VIFF 2018: Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas, 2018)

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No one risks obsolescence quite like Olivier Assayas. Non-Fiction, née E-Book, finds him asking almost embarrassingly au courant questions about media consumption in the second decade of the 21st century: Is the written word dematerializing? Are tablets the new market leader? And who reads anymore, anyways? Pieces fretting over these issues likely pad your local Review of Books on the regular, and for a monthly publication, that’s to be expected: staying current is their currency. To craft a movie around such modish literary solipsism, on the other hand, is to flirt with, if not outright embrace, accelerated irrelevance; since the time pen hit paper for this review, the world has probably left Non-Fiction behind.

And Olivier Assayas is ok with that. The defining feature of his work, at least as far back as Irma Vep, and possibly before that, is a rare capacity for incarnating the spirit of sleek, globalized modernity—so corporate, and therefore resistant to corporeality—in specific places and people. Here it’s a cadre of bourgeois literary types: publishers, writers, journalists, the kind of people who casually recite poetry from memory or wring their hands over declining e-reader revenues. The comic roundelay that Assayas whips up for them is his generic response to the milieu: just as Anonymous Shinjuku Hotel, 2002 summons a thriller in the form of demonlover, these bed-hopping French intellectuals, with their book-lined homes and their seemingly inexhaustible fleet of iProducts, demand a mid-budget Juliette Binoche movie. Assayas obliges.

This fundamentally deliquescent approach to cinema (ambient particles are absorbed from the surrounding atmosphere and allowed to dissolve preconceived structures at willsomething in the air?) exposes Assayas’s films to accusations of vapidity and faddishness, two demerits that Non-Fiction proudly flaunts. And to those Assayas adds a third: the vulgarity of auto-fiction, which, as the title suggests, shapes the film’s relationship with reality. Assayas mines his own life for the first time since Après mai, though his proximity to the events on screen has changed: unlike his youth films, Assayas maintains very little distance, temporal or otherwise, from the digestif debates and barbed audience Q&As that make up the bulk of Non-Fiction.

The narrow space between art and life at times suggests an Assayas variation on a Mia Hansen-Løve joint, though he lacks his former partner’s ability to supercharge everyday banalities with supple emotional texture. His work has always relied more on coups de cinema to do the heavy lifting (think Cold Water’s extended party scene, or the spontaneous combustion that concludes Irma Vep, or the vaporization of Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria) and he arguably miscalculates by shearing Non-Fiction of any such sequences. The first shot—an unremarkable office door, an abrupt entrance, and the opening volley of the film’s endless, extempore gabbing—is more or less what the film has to offer. The more generous critics among us might point out that by so resolutely avoiding go-for-broke moments Assayas is, in fact, performing a high-wire cinematic act: just how long can he walk the tightrope with these navel gazers and their insufferable palaver? But the visual and emotional flatness, no matter how rigorously conceived, opens up avenues for less charitable criticism—and the film’s detractors will, in all likelihood, have a point. Assayas overestimates his facility with Non-Fiction’s bedroom farce antics, or, in the very least, he’s selected a less than ideal host to act as a carrier for his pet concerns; liquid modernity doesn’t flow naturally through most dinner party conversations. Though perhaps that’s why the final moments bring us into contact with a more essential, more ancient human experience, and abandon contemporaneity in favor of a durable truth that lies beneath all these couplings and decouplings, beyond modern capital’s distortion effects, and, possibly, at the heart Assayas’s shapeshifting art. To quote a print-to-digital transition specialist quoting Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”

Friday October 5 – Thursday October 11

Featured Film:

The Atomic Café at the Grand Illusion

We’re still in Vancouver, watching as many movies as we can, which is why this is going up a couple of days late this week. So far we’ve seen and reviewed The LoadMiraiAsako I & IIDiamantino, four Short Films by Sofia BohdanowiczSpice It Up, and Fausto. That’s in addition to the movies that are here at VIFF that we covered when they played earlier this year at other festivals (Grass, People’s Republic of Desire, Girls Always Happy, Microhabitat and Matangi/Maya/MIA). We’ll have lots more to come over the next couple of weeks, once we return to America, including a special all-VIFF episode of The Frances Farmer Show.

