REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, APRIL through JUNE 2014
All films from U.S.A. unless
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
Story of My Death (Albert Serra, Spain / France)
By contrast, Story of My Death lays out certain terms from the jump, and holds onto them, regardless of how thoroughgoing their illusionism may be. This is the first of Serra's features that makes extensive use of interiors, specifically the home of Casanova (Vicenç Altaió), and its combination of period-appropriate fixtures and general grime provides the first sign that we are not in the realm of the "manor house" film. Serra's use of somewhat dissolute decor and unadorned camerawork provides a sense of dual distanciation. We can never be sure whether the filmmaker has chosen to use just enough period signification (and just enough cash) to provide viewers with the basic idea of the late 18th century; or whether Serra is trying to actively subvert the illusory grandeur typically afforded to this era by cinema and literature, by making it brute in its normalcy. When we see the cracks in Casanova's aristocratic face paint, or retire with him to his boudoir to watch as he struggles to drop a deuce in his bedside chamber pot, we can be fairly certain that Serra is providing us with a dip into revisionist Romanticism. However, the unspectacular depiction of the manor's front elevation, closed in with encroaching, unkempt foliage as the old ladies' man peers through the windows to whack off, or the cinematographic insistence on the institutional inelegance of the interior hallways, are enough to jostle us from any narrative hypnosis. Casanova's world is ornate but waning, and like the libertine himself, its time has passed.
Serra displays this shift in the Zeitgeist through architectural decay, but also through a change in locale. Story of My Death has Casanova and his entourage leave his compound for a plein-air vacation in the Carpathians, a move which proves decisive. The second half of the film belongs to Dracula (Eliseu Huertas), a daywalker who nevertheless does his best work by night. He takes possession of the women (and young men) with his imposing stare, the mark of his bite -- in the most basic terms possible, a dark, inexplicable magic. As Jesse Cataldo has correctly pointed out in his review for Slant, Serra largely defines the two halves of Story through qualities of light, the Casanova section bright and even to the point of being an overall flat matte, and the Dracula half being, of course, steeped in an inky darkness. Like some key moments in Birdsong, there are passages in the second half of Story which push the medium to its limits of visual definition, black on black so subtle the figures barely register. But this is precisely the point: the Age of Enlightenment is waning, and the superstition of the Gothic era is on its way. Naturally, the film leads up to Casanova's death; the title is adapted from the great lover's own memoir, "Story of My Life." However, a film so personal begs the question of what other meanings the title might hold. Serra is a decidedly rationalist filmmaker, doomed to create his art in an age when "movie magic" is the order of the day. In all realms of endeavor, the masses crave illusion. And so, the collapse of the Enlightenment could be the story of Serra's own death as well, one he survives through a kind of marginal artistic vampirism.
Burning Bush (Agnieszka Holland, Czech Republic) [TV]
Fort Morgan (Alexander Stewart) [s]
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland / Denmark)
A patient and well-crafted little film, Ida has modest, old fashioned pleasures. These are in danger of being overlooked due to the film's confusing reception; it appears to be on track to win the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, which is pretty silly. But Pawlikowski's film was a sleeper hit at a time when the graying audience for foreign films has largely given up, coaxed away by the less taxing "foreignness" of British costume dramas and Exotic Marigold Hotels. It's a film with a very basic premise -- Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novitiate about to take her vows, is sent out into the world by her Mother Superior, where she meets her lone surviving relative, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a former judge under the Communist regime. Anna discovers that she is in fact Ida, a Jew whose parents hid her in a Catholic orphanage during World War II. Although nothing resembling warmth or a friendship develops between the two women (Wanda is far too damaged for that), the experience of meeting this link to her true past opens "Ida" up to new experiences, and permits her to commit to God with a more thoroughgoing, existential knowledge of what she is leaving behind. Pawlikowski, who has never much impressed me as a stylist, accomplishes a great deal here with an almost classical restraint: stark black and white cinematography, Academy ratio, and a pervasive quiet even in the film's most conventionally dramatic moments. Todd McCarthy's "Hollywood Reporter" review compared Ida to Dreyer, and others bandied Bresson's name around. But no, there's something fundamentally second-hand here, a sense that Pawlikowski is forging a simulacrum of the "serious" art cinema of the 1960s (when the story is set) as a signposting maneuver. There is nothing organic in the fragility or tension these women, or these compositions, exude. This in itself is no dealbreaker; Ida is a well-appointed short story, a unique approach to a familiar tale of post-communist reckoning (given that religion and identity become possessions either bestowed or taken away by an utterly disinterested other). But this handsome effort is not particularly deep, and confirms Pawlikowski as a cinematic magpie on par with Winterbottom, Ozon and Tywker.
Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina / Denmark / France / Mexico / U.S. / Germany / Brazil)
I went long on Jauja and Alonso more generally for Cargo. Since that piece hasn't appeared in English so far as I know, I'll post it here.
Joe (David Gordon Green)
Judging from the comment someone left on my Nashville Scene review, I am an elitist who is too blinkered by snobbery to truly appreciate films like Pineapple Express and Your Highness. So be it. Although Joe ends up going a bit over the top in the end -- male-weepie territory, with a self-destructive romantic bent that seems to follow Cage from project to project, regardless of its narrative function -- this is DGG's best work in years.
Picture Perfect Pyramid (Johann Lurf, Austria) [s]
There are so many Vienna-based film artists (particularly those in the orbit of the sixpack film distribution collective) whose work stems from late structuralist principles, and at times the sheer volume of this output can be somewhat overwhelming. There is a wide variety of quality in this work; not all artists on the Austrian scene are created equal, the same as any avant-garde group anywhere in the world. But there is such a definitive set of operating assumptions within this milieu about medium specificity, modularity, and the clean foregrounding of mathematical organization, that it can start to seem like one big national effort. That is, if film and video are systems with built-in capacities and limitations, it should be possible to make "all the films," that is, every formal permutation on this cinema of structure. The odd sense of stylistic and conceptual kinship, bordering on a "house style," can make it difficult to discern a Fruhauf from a Pfaffenbichler, a Marxt from a Mattuschka. But some folks are absolute originals in every context. Their work displays a personal sensibility that is legible in everything they do. Johann Lurf is one such filmmaker, which is why he is one of the major new voices in Austrian cinema.
Danny Kasman's article on Lurf in Cinema Scope #58 (not online, sadly) is a much better summation of the importance and originality of Lurf's work than I could offer here. But just looking closely at one of Lurf's most recent efforts helps to clarify what is buzzing beneath the surface of even his most placid films. Like so many of Lurf's short films, Picture Perfect Pyramid is based on a rather simple idea. But the more you look at it, the more complex its implications become. At the literal center of this film is a glass and steel pyramid, some tacky building somewhere on the outskirts of Vienna. It bears superficial comparison with I.M. Pei's postmodern pyramid entryway to the Louvre, but clearly it is a piece of crass commercial architecture that arrogates to itself the role of a local monument or landmark. It's probably part of a hotel, or a church or bank. What PPP does is to present 24 individual, fixed frame shots from various points in the city. In each, the pyramid is visible, sometimes in medium range, at other times in the deep distance. Lurf has taken a single shot for each of the day's 24 hours, and has moved around this structure like a clock, showing how it imposes itself like an ever-present civil hub for unclear visual meaning. Moving around the pyramid, from the light to the dark and back, we see that Lurf is taking the concept of the normal, "everyday" aspect of landscape and turning it into the inevitable, the huge local eyesore that seems to follow you wherever you turn. In this regard, PPP shares certain affinities with John Smith's The Black Tower, a film in which a narrator sees the same rooftop object ("following him") everywhere he goes. But Lurf's response to urban cinematography is not about imagining what might be there, and what it might mean. He doesn't psychologize the pyramid. Instead it regards the pyramid as a kind of metonymic sentry, lording over Vienna and reminding its citizens that our dumbest, most ridiculous societal choices will eventually stand over and above us, a kind of Marxist alienation that looks like there might have been actual aliens involved.
Let the Circle Be Unbroken . . . This was a very strange and unique experimental feature that I had the pleasure of viewing at Rice University's Indian Experimental Film Festival, TITLES 3. I had not previously heard of Avikunthak or his work, but I was duly rewarded, and Rati is the kind of film that often interests me most. For the first fifteen to twenty minutes, I had no idea where it was going: it exhibited a bizarre formal tic that was nervewracking because I could not tell whether or not Ashish was going to break from it or continue. Furthermore, the script is written in a stilted prose that is positioned halfway between storytelling and ritual chant. Since the tone and delivery commits fully to neither, Rati comes out of the gate as being weird, unlocatable and a little amateurish. It is as though some semblance of verisimilitude were being attempted, and not achieved; or the work were in the realm of a religious performance that either I had inadequate cultural experience to access, or just wasn't coming across as intended. In short, the start of the film seems like a UFO. What does Rati Chakravyuh want from me, or want me to take from it? Once I (and others, judging from reactions in the theatre) made it over the cognitive hump, and grasped what the film was going to do, its unusual pleasures could begin insinuating themselves.
