Cinema of the USA


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.

Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais)

To lead a more affordable life, filmmaker Frank Beauvais moved away from Paris and settled down in a remote village in the Alsace region with his then partner. In the seven years that followed, he lost his father, who had lived with him during his final days, broke up and went into a period of intense isolation and anxiety, watching over 400 films between April and October 2016. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is a record of these seven months constructed solely through images from these 400 films strung together with Beauvais fast-paced voiceover. With detachment, but not without stretches of indulgent melancholia, Beauvais talks about this life of poverty, his relation to his mother living in the region, his panic attacks, his political indecisiveness caught between a feeling for revolution and a renunciation of all action. It’s an agonising life, the straightforward dramatization of which would’ve resulted in a significantly lesser film. The stasis and claustrophobia of the existence described is given a vital momentum by the lively images, rife with movement and action, and the snappy narration. The relation between word and image is linear literal times, and only intuitive at others. But the surfeit of images sweeps you along, not just in its volume but also in the striking detail Beauvais picks out: predominantly close up of actions, almost no faces and a generous amount of violence and decay.

In this, Just Don’t Think is the preeminent film about cinephilia, the life in films that Truffaut called a disease and which Beauvais christens “cinéfolie”. Early on, he tells us that films are not a window to the world but mirrors, that is to say a way of life that encourages self-absorption and isolation from others, which the filmmaker is happy to do, surrounded as he is by the village’s infuriating conservatism and national pride. Hearing about the attack in Nice, he unfeelingly goes back to sleep with a cynical reasoning. Like all cinephiles—in fact, like all monomanes—Beauvais absolves this unhealthy cultural consumption by turning it into a talking point, a means to a so-called higher end. He is fully aware of this self-deception and he calls out his “Machiavellian construction” to justify this “bulimia”. He muses about the vanity of a narrative in first person, the potential collapsing of a distance from the subject that the project needs. (He can’t, of course, entirely get rid of the disingenuousness of the undertaking because, for all the talk about the malaise of cinephilia, it’s clear that he’s been using it to plan this film along the way.) Despite its contradictions and predetermined construction, Just Don’t Think is an accomplishment in the way it transforms a subject of low artistic value—one man’s emergence from a rut—into a lively, fruitful meditation on a subculture.

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

Fourteen traces the friendship between two young women, Mara and Jo, living in New York. They seem to naturally complement each other. The round-faced Mara (Tallie Medel) is petite, introspective and stands cross-legged. In a long shot midway, we see that she is among the last people exiting a train station upstate. Jo (Norma Kuhling) is lanky, slack-armed, constantly eating or smoking, and doesn’t think twice before correcting her friend on a turn of phrase. Jo calls Mara every time she’s in panic mode, Mara cancels her plans only to find Jo indifferent to her arrival. It’s clearly a parasitic relationship, but Mara feels compelled to fend for Jo for a reason that harks back to when they were fourteen. Both Mara and Jo hold temporary jobs and write on the side. Most of their interaction is about work; Mara fills application forms for the social worker Jo, while her own search for a permanent teaching position is a struggle. Fourteen contains some of the most realistic shop talk I’ve seen in films. It makes interesting what sounds unbearable in real life. The dialogue, in line with the Mumblecore tradition, seems improvised, which makes for some refreshing expressions (“stressball”, “cutting”, “eyeteeth”).

At several points, Fourteen jumps forward in time without warning and these blunt ellipses register the harsh blows of passing time even more strongly. The women change jobs, apartments and boyfriends. Mara’s fortunes improve, but Jo seems to be stagnant. Jealousy, resentment and guilt are hinted at but kept in check by the admirable performances. After a tense night of confrontation—the only tense passage in a film that’s otherwise entirely on a soft scale—the friendship gives in. Sallitt’s film is clear-eyed about the bounded nature of friendships and there’s only so much space individuals can dedicate for non-romantic relationships. It understands the way friendships wither and ossify irrevocably into a distant admiration. The understated quality of this almost Ozuvian look at non-blood ties is perhaps the reason I found the multi-tonal final sequence superfluous, ties as it does the difficult loose ends that all finished friendships invariably leave behind. Sallitt employs an unusual grammar to compose his scenes. Conversations don’t always unfold in shot-reverse shot patterns and the camera lingers long on faces, while voices emanate from off-screen. Like Bresson, Sallitt begins a shot before characters enter the field and cuts away after they’ve left. The film contains hardly any outdoor shots in its first half and opens up as it proceeds, the passage from claustrophobic NYC interiors to more open spaces paralleling the relationship between the women.

Wilcox (Denis Côté)

Denis Côté’s Wilcox begins and ends with a brief summary of individuals who moved away from civilization into the wilderness, sometimes undertaking odyssey-like journeys across vast and unforgiving landscapes: Everett Ruess, Carl McCunn, Dae Aabye, Christopher McCandless, Christopher Knight, Lilian Alling. Never mind that the lives of these figures only have a tenuous connection with each other, they nevertheless form a mythical backdrop to Côté’s film, which depicts the journey of Wilcox (Guillaume Tremblay) across the Canadian countryside. When we first see him, Wilcox is literally at the margins of a community paddling event. Lugging his large backpack, he wanders from one unnamed small town to another, taking shelter in deserted houses or buses, but never staying for more than one night anywhere. He meets and spends time with various old men living alone, but never forges friendships. He helps stuck dirt bikers, gives water to a dying mouse and survives on packaged supermarket food heated over a portable flame. The world seems welcoming and wholly accessible to him: he picks vegetables from fields, rides away on a borrowed bicycle and sleeps in the cellar of some unlocked house. There’s also a scene of an old man making potato wedges and tea.

Wilcox charts the same trajectory as Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, from the protagonist’s episodic encounters with people on his way out from civilization to his final spiritual revelation. But Côté abstracts out the McCandless story and empties it of its philosophical and emotional content. Most of the film has no real sound, which is replaced by a muffled, drone-heavy sound palette resembling a high-altitude ear block. We don’t know why Wilcox is on this quest, or why he attracts the hospitality and affection of the people he meets. The film assumes this is understood. Like in Ghost Town Anthology, Côté’s other film this year, there’s no sense of progress to the narrative, which could theoretically go on forever. As a result, Wilcox’s journey—distilled into a metanarrative of all those who leave society behind—becomes a means for the filmmaker to describe specific areas of Canadian landscape and culture. So we have generous views of the wooden strip houses so characteristic of Côté’s films, Wilcox pensively posing in and moving through springtime woods. Several passages are shot through a prism, making the periphery of the frame fuzzy. Equally mystifying is the choice to insert archival clips from the early part of last century—a surgeon trying prosthetic parts for WWI soldiers who have been disfigured and a series of shots of animals and birds forced together as though for a kiss—which are probably oblique references to the problems of modernity.

Monsters. (Marius Olteanu)

The most assured debut feature of the year, Romania’s Monsters is a three-part examination of a marriage in crisis. In the first section, Dana (Judith State), a thirty-something HR employee, skips her work trip and hires a taxi for the entire night. The taxi driver, whom she insistently picked, has had a terrible day, but he recognizes that the moody Dana suspects her husband of having an affair. In the second section, we see her husband Andrei (Cristian Popa) lying lonely and desolate in his swanky apartment, reaching out to Dana over phone. While Dana forges a fleeting emotional connection with the taxi driver, Andrei has a tryst ‘upwards’, unsatisfactorily hooking up with an upper-class businessman. The third part of the film presents them as a couple interacting with various members of their social circle. Monsters offers no easy answers: Andrei is gay, but is emotionally dependent on Dana, who can’t find intimacy outside their necessarily unsatisfactory marriage either. They playact happy coupledom for the world, but are also putting up a front to each other. Olteanu’s film forces us to constantly rework our perception of the characters, of them second-guessing each other and behaving the way they think the other would like them to behave, only to cause more misery.

