NYFF: Le Havre

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

The one modest issue I’ve had with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s more recent films (specifically, the ones he didn’t make with his former partner Marc Caro) is his revisionist aesthetic. Amélie is a well-crafted and moving portrayal of the world’s joys, but it comes at the expense of Jeunet’s team of eager geeks digitally erasing the Métro graffiti and anything remotely insalubrious. Micmacs is a great-looking celebration of misfits, but Jeunet required additional digital cleanup of Paris to meet the film’s ideological promise. Consider Elastic Girl, who performed much of her contortions without trickery, but required computers for her more physics-defying acts. You could argue that Jeunet was making a formalist argument that idealistic hopes come at a cost. If you want to maintain your sunny view of the human race, you’re going to have stop looking at the ugliness, perhaps erasing it from your life. Whether Jeunet will step up this moral argument for truly devastating effect in a future film is anyone’s guess.

But Aki Kaurismäki’s very charming Le Havre approaches this idea in the reverse, tinkering with the idea that our fantasies are more rooted in our heart, existing before we can sculpt them into visual submission. The film uses 20th century aesthetics and values to get at the 21st century French problem of immigration. It is populated by several graying humanists (many working-class), whose collective efforts to help a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) make it to London before the immigration authorities deport him, cause them to put aside their grievances with a shoeshiner for the greater good. Is this not a fantasy? Kaurismäki certainly suggests that it may be. His style, unlike Jeunet’s, feels more like an analog reconstruction from the guts of reality and other films, rather than one whitewashed by digital effects. When a couple talks out their past problems for a “trendy charity concert,” Kaurismäki raises a Sirkian spotlight as they reunite. The lush orchestral cue that follows sounds like something that might have accompanied Rock Hudson’s gentle gardener looking with longing towards Jane Wyman. Yet somehow this moment doesn’t feel kitschy, because Kaurismäki is careful to measure out his stylistic influences (Bresson, Melville, and more) without stifling the evolving life of his characters.

If humor is the true wisdom which unravels how we interact with each other, then it’s contained amply in Kaurismäki’s protagonist Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a one-time Bohemian who gave up his artistic ambitions to become a shoeshiner. Our early moments with Marcel -– accompanied by his fellow scrubber Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen) –- see his gaze hitting the ground seeking fresh feet, acerbically remarking on an unexpected death, and contending with the cries of shoe store managers who tell him to get lost when he sets up shop outside, hoping to bag some foot traffic. It becomes clear that Marcel dearly loves his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen), who is suffering from some unknown ailment. Most of his hard-won money is confiscated not long after he walks through the front door. You might almost say that the Marx house is also a fantasy. Even accounting for French social programs, what struggling shoeshiner could afford this marvelous place? The house contains plentiful 20th century appliances, smooth hunter green walls, a welcoming picket fence, and a friendly dog.

But if this is a homespun fantasy, the fantasy also includes the tradeoffs of life. Arletty has to stay in the hospital, begging the doctor not to fess the affliction to her husband (the doctor asks if this means he’s a politician), and Marcel devotes his attentions to helping Idrissa. This becomes a purely altruistic concern: Marcel mines from his hard-earned savings and even visits one of Idrissa’s relatives in Calais. Yet the hysteria surrounding the missing boy is almost phantasmagorical (a newspaper headline shouts that the immigrants may be part of al-Qaeda), leading one to wonder where the reality ends and the fantasy begins. We see the boy always wearing a sweater featuring red diamonds, mimicking the recently adopted Red Crystal adopted by the Red Cross, and we begin to wonder the extent to which this story represents wish fulfillment. Caring for others is certainly part of being a humanist, a duty that any good soul cannot escape. Why then does Kaurismäki portray so many unseen Frenchmen (a prefect, a man who rats out Marcel by phone) so committed to doing the opposite? Are there darker wishes competing with the more noble ones? Undoubtedly.

Many of the colorful side characters suggest that it’s not so much the distinction between reality and fantasy that matters so much as paying attention to others. This is a film where we get to overhear two burly regulars at the cafe discuss the proper way to make scallops. There’s Inspector Monet – a beak-nosed man with a minatory moustache and the kind of sideburns and hat that don’t belong on a man with such a fleshy head – talking about the downside of being a cop, namely that people are likely to hate you for doing your job even when they need you. (I can’t possibly give away what Monet eventually does, but Kaurismäki is a sharp enough director to play against my distinctions.)

Initiative may also be the secret ingredient. There’s one great moment where Marcel shows up at a refugee center and boldly announces that he is the only albino in the clan. He claims to be a journalist and a lawyer, and further remarks that he has recorded the entire conversation.

Yet if Le Havre suggests that pretense may cause one to overlook the scummier qualities of other human beings, it manages to transcend these sprightly concerns and the cinematic homages because of its happy ending, which imputes that the occasional need for a blinkered fantasy carries possible dangers. But Kaurismäki isn’t condescending about this dilemma. In not pursuing the vivacious caricatures favored by Jeunet, Kaurismäki may have discovered greater wisdom in sticking with the more subtle, the more noble, the more human: the very real reasons why good souls stay alive.

NYFF: The Loneliest Planet

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Narratives which involve affluent English-speaking types venturing into foreign terrain in order to find themseleves are only as good as Paul Bowles’s inevitable yardstick. The Sheltering Sky is, despite my qualms, arguably the definitive novel on the subject. One senses that writer-director Julia Loktev, in naming her film The Loneliest Planet, is aware of this inevitable comparative point. It is worth observing that her cinematographer Inti Briones is fond of pointing the camera down — that is, when he has actual light to work with. Loktev has also given her couple two pairs of green pants — the better to camouflage their spindly legs into the surrounding territory.

Loktev does have the benefit of a Tom Bissell story (“Expensive Trips Nowhere,” contained in God Lives in St. Petersburg) as her source material. But in seeking her own spin, Loktev demonstrates a diffidence when it comes to character motivation. This is somewhat troubling, given the way finances and togetherness (or the lack thereof) are vital parts of Bissell’s story. The film is, however, concerned superficially with the Georgian terrain. And that’s just as it should be for a film trying to mine deep into, well, whatever happens to exist before the camera, which serves as the primary creative motivation here.

Other reviewers — including one from Variety — have called these characters “hipsters.” But I suspect these writers, looking for any noun in the air in their desperate efforts to summarize a lightweight, largely unconsidered, and fairly unrevealing film, haven’t experienced the tangible terrors that I have. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) may be quite thin and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) may be bearded (Alex even promises to shave the beard off later: this is not a pledge you get very often in Williamsburg). But these two aren’t any more or less obnoxious than most Americans. Nor are they especially vegan or passive. As someone who has a great deal of hostility for a certain type of extreme layabout, I can report that I did not want to kill Nica or Alex at any point during this movie. On the other hand, I didn’t especially care about what happened to them.

But Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), the guide who proves to have more than Georgia on his mind, did interest me — even as Loktev was more concerned with capturing her characters as specks traversing vast vistas (complete with the music cues turning on and off with the cuts to these long takes). He seems to put up with more than he should, including having to sing “Meow meow meow” in response to an especially superficial song.

I should probably point out that the film’s early moments (along with many other night scenes involving a flashlight) demonstrate a partial commitment to the hidden and the cluelessly jaunty: a flapping blanket hiding domestic tranquility, the happy couple hanging off a bus’s rail like monkeys, Nica licking Alex’s cheek as they take a snapshot against a mountain. But that’s about as close as the film gets to Bowles’s tourist vs. traveler distinction.* The film isn’t especially interested in explanations, but it is ballsy enough to elide subtitles. Which means that the audience is as much of a tourist as this couple. This serves as a great advantage when three locals show up and point a rifle at Alex’s head, especially since his first impulse is to hide behind Nica (only to try rescinding this gaffe by squeezing in front of Nica and standing before the rifle). You’d think that such a lousy move would cause strife. Or at least some wilderness equivalent to sleeping in the couch. But it’s never mentioned again.

This incident, along with several minor moments that follow (mostly involving this trio trudging through terrain, all as lonely as their backpacks), suggests that this union has trouble in paradise. When Nica offers Dato a kiss on the cheek, shortly after he has confessed that he has not been with a woman in five years, Dato takes swift advantage, his tongue speaking a gestural language associated with that country presently banning street prayer and his finger clambering inside a joyful jackpot. Be careful what you wish for.

Like the man with the gun, this near adulterous episode isn’t brought up again. And I suspect this has something to do with Loktev’s misunderstanding of Bissell’s story. During the press conference (audio of which can be listened to below), it was revealed that an early version of the script was only 45 pages and that Loktov loathed writing. To add insult to injury, none of the assembled trio on stage –- Loktev, Furstenberg, and the somewhat smug Richard Peña -– were especially interested in mentioning Bissell’s name. Furstenburg referred to the film as “Julia’s story.”

