Friday, November 9, 2018

Death Wears A Yellow Jacket

What with Luca Guadagnino's new Suspiria, homage, and last month’s Argento retrospective at Metrograph, ‘giallo’ would seem to be the genre della giornata. Yet with its supernatural core and hyperbolic stylization, Argento's original Suspiria (1977) barely qualifies as giallo at all, and as for Guadagnino's version – pointedly not a remake – it seems to bear as much relation to the genre as the faux perfume-ad gialli tributes of Forzani and Cattet.

That said, to pin down the precise nature of the filmic giallo is notoriously difficult. The definition provided by prolific genre screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi – ‘a difficult-to-explain event and its rigorously logical explanation based on the evidence and details provided in the story’ – is as opaque as many of his plots. Yet just as the spaghetti western can be identified by time and place, the giallo can be pegged to early 1970s Europe, and while motivation and behaviour may often beggar belief, apparently supernatural elements will always be a killer’s ruse, or a dream...

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Friday, May 4, 2018

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Improbable: Edward Pressman, producer of Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant, owned the rights to the title and decided the time was right to reuse it with an eye to kick-starting a franchise (other plans of his have included Wall Street 2 and a reboot of The Crow.) Pressman wanted someone unexpected to direct, and eyebrows were certainly raised when news filtered out that it was to be crazy German arthouse-favourite Werner Herzog; and in star Nicolas Cage, Herzog may just have found a worthy replacement for his erstwhile muse, the late, great, and certifiably insane Klaus Kinski.

Cage is back on terrifically loony form after years of pedestrian films and perfunctory performances, as the eponymous drug-addicted, procedure-ignoring cop. It’s not a remake of the Ferrara film which, like Harvey Keitel’s protagonaist, was dark, intense and tortured, but it does depict a man teetering on the edge of chaos and collapse in a borderline-anarchic post-Katrina New Orleans. Cage lurches across the city with a lopsided bad-back gait in search of crime lord Xzibit, but mainly just more drugs, and the setting is used to full advantage, from the ramshackle outskirting neighbourhoods towered over by gleaming skyscrapers, to the French quarter trellising, and the upscale casinos and hotels frequented by Cage’s prostitute girlfriend, Eva Mendes (given little to do save look hot, but that she’s very good at).

He cheerfully robs her johns of cash and blow until one turns out to have mob connections (a very funny Shea Wigham). Simultaneously, his gambling debts are mounting, he loses his crime scene witness, and an old woman he manically threatened in a nursing home sics the IA on him. That the resolving of all these problems is eventually whisked through in amusingly perfunctory fashion could in fact indicate that the film has finally slipped fully into a drug-addled dream state.

The script seems intended for a far more conventional picture, but with Cage and Herzog that was never on the cards. Alongside Cage’s wonderfully manic yet textured performance, the best moments are the hallucinatory Herzog touches: alligator-cam, a lovely surreal sun-streaked vision of iguanas, and the already infamous “Shoot him again, his soul’s still dancing” scene, which is wonderful and perfect and something David Lynch could wish he’d dreamed up. It’s not all perfect: in a film of such deadpanned exaggeration it’s a shame that past-master Jennifer Coolidge doesn’t get to join in the fun (though she does cut a touchingly tragic figure without much script assistance); Val Kilmer is largely sidelined (no great loss); ditto Fairuza Balk as a foxy little traffic cop; and Brad Dourif plays disappointingly if appealingly straight. This may be no great searching probe of a tortured man’s psyche – the closest we get is a visit to his childhood haven, a ramshackle shed full of clutter and imaginary pirates and a lost silver spoon – but it’s a very funny, manic, amoral romp, and hugely enjoyable. My fingers are still crossed for the sequel.

d Werner Herzog p Edward R. Pressman, Stephen Belafonte, Randall Emmett, Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky, John Thompson sc William M. Finkelstein ph Peter Zeitlinger ed Joe Bini pd Toby Corbett m Mark Isham cast Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Xzibit, Fairuza Balk, Shawn Hatosy, Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif, Shea Wigham, Michael Shannon
(USA, 2009, 122m)
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Unmade Beds

Twenty-something East London: we’re introduced first to footloose Axl (Fernando Tielve), looking like a younger, sweeter Jack White under a mop of unruly black hair, who’s come from Madrid to seek out the father he never knew. In between drunken evenings he cannot remember, he thinks he finds dad in an estate agent’s (a finely relaxed performance from Richard Lintern) and builds a cautiously friendly relationship whilst remaining ambivalent about revealing his identity. Meanwhile, Vera from Belgium (Déborah François) and a young Dutchman (Michiel Huisman) start a hesitant relationship in which they retreat to hotel rooms and fix their meetings time by time, without exchanging phone numbers or even names.

