Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Kinatay (2009) de Brillante Mendoza

June 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

I concur with Quentin Tarantino’s impression of Brillante Mendoza’s eighth feature film and second Cannes entry, Kinatay, as expressed by the American filmmaker in this bit of collegial correspondence scribbled in red ink on hotel stationery during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Tarantino applauds Mendoza’s dedication to the experiential perspective of the film’s lead character, Peping; praises the under-exposed, grainy depiction of horror that characterises the latter two-thirds of the film, and the relative anti-drama of the whole affair. That Tarantino, king of immaculately aestheticised violence, would praise a peer for practically being his antithesis is indeed of interest, but his appreciation of Mendoza’s approach was nonetheless shared by that year’s Cannes Jury, who awarded the Filipino filmmaker the Prix de la mise-en-scene for Best Director. At the risk of defending a picture that I don’t particularly care for, I must say that I do not necessarily contest their decision. Kinatay displays a certain clarity of purpose, a quality which few similarly grim and confronting pictures can consistently claim to have achieved with any degree of success. Whether Mendoza’s artistic purpose in turn serves a broader cultural or political purpose is where the debate might rapidly become a losing battle for those in the ‘pro’ camp. Inspired by the actual experiences of a young police academy recruit, Kinatay follows a newly-wed trainee whose part-time dealings with a crew of dirty cops ostensibly turns into a full-time contract when he is made a witness and peripheral accomplice to the belly-turning murder of a prostitute called Madonna. Beginning with Peping’s very low-key, good-natured daytime wedding, the first ‘act’ of the film ends with a fade-out of the setting sun after which his nightmare commences. It’s an obvious visual pun, as if to imply that the sun is also setting on Peping’s moral and spiritual freedom. Roger Ebert famously declared Kinatay to be the worst film ever selected to compete for the Palme d’Or, a claim which smacks of hyperbole despite my reservations about the movie. The late (and largely great) critic accused Mendoza of ideological bludgeoning, but could not quite articulate – in this piece – what this ‘Idea’ was and is. Frankly, neither can I. As a cautionary tale warning of the immense gravitational pull of crime on those in its orbit, Kinatay had me quietly promising myself that I would never associate with any individuals who exude even one percent of the malice and soul-blunted disregard for life exhibited by the on-screen killers. Without a doubt, such individuals live and breathe in their unfortunate communities, and similar crimes have in fact plagued Mendoza’s turf, let alone the wider world. But is a film like Kinatay what it takes to galvanise public awareness of and outrage at law enforcers who not only fail to uphold safety but who in fact actively propagate social degeneration? Who amongst us is not all too aware that violence and barbarism exists, and that death can arrive with shocking suddenness, even for those who dance with it on a daily basis to the point of feeling somewhat immune? Perhaps Kinatay is simply the result of a filmmaker translating a captivating story to screen in a manner which seemed – to him – most appropriate. If anything, Mendoza’s picture is at least an unapologetic alternative to the glut of cinema that seeks to extract entertainment from the gutters of human behaviour; a cinema at the centre of which sits the likes of…my beloved Basic Instinct?

 

 

 

Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: The Forest for the Trees (2003) de Maren Ade

June 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

Melanie Pröschle instantly rockets to the top of my personal pantheon of cinema’s tragic lonely folk (voluntary or involuntary), right up there with Travis Bickle and several Mike Leigh characters. Brought to life – a very sad and sobering life – by a powerhouse Eva Löbau, Melanie is a somewhat innocent, recently graduated teacher who moves from a small German town to the larger city of Karlsruhe where her new career is off to a positively craggy start. Doe-eyed and with a barely concealed desire for affection bordering on neediness, Melanie is the kind of protagonist whose vulnerability can easily inspire viewer sympathy while making her utterly irritating to her fellow characters. From the throng of students from whom she fails to wrangle respect to her quietly mocking colleagues to the neighbour whom she stalks and then befriends, Melanie’s is a tragedy told via the language of lo-fi comedy. By this I mean that The Forest for the Trees looks and feels like a product of the Dogme 95 movement that was developed (and then promptly abandoned) by the likes of Lars von Trier. Accordingly, the image is low-key and reminiscent of late 90s digital video, handheld and unruly, utilising source lighting and physically intimate with Melanie and her surroundings. All music and sound exists within Melanie’s world. It’s all too real in a way that prevents the comic nature of Melanie’s misfortunes from losing their inherent sting. However socially inept/handicapped Melanie might be, she is in a globally relatable position: In a new city without any contacts and with a job that flogs the soul, desperate to be loved and appreciated, only, her desperation consumes and compromises her, clouding her judgement and vision in a way that recalls the film’s title. The only difference between Melanie and someone like Travis is that she does not descend into abject psychosis; that she retains a modicum of insight which only deepens the pain and the tragedy and helplessness of her situation. Now, this was German filmmaker Maren Ade’s first feature; her thesis film, in fact. The Forest for the Trees garnered some attention and awards, for example at Sundance, but it wasn’t until Ade’s brilliant tragicomedy Everyone Else (2009) that the cinema world marveled en mass at her ability to depict the delicate balance that exists in any relationship, that which sees a kiss transition into a bite and vice versa. Well, The Forest for the Trees is clear evidence that Everyone Else was borne of some artistic pedigree and that Ade’s future projects should be of deep interest to anyone with some part of their finger on the pulse of contemporary cinema.

* It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the fact that the 69th Festival de Cannes concluded a fortnight ago and that Maren Ade’s entry Toni Erdmann was a sweeping critical darling whose failure to nab a major award was widely bemoaned. But, prize or not, the apparent brilliance of Ade’s third feature is gratifying confirmation of the fact that she is now a major voice on the international circuit, and perhaps a major force in the shift towards a more egalitarian film landscape, at least from a gender standpoint.

