SIFF 2018: ★ (Johann Lurf, 2017)

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Science fiction with the boring bits left out. Johann Lurf reconstructs the universe by stripping Hollywood product of the generic narratives that propel mass consumption filmmaking to the heavens in order to focus on the stars themselves. In other words, a montage of voids: only moments of emptiness, of white specks against infinite dark remain. Though an avant-gardist himself, Lurf seems sincere in his desire to engage with popular cinema; he surely could have scrounged up a few more images from the likes of Jordan Belson or Stan Brakhage to include here, but he largely restricts himself to the kinds of movies that draw a crowd—or at least were intended to. He somehow mines wonder from Howard the Duck, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The trajectory from Man Ray to Marvel suggests a real traversal of aesthetic boundaries, and not just of cinematic time, and the final effect of seeing so much discarded matter bent, almost accidentally, into something beautiful is a little like watching light escape a black hole: the rational mind says it shouldn’t work, but it sure is a sight to behold.

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SIFF 2018: Un beau soleil intérieur (Claire Denis, 2017)

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Cinema’s seer of texture and touch swaps the pleasures of the eye for the vagaries of spoken language. Denis applies her halting, fragmentary style not to the images—which are atypically steady and clear—but to the words. Un beau soleil intérieur understands how people talk in fits and starts, how romantic (comedy) conversations slip into ellipses; it’s the gaps that matter. So, a Claire Denis film. Still, there’s a sense of perhaps too much light let in, of the genre bending Denis to its will, and not the other way around.

SIFF 2018: First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2017)

First Reformed possesses a gravestone’s beauty: cold and white like marble, angular, terminal. Paul Schrader learned his art in the pews; he relishes mounting the pulpit with his camera. And for better or worse, sermons don’t come much more sulphuric than this. Damnation is as American as apple pie (“it’s organic and local”). Hawke devoutly incorporates this chronicle of darkest hours, and Schrader remains, as ever, trapped in the garden.

SIFF 2018: People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Life in the People’s panopticon; that’s the idea anyways. Money sloshes around via exploding CGI coins—the digital puss of wealth accretion under authoritarian capitalism—yet the film fails to locate China’s live-stream stars in meaningful social context. Trapped in the machine, but never interrogating 21st century cinema’s central question: how do we watch people watching screens? Talking head aesthetics won’t cut it. It takes a poet to penetrate the human surge beneath the simulacra.

I Was Born, But: Nobuhiko Obayashi and Japan’s Lost Children

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Nobuhiko Obayashi is most famous in this country for a film about a house that eats the young.

In Japan, Obayashi is known for his films that celebrate the laze and haze and promise of youth in its natural season, summer. These are his furusato—or hometown—movies, as he calls them: films conceived in close consultation with their locales, suffused with the particular light of a place or its singular air, where the action is as much determined by the ungainly curve of an ancient street as it is by the generic demands of the youth film. Familiar adolescent conflicts are there, and occasionally inflected with a touch of the supernatural—as in his great body swap comedy Exchange Students—but they are always enveloped and nurtured by the real communities in which these young people live. Summer is, then, Obayashi’s natural season too: when the heat ticks up childhood spills out into the streets, all the better for detailing the public spaces where communities educate their children through performance, ritual, and, importantly for Obayashi, festivals. In His Motorbike, Her Island a young man falls in love on summer vacation, with an island first, a young woman second. When she takes him home, the joyous dancing at a local festival puzzles him. Isn’t this festival to honor the dead? Yes, she tells him. They dance for the people who were born, lived, and died on this island.

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VIFF 2017: Paradox (Wilson Yip, 2017)

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You wouldn’t know it from the title or VIFF’s program notes, but Wilson Yip’s Paradox began life as the third entry in the SPL series before the film’s producers and programmers jettisoned any mention of its genealogy ahead of the official rollout. And to be clear, this doesn’t appear to be a quirk of North American unfamiliarity with the series: even in Hong Kong it played as a clandestine sequel, with nary a mention of Sha Po Lang in sight (in English, anyways). And to confuse things further, Soi Cheang, director of the superb second entry, was originally slated to direct Paradox, only to swap out for workman Wilson Yip, director of the not-entirely-superb original SPL, late in the game. Cheang retains a producing credit on Paradox and rumor has it that he will be back to direct the next SPL film, which may end up monikered ‘SPL 3’ if the pre-production reports are to be believed. In the world of Soi Cheang, things tend towards mutation.