All this is set against the backdrop of the art school-inflected East London scene, revolving around a live music venue and a warehouse squat where Axl and Vera both live, without being aware of one another until the end. It’s the kind of place where you can wake up one morning to find a music video being shot with people in giant woodland creature outfits; someone will pick up a polaroid and say “hey, this’d make a great image for a poster” (and then actually do it); and no-one knows quite who else is living there until they get drunk together.

It is a carefree existence, and the film settles into a rhythm of drinking, dancing, and coupling that risks becoming a little tiresome, even if an accurate reflection of the way of life; similarly, dos Santos rather over-indulges his aspirations to fleetingly glimpsed mundane-abstract beauty (Nan Goldin and In The Mood For Love are confessed inspirations), and the surrounding material is not incisive enough to support such whimsy. That said, he is greatly helped by solid photography from Jakob Ihre and, particularly when François is involved, achieves some moments of real intimacy between characters.

Unfortunately, this is quite dissipated when Vera’s relationship is diverted to voiceover, even if Huisman nicely pulls off their happy ending. The finale to Axl’s strand on the other hand is rather lame, but the whole live-for-the-moment mid-twenties feeling and the vibrant freewheeling milieu are so accurately evoked that bursts of self-indulgence, lack of momentum, and occasional gauchery seem entirely appropriate.

d Alexis Dos Santos p Peter Ettedgui, Bertrand Faivre, Soledad Gatti-Pascual sc Alexis Dos Santos, Marianela Maldonado ph Jakob Ihre ed Olivier Bugge Coutté pd Kristian Milsted cast Fernando Tielve, Déborah François, Michiel Huisman, Iddo Goldberg, Richard Lintern, Katia Winter, Alexis Dos Santos
(UK, 2009, 97m)

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Ashkan, or The Charmed Ring and other stories

One of the pleasures of the smaller regional festivals (in this case, Santa Barbara 2010) is that the programme can throw up films that seem to have come from nowhere and vanish without trace, but which are a real pleasure to catch on their brief appearance. The Iranian Ashkan (Ashkan, angoshta-e motebarek va dastan-haye digar) is a fine example, a US premiere from debutant Shahram Mokri that through no fault of its own has proven hard to find again. Which is a shame, since its fuzzy black and white video photography, jittery camera, and obviously tiny budget are fully balanced by an inventiveness, small-scale intimacy, and dry humour all too lacking in more widely-seen cinema.

The charmed ring proves to be a somewhat irrelevant and under-developed macguffin, and the eponymous hero appears only some time into the picture, a sweet and dumb-looking boy whose psychiatrist is giving him the sack on account of his fourteen suicide attempts. The fifteenth brings him into contact with two blind men en route to a jewelry heist, in a replay of a scene we’ve seen earlier in the film from a different perspective. This is part of the subtitle “and other stories”, though the designation is not quite true: it’s basically a set of incidents entwined by a deft system of chronological slippage to show how the actions of the small group of characters affect one another, from the jewelry fence’s secretary eloping with the former's son, and the pair of goons who trail them; to the lovelorn police sergeant and his equally-so subordinate; a pair of medical students each courted by one of the other characters; and pair of artists whose bookend appearances provide a satisfying circularity to the film.

The influence of Pulp Fiction is clear but worn without affect; likewise the opacity of Le samourai, evoked through dialogue if not tone – as one of the goons says “the theme has got to affect you” – far more than the narrative events. Although touching on a universal search/need for love, the theme of Ashkan is more simply the fundamental interconnectedness of human existence: not a world-shattering concept to be sure, but finely executed on a well-judged scale, enough to be persuasive (there’s has none of Babel’s globalised portentousness, for example).

