South By Southwest 2

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

Jonathan Glazer: Finding the Form ‘Under the Skin’

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

Under the Skin is the third narrative feature by the London-born Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth). This new work is a radical reworking of the 2001 novel by the Dutch-born Michael Faber (although Glazer admitted his writing partner, Walter Campbell, never even read the book). The story follows Laura, a beautiful alien seductress who falls to Earth and takes the shape of a carnal loner who navigates the streets of Glasgow in a white van.

She seduces a series of men who come to a rather unsavory fate, yet one that is spellbinding to watch. The men are led into an inky-black pool of silt, with Laura hanging above them, as if suspended in air. The movie has some truly knockout images: a motorcycle cutting like a blade through the nocturnal landscapes, the coastal cliffs of the Highlands, or most frightening, the transmogrification of those avid, ready men seduced by the mysterious central character.

The movie has generated a very polarizing response since its debut on the festival circuit last fall. The movie opened in Los Angeles and New York last Friday to very promising commercial returns, and it now expands around the rest of the country.

Under the Skin is a meditation on the form and erotic wonder of Scarlett Johansson, who plays the seductress. The movie’s second half is much more abstractly beguiling and disturbing as the alien’s pas a deux with a virginal, severely deformed man fundamentally alters her and deepens her own humanity and vulnerability.

In this interview, Glazer talked about art and matter and how the long-gestating project came to being.

Patrick McGavin: The idea of subterfuge is central not only to the story but the making of the film. As you’ve mentioned, the pickup scenes were shot clandestinely, with hidden cameras and the performers had no idea it was Scarlett Johansson.

Jonathan Glazer: That hidden camera idea came over a period of thinking about the story; you’re just looking for it and you don’t know yet what it is until you find it, you’re not sure what it is. I didn’t feel sated yet. I knew there was a big method, a methodology we hadn’t yet discovered.They don’t just come out of nowhere. They come out of being immersed in the problems and the issues and you continue to turn them over until things coalesce and you just understand how to do it.

I’d been testing lots of multiple camera angles. I shot something once in Toronto with a woman running down the street and I had 57 hidden cameras, because I wanted to keep the street completely open and have the woman run through, having people coming into and out of shops, going onto buses and seeing her negotiate her own life. I guess that was a sketch. Alongside that, I was trying to find a way of being able to cast this film with a familiar actress.

I felt disquiet about how to shoot this film with somebody who was really familiar to us. We needed somebody to be alien, and this was a way of achieving that. The idea of surveillance, the idea of shooting the world as it is, felt so critical because if the film is about her observing human beings and what we are and how we behave, in order for us to have some kind of value to her, than it has to be real. Everything has to serve that.

PM: Had you watched any Abbas Kiarostami films, in your preproduction or preparation?

JG: I haven’t seen any Kiarostami movies, I know about Ten (2002). I will get to him. I’ve been watching some Jafar Panahi films, and I think he’s wonderful. There’s nothing new about actors driving. To me this whole thing was not a stylistic idea, it was a fundamental narrative idea. It became the pillar that held everything up. It felt like a critical method.

PM: The movie’s couched in the mood and style of science fiction. The plot obfuscates a great deal, and the deeper we get into the film, the more it becomes a kind of inquiry into what it means to be human.

JG: I hope so. Those are the things we were interested in. Also the fact that there’s no way into it, there’s no salvation or redemption, there’s no completion. It’s evolving as we are. People go into the cinema and they want to come out with answers. The more this film would have made sense, the less it would have worked. It needed to be in charge of its ambiguities.

I think Scarlett’s character is  fabulously complex and inscrutable. I find that all very human. Charting that drift from a very clear objective to this confusion and delusion that she has was a very difficult arc to create; it was constructed not just on the page, but in the editing and the music, and just finding the right curve. It was never about one event is going to be happen, and she’s going to turn left now or right. That was difficult to chart and calibrate.

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PM: How did you shoot the film, and how, in a wider sense, has your work been impacted by the radical changes wrought by technology and digital?

