Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 8

MEEK’S CUTOFF (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 5)

OK … this is the capsule where I play the Dissenting Fool, giving a “mixed” grade to the film voted the Best of the Fest in the IndieWire critics poll and that Scott Tobias (in whose Tweet-presence I blasphemed) has apparently called the favorite of his entire life as a working critic. I don’t hate MEEK’S CUTOFF, a sorta-Western “lost on the Oregon Trail” drama, like I hated GERRY, to which Mike D’Angelo compared it. Indeed, if it had come up with an ending at all, it was a shoo-in “7” and possibly higher, depending on how that ending came off. But that’s not what we have. Instead we have a film that ostentatiously refuses to end, instead settling on a sub-Malick nature-awe note of ambiguous something or other. Saying why I hated the ending will necessitate describing it. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

However I can’t just ignore what’s good about MEEK’S CROSSING –- and it is for a long time. First of all, it’s dazzling to look at, almost feeling like a black-and-white film with its blanched images of a parched, water-free land with few primary colors (the costumes match too of course). This is a desert/steppe environment, but it’s nothing like the sumptuousness amid the dryness in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or THE SHELTERING SKY, and when she cuts from a night scene to a dazzling white steppe, I had to restrain myself from applauding. MEEK’S CROSSING also creates a strong sense of place, far stronger than most classical Westerns -– what these people routinely did and how they did them, feeling almost like a 19th-century procedural. Near the end in that vein, there is a (Skandie plug) great scene of the families trying to get several wagons down a slope they fear might be too steep, and there’s a universe of dreams and lives riding on the tug-of-war apparatus the settlers build. Reichardt also favors long shots and closeups of elements other than the face – hands doing stitching, for example – and thus creates more of a community than a group of individuals (think STAGECOACH). This is obviously fine; given this story, they will live or die together. But it proves fatal when she later wants to get into character conflict – she hasn’t set up THAT kind of third act.

The classic test of a film or play or novel is: look at the first scene, look at the last scene, what has changed. The answer to that question is what the film is about. And here, I have to submit that MEEK’S CUTOFF is therefore about nothing. For the entire movie, the wagoneers have been lost and desperate for water. At the end? They are still lost (that’s even one of the last lines of dialog – “we’re right where we always were”) and are looking at a leafy tree, which, yes, does imply that there’s water nearby, but … um … where, nearby? Especially since there’s a person on the point of death, to end the story at the tree is the narrative form of being a tease.

As for character, the conflict in the back half of MEEK’S CUTOFF centers on a captured American Indian, whom the group has come increasingly to rely upon instead of their paid guide (Bruce Greenwood), thanks to Michelle Williams pulling a gun (this is the character conflict that seems arbitrary once it starts). But they’re following him on faith since he speaks only an Indian language and performs some rites and ceremonies that Reichardt never subtitles or explains – which is fine in itself, because the settlers don’t either and so they haggle continually over “is he trying to help us,” “is he leading us into a trap” or “is he just leading us to nowhere, willing to sacrifice himself.” At the end, at the tree, some of the last lines of dialog are “we’re all following him now” and “we’re all just playing our parts” and “this was written long before we got here.” Meanwhile, the Indian himself walks away unmolested (why is he able to do so now but not before). If MEEK’S CUTOFF is about the transference of authority from Meek to the Indian (plausible enough), why, in story terms, should he walk off? And even of those thematic grounds, whether he was/is a good or a bad authority is not a question you can slough off. If Reichardt’s narrative was a tease, her thematic choices were the equivalent of then walking away.


Now here, on the other hand, is a three-hour essay movie that so bursts with ideas and thoughts and points that I wouldn’t even want it to be 90 or 100 minutes because it already feels that short. Apart from my irrational discomfort at never having disliked a Romanian movie and some minorly-weird subtitling from someone whose English is a little “off,” my only reservation is that Ujica is maybe a bit too rigorous with his premise – showing nothing but official newsreels, speeches, parliament footage and TV broadcasts with no commentary, thus building Ceausescu’s life story as he himself would have seen it (the title says “autobiography” not “biography”). As a result, people without some pre-existing knowledge of East European politics and history might find AUTOBIOGRAPHY a bit hard to follow -– at least give us a date card or two or identifying namelines like news-anchor chyrons, Andrei. I don’t think Alexander Dubcek is the kind of instant-face that Gorbachev, Nixon, the Queen or Mao are.

