Now in its 37th year, the annual New Directors/New Films series kicks off tonight with a screening of the Sundance Film Festival prizewinner Frozen River. The schedule for the following week-and-a-half (closing night: Sunday, April 6th) is an outwardly eclectic mix of subjects, though whispers from several festival-fatigued colleagues suggest there’s a lot of same-ol’-same-ol’ chaff among the needle-in-the-haystack wheat—a par for the course reaction as far as these things go, helpful only in pointing up the ease with which cinephilic passion becomes masochistic drudgery. I attended only three press screenings (one of these was for a film I had seen several times before), but that was enough to glean something of a linking theme: the symbolic weight of one’s home/homeland, literally evident via the plantations that figure as central locales in Eat, for This Is My Body and Moving Midway, and more figuratively explored via the cluttered downtown Manhattan loft (a repository for several characters’ perpetually resonant memories and inescapably present-tense hang-ups) in Momma’s Man. Such an observation runs the risk of reducing the New Directors series to some kind of singular, bastardized essence. No doubt the many writers who contributed to this festival preview (heroes all of ’em) would beg to add their own perspective, and that they have done in the entries below (all told, eleven of the series’s twenty-six features are reviewed). Consider the result less a consumer’s guide than a signpost marking a moment—use our collected observations to journey where you will. Keith Uhlich
Manipulative Naturalism: Ballast
When a film’s aesthetic is not far removed from a recognizable trope, it is terribly easy for said film’s style to feel unearned. During the first third of Ballast, I was consistently distracted by the way in which the film appeared to fit into a veritable matrix of aesthetic signposts: the barren, desolate southern landscapes of David Gordon Green; the shaky handheld camerawork of Charles Burnett or the Dardenne brothers; the observant naturalism of the latters’ work. (Much has been made of Ballast’s debt to the Dardennes; one colleague observed that the critical community will probably champion Ballast simply because it’s such a European art-film depiction of a strongly American setting.) It was these qualities that kept nagging at me—until the film proved its sincerity, I found it tough to allow it the credit to employ such obviously manipulative aesthetic tropes. However, while that handheld, shaky camerawork and those dingy landscapes might initially feel manipulative, one emerges from Ballast with a sense that it deserves these elements, for the most part.
Writer/director Lance Hammer explains in his director’s statement that he wanted the film’s narrative to remain “minimal and unobtrusive.” Save for a few scenes that feel out of place (one where two of the characters are pulled out of their car and attacked comes to mind), Hammer’s intent is successfully realized. The storyline is never so important that it gets in the way of Hammer’s tonal/stylistic work, which is clearly the film’s primary pursuit. Ballast is a narrative film insofar as it is about people and the things that they do, but it examines these people and their actions from a point of observation too distant to be traditionally “dramatic.” However, the point of view is not so distant as to be termed anthropological; Ballast operates on a strange middle ground, like a silent family member at Thanksgiving dinner who’s content to sit at the table and watch everyone argue, but won’t join in. He won’t get up and leave, either.
Ballast tells the tale of three people in a small Mississippi Delta township: James (JimMyron Ross), a 12-year-old kid who associates with some small-time drug dealers; Marlee (Tarra Riggs), James’ mother; and Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.), the brother of James’ father/Marlee’s ex-husband. The relationships between these three characters are tested after James’ brother commits suicide. To start, Lawrence shoots himself, but lives. Then James starts robbing Lawrence at gunpoint to impress his drug-dealer friends. Then said drug-dealer friends end up turning on James. This is just the beginning. The film may sound a bit excessive or stereotypical in its portrayal of these events, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, one of Ballast’s triumphs is its consistently maintained tone of understatement, which helps to reel in its seemingly melodramatic story. I have nothing against melodrama personally, but melodrama of this ilk can easily come across as a bit tired. Hammer’s command of the medium is strong enough that Ballast avoids this potential issue.
In the press notes, much is made of the fact that Ballast’s cast is comprised of amateurs. This is another potential minefield—the story of the lo-fi independent film made on a shoestring budget with nonprofessional actors is as played-out as they come. Nevertheless, Hammer’s actors never come across with tired, cliche “naturalism.” As the extremely introverted Lawrence, Smith Sr. is merely adequate. (The great thing about introverted characters is that—while it’s very hard to play one really well—it’s not so difficult to play one adequately; looking somber and speaking quietly is often all that’s needed.) Ross and Riggs are both solid, although there are moments when the tenor of Riggs’ performance as the Concerned Mother Of A Child Caught Up With The Wrong Kids reaches a too sentimental pitch for my taste. Ross’ performance, perhaps the most difficult of the three, is the one that strikes the fewest false notes.
