August 23, 2016


I suffer from chronic list fatigue, initially eager to scroll through the latest re-ordering of greatest hits, but inevitably collapse into a heap before I ingest the whole thing. Enter the BBC to test my illness. Yesterday they unveiled the results of their mammoth “Greatest Films of the 21st Century” poll, in which 177 critics submitted their top movies of the current century. It confirms that David Lynch’s  fractured, terrifying Hollywood fairy tale Mulholland Drive (2001) is the consensus film of the age. It has been topping lists of this ilk for years now, and I welcome a film so mysterious as our millennium-overlord. My narcolepsy is triggered not by the quality of the works cited, but the recycled nature of the discourse it elicits, which tends to ignore the films entirely for a “this-over-that” essentialism that reduces complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list. Which reminds me, now it is time for me to reduce complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list! Below you’ll find my top ten films of the 21st Century that were not included in the BBC’s top twenty five, in a modest effort to expand the conversation.


The following list of the Top Ten Films of the 21st Century is presented in alphabetical order

Cry When it Happensdirected by Laida Lertxundi (2010, 14 minutes)

Or, being lonely in Los Angeles. Shot in 16mm, it opens with a shot of two women spooning each other out of boredom, followed by a bright blue sky impinged upon by a bar of sunlight. Then the shot of the sky is repeated, but now  it’s on a tube tv in a dingy hotel room, with a black bar scrolling down the frame. Imagery of boxes and enclosures proliferate. In the room, a wordless woman slowly presses her accordion and eases out a few tones. An exterior shot of the hotel finds L.A.’s city hall reflected in its windows, trapped. When Lertxundi returns to the shot of the real sky, the chorus of The Blue Rondos’ “Little Baby” plays on the soundtrack: “Little Baby/I want you for my own/I need to see you/See you alone.”  There is a yearning for escape from these boxes, and a need for human connection, expressed in the bouncy 60s Brit-pop tune. Then, a shift – the hotel TV is plopped outside a mountain range, the sky and the Rondos both enclosed behind the screen. It is freeing, but ominous. It’s like the movie turned itself inside-out, the interplay between freedom and enclosure never resolving. They need each other, after all.


The Headless Womandirected by Lucrecia Martel (2008, 87 minutes)

A comfortable middle-class mother (Maria Onetto) runs over a dog, and she is later consumed with the fear that she also killed a child. De-centered from her daily life, she is isolated by Martel in shallow focus close-ups in the widescreen frame, her family haunting the edges, fuzzy spectres present mainly through the dense sound design. The accident occurred right before a major storm, and water keeps seeping in around her, whether pouring from the sky, or intimated in the cement discovered under her lawn, which used to hold a fountain. She slowly ebbs back into consciousness, only to discover that she no longer fits, so she dyes her hair.


The Intruder (aka L’intrus), directed by Claire Denis (2004, 130 minutes)

L’intrus was inspired by a brief essay by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on the physical and metaphysical fallout of the heart transplant he had received ten years previously. His question: ““If my heart was giving up and going to drop me, to what degree was it an organ of ‘mine’, my ‘own’?” Michel Subor plays a man whose body has rebelled against him, and whose concept of self is slipping. The film slips along with him, proceeding on an associative montage that jumps from Polynesia to Pusan to the French-Swiss border. Subor’s body is a border that has been breached, and the whole world is rushing in. My first published film essay was on The Intruder, for Senses of Cinema, and it is not entirely embarrassing.


Mysteries of Lisbondirected by Raul Ruiz (2010, 272 minutes)

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable.  Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.


Resident Evil: Retribution, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (2012, 96 minutes)

Anderson is a director-as-cartographer, obsessively mapping his post-human landscapes so whatever life-form succeeds us will know EXACTLY how to navigate the inside of the evil Umbrella corporation’s underground lair. Said lair is built for 3D, all brightly lit corridors layered with screens, the frame sliced into depths. Depth and death are everywhere, and our only hope (thankfully) is Milla Jovovich, a model-athlete who does her own stunts and is the most believable savior since Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ.