Monsters models itself loosely after Godard’s Contempt, in its languid camera movement connecting people in different rooms, in its blue-red colour scheme, in its longueurs and in the centrality of jealousy in a relationship. At the backdrop of the marriage is a portrait of contemporary Romanian mores, its cultural conservatism, the nosiness of acquaintances, the hatred of the elites for their country, the pan-social anti-Roma prejudice, income inequality and housing problem. The success of the film is that these varied ideas only enrich the central story without ever overwhelming it. Olteanu demonstrates an ability to craft evocative atmosphere. Several passages unfold in real time and offscreen, the rhythm is consistently measured and the emotional beats genuine. The long scene of Andrei’s hook-up mixes the banal and the unusual to great effect. A large part of the film is in 1:1 ratio, which opens up to widescreen when the couple comes together in the third section, before closing in again. Despite being an unsubtle, theoretical choice, the device doesn’t come across as all that brash. The box produces exquisite closeups, helps Olteanu separate characters across shots and registers the cramped nature of the relationship. Monsters is a complex portrait of a marriage that can’t hold not just because of societal pressures, but because of the fundamental incompleteness of individuals.

Krabi 2562 (Ben Rivers, Anocha Suwichakornpong)

Like The Sky Trembles, Ben Rivers’ collaboration with Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong is a largely fictional, contemplative piece in 16mm and is inspired by the sights and people of the eponymous province in the south of Thailand. This work evolved out of the installation the two filmmakers developed for the Thai biennale, an event referred to in Krabi 2562. The film is a mosaic-like snapshot of the region constructed with a dozen or so characters: a mysterious tourist from another province who may be scouting locations for a film shoot, the petite guide who walks her through the history of important spots, the owner of her hotel who claims to have had supernatural encounters, the old owner of a country house she visits, the proprietor of a defunct movie theatre she finally disappears in, an ad filmmaking crew shooting on an island, and a Neanderthal couple living in the caves apparently in the same time line as the other characters. Not to mention several other outsider figures spending their summer vacation on the islands. Every one, though, seems to have some legend, story or a bit of personal history to recount.

Rivers and Suwichakornpong frame the action from a distance, with the characters of interest typically relegated to the background. Mixing interviews, vignettes of characters engaged in everyday activity or interacting with each other in refreshingly awkward dialogue and shots of the landscape, Krabi 2562 is a freewheeling work that’s always spiralling away from its ostensible plot: the disappearance of the woman. There are also a few “invented” sequences, such as a team of scientists looking for biological samples on the island. Politics is suggested through the sound of soldiers marching through the city and the film opens with an ironic-sounding scene of a school assembly where children pledge their allegiance to the religion, monarchy and the country. But these shards of information don’t necessarily fit together within a single discursive framework. What they evoke are possible histories about the region, where past and present, real and fictional, the living and the dead seem to coexist. This imaginative historiography of the film rests in an uneasy tension with its touristic aspect: though the long, meditative shots of landscapes and human activity capture the rhythm of life particular to the Krabi province, it’s not hard to see that they are also intended as promotional material for the region.

Color-blind (Ben Russell)

Shot in Brittany and French Polynesia, Ben Russell’s Color-blind opens with extreme close-ups of painted canvases that abstract figures in the painting into zones of clashing colours. Flashing on the screen are lines from a letter by Breton painter Paul Gauguin, in which the painter confesses that what appeals to him in this nude portrait of a young girl “on the verge of indecency” are the lines and forms. Speaking about his choice of colours, he adds that, in the mind of the Tahitian girl depicted, the phosphorous colours of the canvas stand for the souls of the dead. Russell’s practice has taken him to different corners of the planet and the ethical challenge in Color-blind remains the same: how does one represent the Other without exoticizing them? His response is to locate his own work critically in an uninterrogated tradition of Western representations of the Marquesas islands. But Russell’s response also involves showing the islanders as living under modern conditions and forms of knowledge. This prologue with Gauguin’s letter, setting up the theme of the outsider’s exoticization of the native, gives way to current day glimpses of the Marquesas islands: a modern music concert, commercialized dance classes, shooting of films with local men dressed in leaves, an old craftsman making a curio in his workshop. These impressions, presented without additional commentary or text, evoke an idea of preservation of tradition predicated ironically on catering to outsiders’ idea of the Polynesian culture.

Color-blind is an exploration of the history of outsider interventions in modern French Polynesian history. The legacy of French colonization is, of course, omnipresent. In a series of interviews, Russell shows a set of cards (presumably a triggering image or colour) to European and native participants, asking them to utter the first word that comes to their mind. Though the ideas are adjacent, there are important differences in nuances between the response in French compared to those in Marquesan (cf: Raúl Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale). A native tattooist talks about the outlawing of the practice by colonisers while a Frenchman expresses guilt over France’s atomic tests on the island. A German scholar discusses the work of historian Karl von den Steinen as the first written history about the Marquesas islands. A while into Color-blind, we get fades into and out of details in Gauguin’s canvases, copies of which hang in a local museum. The juxtaposition of documentary footage from the islands with representation of native bodies in these paintings throws into question Gauguin’s choices, which for all its glowing palette, seems no less colour-blind than the girl whose perception the painter presumes to be colour-naïve. It also places Russell’s own film in the outsider tradition, harking back in cinema to at least Murnau and Flaherty.

Mittelmeer (Jean-Marc Chapoulie)

French artist and filmmaker Jean-Marc Chapoulie’s Mittelmeer opens with shots of the Mediterranean Sea as filmed by closed-circuit cameras mounted on beachside hotels. The images evoke ideas of journey and mythical adventures, and the film is indeed offered as a tribute to Jean-Daniel Pollet’s Méditerranée. But these intimations of the timeless are pierced by history, the shot of a road by the Riviera calling to mind the July 2016 attack in Nice above all. Mittelmeer soon confirms the hunch as it trains its attention on the surveillance of public spaces and the public’s access to this surveillance footage. Like Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, Chapoulie’s film politicizes the stretch of geography that summer vacationers take to be a site of fun and relaxation. The Mittelmeer in Mittelmeer is a zone embodying the conflicts of our time. It is the burial ground for scores of refugees and immigrants who try to make their way into Europe and thus a border to be surveyed and protected by the state. It is also a preeminent channel of commerce, especially for large oil companies, the movement of goods across waters being more streamlined than that of people. The same containers become housing in the strictly monitored jungle of Calais.

In this regard, Peter Hutton’s At Sea and Godard’s Film Socialism are points of reference. In one passage, Chapoulie discusses the origin of piracy in the sea, relating it with the migrant inhabitants of Arcadia and noting that it was also the origin of theatre. And so he goes, constantly hopping from one set of ideas to another, from the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in public spaces, to the revolutionary theatre of protestors in the Middle East, to the relation of crude oil to history of imagemaking, to early Lumière films of people fishing and vacationing at beaches, to an American company manufacturing a device to detect shooters based on bullet sounds, to Syrian revolutionaries taking down public cameras. To be sure, these are all interrelated ideas, and stimulating ones at that, but there’s no sense that Chapoulie is synthesizing them into an essay with a central line. He constructs the film wholly from existing footage, at times colour-manipulating it, and adds an original sound mix to them, consisting of a multi-genre musical selection and amplified sounds of actions we see on screen. Also present are three human voices. Chapoulie regularly converses with his son about the images on screen, adding an element of fatherly pedagogy and virtual family vacation to the proceedings. There’s also the voice of Nathalie, a friend-collaborator, who furnishes critical commentary and personal musings. I might be underestimating Mittelmeer, but it’s a work that should’ve been better than it is.