 

The pains of being The Caretaker: a video essay

November 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

Precious few horses remain as pleasurable to flog thirty-years-dead and bloated as they were when alive. One of these is The Shining, a film whose concurrent simplicity and opaqueness renders it eminently watchable, re-watchable and mysterious to the point of inspiring an insidious type of obsession. Having been subjected to decades of analytical dismemberment and identity-reassigning theories of the kind documented in Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237, Kubrick’s self-proclaimed ‘masterpiece of modern horror’ will once again find itself at the mercy of a personal ‘reading.’

Like a surfer who has just missed an elusive wave, this little piece may have benefited a touch from some Halloween momentum. Then again, that may have been an unnecessary pairing seeing as they – the video and the associated ‘personal reading’, that is – aren’t necessarily concerned with The Shining’s pedigree as a fear-mongering scare fest. Which is not to say that the aim is to reclaim The Shining from the horror genre and rebrand it as social commentary first and foremost. That being said…

…revisiting this picture on the back of a recent Blu-ray upgrade brought into sharper definition (pun intended) several elements that had hitherto gone relatively unnoticed: the significance of the term ‘caretaker’ in relation to Jack Torrance and his predecessor O’Grady, being white American males; the demographic statuses of the film’s three main protagonists, Danny, Wendy and Dick Hallorann (if Jack is the chief antagonist); the sly associating of American history,  violence and privilege. Jack’s insecurity and seething resentment seemed – on this particular viewing – to stem from a place far beyond his failings as an aspiring writer. His was, is and will always be the rage of a failed son, a disappointing heir; a man all too aware of his being unable to live up to his birthright of supposed superiority.

Like most fanciful takes on the film The Shining, there may have been zero conscious intent on the part of the creators to comment on any of the above, but one can never be sure. Certainly not when a film seems to contain evidence for and against any theory or reading that one chooses to throw at it.

 

Brief impression: “Daddy Longlegs” aka “Go Get Some Rosemary”

July 26, 2015 § 1 Comment

Looking somehow – vaguely – like a less cartoonish, more handsome version of Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld, divorced Manhattan film projectionist Lenny Sokol is an overgrown older brother to his two young sons Sage and Frey of whom he has custody for a feverish fortnight. Lenny, as embodied by writer-director and here actor Ronald Bronstein, doesn’t simply recall Kramer in the looks department; his heart and mind are as tightly sewn to his sleeve as is the case with television’s crown weirdo, and they are both – the two of them – mascots of irresponsibility, to an extent. In fact, Lenny could very well be an alternate-reality projection of Kramer had he (Kramer, that is) impregnated someone and landed the role of having to partially raise two children. So there is the unabashed expressiveness, which always makes for a sympathetic character however one feels about the expressive acts themselves, and there is the careless charm and general carelessness. But what really makes Lenny a protagonist for the ages is that he must walk a mean tightrope, if only for the span of the film’s two week duration, with adolescent abandon on one side of the fall and the rock-hard sidewalks of stodgy adulthood looming on the other. Perhaps walking is too generous a descriptor even; more like hanging from the rope one-handed, being blown by the pressures of life from one side to the next. This probably makes Daddy Longlegs sound a little melodramatic and it very well is: a melodrama of Lenny’s own concocting, and a great one at that.

Interestingly, in reviewing Bronstein’s directorial debut Frownland for Ozu’s World Movie Review, critic Dennis Schwartz claims that the 2007 no-budget feature trumps David Lynch’s Eraserhead in sheer “weirdness.” Whether or not this is a fair or even accurate assessment, there’s a curious semi-connection in there. Apart from the fact that Jack Nance’s character in Eraserhead, Henry Spencer, is an even earlier precursor of Kramer’s spastic, electrocuted look, Bronstein’s Lenny is – like Henry – a noticeably naked depiction of fatherhood not often seen in the cinema. Sure, Lenny loves being a dad to his boys and sure, there are [many] fathers in [many] movies, but few of them seem to grapple with their parental duties in a manner that has potent dramatic edge and hints of torture/disabling self-doubt. Either they drag their feet, coast along, lash out…or they have it down to an art with their compassionate newspaper-reading paternalism. Yes, in Daddy Longlegs, Lenny is the typical irresponsible, fun foil to his stauncher more ‘adult’ ex-wife Paige (played by gonzo artist Leah Singer, the two young boys’ actual mother), but he is not above yelling Sage and Frey back into bed or benignly drugging them in their sleep, for their own protection. His natural penchant for frivolity is offset by these pressured attempts at discipline and responsibility and, as the film reaches its uneasy conclusion, the fact that Lenny can’t quite find a pleasant middle ground between friend and father becomes clear even to his pre-adolescent boys. Of course, one could argue that the film is a gentle paean to single parenthood and its struggles; to those whose late-night shifts are tainted by the guilt and worry from having left young lieges alone at home. Or it could be a sobering reminder that children of divorce often walk their own tightrope not just between two modes of parenting but two vastly different – perhaps harmfully contradictory – approaches to existence. When Sage and Frey return to their mother’s home the overall image is one of well-mannered domesticity, plus they have a more gentrified father figure to boot in the form of their mother’s new husband. It’s difficult to predict whether they would benefit from their father’s chaos on a more regular basis. It’s probably less difficult to postulate that the presence of both in a more complimentary dynamic would be ideal.

