THE 2015 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

October 6, 2015

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To stud its carpets with stars, the 53rd New York Film Festival has turned to the biopic. It opened with The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’ recreation of Philippe Petit’s World Trade Center tightrope walk, gave a centerpiece slot to Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, and closes with Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie, Miles Ahead. Though I haven’t managed to see those high-gloss productions, biographical approaches extended throughout the festival and into many of my favorites. Manoel de Oliveira’s Visit, Or Memories and Confessions is a wistful and austere reflection on his life, his career, and the house he lived in for forty years. Hong Sang-soo puts another of his wayward film director characters through a structural ringer in Right Now, Wrong Then, and the weight of history and mortality is felt in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, set in his hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand, and which he has described as “a search for the old spirits I knew as a child.” Soldiers afflicted with sleeping sickness dream away their lives in a makeshift hospital, situated on top of ‘an ancient burial ground. Those sleepy spirits of history seem to have wandered throughout the festival and through the avant-garde Projections sidebar, much of which is on Weerasethakul’s somnambulant wavelength.

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“It’s a film by me, for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have made it. Either way, it’s done.” So says Manoel de Oliveira near the start of Memories and Confessions, in a voice-over written by novelist and frequent collaborator Agustina Bessa-Luís. It is a film of reluctant revelation. Shot in 1982, Oliveira ordered it not be shown until after his death, which sadly occurred this past April. The NYFF screening was its North American premiere. The film is structured as a tour of Oliveira’s Oporto home, built for he and his wife Maria Isabel (still with us at age 97) after their marriage in 1940. An unseen male and female walk through its environs, comparing the garden trees to guardians and the house as a ship – to these interlocutors it is a shapeshifting landscape occupied by spirits. They hear noises of its previous inhabitants, one of them being Oliveira the friendly ghost, tapping away at his typewriter. He turns in an artificially startled manner toward the camera, as if on an awkward public access show, and tells the story of his life. He screens home movies of his four children, lingers over portraits of his wife, and walks us through the economic failure of his father’s hat factory that put him into debt, leading to the sale of the home. Maria Isabel is only shot outside in the garden, cutting flowers. Asked by an offscreen voice what it is like to be married to a filmmaker, she replies, “it is a life of abnegation”, with a hint of a Mona Lisa smile on her face conveying the years of stresses living with a “man of the cinema”. Manoel has numerous copies of Da Vinci’s masterpiece stashed around the house – perhaps it reminds him of his wife? Though only 72 at the time of shooting, the film seems like a summation, a wrapping up, as he strolls through a Portuguese film studio and reflects on his own insignificance as the roll of film ends, cutting to white screen and the sound of flapping celluloid. He would go on to shoot twenty-five more features.

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Cemetery of Splendour is also about the energies and spirits that can adhere to a space. Apichatpong Weerasethakul grew up in the small town of Khon Kaen in Thailand, where his parents were doctors. For the film he merged all of his childhood landscapes into one: his wooden home, the patients’ ward where his mother worked, the school, and the cinema. The movie is about a temporary rural hospital that cares for soldiers with sleeping sickness that no other wards will take.  Their building is a rotting old schoolhouse that still displays remnants of its past: chalkboards, toys, and textbooks. The doctors utilize an experimental therapy using colored fluorescent lights that are said to tame the patients’ dreams, and perhaps ease them back to consciousness. Volunteer Jenjira (Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas) develops a close friendship with patient Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who scribbles enigmatic koans in a notebook in between narcoleptic sleeps. An encounter with the psychic Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) forges a mental bond between Jen and Itt that traverses dreams and reality, with Itt guiding Jen into the world of warring kings, buried in the ancient cemetery underneath the hospital. At the same time Jen leads Itt through the ruins of the school where she once attended, weaving history and myth together, all part of a lost Thailand that Weerasethakul is mourning.

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At the beginning of the short video Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, Guy Maddin is mourning his career. Unable to complete funding for his next feature (what would become The Forbidden Room, part of the NYFF main slate), he decides to take a job as a director of a behind-the-scenes video for Hyena Road, a big-budget Afghanistan war movie. Maddin decries how Hyena Road’s catering budget could fund most of his features, so he soldiers on, even deigning to act as an extra corpse in one particularly humiliating long shot. But this being a Guy Maddin film (co-directed with Evan and Galen Johnson), things don’t stay linear for long. He decides to cobble together his own war movie with random shots of extras and and some lo-fi CGI lasers, morphing the hero-worshipping Hyena Road into some kind of subversive sci-fi freakout where the Afghan extras are the leads. Maddin makes it personal by pulling in his childhood hockey heroes Tim Horton and Guy Lafleur (he intones “Lafleur, Lafleur” as if the name itself held the key to the universe), and ends with Lafleur’s bumptious disco song “Scoring” while a talky drone interprets the lyrics.

