October 4, 2011
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.