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)




Room 237 (Rodney Ascher)
The S From Hell (Rodney Ashcher) [v/s]

Two quite different but ultimately related works on the problem of interpretation (cinematic and otherwise), these films announce Rodney Ascher not just as a highly unconventional documentarian but as a penetrating thinker and dedicated chronicler of the what Freud called "the psychopathologies of everyday life." In many respects Room 237 is a film so completely up my alley that I felt the need to resist it, its seductions seemingly too likely to be disguising an ideational core that, on inspection, would prove glib or even rotten. However, this isn't the case; Ascher's inquiry into the question of audience response, subjectivity and meaning is not only sincere but radically democratic. On its face, Room 237 is an audio-visual space in which five different individuals are permitted to elaborate their, um, very strong opinions about Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece The Shining. In a shrewd and effective directorial decision, Ascher never shows us the exegetes. We only hear them in voiceover as they explain their complex, idiosyncratic interpretations of this semiotically dense film, and Room 237 bolsters their words with relevant clips from The Shining and other Kubrick works.
Only one interviewee, Geoffrey Cocks, is an academic; the others -- Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, and Jay Weidner -- are amateur enthusiasts and independent scholars. What we discover as Room 237 progresses is that some of these interpretations of The Shining are just bonkers.


While Cocks provides some minor details (e.g. the Calumet baking soda cans) to "demonstrate" that The Shining is about the return of America's repressed -- the massacre of the Native American -- his claims are fundamentally plausible. It's a ghost story based on the domination of Others by Elites. But the "evidence" that The Shining is about the Holocaust, for example (the use of a German typewriter) becomes slightly tenuous, and by the time we're treated to an explanation that Kubrick (of course!) helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landing, and The Shining is his exorcism of private demons of guilt, it's impossible not to find some of this stuff just too inside-baseball, too inside the singular cranium of the interpreter, to be a meaningful (that is, sharable) set of ideas. And this is precisely Ascher's point. We're not supposed to laugh at these men and women (although we could, and might). Room 237 shows us that personal interpretations can and must rely on individual standpoint ("I'm a German historian, so of course I see this . . ."), and one cannot see from any other perspective than what one knows. But there should also be some concessions, it seems, to shared concepts and language. Equally important for Ascher's project, Room 237 contains five "wild" interpretations of du texte in order to provoke not mockery but introspection. Each of us has to decide what our own parameters are for legitimate interpretation, how far is too far, for others and for ourselves.


The S From Hell presses this point from a different direction, by plumbing the depths of private phobias. However, through interviews and Internet research, Ascher discovered that what sounded on the surface like highly bizarre, inexplicable fears turned out to be, if not exactly common, than certainly shared more widely than one might've expected. It's the most "social" kind of fear-object, something purposely intended to be benign: a corporate logo. The "S from hell" is the end logo and jingle for Screen Gems TV productions from the late 60s / early 70s (seen after "Bewitched," various cartoons, and other syndicated shows). Here it is. In the film, 30-somethings describe being terrified of this image, particularly the Moog synthesizer fake-panpipe jingle. Somehow it seemed satanic to a whole lot of little kids. Why would this strange interpretation become a common one? Ascher doesn't explore this question, although the comments suggest that there was an overall discomfort with modernist design and "otherworldly" sounds. Nevertheless, The S From Hell, like Room 237, explores the unexpected, uncontrollable journey that a corporate artifact can embark upon once it's turned loose on a very neurotic world. [The S From Hell can be viewed here.]



Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Takashi Miike, Japan)

