Well, by demand of one, but one does not deny Cristobal Colon d’Estultes. He demanded to know:
Why are u not reviewing the Wavelengths, man? Are they some sort of second class citizen to you, man? Unfair. Either way. Show some love. And mercy, dude.
Give a rating. Show you care.
Honestly, I have to confess I have not graded or written about the Wavelengths 6 program because I thought I had nothing to say. Whether one calls that a failure of nerve, or modesty of the befuddled will depend on how charitably one wants to construe my actions.
I picked the Wavelengths 6 program because I had loved the previous Peter Tscherkassky I had seen and a new film from him was the centerpiece, along with some silent films. So I thought “potentially worth a gamble” and, appearances of my extremely confident online persona aside, my utter indifference to Stan Brakhage and more-or-less all subsequent avant-garde films is a minor internal embarrassment. Oh sure, one can only relate his honest reaction. I can argue that it’s mostly Emperor’s New Clothes navel-gazing, and I don’t disbelieve anything I’ve ever said. But it’s one of the cases where I’d like to be proven wrong (or more precisely, prove myself wrong). My discomfort with my reaction — “I can’t believe sane people find this crap watchable” — is not unrelated to the fact I have become good friends with several folks who find this crap more than watchable and are pretty demonstrably sane.
To be hard on myself, I pussed out. The reason, I told myself, I didn’t issue any grades was that I saw very little in the program that interested me (a kinda true statement in itself) and so much of it was so clearly “not for me” (ditto) that assigning a grade seemed kinda pointless. But Krzysztof is correct — I have to at least register my honest reaction, even if it makes me look like a Philistine, even if only in my own eyes. Anything other than that would be patronizing.
My reaction to the Wavelength 6 program broke down very precisely — I disliked all the contemporary works and found at least watchable all the silent-era footage and actually kinda liked the two completed from-that-era works.
For example, my problem with the two Ken Jacobs films — THE DAY WAS A SCORCHER and JONAS MEKAS IN KODACHROME DAYS — is that all I saw was a technical stunt. Both films are based on a few still photographs upon which Jacobs performs some photographic processes that simulate movement, change perspective or fragment the image. And my reaction was a massive Bravo Foxtrot Delta. Yes and Wang Chung and the Cars did the same or similar in the videos for “Leave It” and “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” and “You Might Think.” There were no doubt other parts of the 80s MTV rotation that didn’t come to mind that night. When those videos were made, some people in that audience probably weren’t born yet (and get off my lawn!!!). What is the interest here? Why is this stuff being put before me as a Work of Serious Art? All the Jacobs photo works did for me was lay bare some photographic tricks without drama, without context (sans the program notes, that is), and without music you could dance to. I found the Mekas film particularly aggravating because its edits tried to create the effect of a man in an umbrella dancing through a rain shower, which mostly just invited comparison with Gene Kelly’s titular number in SINGIN IN THE RAIN. And made me long for Kelly (or even an actual dancer), to actually be moving with grace and style and athleticism through the kind of real space that makes such a number difficult and this a real achievement and worthy of admiration. (The only time I’ve seen SINGIN IN THE RAIN in a theater, the audience burst into applause at the end of that number.) MEKAS’s only point, in other words, was its own aesthetic pointlessness. And by expecting us to be interested in an acontextual technical process, both films show the emptiness of the process.
As for the Tscherkassky, what I valued about his INSTRUCTIONS FOR A LIGHT AND SOUND MACHINE was his tight sensual ferocity, his roller-coaster ride aesthetic of barreling through an old-movie’s footage, radically altered almost (almost!) to the point of unintelligibility. Here in COMING ATTRACTIONS, he makes an anthology film of disconnected and far more relaxedly paced short films (Waz even praised it on exactly those “looseness” grounds). I also had the same reaction as I did to the Jacobi — I’m seeing some technical tricks for their own sake, and the filmmaker is relying on my reaction to the technique, if to more apparent point, I will acknowledge (though that ain’t saying much). Still, if there was anything to ATTRACTIONS other than “advertising banal,” it escaped me.