The neat structure affords some perspective-pulling fun and a touch of mutable memory, aided by a perky, jazzy score (Ashkan even gets his own lilting, melancholy theme song; the characters have a fine deadpan humour; and a brief digression in the medical school dissection room sees a dead man rise in split screen to re-enact an amusingly bizarre kitchen accident. After its opening dissertation on the power and longevity of art, it touches on serious themes without taking itself too seriously.

d/sc Shahram Mokri p Mehdi Karimi ph Payam Azizi ed Arash Rasafi pd Ladan Kanani m Abuzar Saffarian cast Saeed Ebrahimifar, Sina Razani, Hutan Mokri, Ali Sarabi, Baharan BaniAhmadi, Siamak Safari, Reza Behbudi
(2008, Ir, 92m, b/w)
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Saturday, July 22, 2017

La mano en la trampa (The Hand in the Trap)

Sometimes referred to as his masterpiece, winner of the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes in 1961, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s La mano en la trampa (1961) continued the close collaboration with his novelist/screenwriter wife Beatriz Guido, a sexual horror story that centers on a convent schoolgirl home for the holidays. She becomes fascinated by her reputedly freakish half-brother who’s kept locked upstairs. But it turns out to be something altogether different…

Elsa Daniel once again takes the lead as Laura, this time more cunning and ready to use her allure on men, but still retaining a fresh and virginal air. This is literally the case with the film’s opening, which presents her as an iconic Mary in the school play. Why she should suddenly be seized with the desire to see the freak who’s been upstairs all her life may not be explicable, but it coincides with her growth into young womanhood. She had been a different, younger girl the previous summer, and although still remonstrated that she is too young to see it, she knows perfectly well that she is growing up.

The open secret of the freak, however hides another, stranger (though not quite convincing) secret. A desperately clung-to lie, a self-punishment for sexual transgression: if this represents an old-fashioned moral to the film – unmarried sex will be punished (as will curiosity) – one senses in the horror of the punishment that for Nilsson it is a cruel and ironical one (taken from St Augustine’s claim that he who puts his hand in a trap must carry it around forever).

But as ever, the heady atmosphere is the thing, even if the canted angles are played down and the score is a disappointingly bland-jazzy affair. Laura’s seamstress mother and aunt allow for plenty of good use of lace and veils, and there’s a fetid air of rottenness to the provincial town founded on the blood of aborigines. This is embodied by the handsome, unthinking playboy scion of one of the two founding families (Laura’s is the other, now fallen from wealth), who has the bullish animalism of young Ben Gazzara and a daughter who is delighted that the mayor thinks they look like lovers. It is he who enacts the warning that men will uncaringly take what they want, ushering in the horribly bleak ending in which a sense of inevitable repetition, punishment, and imprisonment is perfectly encapsulated in the slow, careful ritual of removing his cuff-links.

d/p Leopoldo Torre Nilsson p Néstor R. Gaffet, Juan Sires, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson sc Beatriz Guido ph Juan Julio Baena ed Jacinto Cascales, Pablo G. del Amo, Jorge Gárate pd Óscar Lagomarsino m Cristóbal Halffter, Atilio Stampone cast Elsa Daniel, Francisco Rabal, Leonardo Favio, María Rosa Gallo, Berta Ortegosa, Hilda Suárez, Enrique Vilches
(1961, Sp/Arg, 91m, b/w)
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La casa del angel (House of the Angel)

The fact that Argentinean director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson is barely spoken of these days is cause for outcry. Happily, the LA Film Festival a few years ago programmed a mini retrospective of four of his 30-plus features from the fifties to the mid-seventies (these, and most of his other films, remain frustratingly obscure to locate) In his day, his was a name was one to watch at the European film festivals, a world cinema auteur ranked with Welles, Bergman, and Buñuel. The first of the festival’s programme, La casa del angel (House of the Angel, 1957) is remarkably worthy of the comparison.

Present are enough chiaroscuro and Dutch angles to make Welles look restrained (low angles with rather splendid ceilings, and occasional striking deep focus compositions also contribute); a hothouse atmosphere of stultifying and retributive religion to match Bergman’s psychological intensity; and a wry eye for social satire that if anything is even more bleak and piercing than Buñuel’s (though the hypocrisy is used less as a target for mockery than, in the end, a vessel for tragedy).

