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New York Film Festival 2010: Elegant Elegies: The Films of Masahiro Shinoda

Nagisa Oshima in the ‘60s can be classed as a nihilist, his films angrily obliterating nearly everything in sight.

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New York Film Festival 2010: Elegant Elegies: The Films of Masahiro Shinoda

”[I am] not interested in the future or in utopian ideals. I would like to be able to take hold of the past and examine it from different angles.” —Masahiro Shinoda

“Modernization. Get with it.”—line from Shinoda’s film Killers on Parade

Masahiro Shinoda was born in 1931, the year Japan invaded China. His strongest childhood memory was of Emperor Tojo’s surrender to the Allied forces, and with it the announcement that the Emperor was not a god, but a man. “I felt that all the gods who had lived in Japan had become mortal,” he told a UC Berkeley interviewer, and the feeling of helpless disillusionment stayed with him. This early loss, he claimed, helped him feel for myriad groups. The Americans couldn’t grasp WWII’s impact on the Japanese, he told another interviewer, just as the Japanese couldn’t understand the pain of Chinese women who had been raped at Nanking.

I have only seen eight of Shinoda’s 30-plus features, 12 of which are showing in the New York Film Festival’s Masterworks retrospective, but the common theme running throughout them is sympathy for the oppressed. It doesn’t matter the group, nor the cultural setting, though indeed Shinoda was prone to making period films. He conveyed this open humanism with a precise formal control, masterful use of black-and-white CinemaScope and edits as clean as a paper-cutter’s chops, all of which still prove stunning.

He studied other mediums before film. Unlike past masters such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujirô Ozu, whose pre-filmmaking backgrounds had been in visual art, Shinoda concentrated on literature and theatre (he was one of only three theater history students at his university). Like peer filmmakers Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima, Shinoda gained a great awareness of European culture, claiming to have learned as much from Shakespeare as he did from kabuki.

In his book Eros Plus Massacre, a study of the Japanese New Wave, David Desser argues that the Japanese filmmakers who emerged in the 1960s saw themselves as fundamentally different from their predecessors. Unlike previous Japanese filmmakers, who perceived themselves as craftsmen, these new filmmakers saw themselves as artists—a shift in thinking taking place among filmmakers worldwide. Consequently, they suffered through their early studio work, where they trained as assistant directors on forgettable comedies and family dramas. Shinoda felt particularly stifled at Shochiku, the studio that housed Ozu, whose motto, so he said, was “Bright and cheerful films.”

Their situation changed with the 1956 release of Kô Nakahira’s anthem for doomed youth Crazed Fruit. Its success encouraged the studios to produce movies about young people, and to enlist young filmmakers to make them. Shinoda got his chance with 1960’s One-Way Ticket for Love (not showing in the series), which Shochiku mandated he adapt from a Neil Sedaka song. The film bombed, but he got another chance later that year with Dry Lake (showing September 29), the story of a frustrated teenage punk, and a great film.

It came out the same year as Nagisa Oshima’s masterpieces Cruel Story of Youth and Night and Fog in Japan, and is worth comparison. Like Cruel Story of Youth, the film focuses on a couple; like Night and Fog, it unfolds in front of the backdrop of student protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, a Cold War arrangement that basically substituted American occupiers for Japanese military forces. Both directors use intense single colors that provoke strong reactions; for example, in one Dry Lake scene the lovers make out in the shower in front of bright red tiles, leading us straight to sex. Yet while Oshima uses quick shock cuts in Cruel Story of Youth, jolting you all the way to the grave, Shinoda’s much smoother editing scheme sutures you into the drama; a girl reveals that her father’s killed himself, followed by a zoom-in to the man’s photo at the funeral. This difference in editing styles relates to the very different ways the filmmakers approach their characters.

Japan’s ‘60s were characterized by radically antisocial filmmaking, as Oshima, Imamura, Yasuzo Masamura, Masaki Kobayashi, and others made movies arguing that society needed to be changed or else burned to the ground (Akira Kurosawa even got into the act, with the Molotov cocktails The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, and High and Low). Oshima in the ‘60s can be classed as a nihilist, his films angrily obliterating nearly everything in sight; Shinoda’s politics, by contrast, feel closer to someone like Kobayashi’s, who makes a case for societal reform by focusing on good people suffering under the current structures. While Oshima paints the youth movement as folly (anticipating Bob Dylan’s comment, “The only way for the counterculture to succeed would be for every person on Earth to disappear”), Shinoda sympathizes with it; a brief early conversation defending Algerian resistance against the French prepares us for the young protest leader’s line, which the film takes seriously, that “Our only enemies are the U.S.- Japan Security Treaty and the bourgeoisie.” The hero then insults him.

Pale FlowerOur man thinks that the protests can do no good, but Shinoda goes to great lengths to show that he’s wrong. The movie’s last scene sums it up about perfectly: The solidarity-minded youths swarm a cop car to try to release the hero from the law, and he chooses entrapment over being with them. In time the politics of Oshima’s films would come closer to Shinoda’s; Dry Lake’s sequence of the hero gluttonously munching a cake, intercut with newsreel-style footage of the protests, prefigures the way the leads pleasure themselves to death rather than join the protests outside in Oshima’s 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses.

Histories often pair Oshima and Shinoda, with Shinoda trailing; this current series even follows the festival’s complete Oshima retrospective two years ago. Certainly Oshima was one of the greatest masters of form the movies have had (Violence at Noon alone contains over 2,000 shots). But Shinoda, too, had extraordinary range, as evidenced by Killers on Parade (September 30), made the year after Dry Lake.

Killers on Parade (a.k.a. The Burning Sunset) is a cracked-out comic book-style satire about the Japanese obsession with violence, in which a man can say with a straight face that “Without jazz, I’d be killing more.” The jazz fiend is one hit man on the run from several others, a rogues’ gallery including a guy in a priest costume, a bulky footballer (pigskin included), and a black-and-white-suit-wearing gangster type who looks like a reject from Guys and Dolls. Alain Silver has claimed that “Shinoda is often less interested in a striking visualization for its figurative meaning than for its sharp sensory impact,” and while that statement’s extremely true of this movie, the film also often showcases meaning through form. Just look at the way that everybody wants in on the violence: One of the film’s craziest scenes shows a group of kids in black hoods encircling the hero in long shot, pointing toy guns, and shouting at him as joyfully as they might cry, “Trick-or-treat!” Yet an even greater, near-incidental moment comes when one of the goons reads a newspaper headline, “Englishman Dead of A-Bomb Disease.” The bit shoots an amazing number of targets: the media’s tendency to focus on violence, the way news functions as entertainment, and both the Japanese lust for Western culture and urge to escape its own past.

Shinoda argued for history repeating itself, though, in 1963’s Pale Flower (September 27), his ninth film (Japanese studios commonly had their directors make two to four films a year). The film is a yakuza, or gangster, drama, and Shinoda claims in an interview on the Pale Flower DVD that “the gang world is the only place where the Japanese ceremonial structure can be fully sustained.” The ceremonial hall the hero, a hood returning to Tokyo after three years away, visits each night is the gambling room, a space we watch for several minutes at film’s outset before a word of dialogue is spoken. That’s where he meets the title character, a woman escaping into gambling from the trauma of her stepfather raping her; like his peer Imamura in several films, Shinoda uses incest as a metaphor for society’s innate flaws.

