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 Parti de campagne 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 is surely 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 consistent 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 stead. 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.

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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 sudden 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.

Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution (Yony Leyser, 2017)

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Over the course of 83 brisk, entertaining minutes, Yony Leyser’s alternately raucous and thoughtful documentary traces the origins and rise of the queer punk rock scene. Like a punk song, much of the film’s force is in its economy, and like a punk song, it challenges the status quo, flouts taboos, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Leyser does a fine job recovering buried history in a way that’s fresh and illuminating, reminding us that settled narratives exist to be unsettled and that the voices of outsiders can often tell the truth the loudest.

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VIFF 2018: Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Shorts

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“I found myself taking photos of things people left behind.” It sure is nice to be back in Sofia Bohdanowicz’s world of forgotten things. Maison du bonheur, her most recent feature, was, for me, the highlight of last year’s festival (on some days I feel like I’m still basking in its sun-kissed warmth) and this year we’ve been gifted no less than four new works. They’re shorts this time out, but as Bohdanowicz demonstrated with A Prayer, An Evening, and Another Prayer (her triplicate reckoning with a grandmother’s death and that grandmother’s many, multiform absences) she’s a master of the format. She knows precisely how to compress the expansive generosity and inquisitiveness of her cinema into a matter of minutes.

Veslemøy’s Song, the longest and most substantial of the shorts, is another Bohdanowicz excavation project. Like her first feature, Never Eat Alone, a dusted-off object prompts an inquiry into unremembered histories both personal and artistic. Here it’s a song dedicated to Kathleen Parlow, a music instructor who taught Bohdanowicz’s violinist grandfather his craft and a woman of some note during her time, now long since forgotten. The sole recording of the song resides in a basement of the New York Public Library system and is available only by appointment. Deragh Campbell, once again standing in for Bohdanowicz, hops on a plane to pay witness. But upon arriving, her efforts are frustrated by a form of institutional preservationism heretofore alien to Bohdanowicz’s cinema, despite the filmmaker’s own archivist instincts. A faceless technician, located six floors below, spins the warped old disk. Campbell hears nothing more than a 30 second snippet piped in through a computer, and the off-screen archivist, via a chat window, bureaucratically denies her requests for a more complete experience.

Bohdanowicz’s earlier films were, quite literally, home movies, and as such they benefitted from her subjects’ hospitality and their open-door policies. Institutional actors, even or especially those who share Bohdanowicz’s archaeological mission, are as accommodating as procedures allow and no more. As if in response to this frosty welcome, graphite tones replace Maison du bonheur‘s impressionist daubs of color and, with one particularly sepulchral close-up, the film takes on an almost Dreyerian spareness. Not every host—and not every film—greets you with open arms. Veslemøy’s Song serves to acknowledge the challenges that face Bohdanowicz’s project as it expands outward from her family unit. Nothing to despair about, and certainly not for an artist as intuitive as Bohdanowicz. Still, muted disappointment is the right final note: “Afterwards I ate an egg salad sandwich on whole wheat. It wasn’t very good.”

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Technology and personal history intersect again in Where, Bohdanowicz‘s bad romance as recounted by Google street view. Mapping software introduces uncanny digital movement to Bohdanowicz’s world and, by its very nature, erects a spatial and emotional distance between the film and its subject. Given the interpersonal cruelty described by the intertitles—the only form of narration here—the film’s remove from physical space registers as a kind of therapy, a means to inspect an old wound without touching it.

A physical, if faked, wound plays a central role in Roy Thomson. Bohdanowicz revisits the symphony hall where she once saw her grandfather play the violin and relates how, frustrated by his unwillingness to wave to her mid-performance, she patched together a false arm bandage to garner his attention. Seeing his granddaughter hurt, he waved back. As in Where, Bohdanowicz transforms still images through scratchy, sepia-toned 16mm—apparently processed with natural chemicals derived from flowers. The effect is, appropriately, like stumbling on some moldy, time-eaten artifact and holding it close to admire the beauty of its deformations. In other words, a memory.

The Soft Space is the outlier of the bunch: close-ups of a woman’s naked torso alternate with the adamantine geometry of the New York City subway system. The contrasting visual and aural textures are approached with an admirable lack of prejudice—pliable flesh and the hard metal girding of the MTA are equally appealing under Bohdanowicz’s eye—but fail to suffuse the film with anything like the personal charge that’s present in her other works. This might be Anywoman, Anycity. Still, every young filmmaker ought to be afforded the chance to strike out and claim new spaces, to test the boundaries of her world, and as Sofia Bohdanowicz moves farther from home, she paradoxically invites more of us in.

VIFF 2018: Fausto (Andrea Bussmann, 2018)

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Sea shanty cinema: we might plot coordinates from Griffith’s one-reeler The Unchanging Sea through The Immortal Story and on to a constellation of Raul Ruiz works. In its purest form this a marauder’s cinema, possessed by a desire to horde half-heard tales and rum barrel laments (all that narrative jetsam that floats into port when sea dogs hit the shore) and cobble them into something resembling a coherent shape. Andrea Bussmann’s Fausto participates in a number of trends currently in vogue for the self-consciously modest festival film (a fetish for 16mm stock, self-reflexive exoticism, and what we might call neo-ethnography) but it distinguishes itself—initially, anyways—by seeming to revive this raconteur’s tradition. More movies that raid sailors’ bars for inspiration, please.

