There’s a certain poetic justice to the unxpected trajectory—provided by the 14th Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema—of America’s preeminent film critic, who, having been recently laid off from his long-standing post (34 years!) at TheVillage Voice, now materialized at a festival symposium half a world away to discuss his labour of love. J. Hoberman was busy for a couple of days as a guest of honour for the BAFICI publication of a Spanish-language anthology of his work, as well as presenter of the festival screening of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), but one can only hope that the man was able to take an actual day off, ambling Buenos Aires’s parilla and petrol-fumed avenidas at will. At the critical symposium, a forum which is usually about as illuminating as director Q&As, Hoberman nevertheless struck a couple of salient points that I took as a cue to reading the festival, and by extension the state of cinema, at large. One, the possibility that the imminent degeneration of film (call it the Death of Cinema) may paradoxically preserve it as a “destination” art akin to opera; and two, the notion that film and its attendant criticism might be compelling not by being genius, but by being awesome.
Preeminence indeed: BAFICI has secured its reputation as the cinephile’s destination in South America for its curatorial prowess, its breadth of vision, its cultivation of native talent, and its sociability. Its sustainability is in some sense contingent upon its ambition: are there enough decent independent films a year to fill out the fest’s rigorous roster? Can the archives be perpetually mined but not stripped of valuables, so that the Focossection remains a rich sidebar for discovery or nostalgia? (Cue Ruth Beckerman’s formidable filmography, culminating with American Passages; Narcisa Hirsch’s unclassifiable experimental excursions; Gerard Courant’s serial portraiture of Le cinematon, Brazilian pornochanchado salvaged, like a Vik Muniz sculpture, in the Boca do Lixo homage, to name but a few of this year’s highlights.)
The question begs an equivocal response, but nevertheless it would be difficult to countenance the glib characterization of BAFICI as gordo. Excess has proven a virtue at BAFICI, but its condition relies so much on the quality of the new Argentine films showcased in competition—or out, as the case might be, as the official selection is often the subject of much haranguing, particularly among those excluded, and for good cause. So this year there was an abundance of homegrown films (in excess of 30), but the consensual hope was that both genius and awesome would be uncovered over in the competitive Cinema of the Future or International Competitions.
When recently working on readying the 49th issue of the Seattle Film Society journal Movietone News for Parallax View re-posting, I reencountered this as part of the “You Only Live Once” column on local art and classic film programming. The big event on the horizon was the “first Seattle Festival of International Films.” How big an event? Let’s just say the bigness was real. Were there as many estimable films in that initial, 19-film, two-and-a-half-weeks event as in any recent season of SIFF? Discuss amongst yourselves. —RTJ
[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
The Moore-Egyptian Theatre at 2nd and Virginia has been open under new management—and a new name, having subsumed the Moore Theatre of old—since late last year. Already the Moore-Egyptian has proved a valuable addition to the local repertory map. Festivals of familiar Bergman and Truffaut are scarcely innovative, but there’s always someone out there ripe to make a (re)discovery, and they shouldn’t be denied. It was good to have a reappraisal shot at The Seduction of Mimi and Love and Anarchy after the brouhaha over Swept Away and the longdistance celebration of Seven Beauties, which still hasn’t played here (I find I prefer the formative Wertmüller, warts and all, to the arrived “major artist”). And even though it turned out to be an epic of turgidity, I’m grateful to have seen and accounted for the long-deferred Kamouraska of Claude Jutra; when a director comes up with a My Uncle Antoine, you keep looking for a while.
The “new” theater hasn’t exactly been swamped with business, and some envisioned renovations around the house will have to wait a bit. But the managers—Jim Duncan, Dan Ireland, and Darryl Macdonald—aren’t stinting at all with programming. They’re about to loose the First Seattle Festival of International Films, easily the most important event in local exhibition in … well, I’d prefer not to think overmuch about how long it’s been since anything remotely this auspicious was hazarded by a local theater.
For first time in its 38 year history, the Seattle International Film Festival—the longest (at 25 days) and best attended film festival in the United States—opens and closes on honest-to-god Seattle films.
SIFF 2012 opens on Thursday, May 17 with the local premiere of Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s fourth feature Your Sister’s Sister, shot (like all of her features) in and around Seattle with a largely local production crew. The film made its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto fest (where it was the first film sale of the festival) and its American premiere at Sundance.
The festival closes 25 days later with the World Premiere of Grassroots, a political satire based on the real-life experience of former The Stranger reporter Phil Campbell as the campaign manager of Grant Cogswell’s city council run. Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal (father of Jake and Maggie), it was produced locally and shot in Seattle.
In between are 273 feature films, including 24 world premieres, 25 North American premieres, and 16 American premieres. SIFF will have the only American festival screening of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom before its theatrical release, Special Presentations of Pixar’s Brave and Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, and Gala Screenings of Alex de la Iglesias’ As Luck Would Have It, Lola Versus with Greta Gerwig, and The Details with Elizabeth Banks and Tobey Maguire (which was also shot in around Seattle).
Other Seattle-centric titles include the shot-in-Seattle Safety Not Guaranteed with Mark Duplass (certainly an honorary Seattleite by now), Seattle filmaker Megan Griffiths’ Eden, the family comedy Fat Kid Rules the World from actor-turned-director Matthew Lilliard, and the documentary The 5,000 Days Project: Two Brothers by Seattle filmmaker Rick Stevenson.
Sissy Spacek will be feted with an onstage Q&A and a screening of Badlands, plus additional screening of Carrie and Coal Miner’s Daughter, and SIFF pays tribute to William Friedkin with a special screening of his new film Killer Joe and revivals of The Exorcist and The French Connection.
Among the best reasons for feeling optimistic about the expanded reach of SIFF Cinema—the new facilities at Seattle Center and the acquisition of the three Uptown screens nearby—is that it increases Seattleites’ chances of getting access to institutional film programming from elsewhere in the movie universe.
