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Berlinale 2019: Isolated Encounters

Bold films about a mysterious encounter in the woods, the dwindling old ways of a Cornish seaside town, and murder at an Italian farmhouse.
The Plagiarists
One of the things I really appreciate about the Berlinale is their sense of what is important in American cinema, a welcome curatorial perspective that’s usually pretty darn far away from Sundance, which since our cinema doesn't really have art movies, epitomizes the popular understanding of the alternative to the mainstream, namely “independents.” As could be seen in Dan Sallitt’s excellent Fourteen, the indies in the Forum section of Berlin are really working a different tack than their higher-budgeted, less cinematically bold and generally more comforting brethren that premiered in Park City last month. Yet even Sallitt’s film seems somewhat conventional when compared to The Plagiarists, an intentionally discomforting yet frequently highly comic micro-indie directed by one Peter Parlow. It was shot and edited by James N. Kienitz Wilkins, who also co-wrote this biting and destabilizing comic drama with Robin Schavoir. Wilkins has been making a name for himself over the last several years with shorts and features adroitly crossing the permeable border between adventurous festivals and the art world. (He was a featured artist at the Whitney Biennial in 2017, and MUBI has shown his short Indefinite Pitch as well as his and Schavoir’s totally unique 4-hour audio-visual saga, The Republic.) The Plagiarists is very much in line with his other work in that it pitches to the audience a film that never cedes the prickly intellectual concepts that underpin its drama to a total belief and enjoyment in the drama. In other words, ideas and conventions intertwine, the artist’s distance from the story waxes and wanes, and a film like The Plagiarists is told with a cocked eyebrow and a dryly sardonic humor that leaves us unsure of how serious, or even realistic, to take any thing in it.
What the premise is exactly is hard to say, though the film takes the form of a two-act drama with an extended coda. In the first part, a young hipster white couple—Lucy Kaminsky playing a reasonably-minded but unpublished novelist, and Eamon Monaghan playing an obnoxiously know-it-all aspiring filmmaker—gets stuck on a winter car trip in the countryside and are taken in by a friendly and assured middle-aged African-American man (Michael “Clip” Payne). But the details surrounding their host never quite gel, from his suavely easy-going hospitality and the existence of a small white boy he is minding, to a random closet full of vintage video equipment and an extended, extemporaneous monologue he launches into that evokes the meaningfulness of his childhood. The tone of this evening in the woods is variably amusing—through the couple’s smug quips and the man’s wry reactions—and vaguely ominous, due to the sense of imposed isolation and lack of explanation both inside the situation and outside it.  The situation sets up our tentative expectations about genre conventions and the obvious divides of race, age, and city/country, playing with our expectations in an almost smart-alecky way that nevertheless rarely fails to be spot-on. Compounding this, Wilkins shoots on an old video camera—or, as is suggested inside the drama in one of many instances of self-reflexive mentions of film culture, he might be achieving the effect in post-production at great cost—in the square aspect ratio of yore, replete with interlacing lines and an intentionally off-putting sense of an older era’s indie realism. Yet the film’s immaculate cutting, even with amusing framing and surprising jokes, more often than not easily puts us inside the drama, so at each moment one is involved and distanced simultaneously.
The story and its title, as well as the 1980s Muzak-sounding soundtrack, come to a head with a realization that the long, moving monologue that their host told the couple during their trip, which they took as authentic, was in fact taken from a well-known book by a famous author. (The music is taken from publicly available sound libraries, and several texts are cited in the end-credits as re-appropriated throughout the film.) This fact of plagiarism, of passing off someone else’s experience as his own, disturbs the woman but not the man, and becomes the subject of the film’s second act. Taking place the summer on another trip, they debate the nature of this crime—if it is one—along with a slew of other intellectual and personal issues that come to a head between the couple and an Airbnb-hosting friend (Emily Davis) who knows the supposed plagiarist but neither fully vouches for him nor takes sides in the debate. As in the first section, we are against provoked to question the nature of these two very intelligent and in fact very incompatible white aspiring artists, one of whom (the woman) increasingly comes off as inquisitive but obsessive, while her fiancé increasingly becomes intolerably cynical and sardonic while considering the after effects of one bizare evening early that year. The finale is a letter written by their mutual friend that predates the strange night in the woods, read over video footage from an old video camera the man was given while staying at the mystery house. The letter wonders about the two’s potential as a couple and about the divide between cinema, which observes a world, and literature, which communicates the interior state of people. With this provocative film whose structure never quite satisfactorily aligns, the interior state of its characters are indeed a mystery, but the world it constructs to observe is one that places the challenges of human interchange, creativity, and vocation on a precarious foundation built on assumptions and beliefs. It is in keeping with the film’s puckish form, not to mention the discussions held by the characters, that The Plagiarists argues that these presumptuous attitudes are fundamentally founded on how we understand—or misunderstand—and invest in talking, writing and filmmaking.