JG: We invented cameras to shoot this film. Once we decided we’re going to shoot her in disguise and the world as it is, we started to ask, How can we do that?  How can we achieve that? Testing the cameras that are out there didn’t give us the result that we needed. So we had to build on our own. We built these cameras because we needed a tool that wasn’t out there. We used a German camera that was used to shoot the inside of industrial machinery, if they want to see the inner workings of the mechanics of an engine. Film is the censor in the camera, we developed it and shot most of the film.

I love the aesthetic of  [the camera]. It had the quality not of film, or even digital, the blacks bled and the colors rolled and it was beautiful. The aesthetic comes from the need of that tool. I think the idea of images and wanting your film to look a certain way, I’m less interested in that now. I think it’s about what suits the story you’re trying to tell.

PM: All of your films possess this quality, but this is probably the most extreme example of that dialectic, that is a conflict between your need to innovate though also make something that conforms to the idea of commercial cinema.

JG: I think you’re right. I do find plot tyrannical. I want plot to be light-footed. I want it to follow emotional truths. What’s interesting is that sometimes when you shoot, what you write is emotional truth and what you shoot, what you think is the emotional truth, is not in the scene. You then look for the truth again when you look at the rushes. When you look at the rushes, you’re looking at the things that feel most truthful and you begin to assemble that. You have to tell the plot in an unexpected way. You’re still aware that you have to tell the story, but you’re doing it less predictably. It’s about understanding the life and the footage you shot.

I’m still making my way through that. I feel like I’m moving further away from narrative. I appreciate a story, I love a great story, but I’m always looking for an idea that I could wrap around the back of a cigarette package and then investigate the form of that. I’m not the best person to go and shoot a story. I don’t think it would challenge me in the way I want to challenge myself. I’m fascinated and preoccupied with the form. When you see those moments that transcend, they become something else, they take off and it’s very hard to go back from that, to identify that and not want more of it. Perhaps some of the music videos I’ve done has gotten me into that habit.

PM: You become more liberated in the process.

JG: Film’s gone now, but I think you have to look at that as an opportunity. I mourn the loss of film, but I’m not preoccupied by that. These aren’t the tools anymore. It’s not immersive. We invented a camera that ended up having an aesthetic that satisfied that; you could fall into the image. It was alchemy to the image somehow, which you never get from a digital camera. I like the way an iPhone camera image looks, but at the same time I can see an Eadweard Muybridge print of how San Francisco looks and be rocked backwards.

I think it’s important to look for the idea and what’s important for that.

South by Southwest 1

Buzzard (2014)

By Robert Koehler

Marty Jackitansky, a rather foul human being whom you can’t take your eyes off of in writer-director Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard—by many millions of miles the best movie yet screened at South by Southwest—is a feral, degenerated form of the classic grifter of the 1930s. He temps at a bank office, but can barely tolerate anyone around except fellow office staffer Derek (an amusing Potrykus) and finds innumerable ways to make petty cash by bilking people, or just by getting over, like grabbing equipment he’s ordered for the office and returning it to an electronics store for cash. Once he gets the terrible idea of signing over bank customers’ checks to his own name, Marty’s track is relentlessly downward, a course that traces from corporate America to homeless in Detroit until the final shot (worthy of a long post-screening discussion), a metaphysical transference of sorts. Potrykus casts his regular go-to “star,” Joshua Burge, from the first (the 2010 short Coyote) and second (the debut 2012 feature, Ape) pieces of his Animal trilogy, and by this point, the director and actor have developed a electrifying collaboration that recalls Lindsay Anderson (If… and O Lucky Man!) and Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) allowing young Malcolm McDowell to let his id to run free. The connection is explicit: There’s a late sequence in Buzzard, an extended take of Burge’s bug-eyed Marty consuming a hotel room service plate of spaghetti, that deliberately quotes McDowell’s Clockwork spaghetti scene with Patrick McGee and the hospital finale. Buzzard is in fact a salad of cinephilia; the penultimate scene, an astonishing travelling shot following Marty running down a Detroit street, just as deliberately quotes from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. There’s not only the line from McDowell here; Burge can easily be viewed as Denis Lavant to Potrykus’ Carax, and more than in Ape, the expression of young male animality, stemming from unresolved anger and self-hatred, reaches the level of dance and unexpected ecstasy, perhaps even transcendence.

