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May 19 2019

Politics and subjectivity: MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT on the Criterion Channel

Memories of Underdevelopment (1968).

Jeff Smith here:

Early last week, the Criterion Channel posted the latest in our series of “Observations on Film Art.” It was my turn at the plate with a video essay on Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment. The film has long been a personal favorite due to its formal and political complexity. If the aphorism “the personal is political” rings true for you, then you owe it yourself to watch Memories of Underdevelopment. It is a post-revolutionary culture’s most fully realized depictions of the survival of apre-revolutionary mentality.

 

A Third Way for Third Cinema

Hour of the Furnaces (1968).

“Toward a Third Cinema,” the 1969 manifesto written by filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, remains an important touchstone in the history of global film culture. It captures the militant spirit that characterized post-colonial activism in the late sixties and early seventies. At one point, Solanas and Getino describe the camera as an “inexhaustible expropriator of image-weapons” and the projector as a “gun that can shoot 24 frames per second…” (For the record, that less than a quarter of the speed of an M134 MInigun, which fires at a rate of 100 rounds per second.)

As advocates for the vital role guerrilla filmmaking could play in anti-imperialist struggles, Solanas and Gettino explicitly opposed “third cinema” to more established modes of film production. Of course, the big enemy was Hollywood. It represented a form of commercial cinema that was inextricably linked to the ideology of American capitalism.

More surprisingly, though, Solanas and Getino also condemned European art cinema and its attendant emphasis on individual personal expression. Although art cinema represented a step forward in terms of its attempt to create a non-standard language, it remained “trapped inside the fortress” in Jean-Luc Godard’s words. For Solanas and Getino, the French New Wave and Brazil’s Cinema Novo opened up new aesthetic possibilities. They offered the brio and rebelliousness of youth, yet fit neatly into established commercial distribution networks as the “angry wing” of a capitalist, bourgeois society.

Solanas and Getino practiced what they preached, however. Their ambitious 4-hour agit-prop documentary The Hour of the Furnaces remains a prototype of third cinema practice. The film is a collage of contrasting images and sounds. These juxtapositions often involve the kinds of associational editing and montage principles that Soviet directors like Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein used in their work. At one point, Solanas and Gettino intercut cattle and sheep being slaughtered on the killing floor of a meatpacking plant with ads for various products originating in Western capitalist societies. (See below and above.)

The comparison was about as subtle as the sledgehammer used to kill the cattle. But the message was clear. The global success of American products, like Chevrolets, depended upon the violent suppression of “underdeveloped” populations.

Memories of Underdevelopment’s critique of post-colonialism is no less incisive, but it’s much less didactic. At first blush, Alea’s film seems to be the kind of European-influenced art cinema that Solanas and Getino explicitly reject. Indeed, Alea even self-consciously gestures toward this tradition through his explicit citation of French New Wave films, like Hiroshima Mon Amour. These allusions are reminiscent of the kinds of cinematic quotations that Godard and Francois Truffaut embedded in their own films.

Moreover, Alea also creates the kind of depth of narration in Memories of Underdevelopment that became strongly associated with art cinema’s emphasis on subjective realism. Throughout the film, Sergio’s thoughts and feelings on the current state of Cuba are given to us via voiceover narration. Many of Sergio’s observations function as ongoing commentary on the symptoms of “underdevelopment” that define contemporary Cuban society. For instance, over shots of downtown shops and boutiques, Sergio notes that Havana is often called the “Paris of the Caribbean.”

Such a descriptor seems a double-edged sword. The comparison to Paris is a way of praising the vibrancy of Havana’s cultural life, its bookstores, museums, cinemas, and modern department stores. Yet the qualification “…of the Caribbean” highlights its isolation from true taste-makers and fashionistas in New York, London, and Paris. For anyone who doesn’t live there, Havana is, at best, a playground for rich tourists from Europe and America.

As a member of the Cuban intelligentsia, Sergio often seems an unusually perceptive social critic. Yet Alea’s creation of such a strong alignment with Sergio seems designed to test the viewer’s moral and political allegiance. As a repository of pre-revolutionary attitudes, Alea’s characterization of Sergio encourages us to ask why Havana should aspire to be Paris in the first place. In a society that seeks to eliminate class distinction, why would one strive for such elitism no matter how rich and storied its culture may be?

In employing a device that often fosters sympathetic engagement with characters, is Alea just as “trapped inside the fortress” as French New Wave directors are? Actually, Alea also seems determined to turn the purpose of character alignment on its head.

As an intellectual, Sergio possesses a great understanding of Cuba’s relation to the rest of the world, but he seems determined to ask the wrong questions about its future. Therein lies the character’s great tragedy. As novelist Edmundo Desnoes observes, “His irony, his intelligence, is a defense mechanism which prevents him from being involved in the reality.” There is no place outside the palace gates for those like Sergio. Yet in probing his place “inside the fortress” Alea also shows how it rots from within.

By turning the camera’s gaze inward, Alea navigates a path between the agit-prop documentary of Solanas and Getino and the formal adventurousness of an art cinema director like Chile’s Raúl Ruiz. He set out to examine the vestiges of bourgeois thinking in Castro’s Cuba, using Sergio as a “litmus test” for Cuban audience’s political sensibilities. If you find yourself sympathizing with Sergio, seeing him as a victim of the revolution…. Well, then you better check yourself before you wreck yourself. In posing such a challenge, Alea pulls off a pretty neat trick. He manages to create a “third way” in third cinema by merging the polemical aims of agit-prop with devices and formal structures of the art film.

 

The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cad

In a gesture that displays both self-consciousness and hubris, Edmundo Desnoes, the author of the novel that served as the source of the film, cast his hero as a writer. Although Alea changed much of Desnoes’ original story, this one small detail was something he preserved in his adaptation of the book. Indeed, just after Sergio has said goodbye to his wife and parents at the airport, we see him sitting at a typewriter. The sentence he writes – “All those who have loved and fucked me over up to the last moment have already gone.” – indicates both his anger in the moment and that his writing has more than a trace of autobiography.

Sergio’s status as a writer encourages the viewer to see him as a surrogate for both Desnoes and Alea. This possibility is even reinforced in a scene where Sergio attends a roundtable discussion of “Literature and Underdevelopment” where Desnoes is featured as one of the panelists.

If Sergio truly is a surrogate for the filmmakers, then Alea shows some real guts in centering his film on an alter ego that is both politically reactionary and sexually predatory.

It is a mark of the film’s complexity that Sergio has certain very attractive traits even though he emerges as a thoroughly unlikeable cad. He is smart, cultured, and good-looking, for example. But he is also passive, cynical, and snobbish.

The dimension of Memories of Underdevelopment, however, that most clearly reveals Sergio’s corruption and moral rot involves his various relationships with women. Alea develops this idea throughout the film in terms of a Pygmalion motif: Sergio seeks to remake his romantic partners in the image of his first love, a German girl named Hanna.

In flashbacks, we learn that Sergio taught his first wife how to talk and dress, how to approximate a downmarket version of European elegance. Similarly, when Sergio initiates a romance with Elena, we see him taking her to bookstores and museums, trying to instill in her some appreciation for art and literature.

Sergios’ European ideals even pervade his sexual fantasies. After looking at an image of Botticelli’s Venus, Sergio imagines his housekeeper, Noemi, lying naked on his bed in a similar pose.

     

Similarly, when Noemi describes her Christian baptism to Sergio, he imagines it in images that seem culled from a hack romance novel. They embrace in a swoon, with their eyes locked, all wet clinging fabric and raging hormones.

Shot in slow motion, the episode is also accompanied by Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, a concert piece so familiar to most audiences that its inclusion borders on cliché.

It would be one thing, however, if Sergio’s sexual peccadilloes remained in the realm of harmless fantasy. More often than not, Alea depicts Sergio’s relations with women as episodes of exploitation and mental cruelty. A flashback to Sergio’s adolescence implies that the psychological roots of this misogyny lies in his first sexual experience as he and a school chum visit a brothel.

The transactional nature of the encounter is replicated in Sergio’s relationships later in life. After Sergio splits with Hanna, he marries Laura and is given a cushy job in the family business. He also lures Elena up to his penthouse with the promise of his ex-wife’s old clothes. In each instance, Sergio’s sexual or romantic relations with women are based on some notion of recompense: cold hard cash with the prostitute, the reward of a job with his wife, and haute couture with Elena, his new conquest.

As before, the exploitative undertones of Sergio’s relationships with women are reinforced by the film’s style. Sergio’s initial meeting with Elena is handled in a series of long tracking shots representing his optical point of view.

With his creepy pickup line, Sergio seems more of a stalker than a paramour. The troubling implications of this first encounter become more explicit midway through the film when Sergio literally chases Elena around his bedroom. The narrative rhyme with the earlier scene is made evident in Alea’s mobile long take, which once again represents Sergio’s visual perspective. Elena flirts coquettishly, sticking out her tongue at the camera.

But her discomfort in the situation becomes evident in her attempts to rebuff Sergio’s advances. Like the film’s use of voice-over, the moving pov shots spatially align the viewer with Alea’s unlikeable protagonist even as it implicates the audience in his victimization of Elena.

Later, when Sergio is put on trial for sexually assaulting Elena, he becomes the object of the camera’s unrelenting look along with the other petitioners. Here Alea uses a variant of the previous style. The longish takes remain. But where the previous shots used movement to suggest Sergio’s brazen advances toward Elena, the camera’s stasis within the courtroom reflects the perspective of the tribunal hearing the case. Alea cuts quite freely around the space. Still, he always returns to static close-ups of Sergio, Elena, her mother, her father, and her brother as they respond to the questions of offscreen interlocutors.

     

The scene proves to be the biggest challenge to the viewer’s allegiance with Sergio. He affects the demeanor of someone wrongfully accused. Yet, although the act itself is elided, Elena’s protestations beforehand and her tears afterward suggest that Sergio is probably guilty of the crimes for which he is accused. His voice-over, however, reveals his resentment toward the entire proceedings. The matter of his guilt or innocence is immaterial. What truly angers Sergio is the fact that someone of his lofty station endures treatment more suited to a common crook. He claims that he would never have faced charges during the Batista era. Sergio blames his ordeal on Cuba’s new political landscape. The judgment of his actions is more a matter of proletarian revenge rather than anything he has done.

It is easy to imagine some viewers feeling a pang of sympathy for Sergio. Jurisprudence often includes the presumption of innocence and Alea’s handling of the incident with Elena is ambiguous enough to have certain doubts. Moreover, Sergio has been impoverished by the government’s seizure of his property, something that makes his anger at Elena and her family seem more reasonable.

But what is especially striking in Sergio’s voice-over is the sense of entitlement he displays based on his previous social position. Alea seems to count on the fact that Cuban audiences in 1968 will recognize Sergio’s condescension as a symptom of pre-revolutionary ideology. His previous wealth, his education and culture, his status as an artist all sanction his satisfaction of his desires, even if that means taking the virginity of an 18-year old girl. In his characterization of Sergio, Alea not only reflects the broader influence of the French New Wave. He also revives a classic character type of French literature and cinema: the Parisian roué.

 

Mr. Schwitters Meets Mr. Alea: Mixing Modalities in Memories

The most oft-quoted line in Memories of Underdevelopment is not something said by Sergio, Elena, or even Sergio’s brusque friend, Pablo. Instead it is uttered by Alea in a director cameo. He appears in a scene where Elena performs in a screen test at ICAIC, Cuba’s central institute of film production. Alea (center, below) shows Sergio and Elena some of his work in progress, saying, “It’s a collage. A bit of this and a bit of that.”

Most critics have noted both the self-consciousness of the moment and its layers of meaning. The footage that Alea screens is made up of scenes cut out by Cuban censors under the Batista regime. It offers a fairly dismal portrait of Cuban film history as something mostly comprised of titles imported from other colonial empires, like the Brigitte Bardot vehicle Une parisienne. This is precisely the kind of cinematic legacy that Alea and other Third Cinema directors set out to counter.

Alea’s description of his film as a collage also has been interpreted as a clue as to how one should view Memories of Underdevelopment itself. More specifically, his comment captures some sense of the film’s complex visual texture, its mix of still photographs, television clips, newspaper headlines, and even comic strip panels.

     

It also describes the way Alea embeds documentary footage within his portrait of Sergio as a disaffected intellectual. To some extent, this strategy is simply a continuation of Alea’s digressive approach to narration. These interpolated documentary passages fit a larger scheme that also shows fragments of Sergio’s consciousness in fleeting fantasy images and elliptical flashback sequences. Yet these segments of Memories of Underdevelopment also sharpen its political edge. In effect, Alea injects the agit-prop spirit of The Hours of the Furnaces into his “second cinema” character study.

Consider the segment entitled “The Truth of the Group is in the Murderer.”

It is motivated as Sergio’s description to Pablo of the book he is currently reading. But it uses photographs and newsreel footage to explore the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the system of political repression and torture that existed under Batista. The title hints at the larger ideological point of the sequence, namely that the regime’s institutional framework served as a means of displacing and shifting criminal culpability away from its individual members. As a member of the bourgeoisie, Sergio is implicated in this dialectical arrangement between the individual and the group insofar as each part of it gives meaning to the whole.

In a scene where Pablo gets his car ready for inventory, Sergio’s mind begins to wander. Alea then cuts to a series of still photos depicting hunger and starvation in Latin America.

In his voiceover, Sergio notes that the death toll from malnutrition exceeds the combat deaths of World War II. The sequence suggests Sergio’s insight into the problems of underdevelopment under capitalism. Alea’s imagery poignantly illustrates the disproportionate impact of such deprivations on society’s most vulnerable members, its children. This mini-documentary in Memories pointedly rebukes the colonialist regimes still present in Latin America by highlighting the cruel effects of such economic exploitation by First World powers.

Similar sequences pop up in the episode labelled, “A Tropical Adventure.” The title refers to Sergio and Elena’s visit to Ernest Hemingway’s former home in Havana, which had been turned into a museum.

A series of photos shows Hemingway’s involvement in Spanish politics, particularly the civil war of the 1930s. A second series of photos depicts Hemingway’s relationship with his longtime servant Rene Villarreal. In his voiceover, Sergio hints that their master-servant relationship captured some of the vagaries of American imperialism. Sergio concludes that Hemingway must have been unbearable.

Sergio’s voice-over during these sequences offers one of the clearest statements of his character’s dualism. He conveys sympathy with Villarreal as a fellow Cuban and recognizes that Hemingway’s paternalism is itself an expression of colonialist ideology. Yet Sergio also seems to identify with Hemingway’s social position given his elite status as a rentier and aspiring writer. His trenchant observations about Hemingway’s relationship with his servant is an unwitting acknowledgement of how easily he could slip into the shoes of the great American author and adventurer.

