Deceptively sumptuous given its scruffy punk milieu, We Are Mari Pepa (Somos Mari Pepa) breathes unexpected life into the naturally jaded (but hormone-riddled) body of youth/skate/band/buddy flicks. Samuel Kishi Leopo’s debut is utterly faithful in its depiction of the torpor and hope that doggedly accompanies teenagers everywhere, while limning a distinctly Mexican portrait of Jalisciense life over the course of a formative summer. Flush with teen spirit–that unassailable combination of insouciance and defiance—the film ultimately yields to the more wistful moods exacted by the reality of growing up. The symbolically slammed bedroom door separating youth from senescence, the modern from the traditional, the unrepentant two-chord blast from the venerable canción unspooling on vinyl, is gradually left ajar by Leopo’s rather keen sense of nostalgia.
Measuring films in calendar years and hierarchical lists feels a bit like ranking friends or, worse, rating relationships (Noah Baumbach’s Zagat history of a former romance rather drolly makes the point)—even if the impulse to canonize serves us well historically. And Godard did it. Now receding from view, 2013 may not have been revelatory in the vintage sense, but increasingly the cinema landscape feels like a terrain to be inhabited and traversed, paused in and coursed over. There are epiphanies and lulls, to be experienced in turn, contingent upon the curiosity of the imaginatively agile wanderer. At the very least, film years should me measured against Hong Sang-Soo’s given output. A few associative notes from the trip, then …. as 2014 brings us the “awards season” to remind us where we’ve been.
In April, at the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival, sunk into the labyrinth of the infamous Teatro San Martin, Galego filmmaker Lois Patiño apologizes for the projection image quality of a work-in-progress entitled Costa Da Morte (Coast of Death) which he’s presenting along with some fine shorts that evince a young director working in a formal capacity—the long shot—in spectacular fashion. There is a visual splendor recalling Burtynsky, while the intimacy of the eavesdropping sound channels Galician fishermen’s folk tales of shipwrecks and daily catches
Some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved, and Mouton (no, this isn’t another film about sheep) from first-time directors Gilles Deroo and Marianne Pistone, is the latest in a budding field of beautifully irreducible tales—blessed with the imprimatur of Locarno’s Opera Prima award—that refracts its subject through a prismatic approach to narrative. This shape-shifting is derived from a reflexive consideration of any given scene’s formal capacity to cast an expansive repertoire of unforced meanings. Mouton may be, pace its characters, about the “same old, same old,” but the familiar isn’t necessarily excluded from infinite re-imagining. At the very least, the moving image can’t resist being eventful, no matter how pragmatic or mundane, and certain filmmakers are constitutively invested in this dimension of film that Bazin deemed the “factual hallucination” of the image.
The eponymously named “Sheep” (a nickname presumably owing to his easily swayed nature) is first glimpsed nervously pacing a courtyard beyond a carefully framed window pane, his destiny debated in a foregrounded bit of exposition that sees his alcoholically unfit mother losing legal custody of the boy, in spite of her professed love.
On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, Telluride, the venerable film festival tucked away in this remote Colorado mountain village bucked tradition and did the seemingly unthinkable: it expanded. Adding an extra day to its program and a new theater (a 500-seat beauty named in honor of Werner Herzog) to its venues, the festival could be seen as not necessarily outgrowing itself but rather becoming more accommodating. The logic for audiences was that with more time and space to navigate the program (whose slender catalogue fits in a back pocket), the packed houses and epic queues would be diffused to a level more commensurate with a holiday weekend of moviegoing than an arduous pilgrimage to cinephile mecca. Of course there was talk of the festival as having lost some of its rigor on account of breaking one hit too many, and slumming it millionaire style. But leave it to a new film (12 Years a Slave), by the British Steve McQueen—a tale of slavery in the United States with no trace of kitsch, featuring robust performances from actors unfamiliar to the multiplex—to bust all assumptions.