Highlights from Toronto

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

With some 278 features shown at this year’s edition, Toronto is not just a film festival; it’s a virtual orgy of cinema. No matter how hard one tries, the festival proves logistically impossible to fully assimilate. Even if you include the films screened beforehand, primarily at Cannes and Sundance, I saw only a fraction of the program. According to figures the festival released, nearly half a million people attended the festival.

To their credit the festival organizers have a method to the madness. Toronto has always had a fairly egalitarian, open-ended approach to its programming. It has proven very adroit at yoking together a mélange of high echelon Hollywood, international masters, documentaries, works by emerging and unknown filmmakers and probably most impressively, an experimental offshoot with its Wavelengths program.

At the same time it is possible to make all manner of connections and dovetailing themes and preoccupations. Two of the most talked about works, for instance, were the science fiction-inflected Gravity and Under the Skin.

Gravity is the new film, his first in seven years, by the superb Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. The story of two astronauts (superbly played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) unmoored in deep space, the movie is infused with a majestic and soulful purity. The extreme digital manipulation of the image is, of course, the dominant technological story of the last four decades of cinema. The great paradox is as the technology has become more seamless and expressive, the directors have become enthralled a little too much, losing a great deal of personality in the process.

Gravity is a bravura technical work, made explicit in the stunning opening fourteen minute shot as Cuarón’s gliding and highly mobile camerawork draws on the vast and infinite space that evokes a daunting and magnificent physical world. Cuarón’s great skill here is to personalize the material (he wrote the script with his son, Jonás Cuarón). He intuitively contrasts the immaculate and stunning imagery against the particulars of the human quest, in this case, the mission involving the jocular, veteran pilot (Clooney) and the gifted scientist and doctor (Bullock) tasked with her first mission.

The poetry and beauty of the opening is soon disrupted by a frightening blowback, a firestorm of debris from a downed Russian satellite, leaves the two astronauts the only survivors of their mission. With their own station damaged beyond repair, the two must improvise to secure their own safety. The movie, which does not have a wasted moment in its fleet and sharp 93-minute running time, is the only aesthetic justification of 3-D I know of late.

Cuarón is savvy and smart enough to meditate on the classics of the form (2001, Solaris), but the marvel, complexity and impudent wit that are his signature are subtly woven into the movie’s rhythms. It’s a sly and subversive comedy of marriage as the extreme pressure and intensity of incident draws out a marvelous and lyrical exchange between the two principals, Clooney’s natural wit masking his extreme competence and Bullock, the serious one haunted by a personal tragedy, discovering untapped powers of thinking and problem resolution.

To say anything more risks overstatement. Just see it, again and again.

 

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Under the Skin is just the third feature by the exceptionally gifted London-born Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), and his first feature in the nine years since his fascinating though rather problematic Birth. If Gravity is a work of a lucid and emphatic wonder, this movie is composed is wholly different register of exacting strangeness.

The movie generated a highly polarizing response, from rapture to walkouts and it is easy to understand both points. As storytelling, the movie seems an acute failure, deprived of clarity, emotional insight or psychological intricacy. It’s frequently hypnotic though inchoate and the parts rarely cohere.

No less than Gravity, the movie testifies to the power and alluring wonder of image and sound. The movie has some truly knockout images, a motorcycle cutting like a blade through the nocturnal landscapes, the coastal cliffs of the Highlands or most frightening, the transmogrification of those avid, ready men seduced by the mysterious central character.

Perhaps most interestingly, Under the Skin is a meditation on the form and erotic wonder of Scarlett Johansson. She plays the alien seductress who falls to Earth and takes the shape of a carnal loner who navigates the streets of Glasgow in a white van, seducing a series of men, before leading them to a rather unsavory fate, one utterly transfixing to watch, the men led into a inky-black pool of slit as the alien being walks, as if suspended, on air.

