All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)





Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, U.S. / France)

[SPOILERS AHEAD] It's not a gimmick or an ironic twist that a shadowy figure of Bob Dylan appears onstage in the final moments of Inside Llewyn Davis. On a certain level, the sight of the man can provide a certain trainspotting amusement for viewers who have enjoyed the Coens' exacting reconstruction of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. (It could also function as the Coens' nod to their colleague Todd Haynes. Dylan doesn't need to play any explicit role in their film because, intellectually, ILD is a kind of prequel to Haynes' Dylan film I'm Not There.) But more importantly, Dylan appears on the stage of the Gaslight as a harbinger. Dylan is a world historical figure, and if Llewyn Davis cannot quite understand why his music fails to connect (with audiences, with record buyers, with Chicago impresario Bud Grossman, played with benevolent imperiousness by F. Murray Abraham), the Coens understand all too well. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is seen by those around him as a loser and an asshole, but Inside Llewyn Davis never falls into this trap.


Yes, he sometimes does rotten things. He is reflexively contemptuous of those mundanes who don't "get" his art, even those, like the Gorfeins, who feed and shelter him. Granted, these middle-class intellectuals do collect people like Llewyn as zoo animals, totems of a bohemianism to which they themselves have but a tangential relationship. And his behavior at the Gaslight amateur night, when he heckles a middle-aged farmwoman playing the zither and singing unreconstructed, Lomax-field-recording hillbilly music, is appalling. But both of these outbursts point to one of the central conflicts within both Llewyn and Llewyn. The shift that is happening all around this community, the one that Llewyn can feel but cannot articulate, is one of belief, a crisis of authenticity. This is the cultural problem to which Dylan is one enormous answer, certainly within this demimonde. Llewyn's classic folk music -- "it was never new, and it never gets old" -- is becoming crushingly irrelevant, particularly as the political turbulence the the 60s are gathering steam. Others around Llewyn have negotiated their own path through the end of the authentic. Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) become a slick pop-folk duo. Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) may be bland, but as a soldier, he at least seems to be in touch with reality. And Al Cody (Adam Driver) is making his way as a session musician, singing backup on "Please Mr. Kennedy," written by Jim. Perhaps it's most significant in terms of this question of authenticity and integrity to note that Jean, the one character who indicts Llewyn most directly, is the single biggest liar of the bunch.


What Dylan contributes to this milieu, and what Llewyn and the scene must relinquish, is an absolute fixation on identity and interiority. Dylan radicalized folk with his "finger-pointing" approach. While he certainly returned to subjective concerns in time, he scrubbed folk music of its precious inward gaze. There is a reason why this tale of noble failure is titled Inside Llewyn Davis. Like his real-life model Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn and his art are the final gasp of a certain insularity, folk as an inside job. There is also a reason why the Coens show Llewyn's clearest humanist emerge while interacting with and trying to help Ulysses, the Gorfeins' wayward tabby. He is an audience whose responses are unknowable. He is fascinating and soulful, but he refutes any attempt at going "inside."




Paradise: Hope (Ulrich Seidl, Austria / France / Germany)

There's a value to hanging in there. Ten years ago, Ulrich Seidl has was one of my least favorite filmmakers. Works like his feature debut Dog Days, and his stagy, Teutonic Errol Morris documentaries like Animal Love and Jesus, You Know, left me feeling nonplussed and a little bit unclean, as they seemed rather unmistakably saturated with a sneering attitude toward the Austrian bourgeoisie. The sadder and more bereft of hope Seidl's subjects appeared to be, the more his films took evident delight in savaging them. But then, what seems obvious to one set of viewers is never so clear cut to others. Seidl's champions (including critic / filmmaker Dan Sallitt, whose opinion I always take under strong consideration) found a clear undercurrent of humanist empathy running through these early films, which makes me wonder if I took Seidl at face value and sold him short. The film that changed everything for me was 2007's Import Export, a structurally meticulous and frankly compassionate examination of the exploitative economic relationship between Western Europe and the former Soviet Bloc. Human labor itself was the commodity being traded, and bodies were severed from souls with the cruel ease one typically reserves for gutting and filleting a fish.


On this solid new footing, Seidl took the gamble to making an interconnected trilogy of films, under the ironic collective heading of "Paradise." This sudden swing for the fences of arthouse greatness was the perfect formula for disaster. Tales of ordinary people connected by circumstance are, let's face it, the last refuge of scoundrels in the world cinema universe, and the very idea of taking on a project so immodestly grand (the individual films labeled "Love," "Faith," and "Hope") opened every avenue for misguided ambition. Alas, Seidl mostly pulled it off. While the trilogy is undeniably uneven, with "Love" the weakest of the three (its cogent allegory of colonialism leaves little room for individual characterization), the entire effort is admirable and has yielded on very good film ("Faith") and one of Seidl's very best, Paradise: Hope. This is the story of Melanie (Melanie Lenz), a 13-year-old girl whose mother (Margarete Tiesel of Paradise: Love) has dropped her off at a "fat camp" for the summer while she goes on a sex tourism excursion in Kenya. Melanie's aunt Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter from Paradise: Faith) is also out of the country doing missionary work. The camp is a strict, austere environment run in semi-military fashion, the counselors employing techniques that consist of about 30% encouragement and 70% shame.