It was Telluride that had not long ago ceremoniously proselytized on behalf of the Turner Prize-winning artist as emerging director, trotting out McQueen for a presentation of the bracing (circa 2008) Hunger, its rawness since mitigated by time and Shame‘s lack of manifest anguish. Were audiences now embracing McQueen at large? Was slavery a subject that American audiences were eager to countenance? “It’s about examining ourselves,” said McQueen at a town symposium with his ensemble cast, “and people may be more ready to examine history.”
Despite the elemental grandeur of its setting and the irony of its title, The Loneliest Planet (2011) hinges neither on the cruelty of nature nor of civilization, but on the betrayals endemic to interpersonal relationships. A deceptively minimal and decidedly haunted pastoral tour that follows a couple of affianced Americans trekking through the rugged beauty of Georgia’s Caucasus, the ambitious third feature by Russian-born, US-bred director Julia Loktev channels a series of oppositions—the distant and the intimate, nature and culture, man and woman, action and reaction—into a terse, pared-down narrative that flirts with allegorical implication while remaining viscerally grounded. Walking and talking constitute the film’s nominal action, but it is silence, a certain existential incommunicability, that prevails.
Nica (the fiery-maned Hani Furstenberg) is strikingly revealed in the first frame, bouncing naked and cold in a washbasin, as Alex (Gael García Bernal, bearded and becalmed) rushes to her relief with buckets of hot water. Though hewing closely to her characters, Loktev discloses little of them beyond gesture and immediate surroundings, a visual strategy that intimates the fundamental inscrutability of other people that was the lesson of Tom Bissell’s “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” the short story that inspired the film’s cautionary conceit. Staying as guests in a small village while seeking out a guide for their mountain trek—the negotiations proceeding without the aid of translation or subtitles, Loktev emphasizing those inevitable confusions intrinsic to travel abroad—the couple, clearly as infatuated with each other as with their upcoming adventure, loiter in their post-Soviet surroundings, doing handstands, having sex, drinking in the disco. This pre-journey idyll establishes an innocuous tone that is destined to be disturbed, but Loktev’s rigorous immediacy eschews easy portent. Her stark editing scheme offers legibility, but not necessarily insight—an aesthetic of detachment that may in fact be a deeper form of engagement, privileging intuition over understanding.
My arrival by car to the high altitude, low attitude Telluride Film Festival is understandably, even fittingly, late, given the fest’s relative proximity to the expansive, vermillion grandeur of Monument Valley, otherwise known as John Ford country. Loiter there, however, and you’re liable to miss the festival’s opening night rollout of Werner Herzog’s latest doc Into The Abyss or the Dardenne brothers’ Cannes honoree The Kid With a Bike, which proved to be the weekend’s hardest ticket, by virtue of popularity or having been slotted into the town’s notoriously intimate venues. One kiosk board went so far to anoint it “the new 400 Blows”.
On Main Street I witnessed a risible exchange – one not even the cine-literate Telluride is exempt from – in which a young man effusively intended to praise Herzog, only to mistakenly address Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who was calmly nonplussed. Telluride invites such confusion, playing the popular and the obscure, pitting a George Clooney tribute adjacent the magisterially bleak The Turin Horse (begging the question: how would you like to spend the next two and a half hours of your life?). Like its guest director Caetano Veloso – a totally welcome appointment in my opinion – the festival is decidedly august while resistant to claims that it isn’t edgy anymore. It’s fruitless to take sides or imply an Auteur-versus-Hollywood polarity, considering that the festival has historically been witness to much of the former’s transformation into the latter. But it does make sense to set an agenda that eschews the soon-to-be-released for the never-to-be-seen again, even if the modest Chilean Bonsai, with its punk Proustian attitude, never seems exactly antithetical to Alexander Payne’s project of familial folly (The Descendants).
