Abu Dhabi seemed like a city of palm trees, construction, and concrete. A friend and I wandered around after checking into our hotel, but mostly found highway. The road seemed like a symbol of how people keep coming here; less than a quarter of the population is native, and the rest have arrived from nearly 140 countries. After seeing a food court full of South and East Asian, African, and European complexions the next day, we agreed that New York looked homogenous.
We came for the fourth annual Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), with over 170 films. Like the city, the lineup extends multiculturally: Only three of the 15 films in the Narrative Competition come from Middle Eastern countries (none from the United Arab Emirates), and several others are high-profile Western choices like Miral and Never Let Me Go. Throughout the other categories, too, the area’s work keeps slipping in between films from the Americas, Europe, and India (here, Bollywood yields big box office), several of which do feature characters of Arab descent. Yet the only fully Arab festival categories this year are a series of shorts programs and a brief retrospective sidebar—and the sidebar films have been programmed by MoMA.
I don’t know enough about Middle Eastern film industries to comment on how accurate a representation this is, but last year’s far more region-friendly lineup here and at the neighboring Dubai Film Festival makes me wonder if large film festivals are growing so homogenous that they exclude the locals. ADFF choices like Carlos and Silent Souls (both of which I like) have already played at Cannes, Toronto, and New York festivals this year, and will also be playing in São Paulo’s festival this month. Cane Toads: The Conquest, a 3D nature documentary, has played in at least nine festivals already, including Sundance, Zurich, and Tokyo. I’m going to skip these movies, and look for films here that I won’t see elsewhere.
No choice on Thursday, though, as we rode through the opening night film, Secretariat. A lot’s been written about Andrew O’Hehir’s Salon review of Disney’s new live-action film, which identifies it as a work of benevolent Christian fascism. Little’s been said about how right he is. Secretariat is an oddly disjointed piece where people declare “Amen” over a horse that dominates races to the tune of gospel music, and where incidental heroism lies in the conservative American South’s willingness to accept blacks, hippies, housewives, short people, fat people, sick people, and (coded) gays. This felt like a strange choice to open the festival; perhaps other audience members felt so too, since so many walked out within the first half hour, while others stayed talking to their neighbors or kibitzing on Blackberries. Of course, it was also possible that they had come for the lavish party afterward, an outdoors affair with at least six buffet stands and live dancers in the shadow of a hotel-cum-palace.
But cinema itself can build a community. The short that showed before Secretariat offered hope. Like many films here, Jafar Panahi’s The Accordion has already played at other festivals, and will probably continue to. But the film’s screening here was unique in that Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker who was unfairly arrested earlier this year and who is still unable to leave Iran. By presenting the film, festival sponsor Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage was justly criticizing a neighbor, and by watching it, audience members joined in.
The piece is a beauty, an eight-minute tale in which a man steals an accordion from two young brothers because they’re playing it inside a mosque. The older boy grabs a stone, despite the little one’s pleas, and seems destined to kill the man until he sees him on the street, playing the accordion for money. The boys take their instrument back, then all three characters make music together.
The Accordion recalls the Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, both because of strong performances from child actors and because of their ultimate class sympathies. One of Bicycle Thieves’s most startling epiphanies is that the man who stole the poor, desperate hero’s bicycle is even poorer and more desperate than he is; similarly, the boys here seem at a loss until we realize how much worse off the man who robbed them is.
Yet Bicycle Thieves ends despairingly, with each man isolated. The Accordion’s harmonic resolution more closely approximates that of a wonderful short film called Two Solutions for One Problem, made by Panahi’s mentor and sometimes screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami. Solutions shows two school kids seeking petty vengeance on each other, until they realize how much easier life would be if they just helped each other instead. This is a good political lesson as well as a good classroom one.
It’s amazing how much a filmmaker can do to shape your worldview. I’ve been realizing recently how much Kiarostami has shaped mine. Before the opening ceremony, two other critics and I went to Dubai, an even more extravagantly developing city than Abu Dhabi is; the world’s largest mall opened in Dubai less than two years ago, and the city unveiled the world’s tallest building this past January. We traveled to the top of the Burj Khalifa (named after the Abu Dhabi-based source of a generous loan), and stared down over the city, with its roads, deserts, skyscrapers, and sudden, startling bursts of green. As I looked I kept thinking about Certified Copy, Kiarostami’s new film and the best new movie that I’ve seen in at least three years, because of how it’s expanded my vision. The film shows the two main characters in a car with people and buildings reflected off their front window, or walking through piazzas with small stores and milling locals in view. You realize at these moments that the world is larger than you ever thought it could be, and that there’s more to see in it than you ever could.
I started cursing myself, because I didn’t have a camera. But I also knew, even while I was standing there, that I would lose the moment eventually, and that a picture wouldn’t have helped. I comforted myself by thinking about the climax of Kiarostami’s earlier film, Close-Up, in which the director (so we’re told) tries to record a pivotal conversation between characters but can’t because his sound equipment breaks. It’s a privileged moment for the characters, but the silence also privileges the viewer: We all get to see what’s happening, and we all get to imagine our own version of it.
A benefit of moviegoing is that it offers both a public and a private experience, during and after which viewers can share separate impressions of what they’ve undergone together. A good festival offers myriad opportunities for community building. For the next two weeks I’ll be seeing what communities emerge here.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.
Will Win: First Man
Could Win: A Quiet Place
Should Win: First Man