Stephanie Spray’s and Pacho Velez’ Ride to Nirvana

manakamana

By Robert Koehler

Possibly more than the previous feature and short work produced by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which includes the groundbreaking Sweetgrass and Leviathan, Manakamana (distributed by Cinema Guild, opening today at Laemmle’s Music Hall) marks a crucial intersection of the three of the most interesting developments in contemporary cinema.

Stephanie Spray’s and Pacho Velez’ 16mm film (blown up to 35mm) embraces the essence of “slow cinema,” in which tempo and rhythm are intentionally geared to andante and beyond. Just as “slow food” allows the senses and palate to take time to absorb and appreciate flavors and textures, the slow cinema exemplified in Manakamana permits eyes and ears the space and time to explore, contemplate and get lost. The movie perfectly sums up “in-between cinema,” that vast realm between fiction and non-fiction where actual figures take on fictional and even mythical essence in front of the lens, where the real is viewed through an expansive perspective that obliterates old forms of televised, instructional “documentary.” It also stands as a supreme example of anthropological cinema, applying observational rigor to cultural groups and traditions, a direct inheritor of the early experiments of Jean Rouch but aware of the much older stream that extends back to Robert Flaherty, arguably the creator of the first anthropological in-between films.

Perhaps too much of the justifiably ecstatic praise heaped on this remarkable film has lost track of its anthropological roots. It’s not just that Spray and Velez (a CalArts grad) are, like J.P. Sniadecki (Foreign Parts, People’s Park), among the most gifted grads of S.E.L., but that Spray’s previous work especially provides the basis out of which Manakamana emerges. Before her collaboration with Velez, Spray made three mid-length films in Nepal observing the Gayek family; her third piece, titled As Long as There’s Breath, is the best known and has travelled to fine international festivals like FIDM in Montreal. Not only do the Gayeks gradually grow used to Spray’s subtle and unobtrusive camera (this is very different from the bravura, physical camera of S.E.L. co-founder Lucien Castaing-Taylor in his co-directed Sweetgrass and Leviathan), but the viewer can feel that she is coming to understand the family, their anxieties, even their darkest demons.

Unknown-1

Fatalism seeps into the family discussion, and because this is ethnography, it must govern Spray’s film: It’s part of the content of what she’s recording, revealing textures of family life only possible through patient, time-consuming observation. Such an attitude doesn’t inform Manakamana, comprised of 11 fixed shots approximately 9 ½ minutes long observing visitors to Nepal’s Manakamana temple in the Himalayan foothills. But the same ethnographic rigor is at work, only in a more voluptuous, epic frame. The visitors are seen riding in an aerial tramway car, some arriving, some departing, some viewed from the temple side of the ride, some from the base side. Spray’s considerable experience in Nepal, her way of developing a second-nature relationship with people in this ancient, complex culture, allows Manakamana to open into a panorama of humanity in a particular place at a particular time. Departing from her previous intimate studies, Spray has found the ideal space for a wide range of folks to reveal themselves: In one shot early in the film, a serious-looking pilgrim holding a traditional bouquet of flowers in her lap cracks a smile for a moment. The sacred comes down to earth, even as we’re being transported into the clouds.

images-1

Velez’s camera is ingenious. He rests it at a comfortable distance from the temple visitors, more or less the distance that a fellow traveler might have if facing them. He uses the tram’s large windows as a way to turn the images into stunning 2-D moving shots, so while the visiting pilgrims generally sit still, the Himalayan background is in constant movement, receding or revealing depending on the camera position. There can be comedy going on in the foreground—a woman struggling with her dripping ice cream cone always gets a laugh with audiences—while the dynamic background is constantly unfolding, like a scroll. This works in tandem with sound designer Ernst Karel, a crucial collaborator in most of the important S.E.L. projects, who heightens Spray’s sound recordings of the tram itself. As part of a field recording series for the German-based label Gruenrekorder, Karel has made a CD recording, “Swiss Mountain Transport Systems,” that turns the weird grinding and cranking of aerial trams into rhythmic sound patterns, something close to music (Karel is a trained classical trumpeter) but not quite. The same quality runs through the soundtrack of Manakamana, completing a highly complex yet seemingly simple piece of integrated cinema, where the material, the spiritual and the absurd all get into a groove and go to Nirvana.

 

Ceylan’s Winter Sleep

still3

By Patrick Z. McGavin

The festival is over, and the best films from Cannes embody what truly matters: the ability to move backward and forward, projecting a sense of the moment, live bulletins of a country’s pulse and state of mind. With his scalding and magisterial new work, Winter Sleep, the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan walked off with the Palme d’Or.

In his acceptance speech, Ceylan dedicated the film to the young people of Turkey who have lost their lives in the last year protesting the country’s unnerving political repression and withholding of essential freedom. Because of its three-hour and 16-minute running time, the film had just one official screening, on Friday, May 16th. At the screening, Ceylan and the rest of his artistic delegation wore black protest bands.

