January 3, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 11.10.50 AM

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.


September 27, 2011

nyff 2011

The 49th New York Film Festival begins this Friday, September 30th, with a main slate of 27 features and an abundance of sidebar and retrospective screenings, including a massive survey of Nikkatsu Films. All of my favorite entries so far share an obsessively detailed sense of place, locations that subsume central characters and emerge as active agents of memory, myth and fate. Dreileben, a group of three features made for German television, is set near the Thuringian Forest, folkloric heart of German culture, and former home to Wagner, Schiller, Bach and Goethe. Ancient fables are invoked as templates for the tragic circlings of the unlucky few who come in contact with a man-made monster.  The Turin Horse utilizes a perpetually wind-thwacked dust bowl as a bluntly metaphorical vision of the barren, anxious souls of its poverty-stricken leads, while Two Years at Sea follows the hermit and former merchant seaman, Jake Williams, as he goes his silent bearded way in the beatific and lonely Caingorm Mountains of Scotland.

Dreileben began as a series of e-mail exchanges between directors Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler, which were published in Revolver magazine in 2007. All three men are grouped under, or have pushed back against, the “Berlin School” of German cinema. Marco Abel wrote in Cineasteabout the genesis of this somewhat misleading description: ” The label, coined by German film critic Rüdiger Suchsland, originally referred to what is now known as the first generation of the Berlin School: [Angela] Schanelec, Christian Petzold, and Thomas Arslan. All three attended and graduated in the early 1990s from the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb)…and were taught by avant-garde and documentary filmmakers Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky.” The style is associated with cool, restrained dramas that analyze the minute psychological dramas of everyday life, and are generally ignored by local audiences.  Hochhäusler was part of a second wave of directors, who studied at the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München, along with Benjamin Heisenberg (The Robber) and Maren Ade (Everyone Else). The turn to genre subjects (The Robber and Arslan’s In the Shadows), as Dennis Lim (NYFF programmer) notes in a Cinema Scope piece, could be “partly a reaction to the marginalization of the early films.”

Dominik Graf has criticized the Berlin School for their avoidance of emotion, as he told Abel in an interview in Senses of Cinema“This is part of my debate with the Berlin School directors. I tell them that I have the feeling—not always!—that they are not doing anything in order to move away from their glass-like, distanced position towards the world and feelings.” Dreileben is the extraordinary result of this generational debate.The three films circle around one motivating event: the escape of convicted killer Frank Molesch (Stefan Kurt) from a mental hospital. The first film, Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, profiles a bitter affair of one of Molesch’s young potential victims. The second, Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around, follows a police psychiatrist around anyway, who is on the case of pursuing Molesch, but also gets entangled in a decades old love triangle. The closer, Hochhäusler’s One Minute of Darkness, tracks the killer as he stumbles through the Thuringian woods, a gentle monster roused to violence by the fumblings of the humans around him.

Beats Being Dead is the zombie-like love story between Ana (Luna Mijovic), a working class Serbian immigrant, and Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a brilliant medical student screwing around for a summer, working at an empty hospital (which Molesch eventually visits). Petzold based the story on the German myth of Ondine, the water nymph who would lose her immortality if she bore a mortal man’s child. Ana and Johannes meet, in various states of undress, by the water. They gravitate to each other instantly, magnetically, their mutual seduction occurring during a series of hypnotic walks to and fro, down the tree-lined paths that separate them physically and economically. The spectre of money and class is never far from the surface in Petzold’s films (see his Postman Always Rings Twice adaptation, Jerichow), and here it is the key that wakes them both up from their trance. Ana, with mascara streaming down her face, has been felled from the euphoric heights of love and made human. Johannes, less than that.

Don’t Follow Me Around is Graf’s play for a communicative cinema, shot in soft, sun dappled 16mm, shifting from the hard-edged 35mm and HD of Petzold and Hochhäusler. In it, police psychologist Johanna (Jeanette Hain), travels to the forest to investigate Molesch’s disappearance, and stays with her old friend Vera (Susanne Wolff) and her husband Bruno (Misel Maticevic). During long nights of wine-fueled reminiscence, they discover they had both loved the same man before they met, sending them deeper into the past. The presiding myth here is of Emperor Barbarossa, mentioned by Johanna’s father before she leaves. He says that Emperor Frederick of Barbarossa, “and all his soldiers have been sleeping for 1,000 years in the mountains, waiting for Germany to finally become an empire again.” Johanna’s father says this as a historian’s idea of a joke before her departure, but what Graf’s story awakens is not an ancient leader but repressed memories. Johanna’s lost love emerges as a ghost by her side, an unwanted guest to eliminate with as much prejudice as Molesch, still roaming the countryside.

