Cinespect Presents: Impressions of the 50th New York Film Festival, Pt. 1
Published on October 8th, 2012 | by The Staff0
Here then are our impressions (in the first of two parts) of the films that the NYFF has bestowed upon New York City in 2012. We will expand these capsule reviews upon each film’s theatrical release.
“Room 237” ( Rodney Ascher, 2012)
Release date: October 26, 2012
A chorus of disembodied voices obsessing in almost religious devotion over a once disreputable genre staple—Rodney Ascher’s found footage spectacle “Room 237” might be the first feature film to really take on cinephilic fandom in the internet era as its implicit subject. Following five Stanley Kubrick devotees as each delivers an obsessively reasoned eisegesis on Kubrick’s still-controversial Stephen King adaptation, the film raises fairly significant questions about spectatorship and critical perspective in the increasingly confusing world of the critical video essay. Comprised entirely of found footage—mostly from “The Shining,” shown in widescreen despite the endless aspect ratio controversies that surround Kubrick’s film—the film is a small victory in the ongoing argument towards fair use in copyright law. That much of the found footage not taken from Kubrick’s film—mostly from camp classics such as Lamberto Bava’s “Demons” and “Demons 2,” as well as numerous older black and white genre films—tips towards the camp or ironic gives credence to what Jonathan Rosenbaum referred to, derisively, as the “perpetual escape hatch” of irony.
Rosenbaum’s reservations are not entirely unfounded. While the observations of Ascher’s experts may be interesting (a mapping out of the fictional interior space of the Overlook Hotel in order to come to terms with the uncanniness of its architecture), trite (the idea that the film is an allegory about the genocide of the American Indians), quixotic (that the film is an allegory about the extermination of the European Jews), or crazy in an almost overdetermined way (the idea that the film is an apologia for Kubrick having had a hand in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing), they are united both in their literal-mindedness and in their absolute devotion to their beliefs, and attachment to the film itself. Ascher, whose earlier work plunged unreservedly into smugness, makes no such commitment, risks nothing of himself. But such reservations are no more than reservations; the critic who tries to make moralistic judgments upon initial release will most likely look like a fool once time for reflection has arrived. The film’s greatest sin, perhaps, is that the use of archival footage is occasionally too on the nose, as if they had composed the (very well-structured) audio track first, and then had to search images to accompany it, too often settling for illustrative images rather than contrapuntal ones.
That Ascher manages to reframe and celebrate a film like Kubrick’s, which has become familiar to the point of parody for many viewers, while still avoiding the trap of reverence is something to applaud. To paraphrase Brecht, a theater that can’t be laughed in is a theater to be laughed at. And the film moves with a musical grace, a quality that is so rare in anything—let alone a documentary—that it is worth watching just to remember that, every so often, a film can sing through movement alone. Rosenbaum, again, once pointed out the supreme importance certain medicinal herbs played in the initial acceptance of the aesthetic achievements of a movie like “2001: A Space Odyssey”; if this film was released in such a time, it might be considered a quintessential dope movie (“a sudden movement from total concentration to Zenlike disassociation,” as Rosenbaum writes), which might be considered a backhanded compliment if not for the fact that this makes such a radical departure from the pitiful, literal-minded discourse of so much of American non-fiction filmmaking. Given that “Room 237” is in the company of such other strong NYFF documentaries as “Leviathan” and “Anders, Molussian,” this feels like a good year to take a strong step forward.
Release date: November 21, 2012
“The whole of life is an act of letting go.” These words are spoken by an adult version of the main character, Pi Patel, in Ang Lee’s latest film, “Life of Pi.” And he should know. After all, “Life of Pi,” while focused on many big themes like God and identity, is first and foremost a strange, epic adventure, detailing the story of a teenaged Pi following a life-shattering disaster at sea, with only a Bengal tiger as his castaway companion.