For those out there – probably most, one would imagine – whose impression of the current standoff between digital video and film is that it is nothing more than an esoteric scuffle between tunnel-visioned obsessives, viewing a dirt cheap picture that was shot with 16mm stock should prove enlightening, even if only a pinch. Whereas it may be close to impossible for a casual non-geek to identify whether or not a decently budgeted film like Fincher’s Zodiac was shot on film or digitally, let alone outline the key differences in image quality between the two formats, the textural and tonal disparity between Daddy Longlegs and something shot on DSLR – or even a film like Once – is staggering and easy to notice. Apart from the buoyant colour palette and the smoothness of the transitions between light and shadow (dynamic range), there is a grainy, bleary-eyed nostalgia that 16mm lends this picture. From frame one, writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie make no secret of this movie’s roots in their own memories of and experiences with their father (and mother), but theirs nonetheless remains a film set in the now, in contemporary (as of 2008-9) New York City as opposed to a more obviously longing restaging of their childhood in the 1980s. But there is an unmistakable, unwashed timelessness to the parts of NYC in which the movie was shot, as though the very air let alone the buildings and sidewalks have barely aged over the decades. Without trying, Daddy Longlegs manages to evoke the kind of old-school off-the-cuff cinema to which it will undoubtedly be (and is currently being) compared. One can imagine that recreating a distinct period would be costly at any scale but, luckily, the Safdies seem to have been aiming for something more than mere throwback grassroots realism in the vein of Cassavettes (whose namesake prize the brothers happened to win at the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards). For all its physical intimacy, its long-lens aesthetic with a generous supply of fearless close-ups, fumbling focus and overt naturalism, Daddy Longlegs separates itself from its indie contemporaries in its willingness to dance with the surreal and morbidly expressionistic, namely the mystifying but somehow right sitcom-like applause and battlefield noises that bookend the film’s soundtrack, and of course the giant mosquito that sucks the peace of mind right out of Lenny’s neck as he sleeps and presumably dreams. Whatever the more literal meaning of these may be, they make emotional sense in addition to ever-so-slightly distancing the film from the current fetishisation of “documentary” realism. But they also suggest that these filmmaking brothers are intent on doing more than just depicting their past and materialising their memories. Theirs is an act of interpretation and reckoning, and it is this which allows their picture to sway precariously above its peers, reaching for a little more than 16mm verisimilitude.

The horror…: “Dead of Night”

July 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Ealing Studios film Dead of Night is no more a horror movie than is an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is not at all meant as a slight against either but more as an expression of the fact that the general aim of both the television series and this 1945 portmanteau picture seems to be to evoke that viscerally ticklish, goosefleshy sensation one gets when pleasantly terrified in bite-sized doses, like sitting around a campfire and being told a ghost story which would not be particularly terrifying if not for the fact that it is cold, dark, you guys are in the woods and that failing to be scared or at least to appear scared would be kind of a spoil-sport thing to do, or not do. It would be surprising if a viewer departs this film significantly more conscious of the possibility of malevolent forces being present all around them. For those who seek out horror cinema for jump scares and screams, there are few if any to be found here; but for those who prefer to be mildly unsettled but constantly so, then Dead of Night may very well hit the spot, at times.

Architect Walter Craig (played by Toby Jones lookalike Mervyn Johns) is summoned by acquaintance/client Eliot Foley to a house in the country where a small group of guests is already casually gathered, talking and sharing a drink. Within the first few minutes it is established that Walter is plagued by what seems to be a particularly nagging spell of déjà vu and is convinced that not only has he been in this exact location with this exact set of characters (or at the very least dreamt it), but that the night does not end well, least of all for the individual he believes he will end up murdering. Of course, his assertions are subjected to a range of responses from teasing curiosity by most, to overly huffy skepticism by the resident rationalist Dr Van Straaten whose explanation for everything seems to be that ‘it is not uncommon.’ In support of Walter, four of the characters take turns narrating their own experiences – firsthand and otherwise – with the vaguely paranormal. The doctor eventually succumbs to the mood and narrates his own experience of being boggled. What follows are five Twilight Zone-y episodes (culminating in a somewhat bravura freak-out climax), the most famous of which features Sir Michael Redgrave from The Lady Vanishes as a ventriloquist who finds himself caught between a fellow voice-thrower and the man’s puppet, Hugo, which may or may not have a consciousness of its own, and a malicious one at that. This particular episode’s renown is probably justified, but more so for what it promises to be, whether or not you feel that it delivers on this. There is a tantalising quality to these tales. They dare the viewer to wonder whether or not these ‘paranormal’ experiences will eventually prove to be some silly dream, an illusion of sorts or perhaps the result of a moment of madness. You could commend the filmmakers for their restraint and their investment in the viewers’ sense of imagination, or you could accuse them of falling shot, copping out, or displaying a poverty of creativity if you dare go that far.

Dead of Night, enjoyable as it is, raises the question of how effective horror and comedy can be in partnership. This is not to say that the film is a capital ‘C’ comedy, but that there is a distinctly light touch to it, as though the creators are making a conscious effort to acknowledge that these are nothing more than interesting sketches, pieces of whimsy that really have no bearing on reality, which can’t always be the case, at least with regards to some of the strange experiences the movie dramatises. Horror-comedy combinations have always seemed like a somewhat parasitic relationship in that laughter can result from broken tension, or perhaps in response to morbidly unbroken tension. But does the converse occur? Maybe so. Perhaps comedy stretched to certain extremes can end up exposing the horrors inherent in whatever subject is being made light of, but in the case of Dead of Night, neither is the case. The elements of dread and humour seem to exist despite each other and sometimes the result is that what is on screen is neither funny nor frightening, for example the golfing episode which is quite possibly the weakest, a title it shares with the second tale, that of the boy ghost. In all honesty, are anthology films ever intended to be particularly hearty single courses as opposed to tasting menus designed to entertain the tastebuds fleetingly?