A perfectly serviceable film burdened by expectations it couldn't possibly meet, Hara-Kiri would have been patted politely on the head and given a pass under other circumstances. Alas, this was Japanese maverick Takashi Miike's very first film (out of 50+!) to secure a Competition slot at Cannes. It was his first ever film in 3D (also Cannes' first 3D Comp film). And of course, it's a remake of Masaki Kobayashi's 1961 masterpiece. Oh, and since Miike was obviously adding "prestige pictures" to the bizarre stew of genres he could tackle with promiscuous abandon, who's to say this one wouldn't be as great, on those terms, as his 2010 entry, 13 Assassins, which became a worldwide hit and introduced Miike to brand new audiences who would never be caught dead within 20 miles of Visitor Q? Gee, what could go wrong? So yes, seen under the white-hot spotlight of that heightened anticipation, Hara-Kiri was and, truthfully, is a failure. Miike adds very little to Kobayashi's original, except perhaps a less overtly modernist narrative organization. Hara-Kiri 2.0 instead favors more of a Dutch doll or Chinese box structure, with a main frame story containing the primary narrative which in turn involves smaller subplots. But if we throw this fish back in the pond, as it were -- that is, forget about "Prestige Miike" or "Studio Miike," and understand that this filmmaker has always been both prolific and inconsistent, and that flat-out masterworks like Audition and 13 Assassins are the exception, not the rule -- it's possible to appreciate Hara-Kiri as a solid commercial effort. One of the things that may be initially awkward to some viewers, especially following the gripping pace of 13 Assassins, is that much of the newer film operates as a showdown of dialectics, with the problematics of the samurai code being articulated in the feudal courtyard as if we were watching a piece of expository theatre, only periodically broken up by the spectacle of violence. Ebizo Ichikawa's lead role as Hanshiro, the samurai seeking revenge on a cruel feudal lord for his role in the forced suicide of his impoverished son-in-law, is played more as a narrator or an anchor, who sits in the courtyard of the main action, elaborating the inner tale to the lord Kageyu (Koji Yakusho) until it's time for him to rise up and kick ass samurai-style. The chief drama is the suicide of the poor wretch Motome (Eita), a ronin who doesn't intend to follow through on his suicide request but is forced to do so by the harsh Kageyu. The extended sequence, in which Motome digs out his innards with a blunt bamboo sword, is fairly unforgettable. Once this half of Hara-Kiri is laid out, Hanshiro turns the tables and produces a counternarrative, which provides the resolution of the revenge tale but by this point seems somehow extraneous, even as it technically reveals certain plot points that we are not really supposed to know. We can intuit what Hanshiro is doing there. But the need to unfurl this information, both ritualistically and in bifurcated formal terms, speaks to the unyielding procedural bent of Miike's Hara-Kiri, something that is emphasized here much more than in the methodical but altogether livelier Kobayashi film. In the end, your enjoyment (not to say tolerance) for Miike's approach to the material will likely depend on your appreciation of its still, theatrical formalism. [NOTE: I saw this film in 2D, on home video.]


Traveling Light (Gina Telaroli) [v/m]

