Cinema of Italy


Birds (Or How to Be One) (Babis Makridis)

Makridis’ peculiar third feature is inspired by Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, but it exists between three narrative registers: a documentary about an ‘off’ production of the play by Nikos Karathanos and Onassis Stegi, a freewheeling screen adaptation of the play featuring the same actors in several exotic locales around the world and a poetic essay film about human beings’ relationship to their avian peers. Divided into nine thematic chapters answering the titular question, Birds teases out our eternal quest to emulate our feathered friends: the desire for flight, the yearning for lightness, the urge to escape gravity (literal and social), the impulse to rise to the skies through the construction skyscrapers, the fear of falling and the thrill we harness from it, the fantasy of crossing political borders, but also the need for community and for defending it against outsiders, manifesting ultimately through aerial warfare. Makridis does not emphasize or linger on these ideas, instead suggesting associations through fugitive but evocative images. It is the strength of his film that it does not attempt to ‘interpret’ or ‘modernize’ Aristophanes’ comedy. While it dips in and out of metaphor, Birds takes the outlandishness of the original premise at face value. As a result, the adaptation it offers is literal, one in which the human characters imitate bird cries and indeed audition to become birds, not unlike the two prospectors of Amit Dutta’s The Golden Bird (2011) who try to rise above the human form. In doing so, Birds offers another intriguing demonstration of the Greek taste for the absurd. (The equivalence between man and animal is, moreover, a significant motif in Lanthimos’ work.) This loose, opaque treatment produces results that are as funny as they are flummoxing.

This Is Paris Too (Lech Kowalski)

Kowalski’s freestyle documentary seeks to offer images of Paris not generally seen on screen: homeless immigrants on the outskirts of the city leading a nomadic, shadow existence under bridges, on abandoned sites and in urban interstices. It’s winter, and we watch them fight the cold with inadequate blankets and cheap anoraks, subsisting on community kitchen and standing huddled in the daytime without much to do. A few have built some form of shelter, but most just find a spot to sleep. We see them through the eyes of Ken Metoxen, a native American friend of the filmmaker’s, who wanders the breadth of the city on foot and in public transport. Sometimes Ken interacts with individuals such as Aman, an over-enthusiastic boxer from Afghanistan who cannot participate in ring fights because he lacks the necessary papers. The communication is awkward—Ken does not speak French; Aman doesn’t speak English—and is soon replaced by Aman fervently showing his boxing skills to a compliant Ken. The latter listens patiently as Aman pulls out his phone to show videos of Taliban bombings and tortures in Kabul. Ken empathizes with the suffering of the immigrants through a shared history of oppression. But Kowalski’s choice to refract these vignettes of Paris through a native American’s point of view has no theoretical underpinning. He simply wants to film Ken as a flaneur, experiencing (and revealing to us) a foreign city from an outsider perspective, which leads to an exceedingly long, final tracking shot on Ken spanning several blocks of Paris. Much of all this is impressionistic, and there’s very little that seems to have been thought through, the result coming across like outtakes from a larger project between Kowalski and Ken. In a surprising coda, the director discusses his experience as a child of immigrants to America and his relationship with Ken, who is revealed to be a cross-dresser—a gratuitous, inward-looking turn that hints at several unexplored possibilities.

The Last City (Heinz Emigholz)

Emigholz’s return to fiction opens with a reminiscence by the filmmaker about a dream city that keeps changing place and about people who keep changing shape. This personal statement gives way to five interconnected stories taking place in five different cities: a filmmaker and a weapons designer talk about war in the Israeli city of Beersheba; an elderly artist converses with his 30-year-old self in Athens, a mother finds contentment in her incestuous family in Berlin; in Hong Kong, a Chinese woman schools a Japanese woman on her country’s unspeakable war crimes; an art dealer and a cosmologist discuss the possibility of life outside earth in São Paulo. The Last City scans like a long pedagogical exercise demonstrating everything that shouldn’t be done in films: camera that is constantly canted and misaligned with the horizon, eyelines that never match, cuts that break the 180-degree rule, camera setups that keep changing, actors who play multiple roles of ethnicities different from their own, blatant discontinuities in makeup, costume and décor not just within scenes, but within a single line of dialogue. All this, of course, is part of the setup. Filming pieces of buildings through extreme angles, Emigholz is integrating the city space into the conversations. His ‘last city’ is an ever-changing, universal town that has been homogenized out of its history and identity, just like its people who seem to have no ethnic essence. A wild, entertaining speculative fiction, Emigholz’s film recalls Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) in the way its characters work on each other’s memory and history in fraught urban encounters. Only that there is neither Hiroshima nor any social taboo conditioning the encounters anymore. Edited in a brisk rhythm, The Last City is also a very funny work in the way it pokes fun at its own ridiculous, disparate premises, which are tied together in some sort of a logic-defying hyperreality.

Undine (Christian Petzold)

If, in Transit (2018), Petzold drew on American film noir to create fruitful frictions with his basic realist style, in Undine, reportedly the first of a new trilogy based on elemental beings, he leans on the legend of the eponymous water nymph whose curse it is that her human lover will meet his death if he is ever unfaithful to her. In Petzold’s version though, it is Undine (Paula Beer) who appears to be cursed, unable to break the tragic mould of the legend. Jilted by her boyfriend, Undine finds an ideal love almost immediately in Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who seems to be as ethereal a creature as her, but fate plays a nasty hand. The film harks back to Yella (2007), firstly in its forked narrative in which the protagonist enters a new life just when everything closes in on her. More notably, like Yella, Undine transposes a supernatural reality onto the banal, hyperrealist surface of reunified Germany. Petzold offsets stretches of dead time showing characters doing everyday activities with evocative images of heightened intensity that signal the coexistence of a fantastic realm. Both Undine and Christoph experience each other as quasi-spectral beings, and because they take turns leading the narrative, we are never sure whose fantasy we are in. Petzold, moreover, imposes another layer of signification onto this composite: Undine is an urban historian dealing with the many narratives that impose themselves on Berlin. Professionally and personally, the past for her, as for Yella, is never dead and buried, but something to be always reckoned with. So the film offers a three-fold narrative, with the romantic story, the Undine legend and a political allegory finding echo in each other. If this layering allows Petzold a way to animate his clinical style with mystery, at times it also gives the impression that he is hedging his bets.

Glauber, Claro (César Meneghetti)

In 1975, Brazilian auteur Glauber Rocha made a film in Italy titled Claro in which he reimagined Rome as the historical centre of imperialism. Meneghetti’s documentary about the film—and about Rocha’s sojourn in Italy—assembles archival footage and interviews with surviving cast and crew members, film critics and the director’s Italian friends. The interviewees watch clips from Rocha’s film and recall how such and such scene was shot. The discussion blossoms outward to include the general social situation of the time: the cultural permissiveness that allowed Rocha and co. to live in apartments without paying rent, cohabit while blurring the boundary between friendship and love, and spike each other’s drinks before shoot. With interesting anecdotes about the Brazilian’s bluster and idiosyncrasy, the testimonies help locate Rocha within the intellectual landscape of Italy at the time. Throughout, Meneghetti cuts outdoor scenes from Rocha’s film with shots of the same places in current-day Rome, suggesting the demise of radical political dreams, but evoking certain continuities as well. Interestingly scored, these interludes also serve as spaces of reflection for the viewer, a respite from all the talking heads. In all, we get a sense of Rocha’s complex relationship to the European country: even as he was criticizing it as a ‘colonizing’ empire, the filmmaker saw in Italy a channel for distributing Cinema Novo works and, indirectly, a rampart against the growing authoritarianism back home. But there is hardly any rough edge to Rocha himself. His Latin American background gets little notice and he comes across as a mad prophet conjured into existence in Rome. Most collaborators describe him as an eccentric visionary who saw beyond his time, some others speak of their great love for him. But one piece of priceless archival clip at the end alone makes up for any deficiency: Rocha having a glorious public meltdown after the 1980 Venice Film Festival, where he destroys Louis Malle (‘second-rate filmmaker’), Cassavetes (‘commercial director under avant-garde garb’), Michel Ciment (‘takes American money’), Andrew Sarris (‘CIA-backed imperialist’) and other ‘Hitchcock lovers’.

Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs)

At first glance, Lynne Sachs’ latest documentary comes across as another iteration on the now all-too-common work of ‘personal archaeology’ in which filmmakers trace their roots through public and private archives, at times rending open the specific ways their unhappy families have been dysfunctional. Sachs, for one, employs home movies shot over half a century in half a dozen formats—8mm, 16mm, VHS, Hi8, Mini DV and digital—by herself, her father and her siblings, filmmakers Dana and Ira Sachs. The material turns around their father, Ira Sachs Sr., a ‘hippie businessman’ who sowed his wild oats across the world and virtually birthed a baseball team. Senior’s constant womanizing comes down heavily upon his children, some of whom have known the existence of the others only after decades, but also upon his mother, with whom he nevertheless shares a close but complicated relationship. Sachs weaves through years’ worth of footage and layers it carefully into a simple, direct account with a voiceover addressed at the audience. She takes what could’ve been a narrow family melodrama into much stickier territory. As she says, the film isn’t a portrait of her father, but a meditation on relationships with this man as the connecting element. Sachs and her siblings sit with their father, now infirm with age, and ask him to recollect episodes from the past. What do they expect? Confession? Reckoning? Simple testimony wrought from a gradually vanishing consciousness? Sachs goes beyond all gut responses to her father’s behaviour—disappointment, rage, disgust—towards a complex human reality that can elicit only inchoate sentiments, as suggested by the film’s incomplete title. She isn’t filming people or their stories, but the spaces between people, and how these spaces are always mediated by the actions of others. Senior’s wayward life, itself rooted perhaps in a traumatic childhood, profoundly shapes the way his children look at each other. Two living room discussions are intercut as though they are unfolding in the same space, the only way the filmmaker is able to bridge these invisible branches of the family tree. Sachs’ film is ostensibly a massive unburdening project for her; that she has been able to draw out its broader implications is a significant accomplishment.

“Somi wears a broad smile. She’s in her late twenties—or early thirties, she doesn’t know—and pregnant with her second child. “I think it’s a girl”, she tells her husband Sukhram, five years her junior. Somi cooks, washes their clothes and takes care of their first child, while Sukhram is about the house doing nondescript work. They have a pet parrot and raise poultry in their plot of land. It might be the picture of a modest but ordinary family, except for the fact that both Somi and Sukhram are renegades from the Naxal movement who surrendered to the Indian state, got an amnesty, and were resettled under the country’s rehabilitation policy for ex-Naxals. Their “second-life”, in a colony in rural Maharashtra comprising of refugees like themselves, is the subject of a compelling new documentary titled A Rifle and a Bag, which screened online at the Visions du Réel film festival last week.

In long, fixed shots, the opening passage of the film gives us a sense of the couple’s everyday reality: scenes from domestic life, Somi’s visit to the pregnancy clinic, the couple’s conversation about their to-be-born second child. These images of quotidian life are, however, soon punctured as we learn about Somi’s past as a Naxal commander, the deadly reprisals the couple have risked in their surrender, their lingering feeling of deracination. Somi’s role as a wife and a mother is in stark contrast with her older role as a Naxal higher-up. But Somi makes no remark about this conventional distribution of labour, content instead to secure a future for her children.

A large part of A Rifle and a Bag presents the couple’s interaction with the Indian state and civil society on a day-to-day basis as part of their rehabilitation. Somi runs from pillar to post to unsuccessfully obtain a caste certificate for Sukhram, who can’t safely go back home to Chhatisgarh to get one. Without this certificate, they can’t admit their son into a school. The film develops around the central irony that Somi and Sukhram, of a tribal origin, have to identify themselves in terms the Indian state understands. The state and the civil society, though, aren’t malevolent forces. In fact, the officers, teachers and doctors whom we only hear interacting with Somi could hardly be more understanding and sympathetic. It’s the system they help function, faceless just like them, that holds Somi and Sukhram like a vice.”

 

[Full review at Silverscreen]

Real Winner of the Tours Festival, Isn’t Among the Awardees

Arts no. 754; 23 December 1959.

Baldi told me later that I’d described his films exactly like the way he conceived them. He offered to produce a short film for me. It was Capito? (1962).

My first three films were produced at the initiative of filmmakers I had lauded. Do not see any craftiness on my part there.

Three films dominated the fifth international short film festival of Tours: Il Pianto delle zitelle (1958), La Vigilia di mezza estate (1958) and Via dei Cessati Spiriti (1959) are all the works of Gian Vittorio Baldi. A pilgrimage to Abruzzo at an altitude of thousand and eight hundred meters, the celebration of St. John’s Eve in a small village, prostitution in a specialized street in Rome—this diversity clearly shows that Baldi isn’t involved any more in religious propaganda than communist propaganda. He is a documentarian first and foremost, doesn’t exactly belong to any neorealist group and has more affinities with the Rossellini of India than with Zavattini-De Sica.

Critics at Tours sneered before the processions filmed by Baldi, who had a bone to pick with the censors for his film on prostitution. Unfortunately, it seems that very few people understand what a really documentary, objective and impartial cinema is. Baldi films reality and Il Pianto is a pitiless report on mystic madness as well as a hymn to God. […] Baldi shows what he sees: some sequences in his films are shot on the spot, with almost no preparation, as though they were news items. One can’t help but improvise while filming a real procession. But if we French are sensitive to the documentary value of Baldi’s work, the Italian Rouch, we are nevertheless less sensitive to its remarkable formal beauty, perhaps because some typically-Italian details go over our head.

 

Rediscovered simplicity

Baldi’s crew must’ve done an extraordinary work on colour—Baldi only shoots in colour. Normally so mediocre, Ferraniacolor produces stunning effects thanks to an expert colour matching. Even when there’s improvisation, it almost always gives the impression of an extremely rigorous and concerted composition. It’s Visconti, say some. But Baldi denies all influence. The blacks and the reds of Pianto are as beautiful as those of Minnelli’s Some Came Running; the yellows and the greens of La Vigilia, whose admirable final shot evokes Mizoguchi and Anthony Mann at once, are nearly as beautiful as those of Chabrol’s À double tour.

In the first shot of Via, we think we are dealing with black and white. Some seconds later, we think it’s a sepia or colour print. At the end of a minute, we realize, as we do during the river sequence of La Vigilia, that these are colours of the night, which slowly converge to an admirable pale green when a candle is lit. After the ceremony of the procession, we have the ceremony of the whore, who calmly takes out the tools of her trade one by one. Upon reflection, these gestures of an artisanal intelligence seem unbelievable in a prostitute, but the composition is remarkably balanced by the simplicity of improvisation. No matter, since the gestures, the gait of the girl have a beauty we will find only among the whores of Mizoguchi.