In fairness, I did like the two works in the program that were indisputably of the silent era, and very early therein — both prior to 1910. (I don’t think an honest reaction is possible to two reels of miscellaneous unknown footage fragments united only by the accident that someone in the Dutch film archive couldn’t bear to discard them. It’s not a work of art. Sorry.) One was CONCORSO DI BELLEZZA FRA BAMBINO DI TORINO, which consists of footage of Turin toddlers being filmed as, or as adjunct to or metaphorically in the film (can’t tell from film), an infant beauty contest. Both because it’s 1909 and because the kids look to be 2 years old or thereabouts, nobody really knows what they’re doing, how to react “properly” on film or while filming, so CONCORSO really is verite not “found footage.” The film, which is anonymous but exists in its intended form, is nothing more than a look at children’s behavior, unmediated (on both sides of the camera — why this film couldn’t be made except when it was). It’s a proto-Wiseman. The very thing that turned Waz off — that these children are probably all dead — was exactly why I thought this footage was so precious. Onscreen then (for one reason) and onscreen now (for another) were probably the only times in these lives these persons were equal. The other work I liked in the program was a 1905 film called LE ROI DE DOLLARS, which is not a Georges Melies film, but very much could be. It is nothing more than a disembodied hand before a black curtain doing some magic tricks with coins that build over the several minutes of the film. With occasional appearances by a mouth, dispensing coins like a machine, sometimes gold-tinted, 20 years before GREED. To some extent both century-old-plus films are just as one-dimensional as the other stuff on the same program. But what made them far more watchable to me than the current films in the same program and even enjoyable was an element that cannot be faked — innocence. And the joy and wonder of discovering a new medium. They both even represent the two polarities cinema already was developing — documentary representation and manipulative fantasy; or if you prefer, the Lumieres and Melies. They are “real.” In contrast, what excuse do Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs and Peter Tserchassky have for being satisfied with merely showing off a technique?
I didn’t mention this in my NEDS review, because the capsule was already long enough and had enough personal diversion. But several times during the film, I became quite annoyed by a practice that’s aggravated me every time I’ve seen it — subtitled Scots, specifically subtitled Glaswegian.
Now I’m not gonna pretend there’s not a small element of personal pique in the fact that nearly every time I’ve seen my native English dialect used in movies, it’s been subtitled as if it were a foreign language that needed translation. And this is compounded by the fact that for the most part, films set elsewhere in Scotland or among Glasgow’s upper-classes — SHALLOW GRAVE, all but a couple of scenes in TRAINSPOTTING, LOCAL HERO, COMFORT AND JOY — don’t get subtitled for US exhibition.
While obviously I am by definition the perfectly worst judge of whether subtitling Glaswegian is necessary for American audiences, I really don’t think the accent/dialect in RED ROAD or ORPHANS was nearly as thick as in RIFF RAFF, SWEET SIXTEEN, MY NAME IS JOE or NEDS. At least those first two movies, so says my memory, were not unintelligible to anyone paying attention after maybe 10 minutes, the amount of “ear adjustment” time I need to get accustomed to a working-class English or Australian dialect. Yet those movies all were subtitled, grrr. Still I’m a hard-eyed realist, and so I have to acknowledge that Glaswegian seems to pose more difficulties for other Anglophones than other English dialects do. In fact I can “code-switch” into Glaswegian upon command (or the impetus of another British accent) and lose Americans within five seconds.
But … if you’re going to subtitle on the assumption that Glaswegian needs translation — actually “translate.” Several times during NEDS, I couldn’t believe what I was reading, thinking “how would this subtitle help anybody for whom Glaswegian is too foreign to follow in the first place?” Very early on, there is a line that sounds like “doant start greetin own meh,” which the subtitles render, accurately enough, as “don’t start greeting on me.” But, for the non-Glaswegian who doesn’t know that the verb “to greet” means “to cry,” that subtitle would just be mystifying, especially since “to greet” is a verb in standard English, but with a very different meaning. Other slang terms go untranslated throughout. You can probably figure out what a “cheeky wee sod” is or the meaning of “brainbox.” But I’m not sure the same is true for calling someone or something (and which of the two it is matters for meaning) a “stoater” or referring to a bunch of “eejits” (which is not its own word, but a colloquial pronunciation of a standard English term, “idiots”).
