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Notes from the 34th Seattle International Film Festival – Dispatch One

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Notes from the 34th Seattle International Film Festival - Dispatch One

The 34th Seattle International Film Festival gets underway this Thursday, May 22. The press screenings, however, commence nearly a month before. For this first dispatch, I’ve set out to record my day-to-day impressions of what I was seeing, witnessing, experiencing on screen.

DAY ONE: April 28, 2008

Armed with a life-affirming mocha breve from Caffé Zingaro, I make my way to the subterranean blue battleship known as SIFF Cinema. En route, I meet Elaine, a longtime platinum passholder and occasional online reviewer. We greet each other warmly and express hope, hope that the transcendent power of cinema will not desert us (although, secretly, both of us know better). Walking in, my expectations were a trifle high. Shouldn’t they be?

The first film of the first day happens to be (from Russia, but not with love) Anna Melikian’s Mermaid. Utterly abhorrent and overlong at 114 minutes, the movie begins as one creature and ends as another entirely. In short, it’s a feel-bad movie in drag as a piece of surrealist whimsy. Staggering out of the theater, I recalled John Simon’s quip as he exited an Adrienne Rich poetry reading—that in order to appreciate it fully, one would need the combined attributes of Homer and Beethoven—chiefly, being blind and deaf. The same applies here.

Mermaid opens on an expanse of puppet waves; brightly animated fish of blue and gold swim in a sea of pale turquoise and white. From this fanciful beginning, the animation stops, and it becomes clear that the bouncy, rolling sea is actually the fabric of a dress, twitching from side to side, covering a fat woman’s derriere. Our heroine of girth (Maria Sokova) strides past volleyball players on the beach, arrives at an isolated spot, strips naked save for her strand of pearls, then tiptoes into the Black Sea. In the first of innumerable gross excesses, Melikian treats us to underwater shots of this bovine entity, known only as Mama, as white as a whale, her hips and thighs nearly as enormous.

Mama emerges to find a sailor, surprised, sitting on the shore. They copulate, naturally, and their daughter, conceived in the sea, swims into being. There’s a cut to a little girl, age 6, running on the beach, a redhead with freckles. Named Alisa, she’s brought to life by Anastasia Dontsova, who gives the movie’s lone engaging performance. Alisa wishes to study ballet. Her repulsive mother’s hedonistic posing in front of a mirror (she shakes her rump admiringly) makes them late for an appointment with a ballet mistress who sternly refuses to audition the girl. The mother never brings her daughter back, the girl’s dream dies, and in later life, when Alisa visualizes herself as a child, the 6-year-old that she was is always clad in a tutu and tights. Melikian, thus, at least has a sense of how parents oh-so-casually fuck their children up, but a single insight isn’t enough on which to base a 2-hour film of grotesques on parade.

Set in the coastal port of Anapa, the movie early on boasts a few beguiling sequences suggestive of a powerfully symbiotic relationship to and with water, such as an aerial shot of Alisa standing amidst an onslaught of uniformed sailors on a pier, the deck flanked by blue sea, an image lensed for maximum impressionistic effect by the cinematographer Oleg Kirichenko. Likewise, in the scenes that take place in and around the family shack on the beach, there are instances of sensory perception involving open windows looking out on other open windows looking out at the sea, followed by a reverse tracking shot that would indicate that rows of stacked, empty water containers are what’s holding up this precariously perched domicile.

The film steps forward in time: Alisa leaps from a cute 6-year-old to a deeply unattractive 17-year-old, played by the unprepossessing and untalented Masha Shalaeva, who resembles an unholy cross between Scarlett Johansson and a very young Jill Clayburgh, and whose face is mostly jawbone. The locale switches to Moscow, and this is where the film becomes truly insufferable. There are endless close-ups of Shalaeva’s reptilian, open-mouthed, vacant expressions accompanied by flaccid, repetitive poppy jazz on the soundtrack, an awful score by Igor Vdovin for flute, harpsichord, and synthetic drumbeats—music by which to enjoy a self-induced lobotomy.

