REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MARCH 2011
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [p] para-cinema (installation, etc.); [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
Here's my piece for Cinema Scope Online. I must say this film was a pleasant surprise, even if I have a few more reservations about it than some of my peers (and even more than perhaps I chose to directly evince in the C S review). I distinctly recall, about ten or fifteen minutes from the end of the film, thinking to myself, "Now here's a film with absolutely no subtext to speak of. It's almost bizarrely 'what-it-is'." And then, like an Austrian commuter train, in pulls The Subtext. Is it "earned"? I think it's certainly foreshadowed and not without a definite purpose. (Why would Atsuko and Rintaro be in the boondocks in the first place?) But there is a slight sense of at-the-buzzer profundity here. Ott makes it work, so there's no real need to complain about it. Doing so would be quibbling, not criticism. But it is an odd formal strategy, since the hanging-out vibe, so associated with the kids of Littlerock, gets thrown over in favor of goal-directed filmmaking. That is, on the level not of story / diegesis but of structure / enunciation, Littlerock "sides" with its Japanese protagonists. So evenhandedness has its limits. Which is fine; it just has to be acknowledged, yes?
I'll be the first to admit, I kind of missed out on the whole "midnight movie" thing. Never got into a lot of the cult stuff that was the bread and butter of so many budding cinephiles. This is probably why, when I go to TIFF and delve into the Midnight Madness selections, I tend to feel like I'm the only guy at the party who can't speak some private language, or who didn't get to the hash brownies before they were all gone. One of the most common comments one hears regarding cult-items, and their suitability for evaluation, is that they can't be entirely understood when seen in isolation -- that is, as films, rather than whole-cloth experiences. "You've got to see it with an audience," I'm told, and I'm sure I'm not alone in hearing this implicit apologia. (I usually just let it go, since admitting that, more often than not, being with said audience is even more annoying for me would just be opening another can of worms.) I do get this, of course. Back in grad school, I argued (unsuccessfully) that the canonical Film History exam list should include such "sociological" titles as Rocky Horror and The Passion of the Christ, due to significance that had little to do with their "objective" quality. But yes, if you just watch Rocky Horror, it's a stone bore. And, regardless of how much gorehounds or Asiaphiles or whatever cult audience you can select may "do" with and around a film (including aggressive ironization), it doesn't change the fact that a lot of exploitation titles and self-consciously quirky and/or violent films are trying too hard, and are just plain dull. Most recently I slogged through Hobo With a Shotgun. Why?
So I suspect there are just going to be Hobo With a Shotgun people out there, and Rubber people, and I'm definitely in the latter camp. Yes, that's simplistic, but so are the films themselves. One gets caught up in lunkheaded tropes of justice and revenge (ones it clearly doesn't give a fig about). The other, as outlined in the key monologue provided by the Sheriff (Stephen Spinella), proceeds on the basis of "no reason." He, channeling director Dupieux one assumes, takes an aggressive stance not unlike that of the Kids in the Hall's classic, half-assed non-sketch "Premise Beach," where openly meaningless premises ("What if?!!") were laid bare and (kind of) run with. In fact, Dupieux takes the joke too far, calling upon a series of other movies as examples of the logic of "no reason," even though some of them (JFK, The Pianist) rely for their place in the argument on a complete misunderstanding bordering on cine-aphasia. (Why does the pianist hide like an animal, when he plays the piano so well? I think there may have been a reason for that...) What Rubber is actually up to, starting with a gag involving a slalom course of audience seating, promptly mowed down by the sheriff's unmarked vehicle, is a kind of moment-to-moment free-associative Imagism that treats the desert landscape like a theatre setting, or a proving ground. In what kind of universe could [SPOILER, BUT COME THE F*** ON] a sentient steel belted radial exercise dominion? Flatlands, of course. And so building off this spatial premise, Dupieux (aka techno artist Mr. Oizo) sets up a busload of tourists / internal spectators with binoculars who are the film's intended victims (a very French affectation, sort of film theory's "cone of vision" as a death shot of radioactivity), but have a clear view across the prairie to the "action." And a motel, and a hot-chick motorist (Roxane Mesquida, fresh from Kaboom), and "Robert," the psycho-killer who (literally) keeps things rolling.
