Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SFIFF54 #4: A Useful Life

by Ryland Walker Knight

La vida util

Federico Veiroj's A Useful Life is a black and white short feature (only 67 minutes) that doesn't need your eyes to be excellent but your eyes could only help its cause since its main point is a flip on the title of Dave Kehr's new book: movies matter. Not only that, our reparatory houses matter no matter what somebody with a microphone* tells you. Matter of fact, this movie's got rather simple aims but it's also got enough love for the movies that any cinephile will likely fall in love with it. The style echoes Bresson's presentational purity (this desk, this bag, this staircase) and the film is full of so many references that they're too many to name here** but the two that matter most are pretty tough to miss.

First, as hinted by a title card up front (the entire credits precede the film), there's a speech culled from Mark Twain about lying and the value of lying in a world of lies delivered by our main man from the cinematheque, Jorge (played by Uruguayan film critic Jorge Jellinek), in a law classroom when he nods, "Yes," to the query, "Are you the substitute teacher?" He finishes his speech (I wish I could quote it or find the passage online) as the real substitute teacher enters the classroom and leaves without confrontation. No one stops him. No one should. Besides, he's not the only one having fun in the scene: the student who asked him to take a role he was not meant for understands his practical joke and she laughs from her front row seat.

The second quote involves our man, alone, on a white staircase, trying out some Fred Astaire moves—up and down and around the steps—making himself smile for a good few minutes in an unbroken shot. It's truly a joyful moment, his movements filling the frame with an energy of something like discovery and everything like pleasure; that is, he's having a ball playing with this world. But it's not cloying because our man is more clumsy than graceful, moving in spurts, his hands still as slack at his sides as when he trudges Montevideo's streets or the hallways of his dying/dead home of cinema. It's not learning how to walk—he does that fine—, it's learning how to make use of what he learned in the dark, which is as good a classroom for life as any other arena. After all, the pick up line that works for Jorge isn't, "Care for a coffee?" Rather, with a bunch of teeth flashing: "Want to see a movie?"

* or an impressive New York apartment, or a lot of cash to withhold, or an institution's denial of said funds to hide behind

** in part because I could not tell you what other movies were mined for a lot of the sweeping score on the soundtrack

Monday, April 25, 2011

SFIFF54 #3: Convergence for your ship gone glass (5/25/11)

by Ryland Walker Knight

Sunday, April 24, 2011

SFIFF54 #2: Waking up to life sometimes seems worse

by Ryland Walker Knight

— Getting naked with clothes on

Despite the worst projection/presentation I have ever experienced at the Kabuki*, Hahaha proved once again all you need to make a fabulous movie is a sense of humor and a couple of good actors. This flick has more than just a couple, though, with at least seven fully realized characters criss-crossing, eluding each other even, over a rainy week in the port town of Tongyeong. I don't need to really tell you who these characters are, though, nor what really happens, since the charm of the picture is just how conceptual it is without being clever or, as is often the case in Hong, overtly structural. Granted, there is a device: the present tense of the story is rendered in black and white still photographs, heard as narration, as two friends meet for drinks to talk about their recent visits to Tongyeong, ignorant of the peripheral role each played in the other's vacation. However, it becomes more of a tool for rhythm than anything else as these two stories cohere around the perpetually liminal space of the port with one friend finding a way to leave untethered to anything or anybody and the other finding his way towards the commitment he's been avoiding. True to its blood as a comedy, it ends in a marriage of sorts—let's call it a pledge—and a laugh.

Though the majority of the film is spent observing the problems boys encounter when they wear the bodies of men, the women somehow matter more even though we're never granted a look from inside their eyes. One lady keeps saying, "You see me," without realizing this boy-man does not know her, truly; rather, he knows how to compliment her—not to mention stalk her, to the point of breaking into her apartment while she's gone. Almost an axiom: men in a Hong picture, even when they are True, are always creeps. That is, they all drink too much and they all seem mainly interested in sex, not love, to say nothing of work. Which is odd since Hong's the ultimate professional. He debuted two pictures in 2010 for Heaven's sake. And this one is just superb. It's casual, like a good dinner: one story leads into another and after a couple hours you're full or you're wasted and it's time for one last joke before you hit the road satisfied you understand your friend, and maybe life, a little better.