Ballast is a testament to the ability of production design and location to create tone. Oftentimes one feels like the landscapes and locations are so earthy and decrepit, so worn-down and washed-out, that anyone pointing a camera at them could create something beautiful. Perhaps I’m sounding hesitant in my praise of the film, but I do keep asking myself if Ballast is the output of a skilled artist who put an enormous amount of genuine effort into something, or whether it is the work of an intelligent opportunist who realized that certain tried-and-true filmic elements, when combined with one another, would form a great film (like instant macaroni or something). That’s probably unfair: many great artists are great because they make it look easy, but my lingering doubts remain. The film’s restrained, observant qualities, combined with its effective aestheticism, make for a rewarding experience; but in the back of my mind, I still question whether Ballast manipulates its audience in all the wrong, but still expertly executed ways. Zachary Wigon
Savage Grace: Eat, for This Is My Body
The opening sequence of Eat, for This Is My Body is a simple stunner: two gliding helicopter tracking shots—the first moving across a pristine blue ocean and the rundown Haitian shantytown at its banks, the second traveling through the same locale’s mountainous inner regions—that captivate the mind and the soul, and which also act as the make-or-break entryway into writer/director Michelange Quay’s heavily symbolic colonialist parable. Take note of the soundtrack, too, which moves from a cacophonous world music beat to more primal, guttural cries as Quay’s camera probes further inland. If I describe it as a regression, it’s only in the sense of Mesmer: a true, unadulterated trip into a most unique subconscious. From what I gather, Quay’s surrealism is a sledgehammer to some, and it is true that his aural/visual interplay errs on the literal side of black/white dichotomies. Yet it is this very approach that, for me, gives Eat, For This Is My Body its unshakeable power.
The title alone sets up a potent parallel between Christian liturgy and “uncivilized” savagery, though Quay’s characters and situations never play as hollow, representational cardboard. The bed-ridden old Mother (Catherine Samie), overlord of the plantation that acts as the primary setting, speaks the film’s themes in an early monologue-to-camera, but her frail passion (devilish smile, streaming tears) complicates her brutal, comically frank racism. Quay puts the most obvious meanings front-and-center (I don’t mean it as a slight when I say that the film’s juxtapositions come off, at times, like those old Warner Bros. cartoons where planes fly into black-colored/block-lettered “deepest, darkest Africa”) as if to call forth a mysterious, underlying spirit—cinema as incantation for and exegesis of both the self and the masses. At the extremes of Quay’s frame are Mother and the group of Haitian children who provide her nourishment (the trade-off is simple: “Eat of the goddess, and ye shall be eaten”); caught in-between are Mother’s daughter Madame (Sylvie Testud) and the shape-shifting butler Patrick (Hans Dacosta St-Val), each of whom have an unspoken desire to move beyond their prescribed servile functions. At times a document (as in an extended fireside party sequence), at others a passion play (as when the Haitian children shoot each other “dead” with toy rifles), at still others a languorous dance (though music and movement, tellingly, do not always sync), Eat, For This Is My Body is an especial highlight of this year’s New Directors/New Films series. Keith Uhlich
Not Turning Japanese: Japan Japan
Lior Shamriz’s Japan Japan follows a small-town boy adrift in the big city, in this case a fresh from the army 19-year-old named Imri (Imri Kahn), who has left his hometown for the bright lights of Tel Aviv. He moves in with an insane young woman who uses her hand as a phone and throws soirees for invisible friends (even makes out on the couch with one), works at a party store with a boss who wears cat ears while she instructs him on the proper restocking of candy jars, chills in wigs with his NYC-bound best childhood friend, and cruises the Internet for gay porn in his large chunk of spare time. He also jacks off, dreams of moving to Japan, takes Japanese lessons, eats sushi, loses his job and begs his mom for money, picks up a trick who rhapsodizes to the music of a Turkish protest singer (then storms out because the man’s “pathetic”), has sex with another guy his age after which he declares, “Cinema is dead.” All of this told nonlinearly and often with the use of multiple frames, fast motion, shakily handheld shots with excessive zooms, and some photo stills. Sprinkle in pounding techno beats and opera during a rave scene and you’ve got a visual stew resembling a high-adrenaline, art school thesis project.
I’ll admit it. I’m not a fan of restless camera syndrome, nor of movies that roll the credits twice—both times in the middle of the film (in case I didn’t get that the lead character was constructing his own life/movie, I guess). I don’t understand why the best friend emails footage of herself dressed like a Mott Street restaurant hostess and singing, “I’m a Chinese girl in New York City! I’m a Chinese girl in New York City!” down by the World Trade Center site. (I also don’t know why this and all the other English-language scenes are subtitled.) But then I’m one of those philistines who doesn’t immediately think “Ah, art!” when I see a piece of string hanging from the ceiling at the Whitney. I also never knew cinema was dead.
