TO SAVE AND PROJECT: THE 11TH MOMA INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF FILM PRESERVATION

October 15, 2013

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For eleven years the Museum of Modern Art has been hosting “To Save and Project”, their international festival of film preservation, highlighting the major archival discoveries and restorations from the past year. An annual reminder of the vital work being done by preservationists the world over, it acts as a preview of the repertory year to come, presenting classic Hollywood titles hopefully headed for Blu-ray (Nightmare Alley) to epics from international auteurs receiving belated stateside attention (Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side). With nearly all of the 75-plus titles being screened on film, it’s also a polemical statement that celluloid remains the most stable and reliable format for preservation.Star

Take for example, Stark Love (’27), a Smoky Mountain docu-drama filmed with non-professionals that was thought lost until the export version was discovered in the Czech Film Archives in 1968. Rarely screened since, this favorite of James Agee approaches North Carolina mountain folk with an artful anthropological eye, displaying the influence of Robert Flaherty. As in Nanook of the North, director Karl Brown aimed for staged recreations of their daily lives, although Stark Love is far more melodramatic than its model. His representation of Smokey Mountain life is paternalistic and not without its exploitative aspects , as their “law of the wilderness” , the inter-titles say, “is expressed in the cruel principle MAN IS THE ABSOLUTE RULER – WOMAN IS THE WORKING SLAVE.”

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Brown started out as a cameraman for D.W. Griffith, and Way Down East seems to hold particular sway over the plot, in its tale of an abused young country girl given hope of a new life from an educated young man. In Stark Love Rob Warwick (Forrest James) is the resident nerd, whose reading on chivalry makes him think his community’s attitudes towards women is all wrong. He begins courting Barbara (Helen Munday, a 16-year-old Tennessean discovered in a cafe), but after Rob’s mother dies his father decides to take Barbara as his wife. The two young lovers revolt.

The casting, though advertised as authentically Smokey Mountain, came from all over the South. Forrest was a football player in Knoxville, Barbara a high school student in the same city. Brown was heavily influenced by Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, which recounts his years living among the people of the Hazel Creek region of the Great Smoky Mountains. His images are intensely romantic, using long shots with low horizon lines, the people like underbrush against the grandeur of these landscapes. These are alternated with huge Griffithian close-ups of wrinkled faces, work etched into their brows, ready to be returned to the earth.

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It should be noted that the surviving print is the export version, which often used variant, lesser takes. On the NitrateVille message board, film historian David Shephard recalls screening this print for Karl Brown after its discovery, with him dismissing it as “a very poor representation” of what was released domestically. The domestic version will likely never be seen, but even this export print has compositions of breathtaking beauty. One can draw a line from Flaherty and Stark Love straight through to Lisandro Alonso’s influential life of a logger La Libertad (2001, also screening in the festival) and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (Leviathan, Sweetgrass, Manakamana), which value the visual and tactile rendering of reality over the verbal recounting of facts.

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John Brahm’s Hangover Square (1945) is also an intensely physical film, thanks to the lumberingly sensitive lead performance by Laird Cregar. It is a film noir about the unknowability of the self and the anxiety of creation. Cregar plays young composer George Harvey Bone, who enters a fugue state after hearing a particular tone in turn-of-the-century London. He loses hours at a time, with no memories of his actions. He is finishing a concerto (a grandiloquent, haunting piece composed by Bernard Herrmann) but is pricked by fears he might be a somnambulist murderer in the Caligari vein. Although he is not directed by a mad scientist, but his own subconscious.

Cregar had urged 20th Century Fox to purchase the rights to Patrick Hamilton’s novel, but screenwriter Barre Lyndon altered so much of the story that Cregar initially refused to appear in it.  Hamilton’s protagonist was a wannabe golf pro in 1939 London – shifting the job and time frame removes much of the wartime allegory. But the studio suspended Cregar until he relented to appear in it. The changes were demanded by Darryl Zanuck, likely wishing to avoid any political blowback, but also because it allowed them to re-use the sets from The Lodger, which Brahm had just finished shooting.

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This was to be Cregar’s first starring role, and his final performance. His weight was a source of agony to the actor, who had instilled a severe diet to get down to leading man weight. He died of a heart attack following abdominal surgery in December 1944, at the age of 31, one month after shooting on Hangover Square had wrapped. Our own Greg Ferrara wrote more about Cregar’s tragically short career back in July.

A visually extravagant film, Brahm uses every inch of his studio London, craning up and into dingy apartment pads and symphony halls. The fugue state is signaled by woozy POV shots, the lens smeared with vaseline. Cregar, with baby fat still padding his imposing frame, waddles through the film like a wide-eyed infant, too innocent and pure to survive in a mercenary world – embodied by gold-digging dancehall girl Netta (Linda Darnell). It’s all too much for his soul to handle, and the film ends in one of the grandest self-destructive acts in the noir canon, banging out the last chords to his composition as the music hall burns. The camera pulls up and away, as if afraid to look such abject depression in the face.

THE 2013 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

October 8, 2013

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In its 51st edition the venerable New York Film Festival is testing its boundaries. While still a small, tightly curated affair compared to the industry bacchanals of Toronto and Cannes, they’ve been slowly increasing their scope. There are 36 official selection entries this year, thirteen more than 2011, and have expanded the Revivals and Views of the Avant Garde sections to the point where they could stand on their own. A mammoth Jean-Luc Godard retrospective is also running concurrently with the festival. The official selection was heavy on the Brits this year (with four, although I didn’t see any), and otherwise tried for their usual balance of star power (Captain Phillips) and experimentation (Norte, the End of History, all of Views).

The Centerpiece screening was the world premiere of Ben Stiller’s The Secret World of Walter Mitty, the second adaptation of James Thurber’s short story, following the 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle. Stiller’s directorial outings, from The Cable Guy (1996) to Tropic Thunder (2008), have been dark and masochistic comedies about pop culture’s corrosive power. Mitty, on the other hand, is a nostalgia piece, mourning the transition from analog to digital. Having little relation to Thurber’s moody miniature, Stiller’s Mitty takes the daydreaming office drone and shunts him into a world-hopping, mountain climbing  journey of self-discovery, kind of a middle-aged male’s Eat Pray Love. Where Thurber’s story ends with Mitty fantasizing about his own demise, Stiller’s closes with all of his dreams coming true.

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It is bafflingly saccharine coming from Stiller, who had previously spent his acting capital to make scathing commentaries on self-help sludge such as this. Yet it is clearly a deeply personal work, sincere in its efforts to convince people to re-connect with the world. It is also very well crafted, especially the first third. The opening shot is wordless, with Stiller’s Mitty sitting at his laptop, stymied in his attempts to update his eHarmony profile. In one striking shot, he paces into the background and goes out of focus, forcing the audience to stare at an empty, perfectly quiet frame. It’s astonishingly bold for a $100 million would-be blockbuster. Fox hedged their bets by ladling on product placement. In addition to eHarmony, there are prominent cameos by Papa Johns and CinnaBon.