But while all that is going on, the Grand Illusion has a new restoration of the excellent 1982 documentary The Atomic Café, built out of archival footage of nuclear America during the cold war. It’s horrifying and hilarious in all the best ways. Don’t miss it. Or maybe trek down to Tacoma to check out the Film Festival they’ve got going on at the Grand. This year’s is the best one yet, with a lot of movies that won’t make their way to King County for awhile yet.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

The Great Battle (Kim Gwangsik) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Feng Shui (Park Heegon) Fri-Thurs

Central Cinema:

Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) Fri-Mon
Get Out (Jordan Peele) Fri-Tues

SIFF Egyptian:

Mandy (Panos Cosmatos) Fri-Thurs

Century Federal Way:

Asfar (Gulshan Singh) Fri-Thurs
Parahuna (Amrit Raj Chadha & Mohit Banwait) Fri-Thurs
The Great Battle (Kim Gwang-Sik) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Qismat (Jagdeep Sidhu) Fri-Thurs
Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968) Sun & Tues Only

Grand Cinema:

Tacoma Film Festival Fri-Thurs Full Program
Mandy (Panos Cosmatos) Fri-Thurs
Pick of the Litter (Dana Nachman & Don Hardy) Fri-Thurs

Grand Illusion Cinema:

The Atomic Café (Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader & Pierce Rafferty, 1982) Fri-Thurs
Heavy Trip (Jukka Vidgren & Juuso Laatio) Fri-Sun
Saving Brinton (Tommy Haines & Andrew Sherburne) Tues Only
Hot to Trot (Gail Freedman) Weds Only Filmmaker in Attendance

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard) Fri-Thurs
Collette (Wash Westmoreland) Fri-Thurs
Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (Mani Ratnam) Fri-Thurs
96 (C. Prem Kumar) Fri-Thurs
Andhadhun (Sriram Raghavan) Fri-Thurs
Devadas (Sriram Aditya) Fri-Thurs
NOTA (Anand Shankar) Fri-Thurs In Tamil or Telugu, Check Listings
TCGN (Girish Joshi) Fri-Thurs
Sui Dhaaga-Made in India (Sharat Katariya) Fri-Thurs
Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968) Sun & Tues Only

Regal Meridian:

The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard) Fri-Thurs
Monsters and Men (Reinaldo Marcus Green) Fri-Thurs

Northwest Film Forum:

Tasveer South Asian Film Festival Sat Only Full Program
Kusama: Infinity (Heather Lenz) Sun-Thurs
Time for Ilhan (Norah Shapiro) Sun Only
Wacko (Greydon Clark) Weds Only

AMC Oak Tree:

Hello Mrs. Money (Wu Yuhan) Fri-Thurs

AMC Pacific Place:

Project Gutenberg (Felix Chong) Fri-Thurs
Hello Mrs. Money (Wu Yuhan) Fri-Thurs
Cry Me a Sad River (Luo Luo) Fri-Thurs
Collette (Wash Westmoreland) Fri-Thurs

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Miss Granny (Joyce E. Bernal) Fri-Thurs
Exes Baggage (Dan Villegas) Fri-Thurs

AMC Seattle:

Summer ’03 (Rebecca Gleason) Fri-Thurs

Seattle Art Museum:

Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948) Thurs Only 35mm

SIFF Film Center:

The Apparition (Xavier Giannoli) Fri-Sun
Headhunt Revisited (Michele Westmorland) Weds Only

AMC Southcenter:

El día de la unión (Kuno Becker) Fri-Thurs
Trico Tri: Happy Halloween (Christian Vogeler) Fri-Thurs

Regal Thornton Place:

Collette (Wash Westmoreland) Fri-Thurs
Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968) Sun & Tues Only

SIFF Uptown:

Matangi/Maya/MIA (Stephen Loveridge) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Blaze (Ethan Hawke) Fri-Thurs
Mandy (Panos Cosmatos) Fri-Thurs
Soufra (Thomas Morgan) Thurs Only

Varsity Theatre:

Love, Gilda (Lisa Dapolito) Fri-Thurs
Seattle Latino Film Festival Sat-Thurs Full Program
Manhattan Short 2018 Film Festival Fri Only
Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968) Tues Only

In Wide Release:

Mission: Impossible–Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie) Our Review
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Peyton Reed) Our Review

VIFF 2018: The Load (Ognjen Glavonić, 2018)

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Gunfire crackles beyond the horizon, the relationship between sound and image established at the outset: death will be heard, not seen. The Load envisions the Bosnian War as an on-the-ground abstraction, where violence is an echo, bombing raids hide behind a scrim of gray sky, and bodies are invisible. After delivering his cargo to its terminal destination, Vlada, our hangdog Odysseus, returns home to tell his son a story about a different war, “A real war, not this video game war,” as if in knowing response to the world Ognjen Glavonić crafts around him. The profondo foley track and the ashen palette make for art direction à la Call of Duty, an effect amplified by Glavonić’s three dimensional mise-en-scène. More than once the camera suddenly detours from the main road to track a peripheral character, suggesting explorable spaces beyond the confines of the truck’s cabin (and the film’s central narrative). These are, presumably, the same spaces occupied by those not-so-far off NATO bombs and the fly-ridden freight that Vlada hauls behind him, but which he never sees. Physical and moral dangers are intruding on Vlada’s craven sense of simulation—no matter how distant those explosions, this is not a video game war—and it is a slow refusal of alienation that emerges as Vlada’s eventual cause.

