SIFF 2019: Storm in My Heart (Mark Cousins, 2018)


Mark Cousins’s latest documentary is explicitly labelled an experiment. Struck by the fact that both Lena Horne and Susan Hayward were born on the same day (June 30, 1917) in the same city (Brooklyn, New York), he wonders if by juxtaposing two of their films, watching them side by side simultaneously, we can learn something about them, and by extension about women in Hollywood and America in the middle of the 20th century. And so he plays them, with Hayward’s A Song in My Heart on the left side of the screen and Horne’s Stormy Weather on the right. Occasionally, Cousins will offer up details or trivia in text on a blank quadrant of the screen, biographical info about the two stars, or about the films. Both films were made by the Fox studio, the Hayward a biopic about a woman who sang for the troops during World War II, despite having severely injuring her leg in a plane crash; while the Horne is a loose collection of musical numbers built around a light comedy plot, like an Astaire-Rogers film with an all-black cast. I defy anyone watching Storm in My Heart to pay attention to Hayward when Horne and company are on-screen.

Stormy Weather is, like the same year’s Cabin in the Sky at MGM, a marvelous compendium of all the talent Hollywood refused to utilize because they had the wrong skin color. Leading the way is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the legendary tap dancer who, at 65 years old (but certainly not looking it) stars alongside Horne as a hoofer working his way up the stardom ladder. The movie is almost entirely made up of musical numbers, with Horne singing a bunch, but also Fats Waller, Ada Brown, Cab Calloway, and in one of the consensus greatest dance performances in film history, the Nicholas Brothers. A Song in My Heart, on the other hand, is about a pretty singer who sings prettily who somehow must find the will to sing just as prettily after her injury. She proves an inspiration to the troops, because if a rich white lady with a full-time live-in nurse (Thelma Ritter, naturally) can sing with one properly working leg, then what do an entire generation of men traumatized mentally and physically by the ravages of war have to complain about.

We don’t learn much about Hayward or Horne from their films, but we do learn a little bit about Hollywood. When Stormy Weather ends, there’s still a half hour of A Song in My Heart to go. I didn’t see it in a theatre, but I bet if I had, there would have been an audible groan from the crowd. Cousins, delightfully, helps pass the time until Hayward’s movie ends by throwing on a Cuban short film Horne sang the soundtrack to in 1965 called Now. It’s a series of still images from the civil rights movement: protests and police crackdowns and marches and lynchings, with Horne singing a rousing anthem of revolution to the tune of “Hava Nagilia”. It too has about a thousand times more energy than any random Hollywood biopic.

Vampir-Cuadecuc (Pere Portabella, 1971)


In 1970, Jesús Franco made Count Dracula, a vampire movie starring Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom. It was a mostly faithful telling of Bram Stoker’s story: a naive and handsome man travels to Transylvania to conduct a real estate deal with an aged Count, becomes trapped and escapes back to England just as the Count arrives and begins sucking the blood of a young woman, who happens to be the best friend of the young man’s fiancée. Led by a scientist named Van Helsing, the young man and three other men figure out what the Count is, kill the woman who has herself been turned into a vampire and then go back to Transylvania to kill the Count. Franco was a director of notorious reputation, one who frequented the low-budget, pornier corners of European cinema for most of the 160+ films he directed. Count Dracula is the only one of his movies I’ve seen, and it isn’t terrible, but neither is it particularly good: Lee is terrific, as always, and there are some nice atmospheric moments. But the movie progressively becomes dumber as it goes along, either straying from Stoker’s original or cutting out the connective tissue that in the novel help the characters’ actions make some kind of sense. By far the best thing about the movie, though, is that Catalan experimental filmmaker Pere Portabella was there to chronicle its making.

Far from a conventional behind-the-scenes documentary, however, Vampir-Cuadecuc is more like a stealth remake of the same movie, using not only the same actors, but the same takes. It’s shot entirely in black-and-white, with a creepy soundtrack composed almost entirely of drones and ambient noises (passing trains or airplanes, workers hammering away): the world as it might sound from inside a coffin. The black-and-white is grainy and high contrast, with brilliant whites and deep blacks, bringing an eerie edge to scenes that in the conventionally flat-lit, color photography of the original are bland and somnolent.

