2020 in Review

Mike’s photo of the burnt-down Seven Gables Theatre.

Hard to find a more appropriate image for our 2020 year in review than the burnt-out husk of the Seven Gables, once the thriving heart of the Seattle screen scene. It’s been a terrible, wasted year, but there were some things that helped us endure it.

Ryan Swen:

Ten Films That Kept Me Sane in Isolation

Quarantine was an especially strange experience for me because I can divide it into two distinctly different phases: when I was living by myself with no in-person human contact in a small apartment for the first four months, and the slowly unspooling existence I’ve since led with my parents on the other side of the country. Though the former at this point seems like a distant memory, I did manage to see many films at that time that stuck with me — certainly more than I have in the intervening time period. I’ve listed ten films from those months that helped ground my mental state in how transportive and beautiful they were, along what emotions they made me feel, ordered by when I saw them. 

Simones Barbès or Virtue (1980, Marie-Claude Treilhou)

Because hanging out with sad, lonely, impossibly cool queer people sounds like heaven.

The Love Eterne (1963, Li Han-hsiang)

Because a hidden, impossible love can be expressed with maximal means.

At This Late Date, the Charleston (1981, Kihachi Okamoto)

Because even a totally absurd community is still a community.

Femmes Femmes (1974, Paul Vecchiali)

Because it’s immensely moving to see people dealing with their own self-imposed isolation.

Sparrow (2008, Johnnie To)

Because the city is an ever-expanding, inviting, and mysterious place that I miss dearly.

Afternoon (2015, Tsai Ming-liang)

Because having a simple conversation can be the most captivating thing in the world.

Peking Opera Blues (1986, Tsui Hark)

Because finding lasting friendships in the heat of a struggle will never not be appealing.

Beijing Watermelon (1989, Nobuhiko Obayashi)

Because forming new families rooted in specific spaces is unbearably intimate.

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007, Adam Curtis)

Because offering the slightest bit of hope for the revolution after hours of dismay registers as an impossibly generous gesture.

Perceval le Gallois (1978, Eric Rohmer)

Because artifice can sometimes be the truest representation of all.

For good measure, here’s my actual 2020 top ten list (US release year):

1. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)
2. To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
3. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)
4. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)
5. I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)
6. The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
7. Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise)
8. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
9. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
10. The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Sue Lonac:

I’ll preface this list by saying that I missed a lot of great media this year (e.g., Nomadland, any book that doesn’t have pictures) largely because my obsessive focus on the pandemic reduced my attention span to a point of infinite density and zero size. Below is what got me through this awful year with a portion of my sanity somewhat intact:

  1. First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt). I reviewed this beautiful, meditative, perfectly crafted movie for Seattle Screen Scene here as soon as it went into wide release in 2020. It’s the best indie film I’ve seen since Moonlight
  1. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman). As she did in It Felt Like Love (2013), Eliza Hittman here tells a painful, powerful story of a distinctively female experience—in this case, needing an abortion—in a way that’s authentic, truthful, and startlingly precise. No other filmmaker lays open young women’s minds and hearts the way Hittman does.
  1. Season 2 of The Mandalorian. I take my Star Wars very, very seriously, so I don’t lightly say that Din Djarin has the best-realized character arc of anyone in the Star Wars universe. By the end of Season 2, the whole sweep of his development—from armored-and-helmeted zealot to full-hearted person—has been made visible in three high-impact, symbolic shots. The first time that helmet comes off, someone takes it off of him. The second time, he takes it off by necessity, because he can’t save the life of his child any other way. The third time, he takes it off because he wants to take it off, in order to be face-to-face with his only family, because love is more important than hewing to the letter of the law. Beautiful.
  1. The Forty-Year-Old Version (dir. Radha Blank). Loosely based on her own life, Blank’s dramedy follows a playwright approaching midlife who attempts to reinvent herself as a rapper. Clearly influenced by the ‘90s work of Spike Lee and Cheryl Dunye yet still wholly original, the film reflects on the power and danger of nostalgia, the cruelties of youth and age, and the tensions between art and commerce. Blank makes smart and startling use of still shots, black-and-white cinematography, and jabs of color to tell her story, but it’s the music and words that ground this film in a mood. The “Queen of the Ring” rap battle scene is breathtaking, indelible, and all too short.
  1. Mujeres (Y La Bamba). This is a cheat, since this album actually came out in 2019, but its sonic inventiveness and sincere lyricism kept me going through some of the thornier patches of 2020. Portland-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Luz Elena Mendoza has done some of the most original work in the indie music world of this (old) decade. I eagerly follow her into the new one.
  1. Solutions and Other Problems (Allie Brosh). Author and artist Brosh is more forthcoming about the darker phases of her own life in this graphic novel than she was in Hyperbole and a Half, though no less piercingly funny. The hilarious story of her bizarre childhood fixation on fitting her entire body into a bucket rivals anything the great David Sedaris has ever written for pure, weird comic brilliance.
  1. Soul (dir. Pete Docter and Kemp Powers). Though not top-tier Pixar for comedy, Soul surpasses most Pixar product for maturity and humanity. (Nothing tops the silent sequence that opened Up for sheer force of feeling.) Child-friendly yet not really a children’s movie,Soul breaks new ground for CG animation in vividly realized scenes of a hyperreal “real” world, seen through the eyes of someone who’s new here.
  1. Ted Lasso. Warm-hearted, funny, earnest, and joyful, this show is the perfect antidote to irony overload, truthiness, and the crushing cruelties of this year. Jason Sudeikis’ title character is a human ray of sunshine.
  1. In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt. The opposite of escapism, this podcast confronts the scientific and human realities of the pandemic head-on. The sanity and realism of Slavitt’s guest interviews makes this essential listening.
  1. Criterion’s 4K restoration of Beau Travail (dir. Claire Denis). I reviewed this luminous masterwork for Seattle Screen Scene here. Criterion beautifully restored the sharp edges and brilliant light of the original. This is film art given the loving treatment it deserves. 

