Minding the Gaps: An Interview with Dan Sallitt

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There’s no figure in American cinephilia quite like Dan Sallitt. He occupies a number of familiar roles (critic; filmmaker; and critic-filmmaker, though there are fewer of those running around), but as a working theorist of cinema, he’s without peer in the United States. Yes, the academy offers shelter to more than a few self-styled theoreticians, but Sallitt makes a practice of, you know, actually watching movies. He consumes them voraciously, in fact, most often in community with others—he’s a fixture at New York’s rep houses—and, perhaps more importantly, he does so with an obvious, infectious pleasure. His ideas (about the still-expanding horizons of Bazinian realism, about the limitations—and the corresponding possibilities—of cinematic psychology, and about the productive lacunae that the camera creates when it records the world) begin with his peculiar tastes, and the evident delight that he takes in interrogating them. The Sallitt model merges a mastery of certain historical-theoretical concepts (old André and his “Ontology” loom large) with a clear-eyed assessment of one’s personal preferences. It’s the second half of this equation that most distinguishes Sallitt: it’s easy enough cobble together some top-down ideas about cinema and apply them, stencil-like, to any movie that comes across the transom; it’s a far more difficult thing to plumb the depths of your own idiosyncrasies and resurface not only with an articulable set of principles, but with your aesthetic enthusiasms sturdy and intact. Would that we all so thoroughly enjoyed our predilections.

At least we can savor Sallitt’s. For a particular kind of cinephile, encountering sallittfavorites.wordpress.com is a crucial point of departure: Sallitt’s color-coded lists, which order movies along two axes (numbers rank films for a given year; colors communicate enthusiasm relative to the wider cinematic corpus), offer novel cartographies for the young movie obsessive, who is often enthralled by the enumerative power of lists, but who typically begins charting his cinematic course with musty consensus canons that venerate—and falsely proclaim—objectivity. As you scroll through these rainbow catalogs, which award high honors to both Rosa la rose, fille publique (Paul Vecchiali’s criminally underseen masterwork) and Michael Clayton (the George Clooney Oscar vehicle), it becomes apparent that this preference-set belongs specifically to Sallitt, and to Sallitt alone. That might suggest that his taste, if not his model, is resistant to replication. But what’s most exceptional about Sallitt is the fact that he’s amassed so many disciples; the ranks of the Sallittists have, over time, swollen to a veritable cinephile brigade. Now, I ought to admit that on some level I remain skeptical that anyone could, ex nihilo, develop cinematic proclivities perfectly contiguous with Sallitt’s, and his most devoted followers do, on occasion, champion films in a manner that seems more prescribed than personal. But devotion inevitably—and perhaps rightly—attaches to mentor figures who encourage new ways of seeing, particularly if they do so with unusual magnanimity, as does Sallitt. And although I’m increasingly less young, you should count me among those cinephiles for whom the discovery of Sallittism was an invitation to cross-examine my own interests, an exercise which proved (and continues to prove) clarifying. So even if, for me, Sallittism is not—as it is for others—an absolute lodestar, it has become an important, perhaps indispensable, quadrant of my taste.

That made it an especial pleasure to sit down with the man himself at VIFF, where his fifth feature, Fourteen, had its North American premiere. As we discuss, Sallitt’s movies are coterminous with his passions as a viewer and as a thinker—though he is quick to point out that he’s not alone in that regard, at least not anymore: a growing number of “film intellectuals” moonlight as filmmakers, and vice versa. In the context of an American cinema that elsewhere looks moribund, dimwitted, and ever more impersonal, that might augur better times ahead. And I suspect that if those times do come to pass, Dan Sallitt—in his self-professedly quiet way—will be partly responsible for bringing them about.

Fourteen

Evan Morgan: The first thing that struck me while watching Fourteen was the unusual cadence of your actors’ line deliveries. As in The Unspeakable Act, Tallie Medel speaks with a rhythm that sounds slightly askew from the conventions of American realism, noticeably mannered. Do you hear your scripts in a clear way while you’re writing them, and then instruct your performers to follow specific rhythms?

