REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, APRIL 2006
All films from U.S.A.
unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
[MINOR SPOILERS] Well, here's a picture I never in a million years expected to love. I mean, greet with nodding admiration, maybe, or perhaps yawn intermittently while appreciating the awe-inspiring Tibetan vistas. But reports from Rotterdam 05 sort of hinted that this was something more than what it appeared, and to cynical old me, what it appeared to be was Eastern exoticism and mystical shit for aging yuppified hippies, the sort of film that opens at the Shattuck in Berkeley and plays there until the night before it's released on DVD. (Think Himalaya, or the Rom films of Tony Gatlif.) Those positive early reports were correct, and then some. Kekexili is, in fact, an Eastern-set eco-Western, with a tight, brisk genre structure that would have made John Ford proud. Almost immediately our audience-surrogate urban journalist (Zhang Lei) falls in with the secret brotherhood of the Mountain Patrol, a roving band of vigilantes hellbent on protecting Tibet's dwindling antelope population against vicious poachers. The Patrol squad is led by the taciturn Ritai (Duobuji), a steely-eyed bad-ass with the leathery mien and swagger of Clint Eastwood, and just a hint of Koji Yakusho's depressive existentialism. Part of what makes Kekexili work is that Lu adopts the primal force of the Western and harnesses it for new ends, but in doing so he underlines the futility and anachronism of the Mountain Patrol's honorable efforts, not unlike the "late" Westerns of Ford or Eastwood. Lu keeps the action coming (it's worth noting that this is a studio picture, from Columbia Asia, in art-film's clothing), but his visual style delves into Western iconography -- the low horizons of Ford, the extreme disparity between foreground and background of Leone -- lends every shot a stony inevitability. The physical weight of the land is there, but Lu's primal organization -- poachers vs. enforcers, with semi-sentient MacGuffins in the balance -- makes the action automatic, not tethered by some misplaced symbolism or quaint Eastern primitivism. It would have been so easy for this film to play the exoticism card, making these men into weatherbeaten sherpas or loading them down like pack animals with the leaden seriousness that those aforementioned hippies demand of its screen Tibetans. But instead, these men are driven, fallible, and prone to cracking the occasional smile. It ends badly, because after all, these are men whose time has come to a close. (Chinese gray-market capitalism is the thankfully-unnamed backdrop, and any allegorical significance in relation to China's occupation of Tibet is left to be inferred or not as you wish.) But by this point Lu has accomplished something all too rare -- he's delivered a deft, skillful portrait of non-idealized, deeply human heroes.
Lots of filmmakers who began their careers working in 16mm, and exploring the specific properties of that medium, have turned to digital video in recent years. Unfortunately, some have stumbled, and others are still finding their way. This makes sense; after all, video is as different from celluloid as the saxophone is from the cello, despite the widespread discourse around "transmedia" interchangeability. For an example of an artist exploring the aesthetic possibilities of video to their fullest, one need look no further than Vincent Grenier and his recent work. He's not just "working in video." He's a true video artist, and North Southernly is a subtle, complex study in the textures and gradations of layered video imagery. It's a landscape piece that takes one of the properties of video that's usually seen as a drawback -- its tendency to flatten out deep space -- and treats it as an occasion for dense, painterly modernism. Grenier cites an interest in 13th century Chinese painting as an influence on this piece, and that only serves to emphasize the connections between early Asian art's perspectival ambiguity and the spatial push-pull of certain Abstract Expressionists. North Southernly's surface is agitated but coaxed to evolve slowly, different qualities of light flattened out into jagged yet airy spatio-temporal juxtapositions, off-whites and peach-oranges melding with deeper, more saturated nighttime colors. The image track is so subtle that at first Grenier's choice of soundtrack struck me as defiantly perverse. John Cage's "Credo" is a percussion piece that incorporates jolts of found sound from all manner of popular music. So, in a way, North Southernly presents the viewer with a sort of Philip Guston canvas in time, then throw some hip-hop at you. Bizarre. But, over time, it begins to make perfect sense. Even though the piece is an interface between two "Asian" aesthetics (Cage always having claimed a Buddhist lineage for his practice), there's an undeniable Charles Ives feeling -- the enfolding and collision of discrete sonic and pictorial spaces into surprising new wholes -- that manages to be both serene and exhilarating. [NOTE: I really need to see this piece again, not only because its modulations are so spectral and incremental, but because Cornell Cinema's video projector really wasn't up to the task.]
Brian Belovarac was right, that (thank god or the devil or whoever) finally we've got a contemporary music doc that actually concerns itself with visual aesthetics. Feuerzeig seems to be a close student of the films of Errol Morris, not in the sense of how he constructs arguments or subtly guides his interviewees, but more in the way he uses themes and motifs (the rolling cassette tapes, the comic book images, and Daniel's parents' lower-middle-class Southern Christian decor) to bring Johnston and his world into focus. Feuerzeig demonstrates that, far from being an "outsider" artist, Johnston in many ways completely representative of the rather repressive environment that helped form him. He's the Bizarro face of conservative Christianity -- chaste, pining, doe-eyed, longing to break free but too fearful of the consequences. It was interesting seeing this film and The Notorious Bettie Page on the same day, since both films observe a respectful distance toward their subjects. Yes, Feuerzeig "psychologizes" Johnston, foregrounding his struggles with mental illness, particularly the toll this has taken on his loyal, exhausted elderly parents. But at the same time The Devil and Daniel Johnston never tells the audience what we're supposed to think about Johnston's creative talents. We hear from numerous friends and fans who adore Johnston's plaintive, Casio-plinking songs, and we see snippets of concert footage. But there's very little analysis or explication of the Johnston phenomenon. (Compare this with something like the They Might Be Giants doc, where articulate expert-witnesses tell you why the band are geniuses, and you're just supposed to nod in assent.) It's just presented as a thing that is, and if you're sympathetic to Johnston's raw, guileless, zero-degree-of-humanity expressivity, the film's portrait of the artist will make perfect sense to you. And if, like Mike D'Angelo, you think Johnston is sincere but tragically talentless, a damaged dupe being turned by on-the-make hipsters into a cool primitivist freak show, well, The Devil and Daniel Johnston will confirm that opinion, too. In short, Feuerzeig pulls off quite the high-wire act, forging a document that is penetrating and yet still (like Johnston and his art) functions as a kind of Rorschach test. In short, some artists make windows, others hold up mirrors, and still others smash all available glass on the concrete, leaving you to pick up the pieces.
