October 13, 2015


The Long Voyage Home (1940) was self-consciously an art film. An atmospheric bummer adapted from four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, it was the first  movie made for John Ford’s independent production company Argosy (co-founded with Merian C. Cooper). This offered Ford an unusual amount of freedom, and co-producer Walter Wanger commissioned prominent fine artists (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Luis Quintanilla, Georges Schreiber, and Ernest Fiene) to come on the set and paint whatever they wanted.  In the biography Searching for John Ford Joseph McBride quotes the director as saying “I didn’t like the idea at first, but the artists proved to be a grand bunch of guys.” Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland did their own painting with light, making The Long Voyage Home his most visually experimental film. There is the deep focus that Toland made famous the next year in Citizen Kane, plus low-light chiaroscuro and trick shots like anchoring the camera to the floor of the ship so the audience has a plank-level view of a storm, the waves crashing over the lens. It screened on 35mm (a UCLA restoration) in the Revivals section at this year’s New York Film Festival, but it is also streaming on Criterion’s Hulu page, if you are digitally inclined. At points the film feels like a workshop, to try out techniques Ford was unable to use on his bigger studio pictures, which gives The Long Voyage Home its patchwork quality. And yet Dudley Nichols’ sensitive script is able to tie the anecdotal structure together, and it remains a profoundly moving experience of unmoored men at sea, fruitlessly trying to claw back to land.


The Long Voyage Home was shot in thirty-seven days for $682,495 at the Goldwyn Studios lot, as well as aboard the freighter S.S. Munami at Wilmington Harbor, CA. Eugene O’Neill was friends with Ford and proposed bundling his seafaring one-acts into a film. Dudley Nichols updated it to WWII, gathering a group of O’Neill’s dead-ender sailors on The Glencairn as they travel from the West Indies to Baltimore and on to England, transporting explosives through a war zone. It is an ensemble cast that includes Thomas Mitchell as Driscoll, a gregarious Irish rouster, John Wayne as Ole, a sensitive, big-hearted Swede, and Ward Bond as Yank, a bullet-headed brawler. In the digressive narrative room is given to the stories of Smitty (Ian Hunter), an alcoholic escaping his past, and Cocky (Barry Fitzgerald), a failure come to terms with his lonely life at sea. John Qualen and Billy Bevan are also on board to provide some nosy comic relief.


None of them have managed to figure out life on land, so they continually sign up for more journeys on the ocean, in perpetual avoidance of the “real” world on solid ground. Instead they drink and brawl and pine nostalgically for the old days of drinking and brawling. The crew pairs off in friendships, with Driscoll and Yank as best friends and world travelers, even if they can’t remember half of their trips. Smitty and Cocky continually end up on deck with each other, as the rest of the crew gets blasted. Smitty is nervous, sweaty and haunted, the most noirish character of the bunch. The crew invents an elaborate backstory for his secretiveness, one that expands in complexity until they start believing his is a Nazi spy.  Most of their time is occupied inside of these fantasies. Smitty’s refusal to participate marks him as an outsider. The truth is sadder than any of them can comprehend. So they ignore it and move on.a_wa1094

John Wayne gives one of his most unusual performances, taking on a Swedish accent and playing Ole as a sweet, slow-witted goofball. He is a lovable giant, and the characterization runs counter to the All-American athlete persona he had been cultivating for years. But for John Ford he would do anything. Wayne was still finishing off his Republic Pictures contract, and had to shoot the drama Three Faces West for twenty days before taking on Long Voyage Home. Insecure at his talent for accents, he asked Ford for help. As quoted in Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Ford responded: “Well, Jesus, all right if you want to be a goddamn actor. You don’t need it.” But Ford hired Danish acting coach Osa Massen to help him out, and if the accent isn’t quite accurate, her instruction put Wayne at ease, and his performance of wide-eyed innocence is one of the most delicate of his career. Though it was a glorified supporting part, Wayne was still given top billing, probably due to the smashing success of Stagecoach in 1939.


