Monday, November 16, 2015

Politist, adjectiv (Police, adjective)

The plot, such as it is, concerns provincial cop Cristi (Dragos Bucur) trailing a schoolboy suspected of selling hashish. The boy does very little at all as Cristi follows at a discrete but purposeful distance, and as the camera in turn does likewise. This is not thrilling stuff – we get to watch as Cristi eats his lunchtime soup (and even the policeman hired to consult on the movie found the first part too boring on first viewing) but Porumboiu’s careful long-take camera is as concentrated in its attention as Cristi’s, and compels the same from the engaged viewer.
At the end of the first day, we’re subjected to the same close depiction of the policeman’s work in the form of his written report, scrolling silently up the screen. Words are all-important here. Shortly thereafter Cristi returns home to an amusing semantic debate with his wife over the lyrics of popular song (she displaying a satisfying unheralded intellectual command) in which he reveals himself to be mistrustful of metaphor; on the second night a spelling mistake in the report prompts discussion of negative pronominal adjectives.

The close attention to words prepares for the film’s climactic scene, its point, and the source of its power. Porumboiu has spoken of a desire to examine the word “conscience”: Cristi does not want to set up a sting operation that might ruin the boy’s life for something he believes will soon be legal in any case, as judged by the rest of Europe (a bit of a leap of faith). He and his colleague are called to meeting with the boss, who does not share this view. An electrifying Vlad Ivanov plays the superintendent with bristling commitment to accuracy in language, and barely-restrained contempt for those who misuse it. He lets no slip go by (upbraiding the cops for “squeal” rather than “denounce” – that’s how criminals talk) and at Cristi’s refusal to sting on the weakly-defined grounds of conscience, out comes the dictionary. “Conscience” leads to “moral”, to “law” and to “police”. Simply via dictionary definitions and with a logic no less inexorable than it is elegant, a whole range of ethical questions are exposed, from individual morality to professional duty to the double-sided coin of “police” – upholder of the law yet adjectival before “corruption” or “state”.

It is a brilliant exposition of the moral and political power inherent in language, and of the definition of self via profession, with disturbing undercurrents of the moral nuances that dictionary and job definition are unable to embrace. Masterfully controlled, perfectly paced and enjoying a appropriately sly verbal humour (a telephone conversation unexpectedly begins “thanks, bye”) it achieves a low-key but widely-implicative perfection.

d/p/sc Corneliu Porumboiu  ph Marius Pandaru ed Roxana Szel pd Mihaela Poenaru cast Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Ion Stoica, Irina Saulescu, Cerasela Trandafir
(2009. Rom, 113m)
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Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Perpetual Narrative Machine of OUT 1

Almost 10 years ago Jacques Rivette changed my conception of what cinema could be. His 13-hour long masterpiece Out 1 (1971) was for many cinephiles a holy grail, for years almost as improbable as the full Greed (1925) or The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Then there it was at the National Film Theatre in London, surpassing all expectations. The mere achievement of finally seeing it paled beside the fact that this unwieldy, near-plotless monstre sacré of a film turned out to be so captivating, so intriguing, so formally fascinating, and so damned watchable, that the breaks between each of the eight episodes were unwelcome, and I actively resented being sent home on Saturday night to await the next day’s final installments. We were immersed in it, and did not want to be ejected.

And now it returns, finally, to the BAM Cinémathèque in New York, from Nov 4-19, and elsewhere, the remarkable of resurgence of a submerged continent, as B. Kite has it, to describe a massive work of human comedy that has been almost totally excluded, ignored, and forgotten. The reason for the film’s invisibility was due almost entirely to its length. Rivette had offered it to French television, who turned it down, and so following a single workprint screening at the Maison du Culture in Le Havre in 1971, it surfaced only rarely and barely-noted thereafter, until our dreams came true in the mid-2000s, when an actual print was sent on tour. And then it vanished again. All that remained was a bad Italian TV-rip online until, just as unexpectedly, a limited German DVD set arrived at the end of 2013. That made less of a splash than the fervency of Out 1 message threads might have one expect but now, thanks to a reported €700,000 restoration, distribution from Carlotta Films in the US, and a massive DVD/Blu-ray box set (including three other MIA Rivette gems) from Arrow in the UK, Out 1 can take its proper place as an essential fixture of the cinematic landscape, and of any budding movie buff’s education.

The film was a grand experiment. Rivette was embarrassed by conventional scripting after his debut, Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs To Us, 1961), hearing his words read faithfully over and again. He turned to a pre-existing text for Suzanne Simenon, la religieuse de Denis Diderot (The Nun, 1966), but still felt this was not the way for him. And so, for L’amour fou (1969), he abandoned a script entirely, in favour of a bare-bones scenario and controlled improvisation. This not only suited his directorial temperament, but led to a significant increase in running time; thus he decided to go all out with his next project, Out 1, of indeterminate scope, financed on the basis of a mere four pages. The unprecedented length was also influenced by a nine-hour screening of Jean Rouch’s Jaguar – the rushes, essentially, for Petit à petit (Little by Little, 1971) – which Rivette found “just fabulous”. Albeit his initial conception was to divide the 30 or so hours of Out 1 footage into four separate films, following each of two experimental theatre groups, and each of two outsiders, linked by the shadowy background presence of a secret society known as the treize (thirteen), in the event of editing, and under the seductive influence of Jaguar, it became clear that the four strands worked far better playing off one another in a single long film (the quatralogy idea was taken up again a few years later, however, for his magical and incomplete, filles de feu series, also produced by the remarkable Stephen Tchalgadjieff).

I knew not even this much when I walked into pokey NFT 2 in April 2006, and could not have imagined what was to follow. I knew there were two theatre groups improvising around two plays by Aeschylus; I knew that the film was somehow based on (in the event, more infused with) Balzac’s trio of novellas, L’histoire du treize (The Story of the Thirteen, 1833-1839); and I knew that there was a barely more-available four-hour edit known as Out 1: Spectre (the long version informally subtitled noli me tangere). In what little I could find to read on either film, Rosenbaum aside, it was not always clear which of the two was under discussion and, in some instances, whether the commentator was aware themselves. I was feeling a little trepiditious, but excited at the voyage into territory virgin for myself (formally), and in any sense largely unknown to almost everyone. The test of endurance was a challenge about which I felt enthusiastic. My opening statement is no hyperbole: the film was an awesome and deeply profound experience that, far from being any sort of test, has made more than one cinephile feel as though they have experienced, as Le monde had it in 1971, “a voyage beyond cinema”.

I was not in the slightest bit prepared for the long opening scenes of collective theatrical improvisation. Rivette describes these as a documentary look at the practices of modern, Brook-ish, Living Theatre, 45 minutes of hysteria, beginning gently enough but crescendoing into writhings and moanings, faintly sexual, faintly sinister, and almost utterly abandoned. He was taking advantage of the fact that, prepared for the film’s prodigious length, the audience was likely at the start to be far more tolerant of something conventionally unacceptable in cinema; but these exercises also introduce us to the film’s own method, a search for a way into the text (of both plays and film), with scant regard for actual plot or narrative.

A sort of narrative does emerge, however, after a couple of hours; we learn that the two groups have somehow been connected in the past, via their leaders Thomas (Michel Lonsdale) and Lili (Michèle Moretti); and all of a sudden we cut to a young deaf mute (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in a cafe, handing out cards offering “a message from destiny”, and frantically blowing his harmonica either in thanks, or in fractious solicitation. Shortly, he receives his own message from destiny, handed off by one of Lili’s group, Marie (Hermine Karaghuez, from here on a talismanic presence for Rivette). He soon receives two more, in even more anonymous fashion: apparently nonsensical prose poems in which he serendipitously discerns reference to Balzac’s treize, setting him off on an obsessive quest to decipher the notes, and to discover the nature of the treize in real life.