Comparing it to the great mediocrity of other films, I’m perhaps overestimating Baldi’s work. It’s nevertheless a cinema that I’m personally inclined to hate, a cinema based—regardless of Baldi’s intentions—on the notion of perfection foreign to the purest of arts, that of a Griffith, Fuller, Renoir. But perhaps the search for perfection is justified in the documentary, which shouldn’t rely on the vagaries of actors’ performance and should only strive to overcome technical difficulties of colour.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

A Serene Nihilism

Le Nouvel Adam no. 11; June 1967.

Antonioni bores me to death. But when a mediocre or overrated filmmaker makes a good film (or the opposite), I say so frankly. I practice fair-play, even when it comes to tennis.

Hence this article on Blow-Up, which, in my opinion, is one of the rare defensible Antonionis, along with The Red Desert and Identification of a Woman.

The reason for this amazing miracle: this filmmaker is really at ease only in colour film.

Blow-Up, Antonioni’s second English film after his sketch for I Vinti (1952) and his second great colour film, is a series of images, of moments, where a number of important things sometimes happen, but which don’t seem to have been chosen. We get the impression that they could’ve been different, that it could all take place as much in Buenos Aires or Paris as in London—like in Julio Cortázar’s Les Fils de la vierge, the original novella the film is based on—without much change. Blow-Up stretches the last ten minutes of Eclipse (1961), which came at the end of a story and forgot all about it, to over two hours.

What’s the connection? It’s a famous photographer from London—photography is a means of combatting nothingness, wrote Cortázar. Antonioni seems to have chanced upon his hero at the beginning of the film, but he accompanies him until the end. Then begins a semblance of a plot, first presented like one of the film’s many moments quickly abandoned for others, so as to not make us wary: he photographs a pair of lovers in a park. The woman tries to get the negatives from him by any means, without clearly-defined reasons. He makes blow-ups after blow-ups, observes them, seems to discover the traces of an attempted murder, comes back, finds a corpse, returns to the place, finds nothing. Every episode remains very chaotic, every blow-up a little fuzzier, every meaning is destroyed by the following one right away. Dream or reality? The answer seems—there are only semblances in this universe—to be of no importance. Visually, the film is bright, but its logical meaning slips irreversibly into obscurity. Every time a character does something, tries to love another, loves another, there is no rhyme or reason.

It’s the death blow to psychology, the perfect vegetative film. There is no certainty, not even that the previous certainty has been undone. It’s really a supreme disdain for meaning, quite like in Cortázar. Antonioni has borrowed only two ideas from him, the couple caught by surprise and the blow-up, but he takes his nihilist spirit along. The importance given to physical love could stir discussions about materialism. But materialism itself is a form of affirmation. It’s chance rather than desire that seems to drive relationships here. And dream and reality are always on the same footing, except at the end, which is more clearly unreal: masked characters play tennis without a ball while pretending to have one. The photographer agrees to play along, go collect the ball fallen outside the court and throw it back.

Nothing exists, but we must act as though something exists. At the end of this sequence that concludes and summarizes the film, this gesture, a little too meaningful, diminishes the general impression of absence. It short-changes the viewer and especially the critic too easily. Blow-up is a film that shouldn’t have ended and it was necessary for it to give the impression that it will not. But the film as a whole, following Borges and Cortázar, belongs to what I’d call the “Midi fantastique” as opposed to “Minuit fantastique”, a fantasy based on light and not on darkness, on the mundane and not on old tricks of the trade.

The difference from Antonioni’s previous films, from L’Avventura or The Red Desert, is the serenity. The characters in the earlier films were tormented and constantly spoke about being tormented. The hero of Blow-up is silent. He is overworked, he isn’t tormented by anything profound, and the filmmaker even less so. This is what distinguishes him from Godard, whose approach Blow-up evokes to an extent. Everything takes place calmly here.

The film is relaxing, pleasant to watch. Perhaps it’s an ablation of conscience or alienation, but if it’s alienation, it’s not so bad. What surprises us is that the hero and the filmmaker can remain indifferent and calm before so many oddities and enigmas, so much rage. The rhythm, the colours, the atmosphere contribute to give the impression of acceptance and appeasement. Antonioni makes us hear the wind in the forest like we never have. He brings out the multiple tints and settings of the most technical of modern lives through the photographer’s studio and apartment. These tints are so new to the screen that, under the shock, we aren’t able to decide whether Blow-Up is a beautiful film. It’s a film that’s evidently very rich on a plastic level and it’s this aspect, I think, that accounts for its enormous commercial success in the United States, with its picturesque, stereotypical images of contemporary England. London life in summarized in clichés worthy of a vulgar tourist.

But Antonioni seems to have wanted to say, most of all, that there’s nothing beneath it all, and to not crank up the commercial aspect of the film, in which the public can get caught even though they are not harnessed. Blow-Up’s visual style holds another pitfall: it’s likely to keep from those who admire it the most difficult and most important aspect of the film, contained in its approach and its meaninglessness. It would be a serious misinterpretation, a serious “mis-non-interpretation” rather, to believe that the film is an exercise in style.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)

It must take a peculiar artistic temperament to follow up one of the decade’s best films with one of the year’s worst. Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die has no reason to exist except as the by-product of an old pals’ reunion. Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Groundhog Day Ghostbustin’ Ass Murray play cops Peterson (!), Morrison and Robertson respectively. They are the entire police force in charge of keeping order in Centerville, a town of less than 1000 inhabitants with an overpopulated juvenile penitentiary and cemetery. The officers don’t have much to do, except investigate missing chicken and keep an eye on Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who lives in the woods. That’s only until the town is beset by strange incidents. A practice called polar fracking has reoriented the earth’s magnetic axis, resulting in exceptionally long days or nights. Animals go missing and the dead rise from their grave. Totally ill-equipped to handle the situation, the residents succumb to the zombies one by one. The linear simplicity of structure and composition that begins the film makes way for crippling hipster irony devoid of purpose or pleasure.

Besides this airless self-referencing, The Dead Don’t Die is also strewn with plugs to other films high and low. It’s clearly Jarmusch’s “take” on the now-buried B-movie tradition: the dialogue is expressly tacky (“Next to her dead body?”), the situations derivative, and the gore overdone. The actors are conscious of being in a Jarmusch movie—a stillborn idea that’s exhaustingly reiterated. But the film is invested in nothing, not even its own existence. The subtexts of Romero’s films are spelled out to intentionally keep them at arm’s length. Climate change is played out as a never-ending joke, as is a stilted redneck character played by Steve Buscemi. The zombies are of the most unimaginative kind, roaming around chanting ‘coffee’ (yes, coffee), ‘candy’, ‘drugs’, ‘wifi’ and other easy pickings like that. Jarmusch manages to make every element a grating presence, from the theme song to Swinton’s antics as a Japanophile mortician. Only Sevigny, with her completely misplaced sincerity and a subtle sense of self-deprecating comedy, livens things up in an otherwise dead undertaking.

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

In The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio recreates the story of Tommaso Buscetta, a mafia boss from Palermo who turned government informant, leading to the arrest of hundreds of other members of the crime syndicate. The film opens in 1980, the year Buscetta was allowed to flee to Brazil where he’d be later picked up to be coerced into collaboration, and follows him through his “betrayal” over the next twenty years. Bellocchio and co-writers focus on the self-perception of the protagonist as an honourable man, whom Pierfrancesco Favino portrays with solemn dignity. While the mafioso and their workers take him to be a traitor, Buscetta sees himself as the true guardian of the Cosa Nostra tradition and the people he’s denouncing as the true traitors. This self-narrativization, the film underscores, is based on a notion of masculine honour above all else: Buscetta admittedly has a weakness for women (allowing the film to include gratuitous sex scenes); he resists aging and resents his wife supporting him financially in the US, where he’s put under witness protection. He spends his old age in the obscurity of suburban middle-class life, in constant fear of a retribution that never comes.