Easily the weakest of the brothers' four feature films, L'Enfant kept eliciting paradoxical responses from me over the course of its brief running time. On the one hand, it felt like a triumph of content over form. This film, it seemed to me, was filled with all the correct, most compelling ideas, but refused to fully articulate them onscreen. Let me clarify: on paper, not much could be more apposite than a naturalist rethink of Pickpocket, with the added wrinkle of fatherhood. Being a thief, like being a parent, is primarily task-oriented, a quick series of gestures designed to stave off impending disasters (getting caught, spilling something, etc.). Bresson's film depicted this with a reductive precision bordering on the ridiculous. And while the Dardennes intelligently characterize petty-thief Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and his engagement with the world as a constant struggle to assign monetary value -- endless dickering, counting, assessing the spoils -- their physical demonstration of his thievery is sloppy and haphazard. In L'Enfant, as in Bresson, crime, like all of life, is a matter of moving stuff around. But as opposed to Rosetta and The Son, two films intimately concerned and captivated with the mechanics of labor, L'Enfant verbalizes and thematizes Bruno's trade rather than forcing the viewer to accept it as existential fact. (Maybe the Dardennes were wary of glamorizing crime, or perhaps they want to depict Bruno as a bad thief. Hard to say.) Similarly, the brothers miss an opportunity to display the ripe Bressonian juggling act that is caring for an infant, or dealing with one for any length of time. Young mother Sonia (Déborah François) mostly just carries the bundle around. But Bruno's behavior is more thematically savvy. He pushes little baby Jimmy around in a stroller, and eventually sells the baby -- another consumer good to fence -- leaving him to push the empty stroller around endlessly, long after ditching it would be the wiser option. Baby and pram are interchangeable here. And (as if more evidence were needed that New Yorker critic Anthony Lane is a silly, silly man) objections that the infant is too docile or undifferentiated are sorely misplaced. This child, for better and worse, is The Child, a fully symbolic entity whose function is to be Father to his father's manhood. (The fact that Jimmy is played not by the customary twins but by over twenty different babies seems significant here.) In this, their most schematic film yet, the Dardennes sacrifice the sculptural precision of their observational style, as well as their deeply inhabited materialism, in order to spin a rather pat tale of redemption. (Despite all the Gitai-bashing out of Cannes 05, it's worth noting that L'Enfant pretty much ends the same place Free Zone begins, with the shedding of too many all-too-allegorical tears. And how odd is it that such intelligent, unreconstructed Euro-Marxists as the Dardennes would implicitly argue that growing into a decent human being begins with a willingness to do some jail time?) All of the above points to L'Enfant's willingness to put their humanist story values over and above the plastic values that made the brothers' last three films resemble nothing so much as great carpentry. And yet, the Dardennes are such consummate craftsmen that even a minor, somewhat misjudged work created by them will possess a high degree of rigor, such jolts as can only be provided by an inquisitive fascination with the lived-in world. No one else does what they do. L'Enfant disappoints me. And yet this time, I found that from moment to moment it was all somehow still enough.
In his catalog description, Guy Maddin referred to his acclaimed 2000 short film The Heart of the World as "the world's first subliminal melodrama." With the help of collaborator Isabella Rossellini, Maddin has successfully brought his melodramatic leanings well above ground. True, he's done it before, most notably at feature-length with The Saddest Music in the World. But My Father is 100 Years Old stakes out some fresh territory for Maddin, since the affect it articulates is utterly straightforward. Well, as straightforward as a Guy Maddin film can be. Roberto Rossellini, for example, is played by a giant quivering belly, and one discerns the perfect coupling of the two collaborators' sensibilities in this "pregnant" image. Guy and Isabella have constructed a heartfelt meditation on Roberto Rossellini, the man, the theoretician, the father figure and, most importantly, the father. It strikes me as meaningful that this film is a daughter's love letter to her deceased father, since the cinema is virtually littered with father-son Oedipal struggles (most recently Baadasssss! and My Architect). By contrast Rossellini's engagement with her father's legacy is permeated with tenderness and even a degree of awe. Likewise, Maddin helps Isabella to surreptitiously assume the roles of the patriarchal cinematic canon (she appears as Hitchcock, Selznick, Fellini, and Chaplin), as well as her own mother. It's a Brechtian gesture (partly, I think, borrowed from the work of fellow Canadian filmmaker John Greyson), but it also serves to emphasize Isabella's position with respect to Roberto. His big bald belly is a globe, a heavenly body in her emotional firmament, holding all other discourses and attachments in its orbit. Whatever you do, though, don't try to circumscribe the Rossellinis' universe with a crane shot. [SECOND VIEWING, 11/6/06: Not much to add, except that in addition to finding the film even more moving the second time around, I noticed that it is very explicit, almost basic in its pedagogical aims. I brought it into the classroom on "Italian Neo-Realism Day" and it crystalized most of Rossellini's ideas quite elegantly. Also, seeing it again after Brand upon the Brain! makes me think Maddin should do a little more work like this: tight, focused, disciplined. That last word is one I type with gritted teeth -- I don't think of myself as that kind of critic -- but there you go.]