The film follows the chronology of the original almost exactly, cutting out some of the more useless parts (including the entirety of Kinski’s one-note performance as the lunatic Renfield), filming the scenes as they are being filmed, but from unintended angles, such that we see the lights or cameras or behind the stage walls. Similarly we see the actors before and after their performances, getting into and out of character or simply walking around the set looking beautiful (Soledad Miranda lights up the screen in a way she just can’t as the zombified Lucy in the Franco film), often accompanied by jaunty elevator music. At the most basic level, the difference in quality between Franco and Portabella’s films can be seen in the fact that (in the version I saw, there are different cuts) Franco’s runs a seemingly endless 96 minutes, where Vampir-Cuadecuc is a very nice 69 minutes long.

By removing all of the dialogue and stripping out the extraneous plotting, Portabella captures the fundamental anxiety of horror cinema, spooky sounds and images that harken all the way back to Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyr. The only spoken words come at the end, with Lee reading from Stoker’s book itself, a far better conclusion than Franco’s limp and silly climax. It’s the stripped down, elemental adaptation of Stoker’s text counterpart to Francis Ford Coppola’s blown-up, operatic version. Taken together, there’s no reason for anyone to ever make another Dracula movie.

VIFF 2017: Forest Movie (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2017) and Prototype (Blake Williams, 2017)


Two tricks of the eye:

Matthew Taylor Blais’s Forest Movie focuses attention on the center knowing that you’ll likely miss what’s happening at the margins. The pivotal shot that comprises nearly half the film’s runtime works explicitly on this principal. After tracking a young woman on a half hour stroll through the forest, Blais sits her and his camera down to stare at a patch of woods for thirty straight minutes in a fixed, Academy ratio long take, a la James Benning. Anyone who’s had a brush with the work of that august American avant-gardist will know that the pleasures offered by an image like this lie in the shifting textures of light and the peripatetic impulse of the human mind to drift elsewhere when confronted with something this still; he will also know that Benning got there first and has fruitfully mined similar landscapes for nearly a half century. But keep watching and Blais’s distinctive spin on the set-up reveals itself around the edges of the frame: the aspect ratio is slowly expanding over the duration of the shot, widening from 4:3 to 1.85 widescreen. Blais hides the change by framing a circular stump dead center, which naturally draws the eye away from the edges and obscures the movement happening on the periphery, where our vision is less sensitive. The moment of realization will arise differently for each viewer, though Blais wakes up even the most hypnotized (or bored) viewer with a hard cut back to Academy ratio. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this wonderfully deployed trompe l’oeil in context of the rest of the film, which for better or worse melted from my thoughts the longer I gazed at the screen, but there’s no denying the primal (and very physical) awe inspired by Forest Movie’s slow-cinema sleight of hand.

PrototypePrototype, which also showed as part of VIFF’s Future//Present series, plays even more directly with the anatomy of human vision. Blake Williams, like gran-père Godard before him, explodes the possibilities of modern 3D—and early twentieth century American history for good measure—with his science fiction rendering of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Archival stereoscopic images of the disaster open the film before a tidal wave of light bends towards the audience and seemingly merges past with present (or is it Future//Present?). Five TV screens then materialize against the void and flicker with found footage both directly and indirectly connected to the subject historical event. The result is a virtual gallery space where up to five images exist simultaneously within the frame, each image itself split in two, across the left and right eye. The densest moments offer no less than ten possible images, which are only accessible individually by closing one eye and then the other. With both eyes open, more information hits the retina than the mind can process. Williams clearly delights in the pleasure/pain dichotomy that arises from such a deluge of visual data, which partly explains Prototype’s final plunge into complete abstraction. The found footage breaks into pulsating white swatches which swirl around an unseen center, and the images Williams previously layered on top of one another (and across the eyes) decouple feverishly. Matter, time, and history have come apart at the seams.

