Wednesday, September 30, 2009

NYFF 2009: Searching For Answers

After a strong start to the New York Film Festival, with only one major dud in my first report, the festival continued its strong set of films with a couple works by some of the more provocative directors out there (Von Trier, Dumont), and hyped arrivals for the Romanian Cannes Jury Prize winner Police, Adjective, directed by 34-year-old Cornielu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), and Berlin Golden Bear winner Everyone Else, directed by 32-year-old Maren Ade. But did our shockers shock? Did the hype from Cannes and Berlin hold over? Or did reports of weak festivals around the world finally reveal itself in New York? Much of this is still to be seen, but its certainly something to think about as these dispatches and other reports continue to come out. Onward and upward.

But first, a non-critical explanatory note: the press screenings begin before the festival and ex-tend throughout it. As such, I have had a bit of difficulty trying to see as much as possible while feeling confident about what I’m writing for these dispatches, so taking it a little bit at a time seems to be the best choice. I’m covering the four films mentioned above in this set, while leav-ing a couple that I’m sure people are interested in (and may have seen preliminary reactions to on Twitter or Facebook) – Trash Humpers, Around A Small Mountain – for the next set to give them a little more time to sink in.

Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, Denmark)- I don’t get much more excited about new films than I did for Antichrist. After the in-sane reactions from Cannes (which always seem so intent on saying something that brash acclamations are thrown around without much thought), Antichrist was and is undeniably a film whose reputation will precede it for most first time viewers. But, lest you buy into everything you have read (and as Michael Sicinski has aptly described), Antichrist spends about two thirds of its running time being an intense, oftentimes beautiful, and thrilling psychological thriller. Did people really think this was a giant humorless prank? Featuring some razor sharp debates between He (Willem Dafoe) and She (an incredible Charlotte Gainsebourg), Von Trier isn’t throwing scissors around without set up. An extremely skilled artist and, yes, provocateur, Antichrist is sure to entice, but only after the brilliantly bizarre wind up. Set up in a chapter structure, slightly reminiscent of Dogville but without the sly reflexive commentary, Antichrist uses the first two chapters to earn the smack down (of sorts) that most of you have probably heard about by now. And while the horror is certainly what most people seem to remember (unfortunate as its the weakest section of the film), Antichrist is extremely interested in empathy, guilt, sorrow, fear, and the search for self-empowerment (or the lack thereof/inability to do so) following extreme situations –elements anchored by Gainsebourg’s fearless performance. Pleasure becomes non-existant and indescribable pain are part of the severe depression, but what this really leads to for the psyche of She is total chaos. Antichrist’s third chapter does just that as it escalates to the majority of its already infamous moments. Von Trier loses some “emotion” in the face of shock, yet the shift to visual horror (shown in great detail, mirroring pornographic ideas of visibility indicated in the film’s first scene) after so much psychological discussion under-scores the progression of terror from the interior to the exterior. In the end, Antichrist is a powerfully affective psychological horror film questioning states of suffering and pondering the ability to exist in a world whose very nature is founded on chaos. A-
Antichrist will be released by IFC Films on October 23.

Everyone Else (Maren Ade, Germany)- I wish I had a chance to see this again to really give it its due. A superbly crafted work for sure with incredibly strong performances, Everyone Else tells the story of Gitti and Chris, a couple on a summer vacation to Sardinia where they try to learn about and redefine themselves for each other. Taking the position of their parents (at Chris’s parents summer home), Gitti and Chris are finding their new positions in the world, as a little bit older, a little insecure, and totally unsure of what do from here. Mirrored by a neighbor couple who represent what Gitti and Chris think they want, but know they can’t and won’t be, Everyone Else is more classically structured and “accessible” than anything else I’ve seen at the festival thus far, yet Ade’s direction is so in command that it becomes sharp, assertive, and downright exciting. I’m a bit amazed that this doesn’t have distribution. Is German film really that down in the US these days? B+

Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont, France)- Having only seen Twentynine Palms, I’m certainly not a Dumont expert enough to say things like “Hadewijch is an interesting change of direction for Dumont”, but Hadewijch seems to be an interesting change of direction for Dumont. Chronicling the religious devotion of a young girl named Hadewijch, banned from her monastery for her attempts at martyrdom in the name of Christ (abstinence, not martyrdom should be the goal, say the nuns), Hadewijch recalls the religious tales of Robert Bresson in a thoroughly modern context. Forced out in the world to face “real” demons, Hadewijch, going by the name Celine (and portrayed in a captivating performance by Julie Sokolowski), meets Yassine, a Muslim, at a café. In an attempt to make a con-nection without losing devotion to her own religion, Celina befriends Yassine to the point of sexual attraction, but refuses his calls saving herself, instead, for Christ. The requirement to see and touch pitches Yassine as a religiously devout Doubting Thomas and Celine as a (blind?) follower never questioning the status of her savior. But how far will this devotion go? [major spoiler alert] Influenced by Yassine’s older brother Nassir’s Islamic teachings of love and devotion, while not turning away from Christianity, Celine begins preparations to sacrifice herself for her cause. Nassir ponders violence in nature and who is really innocent. All of this is rather interesting and Dumont’s direction is clear, but a larger set of implications make Hadewijch a troubling work. The overbearing coda following a literal explosion certainly hightens the emo-tion in Celine’s final call for grace, amid the under construction monastery complete with an accused murderer released from prison, now a bricklayer for the church, becoming a stand in for Christ after Dumont pulls another page from Mouchette. Michael Koresky has said, “As in all of the director’s previous films, acts of terrible finality ironically refuse to provide any sort of resolution…” and it is precisely in Dumont’s final plunge into a large graceful resolution that is Hadewijch’s biggest, regrettable misstep. While some have argued that there is more subversion hidden with the film, I’m yet to be convinced that this is anything other than more Western fundamentalism positioning Islam as a threat to the modern world. Sympathetic characters can’t justify the extreme action following Islamic influence and the laughable coda where handyman Christ swoops in to save our heroine from the outside world once again. I’m willing to give this a second viewing, which could make all this analysis mute, but, for now, I don’t buy it. C+

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)- Another major Cannes arrival in New York, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Jury Prize winning Police, Adjective follows 12:08 East of Bucharest in the mode of taking vague concepts or ideas (for 12:08, what, when, and where did a revolution occur?; for Police, Adjective –what is a conscience) and questioning them in a move to reposition the words, events, or moments in new ways. The effect of this questioning and repositioning, as well as pondering who is asking the questions, who gets to define what, and why we believe any of it anyways, is at the heart of Police, Adjective where the penultimate scene features characters literally reading definitions out of a Romanian dictionary. In a kind of reinvention of the police procedural crime film, Police, Adjective tracks Cristi, a morally conflicted cop, in real time as he follows a young boy accused of selling hashish. Worried about the long term effects of an arrest and convinced the law is going to change anyway, Cristi prolongs the case trying to bide time for the case to develop and his conscience to remain clean. But what is the conscience? And how does it relate to the law? To being a policeman? To being Romanian? Ingeniously infusing ideas of text, images, and the effects of deeper meaning, seen particularly in a long scene where a music video plays alongside Cristi eating dinner, Police, Adjective is perfectly acted and oftentimes riveting look at the power of language in all its forms and its ability to repress or, at the very least, alter any subject it comes into contact with. The incredible final shot is a marker of everything that has come before it. It stands as an abstract symbol where people are no longer just people, words are no longer just words, and language is shown to be a powerful, far reaching weapon. A-
Police, Adjective will be released by IFC Films on Dec 23.
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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