With Rati Chakravyuh, Ashish has created a film that consists of 13 people -- six couples and a priestess, although one would be hard-pressed to detect this from simply watching the film -- sitting in a circle on a temple floor. They are participating in a sort of round-robin conversation that is more like an incantation or a performance, with some phrases or statements building on what has gone before, some repeating the previous phrase(s), and still others engaging in a "memory game" whereby an extensive catalog of elements or entities is added to with each new speaker. Everyone sounds off in turn. No one makes eye contact, although everyone is delivering their speech to the center of the circle. This goes on, in a single unbroken circular tracking shot, for 90 minutes. Rati is a one-take film that slowly winds around its subjects, just as those subject gradually wind around their own personal, spiritual, and historical preoccupations. A fair amount of the dialogue pertains to the conundrum of embodiment, how Hinduism inspires transcendence while at the same time making space for goddesses like the titular Rati, who is associated with sexual pleasure and arousal. Body parts are listed and begin to form a sort of profane prayer, sparing no zones of anatomy. But at the same time, this group of inductees to Rati's mysterious order are also channeling memories and experiences that are trans- or supra-individual, becoming conduits for a shared political history. Several direct references are made to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and at one point the collective takes on the voice of someone who is struggling to survive in the middle of a riot. While the speakers keep their references oblique, it is rather clear that they are alluding to the mid-70s state of emergency, Operation Blue Star, and other anti-Muslim and anti-Sikh putsches by the Gandhi government.
Eventually, the incantation comes to an end, after these 12 newlyweds and one keeper of the temple have together plumbed the depths of India's recent troubles. The conflict, it seems, is insoluble. How can a people maintain a connection to an identity forged in myths of fecundity and oblivion, gods and goddesses with all-too-human foibles, when the political present affords only the opportunity to destroy everything -- carnal joy, civilization, the wisdom of the past and the promise of the future -- in the name of religion? If you are fighting to survive, can you think about what your god is? Can your body be anything other than an antenna for the reception of pain? So, at the end of this ritual, these couples seal their vows through suicide. It is not the most promising, or the most politically progressive conclusion to a very odd and circumspect film. It could be said that Ashish throws up his hands, deciding as his characters's creator-deity, to remove them from an impure world rather than break the circle and subject them to the ravages of linear, historical time. But this is a legitimate move, cinematically as well as spiritually, since the circle itself implies that, once ended, it will re-form on a newer, higher plane. As a teeth-gritting materialist, it's hard for me to wrap my heart around this, but my head certainly gets the point. The closed seal, a bulwark against the filthy present, is a defensive action. And in fact, the title's second word "chakravyuh" refers to a circular military formation, referred to in the Mahabharata.
Tom At The Farm (Xavier Dolan, Canada / France)
Screw the backlash; I like this Dolan fellow. Granted, it's taken some time for him to hit his stride, which is more than reasonable given his dauntingly young age. (The fact that Dolan has completed no less than five highly acclaimed films by the age of 25 is remarked upon a little too frequently, a bit of the "talking dog" syndrome. It doesn't matter to some what Dolan has said so much as that he has said so much of it so soon. But of course this has its drawbacks. We are all watching Dolan grow up in public, and this Fassbinderian pace of productivity takes its toll over time as we know.) As much as I found Dolan's second film Heartbeats to be a kind of Godardian meringue of empty stylistic calories, the man edged into the terrain of the personal epic, with solid and occasionally staggering results. Lawrence Anyways, some have claimed, was a film Dolan made for the express purpose of getting into the Competition line-up at Cannes. And while the filmmaker may have come up short in that particular professional goal (UCR, baby, but next time, I swear!), this ambition no doubt helped Dolan to forge Lawrence, a rare, intellectually acute dual-character study of a love affair as its participants span a seismic shift. This change -- the man in the pair realizing he is trans* and beginning his life as a woman -- is both central to Lawrence and a prism through which a multitude of other social and emotional inequities are rendered visible. The nearly three-hour length is precisely the sort of "excess" that those predisposed against Dolan's filmmaking pointed to as Exhibit X, proof of the director's hubris and bombast. But it was precisely Lawrence's capaciousness that allowed it to explore class anxiety, feminism, mother / son --> mother / daughter dynamics, and other intersectional matters in sufficient depth. It wasn't the flat-out masterpiece it strove to be, but at least it displayed an all too rare commodity these days: intelligent rage.
This emotion is aimed in a new direction in Tom At The Farm, and Dolan takes an altogether different tack without diluting his fierce energy one iota. This is a film about homicidal homophobia, the sort that is often unconsciously relegated to some unenlightened past. Even though of course we know better than this -- any cursory research will set the record straight -- many of us hold fast to the idea that violence against GLBTQ people has mostly given way to acceptance (especially in liberal Canada) because this self-congratulatory lie, that "it" really has gotten better, makes it so much easier to sleep at night.