Winter Sleep is the most political of the director’s six features. The movie’s social grievances and class conflicts sharply distill the conflict between the professional, bourgeois and modernist state and the encroaching fundamentalist strain. As outsiders, it’s hard not to sense a particular cultural schizophrenia. (My friend visited Istanbul last year after Cannes, and he was immediately struck by the disparate attitudes of the women. The young and educated wore provocative, sexually alluring Western dress, in strong contrast to other women he saw that were fully covered.)

still13

Ceylan developed the story and script in close, even contentious, collaboration with his very gifted wife, Ebru (the two played opposite each other in his earlier film, Climates). From its visual precision to the emotional believability of the characters and their sad, beautiful and emphatic faces, I was knocked out by his original and astonishing visual syntax. The movie needs time to breathe and take hold.

Like all of the director’s movies, Winter Sleep is suffused with a painterly beauty and Ceylan has a fluent, innate ability to ground his protagonists against telling and evocative landscapes. He has a great feel for tableau imagery, like the tactile and immersive opening images of mist hovering over the rocky steppes of the spectacular mountain landscapes of Cappadocia, in Central Anatolia.

The director dedicated the work to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Voltaire. The movie’s protagonist, Aydin (played by the astounding Haluk Bilginer), combines characteristics of Lear, Prospero and Prince Hal. The name of the family hotel he runs is significantly named Othello. From his father, he inherited wealth and vast tracts of land. He appears rational and benevolent, an aesthete who earned renown as a film actor and now writes newspaper columns and is gathering material for his magnum opus, a cultural history of Turkish theater.

Winter Sleep is divided into three dominant movements. The first part underlines the extent of Aydin’s fiefdom, his subjects, and how cold-blooded and mercurial he is in his business dealings as he directs his wrath against a family of impoverished tenants unable to pay rent. (His top lieutenant, or enforcer, actually metes out the punishment).

A young boy, furious at the embarrassment and shame to which his family is subjected, responds with his own violent action. The consequences lay bare an existential dilemma that open the possibility of Aydin as either an imperial fool (“more sinned against than sinning”) or flagrant hypocrite.

As Ceylan’s superb previous work Once Upon a Time in Anatolia used genre material to meditate on the most serious moral and existential concerns, the new work counters expectation in a more radical and astounding way, through its form and construction. The film’s long middle, comprising about half the running time, reframes the action, subtly altering subjectivity, space and time.

The disruption is marked by the most transporting single moment I saw at Cannes, a radical cut as the young boy who committed the act of vandalism collapses in trying to make his contrition toward Aydin to a sudden and enthralling action of man and nature as Aydin’s workers try valiantly to corral a wild horse.

The temporal cut foreshadows the severe shift in mood and tone, as the focus of the films turns toward Aydin’s acrimonious and difficult relationships with his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag) who is reeling from a divorce, and his much younger wife, Nihal (the astoundingly beautiful Melisa Sozen), openly rebelling against her husband’s controlling nature.

still7

Instantly the focus of landscapes, rock formations and weather is given a wholly different range of expression in a series of private, withering and extended scenes, lasting up to 20 minutes and filled with the kind of baroque, caustic and corrosive language more prevalent in the works of Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes.

The trademark of those two great artists, the poisoned couple, takes center stage—a form of annihilation, as the pain, regret and disgust are made explicit in the tense body inflections and hurtful exchanges. The sister charges that Aydin never lives up to the privileges he was bestowed. The wife is far more cutting and damning, finding him unbearable.

Ceylan is more direct and expansive, concerned with how language distorts and conceals, the riffs and counterarguments yielding a sustained and musical flow, despite the bitterness and rancor. It’s a different kind of poetry, of faces and the architecture of bodies as the camera remains steadfast and locked in. Regardless, the imagery beguiles, like an extraordinary moment with Nihal’s face illuminated from the flare of a fire, her very presence more radiant and stunning.

Like the greatest filmmakers, Ceylan is both elliptical and lapidary. The work is beautifully constructed, but like Chekhov, appearances and illusions invite the viewer to cast about and glean from looks and exchanges deeper significance. Ceylan’s cryptic though elastic style casually hooks you.

What makes the journey extraordinary is not finding answers but submitting to the ride.

Grading the Cannes Competition

By Patrick Z. McGavin

This year’s Cannes Film festival, the 19th I’ve covered and written about, showcased a strong competition. The trajectory was like a bottle rocket, blasting off with superb work by Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu), Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep), flattening out with an uneven stretch before picking up and soaring with strong new works by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan) and French master Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria).

Curatorially, the main competition was tighter than normal (with just 18 films). Only seven of those are given what I consider mixed or negative grades. Yet, it always takes time to really fully assess the impact, range and originality of each competition. Last year’s competition, for instance, now that enough time has passed, seems infinitely stronger than it did on initial responses.

What follows are my personal rankings, with corresponding grades, of the 18 films in the competition.

1. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey): A+

2. Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland): A

3. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France): A

4. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia): A-

5. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK): A-

6. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali): A-

7. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada): A-

8. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium): B+

9. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, USA): B

10. The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy): B

11. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada): B

12. Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello, France): B-

13. Wild Tales (Damian Szifron, Argentina): B-

14. The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, USA): C+

15. Jimmy’s Hall (Ken Loach, UK): C

16. The Captive (Atom Egoyan, Canda): C-

17. Still the Water (Naomi Kawase, Japan): C-

18. The Search (Michel Hazanavicius, France): D

Cannes Awards

winter_sleep

By Patrick Z. McGavin

The 67th edition of the festival ended today on a superlative note. On Saturday night, the professional jury awarded the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, to Winter Sleep, the extraordinary new work by Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

The director’s sixth feature marks the ideal crystallization of his style, sharply yoking physical wonder and emotional acuity. The director Jane Campion, a Palme laureate in 1993 for The Piano, admitted going in, she felt a bit daunted by the prospect of the movie’s three-hour and 16-minute running time. “But I sat down, and the film had such a beautiful rhythm and it took me in,” she said. “I could have stayed there for another couple of hours.”

Ceylan had its admirers, though indicative of the breadth of the programming, Cannes denied any shot at consensus this year. We all have our prejudices and feel protective about specific directors and films. Film culture has mutated pretty radically in the last three decades, but one prevalent track has focused on foreign auteurs such as  Krzysztof Kieslowski and Abbas Kiarostami, followed by Bela Tarr, who assumed, whether deliberately or not, the mantle of the serious film artist, the heir of Bergman, Antonioni, Godard and Fassbinder.

Ceylan is now that man. His recent films are long though voluptuous and beautifully made. With Ceylan, the rhythms are sensuous and achieve a serpentine hold in violating narrative expectation to achieve something far more mysterious, knotty and plangent. Part of what makes the new work so exciting and involving is how it scuttles expectation, invoking the previous films as he expands his ideas and storytelling into different directions.

The Grand Prix, effectively the runner-up award, went to Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher for her second narrative feature, The Wonders, about a family of beekeepers.  It’s a lyrical and nicely observed work that draws extensively on her own life. (She even cast her own sister in the part of the family matriarch.) Rohrwacher’s movie was one of just two films in the 18-film competition directed by a woman; the other was Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water. The movie is tough and keen-eyed, alert to the confusion and stirrings of the family’s older daughter. It is never sentimental, and the camerawork is clean, patient and often hypnotically precise.

The festival had a lot of echoing movements and concerns. So it happened that films by the oldest and youngest directors in the competition shared the Jury Prize. The great Jean-Luc Godard, at 83 and offering his first film in four years, detonated the placid calm with his remarkable cine-collage, Adieu au language. It’s another of his sorrowful and contemplative looks at the end—of cinema, of the 20th century—only this time shot in 3D, with some startling and poetic imagery, layered through a nimbus of quotations, aphorisms and classical music (most prominently Beethoven’s 7th Symphony). It utilizes the depth of field in radical ways, opening up all manner of looking, hearing and watching.

Godard’s opposite, the rakish and impossibly ambitious young Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan (this is his third film in two years) split critical reaction with Mommy, the alternately feverish and grueling story of the hyper-compacted family dynamics involving a middle-aged widow (Anne Dorval, excellent) and her ADHD 15-year-old son (Antoine Olivier-Pilon). Suzanne Clement is the next door neighbor caught between the two.

Dolan invented his own aspect ratio, a highly vertical band, a negative ratio of approximately .67-1, that simultaneously centers the action and destabilizes the frame. I found himself strangely in between, finding much to recommend (especially the two actresses) though also finding it unmoored and somewhat exhausting to experience.

“It’s a great brilliant modern film from such a young director, like a genius I think,” Campion said about Dolan. “When I saw the Godard film, I wasn’t expecting this. I was blown away by it. I loved the experience of the film, I found it so modern, like the fact that he throws a narrative away. It’s like a power, I found myself awakened, this is a free man, a very moving man. We coupled them, we were aware that they were the oldest and youngest director. The directors here know we owe our life’s blood to Godard.”

As expected, Timothy Spall captured the best actor prize for his role as the great British painter JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. Julianne Moore surprised with her ferocious, unhinged turn as an actress unhinged by her fading power in David Cronenberg’s deft, chilling Maps to the Stars. Working with his the skilled satirist Bruce Wagner, Cronenberg violently upends social behavior with his bracing, exceptionally disturbing, using the framework of the anti-Hollywood screed. Moore’s turn is unsettling, perverse and technically brilliant.

This is the full list of the award winners:

Palme d’Or: Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Grand prix: The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher)

Director: Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Jury prize: Mommy (Xavier Dolan) and Adieu au language (Jean-Luc Godard)

Screenplay: Levithan (Andrey Zvagintsev and Oleg Negin)

Actor: Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner

Actress: Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars

Cannes Dispatch #1

By Patrick McGavin

The 67th edition of this year’s film festival is roughly one-third over, and the early signs are pretty ecstatic. The competition has been tightly slotted, with just 18 features, three or four fewer than most years. It means the films get to breathe and live on their own.

