Friday, December 21, 2012
“Living beings have been frequently and in every age compared to machines, but it is only in the present day that the bearing and the justice of this comparison are fully comprehensible.”
—Etienne-Jules Marey, Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on Terrestrial and Aerial Locomotion
There are long takes and then there are long takes. It took Leos Carax 26 years and four films, but he has finally completed a sequence that first began in Mauvais Sang in 1986, a take so long it stretches over the fall of both the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Centre. It begins with Denis Lavant, the director’s stand-in and errant muse, sprinting down a darkened street. His steps are hesitant at first, his movements cramped and quaking, until he slips some unseen shackle and skitters across the pavement, suddenly light as air. His momentum propels him into 1991, and the camera follows in a single unbroken motion. Now he dances across the Pont Neuf in Paris with his lover, dancing until both are too tired to stand without the other’s help, and the sky explodes in approval. In 2008, he is reborn as a leprechaun with mange climbing out of the sewers of Tokyo, lurching forth as if some sort of malevolent infant learning to walk. The old joy now curdled into something grotesque and mocking, he eats flowers and steals crutches—yet not without a certain grace, it must be admitted.
What are the films of Leos Carax about? A viewer mutters this question darkly under his breath, peevish at being asked to endorse this art-sick whimsy without the guarantee of a neat statement to explain away all this giddy image-making, like “Codependency isn’t very fun when you’re alone” or “Everyone likes a good shit” (admittedly, a fairly apt summary of 2008’s Merde). This viewer is looking for the guardrail, the thing that says this is a road and this is not, this is where you drive safely and this is where you fall off a cliff and die in flames. Carax routinely, gleefully, compulsively falls off that cliff. He seems to direct from the gut, shutting his eyes and charging into the unknown. Surely he begins with destinations in mind, statements to be made about life and love and art, questions to be asked of history and society, but such high-minded goals fall away once the filming starts and Carax gets his grubby hands on the images. Naturally, such a director can be hard to peg if one looks too deeply into the work for a lucidity that wasn’t there in the first place. Setting aside his Herman Melville adaptation Pola X, which is a confounding thing of its own breed, and his first film Boy Meets Girl, which I haven’t seen, Carax’s films tend to be about one singular thing: Denis Lavant running.
After all these decades, Lavant’s marathon appears to have reached its logical end in Holy Motors. The finish line, however, is not to be found in the reintroduction of Monsieur Merde, the sewer-dwelling star of Carax’s previous film. Nothing in recent memory can compare to the crass hilarity of Merde, fresh blood spluttering from his lips, licking the armpit of a blasé Eva Mendes during a fashion shoot, but this is hardly a continuation of Carax’s study of Lavant. No, the real conclusion to the marathon comes earlier in a motion capture studio. After years of unbridled movement, decades after he threw off that invisible weight in Mauvais Sang, Lavant is confined to a treadmill. Once he moved through the world with grace and precision; now the world moves around him. Virtual reality envelops the actor and renders all his actions prosaic and dull. He grits his teeth, howls, runs faster and faster. But he’s never freer than when finally flung from the treadmill.
However, it should be noted that Lavant is no simple runner here. His performance touches on a kaleidoscopic array of characters and serves as a tribute to his gifts as a physical actor. He is Monsieur Oscar, an actor going from role to role in a limo driven by, of all people, Edith Scob (best known for her ethereal turn in Eyes Without a Face, which earns a quick nod in one of the film’s funniest meta-jokes). During the course of a single night, he plays at least nine wildly disparate characters: a hitman, a hobbled old beggar, and a father lecturing a dishonest daughter, among others. The borders between performance and reality quickly disappear, leaving a world where cinema merges with life, every person an actor before a legion of unseen but omnipresent cameras. The paranoia of the notion feels completely contemporary until you realize this is an idea as old as the cinema itself, one borne of the medium’s blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy. The holy motors drive through Fassbinder’s wire-world, which electrifies the Matrix, which is playing 24 hours a day in a theatre in Dark City (don’t worry, it’s all just a dream, anyway).
Carax’s film is distinguished from these others by one key feature: the real world in his film has shrunken to almost nothingness. Most works in the cinema-paranoia mold cling to some form of reality beyond the nested worlds of their fictions, even if that reality is nothing more than the audience itself. Envisioning a world where performers are so dedicated that they will commit suicide if the part calls for it, Carax despairs even of this final truth. Cameras proliferate, turning all into performers—and if we’re the performers, where is the audience? When Oscar’s boss declares that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the actor retorts, “What if there is no beholder?” The film, unmoored and unhinged, is dizzying in its lack of a centering force. Reality in Holy Motors is reduced to the interior of the limo, a tiny place where Oscar isn’t even real, really, but simply allowed a brief respite from his performance. That’s all that is left of reality—a null space, a negative, where honesty is defined not as the presence of truth but the absence of lies.
The film is book ended with clips of the proto-cinematic motion studies of Etienne-Jules Marey, whose fascination with the mechanics of movement matches Carax’s own study of Denis Lavant in motion. Writing in 1879, Marey saw humans and animals as machines, complete with their own motors, holy or not: “it is life, it was said, which set all these mechanisms going, and it was believed that thus there was authoritatively established an inviolable barrier between inanimate and animate machines.” But the barrier fell to the combustion engine, a mechanical creation that hungered like a man and had its own metal organs, prompting a bemused Marey to write that the distinction between man and machine would now need to be redefined. Carax, watching the inviolable barrier between the physical and the virtual steadily break down, is no less bemused. No doubt there is a twinge of anxiety about these strange engines. A film was once a tangible thing; now it has become a data stream. So what is a film? Relationships were once a web of gestures and glances, inflections of language and the body; now they are an array of online connections, images and memes replacing a shared past. So what is a relationship? Marey and Carax both speak to this terror: not a fear of what drives the new machines, but a fear of forgetting what drove the old.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Fame is often the cruelest fate inflicted upon an artist, as Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock so aptly, if unwittingly, proves. This film may very well represent a turning point in the history of Alfred Hitchcock in popular culture, when knowledge of the director’s personality outstrips knowledge of the director’s films. Note the moment in the film when Hitchcock disdainfully remarks upon “that television show,” lamenting how it has cheapened him. So why would Gervasi use the familiar theme to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and even frame the story—about the marital tensions between Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville during the filming of Psycho—much like an episode of the series? Because that’s what the public will recognize, of course. Hitchcock has become an oversized personality that an actor can slip into as readily as the fat suit Anthony Hopkins dons for the part. By equating the man’s public persona to his private life, the film makes a muddle of itself, while Gervasi’s flat-footed style is a poor substitute for his subject’s graceful orchestration of images. With so little insight into the primal, unsettling Psycho on display, all the film can offer is the faint voyeuristic thrill of gossiping about dead people. The stale odour of ossified art that so distinctly emanates from the screen is more noxious than anything out of the basement of the Bates home.
Friday, December 7, 2012
Traditionalism collides with modernity in The World Before Her, a provocative study of Hindu extremists and beauty pageants in India from documentary filmmaker Nisha Pahuja. Weaving the two radically opposed worlds together produces unexpected—and sometimes even amusing—results. Who would expect the martial drills of the young extremist girls to pale in comparison to the rigorous training regimen of the budding pageant queens? (Skin whitening is not uncommon, and botox is apparently a necessity for the girls, even at the tender age of 19.) Aside from these uncomfortable contrasts, Pahuja also benefits greatly from the candour of her subjects, one of who frankly discusses branding his daughter Prachi’s foot for lying about doing her homework. Prachi remains blasé about the abuse, preferring to channel her rage into the task of teaching young girls to handle rifles and chant violent nationalist slogans. By comparison, the dehumanization of the pageant world is markedly less violent, but both realms offer limited opportunities to Indian women. During the pageant, the ominous words “Pantaloons Femina” hang over the stage—a quiet reminder of how these modern women are no less branded than their fundamentalist counterparts.
