Festival Preview: Film Comment Selects 2011

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Festival Preview: Film Comment Selects 2011
Hey, is it me... or did things just get really dark in here? Oh, and intense, too? Nothing wrong with that, mind you, just interesting how the folks over at Film Comment could put together such an idiosyncratic program for this year's quasi-fest and have it accidentally take on a theme. Indeed, even a film as filled with wonder and good-natured humor as Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is still literally, overpoweringly, dark. In fact, at times it's so stygian that a bulb blew out in the screening I attended so that no picture at all was projected--and it didn't seem like anyone in the audience even noticed for nearly a minute.

So what are some of these dark delights? Glad you asked...

I Only Want You to Love Me
(Screening Feb. 18th, 19th, 22nd and March 3rd)

What's a Fassbinder feature from 1976 doing here? Then again, who cares, really? -it's Fassbinder, and here he's doing what he does best: giving us an unforgettable portrait of an individual at odds with society and filming it with a deceptively simple approach. Moreover, this tale of economic and emotional anxiety--and how the two are invariably linked--is just as relevant to our living-on-credit 21st century as it must have been to Germany during its expansive '70s period. In both eras there's been a prevailing notion that the "good life" is just within grasp, so why not push a little harder and close one's grip on it? The problem is that our protagonist's foolish consumerist choices are compounded by an underlying insecurity that's pretty much spelled out by the title. As he tries to prove his worth to both his wife and his parents by taking pricey cab rides and buying fancy schmansy furniture, the narrative starts to take on the familiar contours of social realist drama--"the tragedy of the common man who tries to live beyond his means." And certainly the deep sense of shame that attaches to our sad sack anti-hero recalls similar themes in films such as Tokyo Sonata.

But while the overall trajectory of the central storyline might be easy to plot in advance, Fassbinder still manages to keep things riveting. He does this partly by means of a frame story that makes us suspect some monstrous crime has been committed, and partly by mixing in a strain of psychodrama throughout, especially at the climax, which is both surprising and tragic. In short, I Only Want You to Love Me is smart and harsh, absurd and heartbreaking--the kind of combinations that probably would have appealed to Kafka.   

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Screening Feb. 20th)

It's a cliché to remark of 3D movies, or really of any kind of eye-candy-oozing spectacle, that "Oh, you just have to see this on the big screen"... but in the case of Herzog's latest doc, this really is true. Trust me. First, the 3D experience is notable in that it doesn't try to sell you on a greater-than-reality experience; instead, reality itself is shown to be more than enough. Second, the legendary director uses the format to suggest compelling backgrounds and distances, emphasizing depths that make you want to explore them rather than pointy objects thrust in your direction that make you want to recoil.

As his tiny, multitasking four-person crew reverently illuminates the oldest paintings in the world, you can't help but feel that you're not just watching a record of its visits to the stygian caves, but that you're actually visiting with them. Gradually, as Herzog's typically soulful narration expands to discussing the role of art and spirit in the human condition, the feeling arises that the entire doc is an all-encompassing meta-metaphor: you're in the cave of the theater and Herzog is the Cro-Magnon painter, running his flickering images against one of the walls. Full of some astoundingly transportive moments as well as some silly but endearing flights of fancy, Cave of Forgotten Dreams offers more rewards than most could reasonably expect from it. Chances are, you'll even overlook its slightly padded feeling and its too-stately pacing toward the end.

Domaine (Screening Feb. 18th, 21st, 23rd, and 25th)

Confession: I'm a Beatrice Dalle fan from way back, so Domaine already holds huge appeal for me due to the star's ability, once again, to be both commanding and good. Director Patric Chiha opens with a beguiling seaside scene that isn't like the rest of the movie in that there are lots of characters and yet no real angst to speak of. Quickly, though, the script zooms in to focus on two of these characters, mathematician Dalle and her teenage nephew Pierre. They take long walks in the park together and engage in much wine-sipping, and over time some of the same ideas and themes get revisited as if in a rondo. If that sounds boring, think again. Every time we go 'round the spiral of their interaction, we corkscrew deeper into these characters' psyches. So what seems to be a conventional, if somewhat highbrow, coming-of-age flick turns out to be anything but.

Domaine is really a character study, and one of the richest I've seen in a long time.  More accurately, it's one of those anti-character studies: as you spend more time with the characters, the less you feel you understand them with any certainty. Similarly, the plot elements that seem to hint where things are going--certain sexual tensions, Pierre's' conflict with his mother over his dissipate aunt--well, none of this really leads where one might think. The climax, though elliptical in some ways, will stay with you so that in the end you may feel moved by Domaine and not be sure why. That's partly a function of the way that Chiha builds the relationship with the audience, vacillating between intimacy and keeping it at arm's length--just like the two main characters do with each other.