I am always at a bit of a loss when writing about Lertxundi's films, and I'm not sure why. Taken bit by bit, they don't seem particularly mysterious. This 2014 film, for example, is composed of several semi-detached parts, all of which seem to engage, however obliquely, with visual tropes of the Western United States, particularly California and Arizona. Lertxundi has been developing a style that bears certain affinities with L.A. art and the classic experimental film scene of Northern California, in particular a treatment of light quality and temporality that I hesitate to call "haze," but it somehow seems to fit. It's a glow, a relaxed pace, and an open sense of construction that allows diverse filmic elements to sit alongside each other in anti-deterministic compositions, rather than submitting everything to a more concrete aesthetic dominant. I guess I could say Lertxundi makes mood pieces, but that language sounds weak somehow, as if the films were comprised of some sort of aerosol mist. They are actually quite study in their open form. We Had The Experience even goes so far is to bifurcate its title, presenting its contrastive phrase in the dead center of the film, Apichatpong style.
So I can hover around We Had The Experience, hinting at what it is by suggesting what it's not, but that makes the film sound far more ineffable than it really is. What Lertxundi actually does with this film is to move her camera around a yellow-beige SoCal-ish apartment as a young woman waters plants. The sound of pouring water is much louder than it should be, and is just a touch out of sync with the woman's actions, so we know this isn't direct cinematic reportage. The woman's movements push her in and out of the camera's focus, which finally zeroes in on a shower window -- this while the young woman "waters" herself, fully clothed. The next sequence is the most complex in the film: a female voiceover reads a passage from Bioy Casares' All Men Are the Same, pertaining to the speaker's relationship to someone named Veronica. As the speech wafts through ardor into obsessive hyperbole, it becomes clear that the speaker compares each and every woman he / she meets to Veronica, and possibly sees Veronica in them. The visual information Lertxundi uses to accompany this recitation is a superimposition. We see a medium shot of crashing ocean waves, blended with a "portrait" of a chair in the middle of a driveway, flanked by two people, the one on the left holding a mirror to manipulate the sunlight.
The window, waves, and chair all suggest an homage to Michael Snow's Wavelength, which is partly confirmed in the third passage. This section is characterized by constant motion, but motion interrupted. It's filmed in alleyways and sidestreets, outside and behind various California apartment complexes; in these nondescript locales Lertxundi carries us backward via a number of truncated tracking shots. The camera keeps pulling us back, providing a broader sense of the environment(s) where the apartment at the start of the film might be. But each reverse-track runs for a few seconds, only to be replaced by another street, another neighborhood. Film grammar tells us Lertxundi is comparing these areas through editing. But the jolt of the interrupted tracking shots has the opposite effect. We're slammed hard into the irreducible singularity of these places, almost as if we were bumping into them. Whereas Snow's forward zoom tended to homogenize space (even while his filters and film stocks made it heterogeneous), Lertxundi uses a gliding staccato to imbue mundane spaces with a kind of affectionate impermanence.
In a way, this could be said to set the stage for the final segment of the film, which is about taking one very specific piece of scenery and absorbing it, making it a personal totem. We are shown super-8 film of a Southwestern landscape projected onto a fractured white surface. The scale of the image and the pseudo-screen are not apparent until later in the shot, so until we see fingers turning pages, we can't tell that the image is being projected inside a book. Of course, this means that the presumably large film image is tiny; this is all the more ironic, since the primary image on this internal film is a mesa cutting its figure against the cloudless blue sky. By panning up, Lertxundi makes this miniature land formation drop out of the frame like a setting sun. Projecting this "home movie" in a blank book, as a kind of journal entry, provides a striking image, and a metaphorical one. Film captures memories and in so doing reduces them to our own needs. If we so desire, we can reduce the big world to a set of signs, always at the ready for our use. But at the same time, we are capable of making them significant, of slicing them out of the flux of time and preserving them, through memory and love. Perhaps this is one way Lertxundi proposes that we don't miss the meaning.
