Established as a platform for the fringe successes and overlooked treasures of the European festival scene, the Museum of the Moving Image’s new First Look festival in New York acts as a much-needed bright spot amid the winter doldrums. It’s also the perfect antidote to an awards season hangover, offering resolutely small movies colored with a strong avant-garde streak. From the mind-bending, color-coded world of Raya Martin’s Buenos noches, España to the abundant familial milieu of Papirosen, the inaugural edition of this new event proves consistently engrossing. Below is a concise guide to some of films showing, all but one of which are NYC premieres.
Papirosen (Gastón Solnicki, Argentina)
Like a bustling inter-generational novel without a beginning or end, Gastón Solnicki’s Papirosen is a scrambled collection of anecdotes, floating about in search of a story arc. It’s a presentation that seems frazzled at first, until you think about how family works; this is how stories are told, how lore is passed down, in a messy hash of details and remembrances. A grandfather’s suicide is recalled in the bathroom where he committed the act, now disused, the bad memories still too strong. A man makes a return trip to the Czech Republic, finding the very toy soldiers he played with as a child, cosseted in an antiques shop. Solnicki traces this fractured narrative back to the war, the great rift that turned his Jewish family into a literal manifestation of the Diaspora, blown apart and reassembled in Argentina. Papirosen is a literal attempt to pick up the pieces, which in this case means documenting family dinners, holidays, using old vacation videos and bar mitzvah footage as historical sealant. The Solnicki family’s story may not have a definite shape, but there’s a diffuse power contained within it, a quality that’s magnificently captured by this sprawling portrayal.
The Silence of Peleshian (Pietro Marcello, Italy)
Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshian made his name in the late 1960s, pioneering a new style called distance montage, which combined new and archival footage into a kind of free-associative tapestry, telling a story purely through visuals, unified by tone rather than narrative. By now, that predilection for silence has spread through his whole life; now a recluse, confined in the busy heart of Moscow, Peleshian refuses to speak and hasn’t made a film in 17 years. As re-discovered by Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello, the aging auteur now views each spoken word as an undue stain upon existence. This strange stand proves the perfect entry point for Marcello, who imagines Peleshian as a literal extension of his former image-obsessed style, creating a gorgeous tone poem that envisions the director’s descent into isolation as a literal fall from space. So the creator becomes subsumed by his own invented form, with inception conveyed through a bubbling volcano, creation through the arc of a satellite, seclusion through the crowded anonymity of a subway tunnel. The result is an impressively dense thicket of imagery, which functions as both analysis and tribute.
The City Below (Christoph Hochhäusler, Germany)
A tale of boardroom/bedroom intrigue set in a frosted glass world of towering skyscrapers and crystalline condos, Christoph Hochhäusler's film posits its well-heeled characters as mythological gods, lording over the distant world beneath them, while still plagued by their own intransigent foibles. In a story that more directly calls back to David and Bathsheba, corporate big-shot Roland Cordes (Robert Hunger-Bühler) falls for an employee’s wife, using his board of directors’ position, some sly double-dealing and a kidnapping at the company’s Indonesian branch to dump the inconvenient husband. This leaves enough room for him to swoop in, and the resulting arrangement, told through a procession of grim sex scenes, only avoids becoming tedious because Cordes is so unabashedly evil, manufacturing an entire underprivileged childhood to get what he wants. Up-to-the-moment concerns are touched upon, and Hochhäusler makes a lot of use of the perversely neat lines and sharp angles of the corporate demimonde, a mirror world which becomes shinier as it grows more corrupt. But the film never feels up to the task of depicting any actual status quo, a condition clearly identified by an abrupt last-minute descent into apocalyptic chaos.
Buenas noches, España (Raya Martin, Spain/Philippines)
A frenzied experiment chockablock with color filters, stuttering loops and distorted portraiture, Raya Martin’s new film is all about seeing and being seen, a self-obfuscating exercise that wilts purposefully under the continuous drone soundtrack. This makes for a long, insistently difficult 70 minutes, but there are rich ideas beneath this prankishness. Taking time to form a hypnotic rhythm, the director’s masterful expansion of one couple’s barebones journey, in which they watch TV, drive through the country and spend some time at a museum, slowly forms into a twisted madcap fugue. Following a creeping opening shot, which apparently culminates with the couple being swallowed by their television, the two are immersed in a constantly shifting, candy-colored world, which recalls (in the rare situation where this comparison is actually apt) an LSD trip. Maddeningly wacky sound effects undermine the action at every turn, while the lost woman they encounter in a field, the old paintings they struggle to understand in a Bilbao museum (by Filipino painter Juan Luna) and the source story of an apocryphal 16th century teleportation, suggests a focus on the disconnection between people and places, even in a world where such dividing lines may seem to have disappeared.
That Summer (Philippe Garrel, France/Switzerland/Italy)
Once again exploring the deep emotional furrows scoring the bourgeois landscape, Philippe Garrel’s That Summer is menaced by the same allure of inviolate darkness that dominated 2008’s Frontier of Dawn, drawing its characters toward death and destruction. Opening with a suicide attempt, then jumping backward to explain it, the film tells the story of Paul (Jérome Robart) and Élisabeth (Céline Sallette), whose budding romance gets sucked into the dying-star orbit of another couple. Frédéric (Louis Garrel) and Angèle (Monica Bellucci) are glamorous, a painter and an actress respectively, and their palatial house in Italy seems like the perfect place to wile away a summer, until their personal decay begins to spread. We witness as Paul disintegrates, his own dreams of painting waning, swallowed up the louche lifestyle of his reactionary playboy friend. But the main collision here is between two couples, one fresh-faced and full of life, the other dead-eyed and fading, and how those conflicting arcs play against each other. The film’s WWII motif, identified by an attempt to frame Nazi resistance/collusion as an analogue to present-day politics, is laid on a little thick, but it’s only a fragment of Garrel’s morbidly beautiful snapshot of the attitudes behind Europe’s current economic shambles.
