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Film Comment Selects 2008

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Film Comment Selects 2008

Introduction

I don’t consider myself enough of an expert to say whether or not the Film Comment Selects series is as “fringe” as my East Coast, city-dwelling vantage point suggests. Certainly it’s a festival I hold in very high regard, mainly for what seems a more personal patina on the selections. There’s less of a sense here that the programmers are kowtowing to the amorphous desires of an uptown audience that ensures, come autumn, that New York Film Festival tickets will be a near-impossibly attained commodity. That the more sparsely attended and promoted Film Comment Selects tends to be the more rewarding experience is no surprise: with fewer mass agendas to satiate, the selection process skews to more individual parti pris’. The closest this year’s series comes to a pack-’em-in cash grab is the Meryl Streep-starrer Dark Matter, though its general awfulness and essential ineptitude suggests that the Film Comment staffers might be ’avin’ a laugh at several of their patrons’ starry-eyed expense.

The presence of an Alex Cox sidebar (to say nothing of Luis Estrada’s Cox-approved satire, A Wonderful World) hints at the series’s anarchistic strivings, and damned if most of the films previewed for press don’t attain some potent, no-holds-barred measure of the world unhinged. The base, animalistic urges of man might be the overarching theme, transmuted through everything from zombies (Diary of the Dead) to warring mothers (Inside) to prickly paramours derived from Balzac (The Duchess of Langeais, née Don’t Touch the Axe), though, for me, the telling image of this year’s festival is the one that closes Nanouk Leopold’s wonderful Wolfsbergen,wherein several generations of a combative Netherlands family find unspoken common ground over the deceased body of their patriarch. Consider that both a ringing endorsement of a film that remains uncovered in the entries below (mainly for my own—selfish?—desire to not taint my profound experience of Wolfsbergen with words), and also the visualization of the 21st-century cinephile’s dilemma: to gaze at things past and present with eyes clouded by neither sentimentality nor nostalgia, clear of both heart and mind on our perpetual journey through the state of the art. My thanks to the companions (Steven, Dan, and Jeremiah) who made this particular journey with me—I think we all of us have marked the moment well. Keith Uhlich

Life Is Cheap… But Dark Matter Is Expensive

A film more interesting for the controversy it is sure to create (not to mention the many high-toned think pieces, like the proverbial thousand ships, it is sure to launch), Dark Matter marks the clunky feature debut of Chinese-born theater and opera director Chen Shi-zheng. Like his young, cosmology-captivated protagonist Liu Xing (Liu Ye), Chen reaches for the stars, but falls tragically short, though the fatalism of the piece is more akin to the facile we’re-all-connected roundelay of The Air I Breathe, minus that film’s endlessly robust camp pleasures. Dark Matter’s opening image certainly promises a plethora of failed self-seriousness, as Meryl Streep guest stars on a special episode of Sunrise Earth, doing Method Tai Chi while heavenly chorines, chanting in Hollywood Sanskrit, bemoan the eternal tragedy of man. No doubt Streep was the trump card draw for the film’s financiers, though her performance as Joanna Silver, a mid-western University patron with a fetish for Chinese culture, is the height of laziness, nearly touching the “is it hot in here, or is it just moi?” nadir of Robert Redford’s bogus Iraq war polemic Lions for Lambs. In her one good scene, Streep explores a striking line between mother-love and sexual attraction as the down-and-out Liu Xing (who, we’re constantly reassured, is a lamentably unrecognized genius) tries to sell her door-to-door makeup products, though beyond that one can only admire the wit and insight of whomever decided to cast fellow New York stage actor Bill Irwin as La Meryl’s semi-flustered yet still doting paramour.

But this is Liu Xing’s story, and it’s an important one in the abstract, touching on very real problems of cultural assimilation and subjugation (in the American university especially). Yet in execution, it comes off as so much liberal guilt-stained hogwash, tarted up by Chen’s distressing tendency toward incongruous meta-pastiche and his reliance on ADD-addled in-camera effects, which over-simplify rather than enhance the lead character’s slow descent into madness. Liu Xing’s quite literal fascination with Western tropes and iconography is at first wide-eyed and playful (an early, fanciful interlude sees Liu and his grad school companions stage a mock-shootout on a horse opera backlot), though it quickly becomes subsumed by his obsessive quest to explain “dark matter”, an unseen substance that, he passionately proposes, is a key to many of the universe’s mysteries. His increasingly jealous adviser Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn)—who flashes his eyes like Snidely Whiplash twirls his moustache—foils him at every turn, and it isn’t long before the idealistic Liu finds his dissertation topic rejected and his academic career and personal life in shambles. Facing the prospect of becoming either a forgotten number in an oppressive system or an infamous martyr for an age-old cause (via a sudden, out-of-the-blue calling to go all Travis Bickle on a few asses), Liu chooses the latter option, though Dark Matter’s climactic, intensely cross-cut merry-go-round of bloodletting is, finally, neither horrifying nor cathartic—more like “same shit, different day.”Uhlich

Sentimental War: The Duchess of Langeais

Of all the unconsummated film projects, none is more tantalizing to imagine than the planned collaboration of Greta Garbo and James Mason in a version of Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais, directed by Max Ophüls. It was 1948, and Garbo was so eager to return to the screen under these ideal circumstances that she submitted to a screen test for the anxious producers (the test still survives, and these last silent glimpses of Garbo’s face are as haunting as Marilyn Monroe’s nude pool footage in George Cukor’s unfinished Something’s Gotta Give). The financing fell through, and Garbo was so humiliated that she never seriously considered making another movie again. It might have been the ultimate Garbo role, the perverse, coquettish society woman who winds up a Carmelite nun in order to spite her combatant in love, a stubborn General. Such a finish would have been an ideal and even subversive commentary on Garbo’s career-long renunciations, but would she have let herself be as unsympathetic as the Duchess needs to be in the earlier parts of the story? For Ophuls, and with James Mason as an opponent, she might have dared. Imagine Ophuls’ Madame de… (1953) in a darker, Strindberg key. Then, in your mind’s eye, see the tender truculence of Mason as he watches this tormented and tormenting woman, and see Garbo’s slightly weathered face as she lights up with sadomasochistic pleasure at the thought of being branded, so that her Camille shades gradually into something like The Story of O, all with Ophuls’ rhyming tracking shots and his sense of blazing romantic tragedy heating up the essential irony.