The trilogy comes to a brooding close with One Minute of Darkness, in which the forest emerges fully as a character – magical, threatening and aloof. Here Molesch is Barbarossa, stumbling into a tourist’s bedroom that contains maps of the Emperor’s caves and a book of “Wagner’s Thuringen” on the desk. He faces the myths, and he goes on to embody them. His gambol through the verdant wood has him hallucinate a masked creature and tend delicately to a young runaway, as sympathetically as Karloff’s Frankenstein. In Hochhäusler’s patient thriller, Molesch is cross-cut with lumpy inspector Marcus Kreil (Eberhard Kirchberg), the man who had imprisoned him the first time on circumstantial evidence. The jumps between Molesch and Kreil are between incantatory fantasy (the shape-shifting forest, a satanic inferno) and banal reality (a family BBQ). These two strands, woven throughout the whole series, come thudding tragically together as Ondine comes undone, the immortal brought down to the cold earth.


The Turin Horse and Two Years at Sea are two disparate versions of the solitary life. In the first, the outside world is a face-wrinkling terror that is best seen through a window, the dividing line between a father and daughter and encroaching obsolescence. In the second, there is no difference between outside and inside, as winding branches and tall grass take over lounge chair and an RV is magically lifted in the arms of a tree. Bela Tarr claims that The Turin Horse is his last film, and it acts as a summation of his work. It begins with the story of Nietzsche’s last sane days, written by frequent collaborator László Krasznahorkai. Nietzsche sees a horse being beaten by its owner. He rushes to stop the abuse, weeping. He would spend the rest of his days as an invalid. The narrator goes on, “of the horse, we know nothing.” Thus begins the Old Testament penitence of the father and daughter. The silvery B&W cinematography by Fred Kelemen begins – a low angle of the bedraggled horse, with matted hair like a stray dog, pulling the carriage of Ohlsdorfer, the father (János Derzsi, whose craggy bearded visage has the perpetually stunned look of oncoming senility like Richard Bennett in The Magnificent Ambersons). Thus begins a murderous daily routine in gale force winds, with Ohlsdorfer returning home to his gouged-out shack, with walls that look like they’ve been gnawed on by muscular beavers. His already wizened daughter (Erika Bók) undresses him, cooks him his nightly scorched potato, and shuffles off to bed.

This is their entire life, both of them perpetual work machines chipping away at their life expectancy one day at a time. Tarr sets up the visual dichotomy early on, of inside/out. The camera, and the characters are constantly peering outside its frame, denoting an absolute otherness to the nastiness outside. The daughter sees their first guest, a nihilist philosopher-drunk over to buy some palinka (a Hungarian fruit brandy), depart through the precious window. His thunderous presence dissipates to a shadow seen through glass, his sub-Nietzchean pronouncements (twisting Nietzsche’s “beyond good and evil” and death of God pronouncements into a world of eternal subjugation – similar to how the Nazis perverted his work) already forgotten. Ohlsdorfer had already called “rubbish” on him anyway. Their only purpose, their only thoughts, are geared towards work. And once the horse stages a quiet rebellion, refusing to eat or move, their lives of sullen, productive enervation now become entropic and drawn to dissolution. Eventually they go through the looking-glass, and become the travelers on the other side of the window, searching for an escape. Presumably finding only worse deprivations on the other side of the hill, they return, irrevocably changed. The camera, for the first time, shows the outside of the cabin, and the daughter looking out, trapped.

Jake Williams, the subject of Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea (in the Views from the Avant-Garde) program, is totally, frighteningly free. Living alone in the Scottish mountains, he is shown cleaning, reading, chopping wood and sleeping – without saying more than a few words. His living quarters have become intertwined with the nature around him, birds and plants and insects have as much a foothold on his property as he does. Shot in anamorphic B&W (although projected on compressed video, sadly), the film is immersive and cordial. It’s clear that Jake wouldn’t mind if you napped along with him, lulled along by his blissed out existence. The pacing gets so gently buzzed it’s no surprise when his mini-RV gets raised heavenward by unseen hands (or winches). The film consists of staged re-enactments of Jake’s daily life, with hints of his past appearing in photos lying on a desk. Stills of children, a woman, an old man shoveling snow, these are the narratives and mysteries that clang around in Jake’s head that we don’t have access to. We project stories onto his invitingly open face, or at least I did, of a wife who couldn’t hack the back-to-nature bit and hustled her kids back to civilization. Or maybe the photos were simply (likely) planted by Rivers to enact such fevered speculation. Whatever the reason, it is a film that encourages such idle thoughts and wild guesses. Filled with flickering light and the squiggles of processing stains, Rivers is playing with the form as well as narrative expectations, mirroring the play of light on leaf with light through film. This comes to the fore in the astounding final shot, a long take of Williams’ face as he nods off in front of the fire, his eyelids and the flames both fluttering, closing to another day and to my prying eyes.