REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, OCTOBER 2011
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)
Green (Sophia Takal)
"Junebug meets Teorema" was my instant, somewhat inadequate response immediately after seeing Takal's debut feature, a slice of awkward anti-regionalism that gradually builds into a fantasy of paranoia and betrayal. Takal has been a performer in a number of independent shorts and features that, in terms of milieu and approach, could probably be characterized as "post-mumblecore." (Such a characterization intends no injury, and is merely meant to be descriptive. The focus on young people and relationships over other potential elements shows a possible influence of Bujalski / Swanberg / the Duplasses, as though we're dealing with a second generation, or at least Gen 1.5.) Green sets up certain expectations with its earliest moments, and its initial portrait of its main protagonists. We think we understand what's what. But much like Alex Ross Perry's The Color Wheel, Green is a film that slowly reveals unexpected thematic agendas and layers of semi-abstract cinematic maneuvering. (As if to signal her allegiances, Takal casts Perry in Green's prologue, a coffee shop discussion about Phillip Roth.)
The basic set-up: Genevieve (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Sebastian (Lawrence Michael Levine, director of Gabi on the Roof in July) are a long-term post-collegiate couple. They leave New York for rural Virginia where they plan to spend a summer in a friend's rustic cabin, the sort of noble hippie idea that seems like the sort of thing that these sort of liberals ought to want to do, but clearly do not. Sebastian is there for practical experience, since he has been studying and writing about organic farming. He plans to blog on the topic, making the ultimate fetish out of his privileged white dude's "return to the land." Genevieve, the dragged-along party, tries to treat the situation as a writers' retreat, but she cannot stand the isolation. Neither of them have much to say to the locals, but one very loquacious neighbor, Robin (Takal), comes around a lot, being overly friendly, making a sort of counter-fetish out of the Big City Folks. (Here the Junebug resonances are quite strong indeed.) In time, partly out of genuine affection and partly due to just being worn down, the couple start hanging out with Robin. But a strange thing happens. Just as internal strife surfaces within the relationship, and Robin even provides a sympathetic ear, Genevieve starts to think that Sebastian and the new girl are having an affair. She even starts fantasizing said affair in jarring erotic reveries, a la Eyes Wide Shut.
What Takal does in Green that truly sets the film apart from so many rote indie relationship-panic stories is that she allows Robin to function as a marker of class and educational difference. At the height of Ginny's suspicion, she seethes condescension at Robin, using a word and then asking, "Do you know what that means?" The back-and-forth misunderstanding endemic to people with radically different lives -- the sort that liberals hold up, in the best of times, as "difference" -- evolves into a web of desired and despised identities, a place for both Genevieve and Robin to temporarily lose themselves and then, with violent snapback, rediscover the iron laws of birthright, or taste and full belonging. Not for nothing has more than one review cited Altman's psychological feminist classic 3 Women. As in that film, the women of Green engage in unhealthy idealization which, per Freud, can only turn into disgust. In the end, though, there is a retreat into logic; irrational fear and paranoia are not permitted to win the day. In this regard, Takal is an optimist. And what of Sebastian? In many respects, he is a mere catalyst, the shlubby beardo who may or may not be sleeping with Robin. (From available evidence, probably not.) The real problem is that he is sleeping with Genevieve, a wrong turn in her life's journey that the experiences chronicled in Green will surely correct, eventually.
Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (Sophie Fiennes, France / U.K. / The Netherlands)
This is one of two films that I abandoned miday on first viewing. Then I went back a second time. (I do this a lot, but in the two cases in question I deserve no commendation for being so broadminded. There were for paid-gig reviews, and you can see my Nashville Scene take on Over Your Cities here.) In the case of Fiennes' film I'm quite glad I did, because some of the very aspects of Over Your Cities that were so very offputting the first time around became recoded as virtues, once I'd given myself over to the director's larger plan. As with a lot of avant-garde works (which, make no mistake, are better and more rigorously compsed in every way -- I don't want to sound like I'm making inflated claims for this documentary, just observing a homology in approach), Over Your Cities requires patience. Its withholding of meaningful information, in favor of winding tracking shots through underground mud tunnels, or taciturn melting of wax or mixing of pigment, is a way of demonstrating that this documentary expects its viewer to already know basically who Anselm Kiefer is. So Fiennes can simply focus on committing his process to film. Arrogant perhaps, but then again, it represents Fiennes using her chosen medium to the fullest. She inscribes space, time, and activity, not contextualizing factoids.