These two people can’t cure each other, and often can’t reach other, even when they fill the same space. Shinoda knows exactly how and when to frame people on opposite sides of the shot. For reasons I don’t know (some critics have claimed the influence of Japanese scroll painting), the Japanese New Wave filmmakers as a group used black-and-white CinemaScope better than any other in film history (they were pretty good with color too; Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge came out the same year). Shinoda in particular locks into it: See the amazing canted angle shot of the woman talking to the man in a bar, their heads both obstructed by garish tchotchkes throughout the frame.

The way the film uses space contributes to its poignancy. He and she have an enormous amount of space to move around in, suggesting freedom, yet the sharp editing and tightly structured compositions entrap them. It’s when he can kill again that the camera proceeds with smoothly tracking, only to suddenly flatten into constricted close-ups of both of them once the deed is done. Violence may be a release, but the release is temporary. Shinoda’s lovers can’t escape the systems in which they’re placed—the story’s narrative, nor the physical frame. The house always wins.

The film’s gambling scenes scared censors, who deemed the film immoral (funny, considering the movie also features sexual assault, murder, and a man chopping off his own thumb). Shochiku tried to shelve the movie, then detach the studio from it, leading Shinoda work exclusively with his own independent production company. Now he could truly direct the films he wanted to, and he did so with a vengeance. His next movie, 1964’s The Assassin (September 28 and October 7), proved so confusing that the critic Donald Richie has advised viewers to know the plot before going in.

The tale is told against another revolutionary backdrop, this one in 1860, one hundred years before the student protests (Tom Mes, in the most recent Film Comment: “What interests Shinoda is not so much the history that Japan forgot but the patterns of behavior that are repeated throughout that history into the present”). American fighters had attacked Japan and made it open up to the West; Japan’s Premier had been assassinated by a ronin for shaming a feudal lord. The film’s main character, the assassin, tries to carry out a mission to prevent civil war. But his devotion to the emperor may be outdated: Another character tells him, “Why don’t you commit seppuku. The samurai’s way no longer exists.”

Again Shinoda shoots in ’Scope, and again he juxtaposes the huge scale of the frame with the tightly ordered space within it. Yet he suggests his characters’ lack of freedom even more overtly than in Pale Flower by not just trapping them within the frame, but freezing them. In one scene the camera zooms in on a woman while she’s being raped, and a freeze frame of her anguished face proceeds while her tortured squeals fill the soundtrack; in another the camera freezes as a man has to stab his best friend, first on the victim and then on the teeth-clenching murderer. The freeze frames lend a second-guessing quality to all the other scenes where people are moving, as though telling us that the characters’ hopes—and lives—will end eventually. A group of imperialists celebrates upon hearing of the Premier’s death, their celebration framed tightly within a doorway; Shinoda then edits out of their party, and with one smooth transition it’s literally wiped away.

The AssassinSamurai Spy (October 5 and 6), from 1965, also takes place during internecine conflict, only this time the hero isn’t choosing between the Emperor and the Shogunate but between warring clans in the early 1600s. The lead is an action hero who always feels pursued by unknown forces; the film’s key line, conveyed in a sharp cut to his profile, is “Nothing is certain these days.” The film is in black-and-white ’Scope again, and, as before, Shinoda finds striking ways to show people enclosed within a system, this time through slow motion (highlight: a man falling off a bridge in slow-mo).

Yet the script can’t compare with the imagery. Shinoda claimed that he wanted to make a Cold War allegory exploring Japan’s dilemma between siding with Russia and siding with the U.S., with his protagonist a strong hero who could “cut through the fog” of ambiguous heroes and villains. The problem with this choice is that his films are often most interesting when those roles are ambiguous; one could persuasively argue that the protagonists of Dry Lake, Pale Flower, and The Assassin are all contemptible, which not only complicates the viewer’s sympathy for them, but broadens and enriches the viewer’s capacity to sympathize, period. By contrast, here the hero is forever speaking great truths about war, which the film does little to challenge: “Why divide everyone into friend and enemy? We’ve war to thank for that way of thinking.” The result is a socially conscious action movie, and as the hero lets fly with ninja stars, we return to Alain Silver’s rap on Shinoda. These are striking images with little thematic value.

The most sympathetic figures in Samurai Spy, funnily, aren’t women or children, but the feudal lords that many wrongly blame for causing the conflict. Shinoda returned to attacking the masters in 1966’s Punishment Island (September 26 and September 29), among his most ahistorical films and one of his most unsettling. The opening credits roll over a freeze frame of one man tossing another off a cliff. The dead man’s son returns to the island years later to avenge his father’s death; we learn that the island lord killed the father because the man was an anarchist, Shinoda again pitting freedom against a harsh, restrictive, very violent law and order.

More so than Shinoda’s other early films, Island not only focuses on violence’s psychological effects, but lets violence play out in extended fashion that showcases its effects on the body. Over and over, men beat each other with whips or crutches or even live eels, a close handheld camera chasing both assailant and victim, and the color photography contrasts gushing welts, blood, and bruises with bright green grass. As in many of his other films, Shinoda cuts out the soundtrack at especially violent moments, encouraging the viewer to pay greater attention to the brutality. Island goes further than nearly any other film I can think of (Straw Dogs is the only other title that comes to mind) in showcasing the extent to which people can physically brutalize each other, without once seeming exploitative, so that any closure the work achieves feels token at best. I should quickly add that I’ve only seen the film once, on DVD, and that seeing it on screen would definitely change the viewing experience (my hunch is that it would make the experience much worse). Yet, with that said, I still feel comfortable claiming that the film doesn’t reward close analysis like Pale Flower and The Assassin do; furthermore, that’s not the point.

Shinoda ended his first decade of filmmaking with 1969’s Double Suicide (September 26 and October 5), a film that both disturbs and shakes in total effect and simultaneously rewards shot-by-shot unpacking. The director’s films work best when the images comment on the action in addition to presenting it; when he simply shoots off fireworks, as he does for large stretches of Killers on Parade and Samurai Spy, the results are much less compelling. Double Suicide is my favorite Shinoda film because it comments on itself more thoroughly than not just any other Shinoda I’ve seen, but than almost every other film I’ve seen.

The movie opens with kuroko—puppeteers dressed all in black and hooded—preparing to perform the kabuki play that the film is based on, and with Shinoda’s voice on the telephone instructing an assistant. “Miss Tomaka, how’s the script going?” he asks, to which she says, “The suicide part is difficult.” He explains the ending to her—a sprint from society through a graveyard, culminating in the title action—and says that he wants “a sort of fetishism of space.” Less than four minutes, and he’s already given the movie away personally. Then a puppet suddenly transforms with a cut into the leading actor.

The plot details a married paper dealer’s passion for a courtesan, and how their inability to live together leads to what Claire Johnston, in the film’s Criterion DVD essay, calls “the ultimate protest against social structures.” The film unfolds in a black-and-white box with amazing senses of geometry and architecture, walls turned at strong angles to each other and graveyards with gravestones that all have different-level heads, many layers of action unfolding choreographed block by block. Much of this occurs in long takes, mimicking the film’s theatrical origins; the film contains around 240 shots total, as opposed to the more than 140 shots within the first 10 minutes of Pale Flower. Shinoda constantly reminds us that we’re watching a performance, even stopping the action at times so that characters can address viewers.

