Cinema of Spain


The list of nominees for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film this year presents an eclectic slate. Spanning different genres, subject matters and styles, these works demonstrate that animation can sometimes deepen ideas and feelings in a way that live-action filmmaking cannot.

The Windshield Wiper (2021) is perhaps the most striking of the nominees in terms of animation technique, which here consists of 3D modelling over painted backgrounds. The gestures of the central character — a middle-aged man smoking in a corner of a café, lost in thoughts — are so precise and expressive that it is hard to believe that the film wasn’t rotoscoped out of a live-action film played by real actors. The impression of realism is accentuated by the ambient sound mix, which captures stray conversations in the café, as well as mock-cinematic devices like out-of-focus shots and cloud effects.

A painter by training, director Alberto Mielgo is nevertheless careful not to imitate photographic reality closely. To this end, he only picks out the salient features of his human characters and renders the play of light on their bodies in thick painterly strokes. There also appears to be some frame dropping, which takes the film further away from realism.

As the man in the café muses on what love is, Mielgo cuts to vignettes of unfulfilled romance: a young pair at a sunny beach staring at the sea in silence, a homeless man talking with a mannequin as though she were his old flame, a Japanese schoolgirl jumping off a high-rise in Tokyo, a man with a bouquet of roses in Berlin rushing for a planned date, two tattooed Tinder hopefuls in a supermarket who don’t realize that their match is standing next to them. At first, these scenes feel like the man’s reminiscences, but it turns out that they are just unconnected scenes connected by the theme of love and given the music video treatment.

Romance is also at the centre of the Anton Dyakov’s Boxballet (2020), in which a fading heavyweight boxer in Soviet Russia falls in love with a ballerina. Over their courtship, the two exchange personalities: visiting museums and dance halls, the pugilist discovers the softer side in him; the dancer, in turn, develops the inner strength to defy her sleazy trainer who offers her the lead role in his next production in exchange for sexual favours. It’s an unlikely romance between two characters whose careers are on the wane. Also on the wane is the USSR, whose history has a complex relationship with ballet. The film thus has an unusual political resonance: it is conceivable that the couple might not have existed in a different era.

While its setup recalls American film noir, Boxballet opts for an exaggerated cartoony style with caricatured characters, aquarelle colours, visible contours, charcoal-like shading and rapid cuts. Figures in the ballerina’s scenes are elongated to underscore her long legs and her flexibility, but also her frailty. The environment of the boxer, on the other hand, is characterized by an accent on volumes and solidity. He is a sack of potatoes compared to the ballerina’s carrot. This simple duality makes for some effective contrast and formal rhyming. His bulk attaches him to the ground while her litheness draws her towards the skies. Raising her hand to slap her trainer, the ballerina instead curls it to punch him on the nose.

Hugo Covarrubias’s Bestia (2021) is also a period narrative, one set in Chile during the Pinochet regime in which political dissidents were tortured and killed, often with the cooperation of private companies. The film is based on the ghastly life of Íngrid Olderöck, an executive in Pinochet’s intelligence agency, who allegedly used her dog to rape her detainees. Bestia begins by emphasizing Íngrid’s everyday life, her culinary habits, her relationship with her German shepherd and her commute to ‘work’. This quotidian reality becomes progressively unsettling as Íngrid murders abducted prisoners to upbeat music or has her pet perform sexual acts on her.

The corpulent Íngrid is modelled like a cracked china doll, with light bouncing off its glazed surface, to reflect the hollow, broken woman that she is, but also to underline her porcelain coldness. Her tiny, painted mouth hardly moves, but the film puts this impassivity to good effect. The lovingly designed décor, made of everyday material such as cardboard, wool or fur, aptly echoes the film’s central theme of the banality of evil.

Much more children friendly is Robin Robin (2021), an old-style Christmas movie about a bird that grows up among a family of mice, ill-suited to the business of stealing food from humans. It’s the only nominee that has the glossy finish of a Pixar production, with its dynamic ‘camera’ movements, hyper-sensitive character features and extremely detailed object textures. The voluptuousness of nature on display harks all the way back to Bambi (1942). The animals all have a fur that resembled pilled wool, conveying a feeling of warm domesticity.

With a runtime of just over thirty minutes, Robin Robin is also twice as long as the other nominees. The length helps the film pack four musical numbers penned by directors Dan Ojari and Michael Please. The best of these is a Tim Burton-esque sequence set in a tool shed and features a villainous cat taunting our hapless robin. As the cat bandies his victim across the shed, mechanical tools come to life in coordinated motion, turning into instruments of torture, just as the cat’s apparently consoling verses become threatening: “A robin or a mouse? After all, under the skin, you’re all the same.”

A cat is at the receiving end of violence in the fifth and the funniest nominee, Affairs of the Art (2021), made by British animators Joanna Quinn and Les Mills, who have been developing the lead character, Beryl, for over three decades now. A middle-aged housewife in a family of obsessives, Beryl recalls how monomania runs in her family. Her sister Beverly, a natural-born sadist and a precocious taxidermist, tortures small animals and is haunted by Lenin’s preserved body. Beverly’s obsession with death and decay perhaps comes from their grandmother, who would pickle any living thing that came her way. Beryl’s son Colin speaks only in Dutch and is possessed by railway signals. Beryl, for her part, is into art now, “drinking from the cup of creativity.” She makes her husband repeatedly come down the stairs naked in order to capture “the movement in between the moment of change.”

It’s the kind of neurotic bunch that you might find in films by Woody Allen or Wes Anderson. And the animation is appropriately nervous: the hand-drawn lines pile on top of one another, the colour fields exceed the lines, corrections are left visible, figures quiver with repressed energy. The writing and the voice acting are superb, and the animation matches it in its suppleness and expressivity. Motifs of aging, beauty, violence and death recur in different forms. But it is the manner in which Affairs of the Art treats patently morbid subjects with irreverent humour that stands out. It could be the winning film.

 

[First published at News9]

[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s short monograph Luis Buñuel (1957), the fifth volume in the series Les Grands Créateurs du Cinéma, published bimonthly by the Club du Livre de Cinéma in Brussels. I’m extremely grateful to Samuel Bréan for finding me a copy of this rare volume.]

 

Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.

– Hegel

In our time, in our era of blockbusters and epic films, Luis Buñuel’s work and career stand out. While the vast majority of important filmmakers choose to marry art and commerce, with varying degrees of success, Buñuel confines himself to low-budget ventures, just like Roberto Rossellini. He thus enjoys a great deal of freedom: producers’ interference is limited to the choice of subject, which is generally very banal, and to the development of the script. The filmmaker imposes the expression of a highly distinct personality on such weak material. El río y la muerte (The River and the Death) was completed in fourteen days; technically it is superior to many French films, and in terms of quality, it has nothing to envy most of Buñuel’s great works. Like a novelist, the maker of L’Âge d’Or and El (This Strange Passion) works for his own pleasure; that is why the most mediocre of his offspring, the most industrial of his films, still bear his mark. This is a kind of miracle that cinema is not familiar with.

 

The Surrealist Experiment

One of the main constants in Buñuel’s work has often been explained using his Spanish origin. I’m referring to his taste for cruelty and violence, which also throw light on the inclinations of his personality. He was born at the dawn of this century, on 22 February 1900, in a small town in Aragon, Calanda, located on the edge of the famous Sierra de Teruel. After spending ten years at a Jesuit school, he left his provincial bourgeois parents for the University of Madrid, where he studied science, particularly neurology: physiological phenomena had always captivated him, as had the life of animals. But the Castilian capital attracted him towards less studious pursuits. He enjoyed idleness and led a merry and dissipated life. This is how he became friends with two of the greatest creators of twentieth-century Spain, Federico García Lorca, the poet, and Salvador Dali, the painter, who were then young unruly students. Buñuel’s films retain some of Lorca’s tragic lyricism and, above all, Dalí’s phantasmagoria.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Our young man was soon to be found in Paris, where he worked as a scientific attaché. But he was interested in many other things. Dali, who lived on the banks of the Seine, introduced him to the Surrealist Movement, in which Buñuel discovered an equivalent to his taste for the unusual. Cinema seemed to him to be the best means of expression, one that allows one to show the most amazing aspects of reality. After a first script, written from a surrealist perspective, which he could never shoot for lack of means, he took technical lessons, a trial run for Un Chien Andalou (1928). This small, fifteen-minute silent film made a great impression at the time and is still the biggest hit at film clubs today. The story, written by Dali and Buñuel, doesn’t follow any logical rule; underlying the main plot, a love story, are a series of extraordinary visuals of the purest surrealist tradition: the enormous living room piano stained with the blood of rotting donkeys, to which two seminarians are attached. The virtuosity, the unbridled inventiveness belonged as much to Buñuel as to Dali. And yet the director parted ways with his friend, whom he accused of seeking scandal for the sake of scandal. The next film, L’Âge d’Or (1930), which Buñuel made for a patron, continued the experiments of Un Chien Andalou while respecting factual logic more closely. This time, the scandal was huge: the precision and realism highlighted the filmmaker’s multiple attacks on society and religion, which he said impeded the power of love. Buñuel went from surrealism to documentary with Land Without Bread (1932), a poignant account of the region in Spain called Las Hurdes, one of the most backward and poorest parts of Europe after the Grésivaudan, Slovakia and Haute-Provence. Buñuel went ahead with the same talent, the same critical eye towards modern civilisation, whose most ignoble aspects he unveiled. At first sight, the rigour and honesty of the work contrasted with the fanatic Manichaeism of L’Âge d’Or: but in many beautiful visuals (the donkey devoured by flies, the portrait of idiots), there is that astonishing sensitivity partly inherited from his contact with surrealism.

But the time of patrons and small productions that one could finance oneself was soon over. For fifteen years, Luis Buñuel worked in cinema without making any films. This period of silence was important in its own right: faced with life and its difficulties, the maker of Land Without Bread evolved markedly; with maturity, he moved from revolt to reflection. That is how he was able to resume a body of work that was thought to be prematurely finished: recent films such as Los Olvidados or El are even considered to be of a much higher quality than those of the surrealist period. In charge of dubbing films in Paris, Madrid — where he moved on to production — and Hollywood, a bureaucrat, then a speaker in the United States, Buñuel finally left Los Angeles in 1947 for Mexico City with a very ambitious project in the bag: The House of Bernarda Alba, based on Lorca’s play, which he didn’t finally shoot.

 

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I learnt a new term on social media this year (or maybe it was last year, who knows?): the Overton Window. Wikipedia defines it as “range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” By extension, it also designates the gamut of utterances that defines the limits of a discourse at a given point in time. As we sit aghast here in India watching this window slide to the right of the political spectrum—to a point that inclusion of conservative and extreme-right figures on televised debates constitutes diversity of opinion—the pandemic appears to have redrawn the old battle lines of film discourse. Forget the fight for celluloid over digital cinematography and projection. The old fogeys of today are those that think the theatrical experience means something, while the median of the Overton Window consists in debating what makes for good OTT content.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to take sides on this debate. As it happens, 2021 was the year that I did not go to the cinemas at all, and truth be told, it wasn’t entirely due to the health crisis. A number of other projects kept me busy in these twelve months, including the release of the hardcover version of my first book, and as it is, I find it increasingly hard to get excited about this or the other production. Except for the end-year binge that made this list possible, I must say I hardly saw films in 2021 and that includes older ones. I regret not being able to watch West Side Story, which had a run of less than a week in my city and was elbowed out by another Disney tentpole released on the same day. Who would have thought that the Overton Window now ranges from Spielberg to Spiderman? Anyway, here are my favourite films from this cursed year.