Years of Construction (Heinz Emigholz)

Years of Construction is the first Emigholz film I’ve seen, so I don’t have a framework to access this 29th entry in the filmmaker’s Photography and Beyond series. It’s however a very strong work on its own merit. Charting the demolition and the subsequent reconstruction of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim between 2013-2018, Years presents an architecture in flux. There’s no voiceover or text, we don’t get to know anything about the institution or the building, and the film remains vehemently fixed on the material details of the transformation. Emigholz films the building from countless number of vantage points, sometimes with a Dutch angle and always from a non-intuitive point of view. These unusual compositions, nevertheless consisting of strong, expressionistic lines, serve the same purpose as many of the artworks in the museum: to slow down our eyes and force us to reflect on the architecture which is otherwise experienced simply as a negative space to the artwork. Cutting on matching movement, Emigholz accords about five seconds to each shot, no matter the amount or importance of the details it contains. This all-levelling gaze and cubist superposition asks an ontological question: can a building be completely described? But for Years of Construction, another question lies beneath: what distinguishes a building from its surroundings?

Emigholz puts in dialogue notions of indoor and outdoor all through Years. Each of the film’s six segments begins with the museum’s “exterior”—the face it offers to the surrounding city—before moving inside. He films its façade from across the park opposite, while deep-space interior shots of the museum often show the world outside. The statues in the park don’t have the aura that sculptures in the museum have, and this idea of the museum as a context-provider is at the focus of Years. Reminiscent of Berlin in Walter Ruttmann’s city symphony, Mannheim in Emigholz’s film transforms in a manner comparable to the museum: depopulated at first, it serves as a space to be filled, just like how the photograph-like shots devoid of movement in the film’s first passage give way to the busy action of dinosaur-like machines chomping on steel and concrete. Finally, Years explores the intersection between contemporary architecture and sculpture—two domains that have swapped their classical functions—as articulations of space and volume. The museum architecture, like the modernist sculptures in it, modulates visitor movement through and around it. By familiarising us with the building over 90 minutes, Emigholz obliges us to notice it in action when the museum is finally reopened for public in 2018: the sculptures now become the negative space to the architecture.

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s third film, Synonyms, like its predecessor, The Kindergarten Teacher, exhibits a special attention to words. It comes in the form of Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli ex-serviceman who leaves his home country for France. In Paris, he picks up a French dictionary and amasses synonyms to describe his hate for Israel. He refuses to speak in Hebrew, even when he works at the Israeli embassy and rubs shoulders with fundamentalist Batar volunteers. Identity being socially determined, Yoav can neither completely abandon Israel nor assimilate into the French culture that he loves unilaterally. Lapid realizes that a realist approach to this autobiographical tale would be both tedious and unoriginal, so he pegs the film on a register where psychological causality doesn’t hold. A non-professional, Mercier invests all his energy into the shots, his extreme physicality threatening to spiral out of control at all times. The film is likewise rugged, mixing nausea-inducing handheld shots with more graceful movements of the camera. The extra space available offered by the widescreen also allows for much movement and dynamism within shots.

Inspired by the location as well as his sojourn in France, Lapid draws liberally from the art film tradition. Yoav, and the bourgeois couple who shelter him after he is robbed, are variants on Bresson’s disaffected young men, and their half-naturalist, half-theatrical line delivery is similarly inflected with poetic stylization even when the content is ordinary. The constant interaction between youth, poverty and the sense of dislocation also recalls Carax, while the makeshift ménage à trois Yoav forms with his hosts could be from any post-68 French film. It’s to Lapid’s credit that he’s been able to mould these influences into a personal style. On the other hand, there’s really no framework that contains Yoav’s actions. Just when Yoav obtains French citizenship through a sham marriage, he rejects the idea owing to some undefined moral compulsion. He belts out the Marseillaise and Israeli national anthem with equal zest at the integration class, but the film also undercuts the Republican values taught at the same course. Yoav’s contradictions, as a result, feel artificial, a dramatic contrivance with very little context to back it up.

Midsommar (Ari Aster)

Having tragically lost her sister and parents, Dani (Florence Pugh) leans on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. While Christian is understanding, his friends think she’s taking too much advantage of him, offering little in return. When one of Christian’s friends invites them to his village in Sweden to participate in midsummer festivities, Christian asks Dani to join them in order to not offend her rather than out of concern. When the film actually gets going, the group finds itself in an isolated commune in central Sweden. The commune, uniformly of Scandinavian extraction and sporting white costume, is welcoming of the strangers, offers them psychedelic drugs and lets them tour their facilities. But movies have prepared us to read communes as cults, and this one turns out to be no different. The summer festivities grow bizarre by the day and includes ritual suicides and sacrifices. Anthropology graduates, Christian and a friend, meanwhile, fight over the rights to write a thesis on the commune. Soon enough, the visitors make those idiotic moves characteristic of horror movies and end up disappearing, leaving Christian and Dani to fend for themselves.

If Midsommar takes its own time to move the story along, it’s because it fashions itself as an intimate film about lovers’ paranoia expressed in horror movie terms. If the film has an insight to offer, it’s that couples in isolation from each other are prone to being brainwashed into doubt, be it by well-meaning friends or by murderous cults, into believing that they deserve better than what they have. It would have served the film better then to have characters that aren’t off a stencil as they are here. Dani, especially, comes across as needier, clingier than the film supposes, and her constant anxiety about Christian ignoring her make her even less sympathetic. Nor does the film have any ambivalence towards the commune to genuinely propose it as a solution to Dani’s perennial loneliness. The tragedy of her past is inserted in flashes, claiming psychological weight in a film whose pleasures are on its surface. Midsommar succeeds primarily as an assured iteration of the last girl template and is noteworthy in how little it relies on traditional horror movie tropes: it’s shot in broad daylight of northern summer, all shocking information is signalled beforehand, and visitors to the cult meet the exact fate you imagine for them. The film has passages of alluring visual and sonic rhythm, and the long-tether narrative moves through different perspectives and spaces freely once at the camp. The camera has a life of its own, pushing and pulling, craning up and down to describe a world out of whack.

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum immerses the viewer into the bohemian life of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a seasoned hedonist spending his days on the beaches of Florida in sex, alcohol and drugs. Moondog is a poet of unusual talent, we are told, and lives off the inherited wealth of his wife Minnie-Boo (Isla Fisher), who has an open affair going on with Moondog’s friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). When Minnie-Boo leaves behind a will that obliges Moondog to publish his long-pending book in order to inherit her money, the decadent poet becomes a nomad, reaching out to old friends for help. With a highly expressive colour palette, Korine’s sensual direction evokes a particular, self-indulgent view of life on the beach. Cycling through sunlit exteriors, interiors of gonzo tones and moody fluorescent streetlamps, the film progresses in a mosaic-like fashion, never lingering on any event for long, just like its protagonist, even as it deals with plot mechanics. Moondog’s treads light on the ground underneath, even when he’s pushed to a corner. And the film’s breezy aesthetic beguilingly captures this sense of transience of things.