Jhon Hernandez:

I did not see many 2020 films (or many films period), but these made an impression.

MY BOYFRIEND’S MEDS

A crass sex comedy in mode of the late 80’s Blake Edwards such as SKIN DEEP and BLIND DATE, full of destruction and disintegration. Jaime Camil gives a great unashamed performance.

DA 5 BLOODS

More unruly than BLACKKKLANSMAN, wilder in its ambitions, its failures – but everything feels necessary. Spike Lee’s interventions into his material breathe life into everything, making the film resolutely of the Now. For better or for worse.

AN AFTERNOON AT THE CINEMATEQUE

Resides somewhere in the same universe as Moullet’s LES SIÈGES DE L’ALCAZAR – a cinephile work taking place in and around a cinemateque. The energy, however, is rather different  – it is a more romantic proposition with a climactic scene taking place during a screening of Ford’s THE QUIET MAN. Any film that gives that much screen time to Ford’s masterpiece and tries to communicate with it is dear to me.

Mike Strenski:

Perhaps it’s the aesthetics of the year itself but 2020 has me thinking in pairs.

Labyrinthine Literary Conspiracies

I read several great novels this year (shout out to Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half which is the best novel from 2020 that I read) but two really stuck with me. Both were about protagonists uncovering hidden worlds; were they peeling back the layers on a vast conspiracy or were they just being fucked with by sadists? Both The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and John Fowles’ The Magus sent me down rabbit holes of paranoia that were far more entertaining than the stupid conspiracies that gained traction in the real world this year.

Baseball Bookends

Getting only a third of a season this year, with no chance of seeing a game in person, meant that I shotgunned baseball like I was No-Face at the lunch buffet. And my beloved Oakland Athletics did not disappoint. First, on a belated Opening Day of July freakin’ 24th, A’s slugger Matt Olson hit a walkoff grand slam in the 10th inning to start the season off right.

The A’s handily won the American League West but because of stupid 2020 had to play in a Wild Card series anyway. The Wild Card has not been kind to the A’s who lost an absolutely maddening affair to the Royals in 2014 (I still experience anxiety when I remember that game) and losses in the previous two Wild Cards. But they won this year, beating the ascendant White Sox in a three-game series, finally brushing off the narrative that the A’s aren’t equipped for the postseason.

(We will not speak of the ALDS.)

Favorite Albums Released in 2020

The two new albums I played the most were, in their respective ways, the most reflective of the year in question. The latest Run the Jewels record was another homebrewed bottle of lightning from Killer Mike and El-P, released into the maelstrom of righteous and indignant anger to hold police accountable in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others. There is no better example of 2020’s overall vibe than hearing the guy who just five years ago wrote and performed the Grammy-winning song, literally called “Happy” appearing on RTJ4 to remind us to, “look at all these slavemasters posing on your dollar”.