Dan Sallitt: No I don’t, actually. This question is interesting because you’re not the first person to feel this way. In fact, many people have. But it’s not something that I think about when I’m writing the script. I just try to make them sound like people, and when I’m directing, I also try to make them sound like people. I think it’s possible that because the classical American cinema was my first love, I have a certain sense that the writing need not be concealed.

Actually, with Fourteen, more often than with any of my other films, I’ve had people tell me that it seemed naturalistic. Norma [Kuhling] especially has a way of turning strange dialogue into something that sounds natural. Very often, on set, I would say to her, “This line sounds a little arch to me, should we change it?” and she would say no. She had figured out how she was going to say it, how to make it real.

For this film, for the first time, I felt a little bit less of the “abstraction” that people commonly feel in my movies. I’m definitely not trying for anything that sounds as consciously written as, say, a Hal Hartley film, or something like that.

EM: Do you give the actors free rein, then, in terms of the line readings?

DS: I care a lot about the line readings, so I don’t give people free rein. My goal is the emotional tenor. When I write the script, I have in mind the way that the emotions play through the dialogue, and if the actors do something else, I’m there to correct it. Though sometimes I’m too wedded to a concept: things will go in a different direction, I end up forcing them to do it my way, but when I get to the editing room, I realize that what I wanted was not in fact the best way. On the set, I’m not as loose as I would like to be. But when you’re in the editing room, your state of mind is completely different. Nobody’s around, you have all the time in the world to relax, to put your antennae out, and then sometimes things change course.

There’s a scene in the film where two couples go on a double date and have a conversation about lingerie. That was a scene that I wrote with more of a clear concept, that the shyer couple would be discomfited, less comfortable in the situation. But neither of the actors felt good about it, and they kept adding things to the scene. I went home unsure of whether or not what they did worked. But that was a case where it played fine. Their changes didn’t violate anything about the script. And yet I was unable to see, in the moment, that what they were doing would serve my purposes just as well as what I originally had in mind.

EM: Both Fourteen and The Unspeakable Act are centered on young people, and I believe much of the crew that worked on Fourteen was comprised of younger cinephiles interested in your work as a critic and a filmmaker. How do you understand your relationship to youth culture, specifically young cinephile culture?

DS: I feel strongly connected to young cinephile culture. The thing about filmmaking—and cinephilia—is that you can’t keep hanging out with your own age group as you get older. They drop off, move somewhere. You can’t put together a crew of sixty-somethings. It’s the same for cinephilia: my original set of cinephile friends are watching DVDs at home or delving into 1958 episodes of Gunsmoke, something like that. The people who are out there tend to be young, and I happen to be doing the same thing still, so it’s natural that I move in their circles.

In terms of the filmmaking, there was a gear shift: my first movies focused on people around my age, and I followed them for three films. Until The Unspeakable Act, I was using the same actors, not because of an affinity for people at a specific age, but because of my affinity for the actors. I like to work with actors a second time, especially if I don’t feel confident casting a new film. But The Unspeakable Act was a different script, and I had to cast all new people. Even for the older roles, I couldn’t get the people I’d worked with before. But when it was over, the same thing happened: I wanted to work with Tallie again in the worst way, and I started the process all over again.

I think Rohmer did something similar around the time of Perceval and Catherine de Heilbronn. He developed new groups of people that he liked to work with. These gear shifts are natural. Even if you want to follow certain actors to the end of their life (which I kind of do) the variety of ideas that you generate makes it necessary to change. And once you’ve made the change, you’ve got all these new people around.

EM: That sentiment dovetails nicely with the text of Fourteen: people float in and out of one’s life. The natural course of things takes us away from one another. And in filmmaking, just as in life, I imagine that you find different groups of people as you discover new interests.

