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Cinema Scope, “Sweetgrass”

The Auteurs Daily


"One way of approaching Cinema Scope, to me," writes editor Mark Peranson, "is as a curated work that has always straddled the boundary between criticism and programming, attempting to provide an overview of a particular kind of contemporary cinema that is, by popular consensus, festival-based, and trying to guide readers through trends, and exposing them to films they might otherwise have ignored because the MSM (in Canada, at least) doesn't care." Issue 41 features a Spotlight on films that premiered at festivals in the fall of 2009. "True, much of this stuff may have zipped under the radar of rabid cinephiles who might have gorged on 40 or more films at TIFF or other festivals, but let me make a controversial statement: by and large, a film that most people have heard of is by its very nature less interesting than a film that only a few programmers or critics have seen. As Michael Haneke so wisely teaches us, the (film) environment is in a mostly toxic state."

Well, speaking of both the Toronto International Film Festival and Haneke, Andrew Tracy offers "some scraps from the Toronto table," that is, reviews that may look shortish all lined up on one page but are actually just as substantial as many I round up week in, week out. Tracy considers The White Ribbon, Claire Denis's White Material, Bong Joon-ho's Mother, Johnnie To's Vengeance and Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, also reviewed in this issue by Livia Bloom.

More roundups: Olaf Möller on books, this time primarily related to eastern European cinema, with another shout-out to Želimir Žilnik, "a pantheon auteur of mine: a maverick Marxist hell-bent on changing things through filmmaking"; and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who's just posted an interview he conducted with Béla Tarr in 2001 for Issue 8 of Cinema Scope, has more "Global Discoveries on DVD: Another Checklist."

Andréa Picard looks back on a summer exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, HF | RG (Harun Farocki | Rodney Graham): "Very much a dual(ling) retrospective of two of the world's leading artists, the exhibition was ambitious and sprawling, august in reach, if somewhat peculiar and confused in its ping-pong effect."

More reviews: Andrew Tracy on Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, Adam Nayman on Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, Richard Porton on Jacques Audiard's Un prophète, Mark Peranson on James Benning's Ruhr, which sees its US premiere at REDCAT in Los Angeles on January 11, Jerry White on Peter Mettler's Petropolis: Aerial Perpectives on the Alberta Tar Sands, "less an apocalyptic vision of environmental destruction than it is an exploration, a series of discoveries," Robert Koehler on Between Two Worlds, "Vimukthi Jayasundara's continued contemplation of the decades-long civil war that has ravaged his country of Sri Lanka, following his lucid and forthrightly unreal feature debut, The Forsaken Land (2004)," and Jon Davies on Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel's La Pivellina, "a modestly scaled but emotionally potent chronicle of love and kinship."

Michael Sicinski on Fantastic Mr Fox and Where the Wild Things Are: "[I]t takes nothing away from [Wes] Anderson's substantial and, at times, even staggering achievement to note that [Spike] Jonze's film has been largely misunderstood in comparison, and that both films can be quite productively understood within a broader social context.... [D]espite Anderson's clear triumphs, I would argue that Where the Wild Things Are is the more radical of the two films, due to the fact that Jonze and (hipster alert!) co-screenwriter Dave Eggers chose to zero in on Sendak's most enduring truth: childhood as a space of uncontrolled emotional danger, a makeshift field of creation and destruction."

"Mainland Chinese cinema discourse prefers the term zhuxuanlu film to propaganda film." Shelly Kraicer explains, and then: "A look at [Lu Chuan's] City of Life and Death's genre and narrative strategies can demonstrate its importance in helping to establish what I'd like to call a nascent post-zhuxuanlu cinema.... Far from creating a 'hard' propaganda film with stock Japanese monstrous villains and nobly suffering Chinese victim... City of Life and Death does the opposite. Its Japanese hero is a man with a conscience who undergoes a moral education while fighting for an evil cause. Its Chinese traitor lives in a moral grey area and is offered a Hollywood-style redemptive ending. Such changes, while leaving undisturbed the fundamental underpinnings of the zhuxuanlu film, recast it in a liberal-humanist mode."

Interviews: Jason Anderson talks with Serge Bromberg about Henri-George Clouzot's Inferno and Jay Kuehner talks with Lucien Castaing-Taylor about Sweetgrass, which, as it happens, opens for a two-week run at New York's Film Forum on Wednesday.

"Could it be that the great American film of the year is a painstaking documentary about... sheep?" asks Jay Kuehner. "The work of Harvard professors [Ilisa] Barbash and Castaing-Taylor - heretofore operating within the academic field of Visual Anthropology and Sensory Ethnography, as well as authoring texts on Transcultural Cinema - is informed with a sense of purpose that may seem anachronistic, even arch, by the slack standards that constitute a current film climate which privileges the sensational over the durational. Their work 'seeks to conjugate the ambiguity and provocations of art with a documentary attachment to the immediate flux of lived experience.' If conjugations of art and the immediacy of real life seem intuitively at cross purposes, then primary among Sweetgrass' manifold appeals is the means by which it effectively takes its thesis out to pasture, vulnerable to nature, attentively ambivalent toward its subjects and the landscape that sublimely holds and cruelly resists them. In spite of its unsentimental approach, this is an inevitable elegy intended for a theatrical audience, a film that may serve as a critical link yoking the formal rigour of James Benning and Jean Rouch to the dramatic allure of a Discovery Channel episode."

"Who would have thought it would take a formalist project about sheep to burrow so deeply into the secret sorrows of the working class?" asks Andrew Schenker at Artforum.

"As subcultural anthropology, it's unassailable," writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. "Yet the often ugly-looking DV aesthetic dilutes the cumulative effect."

Earlier: Reviews from the New York Film Festival.

Update, 1/4: "If veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman ever made a Western, I'm sure it would resemble Sweetgrass," writes Steve Erickson in Gay City News. "In many respects, the film hews to the rules established by 60s cinema verité. In fact, it goes further than many films from that period by throwing the spectator into an alien world without explaining any context.... Sweetgrass, however, also shows a self-conscious grasping for beauty that's alien to the cinema verité ethos."

Updates, 1/6: For Manohla Dargis, writing, of course, in the New York Times, Sweetgrass is "the first essential movie of this young year... Unlike most fiction cinema, nonfiction film is burdened by its relationship to the real, to the widely accepted, often underexamined idea that it is closer to the truth of existence, human relations and the world than, say, a Hollywood movie. (I think I hear Michael Moore laughing.) Yet, as the documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio (Point of Order) said, 'With any cut at all, objectivity fades away.' In Sweetgrass, a graceful and often moving meditation on a disappearing way of life, there is little here that is objective and much that is magnificent.

More from Melissa Anderson (Voice), Justin Stewart (L) and James van Maanen. Brandon Harris interviews Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash for Filmmaker; the directors are also guests on the Leonard Lopate Show.

Update, 1/7: "It's a pastoral wet dream of American splendor," writes Steve Dollar for Paste.

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