Case in point: the imminent sampling of “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema,” from UniFrance and New York City’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. This smorgasbord of Gallic screen fare has been an annual event since its inception in 1996. SIFF is one of 50 exhibitors nationwide to be offered a touring version of the 2012 edition, a weekend’s worth of feature films representing about a third of the festival that concluded March 11 in New York City. The eight movies will show Friday-Sunday, March 16-18, at the Uptown.
As a showcase, “Rendez-Vous” has developed something of a split identity. One of its missions is to highlight the sort of commercial French moviemaking that exerts widespread box-office appeal back home, yet rarely gets picked up by U.S. distributors for art-house play. At the same time, without giving itself whiplash, the festival also has reached out to and supported such ambitious and challenging film artists as Philippe Garrel, André Téchiné, Catherine Breillat and Benoît Jacquot, often playing a crucial role in opening the U.S. market to them.
The offerings at the Uptown will be a mixed bag. Alain Cavalier, a veteran director best known for his 1986 hagiography Thérèse, has contributed Pater (5:15 p.m. Saturday, March 17), a largely improvised political satire. Cavalier himself steps in front of the camera to play a mythical French President sizing up his new Prime Minister—which is to say, sparring with the unpredictable actor Vincent Lindon. For The Screen Illusion (7 p.m. Friday, March 16 and 2:15 p.m. Saturday, March 17), actor-turned-director Mathieu Amalric updates a 17th-century play by Corneille to the video age. (On the basis of it and the SIFF 2011 offering On Tour, I recommend Amalric keep his day job, at which he is invariably superb.)
Smuggler’sSongs (12 noon Saturday, March 17) is reportedly a jazzed-up period piece about (per the Lincoln Center website) “Louis Mandrin, a notorious, Robin Hood–like bandit in the years before the French Revolution.” 17 Girls (9:30 p.m. Friday, March 16, and 8 p.m. Sunday, March 18), a first film by sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin, spins an unlikely-sounding tale with a real-life basis: a village confronted with the willful decision of 17 local teenagers to get pregnant simultaneously. MoonChild (7:30 p.m. Saturday) offers Vincent Lindon again, costarring with Arnaud Desplechin’s favorite actress Emmanuelle Devos (Kings & Queen) in a story centered on a man with a rare disorder that condemns him to a life bereft of sunlight.
I had advance looks at two other “Rendez-Vous” entries. The Last Screening (10:15 p.m. Saturday, March 17) posits a small-town movie projectionist who divides his time between serving up the visual and aural splendors of Jean Renoir’s FrenchCancanand stalking local females for a grisly shrine to his late, quite mad mom. Laurent Achard’s film invokes no end of distinguished forebears, most notably Psycho and Claude Chabrol’s LeBoucher, but its psychology is absurdly reductive and it stumbles over more implausibilities than even Hitchcock could have got away with.
But even if everything else in the schedule made you go pfui, “Rendez-Vous” would redeem itself with The Well-Digger’s Daughter (5:30 p.m. Sunday, March 18). This remake of the 1940 Marcel Pagnol classic marks the directing debut of Daniel Auteuil, who won a César playing Yves Montand’s nephew in the 1986 Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. Those, too, were Pagnol remakes, and like Claude Berri before him, Auteuil honors the maître’s decision to open his earthy storytelling to the sun, wind, and ripeness of Provence: one’s eyes virtually breathe this movie. The tale is both elemental and rich, and in addition to giving a masterclass in screen acting as a patriarch at most one generation removed from peasantry, Auteuil is generous with opportunities for his fellow players, especially Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (in the title role), Kad Merad, Sabine Azéma and the ineffable Jean-Pierre Darroussin (the Inspector in Le Havre).
If that doesn’t seal the deal for you, how about the 4K digital restoration of one of the most splendiferous movies ever made? That would be Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s 1945 Children of Paradise (2:15 p.m. Sunday, March 18), often described as “the French Gone With the Wind“—except that this movie isn’t kitsch, and its artistic excellence and superb production values were achieved under the Nazi Occupation, with key creative personnel obliged to work clandestinely. The setting is Paris’ Boulevard of Crime in 1840, with the denizens of the theater and the underworld conspiring to make art of life, life into art. Never seen it? Your life is seriously incomplete. But don’t worry. We can fix that.
Tickets are at the regular Uptown prices; series pass $50 general, $30 for SIFF members.
For years I’ve listened to people rave about the Vancouver International Film Festival. Several Seattle-based film critic friends swear by it, attending every year; and I understand it’s the absolute personal favorite festival of a certain stellar pair of film scholars who catch a lot of these around the globe. Somehow, I’ve never quite made it there, except for what may have been a VIFF event a couple of decades back, when Jeanne Moreau and Lillian Gish were onstage to introduce the younger screen legend’s film portrait of her elder colleague. But this autumn we finally got it together, secured accreditation, and booked a pleasant, not-too-costly motel room within a few minutes walk of festival HQ and most of the venues.
Of course, even this year circumstances conspired to shortchange me a bit. What had been planned as a sojourn of a week or so at the fest’s beginning got reduced to five days in midfest for Kathleen Murphy and two-days-and-one-day for me (with an interruption to drive back to Seattle for a postfilm talk about Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear in the Seattle Art Museum film noir series). I ended up seeing only six films—eight if we separate Dreileben into its three feature-length parts. It was a bummer to learn that the tickets to Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre had “been gone for weeks,” and a delay at the border made me late for an intended midday show of something else. Still, I’m more than satisfied.
VIFF runs for 14 days, which makes it a few days longer than its younger but bigger sister festival in Toronto, and a week-and-a-half shorter than the May-June leviathan to the south. A postfestival press release notes that the 2011 edition—the 30th anniversary, as it happens—offered 240 feature films, 20 featurettes, and a few dozen shorts. The majority of them played at a seven-screen Empire multiplex on Granville Street, which certainly made things handy. The several other venues, including Vancouver’s venerable Cinematheque, were either catercorner across the street or a couple of blocks away.