It may be somewhat ironic that I’m competing with Colorado housewives for seats at the Dardennes’ film – where, oh where I wonder are these people when the film goes into theatrical release?! – but bless the Belgians’ expanding audience nonetheless. So I’m fated to watch Wim Wender’s Pina, in 3-damn-D no less, and fearing what may become of Café Muller’s sense of subversion in the hands of someone who’s lost his own anxiety at the prospect of a penalty kick. Some clever framing devices immerse us in Bausch’s production while affording some context from her resident dancers, and the 3-D elasticizes dance’s spatial dynamic, welcome or not, but there is little insight into the genesis of Bausch’s feverishly abstract, melancholic, and playfully choreographed theatre. An instructive aspect is cleaved open by the dance/film division: of how dance is powerfully suggestive and preempts the necessity of so much (film) acting, and how dancers are so often susceptible to bad acting. Bausch devotees may wonder just what this Wenders guy is contributing to a legendary artist’s aesthetic legacy, beyond exposure. Wenders fans, those of you who stuck it out into the ‘90s, may be chagrined by too many leaps into the unknown that aren’t padded with proper context (even if Bausch’s own elusive style would eventually solidify into an homage of itself).
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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.
While Cannes assumes its privileged position in the cinematic cosmos, the extant film world lurks in relative shadow, an eclisse that nonetheless calls attention to more modestly proportioned proceedings. Still flashy in its own west coast (relaxed) way, the recently wrapped San Francisco International Film Festival – 54 and counting! – soldiered on in relatively familiar fashion and hit a sweet peak with an inspired musical program that would be the envy of any croisette flaneur.
British ensemble Tindersticks play chamber pop that lends itself favorably to the Festival’s continually popular, if occasionally enigmatic, pairing of musicians with silent films at the city’s choicest venue, the historic Castro theatre (note to John Waters: no cuts in the ticket line!). Straying from the usual script, the Festival enlisted the band to perform pieces from their fruitful and cryptic collaboration with director Claire Denis, (a SFIFF regular) with whom the band, in various incarnations, has worked since Denis’ dreamy family drama Nenette et Boni (1996). ‘Worked’ is the operative term here, but it hardly conveys the depth of their engagement, so effectively have the band insinuated themselves into the textures of Denis’ radically dynamic oeuvre as to become generative of it. Along with cinematographer Agnès Godard, who has acutely penetrated and exposed the supple surface of Denis’ troubled world – from the latent desire lurking in bed sheets to the violence of dreamed dogs thrashing in snow on other continents – the band issue haunting and wistful treatments of Denis’ often opaque narratives in unsuspecting ways, discreetly eddying around already elliptical occasions (better to think of Denis’ stories in terms of thrust rather than plot) with repeated motifs tinkered out on vibes or plundered with bass, always restrained until loosed like the prevailing animal instincts onscreen.
Expecting a concert, then, would inevitably mislead. Here was the band playing song sketches to a tightly (and cleverly) edited sequence of passages – from what will likely become known as Denis’ ‘midcareer’ – with the practicality of musical instrumentation dictating a non-chronological approach, and favoring no one film. Langour and crisis intertwine like love and hate in Denis’ films – slightly indulged in Vendredi Soir, exaggeratedly in Trouble Every Day – and it’s curious to listen how the band fold this in to their compositions: a flute somehow signifying a portentous note to White Material’s imminent colonial collapse, a melodica riff bringing a sense of simultaneous levity and melancholy to 35 Rhums’ becalmed generational divide. Propulsion and stasis are key too, as a kinetic rhythm accompanies the film’s train montages, while apartment scenes are charmed with a childlike keyboard/melodica sigh, evocative of Denis’ Ozu homage while capturing some of Mati Diop’s beauty. With an unsensational sensitivity, the band converge the two strains like parallel tracks meeting, just as Denis manages to convey a sense of time passing both gently and tragically (Josephine’s romance and Rene’s death as versions of equally inevitable departure/loss).
