January 14, 2014
Last week Manohla Dargis complained about the overwhelming glut of films released in New York City. The New York Times has a policy to review every new release, and in 2013 they published 900 reviews, seventy-five more than the year before. Worthwhile indies like Computer Chess, This is Martin Bonner and Museum Hours are subsumed in a flood of dreck, which rent out screens to fulfill contractual obligations before limping onto VOD. So vanity projects with deep pockets eat up theater space, rendering word-of-mouth success almost impossible, since most titles are forced out in a week. The day after Dargis’ complaint was published, the third annual “First Look” series kicked off at the Museum of the Moving Image (January 10 – 19), a program of forward-thinking work, almost none of which has distribution. These are the films left behind by the broken distribution system in the United States, a freewheeling mix of handcrafted oddities, personal essays, and deeply researched documentaries.
Even though it’s only in its third year, “First Look” has become one of my favorite yearly rituals, its cherry picking of the bleeding edge of world cinema innovation the kind of thing I’d otherwise read about with green-faced envy in a globe-trotting dispatch in Cinema Scope. They alerted me to new films from old masters like Chantal Akerman (Almayer’s Folly) and Philippe Garrel (That Summer) as well as young talents like Goncalo Tocha (It’s the Earth Not the Moon), Jang Kun-jae (Sleepless Night) and the riches of Berlin School filmmakers Thomas Arslan and Christoph Hochhausler. They’ve continued in the celebration of the small this year, in a program populated with intensely personal visions made with a DIY spirit, from the opening night’s handmade childhood idyll Little Feet to the closing night whimsy of The Rendez-Vous of Deja Vous, a bit of strained screwball shot on the streets of Paris. Bereft of big name directors (aside from a Rohmer short), this year’s “First Look” encourages exploration – better to go in without program notes and hope for the shock of the new.
But let’s start with the old. Rohmer in Paris is a charmingly obsessive study of the New Wave director’s filmic ambulations around the city of lights. Director Richard Misek begins when Rohmer’s wanderings intersect with his own – Misek was unknowingly an extra in Rendezvous in Paris. He noticed himself crossing the screen while idly watching Rendezvous on TV, which then triggered his OCD, and he began mapping Rohmer’s characters as they wandered around Paris. The movie is a topographical map of these walks, layered on top of one another as if tracing the neural network of Rohmer’s mind. He also catalogues and inventories glances, staircases and doors, the first step toward an encyclopedia of Rohmer ephemera. Misek stumbles when he begins to interpret these repetitions – tracing them all back to the Spanish Quarter, and declaring that Rohmer was haunted by the New Wave and always trying to return to its bosom. This ignores how engaged Rohmer was with the present, in everything from fashion to music, and that if anything Rohmer’s films are suspended in an eternal “now” rather than looping in a return to his days at Cahiers. But this detracts little from the film’s multifarious pleasures, and the overwhelming need to re-watch his entire corpus from start to finish once you leave Misek’s headspace.
The other standout documentary is David Cairns and Paul Duane’s Natan, which re-inscribes the French-Romanian film impresario back into film history, after he was erased in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Natan was a pivotal figure in France’s transition from silent to sound filmmaking. Charles Pathé was skeptical of talkies, so Natan stepped in, became a partner in the company (rebranded Pathé-Natan), and produced some of the most spectacular films of the early French sound era, including Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses (available in the Criterion Collection). He had rebuilt the French film industry following WWI, and his adaptability to new technologies kept it relevant and popular against the onslaught of Hollywood’s vast resources. But with the fall of France to Germany and the installation of the anti-Semitic Vichy regime, the Jewish Natan was subjected to a debilitating whisper campaign that insinuated he was an actor in pornographic films, a charge that has been repeated to this day, despite its virulent origins. He was stripped of his citizenship and sent to Auschwitz, where he died sometime in 1943. The Natan name was scrubbed from Pathé history, and his name is nowhere to be found at the sound studio he built. A work of barely suppressed rage that is also a fine piece of scholarship, it’s the rare talking head documentary that I’d recommend without reservations. You should also check out David Cairns’ movie blog, Shadowplay, which is unfailingly lively and intelligent.
The only director in the series that I had seen work from previously is the Quebecois director Denis Côté, whose dour black comedy Curling (2010) I had enjoyed a few years back. His new feature, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, is a more mysterious and withholding film, while retaining his off-kilter humor. It follows the post-prison life of Victoria (Pierette Robitaille), who moves in with her invalid uncle in a rural Canadian town, enduring the prying eyes of her probation officer while rekindling a relationship with her girlfriend Florence (Romane Bohringer). Florence has a past of her own, however, that shows up with a bloody vengeance. Unfurling like a fissured fable, Victoria uses her forest retreat to tame her insecurities and find whatever self she has left – but that self is invested in Florence, whose life is more out of a Richard Stark novel. In his droll, dreamy long takes Côté establishes that their love is in the past but not behind them, a curse they can’t rid themselves of, as dangerous as the psychotic gangster Jackie and her mute henchmen who’ve got a thing for breaking Flo’s limbs. It’s a love story and a death story which turn out to be the same thing.
There is much more to uncover at this year’s “First Look” showcase, including a history of the electronic Ondes Martenot instrument, Wavemakers, that I’m keen on seeing. But the pleasure of the series is going in blind and encountering the unexpected. Here’s to more surprises in First Looks to come.