REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JULY 2009

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)

 

[8]

 

-Let Each One Go Where He May (Ben Russell, U.S. / Suriname)

[A long essay on Russell's film will appear in the upcoming issue of Cinema Scope. This review is a truncated version of that piece, and a bit of a placeholder for that eventual link.] Russell's first feature-length film is the third component of a recent three-film project set among the Saramaccan Maroons on Suriname, and in some sense it is the most ambiguous of the three films. Whereas Trypps #6, which is largely drawn from the penultimate shot in Let Each One, uses brief bookends to expose the artifice behind ethnographic ritual, and the medium-length Tjúba Tén / The Wet Season (co-directed with Brigid McCaffrey, the sound recordist on Let Each One) uses contrapuntal sound, text and image relationships to problematize assumptions regarding documentary's truth value, Let Each One accomplishes its critical work through hypnotic, phenomenological means. It is not a "trance film," in the Maya Deren sense (or like some of Russell's earlier Trypps work), but it does employ the extended time-image of the Steadicam to produce a sensation of movement as a combination of free will and predestiny. The title itself contains this irony. It is an injunction to follow one's own path. However it refers to the Gods' mythic freeing of the Maroon slaves from the Dutch, and those escapees followed a very particular path, one that Let Each One's two "stars," Benjen and Monie Pansa, retrace throughout the film. What's more, the close accompaniment of the Steadicam, sometimes following, sometimes several paces ahead, sometimes (e.g. in the busy city street) getting left behind, points to a carefully orchestrated sense of movement, one that may not be completely predetermined but that is is certainly not extemporaneous. The thirteen unbroken 10-minute shots which comprise the film unfurl these ambivalent spaces as zones of labor. Even in the penultimate shot, when the "tribal authentic" is performed and documented as a recreated act of auto-ethnography, we see that this effort is another form of labor along a journey punctuated by available work. Russell and the Pansa brothers are demonstrating a specific pattern of Saramaccan migration during a the tourist season. But the well-trod path they follow is also emblematic of the larger situation of the post-colonial subject under global capitalism. These freed slaves' cinematic strolls and trudges bear greater weight than those found in films by (to take the most obvious examples) Béla Tarr or Gus Van Sant, because this mobility is something the Pansas' forebears simply did not have. And yet, that freedom is circumscribed by a new set of exigencies. These men do not travel so much as they circulate. And in this way, their situation is generalizable, but for materialist reasons, and not humanist ones.

 

[7]

 

-Afternoon (Angela Schanelec, Germany)

Schanelec's film is concerned with both qualities of light and with passages, moments of transition liminality, and this is made explicit in her title, Nachmittag. After an opening shot which is singularly incongruous with the rest of the film (more on that below), Schanelec moves the (in)action to a lakeside family cottage where Alex (Fritz Schediwy), the de facto patriarch of the clan, is slowly wasting away from chronic illness. He is tended by his 22 year old nephew Konstantin (Jirka Zett), who has assumed this role out of a combination of unavoidable duty, no better options, and a desire to thumb his nose at his mother Irene (Schanelec), an actress who, according to the other members of the family, has always been cold and distant. Her exchanges with her older brother Alex play like Edward Albee-style verbal fisticuffs, only they're seldom amusing and delivered in the slow cadence of the utterly exhausted.

 

This is Schanelec's loose adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull, and like Chekhov, Schanelec is much more interested in subtext and white-space than in overt dramatization. This is why the occasional soliloquies in Afternoon are so jarring. Schanelec's primary approach is one that deftly balances the fundamentally actorly character of the material with her manipulation of the plastic elements of the medium. Like many of her "New Berlin School" compatriots, Schanelec employs windows and window frames as spatial organizers, partitioning the space and severing the available light into tangible planes. But the open-air architecture of the lake house allows Schanelec to use this space as a tool for delineating uncertainty. Often, the screen will be divided into vertical strips of wood frame, reflective glass, glinting sunlight, and somewhere in the mix, a person speaking, whose listener may well be off-screen, at least until the next camera set-up. In a way, this concern with inside / outside and center / periphery also serves to visually emphasize the vital role Agnes (Miriam Howitzer) plays in the story. She is the family's next-door-neighbor, and she has had a fraught relationship with Konstantin since childhood. Agnes moves freely through the home space. She is no stranger. But she is an observer, someone Schanelec tends not to visually or spatially mediate in the same ways as others. To call Agnes our implied point-of-view or an audience stand-in of some kind is highly reductive, but there is an emotional morass engulfing the family, one she limns but from which she pointedly opts out.