Which would be a shame, because this film pulls off the hard task of both being believable as a self-portrait and utterly damning from within. Since you’re watching footage, you have to construct the meaning yourself, but Ujica’s choices make it easy enough. Two threads in particular seem fruitful to follow – the presence of Elena Ceausescu and the personal hagiography of Nicolae himself, both being measures of how Ceausescu changed over his 25 years in power, from a non-descript general secretary to the out-of-touch head of an insane personality cult and a self-justifying Potemkin state.

At the start, Ceausescu is even a semi-attractive figure, hosting Dubcek for a public solidarity rally and then later denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in as public a forum and as blunt a manner as possible. After that, Ceausescu becomes a regular caller and host for the world’s biggest political figures. The film’s length helps here, because it lets us get a LOT of world leaders praising Ceausescu and, well, you can come to believe it. The film suggests he gets the ideas for the personality cult from visits to China and North Korea (the first trip to Pyongyang is a commie-kitsch hoot and has Ceausescu whispering to Kim Il Sung “that was wonderful”; and it’s also easily the best-looking color footage in the film, which says something about Romanian technology at the time). After seeing Mao’s and Kim’s displays for his benefit, his portraits at home become more publicly prominent, the celebrations of his birthday more lavish and obsequious on others’ part, and the sloganeering more personal (“Long Live Ceausescu” and “Ceausescu and the people,” say, rather than “Long Live Socialism and Communism”; “Traiasca” is Romanian for “Long Live,” BTW … something the film gives you plenty of chances to learn) As for the Missus, she’s hardly seen early on, but by the end she’s at her husband’s right hand during parliament speeches; not merely a member of the Politburo, but having the other members pass in line to kiss her ring; and even co-signing state laws.

And Ujica does it all without cheaply ironic Michael Moore insta-juxtapositions – you have to remember and connect. At one point, when Ceausescu is calling world poverty intolerable and Third World debt relief a moral imperative, I wrote in my notes “don’t cut to some luxury scene [of Ceausescu’s personal life] That’s already been established.” And Ujica, bless his heart, didn’t.

That’s not to say there’s not a lot of ironic fun here too, though some of it requires you to be a political-history or –theory junkie like me -– Charles De Gaulle venting in a communist country against the “cosmopolitan state”; the press conferences and the questions posed by East European socialist-state “journalists”; Nixon riding down the middle of Bucharest in an open limo past a canyon of high-rise book depositories apartment buildings; the short Ceausescu playing at the net in volleyball (and cheating); the change in Ceausescu’s rhetoric over the years, away from classical Marxism toward even dryer (if that’s possible) recitations; and what’s playing in the movie theater in the background as he drives by in the Queen’s carriage. Finally, there is one incredible scene (Skandie plug … as if), of old-time Communist Constantin Parvalescu rising at the 12th Party Congress to speak, unscheduled, and denouncing Ceausescu’s increasingly personal control of the party. Not only is it dramatic, but the reaction from the rest of the assembled party members is chilling. But best of all, you can see why Ceausescu would put it in his autobiography – “see, everyone supports me.”

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand, 7)

You know what my favorite scene in this film was: The very first. It’s just a black water buffalo at night in the Thai jungle, moving around a bit, but somehow, I was immediately enraptured at how sensual the photography was despite the dramatically poor conditions and how the sound design felt lived-in. Much of UNCLE BOONMEE is set at night, and it is simply the most gorgeous night photography I’ve ever seen — clear and dark at the same time, conveying humidity and heat, and both alluring and mysterious, though without expressionistic shadows or obvious “darkness pools” from which something will leap out and go “boo.” And since UNCLE BOONMEE is basically a ghost story, that wouldn’t exactly be an unprecedented move. But Joe doesn’t do “boo,” instead going more for things slowly dissolving in from the background, like camouflage that suddenly betrays itself (the tree of women from near the end of ANTICHRIST, say).

