For me, your generosity has redefined "film socialism." I present unto thee . . . the



All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.


(NOTE: This will also serve as my Reviews page for September 2010.)


(-seen on workprint / otherwise incomplete preview copy; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)


I'm going to be a bit verbose this year. So once I get this going, I'll put a helpful link so that the non-interested, and those who've read it already, can conveniently skip it. Also, much of what I'm getting at below, without the solipsism and purple prose, is articulated by Paul Brunick in Film Comment.


The Ties That Bind (Bloggy Introductory Aside)


The Internet is lonely. Anyone can tell you that. Even as it provides social networking opportunities and new abilities to reach out to distant friends with common interests, potentials unheard of twenty-five years ago or less, there's no denying that sitting in front of a keyboard all day "generating content" is not the same as having the kind of life where you see your friends once or twice a month for coffee or brunch or whatever. Thing is, not many people have that small, quaint, Durkheimian-organic life anymore, and I'm not sure even a Luddite like me would actually want it. In reality, it's too smothering, everybody's always in your business, and even in major world cities this kind of clique-life (d)evolves into parochialism and insularity. So, I like the Internet. I like being lonely, with all my friends, on the Internet. (Plus, I have the grounding of a "RL" family. Twitter debates about Ingmar Bergman are mercifully interrupted by the summons for a trip to Costco. And vice versa.)


As far as making this website and doing these reviews, I've always treated it like a hobby, or a private obsession, in some ways. It's also the public face of my semi-"career" as a film critic, so even work I do here that doesn't produce income feeds into, I believe, an overall trajectory of life goals. And it's fun, when I have the time. But I have been lucky to have found, over the years, that a number of people find value in what I've been doing here. Some experimental filmmakers have told me they appreciate my critical attention to the often-ignored works on the avant-garde scene. Others have enjoyed my capsule reviews. But I've gotten a lot of feedback (and, so far, only one hate letter!), and this is more gratifying than you'll know. I've kept it on the cheap here, and always been a one-man operation. But this year, due to rough financial times (and my long-term unemployment), I finally broke down and did something I'd considered over the years but felt too ashamed to do. I went on and started a funding project (i.e., a collection) for people willing to contribute funds which would alllow me to attend the Toronto International Film Festival. It was hard to do, partly because I'm usually "too proud" (i.e., stupid) to ask for help when I need it. But mostly because it felt... dodgy. Should I ask for free money, when babies down the road have no basic health care or sanitation?


But once I pulled the trigger and did it, I started to realize that helping me, and helping others, are not mutually exclusive. Life isn't a zero-sum game, and there's no reason to assume that anyone who might back my TIFF project would be taking money from other charitable causes and putting toward Big Dumb Movie Guy. What I also discovered, to my complete amazement, is that my kind friends, many of whom I have never actually met in person, decided that my work was a good investment. They gave quickly; the response was overwhelming, and above all, humbling. On the one hand, apart from the money raised, which is what has allowed me to attend TIFF (and so again, I thank you), the widespread support for my (passive) pledge drive provided me with a sense that, after years of plugging away at The Hack, I was being undeniably validated. On the other hand, it showed me that, in the "lonely world" of the Internet, I required no further validation. Michael, you idiot. It was never about you. It's not about any of us. (Sorry to lapse into Obamatron lingo here.) We're part of a community. We have radical diversity of opinion. We don't have as great of diversity on the race or gender fronts, but we're doing better. We jostle and debate, and even if it gets ugly, at our best we maintain dignity and respect. Our community, our profession, takes lumps on a regular basis. It's misunderstood, and under attack more and more from bottom-liners and anti-culture apparatchiks. But those of us who believe in this community continue, trying our best and sometimes even managing to give our all. Even when the freelance checks are five weeks late. Yay, us!


I am proud to be doing this.


I would like to thank the generous individuals -- mostly friends, but some of whom I do not know -- who contributed so that I could attend and cover this year's TIFF. Where appropriate, I have provided a link to their own TIFF coverage. If you're up here and have TIFF coverage I haven't caught yet, don't be shy! Direct me to your TIFF-related writing and I'll add a link.


Kent M. Beeson (This Can't End Well)

Brian Belovarac (Janus Films)

Bionic Bieber

Paul Brunick (on online film criticism, part 1 / on Armond White / in Bomblog)

Steve Carlson (The Ongoing Cinematic Education of...)

Jaime N. Christley (Unexamined Essentials)

Robert Davis (Daily Plastic)

Paul Denny

Doug Dillaman ("Jake" - The Movie)

Matthew Flanagan (Landscape Suicide)

David Flowers (blog)

Kenji Fujishima (My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second)


Girish Shambu (blog) TIFF coverage here

James Hansen (Out 1 Film Journal)

Jeremy Heilman (MovieMartyr) TIFF coverage here

Darren Hughes (1st Thursday) TIFF coverage tba

Just Another Film Buff (The Seventh Art)

Ryland Walker Knight (Vinyl is Heavy)

Jeff Lambert (National Film Preservation Foundation)

Michael Lieberman (Too Early, Too Late)

Dmitry Martov (interview with Olaf Möller, part one and two)

Victor J. Morton (Rightwing Film Geek) TIFF coverage here and just prior

Jamil Munoz (eyebrowdance)

Noel Murray (Onion A.V. Club) TIFF coverage tba

Satish Naidu (Movie Place)

Adam Nayman (Eye Weekly) TIFF coverage here

Nictate (blog / tumblr)

Dan Owen (twitter feed)

Jesse Paddock (twitter feed)

Theo Panayides (Theo's Century of Movies)

Mark Pittillo (Fireman Save My Child)

Matt Prigge (Philadelphia Weekly)

Dan Sallitt (Thanks For the Use of the Hall)

Melissa Schwartz (Listen Missy)

Ekrem Serdar (Vimeo page)

Chris Stults (Wexner Center for the Arts) TIFF coverage tba

Philip Tatler IV (Muriel Awards ballot)

Scott Tobias (Onion A.V. Club) TIFF coverage tba

Richard Vath (p00rrichard)

Jacob Waltman (Making Light of It)

C. Mason Wells (twitter feed / K As In Knife)





preview / pre-fest screening


Ruhr (James Benning, Germany) [v]

For several years now, James Benning has been finally garnering the wider acclaim that he’s been due. Naturally there are many avant-garde masters who are certainly due much greater recognition than they’ve received, but Benning is a somewhat special case. For years now, he’s been making feature-length work that has dovetailed with the concerns, both formal and political, of many of the most revered directors on the film festival circuit. So, although Benning has never aimed for crossover success, it was only logical that some version of it would eventually find him. Ruhr, Benning’s first digital feature after decades working in 16mm, may actually put the brakes on that rise just a bit, since in many respects it is the most demanding film he’s produced in many years. But it’s also a deeply rigorous exploration of the newfound potentials that the digital medium has to offer Benning after decades of enforced limitations by camera rolls and time-events within the bounded frame. Moving outside the U.S. to explore Germany’s Ruhr Valley, Benning’s new film examines this center of heavy industry, and in so doing seems to be both harking back to his older work and decisively moving us away from it. The American Midwest that featured so prominently in Benning’s films of the 1970s and 80s also depicted smokestack industries, factory work, trains, and steel mills. But most if not all of this is gone now, offshored either to China (where there are no significant worker protections) or elsewhere in the West, like Europe or Canada (where universal health care slices corporate costs).


In the first part of Ruhr, we see static long takes in Benning’s classic style, such as an auto tunnel whose bends allow for off-screen sound prior to the visual appearance of the vehicles. The white-hot neon lights, offset against the black tunnel like a swipe of paint, announce that we are now in “video space.” Other shots, such as the meticulous removal of graffiti from an ambiguous steel object (I won’t spoil it) are, again, reminiscent of Benning’s earlier efforts. But a long take in a pipe factory, and an extended shot of trees near the airport, mark a difference. Benning is using video to represent repetitive cycles of action, all of them generated by human intervention, but now virtually devoid of the visible human hand. If film was a medium of small spatial dislocations and disjunctures, Benning seems to be telling us that he’ll use video to document patterns of industrialized movement across time, almost as a form of surveillance. This approach reaches its breaking point in part two, a one-hour single shot of a smokestack silhouetted against the sky as the sun goes down. Vertical tower, horizontal clouds, deep blue sky periodically flooded with sulfurous orange billows of smoke – it is an intentional gesture in every way, and the fact that Benning places it in a sit-down feature, rather than, say, producing an installation with it, is clearly polemical. We are being asked not only to think about these dangerous and ongoing processes, but about what digital video’s function is, and will be. I must admit that I have not yet worked out my own feelings about Ruhr’s attitude toward its spectators, but I have no doubt that it is a major work by a master filmmaker. (W3: Ruhr; September 11, 9:15pm)


Tokyo - Ebisu (Tomonari Nishikawa, Japan) [s]

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones has an article about Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. If you don’t know their music, they’re what he calls “revivalists,” creating exciting contemporary live music based very faithfully on classic models (James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Etta James). Idea being, there’s still great potential left to be explored within those historical models. It isn’t ironic postmodernism; it’s a re-exploration of what remains to be seen and heard. For several years now Nishikawa has been one of the most exciting new filmmakers on the scene, not so much by trying to generate bold new vocabularies, and certainly not by giving in to false seductions of new media manipulations. Nishikawa’s films are work in the classic sense – labor intensive on both the production and reception end. They are beautiful and challenging and they expand on the vernacular of experimental film as we understand it, locating new possibilities within multiple frames, exposures, the intensive articulation of frames. His latest, Tokyo-Ebisu, is a study in vertical time, checkerboarded across the picture plane, an urban train film that spreads the “timetable” out before us in interwoven spaces of disjunction that, through Nishikawa’s careful eye, fit together in relationships of light, engineered form, and human activity. As perfect an expression of Ozuian “betweenness” as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumiere (with which it should be paired – get to it, programmers!), Tokyo-Ebisu is another unassuming slice of near-perfection from one of our finest working filmmakers. Once again, Nishikawa takes us back to the future. [NOTE: As of this writing (9/9/10) I have only seen a workprint of this film.]


The Soul of Things (Dominic Angerame) [s]

Angerame's cinema is inseparable from San Francisco city life. While New York and L.A. have their fair share of cine-poets, SF experimentalists haven't always made their careers following the direction of urban rhythmatists. The Beats' hippy streak often led to a more sylvan sensibility. But Angerame's best work has trained a unique eye on the changes the city has undergone over the years, that of an Impressionist also grounded by concrete interests in history, politics and power. Angerame's city symphonies are not screeds on gentrification or displacement, but they are by no means neutral. They have been, in the best sense, acts of witness. Angerame's latest film is characterized by one of the hallmarks of his practice -- rich, penetrating black and white cinematography, high in contrast, attentive to the shape of architecture and industry, as well as the time of work being done. If The Soul of Things does not measure up to Angerame's best work (and I'm afraid that in my opinion it does not), I think it is because it is too sprawling, attempting too much in too little time. Carefully composed views are too frequently subject to superimpositions that to my eyes obfuscate rather than induce comparison. A central iris, one of Soul's primary artistic maneuvers, muddles the picture plane, layering spaces and times that ought to speak to one another but cannot, due to fast-paced editing and indistinct collision of forms. There is so much in Angerame's film, I found myself wanting it to slow down and let me savor its images, or at least allow me to get a bead on its juxtapositions. Nevertheless, I suspect this frustration may be intentional. In the present moment of economic collapse, unbridled and directionless "urban renewal," and savage neoliberal capitalism, all of which can as well be visualized by downtown San Francisco as anywhere else in the world, would Angerame contend that providing clear, beautiful images of "The City" would be compensatory, if not fundamentally dishonest? Is dissolution and chaos "the soul of things"? Angerame's opening quotation implies a more peaceful attitude, but his film may suggest something else.


Get Out Of The Car (Thom Andersen) [v/m]

The avant-garde film essayist is a rare species these days. Harun Farocki is a one master of the form; his 2006 installation Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades is part of this year’s Future Projections program. Britain’s Patrick Keiller is another; his latest film Robinson In Ruins is a perplexing omission from this year’s Real to Reel slate. And then there’s Deborah Stratman, whose work has appeared at TIFF several times. She’s one of a number of avant-luminaries (along with Madison Brookshire, whose work appears in Wavelengths program 2) who collaborated with the great film-esssayist Thom Andersen on his latest missive from L.A. image culture, Get Out of the Car. Much like Andersen’s magisterial film-historical feature Los Angeles Plays Itself, which examined the recorded presence of the lost elements of the City of Angels on celluloid, Get Out of the Car is an examination and partial preservation of things gone by. But Get Out is entirely lacking LAPI’s tone of mournful indictment. A cultural studies scholar in the 80s wrote an article entitled, “Theodor Adorno Meets The Cadillacs,” and that pretty much sums up Andersen’s approach here. Combining shots of defunct signage, disused buildings, half-preserved pop landmarks, and Latino mural painting with the sounds of Los Angeles rock and soul, Andersen turns Angelino car culture on its head. We’re on a walking tour of all the things you’re never supposed to appreciate or even notice because, like the song says, nobody walks in L.A. Comic, aesthetically exacting, and politically astute – like a chapter of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz with a horn section – this is Andersen at his best. As such, it’s a must-see; it could be the single best film in the festival.


Victoria, George, Edward & Thatcher (Callum Cooper, U.K.) [v/s]

Clever and adroit, Cooper's video points toward promising futures for new handheld technologies. Its rapid-fire assembly of British neighborhood housing, forming perfect match cuts in its oppressive sameness, slyly presents the obverse of so many experimental films these days. Cooper trains his eyes on that which he sees each day, and doesn't necessarily behold revelation. Sometimes the quotidian is still stifling, and the built environment has always tended to inculcate conformity. V,G,E&T (attorneys at law?) displays these variations on a (politically) dominant theme, and does it with humor. A slight film to be sure, but sometimes slight works get in, do the job and get out.


Landscape, semi-surround (Eriko Sonoda, Japan) [v/s]

Like a lot of neo-structural filmmaking, here's something both highly intricate and relatively basic about what Sonoda is doing in Landscape, semi-surround, although this latest piece, to my eyes, is not quite as perceptually confounding or phenomenologically enfolding of its viewer as the last piece of hers I saw, Garden/ing. In a sense, this new video establishes certain terms early on -- the dialectics of train travel, the stationary seated viewer hurtled laterally through a smeared, changing landscape, usually pitched at a 30 to 45° angle -- and arranges it into single photographic images in a 4x4 grid, pinned to a gallery wall. This wall is in turn filmed with a slight depth, the recession of a parquet floor providing a kind of shadowbox effect. For the remainder of the film, Sonoda animates the images; they are stills taken more moving digital images. They sometimes move down and across the grid; sometimes their motion pattern is less distinct, at least on a first viewing. While Garden/ing played with the discrepancies between direct imaging and layers of representation, Landscape's conceptual underpinnings are less apparent. Breaking motion apart, of course, is a nifty effect. We've recogized this satisfaction since Muybridge and Marey. However, Sonoda seems to want to point out the distinction between the natural features of the landscapes she's imaging, on the one hand, and the unforgiving rectilinearity of the grid. But this rigid patterning could be applied to any content. In a way, that's why minimalism embraced the grid and abjured content altogether. By bringing it back so forcefully, where is Sonoda trying to take us?


Everywhere Was the Same (Basma Al Sharif, U.S. / Palestine, 2007)

A work that seems to imply its own existence as an installation more that stand firm as a film or video per se, Everywhere Was the Same is nevertheless a complex conceptual effort that finds Al Sharif (an artist with whom I am unfamiliar) taking a stoic yet melancholy narrative about Palestinian displacement and inscribing it onto spatial terms. But it does so by isolating plots of living space from the larger Palestinian / Israeli conflict and regards them as segments of contested real estate, resulting in a slide and tape piece that recalls efforts by artists like John Baldessari and Hans Haacke. I'd need to see Everywhere again, but I tended to find its dry, forbidding exterior to be a challenging aesthetic decision that ultimately worked in Al Sharif's favor, even as it made his video a less than hospitable work on first approach.


Leona Alone (Oliver Husain, Canada)

One of the most elliptical works in the series this year is also one of the most beautiful. Husain’s piece is striking because it seems as though it is going to gesture toward some sort of identifiable fictional or documentary-derived connotative meaning, but he wisely withholds such cues in favor of direct engagement with space -- public space as well as that of the picture plane. Leona Alone takes us into a Toronto neighborhood undergoing gentrification. This progress, in terms of Husain’s shot progression, is utterly literal. In the course of the first four minutes we go from the middle of a wooded road, through a street of ranch-style homes, and eventually onto high-rise construction sites. But Husain inserts freestanding stained glass frames into the filmic scenes. Each of these colorful frames mimics the proportions of the video frame, so eventually the stained glass is flush against the cityscapes Husain captures. In fact, many of the glass works are so perfectly aligned – neon signs inside rectilinear panels, undulating skyscraper windows inside curved edgework – that they almost appear to have been crafted specifically for certain locales. Leona Alone, with its plangent but off-key, modernist string score and final sequence in a sun-blistered parking lot, is not exactly a “statement against gentrification.” Instead, it’s an inquiry into disproportionate, if not incommensurate, notions of the Beautiful, and, by extension, the Good.


Burning Bush (Vincent Grenier, U.S. / Canada) [v/s]

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will say it again: Grenier is a veteran filmmaker whose transition to digital media over a decade ago has resulted in one of the most acute, alive bodies of experimental currently being produced. Where many who turned to DV out of economic necessity tried to replicate their celluloid practice in the new medium, Grenier mastered his new tools and became a full-fledged video artist. This is but one of the unique aspects of Grenier’s practice that sets him apart. The other main thing is that he’s not just a formalist. He’s a funny formalist. This wasn’t so unusual in the grand heyday of Snow, Frampton, Wieland and Land(ow), but a lot of that got lost along the way. Luckily, Vincent Grenier’s found it. His latest painterly pixel flurry cum perceptual game, Burning Bush, is simple enough. It is a bush along a fence, covered with what appear to my non-botanist’s eye to be azalea blossoms. Grenier zooms in, pixelates them, turns them into a general mass of crimson HD color, but this is hardly his most intriguing intervention. Burning Bush is actually Grenier’s study of the possibilities and parameters of color manipulations within digital video. The reds are deepened, and eventually drained, resulting in a wan, wintery kind of image that resembles Japanese cherry blossoms or even just a delicate pen and ink drawing. In time, these temperature-range alterations become more rapid and more intense, resulting in optical tricks and of course an obliteration of the flowers themselves. Like all of Grenier’s recent work, Burning Bush explores the infinite perceptual experiences (and foibles) that daily life offers to eyes that care to find them. [UPDATE: Vincent tells me that the plant in question is in fact called a burning bush. See? I need to spend more time outside. Because holy moses, that's a riot.]


Ouverture (Christopher Becks, Canada / France) [s]

Becks' film, whose title puns on the French work for "open," is a stark, widescreen black-and-white study of light piercing the walls and roof of a ramshackle barn. Through camera movement, Becks achieves interesting effects; the gaps between planks in the wall become vertical shafts of light which, as the camera whips past them, form a phenakistascope action. The holes in the ceiling are globules of white sky, forming an ersatz firmament of stars. The brief film actually resembles Fleischmann's in certain respects, not least of them being its generation of gestural velocity from light and features of the landscape. At the same time, Ouverture identifies forms, moves them around, shakes them, and then it's gone. As an anchor against this pure abstraction Becks shows us high-contrast silhouettes of the roof structure or the trees against the sky, clearer shapes which assert their presence as more than light alone. But aside from this A/B toggling, a fuller overall progression doesn't develop. The film may indeed be an "overture" for a more sweeping symphony to come.


/Cinematographie (Philipp Fleischmann, Austria) [s]

One of this year’s most original films possesses one of the most unassuming titles. All films entail “cinematography.” Of course, that’s a term we can deconstruct to discover the complexity lurking within. Cinematography is literally “writing with light,” and French master Robert Bresson expanded the term to differentiate real cinema from that which was merely filmed theatre. True cinematography, he insisted, used the camera to caress the world’s surfaces, allowing people and things to reveal their mysteries over time simply by presenting themselves as the brute material phenomena that they were. Philipp Fleischmann’s outstanding film Cinematographie does all of these things. It writes with light; it absorbs the surfaces of the small portion of the world before it; and in its brief running time it generates a sense of another universe settled exactly alongside our own, shadowing it, hovering beneath it, lending it both gravity and an untapped, ghostly potential. And yet, Fleischmann accomplishes all of this through strict attention to the physical world. Cinematographie is a radically materialist film. Its imagery is produced via the construction of a large, circular camera obscura; the film inside is exposed without frame breaks, producing a kind of phenakistoscope effect. The film, exposed on a side other than the manner in which it is projected, turns a forest into a series of horizontal tic-marks, which are eventually joined by a group of people in a circle. The round, spinning aperture method creates a double exposure, one strong, one weak. If Cinematographie’s hazy, granular images were more solid, we might feel as though we were in that old carnival ride, where the floor drops out and we’re pinned to the wall by centrifugal force. Instead, it’s the trees that are held steady. We’re on our own.


Portrait, Tea Time, Red Curtain (Helga Fanderl, Germany) [s]

I once asked a university colleague of mine, the Slovakian diary filmmaker Miso Suchy, whether he found it difficult to balance filming his life and being in his life. “That is the question, Michael,” he laughed. “I don’t know.” Some, like Jonas Mekas, appear to have effaced that distinction. But the brief, poetic super-8 works of Helga Fanderl offer a different approach. Her films, sometimes just minutes long, are like time-based snapshots, half-remembered fragments of seemingly mundane daily details that are given shape through framing, repetition, or a focus on a shock of color. Many of Fanderl’s films are portraits of loved ones, but just as many are records of fanciful gestures, such as motion on a swing or the sweep of airplanes across a sky. In and of themselves, a single Fanderl film might seem slight or even negligible, too offhanded to fully communicate as a work of art. But, like the perceptual life they document, Fanderl’s films accrue greater meaning when experienced as a signifying chain. So in some ways, Fanderl’s method demonstrates an ethical decision to eschew “the perfect shot” or “the summary statement” in favor of existential co-presence with her subjects. In the three films shown here, we see fragments of a relationship – multiple ways in which to capture fleeting glances at a desired man, the simple pleasures of a European snack, and the bold formalist erotics of bedroom light.


Anne Truitt, Working (Jem Cohen) [v/s]

I confess to never exactly having caught Cohen's, erm, "wavelength." (I'm one of the only folks on planet earth not wowed by Chain, for example.) But this lovely and insightful portrait of the late minimalist sculptor (who, I'm embarrassed to admit, I'd never heard of) is probably my favorite piece by Cohen to date. Truitt's work consists of free-standing wooded box-objects, more podium-like than Juddish, which she buffed and painted solid pastel colors. Her aesthetic aim, as she discussed it in the video, was to allow color to attain a free-standing sculptural presence. In addition to displaying aspects of her working method -- little details, like keeping her glazelike paints in jam jars, she simply had offhandedly wise things to say about the pleasures of being an artist. This is an unassuming portrait of a woman whose apparent modesty was matched only by her substantial talent. As Andrew Sarris used to say, Truitt's clearly a subject for future research.


Color Field Film 1 (Madison Brookshire) [s]

The first of Brookshire's two purely optical works that will show in this year's Wavelengths, Color Field Film 1 represents, among other things, about the most frank and accurate title of any other film in the series this year (although Anne Truitt Working comes close). Brookshire's brief perceptual experiment draws explicitly from minimalist painterly and sculptural modes, using lab timing lights to produce a reel consisting of gradual shifts between primary and secondary colors. The film owes much to classic light-works artists such as James Turrell, and the color patterning films of Paul Sharits are another obvious point of comparison. Brookshire was kind enough to lend me a print, and I spent some time with the film, although only in small-scale projection. I found that the transitions of color introduced a kind of granulation of light, an apparent desaturation at "in between" points, even though the deep solid hues were in reality no fuller than the blended tones. I suspect these effects may increase on a large screen. If I have any qualms about Brookshire's project, they're strictly of the "reinventing the wheel variety." What will this work teach our eyes that Sharits's films did not? So far I do not know, but then I have only scratched the surface of this six-film suite. Also, by four-year-old daughter Nola loved this film. I projected it on the wall and she danced naked in the image, like a preschool Gerard Malanga. And yes, as a matter of fact I am proud.


Atlantiques (Mati Diop, Senegal / France) [s]

This debut film by Diop, most recently seen as the lead actress in Claire Denis’s lovely 35 Shots of Rum, ruminates on memory, death, and the human toll of illegal immigration without ever once veering into political shorthand. Beginning with a grainy, sepia image of an old cylinder record player, we hear a recording, telling of a tragedy at sea, the waves destroying a pirogue of immigrants making their way to Spain. Soon, we meet several young Senegalese men who are discussing the horrors of this death at sea, including one, Serigne (Serigne Seck) who was the sole survivor of the previous accident. His friends (Alpha Diop and Chiekh M’Baye) try to convince him to stay in Senegal and count himself lucky, but Serigne announces his intention to leave again on the next available pirogue. Diop films this conversation by a campfire at night, lending the scene a burnished, grainy feel not unlike an excavated document; later, she will use this diegetic situation as a jumping-off point for a broader, more diffuse threnody for all those lost at sea in search of a better life, concluding with the blind eye of a lighthouse, its mirrored pane reflecting only itself. This striking film marks the emergence of a strong new voice.


blue mantle (Rebecca Meyers) [m]

Above I recommend an important and challenging James Benning film about which I have significant reservations. Here, I’m going one better by suggesting that perhaps you should check out the world premiere of Meyers’ new film so that perhaps you can explain it to me. blue mantle is, quite simply, one of the oddest films I’ve seen in years. I’ve recently become an admirer of Meyers’ filmmaking. Her deft sense of editing and refracted color, sometimes muted by reflection, other times quite vibrant, has exhibited traces of Dorsky and Leighton Pierce. Like those filmmakers, Meyers has made works that extract the exquisite from the quotidian. Nothing quite prepared me for blue mantle, though. It’s not so much an essay as a compendium, a collection of sea footage punctuated with literary quotations, nautical paintings (some of them so genre-bound as to have little in the way of aesthetic interest), artifacts from maritime museums, even scenes from an ocean-centered puppet show. Meyers’ aquatic images are placid and nearly declarative, signifying “the oceanic” more than any emotional charge. What’s more, there isn’t an obvious build or rhythm to blue mantle. Instead, Meyers seems to be plunging us into a kind of conceptual sea, where every association is equally weighted, we can “dip in” at any point, and there is an infinite depth belied by an apparently undifferentiated surface. This is an unnerving film, and I confess to feeling utterly adrift in it. But see it. Maybe you can throw me a line. [NOTE: As of this writing (9/9/10) I have only seen a workprint of this film.]


One (Eve Heller, U.S. / Austria) [s]

Heller's is a deceptively simple film, practically an unadorned camera roll. I confess, the first time I watched it, I failed to observe its primary changing elements, and that being the case I rather unfairly dismissed it. But a second look not only cleared up some confusing perceptual points for me. It gave the film space to grow in my perception, to be patient with it and allow it room to command the screen in its soft-spoken way. One is a mostly static handheld shot, slightly tilted upward, of a vertical bank of cathedral windows , made indistinct by the glowing midday light emanating through them. In the center of this long, thin pillar of fragmented Gothic-script light, Heller locates a row of four small crescents of strong yellow sunlight. Somehow, the central windows are directly refracting the sun into partially blocked disc shapes. Over the course of One's brief three-or-so minute run time, the crescents grow. The sun is moving, or the refractive surface outside the windows is moving, making these forms bulge and expand their points. The film ends when the shadow of a human figure interrupts the scene altogether. This tiny chamber work, which observed and captured an effect, seemed underdeveloped to me at first, but now it seems uniquely self-sufficient. Why One? Well, it is Heller's first film. It is an elaboration over a brief period of exactly one idea. Its church setting speaks to monotheism and faith, the one God. And even Heller's arrangement of composition and selection of such a stripelike phenomenon of flattened form recalls Jackson Pollock's One, although Heller is working on a decidely modest, anti-heroic mode. While I still think that Heller might have taken One's procedures into new directions rather than committing to one single focal point, there's no question that One is always a great place to start.


753 McPherson Ave. (Kevin Jerome Everson) [v/s]

As with many of Everson's quite interesting micro-shorts, I find myself intrigued by the work itself, but more intrigued by the larger project each individual film seems to imply. Like certain other artists, like Helga Fanderl and Friedl vom Gröller in this series for instance, make small, self-contained films that nevertheless imply modularity. The inherent modesty of each film tells us that, when seen en masse, they will add up to a grander project whose import will communicate itself by accretion. And it seems that Everson frequently shows his films this way. 753 McPherson Ave., though, actually contains some small, complete gestures within its ultra-brief running time. In the most obvious terms I can specify, it is a meditation on African-American male mortality, in particular the comparison of two different sets of social realities in terms of dealing with the body of the deceased. On the one hand Everson shows us clean, antiseptic but not alienating from the morgue, where a technician ties a string around the toes of a dead man. Almost incidentally, we see various Egyptological figurines on shelves in the morgue, perhaps a random detail, but also perhaps a connection to sarcophagi as markers of death and the afterlife. Everson contrasts the morgue sequences with historical footage of a group of men in the 1950s or early 60s (judging from the clothes and car) bringing a dead man out of the house in a blanket. He is pretty clearly the victim of foul play. Everson's final shot shows the morgue attendant tying to corpse's two big toes together, and this seems to allude somewhat directly to 753's underlying theme. Editing, and a sense of historical conscience, is what binds the present to the past. Without the sense of history, and asking how one thing is tied to another, all we have is random circumstance. It is by making connections and forming patterns that we canb try to forge newer, less oppressive social bonds.


Slaveship (T. Marie) [v/s]

T. Marie is working in a mode that, to my knowledge, is unlike that of anyone else. She has developed her own singular approach to video art and time-based imagemaking, treating the digital raster as a scanning canvas. As she explained during her TIFF Q&A, she mixes pixels in order to generate the colors she wants, just as a painter would, only (I hate this word) "virtually" (my inadequate term, not hers). She begins with an image and then sets the pixels along their paces as they explore their own predetermined color mutations, within a specific image construction. Semi-static, privileging gradual change within a finite field, but patently eschewing the external observation that has defined the Zen-structural axis of experimental cinema for several decades, Marie's work is an anomaly, exploring the properties of video light from, as it were, inside the box, and discovering breathtaking possibilities. The slow-moving phenomenological target that her pieces represent, their patient operation on the optic register, ought to make them easier to talk about, but it seems to have the opposite effect. I have found Marie's work difficult to analyze, as though it's insinuating itself below my conscious faculties, which of course it's not. Slaveship is a summation, in some ways, of Marie's practice, in that it explores the diverse graphic and chromatic potentials within a given framework, in this case J. M. W. Turner's eponymous painting of 1840. Marie's video begins with a flat mist, skylike in its thin hints of bulbousness, purplish blue with rounded blotches of reddish-white sunlight peering through. The red and blue portions slowly arc up to form a somewhat more coherent sky (still within a purely abstracted field -- Slaveship never comes close to full representational imagery), as the darker purples and grays sink to the bottom, forming foggy sea water. Yellow light shafts pierce the scene diagonally, as the purple and black undertones in midfield slowly jut forward, with craggy edges and gray-white definition lines. At this point in the video, Marie displays digital video's capability to mimic pencil and charcoal drawing, with rough-hewn textures and a gestural quality borne in the pixel space. (This is something we see in Phil Solomon's digital works as well.) The light becomes more unidirectional, from the upper right hand corner (more conventionally Turner-like), and we see a strange thrust of a globule, like a paintbrush swipe or a raindrop on a lens. (A flaw in my screener disc? Perhaps.) The gray slave ship mast, with its pitched vertical lines, rises to meet the light shafts. At this, he end of minute one, Slaveship is about as representational as it's going to get.


Sea greens and lavenders assert themselves, along with craggy hulls and dark recesses within the "ship." Etched wave- and mast-lines also emerge. And yet, as concrete forms take the screen more dramatically (we're now at the 1:45 mark), the image is more abstract than it was earlier, with less definition, a paradox Marie seems to exploit with full cognizance. At this stage Slaveship is comprised of painterly forms whose tactility approaches the sculptural, the lower left diagonal half dominated by a form that resembles a particularly luminous piece of driftwood. The upper right half maintains its sun-source brilliance, although grayish-oranges and muted peach colors are dampening it. These two divided portions merge almost imperceptibly, as Marie brings the hollow center forward. It is a gently roiling pink and green form, undulating in an impastoed three-dimensionality. The two corners are meeting here and "crashing" into a fibrous, convex form, made large by projection (visually, more mountain-like than a seascape) but really seeming to be the place in the video where the smashy, viscous licks of real brushstroke are being seen up close, even though there is no actual "paint" here. The sunlight reappears in the upper center-left, sending a white-yellow shaft down the middle of the frame, and the craggy forms pull back, parting like a curtain of trees. Slaveship truly displays its Turneresque turbulence here, but at the same time this mobile breakage of light directionality and rough curvature of water-objects provides reference points and stability for the eyes. Marie moves thins around slowly enough that we can fixate on the temporary "products" of her changes. Incidentally, the material in this section also resembles certain aspects of Brakhage's hand-painted films in terms of its color values and movement around a form. But he would seldom give his viewers such luxury to absorb the mutation of forms. We had to adjust to his, speed, just as we must accustom ourselves to Marie's attenuated motion. Moving on from the dense central form in this final section (about the 2:40 mark), Slaveship begins lightening overall. The hazy white of the sun-"canvas" is dominating the right side of the screen, and the condensed line-form has wound itself up into a kind of light-on-top, dark-on-the-bottom, floating entity. It is possible to see the hull of the ship in the lower left hand corner, and the coalesced colors disperse themselves over this indistinct object. Marie is returning to the title concept, and we see dark browns and greens sinking, grays and yellows righting up like smoke. At this point (3:35), Marie echoes the paint cluster, which is now brightening into an autumnal red-orange, with a horizontal flange effect. The image is smeared. And now, it looks like nothing so much as a Turner landscape, gold and crimson trees lining a small pond that catches the sunlight. The smear begins moving in another direction, and we see a cloudlike, red-orange form holding the screen like an actor tilting its head. This field of plumes and directional shafts is soon clarified by Marie. This is the slave ship, struggling under Marie's pixilated methods to come into being. Momentarily (4:31) it will be all but unmissable, a central plantlike object on fire. As if turning down a thermostat, Marie makes the ship disappear, ending Slaveship in an almost empty beige-light field, like the one in which the film began. But it isn't a loop. True to the compromised time structure endemic to all painting, Slaveship seems instead to reset itself for another viewing, in compressed time.


Hell Roaring Creek (Lucien Castaing-Taylor) [v/s]

Essentially an outtake from Sweet Grass, and a single-shot video work that could perhaps hold its own a bit better in a gallery installation context, Hell Roaring Creek stakes out a fixed position, staring down the middle of a rushing creek as an endless procession of sheep cross the stream as part of the flock's drive from one place to another. Some stumble, some make it across with admirable grace, but all get nudged across the middle of the frame, an unruly X-axis of animal locomotion pitted against the amorphous (yet altogether more regular) Z-axis of the water racing toward the camera. Castaing-Taylor shifts the view twice, cutting from medium shot to a slightly tighter close-up, but we remain at arm's length from the sheep. They aren't individuated; they're a natural force or even a drone, much like the water itself, and compositionally the rhyme of these two bevies of activity could not be more explicit. Only at the end of the long meandering herd do we see the sheepherders on horseback, providing shape and motivation to that which we're witnessing. And of course, this mitigated human intervention is an overt echo of Sweet Grass, the firm but Zen parameters of the human / ovine relationship. In the end, Hell Roaring Creek is a one-liner, and gets a little tedious as it unspools. We're supposed to be impressed at the mere suggestion of structuralist ethnography, but this mode of approach has been sufficiently explored now that, without some additional creaitve element, time no longer feels deepened or experienced so much as stuck.


Photofinish Figures (Paolo Gioli, Italy) [s]

After having actual antipathy to the cinema of Paolo Gioli, I'm finally coming around a bit. It took me some time to really understand where his films were even coming from, so far removed are his sources of inspiration from those of the mainstream of experimental film history (North America, Britain, Austria, Germany, and to a much lesser extent France). Instead of Romanticism or Structuralism as the dialectical poles orienting his practice, Gioli largely functions as though Surrealism and Cubism never left center stage, so watching many of his film works has the offputting but ultimately fascinating sensation of confronting a lost artifact from some unspecified moment in a history that didn't exist. Add to this conceptual dissonance the fact that, without fail, Gioli's films possess a washed-out, half-exposed surface texture, grainy like charcoal, their representational images always tending to disappear back into the celluloid like an engulfing inkwash of murk. They resemble objects dug up from another era. But Gioli is a man of his time, and Photofinish Figures conveys this is subtle ways. On the face of it, it's a rapidly changing study of various attitudes of close-up portraiture, a run-through of the ways women are photographed. {SECOND VIEWING] Wow, I really didn't get this film at all the first time. I mean, that's not quite true. There is definitely an excavated, out-of-time character to much of Gioli's output. But Photofinish Figures is an extremely complex and actually pretty funny structural work. Gioli blends individuals depicted in the photographs with some object of some sort, the implication being that these are the tools of their idea of leisure / pleasure / labor. An Asian woman is melded with Chinese characters. A cyclist's image becomes swirled until it's no longer separable from the photograph of bicycle chains and gears. And so on and so forth. Gioli's superimpositions and warped perspective makes both the objects and the people within these photographs fuse into a kind of funky left-to-right ballet méchanique.


The Day Was a Scorcher (Ken Jacobs) [v/s]

Jonas Mekas in Kodachrome Days (Ken Jacobs) [v/s]

For Ken Jacobs, depth never takes a holiday. But fortunately, the Jacobs family did, and The Day Was a Scorcher is a beautiful, touching video work made from family photographs taken during a trip to Italy. We see Aza, Nisi, and strong, proud Flo as Ken activates both them and the picture plane they rode in on, pulsating them in two stereoscopic views to produce a gentle, hovering 3D sensation. Likewise, Jonas Mekas in Kodachrome Days finds Jacobs working with vibrant snapshots of the great film diarist and Anthology Film Archives founder dancing in the rain, looking intense, and of course shooting with his Bolex. These scenes are simple; compared to Jacobs’ more mind-blistering phenomenological play with 3D effects these two videos are sketches of a sort. But they display a tenderness that reminds us that artistic creation is always aided and abetted by those who we’ve been lucky enough to have been loved by.


Delphine de Oliveira (Friedl vom Gröller, Austria) [s]

How can it be that this, the subtlest and most unassuming film in the entire Wavelengths series, has also proven to be the stumper? I have no seen Delphine de Oliveira three times, enjoyed it each time, and I still find it a slippery little three minutes of cinematic input. Its dominant aspect -- a brief portrait in black and white celluloid -- can initially disguise some of its most elegant and perplexing components, and when I began to really pick apart vom Gröller's procedures I discovered some fascinating things. Before the woman who is presumably de Oliveira even appears, there is a brief prologue, during which the screen is mostly black, except for a horizontal stripe three-quarters of the way down. In it we see the eyes of a young woman, possibly a girl. The camera pans left to right over these eyes, and then does it again. It is as though she is peering through the slats of the back of a chair. Then, we see the older woman, de Oliveira, in a close-up and then slightly further back. She has piercing eyes and a welcoming yet no-nonsense, grande dame demeanor. vom Gröller's camera pans over her, and then cuts from straight-on portraits to side views (from the left), which de Oliveira turns slightly to face. all of this takes place in an outdoor area, at a patio table. de Oliveira is backed by thick bushes and, in the film's most comic and surprising moment, the foliage initially camouflages the subject's large tuft of curly hair, pulled back and pinned to the top of her head. That is, Delphine, with her challenging stare, breaks away from her surroundings and becomes the film's active subject. De Oliveira gets up and walks away, vom Gröller's deep focus shot showing her heading out toward the street. This final shot confirms, with a degree of dry humor, that we have not been in some European cafe. We're in a backyard, with a gate and a neighbor's back wall lined with garbage recepticles. The portrait is both spatially ambiguous and, as per the opening moments, coy with respect to revealing all its secrets where identity is concerned. And of course, as a portrait, this speaks volumes about both artist and subject.


tentative screening schedule



Thursday, September 9

(My goodness, this new festival set-up is a big old clustertiff. Nobody knows where we're supposed to go. But we're getting the hang of it. My hotel has no wi-fi, so I'm trying to sort out how to stay in the loop. But I fear that sounds a little too J*ffr*y W*lls-like.)


My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, Germany / Ukraine / The Netherlands) [6]

[MAJOR SPOILERS] Distance is definitely helping to ameliorate some of my objections to My Joy, since the further out from the screening I find myself, the more capable I seem to be of formulating possible justifications for some of Loznitsa's more inscrutable directorial decisions. As "mixed" responses go, these are precisely the one I most appreciate having, since they point less to some objective flaw in the film-text and more to a strong moral or aesthetic stance on the part of the artist, one with which I must grapple and eventually make my peace. Sadly I have not yet had the opportunity to investigate the compilation-documentaries (Revue, Blockade) on which Loznitsa made his reputation, but I have sampled them, enough to recognize that My Joy represents a radical departure, to say the least. Sharing much thematically with Ulrich Seidl's Import Export but substituting Seidl's clinical vision with a grotty, winding Kafkaesque hinterland filled with highwaymen both literal and metaphorical, My Joy slowly weaves a hypnotic spell despite our conscious desire to turn away from it. Ostensibly the story of a trucker (Viktor Nemets) carrying freight along a backwoods border route, this man's road trip is Loznitsa's conceit, which becomes evident pretty early on. After witnessing a young, attractive woman being molested at a roadside police checkpoint, the trucker, Georgy, finds his passenger seat suddenly filled by a rogue hop-on. He's a World War II veteran whose story takes us deeply into a period flashback, wherein we witness his systematic abuse at the hands of Stalinist Army officers. At the end of the story, the old man flees; he may have been a kind of ghost from the past, or just a friendly messenger delivering a warning. But Loznitsa's aim, in retrospect, is clear. The old man's tale sets the stage for everything we're going to see throughout My Joy -- the abuse of the weak by the strong, the craven abuse of power, the rampant misogyny and xenophobia, and essentially the fetid soul of Russia, decaying from the inside out. The Stalin era, it seems, is not over (something more than a few people have claimed about Putin's reign); or, if we want to be more historicist about it, the present corruption and thuggery is based in roots that run deep and wide indeed.


One of the most bizarre decisions the Loznitsa makes with regard to My Joy's organization and thematics is its two-part structure. After stopping to sleep in his cab, Georgy is coaxed out to a campfire by some petty criminals who coldcock him, rob him and leave him for dead. At this point, My Joy abandons the road-movie format and breaks down, going off into multiple directions, often quite difficult to follow. The film, then, becomes dislodged from its own narrative premises, going from picaresque to fantasmagoria. This is a theoretically justifiable move, but at the time I found it alienating to the point of incomprehension. "Russia," per se, is not narratable in a linear fashion, or at least it ceases to be past a certain point. If we take Loznitsa's film as a synchronic statement of compressed "nowness," which I'm more inclined to do, the shift really is representative about an attempt to make sense of things that simply ruptures. If we interpret it diachronically -- something the flashback could prompt us to do, I suppose -- then the Soviet collapse becomes the possible pressure point, the pivot from comprehensible, systematic oppression into chaotic, all-against-all brutality. (This would put My Joy thematically in line with Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies.) Again, I'm more inclined toward the former reading, just because Loznitsa's reliance on shock and confusion seems more cognitive and ground-level than "historical," not that the two are in any way mutually exclusive. What we see in the end, interestingly, is a confrontation between urban and rural authority, the breakdown not only jurisdiction but of mutual respect for "the law" as a shared province of (thuggish) authority of which there's plenty to go around. When the country checkpoint officers harass, handcuff and begin beating the Moscow police major (Vlad Ivanov), largely because they want to rape his wife / girlfriend (not sure which), Loznitsa's displaying an evaporation of even a Foucaultian mapping of power and its abuse, wherein circulations and negotiations allow for a mobile network or circuitry of oppressive relationships. "Power" is now a zero-sum game, and it is completely geographical and contextual. Who's holding the weapon? How many of us, vs. how many of you? Pure primitivism.


Finally, one question hovers. Loznitsa is Ukrainian, and yet My Joy is a deeply Russian story. Is this a discrepancy? Obviously the long Soviet history, and the continuing ties and/or political interference of today, mean that Russian and Ukrainian identities and destinies are hardly separate, and besides, it's rather blinkered to demand "pure" national cinema from any international auteur. But I raise the question because it seems interesting in both directions, as a subtextual "silence" that might make My Joy speak in a somewhat different register. We've seen numerous Russian filmmakers hem and haw when it comes to criticizing the Putin / Medvedev bloc outright. Old timers like Sokurov to young radicals like Khyzhanovsky and Balabanov feel obliged to speak in symbol and code. So it may be up to a Ukrainian to take a slightly more direct swipe at nightmarish police abuses. At the same time, Loznitsa could be using Russia as a triangulation point to address the post-Orange political crises in Ukraine (as seen in the February reelection of Putinite Viktor Yanukovych) with relative symbolic safety. Or, as per the current state of affairs, perhaps Loznitsa's asking us to see My Joy as a kind of indistinct blend of Russian and Ukrainian social illness, which is kind of where the Prime Minister Elect is coming from.


What I Want Most (Delfina Castagnino, Argentina) [v] [5]

Given that first-time director Castagnino had been an associate of Lisandro Alonso, and that the film had gotten strong notices at the BAFICI in Buenos Aires and at San Sebastian (both pretty highbrow festivals), I had fairly high hopes for What I Want Most. Sadly, this is mostly a thin little nothing of a film, a post-collegiate slice of life piece examining the strained friendship of two female friends noteworthy only for their vapidity. One has more money than the other. They drink, they make plans for going out and meeting boys, they go to parties, they argue. To deal with the recent breakup of the less well-off member of the duo, they have opted to repair to Rich Girl's cabin in the country, which is the site of some tedious Sex and the Cityish soul searching. Some of these scenes are distinguished, I suppose, by their long takes. In fact, one sequence outside a party is noteworthy for depicting one of the women and a guy flirting at length as they sit and talk on the back of a car, in a single, static unbroken take. What you find, however, is that the performances and delivery, clearly improvised within parameters, don't just approximate the fumbling awkwardness of young people in a tentative meet-cute. In fact, on a nondiegetic level, all the ums and uhs are genuinely offputting, showing the flailing performers lurching for their next move. A minimal relationship-based talkfest like this requires something, anything, at stake, and until the final third, Castagnino's really got nothing. Then, when she pulls out a Big Reveal (the rich kid has heretofore unseen responsibilities that throw her friend's romantic whinging into unflattering relief), it's just a cheap stunt for being so carefully withheld. Instead of too little, it's too much too late.


Inside Job (Charles Ferguson) [6]

Much like Ferguson’s No End in Sight, Inside Job aims to be the definitive time-capsule documentary on its subject (the 2008 financial crash), and in some ways this is the problem. For one thing, Ferguson’s insistence on waiting several years, assembling the facts and gaining some hindsight – certainly admirable in theory, and the mark of good scholarship – means that his film is “old news.” Most of his viewers, a self-selected group of info-junkies and educated middle-class professionals, already have some basic sense of what happened, because we were paying attention when it happened. For another thing, Ferguson tries to cover too much in too little space. In his introduction (I caught a public screening), the director kept emphasizing how “it was all really simple,” and that’s what he wanted to convey. But just because the subprime mortgage market or the selling of unsecured debt can be made into graspable concepts doesn’t mean that patient elaboration on the overall global impact of these crimes wouldn’t be advisable. But Spike Lee spent four hours on Katrina. (Of course that was HBO, and Ferguson, working for Sony Classics, has to deliver a 120-minute or under theatrical feature.) Ultimately Inside Job struggles to define itself between journalism and academic research. It tends to fail, providing only USA Today graphics, Peter Gabriel montages, and wise soundbites from quite learned talking heads. Inside Job does inform, but it doesn’t enrich the conversation.



Friday, September 10

(Fast food review: Toronto is currently featuring both the most delicious and the most disgusting sandwiches I have elected to put in my mouth within the past several year. PRO: McDonald's Mango Chicken Mini, a small chicken sandwich with garlic mayo and mango chutney. Two cheers for multiculturalism. CON: Tim Hortons' egg salad, a travesty which I nevertheless won't let destroy Timmy's goodwill earned by the maple glazed doughnut or their surprisingly tasty turkey and wild rice soup.)


Erotic Man (Jørgen Leth, Denmark) [4]

Or, Jørgen Leth Plants His Tentpole In Developing World Pussy, Then Stares Wistfully Out the Hotel Window. What at first promised, then virtually threatened, to be a diaristic project based on the filmmaker’s own self-exposure and interrogation of his own desires and aging turned out to be, well, something very different. Erotic Man essentially finds Leth traveling to Haiti, Senegal, Panama, Brazil, and elsewhere, auditioning and then filming nubile 20-something women lounging naked in hotel rooms, zeroing in on their succulent breasts and asses. He labels them by name and nationality, not unlike a Playboy “Women of the Colonies” Video Pictorial. Occasionally they speak a prepared text. One woman, Dorothie from Haiti, is Leth’s young girlfriend and tends to provide more backtalk than the others, but Erotic Man recovers from this empowerment by including Leth’s first-person video of screwing Dorothie as she begs for more. (No joke.) I don’t want to throw Laura Mulvey criticism at every image of a naked lady that appears on a movie screen, and I certainly want to reserve a space for frank expressions of heterosexual male desire. But because Leth is so blinkered by his own privilege, he can’t see that his ruminations about his globetrotting sex life sound like white spunk-transmitted conquest. “I wonder if a one time love affair can be as significant as a relationship of many years?” he asks. “I remember many of them just as well.” (Cue “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.”) Here’s a fact that pretty much sums up the attitude of Erotic Man. It includes several scenes marked, “Haiti 2009,” and the film contains not one indication that, you know, anything significant has happened in Haiti recently, other than old Jørgen dipping his wick once again.


The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal / Spain / France / Brazil) [7]

One of the aspects of Oliveira's cinema that is consistently intriguing to me is his use of language dispersed across bodies, language's maintenance of its literary or theatrical character within cinema. This produces certain anomalies in the performances across Oliveira's films, and they're difficult to describe -- not Baroque, not Brechtian, not Bressonian, but partaking somehow of all of these things, buoyed at the same time by an indescribable supplement. This tension between cinema and theatricality (although that dialectic makes it sound simpler than it really is) tends to work hand in hand with a deeply saturated form of historical temporality in Oliveira's films. By saturated, I mean to express a few different things. His use of Old World locations inevitably lend all of his works, even indisputably contemporary ones like I'm Going Home, an air of se demented timelessless, the rich historicized, even geological sediment of Europe. Every stationary scene is replete with the hundreds of time-space conjunctions that have previously existed upon it. Oliveira's outdoor set-ups or his 18th and 19th century drawing rooms have "presence," like Atget photographs. But I also mean to say that, in the generation of a fictional world, these scenes are saturated with multiple time-spaces, even in the present Oliveira ambiguously dramatizes. When we see a modern streetlight or a PC in Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl or an SUV in The Strange Case of Angelica, it is jarring and "anachronistic," even though the films never told us they weren't set in the present. They're just steeped in a ghostly pastness, like temporal tea.


The Strange Case of Angelica is, in some respects, a strange case for Manoel. It falls well in line with his methodology, and yet its story and approach literalizes certain aspects of it, to offbeat result. Ricardo Trêpa plays Isaac, a Jew of modest means living in a boarding house in a town on the banks of the Douro River. One night he is on the street and by chance, a manservant is searching for the services of a late-night photographer. Isaac, a semi-professional , obliges. He has been summoned to the home of Leonor Silveira, who plays the mother of a just-deceased young woman, Angelica (Pilar López de Alaya). The family has her dead body dressed, made up and in repose, and wants some final snapshots prior to her interment. As Isaac looks at Angelica through the lens of his Leica, she appears to come back to life and smile at him. Thus begins his obsession with the dead girl, who begins to haunt his dreams and, through the medium of photography, continually return to life, subtly gesturing toward Isaac that she is calling out to him from beyond, or that, through the miracle of his art, perhaps she is not really dead at all. The time-machine element that Oliveira's cinema always so deftly exploits, the hint of memory and hovering suspension between incompatible timeframes that produces their marvelously odd atmosphere, is kind of what Angelica is overtly about. Isaac's liminal position as a Jew in a Catholic town is both remarked upon and reacted to in a raised-eyebrow sort of way, an anti-Semitic reflex that does feel more 19th than 21st century. And in turn, he uses photography, his own time-machine, to escape into (take your pick) the spirit world, the past, or his own dubious sanity. When we see the blue translucent form of Angelica floating in the sky outside Isaac's balcony, an image that recalls Kenneth Angel's Rabbit's Moon, Oliveira is conjuring the history of "spirit photography" (i.e., tricks of the light) as much as anything in the Great Beyond. All of this represents a shift of sorts for Oliveira, a somewhat more accessible work, but also a more literal one. It's no accident that the film's most digressive, left-field sequence (a lengthy breakfast conversation among Isaac's fellow boarders, a crusty, intellectual bunch to be sure) is also its best.


The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, U.K.) [4]

If you liked the breezy, unforced whimsy of Chomet’s The Triplettes of Belleville as much as I did, do yourself a favor and steer clear of The Illusionist, a drab slog that splits it time fairly evenly between miserablism and cliché. You would think that it could be much more than this (or at least I did), given that the film is based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati. Tati also features as the main character, albeit in animated form. (In tiny bits, we even see him begin to form his Hulot figure, but this really doesn’t go anywhere.) At first The Illusionist seems like Tati’s wistful reminiscence to his salad days as a stage magician. We see him performing for small, semi-appreciative crowds. Then he hits the road, meets a Scottish lass, takes her to Edinburgh with him, and from there the fissures begin to emerge. These fissures would be psychological, if anyone in The Illusionist had a discernible psychology. But Tati’s choppy, episodic script (the man wasn’t a writer, you know) provides nothing in the way of motivations. Instead, cruel, inscrutable actions are undertaken suddenly and without reason, just to send the plot in a mournful direction. Meanwhile, Chomet offers nothing in terms of Tati’s deft visual gamesmanship or panache. Instead we get washed-out watercolor visuals depicting little more than a standard-issue “life on the road” tale, with easy caricatures of all countries involved. Nothing hangs together; it’s neither comedic nor moving. It just plods on, a bit like a shapeless Chaplin film if the Little Tramp were resurrected as a complete asshole.


Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland) ["Navaho English" version] [9]

1. Much has been made of those so-called “Navaho English” subtitles, the fragmentary, broken-English words at the bottom of the screen in lieu of a full translation. A number of people have compared them with the fragment-texts that appear in Histoire(s) du cinéma, written words that also function as montage motifs. This is quite true. (Texts here include things like calling a man named Goldberg «GOLD MOUNTAIN» and shoving other words together.) But I also think that there’s another plan at work. Film Socialism is in large part a film about the state of Europe and the movement of money. One of the opening lines asks whether money should be a public utility (“a public good, like water”), which in some way defines socialism. The central figure of the film, Goldberg, appears to have been a Nazi who took on a new identity (or in the current parlance, “rebranded” himself) as a Jew in Switzerland, and his young assistant is asking him about money plundered from various banks. But, as per Godard’s insistence that everything must always glide into its dialectical opposite (and in keeping, somewhat realistically one would assume, with the cunning of an actual international war criminal), we see Goldberg, a.k.a. Robert Cristmann, referred to as a Resistance fighter. Who really knows? Plus, this reversal is yet another internal referendum on Godard himself – a legitimate intellectual maneuver to his partisans, more slippery bullshit to his detractors.


In terms of missing funds, plundered banks, and the crisis of Europe, it seems clear that one contemporary exigency that Godard is addressing the financial crisis that bankrupted Greece / Hellas (“Hell As”) (recall his statement at Cannes) and put much of the rest of Europe on the brink. And he is likening it to the discovery not so long ago that his homeland, “neutral” Switzerland, was a haven for Nazi money laundering. The point with the “broken” English subtitles is, Godard, I think, wants this to be an intra-European discussion, not so easily accessible to Anglo-American eyes and ears. (I am reminded of African-American barber and beauty-shop talk, hashing out racial issues that white folks would very likely spin into racism were they to overhear.) Jean-Marie Straub simply refuses to allow his films to be subtitled into English. But then, he is largely ignored or discounted, especially by a North American film festival system that always wanted an excuse not to show his difficult films. Instead of turning his back on the Anglophones altogether, Godard, with that mile-wide mean streak on him, wanted to frustrate the hell out of us, and let us know that we were missing out on a whole lot by not speaking French, German and Russian.


2. Whose brilliant idea was it to send Godard on a sea cruise? It's a facetious question, of course, since only JLG would ever be in control of his own creative decisions at this point. (Although it's always possible that Anne-Marie Miéville had some influence; she usually does.) But the remarkable setting for Film Socialism accomplishes many things on a philosophical and a visual level (the two are inseparable here), and they must be teased out in order to fully understand Godard's achievement with this film. First of all, we have to think about what exactly a nautical craft of any sort actually is, both structurally and in the contemporary world. The ship provides Godard with an enclosed mise-en-scène, which produces a harmony and spatial connection between the disparate functions and ideas in Part One. The European and Middle Eastern ports of call, which are as much concepts and deep historical resonances as they are actual places, are allowed to play off of the concrete relationships on board the ship. What we see is a kind of enactment of historical amnesia, but one that struggles with the problem at least in part. No simplistic "ship of fools" here, although much of the Euro-tourist culture is distracted by the economic free-zone of maritime law, the temporary lure of nationlessness. The casino is the most obvious example of this, but Godard is also adept is using shock cuts to show the attractions of the cruise as both wild abandon (fiddle while Europe burns!) and out-and-out comedy: the stereo-rattling dance club, the bingo, the CCTV water aerobics, and of course the line-dancing children.


Only occasionally does Godard take actual potshots at the passengers (and ambivalent ones at that, like when he shows the elderly couple discussing Israel in their "right to return"). Mostly, they're just the noisy, everyday ground against which his philosophical investigations (the Goldberg plot, colonialism, the status of money) are all happening. And, in a sense, this "free zone" apart from national law -- a floating "Europe" which is definitively not Europe -- is necessary for the philosophical inquiry to occur in the first place. One of the cruise's "attractions" is a sparsely attended lecture on Derrida's introduction to Husserl's Origin of Geometry delivered by Alain Badiou. (Derrida, who was among other things an anti-Zionist Algerian Jew, has been a touchstone for Godard since the late 60s.) Husserl's assertion is that the task of inventing geometry would entail bringing a set of mental ideas into an objective form, through science. As per the "phenomenological reduction," one would need to articulate the formal problems involved in isolation from the "contamination" of the larger world in order to best understand them. While this is not really possible, it is an ideal, for philosophy as it is for the positive sciences. Godard interrogates crises of the nation-state while drifting apart from it. Of course, as far as the traction such rarefied thinking has for the larger world, it must be observed that the Husserl lecture is almost empty. The makeshift Catholic mass in the singles' bar is faring much better.


3. The second part of Film Socialism most closely resembles Godard's filmmaking from the early 1980s onward, although it's actually a bit more "accessible," I suppose. (Feel free to scoff at the suggestion.) We meet the Martin family -- mother, father, older daughter and younger brother -- at a point of complete communicative and emotional impasse. The parents had been running a garage / Agrola service station, but they appear to have given up on it, or to have turned it over to the children following a generational coup. In the opening scenes of this section, Dad earnestly addresses the camera (held by his children, who cajole him offscreen), lamenting the state of society and his own brood. "Why don't you love us anymore?" he pleads, finally asking, "What have you thought up to piss us off today?" Not long after, Mom gets her soliloquy, in which she articulates a downhearted feminist truth, that she'd only ever allowed herself to think of herself in relation to her family and not about her own personhood. This confession produces catcalls and shout-downs from the kids. Meanwhile, the daughter is "manning" the gas pumps, reading Balzac, telling motorists to piss off, and casually hanging out with an unremarked-upon llama. Vive la revolution! What's compelling about this section is Godard's tone of plangent ambivalence. The kids, with their declarations of language based radicalism -- "We must not use the verb 'to be'!" or "First we'll discuss fraternity, then liberty, then shit." -- are not so far removed from the Young Godardians of the 1960s and 70s, in films like La Chinoise and especially Le Gai Savoir. One might think at first that JLG is taking the piss out of an earlier form of his own ideologies, but in fact Film Socialism displays a great deal of respect for the kids and their attempt to "make it new." If we tie this segment back to the other parts of the film, then we have to take the Children's Crusade a bit more seriously. Anyone wanting to launch a rhetorical attack on decisions taken by politicians and governments to deal with economic crises knows that there is always one go-to trope. "We're passing this mess onto our children, maybe even our children's children!" This is all talk; nobody who says this ever really cares about the inheritance of debt. But Godard is taking this idea at face value. Kids are citizens of our world. Why can't they take a crack at running it?


Well, inexperience, for one reason. This section evinces sympathy with the adults just as much as it does with the kids, and we occasionally see moments of great tenderness among the Martin family. The son hugs his mom while she washes dishes, and they discuss their basic struggle to communicate with one another, as family members and as human beings. What is human 'being'? "It is space, and space is dying." The dad and daughter sit, read, and listen to music. When the family is out of the media glare of the reporters from TF1 who want to cover "the events at Garage Martin," the relationships cease to be adversarial and platitude-based. But even within the garage scenes, we see the mother assisting the kids in their efforts, whether or not she could be said to agree with or understand them. Inasmuch as Godard shows us the service station as a microcosm for a future run by the children, nothing is happening apart from "return to zero" philosophizing, and perhaps this is all that should happen under the circumstances. But when part two concludes with the fragmentary news reports suggesting that the children, running for election without their surnames, have won an overwhelming majority of the vote and are set to assume control, we only get these future-tense descriptions and no real picture of what is going to happen next. This doesn't mean that Godard is asserting that it will be good or bad, just that he does not know, and there is no way to know. This is a significant shift from his previously held positions, which advocated ground-zero revolutionizing at all costs.


4. The final portion of Film Socialism is something of an epilogue, returning to the video-edited style (text / images / rapid montage / found footage) that Godard perfected in Histoire(s) du cinéma. In this section, we return, at a slow, deliberate pace, to each of the ports of call from the first section. Each is "visited" as a set of images and sounds, as a text or mini-essay that interrogates both its own representational history and our own need to grapple with the material realities of the locale in question. But part of this complex text, Godard acknowledges, is comprised of a circulation of images without origin, images whose "proper" deployment can never be policed. And this is yet another negative dialectic (in the Adornian sense) that Film Socialism plunges us into but leaves deliberately suspended. Following Derrida (and Walter Benjamin, also cited in the film), Godard recognizes the fact that circulation, reproducibility, and the "fatherless text" of post-Platonic, immanent language, is our fundamental state. Nothing new; his cinematic practice has always hinged on quotation, citation and circulation, as well as the belief that making things into cinema, turning the world into images, brought them into intelligibility. But that was then, and Godard also evinces a healthy fear of the Internet (witness his amazingly snide use of the "talking" cats), as well as the possibility of increased ease of forgery and deception with respect to identity (the Goldberg scenario). This problem directly mirrors the issues in parts one and two, wherein Film Socialism openly frets about the evacuation of history and tradition while at the same time demanding that we hand over the reins to the next generation, the ones who are not war criminals or rapacious capitalists and whose responsibility it is to reimagine "Europe," if there will be one at all. And, as just one more layer of frustration for those who were never inclined to cut Godard a break, it's equally possible to see this splitting of the difference as Crazy Jeannot stuck between his two worst selves, the Leftist Loony and the Old Curmudgeon. Let the haters hate.


5. One final note: just like everything else in Godard's work, his comments about Jewishness have to be taken in context. I'm not going to defend certain ill-considered, idiotic racial ideas, like his calling the pidgin-English subtitles "Navaho" when in fact Navaho is a separate language, or the bizarre remark in Film Socialism about "slant-eyed" Orientals. These are deliberate provocations to be sure, but the film fails to create the context that would make them meaningful as something other than cheap race-baiting. By contrast, almost every discussion of Jewishness or the Israeli state in Film Socialism is doubled with a comment about Palestine. (This harks back to his diagram in JLG/JLG, in which he shows Israel and Palestine to be locked in a relation of mutual projection or "stereo.") So, while some have cited as anti-Semitic Godard's passage in the film about Hollywood being "invented by Jews," it cannot be separated from what comes immediately before it, when Hollywood's dominance and the arrangement of movie theatres, with all eyes facing in the same direction, is compared to Mecca. Godard is suggesting that a group of American Jews ironically helped give rise to an industry whose impact has resulted in a "Muslim" sense of uniformity, although in the end it is capitalism that actually explains this unidirectional dominance. (It would require the argumentative precision of a Theodor Adorno to make this point with adequate subtlety. I won't suggest that Godard does not botch it through inadequate elaboration.) What's more, it is "Goldberg" who reiterates this Jewish stereotype. Given the characterization of him throughout the film (he even says "Heil Hitler"), his discourse cannot simply be equated with Godard's own views. And, as with the Hebrew and Arab script superimposed upon one another, Godard's major point seems to be, continually, that Arab and Jewish fates are inextricably connected. Only the acceptance of this basic linkage (and the refutation of Zionism and/or Jihadism) can "unlock" Palestine, as a history and as a living entity. Until then, there is one thing on top of another, a closed set of possibilities: ACCESS DENIED. And, within the realm of communication, the results are the same: NO COMMENT.


The Four Times (Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy / Germany / Switzerland) [7]

[MAJOR SPOILERS] The Four Times is without a doubt one of the year's most fascinating films -- actually one of the most fascinating films to come down the pike in a while -- mostly due to its resolute unwillingness to commit to one single mode of representation. Part pseudo-anthropological survey, part avant-garde nature film, part God's eye view of the universe from a decidedly materialist standpoint (which is not so strange, actually -- why would God be a spiritualist?), The Four Times seems, in some ways, to function as a set of vignettes, or perhaps as a collection of interrelated stories of the Earth and its various inhabitants. But the film never settles down, exactly. And this is made all the more impressive by the fact that its trajectory, its overarching theme and structure, are wholly determined, perhaps even deterministic. Somehow, Frammartino generates a firm cycle of mandatory events and orchestrates wonder and surprise within them. This is no mean feat. Yes, the seasons, for example, are a structure, and many unexpected events happen within that framework year after year. But The Four Times is a piece of cinema, not a natural event ("only God can make a tree," har har), and so part of the amazement and even the frustration the film can provoke has to do with its uncanny combination of the inevitable and the rhetorical. In the beginning, we spend time with an elderly gentleman (Giuseppe Fuda), our putative protagonist. This is before we realize that Frammartino is not making a "narrative film," per se. He is a Calabran goat herder in ill health. We follow him as he drives his goats up and down the rocky paths of the medieval village where he lives. Apparently given to more superstition than the norm, the old man makes time to sweep the local church, bring the collected dust back home in a folded envelope, and drink it in water like a medicinal draught. This does not prevent his demise (a hassle with which his neighbors must contend, negotiating his lifeless body through narrow passageways as though he were an outsized color TV), and this precipitates Frammartino's first major shift, from the first to the second "time." The goats, left largely to their own devices, become the focal point of the film. But Frammartino's larger point here, which becomes evident almost immediately, is that our emphasis is moving from "human time" to "animal time." We are no longer bound by the concern with mortality in the conscious manner of the goatherd, who (for example) panics when he runs out of dust and tries to gain after-hours admittance to the church. The animal life cycle is not governed by Dasein, the Being-unto-death, despite our tendency to personify animal-time when we observe it. The Four Times' finest set piece entails a single-shot aerial view of humans, in a Passion Play procession (pretending to attain Spiritual Time) invading the space of the goats and the farm dog who guards them. A series of disasters results, but we see the dog struggle to maintain order, like a bureaucratic Buster Keaton. It's easy to forget that his behavior is all about routine and territory. But then, perhaps a great deal of human behavior is as well.


The movement from the second to the third "time" is a difficult passage, because we witness death and rebirth in an attenuated form. It is hard to say goodbye to an animal and enter the radically anti-humanist, anti-subjective timeframe of plant life. It seems to be the antithesis of consciousness, and perhaps it is. But Frammartino challenges us to consider the life of a tall forest tree, silhouetted against a sky that gives it shape and grandeur (this is, by accident or design, a very Heideggerian film) until it is pressed into service. Humans fell the tree for ritual purposes. It becomes a civic symbol and a kind of signifier of itself, guy-wired into place as if it were still alive. Dead or alive, the tree continues to exist, exuding a purpose that involves human time but is completely impervious to it. The tree is decorated, it emblematizes the holiday, it serves as an obstacle and a test of human endurance. And then it is taken down and sent to a charcoal field where it is chopped, dried, and arranged in a heat-retaining mound so as to bake the "tree" into a mineral state, "time" number four. Are these separate times isolated from the human world? Of course not -- in most every case it is human intervention that instigates the transformation from one state, or one time-frame, to another. So is Frammartino cheating, actually just showing us the various implements involved in variegated forms of life, all primarily defined by "human time"? I'm inclined to say no. Although The Four Times could have been more rigorous in its approach to visual language, permitting a longer, more static world to coalesce around tree and charcoal, the fact is Frammartino is also demonstrating the labor required to make one thing become another. The lumberjacks cutting down the tree are, in an undeniable sense, responding to the tree's "time," deferring to its backbreaking materiality. In each "time," we watch different forms of material existence, either transformed by work or having failed to be transformed. If there is a spirit moving among these stages of matter as they clash, so be it. But "the four times" are all times of the earth, rhythms that we can neither stave off nor accelerate.



Saturday, September 11

(Did I mention I Am Love is still playing commercially? And other such uses for a light day with severely unappetizing offerings. Oh, also, some problems. Volunteers' walkie-talkies are squawking throughout each and every screening. Digital films are being projected at the Scotiabank Theatre in the wrong aspect ratio. And screenings are being held at venues too small to accommodate their actual demand. But hey! Pay no attention to that! Look at the shiny, shiny Lightbox! Ooh, Lightbox...)


Tender Son - The Frankenstein Project (Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary / Germany / Austria) [6]

[SPOILERS] After the balls-out disaster of Delta, I was wary about giving Mundruczó another chance. But I felt I owed it to any major film artist, and although Tender Son is a deeply flawed work to say the least, it's also a film of ideas and notable directorial control. It leaves me actually wanting to see what Mundruczó does next. Like Delta, Tender Son is exploring the incest taboo, but at least this time Mundruczó has the good sense to treat it as a kind of literary trope, or perhaps better to say, to take the psychoanalytic Western baggage and lace it though with other, equally weighted (freighted?) baggage: literary traditions, the crisis of representation and self-reflexivity in the avant-garde (as a misguided quest for authenticity and "truth,") and above all the inheritance of Eastern European masculinity in the post-Communist era. We begin with the Director (Mundruczó) giving a phone interview about his latest work (a Hungarian operatic adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, of all things) but soon discover his destination. He rents an old apartment block for use in his next film project, for which he's trying to discover a semi-feral young boy-thug from whom he can draw out deep reserves of emotion. His auditions are mostly centered on trying to get them to cry. When one young man (Rudolf Frecska) wanders into the audition by mistake, and when told to cry, replies, stony-faced, "I am," the director knows he's got a winner. Trouble is, this is the troubled boy who has come back home to find his mother (Lillie Monori) who sent him to live in an orphanage or other unspecified institution. Some violent incident is hinted at but never specified, and it's never clear whether the boy was a mere inconvenience to his mother. But she clearly doesn't want him now. At this point, Tender Son begins functioning on two parallel tracks. Mundruczó's character starts trying to build a reality-based film around him, with tragic, unpredictable results; and the boy's attempts to seduce his young half-sister (Kitty Csíkos) wreak havoc throughout the family, resulting in even greater violence. Mundruczó's film is a sly work of tonal dread and anxiety, up to a point. A tense scene between Frecska and Monori in the laundry room, with the rumbling of an unbalanced dryer increasing to a deafening sonic skull-thump, illustrates everything that's right-on about Mundruczó's style. He knows his way around a tenement block in winter, all dark angles beveled in snow, unlit corners and dingy, hemmed in possibility. But in time, illogical third-act revelations emerge, and by then Tender Son has nowhere left to go. Mundruczó resolves things by adopting conventional slasher-film language that's quite beneath him, and tells the audience we've been wasting our time all along. Add to this a true deus ex machina conclusion (i.e., "I've painted myself into a corner and I really want to finish this up and go grab a bite to eat") and you just want to shake the man. But he's getting better. That's something. [By the way, thanks to Neil Young for jogging my memory on certain details of this film.]


A Horrible Way To Die (Adam Wingard) [v] [4]

So, this is Colin Geddes’s idea of an art film? Granted, he’s not alone. I’d been told by several reliable sources that Adam Wingard was a young director to watch, an up and coming B-horror auteur in the vein of Larry Fessenden. I can only wonder how Fessenden might have improved this dire material, although I’m sure he would have just chucked it completely. A story that might be repugnant if it weren’t so dull, Horrible Way follows Sarah (Amy Seimetz), a dental hygienist, through her recovery process in AA and her flashbacks to a comfortable but booze-soaked love life with Garrick (AJ Bowen), who turned out to be a serial killer. Time scrambling, shakycam and rack focus transitions (made by hitting the autofocus button, clearly) tell us we’re inside the troubled psyches of some seriously damaged people, and these hackwork effects visualize it, see? Joe Swanberg is on hand as Not What He Seems, music stings abound, and if the world’s least plausible random comment by a local news reporter doesn’t tip you off early to what’s happening here, then “plant and payoff” just isn’t your drinking game. Putting every last one of your directorial eggs in a final-five-minute twist is bad enough; having your lead actor channel QuentinTarantino  the actor while doing it is unfathomable.


Super (James Gunn) [v] [3]

Seeing Slither director James Gunn’s new film starring Rainn Wilson (from the U.S. version of THE OFFICE) as a schlub who decides to win back his wayward wife (Liv Tyler) by becoming a self-styled, wrench-wielding superhero. At a film festival. Good idea? [Answer: NO.] It’s unfunny and borderline misogynistic in its save-her-from-herself chivalry. But it’s also one of way too many American movies in the last two years about, well, regular schlubs who become self-styled superheroes (Kick-Ass, Special, Defendor, and even to an extent Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). Clearly, the fact that power is faceless and bureaucratic in the U.S. produces the sense that only extraordinary gifts (or being a maniac) permits individual democratic participation, or just being noticed. Or, too many boys are geeking out on the Internet. Oh, and because I shield myself from the most egregious examples of internet movie site stupidity, I honestly didn't know until after seeing Super that this was a Ted Hope production, and one whose production he'd been detailing on his blog. If this stinking pile represents "hope for film," you'll find me holed up in a Motel 6 writing a book about Derek Walcott.


Home Movie (John Price, Canada) [m]

Easily one of the strongest entries in this year's Wavelengths series, Price's Home Movie (which has been retitled thus, it seems, for convenience -- the original title was Russian, "Domashnyee Kino," only in the original Cyrillic is an unusual work in that it combines a rather outsized ambition with an almost palpable modesty. Medium-length, widescreen and presented in 35mm, Home Movie already displays a set of technical and presentational parameters that outstrips much of what goes on in avant-garde circles. But this approach is brought to bear on images of relative intimacy and simplicity. By "simplicity," I should make clear, I do not mean that Price wields his camera with the negligibility of a content-fixated diarist. There is consistent attention to form, in terms of framing (especially the offhand dispersal of figures within the widescreen image) and camera movement, but even more than this, Home Movie is edited, subtly and unobtrusively, to promote cyclical time structures and associations. These rhythms correspond to shifts in the lives and growing cognitive awareness of Price's two daughters, who are the primary subjects of Home Movie. Although not conveyed through grand philosophizing in the manner of Stan Brakhage, Home Movie's two young subjects are seen forming more and more concrete relationships with one another and with the world they inhabit, as reflected in the visual and spatial fields Price organizes. What's more, this world, and the celluloid vehicle through which it is "solidified" (so to speak), undergo gorgeous nonstop alchemy. A fully hand-processed work, Home Movie contains pockmarks, brushstroke-like swaths of developer trace, differential light and color effects, a denatured but fully organic saturation of icy blues and jabbing crimsons, along with solarizations and flares. Much like certain works by Carl Stone or the pre-digital David Larcher (or indeed, Michael Snow's underseen film To Lavoisier Who Died in the Reign of Terror), Home Movie serves as a kind of compendium of physical states that celluloid can assume, a tactile love letter to its resilience and luminosity in a time when its existence is, to put it mildly, on the wane. Is there a specific connection between Price's chemical manifestations and his paternal inquiries? When I scarequoted the word "solidified," I was hinting at this of Price's dual task of bringing new forms to light, the sense of existential Becoming, a gentle struggle for beings and ideas to form themselves under loving tutelage. In short, letting that which we love emerge as it will, with mitigated guidance.


Color Field Film 2 (Madison Brookshire) [s]

The second reel in Brookshire's series clarifies what the Color Field Films are up to more generally, as an entire project. Whereas #1 served, in retrospect, as a kind of all-color prelude, #2 is restricted to some of the lower-toned colors on the spectrum. In about the same amount of time (although I did not clock it), Brookshire uses #2 to take us much more gradually across deep blues and greens, eventually ending up at a somewhat lighter red. In addition to providing a differential experience in terms of the intensity of the colors involved, #2 emphasizes the time element, elongating the more automated, light-show pacing of #1 into a seemingly more deliberate color study, one with an obvious hand at the helm. Brookshire informed me that the rest of the films in the CFF series are characterized by changes in duration, the final part approaching feature length. Whereas CFF#1, taken on its own, seemed sufficiently indebted to Sharits and light-artists like Turrell to leave me wondering what Brookshire's specific intervention is, now I think I see it clearly. Most color-field filmmaking always focuses almost exclusively on the immediate conditions of perception -- what's on screen, how it hits the eye, and how the eye manages the shifts in optical phenomena across the screen. However, the Color Field Films are calling extensively upon our memories, our earlier relationships with films no longer before us. One could even argue (although I don't think I would -- I'm not sure yet that it would be productive to do so) that Brookshire's desire for you to see what's before you, while thinking both ahead to the next time-frame and back to the previous ones, may introduce the question of narrative.


Blessed Events (Isabelle Stever, Germany) [7]

Well what do you know? TIFF actually selected a pretty decent German film. That would be Blessed Events (Glückliche Fügung) by Isabelle Stever. The director, who studied at the dffb and was a participant in the Deutschland 09 omnibus, appears to have semi-direct ties to the group of advanced filmmakers currently revitalizing German cinema, and whom TIFF is studiously ignoring. I wouldn’t make grant claims for the film, but there is a distinct tone at work in Blessed Events that sets it apart from many of its counterparts. If I were forced to make an immediate comparison, it would be to the work of Maren Ade, but with a sensibility at once more diffuse and mundane. Essentially a female-centered, existential-dread riff on Apatow’s Knocked Up, Events focuses on Simone (Annika Kuhl), a strangely awkward, unconventionally attractive woman (think a haunted Hilary Swank) approaching her late thirties. In the opening sequence, Stever shows us Simone riding her bicycle to the nightclub, disco dancing, getting drunk, having a one-night-stand, waking up in the guy’s car and biking home, all in an economical six or seven minutes. A frank contrivance links Simone up again with Hannes (Stefan Rudolf), a male nurse in a hospice ward. Upon this second meeting, Simone informs Hannes that she’s pregnant, and he’s pleased. And it’s off to the races, sort of. Stever’s film is deeply off-putting in its refusal to abide by narrative logic and human motivation, relying instead on anxiety-inducing agreeability that eventually stops making sense to Simone. Formally, Events makes the most of negative space (the film is nearly over before we learn Simone’s name, for example), and this mirrors the frazzling vapidity of Hannes, an art film himbo who may or may not be hiding something.




Sunday, September 12



Silent Souls (Aleksei Fedorchenko, Russia) [8]

Fedorchenko's film is actually one of the most remarkable cinematic balancing acts I’ve witnessed in quite some time. It is a film that manages to incorporate an elegiac narrative movement alongside a somewhat straightforward, nearly essayistic examination of the ethnographic inheritances of the Merjan minority in Russia. The story centers on two friends who work at a paper mill. Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) is the factory director, and Aist (Igor Sergeyev) is the factory’s ID card photographer. Miron’s wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) has just died, and he asks Aist to help him send her off according to the complex customs of the Merjan people. As we learn in Aist’s opening voiceover, he is a writer, like his father was, and he has taken it upon himself to document Merjan culture before it is gone. While this marriage of actual historical demonstration and emotional reverie could have fallen apart at any moment, seeming either didactic or overwrought, Fedorchenko succeeds in generating a hushed, mystical tone that is at the same time absolutely material, as though we are viewing a piece of living history unfolding before us. Part of this unlikely alchemy, no doubt, comes from the fact that even though everything Silent Souls shows us about the Merjans is apparently true – the “smoking,” the transport of the body, the lock on the bridge – the culture, originally of Finnish stock, assimilated into Russian ethnicity in the 17th century. So Fedorchenko’s full activation of their otherness in the present day is itself a fiction, a kind of Orthodox pageant of Flahertyesque reenactment, but placed within the context of the lives of three fully realized fictional beings. So thorough is the Merjan’s “pastness” in our present, that when they stop at an Auchan hypermarket on the way back home, it’s as though time has literally stopped for them. And this isn’t a jab at capitalism so much as a melancholic draining of the spirit from life. In terms of activating the classic Eastern spirituality of the elements, the territory of Tarkovsky and Paradjanov, I kept thinking about how many other Russian filmmakers today try so hard to do what Fedorchenko appears to have done so naturally.


ATTENBERG (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece) [7]

[SPOILERS] One way to begin to understand Tsangari's strange, wonderful little film -- as opposed to jumping right into a comparison with Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, which we will be getting to in a moment -- is to spend a bit of time parsing the title. In the course of a conversation between main character Marina (Ariane Labed) and her friend Bella (Evangelina Randou), Bella refers to the fact that Marina and her father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis) watch documentaries from the "Life of Earth" series by Sir Richard Attenborough. Bella mistakenly calls him "Attenberg." So, the film itself is labeled after an error. However, it's an error with a basis in casual fact, since Bella's mistake draws on another common error, mispronouncing "Edinburgh" as "ED-in-burg." (As Victor Morton joked, nobody ever talks about going to "Pitts-burrah.") So Tsangari is wrapping her story within a problem inside knowledge, borne of both provincialism (a major unspoken theme in the film) and the failed attempt to overcome the parochial curse through a cosmopolitan worldview that almost always goes wrong. This is what, to a great extent, makes ATTENBERG significantly different in philosophy that Dogtooth, a film to which it is in many respects quite similar. If Dogtooth is an anguished riff on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, read through child abuse (or just child rearing; for Lanthimos the two are virtually synonymous), ATTENBERG should be perhaps be read as a farewell song to a particular variety of Marxist utopianism, to age of Sartre and Beauvoir, a last gasp at re-envisioning society wholesale. My first thought upon encountering ATTENBERG (and I doubt I was alone; this is an understandable "first thought," because it's so easy) is that it's a "distaff" Dogtooth, kinder and gentler somehow. But in fact, Tsangari displays defter intelligence in some key ways precisely because she doesn't succumb to the macho showmanship that makes Lantimos' film such a blockbuster of bas-ass rigor with critics. Instead of top-down social control, in the form of a fascist family compound, ATTENBERG gives us something altogether more realistic, and more capable of eliciting our sympathy. Single-father Spyros is seen as overprotective, but ultimately as a "best buddy" type of parent, one whose close bond with Marina made it difficult for him to perform a necessary parental task -- separate his own beliefs from the process of parenting, when necessary.


So Marina is not "damaged," like Dogtooth's "older sister." Nor is she irredeemably co-dependent, like Julyvonne in Curling. She's just odd, like someone who's been home-schooled in a church (unsystematic, hippy Euro-socialism) that no longer exists. So one of the benefits of Tsangari placing Marina against Bella as a foil is that we can see all the ways in which Bella's "normal" behavior is equally strange. This is a Brechtian / feminist move without drawing undue attention to itself. If a kid isn't taught to play with Barbies or act like a princess (or here, French kiss or "move like a woman") then placing her against the norm will throw both modes of being into stark relief. The wonderful thing about ATTENBERG, its openhearted humanism (again, in its own stark relief against Dogtooth) is that no judgment is implied. Where Marina's and Bella's girly-modes collide, and where their friendship coalesces, is at the crucial zone of silliness. The "silly walks" interludes are phenomenal not just because they seem to come out of nowhere and break up the rhythm of ATTENBERG's tenser moments. They are also virtually nondiegetic blasts of female camaraderie, there only to impart joyous sisterly abandon. They are part "Monty Python," part Chytilova's Daisies, and even a dash of "Laverne & Shirley." And part of what they seem designed to transmit to us, and perhaps to Marina as well, is that there is not one single trajectory to becoming a mature, desiring female subject. Marina's process is one of breaking away from Spyros (a natural one, of course, but one made more urgent due to his terminal illness), but it is not, despite initial appearances, a movement towards Bella's flirtatious behavior and solicitousness toward men. Marina's eventual coupling -- her giving of herself over to her basic animal impulses, those meticulously catalogued in those nature tapes made by the guy with the funny name -- turns out to rely not on a radically new set of behaviors, but a new trust in the ones she's exhibited all along.


The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, France) [7]

Oh, what perfect irony. When we last left the estimable Ms. Breillat, she was garnering plaudits (particularly from those who did not typically count themselves among her usual fans) for her made-for-ARTE adaptation of Bluebeard. Although I admired that film well enough, it mostly hit me as a rather flat, declarative effort, so much so that in my review I suggested that Breillat's overall strengths as an auteur lay in her writing and philosophizing, and that as a director she was something of -- gasp! -- a metteur en scène. I know, fighting words, right? And not entirely fair, since Breillat is a woman who really knows, like no other, how to frame a woman's bare ass with a garden tool protruding from it. No mean feat, that. But I digress, and in this case I promised myself that I really wouldn't digress, because, for some reason, when it comes to Breillat I have this unusual auteurist tic. I tend to recapitulate (well, reconsider and realign, actually) her entire oeuvre with each new film. It's not unreasonable; like certain other filmmakers, such as Ulrich Seidl, Guy Maddin, and Lisandro Alonso, off the top of my head, I perceive Breillat as a "project" auteur, one whose films are all components of one grand effort. But for the reader, and for me, this Reading of the Minutes does get tiresome. So anyhow, as if in direct challenge to my not-so-flattering hypothesis about CB's matte-latex visual sense, she delivers The Sleeping Beauty, probably the most consistently inventive, mise-en-scène driven film of her career. Unlike Bluebeard, which played like a treatise on the feminist fantastic, The Sleeping Beauty is a disorienting, concrete evocation of the adolescent female psyche. It's an Angela Carter / Bruno Bettelheim fever dream, as if cobbled together by Terry Gilliam from old sets and costumes caked in hundred-year-old sex sweat.


In Breillat's variation on the tale, a baby girl is born and an evil fairy (Rosine Favey) puts a curse on her. She is to die very young. Three caretaker fairies (Camille Chalons, Leslie Lipkins, and Dounia Sichov), who appear in the staging of the film to have practically allowed the bad fairy to have cast the spell through sheer inattention, cannot break the curse outright. But they can make a slight adjustment. The infant will live normally until the age of six, at which point she will fall asleep for a hundred years and awaken as a 16 year old girl. This is Anastasia (Carla Besainou), and the orchestration of her "sleep" is one of Breillat's primary innovations. The Sleeping Beauty provides young Anastasia with a very active dream life, one which the film frequently makes indistinguishable from the waking life the post-adolescent Anastasia will encounter upon waking. Through a highly articulated mise-en-scène of half-abandoned, wood and gingerbread-looking train depots manned by strange, fussy trainmasters of diminutive stature, or Anastasia's accidental but seemingly preordained discovery by an adoptive family who initially regard her as some sort of living doll, Breillat quite deftly weaves a discombobulated and at times hard-to-follow scene and event structure cut to the measure of the juvenile unconscious. If you lost your way at some point through that last sentence, you have some idea what watching The Sleeping Beauty is like. There is a "logic" at work; everything is quite connected and correct. But Breillat's staging and pacing lend an oneiric tenor to nearly every moment, forestalling narrative propulsion and concatenation in favor of the "stuckness" and total present of the dream space. Anastasia sees her stepbrother and playmate (Kerian Mayan) turn suddenly cold, and although this is clearly the onset of puberty and the move into hardened patriarchal prerogative, Anastasia and the film formulate it as cruel enchantment by the Snow Queen (Romane Portail). Anastasia has to win the boy back from the "dark side," but of course, in Breillatland, this is really just the beginning of the battle of the sexes. Through all of the distaff Freudian fantasy play, Breillat engineers a film that is difficult but hypnotic and deeply soulful, at times resembling an overtly feminist Raul Ruiz effort. (1980s Ruiz, that is.) When Anastasia wakes up in the early 21st century, The Sleeping Beauty has managed to make even the most mundane markers of daily existence look bizarre, a forest of potential in which to strike out and, if at all possible, live the dream.


Water Lilies (T. Marie) [v/s]

This is a difficult work to evaluate because, as Marie and Andréa Picard made clear prior to the screening, the three-part single-screen version shown at the festival was considerably different from what the artist had planned. Water Lilies was designed to be a three-screen triptych, in keeping with the multi-panel paintings by Claude Monet which were Marie's inspiration for the piece. All the same, I suspect I got enough of a sense of the project to be able to register my frustration with Water Lilies. Like all of Marie's work, it is beautiful, and the vibrant colors it wrenches from the digital medium are truly extraordinary. In particular, the deep cerulean blues of this piece are soulful and play remarkably well (like oil painting, really), especially against the off-whites of the broader frame. However, working with Monet begs the question -- why go for such an obvious choice? There was a hint of Jasper Johns at work in 010101, and of course Turner is the direct inspiration for Slaveship. In either case, painterly gesture is working against its containment by line and form, which seems to me to be an ideal parallel to Marie's own aesthetic bailiwick. The pixels are solid, but she keeps them constantly changing, resulting in a porosity of image. Taking on Impressionism does more than gild the, um, lily. It highlights the aspects of Marie's work that in my experience can become problematic at the site of spectatorship, the inability to ever grab hold of a form long enough to mentally measure it against previous forms in the sequence. Several of Marie's "water lilies" seemed to be imploding from the inside out, like stacks of pancakes, partly because the round, flat Impressionist light-functions could not attain enough solidity to uphold the "presence" side of the vital presence / absence dialectic. I can only assume that, had Water Lilies come off as a triple-screen work, some parts may have played against one another in terms of solidity and liquidity. But this still would not mitigate the fact that Monet is a bit too bang-on for Marie's process. Nevertheless, Water Lilies, like all of Marie's work, demonstrates remarkable control over a work method she seems to have created from scratch, and it prompted me to think seriously about Monet's art for the first time in ages. A not-inconsiderable achievement.


Cold Fish (Sion Sono, Japan) [3]

A self-satisfied film with too much blood on its hands, but far less on its mind than many other equally viscous entries this year, the reprehensible Cold Fish represents my (unfortunate, so I’m assured) first exposure to "Japanese maverick" Sono. A 2 ½ hour cartoon of grisly proportions, the film focuses on rival tropical fish dealers in a mid-sized Japanese town, one, Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) a weak-willed nebbish despised by his second wife and teenaged daughter; the other, Mr. Murata (Denden), is brash, confident, and sexy – a sort of seductive Teorema figure who becomes, naturally, more tormentor than liberator. For much of the film's running time, I found myself merely annoyed by Sono's film, and toyed with the idea of walking out but never really got up the gumption to do so. There is something to be said for the director's pacing, framing, and use of color. Sono's no hack, and despite the fact that nothing happening onscreen was appealing or held my interest on an intellectual level, I found Cold Fish watchable. I can certainly understand the claims made on behalf of a film like Love Exposure, four hours long "but it doesn't feel like it." At the same time, Sono directs his actors to operate at the verge of eye-popping, Woody Woodpecker caricature, all shouting and gesticulating and jerking about. Why? Sono tells us upfront that Cold Fish is based on a true story, but he clearly isn't interested in distanciation. By the time Murata [SPOILER] is forcing Shamoto to help him carve up and disembowel his enemies (he's a gangster and a sick fuck at that!!!!) it's clear thatCold Fish is playing to the fanboy peanut gallery. If you don't necessarily find it funny when people slip on innard-coated linoleum, you might find yourself killing time wondering if this is all some metaphor for unbridled capitalism. But no, it's just Japanese butcher-shop machismo for skatepunks, ugly and pointless. Up to the two-hour mark, that is, when Cold Fish takes a nosedive into absolute indefensibility.You see, the shlemiel “becomes a man” via child abuse and marital rape. (What? No golden shower?) This film is a disgusting piece of shit, but sadly it's makers will probably take that as a compliment.



Monday, September 13



Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, France) [7]

Unlike Skolimowski's nonsense, Beauvois’s deeply humanistic and highly intelligent film truly captures “the essential,” and it has a great deal more to tell us about our present conflicts between Christendom and the Islamic world. Of Gods and Men is a classically constructed film, organized according to familiar narrative beats (the cute old monk, the man with the crisis of faith, the “good thief,” etc), and for this reason it could be called middlebrow. But it actually withholds many conventional signposts that signal audience response, instead providing a patient examination of the daily circumstances of people of faith, and asking us to evaluate those circumstances and the choices we would take were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances. The film presents the true story of eight monks living in the Atlas Monastery in Algeria who were murdered in 1996. The brothers lived in harmony with their Muslim community; they provided free health care, sold honey at the local market and were often honored guests and family celebrations. Beauvois presents a picture of two faiths living side by side in total mutual respect. However, this isn’t a rosy, pie-in-the-sky ecumenical vision. What he demonstrates is that the community shares a mutual distrust of their government, the army, the Muslim extremists, and the French colonizers of the past. That is, their bond has been sealed not through ideology but through laboring side by side, as well as each group studying the tenets of the others’ faith. That is, Beauvois shows that true religious belief requires effort, not ignorant sloganeering. And so, when the Islamist fundamentalists finally arrive in the end, Of Gods and Men has already built a nearly airtight argument that, regardless of what these men with guns might believe, they do not represent Islam. They are not men of God. Particularly when writing for Cargo, I try not to be USA-centric, but it is difficult to watch a film like Beauvois’s and clear my mind of the fact that, back home, bigots are burning Korans in order to protest the construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, which right-wing extremists have dubbed “the ground zero mosque.” I hope that everyone in the U.S. has the chance to see this film.


Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland / Norway / Ireland / Hungary) [v] [4]

I suppose, wants to achieve some form of transcendence from its unforgiving terrain, frozen tundra, and insistence on the limits of the human body. It’s elemental, maybe, but definitely not essential. Vincent Gallo, an actor / director I actually admire despite his public pronouncements and bad boy behavior (I think he’s kind of fun to have around, actually), plays a lone Taliban fighter, trapped in a cave by three American soldiers. Forced to shoot and kill his way out, this silent, unnamed Everyarab is the subject of a Coalition manhunt that eventually drives him over the border into an unspecified snow-covered country peopled by white Eastern Europeans. Panicked, and given to context-free, Allah-filled flashbacks, the Gallo figure kills everything in sight and undergoes immense physical punishment. However, Essential Killing also sacrifices any plausible Arab masculine psychology in the name of shocking images (one toward the end is a travesty) and needless murder without cause or honor, all of which leaves a nasty, right-wing taste in my mouth. The film wants to be “above” politics, just looking at a vulnerable body apart from such considerations. But this caesura merely let ideology come flooding back in. Also, Skolimowski ends with such a preposterous “poetic” image (Siouxsie and the Banshees would reject it as too bathetic) that I’m reconsidering my admiration for Four Nights of Anna.


Concorso di bellezza fra bambini a Torino (anon., Italy, 1909) [s]

This was a truly bizarre viewing experience. This early Italian clip showed numerous young kids (probably between the ages of two and four) all dressed up in fancy clothes, trying to walk and occasionally succeeding. The hook of the film is that they are in their Sunday best but cannot act like little adults for the photographer. Their little bodies can't sit still or stand up, so they get all roly poly and collapse in a heap. The audience at Wavelengths found this adorable and laughed out loud, but seldom have I felt so utterly out of touch with an audience's dominant sentiment. Yes, the babies were cute, and maybe I was just emotionally raw from being exhausted. But where everyone else found mirth, I sat crying, mouth agape, realizing, "All of these children are dead." Film, for all its wonders, is completely mute on the question of what lives they may have had. Truth be told, they were probably never again as equal as they were in that studio, slumped over in a heap of need and effort. Now, wherever they are (to paraphrase Barry Lyndon), they're all equal once again.


Le Roi des Dollars (Segundo de Chomón, France, 1905) [s]

A lovely little trick film, shrewdly programmed by the redoubtable Ms. Picard as a kind of prelude to the Tscherkassky film. Against a black background, magician's hands (with, of course, the assistance of the film camera) pull coins out of thin air. Before long, he is manipulating stacks of gold coins, producing a disappearing and reappearing cylindrical shower of money. The performer peels the coins off one by one, droping them into the void (and to a glass dish at the bottom of the frame) like poker chips, essentially maneuvering them through center-screen as the luminous light source that gives the short film its legibility, as well as its meaning. By the end, the head of a dapper turn-of-the-century gentleman is coaxed into the frame from the left; his job is to spit money like a fountain. One could read this, I suppose, as a frank, self-reflexive acknowledgment of the basis of industrial film production (a kind of prototype of Godard's check-writing intro to Tout va Bien), but that might be replacing good sleight of hand with bad. [You can see a quite nice copy of Le Roi des Dollars on YouTube.]


Coming Attractions (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria) [s]

The new film by Austrian found footage manipulator Peter Tscherkassky is exceedingly different than the Cinemascope trilogy of the previous decade. Those films, which made Tscherkassky a "star" (relatively speaking, of course) in experimental film circles, employed widescreen movies like The Entity and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and warped their very space, exposing sprocket holes, reversing positive and negative, generating irises and frames within frames, all to produce an uncanny awareness of the act of looking. Coming Attractions takes its title, in part, from Tom Gunning’s famous film theory article about early cinema and its unique mode of internal display. Instead of maintaining an enclosed, self-sufficient story world ("diegesis," if you’re nasty), early cinema actively solicits the spectator’s look. Tscherkassky’s new film, which occupies a snug, lovely Academy ratio, draws its source material from a form that, like early film and the avant-garde, openly asks to be gawked at: commercials. A bit like Peter Kubelka’s last film Poetry and Truth, but with far more complexity and variety, Coming Attractions applies some of Tscherkassky’s usual methods (reverse imagery, flicker, inter-frame cutting) to a series of comic vignettes and blackout sketches. One features a blonde model gesturing to one side of the frame, come-hither style, with her eyes, as the left-hand side of the image is replaced by a humorously random selection of attractions. Another turns a set of stage steps into a strobing pyramid; still another finds two actresses mounting white shirts to a wall to compare laundry detergent, and flubbing the reaction shots. Coming Attractions is nowhere near as tightly composed as earlier Tscherkassky films like Outer Space or Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, but this is a good thing. It’s a bit like an Owen Land avant-comedy of perceptual errors.


"Bits and Pieces" (various and anonymous, 1900-1919)

A great idea, and like many great ideas, it generates its own conundrum. The EYE Film Institute Netherlands has embarked on the ongoing "Bits and Pieces" project as an aegis under which to "violate" standard rules of archival preservation. That is, the project creates a context in which fragments of non-extant films, apocryphal tidbits or otherwise unattributed film clips discovered in the research process, or by accident, may be preserved for their own sake. It's amazing it took this long for an archival group come up with the idea, since most of what is on display is inherently interesting -- damaged, truncated or otherwise unspecifiable actuality material, ten-or-so minute long passages from fairly elaborate silent narratives, some scraps scarcely longer than a shot. All of this material is fascinating, of course, because it inevitably provides glimpses not only into "the past," but an alternate past to which we have limited access. (If you'll permit me a geeky fanboy analogy, the "Bits and Pieces" are like views into the alternate universe of film history, through Walter Bishop's ionic warp window on Fringe.) Of course a modular series like "B&P" can go on forever, and it should, although this may be a better strategy for producing the series than exhibiting it. I wasn't alone in thinking Andréa may have shown a few too many of these at Wavelengths. And although the unique character of old film stock is presumably part of the charm, "B&P" was shown digitally, which makes the question of a DVD release inevitable. Would this series not work even better as an installation loop, or just a fantastic teaching tool / ambient cine-object?


[CORRECTION: Andréa Picard kindly wrote to inform me that, in fact, the "B&Ps" were screened from pristine 35mm archival prints. Holy cow! They were gorgeous. You know, once upon a time, I was a pretty decent sleuth when it came to discerning, just with my naked eye, whether I was watching film stock vs. digital projection. But these days, I'm fooled more and more. This can be attributable to a kind of X-shaped, two-line graph. On the incline, there's the ever-increasing technological improvement of digital projection, which looks more and more like good celluloid. On the decline, sadly, are my eyes as I become and older and older man. At any rate, I thank Picard for setting me right.]



Tuesday, September 14



Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, U.K. / Thailand / France / Germany / Spain) [8] [upgraded to 9]

(How does a responsible critic discuss a film that was defeated in his consciousness by utter exhaustion the first time, and then, on second viewing, was confirmed as a near-masterpiece? Here's a start.)


James Quandt states in the introduction of his lengthy essay, “Resistant to Bliss: Describing Apichatpong,”that too often there is a critical swooning, a dazzled hypnosis beforethe films of Apichatpong, an attitude that precludes analysis or even deep understanding of the films themselves. An intellectual through and through, Quandt begins this intensive project with an auto-critique, returning to his own early work on Apichatpong, finding it wanting, but also finding within those preliminary assays a common condition.  He finds “an automatic default to locutions of bafflement, of succumbing and surrender, the invocation of cosmic enigma and poetic unreason, of the indeterminate, ineffable, and oneiric.” It's true, maybe too many of us do give ourselves over to the "loss for words" response where Joe is concerned, even dropping the ball completely and calling these films "waking dreams." This language is indeed inadequate. However, we must recall that the confusion and dreaminess that has surrounded discussions of Apichatpong’s films thus far does not come from nowhere, and cannot simply be attributed to the cloudy, inadequately rigorous minds of his early adopters. (And understand, this is not Quandt’s point, but a larger one regarding film-critical rhetoric and its pitfalls.) If we accept as a proposition that Joe is, despite or even in some cases because of his engagement with narrativity, essentially an avant-garde filmmaker, then we can compare a great deal of the awestruck verbiage and immediate lack of concrete formalist exactitude to that found in initial reviews of other “difficult” experimental films, by filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Nathaniel Dorsky, or Jennifer Reeves.


A great deal of this is essentially cognitive, given that the filmmakers in question do not assemble shots, sounds and images in conventional ways. And, unlike many challenging narrative filmmakers, these avant-gardists do not operate on the baseline and deviate from the norm here and there. Virtually every move is “deviant,” resulting in radical phenomenological impressions that even the highly trained critic must absorb at a rapid pace. It is no surprise, then, that the primary overall impression of such films, on first or even second viewing, will be one of general Gestalt rather than precision, and that “dreamlike” will be an adjective that could well describe the all-enveloping sensation of sounds and images bombarding the usual logical capacity to order them. Even though Apichatpong’s feature films anchor his formal experiments to the trappings of narrative, such as diegesis and performance, his work on the plastics of sound and image place him much more squarely in the avant-garde camp than most other international feature filmmakers. (I would say the same of Béla Tarr, Alexander Sokurov, and select films of Jia Zhang-ke.) Joe’s latest feature demonstrates this exceptionally well. Uncle Boonmee is a complex narrative work in which Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a relatively successful farmer in his late 50s, is experiencing kidney failure. His sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and Laotian assistant Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee, reprising his role from 2004’s Tropical Malady) live with him in his rural home, assisting him through the grueling process of in-home dialysis while he continues to manage his daily affairs. At a late night dinner, two unexpected guests emerge from the pitch-black jungle darkness. The ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) materializes at the dinner table, almost imperceptibly. Dead for nearly twenty years, the returned Huay becomes a full-fledged character for the first third of the film, her spirit presence coming as a shock to the living beings, but not an impossibility. Soon after, Boonmee’s long-missing son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong) emerges from the jungle as a fully-grown human / monkey hybrid creature with glowing red eyes. He explains his new form by telling his former family that he mated with a monkey-spirit, and as Apichatpong shows us later in the film, these dark otherworldly primates hold sway over the jungle, existing alongside the human world but at a tangent to it. This aspect of Boonmee’s family tree (or, more properly speaking, family thicket) comprises much but not all of the film’s overt narrative.


However, if we consider Quandt’s argument regarding critics’ and viewers’ initial surrender in the face of Joe’s cinema, to simply articulate the narrative contents of the film is highly misleading. As an experimental filmmaker, Apichatpong attenuates such commonplaces as story and character psychology by foregrounding cinema as a signifying practice, and he does this in very particular ways. Apichatpong frequently inscribes space on film through a highly plastic play of light. Some specific examples of this tendency, which recur throughout his films, can definitely be seen in Uncle Boonmee. These include the use of differential aperture to describe interiors, so that bright windows enframe a landscape and, by contrast, render domestic architecture dim like faded memory; the long take night shot, wherein a human locale or settlement forms a lone, tiny light in a sea of natural darkness; and most commonly, the midnight blue / pitch black jungle sequences which both flatten the field of vision and press perceptible film space to the very limit of both human perception and celluloid registration. Add to these visual motifs Joe’s consistent use of all-enveloping sound forms, such as cricket and cicada noise (in Uncle Boonmee) or electronic hums (in Syndromes and a Century), and a generally languorous editing rhythm which joins images on the basis of sculptural shape as often as plot motility, and the overall sensation is, to say the least, unlike that of narrative cinema at large.


This, of course, is by design, and Quandt is absolutely correct when he insists that we attend to the formal specificity of Apichatpong’s method. (In fact, that’s what I’m trying to do above, although naturally I’m only scratching the surface.) But there are material formalist reasons why Joe’s films feel like dreams or ineffable hallucinations, at least at first. A great deal of this has to do with that all-enveloping character, which serves to militate against hierarchy in perception. Pure space and the unique locales of Thailand, speech and ambient sound, figures and light, are all afforded equal treatment in Joe’s cinema, and as such it does become quite difficult to employ the stimulus-screens which allow us to pay attention and make memories in the usual ways. In fact, Uncle Boonmee, and Joe’s entire multimedia project “Primitive,” of which the feature is a component, explicitly thematizes this equivalence, by making the earth a space for humans, ghosts of the dead, and unexplained supernatural creatures to exist side by side, with little or no explanation. Historically and even evolutionarily, Apichatpong’s narrative provides radical equivalency through a vertical time scheme. At the conclusion of  “Resistant to Bliss,” Quandt compares Apichatpong to Dorsky, and although he does not elaborate on this connection, it is apposite in a number of ways. Like Joe, Dorsky organizes images to work against expected, consumable orderings, instead responding to rhythms, tonalities, intensities of light. And like Joe’s films, Dorsky’s tend to provide an overall sense of shape or an esthetic dominant in their initial viewing, but cannot impart their deepest secrets immediately. Dorsky has said that he would like his films to refresh the senses in a manner related to, but not the same as, the restorative power of sleep. Likewise, he has even gone so far as to say that if audience members fall asleep during his films, this could be a perfectly valid and even desirable response, since the films could serve as objects for the inculcation of a well-formed, restorative dream state. I would argue that Apichatpong’s films, in their formal DNA, bear the same traces of alpha-wave phenomenology.


Hauntings I & II (Guy Maddin, Canada) [v/s/p] [5]

An exceptionally smart concept, and I've been told that the Hauntings series' ultimate destination will be the web, where they can be perused and enjoyed apart from all the hubbub. But as installed in the Lightbox at TIFF, this work was, sadly, a gigantic mess. One room, multiple screens, many hanging in front of one another, with all manner of sound bleed, there was little or no opportunity to really sink one's teeth into Maddin's project -- his hypothetical recreation of a series of lost or unmade films from film history, including works by Sternberg, Mizoguchi, Alice Guy, Oscar Micheaux, Hollis Frampton, and others. Some of these filmmakers, of course, had styles which were more amenable to "Maddinization." The Alice Guy, toned in midnight blue and playing relatively straight in its single-room abandonment scenario, is jewel-like and almost held its own amidst the din. The Sternberg, mostly inaudible, at least offered a thicket of smoke and shadows and skeins of lace. The Frampton was a nice try, but it really looked more like a series of gray intertitles jumping at the screen, with some train shots. But as I say, evaluating the merits of individual works in the series is a dicey proposition, since the presentation of Hauntings militated against concentration. (Just keep moving! See more Lightbox!) I will say, the new Maddin-Maddin work, in color and starring Sunset Gun's film fatale Kim Morgan, looked more coherent and intriguing than all the "oldies," like a bit of nonlinear Lynchian business. Hope to see it again soon.


8 1/2 Screens (Atom Egoyan, Canada) [s/p] [6]

Whereas most of the invited installations and media works celebrating TIFF Cinematheque's Essential Cinema series felt negligible (even, to an extent, Maddin's, another commission), Egoyan actually gave considerable thought to the choice of film, the presentation format, and the location of the piece's exhibition. Taking Fellini's 8 1/2 as his text, Egoyan actually managed to find a somewhat fresh take on the hoary chestnut of Italian modernism, focusing on the multiple perspectives present in a scene when Marcello screens his rushes in a projection room. At first, 8 1/2 Screens is genuinely confounding, and once you read a bit about it and see how it's constructed, it becomes a more intriguing work rather than a one-liner or a stunt. Cinema 4 in the Bell Lightbox was hung with sheets, turning the audience space into something between a makeshift multi-screen theatre and a palazzo criss-crossed with drying laundry. The 35mm projector is positioned in front of the actual screen of the theatre, winding the filmstrip through on a pullied loop. Images of Marcello and various women watching the film-within-the-film are projected on the fragmented laundry-screens, and split intervals. Upon inspection, whar we discover is that Egoyan has generated the 35mm as a composite image, made up of collage fragments of 8 1/2 corresponding to the positions of the sheets hung in the installations. That is, shape, size, and presumably some degree of differential focus has been built into the single-image filmstrip that Egoyan designed for the installation work. This is not only intelligent and complex; it bears a kind of internal reference to Fellini's own practice, in that 8 1/2, while undoubtedly Marcello's story (and Fellini's), created that singular viewpoint through a radically decentered, fractured concept of the self. It was "one" that contained multiples, and in particular multiple perspectives. So Egoyan, clearly influenced by this modernist moment but also critical of it, has reversed the terms slightly, throwing multiplicity back onto the audience, as a response practice rather than an inherent function of the text. We also possess multiplicities, and in fact, if we don't bring them to bear on an open text like 8 1/2, it just sits there, waiting to be engaged. So Egoyan's piece is a gentle reminder of the modernist / post-structuralist dialectic, and in its own way critiques the idea that there's anything "essential" in the cinema, as such.


Promises Written In Water (Vincent Gallo) [7]

Similar to Tscherkassky's film, actually, in its refusal to hang together but miles apart in overall mood and trajectory, Promises is without a doubt the most experimental feature film I’ve seen at this year’s festival, and that includes Uncle Boonmee. Where Joe is operating within a sublime spiritual realm that is nevertheless recognizable in its oneiric pull, caressing us with a gentle imagism and sly wit that never invites mockery, Gallo’s film, like Gallo himself, is always too sincere, threatening to topple over into sheer risibility. He simply risks more, and as such he will always have as many enemies as champions. He truly "brings it on himself," but this is a component of a masochistic art of paper-light surfaces and fragile textures. It wouldn’t work quite as well if half the world weren’t ready to watch Gallo fail. PROMISES is a black and white para-narrative about Kevin (Gallo), a mysterious man -- Drifter? Former gangster? Out of work actor? -- who answers a want-ad and becomes a mortuary assistant. The funeral parlor is run by Mallory (Delfine Bafort), a young, beautiful woman who is dying and wants Kevin to fulfill her last wish – to be cremated and scattered in the river. However Gallo uses this admittedly slight narrative thread as a kind of clothesline for a number of experiments in diegetic permeability, sound / image / silence relationships, and the metaphysics of film performance. In one key scene at a diner, "Kevin" and "Mallory" discuss a phonecall to Kevin’s girlfriend. "Yeah, a called her. She’s going to Thailand, with a guy who’s 55 years old, but she told me not to worry, that no one compares to me…" But soon, Gallo is repeating the lines over and over, even going so far as to ask Bafort if he can start again. Later in the scene, the characters argue about Mallory’s promiscuity, but soon it’s clearly the actors debating the value of money. This and other scenes recall Andy Warhol’s film work, especially The Chelsea Girls and Kiss. But Gallo also has room for a raucous dance number (set to Polygon Window’s "Quoth"), a tense hotel room-pacing scene, and a beautiful nude portrait of Bafort reminiscent of Willard Maas’s early experimental short Geography of the Body. Think what you will of him personally, but Gallo is a major artist whose work has left commercial cinema far behind. He deserves to share audiences with James Benning and Thom Andersen, but at this point he seems stuck in a ghetto all his own. [NOTE: It has been suggested to me that I have incorrectly parsed the basic narrative of Promises, mistaking multiple women in the film for each other. I.e., that the dead woman at the beginning of the film is not the Mallory the mortician. However, I am still fairlt certain that much of the film occurs in flashback, or just that we see the ending moments first. I can't be sure, though. Hopefully you'll get the chance to judge for yourself.]


13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, Japan) [v] [7]

In the past, when Japanese upstart Takashi Miike has “done classicism,” it’s generally been an obvious joke. His 1999 film Audition, for example, spends its first hour in a quite convincing Ozu vein, only to pull the rug out in a spectacularly horrifying manner for hour two. Likewise, the recent Sukiyaki Western Django flirted with Leone-style conventions in order to render them virtually inscrutable. By contrast, 13 Assassins is about as clean and professional a film as Miike has ever made, and it is likely to become his biggest international hit in over a decade, provided anyone’s still paying attention to him. (A Competition slot in Venice certainly didn’t hurt.) No exploding stomachs filled with half-digested noodles (Dead or Alive), no incestuous shenanigans (Visitor Q), and no women birthing full-grown men (Gozu). Just a reasonably straightforward samurai epic, expertly mounted and performed, hitting all the requisite contact points. The basics: Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is the reigning nobleman in a large province, and his birthright and political ties make him impossible to depose despite the fact that he is a cold-blooded psychopath. He kills and tortures peasants, and the children of lower nobles, at will, and his violent ways (during this, the peaceful end-days of the Shogun era) have made him a liability who can only be dealt with by assassination. Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), an official who is loyal to the shogunate above any one man, plans to assemble a team of samurais to carry out the hit. His first contact is Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), who here occupies something akin to the Toshiro Mifune / Clint Eastwood role, although he is actually somewhat more imbricated with the samurai structure than those free radicals, having disciples and social ties. (If there is a true “man with no name” here, it is Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), the 13th assassin, a homeless wanderer and non-samurai who treats the final battle like a big joke, undercutting the other men’s pretenses to high honor. “This is nothing compared to fighting a bear!” he admonishes. Miike delivers on every satisfying promise of the genre, and provides a few surprises of his own, such as unlikely architectural weaponry and, well, flaming oxen. Nobody saw those coming. But apart from a few bracing moments, such as a sequence between Shinzaemon and a young woman mutilated by Naritsugu, Miike the old prankster has not shown up to play in 13 Assassins. Again, as with Mysteries of Lisbon [see below], registering a complaint with the Ministry of Auteur Studies seems churlish when the films in question are so thoroughly accomplished on their own terms. Still, cinema doesn’t exactly have oddballs to spare.


Curling (Denis Côté, Canada) [5]

After the unnerving but impressive Carcasses, a film which placed Lisandro Alonso-style observation in the context of a Quebecois junkyard and then introduced a possible murder mystery among the mentally challenged (no, really), I was quite disappointed with Curling, the latest effort by Canada’s Denis Côté. At first, it seems to be another portrait of outsiders (in this case a father and daughter) but it soon takes a turn toward the deliberate. By this I mean, there is a Secret, and once you figure it out, everything that had once been compelling and mysterious is really just a satellite orbiting around that central idea. Côté begins the film in an optometrist's office where, after an exam, the doctor tells Jean-Francois (Emmanuel Bilodeau) that his teenaged daughter Julyvonne (Bilodeau's actual daughter, Philomène) has astigmatism and requires glasses. But in the course of the discussion, it's revealed that Julyvonne doesn't go the school. J-F gets defensive and the two of them leave, on foot, in the middle of a snowstorm to return to their home in the middle of nowhere. Côté's direction, it must be said, is sharp and exacting as usual. His slow and unfussy parsing of the mundane facts of J-F's life avoids undue indication or signposting. We learn that he's the mechanic at a bowling alley, and had been a super at a motel until its owners decide to close up shop. In time, we meet his parents who are curling enthusiasts, and briefly turn J-F onto that most echt-Canadian of pro-am sports. However, all of this unadorned quirkiness is, it turns out, serving as a kind of plaster through which cracks and fissures (which, in fact, constitute Curling's actual text) soon begin to assert themselves. Julyvonne's moments of isolation while J-F is at work are spent wandering the environs of the cabin, where she makes some "discoveries," which in turn retroactively explain some otherwise anomalous facts and occurrences from earlier in the film. While Côté is to be commended for leaving certain plot points productively vague -- for instance, we never really learn why Julyvonne's mother is in prison -- Curling does clamp down and become a study of sociopathology and its uneasy coexistence with the domestic. Côté's all-too-ironic use of outdated pop music (Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now" and Stacey Q's "Two of Hearts"), to my mind, only signaled how little was at stake in the enterprise. These gestures -- J-F's sole concessions to "the outside world" and Julyvonne's rewards for good behavior -- are clearly inappropriate father-daughter material, their creepiness aided and abetted by their cheap innocuousness. There's something first-drafty about this kind of easy irony, but then, other viewers don't seem to mind. There's something about Curling that brings out the curmudgeon in me, and the more I try to articulate it, the more I wonder whether it's more personal than aesthetic. But it'll take some time to figure that out.



Wednesday, September 15



Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, Portugal / France) [v] [7]

Gripping, fluid, and never less than gorgeous, Mysteries of Lisbon was shown in Ruiz’s 4 ½ hour theatrical cut (!); a longer version has been assembled for European television. Based on the classic 19th century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, one of the towering figures of Portuguese literature, Mysteries is a multilayered study of paternity, power, and obscured origins. At the center of all levels of the intrigue is Father Denis (Adriano Luz) a priest with a rogue past, who has taken it as his duty to protect the bastard child of a baroness, a boy initially known only as João (João Luís Arrais). In time his true identity emerges; he is Pedro da Silva (played as a young adult by João Baptista), the illegitimate son of Contessa Angela de Líma (Maria João Bastos). Much like in the sprawling novels of the era – think Dickens, Zola, Balzac – each and every character is rendered with a richness and a depth that provides some hints at interior psychology, but is far more successful at generating a grand social skein. That is, Mysteries of Lisbon weaves a sociological tapestry, demonstrating how the interconnections between characters ultimately have less to do with chance and more to do with their common implication within a largely deterministic social and political structure, one that is all the more tenacious for its being on the wane. Ruiz, against all odds, makes every second count in Lisbon; the 266 minutes fly by, filled as they are with jarring incidents, reversals of fortune and old-fashioned costume pageantry. But there is surprisingly little of Ruiz’s narrative gamesmanship here. Even as compared with one of his most accessible efforts, the Proust adaptation Time Regained, Lisbon feels awfully “straight.” There are a few moments, such as young Pedro’s early fever dream, where the visual field warps into anamorphic distortions, and the camerawork, even in the most cramped interiors, is always roving and restless, as opposed to the staid atmosphere of an old Merchant-Ivory production. But even the recent botch job Klimt displayed more auteurial verve. Nevertheless, Mysteries of Lisbon is a task few filmmakers could have tackled with such consummate skill. The film does feature stories within stories, but their function is to clarify, rather than to obfuscate – sort of a Dutch-doll Barry Lyndon. Ruiz was clearly the man for the job.


A Screaming Man (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad / France / Belgium) [4]

[SPOILERS] Haroun's films have posed certain challenges to me over the years, and they're not the usual kinds of "festival film" challenges. In fact, they kind of trouble me. By far my best experience with his work has been the first film of his I saw, Abouna (Our Father), which in certain respects is the simplest of Haroun's features in terms of theme and allegorical construction. It's a relatively straightforward story about two boys looking for the father who abandoned them, and Haroun uses the bright colors of village life (predominantly orchestrated by women) to contrast with the barrenness of the desert, the space of "leaving," and by extension the war which has taken an entire generation of fathers. Haroun's next, Daratt, was a tale of revenge vs. forgiveness, again related to the civil strife in Chad. But the film's lurches toward actual characterization, in tandem with its clearly symbolic import, made it rough going. Haroun seemed to be pulling in two incompatible directions, and while it took me a second try to make it through Daratt (and I'm glad I did), I eventually decided that its merits outweighed its flaws. A Screaming Man is Haroun's most complex film yet, in a manner of speaking. It features more actors and locales than anything else he's done so far, and it attempts to articulate the Chadian unrest with labor issues, the usual father / son crises, and even some subtle references to the history of cinema. And yet, for a film so overstuffed with information, A Screaming Man tends to feel undernourished from moment to moment. Its main characters behave from a place that beggars belief (cf. Song of Sand), in part because Haroun has stranded them between sociological functionalism and Freudian / Oedipal drives. To wit: Adam (the commanding Youssouf Djaoro, who also starred in Daratt) is an aging swimming pool attendant at an upscale hotel. He's called "Champion," because in his younger days he was in fact a champion swimmer for Chad. His son Abdel (Diouk Koma), in his 20s, works at the hotel as his father's assistant. In time, the hotel management institutes some inevitable downsizing, letting several long-time employees go. Adam is (in his eyes) demoted to front-gate guard, while Abdel becomes the pool attendant. Adam is devastated. ("The pool is my life!" No subtext here.) And so, when the local chieftain harasses Adam because he hasn't paid his war tax, he arranges for his son to be conscripted into the National Army. Only later does the old man realize what he's done, after it's too late. A large part of the reason why A Screaming Man is an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless, is because it relies so heavily upon both symbolic and psychological states that Haroun just cannot connect to the nearly automatic, anthropologically inclined performances he elicits from his cast. Djaoro, who is clearly an Abraham sacrificing his Isaac, who harks back to Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh, and who fears his son's greater physical potency and aims to castrate it by any means necessary, takes his decisions blankly. But this isn't a studied, numb blankness, the resignation of the years or some form of dissociative psychic split. It's just inscrutable, and it's as though both actor and character realize that it's inscrutable. In discussing A Screaming Man with critic Robert Koehler at TIFF, he suggested that Adam's exclusive focus on the hotel, as a kind of oasis, was both psychological and economic, a way to shut out the civil war completely. When that cracked, Adam threw his son into that gap. This is a compelling reading, one I'm still chewing over. But I still feel that there is something deeply unsatisfying, and ultimately irreconcilable, at the heart of Haroun's film. It's a disconnection between believing that people act unconsciously, because they are (supposedly) products of their wartorn environment, and little else; and believing that people may act unconsciously because they can never access their full motivations. When I described A Screaming Man as an interesting failure, it's because in it, I see a kind of crisis point in Francophone African filmmaking, the hybridity starting to come unsewn.



Thursday, September 16



Oki's Movie (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) [v] [7]

Let me say something about Hong Sang-soo. If you’re going to keep making the same film over and over, 1) make it a good movie, and 2) get better at it. So while some critic acquaintances rolled their eyes at Oki's Movie on the basis of plot alone, I am happy to cheerlead for it, as it’s one of his very best films in years, probably since Tale of Cinema. As with Tale and several other recent Hongs, Oki relies on a film-within-a-film structure, in which we see a young film professor, Jin-gu (Lee Seon-gyoon), tell his wife that he may have to do some drinking tonight, because he has a Q&A for his film. In the meantime, he gets drunk and embarrasses himself at an unanticipated faculty meeting. (Nobody does male embarrassment in the movies quite like Hong, and in this case it's all about Jin-gu's idiotic desire to "clear the air" of some rumor that no one in his right mind would ever mention publicly.) This sequence, A Day For Incantation, is shown to be the thesis film for a young male student also called Jin-gu (Lee again), made for the class of Professor Song (Moon Sung-keun), an older man doubting his commitment to teaching. Both men are enamored with another film student, Oki (Jung Yumi), whose own film, Oki's Movie, is the final of the four multiple-perspective mini-films within Hong’s master text. This final part is the most self-reflexive, and the one that cedes the most laser-sharp gender analysis to the female character, who compares and contrasts the younger and older men with a wisdom neither one possesses. But speaking from a purely personal place, both the funniest and most moving scene in Hong's film comes when Song, holding class for only two students (Oki and Jin-gu) in a snowstorm, fields random questions about love, life, and art, becoming a self-deprecating father figure just as he's decided to leave teaching behind. It's a rare glimpse of the humanity that actually exists within the Humanities. And, how the more we learn, the more we really recognize that we don't know -- that it isn't just a cheap Zen blow-off but a mark of the worn shoe leather of time logged on planet earth. As a kind of academic in-joke, Hong punctuates each segment with “Pomp and Circumstance,” Elgar’s march virtually mocking the proceedings. When it comes to the school of life, try as we might, we never graduate.


Soul of Sand (Sidharth Srinivasan, India) [v] [W/O] (0:45)

Particularly in light of the group generosity that helped send me to Toronto this year, I made it my mission to observe a strict no-walkout policy. Plus, even though it always seems like a good idea at the time to walk out of a festival film, I usually find that I regret it later, learning that the work became more interesting after I bailed, or that the movie in question has strong champions whose opinions I value. (Examples in recent years would be Daratt, Teza, Opera Jawa and Revanche. In each case I have been glad to have gone back, with the exception of Teza, which I have not yet caught up with again.) But sometimes a work is so inept on every level that sticking with it is not only a waste of time but an act of perversity. Soul of Sand is a film that was financed in part by the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam Film Festival, and they do great work with filmmakers around the world. But while Srinivasan may one day develop into an artist of note, Soul of Sand is a comically simplistic, juvenile piece of hackwork unworthy for inclusion in any professional film festival, apart from maybe an indiscriminate regional showcase. Big honking symbol of rapacious capital? Check! (An abandoned silica mine.) Echoes of the old caste system and its persistence in the present as class oppression? Check! (A servile doofus works as a guard for the empty factory, because that's what his dad did and Daddy taught him to obey your masters.) Women as the long-suffering keepers of the nation? Check! (The guard's lovely wife actually supports the family by allowing her husband's boss to rape her while the boss sends him out on errands.) Lots of wide-angle mugging, moustache-twirling, evil cackling, and, eventually, a Romeo and Juliet plot (plus police corruption!) that results in a blood-squirting stab in the neck. Check please!


State of Violence (Khalo Matabane, South Africa / France) [v] [5]

By contrast to such misguided dreck as Cold Fish, here's a film that is quite blood-soaked indeed but actually engages with questions of ethics and the value of human life (even if it cannot provide satisfactory answers in the end). State of Violence is in part the story of Bobeti (veteran actor Fana Mokoena), a.k.a. “Terror,” a kid from the townships who escaped and now is a bank president. His success having garnered national attention results in his ugly past revisiting him, with deadly results. But much of the film is spent with Bobedi kind of looking for revenge for the murder of someone close to him, while discovering that those he left behind have their own reasons for not comprehending who he is, who he was, and what he did. Although Matabane cannot fully articulate the stakes involved in the opposing sides in Bobeti’s struggle – in certain ways it looks like a standard “you forgot where you came from” tale – subtle hints make it clear that State of Violence bears historical signposts that would play differently in a South African context. “If we hadn’t done what we did,” Bobeti remarks, “none of you would be free,” which seems to indicate that he and his mates, who we’d been led to think were street thugs, were actually members of the ANC (or more probably, Winnie Mandela's faction of same), a distinction that even the younger generation in country may fail to apprehend. Matabane continually flashes back to the single incident of "Terror's" youth that haunts his adult life, his (literal) execution of a piece of mob violence. As an angry crowd drives him on, the teenaged Bobeti puts a tire around a "condemned" man and burns him alive. The man's son, still eking out a living in the townships, demands revenge, naturally. But according to Bobeti, he had reasons no one in the film seems willing to accept -- that the man was a murderer and possibly a traitor. All of this is dealt with which such subtlety that, for a viewer not deeply schooled in the partisanship of Apartheid- and post-Apartheid era South Africa, it becomes hard to tell whether Matabane's story is simply underarticulated, or whether the director's lack of clear specification mirrors the chaotic, uncertain legacy of black revolutionaries once the fight has been won. Are they now unrecognizable to the very people they freed?






I'm Still Here (Casey Affleck) [4]

It's been said already, and by many who are far more committed to saying it with more depth and insight than I am. But it's unavoidable: now that we know that Joaquin Phoenix's "retirement" from acting was a hoax (around the time James Gray's exceptional Two Lovers hit theatres -- thanks a lot, Joaq), all we're left with doing is evaluating The Hoax, and whether or not it was worth two years of erratic behavior and systematic bridge burning. The answer is pretty clearly a resounding No. What does the mumbling, bearded Johnny Cashed-Out character tell us about the nature of celebrity and its pitfalls? In 2010? In a post-Andy Kaufman / Guy Debord universe, Phoenix and brother-in-law Affleck have cooked up some pretty weak sauce. JP's hip-hop stylings, for one thing, are far too average in their amateurish, and not nearly egregious enough, to connect as comedy or social commentary. While I'm Still Here shows us a (staged) dressing-down courtesy of Diddy, who demands to know why Phoenix is interested in rap music in the first place (and levels only the most gentle, insinuated charge of minstrelsy), no racial dimension, or even outright jackassery, is explored. Phoenix is too much of a Method actor to even make fun of himself effectively, so we're mostly subjected to him pulling a faux-Sean-Penn-on-drugs drama queen act, with some pathetic beer-gut brawling and asshole behavior. TMZ filler, really. If the idea was to chart the meltdown of a Hollywood leading man, I'm Still Here attenuates this process a little too much, keeping Phoenix insulated within his tiny entourage to the point where his drippiness is hardly ever tested against reality. (The infamous "Letterman" appearance is the notable exception. A confrontation with Ben Stiller over the Greenberg script smacks of bad sketch comedy, and would have been a tip-off to toe world that "Joaquin Phoenix" was a "work," even if he and Affleck hadn't yet come clean.) Funny thing is, the Esther Kahn poster in Phoenix's New York apartment serves as a stark if inadvertent reminder of what a performer actually can do to actively subvert all prevalent notions of professional thespianism, or even the apparent desire to maintain a legitimate career, when she truly goes all in. At present, Summer Phoenix is taking time off from acting so as to focus on her and Affleck's children, a worthy endeavor indeed (although I'd prefer that it slowed Affleck down a bit more as well). Personally, I'd like to see a documentary reassuring me that she's still here.