Cinema of the USA


Autofiction (Laida Lertxundi)

Autofiction, the first of Basque-origin artist Lertxundi’s films I’ve seen, opens with an establishment shot of a city skyline. A while later, we are on the sunlit roads of the metropolis, where a cavalcade of police motorbikes prepares for a rally. Cut to bodies of various unconscious women being dragged on concrete and loaded on to a truck. Before we can figure out what’s happening, we are presented with short testimonies of women talking about motherhood, abortion and loneliness, testimonies that are cut with vignettes from the MLK day parade in the city. The bright pastel colours that compose the studio the women are photographed in, combined with the big, yellow typeface of the title and the sunny outdoors, suggest a pastiche of cheerful Reaganite suburbia. At one point, a woman crawls out of her living room couch into her large, suburban backyard to settle into a foetal position under the sun. But what’s the connection? I presume that the crimes taking place in broad daylight, whose perpetrators we don’t see, tie metaphorically with the women’s accounts, in which post-maternal deracination, post-abortive disorientation and post-separation depression are all conceived in terms of personal choices and experiences, independent of structural forces conditioning them. By intercutting these testimonies with a civil rights rally, Lertxundi is restoring the political character to these personal experiences. At the end, a rectangular opening on a card frames parts of women’s bodies separately, hinting at the unity behind these fragments, just as Lertxundi evokes the socio-political unity shaping individual experiences. The title, moreover, implies that Lertxundi might be articulating details of her own life through these accounts, thereby scattering her subjectivity and rendering it interchangeable with those of the women she films.

Orphea (Alexander Kluge, Khavn)

In Orphea, 88-year-old Kluge and 47-year-old Khavn revive the Orpheus-Euridice myth as an avant garde punk musical. In this version, Orpheus becomes a woman named Orphea (Lilith Stangenberg) while Euridice is a man called Euridiko (Ian Madrigal) and the underworld itself is Manila at night time. The filmmakers treat the myth rather loosely, converting it into a string of ‘set pieces’, in which Orphea is either navigating one lair of degenerates after another or reading out lines of Ovid from a teleprompter, or belting out arias and folk tunes in half a dozen languages in front of a matte screen. Unlike Straub’s inconsolable one, Orpheus here seems to get along just fine without Euridice. The result resembles a blithe experimental video game produced by Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. Through Orphea’s valiance but also her ultimate impotence, the filmmakers mount something of an elegy for the revolutionary potential of art. One of the suppositions is this: what if, despite Orpheus’ desires, Euridice didn’t want to be rescued? Orphea is regularly transported to wartime USSR, and mourns its countless dead, seeking, like the Soviet ‘biocosmists’, justice for the dead. Towards the end, the present also makes its way into the film in the form of border surveillance footage and refugee camps. The connections are often only suggestive, such as Orphea’s descent in the Lethe river invoking the sea route of contemporary migrants. Strangenberg appears in most every frame and is a hypnotic presence, and there is never a dull moment in the film. Kluge’s heterogenous style—on-screen texts, multiple sub-frames, stop-motion animation, declamatory text readings, archival photos and found footage—goes really well with the atmosphere of pure play. But it is literally a mixed bag where anything goes, so your mileage may vary.

Movie That Invites Pausing (Ken Jacobs)

Ken Jacobs’ film is dedicated to his teacher and abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, whose legendary classes are part of almost every historical account of 20th century art. Hofmann’s painting and pedagogy emphasized the use of flat colour fields to generate the perception of depth, the impression of planes emerging or receding out of the canvas surface. Jacobs finds a filmic equivalent to this idea, producing the illusion of movement and dynamic colour without relying on pro-filmic reality. This is the setup: over the camera lens lies a fabric (or a translucent material) made of a hexagonal beehive pattern that gradually changes orientation over the course of the film. With what seems like a slightly mobile camera, Jacobs appears to photograph a liquid surface, first, and then some crystalline solids lit by stroboscopic light flashing at 120BPM (either that, or he has inserted these ‘black leaders’ artificially). At first, the result registers like the sight of a patterned gold foil slowly melting, but soon the hexagons vanish ‘underneath’ the liquid. Towards the end of the film, however, the fabric/material dominates the foreground, with the hexagons strongly asserting themselves with their dark borders. This receding and the emerging of the textured plane and the creation of new depths ties to what Hoffman called the ‘push and pull’ of the painting, the feeling of airiness that you get when you stare long enough at a Pollock, for instance. The strobing light also causes the hexagons to ripple like the liquid and ‘animates’ the surface into repetitive, gif-image like movements. More than pausing, which allows you to see various hues of gold and orange on the image, it’s speeding it up or slowing it down that the film tempts you to; playing it at 0.25x or 4x its speed illuminates its process better.

Inventing the Future (Isiah Medina)

Inventing the Future, Medina’s second feature, is adapted from a book of the same name by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. The text in question describes the limitations of the current ‘folk politics’ of the left and contrasts it with the long-term vision with which Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society conceived, disseminated and installed Neoliberalism into the ‘political common sense’ through universities and think tanks. An accelerationist outline for the future, it calls for a radical increase in automation that would result in fewer jobs, which, combined with a Universal Basic Income, could help reinvent newer forms of the self and the social. These rather weighty political ideas of the text are concentrated and tossed at us by the soundtrack—as read out by a girl who appears on screen from time to time—which Medina uses as a foundation for some extremely aggressive imagery. His blindingly rapid montage solders together what may be 25,000 shots in such a way that, in many stretches, we barely have time to register what we’re seeing. Even when a locus of anchoring images—crowds, people with phones, Lego blocks, the voiceover girl—constitute a set of identifiable visual motifs, the truculent editing forecloses any possible synthesis. Even the voiceover text, whose relative simplicity allows us to gather ourselves, is periodically chopped up and interrupted by an atonal piano melody or by another overlapping voiceover saying something else. Medina’s film appears to bear a mimetic relation to its source text in the sense that seeks cinematic correlatives to the ideas expressed. While the lightning-fast montage may be said to imitate the cognitive processes of the schizophrenic attention economy, the notion of UBI translates here to a universal access to image-making—thanks to ubiquitous cell phone cameras—which questions the need for new image production and shifts the burden of creative expression onto editing—a proto-Godardian idea. Conceptually strong though it may be, the punishing formal violence of Medina’s film makes it physically painful to watch.

IWOW: I Walk on Water (Khalik Allah)

While it continues and refines the street portraiture of Field Niggas (2015), Khalik “Danny” Allah’s IWOW also addresses the central moral-aesthetic issue weighing down on the earlier film, namely the filmmaker’s fraught relation to subjects whose consent in collaborating with him may not be wholly free and who, by dint of this power imbalance, run the risk of being commodified. As though in response to this problem posed by his obscured authorial position, Khalik places his self squarely at the centre of IWOW, where he claims to be nothing short of Jesus himself. This claim is, of course, tongue-in-cheek as Khalik confesses to having been inspired by the psychedelic mushrooms he keeps consuming. But it’s also a dramatic ruse that allows him to brashly interpret his work of ‘saving people’ in terms of Christian iconography and test it against the charity of his well-meaning family and friends, who are understandably concerned by his radical altruism. Khalik interrogates the limits of his own goodwill through his relation to Frenchie, an elderly Haitian street dweller with a speech impediment and a drug addiction, with whom he has worked over the past seven years. By his own admission, Khalik is a universalist who sees the same human essence binding everyone. To this end, his editing pattern disregards social hierarchies, cutting between extreme close-ups of outcasts and his friends and family in a manner that is often very provocative. Yet his focus is on the stories of those at the absolute bottom of the social ladder living on the streets of Harlem. The reason for this comes by way of an explosive monologue by one of his subjects, who describes the historical process behind the neighbourhood’s impoverishment and the real threat posed by gentrification; we then understand that the people Khalik films won’t be allowed to exist as they are once the district becomes ‘respectable’, i.e. the kind of place that will screen Khalik’s films and organize his exhibitions—a contradiction that the filmmaker reveals to be fully conscious of.

Sportin’ Life (Abel Ferrara)

Ferrara’s new documentary follows works by Daido Moriyama, Vanessa Beecroft, Bret Easton Ellis, Gaspar Noé and Wong Kar-wai as the sixth project commissioned by Saint Laurent as part of their project titled Self, which purportedly celebrates self-expression in the arts. Running for just over one hour, Sportin’ Life combines personal footage from Ferrara’s festival Q&As, media interviews, his concerts as a bass guitarist, television reports, internet videos, sessions from the US congress, Ferrara’s family photographs and clips from his own films. The interview excepts are quite direct and present Ferrara, invariably accompanied by his favourite lead man Willem Dafoe, talking about collaboration, making films with friends and family, and his approach to his craft. Interspersed with them are news reports about the Covid-19 crisis, Donald Trump’s feckless response to it and the mounting deaths in Italy and the US. It’s indeed striking how Ferrara is able to mould such pre-charged, disparate material into recognizable, personal imagery, with its references to Catholicism, its sense of being locked indoors, and the general end-of-days ambiance that pervades so much of his films. It’s as though the world has finally caught up with the dystopian fiction of 4:44 (2011), and so Dafoe gets to deliver his Dalai Lama-like monologue once again. On one level, Ferrara, holed up with his family in his apartment in Rome, is meditating on creation at the time of global destruction. The way he ironically superposes his concert music on low-fi footage of people dying drives home the idea of art’s impuissance in a more unequivocal manner than does Orphea. But the film is also Ferrara’s answer of sorts to public narratives about his oeuvre. In interviews and Q&As, we see journalists attach labels to his work—dark, radical, indie—that Ferrara doesn’t bother acknowledging. With this film, he appears to be simply ‘making his next move’ unmindful of the end game, i.e. responding to his immediate circumstances, remaining alert to the moment and, if we go by the equation ‘Pasolini=Dafoe=Ferrara’, making films as an existential coping mechanism. Towards the end of the film, however, Ferrara casts these sundry elements into a malevolent vision of the universe; the killing of George Floyd, the ensuing riots and violence are all stripped of their immediate, political meaning and shaped into a metaphysical picture of chaos. Maybe Ferrara is playing Nero more thoroughly than he imagines.

City Hall, or 272 minutes of “the future that liberals want”. I don’t know if Frederick Wiseman intended his film to coincide with the run-up to the American elections. But what is certain is that this wide-ranging documentary on the day-to-day operation of the Boston municipal government presents the city as a kind of laboratory offering a glimpse into one possible future for the nation. Mayor Marty Walsh, who is a something of a protagonist in the film, says so in no uncertain terms: he hopes Boston will be a model for other cities to follow. If Boston is a laboratory, what are the experiments? More equitable contracting opportunities, better rehabilitation facilities, reinforcements for food banks, construction of homeless shelters, more funding for eviction prevention, pushback against discriminatory renting practices, certification for same-sex marriages, authorization of marijuana retailing, increase of inner-city school capacities, and so on. True to his style, Wiseman films all these processes non-intrusively, in which the subjects don’t interact with the filmmaker or even look at the camera. Most of the film’s scenes are either speeches to an audience or a group discussion, both of which allow the filmmaker to compose them with countless portraits of attentive faces.

