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2012 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)

 

Introductions? Well gosh, haven't we all been to this proverbial roDAYoh more than enough times to know the mixed-metaphorical drill? This will be the space where I link to and/or repost a lot of the reviews of films I had the good fortune to preview prior to the festival. It will also be my semi-live non-journal during the fest (but mostly after), where I struggle para-valliantly to encapsulate the films I see during the festival, before they disintegrate into an undifferentiated mishmash of DCP memories in my recesses of my brain. Will I have reliable broadband in the hotel? Will I have time for this page, amidst my other reviewing and dispatch work? Hard to say, but I always Strive for Excellence, even as I most often than not hit the mark somewhere around Well-Informed Mediocrity. Also, I didn't think I'd be going to TIFF this year; this was a prettylast-minute decision, and I owe it all to the wonderful and talented Andréa Picard, whose special brand of moral support always seems to come with a cash bonus. Here's to you, Andréa!

 

 

seen prior to the festival

 

 

Bestiaire (Denis Côté, Canada) [7]

February 2012. See review here.

 

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, U.S.) [7]

June 2012. See review here.

 

Student (Darezhan Omirbayev, Kazakhstan) [8]

July 2012. See review here.

 

When Night Falls (Ying Liang, China / South Korea) [7]

May 2012. See review here.

 

preview / pre-fest screening (features / featurettes)

 

 

As If We Were Catching a Cobra (Hala Alabdalla, Syria / France) [viewed with French subtitles] [W/O] (0:44)

Less a fully-formed documentary than a collection of clips and interviews with the glue of World History holding them together, As If We Were Catching a Cobra could’ve been shot with the lens cap on and would still be of interest. This cannot excuse its shortcomings, however. Begun shortly after the revolt against Mubarak in Egypt and the still-roiling unrest in Syria, Alabdalla’s film takes an unusual angle on typical issues regarding freedom of the press (or lack thereof) in totalitarian Arab states, by focusing not on conventional journalists but instead on cartoonists. Trouble is, we actually see very little of the artwork. Cobra consists overwhelmingly of talking head interviews with cartoonists, journalists and art dealers, who provide the expected explanations of why these somewhat oblique images (the ones we do see) can enter the public domain in ways that more explicit commentary cannot. And we see Alabdalla mousing through thumbnails of even more cartoons on Google. One of the primary interview subjects, Syrian writer Samar Yazbek, provides semi-poetic refrains regarding her eventual exile, delivered over such pedestrian imagery as a gathering of storm clouds. Cobra is the sort of documentary that has “good intentions” stamped all over it, but fails on some very basic levels. A lock for a TIFF Docs slot, in other words.

 

Barbara (Christian Petzold, Germany) [7]

One of several films from this year’s Berlinale that were far more deserving of the Golden Bear than the actual winner, Barbara finds the normally austere Petzold shifting toward a more conventional, humanistically-inclined art cinema. His work certainly doesn’t suffer for this broadened accessibility, and it’s guaranteed to win new converts to his cause. But whereas Petzold’s recent films such as Yella and especially Jerichow examined the lingering impact of the GDR through the lens of post-communism’s displaced nomads, Barbara is a period piece, situating his benighted characters within the terror and malaise of the East German 1980s. Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) has been sent from Berlin to the countryside for unspecified transgressions against the State. At her new post, she reports to Dr. Reiner (Ronald Zehrfeld), a young and talented doctor who, we learn, informs to the Stasi to keep his own mistakes from catching up with him. Barbara and her West Berliner lover (Mark Waschke) have a plan to sneak her into the West, but things get complicated. She was intent on merely marking time and passing through, but between having her apartment tossed and periodic body cavity searches, she finds herself getting personally invested in the young patients who, like her, are victims of the GDR’s Stalinist tyranny. Petzold invests Barbara with a warmer, more classicist look than usual; he has quite deliberately sanded down the more jagged edges of his directorial style. Nevertheless, Barbara retains the filmmaker’s clear-eyed materialism. Power and violence saturate everyday life to such and extent that they become a leaden weight in the body’s cells, an added gravity or a barely visible dust that impedes movement ever so slightly. Compare this to the sensationalism of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, or the bromides of The Lives of Others, and Petzold’s contribution shines all that much more brightly.

 

Big In Vietnam (Mati Diop, France) [s] [6]

Diop first came to the attention of most of us with her starring role in Claire Denis’s plangent tone poem to loss and change, 35 Shots of Rum. In the years since, she has been making quite an impression as a director in her own right, perhaps most notably with 2009’s Atlantiques. If that earlier film bore traces of Diop’s time with Denis, her latest, Big in Vietnam, seems to bear traces of a number of key late-modernist cinematic artists. The film gives the overall impression of Diop both finding her own voice amidst the contemporary canon of “festival film” greats, as well as adapting certain dominant styles to her own late-post-colonial needs. Vietnam starts out in a reflexive mode, both observing and directly depicting the fruits of an Asian, forest-bound remake of Dangerous Liaisons. The performers are arranged in a tableau on a hillside (echoes of Straub / Huillet or even Rodrigues’ To Die Like a Man) while different shots let us view the outer schema of the shot set-up and production apparatus (cf. Apichatpong’s Worldly Desires or Anthem). As one actor moves through a set of mirrored panels (cf. Tsai Ming-liang’s Face) and disappears – his role in the film appears to have precipitated an identity crisis – the director within Diop’s film (Henriette Nhung) leaves the set and insinuates herself among the Vietnamese locals, drinking and performing karaoke. Much like recent Apichatpong, Big in Vietnam uses the precepts of reflexivity as a way to combine fictional / forma material with semi-documentary, generating multiple layers of representational truth. What it means, however, is less than certain. By leaving the multicultural crew and production and “going home,” does Henriette find authenticity? Or, by locating comfort on a particularly rough day, is she merely demonstrating a basic human desire?

 

Birds (Gabriel Abrantes, Portugal / Haiti) [s] [5]

This is the second film I’ve seen by Abrantes (following his odd but intriguing featurette from last year, Palaces of Pity), and thus I find myself feeling about him the way I had felt about Nicolas Peréda about this time last year. There seems to be a relatively rapid anointing going on, at least in my critical circles, and I find myself wanting to say hey there hold on wait a minute. Birds is one of a number of films in this years festival (actually in Wavelengths, come to think of it) hailing from sudden hot-spot Portugal, and a number of them do seem to pertain to center / periphery models of European and post-European identity. To Abrantes’ credit, his film has nothing to do with some sort of para-nostalgic faux-return to a former Portuguese colony; his films overall are more of a piece with those of, say, Fern Silva or Jonathan Schwartz – exploratory travelers keen on engaging with and learning from different global cultures, with no colonizing impulse. However, there’s a frustrating undercurrent to Birds that plagues a lot of recent, festival-funded “globalist” art. Abrantes’ premise is to restage Aristophanes’ Birds (in the original ancient Greek) in Haiti, with Haitian performers, in order to arrive at a somewhat new, culturally hybrid project. Why Aristophanes? Birds (whose title is actually the original Greek) never makes that clear, and so the only possible answer is, “Why not Aristophanes?” As though posing the question itself represents some sort of Western territorial pissing on a text which does, of course, belong to everyone in equal measure. Abrantes stages such “unexpected” globalis moments in microcosm when a member of his female chorus remarks that the lead performer is “hotter than Robert Pattinson,” and the play will be “better than Twilight.” Birds plays these remarks for laughs, while at the same time milking the gotcha – “Why wouldn’t Haitian girls be as into Twilight as every other young girl on the planet?” And so, Abrantes is working a kind of hybridity-smarm, while at the same time using these very culture “clashes” (one thing plus another) in lieu of top-down rigorous thinking. I object.

 

Camion (Rafaël Ouellet, Canada) [5]

A slight, downbeat dramedy, Camion is a film that comports itself as though it were examining depression while in fact it pretty much exemplifies it. It’s slow and shambling without ever achieving grace, its characters nominally sympathetic without ever really individuating themselves. All of which is to say, Ouellet’s film, most likely without intending to, takes the rut of its three male protagonists and makes that rut a formal principle, mapping that ennui directly onto Camion’s articulation of time (dull) and space (cold and flat). The titular truck belongs to Germain (Julien Poulin), an aging widower who transports lumber. In the opening moments of Ouellet’s film we’re given its finest piece of staging, as a car slams head-on into Germain. The other driver was at fault, and she’s killed instantly. Nevertheless, Germain quits driving, and generally begins shutting his whole world down out of fear. To help him through, his two adult sons Alain (Stéphane Breton) and Sam (Patrice Dubois) put their own lives on hold to reconnect with the old man. Alain, disabled in a mugging, is a directionless barfly; Sam is a night janitor who never got over his first girlfriend. Ouellet is clearly aiming for a poignant, freeform study of stunted masculinity, but for the most part Camion just lies there, muffled by a passive-aggression typical of so much Canadian cinema. It throws out half-baked quirks and then shyly reels them back in again, as if embarrassed by its blatant desire to please.

 

Clip (Maja Milos, Serbia) [3]

This film is just gross. Clip is one of those “shocking” works of tittle-tattle artsploitation that seems to imply by its very existence that staging irresponsible teen behaviour for the camera is the same as critiquing it. What’s more, Clip and its first-time director also clearly fancy themselves sufficiently hip and edgy (they are down with the(se) kids, got it?) that anyone lodging an objection – Was this blowjob necessary? What do we gain by watching three thugs beat down some guy, then get blowjobs? – is just a prude. Milos is ostensibly providing a portrait of young Jasna (Isidora Simijonovic), a surly teen who likes to dress like a slut and video herself acting like a porn star with her mobile phone, sometimes solo, sometimes with her slutty friends. She eventually gives herself over to Djordje (Vukasin Jasnic), a sub-verbal chav who, as the book says, is just not that into Jasna. But she remedies this with more blowjobs, giving up the anal, and eventually wearing a leash and barking like a dog. Clip doesn’t end so much as it sputters out like a keg at 4 a.m., and while Milos may think she’s providing psychological and sociological context in between the coke snorting and puke, her attempts are laughable. (Jasna’s family life is, you know, hard. And cellphones make everything so, like, hyperreal, man!) At one point, a propos of nothing, a mate of Djordje’s yells out, “Bosnia is Serbia!” which leaves us with the saddest question of all. Is Jasna, the coked-out, sexually degraded party doll, supposed to be some allegorical figure? Has Serbia finally produced a bigger whore than Emir Kusturica?

 

The Crimes of Mike Recket (Bruce Sweeney, Canada) [4]

I try to be a champion of Sweeney inasmuch as I can, because I found so much promise in the dark comedies he produced in the late 90s and early 00s. I’d stack 1998’s Dirty up against just about anything that came out of Sundance during that era. Its frank depiction of sex as an embarrassing cavalcade of failing flesh was ahead of its time in some respects, and wisely abjured any kneejerk tendency to leaven the discomfort with cutesiness. His next film, Last Wedding, was as engineered for breakthrough as any Tragically Hip album of the period, and has about an equal hit-to-miss ratio. David Pelletier’s cinematography is sharp and rigourous, the rhythms of the ensemble are generally thrumming, and there are a few priceless gags (particularly the reveal of dimwit Zipporah’s country tune, “Love Is Like a Hurr’cane”). But, in the three films following Wedding, Sweeney has seemed intent on capitalizing on all the stuff that pointedly didn’t work there, particularly what we might just have to call plotline and thematics. The Crimes of Mike Recket, sad to say, is an inept, unengaging procedural. Recket (Nicholas Lea) is intended to be enigmatic, but his secret “crimes” are fairly obvious from the get-go. Flat, cheap-looking and tonally inconsistent, Recket spends about a third of its running time following the detectives on Mike’s trail (Raphael Kepinski, Paul Skrudland) whose awkward line readings recall those old Kids In The Hall “Police Department” sketches. Worst of all, the film squanders the great Gabrielle Rose. Neither a successful crime story nor a subversive genre critique, this feels like the work of an auteur adrift.

 

differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, France) [9]

As a way to try to both get into the spirit of Rey's highly unconventional film, and deal with the fact that I was butting up against the limitations of my word-count, I attempted to produce a medium-length essay on Molussia that would rely on chance procedures during the editing process. What does the mean? That much like the nine reels of differently, Molussia which can be shown in any possible order, I wrote an article that foreswore an argumentative structure, in hopes that I might hit on some other sort of writing that somehow sidled up to the film's inner nature. Or something. But it should be noted that my mode of randomizing my essay segments was rather different from Rey's. I assigned numbers to the paragraphs in the order that I'd written them, and then used a computer-based number generator to assign the position (or lack thereof) to each of the paragraphs I'd written. Much later, after speaking with TIFF / Jackman Hall projectionist Antonella Bonfanti, I learned the specific ins and outs of differently, Molussia's system of reel randomization. The film arrives in a box, with ten film cans slotted like record albums. There are the nine reels, of course; the tenth can contains instructions for the projectionist, including a sleeve with cards labeled 1 through 9. These are used to select the order of presentation. So on a basic material level, Rey has built his selection-system right into the "film," if we consider the film to be more than just the projected / viewed, time-based information, but the actual object that arrives in the booth.

 

Far From Afghanistan (John Gianvito / Jon Jost / Soon-Mi Yoo / Minda Martin / Travis Wilkerson) [5]

While so much of the world (including much of Canada) has been watching, rapt, as Pres. Obama accepts his second coronation in Charlotte, TIFF has presented the world premiere of this five-part omnibus (with interstitial documentary from the ground) addressing the seemingly open-ended, increasingly inexplicable multinational misadventure known as Operation Enduring Freedom. (FFA was directly inspired by the 1967 French collective project Far From Vietnam, also screening in the festival.) This is an admirable effort through and through, one with which I am in total sympathy and with which I feel a high degree of solidarity. (In conception, I would have liked to have seen non-American filmmakers take part, particularly given Canada’s involvement in the Afghan War. But Gianvito and Co. cannot be faulted for who would not or could not give of their time.) Nevertheless, I feel I’d be remiss if I give FFA a positive review based solely on its righteous intent. As is often the case with multi-artist projects, there is wide variability is quality. Martin’s contribution, “The Long Distance Operator,” is the most straightforward of the five, and seems to have the least purpose, since by creating performances and using them for dramatic ambiance, she pulls focus from the issues at hand. Yoo’s film, “Afghanistan: The Next Generation,” is a found-footage work derived from State Department films dating from the Soviet invasion. It has an incantatory power but feels under-manipulated, as though she were worried about getting too involved with the source material and its latent potential. As a result, the segment feels more like a rough draft than a complete work. Jost’s “Empire’s Cross,” a video-montage of symmetrically mirrored smart-bomb footage, distributed across the screen with Eisenhower’s “Cross of Iron” speech playing in the center, is both uninformative and aesthetically retrograde, neither reframing the military imagery into “something else,” nor teaching us anything about it through dialectical arrangement.

 

By far the most sophisticated contributions to FFA were the first and the last, from John Gianvito and Travis Wilkerson, respectively. However, while I would contend that Gianvito’s “My Heart Swims in Blood” is masterfully assembled, its mode of address is fundamentally self-defeating. It features André Gregory as a concerned, upper-middle-class suburban white man, whose American Slumber is troubled by what is happening over there – “ici et ailleurs,” as it were. However, as voiceovers recite facts about the war and its obscene death toll (asking, “where’s the outrage?”), Gianvito gives us gorgeous images of everything the filmmaker clearly finds frivolous and revolting about life in the U.S.: dog shows, mani-pedis, mall escalators . . . you get the idea. There is an overwhelming sense that all of these fat-and-happy citizens are, per Gianvito, part of the problem, because they are not “part of the solution,” i.e., protesting, or making protest films. However, is this actually where Gianvito and his film want to locate power? Aside from raising questions of gender that the film does not address, “My Heart” undermines both its beauty and its fundamental acuity with what amount to broad swipes at rather easy targets. By contrast, Wilkerson’s “Fragments of Dissolution” is a kind of mini-masterpiece of political cinema, because it does what any dialectician should. It takes things that Power refuses to allow us to think “together,” and brings them together so that we can see the underlying connections. In the film, Wilkerson presents four interviewees. Two are widows whose family members (one husband, one son) were Afghan vets who committed suicide. The other two are women who lost family members because Detroit Edison turned off their electricity during the winter. Wilkerson does nothing to draw parallels between these two forms of injustice. Rather, by simply juxtaposing the women’s stories, we are able to see how systematic indifference to human life takes multiple forms, but comes back to the same root causes, and how we are indeed fighting the same war against the poor and disenfranchised at home and abroad – ici et ailleurs. Wilkerson’s film gestures toward a deeper radicalism that I truly wish Far From Afghanistan had embodied throughout.