Monday, December 3, 2012
Don’t let the historical gloss on Killing Them Softly fool you. The setting may occasionally resemble New Orleans circa 2008, but Andrew Dominik’s latest—an unholy merging of Goodfellas and The Wealth of Nations—is a truly dystopian nightmare. Opening with images of a desiccated slum and eddies of garbage dancing in the wind, the film cuts between an Obama speech and clanging music, dismembering the soaring rhetoric and offering a hint of the grisly horror show to come. In this fanciful kingdom of dirt and sorrow, every television in every dive bar is tuned to an endless loop of political speeches, subjecting the film’s cast of dim-witted, low-level thugs to a tag-team civics lecture conducted by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. This feels less like a real city and more like someone’s particularly obscure and specific idea of hell. Instead of the lake of fire these shiftless crooks will apparently endure an eternity of past and future presidents scolding them for their lack of community spirit.
So America is a gangster nation with a gangster economy—point well taken, Mr. Dominik. This subtext blares out over every scene, but the best moments come when the director drops the megaphone and whispers his wrathful visions straight into the viewer’s ear. The brutality of the film finds its peak in the slow-motion collapse of Scoot McNairy’s hapless hood, who, given the choice between false hope and open despair, settles on the former simply because it allows him the merciful illusion that there isn’t a bullet somewhere with his name on it. Such moments capture the disillusionment of the past four years in the United States far better than Brad Pitt’s Big Speech, which helpfully reminds us that America is a business, in case anyone napped through the past two hours (perhaps all this soft killing lulled you to sleep, who knows). But the greatest horror of all awaits viewers like myself with the good fortune to watch the film in a multiplex where the exits just happen to pass by a major department store’s fragrance counter. The dead-eyed model in the Chanel No. 5 poster is the film’s weary killer, and both say the same thing: Pay up.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
The Imposter, a deftly crafted and often tongue-in-cheek documentary by Bart Layton, unravels one of those stories too bizarre to be anything other than true. A 13-year-old Texas boy goes missing in 1993, only to show up four years later in Spain, claming to be the victim of a military-run international sex slavery ring. Overjoyed at the boy’s return, the family welcomes the shell-shocked youth, despite a few nagging discrepancies, such as brown eyes in the place of blue and a French accent instead of a Texas drawl. Lie upon lie mounts into a wobbling tower of deceptions. The child is revealed to be a 23-year-old French conman named Frederic Bourdin, who by all accounts is a pathological liar and smiling sociopath with a fondness for assuming the identities of abused and orphaned children. Unwilling to accept that his fraud has been revealed, Bourdin fights back with a new lie to cover the old, accusing his false family of an even more horrendous crime. After all, why would a family willingly pretend a stranger was their own kin unless they had something of their own to hide?
Rationalization is a powerful drug, and everyone in the film is a full-blown junky, from the grieving family to the hoodwinked FBI agent and even Bourdin himself, whose incredulous description of his own actions suggests he has never fully grasped how much pain he has caused (or equally likely, just doesn’t care). Everyone has a lie to tell, but more importantly, everyone has a lie to believe. Through unnerving editing tricks—Bourdin’s body language during an interview is intercut with similar movements during a recreation of events—Layton implicates his subjects in the creation of a past that was never what it seemed. This is all just a story they’ve told themselves over and over again, and it’s a whopper. No wonder the defunct television tabloid Hard Copy once planned to do a piece on the boy’s miraculous return. The lie is as compelling as it is unbelievable, its power increasing as it grows more absurd. Most shocking of all, Bourdin’s deceptions live on to this day. The film ends with a private investigator digging up a backyard in search of a body he’ll never find, the camera craning upwards in what is either an over-hyped dramatic reveal or parody of same. One supposes the next stop on this ludicrous corpse-finding tour will be Al Capone’s vault.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
Raul Ruiz is a filmmaker of exile, but he’s clearly found his homeland in the delirious fantasy world of Three Crowns of the Sailor. These are his compatriots: a 90-year-old man aging in reverse as long as he doesn’t eat, a burlesque dancer who isn’t fully naked until she removes her sex, sailors who sweat worms (which become butterflies, which poison the seagulls, which the sailors then eat). All are bit players in the titular sailor’s tale of misadventure aboard a boat manned by the dead, as recounted to a murderous student. Funny and morbid, Ruiz’s film is driven by death, even as his camera embraces life, cartwheeling wildly through each digression. One minute it’s underfoot, the next it’s upside down as the sailor enters a hallway where gravity momentarily reverses. Perhaps the film adds up to little more than a series of surrealist bagatelles, but that need not be a liability. Watching his ship sink—don’t worry, it’ll be back later—the sailor sums up the entire cockeyed plot when he remarks that life is just an absurd wound. But does he mean a needless injury like shooting yourself in the foot? Or is he referencing a pain so ridiculous it ceases to be pain at all, and transforms into something beautiful? Cut a man and liquid clocks dribble out from the veins instead of blood. Let it bleed, Raul, let it bleed.
Saturday, November 10, 2012
Is Cloud Atlas the most ambitious mainstream film in years, or just the longest Saturday Night Live sketch ever made? The truth lies somewhere in between. Under the direction of the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, a ludicrously stacked cast jumps into multiple roles traversing the realms of time, space, and gender, and the results can’t help but sometimes resemble a big-budget adaptation of Where’s Waldo? (Spot the Oscar winner and get a prize!) I’m sure having Halle Berry and Tom Hanks on the marquee must have been a big help when it came to securing financing, but these aren’t exactly the sort of actors who disappear into a character, you know? If you stick Tom Hanks in a bunch of bad wigs, you don’t get a succession of different people—you get Tom Hanks in a bunch of bad wigs (the cockney accent doesn’t help). Still, the real topper has to be Hugo Weaving in drag doing a Nurse Ratchet imitation. Oh, Mitzi Del Bra, has it truly come to this?
The other big downside to the distracting disguises—aside from the unintended comedy, I mean—is that it makes the film’s notions about reincarnation tediously literal. Six different plotlines stretching from the past to the future are woven together into a grand tapestry of tyranny and revolt, but apparently the audience can’t be trusted to piece this together without some fuzzy talk of past lives. Plus, one of the film’s most ingenious conceits makes this whole convoluted karma-machine completely unnecessary. Throughout each era, the events of the past pop up again in novels, journals, and films, each previous act of resistance mutated by the passage from reality to myth. This link between storylines is all the more powerful for its subtlety, at least relative to more ham-handed tactics, such as the recurring birthmark shaped like—I shit you not—a shooting star. Unsurprisingly for such a bloated behemoth of a film, the best moments are often small and seemingly tangential: a dream set loose in a china shop, or a geriatric rebel’s rallying cry of “Soylent Green is made of people!” It’s funny until you realize that the film really does have its own version of Soylent Green, and it really is made of people. And then it’s hilarious.
Sunday, November 4, 2012
Fear and Desire, the 1953 cinematic debut of Stanley Kubrick, was famously derided by its director years later as “a bumbling amateur film exercise.” Made when its young auteur was a mere 24 years old, the film certainly bears all the hallmarks of juvenilia—clumsy construction, overreaching ideas, and a desperate need to be taken seriously above all else. One can scarcely see the film’s true face, boyishly round and acne-riddled, presumably, behind the thick veil of portentous voiceovers and literary allusions (mostly John Donne and The Tempest, for those keeping track). Yet there are also unnervingly powerful moments where Kubrick’s talent exceeds the thin material and his strengths slam into his limitations. If only all amateurs could be so brilliantly inept.
The greatest liability is the script, which is as vague and abstract as the title. A group of soldiers crash behind enemy lines, winding their way through an eerily bright and calm forest on a journey back to safe ground. Inevitably, there are encounters along the way: a friendly guard dog, a silent young woman, an enemy camp housing a general who will become the target of an improvised assassination attempt by the lost soldiers. Individual scenes sometimes resonate, even if the film feels disjointed and disconnected from any real-world concerns. This is that most dreaded of all war films—not war-is-hell or war-is-work but war-is-metaphor, which translates into a lot of rambling about islands in this case. Pay it little mind, and you may yet find pleasure in this mess.
