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Monthly Archives: May 2009

In Cannes, the annual travesty offered up by France in the name of “art”, the usual clap-trap has been available to amuse the critics – Lars von Trier announced he was the world’s best director; Quentin Tarantino announced he was the world’s best director (both thus excluding themselves from anyone’s serious consideration about anything, in case anyone previously had).  Films have rolled by, though none seems to have caused a universal wave of huzzahs.

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Wild Grass, Alain Resnais

The venerable 87 year old Alain Resnais though was present with a well received new work, alleged to be up to his best, which is a very high level indeed (Muriel, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and many others).

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The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh

Meantime back home, Steven Soderbergh has released his latest so-called low-budgeter, which in a sense bears a relation to first film, Sex, Lies & Videotape.   In this case one shot if not on tape, then on a silicon chip, but in HD video.  The Girlfriend Experience, about a high-class hooker working the financial district in NY.  Hooker played by a real-life hot porn star.  It was shot on a RED, and done, so Mr Soderbergh imagines, daringly using no lights, aside from in industry-speak “practicals” (lights that are part of the actual scene).  Here’s his take on it.

As others in the industry do, the idea that one might work without the usual cinema lighting comes as an adventurous bit of innovation, nevermind that others had done so long long ago.  For example myself, in 1976, using ASA 200 (!) Kodak EF “high speed” of the time reversal stock, shooting Last Chants for a Slow Dance, and on through the rest of my films.  Or I rather doubt that some early Godard films did (Breathless, My Life to Live), and to my understanding many of his later, very lushly beautiful ones also did without.  Or Cassavetes.  Or….    Ah, but with a new faster filmstock, or with the new RED HD camera, suddenly the old is new again, though Soderbergh’s film has nothing new about it – more titillation offered up in the pose of a fake kind of moralism, Soderberg’s seemingly usual pattern.  The same thing he’s trafficked in from the start.

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Sarabande, Nathaniel Dorsky

Not to leave too sour a taste in the mouth, here’s a little interview with Nathaniel Dorsky, which should help cleanse the palate.   I think I saw the two films of his discussed here, I forget just where, perhaps at a screening in Portland, and they are very lovely.  Quiet moments of joy in the ordinary passing of life, but perceived and made transcendent by a real artist.   Nathaniel would never say he was the greatest filmmaker in the world.

Lastly a little note.  Belatedly we’ve heard from the Galway Film Fleadh, coming up July 5-12, and they’ve invited Rant, our documentary portrait of Steve Lack, and Landing in the Morning Calm, Marcella’s first film (and a nice one), and Mr Right, the film done with my students as actors last spring.  Pointedly they didn’t invite Parable, so I feel perhaps as if the baton is being passed.  I’m very happy for Marcella, and glad we’ll be going to Ireland to do a workshop and enjoy a bit of Irish beer, music, and landscapes.  And a few friends not seen in quite a while.

Allen And The Sun

Laying down his cards in his opening shot – a wide-screen image, mostly black, with a half-circle on the far left side, a rivulet of water dancing below, held and held, until finally one notices the small lump at the mouth of the sewage outlet, a boy’s still body; the shot holds on and on, leaving room to ponder this figure, ( is it dead?), until after many minutes the figure moves, and then slowly backs further into the tunnel.  I didn’t clock this shot, but it could easily have been 10 minutes.

With this opening gambit Sherad Anthony Sanchez, lays down the gauntlet for his audience, announcing in no uncertain terms, “take it or leave it.”  Imburnal (Sewer), proceeds apace, in frequently very long shots, for three and a half hours, slowly sketching in the lives of a small community – one which in most places would be characterized as “a slum” – in Davao, Philippines.   The atmosphere is ripe with sexuality, with children and adults openly discussing matters such as cunnilingus, blow-jobs, pregnancy, as well as being seen engaged in sexual acts.  In one sequence, in the slatted light of a sewage outlet, 2 men “sandwich” a willing and desirous woman.  The tropical heat is more than meteorological.