 

Gangs of Wasseypur (Part One) (Anurag Kashyap, India) [6]

A sprawling would-be epic spanning four decades and two separate feature films (the second was not available for preview), Gangs of Wasseypur bats for the rafters and even hits on occasion. Essentially the multi-generational tale of a blood feud between two rival families in India’s coalmining district, Kashyap pulls no punches; he has sources like Coppola, Leone, and Bertolucci on his mind, filtered through his own specific approach to a new Indian cinema. As with Dev D and Black Friday, his approach is to channel the grit and rebelliousness of Hindi cinema of the 60s and 70s with a smattering of the old Bengali art-film highmindedness. Kashyap’s own unique ingredient is a highly catholic approach to surface phenomena, employing slo-mo here and deep colour saturation there, for an overall Soderberghian ambiance by way of the cinema du look. As you might expect, this tremulous, electric masala adds up to a little bit less than the sum of its parts, of only because Kashyap too often has trouble meaningfully articulating the disparate elements. The eventual revenge battle between Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpal), a mid-caste cad, and Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), the industrialist who killed Khan’s father, simply can’t bear the weight of everything Wasseypur has riding on it. While consistently diverting – more American Gangster than Once Upon a Time in the Dhanbad – the attempts to thread this mafia tale into a macrocosm for post-colonial rapacity don’t completely convince. Gangs of Wasseypur aims to show where present-day outlaw capitalism in India came from, a tall order indeed. That Kashyap delivers only mitigated results is no disgrace.

 

Ishqzaade [Born To Hate, Destined To Love] (Habib Faisal, India) [4]

Freud had a fairly convincing riff on trauma. The patient creates conditions whereby he or she can repeat the horrific event, with the hope that one might gain mastery over that primal wound by re-experiencing it under controlled conditions. Granted, psychoanalyzing a film industry, much less a nation, is a fool’s game, but it’s hard not to take note of Bollywood’s endless restagings of the Hindu / Muslim conflict. So often cast as a starcrossed-lovers scenario, this daily crisis is the stuff of India’s “escapist” entertainment in a way that (for example) America and Canada’s adventures in Afghanistan simply are not. Nevertheless, films like Ishqzaade, which are highly typical of the genre, demonstrate just how little actual introspection these films demand. Instead, they’re self-congratulatory and mythmaking, studiously avoiding the day-to-day stakes of religious intolerance. Ishqzaade is a standard-issue Yash Raj product in every way, its high glitz and spray-on topicality offering the usual front for bad-boy posturing (from male lead Arjun Kapoor) and female faux-empowerment, “feminism” being little more than a chill on the heart that will soon be set aflame. Parma (Kapoor) is the ne’er-do-well nephew of a local Hindu politician; Zoya (newcomer Parineeti Chopra) is the outspoken daughter of the incumbent (Muslim) MP. There are twists, turns, multiple meet-cutes and, this being Yash Raj, several well-appointed musical numbers. What there isn’t, however, is characterization that ventures beyond the broad and would-be mythic. Faisal expects us to invest heavily in the fate of these lovers, but at bottom they are merely plot devices in a dangerous time.

 

The Land of Hope (Sion Sono, Japan) [7]

Ever since 2008’s magnum opus Love Exposure, there have been two aesthetic tendencies battling for dominance inside Sion Sono’s cinema, if not his skull. There’s an “Asian Extreme” / midnight moviemaker side to Sono leftover from his earlier, underwhelming genre efforts. (Anyone ready to go to bat for Exte: Hair Extensions? No?) Fundamentally misdirecting some of the anarchic energy from his Super-8 efforts, this schlockmeister badassery has continued to yield dreck like the recent Cold Fish (“Hey, nebbish! Rape your wife until you’re a man!”) and the tedious, sub-Lynchian Guilty of Romance. At the same time, there’s the careful, meticulous director of uncertain moods and human lives in transition. This was frequently visible through the bloodstains in Noriko’s Dinner Table, and the recent Himizu demonstrated that this subtle, probing Sono might well be winning out.

 

Great news: The Land of Hope is easily his best film since Love Exposure, and improves upon that achievement in a number of key respects. As with fellow “Japanese outlaw” Takashi Miike, Sono will undoubtedly experience some blowback for this one, since it is his most outwardly tasteful and professional effort to date. But as it happens, “blowback” is just what The Land of Hope is about – specifically the aftermath of a nuclear disaster following a catastrophic earthquake. (Sono filmed in the environs of the now empty Fukushima area, and the Fukushima quake and radiation crisis is referenced in The Land of Hope, but the film depicts a later, fictional emergency in Nagashima.) Although Sono’s scope is wide, most of the activity centres around the Ono family, in particular the dairy-farmer patriarch (Isao Natsuyagi) who cannot evacuate for fear of traumatizing his wife (Naoko Otani), who suffers from Alzheimer’s and comforts herself by working in her garden.

 

Although The Land of Hope adopts a steady pace and displays a sturdy, surefooted sense of spatial construction (courtesy of novice d.p. Shigenori Miki), Sono isn’t exactly playing it straight. Yes, the film opens with a classic low-angle Ozu mealtime scene, but the son, Yoichi (Jun Murikami), is notably late, darting into the sequence just in the nick of time. This could be an oblique comment by Sono on his own relationship to his forebears; the Japanese modernism of the first half of the 20th century, its formal exactitude connected to a commitment to social decorum, no longer holds. As Ono-san rails against the lying authorities, those same authorities show up, “handling” the radiation problem with a solution straight out of Imamura. By the film’s conclusion, Sono offers sociopolitical marginalization and emotional compromises befitting Douglas Sirk. Check the Geiger counter – something’s in the air, all right.

 

The Last Time I Saw Macao (João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra de Mata, Portugal / France) [7]

One of the few recent films that I would call truly unclassifiable, The Last Time I Saw Macao is one of two collaborations this year between Rodrigues (O Fantasma; To Die Like a Man) and Guerra, his co-screenwriter on To Die. (The other film, Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day, is not at TIFF, but will screening in October at NYFF’s Views from the Avant-Garde.) Essentially a personal essay film, complicated by a Rivettian conspiracy noir plot and prefaced by a succulent, transgender paean to the great Dietrich / Jane Russell collaboration, Macao adopts the point of view of a Portuguese gentleman (voice of Guerra) who grew up in Macao and has been called back to help his friend, cabaret singer Candy (Cindy Scrash), who has run afoul of a shadowy group of dangerous men. Within this semi-narrative framework, Rodrigues and Guerra provide a kind of walking tour of Macao in static shots, capturing the searing electric neon and historical collision of colonialist Orientalism and hypermodernity. Macao, a Portuguese colony until the Chinese handover of 1999, becomes for the narrator a spatial text, an arena for desire, and a palimpsest of both personal and regional histories. Although a number of works this year (cf. Tabu, Birds, Big In Vietnam) seem to address a kind of double-consciousness with respect to post-colonial existence – knowing that the center must give up its hold on the periphery, but still evincing a longing for a sense of order in the world. To its great credit, The Last Time I Saw Macao is the most rigorous and forward-thinking on this question of any other film this year. Although the Joãos never specify who or what the threatening cabal might be, the film strongly implies that it is the Colonial Unconscious, the repressed returning with a vengeance.

 

The Lebanese Rocket Society (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Lebanon / Qatar / United Arab Emirates) [5]

Much like Ali Cherri’s short video Pipe Dream, which profiled the second (and final) Arab cosmonaut, The Lebanese Rocket Society, by the duo of Hadjithomas and Joreige (I Want to See) zeroes in on a small but proud moment in Middle Eastern scientific achievement in order to explore its broader resonances. Starting out with anecdotes and vague memories, the filmmakers set out to reconstruct the lost history of the titular society, a Lebanese aerospace group that worked out of Haigazian University, an Armenian college in the 60s. Driven by pure curiosity and a can-do attitude (they made their own rocket fuel in the classroom), the group handmade and launched numerous “Cedar” rockets, until an on-campus accident ended the program. Hadjithomas and Joreige locate the former leader of the group, Prof. Manoug Manougian, in a Tampa university, and discover that he holds the archive for the long-lost society. We also learn that, in the wake of the 1967 War, the Lebanese military got involved with Haigazian’s “pure research,” aiming to weaponize it. The doc is quite adept at fixating on a juncture when history might’ve been different, when progress and modernity could have been logical outcomes of Arab intellectual endeavor. But the film really suffers at the midway point, when it becomes a self-reflexive documentation of Hadjithomas and Joreige’s efforts to install a public memorial sculpture of a rocket. It’s at this point that the makers are obviously padding out a short subject.

 

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, U.K. / France) [9]

Sweetgrass, the deeply poetic, observational documentary about sheepherding that Castaing-Taylor made two years ago (with Ilsa Barbash), could be likened to the “thick description” advocated by the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz. By contrast, Leviathan is a radical, nonlinear portrait of deep-sea fishing so immersive it can only be called baptismal. It does not describe so much as delve, dodge and parry, plunge into darkness and wait patiently for some spark of revelatory light. Shot with small, lightweight cameras affixed to various parts of the vessel, Leviathan thrives on withheld information, but to even trot out a word like “information” prompts immediate misunderstanding, implicitly filing Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s effort somewhere along the continuum of documentary. In fact, what they accomplish is more akin to four-dimensional painting, the registration of deep black space and its pulsating maw, the white hot moonlight that glints off a night sea and belies all pieties about Romantic beauty, serving to illuminate only the power and horror of the ocean’s vast indifference. The filmmakers also show us labor, grueling and panicked, and slinky chains and soaked rain slickers swipe by the various lenses in defense of the craft. And then, of course, there are the fish – massive nets filled with slimy torpedo-creatures gasping for final breaths, dead eyes bulging from their sockets. As the slicing and dicing begins, the intensive close-ups and kinetic camerawork naturally recalls Brakhage (especially the Pittsburgh trilogy – “documentary” material transformed through staggered, unnatural vision), but as the men lop off heads, or de-wing stingrays and toss their wriggling bodies aside in the chum pile, it’s hard not to think of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and its very different harvest. Once seagulls darken the skies around the ship, it’s clear that Leviathan is a portrait of a very routine set of procedures that, when stripped away from their typical explanatory frames (the life cycle, human labor, migratory patterns, environmentalism, maritime law, “endless shrimp”), entail levels of barbarism that we, as a society, find not only ethical but awe-inspiring. Leviathan is a heroic and frightening film.

 

London: The Modern Babylon (Julien Temple, U.K.) [4]

What if Adam Curtis got to the Seventh Circle of Hell, and Lo! It looked like VH1. I suppose London – The Modern Babylon might’ve seemed like a good idea, since Temple did make The Filth and the Fury, one of the most sociologically insightful rock-docs ever. But this made-for-BBC programme is less a portrait of a bustling metropolis than a slam-bang montage of crass YouTubish idiocy, clocking in at an exhausting two-hours-and-change. Temple has a thesis of sorts – that London and its culture are ever in flux due to ongoing waves of immigration. But whatever actual insights or concrete historical data might have actually been provided by the film are rendered incoherent, as news clips, interviews, music videos, file footage, and all manner of detritus go racing through Temple’s stupidity-blender. Whole decades, entire ethnic groups and musical genres, sputter by in a matter of minutes, all the better to get in that Bowie riff or some split-second of the Buzzcocks. This is the sort of film that discusses the growth of London’s Chinatown while showing old dig-the-irony racist movie clips of opium dens, to the tune of Siouxsie and the Banshee’s “Hong Kong Garden,” or delivers 60s flower-power images cut quite literally to T-Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.” (There’s a guy bumping and grinding. Now, someone having a good time. Rinse, repeat.) Maybe this was Temple’s rejected audition tape for the Olympics ceremony.

 

Mekong Hotel (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand / U.K. / France) [v/m] [6]

Although some may disagree (and in fact, upon the world premiere of Mekong Hotel earlier this year at Cannes, several did), Apichatpong is constitutionally incapable of producing a work that is not interesting at the very least. And “interesting” is precisely how I would characterize this new entry from Thailand’s Finest. In its broadest sense, this one-hour featurette is a patient, lolling survey of the goings-on at the titular locale, a riverfront inn situated between Thailand and Laos. For most of the running time, Mekong Hotel consists of two kinds of shots: sunlit, static medium-long shots on the patio, overlooking the Mekong River (themselves an object lesson in compositional precision) and gray, dingy medium shots from inside the rooms, usually with characters on a bed talking. In its deliberate pacing and limited camera movement, Mekong Hotel calls to mind a stripped-down, tropical rendition of Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, where the disconnected activity in and around lodgers and their preoccupations provide all the narrative you get. Nevertheless, Apichatpong offers a bit more than placid formalism. The various figures (especially “Phon,” “Tung,” and “Auntie Jen”) speak about various things, such as the Laotian experience, and shared folklore. This being a Joe film, of course, you should expect the unexpected, and here it comes in the form of the Phop Ghost, an “entrail demon” who eviscerates human beings with her fingers and teeth. This is the primary intervention – within this charmed space, the real and the fictive continue to collapse into one coextensive reality. While there is little doubt that Mekong Hotel will be remembered as a minor contribution to Apichatpong’s overall corpus (not unlike earlier projects such as Haunted Houses, or Ashes from earlier this year), it is good to see him still capable of working within the narrowest of aesthetic constraints and locating the deeply strange within the mundane.

 

Penance [Shokuzai] (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan) (Eps. 1, 2, 5) [v] [4]

No, not a 270 min. feature film but a five-part miniseries made for the Japanese WOWOW network and broadcast in January, Penance (actual translation would be “Atonement,” but you know . . .) is making festival rounds, which only goes to show how desperate audiences are for a follow-up to 2008’s Tokyo Sonata. Combining very familiar J-horror revenge tropes with a crime / trauma framework that, admittedly, takes the admirable step of eliminating the usual supernatural hooey, Penance centres around the rape and murder of a schoolgirl, Emiri. Her four friends were with her when her assailant led her to her doom, which prompts Emiri’s mother (Kyoko Koizumi) to tell the girls they will never be forgiven until they help her find her daughter’s killer. Each of the episodes entails a 15-year flash-forward, focusing on how each surviving girl, now grown, has been tormented by her inability to appease Emiri’s mother and exorcise that “ghost.” Trouble is, Penance simply isn’t very good television, and it certainly cannot hold a candle to the likes of Cure, Pulse, or even an uneven effort like Bright Future. Most of the “action” consists of endless dialogue and exposition in underlit rooms; apart from some brooding, gray skylines of Tokyo and an eye for modernist furnishings, there is nothing deep in the formal bones of Penance to distinguish it as the work of a master filmmaker. In fact, in its needlessly attenuated pace and thematic reliance on damaged female psychology, Penance reminded me quite a bit of Veena Sud’s series The Killing, which is not what I’d call praise.

 

Perret In France and Algeria (Heinz Emigholz, Germany) [7]

Emigholz’s ongoing and seemingly (hopefully) inexhaustible “Photography and Beyond” series is one of the most unique projects currently underway on the contemporary film scene, and while genre convention and historical shorthand have bequeathed us the label “experimental film” to discuss virtually any work that foregrounds formal concerns over narrative organization, Emigholz’s architectural studies are among the few films anywhere that truly deserve that designation. He is experimenting with the parameters between two-, three-, and four-dimensional representation and perception, the possibility and the necessity for using cinema and/or video to assume tasks that were at one time (and by and large still are) the province of still photography, in order to document both the physical facticity and the mobile, haptic experience of architectural dwelling. In viewing his films, I used to wonder, for example, why Emigholz always seemed to adopt a stance that would imply a framed shot of a building – a street view or a distant standing position looking across the vast space, for example, but cant his angles just so. The frames were still, like a “standard” photograph. Why the tilt? Over time I recognized two things. One, the canted angle ever-so-slightly implies a movement around and through the space; it “de-pictorializes” it, but only just. And two, it suggests that Emigholz’s camera has frozen the gestured looking of a live, moving body. That is, the time of the shot exists as though we are just about the enter it, even though the film (which of course could move right in) tells us that we are apart from the spatial environment before us.

 

Perret in France and Algeria is one of Emigholz’s finest films in the series thus far, in no small part due to his chosen subject. Auguste Perret (1874-1954) designed buildings and constructed them with his brother Gustave, and what we see of his work in the film certainly clarifies his significance. A modernist who favored concrete over steel, Perret made buildings that featured high, vast walls with undulating patterns of semicircles and broken squares puncturing the cement walls, letting the light in. A combination of ornament and function, this tendency toward patterned brick and concrete design bespoke an Islamic influence on his architecture, an original blending of early 20th century modernism’s avoidance of decorative excess and the classical Islamic arts with their evocation of the holy through almost mathematically ordered latticework. Emigholz, for his part, displays the substantial differences Perret employed when building in France versus Algeria – specific choices not only of outward style but also of use-directed form – without comment. What’s more, Perret in France and Algeria bluntly documents the vast differential in condition between Perret’s structures in both nations. This is a political question. (And not only because Algeria doesn’t have the resources France does to safeguard its cultural treasures, but also, of course, because France took the colonial war to Algeria’s doorstep.) Emigholz simply lets the facts speak for themselves, suggesting ever so subtly that we could move through them, exist alongside them, like dwellings.

 

Shanghai (Dibakar Banerjee, India) [7]

A subtle, somewhat neo-classical example of political cinema from the land of Bollywood, Banerjee’s film is a new film adaptation of Vassilis Vassilikos’ 1967 novel, and not a remake of Costa-Gavras’ film. By returning to the source material, Banerjee is able to avoid some of the realist-thriller excesses of the original film in favor of a complex tone that perfectly captures a critical moment in Indian cultural development. Dr. Ahmedi (Prasenjit Chatterjee) is the leftist expat who has returned to speak out against IBP, a massive business park that will displace thousands of lower-class villagers. After he is killed, his former student (Kalki Koechlin) fights for justice while an upright inspector (Abhay Deol) ignores entreaties to sweep the assassination under the rug. Neither Bollywood nor “parallel cinema,” Shanghai stakes out a tense Naturalism wherein ordinary individuals make logical, even inevitable choices, considering they are locked inside a corrupt post-socialist free-for-all, the profit motive warping ordinary life beyond all reason. (The title is semi-metaphorical, the mythic neoliberal mecca that the financiers want Mumbai to become.) In a sly bit of commentary on India’s society of the spectacle, Shanghai only uses musical numbers as garish displays of power or deception. Some Hindi critics have taken Shanghai to task for its abstraction and myopia, and not without reason. It tends to cast the poor as a fickle mob, marking true activism as the province of the educated bourgeoisie. While not an accurate portrait of Indian resistance today, Shanghai provides a complex portrait of the power base, a hobbled Left, and the funhouse mirror of institutionalized cynicism.

 

La Sirga (William Vega, Colombia / Mexico) [5]

In many respects this is a perfect specimen from TIFF’s Discovery section, since it is solid without every threatening to be extraordinary, and it mostly speaks to the substantial potential of its first-time director. (I wouldn't be surprised if it turns up again early next year in Lincoln Center's New Directors / New Films showcase.) A story about the psychological toll taken by decades of factional fighting and anti-indigenous violence in Colombia, La Sirga begins with Alicia (Floralba Achicanoy) running through swampland following the decimation of her village. She ends up at her uncle’s bayside guesthouse, La Sirga, where she stays on and helps to rebuild the crumbling symbol structure. The opening shots of Alicia’s journey, while well-shot, edited, and performed, pretty much announce La Sirga’s stylistic m.o. Long shot, followed by close-up of boots in the swamp, followed by woe-to-the-world bellyflop in the mud . . . Vega never departs from the shopworn visual and constructivist shibboleths of festival cinema. In fact, his overemphasis on the disjuncture between shots, and the play of land against water, recalls Kim Ki-duk’s work (especially The Isle), but poured full of Claudia Llosa’s thematic concerns. Vega always knows where to put the camera, and how to hold a shot so it feels contemplative rather than rambling. Still, there’s a primitive anxiousness on display, a sense of Vega working too hard to impress. While Kim never grew out of his hamfisted decision-making, Vega clearly will, and La Sirga is a down payment on a promising career.

 

Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal / Brazil) [7]

Tabu is a fine film by any measure, but it should be said, Gomes is to be commended for making a significant leap in a new direction following the equally but differently odd Our Beloved Month of August. While that film was sprawling and discursive, Tabu is a tight fiction that explores a set of very specific parameters within a tight but elegant superstructure. The film is divided in unequal halves (the second part, “Paradise,” is longer than the first, “Paradise Lost”), both linked not only by one primary character but by history and fate. “Paradise Lost” is centered on Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged woman living in an apartment complex. She tried to be Christian, so she does what she can to help her next-door neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), who is senile and paranoid. She thinks that Santa (Isabel Cardoso, “Clothilde” from Colossal Youth), the Cape Verdean woman her daughter has hired to look after her, is trying to kill her. Once she becomes gravely ill, Aurora asks Pilar to help her find one person, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), from her old days. She finds him, but he arrives too late.

 

At this point, Ventura essentially delivers the “Paradise” section as a monologue while Gomes shows us Aurora’s life in the colonies as a silent film. While all of Tabu is black and white and 4:3 academy ratio, the shift from present to past is jarring to say the least. We are shown the tragic love affair that the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) developed with Ventura (Carloto Cotta), a friend of her husband (Ivo Müller) while they were living on a vast African colonial homestead at the foot of Mt. Tabu. But more than this, Tabu displays, without a single wink of irony, the oblivious pleasures to be had as a colonial dweller at the height of Empire (Portuguese or any other). Aurora is exceedingly sweet on her pet baby crocodile, which in many respects is emblematic of unreflective ownership of Africa that is the backdrop, and precondition, for all of Aurora’s romance and transgression. While so many other Portuguese films have been quite curiously engaged with this end-of-empire theme (Birds, Last Time I Saw Macao), Tabu does not announce itself as a critique. Rather, the fate of Aurora – “kept” by the black Santa, weak and powerless, confined to a small Lisbon flat – is compared to her” glorious” past, to demonstrate rather directly the raw seduction of this “white man’s burden.” The fact that Gomes imbricates and implicates cinema itself with this Western fantasy only shows Tabu’s deep sophistication.

 

Three Sisters (Wang Bing, France / Italy / Hong Kong) [v] [7]

Wang Bing, the most well-known exponent of the New Chinese Documentary “movement,” has taken somewhat new approach in his latest effort. Most of the films for which he is best known – West of the Tracks, Fengming, and even his feature film debut The Ditch – have tended to focus on broad social and political themes; Three Sisters is hardly devoid of such questions, but certainly marks a turn toward the intimate. Wang brings us into the lives of three peasant girls in Xiyangtang Province who are living in relative poverty (the conditions are grim, but probably better than those of some other rural Chinese), abandoned by their mother and only periodically seeing their father who must find work in the city. In the leisurely 153 minutes of this director’s cut (which will hopefully be the version that goes out into the world at large), there is nary a pixel wasted.

 

The oldest, Yingying, is only 10, but has had to assume almost complete responsibility for her younger sisters Zhenzhen, 6, and Fenfen, 4. Although the girls live near extended family, and are watched by their elderly grandfather a good deal of the time, Wang shows us that the sisters, Yingying in particular, are left to their own devices and expected to maintain a high degree of autonomy, tending to crops, feeding the pigs and chickens, building an open fire inside their dugout-dwelling, and, for Yingying, struggling to stay on top of her studies. Three Sisters does indeed elaborate in painful detail the emotional and physical toll that this semi-abandonment has taken on the family. Fenfen cries a lot, and when the younger sibs fight, Yingying doesn’t show a great deal of sympathy. But is it her job to? (After working in the fields collecting hardened dung for fuel, Yingying is asked by her friend to come over and play. Her affectless response is heartbreaking: “Why?”)

 

Three Sisters is tough-minded and unsentimental, giving the lie to recent fictional works such as Treeless Mountain and Nobody Knows. However the documentary is by no means a joyless wallow in developing-world miserablism. When the girls’ father returns for an extended stay, his interactions with the kids are appropriately tender and fatherly, cooking cabbage for them and washing their feet at the fire with a hot-water basin. What we witness, then, is the crisis that the Chinese labor market – particularly the concentration of what few jobs there are within the cities – has brought to bear on families, a microcosm for socialist capitalism’s callous march of “progress.” Wang requires every second of his running time, because this story continues to reveal unexpected layers of poetic resonance. To wit: throughout Three Sisters, Yingying wears a sweatshirt and on the back it reads “LOVELY DIARY.” It’s entirely to Wang’s credit that, despite the persistent hardships Yingying endures, this minor detail is in no way ironic.

 

Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, China / Hong Kong) [s] [7]

After the rather crippling excesses of Face, Tsai needed to simplify, and that’s precisely what he’s done. Walker, a short film commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival and video-platform site Youku, is not deep; in fact, watching it is a good way to empty the mind of all extraneous things. In it, our beloved Lee Kang-sheng dons the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk. He is carrying home take-out food. While the blaring neon and taxi-swerving streets of Hong Kong hurtle around him, the monk moves ever . . . so . . . slowly . . . barely . . . lifting . . . a . . . foot . . . and . . . then . . . another. Lee never raises his head. He is traversing the cityscape at the rate of a slow-motion video setting, but as an actual live-action performance, to the confusion and amusement of the rest of the world around him. Walker certainly invites “readings.” This other channel of movement, for example, materializes the monk’s supposed detachment from the plane of mundane things, offering a glimpse of a “holy time.” It could also imply that the monk is not entirely “there,” a visitor from the spirit world a la Wings of Desire. But interpretation is probably superfluous for the only physical performance so far this year to even come close to rivaling Denis Lavant’s.

 

 

preview / pre-fest screening (experimental short works)

 

 

/Black TV (Aldo Tambellini, 1968) [s]

Another recent rediscovery from avant-garde film’s Undeserved Dustbin of History, longtime Syracuse, NY resident Aldo Tambellini has been enjoying a much-needed renaissance over the past year or so. His contributions were brief but specific, and deeply germane to the tumultuous era in which they were made. The “Black Films” were a series of variations, things Tambellini could do with black film, black leader, the rich tones or even just the idea of “black.” Like a more formalistically inclined Bruce Conner, Tambellini employed found footage from the social and political arenas and combined it with the “pure materiality” stuff – scratches, grain, wear and tear. Black TV is a dual-screen, two-image work that consists of zapping pictures across two television sets. The dominant motif, seen and heard on both screens: Robert Kennedy has just been assassinated. A semi-companion piece to Conner’s Report, Black TV infuses history with binocular vision.

 

Burning Star (Josh Solondz) [v/s]

Here’s some father-son trivia for you. Solondz named his film after A Burning Star (1995) by Kenji Onishi, in which the filmmaker grapples quite directly with the death and cremation of his father. In that black and white film, Onishi treats his father’s memory as if it were a tangible object. By contrast, Solondz’s Burning Star was made as a tribute to the filmmaker’s own father, a “burning star” all his own. How does he “burn”? Whereas Onishi’s image of death is that of a glowing crucible of energy dispersed, Solondz produces a flat, geometrical “star” that holds the center of the screen and radiates out, like an Op Art piston or electronic flag. The paintings of Frank Stella are a clear influence; keeping the center busy in order to produce all-over, non-hierarchical compositions. Ernie Gehr’s classic film Serene Velocity, also seems to be a source for Solondz’s playful spatial play. Vibrant explosions of color belie the fact of their meticulous, geometrical construction.

 

Concrete Parlay (Fern Silva, U.S. / Egypt / Turkey / France) [s]

One of the richest works in this year’s lineup, and without a doubt one of the most perplexing, Concrete Parlay represents a considerable shift for Silva. Many of his previous works have partaken of an internationalist approach to seeing, but they’ve always implicitly worked against “ethnographic” clichés, mostly by behaving as though they just didn’t exist. That’s to say, Silva makes films like a traveler, not a tourist, and even though his work is much lighter and more fleet of foot than that of the late Mark LaPore, both consistently treat(ed) “the encounter with the Other” as a moment for self-examination and decentering. Concrete Parlay is somewhat different in that it makes themes of Otherness and exoticism quite explicit, even holding them up for gentle mockery. After all, Silva’s dominant image throughout the work is a whirling Magic Carpet; at times it bobs along before the camera like some globalist ride at “Chuck E. Cheese.” Within this faux-serious framework, Silva introduces image sets that imply a detached spectatorial gaze – a sheep-biting ritual, distant landscapes of the East, and even a “great pyramids” scene worthy of Jia’s The World. It’s a heady mix, at times reminiscent of Michael Robinson’s work – not a bad new direction, as new directions go, although those more familiar with Silva's previous work than I am tell me that Parlay represents a partial extension of certain moves and moods he'd already been exploring.

 

I am micro (Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia, India) [s]

An outstanding work of dialectical history, I am micro combines sound and images from distinct but related situations to create a complex portrait of trans-Indian film production on the margins (or, if you prefer, in the shadows, since Bollywood casts quite a large one – even this year at TIFF). In sumptuous, granulated celluloid that is clearly contemporary but nevertheless resembles an excavated artifact, Goel and Heredia take is through a variety of ruins, the forgotten fragments of low-budget independent filmmaking in India: a film lab in Kolkata, fallen into disrepair; leftover shards of a movie set; and eventually, scenes from an actual production. Through deft editing and exposure control, all of these disparate parts of the “micro-history” of Indian film seem utterly of a piece; this doesn’t register as a compilation film. This is all the more significant since the “ruins” of the film shoot are partly fabricated – bits taken from the production of Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (also in the festival), which replicates B-grade Mumbai filmmaking. Holding the essay together is the audio, in which another marginal figure in the Hindi film world, Kamal Swaroop, expounds on why he makes small, oppositional films, and stopped being a director when that was no longer and option. (By the same token, Swaroop was Assistant Director on Attenborough’s Gandhi.) Very much of a piece with recent post-industrial reclamation films by Ben Rivers and Tacita Dean, I am micro is a testament to cinema’s role in forging our “usable past.”

 

Ich auch, auch, ich auch [Me too, too, me too] (Friedl vom Gröller, Austria) [s]

Depending on how you look at them, the films of Friedl vom Gröller are either ideal for programming in experimental group shows, or they are little bombs placed between otherwise unsuspecting films, detonating in a matter of seconds and leaving the audience in a state of shock after they’re long gone. Usually less than two minutes long and often just around a minute, vom Gröller’s films are highly idiosyncratic portraits of the people closest to her, typically conveyed with a gritty but exacting handheld punch and parry. She doesn’t make diary films, but the works have that sort of immediacy; instead it’s as though vom Gröller had been waiting somehow for the revealing expression or gesture to present itself for her extraction. She has made several films of her elderly mother, who appears to be in the throes of some form of dementia. This film (whose title translates as “me too, too, me too”) captures her angry, frightened agitation, at what (if anything) we cannot really see. Vom Gröller’s camera doesn’t grab the film by the sprocket holes quite right, so the woman’s animated state is compounded by upward vibration, ghosting and a blurred visage. Films of the end of life always seem to privilege slow, meandering decay (see Haneke’s Amour) but this compressed panic feels more akin to what I imagine: time coming unstuck.

 

/Many a Swan (Blake Williams, Canada) [v/s]

Wavelengths presents what may be its first 3D film with this highly unusual anaglyph tone poem by Williams (Coorow-Latham Road). Many a Swan is not a piece that yields its secrets easily, and I will freely admit that it took me three viewings to find my bearings in the work. If there is one key concept that guides Williams’ video (and, I would say, could productively guide your viewing of it), it’s origami. Swan’s specific relationship to Akira Yoshizawa (1911-2005), the legendary origamist and Japanese cultural treasure, is not quite as important as understanding Williams’ insistent use of folding and sectioning of the video screen (and the subsequent three-dimensional play) throughout the piece. Seen in this light, Many a Swan’s employment of deep photographic space – particularly images over and through the Grand Canyon – can best be understood as an optical challenge, to see these pictures as poised somewhere between shoebox dioramas and an actual tactile world.

 

A Minimal Difference (Jean-Paul Kelly, Canada) [s]

Kelly presents a set of miniature theatrical flats, the slight suggestion of receding space. That is, we are presented with a closely assembled collection of planes, not unlike what you’d encounter in a pop-up book. We’re shown pen-and-ink environments consisting of felled logs; barricades of tires and rubble; multiple planes of billowing smoke; massive garbage piles with swarming flies; impoverished neighborhoods in the snow. Within and against these cartoon-like settings, four figures recur: a blue square (or cube), a yellow triangle (or pyramid), a green circle (or sphere), and a red rectangle (or rectangular solid). They show up against a neutral gray background (Suprematist painting, basically), accompanied by a synthesizer note. But they also hijack the scenes of “realist” concern (poverty, war, violence) by asserting themselves – their flatness, their geometrical universality – over the “local” scenes. Kelly is not leveling tired charges against high modernism and its evacuation of History. Rather, A Minimal Difference introduces abstraction, as typically understood, into the realm of social representation, which always entails its own, less obvious substitutions.

 

The mutability of all things and the possibility of changing some (Anna Marziano, Italy / France) [s]

A well-shot film that seems to imply a great deal more than it actually has the nerve to say, Anna Marziano’s Mutability is a short para-narrative work that left me not only baffled (although it made more sense after reading about it) but also a bit irritated. In the next wrap-up, where I address the Wavelengths features, I’ll be talking about this more (with regard to Gabriel Abrantes’s Birds), but I am starting to observe a trend in European “experimental” cinema toward works that, apart from being exaggeratedly open-ended, are little more than arthouse calling cards. I cannot purport to know what Marziano’s designs on the future are. However, Mutability is a film in which the director directs actors to perform a script within well-appointed locations that are notable for their expressive mise-en-scène. The thing that really separates this film from, for example, Roy Andersson or Yorgos Lanthimos, is the fact that Marziano, a “non-narrative filmmaker,” is free to jam disconnected sequences together with only the most tenuous thematic or theoretical throughline. In short, Mutability is “something else,” and I’m not really concerned with it.

 

Orpheus (Outtakes) (Mary Helena Clark) [s]

As evidenced by last year’s confounding but infinitely rich By foot-candle light, Mary Helena Clark is in a very fecund phase of her career at the moment. Her films and videos are not direct in their communicative approach, but instead suspend a handful of dense images and sounds in a kind of intellectual flotation tank. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Clark’s work is good to think with, and Orpheus (Outtakes) is no exception. Cleaner and more straightforward on its surface than foot-candle, the new film originates with optically printed footage from Cocteau’s classic, taking it in a far more materialist direction. Clark begins with a repeated gesture (with magnification and positive / negative reversal) of an actor picking up and swinging a ladder, bisecting the frame and puncturing the Z-axis. After some flecks and scratches, a white field is gradually consumed with a black spot – a punched hole in the film, perhaps, becoming an entity. (Actually, this recalls the cold-open of Jacques Nolot’s fine Before I Forget.) Clark continues to foreground other concrete details of the cinematic process, like subtitles (in odd, poetic blurts) and the diagonal lines of a “rain storm.” But the centerpiece of (Outtakes) consists of a pair of catlike female eyes, peering through what seem to be holes in a black sheet, as the deep field of unlit cinematic vision consumes them into the leader, again and again. Clark locates Surrealism’s very unconscious: the film’s desperate desire to look back.

 

Pacific Sun (Thomas Demand, U.S. / Germany) [s]

Clocking in at a mere 100 seconds, Pacific Sun is a likely candidate for “Shortest Film of the Festival,” but it’s also clearly one of the most labor-intensive. Demand, an artist and filmmaker whose chosen medium is construction paper and cardboard, has a clear desire to truck with the uncanny. He uses these artificial means, ones typically associated with grade-school handicrafts, to meticulously replicate real scenes. His films, then, are stop-motion animations created in the same manner, with an added “layer.” Demand copies actual footage, and Pacific Sun is a paperboard “remake” of surveillance-cam images from a cruise ship being tossed about in stormy waters (in this case, the Tasman Sea). There’s no denying the wow-factor of Demand’s art – “that sure was a lot of work” – and Pacific Sun is thankfully lacking in the exploitative tinge found in other prominent “realitist” / YouTube artists working today (e.g., Kota Ezawa, Amie Siegel). It hits hard and moves aside, before its ultimate lack of social meaning can start to seem like a problem. Hooray for brevity!

 

Phantoms of a Libertine (Ben Rivers, U.K.) [s]

A small, delicate, and defiantly private film by Rivers, whose most recent works – Slow Action and Two Years at Sea – have been gesturing toward ever broader meanings, Phantoms is mostly comprised of still photographs and hand-scrawled captions, clearly glimpses into the journals and souvenirs of an individual just slightly outside of our own time. (Had Robert Beavers not gotten there first, Rivers’ film could have been called From the Notebooks of . . .) This is without a doubt one of Rivers' rawest, most experimental films to date, combining photos from a late friend (both private and professional) with a roll of film that had a forgotten soundtrack already on it. When the image changes, there’s a sharp thump; when the screen goes black, brief chords of the rather shrill original music stab through. The impact is disconcerting. While some of the images, at least from what Rivers shows us of them, denote “straight” holiday and travel snaps, the pages of the albums also contain odd collages, some of them comprised of additional, context-free photographs of an off-color nature (hints of the title), others blended with seemingly random images from books or news clippings. Is there a hidden logic to this private breviary? In the company of Rivers’ other films, Phantoms prompts us to think about its subject’s collection of snapshots and assorted memories as bearing a similar character to the large-scale detritus in the world of Two Years’ Jake Williams or the “junkopias” profiled in I Know Where I’m Going! But instead, The Libertine occupied a sphere of mental clutter, not unlike the “Mnemosyne” boards of renegade art historian Aby Warburg. Does a life ever conform to the headings on the files? I guess only J. Edgar Hoover knew that, and he sure wasn’t telling . . .

 

Pipe Dreams (Ali Cherri, Lebanon / France) [v/s]

Pipe Dreams, from Lebanon, is one of a number of pieces this year that deal, directly or obliquely, with the uneven development of modernity. The tape specifically focuses on Mohammad Faris, a Syrian cosmonaut (as Cherry’s piece informs us, the last Arab to make it aboard a manned space flight) who was part of the Soviet Soyuz TM-3 team to dock with the Mir space station. Cherry makes use of Faris’s congratulatory phone call from President Hafez El Assad – and the connection between the two men, from Syria to space and back again – to speculate on a thwarted future for non-U.S. aligned scientific and industrial triumph. (In this regard, Pipe Dreams echoes certain themes of another Wavelengths film, The Lebanese Rocket Society.) But above all, the video prods us to consider the ongoing Syrian Uprising, and whether al-Assad pere’s patrician gentility, which elicits such deference from Faris, represents little more than the calm mask of absolute authority. Al-Assad asks Faris what he can see from space, and the cosmonaut replies that he can see Syria, truly see it, in all its splendor. Can he see what the Eternal Leader hides? And, as Cherry shows us the contemporary removal of a giant Hafez al-Assad statue (“for its security”), is it possible to observe in this awkward, time-delayed conversation the hint of what’s to come, the wanton tyranny of al-Assad fils? Of course not! You can barely see anything from space – certainly not the future.

 

Quando I Corpi si Toccando [When Bodies Touch] (Paolo Gioli, Italy) [s]

I’ll be the first to admit that it took me awhile to cotton to Paolo Gioli’s films. When NYFF Views from the Avant-Garde honcho Mark McElhatten presented a solo program of Gioli works in 2006 – effectively the Italian master’s North American coming-out – I was, as Elvis 2.0 once said, overwhelmed by indifference. But McElhatten was right, I was wrong, what can I say, etc. Gioli’s films are a bit like grungy artifacts from another moment in avant-garde history. They are usually not “black and white” but gray, faded and weather-beaten as if they were aged right out of the camera. They also possess a strange staccato rhythm that lay somewhere between collage work and in-camera editing, with images intersecting with the frames occupied by other images, jutting and thrusting in a manner almost reminiscent of Marinetti’s Futurism. The closest analog they seem to have in “mainstream” a-g history would be certain of the key Austrian makers, particularly Kurt Kren, but whereas Kren’s chaos was always reined in my structure, Gioli seems to start out with parameters that break down, or at least undergo severe strain, over the course of the film. His latest Quando I Corpi si Toccano (“When These Bodies Touch”) is no exception. Images of male and female faces and hands collide, melding into a high-speed field of contrasts with more materialist filmic residue. The film is overlong, and eventually runs out of ideas, becoming little more than a Tscherkasskian slash-and-flash exercise. But hey, there are worse ways to peter out.

 

Reconnaissance (Johann Lurf, Austria / U.S.) [s]

Wavelengths shorts programs end in style with a true mindbender. Lurf, a notable member of the seemingly inexhaustible posse of Viennese a-g talent, has made what looks to be a rather straightforward film-document of an out-of-the-way bit of civil engineering. The Morris Reservoir, near Asuza, CA, has the grand appearance of any number of North America’s massive dams, and Lurf is correct to recognize that their stolid majesty counts for something cinematically, not only as a kind of shortcut to the formalist-sublime, but because the very idea (at least in the U.S.) of marshaling public resources for the greater good has somehow become anathema to so many. But wait . . . Something about this film isn’t right. It’s been a long night. Are my eyes tired? What gives? It’s best that I tell you as little as possible about Reconnaissance ahead of time, but you are in for a bit of dislocation when your reference points start coming unmoored. Sorry, but I gotta say it. Dam..

 

Ritournelle (Christopher Becks and Peter Miller, Germany) [s]

Probably the simplest film on the docket, and possibly the most elegant, Ritournelle is a study of light in black and white, plain and simple. Composed by working independently of one another, “exquisite corpse” style, and then compiling the unforeseen results, Ritournelle provides glimpses of windows and curtains, the rafters of a barn ceiling, but doesn’t “light” on any of these delicate impressions long enough to concretize them into concepts, or even provoke certainty as to what has been seen. Abstraction in the truest sense, the film pulls from the ordinary world only what it needs for the generation of its attenuated forms.

 

Shoot Don't Shoot (William E. Jones) [v/s]

William E. Jones’ work over the past few years has consisted of an admirable divestiture of self-expression in favor of humble, almost passive media archiving and excavation. This represents its own losses – Jones is an artist of rare political acuity, and more overt speech-acts in his work would always be welcomed, just as some others could stand to be quite a bit more silent. But as with his found-object masterwork Tearoom and his recent work on W.P.A. photographs, Jones believes in the power of artifacts to speak for themselves when presented in the proper light. Undue manipulation would only muddle the historical record. Shoot Don’t Shoot presents an excerpt from a police training film. Judging from the film stock, the fashions and the architecture, it’s most likely from the early 70s. We see an African-American male (as the voiceover tells us, “wearing a pink shirt and yellow pants”) who matches an APB description of a perp. Do you, the first-person trainee, SHOOT or DON’T SHOOT? The fact that the actor is forlornly heading into the cinema, and resembles the great Demond Wilson of “Sanford & Son” fame, only adds to the unintended resonance.

 

Springtime (Jeroen Eisinga, The Netherlands) [s]

Being largely unfamiliar with Eisinga's work, I find myself a bit unsure just how to evaluate Springtime, which I admired but could not quite "get." The Estimable Andréa Picard™ referred to him as a "daredevil," which makes me wonder whether I am intended to take the piece as a film, per se, or merely as a documentation of a particular form of body art / pain endurance artwork, in the vein of Chris Burden crawling through glass or Dennis Oppenheim sitting on a platform getting a third-degree sunburn. As a filmic work, Springtime is a mixed bag aesthetically speaking. There doesn't seem to be a great deal of attention to its temporal dimension; it just kind of starts and kind of stops, and not even in an Andy Warhol sense of duration being determined by the materiality of the film roll itself. We are simply witnessing Eisinga being swarmed with thousands and thousands of bees, the majority of which come to form a thick, teeming "beard" on the end of his face and the top of his torso. On the other hand, the rich black-and-white stock and contrasty exposure lends a physical heft to the image. There are classic bee-bearding photos that have become stock images in the cultural imaginary, and Eisinga seems to want to allude to an archaic, primal past. (The bearding practice has often been understood as ritualistic, a way for beekeepers to gain some imagined rapport with the insects.) Here, as the process unfolds in time on actual celluloid (as opposed to a still image), the buzzing bees do end up operating as a kind of analogue to the swirl of film grain. (Is cinema itself just another archaic ritual?) In the end, though, I am only taking stabs (or stings) in the dark. I file Springtime under "intriguing head-scratcher."

 

The Transit of Venus 1 & 2 (Nicky Hamlyn, U.K., 2005 / 2012) [s]

British filmmaker Nicky Hamlyn has been using cinema as a research tool for a good part of his career. Although his work is frequently about landscapes and skyscapes and the aesthetic pleasure they can impart, he has also been very dedicated to film’s unique ability to manipulate time. High-speed motion study is his primary domain, and while it doesn’t characterize all of Hamlyn’s films it does tend to be a part of his most successful ones. The two Transit of Venus films are, as the title indicates, records of Hamlyn watching the heavens and charting the “movement” of Venus across the sky. The first, shot in black and white, simply marks a white circle speeding across the black screen. The second, in color, presents a lighted sky with significant cloud cover. I’ll admit I was at a loss for even seeing Venus the second time around. Or, um, across. As a diptych, Transit of Venus provides a pleasing contrast, since the less reductive film is in many ways less “informative,” even though it is much more seductive as a piece of single-shot cinema. At the end of each film, Hamlyn provides detailed notes on location, coordinates, film stock used, exposure speed, and other key technical details. In short, Prof. Hamlyn is showing his work.

 

21 Chitrakoot (Shambhavi Kaul, U.S. / India) [v/s]

Too often we forget that the tendency in experimental film to leave narrative questions aside can result in imagery so unexpected and inventive that it supplies a brand of humor far richer than the customary plant-and-payoff. 21 Chitrakoot is, in its simplest terms, Kaul’s exploration of Chroma-Key, that misbegotten late-70s TV technology that slaps fake, wavering backgrounds behind hapless screen-actors, positioned in front of a blue screen. (Woe unto them who wore pinstripes standing before the daunting power of the Chroma!) Nowadays this tool is restricted to weather maps, but Kaul shows its broader, more egregious uses – fake exotic transport, chintzy “location shoots,” and the quick blending or reversal of onscreen entities. (It’s like bad Méliès.) But part of what makes 21 Chitrakoot more than just a silly riff on an outdated technology is the fact that Kaul combines it with another lingering, half-dead relic from the not-so-recent past: Orientalism. Kaul is poking at the West’s misguided utopian aspirations, not for the cheap irony so popular these days (ha ha, Jurassic technology!) but to help us glimpse what Lewis Klahr called “the forgotten future.”

 

UFOs (Lillian Schwartz and Ken Knowlton, 1971) [s]

Justifiably rediscovered in recent years as a major figure in experimental cinema as well as early video and computer art, Lillian Schwartz created highly kinetic, searingly vibrant works of techno-abstraction, of which UFOs is one of the earliest and most famous, along with 1970’s Pixilation. (Schwartz’s work is extensively collated on her website, lillian.com.)  UFOs was made with the assistance of like-minded computer graphic artist Ken Knowlton, who like Schwartz was working at Bell Labs at the time. These films are still the property of AT&T, which may have something to do with their regrettable marginalization from the mainstream of American avant-garde history. Unlike in Great Britain or Canada, where government or commercial entities commissioned works by the likes of Len Lye and Norman McLaren as a matter of course, the U.S. model has historically been an artisanal one, incapable of accounting for great artists laboring on the corporate dime. (As it happens, Schwartz did have a champion in the late programming pioneer Amos Vogel.) To see these films now is to marvel at how Schwartz took the limited palette of the early computer raster and made it sparkle, treating the chunky CRT pixels as a kind of warp and woof on a rough virtual surface, fashioning course geometries and penumbraic forms from this new medium, this radiant data box.

 

various untitled video works (Francesca Woodman, 1975-78) [v/s]

There is so much mystique saturating the late Francesca Woodman and her work that it is often quite difficult, even deemed tasteless, to evaluate it on its own merits. It’s clear that Woodman’s work displays a concern with the female image and in particular female performance, personal and political themes that were very much in the air during her all-too-brief career. These are themes and impulses that link her to contemporaries such as Ana Mendieta and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, two other artists whose lives ended far too soon and whose extant output, like much of Woodman’s, is indicative of rich potential that would never be realized. For this standpoint it is interesting to view Woodman’s video experiments, since they are, by and large, far less conceptually realized that her photographic work and provide only a hint and what she might have accomplished with the medium. Some are frankly jejune (Woodman exposing her nude body from behind butcher paper, ripping out the word “FRANCESCA”), but some others show the unnerving, unfurnished-hellhole ambiance that is a hallmark of her best images. These videos are of historical interest; overpraising them only further clouds our ability to see Woodman’s art separate from the myths. But they indeed provide a fuller picture of a single-minded vision at work.

 

View From the Acropolis (Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebran de Haan, The Netherlands) [s]

This is, hands down, one of the very best films in this year’s Wavelengths selection. Both meditative landscape study and subtle geopolitical assay – that is, a literal survey of the “lay of the land” – View From the Acropolis looks down on the western Turkish city of Bergama from the original site of the Pergamon Altar. (This treasure of Greek social statuary now resides in Berlin.) Van Brummelen and de Haan show us the city below, but also the mountaintop and its field of “meaningless” ruins –ancient foundation stones left behind from the removal of the Altar, cluttering up the grass like children’s toys. The film asks us, silently and implicitly, to consider this complicated history relative to the triangulation between Turkey, Greece and Germany in the present. Who owns Western Civilization, of course, is still an open question, since the Turks are to this day grappling with the issue of whether or not they are “Western” enough to satisfy vague European dictates. Taken purely as a piece of cinema, however, Acropolis generates other, more complex feelings. The radiant landscape, with its painterly sky and city in sfumato below, conveys atmosphere more than territory. The still camera and swirling grain recall Peter Hutton’s films, and their unique combination of materialism and religiosity. In these sumptuous, holistic images, the land and sky look unified. Film, then, registers a holy light that remains impervious to borders.

 

Waiting Room (Vincent Grenier, U.S. / Canada) [v/s]

How about this: we propose the ideal of a “small modernism,” an abstraction that trains its sights on that which is closest at hand – the midday light through the window, slicing diagonally across the sofa cushion, or the seemingly insignificant event of nature’s most vibrant colors standing out in stark relief against the day-to-day backdrops we inadvertently made for them – back fences, car fenders, the gravel on the side of the road. How about if we remember that part of loving those dearest to us is being fully attentive to who and what they are in the world, and part of what they are is reflected light, shifting space, a voice asking for a drink of water or wondering where you’re going. We saw this approach, the revelations of the small and the private, in early Brakhage, but he eventually moved in other directions, as did Baillie – they grasped for the mythic, in different ways. But this ideal survives. Every new work by Vincent Grenier is an invitation into the filmmaker’s most ordinary environs – the yard, the bus, the garden – but he is not so much recording daily life as he is alerting us, and himself, to it. Waiting Room, his latest video, is shot at his son’s pediatrician’s office. (Note the cartoon shark on the wall.) While observing the paint and the movements and the queue at the desk, Grenier also uses his tool the DV camera, to examine the sweeping disphasure of fluorescent lighting. It’s an amber color field, and it drones on alongside normal business. We can’t see it, but it organizes every other relationship in the room. It was right there. Someone just needed to look.

 

Watch the Closing Doors (Jim Jennings) [v/s]

This is the first new work in quite some time from Jennings, the great film-poet of New York street life. Although not all of his films rely on the bustling energy of urban existence – his domestic-portrait masterpiece Close Quarters comes to mind – there is just a particular knack that Jennings has for capturing the shadows and forms, the rhythms and communions of people sharing the spaces of the city. This is as true in his more architectural studies, like Silvercup, as it is in the down-and-dirty, ground level “people watching” films – Miracle on 34th Street or the more recent Public Domain. So it’s not easy to report that Jennings’ latest, his first foray into digital video, lacks the poetic whimsy and elegance that made his work in film so peerless. I’m at a bit of a loss to identify precisely where Closing Doors breaks down. It might be the flat facticity of the synchronized soundtrack. Jennings best films were either silent or used asynchronous, composed audio. It might also be the harsh editing, which sometimes seems rather automatic and at other times downright glitch, as if time were lost but not realigned into a newly constructed event. Jennings’ subject – riding through the New York subway in close to real time – also seems to limit what the piece can do. The connection between film / video and trains goes back to the medium’s infancy, so much so that a train ride itself virtually implies cinematic vision. So a piece made on the rails must be very specific about what it adds to that experience. Watch the Closing Doors feels hesitant about its contribution.

 

 

films screened at the festival

 

 

September 6

 

 

Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria / France / Germany) [5]

If we compare two key films playing at TIFF this year, both from the Masters section, they are instructive not so much of dramatic polarities in the arthouse / festival cinema world, but of total incoherence. Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner, Amour, and Kim Ki-duk’s late-breaking Golden Lion awarded film Pieta, are both quite different on the surface. Amour is, by the reckoning of many, Haneke’s gentlest, most humane film. By contrast, Pieta is yet another violent, misogynistic wallow in Seoul’s criminal underworld, although truthfully, the depths it plumbs are those of Kim’s unconscious. The Haneke represents a departure; the Kim, a sorry return to form. (More on Pieta below.) But look a little more closely, and this year’s big winners in Cannes and Venice have quite a bit in common. Although their directors employ rather different approaches, the films are both exercises in a kind of macho endurance cinema. Haneke has always possessed the cruel streak of a harsh, ruler-wielding pedant. True, he has made some rich, emotionally complex films, Code Unknown chief among them. But over time, it’s become apparent that he has absorbed some wildly skewed lessons from the Book of Adorno. Haneke truly believes that the masses are asses, and only by submitting to the rectitude of his cinematic vision might we possibly be saved, or at least corrected. Funny Games (both of them) at least posed this tasking from on high as a kind of joke. Now that we’ve arrived at scornful efforts like The White Ribbon and Amour, Haneke is, as they say, serious as a heart attack, and official film culture has feted him accordingly.

 

Amour congratulates itself, and has been duly congratulated in kind, for slowly, grindingly displaying the agony of the elderly slipping away into the twilight of dementia, a loving, cultured couple suddenly set aslope into the Heideggerian abyss of Being-Unto-Death. Whether or not the depiction is “realistic” seems beside the point in these hosanna-administrating sessions, and actually I’m not all that concerned with verisimilitude myself. It is fully within fair territory for Haneke to use his ample gives for stilted, mechanized staging and tonally aggravated mise-en-scène to accomplish his aims. The scene in the kitchen between Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) when she has her first small stroke is highly stylized. Anne freezes, staring straight ahead for about two minutes, while Georges scrambles around, getting ready to take her to the hospital. She simply unfreezes and resumes her conversation, surprised when Georges tells her there was a problem. This is a “stroke” staged for maximum theatrical impact, and Haneke surely knows this.

 

And there are other such moments in Amour in which Haneke, the master filmmaker, tightens screws and heightens impact in ways that, truth be told, are not exactly narratively necessary, much less medically verifiable. There are few things more harrowing than the regression of a once-dignified human being, and so having Anne manifest her disorientation by crying out “Mama! Mama!” is as shameless, in its stern, restrained, lesson-teaching way, as anything one would find in the “bathetic” films about dying that Amour towers above in the eyes of so many critics, and Cannes jury head Nanni Moretti. So, what is really going on with Amour? Certainly, it has two of our finest living actors at its core, even if Riva’s turn (under Haneke’s direction, no doubt) is given to certain showy fillips and over-articulated “subtleties.” In truth, it is Trintignant, hunched and haggard, suppressing anger through duty, who delivers a truly career-capping performance. (Isabelle Huppert and William Shimell also provide solid back-up.) But is this what seems to make Amour a cut above the much-maligned deathbed film, which is always presumed guilty of schmaltz by dint of its subject?

 

No, a good deal of what Haneke has going for him is sheer ugliness. Amour (which I saw presented in 4K DCP) is the flattest, most anti-aesthetic film this director has ever produced. Aside from a few exteriors and a concert scene, it takes place almost exclusively in the couple’s Paris apartment, which is shot by Woody Allen d.p. Darius Khondji as a drab smudge of mustards and umbers, shelves and paneling. Light and shadow have no impact in this film. Visual information is purely functional. And this seems to be part and parcel of Haneke’s crushing seriousness. Aesthetic concerns, he seems to say, would be a bourgeois indulgence, while we, the master class, are charged with gazing into the Face of Death. (“Mama!”) Leaving aside the question of whether this course is required – who among us hasn’t been with loved ones at the end of their lives, watching them go? – there is no denying that Haneke’s “new direction” is but a shift in emphasis. The overriding tone of Amour is still that of a thrown gauntlet, the act of a hardnosed artist showing us Hard Truth and daring us not to look away. In this regard, how different is Amour from Pieta? “The 18th film by Kim Ki-duk” (as the opening credits proudly announce) is indeed a repugnant film, whereas Amour is merely an act of pomposity and overweening rectitude. But one could argue that Kim at least has the courage of his perverse convictions.

 

 

September 7

 

 

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine) [7]

Near the beginning of Spring Breakers, there are a couple of shots which visually describe the otherworldly fantasia of heterosexual debauchery that is Spring Break in Florida, at least in the minds of the minds of the film's four college-girl protagonists. Their image of this glorious destination, informed as it has been by beer commercials and especially MTV, verges on the abstract, and Korine wisely pushes it over that brink. We see a line of "dudes," approx. 18-22, all conventionally buff and closely shorn, standing in a line on a sandbar in their swim trunks. They each have an open bottle of beer which they are holding perpendicular to their crotches, just a few inches away from their actual dicks. Also in a line in front of them, but on the ground, heads tilted back, spines arched in a coital position, in bikini bottoms but with their tanned, silicone-enhanced breasts exposed to the sea air, "chicks" of the same age and bodily fitness have their mouths (and bodies) open to receive the beer spray. Korine, obviously, has directed a kind of mass, regimented cocksucking dance silhouetted against the blue-gray emptiness of the Florida sky. More than any of the insanity or misguided behavior (or painterly abstraction) that follows, this bacchanalia of implied fellatio, which appears twice, seems to encapsulate the overall project of Spring Breakers. For one thing, the multiple substitutions involved, the dumbshit semiosis, speaks to the conservative idiocy that Korine has chosen to train his camera upon, without, it should be noted, unduly harsh judgment. The beer not only stands in for cocks; heterosexual cocksucking, it should be noted, stands in for "real sex" among conservative, Christian teens and 20-somethings eager to retain their "virginity" while having as much sex as possible. (Even HBO's polygamy series "Big Love" joked about this, with the abstinence-preaching patriarch reassuring his oldest son that "oral is moral.") At the same time, Korine's wanton panoply of faux-cum and sudsy non-wanking, with these likely frathouse rejects jerking their watery domestics all over a line of interchangeable alco-nymphs, is made strange and perverse by its sheer formality and multiplication. Spring Breakers turns random (heterosexual) drinking and sex into a kind of Kenneth Anger setpiece. Or, more precisely, the long line of jerky boys and facial girls calls to mind Luther Price's underground avant-garde classic Sodom which, among other images, contains an unforgettable refrain taken from a gay porno -- a line of men sitting on the floor of some dark basement sucking their own cocks, a tell-tale left leg thrown behind each head in blissful abandon. Needless to say, the activity in the Price film registers for most viewers as shocking. But Price, like Anger before him, also uses formalism to provide an aesthetic frame, all the better to see the delicate shimmer amidst the leather and sweat. Korine, for his part, takes the rather repugnant banality of the Ft. Lauderdale / St. Pete fuck-and-puke experience and casts it as something both dark and beautiful.

 

In terms of casting his performers, Korine clearly maintained this rigor. The ethic of simultaneously elevating that which is defiled and throwing the mundane into a bracing new context -- the dialectical motor that drives Spring Breakers -- gives shape to the acting both diegetically and extra-textually. Much has been made of Korine casting Disney good girl / Bieber ladyfriend Selena Gomez in a "sexy" film. But her role as "Faith" is to be both the foil (she is a devout Christian and tries to be a good student) and the point of view nearest to Korine's aesthetic. Yes, Faith sounds eminently naive when she tells her grandmother on the phone about what a "spiritual place" Florida is during Spring Break, or when she is so blissed out that she wants to stay in this dirrrty wonderland forever. But, Faith / Gomez is the textual node for a cleanliness / godliness that can tune into the Michael Mann / Hou Hsiao-hsien adventure of neon in the dark, the free spirit of youth, the Deleuzian pull of undedicated down time. (When Mark Peranson, Adam Nayman and others have called Spring Breakers Korine's Millennium Mambo, they are not wrong. But recall, for Hou this move was a "drop" in perceived class concerns and highbrow cache. For Korine, it's merely an odd lateral pass.) By contrast, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are willing to steal, screw, do whatever in order to have a good time. And this somehow makes them the pragmatists, compared to pie-in-the-sky Faith. Hudgens, as we know, was the Disney It Girl. But, in addition to getting older, she had the misfortune (or the business acumen) of having nude cellphone pics leak on the Internet. So in a way, what Faith is, Candy was, and what Candy is, Faith perhaps will be. (Her disillusionment does not bode well for the future.) Benson, meanwhile, is a true Friend of Bieber (and Gomez), known for her role in the "trashy" Alloy Entertainment soap "Pretty Little Liars." (There she plays Hannah, the least refined of the four main girls.) Again, in an extratextual frame, Benson / Brit is the "bad influence" on Gomez / Faith, while Hudgens / Candy was already a "fallen woman." And what of Korine throwing his own wife into the mix? A strange gesture of affection indeed. Cotty leaves the crew and heads back to school after "shit gets real" and she gets shot in the arm by a drug kingpin.

 

And oh yeah, the drug dealer. Not the one who shot Cotty (that was rapper Gucci Mane as "Archie") but a searing, go-for-broke performance by James Franco. His character, Alien, more than steals the show. He defines the very thesis of Spring Breakers, the razor thin edge between legitimate fabulousness and abject buffoonery. Alien is not just some "wigga;" his gangster lean is precisely about how the trappings of his Florida trash upbringing can become markers of glorious achievement, provided they're blown up to an appropriately preposterous magnitude. ("Look at my shit! I got all these colors of shorts!") But even more than this, Alien is a creature of sincere belief. It would be easy for Korine and especially Franco (an actor often given to smug self-consciousness) to allow this portrayal to slip over into parody. But he never does, partly because, unlike so many grim thugs skulking around the Game working overtime to look hard, Alien genuinely seems to love life. (We can see a bit of this enthusiasm, but a bit more posturing, in this clip by Dangeruss, said to be one of Franco's key inspirations for the character. He loves his fork.) Why does he bail the Not-So-Fearsome Foursome out of the county jail? Misdirection, and our own prejudices, indicate that this dealer has nefarious plans for the girls, but Korine almost makes Alien a humanist fantasy, dangerous and "real" but also tender, and at his core, just very lonely at the top. When Candy and Brit seduce him by forcing him to fellate one of his own guns, he is both turned on and won over. The girls (plus Cotty) are rewarded with hot pink ski masks which -- mere coincidence? -- make them look a lot like a real trio of badass outlaws, Russia's Pussy Riot. But more to the point, the beer-bottle scenario from early on has been effectively reversed. Mass anonymity has been replaced with uniqueness and intimacy. Thoughtless male prerogative has given way to a give and take that is as close to queer fluidity as this heteronormative bunch are likely to get. But most significantly, by spreading around the phallic power, the Breakers have upped the ante on existential risk. Goodbye beer buzz, hello bullet to the brain. Fatalistic, yes, and, depending on your viewpoint, either stupidly romantic or romantically stupid. But it is a full-on commitment to the superficiality of April in Florida, the lacquered and electrified surfaces, even the heartbreaking vapidity of Britney Spears. If there's nothing beneath the miles of undulating tanned flesh, then obliterate your consciousness and drown. Sink into that thin, ripe layer of oiled skankiness and Bacardi dribble as if it were the deepest of seas. Spring Break Forever.

 

Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico / France / The Netherlands / Germany) [7]

“I think maybe that film was just too macho for me,” a friend remarked after a screening of the latest from the, um, “controversial” auteur behind Jápon, Battle in Heaven and Silent Light. Just like those three previous films, Post Tenebras Lux (“after shadow, light”) is a fairly healthy mix of stunning images, jejune visual ideas, a plotline that teeters on the brink between “elemental” and “half-baked,” and, in terms of absolute gonzo sincerity, a willingness (to me, never less than admirable) to go all in, holding nothing back for such mere-mortal reasons as “good taste” or “not wanting to look ridiculous.” PTL (a fortuitous abbreviation, no?) appears to be Reygadas’ most personal film to date, although it is always difficult to tell through the layers of cryptic images and obfuscation. It is about an upper-class couple, Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) and their two kids, both played by the director’s own children (Rut and Eleazar Reygadas). The opening sequence, in which Rut wanders through the cow pasture as dusk approached, naming everything she sees, is lovely and graceful, even though it echoes the “dawn” opening of Silent Light rather explicitly. In allowing the girl to name her world, Reygadas places PTL in line with both Malick and Brakhage, the barely-focused child’s universe willing itself into Being.

 

But hold onto your hats. (And your heads!) After an inexplicable second sequence in which a well-hung animated satyr-demon made of red hot light (I’m not even shitting you) invades the family home in the dark of night, we see a somewhat more conventional family melodrama at the core of this otherwise avant-garde work. Apart from the marital tensions between Juan and Natalia, we are also made acutely aware of his anxieties about performing as paterfamilias. He goes to an AA meeting to confront his porn addiction (seemingly embodied by Red Devil Goat Boy); he is worried that Seven (Willebaldo Torres), his lower-class ranch-hand, isn’t trustworthy and may be too manly to fight off (shades of El Week-end de los Ostermans), and, meanwhile, even his ultra-rich family thinks he’s a frou-frou intellectual. (He does “green architecture.”) So there is indeed a sturdy core of male-macho panic at the heart of PTL, but Reygadas spruces it up (or, depending on your skepticism, Three Card Montes it) with nonlinear reverie and indeterminate events, such as Juan and Natalia’s trip to a French sex club (the “Duchamp” room), or Seven’s stow-stopping self-punishment for his sins against his bourgeois betters. And, throughout PTL, Reygadas employs a bizarre tunnel-vision lens which creates a “visual flange” effect around the perimeter of the frame, sort of like looking through bifocals and seeing peripheral phenomena blurred and doubled. This device, which makes perfect sense in a section such as the introduction with the young daughter (“untutored vision”), does not always seem to have a particular reason for being there. The iris is tighter in some parts, wider in others; I suspected there might be a thematic scheme to this (fear? determination?) but I couldn’t tell. What I do believe is, Post Tenebras Lux is a rather conservative film about the need to defend the family against all potential threats, foreign and domestic. (Even the seemingly random conclusion, with a rugby team, gives us the final line, “ We’re going to win, because they’re a bunch of individuals, and we’re a team.”) So I am very sincere on all counts when I declare this film to be Reygadas’s Eyes Wide Shut.

 

Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria / Germany / France) [6]

Ah, Ulrich Seidl. Indeed, he is one of those filmmakers whose work has provoked a near-wholesale reversal of opinion in me over the years, from outright disdain (the fictional Dog Days and the documentary Jesus, You Know) to very high regard (his previous film, Import Export). As is frequently the case in instances like this, I do wonder whether the director has changed or whether it's me. Am I getting "soft on hate"? Don't think so. In the case of the exemplary Import Export, Seidl lays his misanthropic cards on the table, choosing to examine the objective social and economic structures that mold human beings into depraved monsters, rather than simply imply that a capacity for casual cruelty lay latent within the human animal. What's more, I/E found Seidl applying his staunch, prickly eye for formal symmetry to the whole of the film, and not just onto specific local compositions. By pairing a male Austrian truck driver headed to Ukraine and a poor Ukrainian nurse immigrating to Austria to fall into sex work, Seidl displayed the unequal stakes in transnational mobility, gender, and the Old vs. New Europe. Schematic, yes, but patently so -- the format foregrounded the very question of cinema as a means of demonstration.

 

Did Seidl take this about as far as it could go? Well, it's too early to say, but based on the evidence of Paradise: Love, I do find myself wondering whether a grand expansiveness was necessarily the proper direction for this particular artist. The first of a trilogy (Paradise: Faith has already screened in Venice), Love is a character study of sorts, but it's also, like I/E, a demonstration of a thesis. The difficulty with the film is not that these two tendencies are somehow incompatible. In fact, Paradise: Love is a relatively successful film in many respects. The problem is that Seidl's method requires that the film inculcate empathy for both sides of its political equation (colonial tourist / colonized, resistant subject) even as they both engage in patently reprehensible behavior. And unlike a real humanist director, who would provide images of deeply flawed characters whose failings issued forth from the very complications that made them empathetic in the first place, Seidl pokes and prods them to produce bad behavior, almost against their own apparent decency, in order to generate the film's ongoing master / slave dialectic. There is a nagging sense, then, that Seidl's figures are hard-bitten and worldly wise when his philosophical project is at a stage which requires it, and are vulnerable and naive when that is the subject position required.

 

Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel, who is great) toggles back and forth, from innocence to experience, and in so doing seems to capture vibrations in some ongoing racial zeitgeist with regard to how the German-speaking world perceives Kenya. Will she be as crass as her jungle-fevered, sex tourist friend (Inge Maux)? Will she let in her young lover (Peter Kazungu), or hold her purse a bit tighter in his neighborhood? Will she be a "white woman" and stand her ground? All of these moves (and they are indeed "moves") are never less than compelling, and are often more than a bit heartbreaking. But every scenario within Paradise: Love is so circumscribed from the get-go, not just by colonial history, but by Seidl's chalked-out diagram of it, that there is little room for discovery. Again, this is not a problem in itself. But the depth suggested by his main characters hints that they could break out and surprise, and the very idea of building a three-part magnum opus on this sort of thwarted possibility seems willfully perverse. (That's our Seidl.)

 

A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman [in 3D] (Ben Timlett, Bill Jones, and Jeff Simpson, U.K.) [4]

Some of you may recall that back in April, some sly joker posted a “leaked” version of the Cannes Competition lineup they’d allegedly pulled from the festival’s website following a glitch. It was a hoax, but an informed one. Of the 24 titles listed in the made-up Comp slate, seven actually were in the final group, while several others, such as The Master, have since emerged as key films of the year. If there is one single outlier in the “slate,” it has to be A Liar’s Autobiography, which seemed at the time like the Cannes-troll’s attempt at a left-field selection but now seems only comical and sad, proof positive that Nobody Knows Anything, even when they’re making it all up. Drawn from recently discovered audiotapes of the late Chapman reading from his 1980 Liar’s Autobiography (Volume VI), ALA:TUSOMPGC takes material that one would expect to be inherently funny – observations about drunken debauchery and copious gay sex from one of the guys responsible for “The Parrot Sketch” and “The Spanish Inquisition” – and attenuates them into a grueling 82 minute slog. The film is weighted wall-to-wall with tedious detail from, let’s face it, a minor celebrity, whose own sense of self-importance receives free range grazing room here, and it certainly doesn’t help matters that ALA:TUSOMPGC is gracelessly animated with a hacky, computer-cutout style reminiscent of those viral JibJab guys who were popular a few years back. (And look! Since it’s just a bunch of flat pictures floating around a virtual copystand, we can make it “3D”!) If you think that seeing lots of giant cartoon cocks and balls flying around (tee-hee!) represents the forefront of queer liberation, reserve your tickets now. If you aren’t a tittering ten-year-old schoolboy, don’t waste your time.

 

Departure (Ernie Gehr) [v/s]

Due to circumstances only partly beyond my control -- I do, of course, decide when I can afford to spare the money and time to put in the requisite travel -- I have done a pretty lousy job of keeping up with Ernie Gehr's recent output. While he still does not generate work at the breakneck speed of Ken Jacobs, he has certainly become more prolific since making the Big Switch to digital. The results have been uneven but consistently intriguing. The last works of Gehr's I saw prior to this, two short videos from the Cinematic Fertilizer series, were not entirely successful. They explored video's capacity for rapid alternation between two tracks of imagery -- "power-toggling," if you will, which often produces a phantom third image in the mind's eye. But they tended to do this to the point of distraction from other key elements, such as color and space. Experimental in the more basic sense, the videos displayed a function at work, with material introduced into the "machine" almost as an afterthought, to explore the effects that would result. (The subject matter clearly wasn't negligible; trees and other flora were subjected to Gehr's "fertilizer" for a reason. But this intent didn't fight its way through.) On the other hand, I still have not caught up with Gehr's 2008 tape Waterfront Follies, which is his greatest achievement in digital by near-universal acclamation. The piece, from what I have read, explores video's capacity for the long take and for sync sound, in order to produce some unexpected and even comedic juxtapositions between the sublime and the prosaic, the charmed space of modernism and the ordinariness of labor. Needless to say, I will jump at my first chance to see the Follies.

 

And, although I can't speak about that piece with any authority whatsoever, it appears as though those specific concerns of duration, sync sound, and the confrontation with the commonplace have remained on Gehr's mind. Departure seems to reflect an elaboration of these ideas in an even more deceptively simple direction. In fact, Departure's "direction" is about as simple as can be: right-to-left. Returning to the macro-organizational procedures of some of his best-known film works (Eureka and Side/Walk/Shuttle in particular), as well as the very birth of the film medium, Departure is a train film. Gehr rides a passenger train and shoots from the window, producing three long tracking shots and using the railroad as his readymade dolly. ("Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a [train film] -- you didn't build that.") As the video's single most noteworthy aesthetic intervention, Gehr inverts the camera, so that the landscapes we see onscreen roll out upside down. What is particularly unique about Departure is that, from its very first moments, the piece seems to announce itself as so mundane a creation as to virtually prohibit interest, much less revelation. (After all, turning an image upside down is probably one of the most cliched ways to take something familiar and see it with fresh eyes. Heck, even Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain suggests turning pictures upside down in order to copy them.) But before very long, Gehr is displaying, and discovering, unusually stark forms and pulsing depths within the vernacular panoramas of outer New York State. The radiant blue sky is an undulating pool along the bottom of the screen, its topline wavering like a seismograph as brown colonial-style train stations and law offices jut into the foreground. In the central section, the recessed track provides a view of track and trackside gravel only, and so we understand at once that Gehr will be offering a kind of expanded colorfield work. But the sheer variety of colors and tones, the shifting sunlight and shadow, and the occasional intrusion of reflections from the train's interior, again provide far greater development over time than our prejudices ever allowed us to expect. In truth, the third and final segment of Departure, in which the sun goes down and a midnight blue to near-black all but envelops the visual field, did not appear to provide as much surprise and stimulation across its running time. The aubade felt a bit more conceptual than phenomenological (although the finale, pulling into a suburban big-box retail hub, was indeed unnerving, the familiar lighted signs of Best Buy and Home Depot slicing the cool night). Nevertheless, I think I need to see this part, and all of Departure again. The primary lesson I took away from this beautiful piece, and one I should have remembered, is that Ernie Gehr is a lot more patient than I am. I'm working on that.

 

Auto-Collider XV (Ernie Gehr) [v/s]

I quite appreciate the idea that this is the fifteenth in a series of these bizarre, confounding things. What isAuto-Collider? Although I can only describe its over all look, sound, and impact, having no specific knowledge of how it was made, it seems that Gehr shot hours of video of traffic at a lateral angle (sides of cars and trucks, moving at different speeds), then digitally manipulated it so that bands of color and light aggregated into horizontally discrete stripes, each bearing subtle traces of car motion within it. The projected image resembles a Neo-Geo canvas, a high-sheen variant on old school color field work where in the stripes are pushing and pulling at the left and right of the image, often bumping one another with a white-hot glint (sunlight reflecting off fiberglass chassis). The sound is similarly collapsed, with distinct highway sounds pulsing out of the generalized roar. I find myself with questions: How would the work play silently? Would the automotive aspect assert itself as forcefully? How would this work as an installation, a panelled diptych or triptych alongside other, different Auto-Colliders? How would this look against other Gehr works that play with banded abstraction, such as Glider or Field, or even certain swish-panning moments of films like Signal: Germany on the Air? Would the aggressive digital-ness of the newer work somehow "electrify" the older ones, dampen their colors while simultaneously providing added heft to their analog spatial density? And finally, if some of the long-circulating rumors are true, and Ernie Gehr hates traveling in cars (just compare a work like this with his far more sanguine train films, for anecdotal evidence), could Auto-Collider XV's narrowed vision be a formal correlative to the anxious passenger's nervous squint?

 

Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami, France / Japan) [7]

Certified Copy was Kiarostami's exploration of both the soul and form of the European art film and the philosophical conundrum of authenticity -- does it matter who we really are, or if we are "happy," so long as we carry ourselves with a convincing air of dignity and devotion? And do we eventually "become" what we pretend to be? I apologize; any précis of that masterpiece simplifies it to the point of meaningless homilies. By contrast, Kiarostami's latest is a less theoretically fraught excursion to "Japan," a space defined by neon, sex workers who act like naive schoolgirls, and wise elders whose very bearing seems to preserve an altogether different cultural time, one of quiet observation and generational deference. All of this by way of saying, the Japan that Kiarostami depicts in Like Someone In Love is an "empire of signs," much like Roland Barthes' self-consciously touristic semiosis of the 1970s, engaging in a graphing of external tropes as pure representation, not any sort of profound cultural truth. If LSIL can perhaps seem somewhat more confounding in its aims that CC, this is likely due to the fact that the newer film is much slower in announcing its intentions. Unlike, say, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Japanese excursion, Café Lumière, which rather explicitly announced itself as a full-bore assimilation of Ozu's aesthetic program, Kiarostami's film is more circumspect. This is in part because it proceeds in narrative blocks which are assigned, by and large, to specific locales. LSIL opens at a dimly lit table in an urban bar in Tokyo, where Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is stationed, along with other callgirls, under the aggressive management of her middle-aged pimp (Denden, recently seen as the psychotic exotic fish salesman in Sion Sono's Cold Fish). Much of this bar environment is glimpsed as a dark background haze, as Kiarostami and his d.p., Katsumi Yanagajima, keep the focus almost exclusively on Akiko's table. It's her quitting time, but her bossman his having none of it. One more job, for an old friend who lives on the outskirts of town. He shoves her in a cab with explicit directions, and this means Akiko will miss a chance to see her grandmother, who has a single day in Tokyo and will be waiting for her at the metro station. This crushing interlude between the first and second movements of LSIL, wherein Akiko asks the cabdriver to circle the station so she can at least see her grandmother, has all the deeply (post-)modern resonances of Tokyo familiar from contemporary cinema, TV, and music video. Neon lights and flashy haute couture store windows reflect on Akiko's face as she helplessly passes them by, locked in the glass of the cab. She listens to the voicemail messages from her grandma, her "other life" mediated by telecommunication and cordoned off from her, she of the "no history" generation vacuum-sealed in a perpetual Now. And as much as Akiko wants to make contact with her grandmother, she also hopes she leaves town before catching sight of one of her phone-sex ads, plastered around the city.

 

When Akiko arrives at her appointed assignation, she finds it is the modest, book-lined home of retired sociology professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). He is courtly and genteel, solicitous in an ambiguously paternalistic manner. He and Akiko discuss a painting in his living room / office, and the professor receives an ill-timed "emergency" phone call from a colleague regarding a Japanese-English translation. Akiko, exhausted from her long night of sex and travel, drifts off to sleep in Takashi's bedroom and stays the night. As LSIL enters its second distinct phase, Kiarostami (and Okuno) work to leave certain motivations highly ambiguous. Was Takashi actually looking for a late night sexual liaison, or is this more a matter of chaste companionship for the lonely widower? There are no definitely clues, but what is certain is that Takashi's home, with its cramped quarters and beige / tweed visual scheme, is worlds away from the high intensity color temperatures of central Tokyo. Although in no way as rectilinear or meticulously kempt as an Ozu or even a Imamura interior, Takashi's "bachelor pad" specifies an alternate timeframe, a place of contemplation, historicity, and perhaps most significantly for Akiko, continuity of self. It is here that she experiences a crisis, but one that, in cinematic terms at least, barely registers seismically. We discover that Akiko is a college student in the daytime. This is a bit of a cliche, and Kiarostami knows it, just as the hot city lights of Tokyo and the slow pace and steeping tea of elderly Asian scholar are essentially cliches, read off the surface of Japanese film history and pop culture. But as she asks Takashi to drive her back into town so she can make it to class, the firm boundary between her lives is breaking down. It's a problem.

 

The kindly "john" who is also a learned professor is a sort of smearing of Akiko's worlds, and this confusion is mirrored by Akiko's possessive, unstable boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase). Kase, who played the placid ghost in Gus Van Sant's Restless and the righteous, falsely accused student in Masayuki Suo's I Just Didn't Do It, here comes off as a twitchy, paranoid live wire. He knows nothing of Akiko's secret life, but he has his suspicions. He's a mechanic and his buddies at work have been teasing him with the phone-sex ad, asking him if that's his girlfriend. But more than this, the fact that he's not in college introduces feelings of inadequacy, channeled into working-class indignation. He is no thug; he is in no way associated with Akiko's underworld life. But Noriaki is clearly dangerous, and upon seeing Takashi drop Akiko off at the campus, he immediately starts interrogating her. The obvious cover story -- he's her grandfather -- wounds Takashi's vanity, but allows him the opportunity to dispense paternal wisdom to the wayward boy, suggesting that he would be better off setting Akiko free. Now, as the above description probably makes obvious to the patient reader, it is quite possible to get bogged down in plot minutiae when discussing LSIL, even though in the actual time of viewing it, it does not strike one as a particularly plot-heavy (much less "action-packed") piece of cinema. It is primarily a tonal work, with Kiarostami creating character space for his unlikely pairings, while also permitting the sort of incidental business that has always allowed his finest films to breathe. (For example, Takashi has a nasty ongoing rivalry with his nosy neighbor, mostly centered around the dearth of off-street parking.) While this film, again, is indeed less tightly structured and more open and ambling than Certified Copy, this openness can be deceptive. And this is by design. Whereas the previous film exhibited the tight, almost claustrophobic gamesmanship of Resnais or Buñuel, Kiarostami's "Japan film" is organized as a (gentle) clash of incommensurate ways of life, temporal orientations, and yes, cinematic modes. Many early responders were rather baffled by the final scene of LSIL when the film had its world premiere at Cannes. Granted, it is clearly intended to shock or, more precisely, to startle. But it seems rather easy to understand. Takashi's apartment is not just his inner sanctum, away from all the urban confusion and anarchic youth culture that Noriaki and Akiko represent. It is also the fortress of tradition, and traditional Japanese cinema, its pacing, its spatial values, its devotion to placid observation. Kiarostami, who has taken the opportunity to explore multiple possible meanings of "Japan" from the guarded position of the outsider, decides at last that they cannot be kept so neatly apart. And the force that demands their collision is the present.

 

 

September 8

 

 

Ginger & Rosa (Sally Potter, U.K. / Denamrk / Canada / Croatia) [5]

I'm not sure I get Sally Potter anymore. Hell, maybe I never did. She started out making theoretically-oriented fiction films with the BFI (such as Thriller and The Gold Diggers), and so this seemed to place her, historically and aesthetically, within the British scene alongside folks like Greenaway and Jarman, as their explicitly feminist counterpart. Orlando was the apex of this tendency, her The Cook, the Thief or Caravaggio -- the tipping point whereby her literate narrative flair and academic / political concerns meshed into an artistic package that could break out of the University Film Society ghetto. But whither Sally? In recent years she's been all over the map, making works both adventurous (Yes) and risible (The Man Who Cried) and even unreleasable (Rage). She's evolved into something more akin to a less prolific cousin to Michael "I'll Shoot Anything" Winterbottom, not a pretty sight to see. Ginger & Rosa has been her "comeback film" of sorts (Telluride / Toronto / New York), but apart from another startlingly assured performance by Elle Fanning as young British teen Ginger, the new film has little to recommend it. Well, that is, unless you are an arthouse distributor. In which case, it has certain tried-and-true elements for recent success, most notably a fairly meticulous reconstruction of the late 60s / early 70s, used as a frame for the protagonists' "discovery of self." Much like An Education or A Single Man or The Virgin Suicides or any number of other recent time-capsule pictures, G&R organizes itself around certain historical signposts (in this case, the Cold War, and the two young girlfriends' anxiety about nuclear weapons) as lazy metaphors. I say "lazy" because, in point of fact, they aren't metaphors at all. Their mere presence, the audience's recognition of their past-import and distance from our own current existence, and their relegation to a kind of B-plot counterpoint, is all that is needed to deploy them as formal devices. No actual work on the material is accomplished. Ginger's activism is mostly there to be a form of idealism that is despoiled when her free-thinker academic father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) and her less intellectual, poorer and more impulsive friend Rosa (Alice Englert) betray her. The fact that Ginger has other, actual role models for genuine leftist engagement, such as her uncle (Timothy Spall) and his husband (Oliver Platt), or their activist friend May (Annette Bening), seems to be present in the film only as a kind of sop to Potter's smarty-art fanbase, since they exert little to no impact on the Family Plot that dominates the proceedings. Also, any film that brings in Christina Hendricks to represent dowdy domestic femininity should be brought up on fucking charges in my opinion.

 

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) [8]

There are several things that make Frances Ha work like gangbusters, and really they're extraordinarily simple. First of all, as a number of commentators have already noted, Baumbach takes a much-needed step away from his misanthropic middle period, which had arguably hit a creative terminus with Greenberg. Upon achieving a level of negativity so extreme that it has become indistinguishable from mental illness, an artist does perhaps need to stop and reassess not only the stability of his art, but the guy wires ostensibly tethering it to a recognizable world. (And I say this as someone who admires Greenberg, much more so than the scattershot vitriol of Margot at the Wedding or the autobiographical mewling of The Squid and the Whale, which began this whole slide.) So with Frances Ha, Baumbach returns both to comic stylization (plus actual jokes), and the recognition that just making a protagonist as vile as possible does not in and of itself represent defiant, challenging cinema. The character of Frances (Greta Gerwig) is flawed. She takes some time to see the writing on the wall regarding her dance career, for example, and the film brings us into her world at a moment of extreme late-20s / early 30s sexual sloppiness, abetted by an unclear sense of self and concomitant need for external validation from men. However Baumbach permits us to observe Frances with a minimum of judgment. This is not only because those around her are even sillier and more adrift, although that is the case. (Frances Ha could well be called Undatable: a Field Guide.) It also has to do with the film's overriding decency in depicting Frances and her sphere. Baumbach, for a change, errs on the side of flattery, creating a milieu that is not just a tad smarter but a bit kinder than the world we know. (In this regard, Baumbach has reversed Aristotle's guidelines from the Poetics. His tragic works make the universe seem less noble than it is, his comedies more so.) The mistakes Frances makes are partly due to her position on the innocence / experience trajectory -- she does grow -- but also partly due to her insecurity, which manifests as a pathological need to go with the flow.

 

The second thing that makes Frances Ha a very special film has to do with its formal construction. A black-and-white "downtown" film with Gerwig at its center, Frances Ha zeroes in on awkward dating habits, wonky, go-nowhere conversations, passive-aggressive communication rituals, the mundane struggles of under-employment . . . Is this sounding familiar? Baumbach's film has as much in common, in its look and feel, with Andrew Bujalski's cinema as it does with Baumbach's own early efforts, Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy. However, Baumbach's stroke of genius is to take mumblecore and speed it up. Why didn't anyone think of this before? Frances Ha is paced almost as if it were a screwball comedy, with its drifty, shambling dialogue delivered at an accelerated rate and punched up with a jaunty montage tempo. Key scenes are compressed for maximum impact, like the one in which Frances has to leave her date at the restaurant to run around looking for an ATM. Similarly, Baumbach and Gerwig's central setpiece, a sudden weekend trip to Paris, cut to Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner," is a model of comic economy. It perfectly conveys Frances's displacement and frustration, but without resorting to long-take wandering tropes that by now are (long) shorthand for urban alienation. Part of the impact of Baumbach's faster rhythm, apart from making sure his zingers actually zing, is to unshackle Gerwig's exquisite timing as a straightwoman and foil for the buffoons around her. We get to see Frances react, which after all is the active (judgmental) component of the passive-aggressive personality. Her amazement and horror at a sex partner's massive member ("I was an incubator baby") or the absolute glee at receiving a tax refund check (who hasn't been that girl?) are put across with a kind of everywoman agita, as though this fast-paced film, with its crazy happenings and wacked-out guys she can't believe she's going to bed with, were some sort of wrong turn she's trying to wheedle her way out of. In a way, Frances Ha helped clarify for me that Baumbach is an unacknowledged progenitor of mumblecore, but he recognizes that moving beyond that genre's formal rut will offer new possibilities for emotional investment on the part of the audience. In other words, we need to identify with people and not a scene.

 

Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveria, Portugal / France) [6]

A Sort of Homecoming-- The recent films of Oliveira have been strikingly accessible, in the master's own unusual way. Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl was one of his least stage-bound efforts since the highly atypical I'm Going Home, and his previous effort, The Strange Case of Angelica, combined an obsessive love story, a haunting, and a crypto-treatise on the perils of photographic reproduction to form a full-bodied, often erotic piece of cinema. True, Angelica contained many of the theatricalized, conversation-heavy moments for which Oliveira's cinema is known, but they were also balanced with a unique concern with specifically filmic "magic," light and superimposition and dense texture. Ever the wry trickster, Oliveira has apparently made a rearguard maneuver with his newest film, although close examination leaves me not entirely certain that's the case. Where Eccentricities and Angelica took us through cityscapes and countrysides, Gebo and the Shadow, an adaptation of a 1923 Raul Brandão play, "The Hunchback and His Shadow," is staged and filmed on one very shallow set. In fact, my friend Chris Stults joked after we saw Gebo that calling it a "chamber film" would imply that it afforded its characters (and its viewers) far more space that it actually does. "It's a 'foyer film,' really." Allow me to set the scene. There are four key characters distributed across the frame, in a single kitchen / dining room around a table. Each of them has a relationship to the absent "shadow" man, João (Ricardo Trêpa). His forlorn wife Sofia (Leonor Silveira) stands about, both hoping for and dreading his return; he left the family long ago. João's parents, Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) and Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), are also anxious for the son's return. But she does not fully understand the extent to which her son is a criminal and a possible madman. She, and to some degree Sofia, believe João fled the family home due to some obscure ideological dispute. This is because Gebo has concealed the harshest truths from his family, and is prepared to take on the worst of his son's crimes as his own. (Jeanne Moreau makes a brief but striking cameo as Gebo's bitter neighbor, who seems to have a tacit understanding that this family is rotten to its core.)

 

There is a kind of perversity in Oliveira's blocking and staging of Gebo, especially after the almost brazen openness of his last few films. The primary "action" takes place around a table, and this domestic proscenium is radically compressed. Although Renato Berta's cinematography appears to have originated in 35mm, the film nevertheless has a "digital" feel, its compression and flatness resembling a diorama and even, at times, a television, with all of the principal actors so defiantly boxed in. Thematically, Oliveira is following Brandão; there is no question that the crisis of João as the family's absent-center results in entrapment and claustrophobia. Having done a bit of reading, I've discovered that Brandão was an influence on Samuel Beckett (and "Hunchback" in particular on "Waiting For Godot"), which is not at all surprising to learn. But João is no Godot figure; he is flesh and blood rather than pure allegory. While the prodigal son does make two key reappearances in the dark of night, humiliating his benevolent father in the process, we understand that he is no longer the man who can occupy a position within the family (if that man ever really existed). Instead, João is the physical manifestation of a suppressed bourgeois unconscious, the quite-literal return of the repressed. Seen in this light, Oliveira's cramped mise-en-scène, which indeed transmits the family's agonizing stasis onto the helpless viewer, has its purpose. Gebo, by trying to maintain some air of normalcy and spare his wife the awful truth about his maniac son, has essentially trapped his clan in amber. Boyd Van Hoeij, in his Variety review, compared the visual organization of Gebo and the Shadow to Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters," and he isn't wrong. Captured in a kind of living painting -- in terms of lighting and design, I was reminded of Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross, myself -- these characters can neither break free nor wait for death. They have been removed from human time.

 

Everyday (Michael Winterbottom, U.K.) [4]

Chance. Serendipity. Kismet. The Fickle Finger of Fate. What I’m trying to do here is to create a context wherein I thought I was doing something “daring” by opting not to correct somebody else’s fuck-up. The first day of TIFF is always rough, as the volunteers are still gathering their sea legs. Long story short, I requested a ticket for Ruiz’s Night Across the Street and, once I was back at the hotel, discovered they’d given me one for this Michael Winterbottom thing instead. Considering how jam-packed my schedule was, I didn’t really have time to go stand in line to make an exchange. I was just about to throw the ticket in the recycle bin when I thought hey, wait a minute . . . What if I just “roll” with this, you know? After all, Old Winterbutt has made some decent movies. I’ll give it a shot. My half-dazed assessment, of course, failed to recall that Winterbottom had exactly three decent movies, all of which were driven start to finish by Steve Coogan.

 

No such luck here. Everyday does have the good fortune of being anchored by Shirley Henderson, a gifted actor whose deep-set obsidian eyes and gangly limbs could easily coalesce into a shtick-persona for her (“Olive Oyl U.K.”), but for her keen expressive control. But all else here is boilerplate TV drama bundled together with a gimmick. Henderson plays the beleaguered Karen, mother of four (played by the actual Kirk siblings), whose husband Ian (John Simm) has been sent up the river for five years. Everyday consists of Karen and the kids struggling to maintain a relationship with the head of household while he’s behind bars. And [CHECK IT OUT!] Winterbottom and company actually shot it over five years, so as to capture the cast’s natural aging process.

 

Trouble is, Winterbottom and co-writer Laurence Coriat forgot to put much of anything inside this pseudo-experimental husk. What does Everyday show us? Prison is dull, kids come to resent an absent father, furlough days are like magical gifts from God, and no matter how loving or tight-knit they may be, a family with the dad in jail probably suffers from other irresponsible adult decision-making, such as leaving the kids to their own devices (in the park; in grandpa’s gun shed) while Mom and Dad have a day-pass shag. For its part, Everyday does the “admirable” thing, observing but withholding judgment. However the very extent to which Winterbottom does this is overweening and calculated. The film makes it a point to never tell us what Ian’s in for. It also makes Her Majesty’s Prison look more like an extended time-out than a traumatic shank-and-rape hellhole. Point being, Everyday will not do anything whatsoever that might disrupt our sympathy with Ian, even for a moment. (Karen, on the other hand . . .) Add to this a career-worst soundtrack from Michael Nyman (the groove-stuck, triumphal horns sound like they should be selling life insurance), and we practically have a paid-political for Liberal Self-Congratulation. It even ends with the family running along the British coastline, free. Based on Ian and Karen’s behaviour through the rest of the film, it’s clear that someone’s getting lucky tonight, but it won’t be the audience.

 

untitled 35mm glass slides (Luther Price)

Wavelengths 2: “Documenta” kicked off with a remarkable selection of 35mm slides by filmmaker Luther Price, essentially photographic collage works based on the same materials with which he constructs his various found-footage film series. We see images of B-movie Jesuses from the “Sorry” films, anxious or disoriented seniors familiar from the “Biscotts” films, and the occasional, obscure clip from gay porn, all arranged in strips, hole-punches, or in some cases, black mazelike grids with broken walls. Price’s photographs, then, operate very much in the same realm as his film works – recombinant, obsessive workings-over of particular ideas and motifs. But the slides join the films by considering these same ideas in an almost painterly dimension. Given the coagulation of bracing representational imagery within dank coloured fields, Price’s slidework recalls a nastier, more forthright and less gimmicky version of Gilbert & George’s late panels. They offer much intrigue, and the AGO Jackman Hall projection team deserves kudos for their stellar presentation.

 

Sorry Horns (Luther Price) [s]

Price’s Sorry Horns presents scratchy fields of black-on-white skein – a gritty visual datum poised between the recent abstract canvases of Brice Marden on the one hand, and a rampant fungus infecting the filmstrip on the other. As counterpoint to this nonrepresentational material, Price offers found footage of “Roman soldiers” blowing long horns in heraldry, presumably announcing the coming of an emperor. The horns loop, switch places, and a voiceover insistently gives us a cryptic, conspiratorial half-message about Jesus. I have not had the chance to see any of the film work that Price has been working on over the last several years; the most recent exposure I had to his films were single entries from the "Biscotts" series. Folks who are well acquainted with Price's current practice, particularly Chris Stults, have informed me that the "Sorry" series operates on the basis of permutations and variations on found-footage images of Jesus (well, what other kind are there?), manipulated through looping, puncturing, scratching, and other such celluloid-level interventions. I have always tried to be forthright about the fact that, as much as I admire Price's work, I have found it difficult to get a handle on, much more so than that of other experimental filmmakers. Seeing the 3-minute jolt of Sorry Horns within the context of a group program, I think, helped to clarify not only some of the characteristics of my confusion, but perhaps something endemic to Price's practice. There is something rather unique in the manner in which he builds films -- fix(at)ing on a particular set of source material, like the Jesus of "Sorry" or the nursing home footage of "Biscotts," for example, and generating multiple short works which produce echoes and resonances amongst one another. Price's sense of composition and organization is much more like that of a printmaker or collage artist than a typical filmmaker. (Seeing the slides helped explain this as well.) So in a way, viewing a single, lonesome Price film is a bit disorienting. These works tend to want to bounce off of one another. At the same time, when we view them "in bulk," the significant similarities and subtle differences can become overwhelming, since we are asked to absorb them in time, and rather quickly at that. Add to this the fact that Price's work screens somewhat rarely, since he cannot really strike prints due to the fragile, handcrafted nature of his films, and we're facing a body of work that edges toward what Georges Bataille called "the formless." We can't read the films very easily in isolation, and yet they bombard us en masse. So in a way, it stands to reason that, after decades on the scene, it took a multimedia, multi-film exhibition at the Whitney Biennial to finally bring the broader film world around to what Luther Price was doing. The collectivity of the films, plus the relative stability of the slides, may have proven the "perfect storm," to solidify viewers' seeing sufficiently to permit a certainty, amidst the chaos, that something singular and important had been experienced.

 

 

September 9

 

 

The Color of the Chameleon (Emil Christov, Bulgaria) [6]

Since black-comic post mortems of nefarious doings in the old Soviet Bloc are all the rage, why shouldn’t Bulgaria get into the act? (I suppose we could count 2008’s Zift, but honestly, that was just a meathead flick with Communism dolloped on like rancid sour cream.) This flawed but generally sharp debut feature by cinematographer Christov sort of starts out like a bureaucratic riff on the old Adrian Pasdar series “Profit.” Eventually, the genially amoral film mutates into a rather diverting Burn After Reading-lite for the Warsaw Pact set. Our anti-hero, Batko Stamenov (Ruscen Vidinliev) was a near-silent but highly intelligent young boy who couldn’t stop masturbating. His adoptive-aunt-cum-real-mother (it’s complicated) seeks help, and in the end he works it out by channeling his obsessive onanism into Good Communism. That means withdrawal, dissimulation, and the studied replication of actual human behaviour. In short, Batko is a husk, plucked out of university by a secret police operative to spy on his subversive classmates. Their “Club for New Thinking” is based on a loopy Russian novel that postulates workers’ rebellion and wild sex. Christov’s unique approach, however, comes at the midpoint of the film, when a nosy landlady gets Batko kicked out of the “real” secret police. But why should he let that stop him? The hyper-resourceful and endlessly clandestine former agent simply invents his own micro-agency, “SEX,” with which to elicit confessions and instigate doublecrosses from everyone around him. This Dutch-doll, fake-agent-real-agent structure could be a satire regarding post-Communist accountability, although Christov seems only nominally interested in the actual political stakes of this material. Rather, it’s a scuzzy riff on spy-vs-spy gamesmanship. Here we have a film that gleefully erases its protagonist practically as an afterthought because, like him, Color of the Chameleon gets over with calculated disinvestment.

 

Passion (Brian De Palma, France / Germany) [6]

When it comes to remakes, we often wonder why directors don't take lousy movies and make them better. (The result is usually the other way around.) But in this case, Brian De Palma has made a kind of jagged yet lateral move, taking Alain Corneau's Love Crime, a well-appointed and serviceable office thriller, and made it into a light opera of high camp. Both films are fully enjoyable and groan-inducing in equal measure. (This is partly, but not entirely, due to the final-act plot machinations that are only about as "clever" as a street hustler's three-card monty game.) It's hard to say for sure whether De Palma intends for us to glean any serious (or "serious") political commentary from the fact that the German multinational corporation that employs Passion's unscrupulous businesspeople is called Koch -- I don't think we ever hear it pronounced -- just as it's never really clear whether the "ass-cam" web-campaign that serves as a major instigating incident is just a goof, or some sort of riff on gender, technology and voyeurism. If we were dealing with a lesser filmmaker, shenanigans like these would chafe. It would seem like serious (or at least somewhat serious) issues were being made sport of. But De Palma's different. He trades in ambivalence. It's not that Passion has anything particularly meaningful to say about, well, much of any topic it broaches. But by dipping into apparent topicality, De Palma tips his hand. He's signaling not only his awareness but his pleasure in the superficial, lurid quality of Passion, and that pleasure is infectious. When we see Rachel McAdams playing against type as icy femme fatale Christine, we can also observe the actress's joy in vamping it up. Her boardroom-cum-bedroom confession to Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) regarding her twin sister's death -- a patently phony backstory, a "bad movie" within a good "bad movie" -- recalls the Naomi Watt's "audition" scene from Mulholland Dr. But it's operating within a diegetic world that is pitched at something close to that high-wire fraudulence, all the time. Where fake Sapphistry meets real Sophistry.

 

 

September 10-16 (during fest, after my departure) plus a few days after, just for catch-up

 

 

Motorway (Soi Cheang, Hong Kong) [5]

So, this guy is Johnnie To's protégé, huh? Because in addition to being highly unsophisticated even when compared with the Milkyway Maestro's middling work, Motorway is really just a crushing bore. Ostensibly an action film about reckless HK traffic cops who cause as much mayhem as they deter, Soi's latest features all the usual Triad-as-Neo-Western tropes (young turk, older man struggling to overcome a career-defining failure, an elusive arch-villain, a damsel, etc.) but really comes down to one rather tepid question. Can the good guys maneuver a car well enough to negotiate a 180 in a narrow alleyway? Granted, when you watch the great Anthony Wong deliver what's essentially a bad-ass driver's ed lesson to his young partner (Shawn Yue), and see them systematically throttle and brake their way into an inch-by-inch reversal, it is kind of cool. And it certainly beats the hell out of Soi's inert, predictable car chases and gunplay. But overall, Motorway is rote and sluggish, content to hit its requisite checkpoints and putter along. (Was Toll Road taken?)

 

In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) [no English subtitles, 8] [later, w/ subtitles, 7]

Despite what others might lead you to believe, In Another Country is significantly different from the director's previous work. In order to give it the full analysis it deserves, I'd really need to go back and rewatch some of those recent Hong efforts -- Hahaha, Oki's Movie, The Day He Arrives, Like You Know It All -- from which In Another Country is allegedly so indistinguishable, so that I could provide concrete proof of the subtle shifts I perceived. But of course, one of them was absolutely obvious. The appearance of Isabelle Huppert as Hong's leading lady really does throw a bit of a spanner in the works of the usual functioning of his male embarrassment / drunken passes / female doppelganger plots, since it specifically introduces the problem of a language barrier, and with it, the inside and outside of Korean manners. So many reviewers have, of course, taken the opposite stance, that bringing Huppert on board promised some kind of major realignment of Hong's cinema that never happened. Huppert, the thinking goes, was fully assimilated to Hong's methodology (and the going line with said critics, as we know, is always that Hong needs to "try something new"). However, as an experiment, I watched In Another Country twice, the first time without English subtitles, the second time with. Given that I do not speak Korean, my first viewing restricted me to an understanding of the scenarios and social situations as Huppert's three "Anne" characters perceived them. By extension, when the different iterations of Jong-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and his wife (Moon So-ri) argued, or made brief comments about Anne that they did not want her to hear, I was just as much in the dark as Huppert's character. And, like Anne, I knew something was up, that when a tense discussion was explained by saying, "She says you are beautiful," quite a bit less than half the story was being proffered. (In a universe with more time and patience, I would certainly recommend using the presence and absence of subtitles as a function within this film, another possible repetition technique in Hong's arsenal. But then, as we know from the general reception afforded to Godard's Film Socialisme, even seasoned moviegoers get irked when you mess with the basic format.)

 

As to the broader question, however, of whether or not (and to what degree) In Another Country represents a shift in Hong's work, or just another instance of "Hong doing his thing," there are a few ways to frame this question. Although the fact that nearly 80% of this film is in English does mark a significant difference, it is true that Hong retains many of his favored structures and themes. The questions of infidelity, regret, and alcohol-fueled confessions are all very much present in IAC, along with the repetition of actors in distinct but related roles in a discontinuous plotline. (Frequently Hong bifurcates his films, but here we get a triptych.) One thing that was not at all apparent to me on first (unsubtitled) viewing was the frame story, in which a film student (Jung Yoo-mi) is in a cabin with her mom, trying to write the various versions of the story that we are witnessing. I must admit, recognizing this semi-diegetic motivation for the triptych form, once I had the full English text at my disposal, was a bit disappointing. This film(script)-within-a-film truly does reflect Hong relying unnecessarily on compositional habit. It adds nothing substantive to the film. On the other hand, it is a crass simplification to characterize In Another Country as "just another Hong film," a film whose alleged sameness is so thoroughgoing as to pull one of the world's most keenly intelligent actresses into its orbit only to turn her into wallpaper. Huppert and Hong clearly worked to create three Annes who were subtle but definitive readings of one basic character. Anne One (partially patterned, allegedly, on Claire Denis) is warm and open, taking her foreign displacement in stride as a kind of enlightened stance appropriate to the contemporary European of means. Anne Two is a kind of inverse of the first, a neurotic, petulant user who has returned for a tryst with Jong-soo and will create discomfort as she needs. And Anne Three, while hardly a naif, is played much more as a detached observer, someone bemused not so much by Koreanness as by the Hong universe.

 

Now, granted, we could probably analyze the distinctions between character / actor reiterations in any one of Hong's films and find that he and his actors worked to shade the performances with difference within similarity. For me, as a speaker of English and not Korean, it is easier to observe these aspects of Huppert's performance than, say, those of Yu Jun-sang in The Day He Arrives. But I mention all of this by way of arguing against the oft-made claim that Huppert should have shaken Hong out of some sort of somnambulistic signature style, but she couldn't stand up to the film-profs-and-soju juggernaut that is Cinema du Hong. Now, there is fact that In Another Country contains one of the most instantly memorable supporting turns in the entire Hong Sang-soo catalog -- Yu Jun-sang as the earnest, heartsick lifeguard who vows to protect Anne is she swims, sings her an impromptu English-language guitar ballad, and offers her his safety-orange camping tent. Yu's breakout performance alone should be enough to disprove the "machine theory" of Hong's films, whereby every element is subsumed to the director's aesthetic dominant. However, it seems to me that the very terms within which critics often discuss Hong Sang-soo are rather flawed. While it certainly seems to be a given, within an arthouse auteur model, that a serious filmmaker will exhibit a reasonable degree of continuity across his or her films (lest they become Michael Winterbottom or Francois Ozon), there should be a high degree of change and innovation. "Sameness" and "difference" are understood as zero-sum properties, and they can be evaluated equally across multiple film careers without much consideration for the specific aesthetic project at hand. "These films are too similar," the thinking goes, "and so this artist is stagnating." Now, of course, we recall that Renoir claimed that a director spends his or her entire career making the same movie. This is mostly taken to be metaphorical; the frustration that so many film aficionados feel regarding Hong indicates that there's a feeling that he veers too close to a literal manifestation of Renoir's law. (I wonder, though, how much of this is mostly limited to Hong's western viewership. Not knowing Korean, or being relatively unfamiliar with many of Hong's actors -- some of whom are major stars at home -- could falsely exaggerate the sense of sameness for certain spectators, just as a viewer who didn't speak English or was unfamiliar with Bill Murray or Jason Schwartzman might think Wes Anderson's films were 'all the same.')

 

But I have another theory. Many avant-garde filmmakers, people as disparate in their approach as Luther Price, Lewis Klahr, and Dani Leventhal, for example, work within a specified set of procedures, much like painters or sculptors do. They introduce new material (or often reconfigure older, previously used material) into their organizational process, inflecting it with subtle but necessary differences. To the casual observer, all the works look "the same," because they are variations on a set of themes, or if you prefer, permutations within a closed set. In fact, even dedicated fans can sometimes have trouble telling one film from another. We can think about this theme-and-variation approach, if you like, with respect to minimalism, wherein the narrowed band of changes, the spectrum of differences and what counts as an "event," means that smaller shifts are expected to count for considerably more in terms of their compositional and conceptual weight. Hong Sang-soo seems to be working very much in this vein, but this is not readily apparent. He is one of the only filmmakers to adopt this theme-and-variation approach and to incorporate narrative elements, such as plot and human behavior, into the mix. These aspects of his films -- male assholery, female social constraint, Korean alcohol rituals, the protocols of the academic and artistic realm -- are just as compelling to Hong as his odd zooms and his soju-table two-shots. They are formal elements to recombine and explore as abstractions, but ones that also speak to, for lack of a less pretentious way of putting it, the human comedy, just as Klahr's square-jawed comic book heroes, Leventhal's quotidian fragments or Price's haunted, found-footage nursing home dwellers are avatars for our own struggles and embarrassments. So despite all the complaining that Hong needs to broaden his palette, perhaps we need to simply readjust our viewing. He really is making one big film, and once or twice a year we're asked to find our place within it.

 

Pieta (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea) [3]

I will confess to having momentarily flirted with the idea that Kim Ki-duk might not be completely irredeemable. Like some others, I was a bit disoriented by the thin air and flush times of 2003, and found myself mildly impressed with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Yes, Indeed, Spring Once Again, which was notable for a relative lack of thuggery and rape. (The monk-in-training did, however, learn important life lessons by tormenting small animals. If you want to make a Zen omelet . . .) “I never moved much past admiring it,” I wrote at the time, which I suppose makes my enthusiasm reassuringly muted. I embarrassingly got on board just a bit with 3-Iron, or so I thought, but again, looking back at my notes, I mostly mock its blatant swipes from Tsai Ming-liang and Michael Haneke, the faux-profundity of its mute protagonists, and Kim’s utterly random fixation on golf-related violence. (Wolf! Gang! Golf! Wang! Kill ‘em all!) Yep, these stylized mediocrities were the apex of Kim Ki-duk’s career.

 

And so here we are, at Pieta, which the opening credits proudly announce as “The 18th Film by Kim Ki-duk.” Wow, where has the time gone? I’m tempted to rifle through my old reviews of junk like The Isle, Samaritan Girl, Time, and Breath and assemble some particularly vitriolic phrases from those. That would be unconscionably lazy, but no more so than Pieta, which is practically a Greatest Hits collection of mindless brutality, designer squalor and misogyny from across Kim’s illustrious career. A lumbering, rust-and-neon-coloured showcase for another of the director’s pseudo-sympathetic bullyboys, Pieta could, if one were so inclined, be read as an allegory for the struggles of filmmaking and the masochism of spectatorship. (Given Kim’s ample self-pity, on grotesque display in last year’s Arirang, such a reading would not seem so off-base.)

 

Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin, with a Members Only jacket and Jheri curl that falsely suggests Pieta’s a period piece) is an orphan, and he’s also an enforcer for a loan shark who destroys his victims’ limbs in order to file fraudulent insurance claims. A woman (Cho Min-soo) turns up, announcing that she is his long-lost mother, come to make amends for abandoning him. She is given to purple, Malickian prose: “It would be only right for me to die by your hand.” He is less eloquent: “Stupid bitch! Go away! Crazy bitch!” Over time [SPOILER], it becomes clear that she is really the mother of one of Kang-do’s victims. She wants to “become” his nonexistent mother, and then die, so as to leave him to live with the grief. So, in a way, this mother is the storyteller, and the director, orchestrating patently false emotional investment which, even when revealed as such, continues to generate lasting affect. (Well, that’s how it goes in the film. In real life, we don’t give two shits.) Meanwhile, Kang-do is the recipient of this manipulation, so Kim is rather blatantly aligning his audience with a soulless, amoral mangler of men, someone for whom mutilation and even incestuous rape are acts as thoughtless and automatic as taking a shit.

 

This is what Kim thinks of his audience. Right back atcha, buddy.

 

Tower (Kazik Radwanski, Canada) [6]

Tower is highly unusual in that it manages to feel highly familiar while seeming like a kind of UFO. If we break down its particulars (or more properly, its ingredients -- it's definitely a work that is constructed by skilled professionals, despite achieving an 'organic' feel, of a sort), Radwanski's film is not so hard to figure out. It's a character study that locks into the perspective of its anti-hero, a man defined by a sort of existential myopia. Derek (Derek Bogart) is fascinating because he is not only irritating but an irritant, and Tower functions by working a kind of two-pronged "art of annoyance" on its viewers. Derek himself is one big social misfire, yes. But more significantly, Radwanski continually stops short of providing any coherent explanatory model that would satisfactorily allow us to place Derek in a diagnostic box and put him away, forever. This is crucial, because it speaks to the unusual and I think specifically Canadian rigo(u)r that Tower exhibits. These days, movies and TV are chock-full of characters with Asperger's Syndrome, which isn't a bad thing. (We're in that awkward pop culture moment when broader acceptance for a particular disability or neuro-difference is presenting itself a bit like a fetish, but it always settles down. A decade ago it was Tourette's.) But Derek is not clearly identifiable as an "Aspie," nor is he "just an asshole," nor does he seem to be lacking some basic social knowledge that makes him a truly feral, basement-dwelling comics nerd. True, he displays elements of all of these characterizations. But Tower refrains from allowing the audience to get Derek's number, and this inability to "Other" him makes him that much more unnerving. (At the same time, there is nothing scary about this man. Earlier I compared Tower to Ronald Bronstein's Frownland, but Keith, the truly antisocial lead character in Bronstein's film, really was constructed as a timebomb.) So Radwanski's strategy is an irksome one, although it is highly successful. Derek says and does the wrong thing, constantly. At times it seems to have a deliberate, would-be truthteller aspect to it, a la Larry David (as when he laments at a birthday party that people shouldn't get parties on their birthdays because getting born is no accomplishment). But at other times, Derek appears to make mistakes because he seems delusional (showing off his computer animation, without understanding how unimpressive it is) or wantonly self-destructive (too many moments to cite). This latter aspect takes us closest to "understanding" Derek -- he'd rather scuttle his own chances at things and then be angry at a world that supposedly gave him short shrift. But Radwanski's refusal to let us out for air, to keep us at Dardennes-length from this inscrutable, twitching ball of negativity, means that any hypothesis about Derek remains tentative. He, like Tower itself, is a moving target.

 

The Capsule (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece) [m] [4]

There are few things worse for an artist than stagnation, and often we can see this with talented individuals who produce what to the outside observer might seem to be inexplicable, ex nihilo successes. In certain ways, I've found myself hard-pressed to articulate just what's so wonderful about the, well, self-evidently wonderful Attenberg. Even though Tsangari's sophomore film did not exactly come out of nowhere -- her association with Yorgos Lanthimos definitely places her in the "new Greek cinema" milieu, with its own attendant sexual and behavioral weirdnesses -- a great deal of Attenberg's magic comes from inTsangibles like mood, tone, deliberate awkwardness, and a highly original approach to cinematic space. So I suppose it's not exactly surprising that a maverick artist like Tsangari would buck the tendency to repeat her winning "formula," were it even possible for her to do so. It's a bold move that I applaud. However -- yes, here comes the "however" -- The Capsule is a film that I find both offputting and jejune. Sometimes avant-gardists reject the label "experimental film" because it makes their work sound as if they were playing around with the medium to see "what will happen if . . ." But I think The Capsule is a fine example of this tendency, with Tsangari moving through a number of techniques and stylistic gestures that are brand new in her repertoire. A sort of gallery-bound, more abstract (and adult) riff on "female ritual" films such as Suspiria or Hadzihalilovic's Innocence, The Capsule focuses on a panoply of dancer-models, subject to a kind of audition / initiation process that involves implied lesbianism, animated shrinkage, mimicry, mirroring, and a sort of highly formalized "Soul Train" dance whereby the women semi-individuate themselves. From one moment to the next, however, there is little in the way of structural or aesthetic coherence. Being a work situated (stranded?) between purely visual avant-garde presentation and abstruse arthouse narrativity, The Capsule implies the parameters of both but fully satisfies neither. Still, nice to see Tsangari taking a big swing, even if (for me) it resulted in a miss.