We’ll never really see that film, of course, but Jacques Rivette must have given it some thought at one point or another. He makes movies for his actors, in the way Jean Renoir did, and he must have licked his lips over the prospect of Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu playing out Balzac’s psychologically modern yet basically old-fashioned tale of l’amour fou. They’re almost too perfectly cast: Balibar’s sly mouth tightens with mean glee as she plays all the Duchesses’ games, and Depardieu’s brooding, battered face ceaselessly signals the General’s suppressed, sexualized violence. Rivette films their battle of wills with particular attention to the ornate, suffocating décor that surrounds them at every turn; he knows his Ophuls enough to suggest the Duchesses’ nearly tubercular spiritual depletion amidst the opulence of her surroundings. The more pampered she is in her fine dresses, surrounded by servants and sumptuous tea service, the more her trapped, twisting face and body seems to cry out for change, ugliness, austerity. Whenever the General bows to her, Depardieu’s Heathcliff hair falls menacingly over his brow; similarly, when the Duchess returns to a society ball after being kidnapped by the General, she grabs a nearby white rose to put her messy hair back up. Surfaces shift constantly with all the fine talk and, as they do, we feel the give and take of the couple’s “sentimental war” in the actors’ uninhibited, heartfelt gestures and expressions.

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The post-modern Rivette usually puts quotation marks around his action, and this has led, in his lesser films, to a kind of interminable playfulness that refuses narrative for open-ended improv. Anyone familiar with his work will expect Rivette to pull us back from the Duchess and the General at some point, and remind us that we are watching two actors rehearsing, or even failing their roles. But he resists this impulse. Rivette moves closer here, rediscovering the roots of classical cinema in an almost heated way, and his shy, curiously uninflected style is all the better for it. He makes some missteps, like scenes with servants that point up their healthy sexuality in contrast to the main aristocratic pair’s desiccated sublimations: it’s as if Rivette decided to go all-out with conventional bourgeois antitheses. Mainly, though, he lays out the Balzac story point by point for our scrutiny, letting his performers handle all the meanings and complexity. Balibar is triumphant in the scene where the Duchess definitively trumps the General by welcoming his revenge; this titled lady practically becomes a loose-limbed David Lynch tramp to checkmate her swain. Rivette shows his hand only in the final scene on board a ship, which has a brutal finality that marks this as an anti-romantic, tough old man’s film, smiling with Michel Piccoli’s serene, toe-tapping Vidame de Pamiers over life’s eventual black-out meaninglessness.Dan Callahan

Bloody Tears: George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead

Positing itself as a final assemblage from some unspecified point in the future (so that it plays as a strange, Nostradamus-like amalgam of retrospective and prophecy), George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead gleefully engages with themes of spectatorship and subjectivity. It’s the most labyrinthine and multifaceted of the director’s Dead films, possessing a master’s grasp of visual/aural interplay, in addition to a wicked mix of humor and pathos—in Romero’s universe, a deaf, scythe-wielding Amish dynamiter is at once a ridiculous figure of fun and a tragic hero prone to a selfless (and gruesome) act of martyrdom. A prologue, ostensibly filmed by a news crew, reveals the zombies’ kill point to be head center, corresponding to the position of the third eye. Whether or not Romero is up on his chakras, his primary metaphor is clear: Diary of the Dead documents the invasive assault of media (in all its guises) on the inner consciousness. Using a tried-and-true film school setup, Diary follows a ragtag bunch of student artists and their Universal Horror-accented professor (whose skill with an archer’s bow is only superseded by his prowess with an alcohol flask), all of whom are given to baldfaced pronouncements (pro and con) about the nature and so-called truthfulness of moving pictures. Their initially disconcerting tendency to speak in capitalized supertext helps to elicit Diary of the Dead’s resonant and counterbalancing subtext, the idea that the camera itself is an irremovable appendage, especially when contemplating a cataclysm unfolding.

Cataclysm takes many forms, from the personal to the global; for all the apocalyptic emptiness of Diary’s first-person landscapes, perhaps its most disturbing sequence is a throwaway home video where a children’s birthday party becomes a hysterically unwitting bloodbath at the hands of a ravenous clown. The setup is familiar, but the incorporation of the camera as both distancing effect and character (it seems irrevocably drawn to the action, mesmerized by it) only deepens the sense of horror. Romero himself is fascinated by the human race’s strict adherence to instinct and ritual—his zombies have always had an endearing quality because, in-between the bloody feasts, they play-act the various customs and habits recalled from their days among the living. An insert of a gaggle of zombies wading along the bottom of a full swimming pool, or the image of the film’s heroine, Debra (Michelle Morgan), coming face-to-face with her walking-dead mother (a flash of recognition passing over the latter’s eyes before she impulsively attacks) speaks volumes as to Romero’s sociological humanism, as does a charged exchange between Debra and a group of Black Panther-like survivalists that ends in a quietly profound acknowledgment of kinship.