Ole has plans to quit the seaman life and return home to his family in Sweden. It is the crew’s solemn vow that they will protect him on shore leave and make sure he gets on the ship home. He has failed many times before, getting caught up in drink, getting in debt, and returning to work to pay off his debts. But for all of the men, Ole is a symbol of freedom, the only one who could conceivably forge a real life on land. Everyone else has had their family and friends die off or disavow them. The ship is their entire world. And the way in which Toland shoots them it feels like a moving mausoleum. Toland reserves his low light shots for the bridge, the tools of navigation bathed in darkness. They hyperreal qualities of deep focus here emphasize the empty spaces, of lost crew members and phantom memories. The most representative sequence is the shot of the raging storm that crashes onto the camera, which anticipates the GoPro techniques of Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s immersive boat film Leviathan. There are no actors in the shot, it is emptied of everything but the water. The crew of the Glencairn are disappearing, and they will all eventually be subsumed in the ocean. The shot is a foreshadowing of future absence, and for most of the crew, not an unwanted one.


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 7, 2014


For director Michael Powell, The Red Shoes was “mostly a sketch for The Tales of Hoffmann“. So far the sketch has eclipsed the full painting, with The Red Shoes a repertory film staple that plays regularly around the country (you can catch it in my cinema-starved hometown of Buffalo on November 17th!), while The Tales of Hoffmann has endured decades of neglect and chopped up film prints. Its relative obscurity should begin to lift, now that a new 4K scan of the original camera negative has been performed by the BFI, with support from The Film Foundation and StudioCanal.  The stateside premiere of the restoration occurred at the New York Film Festival, introduced by superfan Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who was married to Powell until his passing in 1990).


The Tales of Hoffmann is a deliriously beautiful film about male fantasies of female perfection. Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) invents women to match the romantic ideal he has of himself, all of whom emerge from a mediated perceptual and meta-cinematic schema. Olympia (Moira Shearer) is a mechanical doll who looks human when Hoffmann views her through ornate (3D?) glasses. Giulietta (Ludmilla Tcherina) is a devil’s handmaiden who steals Hoffmann’s soul by having him stare into a mirror.  Antonia (Ann Ayars) is a thwarted opera singer whose mother’s statue comes to life.  Absorbed in his own vanity, Hoffmann is not granted unmediated sight, and so ends up drunk and alone.


Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were after something they called a “composed film”, a gesamtkunstwerk of music, dance and film that grants each their individual freedom but operates in concert, working without dialogue, but through purely expressive gesture. Their test of this concept was the climactic dance in The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffmann was to be its fruition. The choice of subject matter was brought to them by conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. According to Powell the original idea was to record with him “a wonderful performance of the singers of the opera, and then make a film of it with dancers . Simple as that.” They adapted the Jacques Offenbach opera into a new English translation (by Dennis Arundell), and hired both voices and bodies for each character. Powell wanted “a performance, not a recording”, so he strayed from operatic singers and chose singer-actors for the vocals to which the actors would lip-sync. Only Rounseville’s Hoffmann and Ann Ayars’ Antonia sung their own parts. They recorded the score separately, and then shot the film according to the music’s rhythms, giving the director of photography and actors more freedom than they had since the silent era. It is not just the camera movement that is calibrated to the music though, but equally the actor’s movement inside the frame (dance choreographed by Frederick Ashton), as well as the rhythmic editing of Reginald Mills.

Instead of trying to mitigate the artificiality,  of the enterprise, they emphasize it, with painted backdrops and fantastical set designs by Hein Heckroth. This overt “staginess” attracted significant criticism. Siegfried Kracauer called it “nothing but photographed theater”, and that seemed to be the prevailing viewpoint until the film became nigh impossible to see. Distribution was nonexistent through the 60s, and when prints did get out, they were in B&W and missing the third act. That’s how Scorsese first saw it on the “Million Dollar Movie” on local NYC television, beginning a lifelong obsession. He named Robert Helpmann’s face as an influence on Taxi Driver. Schoonmaker related how Scorsese would screen the film endlessly during the editing process of Raging Bull, and would get enraged when MoMA would ask for the print back, because another director was requesting it. It turned out George Romero was another Hoffmann fanatic, and was analyzing it in the run-up to his film about traveling renaissance fair/ motorcycle gang , Knightriders (1981).