Double SuicideIt would be a misnomer to call this approach Brechtian, since Brecht actually took many of his ideas from Japanese theater, but the effect of the heightened artificiality is the same here as it is in Brecht’s plays. To become more aware of the art is also to become more aware of ourselves as viewers, and to pay greater attention to the external social issues that the work raises as a result. The most obvious way that this happens in Double Suicide is through the constant onscreen presence of the kuroko, who Johnston rightly argues stand in for the audience, witnessing the pain of the drama without being able to change it.

Yet this distancing—which, by daring us to care about the action, actually deepens our emotional investment in it—is achieved through the leading characters as well. Shima Iwashita (Shinoda’s wife) plays both the wife and the mistress, suggesting that both the traditional ideals of giri (duty) and ninjo (passion) can be found in the same woman. The social roles that both types have are thus expanded, in addition to their dramatic roles (the film is one of many confirming Shinoda as a great feminist filmmaker). The man’s ability to be with both versions expands the social possibilities for him as well; the warning to him, “Duty binds us all, not women alone” contrasts sharply with the image of him thrusting his head between his mistress’s legs. Once the space starts closing in on the characters (the man knocks over a wall, only to see another wall rotate into its place), we feel the social constriction increase significantly as well. By the time that the couple dies, Shinoda has taken away room for anyone else to be with them, including the viewer; our last glimpse of them is not at eye level, but looking down on their corpses from above. The film pushes its social injustice so forcefully that the only response is to want to push back.

I suspect Shinoda wanted Silence (September 30), made two years later, to have the same effect, but while Double Suicide’s formal audacity dazzles, Silence’s formal monotony dulls. The film, like the Shusaku Endo novel it’s based on, concerns a small group of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who came to Japan in the 1500s to convert the locals to Christianity; by the time the story starts, though, the tables have turned, and now the missionaries are being hunted by the local government and forced to convert to Buddhism. Shinoda adds religious persecution to his repertoire following political and sexual persecution, with the group’s tall, thin, bearded leader (the film offers a few Christ references if you need them) suffering the most.

The book’s subject is a wonderful fit for Shinoda, but unfortunately its style isn’t. In this work and others (including the amazing novel The Samurai), Endo writes in a bare style that allows the reader to fill in the world of the text themselves; Silence’s first line is simply “News reached the Church in Rome.” This sparseness contributes greatly to Endo’s ultimate message, for by calling upon readers to use their imaginations, he’s suggesting how mind and spirit can overcome physical hardship. By writing most of the book as Padre Ferreiro’s report to the Vatican, furthermore, Endo directly places the reader into a practice scenario.

Shinoda shoots in color and in a standard rather than a widescreen ratio, with plain, stripped-down visuals presumably substituting for plain, stripped-down prose. He adheres to the general cinematic rule of showing the protagonist in action rather than making the camera his eyes, meaning that the film becomes a third-person narrative rather than the book’s first-person voice. The director keeps the camera on his characters’ facial expressions, employing heavy music with new developments. All these shifts reverse the effect of the book, as a work wherein we imagine everything adapts into a work wherein we see everything. That nothing is left to the imagination means that the film is too literal to work as a story about faith, and so the scenes of Padre Ferreiro being tortured merely feel like cheap horror, with a few of the Japanese actors even made up to look grotesque. It’s a strange coincidence that over a decade later Oshima would also make a film in which brutal Japanese leaders torture a European Christ figure, but Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence allows the viewer mental space to process the action, and preserves an air of mystery about its characters that Shinoda seems determined to ditch.

Shinoda’s first dozen years of filmmaking, though, provided a rewarding, often astonishing, stylistically varied body of work that maintained consistent themes. He continued making films for 32 years after Silence, retiring after 2003’s WWII epic Spy Sorge—not showing in the series, and by every report I’ve read, a disaster. Though I’m eager to watch the later work, in a way I’m also scared to. In hindsight his early career seems to have been building up to Double Suicide: the moment in Dry Lake where a youth outlines his plans for revolution, then turns to the camera and asks, “Are you interested?”; the freeze frame of the young man running from Punishment Island, suggesting the impossibility of escape even while he’s escaping; the self-mutilations that several Shinoda characters perform for the sake of honor, and that other characters laugh at; the The Assassin moment, simultaneously high-style and social commentary, where a group of ronin covered in shadow enlist as one in an army, and then, their social functions restored, regain bright, visible faces.

He seems to have been moving toward a metatext that simultaneously worked as fiction, the best way to hold an audience captive enough to compel them to listen to a message, and discovered Double Suicide’s overt theatricality as a way to involve both himself and the audience in the drama. Simply put, he nailed it. It’s telling that, two years after seemingly exhausting a film’s self-referential possibilities, he made a film in Silence that contains little to no self-awareness at all.

Still, even if his films before and after ’69 don’t measure up, they’re worth viewing; I’d class Dry Lake, Pale Flower, and The Assassin as essential, and Killers on Parade and Punishment Island as damn good. One more link Shinoda shares with Oshima is that you don’t want to look away from their movies, lest you miss a frame. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Certified Copy, and Poetry are wonderful Main Slate films, but you’ll get other cracks at those. Walk a block down from Alice Tully to Walter Reade and do yourself a favor. Catch Shinoda’s wonders while you can.

Killers on Parade

The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.

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Festivals

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.

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.

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.

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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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as Kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, The Ground Beneath My Feet, & System Crasher

There’s a good chance that a female filmmaker will walk away with the Golden Bear for the second year in a row.

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God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya
Photo: Berlinale

There’s a bit of a gender-inclusion dialectic going on at this year’s Berlinale. On one hand, the international jury is composed evenly of men and women. On the other, the head of the jury, Juliette Binoche, opened the festival by calling for an end to the public condemnation of Harvey Weinstein. And while the festival is proud that seven of 16 films in the main competition are directed by women (that’s up from four last year), and has pledged to “work for” the proportion reaching 50% next year, the most prominent German film that premiered at this year’s festival, The Golden Glove, features some of the seediest, most relentless depiction of violence against women in recent memory.

Nevertheless, there’s a good chance that a female filmmaker will walk away with the Golden Bear for the second year in a row. Among the aforementioned seven films in competition are three of the slate’s most impressive: Teona Strugar Mitevska’s God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, a claustrophobic black comedy about a listless and unemployed Macedonian woman who spends an entire night under police interrogation for participating in a men-only religious ceremony; Marie Kreutzer’s The Ground Beneath My Feet, a tightly controlled psychodrama which subtly draws the viewer into a woman’s growing sense of paranoia and suspicion of her own senses; and Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, a raw, affecting—but not oppressively dark—portrait of a young girl with severe emotional disturbance.

Interestingly enough, God Exists and The Ground Beneath My Feet open with nearly identical shots: extreme close-ups of a woman hiding under her bedsheets, hesitant to confront the outside world. Once they emerge, however, each woman reveals herself to be a starkly different person, and at the center of a starkly different production. A former history major interested in the integration of communist economies with democratic principles, God Exists’s Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva) is, it’s almost needless to say, unoccupied in impoverished, post-communist Macedonia. And The Ground Beneath My Feet’s Lola (Valerie Pachner) is a Type A, over-occupied professional who practically sweats German efficiency. Petrunya rebels, externalizing her frustration at handsy hiring managers and patriarchal traditions, while Lola internalizes the stress of her merciless schedule and strictly compartmentalized life, coming to doubt her sanity and the motives of the people around her.