I was forced to ask Loktev a question (which you can hear around the 17 minute mark). Notice how Peña undermines the issue by not mentioning Bissell’s name.

Correspondent: There was mention earlier of a 45 minute script. And you mentioned earlier, Julia, that you detest writing. I’m wondering why you didn’t reach out to any other writer — like, say, Tom Bissell? Did you make any efforts to work with him?

Peña: The question is whether or not, since you say you don’t like writing, whether you ever thought about working with a writer, perhaps the author of the short story or someone else.

Loktev: No. I mean, for me, it was a matter of taking what I was interested in from the short story and writing from there. I said a little bit in jest that I don’t like writing in the sense that I don’t aspire to be a novelist. But, for me, the script — actually, I think it was about 30 pages. But, you know, the lines were all in there. The funny thing is that the lines were all in the script more or less. They just weren’t indented. This is the thing that people kind of — I find it very strange. People always say, “You don’t have a script that was the same with Day Night Day Night.” And I’m like, “It’s only because the lines are in the middle of the paragraph. And they’re not indented like they are in the normal scripts.” And when so much of the film takes place in silence, some of those things are very precisely described in what I write. Like I will describe the movement of a hand. And it’s that precisely outlined, you know. I didn’t want more dialogue than that.

In considering this transformation from “Tom Bissell” to “the author of the short story” to “taking what I was interested in,” I was led by chance into a pleasant email volley with Tom Bissell. Bissell assured me that Loktev was very up front about modifying much of the story. He reported that his interactions with Loktev were friendly and professional, very much in the “go ahead and run with it” mode. But the question that’s still nagging at me is whether or not Loktev’s film transforms the material sufficiently enough to warrant the praise. Because what I saw on Monday morning was a fairly ho-hum narrative devoid of the human context that’s there in Bissell’s story. And if I have to play favorites, then I’d rather go with the artist who knows what he’s writing rather than the one who’s about as committed to the human condition as, well, a ditzy hipster who doesn’t have the guts to put herself on the line.

* “[A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” — The Sheltering Sky

NYFF 2011: The Loneliest Planet Press Conference (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Woman with Red Hair (1979)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

In considering the trashy pink film Woman with Red Hair, I must first ruminate upon the film’s commitment to verisimilitude, as well as its intricate moral framework. A young woman casually loses her virginity during a gang rape, becomes pregnant, and uses this as leverage to snag one of the two strapping young attackers – an unnamed jerk who often wears a blue headband – as her husband. This magnificent pillar to manhood has an equally upstanding companion with Kozo (Renji Ishibasi), who enjoys smiling smugly for the camera when not sexually humiliating the titular woman with red hair (Junko Miyashita), whose ass is often deliberately positioned to undulate before the audience. It is a tribute to this film’s hypnotic hypocrisy that, as Kozo forces the woman with the red hair to take his cock into her mouth, an oppressive black rectangle appears on the right side of the frame, with Miyashita’s legs flailing behind it. Despite this film’s firm commitment to debasing women (one charming ditty that the two men croon contains the lyric “She’ll say no when she means yes”), in 1979, it lacks the authority to show pussy.

We are informed that the young married couple living downstairs are junkies, but our only indication of their drug use is through their screechy wails (compared later in the film to a pig), leaving one to wonder if they are in a permanent state of withdrawal or if they represent some more enlightened viewer having to contend with this plodding movie, selected as part of a Nikkatsu celebration for the 49th New York Film Festival. In the middle of wanton carnality, our ruddy-maned heroine casually asks, “Ever try heroin?” While the two strapping young creeps talk to their boss about their special driving skills and discuss whether or not they need licenses, a young woman stands outside in the rain, a testament to their chivalry. She enters the room not long after, only to be slapped repeatedly. The woman with red hair alludes to having two young children, yet like the track marks and heroin supply downstairs, they remain unseen. In another episode, a somewhat older woman remembers a “foam dance,” which involves lathering yourself up with soap and gyrating upon a inflatable mattress next to a tub. Just wait for your husband (or really, given this film’s outlook, any man) to arrive and he’ll start schtupping you.

My favorite part of Woman with Red Hair was when Kozo, letting his pummeled paramour fuck another man, walks out into the pouring rain and starts jerking off in an alley. Why? Well, you see, he’s so turned on by the prospect of another man banging the woman he’s with that he just can’t wait to shoot his load. Alas, Kozo is interrupted in his perfervid pumping by a man (presumably, the pink film’s idea of comic relief) who asks him for some spare yen so that he can fuel his alcoholism. And because his request is understandably denied under the circumstances, he somehow accompanies Kozo to another apartment, where Kozo drinks and fucks another woman and the alcoholic remains plastered beneath him.

Welcome to the wacky worldview of filmmaker Tatsumi Kumashiro, who also gave us 1988’s Love Bites Back (but do the “victims” deserve it?), 1986’s Women Who Do Not Divorce (does that mean the women who do divorce shouldn’t be bothered with?), and two films in 1973 with “wet” in the title. Woman with Red Hair was one of the more acclaimed films of the Roman Porno line commissioned by Nikkatsu. In 1971, the revered Japanese studio faced bankruptcy and had switched from action movies and blockbusters to softcore films in a desperate effort to remain financially viable. (To give you a sense of how drastic this decision was, imagine if Paramount or Warner Brothers decided to start making softcore movies instead of Hollywood blockbusters.)

But Woman with Red Hair, despite ample justification by Japanese film buffs, is hardly In the Realm of the Senses. Most of its long stretches are dreadfully banal. Conversation about getting a new gas heater and the price of eggs at the local supermarket sounds like blue-collar authenticity, until you realize that it doesn’t actually articulate anything about the characters or their culture. So you’re left to rue upon why so many people are interested in red penises (and why one man in this film is fond of muddying his member with red lipstick). When the closing credits rolled, I was stunned to learn that Woman with Red Hair was based on a novel by Japanese intellectual Kenji Nakagami. And while there’s a definite working-class thrust to the film (workers become violent and sexual when they are not permitted work), I didn’t feel that the film presented any sexual subversiveness on the level with Lina Wurtmuller or early Almodovar. Once you confront the atavistic imagery, you’re left with a fairly pedestrian and toothless flick that no amount of metaphorical rain can flush into a meaningful realm.

The Bat Segundo Show: Joe Dante

Joe Dante appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #359. He is most recently the director of The Hole.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Doing his best not to feed Mr. Dante after midnight or before 10:10 AM on October 10, 2010.

Guest: Joe Dante

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I want to talk about the inside jokes. There are a few in The Hole. I noticed the yellow smiley face from The Howling in the background at one point. But it seemed to me that you were almost dialing down the inside jokes within the shots with this movie.

Dante: I did. Because, at heart, it’s kind of a sad movie, if you think about it. When you find out what’s in the hole, it’s much more melodramatic and personal than you would expect. It’s not little monsters coming out. And so the tone of the movie, it’s a little tricky to do a lot of those nudge nudge wink wink things, which I learned early on in my career. That you can’t do things at the expense of people who don’t know what you’re talking about. In The Howling, I had a scene in which Roger Corman looks for a dime in a phone booth. And it was funny to people who knew Roger. But when people didn’t know Roger, it was like, “Well, the scene is over. Why are you lingering on this extra piece? Because it didn’t mean anything to me.” And I realized that you can’t do that. You have to play within the rules. And if you do something that’s off the point, it should be done as an aside or in the background or as a tail — so that people maybe notice the second time when they see the picture.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. You’re talking about a lingering moment. And this leads me to wonder if it’s more difficult these days — not just from a financial standpoint, but also from an aesthetic standpoint — for you to convince a producer to give you work. Because your movies do, in fact, linger on that beat. Like that Corman moment in The Howling you were just mentioning. I even watched your episode of CSI out of morbid curiosity, and I’m seeing all these really great Dante master shots that unfortunately are being butchered by the crazy editing that goes on with that show. So the question is: How can a guy like you, who is extremely skillful with these Panavision-like shots, the 70mm that you did in Explorers and the like — I mean, is this more of a tougher sell?