“Shoot me,” says the young cameraman, and on-screen Diary auteur, Jason (Joshua Close) at the film’s climax. The double meaning certainly isn’t lost on viewers and characters alike, though a subsequent invocation of the archangel Michael (punctuated by a well-placed bullet to the brain) casts this seemingly obvious pronouncement in a revelatory light. By the end of Diary of the Dead, the camera has become a conduit to death and resurrection (cinema as simultaneous remembrance and perpetual life-force). And yet Romero puts a fascinating chink in the foundations of his argument via a coda that revisits and reworks the cruel-world fatalism of his original Night of the Living Dead, positing an explicit, confrontational query over a painterly and precise digital still-life. The only appropriate response to the Pittsburgh poet laureate is, perhaps, exactly that which we see onscreen: bloody tears. Uhlich

Sadness and Peace: Import/Export

Import/Export is too grand and glorious for its arthouse, festival ready-made, thesis paper title. This is an adventure romance for the new century. It is a work of bravery and soul, not X-ray analysis. Ulrich Seidl tracks the fortunes and mishaps of two young romantics scratching and surviving in the current globalization scramble.

The plot, worked out by Seidl and crew during the film’s chaotic two-year shoot, remains silent movie simple: Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a young nurse from the Ukraine, goes west to Austria to find better-paying, more stable work; Paul (Paul Hofmann), from Austria, goes to the Ukraine on a delivery job with his stepfather after losing his security job. The film is divided evenly between each twenty-something’s financial downward spiral—from poor to poorer—and subsequent adventure in the other’s home country. Everywhere Paul or Olga go, labor is cheap and basic compassion is expensive.

Olga and Paul are in their own ways as guileless and open as Fellini’s Cabiria and Chaplin’s Tramp. But this ain’t no Hollywood or Cinecitta. Import/Export exists in a world so solidly real, its accuracy becomes another sort of spectacle. Think poverty spectacles like Gummo and Ratcatcher, but be prepared to think far beyond them. Import/Export isn’t out to impress you with the horror and alienation of poverty and illness; it simply shows two real people conducting the business of survival in real settings. It’s the settings, recorded in available light, that have prompted some critics to call it drab, ugly and pretentious. Premiere’s Glenn Kenny: “A quite assured work in the ’I suffered for my art, now it’s your turn’ mode, Ulrich Seidl’s film proceeds from the presumption that no one in its audience has ever worked in a demeaning job, ever had a relative or loved one who was old and infirm and incapable of caring for him or herself, has never been betrayed by a family member or humiliated by a boss or a peer, and so on. It then artily jabs that audience with art-photo compositions within which scenes depicting the situations above are depicted.”

Objection #1: From where I sit, Seidl is as down-to-earth as Larry the Cable Guy. His centered compositions are not for show; each one tells an intimate, eye-level story. I have more than a few friends living Paul and Olga’s lives who I’d like to drag to this film. Their disdain for the epic length, the subtitles and the depressing subject matter would evaporate with the piercing shock of recognition. Seidl gets right down into the suspense of no money in your pocket, gotta eat, what to do.

Objection #2: These are some of the most mesmerizing environments ever put to celluloid, from the web cam sex parlor to the festering gypsy camp, to the meat locker ambiance of a geriatric hospital. Brutality, exploitation, death and despair happen in these places, but the light Seidl gives us to witness them in, along with his insistence upon doing as little modification to existing locations as possible, provides the kind of pure, crystalline beauty greats like Bresson and Dreyer were always after. Seidl uses just enough illumination for us to see without straining or enduring visual irritants like excessive film grain and soupy contrast. He lets the people who organized these spaces for their own real-world purposes be the primary art directors and principal actors. Tapping into the functional harmony that people create for themselves is Seidl’s way of getting into their shoes. How many filmmakers of this caliber start out with that intention but end up condescending to their subjects in some way, using them as wretched marionettes?

The result of Seidl’s rigor here sometimes feels hallucinatory. When Olga becomes a maid in a sterile suburban home, there’s a scene of her superior demonstrating the proper way to clean the teeth of a stuffed fox mounted on a wall of dead game. The fox stares out at us, his fangs bared in what comes to resemble a bemused grin. Seidl covers this moment in a simple master shot with a sheet of pale winter light falling in from the windows. It’s the patiently observed situation, not any effects, that produces the “grin.” That’s all it takes to conjure up an absurdity Terry Gilliam or Emir Kusturica would require circus armies to bring off. (Hate to drop so many names here, but Import/Export is the kind of narrative film that bumps up rudely against all others.) But, while Seidl’s filmmaking methods are simple in concept, they’re brutal in execution. He made this film not with an army but something like an arctic expedition team—especially in the subzero Ukraine scenes. Gangsters, local authorities and -30 degree temperatures threatened them at various stages. Ego and megalomania are almost always factors in this kind of continental filmmaking quest, but the results onscreen tell me that Seidl’s ruthless perfectionism springs more from the desire to honor the truth of his subjects’ lives than to wow ’em at Cannes. With, say Werner Herzog, you’re not always so sure. The big gun philosopher-auteurs tend to flaunt their ecstatic truths the way a street punk might show off his new kicks. I believe that Seidl wants only the truth.

Co-cinematographer Ed Lachman (with Wolfgang Thaler) is right to call Seidl a “moral filmmaker.” Olga and Paul don’t always do the right thing, but it is clear that they constantly look around for it, try to keep it in their pockets, even in the hunger and confusion of their dog-eat-dog travels. That’s the romance of this film: Two beautiful young people handed every excuse to go with the prevailing mercenary winds, who instead go their own way, a precarious, ever-narrowing path of compassion and decency. Paul’s solo dance in a Ukraine bar is a statement of lonely pride in his refusal to join in his stepfather’s depraved partying. Olga’s waltz with her lovesick geriatric patient is her capacity for empathy set to music. Seidl never lets Olga and Paul meet, but I wanted them to find each other and lessen their burdens, collaborate on a future. Good people deserve each other. Seidl is content to let that daydream linger with the audience. He closes on an image/sound of a different kind of future, the one we’ve all got coming. On the fadeout, I felt the peculiar sadness and peace that came over me when I watched my mother’s casket go into the ground. Seidl is an angel. Steven Boone

Too Damned Hot: Inside

After emerging from a Lincoln Center screening of the extreme, no holds barred shock horror spectacle Inside, one of my fellow critics, Nathan Lee, proclaimed, “That was hot!” It’s a comment that stuck with me, a curious response to a movie about an isolated pregnant woman who, on the evening before she’s due to give birth, is brutally attacked by a knife-wielding crazy lady intent on carving the unborn child out of mama’s swollen belly—to claim it as her own. Clearly, mother love is unrelenting. I look forward to reading Nathan’s take on the film (this was his second time seeing it), where I’m sure he’ll elucidate on the fairy tale imagery, delicate warm lighting and mayhem, and rigorous filmmaking technique. Like the best fright work of John Carpenter, the camera is always creeping imperceptibly in Inside to maximize an illusory sense of ease in the viewer.