The movie is adapted, very loosely, from Michael Faber’s novel, by the director and his writing partner Walter Campbell. Johansson, who’s so astoundingly beautiful, has never really received her just due, as both an actress and very skilled comedienne. She is electric, especially in the movie’s brilliant centerpiece, an extended pas a deux between her character and a virginal, severely deformed middle-aged man she meets in the street and offers a kind of erotic sanctuary. The emotional exchange alters her being, deepening her own humanity and, conversely, exposing her to a wholly different form of vulnerability and weakness.

Johansson avails herself emotionally and sexually in a way she has never really been demanded of in the past. Under the Skin is a great many things, often contradictory, the exasperating and annihilating alternating side-by-side. Personally I could have done with less of the severely disassociation. The tradeoffs, Johansson’s performance, the score (Mica Levi) and the voluptuous, sinister visual rhyming, offer more than compensatory thrills.

 

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

Finally, it is impossible to discuss Toronto without the work that towered over much of the festival, relegating much else to the shadows. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave arrived amid a torrent of excitement after it showed as a sneak preview at Telluride the week before. It is the kind of galvanizing work that actually matches the hype.

The third feature of the English director and artist (his first two features were Hunger and Shame), the movie repudiates the trash aesthetics of Django Unchained and The Butler, accurately reducing them to vacuous minstrel acts. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” the great social theorist and black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his landmark, The Souls of Black Folks.

The irreconcilable is the movie’s dominant mode of expression. McQueen and the writer, the talented though erratic John Ridley, adapt the astonishing memoir of Solomon Northup, a mid-19th century black Northerner who, victimized by an elaborate ruse of white bounty hunters, was kidnapped and sold into the service of a succession of vicious Southern plantation owners. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, a dandy and aesthete, a gifted violinist, subjected to the same peculiar brand of self-lacerating as Michael Fassbender endured in McQueen’s first two features.

What registers, initially, are the images, especially the frightening rendering of captivity and confinement worthy of Robert Bresson, especially the deft early sequences that contrast Northup’s freedom with his appalling new conditions. He personifies DuBois’ notion of the black “twoness,” a man who must renounce his own abilities, talents, his very worth and being, in order to survive.

Again working with his great cinematographer Sean Bobbit, McQueen locates the poetry of terror in the everyday, an overhead shot of a wagon as its tarp is uncovered, revealing the black bodies, some quite small, packed into compacted space; the churning of a steam engine boat, echoing the Middle Passages that brought the first generation of Africans to the New World; and the harshness of the Rembrandt lighting as Northup comes to the sobering realization of his loss of status, identity and existence.

The movie is bound by harshness and staggering injustice, at the systematic and brutal manner blacks are denied their worth, sexually subjugated or worst of all, violently torn from their families. (“You’ll forget your children,” is the most chilling line spoken.) Like Edward P. Jones’ great novel, The Known World, the work has a moral sophistication and depth, especially about race and class, that defies easy analysis, evident in the figure of the great Alfre Woodard, who plays a former slave and now wife of a more progressive white Southern plantation owner. She provides learned counsel and friendship to a traumatized young black woman (the astounding Lupita Nyong’o) desperate to retain her humanity.

12 Years a Slave looks both backward and forward. McQueen, like Claude Lanzmann’s great Shoah, exists to bear a particular kind of witness. Like Lanzmann’s masterpiece, it is great filmmaking shaped to a subject that stands outside our ability to ever explicate. Call it the sorrow and the pity.

Cannes Rankings

01

Only Lovers Left Alive

By Patrick Z. McGavin

My Cannes started this year with the cooly suggestive image of a beautiful young woman under surveillance, as captured in the viewfinder of a pair of binoculars, in French director Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful, and ended with probably the most famous fall in the history of cinema, that one that concludes Alfred Hitchcock’s magisterial Vertigo.