SIFF 2015 Report #2: The Coffin in the Mountain, Haemoo, The Color of Pomegranates, A Hard Day


The Coffin in the Mountain – This first film from Chinese writer-director Xin Yukun presents an impressive and quite funny narrative tangle that builds slowly through three interconnected stories, sparked by a death in the woods. A young couple on the run, an older couple cheating on their spouses, and the village mayor all think the corpse is their responsibility and act accordingly to cover it up or avoid being discovered, with cosmically winky results.

Before settling down in the later sections, the opening third is shot in what has seemingly become the new international style. In recent years it seems we’ve moved away from the “Asian Minimalist” style of long shots and long takes to a more flowing style. Handheld cameras wandering freely around a space, usually too close to the actors. I’m hereby dubbing it “Dardennean Motion”. The first section effectively uses this style to emphasize the desperation and claustrophobia of the young lovers trapped together and on the run, only two open up as the film goes on as Xin’s whimsical blackness grows to encompass a whole universe.

Haemoo – Impressively bleak thriller construction in which everything that can go wrong with a fishing boat smuggling immigrants does. Like Titanic but the iceberg is the captain. Directed by another first-timer, Shim Sungbo, from a screenplay by Shim and superstar director Bong Joonho (Shim was a writer on Bong’s celebrated 2003 film Memories of Murder), the atmosphere is tense from the beginning, as Captain Kang (Kim Yunseok) finds himself with mounting marital and financial difficulties. He takes on the illegal immigration job, but when  both he, his crew and his boat prove disastrously inadequate to the task, the film’s vague sense of dread turns increasingly violent. What stands out most in its perspective is the matter of fact ruthlessness of the tragedy at the center of the film, and even more so, the ending, which I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say it is one no Hollywood movie would have attempted.


The Color of Pomegranates – I was a bit concerned as I sat down in the resurrected Harvard Exit for this showing of Sergei Parajanov’s 1968 experimental biopic. The auditorium was packed, essentially sold out, and given the audience reactions to the Bill Morrison and James Benning experiments earlier in the festival, I wondered how many in the audience knew what they were getting themselves into. A mass stampede to the exits would surely prove disruptive. Well, I don’t know if they were especially into it, I can usually tell how much an audience likes a film just by sitting in the auditorium with them, but this crowd was hard to read. There was some scattered laughter, but this is not an unfunny movie. But only a couple of people that I saw walked out, so I’ll take it as a victory.

The restoration, part of the series celebrating Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, is lovely, putting the old faded DVD to shame, as one would expect. The film is one of those rare great biopics, telling the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova through a series of iconographic images, oblique and weird but no less meaningful for it. After the disaster that was SIFF’s failed screening of The Red Shoes, I’m glad to see the archival program back on track.

A Hard Day – Somewhere the dominant strain of the crime movie genre morphed from Woovian tales of moral codes in unjust societies to Rube Goldberg narratives driven by slapstick escalations of violence. Suspense and drama comes not from characters or ideals, but from complications in plot, driving the protagonists into ever more desperate and implausible actions and unlikely camera angles. Laurel & Hardy and Infernal Affairs, Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Big Clock are the reference points for Kim Seonghun’s thriller, about a cop who accidentally runs over a man on an empty street at night and goes to great lengths to cover it up. Things get even more audaciously complicated when it turns out, in shades of The Coffin in the Mountain, that he wasn’t alone and maybe the guy was already dead.

As an aside: star Lee Sunkyun is instantly recognizable from many Hong Sangsoo films. His Oki’s Movie co-star Moon Sunkeun is in Haemoo and Hong’s former assistant Lee Kwangkuk has a movie here at SIFF, A Matter of Interpretation. Even when he doesn’t have a movie playing, Hong Sangsoo dominates film festivals.