In the battle for Sergio’s soul the “great white hunter” wins out as we see him hiding from Elena until she just gives up and walks away. Sergio’s condescending treatment of Elena is merely the flip side of the imperialist dialectic expressed by “the faithful servant and the great Lord. The colonialist and Gunga Din.”

Memories’ political sophistication largely derives from Alea’s sensitive treatment of his protagonist’s inner conflict. As a remnant of a previous historical moment, Sergio’s jaundiced perspective suggests that life under the Castro regime has simply substituted a new set of problems for life under the Batista regime. Indeed, for many viewers circa 1968, Alea’s look back at the era between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis might seem an endorsement of his hero’s nihilism and fatalism. Such was the case for several U.S. film critics who Alea disparaged later, claiming that their identification with Sergio caused them to mistakenly privilege the depiction of the artist’s self-interest over the needs of Revolution.

As Alea wrote more than a decade after Memories of Underdevelopment was released, “In Cuba, the Revolution is in power. This means that the conditions of struggle have changed.” Sergio’s struggle to find his place within post-Revolutionary Cuba becomes a metaphor for struggle itself. It is easy to celebrate the moment of triumph when a nation overthrows its oppressors. But a society’s problems don’t just disappear when you have regime change. Memories is the rare film that confronts the challenges faced in the aftermath of any revolution. It takes a hard look at the difficulties in remaking both a society and culture caught in the shadows of two global superpowers: the US and the USSR. In Alea himself put it:

It is to the spectator that the film should reveal the symptoms of possible contradictions and incongruities between good revolutionary intentions – in the abstract – and a spontaneous and unconscious adherence to certain – concrete – values belonging to bourgeois ideology.

Sergio simply becomes the vehicle through which Cuban audiences were encouraged to consciously grasp their own contradictions.

 

Alea’s insights here attest to his remarkable achievement in Memories of Underdevelopment. By exploring Cuba’s travails after Castro’s seizure of power, Alea knew that First World audiences might misinterpret the film. They might even use Memories to affirm their own imperialist identity. Yet this was not a design flaw. Instead, the film’s vulnerability would also turn out to be its greatest strength among domestic Cuban audiences. Alea’s use of cinematic devices to convey subjectivity imparts a simple but powerful lesson: the Revolution may be over, but revolutionary struggle never ends.


Thanks to Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, Peter Becker, and the whole Criterion team for their superb work. Also thanks to our colleague Erik Gunneson.

The text of “Toward a Third Cinema” is widely available on the Internet, as here.

The most useful resource for information on Memories of Underdevelopment remains the volume in Rutgers Films in Print series. The book contains a reproduction of the continuity script, a reprint of Edmund Desnoes’ original novella, contemporaneous reviews, and Alea’s own reflections on the film some twelve years after it was released.

The film was rereleased in 2018 after undergoing a 4k restoration. Reviews can be found herehere, here, and here. An interview with director Tomas Gutiérrez Alea can be found here. An excellent overview of Alea’s career in its entirety can be found here.

Here’s a complete listing of our Observations series on the Criterion Channel. Our installment on Hiroshima mon amour provides an intriguing comparison to this entry.

Memories of Underdevelopment (1968).

 

May 18 2019

Cannes Correspondences #4: Struggling for Justice, Overcoming Grief

The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
A White, White Day
Dear Danny,
Among the many veteran’s tips you gave me on our first Cannes rendezvous was a polite reminder to fish for gems outside the red-carpeted slots of the official competition, and yesterday I heeded the call, queuing for my first screening at the Critics’ Week, Hlynur Pálmason’s A White, White Day. It was not the first time I stumbled into the Icelandic 34-year-old. Back in Locarno, in 2017, I’d been able to catch his debut feature, the visceral study of masculinity and festival darling Winter Brothers. And if the latter had heralded the Reykjavik-native as new name to reckon with, his new film only adds more evidence to the director's talent.
Having lost his wife in a car accident, police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson, of Fantastic Beasts, Justice League, and Everest fame) processes grief by channeling all his energies on fixing up a house for his daughter, Elín (Elma Stefania Agustsdottir), and granddaughter Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). It’s a remote and pastel-colored retreat perched atop a hill a few minutes’ walk by the sea, a landscape of belittling and untamed beauty which Maria von Hausswolff’s cinematography beckons us into through a gorgeously studied series of mounted-camera tableaux, editor Julius Krebs Damsbo cutting from one season to the next, the house changing as the sprawling immensity that engulfs it intermittently dilates and contracts in a sea of mist.
A harsh and unforgiving environment finds a fitting embodiment in Sigurdsson’s imposing and laconic Ingimundur, anger and pain brewing under an ice-cold stare that only softens in the presence of his beloved 8-year-old Salka. “I just want to build a house,” the man tells a psychiatrist who seems completely out of sync with his patient’s trauma, and tosses him a half-hearted suggestions like “practice self-compassion” and “stop being so self-critical.” To no avail, of course. Ingimundur’s grief is a viscous presence that wraps the new house like glue. A White, White Day may well pivot on a loss of devastating magnitude, but what’s most tragic about it is that the accident triggers a pain and vulnerability Ingimundur cannot bring himself to make public—not even to the young Salka. In a work that thrives on its attention to small, quiet gestures, there is a whole film in the split-second Sigurdsson glances furtively around him before clutching an old shirt found inside a box of his wife’s belongings, and covers his face with it, breathing in.
Much like Winter Brothers had offered an excursion into the ways austere settings shape those who inhabit them—zeroing in on the poisonous feud between two siblings working in a remote chalk-mining factory—A White, White Day conjures up another study of environment and subjectivity, of public and private spheres, a tale of spellbinding and perturbing beauty. Cannes hasn’t even reached its midpoint yet, but as of my fourth night in this movable feast, Pálmason’s second feature stands as the most disquieting and touching experience so far—and however far we may luckily still be from the festival’s end, something tells me I shall return to Sigurdsson’s performance a long after my time here will come to a close.
Watching Ingimundur find a respite from grief in Salka, moments of grandpa-granddaughter tenderness interspersing a tale of aching loneliness, I was jolted back to the multilayered family dynamics of the Official Competition entry I had seen the night before, Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. In many ways, Loach’s latest felt like a sequel to his 2016 Palm d’Or winner, I, Daniel Blake (the English cineaste’s second Palm after his first win in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes the Barley). Set again in the same Newcastle that Dave Johns’ Daniel had roamed in a hopeless search for jobs, Loach's new film homes in on a family of four, delivery man Ricky (Kris Hitchen), home-care nurse Abby (Debbie Honeywood), their teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone), and daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor).
And though Ricky’s circumstances may first stand out as slightly better than they had been for Daniel, it only takes a few moments for Loach to spell out the full extent of the man’s misery. Plunged into endless debt after the collapse of the Northern Bank, forced to give up a house he’d bought and to rely on evanescent and short-lived jobs for years on end, Ricky sells body and soul to a delivery company that relies exclusively on independent contractors, and promises fast cash in exchange for 14-hours-a-day shifts, six days a week. “You’re a trooper,” heartless boss Maloney (Ross Brewster) welcomes Ricky, sugarcoating the lack of basic rights and the faintest trace of benefits with a bombastic invite to become “the master of your own destiny.”
Sorry We Missed You continues Loach’s excursions into poverty-stricken Britain, but conjures up a tale of Sisyphean endurance filled with more life and anger than its 2016 predecessor, largely because of the indomitable energy with which Ricky’s family struggles to survive against all odds. It is in the confines of their house that Loach’s achieves some of his most heart-wrenching material. Mired in a job market plagued with rampant privatizations, a collapsed welfare state, and ruled by the quintessentially neoliberal law of the survival of the fittest, everyday intramural rituals are the only antidote against a gig economy that shatters the very people it purports to shore up. There’s something ineffably moving in watching Liza Jane put away her parents’ dishes while the two lie exhausted and asleep in front of the TV, something wrecking in the struggle father and daughter undertake to squeeze in some time together in between his impossibly tight delivery schedule. “I wish we just didn’t have to fight so much,” she tells him over a strictly monitored two-minute work break, and it is the first in a long series of domestic heart to hearts that manage to stir up empathy without ever sensationalizing the family’s suffering, or undermining the astounding dignity with which they pull through.
Traditional tropes resurface, from Loach’s penchant for football rivalries to his interest in the genealogy—and ultimately, disintegration—of workers’ rights in the face of a pernicious gig economy. It is disheartening to notice just how much has changed since the strikes and struggles workers undertook in the heat of the Thatcher years. “You work from 7:30 in the morning till 9 at night?” one of Abby’s elderly patients asks her, after reminiscing and waxing proudly over some 1980s strikes, eyes bugging out in indignation: “what happened to the 8-hour job?”
Les misérables
This emphasis on the history of continuities between past and present social injustices served as the backbone of another official competition entry, Ladj Ly’s debut feature Les misérables. Overtly explicit in its allegiance to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel—from the title to the geographical setting, located as it is in the crime-plagued Parisian banlieue of Les Bosquets, in the eastern Montfermeil district where Hugo’s Thénardiers’ Inn stood—Ly homes in on a handful of rough present-day French housing projects only to find out that very little, in the past 150 years, seems to have changed.
Police officer Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) has just joined the local street crime unit, patrolling Les Bosquets next to Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and the revoltingly corrupted and cynical Chris (Alexis Manenti, nailing a performance of unhinged brutality that makes for moments of intramural tension à la Training Day). The trio cruises around projects seesawing between beguilingly friendly interactions with Bosquets residents, and others when the sheer scope of the cops’ brutality and wanton violence comes into full, sickening view with Chris happily frisking attractive underage girls and bashing up whoever dares to cross his path. Entry point into a corrupted universe that exists over and against the rule of law the police ought to enforce, Stéphane guides us with wide-eyed angst into a labyrinth of constantly shifting power relations. Part of Les misérables’ allure is to witness the cops negotiate their scope of action and authority with trusted locals, including a man known by the sobriquet “The Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu), the hood’s market stalls manager and de facto intermediary between police and community, and Salah (Almamy Kanouté), a reformed jihadi turned kebab shop owner who parcels out teachings to local young men with a proud, breezily becalmed aura.
Tension brews over the course of Stéphane’s first day at work, Chris’ ruthless bullying poking ordinary citizens as much as the unit’s newbie, until things take a turn for the worst when a confrontation with the neighborhood kids ends in a terrible accident involving Gwada and local boy Issa (Issa Perica). It’s a pivotal juncture that shatters the delicate equilibrium between cops and the Bosquets crowd, and skyrockets what had so far unspooled as your textbook corrupted cop film into something far more visceral and magnetic. Chris’ crooked cop may well the single most clear-cut villain here (down to the delusional paean of macho authority he shouts to The Mayor and his own thugs: “I am the law!”), but it is interesting to note Ly seems to afford all characters, including the most viciously abject ones, a behind-the-scene look at the history of loneliness, grief, and alienation each of them carries. To be sure, this doesn’t amount to any redemptive cop storyline, but it is interesting to see Ly blurring (if ever so slightly) the moral compass around his broken men.
And just when a dusk-tinged montage threatens to bookend the whole drama peddling a facile they-are-all-in-the-same-boat reminder, Les misérables propels you into a fast-paced last act of staggering violence, as the neighborhood kids take their revenge on the adults around them (interestingly, both on the cops as well as “The Mayor” and his crooks), chasing Stéphane, Gwada, and Chris into the projects, in a prolonged siege that feels as suffocating as it is visually entrancing. It’s an inter-generational upheaval which brought me back to a Berlinale entry from earlier this year and that would make for an interesting double bill, Claudio Giovannesi’s Piranhas—an ethnography of Naples’ teenage gangs fighting against (and ultimately replacing) a whole underworld of grownup thugs. An atmosphere of acrid anger and desperation permeates these early festival days, as you aptly wrote in your last dispatch. These last few works I saw only corroborate the feeling.
More from me soon,
Leo

