Can cinema be a vehicle for thought? It’s a question that has been bandied around since at least the silent era days of Jean Epstein. That it can seems to be the premise that undergirds Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela’s half-hour The Mesh and the Circle, a cerebral meditation on the nature of the moving image. This philosophic inquiry kicks off with a display of the kind of rigorous formalism reminiscent of Hollis Frampton: An unnamed narrator, who we only recognize through a pair of ostensibly male hands, writes out—instead of speaks—the film’s “script” in a blank journal in a dark room, illuminated only by an adjacent projector throwing images onto a screen. “Film can be a labyrinth,” the hand writes, “where we lose and find ourselves.” The analogical meaning of this shot is clear enough: The narrator’s hands literally “write” the film and the projected images are presumably the very ones that compose the film we’re seeing.
Yet despite the film’s theoretical posturing, its motif of choice could hardly be more concrete: pairs of hands involved in some kind of work, be it in rubbing eyebrows, holding paintbrushes, cutting paper, opening locks, spinning clay, hammering out a copper plate, or dipping metal into molten lava. Altogether, these images, woven together in a brisk, percussive manner, are tightly framed so as to exclude the subjects’ faces—an abstraction that brings to mind the stylistics of Robert Bresson. Though it begins arcanely, the film finds its grounding in these montages of labor. “Hand is the brain…the brain is the hand,” the narrator posits at one point, as if to assert that this film is as much a material concept as a conjectural one—in other words, that it’s as brainy as it is pleasurable.
Supplementing these images is a drone-like, background noise (diegetic sound is mostly absent) that peters in an out of prominence on the soundtrack, resembling at times the sound of airplanes blitzing through the sky or the soft murmur of bees. Indeed, though The Mesh and the Circle may start off resembling nothing so much as a gimcrack graduate thesis, it quickly reveals itself to be just as preoccupied with providing a sensuous, nearly hypnotic, viewing experience.
Labor also appears as a theme in Hassen Ferhani’s Roundabout in My Head, an interior look into one of Algeria’s oldest slaughterhouses. Had the film been produced under the auspices of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, one can imagine it being chock-full of long, gratuitous takes on writhing cows, hacked limbs, and splayed blood, all in the name of empirical study. In that, Ferhani deserves some credit for bucking the cozy aesthetic of recent trends, and opting to capture something much more elusive, and ultimately more interesting: the political mood of contemporary Algerian youth.
The slaughterhouse, where feral cats nip at the entrails that litter the perpetually wet tiled floors, may not be the most likely place to stumble across sophisticated conversation about the future of a nation, but Ferhani’s main subjects, the twentysomething duo of Yusuf (thin, worrisome, and skeptical) and the portly “Uncle” Ali (a child of the Arab Spring and preternaturally optimistic) are clearly singular in this regard. “Only going underground can save us!” Ali blurts out during a late-night debate. Yusuf retorts in his customary fatalism: “You can’t do a thing against the state.” While Yusuf’s qualms (“My brain is upside down and full of paths”) are what inform the title of Ferhani’s film, it’s Ali’s buoyant confidence that impresses. Together, their sharp, passionate discourse offer a compelling pulse of those down on their luck. Ferhani is careful, however, to ensure he doesn’t paint his subjects simply as talking heads. Yusuf and Ali are buddies, foremost, and Ferhrani works to keep that brotherly spirit alive by shooting them in the most casual of places, like on sidewalk curbs, where Ferhani tells Yusuf, “Suffering for love, that’s beautiful! It’s a beautiful kind of suffering,” or in their bedrooms where they watch French-dubbed thrillers.
While neither Yusuf nor Ali are able to agree on a political action that can be beneficial to both their own desires and the prosperity of the country, they will agree with Ferhani that for most working-class Algerians, and perhaps for people all over the globe, incessant work stultifies the mind and, more damning, keeps you broke. Toward the end, an elderly man gingerly takes out his work ID, dating back to 1945, when he first entered the slaughterhouse. “I’ve been working for so long,” he says with heavy regret. “I could’ve had a better position…but today, I clean toilets.”