While what we see is practically the ‘Democratic agenda’ made real, Wiseman remains focused on a central theme. Boston, we are told, is 55% non-white, a fact that the city hall hopes to reflect in its policies. Wiseman, likewise, picks out diverse faces in the audience speaking or listening closely, as though to mirror Boston’s demographic distribution. In a way, City Hall is a picture of how a multicultural city comes to terms with its ethnic reality, how identity groups gain in power and how values enshrined by institutions are challenged and modified, all through democratic, constitutional means. However, given Wiseman’s non-interventional style, we aren’t told what to make of these observations. Wiseman doesn’t provide any reaction to the municipality’s policies from people and institutions outside it. In this absence, the audience’s own opinion about the proceedings comes into play in a significant way. In other words, viewers from the extreme-right could find as much material to justify their beliefs as liberals might.

On the other hand, the fact that there is hardly any friction within the operations of the city hall itself tilts the film’s balance. For a film about democracy in action, we barely see any dissent within the meetings themselves. We get new angles into specific issues, sure, but nothing that resists the fundamental thrust of the institutional charter. Only a faintly humorous, somewhat superfluous sequence late in the film, in which businessmen seeking to commercialize marijuana in an impoverished district face the cross-examination of the district residents, comes anywhere close to capturing the fault-lines of the democratic process. Moreover, Mayor Walsh unequivocally comes across as a political hero dedicated to the cause of his people. The mayor is everywhere, now supporting a gathering of nurses on strike, now thanking a group of war veterans, now extending support to Latina hopefuls, now organizing an NAACP rally. The only opposition he faces in his work is Trump’s federal policies, which register as an abstract external threat that the paternalist mayor will help his people overcome. In this respect, the film veers uncomfortably close to propaganda.

So it’s ambiguous whether City Hall is really ambiguous. The film adds to the impression of objectivity by expanding sideways. Almost obsessively, Wiseman documents operations at every organ of the city hall, located all across the city: from traffic control to pest control, from animal shelters to archaeological repositories, from cross-cultural cooking sessions to construction sites. This breadth is aimed at exhaustiveness, to show that the municipality’s operations touch every aspect of the city’s life. To this end, Wiseman glues together his sequences with shots from the city streets showcasing residential and official architecture, commercial establishments and the sea port. This offers a dialectic in which the city hall’s work becomes the invisible labour sustaining the order and beauty of Boston’s visible surface. Conversely, these digressions also risk scattering the focus of the film, all the more so because they are presented in bits and pieces, almost half-heartedly. City Hall is at its strongest when it depicts Boston as a seismograph of the larger changes afoot in America. At the same time, when it remains on its focal point, it starts losing its nuances. More than Boston, it’s Wiseman’s film that is a real litmus test for its viewers.

Orson Welles has been quite productive of late, considering he’s been dead for 35 years. Produced by the same team as The Other Side of the Wind (2018), Hopper/Welles is a documentary born of the director’s filmed discussions with Dennis Hopper in 1970, prior to the making of Wind. Coming out of their graves to give us company in our collective confinement, Welles and Hopper hole up in a dark room with half a dozen technicians to talk filmmaking, politics, religion, love, magic, news, television and literature while dutiful assistants scurry about readying one refill of liquor for them after another. Talk is perhaps not the right word here, for what Welles to Hopper does may better be described as an interrogation, a grilling. He plays the Grand Inquisitor, pressing his timid interlocutor to state his artistic and political beliefs, pulling theories out of nowhere to counter him and never allowing him a respite or a resting ground. While part of it is low-key ragging, Welles’ insistence clearly comes from a place of goodwill and seeks to draw out the young man’s best. Hopper, in his early thirties, is rather unsure and self-contradicting before Welles’ towering figure. Sporting a hat, he constantly caresses his beard, qualifying all his tentative, half-joking answers with a nervous, self-protective giggle. What Hopper lacks in persuasiveness he makes up for with his keen attention and youthful vigour; his eyes are full of life. “You’re a hard man to talk to”, he tells his questioner.

At the beginning of the film, a short text let us know that both Welles and Hopper changed the face of movies with their respective debuts. In doing so, it places both filmmakers at par with each other. That doesn’t quite reveal the entire picture. Now, in 1970, Welles is a greatly respected, almost legendary figure, but whose glory days are behind him, something of a ‘has-been’ if he ever ‘was’ for Hollywood. Hopper, on the other hand, is a star hot off an era-defining blockbuster in Easy Rider (1968). Yet, in their conversation, they are able to find a common ground, namely the question of authenticity in filmmaking. We never see Welles, save for rare glimpses of his bellowing pin-striped trousers moving at the edge of the frame. Hopper’s eyes, wide in evident admiration, follow him everywhere he moves in the off-screen space. At several points, the Caravaggesque Hopper literally looks up at Welles, who appears to be playing some kind of metaphysical force, re-orchestrating a Kafkaesque trial for Hopper. What results is a stark power imbalance between the seen and the unseen, between the subject and the author, between the one who is recorded and the one who wields the camera. Hopper’s cinematic forefather looms large over him even as he speaks about the need to one-up his old man.

I can’t imagine what form the film would’ve taken had Welles edited and completed it himself, but as it exists, it looks nothing like what he has done until this point. Shot with multiple handheld cameras and a single lantern next to Hopper, the film never ‘settles down’. The operators constantly move around the room, seemingly for no reason, relocating the camera, changing focus, zooming in and out in a way that may be disorienting for those interested solely in the dialogue. The camera’s magazines run out and the clapboard cracks indifferently in front of Hopper’s face even when he is in the middle of an important point. Whether on Welles’ instructions or on editor Bob Murawski’s, the view keeps switching from one camera to another at a frenetic rhythm, with inexplicable black leaders inserted in between shots. The overall impression is that Welles is making something like a Cassavetes picture, improvising the whole film with his actor by placing him in a dramatic situation and teasing out his responses by way of direct questioning. Welles, we are told, is also in character, as the filmmaker from Wind, and Hopper calls him Jake (Hannaford) as well. So the film may be said to operate in some undefined region between documentary and fiction, a precursor to F for Fake (1973); as much a story about a director shaping and rehearsing with his actors as a record of a man eating, drinking and getting drunk over two hours.

But the primary pleasures of Hopper/Welles are rather straightforward: two maverick filmmakers in a terribly fascinating conversation. The movie-related anecdotes that emerge are very interesting, for instance Hopper’s relationship with the Fondas, or his work on Crush Proof (1972), a self-financed experimental film by architect François De Menil (scion of the Schlumberger family and a cousin to Sylvina Boissonnas, producer of avant-garde French films including the early work of Philippe Garrel), as are the political talking points, such as Welles’ support for Francisco Franco, his prediction about a black US president and Hopper’s observation about the rift between the counterculture and deep America as he saw it in the varied response to Easy Rider. Most of all, it is compelling to see two artists grapple with the cinematic-aesthetic problems of the time. As the discussion turns around the films of De Sica and Antonioni, Hopper and Welles reflect on the challenges in dealing with boredom and lack of drama on screen, a few years before Jeanne Dielman (1975), among other narrative films, would do away with drama altogether. Going public after 50 years, Hopper/Welles is both a standalone film and an anniversary celebration. It hasn’t dated one bit.

Build the Wall (Joe Swanberg)

Why would Joe Swanberg, 39, feel the need to focus on the aging pangs of a fifty-year-old? Perhaps the precocious auteur, who had a body of work by the time he turned thirty, feels professionally, mentally much older than he actually is. Or perhaps forty is the new fifty. In any case, we are far from the interpersonal dynamics of Drinking Buddies (2015). Kent (Kent Osborne), who is the anchoring perspective of the film, is set in his ways. He is turning fifty, a fact he isn’t particularly fond of, and is having an old flame Sarah (Jane Adams) come over for his birthday. Unfortunately, another friend Kev (Kevin Bewersdorf) invites himself over at the same time, insisting that he will build the stone wall in Kent’s garden that he has long promised and that he will be as discreet as possible about it. Kent tries in vain to dissuade Kev because he has made romantic and work-related plans with Sarah that he doesn’t want to upset. But even Sarah occasions deviations from Kent’s routine; she gifts him a new vacuum cleaner he had made clear he doesn’t need. In a scene that’s literally a boner killer, he interrupts sex with Sarah only to get hung up on a shower curtain she keeps dislodging everyday. Kent’s mounting exasperation doesn’t derive as much from not ‘living in the moment’ as from the frustration of his wholly reasonable desire to keep his life simple and organized.

All of Kent’s expectations are thwarted: he falls out with Sarah, who ends up helping out Kev with the wall, around which a veritable community takes shape. The narrative partly hinges on the comic reversal that the over-serious, self-parodical, lone wolf Kev ends up forging a more wholesome relation with others than the sensitive, laid back Kent. But Swanberg doesn’t milk this scenario for its third-wheel comedy. (All the characteristically uncomfortable humour stems, instead, from Kent’s days out with Sarah.) He is rather interested in exploring the contours of romance at an age where you possibly expect to be accepted as you are. There is, equally, a simplification of form evident in the film, which runs for less than an hour. To be sure, scenes are still constructed around improvised acting and predominantly natural lighting, but there is an economy of exposition that feels positively mid-to-late career. With an exception of a pan shot here, a handheld shot there, most of the film unfolds in static shots, with the director occasionally drawing us in to the conversations using tighter setups. The more explicit flourishes, like cutting on sound cues, are muted by the overall austerity of the film. The film is set in a lush, wooded corner of Vermont and its meditative pace is redoubled by the natural expanse of the region. Swanberg also sets a series of formal counterpoints: intense, lone outdoor activities (wall building, axe throwing, woodcutting) that sublimate domestic frustrations, harsh sounds of sawing and stonework piercing the sylvan silence, and Kev’s DIY documentary sequences interspersed with Kent and Sarah’s fumbling. He perhaps forces the issue a little towards the end, but a shot of Kent in a jumpsuit sawing wood on his birthday is poignantly emblematic.

Coronation (Ai Weiwei)

A documentary on Wuhan’s COVID-19 outbreak made by Ai Weiwei: fair to expect that the artist’s iron fist will come down hard on China. It indeed does, but it’s the velvet glove that comes first. Coronation opens with overview shots of Wuhan’s impressive skyscrapers and advanced highways. Two people drive into the cordoned-off Hubei province and are interrogated by cops at the border. When they do manage to get in, the region registers like a ghost town from a modern horror movie, with no gas station open for hundreds of miles. They somehow make it to their home in Wuhan, only to find the fish in their aquarium dead. Ai constantly shuttles between such personal accounts of the lockdown and a macroscopic view of state-controlled healthcare and funeral activities in the province: treatment of patients on ventilators, extremely strict safety precautions followed at a hospital, song-and-dance exercises for patients that instruct them in best hygiene practices, construction of sprawling health facilities overnight, the equally rapid evacuation from the facility, package and delivery of the ashes of the cremated to the bereaved. A good part of the footage is slick, employing zany camera setups even in highly-restricted locations. Working from Cambridge, UK, Ai doesn’t reveal how he commissioned/obtained all this material (some of which were already circulating on the internet), nor does he get caught up with ethical questions such an approach raises. By all appearances, it’s a supremely efficient machinery that we witness in Wuhan. At times, Ai overlays these images with an 8-bit musical tune, as though to suggest the state’s video-game-like approach to problem solving. But the critique in these ‘macroscopic’ project remains muted as the sequences retain a Wiseman-like surface level neutrality.

