films I previewed for the 2011 NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
Video artist Laurel Nakadate’s aesthetic mien has been fairly consistent: suburban girls negotiating their desires, with creepy old men lurking behind every Wal-Mart. In The Wolf Knife, her second feature,precocious 16-year-old Chrissy (Christina Kolozsvary) embarks on a road trip from Florida to Nashville with her BFF June (Julie Potratz), supposedly to locate Chrissy’s dad. These false pretenses are just the beginning of a journey fraught with “bad touch” and love/hate tension thick as a cinderblock. Wolf Knife ultimately falters, mainly because its rambling, exploratory style is a ruse – it’s got a very specific trajectory – but Nakadate is onto something. It's been a relatively recent development that the complications of female friendship and rivalry are given serious airtime in the fine arts, and although I in no way mean to seel Nakadate short, her work does have the distinct advantage of riding a bit of a trendlet. What sets her work apart from many of her peers (from Amie Siegel and Lauren Greenfield to Sofia Coppola and, um, Ryan Murphy) is a sense of real darkness, both within her subjects' psyches and throughout the terrain they're forced to traverse. Whatever possessed Chrissy to contact an old grade school teacher on the Internet (the truly terrifying Dave Cloud) is as mystifying as adolescence itself. Nakadate does a good job of allowing these girls to remain, on some level, unknown quantities. She's no sociologist. However, her often desultory filmmaking disguises her own interests in them, stranding The Wolf Knife between aert-fetish and muddled half-gesture. It's clear, however, that Nakadate knows that her terrain entails some degree of fantasy, since she is essentially engaging in a kind of speculative realism. These are the further adventures of the girls we glimpsed once across a crowded party, thinking we’d never see them again.
Mexican-Canadian director Nicolás Pereda’s fiction/documentary hybrid has been a fixture on the festival circuit since its debut late least year, and not without reason. Goliath entails a substantial degree of mystery and a not inconsiderable dollop of humor. However, this fractured puzzle-tale, about the members of a family in rural Oaxaca struggling to cope after the paterfamilias abandons them without a word, is frustrating, obdurate, and seems intent on withholding surface pleasures like color and composition. Major ideas (including the one that lends the film its title) are left hanging, and Pereda’s structural conceits, such as having “performers” recreate ostensibly real-life events, seem to have little purpose beyond their own “Hi there!” formalism. Fans say that the more of this guy’s films you see, the more sense they make, and I am by means disputing this idea or planning to throw in the towel on Pereda. (One of his major defenders is Variety / Cinema Scope critic Robert Koehler, with whom I don't always agree, but whose opinions I always take seriously.) Interestingly enough for this "type" of film, Summer of Goliath does not rely primarily on non-professional actors. This was surprising to discover, not only because the "developing world" / Hubert Bals Fund festival axis has tended toward non-pros so doggedly for so long, but because the performances Pereda coaxed from his actors seem designed to mimic the guilelessness one sees in, say, Lisandro Alonso or Bruno Dumont films. But main actor Gabino Rodríguez (who plays Gabino), has appeared in major Mexican films such as Sin Nombre and Rudo y Cursi, along with Harold Torres, who played his soldier buddy. He's also, of course, appeared in the earlier Pereda films, Together and Perpetuum Mobile (both 2009), ostensibly playing the same role. Koehler compares Pereda's use of actors to that of Tsai Ming-liang, and if this is the case, I find myself trying to think back to what it was like when I saw my very first Tsai film, isolated from "the project." I would contend that, unlike Perdta, it offered much more in the way of rigor, seduction, and emotional heft. (It was Vive L'amour.) But I intend to spend a little more time on Pereda, since he may be one of those rarest of breeds on the contemporary scene -- a newcomer whose work demands solo-show, retrospective viewing. Taken singly, it's possible that Summer of Goliath is only a stepping stone, one I'll find myself eager to retrace later on. [/hemming-hawing]
One of this year’s must-sees, The Arbor is nevertheless daunting to describe. The reason for this is, as the pedants say, twofold. First, director Clio Barnard has devised a highly complex and bracingly original documentary procedure, one so unconventional that it requires a fair amount of explanation. Second, one must be very careful as to how one describes Barnard's procedure, lest it sound like a dry academic exercise. It certainly is not that. It’s the story of British playwright Andrea Dunbar, a poor 15-year-old growing up in a Yorkshire project housing who, in the early 80s, had a successful play (called “The Arbor”) about her own kitchen-sink existence. This was followed by two more plays, alcoholism and near-obscurity. She had three children, each by different fathers; one of the kids, Lorraine, was half-Pakistani, something Andrea never fully accepted. Andrea's rise and fall comprises the first half of The Arbor. The second half tells Lorraine’s equally tragic story. Director Clio Barnard’s coup is in conducting actual interviews with key participants in the story, those closest to Dunbar and her family who are still living; then having those audiotapes lip-synched and performed onscreen by actors in semi-artificial circumstances. The result is a documentary/fiction hybrid whose distancing strategies paradoxically result in heightening this real-life drama of maternal dissolution. That's to say, what should function as a kind of Brechtian distanciation actually serves to draw our sympathies in, to embed the speakers' words within an environment of despair, weariness, and futility.
Part of this is the direct result of the muted but highly sensitive performers Barnard managed to assemble for her production. While not all of The Arbor's cast members achieve great heights within the chilly shadowbox of nonfiction ventriloquism -- some are there to represent working-class boisterousness or provoke class-based dissonances -- the two women portraying Dunbar's daughters earn particular mention. Lisa, the younger sister, is embodied by Christine Bottomley, and although hers is the less showy performance, it is also probably the single most moving one in the entire film. Lisa's response to her mother's addictions and troubles with fame was one of downcast British pragmatism, and we can see in Bottomley's performance (as well as "Lisa's" brown, underlit 70s apartment) exactly the tetchy self-abnegation we heard in her voice on the interview tapes. Lisa kept herself together by clutching to normalcy and never letting go. By contrast, older sister Lorraine clearly took on the chaos that was life in the Dunbar family, and melded it internally with the ethnic anxieties of never feeling as if she truly belonged -- in a family, in Britain, in her own skin. Manjinder Virk visualizes the increasing desperation in Lorraine's tapes, and does so with an equal blend of addict's blame-shifting (all dodgy-eyed half-excuses made half with her noncommittal body language) and a drained, vacant hopelessness. Barnard offsets Lorraine's penance with the steely judgments of Lisa and others (including Lorraine's former foster parents) who find it impossible to forgive some of the Dunbar daughter's most grievous sins.
In the end, though, what The Arbor accomplishes is the precise opposite of a wallow in the abject misery of lives on the skids. Instead, the film asks us to implicitly see these people -- all of them, Andrea included -- as individuals functioning within a system of limited choices. This does not excuse their faults, of course. But what Barnard's method of "documentary readers' theatre" accomplishes (including the open-air restaging of some of Andrea Dunbar's theatre work, in the very housing project courtyards where it was inspired) is the setting-into-frame of a "reality" that was always Andrea Dunbar's aesthetic stock in trade, or was at least the commodity of value to those who lionized her work at the time of her humble beginnings. She was a diamond in the rough, whose "job" it was to provide an only partially mediated glimpse into working class counsel-house life. Barnard, in revisiting this story and the equally tragic ones that followed in its wake, has chosen to deepen the distance, to demonstrate that Andrea Dunbar was always already providing us a particular viewpoint on a complex world that was arrogantly presumed to be simple. The ignored complexities of that world, in a sense, are part of the cause for the aftermath that people like Lorraine and Lisa are still struggling to disentangle today. So, apart from working overtime to be more emotionally and politically "true" to the Dunbar story, The Arbor is also committed to not making the same ethno-fetishistic mistakes that partly comprise its sad tale.
Strangely familiar and yet one-of-a-kind, Domain is something of a throwback to the excruciatingly hip European art cinema of the 1970s, when racy new efforts by Bertolucci and Fassbinder rubbed shoulders with those more bizarre, ambisexual, black-turtleneck imports that filled out college screening programs before fading into obscurity. Imposing French superstar Béatrice Dalle commands the screen as a self-destructive mathematician whose slinky Eurotrash demeanor has made her a role model of sorts for her young gay nephew Pierre (Isaïe Sultan). Glowering stalkers, “Sprockets”-like dance clubs, and Dalle’s haute couture fill out Patric Chiha’s debut feature like an elegant theorem. Does Domain make sense in conventional terms? While I'd have to say no, that's certainly not the point. Dalle, Sultan and the circle of performers around them conjure memories of the finest efforts of Werner Schroeter, films wherein an onscreen universe resembled our own, for the most part, but was clearly our world's surrealistic Double. Nevertheless, Domain, beneath its fur and eyeliner, touches down in the real world. What becomes of attractive women in the scholarly realm? Are they given equal opportunity to explore their gifts, or must they develop a persona, predicated upon their desirability? The irony here is that what Pierre admires so much in Nadia, her seeming incapability of giving a fuck, is really the mark of exhaustion, of giving up. As Nadia slides further into an abyss of second-rate decadence, she finds herself less and less able to (literally) do the math.