Speaking of timely, who other than Sparks could churn out a catchy chorus of “put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me” without it being utterly cringe-inducing? With The Magnetic Fields releasing their worst album ever this year it was left to the Mael Brothers to gift us with another record of indelible and erudite songs with A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. (I’m also a nerd for album sequencing that comments on itself and placing “One for the Ages” after “Self-Effacing” is just perfect.) 2021 is going to be the real Year of Sparks as Edgar Wright’s documentary about the band premieres at Sundance next month and Leos Carax’s Sparks-penned musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard will be hot on its heels (and I have a ticket to see Sparks in Amsterdam in May–yeah, I know that’s not likely to happen) but Sparks have been, ahem, a steady presence for five decades now if you’re paying attention.

Two Old Albums I Discovered This Year

I have always appreciated Talking Heads from a distance. More often than not, Weird Al’s ¨Dog Eat Dog¨ scratches that itch for me before I need to pull out Remain in Light. But when my dad died at the beginning of the year I drove out to Astoria for a few days to process his passing. In my hotel room one night I finally watched David Byrne’s only feature film, True Stories. I had heard the singles from the Talking Heads record before but never these alternate versions, sung by actors in the film. Somehow that re-contextualization hooked me and I have listened to that record, both the soundtrack version and the proper album, many times in the months since. “Dream Operator” will forever be linked to my dad now.

Quite possibly my favorite discovery of the year in any medium was oddball folk artist Michael Hurley’s 1971 album Armchair Boogie. The album is full of catchy songs about werewolves, insane men who think they’re English nobility, and whatever the hell the playful “Open Up” is about, with its eternal lips, winking stars, and plea to, “let me slide to sweet bye-and-bye”. The album is a ramshackle affair, with Hurley’s voice cracking and friends laughing. In a year when we lost contact with one another, it was nice to find a new old friend.

Here is a playlist of new songs by old favorites and old songs newly discovered (including those mentioned above) that took over my year.

Oh, this is a film website? Whoops. Uh, here are…

The Ten Best Films I Discovered This Year

  1. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
  2. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
  3. Om Shanti Om
  4. Shree 420
  5. To Be or Not to Be
  6. That Man from Rio
  7. Holy Flame of the Martial World
  8. The Best Years of Our Lives
  9. Baahubali
  10. Morvern Callar

Sean Gilman:

My favorite films that opened in Seattle this year (or close enough at least):

1. The History of the Seattle Mariners (Jon Bois)
2. Labyrinth of Cinema (Obayashi Nobuhiko)
3. Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangoo)
4. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
5. Undine (Christian Petzold)
6. To the Ends of the Earth (Kurosawa Kiyoshi)
7. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)
8. Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles)
9. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)
10. Days (Tsai Ming-liang)
11. Mangrove (Steve McQueen)
12. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
13. Jallikattu (Lijo Jose Pellissery)
14. Hill of Freedom (Hong Sangsoo)
15. We Have Boots (Evans Chan)
16. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina)
17. Ride Your Wave (Yuasa Masaaki)
18. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
19. The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)
20. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sangsoo)
21. Tesla (Michael Almereyda)
22. Monster Hunter (Paul WS Anderson)
23. Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)
24. Point and Line to Plane (Sofia Bohdanowicz)
25. Greyhound (Aaron Schneider)

Some of the other good things about 2020: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Farah Khan, Meiko Kaji, Bob Clark, Alan Rudolph, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jeopardy! and Alex Trebek, George Eliot, Waxahatchee, Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, WKCR’s Duke Ellington birthday marathon, WKCR’s weekly Across 110th Street program, reading books about jazz and Bach that I don’t understand at all, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ross MacDonald, Library of America’s American Noir of the 1930s collection, the Library of America in general, Jack Kerouac, Denis Johnson, John LeCarre, David Graeber, Herman Melville, Wuthering Heights, Anya Taylor-Joy, Gossip Girl, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, Nichijou, George A. Romero, DK Metcalf, Damian Lillard, Jamal Adams, Yuen Biao, Moon Lee, Ching Siu-tung, Edward Yang, Sean Connery, Adam Sandler, Peter Falk, Samantha Mathis, Lata Mangeshkar, Imtiaz Ali, Albert Brooks, dumb superhero movies, Disneyland, Milla Jovovich, Stephy Tang, Faye Wong, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, “Murder Most Foul”, “Dhoom Taana”, Veronica Ngo, Johnny Tri Nguyen, playing Hades, Johnnie To, Meiko Kaji’s floppy hat, Gore Verbinski, Masaaki Yuasa, SS Rajamouli, and the Seattle Mariners.