The odd thing, though, is that Bussmann maintains a cautious distance from the snatches of Oaxacan myth that she picks up in beachside booze shacks. The film leaves these stories unillustrated (deserted landscapes dominate the day and abstract, Costa-esque shadows rule the night) and unquestioned (aphorisms abound but lack insight or explication: “All animals are to a degree telepathic. They even retain their telepathic abilities when stuffed.” If you say so…). Animism at least operates as a key motif, though a mid-film trip to a natural history exhibit, stocked with a variety of taxidermied specimen, too neatly reveals Fausto’s hand: we are to understand that the local fauna have been poached for our amusement and ponder the ways in which the film’s narratology replicates this pilferage. In other words, Bussmann foregrounds her discomfort with her own project and its elected storytelling mode, which by its very nature borders on theft. This is a gesture of thoughtful self-critique by some standards, or a rusty escape hatch by mine. And so, Fausto offers us another soft-grained interrogation of a young filmmaker’s anthropological anxieties. We’re not exactly lacking for those. A more, well, Faustian bargain was in order: piracy is a dirty business, but not without its pleasures.

The Dumb Girl of Portici (Lois Weber, 1916)

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In her excellent history entitled Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, film scholar Karen Ward Mahar presents a startling fact, unknown to many of even the most avid cinephiles today: in the 1910s and early 1920s, close to half of the people working in the film industry were women. Women worked not just in the capacities that one might expect—as actresses, assistants, makeup artists, and wardrobe designers—but also as writers, producers, editors, and, crucially, directors. Once movies became what Mahar calls a “Wall-Street defined, vertically integrated big business,” however, directing opportunities for women swiftly began to vanish, leaving only a tiny number of American women working as directors from the late 1920s through the 1960s. (Even now, the Directors Guild of America estimates that only 15% of the directors working in Hollywood today are women.) The prospects for women filmmakers by the end of the 1920s were so bleak, in fact, that one of the most prolific and influential directors of her time, Lois Weber, advised young women seeking to break into directing, “Don’t try it; you’ll never get away with it.”

Though some women did “get away with it,” none enjoyed as much popular success as Weber until our own century. Weber is best known for her high-minded social problem films during the “uplift” period of film history. Her projects considered such topics as birth control (Where Are My Children?), capital punishment (The People vs. John Doe), and income inequality (The Blot). Uplift films, however, were far from her only métier; she also directed white-knuckle thrillers (Suspense), comedies (Discontent), and quasi-historical epics. The last category is represented gorgeously in the recently restored The Dumb Girl of Portici. Based on an opera, the film stars the great ballerina Anna Pavlova as Fenella, a young mute girl tragically swept up in a violent revolution. Pavlova’s extraordinarily expressive performance is the centerpiece of this lavish adaptation, but there’s quite a bit more to commend. Opulent sets, stunning costumes, lively ensemble performances, and inventive special effects make this film a genuine pleasure to watch.

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Skate Kitchen (Crystal Moselle, 2018)

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The first narrative feature film by documentarian Crystal Moselle (The Wolf Pack, 2015) opens with a black screen and the sounds of the city: A train rattles and screeches by, people shout, children play, and a skateboard hits the pavement. Even before we see the film’s protagonist perform her first onscreen skateboard trick, the feeling is already somehow both electric and familiar, much like the story that follows. The film tracks its young heroine as she joins an all-girl skate crew in New York City. (In a move that blurs the line between documentary and narrative film, the fictional crew is made up of members of the real-life crew known as Skate Kitchen.) All the usual elements of outsider stories, sports movies, and teen dramas abound: A young upstart joins a team of mavericks, tests her skills against those of her teammates and those of her opponents, and clashes with members of both as she grows and finds out more about herself. But this film invests the familiar sports-movie and coming-of-age-drama tropes with a raw energy, honesty, frank physicality, and genuine feeling that elevate it from a mere genre film into something precise and visceral.

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Dark Money (Kimberly Reed, 2018)

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As the opening credits come up on Kimberly Reed’s powerful new documentary, we see shots of the remarkable beauty of the natural landscape of Montana juxtaposed with startling images of the human and environmental devastation produced by mining and petroleum companies’ aggressive and essentially unregulated extraction practices. Reed here shows us in microcosm what we stand to lose as a nation if corporate and industrial power is left unchecked. Juxtapositions like this form the structure of the film that ensues, which alternates between the hopeful and the deeply discouraging as Reed pursues her thesis: Untraceable “dark money” political campaign contributions and the corruption that they foster constitute a grave threat to American democracy. A documentary on this subject, while essential, could easily become a tedious screed, of interest only to policy wonks and activists. Reed, however, finds the humanity and the drama in her subject, creating a clear, compelling, and surprisingly even-handed case that citizen vigilance is more important now than it has been in decades.

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