Dante: It’s not a tough sell. People hire me for various reasons. But when you sign on to do a TV series, you must adopt the style of the TV series. Now I can shoot the stuff any way I want. But I know that in TV, you do your cutting. You hand it in. And then you see it on TV. And it’s always different. Because the show runners come in. And they change it to the style that they prefer. So you shoot a lot of long takes. But you just have to give them enough material for them to turn it into what they want. It’s never an expressive job. You don’t really feel you’re putting yourself into it. Although as much as I could, I stuck myself into it. And I stuck people who were familiar to working with me in the show. And it was, I think, a little bit different. A little bit offbeat from the usual episodes of the show. But the problem with doing a show like that, there’s an overarching storyline that happened before you came and that’s going to continue after you’re gone. So there’s really not a lot of space for you to insert yourself. Because you’re doing a job of work. And you’re not the auteur of the show. The auteur of the show is the writers. Because they’re the ones who are mapping out this entire scenario. The great thing is if you can get in on the ground floor and get in on the pilot.

Correspondent: Yes.

Dante: If you do the pilot for the show, which I did for Eerie, Indiana, then you get to not only choose the cast.

Correspondent: You set the aesthetics.

Dante: You set the aesthetic and you get to influence the way the stories go and which direction they go. And even sometimes who’s hired to direct them. So that’s very creative and interesting and fulfilling. Doing one-offs is financially rewarding and a chance to work with a lot of talented people that you probably wouldn’t get to see otherwise. But it’s never like making a feature. It’s never like saying, “Okay, this is my movie.” And that’s why I prefer on TV to do anthology shows. Because it’s much more like doing a short film than it is to coming in and doing it. Illustrating an episode of somebody’s series.

Correspondent: Is it also a way of staying in shape so you don’t atrophy?

Dante: Well, it’s also a way of paying the mortgage.

Correspondent: (laughs) That’s true. That’s really the reason you did the CSI: New York episode.

Dante: Uh, I did it because it would be fun. But also, yeah, I did it because I wasn’t working. The great thing about Eerie, Indiana was that if I was going a feature, I could do that. I could go away and then do more Eerie, Indianas. But then it went off the air. And then I couldn’t do that anymore. So the trick is to try and find a way to keep yourself employed that doesn’t turn you into a hack. Basically. I mean, I always try and do things that — for movies, my yardstick is I don’t make movies that I wouldn’t go see. And I think if more people did that, we’d have better movies.

The Bat Segundo Show #359: Joe Dante (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Another Year

[This is the tenth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“I’m concerned in making films that talk to people. Like anybody, I only want to talk to anybody who wants to listen, who wants to know, who wants to share, or have a conversation with me, as it were. I can’t deal with the kind of media-obsessed, decadent position that can’t decode the film for what it actually is. Which is to say an open, honest look at real people and how real people are, with their needs and all their vulnerabilities. Warts and all. If you can’t embrace that, then go away basically. You’re quoting people at Cannes. Journalists, no doubt, who say that these are people I wouldn’t want to meet at a cocktail party. Well, you know, you’re not going to meet these people at a cocktail party. Clear off to the cocktail party and don’t worry about this sort of film. Because you’re not interested basically. And if people are not interested, I can’t do anything about it.” — Mike Leigh, in a soon-to-be-aired Bat Segundo interview conducted on October 4, 2010

It is a ubiquitous truth that distinctive art often polarizes. But Mike Leigh’s films often cause some of the more catholic critics to reveal their unadventurous sensibilities. (One of Leigh’s masterpieces, Naked, was, by way of depicting particularly nasty behavior, declared misogynist.) While there’s nothing wrong with responding to a movie like one of Harry Harlow’s monkeys from time to time, a cinema intake composed of nothing more than genetically modified bananas will inevitably cause an otherwise sound mind to bray for his cloth mother.

Yes, I’m a Mike Leigh fan, but not slavishly so. Topsy-Turvy is overlong, but quite admirable in its historical ambition. (And it was absolutely the film Leigh needed to make to get to his next “historical” film, Vera Drake, which is one of his masterpieces.) Secrets & Lies, for all of its brilliance, resolves too tidily. I’ll take Abigail’s Party over Life is Sweet, even though I revere both flicks (and enjoy Alison Steadman in both). But aside from these very minor complaints, Leigh’s characters — whether you like them or not — may be more realized than those of nearly any other living filmmaker.

As Leigh’s films have defiantly chronicled the human in an age more concerned with calculating clinging, certain critics have revealed their not so closeted misanthropy — in other words, an innate disposition towards an unchallenging and predictable type of film.

Yes, Mike Leigh’s latest film, Another Year, features a very sad and troubling character clinquant in dimension played by Lesley Manville. The cookie-cutter protagonists and antagonists you asked for are available at the multiplex, thank you very much.

But I’m convinced that Another Year‘s mixed reception at Cannes (alas, a few rumblings were overheard in the Walter Reade Theater) can be squarely divided between those who are interested in life and those who are not. For Another Year dares to show several sides to kindness, a topic that has been very much at the forefront of Leigh’s films since Vera Drake. Leigh seems to share the sentiment behind Kurt Vonnegut’s famous declaration from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” But he’s also smart enough to understand that societal forces threaten to crush this human spirit. Thus, housekeeper Vera Drake sees her illegal abortions as an act of kindness (and receives no pay for this) and is almost incapable of perceiving her actions as wrong, even as her family and others attempt to explain why she’s in such trouble. Merciless government permanently transforms her. Happy-Go-Lucky, by contrast, sees a very happy character, Poppy, finding her natural temperament tested — particularly, by a humorless driving instructor — and is, even at film’s end, asked not to be so nice (or kind) to everyone. She defies this. And in Another Year — the first of Leigh’s films to be squeezed into a yearlong sectional narrative (although certainly not the first to concern itself with cyclical behavior) — the human spirit’s effort to flourish is very much determined by vocational expectations. (And, as my moviegoing companion and I agreed, one minute of Another Year contains more understanding of people than the whole of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.)

But let’s first consider the naysayers (with much gratitude to David Hudson for rounding them all up). The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ray Bennett complained that most of the film’s characters would be the type “whom you would go out of your way to avoid at a party.” Time‘s Mary Corliss offered similar sentiments: “All the actors make the most of their time before the camera; eventually a plot emerges and a narrative crescendo is reached. It’s real life, processed for the cinema in Leigh’s practiced style. But the real life it simulates is too often that of an evening that turns into an endless night with friends one wishes might just get their coats and get out.” Never mind that Bennett and Corliss fail to see certain advantages to “meeting” such apparently unpleasant people on film. Yes, they rightly compare Leigh’s film to a cocktail party, but they don’t seem to understand that a forty foot screen protects them from social immersion. The audience is not chatting up these characters, but Leigh presents them so vividly (the final look on one character at the end of a long dolly shot, Manville’s masterful head and shoulder bobbing as Mary, a widower’s laconic vernacular and the look in his eyes as he observes the madness around him; to cite just three) that it is nearly impossible not to lose yourself (as my moviegoing companion and I did, sitting still and mesmerized for 129 minutes) and feel that You Are There. And the idea of going to a movie, whether for entertainment and enlightenment, to have your worldview confirmed strikes me as antithetical to existence — diametrically opposed to why any enthusiast soaks up culture. In other words, why did these critics bother to go to Cannes anyway?

And then there’s Todd McCarthy’s schematic assessment via blog: “For me the film is obvious, schematic and lacking in interesting undercurrents or subtext.” Never mind that McCarthy is unwilling to describe what precisely that “obvious” and “schematic” perception is. But thankfully, his tepid criticism can be easily rejoined by what is contained within the movie.

You cannot call Another Year‘s Tom and Gerri “obvious” and “schematic,” because, despite the fact that this couple is somewhat privileged (an apparently stable marriage, reliable middle-class income from geologist Tom and counselor Gerri, a garden allotment, and so forth) and permits maladjusted people into their home with a kind of liberal guilt and empathy that may not be entirely reconciled, they do not offer any defense when friends ridicule Mary (over the fact that she doesn’t know the precise engine type in the used car she has just purchased). Gerri, despite being trained to recognize a narcissist, nevertheless permits Mary to crash into her family home with the same shaky skill she has behind the steering wheel. And when there is the inevitable skirmish during the autumn, Gerri still waits until the winter to state, “You have to take responsibility for your own actions.” Which is something she has been meaning to say all along. There’s also something slightly predatory about the way Tom and Gerri invite friends who are less successful than they are into their house, such as their old portly friend Ken, who appears in the summer, but is a few beers short of a cardiac arrest. Yet Ken, despite being lonely and unhappy, has refused retirement. He is content to “eat, drink, and be merry,” but, from the vantage point of Tom and Gerri, he is “better” than Mary by way of remaining employed in a more lucrative job. (Mary toils as a secretary; interestingly enough, at the same workplace as Gerri. When Gerri invites her for a drink, Mary says that she has only an hour to spare — the exact amount of time that she would devote to a patient) One is left wondering whether Ken would be in worse mental shape, were he to be toiling in a similar position as Mary. (In an ironic bit of casting, no doubt entirely unintentional, Leigh has cast Peter Wight as Ken. Wight played the security guard in Naked, who urged Johnny not to waste his life.)