 

1. France (Bruno Dumont, France)

What comprises the blight of modern life? The reverse shot, answers Bruno Dumont in his scorching new dramedy about celebrity news reporter France, played by a dazzling Léa Seydoux, who cannot help but make it about herself in every story she does. Fresh off two films on Joan of Arc, Dumont gets his hands dirty with the profane world of modern media. And yet, it’s a spiritual tale that he tells. The filmmaker often quotes Péguy about the need to “stand up where one is.” That is what France does after she is subject to one moral crisis after another in her professional and personal life: rattled by a minor accident that she causes, France begins to see things “as they are”, subtracting herself from the reverse shot, but this grasping at saintliness doesn’t last long. She returns to her profession, not necessarily wiser but more authentic, and in doing so, reaches a state that may be seen as one of grace. It isn’t a media satire that France is after, but something all-pervasive, the simultaneous genuineness and falsity of our emotions faced with harrowing images of the world. Dumont’s film is daring, tasteless, compelling, overblown, contradictory and superbly stylized. Familiar but uncanny, it is everything you don’t want it to be.

 

2. Dear Chantal (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico)

An apartment evermore waiting to be occupied, letters responding to inquiries not heard, a voice never embodied in the image: Pereda’s five-minute short is a haunting, haunted tribute to the late Chantal Akerman that is structured around absence and substitution. We hear Pereda replying to fictitious queries by the Belgian filmmaker about renting out his sister’s apartment in Mexico City, and we see his sister readying the apartment, moving out paintings or clearing foliage from the skylight. In the film’s robust organization, Pereda, his sister and Akerman become mediums, connecting links in each other’s (after)lives: Pereda, unseen, serving as a middleman between the apartment owner and the impossible future tenant; his sister, unheard, taking the place of Akerman who will never feature in Pereda’s film; and Akerman herself, unseen and unheard, bringing the siblings together in a non-existent real estate deal. In an act of respect and love, Dear Chantal creates a physical space for Akerman to continue to exist, even if not in flesh and blood, just as No Home Movie, Akerman’s final work before her suicide in 2015, grappled with the physical absence of her recently deceased mother. The film imagines an alternate reality that brings Pereda and Akerman together not in artistic collaboration, but in the banal transactions of everyday living.

 

3. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze, Georgia)

How would Lubitsch do it? Well, if the old master were a contemporary filmmaker, ‘it’ would probably resemble Koberidze’s off-kilter, disarming romantic comedy about two lovers-to-be who work at a shop around the corner without recognizing each other all summer. What Do We See is obviously designed to please, but there is never a sense that it panders to its audience. Like the best storytellers, Koberidze knows that pleasure can be deepened by deferring gratification, and to this end, his film takes surprising excursions away from its central story, restarting at will and relegating its lead couple to the margin as though reposing faith in destiny to bring them together. This vast negative space of the narrative clarifies the larger objective of the film, which is to integrate its characters into the landscape of the ancient town of Kutuisi, whose faces and places, ebbs and flows, become the central subject. Pinning down the fable-like story on the voiceover allows the director to employ a complex, highly unusual visual syntax—that nevertheless derives from classical Hollywood cinema—without disorienting the viewer. The film involves magic, but Koberidze demonstrates that a towel flying through the frame can be as enrapturing as the most outlandish fairy tales.

 

4. Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)

The title says it all. Loznitsa’s new documentary represents a modulation of style for the filmmaker. Where his found footage work so far dropped the viewer into specific historical events in medias res, without much preparation, Babi Yar. Context offers a broader picture. With the help of archival material, but also uncharacteristic intertitles, the film details the events leading up to, and following, the Babi Yar Massacre of September 1941, where over 33,000 Jews were killed over two days in the eponymous ravine in Kiev. We see Ukrainian citizens welcoming the occupying Nazi forces with enthusiasm and collaborating in the persecution of their Jewish compatriots. In an illustration of the failure of archival, the massacre itself isn’t represented except in photographs of its aftermath. Loznitsa’s shocking film is a rousing J’accuse! directed at his nation, at the willingness of its citizens in enabling genocide, at the amnesia that allowed for the valley to be turned into an industrial dumping ground. Loznitsa’s newfound desire to contextualize his material should be construed less as a loss of faith in images to speak ‘for themselves’ than as a critical acknowledgement of their power to deceive. After all, the Red Army is welcomed with comparable pomp after they liberate Kiev, this formal continuity with the reception of the Nazis concealing a crisis of content.

 

5. Bellum – The Daemon of War (David Herdies, Georg Götmark, Sweden/Denmark)

The spectre of Harun Farocki hovers over Herdies and Götmark’s excellent documentary about war, technology and the production of images. A meditation on Western attitudes to armed conflict, Bellum unfolds as an anthology of three human interest stories: a Swedish engineer involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target, a war veteran in Nevada suffering from PTSD and having trouble reintegrating into civilian life, a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. Well-meaning though these individuals might be, their lives and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of the vet, but the photographer’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. The engineer’s efforts to bypass the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in armed conflict. Bellum cogently points out the ways in which technology—of training, of intervention—increasingly eliminates human fallibility from the equation of war, for as Colonel Kurtz put it, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”

 

6. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, USA)

I don’t know if Bruno Dumont and Paul Schrader saw each other’s films this year, but I’m certain they would both have much to say to one another. If First Reformed (2017) was the subtext, The Card Counter is the text, a film that is all surface. Where the earlier work stood out in the authenticity of its character and milieu, the new film aspires to an artificiality worthy of the casinos and bars it mostly unfolds in. Schrader tells the same Catholic story he has always been telling, that of God’s Lonely Man who is mired in mud but has his eyes on the skies. Oscar Isaac portrays William Tell, convict turned cardsharp who tries to save a younger man from self-destruction, but faced with divine indifference, decides to play God himself. Formally, Schrader doesn’t deviate from the Bresson-Ozu-Dreyer axis of the previous film—what Schrader rightly or otherwise called the Transcendental Style—and this reserve produces a productive friction between the film’s style and noir setting of the story. In that, The Card Counter is highly reminiscent of American Gigolo (1980), which is to say that, despite the references to Abu Ghraib, it is a work completely out of joint with the present. It is incredible this film even exists.

 

7. The Year Before the War (Dāvis Sīmanis, Latvia)

Even if we are done with the 20th century, suggests Sīmanis’ singular, absurd period comedy, the 20th century isn’t yet done with us. When Hans, an opportunistic doorman at a Riga hotel, is falsely implicated in a bombing, he flees the Latvian capital to shuttle from one European city to another. The Europe of 1913 that Hans traverses is less a real geography than an abstract zone of competing political currents. War is around the corner, and there are several groups trying to influence the course of history. Zealous ideologues seek to entice and co-opt him, subjecting him to what Louis Althusser called “interpellation.” All through, Hans fights hard to follow his own moral compass, flee subjecthood and retain his individuality. A historical picaresque, Sīmanis’ film is interested in the singularity of this particular juncture in Western history—a point at which fin de siècle optimism about technology and human rationality came crashing against the reality of trench warfare—where countless isms sought to impose their own vision on the world. It would seem that Sīmanis views Latvia of the early 20th century as something of an ideological waystation, an unstable intellectual field where free radicals like Hans couldn’t help but be neutralized. And that vision isn’t without contemporary resonance.

 

8. Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth, Germany)

Maria Speth’s expansive documentary about a batch of preteen students, mostly of an immigrant background, in a public school in Stadtallendorf, Hessen, is a classroom film that achieves something special. Remaining with the children for almost its entire four-hour runtime allows it to individuate them, to look at them as independent beings with their own skills, desires and prejudices, just as their charismatic teacher-guide-philosopher Dieter Bachmann adopts a different approach to each of his pupils. For Bachmann, it would seem, whatever the students accomplish academically during the year is of secondary importance. He knows that he is dealing with a group with an inchoate sense of self: first as pre-adolescents, then as new immigrants. Consequently, he spends a great deal of effort in giving them a sense of community, creating a space where they can be themselves. At the same time, the classroom is a social laboratory where new ideas are introduced and the children brought to interrogate received opinion, all under Bachmann’s paternal authority. Speth insists on the particularity of these individuals and there is no sense that our star teacher is indicative of the schooling system in Germany at large. Bachmann is an exception, and in his exceptionalism lies a promise, a glimpse of how things could be.

 

9. Out of Sync (Juanjo Giménez, Spain)

It’s an ingenious, wholly cinematic premise: estranged from family and friends, a sound engineer spends her nights at her film studio until she starts to experience a lag between what she sees and what she hears. Juanjo Giménez’s absorbing psychological thriller riffs on this setup, weaving its implications into a coherent character study of a young woman out of sync with her life. The result contains some very amusing set pieces constructed around the delay between sound and image, but also one of the most sublime romantic scenes of all time, one that begins with rude abandonment and ends at a silent movie show. Marta Nieto is brilliant as the unnamed protagonist who withdraws into a shell and then reconnects with herself and the world. She brings a fierce independence to the character that nuances its vulnerability. Its claustrophobic premise notwithstanding, Out of Sync feels like a very open work, integrated gracefully with the urban landscape of beautiful Barcelona. Watching the film in 2021, when so much of real-world interaction has been rendered into digital images and sounds, using Bluetooth speakers with their own latency to boot, is an uncanny experience.

 

10. Shared Resources (Jordan Lord, USA)

Ambitious to a fault, American artist Jordan Lord’s new work is nearly unwatchable. Yet it bends the documentary form like few films this year. Shared Resources is a home movie made over a considerable period of time, presented in scrambled chronology. We learn that Lord’s father was a debt collector fired by his bank, that his health is deteriorating due to diabetes, that the family lost most of its possessions in the Hurricane Katrina and that they had to declare bankruptcy shortly after Lord’s acceptance into Columbia University. All this material is, however, offered not directly but with a voiceover by Lord and his parents describing the footage we see, as though intended for the visually challenged, and two sets of subtitles, colour-coded for diegetic and non-diegetic speech, seemingly oriented towards the hearing disabled. In having his parents comment on images from rather difficult episodes in their lives, the filmmaker gives them a power over what is represented. Through all this, Lord initiates an exploration of debt in all its forms and shapes: paternal debt towards children, filial debt towards parents, the debt of a documentary filmmaker towards their subjects, one’s debt to their own body, the fuzzy line between love and indebtedness. This is an American film with an Asian sensibility.

