September 28, 2010


The Social Network, the opening night selection at the 2010 New York Film Festival (and opening nationwide October 1st), consists of men (and one girl) talking in rooms and around tables. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)  is the reluctant participant in these discussions, hunched over and bristling, much preferring the inscrutable company of his own mind. The essential opacity of these thoughts to his friends and foes, Zuckerberg’s intractable isolation, is the nexus around which director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin spin their tale of mis-communication and betrayal.

Sorkin frames the story of Facebook’s founding through legal depositions of two concurrent lawsuits facing Zuckerberg. One from his supposed best friend and former CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), the other from three schoolmates who proposed a similar social networking site called The Harvard Connection.  Their competing testimony shifts the point of view between all three of these perspectives, offering differing visions of Zuckerberg’s character, Citizen Kane style (Sorkin referenced Rashomon at the press conference, but the focus on the unstable image of one man, as opposed to an event, is far more indebted to Kane – for a further elaboration of the comparison, see Michael J. Anderson’s essay here).

The dialogue is read in staccato bursts of defensive manuevers, everyone protecting their intellectual territory. Eisenberg zooms through the script with brittle intensity, a man of supreme arrogance, intelligence and insecurity insulating himself with words. It’s a bravura performance, in which Zuckerberg’s mask of intellectual impassivity is cracked for a few brief moments, introducing doubts about how much of an asshole he really is. The puzzled, crestfallen expression on his face after his final split with Saverin is tantalizing in its ambiguity. Joined by a truly Mephistophelean turn from Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker (look at his manipulations in the photo above), the wide-eyed innocence of Andrew Garfield, the blue-blood hauteur of Armie Hammer as both Winklevoss Twins (using the facial motion-capture technique Fincher pioneered in the underrated Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and a scene-stealing demolition job by Douglas Urbanski as former Harvard president Larry Summers, The Social Network is brimming with revealing put downs, glances and asides.

That it’s taken me this long to get to Fincher says a lot about his role here, a true collaborator with Sorkin and his cast (along with DP Jeff Cronenweth and the fine pulsating score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). But the film, like all of Fincher’s work, is beautiful in strange ways. There is the infernal darkening red hues in which he shoots the Harvard sequences, a simmering hormonal pool of class resentments and hard-ons. One sequence, in which he inter-cuts a Dionysian “final club” party with Zuckerberg coding his early “FaceMash” site is revealing of the unreliability of Zuckerberg’s POV. As he builds his site, an ode to a male’s wounded ego, which allows campus libidos to vote on female students’ hotness, we get visions of stripped down co-eds cavorting in the aristocratic party that Mark would never be invited to. The party seems like his resentful projection, but it’s presented as a simple cross-cutting sequence, or his version of the truth. All three POVs should be treated as unreliable, or at least as clouded by self-interest. By the end, when Zuckerberg’s every move seems both justifiable and monstrous, I could only think of Marlene Dietrich’s closing summation in Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”


The other triumph in the main slate was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (coming to theaters in the U.S. in  March 2011 from Strand Releasing)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, and ultimately, between possible worlds. Boonmee’s caretaker, Auntie Jen (Jenjira Pongpas, from Weerasethakul’s previous Syndromes and a Century), complains about the Laotian caretaker of his farm, worried that he doesn’t bathe. Later, Boonmee is afraid that he created bad karma because “I’ve killed too many communists.” This speaks to the crackdown on Communism in the region following the war in Vietnam, in which peasants informed upon and fought against Communist cells or were accused themselves. The monkey ghosts which haunt the film can be read as the spirits of the Communists who fled into the forest, although that is only one, much too reductive interpretation.

And yes, the monkey ghosts arrive as naturally as the disfigured princess, who arrives in a deliriously beautiful set-piece that Joe staged as an homage to the royal costume dramas of his youth, although I doubt they contained the amorous catfish in his version. But they should have. Boonmee’s procession into death is also a procession into Weerasethakul’s personal memory and history, as well as the history of his films. Along with Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee returns from Syndromes, as Boonmee’s nephew, and later as the monk from the previous film, as the personal blends with the artistic and historical. There are endless strands to analyze and untangle, but there are also the manifest pleasures of lolling in his gentle, comic rhythms and sparklingly beautiful compositions (it was shot on Super-16 and blown up to 35, often using day-for-night). By the time it descends into Plato’s cave and encompasses the whole history of moving images, I knew I had seen a masterpiece. And I want to watch it again right now.