Korine punctuates Moondog’s uncommitted life with moments of pathos, culminating in a charming romantic sequence with Minnie-Boo, the nightfall, the sea breeze, the white streetlight and Peggy Lee’s If That’s All There Is brought together into a fatalistic mix overseeing the tragedy that immediately follows. The Beach Bum is evidently on the side of Moondog, whose excesses it subsumes in a Romanticist notion of the downbeat artist who flouts conventions, but sees things more clearly than those around him. Moondog is a flaneur, perennially on the road with nothing but typewriter and a sack of books, depending on the universe to see him through the day. But the film also makes it plain that Moondog’s poetry is juvenile. He plagiarises from Lawrence, Baudelaire and Whitman, but his own work reads like bathroom scribbling. The people around him indicate again and again that beneath Moondog’s shallow life lies a core of genius, that behind his ironic relation to people and things likes a being of deep sensitivity—an intimation that never comes to fruition. These assurances of greatness subsidise his vulgarity and provide a reason to consider his humanity—an instrumental morality that goes against the film’s generous-seeming outlook.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

In contrast to The Beach Bum, Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir presents a modern, wholly original vision of the artist figure. Her autobiographical Julie (a heartbreakingly beautiful Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda), a filmmaker in training, is neither a tortured genius, nor a social outcast. She is everything one doesn’t associate with artists: generous, unassuming vulnerable, passive, docile and supremely decent. She is in a romantic relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an opinionated, strong personality who looms large over Julie’s life. His yearning, poetic letters of love—presented as interludes read by Julie over shots of the countryside horizon—ascribe to her a power over him that (a) she doesn’t possess and (b) only serves to further disempower her. “Don’t be worthy, be arrogant”, he advises her. But Julie is incapable of feigning arrogance or authority, and that’s what gives The Souvenir its unique force. She is literally self-effacing, seen as she is at the edge of the frame for most part of the film. Julie is told to make films based on her experience, but she can’t bring herself to be arrogant enough to believe it’s worthy of being filmed. She’s always seen writing something else than her own life.

What The Souvenir gets so right is that Julie’s self-doubt as a person—in her relationship with her parents, with Anthony—feeds on and into her self-doubt as an artist. At shoots, Julie is never in control, allowing her work to be overshadowed by her collaborators. She’s mentally elsewhere, carrying the guilt of ignoring Anthony and regularly calling him back from the set. Hitchcock is invoked, and The Souvenir can be seen as a loose reworking of Suspicion, where Julie lets Anthony overpower her despite her better judgment. But unlike the swooning Joan Fontaine who is quite obviously head over heels in love with Cary Grant, Julie’s irrational attraction and jealously towards Anthony feels somewhat theoretical and laboured, added in retrospect. Shooting in 16mm in a beige-brown-white aesthetic, Hogg evokes the eighties through events entirely offscreen—money problems, Irish bombings, the flourishing of cinéma du look in France. She frames every shot with thoughtful consideration, with plenty of negative space. She often films Julie through reflective surfaces, accentuating the sense of her fragility, and cycles through familiar spaces and compositions, rendering them as intimate as the subject.

Generation Wealth

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

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

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

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

Everybody Knows

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

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

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

Park Lanes

First of all, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Park Lanes is a conceptual coup. It might be the best response to the Lumières’ earliest factory films this side of the 20th century, and a pertinent update to Harun Farocki’s work on the same subject. Unlike the Lumières’ films, there are not scores of workers pouring out of the factory at the end of day’s work. Nevertheless, the political, psychological and social transition that the exit from the work place represents – a transition that Farocki magnificently examines in his 1995 video project – persists in all its contrast. It’s well past the sunrise by the time the workers in Park Lanes leave the floor, and the blinding sunlight that awaits them at the gates directly impresses upon us the idea of a personal life beyond the threshold.

Having his film play out over a duration equal to the legislated eight-hour work day gives Everson a chance to establish a number of interesting parallels between industrial labour and filmmaking, an equivalence that avant-garde filmmakers have time and again emphasized. For one, shooting with the camera held in his hand, and not using a tripod, for almost the entire duration, Everson is, in fact, involved in manual labour. Secondly, Everson, like the workers, is handling raw material for his work whose final shape he will not be able to see right away, though he might have a general idea of it in mind.

Further, the film’s structure is defined by the structure of the work on the factory floor. We are taken through various sections of the factory dealing with bowling alley equipment. We do not see how each of the tasks segues into the next or how it fits into the overall final product – which I think is how the film is also organized. We synthetically piece together the work flow as much as the film and its spaces.

Everson avoids the usual pitfalls presented by such a subject – aesthetization, condescension and, especially, the idea of worker alienation. (The workers, I wager, know what they are working on and can well enjoy an evening bowling and appreciating in some basic form what they have done.) He pitches the film between humanist and post-humanist perspectives of industrial labour. But I get the feeling that, trying to avoid the pitfalls, he has boxed himself into some problematic false neutrality. I think the choice of not having a voice over or any explicit theoretical framework betrays a form of non-committal plurality inviting multiple interpretations. (Of course, I must admit that not having seen any other of Everson’s films perhaps deprives me of a pre-existing framework with which to approach Park Lanes.)

Moreover, I could sense a lack of transparency between Everson and the workers. Granted that the workers know and comment upon the director’s and the camera’s presence and Everson’s shooting at eye level intelligently preempts any similarity to surveillance aesthetic, but for long stretches of the film, the workers perform their everyday duty as if the camera’s presence didn’t matter, which I think is pretty impossible. I insist that there is nothing exploitative about this, at least not more than what is involved in the workers working in the factory in the first place, but the discrepancy between this obviously intrusive alien presence and the seeming normality of proceedings crops up to my mind as an unaccounted variable.

The film appears to have been shot with a relatively long lens, which results in a shallow field that helps Everson focus on either faces or hands or the objects and instruments of the factory. This, of course, has practical benefits of avoiding disturbances in the near field of the camera and being able to be at a distance from the work site and give the workers and the filmmaker some maneuvering space. And perhaps there is an ethical point to be made there.

I admit I found Park Lanes very difficult to watch, unlike similar films by Sharon Lockhart and Denis Côté. True that the smaller runtime is a factor, but I think that the ease of watching has more to do with the latter filmmakers’ direct and transparent aesthetic intervention into their material. Park Lanes is insistent upon not judging or even describing what it is showing. On one hand, this approach confronts us with the relentless, ritualistic, meditative and, at times, comforting simplicity of industrial labour today, allowing us heartwarming glimpses of multicultural utopianism and unfeigned proletariat camaraderie. At the same time, the multiple fields of inquiry that the film’s lack of commentary opens up appear to me to neutralize each other. We don’t know whether to read many of the passages from a political or a humanistic standpoint. Long stretches of the film depicting monotonous work in a space that employs safety measures and has advanced equipment go in internecine counterpoint with the recesses in which the workers are enjoying movies on tablets and smart phones. We don’t know what they earn. We don’t know if they are in a union and whether they want to be in one either. I must clarify that I am not arguing for pigeonholing the worker experience into an overarching Manichean thesis. I’m trying to say that I think the film conflates a kind of non-judgmental presentation of reality as it is with a nuanced irreducible perspective. The various elements of the film seemed to me to go off on tangents rather than dialectically conversing with each other. Perhaps an analogy from photography would help me articulate better. The opposite of capturing a scene in shallow focus and reducing it to a Grand Theory is not capturing everything in deep focus. It is to use the deep focus to relate the foreground to the background in ways that couldn’t be expressed by each of them individually. By subtracting personal subjectivity altogether, Everson renders the film subject-less.

Finally, I do think the film is not as rigorous as it should have been. Besides the demands placed by the framing concept, the length of many sequences – length of each one in itself but also in comparison to the others – does not seem to be justified, if I may be allowed to say so. There is a two-minute shot of a bunch of bowling pins towards the very end. Though that duration is next to nothing for an eight-hour movie, I can’t see the motivation for such a slack shot. Are we expected to ponder on the ontological nature of bowling pins? I know better than to try and hold a filmmaker intellectually responsible for all his decisions, but I’m beginning to wonder whether the freedom from considerations of resourcefulness, economy and preplanning that digital cinema offers has also started impacting directorial intuition for the worse.

