POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, W/O)
This ups the number of theatrical films I’ve walked out on in my cinephilic life to four (the others being TULSE LUPER, SEVERANCE and MARKETA LAZAROVA), and gaining the distinction of being the first to provoke a walkout based on pornographic content in what is supposed to be a legitimate movie.
Which is a bit of a shame, because SILENT LIGHT was one of my 10 Best for the entire decade and the opening two scenes in POST TENEBRAS LUX make it quite clear that Reygadas has not lost his eye or his ability to create a sequence one little bit. In the first, a little girl walks around fields, apparently lost and mumbling words, for the whole day while stray dogs are running about and baying and barking and howling along with the wind. The second scene is the devil walking through a darkened bedroom while people sleep, only you’ve never seen Satan quite like this — an animated, near-featureless, solid-red shape giving off a dazzling glow while holding a non-animated briefcase in a dark, non-animated room.
But those images are also part of the tipoff to what was wrong with TENEBRAS even before the walkout — they both were acontextual and rather willfully obscure and they didn’t get obviously explained in the 30-40 minutes I watched of the film. Nor were they the only bits of obscurantism — everybody has been scratching his head since Cannes over an English schoolboy rugby game of which I saw the pre-match rituals. As the film progressed, it clearly wasn’t going to be a masterwork, just a collection of images that you respond to or not. In addition, Reygadas showed early signs of returning to his early fascination with grotesque sex and violence, reports of which kept me away from JAPON and BATTLE IN HEAVEN and contrary reports being the only reason I ever saw SILENT LIGHT in the first place. The devil shape had a rather prominent penis for no reason I could discern besides Reygadas showing how fearless he is (Is there a Mrs. Satan and some Satanic kiddos? Or does Saddam Hussein now flip?). Also another early scene showed a character viciously battering and choking a family dog, implicitly to death, and this is taken as normal by the other character on the family porch where it happens (not to speak of the several who likely would have been in earshot).
The scene that caused me to walk out takes place in a sauna the central couple is visiting, with dozens of naked bodies as the camera prowls around, making sure we see that those are real dicks, boobs, asses, snatches. It is lengthy (so you feel like you’re getting your nose rubbed in it), acontextual (so you’re wondering “what is the point of this?”), pretentious (the Hegel Room and the Duchamp Room? Really? Come off it, Carlos). The early part of the scene seems to include some of the men pulling a train on another man, offscreen with sounds, and asking others matter-of-factly if they want to join. The latter part involves the wife screwing another man in front of her husband, with her body still offscreen but the sounds increasingly realistic and louder (at the moment I left). Reygadas is just showing off.
At that point, the film I was seeing had become simple pornography and I don’t go to a film festival for that. I am not a prude, nor will I claim to be a better man than I am (everybody who reads this blog or follows my Twitter feed knows my sense of humor isn’t G-rated). I do not condemn the use of nudity or sexuality for a discernible purpose and with a (very) minimal amount of discretion and directorial tact, that invisible quality that tells me he knows that nudity and sex are not routine. I count as all-time favorites LAST TANGO IN PARIS, EYES WIDE SHUT and IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (the last of which includes scenes that are, by any reasonable standard, hard-core pornography). But here, I was just getting it shoveled in my face and the invisible Potter-Stewartish line of what I’m willing to tolerate was crossed.
CAUGHT IN THE WEB (Chen Kaige, China, 4)
Go read the TIFF Guidebook about this film, both the take out paragraph and the last paragraph of the Programmer’s Note, the former of which I reproduce here:
A young woman’s act of defiance becomes a flashpoint for controversy when a video of the incident goes viral, in this prescient drama about cyber-bullying from celebrated director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine).