 

Special Mention: From Where They Stood (Christophe Cognet, France/Germany)

Favourite Films of

2020 • 2019 • 2015 • 2014 • 2013 • 2012 • 2011 • 2010 • 2009

A Fish Swimming Upside Down (Eliza Petkova)

Philipp, an affluent, middle-aged widower (Henning Kober), marries young Andrea (Nina Schwabe) and installs her at his swanky house. Also living in the house is his son Martin (Theo Trebs), a young man who holds onto his mother’s photos and resents his father bringing home a new wife. Philipp is constantly away on business, and with little to do outside of her work with developmentally challenged children, Andrea languishes in the spacious house. It’s peak summer, and with the beautiful Andrea lounging around the swimming pool, you can be sure Martin isn’t going to end up calling her ‘mommy’. Petkova’s second feature is reminiscent of early works from the so-called Berlin School: stories about rich, white people suffering existential ennui presented in a clinical steel-and-glass style made of static shots or discreet camera movements and no music. This is a resolutely low-key work that limits itself to the love triangle at the centre. Like the outsider in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), Andrea is a mysterious figure with no past whose love is boundless; everyone comes under her aura. But this inclusivity doesn’t sit well with Martin, who becomes blind with jealousy. The film moves along this unveiled Oedipal rage that takes many victims and eventually implodes. Petkova populates the film with several children’s games, presumably with a view to impact some psychological nuance to the relationships. She finely evokes the languid mood of summer afternoons, and is able to introduce a vital element of sensuality into the Berlin School style. But the rewards are minor: the film is so enamoured with its provocation that, minus the underlying myth, its characters become shadow beings outside of society and history.

The Metamorphosis of Birds (Catarina Vasconcelos)

Catarina Vasconcelos’ debut feature is a very easy film to like. There is, firstly, its spellbinding plastic beauty. Shot in 16mm, the film lovingly combines soft diffused lighting, oil-painting colour, richly detailed period objects into striking tableaux, often seeking to emulate Renaissance still life. Then there is its evocative voiceover, in which Vasconcelos details the life of her grandparents through poetically reimagined letters. Grandfather Henrique is at sea touring Portugal’s colonies while Grandmother Beatriz raises her many children alone. The exchange between them revolves firstly around, of course, the distance between them, and then the children, who haven’t seen their father for years. In Vasconcelos’ rarefied, romanticized re-conception, they become quasi-mythical figures—the absent Father, the suffering Mother—who come alive through the objects associated with them. The items chart the passing of the years, reflecting political changes: the fall of the empire, counterculture stirrings and the end of the Salazar regime. Jacinto, the filmmaker’s father, comes of age, discovering love and death. When Grandmother dies, and as the film’s focus shifts to Jacinto and the loss of his wife, the tone changes from yearning to mourning, and the narrative devolves into pure metaphor around a Tarkovskian desire to become one with nature, reprising symbols established earlier. On its face, Metamorphosis is a tribute to Vasconcelos’ father, one that preserves the memory of his parents and narrativizes his life for him, sharing the burden of bereavement in the process. The film recalls the work of Victor Erice and Sergei Paradjanov to some degree, especially in its capacity to create ravishing images out of personal history. It is evident that the film seeks to be a work of aching beauty, but there’s the lingering feeling that it does the aching for us.

Garage People (Natalija Yefimkina)

Natalija Yefimkina’s creative documentary centres on a small-town subculture in the far reaches of Russia. In a chain of garages located at a remove from their low-income homes, mostly middle-aged men spend their free time working on their passions. They have converted these tin-shed structures into a veritable ‘man cave’ serving various functions: carving workshop, metal foundry, scrap recycling yard, quail breeding facility, music room, even a WW2 cosplay warehouse. For these men on the fringes of Putin’s Russia, such privately-owned garages are a ‘third place’ away from their soul-crushing mining work and the strictures of domesticity, a space that helps create meaning to their lives. Like a primitive artist par excellence, Viktor has built four floors underneath his garage by digging with a shovel for over fifty years. He doesn’t know its purpose yet, but the digging has provided him with a purpose—a purpose that he inexplicably loses all of a sudden shortly before his demise. The whole town seems stuck in time, isolated from the rest of the world, save for a train that passes now and them. The younger folk hope to escape to greener pastures, while the older ones have found some sort of meaning between individual pursuit and communal life. Whether they are belting out a heavy metal number or getting into drunken brawls, director Yefimkina observes the garagists from a distance, synthesizing these vignettes along different thematic lines such as work, family, romance and community. Garage culture isn’t exactly news, but Yefimkina succeeds in infusing the film with a melancholy mood that is usually the reserve of fictional works. By imaginatively rearranging her material and slightly fictionalizing it, she has been able to convert it into an empathetic portrait of dead-end lives comparable to wistful snapshots of small-town America such as The Last Picture Show (1971) and Ham on Rye (2019).

Camagroga (Alfonso Amador)

Alfonso Amador’s absorbing documentary about the Horta of Valencia, said to be one of the most fertile corners of Europe, pivots around the Ramón family: farmer Antonio, his daughter Inma and her son Marc. Over one year, they grow, harvest, sort and ship tiger nuts to milk extraction facilities. There are highways and railway lines running adjacent to their land, which is under the threat of being invaded by commercial establishments and public infrastructure projects. Camagroga shuttles between two types of documentaries, at times uneasily: one that follows the lifecycle of a food commodity from production to consumption and one that observes life in a rural region under the throes of ‘globalization’. It complicates the former narrative further by intercutting it with shots of other crops being grown and processed, such that it’s not always clear at what stage of the cycle we are in. But what is most striking about the film is its rhythm. Director Amador cuts close. When there isn’t much movement within a shot, he lets it linger for no more than 3-5 seconds. This almost metronymic, Emigholz-like editing imparts a slightly frenetic pace to the film. As a result, we don’t get a sense of the rhythm of life in the region, in a way that we do from Shinsuke Ogawa’s A Japanese Village (1982), an important precursor to Camagroga. What is gained, however, is the knowledge of how labour intense the process is, involving manual intervention at all stages of production, with the only ‘dead times’ being Antonio and co. breaking for a sandwich or a cigarette while talking to the camera. It’s notable in this regard that Amador only shoots in daytime, that is to say work hours, keeping out all private aspects of his subjects’ lives. A tribute, then, to the labour of these folks whose faces seem as worked over by time as their land.

Forensickness (Chloé Galibert-Laîné)

Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s funny, sharp and dizzyingly smart video work is an antidote to the overdose of audiovisual soup that passes for essay film these days. Forensickness begins as a commentary on Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2017), a desktop film about the crowd-sourced investigation on Reddit following the Boston bombing of 2013. As the director breaks down Kennedy’s film, analysing its narrative construction and its tendency for geometric abstraction, she voluntarily gets caught in an ‘analytical frenzy’, not unlike the Redditors who ascribed meaning to every detail that caught their eye in photographs from the bombing site. As Galibert-Laîné seamlessly chains one stream of thought after another, her film evolves into a meta-reflection on our relation to images and our compulsion to create meaning from visual material. Even as she exposes how we live in an era of debunking that firmly believes that images conceal messages, she can’t help but point at similar motivations driving her interrogation. Every proposition, every experience of hers on the desktop is turned on itself and subject to interrogation. And it works perfectly because Forensickness is precisely about the need to meaningful synthesis of divergent experiences. If Frank Beauvais, in Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019), saw cinephilia as a self-made prison of images, Galibert-Laîné digs deeper, revealing the epistemological malaise that is the search for meaning that animates all cinephilic pursuit. Her film lays bare the adventures of the critical mind, throwing open not only its own making, but also the thoughts producing it. The film may look like an object of pure play, the result of a filmmaker “seduced by her own jokes”, even a solipsistic game in the way it asserts the inescapability from these self-imposed maps of meaning. But even as a snake eating its own tail, Forensickness is unmistakably insightful regarding the way we experience the world through images. If it isn’t the desktop film to end all desktop films, it’s hard to imagine what lies ahead for this form.

The American Sector (Pacho Velez, Courtney Stephens)

The American Sector takes up a subject matter that ships with a bundle of contained themes: scores of Berlin Wall fragments scattered across the United States. Anyone (like me) who has hunted for fragments of the Wall or even looked at the Wikipedia page of the location of the fragments must’ve had at least a faint thought about the implications of decontextualizing a historical object. Velez and Stephens’ film latches onto these incongruities, giving us a tour of Wall fragments installed in various public and private spaces including five-star hotels, movie studios, army bases, corporate retreats, hobbyist clubs, universities, museums and even the CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia. Shots of the fragments quietly towering over surroundings alien to it are sometimes mixed with soundbites by citizens and public officials about the provenance and the meaning of these monoliths. The filmmakers probe interviewees for what the Wall means to them, and we get fairly interesting and varied answers: a symbol for the abstract notion of freedom, a sign of hope for immigrants hoping for a better life, a reassurance for Black families that they are historically not alone, a token of cordial US-German political relations, a remembrance of a simpler time when the enemy was clear, even a container of religious truth serving as the backdrop for Christian passion plays. The overarching irony—the appropriation of foreign history to reinforce American exceptionalism—is echoed by two students at the University of Virginia, who see the amplified presence of the fragments in the campus, which has little relation to the Wall’s history in the first place, as an affront to the local history of slave labour that built the university. Thanks to its fertile subject, the film doesn’t have to sweat to bring these frictions to the surface. The American Sector accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it may have had been more rewarding had it been willing to stick its neck out and embrace a larger debate, especially at a moment where our discourse on monuments and their context is more fraught than ever.

Height of the Wave (Park Jung-bum)

In Park Jung-bum’s Height of the Wave, a cop Yeon-soo (Lee Seung-yeon) is posted to an island village. She’s going through a divorce and finalizing her settlements through a lawyer. On the island with her is her teenage daughter, who is evidently upset at not only the divorce, but also the isolation unwillingly imposed on her. Yeon-soo is doesn’t speak much and holds the world at a sceptical distance. She’s also depressed. On her first day, she visits the village dentist for some anti-depressants. The mayor of the village is also present at the clinic, and he complements the officer on her shampoo when he invites her to a welcome party. At the party, Yeon-soo notices two young men cajoling a woman, Yea-eun (Lee Yeon-hee), and whisking her away into the dark. The officer follows them, not sure if it’s romance, coercion or prostitution she’s witnessing. The threesome gives enough clues for Yeon-soo to suspect the latter and she pursues the case: Yea-eun forced into underage prostitution by her guardians with full knowledge of the village council. This spells bad news for the mayor, who’s trying to make the island a special destination for tourists. He gathers the stakeholders of the village—all men—to derail the investigation.