May 17 2019

Cannes Correspondences #5: Haitian Zombis, Insidious Plants, Takashi Miike

The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
Zombi Child
Zombi Child
Dear Leo,
Your last dispatch pinpointed works of social realist cinema here in Cannes, alongside a quintessential art-house picture. I have no bias for or against any of these idioms, each and all can be used to make a great film, but often at festivals I long for the smarts for entertainment that genre cinema can promise. Genre movies exemplify in the most vivid sense a truism of the art of the cinema, that it relies on the building blocks of cliches, the language and toolkit of conventions and archetypes. Because of this, to expect most movies to do something new or fresh in some ways feels antithetical to the art, founded as it is on iteration and variation on shared popular ideas. To surprise an audience within the confines of expectations—that is a subtle and impressive accomplishment, and is why here at Cannes the swerving Brazilian film Bacurau was such a pleasure. This is likewise true of Bertrand Bonello’s new film, Zombi Child, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight. (His last, the millennial terrorism thriller Nocturama, was rumored to be too touchy a subject to be programmed anywhere along the Croisette.) A bit of a zombi film, a bit of an all-girls boarding school reverie, the film jolts our expectations for both through audacious cross-cutting and maintaining a silkily mysterious atmosphere of uncertain direction.
Opening in 1962 Haiti, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) is cursed and partially killed through voodoo, buried not-quite-dead, and resurrected to toil as a mindless zombi in a sugar plantation. (“Zombi” without an “e” indicates the voodoo belief of those who exist between life and death, unlike the horror fiction conceit of the living dead.) Regaining some sense of his life, Clairvius's shrouded vision catching flashes of color and images of his wife, and he escapes the plantation through the countryside. The story behind this saga is revealed much later, and in the meantime Bonello basks in sepulchral day-for-night shadows and the sorrow of human exploitation that extends beyond the grave. Cut into this is a story set in today’s France, with a white teen beauty, Fanny (Louise Labèque), as its heroine who attends classes at the elite Légion d'honneur boarding school populated by the children of the country’s most lauded citizens. Taught about the failed legacy of the French Revolution in class, she yearns privately for the school break which will put her back in the arms of her boyfriend. The thread between this very privileged and isolated present and the Haitian past is connected by Fanny’s friend at school, Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a solitary Haitian orphan whose parents died in the 2010 earthquake. Fanny invites Melissa to join her dorky, previously all-white secret literary sorority, and as we learn more about this regal, melancholy black girl the more the uncanniness of the Haitian story start to seep into the present. “We all look like corpses anyway,” one girl dryly notes. Fanny seeks to soothe her boy troubles by a visit to Melissa’s aunt (Katiana Milfort), a mambo or female voodoo priestess, and by the time Melissa starts making strange growling noises in the dormitory toilet at night the film has effectively cross-pollinated France’s colonial past with its not-so-distant present. 
Like Mrs. Hyde, Serge Bozon’s recent riff on Robert Louis Stevenson, Bertrand Bonello is cleverly appropriating the visuals, atmosphere, and ideas of pulpy genre cinema but applying them towards more conceptual ends. That is to say, Zombi Child is not a horror film—unless one perhaps rightfully sees the faint consciousness of colonial legacies in new generations horrific, at least intellectually. The film takes a bold and mostly earned gambit in so juxtaposing past and present, Haiti and boarding school, black and white, man and woman, and the struggle to return to life with the struggle of first love. Obviously the risk is to cheapen the legacy, to use the Haitian story—which is based on a real person—and the film’s awe of voodoo belief and practice as window dressing for an exercise in style. But this a line Bonello has always flirted with, not the least in his last films about terrorism, Yves Saint Laurent, and a turn-of-the-century brothel. The director chooses vivid, iconographic subjects to anchor not just his formidable aesthetic prowess—Zombi Child is a sleekly beautiful film with a great score by the director, and its lambent mystery and unpredictability is impressively sustained—but to allow his stories to go beyond drama and stretch his ideas and sensations to the level of grandeur. The film daringly asks what could this young white French woman of today, with her passionate adolescent love, have to do with Haiti, with the island’s traditions, and with its history of exploitation and misery, and with its ultimate independence. In a bravura finale, shifting cuts between all parts and thereby inextricably syncing them across times, countries, desires, and histories, the film convincingly suggests that people can change and things can get better. 
Zombies, or at least people eerily becoming those who are not themselves, are in fact popping up everywhere on the Croisette, including in Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s first competition film, as well as first in English, Little Joe. An eco-remix of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the Monsanto age, it tells of Alice (Emily Beecham), a plant geneticist who is crafting a flower whose scent instills happiness. The trouble is, among the murky ethics of its laboratory creation are hints that its pollen may also render humans unusually devoted to the plant’s survival, subtly transforming their personalities to ensure the flowers thrive. Or so suggests a mentally unstable biologist at the lab in an increasingly desperate manner. Others think the woman is crazy. From this premise, which is by turns uncanny and dryly comic, Hausner seesaws between Alice and us believing this flowery monstrosity is a threat to humanity and writing off the changes in people being a result of exaggeration, paranoia, and coincidence.
Alice is a divorced mother of an adolescent boy she mostly sees only over take-out dinners, and when she suspects he’s been exposed to the pollen, both her boy and others explain this is simply the age children change. Her boss and her co-workers, including an obsequiously romantically inclined one (a perfectly cast Ben Whishaw, utilizing his weaselly, insinuating qualities), also swing from exhibiting symptoms to appearing quite rational. The increasing suspicions and isolation of the paranoid is inextricably tied to Alice’s situation as a workaholic woman struggled to juggle her personal and professional life—as is the increasing guilt over her culpability in the morals of her creation. After all, she and her cohorts are engineering unnatural creations that manipulate emotions for the purpose of consumer profit. Whether or not a pollen-based virus is slowly taking over this corner of the United Kingdom is one worry, the other is whether engineered happiness can or should replace genuine sadness. The first fear is fit for a horror film, the second for a withering assessment of the direction of our technocratic culture.
As in Hausner’s film Lourdes, about a handicapped woman seeking the famous miracle of the French town, Little Joe effectively maintains a central ambiguity, oscillating between proof of the unthinkable, followed by refutation of that proof. Indeed, by the film’s end, characters can be found literally voicing the suspicions of both the audience and of Alice, placing the film in the tradition of Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing, which views a woman’s sense that the world is being organized against her with sympathy but refuses, at least for a while, to confirm or deny this anxiety. Hausner and her cinematographer have always preferred a spare mise-en-scène and here thrive in the antiseptic setting of the lab, beautifully color-designing spearmint lab coats to match office chairs, giving Alice sharply coordinated outfits, and generally making any scene look like an Instagram lifestyle snap. Hausner was doing this well before the affluent side of the internet embraced a cool white and pastel-oriented harmony, and here it is used to wry effect, accentuating the satirization of a person, a company, and a cultural environment that would desire such a monstrous plant—and undoubtedly market it in similar hues. Emily Beecham embodies this central ambivalence very well indeed, portraying a modern Frankenstein and the appeal of the evolutionary creation and the life sacrificed to engineer it. The film remarkably is both sympathetic to her increasing dread as it is deeply skeptical of what she may have wrought. Significantly, this is-it or isn't-it approach that comes from Hausner’s deliberate modulation of tone and story results in a film without an obvious arc or even a climax. There is nothing here like outburst of mad appeal desperately found at the end of Don Siegel’s 1956 film.  The softness with which Little Joe ends is hardly satisfying, but in a way is all the more devastating for showing the insidiously calm way horror can be integrated into our daily lives.
First Love
Both Bonello and Hausner use popular genre cinema as a funnel for their ideas. Takashi Miike, here at the Directors’ Fortnight with First Love, has no such ambitions. There are a few ideas here, but the main one is to delight with surprise, energy, and violence. A baroquely plotted but otherwise straight-forward thriller, it intertwines yakuza and Chinese gang turf wars with the story of a orphaned boxer (Masataka Kubota) with no ties to anyone and little hope in life beyond fighting. It takes a while to set all the film's strands in motion, folding in first a drug-addicted young woman (Sakurako Konishi) selling her body to work off her father's debt to the gangsters, and then a scam that a corrupt cop and one of the yakuza (Shôta Sometani) pull to steal a drug shipment, but once everything is in place First Love flings itself effectively from antic to antic, violence to violence.
And brutal and bloody the film is, but told as much as an action film as it is a dark comedy in the vein of the Coen brothers’ more morbid humor, since just about everything that could go wrong with the drug heist does, and the bad luck laid upon the boxer—who gets his first knockout and is told he’s dying of a tumor—and the forced prostitute—who both Japanese and Chinese gangs think took the shipment, and is suffering withdrawal hallucinations of her abusive father—shoves them together to dodge fists, bullets, and swords. As often in the cinema of Takashi Miike, this hero and heroine are miscreants and outcasts, and they have to bond to survive the self-destructive brutality of gang violence and the wicked—as it’s self-described by multiple yakuza—lot among which they’ve fallen. Miike escalates the violence adroitly until everyone ends up in a hardware store with a multitude of weapons easily on hand, and the film descends into a remarkably vicious, yet frequently comic, and practically endless battle to the death. And it’s not just the men dealing out the pain: particularly notable inclusions are a drunk female member of the Chinese gang who venerates the aged yakuza code of honor from old movies, and the film’s most iconic figure, a drug dealer’s girl, widowed in the slaughter, who goes on a carnal quest for vengeance. Whatever the English-language title may suggest, this is in no way a love story, but believe it or not, Miike caps all this with an abrupt but very moving final image of normalcy for the outcast couple. It is an unexpected gesture that underlines just what is at stake amid all the desperation and savagery, comic and otherwise, in this terrific picture.
I hope, Leo, that you have seen films as entertaining as these, which certainly give me hope for the rest of the festival.
Warmly,
Danny

Video Sundays: Hou Hsiao-hsien and Horror

The Taiwan Film Institute has released a two-minute (but nonetheless impressive) clip demonstrating the before and after of the digital restoration process for Hou Hsiao-hsien's 1982 film Cheerful Wind, a romantic comedy that follows the relationship between a photographer and the blind man who becomes the subject of her latest work. Though Cheerful Wind seems a more lighthearted example, Hou's observations of the political skeleton that envelops everyday life appear to be an overall and very strong influence on Devotion, an atmospheric horror video game by Taiwanese studio Red Candle Games.
Set in Taiwan between 1980 to 1986, the game pairs a bloodied tale of family and religion against a backdrop of political suppression—the timeline takes place during the last days of Taiwan's White Terror, a period of martial law from 1947 to 1987, marked by the mass execution and imprisonment of thousands deemed anti-government, spies, or communist sympathizers. Hou Hsiao-hsien's A City of Sadness (1989) reckons with the White Terror as it unfolded in the 1940s; from that film Devotion borrows its dark tones of blue, orange, and red, as well as its images of rituals as they intertwine to tighten familial bonds. By playing the game—which guides the player through first-person perspective through a purgatorial loop of haunted rooms that continually mutate—one encounters the bursts of emotion (including terror) that simmer and flicker throughout Hou's portraits of Taiwan, devastation and dreams externalized.

May 16 2019

Cannes Correspondences #3: When Push Comes to Shove

The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
Bacarau
Dear  Leo,
Something is definitely in the air at Cannes this year. As is already seen in the competition across three different kinds of films, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (droll zombie comedy), Ladj Ly’s Les misérables (social realist policier), and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacarau (a rural siege film), the early days of the festival have been suffuse with an atmosphere of acrid anger and desperation. Jarmusch only partially disguises his grim state-of-the-union pessimism in the rumpled costume of mordant humor and deadpan reactions to the appearance of the living dead. The Dead Don't Die's purposefully stilted airlessness hovers between ironic pastiche and normalcy, like some of the unsettlingly blasé moments of Twin Peaks: The Return. The film feels like being in quicksand, the inevitable sinking into our own grave. Ly, in his feature debut, has made a by-the-books rookie ride-along cop film set in disgruntled French housing projects, featuring the expected neighborhood politicking and police enforcement by way of brutality. It might make for a topical pilot episode to a more engaged kind of weekly cop show, until a epilogue of violent, youthful upheaval and mass vengeance suggests a seething rage beyond our expectations for both the movies and for reality.
Bacarau, set in the eponymous fictional Brazilian village, is the strangest of the three competitors thus far. A collaboration between Mendonça Filho, following up his wonderful Aquarius (2016), and his long-time production designer, Juliano Dornelles, it also feels like an essential transmission trying to wrangle some sense out of a country’s chaos and despair. Unlike the other two films, Bacarau is a constant, mutating surprise. Despite an introductory scene of young female doctor returning to her village to deliver supplies that quickly sketches a region in Brazil “a few years from now” whose water supply has been cut off, whose roads are inoperable, where a local bandit seems to be at large, and where the government presence is limited to a shilling mayor hated by the population, the exact situation in Bacarau or indeed in Brazil is cryptic and suggestive. Clearly it is analogous to now, although in what specific way it is hard to say. But its state can be read in the town’s needs: food, medicine...and coffins.
When a water supply truck arrives with bullet holes in its sides and the family at a local ranch are found murdered, what feels like the future as a wild west turns more directly threatening and ominous. The tone, already prickly and a bit off-kilter, goes full crazy and even somewhat darkly comic with the revelation of a group of outsider mercenaries, a white gang of armed killers expressing their desire to attack the town. They use only vintage weapons, refer to achieving a score for killing, and their hopped-up motivation seems a cross between “The Most Dangerous Game” and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In the film’s most obvious tip to insanity, the group are led by Udo Kier as a kind of deranged game warden. It soon becomes clear the town of Bacarau is under attack. Suddenly the wide cinemascope photography, retro wipe edits, and small gestures of psychotropic sensations (flashes of visions, dreamy dissolves) start to make sense: This is the brutal dystopian present of the 1970s and ‘80s genre films like those by John Carpenter, transmuted to a very real rural Brazilian countryside.
In fact, the local school is named after “Prof João Carpinteira,” and the maestro’s “Night” track from his Lost Themes album appears on the soundtrack as the ultimate gesture: not one of fandom, but as a sign that the shit’s going down—what we thought bad is going to get much worse. The town, gathering a reserve we don’t initially expect, pulls together to defend itself, as if the seven samurai had never showed up, and the Bacarau acquits itself with shocking force. If Lav Diaz’s recent slow-paced but emotionally raging films criticizing the Duterte government were funneled through popular genre, they might feel something like this. Until the Tarantino film premieres here next week, I doubt there will be a more abrasively violent film in Cannes. Bacarau’s violence is a combination of fear and absurdity. The situation it creates is patently ridiculous and makes this silliness obvious—yet its results, seen in the gruesome bloodshed, is no less affecting. It is satire and terror in one, an ungainly mix that may not fully work, but I’m not sure it has to. It just has to communicate that something is very, very wrong.
Elsewhere, the filmmaking was consummate but less urgent, more focused on developing a voice than using it to yell. Kantemir Balegov returns to the Un Certain Regard, where he premiered his electric debut Closeness two years ago, with his second film, Beanpole. Set in Leningrad after the end of the Second World War, it sees the young Russian director again playing in intriguing ways with the melodrama genre, this time in a frequently beguiling mixture of the enervated and the torrid. It is less a period drama than a portrait of a close wartime friendship—between the extraordinarily tall and pale Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), the beanpole of the title, and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a small, impassioned brunette recently returned from the front—resumed after the fighting stops. As in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, with little of their earlier lives left intact, these survivors need to restart themselves and bandage their wounds any way they can.
Although Iya and Masha met in their anti-aircraft unit, Iya was sent home after suffering combat trauma. We first take her to be a single mother, working in a veteran’s hospital and playing with her boy, but just because war is over doesn't mean everything is back to normal. In a wrenching sequence, Iya suffers a PTSD attack and accidentally smothers her child; soon after Masha returns, bedecked with medals and delighted to see her friend, and we learn that the dead boy was in fact Masha’s young son, fathered by a soldier who died in combat. A passionate friendship resumed amidst the lacerating guilt and debt owed from one to the other is the tortured current of emotion underlining the melodrama, whose surface tension is more often than not unuttered and suppressed. The story only gets more twisted in furtive knots from here, and as in Closeness there’s an oppressive feeling of women with lives of inner turmoil and few options outside their own heads.
Despite the historical setting, Beanpole lacks the social denseness of Balagov’s first film, so rooted in its claustrophobic, fraught relationship between the city of Nalchik’s Kabardian population and its Jewish minority. This thinness renders the melodrama of the new film more abstract: Its power games of intimacy and fulfillment take place in a world rebooted, with lives rebuilt from memory, longing, and hope for the future. Such is its intense intimacy and Balagov's expressive use of colors, textures, and Stalin-era close-quarters housing that Beanpole, despite its wider canvas, often feels like a chamber drama or kammerspiel. Both women have damaged minds, damaged psyches, damaged bodies—the extent of which we grow to discover, but never to fully comprehend. What either of these women want from each other or from themselves refuses to be pinned down: identity, desires, and yearning remain a post-war confusion, but the heartache is never less than vivid.
A neat meeting ground between Bacarau’s brute topicality and Beanpole’s intimacy could be found in the festival’s fourth competition entry. The debut by the French-Senagalase Mati Diop, whose shorts films and mid-length Mille soleils (2013) has stoked anticipation for this talented actress and director’s leap to features, Atlantics is a dreamy elucidation of the dilemmas facing young Senegalese of whether to stay at home—and if so, how to live life at home—or whether to risk their lives taking to the sea to get to Spain. Its parentless young heroine, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), is one who decides to stay; or perhaps, as a young woman, doesn’t have so easy an option to leave. About to be married to a rich Muslim man she doesn’t love, she spends her dreams on a young man, Souleiman (Traore), working construction on a nearby skyscraper. When his and his co-workers’ wages go unpaid for months they leave abruptly by night in barques, only to be lost at sea. Yet during her wedding celebration, Ada’s opulent conjugal bed is mysteriously set on fire, and she is told that Souleiman has been seen nearby. He is back, in a way, as are the others who died at sea: their spirits return at night possessing the bodies of those who stayed home, Ada’s friends and a young cop investigating the arson and suspecting Souleiman. Those who have left haunt those who remain. The young women become the irate laborers, who haunt the corrupt skyscraper owner, and the cop transforms into Ada's lost lover, recovering some of his soul.
The story may sound complex, but in fact Diop is swimming easily among archetypes and conventions—traditional values vs. modern, the desire to stay home and the yearning the leave, religion and consumerism—and sometimes Atlantics feels like a short film well-elaborated. But in its modesty and its details it is sweet and exquisite. Told in a gentle poetic realism, the film makes swift and precise observations about Ada, her two sets of friends (devout and partiers), the two men on her life, and her limited options, evoking her emotional tenor with ease and sensitivity. Ada's relationship with Souleiman is not given to us in drama but in sensuality, sincere looks, and comfortable body language, all of which is easy but also reductive to connect to the cinema of Claire Denis, who directed Diop in 35 Shots of Rum. Conceptual electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri has given the film a score with a throbbing, immersive impressionism that helps dissipate the sense of easy plotting and helps the film pick up after stumbling through the police subplot. As night falls again and people turn into those who died, the film’s beautiful, stark power takes over. Ada’s anguish rends softly and the film feels caught in a dream that hazes between despair and yearning. This in-betweenness is Atlantics' great triumph, refusing to side with one part of Ada’s world or the other, or indeed with the sea’s forever promise of a different life beyond it. Whether leaving or staying, the sea will always be there.
Warmly,
Danny