At other times, you just have to scratch your head wondering how familiar the subtitler actually was with Glaswegian speech. Late in the movie, there is a line that sounds like “gawen away aggen thamawrra,” which the subtitle translates (hilariously) as “going away again the mawrra.” I snorted and giggled at the same time — even Glaswegians don’t *write* “the mawrra,” however we may pronounce the word we and everyone else spell “tomorrow.” Again … for whom can “the mawrra” be clearer? On another occasion, one character says to another what sounds like “ahll gie ye a coalcarry” and the person addressed leaps onto the speaker’s back for a ride, what Americans call a “piggyback.” The subtitle translated that line as “I’ll give you a co-carry.” I’m aware that in actual speech, syllable-ending l-sounds like that are often ellided or unvoiced. But if you’re going to spell out the word, it’s a “coal-carry,” so called because of how coalmen used to deliver bags of coal to Glasgow tenements by carrying them on the their backs, slung over the shoulder. Maybe coal is now used so rarely that the term’s origin is lost to today’s Glasgow youth and the “l” sound has been dropped entirely. But I know I *heard* “coal-carry” right away, and the movie was set in the 70s when coal was still widely used for home-heating.
This probably sounds a little dyspeptic and is obviously about more than NEDS. I know and appreciate that Peter Mullan has done more, as a director and actor, to portray working-class Glasgow in feature films than any man alive. But … Peter … subtitle idiomatically or don’t subtitle. Dae it rit or no attaw.
OK … I’m tired of being embarrassed by my apparent-fanboy record on new Romanian movies. I’ve seen 13 features; 12 unified films and 1 planned omnibus collection of shorts; average grade 7.74, with none lower than a still-recommended “6” (one of the two of which I’m really unsatisfied by). I’ll just embrace it, by saying right now and staking whatever critical reputation I have on it. Romania is the late-00s is Italy in the late-40s or France in the late-50s — the country with the most exciting, groundbreaking and aesthetically satisfying cinema in the world, with identifiable traits in common by a variety of directors, that truly deserves to be called a “wave.” The 17 films or shorts are credited to 14 directors, but everyone seems to have their fingers in everyone else’s pie.¹
It’s the simplest of formulas — film artists in Romania simply don’t know classicism and realism have been done to death, like we in the rich countries that have great cinematic traditions already behind us know they have been. But by not knowing that and going ahead with stories about real people without special effects, usually following classical story structures and sometimes even the Aristotelian unities, the Romanians prove every time that classicism and realism not only will always be vibrant but are the answers to aesthetic decadence. If I’m gonna compare the current Romanians to the Italian neorealists², then I’ll add that the Belgian team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne play the same inspiring-fountainhead role that Jean Renoir did back then. The Romanians prefer the same naturalistic look, the same accretion of lived-in detail, the same lengthy takes and restless camera, the same natural sound mix with little or no score, and the same interest in working-class protagonists and stories in contemporary settings — all Dardennes hallmarks.
Of all the recent Romanian films, OUTBOUND is the one that wears the Dardennes influence nearest to the surface. In fact, though Dardennes comparisons are high compliments, the only significant criticism I would make of OUTBOUND is that Ana Ularu, in the lead role of a Matilda, a woman on a 24-hour furlough from jail, reminded me a bit much physically of Arta Dobroshi in LORNA’S SILENCE and had a determined-ferile quality that put me in mind of Emilie Dequenne in ROSETTA. Ularu gives a brilliant performance, mind you. Dobroshi and Dequenne are fast company — it just seemed a bit familiar. What specifically reminded me of the Belgian masters in OUTBOUND in a good way is the story structure, and the way that, even though OUTBOUND is segmented into three parts, each named for a different male character who plays a significant role, almost all the exposition was indirect or occurs en passant. It only comes out after several minutes, for example, the precise relationship between Matilda and Andrei in the first section. But then, why should they say the first minute they’re together “hello, sister” or the like for our benefit; they know their relationship. It also comes out slowly who “Paul” is, and the precise nature of their pre-prison relationship. It’s never not-thrilling to be in the hands of such story-telling confidence and respect for your ability to think, to remember and to connect, without shoving stuff in your face or reverting to willful obscurantism.