The critical burden is, instead, placed on individual testimonies: a delivery man who is stuck in Hubei and is unable to return home, a lady who couldn’t see her father-in-law after he was diagnosed with the virus and died, patients at the hospital who claim they are being retained even after recovery just for image management purposes, a man who is prevented from collecting his father’s ashes without being accompanied by a ‘work unit’ in charge of his father’s case. A humorous sequence features an old woman, once a diligent middle-level executive in the Party, who fully trusts her government and refuses to consider information that might upset this faith. Earlier, workers at the hospital reception ask the cameraman to show only positive images of Hubei and to avoid emphasizing the outbreak. What emerges from this composite portrait is a sense that the source of China’s greatest strengths—executive efficacy, responsiveness, technological progress—is also the source of its more worrisome qualities—citizenry that lives in fear and denial, complete control over private data, an autonomous political will. Of course, none of this is news to anyone, but the personal testimonies introduce a grain of resistance that cuts down the stakes to human level. As the young man who is trying to recover his father’s ashes says, “one can’t just vanish silently in this world”.

A Shape of Things to Come (Lisa Malloy, J.P. Sniadecki)

Sundog (an inspiration for McConaughey’s Moondog in The Beach Bum?) is an elderly white recluse who lives somewhere near the Mexican border in a desert stretch of Arizona. He resides in his barely recognizable trailer, around which a tiny ecosystem has sprouted. Several cats live with Sundog, who also rears a battalion of pigs with great care. With his rifle, he hunts boars to feed himself and the cats. At one point, we see him catch toads, wash them and extract glue from their feet, which serves as smoking material once it’s dry. Save for a series of grunts and chortles, he doesn’t speak to the camera. At times, we see him calling someone, presumably his son, asking him to come over for a visit or pontificating on the state of things. This stilted exposition device, combined with the filmmakers’ decision not to be seen or to interact with Sundog, reveals a slight fictionalization at work. Like wildlife photographers, Malloy and Sniadecki are discreet, content in filming the old man in his routine. Almost exclusively, they photograph him in very tight shots such that we hardly get to see his immediate surroundings or even his actions. This, combined with the shallow visual field, inhibits our vision and produces a sense of unwelcome, suffocating intimacy. This way, the film dislodges Sundog from his environment while also avoiding picturesque images of the desert.

The film naturally calls to mind another fly-on-the-wall portrait of a recluse, Wang Bing’s Man with No Name (2009). But unlike Wang’s film, A Shape of Things to Come has little anthropological or philosophical inclination. Its attention is more on the human-interest story offered by the person of Sundog. Moreover, in contrast to the hermit in Wang’s film, Sundog is not a ‘primitive’, ‘naturally’ independent of human communities. He is, in fact, a sophisticate, an emissary from the countercultural movements of the seventies, who has deliberately removed himself from society. He wears jeans, has a mobile phone, drives a pickup truck, purchases books at the nearest shop from time to time, and listens to music on the radio. He even goes to the local concert, where he dances. He doesn’t need to be on his own; it’s a choice. Interspersed with vignettes from Sundog’s routine are images of military presence: A10s flying over the desert, border patrol presumably monitoring illegal migration, incongruent surveillance towers scanning the desert. Increasingly bothered by this ‘encroachment’, Sundog decides to take out a couple of towers with a powerful sniper rifle, and becomes something of an eco-terrorist in the process. As its title indicates, the film proposes Sundog’s story as one possible sign of things to come. I am not entirely sure if there’s any significant ideological inference to be made from Sundog’s actions. They could as easily represent a form of redneck libertarianism as much as a militant environmentalist consciousness. This is where the filmmakers’ refusal to intervene, either within the film or through a framing commentary, arguably hurts the work.

A Night at the Opera (Sergei Loznitsa)

The protean, prolific Sergei Loznitsa makes his documentaries using one of two kinds of material: original footage shot on location or archival footage. Considering his recent projects, I find that films fashioned out of Loznitsa’s own stock tend to be markedly superior to his found footage work. In both cases, the filmmaker assembles his sequences without any voiceover commentary and with hardly any on-screen text. The construction has a tendency to be deliberately diffuse, with shots of extended lengths furnishing very little narrative material at first glance. This approach turns out to be quite productive in the “original footage” films such as Maidan (2014) and Austerlitz (2016) because the impression of a synthesis at work is more evident. What is possibly also helpful is that what we see in these films doesn’t come with a received narrative, which means that the viewer is expected to do more work in negotiating with them. On the other hand, Loznitsa’s found footage projects, like The Event (2015) and State Funeral (2019), by the weight of their subject matter, greatly limit the number of ways the viewer could approach them. For instance, the latter film consists of a veritable onslaught of state-sponsored pageantry at Stalin’s funeral whose meaning is exhausted even before we are through with the film. There’s hardly any ‘justification’ of why one shot was selected over another or why the film lasts as long as it does. With Loznitsa vehemently refusing any discursive framework, the viewer is no more enlightened or surprised than at the beginning of the film, save perhaps an admiration for the enviable access that the filmmaker has to archival material.

I won’t push this objection too far, for it can be made to almost any found footage work. Moreover, The Event demonstrates why even such an approach can be illuminating in light of current global crises such as the one featured in Maidan. On the other hand, Loznitsa’s new archival work, A Night at the Opera, is another baffler. For just under twenty minutes, we see the who’s who of international politics and culture trickle into the Garnier Opera in Paris. The timeline can be roughly pegged at the late fifties, or the early sixties, but it isn’t clear whether the footage is of one single event or many. The VIPs arrive at the entrance, greeted by teeming fans, pose for the press and enter the opera. A few stray, intimate moments capture a smiling guard or little girls anxiously waiting with bouquets, but for the most part, it’s a high-society affair. After the national anthem, we see a telephoto sequence of a prima donna performing to great applause. As the film ends with images of the Parisian public celebrating on the road, I wondered what to make of it. The sole emotion the work evoked was the pathos inherent to all archival footage: a sense of death at work, all the pomp and power leading to the grave. Like those aristocrats in Russian Ark (2002), indulging in one last flourish before the fall, the top bananas at the gala affair seem ready to be culled by time. It’s a melancholy feeling, but it’s hard to deny that it’s also the product of laziness. With the absence of any knowledge about the Garnier Opera during the fifties or any accompanying text to ‘pin down’ the context, the material we see seems no more special than what you might find in the Agence France-Presse vault. That may not be Loznitsa’s problem. But then, maybe it is.

In Memory of John Baldessari (1931-2020)

Audiovisual installations in museums, when they are longer than a few minutes, tend to encourage the viewer to move on. Wandering through the wonderful Kunstmuseum in Basel three years ago, however, my eye caught a 16mm projection. It was John Baldessari’s Six Colorful Inside Jobs. I was riveted, and I sat through the entire 30-odd minutes. Like much of Baldessari’s other pieces, Six Colorful Inside Jobs is a work that revels in irony and paradox, elevating banality by subjecting it to a conceptual structure based on repetition.

The conceit here is simple: a man walks into an empty room of about 12×8 feet and paints it all over with a single colour. He performs this action six times over six days, going through the colours of the rainbow from red to violet. Despite the plainness of the idea, there’s some amount of mathematics underlying each ‘job’. Since each day is a single unbroken shot, sped up to five minutes of screen time, the painter must complete his task before the camera runs out of film.

This ingenious concept turns Six Colorful Inside Jobs from a whimsical idea into a study of the contrast between painting and cinema. The frame here is literally being painted, and the film is a document of the frame making itself. (A comparable notion is at work in Sharon Lockhart’s .At the beginning of each day, the room is a flat, colour field, undifferentiated except for the reflection of the overhead light. As the bearded man, dressed in white, starts painting, he emphasizes the room corners to produce an illusion of depth, or real space. This three-dimensionality, conversely, collapses into abstract flatness once the painter exits the room via the door on top right. Baldessari’s cool, impersonal art, though, is located beyond Greenbergian polemics, and his intervention here registers as a parodic take on the heated debates of post-war American painting.

A rather stark religious allegory, Six Colorful Inside Jobs begins with white light, which then breaks down into its individual wavelengths over the next six days. (In a bit of magic, the blue room at the end of Friday becomes indigo on Saturday morning.) The camera is fixed on the room’s high ceiling, and its wide lens embodies a ‘God’s eye view’ of the action. The artist in the room literally plays God, or an anti-God, creating a three-dimensional world from nothing, only to take it back to nothing.

In situating the act of creation in the humble task of painting walls, Baldessari also collapses the distance between the artist and the worker—a gesture that’s part of Baldessari’s general practice as well as a larger theme in 20th century art. A direct ancestor to Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Six Colorful Inside Jobs presents routine, structured as a six-day work week, as a source of unsuspected beauty. The painter carries out the same task every day, but the way he goes about constantly changes: his movement about the room, his brush strokes, his rhythm. He pauses now and then for a smoke break or to contemplate his creation. In a framework that leaves no room for qualities conventionally associated with artmaking—self-expression, innovation, skill—the painter nevertheless finds a space for an individual style. Six Colorful Inside Jobs is a cogent summary and entry point into Baldessari’s witty, provocative and ultimately edifying body of work.

 

[Six Colourful Inside Jobs (1977)]

 

2019 was a special year for me. I came back to cinema in an abiding way after a break of over three years. It was also this year that I quit my day job to write and translate full time, even if it has mostly been for this site. This second innings of my cinephilia has been more guarded, and I find it hard to be excited about watching this or that film, even if it’s by a favourite filmmaker. Part of the reason for this change, I think, is that I don’t repose as much faith in the taste-makers I was earlier guided by (major festivals, branded auteurs, critical consensus). This has weakened, if not completely collapsed, the structure in my mind of what constitutes important cinema of a particular year. Adding to this is the fact that the way I react to films has changed. In my writing, I see myself responding to certain aspects of a work rather than forming strong opinion on its overall merit. As a result, I’m as stimulated by lesser works with strong moments or ideas as I am by expectedly major projects. Whether this breaking down of hierarchies is a sign of openness to new things or a symptom of waning faith, I don’t know.

            The state of affairs in the world outside cinema hasn’t been easy either. The staggering return of the politically repressed around the world has found an expression in some of this year’s films too (Zombi Child, The Dead Don’t Die, Atlantics, Ghost Town Anthology, Immortal). Personally speaking, the increasingly dire situation in India hasn’t been without its influence on the way I relate to cinema. The brazenness of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has now paled in comparison to the mind-numbing institutional violence towards the ongoing protests against the act. Looking at videos of police brutality on my social media feed, I wondered, as anyone else involved in matters of lesser urgency must have, if writing about cinema at this point even had a personal significance, leave alone a broader, social one. The directness of the videos, the clarity of their meaning and the immediacy of their effect made me doubt whether cinematic literacy—contextualization, analysis, inference, interpretation—was a value worth striving for. Weakening of convictions is perhaps part of growing old, but it makes writing all the more difficult. Every utterance becomes provisional, crippled by dialectical thought. I don’t have a hope-instilling closing statement to give like Godard does in The Image Book, so here’s a top ten list instead. Happy new year.

 

0. 63 Up (Michael Apted, UK)

 

1. The Truth (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan/France)

 

While multiple films this year about old age have presented it as a time of reckoning, Kore-eda’s European project The Truth offers an honest, rigorous and profoundly generous picture of life’s twilight. In a career-summarizing role, Catherine Deneuve plays a creature of surfaces, a vain actress who struts in leopard skin and surrounds herself with her own posters. Her Fabienne is a pure shell without a core who can never speak in the first person. She has written an autobiography, but it’s a sanitized account, a reflection of how her life would rather have been. “Truth is boring”, she declares. Responding to her daughter Lumir’s (Juliette Binoche) complaint that she ignored her children for work, she bluntly states that she prefers to be a good actress than a good person. Behaviour precedes intent in the mise en abyme of Kore-eda’s intricate monument to aging, as performance becomes a means of expiation and a way of relating to the world. A work overflowing with sensual pleasures as well as radical propositions, The Truth rejects the dichotomy between actor and role, both in the cinematic and the existential sense. In the end, Fabienne and her close ones come together as something resembling a family. That, assures Kore-eda’s film, is good enough.