A true anomaly on the independent scene, filmmaker / critic Telaroli makes works that occupy an increasingly narrow band between avant-garde experimentation and arthouse narrative. I had mixed feelings about her debut feature A Little Death, which impressed me on an initial viewing but didn't quite hold up on second look. A mostly abstract feature composed of long, unbroken (digital) takes, ALD is a character study without a character. Zeroing in on a young woman (Ann Lorraine Novak) and her isolated activities during an extended housesitting gig, the film has a few dazzling scenes (especially an extended tracking shot of Novak jogging), but is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. By contrast, Telaroli's second effort is nothing if not organic, and although it is not a "perfect film" (whatever that might mean), Traveling Light reflects a substantial evolution in the director's aesthetic. Whereas A Little Death was often constricted by its overly apparent striving for perfection, resulting in a closed-off, even standoffish spectatorial address, Traveling Light is open and free. In describing it to others, I have called Telaroli's latest work an "amateur film," and an excellent one. I mean that term "amateur" as praise, in a sense -- made as a clear act of love, from the parlance of Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage. But more than this, I mean is as purely descriptive of a mood or atmosphere, a sense of possibility that pervades the film. Formally organized around, and made during, an Amtrak journey from New York City to Pittsburgh, Traveling Light's title is of course a pun. The maker and her collaborators are a makeshift film crew, availing themselves of the freedom that digital technology offers. But much of the film is a documentation (that word sounds so dry; how about "registration," as upon a photosensitive plate) of various visual phenomena along the way. Telaroli is of course more than acquainted with the history of the "train film," from early cinema's fascination with the mobile tracking shot out the window, or the "cattle catcher" shot through the mountains (the Lumières, Edwin Porter, Billy Bitzer, Cecil Hepworth, and others), to say nothing of the importance of this subsection of pre-narrative film for the avant-garde. Some sections of Traveling Light, like one extended shot out the window with the landscape giving way to tunnels and undulations in the landscape, seem almost like direct replicas of these earlier films, or of their later conceptual explorations by Ernie Gehr or Ken Jacobs. So why do this? What Telaroli's work accomplishes here is, at least, twofold. First, we experience the temporal gap between the film we're watching, with its gleaming, reflective digital surfaces and muted colors, and the previous iterations of "train cinema" from our memories. That is, we recognize what contemporary DV (at both the production and the projection sites) adds to and subtracts from this relatively common vernacular. But second, and perhaps more important, we see that no landscape is ever the same. We may be familiar with the method. But this trip is one we haven't taken before, even if we've ridden this exact same line. Time and attention change our view, and the spaces so enframed are also perpetually "under construction," both physically and as phenomena of light. Telaroli and her collaborators, it's worth noting, went into this project with the intention of making a narrative film. That project, for whatever reason, didn't come to pass. So what we see instead are moments of passengers reflected in windows, bobbing in and out of view; stations coming into the frame, holding, and then disappearing stage right; and in one of the most lyrical segments, a shot out the back window, as the track (the past) diminishes in a haze of snowfall and sepia. In truth, Traveling Light is, like A Little Death, less than the sum of its parts. There are stretches that exhibit less rigor than others, and this isn't a work that clarifies the logic of its transitions particularly well. But its very looseness -- its (pre)determination to "just keep rolling" -- provides Traveling Light with an experimental and experiential framework that contains and accommodates rough patches. Having moved from striving professional to confident amateur, Telaroli has found the means to make every bump and jostle count for something.




Polisse (Maïwenn, France)

On the one hand, when I state very sincerely that Polisse would make a pretty good pilot for a television series, I mean it no inherent disrespect. As any number of media pundits will gladly instruct us at length, we are in a Golden Age of Television, and quite a bit of what comes over the old "tube" these days (at 1080p, of course) is far better than the current decade in cinema. All one has to do is look at recent covers of the highbrow German film magazine Cargo (Mad Men; Parks and Recreation), or observe that one of our finest move critics, Matt Zoller Seitz, pretty much left the biz to write about TV. So if Polisse fails as a coherent piece of cinema, mostly because it tries to cram too many characters and plotlines within a two-hour framework, it's not some sort of suggested downgrade to indicate that Maïwenn's rather worthy project -- a multi-strand examination of the personal and professional struggles of Paris's Child Protection Unit -- is too unwieldy for its chosen form. As is, certain major characters, such as Emmanuelle Bercot's Sue Ellen or Karole Rocher's Chrys, only show the beginnings of genuine individuation. Now, on the other hand, having said all this, I think Polisse would make a middlebrow TV show on par with, say, Grey's Anatomy, one that I am pretty certain I would not watch. There are undeniably potent moments in Maïwenn's film (most notably the scene in which a homeless immigrant mother, out of options for protecting her son, turns him over to the CPU as he wails). But many more sequences, the final one in particular, demonstrate that the Erstwhile Ms. Le Besco is more than happy to goose the audience for cheap pathos. Next stop: Shondaland.




Hanezu (Naomi Kawase, Japan)

[WARNING: Low-level namedropping ahead. It's contextual...] My friend and Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson gets a lot of crap for being (in the words of the late great Kurt Cobain) a negative creep when it comes to Cannes. Even more so than my pal Mike D'Angelo, who has been covering Cannes for The AV Club in recent years and takes a lot of guff for being a curmudgeon on the Croisette, Peranson's Cannes wrap-ups tend to focus as much on the frustrations and vagaries of festival politics as they do on the films themselves. This makes sense for a number of reasons, not least of them being that Peranson is also a festival programmer (for Vancouver and Locarno) and so he witnesses a lot of these politics first-hand. But more than this, anyone with serious leftist credentials who is also concerned with the fate of art must always consider not only aesthetic production but the institutions that administer and enframe it. This is something that art historians have become quite accustomed to; the October crew established these parameters back in the late 70s. Film has been a little slower to accept this kind of thinking, and when critics focus a bit too much on the ins and outs of sales agents, festival heads, and various forms of economic horsetrading -- in other words, when we follow the money -- it can strike some cinephiles as being in bad taste, or just plain grumpy. ("What about the films?")