These notes were the only writing Rivette did for the film, with mischievous pleasure, coded messages in the hoary Jules Verne tradition, and they serve as the basic MacGuffin that kickstarts the plot, such as it is (as opposed to Balzac’s use of the treize as deus ex machina to facilitate his denouements). The other plot motor is the second outsider, Frédérique (the wonderfully hippie-gypsy Juliet Berto), a small-change hustler who steals some letters from one Etienne (director Jacques Doniol-Lacroze), who is found playing chess against himself. She discovers in them reference to the treize and, possibly, other secret societies. As Eric Rohmer, in a delightfully droll cameo and patently false beard as a Balzac scholar, explains to Colin, secret societies are “everywhere” (not least Cahiers du cinéma’s own conseil de dix). Frédérique’s interest in the group is confined solely to finding someone who’ll pay to get the letters back, but none of those she approaches seems very interested – the correspondence contains little incriminating nor, therefore, informative for us the audience, a defused MacGuffin which finally reveals no more than Colin’s investigations; nor even do the conversations between members of the treize when they finally meet in pairs and threes towards the very end of the film, walking in circles, just as the plot has begun to do, or from sunlight to shadow, just as our awareness of what is going on is continually obfuscated.

It is these groupings that concern Rivette considerably more than actual plot or narrative. Together with that eminence grise of the nouvelle vague, Suzanne Schiffman, he devised a large grid in place of conventional script, on which were arranged meetings of characters in different configurations. Thereafter he gave his cast, a near-who’s who of the era’s screen-acting talent (mostly poached, for L’amour fou, from the progressive theatre company of Marc’O, with the sorely-missed exception of Pierre Clementi), an almost entirely free hand to develop their characters and lines. The grid was initially formulated to maximise efficiency across the six-week shoot, with many of the ideas deliberately left to be crystallised during or after filming (or, just for fun, in the case of some of the plot elements, not at all), but its combinations were also far from exhausted – Rivette toyed with the idea of returning to the characters for another installment, Out 2 (the “Out” incidentally, being simply a reaction to the specious “In”). He changed his mind, however, and so after nearly 13 hours the film provides what Rivette calls a “false” ending: as a way of tailing down, inserted in the final episode, nominally outside the “real” time of the film, are repeated shots of the Place d’Italie, the camera positioned as in earlier sequences where members of Lili’s group attempt to track down interloper and thief Renaud. Beyond their function as a disruptive device, these lacunae carry in their familiarity the tantalising possibility of significance, but Rivette calls them “empty” shots. He describes them as disturbing and indeed they are, both in a literally formal sense, and in their deliberate flouting of conventional “meaning” in montage. They are of a piece with the gradual disruption and breaking down of the film’s formal elements (disjunction of sound and image; dialogue played backwards; inserts of black leader), in parallel with the deterioration of the theatre groups’ projects, the two outsiders’ quests and, most significantly, the film’s narrative, exposed as bogus: one can imagine it ending in self-destruction like Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), admitting the impossibility (and dishonesty) of sustained artifice, and refusing any sort of manufactured resolution to the ongoing fiction. Instead, however, we get a very brief, again repeated, shot of Marie, gazing into the middle distance before a gilded goddess statue, its significance completely obscure.

Marie belongs to the second rung of characters, recurring but rarely at centre stage, and speaking infrequently, but it is she who is priviliged to kickstart the plot motor with her delivery of Colin’s first note. That fleeting appearance grants her a special aura of mystery that is never dissipated, only reinforced, by the ending. Mysterious significance (significant mystery?) is the film’s stock in trade (the apparent founder of the treize, director-surrogate author of Colin’s notes, never even appear onscreen!), and Marie’s two unexplained appearances are appropriate bookends. She may even still be looking for Renaud in a theoretical continuation of the fictional world beyond the end of the celluloid. Whilst the shots of the Place d’Italie are deliberately devoid of anything other than structural meaning, returning to the plot-starter Marie implies unknowable significance for the story’s tattered remains whilst shrugging off all conventionality connected with cinematic endings. It is not that the world of the film is an exact representation of real life in its general lack of structure and dynamic event, but that it has, particularly over the length of time involved, become something like an equivalent, which therefore cannot reach a natural, neat, and resolving end.

If there is a little bit of Balzac in this ending – Rastignac’s “à nous deux, Paris!” at the end of Père Goriot (1835), and the cast of his ongoing, interlinked Comédie humaine – there is yet more in the film’s opening, following Balzac’s typical mode of dedicating the first half of his novels to description and set-up, saving the narrative and action until the context has been firmly established. Here, however, the setting is less preparation for the story to follow than for the improvised nature of the film itself; furthermore, unlike Balzac the social historian, and ignoring the explicit wish of the Rouchian ethnologist who pops up a couple of times (to study the French people as he studies the Malagasy), Rivette deliberately avoids touching upon contemporary socio-politics, beyond the cultural (current theatre practices), and a faintly implied sense of disillusionment and disorientation in the years following the uprising of May ’68, the (possible) failure of the treize (and the disintegration of the theatre projects) standing for the failure of utopian dreams. Instead, the film is jam-packed with mirrors, from Thomas’s rehearsal space, to Frédérique’s first appearance, to a stunning mise-en-abîme of infinite (narrative) possibility in a haunted seaside house at the end. These are not the mirrors of Balzac-contemporary Stendahl; rather, as clued by the presence of the Snark in one of Colin’s notes, looking-glass portals to a magical world of mystery – not quite Balzac’s, but certainly Rivette’s later vie parallèlle – recognisably similar to our own, but transformed to embrace the endless possibilities (and pleasures) of art.

This returns us to Rivette and Schiffman’s grid and its apparently limitless possibilities of configuration – a self-generating perpetual-narrative machine. The connections between characters established and revealed by this methodology give the impression of one of those immensely complex, mysterious, and largely hidden underlying formal structures, as employed in Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual, 1978 – Etienne is no doubt practising the knight’s move) or implied in Un manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, 1805-1815, entirely manipulated by the Cabal). In the film as in these novels, however, the characters are no mere ciphers, moving within the structure rather than serving it, living independently of (and beyond) the arranged nature of the work. Rivette did in fact compare Out 1 to a large novel of 1000 pages, and whilst movies usually struggle to attain to the kind of heft and all-encompassing monumentality of works like those of Proust and Musil, say, Out 1 does manage something of a weight, and texture in particular, entirely singular in the cinema.

Much of this is to do with length, of course, and there is no escaping the fact that a 13-hour film sounds unreasonable, unfeasible, and possibly unbearable (particularly when one gives a description of the opening couple of hours, met usually in my experience with reactions of horror). One of Out 1’s fundamental achievements is that none of these preconceptions is true. David Thomson, with typical lack of humility, flippantly sours an interesting and favourable short commentary when he calls it an “egocentric monstrosity”. It does indeed draw attention to its unusual self, although this in turn encourages an increased concentration on the part of the viewer to understand something so rare. More importantly, it seems impossible in any other form (witness Spectre, a fundamentally different film), marrying that form so harmoniously with the content, not least through its concern with the theatre groups’ improvisation and creation, which continues throughout, the pacing and sustenation of which should by all rights test all limits of engagement. If the breakdown of the narrative were not so well managed, along with the film’s formal breakdowns, the lack of conventional resolution would leave the viewer feeling as irritatedly non-plussed as at the end of some very long shaggy dog story; instead, one reluctantly accepts that after almost 13 hours is it probably time to leave these people behind, and that one has been eased out of the experience as gently as is possible.

This sort of exclusive engagement with a group of characters and a milieu of some definition sounds familiar. Binge-watching did not exist in 1971, and I won’t say Rivette invented it, because the seduction of the soap opera was already a fact of life on the installment plan. His concern was more with that sort of open-endedness, whether the film be watched over eight successive nights or even week or, as he came to prefer, over one weekend. Although rarely self-conscious, the soap opera storyline is known by everyone to be a spurious and recycled exaggeration of life – the appeal lies in watching the machinery turn, and taking enjoyment from engagement with the characters. This analogy is not as arch as it seems: like Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes From A Marriage, 1973) and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), this is the work of a major, “serious” film-maker, structured for convenient television viewing, with each episode prefaced by a series of black and white production stills suggesting a recap of the previous episode. Rivette admits his offering it to television was “naïve”, however, and imagined the appropriate viewing arrangement to be split over two days with intervals. Aside from the fact that it would be a most bizarre and unsettling TV series, the episodic demarcations are for the most part arbitrary – the eight titles each name two characters, “from” one “to” another, though not always indicating the protagonists of the opening and closing scenes (and, in one instance, the break taking place mid-conversation). Unlike the Fassbinder or Bergman whose episodes are separate components, together comprising a whole, here the intervals are evidently a disruption: the integrity of the complete 12 hours and 55 minutes feels sacrosanct, an indivisible part of both its meaning and significance – noli me tangere indeed.

