VIFF 2019: Parasite (Bong Joonho, 2019)

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Bong Joonho’s 2019 film, Parasite, which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes, opens on a row of tired-looking socks, dangling in a circle from a ceiling on a hanging mobile. From inside this basement apartment, we look through the socks, through a smudged window, onto a street outside, a ground-space that is right at eye-level. The apartment floor, then, is below the street, and the dwelling is a space where the damp moulds the bread and where the toilet must be up on a raised platform, so the plumbing can run downwards. The family–father, mother, young adult son, and young adult daughter–lives so low that even the toilet lives above them. It’s the sump of the city, where drunk men come to piss and where pest control sends billowing clouds of poisonous fumes, covering people and pests alike. The family shrugs and just breathes it in. What else is there to do?

And high above this family lives another family, in a tightly secured space that seems to be at the very shining top of the city. It’s a modern, walled-in garden, shutting out pests and drunks, and maintaining glossy glass surfaces and pristine green grass and foliage. It’s a world away from the refuse and grime, which, for this rich family, does not even exist. The lights that flicker on and off sometimes that might indicate to those inside the garden that another world is signaling, asking for recognition and help, go ignored; the flickerings are received only as further sign that lights turn on and off in a kind of obeisance to their owners’ presence. Even the young son of the family, who might read the code of the lights, sees a game for his own amusement. 

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Bottom of the world poverty, top of the world wealth: the Parasite spaces. That’s the set-up.

“This is so metaphorical,” says Kim Kiwoo (Choi Woosik), the adult son, and of course, it is. As with Snowpiercer and Okja, Bong has returned, here, to his interest in the haves and have nots, to the boundaries constructed between them, and the incursions and smells that cross those boundaries, the violence inherent in those boundaries and the violence that results from their existence, and his work reminds us that the world is never as tidy as above and below, up and down, front and back.  Continue reading “VIFF 2019: Parasite (Bong Joonho, 2019)”

VIFF 2019: Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2019)

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Young Ahmed, the latest feature from the Belgian writer-director brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which took the Cannes prize for Best Director, is very much a Dardenne film. It features the style and approach of all of their films: handheld, intimate camerawork; an intense focus on a limited number of characters and the daily texture of their lives; an elliptical development of narrative that builds as much through a character’s body language and routine as their dialogue; an interest in how a particular individual is often at the mercy of a larger system; a payoff that resides more in the character’s psychology or emotions than in a plot resolution. 

It’s a style that aligns both in content and in form with what we might call social realism. At their best, the Dardennes present us with characters who do not seem to be living in a story at all but with real people who have somehow fallen into one, and the camera has just happened to catch them in it.  At their best, too, their films achieve an emotional and psychological richness and complexity, a sense of the depth of human heart and mind, and human pain and joy, without the grand gestures of an obvious plot structure. 

It becomes easier to see the bones and careful construction of a Dardenne plot, perhaps, the more of their films one watches, for, of course, there is one, and each character beat always does lead to a particular kind of emotional climax, a climax that often typically strips the pretenses and armor away from the central character.  

Seeing the plot and its rather typical Dardenne payoff isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the brothers’ particular approach, so dependent on the minutiae of the daily life of a character, may feel wanting in some cases if an attempted hyper-realism of character falls flat. 

In the case of Young Ahmed, we are dropped into the life of a Belgian Muslim teen boy, after, under the influence of an imam, he has already become radicalized by the time we meet him. We then watch as, early on in the film, he carries out a plan — or attempts to carry out a plan — to kill his schoolteacher, a woman who the imam has told Ahmed is a dangerous corrupting influence, an affront to the Koran, because of her decision to teach modern Arabic to her students through pop songs. Ahmed’s clumsy attempt to stab his teacher fails, and he is sent to a sort of juvenile detention, where he lives with other boys, and, closely shadowed by a caregiver, eventually goes to a farm to work, helping the family with their daily tasks, a part of the system’s effort to reform him. He meets regularly with a psychologist, too, whose job it is to assess the level of his repentance and reform.  Continue reading “VIFF 2019: Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2019)”

Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

Rick Dalton dancing

**SPOILERS THROUGHOUT**

I. Prolegomenon: “Once upon a time,” Conservatism, and the Appeal of Nostalgia

This isn’t a review. (Here’s Sean Gilman’s review on this site.) It isn’t a judgment about whether a film is good or bad at a filmmaking level. Rather, it’s an attempt at a primarily thematic analysis. It’s an effort to answer some questions I have. 