Park’s film is a story of three women: Yeon-soo, who experiences sexism at all levels of society despite the power vested in her, Yea-eun, an abject victim who has been groomed into a life of abuse, and Yeon-soo’s daughter, who’s dealing with her own deracination. Save for a dim-witted young boy with rudimentary conscience, every man in the village is guiltier than the other, seems to have his own reason. Yea-eun’s uncle and guardian, who is courageous enough to challenge the mayor in his plans for the island, remains a silent accomplice in his niece’s prostitution. Like the child in Loveless, Yea-eun runs away into the woods and the entire village goes up the hills to look for her. But it’s Dogville that’s a more relevant touchstone here. In Park’s disturbing, cynical view, it takes a village to abuse a child. His idea of this village, whose children kill ants in a vicarious fear of outsiders, is a place close to nature both in its austere beauty and murderous violence. On the other hand, we never get to understand Yeon-soo’s grief outside of her divorce. Her peculiar gestures—burying a toaster her ex-husband gifted her daughter, opening and closing doors constantly in wait for her missing daughter, kneeling in the woods crying—reinforce her suffering without explaining them. Outside of a few long shots of high physicality, the film mostly runs on auto-pilot with a gawking shoulder camera. The cold winds, the muted colour and the faded anoraks suggest a sullen atmosphere, but the hills, beaches and jungles aren’t put to particularly interesting use.

Earth (Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Earth begins with an announcement that “humankind is the most decisive geological factor of our time” going by the volume of top soil our kind displaces every day. Geyrhalter charts these massive changes effected to the surface of the earth at seven sites across two continents: large-scale sand mining in California to make way for new townships, the construction of a 22-kilometer long tunnel through the mountains between Austria and Italy, strip mining for coal in Gyöngyös, Hungary, extraction from a marble quarry in Carrara, Italy, the dynamiting of mountains for copper ore in Minas de Riotinto, Spain, damage control of nuclear waste stored in underground salt mines in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, and open pit oil mining in a First Nations reservation in Fort McKay, Canada. Geyrhalter’s MO throughout the film is the same. A drone shot of the site from an extreme height introduces each section. Shots of men at work are interspersed with interviews with them. The filmmaker questions them about their work, its end use, its physical and moral limits, their feelings towards their job, the impact of their work on the environment, and the ethical quandaries, if any. There are patterns in the answers too. The men and women recognize that their activity might be harmful to the environment, but they declare that it’s their job, that someone else will do it if not them, that we can’t help but continue if we want to progress.

Geyrhalter captures breath-taking images of the mining sites, images that seem otherworldly in their desolate beauty. The geometric forms of the Carrara marble quarry or the vast craters of the Gyöngyös mines make for awe-inducing spectacle comparable to those in Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death. But Geyrhalter’s perspective is not Marxist; his focus is not on the workers or their alienation from their work. The mostly male interviewees, in fact, assert their passion for their job, the adrenaline rush it induces. Where the emphasis lies, instead, is in mankind’s incredible constructive capacity as well as its ultimate frailty, the two in constant conversation with each other. Looking at the gargantuan mining sites with huge moving parts, one wonders at their construction, but also at the fact that any of the ant-like workers in the vicinity could be killed were a tiny part of the facility to fall on him. Geyrhalter’s film pits man’s massive machines against the earth, which here takes on a human quality. One interviewee talks of the mountain’s virginity, another laments the hurting of “Mother Earth”. The serial explosives that are used to clear the way produce ripples on the land surface, making it look like human convulsions. Geyrhalter, who has produced and directed dozens of documentaries, doesn’t swap out nuance for quick judgment, though his sympathies are evident in his choices. He gets enviable access to private sites, which is perhaps why the last segment in Fort McKay, where he has no permission, sticks out, spells out as it does the film’s themes and proclivities.

Endless Night (Eloy Enciso)

I watched Galician filmmaker Eloy Enciso’s Endless Night in a state of anxiety. My mind was awash with news from the anti-CAA protests all over India and the brutal police response to the protestors. Given its story about a fascist regime’s crackdown of dissidents, the poisonous nationalism of those in power and the apathy of those on the right side of the government, the film should have spoken to me at this moment. But it was the opposite that happened. Enciso deliberately strips the narrative—set during and after the Spanish Civil War—of its particularities in order to impart a universal, contemporary significance. He takes an admirable, Pedro Costa-like distance from the political, which keeps the viewer at a critical distance. I could, however, not get rid of the feeling that, despite its unique stylistic choices, Enciso is leaning back on established arthouse shibboleths, both formal and narrative, to evoke pre-determined responses from the viewer. And I wholly accept the possibility that this suspicion of mine could be the product of the gap between the urgency of the situation around me and the film’s meditative treatment of a similar subject. In other words, I can’t be objective about this film. But then, what is one ever objective about?

I also suspect the structure of Endless Night is derived from the opera; an opera reimagined as a Sharunas Bartas elegy for the Spanish Republic. Divided into three acts, the film begins with an overture in which two mendicants, presumably acting as a Greek chorus, talk about the changing times. In the first act, we are introduced to various figures in the village: Falangist businessmen, relatives of resistance fighters, a mayoral candidate of the village and the powerful of the region who discuss the state of things over a game of cards. In the second, we get testimonies by those who were incarcerated or persecuted. Much like in Seven Years in May, a woman by the fire recounts her prison experience in a long shot. “Though you may forget, the body keeps its own memory of the torment”, says another. A soldier in the Franco army confesses his true sentiments. In the third act, the resistance fighter who has been the loose connecting thread of the narrative wanders the jungles, seemingly being pursued. As the camera focuses on his hands and feet moving over rocks and leaves, letters of the incarcerated are read in the voiceover—it’s not clear whether the film is conflating two time lines of the “protagonist” or creating a mosaic of dissident experiences. Endless Night becomes increasingly sparse in terms of action and dialogue, coming almost to a standstill in the final passages where the hero strikes pensive poses in artfully lit night time shots. In the first two acts, Enciso obsessively avoids shots with more than one actor, his compositions presenting profiles or three-quarter medium shots of performers interacting with off-screen characters. These stretches evoke John Ford and Manoel de Oliveira in equal measure, while Straub becomes a reference point in the third act.

Bird Island (Sergio da Costa, Maya Kosa)

It is perhaps owing to the same anxiety that I found watching Bird Island a supremely relaxing experience. Shot charmingly in 16mm in academy ratio, the film is a loosely fictionalized documentary set in a bird shelter, somewhere near the Geneva airport I’m told. Antonin is a young man who has been posted at the shelter as part of his rehabilitation programme following a long period of ailments and surgeries. At the facility, he assists Paul, who is responsible for breeding mice to feed the birds at the shelter, which arrive there presumably after being dazed or disoriented at the airport. Also present at the site are veterinarian Emilie, first-aid giver Sandra and keeper Iwan. We follow the work of the shelter’s staff in measured, long shots sewn together by Antonin’s voiceover: Emilie operating on injured birds of prey, Sandra reintroducing the operated birds into a life in the wild, Paul teaching Antonin the nitty-gritty of breeding mice and killing them. Antonin is reticent and timid at first, and his integration into the small community of the shelter parallels the reintegration of the injured birds into the wild. “Some birds prefer security to freedom”, observes Antonin about one feathered friend that decides to stay back at the shelter—a comment equally true of the humans here.

Bird Island considers with equanimity the violence inherent in human and natural processes. The mice are bred to be killed, but their meat saves the lives of the injured birds. The dazed birds, themselves, are collateral damage of technology and progress, which are also what enable the shelter. Birds are trained to hunt mice before being set free, but some of the escaped rats attack the birds fatally. This adiabatic exchange within nature, the cycle of hurting and healing, is signalled by the closing images of the film’s two halves. In the first, a heat map left behind a dead mouse on a tissue paper slowly vanishes. In the second—the last image of the film—we see the dazed owl, now cured, in similar infrared imagery, flying away. These serious themes, however, never come in the way of the film’s essentially calming quality. Bird Island is, at heart, about a helpful, soft-spoken, decent community that accepts its members as they are. The members like each other’s presence and are indulgent towards each other’s failings. They don’t discuss past or future, or anything outside of work. “Paul is like a chosen one”, notes Antonin, “he poses no questions about his work.” This utopian quality of accepting birds and people as they come, and letting them go if they want to, is in stark contrast to real communities, which are predicated on shared history and shared future. Everything about Bird Island is clean and simple: the soft-lit compositions, the spare dialogue, the sporadic flute melody that forms the only soundtrack, the narrative sparsity and the acting, which here is just being. And this Rohmerian clarity and simplicity calms your nerves about the state of the world—which is what the subject of the film is.

Nothing About My Mother

Unpublished

I am well-regarded by publications interested in cinema.

Even so, this article was rejected everywhere.

I already had a hard time getting my revaluations of Powell and Deleuze through.

There was a time Leenhardt could yell:

“Down with Ford!”

Truffaut took down Clouzot and the “tradition of quality”. Rivette insulted Pontecorvo. Positif dragged Hitchcock and Bazin through the mud.

And nonetheless, this frankness—well-founded or not—paved the way for a healthy dialectical reflection.

Impossible today: everyone sticks together.

Today, everyone’s so nice and kind. The result is that every filmmaker is face-lifted to the same level: the oblivion of the crowd… Impossible to discern who will be the great filmmakers of tomorrow, or even today!

Spain suffers from a handicap: it’s not cut out for cinematic mise en scène. It’s a handicap that it makes up for largely with the richness of its pictorial expression. Similarly, the Germanics are strong in the realm of music while they remain impermeable to comedy and humour.

This Hispanic deficiency is all the more manifest because its little neighbour, Portugal, demonstrates an exceptional cinematic verve.

A cruel paradox: a Spanish filmmaker is really interesting only when he moves out the country (Buñuel, Arrieta, Coixet), which recalls the case of Hitchcock and England. I know well that there was Franco, but it’s a lame excuse: he’s been dead for more than thirty years.

The problem is that in most countries with a production that’s limited or of reduced interest, there is always ONE flagbearer filmmaker, Bergman, Dreyer and then Von Trier, Moretti, Kaurismaki, Wajda, Jancso and then Tarr, Pintilie, Kusturica, Angelopoulos, Van Der Keuken, Oliveira, Ben Barka, Lakhdar-Hamina, Boughedir, Hondo, Sembène, Ouédraogo, Cissé, Cronenberg, Alea, Sanjines, Ripstein, Solanas, Gitai, Omirbaev, Kiarostami, Chahine, Satyajit Ray, Weerasethakul, Brocka etc. It’s very convenient: the bulk of state funds goes to a single film rather than twenty. Neat savings… National representation at festivals is always assured, the selectors needn’t waste time searching. And the cultivated viewer believes he’s seen everything a country has to offer when he savours the work of the Chosen One. A particularly questionable, elitist system, especially when the filmmaker in question heads the local Centre for Cinema himself—frequently the case in Africa—and doesn’t give a damn about others or the future.

It’s all fine when the lucky laureate is called Ingmar Bergman. But it borders on tragedy in Spain. This country has found nothing better than choosing its champions among the creators of a pretentious and empty body of work, earlier Bardem, then Saura, today Almodóvar1, to whom our Cinematheque has dared to dedicate a retrospective…

His roaring, blustering, warrior-like surname sounded good to my ears: the strangeness, the strong ending, like in Guadalquivir. I’d have wanted to like Almodóvar so much. Names matter. I’m convinced that it’s primarily because of his name that Apichatpong Weerasethakul became a hit.