[CUT OPENING SENTENCES (TONE WAY TOO POMPOUS, EVEN BY YOUR STANDARDS)]
The Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote, "Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel in world literature." On the other hand, Samuel Johnson famously opined, "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." As for the latter quote, we can't necessarily be certain whether Winterbottom's Shandy film will last, although it seems quite likely that the formal approach of this project won't last long in Winterbottom's sights. He's probably the most perversely uncommitted stylist among world-class auteurs, with pretty much every single film defiantly unrelated to the last. [altho he does have penchant for lit adaptations -- related to styleless style? explore this] But no one can question Winterbottom's commitment to Laurence Sterne's flummoxed, compulsively digressive literary style. [see below] And, in a way, Winterbottom has slyly created an echt British comedy, a parody of British cinema's two major modes -- uninflected "kitchen sink" realism and the historical costume drama. [note: not really sure it's the kitchen sink style you're going for -- it's more handheld docudrama but without the New Wave affectations of those guys; you'll want to revise this] It's no accident that A Cock and Bull Story begins with a direct quotation from Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, only to eventually swirl down the self-reflexive rabbit hole, with meta-meta-movie soundtrack citations from Fellini and frantic behind-the-scenes plate-spinning a la Truffaut. [slightly different spirit tho -- cf. Shklovsky again, "baring the device" w/o shoring up romantic notion of authorship] It's sort of Winterbottom at his best, which is to say, without a definitive authorial signature, but not taking himself seriously either [make a note about upcoming Gitmo movie here? admiration / trepidation in eq. measure], lavishing his ample formal chops on an extended lark, a long self-immolating Alan Partridge episode (multiple gags involve Steve Coogan struggling in vain to leave the Partridge persona behind, while co-star / rival Rob Brydon privately insists -- and most others on-set agree -- that Coogan essentially is Partridge, a petty narcissist) or the most elaborate sketch Monty Python somehow neglected to ever write. [98% sure -- factcheck this]
[MOST OF PARAGRAPH TOO SELF-DISCLOSIVE (is that a word?) -- UNDERMINES READER'S TRUST IN YOUR CRITICAL RELIABILITY (TAKING "SELF-DEPRECATION" TO EMBARRASSING ENDPOINT. CLEAN THIS UP]
Anyway, Jesus, what the fuck. [perhaps milder oath?] I mean, this movie is so beautifully wedged up its own "arse" that any possible critique (or praise) is thoroughly doled out in huge dollops within the splayed body of the text. Also, I only know about the Shklovsky quote because it's the epigram from David James' last book, and I was assigned to review it. The Johnson quote is on the back of the Penguin edition. I tried to read Shandy several years ago and I enjoyed it but soon got distracted; I never made it past page 139. (Also, I circled a bunch of words I didn't know -- escheats; deodands; heteroclite; sempster -- and lo and behold, I still don't know them.) In short, I really liked this film but I'm spectacularly unqualified to "review" it, at least in any manner not doubly or triply illuminated by some calculatedly "random" bit of intra-film banter. So perhaps it's best that I just share my favorite passage from the less-than-one-fifth of the Sterne novel that I've actually read. [excerpt forthcoming] [Sorry it took a few hours to get this online, but you know how it is. Also, if you're really not into such a thoroughly subjective selection since, seriously, you're thinking why should I give a damn about his favo(u)rite passage or whatever, feel free to stop reading this. I mean, for all intents and purposes, this "review" ended about ten sentences ago.] [MAYBE JUST THE SHANDY QUOTE AND NOTHING ELSE -- SORT OF PO-MO "FOUND OBJECT" THING? (OR TOO PRECIOUS / CLEVER-CLEVER?) At least this would be diff. than your usual derrida-lite "up is down" thing]
"For in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a master-stroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader, -- not for want of penetration in him, -- but because 'tis an excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression; -- and it is this: That though my digressions are all fair, as you observe, -- and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.
"I was just going, for example, to have given you the great outlines of my uncle Toby's most whimsical character; -- when my aunt Dinah and the coachman came across us, and led us a vagary some millions of miles into the very heart of the planetary system: Notwithstanding all this you perceive that the drawing of my uncle Toby's character went on gently all the time; -- not the great contours of it, -- that was impossible, -- but some familiar strokes and faint designations of it, were here and there touched in, as we went along, so that you are much better acquainted with my uncle Toby now than you were before.
"By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, -- and at the same time."
[Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,Volume I, Chapter Twenty-Two]
The estimable Lee Walker (who, as far as I'm concerned, should have the word "estimable" legally affixed to his "name") noted that 2005's "Views From the Avant-Garde" selection featured several of what he called "third eye" pieces. Rapid alternation between two sets of images resulted in optical / mental combination into a third, "impossible" image. The cinema of Paul Sharits and Ken Jacobs' "Nervous System" project should be seen as progenitors of this kind of work, but as Walker noted, the advent of video has made these pieces quite a bit easier to forge and manipulate. (Hence, one assumes, their recent proliferation.) I haven't seen a lot of other recent work in this vein, but I must say that Worden's Here impressed me, in part because his use of video struck me as a logical extension of his abstract animation work on film. Worden's cinema has long been about activating the pictorial field, playing with the instability of the frame, left / right / up / down relationships, and the throbbing iluusion of depth within overall flatness. In the films of his I'd seen before, he did all this using an all-over hand-drawn (or dripped) web of lines and forms, reminiscent of Pollock or late Brice Marden. So it was jarring at first to see him working with found footage and in video, but over the running time, Worden brings the goods. He demonstrates that he can achieve similar effects using the right kind of photographic material -- in this case, alternating long and medium shots of knights on racing steeds from Robin Hood, and several Méliès films. What these have in common, and why they work so well in this project, is that they both treat the image as an all-over field, with objects interspersed throughout the foreground and background but also legible as pulsating hashmarks on a flat canvas. Moving between these two types of information, or making shifts within a single image set (say, moving rapidly between close-up and extreme long shots in the Robin Hood footage) produces hypnotic visual anomalies that I'd never really seen before in video. The best parts of Here are like a tornado whipping around the screen. But although the effects generated are frequently astonishing, Here isn't always clear in its articulation of its different passages, and some effects (like the intra-frame, Serene Velocityesque zooming) don't work nearly as well. Moreover, I think that had Here been presented as a silent video, it might've been a much stronger (if more challenging) piece overall. Despite all this, it's clear that Worden has found the means to extend his precise formal language in video, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