Movie Poster of the Week: The Posters of the 2019 Cannes Competition

Above: The Dead Don’t Die by Jim Jarmusch (USA).
Maybe if they re-introduced a Best Poster palme to Cannes things would get better. I’ve been doing this Competition round-up for nine years now and, though there are always stand-outs, in general there is nothing much to get excited about. Of course the poster usually comes later, after the films have been picked up for distribution—the best posters here, like those for The Dead Don’t Die and Parasite, are those that already have impending theatrical releases—and many of these films have barely finished editing before they’re rushed to the Croisette, so I shouldn’t complain. But at the same time this is the most prestigious film festival in the world, so you might expect a better turnout.
There seem to be fewer posters than ever this year; usually there are three or four I can’t track down, this year I’ve only been able to find key art for 12 out of the 21 films in competition. Nothing yet for Terrence Malick, Ken Loach, nor Arnaud Desplechin, nor for the first woman of color to have ever directed a film in competition at Cannes, Mati Diop. I will add them if they turn up during the festival; in the meantime, here are all the posters from the Competition in alphabetical order by English-language title.
Above: Bacarau by Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles (Brazil).
Above: Frankie by Ira Sachs (USA/France/Portugal/Belgium).
Above: Matthias and Maxime by Xavier Dolan (Canada).
Above: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino (USA).
Above: Pain and Glory by Pedro Almodóvar (Spain).
Above: Parasite by Bong Joon-ho (South Korea).
Above: Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma (France).
Above: Sibyl by Justine Triet (France).
Above: The Traitor by Marco Bellocchio (Italy).
Above: The Wild Goose Lake by Diao Yinan (China).
Above: Young Ahmed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium).
Still to come:
Atlantique by Mati Diop (France/Senegal)
The Whistlers by Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania/France/Germany)
A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick (USA/Germany)
It Must Be Heaven by Elia Suleiman (France/Canada)
Les misérables by Ladj Ly (France)
Little Joe by Jessica Hausner (Austria/Germany/UK)
Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo by Abdellatif Kechiche (France)
Oh Mercy! by Arnaud Desplechin (France)
Sorry We Missed You by Ken Loach (UK)
See previous Cannes Competition poster round-ups here: 20182017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011. And follow me on Twitter for any updates to this year’s crop.

Cannes Correspondences #2: Of Zombies and Deerskin Jackets

The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Danny,
A loud buzz hovers above the Palais as I begin writing you, a near-tangible electricity that billows from the tables around me and swells the press room into a large and magnetic beehive. It’s my second day of my first year in Cannes, and I still need to pinch my arms in between screenings to remind myself this is all real. They say the newbie’s enthusiasm is a short-lived creature here on the Croisette, and if I could have a euro for every colleague who’s sought to curb my enthusiasm to remind me of my place in the festival’s badge hierarchy (and along with it, the few chances I stand to make it to every single screening I jotted down on my schedule) I reckon I could have already paid for my Cannes room twice. 
But something tells me the giddy smile I’ve been wearing ever since I first stepped foot inside the Palais won’t fade away anytime soon. I belong to the vast working class of the blue badge holders, a step above the Yellows, sure, but still a far cry from the higher echelons of the Pinks and the mythical creatures sporting Whites. A low badge ranking, in the eyes of Cannes’ inflexible accreditation caste system, means my queues are likely to stretch out ad nauseam, and most of my letters to you will have to be typed on my phone, as chunks of this dispatch had been the other day, when, nervous and excited at the prospect of sitting for my first ever Cannes screening, I decided to queue a whopping two and a half hours ahead of this year’s Official Competition’s opening film, Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die
Jarmusch’s zombie comedy reached the Croisette as one of the year’s most anticipated titles. Three years after his last Cannes entry, Paterson, The Dead Don’t Die promised to return the 66-year-old to the supernatural milieu that fathered one of his most incandescent recent offerings, the 2013 Only Lovers Left Alive. Adding to the hype, a star-studded cast that grouped together a whole gang of Jarmusch regulars (from Bill Murray to Tilda Swinton, from Tom Waits to Steve Buscemi) and new faces (Selena Gomez’s among them), hashed The Dead Don’t Die as the director’s largest commercial undertaking to date. But the end result, much to my aficionado’s chagrin, didn’t exactly live up to the hype. 
Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy Adam Driver and Bill Murray’s chemistry as officers Ronnie and Cliff, local cops roaming the streets of the fictional U.S. town of Centerville, a bucolic and unlikely epicenter of a zombie epidemic very possibly offset by the reckless fracking of the Earth’s polar caps (by far the most original cause of a zombie apocalypse this critic can remember). Adam Driver in particular incarnates with pitch-perfect tempo Jarmusch’s deadpan humor, interjecting his escapades with a few Cassandra-style premonitions and dark omens. “I’m thinking zombies. Ghouls. The undead,” he tells Murray, moments after the first couple of Centerville denizens shows up as disemboweled corpses, courtesy of zombies Iggy Pop and Sara Driver, who slaughtered and devoured both before chugging jugs of coffee (a gimmick that would have been hilarious were it not essentially a rehash of George A. Romero’s zombies-go-back-to-what-they-recall joke in Dawn of the Dead).
And there’s no denying The Dead Don’t Die adds a few new entries to the list of Jarmusch’s memorable characters. If you think watching Driver brandishing a machete and chopping zombie’s heads is worth the ticket, try Tilda Swinton’s Scottish-accented undertaker swirling a katana and applying make-up to corpses as if they were extras from Pink Flamingos. Storylines bifurcate and develop along parallel tracks, in a typical Jarmusch fashion. A teenage trio from Cleveland, helmed by Selena Gomez, arrives at the city’s only motel aboard a Pontiac Lemans 1968 (set in a present day U.S. as it may be, The Dead Don’t Die has a clear penchant for items and aesthetics from a few decades prior, donning the film a vintage and somewhat hipstery aura). Three other kids locked in a nearby juvenile detention centre observe the apocalypse from behind bars; and Tilda Swinton’s character may or may not be an otherworldly creature with an agenda of her own. 
But while chuckles abound all throughout the journey, the comedic liftoff seems to draw almost exclusively from the film’s bottomless cauldron of meta-textual and cinephile's references, with the result that Driver and Murray’s zombie purge gradually turns into a self-indulgent ride mired in cinematic detritus and jokes heard and seen countless times before. 
Delivery man Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA drives a WU-PS truck, parceling out packages and prêt-à-porter life lessons (“the world is perfect,” he tells Caleb Landry Jones’ movie buff drugstore worker, “appreciate the details”), Tilda Swinton’s Zelda Winston is essentially the actress’s own caricature (down to the wordplay of her character’s name), and there’s even space for an overt cross-universe reference, with Adam Driver’s boasting a Star Wars spaceship-shaped keyring, agreeing with Swinton that the franchise truly is some great science fiction. Nods to the maestros of the genre pepper Jarmusch’s script, but even when these are made explicit—as when Selena Gomez praises Caleb Landry Jones’ movie taste after the latter mentions George A. Romero—the homages leave the cringeworthy aftertaste of a self-indulgent display of knowledge.
Nowhere does this feel more alienating than in the film’s final act, when The Dead Don’t Die's meta gimmicks become unnervingly self-aware and the fourth wall shatters, leaving Driver and Murray to vent against Jarmusch’s script and the tragic finale they’re heading towards. Past the cinematic detritus and meta-fictional elements, there are moments when The Dead Don’t Die parcels out some social commentary, but even the modern-day references to climate change and Steve Buscemi’s “Make America White Again” hat add very little to the old tropes of zombies as metaphors for consumeristic societies that have been hashed out several decades ago already, and far more perceptively, by the films Jarmusch’s tips its hat to. 
To quote from this year’s jury president Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu’s (“Time, not this jury, will be the ultimate judge of these films’ worth"), aside from the many meme-friendly and chuckle-inducing moments, I wonder whether Time will judge Jarmusch’s latest just as favorably as it did with the previous (and far more memorable) entries in his canon. 
I left the Palais later that night and headed back home, a 10-minute bus ride toward Cannes’ Far West, just in time to jot down some thoughts on Jarmusch’s zombies and lie down for a few hours before waking up and dashing to my first ever Directors' Fortnight screening, Quentin Dupieux’s Jean Dujardin-starring Deerskin, a surrealist and rollicking take on commodity fetishism and the masculinities that come attached to it—a bonkers ride as surreal as the nuttiest of Dupieux’s gonzo comedies (think Rubber or Reality), and yet possibly more lucid and savage a satire than any of his previous offerings.
By the time Dujardin’s bearded face graces the screen, his forty-something Georges is on his way to a mountain village in the proverbial middle of nowhere. The reason: to pay several thousand euros for a second-hand deerskin jacket. What exactly should the purchase come to mean in the man’s grand scheme of things isn’t exactly clear, though the self-congratulatory stare Georges darts at his reflection on the mirror, awestruck by the “killer look” the new attire dons him, elevates the garment to an identity-defining object on par with Nicolas Cage’s snakeskin jacket in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart
Yet the short-term future is one of bleak prospects. Broke, dumped by his partner and left with no home to return to, Georges finds refuge in a nearby hotel, frittering time away at the town’s pub while awkwardly boasting his new outfit to female patrons—including local waitress and film editor-hopeful Denise (Adèle Haenel)—and toying with a small camera the former deerskin jacket’s owner thought to add as a little extra to the transaction. Perceptively, the device too becomes an obscure object of desire, a protracted limb Georges clutches for dear life once his deerskin infatuation convinces the psychopath there should be no other jacket in the world, and Deerskin embarks on a black comedy chronicle of his blood-thirsty spree. 
Much like The Dead Don’t Die, Dupieux’s latest pivots on a meta-fictional backbone. There are moments when Deerskin’s nutty aura feeds off Georges’ own absurdist footage, and vice versa—Dupieux’s and Dujardin’s snuff film two sides of the same coin. But unlike Jarmusch’s work, laughters here aren’t achieved by means of external references and oft-abused tropes, but through the unhinged surrealism of Dupieux’s script and a magnetic Jean Dujardin, mercilessly poking at a deranged wannabe macho whose virility pivots on a mask two sizes too short. 
Walking out of the Directors' Fortnight's theatre, it dawned on me that Dupieux’s Reality was the first ever screening I attended at my first ever film festival, back when the French cineaste had found a slot in Venice’s 2014 Orizzonti sidebar. And it was great to realize Dupieux's latest intrigued me just as much as Reality had five years prior. To be sure, Deerskin may not be as narratively intricate and labyrinthine as previous offerings from the electronic musician-cum-DJ-cum-director. But it remains a zany comedy imbued with the same unbridled and hallucinatory spirit of the man who once wrote and directed a comedy about a killer sentient tire, and now helmed and penned another one with a deerskin jacket and its deranged owner as protagonists. As I hugged my own leather jacket, I headed out toward the Palais, joined my next queue, and finished writing you this.
Until the next dispatch, 
Leo