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
I haven't got much to add to my Cinema Scope piece, really. But there is one nagging thing. I do think that A Separation is a great film by any measure; it held up remarkably well to a second viewing. But on the level of narrative construction [MASSIVE SPOILER FOLLOWS] I could not help but feel that Farhadi using a temporal ellipse in order to withhold our (usually pretty omniscient) knowledge of what becomes the film's single most pivotal event is a major cheat. We see Razieh chasing Nader's father outside, as he is trying to buy a newspaper at the kiosk. Then, a straight cut to a close-up of a foosball figure swiftly getting "bumped" from the upright to the lateral position. (Admittedly, as super-subtle foreshadowing goes, that's pretty damned sly.) But to find out only near the very end, oh yeah, your dad got out, I was chasing him in traffic and got hit by a car, also I lost the baby then and there, not from any incident on the stairs, just seems like a dodgy dramaturgical maneuver bordering on the deus ex machina. (But then Mark Peranson has asked, couldn't the whole movie have been avoided by asking this devout woman to just swear on the Koran? Game over! Maybe...) But since some of my friends took this structural objection as a willful gadflyism, a refusal to acknowledge that Farhadi had just made one of the films of the decade pure and simple, I opted to accentuate the positive in my review. Which, let me reiterate, is not hard to do with a film like this. It really is amazing.
Sounding Glass (Sylvia Schedelbauer, Germany) [v/s]
It's a wonderful thing watching a great talent evolve at the start of his or her career. This is partly because as the artist continues to hone their style and stake out their métier, there's still the sense that many new avenues are possible. I've written elsewhere that I think Sylvia Schedelbauer is one of the most significant new experimentalists on the scene today. Her unique mode of montage, which follows the basic rules of found-footage jump cut collage but softens the edits with rapid fades, produces a highly unique viewing experience, one that approximates the drift and slippery-sand pacing of oneiric images across the mind's "mystic writing pad." Sounding Glass, Schedelbauer's first piece finished in digital, expands on this method of image manipulation. Still shuffling and fading between discrete shots as she did in way fare and False Friends, Schedelbauer uses the capacities of video to introduce a much more perceptible and at times aggressive flicker into Sounding Glass. This pulsating action, along with the fact that Schedelbauer slowly enlarges several key, repeated images (a kind of artificial zoom effect), produces the illusion of a clockwise whorl motion onscreen, even though an objective test -- gauging the image's contents against a stationary point outside the screen --prompts us to question whether or not they are spinning around at all. Sounding Glass's illusionism most clearly calls to mind Ken Jacobs's "Eternalism" works, in which flicker and specific ordering of images generates 3D cognitive results from 2D materials. The other major shift in Sounding Glass, as compared to Schedelbauer's previous, more strictly formal explorations, is the fact that the film blatantly foregrounds a single "anchor image," that of a man in a tree whose gaze addresses us rather directly. The clean lines of this image, the way in which the trunk and branches of the tree slice out sturdy swaths of negative space, make this "tree man" particularly amenable to the whorl effect. So Schedelbauer's dark rush of stimuli -- forest imagery, a close-up of an eye, burning buildings, a journey down a river -- becomes implicitly identified with the consciousness of the bald young man in the tree. This is something of a first; Schedelbauer is triangulating her experimentation through a "character," although as with an avant-garde trance film, the idea of character is quite broadly conceived. At best, Sounding Glass posits a "watcher in the woods," a palpable receiver of various kinds of manmade shock and disruption. At any rate, this is clearly a transitional work for Schedelbauer, and I'm quite intrigued by what it might indicate about possible new directions.
Aita (José María de Orbe, Spain)
A favorite among some of my most trusted filmic advisors (especially the Cinema Scope crew), I found myself surprisingly underwhelmed by Aita. The title, which translates as "Father," largely spells out Orbe's agenda, in much the same manner that Alain Cavalier does by calling his most recent effort Pater. It's about patrimony, cultural inheritance, the weight of tradition as passed down from (male) generation to generation, and the degree to which the "sons" will be adequate to the task of preserving this vital identity.Aita is specifically about an elderly caretaker (Luis Pescador) tasked with protecting a 13th century Basque castle, both from the ravages of time and from wandering groups of kids. Some of the kids just like to break the windows out of any available structure, whereas others break in out of curiosity, wandering through the halls, swiping the random artifact. The irony that the caretaker is swatting away the only folks with any interest in the castle, however misplaced, is not lost on Orbe; his disembodied camera slowly wanders the halls, oscillating between a restrained human point of view and one identified the camera and dolly itself, the detached apparatus. (Or "ghosts," I suppose, if you're inclined toward such a reading.) For contrast, the caretaker is visited on occasion by a priest (Miken Goneaga). They engage in unscripted dialogues on the nature of time and decay, the transitory character of material things. And, as a "ghostly" superimposition of those lost artifacts of the past, Orbe projects early cinema onto the interior castle walls, the image-history of Basque culture as a material emanation and a frame-within-the-frame. I think I was bothered by this semi-avant-garde procedure, since it clarified the problem I had with Aita throughout. Neither flesh nor fish, the film ends up dabbling in experimental gestures as a kind of garnish, for what is primarily a conceptual effort. In the end, I felt as though I could always see what Orbe was getting at, but experienced it at a second-order remove.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
[SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS] MMMM is unquestionably one of the year's best debut features and without a doubt the most preternaturally assured in quite some time. Durkin conceives and constructs Martha like an old pro, and it's unsurprising in that respect that he's part of the Borderline Films crew along with Antonio Campos (Afterschool), another spookily prodigious talent. But as much as I admire the film, I found myself having some qualms about its use of structure and form as a kind of sleight of hand. The film ostensibly explores the traumatizes psyche and tentative normalization of the polyvalent title character (Elizabeth Olsen), but much like another widely admired film from last year, Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala, Martha seems to place its female protagonist at the center of a formalist cyclotron, not as its psychological anchor but as a hurricane eye. Martha is the absence around which shards of identity assemble and disperse. Durkin runs a bold risk by placing the viewer in a position that, while hardly omniscient, has access to more information than any given character in the film. We observe a cinematic shuttling back and forth in time between two primary time frames.