With TROPICAL MALADY and SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY, I’ve been on the “Joe is more accessible than his critical champions make him seem” kick. I wouldn’t exactly say UNCLE BOONMEE is difficult and it certainly follows a single through line — basically, the last days of the titular character and the increasing presence of the spirit world coming to claim him. But it is totally “mysterious” from start to finish, though not in a “mystifying” way, if that makes any sense (and I realize that semantically, it doesn’t). This is a semi-mythological world where ghosts appear and the locals take this as normal: there’s a talking catfish seducing a princess, a Bigfoot with glowing red eyes, and eventually a whole army of Bigfoots, etc. But I say “semi” because we still get Joe’s quotidian moments that never fail to feel right, like two people eating honey directly off the hive (only here, one of them is a ghost), and a descent into a cave. And when the catfish … um … churns up the water around the princess, it doesn’t feel at all like the dirty joke it might in lesser hands.

I wish I had more to say about UNCLE BOONMEE -– I’m pretty sure there’s some Thai political subtext about “making the ghosts disappear” and Uncle Boonmee’s role in putting down a Communist insurgency –- there’s a series of still photos out of nowhere of Thai soldiers in camouflage outfits that may have something to do with that. But what I hope I’ve conveyed is that UNCLE BOONMEE is a sensual experience, one very hard to describe rationally because it really is like a dream or a trance. I’ve written twice as much about the Ceausescu film, but that’s only because it’s clear about what it’s about, not because it’s twice as good.

September 21, 2010 Posted by | Andrei Ujica, Joe, Kelly Reichardt, TIFF 2010 | Leave a comment

Toronto – Day 7 – capsules

THE DIXIE CHICKS: SHUT UP AND SING (Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, USA, 6)

I will prescind from my precise experience of seeing this movie at the liberal equivalent of a 1984 Two Hours of Hate, saving that for another post. This movie, seen in its noumenal self, is a conventional but entertaining and interesting backstage account of the two years after Natalie Maines made the group notorious for all the wrong reasons by telling a London audience on the eve of the Iraq War that “we are ashamed that the president is from Texas” (a moment that we actually see in the film– I’m curious how Kopple and Peck acquired the footage). There are places this film could have gone but didn’t (Noel Murray pointed out to me that Willie Nelson has long been linked to left-wing causes, without tarnishing his status with country fans). But SHUT UP AND SING is still much more than a mere VH1 Behind the Music episode, and not just a worshipful encomium to the free-speech martyrs suffering at the hands of Bushitleretardespot. For one thing, Kopple shows without either creating or commenting upon the cleavages in the group — generally between Maines and manager Simon Renshaw on the one hand, and the other two group members, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. Maines comes across particularly as naive — thinking at that the start that any publicity is good publicity. And there is a shouting match between the *three* band members and Renshaw (who frankly came across, to me at least, as a bit of a wanker) in which Renshaw assures them there’s no boycott of their music, even though no radio station will play them. There’s also differences between how Maines/Renshaw and Maguire/Robison view country music, its fan base, and its identification with the red states, with the former being frequently and (behind the scenes at least) openly contemptuous of “that redneck bullshit” and view the furor as an opportunity to do new things without fear of alienating the “hick towns”; while Maguire and Robison want to see what can be done to recover their career with that format. Still, one of the most memorable moments for me was an interview in which Maguire breaks into tears defending Maines in an interview with (I assume) the filmmakers, who are never seen or heard in the film. Also, I’m no music critic, but I must say that I don’t see how the Chicks’ music changes from what we see of their recent album — other than the literal meanings of the lyrics.

MON MEILLEUR AMI (MY BEST FRIEND) (Patrice Leconte, France, 8 )

Yes Mike, the premise is rather sit-commy — man has to find a best friend to win a bet and prove to his circle of non-friend acquaintances that he isn’t a total asshole. I really don’t think any sitcom would take some of the darker turns this story does, nor would the ordinary sitcom have this much heart (Seinfeld couldn’t have turned off the snark). MON MEILLEUR AMI also earns some of its emotional response in non-cheap ways no sitcom would … speaking vaguely … the coda would have occurred that very night in the American remake of this film. Still, I don’t see the point of noting that Auteuil’s smile is rather fake, because it’s a brilliant, constipated contrast with the reason this film is so good despite an admittedly hackneyed premise. That is Dany Boon’s performance as the cab driver whom Auteuil cons into being his best friend, or rather what he communicates through his very Being in this movie (for the record … I had never seen him in anything before this movie). Boon is not simply happy, he is happiness embodied. His face is so open, his gait so light, his eyes so jolly, his smile so present without seeming pasted-on that he carries the movie by making you like him; you want to be his friend too. And so, he gets you involved in rooting for Auteuil — to see what he has in front of him, and what he might piss away. “Infectiously happy” is an easy thing to say, but not since AMELIE have I left a movie theater wiping away tears of happiness. Leconte’s direction and style is not as eccentrically brilliant as Jeunet’s though. MON MEILLEUR AMI is undoubtedly formula; but of a superior grade. And a crowd-pleaser, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with pleasing a crowd. One more thing. Patrice … I am recommending your latest film. Now can we please get MONSIEUR HIRE (the movie that won you my eternal esteem) out on North American home video in something other than an out-of-print pan-and-scan VHS. thanksbud



SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand, 8)

I raised the grade on this in the last few days because it just keeps growing in my memory, even though that memory is very hazy. I got to the theater about 10 minutes into SYNDROMES because my previous movie had ran late. And then, during the film, I hit The Festival Wall and dropped off for 20 winks or so. So in no way could I be said to have seen this film properly. The first half takes place in a small clinic on the edge of a Thai jungle; the second half in a modern hospital. There’s the obvious nature-civilization parallels (a shot that looks into a total solar eclipse is rhymed with a track toward a vacuum hole that sucks in smoke), and they kinda come together at the end, with both coexisting (Joe’s view of industrial civilization seems to be like Antonioni’s in RED DESERT). But I can’t actually say much about what SYNDROMES is about, per se, but I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway, and THAT I can explain. Joe makes movies that you CAN nod off during and still enjoy. I know that sounds like the ultimate back-handed compliment, particularly since Joe has the reputation of being a “Level IV” filmmaker, i.e., the highest degree of difficulty. But I’m referring to something else — the vibe that comes from SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (like TROPICAL MALADY before it). Joe doesn’t make movies with beginnings, middles and ends. Nor does he make formalist conceits, nor does he engage in mind-trickery. No … Joe makes friendly, inviting films that feel like a light-toned party or even a family picnic (indeed, his films BLISSFULLY YOURS starts with a picnic). And like a party or a picnic, you can show up late, doze off or wander away from one group for a while, and pick up where you left off, by chatting up a new subgroup or try a new dish or drink or listening to someone else tell a new story — it’s still the same picnic. If you go with his flow and realize that you’re not watching a plot, Joe’s films are astonishingly simple and lovable (my friend Charles Odell compared his films to “a nice nap… but in a good way”). They might come together into a thematic or formal whole for you or they might not, but a Joe film is not really *about* “coming together” in that way but about offering moment-to-moment impressionistic portraits of human beings. Frequently, Joe will turn the film over for several minutes at a time to characters that have little to do with the film’s main throughline and let them converse on some topic or tell a story (my favorite sequence of this sort in TROPICAL MALADY was the acted-out story of two monks). Here in SYNDROMES, we get moments out of time like a driver’s-seat shot of a drive through a Thai village while the soundtrack is of three characters offscreen discussing old memories of photographs and tattoos. There’s a sequence about the hunt for orchids that glow in the dark. And another in which a Thai TV talk-show hostess at a hospital, in front of doctors no less, does a traditional remedy on a brain-damaged patient. You just hear the story/watch the sequence and just enjoy the moment. This is what Theo was getting at when he called TROPICAL MALADY an experience, not a movie. When I walked in to SYNDROMES, the first sequence I saw was of a monk getting a dentist checkup. He mentions wanting to have been a DJ before entering religious life. The dentist had musical ambitions too, and he starts to sing. The monk says “is this a checkup or a concert.” Heck if I knew what it was about in the broader scheme of the movie (though I have some ideas). There is a scene in which a woman makes tea in her office while the sun shines through the open window. Nothing happens in this shot, but I wish the whole movie could be that empty. But just as important to their appeal to me is the way Joe shoots his movies. They are gorgeous and delectable — you just want to jump on the screen and devour them. He shoots the Thai outdoors as some place that really exists and that sane people live in and near. It’s inviting, warm and sunny — the key is that the lighting is as soft as tissue paper, without being fuzzy or picture-postcardy. As a result, there’s little harsh contrasts or starkly-drawn shadows in most of SYNDROMES and MALADY. Perhaps this is a feature of an Equitorial climate, where the sun is often directly overhead, and how, even for interior scenes, it affects a director’ssense of how light “should” look. He also frames his images in a distinctive way — shooting his people at social distances, respecting both their private space (i.e., few closeups) and their autonomy (i.e., not framing them in long shot to be consumed by the world, or trapped by tight compositions). Exactly as you would when meeting someone at a party. Another reason you want to follow Joe’s characters through his movies: unlike in a lot of Asian art-house movies, they don’t talk in stilted or stylized phrases or act like glum ciphers … they talk like normal human beings, which makes his films much more accessible from moment to moment than their reputations.