Mitevska’s camera stays close to its protagonist, the tight frame becoming another way in which Petrunya is confined by her circumstances. An annual village tradition has the local priest toss a wooden cross into the freezing-cold river, and a herd of young men dive in after it; Petrunya does an end run around them, grabs the cross for herself, and makes off with it. As the town erupts into furor over the “theft,” neither the police nor the priest can coerce the intractable Petrunya into returning the cross. “Am I under arrest?” Pentrunya persists, and the answer is yes and no. The police can’t arrest Petrunya, but God Exists shows what at first an indolent millennial’s arrested development to be the product of an arrested social position.

God Exists creates a sense of intimacy with Petrunya through its close-ups, but Ground Beneath My Feet manages to put us in its main character’s distorted state of mind even while maintaining a tone of cool distance. Lola’s mentally ill sister, Conny (Pia Hierzegger), has been hospitalized after a recent suicide attempt, and Lola, who strictly divides the personal and professional, keeps getting calls from Conny claiming that the institution is abusing her. But after Lola is informed that Conny couldn’t be making those calls, her entire reality seems up for question. The film doesn’t use visual abstractions to illustrate Lola’s burgeoning breakdown, instead relying on manipulations quietly executed by Kreutzer’s screenplay and precise mise-en-scène to make us, like Lola, question everything we see on screen.

Like its protagonist, The Ground Beneath My Feet is lean, fit, and highly effective within the bounds it sets for itself. For this reason among others—including its Austro-German specificity—its chances at the Golden Bear seem rather distant. With a more unique tone and a more universal feminist theme, God Exists likely has a better shot. But the best of this bunch—and perhaps of the competition slate thus far—is Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, which might be referred to as a social-problem film, though it abstains not only from didacticism or easy solutions, but also from fetishizing victimhood or sentimentalizing childhood.

Beautiful but anything but tender, System Crasher is awash in pink: its titles are in spray-painted, neon-pink scrawl; its nine-year-old protagonist, Benni (Helena Zengel, who, if the film were English-language, would already be a sensation for her performance), is always garbed in the color; and the screen becomes a swatch of bright pink whenever the emotionally disturbed child breaks out into one of her characteristic rages. Saturating the film in pink isn’t just an appropriation of the archetypically girlish color to signify female rage and rebellion; it’s also just another way that Fingscheidt’s film is loud. Benni’s genuinely frightening fits of uncontrolled fury, which often turn violent or end with her running away from those who want to protect her, are accompanied by raucous, percussive music that helps immerse the viewer in Benni’s subjective, chaotic swirl of perceptions.

What these three films have in common is their exploration of a female psyche impacted in some way by oppressive conditions. In System Crasher and God Exists, that’s specific forms of violent patriarchal power, and in The Ground Beneath My Feet, it’s the “always on” information-age capitalism that dominates schedules, minds, and bodies. The films share a sense of concreteness, a foundation in the everyday stressors in the place each is set. It’s not quite a “Frauen-Berlinale” here in Berlin, as documentarian Barbara Rohm described the festival to the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, but it’s easy to see why these three powerful films might make one think otherwise.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Finding Paradise at the Los Cabos Film Festival

The festival doesn’t try to keep glamour at a pronounced distance from anything that might be considered unsightly.

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Finding Paradise at the Los Cabos Film Festival
Photo: Photo: Alan Amato

“Welcome to paradise,” said the bartender at an oceanside lounge, halfway into my trip to the Los Cabos International Film Festival. Not exactly a case of delayed gratification, though it did bolster my overall sense that the pleasures of this Mexican resort town on the Baja Peninsula were best discovered at one’s own pace. Certainly you could stick to the timetable plotted by the festival’s kind and helpful staff, as press conferences, parties, and meals are scheduled to the minute. Screenings of the 41 programmed titles are planned around that, most of them taking place at the Cinemex Puerto Paraíso, a mall multiplex that’s a bus ride away from the Holiday Inn Express, the strip-mall-based hotel where all journalists were housed.

Some attendees grumbled about the digs, which in previous years were swankier and closer to both the action and the shoreline. But the room, which like the food and the roundtrip flight were paid for out of the festival’s pocket, was more than comfortable and did indeed boast, as the lady who checked me in was quick to note, “an ocean view.” It was a sun-dappled vista, for sure, one that also included a trailer park encampment with broken-down RVs, a prominent “no trespassing” sign, and several hens that were often set upon by hot-to-trot roosters. Many film festivals (Cannes and Marrakech come immediately to mind) put on an Elysian mask, trying to keep glamour at a pronounced distance from anything that might be considered unsightly. But Cabo, the event and the locale, allows all the extremes to mesh and mingle.

A giant TV in the hotel commissary was always tuned to the news, so that, in between bites of scrambled eggs and mole poblano, we got the Mexican perspective on the migrant caravan that continues to be demonized by our odious commander-in-chief. The outdoor path to the Puerto Paraíso mall wound through a dirt and debris-strewn construction site—a sharp contrast to the gentrified gaggle of stores, restaurants, and future condos inside. (The prospect of anyone willingly living where they shop called to mind Dawn of the Dead, sans literal zombies.) Even the Cinemex itself was a house divided, with screenings occurring in both the “Convencionales” and the “Platino,” two series of theaters with their own box offices and ambience. “Convencionales” had your usual red felt seats and plastic armrests with cup holders, the “Platino” black leather recliners and gourmet menus in arm’s reach.

When not at the hotel, on the beach, or sampling the delicious local cuisine at Tacos Gardenias (guess their specialty) and Edith’s (where you should definitely order both the tortilla soup and the made-at-table “flaming coffee”), the majority of my time was spent in the Cinemex. Elsewhere, celebrities were being feted (Spike Lee, Adam Driver, and Terry Gilliam were each the subject of tributes) and films like Yorgos Lanthimos’s rancidly homophobic satire The Favourite and Lee’s incendiary (to many at least) BlacKkKlansman were receiving “Gala” premieres. Rather than stargaze, I stayed in the dark, looking at screens. That was my idea of paradise.

Gilliam’s long-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which the former Monty Pythoner turned iconoclast filmmaker has been trying to get off the ground for three decades, finally arrives with a thud. Messiness becomes Gilliam, as does tilting at various windmills, which should suit him to the tale of Don Quixote de la Mancha, the mad knight-errant who seeks out chivalric adventures in the company of peasant squire Sancho Panza. This isn’t a straight adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, however, but a meta riff on the story in which a sellout director, Toby (Adam Driver), on assignment near the Spanish village where he once shot a student film adaptation of the book, comes across his former lead actor, a cobbler named Javier (Jonathan Pryce), who’s now convinced he’s actually Don Quixote.

Toby becomes Javier’s Sancho Panza, and they embark on a series of exploits that tread past and present. Really, though, everything takes place in Gilliam-land. His best films, like Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, adeptly blend bite-the-hand-that-feeds burlesque with a profound sense of regret. Here, Gilliam’s disdain for corporate masters—embodied by Stellan Skarsgård and Jordi Mollà, the latter at one point likened to Donald Trump—and his clownish yet mournful belief that humanity is doomed to repeat its sins ad infinitum feels exhausted and enfeebled, especially at a fatiguing 132 minutes.

Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate is a steroidal male weepie tracing the final months of Vincent van Gogh’s (Willem Dafoe) life, the period in which he completed 75 paintings in 80 days and cut off a chunk of his ear as an offering to fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). Dafoe plays van Gogh as outwardly sensitive, a walking open sore, though at heart he’s a misunderstood, often punch-drunk genius who fully recognizes that his prodigious talent will go unappreciated in his lifetime. Until then, he’ll wander the windswept fields of Arles in the French countryside like a fanatic gym rat working his hamstrings, forever in search of an ineffable something-or-other to memorialize on canvas. The nausea-inducing handheld camera can only hope to keep up.