As space is running short, some quick notes on other defining moments from the festival:

Film Socialisme, directed by Jean-Luc Godard (no distribution, screens Sep. 29th at 6PM and Oct. 8th at 3PM)

A lament for Europe, in layers of video and text. HD images of a decadent cruise through the Mediterranean are interrupted by degraded and pixelated footage of mobbed dance floors and YouTube videos of mewling cats. He gets incredible effects from reducing the video resolution, getting cubist collages of capitalist excess and moments of incredible, uncanny beauty. One image, a hand placed on a window, then pulled back, obscured by the degraded image and made ghostly and strange, spoke more to me about the cultural losses he refers to so incessantly. The cruise ship docks, replaced by a family owned gas station, whose parents (and then children) are running for election, chased down by a relentless news team. A young boy, adept at slapstick, scares them away with a stick and then conducts an invisible symphony with it. So referentially dense, it would ideally be watched with hyperlinks attached to all the quotes and film clips, as well as the concrete poetry of the partially-translated subtitles, which he puckishly described as “Navajo English”.

The RobberDirected by Benjamin Heisenberg (no distribution, screens Sep. 29th at 9:15PM)

In this propulsive genre workout, a prisoner trains in his cell to be a long-distance runner. Upon release he wins a marathon, but, alas, keeps robbing banks. Incredibly, it’s the true story of Johann Kastenberger (changed to Rettenberger in the film, and played with wiry athleticism by Andreas Lust), or “Pump Gun Ronnie”, who wore a Reagan mask during his reign of terror. The superbly controlled action sequences are shot in sinuous steadicam long takes, and one heist in particular stands out. Lust, after holding up one bank, sprints to another one, as the cop cars are busy investigating the first. Setting his camera up across the street, Heisenberg resolutely keeps his distance from any kind of psychologizing, he’s just here to emphasize the physical feats. Then Lust bursts out of the second, and a chase erupts when a cop car foolishly tries to run him down. Racing up a parking garage, and then down and outside through a cellar, it’s a white-knuckle affair shot with daredevil fearlessness. The steadicam operator was sprinting down hallways as fast as Lust, with little cutting and total spatial coherence.


September 21, 2010


The 48th New York Film Festival begins this Friday night, with David Fincher’s The Social Network, and I’ll be hemorrhaging words about it for the next few weeks. J. Hoberman finished his term as a programmer last year, and the more populist-oriented Todd McCarthy (formerly of Variety, now at Indiewire) took his spot on the team, chaired by Richard Peña, and rounded out by Dennis Lim, Melissa Anderson and Scott Foundas. Since Hoberman is one of my favorite humans, I was prepared for an ever-so-slightly less challenging slate this time around. But no! This year’s titles look awfully impressive sight unseen, a mix of savvy veterans  (Godard! Oliveira! Kiarostami!), peaking  auteurs  (Apichatpong, Reichardt, Puiu) and the promise of relative unknowns (Frammartino,  Grau, Heisenberg, Loznitsa).   Even the sidebars look bountiful, with the NY premiere of Joe Dante’s The Hole and Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym.  With the addition of the oft-overlooked but stacked Views From the Avant-Garde section, the NYFF will gently dominate my life for the next month.

The first festival titles I viewed this year are two Romanian tours-de-force about ordinary men and what may lie behind their vacant stares (yes, Romanian cinema continues to astound). The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, part of the Special Events sidebar, is a triumph of archival research and editing. Director Andrei Ujica and editor Dana Bunescu compiled footage of the deposed Romanian president from the National Television and National Film Archives in Bucharest. They found home movies of his vacations along with propaganda footage shot at home and abroad. Ujica and Bunescu edited this footage together to create an unintentional “autobiography”, and built up a complex soundtrack for the almost entirely silent footage.

Ujica told Dennis Lim that “The film does have a commentary but it’s a nonverbal commentary. It’s in the construction of the sound and in the intervention of the music.” These manufactured scenes are bookended by grainy video footage of Ceausescu and his wife being interrogated after the 1989 revolution, before they are executed. The grim pallor of his face in this opening shot echoes throughout the multiple representations of his hale and hearty visage that follow.