The first: Martha's arrival, induction, and eventual position as abused and abuser within a rural cult. The group resembles a back-to-nature intentional community until it shows its true face. It is organized around ritual rape and systematic patriarchal rule; there is even an implication that female babies born on the compound are killed. The cult is dominated by the passive-aggressive charismatic authority of Patrick (John Hawkes); his semi-disposable male followers are violent crunchy-granola lunkheads, obviously seduced by a poon-for-the-taking environment even if it means a lack of modern conveniences. In this world, all the women are renamed by Patrick (part of his control methods); Martha becomes "Marcy May." The second: following her escape from the compound, Martha contacts her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who takes her to her well-appointed (some might say antiseptic) architecturally designed home, which she shares with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Lucy hasn't heard from Martha for a long time, obviously, so long that estrangement and even the presumption of death have filled in the intervening years. While trying to reassimilate, not only to family life but to basic human existence, Martha suffers several violent flashbacks (e.g. attacking Ted in a half-awake state), as well as committing several gaffes regarding social decorum ranging from the embarrassing to the utterly creepy. Durkin's editing scheme moves us quite easily between these time frames, such that we are not ever completely certain about their status. While MMMM mostly glides back and forth between the two times, signaling their cinematic equivalence or even their temporal coexistence, occasionally Durkin will edit on a rhymed movement or graphic match, subtly implying that the time shift is attributable to Martha's intrusive thoughts.
For the most part, however, Martha moves independently, its point of enunciation firmly behind the camera. This isn't a problem per se, but it does point to the film's overall attitude. It is a film that uses the trauma of rape and male exploitation of women as its aesthetic dominant, but avoids overt identification with its female protagonist. Instead, it prefers to watch her from a semi-safe distance, like a radically misshapen puzzle piece in the social body. Olsen's performance has garnered much praise, and deservedly so, for embodying the shellshocked, yet somehow self-possessed Martha, a figure who never lays all her cards on the table even in the most desperate of situations. True, Olsen manages quite well in conveying an inside to Martha, something the character is guarding and locking away. But this seems to be in at least partial defiance of MMMM's game plan, because Martha's subjectivity is withheld in this film like a MacGuffin, the stolen thing that instigates all other plot machinations but in itself could hardly matter less. This is best exemplified by Durkin's bold decision to have Martha incapable / unwilling / too prideful / inadequately in command of her memories / who the hell knows? to tell Lucy and Ted that she has escaped from a rape cult. They just think Martha is being inappropriate for the sake of taboo-busting, then (I guess?) when she comes down the hall and climbs into their bed with total insouciance while they're having sex. (In truth, Martha has been inured to the copulation of others by orgies at the cult -- although "orgy" connotes something out of Eyes Wide Shut, not the chore-like tenor of the group sex situations displayed, which amounts to letting the menfolk have their daily allowance of pussy after supper.)