The cumulative effect is exhilaratingly overwhelming: overwhelming to watch a 13-hour movie; overwhelming to find you don’t want it to end; overwhelming to find it can remain unfailingly engaging over such a period with neither substantial plot, nor psychological investigation or development; overwhelming to be confronted with something so vast and harmoniously complex that it is almost impossible to comprehend how the whole thing can be pulled off so deftly, amusingly, and in such a profoundly affecting way. It is impossible not to be sucked in. Even if one recognises none of the cast, even if one is not that interested in experimental theatre (some tolerance for experimental film is implied), even if the vagueness of any possible plot summary sounds infuriating, once you’re hooked, you’re held, ready to shuffle off any world but this, to live inside this captivating and charming mystery.

Try in vain, however, to pin down the overwhelming sense of meaning in the film in its entirety, or to corral its various elements into an ordered interpretive whole. This last is in nature of the beast: if the film has one central concern, it is with the never-ending contraposition of order and chaos, design and chance, influenced in part by Rivette’s conversations with Pierre Boulez about his methods of “guided chance”, and conjoining twin Rivette touchstones Lang (fate) and Renoir (freedom – Rivette was avowedly liberated by the television series he made on the latter, following the dissatisfactions of La religieuse). As director Gerard (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) has it in L’amour fou, of Racine’s Andromaque: “The reason I want to stage it is because it's 'unplayable.' It's shreds and patches, yet it all hangs together somehow.... It shows a chaotic but not absurd world, rather like our own, flying off in all directions, but with a purpose. Only we don't know what.”

No surprise, then, that the film eventually dissolves under investigation, both an adventure and a formal exploration into the unknown, a boundless mirror-world dream full of dead ends, blind alleys (Léaud presciently chose for his character’s name colin-maillard – blindman’s bluff), but also possibilities. Its suspense has been generated not only by the delightfully counterfeit MacGuffins, but by its very form, the collision of improvisation and control, the wonder of “what will happen?” both onscreen and off. But just as the opposition between order and chaos can find no resolution, so the film originally ended with individual break-downs for the four main characters in the face of trying to make sense of it all (only one remains, for Thomas, and even if it is a put-on, it appears to provide some catharsis). The point is not to bring the game to any conclusion, but to enjoy its playing.

(originally published on

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann

frieze no.173, sept 2015

 click to enlarge
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Tuesday, June 23, 2015


It’s not clear what’s going on at the start of Crumbs, except for the info imparted via opening titles, that we are in some sort of post-apocalyptic world, where mankind has lost the urge for survival. A little hunchbacked man treks across a fantastical, extraterrestrial-seeming landscape, finds a plastic Christmas tree, spots a uniformed Nazi in gas mask and sparkly Mickey Mouse ears, and takes to his heels. This is the first Ethiopian surreal science-fiction movie.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

El elefante desaparecido (The Vanished Elephant)

From the very opening, we are warned that this is a film of doubling and illusion. A car slowly pulls up and to a stop in a nighttime Lima street, but we gradually realise that we are observing the scene through a large window, with the street and headlamps subtly reflecting and shifting in the pulled focus. It turns out that this sequence – man with gun stealthily enters house – forms the final chapter of Edo Celeste’s latest in a long line of successful detective novels, and he is composing it as we watch, before deleting it in disgust at his reliance on cliche – a black cat. It also turns out that later on Edo himself will repeat the exact same actions, via the same shots, trying to find the woman who can help him find the mysterious man who has posed for a photographic project depicting his works’ hero, Felipe Aranda, who also seems to be the presumed-dead husband of the mysterious woman who kickstarts the plot by summoning Edo to a clifftop rendez-vous and presenting him with a package of photographs allegedly mailed to his name to her address by said deceased husband, Raphael Pineda (yes, it’s an anagram of Felipe Aranda). And that black cat will turn up again, more than once.

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jimmy's Hall

After the foolish fondness of The Angel’s Share (2012), Ken Loach is back in familiar ground with the story of Jimmy Gralton, who built a community hall in Ireland’s County Leitrim in the early 1920s that enraged the local haves. Also involved with reinstating an evicted tenant farmer, he fled to America for ten years or so, before returning to do the same thing all over again. The heart of the film is expressed in the words of his mother, at the hearing on his deportation in 1933 (the only Irishman ever to be deported from his country): “Why is an old tin hall so dangerous?”

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Puerto Ricans in Paris

A particularly hard type of film about which to write critically is the comedy of modest ambition that achieves its aim with an acceptable amount of appeal in playing, gags, plot, and outlook, but little more. One does not wish to criticize for not being more (not least as so many are so less), nor to overpraise its slight achievements, leaving one mostly in the territory of reportage, rather than critical appraisal. Which is a way of saying that such a film is Puerto Ricans in Paris, a perfectly inoffensive, oftentimes smile-raising fish-out-of-water/culture-clash comedy that does what it aims to do pretty much without fault.

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A Midsummer’s Fantasia (Han-yeo-reu-mui Pan-ta-ji-a)

Jang Kun-jae’s third feature is an unusual project, comparable in recent memory only to Miguel Gomes’ singular Our Beloved Month of August (2008), in that it is divided into two distinct halves, the first with an overriding documentary feel, the second using actors from the first to narrate a fiction.

The film takes place in the near-abandoned village of Gojō in the Nara Prefecture of south-central Japan. A young Korean film-maker (Im Hyeong-gook) is visiting with his interpreter (Kim Se-byeok) to research the area and interview locals, and the film’s opening is straight documentary, with credits rolling over a long-held, static shot of a barely-bustling café full of old people, followed by a table interview with the proprietors. The film style adheres closer to something one might wish to call typical east-Asian slow narrative fiction thereafter, however, with lengthy, static shots of people talking, or thinking, frequently with their back to the camera. In the film’s first half these are interspersed with further documentary-style interviews, distinguished by an unselfconscious use of jump cuts in the monologues, although others are played out before the dramatist’s cameras, as Im and Kim talk with various non-acting locals of the region, and we learn from them something of its history and current character (all the young people have left and the school has been closed for twenty years), just as Jang himself did, making his own research.

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Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Cameraman

The Cameraman is the beginning of the end for Buster. After a string of incredible films created in an atmosphere of complete freedom, he moved to MGM and was pretty much put in a straitjacket. Some looseness remained in this, his first outing for them, but his art would become increasingly compromised, and one can already see it: the gags are simpler, less organically developed and character-driven; and whilst there are extended sequences like the terrific Tong War, up in which Buster and his camera get swept, the comic parts of the movie tend to comprise separate bits of business rather than the coherent, fundamentally integrated gag sequences of his past – for example, the climax of his previous feature College (1927), where the separate bits of business are all in service of his rushing to get the girl. The Tong War sequence, by comparison, is mostly a succession of disconnected gags; its throughline has no momentum, despite hilarious moments; and it has a complete non-ending. The same goes for much of the film.

Which is not to say that there are not excellent parts – Buster leaps casually on and off a good number of fast-moving vehicles – and given the subject there is of course a nice amount of cinematic self-awareness and film-making jokes (coincidentally or not, the comically unusable footage he first shoots is a dead ringer for Vertov). There’s also a street-corner cop who functions as a most unusual audience surrogate; every time they encounter one another, Buster is in yet another crazy situation and the cop’s goggling eyes remind us explicitly that without the soothing flow of story, the constituent parts of what we are seeing are not ordinary, not reality. This is only one of a number of elements that work to break the mystique of cinema, although they are of a different, less enchanted cast than the magic of Sherlock Jr. (1924), and it turns out in the end that even a monkey can make a movie.