What I do know is that Japan Japan, like its lead character, seems in an awful hurry to go nowhere. Director Shamriz has been attending the Institute for Time-Based Media in Berlin since 2006, and Japan Japan is more an experiment, an excuse to dice and frame interesting shots above all else. Which would be fine except for the fact that Shamriz also wants to tell a story—of a young man trying to discover his place in the world—and his cinematography and editing tricks are senseless and distracting, not connected to any greater purpose. The story instead becomes self-conscious, inorganic, forced—as disjointed as the bits of graphic porn thrown in every once in awhile to stir things up. This is too bad because there is a deeper foundation buried beneath all this nonstop movement. Imri is a lost soul longing for Tokyo while his best friend has already fulfilled her dream of moving to the Big Apple. Imri can’t bear to return to his small town while his friend has only happy memories there. “It doesn’t make a difference where you are. Only what you do with yourself,” she advises him at an outdoor cafe during a rare moment of stillness. But no sooner have the words left her mouth than the camera jumps to the two madly dancing on the beach, lip-synching to Abba’s “SOS,” the director once again as adrift as his lead. Lauren Wissot
Butterfly Kisses: La Zona
La Zona tells you what it’s going to be about in the opening credits, as a butterfly flits through a middle class neighborhood on up to a forbidding wall that separates the gated community from a Mexican slum. The butterfly touches some electrified wire at the top of the wall and disintegrates. Zztzzt—What Price Security? Not since the meandering feather in Forrest Gump have CGI poetics been put to such criminal use. La Zona manages to live down that butterfly, keeping the crude metaphors mostly at bay while telling a cautionary Homeland Security parable fit to tangle with M. Night Shyamalan’s underrated The Village.
La Zona (The Zone) is a suburban enclave that somehow manages to police itself with minimal outside interference. Private security keeps watch over the entire community through a network of surveillance cameras. When a lightning strike sends a billboard crashing into a section of the wall one stormy night, lights and cameras go dead. Kids from the other side of the tracks seize this opportunity to go looting in The Zone. Before the night is over, two of the robbers, an old woman and a Zone security guard are dead. According to surveillance tapes, one of the boys must still be hiding out somewhere in the neighborhood. The residents vote to leave the police out of it. Time for revenge.
La Zona works a gang of tangled subplots, but the main ones are a vigilante manhunt, a cover-up and, most interestingly, the moral awakening of a 16-year-old middle class brat. Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), curly-haired son of the lead vigilante (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), looks like a Mexican rendition of Shia LaBeouf in Disturbia, but he chooses a path more befitting the wayward son in La Promesse: He secretly harbors Miguel (Alan Chavez), the fugitive kid, in his parents’ basement and gets his side of the story. With the Alejandro/Miguel thread, co-screenwriter-director Rodrigo Plá finds his real wings, and they’ve got nothing to do with that stupid butterfly. The boys’ increasingly desperate cat-’n’-mouse game builds to a passionately overblown, operatic chase that finds Miguel fleeing a lynch mob of furious soccer moms and dads to his only hope, a carload of corrupt cops turning a blind eye. Damn. The film’s concluding passages are worthy of Luis Buñuel, who had the heart, in Los Olvidados, to show a Mexican slum kid like Miguel ending up in a landfill, just another piece of trash. Plá goes there and further, to a place of humane meditation and even hope. Hard to believe the same guy came up with that butterfly. Steven Boone
Sweet and Simple and Irritating: Megane
Megane is sweet and simple and irritating at times. It’s basically the story of one extremely uptight Japanese career woman’s uneventful vacation on a oceanside resort. Not much happens, really. She gets annoyed at being hounded to join the host and the resort’s only other guest at meals; at waking up to silly music from the beach every morning. When she’s had enough, she goes down the road to another inn where guests are forced to work in a field, like it’s some kind of crazy plantation. So she goes back to the first resort and learns to like it.
That’s about it. This film’s comedy is so soft-spoken and slight, it makes Bill Forsyth seem like Tyler Perry. I suspect it works only if your blood pressure is settled in that sweet spot between sleepy and caffeinated. Writer-director Naoko Ogigami seems to savor every moment of your exasperation: It sort of proves that she’s got you hooked. Outrage over this film’s lack of “story” only calls into question what constitutes narrative. What does it take to get your investment, to keep you watching? Ogigami bets that all you need for a story is a simple human need and a series of obstructions on the way to fulfilling it. Also, a dash of ambiguity. We are never sure why Taeko (Satomi Kobayashi) has come to the resort or from where, nor is the relationship between any two people here ever defined. Is the resort owner the son, lover, soulmate or disciple of the saintly old woman who spends her summers here selling shaved ice? Is she a ghost? Who is the young man that’s followed Taeko to this hideaway and why does he call her “professor”? When any character is asked to clarify his or her relationship with another, the coy evasions are frustrating/adorable.
Ogigami’s world is chaste, immaculate and serene, a maddening utopia, but her control of the frame is sensual, ironic and alive. She can make an insert shot of bacon and eggs tickle the ribs. Scenes of pleasurable eating and drinking will make you groan with envy. The minuscule tensions she manipulates between her actors are on a scale that ranges from bliss to mild irritation to gentle concern, but the notes are piercingly accurate. Though comparisons to Yasujirô Ozu are sort of apt, Ogigami’s characters aren’t roiling with pain or deep longing under the smiles. What’s weirder are their strange rituals, which Taeko rejects at first but eventually grows to love, like the pastime called “twilighting.” Nobody tells her exactly what twilighting is, just that one must have a talent for it. When Taeko accidentally finds herself twilighting, she glows as if sliding into a warm bath. I was right there with her.
Megane gets weirder, more coy and protracted toward the end, with lyrical longueurs that sent my eye rolling off the screen. Ogigami might be aiming for a vision of heaven, but the endless beach exercise scene set to what sounds like kindergarten music is sheer hell. Steven Boone
Variations on Emotions: Momma’s Man
Momma’s Man might look like it’s coming out of nowhere, but there’s a dense frame of references and connections surrounding it: it’s Azazel Jacobs’ third feature, but only his first to get any real traction. His last film—2005’s The GoodTimesKid—was pegged as an amiable Jarmusch knockoff, and I skipped it. I started regretting that when I realized that the co-writer and one of the actors was Gerardo Naranjo, whose Drama/Mex (self-consciously lurid melodrama done right) unfairly died a quick death at the IFC Center last summer. Other connections place Jacobs not just as one of the hip new kids saving Sundance from itself, but grounded in the boho NYC tradition that came before: Richard Edson (Eddie from Stranger Than Paradise) has a small, eccentric part, paying tribute to Jacobs’ forebears through casting. The film itself takes place in Tribeca, but a part of Tribeca so stubbornly, persistently down-to-earth and shabby as to be positively repugnant to anyone from American Express who’d consider shooting a “My New York” commercial there. (Here’s hoping the recession brings it back.)
And then there are Jacobs’ parents: avant-garde pioneer/strobe terrorist Ken, painter Flo. As “themselves”—or versions of themselves that are parents to the fictional Mikey (Matt Boren), but who still live in the real Jacobs loft, watch the real Jacobs’ movies, etc.—Ken & Flo provide the anchor for this portrait of stasis and self-paralyzing nostalgia. The film begins with Mikey riding the A train to JFK but not getting out; back home, he lies and says there were mechanical problems, allowing him to stay a few more days with his parents. Mechanical delays turn to a wish to hang out a few more days—allegedly sanctioned by Mikey’s wife (Dana Varon), whose phone calls go answered—to naked emotional dysfunction.
Momma’s Man is basically a series of variations on two related emotions, dread and indecision; there’s no real development, only increasing paralysis. At first, Mikey makes a few trips out: to catch up with old friend Dante (Piero Arcilesi). “Mom, Mikey’s not a virgin anymore!” Dante blurts out—which might function as a clue of sorts to the kind of traumas that are paralyzing Mikey, but I don’t think so. Mikey’s blank malaise allows for audience projection of whatever you want: “the general panic of a generation that knows it won’t be better off than its parents,” suggests Scott Foundas, which sounds more like a rehash of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X than the movie I saw. Mikey’s symptoms include playing awful songs with high school journal lyrics (“Fuck fuck fuck you/I hope you die too”) and playing with his leftover ’80s toys (the Garbage Pail Kids make an appearance), which, all in all, sounds like an average evening of VH1. Mikey’s symptoms just peg his generational status; his deeper malaise is harder to pin down.
