Cinequest recently wrapped its 21st year. I attended the festival in its last few days, which is the equivalent of eating the frosting of a 10-layer cake. I didn’t see enough films to be able to make broad conclusions about the festival, but the small taste I did get enables me to say that this festival has one again, just as it always does, stuck to its promise of programming the new and uncharted in cinema. Though some of the films playing the festival, like Potiche, have built their reputations at places like Cannes, Berlin, Venice, etc., for the most part this is a festival whose programming is doggedly dedicated to bringing films to the screen that in many cases, up until their CQ premiere, are not on any one’s radars (films from first-time filmmakers and those that haven’t gotten much exposure outside of their home country or at other festivals).
In the wake of Twilight and the rebirth of vampire cool, the blood-sucking undead have saturated the media to the point that even the most gluttonous vamp fan must be feeling pretty satiated by now. The vampire myth has been told and retold, and reshaped to sneer at its own legend. It seems that every film is allowed to make up different rules for narrative convenience. Some vampires are allowed to look in mirrors and can go out in daylight; others have Tru Blood to keep them happy. Scott Leberecht’s Midnight Son is another vampire film that strays from the legend (the sun will kill, but mirrors and crosses are okay). But it’s not a horror film so much as a drama about human loneliness and the struggle of deciding between embracing or rejecting one’s true nature (when that nature requires sucking some blood).
Jacob (Zak Kilberg) is in his early 20s and lives alone in a basement apartment in Los Angeles. He doesn’t go out in the day and works as a security guard by night. In his spare time he, rather poetically, paints pictures of sunsets and sunrises. Photos and artifacts, such as an old baseball, give us hints to the fact that he once had a family and a semblance of some sort of normal life, but for a reason that goes unexplained wound up alone. He buys meat and animal blood from the butcher in order to stay alive, but the hunger for human blood begins to grow too strong. With only night scenes, the film is good at creating an atmosphere of unsettlement and claustrophobia. It’s set in Los Angeles, a city in which even at one in the morning it’s not uncommon to experience bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway, the streets always teeming with cars. But, except for one very specific shot of the highway, there’s hardly a car in sight. The roads are isolated and ghostly, amplifying the alienation Jacob experiences. He becomes involved with Mary (Maya Parish), whom he meets at a bar, but anytime things become sexual the encounter is interrupted; once she gets a nosebleed, another time his eyes start glowing neon-yellow. He yearns for contact but is somehow always thwarted. Except for the very last scene the film shies away from blood and horror, instead taking its time in unraveling a narrative that’s concerned with the question of how do you trust someone to accept you as you are, without first embracing your own identity?
Out of the films I saw the only one that was truly a disaster is New York Decalogue. The film completely misappropriates the idea of the Decalogue (authoritative moral codes/the Ten Commandments) as a structure for setting up 10 vignettes that attempt to offer slightly different nuances on loneliness and the need for human connection. The segments deal with a suicide bomber, a couple’s struggle in dealing with a miscarriage, a girl riding the metro, a single mother spending the day with her son, etc. These different segments are slices of life—though most have little to do with codes of morality as the Decalogue namesake would suggest—which fail at really showing any insight into the lives of the characters. There’s not a word of sync dialogue, the film relying on faces and gestures to tell the individual stories. But we’re never given enough context about the characters’ situations to care at all about their lives. And the very last scene of the film is one which interweaves all the storylines in a purposeless and arbitrarily nihilistic way.
Far away from New York Decalgoue’s dreariness is Madly in Love, a film with the song and dance touch of Bollywood, set in Switzerland. It takes the incredibly tired story of forbidden love—Devan (Muralee Sandrasegaram) is betrothed to be married to an Indian girl, but ends up falling for the Swiss Moni (Laura Tonke)—and doesn’t do anything new with it. Devan lies to Moni about having a fiancé and causes his poor father more than a few pains, but in the end true love conquers all. Part of the problem is that while appropriating the Bollywood trope of over the top musical dance numbers, the film lacks the epic quality (both in time and content) of a Bollywood film. But in the end, none of that really matters all that much because the actors have charisma and charm enough to make this film, though a clichéd folly, a delightful one at that.
A film that takes itself and its subjects seriously, Sodankyla Forever features interviews with such cinematic luminaries such as Samuel Fuller, Michael Powell, Jerzy Skolimowski, Milos Forman, Youssef Chahine, Miklos Jancso, etc. The interviews were taped during the course of more than 20 years at the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland. The mostly European interviewees speak of their lives and experiences in cinema, the discussions primarily organized around growing up during WWII, repressive regimes, and censorship. A film that features the oft-overlooked Russian director Aleksei German and his thoughts on Tarkovsy is one to be celebrated. And it is truly a treat to listen to these luminaries of world cinema relating their life experiences. But the footage itself is comprised of primarily talking-head interviews (making for boring cinema), interrupted by shots of the neighboring countryside. Aside from its aesthetic limitations the film also espouses a very Eurocentric, patriarchal point of view. It’s embarrassing that only one woman appears in the entire film. There’s Jacques Demy, but no Agnès Varda and Věra Chytilová. The film makes much of the fact that WWII created a nation of fatherless sons, but there were fatherless daughters as well, not to mention motherless ones and a female perspective on the era is sorely missing. Not, of course, that this is an unusual state of affairs for the film industry.
Finally there’s Jarrod Whaley’s The Glass Slipper, set in Palo Alto, an anti-fairy tale of sorts, with no the-shoe-fits-so-all’s-perfect happy end—and no Cinderella. The sometimes handheld, natural light aesthetic serves the material well; there’s no reason to glamorize and play dress up when the world’s filled with rotten, poison apples. It’s hard to imagine a more repugnant central character than Ermir (Vahe Katros), who’s not actually evil or entirely despicable, but just callous, self-serving and selfish enough to make him a horror to behold. It’s doubtful if there’s a genuine word that comes out of Ermir’s mouth. Ermir and Maria (Maria Fagan) are going through a divorce and since she’s kicked him out of the house he’s staying in a low-rent motel named The Glass Slipper. Felicity (Kelly Lou Dennis) comes from the Midwest to play nanny to their precocious ten or so year old daughter, Sam (K. Paige Burns).
Many fairy tales deal with children having to overcome the evil machinations of parents which are not their own. However, in this case, the “evil step-parents” are Sam’s actual parents. Both strike terror in how entirely unaware they are of their child’s needs. The mother emotionally terrorizes her into wearing a purple cardigan Sam has expressed dislike for; clearly, that’s not that big a deal, but Maria’s handling of the situation shows her true colors as a controlling and corroding force. Even when Maria listens to Sam’s concerns about her father you get the sense that she’s only doing so to be able to gloat over the fact that she’s seemingly superior to him. Ermir, for his part, pays more attention to his phone than he does to his daughter. Felicity is the only one to truly listen to Sam, but she gets caught up in the whirlpool, sympathizing with Ermir and engaging in a subdued yet still dangerous flirtation with him. Up until the end when Felicity realizes what a scumbag Ermir is, the only truly lucid character in the film is Sam. She is aware of the true nature of the people around her, firmly beholding the many faults of her parents. And so there’s hope that she, too, like so many children in fairy tales before her, will one day overcome the poison apples that are her parents.
Cinequest ran from March 1 – 13.