Evan Morgan:

For a number of reasons that require no explanation, and for a few others that I could not explain if I tried, I find myself with very little to say at the end of this year. The art that kept me company these long lonely months will have to speak on my behalf.

Il cavaliere misterioso (Riccardo Freda) / A Ride on a Tiger (David Stacton)

“He had never coveted power. He was a libertarian. But for a young man of his spirit and address it was no mean pleasure to invade states, conquer cities and travel in pomp like a prince. He had always behaved like a Byronic hero, but to be treated like one had been another matter. To give all that up was too much like giving up youth and promise themselves. His vanity, above all else, was piqued.”

Équation à un inconnu (Dietrich de Velsa) / The Mausoleum of Lovers (Hervé Guibert)

“Saturday, March 16. C. has gone up to bed. I remain alone with T. He sucks me off, behind the shutters of a snow storm.

(The Man Without Qualities: the dream of a great work)”

Sonia (Takis Kanellopoulos) / The Hour of the Star (Clarice Lispector)

“She thought she’d incur serious punishment and even risk dying if she took too much pleasure in life. So she protected herself from death by living less, consuming so little of her life that she’d never run out. This savings gave her a little security since you can’t fall farther than the ground. Did she feel she was living for nothing? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Only once did she ask a tragic question: who am I? It frightened her so much that she completely stopped thinking. But I, who can’t quite be her, feel that I live for nothing. I am gratuitous and pay my light, gas and phone bills. As for her, she sometimes on payday bought herself a rose.”

Let Joy Reign Supreme (Bertrand Tavernier) / Casanova’s Homecoming (Arthur Schnitzler)

“Did he regret what he had lost through his perpetual seeking and never or ever finding, through this earthly and super-earthly flitting from craving to pleasure and from pleasure back to craving once more? No, he had no regrets. He had lived such a life as none other before him; and could he not still live it after his own fashion?”

Barabbas (Richard Fleischer) / The Snow of the Admiral (Álvaro Mutis)

“These disasters, these decisions that are wrong from the start, these dead ends that constitute the story of my life, are repeated over and over again. A passionate vocation for happiness, always betrayed and misdirected, ends in a need for total defeat; it is completely foreign to what, in my heart of hearts, I’ve always known could be mine if it weren’t for this constant desire to fail.”

Am Meer (Ute Aurand) / “Reading” (Paul Willems)

“As I read this text, I was often borne aloft on a wave, the one that carries us away when we read a text that reveals one of the secrets of the world. I close my book, leap toward the door, tear down the stairs, tear into the yard. As if there, in the night, news were about to reach me from on high. It is January. The winter is damp, darkness all around in its gentle permanence. The old trees, old guardians of the old house, await, massive and unmoving. I realize that they have always been there, and it is me they are waiting for.”

Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)

Criterion’s new 4K restoration of Claire Denis’ remarkable 1999 film looks absolutely gorgeous—stark, luminous, vividly colorful, and precise in every fine line and minute detail. That precision suits the film’s subject: a tightly disciplined French Foreign Legion troop under the demanding leadership of an obsessive sergeant. A loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and a quasi-sequel to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960), the film tracks the gradual psychological unraveling of Chief Master Sergeant Galoup as he develops a jealous fixation on a new recruit, Gilles Sentain, whose beautiful face and ineffable cool make him a favorite both with the other legionnaires and with Galoup’s superior, Commander Forestier. Envy, repressed desire, and festering rage commingle in Galoup’s deteriorating mind, and the innocent Sentain suffers for it. As the film proceeds, we are inexorably drawn into the inevitable tragedy of their story, even as we revel in the startling beauty of Denis’ extraordinary vision.

