March 6, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 12.00.04 PM

The 12th edition of Film Comment Selects concluded this past week at Lincoln Center, having screened 32 films from all over the cultural map. The stoned dropout to the New York Film Festival’s Ivy League grad, the films chosen by Film Comment magazine’s editorial staff tend towards the spectacular and the underground, and occasionally underground spectaculars. Plucking from the festival scene (Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish), genre titles (Alexander Zeldovich’s Target) and experimental multi-projection performances (J. Hoberman’s Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds), it has something for everyone. That is, if everyone was a creepy cinephile shut-in.

The selection of Target (2011) encapsulates the mission of FCS, a Russian sci-fi film too genre-bound to make the NYFF, and too arty to pick up mainstream distribution. The film is conceptually simple but dramatically sprawling, pulling from influences as disparate as  Stalker and Gattaca. The year is 2020, and China has emerged as the dominant super-power, its culture seeping into every corner of Russian daily life. The Mandarin-speaking minister of Natural Resources, Viktor (Maksim Sukhanov), is tiring of his sterile marriage to Zoya (Justine Waddell), a feckless beauty who spends her mornings getting her face un-wrinkled by a nano-bot infused death-mask. Longing for the days when the felt something resembling emotion, they light out for the mountains of Central Asia, in which an abandoned astrophysics laboratory is rumored to emit cosmic rays that grant eternal life. They are joined by Zoya’s hyperactive TV-host brother Mitya (Danila Kozlovskiy), the thuggish customs agent Nikolai (Vitaly Kishchenko) and Anna (Daniela Stoyanovich), the dreamy narrator of a Chinese-for-Beginners audiobook.

As with Stalker’s Zone, the astrophysics site seems to have a consciousness all its own, with the guides referring to it as “The Thing, The Detector, The Target”, both an active agent and a receptacle for divine radiation, an elusive and contradictory force.Viktor and his entourage ignore this ambiguity, and approach it as just another slumming self-help adventure, the simple rural living distracting them from all those riches. But then the site has its effects, and immortality ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. The radiation makes them act younger and more impulsive, as if slightly buzzed. The movie shifts from sci-fi futurism to melodramatic fucking and fighting, as the group turns into an overheated brat pack of randy adolescents. Eternal love in this situation becomes not a promise, but an existential threat.

The films of director Alexei Balabanov present another kind of threat, not of the banality, but the deadpan absurdity of evil. His relentlessly black comedies eviscerate the Russian state apparatus in stories of institutional incompetence and sickeningly casual violence.  A Stoker is a return to contemporary Russia after the early 20th Century detour of his Bulgakov adaptation  Morphia (2008,selected for the 2010 FCS). Skryabin (Mikhail Skryabin) is a native Siberian Yakut who was shell-shocked in the Afghanistan war and never recovered, spending his days in the boiler room fueling the furnace, and typing away at a novel he’s been writing obsessively for decades. His face is a placid mask, and his reactions sluggish, as if instructions were dropped into him down a deep, cobwebbed well. Balabanov shows this garlanded hero as a zombie of Russia past, lobotomized into a cog in the mob’s death machine, as he burns up assassinated corpses in his furnaces. It is only when his daughter gets caught up in that same machinery that he dodders back to life, adding a few more drops of blood into his country’s vast reservoir, before drifting back off to sleep.

Also easing into the land of dreams is Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk (1983), a hypnotic nocturne set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Agitated typesetter and single mom Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) agrees to translate a sheaf of Chinese nursery rhymes to make some extra cash. Her life is already filled with everyday surreality, from her perpetually bleeding finger to the trance-like rhythms tapped out by her sullen workmates, but with these translated tales reality entirely escapes her, and she is left circling through a laid-back nightmare. Everything gets repeated, from a child’s obsessive street-crossing to the elevator’s insistence on stopping at every floor. Shot with the languorous long takes of DP Jim Jarmusch, Driver’s film approximates the feeling of half-sleep, when the day’s events are cycling through your head but your body is shutting down, your consciousness slipping away.