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Hong Sang-soo is a serial self-portraitist, always depicting sensitive male artist types in various states of self-examination or self-delusion. In Right Now, Wrong Then he follows famed art film director Han Chun-su (Jung Jae-young) the day before he is giving a post-screening lecture in the small town of Suwon. He spends it with painter Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), who he is strenuously attempting to seduce. They have coffee, retreat to her workshop to discuss her work, have dinner, and attend a small party. Through it all Han is working from an established script, using practiced lines from old interviews to create the seamless patter of an intellectual pickup artist. Hee-jung is initially charmed, then slowly irritated by his insecure mansplaining. But this is not the end – as Hong cycles the timeline back to the beginning and replays each scene, with Han subtly altering his approach.  Each detail is magnified in this second go-round, each thread of conversation a possible fork in the narrative that sends it down new paths. Han displays more confidence in his own thoughts the second time around, speaking thoughtfully and honestly rather than relying on recycled ideas, baring his body and soul. As Han begins to listen to Hee-jung’s perspective, Hong shifts his camera to her – though it framed Han more centrally in the first half. It all sounds very simplistic and binary, but in action it is a marvel of subtlety of Jung and Kim’s performances. The first half was completed and screened for them before they shot the second, and their reactions seem to play off that first encounter, a teasing flirtation both with each other and with the movie itself.

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The Projections programs of experimental films also dealt with the self, especially Laida Lertxundi’s Vivir Para Vivir, which attempts to render her body through cinema. Mountain peaks are connected to the peaks in her cardiogram, which are both seen and heard on-screen. It is a bold, sensuous kind of embodied cinema, ending with a blast of color timed to a recording of an orgasm. Alee Peoples’ Non-Stop Beautiful Ladies is a casual bit of urban photography, as Peoples documents an unusual marketing technique around her north Los Angeles neighborhood: busty female mannequins which hold motorized signs for a variety of small businesses – income tax accountants and gas stations alike. In an economically depressed landscape of empty billboard signs, these intrepid inanimate ladies still hawk their wares, absurd emblems of sexism that have held onto their jobs longer than most. The most unique and haunting work I saw in the festival was Lois  Patiño‘s Night Without Distance, another short playing in Projections. Shot in the mountains on the Galicia/Portugal border, it envisions the smuggling trade as ghostly emanations of the landscape. Patiño used color reversal stock and then presented it in negative, creating uncanny silvery images that look like they came out of the video game Metal Gear Solid. That impression is further solidified by how the spectral figures, speaking of secret meetings and escapes, use stealth like that game’s Solid Snake. The long takes of smugglers waiting in crevasses and by creeks take on depth and volume, with physical textures vibrating across the frame. The travelers seem to speak in code, traveling towards a point beyond time, ghostly smugglers wandering the borderlands of perceivable reality.  It conjures the same spell as Cemetery of Splendour, leaving me suspended in its waking dream of cinema.

THE 2014 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: HILL OF FREEDOM AND JAUJA

September 23, 2014

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The fifty-second New York Film Festival begins this Friday night with the world premiere of Gone Girl, the David Fincher adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s  ubiquitous spousal murder mystery. But the early highlight of the thirty-film main slate concerns another missing woman, although in a less-outwardly-thrilling scenario. Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom, which screens the evenings of 9/30 and 10/8, concerns an unemployed Japanese intellectual in Korea, searching for an absent woman he once loved. It’s another variation on Hong’s recent string of films about travellers and transitional spaces (Our SunhiIn Another Country, The Day He Arrives) where drinking is the main form of communication. Hill of Freedom works hilariously well as a fish-out-of-water comedy, but also contains pockets of melancholy about time’s passage, professional failure, and the inadequacy of language. It is currently without a distributor, and unlikely to acquire one, considering how poorly his sparsely distributed output has done stateside.

There is another gone girl in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (screening 10/7 and 10/9), when the daughter of a colonial Danish military engineer (Viggo Mortensen) scampers off into the Patagonian wilderness. In his three features La Libertad, Los Muertos and Liverpool, Alonso has chosen landscapes first and built narratives around the spaces and the habits of its people. Jauja is his first period piece, and an imaginative leap from the patient everydayness of his previous films. With nods to The Searchers and Heart of Darkness, Jauja follows the engineer as he plunges deeper into a country he doesn’t understand, ending in hallucinations and a legacy of confusion.