But a large portion of the "midnight" crowd, it seems, isn't buying it. And understandably so. Rubber is an art film, and a meta-commentary, all wrapped up in a goofy surrealist jape.That chair bit was a little like loosey-goosey Roy Andersson (if you can imagine such a thing), but if one spirit seemed to hover over Dupieux's cine-whatsit, it most certainly was not Tobe Hooper or Lloyd Kaufman, but uber-obscure French egghead director Alain Guiraudie. He's had no film yet released in the U.S., he pops up only occasionally on the festival circuit (although he's, um, "downloadable"), and even in France he's something of an outsider. But his work is characterized by a sense that loony, deadpan weirdoes in the countryside are free from the rules of logic, and can do just about anything they want to in the name of self-expression: take cinema apart, suddenly "stop" being gay, enter a dreamlike fugue state, what have you. While Guiraudie would most likely never impute psychic powers to an inanimate object, or blow things up all gory-like (and actually Rubber's really short on the guts -- another reason the cultists are yawning), he and Dupieux most certainly share a commitment that "no reason" is a reason, a connection not only to untapped places in the human unconscious, but to typically under-explored aspects of the film experience: halting, almost physical language; palpable space; and an equation of spectatorship with inquiry and inquiry with genuine risk. Yes, this is a silly-ass movie. But it also engages with the formal parameters of cinema, and that -- not empty pandering to audience prejudice -- is where the rubber really hits the road.
"Utopia" -- In the past, Rivers has located this radical new space within the margins of already-existing society. Previous films such as This Is My Land (2006), Origin of the Species, Ah, Liberty! (both 2008), and I Know Where I’m Going (2009) have been largely comprised of documentary footage, wherein Rivers has traveled through back roads and wooded glens to discover individuals making their way with the barest of means. More often than not, this has meant transforming their surroundings – their homes, their landscapes, the portion of the earth over which they can exercise basic dominion – into a proto-apocalyptic bulwark, complete with rusted-out autos, hoarded machine parts, maniacal junk-derived folk art, and recreational gravel pits. In his journeys, Rivers continually finds those who have formed their own utopias alongside the normative and seemingly inevitable expanse of late-late capitalism. And yet, to those of us whose imaginations have been squelched by that circumscribed set of possibilities, these junk piles can only look like the end of the world. (And of course, if you equate the end of the world with the end of capitalism, that’s exactly what they are. When the last world market finally collapses, we will all be fretting over rusty bicycle pumps and stray cinderblocks.)
Needless to say, Slow Action’s constructed utopias are more fanciful, but at the same time more overt in their exhibition of deep-seated anxieties. That is to say, this is Rivers’ most literary film to date – no surprise, given von Schlegell’s participation. This work, more than anything else Rivers has done so far, inches toward narrative filmmaking – Dafoe, Borges, Calvino, Chris Marker, and especially the late Raúl Ruiz are fairly obvious touchstones, and of course, the spectre of Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread) (1933) is never too far from Rivers’ work. And, given the subject matter, it comes as no surprise that Rivers has cited a host of 19th and 20th century travel writing and treatises on utopianism. In an interview with Frances Morgan for “Sound and Music,” he mentions Samuel Butler, Herbert Read, and Francis Bacon. Nevertheless, Slow Action employs a unique paradox that one would not readily expect, given the shift it represents in Rivers’ general working method.
