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New York Film Festival 2009: Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s A Room and a Half

Whatever his reasons, Khrzhanovsky directs his first (mostly) live-action feature, at age 69, as if it were his own last testament.

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New York Film Festival 2009: Andrey Khrzhanovsky's A Room and a Half
Photo: Seagull Films

As I watched Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s A Room and a Half at this year’s New York Film Festival, a woman sitting next to me couldn’t stop crying. The film was putting her through some stuff. It was sort of putting me through some stuff, too. At one pivotal moment, a transatlantic phone call between characters long separated by exile, I felt myself ready to let loose with the waterworks, but I gritted my teeth, clenched the armrests to hold them off. Then came the Russian folk songs. The crying lady started singing along quietly, unobtrusively but passionately with the characters onscreen. Their nostalgia was her nostalgia was mine. I bit my tongue off to keep from joining in. When the lights went up, I searched in vain for a tissue to give her, but turned to her and said, “You’re Russian.” She said, “Yesyesyes,” and spent the next half hour excitedly telling me everything I wanted to know about the movie’s subject, the Nobel Laureate poet Joseph Brodsky; about the beauty of his hometown, St. Petersburg (“the airfare is so low these days—you must go!”); about Brodsky’s unique stature as a hero for poor self-taught artists (“When you grow up the way Brodsky did, you don’t need to go to a school to learn what poetry is. Life gives it to you.”)

The film bears her enthusiasm with ease. Animator Khrzhanovsky’s approach to Brodsky’s life feels like autobiography, fit to stand in the company of Fellini’s, Tarkovsky’s, Fosse’s, Davies’ and Chahine’s self-examinations. Maybe this is because Khrzhanovsky senses as much kinship with Brodsky as the poet does with his doppelganger house cat (depicted in the film’s animated segments as a whimsical master-pet relationship of Charlie Brown/Snoopy eccentricity). The cat’s literary ambitions and girl-craziness outpace Brodsky’s.

Whatever his reasons, Khrzhanovsky directs his first (mostly) live-action feature, at age 69, as if it were his own last testament. It’s fitting to mention Tarkovsky because Khrzhanovsky’s use of diverse color palettes, wondrously weathered faces, natural (or naturalistic) lighting schemes and physical spaces given fleshy, filthy presence could be outtakes from Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. But Khrzhanovsky is not the primal cosmonaut that Tarkovsky was, probing the darker, scarier outer limits of memory. Nah, Khrzhanovsky’s too warm and friendly for all that. His nostalgia views Brodsky’s formative hardship and terrors (i.e. surviving the Siege of Leningrad as a toddler) through eyes that have lived long enough to make some kind of sense of it all.

Brodsky was run out of the Soviet Union on “parasitism” charges, which basically held that he was living off unearned income. Khrzhanovsky gives us a famed moment from Brodsky’s trial, where he was defiant toward his interrogators:

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?

Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.

Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?

Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?

Judge: Did you study this?

Brodsky: This?

Judge: How to become a poet. You did not even try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?

Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school.

Judge: How then?

Brodsky: I think that it … comes from God.

His international acclaim and asylum in American academia couldn’t quite heal the sting of never getting to see his parents again. Hence the river of tears when the movie arrives at that phone call. At that point, we have watched Brodsky grow up poor but wealthy in love from two of the heartiest, happiest parents a boy could hope for, then leave the nest to take his place in the world. Middle-aged Brodsky’s call home is fraught with crossed signals and decades of loss.

A young Steven Spielberg once said that live-action directors could benefit from training as animators, as it forces them to make and honor very specific filmmaking choices. Khrzhanovsky’s choice of actors for A Room and a Half speaks well of this background. Played by elderly actors Sergei Yursky and Alisa Frejndlikh even in scenes from Brodsky’s youth, his parents are lovely feats of human animation. As child Brodsky, Artem Smola capture the awed watchfulness of youth and Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy its mirror image, the deliberation of old age. In the middle, 1960’s firebrand Brodsky is the wiry, cocky life of any party (but the communist party). Khrzhanovsky switches to hand-held black-and-white to recreate the USSR’s paradoxical rendition of the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.

All along the way, Brodsky reads his poems to us, fostering an atmosphere of sly reminiscence and vague mournfulness throughout. It all crystallizes in the end, a confluence of visual and verbal poetry that returns Brodsky to that boyish state of awed watchfulness as he finally bears witness to the one thing he hasn’t yet experienced—his own mortality.

The New York Film Festival runs from September 25—October 11.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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IFFR 2021: Friends and Strangers, Bipolar, King Kar, & Sexual Drive

A number of notable films at IFFR this year are concerned with our digital lives and people trying to survive in a fractured world.

Ben Flanagan

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International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021
Photo: IFFR

Cautious optimism is the guiding principle of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, which has opted, like other festivals since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, for a “hybrid” model. As the film industry at large continues to fret over its survival, this festival known for its focus on cutting-edge media art has slotted into its program a number of films conspicuously concerned with our digital lives and people trying to survive in a fractured world. Perhaps inevitably, their ruminations on the challenges faced by physical communities and the very need for physical spaces will feel especially resonant to those watching these films from the (dis)comfort of their homes.

James Vaughan’s feature-length directorial debut, Friends and Strangers, is a highlight of the festival’s Tiger Competition. The film begins as a fairly well-worn tale of millennial angst, with a pair of Sydney-sider acquaintances, Ray (Fergus Wilson) and Alice (Emma Diaz), agreeing to camp together on their way back from a trip to Brisbane. Whatever potential for romance drew them to a shared tent in a beautiful patch of nature is scuppered when a few awkward conversations with locals make them realize that they have very little in common. While Ray hopes for a quick rebound after being recently dumped, Alice can’t even muster a smile as she takes a dozen selfies in the woods. If would seem that, mentally, they’re still stuck in Sydney, but home doesn’t exactly suggest a kind of Eden, given how they’re thrown into chaos when, upon their return, the metropolis is revealed to be a den of miscommunication.

The film’s Sydney is all popping colors and steely surfaces, with cinematographer Dimitri Zaunders skillfully homing in on its labyrinthine streets (he’s also attuned to the still heat of Australia’s east coast). This literalizes the impression of Ray and Alice struggling to navigate an internal maze of manners. Across a set of encounters between upper middle-class people, relationships become increasingly fleeting and mutual understanding more elusive (shades of Hong Sang-soo). As a generic Aussie bloke, Ray is read by everyone he meets as a schmuck, and his painful earnestness and eagerness not to offend results in quite the opposite.

The characters here always seem to know each other’s gossip, and they all seem to live most fully in the world of social media. There’s no greater transgression in the world of Vaughn’s film than going cell-free, as not calling ahead or filling each other in on their movements constantly gets someone in trouble. In a vignette where a battle of attrition between warring neighbors is effectively won by someone who owns the biggest, most obnoxious sound system, we see how waves of technology place barriers between people, and how for these well-to-do characters, their joie de vivre is derived from causing drama.

Pop music and tech culture has caused invisible barriers to insulate people in Queena Li’s Bipolar. Chinese singer-songwriter Leah Dou, daughter of musicians Dou Wei and Faye Wong, plays a Gen-Z singer who, in a spin on the Orpheus tale, is attempting to return a rainbow lobster to the sea. We’re given little backstory about Dou’s protagonist, whose name even eludes us. Throughout, flashbacks make the most of the actress’s rock-star cool, with wide-angle shots that sweep up and down bodies, zipping across clubs and staircases, as if trying to explain away her character’s past life as a blur of hedonism. As she steals the lobster from the restaurant of a Tibetan hotel, convinced of its magical properties, and travels to its supposed resting place at Ming Island, meetings with others seem of little value to her.

The film, as she encounters an assortment of colorful characters, suggests its floating in and out of dreams. Sometimes she moves unnoticed through sequences as though a ghost, and as she crosses Tibet, she becomes increasingly alienated from her own self; everything from her outlook on the future to her gender expression to responses to the behavior of men is constantly shifting. Li’s filmmaking is beautifully moody, as in her use of color to show the main character’s soul opening up (weaved into the monochrome frame, beams of purple, red, and blue crawl from the skyline like tendrils), but it’s hard to shake that it’s not only been influenced by the work of Terrence Malick, Federico Fellini, even Abel Ferrara, but that it’s pitching itself to the tastes of festival audiences. Despite the main character’s desperation to return to a kind of primal state, the digital, hyper-real landscape of the film feels unintentionally at odds with that quest, that Li’s imagined poetry, the stuff of the modern world, is something that Dou’s character must overcome in order to find something “real.”