DS: Yes, it’s like that. And it goes both ways: my first movie featured Strawn Bovee, and she has a small role in Fourteen. My second film had Edith Meeks and Dylan McCormick. Dylan is also in Fourteen. My third film was written specifically for Strawn and Edith; I was tracking their lives. Tallie probably wasn’t even born then, and yet now it’s Tallie who I can’t get out of my life. She became extremely important to me as a filmmaker.

EM: Do you think focusing on younger characters, played by younger performers, with younger people around on set, has changed your approach?

DS: I don’t think so. In my relatively quiet way, I’m stubbornly holding on to something. When I’m around people on set, they might not see it, but there’s a stubborn continuity. I might even reverse the gear shifts: Strawn and I are talking about working together again. We’re now at the age where it would be a movie about older people, for sure.

But I enjoyed the idea of writing for younger people. It was a voice that was fun for me, especially the character in The Unspeakable Act. She just came out of me and right onto the paper. But when I’m in the middle of it all, I keep a little of myself to myself, and I’m always vaguely aware that my aims might differ from the aims of everyone else on the set. I want everyone to benefit from the movie, but my agenda was set somewhere around the time that Truffaut started writing [laughs].

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EM: Can we talk a little bit about the way that time works in Fourteen? The movie has significant gaps in the chronology, and I’m curious how you conceived of the space between the scenes that we see. Did you start with a fleshed out story, and then pare away? Or did each scene emerge for you as a discrete unit?

DS: The gaps are part of the film. And that’s really important to me. What the audience sees is what I see. We’re outside of the people on screen when we watch a movie, and I try to preserve that “outsideness.” If I make up a backstory about one of the characters, it’s only to help the actors, not because the backstory is important. If I didn’t put it on screen, it’s because I didn’t want it to be there. The things that fall into those gaps, I don’t even know what they are.

When I write a phone call, and you only hear one side of it, I don’t know what’s being said on the other said. Later on, you inevitably have to write the other side for the actors. It’s like a test: Can I make this fit together for the actor? But I only want to think about what we see on screen.

That principle extends to Jo’s mental disorder. I didn’t want a mental diagnosis for her. The way we experience her is the way that we experience people in life: she’s a collection of external signs. The gaps have nothing in them.

EM: The film certainly plays that way. Which, for me, brings to mind Paul Vecchiali, who is a personal favorite of mine, and a filmmaker that I know you like as well. One thing I really admire about the Vecchialian approach is this prioritization of emotion over psychology. Or put another way, Vecchiali believes that psychology is downstream from emotion. In his films, we understand the emotions of his people before we recognize the psychological forces that propel them, if we recognize them at all. I sense something similar in your approach to character.

DS:  I wouldn’t have put it in terms of Vecchiali, but I do want the effect to rule the movie. What’s behind it, which includes psychology (and a million other things, actually) is fungible.

EM: There’s a shot in the film I wanted to ask you about. About 40 mins into the movie Mara goes to visit Jo at her paternal home in the suburbs, where she’s recovering from a suicide attempt. The sequence begins with a long shot (both in terms of duration and camera position) of a train station, where people are coming and going. The image registered to me as a formal break in the film. Elsewhere, we’re mostly confined to interiors, with people paired into couples and quartets. But this shot suggests countless arrivals and partings, as if the wider world has suddenly intruded on the film. Did you find the image on location? Or did you conceive of it early on?

DS: I very much conceived of it in advance. In fact, I was bragging to everybody on set that I was going to stop the film dead for four minutes. I loved the way that the camera picked out Tallie among the crowd. It brought a little tear to my eye. But in the editing room, I became aware that though I loved it, it would be a problem for some people. Some of the audience would be irrevocably lost at this point. I thought about removing it, but I realized that I could never live with myself if I did. I’d rather take the chance of alienating the audience than live the rest of my life knowing that I’d cut that shot.

Personally, I find it a compelling image. I like trains. There’s always something happening: you see how the commuter town works, people’s spouses picking them up. But what’s really going on there, as you said, is that Jo has almost died. And I knew she was going to die, so I felt a need for gravity, that the film needed to be stopped dead, because the whole film is an attempt not to take Jo’s loss lightly. I’ve never killed a character before, and I did not want to do so with a light hand. I wanted the whole film to be dedicated to this life that was lost.