You know what? I'm getting sick of Christine Vachon productions. All of them, but especially the period pieces, are marred by a snotty kind of ironic detachment and a rampant historical presentism that persists in making the eighties into "The 80s," the fifties into "The 50s," and so far only Todd Haynes has managed to avoid this trap by adding an additional layer of irony to Far From Heaven -- Sirkian irony, the sad, deeply humane kind that doesn't permit the smugness of looking back (and down) at all those repressed gentlemen in their fedoras, all aw-shucks and a tube of Brylcreem wedged up their tight corporate asses. This hypocritical Saturday Evening Post nightmare is, in sum, the world of The Notorious Bettie Page. Whereas Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, cautioned his readers not to congratulate ourselves by identifying with the outlaws, harlots, and perverts of the Victorian era (noting that "we 'other Victorians'" were in fact more repressed than we knew, and living in the present was no ticket to enlightenment), Harron and company (Vachon, co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner) do exactly that. Hey, look, lurking in the back alleys of New York and some weird out-of-the-way suburbs, people were dealing in sex, man! Awesome! Apart from this general ideational obtuseness, The Notorious Bettie Page isn't even particularly well-made. On the micro-level, eyelines don't match up and edits feel perfunctory, and on the larger structural level, major stylistic tropes like the occasional shifts from black-and-white to color seem vague in their motivation. (So Florida is the land of color? Why? Or why are Super-8 film shot outdoors in Ektachrome, only sometimes, whereas indoor films are always black-and-white? What's the scheme here?) All this formal stuff is usually more than enough to sink a movie for me, but, as it happens, everything good and bad is almost held together by Gretchen Mol's brilliant performance as Page. Some have mistaken Mol's Page character for a wide-eyed innocent, but in fact she's beautifully, almost pathologically game, willing to entertain the most bizarre request because, like some Southern Christian Kewpie-faced perfect-breasted preternaturally chipper version of Immanuel Kant (stay with me, folks!), she is the Naked Humanist, and nothing human is foreign to her. True, some of this is due to her own oddly muted, almost but not entirely disposable backstory. (Her encounter with the young black photographer is more significant, and more telling, than other reviews are allowing for.) But mostly it's just a kind of divine gift, an almost Chaplinesque embrasure of the world on its own sordid terms, and when it hurts her or does her wrong, well gosh darn it, surely it'll be better next time. As devised by Mol with an actorly intelligence I didn't know she had, Bettie Page so loved the world that she gave to it her only buns. And boobs. And whip-cracking "saucy look." But no bush, because it was "The 50s" after all, and weren't they just so comically uptight back then?
ADDENDUM: Fellow Cinema Scope contributor Christoph Huber, who interviewed Beauvois last year, was kind enough to drop me a line. He says that Beauvois conducted meticulous research for this film and that the movie posters were a true detail from actual police stations. ("Ah, French cinephilia," Huber joked. No doubt!) So my Noe comparison is off the mark. I had originally taken the posters to be a rather bare-naked statement of theme, the way Noe (mis)used the 2001 poster in Irreversible – something along the lines of, "these 'real' cops are in fact movie cops, adhering to certain genre codes which in turn speak back to the experience of actual cops through their identification with the movies." That is, cinema and reality are mutually formative. But in fact, Beauvois' use of this very obtrusive detail functions more like the police-blotter stories that form the backbone of Rob Devor's Police Beat. Material drawn from real life ends up having an unrealistic, almost overwritten character. This certainly makes the poster motif more interesting, even if (as with Police Beat) it doesn't make it more successful per se. (I wonder if seeing other Beauvois films would help to clarify a larger project with respect to genre; I'm sure I wouldn't have gotten Assayas, for instance, had I begun with something like Sentimental Destinies.) Nevertheless it confirms my suspicion that Beauvois is an intelligent director worthy of further research. The highbrows are probably onto something.
One of the joys of reviewing experimental film packages at festivals (in this case, the Nashville IFF) is the discovery of exciting new talent. While Reckless Eyeballing is still a little rough around the edges (partly, it seems, by design, but probably not entirely), it announces Chicagoan Harris as a very promising filmmaker. The film is an inquiry into the position that African-American women occupy with respect to what we used to call "the cinematic apparatus," but this tidy summation fails to convey both the complexity and the sensual pleasures Harris offers the attentive viewer. The visual touchstone of Eyeballing is Pam Grier, who we see (in full Foxy Brown mode) gazing out of the frame, and sometimes being gazed at -- by others in the adjoining found footage, and most significantly by us. How can this woman's image resist being reduced to an object? Well, it's pretty easy (maybe deceptively so) when you're Pam Grier, but Harris presents her strong, aggressive image as a test case for black female spectatorship and representation. He also incorporates what appear to be filmed wanted-posters or condemnations of Angela Davis, implicitly arguing that Grier's Blaxploitation enforcer might serve as her visual stand-in. Complex intercutting with other images from the history of racist representation (The Birth of a Nation most prominently) produces a troubling tapestry, while the insistent looping of the soundtrack grounds this history in an aural rut. That is, we're still working through the same damn problems a hundred years later. This soundtrack sometimes feels undercomposed, relying on the loop structure with variable regard for its contrapuntal function for the found footage. Nevertheless, this is a strong, intelligent, and accomplished effort.