“Life of Pi” is based on the bestselling novel by Yann Martel, and the director Ang Lee does an exceptional job of following the book’s structure (flaws and all) to build his gorgeous 3D film. Make no mistake—Lee is throwing down the visual gauntlet. So, here we are—a big pop-up animal book adventure, like a post-“Avatar” version of Aesop’s Fables. Digital animals. A series of fantastic adventures. 3D psychedelic montages. Hell, he even has his own big sinking ship moment—although no icebergs or Leonardo DiCaprios were harmed.
It is safe to say that this film will set a new standard for 3D effects and CG animation. The marriage of spectacle and script is well done, offering something that feels absolutely necessary to the storytelling, much like Spielberg’s T-Rex in “Jurassic Park.” Finally Ang Lee’s soul-searching has found the right digital persona. The ferocious Richard Parker (a fully-CG Bengal tiger—truly amazing to see) is a much better vessel for Lee’s quest for identity than his conflicted, father-troubled Hulk (noble effort though that was). Both are savage beasts born of narrative metaphors and computer graphics; however, in this case, Lee looks past the man in the mirror and goes in search of God. With Martel’s exquisite story to back him up, he may just have reeled in the big one—that is, delivering a challenging, entertaining study of faith and religion in the twenty-first century that neither panders to nor alienates the viewer. True, Lee may be a tiger who doesn’t change his thematic stripes (identity, cultural traditions, role conflicts, etc.) from film to film, but damn, do they look great on him.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” (Roger Michell, 2012)
Release date: December 25, 2012
“Hyde Park on Hudson” is about secrets and the development of “special relationships,” toggling between period docudrama and personal biography. Its existence appears to spring entirely from the notion, “Wouldn’t it be great to see Bill Murray as F.D.R.?” Although the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes,” the resulting film is slight; its charm ebbs more often than it flows as its focus wanders among its cast and dissimilar storylines.
Bill Murray’s performance is a curious treat, completely burying the mannerisms that we have come to associate with him, but also never surpassing the physical reality of watching Bill Murray play Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Murray is charming and calculating, imagining F.D.R. as a canny diplomat and seducer (the implicit relationship between these two activities is the strongest link between the film’s two central storylines), not to mention the smartest and the loneliest man in the room. Contributing to the ever-present awareness that we are watching Bill Murray is the patrician accent he affects for the role, more Cary Grant than the thirty-second President.
The rest of the cast performs admirably and respectfully, but one cannot help losing interest in their cares and subplots every time Murray appears onscreen. As Margaret Suckley, Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, frequent companion, and sometimes lover, Laura Linney brings a compelling, unpredictable energy to a character who is ultimately a poor choice for an audience surrogate—as soon as the visiting British royals enter the picture, they sweep Margaret right out of the film. Samuel West makes a valiant effort at playing the stuttering King George VI, although West’s depiction is doomed to be overshadowed by Colin Firth’s performance of the same role in “The King’s Speech.” The most engaging scenes feature the newly crowned King and Roosevelt feeling each other out over quotidian domestic and diplomatic matters. In another highlight, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman, working every imaginable shade of “worried”) frets over the President’s irreverent choice of framed art in her guest room.
Although the film never quite reconciles this political docudrama with the story of Margaret and Roosevelt’s relationship, its director, Roger Michell, and its screenwriter, Richard Nelson, make the most of its period setting and their audience’s preconceptions about these characters. The best instances take us to the moments before and after the famous photo-ops, showing a dutiful press corps keeping their distance until Roosevelt’s aide has carried him into his seat and arranged his disabled legs just so, or an eager King George shooting personal 8mm footage at his own state luncheon (a barbecue that features the most fraught close-ups of hot dogs ever committed to film). Chief among the less effective touches are several references to Eleanor Roosevelt’s preference for the company of masculine women, which are dropped with all the subtlety of a blitzkrieg (Olivia Williams acquits herself well in the role, bringing a forceful edge to her scenes that imply an off-screen story worth telling elsewhere). Art direction, costume design, and photography of the lush New York countryside are all executed for maximum aesthetic pleasure and with impeccable attention to period detail.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” is ultimately a pretty film that has the unenviable task of trying to bring urgency to a pair of stories (a political summit and a love affair) with forgone conclusions. It attempts to remind viewers of the Great Depression’s hardships—likely hoping this will resonate in the current age of austerity—but does not leave Roosevelt’s palatial countryside home to glimpse real poverty. Likewise, Murray and an able cast steep us in the humanity of these iconic people while the film’s story steers them clear of consequential struggles.