It’s accompanied by a terrifically atmospheric (if occasionally overbearing) modernist score by Juan Carlos Paz, all horror movie flute, strings, and percussion, and told from the point of view (loosely) of wide-eyed Elsa Daniel, Torre Nilsson’s muse, whose young, open face seems to embody constant sadness, confusion, and fear all at once.

The film opens like an eerie old dark house picture but turns, with shades of Amberson’s time-rotted melancholy, into a regretful meditation on ritual and restrained emotion, before becoming a flashback in the brief meeting of eyes of a young woman and an older man. Daniel is Anna, who lives in the house of the angel, so-called for the statue keeping watch outside her bedroom window; elsewhere the nude statues are wrapped tightly in sheets to protect her modesty – she’s too young to understand and too old not to notice (going on 14). At this stage in her life there’s much to fear, from the puritanical strictures of her mother, to the fire and brimstone visions of her nanny, and the always-cruel attentions of her cousin (who even reads from the Book of Solomon to make Anna feel self-conscious about her small breasts).

She has less to fear (than perhaps she should) from her burgeoning sexuality, transfixed by a Valentino movie and immediately enamored of her politico father’s colleague, progressive legislator Pablo Aguirre (Lautaro Murúa). The film is as much his story as hers, as he makes a stand for freedom of expression in the chamber of deputies; allegations as to his father’s corruption (apparently true) lead inevitably to his challenging an opposing deputy to a duel. That he comes to question (rightly) his own integrity and the worth of that for which he is prepared to kill or be killed, makes the wealthy upper-class nostalgia for the “good old days” of duels and honor ring hollow.

We know these two stories will converge but are not prepared for the perfectly-executed burst of moonlit violence, nor the horrible meaning to the opening scene that it reveals. Aguirre’s fate is worse than death, reduced by the realization of his self-doubt to a creeping ghost. And all this in 74 minutes: not a line, gesture, or expressionistic shot is wasted in the establishment of atmosphere, psychology, and socio-political bitterness. Too expansive to be likened to a short story, yet too small and exquisitely crafted to compare to a novel, it is a perfect little jewel of a movie that glitters with a hard, bitter light.

d/p Leopoldo Torre Nilsson sc Beatriz Guido, Martín Rodríguez Mentasti, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson ph Aníbal González Paz ed Jorge Gárate pd Emilio Rodríguez M m Juan Carlos Paz cast Elsa Daniel, Lautaro Murúa, Guillermo Battaglia, Berta Ortegosa, Yordana Fain, Bárbara Mujica, Alejandro Rey, Lili Gace
(1957, Arg, 76m, b/w)

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Friday, February 5, 2016

Postcard from the AFI Festival 2015

There is a stirring quote from LBJ that recurred in the preshow slides at last year’s AFI Festival: “We will create an American Film Institute, bringing together leading artists of the film industry, outstanding educators, and young men and women who wish to pursue the 20th century art form as their life's work.” I wasn’t previously aware of this (limey go home), but it was among his remarks at the signing of the Arts and Humanities Bill in September 1965. It’s heartening to know that the furtherance of the seventh art is sanctioned by the state, in theory at any rate, and that 48 years later (it took a couple to materialize) the AFI is still going strong, taking its mission and responsibilities seriously. The year-round endeavours, lists, and educational thrust may sport an inevitably nationalist skew, but come the annual festival, their net has a truly international cast.

World Cinema is the festival’s largest section. One finds old friends, breakouts, and micro-budget debris, from Bulgaria to Iceland. One of the dearest old friends is Hong Sang-soo, a fixture for years. For the unsympathetic, and those who’ve only been half paying attention, his filmography can seem enervatingly homogenous, like Rohmer’s drying paint of legend. Indeed, the natural way into discussing his latest, Right Now, Wrong Then (Jigeumeun matgo geuttaeneun tteullida) is to describe it as a riposte to those critics who feel he just makes the same film over and again. Indeed he does, literally, but they’re always different, and bear repeating.