While at the same time, the film is absolutely confident in its rootedness, in knowing its environment, Bucharest as the Dardennes’ Liege/Seraing. We see somebody burning leaves in the background, we see a motorcyclist slow down to observe a scene, and we just expect these to have significance based on Chekhov’s gun maxim. But they don’t, it’s just an accretion of environmental detail. I keep using the word “lived-in” to describe these Romanian films, but there’s no better term. We know that Matilda and Andrei are somehow closely related; we just feel right away that the first shot is a prison, though there’s no metal bars or black stripes or uniformed guards or obvious signifiers. There’s also the utter realism of the psychology in OUTBOUND. While Andrei³ tolerates Matilda, his wife doesn’t, and as a result he gets pulled between the two in a way that’s perfectly convincing in terms of the anger, the keeping up appearances, the manner of speech, the back-and-forth. When Matilda, in part 2, speaks to a prostitute (Skandie Scene Plug if this film ever gets seen), we can believe she wants to impart her hard-won wisdom and warn her against certain things we’ve just been unlucky enough to see about the pimp (there’s no man around, so it’s “girl talk” time). But we also, tragically, realize that there is no reason the prostitute should pay attention to her, and that Romanian contempt and prickliness produces a great exchange without anyone leaving a seat as it goes through the car wash — an image of external cleansing that leaves the inside exactly as it found it. Later, we see Matilda with another person who enables her to fill that kind of elder role, and Ularu successfully creates almost a different woman for that context that is somehow recognizably the same one we’ve been watching for the first hour.
The overall story concerns Matilda’s attempt to raise 1,500 euros in half-a-day to facilitate escape from not just jail but from Romania. But again, realism is everywhere — despite the obvious comparison to RUN LOLA RUN, Matilda doesn’t have elaborate scams or unrealistic capers in mind to raise the money, just two or three vague ideas, where she pushes until other things present themselves. Only because this is Romania, there will always be dark undercurrents in this urgent, life-defining, one-day quest, with the darkest current being other people. I once said the following about 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS:
life in actually-existing-socialist Romania is portrayed as nothing but lies, where lying about things large and small, hiding things, maintaining appearances, getting around others is ubiquitous. Everybody does it. And everybody knows everybody else does it, making social life one long cynical day of pragmatic getting-by.
Life in actually-existing-capitalist Romania is more prosperous but hasn’t otherwise changed too much, according to OUTBOUND. Indeed, and I will try to speak vaguely, the third act returns the movie to prison and shows how little distance separates an apple and a tree. Gawd … I love this country.
When I posted my schedule for the festival, welshbud Dan Owen predicted that NEDS, about a boy growing up in 1970s Glasgow, “will be a fictionalised version of your youth… I expect a character called v-mort at the very least.” Well … the central character is named “John” (my middle name); he is a round-faced fair-skinned dirty blond (the boy who plays him around 10 is practically a dead ringer for me at that age; not so much Conor McCarron as the teenager, who gets most of the screen time); John starts out as a swot who takes it as a great personal offense when he’s only in second-top track; John has no difficulty expressing contempt for or showing up teachers when he feels like it or taking the strap as the cost therein; John is an altar boy at school Masses, though not at the parish; two characters (though not John; in fact, he attacks them) are dressed in the uniform of the Jesuit prep school I went to once I was old enough to take and pass the entrance exam (St. Aloysius, the best Catholic boys’ school in Scotland); there is even an early scene where an emigrant relative visits from America and tells John he should become a journalist over there; oh … and I prepared for this film in appropriate Glaswegian fashion by getting pished (actually, just one beer … but it’s the principle of the thing).