Aside from this intriguing relationship between happiness and class, there is also Janet (played by Vera Drake lead Imelda Staunton), who appears at film’s beginning (in spring). She is a cautionary character and, if we are to look at Another Year as a cycle, she represents what Mary may very well transform into. Janet is depressed. She cannot sleep. She rates herself 1 on a scale of 1 to 10 on how she feels. And when we are first introduced to her, the camera initially concentrates on little else but Janet’s face. We gradually see more of the doctor who is treating her, and the first detail we notice is that the doctor is pregnant. Thus, Janet (like Mary) is very much consumed by her own internal world. Does society then have a duty to treat people like Janet and Mary? Is it “kinder” to retreat from miserable people (as the above mentioned critics clearly have) or to let them into your home with the hope that your kindness will help them figure life out?

Since this is a Mike Leigh film, there aren’t any easy answers. But the film’s commitment to such concerns is a much needed reminder for any humanist, whether lapsed or well-practiced. Another Year, like the best of Leigh’s films, is very much a Rorschach test. It will be appreciated and understood and felt by anyone who understands that even the unpleasant and the marginalized have souls. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this considerably embedded masterpiece, but it’s definitely one of the year’s best films. And I’ll probably have another go at it just before release date. Anyone who compares Another Year to “an endless night” probably doesn’t have the guts to leave her cloistered comfort zone.

NYFF: Foreign Parts

[This is the seventh in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

The Willets Point area is a haven for Mets fans, its rich spectrum reduced to a superficial stop on the 7 train or a distant speck from an ignored window just before the touchdown at LaGuardia. But for those who toil in the salvaging yards, and who continue to fight for the right to maintain a livelihood, the Iron Triangle is a vital community where a sexagenarian native lives with a blunt enthusiast who is overly familiar with the hoosegow. The native takes the time to observe the sparrows that return every May, defying the waste, the uncharted museums of car parts, and the steadfast flooding that comes with the rain’s brutal pounding into the pocks. The blunt enthusiast lacks money, but cannot offer a reliable explanation as to where his drugs from. Meanwhile, seemingly wiser and truly unsympathetic city forces rush to “redevelop” and “renew,” without bothering to communicate their half-made plans to those trying to subsist at the other end of the bulldozers.

Such is the perfectly sensible worldview promulgated by Foreign Parts, a mostly engaging picture that invites comparisons to Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop. This documentary was shot by a pair of Harvard anthropologists named Verena Paravel and JP Sniadecki, and it deserves both a distributor (for how else will the film’s subjects find an audience?) and a few criticisms. For while Foreign Parts does a fair job at portraying life without commentary, it doesn’t give an outside observer the full picture of Bloomberg’s avaricious intent until the very end – a rather strange choice, considering its obvious though admittedly mild subjective position.

The first twenty minutes are something of a visual essay, with subway trains and planes reflected in mucky puddles, cars gutted and thrown onto their sides like corpses, and ripped off rear view mirrors dangling as surrogate vanities. But when the people photographed start to speak at roughly the twenty minute mark, the two anthropologists-turned-filmmakers — despite their efforts to capture bistec barbeques (with the striking juxtaposition of a spare steak accidentally thrown atop a wrench), gritty locals dancing without apology in diners and around gutted engines, and a good deal of hustling – reveal their conspicuously Anglo-Saxon approach. Which is to say that Paravel and Sniadecki prefer to talk to people who speak English – “the only white girl in the junkyard” and so forth – instead of those who speak Spanish. While these subjects are certainly interesting (one late middle-aged man shouting in the streets, directing approaching cars to those who have the parts, could almost be confused with Bruce Willis), this seems a glaring and elitist omission for a community in which 80% of the people don’t speak a word of English. This divide is perhaps best epitomized by one lengthy take of a Hispanic parts-gutter rattling off the names of automobile brands. I kept wishing that the filmmakers possessed the humility to learn some Spanish, hire an interpreter, or figure out a more effective way to flesh out this man’s story. Surely he is more than the sum of his parts.

But the filmmakers are somewhat recused by their good intentions. It’s very clear that the final result comes from a place of passion. Yes, the duo isn’t particularly street smart. They are easily fooled by the performances of two men engaged in some male swagger over drug habits. (A discussion relating to this “performance” point was brought up during the press conference, which you can listen to below in audio form. It starts around the 19:18 mark, with Paravel talking about the difficulties of “penetrating the space” and “giving equal parts to the human being.”) But they do talk to those who shiver in vans during the winter. And they are good enough to not invade the space of a smiling and diminutive woman with a slur, who is a quiet but friendly presence among the neighborhood and who proudly declares why these are “her people,” but who doesn’t entirely impart her life history. And there is one very pleasant shot where the camera almost dances with this woman. It’s a nice invitational nod to the audience to pay attention.

Yet a documentary that concerns itself with the outskirts of life has the obligation to make more concrete connections to its privileged audience. The film snobs who tend to flock to movies like this often fail to understand that twelve George Washingtons represents a good deal of green. And I greatly wished that Foreign Parts had been strong enough to force some of these contemptuous assholes to understand that the Willets Point scenario sees callous greed paving over the working poor, that lives are now being crushed, and that souls are being left behind in the Almighty Dollar’s cold shadow. In the end, the people who will see Foreign Parts will walk out of the theater and spend the next hour talking over wine and cheese and confirming how “enlightened” they are. And eventually they’ll forget about the people who live in Willets Point. I’d curse the filmmakers for keeping a vital story so tepid, but then people who have rarely known a day without a hot meal and who rarely speak outside of theoretical vernacular often don’t know any better.

NYFF: Foreign Parts Press Conference (Download MP3)

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NYFF: The Social Network Press Conference

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“It’s fundamentally the same application for myself. It became clear to me after my first reading of the script that, uh, there was going to be, uh, the version of this person, my character in the film, that he wasn’t sort of the hero, so to speak. And, but, no one sits behind a – you know, I obviously, I’m not, you never play anything sitting behind a laptop, you know, twirling your moustache. I think that, like Jesse said, it doesn’t matter – that’s the beauty of this film to me. Uh, just that you really get to pick, uh, sort of who you side with. And I had a friend who recently screened the film and said to me, I thought it was really telling things, as soon as he walked out, he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with anyone in this movie. But I don’t disagree with this movie.’ Speaking about all the characters, I think that’s what, what kind of makes the dynamic of these three characters tick. But, uh, I feel like you defend your character. No one believes what they’re doing is wrong in life and, and, and so I feel like….”

The above incoherence, which demands a sentence diagramming army led by a Patton-like grammarian, did not come from Sarah Palin. These words were uttered by Justin Timberlake on Friday morning, who appeared at the Social Network press conference in dorky eyeglasses (prescription or ironic aesthetic?) and didn’t seem to understand that, for once, the event didn’t center around him.

“I feel like you’re looking at me,” said Timberlake after Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield had offered thoughtful remarks on how they felt empathy for the real-life figures they were playing, “and you want me to add what they said as well. I also have empathy for other human beings, thank you.”

It is safe to say that a man who is set to turn thirty in a few months — indeed, one who has been at the receiving end of several hundred interviews — should have a better ability to speak. But as both the film and the press conference demonstrated, Timberlake is at his best when he is given lines to recite or rudimentary causes to champion.

“I don’t have a personal Facebook page,” said Timberlake later, when a reporter asked all on stage (save moderator Todd McCarthy) about their Facebook presence. “But it is nice to know that, through the world of philanthropy, for instance, that you can send out a message and, for instance, raise money for free health care for kids. I mean, it’s a fantastic thing.”

“I’ve heard of Facebook the way I’ve heard of the carburetor,” answered screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “but I can’t pop the hood of my car, point to it, and tell you what it does.”

Indeed, the presence of Sorkin at one end of the stage and Timberlake at the other suggested a deliberately arranged spectrum of intellect. Perhaps an inside joke from the fine folks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But that speculation wouldn’t be fair to the three men sitting in the middle (much less Todd McCarthy, sitting to Sorkin’s right): respectively, Fincher, Eisenberg, and Garfield.

On playing Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Garfield noted that Saverin seemed “warm, yet kind of reserved.” There was very little documentation to go on, which granted Garfield some wiggle room to invent.

“I had minimal to go from,” said Garfield, “which was actually quite liberating. Even though I did try to find him in a very obtuse and uncommitted way. But it would have been really interesting. Because, of course, if you’re playing someone who really exists, and who is living and breathing somewhere, you kind of feel a massive sense of responsibility to not ruin them on screen. Because we’re all human.”