Mitty is the negative asset manager for Life Magazine, who is publishing their last issue before becoming online-only.  Prone to fantasies of action-movie heroics – he usually inserts co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) as his damsel in distress. While Mitty’s daily routine is framed in long shot with a smoothly tracking camera, when he leaps tall buildings the camera goes all Greengrass, turning into the handheld quick-cut style so favored by today’s action auteurs. The film is loaded with these clever visual ideas that contrast old and new, yet they are in service to a story that is thuddingly conventional. The reliably funny Wiig is reduced to arm candy, her role to prop up the self-pitying Sillter. The rest of the superb cast, including Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn and Shirley McClaine, are equally underserved.

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On the other end of the budget spectrum is Lav Diaz’s Norte, the end of history, a four-hour immersion into the Filipino justice system. Loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, it tracks the parallel stories of a nihilistic law student dropout and a saintly laborer. Fabian (Sid Lucero) is disgusted with the state of his country, ravaged as it is by official corruption. He advocates violent revolution on the grassroots level, and puts his ideology into action when he murders the local money-lender he is indebted to. Unbeknownst to him, Joaquin (Archie Alemania) threatened the usurer with violence earlier in the day, and he is immediately arrested for the murder. Joaquin and his wife had planned to open a restaurant, but a leg injury sucked up their funds and put them in debt. Unable to afford a decent lawyer, Joaquin is convicted and sent to prison for life. Diaz shifts back and forth between these parallel tracks, as Fabian digs deeper into his ideological rabbit hole, where violence becomes an end in itself, while Joaquin works to salvage a life in prison, forging friendships through his selfless aid to others. Diaz captures a wide swathe of Filipino society, from lawyers’ cafe bull sessions to working class dinner preperation, all captured in Diaz’s patient long takes. There is a palpable tension as the two narrative lines bend towards each other, their joining a flashpoint that might put an end to it all. Norte was acquired by Cinema Guild for U.S. distribution, and it will be the first film by Diaz to be released in the United States – a true cause for celebration.

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Hong Sang-soo movies also put me in a celebratory mood. This prolific Korean profiler of indolent man-children makes one of his chatty humiliation fests a year, and they keep getting funnier.  Nobody’s Daugher Haewon continues his shift towards featuring female characters, which started in Oki’s Movie (2010) and continues through the most recent Our Sunhi (2013). Haewon is at loose ends after her mother moves to Canada, her identity seeming to drift away with her. She’s only halfway present in all her relationships, from her intermittent affair with a married professor to her rapid infatuation with a teacher on vacation from San Diego. Even her consciousness is in doubt – the film is either a lucid dream or a sleepy reality.

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Also taking place in a liminal dream state is Stranger By the Lake, a minimalist thriller from French director Alain Guiraudie. An isolated stretch of shoreline is used as a gay cruising ground, where Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular. He develops an intense crush on Michel (Christophe Paou), who looks like Tom Selleck circa 1985, but who is always engaged with other men. Franck returns day after day, Guiraudie depicting this daily routine as a kind of incantation, and the woods up on the hill as an enchanted fairy land, a mystery world of lush greenery and pitch black shadow. The sex is explicit but natural, outgrowths of the land. When Franck witnesses Michel soil this sacred space with a criminal act, he is attracted and repelled. Michel becomes a monster stalking through the once-sacred land, inviting all with him to disappear into the darkness. The film’s bewitching mix of naturalism and fable is inherent to Guiraudie’s work, which will hopefully gain a wider audience when Strand releases Stranger by the Lake early next year. See That Old Dream That Moves (2001) his lyrical short feature about the closing of a factory, if you can find it.

Also recommended with public screenings still to come: Corneliu Porumboiu’s hilarious meta-movie When Evening Falls in Bucharest or Metabolism (no distributor, wrote about it here); James Gray’s gorgeous turn-of-the-century melodrama The Immigrant (Weinstein); and Catherine Breillat’s autobiographical poison pill Abuse of Weakness (no distributor, wrote about it here).

“FIRST LOOK” AT THE MUSEUM OF THE MOVING IMAGE

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.

THE 50TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL, PART 3

October 9, 2012

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The New York Film Festival is in its final week, concluding on Sunday night with a screening of Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking, Flight. Most of the action this past weekend, though, took place during the Views From the Avant-Garde sidebar. In its 16th year, Views provides an increasingly large snapshot of experimental film practice around the globe. Taking place in the year-old Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, the series takes over two screens and an amphitheater space, where audiences can jump back and forth between programs, if they can afford it.  This year’s slate includes festival mainstays like Nathaniel Dorsky, future fixtures Laida Lertxundi and Ben Rivers, and the unclassifiable duo of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Raul Ruiz, who straddle the arthouse/avant-garde divide.

Nathaniel Dorsky presented two new 16mm shorts in his packed screening, which capture a cycle of mourning and recovery. August and After was made following the death of good friends, legendary underground director George Kuchar and Fluxus artist Carla Liss. It was shot on Fuji negative, which the company recently announced will be discontinued. Using this already obsolete stock, which Dorsky noted had a “lugubrious palette”, he captures singularly mournful images. There is a portrait of George, fading into his wheelchair, and his dumbstruck brother Mike, seemingly too tired for tears. This presages Dorsky’s interest in human forms, which he has largely echewed in recent work. Later in the piece he will enter the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and capture a blur of shopping figures and fabrics and bags, evoking the feeling of being adrift in the flow of humanity. There are still beautiful textures, including the pilled flannel of a red and black checked coat, but they are subsumed in this flow. It ends though, on a vision of unsettling stillness – a kind of giving up-of a freighter lying motionless in a body of water.

April is an attempt to capture the world re-emerging following the trauma of loss. It was partly funded by a gift from Carla Liss, and shot on Eastman stock, which, Dorsky said, is not designed to be projected, but to be used to create a digital intermediate. But he was seduced by its pictorial qualities, and it is an identifiably sweet film, almost sentimental – you can sense a smile behind the camera as it winds through a San Francisco spring afternoon. Here his appreciation of human figures really becomes striking, with multiple shots of office workers and students on benches, the sun creating dappled patterns over their arms as they check their smartphones and sip their fruit smoothies. In these compositions Dorsky’s subjects look lit from within, religious icons instead of administrative assistants.

Laida Lertxundi, is another artist concerned with the beauty and terror of hanging out, being alone at home and in the universe. The world premiere of her new short, The Room Called Heaven, was conceived after she was asked to show some of the B-roll of her previous films. Looking at them, she was intrigued by how they played together, placed next to each other in incongruous conversation. Always one to speak in the present tense, though, she shot new footage, but edited it is if it was B-roll, scenes and fragments abutting one another. It is a similar editing approach as Dorsky’s, although her work is more artificial and composed. Where her previous work had obsessive visual motifs (windows, doorways, screens), here the obsession is with sound design. Her penchant for using a sole backing track (or soul, as with James Carr’s “Love Attack” in A Lax Riddle Unit), is replaced with snippets of songs and a more varied aural soundscape. There is ice is poured into a tin bucket, , a tearing page, and a blinking train stop-light. Then a woman sits, and replays the melody of the fragmented tune at a piano. The atmosphere is the same as her previous works, of a cloistered loneliness, but it achieved through different tools.