I want to consider Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood on two levels: 1) a thematic one, specifically focusing on its construction of, assumptions about, and implications about gender and race — though, as a white person, I am more uneasy about tackling this one, aware that my own complicity in whiteness will always cloud how I observe and understand race on screen — and 2) an emotional one, arguably difficult, subjective territory, but one I think I have to address, given my own overwhelming fury upon exiting the cinema after my first viewing of the film. 

First, then: what is the film saying or implying about gender? About men and about women? I believe Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood is, in essence, a conservative film. (And I credit my friend Ben Hynes for using this adjective in reference to the film in a conversation with me and thus, as aptly chosen words often do, doing much to illuminate and organize the clutter of details in the film I’d observed.) And by “conservative” I mean two things: first, a conservative stance is one that is, inevitably, backward looking. It looks to the past as a guide for the future and understands or uses the past to measure the present, which generally fails to measure up. A conservative viewpoint on some level idolizes the past — better days, better times, the good old days. It is inherently nostalgic. Second, the film is conservative in the sense that it not only looks to the past with longing, but it is itself rooted in what I would generally consider (particularly as relative to a “liberal” or “progressive” viewpoint) outdated, regressive understandings of the world and, more fundamentally, of the way the world should be. 

Continue reading Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)”

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

The following is a loose transcript of a presentation I gave on Meek’s Cutoff, a film that was part of the Pickford Film Center’s repertory series, West of What?!, that ran from June 2017-May 2018. The presentation included a slideshow; the images below correspond to the slideshow images.


Meek

Good afternoon and welcome to the screening of the Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 film, Meek’s Cutoff.

Today’s film is a part of the Pickford’s West of What?! Westerns series, and, so before we begin the film, I’m going to talk for a little while about the film and its place in this series.

The Westerns genre is, of course, a significant part of the American cinematic landscape, and it was, for a certain period, enormously popular.

Between 1930-1954, approximately 2,700 Westerns were released. (Source: http://www.b-westerns.com/graphs.htm )

 

Meek's Slide 1

The Westerns genre, though, contained some troubling ideas or myths that are important to recognize.

For example,

  • The genre often promoted myths of westward expansion – the idea of Manifest Destiny – this sort of God-given right (to white people) for westward expansion into the indigenous peoples’ land.
  • It often defined a very narrow, traditional view of masculinity
  • It presented often absurd, gender stereotypes for women. Women were often depicted as purely domestic beings, side characters mostly useful as a civilizing force over men
  • It often normalized genocide, specifically of Native Americans

One of the most interesting things about Westerns is that the popularity of the genre might have a lot more to do with how many Americans tend to see and explain themselves (Looking at Movies, Barsam and Monahan), rather than with a connection to historical accuracy or to the true, often troubling, complexity of our country’s checkered history.

So one of the goals of the West of What?! series – given these things – has been to consider the problematic ideas or ideologies in the Western genre both by looking at Westerns that contain them and by looking at Westerns that subvert them in some way.  Continue reading Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)”

You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017)

Joe in shadow

“Where are we going?”
“Wherever you want to go. . . . Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either.”