Nathan made apt comparisons to the poetry of Halloween (which had a similarly minimalist narrative and equally masterful filmmaking craft) and the best of J-Horror ghost movies (where sound and empty space are frequently employed to increase tension and wrack the nerves). But “hot” implies style—and it’s always tempting to lump “style” into a categorical box where it so overwhelms the substance and content of a movie that it becomes the equivalent of a glossy perfume commercial. Inside has tremendous style, and if it weren’t so visually gorgeous (overhead hallway lights transform into golden, angelic halos and backlit characters turn into pensive, threatening shadow-figures) I wonder if the carnage would be simply too much for any viewer to take.

A brief sample of what I’m talking about: During her first attack, the crazy lady punctures the heroine’s pregnant belly with a lethal set of kitchen shears, and the tip of the blade narrowly misses the baby inside. There are cutaway reaction shots of the incubating kid from inside the womb, which are indeed “hot” if by hot you mean innovative, affecting and original. But the scene doesn’t end there—within seconds, the crazy lady stabs again and cuts our victimized heroine’s face, slicing open her upper lip, which remains scarred and bleeding for Inside’s remaining sixty minutes. The reader must surely know by now if he or she can even stomach this sort of thing—so if you can, read on.

As various body parts get dismembered and skin gets flayed, one has every right to ask the question: just why are the filmmakers putting us through this elaborate mortification? Context, in such matters, is everything. In 1968, Night of the Living Dead broke taboos by showing cannibalism and matricide onscreen, to say nothing of the downbeat ending that conjured up grisly memories of lynching and political assassinations. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left could be read as nothing more than brutal acts of savagery whose sole purpose was to repulse and disturb the viewer, or they could be seen as brilliant signs of the times. But all of these masterful films had a profound, searing effect on viewers, pushing them into areas where, by confronting our fear of pain and mortality, we felt more in touch with our humanity.

Maybe this is just a highfalutin’, academic way of saying that it’s fun and cathartic to be scared, and that it feels right because it’s a deep emotional experience. So many movies leave us feeling nothing at all, whereas, after a great horror movie, we tingle all over. The mad guru of panic theater and acid trip cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky, once proclaimed that “[With] the horror picture, there is now the only possibility of freedom and poetry. In Brain Damage, the young man pulling his brain out of his ear, that is one of the most poetical images I’ve found in the movies—these people are making the real New Cinema!” So now we can add Inside to that lurid, poetic pantheon.

Much like the other horror titles I mentioned earlier, Inside starts off at a slow burn (after a savage car accident opens the movie with a literal, assaulting bang). Introspective, pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis) goes about her final day before induced labor with her protective mom and vaguely chauvinistic but paternal boss, both of whom promise to check up on her that evening (Christmas Eve, no less). Later at her remote home, there’s a knock at the door from a mysterious woman, played by the iconic Béatrice Dalle, whose imposing presence so terrified in Claire Denis’s French art/grand guignol classic Trouble Every Day.

Then Inside switches into full-on kinetic violence, not to be confused with the slow-moving art film or the homogenized scares of most mainstream horror. In a series of cat-and-mouse games, the women attack each other with makeshift spears and flamethrowers cobbled together from random household objects. Blood covers their faces and bodies, and sprays across walls and tiled floors so that everything resembles some kind of modern art action painting. And we’re gripped specifically because we’ve never experienced such an audacious kind of slasher flick: We’re so used to seeing women as victims, but never so victimized as this. Is it a feminist statement to say that women can dish it out and take it… not just cower in the closet while monsters assault them? Or is that something a man would say? The two directors, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, are men after all, and one wonders how a female director would handle such loaded material.

For an interesting counterpoint, I again refer back to Trouble Every Day. Claire Denis made a special point of drawing out certain aspects of Béatrice Dalle, who is not only a very beautiful woman, but also has a wildness in her eyes. In both films, she plays on her own mystique as a kind of woman-child who throws alarming temper tantrums and hungrily devours the things she loves. Some of the most terrifying scenes in Inside are the ones that objectify Dalle. It’s a male gaze, but it works because it’s the male gaze in awe, the way we might look at a female Terminator if we were genuinely afraid she were lethal. We don’t ogle, but we’re impressed. As she stomps up and down the hallways in her long black dress and Victorian corset, kicking doors with her gigantic boots, one is afraid for the very house that she might blow it down. And when she sticks a cigarette in her mouth, the pronounced wide gap between her two front teeth seems to swallow up the filter. Looking at Dalle, she either gives a very complex and disturbing performance, or is in reality a troubled woman whose essence is somehow captured by the film itself.

Since the purpose of Inside is to create a mood of sickening dread and horror, pushed to the most absolute extreme, viewers will only be able to take so much of it before they (a) walk out in dismay, (b) close their eyes and listen to the sounds, because they’re exhausted from the visual assault, (c) start laughing hysterically since they’ve become numb to the shock, or (d) feel like the film has broken through to some kind of profound cosmic barrier and project onto it meaning that may or may not be there in the first place. The question for right now is, does the movie work after all that? The explanation of what it’s about makes it sound like some kind of geek show exploitation piece. But that’s not all there is to the movie, and what makes it particularly “hot” is the connection between motherhood and monstrousness that hits such a deep primal chord.