The same can be said for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel, a drowsily hypnotic sixty minutes that acts as a distillation of his style and concerns, but shot in HD rather than his usual 35mm. In a hotel near the Mekong River, Weerasethakul held a rehearsal for an old script he had dusted off, Ecstasy Garden. It’s filled with the director’s play on borders that was so resonantly deployed in Uncle Boonmee. As in that film borders are eminently permeable, whether it be between life and death, the spirit world and the physical world, men and women, Thaliand and Laos or past and future. The film’s pace is so gentle and lulling, set to a pacific, repetitive “classical Spanish blues” guitar melody, that the video can easily set one off to another border, between sleep and dream. But make sure to rouse yourself for the majestic final shot, of jet skis doing curlicues in the river in a super long shot, while a long canoe slowly makes its way to the other shore, the speed and power of the new contrasted to the grace of the old.

Ben Rivers is a filmmaker fixated on what is old and past – because what has been forgotten he can invent. An excavator and fabulist, Rivers is interested in outsiders and their ramshackle invented utopias. In his playful short Phantoms of a Libertine, he gives clues to the past of a rake and adventurer through deadpan notes and shards of photographs. We get clues like, “Oct. ’64. Nimes. I had acute diarrhea and was waiting for a train.”

Equally labyrinthine was a super rare screening of Raul Ruiz’s The Blind Owl (1987), which McElhatten had been trying to book for years, until he found the small French distributor who possessed the sole 16mm copy. A deliriously loose adaptation of Sadegh Hedayat novel of the same name and a 1625 play by Tirso de Molina, it follows the blinkered existence of a projectionist who fantasizes himself into the film on-screen, or perhaps the screen bursts into reality, a riff on Sherlock Jr. spiked with Ruiz’s elastic sense of time and space. Scenes loop, the world bends, and life is a grotesque horror-comedy-melodrama in an Arabic cinema in Belleville. Seen at the end of a marathon day of screenings, I was halfway to dreamland myself, but that is certainly how Ruiz himself would have preferred it, as I inevitably became another player on his stage of somnolent cinephiles.

In my exhaustion, there was much that I regret to have missed, from Phil Solomon’s remake of Warhol’s Empire using Grand Theft Auto, to David Gatten’s epic The Extraodinary Shadows, but I was left full to bursting with enough shadows of my own, which will cling to me until next year’s version comes back to town.

THE 50TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL, PART 2

October 2, 2012

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The 50th edition of the New York Film Festival opened this past Friday night with a Gala 3D screening of Ang Lee’s The Life of Pi. While that digital projection was warmly received, later that weekend the first showing of Brian DePalma’s Passion was canceled because of an intransigent DCP (Digital Cinema Package). As the NYFF, like festivals worldwide, becomes dominantly digital, attending some of the few celluloid screenings starts to feel like a modestly defiant gesture.  Two 35mm dinosaurs,  Manoel de Oliveira’s The Satin Slipper (1985) and  Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (2012) use Portugal’s colonial past as their subject, with both using archaic forms to emphasize themes of negation and evanescence.

Booked as part of the festival’s Masterworks sidebar, The Satin Slipper (1985) is an adaptation of Paul Claudel’s 12-hour 1929 play, which Oliveira whittled down to a svelte 410 minutes. It is only the second time that the uncut film version has screened in New York City, following a brief run at the Public Theater in 1994 (Stephen Holden’s NY Times review: “not easy viewing”). It was programmed for the New York Film Festival in 1985, following its premiere in Venice, but according to associate Film Society programmer Scott Foundas, U.S. distributors Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (of Cannon Films) would only consent to show a cut version of two and a half hours. Other titles Golan and Globus would produce/distribute in 1985: American NinjaInvasion U.S.A. and Death Wish III. One can’t help but imagine a Cannon Christmas party with Manoel de Oliveira brushing elbows with Michael Dudikoff, Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson…

The opening line of Claudel’s opus is, “the scene of this play is the entire world”, which he attempts to capture through the strivings of 50 plus characters at the turn of the 17th century. It takes place after the disappearance of the Portuguese King Sebastian on his colonialist mission in Africa, after which King Philip II of Spain brought Portugal under his power, part of his expansion that also led him to the Americas. Against this backdrop of overreach and excess Oliveira focuses on its inverse, the painfully unrequited love between Don Rodrigue (Luis Miguel Cintra) and Dona Prouheze (Patricia Barzyk). Rodrigue is the rogue whom King Philip nominates to be Viceroy of the Americas, to rule in his stead. Meanwhile the beautiful Prouheze has been married off to the much older judge, Don Pelagio (Franck Oger), whom she honors but cannot love. To restrain her emotion, and maintain loyalty to Pelagio, Prouheze places one of her slippers with a statue of the Madonna, so that if she is tempted by lust she will approach evil “with a broken foot”. Pelagio, aware of her emotional distance, will send her to Africa to control the smitten Don Camillo in order to hold the line against the Moors. Separated by oceans, Rodrigue and Prouheze nurse their love over the decades – living lives of negation and sacrifice, hoping to be reunited in death.

In an “Author’s Note” to The Satin Slipper, Claudel writes, “The most carelessly crumpled back-drop, or none at all, will do.” Oliveira takes this to heart, staging the play as if on the budget of a community theatrical troupe, with a mostly static camera shooting long speeches with few edits, as if returning to the style of early cinema, the one-shot films of Edison or Lumiere. Only the presence of sound and the scattered slow zooms indicate this is a modern feature. The ocean is created by spinning sheaths of blue papier-mache on giant rollers, stalked by cardboard whales, while mountain ranges are simply sketched backdrops. Oliveira’s Satin Slipper is very playfully self-reflexive, pointing out the artificiality of its constructions at every turn – far more so even than his previous tales of unrequited love, Amor de Perdicao (1979)and Francisca (1981, both adaptations, of Camilo Castelo Brancoo and Agustina Bessa Luis, respectively).

He opens the film with a tour-de-force tracking shot of a crowd entering a theater, stand-ins for the viewers about to sit for close to seven hours. After a narrator, never to re-appear, introduces the play (his tongue planted in his cheek), the doors fling open and the viewers enter. The camera backs up into the theater, rolling slowly down the aisles, until it tilts upwards, revealing actors in Renaissance dress standing stock still in the balcony. Eventually one of these actors descends, and the camera pans left as he climbs up on the stage, the curtains parting to reveal not a stage set, but a film screen. He speaks of the constellations of stars visible to Don Rodrigue, tied up on a ship that is equidistant between the Old World and the New. After the camera zooms close to the image of Rodrigue on the screen, Oliveira cuts for the first time, to the image of the projector, its light shimmering over all in the audience.

As Rodrigue is reflected by the light of the moon and stars, the audience is bathed in the flickering glow of the projector, the distance between the fictional and the real collapsing. It’s constructive to compare this scene to the opening of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which also begins in a theater, except those viewers are passive  and motionless, dulled by the clichés that Carax will enliven for the rest of his film. Oliveira is not bemoaning the state of cinema but attempting to cultivate an active viewer, as he is quoted in Randal Johnson’s Manoel de Oliveira: “My perspective is precisely to put the spectator in the action. In this way, the spectator goes from a passive, manipulated attitude to an active attitude in which he should draw his own conclusions and undertake a criticism of what he sees.” He is attempting to thrust you into the drama as it unspools, to share the light of the stars and the projector. There are the alienation effects of a jester who is shown painting backdrops and writing characters “who exist before I am finished”, and then he is able to immerse you in the emotion of the piece, seen to no greater ends then the monologue of a woman in the moon. In a long take, while slowly zooming in, Marie-Christine Barrault’s face appears in the firmament, straight out of Melies, but speaking of “never” as a kind of eternity, sacrifice as transcendence – and one begins to recognize and identify with that spark of religious belief that once lit the world ablaze.