May 15 2019

Do, and Teach: The Workshop Films of Raúl Ruiz

Anyone who has done more than a little research into the career of Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011) knows that his filmography is full of holes—and mysteries. No matter which version of that list you consult, there are works, short or long, that precious few people have seen; as well as some whose very existence is difficult to verify. Visions and Marvels of the Christian Religion? Responso? Mirror of Tunisia? Agathopedia? Some of these I have actually seen; others I am still chasing. I recall the advice given to me by British film historian Ian Christie, while Ruiz was still in our world: “You need to hang out with him for a while, until he mentions some secret project you’ve never heard about before …”
Ruiz made films in every possible situation, and with every kind of technology. Some he shot at home with friends, on video or Super-8. Others—the ones we know best, like Time Regained (1999)—were produced in relatively luxurious conditions, with stars and a large crew. He was well aware of the material differences between these wildly different levels of production but, fundamentally, he made no real or categorical distinction between expensive and cheap work. Ruiz was all for impurity, and for constantly displacing oneself from one camp of culture to another. When he ran the arts center at Le Havre for a period in the mid 1980s, for instance, he took every opportunity to mix up practitioners from different areas: cinema, theater, dance, music, painting, photography.
One of the least known aspects of Ruiz’s prolific career is his involvement in teaching. Although he sometimes agreed to do old-fashioned university “lecturing”—such as the talks given in the USA (Harvard and Duke) that formed the first two volumes of his Poetics of Cinema book series—Ruiz was always far happier with a looser, workshop situation that allowed the open intermingling of theory and practice. “Pure” theory was a discourse-game he could play—better than most people, in fact—but he was more at home in the impure mix of thinking and doing. Indeed, I believe it was there that he felt freest to explore the ideas about cinema that most preoccupied him.
The professional divorce of theory from practice—such as we too often see, around the world, in the official training of filmmakers—was abhorrent to Ruiz. So, whenever he could, he turned invitations from film schools or similar institutions (such as arts centers or performance laboratories) into opportunities for collective creation. This work was done quickly—sometimes within the space of a single week—and the results caught on film or videotape were occasionally left in an incomplete state, as is the case with The Wandering Soap Opera (La telenovela errante), shot as part of a workshop with actors in Chile in 1990, and finished up by his wife Valeria Sarmiento in 2017. I well remember Ruiz, upon his arrival in Australia in 1993, asking me to instantly drum up the conditions for another such project: “Just tell the film school here that I need a week, some students, a room, a camera. That’s all.” Alas, sedate institutions are not always open to such wild, on-the-spot propositions...  
Ruiz’s filmmaking workshops were therefore about—as the cliché goes—process, rather than product. There are filmmakers—Marco Bellocchio is the best example—who use workshops as a way of making short pieces of film that may later find their way into ongoing or possible feature-length projects. Ruiz—although he always arrived with plenty of ideas in his head—did not take advantage of these situations in quite the same way. If a finished, screenable work resulted, that was fine, a bonus; if not, no problem, it was still worth everyone’s effort. Ruiz often said—and I don’t believe he was being merely diplomatic or polite—that he learned as much as his students from these workshops (such as those he conducted in Aberdeen in Scotland during the latter half of the 2000s); indeed, he sometimes avowed that he was able to take his experimentation—in the form of the various “exercises” outlined in Poetics of Cinema—further in the “safe space” of the workshop-classroom than on his big-budget assignments.
Although impurity, creativity, and playfulness were the keynotes of Ruiz’s various workshops around the globe, there was a fairly strict and disciplined regime involved in the way he ran them. Marie-Luce Bonfanti, who had assisted and acted in Ruiz’s Professor Taranne in 1986, relates how, in her time as director of CIFAS (“International Center for Training in the Performing Arts”) in Brussels, she invited him to work with actors over a period of several weeks. He immediately accepted (being “always ready for this type of adventure,” as Bonfanti notes), and selected 10 students after carefully examining 100 applications. As was always the case in Ruiz’s lower-budget productions (such as those he shot in Portugal in the early 1980s), it didn’t matter what anybody’s nominal métier was (actor, technician, assistant, et cetera)—when in the fray, everyone (Ruiz himself included) had to be ready to take on all the roles, in dizzy rotation.
Once the Brussels workshop started, the group needed to generate a script, based on a three-line synopsis proposed by Ruiz (see below). But no time was wasted: from Day 1, the schedule was divided into morning classes—“wide-ranging discussions” of “theoretical work” in which the director “exhibited his impressive encyclopedic knowledge touching on every possible domain”—and, in the afternoon, filming of the scenes sketched out during that discussion. At the end of each day, everyone gathered to watch and evaluate what had been shot. And then, on the following days, there was a parallel activity: simultaneous editing of the footage so far generated, an “assembly” that would spark further discussion and revision. If the calendar allowed it, Ruiz would embark upon reshoots and other additions. In the CIFAS case, all this work resulted in a splendidly odd (and today rarely screened) video-feature, Vertigo of the Blank Page
And it started from just this idea: “A film festival jury is deliberating on a film that shows a court jury deliberating upon the case of criminal militants who have murdered a judge after having convicted him with their own jury.” If that somehow sounds familiar, it’s because it shares a “shape,” and a bunch of tropes, with many Ruiz fictions across several media: stories inside stories, mirroring each other in uncanny and comical ways, usually with a life-and death element (murder, justice, political revolution) that swings between wielding a serious, real-world frisson, and providing cartoonish, postmodern artifices (fake blood and detached body parts, characters who continually resurrect like zombies). 
All these tropes return in The Wandering Soap Opera. Story-within-story takes the form of embedded telenovelas: characters exist in separate TV-show worlds, but actors cross over from one sphere to the other, as well as watching and commenting on each other’s neighboring narrative trajectories. Sarmiento, in her packaging of the 1990 workshop material, has added a score (by her and Ruiz’s regular composer, Jorge Arriagada), but keeps the scenes divided into the seven days it took to shoot them. This gives a good sense of the type of exercises that the teacher-ringmaster was able to set up and execute swiftly: a scene set in a car, for example, which provides the film’s best, screwball spectacle—not a real car on a real road, of course, but a prop that allows (as in his 1990 New York project The Golden Boat) a play of lights and darkness, back projection, artificial rocking motion, and the interactions between a group of actors crammed into a ridiculously tight, “aquarium” space.
Ruiz has often been credited with inventing, in his own inimitable fashion, a truly poetic art of cinema. It was not only a sense of personal modesty that prevented him from entirely accepting this particular genre of acclaim. Rather, it was integral to his deepest beliefs that artists do not really invent “whole” works, but—if they can figure out how to do it—spark or catalyse the poetic tendencies inherent in the audiovisual medium itself, and in the complicated mental processes of viewers. To that end, he pursued the ancient goal of an ars combinatoria—a combinatory and “recursive” art, constellating patterns of all kinds in ever-changing configurations. Ruiz’s workshops, with their mind-boggling “tasks” (such as: create a “palindrome” film that makes perfect sense whether projected backwards or forwards), offered him an ideal way to practically chase this dream.

May 14 2019

Painting in Larger Strokes: Joanna Hogg Discusses "The Souvenir"

The Souvenir
Disarming in their skittery vulnerability and unyielding portrayals of human disaffection, the films of Joanna Hogg have simmered under-the-radar since her powerful feature debut Unrelated (2007). Critical appraisals of her body of work have correctly found common ground between Hogg’s approach and a number of canonical cinematic heavyweights, but any list of touchstones will blur into obsoletion as the breadth and peculiar combination of the cinephile, photographer, and artist’s collection of interests and inspirations meld into a singular auteurism. 
Hogg’s latest film, The Souvenir, arrived at Sundance this year with a resounding bang. The portrait of an artist as a young woman, Hogg’s fourth feature is based on her own experiences as a film student in 1980s London. Hogg surrogate Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) is a 24-year-old living in a smart flat financed by her wealthy parents (her terrifically dowdy mother, played by Tilda Swinton, lives aways in a magnificent countryside estate). But Julie longs to break through the restrictive bubble of her existence, pitching, in one memorably cringe-worthy scene, her idea for an art film about shipyard laborers in Sunderland (a working class region far north of the capital). A house-party encounter with a slightly older man, a wry, magnetic Foreign Office worker by the name of Anthony (Tom Burke, channeling an Orson Wellsian swagger), snowballs into the naif-ish Julie’s first great romance and tragedy, simultaneously opening up the young woman to new experiences, while taking a toll on her artistic production.  
Buoyed by delicate eroticism and drifting back and forth between staid, observational formalism and quivering naturalism, The Souvenir unfolds as a work of imperfect memory. As in her usual fashion, Hogg has no interest in holding the audience’s hands through easily plottable events; the effect is one of putting places and faces together in an act of dreamy, but potent recollection.
I spoke to the British director by phone prior to the U.S. release of The Souvenir on May 17th. One foot in promotion, the other in the throes of pre-production for part two of The Souvenir, Hogg talked about casting Swinton-Byrne, character building as autofiction, and “forcing [herself] out of a groove.” 

NOTEBOOK: You’ve worked with Tilda Swinton in the past, in your first short film, Caprice, in ‘86. How did you decide to cast her daughter Honor and Tilda together for The Souvenir?
JOANNA HOGG: Well, I’d been looking for years for an opportunity to work with Tilda again. It’s amazing how time passes so quickly. I’ve always thought it’d be wonderful for her to play the mother in The Souvenir. But then I thought, well I should probably get the daughter first. Time went by and I hadn’t found the right [person] for Julie. [But] I had to act fast because who knew how much longer Tilda would be available. So I [officially] decided to cast Tilda, and I don't remember the timing but I was getting desperate for my Julie. I was meeting all sorts of actors and non-actors, and I was looking for someone who could believably be an artist, or a filmmaker. Someone who is more comfortable behind the camera than in front of the camera. Whenever I’d meet an actress I’d think “well, they’re an actress.” Their job is to be in front of the camera. And I wanted a person who wouldn’t necessarily even look that comfortable [in front of a camera]. It was a difficult thing, and as per usual I tend to think in a documentary light and I started looking for someone who is a filmmaker or a student filmmaker.
Time went by and I asked Tilda, “Well, do you know anybody?” I always ask people and friends for ideas. That’s how I cast the main part in Unrelated. There was a moment when Tilda and I looked at each other and thought about Honor. I knew Honor already, but we were almost too close [at that point] that it had never occurred to me. It was the same with Viv Albertine in Exhibition. It was through a good friend of mine, and her advice when I was desperate to find the wife [character] in that film. I should know this by now and not be surprised.
NOTEBOOK: Did it take any convincing or was Honor immediately sold?
HOGG: She pretty quickly responded. To the point where I was like, “well you should take your time and not rush into it.” I wanted her to feel comfortable with the decision. And the decision was not just to make one film, but two films.
NOTEBOOK: So the vision has always been to make two films?
HOGG: Yes. 
NOTEBOOK: Honor is wonderful. She’s so vulnerable and insecure but there’s also this honesty in her face, this authenticity that simultaneously feels very powerful. So many of your female protagonists convey a similar sensibility.
HOGG: Perhaps because I see myself quite vulnerable in some ways. And quite awkward. I don’t want this to be a reflection of myself, but [in The Souvenir] I’m speaking about an experience that’s so personal that I’ve got to have an actual conversation with the character, even if it's just about one facet of me. I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way, but for [someone] to play a version [of me] in front of the camera, there’s got to be some kind of affinity between me and them.   
NOTEBOOK: In Archipelago you do this but it feels more omniscient than tethered to one character. In any case the point of view is not just strictly female.
HOGG: I was doing that in Archipelago. I did feel a connection to [Tom Hiddleston’s character] Edward, that was a part of me. I think I had some of myself in the sister character as well, as well as the mother character. Perhaps it was more spread out, but I was interested in that with Edward. Sometimes it's easier to speak about certain difficult issues if you do transference onto someone else, especially a transference to someone of a different sex. But I think that particular subject in Archipelago—it needed to be a young man. Because it was talking about being tough or the difficulty of being tough. The difficulty for a man to be vulnerable.
NOTEBOOK: Your first three films take place in insular, exclusive spaces: you go from vacationing in Tuscany in Unrelated, to vacationing in the Scilly Isles in Archipelago, and then we’re confined to this wonderful but also really claustrophobic house in Exhibition. Things get progressively smaller. There’s an insularity of spirit in The Souvenir, but Julie travels and goes to different places: her mom’s house in the country, school, art galleries, et cetera. It’s much more sprawling in comparison. 
HOGG: Yeah, I was really aware of that. And I was very excited by that. That larger canvass was incredibly exciting. And you’ll feel that in the second part to an even greater degree. I’m not sure what that impetus is about, but I am feeling compelled to paint in larger strokes. I always respond to a challenge, and I was aware with my first three films that I could just get into a particular groove and I wanted to force myself out of it. I felt I was getting a bit too comfortable.
NOTEBOOK: In a way that impetus to explore and “force yourself out of a groove” relates to the issues in The Souvenir concerning Julie’s artistic endeavors. Her desire to penetrate a different reality other than her own, which she acknowledges is stifling and limited. I’m thinking of the various moments when Julie discusses her desire to make a film about shipyard laborers in Sunderland.  
HOGG: That [project] was actually something I wanted to do at that stage in my life. But like Julie who doesn’t actually finish that project, I don’t think I was ready to look outside myself in that way. Or ready to make that project in that point in time. I didn’t have enough experience—life experience or experience making films.
NOTEBOOK: In past interviews, you’ve objected to critics saying your work is about class [Hogg laughs]. But The Souvenir, which is one of your more personal, reflexive works—I think—and I see the commentary on privilege as more explicit, more felt, because it has to do with the circumstances of your life, your opportunities.
HOGG: I wouldn’t say that I’m even addressing [class]. It’s a fact of that time. Of being who I was and mixing with the people I was mixing with. It’s the unavoidable fact of “how [did I] grow up?” What forms you as a person. One’s environment and habits are a part of that. I suppose I’m interested in [class], but I’m more interested in how that affects behavior. So I’m not interested in class per se. I don’t meet someone and go, “oh I’m interested in getting to know what class you belong to,” but I am interested in how that affects your place in the world and how people behave with each other. I suppose I’m looking at it from a certain stance, from the side, with one eye open for it.
On many levels it’s not interesting to me. In the U.K. there is an obsession with it to the point where it’s not even relevant. Because the stratifications are changed and changing so much, so the traditional class systems of the U.K. are outdated. If there’s any class system there’s a new one. It’s different talking about it here [in the U.S.] than in the U.K. I do notice stratas of people here. And in some ways you’re more class conscious here than we are. [This] ties into the sorts of behavior I’m interested in. If I’m in a restaurant here, especially in L.A., I’m sitting down and I’m putting in an order for something to eat, so I ask the person who brought me the menus and the water for what I want. And usually they say, “no I can’t take your order. You’ve got to ask someone else.” There are some people who are helping at a restaurant who can’t your order. That restaurant dynamic [is unique]. 
NOTEBOOK: Historically you’ve not been one to use much music in your films. Exhibition has no score. That’s not the case in The Souvenir
HOGG: [In my past films] normally [that absence of music] is me giving myself license to change my mind because I do enjoy music. In The Souvenir I use it particularly as a way of conjuring up that time period. It was very important to bring music into [the film]. Because music was very present in life for me at that time. It was like a musical madeleine [moment] for me, that brought back some memories. I didn’t want to be a slave to that early ‘80s period, particularly with the set design, but the soundtrack I found was a good way to create a certain impression.  
[There was] one thing I missed in the sound mixing stage of making The Souvenir—the space to create a soundscape without music. In Exhibition we created music out of the sounds of the environment, the sounds of the house. There wasn’t a similar space in The Souvenir. But also the editing would’ve been different. I wanted a faster rhythm in The Souvenir. Maybe in part two there will be more opportunity for that.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of rhythm and space, you have a very particular style of shooting and framing a shot. The way you return to intimate spaces feels ritualistic. Spaces and ways of seeing seem to take on the psychologies of their inhabitants. 
HOGG: [In The Souvenir] we did have the gift of the wall of mirrors which I had in my original flat. A whole wall full of fragmented, framed mirrors. So that presented [a certain way] of seeing. The space does dictate that to an extent. When I find certain angles in a room I like I do return to those. I’m aware of that when I’m shooting. The real challenge in The Souvenir was Julie’s flat—we built the set, and we built it as if it were a real location. So we couldn’t remove a wall if we needed to. It also wasn’t a big space to shoot in. I was restricted. Only certain angles really worked.
NOTEBOOK: I had a conversation with a friend and we talked about your films as approaching reality as a mystery to be solved, as a gradual uncovering of a person’s nature. I think this is particularly true in The Souvenir, though I find your films always grapple with the question of how truth and reality are interrelated, or not.
HOGG: As I hear your interpretation, I think it does directly feed into the second part that we’re about to shoot. And I think we’re taking those ideas possibly a step further. I don’t think I would’ve worded it that way, but it’s also very hard for me to see outside of my own words. But [The Souvenir] is about more of a search for truth through a number of different [experiences].
It’s interesting because I’m needing to do two things at once. I need to talk about part one but I’m also in the middle of working on part two. The second part is about Julie being a filmmaker and her personal search for truth, which is an aspect [that is personal] for me. So there’s a lot of reverberations and connections around. And I’m trying to complete a picture, instead of thinking, “well, what I’m doing now has nothing to do with what I’m about to do.” So in a sense I’m being stretched apart, but it’s also allowing me to reconcile the two pictures and think of them together as one.