Stylistically, Kubrick is still decades removed from the gilded long takes of Eyes Wide Shut or prowling tracking shots of The Shining, instead bearing the influence of Soviet montage. (A fight scene punctuated by stew dripping to the floor in a viscid splatter even directly quotes from Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law.) Perhaps this is simply a result of the director leaning heavily on his experiences as a photographer, privileging lighting and dynamic compositions over camera movement. Certainly one of the strongest features of the film—which is never less than gorgeous, for all its other flaws—is the soulful close-ups regularly afforded of the cast. In fact, this tendency also gives birth to one of this solemn film’s best jokes: as the enemy general scolds his dog for going AWOL, Kubrick cuts to a reaction shot of the moping pooch, looking embarrassed in a sorry-I-shit-the-carpet way.
Equally notable—although markedly less funny—is Kubrick’s use of point-of-view shots to rattle viewers. Rather than show the perspective of the lost soldiers, the film instead slips into the eyes of enemy combatants and civilians who suffer at the hands of our supposed heroes. A covert raid of an enemy guardhouse is punctuated with shots of the soldiers jabbing the camera lens with their bayonets, for instance. Even more unsettling is the film’s centerpiece—a feverish sequence where the men capture a local village girl, tie her to a tree, and leave her to be guarded by the youngest soldier (a wild performance from future director Paul Mazursky). As the other soldiers build a raft and hatch their assassination plot, the young soldier desperately tries to make the silent girl like him, pantomiming pompous generals in the hope of making her laugh. Confused and distressed, she just stares at him, and Kubrick slips into her perspective from time to time, aligning the audience with her helpless terror at the young man’s rapid descent into madness. Everything reaches a kinky peak when he holds up a handful of water for her to lap out of his hand like a kitten, and from there it’s a quick jump into sex-and-death land.
Alternately clunky and powerful, beautiful and fumbling, Fear and Desire remains too potent to dismiss even as it frustrates with its youthful stumbling. Its charms wage close combat with its failings, but it’s never less than fascinating. There’s a rare pleasure in seeing a top talent like Kubrick thrashing through ideas, learning what works through the time-honoured art school of falling on your face once in a while. But it’s certainly no surprise that the director would be embarrassed by the film (or even, as some rumours suggest, might try to suppress it by buying up all the prints he could get his hands on). So much of Kubrick’s later work is distinguished by an aura of all-consuming mastery, where even bad ideas can become plausible because they are pursued with such confident force and executed with such careful control. Yet here he is in his clumsy youth, as careless as he is calculating, as reckless as he is ambitious. This is the film that contains Kubrick’s darkest secret—it turns out he was human after all.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
An unsentimental look at poverty in rural China, Wang Bing’s immersive documentary Three Sisters spends month following the lives of a peasant family making do in the shadow of the Chinese industrial colossus. Agriculture isn’t much of a way for anyone to make a living in modern times, but especially on the small scale practiced by the family here. So father heads off to the city to find work with his two youngest daughters, while his eldest stays with grandfather and minds the farm (the mother’s whereabouts are less clear, although she’s been out of the picture for a while, it seems). But Wang is less concerned with sculpting a grand narrative arc out of his material than he is with teasing out the daily rhythms of his subjects’ lives. The ordeal of separation and reunion largely exists as a backdrop to the unending grind of chasing sheep and harvesting dung from the pastures. Survival makes its own demands of life, and chores take precedence over drama.
Everybody in our Family
Unconditional fatherly love can be a very scary thing, as evidenced by the vicious hilarity of Radu Jude’s Everybody in our Family. Early on in the film, divorced dad Marius goes to visit his own father, revealing a strained collegiality that dissolves into a torrent of accusations and abuse. Yet moments after nearly coming to blows, the pair is back to normal—such as it is—with Marius’s father even telling his son to drive safe. The scene’s horrifying (and horrifyingly funny) emotional pivots can only hint at the carnage to come. As Marius finds his efforts to spend time with his daughter rebuffed by his ex-wife’s boyfriend and mother, the man’s desperation escalates so naturally you likely won’t blink once he starts tying up people and dodging cops. Gifted with a stellar troupe of performers, Jude uses the cramped confines of a single apartment and a nimble handheld camera to emphasize the humanity of people doing inhumane things. Emotional Grand Guignol on an intimate scale, the film lays bare the extremes of love and hate that can be contained within the family unit. Like the best black comedies, the laughter sticks in the throat.
Something in the Air
Considering how much Something in the Air draws on the radical youth of writer/director Olivier Assayas in the 1970s, it’s impressive how much the film avoids the seductive glow of nostalgia. In fact, this double-edged ode to France’s post-1968 generation is many things: brisk coming-of-age drama, political thriller, even love story (most notably between Assayas and cinema itself). Alternately giddy and mournful, the film surveys the chaos of the French left following the failed dream of the 1968 rebellion. Young feminists argue with old chauvinist radicals while Maoists cling to their delusions like European communists at the height of the Stalinist purges. Heady times, and Gilles, the director’s stand-in, wanders amid the ruins, painting and fucking his way to Italy and back in a search for purpose. Assayas shows his younger self trapped between the warring factions of politics and art, and the film’s achievement is bridging the gap. All false mistresses abandoned and all failed masters betrayed, Gilles embraces the cinema in the film’s final rapturous moments under the benediction of the Situationists (the corpse of Guy Debord appreciates the work, I’m sure). By simply succumbing to his best self, Assayas discovers his own private revolution at last.
The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man
After the screening, writer/director Arturo Pons described his debut feature, The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man, as an “existentialist emigration” tale. It’s an apt summary of this gently absurdist fable about a boy named Chencho determined on riding a wagon all the way from Mexico to meet his brother in Chicago (God is his copilot, a corpse his navigator). Along the way, he picks up a misfit crew of others set adrift by the violence and poverty that has wracked rural Mexico: a soldier who accidentally kills his commander, professional wailing women who have run out of men to mourn, a one-eyed boy with a three-legged dog. Occasionally, the film lapses into overloaded symbolism and cutesy characterizations—the Sisyphean push-cart man who gathers rocks he has stumbled over is probably the worst of this tendency—but this isn’t so much bargain-basement surrealism as it is a documentary of everyday eccentricities. Pons sketches the splintered communities of his Mexico with affection and sorrow, while also striving for a transcendental release that seems beyond him as a filmmaker. He’s far more profound when being profane. Funnier, too.
War is hell, but so is growing up, which is perhaps why so many filmmakers love to depict war’s brutalities through the eyes of a child. Cate Shortland’s Lore offers a neat inversion of this old formula, her shell-shocked brood not ordinary innocents but doe-eyed Hitler youths. The children, led by eldest sister Lore, make their way through the devastated ruins of Germany in the dying days of World War Two after their Nazi parents are arrested. Who can resist that hook? I’m as eager as anyone to see how the children shake off their master-race programming, but the initial tension and dread dissipates into bland simplifications and overwrought visuals (Shortland never met a sun-dappled meadow she didn’t like). Final message: strict dining etiquette is equivalent to Nazism. Miss Manners is surely unamused.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
My Father and the Man in Black
Any film that touches on Johnny Cash’s pills-and-booze days can’t be that bad, right? And sure enough, Jonathan Holiff’s documentary peaks behind the curtains at a singer on the verge of self-destruction. However, the real subject is the filmmaker’s father, Saul, who shepherded Cash through the peak of his career from 1960 to 1973. Following decades of battling a few demons of his own, Saul committed suicide in 2005, leaving his son with a shed full of Cash memorabilia and a lifetime of unanswered questions. The portrait of a distant, cruel father is buttressed with striking archival finds, such as Saul’s audio diaries and recordings of his phone conversations with Cash, but Jonathan’s need to push the film towards some sort of cathartic revelation can only end in disappointment. The big reveal is that his father was as self-doubting and tortured as the rest of us, a mundane epiphany by any standard. “A Boy Named Sue” offers just as barbed a portrait of father-son relationships in less than four minutes.
Much like the F.W. Murnau masterpiece of the same title, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is a tale of paradises lost and found. Divided between present-day Portugal and Africa during the burgeoning uprisings of the 1950s, the film focuses on a woman named Aurora. In the present, she’s a doddering old lady, lonely and paranoid as she loses her life savings to a gambling addiction. In the past, she’s the radiant young wife of a successful colonial landowner in Africa, willing to throw it all away for a passionate love affair with a musician. Dreamy and sensual, this dialogue-free section is narrated by Aurora’s long-lost former lover, who sorrowfully recounts the passions that would destroy the pair. But beneath the doomed affair lies the threatening shadow of colonialist oppression, personal shame merging with public crime in a phantasmic vision of self-recrimination and horror. Sublime.