Alisa, dulled by years in a “special school,” blankly endures a series of grunt jobs in the big city—scrubbing urinals, testing lightbulbs, and dressing up in a yellow foam cellphone costume. Throughout this, Melikian, a former advertising copywriter, incessantly shoves ad slogans in our faces, textual non-sequiturs aimed at women on what sundry products can “do for you.” I would hate to think that there are viewers gullible enough to take the writer-director’s abrasive admixture of bleak realism and smug quirkiness as a statement on anything. This ultimately sadistic trash is strident in how mechanically it yanks us around. For example, Alisa, encased in her cushiony cellphone body suit, placidly observes a ballet class of women and girls doing what she once wanted to do, but never found her way into. She’s mesmerized by the grace and poise and line of the student ballerinas, and we’re pulled into the tranquility of it as well. Out of nowhere, the window between her and the dancers shatters; the reverie erupts into a street riot of smashed cars, physical attacks, and overbearing sound design that amplifies every thud, bump, and feedback screech. Mermaid is rife with rude awakenings, constant rug-pulling on the director’s part that amounts to psycho-emotional whiplash. It’s as if Melikian were getting right up in our faces, close enough for us to smell her, and hissing, “Fuck you. You thought this was going to be charmingly offbeat, huh? Well, FUCK YOU!”

The director will cut scenes in such a way that one ending on a quiet moment immediately yields to a form of aural rape in the next. Melikian does this so damn often, she’s clearly proud of herself for having thought it up and inflicting it on us. Mermaid reaches its nadir when a peroxide floozie hurls a bottle at an aquarium, smashing the tank to smithereens, all because she’s jealous of a small goldfish. This act of vandalism seems to be the inverse of the movie’s lighthearted opening scene—a metaphor for the filmmaker’s crunching the gravel of our expectations. As of this writing, Mermaid lacks a U.S. distributor. Guess what? It doesn’t deserve one.

Blessed with a splitting headache after this, I had no patience with movie number two, which began immediately afterwards, an archival screening of Josef von Sternberg’s 1953 The Saga of Anatahan. Von Sternberg uses no subtitles in telling a story of Japanese sailors stranded on an island in the Pacific. Rather than let the performers speak for themselves, he relentlessly narrates the film in lofty tones that aren’t merely condescending, they’re xenophobic in the extreme. Whatever interest the film might have had as an historical curio dissipates in practically no time. At the entrance of a kimono-clad beauty, von Sternberg reels off a list of personae through which she permutated in the eyes of the sailors, then states, “Finally, she was to become a woman—the only woman on earth!” I decided I’d be better off to skip out for lunch, so I left.

I returned for Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress. Set in 1835, the movie initially seems as if it’s going to be as stultifying a period piece as Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais. For Breillat, however, costumed formality and the robust bowing of Baroque violins on the soundtrack are mere window-dressing for yet another of her transgressive freak-shows. The supremely ugly and ungifted Asia Argento, the sort of non-actress only Manohla Dargis could defend, stars as La Vellini, who sports a large, beaten-up red rose in her jet black curly hair and, in her first few scenes, wears a black fishnet wrap draped over short sleeves of bumblebee gold (Georgia Tech colors). I couldn’t tell whether the character was supposed to be a courtesan who has slept her way into high society, or whether that interpretation is all the grubby presence of Argento lends itself to. The movie follows a flashback structure in which young Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) recounts for an aristocratic dowager the unending narrative of his perverse association with Vellini. Ryno and Vellini are supposed to have been an illicit item for ten years, except that Aattou appears so young, their affair would have had to begin when Ryno was barely a teenager. “You’re reputed to be a most formidable Don Juan,” the dowager remarks, yet he looks like a kid, albeit not a displeasing one: Aattou’s Ryno has thick, pouty lips, skin pale as fresh cream, agreeable brown eyes, an engagingly cheeky smile, a prominent nose, and he recites his lines well enough.

God only knows what the attraction is supposed to be for him to Argento’s Vellini, she of the sullen expression and coarse-featured face both dirty and unclouded by thought. The moment at which the movie crosses the boundary from merely inept to unforgivable comes when Vellini abandons her decades-older husband, Sir Reginald, for Ryno. Breillat’s camera backs the elderly man into a corner and parks on him in an appalling lack of empathy as he weeps and wheezes in sorrow. It’s a scene done in such cruelty and poor taste that the blood-drinking bit of Vellini feasting on Ryno’s open gunshot wound is considerably less offensive.