My First Cinematheque

dick-powell-ruby-keeler-42nd-street-1-e1-d25.jpg

Has anyone written anything serious about watching old movies on network television? The recent passing of actress Peggy Lipton included mentions of her love of older films, with The Razor's Edge (1946) and Tales of Manhattan (1942) cited. I'm five years younger than Lipton. And thinking about Lipton, myself, and others around my age, the aging baby boomers, I'm thinking that those of us who have also been identified as part of the "movie generation" were so thanks to network television.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, before tapering away around the mid 1970s, old movies were on network television all the time. Most major cities had the three national networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, and one or maybe even two local networks. The studios sold their movies in syndication packages and it was easy to fill time, especially later at night. Television at that time often mean prime time viewing, followed by a half hour newscast, which in turn was followed by one or two movies - more on weekend nights. It didn't matter that the films were interrupted by commercials, were sometimes edited for length, or that we were watching a color film in black and white and/or a wide screen film reformatted for the square screen. This may not have been the way the filmmakers intended their films to be seen, but this was the way many cinephiles around my age discovered cinema.

Well before people were bandying terms like "buzz worthy", there was the word of mouth of several five and six year olds excitedly talking about something called King Kong that was to be on TV. This was around 1957, when my parents surrendered and our family had our first television set. I had no idea what King Kong was, but I knew I had to see it. And see King Kong I did, missing part of the beginning but entranced by what was on the screen. My concept of time was such that it didn't register with me that I was watching something produced over twenty years ago. At the end of the film, I asked my mother how they trained that giant gorilla to climb that tall building. I was introduced to the concept of "special effects".

Unlike some families, mine never went together to see a movie theatrically. It was through television that my father introduced me to a couple of favorite films, High Noon and A Night at the Opera.

In my early teen years, living in a suburb of Chicago, I took advantage of my parents being away by watching TV all night one Saturday night. I saw my first Busby Berkeley musical at around three in the morning. Studying the television schedule, I realized that this particular channel was showing movies made in the 1930s, all from Warner Brothers, on weekend nights at around the same hour. I almost always woke up in time to sneak downstairs to watch James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler, with the volume as low as possible to not disturb anyone else, but just high enough that I could hear all the dialogue while sitting closely to the TV set. To this day I will never know if I was a successful sneak, or if my parents were aware of this particular nocturnal habit and shrugged it off as a silly phase.

What was nice about watching older films was that they were available to anyone with a working television. There was no consignment to a cable channel ghetto, no additional costs, no claims of exclusivity. While my taste in films changed and became somewhat more sophisticated, and the choice of films available was up to the whims of unseen programmers, television did introduce me to a fairly wide variety of filmmakers from classic Hollywood so I wasn't totally unprepared when I decided to seriously study film. I will even admit there was I time when I thought Ruby Keeler was quite cute.

May 13 2019

Cannes Correspondences #1: Festival Preview

The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor  Daniel Kasman .
Dear Leo,
It is great to be here in Cannes with you, especially as this is your first time on the Boulevard de la Croisette and your fresh impressions will surely counter-balance my eager but perhaps more wary and weary view of this yearly event that is at once so glamorous and so ridiculous. The setting could not exemplify this better: That we travel to a French Riviera tourist spot, with its long bay beach dotted with luxury hotels, in the temperate month of May to then burrow ourselves into dark cinemas is an easy illustration of the extraordinary balance here in Cannes uneasily found between the presentation of art, the needs—frequently secretive—of the industry, and the champagne floater of all that comes attached to the premier film festival in the world: parties, promotions, red carpets, a huge media presence, the famous and the hangers-on, rented Lambos and moored yachts. If you comes to Cannes doubting the health of cinema, it is easy to see the artistic hype, the money spent, and the wheeling and dealing and come out assured that the seventh art still means or represents a hell of a lot to people. Or you may exit this festival bewildered and wondering if its yearly triumphs and absurdities create a bubble of denial for all of us so desiring that the beauty and popularity of the movies continues with forthright spirit and robust health into the 21st century.
Much about the lineup of the Cannes Film Festival suggests it could continue so, with a competition featuring Terrence Malick’s long-awaited WW2 drama The Hidden Life, the first feature of French-Senegalese actress and filmmaker Mati Diop (best known as the lead in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum), and Palestinian tragicomic director Elia Suleiman’s first film in ten years. The competition is in fact stacked with previous Palme d’Or winners, including Malick, the Dardenne brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Abdellatif Kechiche, and Ken Loach, among old guard favorites whom the top prize has eluded like Almodóvar and Marco Bellocchio. Youth and women are as usual a minority for the festival’s main event, but those that are there, like Diop, the Austrian Jessica Hausner, and Céline Sciamma, are worth being excited about.
If that sounds like a lot of names and not a lot of stories, well, this is a director’s festival above all, the one where auteurs are launched and then frequently feted again, film after film. The Un Certain Regard section, by contrast, is always peppered with a lot more question marks, making it rife with promise but also riddled by inconsistency. This year it features Beanpole, the young Russian director Kantemir Balagov’s follow-up to his revelatory 2017 debut, Closeness, and films by two big names in art-house provocation, Albert Serra and Bruno Dumont. The difference between the premium spot in competition and the second-tier Un Certain Regard inevitably introduces a kind of insider commentary: Does the placement of Serra and Dumont’s films imply that they are either too arty or too flawed for the competition? And then there are the so-called Special Screenings, which often seem either like favors the festival is granting to industry friends, or a kind of frustrated shrug of a premiere placement for oddball whats-its: this year it’s where you'll to find new films by Abel Ferrara and Werner Herzog. What does this judgment mean? I wish a boldly risky publication would cover the Cannes Film Festival and only write on non-competition films and try to define the curation, sensibility, and impact of the selection. This might help isolate our understanding of what the festival aims to do beyond choosing the best or biggest auteur films of the moment to showcase in the competition.
Other than the micro-political jockeying of where films are premiering here—details which may seem inconsequential to outsiders but can often dramatically determine a film’s reception and, therefore, its commercial possibilities—there’s also a tendency among festival attendees to see the selections as symbolic gestures, such indeed is the power and prestige of the Cannes Film Festival. Olivier Laxe’s third film is finally in the official selection after being discovered by the Directors' Fortnight and then encouraged by Critics' Week, the two independent sidebars in Cannes that supported his first features. Similarly, Jessica Hausner, whose Amour Fou was an Un Certain Regard stand-out several years ago, has been “promoted” to the competition with her first English-language film, Little Joe, as has the dryly comic Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumboiu, whose movies are usually too low-key to reach the Grand Théâtre Lumière’s red carpet. The festival’s closing night film, meaninglessly renamed “Last Screening,” looks like a horrid bit of commercial French filmmaking, and might be seen as an example of the world’s most powerful film festival bowing to the national film industry from which it is inseparable. (This closeness to its host nation is partially what spawned the controversy last year regarding premiering films from streaming companies that had no plans to release their movies in French cinemas. The festival’s policy hasn’t changed, nor has that of the streaming company in question. We’ve all moved on.) A lone genre film, the South Korean The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, has been given a Midnight spot, suggesting it is too populist for the competition elite, a frequently condescending assessment if not for a specific film then definitely for a specific kind of audience. For those hungering for the thrills of bold storytelling, your best bet in competition will probably be Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, both of which look inflected by genre smarts and instincts for entertainment (please, no one call such a thing “elevated genre”). Over in the Directors’ Fortnight, they are giving the Carrosse d'Or award—essentially a lifetime achievement prize—to John Carpenter and screening his horrifying masterpiece The Thing (1982). If only such a filmmaker or such a film of today could premiere in Cannes!
Recent repeated attacks about gender imbalance in the selection and tried-and-true criticism of continually presenting new work of favorite filmmakers whose stature ensues no need for the Cannes spotlight hasn’t exactly been boldly rectified by the festival this year, which defensively released application and selection statistics before the opening night in a gesture of justification. The relatively surprise-free competition besides for the inclusion of Diop’s Atlantics—last-minute additions of Tarantino and Kechiche’s films make the festival more robust, not to mention much longer, but hardly escape the establishment—suggest that the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week may provide the most surprises. Critics’ Week, which focuses on debut and second features, has Hlynur Pálmason's follow-up to Winter’s Brother, as well as Vivarium, an intriguing tease of fantasy. The Fortnight, with a new festival director this year, has a lot to gain, having ceded its style of edgy art-house in recent years to intellectual-hip favorites like the Locarno Festival and the Forum section of the Berlinale. There’s some promising freshness in the Fortnight this year: Peruvian debut Song without a Name, Afghani director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s second film, and Robert Eggers’s follow-up to The Witch, set in a lighthouse (yes!), and starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson (yes, please!). While always struggling to premiere films in the shadow of the Cannes Film Festival—this edition of the Fortnight features much-anticipated new films by previous Cannes-selectees Takashi Miike, Bertrand Bonello, and Lav Diaz—film culture and culture in general is now hungering more and more for newer, younger, more diverse films and programming, and these two sidebars have far greater leeway than the main competition to scout for the zeitgeist.
That, after all, is what we’ve come here to see, Leo, is it not? The pinnacle of today’s moviemaking. True, this is not the place to be for the nascent revelation of the cinema's cutting edge—the Cannes Film Festival is too much of a lumbering beast of an event, its programming slots too few, and its industry ties very deep and its taste very refined, for better and for worse. Within this context, to expect big changes as viewing habits shift and the culture evolves may be expecting too much. But certainly this is where you will see some of today’s best making their best. The Cannes Film Festival is still the world’s most important platform for defining a substantial amount of the year’s mature and important art cinema. There may be a lot of qualifiers in that last sentence, but that’s the reality to which one has to admit: when it comes to the movies, Cannes may not stand for everything, but it represents a great deal. Let’s have fun recognizing what the festival celebrates, but let’s also remember that much will also be missing. There's always more to discover.
Warmly,
Danny

May 12 2019

We're fixing the links...

Hi all,

In a reminder that content is vulnerable on the internet, a number of Daney translations are currently not available. We're working to fix this, bear with us.

Thirty-three texts were hosted on Steve Erickson's website (http://home.earthlink.net/~steevee) but the web hosting company has decided to introduce charges and seems to have found no better way to introduce them than taking the content offline (nice!).

Steve is in the process of moving the content to his new site (https://steeveecom.wordpress.com/). I'll update the links once done.

If you're desperate for content, get in touch via the comments and I'll arrange to send you a copy.

LK.

May 11 2019

Metaluna 4 antwortet nicht (1955)

Jack Meacham ist schon ein Teufelskerl – man sieht es schon an Rex Reasons markantem Kinn. Der Mann ist promovierter Wissenschaftler und steht womöglich kurz davor, aus Blei Uran herstellen zu können, fliegt locker und allein in einem Kampfjet durch die Gegend und legt im Labor natürlich selbst Hand an. Es waren die aufregenden 1950er ... weiterlesenMetaluna 4 antwortet nicht (1955)

May 10 2019

Some highlights of Venice appear at last

Sunset (2018).

Kristin here:

Going to the Venice International Film Festival in 2017 and 2018 has been a joy. Still, there’s a downside for our readers. We write about the films that premiere there in early September, but the films themselves appear months–sometimes many months–after the festival ends.

Of course, two titles, Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scrugges, appeared fairly soon on Netflix, which commissioned them, and First Man had an October opening. After a delay, one of David’s recommended films, Dragged Across Concrete, had a quick, spotty theatrical release and is now available on several streaming platforms, as well as DVD and Blu-ray.

Two others of our Venice favorites are in narrow theatrical release only now, and we think you should seek them out.

 

The other Manson film to see this year

One film is Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, about the lead-up to and aftermath of the Manson killings. David wrote about it in a report on crime-related films at the festival. We both liked it very much, as a very original approach to the subject. Now Manohla Dargis has published an enthusiastic review, calling the film “powerful and deeply affecting.” Critics have split in their opinions, but we’re with Manohla on this one.

In all the complaints last year over Venice only having one female-directed film in competition, the many women whose films premiered in other threads were largely overlooked. I saw several of them, and I was very glad I put Harron’s film on my viewing schedule.

 

Seeking out Sunset

My favorite film from the festival was Lázló Nemes’s Sunset. Yes, I loved First Man, Roma, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but Sunset was an instant classic, a film I wanted to see again while I was only a third of the way through the initial viewing.

Usually at festivals we have to include groups of films in each blog entry, even though they deserve more attention. In Sunset‘s case, I waited until I could see a screener and read the interviews with the filmmakers in the special Hungarian journal issue devoted to the film. I devoted a single analytical post to it (which links to an online version of that journal issue).

Without serious spoilers, since it’s a film of mystery and suspense, I tried to convey its unconventional approach to extremely restricted point of view and its brilliant camerawork and design. Many reviewers, however, have dismissed it as baffling or incomprehensible. I obviously disagree. It’s a challenging film, there’s no question about that. But aren’t there great artworks that are challenging in various ways? Works that mystified their original audiences? In order to appreciate them, don’t we expect that we’ll need to experience them more than once or twice? Of course, most reviewers don’t have that option before publishing their responses, but all the more reason to be cautious about condemning something because it’s thoroughly unconventional.

We looked forward to another chance to see Sunset on the big screen, and now it is in release. Its only local venue was at the AMC Classic Desert Star 15 just north of Baraboo, on the edge of the Wisconsin Dells. About 40 minutes of driving brought us to an impressive multiplex from 1999 with a desert theme. The Desert Star name comes from the fact that the theater is located in a much larger Kalihari entertainment complex, with indoor miniature golf, an amusement park with Ferris wheel, and other attractions. An odd venue, but a pleasant one.

For me, on third viewing, the film held up entirely, and I think I figured out a few of the things that had been unclear to me before. I’m sure another viewing will be illuminating as well, though there are clearly ambiguities that can never be resolved, intendedly so. David, seeing it for the second time, was even more impressed than at Venice.

Sunset is not coming out in the UK until May 31. Nemes himself is currently touring theaters showing the film on 35mm (schedule here). It was shot in 35mm and looked great on the huge screen of the Lido’s Sala Grande. Artificial Eye has announced that a Blu-ray will be released in the UK later this year.


Thanks as ever to Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics for his help with this and our earlier entry.

AMC Classic Desert Star 15, Baraboo Wisconsin.