Another riposte that hints at the bland he puts in a character’s mouth: “What is hidden in the surface of our lives helps us overcome our fears”, which is a fairly persuasive film-making philosophy, depending on one’s fears. Ham Chun-su (Jung Jae-young) is a film director with an afternoon to kill in an unfamiliar town; he prompts conversation with a young artist, Yoon Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), and spends the rest of the day and evening with her (drinking, mostly, of course). The opening title is Wrong Now, Right Then; on its reappearance halfway through, it has switched to the film’s official title. There are other apparently slight but significant changes to bear this out: in the first telling, Jung is all grins and ingratiation whilst in the second he is far more self-contained and thoughtful (and noticeably more handsome as a result). In the opposite way, Kim has at first an irresistible vivacity that her apparent loneliness cannot quench, but in the second half it appears to have succumbed, though she too is sharper (the weather is both colder and sunnier).

This is partly because Jung’s more sincere characterisation leads to more interesting conversations, and a closer relationship, even while the story hits the same beats and scenes, for the most part. The pair of titles suggests that the film’s simple lesson is to be oneself rather than trying too hard to please (or to be enamoured of a pretty girl) but, as ever, it is also about the eternal conversation between men and women (and soju): eternal because new missteps are made for every old one repeated, and because the trophy of connectedness, if even for a moment, will never tarnish. Hong finds both, in both halves, and is on fine form, not least because his double self-commentary of form and content is so charmingly and lightly worn. Also quite nicely, it could literally be a recurring dream, since Ham falls asleep about five minutes in.

The only other Asian film I caught (I fell asleep in the Zhangke Jia, not entirely from festival fatigue) was from another old hand, Koreeda Hirokazu’s Our Little Sister (Umimachi [Seaside Town] diary). He is a favourite of my youth for the exquisite After Life (Wandafuru raifu, 1998), though I’ve skipped several of his more recent ones, suspecting that he’s drifted into terminal gentleness and heartstring-tugging, as indeed he has, to an extent, but his latest is a reminder that he is a film-maker who can handle the emotional realm with both great clarity and nuance. It recalls, most recently for me, nothing so much as Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (Samsameyuki [Light Snow], 1943-48), albeit in a markedly different era; one of the pleasures of this tale of three adult sisters and their high-school half-sister who comes to live with them in their big old house, is the warm fondness for much that is traditional, from the cherry blossom to the Sunday kimonos. Much pleasure comes too from the girls’-dorm atmosphere of that lovely old house, the interplay of the four leads, and their neatly distinct characterisations (even if the angelic 15-year-old Suzu remains a rather unknowable centre).

Koreeda is not one to downplay the life lesson/confession moments (this movie does contain the line “I want to get serious about terminal care”) and happily ladles on the (quite decent) score-syrup, but the restraint and texture elsewhere are more interesting, as almost everyone struggles with considerations of (dis)respect. Here as usual (from his master Ozu), Koreeda reveals the multi-layered dynamics and concerns of family life with patience, taste, and simplicity (and tatami-level eating scenes). He may not be a master on that level (who is?) but his work is inspired rather than derivative, and certainly has an air of mastery about it.

Matteo Garrone’s breakout Gomorra (2008) impressed by being quite the opposite of tired and derivative in the organised crime genre. His follow-up Reality (2012) found little favour, and now Tale of Tales has understandably drawn a pretty full complement of downed thumbs on the European circuit, not solely because of its change of tack into the world of traditional fairy tales. This is a shame because, as a fan of the (live-action) fairy tale genre, I found much endearment in it, but the opening scene is a warning: the camera takes its sweet time meandering through a street and square with llamas, wooden wagons, some fine doublets, and hefty stone buildings, and then some nattily decked-out mountebanks are doing their thing for king John C. Reilly and queen Salma Hayek. The art department (as well as location scouts and CGI team) are on top of their game, and it’s not even that Garrone seems overly obsessed with filming these creations; it’s just that he is content simply to stroll through the three tales, traditional to Italy but otherwise unconnected, except that they appear to occur in neighboring kingdoms. There’s lots of good stuff, from a magical sea monster to albino twins, a giant flea, a randy king (that would be Vincent Cassel), an ogre, a trumpet-playing bear, and a flayed woman, but Garrone for some reason chooses to ignore basic fairy tale precepts of resolution and moral order (the ogre, really just a large, brutish, but not mean man, is particularly hard done by). It’s a rather elaborate dress-up (Salma has great jewels, of course), filmed with little inspiration, to no particular purpose.