During my too-brief visit(s), I didn’t see a frame of film out of focus or dimly projected, and with one entirely pardonable exception, every show started at its announced time. I didn’t encounter a single ticket issuer, ticket taker, or other staffperson who was impolite, uninformed, or afflicted with a zombielike fixity of expression. The festival program book and especially its intelligently designed screenings calendar are exemplary. And the Vancouverites who queue patiently for screening after screening appear to be as enthusiastic and affable as their counterparts at the Toronto fest (which I attended for 18 of the past 22 years).
The one movie that got off to a slightly late start was the Iranian A Separation, among some half-dozen pictures being shown in Vancouver within days of their appearance in the prestigious New York Film Festival. A Separation was playing at the Vogue, a capacious showplace—two-tiered balcony, big screen—that I gather had only recently reopened after a renovation. The place was packed, or in the process of becoming so; Kathleen and I ended up watching the movie about as far separated as we could get—she on a folding chair in an improvised front row of the orchestra, I up under the roof at the very top of the balcony aisle (nothing in my sightline and lotsa leg room!). I’m told Vancouver has a sizable Iranian or Iranian-Canadian population; there couldn’t have been many of them absent from the Vogue that evening, and they were in for a triumph.
Asghar Farhadi’s film has been wowing festival audiences everywhere—starting with a record number of awards at Berlin, including ensemble Best Actor and Best Actress, fully merited. It opens with one of those patient, plain-as-day compositions that just accrete power as they go along: a wife (Leila Hatami) and husband (Peyman Moaddi) sitting before an unseen judge and explaining why, even though they have the highest regard for each other, they must be divorced. She aims to leave the country, where she doesn’t want their daughter, age 10, growing up “in the present circumstances.” (How’d that line get past the powers-that-be?) Fine, she can go—but not the daughter unless the husband agrees, which of course he doesn’t. The separation begins, but the husband, Naader, hires a woman (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), lost to dementia. The woman is a good and conscientious soul, but life is complicated—a small daughter of her own, an out-of-work husband, a pregnancy nearing term—and one day there is a terrible misunderstanding that results in the whole lot of them being swept up in the justice system. Someone writing about the film has invoked Jean Renoir’s line about “everyone having their reasons, everyone being right,” and A Separation is worthy of the allusion.
So, a great night at the Vogue. And it began at a high peak, with festival director Alan Franey welcoming the capacity crowd with the announcement that, although initially there had not been plans to distribute A Separation in Canada, on the strength of the demonstrable interest on the part of the VIFF audience, that decision had been reversed. Which is as good a testimonial to the value and power of film festivals as I’ve encountered.
Originally published in Straight Shooting, October 31, 2011
The best films I saw during my week at the Vancouver Film Festival were Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Béla Tarr’s incomparable The Turin Horse. Both ran two hours plus. The storytelling in the former unreels slowly, cumulatively, so mysteriously that if you don’t watch with intense concentration, you’ll miss moments when everything racks focus. The narrative in Tarr’s masterpiece is terrifyingly repetitive and monotonous, in the Beckettian sense, like a great engine grinding itself ever deeper into a hole, in circular slow motion that you fear might go on forever.
And, yes, each movie was mesmerizing, formally stunning in its exposure of the human condition. These are works that show us the skull beneath every skin, the darkness that threatens all our light, and the absurdity of our strivings to signify. I know what you’re saying: Why would I want to sit through such downers, deliberate excursions into angst and despair? My answer is always the same: How can you not? What would a thinking person do without artists like Tarr or Ceylan or Shakespeare or Goya who challenge futility and chaos by framing and composing every cause of existential hopelessness? Even nihilism can be shaped into story, made beautifully and truthfully subject to mind. Stories like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Turin Horse (count Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in this company) keep us alive and sane. Call them spiritual sustenance.
Sadly, long, challenging films like these will never garner larger auds after their festival showcases. That’s the tragedy of film as art, or art as film: the more it’s art, the less it will be seen. Both movies should have pride of place on any critic’s Ten Best List this year. But what would be the context for sharing such a list? Who would even recognize these titles?
The first framed image in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is seen through a dirty window pane: a blear of yellow light slowly resolves to show three comrades hunkered down for the night in a truckstop oasis, drinking, talking, laughing. Those are the stylistic elements that define the long pilgrimage that follows: darkness mitigated by camaraderie and revelations amid pools of golden light. This stylistic formalism recalls Howard Hawks, who brings his beleaguered communities into circles of light where friendship, music, and professional skill are often the only hedges against oblivion.
Setting out to say something about Sleeping Sickness, a film by Ulrich Köhler shown in the recent Vancouver International Film Festival, I looked up the blurb I wrote nearly a decade ago for the director’s maiden feature Bungalow:
An army truck convoy pulls into a rest stop, disgorging the troops for a brief coffee break. One soldier (Lennie Burmeister) unobtrusively fails to remount, and hitches a ride to a little bungalow outside a rural village. The place is deserted and closed up, and at first it seems that the young man is breaking into the home of strangers. And perhaps he is, though in fact the home is his own. Soon his older brother turns up with Danish would-be movie starlet (Trine Dyrholm) in tow. Tensions arc through the lazy summer air like furtive breezes, and over the town nearby an explosion leaves its mark in the sky. Is there terrorist activity afoot? Is the young soldier himself planning something apocalyptic? The army phones up periodically, and patrols come by to look for him. The young man, who speaks vaguely of making a trip to Africa, is reluctantly spirited away by his alienated brother, yet somehow fails to take the train awaiting him. And so it goes, as the actress—who mostly speaks to the young man in English (though not to her lover)—becomes alternately more exasperated and intrigued by his growing fascination with her. A fellow SIFF programmer characterized the film, aptly and admiringly, as “a slow-motion train wreck.” Director Ulrich Köhler and cameraman Patrick Orth map the titular bungalow and the surrounding trees and hillsides with a chilling precision that never ruffles the laidback summer calm, and the film builds to a masterly, metaphysically charged long-take climax worthy of Antonioni.