And what are these hypothetical utopias, not yet found but probably destined to be lost? On the dry, craggy expanse of Lanzarote, Rivers conjures Eleven, home of the Elevanians. They are a race defined by mathematics and astronomy, nocturnal in nature due to the punishing temperatures on Eleven during the day. As the narrator (Ilona Halberstadt) informs us, the stark clarity of their night sky, combined with their lives having been relegated to the nighttime hours, has not only predisposed the Elevanians to devote an inordinate amount of attention to the heavens. (This fanciful claim, actually, mirrors the genuine one made by Patricio Guzmán in his film Nostalgia For the Light  regarding the Atacama Desert in Chile.) Their eyes and physiology have evolved so as to peer into the skies with far greater acuity than other human beings. (In fact, most Elevanians die by wandering into ravines or off cliffs, so defiantly have they fixed their eyes upward.) Likewise, mating and courtship are negotiated through an exchange of algebraic equations. Rivers visualizes the utopia of Eleven as a series of mountainous landscapes dappled with mists, or oceanscapes, punctuated with vaguely alien geometric structures – concentric metal diamonds rotating on a signpost or bulbous light fixtures without apparent function. The skies themselves (through Rivers’ own animation) also gleam with laser-like cubes and rectangular solids whirling in space. Strange as they seem, these conjunctures of the natural and the hard-edged geometrical call to mind the utopian aspirations of modernist architecture and design, as well as their more vernacular expressions in World’s Fairs (a faded sign-system incisively examined in Michael Robinson’s film Victory Over the Sun ).
The second part focuses on the Society Islands, based on footage shot on Tuvalu. What we see are bits and pieces of a scrapped out, mostly abandoned village situation, with the occasional human or wild pig inhabitant. The narrator (John Wynne) notes that the Society Islands are just a few meters above sea level, and this is true of Tuvalu as well. Likely to be the first true casualty of global warming and rising ocean levels, the island nation of Tuvalu is gradually being claimed by the Pacific. (They’ve had one small stroke of luck, though. Annual leasing of their Internet country code, “.tv,” has proven somewhat lucrative.) Aside from the tropical setting, “Hiva (The Society Islands)” is the segment of Slow Action that most resembles Rivers’ previous work, in that it observes a somewhat impoverished, marginal mode of living from a handheld, peripatetic standpoint. However, von Schlegell’s narrative points toward a futurity which complicates the images we see, ones that would otherwise be quite consonant with post-disaster footage from the developing world. The voiceover describes the extreme fecundity of the Society Islands, with plentiful fish, coconuts, and a self-replicating (apparently alive or para-organic) base of plastic. We see garbage piles around homes, and are led to understand them as part of the living landscape, not a blight upon it. In this new utopia, our ecosystem has made peace with pollution and incorporated it into the natural order – Gaia the supervirus. No wonder, then, that among the islands in the imaginary chain, Rivers identifies the last as “Anus Isle, a stink swamp islet 70 miles east of its nearest neighbor, rich in natural gas and dingleberries.” […]
And so, Slow Action ends having taken us through a deeply ironic trajectory, moving the concept of utopia from the most overly rational (math-as-sex) to the most overtly irrational (sex-as-war), and in so doing leaves us very close to the real world – in fact, Rivers’ own backyard. These are deeply unstable times. We face global catastrophe, heavy weather, economic collapse . . . And the one thing that seems to be the common thread among every political demagogue who promises to deliver us from these “end times” is a promise to move us forward by taking us back. Behind the sly humor and intellectual gamesmanship, Rivers and von Schlegell offer a warning. It’s always too late when utopia shows its other face. The island is sinking. The axes are sharp. [This is an excerpt from "Another World is Plausible: Ben Rivers's Slow Action," an essay commissioned by Gallery TPW, for tiff's Future Projections exhibition. The entire text is available at the exhibition at 56 Ossington Ave., Toronto, ON M6J 2Y7, from 8 Sept. to 1 Oct., 2011.]