The same is true of most entries in the eerie-atmosphere-and-explanations-be-damned genre, of which I caught more than I intended. Lucille Hadzihalilovic struck a satisfyingly unsettling tone in her debut Innocence (2004) and only now does she follow it up with Evolution, in which the weird girls’ boarding school of the former is swapped for a volcanic island populated by pre-adolescent boys and their identically-dressed “mothers”. The atmosphere is again taut and impressively conjured (not least in much sublime underwater photography), but the mothers’ sinister nocturnal writhings, and hints of what the boys are being used for, feel like weirdness window-dressing, such that by the time that purpose is revealed, one’s emotional investment (and credulity) are likely to have been exhausted.

Another title long on atmosphere but short on substance was the notably well put-together H, commissioned by the Venice Biennale as the third feature from Daniel Garcia and Rania Attieh (I realised only later that I’d tired after ten minutes of their previous last year, Recommended by Enrique, else I would have skipped something that was not without interest). Garcia as DP shoots a nicely desaturated and wintery Troy, NY where we follow two unconnected women named Helen, old and young, as strange things start happening around an unexplained explosion in the sky. Time and again these unnerving moments are very nicely handled, discreet and effective; the same is true of the acting, particularly by the older couple (Robin Bartlett and Julian Gamble), with a natural litany of the exhalations and moans of physical movement in advanced age, and the disinterest yet unquestioning commitment of a still-solid relationship long past its prime. The younger couple (Rebecca Dayan and Will Janowitz) are slightly disserved by a tastefully hip, catalogue-impeccable lifestyle as successful artist-collaborators (even the old couple’s house is a bit too distractingly dark wood and afternoon sunlight). The film itself is disserviced by a plonky piano score (the Reichean gestures are nice, but the string piece chapter marker is not strong enough to bear repetition ) and, more than anything, the Homeric allusions which, as the film proceeds, drift further from significance into spurious suggestiveness. The same is true of the pregnant parallels between expectant young Helen and the older woman’s lifestyle of caring for an uncannily realistic baby doll (her baby-party guests are spot-on casting). It becomes clear that none of these things, nor the film itself, will resolve in any way, atmosphere being all, nicely handled as it may be. Bonus points for use of a Mysterious Horse, however.

The third such entry in this grouping, although its miniature scale and attendant formal approach (next-to-no dialogue) make it seem more like an experiment than its slicker counterparts, was The Mysterious Death of Pérola (A misteriosa morte de Pérola) from Brazilian partners Ticiana Augusto Lima and Guto Parente. They each take the (almost) sole role in the film’s first and second half respectively, set (almost) entirely in an apartment where the eponymous demise occurs halfway through. And mysterious it is, foreshadowed by a general sense of unease, suggestive sound design and lighting, and a sinister silhouette at the door. Mysterious too is what Parente is then doing there, videotaping empty space until a revenant reveals itself. The how and why seem unimportant, however, and as much of a homemade achievement as it may be, the portentous pace, dragged out rather than measured, fails to compensate(nice poster, though).

I thought for much of its running time the same might be true of Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente). Again, I didn’t realise I was revisiting a film-maker, Ciro Guerra, whose Wind Journeys (Los viajes del viento, 2010) was not without interest (both films were chosen as Columbia’s submission for the Academy’s foreign film consideration). The earlier film was somewhat second-hand in its old-man-young-man road movie beats, but the new one is more of a journey into the unknown, benefitting from nice handling of relationships between Caucasian ethnobotanists (Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis) in 1909 and 1940 respectively, traveling down the Amazon in search of a rare and sacred medicinal plant, and their shared guide Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar), the last survivor of his tribe massacred in the turn-of-the-century rubber wars. The journeys proceed without haste, and I did wonder quite where the film was taking us, until I settled into the upriver journey, with shades of Apocalypse Now (not least in a 1940 Kurtz-type god-compound) and realised I had been seduced by attractive performances and fine black and white photography (interesting to wonder how the film would work in color, and tempting to say simply that one would take it less seriously). We eventually land on an impressive mountain where spirituality and ontology inevitably take over (along with a simple but very nice trip sequence), but I did not realise until the end credits that this was all derived from the diaries of the actual scientists (Theodor Kock-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes), the only accounts of a vanished people, which adds no little interest to a film that already earns respect.