While my writing on this blog came to a grinding halt in 2014, watching and reading hit an all-time high, with the year practically spent in the eight feet between my bookshelf and computer screen. The films that I really liked last year consisted of some boldly adventurous mainstream Indian features (Haider, Dedh Ishqiya, Pisaasu, Jigarthanda), strong arthouse dramas (Waste Land, Two Days, One Night, Clouds Of Sils Maria, A Midsummer’s Fantasia), experiments in participative ethnography charting newer territories (Episode Of The Sea, Joy Of Man’s Desiring, Tomorrow Is Always Too Long), intelligent and reflexive modernist works (Actress, The Salt Of The Earth), classic fly-on-the-wall documentaries (National Gallery, Of Men And War, Maidan), purely formalist delights (Journey To The West, Panchromes I, II, III, Khan Khanne) and nearly unclassifiable mysteries without mysteries (Jauja, For The Plasma, Mercuriales). But (nearly) no film of the year, I thought, compared to the best offerings of the previous few years. Here’s hoping for a much richer 2015. As always, only the films that had their world premiere in 2014 are considered for this list. Happy New Year and good luck at the movies.

 

1. Goodbye To Language (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland)

 

Goodbye To LanguageThere is a reason why Godard’s explosive ‘second final’ film is called Adieu au langage and not Adieu à la langue: what it seeks to bid farewell to is not any particular language, but the system of language itself – not surprising for a film that attempts to wrestle with half a millennium’s worth of Western perceptual history. In 3D, which he employs like Cézanne employed watercolours, Godard finds a tool that can demolish the Albertian perspective of 2D images, decenter the human spectator and ultimately dethrone anthropocentric perception as the preeminent way of observing the world. The result is a torrent of phenomenological incidents in which stereoscopic images reinforce and undermine one another, stereophonic monologues diffuse into dialogue and ‘stereotemporal’ narrative shards respond to each other tangentially. Goodbye to Language is a investigation into the 3rd dimension in every sense of the word and sets up a plethora of sonic, visual, narrative and conceptual dialectics to see what the synthesis does to its two constituents. It is an attempt to find a perspective outside language – one of a dog, perhaps. No other film this year animated me and annoyed me as much. More importantly, it snapped me out of a cinephilia-induced intellectual stupor.

2. The Second Game (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)

 

The Second Game

The simple and cozily domestic setup of Porumboiu’s pseudo-single shot movie – the director and his father bond over a recorded game of televised football, in which the latter was a referee – belies the complex chain of implications that this physically hermetic film sets in motion. Running for exactly the length of one football match (played between two governmental bodies in 1988 on a spectacular snow covered ground), The Second Game is part-filial wish fulfillment of watching his father at work, part-review of sports aesthetics under communism and part-remembrance of an outmoded video technology, all filtered through a present day perspective. Striking an equivalence between his profession and his father’s, in both of which players have to be directed and decisions have to be made on the spot, the film is likely a reflection on whether or not the filmmaker has temperamentally inherited anything from dad, whose view of sports as perishable commodity is antithetical to his son’s view of it as art. It is more importantly one of the most intelligent and productive instances of appropriation art, with Porumboiu refashioning out of obscure sports footage a trademark film that is “long”, where “nothing happens” and which is nonetheless highly suspenseful.

3. Transformers: The Premake (Kevin Lee, USA)

 

Transformers: The PremakeIf what Porumboiu accomplishes sitting in front of a TV screen was amazing, what Chicago-based Kevin Lee does sitting in front of a computer is downright revelatory. Weaving together hundreds of internet videos about the making of Paramount Pictures’ Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), uploaded by common folk in America and Hong Kong and official news agencies in mainland China, Lee develops a brilliant and scary picture of corporate cultural hegemony in which seemingly the entire world bends over backwards to affiliate itself, consciously or otherwise, with the American conglomerate. Imbibing the spirit of Harun Farocki and Theodor Adorno (who, not coincidentally, lend their names to Lee’s HDDs) respectively in its tracing of modern forms of labour and commodity production and its critique of the darker side of popular entertainment, Premake reveals a post-globalized, post-nationalist Hollywood whose financial motor is now set to ensure China-friendly films to capitalize a booming market – a pertinent reminder that the influence of patronage on aesthetics is strongest in cinema of all arts. It is a short, sharp alarm call about the all-pervasive nature of Big Money, which can forge adherents out of the very people it has run over.

4. Bronx Obama (Ryan Murdock, USA)

 

Bronx ObamaRyan Murdock’s bountiful Kickstarter-funded documentary about Bronx-based Puerto Rican single father and Obama-impersonator Louis Ortiz is an oblique tale of possession and haunting. For the recession-hit Ortiz, Obama’s ascension to power is not only a story of national hope, but also a personal one that rides the coattails of Project Merchandise Obama. Murdock’s richly thematic film ties his fate to that of the POTUS in heady ways that demonstrate the double-edged nature of power: while his daughter can’t take for granted the privileges that the president’s can, Ortiz, unlike Obama, has infinitely more power in being able to stop playing the president any time he wants. It is also a snapshot of a common man struggling to maintain his dignity and identity under the weight of celebrity, for Ortiz has to not only become a receptacle of repressed racial hatred towards the president, but actively undercut his beliefs and parody his idol for one-percenter entertainment. When Ortiz looks at his hero speaking on television, he is at the same time looking at a mirror, continuously calibrating his speech, gesture and gait to match those of his doppelgänger. A Kagemusha for the 21st century.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

The Grand Budapest HotelIt seems to me that, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson set himself his biggest challenge to date. If making films with genuine affect wasn’t tough enough in a postmodern art climate where unironic approach to material is generally considered reactionary, his new movie assigns him the task of conveying nostalgia for a world doubly lost to our post-ideological age, in which the only valid nostalgia is the nostalgia for a time when nostalgia was even possible. The Matrioshka doll-like construction of the film aptly serves this objective by employing nested frameworks, each set in crucial periods of 20th century Western history, that bring this lost world closer to us instead of distancing it. The result is a deeply felt work about the enduring value of categories such as truth, beauty and basic human decency, really, which sets Anderson apart from most of his equally flamboyant peers, whose malevolent or agnostic universes seem to reject the spiritually uplifting side of art. If ever Renoir’s faith in Human Goodness in The Grand Illusion (1937) felt as being trapped in a time capsule beyond contemporary access, Anderson’s film releases it back into our epoch.

6. Letters To Max (Eric Baudelaire, France)

 

Letters To MaxDear Max, Are you there?” asks Baudelaire in the first of his 74 “impossible letters” to his Abkhazian friend and ex-diplomat, Maxim Gvindjia, addressing, in effect, both his interlocutor and his country. This existential question haunts the entirety of the film, which investigates what it is that really makes a nation. Is it the spectacular rituals and glorious anthems reinforcing nationhood? The time-worn buildings and landscape that give it a unity of character? The dubious accreditation of superpowers? Or is it indeed an imagined community forming an identity in opposition to ‘the other’? Such a dialogue between the material and the abstract is woven right into the structure of Letters to Max, where the very possibility of the physical letters that Baudelaire dispatches from France reaching Abkhazia gestures towards a recognition of its existence. Baudelaire’s film is partly an amicable correspondence between amis sans frontières and partly an interview between a bureaucrat and a political critic in which Eric’s broaching uncomfortable questions thwart Max’s desire to paint a unblemished picture of Abkhazia, putting him in a double bind paralleling that of his country: a nation torn apart as much historically between change and preservation as it is geographically.

7. False Harmonies (Paul Vecchiali, France)

 

False HarmoniesVeteran French filmmaker Paul Vecchiali made not one but two sublime films in 2014, the other being the Dostoyevsky adaptation, White Nights on the Pier. In False Harmonies, Vecchiali plays a man who is grieving the death of his long time partner. He chances upon email exchanges that the latter had had with an anonymous user on an online gay dating website and imagines the texts being read out to him by this unknown young man, who is played by two different actors depending on the tone and content of the messages. On one level, False Harmonies is an intelligent modernist exercise that charts its own making, wherein the script of the film is its very subject and the elaborate central scene of letter-reading is, in effect, the audition for the actors playing that role. But, like White Nights, it is also a work of soaring honesty about the essentially limited nature of romantic relationships. It suggests the frightful probability that the person you have spent half your life with might be the one you know the least; that we play roles in a relationship, sure, but we also seek out other roles to complement it; that getting out of character might be as important as getting in.

8. Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France)

 

Li'l QuinquinIn its conception, Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin, made as a four-part television miniseries, recalls the slyly subversive films of Robert Altman in his heyday. Picture this: 1.4 million French folks tune in to Arte TV expecting a comic broth of northern hicks, bumbling detectives and enfants terribles. What they get instead is a progressively morbid feuilleton about an ersatz Old Testament God meting out gory punishment for vaguely defined transgressions and a community with a twisted idea of moral propriety willing to shield this vigilante who seems to give potent form to their own thwarted drives. This is fine, topical screenwriting that responds to the rapid rise of the far-right in France, portraying a nation whose barely-repressed xenophobic streak during and before WW2 rears its ugly head in the present as Islamophobia. (Quinquin seems so tailor-made for India, where similar political upheavals have taken place and where a psychopath with a perverted sense of bovine justice is very much in the realm of possibilities,) It’s a world where pre-adolescents inherit, internalize and put into practice adult beliefs and rituals without reflection. Despite its humour and frivolity, darkness looms in the future that Dumont’s film lurches into.

9. The Lesson (Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, Bulgaria)

 

The LessonThe debut feature by Grozeva and Valchanov, like Two Days, One Night, works within the melodramatic form, moving its protagonist from point A to B through a series of progressively challenging obstacles. But while I found the Dardennes’ formidable and formally astute picture nonetheless a tad too ‘clean’, in the way it deliberately takes an irresolvable ethical quandary as a starting point and keeps underscoring a globalized Europe, The Lesson seems to me to retain the messiness of some of their earlier great films. On one level, it is a simple parable about the fallibility of authority, but it is also an uncompromising portrait of the tyrannical nature of all forms of social organizations, be they human systems with conscientious individuals at the helm or faceless bureaucratic ones with no vested interests. Slowly shifting its narrative space from the classroom to the metropolis with an enviable economy of exposition, The Lesson facilitates a double-edged critique that argues that the values taught in the class are but modeled on the values the state imposes on us and that what the state demands of us is to be ideal pupils in a classroom that is less than ideal.

10. Melbourne (Nima Javidi, Iran)

 

MelbourneThis remarkable debut feature by Nima Javidi naturally reminds one of Asghar Farhadi’s films, with its strong sense of drama, tremendous actor interpretations and mature writing that does not compromise the integrity of any of the characters. But there is also something particularly “new generational” about it in the way it harnesses the choice in front of affluent young Tehranians: to stay in Iran and own up its problems or to leave the country to start life anew. The inciting event in the film that dramatizes this choice stops the train of life dead in its tracks, exposing its protagonists to the unbearable “nowness” of the present. It is a terribly universal predicament in which time freezes around the material reality before you and all plans for the future and memories of the past seem like a remote, inaccessible country, a crisis that makes you want to either regress in time (“wish mother were here”) or to jump to a future day when the clouds have cleared, a moment where husband and wife see each other’s innermost character in all its stark nakedness. Though the couple might physically arrive at the eponymous neverland, the utopia it once represented is irrevocably lost.

 

Special mention: National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

A glance at the lineups of the major film festivals reveals how strong a year 2013 was for cinema, though the most important films, as is usually the case, wouldn’t see the light of day until about a year or two later. Personally, even more than it did in 2012, cinema took a back seat for various reasons and I could see only a fraction of what I wanted to this year. (Favorite discoveries this year include Douglas Sirk, Harun Farocki, Ernst Lubitsch and Samuel Fuller.) This post lists my favorite films that premiered in 2013. Other films I really liked were Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra and Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope. Hope that 2014 will be a much better year on all fronts.

1. The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA)

 

The Wolf Of Wall StreetReligion is the opium of the people” wrote Karl Marx. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wall Street evangelist and stock market prophet, Jordan Belfort, might just agree, even though the kingdom of heaven he promises is very much of this world. Martin Scorsese’s loud, unhinged and debauched portrait of the rise, fall and resurrection of the loud, unhinged and debauched Belfort is the anti-Christ story of our age: a man who lets others suffer for his sake and for whom every object, experience and sensation in the world is worth commodifying. Scorsese’s presents late capitalism in all its rapaciousness and vulgarity, as a force which appropriates pretty much everything in its way, including criticism, to gain momentum, as a psychosexual space in which the id is given free rein and libido finds an outlet in the act of moneymaking and as a state of perpetual sensory stimulation where wealth accumulation for the sake of it becomes as addictive as sex and drugs. Rife with film references and genre games, The Wolf of Wall Street is as much a duet between Scorsese’s spiritual concerns and the topicality of Terence Winter’s adaptation as it is a soaring, endlessly fascinating example of commercial filmmaking that witnesses a veteran craftsman at the top of his game.

2. Stranger By The Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)

 

Stranger By The LakeIrrationality is also at the heart of Alain Guiraudie’s simmering Stranger by the Lake, in which the object of fear is also the object of desire and where death and sex– la mort et la petite mort – are inseparably intertwined. Like Tsai Ming Liang’s quasi-phantom protagonists and their deserted habitats, the ghost-like characters in Guiraudie’s film haunt the lake by the day and vanish by night. And like Tsai’s cinema, Stranger employs a repetition of similar shots, spaces, movements and perspectives that both imparts it a structural simplicity and makes the gradual deviations from them even more pronounced. Marked by three distinct spaces – the woods, the beach and the parking lot – that trace the Freudian topology of the human psyche, the film presents a homo-normative world in which heterosexual presence is literally pushed to the margins, resulting in a level playing field divested of the problems of male gaze. More importantly, Stranger is perhaps the most visually accomplished film of the year and its handling of the interaction between Caucasian bodies and sunlight, foliage, twilight sky and water surface recalls the finest Impressionist works, especially those of Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir.

3. Stoker (Park Chan-wook, USA)

 

StokerAn extremely inspired piece of filmmaking, Park Chan-wook’s brilliant Stoker contains some of the most exciting cinematography, editing, sound and production design seen this year. Like Polanski’s movies, Park’s film is about the gradual induction and eventual decimation of Good by Evil. As in Stranger by the Lake, what is most seductive is also the most frightful. Fear and desire are enlaced together and embodied by the figure of Uncle Charlie, who is both an instrument of death and object of sexual desire. Stoker is evidently the result of synergy between a strongly authorial filmmaker who thinks primarily in terms of images and a rich, meaty script that draws as much from horror cinema and literature as it does from Hitchcock’s body of work. Park’s erotic, alluring economy of expression distinguishes itself from the self-congratulatory shorthand of ad filmmaking in the way it establishes subtler association between images and sounds in the film. Strikingly directed with strongly vertical compositional elements and an eerily accentuated sound palette, Stoker is a glorious return to form for Park, who is among the most remarkable visual stylists working today.

4. Shield Of Straw (Takashi Miike, Japan)

 

Shield Of StrawTakashi Miike’s juggernaut of a film, the proto-dystopian Shield of Straw, works off a premise familiar to Western movie audience: a group of cops have to transfer a pedophilic killer from the city of Fukuoka to the police headquarters in Tokyo. But there’s a problem. A multi-billionaire has announced a bounty on the guy so massive that it overshadows any fear of imprisonment. What’s more, the killer is such a despicable figure that any residual moral compunction about knocking him off is eliminated. The cops, as a result, have to protect him from not only the entire Japanese population but also themselves. A distant cousin to Scorsese’s film, Shield of Straw imagines a society where both moral and legal obstacles – the superegoist constructs of sin and crime – to Darwinian social-climbing are eliminated or, worse, justified. More impressive than the demonstration of how such an economic system becomes a perfect incubating ground for greed is its central existential dilemma, in which the obligation is on the individual not only to do the right thing, but to understand what the right thing is.

5. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia)

 

The Missing PictureHow do you represent history on film that was never documented visually? This is the question that to which Rithy Panh’s highly original, challenging and affecting work responds. Seeking primarily to be a document of life in the Khmer Rouge concentration camps, the film uses neither fictional recreation, which might end up graphic and exploitative, nor animation, which lacks the material presence that photographs offer, but hundreds of meticulously hand-made clay dolls that stand in for people who are to be represented, the concept being that clay would symbolically contain the remains of the camp victims. The resulting film places the audience at a distance from the horrors being described while always retaining a space for empathy. A densely detailed voiceover , on the other hand, recounts Panh’s personal experience at the camps, his lament about images that should or should not have been made, the way cinema had become a tool for totalitarian oppression and reflections on the wacky “Marx meets Rousseau” ideology of the Khmer Rouge that justified the camps. The outcome is a thoroughly thought-provoking essay film that has both the simplicity of a historical document and the ambitiousness of a deconstruction project.

6. In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili/Simon Groß, Georgia)

 

In BloomOne of the regrettable things about Nana Ekvtimishvili’s and Simon Gross’ absolutely heartbreaking debut In Bloom is that it is being promoted and received merely as a coming-of-age film set against Soviet collapse. Though the film is certainly that, it is grossly unfair to pigeonhole a wrenching portrayal of female camaraderie on par with anything that Pedro Almodóvar has made into a convenient marketing category. Two 14-year old ‘women’ Eka and Natia, superbly played by debutants Lika Babulani and Mariam Bokeria, in the process of transitioning to adulthood, negotiate the social and cultural problems that plague a country in transition and quietly break patriarchal norms. Dysfunctional families, street violence and the war with Abkhazia are all definitely forces that shape the young women’s lives, but they reside on the periphery of the narrative, which, like the finest Italian Neorealist films, does not underestimate the power of individual agency while acknowledging social constructivism. There is as much truth in Natia acceding to be married to a guy she does not like as there is in Eka tossing the Chekhovian pistol into a lake.

7. Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, France)

 

Mood IndigoTrust a wild music video director like Michel Gondry to come up with the zaniest, trippiest, most imaginative film of the year. Adapted from Boris Vian’s (apparently unfilmable) book L’écume des jours, Mood Indigo is escapist cinema in the truest sense of the term and presents a universe free from the laws of physics and logic. So you have the Pianocktail which concocts a drink based on the notes you play, a rubbery dance form where legs wobble and sway with the woozy jazz soundtrack, split-screen weather conditions, a doorbell that needs to be squashed every time it is set off, a star philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre discoursing from inside a gigantic pipe and a floor full of stenographers writing in chorus the film they are in. Mood Indigo’s gently satirical tale of downward mobility embodies the spirit of the best musicals, producing a strange, unwieldy yet alluring film that combines levity of form with the somberness of its story. Rivaling Terry Gilliam at his surreal best, Gondry’s ceaselessly inventive film is something of a descendant to Georges Méliès’ and Émile Cohl’s cinema of dreams.

8. A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (Ben Rivers/Ben Russell, Estonia)

 

A Spell To Ward Off The DarknessBen Rivers’ and Ben Russell’s hypnotic tripartite work presents a single nameless character, played by musician Robert A A Lowe, living in three different social setups: as a part of a commune in Estonia, as a loner in the Finnish woods and as a member of a Norwegian Black Metal group. Specifically, the film shows the character in three states of being, in which the identity of the individual is subordinated to larger ones – the New Ageist assimilation of individual into the community, the Tarkovskian oneness with nature and the Black Metallic transcendence into the realm of the occult. These, on a more general level, are also the three avenues through which men create meaning in their lives – purposeful communal living, Thoreau-esque simple life in harmony with nature and creation of art. Although Spell’s significance arises from the interaction between its three parts, the individual segments themselves contain enthralling passages, especially the trancelike last section, made almost entirely out of the close-ups of performers’ faces and the discordant soundscape, transports the viewer to an experiential plane far removed from his mundane corporeality. It reinforces what André Bazin said of cinema: the Real can be arrived at only through artifice.

9. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

 

Like Father, Like SonA decidedly worn-out premise is at the origin of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son: two babies are swapped at the hospital at the time of birth and end up in different social strata. What could have been an exercise in broad comedy or, even worse, class stereotyping – though the film is a comedy and does double as a fine comedy of class-bound manners – is instead transformed into a piercing examination of parenthood, in which bringing up a child becomes a process of coming to terms with one’s own flaws and insecurities. Through turn of events the film undermines the perspective that men look at their offspring as a continuation of bloodline and women view them as the recipients of their care and affection, While, on the surface, the film seems to be merely a cautionary tale about the perils of spending too little time with your kid, on careful unraveling, it reveals itself as a much more delicate look at the tradeoffs one has to make in bringing up a child, at the question of where to interfere and where to let go.

10. Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, USA)

 

Drinking BuddiesWith Drinking Buddies, the insanely prolific Joe Swanberg, who wrote and directed a modest three films in 2013 and acted in five, has made a work that might well situate him in the line of filmmakers like Eric Rohmer, Richard Linklater and Hong Sang-soo in both its structural simplicity – marked by numerous small symmetries – and its fine observations on human relationships. The terrific ensemble is as much an author as Swanberg is and the actors evidently draw from personal experience. A naturalistic depiction of the lives of two friends at a brewery, the film treads the ever fuzzy boundary between friendship and romance. Like in the equally excellent Mexican comedy Club Sandwich (2013), Swanberg and his actors host a playful game of smudging the boundaries of sexual propriety by employing ambiguous actor positions, dialogue and physical interaction that fudges the accepted movie conventions about on-screen friendship and romance. If not anything else, Drinking Buddies is an embodiment of the shortcomings and apprehensions of the ‘millennial’ generation, for which the line between friendship and romance has become porous and tricky to negotiate.

 

Special mention: Young And Beautiful (François Ozon, France)

Profit Motive And The Whispering Wind  (2007)
John Gianvito
English

 

Profit Motive and the Whispering WindJohn Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007) is prefaced by a quote by Utah Philips (but attributed to a certain Claire Spark Loeb): “The long memory is the most radical idea in America”. Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Gianvito’s film is an attempt to chart the history of the country through gravestones, individual memorials and geo-historical markers. Unlike Zinn, however, Gianvito doesn’t have the descriptive advantage of the written text. His is, notwithstanding the texts we encounter within these images, a visual project in which history ‘materializes’ itself in the signatures of the visible. For Gianvito, this history, too, is a history of class struggles. Starting from the early Native American movements, through slave insurrections and worker uprisings of the industrial era, to the Civil Rights Movement and current-day social protests, the film, like Zinn’s book, sets the framework for a historiography of America based solely on – organized but not necessarily politicized –  people’s movements. Profit Motive brings to mind essay films such as Landscape Suicide (1986), Robinson In Ruins (2010) and, more recently, differently, Molussia (2012) in the way it probes for the strains of a troubled past on a sedate visible present. Presenting indicators of modern life – highways and cars – right next to site markers detailing strikes and revolts that took place centuries ago, the film hints at a causality and reflects on how history continually affects and shapes the here and the now. The Whispering Wind of the title, which resembles a tribal Indian name, on the other hand, derives from the numerous shots of wind-ridden countryside, forests and grasslands that punctuate the film. (They remind one of D. W. Griffith’s comment about filming the wind in the trees.) These winds become something of connecting tissues between the shots of the monuments and have a mythic quality to them, as though they are immortal, invisible balladeers channeling history from one time and place to another.

Far From Heaven (2002)
Todd Haynes
English

 

“Do you think we ever really do see beyond those things, the surface of things?