The Last Time I Saw Macao
During the question-and-answer session following The Last Time I Saw Macao, an audience member spoke what was on most of our minds and invoked the name of Chris Marker. High praise, to be sure, but it doesn’t quite capture the peculiarity of this B-movie documentary, to borrow a phrase from co-director Joao Pedro Rodrigues. In this distinctive hybrid film, Rodrigues’ directing partner Joao Rui Guerra da Mata is returning to the city of his past after decades of separation, eager to rediscover the city that has dwelled in his mind for so long. Yet what the pair finds is a world of glory and decay, lonely side streets and desolate buildings. Over top the images the filmmakers impose a lurid sci-fi radio play featuring a missing transvestite, a criminal kingpin named Madame Lobo, a handful of stray allusions to Josef Von Sternberg’s Macao, and a glowing birdcage that turns people into beasts. Fascinating as much for its low-budget formal ingenuity as its twisty narrative, the film plays with memory and fantasy in its efforts to recapture a city lost to time. What else can it finally do but blow it up? The city is gone. The city never was.
The VIFF program guide name checks Guy Maddin for The Metamorphosis, and it’s hard to argue the point. Like the Canadian master, this South Korean short (directed by Yun Kinam) trades in silent film aesthetics, amped up to borderline camp—and it even has an absent father figure, as per Maddin, although daddy in this case is thrown out of the house for turning into a vampire and attacking his daughter/mime/whatever. Is it a tortured vision of domestic abuse and dysfunction, or a semi-coherent parade of hyper-stylized tropes stolen from the graveyard of film history? Well, it’s fun while it lasts, whatever the hell it is. Sadly, for all the dramatic posturing—Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight Rises sounds like the Beach Boys next to this film—the ending fizzles, with the film clumsily rushing headlong towards its conclusion.
Emperor Visits the Hell
Several chapters from the 16th century Chinese epic Journey to the West are reworked for modern times in Li Luo’s Emperor Visits the Hell, with mixed results. In a mere 67 minutes, Li unpacks a varied tale involving a pool-hall hustler who loses his head to a dream, forgery in the book of life, stray ghosts, and the emperor’s titular trip to deal with the ramifications of it all. Yet as fantastic as this all sounds, Li sticks to a deadpan realism. Hell is a room as bland as any other, while the gateway to the underworld is, amusingly enough, a non-descript bus stop. The mundane grounds the mythical, allowing the director to emphasize the satirical undertones of the story—it turns out even the emperor must learn to kowtow sometimes—rather than getting hung up on supernatural visions. Unfortunately, the narrative is stitched together with little picture-book interludes and climaxes with the lead actor drunkenly ranting at the wrap party, lending a haphazard air to what is otherwise a powerful concept.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
The audacity of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Walker lies in its simplicity. Lee Kang-Sheng, Tsai’s favourite actor, dons bright red monk robes and walks down the bustling streets of Hong Kong—but slowly, very slowly. Shots are held for minutes at a time, mirroring the glacial pace of our faux-monk friend, whose every step seems to occur in super slo-mo. At times, this short film resembles a kind of artful “Where’s Waldo?” as Tsai buries the monk deep inside the frame, forcing viewers to scan for that telltale splash of red. Other times he’s front and centre, standing in the middle of a busy street as onlookers gawk and snap photos (the crowd parts around the man, as if repelled by a force field). Either way, every shot is a living tableau, rich in detail and unexpected beauty in a cinematic experience of unparalleled purity.
Style and substance do battle for the heart of modern politics in Pablo Larrain’s No, and the results are about as shocking as an Iranian election. But more than a mordant political satire, Larrain’s retelling of the referendum that brought down Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship is also a brisk, funny piece of high-powered filmmaking. Fortunately, even as he delivers his most mainstream work to date, the director remains his stubbornly eccentric self. The film’s washed-out video aesthetic is just as much a rejoinder to commercial slickness as it is a riff on the dated look of its 1980s setting. The decision to focus on the boldly irreverent advertising campaign against Pinochet yields much humour, while Gael Garcia Bernal’s conflicted adman provides the pathos. His haunted look at the end speaks to the powerful anxieties just beneath the surface of this otherwise jubilant tale. Once he sold freedom—now he sells soap operas.
First-time director Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul (or Billy, if you prefer) looks to his own life for inspiration and settles squarely on his mother. No wonder—the woman seems on the verge of self-destructing, with a broken leg and weak kidneys hobbling her body while depression and kleptomania cripple her mind. Billy blends documentary footage of his family with fictional tangents, but the technique is mostly one of expediency (he wasn’t there to film his mother stealing from a grocery store, so he re-creates it with actors instead). Sadly, the jumble of reality and fiction leaves each scene unmoored. A painful sequence where the director captures his mother sobbing helplessly as someone off-camera browbeats the anguished woman over her failings is so isolated from the rest of the film that the powerful emotions stirred up are only muffled. The last thing we see is Billy’s message, “This is what I can do”—an admission of the film’s loving sincerity, as much as its own shortcomings.
Most films from Apichatpong Weerasethakul feel like overgrown trees deep in the jungle, entangled in the surrounding world and teeming with life. Mekong Hotel, on the other hand, is more like a meagre sapling on a well-groomed lawn. That may be partly due to the film’s unusual origins: based on an old script, it forms the kernel of a larger project currently underway. Everything that you would expect of Apichatpong is here, from the familiar faces in the cast to the flattened mysticism of the story. Scenes of entrail-eating ghosts and thwarted love affairs mix with offhand moments from the film’s own creation, such as the soundtrack being recorded and the director advising his star to wear the tight pants. The director’s fascination with the hazy border between truth and fiction remains, but only in its most rudimentary form. At most, the film holds a passing interest as a sort of sketchbook, offering viewers little more than the unfinished doodles of a keen mind.
In Another Country
A typical Hong Sang-Soo interrogation of feckless masculinity gets a shot in the arm from a game Isabelle Huppert, providing a welcome dash of culture-clash comedy to In Another Country. That may sound unlikely at first—cultural differences are more often sources of lazy humour—but Hong’s eternal preoccupations ensure the film strays from the ordinary rather quickly. Huppert plays three different French women in South Korea alternately fending off or inviting the advances of the locals in an unending quest for some kind of happiness. The casual tone and goofy bonhomie belies Hong’s meticulous construction, which lays bare the unseen patterns that shape his character’s lives, for good and ill. With its intricate layers of interlaced fictions and dreams, all blurred together with constant repetition, the film could easily be mistaken for a surrealist comedy of manners akin to Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
The Minister makes good use of a rock-solid Olivier Gourmet in the titular role of Bertrand Saint-Jean, a French transport minister who steps into the midst of an ideological firefight after he speaks against privatizing the country’s train stations. Basically, his government supports him until it doesn’t—which happens once everyone realizes that the market calls the shots and there’s not much a few measly politicians can do anyway. Powered by brisk, compelling storytelling, Pierre Scholler’s film strips away the illusions of state power, revealing a hollowed-out institution beholden to the whims of the private sector. However, this political cynicism is matched only by the cynicism of the film’s biggest lapse—a series of stylized dreams designed to emphasize the minister’s increasing sense of isolation and helplessness. Were the filmmakers worried audiences wouldn’t be interested in a bunch of suits talking policy? Did they just want something snazzy to put in the trailer? Apparently we are not yet trusted to take our medicine without a dollop of sugar.
Somebody Up There Likes Me
The best comedies are the the saddest ones. Case in point: Somebody Up There Likes Me, a beautifully absurd take on mortality and maturity by writer/director Bob Byington. The aptly named Max Youngman exists in a state of arrested development, emotionally uncommitted and disinterested in his own life—a condition made literal when he gazes into a glowing blue briefcase and ceases to age. Skipping forward every five years, the film takes us through a succession of failed marriages and relationships, all the detritus and drama of a lifetime reduced to droll snippets of deadpan whimsy. Max’s unchanging appearance seems more psychological than physical; it goes uncommented on by his friends, while the ravages of time take root behind his unwrinkled façade. He doesn’t age so much as the world ages around him.