Bait
The have-the-cake-and-eat-it character of The Plagiarist’s form—it rips into the very thing it nearly exemplifies—could also be found in a different register with Bait, a drama of a Cornish fishing village’s tensions over changing economy and gentrification made in a style evocative not of the moment, but of the past. Director, photographer and editor Mark Jenkin shoots in 16mm film and hand-processed the materials, but this is not all, for this film style here looks completely out of time, a mashup of 1920s cinematic impressionism like Ménilmontant, the British social realism of the 1960s, and the formalist documentaries made in the 1930s made by the GPO film unit, like Night Mail. All sounds and dialogs are dubbed as well, which lends an other-worldliness to even the most matter-of-fact image. In other words, Jenkin employs the cinema of the past to tell of the aggravated Brexit present, where local transition and conflict is embodied by a fishing family split apart after selling a family home to yuppie out-of-towners, one brother using his boat now for pleasure cruises, and the other struggling to make a living fishing the coast without a boat.
This tale of brothers split, a strikingly handsome protege in the family, a gaggle of condescending city folk, a saucy barmaid, and romantic trouble mixing between local and visiting teens is of course an archetypal gallery, and Jenkin's stunningly artisan production, shot by shot, is able to at once emphasize the specific details of homes, clothing, bars, and work in the town as he is to evoke the more poetic and timeless friction produced by drastic economic changes. As with the pastiches of Guy Maddin, which operate in a far more winking and ecstatic manner than Jenkin's sincerity (which is not without its humor), the remarkably detailed attention to form paradoxically suggests a simplicity under the surface. But for the undeniably beautiful Bait this hardly matters, for the aesthetic’s earnest concerns for the material and history of filmmaking finds a fitting echo in the story’s desperate hope for the deliverance of older ways of working. As such, Bait is less an argument than homage, both to the presumably dwindling traditions of the Cornish coast and to the unexhausted expressions of older but no less compelling ways of telling stories in the cinema.
A far more discreet approach to form but a more aggressive attitude towards storytelling could be found in the curious debut by Sara Summa, The Last to See Them. It opens with a title card declaring how that an Italian family, the Duratis, were found killed in their home in 2012, and what follows this strange declaration then appears to be simply a dramatization of much of the day that preceded their deaths. On paper, this sounds structuralist and conceptual, but Summa’s direction of the characters—teenage daughter and son, farmer father and infirmed mother—is only and ever quotidien and mild. Granted a casual warmth by 16mm photography—seemingly the tool in trade now for indie-art cinema and found in nearly every other film in the Forum—the scenes around the Durati’s isolated farmhouse are neither picturesque nor even really anecdotal, a notable achievement when one considers that the evocation of normality without it being banal or archetypal is no easy feat. Instead, we see the minor dilemmas of daily life, of boys and farm troubles, an impending wedding and the baking a cake, and through these small things we get a graceful, hands-off feel for the values and sensitivities of each family member.
Yet Summa makes two other key decisions that double down on the idea of beginning with a revelation of the terrible fate that will eventually meet the film’s characters. One is by starting with and periodically returning to a shot taken from a car driving forwards, an image that quickly is obvious in portending the eventual murders; and the second is an occasional and overbearing use of music that immediately dispatches the atmosphere of normalcy and suggests tragedy and grandeur granted to such daily routine because we know it will end in blood. This kind of structure has a chiding effect of the kind found in the provocations of Michael Haneke, a cynical reminder that what we see before us is before us only because of the violence that will, and in fact must, come. Thankfully, the film has the tact not to imagine the crime, but that it doesn’t only announce the fate of its family ahead but that it also continually reminds us of it throughout is a forcefully manipulative decision which the film seems conceived around and which partially forfeits its casual observations. What this structure says is that this family’s day was important because they were later killed, when the proper approach might simply have been this: the family’s day was important because it was filmed.

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