If there is one terrifying aspect of the human experience that is repeatedly touched upon by all of the episodes in Dead of Night it would have to be isolation. Whether it is the newly married man tortured by the possibility that he is being driven mad by the mirror his wife purchased for him as an engagement gift, or the ventriloquist who can’t seem to convince anyone that his puppet is alive and kind of an ass, the fear of being completely alone in experiencing something is a constant theme throughout the film. We all know, on some level, that the commonalities all humans apparently share may actually be subject to more variation than expected. What hunger is to one may not be what hunger is to another, but at least both can agree than hunger isn’t exactly pleasant and that it tends to be eradicated by food. But the idea of seeing something that no one else can clearly see…or hear or feel or touch or taste or know, this can be truly unsettling, and Dead of Night captures this well. If only directors Cavalcanti, Hamer, Crichton and Dearden didn’t choose to erase the aftertaste of this by ultimately highlighting how much of a constructed, matinee romp the film actually is. On this note, it would be appropriate to mention this film’s status as a classic not only of the horror genre but of British cinema overall. Cited as something of a landmark and highly regarded by everyone from Time Out London to Martin Scorsese, Dead of Night is the kind of film one would hope to find exciting and instructive yet which, for reasons not exactly easy to articulate, feels a touch wanting and somewhat undeserving of its high praise. It seems that being alone in one’s indifference towards Dead of Night may be even more unsettling than the picture itself.

Saw it at SFF*, June 8, 18:30, State Theatre: “Taxi” aka “Tehran Taxi”

July 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Iranian ‘bad boy’ concludes his latest attempt at fuck-you guerrilla cinema with a final shot that is heart-warming, unassuming, alarming, somewhat embarrassing and ultimately sobering, in that order. Having spent seventy-something minutes ‘playing’ himself – that is, world renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi – ‘playing’ a taxi driver, cruising around Tehran in what is presumably an actual cab (or at least a vehicle dressed up as one) and engaging in a headlong series of entertaining, often humorous and conveniently dramatic interactions that collectively snap a shot of contemporary urban Iran (or maybe just Tehran), Panahi decides to end proceedings by delivering a gentle smack to not just his face but the face of an adoring international film community that may be taking his beleaguered output for granted somewhat. It’s as if Panahi recognises that the oftentimes purposefully short human memory has come into play with regards to his movies, which technically should not exist but which nonetheless keep coming, every two years at this rate, breaching the Iranian border in cake-encased USBs (and who knows what else) and screening at international film festivals where they are heralded as great art and sometimes go on to win awards such as the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale. In truth, it’s a touch mysterious and a little bit eerie, the fact that three works conceived and executed by this puckishly civic-minded artist have managed to reach the global consciousness despite the Iranian government’s clear opposition, and it’s a touch embarrassing to think that these works are no less commodified than those of filmmakers whose prodigiousness is relatively unencumbered; that their presence on the cinematic landscape doesn’t appear to garner quite as much shocked surprise as might be deserved given the circumstances surrounding their creation. Perhaps Panahi is subtly chiding himself for being so gung-ho in his rebelliousness, reminding himself that the powers that be may not be as blind and/or ineffectual as their relative  inaction might suggest and that danger and violence may very well strike when the enemy’s apparent impotence couldn’t be more certain. Panahi even seems intent on emphasising the fact that matters have not necessarily progressed since his first act of cinematic dissent, This is Not a Film, seeing as he casts as a one of his passengers a lady who may very well be the lawyer with whom he spoke on his mobile phone in that very film, now disbarred/delicensed, presumably as a consequence of her involvement with him. Learning of her career trajectory over the last half-decade is indeed sobering.

So…roughly 5 years after scoring himself a 20-year filmmaking ban courtesy of the Iranian government, one-man-studio Panahi has released his third (yes, three!) provocation, Taxi, clumsily retitled Tehran Taxi in some  global territories (including Australia)  presumably to distinguish it from the Queen Latifah/Jimmy Fallon romp. Not unlike his previous two films, This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, this logistically barebones picture may appear to be a continuation of Panahi’s ostensible investigation of the role that intellectual censorship and social oppression can/may play in breeding great art (or just art), which in fact extends farther back than the aforementioned pair to – say – his feminist soccer drama Offside (2006), a film whose actual production toed the very line of illegality that his last three blatantly cross. But rather than adopting Hayes Code-era innuendo and conceding (superficially) to the confines set out by the State, Panahi – being Panahi, and being an Iranian filmmaker in the era of Kiarostami – opts for a more reflexive and knowing approach. In fact, one of Taxi’s most politically poignant sequences features Panahi and his somewhat prodigious preteen niece discussing and eviscerating the scarily absurd film decency code that the Iranian government works hard to impose, a code which dares to dictate what kind of movie character (hero versus villain) can wear a tie and one which forbids the inclusion of any manner of ‘morbid realism’, presumably for fear that it may incite or further galvanise the civic dissatisfaction of the film-going masses. Either way, Taxi – notwithstanding the simple fact that it even exists – wryly drifts in and out of subversion and political antagonism as it moves from scene to scene, exposing the ‘morbid realities’ of being a (soon-to-be) widowed woman in Iran and the curious ethical quagmires that are borne of class injustice, as well as tackling (and quite amorally so) issues of intellectual theft, almost suggesting that pirating movies is not an unmitigated evil if it is a means by which cultural quarantine can be circumvented. In short, by highlighting and utilising the absence of that which is not permitted as much as he does that which is, Panahi manages to transform restriction into some weird breed of backhanded freedom; an almost ascetic, martyred iteration of it. Or perhaps he doesn’t quite create bounty out of scarcity, though he does capitalise on the fact that raw passion and the ideas that stir them can in themselves be as exhilarating to behold and as culturally constructive as that which eventually, tangibly results from these very ideas.