Primarily focused upon several young boys, this film declines to “tell a story” but rather languidly – as appropriate in the equatorial torpor – sketches out the lives of these street urchins who live in the sewage tunnels and outlets opening onto a river.  In the same moment a broader portrait is given of the immediate community, centered on a large golden statue, with prominent balls and penis, which stands at the center of a small public park and gathering space.   Young girls talk of sex with one another; boys masturbate; games are played, and adults seem banished for the most part to the periphery of life.  While the sexuality is open and clear, the film is anything but prurient.  Rather it opens out as an anthropological study, an observation of lives seldom given a glance, or if so, then subjected to melodramatic sentimentality in which poverty is romanticized.  Here it is merely a given, a part of everyday life.

Motorcycle Ride

The imagery is a mix of static long  – sometimes very long – takes, intermixed with sometimes jangly hand-held work, done with a fast shutter speed, as in a long sequence from a motorbike.  Occasionally images are slightly out of focus, or camera movements are jerky and unsure.  (Camera: Sanchez, Jose Bagane Fiola, Joel, Geolamen, Mark Limbaga, John Torres).  On the track the sound sometimes cuts out abruptly a second or so before a shot concludes, and jarringly resumes on the next image, sometimes with an audible click.  Other “flaws” recur often enough that over the time of the film they become clear signs of an intentionality, not the seeming errors that they initially bring to mind.   Somehow the clash of styles and the meandering narrative meld together and hold the viewer’s attention, at least those willing to let go of conventional expectations and “go with the flow.”

The First Dip

For a film which seems so “realistic” there are some things left unsaid, explicitly or implicitly:  that some of the characters are actors (Jelieta Ruca, Lawrence Garrido, Brian Monterola), or just what the real background is which finds the children living in the sewage pipes.  It’s not just the tropical heat, but another kind:  the boys are considered to be members of gangs, and vigilante groups of the area seek them out and kill them.  None of this is shown on screen, or talked about – this unhappy element lurks in the background, unexplained.

Also unsaid, but to me very evident, was the preparatory time which Sanchez had to take to elicit such closeness and intimacy to his subjects.  In this respect – and in some other aesthetic ones, though their styles are quite different – I was reminded of Pedro Costa’s work.  In both cases there is a deep anthropological element which requires patience and time in order to excavate the essentials, and in both a clear respect and love on the part of the filmmaker for his subjects.

David's Rap

In the post-screening Q&A, which seemed to me pregnant with discomfort on the part of most the audience, which I think didn’t quite know what to make of this mixture and duration, I asked, after saying I had found the film beautiful and powerful, about this.   He confirmed that he’d spent a year being with/around, learning and looking, and another half year shooting.   I also asked about the matter of those “technical” things such as the sound-dropouts, and other seemingly ragged aspects.  Anthony replied they were indeed willful and deliberate and had to do with a “personal” struggle inside him, presumably about film aesthetics, or artistic choices, and maybe a resistance to “professional” values – “slickness.”  I am very sympathetic to such conflicts, having had my fair share in my own work (in which I used, deliberately, stumbling voice-overs, actors who friends said were no good, and other violations of film-world conventions), so I understand.  Though in this case I felt some of the choices made damaged the final result, pulling attention in the wrong way to seemingly technical glitches in ways that did not function to make one aware of the artifice of the process, or to de-glamorize the reality, but rather simply stood out as seeming carelessness – something which the totality of the film certainly denied.  Bottom-line, I didn’t think the tensions which these things introduced enhanced the film, but took away from it.   In my mind I itched for having this most personal film handed to a sympathetic but not-involved editor, to cut out maybe 30 minutes, and delete the technical bumps.  My bet is it would become a more powerful and effective film, able to reach a much wider audience.  However, Anthony, as in his opening shot, made clear in his response he’d not buy such a re-do, and held his ground.   Which I respect completely.  I imagine in his own process, he’ll find ways to wrestle with these things in a way that works for him, and for the audience.   He’s 26 and has ample time, and certainly the innate talents.  I look forward to the next work he’ll do.  Meanwhile there’s this film, which will be hard to find, but if you have a chance, see it.  Imburnal picked up 2 prizes at the Jeonju festival.