Once in their dorms, the young girls bond, not only through the shared experience of this rotten place they've landed up at the hands of their own families, but over standard teen and tween interests and emotions -- sneaking a smoke, listening to pop hits, swapping secrets, talking about crushes and early fumbles with physical gratification. Seidl's usual compositional strategies, turning spaces before his lens into rectilinear boxes, actually serves to emphasize the limited freedom of the girls when they are alone. The dorm space is a tight container, but one that allows safety and intimacy. The gym and the camp's quad, on the other hand, are expansive and intimidating, dwarfing the girls like Albert Speer architecture. One of the most controversial aspects of Paradise: Hope has to do with Melanie's ambiguous flirtation with Arzt, the camp doctor (Joseph Lorenz), the only authority figure who shows her kindness and treats her like a person. Like the dorm space, his examination room is a close, intimate space, and the one-on-one attention that develops there is highly inappropriate. But Seidl withholds judgment, primarily because, rather than looking at this interaction / relationship / whatever it is from the point of view of Dr. Arzt, or the camp authorities (or us), he keeps the film's POV squarely with Melanie. Her desire, her betrayal, and her eventual acts of defiance, are held within the morality of her pubescent needs, and not framed by the judgments of those who failed to protect her. By making a space to both honor and defend Melanie's desire, Seidl creates a film that problematizes our culture's response to pedophilia. Paradise: Hope doesn't defend the actions of any of its adults (far from it), but it refuses to become so invested in condemnation that it shames a young girl for healthy sexual curiosity, the collateral damage we have usually come to expect.


Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan / France)

It's both amazing and ironic that Tsai, for the time being at least, is claiming that Stray Dogs will be his final full-length narrative film. At least this is what I take it to mean that Tsai has announced his "retirement" from filmmaking. As with Béla Tarr and Steven Soderbergh, Tsai's assertion has been met with a degree of skepticism, and the fact that he has produced no fewer than four "Walker" works with Lee Kang-sheng in the past year only confuses matters further. Still, taken all on its own, there's an unquestionable finality to Stray Dogs. Even more so than The Wayward Cloud nearly a decade ago, it's difficult to take this film in and envision where the artist could possibly go next. Speaking strictly of its formal dimensions, we can truly say that Tsai's dominant tropes and concerns are pushed to an absolute breaking point in Stray Dogs. Films like The Hole and The Wayward Cloud provided images of torrential rain and crippling drought, and even an uneven, self-referential show reel like Face demonstrates the crisis of the fractured self as a consequence of postmodern artistic endeavor. Bodies and gushing water, the symbols with which Tsai plies his trade, are always bringing about the end of the world, and his cinematic career has been an ongoing process of watching this cataclysm in progress. In other words, it's been a visual analogue for mechanisms to which we are always subject in the crushing, mundane world.


The finality of Stray Dogs could best be understood in the sense that civilization, in any meaningful or humanistic sense, has already broken down. No, the world as such has not ended. There is electricity and we see gas-powered automobiles and one major scene takes place in a fully-functioning Carrefour hypermarket. But the absolute stratification of rich and poor under capitalism's unbridled rapacity means that Lee Kang-sheng and his children may as well be living in the Wild West or some post-apocalyptic Thunderdome. So Tsai shows us Lee, in agonized close-up, singing a 12th century Chinese poem in the rain as he makes a pittance holding up a billboard for luxury highrise apartments he will never be able to afford. (The details of this poem, "All in the River Are Red," and many other key details of Stray Dogs, can be found in Neil Young's excellent review.) The father struggles to care for his children, but they must wander the city while he works. They wander the clean, well-lit aisles of Carrefour, gawking at food and commodities as if they were in a museum, which they may as well be. They cannot touch or possess what "the others" can. Earlier, the kids bought a cabbage, and they made it into a human-sized doll, "Miss Big Boobs," a playful image that immediately collapses into metonymic horror upon inspection. These children essentially conflate play, subsistence, and the pangs of growing up without a mother, into one literally vegetative image. Later on, discovering this cabbage with a lipstick face and dress, Lee kisses it, then eats it raw in a conflated act of ravenous hunger and manic rape.