Nana (Valérie Massadian, France)
Somewhere in the depths of my memory lurks a commercial aired during the late 80s, a simple scene that drove me to nightmares: a close-up of a seemingly carefree baby, which pulls back to reveal the child has been abandoned in an active waste dump, heavy trucks lumbering around it. Valérie Massadian’s Nana is the cinematic manifestation of this disturbing image, a pictorial horror tale suffused with a kind of Brothers Grimm style woodsiness. Three-year-old Nana goes off with her mother, settling in a simple forest cabin. When the woman disappears, the child takes over household duties, picking fruit, tending the fire and adopting a dead rabbit as a stuffed animal. It’s a tangential reimagining of an Émile Zola character, the eventual street waif who shows up at the end of L’Assommoir, a tale that plays out here in wide static shots, the child functioning as the focal point in a series of sinister dioramas. The entire thing feels pretty thin, even with the 68 minute runtime, but Massadian gently develops its rhythms, accreting details which pile up carefully within the frame, making for an eerie and enchanting little reverie.
It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve (Philippe Grandrieux, France)
Philippe Grandrieux’s oppressive style, a form of macro-cinema in which time and space are fluid entities, autumnal gloom is omnipresent, and the camera flutters moth-like about the borders of people’s bodies, has the potential for swallowing up any subject it takes on. So it’s interesting to see him approach touchy documentary subjects like this one, a living artist profile that might normally engender some distance and a light touch. In this case the focus is Japanese filmmaker / dissident Masao Adachi, a screenwriter known mostly for his work with Nagisa Oshima and Kōji Wakamatsu. He’s also a famous veteran of Japan’s United Red Army, one who eventually chose revolution over cinema, making Palestine-supporting propaganda films before disappearing into Lebanon for thirty years. Apparently the first part of a series of profiles, It May Be gives Adachi's story the full Grandrieux treatment, rendering down his regrets, hopes and explanations into a thick, syrupy narrative, often in the form of monologues layered over nighttime meanderings or distorted home-movie footage. The director’s attempts to confront this fellow radical end up as resolutely fraught as most of the inter-personal relationships in his fiction films, resulting in a tentative step toward understanding that’s menaced by differing customs, inexact interpreters and the always perilous gulf of history.
It’s the Earth, Not the Moon (Gonçalo Tocha, Portugal)
“We will film every face, every service, every house, every rock, every bird,” Gonçalo Tocha promises at the start of It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, as his boat approaches Corvo, the most remote island on the already isolated Azores chain. It’s a declaration that transforms everything that follows, the patchwork agglomeration of political races, christenings, theater blueprints and pig slaughters, from a mere cross-sectional document to an act of cultural consumption. Watching this three-hour documentary attempt to cover everything is like seeing a snake choke on its own prey, which may sound like an insult, but really points out Tocha’s awareness of the folly of his own attempt. Corvo may only have 400 something inhabitants, a few bars and two (or is it three?) coffeeshops, but as we see from repeated ship loading/unloading scenes and the tales of new immigrants who show up to make new lives, it’s still as indefinable of a place as any. The result is a thrumming collection of anecdotes, origin stories, gossip and local lore, which glom together to form a fragmented portrait of this otherwise desolate ocean-bound rock.
Ocaso (Theo Court, Chile)
Like one of Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas films on mute, Theo Court’s elegiac Ocaso wends its way through a slow procession of static shots—deep, protracted stares that soak the feeling from their fog-cloaked settings. Silent except for a brief monologue and a closing conversation, as well as some spare bits of diegetic radio chatter, the film follows an unnamed old man, with shaking hands and a slow gait, as he finishes his last day of work as a farm caretaker, made redundant by new methods and updated technology. Each long shot has the sense of a last look back, and the fading specter of the past is present everywhere, from eerie, crepuscular roadside trudges, dim fields cut through with magnificent evening light, to a retinue of crumbling old houses, as the man pays visits to old friends, looking for new work. There’s the feel of the world’s most cheerless children’s book, with one gloomy capsule situation after another, always ending with rejection. But something about Ocaso also feels mythological, a hopeless journey on the wrong side of death. A climactic transition to dusty black-and-white footage highlights the backward-listing eye of this ghostly tale of transition.
Without (Mark Jackson, USA)
Part Persona, part The Shining, Mark Jackson’s debut feature sticks 19-year-old Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen) on an isolated Washington island, where she’s charged with caring for a vegetative old man while his family heads off on vacation. Presenting its thematic concerns openly with the title, the film deals with loss in a variety of forms: grief, bodily decay and, above all, the deep emptiness the protagonist experiences after losing a direct connection with the rest of the world. The house has no internet service and only a TV programmed on the old man’s favorite fishing network, creating a void which drives her into an increasingly manic behavioral loop. With no companionship beyond her silent charge, Joslyn starts to lose it, exhibiting a thirst for attention which manifests itself in increasingly baroque expressions of boredom. It’s a relatively valid take on our current dependence on technology’s uniting/dividing power, but the thudding obviousness with which Jackson telegraphs his ideas, from the uninspired shallow focus cinematography to the painfully broad final scene, makes for a flat viewing experience.