 

Some critics have expressed frustration with Afternoon's (depiction of) torpor and ennui, going so far as to brand Schanelec's work as "just another boring art film." But again, if we consider this film in contrast with other recent vivisections of the bourgeois family in auteur cinema (Desplechin's Christmas Tale and Kore-eda's Still Walking come immediately to mind), we must remember the Chekhov element, which takes Schanelec down an entirely different path. These characters take no pleasure in hurting one another. They behave like sad, beaten animals sharing the same overcrowded pen, all too aware of the futility of rebellion. Why fight? As with Chekhov, Schanelec depicts a subset of society on the decline. Back to that bizarre opening shot. We see Irene in rehearsal (from the POV of someone behind the stage) petting a dog as part of a play. This "acting moment" is referred to later, since apparently it was only within this circumscribed, professional-obligation context that Irene could show such common tenderness. But perhaps more importantly, Schanelec identifies something genuine, even on the stage, in Irene's engagement with her canine co-star, something that the listless bourgeois of her own clan can never retain. Olivier Assayas's current film Summer Hours shows how both art and family become dented in the world of capital. By contrast, Afternoon observes a slow withering-away of a family unit that is itself terminally ill, its own heirs taking the pipe, as if that were a bold artistic gesture in the face of staid emptiness. Or, as Anton C. himself put it, "The more refined you are, the more unhappy."

 

-Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski)

Behold! The breakthrough. It seems not only counterintuitive but downright retrograde, almost like a late-night dare, for a supposed mumblecore filmmaker to further his craft in Austin, Texas, the world capital of shambling, mushmouthed honky-tude. But damned if Bujalski doesn't pull roses from the lion's jaws, partly because his progression as an artist entails acquiring a higher, more potent degree of distance from the worlds he's generating. Beeswax finds Bujalski acceding to his rightful place as a poet of passive-aggression (see also: Larry David, Hong Sang-soo), rather than just another sufferer. He has, in every meaningful respect, stepped behind the camera. And the first thing one notices about Beeswax, from the opening 5-to-1 countdown on porcelain dinner plates to the meticulously art-designed, tchotchke-stuffed boutique, Storyville, which plays such a central role in the film, is that Bujalski is asserting himself much more directly in terms of visual style and mise-en-scène. Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation were complex, nearly balletic films, highly visually accomplished, but nearly every iota of their formal sophistication was geared toward effacing their own filmic presence. Beeswax, by contrast, treats space, color and light as overt tools in the communicative arsenal.

 

The basic plot concerns Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher), co-owner and manager of Storyville, who fears an impending lawsuit from her mostly-absent partner Amanda (Anne Dodge). She seeks help from her off-and-on boyfriend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student presently cramming for the Texas Bar Exam. Jeannie lives with her twin sister Lauren (Maggie Hatcher), who is flailing in her job search and eventually stumbles into an opportunity that will take her out of Jeannie's life at a crucial time. As is Bujalski's wont, the primary tension in the film arises from awkwardly expressed and barely suppressed resentments, along with relationships caught in the twilight of ill-defined boundaries. This is most acutely the case with Jeannie and Merrill, whose friendship and mutual need slides into a love affair that both parties feel they must guard against. But above all, Jeannie's role as proprietor of Storyville drives the film, and Bujalski orchestrates its meaning in a variety of subtle ways. Most reviews of Beeswax have (quite rightly) praised the fact that the film does not pay undue attention to the fact that Jeannie (like actress Tilly Hatcher) is in a wheelchair. And it is true, Jeannie's impairment doesn't really element in the plot. However, Bujalski and Hatcher do address, in a way, Jeannie's management of her body in space, as a possible expression of unspoken psychological factors. For example, we don't see Jeannie moving around Storyville all that much, which is no surprise. The place is crammed with junk. What's more, Bujalski's framings within the shop tend to emphasize Jeannie's lower position within the frame, which contrasts with her more equal blocking in the car shots, in bed with Merrill, or just around the house. Something about this business, and the "business" with Amanda, clearly diminishes Jeannie's sense of self, and this is expressed visually through framing.

