Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The Mad Fox (Tomu Uchida, 1962)

At once reserved and utterly unhinged, Tomu Uchida's The Mad Fox has garnered praise for its fervent theatricality and haywire visuals. But the very structure of the thing possesses a lopsided attractiveness as well and not only due to a twisty narrative that does justice to its alternative title, Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow (although a review claims it's roughly translated as Love, Love, Don't Play With Love). The first 25 or so minutes were taken up with what my friend Bill called cabinet meetings, some sort of medieval court power play that reminded me of the overnarrativization of The Phantom Menace (or, better, its laser-pointed parody in a hilarious episode of The Simpsons). And then - wow! After a grueling scene in which the heroine is tortured to death, the hero wakes up wearing his lover's robe in a field of yellow feathers with a backdrop that does nothing to disguise the sound stage on which it's filmed. Complete with a rotating floor, the set recalls the cinema vs. theatre hi-jinks of Kon Ichikawa's An Actor's Revenge from just a year later. At this point, the film abandons the court intrigue and dazzles with animated characters, butterflies on strings, a collapsible set, a wooden baby voiced by unnatural off-screen/off-set cries, and the heroine tripled first as a twin and then as a shape-shifting fox in a Noh mask. And it never quite comes back to that narrative thread. A fortune-telling scroll passes through many hands but winds up a MacGuffin in this ultimate tale of l'amour fou. The overall feel is best summarized in an incredible scene during which the fox-woman licks her lover's wounds. Uchida shoots it in a sober long take with no score to cushion the intimations of bestiality, a perfect distillation of a film that takes its eccentricities with the utmost seriousness. A stunner!
 
 

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Monday, October 17, 2016

New York Film Festival Screenings 6

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, 2016)
If you can imagine a fusion of Ozu's Late Spring, Foucault's "Friendship as a Way of Life," and Middlemarch (or do I mean All About Eve?), then you'll grasp what Terence Davies has achieved with A Quiet Passion, his stunning biopic of Emily Dickinson, the original riot grrrl. Like Noriko in Late Spring, Davies' Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon in a supernaturally fantastic performance which should beeline her for an Oscar nod) forsakes marriage for a retreat into, nay, a basking in her family. And who can blame her? It's a collective that values intelligence, most pungently evoked in a 360-degree pan across the family reading at night. Her brother and sister (fine support from Jennifer Ehle) spout off staircase wit with a precision and timing worthy of Dorothea Brooke/Margot Channing and the patriarch (an unrecognizable Keith Carradine) allows Emily a modicum of freedom she wouldn't have enjoyed in other contexts. In short, Davies reconceives the family as a place of queerness and thus, the most devastating moments aren't the ugly, unflinching visions of illness and death but rather, when friendships die (in the saddest wedding scene imaginable, for instance) and rebellion leads to disappointment. Written and directed by Davies, A Quiet Passion is an astonishing achievement.


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Saturday, October 15, 2016

New York Film Festival Screenings 5

Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu, 2016)
I came in late for this 173-minute film and had to sit on the floor. But as a measure of Puiu's genius for enriching the passage of time, I could've sat through an extra 173 minutes with no qualms (well, maybe a cup to pee in). Most of the film takes place in a cramped apartment where a family has gathered to commemorate the recent passing of their father and Puiu transforms it into an epic battlefield of private vs. public. It's a comedy-drama of closed doors and impossible interiors (There's a *couch* in the dining room? Where? Oh there! Wow.). Much of the fun is imagining where Puiu could possibly put his camera in an endlessly deferred dinner during which the extended family debates 9/11, Communism, and the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Indeed, as we discover that Puiu is taking up the position of now the Christmas tree, now the television set, we come to know Sieranevada as a narrative about how our identities derive for the taking up of space (which is why one of the few scenes outside the apartment revolves around an argument about parking spaces). A masterpiece.

Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)
Verhoeven planned to film this adaptation of Philippe Dijan's novel Oh... in English but couldn't find an actress to play the role Isabelle Huppert eventually took on. Gawd bless the French. Huppert plays the owner of a successful video game development company who is raped in the first scene of the film. But as Huppert made clear in the Q&A, she's neither a victim nor a rape avenger but rather a new archetype. Me, I'm left with the usual itchy questions. Do we need a new archetype with respect to films about rape or do we need less films about rape overall? Is it a failure of imagination to use rape as a framing device for a story about a successful woman or is it an honest appraisal of what it means for a woman to live in world framed by Gamergate, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, etc.? Do depictions of rape merely stoke our desire to see one happen, missing an opportunity to forge new pleasures, or do such depictions rub our faces in it enough to blot out that desire? And to what extent is this even a film about rape, a dangerous provocation that likely had much to do with why no American actress would touch this film?

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Friday, October 14, 2016

New York Film Festival Screenings 4

Thematic spoilers only

Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie, 2016)
Before the screening, Guiraudie mentioned that there would be one shocking shot in the film. So after a graphic birthing scene early in the film, we thought we were in the clear. Oh boy were there plenty more shocks to come! (Guiraudie admitted he was joking at the Q&A after with Dennis Lim. Such an imp!) In any event, Staying Vertical continues Stranger by the Lake's radical equation of queerness with the countryside. Its allegorical thrust renders it a tad more corny than his previous masterpiece (the title refers to standing firm in the face of life's difficulties, particularly lack of inspiration). But it's wackier and more unpredictable than Stranger by the Lake and Guiraudie forges some new equations, e.g., Pink Floydesque prog rock blaring out oppressively over a quiet country lane (and over undoubtedly the most shocking scene).

