Tuesday, October 6, 2009

NYFF 2009: Trashing Concepts/Conceptual Trash - [online text reviews of four films, two of which the writer of the text loves]

This third dispatch from the New York Film Festival features reviews of one highly anticipated work (any work from Rivette at a site named after a film of his is a major event), two works that I was cautiously looking forward to (Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien and Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers), and one work that I knew absolutely nothing about (Raya Martin's Independencia). I've already previewed my response to Trash Humpers, which comes at the end of this post complete with a defensive tangent that I probably shouldn't publish, but that I left anyways as a way of working out my own thoughts and ideas about the work and about how we should write about films in general. I meant to post this third dispatch sooner, and now am falling behind in my attempt to write about everything I see, especially with a busy last week of screenings this week. I'll attempt to persevere with good content. This post, above all others, seems to have contrarian written all over it, considering the other responses I have read to a couple of these films. Nevertheless, I stand by my rankings and unexpected love (well, one was unexpected) of these controversial works. There's nothing quite like the challenge of writing about a work you really care about (much less two in one post!) while also being genuine and not aggressively overwriting for the sake of your excitement. Lets see how well I did...

Around A Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, France) - Maybe this just feels slight from the get go because of the running time. Clocking in at 84 minutes, the shortest film in Rivette’s oeuvre by half an hour, Around A Small Mountain sets a mystifying stage, this time quite literally, by centering on a sparsely attended circus. Following a wordless exchange, an Italian gentleman, Vittorio, befriends a carnie and subsequently spends his time wandering the premises, meeting more eccentrics, and discovering long hidden secrets of the circus many of which revolve around an infamous trick gone awry. At times dry, if not outright stale, Around A Small Mountain has the all the elements of Rivette’s strongest work, but, in the concise brevity of this tale which could have headed in various directions, it gets a bit of a short shrift. From the overlapping mysteries to the numerous rehearsals, Rivette chooses not to dwell on subjects or moments longer than needed. This refuses the world of characters, so often the lifeblood of ecstatic energy present in Rivette’s films, the chance to pivot, rotate, and revolve around each other. The world seems more isolated, the figures more singular, and the mysteries less interesting. Maybe its just the marathon movie fan, but I would have loved to spend another hour or two really getting lost in the fascinating world that Rivette establishes. My criticism is perhaps harsher than Around A Small Mountain deserves. It really is a perfectly fine film with interesting characters, an odd location, plenty of hidden mysteries, and a unique assemblage of theater, cinema, and performance (read: everything you want from Rivette), but I can’t help but think this could have been a lot more. B-

Independencia (Raya Martin, Philippines) - If last year’s inclusion of Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis at NYFF introduced New York to an uprising in Filipino cinema, Independencia displays the wildly different kinds of work being done right now. Independencia was one of two films Martin, age 25, had at this years Cannes Film Festival where the Best Director prize was won by fellow countrymen Mendoza for his controversial film Kinatay. With Independencia, Martin shows some real promise, even while the film never completely works. Set in the Filipino jungle in 1943, a family awaits the arrival of American troops into their country. A bit obviously, the family waits for most of the film until a massive storm finally comes and sends the characters in different directions. Martin, above all else, does what he can to achieve the look of a 1940s Hollywood film, complete with beautifully hand drawn sets that give Independencia a remarkable look while creating an undercurrent of the American invasion of Filipino culture. Still, this concept only goes so far, as the flowing cinematography overwhelms this small amount of dramatic tension given to the actual plot in the first two-thirds of the film. The storm sequence is rather tremendous and won me over for Independencia as a whole. Wonderfully executed, Independencia ends with the mood and attitude it needed to sustain throughout. Though its not a complete success, its shows some real complex thinking from Martin about his films and should help in turning Martin’s idea around on him by finally bringing a larger Filipino presence to the US film scene. B-

Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa, Portugal)- Apparently most people hate this. It drew the smallest crowd of any press screening I’ve been to throughout the festival (partially because of the canceled press conference with Mr. Costa, I assume) and still managed to have the largest number of people walk out. I imagine this has something to do with the labeling of Ne Change Rien as a music doc for French actress/singer Jeanne Balibar. Certainly its a somewhat accurate description – you do, in fact, listen to Balibar rehearse and perform for the entirety of the documentary – yet it lacks in identifying Ne Change Rien as perhaps the most experimental feature at NYFF. Costa’s is able to transition his long take form, introduced to New York audiences in 2007 with a retrospective and the presence of his short Rabbit Hunters at NYFF, into Ne Change Rien with almost alarming effect. With no narration and no interviews, Ne Change Rien shows Balibar in never-ending rehearsals, looping the same chords, the same notes, the same sections of songs over and over searching for perfection in every nuance of the voice. Using two or three different pieces throughout the film, from a strange Gainsebourg-esque rock number to an Offenbach opera, Balibar’s face is shown in shafts of light as she ceaselessly counts, thinks, and ponders every detail of her performance. Ne Change Rien, shot digitally with high contrast black-and-white, shows the dancing of the light across Balibar’s face as she sways through the frame in isolation. Drenched together in more muted tones of white and gray during collaborative sequences, an equally important story of the reflection of light, creating profound nuance in black blacks, light blacks, mid grays, light grays, and bright whites as the very process of creation and perfection shimmers across the screen. Costa’s engagement with Balibar’s quest for perfection is found in the smallest of details. The long takes give ample time for the mind to soak in every bit of the soundtrack while becoming enamored with each subtle shift in Balibar’s voice and the light as the performers directly influence the way the camera records Balibar and, subsequently, the way we see the film. This may sound like a small feat, but make no mistake: Ne Change Rien is a major accomplishment. A-

Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine, USA)- Unearthed from a hidden ditch somewhere in Tennessee, Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers serves as an artifact from a unknown culture of deformed villains – a hybrid of The Hills Have Eyes and the laughing baby. The humpers exist in a world not so unlike our own, yet one where they have free reign of the ditches, parking lots, and backyards of whomever they choose. Acting partly as perverted peeping Toms and deranged lunatics, Trash Humpers acts as a piece of found footage in which the humpers run around hysterically cackling and chanting as they break TVs, smash lights and concrete blocks in the middle of abandoned parking lots, and find a host of unforgettable friends: a kid who smashes baby dolls with a hammer, a homophobic comic who tells jokes with no punch lines, and a man who plays a one-stringed guitar and sings songs about his oh-so-large penis. Yes, Trash Humpers is essentially a celebration of anarchy. Very funny but at times quite haunting, Korine has described Trash Humpers as a kind of horror movie, perhaps of the American Dream being flushed down the toilet. But how then, amidst the nonsensical cackling and hysterical, neverending chants (“Make it, make it! Don’t fake it!) and recitations (“Three little devils jumped ovvvverrrr the waaaaallll...”) is Trash Humpers so genuine, so heartfelt, and so damned inspired? Korine’s connection and return to the South seems pertinent, as this return home has also returned him to non-commercial practices and more of an exploration of images and ideas, which is where Korine’s films have been most comfortable in the past. But where each of his past features has seemed overstretched by their strangest elements, Trash Humpers, despite, or maybe because of, its [purposefully] haphazard construction, is undoubtedly Korine’s most complete work yet. The ending sequence, at once bizarre and strangely moving, is the final punch card for the way Trash Humpers works through its characters and finds an open ended space for the humpers to go on...and maybe in a different way. Chaos reigns? Maybe not.

And now a tangent: While several critics have questioned Korine’s effort, calling the deck stacked and the concept of creating an artifact as one in which you can’t fail, these criticisms seem largely unfounded to me – not only because I can cite one film in the festival that has the same central concept and is less successful, but mainly because, frankly, that its just a flat out stupid criticism. If critics actually attempt to meet films on the films own terms (which I’m not exclusively advocating, mind you), then a success is a success and a failure is a failure based on the work, not on what you read or what someone else said about it. Whether success means accomplishment is a different matter completely, but I find it hard to suggest that a work with a concept that is achieved is a fraud, a fake, a sham, or anything else. Moreover, it becomes the same criticism of contemporary art (where Korine’s work may more comfortably lay as a kind of performance piece) in that “my kid could paint that” or “its just a shark in a tank.” These questions might purvey through Trash Humpers to certain viewers, but, if we’re wanting to play the Artist card, then who is that did create it, that did ask the question, and that did make you think about all this to begin with. So go conceptual works, and so goes Trash Humpers. I suppose its just going to work for some people and won’t work for others, but to suggest something as a failure because you don’t think the effect is difficult to achieve is fundamentally flawed. Last year, I remember many critics (not sure if they are the same ones who have excoriated Trash Humpers) suggested after Manohla Dargis’s negative review of The Reader that Holocaust films should be judged differently because of the subject matter. most everyone disagreed with that at the time, but now it seems its being flipped back over when convenient to attack someone for creating an admittedly lo-fi thing that “might not even be a movie” (so says Korine). I wouldn’t be so worked up, I suppose, if I hadn’t so bought into Trash Humpers and been impacted by what it captures and how genuine it is while doing it. (It is the only movie I bothered seeing twice, and almost a third time, fearing it may not be coming to a theater near anyone anytime soon). I’ve gone on a huge, largely unnecessary tangent here, so I’ll avoid going on another about why I might connect to Trash Humpers on another level – lets just say it has something to do with also being from the South, also shooting shitty looking movies on VHS in high school, and finding many of the voices and events of Trash Humpers not only funny but frighteningly familiar. If you’re still reading at this point, congratulations! You made it! And, in case I hadn’t mentioned it, Trash Humpers is without a doubt one of the best new works in the festival. A-


Brandon Colvin said...

I love how much of yourself is in this writing -- and all of your festival coverage. You articulate a very solid and clear aesthetic perspective throughout your critiques, which is hard to do.

Very excited about TRASH HUMPERS. When is that interview going up?

James Hansen said...

Thanks so much, Brandon. I always have a hard time balancing the excited personal/subjective nature of criticism without being overwhelmingly pejorative (except when it comes to those Trash Humpers criticisms). Hopefully its working out. :-)

I still need to transcribe the interview and I'm considering submitting it to some other places for publication so it might not go up for a while. Once I transcribe, I'll give you a sneak peak.