The Ozon was part of the official competition selection, the Hitchcock, preceded by a terrific introduction from Kim Novak, the concluding work of the Cannes Classics program. All told, I saw 37 films: 20 in the official competition, two in official selection, out of competition, seven in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, three in the Directors’ Fortnight and five in the Cannes Classics.

Every festival is an object lesson in frustration and thwarted ambition. I especially regret not being able to see more of the Un Certain Regard program, because I was largely impressed by what I did sample. I also heard or read about especially encouraging reports of Lav Diaz’s reportedly extraordinary 250-minute long Norte, the End of History, Rithy Panh’s prize-winner The Missing Picture, Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Diego Quemada-Diez’s La Jaula de Oro and Hiner Saleem’s My Sweet Pepper Land.

The competition is what excites and infuriates the critics, writers and assembled press. These are the also titles most likely to dominate the art-house release schedule and also turn up at other festivals, like Telluride, Toronto and New York, in the fall. Many of the key works have already been acquired for American distribution, and new deals are still being announced.

What follows are my own rankings, if you will, with corresponding grades, of the films of this year’s competition. Let the arguments begin.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (A)

Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin (A-)

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (A-)

James Gray’s The Immigrant (A-)

Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) [A-]

The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (A-)

Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (B+)

Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (B+)

Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (B)

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (B)

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (B)

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s A Castle in Italy (B-)

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Grigris (B-)

Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son (B-)

Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful (C+)

Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman (C+)

Arnaud des Pallieres’ Michael Kolhaas (C)

Amat Escalante’s Heli (C)

Takashi Miike’s Shield of Straw (C)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (D)

Cannes Awards

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Blue is the Warmest Color

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes is as much of an endurance test as a film festival. The organizers have their own peculiar way of how to slot the 20 competition titles. After a less than audacious start and a permeating sense of disappoint, Cannes accelerated to another gear down the stretch, the propulsive finishing kick providing a jolt of excitement.

More so than any of the other 18 previous festivals I’ve covered, this year’s edition was marked by the absence of a consensus.

I left Cannes on Sunday morning and I was traveling when the jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, announced their awards of the 66th Festival de Cannes. After the first couple of days, the prevailing assumption was that Spielberg, politically liberal, artistically conservative, would opt for something fairly safe and accommodating. To that end, the betting money swirled around Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son, shown fairly early, on just the second full day of the festival.

The movie, about the severe disruptions and moral confusions of two children switched at birth, was problematic on a number of levels, artistically and intellectually. The director, so skilled and deft with the young performers, annihilated at pretty much every turn my resistance.

Of course, not every title is treated the same. The palace intrigue that surrounds all things Cannes is never more perverse than the morning screening of the festival’s final Wednesday. This is the acknowledged showcase of the festival. A couple of years ago, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds premiered there; last year, it was Walter Salles’s On the Road.

This year, Only God Forgives, the much-hyped new feature by Danish stylist Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), was unveiled there. My friend Robert Koehler, writing here at Film Journey, thought it the favorite for the Palme d’Or, before the festival started. It was obvious, about ten minutes in, that the pretentious and lugubrious Thai-set thriller, featuring an inchoate Ryan Gosling and an overwrought Kristen Scott Thomas, was destined for the festival’s junk heap.

Where to go from there.

The breakthrough did indeed unfold that day with the first evening press screening of Abdellatif Kechiche’s extraordinary Blue is the Warmest Color. The Tunisian-born, French-based director turned heads with his exhilarating fifth feature, adapted from a highly-regarded French graphic novel, charting the emotional tumult and bracing sexual experimentation of a young woman whom, introduced as a fifteen-year old high school student, becomes enthralled with a slightly older college art student (in blue hair).

The remarkable young actress Adele Exarchopoulos is sensational, incarnating a sexual abandon and emotional fragility she makes terribly vivid and lucid. She has beautifully expressive eyes and lovely face, but it’s what she connotes through her body, power, pain, thrill and liberation, that carries the work. As her slightly older lover, Lea Seydoux achieves a glancing, wounding quality, the emotional result of spending so much of her life going against the tide of what is popular or easy. The scenes between the two are electrifying, tense and moody.

