REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, FEBRUARY 2004
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)
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen) [v]
A near-perfect essay film in the Lopate-approved sense of the term. Andersen stakes out a specific topic and offers his trenchant, sardonic personal ruminations on that topic. The piece itself is wonderful, largely due to Andersen's easy erudition and the texture of his commentary. Even when I disagree with his readings of particular films (he misses Chinatown's critique of white male xenophobia) or when he takes the occasional cheap shot (at the expense of Joan Didion or the movie Xanadu), Andersen forces me to rethink my positions from a new angle. And, in deference to Andersen's critics, there are momentary infuriations here, such as his quasi-fetishization of obscure pictures only he seems to know. But beyond all the specifics, what's really thrilling about this project is its commitment to re-examining the history of cinema as an accidental registration of physical history, the shifting terrain of southern California capital. Andersen excavates the unwitting history of grocery stores, motorways, patches of desert, abandoned architecture, by peering through the blinds of narrative into another realm. Then, in the final portions, he turns his attention back to narrative themes, having grounded them materially in the space of Los Angeles. Most significantly, he does all of this with radically impoverished means, signaling (with the fuzzy edits and degraded video images) that this is a homemade endeavor, an instance of a movie consumer turning producer. Andersen talks back to the Industry and implies that we could all do the same. It stands to reason that this work is being compared to Godard's more philosophically inclined Histoire(s), but in its mordant leftist ferocity, it recalls Theodor Adorno, and in its discovery of symptomatic historical knowledge in the interstitial detritus of pop culture, Los Angeles Plays Itself stands as a worthy successor to Benjamin's Arcades Project. It's that significant.
Seasons . . . (Stan Brakhage w/ Phil Solomon) [s]
This remarkable 2002 film (introduced as having been edited by Solomon) struck me as possibly having been a sketch for Brakhage's last long film, Panels for the Walls of Heaven. But as fascinating as Panels is, Seasons . . . is tighter and more astonishing. Both films are like summations of Brakhage's hand-painted work, combining disparate visual styles and techniques. Running a mere 15 minutes, Seasons . . . is an explosive dynamo of a film, bursting forth with carefully harnessed energy, and pretty much leaving me flat. It begins in Brakhage's most familiar hand-painted mode, with thick Abstract Expressionist brushwork and overlapping fields of color. This soon gives way to paler, smoother frames of single tones, like sheets of colored ice. They are slightly cracked, like broad swaths on a fresco. Then, we are offered a third movement consisting of mostly black step-printed frames with scratched-out spots of color throbbing out of the darkness. At this point, Seasons . . . gives the impression of having gone through a complete cycle, even though we would seem to be one season short. Soon after, these patterns of imagery repeat, faster, and then faster still. So is this the major theme of the film -- cyclical repetition of a set of visual phenomena? It would appear not, since Seasons . . . doesn't end on this note. We get green and blue geometrical lines, forming diagonals like an asymptotic graph, followed by brilliant jagged lines of silver and gold, which accumulate in force until they are practically bursting from the screen, like squinting into oncoming headlights. The film eventually slows down again and returns to a muted palette, but the experience of watching this film is like being at a fireworks show or a rock concert, thinking you've just hit the finale, that clearly nothing else can top what you're now experiencing, and then it just goes higher and higher, and you can scarcely believe what you're witnessing. I compared Panels to the tale of a lingering storyteller, prolonged out of a reluctance to come to the end of a fun ride. But Seasons . . ., more compact and much more draining, felt almost like a mash-note to the fans who have supported, and been sustained by, this final phase of Brakhage's career. All our conventional visual cues (rhythm, composition, color intensity) are telling us, throughout the last nine minutes of this film, that we're nearing the end. And most of the audience, being non-Brakhage aficionados, were becoming audibly exasperated with this "endless" film. But those of us who'd been grooving on this work for years got the message, savoring every false conclusion like an encore. Seasons . . . might just be Brakhage's Return of the King.