 

2. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

 

The across-the-board success of Parasite invites two possible inferences: either that the cynical logic of capital can steer a searing critique of itself to profitable ends or that this twisted tale of upward ascension appeals to widely-held anxiety and resentment. Whatever it is, Bong Joon-ho’s extraordinary, genre-bending work weds a compelling social parable to a vital, pulsating form that doesn’t speak to current times as much as activate something primal, mythical in the viewer. With a parodic bluntness reminiscent of the best of seventies cinema, Bong pits survivalist working-class resourcefulness with self-annihilating bourgeois prejudice and gullibility, the implied sexual anarchy never exactly coming to fruition. He orchestrates the narrative with the nimbleness and legerdemain of a seasoned magician, the viewer’s sympathy for any of the characters remaining contingent and constantly forced to realign itself from scene to scene. Parasite is foremost a masterclass in describing space, in the manner in which Bong synthesizes the bunker-like shanty of the working-class family with the high-modernist household of their upper-class employers, tracing direct metaphors for the film’s themes within its topology. It’s a work that progresses with the inevitability of a boulder running down a hill. And how spectacularly it comes crashing.

 

3. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

 

Vitalina Varela is an emblem of mourning. In recreating a harrowing moment in her life for the film, the middle-aged Vitalina, who comes to Lisbon following her husband’s death, instils her loss with a meaning. It’s a film not of political justice but individual injustice, the promise to Vitalina the that men in their resignation and madness have forgotten. It’s also a bleak, relentless work of subtractions. What is shown is arrived at by chipping away what can’t/won’t be shown, this formal denuding reflective of the increasing dispossession of the Cova da Moura shantytown we see in the film. Costa’s Matisse-like delineation of figure only suggests humans, enacting the ethical problems of representation in its plastic scheme. The film is on a 4:3 aspect ratio, but the viewer hardly perceives that, the localized light reducing the visual field to small pockets of brightness. Vitalina is a film of and about objects, whose vanishing echoes the community’s dissolution and whose presence embodies Vitalina’s assertive spirit. Her voice has its own materiality, her speech becomes her means to survival. Costa’s film is a vision of utter despair, a cold monument with an uplifting, absolutely essential final shot. A dirge, in effect.

 

4. Bird Island (Sergio da Costa & Maya Kosa, Switzerland)

 

The bird island of the title is a utopian place, a refuge for those wounded or cast aside by modernity. For sixty minutes, we are invited to look at five people working silently alongside each other in a bird shelter, tending to birds dazed by the airport next door. They don’t ask where these birds come from, nor do they expect them to leave soon. They simply treat the feathered creatures, re-habituate them into the wild and set them free. The reclusive Antonin, the new employee, is one such bird too, and his social healing at the shelter is at the heart of the film. Bird Island is full of violence, natural and man-made, all of which it treats with stoic acceptance, but it’s a work primarily about the curative power of community, the capacity for individuals to coexist in mutual recognition of each other’s frailties. In that, it’s the Catholic film par excellence, an allegory of the origin of religion. It’s also an exceptionally relaxing film to look at. Observing the participants absorbed like Carthusian monks in their individual tasks, even while working in a group, places the viewer on the same meditative state.

 

5. Heimat is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, Germany)

 

Without question, Heimat is a Space in Time is the best 3½-hour film of the year. Heise’s sprawling experimental documentary uses largely personal documents—letters sent between family members, handed-down private documents—to evoke a broad history of 20th century Germany. As a narrator reads out the exchanges—Heise’s grandfather trying to reason with the Nazi state against his forced retirement, heart-rending accounts from his Jewish great grandparents describing their impending deportation, letters between his parents who were obliged to be in two different places in DDR—we see quotidian images from current day Germany and Austria, urban and rural. For Heise’s family, always made to justify their own place in the country and to never truly belong, the Germanic idea of Heimat seems positively a fantasy. While he reads out his great grandparents’ descriptions of their increasingly impossible conditions of living, Heise presents a scrolling list of Viennese deportees prepared. We try to look for the inevitable arrival of their names in the alphabetical list, our gaze forever deferred. When they do arrive, it feels arbitrary. In other words, what we hear could well be the story of any of the thousand preceding names. Perhaps all of them.

 

6. Slits (Carlos Segundo, Brazil)

 

A worthy heir to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Slits draws its inspiration from quantum physics to explore patently human concerns of loss, grief and memory. The uncertainly principle it offers is a choice between being in this world, awake to the problems of living, and finding meaning in the elsewhere. Physicist Catarina (Roberta Rangel) makes ‘sound-photos’ to study quantum the properties of light. She makes extreme zooms into a digital image to perceive the noise issuing from particular coordinates. These ‘dives’ enable her to listen to conversations from another space-time. Grieving from the loss of her child, Catarina unconsciously attempts to find closure through her research. But trying to inspect the surface of things from too close, she loses sight of her immediate reality; trying to find solace in the objectivity of science, she ends up rediscovering the great lesson of 20th century science (and cinema): that the observer influences the observation. Shot in high-definition digital video, Slits is to this new format what Blow-up was to photography. It locates in the trade-offs of the medium—between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise—visual correlatives to its key idea of quantum uncertainty. A brilliant, sophisticated work of politico-philosophical science fiction.

 

7. Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, UK/Austria)

 

Of all the recent classical Hollywood riffs in mind, none reinvigorates the B-movie tradition as intelligently or potently as Little Joe. Hausner’s modernist creature feature is a monster movie unlike any other: the dangers of the genetically-modified “happiness” plant that biologist Emily (Alice Woodard) develops is exposed early on, and there’s no triumphal reassertion of mankind to counter its menace. What we get instead is a protracted, total submission of individuality to a hegemony of happiness. Little Joe is many things at once: a multi-pronged attack on the wellness industry straight out of Lanthimosverse, the difficulty of being less than happy in an environment that demands you to be constantly upbeat, the fallout of women artists trying to expunge their maternal complexes in their work and of mothers having to lead double lives. Hausner’s camera appears to have a mind of its own, settling on the space between people, which is what the film is about: the culturally mediated relations between individuals. It’s notable that the titular plant reproduces not biologically but culturally. With its terrific score and work on colour, Hausner turns the cheesecake aesthetic of the film against itself. The result is a film of unusual intellectual density and formal frisson.

 

8. Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski, Germany)

 

In Status and Terrain, the German obsession with documentation and due process is called to testify to the dialectical process of historical remembrance. Adamczewski’s gently moving camera surveys the length and breath of public spaces in the Saxony region, once a Nazi stronghold, now seemingly anaesthetized under liberal democracy. Official communication, bureaucratic reports and private testimonies read on the voiceover incriminate the buildings and monuments we see on screen, revealing their role in power struggles through the ages. Just as the documents vie for a narrative on the soundtrack, ideologies once thought dead and buried surface to stake their claims on the urban landscape in the present. Adamczewski moves through 80 years of German history non-chronologically, the collage of information pointing to the living, breathing nature of political belief systems. Nazi detention of political opponents in concentration camps, Soviet retribution and blindness to victims of persecution, rise of neo-fascist groups post reunification and the historically indifferent, bulldozing force of current-day neoliberalism play out on the surface of seemingly sedate cities and towns. Status and Terrain is a sober, bracing examination of the manner in which prejudice becomes writ, which in turn becomes history, but also of the way in which this history is contested.

 

9. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina, USA)

 

The premise is a throwback to the clichés of the eighties: a group of teenagers at a suburban school prepare for their prom night. But in Taormina’s sure-handed treatment, this banal event assumes a spiritual dimension. In the film’s cubist first half, different groups of boys and girls make their way to the restaurant-turned-dance hall, where they will take part in rites of initiation into adulthood and experience something like a religious communion. And then, right after this VHS-ready high, a void descends over the film, turning its raptures into a mourning, not for those who have left this small-town existence but for those left behind: disaffected youth drift about the town or going through robotic social rituals, devoid of magic or warmth. It’s a work evidently deriving from personal experience, but one that’s refracted through a formalist lens. The strength of Ham on Rye is not the depth of its ideas, but the vigour of its prose. Taormina’s manifestly personal style emphasizes the surface of things, the idiosyncratic shot division focuses on gestures and minor physical details to construct scenes, and the eclectic sense of music imposes a global consciousness on a narrative that is otherwise extremely local.

 

10. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais, France)

 

“Cinephiles are sick people”, said Truffaut. Frank Beauvais agrees. Following his father’s passing and a breakup, Beauvais shut himself up in his house in a trou perdu in Eastern France, and watched over 400 films in a period of seven months. Out of this glut, this sickness that Beauvais calls ‘cinéfolie’, came Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, a film about looking, made wholly of clips from these 400 movies. Through a rapid, self-aware voiceover, the filmmaker reflects on his self-imposed isolation, his panic attacks, the poverty that prevents him from changing his lifestyle, his complicated feelings towards with political action, the conservatism of those around him and his relationship with his parents. Beauvais’s film is a record of his malady as well as its cure. In its very existence, it demonstrates what anyone sufficiently sickened by cultural gluttony must’ve felt: that the only way to give meaning to the void of indiscriminate consumption is to produce something out of it. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is not just a cinephile’s film, filled end to end with references, but the preeminent film about cinephilia, the solipsistic hall of mirrors that Beauvais breaks down and rebuilds inside out.

 

Special Mention: Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India)

 

 

Frances Ferguson (Bob Byington)

Was it Beauty that killed the beauty? Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheless) is pretty, and that is her problem. Byington’s “story of a woman cast adrift in the Midwest” follows the sin, punishment and redemption of Fran, a substitute teacher in a high-school in North Platte, Nebraska. Twenty-five years of age, Fran is going through a failed marriage to a sleazy, loafing husband. Sexual frustration and a mistaken replacement lead to an infatuation with one of the students. In vein of pornographic tales, she arranges to meet the boy secretly, tries to seduce him at a laundromat with a pathetic cheerleader costume (for the “Cougars”) and hooks up with him at the motel. She is promptly arrested, tried for abuse of authority to sexually exploit minors and incarcerated. Frances Ferguson outlines her parole life in detail, structuring it through different penal procedures Fran has to follow: probation debriefing, compulsory group therapy, behavioural counselling, community service, supervised visitation of her daughter, probation exit interview and even voluntary group therapy sessions. Life outside the prison turns out to be even more distressing, uninvited attention for her looks now compounded with the notoriety of being a sex offender. All through the ordeal, the question that arises is whether Fran’s good looks are responsible for her trouble as for the townsfolk’s vivid memory and negative perception of her. Her warden wonders why female sex offenders are invariably pretty. When she tells her therapist that she hardly had authority at the school to abuse, he retorts that beauty is a kind of authority.