His unseen interrogator says, “it was your masquerade”, and then the film proper begins, with  footage of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’s funeral, the former General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party. Then Ceausescu is inaugurated, and the most striking thing about him is his hair. Swirling but immovable, it sits awkwardly and flamboyantly on his impassive boyish face. Tracking this follicular edifice’s slow decay is one of the film’s multifarious pleasures. It appears at various PR affairs, from the beautiful chaos of the Harvest Festival, where he plays fairground games half-heartedly, to his absurd historical recreation of Romania’s 15th Century King Mircea, which he stages for visiting dignitaries. He is attracted to showmanship, although he himself appears to be an inscrutable bore, his most common expression a half-smirk. He even stoops to cheating at volleyball during a game with friends (he pulls down the net to allow his weak kills to get over).

We see what he wants us to see, so politics are reduced to communist talking points, he won’t budge beyond name-checking Marx and Lenin, or his insistence on removing NATO troops from Europe. Very little is heard or mentioned about domestic initiatives – he seems entirely reactive, only inspired when the world seems to be against him. His most impassioned speech is delivered against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, where he forcibly condemns the “socialist incursion”, and insisted on putting an “end to interference.” While clearly a move based on the fear of invasion for his own fragile nation, it’s a forceful and effective speech, and on the right side of history. But that’s it for an intellectual spark. The rest of the film shows a man becoming more insular and paranoid, retreating into a cult of personality. All we see is scene after scene of Ceausescu smiling uncomfortably next to world leaders, a near daily affirmation of his own importance. He receives visits from Nixon, jets to England to meet the Queen, and is celebrated by Kim Il-Sung in North Korea a number of times, to ridiculously overblown fanfare. His trip to Universal Studios just seems like more of the same puffed up artificiality.

By the end, his face is a mask of boredom, a zombie on the national stage who keeps his country in a similar narcoleptic state. Ujica carefully deploys pop songs, including a memorable appearance from “I Fought the Law” to suggest the alien Western forces that are bleeding in to the edges of Ceausescu’s hermetic frame. By the end, when Ceausescu  looks emaciated inside his ill-fitting suits, his face ravaged with wrinkles and his hair imploding like a collapsed souffle, even his fellow lonely presidents have had enough (in one meeting Gorbachev angrily checks his watch). In the final shot of the post-revolution footage, with Nicolae and his wife Elena looking hollowed out and irascible, he is no longer the totalitarian nightmare of the Romanian imaginary, but just an old man scared to die.

Ceausescu makes quite a pair with Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, another study of a Romanian zombie. It is Puiu’s follow-up to the extraordinary Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and where that film is a portrait of a breakdown in Romania’s public services, this is an experiment that tries to document the breakdown of his country’s psyche. It is the second part of what he calls his “Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest”, dedicated to Eric Rohmer and his Six Moral Tales, of which Lazarescu is the first. Puiu describes this series as about “moral crisis and how inefficiently and artificially the Western model has been applied to a country that had just emerged from the darkness of communism.”

Puiu himself plays the lead character, Viorel, a furtive, ill-tempered man who wanders around Bucharest fulfilling obscure tasks known only to himself. He collects a debt and picks up a firing pin for a shotgun. His face is stony, his wardrobe a consistently tasteful sweater-over-dress shirt combination. He is middle-class, in the midst of renovating his apartment. But instead of fixing up the place he keeps emptying it out, pawning his stuff on family and friends. It seems his is preparing to empty himself out instead. But Puiu reveals nothing of  his motives – Viorel is to remain entirely unknowable and irreducibly human, regardless of the violent acts he commits.

Puiu shoots him constantly from a distance, framed inside of doorways and other transitional spaces, the unbalanced images focused on the sliver of well-lighted spaces he broods in. The visuals are as opaque as the character, bisected and hard to navigate, plus Puiu frequently pans away from major actions, the camera acting like an abused but loving dog, keeping a distance but always wanting to creep closer. Puiu told his cameramen to “follow the character, and to look at him with a feeling that resembles a father watching his child learn to walk.” This is a more compassionate version of my comparison, but still apt. There is a constant tension of what will be revealed inside the frame or about the characters, a puzzle that kept me intensely engaged, especially with its rude bursts of absurdist humor, including a flash of an overweight woman getting a wax, and the brusque apathy of police officers refusing to care about the facts that audiences have been trained to fixate on. It’s a welcome provocation, shifting the weight of analysis from the characters to the viewer, a film to obsess over.

Next week I’ll have a lot more to pontificate on, including Oki’s Movie, Uncle Boonmee, Certified Copy, Film Socialisme, and unless I get shut out, The Social Network.