Berberian Sound Studio
Peter Strickland has set up quite a challenge for himself in Berberian Sound Studio. How do you make a horror film without horror? Turns out it’s all about the noise—the crunch of bones breaking, the sizzle of flesh burning—and so the film makes full use of the hallucinatory power of sound. Strickland teases the audience with descriptions of an unseen Italian horror movie, filled with tortured witches, perverted goblins, and red-hot pokers in all the wrong places. Instead, we’re left to follow the misadventures of English sound engineer Gilderoy (a wonderfully befuddled Toby Jones) as he works on the film. As the man chops up vegetables to recreate the sounds of the Italian movie’s blood-soaked visions, he begins to succumb to his own guilt over the imaginary violence he is perpetrating—a shot of the rotting food felled by his knife evokes a mass grave, in one particularly amusing example. Unevenly paced, but odd enough to remain engrossing, the film works as a fond tribute to Foley artists, with one caveat—no good can come of being too consumed by your own work.
Let’s just get this out of the way—the score for The Flat is astoundingly, distractingly terrible. It’s like music from a 1960s sitcom, jaunty and tacky and obnoxious, belabouring each emotion and idea on screen. Which is a shame, because Arnon Goldfinger’s documentary is otherwise a nuanced exploration of the ongoing struggle to reconcile with the history of the Holocaust. After discovering Nazi propaganda in his deceased grandmother’s flat in Tel Aviv, Goldfinger unravels a winding tale that finds his grandparents befriending Baron von Mildenstein, a Zionist SS officer whose role in the Nazi regime’s crimes is clouded and contradictory. Remarkably, the baron’s daughter is still alive, and even more remarkably, Goldfinger’s grandparents remained in touch with their German friends after the Holocaust. The film charts the inevitable effect of history on two separate but intertwined family trees: the first generation acts, the second forgets, while the third painfully, haltingly struggles to remember before everything is lost.
A visual treat and formal puzzle, Bestiaire is among director Denis Cote’s most accomplished and provocative works yet. The film covers a year at Parc Safari in Quebec, depicting the animals and their human handlers on equal terms, both framed by the fences that hold them captive. But Cote’s interests extend from these sociological observations to more playful musings on voyeurism, as evidenced by the film’s two basic recurring shot types. One features an animal lurking on the bottom margin of the frame, while the rest is overtaken by negative space—an idiosyncratic choice quite unlike how most others would film animals, and one that produces some glorious, even witty, images (Cote won me over with the ostrich). The other shot faces the animals head-on, allowing them to stare straight into the camera for an uncomfortably long time. As the viewer is increasingly confronted with the sense of their own role as spectator, the temptation to sneak a glimpse at one’s fellow theatergoers becomes hard to resist. Sure enough, they met the animals’ gaze with their own blank stare.
Monday, October 8, 2012
Rumour has it The Hunt is a return to form for director Thomas Vinterberg. Well, perhaps. It does involve child molestation—the subject of The Celebration, his best-known work—so it has the sense of a homecoming (no joke intended). But if we’re talking in terms of merit, then I will have none of it, because this is a rank piece of filmmaking, dull and mean-spirited despite whatever minor interest its polished storytelling and acting may provide. Vinterberg works himself into a righteous lather over a vicious town that falsely accuses a kindergarten teacher of molesting a little girl,but the whole game is rigged from the start to confirm his general contempt for the brainless mob. After a couple of scenes of the girl confessing her lie to uncomprehending adults—they all but pat her on the head and say, “No, sweetie, trust us, you were molested”—the film begins to verge on comedy. While the teacher is weeping in church as a Christmas choir of children sing about baby Jesus, you may be wondering why everyone on Law and Order: SVU is speaking Danish. Is this what passes for high-powered psychological drama these days? All I see is cheap cinematic thuggery.
Thursday Till Sunday
Children are often reduced to baggage during the dissolution of a marriage, dragged along, fought over, lost. Dominga Sotomayor, perhaps unwittingly, makes this very point when the two children in Thursday Till Sunday are granted the privilege of riding on the rooftop luggage rack of the family car so that mom and dad can air their grievances in peace. Not that either child—hyperactive Manuel and his pensive older sister, Lucia—understand what’s happening. They’re just enjoying the ride. That split between carefree youth and embittered adults drives Sotomayor’s assured debut, which clings to Lucia’s perspective of the growing family discord over a four-day road trip. Set largely in the confines of a single junky Mazda, the film captures the nuances of expression and gesture that reveal these characters—a sour look, a turn of the head, a pregnant pause. Sotomayor captures this all with exceptional grace and skill, playing foreground calm against background disorder with great ease. Finally, the film ceases to simply echo Lucia’s perspective and becomes a larger vision of the family unit in turmoil, everyone alone and together simultaneously, as four private worlds orbit and collide.
Beginning as a humble drama about a single mother’s struggle to care for her aging father, La demora soon veers off into the same terrain as a Dardenne brothers working-class passion play. This is a good thing. Director Rodrigo Plas sketches out mother Maria’s dire situation in early scenes, but the crisis that drives her to abandon her father—who is displaying signs of encroaching dementia—is never quite brought into focus. Is it a money matter? Fear of her father’s growing senility? Sheer exhaustion and helplessness? All are suggested as plausible reasons, yet none are developed with enough force to make the woman’s lapse come across as natural. Still, Maria’s frantic nighttime journey from shelter to shelter as her father dutifully awaits her return is a powerful argument for the film’s merits. Mundane emotions—aren’t aging parents a pain?—take on renewed gravity, and Plas’ filmmaking grows stronger as the light dims. The city becomes a lonely landscape of shimmering lights and amorphous shapes, an alien place where the only solid thing for both Maria and her father is each other.
The young Cronenberg lad has taken up the family business, and comparisons are all but impossible to ignore. Indeed, it’s almost shocking just how many elements from the father’s early work—sinister corporate systems, bodily violation and mutation—are evident in Brandon Cronenberg’s first film. But then one realizes that David Cronenberg has cast such a long shadow over this sort of near-futuristic semi-satiric body horror that any young director would likely owe him a debt, never mind his own son. So instead of picking on Antiviral for what it isn’t (Videodrome, Naked Lunch et al.), let’s concentrate on what it is (a middling debut that fritters away its oddball premise with an aimless rehash of second-rate conspiracy blather). The film’s big idea turns out to be its only one: we’re looking at a skewed version of our own future, where celebrity is all and star-struck acolytes pay for the privilege of being infected with the same diseases carried by the rich and famous. But the film offers little beyond skin-deep riffs on the cult of celebrity while indulging in some baggy storytelling—two hours is quite a long time for such a simple sinister plot to unravel (even the welcome presence of Malcolm McDowell can’t sell this one, I’m afraid). At most, Cronenberg culls some cute jokes from his scenario, and the film’s striking white design ensures the visual pop even if the plot never does.
Friday, October 5, 2012
With Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen established his mastery of the cinematic essay. With Reconversao, his study of the works of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, he moves into the realm of the cinematic epigram. Blending Andersen’s own pithy observations with interviews and texts from Souto de Moura, the film offers a fascinating running commentary while portraying the architect’s work through stop-motion photography. It’s a curious stylistic choice, but one that ultimately does justice to the work: trees turn into amorphous masses of green and car lights burst into exploding stars, leaving the unmoving buildings at the centre of the convulsive world. Souto de Moura muses on the divide between building and nature, dismissing the false romanticism of ruins while embracing decay in his own work. He makes for a superb documentary subject—obsessive, observant, acutely aware of the subtle influences of architecture on the human mind, and not above the occasional dab of pungent humour. In short, a Portuguese Thom Andersen.
