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Chantal Akerman (#110 of 12)

Locarno Film Festival 2015 James White, No Home Movie, & Keeper

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Locarno Film Festival 2015: James White, No Home Movie, & Keeper

The Film Arcade

Locarno Film Festival 2015: James White, No Home Movie, & Keeper

How wonderful it is to watch a film that pays attention to life’s finer textures. The setting is PalaVideo, a vertiginous cinema at the back of Locarno’s train station, and the time is midday. The air conditioning is desperately insufficient and folks wave fans in front of their faces, a gesture that turns the fixed safety lights that adorn the walls on either side of the auditorium into gentle flashes in one’s periphery. The perspiration, the darkness, the unsynchronized hand movements: If it isn’t quite an erotic context to watch this packed public screening of James White, it’s certainly what we’d call a bodily experience.

Hearth of Darkness Rob White’s Todd Haynes

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Hearth of Darkness: Rob White’s Todd Haynes
Hearth of Darkness: Rob White’s Todd Haynes

Perhaps the most salient point in Rob White’s auteur study of Todd Haynes comes within his discussion of B. Ruby Rich and her statement that Poison (1991), a pioneering film of New Queer Cinema, is “homo-pomo,” which involves appropriation, pastiche, and irony, among others. More importantly, she claims the movement’s films to be “irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive…full of pleasure.” It’s an alteration of the last claim that defines White’s book, where he acknowledges that Poison is “witty and playful” (or pleasurable), “but it builds to an intense pathos.” That pathos—and its significance—is where White seeks footing within the oeuvre of a filmmaker who appears to operate with equal parts practice and theory in mind. After all, Haynes studied with prolific film theorist Mary Ann Doane at Brown University, which White sees as a potential influence on Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), given the film’s preoccupation with “female subservience and the honorable authority of the medical profession,” which is a central concern of Doane’s classic monograph The Desire to Desire. Also on White’s agenda: navigating through the litany of cinematic influences on Haynes’s films and carefully investigating the various modes of transgression present throughout much of his filmography. Ultimately, the balancing act is an impressive mix of high and low criticism.

Low, in the sense that White has visibly reigned in the academic arsenal, making only glancing references to the likes of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—names that will be (painfully?) familiar to anyone who’s logged hours as a grad student in cinema studies. In this case, the short shrift isn’t only welcome, but supplemental to the core of White’s analysis, as he refrains from bogging the films down in unnecessary theoretical explications. Though Haynes’s filmography is potentially riper for such discussions than others, White’s own delicate prose takes its place. For example, White states regarding Superstar that objects are “better described as deathlike than lifelike.” Such an acute approximation trumps paragraphs of theoretical examination. Moreover, the discussion leads to equally proficient conclusions; regarding Poison, the author states that “horror represents the politics of futile protest.” In stridently identifying these tendencies and qualities, White combines the best of critical and academic writing.

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

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The 100 Best Films of the 1990s
The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

By the current timetable of cultural recycling, pop artifacts tend to look their most dated—no longer fresh and new, but also not yet easily filed as products of their time—roughly 15 to 20 years following their initial conception. That became painfully clear when, and this isn’t to speak for the rest of the Slant writers, I set about the task of re-watching some of the ’90s movies I’ve long considered favorites, and even more so as I finally set about to catch up with some of the other movies my colleagues were endorsing. Beyond the leftover ’80s-hangover effect, there’s also the fact that some of the most beloved and influential ’90s movies helped kick off trends that have, in the years since, curdled into cliché and downright annoyance. Hence, over-familiarity and premature antiquity form a minefield that makes determining the last analog decade’s best films uniquely tricky.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Diego Costa’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Diego Costa’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Diego Costa’s Top 10 Films of All Time

I can identify two elements common to the films that ended up on this list. They are either about feminine suffering and/or about the impossibility of language to ever quite translate feeling. The criteria which I came up with for this impossible, unfair, and incredibly fun assignment involved remembering the films that led me to think “This is one of the best films ever made” at the time I first saw them, and which, upon a re-screening, several years later, remained just as remarkable—perhaps for different reasons. Also part of the criteria was my (failed) attempt at not repeating directors, and making a conscious effort to go against a cinematic “affirmative action” that would try to represent different periods of time, countries, and genres. It’s also mind-boggling to notice how half of the list includes films made in the mid 1970s. But the list escapes traditional logic. It’s the warping, re-signifying logic of affect and memory that architected this list, which turns out to be nothing short of this cinephile’s symptom.