DVD of the Week: "Au Bonheur des Dames" (Julien Duviver, 1930)

by Chuck Williamson

In Au Bonheur des Dames (1930), director Julien Duviver relocates Emile Zola’s nineteenth-century bildungsroman into the age of mass consumption, automation, and modernization. Made at the end of the silent era, the film identifies the metropolitan space as the locus of both industrial and capitalist power and uses the novel’s department store romance in the employ of a bold visual reinterpretation that mixes social realism, conventional melodrama, and complex cinematographic strategies. In effect, Duviver’s film does not merely illustrate Zola’s novel, but reinvents it, enhancing the novel’s social and political vivisections of modern Paris through bold, virtuosic cinematic technique.

Duviver’s film follows Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo), an orphaned girl who moves to Paris to live with her uncle, a beleaguered fabric merchant whose business is threatened by a gargantuan luxury department store called Ladies’ Paradise, where Denise will later gain employment as a “live mannequin.” Eventually, Denise is caught in an ideological tug-of-war when an unexpected romance with ruthless storeowner Mouret (Pierre de Guingand) forces her to reconcile true love with the encroaching force of capitalist monopolization. But this slight, near-quotidian plot—a melodramatic, narratively-convenient love story punctuated by class conflict and contrivance—does not account for the film’s challenging, avant-garde aesthetic. In fact, the film works best when it widens this disconnect between story and discourse, as conventional bourgeois melodrama clashes with its fragmentary, enstranging modernist design. The opening sequence, for instance, portrays the metropolis as the site of psychic dislocation, as jittery, vertiginous cinematography, multilayered double-exposures, and elliptical editing reinvent Denise’s entry into the city as a harrowing subjective journey through both inner and outer spaces. With the unconventional fusion of modernist visual tactics and rote melodramatic narrative, the film’s aesthetic at times overpowers the wafer-thin plot, crafting visual representations of the sort of psychic dimensions denied by its surface narrative.

Even the controversial conclusion—which many critics have written off as a pro-capitalist cop-out—merely highlights the corrupting, coercive influence of both capitalist and patriarchal systems of power. Even as the machinery of melodrama attempts to disrupt such an interpretation, the ideological about-face made by its characters can be read as a representation of the ways various structures repress and dehumanize the subject through the removal of human agency. If anything, the crass monopolism and soppy, reductive romance featured in the conclusion seem like parts of a self-made prison, constructed through a pre-written script that is as artificial as the matte backdrop that enframes the lovers’ final reconciliation.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

NYFF 2009: What's Up, Docs?

by James Hansen

Perusing the titles for the 47th New York Film Festival, I had some trouble deciding if I was underwhelmed, pleased, or totally excited. With a laundry list of established directors represented, and remembering the critical community’s same excitement prior to an apparently guileless Cannes Film Festival, I felt the need to alter my perception slightly as to avoid aggressively bitchy posts, the likes of which we saw out of Cannes, that end up being more a reflection of a critic’s mental state during a never-ending festival than a clear minded critique, or even viewing, of a number of movies from envelope pushing directors.

Or is the envelope done been pushed for these familiar, if still strong, filmmakers? With works from Resnais, Haneke, Von Trier, Breillat, Denis, Dumont, Korine, Solondz, Rivette, and Oliveira, familiarity (by means of a auteristic international film marketing) can be both a good and bad thing. Of course, it makes it easier to know what to see if you’re versed enough to like or dislike a filmmaker, a “national cinema” (in general), or a type of movie. And its precisely this reason that the real “finds” and actual excitement comes from the unexpected work from young and/or emerging artists look to make their mark on the global film scene. As Jim Hoberman said this week, “It’s all about the mix.”

So here they come – dispatches from the 2009 New York Film Festival. This year, in an attempt to limit expository, wandering prose, I plan on writing individual reviews for films after (briefer than this) intros for each “dispatch” as you will see below. And, as hesitant as I am to grade things immediately after seeing them, I’ll give some form of tentative grade for each film, but let us all remember these things are always in flux. Also, I’ll include the public screening dates below each review for those of you in New York who are trying decide what to see. And don’t forget about a new policy this year: 50 $10 rush tickets are available one hour before every screening! All screenings are at Alice Tully Hall unless otherwise noted. More excitement lies ahead in the coming weeks, so I hope everyone who stumbles upon these entries will stick around and come back for all the coverage. Now – on with the show.

Wild Grass (Les Herbes Folles, Alain Resnais, France): Might as well start with the intriguingly baffling new film from 87 year old Alain Resnais. A major splash at Cannes (and, thus far, following suit in New York), Wild Grass is the kind of film that is worthless to explain yet easy to recommend, even though I would approach it with more reservations than many of my head-over-heels colleagues. Wild Grass flows, like, well, wild grass – rooted in something, but freely blowing direction to direction changing tone, pitch, characters, and stories with each breeze. Overwhelmingly slapdash, and perhaps a little too excited to be so, Wild Grass follows the l’amour fou of an adventurous would-be couple who abrasively force their ways into an (un)connection with one another following an incident, of no particular importance, which ends with the return of a pair of shoes. With bits and pieces maniacally strewn together, Wild Grass takes THE French topic of choice and does something with it that no one has seen before. Its palpable energy is tough to sustain, but Resnais somehow does, up until the already classic (throw away?) last shot, recalling another French master who also has a film at NYFF, who has also severely played with L’Amour Fou. Impossible to completely grasp, let alone comprehend, with one viewing, yet an experience I won’t soon forget, Wild Grass is a film I feel like I should embrace a little more than I initially have. Of all the crazy films released this year, I expect there won’t be anything else remotely like Wild Grass. B?
Opening Night Film. September 25 at 8 PM.

Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA): With a large documentary presence at this years festival, its a pleasure to receive affirmation of new (or, at least, a fresh trend) directions and practices in documentary, even though the two docs I’ve seen thus far couldn’t be more different. The first of which is Sweetgrass, which follows a group of sheep herders in Montana on a final trek through a set of mountains. Through the first 20 mostly wordless minutes, Sweetgrass acquaints us with the intimate details of a sheep’s life – from birthing to walking to being shorn. This observational approach shifts from sheep to farmer and ends up being allowing the proclamation of Sweetgrass being “the final western.” Problematizing issues of the cowboy and his response and interaction with the animals and nature that coexist as major elements of their iconography, Sweetgrass is a fascinating account of these questions despite occasionally seeming unsure of its would-be “objective.” Still, its main set piece as it were, a phone call from a cowboy to his mother, is at once funny, pitiful, emotional, and astonishing. The scene challenges the connection of the filmmakers, audience, and subject to the material, landscape, and technology presented in Sweetgrass. Although it loses some steam after its ecstatic opening (but perhaps I’m just too into wordless documentaries that follow the duties of animals and/or workers), Sweetgrass is a quite a surprise and a thoroughly engaging work. B+
Sep 26 at 2:15 PM

Ghost Town (Zhao Dayong, China): The longest film of the festival this year at 172 minutes (a surefire sign that its right up my alley), Ghost Town is a Chinese documentary by a young filmmaker named Zhao Dayong. He’s so new he’s not even on IMDB (shouts the world)! Despite being only his second feature, Zhao’s direction is superbly focused and finely tuned. Ghost Town maintains a complexly fluid narrative drive throughout its triptych chapter structure (Voices, Recollections, and Innocence) which displays the directorial confidence and refinement of a skilled master. Set in a town called Zhiziluo, slowly evaporating in the mountains of Southwest China, Ghost Town finds individual people, a singular town, and a collective culture on the brink of nowhere. Having lost its past, the inhabitants and spaces in Zhiziluo fill in a devoid present while remaining in search for any future for their traditions and identity. While stylistic comparisons to Jia Zhangke seem out of place to me (Ghost Town plays a little more straight forward, albeit three hours long), Dayong's ambitious talent and keen eye make him a worthy colleague of Jia's in the Chinese film. Daunting as it may seem (and you might feel it in the overlong second section), Ghost Town is an absolute must see. B+
Sep 27 at 2:15 PM

A Room and A Half (Andrey Khrzhanovsky, Russia): A semi-fictional biopic (although the term doesn’t really fit) of Nobel prize winning poet Josef Brodsky, A Room and a Half is a fancy free “labour of love” from veteran Russian animator Andrey Khrzhanovsky. Combining a tilta-whirl of elements, including live-action, archival footage, and animation, A Room and a Half’s refusal to set any kind of tone, while simultaneously attempting to emotionally engage in a surrealist manner with a poet whose mental consciousness is reflected by changing forms in this mess of a film, makes for a very long 130 minutes. Aside from bits of animation, A Room and a Half feels wholly uninspired making its never-ending over-obvious reflexive musings on time, space, and memory slightly infuriating. Clearly, Andrey K. is using the varying formats to match the old with the new, the inner mind with its output, as well as reality and fantasy. The playful celebration of intellectual freedom and artistic inspiration, evidently an expository attempt to showcase the film mind as Brodsky’s own, goes mostly unrealized. Instead, A Room and a Half feels unexcitedly showy and surprisingly stiff. Its loose attitude, not all that unlike Wild Grass, although clearly striving for a[n] (unsuccessful) different end, backfires and, rather, indicates how structurally and conceptually sloppy A Room and a Half actually is. C-
Sep 30 at 6 PM
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An Interview With Stewart Copeland- Director of "Jennifer"

Following up yesterdays post, and serving as the DVD ( video) of the Week this week, I recently conducted Out 1's first ever director's interview with Jennifer filmmaker Stewart Copeland. If you have further questions about the film that I didn't ask, or you just want to dig a little deeper, please ask the questions in the comments and hopefully Stewart will stop by and be able to answer your questions. A big thanks to PBS for picking up the film and helping it be seen by a larger audience. And an even bigger thanks to Stewart for taking the time to talk to us. On with the interview!

JH: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

SC: I had a professor at in film school who was teaching the beginning film course and after reading all of our proposed scripts he said, “All of you should be making documentaries because none of you know anything about reality,” thinking back on it he was probably just trying to insult us, but I took it seriously. I’m very glad I did though, he was right.

JH: What is it that draws you to the documentary form?

SC: Documentary is really difficult. You only have so much to work with, so it’s a challenge to peace together a story with limited materials. It’s like taking a plastic bag full of jigsaw puzzle pieces and having to figure out what the bigger picture is. I prefer that process much more then narrative filmmaking where you’re constructing something from scratch. When someone makes a narrative they have to construct an experience, but documentary is an invitation to have an experience, one where you meet people, travel new places, and challenge yourself.

JH: Tell us a little bit about how Jennifer started?

SC: After my mother passed away I moved back to Tennessee from Saint Louis where I was going to school. I was working on a documentary for my thesis project for college, but I decided to scrap it and make a film about my mom. I decided to focus on one moment in her career as a science teacher when her students got to speak to astronauts aboard the international space station.

JH: Jennifer is an unquestionably personal film for you. What made you want to share something that intensely specific?

SC: I don’t know how aware I was of sharing the film when I started working on it. It felt like it was just me and the movie. I worked on it for about 5 months before I went back to Saint Louis to finish school and the film, and at that point I did a lot of work with my mentor on the project, Mike Steinberg, and that’s when we started talking about the film’s ability to relate to the viewer. Before that, in the early stages of the film, it was just kind of an exercise or therapy. That’s the beautiful thing about documentary, the process of making a film teaches you about the subject and yourself.

JH: I suppose some people may lump Jennifer into the mode of experimental film practice, although I think in just as many ways (and this isn't a complaint, by the way) it fits into a more classic essay approach. Do you think about these traditions at all? Do you associate yourself with one approach or another? Or does it matter for you?

SC: That’s a really great question. I think a lot about documentary form and tradition when I’m working on a piece, but in the end, there has to be an even relationship between the subject and the filmmaker. You can’t force a subject to fit a form, but if you’re too passive, then you loose your authorial voice. The film is about my mother, but to be more precise, it’s about remembering my mother. I suppose a film about memory is intrinsically experimental. The moments where the film feels the most like a classic essay doc are in the moments that require that structure. I know that sounds like a silly statement, but filmmakers often try to force an aesthetic or style on to a subject. I always try to be aware of style, but never commit to anything completely and allow a project to evolve before the audience.

JH: Although the film is only five minutes, I wonder how much footage you worked through before it got to the final form?

SC: There was only about 15 or 20 minutes of actual footage from the student’s conversation with the space station. However, I didn’t want the film’s narration to be describing what you were seeing; I was looking for video that enhanced what you were hearing. So the film is mostly composed of stock footage and unrelated b-roll, and that resource seemed limitless. It took 9 months to piece the film together, so I had a lot of time to search out the perfect stock footage and animations to achieve the final look.

JH: I think there is a pretty fascinating structure to the film as a whole. What were your ideas, and how did you work through, the varying structural concepts in the production process?

SC: I wanted the final piece to feel like a memory. So I thought about different attributes of memory. First, it is difficult for me to remember things in chronological order. So to accomplish this sensation in the film, I book ended it with an identical footage of birds flying. I felt like that helped confuse to viewer. I mention towards the end of the film that my mother has passed away, but I wanted the audience to think that they knew that the whole time, that no information in the film was revealed, just remembered. Secondly, some details of my memories are vivid, but other particulars seemed to fill themselves in with unrelated recollections. For example, I might remember the exact way the house I grew up in smelled, but when I try to remember what it looks like, all I can see is an old photo of my brother eating a birthday cake. That was the inspiration for using the stock footage.

JH: You say in the film's narration that your mother had "a fascination with the living world" and that teaching was, maybe, a way of sharing this fascination. Not to totally project my own take on the film, but, for me, this seems the central concept, which is underscored, quite beautifully, throughout. Can you talk a little bit about this idea and how (or if) you tried to embed this within the narrative?

