0424 Look, Stranger (Arielle Javitch, USA/Serbia/Slovenia)
Audacity isn’t a term that comes to mind when thinking of contemporary American independent film, a culture that often seems adverse to the kind of maverick, idiosyncratic risk-taking cinema that made its name in the 1980s. As such, plunges into the abyss are well worth noting. For her feature film debut, American filmmaker Arielle Javitch has gone to Serbia to make a movie in English with a handful of lines of dialog, no clear setting, and very few plot points. Serbia is where it is shot but it takes place nowhere, a sketch of evacuated urban outskirts and craggy landscapes punctuated by mine fields, random roadblocks, and sniper traps. No war seems to be going on, but the film evokes a place somewhere between the ashen pastoral and the war torn—for me it immediately called to mind Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker and the amazing Russian video game that took its inspiration and name from that film. Look, Stranger, in its focus on a young woman (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ Anamaria Marinca) moving through a lonely grimness and the narrative’s sense of ruined indeterminacy, is certainly a rare American indie, a cryptic, far-flung entry in the realm of dystopian cinema. References to the state of the world or the society in place are evacuated, and the woman’s interactions with other humans—an unnamed girl she shepherds in the film’s first part, and later a young man (Tom Burke) who seems to be working as a kind of journeyman mercenary—exist somewhere between unnaturally silent and too naturally silent, as this pall that hangs over the world, whatever it is, is so pervasive that communication or discussion of paltry, everyday things like hunger or emotion or identity exist in an irrelevant realm. This communicative gap fills the landscape the film is so focused on—like another American-Serbian film, the interesting Owen Wilson action vehicle Behind Enemy Lines, Javitch’s debut is above all else about watching its lead progress through a subtly uncanny landscape, rendered even more foreign by the lonesome menace of its texture and emptiness. It is a very intriguing idea, and one shot with typical “loveliness” by that most naturally lovely of cameras, the Red, but if I am allowed to make an unfair but perhaps necessary judgment, while shooting digitally undoubtedly enabled Javich to make this extraordinary endeavor, this film is about texture and the abstract emotional states of weariness, wonder, and human connection that is implied by the texture the woman exists in and passes through. And while the Red can capture pictorial texture and color values, its intrinsic glossy smoothness is antithetical to the tactility this film relies upon transmitting to us. The grainier and nubblier the better—16mm would make viewing this film an experience rather than about someone presumably having an experience. But the Red is excused if shooting on it is what it takes for someone like Javich to break free of the irritatingly insular and generally unadventurous state of young American filmmaking with this mysterious, risky adventure, one with a distinct vision both for mise-en-scène and for actors. (Perhaps her next film should be a romantic comedy with the same couple? It could very well be fantastic.)
0425 The Fourth Portrait (Chung Mong-Hong, Taiwan)
From the first image of Chung’s film, of a lone young boy ambling down a road in long shot, The Fourth Portrait flirts with the facile sentimentality of narratives of plucky, inscrutable youths and their rewarding travails, and indeed when the boy’s father dies in the next scene and he is left alone in the world, these fears seem to be confirmed. But closer attention should have been paid to the nearly acid color palette of that first shot, deeply saturated—an indication of a filmmaker casting the familiar (literally) in a different light. Strange segmentation, unexpected editing, and deeply idiosyncratic camerawork in cinemascope marks the unusual, almost surreal approach to storytelling The Fourth Portrait uses to color this boy’s suddenly untethered life in an oneric, almost fable like shades. Digressions fill out the odd character of the adults he encounters—a school janitor, a local deadbeat swindler, his “hostess” mother and cruel stepfather—remarkably avoiding a plot or goal-oriented narrative by nimbly stepping aside from establishing continuities. As a result we never exactly know what’s next or what has happened in-between one scene and another—the dream quality which is highly accented by the erratic angle changes, minute zooms, unusual use of widescreen, and glamorously rich colors is thus further pushed by picking up and leaving things at a whim, leaving uncertain how what’s been picked up in the story will continue and whether something put down will ever occur again. It is a destabilizing but constantly intriguing effect; I’ve never seen anything quite like it and it is somewhat difficult to accurately describe. And the sentimentality we expect to exude from the child is somehow transmuted to fleshing out unusual, broad nuances of character amongst all the people surrounding him, and giving the world the nimble, uneasy feeling of something dreamed. The path that finally appears before us, leading the child through four “portraits” he draws at different times through the story, ultimately fails to cohere Chung’s dramatic storytelling experiments, but it is the journey , so they tell me, not the destination...