I don’t know why I’ve written all that, since this film cannot be the Proustian madeleines experience for others that it was for me. And it doesn’t seem like something particularly brag-worthy since John grows up to be a juvenile delinquent (though as alternate history, who knows). Still, I do think NEDS (NED = Non-Educated Delinquent) has some objective virtues for other folks. As one-note kitchen-sink miserabilist downward spirals go, I think NEDS is absolutely first-rate, with some major reservations. Primarily, Mullan gets a series of great naturalistic performances from amateur actors, particularly McCarron in the key role. Though the defining event seems too small a ha’penny to turn a life on — being snubbed by the family when he visits a toff friend — McCarron knows how to exist on camera, as a working-class boy who grows into the role of hard-man without ever really planning to. In the film’s best scene, McCarron makes it clear, without actually tipping his hand onscreen, that he is just dicking around with the teacher and he knows perfectly well what the Latin word for “garden” is. The supporting roles are well-cast and naturalistically played, almost certainly by other non-pros. Indeed, at its best, NEDS reminds one of Ken Loach at his best.
However, incredibly considering that Mullan gave one of era’s great naturalistic performances as a Glasgow drunk in Loach’s MY NAME IS JOE, Mullan is here his own worst actor, as John’s father. Or rather, he has no character to play, so he glowers menacingly and ineffectually (to us). Mullan also breaks the kitchen sink direction on two or three occasions and heads for far-flung expressionist flourishes, to spectacularly variable results, for example scoring a gang fight to “Cheek to Cheek” (not bad, gets across the fun element in a mass fight). He also has a high-on-glue John hallucinate Jesus coming down from the Cross, embrace John but then start kicking his ass until John shivs Him. The latter is a fine idea, to which I don’t object in principle as a hallucination / metaphor for spiritual struggle. But scoring the scene to the New Seekers’ “You’ll Never Find Another Fool Like Me” is not.
On paper, I should think this film is great — a not-really-‘fiction’ science-fiction film about a society that euphemistically breeds stem cells clones for body parts, about the social construction of the self even unto death, about the complicity of “reform” and “regulation” in barbarity, about the terrible calmness and normality of legal human sacrifice and about Keira Knightley ballooning up to a blimpish 105 pounds.
And I do think NEVER LET ME GO (the second festival film to take its title from a song referenced in the movie; the other being NORWEGIAN WOOD) *is* very good. It does deliver on the premises thematically and is well-executed in all the various ways. Knightley, Alex Garfield and Carey Mulligan give finely stifled performances in the principal roles of three embryos (“donors,” in the film and the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, which I haven’t read) allowed to reach the age when their parts are harvestable, managing the tricky task of tugging against their role without ever seeming to do so overtly (that would destroy the story’s integrity). Mark Romanek’s direction is crisp and understated, letting the revelations drift out at a leisurely pace. This is not a suspense film at all, as the trailer may have led you (well, it led me) to expect. Rather it’s a film about resignation, about fate and role not even being something you “accept” but your identity and reality per se (Ed Gonzalez at Slant demands the kids’ behavior be shown as “warped” — the whole point is that they’re not and that it’s appallingly normal). I thought several times about the PD James novel “Children of Men” (very much NOT the Alfonso Cuaron filmic travesty) — never in the history of euthanasia has death been sweeter.
And yet … something was missing. While I have my doubts about whether one can truly love a work of art on human cannibalism whose drama is a stem-cell love triangle, I also think it might just be the nature of the movie medium. Film makes things literal. (Ironically though, the reason we accept the barbarity of embryonic cannibalism and aborted-tissue lampshades is that they happen to unseen persons in an unseen way.) But when characters, words on a page, are embodied in visible persons (“normals” like Knightley, Mulligan, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins), we want them to act more like persons. By, for example, not showing up for the three or four apparently-uncoerced “donations” (organ harvests) that will bring about their “completion” (death). Voluntarily showing up for a fatal operation without external force is the kind of premise that might work on the page and a premise you can intellectualize. But in a naturalistic film, it’s just too much: “have these people really had no outside contact with the world?” you think. In other words, NEVER LET ME GO is a Tradition of Quality version of DOGTOOTH, and maybe that’s the comparison. Though the Greek movie had an equally unbelievable premise, Lanthimos’ direction was so stylized and the performances so much at right-angles to reality that nobody could have thought they were looking at a facsimile of the real world.