SC: I used a lot of 1950’s science videos in the piece. All of that footage has this surreal energy and look to it. Probably because it’s trying to teach kids something and also entertain them. All the footage I shot myself of her school and our house has a very specific look too, I’m not sure how I would describe it, the camera seems almost mesmerized. My mother was a science teacher, and science is, as far as I can tell, a method by which we are able to gain a deeper understanding of phenomena. Through science and scientific method we can determine how and why and predict when and were. For most people, a greater knowledge of how something works can be demystifying, it can transform an experience from magical to clinical. But for my mom, knowledge of a subject made it even more spectacular and miraculous. I absolutely inherited this attribute. Knowing how a magic trick works doesn’t ruin it for me, it enhances it. I guess that perspective or attitude or whatever you would call it, is so deeply embedded in the film because that’s just how my mom and I are. Fascination leads us to study and study leaves us fascinated. It’s a good way to be.

JH: Your visual methodology, if I can call it that, reminds me in some ways of a couple great a-g filmmakers - Ben Rivers and Nathaniel Dorsky. I don't know if you're familiar with them, but I mention them for two reasons: one, for high praise, and two, I want to end with a quotation from Dorsky's book "Devotional Cinema" and get your response to it. Jennifer isn't operating in all the same traditions, but I couldn't help but think of it after watching Jennifer a few times.

(Excuse the long quote)

"When a filmmaker is fully and selflessly present, the audience becomes fully and selflessly present. The filmmaker’s physical relationship to the world manifests as the camera’s relationship to the image and becomes the audience’s relationship to the screen. To the degree that a filmmaker can relate directly to the heart of an object, the viewer will also connect directly to the heart of the object. The audience will see the screen as the camera sees objects, and a great unity of heart will take place between filmmaker and audience."

I guess I'm just interested in your reaction to this and if you think Jennifer and your relationship to filmmaking might be similar. Or am I stretching a little?

SC: That’s a truly beautiful quote. It’s still feels strange to talk about Jennifer, and it’s themes and structure and my approach and process. The film is about the person I love more than anyone else on the planet, so in the end, any editorial decision I made was driven by that love. I guess the greatest accomplishment any filmmaker could experience would be “a great unity of heart.” I don’t know if Dorsky and I share the same means, but I think we’re after a similar end.
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Monday, September 21, 2009

Short Films You Must See: "Jennifer" (Stewart Copeland, 2009)

by James Hansen

Winner of Best Mini Doc at the 2009 Big Sky Documentary Festival and showing tomorrow evening as part of PBS's acclaimed POV Series, Jennifer explores director Stewart Copeland's relationship with his mother in both actuality and memory. Using a conversation between his mother's eighth-grade students and astronauts on the international space station, Copeland uses space as a purveyor of indescribable distance – both between the students and the astronauts, the living world and whatever else is out there, and Copeland and his mother. Wonderfully including segments of stop-motion animation of astronauts in space, Copeland shows that, while some things cannot be seen, anyone who is looking closely can still hear, feel, and love some thing, or someone, who may not be physically present. Managing a dialectic between the audio and visual components, Jennifer plays with not only Copeland's relationship to this personal film, but illustrates and challenges the spectator's relationship with Copeland, the rest of the audience, and the film experience itself. Beautifully rendered, quietly elegant, and subtly complex, Jennifer is a wonderful film and announces Copeland as a major talent to watch.

For more on Copeland and Jennifer, come back here tomorrow for an interview with the filmmaker. You can also visit Copeland's website for more information on his past, present, and future work. Jennifer will show with the feature Bronx Princess and another short So The Wind Won't Blow It All Away on September 22nd at 10 PM on PBS.

Jennifer from Stewart Copeland on Vimeo.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Telluride Film Festival Part Two: Conversing With Haneke

by Brandon Colvin

When I stated that Haneke’s The White Ribbon was the best film of the festival, I wasn’t being precise: it’s also the best film of the year, at least thus far. Edging out Adventureland and Hunger for the top spot on my in-progress best-of list, The White Ribbon is one of the few films I’ve seen in recent years that immediately struck me as an outright masterpiece. Told with elegantly-composed black-and-white cinematography and delicately nuanced sonic textures, The White Ribbon is an enigmatic exploration of evil, guilt, and filial revolt set in the unassuming environment of rural 1913 Germany. The film’s plot unfolds as a series of unexplained, potentially unconnected, violent occurrences trigger a wave of fear and paranoia in a small village. In many ways, The White Ribbon is reminiscent of Haneke’s most celebrated previous work, Caché (2005), in its perpetual and inconclusive mystery, unflinching brutality, and its depiction of children wreaking havoc on adults. Even the film’s wonderful final shot seems to suggest a possibly hidden solution to the film’s unresolved crimes, as in Caché. However, more than any of Haneke’s previous films, The White Ribbon resembles the work of European masters – the sober, incisive classics that came to define “art” cinema: Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), Bergman’s Winter Light (1962) and Shame (1968), Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1969), Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). It would be no critical stretch for future generations to ascribe a similarly canonical status to Haneke’s film.

As the Gondola descended back down to Telluride, I found myself and my fellow festival-goers elated and perplexed by The White Ribbon’s brilliance. Conversations abounded regarding a handful of the film’s most impressive scenes and interpretive debates were immediately ignited as tall pines blurred in our darkened peripheries. Finally, a film worth arguing about! Some were shocked, some were thrilled, some were awestruck, but everyone seemed to be in agreement about one thing: we had seen the work of a master. Knowing a Symposium seminar was scheduled with Haneke the following day, my mind was frantically tossing around what question I wanted to ask him, what I would like to discuss with a man who had just confirmed himself as one of the world’s greatest living directors. The walk to my sleeping quarters from the Gondola was contemplative and solemn – no doubt Haneke’s intended effect – and, as I attempted to enjoy my precious few hours of sleep, thoughts of Bresson fluttered through my brain.

Though The White Ribbon was still occupying the forefront of my thoughts, the following morning belonged to the memory of Manny Farber. Accompanied by a rare screening of Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935) – a surprising film that has been hailed as a pre-cursor to De Sica’s brand of Neo-realism and one of the great critic’s favorite films to teach in his classes at UC-San Diego – the celebration of the late icon was incredibly heartfelt and touching. Gathered onstage at the Sheridan Opera House were Farber’s widow and frequent critical collaborator, Patricia Patterson; editor of the new collection of Farber’s writings entitled Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, poet Robert Polito; famed critic and one of my personal heroes, Kent Jones; and Greil Marcus and Robert Walsh, fellow critics and friends of Farber. The esteemed group discussed the trajectory of Farber’s critical writing, his incredible way with words and phrases, his constant curiosity, a few of his favorite films and filmmakers, his unfailing and meticulous work ethic, his involved and innovative teaching style, and the upcoming books by Walsh and Jones that focus on his previously unpublished teaching notes. All spoke with great affection for Farber, and the event was intensely emotional, moving Patricia Patterson to tears as she smiled and listened to her and her husband’s closest colleagues elaborate on his inspirational influence and remarkable talent.