My first contact with Almodóvar was thanks to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I was quite amused by the application of the laws of Hollywood screwball comedy to a modern, hip Madrid milieu, which was a first. The Screenplay Award at Venice seemed justified to me. But it didn’t go any further than a Blake Edwards comedy.

Then I started watching Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Even tied, I couldn’t have remained on my seat: an Almodóvar film is foremost a tedious litany of vaguely lewd lines, à la Michel Audiard, haphazardly assembled. It’s a catalogue of somewhat perverse sexual fantasies, spoken about more than shown. A catalogue of no great interest. It’s true that it’s funny for five minutes… It’s Russ Meyer lite, or more exactly a poor man’s John Waters. Waters’ superiority over Almodóvar is that he knows to remain within his natural limits, that of pure fun and play, while Almodóvar reaches vainly towards much loftier horizons.

Live Flesh is constructed mostly on oblique and unusual framing, pretty but gratuitous. We are midway between Vadim and Albicocco.

I then began understanding why the first six Almodóvars were systematically rejected by festivals. Nothing has changed since then in his films, if not for the birth of a certain snobbism. It’s the same with Guédiguian: first limited to a restricted circulation and then sought after by everyone, even though he hasn’t changed his refrain one bit, the difference being that the filmmaker from Marseille is on a much superior level than the man from La Mancha.

I systematically avoided Almodóvar’s productions after that. Out of curiosity, I went back to him when good things were being said about his two new films.

All About My Mother ostensibly quotes Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, while Almodóvar’s practice, as we will see later, is diametrically opposed to the psychological analysis so dear to Mankiewicz. It’s as dishonest for him to call his film that as for me to start naming my films The Genius Line or New Sunrise. There is a pile of gratuitous film references in Almodóvar (Night of the Hunter, Gena Rowlands, Fellini, Pasolini, Bergman etc.) that are present to attract the complicity of critics and cinephiles. Anyway, let’s forget the title. It’s enough that All About My Mother be named Manuel and Esteban for my criticisms to fall flat.

All About My Mother grabs our attention, as does the subsequent work, Talk to Her, through various colour choices within the image: a colour on the left, another on the right, a third one at the centre. But it remains purely decorative.

Special attention is devoted in this film, and in Talk to Her, to the ill and the handicapped, to the hospital setting, which Almodóvar’s friends—victims of AIDS, which he’s perhaps afraid of—must’ve gone through. Let’s note the film’s best moment (along with the nice verbal digression on the cost of plastic surgery). I mean the camera movement that runs along the tube of the drip. Still life in Almodóvar’s films is always more interesting than the characters (cf. the windmills of Volver). It’s true that it appears at the very beginning of the film. There are numerous filmmakers with a short-lived inspiration who put in some effort into the first shot of the film (such as the windswept graveyard with its choir of cleaning women in Volver), but are likely to disappoint in the next five hundred…

We can certainly give some credit to this film which seeks, through a stream of dialogue more mundane than usual, to bring to life and humanize characters of strange comportments, to say the least: there is a desire here to turn homosexuality—gay or lesbian—and bisexuality, often marked by transvestism, into majoritarian, universal and indispensable values. But this effort is contradicted by the caricatural, fantastic aspect of the paradox, more capable of being expressed in comedy—which allows for all fantasies—than in the drama presented here: two or three deaths.

The realist treatment of the film doesn’t make for a good choice.

It’s impossible to believe in it, to surrender to emotion, since none of the particular sexual attitudes repeated endlessly through the film, none of the considerable behavioural changes (why does Lola shuttle constantly between heterosexuality and transvestism? Why does the young woman sleep with “him”?) is deepened, harnessed or justified. All things considered, Nothing About My Mother would have been a more appropriate title for the film. What remains is the provocative and gratuitous bizarreness of the sexual acts.

Helped by a rather endearing Boccaccian flavour, Talk to Her marks a slight progress into an interesting trajectory. But it remains too long for a story that shouldn’t have moved beyond the short film stage. A male nurse in love with a comatose patient makes her pregnant. Besides the fact that we realize what’s happening much before Almodóvar explains it to us in great detail, Talk to Her disappoints us with its touristy, “Spain in ninety minutes” aspect, with bullfighting—a female matador, just to be fashionable—and a ballet show thrown in for free. Matarazzo (Il Tenente Giorgio), Kleist and Rohmer (The Marquise of O) were much more inspired on the subject of blind or lethargic coitus than this mediocre codicil.

Bad Education turns out to be even worse. It keeps ramming down our throats the idea that, under Franco, all priests were faggots. Which, made in 2004, seems to us to be appallingly banal, especially given that it’s drawn out to feature length. I couldn’t hold on till the end here too.

Besides, there is a contradiction between the systematic criticism of this paedophilia—a very universal attitude today and thus rather opportunistic—and the tolerance and sympathy that Almodóvar demonstrates towards all forms of homosexuality.

When all is said and done, it seems that Spanish cinema has held on only thanks to Francoism, by trying to undermine it from within until the death of Caudillo, or by denouncing it very explicitly later. Which, thirty years later, seriously limits our view of Spanish cinema, as though French cinema still revolved around Resistance or anti-Gaullism.

The beginning of Volver nicely surprised me. There is here a charming chronicle based on the observation of places and mores in La Mancha, which borders on caricature but remains pleasant.

Alas, returning to Madrid, Almodóvar lets himself be run over by the mechanics of a plot that’s at once banal and very complex, too farfetched to be able to bring out the pathos of the characters and their emotions. The choral aspect of the film breaks the emotion sustained by the melodrama, which generally relies on the viewer’s identification with the central character and thus on a not-too-unbelievable context. Note the enjoyable ease with which the protagonists move in an unusual, hardly believable universe. But that’s not enough to reverse the trend. Despite some good gags (the sounds of kissing, the winds of the mother from under the bed), the mechanical parade of plot twists leaves little place for humour, which would’ve been really valuable in such a storyline. The film is always midway between an umpteenth TV sitcom and its parody. Almodóvar juggles with all facets of a scene and loses every time in this little game. He is always caught between two stools and lands on his ass. It’s not good, especially in cinema, to begin on a high note and go downhill from there. The opposite would’ve been better. Almodóvar’s problem ultimately is that his films are badly conceived, badly organized, off-centre, unbalanced and half-assed.

All said, what’s positive about him is that he unwittingly enabled—thanks to the similarities of their surnames—the growth of Amenábar, a filmmaker more worthy of interest and who constitutes, with Coixet, Alvarez, Rocha, Serra, Rosales, Alvares2 and especially Victor Erice (from whom Almodóvar stole the title of Spain’s best), the true Hispanic cinema of today, much more certainly than the bon mots and Banderillas of the windbag from La Mancha3.

 

1Earlier, a comparable snobbism glorified Ken Russell, Jean Delannoy, Serge Bourguignon, Rex Ingram, all of very ephemeral value…

2These names prove that Iberian film art (cf. Buñuel, Arrieta, the Portuguese) necessarily involves the experimental.

3On the other hand, the success of our filmmaker has, alas, forced the majority of Spanish filmmakers to do Almodóvar.

 

[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.

Cahiers du cinéma no. 99; September 1959.

If we are publishing this text that seems to have only a distant relation to film criticism, it’s because we think that good literature is worthier than bad cinema and that this article constitutes a good “short story” (Ed.).

I’ll take the liberty of breaking with the tradition that requires you to present with great erudition the city where the festival you are invited to takes place. Getting down from the train, I looked around anxiously for any particularity that made San Sebastián (Spain) a Fullerian, Hawksian, Rossellinian or Cukorian city, in order to be able to better place it in the mind of Cahiers readers. To be sure, extremes rub shoulders this “Basque Nice” as we seamlessly glide from the rococo palaces of Rio Urumea to the wooden huts and scattered sheep of the harsh ridges surrounding the city. But to be fair, I think this allows me to clearly discern in San Sebastián the signs of an internal dialectic comparable to those in Eisenstein or Hitchcock.

 

Awareness of the social self

I’m looking at festival reports published by Cahiers. It’s expected that you give your opinion on the value of each festival. Which bores me a lot. To say that this festival is mediocre or that festival is excellent not only seems difficult to me, but I also believe it means nothing at all.

Reviewers generally start by criticizing bad organization or praising the efforts of the festival committee. If they are sincere, they redeem themselves by acknowledging the quality of the competition. The fact of the matter is that it’s rather impolite, and embarrassing to the person who does it, to demolish a festival that spent fifty thousand francs on your invitation—accommodation, food, screenings etc. Let’s confess frankly that we could have enjoyed the two screenings of North by Northwest, which essentially justified the existence of this festival, even in the small MGM theatre in Paris, since Paris already had a copy of the film ready before the festival. Of course, everyone knows that the festivals committee of San Sebastián doesn’t organize this festival to spread the knowledge of film art but to serve as local publicity, with all the concomitant effects on tourism, which will fill the cash registers of San Sebastián and Madrid more abundantly. But you don’t need to go far—five hundred metres in the city, fifteen kilometres in the countryside on bad or sometimes even forbidden roads, and when there are roads, it means that the communes are rich enough to pay for them—to note that gloomy misery prowls in the vicinity. Yes, let’s say it since it must be said even if the reader of Cahiers doesn’t give a damn, and he is absolutely right, we were well fed, well lodged, well served, and the organization was almost perfect. But it’s just this that I’d hold against the festival. We were too well fed, too well lodged and, to the direct detriment of the Spanish people, even if it was negligible, even if it was indirectly made up for by the money brought back by the event’s publicity power. The national government is more interested in ostentatious pomp than depth. And what shocked me definitively is not so much the fact that I stole something, at least virtually, from the Spanish people. After all, I was maybe the least guilty of my colleagues of this involuntary theft, in that I was perhaps the one critic of all who rated North by Northwest, the film that brought the most awareness of this festival, at the top. This awareness of the social self, as Domarchi would say, manifested itself through this comparison devoid of its serious character. No crises, except for a certain embarrassment, and an amused acceptance. It was enough for me to look up the list of French critics invited and find the name of Michel Capdenac of the Lettres françaises there. I don’t know Capdenac, but I am quite sure that he enjoyed the same privileges as me, that he didn’t turn down a drink, a meal or the cosy bed offered to him, and even that he didn’t bother himself with these questions like me, even though he is a practicing Marxist1. In short, just thinking of Capdenac made me chuckle and freed me of all social complex. Ah, here I must continue my sentence: as I was saying, what shocked me the most was that the Spanish people, a part of which was waiting applauding for two or three hours, sometimes under the rain, for the entry and the exit of festival-goers at each soirée, seemed to create this tragic and absurd farce at its own expense. I found this admiration of the working class for the rich and idle class, in which it likes to see itself mentally, identical to and brilliantly and cunningly portrayed in The Last Laugh, screened here in the retrospective section at twenty-four frames per second and without the last reel.