Eisenberg confessed that he had developed a greater affection for Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg while doing press for The Social Network.

“You have no choice,” he explained. “It’s impossible to disagree with a character that you’re portraying. We shot the movie for about five and a half months. And they were very long days. And you’re spending a lot of time working to defend your character’s behavior. So even if the character is acting in a way that hurts other characters, you still have to understand and ultimately sympathize with that character. It’s impossible to play it any other way.”

Sorkin stated that he didn’t think his script was about Facebook, pointing out that he “thought it was a movie that has themes as old as storytelling itself.” He then compared his work to Chayefsky, Shakespeare, and Aeschylus, pointing out that he hoped the deal with friendship, loyalty, and class – the same themes that these masters did. “Luckily for me, none of these people were available. So I got to write about it.”

Fincher viewed The Social Network as an opportunity to dial his pyrotechnic style down.

“There’s no problem in sublimating your desire to show off if what you’re presenting is something that you think is going to take,” said Fincher. “I mean, originally, the script began. It was in black. And you hear the voices over the black. And I kind of wondered, well, why don’t we just see the Columbia logo and start hearing them then? And hear the jukebox and hear all the people talking and let people know, ‘Pin your ears back, man. You got to pay attention.’ Because if we can start over the trailers of other movies, that’s what I want. And at one point, we talked about the notion of putting the credits over that opening scene. So it was like jukebox, cacophony, people, burger plates, two people talking over each other, and unit production manager. Information overload.”

Technology, for Fincher, represented the double-edged sword of “more options” for today’s filmmakers. He noted that a regatta sequence that appears midway through the film, containing approximately 100 CGI environmental shots, was shot on July 4th. This was less than two months before Fincher needed to have the movie locked for prints.

“The way we make movies has changed radically in the last ten years,” said Fincher. “I mean, I’m able to be in two or three different places at once. I have video tests of rehearsals that are happening in Uupsala right now that are being downloaded so that I can look at them when I go back to the hotel room. So that I can say, ‘This is how I want my parade float to appear on Sunday morning.’ I mean, obviously, that’s a great thing.”

Sorkin stated that he and producer Scott Rudin aggressively courted Facebook in an attempt to secure Zuckerberg’s cooperation on the film.

“Mark ended up doing exactly what I would have done,” said Sorkin, “which was decline. We also told him at the time that, whether they participated or not, we would show them the script when the script was done. And we would welcome any notes that they had. So we did give them the script. And their notes largely had to do with hacking. That there was a little bit of hacking terminology that I’d gotten wrong unsurprisingly. I know that there was a rumor a day or two ago that Mark had been spotted at a screening. I doubt it.”

Fincher was later asked about whether anything was sensationalized or sexed up for the movie. He gave the floor to Sorkin, who replied, “None.”

“I’m not going to sell any tickets by making this statement,” said Sorkin, “but I have to tell you that there is less sex in this movie than there is any two minutes of Gossip Girl. Nothing in the movie was invented for the sake of Hollywoodizing it or sensationalizing it. There are, as I explained, because of the three different versions of the story that were given not just in the deposition rooms, but there was a lot of first-person research that I did with people who are characters in the movie and people who were close to the event – most of whom were speaking to me on a condition of anonymity. And there were a lot of conflicting takes. So there are going to be a lot of people saying, ‘That’s not true. That didn’t happen.’ Just as they’ve been saying that since 2003. The work that I did was exactly the same as the work that any screenwriter does on any nonfiction film. When Peter Morgan writes The Queen, he’s going from fact to fact to fact. But Peter Morgan wasn’t in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom when they were talking about their daughter-in-law. Moreover, and more important, people don’t speak in dialogue. Life doesn’t play out in scenes. There’s work that the dramatist does. But nothing was invented. Certainly nothing was sexualized in order to amp up the temperature on the movie.

The conference concluded with a chunky, pipsqueaked hack journalist — in desperate need of a haircut and elocution lessons — asking a question about whether The Social Network represented a “departure” for Fincher.

“Because it doesn’t involve somebody aging backwards or because it doesn’t involve serial killers?” replied Fincher, who offered a look as if he had just learned of a last minute dental appointment set for the next morning.

The hack journalist foolishly continued with his inane inquiry.

Fincher sighed. Then he said, “You know, I’d like to give it a lot of really deep thought, but I probably won’t.” He politely presented the hack journalist with the boilerplate answer he so desperately coveted. Then the conference came to a close.

NYFF: The Social Network

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

A biopic which deals with a dead VIP is one thing, but the unceasing celerity of our present age demands art that skewers the self-important monsters enforcing their limited and autocratic viewpoints on the way we live (and, in the worst of cases, profiting from this egotism). The Social Network, which is one of David Fincher’s best movies and is among the sharpest material that Aaron Sorkin has ever written for film or television, is a highly entertaining movie possessed of such stones, with one endlessly intriguing, Asperger’s-like, socially clueless, self-made Napoleon (that is, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) as its central character. It is so quietly yet deliciously brutal in its depiction of the world’s youngest (and loneliest) billionaire that the real-life Zuckerberg may have a tough time finding new bona-fide friends who don’t happen to share his continued entomological view of the human race. (Curiously enough, earlier this week, it was discovered that Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark public school system, complete with the apparent allegation that Zuckeberg had intended to do so anonymously. The philanthropy’s suspicious timing, coming a week before The Social Network‘s release, carries the telltale whiff of a convenient distraction. The movie couldn’t come at a better time.)

Yet one is tempted to pity both the real-life Zuckerberg (and his cinematic representation) for this behemoth’s sheer failure to comprehend the totality of his possibly assholic nature. (In the film’s opening scene, Zuckerberg is literally declared an asshole at the aptly named Thirsty Scholar Pub. Later, he is told, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.” Perhaps due to legal reasons, the film chooses to dance around the question of whether Mark Zuckerberg really is an asshole. Or maybe Fincher and Sorkin wish the audience to determine its own answer. Unlike Facebook, “asshole” does not have to be a variable.) Whether Zuckerberg is an asshole or not, at film’s end, this Little Lord Fauntleroy is very much alone, despite the 400 million users on Facebook. He faces (if you’ll pardon the pun) a woman who can size him up without a computer and who can deactivate his likability (a variable just as applicable the courtroom, but one that doesn’t require a logarithm) with a single question. And not even the laptop or the considerable fortune that Zuckerberg clings to can save him from the pitiful truth of his solitary and outmoded existence.

I mention this plot development, while trying to be coy about this conclusive exchange, simply because I fear that Fincher and Sorkin will face some criticism for the way that women are treated in this film. They may be intending to remark upon the throwback “gentlemen from Harvard” virus that managed to seize the tech industry in the last decade (still seen in such overblown conferences as Tools of Change that feature more dicks, both literally and temperamentally, than a stag club or a fraternity in an elitist Ivy League school). Yes, there are women who practice law in the two trials framing the flashback narrative. But the film does make the choice to portray women as groupies who blow Zuckerberg and co-founder Eduardo Saverin in bathroom stalls. When two of these women ask what they can do during the early days of Facebook (then known as TheFacebook), it is implied that there is no role for them. And the men behind these dot coms (including Napster’s Sean Parker, also depicted in the film, of which more anon) have difficulty remembering the names of the women they sleep with – an interesting irony, in light of Facebook being built upon hard objective data and its later efforts to seize control of the words and images generated or shared by its users.

Thus, there can be no doubt that this misogyny originates from Zuckerberg, and that it was this very atavistic attitude that fueled Facebook’s massive development. With Sorkin wisely quoting Zuckerberg’s real-life LiveJournal entries (in which Zuckerberg called his ex-girlfriend a “bitch” and compared her to an animal), this is one of many brilliant instances in which Sorkin uses airtight facts (gleaned from Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires and, as Sorkin intimated in the post-screening press conference I attended, independent research from anonymous sources) to not only reveal an asshole without naming him as one, but to damn a world that, as Joanne McNeil has recently observed of the Apple Store’s glass staircases, prefers clean and functional aesthetics to sound moral judgment.