SIFF 2015 Report #1: Results, Back to the Soil, Beyond Zero 1914-1918, Natural History

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.MV5BMjI4MjczMzU4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDgwNjQ3NDE@._V1._SX640_SY346_

Quickly recapping the first weekend of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, here’s what I managed to catch:

Results – Andrew Bujalski’s follow-up to the highly-acclaimed Computer Chess takes a left-turn into conventionality with a rom-com packed with recognizable Hollywood stars, but one that happily retains the goofy spirit of its more experimental predecessor. Cobie Smulders (“the other woman from The Avengers” as I overheard her defined in the pre-show line-up) plays a personal trainer working for and occasionally sleeping with Guy Pearce, a nice guy who genuinely believes his self-help mantras, even though they’re spoken in Pearce’s always-weird-sounding (to me) natural accent. They’re hired by the recently-divorced and now surprisingly wealthy (an unexpected inheritance) Kevin Corrigan, who, having failed in his own clumsy attempts to woo Smulders, schemes to get the two beautiful people together. Light and ambling, the film has a gentle rhythm that allows ample time for the cast (rounded out by such reliable Hollywood eccentrics as Anthony Michael Hall and Giovanni Ribisi) to have fun as the plot, such as it is, slowly unfurls. Rather than driven by situation as most contemporary Hollywood romantic comedies are, cursed by the conventions of television, Results flows instead out of the weirdness of its characters, the relationships and motivations between them falling into place so gradually that their inevitability goes unnoticed for much of the film. It isn’t as obviously wild as Computer Chess, but it’s just as unusual a creature in the contemporary film world: a classical romantic comedy.

Back to the Soil – In this short film, experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison reedits his grandfather’s filmed account of Jewish settlers in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. The landscapes look disastrously harsh, though that may just be the grainy black and white making lush fields of wheat look like vast, featureless plains of mud and rock. As it’s the repurposing of another person’s footage, not only are we attempting to figure out what the people in the images are thinking (grim determination, the spirit of bold adventure, hope, desperation?) but also what the filmmaker was thinking: why did he choose to capture these images? On-screen titles denote the locations, the number of settlers and the total acreage of the colony for every space, an actuarial foundation for ghostly images.


Beyond Zero 1914-1918 – Matched with that is Bill Morrison’s feature, showing harrowing found footage of World War I as it survives in various states of decay. Edited into a kind of narrative order (buildup to war, some fighting, casualties, machinery: tanks and aircraft) at one remove thanks to the dissolution of the celluloid (what we’re seeing are digital images of film frames). The analogy of the disintegrating film and our societal forgetfulness is obvious but no less compelling. Same goes for the score performed by the Kronos Quartet (Morrison apparently (these are the only two of his films I’ve seen) often works with contemporary and avant-garde composers, this score is by Aleksandra Vrebalov). The film begins and ends with its best shots: first, ghostly tanks rumbling in and out of a blue mist; second, an aerial dogfight filmed from the ground, the loser parachuting into the void, floating through the clouds and never reaching the ground, a shot that remained me of no less than the final shot of Ran.

natural history – James Benning’s latest was greeting with a sense of frustration by the SIFF Film Center audience. No less than 14 people walked out of the auditorium, which, given the intimate space’s uncovered wooden floors, added much to the film’s soundtrack. A series of static shots of spaces and things behind the scenes at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, held for varying lengths of time for no immediately apparent reason (though I suspect there is a precise logic to it), the first walkouts began 10 minutes in and continued in a steady stream for the next half hour or so (I wonder what would happen if you mapped the space between the walkouts to the time-length of the various shots of the film). But what can I say, I thought the movie was really funny. Some of the fun was simply in making alien seemingly simple shapes, the extreme length of the take forcing me to abstract a shot of a room into its constituent visual elements, finding weirdness in the mundane. Some seem like tricks: staring at a shot of stuffed polar bears for five minutes, I began to wonder what size they were: given the context around them (some shelves, a power outlet) they seem much smaller than they should. Some just seem like a kind of playful torture for my desire for order: why isn’t that one butterfly lined up straight? Fix it! Also: Pig-Man! I don’t know about the half the audience that stayed through the whole thing, because I didn’t hear anyone else laughing, but I thought it was delightful.