Rafiki (Dir. Wanuri Kahiu, 2018)

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Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s marvelous, joyful Rafiki tells the story of two girls in love. It’s a story that has been told before, replete with obstacles en route to what we hope will be a happy ending, but two things set this film apart from the rest of the star-crossed crowd. One, the girls live in Kenya, where a colonial-era law marks out homosexuality as a criminal offense. Two, despite the seriousness of the dangers and challenges before our heroines, their story is wildly, vibrantly fun.

Continue reading Rafiki (Dir. Wanuri Kahiu, 2018)”

Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, 1983)

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I first saw this film in the mid-1980s, when I was a mildly alienated, slightly chicken-hearted New Waver who was curious about what more dangerous versions of myself were up to. I remember thinking at the time that Suburbia was really cool. Its depiction of rebellious street punks who make a home together in a squat spoke to my need to feel affiliated with something wild and counter-cultural without actually taking any real risks myself. And as someone who was disillusioned with suburbia, I appreciated the movie’s frank commentary on the hypocrisies of middle-class life. Revisiting the film today, I realize that I overlooked a great deal the first time around—not just its major themes about the blindness of youth but also the directness of its depictions of the casual racism, misogyny, and homophobia of some of its characters (and their society as a whole). Watching it now, it looks like much more than a stylish time capsule of a not-so-great period in American history (the Reagan years). It looks like an honest attempt to tell the truth about the way that young people experience a harsh world.

This is not to say that the film is always good. The performances of its mostly non-professional actors (actual street punks) are often wooden, the dialogue is stilted, and the attempts at humor mostly fail. Even so, the film is bold and completely unflinching in its attention to human ugliness, to the simultaneous vulnerability and cruelty of the young, and to the way that disaster so often strikes with little warning and for no good reason.

Continue reading Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, 1983)”

Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019)

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What is the source of Carol Danvers’ power? This is the question that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s excellent Captain Marvel asks, and the answers are various. The answer to the most literal form of the question is the typical sort of quasi-semi-demi-scientific explanation we’ve come to know and mostly love from the rest of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—something about an accident involving an advanced energy source, etc. etc. Where the movie becomes deeply interesting, however, is in its many answers to the metaphorical versions of the question, many of which will resonate deeply with most of the women in the audience, and many men. The movie details a specifically female set of experiences, and not only in the ways one might expect from a movie about a woman who rises through the intermittently sexist ranks in the U.S. Air Force, eventually to fight alien bad guys. To say much more on this subject requires spoilers, which are plentiful after the page break here. So before you read on, go see this enormously entertaining and wonderfully hopeful movie.

Continue reading Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019)”

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018)

 

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You can read Sean Gilman’s previous review here

Hale County is a documentary in the poetic mode – it is not straight reportage with talking heads and a didactic method, but rather built of texture and mood. RaMell Ross has staked his film on the belief that his image fragments can sustain the viewer’s interest, and for the most part he is right. He films those in his community, the young men who become fathers, who go off to school but remain attached, the people in their orbit and their stories. Every so often an intertitle will appear, marking a new section, “whose child is this?”

When watching the films of Frederick Wiseman one marvels at his precise distance. Over 50 years he has honed his craft to the point where the distance between camera and subject is always finely judged, never out of place, his gaze never tips the scales. Ross works differently in that each image works as a moment-by-moment recalibration of this distance, between observer and participant; his gaze trembles before his subjects as he is intimately involved in their lives. Certain images would not be possible without this collapsing of distance – the sharing of a cellphone background image, the small child back and forth in the living room, literally walking up the camera’s lens and obscuring it with his presence. Sometimes he does not get things right and his gaze feels invasive, such as when he films the digging of the grave or the intrusive angles of the mother’s face after she has given birth (this after an intertitle tells us she does not care about the film).