A movie at opposite ends—not once does it picture a better world—Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below is practically apocalyptic from the get-go. As lucid an interpretation of a certain Mille plateaux perspective on our recent global crash climate, the film isn't strictly a political engine though its main structure as far as I can see is to de-center everything, to expose how this fiberobtic planet of moving monies is as thin as a glass wall is a look-don't-touch denial. To that end, I'm slightly sympathetic to the people who find the film "cold," but, that's a starting point not an argument. And, in fact, its distance is simply part of its Resnais-like openness. Its Biblical coda is (I'd like to think D&G would approve) crazy multivalent with significance moving in a million directions thanks to its oblique construction. A "complete" read is impossible for me at this point in part because I was so seduced by the aesthetics.

Looking forward to exploring more of Hochhäusler's work with the help of my Cargo editor, Ekkehard Knörer, who interviewed the filmmaker and his writing partner here (in German, but you can hit "translate" in Chrome and get the gist), who agrees I could probably make an argument about the apocalyptic gloom of this easy-to-allegorize but still-rich tower of depravity. (Bonus: any movie that makes Gang Gang Dance** a part of its characterization of the lead earns lots of points.) And I've said nothing about how excellent the acting is, nor the economy of the script, or any other thing I might want to praise, because I don't really need to, I'd hope; after all, compliments are nice but often boring. The most thrilling moments of this film are the ones where characters literally or metaphorically wake up because it's great to watch a face recognize a shift in the world they live in.

Which reminds me, it's okay to love somebody and tell a story about it. And Mysteries of Lisbon is nothing but stories. In fact, Ruiz makes a joke about the length and breadth of his film right at the start of the second part, presumably experienced after an intermission as we relished, by having one character tell another that he has a long story to tell and it will be mystifying as to why he's telling the story but that if his audience of one is patient and keeps listening everything will be told in the proper order for maximum cathartic effect. This is the film, of course, talking to us in the seats***. Because the film takes its time. And it repeats itself. We hear one story after another, with stories within stories, making audiences of every character at almost every encounter; or every character has a chance to play narrator. Which reminds me, the voice is a powerful tool.

This polyphony is a way to bend your ear, the same way that the way Ruiz circles scenes bends the space, and because we learn so many histories, motivations get bent into new senses or understandings of the world. The entire film is trying to bend you to its formal will, put you in a place, force you into roles you hear inside your own head, make you lose yourself as much as our first/primary narrator winds up losing himself through the course of his maze of a life. With most of the movie taking place indoors, a series of interlocking chambers, this makes rigorous sense thanks to Ruiz's roving eye so nimble to traverse a wall or glance past a hidden stairwell with a face gone sour listening to evil perpetrated beyond this private box of echoes. Again, audiences; again, multiplied; again, again. It's so interior that locales beyond walls remain concepts, fantasies, stages. And we remember the dioramas that double the scenes here and there where everything's a cut-out, a make believe, and you begin to wonder just how much of any of these stories are—here's a dumb word—real. Real is necessary, though, since it's the root of surreal and that's just what this labyrinth winds up: a magic mirror dolly into the light of a new life yet to be dreamt.

To the moon!

* The center of the frame was out of focus for long stretches and at two separate points in the last third of the film, the SFIFF digital slideshow of sponsor ads popped up in purple and pink to cover the screen.

** I feel like GGD is what I always wanted from Deerhoof and never got.

*** SFIFF, like any film festival, has a number of grey hairs who think they're retaining some grasp on high culture by coming to "obscure" foreign movies only to talk their way through whatever it is they've forked over however many dollars they had to in order to spend, as was the case here, four hours in the dark. My complaint is an old one: let the movie tell you how to watch it. And shut up. Asking, "Does this mean he's his son?" right before the reveal is announced (we all felt it, lady) is one hell of a way to not be subsumed by the images in front of your eyes. Which is a long, stupid rant shoved into a footnote so I could include a likely-useless bit of blogging tid bit saying that, thanks to a mom and a daughter under the impression that movie time is gab time, I switched seats at intermission from a perfectly good seat with a decent neck-bending ratio to the front row, which, though it is recessed thanks to a rather deep stage in K1, forced a slouch I did not want to make my body perform. I know, boo-fricking-hoo. At least my ticket was free and the movie itself didn't suffer because of my pet peeves.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

SFIFF54 #1: Viewing Log #82: Lilac under linen [4/7/11 - 4/20/11]

by Ryland Walker Knight

In the cave
"landscapes and mindscapes"

One of the funny things about the San Francisco International Film Festival, which starts tonight, is that a good portion of its offerings are festival circuit "holdovers" that started their trek to SF last year at the Cannes Festival. Well, funny only because this year I'll be playing catch-up here and then leapfrogging a lot of tour stops by hitting Cannes in May. Granted, this year's Croisette selections are not quite as appetizing as a lot of us had hoped; however, it's still the premiere fest and it still costs an arm and a leg to be a part of it. But more on that adventure later. Here, I'm concerned with laying out what my last few weeks in town look like from a cinephile standpoint.