A Story for the Modlins
Sergio Oksman’s short A Story for the Modlins leads with its best trick: the film begins with the credits to Rosemary’s Baby. Confused, spectators craned their necks at the projection booth, wondering if someone mixed up reels. Then the film begins to fast-forward, and we are transferred from Roman Polanski’s horror to one of an entirely different stripe—a horror of thwarted ambition and family cruelty, Polanski’s devlish family replaced with Oksman’s pious oddballs. Built around the life of Elmer Modlin, a nameless extra in Rosemary’s Baby, the film uses a striking mixture of photographs and grainy videos to show the delusional artistic ambitions of Elmer and Margaret, his painter wife. Their only son is driven away by their increasingly hermetic lives, leaving the couple to spend their days bringing Margaret’s deranged spiritual visions to life. Often funny, the film’s strength becomes a weakness when Oksman makes a sudden turn towards pathos at the end. It’s hard to feel too much pity for a family you’ve just spent twenty minutes laughing at.
Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day
Is this the coyest zombie movie ever? A horde of young Lisbonites descend upon the early-morning city, lurching forward so haltingly that one wonders if they are undead or merely really hung over. Some are covered in blood, while others drop to the ground and heave their guts out. Largely silent, the film’s characters are essentially faceless, but one youth stands out for the small red flower he carries—part of a tradition carried out by couples on Saint Anthony’s Day. Everything feels like a lark, an art-film goof on zombie tropes, right up until the final scene when director Joao Pedro Rodrigues at last tips his hand with a single dramatic gesture and a few lines from Fernando Pessoa. The film revels in loneliness as an apocalyptic condition—a notion rendered simultaneously lovely and absurd under the director’s discerning eye.
Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenburg was a lo-fi cinematic gem, a scruffy deadpan riff on sexual confusion as nature documentary. Who could have expected her follow-up would be to run many of the same ideas through a surrealist dream machine, with late-period Jan Svankmajer serving as one of her stylistic templates? (Seriously, a show of hands, please.) A mere 35 minutes in length, The Capsule is a dense, dazzling tour through the sexual politics of a group of seven women living in an isolated manor. Describing narrative is largely irrelevant when dealing with a film where characters are birthed by domestic furnishings (one emerges from a cluster of chairs, while another rises out of a mattress). The film’s power is only momentarily dispelled by some questionably tacky animation, which is at odds with Tsangari’s more physical imagery. More often, however, Tsangari calls upon high style and high fashion to give flight to her opulent fantasies, and the result is a sensuous nightmare of domination and control. And top prize for the best goats at VIFF this year—a surprisingly competitive category—goes to the film’s well-coiffed herd of fashion-conscious ruminants.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Who is Joshua Milton Blahyi? That’s the confounding question at the heart of The Redemption of General Butt Naked, Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion’s disturbing documentary about the perilous path to reconciliation in post-civil war Liberia. Once a feared warlord known as General Butt Naked—he believed fighting naked made him invincible—Blahyi now travels through Liberia and beyond begging forgiveness of his former victims. Although the titular redemption suggests a clear arc for the film, the results are more complicated than straightforward salvation. Rather unsettlingly, the film posits that Blahyi’s spirituality is not so much a repudiation of his violence as an evolution of it. After all, his conversion to the righteous path began with the cold-blooded crippling of the bodyguard that allowed a priest in to see him. Even more pointed is one victim’s remark that the strength he displays during his sermon matches the strength she witnessed when he killed her husband. The man wears the face of both god and devil, masking a figure beyond comprehension—one that preaches love with the same nameless frenzy with which he practiced slaughter.
Friday, August 31, 2012
A war film reduced to its brute essence, Fixed Bayonets! possesses an almost transcendental rigour and self-discipline. It could just as easily be the work of a punch-drunk Dreyer as cinema’s resident tabloid poet, Samuel Fuller. Set on a snowy mountaintop during the Korean war, the film takes place on a bleached white canvas of snow, a thin painted backdrop adding to the overwhelming sense of artifice. It’s the perfect playground for a budget epic, and Fuller makes the most of it, alternating between lithe long takes and staccato montages in order to evoke the simultaneous terror and tedium of war. Save for the opening and closing blasts of music, the only sounds we hear are the sick crunch-crunch of feet on snow and the stereophonic call of the Korean trumpets. The periodic bursts of shell explosions and gunfire come as a relief from the hideous silence that pervades this unnatural place. Life is such a distant concern here that we might as well be watching two platoons of ghosts fighting over ownership of a cloud.
The stark setting of Fixed Bayonets! drains away all the other trappings of a typical Fuller war film—social commentary, anti-war agitation, autobiographical tangents—leaving only a series of irreducible moral challenges, like bodies uncovered in an empty swamp. The drama plays out in the soul of one Corporal Denno, a man who freezes up and cannot fire when confronted by enemy soldiers. As the leadership of the squad gets picked off one by one, Denno comes closer and closer to command and the inevitable confrontation with his own inability to take ownership of this bloodshed. Fascinatingly, Fuller underlines the man’s bravery where other filmmakers would cop-out and brand him a coward. The corporal may not want to take a life, but he’ll put his own on the line to save a wounded officer from the midst of a minefield. Compare that hair-raising sequence to the penultimate killing scene, when Denno, safely hidden in the bush, shoots an enemy at point-blank range. The Korean man’s body drops into the snow, like a puppet with its strings cut, and the rest of the squad rushes out to applaud Denno’s courage. Confusion flickers across his face. So this is bravery?
Monday, August 13, 2012
Woody Allen does not want to die. I assume this is not a surprising fact. Yet there is evidence that this perfectly reasonable desire—not to be crushed by the hobnailed boots of time, that is—is increasingly the primary driver behind Allen’s unflagging productivity. Playing an unhappily retired opera impresario in To Rome With Love, Allen lays out this premise in even blunter terms: retirement equals death. Absurd as it may be to live one’s life by such a principle, this fear is nonetheless the most persuasive argument yet to be made for late-career Allen. Who could begrudge the man his mediocrity if that’s really the only thing keeping the grim reaper at bay? And thus, we are gifted with the suspect pleasures of another one of Woody’s high-tourist pieces, a postcard of Rome with a few one-liners hastily scribbled on the back.
Inviting irrelevance while staving off death, the director’s relentless work ethic has led him on a hopscotch tour of Europe in recent years, as if he were a hunted man on the lamb from his own mortality. One imagines Allen hurriedly checking out of hotels, checking over his shoulder, always just one step ahead of the scythe nipping at his heels. How else to explain the clunky filmmaking of To Rome With Love? No doubt he was already planning his next escape before the last scene was even filmed. Presumably, we can look forward to many more years of Allen’s European adventures, moving from 2014’s artful murder-mystery Venice is Sinking to 2023’s mildly senile sex-farce Latke Love for Latvia (starring some young ingénue who is probably currently still in a training bra, plus a grateful Jude Law).
Two things should be noted here: a) I certainly don’t begrudge Allen’s efforts to stay alive, and b) none of this makes me any happier to slog through tiresome affairs like To Rome With Love. Last year’s Midnight in Paris was not without its own flaws, but it at least was centred by an affecting performance from Owen Wilson. In his latest batch of frothy Eurotrash stew, Allen clumsily mixes together four separate stories set in the Eternal City into one bland, lumpy mess. Stale one-liners and embarrassing sitcom plots abound—in one cringe-worthy example, a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) goes to the wrong hotel room, unleashing a chain of events that ultimately sees her impersonating a man’s wife and partaking of a private tour of the Vatican (a few moments of reflection is likely all you need to conjure up all of the expected jokes Allen draws from this scenario).
Much like in the earlier Parisian effort, the characters of this film are drawn into fantasy worlds far richer and more exotic than their own lives—a setup that effectively approximates the dislocation of the tourist experience. However, the resulting epiphanies are darker than the film’s glossy sheen would suggest. Leopoldo, the Italian white-collar worker played by Roberto Benigni, is granted a glimpse of celebrity living when his mundane existence becomes fodder for pundits and paparazzi. Yet when this notoriety ends as suddenly as it began, he yearns for his former fame (life is bad for everyone, so it’s better to at least be famous, the man’s ex-chauffeur explains). Allen’s Jerry almost destroys his daughter’s marriage for the sake of his opera dreams, only to salvage everything with the weirdly implausible fact that he doesn’t understand “imbecile” means the same in English as Italian (the joke is so corny it becomes funny again by virtue of sheer audacity). Jack, an architecture student played by Jesse Eisenberg, is all too willing to toss his girlfriend aside for a fling, only to find he is the one who has been discarded when the object of his affections chucks him overboard with only a moment’s notice. The happiest couple, by all appearances, is the young pair who save their marriage by cheating on each other.