GRBAVICA (Jasmila Zbanic, Bosnia, 5)

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the end of this film, in which Mirjana Karanovic gives a lengthy monolog about some of the atrocities her character — a Muslim woman from Sarajevo — suffered during the war that broke up Yugoslavia a decade and a half ago. You’d also have to have a head of stone not to have seen it coming from the first reel. While GRBAVICA, which won the Golden Bear as top film at the last Berlin Film Festival, is easily the best of this year’s winners at the three biggest European festivals, it’s also the kind of movie that, however valuable, interesting or vital for its native country, can’t help but come across as a bit outdated for the wider world. It’s basically a Bosnian version of THIRTEEN, albeit with a much higher-stakes back story. There’s lots of scenes of mother/tomboyish-daughter fighting, and a working-class mother taking shit at a second job to pay for a trip for her daughter. But scenes of a female achieving sexual awakening through the use of firearms hasn’t worked since Faye Dunaway in BONNIE AND CLYDE (which was made before I was walking upright). Still, this is the best possible “Bosnian THIRTEEN” I can imagine. It is undoubtedly “powerful,” except that I generally react to such movies as “screaming climax and pat denouement.”

September 16, 2006 Posted by | Barbara Kopple (w & w/o Cecilia Peck), Jasmila Zbanic, Joe, Patrice Leconte, TIFF 2006 | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A guy named Joe


TROPICAL MALADY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand, 7)

TROPICAL MALADY bifurcates itself into two “halves.” The first hour or so is basically a hanging out “City Symphony” movie like MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA or PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (though eventually two central characters do emerge); the second segment, with an all new set of credits no less, adapts an allegoricized short story involving the same two central characters, a jungle hunt, subtitled monkey-chattering and a tiger looking directly into the camera. This is a loosely structured “arty” movie, obviously. But this is where a critical distinction must be made. This film hardly has more a plot than AFTER THE DAY BEFORE, in fact it has considerably less of one, and it sometimes doesn’t make much sense. For example, is the second half a recapitulation of the first, telling the same story in a different style, or is it a narrative continuation? Either is possible; in fact the first half ends with a feeling of jealousy that could signal a “break” in the natural world and the conceit of naturalism in favor of stylized allegory (think how PERSONA “breaks” upon the shard of glass for a sense of what I mean.) But in this case, I frankly don’t care, because TROPICAL MALADY never bored me. It was so nice to look at, had so many goofy interpolations and what WAKING LIFE calls “holy moments,” that it’d be churlish to complain. The conversation between the guy in the truck and the guy on the bus; the scenes of people cutting ice; hanging out with the two ladies who ran a store; the acted-out parable of the monk and the two farmers. There’s so much to enjoy on the fly (and the characters aren’t dour-faced depressives, which helps enormously) that the fact the film doesn’t seem to hang together doesn’t matter. In fact, I hereby formulate Victor’s Art House Rule #1: “If you make a slow movie where not much happens — thou shalt keep the overall tone light, airy and silly-comic, and maketh thy shots almost delectable.” Contrary to my usual custom, I could hardly describe my reactions when the lights went up and everyone started looking at each other, saying “well, what did you think of that.” The ending is the truly gripping conversation with the heart of a tiger and I let out a breath at the closing credits, sure that I had enjoyed what I had seen at some level, but unsure of myself. But TROPICAL MALADY has stewed wonderfully in the head and I already am eager for a second look and for a first look at the other films by “Joe” (MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON and BLISSFULLY YOURS) — and there’s just no arguing with those reactions.

September 13, 2004 Posted by | Joe, TIFF 2004 | Leave a comment