There's certainly plenty to see at SFIFF54 (pronounced "s'fiffty-four" by some), and I do plan on attending daily, but I also don't want to get burnt out on a bunch of movies all at once. So, as often as I can, I'm going to just see one film a day. And then I'll throw up a quick take here that night or the next morning. Given that two of my most anticipated titles are 272-minute and 212-minute affairs, this one-a-day dictum should be easy enough on those two Saturdays: this weekend I'll settle in for Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon for the entire afternoon, starting right at noon, and the following week I plan to head over to the PFA for the 35mm screening of Fassbinder's World on a Wire. Yet there are a number of shorter films as well, such as Federico Veiroj's A Useful Life, which is only about an hour long and easy to pair with an evening of avant-garde shorts in a program called The Deep End, with newer work from people I respect and enjoy like, say, Ben Russell and Vincent Grenier to name two of the nine featured filmmakers.

I only caught two press screenings prior to the festival and I don't think I'll be looking at any screeners but I do have a copy of Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg that I've been meaning to watch ever since I saw/felt Dogtooth. The two films I have seen, I should say, are Patricio Guzman's Nostalgia for the Light and Werner Herzog's The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Both of these films will open in the Bay in the summer months so, logistics wise, there is no real rushing need for you to see them at the festival. However, both are very good pictures. The Guzman is a tad less poetic than I'd've hoped (in fact it's kind of hokey near the close) but the Herzog, though I could quibble with it, is just great. You might know by now that it's his first and last film in 3-D, but his use of the medium makes so much more sense than so many productions force fed at kids these days. Ostensibly a documentary, as they often are, the 3-D is less about realism than it is about phenomena and creating new realities for your eyes; that is, the experience you have seeing these rare paintings matters because you're given a sense of their physical depth and of their curves for light to play against. You see new movement of old visions. It's thrilling, moving even, and it should only be seen as big as possible.

The main highlight of the run, for me, is likely the evening with the Tindersticks at the Castro (more here), which will feature clips of Claire Denis movies accompanied by live performances of the scores of the films in the clip reel. Truth be told, it sounds like quite the nerd event (it could be a major let down), but I'm more than game to see those images and hear those sounds in that theatre. If all goes according to plan, I'll have something extra on this event.

Other items on the list include: Hong's Hahaha, Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below, Kelly Reichart's Meek's Cutoff (which I hafta catch at SFIFF54, despite its wider release a week or so later, because I'll be gone for so long), Breillat's The Sleeping Beauty (which sounds even better than the superb Bluebeard), Lee Anne Schmitt's The Last Buffalo Hunt (in part because Haz liked her last film at SFFIFF52 and in part because James Laxton shot some of it), Michelangelo Frammartino's Le quattro volte, Lech Majewski’s The Mill and The Cross, J.P. Sniadecki & Véréna Paravel's Foreign Parts, Florent Tillon's Detroit Wild City, Otar Iosseliani's Chantrapas, Andrei Ujica's The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, Mike Cahill's Another Earth, Romain Goupil's Hands Up, Christopher Munch's Letters from the Big Man (one of Sean Uyehara's favorites), and Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy. There are yet others, of course, but those are the ones I'm targeting, the ones I'd feel less "ok" skipping, the ones I hope I can find something to say about in a timely manner.

In any case, I do hope to offer more than glib summaries. But I've got these last two weeks of dayjob work that I must focus on before the fun of the festivals takes over my life, fostering a whole new set of anxieties (am I writing enough? is it worthy of eyes? where's the coffee? why can't I stay awake? is there food in my beard? do I stink? how bad can my posture get?) to wade through. So, until then—let's say, Saturday—end that week with a bang! Any way you want to! Any way you can!

— I thought it'd be more fun to go down the street this way.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Meet Avery

by Ryland Walker Knight

She's learning to use her eyes, the light is still too bright
No poop in fact but yelps no less
No teeth in that trap to keep her polite

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Viewing Log #81: Dogtooth [Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009]

by Ryland Walker Knight

We have twenty minutes to spare
—The only audience for philosophy is the one performing it.