“Camille Rewinds” (Noémie Lvovsky, 2012)
Release date: TBA
Camille Vaillant (Noémie Lvovsky, also the film’s writer-director) is hurting from her divorce. After a long day on the set of a film called “The Butcher’s Revenge,” she makes her way to a New Year’s Eve party where she has a few too many drinks, passes out, and wakes up in 1984, back in high school, the year she fell in love with her future ex-husband. It’s understandable that this remake of “Peggy Sue Got Married” (NYFF ’86) is mired in ’80s nostalgia (expressed in both flamboyant production design and a jukebox soundtrack featuring Nena’s “99 Luftballons” and Bananarama’s “Venus”). Less understandable are its vaguely manic-pixie-dream-girl themes. (A song or two by She & Him never hurt anyone, but a track by The Shins that was used in “Garden State”?) Campy and cliché-ridden though the film may be, it’s quite funny at moments, particularly when Lvovsky interacts with her rich Rolodex of cameos, from Jean-Pierre Léaud as a cranky horloger who facilitates Camille’s time-travel to Mathieu Amalric as a schlemiel who teaches at her high school.
“Night Across the Street” (Raoul Ruiz, 2012)
Release date: TBA
So many of Raul Ruiz’s films have been explorations of the porous boundaries that separate the dead and the living that the appearance of an actual posthumous film from the great director seems almost bizarrely overdetermined. Which also means that this film’s explicit foregrounding of death, aging, memory, and the afterlife makes it—like so many other “late” films—hard to watch without a certain amount of sentiment that rises above and beyond the already moving material on the screen.
Our protagonist, the aging Don Celso, played with gravity by Sergio Hernandez, lives out many lives in the twilight of his life: an office worker who hasn’t done any work for years; a child who carries out morbid discussions with what appears to be the Ghost of Long John Silver, of “Treasure Island” fame, haunting a decrepit boarding house where, possibly spurred on by Celso’s own suicidal urges, a noirish intrigue is about to take place; and a radio personality reading out elaborate fictions of his childhood, in which he imagines elaborate encounters with Beethoven. Along the way he has long discussions with Jean Giono, a man who may or may not be the legendary French writer, and who—like much else in the film—may only be the fuzzy dream of a dying man. The stories about childhood are the great highlight of this film—intimate and surreal in equal measure, they carry the weight of memory even while veering into deeply strange, fantastic territory. That much of the discussion, between adults and drunken teachers, concerns the political tensions that would explode decades later, sending the director out of his country in exile for the majority of his life and career, places an added weight of memory on what we see, and the images of the Chilean landscape that open the film carry the double-faced melancholy of a man who is returning to a beloved home and saying goodbye to it all at once.
For the last decade of his life, Ruiz tended to make smaller, more intimate films, discovering a looser rhythm than would be seen in the ferociously complex, often terribly violent films that made his name in the eighties. None of these films—“La Recta Provincia,” “La maison Nucingen,” “Le domain perdu,” “Días de campo”—have seen American release, so any audience coming to this film after seeing “Mysteries of Lisbon,” the movie that garnered the most positive press attention of perhaps the director’s entire career, may be surprised. That film was a special thing, a director being given a large canvas to paint on at exactly the moment that he needed a testament. It was a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, a rarity in the career of a man who moved so fast, who seemed so uninterested in one-of-a-kind masterpieces in the first place. “Night Across the Street” is something even rarer, not an oil painting on a grand scale but a notebook sketch by a master, as Picasso turned to late in his career. This quickness is visible, yes, in the chalky tones of the digital image and in the occasionally cramped, chintzy look of the sets—Ruiz’s perverse use of digital green-screens throughout is something different, and worth further discussion especially in light of Resnais’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”—and it’s all a far cry from the kind of virtuosity Ruiz showed in his early use of 16mm, or in the staggering split-diopter traveling shots of his French period. As with many of Ruiz’s films, his eccentric sense of narrative occasionally backfires, leading to a feeling of indulgence, as if it’s just one damn thing happening after another.