The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia)
While I certainly understand the impulse to read Zvyagintsev's film allegorically, given its opening sequence and conclusion, I would ask its viewers to experiment with taking the tale at face value. While the mysteriously reappearing father (Konstantin Lavronenko, looking uncannily like a blend of Billy Bob Thornton and NYC cinephile Dan Sallitt) could certainly be understood as a repressed Stalinist inheritance, or patriarchy incarnate, I submit that this character behaves pretty much like my friends' fathers did while I was growing up in the South. There's a premium placed on taciturn dominance, chilly looks of disapproval, and the occasional unwarranted smack. This man felt eerily familiar to me. So while some critics have observed a tonal inconsistency between the father and his two sons' naturalistic depiction, I found it all very much of a piece. (Ivan Dobronravov is particularly excellent as the suspicious younger son who refuses to play ball with this bizarre new arrangement.) The incisive creepiness of this father and son reunion is elevated to another level of achievement by Zvyagintsev's exacting direction and visual style. Again, some have made the obvious comparison to Tarkovsky, which guides one's reception of the film down that allegorical / mythical path. But while The Return shares certain aspects of Tarkovsky's tone and texture (deep sepias, creating a picture of a world drained of blood; elegantly composed images of picturesque decay; a physical attention to the weight of the elements, of dirt and water and smoke), this film departs from Tarkovsky's roving, alien's-eye camera. The Return exhibits a crisp, popping style of editing, with each image responding to the composition of the last. In pace and organization, The Return is like a Tarkovsky film cut to human measure, organized to offer formal support for the drama unfolding before us, not in the service of a grand mystical vision. While I was somewhat disappointed by where this story ended up -- a narrative development in which the allegorical tendency fights its way back into the boat --, The Return provides the rare pleasure of being in the dexterous hands of a master director. Good job Russian rookie filmatist bud.
Apollo (Tomonari Nishikawa, Japan) [s]
Apollo begins with the movement of circular cells, like soap bubbles in close-up or the traces of film fixer on the strip. This soon gives way to a rapidly alternating, expertly composed single-frame bombardment of buildings, lampposts, and other features of the built environment. They are turned every which-a-way, orchestrated for graphic movement between the frames. In compositional approach, it recalls some of Rose Lowder's nature studies, or Scott Stark's Chromesthetic Response series, both of which in turn owe much to Kurt Kren's early work. What's really distinctive about Apollo though is the way its images play against its soundtrack. Nishikawa has brute information (the images themselves, perhaps?) across the optical sound strip, resulting in funky, lo-fi techno rhythms reminiscent of Arnulf Rainer as remixed by Christian Fennesz. As the preceding description probably indicates, Nishikawa is working with some basic tools of avant-garde filmmaking, but I don't think I've seen them assembled in quite this way, and the resulting formal stew was very tasty indeed. This is a film artist to watch.
Blind Shaft (Li Yang, China / Germany / Hong Kong)
Erstwhile net critic / Pretty Persuasion scribe Skander Halim and I turned to each other after the screening and, almost in unison, declared Blind Shaft "solid." It takes a little while to set up its premise, though it is a rather inventive one. (I had expected something more along the lines of Kameradschaft.) But once the film's underway, Li reveals his jaundiced humor and faith in sturdy genre construction. Sometimes it's a little too B-movie legible (the young mark is a bit too good for this world), but the grungy visual style and cantankerous lead performances (Qiang Li and Shuangbao Wang) more than compensate. Also, Li manages to mount an effective critique of Chinese capitalism without resorting to disaffected teens, a four-hour running time, static medium shots of blank walls, etc.
