Sunday, October 27, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Three

The Story of My Death 

A sort of high-historical game of let’s-you-and-him-fight, The Story of My Death meditates on desire and mortality through the unlikely pairing of Casanova and Dracula. Albert Serra’s film is compelling, challenging and all but unclassifiable, a sui generis work as seductive and sinister as its two iconic subjects. The first half of the story takes place in Switzerland, where Casanova holds court on life and art in between feasting and fucking; the second half shifts to a remote cottage in the Carpathian Mountains, under the growing shadow of Dracula’s corrupting influence. Much of the film consists of conversation, but Serra possesses a deft mastery of mood that allows him to shift easily from languid afternoons and pastoral reveries to nighttime murk and fire-lit violence. Casanova’s daytime delights collide with Dracula’s nocturnal agonies, and the combination results in a rare and strange beauty. Alchemy serves as one of the film’s central images—everything climaxes with the transformation of a dung heap into gold—and also as a metaphor for Serra’s own unique form of cinematic sorcery.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness 

Ben Rivers and Ben Russell combine talents in the visionary film-essay A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. From an Estonian commune to a lonely Finnish forest and a Norwegian black-metal band, the film is searching for something, but for what? A sense of community? A connection to nature? Transcendence? In the commune, people contemplate utopia as a party, trance music, or just naked people groping each other in a sauna (“Maybe there is a person with no finger up his bum,” one man muses, “but I pity him”). Later sections of the film contrast this makeshift mini-society with a man alone in the woods, or on stage at a sweaty underground music club. If the first section defines life in terms of community and the second in terms of individuality, then the third combines the two: enveloped by the music, the performers and audience members are united by their own private ecstasies, each perfectly alone and yet joined together by the music. Perhaps these are feeble consolations against the darkness, but take what light you can find in a void.

3X3D: Just in Time 

Peter Greenaway makes his 3-D filmmaking debut with Just in Time, and the director has leapt feet-first into the third dimension. Through dint of sheer excess, this short film serves as a fertile laboratory for just how far 3-D can be pushed. In a single shot, Greenaway leads viewers on a tour of Guimaraes, Portugal, throughout the centuries, introducing a sprawling cast that includes priests, popes, and an anti-fascist physician dancing the Charleston. As the camera loops round and round through a museum, text hangs over the screen like a curtain and images beset us from all sides. The film uses 3-D to overwhelm viewers with information, both verbal and visual. By the time the director starts pulling out the triptychs, I was deep in the throes of sensory overload, utterly dazed and yet no more knowledgeable about Guimaraes, Portugal, than when we first climbed aboard this multi-dimensional whirligig. The film’s entire method and purpose is stupefaction, and it succeeds marvelously on these terms. Good job, Peter. Now never do it again.

3X3D: Cinesapiens 

Goofy, gaudy and finally tedious, Cinesapiens hews rather too closely to the long-standing tradition of 3-D films shoving crap in the faces of viewers. As a meta-commentary on the way the technology is changing the relationship between the audience and cinema, this is all perfectly valid. As filmmaking, it’s nigh unbearable. Pera tours through the history of the medium, moving from shadows on the wall to the Lumiere Bros. and their train, with nods to the death of Valentino and The Jazz Singer. None of this is particularly fresh, but what ultimately drags the film down are its own mannered cuteness and oppressive whimsy (neologisms like Celluloid Kreatures and Filmitis, clowns and witches jumping off the screen, etc.). It’s all very quaint, and after five minutes I was ready to claw out my eyes.

3X3D: The Three Disasters 

Easily the strongest film in this 3-D trio, The Three Disasters finds Jean-Luc Godard in his cinema-poetic mode. You know what that means: dense video collages, gnomic proclamations about history and cinema, and layered with quotations ranging from anonymous porno films to The Lady From Shanghai. Godard makes few concessions to 3-D, although he does throw in a few pop-out shots for laughs. Mostly, he uses the technology to add texture, much like how a painter might vary the thickness of his paint. The effect is uncannily beautiful, and quite unlike what anyone else has done with 3-D. Admittedly, unpacking Godard’s dense array of allusions is impossible on a single viewing, but the overall thrust seems to be that perspective—the original sin of western painting, he says—offers a false sense of control over space, and 3-D is the natural outcome of that arrogance. Clearly invigorated by the fresh foe of 3-D, the director has produced some of his liveliest work since Histoire(s) du cinema. If digital is a dictatorship, Godard appears ready to take to the underground and lead the resistance.

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