Each image is linked to another one by a series of visual and aural echoes and gains strength through these repetitions and reworkings. There is no straight through-line besides the general one of the years passing. Certain images stick in the mind: a basketball shooting drill where the camera sticks closely to the figure, the physical gesture made visceral; the inside of a locker room with players in every corner, testosterone and energy waiting to be released; the children playing outside while lightning is visible in the background. Each moment sticks momentarily and then we are on to the next. Sometimes what sticks is a small detail, the look of a child curious about the camera, water on the ground, a shadow. The editing makes these images abstract, become a tapestry of daily life.

In today’s cinema one of the pressing issues is the matter of representation. So it is necessary to see these images – modest domestic images, shot with sensitivity. We have small-town Alabama, its parking lots, its gatherings, made strange and beautiful, given focus. As in the newly restored 1898 actuality Something Good – Negro Kiss, we are witness to intimate moments of black life, which have longed been missing in American cinemas. We have been robbed. Charles Burnett should have made a film every single year, like Renoir in the 30’s. Julie Dash and Cheryl Dunne and Kathleen Collins and Bill Gunn and more. Each time a struggle, each time necessary. When Ross uses footage from 1914’s Lime Kiln Field Day, Bert Williams in blackface, it is not just a comment on representation, the effect of this figure emerging the woods, seemingly observing the everyday events in front of it, as it cuts back and forth, acts as a specter haunting these images, the distant past commingling with the right now. Soon after however Ross films the smoke of a bonfire rising from the trees, the speech of a bystander comes on the soundtrack and says, “You see, we need more black folks making photos in the area and taking pictures and stuff, you know?” It’s beautiful and troubling.

Hale County remains fascinating, imperfect; in an interview Ross states that his film language is “growing” and this feels right. It feels like a first step, but hopefully one among many.

Playing at Northwest Film Forum

Friday January 11 – Thursday January 17

Featured Film:

Dead Souls at the Northwest Film Forum

Oh sure, the easy way out would be to highlight the Cinerama showing in its glorious theatre a bunch of digital projection (ahem, “laser projections”) of movies that play around town all the time, but never let it be said that Seattle Screen Scene takes the easy way out. No, we’re gonna recommend the eight-hour documentary about Maoist political prisoners playing at the Film Forum this weekend. Wang Bing is one of the most important, least watched directors of our time, a Robert Caro of the cinema, making monumental yet minimalist documents of Chinese society past and present. Dead Souls, consisting entirely of interviews with survivors of Anti-Rightist re-education camps, with Wang’s usual lack of cinematic ornamentation, is surely a better way to spend your movie budget than watching Brazil or A Clockwork Orange for the zillionth time.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs 
Perfect Strangers (Manolo Caro) Fri-Thurs 
Viswasam (Siva) Fri-Thurs 

Central Cinema:

The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975) Fri-Tues Our Review
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) Fri-Weds

Cinerama:

Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) Fri Only  
Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012) Fri Only  
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) Sat Only  
The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) Sat Only  
Battlefield Earth (Roger Christian, 2000) Sat Only  
Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) Sun Only  
Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985) Mon Only  
12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995) Mon Only  
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) Tues Only  
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) Tues Only  
Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) Weds Only  
Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) Weds Only  

Century Federal Way:

Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs 
Do Dooni Panj (Harry Bhatti) Fri-Thurs 

Crest Cinema Centre:

Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) Fri-Thurs  
Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri-Thurs

Grand Cinema:

Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) Sat Only
What They Had (Elizabeth Chomko) Tues Only
The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987) Weds Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

The Aspern Papers (Julien Landais) Fri-Thurs
Sicilian Ghost Story (Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza) Sun Only
Saturday Secret Matinee Sat Only 16mm

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri-Thurs
Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs 
NTR: Kathanayakudu (Krish) Fri-Thurs
Simmba (Rohit Shetty) Fri-Thurs 
Accidental Prime Minister (Vijay Gutte) Fri-Thurs
F2-Fun and Frustration (Anil Ravipudi) Fri-Thurs
URI (Aditya Dhar) Fri-Thurs
Vinaya Vidheya Rama (Boyapati Srinu) Fri-Thurs
Viswasam(Siva) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Meridian:

Petta (Karthik Subbaraj G.) Fri-Thurs In Tamil or Telugu, Check Listings

Northwest Film Forum:

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes (Alexis Bloom) Fri Only
Over the Limit (Marta Prus) Fri-Sun
Dead Souls (Wang Bing) Sat & Sun Only
Golden Swallow (Chang Cheh, 1968) Weds Only Our Review
2018 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour Weds-Fri
Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979) Thurs Only

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Simmba (Rohit Shetty) Fri-Thurs 

Seattle Art Museum:

Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963) Thurs Only

AMC Seattle:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs  

SIFF Film Center:

Becoming Astrid (Pernille Fischer Christensen) Fri-Sun

AMC Southcenter:

Perfect Strangers (Manolo Caro) Fri-Thurs 

Regal Thornton Place:

Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) Fri-Thurs

SIFF Uptown:

Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu) Fri-Thurs 

Mirai (Mamoru Hosoda, 2018)

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A small 4-year-old boy named Kun plays with his trains in the living room. His exasperated grandmother tries to clean up the house. Soon the boy’s parents come home from the hospital with Kun’s newborn sister in tow. She does not have a name. Later, Kun is amazed by her and the reality of being an older brother – it feels like a small revolution. The rest of Mirai is an extension of this first feeling, witnessing the thousand private awakenings which constitute a childhood, the growing awareness of the self and others.

The bird’s eye view. In Mirai, it works two ways: in the beginning it directs our attention toward the family home, one among many, situating the film among the essentially domestic; later, we drop from the sky, not toward the domestic, toward realism, but rather toward the fantastic, the characters going from the past to the future. Mamoru Hosoda’s strategy is to combine these approaches – to illuminate the realistic through the fantastic. In Hosoda’s best films, Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the balance between these is almost right–neither is overwhelmed. In Mirai, the results are mixed.

Going back to the family living room. Kun whines for attention while his parents busy themselves looking after the baby; soon enough he loses patience and begins to cry as he’s ignored. Instinctively he understands that his little sister is monopolizing his parents’ attention so he strikes out, hitting her with a toy train. Kun’s mother loses her tempers and yells at him. All of this happens fairly quickly, each action escalating inevitably until we’re left is crying children, frustrated parents, and a quiet domestic chaos. Variations on this scene happen early in the film–Kun is ignored, lashes out, rinse and repeat. After establishing the family dynamic (the mom wants to go back to work, the dad is going freelance to watch the children), Hosoda introduces his fantasy.

Initially, the switch toward fantasy seems entirely unmotivated and it risks being a minor disaster. Kun walks down a few steps, the scenery shifts around him and all of a sudden the family dog is turned into a character called The Prince, who remembers when Kun was born, and his parents stopped paying attention to him. The film then resets and the pattern is established: each domestic mishap is followed by a flight toward fantasy. Kun meets his sister when she’s in middle school. He meets his mother when she’s a little girl and they make a huge mess. He meets his great grandfather who takes him on a bike ride. But soon enough these encounters grow in depth, and when at film’s end we revisit these characters on last time, Hosoda has made perfectly clear the million tiny tremors across his family tree which paved the way for Kun.

But this idea that it’s all quite arbitrary does not quite go away.  Kun’s leaps through time eventually lead to him losing his way, ending up in a giant train terminal with no one there to recognize him. Although the design of this train terminal is quite impressive and the details behind the challenges placed in front of Kun ring true to his experience (he’s four so he doesn’t actually know the names of his parents, they’re just mom and dad), it does not feel natural. The logic which has developed the scenario seems tossed out the window for an impressive design; something similar occurs at the end of The Boy and The Beast, where the emotional narrative conclusion is suddenly resolved by defeating a weird giant spirit whale. The emotion which leads Kun to recognize Mirai as his sister feels true, but it is surrounded by an abstraction which seems at odds with the feeling which is animating it. The finale of Wolf Children is instructive in this respect. Hosoda achieves a perfect harmony between the realistic and the fantastic – the final emotional leaps of his narrative are set against roaring winds and heavy rains, the transformative power of nature understood as necessary, just as much as the inner revolts that forever change our characters. Mirai does not reach the same heights; perhaps there’s something more powerful and immediate about breaking away from family, asserting your own individuality, rather than accepting that you are a part of a continuum of people and choices, understanding your place in the whole big thing. Perhaps it is just harder to get to a place like that when dealing with the growing consciousness of a four-year-old like Kun. Instead of leaving feeling like Kun is forever changed, Hosoda leaves us with the idea that this is just the beginning – the first of many small revolutions which mark a child’s life. No doubt we will return to the bird’s eye view, and one day see a small memory of Kun being passed along to someone else. Another growing consciousness.