EM: I think that’s there in the shot. As I was watching it, I felt a mounting sense of, if not dread, a kind of gravity, as you say. There’s a monumentality to the image. It was the moment where I felt most on edge, unsure of what was going to happen. The formal break suddenly forces a different emotion into the film.

DS: That’s exactly the kind of feeling I wanted at that moment. Of course I know that Jo is in trouble. The audience might start to sense it there.

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EM: You’re one of the few American film critics that has a fairly complete—and articulable—aesthetic framework for watching and writing about movies. I think this model, of the critic who possesses an established set of interests as a viewer, and who then re-purposes those interests as a filmmaker, is more well known in Europe, but maybe less well known in America. How much does your practice as a critic inform your approach as a filmmaker? And if it does, do you feel that that sets you apart from your peers in the States?

DS: Let me take the second part first. Right now, there’s more fluidity in the American independent community. A lot of people who write, or are film intellectuals, are making films, and the films reflect something about them. Everyone seems to be making movies that they want to make. It’s not the era of the “calling card” film that I recall from 20 years ago. Mumblecore may have changed that. Now, the more personal, the better. I don’t think what you’re describing is an unprecedented thing in the United States anymore.

In a certain sense, I see my love of cinema as being one with the feelings that I want to create in my own movies. I locate them in film history, even. The idea of my movies standing next to the great films matters to me. And I don’t feel like I’m switching hats when I move between thinking about movies and making them.

The biggest difference comes in generating the idea. It’s a weird process. Coming up with the ideas that you need to make a movie is a kind of pre-artistic process, in my opinion. There’s fantasy, there’s infantilism. Whatever gives you energy on some deep childish level is what’s needed to drive you through the process. You’re gratifying yourself in all kinds of weird ways. Once some things have emerged from wherever they’ve been hiding, the critic gets involved. And the internal critic, who shapes your own effluvia, is very similar to the person who writes a review of someone else’s movie. So there is a lot of common ground. But this one thing, criticism does not prepare you for it. That’s the gap. If someone can’t bridge that gap, it’s probably because they haven’t got a handle on how to generate the stuff.

EM: Is that something that’s gotten easier for you with each new film, or is it truly a spontaneous process?

DS: I think it just comes to you. It doesn’t get easier, but I also don’t find it particularly hard. If you think of yourself as an artist, you have to have this weird process going on. I’ve had it running in my own head for a long time, though it’s changed over the years.

Various circumstances gave rise to Fourteen: one of them was that I had a day job that I didn’t want to quit, but I also couldn’t get enough contiguous vacation time to shoot something all at once. But I had ideas that I could shoot over time, in pieces, so I could satisfy the requirements of my living situation and make the movie work. That was instrumental in finding the ideas that became Fourteen.

EM: Did the film ultimately come together over a significant period of time?

DS: It was pretty fast. I finished The Unspeakable Act in early 2012. Fourteen was on paper by mid-2012. I wanted to work again with Tallie, and I wanted to work with Kate Lyn Sheil, who had a small role in The Unspeakable Act. I wanted to see what would happen with the two of them. The script was called “Tallie/Kate” for a long time.

I had a vague role for each of them and a vague agenda: I told Kate once that I thought one of her directors should remake The Mother and the Whore with her in the Françoise Lebrun role. And after a while I thought, maybe I should try that. So there was something in my mind about that scene that became Jo’s breakdown.

But it didn’t solidify until I had this almost fantasy idea of the little girl and the bedtime story of Jo’s life, the funeral, and the little girl’s reaction triggering the mother’s reaction. I didn’t have the rest of the movie at that point, I just had a vague structure. But that scene made me feel like the movie could be done.

EM: I wanted to ask you about the ending of the film, because the sequence you describe, where Mara narrates Jo’s story to her daughter, initially seemed like a logical endpoint for the film. But you keep pushing it further to the funeral scene, where Mara is granted a real moment of grief. I’m curious to hear you articulate why the film had to end where it does, with a level of emotionality that’s unlike what’s expressed throughout the rest of the movie.