As screenwriter and co-director (with Duke Johnson) of Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman is on point more even than usual, from phenomenological heavy-hitters (Who are other people? Who am I?) to subtle relationship textures, both fleeting and long-ingrained, amidst piquant cultural/environmental observation (most of the film is a note-perfect hotel solo sojourn). Bored Michael Stone, a celebrity of sorts, is in Cincinnati for one night to give a guru’s lecture on customer service, experiencing, only at first with blithe disinterest, a procession of bland, uniform customer services himself. One reason he can shrug off these interactions is that everyone else in the movie has the same face and the same voice (Tom Noonan’s, killing it). This film is animated, part stop motion, part CGI, with numerous photo-realistic elements, and thus a rather distinctive aesthetic. Stone is marked out not only by the laconic Yorkshire accent of David Thewlis, but by a notably realistic visage and expressiveness (remarkably so), compared to almost everyone else’s identical waxy mask. Until, that is, he meets (Anoma)Lisa: we know she’s made an impression by her own individuality in face and voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh, terrific of course). The blatant component divisions of the characters’ noggins are even neatly disguised by the hairline of each of this inevitable couple, while the homogeneity of everyone else, and the unmistakable artificiality, are recognisable Kaufman anxiety tropes of an individual mind unable to make sense of, relate to, or even distinguish between those around him. The tale is slight, but the human experience encompasses a world of existential angst. I just wish it hadn’t been animated. I have some kind of ingrained animation prejudice (born of what I know not, periodically tested, and still in place), but aside from the special alienating quality of those distracting head-seams, a strange disproportion to Stone’s body, and unnatural jerky body movements, I couldn’t help but feel the whole thing would have been far more powerful if conveyed through actual real people, because the material, tone, and vision are so very strong.

Another regular, Corneliu Porumboiu, in his fifth AFI appearance, sent The Treasure (Comoara). After the exhilarating understatement of Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv, 2009) I was nonplussed, to say the least, by When Evening Falls On Bucharest or Metabolism (Când se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism, 2013), which I’d have to term a failure. The Treasure falls closer to the former, although with something less of the single-minded steeliness. Costi (Toma Cuzin) helps a down-on-his-luck neighbour metal detect for a grandfather’s treasure, with a certain amount of doubt over where it might be in the rural plot, on whose land they’re digging, and whether the treasure even exists. A pointedly absurd (and hard-to-pull-off) ending follows much reference to Romania’s post WWII political past, and makes clear an attitude of satire towards eastern European capitalism today; but also perhaps, the pipedreams of the forebears. The film is perfectly enjoyable without these wider ponderables however, thanks not least to the appealing Cuzin, even if his decisions are more than once unfathomable.

My hands-down favourite of the week was another (well-) known quantity, though with The Forbidden Room Guy Maddin has notably hit a new stride. Having been a teenaged fan, I found myself jaded for several years by what one could justifiably call extreme camp affectation, but which by now looks more like a visionary style and commitment, in which emotional experience is primary. Quite perfectly, The Forbidden Room is an imagining of something like ten lost silent films, presented in fragments, as stories within stories, each more or less distinguished by the shooting style, and all very feverish in tone. One reason, I suspect, that Maddin is looking more impressive these days is because with Brand Upon The Brain (2006) he used digital editing for the first time, and fell in love. One of the most jaw-dropping things about the latest is the sheer variety of transitions and effects involved, an almost incessantly broiling soup of “celluloid” – as much as I love film itself, and as dedicated as Maddin was for years, the scope for creating the impression of decasia and exhumation is, as with so many other things, that much greater and easier in the digital realm, and the overall tone and effect which he has always sought becomes expanded to an almost infinite degree. The result is exhilirating, full of fond, familiar faces, and frequently funny but, and it’s a problem inherent to most of Maddin’s films, barely gives itself (or us) a moment to breath. So the result, particularly here, with the interwoven stories and styles, is rich and delirious, demanding of further viewing, but also somewhat exhausting.
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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 the holy grail, 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 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 viewer 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 in Rivette's oeuvre). 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 do; nor even 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 modism “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 – apparently random street shots have been interspersed throughout, but this have an unsettling, liminal feel to them. 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 appears 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 apparent 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 weeks 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 brashly 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 its 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 full of possibility. 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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