Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New Releases: Where is Where? and The Horse Boy

For your consideration, a pair of films opening this week: Eija-Liisa Ahtila's split-screen art project, Where is Where? (reviewed at The Village Voice) and Rupert Isaacson's vanity project, The Horse Boy, about his quest to heal his son's autism (Slant). Neither is particularly recommended.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


What are the consequences of our culture’s increasing obsession with the video image, specifically the You Tube-style novelty clip and the more violent strands of pornography? Well, according to Antonio Campos’ thematically intriguing but fatally simplistic Afterschool, we have the perpetuation of bad behaviors learned from the video world, the blurring of the real and the virtual, a certain degree of moral numbness and, finally, a subversion of video (or film’s) truth-telling function by lying manipulations.

All of which may or may not be pretty heady stuff, but in Campos’ presentation, it breaks down into easy-to-digest thesis segments. Rob (Ezra Miller), a 10th grader at an elite prep school some miles outside of Manhattan, spends his time online watching porno or vid clips, while experiencing difficulty interacting with other students. His pent-up frustration comes out in occasional hot outbursts and frequent masturbatory sessions, but mostly he just walks around in silent passivity – a state mirrored by Campos’ awkwardly off-kilter framings which often leave the shot’s main subjects chopped-off by the screen’s edge. Since Rob can seemingly act only according to learned behaviors, when he finds himself in an intimate encounter with a young woman (while videotaping the whole thing, natch) he begins choking her - just like in! And when he’s faced with the film’s central tragedy, two girls dying in front of his eyes via coke overdose – also captured by the young man on video – he’s unable to react properly. Frozen at first in immobility, he only moves forward to helplessly observe, an extension of the camera’s passive function.

After the deaths, the film turns its attentions to the prep school’s official response, its misguided attempts to come to terms with the overdose. As put forth by an officious dean who verges on the parodic, this response consists of increased repression rather than any kind of emotional healing. (We also learn that the dean had repeatedly ignored warnings of the girl’s troubled behavior.) So, random room searches are instituted, the students are doped up on anti-depressants (an officially acceptable form of narcotic) and a memorial video is commissioned. Campos introduces this last development as a means of interrogating the role of video (and, by extension, film) as a device for recording truth – either on its simplest terms as a documentary function, or more importantly, as emotional truth. This second form of truth is brought into play when Rob concocts a memorial video that pays tribute to the young girls’ lives, but also gets at deeper ambiguities in the underlying set of circumstances. (This emotional truth is also, in theory, the type communicated by Campos’ film.) Naturally, the AV-advisor balks at his efforts – “it didn’t even have music,” he shouts in disbelief – and an uncontroversial, highly sentimentalized offering, which selectively edits out specific content from clips that we’ve already seen in their entirety, is substituted in its stead. In moments like these, it’s difficult to argue with the truth of what Campos is telling us, but it’s all too easy to object to the simplistic manner of its telling.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New York FIlm Festival: Sweet Rush and Police, Adjective

My second set of New York Film Festival reviews covers a pair of flawed titles from Eastern Europe. Polish legend Andrzej Wajda's Sweet Rush is slight, but enjoyable, while Romanian up-and-comer Corneliu Porumboiu's more ambitious Police, Adjective begins with promise, but gets fatally bogged down in its heady climactic sequence. Both links are to Slant Magazine.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Releases: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Irene in Time, In Search of Beethoven and Paradise

Amidst my ongoing New York Film Festival coverage (check back later in the week for more), I found time to review a few non-festival films. At Slant Magazine, I covered John Krasinski's David Foster Wallace adaptation Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Henry Jaglom's Irene in Time, at the Voice, the doc In Search of Beethoven and at The L Magazine, Michael Almereyda's scrapbook film, Paradise. Also up at The L, a short piece on Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang which screens tonight at BAM as part of the Juliette Binoche retrospective.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New York Film Festival: Wild Grass, Vincere and A Room and a Half

Slant Magazine's initial coverage of the 47th New York Film Festival has been posted. Among my contributions are reviews of the festival's opening night film, Alain Resnais' disappointing Wild Grass, Marco Bellocchio's skillful historical meditation, Vincere and A Room and a Half, Andrey Khrzhanovsky's fanciful look at the life of poet Joseph Brodsky. I also wrote the introduction for the feature.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New Releases: Fatal Promises and If One Thing Matters

In review this week are a pair of worthy docs, Kat Rohrer's sobering human trafficking exposé Fatal Promises, the occasion for my inaugural Village Voice contribution, and Heiko Kalmbach's portrait-of-the-artist If One Thing Matters: A Film About Wolfgang Tillmans, covered at Slant.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Saute Ma Ville

Like its more famous offspring, Jeanne Dielman’s precursor, the 1968 short Saute Ma Ville, locates a species of madness in the domestic rituals of female life. But whereas the eponymous heroine of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece at least initially seems to thrive on the order that these rituals provide, the younger heroine of the earlier film (as Akerman points out in an interview included, like Saute Ma Vie itself, on Criterion’s new DVD issue of Jeanne Dielman) seems determined from the start to smash them to bits. And yet the pattern in both films is the same: we see a woman go about the ordinary routines of domesticity, only to eventually detect cracks in the armor and to witness a final descent into violent aberration. That these fissures become apparent much quicker in Saute Ma Ville than Dielman is a tribute to the earlier film’s astonishing compression – 13 tightly packed minutes rather than the 3 1/2 equally necessary hours of the later work.