After the screening and discussion, I fortuitously wandered into the merchandise tent in order to purchase the aforementioned Farber anthology (available for early sale at Telluride, releasing nationally on October 1st) just as Polito and Patterson were beginning their book signing. Shockingly, there was no line, so I walked right up to the table. Eyes still moist, Patterson spoke to me in the sweetest manner imaginable. She asked about my career ambitions and wished me luck as we discussed how wonderful the tribute was and how happy she was to see how much everyone cared for Manny. Having all of their best friends onstage to talk about him was priceless to her, she said in a quavering voice. She apologized for not knowing exactly what to write in my book, saying timidly, “This is the first time I’ve ever done this.” I told her whatever she wrote would be lovely and she smiled. Tears clung to her eyelids as she shakily finished scratching out an inscription and, flashed a look at me, and passed the book to Polito. Less intimate, Polito also asked me about my interests in film criticism and kindly suggested I drop him an e-mail as he scrawled an illegible message above Patterson’s dedication. Feeling enlivened and a bit choked up by my encounter, I began the trek across town to our meeting with Haneke.

I had my question ready. I had written it down, practiced it. As the minutes ticked away, my nervousness grew, however. I grew increasingly quiet and motionless – my typical expression of anxiety. Then he walked in the room. Silver-haired and black-clad, Haneke made his way into the room – translator close behind – with a genial smile on his face, a fact which both surprised and relaxed me. Thankfully, the man did not appear to be as severe as his films. Haneke’s affability was maintained throughout our discussion as he replied to our questions with composed, precise, and direct answers, providing strongly supported intellectual and aesthetic rationale for nearly every aspect of his films that we probed. He was the antithesis to our Alexander Payne experience, being completely open about his process and his thoughts on his work. As a result of his quick-witted, well-spoken answers, we seemed to cover more ground with Haneke than any other seminar guest, regardless of the frequent need for his translator.

Near the beginning of the discussion, I worked up the gumption to raise my hand. I was pointed to and Haneke turned to me, looking me straight in the eye where I sat on the front row. I had decided on my question once I went over some Bresson research I had been working on, namely, an essay Haneke has written on Bresson in which he observed, “Reduction and omission become the magic keys to activating the viewer. In this respect, it is precisely the hermetic aspects of Bresson’s works that seek to make the spectator’s role easier: it takes him seriously.” The transition into this Bresson-based question was made all the better by the fact that Haneke had just finished explaining why there was no score in The White Ribbon, citing the same ideas Bresson elaborates upon in Notes on the Cinematographer (1975) – there is no score in real life, the music should be the natural sounds of the film abstracted into art. Fortunately, Haneke maintained eye contact with me throughout his answer as he was able to respond without translation. I’ll try to paraphrase my question and Haneke’s response as accurately as possible:

ME: You just mentioned your opinions on sound, which remind me very much of Robert Bresson’s, whose influence you have often admitted as being very important to your work. In fact, in an essay you wrote about Bresson, you say that ‘reduction’ and ‘omission’ give his films their power and I feel that the same is true for yours, especially The White Ribbon. Can you elaborate on why this reservation of information is so important to you creatively and what effect you feel it has in your own films?

HANEKE: First, you are absolutely right about Bresson. He is certainly my number one influence, above all others. Watching his films taught me how to make films myself. There is no one else like him for me. And, second, I feel it is important not to show everything, to make the viewer work, to engage his mind. The more the viewer has to imagine, the greater the film will be because it will contain only suggestion, but a suggestion that the viewer will turn into something meaningful to himself. For example, you can use a sound to suggest something that you do not show. In a horror film, maybe, someone will show a killer coming up the stairs, but why? It is more effective to only hear the creaking of the stairs [moves his hands as if they are going up steps] and be forced to imagine the killer coming. The imagination will always be more powerful than the image. And this makes the audience an important part of the film’s meaning. So there are questions that, as a filmmaker, you should not answer in your film. [pause] Is that okay?

Looking back at him, wide-eyed, I nodded. He had just told me I was “absolutely right” about something and answered my question with clarity in his German-accented English. As he moved onto the next question, I remained dazed for a few seconds. Michael Haneke and I had just talked about Robert Bresson, the filmmaker we both held in the highest regard, above all others. It was surreal. It was one of the highlights of my life. And the rest of the conversation wasn’t too shabby either. After discussing the importance of casting, especially in The White Ribbon, Haneke went on to explain that his films are completely storyboarded and planned, shot-by-shot, before he ever sets foot on set, saying, “My films are basically finished by the time we start shooting. I keep them in my head for a very long time.” As a result, he typically only requires one or two takes for each shot, allowing him to shoot his visually complex scenes extremely quickly. He went on to emphasize the importance of being prepared, both artistically and economically, noting that his compositions were always thought-out and meaningful (no coverage allowed) and his productions moved swiftly, allowing him to operate on limited budgets. He jovially refused to entertain any interpretations of The White Ribbon, restating that the viewer was free to create whatever meaning she wanted and, when later asked about his favorite filmmakers, he cited Bresson (nodding in my direction) as his favorite director and then claimed Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1974) to be his favorite film, a fact which astonished me as for years those were my exact answers. As he left amidst a well-deserved applause, I felt I had just encountered a very kindred spirit.

Margarethe von Trotta was Haneke’s follow-up act. While she was consistently candid and very sweet, our conversation with her was much less exciting, perhaps as a result of most of the students having only seen one of her films – the dismal Vision. Her interpretation of the film’s emotional arcs and her discussion of the historical background on Hildegard von Bingen were more fascinating than Vision itself (just as with the tribute to her) and the remainder of our seminar consisted of von Trotta’s thoughts on the importance of actors, her hope in the New Berlin cinema, her hatred of The Baader Meinhof Complex’s political shallowness, and the importance she placed on creating films with strong and intricate female characters. The most intriguing aspect of von Trotta’s talk was her discussion of feminism and her experience being labeled a feminist early in her career, a fact she resisted as she felt it politically and creatively pigeonholed her. In her eyes, the ideology of feminism placed upon her work clouded and restricted the complexities she intended. Her strong women could no longer be interpreted as real people with flaws and strengths, but rather as symbolic feminist avatars, a complaint that I found refreshing and insightful.

With our seminars over for the day, it was time to return to the theaters. Our group gathered in the Galaxy Theater – a converted elementary school gymnasium – in preparation for Jacques Audiard’s Cannes award-winning A Prophet. Before the screening, I spied Kent Jones (who would later introduce the film) and decided to introduce myself. Creepily taking him by surprise, I told him who I was and that I loved his work, especially his writings on Bresson. He seemed intrigued and asked me what my favorite Bresson film was. I told him Au hasard Balthazar, followed by Pickpocket (1959) and The Devil, Probably (1977). He said he couldn’t pick a favorite and then asked if I’d seen Les agnes du péché (1943); I replied that I had (thanks to James), but found it to be more of a curiosity than anything. He nodded and smirked. Finally, I confessed to him that I considered him a hero, which seemed to surprise him as he said “thank you.” I made my way back to my seat. Minutes later, the movie began.