Implicit in Roundabout in My Head is the notion that there should be a certain level of trust between filmmaker and his subjects. Such an orientation, however, is a foreign concept to Philip Trevelyan, whose 1971 film The Moon and the Sledgehammer, a folktale-like sketch of an eccentric family of luddites living deep in the woods somewhere south of London, lacks sophistication. The Page clan, consisting of the proud, pipe-smoking Mr. Page, his sons, Peter and Jim, and his daughters, Kathy and Nancy, lead an Edenic life completely removed from modern technocracy. For them, the modern age is filled with lazy blokes who won’t work and run by a government that “[keeps] putting things up.” Here in their isolated dwelling, the women take care of the home and knit in their spare time. When they’re not hunting, the men, in the film’s quirkiest aspect, work on overblown, steam-powered machines straight out of the 19th century. Their resistance is admirable.
A natural showman who shows up in each frame sporting a three-piece tweed suit and pipe, Mr. Page is keenly aware of Trevelyan’s camera, starting scenes with flourishes like: “Ladies and gentleman, I’m about to make a boat!” Pity that Peter and Jim aren’t nearly as interesting as their father, and the women, reduced to wallflower status under Trevelyan’s gaze, are practically written out of the film altogether.
The Pages aren’t as outlandish as, say, the Beales in Grey Gardens, but their collective oddities seem to be taken advantage of by Trevelyan, whose objective, styleless manner of shooting supposedly precludes prejudice. All too often, the filmmaker creates the impression that he’s giddily awaiting for the next bizarre moment, like a zoologist eager to take back his findings to his colleagues, or worse, a muckraker snooping around for tomorrow’s headline. Trevelyan even goads Mr. Page on at one point in a discussion about which animals make the best pets, asking him with feigned innocence, “What about kangaroos?” To which Mr. Page responds with a lengthy, considered answer. Still, Mr. Page’s charming ruminations on such topics as overpopulation and people’s mass abandonment of country life (“There’s no one to work the land and feed the population”) manage to carry the film.
For the multitude of men and women who flock to the Bois de Vincennes on any given day, their purpose for using the forest isn’t so different from that of the Pages. They seek refuge and clarity among the greenery, if only for a few hours. At least, that’s the point that Claire Simon emphatically makes in her handheld sylvan trek The Woods Where Dreams Are Made Of. Simon casts a broad, democratic overview of the incredibly eclectic group of men and women who, for one reason or another, find solace in Paris’s largest park. Nobody, apparently, is unimportant to Simon, as she encounters in her perambulation an ex-boxer, a painter, Cambodian refugees, garbagemen, single mothers, landscape architects, and bikers, to name a few. Misfit or not, the Vincennes accommodates all. (Considering the growing xenophobic rhetoric of France’s National Front party, Simon’s portrait of an integrated community is a stiff and timely jab.) Simon’s affectionate eye is best revealed in her rapport with Stéphanie, a young mother and “12-to-seven” prostitute for whom the Vincennes is her “office,” enabling her to make an independent living without the intrusion of a pimp. “This is my patch,” she tells Simon, gleefully smiling. The film runs on longer than it should, sure, but it’s a small concession for a work that can make even the most parochial a bit more empathetic.
Art of the Real runs from April 8—21.
Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva
Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.
Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.
There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”
Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.
An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.
Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.
To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.
Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology
These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.
The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.
Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.
Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.
What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.
These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.
Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.
Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.
The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.
The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.
A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.
It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing
Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?
Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:
People, actual fucking people, are watching scene after scene like this and are saying “bruuuh! best. movie. of. the. year”?
This is objectively bad. Someone with no idea about editing will notice it. My brain is on fire thinking that this is an OSCAR NOMINATED MOVIE! FUCK! pic.twitter.com/QVDCxe2iaf
— Pramit Chatterjee 🌈 (@pramitheus) January 26, 2019
Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that seems like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)
We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: BlacKkKlansman
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman