What now? Remind me: I am not at the

 

2013 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

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

 

Yes, it is an all-correspondence model for '13, folks. In addition to being rather strapped for cash this year, I had a compelling reason to remain in Houston in early September. (I know that my teaching job is supposed to provide that reason, but I've long since figured out how to work around that minor inconvenience.) This month was the start ofa new screening series I'm heading up, based at the University of Houston's Blaffer Museum. And we kicked it off in style, too, with Michael Robinson blowing minds and taking names. So I actually didn't feel so bad missing out on TIFF. Besides, my filmic homies were wonderful about funnelling all the good cinema my way. So, big thanks to Andréa Picard, Mark Peranson, Adam Nayman, Shelly Kraicer, Blake Williams, Raya Martin, and especially all the filmmakers and distributors who kindly allowed me to sample their wares from afar.

 

Also, my far-flung TIFF coverage can be found here:

 

MUBI Wavelengths report

 

Cinema Scope Online Capsule-Palooza

 

"Three Masters" Profile for The Dissolve

 

Stray piece on Rivers / Russell for Fandor

 

Fandor piece on Puiu's Three Interpretation Exercises

 

seen prior to the festival

 

 

The Realist (Scott Stark) [v/m] [8]

March 2013. See review here.

 

A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, France / Germany / Estonia / Finland / Norway) [7]

August 2013. See interview here. See review here.

 

The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany) [8]

May 2013. See review here.

 

 

everything else (in the order in which I saw it)

 

Brimstone Line (Chris Kennedy, Canada) [s]

Chris Kennedy is an undervalued filmmaker in the experimental world, in part because, unlike so many others who stake out a particular plot of ground and till it for all it’s worth, he is a bit of a conceptual vagabond. A lot of his films are quite different from one another in their surface effects, but at their core they share certain basic questions, in particular the relationship between organized vision and the chaos of the sensory world. That is, how do schemas and patterns determine what we are able to see? Kennedy’s newest film, intriguingly enough, is a sequel of sorts to his 2009 film Tamalpais. In the earlier film, Kennedy created landscape “views” by installing a makeshift wooden grid on the side of a hill, filming land and sky through this frame-of-reference prop. In Brimstone Line, he takes three such grid-easels and stands them up amidst the flow of Ontario’s Credit River, forming a rectilinear recession, just slightly off-kilter. This Düreresque maneuver not only slices “scenes” out of the natural environs. It offers counterpoint to the sound of the river’s rush, around which Kennedy quite pointedly can place no such frame.

 

Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, U.S. / Nepal) [6]

I find myself feeling a little lonely on this one, given that I consider it to be "only" a quite interesting fiction / ethnography experiment, and not The Film of the Year. Having said that, the fact that many if not most of my friends and colleagues are over the flipping moon for Manakamana doesn't trouble me in the least, although I do wonder whether its basic procedures (duration, the hard stare of fixed-camera portraiture) are being read as revelatory because of the Nepalese context alone. In other words, we have not yet had our Andy Warhol Screen Tests from the two-thirds world, and so the flat fact of Spray and Velez's juxtaposition (or the renewal / revision of the Robert Gardner aesthetic, an under-utilized weapon in the radical ethnographers' arsenal) has provoked the sensation of absolute newness. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable rhythmic pleasure at work in Manakamana's 11-part long-take organization. Every 11-minute shot, every scene, is a single cable car journey either to or from the titular temple, and the space of the cable car functions as a doubling of the cinema frame. Spray and Velez are to be commended for their absolute precision. At the same time, there is a sense of spatial dislocation and anxious anticipation that seasons the early shots with a frisson that cannot be matched as the film goes on. The first shot (grandfather and boy) moves in reverse, so that we watch as the mountains and trees fall out behind them, giving way to a vertiginous void. Moreover, we can never see the structural poles coming, with their disruptive, car-shaking rattle. Each one is a surprise, although we know they are coming and may try to anticipate their arrival through mental timing of the trip. With the very second shot (tired woman with flowers), we are henceforth facing toward the tensioner poles, so this anxiety is effectively quelled. But more importantly, Manakamana begins to naturalize the cavernous movement of space outside the cars.

 

Either by increasing activity within the car, or simply by repetition, the film becomes a case of diminishing returns. The phenomenological force of the mobile cable car / camera as a device that swallows up and flattens out cavernous film space is a shock that cannot hold. Nevertheless, the content of many of the shots is compelling enough to compensate. Manakamana is never boring. There are the most obviously surprising shots, such as #6 (the goats) and #9 (the two women struggling to eat ice cream bars as they melt), practically operating as blackout comedy sketches orchestrated for maximum exploitation of the close quarters and the building tension of the uninterrupted ride. But there are less ostentatiously bravura shots, such as #5, which give a clearer hint as to what Spray and Velez are actually up to. In this sequence, three goth-metal guys and their pet kitten speak about having been up to the temple, the impressive view, the awe of nature, and other semi-random chitchat. However, at certain points, one of the young men begins nervously repeating lines from earlier in the scene. The tone and timbre of his reiteration of his very random remarks makes it fairly evident that he isn't just repeating himself. The behavior strongly indicates that the remarks are rehearsed, and this leads us to conclude that much (if not most) (if not all) of what we see in Manakamana is coached and / or staged. This would also explain the connection between shots #3 and #10, the former showing a glum middle-aged couple going up to the temple with a live rooster, the latter showing them returning holding disembodied chicken feet. It stands to reason that a film as formally exacting as Manakamana would require more advance preparation and performative reenactment than some idealized, point-and-shoot ethnography. But as a hybrid work, Manakamana pushes the bounds of its own genre even further than even the most postmodern ethno-fictions. As I mentioned at the start, Spray and Velez might have made a film that, more properly understood, is a contribution to the structuralist avant-garde, distinguished chiefly by content that, from a semiotic standpoint, has traditionally been the province of the ethnographic. I am not sure this is enough of a breakthrough to place Manakamana in a class by itself (where a lot of folks seem to find it), or to mitigate the minor variations in interest level across its multiple iterations of a single form. To put it another way, modularity is a bitch, and sometimes there aren't goats to pimp your 11-minute ride.

 

Redemption (Miguel Gomes, Portugal / France / Italy / Germany) [s] [7]

Well, damn it. After making Tabu, one of the most singular fiction features of our young decade, Miguel Gomes has demonstrated his skill in a virtually unrelated area of endeavor, producing a found-footage film that absolutely holds its own within the rarefied realm of the avant-garde. How did he do it? Well, partly one can see this sensibility at work in parts of Tabu and the earlier Our Beloved Month of August, a pastiche and assemblage mentality that regards cinema with a musical and essayistic attitude. Sound and image retain their relative independence, but maintain total coherence, lighting upon one another through poetic combination and vertical affiliation. In Redemption, Gomes flexes this muscle, gives it free reign. Home movies, ethnography, news footage, scientific and industrial material, and purloined commercial films serve as counterpoint to four first-person narratives. They are speculative fictions, reminiscences from the pasts of individuals whose present incarnations impact all of us. (I won’t give anything away, but I will say Redemption is a distant cousin to Jay Rosenblatt’s best film, Human Remains.) This is a film that you will almost instantly want to see a second time.

 

/Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (David Rimmer, Canada, 1970) [s]

It’s rather appropriate to end this wrap-up [NOTE: my MUBI piece dealt with the films alphabetically, placing Rimmer's film last] with a return to a classic. Wavelengths is kicking off its first avant-garde screening this year with a restored print of this 1970 structuralist film by Rimmer, a key figure in Canadian experimental film history whose work is well-known in his homeland and throughout Europe. For reasons mostly having to do with geography (he was based in Vancouver, apart from the semi-official New York / Toronto formalist nexus), U.S. critics tended to miss out on Rimmer and many of us are still playing catch-up. Variations of a Cellophane Wrapper is a film that does certain things that films of that period are supposed to do – manipulating found footage, introducing looping and stuttering effects – in order to foreground both the materiality of the image and the filmstrip’s character as a physical object. But the, Rimmer begins behaving badly. He takes the image (a factory worker pulling out a sheet of cellophane on an assembly line, introducing a translucent field at a 45° angle to the camera) and starts breaking it apart in terms of positive and negative, color and temperature. Rimmer turns the motion study into an examination of the possibilities of hue and tint, the very particularity of color-reversal film in action. Together with a soundtrack that combines a semi-diegetic machine drone with an internal rumble, something the filmstrip itself might generate against the projector head, Variations explores multiple points of contact with cinema’s brute physicality. Rimmer made a film that expands, and he made it at a time when most others were hell-bent on reduction.

 

RP31 (Lucy Raven) [s]

Originally conceived as an installation, Raven’s RP31 is a brief but remarkable optical journey through what might be called the “optical unconscious” of 35mm film. (The fact that it’s screening before Martín and Peranson’s La última película is not coincidental; these are two of only three 35mm films in the entire festival! DCP über alles…) RP31 is also, in some respects, a tech-nerd cousin to Owen Land’s classic Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. Where Land’s film created a loop out of color-balance leader starring the infamous “China girl,” Raven shows us a set of image-standard charts used to test the quality of 35mm projection: focus, framing, masking, and aperture. (The “RP” of the title stands for “recommended practices.”) No mere conceptual effort, RP31 shows Raven’s facility as an abstract animator. The piece makes the most of differential pacing and shock-cut contrasts in color and shape.

 

These cards are not part of the film, but they are part of “film,” understood as a broader complex. More to the point, they are visual information typically kept off the scene of standard projection; the average patron is not intended to ever see these reference charts. As Linda Williams has pointed out with respect to pornography (I know… hang with me for a minute!), the “obscene” is that which is kept “off scene,” accessible only to the privileged few. And now, as 35mm sadly goes the way of the Great Auk, this material (and the specialists to whom it speaks) will only become more and more “obscene,” more of a bother to an industry anxious to condition us to its own imperatives. Raven has given us a gorgeous film-object, one that is also right on time.

 

La última película (Raya Martín and Mark Peranson, Canada / Denmark / Mexico / The Philippines) [7]

Full disclosure: I am friends with both directors of this film, and I have done writing for hire for Mr. Peranson. I will leave it up to the reader as to whether this should disqualify my opinion on the film they have made. Having said that, La última película is by no means a perfect film. I would argue, however, that this is its strength. In terms of sensibility, Martín, who is known for experimental works that have excavated various aspects of Filipino history and of film history (seeing the two as coextensive), is a fascinating match for Peranson, whose sardonic, stringent, and at times scathing editorship of Cinema Scope magazine is, in part, an evangelical mission, an almost fanatical segregation of le monde du cinéma into holy sheep and dastardly goats.

 

What they came up with, and what makes LUP such a maddening and delightful UFO, is an update and literalization of Godard’s Weekend throwdown. What if the end of film potentially coincided with the end of the world (in this case, the end of the Mayan calendar, a rumored apocalypse)? In a stroke of hideous genius, Mark and Raya cast (another friend of mine…) Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) as the filmmaker who has taken it upon himself to make The Last Film. (He is also, I think, playing an amped-up caricature of Peranson.) The dialectical gambit, the premise on which LUP both stands and falls, is that the Perry character’s pronouncements about cinema’s demise are all legit. At the same time, they are obnoxious and self-aggrandizing. (Perry’s nasal whine adds to the timbre of white-boy plaint.) “Is Cinema Dead?” “Is Cinephilia Dead?” “Is Film Criticism Dead?” LUP forces us to face the music as a kind of fourth-quarter needle-scratch. We cannot not care; as Ke$ha Sebert reminds us, we R who we R. But it’s a death taking place on a disheveled altar of confusion and navel lint. Gabino Rodriguez (Nicolás Pereda’s right-hand man) is on hand as a kind of straight man, reminding The Director that a Mexican rock wall is not a ruin, that celluloid is not stone, and that for two men admitting failure, a cozy spot beside a warm campfire is not such a bad place to be. This is the story of a medium that left its will on two men, and they screwed around with it, in utter sincerity, stopping just short of eating the bones.

 

Man of Tai Chi (Keanu Reeves, U.S. / China / Hong Kong) [5]

Probably the most remarkable thing about the whoa!-teur’s directorial debut is that it’s not a complete embarrassment. Given the fact that Reeves chose to make an ersatz HK actioner, the likelihood of a total fiasco was rather high, but Man of Tai Chi isn’t nearly that interesting. Reeves, together with fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, have made a passable second-rate Hong Kong film—something on par with, say, Derek Tsang or Jingle Ma, but with considerably more money behind it. The story of a young martial-arts student (Tiger Chen) who has developed tai chi into a fighting style (“It is not just for exercise,” he tells a reporter), the film soon becomes a kind of crypto-Fight Club with a dash of demonlover. Needless to say, The Keanu hasn’t got a patch on either Fincher or Assayas stylistically, and while his casting of himself as the eeeevil villain may have been a bold move, his performance could be a career-worst. Still, incidental pleasures abound, like a Biography Channel third-act recap of Tiger’s life thus far, and an opulent fighting arena that one might characterize as Iron Chef: Abraham and Isaac Edition. It’s nice to see that a Hollywood millionaire still cares about the little things.

 

Southcliffe (Sean Durkin, U.K.) [TV] [5]

In evaluating Southcliffe as a TIFF entry, I find myself thinking back to one of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s very best lines of criticism: “Why insist on treating good baba ghanoush as if it were bad peanut butter?” We might then be forced to ask what we do, as gourmands or as critics, when our suppliers deliberately mislabel the goods. Southcliffe is only the latest example of a growing trend of showcasing TV shows as “features” within a film-festival context. There are clear reasons why this is happening: the wholesale embrace of DCP over film means that TV and cinema can be presented as “equal” in terms of medium. We are living in an age of the “showrunner” (e.g., Vince Gilligan, Matthew Weiner, Dan Harmon) as tele-auteur, and more and more premium channels are hiring upscale cinema folk to make TV miniseries that exhibit varying degrees of cinematicity (Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, and Penance by Kurosawa Kiyoshi, which was featured at TIFF last year).

 

But TV isn’t cinema. Southcliffe, a four-part Channel 4 series directed by Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), is difficult to evaluate because of the decision to move it from its native medium and hold it to the standards of another, where it falls woefully short. Granted, I am not a TV critic, and so I would not deign to discuss Southcliffe in that regard, but as an ordinary viewer I found the miniseries format to have problems not unlike those of narrative shorts: too much information crammed in a space that didn’t permit breadth or development. A story about a troubled veteran (Sean Harris) who goes on a killing spree in his sleepy Yorkshire village, the program traces the resonances of his acts across multiple characters, occasionally looping back in time to better explicate the full impact of both the killer’s decisions and the traumas he inflicts. Durkin shows admirable control: much of the action transpires without incidental music, and he frequently underscores tension with slow pans and zooms, much as he did in MMMM.

 

All the same, Southcliffe promises much more than it can deliver. Many scenes focus on a London news reporter (Rory Kinnear) who grew up in Southcliffe and seems to have a score to settle with its inhabitants. His father was blamed for an industrial accident, and there was bullying involved, but for all the screen time he receives, there’s a nagging vagueness to his beef. Similarly, the family life of the victim’s parents (Shirley Henderson and Eddie Marsan) begins to unravel in ways only tangentially related to the loss of their daughter. Durkin and writer Tony Grisoni want to imply that the gunman only lanced a wound already festering in the town (not a particularly complex or original thesis), but with so many characters trying to arc in four 45-minute blocs, we eventually end up with the sort of histrionics that derive less from comprehensive character development than the need for decisive episode endings.

 

And this is the fundamental problem: a work of cinema would probably strive to do less, and hit the mark, or not be cued to predetermined episodic beats. But now, we seem to be treating TV series as if they were long films, and assuming they are accordingly complex and nuanced. This is a misunderstanding of the compositional dimension of time-based art, to say the least. If longer equalled richer, then One Day at a Time is approximately eight times the achievement of Sátántangó.

 

Bobô (Inês Oliveira, Portugal) [4]

This second film by Oliveira poses a few key questions. First, are European films schools necessarily doing the right thing by basing their training on the auteur theory? Bobô is beautifully shot and paced; the early shots of Sofia (Paula Garcia) in her meticulous, lifeless apartment are notably impressive for how well they convey the isolation of a depressed intellectual, her bookshelves forming walls within walls and frames within frames. Much of the rest of the film exhibits similar formal control. But as a writer, Oliveira has very little to say to us. Her artistry could best flourish in realizing the scripts of others, but this tends not to be how one shinnies up the echelons of European funding.

 

In terms of plot, Bobô raises another significant issue: Why are films like this still being made? To wit: Sofia has experienced a trauma that is only revealed in the third act. To try to shake her out of her funk, her mother sends her Mariama (Aissatu Indjai), a Guinean housekeeper. They become friends, sort of. And a young Guinean girl, Bobô (Luana Quadé), enters the picture, coming along with Mariama on certain days. We eventually learn that Mariama is trying to protect Bobô from her grandmother, who wants to “circumcise” the young girl. But by the end of the film, we realize that we’ve learned next to nothing about Mariama, Bobô, her grandmother, or the Guinean community. Their function in the film is solely to shake Sofia out of her grief, and to raise her out of her blinkered bourgeois-European worldview.

 

In one particularly egregious scene, Mariama takes Sofia to a Guinean celebration where she marvels at the costumes and dancing, then loosens up and joins in. What would a similar scene look like with the races reversed, a West African woman gaping in awe at some white people at a wedding doing the Chicken Dance? It would be merely ridiculous. But if she later tried to intervene in a circumcision, it would be offensive, no? What Sofia does is not wrong, because she is working with Mariama on Bobô’s behalf. But it takes a complex, transnational feminist approach to filmmaking to give these women’s partnership across cultures any real meaning. Who they are, with their differential positions in society, should at least be somewhat fleshed out. But as it is, Oliveira reduces Mariama and Bobô to good deeds and therapeutic catharses on Sofia’s part. As such, the film reverts to colonialist reflexes, no matter its intent.

 

Pays Barbare (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, France / Italy) [m] [4]

Although I can’t claim to be especially well versed in the work of Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi,  I have been somewhat ambivalent toward the work of theirs that I do know – 1986’s From the Pole to the Equator and 2004’s Oh, Uomo. These films represent an impressive array of rare documentary footage, assembled argumentatively to display the manner in which cinema has been a tool in the hands of the powerful. Ricci Lucchi and Gianikian successfully reveal film’s secret and sometimes not-so-secret history as a Foucaultian technology of control. In this regard, their project relates to that of Harun Farocki and Ken Jacobs. But I do have significant problems with the way the pair aestheticize the material included within their own films. Their latest effort, Pays Barbare, moves even further in this direction. It’s a study of Mussolini’s campaign to subjugate Ethiopia, and the film begins with an extended sequence of the mob that killed Il Duce, presented in dead silence. Then, we are given step-printed, luminously colored footage shot by the fascists to demonstrate that Ethiopia was in fact a “barbaric land,” in need of colonial domination. Occasional voiceover, combined with poetic repetition and plangent Sprechstimme, drive the point home, but they also beautify Pays Barbare to such an extent that the actual content of the Italian footage –what is being done to whom, and how power is being administered – is frequently invisible.

 

Dry Standpipe (Wojciech Bakowski, Poland) [v/s]

This is a tough little video to crack. An apparently formalist experiment that features a first-person narration helpfully explaining both what’s on screen and what the video is up to, Dry Standpipe finds notable Polish artist Bakowski laying down a black background, drawing a series of semi-geometrical forms, while treating the drawn lines of said forms as if they were thin windows into a diegetic field behind the dominant frame. Bakowski tells us that he is combining two distinct channels of information; the forms are made of compressed or attenuated video images of ordinary activity. For example: “This is a spine. It’s in a container made of bubbles from soft drinks. It’s quite heavy. The spine is made of a video of me opening a window.” This is fairly typical. Not only would the source material be impossible to discern without Bakowski’s help. It’s impossible even after he helps us, and it’s not clear that we glean anything afterward, except that he had some ideas about odd things to do with old stuff he taped.

 

Gowanus Canal (Sarah J. Christman) [s]

A polluted body of water is a repository for dense pools of chemicals. These chemicals kill most everything in their path. They also form pictures. They leave fluorescent residue on rocks, they coalesce into saturated, swirling fields of crimson and emerald. The pools bleed into one another, thin rivulets straining away based on their differing densities. Even though it is usually the case that no one takes responsibility for the dumping that has caused the environmental catastrophe on display, the chemicals draw their own evidentiary images, paint their own terrible art. Cinema is also formed by pools of chemicals. Sarah Christman’s series of films documenting the material images of polluted water represent the meeting of two similar media (both formed of chemistry and light), mutually drawing (on) each other. We hear the lapping waves, the gurgle of frogs, and contemplate the poisonous modernism that each of us has paid for.

 

Man in Motion, 2012 (Christophe M. Saber, Ruben Glauser and Max Idje, Switzerland) [s]

Take me where the eagle's flying higher and higher . . . This is a film that is much more interesting in conception, and even in execution, than in the actual final product. The three makers (I suspect this was a student project, although I do not know) have filmed a live performance of a Muybridge-like repetitive motion, in this case a naked man walking up a set of steps and then around them again. In front of the man, on the stage, we see a robot-like remote control camera, tracking back and forth to document the motion. There is a screen behind the man, and his action is projected onto the screen with a live video delay, resulting in a looped, staggered mise en abyme. However, the clarity of the redoubled image suffers. There is little in terms of composition or formal interaction between the multiple images, or the images and the live performer. Man in Motion, 2012 harks back to the classics of 1970s video art (Dan Graham, Joan Jonas, Bruce the Vasulkas), but it lacks the rigor that made those early experiments enriching for audience and performer alike. [NOTE: I was informed that this was in fact a student film; the three makers are students of Hannes Schüpbach. Interesting.]

 

Bann (Nina Könnemann, Germany) [v/s]

Bann appears at first to be a fairly simple handheld urban study. Könnemann shows us various buildings from street level, mostly from the back-end: alleyways, loading docks, and disused doorways. Gradually her actual subject becomes clear. We see protruding hands and feet of smokers, and eventually their entire shadowy figures. Bann is about the way that anti-smoking ordinances (even outdoors) have forced the nicotine-addicted (or, God forbid, those who just enjoy it) further and further into the margins. With her framing, and the smokers’ own tendency to crouch into corners of granite edifices of downtown law firms and banks, Könnemann provides a glimpse of a new race of shame-faced gargoyles, brought into being by the insidious reach of the nanny-state. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!

 

Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi and Kambozia Partovi, Iran) [8]

[SPOILERS follow.] This is Not a Film was a hybrid documentary wherein Panahi showed us what happens when a restless creative mind tries and fails to negotiate various end-runs around the absurd, maddening restrictions imposed upon him. In many respects, the more Panahi “failed” – famously walking off camera in tears, refusing to discuss his script any further because “if you could tell a film, why make a film?” – the more he succeeded, showing the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to be one not just of tyranny but of stifling pettiness. Given that Panahi’s objective situation has not changed – whether the election of a moderate president will make any difference in the lives of Iranians of any stripe, we shall see -- it comes as no surprise that Closed Curtain, his second film completed under house arrest, has much in common with the first. Both films are about anxiety and confinement. But the similarities are deceiving. Closed Curtain is like a prismatic refraction of This is Not a Film, the truth of Panahi’s loss of freedom broken down into shards that sometimes overlap, frequently contradict one another, and ultimately refuse to cohere into a fully legible allegory.

 

The first half of Closed Curtain appears to be a straight fictional work, and a very well-shot and acted one at that, remarkable under the circumstances for being on par with Panahi’s “free” works. A man (co-director Kambozia Partovi, best known in the West for the film Café Transit) is hiding out in a three-story villa, blacking out the windows. He is a fugitive because he fought officers trying to confiscate his dog, Boy. (In this dystopia, the Islamic Republic considers canines unclean.) Later, two other fugitives seek refuge in the house, a brother leaving his troubled, suicidal sister (Maryam Moghadam) behind while he seeks help. At the halfway point, however, Panahi himself enters the house, and these two figures – the despairing woman and the working man – become purely symbolic presences in the house, two polar tendencies within Panahi himself. Closed Curtain finds ways to complicate this scenario, which has every chance of becoming leaden and overly literal. We never see the two figures argue over Panahi’s fate, or maneuver to influence his decisions. Instead, they are watchers whose previously established characters merely deepen our understanding of Panahi when he appears, puttering around or interacting with colleagues or neighbours. Even simple elements like the curtains or the broken window (which is a membrane between Panahi’s reality and that of the imaginary characters) are treated so matter-of-factly that they resist any burdensome symbolic freight. Rather, they display Panahi’s state of disconnection, his suspension between worlds but belonging to none. Where This is Not a Film was a political work through and through, Closed Curtain enfolds its politics within what I believe will go down as one of cinema’s finest, most complex acts of self-portraiture.

 

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy / France) [4]

Paolo Sorrentino has become a sort of go-to Italian auteur for the current regime in Cannes without having a great deal of support elsewhere. Unlike some members of the International Cinema Scope Cabal™, I have remained somewhat agnostic toward Sorrentino, who is undoubtedly talented but committed to working in a highly unfashionable mannerist mode. (We could perhaps slot him alongside such wide-angle saxons as Terry Gilliam and, when they’re in extremis, the Coens; Kusturica is a distant Serbian cousin.) The style is distracting and frequently obscene, but that’s not necessarily the mark of a charlatan. Occasionally, as in Il Divo (Sorrentino’s best film), a funhouse distortion of reality is what’s called for. The writer-director’s predilection for gargantuan, fascist space and disorienting, dipsy-doodle camerawork is pretty clearly his response to Berlusconi’s culture of all-consuming hideousness, an attempt to plunge into the ugliness and come out, if not on the other side, at least more undeniably at the center of hell.