The Magic Gloves (Martín Rejtman, Argentina / Germany)
A few years ago, I was publicly bemoaning the hollow hype of the Argentine New Wave, and fortunately I was just looking in all the wrong places. This is the first of Rejtman's four features I've seen, but it's absolutely clear that we're dealing with a guy with a sharp, witty, almost musical sensibility. Why musical? Because where other filmmakers employ running gags as interruptions of a main narrative through-line, here Rejtman generates a film that consists of virtually nothing but running gags, recapitulating them over and over, in different groupings and sequences, like sections of an ensemble. That is, their deployment becomes abstract, and it's the abstraction (not their non sequitur quality within an overall narrative frame) that generates hilarity. (I fear that the above analyzes the structure of the humor so much that a reader might be skeptical about how funny the movie could actually be. Trust me. It's so fucking funny.) There is a narrative structure of sorts, but it's more like an overall theme of class resentment that never bubbles up, instead manifesting as resignation within the deterministic wackiness of Glovesworld. Alejandro (pitch-perfect shlub Gabriel Fernández Capello) is constantly brought into the orbit of people from all walks of life, mostly the upper- and middle-classes, all of whom are united by their inability to see Alejandro as anything more than a means to an end. Alejandro, for his part, makes the best of things, and even seems to have honest affection for these "friends," since he takes using and being used as the way of the world. Best gags: Piraña's sound system and the super-sized Canadians.
No Rest for the Brave (Alain Guiraudie, France)
Very much in the Ruiz / Iosseliani vein of dry, fixed-frame Euro-wit, and although it never really seduced me, I appreciated its modus operandi -- start with something out of left field, establish that as the foundation for the next out-of-left-field development, etc. (The musical numbers and the introduction of Johnny Got were notably droll.) But as the pattern suggests, all those left turns eventually send you rightward, and I lost interest when it became a rather straightforward chase comedy. Conceptually, I appreciate this development, since it mirrors the mind-clearing effects of a good night's sleep. As with Adaptation., I get it, but I don't much like it. Still, I admire the film's dreamlike elusiveness, and even in festivals you don't often encounter something this well-made and utterly, hopelessly undistributable.
Playing "In the Company of Men" (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
The source material (a play by Edward Bond) provides an engaging enough little potboiler, but it's not exactly deep. (It's pretty much Depeche Mode's "Everything Counts": The Play.) Still, there is an offhanded immediacy I would not have expected from Desplechin, and he along with his crack cast (especially Sami Bouajila and Jean-Paul Moussillon as son and adoptive father) put the material over with vitality and conviction. The thing's compulsively watchable. Some I spoke with (MD'A and Charles François, for instance) found Desplechin's decision to incorporate Hamlet's Ophelia into Bond's script to be a conceptual misstep, but I actually thought this worked quite well. With her every appearance, Ophelia (a downcast Anna Mouglalis) both reminds us of why she's there -- a corrective to the original play's mono-gendered world -- and makes Bond's corporate-Shakespeare subtext explicit. It's a clever strategy, providing internal literary criticism. But far less convincing is the director's infrequent interpolation of rehearsal footage, a move too half-baked to serve its apparent Brechtian purpose. Still, when in the presence of this many good ideas, the grabbing hands should grab all they can. (Sorry, that was dumb.)
Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
Well, well, well, this is a toughie. It starts out in comedy-of-manners mode (the alleged zone of KK's License to Live, which I haven't seen) -- two young guys having to deal with their middle-aged salaryman boss who desperately wants to be down. Then, we switch to more emblematic KK mode, with a crime and punishment sequence that recalls the metallic urban squalor of Cure. Then, a surrogate-father subplot operating alongside a Highly Symbolic and Fantastical set of occurrences involving intervention into the natural world. (These portions strongly recall late Imamura.) This gives way to incomprehensible urban terrorism, which may or may not be a joke, but resembles a spliced-in, WTF passage from Takashi Miike. I don't think I've given away too much, because Bright Future doesn't really seem to generate its meaning from specific events so much as mood and tone, and more precisely, how incommensurate incidents float alongside each other, brushing up but refusing to gel. Always compelling, but never cathartic or clear.