 

What's more, Jeannie's worst traits emerge around her Storyville-related stress. Witness her intensely passive-aggressive abuse of Amanda-sanctioned new-hire Corinne (Katy O'Connor), who is clearly the unfortunate surrogate for the abuse Jeannie feels powerless to channel more appropriately at Amanda. The scene where Jeannie badgers Corinne about the possibility of getting arrested at a pro-gay-rights rally is searingly uncomfortable, matched in squirm-inducing grandeur only by Jeannie and Merrill's ambush of "old friend" Tom (Bob Byington), someone whose recent inheritance has pegged him as a "potential investor" (read: mark). One of the remarkable things about these exchanges, which are among the best Bujalski has ever written, is that the victims of Jeannie's blithe self-absorption do not retaliate in kind. They aren't passive-aggressive. They fight back. In some ways it's tempting to read this shift allegorically, seeing Bujalski's work connect with the larger world of non-mumblers as they demand something more than half-gestures and immediately withdrawn motions. Even the vibrancy of Matthias Grunsky's cinematography speaks to a broader universe, more open and alive. In what has become an emblematic image from Beeswax, Jeannie and Lauren go out to a pasture for an impromptu photo session, and Lauren twirls as she hoists Jeannie on her back. The sisters radiate laughter, and Lauren's cotton dress catches the afternoon sun as it glides past the camera. Both of Bujalski's previous films contained moments of pleasure, but neither contained such unselfconscious joie de vivre, such total abandon. Beeswax bursts open like this now and then, and because of this the breakdown of human communication, while undeniably funny, is also thrown into relief again, as pathology instead of just the zeitgeist's disappointing plan for us all. Even to the very last shot, Bujalski is keeping the conversation going, not with a painful silence but with an affirmative motion, bounding out the door. Don't worry, counsels Merrill, perhaps acting as Bujalski's on-screen avatar. We'll figure something out.

 

-Black and White Trypps Number Four (Ben Russell) [s]

Ben Russell's Trypps series contains short works that range from complete abstraction (Number One) through a single-shot film that is, in terms of celluloid processing and camera tricks, pretty much naturalistic and free of overt intervention (#6). Much like Hollis Frampton's Hapax Legomena suite (a multi-film work of similar ambition, albeit directed toward different modes of inquiry), the Trypps all represent highly particular "solutions" to a set of bedrock questions and concerns that weave their way throughout Russell's practice. If there are master tropes at work, it seems to be they predominantly hover around issues of performance and perception. In a way, Russell can be seen reviving avant-garde cinema's concern with the phenomenological dialectic between film and viewer, but on very shifted terms. Russell is looking to forge, or perhaps merely illuminate, connections between the ecstatic, optically overwhelmed viewer of some types of experimental cinema (the flicker film especially) and other forms of audience response -- at a hardcore show, or a Richard Pryor performance, or, eventually, in the presence of the "ethnographic." Russell implies that there are perhaps equal degrees of rationality and sublime obliteration of self within each of these modes. The mathematized organization of Sharits and Conrad tap into purely physical responses, but in similarly formalized ways, Richard Pryor worked the social dialectic between the races as the basis of his comedy, hitting upon suppressed, spontaneous centers of nervous id.

 