0426 Love Crime (Alain Corneau, France)
Corneau’s last film—he passed away but a few weeks ago—is a precise but unnuanced entry in the tired setting of corporate espionage, blackmail, power and workplace sexual politics. I think we need less of these films from the French, where it practically is a fully fledged genre, and more from the States, where the idea of female CEOs seducing or humiliating their subordinates can survive only within significantly less severe contexts of a film like Devil Wears Prada. (And god forbid we strip the genre of its female homoeroticism and see two men in a similar dynamic.) Corneau lays over this setting an intriguing take on Fritz Lang’s great Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, wherein Ludivine Sagnier attempts to get away with a crime by having all signs point to her. The story development is perfunctory and uninteresting, but the Lang connection flourishes, surprisingly, not in the idea of the film but rather inCorneau’s treatment of Sangier and her silent era saucer eyes. (Though the reason she gets cast in films like this is for her sexy body, by the standards of prettiness of the silent era, where the face is nearly everything, the actress would be fated to be some poor throwaway character starving to death or being burnt at the stake at the sidelines of a Gish sister’s central plight.) The film guides her through a suitably over the top combination of manic breakdowns and catatonic zombie states, as she first absorbs her boss’ (Kristen Scott Thomas) abuse and later turns it around on her, and Sangier’s amazing, naïve, blank eyes rivet the screen, pinning even the last shot to the immobility of her pupils and the vacant, suffering emotion so well known to the female neurosis of silent cinema and all but gone from it after the Method and the contemporary vogue for Minimalism (as I would casually term it) has cast this kind of hugely expressive style as “unnatural” or “unrealistic” by the vague standards of today’s audiences. And that Corneau would start the film with the kind of kinky sexuality one would expect from both the scenario (three way between boss, assistant, and the male co-worker they share!) and from Sagnier’s presence and then deflect his interest from the body to the face, and from there to the mind, makes Love Crime a far more interesting film than it should be, and likewise points to how better still it could have been.
0427 – 0430 Wavelengths 4: Pastourelle
This program was made up almost entirely of films by Nathaniel Dorsky, Compline (2009) and Aubade (2010) having played elsewhere, and the newest one, Pastourelle (2010), premiering here. More will be written on these here when the new film plays at the New York Film Festival and all three play at the Anthology Film Archives following that, but suffice to say that beyond the poetry he shares with us in the three, it’s a very interesting triptych program, since the oldest film is Dorsky’s last he will make in Kodachrome color film stock, which he has been using for decades. The middle film marks his first use of a new color stock, and both that work and the newest one are really vibrant, breathing (in a hushed, almost hold-your-breath kind of way) experiments by the filmmaker in figuring out the tone and effect of the new material (or its “soul” as Dorsky more accurately and beautifully puts it). This is my second viewing of the “older” works and the one that really grew on me—since I find Dorsky’s use of Kodachrome so breathtaking that Compline was inevitably going to be a favorite—was Aubade. Its use of a familiar motif for the filmmaker—the abstraction of the image through occlusion of light—seemed to me more extensive and moving in its variety and challenge (challenge both to the viewer and to the light, fighting to land on the film strip). I'll leave talking about these three to voices more eloquent and detailed than myself on how they work and why I and others find them so—to use the word that the filmmaker is always described with but more accuracy than any other use of this word in film description and analysis—exquisite, so please have some patience with us in that regard.
0431 – 0436 Wavelengths 5: Blue Mantle
The abstractions found in the previous 2010 Wavelengths programs (ignoring, for the moment, James Benning’s Ruhr, which I saw at Rotterdam), climaxing with the Dorsky films, was refreshingly re-materialized by giving way to—gasp!—representation, shots of things I can recognize for stronger degrees of real world recognizability and value—refreshing only as contrast, I should note.
Mati Diop, the actress many may know from Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum led off the 5th program with Senegalese camp fire stories about the appeal of and peril involved in braving the sea to journey to Spain. Atlantiques (Senegal, France), shot in very low resolution digital, thin and flat with grainy images, mostly brightened by fire light, and casting a timeless quality across the work—which includes a few images of the sea, of the women left behind, of a graveyard for sailors. Its simplicity and directness—a shot of the sea, people shooting the shit, a mourning, beautiful woman, headstones—naturally becomes both a lament and a love letter to the sea, to the dark mystery that surrounds it, to the severity of its challenges.
While the sea or at least water was the major motif of this section, death seemed to lurk over it—or, because of its focus on the sea, perhaps under it—and the micoro narrative of Kevin Jermone Evenson’s 752 McPherson St. (USA) picks up the oblique morbidity of Diop’s film and brings it to the front and center by editing together archival footage of a King Tut exhibit, a dead body be taken away on a gurney under the eyes of white police officers and African-American men, and then ending on a sequence of the body’s toe being tagged in a morgue. This public witnessing of a corpse and the processing of the body fleshes out (in a way, literally) Diop’s more poetic and minimalist approach to evoking the icons surrounding death.
But both those films do this though traditional representation—people photographed doing and saying things, the relationship between what is being projected and the real world relatively clear. The same cannot be said for T. Marie’s masterpiece Slave Ship (USA) which takes Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” as both inspiration and a literal starting place, as Marie digitally paints using pixels morphing across luminosity levels, and for this film the starting palette is drawn from a section of Turner’s canvas. I haven’t seen the original, but Marie’s video begins with what seems the barest suggestion of a ship on water only to progressively shift and morph the smears of pixel-paint across the canvas in what seems, to my eyes, an endless fiery explosion, as if the ship or the ship and the sun have impossibly burst, forever. The work is continually shifting hue and composition but the shifts are so subtly you only note that, suddenly, everything is dramatically different and you are unsure how or when the change took place. The video is in a permanent state of slow motion combustion, yet one not of motion, like the handling of the body and body objects in Evenson’s film, but across time and color, one single thing, this canvas, shifting itself in a horrific, gorgeous state of holocaust.