As for quiet revelations in cinema, witness the exemplary case of Alamar (d. Pedro González-Rubio), in which a beautiful Mayan fisherman in Mexico’s Banco Chinchorro reef gets temporary custody of his 5 year-old son Natan, born to an Italian mother, and together they fish, eat, play and take notice of the natural wonders around them. Drama is in the details: the casting of fish lines by hand, and the swift recoiling of a catch; diving deep with snorkels only and coaxing lobster from the sea floor; cleaning the boat bayside while crocodiles lurk perilously close by (!); a white egret settling in their sea-shack, only to disappear in the thicket, indifferent to a child’s plaintiff call. By end credits, nothing substantial has occurred, yet one can feel the briny air commingle with a profoundly sad sense of separation between a father and son. Are they fictional or real? Is the director making this up as he goes along? Such mysteries are part of Alamar’s subtle design, graceful and direct. Deservedly this little sleeper has picked up numerous awards on the festival circuit and now gets a run at SIFF Cinema.
I spoke briefly with the director at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, where Alamar picked up the New Director’s prize.
How did such a simple but improbable film come about?
Pedro González-Rubio: I come from a documentary background, so the way to approach this adventure in fiction was to maintain the same spirit as my previous films. So the first thing I did was to go on location, to this place, and I told myself: “I’m going to shoot a film about a man who is going to die here, he’s going to spend his last days in this place, in order to return to an origin, to this ancestral type of life. Then I met Jorge. I’m a very intuitive filmmaker, and I’m driven by my first intuition. And my first sense with Jorge was that he was a character, but this interfered with my original idea having someone who will die here in this remote place. So I started digging into Jorge’s personal life, talking with him, spending time with him where he works—he works as a eco-tourist guide. And I learned about his family, his five year-old son, Natan, born to an Italian mother. And I began to think that this story of a man who will die here in Banco Chinchorro, well, he is this five year old man. These are his last days with his father, but it is a journey of initiation towards life. So that’s the only thing that changed, really: instead of talking about death, we are talking about life, a beginning.
The Seattle International Film Festival is upon us again, that equally cherished and dreaded pre-summer ritual that entails queuing and going indoors just as the city is collectively preparing to spread its wings after another monochrome season of scarce daylight and, quite probably, enough drama already. Complain, however, that the fest is too long, and it will end all too soon. Moan that it’s too big, yet still lament the absence of your favorite director’s latest masterpiece (where oh where is Claire Denis’ White Material, or Eugene Green’s Portuguese Nun, or Joao Pedro Rodriguez’s To Die Like A Man?). As for the lines that still stretch down the alley behind the Egyptian theatre: haven’t we all waited longer for something far less tasty, like bad coffee for instance?
Cast your net wide at this audience-friendly (as opposed to industry-oriented) festival and something’s liable to turn up, perhaps something unexpected, just as in the fisherman Syracuse’s (Colin Farrel) catch in Neil Jordan’s improbable Irish fable Ondine; is she a mythic half-seal come to land to redeem the recovering alcoholic and his wheelchair-bound daughter? A Romanian drug runner fleeing a bust on open seas? Or, to take the whole enterprise at face value, is she a perfect narrative muse of a lingerie model who seductively chants Sigur Ros tunes to the ocean’s depths as Colin Farrel is consigned to channeling profound sympathy with his eyebrows alone? At the very least, the film boasts a smoldering, bruised palette in keeping with its nautical Irish milieu, lensed by the estimable Christopher Doyle who, it’s worth remembering, was once considered Wong Kar-Wai’s primary pair of eyes, and who delivered a master class in cinematography in typical rambling fashion at a past edition of SIFF. Has it really been that long?
Of course there is the wisdom that says it’s not the size of the catch but how you fish, an apt metaphor not only for festing but for filmmaking as well. Which is what makes Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s Alamar such an exemplary case; its protagonist is a beautiful Mayan fisherman in Mexico’s Banco Chinchorro reef who snares his fish by hand or spear, under the curious gaze of his tiny son Natan, born to an Italian mother and now thousands of miles away, surrounded by the vast sea, dwelling in a hut on stilts flanked by crocodiles and birds (one of which he proprietarily names ‘Blanquita’). Is this a fiction? A documentary? Or simply, as its director attests, just a “film” ? A genuine sleeper, graceful and direct.