There are some very minor moments in which Fincher and Sorkin telegraph some of these points a bit too much, particularly with the needlessly ironic casting of Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker. Timberlake is a charming enough screen presence, but he simply doesn’t have the sheer moth-attracting neo-blueblood light that the fast-talking Jesse Eisenberg has as Zuckerberg, much less the Harvard boy-next-door aw-shucks naivete of Andrew Garfield as Saverin. (Saverin, a business major, is so intoxicated by Facebook – even after Zuckerberg cuts loose to California without him – that he doesn’t even read the legal papers he has to sign, little realizing that he has been screwed over by Zuckerberg, his only real friend and co-founder.) But I think Fincher is smart enough to be cognizant of this imbalance. During the first meeting between Parker, Zuckerberg, and Saverin, Fincher stages a good portion of the scene with the dialogue remaining silent. Appletinis and enticing sushi are brought to the table, as yet another jagged yet rocking music cue from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross plays, leaving Timberlake to bounce war stories off the wild-eyed admirer Zuckerberg. It is Parker who serves as an encouraging older brother figure to Zuckerberg (curiously, the film doesn’t mention anything about Zuckerberg’s family), who offers perfectly sound advice (“Lose the ‘The,’” he says during the TheFacebook.com days), and who sees entrepreneur Roy Raymund’s suicide not as a parable, but as a tale to inspire empowerment.

But I’m being needlessly pedantic. Really, this is an excellent movie that no self-respecting filmgoer of any type should miss. The Social Network breezes by at such a breaknecking speed that I truly believed a mere thirty minutes had transpired when The Beatles’s “Baby You’re a Rich Man” played during the closing credits.

Some might see The Social Network as “a departure” for Fincher (as one extremely idiotic journalist suggested at the post-screening press conference, leaving a visibly flustered Fincher to point out politely that he doesn’t work this way), because the film limits its technical tomfoolery to actor Armie Hammer playing a pair of identical twins (Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss – the “Winklevii,” as Zuckerberg condescendingly calls them – who saw the conceptual framework for their Harvard Connection stolen by Zuckerberg). These same people have forgotten that Fincher has managed to get great performances out of his actors (Robert Downey, Jr. in Zodiac, the cast of Seven, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club) and remains quirky enough to cast at least one musician in a supporting role (here, Timberlake; in previous films, Dwight Yoakam in Panic Room, Meat Loaf in Fight Club, and so forth).

Fincher has shot The Social Network on RED, an imperfect but evolving digital camera system that feels right for Facebook’s inevitably ephemeral legacy. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenwerth keeps the first hour’s palette confined to Bostonian browns and reds. A chicken ensnared within a cage recalls the incarcerated bird within Erich von Stoheim’s Greed. There’s a rapid-fire rowing race montage midway through the film that recalls Fincher’s early music videos, but it also signifies a slight narrowing of perspective for any of the audience members who haven’t yet caught onto one of the film’s visual motifs. For as the Facebook story unfolds, Fincher includes many shots in which the backgrounds are deliberately out-of-focus, a vicarious signal to the audience that Zuckerberg and his enemies can’t see much beyond their own hollow bubbles. (This includes one of Sean Parker’s conquests, in our first introduction to him, removing her clothes in the fuzzy background. And it’s also used quite well in another scene in which a silk scarf burns in a background blur.)

I haven’t yet commended Aaron Sorkin’s language. Sorkin, as usual, writes in a way that is, well, undeniably Aaron Sorkin. Like Mamet’s dialogue, Sorkin writes more with parallel precision than absolute verisimilitude. But it works incredibly well here. Sorkin finds a remarkably adept balance between his usual pursuits of heady-sounding but ultimately pedantic subject matter (the film starts off with a consideration that the United States has more people with genius IQs than China) and Matt Zuckerberg’s arrogant technobabble. This results in some great zingers that go well beyond the “I believe I deserve some recognition” now made famous by the trailer.* “Did I adequately answer your condescending question?” replies Zuckerberg in condescension to an attorney during a deposition. Larry Summers is depicted in one scene, when the Winklevii desperately petition him to seek early redress for Zuckerberg’s theft. “Punch me in the face,” he says to his secretary upon hearing the Winklevii’s feeble request. “You want to buy a Tower Records?” says Parker to Saverin, when attempting to demonstrate consequential change that the failed Napster was able to make.

So The Social Network isn’t just that rare film where popular and critical audiences will likely leave the theater happy. It’s very much a film of our times, for our times. It’s a near-perfect synthesis of pitch-perfect direction, great writing, and incredible characters. It’s a gripping two hour experience depicting the pleasures and pitfalls of living in a digital world, but, unlike its subject, The Social Network lets its audience question the authority, and, in so doing, respects them.

* – As an aside, considering the recent YouTube and Twitter parodies, I’m wondering if any movie trailer has generated nearly as many homages in recent memory.

NYFF: Le Quattro Volte

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte is probably my favorite NYFF film so far. Its commitment to capturing animals on film (and the men who herd them) is reminiscent of last year’s excellent documentary, Sweet Grass. But its scope, which involves a church, an understated examination of the relationship between man and nature, and some intriguing glimpses into a local wood coal industry, is slightly broader and richer. With its soundtrack denuded of intrusive incidental music (the thwacks of manual labor replace the accustomed callow explosions in the rear speakers!), the film is compelling, philosophical, and often quite beautiful in its bucolic splendor. The film shares that Italian cinematographic devotion to capturing slivers of life within a vitrine mise-en-scene – a sort of artsy Where’s Waldo? recalling mid-career Antonioni, but, more importantly, it offers a respectful nudge for audiences to observe the world more closely. Do you notice that artificial bird tied atop a tree? Or the insect crawling across the canvas of an animal’s face (mimicking an earlier shot in which an ant crawls about a dying shepherd’s face)? And what exactly is that smouldering mound at film’s beginning? (No worries! For those bothered by “plotless” movies, there’s a payoff.) Why is dust swept off a church floor later blessed by its caretakers after it is wrapped within ripped magazine sheets? (And is this disposal method altogether sacrosanct?)

Le Quattro Volte is a humble yet moving 88 minute visual poem capturing the cycles of small town life – one that, at times, nearly had me in delightful tears. Frammartino keeps his audience slightly removed from what his human subjects are saying; their Italian words are often just outside earshot – as if to suggest that, because we are mere cinematic observers, these largely unseen toilers have the right to their privacy. Rather interestingly, he has photographed and edited his film as if we’re seeing these striking images from the vantage point of surveillance cameras, and yet the film doesn’t feel invasive of its “subjects.” Certainly, what’s captured could not be confused with scratchy footage. A door opens diagonally, directing us to a table, with its edge mirroring the door’s slant. And on this table, we see a man arranging objects into a bucket. What is he doing? An aging herder climbs a hill with several thin trees shooting up from the ground. With one simple pan to the right, we see not only what a physical burden it is for the man to climb this hill, but how the trees near the top of the hill grow at a less horizontal angle. With one elementary camera move, Frammartino establishes the relationship between man and nature in a matter of seconds. And he implicates the viewer by throwing us under a dark philosophical hood through the black leader edited into the film at strategic intervals.

And there’s one especially amazing long take in which goats sit safely behind a fence lined next to a road, with a protective dog on the other side. A small Catholic parade approaches from the distance, led by men dressed as Centurions. The dog barks at them. The Centurions chase him down the street. The camera pans with the dog. The dog hides in the forest. The parade passes, diminishing in the distance. The dog retreats from his hiding spot and returns to his original position, the camera panning with him. The dog encounters a stray figure from the parade, possibly a boy (we’re not sure, because it’s in the distance), and the boy tries to move past the dog. But the dog barks back, defending his territory. What follows is an amusing interplay, before the boy psychs the dog out with an illusory throw and passes onward. The dog searches about for the stone, and unrustles a vehicle, which proceeds to roll down the adjacent street and into the fence containing the goats. But instead of permitting us to see this collision, the camera moves away.

This moment was – well, for me, at any rate – dazzling cinema. The simple manner in which every behavioral moment led to yet another fascinated me. And keep in mind too that this was merely one poetic piece of the puzzle. And I was further pondering how Frammartino had tracked down such a well-trained dog to make this happen, along with the number of takes it must have required to get this single shot so right.

And yet, for a notable contingent of snobs chattering after the screening, Le Quattro Volte was considered a dud. “I don’t want to see animals falling out of animals,” muttered one such myopic specimen, who then proceeded to describe how she found another film containing a very conventional narrative quite gripping. Well, I certainly don’t want to listen to whiny critics who are interested in having their narrow viewpoints confirmed. But I respect the right of anyone who wishes to live so unadventurously, even if I don’t quite understand why they would be covering a film festival devoted to world voices. Shouldn’t these isolationists be picketing mosques?

For my own part, I was spellbound by the aforementioned animal birth, followed as it was by a mother licking the sticky dew from her fresh baby’s head. How could anyone interested in life not be moved by that? How could anyone not find joy with a goat bleating incongruously atop a table or rowdy men surfing atop a recently felled tree being trawled down a steep slope? Le Quattro Volte offers a wondrous floodgate of such moments. As some guy in Brooklyn seeking fresh perspectives outside his own, Le Quattro Volte was a totally unexpected surprise. This is a movie that reminds us of how inconsequential our actions may be, yet how magical our lives are when seen from afar.

