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Sophisticated Engineering

Exploring the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series “Friends with Benefits: An Anthology of Four New American Filmmakers.”
Taprobana
“These poets are so intelligent,” notes King Philip II of Spain toward the end of Gabriel Abrantes’ Taprobana (2014). “They put a sex scene in the end, and I forget I didn’t understand the rest. Such sophisticated engineering.” He’s talking about the Portuguese national epic Os Lusíadas, but he could as well be describing Abrantes’ eclectic body of work. The Lisbon-based filmmaker's steady output of avant-garde shorts holds together a chain of idiosyncratic filmmakers currently being feted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Friends with Benefits" series. Since 2007, Abrantes has matched an affinity for abstruse, looping narrative with a bawdy sense of humor. Although his work frequently draws on sources like Manet or Aristophanes, it’s never hindered by the dictates of good taste. Ribald slapstick abounds, for example, in the Shakespeare-derived frolic Fratelli (2011), which he co-directed with Alexandre Melo. The characters are earthy, their jokes puerile, and these traits carry over as well to the randy mountain travelers in Ennui ennui, Abrantes’ grating War on Terror satire.
Many of these shorts transpire against backdrops of sprawling, sun-dappled greenery. Such settings introduce grandeur to ignoble scenarios like the sex tourism in A History of Mutual Respect (2010) or the inheritance squabble in Palaces of Pity (2011), both made in collaboration with Daniel Schmidt. Each of these two films takes shape around a relationship: in the former, it’s the friendship between two men (played by the directors) together in the jungle; in the latter, two teenage girls vying for the estate of their late grandmother. The push and pull of rivalry and affection structure these collaborations. The same interpersonal forces are at play in The Unity of All Things (2013), Schmidt’s subsequent feature, which he co-directed with Alexander Carver. It’s less aggressive than Abrantes’ work. Bathed in soft blues and purples, it’s subdued, even soporific.
The film’s subject matter is nebulous, as it flits from one mystery to another, loosely mapping the sexual on top of the scientific. A physicist wanders desert caves, planning for the construction of a particle accelerator, while her two sons discover new, incestuous inclinations. A panther and a pit viper figure into the proceedings. Each member of the ensemble takes a turn speaking at length in an ethereal whisper about the secrets of the universe. The soundscape buzzes with insects and bird calls or roars with the pounding surf. Schmidt and Carver never explicitly tie all these pieces together, opting instead to gently lead the viewer through the plot with tantalizing sensory stimuli. This storytelling through implication makes The Unity of All Things a disorienting experience, occasionally frustrating but still never less than beguiling.
The Unity of All Things
Like The Unity of All Things, Abrantes’ early short Too Many Daddies, Mommies and Babies (2009) employs elements of science fiction as a means of untangling the bonds of family. This apocalyptic melodrama’s heroes are two men intent on raising a child together, even though it’ll require abandoning their research post in the dying rainforest. Despite running a mere 25 minutes, Too Many Daddies is chock-full of twists, which amp up the drama to the point of absurdity. The mood is further heightened by the choice to shoot entirely on snow-sprinkled sets drenched in Bava-esque red and green light; no sunlit outdoor expanses here. The artifice is yet more pronounced in Visionary Iraq (2009), which stars co-directors Abrantes and Benjamin Crotty as every member of a Portuguese family, including a son and daughter who’ve signed up for military service. They deliver their non sequitur-laced dialogue in stilted mumbles, foregrounding the story’s flimsiness.
Crotty’s most recent solo work, the feature-length Fort Buchanan (2014), expands on these shorts’ reimagining of tawdry family melodrama. Through four seasonal chapters, it details life at a rural outpost of the French military, where army wives and one lonely army husband work together to stave off tedium. The ensemble’s lustful misadventures tend toward laid-back comedy, but the jokes are bittersweet. Binding this community together is the knowledge that children come of age; marriages weaken and crack; and new life goes hand in hand with death. Fort Buchanan is the most mature and traditionally pleasurable outgrowth yet from this ring of promising filmmakers. Its championing of tight friendships rings especially true, too, given Crotty and his associates’ ethos of unabashed collaboration.

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