 

Far From HeavenTodd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) opens with a shot of red autumnal leaves before the camera cranes down from heaven into the town of Hartford. This shot – a direct reference to Douglas Sirk’s beautiful All That Heaven Allows (1955), whose quasi-remake Haynes’ film is – locates the film squarely within Sirk’s universe and announces right away the derivative and thoroughly cinematic nature of this enterprise. It also signals the film’s preoccupation with the look and sound of the Sirkian world that it wants to depict. Right from the retro typeface of the film’s title card, through the emphasis on era-defining objects of the film’s world and seasonal details such as autumn foliage and clothing, to its use of outdated figures of speech and Elmer Bernstein’s intense score, Haynes’ film is obsessed with the minutiae of Sirk’s universe, with the surface of things. (Haynes shares another trait with Sirk: the two are among the most articulate American filmmakers, directors who are remarkably clear-eyed about their films.) Far From Heaven is the kind of film that academicians instantly cotton on to. It is an analysis of Sirk’s cinema and a case for it as cinematic art (as though that were necessary). It is Douglas Sirk refracted through decades of film theory.

Set amidst the suburban excesses of Eisenhowerian America, the film centers on Frank, an affluent resident of Hartford, Connecticut, and the earning member of the Whitaker family which comprises of his wife Cathy and their two children. Dennis Quaid plays Frank playing the role of a upwardly-mobile businessman with familial responsibilities while Julianne Moore plays Cathy playing a dedicated homemaker and much lauded society woman. The Whitakers are the cynosure of the town’s eyes (Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech), with their professional successes and grand soirees. Frank, however, is struggling to confront his sexuality, a revelation which might bring down all that he’s worked for. Cathy, meanwhile, barely more than a prop in her picture perfect household, takes a special liking to her composed and taciturn African-American gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Caught between a crumbling marriage and a forbidden love, poised to lose everything that has given her an identity, Cathy must choose between what she wants and what is wanted of her and negotiate the lines between the personal and the social.

One of the things that sets the film apart from its contemporaries is its almost classical use of the mise en scène.  Haynes uses a meticulously picked, heightened colour palette that conceptually takes off from Sirk’s (saturated primary colours for the white denizens and their environment and deep reds and browns for the black community) but produces striking images of its own. Same applies for the lighting that alternates between chiaroscuro and softly graded and the dialectical use of indoor and outdoor spaces. Haynes and crew retain the cinematographic devices of the studio-era, especially the dissolves-in-camera and strategically employed Dutch angles. In fact, Far From Heaven, imbibes much from sources besides Sirk, such as Max Ophüls’ Madame de.. (1953, a film that’s also about the horror of surfaces), Rainer Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s film Ali; Fear Eats The Soul (1974, entrapping double-frames using architectural elements) and, of course, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976, décor details, which also haunt Haynes’ Mildred Pierce adaptation). Outside of film, it appears as if Haynes’ major aesthetic inspiration comes from Edward Hopper, whose downbeat yet somehow hopeful vision of post-war America and use of incandescent light and chromatic contrasts seem to inform the scenes depicting Hartford at night.

 

Far From Heaven

The Earrings of Madame de

Far From Heaven

Jeanne Dielman

Far From Heaven

Nighthawks - Edward Hopper

Far From Heaven

New York Movie - Edward Hopper

 

Period films run the risk of treating History as a closed project, as a fossil frozen in time, clinically isolated from the present. Steven Spielberg’s period films, for instance, are informed by historical hindsight and characterized by current day morality bleeding into the past being depicted. Issues of the past are addressed as just that: issues over and done with. As with most mainstream films, the audience here knows right away where their sympathies and convictions lie and what is morally just. This triumphalist perspective of history offers – not unlike films about poverty, problems faced by Third World women and pre-modern cultural practices, in general – the liberal audience an opportunity to pat itself on the back, to patronize on groups not yet shown the light of the day and to align itself to and ratify the Enlightenment project. On the other hand, ambitious period films, as do ambitious sci-fi pictures, locate what are decidedly concerns of the present – problems affecting us here and now – in a narrative apparently located in a different historical time. They open up history for scrutiny, presenting it as a force that still bears upon us, and undermine our moral convictions. History, as it were, bleeds into the present.

Far From HeavenAdmittedly, and evidently, Far From Heaven attempts to work against conventional narrative approaches to history by trying to retain a radical edge to its story. It replaces partly outmoded taboos of Sirk’s film with ones that are still provocative. The rationale is that today’s audience would find the forbidden love story between an upper-class widow and her working class gardener a bit too easy to resolve compared to the edgy sexual and interracial tensions of Haynes’ film. (Substituting class with race and sexual orientation is, in a way, indicative of the trajectory of Western counterculture, where the more global grand-narrative of class conflict has made way for niche identity-politics and the struggle for economic overhaul has transmogrified into a struggle for cultural change.) The swap pushes the envelope, sure, but is it radical? Hardly. Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s film, made three decades before Haynes’, had a younger African immigrant labourer as the object of an affluent widow’s desire. It is, of course, unfair to demand of Haynes’ film to emulate the radicalism of Fassbinder’s by stacking up the odds against the union as much as possible. However, like numerous primetime social experiments with hidden cameras, the moral equations remain so clearly resolved that even a conservative audience would know which side to take.

Perhaps it’s the inherent simplicity of the form that Haynes employs that necessitates the film’s moral clarity. Two obvious questions come to mind watching Far From Heaven: why the 1950s New England milieu and why Douglas Sirk? Why not a current day realist drama? (That’s a question provoked by the entirety of Haynes’ body of work, which consists almost completely of period pieces.) Haynes’ answer is part-Bazinian, part-Godardian:

 

I think the best movies are the ones where the limitations of representation are acknowledged, where the filmmakers don’t pretend those limitations don’t exist. Films aren’t real; they’re completely constructed. All forms of film language are a choice, and none of it is the truth. With this film, we point out at the start that we’re aware of all this. We’re not using today’s conventions to portray what’s ‘real.’ What’s real is our emotions when we’re in the theater. If we don’t have feeling for the movie, then the movie isn’t good for us. If we do, then it’s real and moving and alive.

 

One infers that, instead of creating a new schema for this self-conscious artifice, Haynes chooses to adopt a démodé form, to draw from a more primal, more impassioned aesthetic. What is interesting here is that Haynes’s film embraces this form neither for parodying representational conventions (as has become the norm for many films too clever by half) nor for emotionally disengaging the audience (as do many films, including Fassbinder’s, that consciously take to melodrama). Instead, it places full faith in this ornate, innocent yet complex form to generate emotional connection between the text and the viewer. A postmodern exercise with genuine affect, if you please.

Far From HeavenAlthough Haynes is working in an anti-naturalistic mode, he is still very much works in the psychological tradition – an unusual combination that further complicates Haynes’ complex brand of humanism. Despite his post-Humanist approach to his material and his formalist inclinations, there’s always been a streak of real humanism in all his films. Sure, the Barbie doll actors and the subversive documentary trappings of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) are meant to satirize popular culture’s obsession with gender-programming, but it’s also sympathetic towards the plight of Karen Carpenter the person. Carol (Julianne Moore) in Safe (1995) may be the means by which Haynes criticizes the soulless lifestyle of Reaganite American suburbia and its empty concerns, but she’s also fully human. (Carol and Cathy are essentially the same people, separated by space and time.) The many Bob Dylan avatars of the trailblazing I’m Not There (2007) are definitely used to illustrate the politico-cultural space in which he created his music, but the film is also practically a love letter to him. In this film, Cathy is a victim of her ethos, but she’s also a rebel, as is evident from her many acts of defiance. Her osmosis from sacred to forbidden spaces is an act of revolt on par with Dylan’s countercultural gestures. The expectation-defying Far from Heaven ­- a warm and unironic heterosexual drama – like most of the director’s films, likewise, is something of a rebellion on Haynes’ part against a film culture that perennially tries to pigeonhole filmmakers into broad labels and easily disposable categories.

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