Van Gogh’s affectionate, peculiar relationship with his brother, Theo (Rupert Friend), was better explored in Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo. And even the best scene, a lengthy dialogue between Van Gogh and a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) perplexed by the artist’s work, concludes by giving Van Gogh the smug upper hand. It’s as if Schnabel is exacting a kind of cinematic vengeance, retaliating in a most unseemly manner against dilettantes and detractors, and not just those of Van Gogh.

I so disliked László Nemes’s Holocaust-set house of horrors Son of Saul that I went with much trepidation into his follow-up, Sunset. It’s a bit more bearable, though not much different beyond the casting of a woman in the lead role and for the fact that it takes the fall of belle époque Budapest, rather than the savagery of the Nazi war machine, as its subject. The camera once again sticks close to the protagonist—Juli Jakab as Írisz Leiter, the daughter of a disgraced hatmaker trying to reclaim her family name—so that we’re always in her fleetly mobile perspective, which means the meticulously detailed period sets and costumes are often out of focus.

Nemes’s denial of visual pleasure is a purgative, though not in the conscience- and consciousness-expanding ways he intends. Like Son of Saul, Sunset has the feel of a first-person-shooter video game, with the main character bearing witness instead of blowing shit up. The end result is World War I, a punchline delivered after two-and-half frenetic hours with a campy solemnity akin to that moment in Pearl Harbor when Kate Beckinsale waves her hand over the flaming carnage and says “…then all this happened.”

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s occult-underbelly-of-Los-Angeles comedy Under the Silver Lake grooves to its own ecstatically odd beat. It’s like a more confidently made Southland Tales minus that film’s underlying eagerness to please. (And I say that as a fan of the Richard Kelly film.) Mitchell could care less if anyone likes his piggish hero, Sam (Andrew Garfield), who spends the majority of his time wandering through City of Angels neighborhoods in a haze that could be called pot-addled if you ever saw him toking. He’s a millennial son-of-Lebowski whose “high”-mindedness is innate. He’s also a lech who loves leering at tits and ass, most recently those of Sarah (Riley Keough), a comely neighbor who mysteriously vanishes one night, just after their first “date” concludes in coitus interruptus.

Sam’s concern for Sarah is primarily guided by lust, though most of this raging asshole’s journey is a fuck of the mind instead of the body. Among the disparate narrative threads: dogs are being murdered by some shadowy figure. A manic comic book artist (Patrick Fischler, riffing on his paranoiac from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive) holds the key to a bizarre elite conspiracy. And Sam’s beloved Kurt Cobain, as revealed in a wackadoo interlude with a grotesque recluse known only as “Songwriter” (Jeremy Bobb), never wrote a whit of his generation-defining Nirvana output. (Revolution is a lie, kids!) I myself got fully on board with Mitchell’s madness when the inaugural issue of Nintendo Power, and the Legend of Zelda map therein, became a major plot point. No question the film is indulgent, and most certainly a mess. (Critical of misogyny or just misogynist? Depends on the scene.) But this shameless id-excretion has a vitality to it that’s not easily forgotten.

I saw four Mexican features in Cabo, two of which were duds, the other two quite captivating and distinctive. Marcelino Islas Hernández’s History Lessons is one of those dime-a-dozen “unlikely friendship” dramas that pair dissimilar personalities to the most obvious ends. (They hate each other! Then they love each other! Was there ever any doubt?) Argentine actress Verónica Langer is quite good as a frumpy, cancer-stricken teacher whose at first antagonistic and eventually sympathetic relationship with a rebellious student, Eva (Ranata Vaca), helps her expand her stagnating horizons. The film, however, is ill-equipped to deal with some of the knottier aspects of the duo’s May-December friendship, which takes a turn toward the transcendently romantic but instead comes down hard on the side of cringe and creepiness.

Andrés Kaiser’s found-footage horror movie Feral, meanwhile, is notable only for the fact that a good portion of it is shot on Betamax. It’s constructed as a retrospective documentary with an unseen crew combing through tapes left behind by a priest (Hector Illanes) raising three feral children in a remote forest cabin. The children eventually died in a fire and the whole movie is an inquiry into the how and the why. A slight aura of creepiness, which mainly comes from the grunginess of the outdated shooting format, is quickly supplanted by tedium, though the festival’s jurors awarded the film three prizes (including one from the International Film Critics group FIPRESCI), so take this in a generous spirit of demurral.

Julio Hernández Cordón’s Buy Me a Gun is a brisk, involving fable that takes place in a future in which cartels run the world and women are abducted to serve at their pleasure. A young girl named Huck (Matilde Hernández Guinea), who her father (Rogelio Sosa) dresses as a boy to keep her hidden in plain sight, tries to have a kid’s life despite the dystopian conditions. But the gun-wielding, testosterone-fueled cartel members inevitably screw that up, sending the family on a bleak path to separation and worse.

Cordón doesn’t go for any kind of futurist trappings. From the rusted trailer in which the father and daughter live to the sweaty state of fear in which they often find themselves, the film feels like it could be happening now, which is certainly part of the point. Cordón also earns his allusions to Mark Twain—in addition to Huck, there’s a supporting character named Finn—with a pointed finale that recasts the river-raft journey from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a referendum on an older generation by a younger one. Before they can save the world, the kids have to save themselves.

Finally, Andrea Bussmann’s bewitching Faust, a Canadian-Mexican coproduction, uses the Oaxaca coast as backdrop for a doc-fiction hybrid retelling of the famed deal-with-the-devil legend. But who’s the Prince of Darkness in this scenario? Is he the disembodied male narrator musing on the scenery, the people, and colonialist ideology? Is he any of the on-screen subjects—expats, tourists, long-time residents—who tell evocative personal stories that have the dual feeling of offerings and traps?

Even Faust‘s dreamlike photography, digitally captured and transferred to 16mm film, has something rogue about it. Though faces or nature are often obscured by shadow and grain, the visuals still beckon and tempt, be it toward damnation or enlightenment. The mood is the thing that collectively lingers. The meaning will vary depending on the viewer. All I know is that I was as much in thrall to the recurring image of a moonlit beach as I was to the actual sunlit one not 10 minutes from my theater seat.

The Los Cabos International Film Festival ran from Nov 7—11.

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The Regional Is Universal at the New Orleans Film Festival

It was clear that current issues and events had a significant impact on the programming decisions.

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The Regional Is Universal at the New Orleans Film Festival
Photo: Sierra Pettengill

At this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, it was apparent that current issues and events had a significant impact on the festival’s programming decisions, which gave the roughly 230-film lineup a sense of mission and focus. Around the corner from the festival’s main exhibition venue at the Contemporary Arts Center there’s a tall white column, streaked with oxidized copper, in the middle of a traffic circle. Until recently, it supported a statue of Robert E. Lee. Now, in the wake of public battles across the country to dismantle such shrines to the Confederacy, it stands as a symbol of historical reckoning. In the first iteration of NOFF to be programmed since last year’s deadly rally in Charlottesville, an urgent need to address such issues shone through.

