January 1, 2013

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The beginning of the New Year means it’s time to catch up with the old. For the second year running the “First Look” series at the Museum of the Moving Image (January 4 – 13) provides an invaluable showcase for undistributed international cinema. Programmers Rachael Rakes, Dennis Lim and David Schwartz pluck adventurous work from festivals around the world, tracking developments in documentary form, the Berlin School, Korean indies and the continuing vibrancy of Portuguese film culture. In a clue as to the series’ disregard of commercial impulses, the series’ opening night film is Hors Satan, the latest by the divisive arthouse provocateur Bruno Dumont. Operating as a relatively youthful version of the New York Film Festival, First Look is an attempt to clue its audiences in to the possible future of the medium.

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If you’re looking for a crime flick alternative to Jack Reacher, you should seek out Thomas Arslan’s In the Shadows, a terse heist film worthy of both Jean-Pierre Melville  and Donald Westlake. Released in Germany in 2010, it has never been shown in the U.S. aside from sparse festival screenings. Arslan has been grouped in the “Berlin School” of filmmakers along with Christian Petzold and Angela Schanelec, as they all attended the German Film and Television Academy in the early 1990s under the tutelage of Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki (for more on the Berlin School read Marco Abel in Cineaste). Their style tends toward coolly observational reworkings of traditional genres, as last year’s “First Look” selection from the Berlin School, Christoph Hochhausler’s The City Below, rethought the corporate thriller. For In the Shadows, Arslan wrote an original script but is clearly channeling the stoic Melville hero from Le Samourai. The lead actor Misel Maticevic has more than a passing resemblance to Alain Delon, and plays a similar figure of blank professionalism. Known only as “Trojan”, Maticevic stalks through a glimmering Berlin of glass and chrome after being released from jail. Arslan often frames him in the corners of cafe windows, always watching and waiting for a lucrative gig to come his way. If the character is pure Melville the plot is straight from Westlake’s Parker novels, obsessed with the process of executing lucrative small time crimes. Trojan is constantly forming and reforming plans, covering for every contingency, sticking wedges of paper in hotel doors as a makeshift alarm systems and knifing through fights to leave as little evidence of his presence as possible. Arslan would be the ideal candidate to direct Jason Statham in the forthcoming Parker movie, but instead he’s moving on to recast another genre. This year Gold will premiere, his Klondike gold rush Western starring that brilliant blonde axiom of the Berlin School group, Nina Hoss (Barbara).

Another title for Jang Kun-jae’s Sleepless Night could be This is 30. A slender 65 minute reverie about a young married couple, this is a deceptively slight film that trembles with unspoken terrors. An unexceptional couple, the man a factory worker, the woman a yoga instructor, spend their days and nights together as one extended embrace. Actors Kim Soo-hyun and Kim Joo-ryeong ooze pheremonal attraction, each gaze and gentle graze positioned so they fit together like puzzle pieces.  The film uses the standard static camera/long take strategy of too many festival films, but these actors justify the strategy, their movements more than making up for the camera’s lack. The couple’s perennial youth must fade, however, and a hilariously picky post-dinner party argument introduces a fissure in their bond that both soon wish to ignore. The change is registered in their bodies, made clear in a final shot in which the wife looks at the husband, and he is looking at the stars.

Sleepless Night is so lived in, and such a reflection of my own life at this stage, that it feels like a documentary, whereas the actual documentaries on display are more composed and choreographed.  Inori is Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s follow-up to his gorgeous family drama on a Mexican coral reef Alamar, and it continues his ethnographic fascination with outsider communities. This time he follows a shrinking mountain village in Japan in which only the elderly remain. The school has turned into a walk-in clinic and the main occupation is decorating memorial shrines, with the residents seeming sanguine about the prospects of nature retaking their once bustling home. The film is a patient one that simply looks and listens, a recording of the dying light. The HD images are gorgeous, but I could have done without the overdetermined symbolism of one of the final shots – a woman’s face reflected in a ticking clock. Arraianos is Eloy Enciso’s more experimental take on the same material. He also filmed an aging community, this time on the Galicia-Portugal border. Along with documenting their traditional farming techniques and asking them to sing old folk songs, he has the villagers act out scenes from the play “The Forest” by Galician writer Jenaro Marinhas del Valle. These recitations in the forest and bars recalls the quotation heavy late works of Straub-Huillet, but with none of their wit.

One who could never be decried for his lack of wit is Thom Andersen, whose latest filmic essay Reconversion (Reconversao) examines the work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. It is an education and a delightful one. Andersen’s fastidious work goes project-by-project through Souto de Moura’s career, traveling to each site as it looks today, providing historical context along with liberal quotes from the highly quotable architect. Souto de Moura is obsessed with the concept of ruins, which he considers the “natural state of the work, a work that comes to an end.” The series excavates another ruin with Xavier (1991/2001), an independent feature started in 1991, completed in 2001, and rarely screened afterward. Director Manuel Mozos was a friend and mentor to director Miguel Gomes, whose miraculous Tabu continues to wend its way across the U.S., and Gomes returned the favor by programming a series of Mozos’ work at last year’s Viennale (Vienna Film Festival). A melancholy no-budget drama about being young and lost, it follows the title character (Pedro Hestnes) as he returns from the army to a life of short-term jobs and shorter-term relationships. Abandoned by his mentally absent mother as a child, Xavier’s impulse is to drift instead of connect. A supreme hangout movie, Mozos shoots on the streets of Lisbon as Xavier and his fuckup pals kill time in cafes and bars, waiting for their lives to begin.

The most indelible entries in the shorts program, Mati Diop’s Snow Canon and Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Eletrodomestica, convey a similar atmosphere of waiting, of the in-between moments that define lives. Diop, best known for acting in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, is also a born filmmaker (her uncle is the Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty). Snow Canon is a uniquely tactile coming-of-age film, set in a cabin in a French Alps resort. Structured around a pattern of inside/outside, a young girl stares idly at the mountaintops out her window, while building an erotic life inside her head. First it is a cute male babysitter, but he is replaced by an American girl, who suffers a breakup and leaves her emotionally raw. Connecting through dress-up and fantasy, the two build an erotic tension that is only made manifest when both step into the fresh air outside, and their dreams briefly come true. Mendonca Filho’s film is a dry run for his stunning debut feature Neighboring Sounds, a rhythmically cut day-in-the-life of a middle class housewife in Recife, Brazil. Satiric where Neighboring Sounds is more observational, Eletrodomestica shows a household that worships technology to the point of absurdity, using it to cook, clean, do homework, and even self-pleasure. The First Look series is nothing if not pleasurable, a refreshingly hype-free and forward-looking fest that has the added benefit of making you look smart when one of these immensely talented filmmakers makes the next festival hit.

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