Sparrow, directed by Johnnie To (2008, 87 minutes)

A project To had been working on for three years in between his higher budgeted features. Often described as a musical without songs, it follows a group of pickpocketing brothers as they get ensnared in the web of Kelly Lin’s femme fatale, who has been forced into a union with a local crime boss. Filled with lyrical passages of a bustling HK, it then explodes into symphonically complex heist sequences. Balloons float down affixed with a safe key, criminals engage in a thieving dance underneath a downpour, with the umbrellas used in twirling Busby Berkeley-esque patterns.


Step Brothers, directed by Adam McKay (2008, 98 minutes)

Gloriously anarchic, it’s the purest distillation of the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell aesthetic, which values combative performances above all else, a kind of actorly one-upmanship. After completing the relatively large-scale Talledega Nights, McKay wanted to, as he told The Oklahoman: “do a film that was almost all about characters and dialogue — no action and no ’70s nostalgia, just straight-up, nonstop riffing.” Enamored with the improvisatory nuggets mined by the team of John C. Reilly and Ferrell on Talledega, McKay conceived of a plot that would have them together on-screen for an entire film, hence the step-brotherdom. The movie, then, is a scrim for a feature-length improvisation session, which was how Ferrell and McKay were trained: McKay at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Ferrell with The Groundlings, before they both teamed up on Saturday Night Live.

Reilly is the outlier, the one with dramatic chops whose id was let loose by the Apatow gang. He’s quite wonderful in Walk Hard, probably the most underrated of the Apatow comedies, but there’s a peculiar sophomoric magic that occurs when he spars with Ferrell, a matter of timing and sensibility. They key off each other’s self-absorbed personas, trading insults so absurd it turns into a battle of the non-sequitur (“The last time I heard that I fell off my dinosaur.”). Their delight in performing with each other is contagious, spreading to the straighter-laced parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins. Steenburgen savors each curse word, while Jenkins turns in a performance that is close to madness. His shit-eating grin while being seduced by Ferrell’s yuppie brother Derek (Adam Scott) edges into the grotesque, while his monologue about his teen T-rex impersonations is pure Dada.

The plot disappears during the sublimely ridiculous ending, set at the “Catalina Wine Mixer”. That phrase is intoned ad nauseum until it becomes pure nonsense, a children’s game, syllables rolling around the tongue. This “nonsense” spreads through the whole sequence, incorporating dreams, fantasies, and the solid organizational structure of Enterprise rent-a-car. The film would make a great double-bill with Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business, another film which reverts to childhood. It’s critical of its adults-turned-kids, while Step Brothers revels in the pre-self-consciousness of children. But both films are unafraid to look silly for the sake of a laugh and refuse to condescend to the innocence and destructiveness of youth.


Stuck On You, directed by The Farrelly Brothers (2003, 118 minutes)

The Farrelly Brothers most autobiographical film, about two brothers from New England whose love and affection keeps them working together for decades. In the film they are conjoined twins played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. Damon is a goofy putz happy to be a hometown hero, while Kinnear dreams of an acting career in Hollywood. The leads are earnest and open, while the supporting parts include Jean-Pierre Cassel as a hilariously cheapjack agent who buzzes around on a scooter, and Eva Mendes in one of the finest comedic performances of the decade. She plays an airhead with sincerity and pathos, channeling Marilyn Monroe in, you guessed it, Monkey Business. Fun fact: features a (funny!) cameo from former Presidential candidate Ben Carson.


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, 114 minutes)

Set in a small farming village in the Northeastern part of Thailand, it tracks the last days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) during which he is visited by the curious ghosts of his relatives. It is a film of permeable borders, between Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, between life and death, man and animal. It has the same kind of space-time permeability of The Intruder, where bodies are way stations, not endpoints.