It’s actually rather perverse that such grimness should be bracketed by a cheery tourism brochure, but this pessimism is the film’s sharpest feature, and a welcome relief from the overstrained comedy. The glamour of Rome masks the fact that this is a place of ruins, the graveyard of an empire. But this dark thought is fleeting—as are all dark thoughts in this light place—and its face is never fully revealed from beneath its cowl. Then, moments later, there is a knock on the door. The hotel air conditioning harmonizes with a singer in the piazza below. A faint odour of something like ashes drifts in from the hall. And when the maid finally enters the room, Allen has already leapt out the window, clutching the pages of a script treatment in his teeth as he repels down the walls of the Excelsior with tied-together bed sheets.
Monday, August 6, 2012
Auteur theory, at its most simplistic, can sometimes resemble little more than a checklist of directorial fetishes. In that regard, Russ Meyer—with his buxom uber-vixens and emasculated half-men—could easily stand as one of our greatest artistic lechers. As it is, he must settle for mucking about in the grimy back alleys behind the pantheon with his pin-up girls and beat-up cars. But give the man his due: he knew trash like no one else, and delivered it with a passion far beyond the cold cynicism of your typical exploitation movie. Indeed, a film like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is almost uncomfortably personal at times, to the point of turning one man’s sexual hangups into a universal law akin to gravity (or the lack thereof, in the case of certain anatomical areas).
Skipping merrily along from one feverish image to the next, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! follows the violent misadventures of three hot-rodding go-go dancers who kill and kidnap their way to a desolate ranch populated by a wealthy, woman-hating crippled pervert and his two sons. The dialogue is a kind of oversexed poetry, filled with innuendo, pseudo-Beatnik slang, and surrealist one-liners (anti-heroine Varla is memorably described as being “like a velvet glove cast in iron”). Meyer spends much of the film at the feet of his three goddesses, shooting them, Welles-style, against a blank desert sky (the combination of outsized personalities and spatial disorientation occasionally creates the impression you’re watching 50-foot-tall Amazonians stomping feeble male midgets). Yet for all the film’s fondness for these ladies, violent Varla still can’t escape retribution for her crimes, although tellingly it’s another woman that finally fells the giantess. The cause of death, by all appearances, is blunt force trauma with a sex object.
Monday, July 16, 2012
The first mistake of Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope may have been its decision to turn the College of Cardinals into something more akin to a seminary summer camp. How successful can a satire be when populated by such an innocuous bunch of clowns? A gaggle of grey-haired sorority sisters, the Cardinals caper about with a giggly, carefree air (it’s a wonder we don’t see them braiding each other’s hair while reading out Cosmo quizzes, although perhaps that’s too flippant for Moretti’s mildly impudent worldview). Dreamy and dumbstruck, they lean on the balustrade and stare up at the shuttered windows of their absent leader, mooning away like a group of teenage girls with pictures of Justin Bieber on their bedroom ceilings. And where is the pope? He’s hiding from the burden of his duties, roaming the Roman streets as he ponders what his psychiatrist could have meant when she told him he had a “parental deficit.” (Hint: look in the mirror, padre.)
So the pope rejects his role and the film its better instincts; an idea that surely sounded promising on the page takes on the form of its doddering, gutless subjects. What comedy there is to be found here suffers from the disjointed tone and lousy timing—too slow for farce, too quick for deadpan—which leaves the gags to fizzle out in the musty, tomb-like atmosphere cultivated by Moretti. Mostly, the film limps by with mild irreverence its only sustaining crutch. The director seems altogether too pleased with his boldness in showing the powerful inner circle of the Catholic church playing volleyball and whining about espresso (easy on the froth, by the way). Rather than tackle the fraught subject of Catholicism in the 21st century head-on, Moretti opts for the mushy middle-road. He inadvertently pays respect to the rituals of the church even as his blithe depiction of the institution argues that all of this is of little consequence. The film achieves its greatest subversion in its own irrelevance.
Friday, July 6, 2012
With its serene perversity, Richard Linklater’s Bernie could easily be taken for the modern-day equivalent of Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Admittedly, the comedy of Chaplin’s film is several shades blacker—save for that flash of righteous moralizing near the end—but both films balance an almost naïve sweetness with a pitiless glimpse into the void. Bernie’s final mincing jailhouse walk even evokes the famous closing shot of Chaplin’s film, where his bluebeard killer totters forth like the Tramp. But beyond such surprising synchronicities, there is also the sense that both of these killers are the true lovers of their victims, their violence not a contradiction of that love but an extension of it. Mrs. Nugent, the blackhearted widow who is the first and only victim of Bernie Tiede, offers no shortage of motives to an eager killer, from her controlling ways to her casual cruelties. Surely only someone who cared so deeply for the old woman could kill her for the simple fact she chews her food too much.
But Linklater’s film is also a tricky beast of its own breed, and its portrait of small-town life is no less pointed for its fond familiarity with the setting. The citizens of Catharge, Texas—the location of the real-life crime that inspired the film—appear as a kind of gossiper’s chorus, providing colour commentary on the murder trial and rising to Bernie’s defence. Real people speaking scripted lines, they create a disjunction between fact and fiction more disturbing than any of the film’s dark comedy (the appearance of Jack Black and Bernie Tiede himself together during the credits even provoked gasps from several audience members). Of course, the film is all about disjunction: the truth is that Bernie killed someone, but the truth is also that he is a good man. How do you reconcile that? It’s a strange morality that damns a woman for not going to church yet forgives a man for stuffing her corpse in a freezer, but Linklater approaches these contradictions without judgement or disdain. His depiction of small-town life is as openhearted and brutal as Bernie himself—faithful love, and four shots in the back.
Sunday, June 24, 2012
Prometheus is a supposedly smart film, about the usual smart things: the origins of life, the nature of faith, magical black goo. Why then is it filled with so many stupid people? On a creepy alien planet, when a man is greeted by a cobra-shaped creature popping out of the aforementioned magical black goo—versatile stuff, this—he reacts as if finding a kitten on his doorstep. (Not to spoil anything but try to act surprised when kitty shows her claws.) Such is the film’s cartoonish rendering of its characters, most of who willfully fling themselves into the jaws of death while spouting lively banter like, “I’m a geologist, I like rocks.” As a species, we have travelled through space and walked across the face of the sky, but it seems we haven’t figured out a way to avoid reducing ourselves to a craven parade of dimwits and dullards just to hold together a weak sci-fi plot.
Ridley Scott’s return to the world of Alien gilds itself with enough grandiose, quasi-mystical nonsense to give itself at least a faint glow of intelligence, if none of the actual substance. The film’s tantalizing exploration of the origins of human life gives way to a series of uninspired horror-movie jolts, held together by the mutilated traces of some sort of story. Every incident occurs in a vague, disjointed haze, devoid of the context necessary to give the skeletal traces of narrative some impact. You can’t have plot twists without a plot, yet Scott vainly contorts the air in an effort to get a reaction out of his audience. All that remains is a self-annihilating vision of creation, which makes one suspect Scott himself is a little ambivalent towards this monster of his own making. The most striking feature of this morass is the film’s chain of flawed creators, each engineering its own equally flawed, ever more unstable progeny—an effective metaphor for the diminishing returns of this long moribund series, if nothing else. Hollow and self-regarding, Prometheus finally signifies nothing grander than its own failings.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
1. At three hours, a film aspires to a certain grandeur, something along the lines of Michelango’s The Last Judgement. At four, it’s the whole Sistine Chapel. At seven, it might as well be all of Rome. And Satantango would be the city in ruins, abandoned to rain and rust, populated only by dour ghosts with no one left to haunt.
There is no sensible reason for any living person to visit this place. And surely one might rightly wonder what good could come of dedicating seven hours of life to this particularly austere branch of Hungarian art cinema. Normally, I frown at such talk as hopelessly philistine and sort of impolite (leave me to my five-minute tracking shots of muddy cows and stick to your own damn heathen amusements), but I’ll entertain doubts when being asked to commit the equivalent of one whole working day to someone’s artistic vision.