In Tabu, Miguel Gomes is also concerned with old forms. It is a film split in two, both shot in black and white. Part One, (entitled “A Paradise Lost”, in 35mm) follows the aging human rights activist Pilar (Teresa Madruga), as she deals with the growing dementia of her neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), and the seeming indifference of Aurora’s black maid Santa (Isabel Cardoso).  The second half, “Paradise”, imagines Aurora’s past life in Africa, shot in hazy, grainy 16mm. This second half is narrated in voice-over, with the images from Africa granted sound effects but no sync dialogue, giving the impression of memories half-remembered, of potent emotions but vague details. This final section is set in the 60s, just prior to the African wars of independence that wrest the Portuguese colonies free of the domination that had bound them since the days of King Sebastian.

Gomes has reversed the order of these chapters from Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau’s Tabu (1931), in which the “Paradise” of a lovers’ tryst in the South Seas is then a “Paradise Lost” in Chapter 2, as they attempt to adapt to life on a French colony. In placing the Lost Paradise first, Gomes shades every action in the romantic Paradise with the knowledge of its ultimate outcome – his lovers are every bit as doomed as Rodrigue and Prouzhe. For a film suffused with themes of loss, the decision to shoot on 35 and 16mm becomes a part of the grander narrative. The frames on which these women are captured, stuck in silver nitrate, are now as fragile and disappearing as the narrative in which they enact. And while Oliveira could not have forseen it while he shot The Satin Slipper, his use of 35mm has become yet another distanciation effect, its depth and beauty another indication of what our present age has lost.

 

THE 50TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL, PART 1

September 25, 2012

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The 50th New York Film Festival, which runs from September 28th – October 10th, marks the end of an era. Richard Peña, the Program Director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, as well as the Festival’s Committee Head, is retiring after 25 years, to be replaced by the well-respected critics and curators Kent Jones and Robert Koehler. This year’s main slate, made up of 32 features from around the world, presents directors that Peña has long championed, including Alain Resnais (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet) and the late Raul Ruiz (Night Across the Street), but also features artists poised to take their place in the fest’s firmament. Christian Petzold makes his long overdue main slate debut with the meticulously stunning Berlin Wall-era drama Barbara, while the astonishingly productive image-grabbers from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab make their second main slate appearance, following  Sweetgrass (2008) (Foreign Parts was a sidebar selection in 2010), with Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s immersive fishing documentary Leviathan . Also making his second appearance is Leos Carax, with his weary ode to cinema Holy Motors, his first feature since Pola X (1999), which was his NYFF debut. Petzold is a classicist, the Ethnography Lab a group of experimentalists, while Carax is a bit of both – a provocative trio to kick off this year’s festival.

Barbara is the most unassuming feature of the three, a slow-boil suspense film in which the most action occurs in the eyes of actress Nina Hoss. She plays the title character, an East Berlin doctor in 1980 who is banished to a country hospital after being incarcerated for an unknown crime. Even at this distant outpost she is hounded by the police and forced to endure humiliating searches, as she plans to escape with the help of her slick West Berlin boyfriend. Only the attentions of the sympathetic wreck Dr. Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), and the decrepit state of a teen girl abused at the Torgau workhouse crack her determination to leave.

Petzold presents a world that is manifesting Barbara’s justifiable paranoia, one that constantly pokes and prods at her inviolable wall of privacy. He generally frames her in medium shot, with Hoss placed in corners, her eyes slathered in mascara so they pop out of her pale face, looking with the same intensity as the doctors in the reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulip that hangs in Dr. Andre’s office. She is alert and pensive, scanning a mise-en-scene that is rebelling against her. Her apartment’s electrical outlets blow out, the doorbell sounds like a clattering death rattle (and usually portends worse), and her bike’s tires pop at regular intervals. Then while at the office, she has to aid Dr. Andre in a lumbar puncture – with work the only place she can project her fears outward. Otherwise she is in constant surveillance of her environs, woman as prison-guard tower. Nina Hoss presents Barbara as an imposing edifice, a stone-faced sphinx who speaks in brief bursts, transmitting as little information as possible. But her eyes tell the tale, climaxing in an ecstatic close-up in the hospital, in which encrustations of anxiety fall from her face, and Barbara is ready to accept her fate.

The fate of the fish in Leviathan is never in any doubt. They will end up on our tables and in our bellies. Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel are interested in how they get there – not the facts of it, though, but the experience, and from every conceivable perspective. The duo used waterproof digital cameras and tied them to fisherman’s heads, shoved them into a pile of the writhing new catch, and dipped them underwater on long poles off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Herman Melville worked as a whaler in New Bedford, and used the town as a model for Moby Dick, in which great whales are called “leviathans”.

This association reflects on the changing industry in New Bedford, which was the number one dollar value fishing port for the 12th consecutive year, thanks to the sea scallop industry, although it’s a long way from the dominant whaling port it was at the turn of the 20th century. But while the fish are smaller, the sense of awe is still present, as Castaing-Taylor, Paravel and sound designer Ernst Karel cut between the brute reality and industrial noise of life on the boat with the awesome beauty and gurgling solitude of the nature outside of it. When the cameras bob up and under the surface of the water, catching flickering visions of seagulls manifesting out of the dark, it looks as if the world is being created before your eyes. The filmmakers told Dennis Lim in the NY Times that while Melville, as well as philosopher Thomas Hobbes (“life is nasty, brutish and short”), were the original touchstones of their work, it was the original, biblical sense of leviathan as sea monster that ultimately animated their vision. It is a primal, visceral and overwhelming work, one of those artistic breakthroughs that intimates what it might have felt to view the Lumiere’s train riding towards you for the first time.

If Leviathan feels like something bracingly new, Holy Motors is obsessed with the old – with old films, old actors and old age. After years of failing to secure funding for his work, Leos Carax fueled all of his rage at the business and love for the medium into this weary spectacular. Denis Lavant plays Oscar, a burnt-out itinerant actor who travels in a stretch limo around Paris (which has a similar tomb-like quality to that of Cosmopolis), heading to nine “appointments” in which he performs scenes in a variety of genres, from softcore porn to tearjerking melodrama to a grandly romantic musical reminiscent of Jacques Demy. His whole life is performance, and performance is life, acting for an invisible crowd that we see in the opening scene lolling contentedly in their seats.

This is no celebration, though, for Oscar is exhausted, as Michel Piccoli notes in a crucial cameo. These forms and characters that Lavant so imaginatively embodies are losing their force – these grand emotions are as outdated as the lugubrious limo that creeps through town. Oscar’s tour is a joyous kind of eulogy, a superb rendering of these spectacles that is also their last. He straps on a motion capture suit, a human disco ball in a dark room, and engages in an intensely erotic pas de deux with a similarly outfitted blonde. Their bodies heave and contract as one – but their efforts result in the slick, inhuman CG of writhing dragons. Later, a movingly melancholic Kylie Minogue breaks out into a heartsick ballad, singing of her past love for Lavant, a gorgeous number in which Carax tracks the camera up a desolate building onto the roof, where they part. All that is left afterward will be some broken glass on the sidewalk, another performance ended.  In Holy Motors cinema still works, and gloriously so, but it is fated to die anyway. The film is Carax’s form of mourning this passing, and here’s hoping this film and his career will have a lengthy afterlife.

