I don’t consider myself enough of an expert to say whether or not the Film Comment Selects series is as “fringe” as my East Coast, city-dwelling vantage point suggests. Certainly it’s a festival I hold in very high regard, mainly for what seems a more personal patina on the selections. There’s less of a sense here that the programmers are kowtowing to the amorphous desires of an uptown audience that ensures, come autumn, that New York Film Festival tickets will be a near-impossibly attained commodity. That the more sparsely attended and promoted Film Comment Selects tends to be the more rewarding experience is no surprise: with fewer mass agendas to satiate, the selection process skews to more individual parti pris’. The closest this year’s series comes to a pack-’em-in cash grab is the Meryl Streep-starrer Dark Matter, though its general awfulness and essential ineptitude suggests that the Film Comment staffers might be ’avin’ a laugh at several of their patrons’ starry-eyed expense.
The presence of an Alex Cox sidebar (to say nothing of Luis Estrada’s Cox-approved satire, A Wonderful World) hints at the series’ anarchistic strivings, and damned if most of the films previewed for press don’t attain some potent, no-holds-barred measure of the world unhinged. The base, animalistic urges of man might be the overarching theme, transmuted through everything from zombies (Diary of the Dead) to warring mothers (Inside) to prickly paramours derived from Balzac (The Duchess of Langeais, née Don’t Touch the Axe), though, for me, the telling image of this year’s festival is the one that closes Nanouk Leopold’s wonderful Wolfsbergen, wherein several generations of a combative Netherlands family find unspoken common ground over the deceased body of their patriarch. Consider that both a ringing endorsement of a film that remains uncovered in the entries below (mainly for my own—selfish?—desire to not taint my profound experience of Wolfsbergen with words), and also the visualization of the 21st-century cinephile’s dilemma: to gaze at things past and present with eyes clouded by neither sentimentality nor nostalgia, clear of both heart and mind on our perpetual journey through the state of the art. My thanks to the companions (Steven, Dan, and Jeremiah) who made this particular journey with me—I think we all of us have marked the moment well. Keith Uhlich
Life Is Cheap… But Dark Matter Is Expensive
A film more interesting for the controversy it is sure to create (not to mention the many high-toned think pieces, like the proverbial thousand ships, it is sure to launch), Dark Matter marks the clunky feature debut of Chinese-born theater and opera director Chen Shi-zheng. Like his young, cosmology-captivated protagonist Liu Xing (Liu Ye), Chen reaches for the stars, but falls tragically short, though the fatalism of the piece is more akin to the facile we’re-all-connected roundelay of The Air I Breathe, minus that film’s endlessly robust camp pleasures. Dark Matter’s opening image certainly promises a plethora of failed self-seriousness, as Meryl Streep guest stars on a special episode of Sunrise Earth, doing Method Tai Chi while heavenly chorines, chanting in Hollywood Sanskrit, bemoan the eternal tragedy of man. No doubt Streep was the trump card draw for the film’s financiers, though her performance as Joanna Silver, a mid-western University patron with a fetish for Chinese culture, is the height of laziness, nearly touching the “is it hot in here, or is it just moi?” nadir of Robert Redford’s bogus Iraq war polemic Lions for Lambs. In her one good scene, Streep explores a striking line between mother-love and sexual attraction as the down-and-out Liu Xing (who, we’re constantly reassured, is a lamentably unrecognized genius) tries to sell her door-to-door makeup products, though beyond that one can only admire the wit and insight of whomever decided to cast fellow New York stage actor Bill Irwin as La Meryl’s semi-flustered yet still doting paramour.
But this is Liu Xing’s story, and it’s an important one in the abstract, touching on very real problems of cultural assimilation and subjugation (in the American university especially). Yet in execution, it comes off as so much liberal guilt-stained hogwash, tarted up by Chen’s distressing tendency toward incongruous meta-pastiche and his reliance on ADD-addled in-camera effects, which over-simplify rather than enhance the lead character’s slow descent into madness. Liu Xing’s quite literal fascination with Western tropes and iconography is at first wide-eyed and playful (an early, fanciful interlude sees Liu and his grad school companions stage a mock-shootout on a horse opera backlot), though it quickly becomes subsumed by his obsessive quest to explain “dark matter”, an unseen substance that, he passionately proposes, is a key to many of the universe’s mysteries. His increasingly jealous adviser Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn)—who flashes his eyes like Snidely Whiplash twirls his moustache—foils him at every turn, and it isn’t long before the idealistic Liu finds his dissertation topic rejected and his academic career and personal life in shambles. Facing the prospect of becoming either a forgotten number in an oppressive system or an infamous martyr for an age-old cause (via a sudden, out-of-the-blue calling to go all Travis Bickle on a few asses), Liu chooses the latter option, though Dark Matter’s climactic, intensely cross-cut merry-go-round of bloodletting is, finally, neither horrifying nor cathartic—more like “same shit, different day.” Uhlich
Sentimental War: The Duchess of Langeais
Of all the unconsummated film projects, none is more tantalizing to imagine than the planned collaboration of Greta Garbo and James Mason in a version of Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais, directed by Max Ophüls. It was 1948, and Garbo was so eager to return to the screen under these ideal circumstances that she submitted to a screen test for the anxious producers (the test still survives, and these last silent glimpses of Garbo’s face are as haunting as Marilyn Monroe’s nude pool footage in George Cukor’s unfinished Something’s Gotta Give). The financing fell through, and Garbo was so humiliated that she never seriously considered making another movie again. It might have been the ultimate Garbo role, the perverse, coquettish society woman who winds up a Carmelite nun in order to spite her combatant in love, a stubborn General. Such a finish would have been an ideal and even subversive commentary on Garbo’s career-long renunciations, but would she have let herself be as unsympathetic as the Duchess needs to be in the earlier parts of the story? For Ophuls, and with James Mason as an opponent, she might have dared. Imagine Ophuls’ Madame de… (1953) in a darker, Strindberg key. Then, in your mind’s eye, see the tender truculence of Mason as he watches this tormented and tormenting woman, and see Garbo’s slightly weathered face as she lights up with sadomasochistic pleasure at the thought of being branded, so that her Camille shades gradually into something like The Story of O, all with Ophuls’ rhyming tracking shots and his sense of blazing romantic tragedy heating up the essential irony.
We’ll never really see that film, of course, but Jacques Rivette must have given it some thought at one point or another. He makes movies for his actors, in the way Jean Renoir did, and he must have licked his lips over the prospect of Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu playing out Balzac’s psychologically modern yet basically old-fashioned tale of l’amour fou. They’re almost too perfectly cast: Balibar’s sly mouth tightens with mean glee as she plays all the Duchesses’ games, and Depardieu’s brooding, battered face ceaselessly signals the General’s suppressed, sexualized violence. Rivette films their battle of wills with particular attention to the ornate, suffocating décor that surrounds them at every turn; he knows his Ophuls enough to suggest the Duchesses’ nearly tubercular spiritual depletion amidst the opulence of her surroundings. The more pampered she is in her fine dresses, surrounded by servants and sumptuous tea service, the more her trapped, twisting face and body seems to cry out for change, ugliness, austerity. Whenever the General bows to her, Depardieu’s Heathcliff hair falls menacingly over his brow; similarly, when the Duchess returns to a society ball after being kidnapped by the General, she grabs a nearby white rose to put her messy hair back up. Surfaces shift constantly with all the fine talk and, as they do, we feel the give and take of the couple’s “sentimental war” in the actors’ uninhibited, heartfelt gestures and expressions.
The post-modern Rivette usually puts quotation marks around his action, and this has led, in his lesser films, to a kind of interminable playfulness that refuses narrative for open-ended improv. Anyone familiar with his work will expect Rivette to pull us back from the Duchess and the General at some point, and remind us that we are watching two actors rehearsing, or even failing their roles. But he resists this impulse. Rivette moves closer here, rediscovering the roots of classical cinema in an almost heated way, and his shy, curiously uninflected style is all the better for it. He makes some missteps, like scenes with servants that point up their healthy sexuality in contrast to the main aristocratic pair’s desiccated sublimations: it’s as if Rivette decided to go all-out with conventional bourgeois antitheses. Mainly, though, he lays out the Balzac story point by point for our scrutiny, letting his performers handle all the meanings and complexity. Balibar is triumphant in the scene where the Duchess definitively trumps the General by welcoming his revenge; this titled lady practically becomes a loose-limbed David Lynch tramp to checkmate her swain. Rivette shows his hand only in the final scene on board a ship, which has a brutal finality that marks this as an anti-romantic, tough old man’s film, smiling with Michel Piccoli’s serene, toe-tapping Vidame de Pamiers over life’s eventual black-out meaninglessness. Dan Callahan
Bloody Tears: George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead
Positing itself as a final assemblage from some unspecified point in the future (so that it plays as a strange, Nostradamus-like amalgam of retrospective and prophecy), George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead gleefully engages with themes of spectatorship and subjectivity. It’s the most labyrinthine and multifaceted of the director’s Dead films, possessing a master’s grasp of visual/aural interplay, in addition to a wicked mix of humor and pathos—in Romero’s universe, a deaf, scythe-wielding Amish dynamiter is at once a ridiculous figure of fun and a tragic hero prone to a selfless (and gruesome) act of martyrdom. A prologue, ostensibly filmed by a news crew, reveals the zombies’ kill point to be head center, corresponding to the position of the third eye. Whether or not Romero is up on his chakras, his primary metaphor is clear: Diary of the Dead documents the invasive assault of media (in all its guises) on the inner consciousness. Using a tried-and-true film school setup, Diary follows a ragtag bunch of student artists and their Universal Horror-accented professor (whose skill with an archer’s bow is only superseded by his prowess with an alcohol flask), all of whom are given to baldfaced pronouncements (pro and con) about the nature and so-called truthfulness of moving pictures. Their initially disconcerting tendency to speak in capitalized supertext helps to elicit Diary of the Dead’s resonant and counterbalancing subtext, the idea that the camera itself is an irremovable appendage, especially when contemplating a cataclysm unfolding.
Cataclysm takes many forms, from the personal to the global; for all the apocalyptic emptiness of Diary’s first-person landscapes, perhaps its most disturbing sequence is a throwaway home video where a children’s birthday party becomes a hysterically unwitting bloodbath at the hands of a ravenous clown. The setup is familiar, but the incorporation of the camera as both distancing effect and character (it seems irrevocably drawn to the action, mesmerized by it) only deepens the sense of horror. Romero himself is fascinated by the human race’s strict adherence to instinct and ritual—his zombies have always had an endearing quality because, in-between the bloody feasts, they play-act the various customs and habits recalled from their days among the living. An insert of a gaggle of zombies wading along the bottom of a full swimming pool, or the image of the film’s heroine, Debra (Michelle Morgan), coming face-to-face with her walking-dead mother (a flash of recognition passing over the latter’s eyes before she impulsively attacks) speaks volumes as to Romero’s sociological humanism, as does a charged exchange between Debra and a group of Black Panther-like survivalists that ends in a quietly profound acknowledgment of kinship.
“Shoot me,” says the young cameraman, and on-screen Diary auteur, Jason (Joshua Close) at the film’s climax. The double meaning certainly isn’t lost on viewers and characters alike, though a subsequent invocation of the archangel Michael (punctuated by a well-placed bullet to the brain) casts this seemingly obvious pronouncement in a revelatory light. By the end of Diary of the Dead, the camera has become a conduit to death and resurrection (cinema as simultaneous remembrance and perpetual life-force). And yet Romero puts a fascinating chink in the foundations of his argument via a coda that revisits and reworks the cruel-world fatalism of his original Night of the Living Dead, positing an explicit, confrontational query over a painterly and precise digital still-life. The only appropriate response to the Pittsburgh poet laureate is, perhaps, exactly that which we see onscreen: bloody tears. Uhlich
Sadness and Peace: Import/Export
Import/Export is too grand and glorious for its arthouse, festival ready-made, thesis paper title. This is an adventure romance for the new century. It is a work of bravery and soul, not X-ray analysis. Ulrich Seidl tracks the fortunes and mishaps of two young romantics scratching and surviving in the current globalization scramble.