Act 1, “Olympia”, takes place in a mechanical doll studio that Hein Heckroth gave a Fauvist explosion of color. Hoffmann is agog at the ingenuity of it all, lost in his own perceptual whirlwind. The inventor Coppelius (Helpmann) twirls him through demonstrations of his amazingly lifelike puppets, which come to life underwhen Hoffmann dons garish glasses, some with pearls stringing down. They are a cinematic talisman, allowing the inanimate objects to come to life under his gaze. The camera rises up into the rafters to display the puppet master pulling the strings – but what are wooden dolls up there turn into prancing humans on stage – and one in particular catches Hoffmann’s eye. To him she is too real to be fake, or simply too beautiful not to reflect his idea of reality. In any case, it’s Olympia (Moira Shearer) reclining on a hammock, her aquiline features and aerodynamic limbs lying still in anticipation. It is clear this is a body that can do damage. And she does, swirling like a top but needing to be constantly wound up by her handlers.  Shearer is a marvel, not just as a dancer but a comedian, able to execute lithe ballet maneuvers at one end of the stage, and then collapse like an accordion at the other. Hoffmann is helpless at her cold, inanimate beauty, a dumbfounded idiot who thought he found the perfect woman. He is humiliated at the revelation of her not-aliveness, and she is eventually torn limb-from-limb in a scene of sadistic doll violence.


Act 2, “Giulietta”, gets supernatural, and begins to bring out the German Expressionist strains in Heckroth’s designs and Robert Helpmann’s Nosferatu garb. It takes place in Venice, and Giulietta is a leggy siren luring Hoffmann towards her. In a disorienting sequence, Powell and Pressburger cut back and forth between Giulietta’s disembodied head superimposed on the canal singing a ghostly tune, and Giulietta’s physical body in a gondola rowing for home. Here again is the spirit/body split, the woman multiplied into parts that Hoffmann can then separate and filter through his own ego. In this fable of betrayal she steals his soul for a neck full of diamonds. His soul is taken when he looks into a mirror, and his image disappears. His sight is blinkered and uncertain, his love a delusion. It’s only when he skewers a man with a saber and cracks the mirror in two, that his soul is restored to him. It did not, however, give him intelligence.


Act 3, “Antonia” is Hoffmann’s best shot at capturing reality. There are no disruptions of his sight, only his empathy. Antonia is in ill health, and has been advised not to sing for fear of her weak constitution. Her father isolates her in the bedroom, alone with a statue of her late grande dame mother, once a famed opera singer. Hoffmann arrives to declare his love and burst into song, and the satanic Dr. Miracle (Helpmann, again, with his menacing widow’s peak) has similar designs to nefarious ends – he wants her to sing until she dies, so she can join her mother. Miracle is a weird amalgam of Dr. Caligari madman and Dracula force of nature, able to summon Antonia’s body to instantaneously appear at his examining couch when she is off in another room – yet more imagery of the segmented female body. She is not in control of herself  – and her mind starts cracking. Her hallucinations escalate until she is sharing a duet with her dead mother in a medieval wood, sharing a mournful duet before suffering the same fate – a brutally beautiful escape.

The restored Tales of Hoffmann will screen at NYC’s Film Forum in early 2015 and presumably tour the country after that. It’s a bewitching, profoundly strange work, both radically free and conservatively stagebound. Kracauer wrote that it is both “a spectacle that transcends the possibilities of the stage”, but “built from miraculous studio effects, it shuts out any miracle the camera may reveal. The ripple of a single leaf suffices to denounce its treacherous glamour.” It’s a gorgeously suffocating work, and there’s truly nothing else like it.


September 30, 2014

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The New York Film Festival opened this past Friday night with the sadistic comedy of remarriage Gone Girl  (which is released nationwide October 3rd). It trails success in its wake, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel, which has occupied the majority of bedside end tables in the United States. It is the second straight bestseller that director David Fincher has adapted, following his glacial Girl With the Dragon TattooGone Girl is another story of female victimhood and bloody revenge, except this time the narrator is highly unreliable. If you are one of the zeitgeist-less few not to have read the story, it concerns the unraveling marriage of struggling writers Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamunde Pike). After Amy goes missing after an apparent home invasion, a massive investigation is launched to find her, with the evidence continuing to pile up against Nick. What follows is a thorough autopsy of their lives together, their union a sustained performance of mutual denial and dishonesty, an act that Amy internalizes to such a degree that she stages a much larger, more entertaining production in response. Fincher and Flynn jettison the balanced 50/50 POV split from the novel and filter the majority of the narrative through Nick’s perspective. This simplifies the story but also flattens Amy into a sociopathic cipher, one who can too easily be dismissed as a hysterical female. But Rosamunde Pike’s performance is ferociously controlled, betraying no loss of agency. If men want Amy to play a part to salve their fragile egos, she will oblige only until a better role comes along, whereupon she can trash their script and obliterate them.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night depicts a different kind of determined female. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work after a bout with depression, only to find her job at a solar panel factory will be eliminated. In an either/or vote, the union chose to receive a 1,000 EUR bonus over Sandra keeping her job. Sandra successfully lobbies for a re-vote after rumors of tampering, and has a weekend to convince each individual employee to forego the bonus and keep her on staff. The film is a kind of moral procedural, the question re-framed through each employees’ personal circumstances. Sandra troops through the Dardennes’ terrain of Seraing, Belgium on foot, bus and car, continually wilting and re-forming under the stress and humiliation of her position. The handheld camera sticks tight to Cotillard (who, with this and The Immigrant is in perpetual close-up this year), whose face is a Richter scale of emotional tremors.


