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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