A blend of Scorsese and last year’s Gomorrah, A Prophet presents the complex story of a young half-Arab’s rise to power within the French prison gang crime structure. Beginning with his transfer from a juvenile detention center to an adult prison, the film tracks Malik (Tahar Rahim) as he moves from low-level initiate in the Corsican mafia to head of his own drug syndicate, all from within the confines of a Parisian jail. Visually reminiscent of the aforementioned Gomorrah spiked with the flair of Goodfellas, the film features prominent use of grainy handheld cameras and editing rhythms that are meditative and slow-building, leading to moments of abrupt, unembellished violence (save for one gruesome scene) that are genuinely disconcerting. Mostly, the film consists of a drawn-out power play between Malik and the Corsican prison boss, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), and both actors give incredible performances, particularly Rahim in the physically and emotionally demanding role of Malik. However, A Prophet suffers from a handful of unusual, pseudo-metaphysical elements, creating tonal clashes that are out of place in an otherwise conventional crime film. Namely, the problem areas are the presence of the “ghost” of Malik’s first murder victim, essentially a visual representation of Malik’s persistent guilt that comes across as somewhat heavy-handed and misplaced, and a dream sequence in which Malik has a vision of the future that eventually helps him escape a dicey situation via deus ex machina. With a different, less vérité cinematographic approach or perhaps a more consistent focus on these semi-supernatural elements, they might mesh, but dropped into A Prophet, they play like giant question marks.

Still, A Prophet was not nearly as disjointed as the newest film from Marco Bellocchio, Vincere, about the tribulations of the mistress and illegitimate child of Benito Mussolini, and the last film I saw that night. Photographed and acted rather blandly, the film’s stabs at ingenuity consist of moving text blocks, attempting to capture the feel of fascist propaganda, which are interesting, but not enough to compensate for the bizarre combination of eroticism and political melodrama that dominate much of the film’s unremarkable narrative. Mussolini (Filippo Timi), of course, is the charismatic villain and his disregarded pseudo-wife, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), suffers being silenced by the fascist political machine in order to prevent Mussolini’s affair and resultant child from becoming public knowledge. Eventually thrown into mental hospitals and separated from her son as a result of her “delusions” of being the mother of Mussolini’s heir, Ida becomes a tragic casualty of Il Duce’s rise to power, a fact the film milks in its teary scenes of political brutality. Vincere lacks the resonance it seems to be after, however, feeling in the end more like a weepy romance novel version of fascist Italy than a substantial commentary.

Exhausted, I retreated to bed, awaiting the silent film extravaganza lined up for the next day.

To be continued . . .

The White Ribbon: A+
A Prophet: B
Vincere: C-

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Tracking Connections

Then comes the separation...

Starting and ending with a set of winding, never-ending, ever-connected train tracks, Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, more than anything else, seeks to elide the emotional, physical, and psychical distances between the people and places who establish irreversible connections within their own communities. The problematic distances or connections extend from the smallest kitchen to a dark hallway and flooding into the vibrant streets of an effervescent city. 35 Shots of Rum, at its best, beautifully captures the deeper impact of these subtle, spare moments by providing an equally scant soundtrack that intensifies and underscores the small, yet deeply critical decisions that could have a resounding impact on the challenged interpersonal networks of family, community, and city. While the film is occasionally self-defeating in overstating already excessively literal moments, Denis’ formal control rules the day as it propels a quiet power by displaying the grace and poise so central to the success of the film’s core concepts.

All that love, all that effort in order to rise to the task, to achieve this equilibrium...

35 Shots of Rum follows the lives of Lionel, a metro conductor, and his daughter Josephine, a university student who still lives with him in a small apartment. Also entering the equation are respective love interests – Gabrielle, a longtime neighbor and ex of Lionel’s, and Noe, a neighbor who is interested in Josephine. Just as the train tracks bend and wind in, out, and around the city, so too do the characters move within each other’s lives. Lionel and Josephine have begun to move in different directions, as the role of father and young daughter begins to morph into individual dependency and the need to move...somewhere.

But now you’re leaving me to live your own life, says the father to himself. Allow me, please, allow me to breathe easy a little longer at your side, thinks the daughter.

Clinging to one another, although at a dead lock in the home, exemplified by a battle of home appliances, Lionel and Josephine trouble themselves more by not allowing anyone into their family network. They have become closed off, despite the open space and opportunity around them. Denis plays with this relationship in the screenplay and the formalism by often stuffing the frame with bodies, heads, and...stuff. This visual battle is countered by fractions of light, the splitting of the train tracks, and the literal spaces between the characters in specific moments. As they simultaneously cling to one another and discover the need for separation, 35 Shots of Rum becomes a film about love in all its forms.

The father: I believe my future withered as you grew. And I held firm, I did my best.
The daughter: Will I be loved as much as you love me?

If the warmth and depth of 35 Shots of Rum is any indication, Denis is addressing this question throughout the film and uncovering the answer for all of us: a definitive yes.


Quotations part of Claire Denis's Directors Note.

Images courtesy The Cinema Guild.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Telluride Film Festival Part One: So It Began...

Editor's Note: Although the Telluride Film Festival 2009 ended a couple of weeks ago, the time for reflection is upon us via Brandon Colvin who attended this year's festival as part of the Student Symposium. Over the next week or so, we'll have several entries on the festival experience - the movies, the people, the lines...the whole Telluride experience. Congratulation to Brandon for being selected as part of the prestigious symposium. Even more fortunate, for the rest of us, is that we get to read all about it and experience it now!

by Brandon Colvin

On a chilly Thursday morning, waiting for a 6 AM flight from Nashville to Denver, I met Santa Claus. Conversing in between paragraphs of In Cold Blood, I discovered that for six weeks out of the year, the tubby, bearded, and balding Tennessean beside me was a mall Santa who loved playing jolly, jiggly dress-up for wide-eyed children, cynical parents, and people who just dig Christmas. I never caught his real name, but I did catch a nice little card he handed me, which featured a photo of the bulging traveler decked out in Yuletide gear with the word “Santa” in cursive script printed at the top. He explained that the shirt he wore in the photo was custom-made, costing hundreds of dollars, but then assuaged my growing concern for his economic well-being by noting that he made between $10,000 and $20,000 each year for his six weeks of Santa service. By trade, and for most of the year, he was a pipe-fitter, but that weekend – the same weekend as the Telluride Film Festival – he was attending a convention for “natural Santas” (those people who are biologically endowed with Claus-like qualities) in Colorado Springs. Hearing his story, it was hard not to smile, particularly when he urged a nearby dad to give the cards to his small children who then stared at the ho-ho-hoer with dumbstruck awe and curious terror. Surprisingly enough, however, this strange fellow in red suspenders turned out to be the least interesting person I was to encounter in the following five days.