The story is recounted by a humorous, at times tendentious, male narrator (Nick Offerman), whose personality constantly comes in way of his objectivity. He contradicts Fran, who also gets to narrate the story from time to time (“joie de vivre”, he corrects Fran who is trying to fake her way through a French class). He inserts his own opinion on the proceedings and acts as a Greek chorus for Fran’s impending tragedy (“Was this breaking the law”? he asks at every turn of Fran’s). The narrator calls to mind Listen Up Philip, but one that’s less world-wise and serious about himself. Byington avoids traditional shot-reverse shot constructions, preferring to build conversations out of separate close ups; the scene of Fran’s interrogation by two police officers is particularly well-edited. He employs an 8-bit video game-like music cue, and a camera that goes out of focus to bid farewell to characters, to funny ends. The sound-bridges and the on-screen texts introducing characters and situations sometimes recall sitcoms, but the comic sense here is much more subtle. It’s still characteristic American sarcasm at work, but Byington pares down the exchanges, cutting away the excess fat that usually burdens American comedies with an insufferable smugness: when the prison cab driver asks Fran to use regular cabs as they are cheaper, she only asks him: “the next time I’m released from prison?”, dropping out the obligatory “sure” at the end. Wheless’ blank-stare performance, accompanied by internal screams, is the visual correlative of this muted comic strategy.

Immortal (Ksenia Okhapkina)

The only contextualizing text of Ksenia Okhapkina’s Immortal speaks of the gulags that were built to industrialize the arctic stretches of Russia. When the camps were opened after Stalin’s death, we’re told, the prisoners stayed back in the town. It’s a telling detail, whether you choose to see it a gesture of helplessness or the product of Pavlovian indoctrination. This three-line title card has more insight to offer than the film that follows. Okhapkina’s 60-minute film presents impressionistic vignettes from one of these erstwhile gulags, a mining town in the arctic still bearing the visual signatures of the Soviet era: image and quotes by Lenin plastered on walls, alongside posters of other Russian heroes. It would seem that it wasn’t just the people who stayed back, but the ideology too. Immortal examines this persistence of ideology in two spaces. In the first, a group of girls are being trained at a ballet school. The instructor asks them to exert themselves and fall in line with others. This exigence, as well as the ballet music, overflows into the second space: a military camp mostly for boys and young men. We see different groups of children and youth being trained for various competences: instruction in training assault rifles, mission simulations, marching drills, shooting practice, screening of nationalistic videos about Soviet kamikaze pilots with promises of concomitant greatness. The boys are insulted by the instructors over looks and behaviour, punished for minor mistakes and questioned over their origin.

The synchronization of military drill to ballet music and the marshalling of soldier bodies into harmonious movement, filmed here in disorienting closeups, brings to mind Beau Travail. Both the ballet (?) and the military camp, it’s revealed, are preparations for an enlistment ceremony on Russia’s Fatherland’s Heroes Day. The show, and the oath, anthem and photography session that follow, seem remnants of Soviet pageantry. Okhapkina pads these two narrative strands with repeated imagery from the town: the spectral to-and-fro of freight trains carrying mined material, hooded miners knocking about in the snow, buses that convey the youth from their house to the camp and back, the dingy corridors of the apartments where they live, a worker using a blowtorch to melt ice off a national monument, an empty factory and the barbed wire fence around it, and so on. The deserted public spaces seem to belong to a ghost town, or a place with no sense of freedom and life. A lone dog barks in the snow, until its fur is covered with frost, forcing it to find shelter. Faces of young men and women are intercut with drawings of heroes, which themselves are intercut with shots of tombstones and cradles, suggesting individualities hollowed out by state apparatuses. Immortal is unquestionably successful in evoking a despairing mood, but it also feels like an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel. Curiously, the film is at its weakest when dealing with concrete events such as the ballet class and the drill—who’d ever suspect a military camp to be a space of ideological indoctrination? I can imagine the material better suited for a book of photos or illustrated poems.

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts)

Whatever Russia Today or Al Jazeera will have you believe, whatever you think of American deep state’s collusion with Islamist fundamentalism, whatever objections are raised about the funding of “rebel” reporters, the brute facts regarding For Sama are there for everyone to see: Waad Al-Kateab stayed back with her doctor husband Hamza in rebel-controlled east Aleppo, delivered a baby and lived through the worst months of Putin-backed state bombing of her district. She kept filming, even when the bombings were at her doorstep, even when bodies piled up at the makeshift hospital that she had made home. Edited and telecast this year on British television, For Sama is a record of Al-Kateab’s life between the first student protests in 2012 to her eventual emigration in December 2016. It is presented as a filmed letter to her baby, Sama, to explain her parents’ decision to stay back in east Aleppo despite the impossible conditions of living, despite the inevitability of defeat. Filmmaking here becomes an existential cry against an order of things that would rather not hear these voices. The regime denied that the student protests were going on, says Al-Kateab, filming was the only way to show otherwise. For Al-Kateab, it becomes increasingly important to film as the military makes advances into east Aleppo, reducing the rebels to a few square kilometres. Filming, she says, gives her a reason to believe.

“Silence makes you feel that the city is dead”, notes the filmmaker when she finally leaves the city. Indeed, the incredible shock of For Sama stems from the extraordinary disconnect between image and sound, between the visual illusion of normalcy and the constant noise of shelling. So much so that even Sama doesn’t react to the explosions. The film is an inexhaustible series of harrowing sights—a mother carrying her dead son wrapped in plastic, a baby resuscitated from the clutches of stillbirth, a pan shot from a dead child to Sama in the operating room, Waad and Hamza singing to calm Sama down as they sneak back into their district, a young boy talking about his missing friends, two hospital attendants warming themselves over the shell that has pierced the building—whose horror is redoubled by the facts of normal life punctuating them: a wedding, Sama’s birth and antics, reunions with other families who are staying back, everyday school, painting sessions, a persimmon fruit as a gift, Waad’s repeated declarations of love to Hamza. To be sure, Al-Kateab makes only a passing mention of the extremists running her city, and we don’t get a clearer idea of what’s holding them back from leaving this nightmare, except their faith in revolution. In a sense, it is problematic that For Sama excises politics out of its narrative, rendering it an account of the extraordinary bravery of people fighting an abstract force of annihilation. On the other hand, it’s a deeply disturbing reminder that peace is not a stable condition interruptions to which are wars, but a fleeting, fragile state that can be swept away overnight.

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

The story of Prometheus, with its democratic challenge to the keepers of the fire, represents a metatext of Western modernity, but its tragic vision also dovetails with the Christian worldview. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse reinterprets this pagan myth, infusing it with a stark (anti-)Catholic flavour. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe play lighthouse keepers, Winslow and Wake respectively, posted on a remote, deserted island for a month. Wake the boss has Winslow do all the menial chores on the island, while he reserves the lofty task of maintaining the light on the tower. The bearded Wake, who is indeed a walking parody of a seaman, delivers long, literary monologues in sailorspeak, even when he’s only ordering Winslow to wipe the floor or cursing him for not liking his cooking. He pulls rank over Winslow every time he can, at times gaslighting his subordinate and weaponizing his original sin, which Winslow confesses during a night of drunken revelry. With mounting isolation, sexual frustration and a possibility that his stay on the island will be permanent, Winslow starts to lose it, abetted in no small part by alcohol. Soon, the pair bickers like the seagulls hovering above the island. The Lighthouse is set in no particular place or time, and it’s deliberately set at a register far above ordinary realism. This lack of particularity, combined with the simplicity of the outline, give the film a horror fable-like texture. This ethereal quality is countered by a grimy realism of mise en scène. Scenes of violence and physical degradation are visceral and the film features every bodily emanation possible.

There’s another reason that The Lighthouse floats unmoored to history. It’s evidently a very cinema-aware work, echoing if not quoting a range of films from the Expressionist classics to Ingmar Bergman and Bela Tarr. Its memorable monochrome cinematography, with geometric movements of the camera, looming shadows and an ominous atmosphere, its boxy aspect ratio, its actors staring back at the camera, and its use of medium and ‘American’ shots all make it feel familiar without locating it within a specific cinematic tradition or time period. That said, it is to Eggers’ credit that, despite the evocations, the film never feels like a pastiche. The Lighthouse employs horror movie tropes in its foreboding sound and visual design, but it doesn’t go where traditional horror films go. In fact, the stakes as well as the outcome of the premise, that the two men are going to go stir crazy, is clear right at the outset. The disintegration that does happen is played out with ample dose of comedy: Wake’s farts echoed with the sirens of the lighthouse, his towering self-seriousness that must inevitably mask a sense of uselessness, and Winslow’s eventual outburst when he blows his superior’s cover. Dafoe and Pattinson are fascinating to look at, especially in their very physical scenes with homoerotic undertones, but the film itself feels like a slight cinephilic sortie.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann)

In the first shot of Austrian artist Daniel Zimmermann’s Walden, a camera pans from left to right in the middle of a forest. It’s still and quiet, and it isn’t until minutes into the shot that we have the first human presence. A lumbering activity is underway and we hear the hum of a chainsaw in the distance. Around the eighth minute of the shot, amid cries of timber, a tree falls, its tip just a few feet from the camera. When the camera completes full circle, the view has changed so much that we aren’t sure whether it’s the same spot the camera started at. Human action on the environment is what Walden is about, traces as it does the conversion of the fallen tree into planks and its transportation over rail, road and sea to a forest location in Brazil. Walden tangentially fits into a tradition of narrative documentaries that purport to demonstrate the workings of a globalized economy by focusing on the provenance of specific consumer goods. While its cross-continental movement is still enabled by international trade, the timber here isn’t following the regular route of imported goods. As the film’s supporting text points out, the path of the planks in Walden is the reverse of the usual trajectory of goods in a global economy. The film never reveals the mystery of why a consignment of sawn wood must move from Austria to a tribal region in the Amazon.

This refusal to explain can partly be understood by the fact that Walden also inscribes itself into another tradition. Constructed out of thirteen 360-degree pan shots of about eight minutes each, it has a direct kinship to structural films such as those of James Benning. It’s especially reminiscent of Benning’s RR in its emphasis on movement of goods described in predetermined cinematic formulae. The structure raises the questions: why 360-degree pan shots and why nine minutes? I think there are no extra-cinematic explanations to these choices and that these are foundational parameters—arbitrary givens of the problem—that are to be taken for what they are. Besides, the shots don’t exactly complete full circle, most stop at three-fourths. The duration, too, ranges from seven to nine minutes. While Zimmermann’s camera moves at a constant pace, it gives the illusion of slowing down or speeding up depending on the movement that happens along the sweep of the camera. The moving timber makes its presence in every shot either at the beginning or the end, but the milieu it’s moving through—whether it’s a scenic port city in Brazil or a tribal village in the woods—is of equal interest. The film starts and ends in the stillness and silence of the jungle while its middle section consists of constant movement, just as it begins and closes deep within the woods, with its central passages having to do with modern facets of civilization. Zimmermann’s camera always seems to be at the right place and time to capture the most interesting action in the vicinity. This aspect reinforces its pre-determined structure over its documentary aspects.

The Whalebone Box (Andrew Kötting)

For those who have seen any of Kötting’s work, the confounding associations of The Whalebone Box shouldn’t come as a total curveball. The sixty-year-old Kötting makes playful experimental films featuring friends and family that work off English folklore and geography. A frequent protagonist is his daughter Eden, an artist herself, who was born with Joubert Syndrome. Eden is both the narrator and the inspiration for this new film. Two dominant narrative strands emerge from the audiovisual thicket of The Whalebone Box. In the first, we see Eden dressed as a May Queen, seated in a forest on a fauteuil holding a hunting rifle and peering through binoculars. She is admittedly looking for a whale to hunt down. We also see her at a museum and, more frequently, in bed. Subtitles express her thoughts and dreams, which are about a box made of whalebone, an artefact she recreates in cardboard. The second narrative strand is actually about the legendary whalebone box, which was reportedly created by sculptor Steve Dilworth on the Scottish island of Harris thirty years ago. The island, we are told, is now afflicted with an unknown epidemic and the box might hold a cure. So Kötting, the writer Iain Sinclair and the photographer Anonymous Bosch set out with the box on a journey from London to the north. They stop at places of mythological import to “charge the box” with curative energy. Several shots of the film show the box on the dashboard of the group’s car or Sinclair lugging it around the English landscape. Interspersed with this journey is monochrome clips of children playing and recreating pagan myths.