In the first three days of the festival, three superb movies—one I think that will be seen in time as one of the greatest of its era—have already jolted the festival, defusing already the criticism of the festival selection committee playing it safe and familiar. (By the way my feeling has always been the people who criticize the programming most severely are the ones who rarely actually attend the festival.)

Cannes is the festival by which all others are judged. The competition titles are a kind of artistic referendum on the savvy, taste and ambition of the curators’ range, daring and originality. It’s early, but so far they have been vindicated. In turn it is the vast assembly here—of critics, writers, programmers and cinephiles—who get to viscerally experience the deep pleasures. (And that is with new works by Jean-Luc Godard, the Dardenne brothers, Olivier Assayas and David Cronenberg still unseen.)

680x478

The Mauritanian-born Abderrahmane Sissako is, I think, the finest director at work in Africa today. His disturbing, powerful new work, Timbuktu, was the first competition film shown and it is altogether stunning. The movie is angry and mournful, visually expressive and bound together by a sense of outrage and horror that gathers a tremendous cumulative power.The movie opens with an act of Taliban-like act of cultural desecration of militant Islamic jihadists spraying automatic rifle fire and laying waste to a series of culturally invaluable artifacts and statues.

The horror only escalates from there. Sissako was inspired by a horrifying episode from two years of a young couple stoned to death for having two children without being married. The movie conveys the severe social restriction and cultural coercion by the imposition, through force, of Sharia law as dancing, music and soccer are banned and women are ordered covered.

The jihadists are significantly primarily Arab, not black, unable to speak the local dialect and enforce a totalitarian stranglehold that bleeds the vitality and beauty of the village culture. The jihadists are solemn, reactionary and primitive (the leader arrives there unable to drive a car). The tightly regulated social behavior gives way to an annihilating form of sexual subjugation, the jihadist leader is constantly prowling around the dedicated, forceful Satima (Toulou Kiki). The story turns on a violent encounter between her husband, a cattle herder, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), and a fisherman.

Sissako has a poetic feel for landscapes, and his velvety, sinister black imagery is haunting.It contrasts brilliantly with the open, lunar-shaped surfaces of the desert landscapes. Timbuktu weaves a spellbinding arabesque combining the lyrical (a group of young dissidents partake in an invisible game of soccer to protest the crackdown) and the absurdist (a former “rapper,” drafted to make a propaganda video to atone for his “sins,” proves incapable of carrying out the assignment).

89u0287-timothy-spall-as-jmw-turner-turner-walks-through-countryside

Mike Leigh’s enthralling Mr. Turner is, principally, a fragmented, impressionistic study of the last 25 years of the life and art of the visionary Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Leigh has been talking about making this movie for at least a decade, and his passion fortunately never suffocates the material. It’s enlivening and provides a bracing perspective of the painter whose abstracted landscape works is regarded in some circles as an antecedent of Impressionism.

Leigh regular Timothy Spall plays (or, more accurately, incarnates) the eponymous Joseph Mallord William Turner, prickly and self-contained, a man of enormous appetites and needs. There’s a ferocious pas a deux with his housekeeper Hannah (the superb Dorothy Atkinson), and his arm grabbing hold of her is like a tentacle drawn to its prey. Turner’s harsh discipline and majestic solitude grants him a commanding solidity and shapes his intuitive grasp of nature.

Like most of Leigh’s players, Spall has always been an eccentric performer. He threw himself into the part with a manic gusto, practicing sketching and painting for more than two years before Leigh even commenced his patented rehearsal process. Mr. Turner excels in the way that fits Leigh’s own strengths, his extraordinary rapport with actors. The byplay between Turner and his father (the fantastic Paul Jesson), gruff and tender, and the widow, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) with whom he carried out a serious clandestine affair, are absolutely entrancing, skillfully teasing out aspects of character, reflection and mood that color the portraiture.

The most exciting part of the film, elevating it beyond the restrictions of the biographical form, is Leigh’s acumen and skill with the camera. Leigh is a colossus on the international art film scene. It has been a revelation to chart his almost radical evolution as a filmmaker, from the early actor-driven, plaintive style of his 16mm works to the deeper range and subtlety of Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake. Dick Pope is his cinematographer, and also the camera operator.

From the majestic opening shot of a long pan in which two Dutch women slowly walk into the frame and cross the line of Turner, who’s furiously sketching, Mr. Turner is tactile and diaphanous. The cutting is also very bracing, like a sharp movement in closeup of Turner examining one of his own paintings to a jump cut of the solitary figure standing in the vast space of the interlaced rock formations and pock-marked landscapes. The man who started as a playwright, his dominant influence the work of John Cassavetes, and who cut his teeth making television commissions is now a certifiable master in his own right.

Mr. Turner is the most emphatic evidence yet.