Several shorts tackled America’s legacy of racism. Graven Image, Sierra Pettengill’s superb archival documentary about Stone Mountain, the largest Confederate monument in the United States, and one whose protection is enshrined in Georgia state law, tracked the popular tourist destination’s on-and-off development over the last century. Although begun in 1917, Stone Mountain’s Confederate memorial wasn’t completed until 1972. The film’s juxtaposition of major moments in the civil rights movement with renewed attempts to complete the monument helps to reflect the reactionary impulses that underlie people’s undiminished loyalty to the Confederacy.

In a more personal take on the civil rights era, Maris Curran’s While I Yet Live focuses on the African-American quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama whose works, known for their intricate, abstract patterns and color blocks, have been exhibited in high-art institutions across the country. The Freedom Quilting Bee cooperative sprang up in Gee’s Bend in the late 1960s, and over a continual stream of talk—about civil rights, family, home, love, anything that matters to the quilters—the process by which the women make their quilts comes vibrantly to life, lending their art a deserved historical gravity.

Many of these stories of injustice are also stories of resistance. While people across New Orleans packed into bars to worship at the altar of the LSU Tigers, I watched Darius Clark Monroe’s Black 14, which tells the little-known story of the suspension of 14 black students from the University of Wyoming football team for their protest against rival Brigham Young University’s racist policies. The contemporary parallels are clear, but this illuminating film’s shifts between media interviews with white and black students points to the historical connections between athletic protest and the fight for civil rights.

The festival’s documentary lineup highlighted the breadth of Southerners’ experiences in ways that fall outside common narratives. The documentary shorts jury prize winner, Christine Delp and Pilar Timpane’s Santuario, focuses on Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, who’s been in indefinite sanctuary from ICE in a North Carolina church since last year. While it includes interviews with the church members who offered Jauna sanctuary, the film’s center of gravity is the woman’s limbo. As she paces her narrow world, watching TV and meeting with her family and church members, her nervous waiting and uncertainty as to whether she will deported or not begins to take on a material weight.

A different sort of Southern immigrant story, and one of my favorite discoveries of the festival, Gimme a Faith was spurred by an observation that director Hao Zhang made after arriving in North Carolina to pursue an engineering degree: Dozens of Chinese immigrants—raised under a communist regime—were embracing evangelical Christianity. Tempted to do so himself, the filmmaker wanted to understand why, and sympathetically investigates the complex motivations behind his friends’ conversion.

Capturing the American peculiarities of malls, frozen food, and even a public shooting through the eyes of a newcomer, Gimme a Faith is a sensitively told take on the contemporary immigrant experience. Over the course of the film, Hao complements his images with his own feelings of isolation as a recent immigrant to this county. Evenhanded with those who choose to hew close to the church, Hao encounters the profound, comforting power that community can hold, even when forged around a foreign and dogmatic religion.

Several films at the festival stood out because of the sheer peculiarity of their subject or design. NOFF seems to encourage these oddities, which, despite some wobbly moments, struck me as promising experiments from burgeoning filmmakers. And no attempt to represent America today would feel complete without an acknowledgment of the increasingly baroque ways in which social and political concerns get framed in the popular (and fringe) consciousness. The festival’s decision to program Chained for Life and Empty Metal—two inventive, though non-Southern, films that stretch contemporary discourse to its limits and which, despite their “difficulty,” proved to be more popular than I expected—made this point abundantly clear.

It would be wrong to say that writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life is only a film about ableism and representation—its meta, funhouse structure reflects on performance and cinephilia as well—but it deftly handles the topics, making clear that fantasy and desire are inseparable components of cinematic representation right in its opening moments. In a long take, a beautiful woman walks through the halls of hospital, surrounded by individuals with disabilities and a variety of other physical conditions. Then, a director yells “cut.” Turns out we’re on the set of a B-movie romance about a “beauty,” Mabel (Jess Weixler), and a “beast,” Rosenthal (Adam Pearson of Under the Skin fame). And as soon as the film’s crew and its stars begin to interact, Chained for Life digs in on its meta-cinematic playfulness.

Throughout the film, the dialogue proliferates to a stifling degree, as well-meaning but clueless hipsters offer up constant one-off approbations of diversity, comments about Orson Welles, and pseudo-profound aphorisms about, well, everything. This churning word soup is overwhelming, borderline meaningless, and often stereotypes the cast members with disabilities of the film within a film. But when those cast members take over the crew’s camera and begin to shoot scenes of their own design, Chained for Life shifts focus to their staged—but more direct and sincerer—conversations about their desires and fantasies. Throughout these shifts of perspective and focus, the film remains basically jocular, all the more so because it’s so keen to what we think we talk about when we talk about representation.

I was talking to a juror and her mother at a party one night when our conversation turned toward politics. The mother expressed a modicum of confidence in the future of the world, but her daughter and I were decidedly more pessimistic. Empty Metal was an excellent riposte to our reaction, taking that same pessimism and probing for a way out it. Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s gonzo approach should be evident from even a brief summary of their film: Under constant drone surveillance, a secret organization comprising a Rastafarian, Native American resistance fighters, and an Eastern European Buddhist monk telepathically tap three nihilistic band members to assassinate some of the most repugnant men in the U.S. and set off a revolution. The film is chaotic, dense with references to revolutionaries’ writings, and one of the more original political films of the last year.

Largely cast by nonprofessionals from the directors’ personal circle, Empty Metal is engaged filmmaking in the tradition of Born in Flames. Toying with a chopped and screwed version of our present decade’s aesthetic tropes, the film seriously, but not without humor, queries the limits and meaning of violence, the possibility for meaningful political action under hyper-surveillance, and the end of the world as we know it. Its politics are brazen, and might be objectionable on that front, but in a time where every film can claim to be necessary, urgent, or important, it does so with a lead grin.

Anxiety about the future of New Orleans sat in the back of the mind of every local I spoke with. Like New York and San Francisco before it, New Orleans is in the middle of a development boom that ‘s pushing out longtime residents and threatening to chew away historic neighborhoods. A film festival could likely play little role in reversing such damaging cultural losses, but NOFF entertained the possibility of a more optimistic future for the Big Easy.

Nowhere did this come into relief more than in the festival’s packed premiere of a restoration of Horace B. Jenkins’s 1982 romance Cane River, a melodrama with an affection for all aspects of Louisiana culture. The film, considered lost until a negative was recovered in 2013, concerns a dalliance between Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain), a light-skinned descendant of haughty, wealthy Creoles, and Marie Mathis (Tommye Myrick), a young woman from a poor black family living in a neighboring town. With lengthy musical interludes and a Romeo-and-Juliet narrative that shifts from country to city, the film uses colorism and class differences within black communities as the central conflict to give its well-tread and inevitably soppy source material new life.

Beyond its romantic aims, Cane River feels hopeful that upward mobility, enjoyed by the Metoyers only because of their exceptional history, could one day be shared by all black Americans. This attitude goes deep into the film’s production. Financed by a wealthy black family in New Orleans and shot in the Natchitoches parish, the site of a historically significant “free community of color,” Cane River wears these hopes proudly. Had Jenkins, a successful TV director, been able to distribute his film, there’s no telling what its impact on the region’s film culture could have been. Sadly, he died shortly after its New Orleans premiere and Cane River was warehoused, leaving the world with only a hint of what his popular-minded and fecund imagination was capable of.

Barry Jenkins’s radiant If Beale Street Could Talk proved an exciting complement to Cane River‘s vision. Its place at the festival shows how programming decisions can enliven distinct films in unexpected ways. Though the film takes place about a decade earlier than Cane River and in Harlem, they’re both melodramas with grand ambitions. The film centers on Tish (KiKi Layne), a young, soon-to-be mother and her fight to get her boyfriend, Fonny (Stephan James), out of jail, where he landed after a false rape accusation.