It’s Glavonić’s too: he’s obviously a filmmaker of considerable ethical and aesthetic intelligence, and The Load is nothing if not carefully constructed. Like the unobserved violence booming behind the hill, Glavonić keeps his anger at the periphery, as if to call it forth through deemphasis. Absence, of one kind or another, is both subject and structure. But The Load can get only so far by discreetly substituting, say, a full-frame image of decayed sheet metal for the scarred corpses that it so clearly connotes. Which is another way of saying that The Load is smarter than any number of like exercises in European historical reckoning, which are frequently eager to play circus showman to the continent’s worst atrocities, but also too smart by half. Glavonić’s abstractions expose him to the same alienation that he condemns, even if the closing moments tacitly acknowledge his film’s limitations: Vlada’s belated act of resistance is to photograph not the bodies that he transported—long since dumped into an anonymous construction pit—but the empty truck bed. To what end? The tangible consequences of war remain undocumented in visual terms, and yet the echoes keep thrumming in the distance, like a ringing in the ears that never quite fades away.

VIFF 2018: Mirai (Mamoru Hosada, 2018)

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In 2012 Mamoru Hosada released Wolf Children, one of the finest animated films of the decade. It followed a young mother’s struggle to let her children go as they age, to become their own people, separate from her (that one of them chooses a human life while the other heeds the call of the wild and runs off to live as a wolf like his father is only tangentially relevant). With Mirai, Hosada addresses much the same issue from the opposite perspective, this time we see the child’s point of view as he grows form a wholly ego-driven individual into a member of a family, a continuum of people that extends not just horizontally to his sister and parents, but also backwards and forwards in time, to the people his ancestors were and the people he and his sister will become.

He’s not a werewolf this time (though he does have a talent for canine imitation) rather he is subject to a series of fantasies that grow out of the trauma of the arrival of his younger sibling, and the shattering of the idyllic existence he’d led as the center of the universe. He sees the family dog anthropomorphized into a fallen prince (an initial act of empathy that mirrors his own loss of place). He meets an older version of his baby sister, and he has an adventure with his great-grandfather. In interacting with these people (which may be mere figments of his young imagination or could be the manifestation of some supernatural power, it amounts to much the same thing) he learns perspective: that other beings are just as conscious as he is, that the world and the people in it are both distinct from him while also forming an essential part of him, a vast web of humanity with a center that might belong to him, but then again, it might not.

Mirai is as fanciful as anything Hosada has made, with a trip to the geometric horror of a train station a particular highlight. But like Wolf Children, as well as his version of The Girl Who Leapt through Time, it is fundamentally grounded in the every day, which in this case means a whole lot of parent humor, for which I am, no doubt, a sucker (I happen to have a self-centered, train-obsessed boy in my home as well). Hosada expertly fuses fantasy and slice-of-life anime, following in the tradition of the best of Studio Ghibli (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart), as well as any director of his generation.

VIFF 2018: Asako I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

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In keeping the same minute attention to the smallest details of human routine and interaction that so distinguished his intimate 2015 epic Happy Hour, but trapping them within the familiar confines of a romantic comedy, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi has created something remarkable, a genre film as alive to the possibilities and contradictions of the human psyche and its dealing with other souls as we’ve seen in some time. It’s certainly the best romantic film since Hong Sangsoo’s Yourself and Yours, with which it shares a certain surface similarity. But in every important respect it is sui generis, very much its own thing.

Asako and Baku meet-cute at an art gallery. It’s love at first sight, the two are wordlessly drawn together and stay that way for some time, in the pure romance of youth, impervious to the outside world and not only unafraid of death but turned on by its impossibility. Until, one day Baku disappears. Five years later, Asako meets cute again, this time with a young businessman named Ryôhei, who looks exactly like Baku and is played by the same actor (Masahiro Higashide, from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish). The bulk of the film tracks their relationship, growing from awkward avoidance to friendship to love with the rhythms of the everyday and in parallel to the romance between their respective best friends. The friends’ antagonistic first meeting over a performance of Chekov, is the best of the films several digressions, with an unexpected natural disaster and an idyllic montage in a fishing weekend providing other highlights.