The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues, 2016)
These two films were shown one after the other Wednesday night and they couldn't have been better paired. Both traffic in religious themes. Both engage in conversations with nature rather than treating it as an inert force. And both are head-scratchingly queer. The Ornithologist casts the hunky title character as a modern Saint Anthony of Padua and as the least churched person imaginable, I took advantage of this useful Variety review to learn about references to Doubting Thomas and Saint Sebastian as well. Rodrigues himself stands in for the ornithologist in blurry shots from the point of view of various avian beings and eventually takes over the character towards the end of the film. In Saint Sebastian mode, the ornithologist sports an impressive erection through tighty whities. In Doubting Thomas mode, he penetrates the knife wound of a cute boy he's had sex with. There's also a baptism of sorts in urine, a scary fireside ritual in the endangered language of Mirandese, Amazonian archers speaking Latin, and two Chinese Catholic girls, first terrifying, then sweet. Even wackier and more personal than Staying Vertical, it may also have something to do with artistic creation seeing as how Saint Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of lost things.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

New York Film Festival Screenings 3

Autumn (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2016)
The Dreamer (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2016)
Bagatelle II (Jerome Hiler, 2016) 

Program 8 of the NYFF's Projections slate ("an international selection of film and video work that expands upon our notions of what the moving image can do and be") featured the latest films from Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler and they were presented in the order above. I note this for two reasons: 1. Each film was (felt? became?) more representational than the previous. 2. Autumn is my favorite film of the year but it could have been any one of these had I seen them in a different order. That might seem damning (of my critical faculties and/or avant-garde cinema) but it speaks to the indigestible nature of these gorgeous films. With multiple superimpositions, out-of-focus shots, and the general information rich tumble of imagery (and no sound to direct our gaze), they resist attempts to consume them, nay, even to conceive of them. Much of the time, we don't even know what we're looking at, what is figure and what is ground. We could be gazing up at a zeppelin or some sort of seed-like formation within a water drop.

They reminded me, of course, of Brakhage, particularly his Arabics and the sense of cinema as eye-confounding abstraction devoid of any referent. But more often, it reminded of the popular music I hold most dear, consumer products that sound unconsumable, that you'll never get to the bottom of, songs where the figure of the vocals engage in an unresolvable struggle with the ground of the music, striving to be heard but never quite succeeding. The sample-dense strafing of Public Enemy and M.I.A. The murk of the Stones' Exile, Sly's Riot and Ariel Pink's Doldrums. The shoegazing yearning of My Bloody Valentine, Glasvegas, and Belong's Colorloss Record.

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Monday, October 10, 2016

New York Film Festival screenings 2

Personal Shopper (Oliver Assayas, 2016)
It's a bit early to be remaking Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). There Kristen Stewart played the assistant to a famous actress. Here she works as the titular consumer for a fashion icon. Assayas has grafted on a silly ghost story and if Stewart can't bring alive lines about ectoplasm escaping through the nose, well, who could? There's also a gory murder mystery the blitheness of which leaves me typically indignant about the use of dead women as story devices. In short, as narrative, Personal Shopper is a mess. But the centerpiece of the film pivots on a series of goading iPhone text messages sent to Stewart by...well, I'm still not 100% certain, narrative not being my strong point. No matter. At the Q & A after the screening, Assayas explained the unforeseen difficulty of filming an iPhone and we believed him. He manages to juice unbearable tension from those grayed-out ellipses signaling that someone is typing. The drama in these scenes is so palpable, in fact, that whoever was doing the actual texting deserves an Oscar for superb pacing and mercurial characterization. Maybe a Best Texter category is in order. One more item to note: people always have books and cigarettes with them in France.

Here's Assayas with Amy Taubin:

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Monday, October 03, 2016

New York Film Festival screenings 1

Only thematic spoilers

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
Lonergan's latest confirms my theory that our tears flow while watching melodramas not when communication becomes impossible, forever too late, but when it does happen, when after (or, more precisely, in between) all the confrontations and horrible coincidences, the characters care for one another, when they capitulate to forces they cannot control and make something less melodramatic of their lives. There are many Oscar moments throughout Manchester by the Sea, especially when the pain in Casey Affleck's introvert manifests itself in rage, all scored to airless classical music. And these are the moments that will define the film if not in Best Actor clips then in historical record. But we should seize on those interconnecting scenes away from the staircase that recall Lloyd Richard's deathless "There are very few moments in life as good as this. Let's remember it" in All About Eve or when Joan gives Christina the necklace in Mommie Dearest for they lend the film its weight in history. Margaret remains his masterpiece (Manchester lacks a finale to match that film's knockout one) but I adored every minute.

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
Toni Erdmann defines "unpredictable" so you'll read nothing here of its many hilarious outrages. But these were enough to carry the film's 162 minutes without any sort of narrative or even thematic casing. Unfortunately, casing is what we get and it sours the story of a Kris Kringley father who (rather smugly, I say) tries to get his pushing-forty daughter to realize that her high-powered consulting career has turned her into a robot eternally attached to her smart phone. I wonder how well the film would be received if the sex roles were reversed (or did Albert Brooks do this already with Mother?). And Ade leaves no room for a meditation on unalienated labor. Still, the set pieces are incredible and I'll bow out now because I'm dying to discuss the petit fours scene.

Here are star Peter Simonischek and Maren Ade discussing the film with Dennis Lim, Director of Programming. 

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