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New York Film Festival 2008: Chouga, Four Nights With Anna, Bullet in the Head, & Shorts

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New York Film Festival 2008: <em>Chouga</em>, <em>Four Nights With Anna</em>, <em>Bullet in the Head</em>, & Shorts

I’m not sure if Chouga is NYFF-level quality, exactly, but if every movie in Tribeca was this good, I’d be a happy man. Darezhan Omerbaev is apparently one of Kazakhstan’s leading masters, which, granted, isn’t a terribly helpful thing to say. A more-or-less bare-bones update of Anna Karenina (haven’t read it yet, but Wikipedia makes it clear that this is a beyond-Cliff’s Notes paring down), Chouga is, in all probability, the most deadpan thing I’ve seen all year. I’m not sure why you need Tolstoy to make a deadpan comedy, but here it is anyway. In point of fact, not a single joke is cracked the entire movie; I’m not sure what makes it seem like a comedy, aside from the most ferociously taciturn and inexpressive performances that, somehow, don’t make the whole thing boring or austere. If it’s deadpan and doesn’t suck, it must be a joke. Right?

Tiburon (for the life of me, I can’t find the actor’s name) is a moody, self-important man introduced during his morning routine: waking slowly, making breakfast, reading sensitive, self-pitying poetry to himself. Alarm bells should go off when the first person introduced—presumably our protagonist—is subsequently outmanned all the way by Ablai (Aidos Sagatov). Sympathy comes at a premium in Chouga; oddly, passion does as well. At first, we seem to be veering into Hong Sang-soo territory, all sexual gamesmanship and neutrally presented outrages; Tiburon and Ablai’s only mano-a-mano moment is an awkward stand-off, with Tiburon sulkily confessing to working in film and Ablai proposing they have a good, long talk later on how tired everyone is of this Hollywood garbage. The friction of this bitchy little moment—an out-of-nowhere defense of the film you’re watching against hegemonic global entertainment, the sly insistence on Kazakhstan not just as a faceless punchline for Sacha Baron Cohen’s assault on American xenophobia but as a developing country with both a physical and intellectual presence—is the best Omerbaev has to offer.

The rest of Chouga is a breeze, assuming you like actors with no inflection in their lines (can’t speak to the portion of the film actually spoken in Kazakh, but the Russian portions are some of the most expressionless I’ve ever heard), no facial expression, and lots and lots of geography. Omerbaev offers up, in essence, a complete tour of upper-class Kazakh society—from the surprisingly spacious lofts full of discarded vodka bottles and HDTVs that pass for overwhelming wealth to tacky disco-based private parties to the lower-key rural areas. And the train stations, of course. He appears particularly fascinated by people’s TV viewing habits; there’s a fine dissertation to be written at some point on the various snatches of programs seen here, from idiotic Nickelodeon cartoons dubbed into Russian to insect copulation. It’s globalism in action, and no one bats an eye. Omerbaev’s sweep is relentless, and easy to miss in the low-key nature of it all, but as my first Kazakh film, it’s a fine tour guide.

Chouga is, finally, quietly amusing, an uncertain dispatch whose ultimate purpose is kind of unknowable; it’s not Anna Karenina, and it’s not your standard festival movie. Playing in a print that, over the last year, has evidently seen a good deal of wear and tear, it’s the kind of dispatch well worth checking out if you have the time and money, a welcome reminder that new cinematic terrain is always waiting to be shown, if not yet quite comprehended. I’m not sure what amuses me so much about Chouga, and it’s stuck in my head. It’s preceded by Alistair Banks Griffin’s short Gauge, which I missed a few minutes of, but which basically combines unpleasant, rote father-son tension straight out of some dreadful short story collection with “lyrical” swathes of reeds straight from Terrence Malick’s trim-bin swaying in the wind. Ballast fans may dig it.

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I don’t have much to say about Jerzy Skolimowski’s Four Nights With Anna, because NYC wasn’t kind enough to throw me a Skolimowski retro before this film arrived; in other words, this is a major hole for me, and just seeing Knife In The Water (which he co-wrote) presumably isn’t nearly enough context. Skolimowski’s film will play at every film festival known to man until the prints are held together with tape and paper clips; it’s the first directorial effort in 17 years by an acknowledged master. All he really had to do was show up. The praise is locked.

Personally, I can’t get into it at all. Four Nights With Anna, in essence, tackles what I’ll lazily dub the De Palma Principle (though “The Blue Velvet Effect” would serve just as well). In one corner, a man obsessed with a woman; at a distance, physically and emotionally, the woman. The challenge is how to film obsession in a way that’s cinematic, mirrors the protagonist’s own plight in a way that makes it as interesting to the audience to watch the watcher as it is for him to maintain an unwavering gaze, and dispenses with the psychological revelations that could be explicated in written form. As far as I’m concerned, Four Nights With Anna pretty much bombs on all counts, following the moody plight of one Leon (Artur Steranko), whose obsession with the titular blonde (Kinga Preis) is, all things concerned, pretty tedious. (It doesn’t help that the shithole village Leon lives in is basically Sátántangó in color, which proves pretty distracting. That movie seemed shorter.)

The audacious joke of the title is that Leon spikes her sugar with a sedative, then spends the nights next to her zonked-out body giving her pedicures, drinking, etc. All of which plays out in what feels like real time, all of which is surprisingly non-freaky. If this is a joke of some sort, it’s Skolimowski’s private party. The best thing about it all is Michal Lorenc’s pummeling score, which can almost stand comparison with Jonny Greenwood’s work for There Will Be Blood; it starts as a rumbling that seems like it’s merely atmospheric, then swells into full blown insanity. Like Mike D’Angelo says, “at a time when most international art films revel in silent austerity, those shrieking violins seem downright avant-garde, even though that’s exactly what you’d expect from the Hollywood equivalent.” Seriously, if it’s this or yet another Amerindie full of droning ambient guitar tones and weedy post-rock, let’s go with this. And internationally, we’ve been in silence too long; it clears my head, but it seems stupid just to throw it all away.

Dmitry Povolotsky’s Pal Secam precedes Anna; a zippy Columbia thesis film, it’s basically Superbad without Jonah Hill, in Russia and in 1985. It’s exactly as grimy, despairing and funny as that sounds. I continue to be impressed by how much better this year’s NYFF short films are than last year.

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I don’t know firsthand what happens in Jaime Rosales’ Bullet In The Head, because it’s the first movie I’ve walked out on in five years. The last was some horribly unmemorable movie at SXSW, a consumer-grade-video affair some dude had shot in Russia. After the grain wore off, I was watching some young beatific slacker having vodka pressed upon him by typically degenerate older Russians, at which point I decided I’d rather not pay for parking than sit through the rest of this. So there.

Here’s what I saw: the first shot is ocean waves. Warning bells should’ve been going off in my head, because there’s nothing special about the framing: it’s a pretty boring shot, relying for rhythm on the sound of waves rather than anything else. So then, go to WalMart and buy a Soothing Sounds Of The Ocean disk and get it over with. Next we’re treated to ambient sound and an unreadable image: some unidentifiable lights in darkness. Gradually, the lights come on and we realize that we’re staring through glass doors at an apartment, but you haven’t really gained anything from the time it takes for Rosales to cue his lights one by one and fill out the frame. It’s a flashy shot signifying nothing besides Rosales’ own cleverness. Quite frankly, this kind of bullshit peek-a-boo formalism must not stand.

But Rosales has to take it to another level, filming the entire movie without dialogue; we see a man browsing the gum racks in a corner store, getting lunch, talking. We see a lot of people talking, only with no real progression or facial expressions. In fact, we see some of the world’s most boring shots without dialogue or notable sound for ever and ever and ever. According to Rosales, this is a metaphor for the problem in addressing the problem of Basque separatist terrorists in Spain: “nobody listens to anybody else,” Rosales says, so that’s what the silence is about. Whatever. Apparently, the boring man does eventually get around to executing the title, but I thought anyone who even half-paid attention to the news would think the last problem here is “silence.” But whatever. I walked out and I don’t regret it one bit. There’s the kind of formalism that can alienate those who still need a little obvious narrative, and then there’s this: a politicized challenge with no reward.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.