Gone Girl is a David Fincher movie and is thusly a very good-looking one, working again with DP Jeff Cronenweth (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, Fight Club). Though it opens and closes with a shallow-focus close-up, the majority of the film emphasizes maximum visibility, with a lot of long shots that encompass glass, television monitors and security cameras. Much of the film has to do with the media frenzy that accompanies Amy’s disappearance, as she was the model for a popular children’s book series written by her parents. The tabloid talk shows push the trashiest and most outrageous narratives of the case, including at one point speculating on Nick and his twin sister Margo (an acerbic Carrie Coon) engaging in “twincest”. And though the movie runs a robust 150 minutes, Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter utilize a clipped editing style that always cut a beat or two before I expected. Even the opening credit titles flash on and off far quicker than usual. This clipped style kept me off balance  – as if the film was proceeding ahead of me and I was scrambling to catch up. It was fun to feel that off kilter, though the tempo distends in the climactic latter stages into something more conventional.


The acting tends to be as controlled and clipped as the editing, especially the investigative team led by Kim Dickens as Detective Rhonda Boney. Dickens is a superb no-bullshit cop, forever with an oversized styrofoam coffee cup in her hand and a bloodhound twitch in her eyes  when clues passed her field of vision. She has no wasted gestures, words or syllables. She leaves those to her assistant (Patrick Fugit), who seems to speak entirely in pithy putdowns. The only one in the cast who lacks this tightness is Ben Affleck, whose Nick floats in a boyish fog. When Amy disappears he doesn’t so much as shrug, while at the station he speaks to the police with distanced deference, as if arguing a speeding ticket rather than helping a search for his missing wife. It is an impressive bit of smarminess for a major star, but he doesn’t manage to sustain it. As Nick takes on the mantle of victimhood, Affleck becomes a genial joker, instead of the self-regarding a-hole the movie needs to balance its battle of the sexes. When the couple reforms, the movie becomes less about how spouses deform themselves to sustain relationships, but about the subjugation of Affleck’s good ‘ol boy to Rosamunde Pike’s world-devouring wife.



In Two Days, One Night Sandra is no Amy. Living in a healthy relationship with husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), she has no ability to dissemble in front of her fellow workers. It takes her entire force of will to knock on each door, and put herself under their pitying, guilty glares. She knows that her question will instill guilt, and each bonus voter is a fount explanations and justifications, some understandable, others not. Each encounter has the tension of a heist sequence, just that the stakes are much higher. Money is tight all over, and Sandra is asking these people to give up a year of gas bills. It is the rare film where bills have a physical weight, that conveys the suffocating anxiety that money problems can instill – the complete helplessness. Her path through the town in Two Days, One Night is stop-start as that force of will crumbles, having to be built up again by Manu or her few encouraging co-workers. Then there are the brief moments of happiness. Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) weeps at getting a chance to reverse his vote to Sandra – and as she walks away breaks into uncontrollable smiles, Cotillard’s body a brief lightning rod of joy. The other burst occurs inside of Manu’s car, as Van Morrison’s “Gloria” crackles over the radio. The whole car bursts into song, Sandra giving herself up to the chorus, trying to escape into the tune. 


September 23, 2014


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


October 8, 2013


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

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

DF-11070-Edit - Ben Stiller in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY.

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

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

Norte 1

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


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


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

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


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.