As in everything, I am a hard-eyed, illusionless realist (as I typed this, I was disagreeing with a couple of orthodox Catholics about the limits and expectations of politics) … the purpose of these things is to sell the film in question and make it seem appetizing. But there is still such a thing as truth-in-advertising, and one of the many annoying things about the TIFF Guidebook is its tendency to grab onto anything mildly topical, especially the latest leftist cause du jour. If by cyber-bullying, you mean something like the Tyler Clementi or famous Facebook cases, CAUGHT IN THE WEB is not about cyberbullying. The video in question — in which a young woman refuses to give up her seat to an old man; she’s just received a fatal cancer diagnosis and is hiding behind sunglasses, hence the sobriquet Sunglasses Girl — doesn’t “go viral.” It’s broadcast on national TV because it was taken by an aspiring reporter (and then obviously does become grist for online discussions, just like Romney’s or Obama’s latest gaffes might) and the engine for much of the subsequent fallout is a careerist pursuit of second- and third-day stories by that reporter and others. CAUGHT IN THE WEB is about tabloid gossip, far closer to NETWORK or THE FRONT PAGE than to (2012’s) BULLY or the Clementi case (except maybe to the extent that bullies now become something of a public Emanuel Goldstein and the object of Excuses to Commit Sociology, like Sunglasses Girl does in the film. Which I doubt was what the TIFF Central Committee intended.)
Even as a semi-satire on tabloid journalism (as I typed this, Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” came up on my iTunes … swear to God), I don’t think CAUGHT IN THE WEB is terribly successful. The tone shifts between satire to tragedy requires a master’s touch and Chen doesn’t have it, especially with the broad acting he encourages. It’s also too damn long at 121 minutes and has way too much plot — the press learns of her affair with her Big Shot CEO boss, which leads to a whole new set of reverberations. “Money changes hands, and I forgot about it as it happened,” I have written in my notes. There’s lots of romantic intrigue I also hardly cared about — Sunglasses Girl hires a bodyguard for her last days, and he has mixed motives.
Between this and Zhang Yimou’s A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP I’m also getting a vibe that the Chinese sense of humor is very different from ours in the West (I don’t have an “as I typed this” synchronicity here). I don’t specifically mean my sense of humor either … there are scores of Western films I don’t find funny but I usually quite easily recognize what’s supposed to be funny even if I don’t think it is. My Chinese-comedy sample size is obviously not large and it’s not so alien that I can never enjoy it — I did love KUNG FU HUSTLE, which pushes the freneticism into pure cartoon. But both Chen and Zhang in the early scenes of films that eventually become more serious employ a hyper-caffeinated freneticism for comic effects to a degree rarely seen here and which strikes me as “Too Much,” “Turned Up to 12,” etc. In the Zhang film, it’s more the performers, while CAUGHT IN THE WEB achieves the same effect via short cutting rhythms, smash edits and (within the limits of a relatively realistic contemporary film) frenetic motion and acting. It’s just so exhausting that the effect, for me, was of Chen stepping all over his own punch lines.
BARBARA (Christian Petzold, Germany, 6)
I liked this more than CAUGHT IN THE WEB, but it’s hardly a more enthralling film — indeed it’s quite emotionally and stylistically frigid, even withholding. Fortunately, those adjectives are the very subject matter of BARBARA, which is set in East Germany and centers on a woman, the titular character, who has asked for an exit visa from the Communist dictatorship and also has a West German lover. As a result, among other things, cars start cutting her off as she bicycles around the streets of the small-town backwater where she has been exiled to work as a doctor. Among her patients, for whom she lavishes suspiciously unusual care, is a girl who keeps running away from a socialist work camp. (I’m sorry buds … I don’t see how anyone old enough to remember East Germany’s existence could’ve been in any doubt where and about when this was set.)
Barbara is played by Nina Hoss, a marvelous German actress who seems to specialize, like a young Isabelle Huppert, in a certain understated interiorness. Her face is a marvel of emotional opacity, which she can make sullen or force to life without violating social cues — ideal for someone hiding her true opinions or emotions or plans from the necessity of keeping her head down. While this can make her come across as borderline wooden at times, all three of the roles in which I have seen her used this quality — in A WOMAN IN BERLIN, she was trapped in Berlin at the end of the war and had to negotiate her survival with the Russian conquerers, in JERICHOW, she played an adultress plotting murder against her husband. (I joked about the former film that it was the only thing that ever made me take seriously the radical-feminist claim that all sex under patriarchy is rape.)