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho, a past-haunted man cannot escape himself or the violence he has known and inflicted, and he preserves his own guilt and trauma, literally, in the body of his mother. He could not bear to live with her and the man she called her husband, and so he killed her. He could not bear to live without her, and so he keeps her, tucked in her bed, a “boy’s best friend.” It’s an impossible, stunted existence, an embalmed life, where the dead cannot be buried, and it is a life that splits Norman Bates’s identity in two. His body becomes a sort of prison, a site of ever-present struggle between two selves, between life and death, past and present. “We scratch and we claw,” Norman says, “but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”

Lynne Ramsay’s newest film, You Were Never Really Here, beautifully recalls this earlier cinematic classic both overtly and obliquely.  Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a war veteran, a sort of walking dead man like Norman Bates. Joe carries the suffocating horror of his past around in his scarred body while violent images of that past crash, unbidden, into his mind, disrupting his path in any given moment. The voices of the dead, too, and of his younger self force themselves into his ears. His is a divided existence, and his body contains a mind that won’t obey him. “What am I doing?” he mutters to himself when one of these images or voices shatters his attention and a task at hand. He is often, then, cut off from the world around him, the trauma of his mind wrenching him towards itself and away from an exterior, Other reality.   Continue reading You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017)”

Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

(Authorship Note: We are pleased to publish this essay, written by Sarah Hunter, a fabulous writer and brilliant student of film. Formerly a student at Whatcom Community College, where she received the discipline award in film in 2016-17, Sarah will be entering the filmmaking program at New York Film Academy Los Angeles in 2018.  ~MT)

Alicia in doorway

To many, famed director Alfred Hitchcock is known fondly as the “Master of Suspense,” whose enduring films have terrified and delighted audiences for decades (and who irreparably tainted the act of showering for an entire generation.) To others still, he is the quintessential auteur, a forefather of modern cinema whose methods have had a lasting impact on the craft of filmmaking – his disciples include the likes of Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. There is, however, another understanding of Hitchcock that, while perhaps possessing less of our collective consciousness, is no less significant or worthy of study: that of the capacity within his oeuvre for provocative and profound feminist analysis. In the words of scholar Tania Modleski, “Feminists have found themselves compelled, intrigued, infuriated, and inspired by Hitchcock’s works.” To be sure, feminist opinion of Hitchcock is undeniably split; many consider his persistent depictions of victimized women to be indicative of blatant misogyny. Yet others persuasively advocate for a more nuanced and open-minded examination, one which potentially suggests a richer depth to his representations of both women and men. Feminists, critics, and cinephiles alike would be remiss to ignore the subversive, oftentimes even progressive, approach to gender evident throughout Hitchcock’s body of work.

As Modleski argues in her seminal 1988 anthology The Women Who Knew Too Much, a number of Hitchcock’s films “reveal some of the difficulties for women in becoming socialized in patriarchy,” and that “despite the often considerable violence with which women are treated in [his] films, they remain resistant to patriarchal assimilation.” This indomitable spirit is best exemplified by Notorious’s brave, brazen Alicia; Shadow of a Doubt’s freethinking young Charlie; Rear Window’s daring, multifaceted Lisa; and Marnie’s titular bandit, a survivor of sexual assault. Furthermore, Modleski illustrates Hitchcock’s pattern of “putting the blame on violence against women where it belongs,” that is to say, on the male abusers and, by extension, the patriarchal system which enables them. This sentiment is echoed by biographer Donald Spoto, who points out that Hitchcock “describes the devastating effect of crime on the victim; his real contempt is for the victimizer, in every case a man.” Moreover, the men in his films (Notorious’ Devlin and North by Northwest’s Thornhill, most pointedly) typically can only achieve resolution by identifying with their female peers and gaining a more compassionate understanding of their struggles. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the men to change – first themselves, and then the system.