The 79-year-old filmmaker employs his characteristic, cocky style to dramatize mafia wars. A ticker of the body count flashes on the screen with every murder. Bold, brash texts filling the screen announce important dates and events. The arrest of a boss is rapidly intercut with a trapped hyena. An impressive bombing scene unfolds as a single shot from the back of the victim’s car. But Bellocchio is most attuned to scenes with a theatrical flourish: Buscetta’s deposition and subsequent cross-examinations that were televised. Unfolding in a vast courtroom with Buscetta at its centre and peripheral cells holding the denounced, the trials are filmed in wide-angle shots and echoing sound. Like the opening of Vincere, Buscetta’s composure is contrasted with the agitated, crazy reactions of his rivals. As the denunciations become a regular affair and the public interest vanes, the trials grow modest and the judges less scared of the accused. Despite its baroque touches, The Traitor remains a by-the-numbers biopic, choosing to tread close to history at the expense of insight. There’s another character whose collaboration runs parallel to Buscetta’s, and it is offered in elaborate detail for no other reason than to blink at the audience’s knowledge of the events.

The Golden Glove (Fatih Akin)

If Lars von Trier’s serial killer movie tempered the gratuity of its graphic descriptions with a dialectical organization, Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove drops another layer from the wall separating art and snuff. Adapted from a novel of the same name, the film follows the exploits of Fritz Honka (Jonas Dassler) between 1970 and 1975, when he murdered and decapitated women in his Hamburg apartment. Unlike The House that Jack Built, The Golden Glove makes no claims to explaining Honka: barely any detail about his childhood, upbringing or inner life. Whatever we glean about this character comes from the faithful reconstruction of his apartment from photographs: the furniture and linen hint at a lived-in homeliness while posters of naked models coexist with chubby, matronly dolls. Instead, we are presented with shots of Honka binge drinking, forcing the women he picks up on street into violent sex, killing them and parcelling their bodies. Akin films the gruesome acts of rape and murder so that the architecture distances us from the events by partially blocking our view. This considered reserve, which sometimes increases the perversity of the crimes, vanishes as the film proceeds and we are treated to Honka’s fits of rage in full intimacy.

What takes the place of individual psychology is social description. Set in the seventies in West Germany, the film—likely following the book—portrays Honka as a product of his environment. Honka is at the bottom of the social pyramid: he works dead end jobs at malls and construction sites, lives in a cubbyhole and spends his money on alcohol. His face deformed after an accident, Honka is ruled out of the dating market as well. His only social life is at the Golden Glove, a seedy joint for freaks and outcasts (any of whom could be the protagonist of the story) whom Akin describes elaborately without affection. The corpulent, old women Honka lures with the promise of alcohol are also outliers of the free market economy with no social support or means of sustenance except through abject slavery. Seeing them showing no will to live and their old bodies being manipulated and mutilated like inanimate objects is the most distressing and repulsive aspect of The Golden Glove. Consequently, it’s liberating to witness the lucky few who escape this fate, thanks either to a Christian missionary trying to “save” the Golden Glove regulars or to sheer accident: a sentiment that the film structures itself around. The uplifting image of a blonde teen whom Honka idealizes unwittingly escaping Honka closes the film.

 

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

In Pain and Glory, Almodóvar lets go of the generic framework that imparted a sense of mystery and thrill to his narratives. The film is instead simply the story of a filmmaker reminiscing about his past, patching up broken friendships and coming to terms with his creative and corporeal disintegration. Weakened and frazzled, Antonio Banderas is exquisite in his role as Salvador, a successful movie director who has quit working and chooses to fritter away his time in his swanky apartment. Salvador suffers from a number of ailments stemming from his partially paralyzed back. On the occasion of the restoration of one of his older productions, he reaches out to the film’s lead actor from whom he’s been estranged for thirty years. This contact inducts him into a heroin addiction, which Salvador gladly chooses over resuming filmmaking. His heroin-induced stupor provokes memories of his pre-teen years: the suffering and hardship of his poor parents, his mother’s loneliness and resourcefulness faced with the absence of her husband and the precocious awakening of his sexuality in his relation with an older labourer he teaches. Back in the present, he meets an old lover, whom he unsuccessfully tried to save from drugs, and recounts to his doting secretary-friend his relation with his mother in her final years.

None of this information is offered as a revelation or a piece of a puzzle. Neither are they woven into a causal narrative. This lends the film a transparency and directness that critics, perhaps with justification, are quick to read as confession. The film is populated with references to the filmmaker’s life but also details so particular—his mother breaking a slab of chocolate to make a sandwich, mending a sock with an egg as support, Salvador placing a pillow on floor before bending down to access a safe—that they could’ve come from nowhere except experience. But Almodóvar avoids sentimentalism and undercuts the obvious emotions with counter-intuitive musical cues. When Salvador meets his old lover, there’s a cut across the 180° line that positions this film as a sequel of sorts to Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, heterosexual domesticity being the implied horror connecting both encounters. For the most part, though, the attention is on Salvador’s pain and physical degradation. The film opens with him suspended under water as though in a womb, and the presence of water bodies throughout the film suggests a time before birth. In that, it’s clearly an autumnal reflection on aging that appears to be favourite theme of the year.

The first half of Happy as Lazzaro, like Alice Rohrwacher’s previous work The Wonders, offers itself as a portrait of a community. The film opens at night time in the imaginary village of Inviolata. A group of men are serenading a young lady, but we see the scene from the point of view of the women in the balcony. There are about half a dozen of them of varying ages in the room—The Wonders prepares us to assume they are blood sisters. As the young man is asked into the house, we realize that this social ritual is a rite of passage for men and women alike. The women of the house offer drinks and snacks to the male visitors, sealing the relationship. Lit by a sole incandescent bulb, the scene is filmed like a home video and is chock-a-block with incident: grandma carried to her designated seat, a wine glass passed from hand to hand, a sleeping baby, an unexpected visit by a chicken. The specificity of these details makes it clear that they derive from Rohrwacher’s own memory, as is also evident a while later when a character from the city gives children candy after a tap on their forehead.

Inviolata, as the name suggests, is a commune untouched by time, geographically cut off as it was from the rest of the country following a flood in the seventies. There’s hardly any electricity, only a handful of light bulbs, no media and no technology save for one transport vehicle. The fifty-odd people of the village aren’t divided into families; they form a single social unit. They share accommodation and marry within themselves. Lording over them is the family of the marquise de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), a tobacco baron who keeps Inviolata in the dark about the progress outside the commune. The villagers work as sharecroppers—a practice outlawed in Italy in the seventies—indebted to the marquise, who believes that exploitation is the way of the world. It’s not just the physical isolation of Inviolata sequestering the villagers; their fear and lack of curiosity turns them into sheep fenced in by legends and superstitions. Rohrwacher interweaves the oppression of the villagers with the barren landscape they inhabit, the juxtaposition producing metaphysical connotations about slavery.

One of the sheep in Inviolata’s womb is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a cherub-faced, slack-armed, wide-eyed emblem of Doomed Innocence who is, in turn, exploited by the exploited villagers. Lazzaro is given the short shrift right from the first scene, where he’s the only one to get no drink and is sent out to guard the sheep while others celebrate. He is the village donkey, burdened with all chores, petty and heavy, of the villagers. Bullied by even babies, Lazzaro is at the very end of the oppression chain, abused by both the villagers and the young marquis, who manipulates him into a brotherly relationship as part of a kidnap ploy to extract money from his mother. Despite the string of disappointments that he faces, Lazzaro doesn’t show any emotion. He is, in fact, not human, floats as he does as a pure symbol amidst the physical reality of the film. At the midpoint, state authorities finally discover Inviolata and bring the villagers back to contemporary civilization. Lazzaro, as usual, is left out and remains in the deserted village for twenty years.