Turns out I was already saying something about Sleeping Sickness. Like Bungalow, the new Köhler picture (his third) drifts in an eerie suspension, at once beautifully attentive to mood, place, and what we might call the climate of people’s souls, yet holding the press of story and theme at arm’s-length. The setting is the Africa the young man in Bungalow didn’t get to, though the director himself spent much of his childhood there. Heady and hefty issues crowd round demanding to be noticed and addressed—tensions between Europeans and the native population, and among the Europeans themselves; the legitimacy vs. the presumptuousness and built-in condescension of foreign-aid programs; the breakdown of a family living with one foot in Western culture and the other in the Third World—yet Köhler refuses to take a neat, complacent, problem-picture approach to any of them. That would just get in the way of the movie’s suffusing sense of being-there.
There, geographically speaking, is Cameroon, where German doctor Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma) has worked for two decades. The sleeping sickness of the title has been the nominal focus of his mission, though we hear little of it during the movie. Partly that’s because Velten has been too successful: the number of cases has dropped so dramatically that the medical bureaucrats back in Europe have begun to consider defunding his operation. But also, sleeping sickness is the metaphorical condition Velten himself has contracted, and although the early reels of the film show him preparing to pack up and return to Europe with his wife (Maria Elise Miller) and teenage daughter (Jenny Schily), we eventually learn that he never left.
I say eventually because the film blacks out half an hour or so in, suddenly the setting is Europe three years later, and our point of view shifts to another doctor, Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly). He is in some ways Velten’s opposite number, a black Frenchman born to Congolese parents who has never been to Africa. That will be remedied shortly, as Nzila is delegated to go make a definitive assessment of Velten’s operation. His early scenes in the backcountry are pitched somewhere between comedy-of-distraction and utter perplexity, with Velten nowhere to be seen and the staff and locals content to leave Nzila, not unkindly, to his own resources as he sweats through one humid night after another with only a flashlight for consolation in the unrelieved darkness.
Velten does reappear after a time—the first moment he’s really needed—and he’s at one and the same time recognizably the same fellow we were watching half an hour ago and a man utterly transformed. (Pierre Bokma’s performance is uncanny.) The remainder of the film will constitute a running conversation, as it were, between the fully assimilated white man and the European black who’s effectively whiter than Velten. This is a genuinely mysterious movie, and I suspect it’s going to leave some viewers frustrated and impatient. But I’m taken with Köhler’s line of country. Gone native, perhaps.
A couple of years ago, U.S. festival and arthouse audiences were riveted by Red Riding Trilogy, a production for Britain’s Channel Four exploring a history of crime, of both the organized and the darkly obsessive varieties, twisting its way through a community in the North of England over the span of a decade. The trilogy was a unified work pursuing a narrative involving a teeming cast of characters, yet each of the three feature-length components (“1974,” “1980,” and “1983”) was handled by a different director, and each director took his own, quite distinct stylistic approach to his part of the saga.
Much the same is true for Dreileben, a 2011 triptych for German television that played this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. Again, three different directors have made three feature films linked by a crime—more precisely, by the hunt for an escaped murderer in and around the picturesque village of the title—and if anything the results differ more in tone, style, and focus than the three parts of Red Riding. The time frame is much more limited, a matter of days or weeks. At least, that’s true of the manhunt. In a larger sense, Dreileben reaches far back into the past, especially in parts two and three, as new information emerges about aspects of characters’ histories that had been imperfectly understood, or even unsuspected, before.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the trilogies is that Red Riding, no matter how many characters it juggled and how wide-ranging its plots and subplots, was always “about” the crimes at the center of the story; Dreileben, more often than not, focuses its attention elsewhere. In the first film, Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, a young intern named Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) working at a clinic in a bucolic setting is on a cozy career path, given that the chief surgeon’s attractive daughter (Vijessna Ferkic) is sweet on him and daddy’s eager to recommend him for higher things. Then a cute biker chick blows him a kiss, and even though the immediate aftermath of that gesture is painful for both of them, a romance ensues. When not accommodating the biker gang, Ana (Luna Mijovic) works as a maid in a nearby hotel, and as she and Johannes traverse the woods and roads and bridges between their respective workplaces, we hear distant sirens, glimpse roadblocks, detours, and other signs of the manhunt in progress. We also glimpse how the manhunt begins, an incidental blunder by Johannes himself, who opens a door when he shouldn’t and unwittingly enables the escape of a man believed to be a homicidal maniac.
The principal focus of Beats Being Dead remains the affair between Johannes and Ana. A Bosnian refugee, she too has an air of hunted animal about her, and the emotional demands she begins to make of him have soon set both Johannes and the viewer on edge. So does the drift of the narrative. It’s as though we were encountering the hallmarks of the slasher movie—e.g., a floating camera perspective that may indicate Somebody Watching or may be just a casual change of angle and coverage—but rather than setting us up for cheap shocks, these stylistic tropes serve a contemplative mode infused with ambiguity and unease. Ana’s biker gang arcs back into view from time to time, though their potential for menace ebbs away, mutating into something more like embarrassment. And still out there somewhere—often as not caught, like Ana herself, on a municipal video monitor to which apparently no one pays attention—is Molesch the murderer (Stefan Kurt), who perhaps hasn’t actually murdered anyone, but may yet.