But then he gives a group of ghosts reading a séance for slightly less dead, or shockingly philosophical use of green-screen to show the urban development of a small Chilean town, or repeats the word “rhododendron” until the mysteries of life and death start to open up around it. That’s when you realize that this bizarrely musical system of image-making (and the images produced by it) is one that lived and died with Ruiz alone. Now that he’s gone, this is the last of it we’ve got.
“Passion” (Brian De Palma, 2012)
Release date: TBA
The release of a Brian De Palma film is, in vague accordance with the singular filmmaker’s persistent depictions of doubles and simulacra, always at least a two-tiered event. An oft-overlooked master, De Palma is the rare director who consistently pulls off the conception and release of art that is aesthetically and thematically invigorating to the casual, entertainment-seeking audience, and also an enjoyably formidable minefield for those viewers who are so inclined to seek layers of meaning that glide seductively beneath the glossy sheen of his films’ undeniably gorgeous surfaces. Critical reception of his work varies wildly, and it is unfortunately no overstatement to say that the general public historically shows little interest in indulging the man’s unique quirks and obsessions. Audience reception ranges from bored indifference to his films’ hidden concepts, to pleased appreciation of his visual flourishes, unpredictable plot twists, and ample provision of naked breasts. Aside from salivating fans and reasonably educated cinephiles, appreciation of his work tends to focus on the execution of the films themselves as opposed to the imaginings and motivations of the man behind them. Fair enough. But a De Palma film can appeal to anyone interested in the auteur theory, or even the basic concept of perfection through repetition.
As an admitted De Palma admirer, I am pleased to report that “Passion,” his highly anticipated return to form after 2007’s “Redacted,” manages to stand proudly amongst the best of his oeuvre. This is a fantastic and somehow surprising treat on a several levels for loyal De Palma defenders, skeptical shirt-tucking critics, and popcorn-gobbling multiplex masses alike. Ostensibly existing within the same framework as his finest erotic thrillers, from the gender-bending perversion of 1980’s subversively moralistic “Dressed to Kill,” to the unrepentant visual hedonism and barely concealed feminist anger of 2002’s “Femme Fatale,” this attractive puzzle of corporate backstabbing and sexual manipulation works beautifully as mindless, intoxicating entertainment with the same dedication and mastery that it does as a searing and hilarious critique of everything from the callousness of the advertising world, the impotent childishness of male ego, the goofy self-importance of “high” art, the murderous impulse of jealousy, and even the inherent silliness of cinema itself. This is a De Palma film that celebrates De Palma films while simultaneously mocking them. With spectacular performances across the board, an especially effective trademark split-screen moment, and the modern wit to suggest that the ubiquitous Apple laptop is the new symbolic phallus of easy power (also the tool of its eventual inevitable downfall), “Passion” is an exquisitely enjoyable summation of its director’s past triumphs streamlined into a sexy morality tale for today’s bizarre, superficial world.
“You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” (Alain Resnais and Bruno Podalydès, 2012)
Release date: TBA
The new film by ninety-year-old French master Alain Resnais begins with a series of actors being telephoned with the sad news that a theater director they collaborated with has died. “Is this Michel Piccoli?” “Mathieu Amalric?” The list of iconic French actors playing themselves goes on. To mourn the director’s death, they congregate in his living room, which becomes a theater itself as the actors spontaneously start performing the play in which he directed them (a different production of which happens to be playing on a TV screen in the room). At first, the conceit feels pretty canned, but, directed by such a major innovator of narrative cinema, it naturally becomes a compelling experiment. An adaptation of two plays by Jean Anouilh, the film assumes prior knowledge of the story of Eurydice and Orpheus, but even the uninitiated will enjoy watching the all-star cast bring it to life.