After Park Chan-wook seduced audiences (and the Berlinale Short Film jury) with his shaggily dreamy  iPhone-shot Nightfishing a couple of years ago, and in the wake of rising indie star Sean Baker’s transgender LA odyssey Tangerine generating a great deal of chinwag for its being photographed entirely on two rigged-up iPhone 5s, Jafar Panahi’s recent inventive (however-much by necessity) use of mobile phones, dashboard cams and point-and-shoot digital cameras contributes greatly to the legitimisation of all manner of photographic apparatus as pertains to the creation of world-class cinema. As young filmmakers bleed their pockets dry so as to acquire actual cine-lenses with which they may be able to compensate for their mid-level DSLR imagery, here is a filmmaker as established as any of his contemporaries levelling the technological hierarchy, demonstrating that capturing beauty is as dependent on boundless receptivity and crystal-eyed honesty as it is on technical mastery of the medium and its mechanics. Of course, knowing the political situation in which Panahi currently finds himself most definitely influences expectations and fosters a degree of critical generosity however scrappy his films might look, as does his already robust reputation as a powerful filmmaker at the best of times (relatively speaking). Even so, it would be perfectly legitimate to take aim at Panahi’s very knowing and somewhat impish insistence on utilising as many video-capable instruments as possible to weave his narrative, an approach which almost seems to suggest a democratisation or even sharing of the role of director, in a way shedding Panahi of the full weight of artistic responsibility. Taxi is not and should not be beyond reproach due to its sociopolitical importance and its status as a statement against censorship and in favour of expression, but the plain and simple truth is that the verve and incisive brevity with which Panahi and his players sketch their city and their nation (at least from their point of view) feels sufficient enough to justify whatever means they choose to present the finished picture, photo-realistic or not.

 

* SFF – Sydney Film Festival

Blindspot: “Bamako”

June 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

One can only imagine how Bamako plays to viewers who have never lived anywhere in Africa, or rather, those who do not feel that it is their place to level candid criticisms at the continent and its people for fear of being accused of western paternalism or much worse. But for someone born and raised in the ‘Motherland’ – generally speaking, of course – Mauritanian-born filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako’s breakthrough 2006 picture, which is to say the one which positioned him squarely on the world (festival) stage and in the sights of discerning cinephiles hungry for new voices, is one whose greatness almost trips over itself before becoming evident. Weirdly reminiscent of a Robert Altman picture with its wandering approach to largish ensembles in which subsets of characters don’t necessarily interact while being nonetheless engaged in a kind of meta-textual conversation with one another by virtue of their being in the same narrative universe, Bamako takes place in the titular Malian town which also happens to be Sissako’s home turf and is basically centred around an imaginary court case: plaintiff,  debt-ridden Africa; defendant, The World Bank, the IMF, ‘The West’ and all other purported contributors to Africa’s fiscal woes. Staged in – of all places – the actual courtyard of Sissako’s father’s house, the proceedings establish an interesting, Kiorastami-like interface between fiction and non-fiction as characters wax and spar polemically about the political and economic state of the African continent at the time of filming, which is no less relevant now than it was nine odd years ago.  As these impassioned – sometimes detrimentally so – rants fly out from the screen, life goes on both within the courtyard (yes, there’s a bit of a pun here that needs to be acknowledged) and within the homes that form its walls, though always in the shadow of something greater and elusively oppressive. It must be said that the form that this film adopts is a most uncanny distillatory representation of Africa’s contradictory nature, which is to say that it is a scatterplot mix of pre and post-colonial, western and non-western, impassioned and apathetic, hopeful and demoralised, humorous and not at all amusing, sexy and just plain daggy, all swirled into one heady, dysfunctional yet lively soup. But the compositional richness of Bamako is not simply a visual pleasure. It registers – in these eyes – as a subliminal explanation of why it is that Africa may find it so hard to hold its own in a global society which may admittedly not be quite as charitable as it makes out to be. The image of women and men of the law in full robed garb, seated in a dusty outdoor makeshift court through which people blithely waltz without much thought for the possible disrespectfulness of their actions is one such example of Sissako’s concurrent skewering and celebration of the absurdity that can be and often is startlingly true of modern African society.  But despite the very obvious playfulness of the movie – playful to the point of featuring a seemingly pointless film-within-a-film called Death in Timbuktu, a “Sahara Western”  so to speak (as opposed to Spaghetti Western) featuring Danny Glover of all people – and the bubbling undertones of intellectual indignation and rage, Bamako is at heart a gently sombre work.  However peripheral they may appear in the face of the rhetorical bluster of the court/deposition scenes, the quiet moments of ordinary townsfolk mourning lost love, lost lives and an unknown/unknowable tomorrow, and the fantastic musical sequences featuring emotionally hypnotic local songstress Melé (Aïssa Maïga) as she takes to the stage of a Bamako bar…it is these which seem to speak with more clarity, elegance and fire than the many oratories designed to equally heat up the soul. It’s as if Sissako, in attempting to fashion an erudite exploration of post-millennial (West) Africa and its myriad economic issues, settles on the milder, more humanist (though no less radical) notion that the viability of the African continent depends less on its dealings with a potentially dishonest wider world and more on a commitment to dealing honestly with itself.