The movie’s French title, The Life of Adele – Parts 1 and 2, is preferable to the English. The movie secured American distribution, through Sundance Selects, a division of IFC FIlms, before the conclusion of the first press screening. The dissident crowd was complaining about the running time and some prominent women critics raised sharp objections to the alleged sexual objectification of the material. As is widely known, the film has three knockout graphic sex scenes, the first a 12-minute stunner that is volatile, intense and nervy. At the first public screening, some people fled the theater; otherwise, the crowd erupted in sustained applause. The limpid cinematography by Sofian el Fani is attuned to feeling, colors and shape. Some were calling for more discipline and order on the three-hour film. For me, the 179-minutes were just the beginning.

I never wanted it to end.

Spierlberg’s own movies I’ve always felt almost painfully ambivalent about, his intelligence and knowledge I’ve always been wowed by. His jury made the nervy, right and admirable choice of awarding the Kechiche the Palme d’Or.

The Coen Brothers won the Grand Prix, or second prize, with their new film about the bourgeoning folk scene in Greenwich Village, Inside Llewn Davis. Every jury produces one indefensible prize, and this year’s was the directing prize to the talented Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante for his Heli. It’s a shock film, artistically negligible. C’est la vie. Kore-eda captured the jury prize. The great Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke won the screenwriting prize for his A Touch of Sin.

The American James Gray, a highly-regarded figure in France, was thought the wild card with his excellent The Immigrant, with the superb Marion Cotillard as a Polish emigre trapped between a theater impressario (Joaquin Phoenix) and his cousin, a magician (Jeremy Renner), as she stakes out all manner of freedom, sexual and social, in 1921 New York. Cotillard speaks excellent Polish in several crucial scenes, and produces arguably the finest moment of the festival, her shattering confession. She deserved the best actres prize; the Spielberg jury went with Berenice Bejo (The Artist) for her role in The Past, the French-debut of emerging Iranian master Asghar Farhadi (A Separation).

The craggy, deeply enjoyable Bruce Dern scored something of an upset with his lead acting prize in Alexander Payne’s wistful road movie, Nebraska. When I suggested the scenario the night before, one of my dinner companions and friends, violently rejected the possibility.

That’s the kind of year it was.

Chinese Cinema at Cannes

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

As the world’s most important festival, Cannes is composed in many parts and layers. Yet one inescapable aspect, seemingly more acute with each year, is how much of the programming—thematically, formally—dovetails.

The narrative at the festival follows a fairly predictable trajectory: the festival slots its weaker titles at the start and then, slowly, starts to introduce the stronger material, probably as to not induce people to leave the festival early but also build a certain momentum leading up to the final weekend and the awards.

Two Chinese films meditate on national identity, representation and the moral and personal consequences of the society’s transformative shift from Maoism to an unbridled capitalism. A Touch of Sin, the new work by China’s greatest contemporary director, Jia Zhang-ke, is the most daunting, rigorous and stylistically impressive of any competition film shown the first week.

The director’s most impressive achievement since Still Life (2006) won the top prize at Venice, the new work is suffused with a blistering, tragic intensity and palpable anger illustrating the moral rot and social despair resulting from the country’s willful and energetic Randian obedience to new wealth.

Jia has collected four stories, each dealing with death and personal tumult, and drawn from recent fact-based incidents in China to address issues of inequality and corruption, whether the soul-crushing marginalization of the poor to the perverse and appalling greed, cynicism and avarice of the country’s new social elite. “I wanted to use these news reports to build a comprehensive portrait of life in contemporary China,” he said in the accompanying filmmaker’s notes.

The ideas and concerns are familiar from the director’s previous work (Platform, The World), but the violent sense of loss and interruption contributes to a grave and wounding tone. Jia intertwines all manner of influences, of East and West, the movie’s English title is a play on King Hu’s iconic A Touch of Zen, to the extraordinary opening chapter, which opens like a Chinese Once Upon a Time in the West and by its chilling conclusion feels like Crime and Punishment.