Abel Ferrara: Welcome to New York

1976: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver premieres to widespread acclaim, winning the year’s Palme d’Or and solidifying its director’s reputation as one of the foremost representatives of New Hollywood. Amidst rampant corruption in New York City, with crime rates skyrocketing and the city’s debt mounting to unsustainable levels, the movies of the moment seemed to actively reflect the realities at hand. As the conservative myths peddled in the immediate post-war years had come to a crushing end, first tarnished by Vietnam and then fully dispelled by Watergate, traditional Hollywood entertainment needed to keep up with the times—and if the epoch’s defining discontent was to be harnessed by an industry made increasingly precarious by the ever-growing influence of television, then new popular forms were needed. And Scorsese, along with the likes of Coppola, Friedkin, and Cimino, supplied exactly that, introducing modernism into the Hollywood studio system, elevating consumer objects to the level of art, and temporarily redefining the aspirations of popular entertainment—or so the conventional story goes.
Around the same time Scorsese was premiering his film in Cannes, a flat-broke, fresh-out-of-film-school Abel Ferrara was sneaking into the industry through its back door—in the porno and grindhouse theaters that offered an alternative to the “socially engaged” studio product of the day. Ferrara's feature debut was the hardcore porno 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976), in which the director lovingly depicts himself in the nude, engaging in orgiastic activities with his then-girlfriend and the partner of his screenwriter Nicholas St. John. (Years later, in the 2010 documentary Mulberry Street, Ferrara would explain the...let’s say unfortunate circumstances that led to this curious artifact: “It’s bad enough paying a guy 300 dollars to fuck your girlfriend and then the guy couldn’t even get it up...I lose the short straw and now I’m screwing in the movie.”) 9 Lives, with the salacious pun of its title, is the kind of movie that Travis Bickle unwittingly drags Betsy to in Taxi Driver, and this distinction—between a filmmaker who makes the trash and the one who critiques it—is the supposed difference behind New Hollywood and its bastard, X-rated brethren: one of these kinds of movies is of its world, assumedly so entrenched as to see nothing outside of itself; while the other is above it, allowing for the critical distance presumed prerequisite for legitimate forms of art-making.
It’s no surprise, then, that ever since 9 Lives Ferrara has worked mostly on the outskirts of the American film industry, funding most of his films through independent financiers, or in more recent years, with the help of public arts agencies in France, Italy, and Belgium. Despite their avid cinephile following in the U.S. and abroad, Ferrara’s films continue to be widely ignored, often failing to generate critical attention or secure theatrical releases in their native country—unfortunately the fate of most movies too putrid for the gatekeepers of so-called good taste and too elegant for those who fetishize negligence. Now working with hitherto unseen efficiency, the fruits of an extended period of sobriety, perhaps, Ferrara released two fast-and-loose documentaries in 2017, Alive in France and Piazza Vittorio, and is set to premiere three features this year alone. (The Projectionist, a documentary about the owner-operator of a cinema in New York, played Tribeca a week ago and Tomasso, a narrative film starring Willem Dafoe, will be unveiled at Cannes in a few days’ time.) During this season of burgeoning productivity for the 67-year-old, the Museum of Modern Art is now exhibiting Abel Ferrara Unrated, a retrospective that runs until the end of the month, encompassing nearly 50 years of his career and including close to 40 works, which run the gamut from fiction to documentary, made-for-TV features to major studio productions. From the porn theater to the MoMA—this is the trajectory of Ferrara’s career, and it is, aptly, one rife with contradiction.
In the years since their original release, many of Ferrara’s pre-2000s works have been embraced by a certain crowd of critics and scholars. In 1996, film theorist and Godard collaborator Nicole Brenez started an annual seminar on the director’s work at the University of Paris, culminating in the publication of her book on Ferrara, which was later translated in 2007 by Adrian Martin for the University of Illinois' Contemporary Directors Series. (For our purposes, the first sentence will suffice: “Abel Ferrara is to cinema what Joe Strummer is to music: a poet who justifies the existence of popular forms.”) On June 30, 2000, John Ford biographer Tag Gallagher posted his seminal essay Geometry of Force, the most enlightening of all Ferraran treatises, which compares the director’s formal techniques to that of unimpeachable figures such as John Ford, Douglas Sirk, Sergei Eisenstein, and F.W. Murnau. As disparate as their paths of inquiry often are, Gallagher and Brenez each argue for the aesthetic worth of Ferrara’s cinema based on appeals to an exterior source. In demonstrating a formal or thematic continuity between, say, The Addiction (1995) and the phenomenology of Hegel (Brenez), or King of New York (1990) and the mysticism of Simone Weil (Gallagher), these authors—by their very tone and manner—remove these films from their seedy context, placing them instead in the tradition of a canon presumably in no need of justification. A handy trick to reclaim basically any director, this argument by analogy can often obscure the values of a particular object of study. In Ferrara’s case, even when this approach elucidates important aspects of the work (as is the case with Gallagher, less so with Brenez), it also runs the risk of betraying the unmistakably troubling and productively incoherent parts of the director’s best films. No sprinkling of Georges Bataille or lathering of the Iliad could ever disguise the fact that these are sordid, ramshackle, derelict affairs—cheapo genre flicks, living on the edge of precarity, that have been willed into existence by sheer force of id.
It takes some mental gymnastics to find a coherent political position in the director's first non-pornographic film, The Driller Killer (1979). Here a much younger, far less sober Ferrara plays the role of an artistically impotent painter who proceeds, with neither motivation nor recourse, to slaughter a not insignificant number of the residents of New York City’s mean streets. In this pulpy tale about a bohemian on the brink of madness, one sees shades of Antonioni’s counter-cultural portrait Blow-Up (1966), another film that conflates artistic creation with intractable murder. But where Antonioni positions his photographer—and by extension the world from which it emerged—at a remove from the killing, Ferrara permits no such division: his protagonist, living in the slums of late 1970s Union Square, is fully submerged in the decrepit environment, and, being driven psychotic by it, transfers his creative drive into a murderous one. Blood and paint are made indistinguishable.
Whereas The Driller Killer reacts to economic anxiety endemic to New York City circa the late 1970s (and here we can think of the main character as the flip side to Scorsese’s taxi driver), the film Ferrara released just two years later, Ms. 45 (1981)—whose power to piss people off remains constant three decades on—engages with a different set of complicated signifiers. Here our anti-hero is a woman, a mute seamstress named Thana (a 17-year-old Zoë Lund, who would later co-write Bad Lieutenant), and the stultifying milieu is New York’s Fashion District. After being raped twice in the film’s first ten minutes, once while walking away from work, then again upon arriving at home, the reserved twenty-something soon transforms into an insatiable angel of death. Her targets? Any and all men—from a chump who leers at her on the street, to a would-be pick-up artist at the bar, and eventually, to her casually misogynist boss, whom she gleefully mows down at the company’s Halloween party. Her hostility is not unleashed in any direction in particular—towards, say, a guilty party—but to her surroundings as a whole, as though her rebellion had to be understood in the broadest terms imaginable.
It’s here crucial to note that where the director’s New Hollywood contemporaries tend to keep their hands clean by clearly demarcating at which point their protagonists' mentality deviates from their own, Ferrara fully participates in his characters' excesses. How, then, if his films dive headlong into nihilism and pornography, can they also be artistically valuable? Is it not so that nihilism, which is incapable of seeing good, and pornography, which reduces everything to its coarsest elements, are incompatible with our criteria for determining value? Assuming Ferrara’s films are just highly potent distillations of a subjectivity seeking its own satisfaction, are we justified to call these works art, or should we refer to them by another name, perhaps one more appropriate to the topography of their disposition, which is nothing if not base?
Ferrara reached his creative peak in the early-to-mid 1990s, with the release of the noirish gangster film King of New York (1990), the eschatological character study Bad Lieutenant (1992), his first and last studio-backed productions Body Snatchers (1993) and Dangerous Game (1993), and a brief detour into the scuzzy exploitation filmmaking of his youth with The Addiction (1995). Even as they move between production models and genre templates, Ferrara's films of this period are uniform in their concerns. As New York’s fiscal crisis had come to a close and crime rates diminished at a steady rate, Ferrara continued to associate himself with the knaves, crooks, and blood-suckers of the increasingly pristine, gentrified city. Frank White, a kingpin released from jail after a decade in the slammer; LT, a New York City detective chasing after his own gratification; and Kathleen Concklin, a philosophy student cum vampire whose killing spree is second only to Thana’s—all of these characters reminded viewers, at a time when the city’s corruption had gone fully above board, that crime is by origin natural, the workings of fate, and that good, on the other hand, is an impossibility of the will.
The reading of Brenez and others that injecting and snorting, beating and killing, are here some kind of revolutionary act—a subversion of power, returning docile bodies to their naturally recalcitrant state—only serves to distort these films’ provocative indeterminacy. In a contemporary cultural landscape where filmmakers go to great lengths to ensure viewers that depiction does not in fact equal endorsement; where the masses are apparently incapable of discerning their own right from their own wrong; and where the movie house has become a site of moral correction akin to the church, schoolhouse, or prison—here, Ferrara’s films challenge reductive, all-too-prevalent forms of engagement. These movies have no escape hatches.
Just as his protagonists’ lives cannot be made meaningful through political-revolutionary means, so their suffering yield none of the spiritual release that allows the likes of Scorsese, Dreyer, and Bresson—all of whom approach the existential crises of the 20th century from uniquely Judeo-Christian points of view—to conclude, after wallowing in misery for hours on end, that despite the depravity of human nature, there remains a reality in which beauty and purpose and love are attainable. By delighting in their own sinfulness, Ferrara’s everymen evince a religious commitment to suffering for its own sake. Their toils elicit no positive effects. The revolutions of social theorists mean nothing, and religion is equally unintelligible. For them, then, the unexamined life is the only true option.
As propulsive, infectious, and watchable as Ferrara films can be, they often pose a problem for those who wish to raise these films' stature by appealing to a higher purpose. Absent are the devices that would enable critics to ensure their readers that, though they may bear witness to an unending carnival of hedonism, they can rest assured that this parade of bad behavior reveals something profound about a fallen world corrupted by patriarchy and capitalism. Here the subject and the act of filmmaking are one and the same thing: the assertion of a self into a void of indifference. Thus, when the films so fully commit to demonstrating the impossibility of goodness, how can Ferrarans elevate them by appealing to categories of beauty and morality which the works themselves reject? Is this not evidence of an anxiety that propels us, in the process of legitimizing the willfully illegitimate, to smooth what is obviously jagged and make sensible what is intended to be profane? Would it have been more appropriate for these films to remain in the Salon des refusés whence they came?
Perhaps Ferrara's later works provide some sort of answer to these questions—however elusive or uneasy or irresolute. In Welcome to New York (2014), the director stages his own personal reckoning with the avatar he created back in 1976. A beastly Gérard Depardieu plays Monsieur Deveraux, an alias that couldn't be attributed to anyone other than Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF who was arrested in New York for the sexual assault and attempted rape of a black hotel maid. What differentiates this heathen from, say, Harvey Keitel's bad lieutenant, is his total lack of self-awareness—his complete inability, in the face of the mildest of indignities, to accept his own depravity and the consequences of it. The man fusses, whines, and appeals for better treatment based on his status. And when confronted with the facts of his crime, he absolves himself of all guilt ("I am an addict"). This could very well be interpreted negatively, as an indictment of a geo-political system in which crime has been made lawful, but it also, however faintly, demonstrates Ferrara's retroactive understanding of the merits of suffering: you can only begin to look for a cure if you first know that you're ill.
In his older years, as filmmaking has become more of a habit and less of a personal exorcism, the possibility of goodness has gently crept in. Even when depicting the final day in the life of an artist who was senselessly killed (Pasolini) or when confronting the literal end of the world (4:44 Last Day on Earth), Ferrara finds through these thinly disguised movies, whose budgets in no way allow for the fulfillment of their uncompromising vision, an acceptance for the world in all of its purposelessness. The act of filmmaking, previously an assertion of the alienated self, now becomes an opportunity for the creation of community. Just as his previous works collapsed the distance between the director and his onscreen surrogates, here the film crew (a recurring cast of collaborators) becomes the indirect subject of the movies themselves. Not only are these late works about externalizing love but they are bonafide acts of it. In the end, all is grace.
"Abel Ferrara Unrated" runs May 11–31, 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Subversive Stances in Zia Anger’s Music Videos