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VIFF 2017: Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)

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Most of the filmmakers associated with the Berlin School have rejected the label in some fashion, or at least questioned the label’s applicability to their work when placed in proximity to that of their peers, and given the individual ascendence of people like Petzold and Ade, who do have idiosyncratic interests that extend beyond the pre-defined set of Berlin School signifiers (a superficially televisual look, something something “the European Project,” etc.) it makes sense that artists increasingly want to claim a personal project rather than be lumped in with a brand. And critics have, from my vantage point at least, followed the filmmakers’ lead. There’s a sense that the Berlin Schoolers have graduated from new wave status, or have at least matriculated from Un Certain Regard to Competition, and ought to be taken more directly on their own terms. But then what to make of a filmmaker like Valeska Grisebach, and particularly Western, which emerged in Un Certain Regard over a decade after her last feature premiered during the height of Berlin School attention and which feels more wedded to the school than the likes of Toni Erdmann or Phoenix? To a greater extent than her more famous peers, Grisebach and her films fit right into the box: a markedly plain style of flat key lighting and un-showy set-ups, an unabashed concern about Germany’s place in 21st century Europe, and a fondness for discreet, almost imperceptible abstraction.

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VIFF 2017: Maison du bonheur (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2017)

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Maison du bonheur celebrates a very French epicureanism—that old Gallic fondness for fromage, pastries, and Aperol spritzes—that seems to animate the daydreams of drab North Americans more than it does to the soul of La République in the era of Macronisme. But as with any ancient philosophy there are holdout practitioners who keep the flame alive. Canadian filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s second feature zeroes in on one such philosopher, Juliane, a sixtyish astrologer and casual gourmand who lives in the Hausmannian maison of the title. Maison du bonheur’s offhand genesis (Bohdanowicz was asked by a friend if she might consider documenting her mother, a woman that the director had never met and knew nothing about) profoundly informs its approach. Rather than cross-examining Juliane about the details of her personal history, which would be très gauche, Bohdanowicz simply observes the objects, from astrological ephemera to a well-loved KitchenAid, and the routines, largely centered on food, that comprise her everyday life. Conceived as a series of grainy 16mm insert shots, Maison du bonheur glows with Juliane’s anachronistic spirit and shares with her a deeply considered approach to things.

Luxe generosity, on the part of both filmmaker and subject, defines the project; a mid-film toast to the offscreen filmmaker by Juliane and friends typifies the constant magnanimity on display. But as one mysterious detour to Deauville suggests, Bohdanowicz’s prior stay in France was significantly more troubled. Bohdanowicz’s role in the film mostly goes unspoken, save this detour and an amusing anecdote about Paris’s worst eclair, though the way that her camera watches Juliane’s hands—which are omnipresent—mold a Shabbat challah or caress an astrological chart reveal a subtle master/student relationship. During the post-film Q&A Bohdanowicz revealed that she shot the film without sync sound and crafted the film’s lush foley track entirely on her own by following Juliane’s design for living at home: recreating the challah recipe or recording a friend savoring a pastry at Juliane’s deliberate pace. Image and sound thus become a teacher’s instruction and the student’s recital, so that Maison du bonheur begins as a mere document of Juliane’s way of life and ends up as true, delectable praxis. Bohdanowicz need not say more about herself to communicate what this gourmandine education means to her, though she does make one final gesture of gratitude at the conclusion: she returns Juliane’s toast, dedicating Maison du bonheur to all those who live in this house of happiness. And with her film, she kindly opens the door for the rest of us.

VIFF 2017: Forest Movie (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2017) and Prototype (Blake Williams, 2017)

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Two tricks of the eye:

Matthew Taylor Blais’s Forest Movie focuses attention on the center knowing that you’ll likely miss what’s happening at the margins. The pivotal shot that comprises nearly half the film’s runtime works explicitly on this principal. After tracking a young woman on a half hour stroll through the forest, Blais sits her and his camera down to stare at a patch of woods for thirty straight minutes in a fixed, Academy ratio long take, a la James Benning. Anyone who’s had a brush with the work of that august American avant-gardist will know that the pleasures offered by an image like this lie in the shifting textures of light and the peripatetic impulse of the human mind to drift elsewhere when confronted with something this still; he will also know that Benning got there first and has fruitfully mined similar landscapes for nearly a half century. But keep watching and Blais’s distinctive spin on the set-up reveals itself around the edges of the frame: the aspect ratio is slowly expanding over the duration of the shot, widening from 4:3 to 1.85 widescreen. Blais hides the change by framing a circular stump dead center, which naturally draws the eye away from the edges and obscures the movement happening on the periphery, where our vision is less sensitive. The moment of realization will arise differently for each viewer, though Blais wakes up even the most hypnotized (or bored) viewer with a hard cut back to Academy ratio. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this wonderfully deployed trompe l’oeil in context of the rest of the film, which for better or worse melted from my thoughts the longer I gazed at the screen, but there’s no denying the primal (and very physical) awe inspired by Forest Movie’s slow-cinema sleight of hand.

PrototypePrototype, which also showed as part of VIFF’s Future//Present series, plays even more directly with the anatomy of human vision. Blake Williams, like gran-père Godard before him, explodes the possibilities of modern 3D—and early twentieth century American history for good measure—with his science fiction rendering of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Archival stereoscopic images of the disaster open the film before a tidal wave of light bends towards the audience and seemingly merges past with present (or is it Future//Present?). Five TV screens then materialize against the void and flicker with found footage both directly and indirectly connected to the subject historical event. The result is a virtual gallery space where up to five images exist simultaneously within the frame, each image itself split in two, across the left and right eye. The densest moments offer no less than ten possible images, which are only accessible individually by closing one eye and then the other. With both eyes open, more information hits the retina than the mind can process. Williams clearly delights in the pleasure/pain dichotomy that arises from such a deluge of visual data, which partly explains Prototype’s final plunge into complete abstraction. The found footage breaks into pulsating white swatches which swirl around an unseen center, and the images Williams previously layered on top of one another (and across the eyes) decouple feverishly. Matter, time, and history have come apart at the seams.

SIFF 2017: Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman, 2017)


Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats seems unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, the tensions that lie at the very heart of its premise. Abstracted images of abs, biceps, and one well-maintained Apollo’s belt open the film, each appearing on screen to the flashbulb rhythm of iPhone selfies. From the get-go, Hittman positions her film as ethnography; this body is anatomical subject first, person second. It happens to belong to Frankie, a closeted teenager charting the dawning realization of his sexuality, but more essential to Hitmann’s project is the material culture to which he and his corpus belong. Everything exists in the context of 21st century white youth culture. Nights start on the web but seamlessly extend into the streets, the same neon glow bathing both the bedroom and the boardwalk. Frankie and his friends exist to satiate their bodily hungers night after night, the fundamental corporeality of this subculture made manifest. Ditto the pervasive drug lust, which Hittman treats as both physiological need and social performance. Located quite specifically at Brooklyn’s dead-end—“Avenue Z”—and shot in blown out chiaroscuro that, at times, might make Philippe Grandieux flush with envy, Beach Rats checks itself constantly, a little like a vain teenager, to ensure that it signals thereness at every moment.

Aside from the fact that Spring Breakers already vivisected and laid bare this culture, Hittman’s ethnographic impulse is in and of itself benign. Tired perhaps, but harmless. More troubling are the narrative beats that pulse beneath the style. Frankie’s sexual awakening draws him to older men through the internet, each encounter laced with a hint of predatory danger. Intentionally or not, thanatos and eros are conjured up simultaneously, a fact underlined by the comatose presence of Frankie’s cancer-ridden father who literally functions as stumbling block en route to the bedroom. The film never draws an explicit parallel between Frankie’s fondness for virile middle-aged men and the bodily decay afflicting his father, but it’s an uncomfortably Freudian set-up for a queer film in 2017. Hittman’s conception of gay sexuality as death-tinged in some unconscious way gets compounded by the narrative jerry-rigging that traps Frankie and compels his most reprehensible actions. 

That the film finally reveals itself to be a morality play at core is, again, not a deal-breaker on its own terms. Like ethnography, moralism is an aesthetic (and ethical) choice. Mingling the two, however, makes for an unproductive tension: the here-and-now signifiers absolve Hittman of the burden of judgement, the narrative moralism requires it. It’s just too easy to play the middle against the sides and in the end commit to nothing. Beach Rats instructs Frankie about the dangers of living in the middle. Hittman should take her own advice.