I didn’t mind Vellini’s anachronistic habit of bellowing, “Adios!” as she exits gold-brocaded 19th-century parlors; however, an exceptionally risible sequence in which Vellini and Ryno’s illegitimate daughter dies from a scorpion sting in the Algerian desert tested the limits of my endurance. Wailing wildly, Vellini cradles in bed the stinking, gray-faced corpse of the child. Ryno, holding a cloth to his nose, nasally pipes up, “We can’t go on like this; it’s been five days. We have to bury her.” Vellini: “Let’s burn her instead!” Cut to funeral pyre as Vellini, still moaning and over-emoting, runs toward the little body as it goes up in flames. Improbably, Breillat then cuts to Argento naked in the sand on top of Aattou, humping vigorously mere feet from the gravesite, in a frenzy simultaneously grief-stricken and orgasmic. At one point, Breillat positions her camera looking upwards into Argento’s mouth as Vellini bays her basso howls. We can see the back of her upper row of teeth, marvel at how hideous they are. Then it’s off to a picnic wherein the mistress takes a small, serrated knife to her lover’s cheekbone, and the two of these idiots giggle and grin as blood trickles down his face. At this juncture, an hour and ten minutes or so into the film, I left.

DAY TWO: April 29, 2008

Well, now, expectations lowered, I arrive the next morning to watch Sir Ben Kingsley play a stoner in Jonathan Levine’s wonderfully titled The Wackness. The movie begins poorly. In truth, I’ve always considered druggies a boring lot, and the snortin’, puffin’, tokin’, chillin’ hip-hop lovin’ children on display at a smoke-wreathed high school graduation party did nuthin’ to alter my perceptin’. Levine and his cinematographer Petra Korner shoot the film in a hazy, washed-out monochrome palette, with no vibrant colors and an excessive use of gray, as if an unwashed bong had doubled as a lens.

It’s set in the sweltering hot New York summer of 1994, but the inert opening scene between Kingsley and Josh Peck, a shrink session that’s a pretext for a drug deal, fails to catch fire. Kingsley’s Dr. Squires at first seems based on the notion of an aged Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate gone to seed. In posing for a family snapshot at the graduation ceremony, Squires’s jaded wife and budding femme fatale stepdaughter fiendishly suck down cigarettes, not even bothering to put them out long enough to commemorate a moment. This is a man, in other words, who’s ended up with two Mrs. Robinsons. But for most of The Wackness, Kingsley leaves aside suggestions of Dustin Hoffman and instead channels one of Robin Williams’s touchy-feely creeps, a la The Birdcage or Good Will Hunting.

Mercifully, Josh Peck is around to save the picture. As 17-year-old Luke Shapiro, a “nice Jewish kid” who’s the friendly neighborhood weed peddler, Peck, quite unlike Asia Argento, has exceptionally nice teeth, and a soulful, believable anima. He has a slightly scratchy, husky voice that’s at odds with his fresh, young face, yet this, too, is part of Peck’s low-key appeal.

A typical exchange between the two leads, as they sulk in a dive bar on a night sultry enough to drop water-filled condom balloons off a balcony, goes like this—

Squires: Why couldn’t Mozart find his piano teacher? Because he was Haydn.

Luke: That’s not funny.

Squires: Lucas, I hate my wife.

Levine’s screenplay, despite such fine, dissociative rapport, has its breakthrough in a scene of Luke and Squires’s stepdaughter Stephanie (played by an aptly full-of-herself Olivia Thirlby), after a languorous day spent on Luke’s drug rounds, sitting at the embankment of what he calls a “mad dirty” river, wondering why the two of them had never hung out together until now. The moment builds to that awkward first kiss, followed by several more kisses that are considerably less awkward.

After they say goodnight outside her brownstone, Levine does something brilliant. The panels on the sidewalk underneath Luke’s feet light up one by one, step by step, as Luke walks on air, so to speak. It’s a visualization of first love at once urban and fanciful. The imagery, of course, owes something to Michael Jackson’s dancing on and illuminating a sidewalk in the “Billie Jean” video from the early ‘80s, but Levine’s staging and Peck’s agile moves are infinitely more truthful and magical. This daring stylistic leap lasts only a few seconds, yet it works to show Luke’s sense of uplift as well as reviving the spirit of the movie. Back at home, he has that beatific smile of being in love, and it’s the rare actor who could say a line such as, “I got mad love for you, shorty. It’s on the real,” (or is that reel?), and make it incandescently romantic. Second only to Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Peck’s work is the most incisive I’ve seen by an American actor thus far in ’08.