The towering achievement, for me, is Winter Sleep, the 196-minute work by the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It deserves its own time and space, and I will return to this space soon with more.

Welles in L.A.

tumblr_md2zx6ipxw1rovfcgo1_1280

I’ve got a piece in today’s LA Weekly previewing Academy @ LACMA’s new Orson Welles series, the most comprehensive in this city in at least a decade. The series includes more readily available titles, but there are a few more films Welles directed that are available online; I thought I’d list some here:

The Fountain of Youth (1956) (YouTube) This very witty television show, based on a story by mid-century fantasist John Collier, was only broadcast once in 1958, but it still managed to win a Peabody Award. It was intended to be the pilot for an anthology, but Welles was never permitted to continue the series.  It might have sank into obscurity if it wasn’t for the many Welles fans and experts who have rightly championed it for years.

The Immortal Story (1968) (Hulu Plus) Made for French TV, this adaptation of an Isak Dinesen short story stars Jeanne Moreau as the daughter of a man who’s ex-business partner (Welles) is now an aging business tycoon who hatches a plan to make an erotic urban legend come true.  It’s a strangely sedate and ethereal drama for Welles, and it downplays the potentially lurid elements of the story and replaces them with a reflective, simmering tone.

F for Fake trailer (1976) (YouTube) Welles made this lively nine-minute trailer when his film was released in the U.S., but the distributor never used it.

Filming ‘Othello’ (1978) (YouTube) Produced for West German television, this is an amiable “conversation” with Welles at the editing table, regaling the viewer with the colorful story of his three-year independent production of Othello. Among other things, he talks about his collaboration with designer Alexandre Trauner – whom he cites as one of the true artists of the profession (along with William Cameron Menzies, Vincent Korda and Georges Wakhevitch). He also incorporates a fascinating after dinner talk with his old theater friends (and Othello costars), Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, who engagingly discuss the themes of the play.

Filming ‘The Trial’ (1981) (YouTube) A feature shot by Welles’ late cameraman, Gary Graver, recording a live Q&A discussion at USC following a screening of the film.

It’s All True (1993) (Amazon streaming) This documentary about Welles’ experience in Brazil during the 1940s shooting his unfinished film for RKO makes extensive use of Welles’ original footage that was discovered and restored in the ’80s and ’90s. Despite a slightly dated flair in the narration, it’s beautiful, well-researched and well-written (by critic Bill Krohn, Welles associate Richard Wilson, and critic Myron Meisel), detailing the complex events and political undercurrents at the time.

The Projection Booth: The Magnificent Ambersons (2013) I recently came across this gem, a roughly 48-minute podcast from last December about Ambersons that includes interviews with experts such as Peter Bogdanovich, Joseph McBride and Jonathan Rosenbaum.  You can also find a four-hour version; I’ve only listened to a portion of that one, but it seems to feature a lot more material by the hosts of the podcast.

South By Southwest 2

215344725_1280
Costa de Morte

By Robert Koehler

Last month, I served as a member of the jury for the international competition at FICUNAM (Festival Internacional de Cine de Universidad Nacional Autonomia Mexico), where most of the lineup was devoted to in-between cinema such as Luis Patino’s Costa da Morte, Denis Cote’s Joy of Man’s Desiring and Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart. Without identifying itself as such, much of FICUNAM’s programming (conceived mainly by festival director Eva Sangiorgi and the phenomenal Argentine-based critic-programmer Roger Koza) is interested in exploring the interstices of fiction and non-fiction, whether that may be a conversation between highly conceived mise-en-scène and moment-by-moment action (as with Costa da Morte) or a focus on actual people depicted cinematically as if characters in a fiction (as with Stop the Pounding Heart). FICUNAM understands that this is where the future of cinema lies.

The_Possibilities_Are_Endless_credit_-1

Jumping across the Texas border to South by Southwest, the values are different. The detectable cases where fiction and non-fiction intersect rarely happens there, as in the visually symphonic conceptions of co-directors Edward Lovelace and James Hall for their fluid, dreamy portrait of former Brit pop singer Edwyn Collins, The Possibilities are Endless, or the ruptures of Detroit suburban and street life in Buzzard. Lovelace and Hall, who previously made Werewolves Across America, deploy a similar technique expressively used by Tatiana Huezo in her astonishing debut in-betweener, The Tiniest Place/El lugar mas paqueno, in which the subjects’ speech is used as off-screen voice-over accompanying complimentary images—not necessarily the literal image attached to the thing being described or discussed. The result is a two-dimensional experience, in which the spoken words function as a kind of music to the pictures; in the case of Possibilities, the intent is to take the viewer inside the damaged head of Collins (best known for the hit tune A Girl Like You with his group Orange Juice), who suffered a massive stroke in 2005. It nearly wiped clean his memory and speech functions, resulting in an interesting experiment for Lovelace and Collins to record Collins’ voice as he continues to rebuild his ability to speak, supported by his devoted wife Grace. They live in a remote corner of rural Scotland, a landscape made for widescreen cinematography and moody poetics, a perfect physical antonym for Collins’ gradually repairing mindset.

