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.

Between Work: A Conversation on Claire’s Camera and The Day After

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Evan Morgan: The sun’s out, palm trees are in sight, and we’ve temporarily traded in soju for sancerre. Hong Sang-soo is en vacance again. I don’t know about you Sean, but I’m always happy to see Hong in the literally and figuratively breezy mode that he takes up in Claire’s Camera. The seasons have long played a central role in the Hong project, though it seems that the tonal vacillation between his summer and winter films grows with each passing year. Hong’s sense of humor lilts along during the warmer months, and though it never goes entirely dormant in wintertime, it cools and takes on a serrated edge, like cracked ice. Claire’s Camera, in keeping with this seasonal dichotomy, might be his most amiable movie yet, defined as it is by Isabelle Huppert’s warm naiveté and the dabs of sunflower yellow provided by her summer frock. Huppert’s flightiness bleeds into the plotting too, which moves with a nonchalance that borders on amateurishness. I mean that as a compliment. It strikes me that Hong’s acceptance into the upper echelon of the art cinema world (the film unfolds during Cannes, after all) occurred simultaneously with his loosened production methods, and though the competition gatekeepers prefer the more somber Seoul films, the animating spirit of later Hong owes much to the laidback atmosphere of friends who vacation together and decide, ‘what the hell let’s make a movie.’ It’s not for nothing that this most amateur of Hong films is set against the backdrop of the world’s premier film festival.

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SIFF 2017: The Dumb Girl of Portici (Lois Weber, 1916)

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Few things wipe the sleep away from bleary festival eyes quite like a retrospective screening which, regardless of provenance or even quality, helps to restore the cinematic senses. Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici is not exactly a forgotten masterpiece awaiting rediscovery, but even in the context of revival screenings it’s a bit of rarity: pre-20s cinema mostly lives on the small screen these days. See Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers blu ray set for a recent and relevant example of the curatorial work being done in the home video format, even as streaming continues its march towards total domination. Lois Weber is well-represented in that set, and by programming The Dumb Girl of Portici (which Flicker Alley did not include) SIFF takes part in the same push to move women’s contributions to early cinema from the historical footnotes, where they’ve frequently been resigned, and into the mainstream canon. If it accomplishes nothing else, The Dumb Girl of Portici at least testifies to the clout and studio resources Weber had accrued by the mid-teens, less than a full decade into her career.

Though more than studio scale (it was something of a mega-production), it’s Weber’s stylistic coups that count. The film opens with a little cinema-of-attractions amuse bouche: ballerina turned temporary movie star Anna Pavlova floats onto the screen in dissolve, dancing against the void. Abstraction soon gives way to rather banal plotting. Something about a nobleman donning oppressed peasant clothing and making nice with the eponymous mute. I imagine this felt as rote in 1916 as it does today, though Weber finds flourishes: choreographed dances that prefigure, in primitive form, the geometric patterns of golden age musicals or the cascade of energy unleashed when the vox populi storm the castle perched above their beachside hovels. These crowd scenes in particular serve Weber’s skills well; she has a proto-Langian eye for the way that mobs move as if controlled by a single nervous system and the late film revolt ignites her visual sense. She hacks away at the proscenium staging by hurtling her camera down diagonal axes, typically against the movement of the players. The effect, coming so suddenly after an hour of flat planes, is practically three dimensional. Another dance closes the film, again manipulated with optical printing, though instead of a black vacuum Weber superimposes Pavlova dancing over a series of backlit clouds, Maya Deren’s spirit born a few decades early. As a whole it’s inarguably minor. As festival fatigue sets in, the buried treasures contained within are more than enough.

SIFF 2017: Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman, 2017)

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

Abstracted images of abs and biceps open Beach Rats, appearing to the flashbulb rhythm of iPhone selfies. The body is Frankie’s, a closeted teenager whose father dies outside his bedroom while his attraction to virile middle-aged men awakens. Director Eliza Hittman mingles thanatos and eros, ethnography and moralism unproductively, aiming for balance but arriving at regressive parallelism. Beach Rats instructs Frankie about the dangers of living in the middle. Hittman should take her own advice.

SIFF 2017: By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)

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

Boundaries are under attack in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thailand. The 1976 Thammasat University massacre infiltrates past and present, people and personhood, eating away at the tissue that divides. What’s left over is anyone’s guess: By the Time It Gets Dark shape-shifts into a unclassifiable design, the root contagion ultimately wreaking havoc beyond Suwichakornpong’s control. A kaleidoscopic final shot throws acid, though it seems that the film might spore on, finding forms both banal and beautiful forever.

SIFF 2017: Knife in the Clear Water (Wang Zuebo, 2016)

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What does it mean to program a film like Knife in the Clear Water in 2017? And lest there be any confusion, Wang Xuebo’s film is not, as the title suggests, a Polanskian exercise in triangulated sexual tension. There aren’t even enough points here to form a triangle; the only relationship of note is between man and cow. I’ll resist the flippant impulse to label the movie itself as bovine, but suffice it to say that if you’ve been to a film festival in the last 30 years, you’ve encountered Wang’s chosen mode: the lumbering, slow, dull art movie, the kind of cinema constructed around underrepresented peasant classes, devoid of incident save the barest whisper of conflict, composed exclusively in long take, and, bonus points, in 4:3.

The film follows a farmer who resists sacrificing his beloved beast of burden in order to fulfill the burial rites initiated by his wife’s death. Shot in China’s harsh mountain region Ningxia, Knife in the Clear Water understands itself to be a hard-eyed glimpse into the lives of the Hui people who call this place their home. At least in terms of texture, the film does manage to capture something: the way that atmosphere, earth, and skin mingle together as if cut from the same ashen cloth suggests the bond shared between the landscape and its inhabitants. On the other hand, I wonder the extent to which any of the filmmaking choices here emerge from lived experience. I cannot presume to know how the Hui community in the film would choose to depict themselves, either collectively or through the peculiar eye of a homegrown artist, and for all I know what’s on display here is that vision, but the fealty with which Knife in the Clear Water adheres to every stylistic cliche of the festival circuit, its total alignment with the demands of the market (and let’s be clear, it is a market), raises some doubts. Hou Hsiao-hsien and co.—inarguably the progenitors of the style—can count many sons and daughters among the filmmakers most favored by programmers worldwide, which must be considered a coup given the initial modesty of their project, and yet by transforming an economic limitation into an aesthetic they bequeathed to a generation of cash-strapped artists a safe, bankable blueprint. The blame for slow cinema’s status as a lazy generic default can’t be laid at their feet or even Wang’s, really. But après Hou, le déluge; year after year the market is flooded.

A film like Knife in the Clear Water exists because filmmakers and festivals lack a vision of the future. Both ran the numbers, looked at what got slotted before, and traded in the danger of artistic risk for the well-worn laws of supply and demand. There’s a reasonable hope that, like any economy, the glut of product might be cut short if we stopped consuming it. But alas: to program Knife in the Clear Water in 2017 means programming it, under a different and presumably less tantalizing title, again and again and again.