MR. TURNER (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2014, 8)
Mike Leigh has been known for decades now as a great director of actors (perhaps the best in contemporary cinema) and as a depictor of working-class life — as a visual stylist, not so much. But MR. TURNER is his first film that you can truthfully say is worth looking at regardless of what’s happening, filled with lovely shots that deservedly won cinematographer Dick Pope a jury award at Cannes. The opening shot sets the stage by moving from peasants walking beside a sunset and happening to cross (unknown to them) an artist, the titular J.M.W. Turner, painting the scene. Over and over again, we see shots of rooms with windows in the rear, to let the sun stream in and sometimes we see the same composition but with a fireplace playing the sun’s role. The death of Turner’s father, for example, is conspicuously lit only with a couple of onscreen candles and we see their effects. There’s also beautifully-lit idylls, iconographic ones, of boating down the Thames, of the White Cliffs of Dover. A theory of art history even works its way in as Turner thinks photography may have made him obsolete and so his work becomes less representational. But at the same time, dramatically, there’s an exact and exacting depiction of what ordinary and material life of the 1830s was like and differed from the 2010s — things like artistic debtors, modes of courtship, etc. I’d be curious what the Heidegger who wrote about “A Pair of Shoes” would make of MR TURNER. Leigh and Pope have pushed a self-consciously painterly style into a kind of period realism that, a couple of exceptions aside, cinema resists because, in order to look natural, photography requires an unnatural light that only modernity has. But the sun is arguably the star of MR TURNER, the biopic of a man whose last words were “the sun is God.”
One easy, natural thing to do, indeed I’ve already done it to an extent, is to identify an offscreen auteur with an onscreen artist, Leigh with Turner in this case. But I would hesitate to go too far. While the cinematography can evoke a “painterly” style, the film could not follow the trajectory of Turner’s career as it moves on. Not while remaining a commercially releasable motion picture anyway. Such a strategy would require mimicking Turner’s later shifts into abstraction and proto-impressionism.
Equally easy it is to compare a film like this to the auteur’s previous “artist biography” film, TOPSY TURVY here. I think TOPSY TURVY the better film, though I resisted it for years for reasons not worth rehearsing here (suffice to say I liked TURNER better on first viewing than I did the Gilbert and Sullivan pic). And I think the earlier film’s greatness highlights TURNER’s only real weakness. There is nothing like the staging of THE MIKADO to give the second half of MR TURNER shape and pull-through, once the “world-building” of the first hour is over. Even when they’re as episodic as this one though, Leigh films usually build the episodes into an explosion — look at the climactic quarrels in ALL OR NOTHING, LIFE IS SWEET, SECRETS AND LIES and HAPPY GO LUCKY for example. Here … no. The conventions of the Life Of The Artist biopic, which were circumscribed earlier by THE MIKADO, take over the structure and MR TURNER just continues until Turner dies (um … spoiler for a film about a man born in the 1770s).
Oh … I forget … this is a Mike Leigh film, so the acting will be superb in every respect … but one or two. Spall is of course great … [grunt]. It’s an easy performance to mock or parody I’ve gathered. But one measure of its greatness is that Spall must give 20 different grunts that mean 20 different things in context, all of them perfectly clear. That number is obviously an imprecise guess but it realio trulio is not hyperbole; Spall is that good a grunter. And it’s not played for laughs; it’s just the communications mode for a man of few words. The “but” caveat applies here too of course — mistress Ruth Sheen comes across as a right cow, regardless of her character’s legitimate grievance against Turner. And the critic is too foppish and dilletantish to take seriously. The right temperature to grow “goozberries”? Really, Michael? How can a critical favorite like Leigh dislike critics as he seems to — see TOPSY TURVY also here.
Oh … I forget … this is a Mike Leigh film, so “irrelevant” set pieces (often involving one of his stock company in a one-scene role) will be superb in every respect as well. Miss Summerville’s magnet experiment, the thumbprint method of criticism, the Purcell duet, “The Maid of the Hill” — I’ve provided Skandie-friendly Best Scene titles, no thanks needed. Until late January.
INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014, 2)
This film is a mess. And I’m not a maid.
