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Indie 500: The Broken West, Prodigy, TV on the Radio, & Grand Archives

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Indie 500: The Broken West, Prodigy, TV on the Radio, & Grand Archives

I know I keep coming up with constant excuses for this column’s (to put it politely) somewhat irregular publishing schedule, but this one I need to make. Briefly: The Onion A.V. Club is in the thick of its year-end process, which meant I just couldn’t pass up the chance to make a year-end top 10. I just couldn’t; it’s an addiction. So maybe my A.V. Club list and my list here will be markedly different; perhaps not (it’s been a weak year and I don’t imagine many more surprises cropping up). In any case, I’ve been cramming like a guilty high-school student on 2008 releases; notes below represent things I was thinking about intensely a month/month-and-a-half ago. Please accept the mental distance; soon enough I’ll be catching up on everything that ostensibly matters musically about 2008.

Here’s the thing about The Broken West: they’re one of the most derivative bands working today. They have no ideas of their own. They never met a Big Star track they didn’t like, except for maybe “Holocaust.” Am I being clear enough in explaining why I like them? Their 2007 debut I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On was a huge guilty pleasure for me, ridiculous titular Beckett allusion and all. Back then, I shamefacedly wrote out my qualifications with more conviction than I felt, and they’re all still true: “sneering lead singers who assert themselves like American Gallagher brothers … no breathing room except for ballads … don’t have a whole lot on their mind besides, you know, girls and place-holder lyrics … consciously anti-intellectual…They’re not clever, but they’re satisfying.” This was an oblique (OK, trying to avoid chastisement for my taste) way of saying that I listened to their album way too many times, and I’m not real sure why. There’s a lot of filler there: looking on the track-listing a little over a year later, I can’t remember what half of it sounds like, and re-visiting tracks like “You Can Build An Island” or “Brass Ring” isn’t really helping.

The reason I’m revisiting them: they were the only great thing I saw at CMJ. Granted, I didn’t get out a whole hell of a lot (other bands seen: The Browns, The Muslims, Wye Oke, Portastatic). Still, I was in a really bad mental headspace, which was compounded by the fact that I find most shows to be more trouble than they’re worth. The Broken West’s performances of “On The Bubble” and “Down In The Valley” gave me six minutes of visceral, head-thrashing, non-thinking joy, and if I’m doing better now, I owe them at least a little debt of thanks. (This despite the fact that The Broken West apparently read the same guide to being an LA band everyone else did and wear the same stupid neck-length hair and pseudo-rock-star button-down shirts as every other goddamn LA buzz band. They can still play.)

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I don’t really want to pan their new album Now Or Heaven. The press kit announces that the band felt the need to tear it up and start over from rhythms rather than guitars; this basically means the album is all treble and no bass. For a band wanting to bring the retro-hooks, this is not a particularly satisfying approach. There’s a lot of skittery machines and pseudo-electronics that provide tentative rhythms, which isn’t particularly satisfying; the songs play better live, with the drums giving enough muscle to melodies that aren’t as ridiculously big as before but still get the job done. Lyrics are cursory; the best song is probably “Ambuscade,” which announces “these are ruthless people,” which probably means this is yet another song about how awful the music industry is, which is about as meaty a topic as The Broken West can touch without lapsing into cliche. The rest is inoffensive and unmemorable. Props to The Broken West for not resting on their laurels, but what a way to go about it: ditching all your assets for experimentation that isn’t even that experimental. Next time, guys; still love the show.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Prodigy’s album H.N.I.C. Part 2. Like last year’s Return Of The Mac, it’s good for three spins and little more aside from a few stand-out tracks. Last year, the stand-out tracks were mostly courtesy of Alchemist’s production, and while he and associate Sid Roams still do a good job running things (Roams gets first single “ABC,” which has a bunch of little kids singing the alphabet, leading to an oddly Boards Of Canada-type effect), that’s not really the point.

H.N.I.C. Part 2 comes down to three tracks. The record’s most anomalous is “Veterans Memorial Part 2,” which induced a Pavlovian response in me from its opening chipmunk vocals and soul strings; Prodigy drops the kill-you-for-no-reason bullshit for a second and tells a predictable litany of street reprisals, jail terms and unnecessary deaths with poignancy and original details: there’s a killer out there, sure, but at one point a man kills people for no reason (he can give and take it—he gets shot in the head, goes home and takes the bullet out himself), goes to jail, “came home Muslim,” and two months later is at it again. That version I hadn’t heard before. Prodigy also unsentimentally remembers his dad teaching him how to rob a jewelry store—who knows if it’s true, but he’s a convincing narrator anyway.

But the really compelling and fucked-up stuff comes on two conspiracy-track numbers. The album kicks off with “Real Power Is People”; it starts with the usual kill-protect-get rich nonsense, in convincingly threatening but slightly dull fashion. Then suddenly Prodigy has some unusual images to drop: “Pedophiles rape little kids for energy / Satanic rituals, WTC (RIP) / They lit the Pentagon on fire / That’s lighting the pentagram on fire.” The first time I heard this, I sat bolt upright and started paying extra-close attention. “Wow,” I wondered, “has Prodigy just found a completely irresponsible but effective persona to grab my attention with? Or does he really believe this, in which case he’s gone completely insane?”

Let’s be clear: even when Prodigy was deep in Mobb Deep’s heyday, he never seemed like our most responsible citizen; when he got arrested for possession of a weapon (for the third time) and sent to jail for three and a half years, it sort of made sense. Prodigy’s lawyers may well be on firm ground when they claim he’s being shaken down by the NYPD hip-hop squad, but I still only half-believe everything Prodigy says. But this is a whole new level of crazy. On “Illuminati,” he merely claims that one of the conspiracy theorists’ favorite is out for him: “Illuminati want my mind, soul and body.” Up until now, I didn’t know that Prodigy and my conspiracy-theory-minded dad had anything in common; I’m sure it would be a nasty shock to them both.

As Prodigy’s infamous prison blogs confirm, he’s not joking. Check out installment #3, the bluntly titled” RITUALISTIC MURDER”. Prodigy begins nice and easy with a few reasoned words about 9/11 (“THERE WERE BOMBS GOING OFF ON JUST ABOUT EVERY FLOOR AND THAT’S THE ONLY THING THAT CAUSED THE TOWERS TO COLLAPSE SO PERFECTLY IN DEMOLITION FORMATION.”) Then he gets to the Pentagon: “THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IS THE FACT THAT THE PENTAGON WAS SET ON FIRE, THEY’VE ACTUALLY SET A PENTAGRAM ON FIRE. ONLY SATANIC WORSHIPPERS SET PENTAGRAMS ON FIRE, WHEN THEY PRACTICE THEIR RITUALS.”

After some more talk of energy lines, the investigative work of Alex Jones (if you don’t know, don’t ask) and so on, he finally gets around to telling where all the missing children are going: “PEOPLE I’M SORRY TO SAY BUT 95% OF THESE MILLIONS OF MISSING CHILDREN ARE BEING USED AS A PART OF THESE ELITE SOCIETIES DEMONIC AND SATANIC RITUALS. THEY ARE BEING SEXUALLY MOLESTED BECAUSE IN THESE IN THESE SATANIC RITUALS WHEN THEY MOLEST A CHILD THEY’RE CONJURING UP A NEGATIVE ENERGY. … NOT ONLY ARE THESE MISSING CHILDREN BEING USED AS SEXUAL TOOLS IN SATAN WORSHIP, BUT THEY’RE ALSO BEING EATEN AS A PART OF THESE VERY SAME RITUALS.” He also cites Hannibal. You get the idea. Every track has been “researched”; this is no longer just an album.

Where Prodigy is going with this (I won’t take you any more of the long way) is a very freaky version of black nationalism where white people invent power structures to oppress the Muslim nation or whatever. And while all this is pretty absurd from where I sit, it’s good to hear it. I’m sort of thinking like this: I like to read The New York Times and Dirty Harry’s Place back to back, so that I can read what seems like a reasonable perspective on the world, only to have my brain cleansed with a right-wing lunacy so strident I know it represents a perspective I’d never encounter otherwise in a few sharp, short blasts. (I also enjoy the site because, when not waxing political, Dirty Harry wants to do things like pay tribute to Dana Andrews; ain’t nothing wrong with that.) Listening to Prodigy as opposed to pretty much any other rapper with mainstream recognition—even the devout Lupe Fiasco—is a quick clue to certain avenues of life I will never be invited into, because I’m probably the enemy. Condoning it is beside the point; I’m just intrigued it exists. Besides, like Prodigy really gives a fuck what I think. I wonder what he thinks of Obama.

Like The Walkmen, TV On the Radio are a wildly-acclaimed band every bit as obsessed as what they should sound like as how their songs are constructed. And, like The Walkmen, they’ve just had their breakthrough moment. Not to get all “I was there,” but the brief year that I subscribed to Magnet Magazine, I was briefly insanely dedicated to trying to download sample MP3s of every single band they featured in any capacity, whether in one of their excellent features, the (mostly overwritten) album capsule reviews, and especially the full-page glossy buzz artists who’d get a color photo and a brief write-up. Most fell into the ether, but TV On the Radio had their shot at the moment they were passing through Austin on what I presume was one of their first national touring-laps. At a small in-store at the now sadly defunct 33 Degree Records they were pretty thrilling, running through erratic sound conditions in a way that was improvisatory and engaged, making up plausible songs on the spot. Their trademark empty spaces and drones weren’t in place.

I was mostly annoyed by their first album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes: now they had a sound, but that sound seemed calculated to resist every pop pleasure that didn’t involve going a capella. No harmonies or complexities, just reverb and lots of droning; not droning in the sense that some bands embrace full-on, just straight lines that reveled in a sound rather than song. 2006’s Return To Cookie Mountain was a step up—producer Dave Sitek came into his own, and the album did more in its first thirty seconds to harmonically stun than the entirety of its predecessor—but the last half degenerated into 8-minute jams going nowhere in particular besides the mixing board.

So, of course, I waited forever to get into this year’s Dear Science, because all I was told was that they’d gone pop, which is what everyone said about their last album, which was only relatively true. Within thirty seconds, they’ve hit clarity: “Halfway Home” opens with one chord being hammered at by the full band, but then suddenly Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals go for a perfect ba-ba-ba equidistant from The Beach Boys and The Ramones. This means two things: that TV On the Radio, having gotten their sound down perfectly, feel free to reference other bands now, and also that they’re comfortable giving you a pop song without feeling all guilty about it. “Dancing Choose” kind of sounds like Barenaked Ladies, I swear to god, but a lot of the album is accessible relative. Kyp Malone’s tracks tend to be a little tricksier, imagining (I know this is a really hackneyed reference point, but I honestly feel it’s justifiable) a world in which the Talking Heads didn’t drop the polyrhythmic experiments but went even further, instructing pizzicato violins to join in. All of which is admirable and interesting to listen to, but the standout track for me is also, typically, the least overtly ambitious. “Family Tree” is 5 1/2 minutes built upon a few simple elements amplified to infinity: a string quartet, a piano whose simple depressed chords echo over and over, and various production frills that use almost ineffable moments to swell everything up. It’s hard to tell exactly what it’s all about, but there’s a general sense of a pathologically damaged family (“in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree”), something I can always get behind.

TV On the Radio are now meeting me 75% of the way there, in that they’ve given me one gorgeous (but not overly sentimental) song for late nights and a bunch of intellectually interesting songs that kind of get my blood pumped and kind of are just cerebrally intriguing without collapsing into drones. I’ll take it.

Grand Archives is as fun a band to listen to as they are boring to write about. Their self-titled debut was respectfully received and promptly forgotten, but this Band of Horses defection deserves at least as much attention as their last album. Seemingly misremembering Howard Hawks, Grand Archives offer up three great songs and no bad ones. Opener “Torn Foam Blue Couch” offers up their vision of unostentious maximalism. Where Band of Horses aim to be an old-school rock band, using only the core instruments at maximum reverbed volume, Grand Archives summon up a slow-building storm from, at first, nothing more than a tambourine, a harp and a boy-girl duo. By the end, the whole band’s in, the drums are pounding, horns have shown up somewhere along the way, and—in time-honored rock fashion—someone’s hitting the same piano octave over and over again.

None of the songs go anywhere surprising, but they get there with confidence, deliberation and consistent skill. The three knock-outs: “A Setting Sun,” a twangy stretch with a surprisingly bouncy chorus. The epic “Sleepdriving” (at 5:20, easily the longest track), the only track that seeks intensity. (NB: there’s something wrong with the version in this video.) Beginning with an urgent guitar-picking riff, “Sleepdriving” settles into a grim but pretty verse (it sounds like one of Elliott Smith’s angrier moments) before an unexpected string bridge comparable to The Shins’ similar one in “Saint Simon,” whose arrangement crawls over the rest of the song. “The Crime Window” sounds kinda like a wussier bar band, which is cool too. (Preferable really.) Predictable but very well-crafted, Grand Archives is my guilty pleasure of the year for the sheer margin between actual merit and number of times played (it’s one of my ten most played bands for the last three months). Not exactly slept-on, but undervalued all the same.

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.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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