A final note: Ben Kingsley should never, ever, ever wear a tanktop. He shouldn’t. Not in dark brown, anyway. Still, The Wackness is worth seeing, flaws and all.

At least Levine’s druggies have a sense of humor about themselves; Ricardo de Montreuil’s, in the horrible Peruvian film Máncora, do not. Titled for a beach resort on the coast north of Lima, Máncora showcases the surf to good advantage, and an underwater sequence at the beginning, as the sunlight above beams through the blue depths below, is a lovely effect from cinematographer Leandro Filloy. Nonetheless, the movie announces itself as a piece of crap, only moments in, by juxtaposing an elderly man’s suicidal plunge from a bridge (he lands/crashes into the windshield of an oncoming car on the highway underneath) with a cut to his 21-year-old son, Santiago, banging a woman in the graffiti-scrawled bathroom of a punk rock club.

De Montreuil is a former “Senior Creative Director” at MTV Networks Latin America, a fact that goes a long way in explaining why his movie has such a nauseating sheen of ugly cool. Máncora belongs to a universe wherein the figures onscreen are either going to be victimized or sentimentalized, but absolutely none of them will be three-dimensional. The film’s rhythms are meandering rather than aggressive, yet the sleazy content makes it unpleasant all the same. The screenplay, which took three hack writers to assemble, gives the performers nothing to go on; even so, sleepy-lidded Jason Day is a complete disaster as Santiago, a puerile fatalist with a violent disposition and zero social skills. Day seems to have been hired for the job based on his ability to smoke cigarettes and rub the top of his buzzed head (though, amazingly, he doesn’t attempt both at once).

Most of the ciphers on parade here are doped-up, alcoholic, hedonist “swingers” who don’t have to work for a living. Sample dialogue: “What matters is what’s fucked, because no one can take that away from you,” and when this pearl of insight meets with silence, the speaker probes: “What’s up, amigo? You look really pensive.” On the flip side of this, we have Batú (Phellipe Haagensen), a happy-go-lucky New Age surfer hippie who always has some wise, shamanistic observation to bestow on lesser mortals. De Montreuil’s sex scenes are directed as if they were “hot,” yet the filmmaker’s notion of intimacy, in general, runs the gamut from psychotic to ludicrous. The equatorial beaches certainly look inviting, and after a while, I wondered why I wasn’t at the ocean myself instead of at this trash.

Film number three that day was a low-budget, absolutely dreadful Gaelic-language kids’ movie shot on DV. My patience for bad cinema exhausted, when two nutjobs got into a fistfight over black pudding, I left.

DAY THREE: April 30, 2008

I skip the morning film. A friend has asked me to drive her to the airport, but even if she hadn’t, nothing could have induced me to sit through Baghead. Not after the previous two days. I arrive at noon for Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Encounters at the End of the World.

Not unpredictably, the doc proves to be a seriously mixed endeavor, a mild tug-of-war between sincerity and deadpan condescension. After a heavenly a cappella Russian male choir graces the opening credits, we join Herzog and company on a cargo plane bound for Antarctica. The director narrates in his elfin Bavarian accent, “Who were the people I was going to meet? What were their dreams?” as the camera pans over sleeping passengers, mostly middle-aged bald men and one token dreadlocked individual of indeterminate gender. It doesn’t matter. We never see them again.

On the ground, Herzog’s first interviewee is a chubby-cheeked fellow in red-faced good health, a former banker in Colorado turned Peace Corps worker in Guatemala turned Antarctic taxi driver, though the cab he steers more closely resembles a plow. “I learned that the world isn’t all about money,” he says, and what a luxury it must be to learn that.

Much of the doc focuses on the grim-looking research center McMurdo Station, a wing of our government’s National Science Foundation, and “From the very first day, we just wanted to get out of this place,” states Herzog. It’s an industrial wasteland filled with trucks, mud roads, corrugated rectangular pre-fab bunkers of metal-gray, its own bowling alley, a radio station (which we never hear), and “such abominations as aerobics and yoga classes.” In the commissary, we’re briefly introduced to Ryan, a young boy billed as a filmmaker/chef whose function is to ensure that inhabitants have an adequate supply of vanilla ice cream.

