October 6, 2015
To stud its carpets with stars, the 53rd New York Film Festival has turned to the biopic. It opened with The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’ recreation of Philippe Petit’s World Trade Center tightrope walk, gave a centerpiece slot to Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, and closes with Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie, Miles Ahead. Though I haven’t managed to see those high-gloss productions, biographical approaches extended throughout the festival and into many of my favorites. Manoel de Oliveira’s Visit, Or Memories and Confessions is a wistful and austere reflection on his life, his career, and the house he lived in for forty years. Hong Sang-soo puts another of his wayward film director characters through a structural ringer in Right Now, Wrong Then, and the weight of history and mortality is felt in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, set in his hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand, and which he has described as “a search for the old spirits I knew as a child.” Soldiers afflicted with sleeping sickness dream away their lives in a makeshift hospital, situated on top of ‘an ancient burial ground. Those sleepy spirits of history seem to have wandered throughout the festival and through the avant-garde Projections sidebar, much of which is on Weerasethakul’s somnambulant wavelength.
“It’s a film by me, for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have made it. Either way, it’s done.” So says Manoel de Oliveira near the start of Memories and Confessions, in a voice-over written by novelist and frequent collaborator Agustina Bessa-Luís. It is a film of reluctant revelation. Shot in 1982, Oliveira ordered it not be shown until after his death, which sadly occurred this past April. The NYFF screening was its North American premiere. The film is structured as a tour of Oliveira’s Oporto home, built for he and his wife Maria Isabel (still with us at age 97) after their marriage in 1940. An unseen male and female walk through its environs, comparing the garden trees to guardians and the house as a ship – to these interlocutors it is a shapeshifting landscape occupied by spirits. They hear noises of its previous inhabitants, one of them being Oliveira the friendly ghost, tapping away at his typewriter. He turns in an artificially startled manner toward the camera, as if on an awkward public access show, and tells the story of his life. He screens home movies of his four children, lingers over portraits of his wife, and walks us through the economic failure of his father’s hat factory that put him into debt, leading to the sale of the home. Maria Isabel is only shot outside in the garden, cutting flowers. Asked by an offscreen voice what it is like to be married to a filmmaker, she replies, “it is a life of abnegation”, with a hint of a Mona Lisa smile on her face conveying the years of stresses living with a “man of the cinema”. Manoel has numerous copies of Da Vinci’s masterpiece stashed around the house – perhaps it reminds him of his wife? Though only 72 at the time of shooting, the film seems like a summation, a wrapping up, as he strolls through a Portuguese film studio and reflects on his own insignificance as the roll of film ends, cutting to white screen and the sound of flapping celluloid. He would go on to shoot twenty-five more features.
Cemetery of Splendour is also about the energies and spirits that can adhere to a space. Apichatpong Weerasethakul grew up in the small town of Khon Kaen in Thailand, where his parents were doctors. For the film he merged all of his childhood landscapes into one: his wooden home, the patients’ ward where his mother worked, the school, and the cinema. The movie is about a temporary rural hospital that cares for soldiers with sleeping sickness that no other wards will take. Their building is a rotting old schoolhouse that still displays remnants of its past: chalkboards, toys, and textbooks. The doctors utilize an experimental therapy using colored fluorescent lights that are said to tame the patients’ dreams, and perhaps ease them back to consciousness. Volunteer Jenjira (Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas) develops a close friendship with patient Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who scribbles enigmatic koans in a notebook in between narcoleptic sleeps. An encounter with the psychic Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) forges a mental bond between Jen and Itt that traverses dreams and reality, with Itt guiding Jen into the world of warring kings, buried in the ancient cemetery underneath the hospital. At the same time Jen leads Itt through the ruins of the school where she once attended, weaving history and myth together, all part of a lost Thailand that Weerasethakul is mourning.
At the beginning of the short video Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, Guy Maddin is mourning his career. Unable to complete funding for his next feature (what would become The Forbidden Room, part of the NYFF main slate), he decides to take a job as a director of a behind-the-scenes video for Hyena Road, a big-budget Afghanistan war movie. Maddin decries how Hyena Road’s catering budget could fund most of his features, so he soldiers on, even deigning to act as an extra corpse in one particularly humiliating long shot. But this being a Guy Maddin film (co-directed with Evan and Galen Johnson), things don’t stay linear for long. He decides to cobble together his own war movie with random shots of extras and and some lo-fi CGI lasers, morphing the hero-worshipping Hyena Road into some kind of subversive sci-fi freakout where the Afghan extras are the leads. Maddin makes it personal by pulling in his childhood hockey heroes Tim Horton and Guy Lafleur (he intones “Lafleur, Lafleur” as if the name itself held the key to the universe), and ends with Lafleur’s bumptious disco song “Scoring” while a talky drone interprets the lyrics.
Hong Sang-soo is a serial self-portraitist, always depicting sensitive male artist types in various states of self-examination or self-delusion. In Right Now, Wrong Then he follows famed art film director Han Chun-su (Jung Jae-young) the day before he is giving a post-screening lecture in the small town of Suwon. He spends it with painter Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), who he is strenuously attempting to seduce. They have coffee, retreat to her workshop to discuss her work, have dinner, and attend a small party. Through it all Han is working from an established script, using practiced lines from old interviews to create the seamless patter of an intellectual pickup artist. Hee-jung is initially charmed, then slowly irritated by his insecure mansplaining. But this is not the end – as Hong cycles the timeline back to the beginning and replays each scene, with Han subtly altering his approach. Each detail is magnified in this second go-round, each thread of conversation a possible fork in the narrative that sends it down new paths. Han displays more confidence in his own thoughts the second time around, speaking thoughtfully and honestly rather than relying on recycled ideas, baring his body and soul. As Han begins to listen to Hee-jung’s perspective, Hong shifts his camera to her – though it framed Han more centrally in the first half. It all sounds very simplistic and binary, but in action it is a marvel of subtlety of Jung and Kim’s performances. The first half was completed and screened for them before they shot the second, and their reactions seem to play off that first encounter, a teasing flirtation both with each other and with the movie itself.
The Projections programs of experimental films also dealt with the self, especially Laida Lertxundi’s Vivir Para Vivir, which attempts to render her body through cinema. Mountain peaks are connected to the peaks in her cardiogram, which are both seen and heard on-screen. It is a bold, sensuous kind of embodied cinema, ending with a blast of color timed to a recording of an orgasm. Alee Peoples’ Non-Stop Beautiful Ladies is a casual bit of urban photography, as Peoples documents an unusual marketing technique around her north Los Angeles neighborhood: busty female mannequins which hold motorized signs for a variety of small businesses – income tax accountants and gas stations alike. In an economically depressed landscape of empty billboard signs, these intrepid inanimate ladies still hawk their wares, absurd emblems of sexism that have held onto their jobs longer than most. The most unique and haunting work I saw in the festival was Lois Patiño‘s Night Without Distance, another short playing in Projections. Shot in the mountains on the Galicia/Portugal border, it envisions the smuggling trade as ghostly emanations of the landscape. Patiño used color reversal stock and then presented it in negative, creating uncanny silvery images that look like they came out of the video game Metal Gear Solid. That impression is further solidified by how the spectral figures, speaking of secret meetings and escapes, use stealth like that game’s Solid Snake. The long takes of smugglers waiting in crevasses and by creeks take on depth and volume, with physical textures vibrating across the frame. The travelers seem to speak in code, traveling towards a point beyond time, ghostly smugglers wandering the borderlands of perceivable reality. It conjures the same spell as Cemetery of Splendour, leaving me suspended in its waking dream of cinema.