There is nothing sleepy about the wide-eyed adorability of I Wish (2011), the latest family drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows). Returning to more commercial ground after his experiment with latex love in Air DollI Wish was partly financed by Kyushu Railway Company, whose bullet train provides the central plot point of the film. It’s a simple tale of a family split by divorce. The two sons split, with Ryonosuke (Oshiro Maeda) living with the father (Joe Odagiri) in Fukuoka, while the older brother Koichi (Koki Maeda) stays with their mother in Kagashima. They vow to cut class and meet at the midpoint between their two cities, believing that when the new bullet train passes that point, their dreams will come true. A saccharine set-up, but Kore-eda leavens it with such melancholy and lightness of touch, it ends up indelibly moving. This is in no small part to the charismatic kid leads, real-life brothers who perform as the manzai (comic duo) act Maeda Maeda (according to Mark Schilling in the Japan Times). Already professional comedians, they have impeccable timing and rapport, with Koki playing the straight man and Oshiro the loudmouth madman. That this routine works despite their being separated for the majority of the film is a testament to their rhythm, as well as the fine parallel editing of Kore-eda’s team.

Film critic J. Hoberman (now of Blouin Art Info) does some editing of his own in Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds, his multi-projection spectacular that layers Passion of the ChristWar of the Worlds (2005) and Land of the Dead on top of each other in an orgy of martyrdom and Hollywood pizzazz. This special presentation grew out of Hoberman’s college lectures, in which he experimented with Passion as well as Rocky, playing all five (at that time) in the series at once.Passion was projected on film in its entirety, stretched vertically from its original Scope ratio to fit into the fatter 1.85, giving the characters, as Hoberman said, “an El Greco look”. Then scenes from War of the Worlds, and all of Land of the Dead were projected digitally over it, and hidden affinities began to emerge. It calls attention to the cookie-cutter manner of Hollywood screenwriting, in which “beats” all occur in the same spots, regardless of whether it’s Jesus’s crucifixion or a zombie rebellion. Then there are the smaller bits of serendipity, with Satan’s snake slithering towards a cowering Tom Cruise, or fireworks blooming over Pontius Pilate. As Hoberman admitted, it was more of an installation than a crafted work of deconstruction, and encouraged wanderings in and out. I remained lodged in my seat (with no booze nearby), so I let my mind wander instead, grazing over each layer of action, waiting for moments of convergence, after which I oohed as if wooed by the latest blockbuster, which, at Film Comment Selects, it most certainly was.

Click to read what I previously wrote about FCS selections Despair (1978) and Almayer’s Folly (2011).


October 4, 2011

nyff 2011 2

The 49th New York Film Festival is strutting into its first full week, rolling out red carpets and doling out free espresso to its star and art-struck audience. As posh as the whole experience is, this shouldn’t hide the adventurousness of the programming, which is rivaled in NYC only by Migrating Forms and the New York Asian Film Festival. I will try to capture the scope of the event with a bunch of short reviews (as opposed to my longer appreciation of DREILEBEN last week). Luckily, almost all have U.S. distribution, so they should eventually be available at a Netflix queue near you.

This is Not a Film (2011, directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb). Screens Oct.  13 at 6PM. Distributed by Palisades Tartan.

The film of the year is an unassuming thing, shot on an HD digital video camera (and an iPhone) in Jafar Panahi’s apartment. In December 2010 Panahi was arrested and charged with “harming national security and anti-Islamic Republic propaganda.” He is now under house arrest while appealing a 6 year prison sentence and 20 year ban on traveling or making films.  This movie’s existence is a miracle, smuggled into the Cannes Film Festival in a cake, but perhaps more miraculous is its aesthetic rigor. What in the film looks like an afternoon was shot over four days, Mirtahmasb saying in the NY Times, “I refer to Godard, who said if you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction.”

It is an interpretation of Panahi’s daily life, as he putters about his apartment, bickering with a neighbor’s dog and his daughter’s invasive pet iguana. These amusing slices of life about the banalities of home imprisonment are pushed against by two major set-pieces, impeccably staged and performed. The first is Panahi acting out a scene from his new script, which the government will not allow him to make. He stops and starts, alternately inspired and despairing as he blocks the movements of his young female character, using masking tape to mark off a blueprint of the set. It is a tour-de-force of creative power and destruction, constructing a film in our heads and then letting it disappear. The closer has Panahi enter the elevator with the janitor’s relative, who is taking out the trash. This young man was in the apartment when Panahi was arrested, and tries to tell the story of that night. But he is continually interrupted by his job, ringing doorbells and corralling garbage. Panahi follows him all the way outside, but the young man never finishes his story, subsumed by his job (which Panahi is filming with his iPhone, breaking the law of his house arrest) and the sound of the fireworks outside, part of the Persian New Year festival which Iranian authorities have tried to outlaw for its Pagan origins. The sequence is a heady nexus of how work is art and art is culture and all of it is silenced.


Le Havre (2011, directed by Aki Kaurismaki). Screens Oct. 5 at 9PM. Distributed by Janus Films.