Wolf Children, directed by Mamoru Hosoda (2012, 117 minutes)

Water is the implacable natural force that marks the moments of terrifying change in the lives of Hana and her two children, Ame and Yuki, as they grow up from little werewolf kids into ferocious adolescents. Hana had loved and lost Ookami, her werewolf husband, during a rainstorm. The film is not a love story but depicts the aftermath of one, and the tough work required of a single mother.  With a mix of line drawing and photorealistic CG, the mode is hyper-real with moments of lyrical beauty, as when Ame bounds into the forest with his fox companion, settling on a reflective pond. Hosoda will rhyme this reflective pond with that of a puddle, as Hana stands alone in a parking lot, having lost Ame to the animals and Yuki to the world outside. There are constant movement between rain squalls and tears and waterfalls as the family pushes and pulls between the cocoon of familial love and the lure of independence.


October 6, 2015


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


May 31, 2011

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For the Migrating Forms festival, now in its third year at Anthology Film Archives, a moving image is a moving image. Whether it’s a supercut on YouTube or a gallery installation, programmers Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry have their antenna up for playful, provocative work regardless of origin. This edition, concluded on Sunday night, presented films and videos from 49 artists from 15 countries, along with 12 retrospective screenings and one-off events. It’s impossible to reduce this multiplicity of material (culled from museums and film festivals and viral videos), into a unified theme, but it’s this very impossibility that gives Migrating Forms its vibrancy and its mission.

First, the astonishing OXHIDE (2005) and OXHIDE II (2009). Young Chinese tyro Liu Jiayin was only 23 years old when she wrote and directed the first of these fictions starring her family in Beijing (both will be available on DVD in the educational market through dGenerate Films). Shooting in DV entirely in their apartment, it is composed of 23 static long takes that slowly fill in the back-story. Her father Zaiping is a struggling retailer of leather purses, which he makes and designs at home with his wife Huifen. Jiayin plays herself, nicknamed “Beibei”, who is mainly concerned about her short height.

Information is doled out through the intricately arranged compositions, in which there is a constant play with the frame lines and the surface of the image itself. The emphasis is on “play”. For such an intense formal experiment, it’s great fun, with often hilarious inter-family bickering emerging organically from the impeccable compositions.  In the second shot, you get a sense of her mastery of off-screen space. In this high-angle shot, the camera looks down at a close-up of a desk, with the edges of a picture frame, pen holder, and a printer poking into the frame, with the center of the image a bare brown wood top. On the audio track, Zaiping is instructing Beibei to type something, although it’s impossible to tell what from the context. Zaiping is mulishly stubborn, and Jiayin endearingly indulgent, until finally he is satisfied. Then, where the printer mouth peeks over the edge of the frame, an ad for a purse sale slowly emerges downward, unsettling the balanced composition and revealing the content of their conversation.

The other major motif is surfaces. Most of the setups are in shallow focus, with characters and objects shoved right up to the lens, with no depth to the image. This is pushed to an extreme with a bird’s eye view of some leather that Zaiping is working on. The brown material fills the entire frame, with the father and mother’s hands ranging over it, rubbing in oils to smooth out imperfections. The surface of the leather is the surface of the frame, the parents trying to smooth out the image for us with their expert hands. But they fail, as some indentations are too deep to fix, an admission by Jiayin that she cannot control every aspect of her constructed frames. Reality seeps in, and Zaiping’s money anxieties have him stare wide-eyed into the night as the credits roll.

Oxhide II extends these puzzle box shots into chunks of pure duration. In this 132-minute film there are 9 static shots, each one rotating over 45 degrees (as David Bordwell notes) around a work table as the family makes dumplings. Now working in HD, the images bustle with even more detail in the increased duration, and Jiayin’s  sound editing becomes more complex. It’s a rigorously orchestrated piece, which again shows off her parent’s remarkable digital dexterity. It begins with Zaiping stretching out a large piece leather. This is in a long shot in which his whole body is visible, the work table stretching from left to right, mirroring the length of the frame. He strains against the material. He pauses to straighten a picture, and Huifen enters, with the vegetables for the dumpling recipe. Ending his workday, and transitioning the table into a food prep site, he turns the table towards the camera, with the end perfectly lining up with the bottom frame line. This is one of the first wow moments, which continues in the dinner prep, when the sound of Huifen and Zaiping’s chopping recalls Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”. Zaiping later dazzles with a lesson in dough kneading, his meaty paws magically shucking off dumpling-sized spheres while his fidgety daughter struggles to learn his method. Above all, these are films about familial love, observed through work and the manner in which lessons are imparted and absorbed, no matter how slowly by the deliberate Beibei. If one approaches Jiayin’s films with a similar patience, the rewards, while not as satisfying as a homemade dumpling, are immense.