  In the coming weeks I’ll discuss the sidebar programs, including the Views From the Avant-Garde program and an ultra-rare screening of Manoel de Oliveira’s The Satin Slipper (1985) , along with more selections from the main slate.

JAPAN CUTS: THE NEW YORK FESTIVAL OF CONTEMPORARY JAPANESE CINEMA

July 10, 2012

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For the sixth year running, the Japan Cuts film series in New York City presents an eye-opening glimpse of contemporary filmmaking from across the Pacific, the vast majority of which will never receive distribution in the United States. Programmed in concert with the ongoing New York Asian Film Festival (which I covered for Film Comment), it runs from July 12 – 28 at the Japan Society, and will screen 37 features and two shorts. The normally sober-minded fest has gone pop this year, booking a slate bubbling with hyperactive rom-coms and sci-fi extravaganzas, but there is also a sidebar of films responding to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as a tribute to the expressively stone-faced actor Koji Yakusho, who will appear in-person for the screening of The Woodsman and the Rain (2011).

Japanese studios wring established brands as dry as any Hollywood outfit with a superhero license, as the caffeinated pleasures of Love Strikes! (2011) can attest. It’s a manic romantic comedy adapted from a hit TV show (Moteki, 2010), which was in turn the small screen version of a blockbuster manga comic book by Mitsuro Kubo. Toho, the largest Japanese production and distribution company, dominates the native box office with re-dos such as these, especially the endless iterations of anime behemoths Pokemon and Doraemon.

Love Strikes! was a solid hit in 2011, and it is a cross-promotional machine, playing clips from what seems like every J-pop band of the last twenty years. But instead of a bubblegum-tween romance, it’s pitched towards an older crowd, aiming for the instant nostalgia of the early-30s set. The main character is Yukiyo Fujimoto (the mousy Mirai Moriyama), a 31-year-old virgin who quotes Goethe and reads way too deeply into teen pop lyrics. He gets a job at an internet culture magazine, but is thrown through a loop when the perky hip chick Miyuki (Masami Nagasawa) responds to his music nerd musings on Twitter (Yukiyo: “Someone register her as a world heritage site”). Director Hitoshi Ohne (ported over from the TV show), slathers the screen with scrolling Twitter pages and karaoke lyrics, topped off with Fujimoto’s self-doubting voice-over.

The highlight of this ADD-cinema is an impromptu music video featuring girl group trio Perfume, who dance through Tokyo with Yukiyo to their hit “Baby Cruising Love”, enacting his budding self-actualization. I was largely won over by this shock and awe pop assault, deluded male fantasy though it is, thanks to its witty screenplay by Ohne and an energetic performance by Nagasawa (justly deserving of the festival’s Rising Star award), who injects her thankless object-of-nerd-lust role with an unexpected aggressiveness and spunk. The third act devolves too far into passive male wish-fulfillment, but Ohne keeps the visuals popping around it.

The Closing Night film of the festival is another Toho-stravaganza, the sci-fi spectacular Space Battleship Yamato (2010), a live-action adaptation of the much beloved 1974 animated series. Directed by visual effects specialist Takashi Yamazaki, director of the Japan Academy prize winner Always, it pushes the limits of Japanese FX technology, sometimes to the breaking point. The story is ultra-nationalist, pushing themes of self-sacrifice to self-destructive lengths (the Yamato was the lead Japanese battleship in WWII). It follows one-time rebel Susumu Kodai (Takuya Kimura), who learns to love the military after the country is attacked, and about to be decimated by, the alien Gamilas. With a $29.4 million dollar budget, it is a major production, but the scale of the film needs Hollywood-style cash, and some of the alien worlds lack detail and dimensionality, giving them a video-game flatness. The film has a lack of self-consciousness in its propaganda, kind of Starship Troopers played straight, which to be honest has a refreshing pulp quality to it, as men speak in clipped moralistic phrases and rush around feverishly blinking panels.

Koji Yakusho doesn’t need flash to sell tickets. With his prominent cheekbones, piercing stare, and air of calm reserve, he could be a model, an assassin, or a model assassin, but instead he has chosen roles of subtle dramatic gradations, including the rumpled detective in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, or the crusty old patriarch in  Chronicle of My Mother (2011), another Toho-hit, in which he grapples with the growing senility of his mother. It’s a solid family drama, the kind of well-crafted multi-generational weepie even second-tier Japanese directors like Masato Harada can churn out with ease. Although not on the level of Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother (2010) or Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (2008), Harada uses distanced camerawork and detailed 50s era art direction to emphasize the distance he has set up between his own family members. Kirin Kiri is endearingly batty as his equally withholding mother, and their inevitable emotional breakthrough is underplayed so well that Yakusho’s grin has the same impact of a full-throated sob.

Yoshihiro Nakamura is a director who deals with Toho but has been able to maintain an individual artistic identity. While making cash-grabbers for Toho like last year’s dreadful-looking Eiga Kaibutsukun (watch the trailer – if you dare) he has also pursued a productive collaboration with mystery novelist Kotara Isaka , whose twisting Rube Goldberg narratives Nakamura has adapted multiple times over the years. His breakthrough film in the West was the briskly entertaining Fish Story (2009, available on DVD and streaming on Netflix) in which a long-forgotten punk song from 1975 inadvertently prevents the Earth from getting creamed by an asteroid in the present. Then in 2010 Nakamura adapted Isaka’s Golden Slumber (2010), a rather plodding conspiracy narrative that piles on subplots without Fish Story’s fleet pacing. Golden Slumber was Isaka’s first novel translated into English, with the title changed to Remote Control.  Last year found Nakamura take a break from Isaka’s work, and made his simplest and most affecting film, A Boy and his Samurai (aka Chonmage Purin, 2010). A sweetly sentimental fish out of water comedy, it plops a time-traveling samurai into modern Japan, who promptly becomes a master pastry chef.

This year has Nakamura return to Isaka’s work, adapting one of his short stories for Chips (aka Potechi, 2012), a svelte 68 minute comedy that combines the deadpan humor and narrative web of Fish Story with the naked emotionality of A Boy and His Samurai. Partly funded by the Sendai Miyagi Film Commission, Chips was shot in Sendai, and was recruited to help bring business back to the city, so devastated by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 2011. That is why Chips is included in the Japan Cuts sidebar, “Focus on Post 3.11 Cinema”, which consists of four fiction films attempting to respond to those events, including Toshi Fujiwara’s No Man’s Zone and Masahiro Kobayashi’s Women on the Edge. You can read more about them in Dennis Lim’s NY Times piece here.