The scaled back minimalism of the plot invites, if not greater depth, then at least no complications or distractions to get in the way of Inside’s undeniable primal push. I’m not sure this movie is about anything more than maternal mayhem and savage, glorified baby-worship, and while I’m uncomfortable with the notion that all this can be construed as being “hot”, at the same time when we are attracted to someone else for their courage, colorful nature, and outward beauty—all distinctive qualities of Inside—we find them “hot” and get butterflies in our stomach. It’s pretty hot indeed to see cinema with such a liberated, raw, unshielded persuasiveness that will make you feel something huge, dark and devastating. The power of Inside can’t be denied: it’s so hot, it burns.Jeremiah Kipp

To Sleep, Perchance… : Schindler’s Houses

Abbas Kiarostami’s maxim, “I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater,” certainly holds true for Schindler’s Houses, the 12th part of an ongoing series of documentaries (entitled “Photography and Beyond”) that, aside from a brief bit of explanatory narration at film’s outset by director Heinz Emigholz, is an entirely wordless succession of crisp, canted-angle 35mm images of forty southern California offices and residences created by the Austrian-American architect Rudolph Schindler. I did indeed fall into a semi-dream state during the screening, lulled by the film’s quite recognizably Teutonic penchant for rhythmic rigidity and order (it takes a German to know a German, I suppose), though don’t read that in any way as a dismissal. Emigholz’s visuals are stunning, entirely reliant on the existing natural order of things (always at an ineffably fixed and given moment, never to be recaptured) to create their effect. The director starts his journey on a somewhat regretful note, calling attention to the many signs and seals of commerce (a Target billboard; the constant hum of traffic on the highway) that threaten to obscure Schindler’s accomplishments, though one eventually gets the sense that Schindler’s Houses is more of a transcendental quest than a nostalgia-laden lament. As the initially decayed and decrepit structures give way to more well-kept edifices, life begins to literally seep into the surroundings; the sudden appearance of an elderly man reading the morning newspaper or a gaggle of cats sitting calmly and observantly frame left create a powerfully unspoken dialogue with the film’s seemingly inanimate subjects. Emigholz’s rigorous aural/visual cataloging of Schindler’s efforts uncover the souls of these structures, and it’s a sight to see.Uhlich

Shattered Class: A Wonderful World

A Wonderful World begins like Frank Capra and ends like Carlos Reygadas—a strange, but potent combo, though the mix of deceptively light-hearted sentiment and increasingly oppressive grit is off-putting in the moment. I’m not prepared to proclaim Luis Estrada’s polemic any sort of masterpiece, though a last-reel cameo by Alex Cox (as the head of a clearly corrupt Nobel Prize committee) calls attention to A Wonderful World’s rabble-rousing affinity with Cox’s much-maligned Walker (1987), which is, perhaps, not-so-coincidentally screening in this year’s Film Comment Selects sidebar. As homeless bum turned people’s hero Juan Pérez, Damián Alcázar hits just the right notes of puppy dog ingratiation and gentility, though his seemingly obsequious nature masks a rabid, mad-dog’s sense of determination and entitlement, especially after he tastes the fruits of monetary success and social advancement. When Estrada introduces his shuffling everyman to the strains of the Louis Armstrong chestnut, “What a Wonderful World”, the juxtaposition seems rote and obvious. By the end of the film, when the song is reprised, it seems an inspired and indelible choice, a bitingly satirical musical accompaniment to a war between the obscenely rich haves and the slum-residing have-nots that results in the destruction of an oblivious, white picket fence-residing middle class.

Estrada’s most incendiary proposition: that God is, at heart, a hoi polloi construct, a buffer and security blanket that damagingly keeps the world’s many harsh realities at bay. This acidly cynical view is only heightened by Estrada’s disdain for the cartoonish “plain folks” family who proselytize to Juan (and not so disingenuously) at his lowest moment, though it initially seems that the director/co-writer is submitting to these suburbanite sheeple’s simplistic espousal of an unseen deity as total redeemer. Visions of Capra’s atrocious You Can’t Take It With You might come to mind, especially the class-shattering “Polly-Wolly-Doodle” musical climax (perhaps the bullshittiest sequence ever committed to celluloid), though Estrada is actually setting us up for a corrosive last-act kill. I mean it whole-heartedly when I say that the final image of A Wonderful World is as powerful a provocation as the flag-folding/blowjob scene at the end of Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, one all the more impressive for how it retains the populist storybook texture of the rest of the film. In context, an Aesop moral wouldn’t be out of place: Ignorance is bliss until the white picket fence is breached.Uhlich

Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.

Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.

Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.

Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.

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Docaviv 2019: Comrade Dov, A Whore Like Me, & The Times of Bill Cunningham

Docaviv continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances.

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The Times of Bill Cunningham
Photo: Harold Chapman

Docaviv, Tel Aviv’s biggest film festival and Israel’s most high-profile celebration of documentary cinema, continues to thrive in increasingly challenging circumstances. The festival is partially reliant on government funding, but since her appointment as minister of culture in 2015, conservative politician Miri Regev has done her best to create a nerve-racking environment for Israel’s artists, threatening to withdraw financial support for any cultural enterprise deemed to undermine Israel’s image or criticize government policy.

Yet these threats have largely proven empty, and after spending a week at the recent Docaviv, I was left with a strong sense of Tel Aviv’s film community rallying together to resist censorship and preserve their freedom of speech, albeit in a tactful manner. The festival sustains a tone of political neutrality in its presentation of films, but a striking number of titles in this year’s selection, both from Israel and abroad, centered around tenacious underdogs speaking truth to power, questioning the status quo and remaining optimistic in the face of adversity.