King Kar

An image from Renata Pinheiro’s King Kar. © IFFR

The influence of more than a few giants of Western cinema is present, too, in King Kar, which envisions Bolsonaro’s Brazil, namely the city of Caruaru, as a corporate-friendly dystopia, where technology will make empty promises about environmental well-being. At the center of Renata Pinheiro’s sci-fi film, a kind of riff on Stephen King’s Christine, is a young street urchin, Uno (Luciano Pedro Jr.), who can communicate with cars. With the help of his uncle (Matheus Nachtergaele, in an extraordinarily physical performance), they fix up old cars that have been banned in Brazil, retooling the write-offs as the ultimate smart cars. And at the center of the film is the “king car” taxi that Uno was born in, whose malevolent aura is accentuated by its power of speech. Tongue as silver as Audrey II, it not only manipulates others to kickstart a populist revolution against capitalism, it also steals the uncle’s girl (Jules Elting).

King Car takes her to a make-out point overlooking the city and she dances for it before straddling its roof. The scene de-centers pleasure away from her and onto the object, by showing her gyrating in double vision, and in the moment it seems as if we’re seeing through the machine’s eyes. An oddball vision for sure, King Car is also crass, particularly as it gets into a subplot about a city being regenerated through people’s renewed interest in nature, in a gesture toward green new deal politics that amounts to empty window dressing. The lure of the automobile as a sexual object also seems quaint when you consider that Ridley Scott had Cameron Diaz ride a bonnet in The Counselor, and that David Cronenberg, with Crash, made the definitive statement on the relationship between the cold machine and the warm body without landing as hard as Pinheiro does here into exploitation-leaning themes.

By contrast, Yoshida Kota’s Sexual Drive is an anthology film that explores sexual fetish (of the culinary kind) without showing physical intimacy. One sequence of tofu being prepared is literally shot like a porno, with guitars comically shredding on the soundtrack and close-ups between panting faces watching a sizzling wok. “It’s ready,” grins the chef. It isn’t only food that forces the characters into submission. In one segment, a businessman receives an anonymous phone call, taunting him for, among other things, his mistress’s poorly kept Instagram page. Sitting at the bar of a restaurant where silence is mandatory, his airpods act as a vessel for the devilish voice in his head. The entire system of aspirational lifestyle goods has brought the characters in Sexual Drive to this point. In its close-ups on ordinary objects like shoes and seatbelts, shot with the same carnal expectancy as the food, it reappropriates sexual dynamics for a locked-down culture that sees the same domestic objects day in, day out.

International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from February 1—7.

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IRFF 2021: Tim Leyendekker’s Feast and Selim Mourad’s Agate Mousse

Both films, part of the festival’s Tiger Competition, bask in philosophical and erotic consequences of illness.

Diego Semerene

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International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021
Photo: IFFR

Premiering at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, visual artist and photographer Tim Leyendekker’s feature-length directorial debut, Feast, is a chimera of a film, one in which every sequence borrows from a different essayistic tradition, from re-enactment to more formally radical methods. These distinct grammars are connected by a sustained detachment as we accompany a group of bareback-loving gay men accused of injecting HIV-infected blood into their chemsex partners without their consent.

The film, based on true events that rocked Holland in 2005, is a welcome reminder that the boundaries between wanting and not wanting are often unclear, that sexual desire’s tacit agreements are generally bound to be misunderstood by systems built on a logic of rationality. In other words, desire makes a different kind of sense, one that’s often antithetical to the demands of the law, an argument that the film seems to be slowly making throughout.

Each of the film’s seven vignettes drops us into a world that appears to exist in a liminal space between aesthetic modes, and the effect is discombobulating. In the process, Feast exposes the impossibility of untangling fact from fiction. This leaves us with only one feeling to nibble on: a sense that these fragments, all of which highlight the complex relationship between consent, sexual practice, and queer kinship, will eventually pay off philosophically, not emotionally.

We aren’t waiting to see if the accused get convicted, or reveling in descriptions of days-long bareback orgies. We know, early on, that the law makes no room for the ambiguities, contradictions, or self-destructive propensities of desire. It makes no room for eroticism or feelings. And the film embodies that stance, as in a scene where a latex gloves-wearing female officer empties a bag belonging to one man and announces its contents—dildos, poppers, anal beads, baggies of drugs—with the clinical disaffection of Martha Rosler in Semiotics of the Kitchen. The only thing Leyendekker eroticizes in the film is coffee, in a sequence where one of the accused makes espresso and froths milk with the most delectable of frothers.

Otherwise, Feast follows a cerebral approach that recalls, in addition to Semiotics of the Kitchen, Doria García’s Segunda Vez, a cryptic essay film supposedly driven by the ideas of Argentinian psychoanalyst Oscar Masotta. In Segunda Vez, we’re forced to experience a succession of sequences like a sleuth searching for a conceptual through line. Both Garcia and Leyendekker’s films revel in the confusion of fact with fiction, enactment and re-enactment, metaphorical dialogue and theoretical diatribe. And while Feast is much more forthcoming about its plot, it ultimately simmers in the abstract concepts that have brought it to life, not in the narrative itself. Yet only rarely does the dialogue feel pedagogical, as the philosophical musing is allocated not only to speech but to the unstable aesthetics of the film itself.

One of the most jarring, and poignant, moments in Feast takes the shape of a traditional documentary sequence that teases out the poetic and life-affirming dimension of viruses. A female scientist working with plants makes the case for the symbiotic relationship between viruses and the bodies that host them, arguing for the many benefits of harboring, and even transmitting, a virus. Most significantly, she addresses the way plants can accept the symptoms caused by light viruses so that by the time the plant is infected with higher viruses it will carry on as normal, working with the pathogen in a sort of collaboration. It’s obviously a commentary on queer ways of understanding the relationship between HIV-positive people and the virus that not just inhabits their bodies but that co-authors their lives.

Agate Mousse

An image from Selim Mourad’s Agate Mousse. © IFFR

The allegory becomes a little too literal when an off-camera voice, presumably the filmmaker’s, asks the expert if the infected plants try to infect their neighboring flowers. The sequence quickly retreats into more figurative terrain, though, as the lab worker demonstrates a lab infection using petals, a virus-filled syringe, and a pestle and mortar. She explains that when the plant gets sick it communicates to the others, by air or roots, to let them know that there’s an infection nearby. Then the neighboring plants will start boosting their immune system so they can be prepared for the disease before surrendering to it.

Selim Mourad also plays with ideas around the diseased queer body by weaving divergent visual grammars in Agate Mousse, channeling Guillaume Dustan’s fearless indecency, Hervé Guibert’s radical vulnerability, and Joaquim Pinto’s diaristic essayism. For Mourad, as is often in the work of Dustan, Guibert, and Pinto, the artist is naked and the artist is sick—the price to pay for acknowledging self-implication in the artifacts one creates. And, like the infected flowers in Feast, the artist basks in the philosophical and erotic consequences of illness.

Mourad’s body is shutting down, as he’s discovered a lump in his testicle and an abscess in his mouth. We see him lying on a hospital bed, being told that he needs to lose one testicle in order to save the other, trading necrosis for prosthesis. The film’s video diary aesthetic quickly breaks into a series of melancholy musings as Mourad starts to speak directly to the camera, and eventually trembles naked on the floor in a kind of performance art. “All I do now is love my parents as I wait for them to die and for me to be knocked out by it,” he tells us.

The greatest pleasures in Agate Mousse come from simply watching the film change registers, digging further into or moving refreshingly away from its core concept: the perverse ecstasy of suffering. In many ways, this is a textbook example of an essay film in that it tries out many costumes (“I dress up in screens,” Morad declares in the voiceover at one point), but always goes back to savoring the magnificence of language: words printed on screen or spoken as lamentation. Unspeakable words, useless words. Words for words’ sake. Words that prop up and carry the film, stitching together the usual suspects of essayistic filmmaking in chameleonic fashion: a self-ethnographic gaze, intimacy rendered public, exposure of cinema’s apparatus, aesthetic playfulness, including a Meliès-esque circular framing of images, and a litany of artistic references, from Andrea Mantegna to Chris Marker.