Chips begins with Imamura (Nakamura regular Gaku Hamada) and Kurosawa (Nao Ohmori) watching an empty stage in the park. Imamura is the funny one, and Kurosawa the serious one, playing off the personas of their famed director namesakes. Their circuitous actions will fill the stage of the screen, set in motion when Imamura answers the phone during one of his petty thievery jobs, one of those small actions that has epic existential effects in Nakamura’s world. The girl who answers is threatening to commit suicide. He talks her down, but then the two of them are sitting during another robbery, and another phone rings. This time they are ensnared in a blackmail ring involving the baseball player Ozaki. Stories sprout new stories, all of them tinged with loss, from the prospective suicide to the final revelation, which opens up doubt about Imamura’s own identity. Imamura’s life becomes doubled with Ozaki’s, ending at a baseball game that unfurls with the compressed ritual intensity of kabuki theater, one that will shake the two men’s destinies apart. It is a wildly melodramatic and deeply sad conclusion, which pushes Imamura into a place where he is cheering for the destruction of his own identity. All this is accomplished with an unobtrusive fixed camera, usually focused on Hamada’s slackjawed moon face, which looks as if it is in a perpetual state of stunned surprise, which is a decent description of Nakamura’s audience as well.

Toshiaki Toyoda has staked out a less accommodating stance with the studios, and has become persona non grata since his arrest for drug possession in 2005. His new film Monsters Club is an unsettling re-telling of the Unabomber story, complete with a mail-bomb POV shot, from construction to explosion. Shot over two weeks without a script in snow clogged mountains, its method of shooting was as mad as its main character. Although it opts for rote pop-psychology explanations by the end, the visuals are far more unsettling, especially the hallucinations of colored shaving cream covered swamp people designed by transgender Japanese artist Pyuupiru.

This year’s Japan Cuts holds fascinating insights into how the Japanese commercial cinema works these days, which is not too far off from our own much-maligned Hollywood model of the necessity of “brand-awareness”. As Love Strikes! shows, though, these pre-digested products don’t have to be creatively diluted, as long as they fulfill their promotional duties first. Yoshihiro Nakamura is the most intriguing figure here, one who seems to be able to float back and forth between Toho-blessed A-pictures and his own little curios, much like the soon to be retired Steven Soderbergh. It will interesting to see how long he can survive the balancing act, before getting burned out and frustrated like his American counterpart.

FILM COMMENT SELECTS 2012

March 6, 2012

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The 12th edition of Film Comment Selects concluded this past week at Lincoln Center, having screened 32 films from all over the cultural map. The stoned dropout to the New York Film Festival’s Ivy League grad, the films chosen by Film Comment magazine’s editorial staff tend towards the spectacular and the underground, and occasionally underground spectaculars. Plucking from the festival scene (Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish), genre titles (Alexander Zeldovich’s Target) and experimental multi-projection performances (J. Hoberman’s Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds), it has something for everyone. That is, if everyone was a creepy cinephile shut-in.

The selection of Target (2011) encapsulates the mission of FCS, a Russian sci-fi film too genre-bound to make the NYFF, and too arty to pick up mainstream distribution. The film is conceptually simple but dramatically sprawling, pulling from influences as disparate as  Stalker and Gattaca. The year is 2020, and China has emerged as the dominant super-power, its culture seeping into every corner of Russian daily life. The Mandarin-speaking minister of Natural Resources, Viktor (Maksim Sukhanov), is tiring of his sterile marriage to Zoya (Justine Waddell), a feckless beauty who spends her mornings getting her face un-wrinkled by a nano-bot infused death-mask. Longing for the days when the felt something resembling emotion, they light out for the mountains of Central Asia, in which an abandoned astrophysics laboratory is rumored to emit cosmic rays that grant eternal life. They are joined by Zoya’s hyperactive TV-host brother Mitya (Danila Kozlovskiy), the thuggish customs agent Nikolai (Vitaly Kishchenko) and Anna (Daniela Stoyanovich), the dreamy narrator of a Chinese-for-Beginners audiobook.

As with Stalker’s Zone, the astrophysics site seems to have a consciousness all its own, with the guides referring to it as “The Thing, The Detector, The Target”, both an active agent and a receptacle for divine radiation, an elusive and contradictory force.Viktor and his entourage ignore this ambiguity, and approach it as just another slumming self-help adventure, the simple rural living distracting them from all those riches. But then the site has its effects, and immortality ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. The radiation makes them act younger and more impulsive, as if slightly buzzed. The movie shifts from sci-fi futurism to melodramatic fucking and fighting, as the group turns into an overheated brat pack of randy adolescents. Eternal love in this situation becomes not a promise, but an existential threat.

The films of director Alexei Balabanov present another kind of threat, not of the banality, but the deadpan absurdity of evil. His relentlessly black comedies eviscerate the Russian state apparatus in stories of institutional incompetence and sickeningly casual violence.  A Stoker is a return to contemporary Russia after the early 20th Century detour of his Bulgakov adaptation  Morphia (2008,selected for the 2010 FCS). Skryabin (Mikhail Skryabin) is a native Siberian Yakut who was shell-shocked in the Afghanistan war and never recovered, spending his days in the boiler room fueling the furnace, and typing away at a novel he’s been writing obsessively for decades. His face is a placid mask, and his reactions sluggish, as if instructions were dropped into him down a deep, cobwebbed well. Balabanov shows this garlanded hero as a zombie of Russia past, lobotomized into a cog in the mob’s death machine, as he burns up assassinated corpses in his furnaces. It is only when his daughter gets caught up in that same machinery that he dodders back to life, adding a few more drops of blood into his country’s vast reservoir, before drifting back off to sleep.

Also easing into the land of dreams is Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk (1983), a hypnotic nocturne set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Agitated typesetter and single mom Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) agrees to translate a sheaf of Chinese nursery rhymes to make some extra cash. Her life is already filled with everyday surreality, from her perpetually bleeding finger to the trance-like rhythms tapped out by her sullen workmates, but with these translated tales reality entirely escapes her, and she is left circling through a laid-back nightmare. Everything gets repeated, from a child’s obsessive street-crossing to the elevator’s insistence on stopping at every floor. Shot with the languorous long takes of DP Jim Jarmusch, Driver’s film approximates the feeling of half-sleep, when the day’s events are cycling through your head but your body is shutting down, your consciousness slipping away.

There is nothing sleepy about the wide-eyed adorability of I Wish (2011), the latest family drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows). Returning to more commercial ground after his experiment with latex love in Air DollI Wish was partly financed by Kyushu Railway Company, whose bullet train provides the central plot point of the film. It’s a simple tale of a family split by divorce. The two sons split, with Ryonosuke (Oshiro Maeda) living with the father (Joe Odagiri) in Fukuoka, while the older brother Koichi (Koki Maeda) stays with their mother in Kagashima. They vow to cut class and meet at the midpoint between their two cities, believing that when the new bullet train passes that point, their dreams will come true. A saccharine set-up, but Kore-eda leavens it with such melancholy and lightness of touch, it ends up indelibly moving. This is in no small part to the charismatic kid leads, real-life brothers who perform as the manzai (comic duo) act Maeda Maeda (according to Mark Schilling in the Japan Times). Already professional comedians, they have impeccable timing and rapport, with Koki playing the straight man and Oshiro the loudmouth madman. That this routine works despite their being separated for the majority of the film is a testament to their rhythm, as well as the fine parallel editing of Kore-eda’s team.