When Buster and the cop first meet, however, an extended exchange of misunderstanding plays out entirely through inter-titles, and seems to epitomize how Keaton’s comedy was going to be dead-ended from here on. Likewise an extended tussle with a fat man in a small changing room feels un-Keatonish in its restriction (but is nonetheless hilarious). He even executes the perfect slip on a banana peel but for no reason other than to do it – if the rest of the gags were in service to story or character it would be an amusingly irrelevant addition; as it is, it plays like a resigned absurdity, advertising its own spuriousness.

Buster is of course his usual terrific self, but has few truly spectacular stunts to perform. The moving vehicles are a highlight, as well as that consistently balletic quality of perfect timing to his entrances, pratfalls, and moments of realization; and the dash from telephone to the boarding house of his beloved is a perfection of physical comedy in harmony with the emotional thrust of the scene. His paramour, Marceline Day, is particularly lovely, though given predictably little to do, and the real co-star is a delightful capuchin dressed in a sailor’s suit whom Buster acquires in amusingly macabre fashion. The monkey is hilarious, of course, but the unhappy truth is that you know there’s something wrong with a Keaton picture when it needs a monkey, and you get the feeling Buster knows it too.

d Edward Sedgewick, Buster Keaton p Lawrence Weingarten, Buster Keaton sc Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton, Byron Morgan, Joseph Farnham ph Reggie Lanning, Elgin Lessley ed Hugh Wynn, Basil Wrangell sd Fred Gabourie cast Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin, Sidney Bracey, Harry Gribbon, Richard Alexander

(1928, USA, 69m, b/w)
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For those who caught the hugely entertaining Mirageman on the festival circuit, the even-less-widely-distributed Mandrill, by the same Chilean team, is well worth seeking out. As the earlier film was a loving, tongue-in-cheek homage to ’70s exploitation-action film, so too is Mandrill, casting the hugely-appealing Marko Zaror this time as an eponymous Bondian hitman, inspired equally by fictitious movie super-agent John Colt (with highly amusing and spot-on film clips), as by the childhood murder of his parents. Unfortunately for him, the daughter of his long-sought target is a beautiful and feisty young woman who provides him first with the challenge of seduction, and subsequently that of staying alive.

The film wears its superficiality happily on its sleeve, reveling in the hard bright light of glamorous commercial photography in sun-drenched exteriors or golden casino interiors, and in the superlative fighting skills of Zaror (with only a minimum of digital assistance). Motivation and characterisation are unashamedly clear-cut, although the sympathy-eliciting cracks in Mandrill’s tough-guy persona are a little over-exposed – his tears flow readily, and when denuded of his designer shades his eyes reveal too clearly the slow-moving cogs behind them to convince as those of an invincible super-man. But otherwise Zaror is a pleasure to watch, perfectly named, an inexorable, manly force with something of both the monkey’s cunning and simple-mindedness.

 The film’s well-judged momentum falters only towards the end, in an oddly curtailed sequence that starts like some trial of strength in grainily-shot rooms (only two) containing ever-tougher opponents; it had the makings of a beautiful series of abstracted confrontations, given the fighting and film-making skills, but it cuts abruptly and disappointingly to the climactic showdown, which itself fails to build on the earlier confrontation that it reprises. But the film is carried off with enough style, and such good humour, particularly in flashbacks to a (well-cast) younger Mandrill and his caring and amusing uncle, and the pastiche is so lovingly accurate – including a vibrant soundtrack of exploitation funk, Barry-esque Bond lines, and hopping tropicalia – that deficiencies of construction and rhythm (tension is too often curiously under-milked, and the script was concocted on the run whilst shooting) are quite happily overlooked for the sake of plain, simple enjoyment, fondly stylish film-making, and the prospect of an unashamedly set-up sequel.

d/sc/ed Ernesto Díaz Espinoza p Derek Rundell, Marko Zaror ph Nicolás Ibieta m Rocco cast Marko Zaror, Celine Reymond, Alejandro Castillo, Luis Alarcón, Augusto Schuster, Francisco Jovanni Guerrero
(2009, Ch, 90m)
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Hanyo (The Housemaid) x2

In 2010, Sang-soo Im boldly took on a remake of one of the beloved classics of South Korean cinema, Ki-young Kim’s The Housemaid (1960). Both are interesting films, and the original at least is worth seeing under any circumstances, if only for its strangeness. They are also different enough that in fact one does not really need to discuss them together, but I am going to anyway.

The 1960 version takes place almost entirely in the newly-built house of a nice young couple who’ve overstretched themselves financially, yet need to take on a housemaid. The husband gives piano lessons, and foxy Ms Cho, one of his pupils, brings a friend from the factory to work as the maid (a magnetic Eun-shim Lee). Before long they have both declared their love for him. Cho is out of the picture without too much difficulty, but Lee is another matter, immediately tagged as a bad girl for her smoking habit. She appears repeatedly at the night-time window with the frightful intensity of Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus (1947), committing atrocious acts of violence, but also manipulated by the couple into a terrible act of self-harm, and imbued with just enough humanity that she cannot be simply written off as a nut-job. The melodrama runs high, with the hysterical horror of the hothouse atmosphere ratcheted up through generous use of thunderstorms and sinister symbolism, and the presence throughout of a bottle of rat poison. The wife’s perpetual refrain that none of this would have happened if she hadn’t wanted a bigger house gives the film a bitter, if not 100% convincing sociological undertow – Korea’s new middle-class overstretching itself – and the unexpected ending frames the film as a case study in male/female relations in a way that is at least (deliberately) amusing if not entirely convincing.

 The modern version shifts the focus from the couple to the maid, and removes all ambiguity from the former’s behaviour, to position them firmly as the villains. They are not struggling middle-class, however, but fabulously rich with the sort of inherited wealth that means Hoon, the husband, has known no life other than being able to have whatever he wants. Kim also alters the Ms Cho character into Mrs Cho, the older housemaid who appears first to be a sort of sinister Mrs Danvers, but becomes a much richer character, and commentator on class distinctions, through a wonderfully textured and funny performance from Yeo-jong Yun. Do-yeon Jeun is similarly gradual in revealing herself as Eun-yi, the new housemaid, seemingly child-like but already divorced, apparently subservient, but with a strong streak of willfulness. She is cast almost completely as the victim here – even before we see her bending over to clean the bath in her little maid’s skirt, we know there’ll be trouble from the commanding, sculpted Hoon. His foxy little wife, with big doll eyes and bee-stung lips (Seo Woo) is ginormously pregnant with twins, but you know he’d be at it anyway. Her deliciously scheming, glamorous mother appears on the scene to sort things out, and things go worse for Eun-yi when she declares decisions about her body to be beyond the control of the all-powerful rich.

 The class distinctions would have benefited from considerably more ambiguity – the family are borderline two-dimensional in their evil, and of course being a housemaid is a shitty job – but an epilogue breaks out the vicious absurdity to fine effect. This manages to claw back some goodwill from the finale proper, which sees Eun-yi flip into unconvincing crazy, and makes all-too-obvious sense of the film’s unnecessary, semi-documentary prologue. But Im builds several scenes around a superbly tingling erotic tension, and much of the whole is shot with a pleasing elegance of movement and framing (unnecessarily excessive use of handheld aside); and even if the meat of its themes fails to satisfy, the performances of Jeun and especially Yun certainly don’t.

d/p/sc Ki-young Kim ph Deok-jin Kim ed Young-keun Oh ad Seok-in Park m Sang-gi Han cast Jin Kyu Kim, Jeung-nyeo Ju, Eun-shim Lee, Aeng-ran Eom, Seon-ae Ko
(1960, SKor, 111m, b/w)

d/sc Sang-soo Im p Jason Chae ph Hyung-deok Lee ed Eun Soo Lee pd Ha-jun Lee m Hong-jip Kim cast Do-yeon Jeon, Jung-Jae Lee, Yeo-jeong Yoon, Woo Seo, Ji-Young Park, Seo-Hyeon Ahn

(2010, SKor, 106m)

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Cave Of Forgotten Dreams

For all his life Werner Herzog has been seeking out the unvisited, the unseen and in some cases, the unimagined, to capture them on film with all the wonder and edge-of-the-world danger that have been his unabated inspiration. One of the least accessible and most fascinating places on the planet (also full of dangerous gas!) is the cave system at Chauvet, where only 17 years ago cave paintings were discovered that were twice the age of the oldest previously known. The French government shut it up tight, allowing limited scientific access and, for brief periods in 2009, Werner Herzog. With a 3D camera no less.