teen spirit2Patti Smith in Jem Cohen’s music video Smells Like Teen Spirit

The remaining program I managed to see was a selection of short films, offered under the rubric of Stranger Than Cinema. The program I saw started off with current fest and avant-garde darling, Jem Cohen.  In this case teamed with long ago hip darling Patti Smith.   A music video in what I guess is Cohen’s allegedly avant-garde manner,  to say a compendium of the obligatory cliches of the so-called A/G experimental world – 8mm, light flares, scratches, splices, all expertly crafted, a sub-language presumed to signify “hip.”  As if this were not enough, the song is a cover of Cobain’s Smells Like Teen Spirit (and over-the-hill Sam Shepard, a Smith pal of decades gone, does some banjo licks for good measure).   Once again, the A/G, posturing as some vanguard is to be found wallowing in nostalgia, trafficking in the very worn out tropes of the 1950’s, dredging up the hipsters of the 60’s, and otherwise being about as antithetical to the avant as one can be.   Tired, and to these eyes tiresome, not to mention hypocritical – a fall-out of the institutionalisation of  “film as art.”

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Meteorites, Weeresethkul

Then came another current hotty of the fest circuit, Thailand’s Apichitpong Weerasethekul, whose films are swooned over though I frankly find them slapdash and loose beyond any visible talent.  The critical verbiage lathered on his work suggests something lurking within which utterly escapes my perceptions, though I am told this is owing to my non-developing world white-man’s colonial whatever.   My cynical side says this man’s fame is an indication of the value of bedding Tony Rayns, ricequeen supreme.  The film shown here, titled Meteorites, is 15 minutes of camera-waving home-film style shooting which if it were done by a not-developing world person of  Weerasethkul’s age (39)  would be dismissed for what it is – a mess of inept useless amateur footage.  I find the acceptance of this stuff as “art” to be a kind of patronizing form of culturalism, as if to say, “gee, the native could make it run” and all critical faculties are left at the door, or theory is mounted to explicate how this informal camera-waving signifies blah blah blah.   Given that there are some so-called “developing world” filmmakers who can really make films (see some reviews preceding this one), I find it appalling that Apichitpong is so excitedly regarded in the supposedly serious film world.  [I saw Syndromes and the Century, and I think I saw another, and both were similarly forgettable to my mind.]

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Easter Morning, Bruce Conner

Next was Bruce Conner, deceased just a bit ago, with his final, Easter Morning.  This one resurrects some 8mm footage from long ago, something titled Easter Morning Raga (1966), and re-works on an optical printer, changing the pacing, layering, and shifting the original to something meditative and nostalgic.  The track is Terry Riley piece, In C, as played on Chinese instruments by the Shanghai Symphony.  To the film’s detriment, they also screened A Movie as well, which to my mind showed the distinct weakness of this swan song.   Without Riley’s rhythms supporting and pushing these so-so images, there wouldn’t be much of anything there – a critique I would level at some other Conner pieces, which I have always found quite hit and miss, though there’s a few I haven’t seen (Crossroads).  His frequent over-reliance on music to support his imagery is a direct causal relation to MTV style, which he had always lamented saying “don’t blame me”, though Conner had a mind, and his imagery and cutting were cinematically related, which MTV is usually not.   A Movie next to Easter Morning is muscular and far richer in emotional content; the latter film is more meditative, but much too dependent on Riley.