I Saw the Devil (Screening Feb. 20th)

If you're a genre fan and ScreenAnarchy reader, there's a good chance you've already seen Kim Jee-woon's cause célèbre. If you haven't, though, please let me encourage you to modulate your expectations. Undeniably thrilling or unnerving during certain sequences, I Saw the Devil's epic scale has to be applauded for its ambition, if nothing else. Exploring the same kind of dark interconnections between hunter and hunted, and between the self-righteous and the psychotic, as David Fincher's Seven, the film is undeniably worth seeing--a near-miss that's still more fun in its failures than other films in their successes.

The problem is that at key moments it succumbs to borderline clichés and even outright silliness. The result, then, is that its big ideas don't all come together, and so I was left with the unfortunate, and probably inaccurate, feeling the Kim was simply trying to out-revenge Park Chan-wook. In one scene the Bond-like Lee Byung-hun scoops baddie Choi Min-sik off the street in a moving car, and everything about it seems off: the idea feels unoriginal (Wanted), physically impossible (how could you drive while dragging a strong madman on board?), and out of place both tonally and generically--like part of a not-quite-serious HK action film got spliced into the proceedings.

Lee, as in Kim's The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, exudes a strong presence--but that's about it. Choi, though he gives a solid performance, is sometimes undercut by the direction (too many close-ups) and the inconsistent script (I can't figure out why he rapes some victims but not others.) All in all, I think I would've enjoyed two separate movies about these characters more than I enjoyed ...Devil when all was said an done. To be sure, the premise of exacting and prolonging revenge by continually, and unexpectedly, disrupting someone's life is a terrific one, and here it powers the film's wonderful and impressive second act. But the first act has too many predictable or overblown moments (i.e., a severed head getting dropped by oafish CSU guys made me guffaw), and the third act is too assured of its own profundity to be as impactful as it thinks it is.

Cold Fish (Screening Feb. 24th and March 1st)

I'm probably the biggest Sion Sono fan that I know, so you should be aware that any film he makes is apt to be interesting to me and worth recommending to others who admire his previous work. That said, while it contains many proverbial flashes of brilliance, overall Cold Fish doesn't just feel like something Sono would produce at this stage of his creative career. Instead, it feels more like a step backward. It's not so much that Sono delivers both a story and a mode of storytelling that are less lyrical, less experimental, and less nuanced--let's face it, less everything--than most of his other work. After all, Be Sure to Share was straightforward and I admired that--a change of pace that worked on its own terms and in the context of Sono's body of work. But with Cold Fish we get the kind of mildly subversive, mildly transgressive fare that any number of directors could have created. The originality that distinguished Strange Circus, not to mention Love Exposure, is sorely absent. It feels, in fact, that here Sono is hanging everything on the supposedly shocking narrative--which summarizes down to a hail-fellow-well-met businessman who turns out to be an opportunistic serial killer. But once you get past that surprise, it's strictly Straw Dogs plus body parts.

Yes, the director elicits strong performances from male leads Mitsuru Fukikoshi and Denden, but the female characters are pretty underdeveloped, which again is a shame if you're familiar with Sono's previous work. I don't expect full-bodied characters in every genre piece, and find that Sono's use of "types" can be quite effective, but here we get female characters whom we figure out in the first few minutes and then never really do anything that challenges or engages us. Yes, some tension does build up re a thug who shows up because his brother goes missing, and a dash of narrative spice is added via cops who are on the killer's trail. But nothing is really done with either of these subplots, which is odd given that so much energy goes into establishing them. Instead, we get lots of lectures on how to be a man, lots of lugging bodies around, and so on. Sure, some of this is fine, but Sono's instincts in terms of pacing seem to be way off. Cold Fish could certainly be lean and mean at 90 minutes yet at more than two hours it feels more than a tad self-indulgent.

Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savior (Screening Feb. 20th, 21st, and 24th)

No doubt about it: it would be ridiculously easy to trade on the perennial appeal of Kinski's inspired madman persona by foisting on the public a half-baked from-the-vaults documentary based on some obscure one-man-show... but that's not what Peter Geyer has done in excavating the '70s-era footage on display in Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savior. What he's done, simply, is fashion the most purely electrifying performance-doc I've seen in ages. It's not just a recording of a memorable performance, but a hugely memorable piece about that performance. This extra layer of content is achieved not with the standard backstage segments and talking head interviews, but simply by showing the performance in all its heckler-interrupted glory. In fact, it's these hecklers--usually questioning Kinski's wealth/status or his strong-arm tactics in suppressing other hecklers--who offer the "commentary" one expects from a doc like this. Kinski, delivering an impassioned monologue that seeks to make Jesus relevant to the counter culture, was obviously not prepared for such objections, which are both ideological and theological. But it's in this way that the doc brilliantly comes to encapsulate the history of Christianity itself--its schisms and debates, its internal struggle over issues of authority and the ends justifying the means, and of the power and pitfalls of evangelism. Highly recommended.

Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 pm (Screening Feb. 23rd, 26th and March 1st)

So here's another documentary that's straightforward in its construction yet more moving and dramatic than your typical narrative feature...

Because you're a ScreenAnarchy reader and probably a lot savvier than I am, you're likely to be quite familiar with the "director's statement"--a brief rationale/intro that I usually ignore when handed to me in a press pack. In this case, though, director Claude Lanzmann provides a scrolling title card at the outset that's so perfect in nearly every way that you wish every documentarian was this forthright and thoughtful: it lays out the relevant how-and-why details regarding this doc and bursts with exceedingly well-expressed insights. Lanzmann notes that his film, being an account of the only successful uprising at a Nazi concentration camp, represents an important refutation of historical perception in two senses. First, it offers an example of Jews not being deceived all the way to the gas chamber--Yehuda Lerner, the subject of Sobibor, knew what would happen if he didn't defy his captors because he'd already seen countless others meet their fate. Second, the story of the revolt at Sobibor enables Jews to reappropriate the idea of violence in the service of self-defense, another strand that seems to be missing from the typical Holocaust narrative. And when considering the fact that museums now occupy the place where Sobibor and other camps once stood, Lanzmann points out that such places "institute oblivion" as much as they encourage remembrance. The idea of a doc, by contrast, is to capture "living words."

And boy do they live. Lerner speaks, but there's no attempt to buttress this spoken text with persuasive visuals. The first part of Sobibor follows one of the strategies of Lanzmann's Shoah: there's no archival footage along the lines of Night and Fog. Instead, we see present-day fields, mundane cityscapes, unspectacular rail lines. And, as in Shoah, such images are far more haunting than one might expect, with the juxtaposition of today upon yesterday showing how easy it is for history to covers its tracks. The second part of Sobibor is mostly concerned with Lerner being directly interviewed on camera. There's a slight delay while his words are translated and repeated to the viewer that may make some audiences impatient. I chose to use such moments to let the words really sink in, which is what I think Lanzmann intended:  this is the kind of tale in which you don't want to gloss over anything. 

Oh, and if that weren't enough, Film Comment Selects will also screen Lanzmann's The Karski Report (2010) and A Visitor from the Living (1997)--plus feature the director in person on Saturday, February 26.   

Sodankylä Forever (Screening Feb. 19th)

A celebration of--or, more precisely, a greatest hits compilation drawn from--the famous Finnish film fest that's known not so much for its alliteration but for the world-famous directors it consistently draws. However, this dense-with-ideas doc isn't about the history of that fest but rather it aspires, as its subtitle would imply, to something far grander: a full century of cinema itself. To that end, it uses outtakes of panel and Q&A appearances by an all-star team of filmmakers to trace the connection between film and the 20th century's landmark events. No, please don't look for the inclusion of Asian or Latin filmmakers, but if you're into Europeans and Americans above all else, then you're in for a treat.

Milos Forman acts as an anchor for the film, and he begins it with an enchanting anecdote about watching a silent adaptation of a popular Czech opera. Also on hand are Ivan Passer, Bob Rafelson, Michael Powell, Abbas Kiarostami, Samuel Fuller, John Sayles, Jerzy Skolimowski,  and countless others. Rather than presenting ideas thematically, the doc follows a fairly unimaginative chronological organization, which does get the job done with maximum efficiency. We start out with the rise of fascism, head into World War 2 and its horrors, follow up with Neo-Realism and film noir, then finish up with censorship, the Prague Spring, and the Vietnam War before the film peters out in the '70s. If you're guessing that Eastern Europe is heavily represented here, you'd be right, but we also get plenty of ideas that apply generally, such as cinema being the anti-nationalist art form par excellence. Because of such insights and its unique primary footage of world cinema giants, I expect Sodankylä Forever to be a big hit on DVD one day. Its one major weakness, if one chooses to look it at that way, is that it does not ever really analyze the medium as providing an aesthetic experience. Rather, every film becomes no more than a political document, from Battleship Potemkin right through Apocalypse Now. This notion becomes concrete when an earnest Jonathan Demme discusses Caged Heat by stating that it was intended to be a lefty rabble-rouser.

Well, that's it for now. Please know that the full lineup features Burke and Hare, Hobo with a Shotgun, James Wan's Insidious, and even Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, courtesy of a partnership with NYAFF. So while FC Selects is not a high-profile showcase, nor your typical indie or genre fest, it does combine elements of all of these to winning effect. More importantly, the common element that all these films share is that they deserve to be seen by more people, especially in New York. In fact, 16 of these titles lack distribution altogether, which make them perfect for the obscurity-loving ScreenAnarchy reader--these are films that are rare, illuminating, or strikingly unusual. In short, they're worthy of your attention in any way possible.
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