 

The anti-dialecticism of intellectualism

I’m still looking at festival reviews in Cahiers. Some find that the schedules are badly thought out and prevent them from seeing all films, others complain about the flowers that block the view from the front rows, or other trifles. So, I’d reproach the 12th San Sebastián Festival for not having anything to reproach it in the pages of Cahiers. On second thoughts, I have a whole lot to complain about. For instance, what’s terrible about the luxury hotels where we are put up is that everything runs smoothly, everything is done for the supposed comfort of the customer, and it’s this that is unpleasant. They take the suitcase from my hands, they bring the breakfast to my bed, I had the feeling of being good for nothing, of being treated with the respect usually reserved for Réné Clair, Marcel Camus or some other doddering geezer. They’ve just stopped short of bathing and grooming me. The most ordinary gestures of everyday life, which even the greatest geniuses can’t live happily without, are prohibited for us. No helping hand to lend, no shopping to do, no firewood to pick up, or dishes to wipe. Everyone is condemned to the anti-dialecticism of intellectualism. Write, write, write forever. I think, therefore I am… but no, I think therefore I don’t wipe, for there’s nothing to wipe. At the most, I open the tap of my washbasin, hoping deep within that it’ll burst and that I will have to repair it and stop a flooding. There is running water in my washbasin, and even hot water. But I’d have preferred to be in the mountains where a litre of cold-water costs a hundred francs, because it’s at least fun to calculate how much water I can waste at the most. There is a bed in my room, and even curtains, but I’d have preferred a sleeping bag and some hay, firstly because it feels better and also because it allows for some amusing, involuntary nocturnal slipping and bizarre awakenings. Where am I? Where is the north? Good God, where could this north be that I’ve lost? I want to take the stairs, but the overzealous lift boy drags me into the elevator: he doesn’t know that, as a fan of Touch of Evil, I never take elevators, in order to struggle with it by my own means.

 

Clerics, clerics, clerics

Let’s be serious. What’s the San Sebastián festival worth? I’ll tell you: it doesn’t matter. Besides, I don’t see why that would interest you since you don’t go to festivals often. What I say would only interest the director of the festival. I am a critic of films, and not of film festivals. And then, an organiser doesn’t merit praise for producing a good festival. There are no miracles in cinema, and if there are, nearly all of them are predictable. There are about twenty film auteurs in the world, those that are lauded in the Cahiers. After them, a void. That’s it. Respected organisers of big and especially small festivals, please invite their latest work and, if possible, the first films of promising directors whose names we have at Cahiers. If Cannes and Venice seize Bergman, Buñuel, Rossellini etc., catch hold of Cukor, Minnelli, Ray, Fuller, Hawks, Lang, Vidor, Cottafavi, Melville, Barnet, Losey, Godard, Kinoshita, the condemned of competitions. You’ll be right every time. Avoid at all cost directors who have more than two films to their credit and not a single success. Look down on national selections, they are the ones responsible for the sufferings of Saint Sebastian endured by critics. The selection committees tell themselves: San Sebastián is Spain, so we need clerics, we need moral, well-intentioned, children-oriented films. This is the reason there were thirteen bad films of the twenty-two in competition, most of them vile. This is not a criticism: Cannes prefers the average to the vile. But the average isn’t out of place in a festival any more than the vile. Let’s compare the two festivals: 1 point for great films, ½ for good films, half-price for out-of-competition premieres: The 400 Blows + Nazarin + Desire + India + Hiroshima + Anne Frank = 3 ¾ points for Cannes. The Hitchcock plus the Bulgarian film and the Indian film plus the Ford = 2 ¼ points. The difference isn’t great, Cannes wins it thanks to the value of its out-of-competition films, and it would’ve been enough for Verboten! and Rio Bravo to go to San Sebastián to reverse the trend. So, let’s not try to establish a list of best film festivals. San Sebastien 1958 with Vertigo, a Monicelli, a Sirk and a Guitry clearly had the upper hand over Cannes 1959. Let’s not attach too much importance to the prize list of festivals.

 

A gradation in sublimity

Cinema is not a sport or a beauty contest. The best remain the best for forty or fifty years. The spectacular and publicity interest of awards can endure only if it brings something new, something original, if it distinguishes itself from its precedents. Now, had the judges been fair, Hitchcock would’ve already won eight times at Cannes and Venice, Rossellini seven times, Welles five etc. It would’ve made no sense. It would’ve made sense if there were a festival of all the best films of the year. But these are scattered across six or seven competitions and win hands down over others, as expected all along. We understand hence that The Nun’s Story, a mediocre film by Zinnemann, but the third least bad film by little Fred, was crowned at the expense of the great Alfred’s admirable North by Northwest, which arrives only at the nineteenth position among the forty-six Hitchcocks. Only one awards roster this year will have some meaning because among the losers there will be virtual winners: Venice. We’ll give the winner the only campionissimo of Italian cinema, the leader Roberto getting ahead of Otto by a wheel, Claude by two laps, Ingmar bringing up the rear, Mario and Jerzy winning the peloton sprint, but it could be the other way. There, it would really be the films that triumph and not auteurs. We notice that the greats produce at most three or four works superior to their other films, and it’s these that a festival should award, thanks to a general confrontation without any exclusion. Orson, Roberto, Luis, Alfred, Ingmar, Charles, Jean, Fritz and some others would block the road forever and the best, even Murnau, wouldn’t be able to win more than four times. So, no academism. And we’ll gain in lucidity. For one must be strong to be able to prefer India to Nazarin or Hiroshima. To establish a gradation in sublimity, that’s the purpose of festivals. It’s the most difficult, the vainest perhaps, but also the most enriching of all intellectual exercises.

In short, here’s my award list at San Sebastián:

★★★—1. Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (USA)

★★—2. Shakti Samanta’s Insaan Jaag Utha (India)

★★—3. Nicolai Korabov’s Malenkaia (Bulgaria)

★—4. Jerzy Passendorfer’s Answer to Violence (Poland)

★—5. Vladimir Pogačić’s Alone (Yugoslavia)

★—6. Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (USA)

 

North by Northwest

(Silver Shell for the good quality of its creativity, its ingenuity, its subtlety) Admirable in itself, disappointing for a Hitchcock. Had I enjoyed Hitchcock’s artistic and commercial position, I wouldn’t have gambled on a subject that emphasizes so little on the nature of the characters, which are of an amazing richness in comparison to those of The Nun’s Story, but which suffer in comparison to those of Vertigo. It’s a more evidently commercial film with numerous holes in the course of its hundred-and-thirty-six-minute runtime, of a constant, rather surprising beauty and sparse sublimity, which owes a lot to the private joke (A.H. literally misses the bus), to the idea of pure mise en scène, harnessed here to the detriment of the script. It’s an art that places all its stakes on volumes, colours, duration, the concept of an already geometric and abstract figure, and Hitchcock wins every time thanks to the disconcerting neatness of an execution that’s as simple, as pared down as possible. There are here four or five greatest scenes that Hitch has ever shot, but we ask more of him. Eva Marie Saint makes a good screen debut. Mason is good. Grant excellent. Burks too. Saul Bass, brilliant, eclipses the windbag McLaren’s Serenal, which progresses at the rate of one idea every three minutes. But Serenal only lasts two minutes and fifty seconds. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

 

Two revelations

The only two other “cinematically thought” films crush the mass of films towards the direction of scholarly or aestheticizing actors. Uneven, of bad taste, botched up, they remain attractive thanks to the spontaneity and inventiveness of the acting, to effects that never borrow their power from morality or sentimentality. I don’t understand Hindi and I didn’t try to understand what happens in Insaan Jaag Utha. This film is good because the actors sing and dance here with talent, because the tics of the secondary characters are pushed beyond the grotesque, because there is action and plot twists. The best scene, the final fight in the quarry, is delirious: hanging on their respective ropes, midway between the summit and the depths of a quarry, which is going to explode, the two heroes try to knock each other off with kicks and blows. Good music. Margarita Ilieva, the Bugarian Malenkaia, isn’t very pretty, but she’s as lively as a Castellani heroine. Her partner is good, many little ideas in the intimist style. Good scenes in the streets of Sofia with well-directed extras. Colourful and exuberant formalism: a love scene seen through a distorting fishbowl. Gratuitous but funny. Critique of contemporary society that puts itself in an awkward position. Korabov (30 years) doesn’t care. Samanta neither. We neither. May they continue!

 

And the Polish?

Answer to Violence (critic’s prize and direct rival to The Nun’s Story), to which I preferred a new viewing of the Alfred, strikes us seemingly with the effectiveness of a raw document: the preparation and execution of an attack against an SS general, Warsaw, 1942. One point, that’s all. Out of competition: Farewells, Wojciech Has’s cerebral and baroque love story that I didn’t see; A short, talented Red Balloon called A Walk in the Old City of Warsaw, the latest Wajda, Ashes and Diamonds, cinematically average and impresses only with its baroque peaks, which are often unpleasant (emphasis on WCs). But the shirt that goes up in flames under the impact of bullets, the dying man who sweeps the ground with his feet to alleviate the pain, all these are not bad. Interesting script. The hero hesitates between homo and heterosexuality, but Wajda, the impulsive intellectual and aesthete, matches up poorly with his intentions (cf. Plazewski’s excellent article in our 96th issue). Documentary or baroque, Polish cinema occupies only an honorary place in world cinema. Nothing more.

 

L’il Fred won’t grow up

In The Nun’s Story (Golden Shell for the content inspired—for the contained inspiration, I’d say—by its theme, the purity of its direction on human and aesthetic levels), Audrey Hepburn, mediocre and out of place in the role, but Best Actress prize, tosses away her veil at the end of fifteen years and at the end of three hours and a half, which the Christian charity of Jack Warner cut down to two hours and a half. I had taken my precautions and napped before the screening; it was necessary, I wouldn’t have lasted otherwise. If Domarchi was at San Sebastián, we wouldn’t have known the end of Eisenstein’s secrets2, for this drudgery would have killed him for good. Zinnemann takes a stab at colour again like Huston, and it’s bad; he drones about metaphysics, it’s awful, he misses the mark completely. Let’s not be mean: the style comes across as simple, documentary, medical (it’s also about medicine, like the best Zinnemann, The Men; all the better, Zinnemann has everything it takes to be a doc). Not too many aesthetic experiments. The document is perhaps false, Aretino described the life of nuns differently, but the simplicity holds your attention, like in The Goddess. Even so, at the end, we have the desire, like Kyrou, to become a priest-basher. A film like this does considerable wrong to Christianity. I give it a rating of 53.