Part of the reason Happy as Lazzaro sustains interest is this intrusion of the fantastical into the realist tapestry of the film. In its first half, Rohrwacher’s film depicts the hardships of country life at what appears to be the turn of the nineteenth century in the vein of Olmi or Bertolucci. To be sure, there are anachronistic elements like the motor vehicles, but there’s no sense initially that the film is working against reality. We see the villagers at work, harvesting tobacco, tilling the fields and threshing hay. Their strongly Mediterranean faces, combined with the dazzling colour and light quality of 16mm film, recalls Pasolini, adding to the film’s lived-in aspect. But the magic-realist elements at the periphery—the rain of hay, Lazzaro’s catatonic spells—soon come to the fore, taking over the film once the villagers are rehabilitated. In the second half, when Antonia (a splendid Alba Rohrwacher) discovers that Lazzaro hasn’t aged a day unlike herself and the other villagers, she kneels in prayer to Lazzaro. Rohrwacher recognizes the comedy, but doesn’t undermine the piety the scene evokes. In a lovely shot coupling the profane and the sacred, she films Antonia and Lazzaro through a sheet in the back of a truck, making their profiles seem straight out of a religious painting.

Religion, as the opiate of the oppressed, is also at the crosshair of the film’s criticism: the hypocritical marquise gives Sunday classes to the folks of Inviolata, who are elated at the sight of a religious sticker. Rohrwacher’s sights, though, are on contemporary politics as well. Detailing the feudal relationship between the marquise and the villagers—and the villagers and Lazzaro—allows her to transpose these relations onto comparable power equations under capitalism. The first thing Lazzaro notices when he enters the city is a scene of immigrant workers bidding to get a fruit-picking contract. Lazzaro is the ideal worker: he doesn’t eat, sleep, shit or feel pain. Most importantly, he doesn’t question things. He is consequently at the bottom of the pyramid in either system. Despite the necessary progress it brings, modernity produces its own form of violence that one can’t put a face to. Happy as Lazzaro is a mannered but polyvalent work, with plenty of interesting details that can’t be reduced to a single idea. I look forward to Rohrwacher’s future films.

We see a man waiting at the beach, looking towards the sea. He is dressed in a purple frock coat, wields a sword and sports a tricorn. His left arm posed on the sword and his left knee bent, the man strikes a dignified pose. He’s filmed in profile, with the horizon bisecting the frame, like in a respectable oil painting. What is he waiting for? A ship to take him home perhaps. We don’t know yet, but waiting is what Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s fever dream Zama is about. The man, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a small-time magistrate in a Spanish outpost in South America at the turn of the eighteenth century. He doesn’t have much to do in the village, except solve petty disputes between European-origin locals like himself and Indians, who have now come to terms with the new colonial order and its institutional violence. Zama longs to get back home to Argentina, where he claims to have a family. In order for that to happen, though, he needs his superior to write a letter to the Spanish throne.

Adapted from a novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama trains its attention on the less-explored intersection between the colonial project and sexual politics of the period. Zama is a single white man besieged by tropical malady and romantic frustration. It appears that process of his transfer back home could be expedited if he fathers a child. We learn this only later in the film, so Zama initially comes across as a loner looking to let off steam. He solicits the daughters of his landlord, a group of three white girls who turn down his advances, taking him instead to be their protector. He then warms up to the wife of the local treasury minister, Luciana (Lola Dueñas), whose mixed signals lead him down a dead end. He finally does produce a child, but with a native woman, which makes the case for his transfer weaker.

Zama is a man split between his European ancestry and his South-American birth—a fact that is brought up by Luciana and others to put him down. This anxiety of not being a “real” European translates initially in Zama into a fear of losing his racial purity. Just after the opening scene at the beach, he spies on a group of women bathing, covered in mud. At first, it’s not clear if they are white, black or native. When a black woman spots him and tries to nab him, he slaps her twice. There are also instances of the Europeans around him “going native”: a white doctor comes under the spell of a witch doctor and loses his moorings. There are legends about a ruthless European renegade, Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), who does unspeakable things to his captives à la Colonel Kurtz. On the other hand, as Zama’s professional situation grows bleaker, his romantic criteria become looser. He seeks only white women in the early part of the film, while his interest slowly shifts to mestizos and then to natives.

Zama details the disintegration of the pompous official of the first shot, looming large over the colonial landscape, into a hapless man at the mercy of natives. While he despairs about his transfer, which is always postponed for fickle reasons, Zama contracts the cholera spreading through the colonies. He loses his job, moves into a ramshackle hut where he’s taken care of by native women. He hallucinates, sees ghosts, his rational worldview now questioned, as was the case with the European tourist in Jan Zabeil’s The River used to be a Man. He does pull through, though, and the film jumps a couple of decades in time. Zama is now part of a mercenary outfit searching for Vicuña Porto. He’s grown a beard; his frock coat and tricorne are tarnished, but he blends better with the landscape than he did at the film’s opening. The search ends badly and concludes with Zama reduced to a shadow of his imperial self.

Martel treats this narrative obliquely, in a pronounced anti-realist style that allows for inexplicable incident to occupy the frame. As Zama and his peers are torturing a native into confessing a crime he didn’t do, the camera remains planted on the calm face of the white men. Later, when Zama is captured by a group of natives, there’s a frantic bit of editing that imparts a misleading feeling of danger. When he visits his landlord’s daughters, one of whom is raped by a subordinate who will also compete with Zama for Luciana’s attention, the ladies move about him like the Three Graces. A llama walks into the shot as Zama is discussing with his superior in his office. Martel imprisons Zama in nested frames and details of décor, and she accentuates the environmental aspects of scenes: the heat, barking dogs, buzzing insects, the clinking of distant bells that amplify Zama’s fever-induced perception of hopelessness. I’m not sure if all of Martel’s stylistic and narrative choices are successful, but there’s a sense that every shot and edit is thought over, giving Zama an artisanal quality comparable to Jauja.

The Cannes Congress (extract)

Cahiers du cinéma no. 213; July 1969

The three great films at Cannes, the Italian Carmelo Bene’s Capricci, and Nagisa Oshima’s (Japan) Death by Hanging and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, devote themselves to exploring new planets in cinema.

The most daring of the three is the Bene: hardly any plot, even less psychology. It’s cinema at a state of purity never seen so far. There is nothing here other than cinema, other than ideas about cinema and without anything to do with tried and tested ideas of cinema. I don’t want to talk about technical ideas, even though there are technical ideas. It’s a hodgepodge of all kinds of ideas including technical ones. Until now, filmmakers who took off too directly from reality in order to arrive at the nonsensical, the absurd or the enlightening have fallen on their faces. I’m thinking especially of Richard Lester’s ill-fated Help. Bene is the first one to have succeeded without falling back on conventional references. It’s true that he resorts to parody, especially on the subject of gerontophilia. But this parody is too excessive to be effective as parody. It soon become lyrical and assets itself as a new value independent of what it caricatures. Bene’s success probably stems from a ceaseless descent into excess without hesitation or respite. Though there are moments stronger than others, it becomes almost impossible to remember all the elements, the viewer being overwhelmed by the whirlwind of the whole affair and the elements too far from reality to be readily absorbed by the mind.