There's a sequence about one-third of the way through Shanghai Dreams in which 19-year-old Qinghong (Gao Yuanyuan) hears her would-be suitor Honggen (Li Bin) playing harmonica in the distance. This sequence begins with a close-up on Qinghong walking outside her home as we hear the music, and the camera slowly pans out to the street where we see Honggen hanging out with Qinghong's little brother and playing his serenade. It's clear from the design of this brief passage that Wang intends for the audience to mistakenly assume the music is non-diegetic. We're then supposed to be surprised when we see Honggen, its diegetic source. Only there's a problem. Honggen's harmonica playing is only slightly less accomplished than Stevie Wonder's, and his "spontaneous" tune is a professionally composed theme. I've addressed this minor element in Shanghai Dreams at some length because in some ways it exemplifies my problems with Wang's directorial style. There's no question that by any reasonable measure, Shanghai Dreams is a highly accomplished piece of cinema. But there is a stylistic schizophrenia just below its surface. Shanghai Dreams adopts the master-shot approach, although Wang articulates these long shots with more traditional decoupage. His use of landscape, the darkened alleyways between homes, or the use of a single outdoor light source to organize space and architecture within the frame, all serve to lend the film a deeply etched sense of place, and Wang's use of deep focus gives these images a heightened solidity. His deliberate pacing only enhances this effect. But at the same time, Wang seems oddly beholden to classical narrative forms. What starts out as a quiet observational piece eventually swerves into melodrama. There's something unconvincing about the way Wang accomplishes this, and I think it has a lot to do with his handling of incident. Where do the major third-act complications come from? How do they arise? Like the secret factory workers' ball (with Travolta-esque disco dancing to Boney M), these disruptive events seem to be dropped in from some other, less rigorous movie. This leads me to wonder whether Wang is underestimating his audience, or perhaps overestimating the value of making "stuff happen" in films. Beijing Bicycle (the last film of Wang's I saw) sidestepped this problem by reducing action to its most basic. Here, I detect an attempt to go epic, and it ends up hobbling Shanghai Dreams' most accomplished aspects.
Admittedly a generous grade, since this documentary's subject matter is inherently interesting to me. Given that all of Chinese pop culture was reduced to these eight Maoist musical extravaganzas during the Cultural Revolution, how did the Chinese people make sense of them? In exploring this topic, Yuen adopts an essayistic approach, and in some ways this is to the detriment of her film. Granted, a more linear format wouldn't be capacious enough to accommodate some of Yang Ban Xi's finest moments, such as the Spike Jonze-like music videos featuring 21st century Chinese kids (hair spiked, ears multiply pierced, wearing ripped t-shirts and baggies) performing hip-hop numbers that interpolate portions of "The White Haired Girl" and "The Red Detachment of Women." That is, Yuen provides a cross-section of urban China's Communist hangover, speaking both to the original performers in the Yang Ban Xi and younger citizens who are receiving these propagandistic curios second-hand. On the one hand, this makes for a much richer cultural document than one would expect, given the topic. Swing a cat these days and you're liable to hit some film trading on the kitsch value of Communist culture, a smug practice that kicked off with East Side Story and has recently fixated on the former East Germany and Warsaw Pact nations. Instead, Yuen backs off, never really making any claims for or against the Yang Ban Xi as artworks. In fact, apart from a few scattered film clips, we barely see them at all. And this is where Yang Ban Xi gets into trouble -- it is so sprawling, speaks to so many different interviewees, and spans so much time and history so unsystematically, that I'm really at a loss to say anything authoritative about these revolutionary operas. We know they were managed by Jiang Qing, Mao's wife. We know that she was one of the Gang of Four, but hell, if you didn't know better you could conceivably come away thinking she composed the Yang Ban Xi with John King and Andy Gill. (Or that Brian Eno wrote "Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.") And the performed narration by "Madame Mao" (quite reminiscent of Jay Rosenblatt's short film Human Remains), rather than providing sturdier historical context, actually proves to be the one place where Yuen dabbles in snarkiness. She's played as the Red Chinese Cruella DeVil. In sum, Yang Ban Xi is an intermittently satisfying patchwork, its signal achievement most likely to be the highlighting of a vital piece of 20th century cultural history. But for better or worse, this film leaves a lot of intellectual spadework undone.
This is the first solo piece I've seen by Sillen (he co-directed Benjamin Smoke with Jem Cohen), and although it's thematically modest (a four-minute portrait of a hot dog counter prior to its being muscled out of Times Square by Giuliani's Disneyifcation), it's absolutely beautiful. Sillen allows the sound and image track to float semi-autonomously alongside each other, with interview fragments clashing with ambient sound while his Super-8 camera captures perfectly framed, interstitial compositions around the lunch counter. Slivery lines of barstools, a ketchup bottle and a napkin dispenser reflected in a mirrored wall, smoke rising up in front of a posted menu placard -- Sillen's camera never fails to find something fleeting and sumptuous, and this is pretty much the ideal formal approach to this small-scale anthropological content. So, why the low-ish rating? Mainly because these images, their light and chromatic character, scream out Super-8, and the completion of this film on video (ten years after the material was shot) nearly smothers their fragile quality. Yes, I'm certain this transfer was the result of economic necessity, or the increasing difficulty of printing Super-8. And yes, Sillen's own project could be seen as an allegory for the sort of economic changes that killed the Grand Luncheonette in the first place. But we can't keep pretending that video completions of true films look the way they should, because they don't. Grand Luncheonette is a marvelous little film, and I hope I get to see it someday. [ADDENDUM, 11/2/06: This film is now playing at the IFC Center in New York, in front of Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder. Apparently it's screening on celluloid. Therefore, it shouldn't be missed.]
An interesting doc-let about Meredith Hunter, the young man stabbed to death by Hell's Angels at Altamont. Green discovered that Hunter was buried in an unmarked grave in Vallejo, CA, and the video is part remembrance, part gentle exposé. (Why should this man be forgotten in a world where Mick Jagger's rotting carcass still commands $300 a ticket?) Still, Lot 63 is an awkward piece in that it feels truncated (its brevity prevents it from eliciting much in the way of emotional involvement), and yet I doubt much more could be said about the topic. The screen time that Green devotes to the cemetery manager and his somewhat banal comments on death give the impression that at thirteen minutes, Lot 63 is already padded out. But I confess, I didn't much care from Green's lauded documentary on the Weather Underground, so I think his style -- slightly experimental but not too idiosyncratic, i.e. safe as milk -- may just rub me the wrong way.