The inevitable conflict comes in the final third, as Baku returns. If Hamaguchi doesn’t resolve The Case of the Two Bakus (or rather, the Two Asakos, the first crazed with the freedom of youth, the second safe in the benign contentment of maturity) with as much bald-faced ingenuity as Hong did, he can be forgiven. The solution he does find is as emotionally confused and true as real-life. We are unlikely to see a more open and all-embracing film this year.

VIFF 2018: Diamantino (Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt, 2018)

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A soccer player strides across the field. Beautiful, dumb and happy, he tells us his story in a wide-eyed narration. A Candide lost in a world far too corrupt for his dim intelligence and brilliant soul. In the opening moment we get to see the world, the game, through his eyes. Not one of screaming lunatic fans or hulking, hostile opponents, but of giant fluffy puppies cavorting in slo-mo through cotton candy pink billows of cloud.

Circumstances, as they do, intrude on this perfect, pre-verbal vision of the world as it might be, and our hero, Diamantino, is sent into a tailspin of awareness, first by an encounter with refugees lost at sea, then by the death of his beloved father. Rather than center their film on their naive hero’s growing consciousness, as in, say, Daisy von Scherler-Meyer’s Party Girl, in which club kid Parker Posey grows into an existentialist librarian, directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt instead put poor Diamantino at the center of a complex and farcical conspiracy involving his evil twin sisters, a pair of undercover cops, a Brexit-like campaign (but for Portugal) and a scientist who walks in water and tries to clone our hero (to make the perfect soccer team) but with gender-confounding consequences. His only ally is one of the cops, whom he adopts thinking she is an orphan refugee boy.

The conspiracy plotting is ridiculous, reminding me of the half-assed terrorism sub-plot in the film within the film of Spice It Up at best and the grotesque anti-comedy of Edgar Pêra’s Cinesapiens short at worst. A few of the jokes land, especially when the directors find new uses for familiar musical cues like the “Vorspiel” from Das Rheingold or Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”. But the film rarely again reaches the heights of its first few magical moments, yet every time they bring us back to Diamantino and his pure, foolish soul I’m won over again. He’s truly the hero we need in our dumb, degraded, beautiful world.

Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution (Yony Leyser, 2017)

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Over the course of 83 brisk, entertaining minutes, Yony Leyser’s alternately raucous and thoughtful documentary traces the origins and rise of the queer punk rock scene. Like a punk song, much of the film’s force is in its economy, and like a punk song, it challenges the status quo, flouts taboos, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Leyser does a fine job recovering buried history in a way that’s fresh and illuminating, reminding us that settled narratives exist to be unsettled and that the voices of outsiders can often tell the truth the loudest.

Continue reading Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution (Yony Leyser, 2017)”

VIFF 2018: Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Shorts

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“I found myself taking photos of things people left behind.” It sure is nice to be back in Sofia Bohdanowicz’s world of forgotten things. Maison du bonheur, her most recent feature, was, for me, the highlight of last year’s festival (on some days I feel like I’m still basking in its sun-kissed warmth) and this year we’ve been gifted no less than four new works. They’re shorts this time out, but as Bohdanowicz demonstrated with A Prayer, An Evening, and Another Prayer (her triplicate reckoning with a grandmother’s death and that grandmother’s many, multiform absences) she’s a master of the format. She knows precisely how to compress the expansive generosity and inquisitiveness of her cinema into a matter of minutes.

Veslemøy’s Song, the longest and most substantial of the shorts, is another Bohdanowicz excavation project. Like her first feature, Never Eat Alone, a dusted-off object prompts an inquiry into unremembered histories both personal and artistic. Here it’s a song dedicated to Kathleen Parlow, a music instructor who taught Bohdanowicz’s violinist grandfather his craft and a woman of some note during her time, now long since forgotten. The sole recording of the song resides in a basement of the New York Public Library system and is available only by appointment. Deragh Campbell, once again standing in for Bohdanowicz, hops on a plane to pay witness. But upon arriving, her efforts are frustrated by a form of institutional preservationism heretofore alien to Bohdanowicz’s cinema, despite the filmmaker’s own archivist instincts. A faceless technician, located six floors below, spins the warped old disk. Campbell hears nothing more than a 30 second snippet piped in through a computer, and the off-screen archivist, via a chat window, bureaucratically denies her requests for a more complete experience.