Freedom of artistic expression in Israel is directly addressed in Comrade Dov, Barak Heymann’s affectionate portrait of left-wing Jewish politician and activist Dov Khenin, who represented the Arab-dominated Joint List party at the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, for 12 years before retiring in April 2019. During one of the documentary’s numerous heated parliamentary exchanges, Khenin eloquently voices his outrage at a proposal by fellow member Alex Miller that funding for the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (Docaviv’s primary venue) should be cut in response to a festival commemorating the 1948 Palestinian exodus. The sequence illustrates both Khenin’s innate skill as a negotiator and his effectiveness as a stone in the Knesset’s shoe: He persuasively counters extreme-right rhetoric with an impassioned leftist stance, and deftly steers conversation towards a middle ground.

Heymann is plainly enamored with his subject, and strikes a playful, upbeat tone in the establishing scenes. As we observe Khenin silently moving around his spartan apartment, the filmmaker wryly explains, in voiceover, that “this is the first and only time I filmed him at home. I was so excited that I forgot to turn on the sound.” Shortly thereafter, Heymann remarks that “all of the activists I know are depressed. But Dov always seems to be optimistic, which is why I love being with him.” Indeed, Dov is an instantly appealing protagonist, equal parts scrappy boyish charm, intellectual rigor, and emotional honesty.

But despite Dov’s enviable personal attributes, and his impeccable track record of fighting for social justice, Heymann takes care to ensure that the film doesn’t become too blandly hagiographic. In a particularly poignant sequence, Israeli Arab activist Hana Amoury explains, calmly and respectfully, that while Dov clearly wants to improve the lives of his Palestinian constituents, his desire to simultaneously be part of the Israeli establishment ultimately makes him an ineffective ally. And several of the battles we witness Dov wage over the course of the film, including one on behalf of mistreated factory workers, end in decisive failure.

Sharon Yaish and Yael Shachar’s A Whore Like Me, another Israel-set account of a David-versus-Goliath battle, benefits from an instantly gripping, thriller-like premise. At 22 years of age, Chile was abducted in her native Hungary and sold to Israeli sex traffickers, leaving behind a young daughter. She ultimately escaped her captors, but subsequently lived on the streets for years before conquering drug addiction. Now, 20 years on from her kidnapping, her only hope for successfully appealing against the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s decision to deny her residence is to procure concrete proof of her ordeal. Thus, she hires a private detective and embarks on a quest that forces her to relive past traumas.

The film clocks in at just 60 minutes, but it offers an impressively rich portrait of a woman who’s been failed by society at every turn. The filmmakers keep the exposition succinct, focusing on the emotional cost of Chile’s decades-long ordeal. She has, by all accounts, made a remarkable recovery: When we meet her, she’s 10 years sober, and volunteering at a sexual health clinic helping other vulnerable women. Yet the odds remain depressingly stacked against her. Without permission to work in Israel, she finds herself lapsing back into prostitution to stay on top of legal costs. And in the film’s most uncomfortable scene, we’re introduced to an older man, presumably a former client, who takes complete credit for her rehabilitation and demeaningly refers to her as his pet, while she sits awkwardly by his side.

However, as the investigation into the whereabouts of her captors begins to yield promising results, Chile becomes increasingly emboldened, and uses the filmmaking process as an opportunity to reckon with the ways in which sex work has shaped her identity and sense of self-worth. At one point she begins filming encounters with clients, as if to assert authorship of her narrative. While Chile’s future hangs in the balance at the end of A Whore Like Me, one is left with a powerful sense that Yaish and Shachar have at least armed their protagonist with the tools she needs to build a better life for herself.

As if to offer respite from appalling social injustice and hot-button political issues, Docaviv lightened the tone of this year’s international selection with a host of art, fashion, and music docs. But even among these glossier picks, tales of underdogs and marginalized communities took center stage. Mark Bozek’s The Times of Bill Cunningham, a worthy companion piece to Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham, New York, is structured around a previously unseen interview with the late fashion photographer, conducted by Bozek in 1994. It’s a pleasure to hear Cunningham describe in his own words his rise from impoverished milliner to the toast of Manhattan high society; he’s an irresistible screen presence, with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for his industry, a childlike demeanor, and an occasionally eccentric turn of phrase.

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Moreover, when detailing Cunningham’s work as a discreet queer activist, the film packs an emotional punch. Though by all accounts he lived a monastic existence, he clearly felt a deep personal kinship with New York’s LGBTQ+ communities, and took advantage of editorial freedom at the New York Times to celebrate them throughout the dark days of the AIDS crisis. At one point in the film, his chirpy demeanor cracks and he begins silently weeping for the friends he lost to the disease. And yet the film is ultimately celebratory, paying tribute to a headstrong individual who resolutely refused to obey his family’s orders to pursue a more “manly” career, and who pursued his passions entirely on his own terms.

The Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival ran from May 23—June 1.

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Cannes Film Festival 2019: Oh Mercy!, Les Misérables, Young Ahmed, & Atlantics

Many of the selections at this year’s festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements.

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Oh Mercy!
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Surprisingly, many of the selections at this year’s Cannes Film Festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements. By and large, audiences recognized the influence of genre on these works in the moment, as in a UFO randomly popping into frame during Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, or the eyes of a group of women rolling back in their heads during Mati Diop’s Atlantics.

Sometimes, though, a film turned out to be exactly as advertised, and that’s for the worse in the case of Oh Mercy!, Arnaud Desplechin’s follow-up to his prismatic, semi-autobiographical Ismael’s Ghosts. Set in the director’s hometown of Roubaix, this modest film about the work of maintaining order in a community stars Days of Glory actor Roschdy Zem as a level-headed police chief in charge of overseeing a number of investigations. Captain Daoud largely farms out his duties to a phalanx of hot-headed underlings, but he takes a determined interest in one case involving the murder of an old woman, possibly at the hands of her two neighbors, Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her girlfriend, Marie (Sara Forestier).

