22 June 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 20-26 Jun

FINANCIAL UPDATE: I got a job. It's not my dream job or anything, and it's neither full-time nor permanent, and it's down in Northridge which means gas is eating up like 20% of my salary, but it'll keep me afloat for the time being. So my situation is considerably less urgent than it was when I started this project a couple of weeks ago. However, be advised that y'all sending me money has been a powerful motivator in terms of my writing every film up promptly, and if cash keeps trickling in every month I'll be much less likely to slide back into laziness.

ANCILLARY NOTE: A new (fully legal!) source of distribution-challenged festival films has come to my attention, so I'm gonna be seeing a lot more of those in the near future. Most will be the work of directors heretofore unknown to me, and my W/O rate is likely to be something like 80%. Again, this doesn't mean they're all terrible, just that I'm in Festival Sampling Mode. Expect shorter drive-by responses to those, similar to my reports from Toronto.

LEST YOU BE CONFUSED: Films in /brackets/ I had previously seen. The ratings are on a 100-point scale that merely signifies my personal and highly subjective degree of enthusiasm, and I use the entire damn scale, e.g. 65 is equivalent to 6.5/10, a mild thumbs-up. Anything 70+ I really liked, and 80+ is generally top ten for any given non-phenomenal year.

/Fat Girl/ (2001, Catherine Breillat): 63

Aaaaaaand I still don't know what to do with the ending. (SPOILER) That Anaïs accepts her brutal defloration at the hands of a psychopath troubles me less than it did ten years ago—it's a sick idea, to be sure, but it does work as blunt corollary to Fernando's grossly manipulative verbal assault on Elena earlier. (Part of me thinks that scene should be shown in high-school sex-ed classes. The boys would most likely perceive it as instructional, but it might make the girls a little more self-aware.) It's Anaïs' non-response to the murder of her mother and sister I can't quite process. On some level, it seems clear that she wills their deaths (see also Bluebeard), and I can make sense of the entire film if I posit that the last few minutes take place in her head. Nor do I necessarily require explicit all-a-dream signifiers to that effect. But Breillat seems to go out of her way to negate any such reading, lingering on details of the aftermath—like the careful bagging of Elena's hands (presumably in the hope of finding forensic evidence beneath her fingernails)—that Anaïs doesn't witness and wouldn't likely imagine, or even know about in the abstract. I'm not sure what purpose those shots have except to establish that this really happened, and if it really happened, I no longer feel like I understand who Anaïs is. But maybe I'm being too doggedly literal, and should just accept that the film ultimately abandons psychology for vindictive fantasy—on Breillat's part, not her protagonist's, though the latter is clearly a stand-in for the former in any case. Masterful up to that point, even if it sometimes seems a bit thinly conceived; arguably you only need the seduction of Elena and the drive home, plus the tender conversation at the mirror in-between. Though I'd hate to lose the swimming-pool infidelity.

Interkosmos (2006, Jim Finn): W/O

(Pedigree: Rotterdam '06; Skandies Best Undistributed Films of 2006, #4.)

One of my several unfortunate blind spots is the "poetic film-essay" (per Michael Sicinski) -- I'm not even much of a Chris Marker fan, I'm afraid. Still, Finn's juxtaposition of found astronomical imagery and mundane voiceover seemed to me less poignant than kitschy; imagine how The Tree of Life would play had Malick actually laid Waco-era father-son dialogue over the birth-of-the-universe sequence. And an East German cosmonaut obsessed with "The Trolley Song" is just too alt-cute.

/A Man Escaped/ (1956, Robert Bresson): 67

Clearly I'm just missing whatever gene allows one to see this as transcendent, as opposed to a thoroughly engrossing wartime procedural shot in an unusual and bracing pared-down style. I mean, I can see that it's a testament to hope and faith and resilience and so forth—but, then, to be perhaps needlessly flippant, so is The Shawshank Redemption, which likewise uses Mozart to express the deepest yearnings of the human soul. François Leterrier is no mere model here, phlegmatic but still expressive (though his performance takes on an odd new flavor once you learn that he'd go on to direct Emmanuelle 3). Still, while Bresson's decision to elide everything except the unvarnished details of Fontaine's ordeal creates a singular tone that's somehow both urgent and serene (exemplified by the terrific early shot in which we remain in the car, watching the other prisoners stare impassively ahead, as Fontaine makes a failed run for it), it also precludes significant emotional investment, at least for me; the film's rush of uninflected events, punctuated frequently by quick fades to black, comes across as impressively workmanlike—the cinematic equivalent of a sturdy log cabin built by hand, still standing 150 years later. I'm tempted to say that it can't be truly great because it never risks failure. At one point, Fontaine receives a package containing a bunch of clothes, which he slices up to create more rope; that we have not the slightest idea who sent it to him typifies Bresson's admirable yet crippling singlemindedness. Introducing that information would open the floodgates for sentiment, which he's determined to eschew at all costs. And there are costs.

You Are All Captains (2010, Oliver Laxe): W/O

(Pedigree: Cannes '10 Fortnight.)