Mirai was previously reviewed by Sean when it played at VIFF (here’s the link)

Mirai is currently playing at Lincoln Square, Regal Meridian and Regal Thornton Place.

VIFF 2018: La Flor (Mariano Llinás)

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“Years passed, with Sundays as bleak as Mondays. Anatole married Henriette, and one particular Sunday…” It’s with these words—the passage of time and the scale of a human life transmuted into a single title card—that Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country was completed, ten years after its initial filming halted prematurely due to weather conditions. Something of the same shift in scale—from days to years and vice versa—is what writer-director Mariano Llinás achieves with La Flor, a six-episode, 868-minute, decade-long undertaking which, not coincidentally, reworks Renoir’s famously “unfinished” masterpiece in its fifth episode. But while the intervening ten-year limbo of Renoir’s film was filled in with, effectively, the stroke of a pen, Llinás’ evinces countless hours of herculean effort, which has been thus far rewarded with the top prize at BAFICI, a NYFF main slate selection, and no small amount of hushed awe in the cinephile community where its reputation only continues to build. (That there are reportedly only a handful of physical DVD copies floating around for preview purposes seems like a calculated attempt to cultivate a small, but fervent cult of appreciation.)

Such monumental effort is, of course, cause to take note; the only other film this decade even approaching its scale and magnitude is Miguel Gomes’ three-part Arabian Nights trilogy (2015), which at six hours still runs less than half the time of Llinás’ film. But the comparison turns out to be an instructive one, since both are essentially anthology films, with each episode more or less disconnected from the rest, and largely absent of, say, the durational exercises of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) and Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971). Indeed, in La Flor’s in-film introduction, which has the director seated at a picnic table with an open notebook of film-related ideas and sketches—not unlike the opening, artistic statement portion of Gomes’ Arabian Nights—Llinás explicitly lays out the overall structure with a graphic: four “petals” pointing upward (stories with beginnings, but no endings), a circle joining them together (a complete story), and then an arrow shooting downwards (a story with no beginning, but an ending). Six extraordinary stories, then, each of which are associated with a specific genre: a B-movie, a musical, a spy movie, one that by Llinás’ admission is difficult to describe, a remake of Renoir’s aforementioned film, and finally a captive story in 19th century South America. The only connections between the six: a single writer-director and the same four lead actresses: Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa.

Pace some early characterizations, though—particularly claims that there’s little to no ironic distance at play within the film—La Flor is not quite a series of adroitly engineered, expertly calibrated embodiments of genre that just happen to have emerged from the same mind. It seems no accident that the first episode is a B-movie (“the kind that Americans used to shoot with their eyes closed and now just can’t shoot anymore”), with its associations of less-is-more ingenuity; nor that the actual plot—mainly centered on a mummy, but which also involves some murderous feline tendencies—obliquely nods to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) and thus the low-budget triumphs of RKO Pictures producer Val Lewton. Rather than attempt to slavishly recreate each genre, Llinás thus demonstrates a willingness to impose his own set of limitations on the project, to take what he wants and discard the rest—so while La Flor frequently signals varied genre expectations, it also progresses in multiple contradictory directions at once.