North Pole be damned, the Telluride Film Festival has a more magical atmosphere than any place or event I have ever experienced, due mostly to the incredible collection of absolutely fascinating, passionate, and intelligent people that convene upon the tiny Colorado ski town every year to create a cinematic utopia in the midst of picturesque crags, streams, and coniferous valleys. Those festival-goers fortunate enough to participate in the Student Symposium – a collection of 50 college students culled from around the world, though mostly the US and Canada – reap the greatest benefits of the festival’s unparalleled opportunities for intimate contact with the most important creative and critical minds in film – including our fellow symposium members. Frequently, Telluride veterans – including faculty leaders Linda Williams (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible (1989), ed. Porn Studies (2004)) and Howie Movshovitz (Colorado Public Radio, NPR) – commented that interacting with the astonishingly perceptive group of students in the Symposium gave them hope for the future of film culture. I must say that I felt the same way. The group cohered immediately and friendships developed as we casually dined with filmmakers Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal (2004)) and Jay Rosenblatt (Human Remains (1998)), discussing everything from Tarkovsky to baseball to camping to Herzog. This was the giddy, cinephilic environment we entered on the first night, which was capped off by a screening of Lone Scherfig’s An Education.

Scherfig’s film, however, was a major disappointment. Ultra-conventional and exceedingly bland, An Education features a promising performance from star Carey Mulligan, but otherwise wastes a great cast (Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, Sally Hawkins) on a typical coming-of-age story taking place in 1960s England as a young girl begins to question her conformist ambitions to attend Oxford after being courted by an older, worldly, and free-wheeling thief (Sarsgaard). Predictable, trite, and visually uninteresting, An Education is slight, forgettable, and lazy, surprising facts considering the exclusivity of Telluride’s selection process. The common response to the film seemed to be a tired shrug, a collective gesture of exasperation that led all of us to the tiny town’s quaint bars, and then to bed.

Waking up the next morning, I was greeted with brisk mountain air, drizzling rain, and what promised to be an incredible day. First on the agenda was a series of 45-minute seminar discussions with our first three notable visitors: film preservationist and archivist Paulo Cherchi-Usai; famed documentarian Ken Burns; and the festival’s guest director, Alexander Payne. Cherchi-Usai initiated our conversations by posing questions about the mortality of celluloid and its potentially waning relevance in modern society. In his process of questioning the role film archives should play, he stated, “If we preserve films, we should make sure that we are doing something that is useful or necessary to society.” In other words, without the demand for film archives, attempting to create them may be a futile task. Therefore, if we think them worthy, us film-lovers should create the demand in order to legitimate their existence. With a Marxist slant to his commentary, Cherchi-Usai berated capitalism’s influence on devaluing celluloid as a specific medium and disparaged its suggested role in preventing people from engaging in “slow looking,” or concentrated, focused, repeated observance of a film, by encouraging rapid consumption of as many films as possible – quantity over quality of viewing. DVDs, he explained, are a major obstacle to slow looking, something I disagree with both in principle and practicality. Many symposium members seemed to feel the same way, and, unfortunately, our discussion with him was cut short before any in-depth disputation occurred. Quite provocative, Cherchi-Usai thoroughly energized us for what was to come – the force of nature that is Ken Burns.

Contrary to the PBS-style mundanity of his widely seen documentaries, Ken Burns was a thrill. Moving from a basic discussion about the nature of truth and objectivity in documentary filmmaking (“Truth does not exist. Objectivity does not exist.”) to Aristotlean aesthetics (“Everyone is bound to the same storytelling laws. Believe or not, even Fred Wiseman.”) to ontological investigation (“How could I not be Ken Burns?”), the diminutive documentarian filled every minute of our discussion with thoughtfulness and candor. Though his stated ideas about the universality of storytelling and the complicated relationship between filmmaker and subject sometimes veered into contradiction and paradox, Burns never closed himself off to our prying queries and was quick to revise and clarify his responses. Listening to Burns – a self-proclaimed “evangelist” for film – was stimulating and motivating and truly set the tone for the intimate, direct nature of the subsequent encounters our group would have in Telluride.

Alexander Payne, however, was a different story. Dismissive, curt, and evasive, Payne turned out to be as cantankerous as his characters in Sideways (2004). The writer/director refused to participate in any sort of analysis about his process or his creation intuition, opting for glib statements such as “It’s just funny. That’s all” or his most frequent response, an annoyed “I don’t know.” Payne was adamant about the artistic superiority of television shows such as The Wire and The Sopranos when compared to the modern movie climate, presumably the reason for his most recent project, the HBO show Hung. Additionally, Payne discussed his love for cinema in vague observations, stopping every once in a while to highlight this or that obscure foreign film (many of which comprised his selection of films screening at the TFF), while also justifiably griping about the business side of the film industry. Near the end of our session, Payne finally grew comfortable and made his most valuable comments, mostly regarding film school. Noting the importance of experiencing and understanding film history and technique, the filmmaker remarked that it is important to have a solid idea of what kind of films one might want to make, that something concrete and meaningful must be conceived before running the gauntlet of production and distribution difficulties. Succinctly, Payne said, “You have to know what the hell you’re protecting” – advice I took to heart.

Following our afternoon seminars, we were whisked onto Main Street for a lovely taco dinner. Nearby, the line was already forming outside the Sheridan Opera House for our next event, the Telluride tribute to Margarethe von Trotta, followed by the world premiere of her newest film Vision. The film, a biopic chronicling the eventful life of 12th-century nun/composer/rabble rouser, Hildegard von Bingen (Barbara Sukova), was much less entertaining than the tribute that preceded it, which featured outstanding clips from von Trotta’s celebrated career and an onstage interview between the filmmaker and Annette Insdorf. Marred by mismanaged melodrama, stylistically disjointed cinematography, and a narrative arc that lagged and wilted, Vision was the second consecutive underwhelming film of the festival, a particularly sour fact considering the deserved recognition given to von Trotta.

Somewhat disappointed, my fellow symposium members and I scurried out of the Sheridan en route to the Gondola, a beautiful ski lift with enclosed cabins that silently carried us up the slope to Mountain Village, the sister community to Telluride and home of the Chuck Jones Cinema (named after the late great animator). The Gondola ride was eerily surreal and as we watched the lights of Telluride recede into the misty distance, my excitement for the next film began to percolate. The film turned out to be the absolute best of the festival: Michael Haneke’s Palm D’or-winning The White Ribbon.

To be continued . . .

An Education- C-
Vision- D

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

DVD of the Week: Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913

by James Hansen

Allow me to nerd out this week with a DVD I haven't seen yet, but which is a must have for any early cinema lover. The Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913 box set has just about 600 minutes of silent films that most everyone hasn't even had the chance to see until this point. With notable films from early directors Alice Guy Blache, Louise Feuillade, and Leonce Perret, the release continues the ongoing critique and expanded understanding of all that was going on during the early days of cinema. This box, at least from the titles, looks a major addition to an always growing and always of interest period in cinematic history. Major kudos to Kino.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Harmony Korine's "Trash Humpers" Trailer?

Not exactly sure what this is, but here is...umm...something from the NYFF (and Toronto) selection.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

DVD of the Week: "Chronicle of a Disappearance" (Elia Suleiman, 1996)

by Chuck Williamson

As the formation of Israel seemingly put an end to centuries of Jewish diaspora, a single nationalist slogan encompassed for many the spirit of the time: “A land without people for a people without a land.” But such myopic platitudes did little to accurately explicate the region’s complex reality, instead exemplifying the sort of rhetoric used to legitimize Jewish claim to the land and invalidate Palestinian nationhood. In Chronicle of a Disappearance, director Elia Suleiman investigates this disconnect between convenient myth and political reality. Rather than center on a literal “disappearance,” as the title suggests, Suleiman’s film focuses on the systemic erasure of a national identity—both personal and political—that has becomes a daily reality for the Palestinian people.