From the very first shot of Terri, any qualms I might have had about the film were put to rest, and they never once resurfaced. Idiosyncratic filmmakers almost always end up sanding down their edges and losing quite a lot of their cinematic personality when they take on somewhat bigger projects, especially when "name stars" are involved. (See: Boden / Fleck; the Duplass brothers; to a lesser extent, Noah Baumbach.) But when we first see Terri (newcomer Jacob Wysocki) in his bathroom, a bright but cluttered, grimy but not "movie-style" disgusting, deeply lived-in space -- one which his uncle (Creed Bratton) wants him to clean, or take a bath in, one or the other -- we know that we are firmly in an Azazel Jacobs world. Jacobs is the rare American realist independent who still communicates through mise-en-scène as much as characterization. His semi-autobiographical Momma's Man, starring his parents Ken and Flo Jacobs and shot in their Chambers Street apartment, demonstrated Azazel's keen sense of how shelves and cupboards, movable walls of books and record albums, gadgets and gewgaws, all collude to form lives and their possibilities. But it also showed that many of us externalize our journeys, the continual shifts in our personalities and memories, in tangible stuff and that this is not only valid but beautiful. I.e., in our present moment of over-diagnosis and hypernormalization, you can exist in the cozy embrace of loved clutter without being a "hoarder."
Now, this is not to say that all is well in Terri's realm. He is living in a state of disrepair, partly because his Uncle James is drifting into dementia and it is up to him to be his caregiver. Understandably, certain things slide, like wearing regular clothes. Terri, a large boy, wears only pajamas throughout the film, most notably to school. Again, we know we are in the deft hands of Azazel when we realize that Terri's offbeat sartorial choices, while remarked upon and a red flag to Assistant Principal Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), do not ever become a sight gag or a shorthand for character quirk. (This isn't a Wes Anderson move.) Instead, it's Terri's almost plausible response to body dysphoria and feeling uncomfortable on a fundamental, inescapable level. So, what it is that Jacobs uses to open Terri up? What is the film "about," apart from being a downcast character study? I suppose it could be considered a "buddy comedy," given the fact that it's Reilly's schlubby, awkward but deeply compassionate mentor figure who prods Terri to think about his own frustrations within the larger frame of, you know, just getting by, man. The artificial structure of Fitzgerald's weekly conferences with problem students, as well as the "event" in science class which prompts Terri's spontaneous kindness, implicate him with a posse of sorts -- Ed (Curtiss Frisle) and Heather (Olivia Crocicchia).
But where does all of this "go"? It would be easy to say "nowhere," I suppose, except for the fact that Terri does attain a small sense of relief by film's end. But if we want to think of Terri as Azazel Jacobs' most straightforward film to date, which in some ways it is, then "where it goes" has more to do with how it runs. Terri is remarkable for its pacing. It is not a slow film per se, but its events are given a strikingly respectful breathing room. When Terri befriends Heather, or is grappling with his unexpected joy in killing mice, Jacobs holds shots for a few beats longer than customary, as well as creating the necessary blocking and framing to give his characters some space to exist within their own realm. This is also true of the Terri / Fitzgerald scenes. We can see this in the overly deliberate passing of a Whopper malt-ball across a desk, or Reilly's halting attempts to conceal his exasperation while imparting advice. Even the basement scene between the three kids is, in essence, a kind of abbreviated Breakfast Club riff, but Azazel allows it to build slowly, smolder and get painfully uncomfortable, all the while allowing the dark space of the old basement -- particular, but ever so universal -- to assert itself as a filmic presence. In the end, what we have here is a teen movie, made by Azazel Jacobs, without one iota of compromise. As an added bonus, Terri is a deeply humanistic film, primarily about finding ways to embrace the human race in all its fucked-up fallibility. I hope people are ready for Terri.
Here's my Johnny-come-lately review for the Nashville Scene. I'd feel bad about not getting around to watching this lovely, unassuming film back in 2010, except for the fact that it would have made nary a dent in my top ten list or any poll categories. It's just a promising gewgaw, but the sort that I always hope to see more of.