Continue reading Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)”

First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2019)

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Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is, in most ways, of a piece with her previous films. Quiet in tone and measured in pacing, First Cow continues Reichardt’s sympathetic and observant explorations of the lives of outsiders and people on the margins. Like the settler women of Meek’s Cutoff and the homeless drifter of Wendy and Lucy, First Cow’s protagonists don’t have meaningful control of their destinies, despite their efforts to lift themselves out of their assigned places in the social and economic order. And like the radical environmentalists of Night Moves, First Cow’s protagonists aren’t above breaking laws in pursuit of their aims. First Cow, however, is perhaps the first Reichardt film that combines her keen-eyed artistry with genuine entertainment. Less grim than Wendy and Lucy, less cynical than Night Moves, more accessible than Meek’s Cutoff, and more tightly plotted than Certain Women, First Cow is an engrossing, engaging study of life in early nineteenth-century Oregon and two of its unlucky but ambitious inhabitants. Adapted from a novel by longtime Reichardt collaborator Jonathan Raymond, it has the rhythms of a folktale—and the lessons of one—detailing what might happen when clever, resourceful striving tips over into dangerous hubris.

Continue reading First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2019)”

Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)

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There was absolutely no need for another movie version of Little Women. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version (with Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis) was already pretty much perfect, and George Cukor’s 1933 version (with Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Francis Dee and Jean Parker) was pretty good too. I haven’t seen the 1949 Mervyn LeRoy version, but its cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh June Allyson and Margaret O’Brien) sounds amazing. Greta Gerwig assembled an equally great cast for her adaptation (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen), but rather than simply play the familiar story straight, she’s jumbled up the narrative and shifted emphasis away from its family melodrama elements to something more in line with her interests as evidenced by her previous work, both as a director (Lady Bird) and in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America)–that is, the story of how a young woman becomes an artist. It’s now a story as much about its own creation (both the film and Louisa May Alcott’s novel) as it is about the emotional highs and lows of its ostensible subjects. As such, it bears as much relation to Whisper of the Heart or Paterson as it does to previous Alcott adaptations.

It begins with Jo March, aspiring writer, living in New York and selling short genre fiction pieces for quick cash. A handsome critic tells her she’s wasting her time writing trash, which annoys her and not just because it’s true. But she gets a message from home: her youngest sister Beth is sick, possibly dying, and so she returns to Concord, Massachusetts. Flashbacks fill in the episodes that come first in the book and previous movies: a Christmas visit to poor neighbors, Jo and her older sister Meg’s trip to a dance, third sister Amy falling in ice, Jo and the girls’ friendship with neighbor boy Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), etc. These are interspersed with present day events: Amy in Europe with her aunt and Laurie (after Jo has rejected his marriage proposal), Meg and her husband barely eking out a living, Jo depressed about her work. The back and forth between past and present builds a seductive rhythm, as events mirror and comment on each other with ever greater frequency, culminating in Beth’s two serious illnesses, which Gerwig freely cuts between, doubling the usual melodramatic effect.

The film reaches its height though not with death, or with love and marriage, but with work, as Jo finally realizes what she should write about and Gerwig shows the process in detail: spreading papers on the floor to organize ideas, switching from one hand to another as the apparently ambidextrous author cannot stop to rest her cramping, ink-stained fingers, finally the physical process of printing and binding the book itself. There’s even a neat meta-fictional twist as Jo and her editor debate the Jo character’s ending, opening up the possibility that all the flashbacks we’ve seen are scenes from the book Jo is writing, that the real Jo and her family are not exactly the same as the Marches we’ve always known. Just as, of course, the Marches are not the Alcotts, and Lady Bird and Frances are not Greta. Tracey Fishko turned her friends and family into literature in Mistress America, and they all hated her for it. Jo’s story ends much more happily. At least, that’s the way she wrote it.

VIFF 2019: Atlantics, The Laundromat, Jeanne, I Was at Home, But…, Beanpole, Pain and Glory

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Atlantics (Mati Diop)

The presence (or absence) of Netflix continues to be a major point of contention at various film festivals—particularly at Cannes, where the stakes are highest, and which the streaming giant skipped for the second year in a row. There’s some irony, then, to the fact that high-profile Cannes titles frequently get picked up by Netflix, as was the case with Grand Prix-winner Atlantics, the debut feature of French actor-director Mati Diop. Although still best known for her role in Claire Denis’s 35 Rhums (2008), Diop has directed a number of short- and medium-length films, so this feature is a culmination, as well as an expansion of her 2009 short Atlantiques. Set in the port city of Dakar in Senegal, where Ada (Mama Sané) is to marry a wealthy businessman named Omar (Babacar Sylla), the film is supernatural sea shanty cinema—though before such associations arise, we are first introduced to the hardy existence of Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), one of many disgruntled construction workers toiling away in the port city. He is in love with Ada, and the affection is mutual. But when the pair plan to meet up for a moonlit tryst, Ada learns that Souleiman has set sail for Europe. Not long after, she learns that the ship he was on sank.