Film critic J. Hoberman (now of Blouin Art Info) does some editing of his own in Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds, his multi-projection spectacular that layers Passion of the ChristWar of the Worlds (2005) and Land of the Dead on top of each other in an orgy of martyrdom and Hollywood pizzazz. This special presentation grew out of Hoberman’s college lectures, in which he experimented with Passion as well as Rocky, playing all five (at that time) in the series at once.Passion was projected on film in its entirety, stretched vertically from its original Scope ratio to fit into the fatter 1.85, giving the characters, as Hoberman said, “an El Greco look”. Then scenes from War of the Worlds, and all of Land of the Dead were projected digitally over it, and hidden affinities began to emerge. It calls attention to the cookie-cutter manner of Hollywood screenwriting, in which “beats” all occur in the same spots, regardless of whether it’s Jesus’s crucifixion or a zombie rebellion. Then there are the smaller bits of serendipity, with Satan’s snake slithering towards a cowering Tom Cruise, or fireworks blooming over Pontius Pilate. As Hoberman admitted, it was more of an installation than a crafted work of deconstruction, and encouraged wanderings in and out. I remained lodged in my seat (with no booze nearby), so I let my mind wander instead, grazing over each layer of action, waiting for moments of convergence, after which I oohed as if wooed by the latest blockbuster, which, at Film Comment Selects, it most certainly was.

Click to read what I previously wrote about FCS selections Despair (1978) and Almayer’s Folly (2011).

FIRST LOOK: AN ADVENTUROUS NEW SERIES AT THE MUSEUM OF THE MOVING IMAGE

January 3, 2012

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Since I’m not stinking rich just yet, my plan to go on a heavily medicated tour of international film festivals has been put on indefinite hold. Luckily, the Museum of the Moving Image has purloined 13 new features from all over the world, most without U.S. distribution, for their inaugural “First Look” series (Jan. 6-15), bringing the best of the fests to NYC. Since distributors continue to lose money on any film not in English (or, occasionally, French), it’s something of a miracle that any foreign titles reach our shores at all. This leaves a huge glut of films without any stateside release, left as rumors of masterpieces in the words of the few industrious critics and curators able to send word back to us in the sticks. “First Look” was programmed by some of these proud few: Dennis Lim, the editor of Moving Image Source, Assistant Curator of film Rachael Rakes and Chief Curator David Schwartz. It’s a small but impactful series, with invigorating entries from old masters like Chantal Akerman and enchanting young voices like Gonçalo Tocha.

The opening night slot is given to Akerman, who will be in person to present Almayer’s Folly (2011), her impressionistic rendering of Joseph Conrad’s first novel. As with her adaptation of Proust’s The Captive (2000), Akerman eschews textual faithfulness in order to establish a specific atmosphere. In The Captive it is of airless enclosures, as Simon (Stanislas Merhar) creeps at the edge of the frame, seeking to imprison Ariane (Sylvie Testud) within his own paranoia, subtly shifting the narrative center of Proust’s story over to the woman. It owes as much to Vertigo as Proust, and Almayer’s Folly is  equal parts Tabu and Conrad, using the story as a loose outline to contain images of luxurious colonial decay. It is filled with shallow-focus tracks through greenery and static shots of Almayer’s arthritic stumbling around his crumbling kingdom. Almayer (again Stanislas Merhar, equally opaque and vainly controlling as his Simon) is a Dutch trader who seeks his fortune in Malaysia (the film was shot in Cambodia). He marries a local, Zahira (Sakhna Om) because his mentor, Captain Lingard (Marc Barbé), believes the woman’s family owns land on top of a gold mine. The plan fails, and Almayer is marooned in a combative marriage on a dilapidated farm, his only respite his daughter Nina (Aurora Marion), whom Lingard enrolls in a strict French boarding school. As Almayer and Zahira slowly decompose into their surroundings, nurturing mutual resentments and growing manias, Nina increasingly occupies the center of the frame and the narrative, Akerman’s camera fixated on her placid, inquisitive face. This shift is signaled in the opening scene, in which an adult Nina is a backup dancer to her sometime lover Dain, as he lip-synchs to Dean Martin’s “Sway”. After an unknown attacker carries Dain off, Nina is left alone on stage, still dancing, seemingly oblivious to the world around her. Then, she takes the center in a close-up, and sings a gorgeously melancholic version of “Ave Verum Corpus”. A Eucharistic hymn to the redemptive power of Jesus’ suffering, it turns Nina into a martyr before the narrative proper begins, a grievous angel who pays for the sins of her father.

The protagonists of Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below (2010) live in a world without God and sin, but plenty of greed, as they sleepwalk their way through the global financial crisis. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, but was never released in the U.S.. A co-editor of the German film magazine Revolver, and associated with the loose cadre of “Berlin School” filmmakers, Hochhäusler is a precise technician, as his follow-up, One Minute of Darkness (2011, part of the Dreileben trilogy) shows. The City Below follows two empty suits: bank president Roland Cordes (Robert Hunger-Buhler) and Svenja (Nicolette Krebitz), the bored wife of one of his employees. Svenja is exhausted from constant re-location (from Hamburg to Houston to Frankfurt) and desperate for a way out of her modern glass-walled life, which Hochhäusler frames with geometrically precise right angles. His tracking shots use frequent jump cuts, however, irruptions in style that neatly echo the characters’ fissuring psyches. In the first shot, Svenja sees a woman wearing the same blouse as her, so she follows her steps, even ordering the same Danish (and spitting it out), desperately trying out a new life.  Cordes is equally eager for escape, fiercely identifying with (and gaining voyeuristic pleasure from) heroin addicts, as well as an employee in Indonesia who was kidnapped and killed. Cordes pretends that the victim’s childhood was his own – a lie he acts out for Svenja during their mutual seduction. It is a union of split, hollow personalities, who continually break-up and reunite in increasingly violent fashion, as if they were a rapidly multiplying microbe, set to take over and infect the world.

Phillipe Garrel’s mindset is still set squarely in the ‘60s, no matter what year his films are set in. His newest work is That Summer (2011) an earnestly affecting relationship drama in which its characters discuss revolution as if the May ’68 riots where happening right outside their doors. But no, it is set in the present day, and Phillippe’s son Louis plays Frederic, a mercurial, adulterous painter still passionately in love with his movie star wife, Angele (Monica Bellucci). When he invites his friend Paul (Jerome Robart) and girlfriend Elisabeth (Celine Sallete) to stay in their Paris apartment, they are there to witness the spectacular flameout of Frederic and Angele’s love. Garrel lovingly cultivates the star personas of Bellucci and and his son – Louis is insanely sensitive and brooding, Belluci imperiously cold and beautiful, more mythic archetypes than human beings. Frederic is all Dionysus with no Apollo, an artistic, atavistic soul not fit for the world, and so he departs it. Bellucci, who has never stood out to me in a film before, is wonderful as the herder of Frederic’s untrammeled emotions – and when her Olympian reserve cracks, it does so spectacularly in an uninhibited dance with a stranger, which Garrel shoots in a generously long take.