In the enclosed cave, the 3D is great. That uncanny way of seeing fully enhances the intense “experience” of being in such an unusual space. The unweathered folds of rock and the ripples of calcite evoke a lunar or extraterrestrial mood, and chambers seen through chambers create an eerie depth. But its most important function is to demonstrate how the 35,000 year-old art was rendered with careful consideration of the contours and forms of the stone canvas.

Repeated close examination reveals the depictions of a wide variety of animals to have been executed with remarkable sophistication, for all their apparent simplicity. Line, shade, and occasionally colour, are used with exact and discreet skill, and if they necessarily recall Picasso, that is after all only because he recognized their mastery. Some of the effects are yet more surprising, in the suggestion of sound and movement, with repeated anatomical features working like a flick-book or… the movies (“proto-cinema” in that accent).

Other than wildlife, there are a few abstract paintings, a remarkable wall of red handprints, and one mysterious human figure, the lower half of a female, possibly being impregnated by a minotaur, rendered on a fat downward-hanging outcrop (the mystery in part is due to the authorities’ odd decision not to lay the access walkway so as to allow full examination of the reverse – Herzog puts his camera on a stick). Above ground, we’re shown a similar, modeled figure in the Schwabian museum and one yearns to learn more about the connection and function, but the mists of time remain opaque.

In fact, not only for its pictorial value, Herzog has got his hands on another cracking documentary subject, since most of the questions he could possibly ask are simply answerable by “we’ll never know” (which he relishes in his voiceover). He is also blessed with a good handful of learned, engaging, and varyingly eccentric interviewees amongst the scientists involved with the site. They all have a marked philosophical bent that makes up for the lack of hard facts, and Herzog is particularly pleased to learn that one serious young man used to be in the circus. There’s also “Experimental Archeologist” Wulf who demonstrates the remarkable discovery that these people used a true pentatonic scale for their simple flutes, whilst garbed in (?)correct period dress; the sense that Herzog has sought out some strange woodland peasants is confirmed when we meet the guy who’s basically ex-head-of-perfume in France (only in France!), who hunts for caves by smell.

Herzog covers a lot of ground, but there remains a sense that this is not as inquiring a documentary as it might be. He makes the most of his time in the cave, but a slightly joshing air in the rest of the – presumably non-time-pressed – sequences goes hand in hand with typically Herzogovian nonsense like “these images are memories of long-forgotten dreams” in the “enchanted world of the imaginary”. Shadows on the cave wall lead him irrelevantly to Fred Astaire rather than to Plato, and the albino alligator epilogue is merely spurious. His usually sure sense of music unfoots him here too: medieval choirs are always good, but heartbeats rarely are, and Ernst Reijseger’s score resorts too frequently to self-consciousness mournfulness and try-hard trance.

Suggested traces of spirituality in the cave’s contents indicate a sentience developed enough for us to acknowledge the inhabitants as ancestors. Herzog’s most promising supposition is that it is “as if the modern soul awakened here” (this is indeed the point at which Neanderthals had been almost entirely replaced by H.sapiens), and Herzog worries at our profound disconnection with something so fundamentally connected. Needless to say, we’ve next to no idea who these artists were, although tantalizing evidence is found in the wall of handprints, via which other work by the same individual can be identified throughout the caves. The question posed is basically: what is humanness? (“we shall never know”!), and if this avenue diverts to a Romantic musing on man’s relation to the splendor and perpetuity of landscape, at least the Ardèche River valley is utterly gorgeous. For all one might wish for a little more serious inquiry, it is a remarkable and invaluable record that provides plenty of food for thought.

d/sc Werner Herzog p Adrienne Ciuffo, Erik Nelson ph Peter Zeitlinger ed Joe Bini, Maya Hawke, Ernst Reijseger with Werner Herzog, Jean Clottes, Julien Monney, Jean-Michel Geneste, Michelle Philippe, Gilles Tostello, Carole Fritz, Wulf Hein
(2010, Can/USA/UK/Fr/Ger, 95m) 
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An irrepressible and disappointingly unheralded film: Marko Zaror plays Maco, a mild-mannered young man who works out in his bedsit, seems to have no friends or acquaintances aside from a younger, mentally-ill, and hospitalized brother, but boasts some mean martial arts skills and a built bod. One night out jogging he foils a home invasion with fearful excitement, and via one of the victims, a TV reporter (young, blonde, pretty María Elena Swett), his act of heroism and subsequent disappearing act (like a mirage!) becomes well-known throughout Santiago. He is immediately taken with the idea of this vigilante persona, not least since the TV coverage prompts signs of interest in his chronically withdrawn brother.

Director Ernesto Dí­az Espinoza says his twin inspirations were Taxi Driver and the live-action TV “Spiderman”; the darkness of the former is largely absent until the finale, where the knockabout comedic tone is slightly jarred by the sinister lair and purpose of the the Paedofilia Red gang, whence Mirageman’s final mission is to rescue a little girl. Otherwise, Spidey holds sway, as Maco punches and kicks his way through gangs and purse-snatchers across Santiago (several sequences apparently filmed with a hidden camera), culminating in a terrific set-piece as Mirageman fights off countless black-clad goons, Bruce Lee-style, in the grounds and patios of a country mansion, before winding up on a hillside arena-like terrace, facing off against a beardless Chuck Norris-a-like.

 Zaror’s skills carry the film – often the action was improvised as he would let a couple of thugs come on him and wait to see how he would defend himself until the camera rolled – enhanced by a shooting style that lets his moves speak eloquently for themselves, helped occasionally by some discrete editing. It’s also very funny, such as the sequence where Maco tries out a succession of outfits, or makes himself a vigilante shopping list (including “flexible trousers”), and particular fun is poked at the exploitative media through news reports and on-the-street interviews (mostly negative about the city’s new vigilante, save the amusingly odd would-be sidekick, Pseudo-Robin), along with headline pages through which unrolls the subplot of the reporter’s manipulation of her new-found celebrity, and subsequent fall from grace. The film is perhaps too thin an idea to stretch to the potential sequel or the TV series currently in production in Chile, but it’s hugely enjoyable, well-paced, good-natured, and even somewhat touching in the end.

d/sc/ed Ernesto Díaz Espinoza p Derek Rundell, Marko Zaror ph Nicolás Ibieta pd Constanza Lopehandía Meza m Rocco cast Marko Zaror, María Elena Swett, Ariel Mateluna, Mauricio Pesutic, Iván Jara, Jack Arama, Gina Aguad, Eduardo CastroArturo Ruiz Tagle
(2007, Ch/USA, 90m)
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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Imaginary Documentaries of Montreal Filmmakers Frank Vitale, Allan Moyle, and Stephen Lack

The Bitter Ash

A rather precious thing happened in Montreal in the mid 1970s. Canadian cinema had been dominated by the National Film Board since its formation in 1940, and the generally-perceived character of Canadian film was all educational documentary, and not a lot of fun. Directors such as Claude Jutra, Don Owen, and Gilles Groulx struck off on their own to make the first Canadian new wave fiction films (A tout prendre [1963], Nobody Waved Goodbye, and Le chat dans le sac [both 1964] respectively), on the back of independents like Sydney J. Furie’s groundbreaking A Dangerous Age (1959) and Larry Kent’s student feature The Bitter Ash (1963), but for all their youthful, semi-bohemian trappings, these were still quite po-faced affairs. Then came the “genial loser” films of the 70s, led by Owen’s Goin’ Down The Road (1970), and others such as The Rowdyman (Peter Carter, 1972) and Paperback Hero (Peter Pearson, 1973), for the first time really reflecting blue-collar life back to Canadians through fiction. Yet still there wasn’t much joy to be found, even in the much-lauded The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Ted Kotcheff, 1974). For the first time, however, there did seem to be a viable future for Canadian fiction feature making, so the government, in its wisdom, upped the Capital Cost Allowance tax break for film investment to 100%. This basically created a tax shelter whereby anyone with some cash could write it off against production of a film, which didn’t even need to be finished, let alone exhibited or make back its money. So a free-for-all ensued, sleaze and genre holding the day and, amongst other things, launching the career of one D. Cronenberg – his Montreal-set Shivers (1975) earned a magazine article entitled “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is. After All, You Paid For It” (Saturday Night 83, September 1975). more at
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Friday, February 13, 2015

Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf)

The last time I saw Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, it had been selected by AFI Festival guest director David Lynch ffor a special (and it was) screening in Grauman's Chinese theater. No surprise - the film's psychological horror techniques echo throughout Lynch’s oeuvre from Eraserhead on. I will admit to having an unresolved relationship with Bergman (don’t we all!) but whichever way you slice it, this is a film of both brilliantly mounted psychological tension, and of naked, neurotic exposure that could have been made by nobody but Bergman, and would barely even have been contemplated by anyone else – partly because he displays that same sense of self-importance as always, but this time it’s fundamental to the subject matter, and in any case, it’s hard to say that it isn’t actually justified.

