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New York Film Festival 2008: RR and Happy-Go-Lucky

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New York Film Festival 2008: RR and Happy-Go-Lucky

Hello. My name is Vadim Rizov, and when we hit October I’ll be celebrating six months of full-time free-lancing; the post-grad malaise is lurking somewhere, no doubt, but has yet to announce itself. This is kind of a minor miracle, given the well-publicized woes of the critical world, and even though I’m way below the poverty line and living more-or-less subsistence level, I’m perfectly happy to have made it so far. And so, for the first time since I’ve arrived in New York, I’m both fully accredited for the New York Film Festival and able to attend the press screenings without skipping class. Alas, I have to skip out for a week to go on a road trip, but otherwise I hope to be shooting back more-or-less coherent daily dispatches as a kind of personal victory lap. The NYFF press screenings—which began this past Friday and continue well into the festival—almost constitute a weird, parallel festival. It’s great fun if you know fellow attendees, just like every other festival, so forgive me if the dispatches don’t reflect the atmosphere of NYFF public screenings in all their harried and formal glory.

James Benning’s RR is part of the avant-garde sidebar rather than the festival proper. My experiences with the a-g are a mixed bag; Benning is one of the few whose work I can definitely say I get. Here’s a litmus test: if you can groove without problem on Béla Tarr, you’re already 3/4 of the way there. Just get ready to forgo plot entirely and live entirely on staggering framing. Even more a-g averse types have grudgingly endorsed him. I’ve only seen one other of his films (2001’s Los, which lurks on that year’s top 10 list even above Gosford Park), in part because Benning, fearing lousy transfers, only lets his 16mm films be screened in 16mm. RR is his last foray into the medium: increasing costs mean he hopes to soon be working in HD. What a way to go.

RR is 43 static shots of trains crossing through the frame: with a few pointed exceptions, shot duration is determined by the time it takes the train to enter and leave. Shot #2: a procession of white and orange cars crossing a scrubby landscape, like a color card test writ large. #3: a train crossing a bridge over the Tennessee River, so tiny it becomes irrelevant to contemplating the water: ripples that come and go, reflections your eye can only gradually pick up on. #4: a railway crossing through a suburban neighborhood, the passing train reflecting on the house that takes up most of the frame as a bored driver fidgets, waiting to cross. #5: a train crossing through the desert, gradually stopping to become an immovable wall. #8: just as you begin to get a feel for a small town’s deserted layout, a train obstructs your view; you can’t see what’s going on for the industry, though blank trains that should be carrying autos provide both glimpses and moving frames to view the town through.

The stills in the link above can’t really convey the majesty of what happens: Benning is easily one of the ten best visual thinkers working today, period. There’s not a single redundant frame in the entire film: every shot finds a different angle/distance/composition. Sometimes scale is majestic; sometimes the train rushes up close in an epileptic blur of flashing colors; sometimes two trains overlap with such interlocking precision that, as ludicrous as it sounds, it’s a Mamet-level shock. Sound is key: sometimes trains disappear into the vanishing point, with the noise an unreliable indicator of how far away it is exactly. A brief speck crossing the sky at one point isn’t grain: it’s a bird, and it’s so close to beyond the focal point that it takes incredible concentration to keep up with it before it literally disappears in thin air. There’s a lot of deserted landscapes reminiscent of There Will Be Blood, and RR actually has the scale to be sporadically almost as overwhelming.

Part of what’s going on here is similar to the feeling I get watching Playtime: the longer you’re forced to stare at a frame initially taken for granted, it becomes clear that there’s a great deal going on in even the blurriest corner. RR points out your fundamental inadequacy at processing visual information (and, of course, if you can’t even process static shots, how in the world can we take in daily life?). Worse yet, it’s impossible for the first few seconds of any shot to tell how much time you have: will a train come in and wipe out half of what you want to see? Will the shot end before it’s even really started? Benning makes you pick and choose your visual priorities. It’s exhilarating, and as engaging as any narrative.

I’m not as crazy about RR as Los, mostly because Benning’s politics are amped way up here. “Subtleness is key to his cinema,” per Mark Peranson, but even if “Woody Guthrie singing “This Land Is Your Land,” including a verse about private property that Benning notes was “mysteriously dropped,” speaks volumes,” it’s still Woody Guthrie singing a song about private property. The final shot is an all too clear statement—one I happen to agree with, as a matter of fact, but which ups the didacticism. Benning has long been noted as a committed political thinker, but I can only just keep up with him visually; the message seems leaden alongside. And yet: I can’t help but suspect that this may well be better than at least half of the festival slate. If you’ve never seen a Benning film and you’re patient, this seems a good place to start.

Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky hasn’t screened yet, but I’m going to dispatch it now to save myself trouble later (it’s the only pre-festival screening I caught, more fool I). I’m hardly an authority on Leigh (I’ve seen three other films: the TV-film of Abigail’s Party, which is brilliant, Four Days In July, which is not, and Vera Drake, the widespread love for which I found largely inexplicable), so I don’t know how this stacks up in his canon, nor whether the much-debated issue of Leigh’s penchant for slipping into caricature (which he of course denies) is aggravated or remains constant here. Let’s be clear: this is every bit as schematic in conception and execution as its detractors say, introducing a seemingly unbearable character—Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a cheery sort who chats up and badgers everyone she meets with blithe disregard for their willingness to engage—then systematically makes us admire her more and more for two hours.

It’s a blunt lesson in humanism, giving her an incredible foe in xenophobic, paranoid and generally nutty Scott (Eddie Marsan), the kind of guy who over here would go down and patrol the border with the Minutemen while babbling about strong militias and white pride. It’s like pitting a Nick Hornby heroine against a straight sociopath and watching what happens. It’s, in short, tempting to cover my endorsement with a bunch of caveats and deprecations. But I don’t think that’s necessary: for all its surface innocuousness, Happy-Go-Lucky builds to a climax that’s at once utterly predictable and deeply moving. It kind of ruined my day.

It works because the outlines are banal but the performances are phenomenally lived-in: Poppy initially comes off autistic, but by the end of the film she’s actually relatable. Bantering with girlfriends and family, Leigh sketches out all the connections of Poppy’s life without ever spelling it out, building to an emotional intensity and grim reality that both Poppy and the film seem initially incapable of confronting or acknowledging. This is arguably the first post-7/7 film: if Poppy is the kind of blithering Brit that made Bill Bryson’s ignorant fortune (the kind of self-congratulatory, oh-we’re-so-lovably eccentric crap that doesn’t remotely begin to address contemporary UK life), Scott’s not so far from the xenophobic skinheads of My Beautiful Laundrette. Their reactions do more to acknowledge problems of cultural assimilation and conflict in the UK than anything in recent memory—but one-on-one, so deftly it may not even register. There’s not much to summarize: Leigh’s tour of London and outlying suburbs (aside from a stagy confrontation with a homeless schizo, seemingly imported from an allegorical student film) has nary a false note, even as it delivers all its humanist revelations on schedule.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club, and Paste Magazine, among others.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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