You, on the other hand, are not Kiarostami. At best, you're the underachieving Kiarostami of A.B.C Africa, overindulging little kids' rambunctious energy and leaning hard on facile meta-maneuvers. Wasn't surprised to learn that Laxe spent years running film workshops for Tangiers tots just like these before turning auteur; that he indicts himself so plainly doesn't make his movie any less self-regarding.

Pale Flower (1964, Masahiro Shinoda): 50

Weirds me out that after 20+ years of immersing myself in cinema history, there are still semi-major figures like Shinoda with whose work I'm entirely unfamiliar. (NYFF did a big retro last year—a bit too late for me, obviously.) Pale Flower's gorgeous 'Scope compositions and nihilistic sensibility make me eager to see more, but I do hope his other films aren't quite so dramatically muted; there's a very thin line between impassive and zombified, and Ryo Ikebe's Muraki too often seems like an allegorical construct rather than a human being. Never really believed that Saeko penetrates his armor of contemptuous reserve, despite the voiceover narration's repeated assertions (plus a nightmare sequence that thinks negative imagery is super-freaky), and while it's clearly by design that these two ennui-consumed thrill-seekers almost never seem thrilled—only real exception is the drag race, though even there it's the other driver who's truly elated—that doesn't make the film any less enervating on every level save the formal. It'd be different if Muraki were portrayed as genuinely anhedonic, a New Wave Meursault, but Shinoda clearly wants us to see him as trapped, just like Japan itself in the mid-'60s. In other words, Pale Flower is a character study of a country, not a person, and that particular brand of symbolism has never done much for me (which is why I've tended to resist Jia Zhang-ke). There's much to admire on this film's shadowy surface, but a studious void inhabits the space where its throbbing heart should be.

El sicario, Room 164 (2010, Gianfranco Rosi): W/O

(Pedigree: Venice '10 Horizons; Film Comment Selects.)

A "movie" for anyone who's ever yearned to see a former Mexican hitman doodle in a notepad for an hour and a half. "There are 30 or 40 bodies buried in that building," the anonymous veiled figure says, and we watch, riveted, as he draws a square on his pad to represent a building and then writes "30" and "40" inside the square. One circle, two circles...oh, those are tires. I guess that's supposed to be a car. Try not to flinch when this barely penitent killer of men riddles his pad with bullets by making a bunch of little dots with his Sharpie. You think I'm kidding. I am not kidding.

Summer of Goliath (2010, Nicolás Pereda): 62

(Pedigree: Venice '10 Horizons [winner]; TIFF Visions; ND/NF. Opens for a week at Anthology Film Archives in July.)

Interestingly, folks who love Putty Hill and Our Beloved Month of August, the two most recent points of reference for a rambling doc/fiction hybrid, tend to be underwhelmed by this one, complaining that it lacks focus. And it's not that they're wrong—Pereda seems to be making the movie up as he goes along, trying every interesting formal idea that pops into his head before abandoning it for the next one. It's a mess, frankly. But I found it a riveting mess, for the most part, perhaps simply because I was never able to get a handle on it. Pereda's interviews with his "characters," for example, don't have the monolithic rhetorical feel that Porterfield's do—the mysterious, vaguely foreboding interrogation of "Goliath" and his brother that opens the film bears almost no resemblance, either visually or functionally, to the direct-to-camera monologue (involving a minimum of offscreen questions) by a woman near movie's end, who tells the matter-of-fact story of her husband's murder while surrounded by three or four kids in constant hyperactive motion, one of whom instantly ends the "scene" by walking into frame in the midst of what's clearly an unsimulated crying fit. You could call this sloppy or half-assed or incoherent, and I confess that Summer of Goliath failed to "come together" for me in a satisfying way; it does seem more like a sketch for a film than a film proper. Moment to moment, however, it never stopped catching me off guard, and I was largely content to just follow Pereda around and see what off-the-wall tactic he'd indulge next. ("Now crawl through the mud and bellow like a wounded animal.") Moral: If you're a filmmaker I'm not familiar with, and you want me to get to the end of your movie, befuddle me.

Symbol (2009, Hitoshi Matsumoto): 57

(Pedigree: TIFF '09 Midnight Madness.)

Here's the thing: I started assembling a ridiculously ambitious "review" that would consist entirely of random words, each one a hyperlink to a page offering either goofy nonsense or a clue to the location of the actual review, but quickly gave up after realizing that the conceit isn't nearly clever or entertaining enough to justify the hours of work it would entail. And that's this movie in a nutshell, really. I enjoyed the scenes in the Room of Angel Genitalia (and am in awe of the demented vision that wasn't about to settle for plain old buttons or switches), but I enjoyed them in more or less the same way that I used to enjoy Myst and Riven, as a maddening puzzle to be painstakingly solved. Meanwhile, of course, I'm waiting eagerly to find out how the parallel (?) story of the Mexican wrestling match fits in, even though my attention instantly plummets every time Matsumoto cuts back to it because he hasn't figured out how to make it remotely compelling for its own sake. I gather from festival reviews that the eventual punch line knocks 'em dead in a crowded theater, but it played very shaggy-dog to me; I felt the same rush of incredulous exasperation that hit me after reading this. (If you haven't encountered it before, don't say I didn't warn you.) Obviously Matsumoto intends for the epilogue to inspire ruminations about how his protagonist's abstract predicament relates to the real world, but while it's not terribly difficult to concoct various theses—you could even argue that Symbol makes explicit what the 2001 monolith does to those apes—I never really felt challenged or provoked into genuine thought the way I did/was by, say, Daniel Cockburn's more mysteriously allusive You Are Here. As in Big Man Japan, which kept undermining its tale of a depressive superhero with dopey monster battles, Matsumoto is a bit too much the merry prankster for his own good.