 

It’s not coincidental that Sorrentino’s most poetic film, This Must Be The Place, was the result of his sojourn to the good ol’ U.S. of A. Freed of the weight of Italian bunga-bungocracy, he could explore open spaces and, finally, kill the Nazis where they slept. It was an empty film, convinced that it was replete with meaning, but it was certainly a noble failure. By contrast, The Great Beauty finds Sorrentino going so far into the mythologies of his nation that he loses all perspective, spitting out an incoherent pastiche of Fellini (La Dolce Vita in particular), with a dash of accidental, toothless Tomas Gutierrez Alea (Memories of Underdevelopment) dropped in as counterpoint. The story of washed-up writer and professional partier and gadfly Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), The Great Beauty is also an alleged condemnation of the decadence of Rome and its high society. But inasmuch as it approaches coherence at all (and indeed, parts of this film are “elliptical” to the point of incompetence), Jep is a sexist, classist fool whose point of view Sorrentino never bothers to problematize.

 

We can tell he is an unreliable enough narrator. But The Great Beauty clearly wants us to believe that Jep’s disaffection is a perfectly logical response to the rubbish of modern life, and that his sudden emotional breakthroughs are reason enough to hold him in higher esteem than the phonies surrounding him. Sorrentino’s ultimate point seems to be that contemporary Italy has become a kind of Spring Breakers for the geriatric set, and only the man callow enough to recognize how pathetic it all is deserves our respect. (Also, he prefers classical statuary to performance art, so clearly he’s our designated crap-cutter.) What nonsense.

 

Song (Nathaniel Dorsky) [s]

Spring (Nathaniel Dorsky) [s]

Nathaniel Dorsky’s two latest films exist as independent entities. However, as per the artist’s preference, they are being presented as a diptych, both in Toronto (where they are screening with Peter Hutton’s Three Landscapes) and soon after in New York (where they’ll play alongside Misplacement,the new Jerome Hiler film). This is wise, because the two films both represent new twists in Dorsky’s highly refined filmmaking style, and they speak to one another in ways I find quite suggestive. Song is the subtler of the two films, in some respects operating more in line with Dorsky’s previous efforts. But if there are certain light and refraction effects that seem familiar (Dorsky won’t stop being Dorsky), he is arriving at them in unique ways. The first shot of Song shows a door swinging open to reveal a transmitted reflection of bare winter trees. The image is familiar, but the movement is not; this kind of manipulation of planes is far more straightforward than usual, since in the past Dorsky has preferred to observe objects in glass moving against one another contrapuntally.

 

Song is a film that incorporates more camera movement and more rack focus than we’ve seen in Dorsky’s films, and again, counterpoint seems to be the key idea here. A frequent tack is the depiction of a thicket of flora, the foreground out of focus, the midrange coming in sharp. What does this do? For one thing, it often creates what I would call “vortex shadows,” a deep skein of tangible figure that practically generates its own ground. But it also produces harmony in the evolution of the shot, the focused elements moving with and against the heavier, softer-edged emanations. This, combined with the emphasis on diagonal anchor-forms that put a stake down in an otherwise dissipating image, produce an inevitable musicality that runs throughout Song. (Watch for a stunning gold-glitter skull in shot #10!)

 

Spring, on the other hand, is easily one of the most kinetic films Dorsky has produced, a strange amalgam of stolen moments of beauty from the human world (city scenes, fragments of portraiture) and a nature study whose visual assertiveness occasionally seems to stop just this side of Rose Lowder. Dorsky is exploring the potentials of mobile camera – one shot that appears to be taken from a boat ride is astonishing, wherein jabbing drops of rain form white diagonal lines in the frame, as if Dorsky had taken a stippling tool and gone Len Lye on his answer print. But even in fields of wildflowers, where before Dorsky might have held still and allowed the sun and wind to orchestrate the shot, the camera becomes an agent of change, gently charging through the stems and bending them down.

 

Dorsky’s cinema has been transcendently optical, but Spring finds him dabbling in the dark arts of the haptic, bringing a sensuality that was always present in his work right to the fore. When we see charcoal-dark shots that slowly allow images of faces to emerge, or a single shot late in the film in which a cheek seems to be pulling away from the lens, Dorsky is assimilating bodies into the overall “spring” of the plant life, which is the dominant force throughout this film. Whether it’s the slow opening of the aperture, which lets light “bloom” onto the scene at hand and into our eyes, or the very frequent penetration of the Z-axis (by stems, branches, an extremely naughty selection of glowing red flowers), Spring is a film that reaches out to us, that asks us to imbibe the flesh of the world. As for the final shot – first one, and then another pair of men’s feet entering a vestibule, its carpeted pathway glowing red-hot in the midday sun – well, how better to celebrate this symphony of dehiscence? Dorsky has already titled a film Triste; perhaps now it’s time for Tryst.

 

Grosse Fatigue (Camille Henrot, France) [v/s]

Not a Wavelengths presentation per se (actually programmed by Andréa Picard for the Future Projections series), Camille Henrot’s video work nevertheless operates in the spirit of much of the work in the WL section proper. This isn’t to say that it does with complete success. Grosse Fatigue is a work that is very much in keeping with a current trend in experimental video (cf. Jesse McLean, and especially Ryan Trecartin) toward information bombardment and the invocation of frazzled affect, but it never manages to make a clear case for itself as having more to offer beyond conceptual stuntsmanship. Using a literal computer desktop as its primary ground, the video opens window after window in an effort to convey “world history” (as per a labeled folder) as a series of radical equivalences, from cataclysms to minimalist objects and viral videos. A speed-talking narrator takes us from the primordial ooze to contemporary times and beyond, implicitly connecting accelerated universal time with global data access. But Henrot offers little in the way of actual history, a sense of why her million-year chant is a compelling or truthful narrative. As per the title, it conveys great exhaustion, but it also seems to take excitement in the fact that we are not long for this world. Why, exactly?

 

Sarah Prefers To Run (Chloé Robichaud, Canada) [4]

Oh, yes indeed, Sarah prefers to run. She prefers it to having articulate conversations, displaying recognizably human emotions, or demonstrating a capability to see her actions as connected to the larger world in any way. This character study of a young Quebecer (Sophie Desmarais) whose track and field skills get her a spot on the McGill varsity team (and a shot at a brighter future) doesn’t stray too far from the standard template. She comes from a poor family, and small-town suburban life hasn’t entirely prepared her for the challenges of Montreal. She moves there with a male roommate (Jean-Sébastien Courchesne) who discovers that they can receive government monies through a marriage of convenience that, not surprisingly, eventually becomes a little something more to him. But the main problem with Sarah is the fact that Robichaud writes and directs the title character as a doe-eyed cipher who only understands how to run, run, run. The film, frustratingly and a bit offensively, falls very much in line with the “Asperger’s chic” that is plaguing arthouses and festivals worldwide. Since psychological impenetrability differentiates art film from commercial movies, but the subject’s impenetrability thwarts the efforts of those around her to reach out, you have conflict without sentimentality, a win-win for an up-and-coming mid-rank auteur. One particular moment in the film, during which a student valiantly tries to interview Sarah for a profile in the McGill student paper, yields unintentional hilarity. The late-film reprise of said interview, when Sarah has been transformed into a fully functioning individual because she has now had sex with a man, is just patently offensive.

 

Concrete Night (Pirjo Honkasalo, Finland / Denmark / Sweden) [5]

If Pirjo Honkasalo was on the radar of North American cinephiles recently, it was probably with The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, her acclaimed 2004 documentary about the Chechen War. Concrete Night is her first fiction feature since Fire-Eater in 1998, and although there’s no question that Honkasalo exhibits a master’s control of the medium, she also seems a little rusty as well. This is a film that fits quite snugly into a particular mode of poetic miserablism; shades of Fred Kelemen and Sharunas Bartas haunt the stark black and white cinematography and deep urban decay (provided, in this instance, by an industrial slum of Helsinki too bleak even for Kaurismäki to countenance). Honkasalo begins the film with a lovely nightmare sequence that capitalizes on her film’s dominant formal strangeness: a high-key, hyper-real surface to the squalor that manages to merge heavy industry and glistening surrealism into a kind of psychological non-space. We know that the oil tanks, bridges, cranes and crumbling factories are real, but Honkasalo’s digital cinematography reduces them to chimeras signifying picturesque decay. Eventually, this aspect of Concrete Night starts working to its own detriment, as Honkasalo clamps down into a three-act structure, based on the relationship between a young man and his soon-to-be-incarcerated older brother. When we are expected to dwell in the “real world,” it’s hard not to feel as though Concrete Night has been art-directed right into a ditch. This is the sort of film that you watch with a double consciousness, constantly distracted by the battle between visionary impulse and rank cliché.

 

45 7 Broadway (Tomonari Nishikawa) [s]

The location is Times Square, and you might well begin watching 45 7 Broadway with a reasonable question, both in terms of content and form. What new element could the artist possibly bring to this material? As is so often the case with Nishikawa’s wonderful films, the answer is twofold: absolute craftsmanship and a wry sense of poetry. In its purely denotative elements – that is, the view of Times Square Nishikawa provides, 45 7 Broadway is a well-tempered city suite, recalling the best work of Jim Jennings. We slide between the bustle of pedestrians and the flash of signage, New York as a thriving organism. However, Nishikawa’s formal annotation almost literally electrifies the film (in the Chinese sense of film as “electric shadows,” cinema as free-floating light event). He shot the film on black and white stock, but shot it through red, blue and green filters. This produced light distortions corresponding to the presence of those tones within the profilmic events. Then, he used an optical printer, and the same filters again, to reproduce the film on color stock. The resulting bi- and tri-packed composite images turn each dominant color into a separate image registration (not unlike color lithography, or the old multi-strip Technicolor process), so that scenes flutter into and out of alignment with an appropriately funky, urban nervousness. In spirit, 45 7 Broadway recalls the puckish efforts of Norman McLaren and Len Lye, but it’s somehow looser than their films. Nishikawa works overtime to make the cinema seem lithe and carefree.

 

Airship 1-3 (Kenneth Anger) [v/s]

What is a blimp? As evidenced by Kenneth Anger’s three-part found-footage opus Airship, it is many things. It is a modern mode of travel that history left behind. It is huge and imposing, cutting a sublime figure against the sky. It is also hollow, its (illuminating) gas a given. Even more than an airplane, it’s a massive phallus, drifting through the sky. But of course, it can pop, maybe even explode. Airship has some frankly silly aspects, like the bulbous cloud-font titles. (Latter-day Kenneth Anger entails some lapses in taste. I consider Mouse Heaven and Don’t Smoke That Cigarette! to be virtual throwaways.) But the three segments, while distinct, rhyme and contrast in terms of mood and timbre. A1 is in anaglyph 3D, a compilation film of blimp footage from multiple 1930s and 1940s sources. A2's Robert Aldrich footage goes widescreen, and it’s a single-blimp dreamscape of a painterly Hindenberg wafting through blue skies. (The swastika tail logo is prominently featured, connecting back to Scorpio Rising.) And the ultra-brief A3, presented in Academy ratio, brings the very “airship” concept to a fiery end. This is a sardonic film about dreams betrayed by dark desire, and it although it’s hardly a return to Anger’s Luciferian heyday, it’s a welcome extension of the legacy.

 

El Adios Largos (Andrew Lampert, U.S. / Mexico) [v/s]

If you’re up on your Español, then you realize that the title of Lampert’s film translates as “The Long Goodbye.” (Several savvy critics have already tweeted about some possible El Adios Largos / Le última película connection.) Using as his basis a beat-up, Spanish-dubbed print of Altman’s masterpiece, Lampert takes the opening few minutes of Long Goodbye (Elliott Gould’s Marlowe discussing dining options with his cat) and subjects them to subtle paintbox techniques designed to heighten our awareness of Altman’s compositional structure. Lampert draws boxes around kitchen cabinets to delineate internal frames. He manipulates color so as to adjust foreground / background relationships. And he also charts the balletic movement of that darn cat through the scene. Lampert runs through a continuous stretch of film and distances us from all but its most fundamental visual parameters. It’s like the graphic equivalent of a live-tweet.

 

Un conte de Michel de Montaigne (Jean-Marie Straub, France / Switzerland) [v/m] [7]

It is crucial here that Straub titles his film Un conte (a story), rather than the expected Un essai, since the text he is working with is not some obscure, uncollected Montaigne fragment but indeed a part of the Essays – in particular, “On Exercise or Practice,” No. 6 from Vol. 2. The performer, Barbara Ulrich, is delivering only a key excerpt, one in which Montaigne describes falling off his horse and suffering grievous injury. As with so much latter-day Straub, much of the meaning of this lovely film resides in the strict separation of elements, those parts of conventional cinema that are usually combined without a second thought. Un conte starts with a part of a Beethoven string quartet, the recording presented against a black screen. After this, Ulrich’s recitation alternates between three primary modes of presentation – a VO against black; a VO over a sun-dappled shot of a bronze statue of Montaigne in a park; and an echt-Straubian overhead shot of Ulrich declaiming the text. (Only near the end do we see Ulrich and the statue together.) This rotating pattern of possible modes vaguely recalls Morgan Fisher’s work, especially Picture and Sound Rushes, although Straub is up to something different. For instance, only when we see Ulrich in frame is her voice clearly recorded in direct sync sound. Given that such simultaneous picture / sound recording is one of the very ethical benchmarks of Straub’s cinema, the fact that it appears as one option among several is highly suggestive. In a sense, it takes us back to the Montaigne text, which is about near-death, the body’s insides protruding outward, and the achievement of self-awareness in the face of one’s vulnerability. For Montaigne, knowing you can die is empowering. For some, this represents the inauguration of the modern subject. (Straub beginning the film with Beethoven is telling in this respect.) So why does Straub place his insisted-upon use of sound in a context where it is one choice among several? Perhaps because being modern means recognizing the vulnerability Montaigne describes, the fact that your project is perennially under assault from other competing visions. We cannot establish the law; we can only fight to survive, and tell our story.

 

Instants (Hannes Schüpbach, Switzerland) [s]

The films of Hannes Schüpbach display a sylvan classicism that has very few points of comparison in contemporary filmmaking. The fact that Instants repeatedly called to mind the films of Dorsky and Beavers should indicate that this filmmaker should command your attention. At the same time, in Instants Schüpbach is working in a mode that is positioned somewhere between precision and sketchbook-assemblage, and it is not always clear what we are intended to take from his editorial decisions. True to its title, Instants takes small fragments of time as its dominant aesthetic, and this includes both still images and brief shots, taken within the same wooded environment (near Avignon) seemingly at approximately the same time. This allows us to see the subtle difference between film and photography in terms of texture and light. Schüpbach keeps his camera low; we are looking at light through brambles and the mid- to bottom-section of trees and grasses. In time, Instants introduces other material—a man writing in a notebook on the grass; a young girl jumping in the sun—at rhythmic intervals. Some of the motifs (girl, trees, water) also recur under a blue filter. However, the overall drift of Instants is difficult to read. Schüpbach generally increases the human content at the end of the film, and his editing pattern sacrifices the singularity of images (separated by black leader) in favor of direct cuts and fast pacing. By the end, it’s a bit unclear why all of the footage exists in the same film. Still, even if the ‘instants’ don’t entirely cohere, they are radiant in their own right.

 

Flower (Naoko Tasaka, Japan) [v/s]

This is one of the most deceptively complicated films in the entire Wavelengths series. I say deceptive because, unlike more obviously challenging works—those employing pure silence, or relying on specific historical knowledge—Flower generally pivots between two forms of visual information, and is held together by a voiceover parable about a hungry bear eating acorns. Nevertheless, Tasaka’s film is a kind of intellectual vortex, moving from simplicity to an almost cosmological scope, and not always in the most pleasurable of ways. I will confess to being utterly confounded by Flower on first viewing and not really liking it very much at all; a second go-round revealed quite a lot more, and I’ve come to admire it a great deal. The two main channels of visual data I referred to above are (a) a slow-motion shot of a waterfall, whose stream is solid enough at first that it looks like a stem or some other organic form; and (b) a series of hand-scratched or rotoscoped geometrical objects that zoom toward the viewer, as if they were windows in some invisible tunnel. Eventually these objects are replaced by matrices of rounded squares, which resemble microscopic images of skin cells. When this material alternates, and is placed in counterpoint with the bear story (the bear starves the more he eats; he eventually consumes things he never intended to), one gets the sense that Flower is really a film about the connection, or the collision, between inner and outer space, the tiniest and the grandest levels of known life. (Although Tasaka’s surface approach is very different from Brakhage’s, she seems to share some of his Dog Star Man-era concerns.) In the end, Flower toggles between these layers in a flickering conflagration. Here, the film falters; speeding up the A/B alternation isn’t the most convincing exit strategy. Still, it’s rare to see this degree of ambition in a young filmmaker. 2001: A Space Odyssey crossed my mind more than once, and that’s what we call a compliment.

 

The King's Body (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal) [v/m] [4]

A rare misfire from one of the best contemporary filmmakers working today, The King’s Body is an austere conceptual work that adds up to quite a bit less than the sum of its parts. Rodrigues is trying to go to the very root of the Portuguese “body politic” by considering the physical form of Portugal’s first king, Alfonso Henriques. A warrior renowned for his strength, and someone invoked as a mythological touchstone by royals and politicians (including the Salazar dictatorship) ever since, King Alfonso is the sovereign body that rules the Portuguese imaginary by serving as a present absence. For his part, Rodrigues holds a comically vulgar casting call in order to make the mythic body flesh. A host of preposterously hunky guys (some of them exotic dancers) are auditioned in front of a green screen while Rodrigues’ offscreen voice instructs them to strip. Yes, the part of Portuguese History will be played by Gay Pornography. The participants read from a text about Alfonso while the green screen puts them in various fake backgrounds. While there is an impressive serialism to Rodrigues’ presentation of these men and their performances – this is not a narrative work in any respect – one gets the sense that once The King’s Body was conceived, its realization was something of an afterthought. While individual men are unique in their presentation of self, and their rippled bodies are something to behold, this is a piece that doesn’t really offer a great deal of cinematic pleasure. And that’s something I never expected to write about a João Pedro Rodrigues film.

 

The Disquiet (Ali Cherry, France / Lebanon)

Part philosophical inquiry, part procession of bold, haptic images, Ali Cherry’s latest video is a major step forward for the artist, but it’s also a text that is divided against itself. The Disquiet takes the specific geological circumstances of Lebanon as its starting point, in particular the fact that the nation is situated between four seismic fault lines. In the first half of the video, Cherry provides factual information about the history of earthquakes in Lebanon, along with the narrator’s increasingly frantic insistence that Lebanon’s problematic national past can be understood by studying these events, as if one were cracking the earthquake code. This first half seems too stiff in its presentation. (I was reminded of Ursula Biemann’s pedagogical videoworks.) But The Disquiet begins with a stunning image – a turbulent red sea with a half-submerged rock formation protruding from the waves – and ends with a Steadycam tracking shot that focuses intently on the varieties of flora on the forest floor. This last shot concludes with an arrangement of avian artifacts that calls Anselm Kiefer to mind. This potent emblem made much of Cherry’s more direct, text-laden material seem too heavy-handed, and certainly not in keeping with the tone he eventually establishes. In any case, there is plenty of fine material in The Disquiet to minimize any lingering frustrations.

 

Constellations (Helga Fanderl, Germany) [s]

It took me some time to fully recognize how indispensible Helga Fanderl’s films really are. Taken singly, they can seem rather negligible, since they don’t seem to have a great deal at stake. They are seldom about anything “important.” And they are almost always very short, their brevity an apparent formal homologue with their low-gauge provenance. (Fanderl is one of the great Super-8 holdouts, although most of the time her films are screened in 16mm blow-ups.) But there is something gloriously unfashionable about Fanderl’s films, and this is what makes them so purely enjoyable. In an age where we are deeply suspicious of ideas like “talent” or “vision,” there’s one unifying element that makes Fanderl’s hand-held observations from daily life politely ask for (never “demand”) our attention. She has an eye. This is what separates Fanderl’s miniatures from the diary-film genre, although they are diary-related. She shows them in groups, but they are not thematic, like Jonas Mekas’s long works. Instead, it’s her delicate in-camera editing pulse, her gentle rhythms, that hold the varied elements together. In and of themselves, they really bear no direct relation to one another—blowing autumn leaves, a pacing leopard, rusty scrap metal behind a cyclone fence. It’s the style, and the obvious alertness to life’s small epiphanies, that yokes these disparate bits of experience into a whole film. Fanderl is a series artist, and the series continues everywhere she goes.

 

[NOTE: I ended up watching a completely different set of Handerl 8-to-16mm blow-ups which were black-and-white, as a prelude to the full-color Constellations. They were on my TIFF sceeener with no explanation. I'm guessing Fanderl wasn't certain which group of films might be included in the program, so she sent both along.To my eyes, the untitled black-and-white reel is even better than Constellations; the crisp, allusive b&w imagery recalls Su Friedrich's best work. I hope others get to see these films at some point.

 

Farther Than the Eye Can See (Basma Alsharif, United Arab Emirates) [v/s]

One of the biggest surprises of this year’s Wavelengths crop, Basma Alsharif’s Farther Than the Eye Can See combines personal and geopolitical history with a startling formal dexterity. In its own odd way, Alsharif’s film recalls such offbeat efforts as Owen Land’s Remedial Reading Comprehension and Michael Snow’s SSHTOORRTY, but refracts those works through an entirely original sensibility. It’s a tale of immigration and strife, in which two narrators (one English, one French) detail a family’s decision to flee Egypt, with some of the family taking up residence in Jerusalem. Alsharif’s primary device is a simultaneous traveling shot—first of a woman biking at night, and then of a car journeying through an urban zone—which flickers between the forward and backward movements. The opposite trajectories become nearly indistinguishable. This not only speaks to the inevitable hybrid-self that exile generates; it also makes the confusion of spaces and movements into a concrete, palpable effect – how constant motion can become a form of “stuckness.” The droning Euro-male voice eventually supersedes the Francophone woman, which tells us something about the assimilation of both forms and standards of identity. This is a major work.

 

[NOTE: At the time of writing, I did not realize that The Estimable Chris Stults had also addressed this work at length. So do yourself a favor and check it out.]

 

Mount Song (Shambhavi Kaul, U.S. / India) [v/s]

A major departure from Kaul’s two previous works, Mount Song is a wide dive into the exotic imaginary, situated somewhere between inquiry and Symbolist poem. Kaul’s camera (and I say “camera” advisedly—this could be entirely made of found footage, but I honestly cannot tell) prowls a series of empty, twilight-time movie sets, some on the verge of collapse. Inasmuch as the first half has a protagonist, it is a rolling fog bank (very much a smoke-machine job) that occasionally works itself up into a legitimate smoke-plume. In the second half, it is replaced in the cast by a hyperreal parrot that eventually becomes a neon energy-form, radiating red and green as it pierces the set-painted “sky.”

 

Mount Song is a bizarre experience, and a bracing one, largely because it eschews expectation. Kaul clearly places no faith in this array of Orientalism and tacky Chinoiserie. But neither is she indicting it, in the manner of, say, Leslie Thornton. Rather there is a sadness to all the half-lit, patently false movie components, set dressing, cheap special effects, and wrongheaded fantasies. They don’t cohere, because they never do: 70s Bollywood, Chinese restaurant, Ray Harryhausen mythology, Shaw Brothers chopsocky, Disneyland, foam boulders, balsawood shutters and plastic fauna. Mount Song draws on some key sources: the plangent glamor of Jack Smith, the haunted meta-popscapes of Michael Robinson, even the acid-damaged pixel-burn of Damon Packard. But Shambhavi has fashioned a field of half-dissolved memories that demands and rewards revisiting. Mount Song is a breakthrough work for a artist who just keeps getting more interesting with every film.

 

Pepper's Ghost (Stephen Broomer, Canada) [s]

 

Shall I compare thee to Michael Snow?

 

(The series is “Wavelengths,” don’tcha know…)

 

Your film has an axis of recessed space

 

but no waves. Just the camera in their place.

 

And since you hail from the Great White North,

 

is it gauche or cliché to cite <-->?

 

The classroom transparencies, bodies of friends,

 

fragment the picture plane, play to the lens.

 

The filtering plastic forms internal frames

 

that transform the scene to a Diebenkorn plane.

 

Reflections refract and refractions reflect;

 

above all it’s whimsy that I can detect.

 

Roll out magenta! Pull down the shades!

 

It signifies rigour, remaining handmade.

 

A stained glass concerto with a keen sense of humour.

 

I like Pepper’s Ghost. Bravo, Mr. Broomer.

 

POSTSCRIPT:

 

The space is an office, though classroom I invok'd;

Poetic license? Mine should be revok'd!

 

/Main Hall (Philipp Fleischmann, Austria) [s]

Fleischmann, who was featured in Wavelengths four years ago with his cyclotronic whirligig Cinematographie, is at it again. His latest, Main Hall, is a spatial examination of the Main Hall of Vienna’s Secession Building (Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1897), one of modernism’s original “white cube” exhibition spaces. As such, its hall-mark (ahem) is neutrality and austerity. Fleischmann developed special cameras designed to maneuver throughout the space, allowing its architectural facticity to imprint itself, with similar neutrality, onto the filmstrip. The result (aside from inevitable light-leaks, scratches and frameline pulses – film impressing itself on the process) is as close as possible to a record of space as its own imperative, apart from any human designs to occupy it. Calling to mind such materialist experiments as David Gatten’s What the Water Said series and Saul Levine’s Light Licks, Main Hall meets Viennese modernist with modular inscription and the poetry of the impersonal. And, as always, the result is paradoxically alive with artifact, incident, and the human touch. No ornament, no crime.

 

Nefandus (Carlos Motta, U.S. / Spain) [v/s]

Carlos Motta’s video is a work of such economy and such theoretical exactitude that it hardly bears criticism. It virtually explicates itself, which is not to say that it is lacking in sensual pleasures or emotional valence. (Far from it.) Consisting almost entirely of a boat trip down the Don Diego River in Colombia, Nefandus is an inquiry into homosexual practices that were common to the peoples indigenous to the area, prior to the arrival of Hispanic colonists who, armed with Leviticus, branded such behaviors “abomination,” and those who engaged in the “sodomites.” More than this, Motta and his collaborator Arregoces Coronado (speaking the local language of Kogi) discuss how the settlers Biblical law instantiated a wholesale remapping of the male body, in which “the anus became the locus of male vulnerability.” The river is the only remaining witness to a centuries-old attempt to erase outlaw desires, but as Motta makes clear, the nefandus (nefarious, anathema) was a force that could never be extinguished. A deeply intelligent, truly righteous film.

 

Trissákia 3 (Nick Collins, U.K.) [s]

This series of still shots begins as an alternation of stone ruins and rusty metal scaffolding, and it vaguely resembles a quarry. As Collins’ camera deepens its investigation, we start to see the faded but surprisingly intact remains of Byzantine frescoes. We are actually looking at the excavated fragments of a 13th century Greek church, and as Trissákia 3 progresses, Collins focuses on two primary elements – details of the paintings peering through the stone walls attempting to reclaim them; and the views from within cave-like interiors, cutting the daytime sky into rounded shapes. Collins’ decision to shoot in silence, and his flattened concatenation of images, makes it difficult to parse the film without contextual information. It reads like a fairly direct record of its maker’s own movement through and discovery of a new space, but that articulation does not come across quite so easily to the curious viewer struggling to find his or her footing.

 

Natpwe (The Feast of the Spirits) (Tiane Doan na Champassak and Jean Dubrel, France / Burma) [m]

Periodically, the Wavelengths shorts programs include a true-blue work of ethnography, one whose connection to the broader aims of the series kind of eludes me. This year it’s Natpwe, a film that dives headlong into a Burmese festival whose partial cultural meaning, it seems, is the unmooring of traditional gender roles (at least for men). The film is beautifully rendered, with crystalline black-and-white photography and a propulsive cadence that is by no means beholden to conventional long-take truth codes. (Not only are jump cuts the order of the day; Champassak and Dubrel make liberal use of slow and fast motion.) Without voiceover, we are left to intuit any larger meaning in individual activities, as well as the festival period as a whole. This gamble, as you might imagine, yields as many problems as rewards, since all we have is a gaze that, by dint of its distance from the spectacle, has to accept partial knowledge and do with it what we will. NOTE: Mark McElhatten is also showing this in Views, so clearly something "important" is happening in this film. Look to others to elucidate it properly.

 

Letter to a Refusing Pilot (Akram Zaatari, Lebanon) [v/m]

Akram Zaatari’s film, commissioned for the Lebanese Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, is a stark, austere meditation on architecture, human responsibility, and the disparity between fact and legend. Based on a story Zaatari heard as a boy which turned out to be true, about an Israeli fighter pilot who recognized a designated Lebanese target as a school and refused to bomb it, Letter to a Refusing Pilot is most surprising because, for the majority of its running time, it is hardly a “letter” in any conventional sense. Starting out in silence as an unseen man draws spare images of buildings on drafting paper, the film maintains a conceit throughout of gloved hands sifting through an archive of images and materials on a light table. That is, we are sorting the past, in relative silence, along with the film. Together with this approach, Zaatari introduces relatively quotidian footage of school grounds, shot with an unnerving formal precision. A central sequence, during which an unassuming abstract sculpture in the courtyard is circled slowly by Zaatari’s accusatory camera, recalls Apichatpong’s Syndromes and a Century. In both cases, normal environments are depicted as if they are radiating historical vibrations of prior misdeeds. Eventually, Letter finds numerous schoolchildren folding their test papers into airplanes and sending them off the roof, as if trying in vain to send some missive across decades of conflict.

 

Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (Alexey Fedorchenko, Russia) [6]

The Mari culture is a western Russian ethnic group positioned along the Volga who, after having nearly been wiped out by enforced Sovietization, is experiencing resurgence due to concerted preservation efforts on the part of contemporary ethnic Maris. The cinema of Alexey Fedorchenko is a key part of this. At the moment, his films may represent the Maris’ biggest cultural presence on the world stage, and a struggling ethnic minority could do a heck of a lot worse. Fedorchenko’s previous film, the achingly beautiful Silent Souls, was a portrait of death and mourning that cast Mari pagan ritual in the context of contemporary society, showing the difficulty of keeping folkways alive. (In a particularly moving sequence, two men, lovers of the deceased, stop to eat fast food on the way back from committing her body to the sea.)

 

Fedorchenko’s follow-up is a 180° turn, almost every bit as celebratory as the prior film was elegiac. Celestial Wives is a collection of 23 vignettes, each centred on a different young peasant woman with a name beginning with O. Not every one of the segments relates directly to sex, but the female body (and the female bawdy) is the dominant motif throughout the film. The structure, style and subject matter produce a curious and disjunctive sensibility – an earthy, voluptuous tone reminiscent of Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan, poured through the funnel of Greenaway’s The Falls. The problem, ultimately, is that Celestial Wives is wildly uneven. Fedorchenko’s aim is to display a panoply of pagan beliefs, alive and thrumming in the now. We see tree spirits planting birds in vaginas, ghosts conjured by sex dances, the permeable wall between the living and the dead, and even an occasional dip into the plangency of Silent Souls. However, just when something compels our attention, it evaporates, and there is a fair amount of baggy material in the middle. If we consider Celestial Wives to be a kind of living showcase, Fedorchenko’s contribution to the excavation and revivification of Mari culture and religion (perhaps a cinematic museum exhibit called “Weird Sex on the Volga”), then the film’s faults are completely forgivable.

 

Child's Pose (Calin Peter Netzer, Romania) [5]

The not-so-New Romanian Cinema is still rocking and rolling, more than a decade after commanding the attention of major Western film festivals. This year the festival features strong entries by Corneliu Porumboiu and Cristi Puiu alongside this perfectly average national-spotlight programmer that, rather remarkably, nabbed the Golden Bear at the Berlinale this past February. Child’s Pose is the sort of film that foregrounds a major event rather than a plot, per se, in the hope that the exploration of said event will allow character nuance and social significance to waft up from cracks in the façade. Another way to put this is, Netzer would like to be making A Separation (another recent Bear awardee), but he doesn’t possess Asghar Farhadi’s dramatic or formal skills.

 

Cornelia (the great Luminita Gheorghiu), a wealthy architect with political connections, has a spoiled-prick son (Bogdan Dumatrache) who despises her, so much so that when he runs a poor kid down on the highway with his BMW, she has to beg him to let her “fix” the situation. What should be a study of post-communist generational conflict, the blithe application of privilege sucking the soul of the young people who actually toppled Ceausescu. Instead, Child’s Pose is a dank, shaky-cam chamber piece filled with personal recriminations that echo no further than the immediate family. That is, until the final fifteen or so minutes, when Cornelia debases herself at the dead child’s wake. Only then does Netzer actually hit upon something substantial, allowing us to watch the distraught woman function as an unwitting synecdoche for a ruling class fighting for its life. Too little too late, but still, it’s power can’t be denied.

 

R100 (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan) [4]

Based on Hitoshi Matsumoto’s track record as both a filmmaker and comedian, we have every right to expect the unexpected. But what’s most surprising about his latest film is the fact that he has chosen to take an ostensibly outré subject (sadomasochism) and turn it into a bland mainstream adventure-comedy. To be sure, there are dollops of off-the-wall humour and genre-bending surrealism in R100. (The title, for instance, is a tongue-in-cheek rating for the film we’re watching, which is also being screened within the film for producers and censors. The implication is that no one under 100 will be admitted, so insert Manoel de Oliveira joke here.) Matsumoto could probably never make a straight-ahead film even if he wanted to. However, all the delightful bits of business – the self-reflexivity, the bone-dry salaryman foibles, the sudden appearance of The Office-style interviews among the dominatrices – are attenuated by a hopelessly tedious A-plot.

 

Takafumi (Nao Ohmori) is a salesman dad whose wife is in a coma, and he signs up for a year’s subscription to a bondage service. The ladies just pop up out of nowhere in daily life to kick the shit out of him, and all is good until they being crossing over into his work and family life. It’s not just that Takafumi isn’t a compelling character; he wouldn’t need to be, if Matsumoto treated R100 like a manga. The problem is that this dominant thread is so unimaginatively rendered that there’s little to do except trainspot all the possibly-unintentional references. (“Oh, this is like Fight Club meets The Game.” “This is sort of like the point in Audition when it goes from Ozu to torture porn.” “I think this is his Sion Sono riff.” Etc.) I suppose one could read R100 allegorically. The boredom of life (the film) is momentarily ruptured by bits of jarring, interstitial business (the S/M attacks). But then, if that were the case, they would take control of the film, which they most certainly do not. What does take over is “The Queen of Gobbling,” about which the less said the better. As one of the angry producers protests, “Is that even an S/M thing?” No, but it’s a cheap way to tie up loose ends.