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A Movie, Bruce Conner

And then another master of yore, Pat O’Neill, whose second film I recall seeing at the Ann Arbor film festival, probably in 1968 – it’s title was the number of a film stock, 7362, and its form was very close to another film shown that year, Off/On by Scott Bartlett (a much weaker film to my view, and hence of course much more popular at the time).   Since then Pat has kept up a steady pace of these complex and difficult works done on an optical printer, with much overlaying.  In this newest piece, Horizontal Boundaries, he seems to have attained a more constrained control over his material, and produces a richness of effect to me reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg – both in the graphic sense and in the handling of culturally loaded imagery being played off against itself, resulting in a symbiotic enhancement of emotional power.  That said, there is still a kind of weakness in the sense of time, as if one could stop at any time – a weakness often found in those whose visual sensibilities dominate the temporal. (And which Conner overcomes by letting music dictate the pace.)  Nevertheless, this is an engaging and intriguing work, ripe with visual tonalities which prompt our subconscious and delight the eye.   Lovely work.

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Horizontal Boundaries, Pat O’Neill

Lastly they screened a brief and inconsequential one minute item by JLG done on commission for the Vienna film festival – Godardisms in brief.  Like the visual crutches of the avant garde, Godard has worn out his bagful of tricks, leaving them now as empty icons of his past existence.

To wrap up, two final items.

The first, the obit of Sid Laverents (of whom I’ve never heard), who lived near San Diego the last 50 years or so, where, at age 50, he began filmmaking.  He died recently at age 100.

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Sid Laverents, b. Cheyenne Wyo., died Chula Vista, Ca.  R.I.P.

And then this, sent by my friend Bill Fech, formerly of Cody, Wyo., now of Lincoln, Ne. and soon to be residing in Glasgow, Scotland.  A little feast of YouTube collaborative smarts that makes for nice music.  Thank you, Bill!

[Oh, and Jeonju screened our little short, Mr Right (I directed and shot, Marcella mostly edited).  To a pretty full house on next to last day of festival, audience seemed to like, and we had a lively Q&A despite the film being shown second on a program of 5 or so shorts.  For me Mr Right was a casual little throw-away work, something I enjoyed making and which seems to accurately capture some things peculiarly Korean, and it was nice to get feedback from a dominantly Korean audience confirming it.]

Four  times now I‘ve gone to Jeonju, starting in 2000, their first festival, and each time the city seems to have grown in quantum leaps.  In 2000 it seemed a very modest small provincial city, though the festival, sizable at the outset, was well organized but had a kind of inferiority complex in which they kept inquiring if things were OK, and done well enough.  They were.  And they still are.  10 years later Jeonju begins to take on the sense of a real city, if small compared to Seoul.   And the festival has expanded, now showing 180 films in 10 days.  And this past year they seem to have built themselves a handsome 4 story building to house a kind of museum-gallery and their offices.  They mean business!   Marcella and I were there only 3 days this year, showing Mr Right, a 30 minute short done with my students at Yonsei.  They’d rejected Parable, my last finished feature, rather to my surprise.  It has yet to get a festival invitation.

Despite the brief stay, we did see a handful of films, most of which, luckily, were quite good.  We missed a handful I would have liked to have seen, as they’d already been screened the previous days of the festival.  Those missed included Bujalski’s newest, Beeswax, two new Straub films Le Genou D’Artemide and Quie Loro Incontri, The Exploding Girl by Bradley Rust Gray, Melancholia by Lav Diaz, The Northern Land by Joao Botelho, Modern Life by Raymond Depardon, and a few others where I had some acquaintance with the films – if only having read about them, met the filmmakers, or seen earlier films.  Looking in the catalog there are at least another 30 films I would have liked to try.   The ones we did manage to see were sometimes second choices as the first was sold out.  Some were blind dates on the word of a friend.

What we did see were these, thoughts and opinions appended.

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Four Nights with Anna, Skolimowski

The festival did a Skolomowski retrospective, showing all of his films, and he was present, for his 69th birthday.  I’d seen, long ago, a few of his films, though I forget just which (Moonlighting is one).  This is his last, done after a 17 year absence from filmmaking (he also paints).   While I found it OK, it seemed a kind of shaggy dog, bleak humored tale drawn out far too long – it might have suited 40 minutes, but not 87.  The most remarkable aspect was its murky dark imagery, which often was scarcely visible – I have never seen another film so given to night-time and closed-room darkness, in which almost nothing is visible in many shots.  The story was obliquely told – an obsessive guy looks at woman, obsesses, breaks into her apartment, etc., all “for love.”  It really wasn’t enough to  sustain the time, despite Skolimowski’s grimly funny asides.