The film is set up in good mysterious style by the passed-on-diary device of a vanished artist, and a mournful opening monologue from his lover Alma (Liv Ullmann). Max von Sydow is the stern-faced Johan, recovering from an unspecified physical illness with possible mental roots, on a possibly deserted island. The couple enjoys a moment of happy idyll, but as soon as Johan lights a gaslamp beneath his face, the darkness comes rushing on. Johan shows Alma (not us!) the grotesque figures who appear in his sketchbook. Then visions arrive: his dead mother, a past lover, a sycophant. The sycophant turns up again, when the pair accepts an invitation to dine with the brusque, menacing Baron (Erland Josephson) in his castle on the other side of the island. The aristocratic guests, it turns out, are something like a manifestation of Johan’s demons, led by the sinister vampiric figure identified with Johan’s sketchbook Birdman.

The film is split explicitly into two halves, and when the hour of the wolf comes on, that dead of night time when it seems day may never come again, and one’s darkest fears and impulses take control, physical reality becomes relative as Johan embarks on a nightmare course through the surreal geography of the castle, needled and threatened by the uncanny aristocrats. He’s directed into a tryst with a grotesque former lover, and finally experiences the artist’s ultimate humiliation, clown-faced before a cruel, laughing audience, unable to perform, deprived even of his physical voice.

The film is remarkable both for its technique of escalating horror, and for the autobiographical nakedness of artistic insecurity. Bergman borrows a certain amount from the classic tradition – the Birdman is a deliberate dead-ringer for Lugosi, complete with Nosferatu’s folded ears, and Erlandson is shot to look like Karloff as the Monster. But there’s also hugely effective use of concrete music, Sven Nykvist’s chiaroscuro photography is dazzlingly brilliant, and the film is filled with eerily surreal moments all of its own, be it a corridor flapping with birds, an old woman removing her eyeballs and face, or a spine-tingling effect that has the Baron walk, tortured and hunched, up a wall and onto the ceiling, physical horror born of pure emotion (and an ur-epitome of the Lynchian style).

The result is hugely effective – manipulative to an extent, of course, like all horror films, but shot through with a dread that is palpably Bergman’s own (autobiographical elements are sprinkled throughout), and a desperation made explicit in Johan’s passionate explanation of the artist’s compulsion to create, in the face of a world that doesn’t care. A shame therefore, that the nightmare ends in prosaically explicit fashion, unmistakably pointing to a specific guilt as the source of his self-torture. A shame too, that Liv Ullman’s character is smothered by Bergman's tendency for beautiful, intelligent women who will stick by their men no matter what, utterly subservient. Like Bergman himself, Johan is a great man, through one’s relationship to whom it is only natural that a partner should define herself, it seems.

The film was conceived as a companion piece to Persona, and that earlier work’s theme of personality transference/merger is prodded again, but far less fruitfully – Alma is a spectator to Johan’s visions, and suggests that the demons have been transferred to her at the end, but this a slightly irrelevant adjunct to the central portrait of the tortured artist, and her character feels merely like an excuse to include a spectator. Both actors are brilliant, of course, and Bergman lets them free on a number of long takes of textured acting dynamics, while Ullman does at least give Alma a tragic helplessness – she can make you cry just be looking at a camera – as she attempts to pull the dismissive Johan back to the real world.

However one feels about Bergman and his self-regard, this is a killer example of a master film-maker at the peak of his powers. With this film as with Persona, it's not as though he uses a lots of experimental techniques (though he kind of does), but one feels that he could use anything at all, that he has all of cinema’s possibilities at his fingertips, and that he knows how to invent what he needs. It’s not an easy film, but approached with caution, neither is it an especially difficult one; if one is prepared to pay a little attention, it is a rich and frightening and totally captivating experience, which is just as it should be.

d/sc Ingmar Bergman p Lars Owe-Carlberg ph Sven Nykvist ed Ulla Ryghe pd Mari Vos-Lundh m Lars Johan Werle cast Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Erland Josephson, Gertrud Fridh, Georg Rydeberg, Naima Wifstrand, Ulf Johansson
(1968, Swe/Nor, 99m, b/w)
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Sawdust City

This is a great example of something or other: the synopsis in the 2011 LA Film Festival programme made it sound like a tired Midwest indie. It’s debatable whether it’d have seemed more or less attractive if they’d added that it was inspired specifically by Cassavetes’ terrific Husbands, and by him and Peter Falk in Mikey and Nicky. First-time director David Nordstrom was on hand to introduce the screening, and dedicated it to the just-passed Falk. Falk would have liked it a lot, I believe.

Nordstrom was not slavish in his inspiration, and nor did he confine himself, channeling a load of wintery 70s vibe with a sailor and a knapsack. A first-rate opening montage introduces us in very natural fashion to two brothers, who’ll soon see each other again after several years apart, with closeness and caginess. On the soundtrack, Pete the sailor calls brother Bob from a bar, chews the fat, lets on he’s in town, and says he’s got to find dad. They spend the night, and the rest of the film, on a bar crawl. Some personal, emotional stuff comes out, of course, but mostly the film lets them just be together, spar, drink, annoy, and generally fit.

The whole premise allows Nordstrom to hit obvious notes, but he nails almost all of them, dispensing the secrets of absence and family with care, and creating a couple of central characters whom one would be happy to watch doing almost anything together. He takes Bob himself, opposite Carl McLaughlin, a quiet, stolid presence who perfectly registers restrained annoyance, and makes his shell almost visible. But Bob is the remarkable creation, and a selfless performance – he can be such a dick at times that strangers want to beat him up. But he’s always ready to forget and raise another beer, and his obligatory toilet confessional is properly great.

If the film were no more than that, it'd be pretty fine, but it has a killer touch: the brothers are joined by Gene (Lee Lynch), a free-flowing barfly and practiced freeloader, who injects a great deal of amusement into the proceedings, supposedly guiding them to their dad. The kicker is that it’s exactly like late 60s Dennis Hopper is in the movie: his first shot is an instant classic, sitting at the bar, telling a hilarious story, with cowboy hat and shaggy beard. But it’s not an imitation: in speech he has echoes of Hopper, but his own voice. Lynch is brilliant, in a really unusual move pulled off to a tee.

The film plays out to a spot-on soundtrack of 70s bar rock, and the feeling for that kind of small-town bar existence is note perfect (filmed in Nordstrom’s home town). Photography is handsomely appropriate, by James Laxton; there’s a great deal of humour; and the emotional stuff is almost all handled well. If the final dialogue is cliché-ridden, the characters have earned it – and would they not be likely to talk that way? Thing is, Cassavetes and Falk wouldn’t have, and one misses the first-rate naturalism of the rest of the script. But overall, terrific.

d/sc/ed David Nordstrom p Mike Ott ph James Laxton m John Wood  cast David Nordstrom, Carl McLaughlin, Lee Lynch, John Brotherton, Becca Barr, Julie Carlson
(2011, USA, 97m)
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God's Ears

The best lap-dancer in town, Alexia, leads a self-contained but perhaps rather lonely life until in remarkably quick succession she meets, befriends, and falls in love with a handsome young autistic man, Noah. Everything goes gently and sweetly until for no apparent reason she decides she doesn’t want to let any close to her after all. But don’t worry, it all turns out fine, for this is a film about how the strength and courage of the mentally disabled can be an inspiration to us all; it is also a film that will cheerfully frame the first word of the “Live Nude Girls” sign outside Lexy’s club to provide her with hope in her moment of doubt; and one in which it will gradually be revealed that Noah possesses an impressively and improbably sculpted torso.