And so, in Black and White Trypps Number Four, we find Russell working with a processed film strip of Pryor in action. The opening minutes have Pryor in unmanipulated audio, discussing the white people in his audience, poking fun at the awkwardness with which we have made a place for ourselves. This audio is presented, appropriately enough, over clear leader. Russell shows us pockmarks, dents and scratches on the celluloid, interrupting the smooth self-evident invisibility of white projector light. Then, for the rest of the film, Russell produces high abstraction from close-up images of Pryor performing on stage. The black and white contrast is made absolute, and Russell mirrors the footage against a vertical axis down the center of the frame, producing undulating Rorschach blots, out of which Pryor's hands and visage periodically emerge. At the start, this maneuver is silent. But by the four-minute mark, Russell has reintroduced sound. Audience noise rises and falls, sounding like airstrip noise, while a black pyramid shape flaps against the frameline. (Appropriately, at the 7.5 minute mark, Russell shows the edge of the stage, which resembles an airplane wing. In between, of course, there is the usual skull-like / cricket-head blobbery.) The impact is striking; as with true abstraction, the representational image becomes subsumed within a purely formal play, and it entails a struggle on the part of the viewer to retain focus on Pryor as a stable image inside the film. In this respect, Russell has brought his phenomenological concerns regarding audienceship to an ideal crisis point. The audience for experimental film and the audience for Pryor's work may or may not intersect, but we can certainly agree that these groups have attached to them, fairly or not, certain demographic assumptions -- raced ones, classed ones, ones based on demeanor as an audience member, etc. At the crux of these difference is the very Kantian aestheticized gaze that Russell continually stages and subverts with Pryor's image and voice. Black and White Trypps Number Four enacts the distance, but is not nearly as distant as we've grown accustomed to, even by the standards of someone like Sharits, whose films do indeed grab one by the throat. By the end, Pryor has defeated abstraction, or at least reached a detente with it. (Compare Pryor's star turn with the fates of Barbara Hershey or Eli Wallach in the Tscherkassky oeuvre for stark comparison.) Russell literally gives the comedian the last word: "What're you taking my picture for? Who you gonna show it to? Who gives a fuck?"

 

-California Company Town (Lee Anne Schmitt)

Every planet we reach is dead. Lee Anne Schmitt's bio describes her as a multimedia artist working in film, photography, writing, and performance, and this anti-disciplinary approach is more and more common with artmakers today. Working between mediums and formats is almost expected. But California Company Town is a unique example of a film-text which truly bears the marks of Schmitt's extra-cinematic lines of attack. Photography is the most obvious, since Schmitt's exquisitely framed, fixed-camera compositions tend to extract an almost effortless pictorial whisper from the abandoned landscapes under examination, as if the overgrown factories and half-missing ranch homes were waiting, for years, for someone to observe their existence, their defiant beauty. But more than this, Schmitt's film can and should be characterized as a work of performance. California Company Town can be classified as an "experimental documentary," of course, but it seems to be that this does the film a grave disservice. On the one hand, it is not a particularly illuminating documentary, strictly speaking. Schmitt follows no clear trajectory through the California landscape. She seldom goes into any particular depth regarding the history of any single abandoned town; even at Company Town's leisurely pace, the place-names whiz by as if on a freeway trip -- McKittrick, Salton City, Darwin, California City. What's more, Schmitt even goes so far as to violate the very parameters she sets with the film's title. Manzanar, for example, the now-emptied site of California's WWII-era Japanese internment camp, cannot properly be called a "company town," unless one makes the argument that the U.S. Government always was nothing more than a corporation or a front for corporations. Schmitt declines to make this argument. Likewise, when Company Town looks at Richmond, CA, she rightly contrasts its past as a key site in the history of the Black Panthers with the poverty of its mostly African-American and Latino residents, a poverty all the more striking relative to the rest of the Bay Area. But Richmond is not a dead city in a manner comparable to the towns Schmitt examines earlier in the film.

 