Death by Hanging, too, has this quality of a compact monument. Oshima, however, doesn’t start off from the beyond. The film begins with a simple description of hanging and it is only slowly that we enter increasingly strange horizons. The viewer is captivated and carried away by this continuous progression. The fantastic acquires greater power as it is presented in a classical, sober and rigorous style that compels us to accept everything. At the same time, there is a constant exchange between these two contradictory elements. The film revolves around a death row convict who survives his hanging and must be hanged again immediately. But in Japan, you can be hanged only if you’re in a state of complete conscience, something that’s difficult to get after a first hanging. The officers of the prison mime the crimes he committed in order to bring back his memory, the prison director playing the role of the raped girl etc. This is only the starting point of a story which has infinitely more original events to follow, with a final return to social realism that assumes an extraordinary character by being situated after such narrative and thematic extravagance. It’s the most fantastic script in the history of cinema. And it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve been possible not to make a masterpiece out of it. I mean that, at this degree of ambition, it would’ve been impossible to shoot such sequences if they hadn’t been perfect. The actors couldn’t have been able to perform, the technicians couldn’t have been able to continue… That’s why I was doubtful about Oshima’s value. Perhaps he was a flash in the pan of The Brig kind. When he isn’t supported by a strong subject, Oshima would probably collapse. That’s why I wasn’t in a hurry to see his Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. I stayed through Biberman’s film and only saw the second half of Diary. Coming out of this other masterpiece, I was even more annoyed with Biberman, clearly made to look ridiculous in front of such films. Sex, theatre and social politics are indissolubly united here in a series of surprising confrontations of elements no less surprising. The film’s foundation might recall Godard, but the developments are absolutely personal. One is amazed to learn that this unknown filmmaker with a devouring personality is not a beginner, but has already made fifteen films in ten years. The law of averages guarantees that there are some more masterpieces in there in reserve. Forgotten masterpieces exist not only in the past, but also in our own time. The jury at Bergamo, where Hanging was in competition, refused even to give awards; all the films seemed mediocre to it. I’m perhaps slightly overrating Oshima’s work since I’m almost completely unaware of his context and this ignorance increases the impression of originality: there is a tradition of excess in Japan—which we admire in Yasuzo Masamura too—and a tradition of amalgamation, ghosts rubbing shoulders with social politics in Teshigahara for one thing. Be that as it may, Oshima towers over everything that we know of these traditions.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Experimenta

The ninth edition of Experimenta, the now-biennial experimental and avant-garde film festival of India helmed by Shai Heredia, took place between 25th and 29th of November in Bangalore. Besides the international competition section, the roster consisted of sidebars on the politics of film form, the materially violent personal films of Louise Bourque (curated by Lauren Howes), the digital-video and television-based experiments of Bjørn Melhus (himself), the tranquil cine-haikus of Helga Fanderl (herself) and contemporary Indonesian (Akbar Yumni) and Filipino experimental cinema (Shireen Sono), each of them introducing me to unexplored territories of the avant-garde. The festival also sought to respond to the recent happenings in the country and show solidarity with the student protests at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Three realizations from the festival:

  1. Although a forward-looking curiosity to explore what the formats of the new century have to offer finds a salutary counterpoint from a tendency to militate for film (Melhus’ cinema, always in conversation with the latest technological developments, and Fanderl’s Super-8 partisanship that includes the act of changing-reels as part of the presentation), the exigencies of festival programming and the ease of breaking in to the filmmaking scene has, at least in this festival, rendered digital video ubiquitous (only 4 of the 30 films in competition were made on film, and these too were projected digitally).
  2. Dictatorship and state repression, for better or worse, continue to be very productive frameworks to work within and supply artists with perennial inspiration. The Philippines has come a quarter century since the Marcos regime, Indonesia’s been recovering for 17 years since Suharto’s fall and Thailand’s reeling from last year’s military coup. The films from these countries in the festival all respond to them in ways direct and oblique.
  3. Apichatpong’s opened a Pandora’s box.

(The following are some notes on 23 of the 30 films in competition. I could not see the rest and will update this post if I get to see them any time soon.)

 

32 AND 4 (Chan Hau Chun, China, 2015, 32min)

32 And 4Chan’s diaristic digital work is divided into chapters named after family members and unfurls as a process of piecing together of familial history. Through various confrontational interviews with her mother and father, the filmmaker attempts to understand their failed marriage, her strained relation with her step-father and the violence that has structured them both. Chan’s decision to put her entire life-story on film is a brave gesture, but the film closes upon itself, satisfied to be a melodrama valorizing personal experience over broader frameworks. (Consider, in contrast, the rigorous domestic formalism of Liu Jiayin or the socio-political tapestry of Jia Zhangke’s early work.) Chan misses the forest for the lone tree. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

BEEP (Kyung-man Kim, South Korea, 2014, 11min)

BeepBeep assembles anti-communist propaganda material from the 60s and the 70s commissioned by the South Korean state that was based on the mythologizing of a young boy, Lee Seung-bok, slain by North Korean soldiers. With the unseen, absent boy-hero at its focus, Kim’s film depicts the dialectical manner in which a nation defines itself in relationship to an imagined Other. Kim makes minimal aesthetic intervention into the source material – our relation to it automatically ironic by dint of our very distance from the period it was made in – restricting himself to adding periodic beep sounds to the footage, producing something like a cautionary transmission from another world.

BLACK SUN (Truong Que Chi, Vietnam, 2013, 12min)

Black SunBlack Sun opens with a composition in deep space presenting a metonym for a country in the process of development: high-rise buildings in the background as a pair of actors in period costumes rehearse a scene in the foreground. In a series of Jia Zhangke-like vignettes of Saigon set in middle-class youth hangouts scored to pop songs and television sounds, interspersed with images of a metamorphosing city, we see the distance that separates art from reality and the middle-class from the changes around it. The film culminates in a complex, home-made long take following the protagonist across her house and out into the terrace, where she dances, presumably to the eponymous song.

CLOUD SHADOW (Anja Dornieden & Juan David Gonzalez Monroy, Germany, 2015, 17min)

WolkenschattenThe most challenging and elusive film of the competition I saw is also the most hypnotic. Cloud Shadow gives us a narrative of sorts in first person about a group of people who go into the woods and dissolve in its elements. The film is obliquely a story of the fascination with cinema, of the trans-individualist communal experience it promises, of the desire to dissolve the limits of one’s body into the images and sounds it offers. With an imagery consisting of sumptuous tints, and nuanced colour gradation and superimpositions, the film enraptures as much as it evades easy intellectual grasp. The one film of the festival that felt most like a half-remembered dream.

DOG, DEAR (Luca Ferri, Italy, 2014, 18min)

Dear DogFerri’s teasing, playful Dog, Dear appropriates the filmed record of a Soviet zoological experiment in the 1940s in which scientists impart motor functions to different parts of a dead dog. In the incantatory soundtrack, a woman – presumably the animal’s owner – repeatedly conveys messages to it, with each of them prefaced by the titular term of endearment. Ferri’s film would serve sufficiently as a blunt political allegory about the dysfunction of communism, but I think it’s probably fashioning itself as a metaphysical question: the dog might well be kicking but is he alive? His physical resurrection will not be accompanied by a restoration of consciousness. He will not respond to his master’s voice.