It’s unnecessary—and would be dirty pool—to reveal here the outcome of Johannes and Ana’s stories, shared or separate. The concluding scenes are powerful, the fulfillment of itineraries no less disturbing for our coming to “understand” them. In this,Beats Being Dead is consistent with the mission of Dreileben overall: to define the incompleteness of “truth,” to underscore the impossibility of “seeing” everything, even about ourselves.
The second installment in the trilogy, Don’t Follow Me Around by Dominik Graf, takes an almost absentminded approach to the Molesch manhunt—an especially odd tactic since the main character, Johanna (Jeanette Hain), is a forensic psychologist summoned to Dreileben to help design the best plan for recapturing the escapee. Confusion about her hotel reservation leads her to look up an old friend, Vera (Susanne Wolff), who offers the guest room in her perennially under-renovation house. To be sure, the film vouchsafes plenty of scenes with Jo on the job, incidentally enlarging on the personalities and quirks of police personnel peripherally seen in Beats Being Dead; we even touch base with a scene from the previous film in which Jo was literally a passer-by. But the heart of part two is Jo’s personal story: her single-parenthood; her relationship with the young daughter (Malou Hain) she’s left back home with loving grandparents (wonderful to reencounter two denizens of Wim-Wenders-world, Rüdiger Vogler and Lisa Kreuzer, touchingly aged); the renewal of the old friendship that proves to have been more ambivalent than Jo or Vera cares to remember, and to turn on rivalry over a lover they didn’t know they shared. Further complication is supplied by Vera’s schlock-novelist husband Bruno (Misel Maticevic), who goodhumoredly tries to ride out the rising tide of female emotionality and erotic attraction, but fails.
In this section of Dreileben we’re immersed still more deeply in the theme of what-story-are-we-telling-here-anyway? Each scene, interaction, or apparent digression is worth watching, yet the eschewal of anything resembling a conventional narrative agenda grows more insistent as the movie proceeds. Violence erupts a couple of times, not always in connection with the Molesch thread; one burst of mayhem on the part of a passing motorist serves as an accidental (but no less pointed for that) echo of a verbally recalled gaffe from Jo’s hard-drinking past. Molesch himself intersects the narrative like a phantom out of the forbidden zone of the imagination just at the moment Jo and Bruno are, well, most indisposed to be interrupted.
Whereas Petzold’s movie had the startling clarity of hi-def digital photography, Graf’s is shot in the fogged colors and spongelike textures of 16-millimeter celluloid blown up to 35. Although initially disconcerting when seen right after (well, 15 minutes after) the Petzold portion of Dreileben, this almost home-movie-like palette suits the mood of reassessment and reverie, frequently alcohol enhanced, that dominates Don’t Follow Me Around—especially in the coda when, the Molesch case abruptly concluded, Johanna returns home to pick up the pieces of the other “case” that’s come to preoccupy her.
After the way Dreileben‘s first two sections provocatively steer around the manhunt in pursuit of other narrative and aesthetic issues, it’s initially somewhat disappointing to realize that part three, Christoph Höchhausler’s One Minute of Darkness, will feature Molesch himself as the point-of-view character. No worries. Höchhausler has no interest in shifting to conventional thriller mode, or sentimentalizing the madman or leaching him of dangerousness. Before this final chapter has ended, we’ll have a better idea of the extent and nature of Molesch’s madness and guilt, but without explaining them away or reducing their horror. We’ll have revisited scenes from the earlier movies, but from a different angle and within a different context that adjusts meaning, motive, and understanding. This third section, like the first, is shot in razor-sharp hi-def, and needs it.
In case you’re wondering how three directors collaborating with different writers could manage to respect the same core reality while framing their individual interpretations of it—they don’t, not entirely. There are inconsistencies. What happens in one movie, with the characters standing thus-and-so, is not necessarily replicated when the same scene is played in another of the movies. Even depictions of the capture of Molesch differ to the point of contradicting each other. Do such discrepancies, divergences, invalidate Dreileben, betoken sloppiness or indecision? You must know by this point I’m not about to answer that in the affirmative. I don’t know which director is “right” in solving this case. I do know that it’s right that none of us, with absoluteness, finally can.
AFI grad Gerardo Naranjo’s MissBala can’t help but make art movie aficionados swoon—and Hollywood sit up and take notice. Might there be just a whiff of opportunism, aesthetic and thematic, in this pedal-to-the-metal thriller about the victimization of a young and beautiful woman (Stephanie Sigman) inadvertently swept into the bloody war among Mexican drug cartels, the DEA, cops, and maybe even the military? One writer may have exposed the little worm in the apple of so many critical eyes: “Were it not for the pervasive horror of the real-life combat, Miss Bala might have seemed absurdly lurid, unduly noir.”
Socio-political hook aside, it’s clear that Naranjo’s studied Dreyer’s Joan, Godard’s Nana, and the Oscar-nominated Mary Full of Grace, and that he knows a thing or two about using the power of a woman’s face to give a movie shape and meaning. And there’s little doubt he’s understands Michael Mann’s action-sequence techniques, though he doesn’t share that director’s passionate commitment to the beauty and grace of humans negotiating dangerous spaces.
At the opening of Miss Bala, the face of Laura Guerrera is unseen; as the girl moves about her bedroom Naranjo’s camera takes a long look at a smeared mirror surrounded by many, many clippings. It’s clear Laura aspires to something; mirrors traditionally reflect female vanity, and those clippings promote beautiful women like Marilyn Monroe and her sisters. Finally the camera catches up with the real thing, lanky 23-year-old Laura, her lovely features untouched by experience, heading out to compete in the Miss Baja beauty pageant.
In Shohei Imamura’s 1983 masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama, a woman fast approaching 70—the age when the old are sent into the mountains to die—works to ensure her sons’ future well-being. Marrying fatalism and selflessness, the film measures the flow of life and death in a village that lives on the edge of starvation. Now Imamura’s son Daisuke Tendan imagines what may have happened to the old ladies dumped in the snowy wastes. Turns out that, decades ago, one crone refused to accept her fate, somehow managing to survive by eating bark and the like. Now she’s the 100-year-old matriarch of a rag-tag tribe of castoff grannies. Their sanctuary, consisting of several primitive shelters barely visible beneath snow, is called Dendera.
How strange and wonderful, especially for one accustomed to airbrushed American movies, to watch a film full of old women, their lined faces and arthritic bodies reflecting the many seasons of their lives, the idiosyncratic beauty and grotesquerie of age. But the striking cast and the scenic grandeur of the setting are not enough to distract from the fact that Dendera doesn’t really know why or where it’s going.
Just when the ancient “queen” has convinced the toothless, white-haired Amazons they should wreck vengeance on the village that exiled them, a ferocious bear and her cub raid their precious stores, slinging defenders left and right in great sprays of blood. Is the relentless assault of this desperate, monstrous mother a sign? Have the septuagenarians violated some law of nature by living beyond their time? The bloody and prolonged struggle against the marauders, meant to suggest primal eruptions of nature red in tooth and claw, loses dramatic punch because the action is so sloppily choreographed … and the bear too often resembles an ambulatory rug.
Dendera isn’t good enough to realize its grabby ideas. It falls short even in making you feel in your very flesh and bones the brutal “weather” of survival—heavy falling snow, avalanches, oases of warm campfires in dim shelters. Tendan tries to invoke the power of primal “feminism,” but though his crones are physically arresting, they don’t pack the emotional or spiritual power that would make us believe in them as world-changers.
After getting up early and driving for three hours, perhaps the first film you watch in the Vancouver International Film Festival should not be Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly, all two-plus hours of it. Akerman is not the liveliest of directors; her style is lengthy staring, to frame a scene and contemplate it with lacerating intensity, as though seeing clearly could be an acid test for truth.
Here, in her first narrative feature in seven years, she takes on Joseph Conrad’s first novel, which unfortunately I have not read; I’m assured that Akerman is wrestling its meaning to the ground, making the novelist’s fiction about a corrupt white colonialist living and dying in Malaysia her own.
In any case, tired as I was, this provocative director’s exploration of cultural, ethnic and gender powerplays held me captive for much of its long running time, though it seemed to me that Akerman’s central issues ran out of steam pretty early on. It’s just that her visualizations are often amazingly rigorous, so rigorous you are mesmerized, almost shamed into sticking out extended scenes which handsomely emphasize white-imperialist-corruption-of-brown-people-at-home-in-nature significance.
The film’s opening dazzles: the camera follows a man into a nightclub, through lights, tables, dancers, to the stage where a slick young stud lip-synchs to Dean Martin’s seductive “Sway with me.” He’s backed by a line of hotties, their hands moving prettily to the beat. Cut, and we see the impassive face of the silhouette who’s been our guide into the club. He watches the performance, a cheapening of Asian beauty, a cultural corruption. Cut, and he’s sliding across the state to knife the singer. Like a curtain, his act moves the body and all but one of the back-up singers off the stage. The remaining woman continues to move her hands as though she’s in a trance, until someone offscreen calls “Nina, Dain’s dead.” It’s as though a Sleeping Beauty has been freed from a curse: this stunning brown woman walks toward the camera and in CU, delivers a gorgeous rendition of Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” (Hail, true body…”).
Apologies for the tardiness of my third dispatch. I had to duck out of festival mode and jump back into the home video mode of my day job for a couple of days. Now I’m back at the festival and back on the fest blog beat, catching up with notes of films I saw earlier in the week.
Belated update: the DCP issues at Granville 7 that I mentioned earlier this week have been resolved and the screenings are back in all their 4K glory. Ann Hui’s A Simple Life looked fine and my return visit with the South Korean war drama The Front Line looked even better (more on those later).
Is it churlish to say that I miss the inventive promos that used to play in front of each screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival? Every year they would roll out a collection of three or four comic pieces spoofing movie conventions, film culture and, my favorite, the unique community of obsessives, eccentrics and cinephiliacs that populate film festival culture. My favorite because even as I immediately recognized the “type” being simultaneously celebrated and satirized, I also recognized a little of myself.
But I can hardly complain. In place of the usual compendium of festival IDs, sponsor plugs and other promo pieces, VIFF presents a single short piece that identifies the festival, the organization and the sponsors and gets all the preliminaries out of the way in under a minute. That’s not just efficiency, it’s a gift to us festival junkies working our way through multiple screenings every day. So while I do miss those perfectly pitched promo skits of years past, I thank you, VIFF, for your 30th Anniversary gift to us all.
Two Years At Sea (U.K., dir: Ben Rivers) Part documentary, part staged experience, part meditative portrait of a hermit living of the grid in rural Scotland, this debut feature from experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers is all about texture, from the beauty of the B&W 16mm widescreen photography (Rivers hand-processed his film, which gives the image a distinctive pulse) to the pace of life unfolding for this man alone. It’s a narrative only in as much as one scene follows another. Otherwise, it could a still life in motion, captured forever in Rivers’ frame. Lovely.
Fatigue (South Korea, dir/scr/ed/prod: Kim Dongmyung) The title says it all: a wife and mother of a needy infant is left alone all day in an anonymous apartment complex (the buildings are differentiated only by the numbers painted on them) by husband who returns only for food, TV and sex, which she endures with a corpse-like, dead-eyed resignation. Needless to say, it wears her down. A first film shot on digital video, this Dragons and Tiger competition entry is a minimalist, stripped down production more focused on performance than cinematic expression. The director cites Claire Denis and Michael Haneke as inspirations, but there are echoes of Jeanne Dielman as well in the repetitions and the rigor of the formal framing, but the drab, inexpressive cinematography fails to give these snapshots a physical presence, a life beyond the point made by the director. It becomes more of an exercise than a film.
