After all, why should TIFF be my only not-really-attended festival of the year?
2013 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL (including selections from Views from the Avant-Garde)
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [p] para-cinema (installation, etc.); [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
As you'll no doubt observe, my faux-coverage of NYFF bleeds right over from my faux-coverage of TIFF, so much so that the first film dealt with could have gone in either category. But I decided to treat NYFF as a separate concern for practical reasons. There are so many super-long films in the "Official Selection" (the Category Formerly Known as the Main Slate) that it seemed logical to cover them as an extension of my regular "Big Ones" column for Fandor. Which is what I have done. So I kind of begin with the longer films, and do my best to go from there. We'll see how this goes. In the wise words of Ms. Sharon Van Etten, it's not because I always give up. It might be I always give out.
As Mike D'Angelo has noted, The Missing Picture could be considered a companion piece of sorts to Rithy Panh's S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, and a comparison of both films' procedures makes a fairly compelling argument for why both are necessary. S21 is about who and what remains of the "killing fields," at the synchronic moment of its making. Directly inspired by Resnais' Night and Fog (and a rather clear precursor to the more meta-textual The Act of Killing), S21 finds Panh going to a still-standing Khmer prison and reuniting prisoners, torturers, and low-level jailers, in order to display how the persistence of space, architecture and geography -- the physical residue of terror -- draws direct lines from the past to the present. Temporal anteriority practically vanishes, the memories flood back, people assume their old roles, and the ghosts that haunt Cambodia walk the earth once again. By contrast, The Missing Picture is Panh's personal essay film. In it, the filmmaker provides a linear account of how the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror impacted his own life. But he is also bearing witness, describing the atrocities that he alone survived. There is no locale, no plastic reminder or marker to serve as a guidepost for this testimony. Instead, as Panh's title makes clear, The Missing Picture is about providing some sort of visual analogue, some relatable image for things that no one documented, or that no other survivor was able to see. And so, in a stroke of genius, Panh and his assistants carve clay miniatures, little figurines to represent himself, his family, his tormentors, his fellow prisoners, and various random victims of the purge of Phnom Penh. Using detailed panoramas and Ken Burns-style camerawork, Panh creates an almost naturalistic docu-drama using these figurines, moving us through his tale with first-person narration.
While it's true on a formal level that, yes, one becomes sufficiently accustomed to the clay figures over the course of The Missing Picture that we stop "noticing" their odd presence, this is also not quite the case. Panh has not forged his "picture" naively. There is a slight jut to the head and neck of these figures; even though they represent the past, they have a forward propulsion. They lurch into a future most of them will not see. What's more, their toy / craft innocence speaks directly to Panh's perspective in the camps. He was a young boy when the Communists took over, and although he makes a point that toys (like books, eyeglasses, and other bourgeois "luxuries") were not permitted for prisoners, The Missing Picture stages this deepest trauma as if it were a battle of toy soldiers, or even just painted clods of dirt. When Panh tells of witnessing the death of his father, or of three small children who starved in the camp, he is able to throw a tiny cloth over them, like putting a doll to sleep. And when he speaks of his partying, rock singer brother, who was most likely killed before even being taken prisoner, Panh wisks his figurine into the sky in a childlike visualization of flying to heaven. Panh is not just telling his story and making a picture to go along with it. He has found a way to channel affect, to make his tale of history-gone-wrong resonate for a viewer who, we can assume, is all too familiar with conventional cinematic reenactment. Instead, we observe a filmmaker employing the most primitive of means to achieve a higher level of empathy, as well as an ethics of singularity. We are all unique, after all, which is what the Khmer Rouge chose not to see.
Although I saw no reason to get into it in my review, my thinking about At Berkeley was undoubtedly shaded by my time at UCB. I missed out on Occupy Berkeley, but I was a part of the formation of the GSI union and the seemingly endless series of strikes. I found the situation quite similar to the one Wiseman depicted in 2011, and I feel that the film failed to adequately convey the ambivalence that these moments of protest inevitably provoke. Yes, often the demands of student groups are rash and rather incoherent. This can be irksome. However, there is a power differential between student protesters and administration that can lead to such incoherence as a symptom. Students tend to have to articulate their contra-power positions very quickly and under duress, whereas the University merely has to play defense, using its p.r. machine to explain the hegemonic stances it is predisposed to take. Wiseman, for his part, is much more interested in how institutions function than in how they break down, so a protest / sit-in scenario is not going to be his preferred site of filmic analysis. Really, this is a formal problem that has unintended (but unsurprising) political overtones. Here is my review. For a very astute opposing take, I refer you to Genevieve Yue.
As I try to make clear in my Fandor review, I am no Diaz expert. Norte is the first of his films I have seen all the way through, in a single sitting. But over the years I have sampled his work quite a bit, and as much as I admire Norte, I do feel that some of the mystery of Diaz's earlier films has been drained off just a bit, in favor of an unusually propulsive, incident-driven approach. What's particularly strange here, I think, is that Norte comes on like a combination Dostoyevsky riff / Brechtian polemical allegory ("Fuck jurisprudence!"), and actually moves away from these lofty predilections. It becomes more aligned with genre, with guilt and innocence being meted out rather clearly in terms of urban / rural identifications, and with an almost melodramatic sensibility that subsumes most eventualities under the sign of fate. This might have something to do with Norte's surprising breakthrough. It's a long film, and an exceedingly well-crafted one, but it actually becomes easier to watch as it goes along. Why? Because like its characters, we have fewer and fewer potential threads of choice to overwhelm us. Norte is a film of closed-down options. Here's my review.
As I say at the beginning of my review, it's kind of unfair that this film is not in NYFF's "official selection" (aka the main slate), but I suppose I understand. What Now? is an unapologetically discursive film, one that loops about and rambles, taking what we might call the sick man's prerogative. Pinto ostensibly undertakes the project to help himself remember, but of course, this is an essay-film that is made so that we may remember: what the later years of AIDS-related illness look like, how humans struggle to preserve nature in its indifference; how two men conduct a love affair despite incredible obstacles; how a man's "mental weakness" can also serve as a sense of being jostled loose from traditional forms of associative thinking, into something more abstract and, yes, cinematic. But Pinto demands our time, a time for making long-range connections, for letting things hold and breathe in the seemingly "empty time" of waiting, thinking, reclining, being ill. I must reluctantly acknowledge that, even at the NYFF, this may not have been time that everyone would have been willing to give. Here's my review.
A tale of lustmord and longing that some have compared with Chabrol, this is a film of steely exactitude, which is probably the reason for that particular namecheck. But Chabrol's murder plots tended to revolve around bourgeois repression, embodied by chilly, well-appointed interiors. By contrast, Stranger By the Lake is an al fresco hide-and-seek; its only inside walls are the rectum which, pace Leo Bersani, isn't the grave we need to be worried about. With a visual style that combines the sun-kissed sand and bodies of David Hockney with the darker psychological landscapes of Eric Fischl, Stranger By the Lake is characterized by a shoreline, a meeting of forest, beach and water. Each of these locales serves as a transition point and as rhythmic punctuation throughout the film, with a repeated master-shot of the parking area (where the forest gives way to the sand) operating like a pivot-point between sequences, a kind of period-cum-capital-letter. But these locales are more than formal delineations of space. They are the exact coordinates with which Stranger’s characters, and Guiraudie, map desire within the film. The forest is the space of sexual engagement; the beach is the cruising / scopophilic zone, with lonesome, self-isolating figure Henri (Patrick D'Assumcao) sitting out on the far left of the beach / screen. And the lake itself is the space where physical exhaustion (and desire) gives way to mortal danger. In the most basic Freudian sense, Guiraudie has spatialized desire, with the beach as the buffer zone (and the narrow strip of civilization / camaraderie) between the Sex and Death Drives. So when Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), the protagonist, experiences lust for Michel (Christophe Paou), the mystery man, this is both complicated and electrified by his scopophilic gaze (from the forest to the lake, bypassing the zone of ethics and morality), where he witnesses Michel drowning a lover with whom he has grown bored.
In a way, Stranger By the Lake is a reduction of Guiraudie’s queer /psychometric space. As opposed to a film like No Rest For the Brave, which uses both the dream-work and a diegetic shape that is multifold (or, to borrow a term Derrida often applies to textual action, “invaginated”), this latest film can appear quite straight-ahead both in its narrative organization and its spatial articulation. This in itself might give pause to longtime Guiraudie supporters, concerned that the director’s least surreal, “straightest” narrative film is the one that has won him greatest favor to date with critics and festival programmers (if we can consider a film with hardcore anal and oral sex, plus a graphic cumshot, to be “straight” cinema). However, in truth Guiraudie’s queering of space has in fact expanded to become a universal principle in Stranger. Its three zones of activity situated atop one another like a tricolor flag. And the film’s spatial movement is governed by Franck’s sexual urges and romantic desires for Michel, his confusion in that desire (as an admixture with horror), and his platonic love for Henri. All space in Stranger By the Lake is queer. Guiraudie offers no objective diegetic metric for the viewer; the total area of the film, and all its shifting subzones, can only be understood through the vicissitudes of desire. Although this is mostly articulated by Franck’s conflicting drives, eventually Michel struggles to dominate the forest, the beach, and above all the lake. The filmic space of Stranger By the Lake is rendered unstable (and thoroughly queer) not only by gay desire or the conflation of Sex and Death, but by an unresolved battle over the power to enunciate and to articulate space itself.
[This is an excerpt from a longer essay on Guiraudie that I wrote for the Thessaloniki Film Festival.]
I have maintained that it's a lazy critic's dodge to claim that "Hong's films are all the same." It's patently false, but you can see why someone might say it, just as you could see why someone might get exasperated with a Robert Ryman exhibition and leave in a huff, saying (falsely) that "it's just a bunch of white paintings." It's true that Hong is an unconventional minimalist, one working within a strict narrative framework. He is interested in exploring permutations of a set of basic ingredients (male-cad film academics; winsome but deceptively insightful younger women; doubling; soju). The inevitable alteration of the pattern or introduction of a new term or set of terms into the system is the almost-scientific locus of Hong's art, a nearly behaviorist examination of his own small milieu. He is both a comedian and an auto-ethnographer, and if he seems stuck in some kind of aesthetic rut we might ask whether Korean patriarchal privilege is similarly stuck. Although male prerogative is a kind of universal Golden Ticket, Hong's films do zoom in (often quite literally) on the cultural particulars of Seoul Men, their habits and happinesses, their foibles and signature moves. This is, after all, his very own yard, and Hong tills a field whose weeds are insidious and legion.
Given that Hong's films are variations on a theme, or perhaps iterations of a single grand project, it stands to reason that not all of them are going to be as successfully realized on their own terms, as stand-alone works. Apart from certain obvious details, like the relative timing of Hong's performers or the sharpness of his dialogue, the main determiner is the "break" in the pattern, the deviation that individuates the film in question. What does it add, not only to this film but to the larger Hong Sang-soo metatext? Nobody's Daughter Haewon begins with startling promise. It appears as though, for the first time, we are going to meet a female protagonist and really get to know her apart from her relationships with, and definition by, her male suitors. Haewon (Jeong Eun-chae) is seen meeting with her mother (Kim Ja-ok), with whom she has very little contact, it appears. They are having a goodbye lunch and final day together before the mom moves to Canada, for no reason other than to find herself or realize her own happiness. She builds Haewon up with platitudes ("You could be Miss Korea!") but there is an undeniable distance between the two women. Haewon is clearly mourning as much for the mother she never quite had as she is for the departure of the figure before her. Soon enough, though, Haewon is positioned in a classic Hong scenario: she is a film student incapable of extricating herself from an affair with her married professor Seong-jun (Lee Sun-kyung). At a dinner with other students in her class, she is mocked and ostracized as they drop innuendo about the illicit affair. The members of Haewon's cohort also tease her for being a rich girl, implying that she doesn't have to work as hard as they do for her successes.
All of this eventually culminates in Haewon breaking off the affair, but there is an unnerving anti-psychologism to Nobody's Daughter, and it doesn't always seem intentional. Hong appears to want to place his female subject at the center of the film. But, beginning with her mother and continuing with her professor, her classmates, and a visiting scholar from San Diego who she meets in a coffee house by chance (who claims to know after just a few minutes that she's a good person, and is marrying material), what we are given is a set of external impressions of Haewon. This leads to a kind of Citizen Kane without flashbacks, with an Edie Sedgwick glass doll at the heart of the (non-)inquiry. If Hong wants us to understand that Haewon is never allowed to be, that she is restricted to serving as the mirror of others, he kind of misses the mark. This is because Jeong's bashful demeanor, combined with her model's looks, are fixed within the director's sights, such that she is positioned as a "mystery" rather than a girl struggling to come into her own. (A stoic pixie dream girl?) Even Hong's trademark repetitions seem to serve less as provocations for criticism -- thinking about the status of characters and events, whether they are comedic or traumatic reverberations of recent, not-entirely-real experiences -- and more like examples of Haewon being at the director's mercy and barely even noticing.
Two shots, one near the beginning and one near the end, show us Haewon waking up from her studying, her head in a book. (For the record, it's Norbert Elias's The Loneliness of the Dying.) Is it all a dream? Does dreaming require an interior life? We don't know that she has one. The most effusive moment we witness in the entire film is when Haewon randomly meets Jane Birkin, who is asking for directions around Namhansanseong. Haewon is thrilled, and cries, and tells Birkin that her daughter is an amazing actress. (Birkin is so moved that she gives Haewon her address and number.) So whatever else we don't know about Haewon, we know that she loves Charlotte Gainsbourg. Maybe women and movies are interchangeable for Hong. (That would explain why he covered this territory so much better in Oki's Movie. Oki was her movie, just as Hong can never not be his own.)