 

The Dog (Sarah Berg and Frank Keraudren) [6]

Over a decade in the making, The Dog is a relatively straightforward profile of John Wojtowicz, the infamous bank robber immortalized in Dog Day Afternoon. Chiefly constructed around extended interviews with Wojtowicz, The Dog benefits immensely from the man’s natural charisma. But the real star of the film is time. It’s not just that we witness both John and his mother Teresa as they become older and frailer, their minds and memories nevertheless remaining razor sharp. The fact of the matter is, Wojtowicz’s life choices were largely illegible to the millions of contemporaries who watched the bank heist unfold in 1972. He and his partner Liz Eden (née Ernie Aron) became a spectacle for an American culture only three years out from Stonewall and still not capable of interpreting gay life, much less transgender identity.

 

In fact, as Wojtowicz explains and we see in tense post-robbery clips between John and Liz, even the two of them had trouble negotiating the meaning of their own relationship in terms of sexual identity. (John never stops referring to Liz as “Ernie,” which is not intended as an offense. He just never came to terms with the fact that he experienced homosexual desire for a trans woman.) This illegibility of the pair in the mainstream media meant that, for example, most people at the time remained unaware that Wojtowicz was a gay liberation activist, working for civil rights and marriage equality alongside the likes of Vito Russo. But even more than a recoding of Wojtowicz’s past, though, The Dog is fascinating for its illumination of who the man was during and after his incarceration. Again, historical distance allows Berg and Keraudren to shift the lens on “The Dog,” offering a look not at a celebrity criminal, but at the final years of an intelligent, working-class polysexual pioneer.

 

Salvation Army (Abdellah Taïa, France / Morocco) [7]

In a perfect world, film festivals would be filled with debut films as disciplined and poetic as Salvation Army, a film that first-time director Taïa adapted from his own autobiographical novel. This fact alone should be cause for consideration. How many filmmakers wallow in the self-indulgent excesses of autobiography? So few are capable of accomplishing what Taïa does here, which is to regard his own story with relative objectivity. His young on-screen surrogate (Said Mrini), first seen growing up in a large family in Morocco, is shown negotiating various structures which are supra-individual and which exist neither to victimize him nor to inculcate him into adulthood. He sneaks away from his troubled clan to hide in abandoned buildings and have sex with random men, his lack of affect alerting us to Abdellah’s recognition that desire operates within an economy, emotional engagement being only a secondary concern (at best). When the film skips ahead to the adult Abdellah (Karim Ait M’hand) and his relationship with a Swiss professor, we can witness the impact of these early lessons of gender and ethnic inequality on the grown man, as he attempts to transition from opportunist to stable citizen in a society that still views him with suspicion. Salvation Army avoids the usual pitfalls of political cinema, precisely because Taïa is able to remain focused on particulars, the overwhelming feel of things. (Agnes Godard’s cinematography certainly helps in this regard.) But at the same time, Taïa makes sure that we see those specifics as nodes within objective historical formations, in which there are no enemies or smug tellers of truth, only people trying to make their best available move.

 

Three Interpretation Exercises (Cristi Puiu, France / Romania) [6]

[excerpt from an upcoming Fandor feature] The film is dedicated to the late Eric Rohmer (much like another recent actor-driven work, Dan Sallitt’s great The Unspeakable Act). We see two characters arriving at a friend’s house, with a street ad in the background that reads “vices et virtus,” perhaps a sly joke on Rohmer’s Moral Tales. Although Puiu’s film is not explicitly Rohmerian, what the director and his collaborators do attempt, as mentioned above, is a movement between situation-driven interaction, on the one hand, and lengthy passages of philosophical discussion. This material is based on the book Three Conversations by Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, which Puiu brought to the workshop as the proposed basis for the team’s improv exercises. What we witness throughout the Three Exercises is the difficulty of articulating broad philosophical ideas through dramatic dialogue, making the conversations sound spontaneous, or at least like the expounded views of the person delivering them. Can abstraction be the basis for character, or does the film have to stop in its tracks to become “something else”? In the first section, Puiu emphasizes the stilted quality of the discussion about death and God, by having a fourth character (Jean-Benoît Poirier), a working-class military man, obviously alienated from the proceedings. Meanwhile, in the second section, the four participants jump right in to talking about the nature of Christian vs. non-Christian peace, so there is no “normal grounding.”

 

Then, when they are all relaxing in front of the TV, we see that they are commenting on the relative merits (“artistic” or “boring”) of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Trpoical Malady. So, Puiu has pulled a bit of a trick. Can the philosophy possibly be more “tedious” than film criticism? In the end, Three Interpretation Exercises brings all of its characters to one location for a séance. They are positioned around a table, asked by their hostess (Hillary Keegin) to remain still, open themselves up to their surroundings, and basically adopt an experimental attitude. In a sense, the end of the film is a kind of looping-back to the beginning of the project, one that we never saw but that is most likely quite familiar to the participants. (The film ends with one of the actors letting out a chuckle.) What we have seen is that, by working through both the scenarios and the Solovyov texts, the actors and Puiu have experimented with the limits of diegetic plausibility, as well as the conditions under which different genres of material (dramatic, philosophical, theological, mundane) can be interwoven into a viable master-text; or the points at which those genres necessarily pull a text apart, representing cracks and ruptures in a cohesive diegesis. (For Ciobanu’s part, his cinematography explores the degree to which camerawork can smooth out, or exacerbate, those anomalies.) So if anything is “conjured” during this truncated séance, it’s the echt-French problem of textuality.

 

The Battle of Tabatô (João Viana, Portugal / Guinea-Bissau) [5]

Not exactly the worthiest inclusion in this year's very strong Wavelengths slate, but by no means terrible, The Battle of Tabatô is one of those films -- Haroun's A Screaming Man is another -- that is so overwhelmed by a local political situation that it ultimately results in a muddle. Viana has a lot to say, but he cannot seem to decide whether to approach the subject matter directly, with a Afro-Brechtian disquisition on the continual instability and bloodshed that has plagued Guinea-Bissau, or if he should weave some sort of allegory. By opting for a kind of murky combination, both he and the viewer become engulfed with different kinds of data, none of which can actually have the desired impact. The frame story, about an elder musician (Mutar Djebaté) whose life (and mind) have been destroyed by civil unrest attempting a reconciliation with his daughter Fatu (Fatu Djebaté) on the eve of her wedding, is muted and awkward. Viana's black and white cinematography, the still camera angles and slow, patient elaboration of story and theme, indicate that we are supposed to take this personal tale as one of traumatized time, while also observing it at a cinematic remove. But when a sudden event shifts the focus to Fatu's fiancé Idrissa (Mamadu Baio) and the local music scene he leads, it seems as though Tabatô is supposed to come to life. But everything remains too wan and flat for any genuine emotional epiphany to occur. We only see what Viana intended, and as a result, the film fails to engage as it might have. Personally, I came away wanting to learn more about the situation in Guinea-Bissau, but only because The Battle of Tabatô neither informed nor elicited catharsis. It provided an outline for some other film to be.

 

A Field in England (Ben Wheatley, U.K.) [6]

Given the unrepentant genre-blending that forms the backbone of Cinema Wheatley, it was only a matter of time until the director and his co-screenwriter / editor Amy Jump hit upon at least one area of film history that I'm personally invested in. This is far and away Wheatley's weirdest film yet (although admittedly I haven't seen Down Terrace yet), but I feel like I can catch its general drift, even if its moment-to-moment maneuvers elude me. A Field in England strikes me very definitively as a psychedelic Peter Watkins film, a Cullodenesque riff on historical reconstruction as slapdash vérité. As with Watkins, Wheatley abjures the sweeping epic vocabulary of traditional historical cinema, and in doing so provides a hypothetical bug's eye view of existence in a period that we can only visualize from paintings, etchings and history books (in this case, the 17th century English Civil War). But Watkins infused his documentary style with ironic BBC News gestures, like direct-address, "man in the field" interviews and voiceover that positions the "producer" as a kind of organizing op-ed intelligence. Here, Wheatley is interested in creating an atmosphere of horror and dread, and so the camera is regarded as a neutral, invisible observer of a nasty, brutish and (chemically) protracted episode in caste-entrenched cruelty. O'Neil (Michael Smiley) demands that the other underlings, deserters and cowards capitulate to his lash, follow his orders and find a hypothetical treasure in the middle of the titular field, in the middle of the very battle most of them are aching to escape, while bombs explode around them and bullets whiz by. The breakdown of civilization's final shards, and what little remains of the men's sanity -- these are crises that Wheatley doesn't so much depict or have his performers enact. Rather, this collapse is inscribed on the filmstrip (or digital raster) itself. If there's a frustration here, or rather a shortcoming in the project as constructed, it's that A Field in England begins by erecting a great deal of textual and situational scaffolding, all of which seems to fall away (or apart) in the end. (Another point of comparison I thought of aside from Watkins was Andrew Repasky McElhinny's 2000 film A Chronicle of Corpses, which operates in a similar vein. Wheatley's film is far more accomplished, however.) The film is an unraveller, by design, but it's difficult not to think that everything that Wheatley used to engage us for an hour was a random signifier, a Monty Python S/M revue staged as its own inside joke.