Nevertheless, Schmitt's performative voice serves to allow connections to form, without forcing connections where they simply don't exist. This isn't a documentary so much as an essay film, one arranged in an only roughly chronological but primarily modular manner. That is to say, there are certain guiding assumptions within California Company Town: capitalism takes space, its imprints itself on the spaces it inhabits, and when it is done, it leaves its mark on those spaces (now irrevocably transformed into "places" by the people brought into capital's orbit), usually as a hollow shell. We can read the ruins and discover something about the way capital operates. These underlying assumptions also guided Travis Wilkerson's far more militant essay film An Injury to One. But what's different about California Company Town is that Schmitt refrains from (and yes, I would definitely say "refrains from," rather than "fails to") linking the individual instances of this capitalist landscape trauma to one another, beyond the film's general thematic / political yoke. This allows her to attend far more specifically to the formal nuances of these California townscapes, the particular manner in which, in one instance, it is a high school baseball scoreboard that has withstood the years of neglect, while in another place, a rusted-out factory (now a makeshift skate park) stands as the memorial to bygone times. Each of these places tells its own story, in light, in form, in its unique, unplanned collision between the remnants of human intervention and the land's own gradual reclamation. Schmitt is exceedingly attentive to architectural and industrial remains, how they cut a figure against the surrounding environment. California Company Town has frequently been compared with James Benning's work, and Schmitt is a colleague of Benning's at CalArts. But actually her film, in its pacing, organization, and attention to built form, is much closer to Heinz Emigholz's "Architecture and Beyond" project. So yes, it must be conceded that Schmitt does not "connect the dots" that a more conventional documentary would. (Although it would certainly be nice if "regular" documentaries were this well-shot.) But Schmitt's voiceover discussion, her performance as the moment-to-moment explicator of wholly individual, non-totalized meanings about the places we see, creates a cumulative impact. Some places will impress themselves in our memories. Others will remain supremely dead. But all have appeared, physical testimonies to a past that the Highway Commission carefully reroutes us away from, and that is edited out of the present with uncharted Free Trade Zones and deceptive buzzwords like "post-industrial." Nobody who lived in these towns, worked there, went to school, went to church, nobody considered themselves marked for death. Who's planning our obsolescence, right now?

 

-World's Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait)

[SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS] I hadn't originally planned to write a review of Goldthwait's film, partly because at the time it struck me as a generally winning but minor entertainment. But strangely enough it's a film that has stuck with me, much more so than "better" films. Objectively there are certain problems with World's Greatest Dad, and when I had cause to remember those flaws I winced a bit, thinking I had overrated the film but at the same time having no particular inclination to give it a second look for verification. Bobcat's increasing competence as a director has come at a price. Whereas Sleeping Dogs Lie turned its blocky, perfunctory construction to its advantage, forming a sort of scuzzy, semi-intentional B-movie ambiance, WGD features song montages. It also uses expanded budgetary means to widen its scope. Where SDL was all the more potent for its chamber-piece claustrophobia, WGD takes on satirical "targets" like daytime talk shows, right down to the tinny mise en scene. This rings hollow, not only because Goldthwait has nothing particularly original to say about mass media culture, but because his downmarket visual approach seems derived from the grotty-misanthrope school of American Independent cinema (Todd Solondz, for starters), and Bobcat is too much of a humanist to really put his heart into it. He's far more comfortable swimming in John Waters than in Daniel Waters, and the satire just fizzles.

 

But what WGD gets right, with a jarring precision, is the gulf between who our family members are and who we wish they were. Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) knows full well that his son Kyle (a transformed, post-pubescent Daryl Sabara) is a complete asshole. (In one sense, WGD is almost like a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern riff on Rushmore, opting to follow the "inner life" of one of Bill Murray's dickwad sons instead of Max Fischer.) When Kyle dies as a result of a humiliating accident, Lance is devastated, not only for the loss of the son he truly loved but for the loss of hope, the loss of future potential. Naturally this is true of all parents who lose children, but part of what Goldthwait is showing here is that Lance has lost any chance that Kyle would ever be fundamentally worthwhile. He knows his son was worthless, which of course doesn't mitigate his basic fatherly love for the boy. And so, in an act of almost indistinguishable selfishness and generosity, Lance seizes the opportunity to "remake" Kyle as someone he and others could be proud of.

 

As the situation spins out of control, and is eventually curtailed by Lance without rhyme or reason, we can see that Goldthwait has difficulty shoehorning this basic human problem into a tidy narrative. But perhaps this was never really his interest. Sleeping Dogs Lie was a film about the necessity to keep certain parts of ourselves private in order to maintain our place in the social realm. World's Greatest Dad confronts a similar issue from another angle. How do we make those with whom we are most intimate presentable to others? How many of us have related a familial anecdote, but conveniently left out a family member's racial slur, or amended a story so that we or someone we love had a smarter comeback or a slightly more sound course of action? Goldthwait's cinema demonstrates the crushing conundrum of sociality. When we choose our lovers, we have the chance to remake ourselves, and the chance to select someone whose basic human criteria, ideally, we would not need to embellish. But family is family, and World's Greatest Dad is a tragicomedy about a basic impulse gone awry. Lance only wanted to give his son a posthumous upgrade. Oh, and if that made him look like a better man in the bargain, well, what's the harm in that?