If Beale Street Could Talk is achingly idealistic in its depiction of young romance and semi-realistic in its depictions of love’s frustrations at the hands of discrimination and systemic racism. From an opening title card that reminds us that “Beale Street” is in every black neighborhood, the young couple’s romance is tinged with a generality that lets them stand in for similar couples around the country. Their dream is to no longer have to fight for their love, and just like Peter and Marie’s romance in Cane River, and like millions of others, requires an America that doesn’t yet exist to achieve. With determination, that may yet materialize.

The New Orleans Film Festival ran from October 17—25.

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Unearthing Truth at Doclisboa 2018

Doclisboa offers a vertiginously eclectic and vast lineup, with a mishmash of old and new films from a multitude of countries.

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Unearthing Truth at Doclisboa 2018
Photo: Doclisboa

The wall is festooned with graffiti, great curlicues of colorful paint, ornate designs, words and phrases in English, Portuguese, and French. Scrawled affably in green: “Welcome.” In white: “Luck.” There’s a face, bulbous, its mouth a large O, apparently in an act of orotund laughter. Elsewhere, rococo caricatures adorn the sides of buildings, as well as grotesque animals—rabbits, dogs, ambiguous winged creatures, and a cadre of galloping horses—in phantasmagoric eruptions of color. Everywhere, spray-painted scribbles and extravagant portraits—every concrete surface a potential canvas.

Street art is prevalent in Lisbon, as part of the city’s culture as the cobblestone streets and tile-covered facades. It erupted, like a spray can under pressure, after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, when the art of Portugal became more perfervidly political. But street art is ephemeral, effaced by the rain and wind; sections are missing or faded. The art that bespangles the metal shutters outside of stores, the walls of coffeeshops, and the sides of movie theaters is—from the moment of its inception—temporary but also public: Artists can, and will, alter the works of other artists, adding their own flair, turning simple, silly paintings into political statements.

Amid the graffiti, mottled on the wall, is a blue-and-red poster proclaiming, in large slanted print, “Doclisboa 2018,” which, torn and tattered, resembles a piece of street art. But it’s an advertisement for one of Europe’s most renowned documentary film festivals. The posters are ubiquitous around the city, plastered on walls, poles, and the sides of newspaper stands. Their proliferation in the weeks leading up to the festival suggest that the city is proud to be the host. Doclisboa offers a vertiginously eclectic and vast lineup, with a mishmash of old and new films from a multitude of countries.

There are films about charcoal, the history of the yo-yo (invented, I was surprised to learn, in the Philippines), the origins of our planet, the first transsexual on Argentina’s Isla Apipé, cows in the Swiss Alps, a shift at the 112 medical emergency center hotline at INEM’s Lisbon headquarters, the life of a fisherman, William Friedkin (also playing: Friedkin’s first film, The People vs. Paul Crump), Fresnel lenses, old and emerging musicians, demagogic politicians, the history of cinema and history itself, et cetera. It’s an almost comically diverse lineup, and I must admit that I felt a twinge of bitterness that I only had four days to take in as much of it as I could.

The festival’s press office is located in Culturgest, a culture center housed in a massive building with a shimmering glass facade and entrances on four different streets. It’s been, for over 25 years, a fundamental part of Lisbon’s culture, and it’s almost too much for a tourist to take in: 11 meeting rooms and two auditoria (one with 616 seats, the other with 147). And that jarringly large foyer on the second floor, with its red carpet and thick pillars and sundry of cushioned seats, may make you feel as if you’re in a Stanley Kubrick film. This bastion for the arts is glorious and intimidating.

Later, after a screening of an experimental Canadian documentary, I got turned around and had to walk around the circumference of the entire building, which took me approximately 15 minutes. I left the screening at the same time as Agnès Godard, one of the festival’s jurors, and she, while smoking a cigarette, walked at probably double my pace, moving quickly in the sultry humidity up one of Lisbon’s many daunting hills while I trundled behind her. By the time I had made it a block, she had disappeared beyond the apogee of the hill. (Later, when I told her that my favorite film is Trouble Every Day, she replied, “Oh, that’s a weird one,” which is certainly true.)

The best new film I saw at the festival is Monrovia, Indiana, an open-eyed look at a small Midwestern town, made with Frederick Wiseman’s usual patience and attentiveness. Wiseman, the most empathetic of American documentarians, casts his unblinking, unprejudiced gaze at a piece of rural America, where animals are mass-processed for food, college basketball dominates classroom conversations, Freemasons still exist, and tractor auctions are a thing. Wiseman shoots Monrovia with an arcane curiosity, so that the hulking green tractors, sucking up the land’s undulating stalks of wheat, have the allure of exotic beasts. After the 2006 presidential election in the United States, there’s been much discussion on the people of the Bible Belt and the Midwest—their beliefs, problems, and ways of life. Without defending or vilifying the population of Monrovia, Wiseman gives everyone the time and space—and freedom—to just be themselves.

On the more esoteric side of the Doclisboa program, Mike Hoolboom, of this year’s two invited filmmakers (along with the inimitable James Benning), presented his new feature, Aftermath, as well as a new 50-minute cut of his infamous House of Pain, which was shot in the early ‘90s, on a Bolex 16mm, and with old, ill-kept black-and-white stock, which gives the film a high-contrast look—all glowing whites and deep inky blacks. House of Pain, the more difficult of the two works—and, consequently, the one that has lingered in my mind—is garish, gaudy, and unapologetically indecorous, a transgressive look at the political body, made following a period of tumult in Hoolboom’s life, beginning when he was diagnosed with HIV six years earlier.

House of Pain

While rife with scatological and urinary sexual acts (a man smears shit all over his hairy chest; another drinks piss through a funnel), a cornucopia of large hairy cocks, more than one close-up of a woman peeing, and torrents of bodily fluids cascading over and into the bodies of willing participants as a soundtrack of grating noises churns, House of Pain never aims to simply shock. The squalid but oddly beautiful imagery is at once enthralling and execrable (one of the film’s four acts is called, aptly, “Shit Eater”), and offers an edifying look at outré desires. It’s not for everyone, but Hoolboom’s sincere dedication to his craft will be obvious to most.

The festival often pairs two shorts together, and this forced relationship illuminates the featured works in often intriguing ways. For example, Adam R. Levine and Peter Bo Rappmund’s mesmeric Communion Los Angeles, a melange of time-lapsed images and enmeshment of sounds depicting the car-bound life of a Los Angeles denizen, was paired playfully with John Carpenter’s short The Gas Station, which isn’t a documentary, and premiered originally as part of the 1993 made-for-TV anthology film Body Bags (which included two shorts by Carpenter and one by Tobe Hooper).

Carpenter’s film, about a young woman who, while working at a gas station late at night, encounters a roulette of creepy men and one machete-wielding maniac, is possibly his most purely fun project. Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, David Naughton, and Robert Carradine all make appearances. (In the full-length feature, Carpenter also plays the host, a macabre man, all gaunt and ghoulish, with stringy hair and pallid skin, who cracks wise and sips formaldehyde, and recalls the Crypt Keeper, who was, at that time, still hosing Tales from the Crypt on HBO.) It’s an intriguing prelude to Communion Los Angeles, which, with its stuttering images and static-laden soundtrack of voices and noises culled from radio, from television, from diurnal happenings, depicts modern L.A. as a place that’s at once static and always erratically moving. The highways and buildings remain still, like the burning orange eye of a pigeon, the divider between lanes, and the bridges overhead, and all while shadows waver, cars jump forward, and corrugated rivulets of water glint and gleam. It’s easy to get sucked into the film’s undulating images of the slipstream of life.