The reason why movies The Possibilities are Endless are outliers at South by Southwest is simple. Like too many other North American festivals, it assumes that the non-fiction movies that matter and that audiences care about are grounded in facts and some kind of journalism. It’s the single most hidebound aspect of North American festival programming, this notion that documentary cinema must be prose and not poetry. The work that passes the documentary gatekeepers at Sundance, South by Southwest, Hot Docs and Full Frame (the four major doc platforms on the continent) is almost never of the sort that Patino makes, in which an actual place and culture are observed but not explicitly explained or “reported.” Grounded in the Pompeu Fabra non-fiction school in Barcelona (whose great teachers include filmmakers Jose Luis Guerin, Joaquim Jorda and Ricardo Iscar, and graduates like Isaki Lacuesta, Abel Garcia Roure and Mercedes Alvarez), Patino does away with talking heads or “facts” about his subject, Galicia’s imposing and awesome northern Spanish coastline and its inhabitants. Instead he uses cinema: His camera is often at least a mile (or three!) away from his subjects, who are directly miked and heard close-up, resulting in a watching and listening experience that’s layered and only possible in a cinema setting.

invisible

Compare this with the disappointing (and prize-winning) Margaret Brown documentary about the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster, The Great Invisible. Brown does a fine job with the facts of the eco-disaster, and draws out the gnawing, drip-drip-drip horror of the episode. She has access, and talks to a remarkably wide group of folks, especially the poorest Gulf victims frequently ignored by mass media outlets. This underlines the strength of Brown’s filmmaking, displayed in her best work to date, the 2008 The Order of Myths. Like Emile Zola, she has an acute eye for the panorama and nuances of class difference, the way systems govern and define us, almost beyond our ability to recognize them.

But there’s no poetics to Brown’s approach, no cinematic passageway to a greater perception, beyond facts, beyond issues, beyond the people in front of her camera. Like far too many of her North American colleagues in documentary (and I include filmmakers and programmers together, since both have created a kind of Sundancian cosmology of sorts), she takes on a headline-grabbing story but won’t rise above the factual into something more powerful, something that reaches art. This kind of transcendence was detectable in Order, especially in how she captured the rituals of young people in the Deep South. In the tiniest moments of Order lay its largest ideas and emotions; the Deepwater Horizon is so big, so titanic in its implications, that detail is lost, and the lure of burning issues (literally) seem to blow out the possibility of a poetic approach—say, the way Peter Mettler captured the Alberta Tar Sands complex in his stunning and, yes, poetic non-fiction, Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands. Like the hidebound teacher in Dickens’ Hard Times, Brown and her fellow documakers seem to insist on the “facts,” but they’re neglecting the greater possibilities of cinema.

A Chat with the Academy’s Bernardo Rondeau

Despite its reputation as home for the entertainment industry, Los Angeles has a thriving alt/repertory film scene, one of the realities I hoped to reflect when I started this blog eleven years ago.  One of the city’s best programmers, Bernardo Rondeau, has maintained the beleaguered LACMA weekend film screenings in the five years since they were initially threatened, and has brought such rare gems to Los Angeles as Aleksei German’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, and several series built around the museum’s excellent Stanley Kubrick and Gabriel Figueroa exhibits.

Happily, Rondeau has recently been hired to program a regular weekend film series for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in LACMA’s 600-seat Bing Theater, great news for cinephiles desperate for a mid-city, centralized venue for regular retrospectives, revivals and highlights from the festival circuit. (Presumably, it also helps set the stage for the Academy/LACMA plan to build the city’s first major movie museum by 2017.)

LACMA
La Perla, 1945

Doug Cummings: I was curious about the Gabriel Figueroa film series you programmed at LACMA; is that traveling anywhere?  I’m sure it was difficult finding the prints.

Bernardo Rondeau: Yes, it was quite a formidable project.  We had the support and backing of Fundación Televisa, who had access to a lot of the films, so they were extremely helpful in that regard. Mexico does have a rather robust government support for film.  But generally speaking, there is still a tremendous amount of prints that do not have English subtitles, and there is still restoration work to be done.  I did get a fair number of emails from programmers asking where I found some of the prints. Maybe some of the films will turn up somewhere down the line; I hope they do, because there are a lot of fascinating films that deserve to be better known; just absolute landmarks in Mexican cinema of such stature that it’s important for American filmgoers to at least be aware of them.

DC: Mexican films still haven’t gained wide cinephile appreciation here in the States, they still seem to be missing from many of the established art house DVD catalogues.

BR: Absolutely.  I’ve been trying to make the impression upon people that these are really important films to be rediscovered, or discovered, period.  We’ll see what the long term impact of that is, but I do hope that some of titles begin to surface here.

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 5.07.17 PM

DC:  Can you tell us about your new Academy @ LACMA series?