THE BLUE ROOM (Mathieu Amalric, France, 2014, 5)
For the nation that revered and recognized Hitchcock as a great artist before either of his own countries did, the French seem to have remarkable difficulty actually enacting his own lessons on how to make great thrillers. THE BLUE ROOM also has the pedigree of being adapted from a novel by France’s own great thriller-writer Georges Simenon. And the thundering brass score by echoes Waxman, Herrmann and others who did some of their best work for The Master. The squarish academy-ratio frame and the moody lighting raises confidence in director-star Mathieu Amalric. But, like many of Claude Chabrol’s films IMHO, THE BLUE ROOM just lacks juice and drive, ending up being the kind of film Hitchcock said he detested … the whodunit.
Amalric starts off with the right elements, an instantly recognizable star (himself) in danger with the police and priggish authorities, as he claims an innocence they don’t believe. But there’s really no suspense in the film’s because so many of the Hitchcock elements are missing — the chase / protagonist in danger (Amalric is varyingly in jail, prison and trial court as legal proceedings go on); the villain (oh there is one eventually, but only after we learn the whole story … which means it’s a waste); the Maguffin (instead the film strip-teases plot points that happened before the film starts and which the characters generally know but get deliberately withheld from us).
And that last hints at something else fundamental wrong with THE BLUE ROOM. It’s something even more problematic than a whodunit … a dunwhat in this case too … the film’s unpeeling of the narrative onion even teases us with ambiguous clues about what the crime was and exactly the charge. Hitch also said, in his Truffaut interview, that whenever possible, the audience should know everything, and certainly at least as much as the characters do. BLUE ROOM though is just an exercise in keeping us in the dark trying to figure out what the hades is the story here (I was convinced for a time it was child sex-abuse charges during a bitter divorce).
Hitchcock is an absurdly high standard for direction of course, but Amalric’s realisation doesn’t match the material enough here. It’s functional but merely that — and also a bit hide-bound and frankly rather stagy as much of the film takes place in enclosed rooms. There have been two very good recent French thrillers made from Simenon novels — MONSIEUR HIRE and the Cedric Kahn RED LIGHTS. And in both cases, you had free protagonists, in danger, doing something about it to dig themselves in deeper, temptation to do wrong, and some really stylish directorial chops. In other words … the exact elements missing here.
THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014, 4)
THE WONDERS is one of those film so muted that it scarcely exists. Reviewing it at all and trying to have any sort of emotional reaction to it feels almost impolite, like someone stomping on the eggshells everyone else is politely tiptoeing around, from fear of waking each other up. This strategy won a second prize from the Cannes Film Festival jury.
THE WONDERS is autobiographical, set on an Italian bee farm depicting a family resembling the auteur’s own and with the matriarch played by the director’s sister. But it’s so terribly absorbed in the details of the world it depicts, it forgets to make them compelling or dramatic to an outsider. No protagonist really stands out … a reform-school guy enters foster care with the family (largely for economic reasons) but he shakes up little. He’s supposedly German but looks as German as Manute Bol which is possible but it makes his saying nothing in German or anything else suspicious. Some things happen — two accidents, one involving a hand, the other a spill but, with one exception, nothing builds. There’s a trick involving one of the girls spilling bees out of her mouth onto her face that makes a great party gag.
The closest THE WONDERS comes to a throughline (and the source of its title) is a family effort pushed by the daughters to get on a cheesy Italian-TV reality show about the most-authentic rustic least-corporate farm. Monica Bellucci as the vulgarly gussied up hostess commits to the cheese but director Rohrwacher won’t, unlike Garrone in REALITY or Fellini in GINGER AND FRED. It’s as if she believes pleasure and drive are themselves suspect. Oh … and did I say there’s a two-humped camel in there somewhere? It’s as forgotten as anything else in this uninflected slice of life that believes in that adjective a little too devoutly. Uninflection is fine in the details; but not as the main course.
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Britain, 1951, 9)
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN is not a perfect film — like most classic operas, its story (or here “stories”) is dramatically thin and contrived, and some little part of me will always rebel against opera in English (and only somewhat from snobbish purism; opera singing isn’t intended for clarity but in a foreign-language opera you’ll at least get subtitles). And I’m not unsympathetic to Pauline Kael’s criticism that the film is an attempt at “muchness” (my word) or an overload of craft credits that just “spread out the buffet” (hers). But what a buffet the Archers put on!? How many buffets have you gone to that are this rich, this appetizing and this varied? Even if you feel a bit gorged at the end, aren’t sure everything on the table worked for you, and are sure you’d rather have a perfectly planned three-course meal like LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, HOFFMANN is still a spread you won’t forget.
Like COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (as I type they’re my two favorite films of the festival), TALES OF HOFFMANN is not only like nothing you’ve ever seen (and the two films have the same amount of naturally-spoken diegetic dialog — zero), but it’s also a film that proceeds as if Griffith had never invented the dominant narrative cinema. As POMEGRANATES attempts to reproduce the aesthetics of medieval painting on film, HOFFMANN tries to achieve Wagner’s insane ambition of the total art work (I’m not pretentious enough to look up the German term) — fusing poetry, song, painting and dance into one unified whole.
HOFFMANN’s three stories are all tragic romances involving the titular character and his loves; most of the sweet tragedy falling on her (“well whaddidja expect at an opera … a HAPPY ending?”). When you consider that and Powell’s later solo film PEEPING TOM, the ending of the Olympia Tale becomes curiouser and curiouser in its total perversity, a bald description of which would make it sound like a disgusting 2014 slasher film. And yet, because (and *unlike* PEEPING TOM) the act is so hyper-aestheticized, it actually becomes kind of funny. It’s not an actual woman like Moira Shearer being dismembered and torn apart on camera but a puppet. And the moment is fairly set up because throughout HOFFMANN, the characters act like puppets and are treated as such, both when they are and when they aren’t. There’s a Looney Tunes quality to the whole exercise, a film in which viewers’ necks will stretch into impossible shapes and the decorations on the side of beer steins will jump off the mugs and do a dance that takes over the film for a couple minutes for no dramatically relevant or important reason at all.
To partially agree with another common criticism, HOFFMANN is a rather chilly film, compared to RED SHOES, but there was some unexpected heart here in a recurring androgynous “boy” figure, played by Pamela Brown, in a bit of a Girl Friday role. She gets the rare privilege of becoming the center of a love duet (in the third Tale, Antonia) without singing a note. The Archers film the scene in long shot with proscenium framing but she stubbornly stays in the background for the whole thing, rather than exuenting backstage, as convention requires. And gets a closeup at the end. She’s the eternal longing audience, looking at the spectacle like an unrequited lover. And have I mentioned the color and decor and singing here? Guilty, your worship, of the capital offense of burying the lead. The sheer dazzling inventiveness of the color is by itself worth the price of admission, a New York Film Festival non-member admission even. Gotta love a film that anticipates Lebron James pregame chalk routine by about 60 years. And also gotta love the rare chance to see an opera film that uses properly trained opera singers (some merely dubbing, some acting onscreen as well), even if that means you can sometimes see rather poor, sometimes nonexistent but inconsistently so, attempts at lip-synching. As I said it’s not a perfect film, but as Kael herself put it … it’s like worrying about whether KING LEAR being well-constructed. It doesn’t matter; it’s an unforgettable experience regardless.
DON’T GRIEVE (Giorgi Danelia, USSR [Georgia], 1969, 4)
I wonder if the Ma and Pa Kettle movies play like this when shown in Tblisi. Or perhaps more precisely, what if modern Greeks themselves had actually made (the film of) ZORBA THE GREEK. It’s very hard for me to judge this as a work of art or an entertainment to be honest — it made almost no impression on me, either positive or really all that negative. Not because DON’T GRIEVE is difficult or opaque in any way — it’s a straightforward peasant comedy about the 19th-century village doctor, who’s a slacker, and his encounters with the various townsfolk, all broad peasant / aristocrat / bourgeois types — the town drunk, the town tramp, the shrewish wife, the pompous lord. If you’re over 30 and culturally awake, you’ve seen this movie, even if you haven’t. I laughed a couple of times — a Chauceresque game of role reversal involving male-male ass-kissing or some other southern-region pucker-up (film leaves it vague; if you’re Georgian, you probably know which it is); there’s a couple attempts at pathos involving villagers sicknesses and the sorts of diagnoses doctors give in various tones of voice; and some mixing of the two, as in the climactic scene when a dying man insists of having his wake while alive. But DON’T GRIEVE too loosely plotted to really work as farce, too tonally uneven for tragedy (Chekhov did not include scenes of ass-kissing for a reason). I didn’t care about anything while I was watching it, and I’d’ve forgotten about it in a month under any circumstances. As it is, that time span will probably be about four hours because of the next film I saw, from more or less the same time and place … and THAT one was a mind-blowing masterpiece.
THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (Sergei Paradjanov, USSR [Armenia/Georgia], 1968, 9)
When I left the theater, I IM’d Steve Greydanus (a Catholic filmgeek bud who’s graciously letting me stay at his home thus making my NYFF week possible) that “I wish I could go back back in time and have made you see this with me, kidnapping you at gunpoint and forcing you in if necessary.” As great as, e.g., the Dardennes are, people have made films like theirs before. And probably will again; realism is ageless. But nobody has made a film, I am very confident in saying over all of David Hume’s objections, like COLOR OF POMEGRANATES. It really does have an aesthetic that assumes the rest of cinema history never happened. And according to an aesthetic I’d’ve wanted Steve to see — medieval visual art on film, in service of a liturgical “narrative.”
I put that word in quotes rather than call POMEGRANATES non-narrative, because it does purport to be about the life of Sayat Nova, a 17th century Armenian monk-poet-songwriter-troubadour. And it kinda does … it starts with him as boy, follows the stages of his life and career (boyhood, marriage, widowhood, the monastery, troubadour calling) unto his death, and elements of his poetry are spoken on the soundtrack. Traditional Armenian dances, liturgies and songs are presented. But as far as the conventionally “biopicky” elements go, this film makes ANDREI RUBLEV (also a 60s Soviet film about a monk / artist that paid little attention to the few known facts of his life) look like RAY or WALK THE LINE. Instead, POMEGRANATES is like leafing through a book of Eastern Christian tableaux and icons that happen to go in enough of an order that you can figure out the saint’s/artist’s life points. But there is literally not a single moment in POMEGRANATES where biographic storytelling is the privileged point (“and then this happened”) or which follow the conventions of realistic representation (that which, as a Bazinian, I believe cinema naturally bends toward). Instead, Paradjanov creates something truly and utterly unique, and truly medieval, even beyond Rohmer’s PERCEVAL or ASTREE AND CELADON.
Everything in POMEGRANATES is presentational and performative, not representational or realistic. All the sound is nondiegetic, even when it appears to the contrary. There are no conversations. Nobody in the film acts or moves at all like a real person, instead usually looking right at the camera, full-frontal, or in stylized oblique poses. Instead, the logic is liturgical. When a confirmation-type rite is performed and St. George is invoked, St. George appears on his horse and rides through the tableau for no “reason” but truly present, as if incantation begets incarnation. Dance is used narratively, as in the courtship of his wife, in which red, black and white veils and costume ensembles shift and change with the moods and modes of desire. Some use of perspective is technologically unavoidable, but Paradjanov does his damnedest to fight it, flattening out the space and filling it wherever possible with depthless elements across the image, as if filling out a tableau or adding icon episodes (the camera needless to say never moves). His color scheme is also anti-perspective without being splashy — usually filling out the “background” or the base elements with a neutral or drab color like beige or gray while primary colors splash onto the space (literally in the opening sequence of multiple shades of red) and they accordingly pop out sharper and iconographically. Between the non-natural and sometimes non-existent sound, the non-natural color, and the non-natural space, literally every element is foregrounded (in both senses) until we’re not following life as a drama but looking at the images of a life (and listening to its sounds).
This is biopic as tone poem, an attempt to reproduce the poetry’s effects without slavishly reproducing the work itself. (I get why some folks thought I might hate this, but the film it most reminded me of is Andersson’s SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, POMEGRANATES being the product of a Christian society in a way SONGS is of a post-Christian one.) POMEGRANATES isn’t trying to produce Sayat Nova’s life but life as Sayat Nova saw it … one of the most effective psychological elements is the gap between the persona in the incantatory poetry (which feels a bit like an Armenian “King of Pain”) and the rich, surreal iconography on the screen. One of the earliest images is of a young boy crucified by books — that makes no sense, I know … but it does, here. I’m not sure I understood everything in POMEGRANATES — indeed I know I didn’t; too many of the details are obviously culturally specific for it to be otherwise to a non-Caucasian. But I always felt like I was getting enough and, more importantly, I also wanted to know more and was just dazzled by what I did understand. Ironically, the best possible companion piece to POMEGRANATES would be a SAYAT NOVA biopic directed by the Armenian John Madden.
HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (Ben and Joshua Safdie, USA, 2014, 1)
Someone needs to put the Safdie brothers on Prozac or at least switch their regular coffee with Folger’s Decaf Crystals. HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT, an episodic film about a circle of smackheads on the New York streets, is one of the loudest movies I’ve ever seen, and I mean that adjective literally as well as the critical metaphor sense. The film is wall-to-wall people shouting at each other, over each other, at nobody in particular … especially when they’re told not to shout. The soundtrack is crammed with way-too-frequent doses of painfully tuneless noise that sounds like thrash metal without its tuneful harmonies and lyricism (I exaggerate not a bit). The sound mix is so over-the-top that if audience members were talking in the theater, it wouldn’t be a problem — you couldn’t hear them anyway. The shaky camera magnifies everything by (usually) staying close in to the characters and having very little focal depth, so much of the space on the screen is out-of-focus and you can’t avert your eyes. Just sharing the same theater space as this film is like reading a 5,000-word blog post in all caps — an existentially unpleasant experience that you just want to fucking end. There is a reason I don’t go to raves, blast krautrock at 12, or blog like FilmCriticHulk.
Now, I can groove to some extent with the existential-assault mode, being a big fan of IRRREVERSIBLE and all. But that film was artful and the noise was purposeful. Here, the effect is (a contrived notion of) artlessness, of gritty realism, and in the service of (non-)story and characters about whom I could not possibly give fewer fucks. On the former point, the film is a structural disaster it can only stop, a weakness which the Safdies realize by having someone talk over the closing credits. But it’s banal talk anyway … one of 8 billion reasons Mike Leigh is a genius is that as big an asshole as Johnny is in NAKED (which this film resembles in a lot of ways), he’s an articulate asshole. These people are just loud twits in love with the sound of their own loudness. I’m not appealing to the silly sense that characters must be “relatable” or we must like them as if they’d be our (potential) friends. HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT is about heroin junkies who live for and care only about their next fix. I get they won’t be model citizens and they’ll do some bad shit, but you need some reason to care more about them than they do about themselves, especially if they’re causing you discomfort. It’s just too MUCH … all flow and no ebb. When a person screams in public “suck my clit, asshole,” my patience with her is going to be rather thin and I’m not gonna sweat whether she slits her wrists, which of her junkie fuck toys she wants more at this hour, or her latest screaming jag.
THE TRIP TO ITALY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 2014, 7)
Writing the same review twice never really works out, especially if they keep … pulling me … BACK IN. (OK … you have to imagine me saying that like Pacino.) If you saw the first Steve Coogan/ Rob Brydon as sorta-themselves film, you don’t really have to change your opinion or much of your review. You get (more or less) exactly the same (good) things … the companionship of two immensely funny men, each trying to prove he’s better than the other, especially to that other. A boxing wit once said the Ali-Frazier fights were first and last about the Heavyweight Championship of each other … here’s the same dynamic. It’s the same sort of unsaid-irony-marinated one-upmanship that exists among some longtime married couples, most film nerds, and all on-air sportscasters — a desire to get in one more witty line while keeping the relationship intact. Only, the latter requirement means the importance of the former can never be acknowledged as such. So when Brydon tells Coogan’s son, “you need to see impersonations done properly,” Brydon cannot say “unlike your inferior voice-actor father.” But Coogan can just give a look meaning “you want to say ‘unlike your inferior voice-actor father’.”
There are a few differences in THE TRIP TO ITALY, and they’re mostly for the better … there’s less “food porn” here and even a line to the effect that these two don’t know anything about food; Coogan dials back the toolage in “Coogan” a bit, while Brydon dials his up a bit; Italy is nicer-looking than the Lake District; there’s a far-greater level of self-awareness in the sequel; and the latter film’s aim for heft comes off better, indeed partly because of the self-consciousness. Precisely because there’s comparisons of the endings of ROMAN HOLIDAY and NOTTING HILL while the last scene’s action plays out (to a Mahler aria), the roleness of “Coogan” and “Brydon” is underlined while its importance still matters as such. Especially in the face of death — “what’ll you be remembered for 200 years from now?” Roles. There’s memento mori everywhere — the constant comparisons to Shelley and Keats, the embalmed while embracing Pompeii corpses, the embalment talk on the beach. But it’s largely laughed off. I initially thought the film was just hinting at places it doesn’t really go, but then that’s the point too. THE TRIP TO ITALY is byronic in every possible way after Byron — lifestyle, environs, obsession with death, attitude toward death. Do we really need Alanis Morrissette’s young-woman form of neurosis explicitly and detailedly compared to Coogan’s middle-aged-man form? Not really … the juxtaposition of Coogan saying how he hates Brydon’s “karaoke act” and then an hour later singing along to “Jagged Little Pill” makes the a-little-too-ironic point. And we especially don’t need it during a trip to Italy.
TIMBUKTU (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania, 2014, 7)
On paper, I shouldn’t like this film as much as I do. Sissako is not a tight storyteller and this network narrative — imagine the also-city-titled DALLAS or NASHVILLE in a different cultural context and stakes — is one long exercise in Vignettus Interruptus. Sissako continually leaves out “the middle” or the end of actions — for example, how do Islamist authorities investigate the two central crimes shown, whose commission we see but re which Sissako just cuts to the arrest/trial; how did the top cop answer the phoned-in question about sacred music; why does Sissako leave so much dialogue and almost all his music unsubtitled. Also, this is exactly the sort of social-protest film that usually gets me sympathetic to the “bad guys” and/or whatever the director and/or characters raii against and expect the audience to nod compliantly along with (what he thinks is) its unexceptionable point. It’d be an achievement to have me sympathetic to sharia-imposing jihadists, but Sissako almost managed it.
Well … how?
First of all, Sissako has more of a sense of humor than my received notion of him suggested (BAMAKO was “anti-recommended” to me). The scene of the French rapper recording his jihad confession is straight out of FOUR LIONS and nearly as funny, albeit not played remotely as farcically (even that lighting director). Also, Sissako is obviously a master image-maker — a lengthy, still long-shot in which the only movement is two men in a river contains both the universe of man and the universe’s indifference to man, and Sissako holds the shot for (in dramatic terms) far too long, which sinks in the point. And the best scene of the film is a soccer game that borrows its premise from the final scene of a famous Antonioni film but which absolutely blows it off the court. This is imagination as subversion and joy, not as silly pot-fueled navel-gazing.
In addition, Sissako’s didacticism, for much of the film’s length, doesn’t come across as speechifying, which is underlined especially by how the jihadists are presented. For starters, they’re not the plot engine for everything — the primary conflict and the family involved therein is a within-traditional-society one about fishing nets, a cattle herd and paternal legacy, and it’s taking place outside the main city. Frankly, this was bothering me for much of the film’s running time … it was like two unrelated films were being intercut … one about jihadists, the other about a poor family and their cow herd.
Like Roger Ebert said of Fellini, Sissako’s film is filled with symbols but they’re obvious ones. And like the Christ statue at the start of LA DOLCE VITA, Sissako begins with an obvious contrast of ancient and modern in which a single detail … the “wounds” suffered by the traditional idols … says everything clearly and economically while you admire the virtuosity of the helicopter pilot / the jihadist marksman. In addition, and a FOUR LIONS comparison is apropos here, the narrative contrast with the jihadists is from traditionalist Islam — the imam whom they consult (who plays the structural role here the brother did in FOUR LIONS) is no parachuted-in, West-approved “moderate.” Instead, my friend Peter (#WatchAfricanCinema) Labuza suggested the jihadists come across as a Hawksian group of buddies, which strikes me as close enough for caliphate work.
THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer et al, Denmark/Indonesia, 2014, 8)
If you enjoy watching victim-impact statements at criminal trials, or think that THE ACT OF KILLING was pretty good but what it really needed was an onscreen humanistic presence to serve as a proxy identifier for high-minded Western audiences … have I got a film for you.
That’s way too snarky and oversimplifying, even for me, and it’s ultimately unfair, as the 8-grade suggests. But it does get across why I was resistant to THE LOOK OF SILENCE for much of its running time and, accordingly in compensation, why I’m thinking I may still be underestimating it and/or have been taken in by the greatest bait-and-switch masterpiece. But I will still say … with a perfectly straight face on the day I read through my notes and wrestled with (and against) my existential reaction … one’s opinion of this film depends almost entirely on your reaction to the protagonist, an Indonesian whose brother was killed in mass anti-Communist pogroms in the mid-60s.
What is the film’s relationship to him? Is he simply an onscreen protagonist on a quest for truth? For good or ill? (“ILL!!”) Or does the film complicate him and that quest?