NYFF: Oki’s Movie

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

It’s often a wise move to distrust any movie featuring a moviemaker as the protagonist, even the ones offered by interesting directors – just as one avoids reading novels involving novelists. It’s the easiest and most cannibalistic creative decision imaginable, akin to a fresh father barraging you with buckets of baby photos. You smile politely, but after the sixth hour flicking through photo albums, you courteously explain that there’s a little more to the world. In the case of the creative artist offering the creative artist narrative dilemma, either the story has to be truly remarkable or it must offer a fresh spin. (Even Stephen King understood this with Misery.) So one approaches Hong Sang-Soo’s lackluster medley of four short films – all featuring the same three characters – with tremendous frustration, baffled as to why such a one-note offering would be selected for a world-renowned film festival. Was there a shortage in South Korean submissions? Was it Hong Sang-Soo’s brand name? (Hong has had many of his films play previous festivals.) Is there an inherent selection bias towards movies about moviemakers?

Whatever the reason (and lest this essay be misconstrued as a takedown, please note that I am not anti-Hong), it is worth pointing out that the fourth of the four films, the titular “Oki’s Movie,” does demonstrate that Hong has a gift for Eric Rohmer-like meditations and is really the only short that should have been considered. It makes no explicit mention of moviemaking, aside from the narrative suggestion that what we are witnessing is a desperate reconstruction or perhaps a young adult’s early stab at pegging the world. Told from the viewpoint of Oki (Jung Yumi), a woman who loves both an older man (Professor Song, played by Moon Sung-kuen) and a younger man (Jingu, the filmmaker character played by Jung Yumi), it offers a storyline in which Oki takes both men to Mt. Acha on differing winter days, with Oki’s voiceover indicating the difference between the two men. The older man stops to admire a wooden deer and a pavilion. The younger man whooshes right by. The older man takes Oki inside for a lunch of wine and seafood pancakes, while the younger man uncouthly slurps noodles outside. This comparative basis offers a striking perch to perceive human differences. But on the basis of the three shorts preceding this, you wouldn’t know that Hong had this kind of rumination in him.

“A Day for Incantation” (the first short) follows Jingu after he has become something of a success, with a few films under his belt. Jingu is the most annoying of creative character stereotypes: the struggling artist who feels entitled to create art, but who doesn’t want to work and acts like an asshole. He lives his life drinking and smoking too much, trying desperately to get into the pants of any unmarried woman (such as one woman who takes a photo of him on the bench, who he runs away from upon learning that she is married). There is a scene in which Jingu attends a screening Q&A and an audience member accuses him of philandering and breaking a woman’s heart. But these pedestrian comedy situations, combined with the film’s visual inertia (Hong often shoots very long takes with two characters where they don’t even move), as static and as unfunny as a comic strip, makes one wonder if Hong has momentarily transformed into a Korean Jim Davis.

One doesn’t expect a student film narrative situation from a film festival selection. But that’s just what we get with the second short, “King of Kisses,” which follows Jingu’s college days, where he desperately tries to fall in love with a woman. Here, Jingu is more humble, if more spastic. His friends call him “Psycho” and it’s largely because he has a stalker’s tendency to pester Oki, claiming that he has never dated before. I saw this type of film too many times back in film school. It’s amusing enough if you happen to know the people behind the movie, but, beyond this, there’s a very good reason why this formulaic storyline stays in film school. Lonely guys with a film camera who aren’t far from twenty are hardly the best assessors of relationships. The student film feel is further bolstered by the tendency for a crisp off-camera voice reproducing the other party in a telephone conversation. Perhaps the point that Hong is making is that his characters are so ensnared with recreating life that they cannot live it – even if what we’re watching may very well be some recreation of their life experience (as suggested by the fourth short). But he offers us very little material here to care.

The third film, “After the Snowstorm,” is a little better than the first two. Professor Song awaits his two students, Jingu and Oki, after a snowstorm has hit. His students bombard him with questions about life (“Are we human beings or animals?”), for which Song, claiming himself to not be particularly wise, doesn’t have many good answers. It’s an interesting concept that doesn’t really go anywhere, even if it does set up the more thoughtful perspective of the fourth film. But at least there’s a fun moment when Song pukes up a live octopus. (Come to think of it, Hong’s tendency to zoom in on his characters is reminiscent of John Waters’s early films. But Waters had genuine wit and iconoclasm within his dialogue and the mighty Divine to deliver it. It is safe to say that not one of the three leads here has Divine’s gravitas.)

While I haven’t exactly written off Hong, these four shorts are a poor introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the man who included a behind-the-scenes hentai moment in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. (“Once more with feeling!” ordered the director to the actress moaning into the mike.) These Hong films don’t feel particularly subversive or, for that matter, particularly interesting. They are as shallow as the filmmaker character contained within the narrative. Let’s hope that Hong himself has avoided the same fate.

NYFF: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“The film we just saw,” muttered a nameless tastemaker just after the screening. “Who is it for? Romanians? Political junkies?”

“Humorless film geeks? Cultural masochists? Those who view watching paint dry as too adventurous?” I was tempted to rejoin. Some random canvassing revealed I wasn’t alone in my assessment. Even so, who was I to judge this film when my own grasp of Eastern European history was so tenuous? My knowledge of Ceauşescu was as dependable as a quadriplegic being asked to prepare a Caesar salad. (Indeed, one could stab both shaky offerings with a plastic fork. I apolgize to Romania.) But it seems to me that a movie collecting the life of a possibly clueless, possibly calculating leader prone to genocide, basking in his private personality cult, and a view of his subjects out of step from the reality of their privations (I believe Ceauşescu’s eventual assassination by Romanian revolutionaries should have been the telltale sign that something was awry on this last point) shouldn’t be so lackluster. I certainly hadn’t felt blasé about Shoah or any of the countless political documentaries with protracted running times that I had wolfed down in my twenties.

I suppose that the dry intellectuals — the so-called film dweeb crowd that certain online lunatics complain about, but who aren’t nearly as bad as paranoia elsewhere would suggest — are likely to appreciate this formalistic exercise. At three hours, this film is so oppressively long, with few pleasures laced within its Bucharest Death March, that the viewer feels very much without options, much like a citizen of Communist Romania. If this is the emotion that director Andre Ujica intended to convey, I can safely report that he has succeeded. It was only my commitment to judging the entire film that prevented me from stomping out of this snoozefest and carrying out my own private revolution with a bottle of scotch.

Let me dwell first on a few aspects I enjoyed: (1) a volleyball game, taken from what appears to be home movies, in which Ceauşescu is physically awkward and hilariously girly, recalling George Herbert Walker Bush’s wimpy image (Remember that pathetic baseball throw? Infinitely worse than Obama and the man was captain of his Yale baseball team!), (2) a ridiculous parade for some Communist triumph featuring surreal floats depicting sporting matches pushing slowly down the streets (two boxers going at it as the individuals holding the ring move forward, a volleyball game in which one team constantly paces backwards, et al.), (3) up to a certain tedious point, the repeat imagery of world leaders jetting away from airport runways, thus demonstrating how ephemeral their alliances with Ceauşescu are, (4) the occasional jarring cuts to Romanians dancing to pop music (I wish there had been more of this, but this film prefers to drag), and (5) Ceauşescu’s failed attempts at aristocratic flourishes (his awkward efforts with a sled, his unpersuasive claim that he is an intellectual, et al.).

In other words, the film is, at times, an amusing counterfactual. Apparently, it truly takes Communist oppression to get filmmakers to take the piss out of their leaders, particularly when Ceauşescu – with his unbrushable childish curls protruding atop his head, his puffed up cheeks, the suit that doesn’t quite fit his chubby form, and that lower lip resembling, at times, a half-inflated condom accident – strongly resembles an assclown. (I wish some enterprising underground filmmaker would make a similar film about Bush the 43rd or Tony Blair. If the Autobiography succeeds at one thing, it demonstrates the elastic nature of contextualized found footage.) Even so, three hours of world leaders shaking hands, Ceauşescu engaging in photo ops, and Ceauşescu supervising projects that we know will fail (inter alia) does get more than a bit tedious. And the moments I’ve mentioned can only be mined after some tedious ten minute setpiece. Andre Ujica does demonstrate a certain flair for visual association (the clean and orderly buildings of Communist China compared against Communist Romania’s industrial chaos, leading one to ponder whether it’s the man, the system, or the people which causes this kind of disparity), but his film is centered more around Ceauşescu as Buffoon. Does a buffoon kill 70,000 people? I suppose that moral question depends upon how swift you are with reductionist assertions and your worldview. But this Autobiography, while not explicitly referencing Ceauşescu’s early days as a peasant, chooses to gloss over the suffering and the death. Yes, I get that Ceauşescu very much did the same thing and that the film is meant to be a vicarious expression of this. But this seems an incomplete and needlessly limiting portrait of a man who, despite his frippery, was as calculating as he was flip.