International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from February 1—7.

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Under the Radar 2021: A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call and Disclaimer

The festival is now part-streaming and part-live on a variety of platforms.

Dan Rubins

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Under the Radar 2021: A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call and Disclaimer
Photo: NYUAD Arts Centre

According to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig, “sonder” is the feeling of discovering that every stranger has an inner life as expansive as your own. The interactive performance A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call, the most intimate offering in the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival—now part-streaming and part-live on a variety of platforms—seems to court that same sensation, inviting two anonymous audience members to peek through the cracks of a brick-by-brick dialogue and at the lives behind it.

Reviews of A Phone Call are spoiler-free by necessity since every performance is scripted primarily by the two audience members who are invited to call a private line where they’re guided by the recorded voice of a narrator to answer a selection of questions and carry out a series of actions. The narrator acknowledges upfront that this isn’t a conversation, as the participants can never ask follow-up questions or even refer to what has just been said, unless specifically prompted to do so. But the elements of real-world interaction that are missing do shed light on how much we rely in real conversations on our own choices of questions to help form judgments of the person we’re learning more about. In the absence of that autonomy to ask for more information, we’re limited to the questions posed on our behalf—what my partner on the call shared was probably unimpacted by my presence on the line.

But I somehow still felt concerned that I was letting her down, that I wasn’t showing her that I had listened carefully and understood deeply. And when I was ultimately asked to share something about her that would stick with me, I dodged the first thing that came to mind—a tragic loss, referenced three times, that hovered over my perception of her throughout the call—and said something vague and general about her family history instead.

Perhaps inevitably, A Phone Call—parts two (An Encounter) and three (An Assembly) promise as-yet-unscheduled in-person groupings—is a crapshoot: A participant at another performance told me she was left afterwards with an aching loneliness, regretting that she had followed the rules and remained anonymous to her co-caller. There were moments of my call in which I was more acutely aware of sharing a live moment with another person, including one sequence where participants are asked to imagine being part of the same starlit scene, but our succinct back-and-forth felt far too stilted to call a connection.

If A Phone Call sketches the outline of human interaction, Disclaimer, a Zoom performance from the theater company Piehole, creates a shared communal experience that feels awfully close to the sensation of sitting in a theater with other people. Aptly titled, Disclaimer quickly confesses to its own misleading advertising: It’s not the Persian cooking experience it claims to be, nor will participants log off the Zoom call with a finished rice dish, even if they’ve purchased the ingredients, circulated ahead of the performance, for Chef Nargis’s sabzi polo recipe. Chef Nargis (Tara Ahmadinejad, also the writer and co-director) admits from the beginning that, despite the impressive preparations on the “Parsley Cam” from her sous chef, Hassan (Hassan Nazari-Robati), she’s brought us here under false pretenses.

With its multi-cam setup, fancy live filters, and nimble spotlighting of individual audience members, Disclaimer makes Zoom feel more like a playground than a prison. It’s easy to imagine how the show’s wry audience participation would have worked in person—the original staged version had an in-person developmental run at last year’s Under the Radar—but the fresh, surprising ways that unsuspecting Zoomers become part of the storytelling are deliciously amplified by catching them in their home environments.

The show’s pacing is just right, leaving sufficient time for viewers to relish in the whimsical, ingenuitive use of the platform before starting to sharpen a message about Americans’ willful ignorance and apathy about the specter of a war with Iran. (Another live Under the Radar show that examines contemporary Iranian culture, Brittany Crowell’s Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls of Tehran, which bounces between devices, simultaneously live-streaming on YouTube and Instagram, allows its jagged form to overwhelm some heady discourse around privilege, climate change, and the passage of time.)

Given Disclaimer’s swift genre-hopping, from cooking show to family retrospective to whodunit, the show’s “agenda,” as Chef Nargis describes it early on, asserts itself a little imprecisely. But Disclaimer ultimately poses a question that seems to justify its busy-ness: How many diversions do American audiences need to draw them in before they’ll start to pay real attention to the threat of state-sanctioned violence outside their borders?

It is, after all, the promise of traditional Persian cuisine that lures this particular audience into a performance that excoriates anyone whose interest in Iran ends with food and dance and music. “Can you show me with your eyes if you know war?” Chef Nargis pleads, spotlighting audience members as she scans the grid. And at an event where we’re asked to leave our videos on, even in the safety and privacy of the Zoom room, there’s finally nowhere to hide.

Under the Radar runs from January 6—17.

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Noir City: International 2020

The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.

Derek Smith

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The Fifth Horseman Is Fear
Photo: Sigma III Corporation

Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival, co-presented by AFI Silver and the Film Noir Foundation, featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados across the United States.

A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.

This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.

One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.

Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.

Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.

Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.

While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.

As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.

Noir City: International runs through November 29.

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NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil

It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

Diego Semerene

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NewFest 2020: Daniel Nolasco's Dry Wind and Gil Baroni Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
Photo: The Open Reel

Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.

Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.

Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.

For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.

Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.

Alice Júnior

A scene from Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior. © Beija Flor Filmes

One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.

As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.

Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.

NewFest runs from October 16—27.

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New York Film Festival 2020

There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival.

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New York Film Festival 2020
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Film festivals, like the rest of us, are still adapting to the unique challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, with major ones drastically scaling back their lineups or devising a hybrid physical-virtual screening schedules. The 58th New York Film Festival will kick off on September 17 with simultaneous screenings of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock at two drive-in theaters in Brooklyn and Queens (the festival will also be using another drive-in in the Bronx for further screenings). Lovers Rock is the first episode of McQueen’s five-part Small Axe miniseries, set among London’s West Indian community; the “film,” along with two others in the anthology (Mangrove and Red, White and Blue) will also be available to ticket-holders for designated four-hour windows online. After the cancellation of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s been encouraging to see so many festivals coping with the impacts of the pandemic, even if it seems somewhat antithetical for a film festival like this one to be effectively dispersed across the globe rather than concentrated in a single communal event.

The festival’s socially minded main slate features a wealth of new works from master documentarians like Fredrick Wiseman (City Hall), Jia Zhang-ke (Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue), and Gianfranco Rossi (Notturno). And particularly notable among the works of nonfiction in this year’s slate is Garrett Bradley’s Time, a stirring look at 21 years in the life of a family that’s been irrevocably altered by the prison-industrial complex. On the fiction side, the lineup is no less auteur-friendly, with the festival presenting the latest works by Christian Petzold (Undine), Tsai Ming-Liang (Days), Hong Sang-soo (The Woman Who Ran), Cristi Puiu (Malmkrog), and more. And this year’s much-anticipated centerpiece selection is Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider, Nomadland, about a woman (played by Frances MacDormand) who lost everything in the Great Recession and travels the country in a camper in the wake of her husband’s death.

This mix of socio-politically engaged documentaries and auteurist cinema also marks the festival’s Spotlight section. There, you’ll find new films by Pedro Almodóvar (the short drama The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton), Sofia Coppola (On the Rocks), and the prolific-in-death Orson Welles (Hopper/Welles), as well as David Dufresne’s The Monopoly of Violence, about police violence in France, and Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus’s All In: The Fight for Democracy, which is concerned with the history and current activism against voter suppression and is based around interviews with American politician Stacey Abrams.

Elsewhere, 59 films with a more experimental bent, interweaving fiction and nonfiction, will screen as part of the Currents program. Of particular note is the latest from Nicolás Pereda (Fauna) and another dispatch from beyond the grave by Raúl Ruiz (The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, co-directed by his widow and collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento). And among the notable titles slotted in the Revivals section, which “connects cinema’s rich past to its dynamic present through an eclectic assortment of new restorations,” are Béla Tarr’s Damnation, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, and Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct.

Right now, even the films most engaged with reality can feel out of date if they happen to have been shot more than eight months ago; seeing everyday people on screen shaking hands or standing in lines can have an uncanny effect. But then, watching art flicks at a drive-in might serve as a constant reminder to festivalgoers how much stranger the world has gotten than last year’s already-unnerving status quo. There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival. It’s like temporal streams have been crossed, the mid-20th-century society of the auto hybridized with the 21st-century society of the mobile phone. The erstwhile downsides of these formats—the isolation of the home theater or hermetically sealed family car—turn out to be their primary advantages in our current context. Pat Brown

For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. Capsule reviews of films in the main slate appear below; check back as more titles are added, with links to full reviews.


Atarrabi & Mikelats

Atarrabi & Mikelats (Eugène Green)

A challenge inherent to a parable of this sort is that evil, being so seductive, can make good seem dull or prissy by comparison. The only real way for an artist to compensate is to somehow capture the ineffable quality of transcendent grace that many believe results from living a virtuous life. The great Éric Rohmer was a master at this, and Atarrabi & Mikelats occasionally feels kin to such medieval fables such as 1978’s Perceval or 2007’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, in which morality has an ecstatic, at times erotic charge that the devil can’t hope to compete with. If he can’t connect, he can’t collect. Green, though, doesn’t have Rohmer’s deep-rooted sense of faith in life. His beliefs stem from the soil of artistic forms long out of fashion. And he reconstitutes them in our modern world as a kind of scornful, superior exercise. When characters speak, as they often do in Green’s movies, direct to camera, it has the feel of a judgment from on high rather than an invitation to engage, a bridge-burning as opposed to a bridge-building. Keith Uhlich


Beginning

Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili)

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this opening’s blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force. David Robb


The Calming

The Calming (Song Fang)

The meticulousness and control of Song Fang’s feature-length directorial debut, Memories Look at Me, gave the film a specific conceptual focus. The Chinese actress and filmmaker’s follow-up feature, The Calming, places a similar emphasis on technique, but its scrupulously shot and staged compositions tend to suck the life out of every frame. The narrative is simple, and again loosely autobiographical: Song surrogate Lin Tong (Qi Xi), a documentary filmmaker who we learn early on has recently been through a breakup, drifts between Japan, China, and Hong Kong—locations with stated sentimental value to Song, who drew on her memories of visiting them during the film festival run of Memories Look at Me. That sense of personal meaning is meant to be conveyed through a film’s worth of immaculate long takes of Lin inhabiting different spaces, from bustling cityscapes to minimally furnished apartments, to lush, sprawling natural environments. But as a result of Song’s seeming unwillingness to give us much understanding of this character and her limited formalist vocabulary, The Calming is left unable to connect angst to anything significantly deeper. Sam C. Mac


City Hall

City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)

Frederick Wiseman never steps in the same river twice, though the methods of this prolific, preeminent documentarian are, with rare exception, unchanging. So it is with City Hall, Wiseman’s formidable and incisive exploration of local government in Boston, Massachusetts. Non-diegetic score and identifying on-screen titles are eschewed throughout, while the film’s duration is well past the feature-length norm—in this case, four-and-a-half engrossing hours. The camerawork, courtesy of Wiseman’s longtime collaborator John Davey, is mostly fly-on-the-wall, swish-panning between or settling for extended periods on a given scene’s subjects. Mundanities that many other artists would turn away from are manna to Wiseman. He gets as much poetic and provocative mileage out of a budget meeting that projects the fiscal year to come as he does a glass skyscraper reflecting a magic-hour sunset. The film’s provocations can seem savage at a glance, but they emerge from an observational tranquility that is uniquely Wiseman’s own, and which leave room for individual interpretation. What each of us sees is what each of us gets. But how do we arrive at our respective ideological terminus? City Hall isn’t an incitement, so much as an invitation to serenely reflect on and think through systems of power that are, like the people who labor within them, constantly evolving—for better and for worse. Uhlich


Days

Days (Tsai Ming-liang)

Centered on the quotidian lives of two unnamed men (played by Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy), Days finds Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang reflecting once again on people’s unspeakable loneliness and alienation in a world lacking in reciprocity. In a series of tableaux vivants, where the camera remains mostly still and sound is entirely diegetic, the uneventful days of the two men unfold, or, considering the film’s meticulous attention to such elements as water and fire, you could say that they burn slowly. Indeed, the younger man (Houngheuangsy) stokes the embers of a fire so he can methodically make his lunch, washing vegetables and fish in buckets inside his bathroom and concocting a makeshift stove by placing a pot on top of the other one containing the embers. The older man (Lee), in turn, is seen taking a bath, stretching his sore body in the woods, and staring out a window for what feels like an entire afternoon, as he listens to the sound of water. Were Lee facing the lens, the sequence would belong to the same documentary universe of Wang Xiaoshuai or Sergei Loznitsa—of evidence through dogged visual persistence. Diego Semerene


The Disciple

The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane)

Like the destitute musician at the center of Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star, Sharad (Aditya Modak) sees singing as more than just a profession; for him, it’s a heightened state of being. And even as we see him become weathered and pudgy as time, along with a lack of success and, naturally, money, wears him down, he remains determined to teach raag at a local school, while still performing and trying to sell CDs of rare raag musicians on the side. Given the philosophical nature of the guru Maai’s interview snippets and the remarkably beautiful musical performances of Sharad and his guru, Sindhubai (Dr. Arun Dravid), writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane appears, for much of The Disciple, to be fully celebrating the asceticism and endless struggle that Sharad has committed himself to. But as time goes on, we not only see the costs of pursuing perfection, but also the isolation that results from his strict and limiting adherence to practicing and teaching only raag. It’s a single-minded focus that is, in large part, passed down from his own gurus, though when he berates one of his students for wanting to sing raag in a fusion band, it reveals not a love for the artform to which he’s devoted his life, but a domineering spirit that arises from his musical monomania. Derek Smith


Gunda

Gunda (Victor Kossakovsky)

On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead. The newborn piglets in the film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human. Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimlessly roaming around a farm. And by the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths. Keith Watson


I Carry You with Me

I Carry You with Me (Heidi Ewing)

Across I Carry You with Me, director and co-screenwriter Heidi Ewing devotes herself to championing a cause above all else. Which is to say, she doesn’t attest to a belief in cinema as art of nuance and ambiguity. Hers is a kind of pedagogical, if not exactly activist, filmmaking style that’s not without its commendable intentions or political urgency, but it ends up feeling like a one-dimensional PSA. Ewing’s tale of immigration and deportation afflicting the lives of a Mexican gay couple flashes its reason for being at every turn, robbing the spectator of the experience of doubt—of wandering and of wonder. Perhaps inevitably, this approach reduces Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo’s (Christian Vazquez) life in Mexico to the tropes to queer victimhood: the sissy boy whose father catches him wearing make-up and teaches him a lesson so he can become a “real man,” the gay couple who’s attacked by rowdy straight men on an empty street. Iván and Gerardo are flattened into spokespeople for a preconceived idea that’s imposed on us instead of richly developed—that is, whether the most suffocating closet is the one where you live in the shadows as an illegal immigrant or as queer person afraid of being outed. By the time Ewing changes aesthetic course in the end, the rawness of the filmic style feels contrived and unearned, unable to retroactively grant lifeblood into archetypes. Semerene


Isabella

Isabella (Matías Piñeiro)

Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, a cubist riddle composed of elliptical scenes that hint at conflict, finds the Argentine writer-director sliding further into abstraction than ever before. The film cloaks its muted, wispy narrative in symbolic digressions and repetitive formal gestures that imply some grand design just beyond comprehension—a fitting analogy given the recurring presence of an overhead shot of hands arranging a puzzle consisting only of differently shaded notecards. Piñeiro remains a superlative director of actors and a careful modulator of rhythm, and part of the film’s longueurs have to do with an effort to provide respite from just how fast everyone talks and walks. But the drama of external turbulence and internal reckoning being sketched in the film, particularly as it relates to emerging motherhood, feels emotionally distinct from the amorous entanglements that Piñeiro was reveling in just half a decade ago, and if he’s indeed entering a phase of middle-aged concerns, it’s easy to feel primed for something deeply moving to come next. If that’s the case, then Isabella feels like a stylistic and thematic trial run. Carson Lund


Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

One of three episodes from his upcoming miniseries, Small Axe, that will world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is nothing if not a mood piece. For McQueen, who’s of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent, the series is his most personal project to date, weaving together various stories within London’s West Indian community in the 1980s. Set largely over one night at a house party and gently tracing the growing attraction between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and the mysterious Franklyn (Micheal Ward), Lovers Rock lovingly captures the sense of community that’s fostered within the house right out the gate, as the musicians set up the sound system and the jolly cooks in the kitchen start banging out curry goat and ackee and saltfish. The film’s centerpiece, set to Janet Kay’s lovers rock hit “Silly Games,” plays out across a sea of polyester, beautiful black bodies rapturously entwined. The social world that McQueen envisions is lived-in, tactile, and especially wondrous across scenes that fixate on the temperature of a song (from Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” to the Revolutionaries “Kunta Kinte”) turning the dial up on people’s libidos. Luckily that’s the better part of Lovers Rock’s 70-minute runtime, because whenever it follows Martha out of the house and puts her in the crosshairs of a potential threat or generally catches her in a moment of confusion about some incident that feels every bit as alien to us, it’s difficult to not see the film’s episodic roots. Ed Gonzalez


Malmkrog

Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air. That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Ben Flanagan


Mangrove

Mangrove (Steve McQueen)

Though set in 1960s London, Steve McQueen’s Mangrove is very much pitched to the contemporary moment, specifically the global movement against racism and police brutality. The first of five episodes in McQueen’s Small Axe miniseries (though, oddly, the second to screen at this year’s festival), the film is a docudrama-style retelling of the case of the Mangrove Nine, a group of protesters who were arrested and put on trial for demonstrating against the local police’s relentless harassment and intimidation of Notting Hill’s black community. Unfortunately, McQueen never quite finds his footing with this rich historical material, packing the script (co-written with Alastair Siddons) with so much leaden exposition and impassioned though repetitious speechifying that there’s little room left for the characters to breathe. The trajectory of Caribbean restaurant proprietor Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), an at-first reluctant member of the emerging resistance who comes to embrace his role as a movement leader, ostensibly forms the emotional core of the story, but Crichlow is too aloof and vaguely drawn for his arc to leave much impact. In contrast to the intoxicating late-night groove of Lovers Rock, which showcased the loosest, funkiest filmmaking of McQueen’s career, Mangrove finds the director at his most formally conservative, wrapping this story of resistance, rebellion, and racial terror in a disappointingly stuffy package. Watson


MLK/FBI

MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)

Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is an impressive reassessment of an American icon, approaching sensational material in forthright terms and without devolving into sensationalism. Based largely on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow’s 2015 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, this knotty and compelling documentary threads together the story of the F.B.I.’s obsession with finding compromising secrets about King with an unusually frank accounting of what some of those secrets were. When Garrow published a blockbuster story in 2019 alleging that King had witnessed or potentially even taken part in a 1964 rape at a hotel, it caused a brief flutter but was largely overlooked in the mainstream media. Pollard handles this explosive issue with restraint and intelligence. The film shows no illusions about the extent of King’s affairs. But it also refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving his personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality. Pollard also deals carefully with Garrow’s most damning allegation, giving the thinly documented charge its due but carving out space around it for uncertainty. While the film doesn’t try to elevate King’s pedestal any higher, it also doesn’t try to knock him off of it. Chris Barsanti


Night of the Kings

Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)

Inside the La MACA prison in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a newly arrived prisoner (Bakary Koné) becomes a “Roman,” a storyteller tasked with spinning yarns as entertainment, with the threat of being hung on an iron hook if he fails to hold everyone’s attention. This unlucky Scheherazade-like character thus finds himself at the center of an explosion of activity as the other prisoners prepare for this ritualistic evening. The most striking aspect of Night of the Kings is the way in which the prisoners begin to act out Roman’s story, voicing characters and even engaging in interpretive song and dance as if possessed by the spirit to act. The camera regularly shifts away from Roman to move in lockstep with the prisoners’ contortions and twirling movements, resulting in a poetry of motion that illuminates his improvised tale better than the actual depictions of it. Despite its bleak context, the film is a celebration of oral traditions as a means of giving purpose to even the most hopeless of lives. That a film so frequently harrowing can so often feel joyous without every trivializing the state of its characters’ imprisonment is a testament to the way that writer-director Philippe Lacôte resolutely finds the meaning embedded within ritual, and how the activities of the inmates, however strange, constitute routines every bit as normalizing as the daily tasks of those living their lives outside the walls of the prison. Jake Cole


Nomadland

Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

“I’m not homeless,” Fern (Frances McDormand) says in response to the concerned query of an old friend in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. “I’m just houseless.” And she says it in a distinctly sharp, guarded, and prideful tone that McDormand expertly deploys throughout the film. I’m fine, her voice and slightly narrowed eyes say, but don’t come any closer. Her standoffishness points to the pride of a van-dwelling and only occasionally employed woman who spurns pity while trying to carve out a place for herself in a society that doesn’t leave space for people not defined by steady careers or well-rooted homes. Using a minimal and improvised-feeling script that emphasizes interaction and happenstance over story, Zhao places Fern and the gorgeous landscapes she travels through at the forefront of the film. There are times when Joshua James Richards’s sweeping cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s gently emotive music point to a far more romantic vision than that suggested by Fern’s hard-bitten attitude. But by juxtaposing beautiful vistas filled with promise, a rotted social safety net, and the scrappy itinerant workers navigating the space in between, Zhao generates a gradually swelling tension underneath her film’s somewhat placid surface. In the end, whether Fern roams the desert or returns to housed life, the unfulfilled promise of America will keep pushing her back to the horizon. Barsanti


Notturno

Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi)

The common understanding of documentaries is that they’re intended to inform in particular ways: candid footage often complemented by explanatory text and graphics, testimony of witnesses and experts who frame and flesh out the events in question, contemplative pans across archival evidence, and, in the age of reality TV, extended interviews with the subjects themselves in close-up, providing a kind of running interior monologue. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentaries, though they take on topics of great socio-political import, eschew virtually all of these conventions and thus demand a different kind of engagement—one rooted in empathy for the experiences of his essentially anonymous human subjects. His refusal to firmly place the segments of life that he captures within an explicit broader framework might be seen as an effort to keep his images resolutely in the present. The unpredictable power outages and food shortages in major cities, the unsettling presence of foreign armies, the mental and physical suffering of children whose families and neighbors have been slaughtered by ISIS—the dreadful beauty of Notturno’s experiential approach to cinema emphasizes that these aren’t impersonal events on a timeline, but the current life as lived by millions in the Near East. Brown



The Salt of Tears

The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)

Despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Scenes from a Marriage to A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Philippe Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity. Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc (Logann Antuofermo), he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride. Semerene


Red, White and Blue

Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen)

A conspicuous gray pall hangs over the images in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue, as if a storm were brewing just over the characters’ heads, ready to burst into an angry rain at any moment. But that downpour never comes, nor does the gloom ever lift. The ‘80s-set true-life story of a black London Metropolitan police officer, Leroy Logan (John Boyega), who attempted to push for the organization’s reform from the inside, the film depicts Logan’s struggle as lonely, enervating, and ultimately naïve. A model cop, Leroy succeeds in little more than becoming a PR tool for the force’s campaign to enlist Afro-Caribbean recruits, meanwhile alienating himself from his friends, community, and family—particularly his father (Steve Toussaint), who suffers a beating at the hands of the police at the same time his son is endeavoring to join their ranks. Though just as formally conventional as Mangrove, Red, White and Blue exerts a much greater emotional pull thanks to its greater attentiveness to the details of its characters’ lives and the simmering rage of Boyega’s lead performance. If Mangrove illustrates the joy of collective action, Red, White and Blue offers a bitter lament for the futility of fighting alone. Together, the films proffer a simple yet powerful theory of change, one captured in these lines from the old union anthem “Step by Step”: “Drops of water turn a mill/Singly none, singly none.” Watson


Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhang-ke)

Divided into 18 titled chapters, Jia Zhang-ke’s documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is a quietly reflective, intermittently rambling rumination on an explosively momentous period in history. In the film, a 2019 literary festival in Jia’s home province of Shanxi is the springboard for three writers’ takes on how China has been transformed since the 1940s. Although the style and manner of the writers vary widely, they each describe a time of radical change, particularly how small villages like Jia’s were rocked by the tumult of the Communist Party takeover in 1949, then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and then the turbo-charged urbanization of the new millennium. Taking a quieter and less barbed approach to addressing the state of modern China than fans of his work are likely used to from such politically pointed dramas as A Touch of Sin, Jia refers to the documentary as a “symphony.” As such, it features discrete movements and some repeated themes, like the beautiful interludes in which farm workers recite short snippets from the books being discussed. What it doesn’t have, however, is much of a crescendo. Barsanti


Time

Time (Garrett Bradley)

In 1997, Robert Richardson was convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole. Time doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-black racism. That’s because director Garrett Bradley has the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of black incarceration. Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time. Brown


Tragic Jungle

Tragic Jungle (Yulene Olaizola)

Set in the 1920s on the border between Mexico and Belize, Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle initially tracks the clandestine movement of Agnes (Indira Andrewin) as she runs away from an arranged marriage to a white settler. This narrative arc plays out as a vicious critique of colonialism, but the film takes a dramatic turn when an unconscious Agnes is found by a group of chicleros. Agnes, who earlier acknowledged her sexual inexperience and curiosity to her sister (Shantai Obispo), is at once apprehensive and receptive to the callous advances of the more aggressive workers. And the convoluted sexual politics that arise from her excitement and fear complicate scenes where sexual violation becomes indistinguishable from fantasy. Tragic Jungle never becomes a full-on horror film, but Olaizola engages with indigenous legends and colonial history across a story where misogyny is turned against the patriarchy in ways that recall recent genre offerings like The Witch. Compared to that film’s turn toward the outright macabre, though, Tragic Jungle operates in a dreamier, more ambiguous register. It suggests that Agnes is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation against men who second-guess their fears and superstitions until they realize too late they should have trusted their instincts from the start. Cole


The Truffle Hunters

The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw)

Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of their subjects—a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region—and their resistance to nosy profiteers, The Truffle Hunters seems driven by a desire to enshrine the men in a timeless tableaux. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between the film’s different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic. The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forests and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself. This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. Lund



Undine

Undine (Christian Petzold)

Throughout his increasingly formidable oeuvre, Christian Petzold has nested stories of doomed love in surveys of his home nation’s reaction to economic or historical upheavals. Though at once lighter and stranger than any of his earlier work, Undine makes the melodramatic trappings of the director’s previous films its explicit subject, questioning the fixed nature of human behavior in a world whose borders are constantly shifting. It’s ironic and puzzling, then, that Undine’s eponymous character (Paula Beer) is both human and a water sprite. As this typically compact but deceptively rich film moves along, flashes of dislocation proliferate, undermining its seemingly contemporary setting and leaving us to wonder whether love and logic are compatible. As Petzold ushers his lovers toward doom, the film almost seems to rewind, revisiting most of its settings and turning sites of passion into mausoleums of aching and regret. “Form follows function,” Undine says at one point, and with minor alterations in framing and presentation Petzold fundamentally shifts our sense of these locations. Apparently the first in a trilogy of modern stories based on fables, Undine is a striking change of pace that sacrifices none of the director’s intellect or ambition. Christopher Gray



The Woman Who Ran

The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)

Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran is defined by absences: by who isn’t in the frame and by what isn’t said throughout conversations that appear to be determinedly trivial. Returning to Seoul after years away, Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) reconnects with a trio of female friends, and they talk of the food they eat and indulge in local gossip, repeating observations with a fervor that feels obsessive and mindless, as if these women have gotten too calcified in their own lives to utter anything but mantras. Yet Hong and his actors communicate the disappointment and sadness that’s being suppressed by well-practiced politeness, offering anecdotes that abound in pointed loose ends. Throughout, you may recall that audacious sequence in Grass in which a woman repeatedly went up and down a flight of stairs, as Hong fashions a similar yet subtler portrait of stasis with his latest. Many Hong films examine romantic pressures from the POV of a surrogate for the director himself, while The Woman Who Ran suggests Hong’s fantasy of how women discuss him when he’s not around. Chuck Bowen

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Fantasia 2020: Labyrinth of Cinema, No Longer Human, Detention, Morgana, & More

The exhilaration of virtual film festivals is that they radically expand the access and means of audiences.

Chuck Bowen

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Fantasia International Film Festival
Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

The Montreal-based Fantasia Film Festival, which kicked off August 20 and concludes on September 2, offers a superb illustration of the losses and—yes—the gains of having to virtualize everything in the midst of a pandemic. Lost, of course, is the traditional form of community, in which filmmakers, press, and committed fans get to interact with one another, grabbing quick drinks and food between screenings and symposiums and later sharing their impressions over loud music at after-hours get-togethers. The sense of discovery and spontaneity of film festivals, the sense they impart of a quickly formed and just as quickly dissolved society unto themselves, is reminiscent of long wedding weekends or college orientations.

The exhilaration of virtual film festivals, which could and should prove revolutionary, is that they radically expand the access and means of audiences. Travel necessities are eliminated, and speaking events can now be seen by many more people. The virtual dimensions also offer a subtler democracy, as you’re under no pressure to dress and socialize beyond your comfort zone—which is to say that the stressors associated with work have also been lifted. In short, it’s an introvert’s dream. My experience with Fantasia was less socially adventurous, by necessity, than my experience with past festivals, but I felt more of an undistracted communion with the dozen or so films I saw and with the discussions that I watched, the latter of which are currently archived and available for free on Fantasia’s website (Live post-screening Q&As were allowed to expire however, perhaps and understandably to maintain certain elements of the you-have-to-be-there festival experience.)

The new age of film festival interaction was evident in Fantasia’s Master Class with filmmaker John Carpenter, who first attended the festival in 1998 with Vampires and who was given a lifetime achievement award, the Cheval Noir, this year. Carpenter answered questions for 45 minutes, which included standbys about potential sequels and remakes in addition to new projects he might have on the burner. These were fan-centric questions, and Carpenter was good-natured yet often vague, his casual aura suiting the milieu of the homey Zoom-esque presentation. The event felt less like a class than the fulfillment of a fan’s dream to have a beer with a legend, and incisive criticism was provided in one respect, with an opening seven-minute-ish montage of Carpenter’s films that emphasized their poetry and especially their sense of loneliness, even in maligned projects like Memoirs of Invisible Man and his remake of Village of the Damned. (Other special events included a lecture on Afrofuturism and a discussion with the Rue Morgue staff about the status of the press.)

The titles I saw among the 100 movies offered this year provided a vast spectrum of tones, aesthetics, and point of views. Fantasia’s name suggests a specialty in genre flavors, which is generally the case, though the festival offers an exhilaratingly vast interpretation of this idea. In fact, I didn’t see one typical meat-and-potatoes thriller or horror film, but rather documentaries, character studios, and biographies that reinvigorated genre concepts with radical formal devices, subtexts, and empathy. The films featured in this festival are also vastly international, underscoring the voices of various genders, colors, and ages.

The most ambitious and exhausting film I saw at Fantasia was Labyrinth of Cinema, a three-hour rumination on war and cinema by Nobuhiko Obayashi, who’s most famous for the 1977 cult classic House. Imagine an even more maximalist variation of that film’s gonzo aesthetic and you’ve got an idea of Labyrinth of Cinema, in which several teenagers are whisked into a cinema screen and teleported into sequences that represent the Boshin War, the second Sino-Japanese Conflict, and, most agonizingly, the bombing of Hiroshima.

Obayashi isn’t much interested in literal coherence, especially in the dizzying 90 minutes that open the film. Instead, he fashions a slipstream of formal devices and flourishes—feverish Technicolor hues, cheekily obvious uses of blue screen, kinetic samurai battles—that suggests how war is mythologized and in the process sanitized by cinema. Obayashi complicates this mythology by emphasizing for prolonged stretches of time the dread of impending death and repeated loss, particularly as embodied by an innocent young girl who dies again and again throughout the ages. Obayashi died earlier this year at the age of 82, and Labyrinth of Cinema may eventually come to be seen as his ultimate testament to the glories and delusions of his art form. This “elder” film has an audacity that should shame many young bloods in the game.

No Longer Human

A scene from Mika Ninagawa’s No Longer Human. © Fantasia International Film Festival

Another Japanese film examines insidious clichés not with maximalism, a la Obayashi, but austerity. Filmmaker and photographer Mika Ninagawa’s No Longer Human, a 2019 adaptation of the oft-adapted 1948 autobiographical novel by Dazai Osamu, is a stark chamber play that conveys a painfully matter-of-fact apart-ness, recalling David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch without the surreal special effects. Mika reworks the source material, placing the author directly in his own narrative, which has been narrowed here to the late ‘40s, when Dazai (Shun Oguri) was in the final stages of his life, suffering from depression and tuberculosis and drinking himself to death while on the verge of writing his most famous novels, including No Longer Human. The film is pointedly apolitical—World War II is never mentioned—though Mika parallels the macho military notion of “dying in honor” with the stereotype of the great male writer-boozer and detonates both in the process.

Dazai drinks and screws endlessly, actions that Mika and Shun somehow manage to drain of vicarious pleasure. Dazai essentially lives at bars, spouting obnoxious jibberish that’s typical of drunks. Mika lingers on the pain of addiction, especially on the alienation that it fosters—a feeling that one, always fucked up, doesn’t belong to clockwork society. When Dazai is in the midst of a sexual conquest, Mika emphasizes less the heat of the action than the deliberate and inadvertent miscommunications that seem to be necessary to broker the act, as well as the physical limitations that come with being a sick addict. No Longer Human’s most moving moment finds Dazai alone in an alley after being caught with a woman, regarding his family as they vanish into the night. It’s a moment of unmooring loneliness, intensified by stylized colors that underscore the film’s artificiality. We’re seeing merely a reproduction of a miserable, brilliant, vanished man.

John Hsu’s Detention also explores real atrocity, which it merges with a surreal scenario. The film is set in Taiwan in 1962, when the country was governed under martial law and punished with torture and death anyone who spread left-wing ideologies. In a high school, children are secretly taught forbidden literature and, just as the stage is set for a higher-stakes Dead Poets Society, Hsu jarringly upends the film’s sense of reality. Suddenly, two children wake up in a condemned version of the high school, a nightmarish realm with heightened colors and frightening monsters that suggests a Mario Bava adaptation of Silent Hill. The disorientation Hsu nurtures is more than cinematic game-playing, as this irrational hellscape suggests the confusion that totalitarian regimes sow in their populaces with cruel, nonsensical rules that ultimately serve to inspire terror and accommodation. Resonantly, the ghosts and monsters of Detention have no eyes, as they are products of a government that destroys free will and most of history.

Morgana

A scene from Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard’s Morgana. © Fantasia International Film Festival

The documentary Morgana focuses on an overweight, middle-aged Australian woman as she reinvents herself as a porn star named Morgana Muses. Filmmakers Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard interview Morgana as she recalls her weight gain and her husband’s increasing hostility and shame. Yearning to be touched again, she eventually hired a male prostitute for a sexual encounter that was to be her last before suicide. There’s no sense of canned recitation in these recollections. Morgana is still viscerally haunted by her past rejections, continued feelings of inadequacy, and convictions that she’s worthless and should die unmissed by husband, children, or friends. Anyone whose experienced depression, or addiction, knows that such demons never leave you; they abide, perhaps starved, waiting for an opportunity to regain dominion. Or least that’s how recovery feels, and Morgana fearlessly conjures these emotional currents for the filmmakers.

A sensitivity to pain and the perils of fearlessness prevent Morgana from becoming a fashionable totem of pop “empowerment,” even as Morgana’s fling offers her an unexpected catharsis. This film isn’t comfortably progressive in certain fashions, as Morgana’s productions occasionally center on fantasies of rape and domestic violence, drawing the ire of feminists who believe in a singular, approved-in-advanced form of freedom of expression. No, Morgana’s central, forgivable problem is its brevity. In 70 scant minutes, we’re given an origin story, a rebirth, a move from Australia to Berlin as a cult celebrity, a relapse into depression, and eventually a qualified happy ending. There should be much more footage of Morgana’s films, which are truly erotic and show that notions of hotness and sexual democracy needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Martin Kraut’s La Dosis features another middle-aged, overweight, lonely person whose perilous connection to society is challenged. Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi) is a veteran nurse at a hospital who’s both beloved and resented in the manner of many people who live only for their job and subtly lord it over everyone else. Kraut captures realistic tremors of physical tension among the characters, and much of the film’s first half is a captivating, slow-burn study of the protagonist in his setting. Marcos’s principal co-worker, Noelia (Lorena Vega), regards the man with a mixture of tenderness and pity that’s familiar to relationships between beautiful people and lonely hearts, while other co-workers exclude Marcos from social activities. The most poignant element of these passages is Marcos’s quiet, unyielding dignity; he knows how he’s perceived and he refuses to sully himself by asking for sympathy or inclusion. Marcos’s greatest sense of connection and duty is, troublingly, is his willingness to secretly euphonize hopeless patients.

A new nurse, Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers), threatens Marcos’s sense of place in the hospital. Gabriel is younger, relatively attractive, and gets along effortlessly well with everyone on the staff, especially Noelia. Gabriel doesn’t bow down to Marcos as a neophyte often does to a veteran, treating him instead as an equal and, later, rival. There’s no need to reveal how La Dosis morphs into a thriller, as Kraut exploits that mystery for a great deal of tension. And the thriller mechanics serve to explode Marcos’s alienation—his fear of losing a life that he’s already had to settle for. Marcos’s increasing panic renders him more obnoxious and eventually stronger, willing to step up for what’s his. The film’s final shot is a tragically casual image of someone embracing, of all things, a return to stasis. It’s the sort of moment that inadvertently resonates with our Covid-addled times, during which we’re often tasked with settling for facsimiles of past ambitions and pleasures.

The Fantasia International Film Festival runs from August 20 to September 2.

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk

There’s colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.

Diego Semerene

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, Frédéric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: “It’s crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.” The great organizer of these “many things” we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.

What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we can’t get rid of. But the little bit of love that’s saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboul’s prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.

The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.

Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when she’s awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboul’s questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husband’s favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that it’s the closest thing to an “I love you” that he will ever hear. We don’t know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, “The main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.”

Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with Frédéric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. Frédéric, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnais’s film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But they’re symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.

Film About a Father Who

An image from Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. © Lynne Sachs

The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachs’s documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didn’t know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.

The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainer’s experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainer’s approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachs’s approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachs’s narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachs’s many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didn’t know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachs’s film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.

There’s a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isn’t much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isn’t a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand “the asymmetry of my conundrum.” The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmaker’s. It doesn’t help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.

Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her family’s press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelli’s field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.

The Kiosk

An image from Alexandra Pianelli’s The Kiosk. © Les Films de l’oeil sauvage

The film’s subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelli’s company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humans’ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her trade—namely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesn’t master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafés, pubs, or even the analyst’s couch.

When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks,” this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparents’ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelli’s no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. There’s no affectedness here. It’s as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.

Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine won’t take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.

Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesn’t dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Moss’s ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.

At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mind—an ebullient infinity of poetry and care.

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10—July 10.

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Visions du Réel 2020: State Funeral and Purple Sea

These notable documentaries utilize found footage to document the aftermath of dying in dramatically different fashions.

Diego Semerene

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State Funeral
Photo: MUBI

In State Funeral, Sergei Loznitsa cobbles together archival footage from the various grandiose celebrations that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in order to paint a portrait not of the Soviet politician himself, but of the theatrics that prop up totalitarianism. Crowds gather in Poland, Chekoslovakia, Azerbaijan, East Germany, and beyond, all the various places collapsing into a single mourning square. Statesmen disembark from their planes. Uncountable wreaths are laid. Everyday folk carry larger-than-life photographs of their leader. Some stand still in front of shops, as if unmoored by the news, waiting for guidance on how to go on without “the greatest genius in the history of mankind.”

No one’s mouth seems to move even just a little, to speak or to cry. Throughout, people appear stunned, and they may faint were they not buttressed by the certainty of what they had to do next, according to the voices telling them what to feel and where to go. The voices seem to come from reports on the radio or from megaphones. They announce the end of a life but the continuation of the ideas and deeds that unite all of the bereaved into one big family.

Surely the forlorn lady who reads the death announcement on the front page of a newspaper in Minsk is listening to the same speech as the gentlemen in ushanka hats gathered at a square in Tallin. Loznitsa’s ingenious sound design produces an uncanny sense of simultaneity, linking far-away faces and places under the same paternalistic fantasy. Through an inconspicuous editing strategy that makes irony emerge little by little, State Funeral exposes the pathetic absurdity of collective adoration. It does so with a subtlety similar to that of the facial expressions of those who grieve, and the dutiful slowness of their dragging feet.

There’s enough certainty in this communal trance to transcend physical distance and the finality of matter itself. Even if, or precisely because, it’s that irreversibility that Stalin’s unresponsive body announces. And there’s indeed a body, which the crowds flock to see. But not without the most elaborate of preparations—from austere rituals to extravagant attires to lethargic paces—so that by the time these orphans are confronted with the father’s pitifully inert flesh they have been blinded by the myths that birthed him.