Nocturne 29, Pere Portobello.  A Spanish filmmaker of the 60’s and on, of whom I had never heard until last year when his The Silence Before Bach showed in Jeonju (and elsewhere), which I did not see.  This one is from 1968 and was a totally engrossing surprise, a pleasant revelation.  Utterly non-narrative, in very high-contrast B&W (mostly – there are several color sections inserted), it played with(out) narrative conventions, with the cinematic apparatus, homages to past cinema, silence, sound, disruptures, weaving together elements in a disjunctive mode, and for the most part sustaining a constant level of tension and interest.  I can’t recall the various elements, only that they were compelling and prompted all kinds of thoughtfulness.  About 15 minutes before it ended it came to a sequence where I felt it should have stopped, a man walking into the sea reading a newspaper, the last image of the paper floating on the water, the man disappeared.  However it went on through another handful of in-themselves interesting sequences, but ones which to me seemed needless, and came to a nebulous lack of conclusion.  It made me consider the differing natures of artistic temperaments, and I think it is inherent that those who can imagine the sequences found here also cannot know when to stop, though they are so determinedly personal and egocentric, they cannot surrender their work to an outside editor who might curtail their excesses and arrive thereby at a “better film” in consequence.

nocturne29

This view, pondered as I watched, seemed confirmed by the second Portabella film we saw, Warsaw Bridge (1989), where the shattered non-narrative lacked the harsh tensions of the earlier, and yet went on and on.  Businessmen, and intellectuals, all sent up in sometimes elaborate mise-en-scene, the chattering classes chattering, though the satire was both so obvious and so toothless it lacked any real sting.  The narrativeless form in this instance did not make for synergies between scenes, but rather simply seemed flaccid.  The ending made for a good joke – shots of a beat up old plane used to get water to fight fires alternating with shots of a man getting his scuba gear together, going out in a little boat and going in the water; the plane is seen scooping up water, dumping it on a forest fire, all edited in a musical operatic manner.  A sudden end, a title card with a newspaper announcement about a scuba diver clad body found burned in a fire.   As a stand alone short, it was very punchy, as a denouement to the long, elegant, but formless film that preceded it, it seemed like a cheat.     In conclusion I understood why I had not heard of Portabella before – I suspect all or most his work has this character and hence deflates itself.

warsaw bridgeWarsaw Bridge, Pere Portabella

In 2002, at the Yamagata (Japan) documentary festival a young man came to me asking some advice.  He was Auraeus Solito, a Philippino.   He was at the festival with his first film, done in 16mm, which I saw and found to be the worst example of laboratory trashing I had ever seen.  Set in the tribal land from which he came, one could hardly see through the mal-processed celluloid, ill-exposed, smattered with endless chemical mishaps – none done on purpose.  I was direct with Auraeus and encouraged him to change to DV.  We kept in contact and I pressed the matter, while he – having studied film – held onto his film fetishism, insisting somehow film was better.  I kept my argument – the matter of money, that the end result will (can) look better than 16mm, the sound is stereo digital not mono-wobble, etc.   He finally relented and made a film in DV,  Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros), which became a kind of festival hit in 2006, showing around the world, which though I haven’t yet seen.  He sent me a little thank you note for having pressed him on the matter of DV.  Since he’s made several more films, and at Jeonju he was showing his most recent, BoY.  I bumped into him the day before his screening – turned out his hotel room was next to mine – and when I told him I’d be going to his film he expressed some nervousness, making light of it, as if preparing me to be let down.  I discounted that and sat down for the screening optimistically.