The effect is uncanny, occasionally frustrating, but also uniquely thrilling, since its story possibilities refuses to telescope in the traditional way; there’s always the chance that Llinás hits the restart button and begins anew and so his hand casts a long shadow over the proceedings. In Episode I, he employs an insistent, playfully exaggerated score and an absurdly shallow depth-of-field, which means that much of the frame is shrouded in indistinctness and that shifts in action are often preceded by hilariously conspicuous focus pulls. And the shooting style remains more or less unchanged across the film—which is indicative of budgetary limitations, but also of a willingness to rely on genre-inflected suggestion to fuel narrative, to treat each and every moment of a daunting 14-or-so hours as a kind of pointillist dot in a larger canvas.

If the first episode, while pleasurable in the way it allows viewers to get their bearings, still seemed recognizably in the B-horror realm, the second (“a musical with a touch of mystery”) departs more clearly from its ostensible antecedents and stands as Llinás’ most effective genre reconfiguration. The episode tells of a famous, singing duo Siempreverde, comprised of Victoria (Gamboa) and Ricky (Héctor Díaz), whose failing collaboration is obliquely linked, through Victoria’s personal assistant, to a conspiracy plot to locate a rare scorpion venom (naturally, the key to an elixir of youth). The opening epigraph (“Watch out, the world’s behind you”), from The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” is indicative of Llinás’ intent here, as in the rest of the film—which is to continually expand each given story, to suggest an entire world with a simple change of shot or line of dialogue. Fittingly, there’s an increased attention to basic storytelling pleasures, particularly an oral tradition linked to music. Parceled across the episode are three melancholy, black-and-white sequences that each tell versions of the night Siempreverde’s most famous song “Rain” was composed—how a small tale of understanding (here, between Victoria and Ricky) became lost within deluge of salacious tabloid, fabricated memoir and commercial success—which both gestures to the popular forms that Llinás is working with and captures the inexorable movements of a wider culture of engagement.

The explicit interest in various storytelling modes intensifies in the third and longest episode: a spy movie that finds the four actresses playing agents “somewhere in South America” in the 1980’s (the “time of spies”). Transforming a Cold War era thriller into a very protracted waiting game, the globe-trotting episode proceeds, over roughly six hours, to tell the intentionally involuted backstories of each of the four women, with Gamboa’s mute agent inevitably recalling Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Colin in Rivette’s Out 1. Given that Llinás presents the viewer with his own gang of four—not to mention an opposing gang of four and an impending duel—it’s somewhat tempting to invoke Rivette, particularly given the French New Wave director’s interest in a form of play (theatricality, embedded fictions, false faces) and an approach to performance (a conception of being that flows, first and foremost, from artifice) that La Flor does engage with. And indeed, the nature of the film’s production, which allows the four actresses a number of uncanny transformations and reversals, a constant shedding, melding, and forging of identities across the epic runtime—for which the actresses’ collective theater troupe “Piel de Lava” (or “Lava Skin”) provides a perfect visual metaphor—does seem uniquely conducive to a Rivettian project.

The first two episodes seemed to bear this out, but Episode III, which is split into three acts, provides something of a difficulty in that regard, since for the most part it emphasizes a distance—at times courting parody—in not just genre, but also performance. This is, of course, Llinás’ prerogative. And it must be said that the more outside-in view taken here does make the moments when the episode (at times literally) racks focus that much more breathtaking, such as the end of Act I, with a cosmic reverie set to the dying of the light, prompted by a kidnapped man’s realization that he’s not about to be killed. (Beneath his gag, the man smiles.) That’s merely one of no less than four coups de cinema dispersed across Episode III, which in their wending, digressive verbosity have a quality that recalls the writings of Roberto Bolaño and his ability to cap off meandering peregrinations with epiphanic onrushes of emotion and sudden clarity. Whether one accepts that such moments require the surrounding protraction to function—and I remain unsure on this point—the film’s overall retreat from a more Rivettian embodiment and approach to an actor’s “essence” seems undeniable.