“Fill the Void” (Rama Burshstein, 2012)
Release date: TBA
“Fill the Void” tells two stories simultaneously. Its script is about the ever-present link between joy and sadness in the events of the Jewish lifecycle—when her sister dies in childbirth, eighteen-year-old Shira and her parents must decide whether she will marry her widowed brother-in-law to keep him and his newborn son from moving away from their Hasidic community. Writer-director Rama Burshtein steers this story away from judgment or cliché, at least partially by virtue of her background in Orthodox religious practice. The second of Burshtein’s concurrent stories (which may or may not be a counter-narrative to the first) is presented through the film’s formal construction. Selective focus is used in nearly every scene, as well as single coverage for dialogue. Thus, the film’s characters are often isolated from one another, and a sense of claustrophobia creeps into the many interior spaces—mostly domestic—that make up the film’s landscape; Burshtein rigorously focuses on this family and their community, often to the exclusion of the “outside” world. Although set in and around contemporary Tel Aviv—a city far better known for its secular cosmopolitanism than its hospitality for the very religious—this story could just as easily take place in Borough Park or Jerusalem, and the date could be 1912 as easily as 2012.
When faced with subject matter like this, audiences have come to expect the woman’s choice (or lack thereof) to reside at the film’s center. Burshtein is up to something more complex: while embracing the central role marriage plays in relationships among members of the Hasidic community, she gives long and clear-eyed attention to the anxieties and alienation it also provokes. Shira (Hadas Yaron) welcomes marriage, accepts the traditions that govern it, and makes full use of her limited decision-making power within the confines of these traditions. She begins the film “ready to scream” from excitement at seeing her arranged match from a distance in a supermarket, and ends the film with an ambiguous look reminiscent of the final shot of “The Graduate.” Yaron skillfully guides us through the wide range of Shira’s emotions, often nonverbally, and often through a mix of contradictory feelings that are confusing for her, but always clear and resonant. Her “Best Actress” prize at the 2012 Venice Film Festival is well deserved. In a strong cast, Hila Feldman gives another standout performance as Freida, a friend of the family whose desperation for marriage after many years without a match seems to grow by the second. These women—especially Hanna (Razia Israeli), an older matchmaker who remains unmarried because of a physical handicap—enable Burshtein to characterize marriage as more than a social and religious imperative; it is their only way to love and be loved within their community.
“Fill the Void” is Burshtein’s first feature film for the general public—she previously made films exclusively for Orthodox, female audiences. Her perspectives on Hasidic life are appropriately multi-dimensional and difficult to boil down to the kind of thesis too often ascribed to depictions of religious orthodoxy. She lives what other filmmakers have merely observed, and her voice is a new, welcome addition to international cinema.
“Memories Look at Me” (Song Fang, 2012)
Release date: TBA
For this viewer, the first true surprise of this year’s New York Film Festival was Song Fang’s debut feature, “Memories Look at Me.” Shot in texturally bleak digital video and seemingly lit with nothing more than the natural sunlight glaring through the blown-out Nanjing apartment where almost all of the film was shot, this hushed chamber piece of a film manages to grow and grow in power as it confronts, with real empathy and compassion, the issues of familial responsibility and the death of aging loved ones with a grace that makes this first feature a (definitely unintended) answer to a certain Austrian heavyweight who may have picked up a few awards here and there.
Song, whom viewers may remember for her acting turn in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s still undervalued “Flight of the Red Balloon” (2007), essentially plays herself, and asks her family to play themselves, in a wholly scripted fiction film that nonetheless retains some of the living breath and feeling of the very best non-fiction. Song’s character returns home from Beijing to the smaller city of Nanjing after a period of what seems to be about a decade; she checks in with her aging parents, visits her brother and sister in law and her now nine-year-old niece, listens to stories about family and friends, writes a letter to whose contents we are not privy.