The horror…: “Angst”

June 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

At first it might be somewhat surprising to think that this little known Austrian film from 1983 – little known probably on account of it having widely received X-ratings in most jurisdictions and maintained them for so long – isn’t more frequently cited as one of the greats of the horror genre, because in many ways it is. But it only takes a second’s recollection of what it’s like to actually sit through this supremely unsettling work to realise why it’s not featured on more ‘top however many’, ‘greatest’, and even ‘best you’ve never heard of or seen’ lists. Even perennially revered – and rightfully so – films like Tobe Hooper’s original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Exorcist” have elements of perverse excitement to them and moments that are bound to thrill. The former evokes a very grindhouse, very drive-in, so-wrong-it-must-be-right sense of fun while the former is scandalous in a prestige way that would have surely found audiences leaving theatres talking in hushed but excited whispers, saying, ‘oh my God, did you see what she did with that crucifix?!’ Plus the outstanding art direction in “Chainsaw Massacre” manages to wring a garish, primal kind of beauty from the ugliest subject matter, acknowledging that Leatherface is – like it or not – an artist of the macabre. Fact is, even the most artistically ambitious of horror classics – those that would stand up as great pieces of cinema period – even these would get a bunch of friends excited for a weed-laced re-watch session. But not for a second viewing of “Angst”; surely no one can get excited for that…unless maybe intellectually. In a literal sense, few movies could possibly be expected to approach the level of pure horror that this piece, directed by Gerald Kargl, manages to reach. It would not be at all shocking if it turned out that Kargl’s feature filmography is so tiny on account of him descending into a prolonged nervous rut after having made this movie, which would certainly not bode well at all for the actors, especially not Erwin Leder who plays the lead and who hopefully received a good long debriefing at the close of shooting. Sure, there are piles of movies – especially of late – that are quite content to drown a viewer in violence, gore and dementedness, but the trick to these and the reason that they can be digested by scores of blank faced teens who groan-laugh/laugh-groan ironically at each gratuitous kill is that there are formal elements to these scenes which actually end up blunting the potency of their unpleasantness, or at least distracting from them. It’s the same reason big-budget action tent pole releases that involve scores of people being mowed down with automatics are deemed fit for consumption by thirteen year olds whereas a film like “Irreversible” is quickly shuffled into a containment chamber as though it were Bubonic Plague. In short, presentation is perhaps more important than content when it comes to determining how said content is received, and with “Angst” the presentation is downright nauseating, in the most bravura way possible.

The aforementioned Leder, almost Nosferatu-like in the way that he skulks, plays – with troubling brilliance – a convicted murderer on the day of his release from prison after serving a decade long stint for ending an old lady. Adopting a drolly confessional voice-over narration reminiscent more of Bresson’s “Pickpocket” than something more sordid, the film follows this nameless individual whose first instinct on leaving prison grounds is to find someone to off. He is not only unapologetic and relentless in his pursuit, but he does not display any signs of self-questioning, any indication that he wonders why exactly he has these urges and what purpose submitting to them might serve. Almost as a knowing dig by the filmmakers at the rehabilitation/correctional process in which incarceration is supposed to play a major part, Leder’s character mentions off-hand that prison is where criminals are meant to learn how to be better people, which he says while clearly anticipating his just-got-out-of-prison celebratory slaying. For the next seventy minutes the viewer is subjected to a uniquely photographed portrayal of what it may be like to submit oneself utterly to a force so powerful it might seem like a divine calling, or a curse. Watching this film, it makes complete sense that the man who directed “Enter the Void”, Gaspar Noé, reveres this film alongside “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Shot by Zbigniew Rybczynski, “Angst” features immediately distinct use of very high-angle tracking shots, almost god’s eye (or devil’s eye) views of the main character as he walks down the street and around and through buildings. These shots basically pre-empt the kind of visual aesthetic utilised in certain role-playing games like the “Grand Theft Auto” series or even “The Sims,” the kind used to emphasise how much of a pawn each character in the game is; how much they exist to satisfy the entertainment desires of the gamer. Then there is the virtuosic use of a camera mounted on the actor himself – the kind used to such memorable effect in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”, virtuosic here because the camera is a great deal more mobile that would be expected for a piece of apparatus fixed to a moving body. It (the camera) seems to swivel around him, as though the viewer is invited to assume the position of some demon that hangs around like a fly, attracted to the junkie-like desperation evident on his face and in his manner. In combination, these two techniques create a powerful sense of, well, many things: that this man’s physical body is at the utter mercy of his psychological obsessions, that he may be subject to out-of-body-experiences, that he may in fact be the tool of evil forces and spirits, that he is so removed from statistically normal human psychology that the ‘usual’ shots simply won’t suffice. But all this visual artistry, unlike other films in the horror canon, does little to shield or distract from the oppressiveness of the sequences being presented. “Angst” is simply not fun to watch despite wall-to-wall admirable visual flourishes, but it is plenty powerful and it is horrific through and through which is more than most supposed horror films can claim with sincerity.

So is “Angst” some sort of psycho-killer apologist statement? Probably not. There is – on display in the film – evidence that the filmmakers are curious about what exactly it is that enables someone to commit and recommit such acts of staggering violence with diminishing levels of awareness and an inability to view their behaviour in a context outside of their own needs and fantasies. Ultimately, there is the implication that the killer in this movie and similar individuals are in the throes of some kind of debased anxiety disorder, or that their pathology at the very least has strong components of anxiety of the kind that plagues true obsessive-compulsives who feel that they simply must do this or that in order to alleviate the overwhelming sense that all will not be well unless they carry out this or that. It’s terrifying to think that there are people in these particular psychological prisons, and perhaps more terrifying to think that – if faced with such an individual who has it in their mind that they must kill in order to simply feel…okay – nothing could in fact be done to dissuade them from stabbing you into oblivion. It should be said, however, that Leder’s unnamed character is perhaps more than just a victim of his vices. There are clear indications that he enjoys and cherishes what he does, though there are also moments of clear self-disgust and repulsion, for example his bout of dry retching after he has absolutely skewered the young lady and lapped up her blood in a deeply sexual manner in what must be one of the grimmest, most repulsive scenes of violence ever committed to film. The movie which comes closest to “Angst” in capturing the frankly sickening, ‘everyday’ quality that murder might have in the eyes of someone whose life is dedicated to it is “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, an inevitable comparison and a film that probably supersedes its Austrian counterpart on account of it simply being far more watertight and practically perfect. Where “Angst” falls short of undisputed horror ‘glory’, if that is even the right word, is that portions of its apparently famous score (which is said to be more well-known than the movie as a whole) seems to be attempting to express a panic and disorientation that the visuals on their own suggest fairly successfully. There are two of three moments in which this drum-heavy stretch of cheeseball-80’s-action-score music appears, but these are mercifully few in a film that does not dish mercy out all that generously (at least not to humans, though adorable brown Daschunds seem to be an exception) .