Fruhauf is an interesting member of Austria's Sixpack posse. I have seen only two of his works (this one and 2001's Exposed) and both have been accomplished, well-crafted, and fully conversant with the dominant textures and surfaces that define advanced cinema of the 00s. Peter Tscherkassky (in a catalog blurb) finds that Fruhauf's films "follow a discernible order, a concept which is worked out in advance," "broken up with humor," and "made with a wink and a nudge." But I'm not sure. Mirror Mechanics is clearly a beautiful film, but its simplicity seemed to provide diminishing returns over the course of the running time. Essentially a mirrored symmetrical duplication of the same found footage (a young blonde actress, a piece of found footage I couldn't identify) intersecting with and enfolding into itself, the film recalls other works by Tscherkassky, but without the same degree of complexity. Likewise, Mechanics has certain affinities with the rippling cine-tapestries of Matthias Müller, but thankfully Fruhauf doesn't share his taste for grand theatrical gestures. I'm certain Fruhauf's film would have had a much stronger impact had I been able to see it on the big screen, an opportunity I'll take whenever possible. But I guess I just don't quite have a bead on what it is Fruhauf is trying to do. Unlike the most exciting examples of minimalist cinema, Mirror Mechanics has a reductiveness that actually just feels reductive. Nevertheless I strongly suspect that an immersion in Fruhauf's work might provide clearer answers and more definite rewards.
I blew off my first SFIFF festival day so I could instead see the Gottheim show at SF Cinematheque, which was a wise move. Gottheim is well-regarded in avant-garde circles and is etched into every history of experimental film of the 70s and 80s, but despite this I contend that he's one of the most underrated figures within that history. His earliest, single-shot films from this period are simple and beautiful, but as far as I'm concerned it's with the "Elective Affinities" series -- longer works that incorporate found material and engage in complex, contrapuntal sound / image relationships -- that Gottheim really gets cooking. Having seen two of these films (Tree of Knowledge, in this program, and Mouches Volantes, several years ago), and one that is not part of the series, but pretty closely aligned in approach (1991's Your Television Traveler), I can see why dominant accounts of the a-g 70s may not have afforded Gottheim his due. It's a bit misleading to lump them in with structural film, as a lot of commentators have done. They do indeed play with deep formal structure, but they also engage more directly with social and political material than contemporaneous, like-minded films by Frampton or Snow. (In this regard Gottheim's films share affinities, elective or not, with later Gehr, although the construction of a film like Tree of Knowledge bears more stylistic connection with Frampton's less lyrical, more welderly montage.) But really, Gottheim's later films have a distant cousin in Yvonne Rainer's work, since both filmmakers use unexpected formal arrangements to place incommensurate discursive material into dialog. Your Television Traveler employs aural layering and superimposition to set a documentary voiceover about the space program (particularly the lore around fictional Latino and "reluctant astronaut" José Jimenez) against the more experientially based observations by a woman in Cuba describing her sadness and its meaning to Gottheim. Neither is privileged, but both relate something about Latin American culture and perception, mutually complicating one another. Gottheim's films are shrewd, masterfully wrought, and intellectually astute, without feeling the need to toe some line of circumscribed academic orthodoxy.
All of which is one hell of a lengthy wind-up to a pretty sloppy pitch on my part. I have next to nothing to say about Gottheim's most recent work, a video that begins with a violinist dispatching a few jarring, hesitant notes and then plunges us into the close observation of a Haitian Voudou ritual. Gottheim's videography is carefully modulated for certain distancing effects. His use of consumer-grade Hi-8 turns dark blacks into matte grays, heightening flatness even as the camera hovers just outside the circle of Voudou worshippers. Gottheim and the participants circle around a bowl which the filmmaker noticed in retrospect bore a certain likeness to the terra cotta bowl in his first film, Blues. But I simply don't know what to make of this piece yet. I was especially thrown by the fact that the juxtaposition of the violinist and the ritual recalled the disjunctive editing of Gottheim's mid-period works, but was quickly abandoned. To complicate matters, apparently The Opening sparked a long, raucous debate at last year's "Views," with Gottheim and Ken Jacobs arguing over whether this ritual should be represented in this way. (Or something like that; sorry, I'm getting this third-hand.) The Opening is the first part of a long-form project on Haiti, and like a fragment of Frampton's "Magellan" cycle, it's probably hard to evaluate The Opening in isolation. (In fact, I was hoping I could avoid this I'm-completely-stumped non-review by classifying the piece as a work in progress. No dice -- Gottheim declared The Opening a finished piece, several times over.) The bottom line is, my grade is purely arbitrary, and my comments not that enlightening. I don't know what to make of The Opening. But I trust that its larger meaning will become more apparent as the Haiti project takes shape. Gottheim clearly has something up his sleeve here, and I'm anxious to see more.
The title refers to wireless radio en Español, and Lerner's film focuses on the now strange-seeming fact that Mexico's first-ever radio broadcast consisted on a Dadaist poem. The poem and the visual style Lerner selects for the film mesh nicely, both very much of an up-with-technology but still-we're-nervous vein, of a piece with Soviet Constructivism. Like Bruce Conner's films (which T.S.H. superficially resembles), Lerner's piece captures the spirit of a "brave new world" of techno-liberation, the excitement of the new which is now quite old. Still, this isn't neither nostalgia trip nor the smug snickering at the future as imagined by the past. Lerner captures the thrill of progress, although in some ways he seems to be trying a bit too hard. The reader of the poem is brash and declamatory, and the footage Lerner selects (in particular the abattoir scenes) work too obviously to conjure an early-modernist sensibility. T.S.H. makes it off the ground, but the wires are visible.
This is a schizophrenic film, and I'm wondering if part of the problem is that we have a first-time director too afraid of his own future not to try to be everything to everyone. On a moment to moment level, there's quite a bit to enjoy about Smoking. Many quips are sharp, and Aaron Eckhart's performance succeeds even in putting over some of the clunkers and clichés. He's the perfectly modulated sympathetic scumbag, a sort of Hugh Grant / Dabney Coleman gene-splice. (Actually, now that I think about that, ick. Anyway . . .) But other aspects of the script (especially the tired digs at Big Tobacco) are ridiculously broad, sub-Leno material, the Nick Naylor character's "fall from grace" relies on an implausible lapse in judgment, and structurally speaking the film is little more than a chain of disconnected events, resulting in a film that, if you're feeling generous, is "episodic," but really feels half-assed. It's completely toothless, too afraid (or incapable) of offering any truly scathing satirical insights. Instead, it's content to help its audience congratulate itself for taking part in something so deliciously amoral. (I suppose an argument could be made that Smoking plays both sides of the fence, like a good sophist-for-hire, but I mean come on.)