Loretta (Jeanne Liotta) [s]
So far, everything I've seen by Liotta has been of interest, but she has yet to top the flickering intensity of her lake-and-landscape study Muktikara. Here, she's concocted a yellowy mood piece, with scratchy monochrome fields interrupted by silhouettes of a person with upraised arms. (He or she is clearly a still photo or a paper cut-out, since the body position never shifts.) Liotta breaks up the rhythm with sprocket holes, edge lettering, etc. It might have been a bit more effective as a silent film, although the opera snippets are sufficiently muted as to not completely sink the exercise. Liotta is a talented filmmaker who can make a ten-minute short feel like an expansive epic, but Loretta comes across as both miniature and minor, staging grand opera as something deliberately small.
-Porn Theater (La Chatte à 2 têtes) (Jacques Nolot, France)
A bit like a combo of Tsai's The River and Good bye dragon inn, but way cuddlier. It seems to want to be sordid, and sure, the venerable Mr. Seymour Cox is in attendance. But Nolot's film is evenly split between talk and action, and the talk is so chatty and ingratiating and dignity-of-the-lonely that it's almost implicitly apologizing for its gay content. Also, the most obvious question the movie raises -- why the gay cruisers and drag queens congregate at the movie house that exclusively plays hetero porn -- is placed in the mouth of a supercilious vice cop. Like it's closed-minded to wonder this? Nice use of the cigarette lighters, which would actually come in handy at regular theatres these days.
Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald, U.K.)
A great story, but only mediocre cinema. Seeing as Macdonald has orchestrated two levels of representation (testimonial interviews and theatrical re-enactments), I'd hoped he would get frisky with their mutual interaction. Nope. Essentially the actors are illustrating the adventure, producing an above-average PBS or ESPN special. Only towards the end, with the formally aggressive "Boney M" sequence, does Void live up to higher potential.
Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, Australia)
I could actually go as high as 6 for this, but I won't. The opening ten minutes spell out some major themes in bold-face, and then, almost imperceptibly, it mutates from a walk-out film to a beautifully-paced, unassumingly acted brief-encounter / landscape study. There are passages in this that are perfect (the morning-after breakfast, for example, or the "hie" sequence), and Brooks' attention to dusty industrial Australia is meticulous and physical. The "twist" and its immediate aftermath were so utterly of a piece with this evocative mood piece as to feel almost natural, not the slightest bit gratuitous. I saw genuine greatness in the middle of this movie. And then, its concluding twenty minutes just piss it away, dotting every I and crossing every last T for the audience, tying it all up with a big pink ribbon. So idiotic. So unnecessary. So, in the end, this is an Australian version of the pandering, middlebrow Oscar-bait picture, militating against its own transcendence.
-Light is Calling (Bill Morrison) [s]
This one had a strike against it, since the venue (Syracuse University) couldn't show it in its original 35mm. On video, most of the sensuousness of Morrison's style (the main appeal of Decasia) is radically flattened. Still, this felt like a mini-Decasia, with no really new ideas. It's assembled from disintegrating footage from an old Western called The Bells, and so we get the racing horsemen, the woman in waiting, all suitably pulsating and bubbling. But, like with Decasia, there's no sense that Morrison is engaging with the content of the images. Why cowboys? ("Because that's what he found" is not a good enough answer. Since his style derives its force from the interplay of representational images and their physical support, Morrison needs to exhibit more attention to the specificity of the image's content.) Since Light has some sepia coloring, the gestural sweep of the film decay produces some lovely Turneresque "brushstroke." Still, I find myself wondering why this guy's stuff is so damned ambient?