Tsai shrewdly avoids the usual maneuvers of art-film miserablism in Stray Dogs, mostly by recourse to unexpected formal designs which not only disrupt the narrative delivery but occasionally render it illegible. In his boldest move, Tsai introduces a female character whose identity shifts across the span of the film. At first she is a middle-aged employee at the Carrefour, offering the smelly children some discarded food in a combination of charity and crisis management. We later see her taking the children away from their father in a skiff during a torrential rain, as if she has become a representative of the welfare state. Later on, we see the hovel where the family lives, and a woman is present in this space. Research into the film by Young indicates that this is the same character played by a different actress -- a nod to Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, as well as Tsai's way of incorporating all members of his longtime troupe in his final film. However, her appearance, along with the fact that up to this point we had no reason to suspect that Lee and the children had any shelter whatsoever, means that this second half of the film can also be read as an extended flashback. That is, Tsai could just as easily be showing us the family's meager life before the mother left the abusive, layabout father, and before they became completely homeless. In either case, these final segments are some of the most remarkable sequences Tsai has ever filmed. Whereas his most recent work, especially Face but even Goodbye Dragon Inn or I Do Not Want to Sleep Alone, has fixated on the aestheticization of grungy, disregarded spaces through camera angle and blocking, the scenes in the apartment are characterized by stark black and white contrast. The walls are striped with water damage, resulting in a kind of waterfall pattern of mold and decay that resembles certain paintings of Pat Steir. Again, the deluge has come and gone; there are no buckets or plastic sheeting, only the stark remains of a sick building and the inhabitants who by all rights should have been washed away. So, when the two adults meet in the basement of the building for a final extended shot -- which, as per Tsai's statements regarding Stray Dogs, will be the director's last narrative statement -- it is for a union of the pathetic and the sublime, a scene of escape that has suffered the same ruination as everything else that surrounds them. And yet, it is a human gesture, something someone attempted at one time, as a way of telling those lodged underground: there is more than this.




Gold (Thomas Arslan, Germany / Canada)

Here's my piece for Fandor. I'll just say that I don't get the vehement dislike that some people have for Arslan's film, even allowing for the fact that it certainly has moments one could call "stilted." Is there something about the idea of the Western that American critics take too personally, like a part of the cultural DNA they're worried is getting forcibly swabbed out of their cheeks?


An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance)

There is a shambling, barely-held-together quality about this film that I cannot help but admire. Nance is bucking certain trends and expectations of slick professionalism that regrettably befall African-American independents, a sort of "get paid" careerism that can tend to cast the uncertainty of aesthetic exploration as the privilege of white bourgeois dilettantes. Granted, this makes Nance's position as a self-reflexive, semi-confessional African-American pseudo-diary filmmaker into a rarity which, in itself, has its own selling points, a paradox not at all lost on Nance. But why shouldn't this deeply talented and thoughtful artist make the most of the awkward position that his predilections have placed him in? After all, Oversimplification is all about gazing into the abyss of one's own fuzzy navel, discovering the seduction of one's own image in the beautiful eyes of the other. The women Nance pines away for are so complicated in his eyes, so overvalued and mythologized that he can barely bring himself to turn the camera upon them. So he has created a film (and a persona) to protect himself, and them, from the desires he recognizes as puny and jejune. This scrim of process has allowed Nance to pretty much try every idea in his notebook, and some of them don't connect. Much like Michel Gondry, Nance is an introvert and a scribbler who can fall a bit too much in love with his own vortices. Still, I can't think of another first-time filmmaker whose next project I'm more excited to see.




Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea)

I honestly can't improve on Mike D'Angelo's suggestion that the film should have really been called Dickless. Then again, Mike liked Moebius, in part because he was able to tune into it on what I'd argue is a bit of a rogue wave. He sees this as a bit of black comedy from Kim, which is not altogether implausible. But then, I find myself unable to tap into that reading, much in the same way (and for the same basic reasons) that Mike, lo so many years ago, was unable to share my comic interpretation of Catherine Breillat's A Real Young Girl. Kim, like Breillat, just takes himself so seriously so much of the time that it begins to feel like special pleading to regard his patent nonsense as a form of self-aware humor. And, in all fairness, if Kim were not coming off two of his most self-congratulatory films, Arirang and Pieta, it would be much easier to afford the director the benefit of the doubt. As it stands, Kim has squandered almost all of my goodwill, but I still find him compelling; watching his cinema is a bit like rubbernecking at a traffic accident.


Having said this, Moebius is about as well-constructed as anything Kim has done in the past decade, impressive mostly because of its flattened, theatrical mise-en-scene and restrained camerawork. At the heart of the film, as usual, is some excruciatingly literal-minded Oedipal claptrap (in this case, a crazed mother castrating her teenaged son as surrogate punishment for his father's transgressions). Granted, the blockheaded explicitness of the scenario does result in flat-out comedy -- watching dad perform a Google search on "orgasm no penis," for example. But what's most interesting about Moebius is precisely the point of its failure, the very limits of Kim's creative and intellectual capabilities. When father and son begin experimenting with the threshold of pain, and its similarity to orgasmic pleasure in terms of nerve-ending response, Moebius treads upon areas of the human experience which are seldom explored in cinema -- the appeal of extreme S/M, yes, but also the rerouting of sexual response that has been practiced and documented among people who, for various reasons, can no longer experience genital sensation. Alas, Kim can only treat this human capacity as a tragic freak show, since this filmmaker treats every person with all the dignity of a cockroach.


Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, Italy)

I hope that my piece for Cinema Scope doesn't read too much like the assignment that it was. I had no particular passion for Sacro GRA and it was a bit difficult to summon up anything meaningful to say about it. I stand by my assertions, to be sure. However, I think that Rosi produced a lackluster document overall, indicative of the cultural malaise I describe. It's hard to get worked up about this semi-cinematic pecha kucha: "Rome Today."