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BoY, Auraeus Solito

BoY is an overtly “gay” film, as apparently are most his others.  Basically a coming out film about a young boy who goes to a macho dance club, it is an exuberantly shot work, with very lovely imagery and camerawork (Louie Quirino), and excellent performances, all narratively woven together in a music-like flow.   Set in the club and in Auraeus’ own home (which I visited some years ago) with a bedroom full of acquariums, this is a colorful film in every sense – capturing the bitchy club scene, the seamy side but without wallowing in it, and allowing fully human qualities to emerge.  There’s a long “romantic” love/sex scene between the boy and his macho-dancer pickup boyfriend, and a realistic conclusion that the low-life rent-boy and his middle-class newbie were not fated to last.

During the post-screening Q&A, there was an awkwardness, usual kinds of questions and a veiled kind of anxiety.  The film had just been censored and not allowed to screen in Singapore (Asia’s bastion of weird morality).  I finally raised my hand to say two bits and told him I thought it was a beautiful film – lovingly crafted, cinematically hand-in-glove with its content, and that I was happy I’d had a tiny bit in shoving him into DV to do it (this one was shot with a little HDV camera, though the festival’s transfer to digi-beta left it looking not as good as my straight DV Mr Right, but one could see left untampered it was a stunning visual film).   I did make a few pragmatic inquiries that had been left dangling:  the film took 10 days to make (a rush of work to do that), and cost US$17K.  Quite an achievement and I expect to hear a lot more from Auraeus in the future.

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BoY

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Manoel De Oliveira, age 100, with Luis Miguel Cintra, on set

Shifting gears considerably, the next film we saw came from Portuguese centenarian Manoel De Oliveira, whose most recent film, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (Singularidades de uma rapariga loura) was screening.   I went, telling Marcella we could duck out if we didn’t care for it and catch another film starting half an hour later.  Of the films I’ve seen previously of his, they all struck me as too dry, overly literary and overly intellectual in their cinematic structuring, where one felt the mental laboring going on. So I was prepared to discreetly depart.

blondeEccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, Manoel De Oliveira

Instead I was given a pleasant surprise.  Eccentricities is a slight moral fable, told in a severely minimalistic fashion, a story in one sense about story-telling.  Starting with a title card, with a quote, “If you are going to tell a story… tell it to a stranger”   the film then opens on a train passing through Alentejo, a younger man sits beside a slightly older woman.  In a single set shot which is recurrently returned to, the man tells the woman his story.   Initially this shot is confusing – I don’t think intentionally – as the actors seem to be reading their texts off a teleprompter, and the woman thereby seems to be blind, not looking at her conversational partner.   The man commences to tell his tale, and we cut to a cleaned up, non-existent contemporary upper-class Lisbon, but one weighted with the etiquettes of a long ago era.  The acting is arch, if gently so, and we follow a comedy of manners, as the man, an accountant, spies a girl in a window across the street from his desk.  She carries an oriental fan.   He falls for her, and the story is her pursuit of her, which in the rules of this imaginary time, require of him the means to pursue, to meet her, to ask for her hand.   All of this is done in exquisitely mounted little set-pieces, including, after he has lost his job with his uncle’s company for daring to consider marriage, a stripped down bed-sit of sumptuous utter minimalist taste.  Returning to our train-ride conversation, the story takes its turns, arriving finally at a happy conclusion, as the couple, after several long disruptions incurred to meet the requirements, go shopping for a wedding ring.   The final denouement arrives, though clues were offered along the way, as a complete surprise.

The tale here is so slight, that the real story is in the telling.  Oliveira is masterful in his concision, taking his literary style with a light-handed touch, as if he barely needed to be present.  Like most really good art, the hard work is invisible, and it is only the ease and naturalness which emerges to show itself.  A lovely film.  It reminded me of several other films of similar simplicity – Kauriskmaki’s the Match Factory Girl, and Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert.   Each is stylistically itself, but each is disarming in its directness and simplicity.

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Next installment in a few more days.  Need time to do some other things here.

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