-Son frère (Patrice Chéreau, France)
It seems that Chéreau is making a valiant effort to rescue one of the most mawkish middlebrow genres (the terminal-illness drama) through the sheer alchemy of Gallic poetic realism. Sadly, the result is a film so divided against itself that it begins to resemble transplant-rejection. Chéreau's rapt attention to the carnality of illness -- sunken frames, thick sutures, chest-length scars, vellum-like flesh that bruises to the touch -- is the film's greatest strength. Eric Gautier's cinematography lends everything a sickly radiance, with hospital-green walls and mottled skin simultaneously impressing their ghastly physicality and providing a study in grainy half-light. The film works when it concerns itself with bodies in disrepair (the lengthy surgery-prep sequence that begins the final half-hour is the film's finest moment), or simply in the throes of confusion (Eric Caravaca's Luc, the healthy younger brother, has trouble taking carnal pleasure in his boyfriend after days spent viewing his older brother as a blotchy pin-cushion). But when people actually start talking, it disintegrates into a bevy of clichés (the girlfriend who can't handle Thomas's illness; the blustering patriarch who lashes out instead of coping with his anguish; the family member more attuned to his brother's condition that the medical professionals, etc.). The hackneyed script doesn't completely sink the picture (and Bruno Todeschini's strong performance as Thomas certainly helps), but its lack of imagination leaves the film unconscionably hobbled. Things perk up near the end with a nightmare sequence set to Marianne Faithful, but by this point Chéreau's just throwing up a Hail Mary.
Strayed (André Téchiné, France)
The opening passages of Strayed promised something solid and impressive, affording the nominal pleasures of the well-crafted WW2 story. (The air raids were all the more effective for seeming so out of place in a Téchiné film, bombing the arthouse audience out of its complacency.) But once it settles into its groove (unmoored family dynamics, edenic isolation vs. the larger world), it all felt too rote and tasteful, emanating a rigor mortis I never would have expected from the director of Wild Reeds or My Favorite Season. I mean, it's fine, but it's factory-sealed, and I fidget in my chair with restless boredom even as I sit here recollecting it.
Asylum (Sandy McLeod) [v/s]
An Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Short, it's a rather clipped and hackneyed portrait piece, the inherent personal and political heft of the story (a young Ghanan woman fleeing forced genital mutilation) assumed to compensate for rote directorial moves (traditional African music with the typical scenes of village life -- you already know how this thing is put together). It's all rather like an extended MTV "Free Your Mind" spot, with fragments of images in rapid succession, so "boredom" won't intercede between this important testimony and its presumed Western receiver. Also, as documentary, the short form leaves too many issues unanswered. (Why did she seek out her traditionalist dick of a father in the first place? Why couldn't her mother warn her what she was in store for if she found him?) It's earnest enough, but leaves no room for anything more than ain't-it-a-shame head-shaking, and with a topic like this (where Western feminists are often seen as inadvertent tools in a neo-colonial project, sweeping in to "save" African women from "backwards" traditional ways), you simply need to go more in depth.
The Big Bounce (George Armitage)
It makes sense on paper: put shambling, half-baked, half-assed Owen Wilson in a shambling, half-baked, half-assed caper comedy. Watch the shambling hijinx ensue, etc. But maybe Wilson's persona needs something really sturdy and rigorous to play against, like Jackie Chan, or Wes Anderson's modular, constrictive mise-en-scène. In any case, the slack pacing undercut what I think was supposed to be some crackling dialogue, and (um, hold on a minute...the people in the apartment above me are having sex...jesus, what's he doing to her? Anyway...) Armitage's pointless surf interludes smack of shoddy craftsmanship. It occasionally elicited a chuckle, but I mostly felt sorry for it, like when a little kid tries to "help" by performing some chore for you, and just makes a bigger mess, and you feel compelled to say thank you anyway, and you just don't want to be there.