This 35mm widescreen effort has the mod, funky feel of a long-lost Mary Ellen Bute film, perhaps as remixed by Stereolab. It consists of wavy intervals of circles and cylindricals, regularly dispersed and roving across a complimentary color field. For Vanishing Points, abstract painting is as much of a touchstone as non-objective cinema, but the reference points aren't so easy to pin down. The movement of forms recalls 1960s and 70s Op Art, but Swiczinsky's color schemes and regularly arranged lozenges are reminiscent of the late-late-AbEx canvases of Larry Poons. It's all quite pleasurable from moment to moment, although I frequently had trouble discerning how the individual passages were articulated with one another.
Originally I'd relegated this piece to my shrug-worthy Nashville roundup below, but I learned a bit more about Flow and decided it deserved closer attention. Nyerges' video was selected for Black Maria, although it didn't screen at the Ithaca show. Reading about it in the catalog, I discovered that Nyerges actually produced Flow's painterly imagery on 16mm and 35mm film stock, by hand, although this is not entirely evident from the finished product. The obvious touchstone here is Brakhage and his hand-painted films, but Nyerges' piece has a very different feel. Part of this has to do with his use of a musical score that strives to be complementary or at least innocuous but is actaully rather grating, all the more so since Brakhage spent a lifetime demonstrating the futility of "accompanying" visual music with actual sound. But more problematic is Nyerges' editing scheme, which employs video blends and fades at a frustratingly rapid pace. Some of Nyerges' images are dense and intriguing, some seem rather negligible and slight, but all fly by with none of the complex rhythmic play that Brakhage brought to his work. It's almost as though Nyerges is trying to move us through his collected images as quickly as possible. Why? Shouldn't we be able to savor these abstractions, find our own way through them? But it's just bam-bam-bam, and along with the musical accompaniment, Flow finally gives the impression of being the work of someone with no faith in his audience or his own efforts. It betrays a fear of boredom, that most dreaded of spectatorial responses. And this lack of faith begs the question -- if we're never even given the opportunity to become interested, how can we be anything other than bored?
What's more embarrassing than the "cinema of transgression" when it misfires? Even though I'm not always 100% on Dumont's or Breillat's wavelength, at least they're intelligent artists with a coherent point of view. Based on the evidence here, Marsh has a handful of pilfered ideas and a major hate-on for red-state religiosity. The latter's fine, I suppose, but the question remains: what are you going to do with it? Gael García Bernal maintains his charisma and his solid acting chops in English, but this role is thankless. It's Tom Ripley without any cunning, and The King is Teorema with no heft or attitude. Unless Marsh's point is to present rampant taboo-busting and senseless violence with the clinical torpor of an industrial training video, his directorial approach is just mystifying, lame. I will give him some credit for capturing a stifling sense of place, working the same regionalist beat as Ira Sachs and Victor Nuñez without finding a specific purpose for the approach. But trust me -- it's not a huge accomplishment to make Corpus Christi, Texas look like a bloodless hell on earth. [REFINERY -- DEAD BROWN FIELD -- MEGACHURCH -- REPEAT]
This is another piece I watched for the Nashville IFF. However I exempted this brief video (running time: two minutes) from my more general comments below because my disappointment with it is qualitatively different than that provoked by most of the other pieces in the program. Quiet Please is a rather poor execution of a really good idea, and I'm of the opinion that this is always more encouraging than the other way around. QP features a man at a desk holding forth on some topic, but all the words are edited out, leaving only pauses, gestures, inhalations, all the stuff in between. See? Nice idea. But the image quality is too flat, with no sense of space and a seemingly random library backdrop lending the whole picture a sort of yucky brown. Plus, the guy (who may be Cramer himself; don't know) is in a sloppy looking T-shirt. Yes, this is all incredibly nitpicky and seems to miss The Main Idea, The Big Point. But I suppose I have a Big Point to make here, too. When you're making an extremely minimal piece of art, everything counts in large amounts. Each element (especially those that would be beneath notice in a more incident-laden work) takes on tremendous weight. So even though this is a smart little effort, it also looks pretty half-assed, like it was done as quickly as possible so Cramer could move onto the next Big Idea. Or, to put it another way, two minutes is a long time to be thinking, "Man, Scott Stark would've nailed this ."
I remember back in the late 80s and early 90s trying to make the argument that artists such as Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach, who were roundly dismissed by everyone except the collectors and dealers who got rich off of them, were actually making art that was critical of commodity capitalism. In retrospect, I was wrong; they really were just making shiny gewgaws for the Saatchis and their ilk. Flash-forward to 2006, and I can't say I'm surprised that this same impulse has fused with the empty star-fucking culture of E! Channel, the tabloids, and the post-post-Baudrillardian moment that can actually sustain the celebrity of Paris Hilton. Strangely enough, she doesn't appear in Trailer for . . . Caligula. If the Whitney Biennial catalog copy is to be trusted, Paris isn't old enough, since Vezzoli's alleged critical intervention is the casting of "charismatic, aging divas" like Karen Black (a given in this context, I suppose), Helen Mirren (who should know better), and actually Gore Vidal himself (who should really know better). My goodness, but doesn't this just fly in the face of Hollywood's cult of youth? But it just replaces it with the cult of fame and fortune in itself, a consolidation of the establishment which, really, is the crux of our cultural moment. We're supposed to fetishize power (of which glamour is a subset), just because those who've attained said power must be superior to us in a myriad of ways. Whatever. Trailer for . . . Caligula is shallow, gaudy, painfully unfunny, and has no discernible reason to exist. None, that is, unless you are someone who exercises such extreme puritanical self-restraint that you permit yourself enjoyment of televised dildo play only in the rarefied context of a preeminent American museum. And honestly, what does it say when I am forced, with all sincerity, to attest that I expected much more from Courtney Love? [Vezzoli's five-minute film (35mm transferred to video) is on display at the Whitney Biennial through May 28. Watch for this film on McCloud's year-end top ten.]