BR: The Academy is doing screenings at LACMA on Fridays and Saturdays. I only joined the Academy in early December, and things didn’t really get rolling until after the Oscars, but we’ve already offered an introduction series to Jim Jarmusch, which included prints that the Academy Archive itself had newly struck (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Mystery Train) and then we did a screening of his latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, with Tilda Swinton in conversation with Henry Rollins. So that was the first event in this program.

This month, we’ve done the complete Decline of Western Civilization trilogy. We’ve had a soft launch with these events, and then in May, we’re going to begin longer series; we’ll have two series running, one every Friday and one every Saturday. As much as possible, we’re going to have extra components, such as special guests, which I really didn’t have the resources for when I was on my own at LACMA.

la_ca_0414_turan_on_film
Welles directing Too Much Johnson (1938).

DC: I’m excited to hear about your Orson Welles retrospective in May.

BR: We’re mainly taking a look at many of Welles’ more or less “completed” works, although we are starting with Too Much Johnson, which is the Mercury Theatre film he directed but never finished. It was created as a series of interstitial pieces for a stage production in 1938 – so it was a few years before Citizen Kane (1941) – in the hopes of incorporating film into a theatrical setting.  It was recently rediscovered, of all places, just outside the Italian town of Pordenone, where they now have a major silent film festival, and the National Film Preservation Foundation has managed to reassemble it with the help of George Eastman House, so it will be really wonderful to show that; it has only been shown in a couple places so far.

From there, we’ll show pretty much all the feature films he directed from Citizen Kane to F for Fake (1973). In addition to our series, the Cinefamily will be showing Othello (1952). And LACMA’s Tuesday matinees will support the Saturday series, with other titles Welles either directed and/or starred in.

DC: It has been a long time coming to Los Angeles.  In the last dozen or so years that I’ve lived here, the American Cinematheque has offered one or two Welles spotlights, but they never include the elusive Chimes at Midnight (1965), which a lot of critics (myself included) consider one of his best films, so I’m delighted you’re showing it.

BR: We’ll also be showing some new DCPs, both The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil (1958) are new DCPs; Mr. Arkadin (1955) is a relatively new print made by the Munich Film Museum. So this will be the first Welles series of this stature in L.A. in the past decade.  We’re coming up on his centenary in 2015.  He was one of the earliest filmmakers that I saw that I connected with on a deep level, whose work taught me a tremendous amount about filmmaking and film viewing.  Your attention was drawn to the style of the film as much as the content – the camera placement, movement and editing – his signature was the mechanism, not so much the types of films that he made. Even with a scarcity of resources, he would still apply his inexhaustible curiosity and work at a very high level of sophistication with his framing and sound design and everything else.

PDVD_020-604x272
Night Train (1959)

DC: Also in May, I understand you’re showing Martin Scorsese’s program of Polish cinema?  What have been some of your personal discoveries in that series?

BR: We’re getting 17 or 18 of the 21 titles available.  A fair amount of it was educational for me. We’ll be doing those on Fridays in May, and actually fold them into Tuesday matinees in June to fit them in, and we’ll be partnering with Cinefamily on some titles as well.

We’re kicking off with two films by Krzysztof Zanussi (Camouflage and The Constant Factor), who makes these really cerebral films that explore issues with a kind of intellect you don’t often find in American movies.  Films will often use characters such as scientists or doctors in a strategic or dramatic sense, but for Zanussi they’re people who live in a world of weights and measurements that becomes a kind of metaphor for their lives. A lot of these films take place within specific time frames; many of them look at the trials and tribulations and sacrifices that span over lifetimes.  They also feature music by great Polish composers, with lots of atonal, highly modernist scores.

Night Train (1959) by Jerzy Kawalerowicz takes place over the course of a single night as a train moves through the countryside, and it’s a great black-and-white noir, so I definitely recommend that.

Innocent Sorcerers (1960) by Andrej Wajda is a Polish cinema all-star movie: Skolimowski’s in it, Polanski’s in it, Krzysztof Komeda is the composer.  It’s a really great, shambling, New Waveish film that, again, takes place over the course of a single night.

Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) is a film you’ve got to imagine Béla Tarr saw because of its muddiness – non-mystical muddiness, because there’s mystical muddiness and non-mystical muddiness! – and great compositions in every shot.

Vidor and Ulmer at TCM Fest

Photographer: Mark Hill

Photographer: Mark Hill

The TCM Classic Film Festival wrapped Sunday, and as always, it was a whirlwind of celebrity appearances, new prints, flocks of out-of-town tourists, and general TCM geekdom.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling this year’s program emphasized the tried-and-true and was less exploratory than previous editions. One might have hoped TCM’s recent Peabody Award for its elaborate presentation of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film would have inspired it to cast a wider net.  But even the “Discoveries” section included films such as Eraserhead, Godzilla, Freaks, The Muppet Movie, and other standards of repertory or the DVD market.