AFI Fest 2011: This Is Not a Film, Almayer’s Folly, & Hanaan

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AFI Fest 2011: <em>This Is Not a Film</em>, <em>Almayer’s Folly</em>, & <em>Hanaan</em>
AFI Fest 2011: <em>This Is Not a Film</em>, <em>Almayer’s Folly</em>, & <em>Hanaan</em>

Under house arrest and awaiting a verdict on his appeal from Iran’s supreme court, filmmaker Jafar Panahi spends much of This Is Not a Film remaking, rethinking, and reconstructing his Tehran apartment as a sandbox of cinema. Despite his isolation and self-doubt, every frame becomes a wondrous opportunity for expression, each corner of Panahi’s posh prison cell a mental trap door from his stifling physical entrapment. Panahi’s equipment is expectantly bare boned, consisting of only a PD-150 digital video camera, a smart phone, and some gaffer’s tape used to create spatial designs on the floor. Walls of natural light flood in from the world outside, often illuminating the empty spaces of Panahi’s rooms with a certain unexpected grace. Throughout the film’s tight 75-minute running time, Panahi perfectly captures the haunting illusion of time, how moments of reflection and fear can seamlessly overlap with the mundane, moment-to-moment process of waiting for one’s fate.

Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Wavelengths 5: The Return/Aberration of Light, Wavelengths 4: Space Is the Place, & Take This Waltz

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Wavelengths 5: The Return/Aberration of Light</em>, <em>Wavelengths 4: Space Is the Place</em>, & <em>Take This Waltz</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Wavelengths 5: The Return/Aberration of Light</em>, <em>Wavelengths 4: Space Is the Place</em>, & <em>Take This Waltz</em>

Wavelengths 5: The Return/Aberration of Light: As unburdened, freely (dis)associative works, it’s barking up the wrong tree to assign meaning to a film by Nathaniel Dorsky, but his latest, The Return, with its recurring images of permeable or false boundaries (mesh, dirty windows, trees and shrubs) and final vision of the sun breaking both through and around a cloud seems to me a film of great hope; perhaps that’s what returned following the sadness, paranoia, and uncertainty of Dorsky’s trio at Wavelengths last year. It’s always a challenge to program films beside Dorsky’s, but Aberration of Light: Dark Chamber Disclosure, a live paracinema performance by Sandra Gibson, Luis Recoder, and Olivia Block succeeded precisely by working with the same intellectual energy drives Dorsky to find new registers to push cinema into. The presence of Block’s recorded soundtrack anchors this temporally, which allows Gibson and Recoder, working with filters, refractors, and appropriated commercial film, to build a dialectic between linear time and their light, which effectively lies outside of time. It should be noted that, as an act of pure creation, this was a far better tribute to the memory of those who died on 9/11 than the schlocky, sentimental, self-serving piece of hokum that the festival served up before all of the day’s public screenings (a blemish that was notably absent from the night’s two Wavelengths screenings).

Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Almayer’s Folly and That Summer

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Almayer’s Folly</em> and <em>That Summer</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Almayer’s Folly</em> and <em>That Summer</em>

Almayer’s Folly: In what is easily the most eye-grabbing introductory sequence so far in the festival, an extended tracking shot follows a man into a nightclub where a lounge lizard mimes a Dean Martin chanson before a row of swaying, sequin-studded dancers; a knifing ensues, and the one girl left onstage afterward approaches the camera for a close-up and launches into a grave aria in Latin. Fortunately, Chantal Akerman’s very loose modernization of Joseph Conrad’s first novel lives up to the humid mystery of its opening with a stylistic rigor that finds the Belgian filmmaker—directing her first non-documentary feature in seven years—in top insinuating form. As she charts the dilemmas and gestures of an European trader Almayer (Stanislas Mehar) and his “mixed-blood” daughter, Nina (Aurora Marion), Akerman’s decision to take Conrad’s 19th-century, Malaysia-set story to modern-day Cambodia without acknowledging the changes comes to strike less as an eccentric gesture than as a purposeful extension of the narrative’s inquiries into cultural identity and colonial uprooting. Still, the film works most evocatively not as a visualization of a literary source, but as a companion piece to Akerman’s 2000 masterpiece La Captive, another tale of obsessive drives hitting like tropical maladies. A work of engulfing jungles and rivers, vehement and incantatory speeches, and piercing female gazes in front of and behind the camera.

Women, Art, and Revolution: An Interview with B. Ruby Rich

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Women, Art, and Revolution: An Interview with B. Ruby Rich
Women, Art, and Revolution: An Interview with B. Ruby Rich

In Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution, stalwart feminist film critic B. Ruby Rich says, “A lot of us who survived those fights, bloodied but relatively unscarred, are kind of like the old C.I.A. and KGB agents that get together for reunions. Who else knows what we’ve been fighting over? Who else is interested in these issues that have really been consigned to a sort of historic scrap pile that people really don’t seem that interested in anymore?” The subject of that hit documentary is its subtitle, A Secret History. At the opening of the film in NYC, I had a chance to speak with Rich so that she could unearth that buried past even further and explain why understanding that moment is particularly relevant now.

So this is a documentary on feminist art, but also the women’s movement. But you’re one of the most renowned feminist film critics. So I’ll start out by asking you about the connection between feminist art and the women’s movement, and also feminist film, during the high time of the feminist movement, the ’70s and early ’80s.

So this triangular relationship that you’d assume would be there? It wasn’t there very much. It was a pretty weak triangle. They tended to be three different routes that women took and there was a kind of shadowing of one upon the other, but there wasn’t much connection. You’d think that there’d be, for instance, a strong connection between the feminist art movement and the feminist film movement. But, in fact, if I think about it, the only people who really crossed over were Carolee Schneemann, who did see herself as very much a feminist, and was very happy to finally have an allegiance to make after so very long of being treated badly by the boys in the art world, and Yvonne Rainer, whose work was shown in some of those very early film festivals, who was just beginning to make film but was coming out of the performance art world. She, at that time, didn’t even really consider herself a feminist. She was coming much more out of that world of the performance art left, in terms of anti-Vietnam organizing in politics and dance.

Toronto International Film Festival 2010: 127 Hours, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Tabloid, & Guest

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Toronto International Film Festival 2010: <em>127 Hours</em>, <em>Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame</em>, <em>Tabloid</em>, & <em>Guest</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2010: <em>127 Hours</em>, <em>Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame</em>, <em>Tabloid</em>, & <em>Guest</em>

127 Hours: Danny Boyle’s dramatization of the real-life ordeal of outdoorsman Aron Ralston boasts the kind of conceptual riskiness that a director has the cachet to tackle only after, say, delivering a crowd-pleasing Best Picture Oscar-winner. Unfortunately, it also has Slumdog Millionaire’s brand of exploitative uplift, in which cinematic jazziness is mercilessly employed to sugarcoat portraits of human misery. In the beginning, as he settles in for a weekend of thrills in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, Ralston (James Franco) is a roguish whirligig, light as air, high on his own breezy confidence. When he falls into a rocky crevice and gets his arm pinned under a boulder, there’s the feeling that he’s experiencing stillness and, subsequently, helplessness for the first time. The five days he spends there, alone but for dwindling supplies, a small digital camera, and a blunt knife, are envisioned by Boyle as a visceral smear of panic, excretions, mirages, and epiphanies. Far more than the filmmaker’s hectic, ultimately tension-dispersing visual and aural gimmickry, the picture’s best special effect remains Franco’s performance, which catches the horror and sublimity of a jock humbled while trapped at the bottom of the earth, becoming spiritually whole even as he literally loses parts of himself.