This film, Mitevska's debut, cleaves to one of the most shopworn templates for international festival films -- familial conflict set against the background of political history, the two eventually intersecting in deterministic, ineluctable ways. In this case, we have an older sister just back from America and a little brother who's an anti-NATO terrorist (and I think a Macedonian nationalist, but I honestly couldn't tell for sure). We've seen this kind of thing umpteen-thousand times, but How I Killed a Saint pulls off an unusual trick. It's cliché-ridden and yet largely incomprehensible. The micro / macro structure continually breaks down, usually to allow one of several characters to comment on the irresistible sexiness of sister Viola (Labina Mitevska, the director's sister). There's a subplot about a St. Klement whose relics are being repatriated to Macedonia, some stuff about discrimination against ethnic Albanians, and an out-of-nowhere kidnapping of a little girl whose existence had absolutely no bearing on the plot until the shambolic final reel. Add to all this the fact that Saint is one of the most pictorially ugly films I've seen in years (Mitevska seems constitutionally incapable of ever putting the camera in the right place). Because I try to be a generous reader of films, I found myself wondering throughout Saint whether some deeper understanding of Macedonian politics and the Balkan Wars was necessary for this film to make sense, but I honestly doubt that further research would really mitigate the real problem here -- rookie ineptitude.
This 2004 documentary is probably the most tedious film that could possibly be made about an inherently interesting subject. It’s a collection of declassified training films for secret agents (and citizen-informers, willing and otherwise) during the 1950s and 60s, presented with minimal commentary or embellishment. These low-budget government one-reelers are, in some ways, more compelling for their unselfconscious documentation of urban Hungary during the Kádár era than for depiction of a uniquely Stalinist paranoia. The authorless films actually possess notable sensual qualities, not unlike contemporaneous (and verboten) New Wave filmmaking elsewhere in Europe and Japan. At certain points I just stopped reading the subtitles and looked at these films for their offhand beauty. But even though Gábor displays no real talent for the art of the compilation film, he at least has the intelligence not to lapse into Communist Kitsch. After all, one assumes the CIA has produced material just as damning, but I guess we'll have to wait for the fall of American capitalism to see that stuff.
I've never had a lot of use for the work of the late John and Faith Hubley. Sure, I've recognized the objective level of skill and originality in what they did, so I understand their place in the history of animation. But films like Cockaboody and Everybody Rides the Carousel have always struck me as syrupy middlebrow comfort-food -- Chicken Soup For the Soul: Cartoon Division. (As one noted animation scholar once confided to me, the Hubleys were master craftspeople but "too pukin' cute.") This is the first film I've seen by Emily Hubley, and the question is, how far does the apple fall from the tree? Answer: conceptually, about a foot and a half; technically, a country mile. Octave is comprised of eight vignettes based on the notes of the musical staff, but this structuring device isn't applied with any seriousness. It's just a way to hang together some sketches that, in and of themselves, would hardly be recognizable as finished pieces. They barely work as a group, either. Hubley employs an empty white background as a container (with no spatial integrity or coherence -- it's just a blank, gaping field) for jejune, haphazard imagery more befitting a junior-high notebook than a film by an accomplished experimental animator. Hubley conveys anxiety with a gray floating skull, and contentedness with whirling hearts. Soundtrack noodling by Yo La Tengo (we are family, etc.) doesn't help matters any.
-Careless Reef -- 2. Abu Kifan (Gerard Holthuis, The Netherlands) [v/s] 
-Facechasers (Gabriel Judet-Weinshel) [v/s] 
-I Love You So (Kees Brienen, The Netherlands) [s] 
-Nightlight (Chris Messina) [v/s] 
-Zinc Garden (Michael van Bakel, The Netherlands) [v/s] 
As I watched all of these videoworks (and one film, by Brienen), I was trying to figure out why I disliked them all so much. That is, commonalities seemed to emerge, and I thought maybe this was some opportunity I could take to try and suss out some covering-laws about mediocre experimental film. I came up with a few, but they don't really work universally. (1) Why doesn't anyone make silent videos? Makers seem to assume that the red and white RCA jacks can never not be plugged in, or that sync sound is 110% axiomatic when it comes to video. Not true. If you're going to have a soundtrack, make it count. [Which leads to . . .] (2) A lot of videomakers, especially, but many young filmmakers as well, fixate on the image-track, and just haphazardly throw any old soundtrack together. If you're going to use sound, shouldn't it function critically, contrapuntally, and not just as accompaniment? Soundtracks seem to just be there because younger makers assume that silence would make the audience uncomfortable or bored. Because, you know, silence makes them uncomfortable and bored. [Which leads to . . .] (3) Slow down with the editing! Why do so many of these works seem to want to shuttle the viewer from image to image as quickly as possible? Especially if you're working in abstraction, shouldn't you have some faith in the integrity of your images, that they compel interest and should be savored? [Which sort of leads to . . . ] (4) Digital editing seems to make everything way too easy. You get some idea in your head, and the tools are there to just execute it with a minimum of fuss. Is this really a good thing? Whatever limitations there are in 8mm or 16mm, there is a physical medium there. It resists you. It talks back to you throughout the process. And as a result, there is a friction in the final product. The film bears the traces of a struggle. That's not really the case for the pieces listed above. They just feel undernourished, and I'm seeing this kind of thing more and more. [And finally . . . ] (5) Stop reinventing the wheel! Most of these pieces feel like student work, whether they are or not. I say this because they evince no engagement with, or even cognizance of, the history of avant-garde film and video. So many of the pitfalls that mar these pieces could have been avoided, just by looking at how others (Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Ernie Gehr, Bruce Baillie, and many more) have solved similar problems. All the same, I have a feeling that even if my Five-Point Plan were put into action, Facechasers would still not be very interesting. It's not an experimental film. It's a calling-card.