 

Blindspot: “千禧曼波” aka “Qiānxī Mànbō” or “Millennium Mambo”

May 26, 2015 § 1 Comment

Twenty minutes into Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s electro-scored 2001 pseudo-Wong Kar Wai pastiche (pseudo as in ‘seemingly, but not at all’), I’m convinced that Millenium Mambo is not the most ideal introduction to a filmmaker who is revered in the cinephile world to the point of being considered – by some – to be our greatest living filmmaker. This series I am embarking on should one day provide sufficient context with which I can/may judge such a haughty, hyperbolic appraisal, but for the moment, or more specifically, in the instant that this picture cuts to black and the credits begin to roll, I am convinced that this man Hsiao-Hsien has – in the last quarter of a decade – almost certainly made something that I will see and whole-heartedly adore (based on his general aesthetic, his pacing, his framing), but that this his meditation on youth…or time…or romance…or all three…or none at all, Millenium Mambo, is just not it. Starring the open-faced and stunning Qi Shu as Vicky, a young Taipei bar hostess in the grip of a serious case of post-millenial ennui and a very Gen Y brand of entitled aimlessness, Millenium Mambo is thematically comparable to an Antonioni picture whose characters aren’t able to articulate even to themselves why they may be so dissatisfied with everything, which is to say that there is precious little to intuit in the faces, the movements, the essences of Hsiao-Hsien’s characters, and that whatever little there may be in the way of motivation isn’t readily apparent. These individuals are defined not by words or plot-propelling actions but by the most fundamental modes of behaviour; by the way that they hold themselves when alone versus while in the presence of others; by their decision to pull out a cigarette and smoke it, when they choose to smoke it and how deeply. Honestly, the smoking in this film makes it something of a throwback to the aloof sixties and anxious seventies. On the surface, Vicky has every reason to hate her immediate situation (torn between a frankly diseased relationship with a head case DJ boyfriend and an older gangster suitor; being dissatisfied with her line of work etcetera), but her inertia is almost masochistically silly. Yet this is not so much a slight against the film as it is a slight against the character of Vicky in whom the director and his writer Chu Tien-wen nonetheless invest a generous amount of patience and interest, which they have every right to do whether or not you or I find her as compelling an entity as they do. As previously implied, this film seems to eschew story (almost aggressively so) in favour of mood and spatial intimacy, and with the druggy, roving, saturated image Hsiao-Hsien and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin achieve with what seems to be a fairly long lens, Millenium Mambo concocts the oppressive sense of longing for something unknown and undefined but almost certainly better than what is presently at hand, which may very well describe Vicky and her fellow characters. And perhaps myself as a viewer and beholder.

The horror…: “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night”

May 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

1974 belonged to Bob Clark, the same way it did Francis Ford Coppola who unleashed his cross-hook combo of “The Godfather II” and “The Conversation” that very same year. Of course, no one can and should ever discount the fact that milestone works from Fassbinder, Polanksi, Casavettes and a whole host of greats also hit the cinematic landscape at this time, but 1974 really did belong to American writer-director Bob Clark (in his own independent way) who released two bona fide gems of the horror genre within the same twelve month period: the most notable precursor to Carpenter’s “Halloween” – Black Christmas” – and “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night.” To cut directly to the chase and save the preamble for later, these two independently made horror films are striking for their attention to character and performance, quite possibly made clearer when one considers that horror films as a whole have a tendency towards the archetypal if not the stereotypic, and a greater focus on mechanics and raw function than on nuance. Watching “Black Christmas” years back, the generosity afforded both the characters on the page and the actors on the set strongly emanated from the screen. While the spine-tingling threat of a killer is painted with low-budget virtuosity from the get-go (utilising the kind of POV shot that would later achieve greater fame in Carpenter’s “Halloween” for the smoothness and assurance of its glide), on equally clear display is Bob Clark’s interest in the social and emotional dynamics of the sorority house on which the unseen killer has set his sights. Now, while he – Clark, that is – may have invested so much time in creating brief but telling portraits of the film’s main characters in order to establish a degree of human cost to the massacre that is about to occur, films as great as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have been able to effectively inflict very affecting violence on characters that are largely spare, daresay ‘functional,’ in the way that they are drawn. But the thing that writer-director Clark does with his characters in “Black Christmas,” with his actors specifically, is inject a certain loose-limbed freedom into the performances which may or may not heighten the intensity of the kills, but which would most certainly be joyous for a viewer who craves but doesn’t expect to see such character nuance in an American independent horror film. Well, it turns out that what Clark achieves in “Black Christmas” he also achieves in “Deathdream,” his Vietnam era – quite possibly anti-war – ‘zompire’ (or ‘vambie’) movie.