Promises Written in Water -- This is the first film I've seen of Marxt, and while it's deceptively simple, it's the sort of work that reveals multiple conceptual layers the more you look at it. In a way it's a performance document. Taken in one single shot, from a stationary camera position, the film looks out over a lake hemmed in by a rocky shore. We hear radio communication as an "offscreen" or voiceover accompaniment to the otherwise near-silent aural ambiance. We then observe a motorboat as it enters the frame from the right-hand side of the screen. The boat heads to the center of the shot (which is roughly the middle of this craggy inlet, as far as the onscreen space allows us to see), and starts doing doughnuts. The boat zooms in a series of tightening circles, creating a spiral pattern of disrupted white froth in its wake. This is essentially all that Reign of Silence does, apart from its general sonic maneuver of taking a virtually isolated pocket of nature and lending it a manmade "soundtrack." Marxt's piece inevitably calls to mind Robert Smithson's titanic earthwork "Spiral Jetty," and not only because of the whorl pattern adopted by the marine craft. Whereas Smithson's jetty was designed to become a part of its natural surroundings, but one with a certain semi-permanence -- taking its place among the elements with a self-appointed "geological time" -- Marxt's gesture is immediately impermanent. The boat may stir up some silt on the bottom of the lake, but basically the operation is a moment of temporary drawing -- a "magic writing pad" combined with an "oceanic feeling." Marxt is interacting with the natural scene in a different time frame, that of liquidity. Now, we know that gasoline motors are bad for the environment, that they have an impact. But that impact (like the long term erosion of "Spiral Jetty") is not immediate. What is immediate is the registration of Marxt's action on DV. In fact, the lines trailing behind the boat are secondary traces, memory-lags that mirror the transformation of the surface-movement into "art." That is, circling in the boat and displacing the water is a physical action, a first-order act. Reign of Silence is something else, a representation. Like the boat and the displacement trail, the time differential between the two may be negligible, a matter of milliseconds.But it's this space that permits thinking itself, the assertion of uniquely human time.
As timing would have it, I find myself jotting down my thoughts on this very mediocre Egoyan film not long after the director's latest, The Captive, laid an egg at Cannes. (This prompted the inevitable "What happened?" discussions, with perplexed cinephiles trying to suss out how the auteur behind Speaking Parts, Calendar, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter had lost his touch so magnificently. See also: Wenders, Wim.) Speaking as an unreliable witness (i.e., someone who found more to like in Where the Truth Lies, a designated Egoyan "turkey," than most others), I didn't think Devil's Knot was a complete waste of time. Oh, make no mistake -- it's not a good film by any means. First of all, it's profoundly unnecessary, yet another cinematic iteration of the sad story of the West Memphis Three. After the extensive reportage of the Berlinger / Sinofsky Paradise Lost trilogy, and the recent Cliffs Notes summation doc West of Memphis, it's hard to know what a fictional account could add to the mix. Having said that, one could imagine that Egoyan, firing on all cylinders, might have been the man for the job. His greatest films, after all, have been precisely about the nexus of private trauma and the public negotiation of that psychic wound, the question of whether one is coping with loss "appropriately" in the eyes of others. Had Egoyan found a way to focus Devil's Knot on the character of Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the grieving mother of one of the murdered boys, the film could have been a multilayered interrogation of mob mentality, Christian fundamentalism vs. Christ-like forgiveness and acceptance, and the eventual growth than comes with living with profound pain. Others in the community (including the police) became even more entrenched in their concept of who they were -- an "us" battling an equally certain "them" -- in the wake of the murders. Only Hobbs came by her doubt through a palpable ache for justice rather than retribution. But alas, Devil's Knot ignores Hobbs to a large extent, spending as much time if not more on investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth), whose interviews and search for hard evidence is practically a galumphing cinematic prop for exposition on the case. It's not just that Firth makes for a comical American Southerner (although he shore do!). His crime-procedural plot grinds Devil's Knot to a halt every time it shows up. That's a problem, because the Lax narrative is apparently supposed to be the motor which makes this a "real movie" and not an artsy mood piece about brooding and loss. Near the conclusion, Lax and Hobbs meet by the lake where the murders took place, allowing Witherspoon to recap virtually the entire plot up to that point, which just shows how poorly constructed this film is. Was half of Devil's Knot studio-mandated after a bad test screening? Were there two directors working independently of each other, an Exquisite Corpse game resolved by a hack editor? The result is a sub-Lifetime Original Movie with A-list talent, but you can still see what might have been. Someday soon, when the pressure's off, Atom Egoyan will haul off and make a late-career masterwork. But I suspect he'll need to stop taking on "important things."
Butter On the Latch (Josephine Decker)
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (Josephine Decker)
I usually refrain from double reviews, but the specific programming of these two films at the Nashville Film Festival (a double Decker, har har) required it. As I try to make clear in my piece for the Scene, Decker's directorial style is strange enough that I truly suspect she might become an interesting artist. That said, it's also quite possible that I'll never share her concerns enough to ever really cotton to her work. Nevertheless, Decker is the classic "subject for further research."