As it happens, though, he shadow boxes in his room, and sweeps up at John Saxon’s gym, the latter present to embody the warning regret of missed opportunity, and to roll out the life lessons (the ring is like a tabernacle, didn't you know?). The film is carried by the central performances: Margot Farley as Lexy mostly just has to look bright-eyed or soulful, which she does very well, and has a nice rapport with her fellow dancers; but writer/director Mark Worth is remarkably effective as Noah, detailed and admirably restrained, and his rapport is at its best with his autistic uncle Steve (a similarly well-modulated Tim Thomerson). All of which almost makes up for the banal and obvious music, the Reader’s Digest philosophising, and the fact that it’s a good twenty minutes too long.

d/sc Michael Worth p Kassi Crews ph Neil Lisk pd Francis Titsworth m Corey A. Jackson cast Margot Farley, Michael Worth, John Saxon, Mitzi Kapture, Tim Thomerson, David Jean Thomas, Dominic Daniel
(1008, USA, 117m)
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Dios los cria (…and God Created Them/Façade)

The cinema of Puerto Rico is neither extensive nor widely known; all the more cause for celebration, therefore, that this title should have been chosen a couple off years ago by the Academy for typically meticulous preservation treatment; more so that it should prove so fully deserving.

A delightfully Buñuelian satire on the business classes and man’s fundamentally self-serving nature (with a couple of broadsides aimed at religion for good measure, starting with the title), Morales’s widely-hailed but little-seen* debut comprises five short stories: brothers quarrel over an inheritance; a businessman tricks a bishop twice over; a stuck lift prompts confessions and recriminations; an aged prostitute vainly contemplates her lot; and a man reorders his domestic arrangements between wife and mistress. Director Jacopo Morales is fond of the ridiculous, from the old man’s funeral that becomes a triple mourning, presided over by the fulsome décolletage of his young widow (of one day!), to the businessman’s gliding escalator descent and re-ascension to the strains of a heavenly male choir; the deliriously purple prose of the blonde temptress (with ridiculous flute-led 70’s love theme) that repeatedly draws her lover (Morales himself) back to her bed in the final episode, and its unexpected revelation and farcically logical resolution.

The cinematic presentation is mostly straightforward, although the fourth episode is formally daring – and successful – in its almost complete lack of dialogue, the montage of looks and touches in a dimly-lit hooker bar carried by the time-worn features of Esther Sandoval as the old pro; and the widely-applicable parable-like nature of each episode is reinforced by an effective final-frame freeze. The silliness may rob the satire of some of its bite, but it is recognisably the product of ferocious outrage at a world of masquerades and hypocrisy and, most important, absurdly, viciously funny throughout.

d/p/sc Jacopo Morales ph Carmelo Rivera m Pedro Rivera Toledo cast Norma Candal, Carlos Cestero, Pedro Joan Figueroa, Daniel Lugo, Chavito Marrero, Benjamin Morales, Jacopo Morales, Alicia Moreda, Gladys Rodríguez, Esther Sandoval, Miguel Ángel Suárez
(1979, PR, 120m)

*so much so that it’s nigh on impossible to find a still from the film. Contrary to the implication of the top image, it’s in colour, pleasantly grainy, with a thoroughbred 70s feel, from the cocktail jazz to spray-stiffened hair-helmets, prominent lapels and manly beards. And pulls off with perfect aplomb the old middle-aged-man-imagines-secretary/nun-naked gag.

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Thursday, February 5, 2015

AFI Festival 2014

Back in the years when film critic Robert Koehler ran the show, the AFI Festival positioned itself, coming towards the end of the season, as the ‘festival of festivals’, which was a celebratory way to justify the fact that international festival-goers would have seen much of its programme already, but that those less-travelled would finally get a chance to see the mouth-watering titles about which they’d only read and imagined. This round-up character is no longer specified under director Jacqueline Lyanga, and such a simple elision gives the event a slight tarnish for not admitting it (recycling a lot of TIFF’s Korean strand, for example). Even if one may also miss the spiky, serious-mindedness of Koehler’s taste, the festival nonetheless remains a decent forum for a sampling of new world cinema, much of which would never find its way to Los Angeles otherwise.

Hollywood product is standard for the galas (Foxcatcher, Clint Eastwood’s The Sniper, both 2014), which are entirely missable, unless one wants to face the scrum for the sake of getting a jump on the general release. I was far more interested to see the Chinese winner of this year’s Golden Bear at Berlin, Bai ri yan huo (Black Coal, Thin Ice – literally, Fireworks in Daytime 2014). It turns out the prize is a tribute to the skilful direction of Diao Yinan Zhifu (Uniform, 2003), with touches of dry, surreal humour, discreet revelations, boosted sound design, a measured palette from muted gray-greens to neon pink, a particularly effective burst of sudden violence, and a beautifully simple reverse-shot time-jump that takes us from the prologue to the main body of the film. What all this obscures, however, is a fairly standard detective mystery, short on character and emotion, lifting the endings of both A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and Beau travail (1999) to no particular effect, and culminating in an oblique and deliberately frustrating finale. Perfectly watchable, a big hit at the Chinese box office, but not a major film by any means, even if it makes one wish that more lightweight genre fare could be pulled off with a least such an aspiration to elegance in its making. 

Leviafan (Leviathan, 2014) by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Izgnanie [The Banishment], 2007), is another celebrated festival hit (best script at Cannes), and it is a curious beast. At heart, it tells two fairly simple but appealing tales: first, of the little man against bureaucracy, as hotheaded Kolya fights to forestall the transfer of his house and land to the irredeemably corrupt mayor. When his lawyer, armed with career-destroying dirt, makes the inexplicably idiotic mistake of getting into said mayor’s car halfway through, however, the drama becomes more intimate and family-focused, and things get even worse for Kolya. Bookending the film are portentous, Phillip Glass-scored sequences of the rugged northern Russian coastline where Kolya’s little fishing town is situated, beautiful in the majesty of nature and the charm of the rundown buildings and ruined boats. The point seems to be both that man is small and, per the whale skeleton on the beach, that the body of once-great Russia (or, indeed, Thomas Hobbes’ social contract as ideally applied to communism) has been picked clean by the corrupt bureaucrats, in bed with the all-powerful church. A couple of intrusive scenes with priests indicate first how the church rubs along quite happily with the new capitalism, before baldly lecturing on the Leviathan itself (yes, man is indeed small) and the nature of God’s truth. What could have been a rather affecting, intimate film with appealing performances from all concerned is crushed by a metaphysical weight it neither earns, nor can carry.

About the latest from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night, 2014), there’s little actual criticism one can make, as has been the case for their films for some time now: pursuing their narrowly-defined, well-honed form and content, they place themselves almost outside of critical judgment, comparisons becoming valid only with the rest of their work which, being of such consistent standard, means the best one can say is that yes, this is another Dardennes brothers film. The most obvious difference here is the star power of Marion Cotillard, although if one didn’t know her, one wouldn’t guess; she is resolutely unstarry, but giving one of the strongest, invisibly actor-ly performances to be found in the brothers’ filmography. The other difference, less obvious, is that aside from the ending of Le silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence, 2008), this may be the brother’s most blatant foray into metaphor. Cotillard is a recovering depressive, and the situation in which she finds herself directly mirrors the subjective experience of living with bi-polar disorder: her situation is impossible, and absurd, as her factory boss has forced her 16 colleagues to decide between letting her keep her job, or instead laying her off to keep their €1000 bonus. Thus, she must spend the weekend going through the same seemingly hopeless process again and again, visiting her colleagues to try and persuade them to vote for her, an exercise that alternately produces hope and optimism, or despair and self-loathing, resolution to continue, or surrender to its futility. Whether she has won or lost in the end is unclear, and it is all rather effective if, as usual, quite depressing, the message being that making the effort is an end in itself, because what else can you do?