-The Blonds (Albertina Carri, Argentina) [v]
This is one of those rare occasions when I actually feel sort of guilty for not liking a picture. This really isn't to do with its emotionally and politically charged content (the filmmaker is conducting an inquiry into the deaths of her parents, leftist intellectuals who were "disappeared" during the Dirty War). My problem with The Blonds, and my problem with that problem, pertains to its unconventional structure. On paper, Carri's choices are all strategies I wholeheartedly approve of. She does not attempt a straightforward reconstruction of the past, understanding that her personal connection to the story she's telling, as well as the secrecy still surrounding the issues involved, work to make a coherent narrative impossible to assemble. Instead, Carri adopts a fragmented, postmodernist approach. There are fictional recreations in which an actress (Analía Couceyro) performs as Albertina Carri, conducting interviews and delivering to-the-camera confessions. Black-and-white segments reflexively reveal the deliberations of the filmmaking process. Carri uses Playskool toys for passages of stop-motion animation, providing a visualization of her childhood memories. All of this should work, but I'm afraid none of it really hangs together. The unconventional structure subverts the truth value of the interviews, which is clearly the point, but that documentary quality isn't replaced by anything else. There's no clear framework, so all we get are shards of meaning that refuse to cohere. The Blonds certainly has interest value, and I'm sure it will be championed by some. But the main impression I took away from it was, experimental film is hard. Despite the popular perception that the avant-garde is half-assed and lazy, simply not "bothering" to replicate conventional forms, the overall failure of The Blonds demonstrates the skill and subtlety required to execute the open-form balancing act.
Famous Irish Americans (Roger Beebe) [v/s]
A clever-enough mini-doc that's far more concerned with its mildly pointed content than its rather shoddy form. I give points for its intent, since the examination of "race" as an artificial construction is of interest to me, and this accessible piece could serve as an educational tool, even if it lands up as bumper material on the Sundance Channel. Its obsession with Shaq feels a little outdated, though.
A Private Happiness (Leighton Pierce) [v/s]
I used to be a big booster of Pierce's film work, which tended to be generated from an exquisite, intensive examination of the minor spaces and unintended still-lives of his own domestic environs. But I just don't care for his videos, having seen four of them now. While it's admirable that in shifting to video, Pierce did not simply replicate his film aesthetic in another medium, his particular idea of a video-specific visual texture is really unappealing to me. He smears everything, turning each moment captured with his hand-held camera into a still of sorts, which is then blurrily transitioned into the next still. It results in a more "sensual," New Agey version of the old Gap ads, or Gondry's "Like a Rolling Stone" video. Here, it turns everything into a gelatinous mush of surfaces, blending buildings, window light, and Niagara Falls into the scantily clad body of a woman (Pierce's new girlfriend, according to Black Maria programmer Alvin Larkins). It's a bit too in thrall to a private feeling that I'm not sure can be adequately communicated, and certainly not in this form. These are the pitfalls of "personal cinema," but of course, I'll take them over the alternative.
-Fast Film (Virgil Widrich, Austria) [s]
Old movie clips! Jimmy Stewart! 007! Janet Leigh! Cowboys and horses! Faster and faster!! The whole history of the cinema is my PLAYGROUND! I am the wizard with the Avid system! ICH BIN SEHR TÖLL!!!!! Seriously, it's been a long time since I've seen something this glib and empty. It's all cheap trickery, trading solely off the audience's familiarity with the movie clips shown, and their somewhat incongruous placement. (Frankenstein becomes the masthead on a locomotive, etc.) I liked Widrich's Copy Shop, because it was cute and unassuming, despite its technical virtuosity. But I should have surmised that that early success would turn him into a slick whiz-kid on the make. It has one clever visual gag (the rotating-head machine) and lots of random appropriation so shallow as to make me hope copyright law might actually suppress it.
Nibbles (Chris Hinton, Canada) [v/s]
Oscar-nominated animated short, very much like all the others. (Remember when Don Herzfeld's Rejected landed a surprise nomination? That was awesome.) Very little attention to visual style, all about the gag. It's not hard to make gluttony (or animation) look disgusting. Just entirely not my bag.
Love Object (Robert Parigi) (0:22)
I realize I didn't give this much of a chance. But these first 22 minutes were so excruciating (cruddy video image; horribly mannered acting; a script so hackneyed I would predict the next line in my head and never be wrong) that I didn't care to wait for it to become a comedy, or a horror film, or whatever it supposedly does. Sad world when this gets distribution over Ebiri's far-superior New Guy.