 

Miscellaneous, summer films

Since Zinnemann, whom I can’t be suspected of having a weakness for, comes sixth, only inanities must follow! Alone is a decent, suitably played, popular-democrat-style war film. Ragpicker’s Angel (the OCIC prize for showing a Japanese Christian) plays firstly on its baroque setting—not bad—and then collapses into pathos. I nodded off, I opened my right eye for a second, I closed it, I opened the left one: oh boy, what torture! I stayed because they told me Gosho was a good guy, but I’ll only trust myself from now on. The Rest is Silence (special prize), decently played, modernizes Hamlet with ridiculous results: expressionism, Claudius, head of a factory in the Ruhr, sells to SS his brother who, now a spectre, telephones Hamlet, who escapes from an airport… Marine expressionism in Wolf Hart’s Abseits, mediocre Golden Shell for Short Film. Among the Ruins started very well: the script is funny. The professor and his charming pupil fight in class, but fall in love with each other. After this, a horrible, melodramatic flashback for an hour and a half in order to remain faithful to the novel. In the first reel, Ezzel Dine Zulficar reveals himself to be as enjoyable as his relative Mahmoud Zulficar, but the rest of the film shows us that talent is not hereditary. The Light from the Top starts with beautiful landscapes, the actress is good, Portuguese is sweeter to hear than Spanish, but God, what melodrama, what sermonizing after that!

In two sequences of From the Apennines to the Andes, the actors eat naturally, and in the last, Rossi Drego undresses rather prettily behind a bedsheet put out to dry, which won it a joint Silver Shell with Hitchcock! Capdenac is completely crazy to see a masterpiece in For whom the Skylarks Sing, a dull peasant film. In Crime After School—jazz party—Vohrer, the German Molinaro makes the pretty Corny Collins ugly. G.B, N.T.R. Death in the Saddle, a parody Western, shows that the Czechs don’t yet know how to suitably use cinemascope. The films in Spanish are impossible: susceptible to pretension, theatrical actors, ugly language. Despite his Nobel prize, the savant in Leap to Fame (award for Best Hispanic Film and for Best Actor) doesn’t manage to interest us. I’ve not seen the Mexican film: they showed me some photograms earlier, that was enough; nor Everyone’s in Love: that gives me a good pretext to remain courteous to Jacqueline Sassard, which is very difficult after seeing her films. To be frank, let’s say that, not being a masochist, I stayed till the end of only about a dozen films. Life is short and spending more than ten minutes with a turkey is bad. If there’s nothing at the end of ten minutes, there’ll be nothing beyond. Which allows me to judge the value of films according to time: I stayed for 11 minutes, 23 seconds for Death in the Saddle against 8 minutes, 23 seconds for Convict no. 1040, 2 minutes, 47 seconds for Adolescence of Cain and 22 seconds for Leap to Fame. So, Death in the Saddle is superior to Cain by 8 minutes, 36 seconds.

 

India mon amour

Outside competition, The 400 Blows (France was not officially represented), not bad at all4, John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers and the sublime India, the most dizzyingly rapid and the most dizzyingly slow of all films, the most disconcerting, not the finest, but the newest of all, much newer than even Journey to Italy. Some yelled in rage in their seats, the others nodded off, exhausted by Rossellini’s incessant merry-go-round. I was speechless, completely astounded. And to think that certain critics at Cannes could see a good documentary without personality in this work next to which Ivan the Terrible comes across as an aborted bastard of the tradition of quality and which establishes itself as the firm favourite of the Moscow Festival. I hardly like unjustified hyperboles, but I think that, until we have the advantage of two or three screenings, for once, it’s there that the only reasonable and impartial criticism that one could make about the film lies.

 

A fine Ford

Over two hours and the American Civil War, a commando unit lead by Wayne and Holden advances into Pittsburgh. Mediocre photography by Clothier. But Ford is in full form. A curious thing: what irritates the most in Ford—a rather crude and embarrassing humour—is what explains his success and enables the fleshing out of subtle and endearing characters. More than a moving film—scenes of butchery and the advance of child-soldiers towards the Yankee army are nice, but nothing to cry about—it’s a sensitive film. Ford is uneven within his films, but there is a crowd of little details here that pack a punch. Walsh is clearly beaten by a long distance. Wayne has never been better than in this scene, full of invention, where he starts drinking his whisky, gets annoyed and ends up smashing everything.

 

1As his review shows.

2Domarchi had written a series on Eisenstein in Cahiers.

3The Catholic Central’s most negative rating.

4It’s a form of private joke.

 

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

Generation Wealth

Lauren Greenfield’s latest work, Generation Wealth, finds her taking a plunge into a world of excesses, a culture obsessed with wealth, youth, beauty, sex, and power – permanent fixtures in her work as a photographer. Re-purposing material from her projects of the past thirty years, she reflects on the West’s continued fascination with having more, while also trying to understand her own fascination with this ideal. Generation Wealth is therefore a self-curated retrospective of sorts, a self-psychoanalysis, that brings into conversation topics as varied as high lifestyle of celebrity kids, eating disorders, plastic surgeries, new billionaires of the Communist world, pornography and the economic recession. While some of the connections seem strained and forced into a narrative, Greenfield’s conviction that these phenomena cannot be seen in isolation is admirable. Assembled using photographs from her previous projects and new interviews with the same subjects today, Generation Wealth weaves a Christian narrative of temptation, sin and redemption, complete with a pat message at the end.

A visual anthropologist by training, Greenfield admits that her method consists of documenting extreme examples in order to understand the mainstream. Through her VIP access to celebrity life (she comes in a line of Harvard graduates and went to the same elite schools as some of her subjects), she assembles a veritable freak parade of lost souls: a bus driver who went beyond her means for her plastic surgeries, a vulgar trader who was pursued by the FBI for fraud, a star-kid from LA who took to drugs, a toddler from the hinterlands who was catapulted to national fame, a stock broker who’s trying to conceive through IVF, a porn star who’s been through the unimaginable. Greenfield unveils their testimonies in bits and pieces and we are not sure until the end about what their current situation in life is. This withholding of information creates an unsavoury suspense that cheapens the investigation.

Greenfield has the unenviable knack of picking up the corniest lines from her interviews. She uses the most unflattering camera and editing choices, constantly undercutting her interviewees to make them look sorry or stupid. Subjects and authorities are clearly differentiated and grand-sounding theories about fame and money abound. We hardly get to hear from “the other side” without a judgment tacked on and this un-dialectical approach is aggravated by Greenfield’s simplistic association of words and images (capitalism + flashy disco lights). Having shown her interviewees’ failings, Greenfield proceeds to redeem them all by crosscutting their present-day situation – all of them having grateful meals with their children, choreographed for the camera – enshrining parenthood as the primordial purpose of life.

Of course, all this exploration brings Greenfield back to herself. In a criticism that’s actually complimentary, she equates her own workaholism with her subject’s fixation with more and more. In extended interviews with her parents and children, she meditates on the burden of legacy and the history of parental neglect as a source of success-obsession. There’s a shade of tragedy in that Greenfield is able to relate to her children only through her work and here she appears to be coming to terms with her anxieties about her own history as a mother. In a final scene reminiscent of JR’s Women are Heroes, her interviewees come to her new photo-exhibition (of which this film is an offshoot). They look back condescendingly on their younger selves, thankful for Greenfield for reminding them where they are from. The line between personal art and narcissism is thin and Generation Wealth often mistakes the latter for the former.

Everybody Knows

With Everybody Knows, Asghar Farhadi returns to Europe, this time to Spain whose harvest-season sun illuminates this story of open secrets and family intrigues. The setting also enables Farhadi to linger on some curious social rituals and gestures. Penelope Cruz’s Laura returns from Argentina with her teenage daughter for the wedding of her younger sister in Spain. Her birthplace is a medieval town with cobbled streets where her once land-owning family has been living for generations. Living in the same town is her old flame Paco (Javier Bardem) who manages the vineyards he once bought from Laura at a difficult time. While tensions in the family are visible even before the lovingly-shot wedding set-piece, the whole fabric unravels when Laura’s daughter goes missing on the night of the wedding. The audience constructs the characters’ history and their relationships piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle, and the final image becomes clear only when the plot resolves itself.

Farhadi’s films are thrillers that are also character-studies, and Everybody Knows is no exception. Like its predecessors, it builds leisurely towards the crucial event that causes the characters to reassess their relationships with each other. Laura’s family resents her coming to the wedding without her husband and when her daughter vanishes it releases their long-suppressed resentments towards each other: Laura’s father brawls with neighbours who took his land in a game of poker thirty years ago, her sister confronts Paco for having short-changed Laura on the purchase of the vineyards, Paco’s wife objects to his taking so much concern for his old love, Paco detests Laura’s husband for his fake religiosity, Laura’s brother-in-law suspects her husband who hasn’t helped him despite being well-off. All the suppositions the characters make as to who might be involved in the kidnapping appear valid at first glance but are contradicted by subsequent developments. It’s to the plot’s credit that it doesn’t cheat the audience when it finally does reveal the details. And Farhadi’s anti-tourist approach to locales keeps outdoor scenes to a minimum.

On the other hand, Everybody Knows doesn’t have the same tragic weight as Farhadi’s other films. As it acknowledges right away, the secret at the heart of the film is really no secret and there’s no sense that the events would’ve turned out differently had the characters chosen to treat this piece of information differently. The real prime mover of the plot is the financial strain on the family and that dilutes the force of this melodrama given its focus is elsewhere. Moreover, the characters are related to each other through details of individual history and, except for Paco’s whose class pedigree is brought up, there’s no social friction palpable either despite the fact that part of the film involves the vineyards and the workers. There’s a feeling that, notwithstanding the revelations and outbursts, there is still so much to be discovered about the characters. That nobody really knows. As is usual for Farhadi, the actors carry the bulk of the film’s signifying burden and Barden and Cruz are always interesting presences. Mention must be made of the perversity of picking up the most beautiful people in the world and running them through less-than-beautiful situations: a dishevelled, frazzled Bardem in shorts sitting on his bed watching videos with earphones, a sleep-deprived Cruz lying face-down for an injection to the derriere.

2015 was a fine period for me. I went to the Mumbai Film Festival, something that I’d been meaning to do for some time now. I could also go to Experimenta to meet and interact with several interesting artists and curators. I wrote a little more at this blog than I had last year and I also started a blog in French that I hope to write more for in the coming months. I watched fewer films and read fewer books than any of the preceding few years. (I had read more books and seen more movies in the first 6 months of 2014 than I did in the whole of 2015.) Yet, I had a much more wholesome experience these past 12 months. For one, abstinence made movies better, providing me the necessary mental space to deal with them more meaningfully. But more importantly, my rejection of the voracious cinephilia that I was practicing helped me better integrate the films I watched with real world experience and further disabuse myself of the notion that cinephilia is a worthy activity in itself. As a result, I could give films their proper place in my life – an act of relegation that ironically made them more valuable. I think I harmonize myself better with the world around now, which I am convinced is what any ‘-philia’ worth its salt should ultimately be about. I look forward to further cutting down on films and books the coming year.

The year was full of surprisingly good films. Besides the following list (strictly consisting of works that world-premiered in 2015), I was really, really impressed by the masterfully-directed Carol (Todd Haynes), the nervous energy-dynamics of Standing Tall (Emmanuelle Bercot), the perspective-bending Scrapbook (Michael Hoolboom), the structural intelligence of Interrogation (Vetrimaran) and the fascinating image-making and commentary of The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). Other films I liked very much are The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg), Masaan (Neeraj Ghaywan), My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin), My Mother (Nanni Moretti), Night Without Distance (Lois Patiño), Results (Andrew Bujalski), Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino) and the three cine-essays by Mark Rappaport.