Extending this outward movement, the fourth episode takes on a meta-textual docu-fiction of sorts, which, based on Llinás’ Cinema Scope interview, is his answer to those who have abandoned pure fictive pleasures in favor of “hybridization.” Accordingly, there’s a film director, four actresses, and an ambitious six-part undertaking titled The Spider, though the director stand-in’s corresponding diagram, being six-legged, naturally resembles an ant—industriousness over cleverness, it would seem. When we pick up with the film crew, production has already spanned six years, and the doltish parody of a film director seems more taken with shooting trees than with filming his actresses, whom he frequently describes as witches. In theory, this episode presents a number of productive avenues: for Llinás to acknowledge the limitations of his production, as well as explore the nature his collaboration with his gang of four. And there is a degree to which Llinás does follow through on both. But his lack of facility with the meta-textual trappings renders the former tack deathly dull. There’s none of the reverse-engineered cleverness of, say, Our Beloved Month of August (2008), in which Gomes weaponized his (sound-capture) production limitations into a brisk, inventive tale, so the episode relies mainly on tired meta-humor to make its mark.

In taking on the latter, Llinás at least seems to expend more energy. Owing to the fact that the four actresses are actually witches, the director and his film crew vanish from the story. The director’s shooting diary is later found by an academic named Gatto (Pablo Seijo). The remainder of the episode then proceeds as an investigation, narrated in epistolary form, of the the director’s writings, which later incorporates yet another layer: the director’s fevered search for a number of esoteric books which Gatto takes upon himself to investigate. (That the reading list includes the Polish classic The Saragossa Manuscript, with its delirious, nested mini-narratives, is simply Llinás showing his work.) The text the director becomes obsessed with, though, and the effective fulcrum of Episode IV, is Giacomo Casanova’s memoir Histoire de ma via. But the director’s infatuation, as Gatto observes, is not with the Italian’s infamous conquests, but with “secret fingerprints” and “slight moments of truth”—atomized fragments or seeds that lodge themselves in the mind for later germination. What the director zeroes in on eventually is an apocryphal tale of how Casanova was individually teased and refused by four gorgeous, flighty women (played, of course, by Carricajo, Correa, Gamboa, and Paredes) in what he later discovers to be a vast conspiracy between the four to deny him. The parallels between Casanova’s predicament and the viewer’s are obvious—though lest one miss it, Llinás offers up a layered image of the four actresses, their profiles coming together to form a flower.

What follows, though, is somewhat more unexpected: a strikingly intimate sequence of the four actresses in various locations, comprised of footage one might reasonably (though incorrectly) assume was shot by a partner or spouse. Two of the actresses even bare their breasts for the camera; that we are even watching this seems oddly intrusive. In the film’s introduction, Llinás says that La Flor really belongs to his actresses—which in some sense is true. But the aforementioned sequence gives lie to such unfreighted auteurial benevolence, and serves as the director’s admission of his infatuation, creative or otherwise, with these women. By positioning this (literally) seductive flourish at the close of Episode IV, he seems to ask the viewer if they feel the same. Whatever one’s response, the gesture remains unsettling, as if Llinás were confessing his salacious motives, while also soliciting approval for his candor; even Llinás’ sheepish, apologetic remarks directly following the episode’s end register as a kind of narcissism.

If the concern here is the age-old relationship between artist and muse, then perhaps it’s useful to return to Rivette, specifically his Balzac adaptation La Belle Noiseuse (1991), in which an aging artist attempts, with the inspiration of a new model, to create a masterpiece long since abandoned. (“Ten years ago you stopped searching, you got scared just when you should have gone all the way,” the painter’s wife tells him.) After a lengthy battle between artist and model, the painter succeeds—but the results are so horrific, so cruel to his subject that he conceals the masterpiece and, overnight, produces another painting in its place. He shuttles away the identity he has stolen from his model, and leaves her the final decision: to either return to the essence now locked away or to start anew. In an echo of that gesture, Llinás offers the final two episodes of La Flor, which, taken together, chart a canny reversion to pre-cinematic modes.

