Most of the reports out of Cannes this year said it wasn’t such a strong year for film. While many big name directors were present, they were turning in middle of the road work, neither masterpieces or disasters. With over half of the NYFF films coming from Cannes, I was hoping to find that most critics were giving the festival a hard time. That with high expectations come slight disappointments and they things were blown a little out of proportion. Nevertheless, I have been having a similar NYFF experience and, with only one week of screenings left, it seems like things won’t change too much. It isn’t that most of the films are bad; it’s just that they have only been good, not great. But, as NYFF selection committee member Jim Hoberman reported, a festival can only be as strong as what is out there. What’s out there, so far, are a lot of good movies, a couple great ones, and a lot of technically accomplished films with some severe issues. I always try and be fair when it comes to expectations, and, considering how little I have known in advance about the films that were screening, I think I’ve given all these films a fair shake. Granted, a lot of the films I’ll complain about are better than most of what I’ve seen this year (it’s been a weak year, eh?) so I’ll be sure and call myself out on unfairness when/if I see the films a second time come their wide release.
Let’s start with the good stuff.
One of the few all out, balls to wall triumphs thus far has been Steven Soderbergh’s 262 minute, two part Che, a film greeted at Cannes, and now in New York, with violently mixed reactions. For the life of me, I straight up don’t know how or why anyone would HATE Che. And while the few lukewarm reactions I have read are perfectly sensible, but they seem to have complaints that have nothing to do with the film. (Glenn Kenny recently wrote about Che and his biggest movie-response pet peeve being when people complain whether films make them care or not. I agree with him, but the reaction that really chides me the most is when people reject the film asking why it was made. This necessity complaint drives me right up a wall and is one I have heard quite a bit regarding Che from plenty of critics I admire.)
So why do I love Che? Technical accomplishments aside (I can’t say anything more, or say it better, than Amy Taubin did in the most recent Film Comment) Che is likely the only film at NYFF that works within the confines of genre and not only reworks them (as did Afterschool, The Class, Gomorrah, A Christmas Tale, Serbis, Hunger, I’m Gonna Explode, and, to a lesser extent, Changeling, and The Wrestler) but also restructures, resituates, and reconceptualizes each genre as well. What makes Che so dynamic is the genre triptych it works under. Che reframes the biopic within the action genre (The Argentine- part one) and thriller (Guerilla- part two), and uses these techniques as a way to problematize and challenge the person, icon, and symbol that is its protagonist. The elliptical, distanced storytelling, especially in The Argentine, recalls Malick’s best work. Che doesn’t ask for the audience to root for Che, but only to exist and flow moment to moment with the events in the film. Many critics have complained that this distance from the characters makes the film tedious, boring, uncaptivating, and unwatchable. This response really baffles me. Che, and its incredibly nuanced camerawork, keep this distance precisely so the audience can hold its own position within the film and the dialectical debate created between the two parts. It is as if we can only drop in on key moments and can only be so close to the action, the characters, and the historicized world of Cuba and Bolivia. This position is affirmed by Mr. Soderbergh when, in a post-film press conference, he stated, “I’m obviously not a communist...there was no place for me to exist in Che’s world.” The artist, and even the audience, can only get so close to that world, that history, that icon. This is an idea that, and one executed on every level, that of all the biopics ever made, only Che seems to comprehend.
Leading me to believe that I might be insane (although it's something I've noticed for a while), I constantly love uber-art house fair that most others dismiss. Anytime I hear "Cannes walk-out champ" (as Jim Hoberman called Pedro Costa's incredible Colossal Youth) my ears tend to perk up. Antonio Campas’s Afterschool, a film greeted with very hostile reactions at the festival, may not have been the walkout champion, but it appears to be the most aggressively disliked at the festival (other than maybe A Bullet In The Head, a film I have yet to see, and Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman. I'll have more to say about the Martel in my next post.) I was talking the film up immediately after its press screening, but, other than Mike D’Angelo and Dennis Lim, I haven’t read, or heard, (m)any positive reviews of the film. I can understand complaints to some extent. Afterschool is, without a doubt, ruthless, risky, cold, and bold. Still, detractors are dismissing the film far too quickly in labeling Campos a mini-Michael Haneke with some Gus Van Sant thrown in. While these comparisons are fair, and, to my mind, positive, they quickly abandon the originality of Campos’s use of alternative media and some down right amazing camerawork. Oh, but that’s pretentious, right? Too ambitious for its own good? Slant goes so far to call Campos a “borderline con artist” (they lump in Lucrecia Martel as well.) Well, haters, I’m sorry if Afterschool is full of mundane characters and preoccupations. Sure, the camerawork “calls attention to itself”, but who can complain when it is done at such a high level? Or is that precisely why there have been so many complaints? Is it really so egregious today to display some ambition today? Maybe the film is shallow compared to best Haneke or Van Sant films, but I don’t think so. It works within a category that either of those great directors have yet to confront. Afterschool isn’t just another movie about postmodern alienation and voyeurism, although it is about those things too. What Afterschool displays is a digital world so full of “real” images that the borders of reality and fantasy have almost completely broke down. The struggle to differentiate between the two creeps into every facet of life. Afterschool is beautifully rendered and each subject is handled with a muted delicacy that makes the film, despite its obvious ambition, so authentic.