As I said at the time, part of why THE ACT OF KILLING is great is that it’s the film Godard said needed to be made about the concentration camps — one not about the inmates, but the guards. For much of its length, and in some senses all of its length, THE LOOK OF SILENCE is not only not that film, but the opposite. Adi is an optometrist who, while giving eye exams to old people around the Aceh countryside (metaphor alert!), asks them about their actions during the pogroms. Much of the film is of two types of scenes. One involves Adi looking at footage that could’ve been used in ACT OF KILLING — militia members describing and re-enacting their actions back then, with a mixture of clinical detachment, pride, laughter, and what-krazy-kids-we-were nostalgia. It gradually becomes explicit that two of those militia members are describing their killing of Adi’s brother. The other type of scene involves Adi himself talking to older Indonesians, including his parents and family members but also current politicians and known pogrom leaders, asking them what they did then and why.
I resisted that formula for a long time, but had changed my mind in the latter part of the film. Part of the reason involved the fact that as Adi becomes more of an interviewer and less of a spectator to Oppenheimer’s videos, we get the return of the jaw-dropping “OMG, did I see what I just saw” factor that made ACT OF KILLING such an unforgettable experience. And that very return underlines (leads to?) the change in Adi and his family.
Without engaging in too much thematic spoilage, note a few things and whether and how SILENCE does or doesn’t answer them — What is Adi trying to accomplish, and how? How does the age of the interviewees affect things? What are the mental states of certain characters? And what could either mean? What goes on within Adi’s family? What is happening the few times Oppenheimer becomes a diegetic presence? Who possesses the power of the cinematic gaze? What can “drinking blood” mean besides “drinking blood” (like … ahem … “cauterizing the soul“)?
Hello … HELLO … this microphone still on?
As I suspect many of you may know, the last couple of years I haven’t gone to Toronto for my annual world-cinema gorging, as had been my decade-long custom. In partial compensation, I’ve gone instead to the New York and Sundance festivals, which has enabled me to stay somewhat abreast of the most-prominent films I’d’ve seen at TIFF under other circumstances. Still, I can’t deny that cinephilia and writing have played a lesser role in my life and interests in the past year or so. I’ve seen many fewer films and other things have become an obsession for me.
But as I type this, I’m feeling the old juices back. I’m on a 4am train heading up for New York for a seven-day campout at the Lincoln Center, with planned visits to several rep theaters playing, among other things, a Tennessee Williams series and a historical retrospective of Georgian cinema (Tblisi-Georgian, not Atlanta-Georgian). Despite the fact that half my planned 24 films are films in regular commercial release or older ones playing NYFF and otherwise (and only two have I seen before), I’m planning to see if I can blog like I did at Toronto. Certainly this schedule is much lighter than I typically had there … no five-film (much less six-film) days planned. So … here is the plan.
Wed, 1 Oct
300 THE TRIP TO ITALY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 2014) IFC Center
600 TIMBUKTU (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania, 2014) NYFF
900 THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer et al, Indonesia, 2014), NYFF
Thu, 2 Oct
400 DON’T GRIEVE (Giorgio Danelia, USSR [Georgia], 1969) MoMA
600 THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (Sergei Paradjanov, USSR [Georgia/Armenia], 1968) NYFF
900 HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (Josh and Benny Safdie, USA, 2014) NYFF
Fri, 3 Oct
1230 SUMMER AND SMOKE (Peter Glenville, USA, 1961) Film Forum
255 THE BLUE ROOM (Mathieu Amalric, France, 2014) IFC Center
600 THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014) NYFF
900 THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Britain, 1951) NYFF
Sat, 4 Oct
1100 NINOTCHKA (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1939) IFC Center
200 MR. TURNER (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2014) NYFF
545 INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014) NYFF
Sun, 5 Oct
300 TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 2014) NYFF
600 CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (Richard Brooks, USA, 1958) Film Forum
900 EDEN (Mia Hansen-Love, France, 2014) NYFF
Mon, 6 Oct
1230 SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (Richard Brooks, USA, 1962) Film Forum
400 SABA (Mikhail Chiaureli, USSR [Georgia], 1929) MoMA
600 TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER (Nick Broomfield, USA, 2014) NYFF
800 SLEUTH (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Britain, 1972) NYFF
Tue, 7 Oct
1145 THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (Ned Benson, USA, 2014) Landmark
215/300 GONE GIRL (David Fincher, USA, 2014) NYFF/commercial release
600 HORSE MONEY (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2014) NYFF
900 QUEEN AND COUNTRY (John Boorman, Britain, 2014) NYFF