Much of this is intriguing from the jump, and Diop manages to create both an enveloping soundscape (with an electronic score from electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri) and a potent mood of languor and loss. The story’s supernatural bent suggests a kind of lovers-on-the-run scenario—an image of a burning bed following a wedding celebration briefly brought Badlands (1973) to mind—where the presence of one of the lovers is uncertain, though it eventually transforms into something more I Walked With a Zombie–adjacent. A triumph of Tourneur-esque texture, then, though there’s also a nebulous aspect to the structure that eventually delimits its power: Diop trusts that a viewer will take its arbitrary script details and narrative developments on faith, relying on the admittedly heady mix of moods to do the heavy lifting. But despite some occasional first film issues—the noncommittal closing, ill-considered voiceover—Atlantics nonetheless confirms Diop as a talent to watch. That the film’s most commendable elements will undoubtedly play less well when viewed at home on Netflix is, however, somewhat unfortunate.

The other notable Netflix title at VIFF this year, apart from Noah Baumbach’s commendable East coast–West coast divorce tale Marriage Story, is The Laundromat, director Steven Soderbergh’s second production this year, following High Flying Bird. It is also his worst film since at least Full Frontal (2002), perhaps ever. The film concerns the 2015 Panama Papers leak, which exposed the widespread manipulation of off-shore shell companies, a subject that’s very much in keeping with Soderbergh’s multifaceted, career-long fascination with the ground-level implications of economic policy. Unfortunately, the container he’s chosen this time around is misguided in the extreme. The stylistic comparison that’s come up most frequently is to Adam McKay circa The Big Short (2015), though even that seems rather generous given the script’s shrill condescension and a visual style that merely plays up the artificiality of the entire production, right down to the concluding call-to-arms that sees Meryl Streep removing her brownface getup in front of a studio warehouse, reciting a statement from the Panama Papers whistleblower, and finally using a hairbrush to strike a closing-shot pose as the Statue of Liberty. 

The idea, it seems, is that given the urgency of its topic, only a baldly didactic approach will do. (Along similar lines, Soderbergh’s admission that he himself owns a number of offshore shell accounts, seems meant to disarm by virtue of his candor.) That’s all well and good, in theory, but the intelligence that usually fuels even Soderbergh’s most inelegantly scripted projects seems all but missing here. Only a brief jaunt to China, which uses a foreign businessman (a very suave, tightly suited Matthias Schoenaerts) to relay the events of the Bo Xilai scandal, really looks and moves like a proper Soderbergh movie.

Jeanne, on the other hand, Bruno Dumont’s sequel to 2017’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, is a Bruno Dumont movie through and through. That feature, which confined its “action” to a series of head-banging performances in sandy, windswept exteriors of the French countryside, was a repetitive, grating affair that nonetheless elicited a kind of grudging respect from me for its boundless energy and sheer audacity. Apart from a lyrical honor guard ceremony with sundry drone shots of appealingly choreographed dressage formations, however, Jeanne offers far less to appreciate, distending its director’s interest in cinematic bodies with little variation or discernible purpose. Lise Leplat Prudhomme again stars as Joan of Arc, though here she plays a role far older than her years and as such, has a guilelessness that meshes well with Dumont’s predilection for casting non-actors. But an early shot that observes Prudhomme in full costume, holding a pose for minutes on end—thus capturing every twitch of her face, every gust of wind that throws her off balance—conveys all that there is to the feature, at which point there’s little else to do but count down the remaining 120 or so minutes.

For his direction of actors and interest in certain manifestations of spirituality, Dumont has often been compared to Bresson—a comparison that likewise follows German director Angela Schanelec, not without reason. Although she has often been corralled under the Berlin School designation with fellow Germans Maren Ade, Ulrich Köhler, and Christian Petzold, she has resisted both easy classification and wider recognition—after three decades of work, her tenth feature The Dreamed Path (2016) had the backhanded distinction of being selected for New Directors/New Films. That is, until this year, when her latest feature I Was at Home, But… won the Silver Bear for Best Director at Berlin and was subsequently put into the New York Film Festival’s Main Slate. 