ENDLESS, NAMELESS (Mont Tesprateep, Thailand, 2014, 23min)

Endless NamelessPut together from footage apparently shot over twenty years at a Thai army officer’s residence, Tesprateep’s film shows us four conscripts working in the general’s garden. We witness their camaraderie, their obvious boredom, the empty bravado in entrapping small animals and intimidating each other. The misuse of power by the officer in employing these youth to mow his lawn reflects a broader militaristic hierarchy, as is attested by the youths’ casual violence towards the animals and their brutal torturing of a prisoner. Endless, Nameless recalls Claire Denis in its emphasis on military performativity and Werner Herzog in its juxtaposition of idyllic nature and seething violence, all the while retaining an immediate critical concern.

FICTITIOUS FORCE (Philip Widmann, Germany, 2015, 15min)

Fictitious ForceIn Fictitious Force, Widmann incidentally poses himself the age-old challenge of ethnological cinema; how to film the Other without imposing your own worldview on him? The filmmaker smartly takes the Chris Marker route, avoiding explanatory voiceover for the rather physical Hindu ritual he photographs and instead holding it at a slightly mystifying – but never exoticizing – distance. Widmann’s film is about this distance, the chasm between experience and knowledge that prevents the observer from experiencing what the observed is experiencing, however understanding he might be. Fictitious Force’s considered reflexivity carefully circumvents the all-too-common trap of conflating the subjectivities of the photographer and the photographed.

FISH POINT (Pablo Mazzolo, Argentina, 2015, 8min)

Fish PointFashioned out of footage that the artist shot during his visit to the titular natural reserve in Ontario, Fish Point comes across as an impressionist cine-sketch of the locale. The film opens with Daichi Saito-esque silhouettes of trees against harsh pulsating light – near-monochrome shots that are then superimposed over a slow, green-saturated pan shot of a section of a forest. This segment gives way to a passage with purely geometric compositions consisting of alternating browns and greens and strong horizontals and verticals. Forms change abruptly and tints become more diffuse and earthly. We are finally shown the sea and the horizon, with a rough map of the area overlaid on the imagery.

HAIL THE BODHISATTVA OF COLLECTED JUNK (Ye Mimi, Taiwan, 2015, 7min)

Hail The BodhisattvaA music video for a song that reportedly riffs on a holy chant and the traditional cry of the local ragman, Ye’s film starts out with shots of old women and men lip-syncing to the titular melody before turning increasingly darker. The rag picker of the poem progresses from accepting material refuse to buying off diseases, emotional traumas and even intolerable human characters. Ye builds the video using shots both documentary and voluntarily-performed that portray everyday life in Taiwan as being poised between tradition and modernity. The junkman of the film then becomes a witness to all that the society rejects and, hence, to all that it stands for.

IMRAAN, C/O CARROM CLUB (Udita Bhargava, India, 2015, 14min)

ImraanSet in a suburban Mumbai slum, Bhargava’s film takes a look into one of the reportedly many carrom clubs in the area where young boys come to play, smoke and generally indulge in displays of precocious masculinity. Where Imraan, the 11-year-old manager of the club, seems reticent before the camera, his peers and clients are much more willing to perform adulthood in front of the filming crew. While some of them are acutely aware of the intrusive presence of the camera, urging their friends not to project a bad image of the country, the film itself seems indifferent about the ethics of filming these youngsters, asking them condescending questions with a problematic, non-committal non-judgmentalism.

MASANAO ABE – CLOUDGRAPHY (Helmut Völter, Germany, 2015, 5min)

CloudographyVölter’s visually pleasing and relaxing silent film is a compilation of scientific documents of cloud movement over the Mount Fuji recorded from a static observatory by Japanese physicist Masanao Abe in the 1920s and 1930s. Abe’s problem was also one of cinema’s primary challenges: to study the invisible through the visible; in this case, to examine air currents through cloud patterns. The air currents take numerous different directions and these variegated views of the mountain situate the film in the tradition of Mt. Fuji paintings. The end product is a James Benning-like juxtaposition of fugitive and stable forms, a duet between rapidly changing and unchanging natural entities.

MEMORIALS (Korou Khundrakpam, India, 2014, 25min)

MemorialsThe most narrative film of the competition, Memorials situates itself in the tradition of 21st century Slow Cinema with its elliptical exposition, stylized longueurs, (a bit too) naturalistic sound and its overall emphasis on Bazinian realism. A young man revisits his father’s house long after his passing and starts discovering him through the objects of his everyday use, while a dead fish becomes the instrument of meditation and grieving. Though rather conventional in its workings, Memorials offers the details in its interstices fairly subtly and touches upon the usual themes of inter-generational inheritance and posthumous rapprochement, while also gesturing towards a necessary break from the past.

NATEE CHEEWIT (Phaisit Punprutsachat, Thailand, 2014, 20min)

ExperimentaPunprutsachat’s work is a straightforward document of the protracted rescue of a water buffalo from a man-made well on a sultry summer afternoon by dozens of village folk. Shot with a handheld digital camera and employing mostly on-location sound, the film presents to us the efforts of the villagers in chipping away at the edifice, restraining the animal from agitating and finally allowing it to go back to its herd. Natee Cheewit attempts to encapsulate the idea of eternal struggle between man and animal and, more broadly, between nature and civilization. The remnants of the demolished pit and the dog wandering about it are reminders of this sometimes symbiotic, sometimes destructive interaction.

NIGHT WATCH (Danaya Chulphuthiphong, Thailand, 2014, 10min)

Night WatchNight Watch is reportedly set in the days following the military coup in Thailand in May, 2014 – a period of state repression dissimulated by triumphalist propaganda about reigning happiness. Chulphuthiphong’s debut film showcases one quiet night during this period. Jacques Tati-esque cross-sectional shots of isolated apartments and office spaces show the citizenry complacently cloistered in their domestic and professional spaces, much like the sundry critters that crawl about in the night. Someone surfs through television channels. Most of them are censored, the rest telecast inane entertainment.  Night Watch underscores the mundanity and the ordinariness of the whole situation, which is the source of the film’s horror.

REPLY; REPEAT; REPEATED; DELETE; FAVORITE; FAVORITED (Ouchi Reiko, Japan, 2014, 6min)

reply repeat repeatedA rapid editing rhythm approximating the audiovisual assault of the information age, a visual idiom weaving together anime, pencil-drawing and Pink Film aesthetic and a soundscape consisting of reversed audio and noise of clicking mice and shattering glass defines Ouchi’s high-strung portrayal of modern adolescent anxieties. In a progressively sombre, cyclic series of events, a teenager navigates the real and virtual worlds that are haunted by sex and death around her. Ouchi’s pulsating, mutating forms and her preoccupation with the hyper-sexualization of visual culture are reminiscent of Nobuhiro Aihara’s work and the spirit of Maya Deren also hovers above in the film’s centralization of the female body and mind.

SCRAPBOOK (Mike Hoolboom, Canada, 2015, 18min)

ScrapbookOne of the high points of the festival, Scrapbook consists of videograms shot in 1967 in a care centre in Ohio for autistic children with commentary by one of the patients, Donna, recorded (and curiously re-performed by a voiceover artist at Donna’s request) in 2014. Donna’s words – indeed, her very use of the pronoun ‘I’ – not only attest to the vast improvement in her personal mental condition, but also throw light on the psychological mechanisms that engender a self-identity. For Donna and the other children-patients filming each other, the act of filming and watching substitutes for their thwarted mirror-stage of psychological development, helping them experience their own individuality, reclaim their bodies. Bracing stuff.