Bela Tarr: “[Le Havre] is deep, sad and full of jokes, but every joke is very painful. That’s what I like.” I like it too. The swift-moving sadness of aging and the succor of community are the two poles of the latest charming cinephile-bait from the Kaurismaki factory. Set in an anachronistic present of fedoras and analog cameras, Le Havre tracks the stooped steps of Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) as he tries to nurse his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) back to health and help illegal African immigrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) get to London. Marcel is a shoe-shiner, staring downward at the parade of Converse sneakers that refuse his services. His age and his skills are now both cruel (but funny!) jokes. He and his neighborhood snap to life when they learn of Idrissa’s case, working off the sense memory of all the French Resistance movies they’ve seen (as well as Marcel Carne and Arletty’s Children of Paradise (1945) made during the Occupation). Their lined faces (and what faces!) spark to life as they get a chance to act the hero for once in this benighted cutesy town. What begins in the cold reaches of Jean-Pierre Melville-ville ends in pure Hollywood-land, a place for miracles.


Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan) Screens Oct. 8th at 5:30PM. Distributed by The Cinema Guild.

An epic ramble through the Turkish criminal justice system and the ethical brambles of a doctor and lawyer, Anatolia moves from macro to micro with elegance and astonishing formal control. Roughly speaking, the first half deals with physical illumination, the second with mental. It opens with a group of law enforcers: cops, the D.A., the coroner and their lackeys, driving suspected murderers around to find the corpse of their confessed victim. This takes all night and into the day, requiring a ballet of lights to illumine the plowed ground. The first shot is a slow zoom into a smudged window, indicating that there will be no clear sights of the truth. The captain (Yirmaz Erdogan, fuming and stamping “like a handful of bees”), continually reorients his truck’s search lights for the right angle, while a quick thunderstorm produces other revelations, not under investigation. As the doctor pees, lightning flashes, and an ancient statue stares at him, another, more permanent, judge of their actions. This play with light culminates in a stopover to a small village, in which the electricity goes out. The mukhtar, or village chief, has his daughter light lanterns and bring tea to the civil servants, and her face is the ultimate revelation. Each stares, agog, at what is clearly an angel come to Earth, another vision of the infinite during their trudge towards the irreducibly mortal. After the corpse is retrieved, everyone comes down to earth, engaging in uncomfortable bureaucratic wrangling and the reality of the lives they left behind.


You Are Not I (1981, directed by Sara Driver). Screens Oct. 6th at 9PM. No Distributor.

This maniacally creepy independent, an adaptation of a Paul Bowles short story, was thought lost after a leak in a New Jersey warehouse destroyed the negative. But wait! A print was found in Bowles’ holdings, and is now restored in its high-contrast grainy B&W glory (Jim Jarmusch was the DP and co-screenwriter). A nervous mental patient (Suzanne Fletcher) escapes her hospital, and wanders past a horrific car crash en route to her sister’s house. She desperately wants to eject her frazzled sibling and replace her, to create space for the patient to live alone in her own head. Driver sets a mood that is dreamlike and elliptical – the crash is a pile-up of abstracted forms on grass, and the corpses are lined up like dominoes. We are witnessing the world through the patient’s frazzled brain, so every image is unreliable. The closer is Erasherhead-hysteric, with trembling old ladies and the buzzing non-score by Phil Kline. It’s a authentically disorienting experience.


Twenty Cigarettes (2011, directed by James Benning). Screens on Oct. 9th at 9PM. No Distributor.

A minor but enjoyably playful video from the minimalist master James Benning. Last year’s festival brought his debut on digital, Ruhr, a massively beautiful meditation on duration. Twenty Cigarettes is more of a lark, a way for him to work and hang out with his friends at the same time, kind of an avant-garde Ocean’s 11. Benning shot portraits of twenty subjects smoking a cigarette. He cut only when they completed, at their own pace, with cigarettes as a timepiece. They are all positioned in front of flat backgrounds (except for filmmaker Sharon Lockhart, who is framed in front of sky), and the fun is in detecting personalities in the style of smoker. So you have the reluctant smokers, the speed demons, and the ones, usually older, who luxuriate in their cigs and extend the movie”s running time (it’s 99 minutes).  It’s in conversation with Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, although Benning’s subjects are not performers, but fellow artists and friends. Warhol’s films have the sense of a happening, of a communing with wild spirits, where Benning’s film is just companionable, a sitting down and getting back in touch with friends you didn’t know you had. Which is not a bad way to spend a night at the movies.