Speaking of films that a lot of people think is ambitious but, unfortunately, takes a third-act turn to the typical, Turner Award winning video artist Steve McQueen’s Camera d’Or winning film Hunger has some really incredible images, some great, tough scenes, but its last third keeps the film out of masterpiece territory. Hunger tells, or, more appropriately, shows in great detail, the story of IRA member Bobby Sands who wages a hunger strike to improve living conditions among fellow prisoners. Hunger is sharp and precise throughout in highlighting how the prisoners live and survive. There are some really brutal scenes that aren’t for the faint of heart, most of which come in the first and last third of the movie. What comprises the middle is essentially two scenes, which are the two best in the entire film. One is a soon-to-be-famous 25 minute long scene (done almost completely in one shot...the use of cigarettes blew me away); a fierce debate between Sands and his priest discussing the meaning, purpose, and decision to pursue the hunger strike. This is followed by an very long shot of a guard sweeping the hallway clean of the urine that is dumped underneath the doors of the prisoner’s cells. These two scenes together are totally electrifying, and I have to be truthful here in saying that I thought that point was the end of the film. One super long, but extremely riveting scene followed by an incredible metaphorical shot. It’s all I needed and wanted. Not kidding, I wrote in my notebook “What a fucking incredible last shot.” Maybe I was thinking that I was in a Bela Tarr movie and got too hopeful in thinking that we wouldn’t see the hunger strike. That it was about the why more than the gruesome how. Given the importance of showing the beatings and abuse in the first part, I thought it had made the point. We know, at this point, that Sands will not falter. That he will go through with the strike and die for this cause. If it ended there, Hunger would likely be one of my favorites of the year. But it continues on to show, in even more precisely gruesome detail, Sands’s deterioration and death. Hunger loses some emotion and narrative drive in the last third and starts feeling a little too much like The Passion of the Christ rather than the unique and biting critique that the first two sections display. There are scenes and images from Hunger that I won’t soon forget (and it’s still a very good movie), but I’ll remember just as strongly the slight frustration I have knowing how great the film could have been.
Similarly frustrating, but even moreso, is the Israeli animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. Waltz With Bashir follows director Ari Folman’s journey to recover his suppressed memories from the 1982 war with Lebanon. From stories and personal testimony, the film locates these memories and presents them within the scope of what Folma calls “the historical imagination.” I have always been a fan of infusing animation into other filmic forms and how important this can be for showcasing that animation isn’t just something for children. Waltz With Bashir sounded like a huge step in the right direction and, for a lot of the film, it seems to be. Even though I found the much of the film not all that enthralling or meandering, what made it interesting was the animation and the experimenting with different colors (and entirely different color pallets) for returning memories and dream sequences. The lively and distinct colorizations create a distinction between all these different aspects of memory and history. I’ll feel like to much of a spoil sport if I go into much detail here (I’ll have more to say when the films gets it wide release) but I really believe that the final sequence undercuts the entire process and progress that Waltz With Bashir tries to make. What is this sequence doing in here? Why did they choose to show it this way? While it doesn’t remove or change what Folman is trying to say, this last sequence is a total reversal and blatant contradiction of the importance of how it should be said. And, for a film so invested in its technique, this is a gigantic and unforgivable misstep.
But at least I have feelings about that, right? The same can’t be said for my reaction to Chouga, a film from “Kazakh master director Darezhan Omirbayev”. I put that in quotes because I don’t know this director and can’t confirm his mastery. Chouga, a very truncated version of Anna Karenina, shows strong formal elements and has some interesting ideas, but I just can’t work up a reaction. It seems like a perfectly acceptable movie that probably loses a lot in translation. It feels a little flat and has some long lifeless sections, but there are some nice scenes and moments that make the film worth seeing, if only to say you saw a Kazakh movie this year.
You saw a Kazakh movie this year, you say? Haha! I saw two! And if you only see one, it should be Tulpan. “Kazakh master documentarian” Sergei Dvortsevoy’s first feature film Tulpan won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes this year, which was a good sign going in, and I have to say if his earlier work is anything like this then I definitely need to see them. Tulpan tells the story of Asa, a young man who recently completed his naval service and returns to the Kazakh steppe to live with his sister and her herdsman husband. Although Asa dreams of having a herd of his own, he must marry before this can happen. Unfortunately, in the desolate steppe, there aren’t many women around. The only one is Tulpan, but she doesn’t like Asa because of his big ears. Asa refuses to give up on his dream. This is a nice little description and hints at some of the comedy infused throughout the entirety of the film. With some really great performances, particularly by Asa’s boob-loving friend Bali, it’s easy to invest in the people that Dvortsevoy’s film presents. Moreover, the real images that are captured are breathtaking and oftentimes funny. (Tulpan was shot in a very remote section of Kazakhstan called Betpak Dalla.) A dog sits with lightning striking in the background. Dust storms arise in the middle of herding. A ram enters a shack to give solace to a weakened man. A sheep struggles to give birth. There is much more to the images than mere description can provide (the scene with the lamb’s birth is the most important scene in the film) but they all match one another to make one hell of a debut feature. Dvortsevoy’s combination of fiction and reality is fresh. No matter the kind of film he makes, Dvortsevoy is a filmmaker to watch, and Tulpan is a film you should see.
by James Hansen