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I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)

Schanelec’s relative obscurity is no mystery. She assembles her films in a way that tend to make audiences rather angry, if the copious walkouts at the VIFF screening of Home, not to mention reports from various festival Q&As, are any indication. Although her films initially seem to operate along clear narrative lines, they resist the payoff and satisfaction that viewers conditioned by both Hollywood and art cinema conventions might come to expect. Films like Marseille (2004) and The Dreamed Path have ellipses that open their ostensible stories up in truly discombobulating ways; the lingering emotional vapors of any given passage or section are eventually sucked into yawning voids. In that regard, I Was at Home, But… is something of a lateral shift—it’s recognizably Schanelec’s work, but whereas previous films were frustratingly/thrillingly irresolvable and somewhat cold/clinical, this is more easily assembled into a coherent narrative and also more emotionally direct. Her découpage here is less Bressonian than in previous films, though her images have an astonishingly limpid, expressive quality that serves the story’s emotional clarity. Two scenes in particular demonstrate contrasting aspects of her method: The first is a lilting sequence set to an M. Ward cover of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which moves from a cemetery at twilight to the blinding white of a hospital room; the second is a lengthy one-take scene of the lead character monologuing to (and then eventually berating) a film director, which plays both as a structural and stylistic break from the rest of the film (not to mention an amusing variation of what we usually see in Hong), and as a gesture of goodwill to the audience, offering explicit discussion on ideas that Schanelec herself has engages with.

No self-reflexive touches can be found in Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, an unfortunate blend of preposterous narrative contrivance, stringently opaque characterizations, and aggressively portentous staging. A multiple prize-winner in the Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar, the film is Balagov’s sophomore feature, and while it represents an undoubted leap in visual control, the meticulously art-directed polish—color-coded costuming, burnished cinematography, and exactingly decrepit recreation of 1945 Leningrad—it also clarifies the unfortunate sensationalist aspects of his debut feature Closeness (2017). It is yet too soon to write off the 28-year-old director, who may yet deliver a film to match his ample technical facility. The breathless encomiums that essentially conflate “virtuosic direction” with “well-photographed images, held long,” however, are long past their sell-by date.

Also rather tired: the polished art-cinema genre outing, here exemplified by Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s Cannes competition entrant Little Joe. The elevator-pitch concept is Little Shop of Horrors by way of Body Snatchers—which is a pretty compelling premise. But Hausner’s handling obviates the potential ambiguities that arise. The unusual, atonal score and mannered camera movements hold interest initially, but once the canine subplot emerges, it’s clear exactly where this film is going, both narratively and thematically: the subplot with the son, plus a number of therapist scenes, are used to draw out the mother-child anxieties; the absent father becomes a synecdoche for the natural world (he lives outside the city in a kind of symbiotic take-only-what-you-need manner with his surroundings), whereas the mother works with genetically modified plants, and only orders take-out because she can’t cook. Even the interactions with all the co-workers are bizarrely conventional, bordering on outright inept. Hausner’s mannered direction in Amour Fou (2014) had a coherence and integrity about it; here the actors seem rather left to their own devices. It’s the kind of film that’s so meticulously put together that everything—formal strategy, performance style, thematic coherence—clicks into place immediately, after which it just becomes a matter of waiting for it to crumble to pieces. A shame, given that the pleasures of its sci-fi antecedents lie at least in part in their malleability.

Finally, there’s Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, which centers on an aging, ailing director named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who’s in an extended state of creative paralysis. In some sense, the film requires that a viewer already be somewhat invested in the Spanish director’s career, and know at least something of his extended artistic collaboration with Banderas, which dates to the 1980s, when he starred in such films as Labyrinth of Passion (1982) and the superb Law of Desire (1987). But even without that knowledge, three scenes stand out: an early, near-abstract montage of bodily illustrations and medical diagrams; a nighttime visit from an old lover, which deploys its sense of longing like a depth charge; and the erotic memory-cum-restaging of the artist’s first stirrings of carnal desire. It’s certainly Almodóvar’s prerogative to make a film about his creative paralysis instead of the inspiration that finally emerged out of it, but the interspersed material from the latter is just far more appealing than any of the present-day material, which is comprised of three not-quite-Christmas Carol-esque visitations from past figures from his life. (An episode with a bathing bricklayer suggests that Almodóvar could do well with a full-blown memory piece à la Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes.) There’s more than a touch of complacency here, with Almodóvar trusting that personality and/or familiarity will supply the much-needed gestalt to a fairly lackadaisical film. Still, intermittent pleasure is better than no pleasure at all.