SECOND SUN (Leslie Supnet, Canada, 2014, 4min)

Second SunCanadian animator Leslie Supnet’s hand-drawn animation piece is an extension of her previous work First Sun (2014), with the monochrome drawings of the latter giving way to bright primary pencil colours. Like its predecessor, Second Sun extensively employs basic geometrical shapes to represent cosmic phenomena and is scored to an exhortative percussive soundtrack hinting at a ritual, a summoning. The figures move strictly horizontally or vertically on checkered paper as though underscoring their mathematically precise cyclicity, with the central solar circle spawning clone stars, moons, planets and an entire solar system. The overall impression is that of witnessing a trance-inducing cultic invocation.

THE ASYLUM (Prapat Jiwarangsan, Thailand, 2015, 10min)

The AsylumAccording to the program notes, the project brings together a real-life DJ who has lost her job after the coup d’etat in 2014 and an actual illegal immigrant boy from Myanmar at a secluded pond in the woods to allow them to do what they can’t in real life. We see the DJ perform for the camera, talking with imaginary strangers, giving and playing unheard songs, while the boy is content in tossing stones into the moss-covered pond. Like a structural film, The Asylum, alternates between the DJ’s ‘calls’ and the boy’s quiet alienation, taking occasional albeit unmotivated excursions into impressionist image-making, to weave a vignette about ordinary people made fugitives overnight.

THE BACKYARD (Yusuf Radjamuda, Indonesia, 2013, 12min)

The BackyardA Kiarostami-like narrative minimalism characterizes Radjamuda’s naturalistic sketch in digital monochrome of a lazy holiday afternoon. A young boy perched near the window of his house engages in a series of self-absorbed activities, while actions quotidian and dramatic, including a hinted domestic conflict, wordlessly unfold around him off-screen. A series of shallow-focus shots rally around a wide-angle master shot of the backyard to establish clear spatial relations. Literally and metaphorically set at the boundary between the inside and the outside of the house – home and the world – Radjamuda’s film is a pocket-sized paean to childhood’s privilege of insouciance and to the transformative power of imagination.

THE LAST MANGO BEFORE THE MONSOON (Payal Kapadia, India, 2015, 19min)

THe Last Mango Before The MonsoonThe shadow of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is strongest in Kapadia’s three-part work about the cycles of life, death and reincarnation and the interaction between mankind and nature, between the real and the surreal. Set in various regions of India and in multiple languages and shot predominantly between dusk and dawn, the film has a beguiling though mannered visual quality to it, with its appeal predicated on primal, elemental evocations of the supernatural. While Kapadia’s superimposition of line drawings on shot footage to depict man’s longing for and transformation into nature demands attention, the film itself seems derivative and a bit too enamoured of its influences.

THEY’RE NOT FAVA BEANS, THEY’RE SCARLET RUNNER BEANS (Tânia Dinis, Portugal, 2013, 10min)

Fava BeansA potential companion piece to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014), Dinis’s digitally shot home movie unfolds as a commentary upon itself. Consisting of scenes from the everyday routine of the filmmaker’s animal-loving grandmother, overlaid with a spontaneous conversational commentary on them by Dinis and her rather talkative and humourous granny, the film is partly a tribute to the latter personality and partly a reflection on the capacity of cinema to preserve memory of people, time and place. Like in Porumboiu’s movie, cinema furnishes the possibility of continuity between generations and the opportunity to meditate on the similarity and difference between them.

WHAT DAY IS TODAY (Colectivo Fotograma 24, Portugal, 2015, 13min)

What Day Is TodayAt least as formally innovative as Rithy Panh’s The Missing Image (2014), What Day Is Today, made by a young film collective from Montemor-o-Novo based on testimonies from older compatriots, digitally carves out from newspapers and newsreels human figures that act out the history contained in them. Charting the course of Portugal from the fascist period, through the Carnation Revolution and up to its Eurozone woes, the film depicts a nation which overcame oppression, poverty, superstition and inequality only to lapse into a passive consumerist catatonia, in the process abandoning the vision of the revolution and letting itself be hostage to a host of external economic forces.

WIND CASTLE (Prantik Basu, India, 2014, 14min)

Wind CastleWind Castle opens with a complex composition made of an unfinished (or destroyed) building behind a burnt crater, with the moon in full bloom. We are somewhere in the Indian hinterlands, a brick manufacturing site tucked inside large swathes of commercial plantations. Basu’s camera charts the territory in precise, X-axis tracking shots that form a counterpoint to the verticality of the trees. Noise from occasional on-location radios and trucks fill the soundtrack. A surveyor studies the area and trees are marked. ‘Development’ is perhaps around the corner. But the rain gods arrive first. Basu’s quasi-rural-symphony paints an atmospheric picture of quiet lives closer to and at the mercy of nature.

(Images courtesy: Various film festival websites)

A crew of four in search of an island halts in the middle of the sea to check its course. One of the two women gets off the boat for a quick swim. She spots a shark and runs for cover, only to encounter a zombie (under the sea!). She evades them both to get back on the boat and, in the process, ends up pitting the two man-eaters against each other. We have here, cinema reduced to a scientific method. We identify with the woman in the scene (not just because we empathize with her and want her saved, but also because the rewards of horror are sweetest when delayed) and are hence hostile towards both the shark and the zombie. Our emotional investment is the scene comes to an end once the woman gets out of the water and this ensuing fight becomes a pure spectacle to be relished from a safe distance, without taking sides. (This configuration is a regular in horror movies, where the threat is frequently non-thinking, neutral). The woman becomes a catalyst and makes possible reaction between elements otherwise inert and immiscible, a stimulus galvanizing a stable system into instability, a intermediary algebraic variable to be added and subtracted to an equation to make solution easier. Genre cinema at its exploitative best.

Copie Conforme (2010) (Certified Copy)
Abbas Kiarostami
French/Italian/English

 

Certified CopyA possible manifesto for postmodernism, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) reminds one of a million other pictures – from the director’s own early films, through Godard, Rossellini, and Hitchcock, to Scorsese, Hou and Jarmusch – in both its major and minor strokes. This actually goes well with the film’s central argument of there being no originals in art as well as life. It asserts, as does Jarmusch’s latest, that meaning and authenticity exist in one’s gaze of objects rather than the objects themselves (Like the director’s previous film, this one reverses the artist-audience relationship and suggests that the viewer is the original author of works of art), that the question of authenticity is obviated if a (relative) truth could be arrived at through artifice, that no art can be inherently original given that it is feeds on and reshapes reality and that all aspects of human existence – appearance, language, behaviour, relationships and gestures – are reproductions of existing templates. Building upon the latter argument, the film examines the importance and inevitability of role-playing in our lives through the lead characters/actors (Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel), who bear an original-copy relationship themselves. Through them, the film proposes that there is no absolute ‘self’ and that it is only within context and within a relationship that each ‘role’ we play obtains a meaning. It is not that these two characters are faking it during one half of the film, but just that – like Sartre’s waiter – these inauthentic people segue from one level of role-playing to another (On one level, Certified Copy is a film where actors play characters playing characters playing characters). Akin to Shutter Island (2010), Certified Copy is divided into two realities, with the verity of each half being valid only in relation to that of the other. However, there’s much more to Kiarostami’s film than such straightforward illustration of philosophical ideas. (Like Scorsese’s movie, this one wears its themes on its sleeve, thereby undermining them.) Throughout, it probes where the essence and authenticity of a film rests: in its grand, ethereal ideas or in its banal, concrete physicality. Does the spirit of Certified Copy lie in its precise, recursive structure and its intricate mise en scène or is it in the minute, magical gestures of Binoche’s visage and the gentle eroticism of her loose-fitting gown?

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