One of those ugly films that looks beautiful, Dogtooth a trouble maker. That is, it's difficult. Abusive and about abuse, controlling and about control, and all kinds of weird in the sexual arena save the hilarious swap of meanings where, at this compound's dinner table, "pussy" means "lightbulb" and, in the bedroom, a lady calls her vagina a keyboard. (My not wanting to use "pussy" twice is another odd linguistic/cultural impulse worth looking into another time.) The film starts with a lesson in words, in fact, with a tape recording made by the mother defining new meanings for words anybody "with language" should already know; so from the start we've got a film about education awry. But this picture of children finding meanings for themselves within a totalizing system they cannot control isn't just an unlearning, nor some new light shone, but a more basic urge—I want to say compulsion—in the human to sublimate one's every day. It just takes more drastic actions, with greater consequences, when one's every day is defined in terms that are outright wrong, plainly false. The exciting thing is Dogtooth doesn't try to redefine the terms for you; the troubling thing is it doesn't exactly open the world.

Such is the risk of the metaphysical, I suppose: languages make the everyday in concrete actions every day. The best way I can describe what I'm failing to say here, because I want these posts to be as quick and dirty as possible, is, and this is a huge idea to toss off in a goofy little blog post, that you learn a language by speaking it, not reading it or writing it. That old game of praxis versus theory. Which is another long-winded way of saying, inside all the gorgeous and irregular compositions in the film, there's a course-load of philosophy to elucidate for those inclined. Not being a grad student, I don't plan to go into it here. But I would gladly read certain people's papers (that ignore the qualitative aspect of criticism) on this film and its ideas. What really got my brain going, to be honest, was that the movies (both home and Hollywood) are manifestly a big part of the education herein. But we don't see the Hollywood ones (though there are grainy clips of the home videos), we see static on the TV and we see a performance, a "third-party" representation/reproduction/redescription as part of our understanding of the worlds colliding inside one tough lady's body and soul.

All that matters now is out

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Viewing Log #80: Fish Tank [Andrea Arnold, 2009]

by Ryland Walker Knight

Know nape

Though I'm perpetually curious how female filmmakers/artists will represent sexuality (ie, women tend to render the complications and contradictions in fascinating ways), most of this flick is bogus. Sure, Katie Jarvis has spunk. But this Ouroboros idea of "the poor" and their tendencies isn't just clichéd but condescending. Like Sicinski, I thought the "reveal" was going to be commentary on the cinema's tourism, but, no, it's just a hackneyed way to say what you already know: people make bad choices for selfish reasons all the time. All that said, the film is visually compelling, with its square format frame (though the conceptual weight of that choice is rather like a sack of cement) and play with POV/voyeurism. Better, Arnold carves a sense of place/milieu, however obvious it might be, which gives me hope that her Wuthering Heights will be mired in the moors, gloomy and scary along with sexy, and not some Ho'wood romantic gloss with stairways to heaven.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Viewing Log #79: Opening daze counting down [3/23/11 - 3/31/11]

by Ryland Walker Knight

Opening day

  • The External World [David O'Reilly, 2011] Watch it here. Anybody familiar with O'Reilly's twitter knows how morbid he can get, but this thing is fucking funny. In part, duh, because it's morbid. It's no surprise that those T+E guys loved it at Sundance, and I wouldn't be surprised (again) if they wound up working together.

  • Beau Travail [Claire Denis, 1999] # Still the best ending ever. Too bad that snore monster made an appearance two seats away from me and wouldn't sit up straight or wake up when I moved the seat his arm was resting on. Hate that guy.
  • Nenette et Boni [Claire Denis, 1996] # Not my favorite, but I love the play between fantasy and reality that makes adolescence a haze of projection. But there is just a little too much awful to be the kind of affirmation so many of her other films are; in other words, there are no good choices made by any character.

  • I'll Do Anything [James L. Brooks, 1994] Wow this is a mess. Glad Brooks loves kids, kind of as a rule, and understands how sex can be funny, but, man, the only reason I finished this thing was because I was ironing.

  • Terms of Endearment [James L. Brooks, 1983] # I watched the first half and then had to eat some brunch. I forgot about it and haven't found a good time to start up again. I've seen it before so I know where it's going. Main takeaway this time: Larry McMurtry writes women really well. And I have a crush on Debra Winger in her flustered-yet-confident "throw your hands up at this life" fits.

Ruts make you reach