Actually for those familiar with Dielman, the differences to be encountered in Saute Ma Ville are apparent from the start. Beginning with several seconds of black leader over which we hear a few indecipherable rumblings in a high-pitched female voice, the film then opens on a rough black-and-white image of two drab high-rise apartments situated at the edge of a work zone. Panning across the rubble, DP René Fruchter then picks out another high-rise, this time much closer to the camera and tilts up the building. After a couple of more equally brief establishing shots, the rumblings return to the soundtrack, this time identifiable as the slightly cracked monosyllabic singing (“la la la la”) of a woman. Soon we see the woman herself (played by Akerman), a young brunette wearing a white hat, carrying a bundle of flowers and giddily entering one of the high-rise buildings.

Whereas for much of Dielman’s running time, everything in the daily life of its heroine is, at least superficially, structured and stable, in Saute Ma Ville, a certain sense of disorder is immediately registered. The 1975 film consists almost entirely of long, fixed shots that pin its characters to walls, parallel to the camera axis. By contrast, the 1968 short offers a much looser aesthetic, favoring a frequently moving hand-held camera, quick cuts and angled compositions to suggest a greater freedom of movement for its heroine. The disembodied voice on the soundtrack, which continues its singing intermittently throughout the film and which, although never identified as such, is easily taken to belong to the woman on-screen, hints from the beginning at a latent madness in the character, both through the maniacal quality of the vocalizing and through the dissociation of personality suggested by the audio/visual split.

Still if Saute Ma Ville’s aesthetic looseness (vis-à-vis Dielman) implies a greater mobility for its heroine, it’s more an emotional/spiritual freedom than a physical one. Although we’re granted a far less comprehensive understanding of her daily life, and although she’s not saddled (as far as we can tell) with a son and a part-time prostitution gig, the scope and constitutive activities of her existence seem nearly identical to that of Jeanne Dielman. In short, she’s confined for almost the entirely of the film’s running time to her kitchen. She cooks spaghetti, eats, makes tea, prepares to clean the floor. But even as we get a sense of her daily routine, we already notice signs of trouble.

At first, she seems merely eccentric – an impression created by the picture of a smurf saying “go home” hanging on her kitchen door and her obsessive lining of that door’s cracks with duct tape. But after dinner, things quickly disintegrate. She pulls a rain slicker from under the sink, puts it on and spills soapy water all over her floor in an odd, but still functional effort to clean the kitchen. Then she begins polishing her shoe; in her zealotry, the polishing extends to her socks and legs. Finally she squirts hand lotion onto her face – a mock cum-shot perhaps suggestive of some desire for sexual humiliation – and, starting a fire in the kitchen and turning on the stove to fan the flames, lays down her head and prepares for death.

This last section of the film makes increasing use of Akerman’s frenzied vocalizing on the soundtrack, culminating in a loud shout of “bang” as she effects her final preparations. Similarly, as the woman’s mental stability further disintegrates, the director films an increasing number of shots in mirrored reflection, culminating in the final “death” sequence which is seen entirely through the reversing prism of the kitchen mirror. Taken together, these two aesthetic touches (dissociated voice, mirror imaging) make palpable the heroine’s fatal displacement of personality. Demanding an explicit cause of such a dissociation is, in this limited instance, too much of a burden to place on so short a work. But, given the film’s inescapable association of its character with domestic routine, there’s plenty of room for speculation. This speculative freedom would continue seven years later, everywhere present in the director’s masterpiece, even as that film, much more so than Saute Ma Ville, situates itself explicitly outside its troubled heroine’s fractured headspace.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New Releases: Walt and El Grupo and Skiptracers

A pair of stinkers this week. My Slant Magazine reviews cover Walt and El Grupo, a doc detailing Walt Disney's 1941 South American goodwill tour that rigorously tows the company line, and Skiptracers, Harris Mendheim's manic, unfunny redneck comedy. Neither is recommended.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Glossary of Rock-and-Roll Obsession

In honor of Anthology Film Archives' upcoming Mondo Fandom program, a series of films treating the more extreme forms of rock-and-roll enthusiasm, I've compiled a glossary of musical obsession as a guide to/review of the different entries in the series. The program runs from Sept. 3 - 6. The glossary can be found at The L Magazine.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New Releases: Liverpool and Tickling Leo

Opening this week in limited release are Liverpool, the latest offering from Argentinian minimalist Lisandro Alonso, which I reviewed for The House Next Door and Jeremy Davidson's less successful haunted-by-the-Holocaust drama Tickling Leo which I covered for Slant Magazine.