I Wish (Japan, dir/scr: Kore-eda Hirokazu) While you could say that Kore-eda returns to the themes of childhood innocence and loyalty and dedication of Nobody Knows, I Wish couldn’t be more different. This is a truly benevolent vision of childhood. Even though it turns on a divorce that has separated two schoolboy brothers (they talk every day via cell phone), there is no betrayal and no danger to these boys and friends. Sure, musician dad is a little flaky, but he’s certainly loving and even brings the younger son along with him to gigs. The boys are conspiring to reunite the parents, as much as they can while living their own lives, and pin their hopes on a “wish” they will make upon the newly-launched bullet train (the kids have created their own legend of magic around the new technology), but even this wish isn’t something done in earnest. This isn’t a Disney film and the friends all know that magic is a fantasy, but the pilgrimage becomes important in itself. The kids are marvelous without becoming cloying or cute and for a film with so little conflict, it is completely involving, wonderfully warm and full of natural humor. And after Nobody Knows, I think he owed us a film about children who are NOT in peril. I consider the debt paid in full.
My Back Page (Japan, dir: Yamashita Nobuhiro) Named after a Bob Dylan song (singular noun aside) and based on an autobiographical novel about a young journalist caught up in the unrest and social ambivalence of the student protests of the early seventies, Yamashita Nobuhiro’s expansive drama is epic in scope and intimate in approach. Sawada (Tsumabuki Kenichi), against his better judgment and even better advice from a sympathetic senior colleague, puts his trust in Umeyama (Matsuyama Kenichi), a self-styled activist whose soft-spoken manner and easy charisma has attracted a small cell of acolytes without actually articulating (and possibly not really knowing himself) his intentions. Yamashita presents a dense recreation of the era largely through the cultural sensibility of the newsroom and the reporter bars as contrasted with the cell group meetings and interviews with activists in hiding, and in Sawada he offers the most confused and at times misguided character of the entire festival. While the film can’t possibly encapsulate the era in this one journey, it comes pretty close to communicating the contradictions and confusion and ambivalence in one man’s odyssey. More to come on this one…
Just like Toronto 2011 and many festivals over the past year, the digital evolution stumbled big when VIFF scheduled numerous DCP (Digital Cinema Projection, the gold standard of high definition digital cinema) screenings in the Granville 7, the biggest house in the Granville multiplex, only to be left high and dry with two faulty projectors. Yes, the emergency system flown in to replace the first also failed to work and in place of high quality, 4K DCP prints, audiences were left with projected DVD screeners (complete with company watermarks) of some of the most heavily attended films of the first weekend. I sat through one but couldn’t do it a second time when The Front Line came out bleary and blurry, with colors off and an incorrect aspect ratio. Some of those problems were fixed a few minutes after I ducked out, I’ve been informed, but it’s still an inadequate substitute for what was supposed to be a state-of-the-art digital presentation. I’ve adjusted my Sunday schedule accordingly to skip the DCP presentations entirely (unless I hear that the system has been repaired) and look to other theaters. Meanwhile, here are some quick notes on what I saw on Saturday, October 1, my second day at VIFF.
The Color Wheel (U.S, dir: Alex Ross Perry) After leaving The Front Line, I went small screen for this block of time via a DVD screener. Low budget, B&W, what they once called mumblecore until the term finally died its deserved death, it’s the kind of bickering sibling road trip comedy you usually get between competitive brothers, and sometimes between two sisters. That this is a brother/sister pair of estranged siblings (played by director Alex Ross Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman) already gives it a distinctive chemistry. That they can make such unpleasant specimens of humanity so entertaining is a feat in itself, and the low-key approach to character comedy and situational disasters is refreshing. The improvisational method is apparent in stumbled lines and often awkward exchanges, but its also the spontaneous quality that defines the characters: they are simply not as clever, smooth or smart as they think they are.
Mr. Tree (China, dir/scr: Han Jie) Mr. Tree is Shu (which is also the Chinese term for tree, according the film). He’s what would once would have been called the village idiot: likable, slow, borderline mentally handicapped, prone to drink too much and ill-equipped to take care of himself in this inland village transforming into a mining town. His story is set against the changing landscape of China, physical and economic, and as the provincial village gets swallowed by the new business (run by a gangster of a mine manager), Shu slips into battering memories, ghosts of past traumas and fantasies of importance. On the one hand he’s a modern portrait of the crazy man as village mystic, on the other a drop-out slipping through the cracks of society, all in a visually graceful style (full of gliding cameras and gorgeous crane shots) and an impressionistic, at times choppy narrative style, which all but unravels by the end as his subjective life spins farther out of the objective situation. And seriously, has there ever been a Chinese mining town drama with a sunny outlook on the future? Produced by Jia Zhangke.
Sauna on Moon (China, dir/scr: Zou Peng) Another portrait of the new business culture of China, this one set in a sauna and massage parlor with benefits in Macau, the growing vacation center of southern China. This isn’t the den of drug addicts and indentured women imprisoned by gangsters but a modern business run by a hard-working boss who is more manager than pimp. In this new culture, the old ways of strong-arm tactics are a thing of the past and swept away by both the girls and the cops, who have a piece of the business action. Boss Wu (Wu Yuchi) is quite the entrepreneur—he ingeniously concocts new offerings that minimize actual sexual contact between the girls and the customers while maximizing show-business spectacle—and his girls, in particular his den mother Li, are partners pulled together by social events and team-building exercises. This is less a classic narrative than snapshots of a life in progress, the old brothel model being remade as a modern business and a communal effort: just one big, happy family that happens to be in the sex trade. And making quite a go of it too.
The 30th Vancouver International Film Festival opened on Thursday, September 29 with a full day of screenings and an opening night double-shot event of Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Fredrick Wiseman’s documentary Crazy Horse at the Vogue (back in the VIFF stable of screens after an absence of many years).