VIFF 2019: Parasite (Bong Joonho, 2019)

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Bong Joonho’s 2019 film, Parasite, which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes, opens on a row of tired-looking socks, dangling in a little circle from a ceiling on a hanging clothes rack*. (*Update 1/09/2020: See note at the bottom of this entry.) From inside this basement apartment, we look through the socks, through a smudged window, onto a street outside, a ground-space that is right at eye-level. The apartment floor, then, is below the street, and the dwelling is a space where the damp moulds the bread and where the toilet must be up on a raised platform, so the plumbing can run downwards. The family–father, mother, young adult son, and young adult daughter–lives so low that even the toilet lives above them. It’s the sump of the city, where drunk men come to piss and where pest control sends billowing clouds of poisonous fumes, covering people and pests alike. The family shrugs and just breathes it in. What else is there to do?

And high above this family lives another family, in a tightly secured space that seems to be at the very shining top of the city. It’s a modern, walled-in garden, shutting out pests and drunks, and maintaining glossy glass surfaces and pristine green grass and foliage. It’s a world away from the refuse and grime, which, for this rich family, does not even exist. The lights that flicker on and off sometimes that might indicate to those inside the garden that another world is signaling, asking for recognition and help, go ignored; the flickerings are received only as further sign that lights turn on and off in a kind of obeisance to their owners’ presence. Even the young son of the family, who might read the code of the lights, sees a game for his own amusement. 

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Bottom of the world poverty, top of the world wealth: the Parasite spaces. That’s the set-up.

“This is so metaphorical,” says Kim Kiwoo (Choi Woosik), the adult son, and of course, it is. As with Snowpiercer and Okja, Bong has returned, here, to his interest in the haves and have nots, to the boundaries constructed between them, and the incursions and smells that cross those boundaries, the violence inherent in those boundaries and the violence that results from their existence, and his work reminds us that the world is never as tidy as above and below, up and down, front and back.  Continue reading “VIFF 2019: Parasite (Bong Joonho, 2019)”

VIFF 2019: Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2019)

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Young Ahmed, the latest feature from the Belgian writer-director brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which took the Cannes prize for Best Director, is very much a Dardenne film. It features the style and approach of all of their films: handheld, intimate camerawork; an intense focus on a limited number of characters and the daily texture of their lives; an elliptical development of narrative that builds as much through a character’s body language and routine as their dialogue; an interest in how a particular individual is often at the mercy of a larger system; a payoff that resides more in the character’s psychology or emotions than in a plot resolution. 

It’s a style that aligns both in content and in form with what we might call social realism. At their best, the Dardennes present us with characters who do not seem to be living in a story at all but with real people who have somehow fallen into one, and the camera has just happened to catch them in it.  At their best, too, their films achieve an emotional and psychological richness and complexity, a sense of the depth of human heart and mind, and human pain and joy, without the grand gestures of an obvious plot structure. 

It becomes easier to see the bones and careful construction of a Dardenne plot, perhaps, the more of their films one watches, for, of course, there is one, and each character beat always does lead to a particular kind of emotional climax, a climax that often typically strips the pretenses and armor away from the central character.  

Seeing the plot and its rather typical Dardenne payoff isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the brothers’ particular approach, so dependent on the minutiae of the daily life of a character, may feel wanting in some cases if an attempted hyper-realism of character falls flat. 

In the case of Young Ahmed, we are dropped into the life of a Belgian Muslim teen boy, after, under the influence of an imam, he has already become radicalized by the time we meet him. We then watch as, early on in the film, he carries out a plan — or attempts to carry out a plan — to kill his schoolteacher, a woman who the imam has told Ahmed is a dangerous corrupting influence, an affront to the Koran, because of her decision to teach modern Arabic to her students through pop songs. Ahmed’s clumsy attempt to stab his teacher fails, and he is sent to a sort of juvenile detention, where he lives with other boys, and, closely shadowed by a caregiver, eventually goes to a farm to work, helping the family with their daily tasks, a part of the system’s effort to reform him. He meets regularly with a psychologist, too, whose job it is to assess the level of his repentance and reform.  Continue reading “VIFF 2019: Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2019)”

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.

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