The sun never sets in the Antarctic summer, from October to February, and one brightly lit middle of the night, Herzog chats up the mirthful linguist/hipster William Jirsa, who’s keeping the plants company in a greenhouse. Jirsa speaks of feeling at home among PhDs washing dishes, whom he considers “my people.” Sporting a bushy goatee that juts out from the center edge of his chin, a mop of hair over his forehead, and square tortoise-shell frames, Jirsa reminded me of the sort of person I might have expected to bump into at a Feelies concert in Athens, Georgia, circa 1988.

A tweeds-clad Englishman from Cambridge, the volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, he of the tousled red curls and wooly scarf of wide green and yellow stripes (best dressed man in Antarctica, hands down), makes for an engaging interviewee during Herzog’s stopover at Mount Erebus. Yet the most memorable “encounter,” indeed the most stirring footage Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger steal away with, involves a penguin colony. We see these animals in a group as a penguin behavioral expert fields inane questions on the creatures’ sexual predilections, then a few of the birds take off, some for the sea, perhaps, yet one solitary penguin leaves the colony behind altogether. The striding purpose of his waddling steps—not going left, not going right, as Sondheim might say—but simply headed straight for the mountains—alone—becomes a bracing example of individualism. This one casually, fortuitously captured great moment is more poignant than anything in Sean Penn’s false and contrived Into the Wild adaptation.

And a cave sequence near the end may be the most purely visually stunning moment in Herzog’s travels: The tracking through such a narrow interior space, the blue-white cast to the curve of the cave wall, and the immobile ice ridges that appear to be undulating ripples—all usher in a sense of being inside a Georgia O’Keefe painting; the textural contours evocatively suggest an arctic equivalent to the artist’s vulvic motifs.

Snow and ice also figure prominently in the next film, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which has the honor of being the best movie to be screened during this first week. Although Hunt is a talented new director who can supply gripping suspense without resorting to soundtrack cues (her film has no heightening music to tell us what to feel), Frozen River wouldn’t be nearly the success that it is were it not for the splendid work of its leading lady, the superb actress Melissa Leo. Leo has great screen presence, a tremendous visual authority; she has grandeur about her, even playing a hardscrabble, blue-collar mom who’s so frighteningly poor she can’t complete the payments on a new mobile home. “I just want my double,” Leo’s Ray Eddy declares. Hunt, who also wrote the screenplay, has great affection for character types who are usually ignored by movies or ridiculed by them. Ray and her two sons live in an industrial town on the New York-Canada border; it’s a sad world, one wherein a teenage boy’s only memento of his AWOL father is an acetylene torch. He uses that torch with such pride, against his mother’s objections, and when they fight over the use of it, there’s very nearly a sense that the sky is falling, because if she takes it away, then that’s the last of his daddy.

I won’t go into the plot, suffice to say it has to do with driving back and forth over the iced up St. Lawrence River, smuggling illegal immigrants in the trunk of a car. The movie opens on a stark wide-angle shot of this jagged white surface—waves frozen in mid-motion. In one night-time crossing, Ray and her Native American “business partner” Lila (Misty Upham) get out of the car to look through the slushy field for a piece of baggage that was dumped, and the cinematographer Reed Morano creates an unostentatiously virtuosic lighting effect: It’s as if the women were walking across the surface of the moon.

I have my issues with Upham’s uninflected line readings, yet a friend of mine who’s worked in and among the Mohawk tribal reservation, from which Lila hails, informs me that Upham’s tense, tonally colorless voice and her expressionless face are accurate. And I wish Hunt had resisted the temptation to pan the camera upward to a building sign that reads “High-Stakes Bingo,” just as the women set out on a final run.

Flaws aside, Frozen River is well worth seeing. There’s a marvelous moment when Ray receives a Christmas morning visit from a state trooper, and Leo, in a terrific close-up, does a miniature master class on acting within acting, being chatty and feigning bemused ignorance of what he’s talking about. It may be her best scene; certainly, it’s one of the few she plays opposite an adult male (the once lissome Michael O’Keefe, grown unrecognizably stolid), so there’s an undercurrent of flirtatiousness not seen elsewhere in Ray’s struggles.