The film is entirely shot in interior spaces; there are maybe three minutes or less of exteriors, all shot from the interior of a moving car (there is a nighttime “ringing the doorbell” shot that is the only exception). The lighting is natural, sunlight and lamps, but treated with real sensitivity; the delicate, painterly shadows and bright window light of Song’s film make an interesting comparison with the Jacques Tourneur-esque shadows of Pedro Costa’s last few works, which is one of the highest compliments I can think of for a young director working in a digital format.
If any criticism can be directed at this picture it is that it is on the whole too much of a festival film, too unmodulated in its tone, too hushed, and too sure of its own seriousness. Produced by Jia Zhangke’s Xstream Pictures, this sort of thing is dangerously close to turning into a house style, a Hubert Bals Fund-enabled aesthetic. But even those reservations seem pedantic; this is a genuinely strong film by a talented young director with a real facility with film and sound and image, the kind of delicate glance that risks being lost in the business of a major film festival, but which may be remembered as a triumph in years to come, especially if she follows up on the promise of this early effort, which—if this is any indication—she will.
“Barbara” (Christian Petzold, 2012)
Release date: TBA
I would be remiss to deny the possibility that the impatient moviegoer may find little to compel his or her interest in Christian Petzold’s visually simple and narratively languid “Barbara.” The film adheres with respectable determination to a historical accuracy, not so much put proudly on display through highlighted period-specific flourishes (cough—Spielberg—cough), but rather by resting quietly and comfortably within the believable, lived-in atmosphere of smaller, less bombastic touches (such as subtle wardrobe details and the appropriate bicycle frame). This dignified spirit of reserved confidence permeates the film as a whole, utilized as it is with equal success in the measured pace of the story itself and the development of its characters’ meticulously crafted personalities and motivations. The decision to anchor what essentially amounts to a stereotypical city-gal-falls-for-country-fella love story (albeit one housed cleverly within the dramatic framework of a brilliant woman forced to make the difficult decision between pursuing her own languid happiness amongst the comforts of her metropolitan lover and his promises of escape to a more “civilized” world, and the burgeoning sense of professional and moral duty she develops for the less privileged denizens of her new rural prison) is certainly a bold one. But Petzold runs the risk of creating a film that many will probably deny in its bid for their attention. In other words, a lot of people will probably think this movie is boring.
But for the more patient viewer there are many treats to be discovered in “Barbara.” Those of us who are less knowledgeable about the complex historical situation of East and West Germany, may feel their grasp on the title character’s predicament grow tenuous at times, but Petzold wisely grounds his sociopolitical observations in a somewhat predictable character study that benefits tremendously from the two primary performances. Petzold regular Nina Hoss is beyond convincing in her portrayal of the initially icy but ultimately kindhearted and dedicated Barbara, while Ronald Zehrfeld is equally fantastic in his understated depiction of the cultured and gentle hunk, the colleague with whom Barbara begins to develop a cautious, unsure romance. There are no real surprises throughout the film’s somewhat gratuitously laid-back running time, but tiny details and strong performances help prevent the proceedings from becoming dull or monotonous. It will certainly be a challenge for those audience members whose attention spans have fallen victim to the modern world’s emphasis on flashy editing and impossibly convoluted shot composition. Obviously, this isn’t a film for them. But for the rest of us—the mysteriously awful song chosen for the end credits notwithstanding—“Barbara” is a refreshingly solid class act from easy start to expected finish.
