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BAFICI 2014 Streets of Fire, Stray Dogs, Only Lovers Left Alive, & Norte, the End of History

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BAFICI 2014: Streets of Fire, Stray Dogs, Only Lovers Left Alive, & Norte, the End of History

The Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film seems to channel the sheer variety of the Internet, where it seems all movies from all eras are available. During 10 days, all sorts of films are made available at several venues within the Argentine capital, from horror flicks to forgotten commercial failures, classic studio productions, modern art-house fare, and experimental cinema. BAFICI seems to pride itself on its eclectic selection, and its broad pickings allow audience members to trace surprising connections between movies that might appear to have nothing else in common outside their shared inclusion in a festival. A sort of creative viewership is encouraged, as one comes to realize that an American rock fable, a miserablist Taiwanese drama, a visual poem with vampires, and an epic about social and political traumas in the Philippines have plenty in common.

Walter Hill’s unsung Streets of Fire and Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs have probably never been mentioned in the same sentence. Seen back to back, they reveal strikingly similar qualities, as both might or might not be science-fiction films. Streets of Fire is set in a fantasy land, which mixes costumes and vehicles from the 1950s with the urban squalor of the 1980s. When a motorcycle gang, led by fresh-faced Willem Dafoe, kidnaps a local pop singer (Diane Lane), it’s up to the gruff masculine hero played by Michael Paré to save the day. There are references to an unnamed war and the city appears to be in a state of crisis (its police force is sorely understaffed and justice is meted out by civilians). The characters are so conventional that they recede into the background as they follow archetypal signposts, and because their exploits are so predictable, the environment absorbs our attention instead. Diners and theaters from the American Graffiti years have decayed underneath rubble and trash. In an abandoned factory, the motorcycle gang has established a decadent bar where naked dancers strike aggressive poses, using their sexuality as a weapon. Having been recently and luminously restored, Streets of Fire plays differently today than it did back in 1984. What was originally a blend between the present and the past is now the combination of two different pasts, which together suggest a kind of future.

Stray Dogs, meanwhile, is shot in a specific city, Taipei. A man tries to care for his two children, earning a penance as a human billboard while his son and daughter tour through supermarkets. At night, they bathe in a public bathroom and sleep in a shack, and later we discover where this family has come from and how they have reached their deplorable condition. Their old home, it turns out, was savaged by nature, its walls blackened by water. This interior space is bizarre and dreamlike, an alien home, and throughout the film, Tsai restrains himself to certain kinds of environments: consumer palaces and urban ruins. The former conceal the existence of the latter, as if one were the guilty conscience of the other. Like Streets of Fire, this is a portrait of dystopia. In Hill’s film, the pleasures of conventional action-movie tropes disguise a despairing vision: a place run by criminals and outcasts, downtrodden and dirty, where government institutions are powerless. Tsai, meanwhile, portrays two levels of modern life. A surface level, where capitalism appears to operate properly, and a shameful basement, which presages the coming destruction of all that glitters. Ruins were once functional establishments, after all, and what happened to them may happen elsewhere.

These weren’t the only films at BAFICI that merged traditions from art cinema and popular culture. Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive uses vampires to wax poetically about the passage of time. Last year, another quirky entry, Amy Heckerling’s Vamps, did something similar, except steeped in comedy and satire. Jarmusch certainly doesn’t shy away from humor, but his effort is more contemplative and melancholy. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play the titular lovers, who spend their nights wandering through empty Detroit, visiting abandoned or defiled landmarks: a closed Packard plant and the old Michigan Theater, where movies once played for hundreds, now gutted and transformed into a parking lot. Without the limitations of mortality, these aimless beings dedicate their lives to learning about art and history, recalling their meetings with famous poets, playwrights, and scientists. They reject murder and find alternative venues to procure their meals of blood. Forced to hide their nature, they become observers, flowing with the years. Like the angels in Wings of Desire, they’re chroniclers of the proudest and most disgraceful achievements of mankind. But they also lack purpose, pushed into the solitude of decrepit suburbs not unlike those in Stray Dogs. Living for all time, they’re also from no time at all. Which is perhaps why Detroit is such a fitting haven. “It will rise again,” claims one of the vampires. Yet that suggests it’s currently in limbo. It has fallen from its venerable past and hasn’t reached its glorious future. It’s timeless space, occupying no discernible historical moment—a forgotten land, where the past is hard to remember, the future is impossible to anticipate, and the present is a long stretch of inactivity with no end in sight.

Norte, the End of History, by Lav Diaz, is an equally complicated brew of traditions. In this case, modern cinema of duration meets the 19th-century novel. Through long takes, Diaz alternates between slums, prisons, and country mansions, capturing a varied social tableaux. Inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, he tracks the downfall of a law student and ideologue whose political notions become increasingly tyrannical. To test his conviction that lines can indeed be drawn between worthwhile and worthless Filipinos, he turns into a murderer, yet he isn’t punished for his crimes, because the police capture an innocent slum resident instead. Socioeconomic status decides who’s trapped by the hand of the law and who isn’t, and while the poor construction worker toils in prison, the law student suffers within the bars of his own psyche. Their country has failed them both; it’s so dysfunctional that radical change can seem to be the only solution. Yet that path can also lead to madness. If there’s an end of history, as the title announces, it might be because the masses cannot do anything to change it, as they remain at the mercy of injustice, while those who can exert some influence cave in under the weight of their own hubris or beneath the shadow of all that there is left to do.

These four films, among the best that played at BAFICI, evoke the concept of “kipple,” from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In it, the character of J.R. Isidore describes it as “useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers of yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself.” Slums and ruins threaten to spread out, despite attempts to contain or marginalize them. These films invert the situation, immersing themselves in places most would rather forget, suggesting that, unless we pay attention to these parts of the present, they will become the entirety of our future.

BAFICI ran from April 2—13.