DS: For me, I couldn’t have ended it without that. The film is trying to strike a balance between the romanticized feeling of this great love that Mara has for Jo, which will never go away, and the reality of life carrying you away—life with a child carrying you away. Fourteen is about all the stuff that happens while the nice, clean narrative line progresses. And the other stuff has to have weight. The ending is supposed to crystallize the idea that all this other stuff is in balance with a powerful emotion. The ending fights it back, and then loses the battle against the eruption of the emotion.

[Film critic] Mike D’Angelo told me that he really wanted the movie to end after the story. I see it, but I couldn’t end it there. I owed Jo more than that, somehow. All my films have, beneath the surface, a kind of capital-R romanticism, which I then try to disguise with a million manifestations of the mundane.

EM: That reminds me of something you said in your piece on À Nos Amours, where you describe Pialat’s formal choices as “fiction dodging stratagems.” I’ve seen other commentators compare Fourteen’s approach to time to Pialat, but I also think what you’re describing, this romanticism that the film resists, but which it ultimately cannot hold back, is very Pialatian. He’s someone who possesses an almost repressed, or even self-loathing, romanticism, but he can’t clamp it down.

DS:  He tries so damn hard to keep it down. I was thinking about Pialat a lot during this movie. I’d arrived at a time in my life where I felt like I really understood Pialat, and I was thinking a lot about what I felt were the lessons of Pialat, which I didn’t really get when I first tried to use those rhythms. One thing that’s important about Pialat, which I tried to do, even though I couldn’t go as far as him, is how he throws things together that don’t fit, things that aren’t meant to fit together, that come from different places. He might throw together a piece from his life, a piece from Arlette Langmann’s life, or something the actors did when they didn’t realize they were being filmed, or something he provoked them into doing by breaking character. He’ll take all these things, put them together, and it makes you feel like the person is real in a way that you don’t feel when the character is conceived of in thematic terms.

I think that the discontinuity of people is far greater than fiction suggests. Fiction doesn’t give us easy tools to deal with how discontinuous we are. And Pialat realizes that. He recognizes that there’s a great danger in simplifying things away from reality. He’s scared to death of it, actually.

EM: What you’re saying brings to mind my favorite film of his, La Maison de bois

DS: That was Pialat’s favorite too…

EM: Oh was it? I didn’t know that. I’ve always sensed that it’s a movie that Pialat had to purge from himself, because it’s the most flowing and Renoirian, the least discontinuous. There, more than anywhere else, you see him unable to resist his own romantic impulses.

DS: Pialat said that the only two good films made since the liberation were Jacques Demy’s short film about the shoemakers of the Loire and La Maison de bois, his own movie [laughs]. But Pialat is usually brutal towards his own movies. In interviews, he does himself no favors. He doesn’t think his films work, and he says so.

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EM: I’m also curious about the financing of your films. You mentioned that you made Fourteen while working your day job, which financed the movie. Do you anticipate self-financing your films going forward? Is doing so important to you?

DS: I self-finance completely, and I anticipate that I will continue to do so. But whether or not it’s important to me, I don’t know. I’ve never done anything else. I can imagine some fantasy situation where a patron comes along, offers money, and says, “Do whatever you want.” What I have trouble imagining is fitting myself into a system that requires compromise. Perhaps I could, on some level, but I think I’d sabotage the project before it even got off the ground. But I’ll try if someone wants to!

And there are certain good things about my style for a producer. I storyboard everything. I do cutting continuity. I don’t change my scripts very much. So if the financier is adept enough at reading the tea leaves, they can see exactly the movie that I’m going to make. It’s an opportunity for someone who doesn’t want any surprises.

EM: I find it surprising that you storyboard your films in advance, especially after just talking about this Pialatian discontinuity. Fourteen doesn’t read to me as a film that was storyboarded in advance. It has an off-handed quality that works in the film’s favor. How do you capture that while also storyboarding?