Following a (rather banal) quotation from Jeanette Winterson, Jan Villa begins with a series of images that could be said to encapsulate the vaguaries and discrepancies that characterize the entire film. After quickly tilt-panning up a tree branch in a thick tropical wood, the thick trunk of the tree covered in black boil-like growths, Mendonca moves out to show us the proverbial forest. There appear to be white, webbed formations hanging from the branches, as though some sort of large spider or tree beetle has encased the limbs in their thick cocoons. But as Mendonca shows us more, we see pink, sea-green, and light-blue "webs." These are, in fact, scraps of plastic grocery bags tied to the trees, with some tatters of old clothes mixed in. Why? To collect water, or to protect the trees from some parasite? I don't know, but what we're seeing is of more consequence than why. Jan Villa toys with the slippage between the natural and the humanmade. And in so doing, Mendonca uses her cinema to thwart our expectations regarding ethnographic veracity, or pure modernist aesthetic form. Like David Byrne said, and David Lowery (of Camper Van Beethoven, not the filmmaker) repeated, over and over, "everything seems to be up in the air at this time."
What we discover by reading Mendonca's artist's statement is that Jan Villa was made in the aftermath of the 2005 monsoon that created massive, devastating flooding throughout Mumbai. The filmmaker's intent is to generate a "tapestry of images" rather than a documentary as such, and all of what we see has some direct personal meaning. Although this is not legible from the surface of the piece itself, there is a camera-stylo quality to Mendonca's film that recalls some other recent diary-traveler filmmakers, such as Ute Aurand and, to a lesser extent, Helga Fanderl. In the second passage, we are on a Mumbai street at night, peering at apartment window fronts and seeing random people on exercise equipment, watching big screen TVs, or just hanging out under fluorescent lights. There is a rough quality to this material, as though, in another context, these light-blocks sliced from the darkness would be clean and modular, but here they spill out messily into the surrounding night. A cacophony of voices, car horns, and ambient music may be direct sound but is probably a post-synched audio collage, and certainly gives the impression of something constructed and deliberate. Mendonca's "Mumbai," then, has a multi-tiered collage effect, not unlike the "NYC" of Henry Hills and Abigail Child. And sound helps to join those inside their lighted interiors with the general street hassle. Public and private merge. This becomes true as well when, in a more intimate segment closer to the end of the film, Mendonca shows us two middle-aged women in their bed, naked in what appears to be a spent, post-sexual embrace. (This passage is in black-and-white. Jan Villa switches back and forth quite a bit.) Although Mendonca has an unerring eye for offhanded details, extracting shape, color and motion from the overall whirlwind of things just by keeping her handheld camera in the thick of it, with a truly heightened concentration. The fact that she knows her subjects well clearly helps her to select striking images on the fly.
What I think Mendonca may lack, at least so far and based only on Jan Villa (the only film of hers I've seen) is a firm macro-editorial scheme, or a sharper sense of how to extract and/or collate the film(s) that exists inside her own rich material. Jan Villa is all over the place, at least four films in one, and this inconsistency of vision tends to weaken Mendonca's strongest sonic and pictorial insights. She has an attachment, clearly, to the dance club footage with the colored lasers, and the lights on water. But this passage does not provide visual information consistent with the rest of the film, nor does it serve as a coherent transition to the black-and-white "flood" section. What's more, if Mendonca's aim is to display a dialectical relationship between life in the city center and a less obviously developed or populous area (we can't necessarly call it "the country," since Mendonca shows an elevated train speeding through in the very first shot), then it probably would have been necessary to make that relationship at least somewhat more explicit. As it is, Jan Villa -- Mendonca's home, perhaps? -- displays the development of a major new voice in experimental cinema, but one still struggling to sort out all the things she wants to say, and the need to take the requisite time to say them.