The film moves resolutely, but at its own pace and rhythm that it keeps to itself, like its heroine. This tone makes BARBARA very much a slow burn escape-from-East Germany film … TORN CURTAIN this ain’t. Indeed, it isn’t even clear for a while that an escape plan is gonna wind up being the central third-act narrative concern and even when we get there, there isn’t really a set-piece chase … rinse and repeat previous aside. Instead, there is a psychologically resonant relationship with a fellow doctor who may be interested in Barbara but also might be an informant (that being life in “actually existing socialism”). In one fine “come clean” scene Andre describes a story about incubators that felt “wrong” to me and also sounded technologically implausible to an RN friend when I asked her about it. In another, he does a close reading on a Rembrandt painting (or a reproduction, I guess) that also throws the issue of deception and mistakes-that-aren’t-mistakes explicitly into the text. In another scene, the Mercedes-driving lover arranges a tryst in the forest and a Trabant-driving native passes by; the juxtaposition of the cars say everything that needs saying.
CAMP 14: TOTAL CONTROL ZONE (Marc Wiese, Germany/Korea, 7)
I was uncertain about this film for a long time. On the one hand, CAMP 14 undeniably packs an emotional wallop as a portrait of the North Korean gulag, mostly by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known born-there escapee (yes, people are born into concentration camps and held there for life). On the other hand (I thought), the film really doesn’t do anything not done by reading Shin’s account in print as I did earlier this year, though I forget where and can’t find it quickly. I eventually decided that there is something valuable to this film qua film, but even if in the end there’s isn’t anything else here but a litany of brutality … what a litany it is.
Huge chunks of my notes simply consist of quotes from Shin — “I hadn’t yet learned that you’re supposed to cry when your mother is executed”; “rats have soft bones, so we were able to eat everything”; “walking around North Korea (outside the camp), it looked like heaven — people freely laughing, joking, wearing clothes they liked”; “in the camp I had a pure heart.” Shin repeatedly says things that sound absolutely unbelievable, until you reflect on them. If one has no concept of family and has seen executions for breaking camp rules all his life, why cry? That IS an advantage for a food meat. Every society, no matter how crappy, has to be better than its prisons (that’d be why it’s a punishment to go to prison). He probably did, and that’s the most damning you could ever say about the Rousseauist dream of pure innocence, an undivided soul marked by one telos.
There is other material in CAMP 14 besides interview footage with Shin, much of which is him sitting at the bottom of a flight of stairs. There are two former North Korean prison guards, now in South Korea, both apparently successful and one seemingly downright well-off. Although they say they did what they did because they thought it was right and just, they differ from the Indonesians in ACT OF KILLING by seeming repentant though they do talk matter-of-factly. When asked whether suspects are tortured, one smiled (though more in a “what a silly question, white man” mode than a prideful one) and said “it’s normal.” Though CAMP 14 generally uses minimalist pencil-based animated sequences to depict scenes of Shin’s memories of the camp, it also has rare footage of a North Korean slave camp, taken by one of the two guards at the camp he commanded, a different one from Shin’s. There’s also a scene of a North Korean guard interrogating a prisoner that critics of first-world authorities are invited with deep sarcasm to watch (though I wondered why also there appeared to be blurred subtitles on it).
As for why CAMP 14 is a film … Wiese is no Errol Morris, but he puts silence and the physical presence of his interview subjects to good use. In most documentaries, raw interview footage is cut to the rhythm of the films shot, which requires the subject start talking pretty much at the start of the shot and that the shot end when the the sound byte is over. (And of course, in written accounts, every word follows the next.) Here, there’s at least 4 or 5 times where Wiese includes a lengthy, noticeable hesitance of at least several seconds of screen time in Shin’s reactions to his questions (and does same once with the guards). It’s as if they don’t really want to say what they have to be truthful. When asked about water torture, Shin waits seemingly forever before saying slowly “I don’t want to remember those experiences any more.” So strong are these dead moments that Wiese never actually shows anyone breaking down or crying (assuming he could have; maybe they never did and that’s the point too). The pauses say enough.