Can cinema be a vehicle for thought? It’s a question that has been bandied around since at least the silent era days of Jean Epstein. That it can seems to be the premise that undergirds Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela’s half-hour The Mesh and the Circle, a cerebral meditation on the nature of the moving image. This philosophic inquiry kicks off with a display of the kind of rigorous formalism reminiscent of Hollis Frampton: An unnamed narrator, who we only recognize through a pair of ostensibly male hands, writes out—instead of speaks—the film’s “script” in a blank journal in a dark room, illuminated only by an adjacent projector throwing images onto a screen. “Film can be a labyrinth,” the hand writes, “where we lose and find ourselves.” The analogical meaning of this shot is clear enough: The narrator’s hands literally “write” the film and the projected images are presumably the very ones that compose the film we’re seeing.
Yet despite the film’s theoretical posturing, its motif of choice could hardly be more concrete: pairs of hands involved in some kind of work, be it in rubbing eyebrows, holding paintbrushes, cutting paper, opening locks, spinning clay, hammering out a copper plate, or dipping metal into molten lava. Altogether, these images, woven together in a brisk, percussive manner, are tightly framed so as to exclude the subjects’ faces—an abstraction that brings to mind the stylistics of Robert Bresson. Though it begins arcanely, the film finds its grounding in these montages of labor. “Hand is the brain…the brain is the hand,” the narrator posits at one point, as if to assert that this film is as much a material concept as a conjectural one—in other words, that it’s as brainy as it is pleasurable.
Supplementing these images is a drone-like, background noise (diegetic sound is mostly absent) that peters in an out of prominence on the soundtrack, resembling at times the sound of airplanes blitzing through the sky or the soft murmur of bees. Indeed, though The Mesh and the Circle may start off resembling nothing so much as a gimcrack graduate thesis, it quickly reveals itself to be just as preoccupied with providing a sensuous, nearly hypnotic, viewing experience.
Labor also appears as a theme in Hassen Ferhani’s Roundabout in My Head, an interior look into one of Algeria’s oldest slaughterhouses. Had the film been produced under the auspices of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, one can imagine it being chock-full of long, gratuitous takes on writhing cows, hacked limbs, and splayed blood, all in the name of empirical study. In that, Ferhani deserves some credit for bucking the cozy aesthetic of recent trends, and opting to capture something much more elusive, and ultimately more interesting: the political mood of contemporary Algerian youth.
The slaughterhouse, where feral cats nip at the entrails that litter the perpetually wet tiled floors, may not be the most likely place to stumble across sophisticated conversation about the future of a nation, but Ferhani’s main subjects, the twentysomething duo of Yusuf (thin, worrisome, and skeptical) and the portly “Uncle” Ali (a child of the Arab Spring and preternaturally optimistic) are clearly singular in this regard. “Only going underground can save us!” Ali blurts out during a late-night debate. Yusuf retorts in his customary fatalism: “You can’t do a thing against the state.” While Yusuf’s qualms (“My brain is upside down and full of paths”) are what inform the title of Ferhani’s film, it’s Ali’s buoyant confidence that impresses. Together, their sharp, passionate discourse offer a compelling pulse of those down on their luck. Ferhani is careful, however, to ensure he doesn’t paint his subjects simply as talking heads. Yusuf and Ali are buddies, foremost, and Ferhrani works to keep that brotherly spirit alive by shooting them in the most casual of places, like on sidewalk curbs, where Ferhani tells Yusuf, “Suffering for love, that’s beautiful! It’s a beautiful kind of suffering,” or in their bedrooms where they watch French-dubbed thrillers.
While neither Yusuf nor Ali are able to agree on a political action that can be beneficial to both their own desires and the prosperity of the country, they will agree with Ferhani that for most working-class Algerians, and perhaps for people all over the globe, incessant work stultifies the mind and, more damning, keeps you broke. Toward the end, an elderly man gingerly takes out his work ID, dating back to 1945, when he first entered the slaughterhouse. “I’ve been working for so long,” he says with heavy regret. “I could’ve had a better position…but today, I clean toilets.”
Implicit in Roundabout in My Head is the notion that there should be a certain level of trust between filmmaker and his subjects. Such an orientation, however, is a foreign concept to Philip Trevelyan, whose 1971 film The Moon and the Sledgehammer, a folktale-like sketch of an eccentric family of luddites living deep in the woods somewhere south of London, lacks sophistication. The Page clan, consisting of the proud, pipe-smoking Mr. Page, his sons, Peter and Jim, and his daughters, Kathy and Nancy, lead an Edenic life completely removed from modern technocracy. For them, the modern age is filled with lazy blokes who won’t work and run by a government that “[keeps] putting things up.” Here in their isolated dwelling, the women take care of the home and knit in their spare time. When they’re not hunting, the men, in the film’s quirkiest aspect, work on overblown, steam-powered machines straight out of the 19th century. Their resistance is admirable.
A natural showman who shows up in each frame sporting a three-piece tweed suit and pipe, Mr. Page is keenly aware of Trevelyan’s camera, starting scenes with flourishes like: “Ladies and gentleman, I’m about to make a boat!” Pity that Peter and Jim aren’t nearly as interesting as their father, and the women, reduced to wallflower status under Trevelyan’s gaze, are practically written out of the film altogether.
The Pages aren’t as outlandish as, say, the Beales in Grey Gardens, but their collective oddities seem to be taken advantage of by Trevelyan, whose objective, styleless manner of shooting supposedly precludes prejudice. All too often, the filmmaker creates the impression that he’s giddily awaiting for the next bizarre moment, like a zoologist eager to take back his findings to his colleagues, or worse, a muckraker snooping around for tomorrow’s headline. Trevelyan even goads Mr. Page on at one point in a discussion about which animals make the best pets, asking him with feigned innocence, “What about kangaroos?” To which Mr. Page responds with a lengthy, considered answer. Still, Mr. Page’s charming ruminations on such topics as overpopulation and people’s mass abandonment of country life (“There’s no one to work the land and feed the population”) manage to carry the film.
For the multitude of men and women who flock to the Bois de Vincennes on any given day, their purpose for using the forest isn’t so different from that of the Pages. They seek refuge and clarity among the greenery, if only for a few hours. At least, that’s the point that Claire Simon emphatically makes in her handheld sylvan trek The Woods Where Dreams Are Made Of. Simon casts a broad, democratic overview of the incredibly eclectic group of men and women who, for one reason or another, find solace in Paris’s largest park. Nobody, apparently, is unimportant to Simon, as she encounters in her perambulation an ex-boxer, a painter, Cambodian refugees, garbagemen, single mothers, landscape architects, and bikers, to name a few. Misfit or not, the Vincennes accommodates all. (Considering the growing xenophobic rhetoric of France’s National Front party, Simon’s portrait of an integrated community is a stiff and timely jab.) Simon’s affectionate eye is best revealed in her rapport with Stéphanie, a young mother and “12-to-seven” prostitute for whom the Vincennes is her “office,” enabling her to make an independent living without the intrusion of a pimp. “This is my patch,” she tells Simon, gleefully smiling. The film runs on longer than it should, sure, but it’s a small concession for a work that can make even the most parochial a bit more empathetic.
Art of the Real runs from April 8—21.