Still, a lot of great films played at the festival, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone (especially, say, tourists from towns lacking revival screens) the opportunity to see such masterpieces as The Best Years of Our Lives, City Lights, How Green Was My Valley, The Innocents, Johnny Guitar, Make Way for Tomorrow, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Nutty Professor or Tokyo Story projected on the big screen.

For me, the highlights were seeing two features by King Vidor – The Stranger’s Return (1933) and Stella Dallas (1937) – and the newly restored Her Sister’s Secret (1946), a rare melodrama directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.

I’m still catching up with titles from Vidor’s long and diverse career, but Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, in their groundbreaking 1988 book on the filmmaker, place The Stranger’s Return as part of Vidor’s “back to the land” trilogy (including Our Daily Bread and The Wedding Night) and describe Stella Dallas as a key melodrama that “lines up among the ‘pure’ weepies,” setting the stage for the “wild sexual struggles of Vidor’s postwar melodramas” such as The Fountainhead, Beyond the Forest and Ruby Gentry.

strangersreturn

The Stranger’s Return is a gentle ensemble drama about an eccentric farmer (Lionel Barrymore) who welcomes his sophisticated, east coast granddaughter (Miriam Hopkins) to the family farm; she gets to know the community, kindles a half-hearted romance, and instigates the jealousy of her relatives.  Most of the film takes place in the homes, cars, and porches of the small community, and the breezy drama culminates in a lightly comic ruse. Vidor’s relaxed visual style matches the airy drift of the characters, save for a standout scene in which the camera pans quickly back-and-forth in a seasick expression of Hopkins’ frantic attempts to feed a horde of hungry harvesters.  (On a completely trivial note, it’s fun hearing the characters champion the work of stage actor Fritz Leiber, the father of the fine science fiction author of the same name.)

stelladallas

Film historian Jeremy Arnold (a TCM writer whose commentary for Sony’s DVD of Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome I’ve enjoyed) introduced Stella Dallas. Beginning, justifiably, by praising Barbara Stanwyck’s career diversity and performance in the title role, he went on to talk about the “sacrificial mother” theme beloved by Depression-era Hollywood, and said the film-within-the-film playing at a theater Stella visits is actually Henry King’s 1925 film version of the same material. Coincidentally, this film also ends on a ruse, this time involving Stella’s attempt to alienate her grown daughter to persuade her to leave home. While the famous, bittersweet ending reminded Durgnat and Simmon of Les Misèrables, I couldn’t help invoking Late Spring.

hersisterssecret

Finally, Ulmer’s Her Sister’s Secret is a compelling and unusual melodrama produced at Poverty Row studio PRC. Nancy Coleman stars as a young single mother who secretly gives up her child to her married but childless sister; things don’t go as planned, of course, and when the true father turns up, the characters are embroiled in turmoil.  Shot by the noted German cinematographer Franz Planer, the film has an elegance that belies its meager budget, but what really impresses is the humanist goodwill of every character in the film – there’s not a baddie to be found in the bunch, just wounded characters trying to act honestly and graciously in trying circumstances. It’s a guileless and gripping film.

Standout Melodramas at IFFLA

One of the great things about living in Los Angeles is the many smaller festivals throughout the year that focus on regional cinema, giving us a broader sense of the movies being made in any given country than the typical artistic skimming that occurs at the larger fests. Now in its twelfth year, the well organized Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles is about midway through its run, showcasing about 16 features (plus shorts) that generally fall within the thoughtful mainstream of Indian cinema.

Two films screening tomorrow – debut features, both – are intriguing melodramas about adolescents: Phoring and Fandry (Pig).

phoring-604x270

Phoring dramatizes a friendship between a neglected boy (Phoring) and his doting new teacher (Doel), a beautiful newcomer to their rural Bengali town who suspects Phoring is capable of better things. The film has an easygoing charm to it, often dipping into gentle comedy, absurdist fantasy sequences – even toilet humor – but just as it begins to feel predictable, it takes some dramatic turns that send Phoring on a transformative journey through the streets of Calcutta.

If the story sounds vaguely familiar to cinephiles, the film is loosely based on Ritwik Ghatak’s early feature, Runaway (Bari Theke Paliye, 1958), in which another youth with a bullying father seeks his fortunes in Calcutta and meets a variety of mentors, but ultimately abandons his fantasies in light of the harsh realities of urban living.  Both films are coming of age tales with different emphases: Runaway’s protagonist develops a social conscience but Phoring is about a boy who quiets his insecurities.  It’s director Indranil Roychowdhury’s feature debut, but it reveals a sure hand with disparate, even clashing, sensibilities.

fandry-604x270

Fandry is a more issue-driven melodrama that targets the unofficial caste system in India, and it proceeds at a slow boil until a volatile ending implicates even the viewer. In broad strokes, it follows an untouchable Dalit boy whose poor family is a Maharashtra village’s wild pig rustlers. The story’s use of a rare black sparrow as an unwilling sacrifice is a bit too literary, but the emotional turbulence poet-turned-filmmaker Nagraj Manjule builds by layering tensions in the final act is unsettling and provocative.