Bohdanowicz’s earlier films were, quite literally, home movies, and as such they benefitted from her subjects’ hospitality and their open-door policies. Institutional actors, even or especially those who share Bohdanowicz’s archaeological mission, are as accommodating as procedures allow and no more. As if in response to this frosty welcome, graphite tones replace Maison du bonheur‘s impressionist daubs of color and, with one particularly sepulchral close-up, the film takes on an almost Dreyerian spareness. Not every host—and not every film—greets you with open arms. Veslemøy’s Song serves to acknowledge the challenges that face Bohdanowicz’s project as it expands outward from her family unit. Nothing to despair about, and certainly not for an artist as intuitive as Bohdanowicz. Still, muted disappointment is the right final note: “Afterwards I ate an egg salad sandwich on whole wheat. It wasn’t very good.”

Where

Technology and personal history intersect again in Where, Bohdanowicz‘s bad romance as recounted by Google street view. Mapping software introduces uncanny digital movement to Bohdanowicz’s world and, by its very nature, erects a spatial and emotional distance between the film and its subject. Given the interpersonal cruelty described by the intertitles—the only form of narration here—the film’s remove from physical space registers as a kind of therapy, a means to inspect an old wound without touching it.

A physical, if faked, wound plays a central role in Roy Thomson. Bohdanowicz revisits the symphony hall where she once saw her grandfather play the violin and relates how, frustrated by his unwillingness to wave to her mid-performance, she patched together a false arm bandage to garner his attention. Seeing his granddaughter hurt, he waved back. As in Where, Bohdanowicz transforms still images through scratchy, sepia-toned 16mm—apparently processed with natural chemicals derived from flowers. The effect is, appropriately, like stumbling on some moldy, time-eaten artifact and holding it close to admire the beauty of its deformations. In other words, a memory.

The Soft Space is the outlier of the bunch: close-ups of a woman’s naked torso alternate with the adamantine geometry of the New York City subway system. The contrasting visual and aural textures are approached with an admirable lack of prejudice—pliable flesh and the hard metal girding of the MTA are equally appealing under Bohdanowicz’s eye—but fail to suffuse the film with anything like the personal charge that’s present in her other works. This might be Anywoman, Anycity. Still, every young filmmaker ought to be afforded the chance to strike out and claim new spaces, to test the boundaries of her world, and as Sofia Bohdanowicz moves farther from home, she paradoxically invites more of us in.

VIFF 2018: Spice It Up (Lev Lewis, Yonah Lewis, & Calvin Thomas, 2018)

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One of the highlights of this year’s Future//Present program, and almost certainly the funniest movie to ever play in the now three-year-old series highlighting the cutting edge in Canadian independent cinema, is Spice It Up, from the directorial troika of Lev and Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas. Beginning life five years ago as a shambolic portrait of seven young women who, failing at high school, join the Canadian Army and spend one crazy summer together hanging out, dancing and somehow becoming involved in a terrorist plot involving French Canadian separatists. Charming and goofy, the original film seems like exactly the kind of thing people who teach in film schools rail against: it’s formless and fails to follow the rules of screenwriting as set done by hacks in how-to books. The current version of the film embraces that criticism, inventing a frame story in which the film student who ostensibly directed the movie (played by Jennifer Hardy), is tasked by her teacher (a very funny Adam Nayman) with restoring some classical virtues to her slice-of-life hangout movie. And he isn’t the only one with criticisms: seemingly everyone Hardy meets tells her what is wrong with her film and makes suggestions that simply don’t make sense to her. Still, she works at it, but, as she says, every change she makes away from her original vision simply makes her like the movie less.

Of course all the people who criticize Hardy’s work are men: her instructor, her editor, a guy who suggests she turn her characters into manifestations of virtues set down by moral philosophers, a guy who lives next door who walks out of her movie halfway through a screening. The only woman she actually talks to about it is her sister, played by Sophy Romvari, who hasn’t even bothered to watch the movie yet. It’s a pointed criticism of the film school system, and the wider world of film criticism, dominated by the point of view of men, both under- and over-educated, with directors like Hardy flustered when their personal style of cinema doesn’t line up with established norms. It’s hardly a polemic, though, and the film is just as hilarious in its parody of film culture as the film within a film is of a group of underprepared women sticking together (where Hardy in her story is pointedly alone) despite a significant dearth of common sense. It’s maybe the funniest movie about independent filmmaking since La última película, or maybe even Tom DiCillo’s classic Living in Oblivion. It’s also, with its memorable supporting cast, a compelling portrait of the Toronto film scene as it stands right now in the 2010s, resolutely opposed to commercial norms and dedicated to making the personal cinematic and the cinematic personal.