There’s the aforementioned remake of A Day in the Country (in which the actresses do not appear at all) and the final episode (in which their faces are barely recognizable). The first proceeds in silent black-and-white, that is, until the romantic coupling occurs, and the soundtrack of Renoir’s film is dropped in to the sight of a plane taking flight, joining another two as they streak across the sky—an achingly beautiful visual-aural flourish that rightly ties cinematic progress to technological invention. The sixth episode follows soon after, telling a silent tale of four captive Native American women via a string of murky, Impressionist images, with intertitles attributed to an apocryphal 1900 memoir by Sarah S. Evans. Laying bare to his cinematic apparatus once more, Llinás reveals the camera obscura used to capture those images, leaves the camera running, and allows the frame to invert itself as the film crew packs up and slowly leaves, their efforts finally completed. As the camera intermittently pans across the landscape in 360-degree revolutions, the credits roll, distilling an entire decade of labor into just 40-or-so minutes. (Here, one thinks of the “Chimera Room” in La Belle Noiseuse, a favorite of the artist’s wife precisely “because it’s useless.”) Even through such an ambitious endeavor as La Flor, the world spins, indifferent. But the scale of human life is such that for the viewer, indifference is not an option.

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

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How do we count the age of ghosts? That question, posed by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s most recent short, is given a kind of answer in his newest feature, Asako I & II. Baku, the first of two Masahiro Higashide paramours, is not a phantom—at least not literally—when, after a heartbreaking departure early in the film, he makes a fated return; his reappearance subjects our eponymous heroine to a haunting nevertheless. Years of uncertain domestic contentment with Ryohei, the second Higashide steady, foretell a dangerous encounter with a lost lover. But more than a reignited old flame, it is the specter of youth that possesses Asako. The ghosts age only as much as you do.

That a reemergent lover confronts us with an earlier, not-quite-forgotten life is, in the realm of romantic comedies, a known insight. And Asako I & II, if it does nothing else well, plays the genre songbook with symphonic grace. Hamaguchi makes for a surprising conductor, though, at least if you take the tack favored by some Happy Hour partisans and read that earlier work as a Rivettian exercise in durational dramaturgy. If, like me, you see in Hamaguchi’s last film a classical woman’s picture played at half-time, his reinvention as pop impresario makes significantly more sense. This is a filmmaker devoted, without shame, to the most cliched beats offered by his scenario. As evidence, look no further than the initial meet-cute: honest-to-goodness sparks fly.

To dwell on the ways in which Asako I & II resembles run-of-the-mill manga (and there are many) is, however, to belie the rigor that Hamaguchi brings to bear, and the film resonates only because of the dissonances that arise from playing the script’s pop rhythms against the direction, which is sharp and socially specific. Mise-en-scène is inextricable from milieu: bourgie young Tokyoites live in a world of Muji-approved wood tones and cramped, but not tiny, apartments, and Hamaguchi’s visual schema responds in kind. I’m not sure that these environs count as anyone’s idea of paradise—heaven is still far away—but it takes a certain personal (and financial) stability to live the way Asako I & II looks, which makes those moments when the style suddenly breaks, either to indulge in romantic reverie, or, as happens more frequently in the second part of the film, during Baku’s extended disappearance, to embrace the outside world, all the more vertiginous. The guarded equilibriums of one’s late twenties are not yet immune to youth’s wobbly passions or, as the presence of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake suggests, safe from the infinite vagaries of chance and circumstance.

But instability is the wellspring of transformation, and it’s precisely Asako’s inconstancy that enables her final metamorphosis. When at last Baku reaches out his hand and beckons, he whisks Asako away from both dinner and domesticity, and yet he cannot pull her back in time. Face to face with her phantom desire, Asako no longer recognizes the youthful spirit conjured in it (“I will always return,” though a sweetheart’s vow, is also a ghost’s threat). A little housekeeping is necessary, following this aftershock, to put a new life in order. Luckily, an unlocked door awaits Asako. As does the promise held out by the English-language title, which, though awkward and surely hellish for prospective marketers, is, in its clumsy way, quite wise: We are our own sequels.

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.”

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.