DAY FOUR: May 1, 2008—The Press Launch

A dilemma presents itself: on the same calendar page as SIFF’s press launch, I have to go back to my day job as a copyeditor at, I confess, Republican Banker Today, a trade rag at which I was not hired for my political affiliations, whatever those might be. This means I’ll have to miss the advance screening for the festival’s closing night film. Am I shallow enough to ditch work (again) for movie love? But then I think of how bad the closing night films have been over the last five or six years: Jet Lag, for one, also Intimate Strangers, Alan Rudolph’s deservedly obscure Investigating Sex, Gus Van Sant’s odoriferous Last Days, and the least terrible of the bunch, Molière, a comedy that made me laugh exactly once, yet nonetheless offered the beautiful Laura Morante in a role softer and more womanly than the back-to-back bitches she’d played earlier that year in Avenue Montaigne and Private Fears in Public Places.

Therefore, I make the noble sacrifice and show up at the office. Luckily, it’s only a few blocks away from the SIFF screening room in the basement of Seattle’s opera house, so I dash out for an early lunch. There’s no salmon at the press launch buffet, as there was a year ago, and no champagne either. (Lowered expectations?) The luncheon consists of three leafy salads; I try them all—the one with shrimp, strawberries, and toasted hazelnuts rating the highest. The room is jam-packed. I nosh with a few friends and adversaries; this year, as in press launches past, I’m amazed at the sheer preponderance of people who show up for this event, members of “the press” who I never see at other private screenings the rest of the year.

The closing night film turns out to be Bottle Shock, a comedy set in the California wine country, and that, I suppose, will be meant to cash in, however belatedly, on the Sideways bandwagon. I’m glad I’m not able to stay very long, and those of you who recall that Sideways made my 10-worst list of 2004 will know why. At high noon, various functionaries shoo the critics away from the buffet table and into the auditorium. We’re shown the trailer for SIFF’s opening night film, the shot-in-British-Columbia Battle in Seattle. I know people who protested and were jailed at the WTO riots, and so I wince at the made-for-TV-esque potboiler the subject has been reduced to by Charlize Theron and friends. I linger for the first five minutes worth of longwinded speeches by festival staff, then duck out.

Later, from friends who stayed on, I learn some of the reviewer consensus on Bottle Shock. “Execrable,” a former LA Times critic declares. “Bloody awful,” another critic relates in an email, and he went on to say, “It’s a film for people who can’t really handle subtitles but want to feel ’superior’ by seeing a film about the supposedly snooty, elitist subject of wine. There was a moment when it looked like the beautiful blonde intern was going to end up with the déclassé Mexican farm laborer, but eventually she comes to her senses and ends up with the hunky blonde slacker son of the wine company president. Boy, that was a close one.”

OK! Later, also, I peruse the packet I picked up that lists all the films in this year’s festival. There are a few “likely candidates” I’m on the look out for, but to my chagrin, all of them are missing. The two best narrative films that screened last February at the Portland festival, Joanna Hogg’s masterpiece Unrelated and Kim Ki-duk’s Breath, were somehow excluded from SIFF. The worthwhile (and much admired) In the City of Sylvia is, likewise, mysteriously AWOL. I had hoped to see again (and write about) all three of these. Also eyebrow-raising in their absence are the new films by Xiaolu Guo (We Went to Wonderland) and Hong Sang-soo (Night and Day), despite the fact that both filmmakers were represented in last year’s SIFF, vis-à-vis How Is Your Fish Today? and Woman on the Beach.

What is on the roster? Why, Kung Fu Panda, bless my soul. How good to know that SIFF programmers have their priorities in order.

DAYS FIVE THROUGH EIGHT: May 5-8, 2008

In the firm conviction that there has to be more to life, I skip all press screenings.

N.P. Thompson lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest.

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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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Film

Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise

The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.

3.5

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Carmine Street Guitars
Photo: Sphinx Productions

The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.

Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.

Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.

This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.

Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.

These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.

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Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.

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Hyènas
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.

Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.

One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.

Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”

Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.

Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.

These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.

Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992

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Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest

With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

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The Curse of La Llorona
Photo: Warner Bros.

Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.

Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.

It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.

Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.

All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.

Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch

Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.

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Reinventing Hollywood

The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.

Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.

As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.

While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”

Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”

Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.

Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”

Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.

The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.

Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.

One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.

The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.

Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”

A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.

Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.

The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”

But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”

This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)

Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.

Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”

Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”

Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.

David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Film

Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.

2.5

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Someone Great
Photo: Netflix

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.

The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.

In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.

Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Festivals

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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