Sometimes the politics merits more consideration than the films, frankly. Peranson has been pretty consistent (and correct) in pointing out that Cannes, still the world's preeminent showcase for art cinema year after year, has its pet directors, whose films are programmed by Fremaux and company, regardless of their quality. Some filmmakers, like previous Palme d'Or winners Emir Kusturica and Nanni Moretti, are grandfathered in regardless of how wretched their films may be. Others have become Cannes regulars in recent years, for no clear reason. Has Thierry Fremaux taken an honest shine to, say, Paolo Sorrentino, which permits him to see this highly strange, acquired-taste of an auteur as a brash new leading light of Italian cinema? I haven't really made up my mind about Sorrentino personally (although D'Angelo [PRO!] and Peranson [CON!] certainly have). But no other major festivals aside from Cannes give Sorrentino the time of day. And, more to the point, none of them have to. Being a favorite son at Cannes is more than enough on which to base a healthy career.


...Which brings us to Naomi Kawase. Relatively unenthusiastically received in her home country of Japan, and, well, pretty much everywhere else, she is a star in the Croisette firmament. And while she does have certain supporters amongst the French critical establishment, no one really bats for her quite like Cannes. Her second major feature, Shara, was actually one of the more interesting competition entries in the legendarily dismal lineup of 2003, its handheld camerawork and loose poetic style actually coalescing into a genuinely engaging aesthetic experience. Shot by Kawase at the viewpoint of the two young boys who were its protagonists, Shara combined a magic spiritualism with a lithe yet muscular materialism. Kawase has maintained the semi-improvisatory mode she applied with Shara with diminishing returns, to say the least. The Mourning Forest, her 2007 effort which inexplicably won the Grand Prix at Cannes that year, was remarkable only in light of Kawase's ability to form a film around a sylvan landscape and make it look flat, blobby and illegible. Ostensibly a Shintoist parable in which an elderly man and her caregiver get lost in the woods, where they have the chance to work through the loss of their respective loved ones, Kawase's film is slack and unstructured, not to mention mawkishly sentimental. Still, The Mourning Forest is a clear-eyed masterwork compared to Hanezu.


Kawase's premise, while not exactly provocative, is at least a sturdy enough basis for a generic festival film. Hanezu purports to operate on two levels, one a contemporary narrative and the other a mythological allegory serving as an allegorical refrain. The present-day tale is a love triangle among people in their 40s living in a remote village in Nara Prefecture. Kyoko (Hako Oshima) dyes scarves; her husband Tetsuya (Tetsuya Akikawa) is a magazine writer. They have an easy rapport until Kyoko reconnects with gruff, rustic woodcarver Takumi (Tota Komizu), moves in with him, has an affair, and gets pregnant. Their travails are mirrored by the landscape and the mountains, which are said to embody Shinto gods. Trouble is, Hanezu is practically a master-class in filmmaking incompetence. Shots are ill-framed, the pacing and rhythm are sluggish, and while Kawase may be under the impression that her editing and narrative organization are "elliptical" or "abstract," her efforts are nothing of the sort. Hanezu is just confusing and inscrutable, with major ideas dropping in and out with no pattern or purpose, almost as though Kawase thinks that we, the viewer are inside her head, not seated before her artistic effort, privy only to what she has deigned to externalize. I would suggest that David Bordwell consult Hanezu as a prime example of how the outward trappings of "art film," all the ambiguities that have become signposts of the subgenre, can go horribly awry, yielding nothing but a mishmash of uncommunicative images and sounds. What is the story with this woman? Is she really one of Japan's greatest filmmakers? Am I just blind to her genius? I'm gobsmacked that this would get past any selection committee on earth.