Now, how much of this myth is fabricated, we don’t know (I suspect all of it is); Kötting’s rough-hewn home movie aesthetic imparts a found-footage like authenticity to it. But what is evident is that The Whalebone Box is partly a wish fulfilment project in which Kötting fashions a film after his daughter’s dreamlike fiction. He departs from the basic idea of a mysterious whalebone box and weaves in all the references that it evokes. There’s Moby Dick, for instance, which had already made its appearance in Kötting’s earlier work. The filmmaker expands on the MacGuffin with soundbites from Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, also about a box with deadly powers, and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Other references include Pandora’s box, the black box of airplanes and Schrödinger’s box containing the cat, which here stands for the whale simultaneously in “a state of being on land and returning to ocean”. The artefact the trio carries is at times swapped with Eden’s cardboard version, making clear the playful, recreative intention behind the project. Shooting in 16mm, Kötting employs an amateur film style with handheld camera and washed out colours. He quotes titles from Philip Hoare’s book Leviathan and has poems read on the soundtrack. At times, he overlays recorded speech over the same words captured on location, imparting an oneiric rhythm and texture to the film.

So Pretty (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli)

Four gender-fluid youth spend their days in a shared apartment in Manhattan. They cook, have sex, paint protest posters, make music, organize reading sessions in the park and discuss communism. Trans filmmaker Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty presents the life of these young, queer folk as a self-sufficient world. Considering that we see it through the eyes of its participants and their friends, there’s no outsider gaze against which these lives are to be assessed. The camera often follows them walking the sidewalks of New York, this liberating gesture being a given. Their protests and the police crackdown of these protests are only suggested and remain in the periphery. Grafted on the documentary record of this everyday routine are details from the eponymous novel by German writer Ronald M. Schernika. So Pretty isn’t as much an adaptation as a dialogue with the novel. The actors of the film take turns reading passages from the book to each other. The film dramatizes what they read sometimes. Tonia, the “character” played by Rovinelli, is in fact in the process of translating the book and discusses with Franz (Thomas Love) on whether a particular word needs to be translated negatively as “coupledom” or positively as “togetherness”. At first, it appears that Paul (Edem Dela-Seshie) and Erika (Rachika Samarth) are a stable, “trans heterosexual” couple, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s no point boxing the desires of these characters. They make out and sleep with each other in every combination, their interlaced bodies on bed being a punctuating visual of the film.

Rather than the representational politics or particulars of the adaptation, it’s the film’s formal strategies that struck me the most. Rovinelli’s camera pans and tracks in extremely slow motion across the rooms, producing tableaux of people in ordinary interactions. In a remarkable early shot, six characters sit in the dining room making small talk in pairs. Some of them are off the frame, and their voices are mixed so that they vie equally for our attention. Like in a Robert Altman shot, there’s no central point of focus, and our ears and eyes shuttle from one pair to another, without every settling on any of them. In the following scene Franz and Tonia make their bed. Their heads out of the frame, our focus oscillates between the two across the vast negative space of the bed. I presume this asymmetrical manner of framing has a theoretical underpinning, but it’s also a visceral choice. Tonia suffers a heartbreak with Franz, but this never becomes a dramatic element. A long shot presents the two, now in a different apartment Tonia has taken up, cooking, doing dishes and eating in the kitchen, the tense, wordless atmosphere signalling the straining relationship. The film’s measured pace is further diluted as the relationship buckles and even more so when the police arrests Erika. The characters split up in two groups and the ambience becomes mournful. Towards the end, the film becomes a pure light-and-sound performance played against Erika’s music that mixes melody and atonality. In other words, a sustained mood piece.

Mother (Kristof Bilsen)

The Baan Kamlangchay centre in Chiang-May, Thailand, is a home run by a Swiss national for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia and related ailments. It shelters fourteen patients from German-speaking countries and employs three local caregivers. The film begins with the anguished thoughts of one of them. Pomm is separated from her husband and gets to visit her three children only occasionally. She works two jobs to pay back her debt and secure a future for her children. Bilsen’s film too juggles two narrative arcs. In the first, we follow Pomm’s routine: her comfortable rapport with her nonagenarian patient Elizabeth, her visits to her mother and children living several hours away, her interactions with her employer, her account of her father’s depression and eventual suicide, her mourning over Elizabeth’s passing, and articulations of her anxiety about her old age and her guilt over ignoring her mother. Running parallel to Pomm’s life is Maya’s in Switzerland. Maya is 57 years old and suffers from Alzheimer’s. After much deliberation and concern, her husband and daughters have decided to admit her to Baan Kamlangchay. They speak about the prejudice associated with sending your loved one to a home. Indeed, Maya’s family couldn’t be more loving. We see her daughters take her for daily walks, doing her hair and nails, preparing her move to Thailand, packing her medicines and clothes, and generally being there for Maya. Bilsen cuts between Pomm and Maya before they meet in reality, and when they do, he reinforces their almost predestined bond through a closed shot-reverse shot-reaction shot triad at the home.

Mother is evidently about caregiving and maternal affection, but it’s a detailed study in the cultural differences involved in familial bonds. Pomm is moved when she meets her mother after a while. She tells the camera that she wants to hug her, but wouldn’t dare to, given her cultural norms. On the other hand, we see Maya’s family expressing their love through embraces and kisses. Maya’s relation to her pre-teen children, in contrast, is much more intimate and physical than what Western parents would exhibit towards their adolescents. Bilsen intercuts between the two families to illustrate different verbal and non-verbal expressions of affection. Now, as an employee at the home, Pomm has to be much more physical with her Western patients, who are maternal figures to her, than she is with her own mother. This evocation of the effects of global capital on the most personal of relationships is what gives Mother its intellectual foundation. The very fact of the home being in Thailand, and not in expensive Switzerland, points to the economic underpinnings of the caregiving industry. Pomm discusses shifts and holidays with her boss, who calls his patients customers. But she is also genuinely caring of her patients. Mother doesn’t state that either capital or caregiving trumps the other. It merely throws light on newer forms of a labour that’s always been side-lined, and the contradictions that these new forms produce. Pomm reflects on the good fortune of her patients to be able to pay for the care, which she herself won’t be able to afford for her mother. In Marxist terms, Pomm is alienated from her own service, even when it doesn’t involve any means of production. What would happen to her, Pomm wonders, when she is old? Would her kids provide her the same care? If they move to Switzerland, perhaps.

Ridge (John Skoog)

Swedish filmmaker John Skoog’s debut is set in his native Skåne County in the south of the country. Ridge revolves around a dairy farm in the countryside, but doesn’t follow a familiar narrative line. What we get is a mosaic of scenes from the vicinity of the farm involving men, animals and machines in isolation or in interaction: foreign workers from Poland arriving by ferry to the farm, a local supervisor walking them through the routines, harvest machines working on the fields, cows being milked by robots, residents collecting snails at night with flashlights, a migrant worker writing a musical greeting card to someone back home, two children playing a farm simulator game, a largely mute girl corralling cows that have broken free, a flea market suggested through a tracking shot of a stall with objects, fully costumed hunters entering cane fields, a cat in the house being thrown out, a picnic of young people in which one passes out, a machine cutting trees all alone in the dark, a burning car, a disco party and so on. There are a handful of protagonists that emerge, characters and locations that appear in multiple scenes, but there’s no sense of progress or causality across them. These documentary shards of information are, instead, loosely held together by the sensation of northern midsummer and the generally upbeat and mischievous feeling that goes with it.

Skoog, consequently, emphasizes the ambience. His smooth tracking shots glide over fields and pastures at golden hour. His meticulous sound design, which regularly drowns out human voice, mixes electronic music, machine drones and natural sounds. Despite not being about individuals or even humans per se, Skoog’s work with actors is noteworthy. An improvised scene with a Polish youth receiving a haircut becomes an impromptu lesson on immigrant behaviour and cultural differences, which then turns into a bullying session. The film opens with a voiceover recounting the legend of two cows that go wild; the two cows will make their appearance at the end. The work thus blends personal experience, folklore, fictional and documentary passages without favouring any of them. To some extent, Ridge recalls Koyaanisqatsi in its weaving of human, mechanical, animal and natural presences into a larger tapestry of life in a particular region. But Skoog’s film is vehemently anti-didactic, refuses as it does even the basic enticements of a narrative. On the other hand, it’s a work full of surface pleasures, especially Zbroniec-Zajt’s twilight cinematography. The result is a beguiling if befuddling portrait of migrant experience in the vein of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another (Jessica Sarah Rinland)

Jessica Rinland’s unusually titled film (and unusually presented in two aspect ratios, 1.33 and 1.85) is also an unusual museum documentary. It begins with an on-screen text that muses on the relation of a replica to the original, tracing the parentage of painted animals to real animals, which themselves are DNA replicas of original specimen. The film opens with a replica too. A researcher-curator has a replica produced of an elephant tusk. She unpacks it carefully from its container, sucking out the flour-like powder protecting it. We will remain with this replica for a large part of the film, as the curator cleans it, has it broken with a hammer for an unspecified reason and glues back the broken pieces again for an unknown reason. Interspersed between these actions are other allied activities at the museum restoration section. What makes Rinland’s film go against the grain is that it refuses to give any context for the actions we witness. The activities we see are, in fact, undertakings at different museums across the world, but we don’t know that until the final credits. We assume that it’s the same cast replica of the ivory being processed, but we are in fact observing several artefacts, real and replicas. This destabilizing erasure of the boundary between real and fake also makes the viewer suspicious of the film’s apparently documentary nature.

Rinland is no Frederick Wiseman, her interest is not in the politics of art objects and institutions. If her patient observation of restoration activity recalls Harun Farocki’s work, the patently anti-explanatory bent of her film couldn’t be more different. Unlike traditional museum documentaries, Those That Resemble provides no supplementary information, no detail on the nature or history of the artefacts, the institutions sheltering and handling them. Rinland’s camera is relentlessly trained on hands performing a range of tasks: brushing casts, turning book pages, kneading dough to secure the casts, removing layers of packing material, chipping stones, drawing graphs and measurements, fixing ivory-lined boxes, cutting sponge into blocks that are then used to prime a tusk, laser cleaning a piece of ivory and so on. These activities take on a hypnotic quality in their zen-like focus on objective-bound activities; they are also very pleasurable to the obsessive-compulsive part of the brain trying to complete patterns. Large stretches of the film unfold like unbox therapy or five-minute craft videos, underscoring the care and precision with which the artefacts are handled. Recalling the cinematography of Claire Denis and Claire Mathon, Rinland’s camera exhibits a curious material fetish, fixated as it is on various textures natural and artificial. I was also reminded of Mani Kaul’s Mind of Clay at many points.