NYFF: Nuremberg / Holocaust Survivor Ernest Michel

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

During Thursday’s press conference for Nuremberg — the only film of the Nuremberg trials commissioned by the United States Army (and subsequently banned from being shown in theaters by the U.S. government) — Holocaust survivor Ernest Michel began the proceedings with a short statement. Michel was the first Holocaust survivor to turn journalist and cover the war trials. What follows is a transcript and an audio file.

Richard Pena: Is there a statement that you wanted to start out with, Michel? I see that you have something there on your left.

Ernest Michel: Yes. But before looking at my notes – because I didn’t trust myself to speak without any notes – this is the second time I’ve seen this film. And I still do not believe that I survived what you saw on the screen. I can’t believe it.

I arrived in Nuremberg on November 20, 1945 to cover the Nuremberg War Crime Plan. I was not just a newsman. I was also a survivor. I went through all of that that you saw on the screen. And I cannot for the life of me understand what saved me and what made it possible for me to come back to life. Seven month before I arrived in Nuremberg. Seven month before I escaped from the last concentration camp. I spent all together five an a half years in the camps. First, forced labor camps. And later on, extermination camps.

I was twenty-two years old when I arrived in Nuremberg. I was kicked out of school at sixth grade because I was Jewish. Never been back to school again. I came to the United States five month before the open of the Nuremberg trial. How I got to the trial is another story and I won’t bore you with that.

I had no job. I had no training. I had no money. I had no family. I was all by myself. And here I was, in Nuremberg, as a special correspondent for the German news agency DANA. Not for American papers. Not for any other papers. For the – for German newspapers. And I sat there in the gallery. The press gallery. There was Edward R. Murrow. Walter Cronkite. Who I got to know. They interviewed me. They couldn’t understand how a survivor was sitting here as a reporter at the Nuremberg trials. I had to pinch myself. This was really me. And if I get a little nervous, a little shaky, I…I saw this for the second time. I don’t know whether I can take it to sit…to sit…to see it again.

The crimes committed during World War II were the height of anything drastic and horrible that could have ever imagined in…in mankind. This is what makes the Nuremberg trials such a unique event. It was the first time that leaders of an elected country — a Western country, Germany – were committed for the greatest crimes ever committed in history. Six million of us were killed. We were eighteen million Jews around the world before the war began. And we were twelve million afterwards. I don’t know if we will ever catch up and make up for what happened.

I insisted that my byline, which I wrote for all the German newspapers, insist that it be called Ernest Michel, Auschwitz Special Correspondent, Former Inmate of Auschwitz 104995. That’s a number I wear. And I wear it with pride.

When I come to the trial, twenty-five feet away from me, second or third row, sits Hermann Goering. I never met him with the exception of one time I may have time not to tell you about. But there I was reporting from the trial. And I was told to be objective. As I said, I had no education whatsoever. I had a brief training process by DANA in order to be able to know what to say, how not to say it. “Please be honest. Straight. Directly. You are not here as a survivor. You are here as a correspondent. To tell what is happening in front of you.” And this is what I did.

My articles appeared in all German newspapers. The defendants were not allowed to read any other newspaper. So everyday, in Nuremberg, they read Ernst Michel, Auschwitz Survivor 104995. I want them to know who was in Nuremberg reporting for the German newspapers.

I was the only survivor to cover while I started in November 1945 – on the 20th November. When [Robert H.] Jackson opened the sessions. And I left the trial in June 194[6]. I couldn’t take it anymore. And then I emigrated to the United States.

The only other film that was shown in Auschwitz was a Russian film.

Sandra Schulberg: You mean in Nuremberg. Shown in Nuremberg.

Michel: In Nuremberg. In Nuremberg. I’m glad you added that.

The only other film that was shown and made by the Russians when the Russian Armies – forgive me, you know, I’m getting a little shaky, but I can’t help it. This is – my family’s there. Was there. My friends, my future, my life, anything. And yet I’m here and I’m coming. Despite my hesitation in talking about it.

This film is the only film made by the United States. And as you probably know, I don’t know if it was explained to you, the American government did not permit this film to be shown. And it is a credit to you that you took your time, your many years, to make this film available. It must be shown so that what happened to me and my generation will never happen again at any time, at any place to anybody.

It was the first time in history that a country, a government, was taken to task. You saw it on the screen. For me, the only thing I can tell you, it was the great experience of my life. There has never been anything like it. There will have been never anything like it. And it is a credit to you that the world will now see what we filmed – our American Army filmed – in Nuremberg. It’s a sight that will never, hopefully never happen again.

NYFF 2010: Ernest Michel (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Serbis (2008)

[This is the seventh part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

I suspect that Brilliante Mendoza’s Serbis will make suckers (although certainly not in the head-bobbing sense we see here) of those looking for an “authentic” depiction of the underworld. Every open-minded “critic” needs a film that suggests a depiction of life that the critic has no experience in, but can vicariously “understand” because he has seen it represented on cinema. Therefore, by way of the “different” perspective, narrative fallacies that wouldn’t be accepted in a more conventional story are somehow protected. Serbis (meaning service, as in “A cheap blowjob, sir?” although this may very well translate into the equally applicable “Would you like fries with that suckoff?”), is fervently dedicated to fellatio, rent boys, ruptured men’s room pipes, and other seemingly sordid imagery. I found it to be a bore and longed for a William T. Vollmann book. The film’s problem is not just that we have nobody to really care about, but that there is simply no contextual investigation into the realities that keep these characters toiling in a porn theater.

“I’m a certified nurse,” says the stern Nayda, “What the hell am I doing here?” I likewise hoped for an answer to that question, particularly since we see later on the wall that Nayda has actually earned a Bachelor of Science. Which would suggest that she’s a bit more than just a certified nurse.

The Pinedas are a dysfunctional family operating the Family Theater, a movie house (the last of three apparently; the other two have closed down) dedicated to such offerings as Seedling and Frolic in the Water. Every week, there’s a new set of reels delivered with a new movie. But the man delivering the goods doesn’t offer any small talk. He simply says, “See you next week.” The Family matriarch, Nanay, is busy in court, suing her husband for bigamy and the folks who work this movie house, adorned with posters and paintings of half-dressed women, await text messages on the verdict. A smart kid named Jonas (who is also bespectacled, living up to the nerdy cliche) runs around, playing Minesweeper on his computer and dazzling various family members with his apparent math wizardry. You’d think the kid’s math skills would come in handy for counting change, but one episode demonstrates that the Pinedas are easily duped. Then there’s Alan, who has a boil the size of a nipple on his ass. Subtlety, as we can see, is not a strong suit for screenwriter Armando Lao and Mendoza.

This is all shot in a Dogme 95 style, with the sounds of the street blaring over key pieces of dialogue and what little emotion we’re permitted to espy, along with shaky handheld camera work that now seems something of a visual relic here in the 21st century.

But any movie featuring a slightly surreal moment with a goat running around a theater’s filthy floors and nuns falling down in the street can’t be all bad, can it? I latched onto these two images because I found myself desperate for some larger framework, some visceral inroads that would help me to parse the poverty beyond the film’s simplistic dichotomy (sex workers and family members) occupying the same premises. I was struck by one moment in which a mother holding a small child asks Nayda if her son, who is sixteen, might be inside. Nayda insists that the theater doesn’t let minors in and brushes her away. But it is quite evident that underage sex workers are getting some pocket money on the inside. Nobody cares to observe.

Lao and Mendoza, however, don’t offer us any complex motivations that might make us more fascinated by this tragedy. There’s one interesting moment in which a prostitute is teaching another aspiring streetwalker how to walk down stairs to attract johns. And the handover of this very basic body language is somewhat stunning to take in, particularly as other sex workers surround these two figures without a trace of empathy. It’s just a simple business transaction.

I paid attention to the porn music just to stay remotely interested, and discovered that one piece playing over pumping bodies bore a striking resemblance to Taxi Driver. I wonder if Bernard Hermann’s estate received a check. Probably not.

But like most failed artistic efforts to find the real, this film presented more disinterest than interest. The problem boils down, so to speak, to one simple maxim: If there isn’t a narrative, atmosphere ain’t enough, no matter how noble the intentions.