Now here is another unbelievable story — except that we know going in it really DID happen. Aron Ralston really go out rock-climbing one day, (um … I guess … SPOILER) slip down a crevice and have a falling rock trap his arm in a wedge, leaving him no choice but (um … I guess … SPOILER again) to cut off his right forearm. It’s a can’t-miss premise that had the potential to be great but, like NEVER LET ME GO, doesn’t do either. In 127 HOURS case, it’s a matter of the wrong director getting attached to the project. Danny Boyle is not a subtle film-maker and is one not given to understatement (and by putting it that way, I am showing that I *am* given to understatement). Boyle’s hyper-caffeinated, balls-out style — no angle is too eccentric, no track too elaborate, no color too fluorescent for him — works brilliantly in the hurly-burly-druggy world of TRAINSPOTTING or the kids-fantasy world of MILLIONS. But here in 127 HOURS, it feels inorganic, working against the material. As a result, what Boyle has made is more of a character study about a guy who happens to have been trapped and less a drama about being trapped itself. The fact Boyle has made as good a film as he has is largely due to James Franco in the central role. He’s arrogantly carefreet enough as Xtreme Dude at the start and pulls off the self-doubt, self-examination, self-ahem-mutilation later on, as his fate gets progressively more dire.
In some ways, this film made me appreciate BURIED even more — both films are about men trapped into immobility, and both face the challenge of how to make that cinematically and dramatically alive. Cortes wrestles head-on with that one-set, one-character restriction but bakes the necessary “cheating” into his plot (the left-behind BlackBerry and all the people he tries to contact) so that it’s not really cheating. Boyle doesn’t embrace the one-set challenge at all, instead waiting about 20 minutes to trap Ralston. During which time, we get a series of ironies in the set-up story, painting Ralston as an Xtreme-sports enthusiast who, like Icarus, flies too close to the sun he wants to touch. To that end, we see him leave his apartment (and forget his Swiss Army knife … ooops), exit just as his parents call (I’ll let the machine get it, I don’t want anyone to know where I’m going … ooops), see a couple of girls and show them the ropes and have a successful impromptu date (and score an invite to a party tomorrow … ooops), etc.
Once Ralston is trapped, Boyle goes hog wild with the full cinematic fireworks and runs through the full panoply of story-telling tricks — flashbacks, fantasies, dreams — to keep the screen busy, busy, busy. He comes up with every angle — inside a water bottle, say — and excuse to hallucinate. Some of them pay off handsomely — the scene of Ralston imagining himself as a guest on a talk-show, with himself as the hectoring host is aces as psychology, and the miles-long super-speed track to a bottle of Gatorade in his trunk is mordantly funny. On the other hand, I love AR Rahman’s music, but there’s too damn much of it, it’s not the right kind, and it’s mixed overloud. I also do not care either for the “blend back into the world at start/emd” shot (see also LOVE ACTUALLY) as though this story was representative of anything. Nor is a real-life person getting a cameo at the end of his story or biopic anything but an insult to the actor (see also, WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT).
¹ OUTBOUND is Apetri’s first feature, but the story is by Christian Mungiu of 4 MONTHS fame and the screenplay co-written by Apetri and Tudor Voican who wrote MEDAL OF HONOR and CALIFORNIA DREAMIN. Apetri also has cinematographer Marius Pandaru, who lensed both of Poromboiu’s features, 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST and POLICE, ADJECTIVE, and THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD.
² The Romanians also exciting the same “why make depressing movies that make us look bad”-type criticism from some folks at home as the Italians did.)
³ Played by Andy Vasluianu, who also was the protagonist in THE OTHER IRENE and one of the film crew in THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD