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)



[NOTE: If you're looking for Toronto IFF previews, Hey, you! Don't watch this! Watch THAT.]




-Failed States (Henry Hills) [v/s]

All for swinging you around.... Objectivity is stupid. If you're going to spend time writing about the arts, there's no reason not to be a cheerleader for the work that moves you, or to at least spend as much of your time writing about that work as you possibly can. To that end, it's worth acknowledging upfront that I pretty much always like the films of Henry Hills. I find his sensibility both rigorous and funky, at a bit of a skewed angle to more dominant recent trends in experimental cinema but also firmly planted in the rhythms of hot-media nowness. He's a polymath, drawing in ideas from multiple disciplines -- the NYC downtown avant-jazz and neo-art music of John Zorn, Elliott Sharp and Zeena Parkins, cut-up audio-workers like John Oswald and Christian Marclay, as well as the "Language Poets," all of whom share with Hills an obsession with micro-syntax, the isolation of discrete units as signifying elements from which to construct discontinuous tapestries, crazy-quilts of shape and gesture. By comparison, Failed States is downright subdued, and it might take a few spins for its exceptional character to sink in. Failed States is a study of spinning elements, rotation as gesture both mechanized and organic. The first part focuses exclusively on carnival rides, in particular a multi-pronged tilt-a-whirl which lifts its cars up and down while rotating them on the ends of the arms. Hills cuts quickly between day and night shots, always on the action, so that we're getting a terse, punchy average of this machine's mobile parameters. We see its cranelike projection silhouetted against the sky, or its base in low eyeline shots. In either case, Hills is isolating repetitive motions and light patterns to emphasize regularity of operation, "the spin" as a product the machine is there to give you.


Then, Hills shows us three very surprising shots: Keith Sanborn, Vincent Grenier, and Bradley Eros all spinning in the street with their arms extended. What a hoot! Before long, though, Hills is establishing a rhythm whereby he returns to the carnival footage but intersperses it with passages taken from the middle of Manhattan, in which Hills is "the monkey in the middle," spinning himself and the camera around and around. Streets, stores, and billboards whizz by, eventually becoming abstract streaks. Added to this is yet another element: similar "spun" footage of amber dusklight through trees, the foliage patterns becoming more and more unresolved until the screen is awash in gold and black horizontal light. And, in part three, we see children spinning in their yards, much as Hills' filmmaker friends were at the start of part two; along with dervishes in a festival procession, giving their own "spin" on the otherwise secular goings-on. Now, I realize that the description I've just given reads like a laundry-list, and I've failed to provide an adequate sense of how Hills' organization and pacing serves to articulate these various elements within the totality of Failed States. To offer just one example of this, Hills' combination of the accelerated abstraction of the city and forest first-person POV spinning, with the introduction of a somewhat detached third-person image of the Sufi whirler, operates to induce analogy across a cultural divide, but from a highly palpable position for the viewer. Only when we're fully ensconced in the physical sensation (the thrill, really) of the camera's spin does Hills introduce the "otherness" of the Sufi, so that we're already, to some extent, inside his consciousness. But above and beyond this, Failed States is remarkable because,among its other virtues, it combines multiple layers of avant-garde film history and memory. The link to the fairground, naturally, asks us to think of cinema as an "attraction," a non-narrative mode the provokes the senses. As Tom Gunning famously contended, this is a common link between early cinema and the avant-garde. But more than this, Hills' goofing around with friends, his use of camera motion to explore abstraction and velocity, his identification of "advanced" states of vision with childhood, takes us through the "Baudelairean," the "mythopoeic," the "structural," from the urban to the rural and back again. Failed States is materialist to its core, but it all about the extremities of sensual and psychic states. All in less than ten minutes! Plus, my kid loves watching it, but only while I spin her in my office chair.




A History of Israeli Cinema (Raphaël Nadjari, Israel / France) [v]

Without a doubt one of the most eye-opening film-history documentaries I've seen in ages, the two-part, 200+ minute History of Israeli Cinema is both a labor of love and one of intellectual sophistication. One of the things that makes Israeli cinema unique is, of course, the very thing that makes the nation of Israel itself unique. As a modern creation (albeit with ancient roots and claims to the Holy Land, contested though they may be), the state of Israel provides a fascinating opportunity, a kind of laboratory if you will. Since its entire history exists within the era of the motion pictures, we can observe in stark relief exactly how cinema can function as a nation-building apparatus. Nadjari's history is very clear about this, tracing a very specific trajectory which serves as his own implicit argument. (This is both fair and admirable. Note that the title is A History, not The.) Since the earliest cinematic efforts in Israel were essentially operating within a historical mythos which frankly and explicitly articulated the Zionist position. Echoing the tenor of the Ben-Gurion era, the films argued for the necessity of Israel's very existence. From pre-Israeli Jewish cinema, such as Chaim Halachim's The Wanderer (1933) through pro-IDF claim-staking works such as Thorold Dickinson's Hill 24 Doesn't Answer (1955), Jews were unambiguously heroic and, by the reckoning of the Israeli film critics and scholars Nadjari marshals for expert evidence, Arabs during this period were depicted with all the subtlety of Native Americans in the old Westerns. As Israelis become more secure with their place in the world, the film argues, the film industry begins to normalize, or at least shift its priorities. Popular films become broader in their comedy, and frequently address the influx of international immigration. So-called "Bourekas" films (named after a sugary Moroccan cookie) played up slapstick as well as emphasizing good-natured foreigners making their way in urban Israel. On the other end of the spectrum, Israel's art film productions followed the European auteur model, focusing on interior subjective states as well as social discord. The major figure of this period is Uri Zohar. Zohar's films, such as Every Bastard a King (1968) and Big Eyes (1974), display a comic ambivalence toward masculine identity, Judaism, and the rat-race mentality of the older generation. Based on the evidence presented here, Zohar is probably one of the key directors of the period, and not just in Israel. He is clearly a figure ripe for rediscovery.


As Nadjari charts the major trajectories, Israeli cinema took a sharp turn towards explicit criticism of the founding generation, of Zionism, and of bourgeois society more generally, following the Six Day War. This turn, called "The New Sensitivity," resulted in films which valorized drop-outs, neurotics, and other misfits who refused to tow the national line. (A paradigmatic film from this period, Yehuda Judd Neeman's Paratroopers (1977) focuses on a young man clearly too rattled to function during his mandatory military service. His pleas for mental health assistance go ignored, with dire but unsensationalized results. Nadjari marks the last significant social shift in 1977 with the first election of the Likud Party. As the hardliners take Israel in what appears to be a new, more bellicose direction, filmmakers begin to delve more openly into the questions at the heart of Zionism. What of the Palestinians who have been displaced? Can Jews and Arabs live together? Some films deal with the problem in rather comfortable terms. As Nadjari shows, Israel produces a spate of Arab / Jew Romeo and Juliet forbidden-love stories, all very quaint in their domesticated humanism. But some films, such as Ram Levi's Khirbet Hiza'a (1978) and Avi Mograbi's Deportation (1989) display the brutal expulsion of Arabs from the Holy Land and the conflict at the heart of Israeli self-identity. In essence, this brings us to the current period, when the key contributions to Israeli cinema (Amos Gitai's Kadosh and Kippur; Dover Kosashvili's Late Marriage; Keren Yedaya's Or (My Treasure); Eytan Fox's The Bubble; Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir) have taken liberal values and pro-Arab Jewish cosmopolitanism as a given. But if there is one overall sense that one takes away from A History of Israeli Cinema, aside from the impressive breadth of that national cinema's achievements and the small sliver of same that has made its way into North America, it's that in at least one vital respect, the ongoing experiment that is the state of Israel is working. In just under two generations, this culture has not only produced but to a large extent nurtured its own internal dissent. I cannot conceal the fact that I often find Israel's policy toward the Palestinians wrongheaded and, sometimes criminal. But outside condemnation will ultimately get us, if not "nowhere," then certainly nowhere when compared with the strides that are possible when Israel's own citizens demand peace and justice for their neighbors, along with security for themselves. Nadjari's History is a snapshot of a film culture that is inextricably linked to a greater social and political reality in a nation that certainly no longer needs to justify its existence, but that, over sixty years later, is still working to define itself.


-The Time Traveler's Wife (Robert Schwentke)

Very easy to dismiss as hokum from a distance (that is, the distance of not actually seeing it), The Time Traveler's Wife is by no means a genre-buster. It is a tearjerking "women's picture," if by that we mean that it grapples with romance and its obstacles openly, ultimately affirms the feasibility of heterosexual relationships, and refuses to conceal its emotional core behind layers of protective irony. While it doesn't subvert the codes of its designated mien, TTTW is precisely the sort of mass-appeal picture that is striking by virtue of being smarter and much more genuine than it needs to be. (It's doing decent business in theatres, but it is without a doubt destined to become a word-of-mouth / pay cable classic, programmed endlessly for years to come. Like other above-average romantic films -- Up Close and Personal, Fools Rush In, Definitely, Maybe -- we'll find ourselves stopping on the channel when it's on.) This is by no means a great film, but it's a rare "Hollywood product" that impresses by achieving its aims with a thoroughgoing modesty, and an almost total lack of condescension. One of the main reasons TTTW may not be gaining wider cultural traction, apart from the usual opprobrium with which "women's pictures" are viewed by the film culture, fifty years after Sirk, is that its surface contents look so thoroughly familiar. A bit of Benjamin Button here (Eric Bana's Henry beset by a temporally-oriented malady), a bit of The Notebook there (Rachel McAdams, a tragic love for the ages), a high-whipped meringue of Somewhere in Time all poured into a thin La Jetée crust. Yes, but a certain synergy occurs, making this film a greater emotional sum than its individual thematic components. This is largely because, unlike most of those earlier models, TTTW lays time travel out as a medical condition, a set of physical and psychological cards on the table of Henry's life, and then proceeds quite matter of factly from there. Very little time is spent on "Is he crazy?" teeth-gnashing or "What are the ramifications?" navel-gazing. Henry's unstuck existence (which is eventually diagnosed as a kind of epilepsy) is a fact which, like a terminal illness, places certain constraints on his ability to fully engage with family life. But, the physics aspect to the condition strips away the usual dying-man mawkishness of such films. Because the question isn't how much time Henry has left. It's where that time will take him.


-Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, Italy)

Late Bellocchio has been a bit of a headscratcher for me, partly because I've never been entirely certain how the director has wanted his audience to interpret his frequent dips into grand opera. For example, while The Religion Hour was broadminded enough to allow for doubt and generosity toward its less clear-eyed characters, it was most certainly an anti-clerical work. And yet in terms of set design, use of color and music and scale, Bellocchio often felt the need to dwarf Sergio Castellitto's character beneath the power and pageantry of the Church. In a different register, Good Morning, Night found Bellocchio practically going Lloyd Dobler, shouting down Red Army Faction ideology with his anguished Pink Floyd boombox raised high above his head. These flourishes have seemed like cheating to me, since to some extent Bellocchio was arguing against irrationality but still going straight for the emotional appeal. Vincere clarifies his tactics quite a bit, since the rise of Italian Fascism allows Bellocchio to exercise his bombast within heavy quotation marks. This is the story of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the first wife of Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), and the film details Il Duce's rise from Socialist firebrand to pro-war activist and reinvention as a true-blue Fascist. Along the way, he married one Rachele Guidi (Michela Cescon), who would become his "official" public wife. All record of Dalser and her son Benito Jr. was expunged. For the first half to two-thirds of Vincere, Bellocchio uses Dalser's story as a kind of materialist, ground-level allegory for the brutal bait-and-switch that was Italian Fascism. (In addition to its primary hideousness, it was also a party of crass opportunism. It begins as a nativist, anti-clerical movement; then Mussolini consecrates the "Papal State;" before it's all over, he's delivering speeches in German.)


The romance between Dalser and Mussolini doesn't simply sour; it is violently expunged and suppressed as an exercise of political omnipotence. Vincere represents a new spin on Bellocchio's customary bombast since he builds the aggression of fascist aesthetics into the texture of the film -- jagged slogans repeatedly hurled from the screen, low angle shots of gargantuan architecture, and a Futurist shattering of the cinematic picture plane. In fact, the film continually returns to movie theatres as sites of struggle and contestation, a public sphere in which fascists and communists shout one another down and eventually beat each other senseless in the flickering darkness. Many artists and scholars have argued for the cinema's paradigmatic place within modernity, but Bellocchio concretizes the claim, displaying film as a virtual necessity in the fascist arsenal. Dalser, meanwhile, occupies a less certain position within Bellocchio's political strategies, since the nature of her defiance shifts over the course of the film. Early on, Dalser is no doubt the woman scorned, wanting what is due to her for both herself and her son. But she is also driven by a still-burning passion for Il Duce that borders on mania. (Late in the film, a fellow "fallen woman" advises Ida, "Stop licking that fascist's ass.") Nevertheless, Ida's steely resolve has resonance beyond her own situation, since Vincere allows her to represent the return of Italy's repressed, that flame of dissent that fascism, despite its efforts, could not completely extinguish. The fact that Dalser's family live in a socialist stronghold is hardly insignificant.


But as Dalser's story comes to dominate Vincere, and we follow her on her personal loony-bin trip (with frequent dips into the lonely boyhood of young Benito, Jr., now a ward of the state), her hysterics become harder and harder to interpret apart from her own individual fate. Granted, Dalser's tale is by no means unworthy, but Bellocchio's focus, and Mezzogiorno's tightly-wound star turn, seem to indicate a greater import even in Vincere's overtly psychological second half. Bellocchio's stylistics -- the propulsive pseudo-Philip Glass score, the frequent close-ups of the wounded Dalser, the son's symbolic "murder" of the father -- hint at a Medea scenario. But the opening-out of a personal grievance into a genuine national epic requires careful articulation (or, in Madea's case, a fundamentally different set of ideas about the relationship between social world and the arts), and Vincere tends to come unmoored in this regard. This shift in scale may be justifiable. Bellocchio certainly didn't want to redouble history's violence against Dalser and son by exploiting their stories for "the good of Italy." Nevertheless, the first half of Vincere reflects active insights regarding the multi-tiered functioning of absolute power, and the second half does not. This could be the film's homological expression of the stalemate of fascism -- the dialectic stopped dead in its tracks, melodrama supplanting analysis -- but it also seems symptomatic of the problems at hand.