Momma’s Man eventually gives us some extended comic sequences; Flo interrogating Mikey as to whether or not she can get him anything (“Some tea? Some coffee? Some tea? Some coffee?”) is a nightmare of near Philip Roth-esque maternal intervention. Ken reveals himself as the avant-garde’s Clint Eastwood, staring sternly and saying little; at one point, he’s discovered lying cozily in bed, reading the cheerily titled American Fascists to lull himself to sleep. Momma’s Man makes itself at home in the loft’s clutter, going through iterations on the same theme over and over. I found it kind of hypnotic, if ultimately minor, and I’m worried that the advance hype team will try to dub this a masterpiece, a title it can’t possibly live up to; here, at least (as opposed to the insipid Ballast, a ND/NF companion also from Sundance), is a solid minor film. I wish it were a little less invested in modesty for its own sake or a little less oriented towards showing a character who’s living purely in the moment, with no distance, but it’s still reverbing in my head a few weeks later, which is good enough. Vadim Rizov
It’s a Start: Moving Midway
Godfrey Cheshire’s Moving Midway features the largest object actually being moved on-screen since Fitzcarraldo: an entire plantation house, uprooted from its site and relocated away from Raleigh’s suburban sprawl. Cheshire (full disclosure: an excellent critic I know in passing) arrived in Raleigh in 2004 to find that his cousin Charlie Hinton Silver was planning on moving the house—there since 1848—because the verdant green surrounding it was being rapidly displaced by miles of traffic and strip malls. The house itself wasn’t enough as a repository of meaning; surrounded by urbanity, it was just another old house.
So Cheshire documents the awe-inspiring mechanics of moving an entire plantation house; in between, he does something even more interesting. As a critic, Cheshire wants to examine the image of the plantation in American cultural mythology: from self-consciously racist emblem of a bygone way of life (The Birth Of A Nation) to willfully naïve dreamland of the same (Gone With The Wind) to a more complex signifier (Roots finally undermining the whole thing). Cheshire’s eloquent history is abetted by two different interview types: presumably disoriented historians (Bruce Chadwick, author of The Reel Civil War) and relatives still on the ground. The non-interrogative latter interviews allow revealing statements to slip out without challenge, as when Cheshire’s mother demurs “I’m sure there are plenty of nice Yankees” or a cousin blusters about how he once spent a night sleeping in the same bed as the niggers and feels mighty progressive about that.
As a counterbalance, Cheshire discovers Robert Hinton, an Africana professor at NYU whose relationship to the Cheshires and Silvers is probably not genetic (along the way, though, Cheshire discovers up to 150 possible cousins, fathered by an old relationship between a plantation patriarch and a slave), but whose background gives him a different stake in Midway: while he can appreciate the family’s mixed emotions about moving the house, Hinton can’t help but express a little glee that a site once made rich by slaves he was probably related to will soon be paved over with indifferent concrete, never to grow anything again. (Here’s the upside to the environmental destruction presented in Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen.) Hinton is the documentary’s auto-correct: Cheshire is too ambivalent about seeing his childhood refuge uprooted to fully commit to politically cheering it on. Between an amazingly composed Hinton (whose anger only comes out in small but potent doses) and Cheshire, a balance emerges.
Moving Midway is open and engaging, finding its own balance between lived experience and academic distance. If anything, it’s not academic enough: I get the feeling that Cheshire is holding back sometimes, offering some readings of the plantation but not wanting to lose anyone in the audience. It’s still scintillating viewing, and one of the more honest films about how the past’s racial legacy spreads into the present (in light of Obama’s speech, it may be more timely than ever); every encounter between Cheshire, his cousins and their new branch of the family is fraught with potential disaster. You’re unlikely to see a more heartwarming scene this year than Godfrey’s mother bonding with her new relative Abraham Hinton: not over race, but because they’re old enough to have the same sense of manners. It’s a start anyway. Vadim Rizov
A “Now” of the Now: Sleep Dealer
Hegel once remarked that a good portrait looks more like the person it represents than the person itself, and Slavoj Žižek rightly applied this aphorism to Children of Men. CoM was a great film because it wasn’t set in the future so much as it was a more prescient version of the present, a more “now” portrait of the now. Most of the elements of the film that were meant to be apocalyptic are in fact already in place—detainment camps that suspend habeas corpus, a sense of class warfare towards illegal immigrants, and a wielding of the fear of terrorism in order to increase what is essentially martial law.
The same could be said for the intent of Sleep Dealer, the debut feature that Alex Rivera has been working on for years. As he points out in his director’s statement, many of the elements of the film’s futuristic world—violent reality shows (COPS), private military contractors (Blackwater), the global water crisis (Bolivia), and outsourced labor (India) already exist. However, while Children of Men was greater than the sum of its political references and polemics, Sleep Dealer feels like a hodgepodge of political criticisms that play better in theory than in practice.
Theory is indeed central to the film, with its central concept derived out of a capitalist fantasy that reads like Marx’s description of labor on overdrive. In the future, people in Mexico can work in the United States without ever having to cross the border. This is due to “nodes,” electronic circuits that connect the bodies of laborers to machines situated in various locations throughout the States. The concept is brilliant; here, the one commodity the laborer has to offer—his labor—is isolated from all complications, extracted from his body and sent to the place of work, while he himself remains in his own country. It’s the sort of thing that’s both extremely dehumanizing and equally cost-efficient in the way only capitalist inventions can be; if Rivera doesn’t have a future as a filmmaker, he could move into the business sector with ease.
Our protagonist is Memo (Luis Fernando Pena), who leaves his water-deprived village (a massive dam has been built by the Government) for Tijuana after his father is killed by a bombing drone. Memo, who is interested in technology, was using an old radio to intercept frequencies, and the Government dispatched the drone believing they were eliminating an “Aqua-Terrorist” cell. It plays more than a bit hammy, and a bit too direct as well.
Memo, on the way to Tijuana, meets a beautiful woman named Luz (Leonor Varela) who he befriends. Luz ends up installing nodes into Memo, and well, you know what they say about girls who install nodes on the first date. It turns out that Luz has been prompted to continue seeing Memo by a client who has been purchasing her “memories” of him from her website. Unsurprisingly, this client is Rudy Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), the pilot who was operating the drone (via nodes) that killed Memo’s father. Luz and Memo grow closer and become romantically involved, and Memo begins working at a labor factory; over these proceedings hangs an obvious plot point—that Rudy will come to Tijuana for some reason. When he does, the film’s climactic events are sent into motion.
Sleep Dealer is a perplexing work because it’s not really about what it wants to be about. It wants to be about governmental exploitation of the working class, the frenzied state of xenophobia the United States has entered, and romantic connection as the only solace from all of the above. There’s a moment in the film where Memo tells Luz, in reference to his nodes, “I’m only connected when I’m with you.” Nodes can serve to connect a worker to a machine, but they can also serve to connect two people to each other, to heighten a sexual experience. The problem is that the poignancy of a relationship in the face of all else is never really exploited; the relationship between Memo and Luz fails to reach a significant level of believable intimacy, and, through a meandering middle section, we can’t help but wonder what exactly the film has turned into.
If Sleep Dealer’s political points were utilized in a more effective manner (read: more insightful and less direct), then the political background could have served to enhance the relationship, making it a bit more tolerable. Instead, the film’s political analysis reads like that of Southland Tales, minus the self-awareness. Indeed, Sleep Dealer is like something of a cross between Children of Men and Southland: it has the self-seriousness of the former, and the polemicism of the latter. Of course, Southland Tales was able to make that polemicism artful, by employing a self-aware mockery of the apocalyptic political film genre; in Sleep Dealer, Rivera seems to be completely unaware of just how absurd the tone of his political critique is. His points are all right-on, but his delivery is way off.
The film shares another connection with Southland—the production design. Like Southland Tales, Sleep Dealer’s production design smacks of that (seemingly growing) niche of futuristic-cheesy: the neon panels, the oversaturated color scheme. The photography of Sleep Dealer also contributes to that impression, as the film has a sort of digitized-film look that makes one think lo-budget sci-fi. Again, these are all qualities that were present in Southland Tales, but they were present in a self-critical fashion; not the case here. To Rivera’s credit, the world of Sleep Dealer is not as aggressively futuristic as it could have been (perhaps this owes as much to budget constraints as to the director’s vision), and this scaling-back of what might be expected contributes to the sense of Sleep Dealer as a portrait of the present.
Rivera has made a film that comes out firing on many fronts—it’s observant of the world around us and is certainly the work of an intelligent man. But the failure of Sleep Dealer illustrates the pitfalls of making a political work of art. Politics and art are so diametrically opposed as to make any significant conjoining of the two almost impossible. Where art is subtle, politics is overt. Where art is ambiguous, politics is clear. For a work of art to represent an intense political situation without becoming overwhelmed by it is a rare and impressive thing—Half Nelson is an example that comes to mind. I have no doubt that Mr. Rivera’s films will continue to grow in their political consciousness; I can only hope that they will grow in their artistry as well. Zachary Wigon
DAM It All: Slingshot Hip Hop
After exposure to bootleg rap CD’s from Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur, “how could they not expect us to love hip hop?” cries Tamer Nafar, leader of the first ever Palestinian rap group, DAM (Da Arabian MC’s). Descriptions of the pain and injustice inside American ghettos lost little in translation for Tamer and his homies in Lyd, Israel. Slingshot Hip Hop documents how DAM formed as clueless teenagers, became politicized in the wake of the second Intifada and inspired a hip hop movement across the Palestinian territories.
Director-producer-editor Jackie Reem Salloum initially tells the tale in the style of a rap promo DVD, with the expected fast cuts, graffiti-style graphics and upbeat rise-to-fame narrative. As an advertisement for global hip hop culture in the 00’s, it belongs on a double bill with the recently released Planet B-Boy. But unlike Benson Lee’s international breakdancing saga, it profiles a hip hop scene that is, shockingly but appropriately, more about camaraderie than competition. The handful of rappers in Lyd, Gaza City and the West Bank focus their rage not on each other but on the walls that separate and permanently ghettoize them.
Whenever Salloum samples some of the real tragedy and desperation of this situation, Slingshot Hip Hop becomes something more than a promo. DAM’s unauthorized visit to a refugee camp, where Tamer and crew teach some eager teenage boys the fundamentals of rap, leads to the boys’ imprisonment. The official reason for their arrest, we’re told, is their participation in a demonstration months earlier. Whatever the case, it is devastating to hear Tamer’s phone conversation with the jailed kids as they talk of being tortured and terrorized. We want to know more about them, but Salloum moves on quickly.
Slingshot Hip Hop also profiles PR (Palestinian Rapperz), a trio that idolizes DAM but has a lot more street cred when it comes to facing Israeli bullets. Salloum throws in stock footage of Israeli military attacks on school children—images that haven’t lost their horror despite familiarity from TV news and docs like Gaza Strip. Members Mohammed, Kan’aan and Mezo rap about friends killed in attacks; tour strafed buildings, rubble and fields stripped of every last tree; rage at separation walls and checkpoints. Their and most Palestinian rappers’ favorite anthem is DAM’s “Who’s The Terrorist?” (a title after Public Enemy’s own heart).
The emergence of female performers, particularly DAM collaborator Sabreena Da Witch (Abeer Alzinaty), raises an issue that Slingshot Hip Hop skims even more lightly than the imprisonment incident: What do the Muslim fundamentalists have to say about all this? How does a young Middle Eastern woman take to the stage in hip-hugging Western getup without causing a furor somewhere? The narrator (Tamer’s younger brother and DAM member Suhell) informs us that Sabreena’s cousins warned her to stop performing with DAM, or else. Temporarily, she does, sitting out a crucial TV appearance with the group. But a bit later, she’s back singing hooks for DAM and other acts, with the vague explanation that she’s never one to back down from a challenge? Huh? What happened? What changed? Why don’t we see or hear from these testy cousins?
Slingshot Hip Hop doesn’t really want to go there—to show what other authoritarian bully Palestinian youth culture might be up against, the one residing in its own community. The elders we do glimpse are supportive and fairly liberal. They see vocalists like Tamer as budding political leaders, with lyrics performing the same function as speeches. This is deadly ground. Groups like DAM are preaching resistance, not terrorism. They rap about women’s rights. Somewhere along the line, the Islamists who find such concepts threatening may put as much pressure on these kids as the Israeli government. Salloum should be there to capture it for a more austere, focused Part Two. Steven Boone
A Constantly Changing Body: Water Lilies
Three fifteen-year old girls, three body types, three angles of entry into the perplexities of adolescent life. Water Lilies, Céline Sciamma’s precisely observed coming-of-age tale, splits its burden of teenage anomie between a trio of young women, fitting its catalogue of anxieties to the unique physical attributes of each of its leads. What distinguishes the film from others of its type is precisely this keen understanding of the ways in which the specific complications of female teenage life are tied to the circumstances of the individual’s body. Set against a backdrop of competitive synchronized swimming, a sport demanding an absolute physical precision, there is little room for the characters to hide from the demanding glare of observers, but Sciamma offsets the potential cruelty of a too insistent gaze with a fine-tuned sensitivity to her characters’ emotional orientation.
The wide developmental gaps that puberty often leaves between teens of the same age allow Sciamma to present her leads as three contrasting physical types: Marie (Pauline Acquart), stuck at an early stage of development, seems at least several years younger than the others. Her sense of bodily inferiority leads her to find in the perfectly developed Floriane (Adele Haenel), captain of the synchronized swimming team, an idealized counterpart, for whom hero worship soon gives way to a budding romantic attachment. Floriane, for her part, has to contend with the burdensome demands of insistent male attention (which often finds expression in explicit sexual aggression) as well as the pressure to conform to people’s expectations about what “kind” of girl she is. The third teen, Anne (Louise Blachère), is the most conventionally situated of the three, treading the familiar ground of trying to reconcile self-image and a moderate obesity.
The film may be insistently physical, but it wisely avoids an overly sensual orientation. (And it’s positively chaste in its depictions of sexuality.) Even the swimming sequences, while undeniably graceful, are shot with a certain matter-of-fact detachment, refusing the lure of overly-prettified image-making. But the film’s physicality is exactly detailed, attuned to Marie’s gangly legs and long toes, Anne’s oversized breasts and the synchronous thrusts of muscular legs as seen from an underwater vantage point. Matching her observational sensitivity with a certain formal restraint, Sciamma gets down both the awkwardness of adolescent physicality and the occasional flowerings of physical beauty that emerge amidst the less glamorous stages of teenage development.
But for all the film’s insistence on grounding its characters’ emotional orientation in precise physical circumstances, the two come perfectly together exactly once. In preparation for sleeping with a particularly insistent suitor, Floriane asks Marie to break her hymen, preventing a potentially embarrassing situation when the man realizes that her affectation of sexual experience was nothing more than a piece of adolescent theater. Sciamma films the scene in two fixed long takes, a medium shot and a close-up, which shift the focus from the purely physical act (in the first shot) to the emotions behind it (the close-up is particularly attentive to facial expression). For Floriane, the act may register as little more than a practical necessity, but for her adoring lover it’s the culmination of this specific sexual attraction. As Marie reaches under a carefully placed sheet, the film offers a rare instance of genuine physical intimacy, even if there’s a fundamental disparity between the two participants’ motives.
If Marie never gets closer to the object of her desire, then too Sciamma never quite achieves the same concentration of purpose. Abandoning the formal elegance of the rest of the film, she unwisely attempts a bravura final sequence, bringing the characters together for a party amidst a flurry of slow-mo stagings, cross-cutting and trick lighting effects. But the scene feels aesthetically asynchronous with what’s gone before and the stylistic excesses go some way towards nullifying the cumulative effect Sciamma’s been building towards throughout the film. Even the inevitable kiss between Marie and Floriane fails to build on the intimacy established in the earlier scene. Still, until this final misstep, Sciamma manages to get down much of what marks adolescence as a particularly demanding (if fascinating) stage of human development: the misdirected yearning, the awkward self-consciousness and, above all, the insistent physical anxiety that comes with the burden of a constantly changing body. Andrew Schenker
Best Laid Plans: XXY
Like doctors who operate on inter-sex newborns for the “good” of the child, director Lucía Puenzo, whose film XXY follows the story of one such “genitally ambiguous” individual raised as a girl and now facing puberty, sets out with the best intentions of trying to “fix” society’s perceptions of who these people are. And like those well meaning surgeons, her efforts at healing do more harm than good. The daughter of Argentinean director Luis Puenzo and a three-time novelist in her own right, Puenzo has a secure grasp on both words and cinematography, how to match bluish lighting with the beauty of a South American beach, how to frame her lead Alex (played by Inés Efron, as lithe and androgynous as a glossy magazine model) naked in front of a mirror, genitalia obscured in the shadows, while her adolescent crush Alvaro (a convincingly awkward and gangly Martín Piroyansky) stands watching shirtless in the downpour outside. Alvaro also happens to be the son of a Buenos Aires couple, old friends invited to Alex’s home in Uruguay by her mother—lending an insidious air to the visit is that Alvaro’s father is a reconstructive surgeon.
This is all a wonderful setup for what could have been a masterful film. Unfortunately, in Puenzo’s rush to get so many important ideas into her script, based on the short story “Cinismo” by Argentine writer Sergio Bizzio, she loses sight of her characters as flesh-and-blood beings. What we get instead is a series of melodramatic scenes that don’t ring true to any sort of reality and heavy-handed visuals that virtually hit us over the head. We see genitally ambiguous dolls with “Alex” name-tagged to them in her room, Alvaro discovering Alex’s gender-related notebook drawings, the surgeon reading a book on “origins of inter-sex” as he sits at the steering wheel of a car stuck in traffic, Alex herself reading a book that describes how all vertebrates are originally female while her pet iguana crawls up her leg—images as direct and unsubtle as Alex’s asking Alvaro for sex by way of introduction.
When Alvaro finds a rare species of bug, Alex snaps, “What do you know about the species in my house?” before smashing it. Her father is a biologist bent on rescuing an “endangered species,” the idea of castration/surgery paralleled with both the dead turtles he cuts up (“Female,” he notes, the first words in the film) and Alvaro’s surgeon father, looking like a smug asshole Mel Gibson, forever dicing up food. (“Stay away from my daughter!” Alex’s father yells at a bully at the end before turning to the surgeon and shouting, “Stay away from my son!”) When Alex finally does get to fulfill her sexual desire it culminates in her fucking the (straight?) teen in the ass—and her father catches them in the act! Alvaro escapes to the woods where he jerks off as he sobs. Cut to Alex curled up in bed sobbing. Cut to father pulling out newspaper clippings of an inter-sex child who chose to live as a man (followed by him going to the gas station where the guy works and getting his windshield wiped clean—father can see clearly now). Does it get any more reductive than this?