Once a film grows to these proportions, however, it becomes difficult to even consider its merits. Not necessarily because these things don’t matter anymore—they do, and I’ll yammer on about them right away, I promise—but because it has turned into an immovable object. Commit yourself to Satantango, and you’re no longer asking if the experience is worth it. For better or worse, it’s done. You’ve gone through it and come out the other side. What does it matter if the film was good or bad? There’s only one question that matters here: Am I the same person after watching it?
But first, what is “it”?
2. Much as one can’t capture a whole city by describing a street corner, Bela Tarr’s sprawling seven-hour epic can hardly be summarized through a discussion of mere plot. Not to say that there isn’t a plot—there’s plot in spades, reams of it, stuffed into corners and spilling out of drawers, plot on the floor, plot in the cupboard, everywhere and anywhere. There’s betrayal and greed, sex and violence, joy and despair. Beyond that, there are strange digressions and weird, ecstatic visions. Dreams are described. Much alcohol is consumed. The centrepiece of the film is a drunken dance party where the normally miserable peasants stomp and sing and walk around with cheese rolls balanced on their foreheads before passing out and becoming swallowed up in spider webs, like relics in a museum basement.
As a story, the film is almost simplistic. Although there’s no real central character, much of what happens revolves around Irimias, a charismatic man of questionable morals who comes to a failed farming commune with the intention of settling old scores and bilking his comrades out of their paychecks. A sorrowful lot trapped in a cold, damp Hungarian hell, the former communards are especially vulnerable to any promise of a better tomorrow (Futaki, the strongest personality in the whole bunch, has no bigger hope than to soak his feet in hot water every day). The fact that a mentally disturbed child has killed herself only makes the villagers all the more vulnerable to Irimias’ righteous shaming of the entire community. Even as Tarr engages in elliptical storytelling, sometimes doubling back to retell earlier events from different perspectives, the story itself remains engrossing and clear in its allegorical purposes.
But why describe the plot? Is that what the film is about? Why not describe the animals? You could just as easily summarize the film as a herd of cattle in the rain, a pig in the mud, a cat tortured and killed, an owl on a balcony. Or why not describe the rain, the ever-present rain, which is basically the lead character, at least judging by the amount of screen time afforded it? Or perhaps you could describe the landscape, which speaks as eloquently as the finest storyteller? There is so much in this film beyond its characters and story; the humans and their little troubles matter, but no more than any other element of the film. Sure, the sexual dalliance between Futaki and Mrs. Schmidt near the beginning of the film is a significant incident, but Tarr spends much of his time focused on the kitchen table and the chair, while life happens somewhere just off screen. We hear the pair scheming and musing on their crushing, confining lives, but so what? The chair has its problems, too.
3. Like any hefty epic, this film carries with it the inherent gravity of artistic intention. In other words, if you’re making a deliberate artistic statement, then you must be deadly serious, right? This is the same pernicious attitude that assumes Herman Melville could somehow write things like “Queequeg was George Washington, cannibalistically developed” without smirking or that an often reserved filmmaker like Yasujiro Ozu would never stoop so low as to make jokes about children shitting their pants in a farting contest (Good Morning, check it out).
Yet for all its grey misery and rain-soaked squalor, Satantango is funny, and sometimes even brutally, ridiculously hilarious. Aside from the fact that one of the key structuring images is a pig wallowing in the mud and filth, the film is littered with verbal gags and droll non sequiturs (one member of this miserabilist chorus dreams of a better future: “I’ll be a watchman in a chocolate factory. Or a porter in a girls’ dormitory”). Yes, the film is also deeply serious, but this is the challenge Tarr has taken on for himself, and perhaps his greatest achievement here. He has molded a tragedy out of a group of comic misfits, losing none of the humour as he reaches for pathos. It is a King Lear in which the Fool plays every part.
While each individual’s fate is often tragic, or at least pitiable, the grand sweep of history on display here is clearly fodder for comedy. History is not written by the losers or winners, but the ignorant and the deranged—people too removed from reality to actually play a part in the pageant they describe. In the police office, two clerks go over a report authored by Irimias, who offers sneering indictments of his acolytes, all of whom are portrayed as pathetic, stupid and somewhat unhygienic. Rewriting the harsh descriptions, the two clerks provided a bemused commentary of their own as they revise the record, reducing everything into the doughy, formless language of bureaucracy.
Whatever truth is to be found about these people is left up to the village historian, the doctor. Locked up in his house with his books and his alcoholism, the doctor sits all day at his window, recording the comings and goings of the townspeople in his notebook. In a final, crucial joke, he is sent to the hospital for 13 days to recover from a desperate midnight ramble, but when he returns, he is unaware that the village is now deserted. He returns to his chair, writing in his notebook that everyone is apparently too afraid to leave their homes. The death of the community becomes the end of history, and the doctor’s response is simple and almost logical—he shutters his own window.
4. In the bar, a drunk man drones on in the background, recounting his encounter with Irimias endlessly, trapped in some sort of damaged feedback loop where he just keeps repeating the same words over and over until they break down and become sonic paste: gunpowder, grasshoppers, Steigerwald. For a film so attuned to empty spaces and silent pauses, Satantango is remarkably attentive to the vagaries of language (perhaps a lingering trace of the film’s literary origins, as a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai). The man in the bar, besotted with beer and verbs, serves as the film’s chief linguistic theorist, offering up a practical demonstration of the mass delusion that is the socially agreed upon meanings necessary for language to function. Or, as he explains to no one in particular, there’s a huge difference between plodding and plodding.
You don’t really begin to appreciate just what a fine joke this really is until about the eighth or ninth instance of someone silently, doggedly trudging through the rain and the mud. If this film were a doctoral thesis, it would be called “‘How’s my plodding?’: The psychological function of walking in late-20th century Hungarian agrarian cultures.” The natural place of these people is not at rest, secure in their homes. Nor is it striving towards a destination, confidently entering with the knowledge that you are expected inside. It’s in-between, exposed, whether as a drunk belching in the ditch as he shuffles forth lamely in search of fruity brandy or a group tramping through the storm, collars turned up against the rain as the refuse of the world congregates at their feet like tiny tribes worshipping stone-faced gods.
5. At one point, in his home, the doctor collapses, and I am seized with panic, and not just because something has suddenly, shockingly actually happened, a real dramatic incident on screen in front of us, good lord, it’s like Tarr has gone Hollywood on us, but I truly fear the doctor is dead, and I ask myself is this what life comes to, dead alone in a room, and my panic comes because I see myself in the doctor, he had his brandy and I’ve got my Tarr, we’re both holed up with our spirits, I need to get out of this room, the air is growing thin, I need to get out before they find my corpse, the light from the DVD menu screen flickering across my face like a candle at a vigil, oh god it’s me call the doctor I’m the doctor call the doctor let me out out out and oh wait, never mind, he’s just drunk, just drunk, false alarm, next chapter, please.
6. Abandoned between capitalism and communism, the villagers seem on the verge of sliding into some proto-industrial purgatory (one of the only jobs in sight is prostitution, and even that doesn’t pay anymore). Everyone reels about for a guiding principle to provide at least a meager sense of direction and purpose to life. Apparently too petulant and selfish to function as a collective, the group also lacks the ruthlessness necessary to be effective capitalists. It’s not for nothing that Irimias derides them all as slaves without a master.
The film’s final sequence is a potent vision of this desperate, rootless quality. In a monologue delivered in total blackness—this scene only screens in your mind’s eye, sorry—the doctor tells us of a dream he had once. Futaki is called forth by the sound of distant bells, but he discovers only a small church, the tower collapsed and no bells to be found anywhere. Standing amidst the wreckage of history, the villagers are similarly confused. The collective collapsed and the communist dream dead, the people live on, sleepwalkers awakened in strange environs, no longer certain what brought them to this place. They seek out jobs and live unfamiliar lives, holding all the while to the irrational belief that one day everything lost will be restored. Numb, sleep-drunk, they rub their eyes and stumble through the grey new world. Was anything ever real at all?
7. “Well, did you enjoy yourself?”
“Did you see the metro?”
“What have you done, then?”
—Raymond Queneau, Zazie in the Metro