The standout title in the First Take series, though, is Gonçalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth, Not the Moon (2011), an absorbingly inventive three-hour documentary about the smallest island in the Azores archipelago, Corvo, population 440. Tocha spent parts of two years on the island, and attempted to film everything he could: knitting, cheese curdling, lock-making, accordion-playing, sitting, standing and dancing. Tocha is a restless social historian, trying to capture every tradition and personality on the island before they disappear – lending the film its joyous and elegiac qualities. He gets Ines Ines (a name she married into) to knit him an old-style beret, the retired cheese maker to make him some wheels of cheddar (“you have to take care of them just like babies”), and the 94 year old Uncle Pedro to play his accordion that he hadn’t brought out for ages. Tocha explores not just the people, but the volcanic landscape which produces the almost unearthly neon greens of the caldera vegetation, and the rocky shores that are nightly attacked by rising waters. The locals track these waters like sacred texts, producing a photo book of the highest wave crests. A former whaling port, the population has the ocean in their blood, even if it no longer provides a living. One of the former lookouts says of the whales, “I still dream with them”, before backtracking (“You want more lies?”). Tocha’s Corvo is not simply a necropolis sliding into the ocean, though, but a town, like any other, struggling to adapt to brutal new economic realities.

First Look is an essential new series, bringing together a cross-section of styles and approaches impossible to see in your neighborhood arthouse. And I haven’t even mentioned (or seen) the other entries in the program, including Johnnie To’s financial crisis drama Life Without Principle and Raya Martin’s Super-8 road trip freakout, Buenos Noches, Espana. With the number of films exploding and distribution channels shrinking, I hope this First Look is one of many to come.

TO SAVE AND PROJECT: THE MOVIE ORGY (1968) AND AFRAID TO TALK (1932)

October 25, 2011

the movie orgy

For nine years running, MoMA’s To Save and Project international festival of film preservation has showcased the latest celluloid surgery jobs by archives the world over. It’s the one place where film stock is still a fetish, each new print ogled with the entitled leer of a sozzled Miss Universe judge. So I was sent to my oft-used fainting couch when it was announced that a digital restoration would open this year’s fest (which runs through Nov. 25th).   This prestigious pole-position was granted to Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy (1968), a delirious mash-up of pop culture detritus, from psychotic b-movies to baffling Bufferin commercials.

Dante and Jon Davison edited the entire feature by hand, splicing in new scenes when intriguing material passed their way. Eventually the project ballooned to 7 hours, but with its broad humor, broads, and critique of the military-industrial complex, it toured college campuses under a Schlitz beer sponsorship. By the end of its run the print had more stitches than Frankenstein’s monster, without the salve of Karloff’s soulful stare. It would be unlikely to survive another trip through a projector. So Dante shoved the benighted thing through a film-to-tape transfer, and after some screenings on the West coast has finally brought his beast to the East. Now at a svelte 4 1/2 hours, it’s a marvel of gonzo editing. It contains an actual narrative, collapsing the apocalypses  of a bunch of sci-fi/teen rebel/horror cheapies into one mega-Armageddon, while finding time for mini-comedies and grace(less)-notes in between.

For this main narrative, I spotted the following titles: Speed Crazy (1959), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), Teenagers From Outer Space (1959), College Confidential (1960), The Giant Gila Monster (1959), Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), and Beginning of the End (1957). There are many more I couldn’t identify, but these images of nuclear paranoia are spread throughout, until Dante and Davison edit them together in a blaze of melodramatic parallel editing that would make D.W.  Griffith a little nauseous.

W.C. Fields, George Burns and Groucho Marx act as a bemused chorus during the chaos, used in reaction shots in response to whatever absurd travail Dante places before them (maybe Peter Graves gunning down locusts or Andy Devine singing “Jesus Loves You” with a cat and a gerbil). It’s the Kuleshov effect used for juvenile laughs, which I fully endorse. Dante uses this gag in other forms, once in an Eisenstinian montage, cutting from a dog training short to one for the Marines, or equally bluntly, from kids setting up a projector to a striptease. Dante is in full control of the editing-as-joke mechanism, and he wrings some hilarious bits out of it. Another routine worked through multiple variations is condensing an entire feature into a descriptive one-shot. In a B-dog-movie called (something like) “Rusty Comes Home”, he shows one scene of a dog running to a boy. “You came back!”.  Cut to “The End” credit.

Then there are the insane commercials, including a mind-melting series from Bufferin, in which a military recruiter sends a kid to war and a landlord evicts an elderly couple. Both use the pill to ease their guilty consciences. In the latter a building implodes behind the landlord as he pops his aspirin. These play more like parody than ad copy. The true star of Dante’s opus though, is Brett Halsey, the star of Speed Crazy (1959). Under the sensitively absent direction of William Hole, Jr., Halsey furrows his brow and strangles out his motto, “Don’t crowd me!”, thousands of times. Whether he’s chatting up a gum-smacking dame (in which crowding would seem to be the point) or stabbing a square authority figure, he repeats the phrase incessantly, as if Halsey forgot the rest of his lines. But he had already appeared in 20 movies, the absurdity of his repetition a likely result of compressed shooting times and a thin script. By the end, the audience was erupting in scattered cheers whenever Halsey appeared on-screen, as I would like to do for this entire low-brow masterpiece. Because of its endless copyright infringement, The Movie Orgy will never appear on home video, so rush to see it if it ever plays near you.

***

The other highlight of the festival for me was Edward L. Cahn’s Afraid to Talk (1932), a brutally despairing corruption drama, based on the play Merry-Go-Round by Albert Maltz and George Sklar. Made during the depths of the Great Depression, it exhibits a totalizing distrust of authority, with Chicago city officials displayed as more comprehensively criminal than the gangsters they are ostensibly supposed to pursue. Jig Skelli (Edward Arnold) kills kingpin Jake Stranskey (Robert Warwick) to take over his racket. When he’s rousted for the crime, he simply flashes Stranskey’s records, which implicate every major  Chicago official as on the take, from the DA’s office to the Mayor’s. Needing a scapegoat, the cops pin the murder on bell boy Eddie Martin (Eric Linden), almost beating him to death to force a confession.

Cahn and DP Karl Freund (Metropolis) visualize the back-scratching corruption of the government through shifting group shots. At police chief Frank Hyers’ (Ian Maclaren) well-appointed pad, the top officials often gather around the table to pop champagne and talk jubilantly of their double dealings. Hyers is framed to his left by the Mayor (a red-faced Berton Churchill) and Assistant DA Wade (Louis Calhern). On the right District Attorney Anderson (Tully Marshall) and a rotating cast of underlings. They are framed in long shot, with a receding hallway behind them. Down that hallway comes an indistinguishable mass of Fedora’d newspapermen, walking in lockstep, resigned to regurgitate the party line.

This grouping of power is contrasted to configurations of weakness, specifically in the initial interrogation of Eddie, who is the point of a triangle between Wade and Anderson. Later in this sequence Eddie’s wife Peggy (Sidney Fox) is subjected to an intensely close two-shot, in which Wade leans over her prone body as she rests her head in her hands. These different figural arrangements reach a climax in Eddie’s second interrogation, when his confession needs to be forced. There the cops, after flicking the overhead lamp to tick-tock over their heads, converge to make an airtight boundary around him, the image just one hulking mass of black wool suit. In this shot all of Eddie’s subjectivity is erased, to be halfway restored in the still-pessimistic conclusion. The governmental pack is thinned out, but the structures that allowed for Eddie’s blotting out are still firmly in place, as the news ticker trumpets another mission accomplished.