I arrived in Vancouver mid-morning on Friday, September 30, checked in with the always welcoming staff of the festival office (my favorite press office in the festival world) and jumped into screenings as VIFF expanded to its full complement of ten screens (plus a couple of special event 3D screenings set for the Park Theater), all within strolling distance of one another in the heart of downtown Vancouver. I hope to spend time with a few standout films, but until then I’ll be sharing my journal of day-by-day screenings.
Emphasis, as always, will be on the “Dragons and Tigers” program of over 40 features (plus compilations, mid-length films and shorts) from Asia, but I’ll be jumping around to other countries and films as well when I can.
Here’s my first day of screenings.
Tyranossaur (UK, dir: Paddy Considine) There’s nothing new in Paddy Considine’s directorial debut, but like so many other British actors who turn to British miserablism in the warzone of poverty and neglect and crime when they step behind the camera, the redemption is all in the characters and the performance. With Peter Mullan as a rage-filled drunk angry at the world but pulled back to human connection by abused middle-class wife Olivia Colman, it’s enough to make it matter.
The Skin I Live In (Spain, dir/scr: Pedro Almodovar) You don’t want to go in to Almodovar’s psycho-sexual melodrama knowing too much—or anything, really—about the characters, the situation or the twisted little plot that unwinds in flashback. Suffice it to say that Almodovar (adapting a novel by Thierry Jonquet) spins his own take of Hitchcock’s Vertigo by way of Eyes Without a Face and his own unique perspective on sexual politics, identity, vengeance and insanity. Wicked stuff: voyeuristic, brutal, emotionally wrought and visually stripped down from Almodovar’s usual fabric party of textures to a clinical-chic austerity. And fun too.
The Day He Arrives (South Korea, dir/scr: Hong Sangsoo) I always forget how funny Hong’s films are until I’m in the middle of their deadpan variations on a by now standard theme of immature, self-involved men and accommodating women fooling themselves into buying into their crap, at least as long as the drinks are being poured. This one, shot digitally in B&W (which gives it a kind of Woody Allen quality), is like Hong abstracted down to his essence and put on endless loop, like “Groundhog Day” as a South Korean mumblecore production: the same friend, restaurant, bar, absent owner, even former student who crosses his path like a stalker in the streets. The only difference: don’t expect any emotion growth from this guy. Kampai!
Dendera (Japan, dir: Tengan Daisuke) Though this is described as a sequel to The Ballad of Narayama, it really more of a reaction to the sensibility of the novel and the film through a geriatric Amazon fantasy of old women, abandoned to die in the elements, turned into survivalist warriors who thrive in their barbarian Shangri-la. I love the elemental quality of the film—the snow-covered winter mountains of yesteryear Japan—the ferocity of the vengeance that drives their will to survive, even the grizzled monster mama bear who declares war in the women’s tribe. But director Tengan Daisuke (son of Narayama director Imamura Shohei) never captures the unforgiving cruelty or the otherworldly beauty that defines Narayama and fails to connect with the lives of the women beyond lip service to the fury at being discarded by the village patriarchy. The metaphor of paradise lost as their communal ideal is bent toward revenge overshadows the texture of the life in the mountains and lives recharged as they reconnect with the power of their experience and their abilities. What’s left is a promising idea in search of a director.
White (South Korea, dirs: Kim Sun and Kim Gok) One might expect a twin brother filmmaking team known for radical political films would come up with something more interesting that this familiar collection of J-horror tropes in the catty, competitive world of pre-fab pop groups of the moment. Part ghost story, part cursed song, part nasty catfight for the pin-up position in a girl pop quartet, it’s as conventional as a pop song crafted for instant obsolescence. A couple of eerie images, sure, but even those are beholden to the evergreen J-horror conventions of faces hidden by long hair, bodies with insect-like locomotion and vicious smiles through bloody faces.
Consider it a triumph of the medium that soon we may not speak of “in-between-ness” or indeterminacy in cinema (let alone “slow” or “contemplative”), such attributes having become subsumed by and substantive of film itself, commonly deployed to a point of sufficiency. In which case a film such as Valérie Massadian’s Nana, recently awarded the Opera Prima award at the resurrected Festival del Film Locarno, might be received with the same fierce lucidity with which it was delivered, and rightfully so. Succinct and mysterious, taut and langourous, hermetic and expansive, Massadian’s pastoral fable strikes a memorably unnerving chord that only so much context can assuage. Unfolding predominantly in fixed takes around a country farmhouse in the director’s native Perche region, the film cedes its ostensibly observational approach to an unsuspecting, and rather hypnotic, centre of gravity: four year-old Nana (Kelyna Lecomte), whose fate is left agonizingly uncertain during an idyll of latent foreboding.
With a distancing mise en scène and a withholding narrative scheme, Nana might be opportunistically read as a provocation of sorts, an affront to certain orthodoxies of staging and routine viewing habits. Yet Massadian engages with her material in an utterly unaffected fashion that yields a becalmed but charged transparency, suggesting a wealth of drama within a paucity of incident. It is tempting to cite the director’s longstanding working relationship with photographer Nan Goldin as a point of aesthetic reference, although of little discernible influence beyond methodology. There are moments when the material world of Nana’s existence—a colourful quilt, toys on an upholstered chair, branches of a tree—is made nearly palpable: these are purely concentrated compositions that reflect Massadian’s work as a photographer. But it is through such materiality that a measure of time and sentience is made: the clarity of presentation suggests a strain of naturalism (associated with documentary) while resisting a hierarchy of visual importance (associated with fiction). From the perspective of Nana, which the film clearly privileges, the world is in a state of becoming, and many objects have equal claim to her attention. This visual and spatial “democracy” becomes increasingly effective as Nana is left to fend for herself in the absence of immediate care. Massadian’s very camerawork seems to be asking the question of whether the world is ever at the mercy of one’s fingertips, child or adult.