In the opening sequence of “Deathdream” private Andy Brooks (played very curiously but somewhat perfectly by Richard Backus) is shown being gunned to death while on duty in Vietnam, only to turn up on the doorstep of his family’s home in suburban Brooksville, Florida (where the movie was shot) to the ecstatic relief of a delusional-from-fear mother, the mildly sceptical surprise of a collectedly impatient father, the stunned acceptance of his sister, and the varied responses of everyone else that he once knew in his seemingly close-knit hometown. Mentioning that he is somewhat changed would be a superfluous downplaying of the events that unfold in this barebones picture, but it would also be unnecessarily evasive not to acknowledge that “Deathdream” is a (perhaps knowingly) obvious exploration of the effect that war has on the social fabric of a family, a community, a nation. But it may also raise the question: ‘is there – [was there] – something about the Vietnam War in particular that makes it – [made it] – especially toxic on a social level?’ Lynn Carlin as Christine Brooks is probably the most archetypal character in the film, the kind of movie mother who seems to love her son more than she does her daughter in a weirdly doting way that hints at Freudian-via-Greek Mythology sexuality. If one were inclined to add an extra layer of supernaturalism to the film, they could claim that Christine’s pathological belief that Andy is alive somehow contributes to the juju or what-have-you that ends up zombifying him. In sharp contrast to her is John Marley as Andy’s father, Charles, himself a WWII veteran who seems to have been already prepared for the loss of a son, only to be ironically thrown by the fact that his son is not only returned, but changed. One of the film’s sharpest lines comes when Charles’s frustration at Andy’s zombie-like taciturnity and newfound ability to murder a small animal he once loved dearly as a pet comes to a head. When he returned from his blood-soaked military service, Charles states, he might’ve changed a touch but not even close to Andy’s level of dysfunction and sociopathy! It’s interesting to consider the slew of post-Vietnam films released in the seventies and early eighties, pictures predicated on the idea that Vietnam ruined servicemen and servicewomen somewhat irreparably, and to then compare these to the post-war American film landscape of the 1940s and 1950s. It might be fair to assert that post-WWII American cinema was more focused on new threats (those of possible future nuclear warfare, communism and the Cold War) than it was on decrying the horrors of WWII. While noir filmmakers found ways to express the fatalism and nihilism that the war’s dance with depravity/death-by-millions may have injected into the American psyche as a whole, there isn’t an overwhelming sense in those pictures that WWII destroyed a generation so much as aged them prematurely, by decades. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that that war had a degree of moral justification, at least in a way that Vietnam couldn’t take a torch to. Consider, then, films as mainstream as “Taxi Driver” and “The Deer Hunter” which directly draw causative links between Vietnam service and the psychoemtional decay of their central characters. Perhaps there was a sense that the war waged in French Indochina, due to the ambiguity of its aims and its questionable justifications, killed everyone who served in it (at least from an American perspective) be it physically or psychologically; either way, whether you returned home in a casket or multi-medalled in the backseat of a car, you were dead, dead to your old self and those you once knew and who once knew you. This may all sound overly hyperbolic, but this is exactly the source of drama from which Clark and his collaborators appear to have drawn while making “Deathdream” and making it work like a well-restored old engine.

The hints of knowing villainy underlying Andy is at first a little disconcerting, as though Buack’s performance is misguided, and for a while it might feel this way. Andy almost appears to take perverse pleasure in quietly disturbing those that are trying so hard (to varying degrees) to accommodate his return, whether by attempting to surreptitiously rehabilitate him or by openly accepting that he is broken but at no fault of his own. The speech he makes to the family doctor, Dr Allman, suggests that Andy is somehow punishing if not simply spiting the society that forcefully sent him off to die. It’s only when this scene is contrasted with the film’s closing moments that the true anguish at the core of the film’s ‘protagonist’ comes to the fore, hauntingly expressed on a remarkably well made-up face that must surely stand as one of the most effective instances of creature cosmetics in the independent horror canon if not further afield. Andy, like the best film fiends, is as much a victim of himself as are the people from whom he drains blood, a victim of his newfound bloodthirst, of the guilt he might feel for playing a part in a potentially unjust war and the concurrent rage he feels towards the nation that would think to place him in such a position. Like Travis Bickle and company, Andy is painfully confused and conflicted, and the fact that he – like them – reconciles these emotions by developing a destructive and misanthropic worldview, rife with contradictions, is precisely what makes him so unpredictably dangerous, and unexpectedly, sympathetically sad.

From a monster mythology standpoint, “Deathdream” is wholly unique, hence the neologisms (zompire and vambie) used earlier. Like the titular character in George A. Romero’s downright vampire masterpiece “Martin,” Andy is not the elegantly invincible ghoul of the Dracula lineage but a surprisingly wretched and decidedly human species of undead, one who obtains his sanguine sustenance by messily killing people and injecting himself with blood like a junkie, which may mean that “Deathdream” is some sort of a precursor to Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction,” if not a direct influence. Is Andy a vampire, or is he a zombie? Like most vampires he is a blood parasite who seems to hunt at night. But, like Martin, he is not particularly affected by sunlight, and the lifeless, automatoid way he behaves and moves (often swinging menacingly back and forth in a rocking chair in a way that resembles Sam Neill’s character in Zulawski’s “Possession”) imply that he is a walking dead man. While overall evidence might skew more towards him being a vampire than a zombie seeing as zombies tend to lack any appreciable level of sentience, the fact that Andy’s ghoul-lineage is not as plainly clear as the vast majority of creature-feature horror films is part of what makes “Deathdream” so damn distinctive. Maybe Bob Clark decided to focus on a different kind of entity driven by pain, alienation and a sense of being wronged by the society for which they were willing to sacrifice everything: the Vietnam Vet.

 

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