This case paves the way for the film’s most impressive sequence: two parallel interrogations depicting the methods used to meticulously weaken Claude and Marie’s resistance to being interrogated and draw out the truth. Otherwise, there isn’t much depth to this scenario to capture the viewer’s attention. At the margins of the plot, Desplechin’s attentiveness to local color is noticeable, which at least imparts a sense that he knows this community quite well and understands how social dynamics play out within it. But it isn’t too long into its running time that Oh Mercy!, in its generally abiding faith in the effectiveness and general well-meaning of police work, comes off as undiscerning in its pro-cop stance.

Still, Oh Mercy! somehow manages to seem a lot more empathetic and realistic than Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s police drama set in the Parisian commune of Montfermeil. Ly’s feature directorial debut pretentiously co-opts the cultural cache of its Victor Hugo-penned namesake as a means of bolstering its activist political message. A brief and promising montage opens the film, and depicts jubilant Parisians of all races in a state of revelry. (This is actually documentary footage from the aftermath of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, so not exactly the June Rebellion that closes Hugo’s opus.) From this point forward, Ly largely relies on gritty faux-doc aesthetics redolent of The Wire to maneuver through a narrative that splits its time between police on the job and embedding itself with the people they’re meant to serve.

Nonetheless, the focus remains largely on Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the newest recruit of the dubiously named Anti-Crime Squad that’s tasked with patrolling Montfermeil’s crime-ridden Les Bosquets social estate, and the way the soft-spoken man’s conscience is tested on his first day as he rides alongside two corrupt cops (Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga). Ly seems to give the cops too much latitude, or at least he muddles his condemnation of their behavior by lumping it in with a broader message about an untamable chaos in the suburbs of Paris. The film’s explosive finale, which sees the oppressed city kids rise up and start a war with law enforcement, could be interpreted as a call for revolution, but it could just as easily be read as a fortification of the idea that The Streets Aren’t Safe, and a film like this shouldn’t make the conflation of progressive and conservative politics that easy.

Les Misérables does, at the very least, lay bare the reality of an everyday form of violence and prejudice and makes some kind of attempt at responding to it, which is more than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bother to do with Young Ahmed. In the film, the eponymous Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) puts distance between himself and his family, deciding that his Arabic teacher is a heretic before, finally, turning to violence. The Dardennes’ signature observational cinema, one that’s shaped by lightly applied genre conventions and subjected to chain reactions of dramatic incident, comes to feel exploitative in this context, as Young Ahmed demonstrates little interest in understanding the psychology or pathology of the troubled youth at its center, or even in grasping the sociocultural conditions that affect him.

As is their wont, the Dardennes start their film in medias res, which proves to be their first big mistake: Ahmed has already been radicalized, and so from here on out we observe his actions in a kind of vacuum. The film, then, becomes just an exercise in redundancy for the Dardennes, hitting as it does the same narrative beats of sin and redemption that all their character studies do, albeit with a different cultural face. This isn’t a well written or conceived narrative either, especially in its contrived and manipulative finale. But what makes the film outright offensive is its flippancy toward the Muslim faith. At one point, we get a match cut between Ahmed being kissed by a non-Muslim girl and the young man vigorously washing out his mouth—a moment that elicited much laughter at the film’s gala premiere.

In the past, the veracity and realism of the Dardennes’ aesthetic mode has made for convincing portraits of life on the margins, but here there’s an uncomfortable friction between the way their technique engenders a feeling of truthfulness and the calculated and methodical depiction of Ahmed’s actions. The only party that benefits here are the Dardennes, who’ve brazenly attached themselves to a subject that grants their film an unearned political weight.

One film at Cannes this year that got its genre inflections, its social commentary, and its understanding of race generally right was the steely and quixotic Atlantics, Mati Diop’s first feature-length fiction film. Atlantics derives some of the broader strokes of its narrative from a short of the same name that Diop directed a decade ago, about Senegalese youths discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic toward Europe. The feature version of Atlantics is set in Dakar and follows Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old who’s in love with a boy named Souleimane (Ibrahim Traore) but who’s been arranged by her parents to marry a wealthy older business man. After this ostensible love triangle ends in tragedy, Diop’s film briefly morphs into something of a procedural, as a young detective (Amadou Mbow) is called on to investigate a mysterious act of arson committed on Ada’s wedding day.

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It’s the way that Atlantics pivots into the realm of the supernatural, and even flirts with the horror genre, that makes it so unique. The blend of folklore spiritualism and commitment to social realism, paired with an ethereal visual sense that emphasizes the spectral experience of the subaltern, can be imprecise in terms of its political implications, but Atlantics nonetheless evokes the palpable feelings of its characters’ displacement through its shift into ghost-movie terrain. Even Diop’s balance between a more visually poetic register and a devotion to maintaining her narrative’s momentum seems less like a compromise than a reflection of this filmmaker’s confidence in her own ability to tell complicated and unusual stories in the guise of familiar narrative form. In fact, that’s a good way to frame a lot of Cannes’ competition films this year: Many are genre-adjacent, but it’s those from filmmakers that display a sense of confidence in their approach that have tended to leave the best impression.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

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The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

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If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: The Grand Bizarre, Up the Mountain, & Germany. A Winter’s Tale

Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny.

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The Grand Bizarre
Photo: Jeonju International Film Festival

A bustling, overstuffed cinephile jamboree, the Jeonju International Film Festival features a dizzying array of competition selections, sidebars, master classes, student films, and expanded cinematic offerings, such as a VR program and a gallery full of installations. One could spend the entire festival watching nothing but new Korean films, taking in only the best of contemporary European art cinema, or simply watching all the Star Wars movies back to back. And no matter how much you decide to take in, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of what the festival has to offer. Diversity is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the festival’s curation, as exemplified by films by Jodie Mack, Zhang Yang, and Jan Bonny, three very different artists united by their willingness to push the boundaries of cinema for their own idiosyncratic ends.