Not as much patience is needed for Laida Lertxundi’s Cry When It Happens, a 14 minute impressionistic short that I first saw at last year’s NYFF, but only came into focus with last week’s screening. In the abstract, it’s about enclosures and open spaces, and more specifically, about being lonely in California. Shot in luminous 16mm, it opens with a shot of two women spooning each other in boredom, followed by a bright blue sky impinged upon by a bar of sunlight. The basic inside/outside binary is established here. Then the shot of the sky is repeated, but it’s on a tube tv in a dingy hotel room, with a black bar scrolling down the frame. Imagery of boxes and enclosures proliferate. In the room, a wordless woman slowly presses her box-shaped accordion and eases out a few tones. An exterior shot of the hotel finds L.A.’s city hall reflected in its windows, trapped. When Laida returns to the shot of the real sky, the chorus of The Blue Rondos’ “Little Baby” plays on the soundtrack: “Little Baby/I want you for my own/I need to see you/See you alone.”  There is a yearning for escape from these box shapes, and a need for human connection, expressed in the bouncy 60s Brit-pop tune. Then, a shift – the hotel TV is plopped outside a mountain range, the sky and the Rondos both enclosed in the plastic enclosure. It is freeing, but ominous. It’s like the movie turned itself inside-out, the interplay between freedom and enclosure never resolving. They need each other, after all.

Moving to the retrospective screenings, Migrating Forms booked an evening of Georges Perec-penned films, with the opener being Serie Noir (1979), a particularly nasty adaptation of Jim Thompson’s Hell of a Woman. Directed by Alain Corneau in gun-metal blues, it is a showcase for lead actor Patrick Dewaere, who gives a charismatically schizo performance as small-town nobody Franck Poupart. Lured into a robbery by a young, near-mute prostitute, Poupart is a fast-talking braggart who can’t manage to say no to anyone, with predictably disastrous consequences. Dewaere has a mop of stringy hair ringing a domed bald spot, a skeletal face hiding recessed weasel-beady eyes, and a chin cleft, like a tree ring, marking the time of his former handsomeness. He walks with a gangly stop-start, as if he only has control of one appendage at a time, and his speech abides by the same skittery pattern. At one point he flashes a smile as fast as a blink, as if a doctor had poked the right neuron. When he has his manic episodes, usually alone in his car in an abandoned lot, the words carom and pick up speed until he reaches a conclusion with a spectacular curse. Then he acts, usually irresponsibly. The movie is boilerplate noir nihilism, and the doting wife and manipulative whore characters are tiring in their offhand misogyny, but Dewaere’s live-wire act is constantly surprising. At a few points he reminded me of a violent Will Ferrell, with the way he never gets his body to work- especially his hands. Compare Dewaere’s use of his hands in hugging the prostitue Mona with Ferrell in Talladega Nights giving an interview. They both hang off at odd, rigid angles, unclear of how to use them in human company.


As I’m sure no one has read this far anyway, just a few brief notes on other titles:

Brune Renault (2009, Neil Beloufa): A clever experiment. A car sits still on a set, but Beloufa creates the illusion of speed by moving background props and having lights wash over the driver, like in Pierrot le Fou. Diminishing returns, but I didn’t mind.

The Observers (2011, Jacqueline Goss):  Goss takes her 16mm camera to the Mount Washington Weather Observatory in New Hampshire. Loosely based on the Hawthorne story, “The Great Carbuncle”, Goss recreates the solitary work weather observers do every year. With static shots she captures the lonely grandeur of the job and the location, establishing the hypnotic rhythm of daily routine in a space outside of society, and it seems, outside of time. When tourists arrive in the summer it feels like aliens have landed.