 

1. Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov, France)

 

FrancofoniaAt a time when Daesh funds itself by trafficking cultural artifacts and Europe announces asylum for threatened art works, Sokurov’s marvelous, piercing film offers nothing less than a revisionist historiography of art itself. For Francofonia, History is not the content of art but its very skin. Museums flatten time, and justifiably present their contents as the highest achievements of a culture, obfuscating, in effect, their history as objects involved in power brokerage, class conflict and market manipulation. Sokurov’s film flips this perspective inside out, identifying art as being frequently the currency of diplomatic power possessing the capacity to purchase peace and as being instruments in service of totalitarian collaboration. Napoleon, who made art the object of his wars, perambulates in the Louvre alongside Lady Liberty Marianne, personifying the antipodal instincts of not only this emblematic institution, but also of European civilization itself. Sokurov’s complex film, likewise, holds together with great equanimity and curiosity antithetical views of museums, acknowledging simultaneously their timelessness and particular historical meaning(s). Francofonia poses questions about nationality, ownership and, really,  the value of art and leaves your head whirling with its far-reaching implications, making sure that you will not approach art the same way again.

2. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)

 

No Home MovieThe jeu de mots in the title says it all. Not only is this deeply death-marked, Ozuvian film an unordinary home movie, but it is also a film about not having a home. Composed of footage shot in the filmmaker’s mother’s Brussels apartment and recorded video-conference sessions between the two, No Home Movie contrasts Akerman’s professional nomadism with the perennial confinedness of her mother Natalia. Between Chantal’s constant off-screen presence and Natalia’s self-imposed captivity (within the apartment as well as the computer screen), between Here and Elsewhere, lies the film’s true space – a part-real, part-virtual space of filial anxiety and affection. Akerman’s matrilineal counterpart to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014) investigates heritage and origin as the director meditates on what she has inherited from her mother – a reflection that continuously brings Akerman back to an examination of her own Jewishness. A document of physical decline and decline of the physical (“Je t’embrasse” over Skype), the film crystallizes a collective Jewish narrative of eternal exile through the personal history of the director’s mother, while vehemently refusing to reduce the unique being of Natalia Akerman the individual. Akerman’s harrowing swansong is cinema’s own Camera Lucida.

3. Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

 

TaxiTaxi opens with a shot of downtown Tehran photographed from the dashboard of a car. Announcing Panahi’s first cinematic outdoor excursion since his house arrest in 2011, this shot sets up the dialectics that would define the film: home/world, individual/social and freedom/captivity. Through the course of Taxi, the spied-upon filmmaker drives around the city in the guise of a cabbie, chauffeuring clients-actors from various strata of the society, and realizing a pre-scripted scenario with them whose urgent, didactic purpose can’t be more obvious. The Iranian state has forged a private prison for Panahi from the public spaces of Tehran, allowing him a mobility and false freedom that’s regulated by its watchful eyes. Panahi turns this power dynamic upside down, transforming the private space of the vehicle into a public space for debate, discussion, instruction and critique. Watching the film, I was constantly reminded of that saying beloved of Wittgenstein: “It takes all kinds to make a world”. Panahi’s very presence in the film – his image, his voice – becomes an audacious act of political defiance, a gesture of tremendous existential courage that stares at the possibility of death floating in the air. Taxi makes cinema still matter.

4. The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, Chile)

 

The Pearl ButtonA beautiful marine cousin to Guzman’s previous film, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button turns its attention from the arid stretches of the Atacama to the waterfront and ice field of Southern Patagonia. Threading metaphor over metaphor, the director fashions a typically associative, richly suggestive essay film that turns the nature documentary form on its head. Guzman’s film plumbs the depths of the ocean, trying to uncover traces of suppressed, unseen history embodied by countless “missing people” – a project that derives its impetus from the filmmaker’s bittersweet childhood experience of the sea. Despite Chile’s economic indifference to its 4000-kilometer-long coastline, he notes, the sea has been indispensable those in power, serving first as the entry point of the European invaders, who wiped out the Patagonian natives, and then as the dumping ground of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime. Guzman teases out the different values that the sea holds for him, the autochthons and the Chilean state, in effect politicizing and historicizing that which conventional wisdom takes to be apolitical and ahistorical: geography and the perception of it. The result is a film of immense poetry and horror – a horror that only poetry can convey.

5. Shift (Alexandra Gerbaulet, Germany)

 

ShiftThe most impressive debut film of the year, Alexandra Gerbaulet’s ambitious, intoxicating Shift excavates the evolution of her hometown, Salzgitter, along with that of her family with archaeological care and scientific detachment. In Gerbaulet’s heady narration, anchored by a powerful, quasi-declamatory, rhythmic voiceover, Salzgitter’s transformation from a Nazi mining stronghold and concentration camp, through a waning industrial hub and to a nuclear waste dump parallels the gradual disintegration of the Gerbaulet family under the weight of unemployment, sickness and sexual repression. The filmmaker closely intercuts photographs and diary entries of her mother with impersonal material from popular and scientific culture, weaving in and out of both registers with ease. Gerbaulet’s film is literally an unearthing project, as the director scoops out the various historical, political and geographical layers of this war-weathered city whose tranquil current-day model housing sits atop a makeshift Jewish graveyard consisting of camp workers buried using industrial debris. “Man gets used to everything, even the scar”, declares the narrator bluntly. Shift unscrambles such a habituated view of things, observing the tragicomic tautologies in which history revisits the city. The more you dig, it would seem, the more of the same you get.

6. A Century Of Energy (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)

 

A Century Of EnergyOne of my favorite films of the year is a commercial for a major power corporation made by a 106-year-old artist. Manoel de Oliveira’s last work of his 84-year long career revisits his second film White Coal (1932), a documentary about power generation at the Central Hydroelectric Plant at Ermal, Rio Ave, founded by the filmmaker’s father. The silent film is projected indoors as a string quartet and a trio of ballerinas interpret the film in the space before the screen. Oliveira moves beyond the primary purpose of chronicling the evolution of renewable energy in the past century, charting the evolution of cinema itself during this period. Splicing together shots from the older films with images of the same locations today, he synthesizes a densely dialectical film that brings into dialogue silent movies and talkies, film and digital cinema, youth and old age and power and grace.  Part tribute to the legacy of his father, part meditation on his own long life and transformed perspectives, Oliveira’s film is celebration of the beauty of forms, natural and man made, whose final shot – ballerinas moving like little windmills at the crack of dawn – captures something like pure energy – a supremely befitting parting shot.

7. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, USA)

 

SpotlightThomas McCarthy’s dramatization of Boston Globe’s exposé of child abuse in the Church is a robust, smart procedural that is less about picking apart the Catholic establishment than about elucidating the epistemological processes of the Information Age. Set at the transitional period between print and online news media, the film underscores the soon-to-be-outmoded physical nature of journalistic investigation. There are no antagonists of the traditional kind in Spotlight. The only obstacles to the knowledge required to carry out the exposé are the numerous procedures and institutional protocols that have for objective the protection or publication of information. It is telling that the entire film is about a pack of newswriters seeking information that’s already out in the open. What’s more, the film recognizes that the Spotlight team’s attempts to mount an institutional critique is itself inscribed within kindred ideological biases, operational strategies and structural iniquities of Boston Globe as an institution and that the metaphysical crisis that their story can potentially wreak amidst readers is but similar to the disillusionment the newsmen experience vis-à-vis their Protestant weltanschauung. With relatively uncommon formal and ethical restraint, McCarthy crafts an arresting film about how a society’s narratives are made, predicated they are as much on the dissemination of information as on their marginalization.

8. The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia)

 

SThe Eventergei Loznitsa’s formidable follow-up to Maidan (2014) furthers the earlier film’s exploration of the aesthetics and mechanics of revolution, capturing a people coming together to make sense of a political limbo. Without context or a framing perspective, the film drops us straight into the streets of St. Petersburg just after the attempted reactionary coup d’état in Moscow in 1991. Confusion and mundanity – not heroics and determination – reign as we observe the formative process of a people’s movement and the imagined/imaginary social glue that causes individuals to cohere into a group. State apparatuses compete with each other for imposing a narrative onto the events, while the very toponymy of the city becomes an ideological battleground. Working off priceless archival footage, much of which is incredibly reminiscent of the filmmaker’s own cinematographic style, Loznitsa provides an invaluable glimpse into the unfurling of history, chronicling how numerous banal, unsure gestures and actions snowball into Historical Events. If Eisenstein’s better-than-the-original recreation of the October Revolution was the abstraction of materialist history into ideas, Loznitsa’s film, taking place at the same Palace Square 63 years later, rescues history from the reductions of ideology and brings it right back into the realm of the material.

9. In Transit (Albert Maysles & Co., USA)

 

In TransitA remarkable American counterpart to J. P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), In Transit unfolds predominantly as a series of interviews with a mixed bag of travellers on board The Empire Builder, a long-distance passenger train running over 3500 kilometers and spanning almost the entire width of the United States. The accounts of passengers seeking out professional and financial breakthroughs evoke the pioneer myth hinged on a “Go West” imperative while the stories of those aboard in search of their ‘calling’ demonstrate the essentially spiritual, even religious nature of their pilgrimage-like journey. The diversity and range of the interviewees and their interactions help the film depict the train as a miniature America, à la Stagecoach, and carve out a quasi-utopian space in which members across class, race and gender divides get an opportunity to converse with each other without personal baggage. Nonetheless, In Transit is less a cultural vision of a possible America than an existential meditation on what makes people embark on these journeys. One elderly war veteran remarks that he’ll never be able to see these plains again. To cite John Berger, “the desire to have seen has a deep ontological basis.

10. Wake (Subic) (John Gianvito, The Philippines)

 

Wake (Subic)One of a piece with Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010), Wake continues its precedent’s important investigation into the ecological consequences of the presence of America’s largest military bases in the Philippines during most of the 20th century. Like Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), Wake is guided by the spirit of Howard Zinn’s approach to history and sketches an economically-founded account of US-Philippines political and cultural relations – a history that seems to be have been lamentably wiped off from the Filipino national consciousness. Gianvito juxtaposes images from the Philippine-American war with current day images from the contaminated Subic naval base area, suggesting, in effect, the poisonous persistence of an agonizing, unacknowledged history. Wake is imperfect cinema – unwieldy and resourceful – and employs fly-on-the-wall records, talking heads, on-screen text, photographs and news clips to mount a potent critique of a historiography defined political amnesia and economic opportunism. More importantly, it is a necessary reminder that imperialism is not always about presence, action and exercise of power but sometimes also about the refusal of these very elements, that history is not only a matter of events but also processes and phenomena and that geography is always political.

 

Special Mention: Chi-raq (Spike Lee, USA)

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