A film that’s constantly on the move, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre is, like Jeonju IFF! itself, a brilliant bonanza of color, texture, and globe-trotting good vibrations. With extensive use of time-lapse photography, stop-motion animation, and quick-cut montages, Mack creates a sense of boundless energy and constant movement, of people and things (but mostly things) in an endless flow around the globe. Mack takes fabric—vibrant, beautifully crafted swatches and scarves from a range of different cultures—as her central image, seeing them on trains and planes, popping out of suitcases, on the beach, in rear-view mirrors, and in dozens of other configurations that present them not as objets d’art to be admired in some folk art museum, but as products moving in the international stream of capitalism.

Though it runs just over an hour, The Grand Bizarre is epic by the standards of Mack’s oeuvre, which has mostly consisted of shorts, and so it’s no surprise that the documentary is essentially a series of vignettes providing endless variations on the same themes: globalization, the interconnectedness of culture, and the beauty of traditional textiles. Repeatedly, Mack emphasizes the thing-ness of these fabrics. These are items that were made—some by hand, others by machine—before they were subsequently packed up and shipped off to different corners of the world. Each one originated in the artisanal traditions of a particular place and people, to which they are just as deeply rooted as the music and language of these cultures, parallels that Mack draws with a uniquely jaunty sense of style and wit.

For better and worse, these traditional designs now belong to the world. For examples of the “worse,” simply look to the film’s montage of horrible tattoos of ankhs and tribal patterns emblazoned on white people’s backs—a hilarious sampling of cultural appropriation at its most oblivious and inept. But The Grand Bizarre isn’t really an indictment of this tendency to wrest cultural artifacts out of their historical contexts. (After all, Mack herself doesn’t specify the origins of these fabrics, nor does the English-born American experimental filmmaker identify the varied locations in which she shoots.) The film is, rather, a rumination on human creativity, and it’s so idiosyncratic and highly personal that it ends with the director’s sneeze. It’s also one of the most purely enjoyable works of avant-garde cinema made this century.

Chinese auteur Zhang Yang offers a far more tonally subdued yet no less pleasurable exploration of artmaking and traditional culture in Up the Mountain, a Zen-like portrait of the mountaintop studio of Shen Jianhua, where the artist lives with his family and trains a group of elderly ladies in the ways of folk painting. The film straddles the line between documentary and fiction, with everyone playing versions of themselves. Some scenes seem to have been reconstructed, while others appear to capture candid moments in the studio and in a nearby village. Zhang never clues us in to how much of Up the Mountain is fictionalized, but it scarcely matters. Zhang isn’t particularly interested in interrogating the endlessly fuzzy line between fiction and reality, as his methods are aimed at something richer and deeper: capturing the serene, gentle spirit of Shen’s studio.

The film is like a gentle stream, always moving forward while maintaining an implacable, inviting quietude. Little of dramatic consequence occurs here—there’s no real conflict or character development or traditional plotting of any kind. People paint and chat, Shen and his wife sit around listening to opera, people work in the fields. Time is marked by gradual changes: a painting slowly developing, a baby being born and growing older, Shen’s daughter slowly improving at the accordion. If this all sounds a bit dull on paper, in practice it’s captivating because the film is infused with rich sensory details like the warmth of a fire, the smell of a well-cooked meal, and the celebratory chaos of a New Year’s festival.

With the exception of a roving final tracking shot, Up the Mountain consists entirely of static camera setups composed in a boxy aspect ratio that mimics the canvasses used by Shen’s students. It may be a tired cliché to liken a film’s compositions to that of a painting, but Zhang invites the comparison here. Shooting in digital and manipulating the footage in post-production, Zhang has colored the film like a painting, amplifying a pop of red here, a splash of orange there. Art in Up the Mountain is an extension of life, as Shen’s pupils take the world around them—cats, fields, local gatherings—as the subject matter of their vibrantly colored, highly stylized work. So, too, does Zhang: Rather than simply recording the goings-on at Shen’s studio, he transforms them into a work of contemplative, deeply humane art.

The tranquility of Zhang’s elegant still frames could scarcely be farther from the muddy handheld camerawork of Jan Bonny’s Germany. A Winter’s Tale, one of the most unremittingly ugly films in recent memory. A claustrophobic examination of the sex lives and death drives of a trio of vicious, stupid, horned-up racists (Judith Bohle, Jean-Luc Bubert, and Peter Eberst) who embark on an anti-immigrant killing spree, the film admirably resists even the slightest romanticization of the anti-immigrant killing spree they embark upon. But Bonny also fails to give us any particular reason to care about the vicious antics of these thoroughly hate-able individuals who fancy themselves the vanguard of a right-wing terror movement.

Germany. A Winter’s Tale resists offering context for or commentary about its characters’ actions, save for a bizarrely on-the-nose end-credits song that features lines like “Your violence is only a silent cry for love.” And perhaps that’s the appropriate artistic response to a dangerously atavistic movement that cries out less for explication than annihilation. Even so, Bonny’s attempt to indict his nation’s racism—from the inflated title drawn from Heinrich Heine’s famous satirical poem to the characters’ toasting to Germany just after making some particularly vicious remark—come off as ham-handed and lame. That also goes for the filmmaker’s deliberately off-putting aesthetic: Severely underlit with a harsh, clattering sound design, the film attempts to evoke the feeling of living with such hatred and misdirected anger. But as the characters oscillate constantly between screaming matches and bouts of savage love-making, their antics ultimately feel less like the distressing seeds of a nascent revival of German herrenvolk fascism than the cartoonish spectacle of a Jerry Springer episode.

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Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More

In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.

See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.

Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:

Opening Film

Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)

Official Selection

Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Closing Film

Yves (Benoît Forgeard)

Special Screenings

Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)

Shorts

Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)

ACID Lineup:

Features

Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)

Third Annual ACID Trip

Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)

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Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More

Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.

Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)

See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.

Competition
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet

Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn

Special Screenings
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts

Midnight Screenings
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae

Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev

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The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.

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TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: John Nowak

In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.

If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.

Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.

For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”

My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.

As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.

Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.

However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.

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The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.

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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.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

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.

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Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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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.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

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.

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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 closed 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.

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