of them knows how to open doors. “The biggest difference between people and cats is that cats open doors but never close them,” Ai says.

Using footage she has collected between 2008 and 2011, Klayman develops a narrative of Ai’s life and work. Ai’s mother, Gao Ling, says she’s both proud of and terrified for her son. She wishes he was just an artist, but she knows if everyone refuses to speak, no change will happen. Ai’s younger brother, Ai Dan, says their father, Chinese poet Ai Qing, jailed during the Cultural Revolution, influenced WeiWei’s art.

Ai has been a vocal voice of dissent, and Klayman becomes part of his posse. Her camera watches the mundane — like Ai’s son feeding him melons — as well as the sensational — like the confrontations with authority. She juxtaposes Ai’s sometimes nonchalant, philosophical or humorous answers with analysis from other journalists and artists, including artist Dangling Chen, Chinese blogger and actress Huang Hung, and The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos,

Klayman’s access allows her to create a comprehensive and inspiring documentary on Ai’s life, and that message isn’t lost. By choosing to tell the story of Ai WeiWei, she’s another Westerner promoting the freedom of speech.

“Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry” was filmed, directed and produced by Alison Klayman. To learn more about the film, click here.