“Frances Ha” (Noah Baumbach, 2012)
Release date: TBA
The latest from Noah Baumbach is a black-and-white celebration of being young (specifically in one’s twenties, fresh out of a liberal arts college) in New York City. Greta Gerwig, who plays the titular character with her typical verve and intelligence, also co-wrote the script, balancing Baumbach’s jaded voice with youth and warmth. The film is unsurprisingly drawing comparisons to Lena Dunham’s television show “Girls,” with which it shares the excellent actor Adam Driver, but it has more in common with the Gordon Willis-Woody Allen collaborations and the French New Wave—and not just because of its heavy use of composer Georges Delerue’s soundtracks. The cuteness and vivacity that characterize many of the interpersonal relationships in the film are heavily Truffaut-esque. Still, with its carefully curated pop culture references, timelessly cool soundtrack, and neurotic, smart dialogue, this is unmistakably a New York City picture.
“Lines of Wellington” (Valeria Sarmiento, 2012)
Release date: TBA
A wounded beast of a film, the war epic “Lines of Wellington”—cut down from a massive 180-minute television version to a mere 150 minutes for theatrical release—would have been directed by the great Raul Ruiz, had he not died during pre-production. Dedicated to his memory, the film was given to his longtime editor and wife, Valerie Sarmiento, a director who has made many films that sound fascinating but are nearly impossible to see in any format. Since Ruiz’s approach to filmmaking seemed to always place the greatest emphasis on experimentation and discovery during the production process itself—witness some of that in the astonishing short “7 Faux Raccords” (1984)—we should not be surprised that little of his touch is apparent in the finished product. The idea of one final Ruiz film, the Ruiz made from beyond the grave, is perhaps too naive, too good to be true, and too wildly unfair to Sarmiento and the film she has actually made. What we have instead is a humble, breathing thing, riddled with just the kinds of contradiction and compromise we should expect from such an enterprise, even such an evidently noble exercise as this one.
“Lines of Wellington” is perched between two very different traditions, the tradition of the formalist under-budgeted war movie (see “The Steel Helmet” [Samuel Fuller, 1951], “Men in War” [Anthony Mann, 1957], “The Red and the White” [Miklós Jancsó, 1967], “La France” [Serge Bozon, 2007]) and the over-costumed Europudding historical movie (see such fiascos as “Torrents of Spring” [Jerzy Skolimowski, 1989] or “The Horseman on the Roof” [Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1995]); that is, the eternal struggle between the competing tendencies of what the film critic Manny Farber called “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.”
When the termite qualities prevail, the film tends to be very strong. The film’s central image—the Portuguese army in retreat creates a great migration of soldiers, beggars, wives, whores, and refugees, crossing a countryside ruined war and violence—achieves resonance both contemporary and truly iconic. As in John Ford’s “Wagon Master” (1950), the passage of migrants or refugees or pilgrims is an almost unavoidably cinematic one. Especially in these exterior scenes, Sarmiento proves herself remarkably adept at staging complex action in depth; the way that she uses the extended depth of field of HD video to stage action on multiple planes is fascinating, and this quality of deep, deep mage work coupled with the pointedly moving camera makes for, in isolation, some of the most interesting filmmaking moments of the festival, as can be seen in this truly extraordinary scene involving the amazing Victória Guerra and a dying animal.
The elephant aspects are, ultimately, what proves most unsettling. It is hard to fault Paulo Branco (the producer of the film) or Sarmiento for including such international figures as John Malkovich or Catherine Deneuve, as their participation surely helped gain the film a higher budget and international distribution; it is also hard to ignore the fact that the scenes starring these actors feel as if they were spliced in from another movie entirely. One scene involving a dinner between Michel Piccoli, Isabelle Huppert, and Catherine Deneuve (the only scene in which these actors are present in the movie, by the by) feels not only extraneous but almost undiegetic, as if the narrative unexpectedly stopped and we were immediately treated to a dress-up game by the famous friends of the deceased. As moving as the performance by Marisa Paredes is, her character’s story, like too many of the subplots here, moves quickly away from the sublimity of melodrama towards the bathos of soap opera.