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) is yet more ripe for metaphorical interpretation, although the subtextual wellspring is intriguingly unclear (and the subject could not be more different from that of the Dardennes’ film). Following a backseat make-out session, teenaged Jay learns from her seducer of the existence of an ‘it’ that – guess what? – follows, and kills, unless its quarry has sex with someone else, in which case it will turn its attention to the new partner and, if successful in killing them, then return to pursue its previous prey. That it moves slowly yet inexorably, can take the form of any humanoid known or unknown to those it follows, creepy or benign, and is invisible to everyone else, is effectively exploited for chills and shocks; the set-up inevitably lends itself, however, to repetition, and an impossibility of ending the film in any satisfactory way, opting instead for weakly-presented ambiguity. More interesting is that just as the production design is deliberately unspecific, evoking the 1980s but carefully out-of-time, so the metaphorical import of the conceit is left nebulous – one can’t lay STDs on it, nor distinguish whether high school kids should have sex as soon as possible to rid themselves of something or other, or avoid sex completely to avoid catching it in the first place. It is another example (after the ending of Black Coal, Thin Ice) of empty suggestiveness rather than intriguing implication, but more successfully so, and given the originality of the premise (alarmingly, taken from the director’s recurring childhood dream), competent direction, photography, and performances, the film ends up more or less succeeding in spite of itself (and in spite of the derivative ominous-synth-bass-chords-under-arpeggiator score).

There seems to be less on offer from the fascinating underground of Argentina than there was a few years ago, which is a great shame (I am waiting with baited breath for the new Mariano Llinás film La flor [The Flower]). However, a middle-ground independent cinema seems to be developing to counter the state-funded, usually-starring-Ricardo-Darín product, that is certainly better than nothing. Pedro Almodóvar-produced Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales, 2014) is the debut feature from TV director Damián Szifrón, and the background shows, with sharp, bright photography from DP Javier Julia, and several ad-ready, affluent settings. The presentation is a cover, however, for absurdist black humour, across six unconnected tales of increasingly whatever-can-go-wrong-will. The direction is impeccable, the escalating chaos neatly handled, and much of the film is genuinely amusing; but Szifrón’s fondness for killing off his characters, and the suspicion that he has contempt to one degree or another for every single one of them (even Darín’s accidental folk-hero) leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth, the whole glossy enterprise suggesting a film-maker who wants to have his cake and eat it.

As an Orson Welles nut, I was intrigued to see the new documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014). There are so many by now, that what more can one say? Nothing, as it turns out, although what director Chuck Workman has done is cram a great deal of material into 94 minutes, such that aficionados will unconsciously fill in the gaps, and newcomers may be forgiven for thinking they now know the whole story. But gaps there are aplenty (most glaringly, given the title, Welles as magician), as Workman races from one obvious beat to another, covering several interesting films (Mr Arkadin, 1955; Chimes at Midnight, 1965) with footage alone (and barely touching F for Fake, 1973 or The Immortal Story, 1968); parading the usual stories and talking heads, albeit in new interviews, offering little in the way of thesis or insight; and slathering it all in bland-to-inappropriate music. A couple of rare snippets (make-up test stills for the unmade Heart of Darkness, actual footage of the 1937 ‘voodoo’ Macbeth stage production), and a delightful random montage of Oja Kodar’s opinions are slim consolation. Yes, a workman-like primer, mostly uninspirational, but for its ambition to all-encompassing scope, probably destined to become the standard Welles documentary. Not what he deserves.

No great surprises either in Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement’s What We Do In The Shadows (2014), as absurdly, self-deprecatorily amusing as one might expect, a mockumentary following the Wellington, New Zealand, flat-sharing lifestyle of a group of affable vampires. Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner (2014) is likewise hardly a revelation, although does boast a barnstorming central performance from Timothy Spall, totally deserving the Cannes award for his grunting, bandy-legged gorilla creation, and gorgeous Turner-suggestive evocations of natural light in long-term Leigh DP Dick Pope’s photography, to offset the inherent stuffiness of both the period setting and Leigh’s direction.

After the surprising control and effectiveness of Katalin Varga (2009) and the empty fetishism of Berberian Sound Studio (2012), I was curious to see which way Peter Strickland would swing in his third feature, The Duke of Burgundy (2014). The answer was towards the hermetic world of Sound Studio, although this time with a mite more substance. If the shade of art-porn director Radley Metzger hovers around the fringes, so too do the fairytale mittel-European environments, pastoral scoring, and febrile sexuality of Juraz Herz (Morgiana, 1972; Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, 1970), and the general would-be-sophisticate chocolate-box tone of the 1970s Emmanuelle series. Such emotional content as there is resides in the relationship between the two female lepidopterists (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara d’Anna) who spend much of their days and nights enacting mistress and servant role-plays, to gradual dissatisfaction. But once again, Strickland is far less concerned with the people than with production design (impeccable), semi-abstract camera effects, and esoterica – a great long list of insects and field recording data makes up the bulk of the credits; the title (unexplained) is a species of butterfly – and it is thanks only to Knudsen’s finely modulated performance that the film breathes with any real life at all. Strickland is clearly a distinct and powerful talent, and has once again created a strange and glittering film, but the literally superficial, Tumblrcore approach of worrying at his various fetishes will produce diminishing returns unless he can also recapture some of the humanity of his debut.

Another disappointment was Plemya (The Tribe, 2014) from Ukranian director Miroslav Slaboshpitskiy, despite its winning the festival’s special jury award. Its appeal is easy to account for, however, since on one level it is a remarkable achievement – as the opening title card warns, it is a film told entirely through sign language, with no subtitles or translation, and many of the young performers give vivid performances (particularly when angry) in frequently impressive, lengthy takes. It is centred around a group of youths at a boarding school for the deaf, but is little concerned with deafness per se. Instead it follows a group of young men and two women as they go about various nefarious and well-practised night-time crimes, mugging, pimping, and whoring. The overall effect, however, is simply that of another film enamoured of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, with little concern for character or emotion. This cannot be blamed on the sign language, as there are moments when such elements have a chance to blossom, but the unflinching abortion scene seems designed more to shock than provoke empathy; and the last-minute conflict of the sullen central character results in a denouement of cold, hard violence that is abrupt and excessive, but nothing more.

So this festival was not stellar for me, although of course I could have seen an entirely different set of films and perhaps be surprised by a hidden gem. But not much about such a recycling of other festivals is hidden, and if one chooses one can look at Variety, Hollywood Reporter, or Indiewire reviews for previous outings from almost every single title. I had not been intrigued by the coverage of Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (2014) – call it fear of a slow cinema, or rather, of a pointlessly self-indulgent slow cinema – and suspicious of the star/producer/composer credits for Viggo Mortenson, but it turned out to be a captivating, delightful treat, and I was unprepared for its magic. It is slow, to be sure, but measured rather than molasses: the opening scenes of conversation between soldiers and Mortenson’s surveyor, sitting on the moss-heavy coastal rocks of Patagonia, surrounded by large brown sea lions, plays like a cousin to Werner Herzog’s Herz aus Glas (1976) or Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974), quotidian conversation slowly delivered as though the words are coming from somewhere else (echoes of Herzog’s 1972 Der Zorn Gottes too, in the precious jewel of a daughter amongst this small band of men in the wilderness). But the film soon reveals itself to be something more like a western on the pampas, far closer to those of Monte Hellman (or even Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971), as a man’s quest across the wilderness gradually loses its object, momentum, and context, ending up in a place of otherworldly magic before evaporating into thin air. The portentous late-on query (repeated) ‘what makes life function and move forward?’ is offset by the emphasis on ‘a man is not all men’, and even a coda that hints that all may be a dream is more mysterious than infuriating. After a week of decent but uninspiring viewing, it was a thrill to see something that dared reach for the spiritual and the metaphysical, and which succeeds with such single-minded simplicity.

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