How to believe the immortality of the thing that lies dead before one’s very eyes? The voices—disembodied for a reason, and presumably wafting from speakers—have a plan for that: to disavow the inarguable reality of what has just happened. Because Stalin was supposed to be an immortal hero, a father and God, “(…) there is no death here! There is only eternal life!”

The images that Loznitsa deftly assembles feature astonishingly consistent angles, mise-en-scène, and gestures: gentle camera pans, stern visual compositions, and people marching along in freakish unison. The shots have also been restored to such uncanny crispness it seems impossible to believe them to have been “found” as fragments devoid of an original vision captured by the same light, with the same film stock, and signed by the same cameraperson.

Purple Sea

A scene from Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed’s Purple Sea. © ZDF/Arte

Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed utilize found footage and document the aftermath of dying in a dramatically different fashion in Purple Sea. The film is essentially an ode to migrants who board rafts bound to capsize—bodies for which there will be no collective mourning, no news stories, not even burial. Like Alzakout, who manages to survive but not before finding out why the Mediterranean is sometimes referred to as a liquid grave.

Unlike State Funeral, there’s nothing clear about the images in Alzakout and Abdulwahed’s film, apart from the gut-wrenching lack of artifice behind the off-camera wailing: children dreading their drowning. From beginning to end, the hazy image suggests we’re submerged underwater, with the occasional orange cameo of the fabric of Alzakout’s life jacket. And apart from the occasional crying, the most prominent voice here is that of a woman reciting a poem, epistolary and diary-like, to a lover on the other side of the ocean. This narration is often as perplexing as the perpetually unclear image, as when the woman talks about a frog that jumps into the pond and a fish that swims away. Or when she confides that she can “smell the snow.”

After fleeing her native Syria and meeting Abdulwahed in Turkey, Alzakout tries to join him in Germany, where he’s managed to escape to. In Purple Sea, all we see is an uninterrupted sequence of images haphazardly captured by a water-proof camera strapped to Alzakout’s body. At the time of their recording, these images were allegedly meant as a home-movie diary, not a film to circulate on the festival circuit. She starts filming long before the raft overturns in the hopes of showing the footage to her lover and leaves the camera on while she, yet another orange dot trying not to drown in the Mediterranean ocean, waits to be saved.

Although the sea here is closer to purple, Purple Sea recalls the monochromatic intimacy of Derek Jarman’s Blue, another film about dying slowly but living desperately, and to the point of blindness—literal or otherwise—until the moment death finally arrives. The pieces eventually come together through deduction, not demonstration, in this experimental documentary, which respects the unhurried speed of metaphors. We hear whistles and men shouting, and it’s here that the voiceover narration becomes a bit more tangible. “What are you doing right now? Are you sleeping?” “How long do you have to stay in the refugee camp?”

The voice, which couldn’t be more distinctive from the guiding voices of State Funeral, promising eternity and peddling strength, eventually reverts back to poetic digressions. The woman says she digs a hole that gets big enough to fit all her bracelets. And that someone will find the bracelets in 100 years and think they belonged to a queen. She then falls in the hole. Poetry emerges in Purple Sea as the strategy of those deprived of the luxury of sugar-coating death with farcical disavowals and collective delusions—those who must confront the horrors of finitude head on because they are always already inside them.

Visions du Réel runs online from April 17—May 5.

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Visions du Réel 2020: Love Poem and Babenco: Tell Me When I Die

Many of the films at Visions du Réel expand the notion of “the real” in all of its plasticity.

Diego Semerene

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Love Poem
Photo: Visions du Réel

Many of the films at Visions du Réel, this year running as a digital-only event in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, expand the notion of “the real” in all of its plasticity, exposing the layers of fiction inherent to any form of documentary filmmaking. In Love Poem, for example, director Xiaozhen Wang amplifies the complicated relationship between spontaneity and artifice into a puzzling sleight of hand. The film begins in the confines of a car, where a couple is quarrelling in front of their young child. The camera lingers on the woman (Qing Zhou) in the back seat, who feeds her daughter seaweed snacks and lollipops while her husband drives the vehicle. No one seems to be wearing a seatbelt.

The woman chastises her husband for never changing their child’s diapers—and for being unfaithful. He accuses her of being selfish with her money. She threatens to divorce him and asks their daughter if she’d rather stay with her father or mother (she chooses the latter). By the end of this asphyxiating car ride, she’s kicked, slapped, pinched and spat on him.

It all feels heartbreakingly realistic until the woman brings up the fact that her husband makes films. Which may make you wonder if the husband is played by the filmmaker himself (he is) and start speculating about how much of Love Poem’s drama is candid and how much of it is staged. The question of manipulation seeps into the surface of the film along with the perversity inherent to filmmakers, and husbands, who might reduce human beings into tools for personal enjoyment or for the sake of building up their oeuvres.

That’s precisely the complaint of the woman in the film’s second half, which takes the audience on another stifling car ride. Here, heterosexual coupledom is spoiled by a woman’s endless complaints and her male lover’s very reliable ability to screw everything up. The scene appears to be a flashback to a time when the man from Love Poem’s first half was seeing the woman who his wife was so angry about. The husband wants to see the other woman one last time before bringing a pregnancy test kit home to his wife.

In this setup, Wang is less worried about exploiting the cusp between reality and fiction. Instead, he allows the seams of the filmmaking process to show, as the couple sometimes stop speaking to check if the camera battery is low, but also for the woman to complain about the fact that all the man wants to do is film. “You don’t even see me as human,” she tells him.

We are, then, never quite sure what’s real and what’s not—a disorienting but also immersive feeling. Wang insists on re-living the situation in the second half of the film multiple times as the man and woman repeat dialogue that a few moments prior seemed so convincingly off the cuff, as if flaunting the fact that any representation turns behavior into acting, or at the very least outs behavior as acting, and that once filmed, any drama is melodrama.

Babenco: Tell Me When I Die

A scene from Babenco: Tell Me When I Die. © Taskovski Films Ltd.

The seams of the cinematic process are also visible in Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, Barbara Paz’s exquisite portrait of her husband, Héctor Babenco, in his final days. While Love Poem documents the violent asymmetry between a filmmaker and his subjects, in Babenco cinema appears as a kind of lovemaking that puts lovers in dignified dialogue with each other.

Though there’s unquestionable dissonance between the dying veteran filmmaker and his much younger pupil, their roles aren’t so fixed. Not only because they take turns filming each other, but because to be filmed in Babenco doesn’t mean becoming a director’s puppet. Babenco, for instance, teaches Paz about depth of field and camera lenses as she films him, discovering different apertures. Preparation and doubt about the crafting of an image is refreshingly front and center, which complicates and destabilizes the relationship between filmed subject and filmmaker, as the makers are here either dying or still learning how to shoot.

Babenco used to dream of becoming the next Luchino Visconti and could seem arrogant at times. But Paz steers clear of appeasing his ego or turning Babenco into a hagiography. She isn’t cowered by Babenco’s grandeur, nor does she try to channel it into her filmmaking. She’s simply a good pupil, taking Babenco’s filmmaking tips to heart in order to make her own film. That includes not romanticizing every moment they share, or “otherwise you’ll have a movie lasting four hours and 15 minutes,” as Babenco tells Paz.

There are things bigger than cinema in Babenco. Things like the joie de vivre borne out of intimacy of the kind no cinematic proficiency can fake, and for which the camera is a useful witness but not an almighty cause. Bigger things like death, too, which taunted Babenco repeatedly from his first bout with cancer, when he was nominated for an Academy Award for The Kiss of the Spider Woman at age 37, all the way to his death at 70.

Paz evokes the nodes linking Babenco’s films to his psychic life through exquisitely seamless editing. She steeps all of her images in a consistent black-and-white dreamscape and forges a surreal dialogue between the filmmaker’s own words in interviews and those uttered by the characters in his films. One of them says cancer is the only thing he ever got. Another one says she thinks we die when we can’t stand it anymore. Paz is more interested in reflection than explanation, so we’re never told the titles of the films or when they were made. It’s as though her ingenious hands have returned these fragments of fiction back to their place of origin, imbricating them with the real of Babenco’s body one last time.

Visions du Réel runs online from April 17—May 5.

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