In the opening, set in the province of Shanxi, where Jia was born, a ruffian and agitate miner (Jiang Wu), dismissed by most of the community as a village idiot, takes extreme action in his violent protest of what he regards as the graft, corruption and self-dealing of the business and social leaders. In Chongqing, a southwestern city on the Yangtze river, an enigmatic young man (Wang Baoqiang), the same one seen at the beginning, draws on the innate power and authority conferred on him from a handgun to reverse his social marginalization. In the third piece, unfolding in Hubei, in central China, a woman (Zhao Tao), already flouting traditional values by carrying an illicit affair, strikes back at a man who arrogantly believes his wealth entitles him to unfettered sexual aggression. In the final chapter, a young man (Luo Lanshan), living on the southern coast and desperate for his own brand of social mobility, lights out from his provincial village but tragically finds just a continuation of his thwarted and circumscribed life.

This is not Intolerance; the stories never exactly interweave, but they definitely exist in relation to one another. The great Yu Lik-wai, Jia’s regular cinematographer, working in in the unusual format ratio of 1:2.4, weaves together one dazzling, immersive image after another, to the point they collate and dance in the imagination. The use of color, especially red in the first chapter, is expressive and suggestive,  binding shape and color and movement.

If anything, the first two pieces are so sharp and precise and wounding in what they have to say that sustaining that was almost impossible. The third and fourth pieces are not at the same level. As an arabesque, the four parts cohere. Jia’s preoccupations remain central, but what’s different, even shocking, about the new work is the violence, but it is grounded in the film’s carefully considered psychological register.

The most eruptive change is the sudden onset of snow in the dusty landscapes of the first chapter. Jia also, I suspect, realized the need to reinvigorate his own art, and change the tone and tempo of his work and try out new ideas and modes of being. A Touch of Sin is the work of an angry man, but it has a throbbing acuity and tension. The New York distributor Kino Lorber completed a deal to acquire American theatrical rights.

bend

Flora Lau’s Bends, a first feature that debuted in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, is also concerned with the country’s extreme social stratification. The lines of demarcation are not just about money, but also the fault lines—historic, cultural—between Hong Kong and the mainland. In the generation now passed since the handover of British control, Hong Kong cinema remains fixated on themes of cultural dislocation and assimilation, moving rather uneasily as a imperial subject shaped by exile to a now coercive body of a vast empire.

In Hong Kong cinema, especially the films of Wong Kar-wai, loneliness and impermanence are a constant, his characters often caught in the growing disconnect between what they long for and what is realistically available. Love stories that were continuously unconsummated became the director’s trademark. Flora Law is a child of the cinema of Wong—significantly, she works with his key collaborators, the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the production designer and art director William Chang Suk Ping and actress Carina Lau.

Flora Lau has made a movie slippery and ethereal, her vertiginous mise-en-scene giving shape and feeling to its dominant theme of concealment in relating the story of Anna (Carina Lau), a wealthy woman whose carefully maintained life of comfort and privilege is decimated, incrementally and then devastatingly, by her husband’s malfeasance. Lau entwines the story of Anna with that of her young chauffeur (Chen Kun).

The young man is engaged with his own form of subterfuge. He is hiding his Chinese-born wife, pregnant with their second child, in the border town of Shenzhen as he desperately tries circumvent China’s single-child policy and secure her a private facility in the expensive (and overcrowded) Hong Kong.

Flora Lau’s relative inexperience as a storyteller produces the occasional awkward moment, the too spot-on linking of the two characters, but she finds her rhythm relatively early and demonstrates a sureness of mood and feeling. Doyle’s evocative and moody imagery casts a deep hold, from the thrilling use of the subjective camera from inside the high-end Mercedes to a recurrent sense of enclosure and confinement.

A Touch of Sin reiterates a master. Bends uncovers a bright and thrilling new voice.