This dynamic – the persecuted woman who boldly resists the patriarchal structure, and the unenlightened man compelled, both by transparent self-interest and a larger sense of justice, to empathize with her – is at its most distilled in 1946’s surprisingly sincere romantic-thriller Notorious. Unconventional leading lady Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is a binge-drinking Miami playgirl and estranged daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. A covert American agency interrupts her decadent lifestyle to recruit her for a unique mission: infiltrate a Nazi cell by seducing its ringleader, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains.) Their established history – Alex had once been in love with Alicia, though his advances were spurned – coupled with Alicia’s promiscuous reputation makes her, in the eyes of the exclusively male agency, the ideal candidate for such an unsavory assignment. “She’s good at making friends with gentlemen,” one operative explains suggestively. Continue reading Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)”

VIFF 2017: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion, 2017)

Robin on beach

Jane Campion’s most recent project, Top of the Lake: China Girl, a follow-up to Top of the Lake (2013), is a 6-hour, episodic journey that premiered, variously, at Cannes, on the Sundance channel, and, played, most recently, at the Vancouver Film International Festival. It is, as its length and as its screening venues suggest, difficult to pin neatly into a category. Is it a gorgeously shot TV show? A very long film? Campion and her work, as usual, resist tidy classifications of all sorts.

Does her work represent “female annihilation in bonnets,” as BBC Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode once suggested, or is she definitely a feminist director, her work “emphasiz[ing] and almost perverse figuration of female strength” as Professor of Film Studies at University of East Anglia, Yvonne Trasker has said? Campion herself has championed women and women filmmakers, quoted as saying in an 1993 Cahiers du Cinema piece, “I think I know things about women that men cannot express.” And yet she “bridles” Virginia Wright Wexman notes in Jane Campion: Interviews, “at being narrowly identified as a feminist filmmaker,” and Wexman cites Campion as saying, “‘I think it’s quite clear in my work that my orientation isn’t political or doesn’t come out of modern politics.’” Continue reading “VIFF 2017: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion, 2017)”

VIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)

measuring elle marja

Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, Sami Blood, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, we hear a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice speaks: “Mom?” More knocking, then the same man’s voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice.

It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman who is turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.

In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, apart from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin.

Christina

Continue reading “VIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)”

VIFF 2017: 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, 2017)

ocean poles

The frame holds me.
Straining to see beyond,
I sleep,
caught between
tension & peace.

In the sleep, I dream,
The dream, a window
into what is
and what could be. 
      –(Adapted from the original tweet, 9/29/2017)

An inevitable sort of melancholy hangs over a beloved filmmaker’s last film, and one feels a certain pressure to love it, whatever it is. Going into the screening of the final film of Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016), 24 Frames, I couldn’t ignore the nostalgia associated with the endeavor. I am not sure, ultimately, if it will ever be possible for me to disassociate the film from the cinema experience of sitting in the dark, grieving a film lover’s grief and thinking, “This 120 minutes will be the last new footage I will ever see.”  But sitting there, even so intensely aware of the experience as a memento mori, Kiarostami’s film–flickering relentlessly forward through those precious minutes–took on its own weight. Like all of his films have done for me, it slowly removed me from self-consciousness and immersed me in itself.

24 Frames is certainly unique within Kiarostami’s oeuvre. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to find in an exhibition at the MoMA, where you can study an art piece for a while and then wander away. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect to sit in the dark and watch for two hours. But then, Kiarostami has always been playing with the idea of cinema, his films so often reflecting back on themselves and on the act of filmmaking, and in these reflections, he has continually made his audiences consider again what cinema is and what it could be.

Continue reading “VIFF 2017: 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, 2017)”

Landline (Gillian Robespierre, 2017)

Benihana

Early in Gillian Robespierre’s new film, Landline, Dana (Jenny Slate), compulsively scratching a poison ivy rash contracted in a not-so-romantic encounter in the woods with her fiancé, sits across a desk from a co-worker discussing their dates from the previous night. Effusively, the co-worker describes a romantic, hours’ long “epic conversation on the rooftop.” Dana, pausing, responds that she and her fiancé, in contrast, had spent “three hours at Blockbuster.” “We got Curly Sue,” she adds. It’s the kind of specific, funny, and evocative moment that punctuates and defines Robespierre’s work, a moment that deftly situates us in the time and space of the film’s 1995 setting, in a character’s emotional landscape, and in the thematic framework. Continue reading Landline (Gillian Robespierre, 2017)”