America (Garrett Bradley)

America opens with one of its many references that go over my head: a photo of black entertainer Bert Williams, who becomes a springboard for the film’s critical reflection on the visual history of black performers and entertainers. Stills and extracts from silent films featuring Afro-American actors are excerpted over ambient noise from the present. This archival material is intertwined with fictional passages shot in strongly monochrome 35mm: a black woman in post-Civil war South walks by cane fields and strips a white man wrapped in a long white cloth. The cloth flies over the field, becomes a plaything for a group of kids. It’s then trampled over by a unit of black Union cavalrymen, before being appropriated by them as a flag. The film’s dreamlike central section features even more disconnected vignettes: a boy scout group from Louisiana two of whose members play with telephone cables, a baptism filmed in split compositions, a table fan in the open, rotating doors, women skating, a couple dancing, disco lights, a knife falling and men with musical instruments staring at the camera. These seemingly unrelated glimpses of 20th century (Louisianian?) black experience, however, converge as the focus shifts to professional entertainment.

Louisiana-based Bradley, it appears, is interrogating the history of black representation as consumed and internalized by black viewers. Clips from silent films show Afro-American performers in exaggerated blackface caricaturing black life for a predominantly white audience, whether they are bumbling in a barroom dance or romancing on a merry-go-round. Bradley provides corrective recreations in the present, black performers executing graceful movements, gestures and actions in their respective fields. Bradley’s telescoped look at the history of black representation is sometimes quotational, as with the familiar image of athletes and baseball players, and sometimes revisionist, like as when we see an Afro-American orchestra conductor or a female aviator—images of black cultural contribution we aren’t regularly exposed to. The schema becomes apparent in a scene, filmed in tracking shots and canted angles, which recreates the Last Supper with black Jesus and apostles. The performers striking tableaux in America, in contrast to their predecessors, are black entertainers playing as and for themselves. In its exploration of the place of black figures in popular visual culture, America is a companion work to Ja’Tovia M. Gary’s The Giverny Document, in which the marked absence of black bodies in the Western artistic canon is juxtaposed with the safety of black women in public spaces. If less ambitious or polemical, Bradley’s film is more attuned to cinema history and, with its baroque compositions, superpositions and sharp chiaroscuro images, is also formally alive.

Present.Perfect. (Shengze Zhu)

Present.Perfect. is about China’s live streaming craze, which witnessed a regular user base of 422 million in 2017. To explore this phenomenon, Zhu has reportedly sifted through 800 hours of streamed footage and fashioned a film of two hours. The first section of her film is democratic and presents a mosaic of video clips. The selection predominantly consists of uniformly young men and women in blue collar jobs telecasting their everyday routine: wrecking buildings, transporting bags, running a pig farm, cutting trees, welding, digging ditches, and so on. One host offers “agritainment” to “rich city folks” through his organic farming sessions. Curiously resembling regular, festival-level contemplative cinema, this genre of streaming transforms boring jobs into spectacles enjoyed by people around the country. And Zhu’s non-hierarchical assembly of these clips offers something akin to the crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day, the cumulation of several idiosyncratic users functioning as a kind of collective portrait of young China. What we perceive is an entire country entertaining and being entertained by each other, a massive service economy masquerading as entertainment industry. As one host puts it, while streaming a cockroach carcass being raided by ants, “I’ll talk about whatever you want to hear”.

While this process of constantly turning private life into a public spectacle might appear worrisome, we see liberative strands emerge. In this snapshot of how a nation looks at itself, we observe how individuals, especially the most disenfranchised, build a self-image. Queer users and sex workers seem to have found a relatively safe space to express their voice or ply their trade. The terminally lonely find community, the terminally bored get entertainment, and those anonymized by assembly line work recuperate a sense of individuality through their devoted viewership: shooting with a selfie camera, they literally position themselves at the centre of a world that otherwise consigns them to the margins. In the longish title card, we are told about the popularity of the medium, but also the government’s measures to shut down channels telecasting unlawful content, such as violence and self-harm. This dialectic between private aspiration and state control, however, vanishes when the film abandons its sampling approach to focus on five particular hosts: a burn survivor who preaches against god, a single mother working at a undergarment factory, a street dancer with an awkward style, a mendicant with severely disfigured limbs and a factory worker suffering from a sexual maturity disorder which makes him look like a boy. The interest wanes—and the insight vanishes—as the film devolves into a freak show of sorts. On the other hand, as the film’s witty title indicates, Present.Perfect. demonstrates that live streaming profoundly transforms the nature of cinema as we understand it. The ‘cinema of the past’, based on recording reality and later transmitting it, makes way for a cinema in the present, viewed at the same time it’s made. The real-time exchange facilitated by the platform paradoxically takes cinema closer to its origins, turning it into a kind of low-grade, interactive vaudeville. How long before the corporates jump in?

Sunrise with Sea Monsters (Myles Painter)

At the beginning of Glasgow-based Myles Painter’s Sunrise with Sea Monsters, a laptop fails to save files on a LaCie hard disk drive. The dysfunctional drive goes rogue, leaving home, roaming the city streets, visiting museums, discos, cafes and pubs, and traveling around the country from beaches and mountains to jungles and caves. The “eye” of the device—a blue light—blinks all through this odyssey, suggesting a sentient being. Painter ponders on the sleek form of the HDD, reflecting on its “sculptural volume”. As the drive travels the countryside, it indeed assumes a mythical, monument-like quality evocative of the Stonehenge monoliths. But the journey, in fact, is a record of the filmmaker’s various travels with his partner (both of whom we never see). By substituting the HDD for himself in his travelogues, Painter is drawing attention to the function of recording media as physical manifestations of human memory and experience. The drive, in particular, also signals the disjunction that digital media herald in this age-old phenomenon. While photos and films have an indexical relation to the reality they remember, digital media transpose physical reality into another one that can only be understood by species with specific intelligence and capability—a significant risk if the objective is to leave traces for extra-terrestrial or far-future societies.

Though firmly on the side of analogue (the film is shot in 16mm), Painter is curious about digital media and reflects on the spatial (both in terms of size and capacity) and temporal limits of HDDs. The itinerant drive of Painter’s proto-picaresque film gives a lie to the wisdom that we live in the era of dematerialization: the device seems to have a real social existence, with everyone around it giving it resting space but ignoring its presence, just like they would for a stranger. On the film’s soundtrack is a mix of synth music, monologues about the nature of data, the filmmaker’s conversations with his girlfriend and his Skype interviews with scientists, engineers, cinematographers and philosophers. The interviewees touch upon various topics related to the challenge of information archival and storage, and the quest for a limitless, everlasting storage medium. One scientist talks about the intense energy demand that the internet places, threatening our “digital legacy”. Another expert talks about his project of recording the achievements of human civilization on clay tablets stored in Austrian salt mines for intelligent societies in the future. Other researchers discuss data storage in 5D memory crystals and even DNAs. Running through the interviews is the theme of mankind’s obsession with survival and longevity. Sunrise lists a truckload of lofty ideas, but seems to be short of ideas itself. It’s narratively sparse and doesn’t go anywhere in particular. Its humorous, Peter Greenaway-like structuralism soon gives way to monotony, with the images being solely supported by the expert comments on the soundtrack. It would perhaps be more rewarding as a multi-channel installation.

Burning Cane (Phillip Youmans)

The title of Phillip Youmans’ first feature, Burning Cane, is a literal reference to the sugarcane fields set ablaze in the film, but it offers echoes of two other figures: Citizen Kane and the biblical Cain. Like Orson Welles’ ground-breaking film, Burning Cane was made by its author at an impressively young age: seventeen. Like Kane, it presents its story through a range of unusual visual devices: extreme, Wyler-like compositions in deep space, lenses that conversely collapse depth, low-light digital cinematography and canted angles. In one shot, Youmans films a telephone conversation with the speaker in deep space and with the speaker’s son colouring a book in the foreground. In a strongly diagonal shot redolent of Tsai Ming-Liang, a man in the foreground watches a television playing The Jungle Book in the background. A woman obscured in the background passes an object to the man in the foreground, facing away from us, with the distance between them seeming to vanish all of a sudden. These devices, however, don’t exactly come across as gimmicks. Rather, they seem like emanations of a new way of filming the world already familiar to us through cell phone aesthetic. Case in point, the dark shots with a large negative space, which don’t feel like unstable compositions as much as footage taken on the sly with a phone camera. Filming through door gaps and closed curtains, Youmans superimposes a highly contemporary, on-your-face aesthetic on a rather novelistic, classical narrative.

In the first of the film’s three threads, an old woman, Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), speaks about her dog suffering from a skin condition. She talks about various remedies her community members suggest. Set against images of her everyday life, the voiceover, constructed of repeating structures as in poetry, lends Helen a legendary presence. Much like Vitalina Varela in Pedro Costa’s film, she is the lynchpin of this small-town black community whose men are disintegrating into apathy and despair. The town pastor, Tillman (Wendell Pierce in a riveting performance), delivers stirring sermons, but suffers from a lack of faith himself and takes to the bottle. Helen’s son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) is a ne’er-do-well who has lost his job and stays at home with his pre-teen son. Not only does he drink himself to sickness, he also beats up his wife and makes his son drink. Youmans doesn’t really milk the possibilities of this miserabilist scenario; in fact, he elides quite a bit of melodrama and domestic violence. Nevertheless, the script remains rather thin and generic, the characters more abstractions than reflections of real human beings. The cane fields of Louisiana, slicing the frame horizontally and imparting a sense of being closed-in even outdoors, are a welcome change of scenery as are the specific details on the community radio.

Greener Grass (Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe)

Or Just White People Stuff. Adapted from a 2015 short film of the same name, which DeBoer and Luebbe wrote and Paul Briganti directed, the feature-length Greener Grass holds your attention for just as long. What is amusing and funny enough in the short is diluted to over ninety trying minutes, with the two lead actresses also directing this time around. A suburban housewife, Jill (DeBoer), finds her life unravelling after she gifts her new-born to her BFF Lisa (Luebbe). Her elder son becomes a dog, she divorces her husband during a bowling game, her husband leaves, her friend moves into her house, she is rejected from her perfect white community and becomes homeless. The film is a series of absurd sketches about suburban anxiety and conformism. All the characters wear braces over their straight teeth. Jill and Lisa get their husbands mixed up. They become competitive about their children. Jill’s nerdy son doesn’t fit her idea of an ideal child and her stress over him sticking out turns him, as it were, into a well-behaved dog. Jill’s incurable obsession with being nice and winning the approval of her equally neurotic friends ends up alienating her from them. There’s also a serial killer plot shoed in.

The filmmakers underline the superficiality of this life with a candy-coloured palette dominated by artificial-looking primary colours, diffusion filters and a fully daylit cinematography. Like its overused retro aesthetic, Greener Grass trades in ideas about suburban middle-class life already part of the cinematic imaginary. In fact, the film works less as a critique of these values and more as a parody of classical critiques of these values. Make no mistake, this film shares little with David Lynch or Tim Burton and placing it in their tradition would mistake pastiche for vision. The writers cook up one oddity after another, most of which are designed to kindle specific responses. Character reactions are calculatedly mismatched—indifference to big events and overreaction to petty ones. The principle is wholly that of Magritte’s: ordinary elements arranged in implausible configurations. The directors use classical musical cues to elevate banal moments. It recalls Lanthimos, but he employs it for neutral moments whose status as neutral moments is thrown into question by the music. Its use here, on the other hand, is comparable to opera in advertisements. The plot scans as a spoof of women’s pictures à la Sirk or Haynes, but the film is divested of the critical form of those accomplished melodramas. The result is hollow, but not without a handful of successful moments, shots and turns of dialogue.

Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina)

Where Greener Grass commodifies absurdity for routine pleasures, Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye instils the same material with a sense of genuine wonder. The story unfolds, again, in small-town America and follows several groups of teenagers preparing for prom night (?) at a local restaurant-turned-dance floor. The film uses a retro aesthetic similar to Greener Grass: bright yellow Windsor typeface, upbeat music, diffusion filters and backlighting that impart a dreamy, Vilmos Zsigmond-esque glaze. Being a suburban movie, it, too, is focused on the surface of things: boys and girls sprucing themselves up in front of the mirror, McMansions, automobiles, well-kept lawns and yards. But unlike the other film, there’s something lived-in about the details here, the brand names, clothing styles and décor. The first half of the film builds up to the prom night in a mosaic-like fashion, piecing together various groups of teenagers arriving at the venue, Monty’s. There’s a conversation in a schoolyard that’s presented in bits, underscoring that the film isn’t interested in inhabiting this world as much as glimpsing it from a distant perspective. What works so well in the film is that Taormina infuses the banality of this universe with an understated spiritualism. Three primly-dressed girls wander deserted streets and parks like the three graces. One of them reads a postcard from her sister living elsewhere, and they wonder about the mystery of adulthood. As they walk, there’s a tracking shot of the trees, bridging the otherworldly to the ordinariness of this world.

Taormina focuses on the minor rituals of this teen community, rituals that assume a religious flavour. Through the vaguely oriental musical score, he superimposes an international consciousness on this small-town isolation without condescension. The first half culminates in a slow-dance sequence that turns into a veritable spiritual communion. An Ozuvian montage of night-time suburbia signals the film’s shift to its second movement. Night falls and the tone becomes darker, almost funereal. A listless barbecue follows in which disengaged adults engage in silent card games. A group of disaffected, college-age youth knocks about the town in their car. The communion of the first half is replaced by an undefined void at the heart of the community. Like The Last Picture Show, Ham on Rye is a portrait of those who stayed back, of lives in stasis. Taormina’s film is, however, shot through not with a bittersweet nostalgia, but a mournful anxiety about having been left behind. A girl calls out in vain to her two absent friends while another boy cries out in the vicinity. As she sits alone in a park full of toddlers, who no doubt will traverse the same alleys of life, the film whittles itself down to her perspective. Like in Bresson’s L’Argent, Ham on Rye appears to intertwine two time periods, the contemporary cohabiting with the past. I was equally reminded of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films, especially Goodbye South Goodbye, in its depiction of youth without youth. But Taormina’s approach is the diametric opposite of Hou’s master-shot style: a framing that focuses on hands performing gestures, an odd decoupage that arranges closeups in faint spatial relations (there’s a very funny edit of a plastic pig being tossed away), attention to minor details of the mise en scène and transitions dominated by fades, wipes and superpositions. A strong, promising work.

That Which Does Not Kill (Alexe Poukine)

That Which Does Not Kill does not label itself beforehand, nor does it reveal its modus operandi right away. What it does offer is a series of talking heads, men and women, young and old, black and white, straight and queer, in intimate, homely décor, captured in simple, shallow-focus camera setups. In the first interview, a very soft-spoken girl of about twenty describes her memory of an assault: a man forces himself on her, yet she goes back to his house and they sleep together, and again a third time. The girl is soon revealed to be an actor and her testimony, a text given to her by the filmmaker for preparation. This text serves as a foundation for the rest of the film and the interviewees, all of them actors, narrate details from it as though from personal experience. The women interviewees speak from the perspective of the girl while the two men in the film stand in the shoes of the aggressor. We never know what part of their testimonies comes verbatim from the text, what is imagined and what is a direct expression of the actors’ own experience. Some of them evoke very specific memories, like particular colours or sounds, and some others break down. They step out of character at times to talk to the filmmaker behind the camera, but even so the boundaries are blurred. We aren’t quite sure where the text ends and personal memories of trauma begins.

At the heart of the text is the conundrum of why the girl responded positively to the man’s advances, why she went back to his house after the assault, and why she slept with him a third time. The question baffles the actors at first too, but getting into their role and approaching it through the prism of their personal experience, they understand her actions as a way of returning to a primal scene in order to set a derailed life straight. They characterize this as a shift from feeling shame (of being a victim) to identifying guilt (on the part of the aggressor). The testimonial text, consequently, moves from being a site of mistrust to a space for trust and solidarity. In doing so, the film probes the limits of empathy, conceiving it as a quality that’s not innate, but learned through performance and an active task of interpretation and imagination. An unmistakably post-MeToo film, That Which Does Not Kill problematizes the sureties surrounding sexual violence and trauma. It invokes involuntary excitation, proposes voluntary bondage as a reversal of powerlessness and acknowledges the inevitable contradictions in the memory of trauma, while also asserting the impossibility of forgetting such a corporeal experience. These are issues already part of the discourse, and perhaps the film breaks no new ground there, but it deserves credit for the way it frames the question of public response to survivor testimonies.

Movements of a Nearby Mountain (Sebastian Brameshuber)

Cliff (Clifford Agu) has an eye for old cars. He lives and works alone in an abandoned warehouse in the outskirts of a mining town somewhere in Austria. Like a hunter disembowelling his prey, he dismantles turn of the century models in his warehouse, selling refurbished units for cut rate to local customers or shipping spare parts to Nigeria. Sebastian Brameshuber follows Cliff’s life over several months, observing him working at length, cooking, fetching water, washing clothes, bargaining with customers, chatting with a Nigerian friend of his and driving into town to spot old cars to place his visiting card in. Cliff’s customers are invariably immigrants from Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania. Neither Cliff or his clientele speaks proper German, and communication happens through a mixture of broken German, English and sign language. While Cliff’s warehouse lies in the penumbra of modern European Union, the shipment of spare parts from Germany to Africa traces a reverse movement of goods in globalized economy. Cliff’s is a life on the margins of capital, in the shadow of the wealth inequality that enables a thriving automobile black market. Even so, he says to his friend that things aren’t as good as they were ten years ago when he moved to this country, and reflects on the possibility of returning to Nigeria to ply taxies.

            Movements of a Nearby Mountain recalls Wang Bing’s Man with No Name in the disengaged manner in which it describes a life in solitude. Like Wang’s modern caveman, Cliff leads a very functional life revolving around business and sustenance. His only social life is in the conversations, perhaps imagined, he has with his Nigerian friend, with whom he observes the paintball arena opposite his warehouse. But unlike the man with no name, he seems to be free of aesthetic or sexual needs, outside of a comment about a pretty girl here or a song hummed there. He feeds a cat in the facility and shaves, but that’s all the outward-oriented gesture we see. More than Wang’s, it’s Flaherty’s Nanook that serves as a reference point here. Brameshuber, however, is confident that Cliff’s situation is self-explanatory and needs no description or context. Though there’s no interaction of the subject with the camera, his film is clearly collaborative and fictionalized, as is evidenced by the decoupage in which Cliff walks into spaces in which the camera is already setup. Besides, the filmmaker has Cliff narrate a legend about the region in which a water sprite promises the inhabitants an endless supply of iron ore in the surrounding mountains. Whether or not the promise was true, Cliff’s dwindling prospects seem to suggest a glass ceiling on the ladder to prosperity.

No Data Plan

No Data Plan (Miko Revereza)

Miko Revereza’s No Data Plan opens with the shot of a train pulling in to a station. The large crowd waiting for this trans-American Amtrak train is mostly coloured. Texts, written from the filmmaker’s perspective, appear on screen. We are told that Revereza’s mother has two phone lines, one without a data plan, in order to steer clear of immigration authorities. We learn that Revereza has been living in the US without papers and is bound to be shipped back to the Philippines if arrested. The entirety of No Data Plan consists of Revereza’s journey on this train over the next two days, even though we never know why he’s undertaking it. The “narrative” unfolds on two fronts. The images are resolutely anti-picturesque, anti-expository. Revereza focuses on the textures of the train: used trays, ketchup sachets, candy bars, sweaters, sunshine and shadows, promotional posters, seat covers, the space under the dining table, assorted luggage, dirty windows and the logos on them. He gets down at every station, filming passing trains or people waiting to receive visitors. There are bits of ambient dialogue captured, and Revereza makes a couple of phone calls and talks for a bit, but there’s no interaction with any of the other passengers. The focus is not on the bounty of the American landscape or the cross-section of the American population on the train, but on the banality of the transit, on Revereza’s disaffected drifting across states in anxiety about the border patrol showing up for an ID check.

The on-screen text, on the other hand, tells the story of the filmmaker’s mother: her past as an immigrant housewife with no life outside home, her affair with a taxi driver, her eloping with him to Nebraska with Revereza’s knowledge, and her current life on the road. The text and the images work dialectically, producing a portrait of (paperless) immigrant life. Like Revereza’s noteworthy short film, Disintegration 93-96, No Data Plan is a film about losing one’s roots, and Revereza’s seemingly purposeless transit scans as the fallout of a disintegrating family. Other obvious points of departure are J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry and Albert Maysles’ In Transit. But the thrust of Revereza’s less sensual, less sociological film—a low-key elegy for a paradise lost—is existential. There’s always the risk of exhibitionism when a filmmaker plants himself so firmly at the centre of his work as Revereza does here. This looming authorial presence in No Data Plan, however, is closer to Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film than, say, Kim Ki-Duk’s Arirang. Revereza’s decision to document his life as an illegal alien, to upload it onto social media and make films out of it is a choice that serves to assert a selfhood that official documents deny.

Searching Eva (Pia Hellenthal)

When Searching Eva opens, we hear ASMR-like reading of chatroom messages about sex, abuse and guilt: some of them grateful and appreciative, some others judgmental. The voice is that of the addressee, Eva. She looks twenty-something, but that’s about everything we can determine about her, for Eva defies definition: she is nothing fixed. Eva has a widely followed online presence, which serves as a rallying point for people feeling alienated from social, sexual norms. On the voiceover—presumably addressed to her followers—Eva recounts events from her life: modelling at the age of 13, her neglectful parents, her sexual exploitation by boys and old men alike, her part time sex work, her desires and diary entries. These chat sessions, seen on screen from time to time, alternate with intimate vignettes from her life: Eva in the shower or in bed with men or women, running free on the subway, moving houses, drifting from one European city to another, going to parties or taking drugs. The generally affectionate images are in contrast with the sordid details of her life. Eva spends time back in Italy with her mother, who takes pictures for her Instagram. She has a warm dinner with her father and his new family. The contradiction makes us wonder whether what we hear in the voiceover is the truth.

The answer is immaterial since, for Eva, identity is malleable, self-determined and entirely arbitrary; a prison to be escaped. Throughout Searching Eva is a suspension of the distinction between performing and being. Eva believes that you are what you pretend to be. She hails from a working-class background, but rejects the idea of fixed work or career, choosing to engage in an activity that will help her survive as long as possible without worrying about money, namely sex work. This sex work is just another facet of what she is, not something that defines her. Looking for apartments, she casually tells one of the current occupants that she’s a sex worker, to her interlocutor’s total disbelief. She services men as part of her work, but sleeps with women “in real life”. In her thorough rejection of biologically, socially determined identities, she inspires her followers (in remote European towns) who feel trapped and suffocated by their body, their sexuality, their past, their environment, their work. The film too never quite fits into the traditional documentary mould. Though leading a transparent, publicized life, Eva is continuously aware of the camera’s presence and sends our voyeuristic gaze back to us. But despite its stark self-reflexivity and multi-mode exposition, Searching Eva doesn’t forestall the feeling that it takes some self-congratulatory pleasure about its own open-mindedness, that if Tumblr had a movie version, this would be it.

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