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Hong Sang-soo has been paring his films down to the essentials. Never one for excess, in recent years his films have limited themselves to a few city streets, a few self-loathing men and women, and a narrative built on repetition. Hill of Freedom constricts itself to couple of blocks in Seoul, mainly taking place at a guest house and at a coffee shop. Mori (Ryo Kase) is a Japanese visitor staying at the guest house, and is searching for Kwon (Seo Young-hwa). Mori met Kwon two years before, but is only now convinced of his love for her. But unbeknownst to Mori, Kwon is off in the mountains for health reasons, so he is forced to mope around town, communicating in limited English with his deep-in-debt guest house buddy Sangwon (Kim Eui-sung) and the profoundly unhappy owner of the coffee shop (named “Hill of Freedom). The story is told in flashback, from letters that Mori wrote to Kwon after his departure from Seoul. As Kwan is leaving the post office, she drops the letters on the stairs, shuffling them out of chronological order. The film proceeds in the order Kwon reads the letters, so they jump back in forth in time during Mori’s stay. The ghost that haunts the film is the one letter Kwan leaves on the staircase – perhaps the one that reveals the truth of Mori’s intentions, but more realistically documents another night of inebriated rambles.

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Mori carries a dogeared book with him throughout his visit, which he seems to treat as a sacred text, or maybe more as a binky to calm his nerves. In one of his many awkward, flirtatious conversations with the coffee shop owner Youngsun (Moon So-ri) he informs her that it is a philosophical treatise that claims “time is not a real thing.” But that “at the end, you cannot escape this frame of mind, because our brain evolved this way.” He  believes that time is an illusion, a construct of our consciousness, that perhaps in reality, outside of ourselves, events occur in the shuffled manner of the narrative. It is our brains that constantly seek to arrange them in order. Mori is a failure at this kind of arranging, and at this order. He is an unemployed loner wandering Seoul, his only hope a woman he last saw years ago and who might want nothing to do with him. And in some ways Mori seems to live in his own pocket of pre-Internet time. The settings are clearly contemporary, but no one uses a cell phone, Mori hand writes his letters, and there is nary a computer in sight.

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Then there is the film’s blunt use of language. The movie is almost entirely in English, the common ground for Japanese-Korean relations in this film. But this limits their vocabulary, so each conversation is abrupt and direct. Every conversation seems to begin with the question, “Business or pleasure?” Mori hems and haws through each iteration, his visit having possibly to do with neither, ending up as more misery than pleasure. When his guest house manager tells him the banality, “I hope you will enjoy your stay”, Mori cannot respond in kind. Instead, he says, “It’s not always easy to enjoy, except when I am lucky.” The bemused manager replies, “You know, I was just saying that”, implying it was a rhetorical question. But Mori is incapable of deflecting or armoring his meanings with the subtleties of his native languages. He is forced into direct statement, as are his interlocutors. Sangwon insists that Mori admit to being sad. Mori considers people to be “great” or “poison”, with no shades of grey in between. This forced directness creates quick bonds between Mori and Sangwon, who get blitzed and dream of happiness, as well as between Mori and Youngsun, whose attraction seems to be borne out of mutual melancholy. It ends as it has to, in the middle, unresolved, our minds having to put all the broken pieces together.

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Jauja is equally concerned with blowing minds as puzzling them. With its pulsing colors and immersive deep focus cinematography, it’s cinema-as-sensorium. There’s a vibrant interplay in Alonso’s frames (in the old 1.33:1 aspect ratio) between background and foreground, usually with Viggo Mortensen in the front, his visage staring out beyond the horizon. It is 1882 on the Patagonian coast, during the “Conquest of the Desert”, a bloody campaign to drive the indigenous peoples out of the jungle, to make the region safe for European settlers. Mortensen plays Dinesen, a Danish engineer who will plan the future European-style cities that will replace the wiped-out cultures.  He is there with his daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Agger Malling), who soon absconds into the jungle with a young soldier. As Dinesen follows her deeper into  the country,  rumors persist that an ex-soldier, Zuluaga, has gone mad and gone “native”, slaughtering the Europeans he comes across.  Fugitive signs of Ingeborg emerge and dissipate, but Dinesen trudges on into something like madness. He is like Ethan Edwards in his metastasizing hatred of the indigenous population, and the obsessive chase for his lost girl that is less an act of courage than of bloodlust. The deformity of the European colonial project seems to alter the landscape as well as his body, from watery shores crenellated with rock formations, to the dried out gray of the mountains. By the end Mortensen is a ragged wandering ghost, led by an undernourished dog to some kind of afterlife. The ending is a time-and-space shifting mystery that lays beyond my grasp, images of a fecund forest overgrowing the past, drawing me back in.