DS: A lot of that has to do with the actors. But the reason to storyboard is not so much a creative one as it is an emotional one. It’s a way of controlling anxiety, to tell you the truth, very much the way that I think Hitchcock needed to feel that he was done with a movie before it was filmed, that all he had to do was execute his plans. Really, the movie isn’t done, but I understand why it’s useful to think that way. I understand the anxiety that forces you to pretend that the film is entirely finished before you start. At every stage of the way, I’m trying to pretend that I’ve already done the work, and that all I have to do is flesh it out a bit.

Perhaps because of that, I’ve developed a kind of minimalist style. I was a math major, and mathematicians like the idea of an elegant proof. Minimalism implies not thinking about yourself in a way, which you can do when you follow a rigorous plan. So, it fits with my personality in some way.

EM: And minimalism suits the milieu. Fourteen understands the environments that young women like Mara and Jo would occupy. Their lives lack accoutrements. They’re simple. They move through life with baggage of the emotional variety, but very little of the tangible kind.

DS: You know, I saw Young Ahmed recently, which I liked a lot, and I saw the Dardennes doing the same thing in responding to the film’s situation that they were doing as far back as La Promesse. They don’t think twice about doing the same thing. They don’t obsess over doing things differently or striking out into new territory. Their style is pure response to something, to a situation. Not to a script, not to a theme. And I think I try to be like that myself. I never go in thinking, what can I do to make this interesting? I try to obey, to do justice to something when I choose shots and when I construct decoupage.

VIFF 2019: And Then We Danced (Dir. Levan Akin, 2019)

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Levan Akin’s gorgeous coming-of-age tale And Then We Danced fairly glows with beauty, pain, hope, and joy. It is a thoroughly transporting film, one that makes you wish that you were part of its hero’s world instead of being a mere observer.

And Then We Danced is set in the nation of Georgia and features the hauntingly beautiful dance and music of traditional Georgian culture. The film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a college-aged member-in-training of the National Georgian Ensemble, a troupe specializing in traditional dance. Merab has been chastely dating his dance partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili), with whom he was first paired when they were just children, and the two have an easy, playful rapport that comes from many years of knowing each other and dancing together. If Mary suspects that her partner is gay, she keeps that suspicion under wraps until the truth becomes too obvious to ignore—which it does when a new dancer, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), suddenly arrives from out of town and begins to claim more and more of Merab’s attention. Irakli is dashing and mysterious, and Merab is soon utterly fascinated by him. A relationship that should proceed apace, however, is complicated by the fact that both young men live in a sternly judgmental culture where being gay is a criminal offense. Further complexities arise when auditions are announced for a single, prestigious position in an ensemble piece, a position for which Merab and Irakli find themselves competitors.

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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (dir. Pamela Green, 2018)

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Too few people know about the extraordinary woman who arguably created cinema as we know it. With La Fée aux Choux (1896), Alice Guy-Blaché became the first director in history to use film to do something that we now take for granted as the obvious job of the movies: to tell a story. (Some critics and scholars make a case for the Lumière brothers as the inventors of fiction film with the staged prank depicted in their 1895 L’Arroseur Arrosé, but this argument depends entirely on what one believes counts as a “story,” as opposed to an incident or attraction.) To note only that Guy-Blaché was “the world’s first woman director,” then, is to do her somewhat of a disservice, given her other even more remarkable achievements. (She also, for example, was the first director in history to use synchronized sound in film, decades before The Jazz Singer.) Pamela Green’s long-overdue documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is therefore a little safe and cautious in calling Guy-Blaché only “one of” the earliest fiction filmmakers. Even so, Green’s compelling account performs an essential service in at last giving a remarkable and nearly forgotten figure from cinema history the feature-length documentary that she deserves. Be Natural (entitled after the advice Guy-Blaché always gave her actors) is wholly engrossing, and by turns surprising, illuminating, and moving.

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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.

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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.

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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.