For me, the highlight of the festival was a comprehensive retrospective on filmmaker Luis Ospina, who’s spent his 40-year career excavating Colombia’s ugliest truths. Though he’s all but unknown in America, he’s an integral figure in the Colombian film world, and seeing his films on a big screen was a treat. A founding member of the Grupo de Cali, an interdisciplinary group of artists who strive to explore the unacknowledged hypocrisies and atrocities of Colombia, Ospina helped to engender his country’s film scene in the ‘70s. Ospina, who survived a seemingly insurmountable cancer diagnosis two years ago, said this retrospective has an ontological quality to it, as if he were watching his life pass before his eyes. He has made films about artists, political movements, his own friends, as well as himself, and each one is imbued with an earnestness that aches one’s bones.

Ospina’s 1977 short The Vampires of Poverty follows a skeleton crew of filmmakers as they prowl the streets of Bogotá and Cali, looking for beggars and street urchins, shoving cameras in their faces and giving them directions (“shake the cup,” “move to the left”) in order to enliven the footage. The mendacity of the documentarians, their lack of empathy, questions the nature of political filmmaking. Ospina has spent much of his career exploring the annals and possibilities and limitations of political filmmaking. He’s dedicated most of his attention to his hometown of Cali, in films such as Listen, Look!, Act of Faith (Redux), Artisans Block by Block, and Goodbye to Cali, and has worked with collage and found footage (The Bombing of Washington), addressed problems with the Colombian health care system (You Have to be Patient), and made a “gothic opera” about one of Raúl Ruiz’s workshops, where students are turned into zombies. His film From Illusion to Bewilderment chronicles the history of Colombian cinema, and is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Latin American film.

Though known for his documentaries, Ospina has also made two seminal feature-length fiction films: Pure Blood, considered the first Colombian “vampire” film, though Ospina’s definition of “vampire” is quite liberal, and Breath of Life, the first Colombian noir. In the slow, sardonic Pure Blood, three killers, at the behest of their bespectacled, blackmailing employer, abduct, rape, murder, and exsanguinate young boys, 28 in total, so that they can give the blackmailer’s geriatric, dying father blood transfusions. The old man—clad in his spotless hospital gown, enfolded by white curtains and walls, with his long white beard and scraggly hair—looks antipodal to a typical vampire, and the ubiquity of white on his person and in his room reflects his innocence—and ignorance of the purloined blood that keeps him alive.

Based partly on the real-life story of a child killer who was never caught nor even identified, and the urban legend about a vampiric Howard Hughes-type eccentric recluse that the murders spawned, Pure Blood is a brooding examination of the oligarchy of Colombian society, as well as cultural paranoia and our willingness to place blame on the easiest target, or make up tall tales to assuage anxieties about the unknown. In its realistic, tragic, non-supernatural depiction of vampirism, it recalls George Romero’s Martin, a shoestring masterpiece of loneliness, despair, and libidinous longing. Despite being a somewhat visually flat film—Ospina is a practical filmmaker rather than a stylish one—and, ironically, bloodless, reserving the violence for off screen, Pure Blood conjures up its share of chilling images of humanity at its most pitiless and selfish. One can see this cryptic, often cruel film garnering a massive following in the West should it ever get, say, a Criterion Collection release. (Pure Blood is on Ospina’s Vimeo in its entirety, though it is password protected; he said he hopes to have it available for free soon.)

Pure Blood

Breath of Life, Ospina’s second and final fiction feature, is a delirious paean to American, French, and Mexican film noir, with its entanglement of lascivious, ignoble characters and violence. It’s also much sillier than the achingly serious Pure Blood. In the film, a former police officer with a shady past is asked to investigate the background of a promiscuous woman who’s been murdered, possibly by a former boxer, or maybe a matador, who, gored by a 1,000-pound bull, retired in shame. Or maybe she’s part of a political conspiracy. It’s a venal and ludicrous film, and the performances have a parodic rigidity to them, though the sultry, sinister score is utterly sincere. Corrupt politicians and police abound, but it’s one of Ospina’s least politically incisive films, a love letter from a filmmaker to a globe-spanning genre.

After Breath of Life, Ospina “said goodbye to fiction,” he told the audience before the screening of the film, but this isn’t entirely true. Since then, he’s often melded fiction and nonfiction by turning his camera on filmmakers and himself, using cinematic techniques to tell stories the way the New Journalists in America used literary techniques; he plumes the depths of lies lurking in facts. He considers Pure Blood to be a mix of documentary and fiction, which is also how he views his documentaries proper. His formal and thematic exploration of fact and fantasy, of the seedy side of politics, brings to mind Lisbon’s greatest living filmmaker, Pedro Costa.

I’d be remiss if I traveled all the way to Lisbon, walked around the city, and didn’t say a few words about Costa and his films about the ignominious side of his home. Lisbon is a gorgeous city, one of the oldest in the world, but not all of it is so lovely. Consider the poor and squalid Fontainhas neighborhood, which once sat on the fringes of Lisbon, but has, in the last decade, been wiped off the face of the Earth—in its place erected gleaming buildings made of glass. It existed in severe contrast to the rest of the culturally rich, beauteous, baroque city, and one can’t help but feel some sense of regret at its demise. The vicinage was kept like a shameful secret, a shantytown rife with immigrants and proletarians trying to scrape by, and is mostly known to outsiders because of Costa’s films, which chronicle, with a commingling of voyeuristic objectivity and oneiric fictualization, the plight of the poor.

With In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, Costa captures undesirable lives on splotchy digital video, immersing his audience (and himself) in the banalities and quotidian endeavors that the filmmaker imbues with the unease of bad dreams. These films offer a painful look at poverty, rendered beautiful by the gaze of carefully placed stationary cameras long static takes, chiaroscuro lighting and the prominence of inky-black shadows that are like ineffaceable stains on the city of Lisbon. In Colossal Youth and Horse Money, a lanky, indolent man, Ventura, traipses through the Hadean ruins of Fontainhas. In Costa’s adroit eye, Lisbon’s forlorn neighborhood is a liminal, ethereal space, rife with derelict buildings and decay like plaque on unclean teeth. He compiles a heap of broken images, a heap of broken lives.

Compare The Vampires of Poverty, its meta, guerilla-style approach, its unflinching politics, to, say, Colossal Youth. Both films are “about” poverty, about people taking advantage of the poor, and while they look nothing alike—Costa has a rigor and precision that belies Ospina’s loose, naturalistic way of filming—they actually compliment each other in odd ways.

A festival, at least a well-programmed one, should be enlightening. And Doclisboa is a great festival not only because it brings to Portugal an array of essential and obscure films, many of which would otherwise go unnoticed and unseen, but also because of the way it extrapolates otherwise unconsidered meanings in tangential relationships. You can see, in a two-day span, a salacious film by a largely unknown talent like Mike Hoolboom, a loquacious examination of rural America by Frederick Wiseman, a little-seen John Carpenter short about a deadly gas station, and an experimental documentary about California’s Highway 110. To have all of these films collated into one program is a rare privilege, and reflects the vitality of Doclisboa.

Doclisboa ran from October 18—28.

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