So in a sense, Durkin's decision to organize a family homecoming / reckoning around an earthshattering secret, one which would explain all the psychic damage, but nevertheless remains unspoken and even unintuited by its would-be recipient, is a tactic as formally daring as the chronology shifting and the nonlinear, associative editing scheme. In fact, much like Campos's Afterschool, it is a formal approach that points to a post- or even anti-humanist strategy applied precisely where one would expect to see humanism (and feminism) most liberally deployed -- the proffering of sympathy for a rape victim robbed of her very sense of self. Instead, Durkin chooses minimalism, a Martha who is only "there" inasmuch as her untold trauma leaps out periodically like a jack-in-the-box, with other people recalibrating themselves around her periodic turbulence. This formal posture, which combines the shock pacing of the horror film with the "attractions"-orientation of the avant-garde, can also be observed in Durkin's cavalier attitude toward plot points that would be vital in a more conventionally structured narrative. Who is "Marlene"? This third identity is quickly dispatched in a single scene that's easy to miss. And the conclusion, which may or may not represent a cult member's successful tracking down of "Marcy May," might mean that her escape has put Lucy and Ted in jeopardy. The abrupt ending, which is admittedly impressive in its inconclusiveness, shows us that Durkin finds Martha's "fate" very much beside the point. Nevertheless, there is something troubling about the fact that MMMM unwinds around a crisis which could only occur with a young woman at its center, while reducing traumatized female subjectivity to a mere curiosity, a Tesla coil shooting off lines of dazzling but undirectable electricity.
Here's the other film on which I initially bailed, only to be drawn back by the promise of filthy lucre. (Behold, the Nashville capsule.) Unlike the Anselm Kiefer documentary, Shut Up turned out to be pretty much exactly what I guessed it was from the first half hour. This was potentially an examination of how an early pre-Web viral phenomenon existed via cassette dubbing chains -- a worthy topic in terms of underground media history -- and the problematic derivation of kitsch value when middle class subjects make a fetish out of the poor and desperate. What does it mean that two smug wannabe artistes from the collegiate fuck-up class ("Eddie Lee Sausage" and "Mitchell D.," I mean seriously) eavesdrop on two damaged, elderly drunks and pass off their psychotic arguments as déclassé entertainment? The film is almost as insufferable as the phenomenon itself, because it pretty much abjures any critical analysis of the Haskett / Huffman "project" or its ethics. Bate adopts a purely descriptive position, never questioning, tacitly condoning. So Shut Up's raw content consists mostly of excerpts from the "Shut Up Little Man!" tapes and a lot of white male hipster douchebags sitting behind desks laughing at them. In the end, all I could think of was the climactic scene in Barton Fink, when John Goodman's deranged salesman Charlie indicts the blinkered arrogance of the title character. "You're just a tourist with a typewriter. I live here. Don't you understand that? And you come into my home and complain that I'm making too much noise."
First-time director Leigh has handed in a dud too pedestrian to justify even the superlatives one would muster to properly lambaste it. This has a lot to do with Sleeping Beauty's specific line of attack, a mode of desiccated arthouse torpor that takes faux-profundity and dedramatizes it so that by the time it reaches the screen there is little left but a vaguely naughty husk, someone's idea of feminist intransigence and a halfwitted indictment of "the Gaze." Inside Beauty's diegetic world, we have Lucy (Emily Browning) a wayward college student facing eviction. She finds an ad for a secret upscale sex club and voila! Madame Clara (Rachael Blake) is explaining to Lucy that she will put on lingerie, take knock-out drops and lay in a bed, at which point some skeevy old men with play with her naked body. But "no penetration. Your vagina is a temple." The outer, nondiegetic gestures Leigh orchestrates, that ostensibly constitute Sleeping Beauty's critical intervention, are the formal chill, the stock-still camerawork, the slight glaze on the lens, the well-appointed but slightly downclass atmosphere of the sleeping room. All of these things are intended, it seems, to present the impotent, moneyed universe to which Lucy rents herself as a kind of walking death, a Kubrickian tomb of substitute, administered "desire." But Leigh lacks the chops to make this environment palpable, much less menacing. It just seems like an indication of boredom on both sides of the fictional divide -- rote bodily maneuvering within Lucy's world, simple symbolization of "bad sex" within Leigh's. It certainly doesn't help matters that Sleeping Beauty makes a point (we might even say a fetish) of Lucy's utter lack of interior subjectivity. She is a dead-eyed doll, a theoretical symptom of the postmodern female condition or what-have-you. She only leaks a bit of recognizable humanity when interacting with her old college friend Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), a shut-in slowly dying from AIDS-related illness. So again, Leigh finds comprehensible existence only in the midst of death. A valid philosophical thesis, perhaps, but it would take a steadier directorial hand than Leigh's to convey something other than the rank chill of the slab.
Even I don't get to write about experimental film as much as I'd like to. And a paid gig to write an actual newspaper review of a feature-length experimental film? That doesn't come along every day. (Of course, this has less to do with editors than programmers and bookers. How often do experimental features even get "released," and would people go see them if they did? All questions we must consider before turning to my pan of General Orders #9 by apparent first-timer Robert Persons. Something between an anti-technology screed and a barely repressed yearning for the Old South, GO#9 is an odd, conflicted film. But it's also dull, never moving past this nostalgic "stuckness" so ably relieved of any and all legitimacy by Hollis Frampton. Anyway, here's my Nashville capsule. As a bonus, some things on The Thing.