Mixing the choreographed physical comedy of Keaton with the languid, sun-blasted photography of Kiarostami, Chronicle of a Disappearance is composed of a series of non-linear, loosely interrelated vignettes, each soaked in the textures and rhythms of Palestinian life. Suleiman himself plays the veritable “man without a home,” a stone-faced silent clown who, like Buster Keaton, uses acrobatic physical comedy to combat a hostile and authoritative social order. In one of the film’s funniest set-pieces, a mid-morning police raid in Suleiman’s flat transforms into a comedic, choreographed dance where visual gags and vaudeville acrobatics theatricize the indignities and subjugations experienced by Palestinians. But even as Suleiman’s slapstick routine disrupts the authority of his oppressors, he remains a man without a state, invisible and powerless. In a parallel narrative, a young Arab woman named Adan (Ola Tabari) takes more proactive measures to protest the occupation. Here, the film inverts the iconography associated with geopolitical terrorism to comic effect, transforming guns and grenades into toys and cigarette lighters, suicide bombs into firework displays. Chronicle reduces political violence into performance art pranksterism, culminating in a scene where Adan uses a stolen IDF walkie-talkie to orchestrate a series of comically illogical police raids, occasionally interspersing her dispatches (delivered in “perfect Herbrew”) with sardonic renditions of the Israeli national anthem.

But even during its most anarchic and comedic sequences, Chronicle of a Disappearance focuses on the repetitious rhythms of daily Palestinian life. In this respect, the film remains a singular piece of political filmmaking, an abstract, minimalist tableau detailing the social fragmentation and political dissolution faced by the Palestinian people. By rejecting all forms of demagoguery, Suleiman’s debut feature film compresses the personal and the political, creating an abstracted collection of impressionist images that encapsulate the conditions of a people with a land.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

The Unexamined Life

by Chuck Williamson

You, The Living begins with an argument. A middle-aged, chain-smoking motorcycle mama—absorbed in her own pain and self-loathing—cries thick, mascara-streamed tears as she sits on a park bench with her taciturn biker boyfriend. He tries to console her, reminding her that both he and their dog Bobo love her, but she remains unconvinced, shrieking out a litany of miserablist platitudes. “If I had a motorcycle,” the woman says to her boyfriend, “I’d drive away and escape from all this shit.” And then, quite suddenly, she breaks into song—an incantatory patter-song accompanied by a Dixieland brass band—as her boyfriend walks away, muttering about the roast in the oven.

As evidenced in this scene, You, The Living does not follow many of the conventional rules of cinema. Structured as a panoptic penny arcade peepshow, the film is a tragicomic collection of fifty absurdist tableaus, severed from narrative logic, that theatricalize the pain and misery of its characters. As in director Roy Andersson’s equally brilliant Songs from the Second Floor (2000), the film dismantles the mechanisms of mainstream cinema, breaking down the causal pattern of crisis and resolution as well as the constants of space, time, and narrative. Instead, the film links its loosely assembled series of single-take tableaus—each focusing on a different set of characters and circumstances—less by narrative progression than through a discursive kind of dream-logic. Each scene is photographed in the static, deep-focus photography that has become Andersson’s signature style. As in Jacque Tati’s Playtime (1967), Andersson films each vignette inside his intricately designed soundstage, reconstructing Stockholm into a surreal, dyspeptic city that doubles as a literalization of the pained melancholia of its citizens.

By opting for such a detached, counter-cinematic style, the film places the viewer in a more passive subject position where the privileged vantage point(s) of mainstream cinema have been closed off. The simple mechanisms of identification have been disassembled, as the camera forces the viewer into a fixed perspective that, in many ways, compliments the film’s gray and despairing tone. The spectator experiences the same sense of entrapment and dislocation endured by Andersson’s collection of sad-sack characters, who drift in and out of the fixed frame, isolated by the film’s fractured and compartmentalized design, intermittently turning to the camera for an improvisational soliloquy that should, in theory, allow for some sense of individualization. But everyone seems to look for validation in all the wrong places.

While each vignette works individually (some more than others), the film is best appreciated as a whole, as the various sketches intersect and interact in complex ways. Take, for instance, Anna (Jessica Lundberg), a punk rock barfly who becomes infatuated with glam guitarist Micke (Eric Backman). After the perfunctory flirtations—a scene lodged in the foreground of a chaotically designed bar scene—Anna meanders through the periphery of various vignettes, searching in vain for the rock-n-roll heartthrob who has, no doubt, moved on. Alone and fitfully unhappy, she begins to withdraw into the backdrop, roaming aimlessly from frame to frame, ignored by a city full of people too absorbed in their own personal neuroses to pay her any attention. Anna’s lonesome quest, then, functions as a peripheral refrain that periodically plays in the margins of other sequences. In the end, she appeals to the viewer directly, describing a dream where her white wedding to Micke culminates in an intimate getaway inside a moving house surrounded by throngs of cheering onlookers and well-wishers. Visually, the sequence pops with color, trading in the artificial soundstage sets for real exteriors and allowing for subtle continuity editing that cut from the inside of their home to lush, pastoral exteriors. Her dream, then, inverts the dreary reality of her bleak, subterranean Stockholm blues, visualizing a last-ditch retreat from her self-involved sadness that can only exist within the imagination.

But make no mistake. You, The Living, for all its gloom and doom, crackles with mordant humor, using its desultory vignettes in the service of a sharp social satire barbed with absurd dark comedy. Punctuated with sketches and set-pieces that tend to draw out a poisoned sort of laughter, the film employs sight gags, slapstick, and ironic juxtaposition to great effect. In one scene, an old man lies naked on his bed—straddled by a ghoulish, Botero-esque woman in a Kaiser helmet—and delivers a mid-coital monologue about his personal financial woes that is periodically interrupted by his partner’s filthy pillow talk. In another vignette, a dream sequence that mixes the sensibilities of both Bunuel and Keaton, a bourgeois dinner party goes hilariously awry when a mechanic’s bungled attempts at magic—the old tablecloth trick, of course—has unexpectedly dire results.

You, The Living is an exceptional film, combining the language of absurdist theater with a comic humanism that belies its dark pessimism. From the seriocomic opener to its apocalyptic conclusion, the film connects its disparate scenes and set-pieces into a coherent, comic vision of humanity that doubles as a distorted convex mirror. As Andersson says in the film’s press notes, “The film talks about human nature, its greatness and misery, happiness and sorrow, self-confidence and anxiety… The film is simply a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy for which we are the subject.”


You, The Living will show as part of a Roy Andersson retrospective (which Out 1 contributor Maria Fosheim Lund helped program!) which takes place from September 10-17 at the Museum of Modern Art. For more details on all the films and for specific screening times, go here.
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