MEN NOT AT WORK: THE THREE STOOGES AND THE DAY HE ARRIVES

April 24, 2012

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The mind needs structure. So when watching films in quick succession, unexpected linkages emerge, like the strange thematic similarities between Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives (in theaters now from Cinema Guild) and The Farrelly Brothers’ version of The Three Stooges, discovered while watching them back-to-back over the weekend. The first is a critically-acclaimed art film in limited release, the second the lowest of lowbrow comedies out everywhere, and yet they are both  episodic narratives about arrested male development, albeit in different stylistic registers. The Day He Arrives uses a teasingly complex script to lay out the alternate life paths its passive protagonist could have taken, hypnotically acted out with repetitive gestures and phrases. The Three Stooges, however, are active participants in their own destruction, eager to endlessly pratfall down the same road to get the eternally recurring nyuk-nyuk inducing result. Two versions of male stupidity, touchingly rendered.

The Day He Arrives is the latest generator of masculine regret from Hong Sang-soo, who has been mastering his elegiac deadpan mode since ’96, with increasingly fractured narratives. This one circles around ex-film director Seongjun (Yu Junsang), who leaves his exile in the country to visit his college friend Youngho (Kim Sang-joong) in Seoul. He says, “I’m not going to meet anyone but him”, which of course means that everyone on the street is a former lover or fan, forcing him to relive all the fumbling mistakes of his past. As Seongjun walks in circles, in a predetermined grid set up by the opening shot of an intersection, his past life starts repeating in the present. A rekindled relationship with an old flame from school is then re-enacted almost word for word with the owner of a bar named “Novel”. Seongjun learns nothing new, though,  keeping his distanced, faux-romantic pose as he once again cuts off personal contacts and retreats into his shell. Though he idly hopes that his films will be “re-evaluated after enough time has passed”, he never deigns to re-evaluate himself. It’s a bumbling, tragi-comic vision of Nietzsche’s eternal return:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ -Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Seongjun is too oblivious to be aware of his endless circling , his flickering consciousness too self-absorbed  and far too passive to gnash teeth. Maybe he would make do with a clench, if it didn’t strain him too much.

The Three Stooges are also stuck in an eternal return, not just of the endless recycling of television characters, but of their insatiable need to beat the snot out of each other, a trio of sadomasochistic co-dependents. Seongjun burrows inside himself to escape the world, while the Stooges slap each other to do the same. The Farrelly Brothers have examined all kinds of physical and psychological maladies (Seongjun is heading in the direction of Jim Carrey’s severely repressed schizo in Me, Myself and Irene), but the Stooges are the most sociopathic characters in their careers. A stupider and more violent Dumb and Dumber, which means, yes, it is a stirring return to form.

The Farrellys  give the reborn Stooges an origin story, as babies dumped at an orphanage at the feet of the curmudgeonly Sister Mary-Mengele (a hilariously harrumphing Larry David). As amateur hell-raisers they are never chosen for adoption, and are spurred to action when the nuns are forced to sell the place unless they raise six figures in cash.

The trio of low-watt celebrities do a remarkably good job at capturing the staccato tempo of the original Stooges. Sean Hayes has a fine falsetto whine as Larry, Chris Diamantopoulos has the nasal a-hole Moe voice down pat, and Will Sasso does a nimble Curly, always the most balletic Stooge. Avoiding the baggage of the originally rumored stars (Carrey, Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro were all attached at one point), these anonymous performers are able to put the jokes center stage.

Sent off into the world, the Stooges are as helpless as Seongjun, although instead of re-living past failures they establish new ones, including starting up a free-range salmon farm that flops. They attempt to insulate themselves from the world through their friendship (as the conjoined-twin protags of Stuck on You do), but start to crack apart instead. They re-team because they have to, due to the demands of Hollywood narrative as well as their own natures – they eye-poke, therefore they are.

If posed with Nietzsche’s question, they would probably answer “never have I heard anything more divine”, fools in love with their own foolishness, and when peeking outside the edges of their slap-happy triumvirate, would eagerly agree to stay inside of it for eternity, free to create chaos and baby pee fights wherever they may roam. Seongjun, an alcoholic Bartleby, would rather not participate in life. His Cartesian saying would be: “I think, therefore I want to disappear.”