And yet there are so many thoughtful gestures, felicitous moments, that it would be a shame to write this film off as a failure as such. Perhaps, given the circumstances, we should be glad that the film is as good as it is; in these lean times even a curate’s egg is better than nothing.
“Leviathan” ( Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, 2012)
Release date: TBA
Full disclosure: I was excruciatingly hungover during a recent press screening of “Leviathan,” the maddeningly unorthodox new documentary from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, the creative minds behind the similarly experimental “Sweetgrass” and “Foreign Parts,” respectively. Obviously this is not an ideal state in which to approach any investigative endeavor, be it creative, professional or—as is the case with this review—a little of both. But the circumstances of young life are such that scheduled events occasionally fall victim to the unexpected arrival of an old friend and the resultant emptying of countless bottles over a blurred phosphorescent city evening. Life itself is part chaos and part order, the arrangement of which is seemingly left to chance despite our greatest efforts to corral events both planned and surprising into some semblance of comfort and reason; we assign purpose, logic, and explanation to a random succession of events and phenomena so that we can make sense of things. And yet, despite these efforts to control our surroundings, we still self-mockingly revel in those sudden intrusions of natural calamity, the inevitable and cruel non-order of the universe. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s film likewise exists as a stubbornly contradictory piece of investigative art, utilizing the random images captured by cameras mounted to the perpetually moving surfaces of a commercial fishing vessel to frame the proceedings within an anthropologist’s scientific diagram of industry; images of grotesque, morphing landscapes consisting of impossibly weathered nautical equipment, pulsating tides of discarded, gasping fish heads and the intimately lined and scarred flesh of the men who impose themselves upon the unpredictable fortunes of the sea. Heavy stuff, to say the least.
Needless to say this was not an easy slog for me. While it’s probably unfair to judge the merits of a film based on my own self-inflected state, I honestly can’t see this going over too well with the majority of audiences, especially considering the amount of frustrated walkouts I witnessed at a goddamned press and industry screening while I sweated out my own private misery. Strange, then, that I found myself completely riveted by “Leviathan.” More Stan Brakhage than “Deadliest Catch,” this is rub-your-face-in-it reality by way of abstraction. The oppressive madness inherent in dragging monstrous nets from the deep—overloaded as they are with suffocating bug-eyed fish and the disregarded alien beauty of flailing stingrays—has never been better represented than it is here, for better or worse. More than an elementary exposé of how things are done, this is an elemental exploration of exactly how things are: bizarre, grotesque, and impressively systematic. Despite the fact that twenty full minutes may pass before you are able to get your visual bearings and finally recognize what it is that you’re seeing, the overall impression of what you’ve witnessed is a profound and unsettling glance into the nature of our relationship to the world. Hopelessly surrounded by the swelling tides and knee-deep in gore of our own making, we force our tired limbs through the routine motions that we’ve come to understand as necessary and advantageous, forever striving to reach beyond the pitiless order of things. A few welcome moments of clarity depict a veritable army of seagulls soaring effortlessly alongside the titular vessel, perhaps symbolic of the freedom from chaos that we seek. Appropriate that most of these shots depict the birds upside-down, as it is more than likely—if human history is any indication—that we are struggling in the wrong direction.
“Bwakaw” (Jun Lana, 2012)
Release date: TBA
This delightful film’s premise—a solitary pensioner wanders through life with his dog always at his side and his eyes fixed on the shores of death—is nearly identical to that of Vittorio De Sica’s “Umberto D,” but its emotional resonance comes as much from comedy as De Sica’s comes from tragedy. The protagonist, Rene (Eddie Garcia), lives in a semi-rural Filipino town with his canine pal Bwakaw and has only recently come out as gay. Though Rene is an octogenarian, he is still in the throes of working out his identity. If his grumpy way of dealing with people (especially the local drag queens who want him to get laid) brings to mind Walt Kowalski, you’re not so far off the mark. In a Skype Q&A, writer-director Jun Robles Lana called Garcia, a very prolific actor and director, “the Clint Eastwood of the Philippines.”