/Some Like It Hot/ (1959, Billy Wilder): 95

Hadn't seen this old favorite in maybe 15 years, and I'd forgotten some of the plot details. Specifically, as the movie raced toward the finish line, I started wondering how the hell they were gonna engineer the reconciliation between Joe/Josephine/Junior and Sugar in the few minutes remaining. Because in a contemporary comedy, an entire drippy scene, if not several drippy scenes, would be devoted to J/J/J's fervent apology, to ensure that we understand that the original J is a good person at heart in spite of his multiple deceptions and his crass reverse psychology and his pitiless driving of buxom sex symbols to sing "I'm Through With Love" and so forth. And of course Sugar would nonetheless reject him, so we'd have to endure an energy-sapping display of self-pity while waiting for her to "unexpectedly" show up and bestow forgiveness. Generally speaking, this would eat up the movie's final 10-15 minutes, minimum—and that's assuming there are no other subplots to resolve, like oh say the other dude's engagement to someone who still thinks he's a woman. (As an aside, I nominate the decision to have Jerry/Daphne embrace this relationship—"Who's the lucky girl?" "I am!"—as the single most inspired fillip in all of American comedy.) And so I'm looking at the display and realizing there's only two or three minutes left in the movie, which is gonna include the final exchange leading up to "Nobody's perfect," and yet the obligatory fence-mending process hasn't even begun. How can Sugar get from "holy crap she's a he and he's neither a millionaire nor Cary Grant" to a final passionate liplock without all that tortured justification? Seven words, turns out: "I told you: I'm not very bright." And that is why I revere Billy Wilder.

Winter Vacation (2010, Li Hongqi): W/O

(Pedigree: Locarno '10 Comp [Golden Leopard]; ND/NF.)

There's deadpan and then there's comatose. Can't really argue with people who find it funny, but I didn't laugh once during the first 40 minutes, even after I made the mental leap from "jesus, this is like a parody of master-shot tedium" to "oh, I see—it actually is a parody of master-shot tedium." (Took about ten minutes, I think.) Mark Peranson's description of it as "South Park in slow motion" reveals that he's never seen even 30 random seconds of that show, which is as heavily plotted as anything on TV and almost invariably ripped from a given week's headlines; Li's attempting something closer in spirit to Stranger Than Paradise (a film I love), but doesn't seem to understand that Jarmusch mined most of his anti-comedy from the presence of an outsider, viz. Eva. If the shots are static and the milieu is static and the cast of characters is completely static, and you then deliberately withhold anything of interest, all that's left is for us to be amused at the sheer perverse existence of your deliberate non-movie. Which I guess a lot of folks are.

/Father of My Children/ (2009, Mia Hansen-Løve): 61

No change in rating, but a slight shift in perspective. First viewing (at TIFF '09) struck me as a superb portrait of a single individual, inexplicably undermined by an aimless epilogue that takes up the film's entire second half. This time, while I thrilled again to the barely controlled chaos of Grégoire's downward spiral and remained relatively unmoved by its practical aftermath, it was abundantly clear to me that the former serves as extended prologue to the latter, not the other way around. That Hansen-Løve declines to employ any sort of rhythmic punctuation at the midpoint, cutting simply and directly from the fatal act to an uninflected scene combining grieving and busywork, suggests that she intends continuity rather than disjunction; nonetheless, the film still seems lopsided to me, quite possibly because Louis-Do de Lencquesaing is too quietly magnetic. Ultimately, despite some lovely moments—Clémence, post-tryst, switching to hot chocolate after fumbling her coffee order; the matter-of-fact treatment of Grégoire's secret son—I don't get much more from the film's latter half than "life goes on." The future's not ours to see, but let's keep the present lively.


Dan Owen said...

Good work on the new job, bud. Quick couple of questions...

1. What would your Wilder top ten be?

2. Is the legal source of festival films publicly available?

md'a said...

1. Not 100% sure of the order until I revisit a bunch of these, but roughly:

1. Double Indemnity
2. Some Like It Hot
3. The Apartment
4. Ace in the Hole
5. One, Two, Three
6. Kiss Me, Stupid
7. Sunset Blvd.
8. Five Graves to Cairo
9. The Major and the Minor
10. The Lost Weekend

2. 'fraid not. It's a resource for industry professionals.

Slayton said...

I'd give Winter Vacation another shot. I didn't find it funny, either, but ultimately Li's imperative seems to be that you don't, or that if you do it is only because the sequence shots gradually numb you into laughter. The final quarter opens up the film and turned it from a 'B-' to an 'A' for me.