The plot, worked out by Seidl and crew during the film’s chaotic two-year shoot, remains silent movie simple: Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a young nurse from the Ukraine, goes west to Austria to find better-paying, more stable work; Paul (Paul Hofmann), from Austria, goes to the Ukraine on a delivery job with his stepfather after losing his security job. The film is divided evenly between each twenty-something’s financial downward spiral—from poor to poorer—and subsequent adventure in the other’s home country. Everywhere Paul or Olga go, labor is cheap and basic compassion is expensive.
Olga and Paul are in their own ways as guileless and open as Fellini’s Cabiria and Chaplin’s Tramp. But this ain’t no Hollywood or Cinecitta. Import/Export exists in a world so solidly real, its accuracy becomes another sort of spectacle. Think poverty spectacles like Gummo and Ratcatcher, but be prepared to think far beyond them. Import/Export isn’t out to impress you with the horror and alienation of poverty and illness; it simply shows two real people conducting the business of survival in real settings. It’s the settings, recorded in available light, that have prompted some critics to call it drab, ugly and pretentious. Premiere’s Glenn Kenny: “A quite assured work in the ’I suffered for my art, now it’s your turn’ mode, Ulrich Seidl’s film proceeds from the presumption that no one in its audience has ever worked in a demeaning job, ever had a relative or loved one who was old and infirm and incapable of caring for him or herself, has never been betrayed by a family member or humiliated by a boss or a peer, and so on. It then artily jabs that audience with art-photo compositions within which scenes depicting the situations above are depicted.”
Objection #1: From where I sit, Seidl is as down-to-earth as Larry the Cable Guy. His centered compositions are not for show; each one tells an intimate, eye-level story. I have more than a few friends living Paul and Olga’s lives who I’d like to drag to this film. Their disdain for the epic length, the subtitles and the depressing subject matter would evaporate with the piercing shock of recognition. Seidl gets right down into the suspense of no money in your pocket, gotta eat, what to do.
Objection #2: These are some of the most mesmerizing environments ever put to celluloid, from the web cam sex parlor to the festering gypsy camp, to the meat locker ambiance of a geriatric hospital. Brutality, exploitation, death and despair happen in these places, but the light Seidl gives us to witness them in, along with his insistence upon doing as little modification to existing locations as possible, provides the kind of pure, crystalline beauty greats like Bresson and Dreyer were always after. Seidl uses just enough illumination for us to see without straining or enduring visual irritants like excessive film grain and soupy contrast. He lets the people who organized these spaces for their own real-world purposes be the primary art directors and principal actors. Tapping into the functional harmony that people create for themselves is Seidl’s way of getting into their shoes. How many filmmakers of this caliber start out with that intention but end up condescending to their subjects in some way, using them as wretched marionettes?
The result of Seidl’s rigor here sometimes feels hallucinatory. When Olga becomes a maid in a sterile suburban home, there’s a scene of her superior demonstrating the proper way to clean the teeth of a stuffed fox mounted on a wall of dead game. The fox stares out at us, his fangs bared in what comes to resemble a bemused grin. Seidl covers this moment in a simple master shot with a sheet of pale winter light falling in from the windows. It’s the patiently observed situation, not any effects, that produces the “grin.” That’s all it takes to conjure up an absurdity Terry Gilliam or Emir Kusturica would require circus armies to bring off. (Hate to drop so many names here, but Import/Export is the kind of narrative film that bumps up rudely against all others.) But, while Seidl’s filmmaking methods are simple in concept, they’re brutal in execution. He made this film not with an army but something like an arctic expedition team—especially in the subzero Ukraine scenes. Gangsters, local authorities and -30 degree temperatures threatened them at various stages. Ego and megalomania are almost always factors in this kind of continental filmmaking quest, but the results onscreen tell me that Seidl’s ruthless perfectionism springs more from the desire to honor the truth of his subjects’ lives than to wow ’em at Cannes. With, say Werner Herzog, you’re not always so sure. The big gun philosopher-auteurs tend to flaunt their ecstatic truths the way a street punk might show off his new kicks. I believe that Seidl wants only the truth.
Co-cinematographer Ed Lachman (with Wolfgang Thaler) is right to call Seidl a “moral filmmaker.” Olga and Paul don’t always do the right thing, but it is clear that they constantly look around for it, try to keep it in their pockets, even in the hunger and confusion of their dog-eat-dog travels. That’s the romance of this film: Two beautiful young people handed every excuse to go with the prevailing mercenary winds, who instead go their own way, a precarious, ever-narrowing path of compassion and decency. Paul’s solo dance in a Ukraine bar is a statement of lonely pride in his refusal to join in his stepfather’s depraved partying. Olga’s waltz with her lovesick geriatric patient is her capacity for empathy set to music. Seidl never lets Olga and Paul meet, but I wanted them to find each other and lessen their burdens, collaborate on a future. Good people deserve each other. Seidl is content to let that daydream linger with the audience. He closes on an image/sound of a different kind of future, the one we’ve all got coming. On the fadeout, I felt the peculiar sadness and peace that came over me when I watched my mother’s casket go into the ground. Seidl is an angel. Steven Boone
Too Damned Hot: Inside
After emerging from a Lincoln Center screening of the extreme, no holds barred shock horror spectacle Inside, one of my fellow critics, Nathan Lee, proclaimed, “That was hot!” It’s a comment that stuck with me, a curious response to a movie about an isolated pregnant woman who, on the evening before she’s due to give birth, is brutally attacked by a knife-wielding crazy lady intent on carving the unborn child out of mama’s swollen belly—to claim it as her own. Clearly, mother love is unrelenting. I look forward to reading Nathan’s take on the film (this was his second time seeing it), where I’m sure he’ll elucidate on the fairy tale imagery, delicate warm lighting and mayhem, and rigorous filmmaking technique. Like the best fright work of John Carpenter, the camera is always creeping imperceptibly in Inside to maximize an illusory sense of ease in the viewer.
Nathan made apt comparisons to the poetry of Halloween (which had a similarly minimalist narrative and equally masterful filmmaking craft) and the best of J-Horror ghost movies (where sound and empty space are frequently employed to increase tension and wrack the nerves). But “hot” implies style—and it’s always tempting to lump “style” into a categorical box where it so overwhelms the substance and content of a movie that it becomes the equivalent of a glossy perfume commercial. Inside has tremendous style, and if it weren’t so visually gorgeous (overhead hallway lights transform into golden, angelic halos and backlit characters turn into pensive, threatening shadow-figures) I wonder if the carnage would be simply too much for any viewer to take.
A brief sample of what I’m talking about: During her first attack, the crazy lady punctures the heroine’s pregnant belly with a lethal set of kitchen shears, and the tip of the blade narrowly misses the baby inside. There are cutaway reaction shots of the incubating kid from inside the womb, which are indeed “hot” if by hot you mean innovative, affecting and original. But the scene doesn’t end there—within seconds, the crazy lady stabs again and cuts our victimized heroine’s face, slicing open her upper lip, which remains scarred and bleeding for Inside’s remaining sixty minutes. The reader must surely know by now if he or she can even stomach this sort of thing—so if you can, read on.
As various body parts get dismembered and skin gets flayed, one has every right to ask the question: just why are the filmmakers putting us through this elaborate mortification? Context, in such matters, is everything. In 1968, Night of the Living Dead broke taboos by showing cannibalism and matricide onscreen, to say nothing of the downbeat ending that conjured up grisly memories of lynching and political assassinations. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left could be read as nothing more than brutal acts of savagery whose sole purpose was to repulse and disturb the viewer, or they could be seen as brilliant signs of the times. But all of these masterful films had a profound, searing effect on viewers, pushing them into areas where, by confronting our fear of pain and mortality, we felt more in touch with our humanity.
Maybe this is just a highfalutin’, academic way of saying that it’s fun and cathartic to be scared, and that it feels right because it’s a deep emotional experience. So many movies leave us feeling nothing at all, whereas, after a great horror movie, we tingle all over. The mad guru of panic theater and acid trip cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky, once proclaimed that “[With] the horror picture, there is now the only possibility of freedom and poetry. In Brain Damage, the young man pulling his brain out of his ear, that is one of the most poetical images I’ve found in the movies—these people are making the real New Cinema!” So now we can add Inside to that lurid, poetic pantheon.
Much like the other horror titles I mentioned earlier, Inside starts off at a slow burn (after a savage car accident opens the movie with a literal, assaulting bang). Introspective, pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis) goes about her final day before induced labor with her protective mom and vaguely chauvinistic but paternal boss, both of whom promise to check up on her that evening (Christmas Eve, no less). Later at her remote home, there’s a knock at the door from a mysterious woman, played by the iconic Béatrice Dalle, whose imposing presence so terrified in Claire Denis’s French art/grand guignol classic Trouble Every Day.
Then Inside switches into full-on kinetic violence, not to be confused with the slow-moving art film or the homogenized scares of most mainstream horror. In a series of cat-and-mouse games, the women attack each other with makeshift spears and flamethrowers cobbled together from random household objects. Blood covers their faces and bodies, and sprays across walls and tiled floors so that everything resembles some kind of modern art action painting. And we’re gripped specifically because we’ve never experienced such an audacious kind of slasher flick: We’re so used to seeing women as victims, but never so victimized as this. Is it a feminist statement to say that women can dish it out and take it… not just cower in the closet while monsters assault them? Or is that something a man would say? The two directors, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, are men after all, and one wonders how a female director would handle such loaded material.
For an interesting counterpoint, I again refer back to Trouble Every Day. Claire Denis made a special point of drawing out certain aspects of Béatrice Dalle, who is not only a very beautiful woman, but also has a wildness in her eyes. In both films, she plays on her own mystique as a kind of woman-child who throws alarming temper tantrums and hungrily devours the things she loves. Some of the most terrifying scenes in Inside are the ones that objectify Dalle. It’s a male gaze, but it works because it’s the male gaze in awe, the way we might look at a female Terminator if we were genuinely afraid she were lethal. We don’t ogle, but we’re impressed. As she stomps up and down the hallways in her long black dress and Victorian corset, kicking doors with her gigantic boots, one is afraid for the very house that she might blow it down. And when she sticks a cigarette in her mouth, the pronounced wide gap between her two front teeth seems to swallow up the filter. Looking at Dalle, she either gives a very complex and disturbing performance, or is in reality a troubled woman whose essence is somehow captured by the film itself.
Since the purpose of Inside is to create a mood of sickening dread and horror, pushed to the most absolute extreme, viewers will only be able to take so much of it before they (a) walk out in dismay, (b) close their eyes and listen to the sounds, because they’re exhausted from the visual assault, (c) start laughing hysterically since they’ve become numb to the shock, or (d) feel like the film has broken through to some kind of profound cosmic barrier and project onto it meaning that may or may not be there in the first place. The question for right now is, does the movie work after all that? The explanation of what it’s about makes it sound like some kind of geek show exploitation piece. But that’s not all there is to the movie, and what makes it particularly “hot” is the connection between motherhood and monstrousness that hits such a deep primal chord.
The scaled back minimalism of the plot invites, if not greater depth, then at least no complications or distractions to get in the way of Inside’s undeniable primal push. I’m not sure this movie is about anything more than maternal mayhem and savage, glorified baby-worship, and while I’m uncomfortable with the notion that all this can be construed as being “hot”, at the same time when we are attracted to someone else for their courage, colorful nature, and outward beauty—all distinctive qualities of Inside—we find them “hot” and get butterflies in our stomach. It’s pretty hot indeed to see cinema with such a liberated, raw, unshielded persuasiveness that will make you feel something huge, dark and devastating. The power of Inside can’t be denied: it’s so hot, it burns. Jeremiah Kipp
To Sleep, Perchance… : Schindler’s Houses
Abbas Kiarostami’s maxim, “I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater,” certainly holds true for Schindler’s Houses, the 12th part of an ongoing series of documentaries (entitled “Photography and Beyond”) that, aside from a brief bit of explanatory narration at film’s outset by director Heinz Emigholz, is an entirely wordless succession of crisp, canted-angle 35mm images of forty southern California offices and residences created by the Austrian-American architect Rudolph Schindler. I did indeed fall into a semi-dream state during the screening, lulled by the film’s quite recognizably Teutonic penchant for rhythmic rigidity and order (it takes a German to know a German, I suppose), though don’t read that in any way as a dismissal. Emigholz’s visuals are stunning, entirely reliant on the existing natural order of things (always at an ineffably fixed and given moment, never to be recaptured) to create their effect. The director starts his journey on a somewhat regretful note, calling attention to the many signs and seals of commerce (a Target billboard; the constant hum of traffic on the highway) that threaten to obscure Schindler’s accomplishments, though one eventually gets the sense that Schindler’s Houses is more of a transcendental quest than a nostalgia-laden lament. As the initially decayed and decrepit structures give way to more well-kept edifices, life begins to literally seep into the surroundings; the sudden appearance of an elderly man reading the morning newspaper or a gaggle of cats sitting calmly and observantly frame left create a powerfully unspoken dialogue with the film’s seemingly inanimate subjects. Emigholz’s rigorous aural/visual cataloging of Schindler’s efforts uncover the souls of these structures, and it’s a sight to see. Uhlich
Shattered Class: A Wonderful World
A Wonderful World begins like Frank Capra and ends like Carlos Reygadas—a strange, but potent combo, though the mix of deceptively light-hearted sentiment and increasingly oppressive grit is off-putting in the moment. I’m not prepared to proclaim Luis Estrada’s polemic any sort of masterpiece, though a last-reel cameo by Alex Cox (as the head of a clearly corrupt Nobel Prize committee) calls attention to A Wonderful World’s rabble-rousing affinity with Cox’s much-maligned Walker (1987), which is, perhaps, not-so-coincidentally screening in this year’s Film Comment Selects sidebar. As homeless bum turned people’s hero Juan Pérez, Damián Alcázar hits just the right notes of puppy dog ingratiation and gentility, though his seemingly obsequious nature masks a rabid, mad-dog’s sense of determination and entitlement, especially after he tastes the fruits of monetary success and social advancement. When Estrada introduces his shuffling everyman to the strains of the Louis Armstrong chestnut, “What a Wonderful World”, the juxtaposition seems rote and obvious. By the end of the film, when the song is reprised, it seems an inspired and indelible choice, a bitingly satirical musical accompaniment to a war between the obscenely rich haves and the slum-residing have-nots that results in the destruction of an oblivious, white picket fence-residing middle class.
Estrada’s most incendiary proposition: that God is, at heart, a hoi polloi construct, a buffer and security blanket that damagingly keeps the world’s many harsh realities at bay. This acidly cynical view is only heightened by Estrada’s disdain for the cartoonish “plain folks” family who proselytize to Juan (and not so disingenuously) at his lowest moment, though it initially seems that the director/co-writer is submitting to these suburbanite sheeple’s simplistic espousal of an unseen deity as total redeemer. Visions of Capra’s atrocious You Can’t Take It With You might come to mind, especially the class-shattering “Polly-Wolly-Doodle” musical climax (perhaps the bullshittiest sequence ever committed to celluloid), though Estrada is actually setting us up for a corrosive last-act kill. I mean it whole-heartedly when I say that the final image of A Wonderful World is as powerful a provocation as the flag-folding/blowjob scene at the end of Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, one all the more impressive for how it retains the populist storybook texture of the rest of the film. In context, an Aesop moral wouldn’t be out of place: Ignorance is bliss until the white picket fence is breached. Uhlich
Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.