Zia Anger works in moving images. After two 2015 short films, many music videos, and one abandoned, unreleased feature debut—the fallout from which now is reworked and performed as My First Film (2018)—Anger has made evident a rare and real iconoclasm throughout her varied work. She demonstrates an exceptional commitment to radical transparency and a willingness to share, directly and indirectly and at each point in her career, her experience as an artist within the independent film industry.The first of her 2015 films, I Remember Nothing, uses a rotation of five actors to take its viewer through the five stages of epileptic attack, and a series of flashing stimuli to simulate seizure. My Last Film is perhaps more disturbing, a surprising diptych that signals a growing disquiet that has, in the years since, become increasingly reflected in Anger’s work. Unpredictable, and unmistakably absurd, the film is neither tongue-in-cheek nor lighthearted, but gruesome and genuinely rebellious. My Last Film is palpably risky, what one might call “pastiche” or “parody” were it produced for comic effect and not, as it is here, as an indictment closely and uncomfortably aimed at its creator’s contemporaries and peers, at their rote and regurgitated styles, at the unfortunate triumph of the traditional and the obvious over the original. In both of its parts, Anger’s film is not content to do its own thing, but rather to use the language of the film industry’s favoured narratives (so pervasive and dominant as to be dogmatic) to make its own subversive stance clear: to condemn those conforming to convention and lambaste an industry that hates women. In doing both, it draws an absolute, clear connection from one to the other.
Though Anger’s self-financed short films have drawn acclaim and success (the former presented at New Directors/New Films and Locarno, the latter launched at the New York Film Festival) and have had an additional advantageous boost in being distributed online¹—through platforms such as Short of the Week and Le Cinéma Club—it remains true that is still more probable that one has encountered an example of Anger’s artistry in a music video.
In the time between My Last Film’s macabre final shot and the larger “decade of lost work” that has been reconstructed as My First Film, Anger has achieved what we might traditionally call success with a remarkable stretch of music videos, and though clicks and views are not any measure of their merit, this popular and more widely-distributed, widely-seen form is a craft that can at least be considered as worthy and deserving of attention as that which is feted by festivals.
First to discuss are certain issues of intention and authorship unique to this form, the music video being both a commercial enterprise as well as work of moving image, not a product in and of itself but promotional material that is produced to sell a product. Here and elsewhere, Anger has in fact been upfront about this economic reality, writing with a refreshing consciousness, skepticism, and self-awareness on complicity within the system, on art and commerce, financing and distribution, success, failure, and privilege.
To agonize over the musician’s or director’s authorship is probably unproductive, there being no real necessity to decide whether a music video—a medium even more collaborative than cinema—belongs to one or the other and not simply both. Though the style of Anger’s videos appropriately differs from text to text and collaborator to collaborator, there is still a selective, and uncompromising consistency, both in the musicians she works with—who write, perform, and produce their own music and are signed to independent record labels—and in her go-to crew of below-the-line technicians. The contributions made by cinematographers Ashley Connor and Mia Cioffi Henry are indeed crucial, but the direction and coordination of all elements remains Anger's, whose visuals, from music video to music video, never seem at all anonymous Moreover, in this popular form Anger seems to follow a similar pursuit as in her filmmaking, an oppositional attempt to challenge traditional narratives.
Following what might be Anger’s first professional music video—a kaleidoscopic high-contrast black-and-white portrait for Angel Olsen’s 2013 “Tiniest Seed”—she and Olsen collaborated twice more on the back-to-back “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-Five”: the latter especially managing to hint at a set of key motifs that will then recur throughout Anger’s later work.
In “Tiniest Seed,” a number of superimposed Olsens are obscured in the shadows of Anger’s atmospheric optical flicker, whereas the protagonist of “Hi-Five,” a more upbeat but bleak love song about loneliness, is even more completely alone.
An initial scene that slowly illuminates outwardly, Olsen is akin to a television talk show host without a guest, placed in a sea of old-timey open-faced light fixtures and dusty props and paraphernalia, sitting opposite an empty chair. Olsen’s expression relatively blank, Anger’s fascination gives focus instead to the musician’s hands. Reaching out, one hand only finds the other before together they launch into a strange sign language, into unexpected abstract and stylized movements, or into mannerisms with a mind of their own. As an interpretive dance, with some gestures maybe understandable but others certainly inscrutable, these emotional movements seem to be a symptom of the artist’s alienation—or of actual alien hand syndrome—one way or another requiring a whole other learned literacy to begin to decipher.The bizarre event begins at the fingertips but continues even when confined to the protagonist’s pockets, Olsen continues this ventriloquizing retro dance routine to the surrounding cameras, her hands moving in circles before she spins in a swivel chair beneath a disco-ball. Deadpan and sarcastic, “Hi-Five” is perhaps the closest Anger ever gets to pure pastiche, the pun in Olsen’s title and a lyric reappropriation of Hank Williams Sr.’s 1949 “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” just two initial irreverent references adapted and added to in Anger’s visualization. Even the kitschy montage dissolves prove somehow funny as the video moves towards a perfectly encapsulating final shot, Olsen lying prostrate and near-dead, defeated by multi-colored confetti. Throughout “Hi-Five” there is a high level of craftsmanship at work at every level and yet, in its final sting, Anger ends with a final poke of play, her camera pulling furthest outward to reveal those behind the production, all of the less glamorous and glittering work that has been in creating these visuals, the protagonist breaking character to laugh.
Made with musician Maggie Rogers, “On + Off” begins and ends in similarly. With music more buoyant, even euphoric, Anger directs a cool concurrence of choreography and cinematography—a more elaborate and abstract, and bright and barer redux of her and Rogers's previous video "Alaska." Opening on a blank background in an empty white, sparse soundstage, the video’s protagonist (Rogers) emerges onto the scene dressed as a daredevil stuntwoman—or perhaps Elvis—styled in a studded white jumpsuit. Though the setting makes some promise of action or special effects, what ensues is just the introduction of a handful of bold colors—vis-à-vis the outfits of Rogers’s three friends—and a simple but striking choreography designed by Monica Mirabile: movement director and one half of FlucT, a queer feminist collective who describe their “dystopian” work as a three-part process of “gaping,” “gushing,” and “glitching.”²
“On + Off” confidently reduces its resources to a few fundamentals, a configuration that integrates two of the most basic of movements—that of the camera and that of the performers in its orbit—together creating a deceptive and dense three-minute work more ingenious and innovative for its austerity and unity.
In lieu of any cuts, the rotation of the camera reveals what was previously off-set and is now brought on-screen, a purposeful pan that finds nearly everyone and everything—with the exception of the woman behind the camera—and a movement of its own that less an unplanned wandering and more a step in its very own choreography, a kind that activates action and animates the figures in front of it.
In addition to Anger’s 360 spin of the camera, the raising of a handmade, makeshift curtain announces all of this artifice once again, this brief behind-the-scenes costume change put front-and-center, offering once more a transparent take on what exactly goes into making a music video.
It would look like a mistake, as something accidental or unintentional, were the result not so harmonious and seemingly painless: a single uninterrupted shot that is not just a technical achievement not carried out (as it is so often) for its own self-imposed sake—as solicitation to marvel at an unnecessary feat of filmmaking endurance—but an all-encompassing and panoramic self-governing sweep that removes a perception or distinction between what is on-stage and off-. Anger’s camera remains rolling, circling the four performers left consolidated in a formation of a square and beneath blue-purple light. Though tempting to see “On + Off” as self-consciously low budget, or a defense of DIY filmmaking, the joy of the video does not derive from a return back to basics, and to witness its back-forth conversation between choreography and cinematography, the constant invention of something from nothing, is not just a novelty.
From the ground up, and with the rawest of materials, Anger’s visual language progresses differently. Its continuous cinematographic shot may be inherently suited to the form (music that goes from zero to one-hundred in less than 3 minutes) and may too have some resonance with ideas put forth by Maya Deren—not just a filmmaker but a film theorist, a lecturer, distributor, dancer, choreographer—that assert a moving image practice that develops not “horizontally,” according to logic, but “vertically”, according to feeling. Deren’s theory of this “poetic structure”³—an influence⁴ on Anger—is perhaps particularly apparent in Anger’s immersive, first-person visual for Beach House’s “Dark Spring,” or the symbolic sprint enacted in Mitski’s “Geyser”: a short, chorus-less song with a video in which its protagonist falls and crawls and begins to dig up the dirt and earth underneath her. In another single continuous shot that, with the exception of two subtle spins that circumscribe space, mostly takes place in one forward movement, “Geyser” progresses to a pace that perfectly echoes that of the music, and a chase that captures the eruption of emotion of its protagonist.
With a sentiment akin to Olsen’s “Hi-Five” and a scenario similar to Rogers’s “On + Off,” Anger’s premise for Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” sees the musician nowhere exactly, a place nondescript, blank and backstage, preparing for something—something else, and certainly not what is about to happen—as her handler applies hairspray. What this does develop into is not unfamiliar: a seemingly romantic exchange with a boy, whose smiles, waves and winks are soon revealed as moderately heartbreaking miscommunication. The boy-girl meet-cute is revealed as fantasy, the protagonist’s love interest no more than a co-star or an on-screen conceit, yet Anger’s video then forgoes the idea that this overture must terminate at one of only two possible outcomes. In this hypersexualized pas de deux, their erotic encounter is not with one another, the instead boy joined by another woman—whose only distinguishing feature seems to be culturally-appropriated clothes and a flower crown—and the protagonist left instead to salvage the situation and reciprocate with her left hand. To her credit, Mitski’s gesture of literal self-love is indeed jaw-dropping, audacious and absurd and as well something far more real and no less vulgar than the premise performed to this point.
In this music video gone-wrong, what was first suggestive eye contact in eyeline matches becomes a fourth-wall breaking view out to the audience.This kissing, an exhaustingly gratuitous, grotesque parade of other people's happiness, is met, even countered by Mitski—alone but alive and agentive—”them” draped in an American flag, the musician draped in her guitar. Across Anger’s videography, very few men exist—in Olsen’s “Forgiven/Forgotten” the male protagonist is literally almost erased, scratched out of its celluloid, and in a more recent Mitski collaboration (the black-and-white “Washing Machine Heart”) there is one male statue and one male performer who, though an actual living man, is silent and does not move, simply there for an otherwise alone Mitski to do with what she pleases. In “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski’s attempt to musically disarm “white boy indie rock”⁵ finds a fitting visualisation in Anger’s so heightened and exaggerated sequence of events, their comic effect just a byproduct of a more serious, more significant attempt to heretically hollow out meaning, placing the conventional at the level of caricature. By its conclusion, this point has been made—the performer notably not even waiting around finish her performance, playback of the music continuing as she simply walks away.
"My First Film" will be performed live May 11, 2019 at the Metrograph in New York and June 7 at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

1. Anger’s short film work remain available to stream for free on the artist’s Vimeo page . If you arrive there for a cathartic experience please consider a donation to the ACLU: aclu.org/
2. “Gaping is when you feel empty inside. We all know that feeling. You wake up in the morning, or maybe something happens to you, and you just feel unsatisfied. You’re not fulfilled, it feels like there’s nothing and it sucks… Gushing happens when you start to fill that hole. This is when capitalism comes in, because it provides us with all these tricks to fill in that hole that can’t be satisfied… With gushing, it all comes out. It’s mania, you feel crazy… Glitching is the primary movement. It’s what happens when all that information explodes, the system is losing control and your body freaks out.” Interview with Monica Mirabile, Mask Magazine, http://maskmagazine.com/the-its-over-issue/work/monica-mirabile
3. “Poetry, to my mind, is an approach to experience, in the sense that a poet is looking at the same experience that a dramatist may be looking at. It comes out differently because they are looking at it from a different point of view, and because they are concerned with different elements in it… The distinction of poetry is its construction (what I mean by "a poetic structure"), and the poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a "vertical" investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned in a sense not with what is occurring, but with what it feels like or what it means. A poem, to my mind, creates visible or auditory forms for something which is invisible, which is the feeling, or the emotion, or the metaphysical content of the movement. Now it also may include action, but its attack is what I could call the "vertical" attack, and this may be a little bit clearer if you will contrast it to what I would call the "horizontal" attack of a drama, which is concerned with the development, let's say, within a very small situation from feeling to feeling.” Maya Deren, Poetry and the Film, 1953
4. Interview with Zia Anger, Filmmaker Magazine, https://filmmakermagazine.com/people/zia-anger/
5. “I used those tropes to accentuate the point that I could use their methods and act like I was of their world, but I would never ever fit.” Mitski, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/MitskiLeaks/posts/your-best-american-girl-is-a-love-song-a-lot-of-reviews-have-agreed-on-a-narrati/1274159965942702/  

Wynonna Earp – Staffel 1 (2016)

Wynonna war lang nicht mehr zuhause. Purgatory, egal ob man es mit Vorhölle oder Fegefeuer übersetzen will, trägt schon in seinem Namen wenig Beglückendes; für die junge Frau, die sich nur für eine Beerdigung aus Griechenland zurück hat holen lassen, ist das Kaff irgendwo mitten im Nirgendwo vor allem mit schlechten Erinnerungen verbunden. Denn Wynonna ... weiterlesenWynonna Earp – Staffel 1 (2016)

Video Sundays: Jonas Mekas, Harmony Korine, and Britney Spears

"Leave [Britney Spears] alone!" Jonas Mekas exclaims, in this excerpt from his 365 Films Project in 2007. The project, all of which can be found on Mekas's website for free, records the filmmaker's daily interactions with mundane artifacts , including the tabloids surrounding Britney Spears after she'd shaved her head. Spears's plight strikes Mekas as a sign of the impossibility for an artist to be truly "normal." As Ed Halter points out, Jonas Mekas's video-blog entry (published in January) comes "months before Chris Crocker," whose video "Leave Britney Alone!" echoes Mekas in its front-facing camera and strong defense of the pop star. When returning to many of Britney Spears's music videos (in this case, the very reflexive video for "Lucky," which is also about tabloids) one also notices that she, like Mekas, remolds dimensions of personal experience to explore grander notions of the self in the world.
Three months following his analysis of Britney Spears and the disparaging press, Mekas films this encounter with a young Harmony Korine, and their friendship also appears to include the two's shared admiration of Britney Spears as an artist. (Referring to the infamous use of Spears's song "Everytime" in his film Spring Breakers, Korine praises the "beauty and airlessness" of the tune, and its simultaneous "hardcore aggression and menace.") In the years of struggle for Spears to assert her artistic autonomy, perhaps both Mekas and Korine perceive in her a boundless—and at times, even risky—imagination similar to their own.

May 09 2019

Rushes: Doris Day, Cannes Trailers, Portrait of Joanna Hogg

NEWS
Doris Day.
  • The American actress, singer, and Animal rights activist, Doris Day has died. Anthony Lane provides a tender remembrance at The New Yorker: "There was a depth, despite everything, to her fabled simplicity, and a courage to her lack of complications; even as the world was curdling around her, she insisted on the milk of human kindness."
RECOMMENDED VIEWING
  • With the 2019 Cannes Film Festival having now begun, a slew of trailers has arrived ranging from Ira Sachs collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, Werner Herzog's mysterious Japan set film, to French comedy auteur (and DJ!) Quentin Dupieux's new... horror film?!
  • Rick Alverson's menacing, Jeff Goldblum led pic about a lobotomizing doctor gets its first stirring trailer ahead of a US release.
RECOMMENDED READING
Joanna Hogg by Eleanor Taylor for The New York Times.
  • In the event of her new, majestic film opening in US cinema's, Brit auteur Joanna Hogg receives a vast portrait of her artistic genesis in relation to the autobiographical nature of The Souvenir.
  • Tellingly following the release of Marvel Studios mammoth blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, Eric Kohn casts an eye on the increasingly positive state of arthouse cinema at the Chinese box office. An essential read.
  • "Brooks is often spoken of like some sort of maverick outsider who made it inside Hollywood’s gates — a Trojan horse armed not with sword and shield, but with a ventriloquist dummy and self-awareness. But he was born inside the gates and has remained there for his entire career." Over at Split Tooth Media, Brett Wright works through the singular comedy and career of Albert Brooks.
RECOMMENDED LISTENING
  • With three films (!) coming out this year, the aforementioned Werner Herzog sits down with Talk Easy podcast to discuss his life, career, and upcoming work.
RECENTLY ON THE NOTEBOOK
  • Josephine Decker's Madeline's Madeline is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. James Slaymaker discusses the intricate experimentations of "one of the most exhilarating young American filmmakers to have emerged in the 21st century."
  • Josh Cabrita traces the trajectory of Abel Ferrara's contradictory career as celebrated by an on-going retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
  • The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman. Kasman introduces the festival with a look at both what's exciting and at stake at this year's festival.
EXTRAS
  • At Grasshopper, Asako I & II director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi offers his eclectic 10 favorite films of the decade, ranging from Clint Eastwood to Hong Sang-soo. We interviewed Hamaguchi following the premiere of Asako at last years Cannes Film Festival.

Ein ungewöhnlicher Krimi aus Korea: DEIN SCHATTEN IST EIN MONTAG von Jung-Hyuk Kim (2019)


Nachdem sich die koreanische Literatur in den letzten zwei Jahren mit der deutschen und englischen Übersetzung von Han Kangs tollem Roman Die Vegetarierin und Min Jin Lees Pachinko (dt.: Mein einfaches Leben) erneut auf unserer literarischen Landkarte etablieren konnte, erscheint nun ein weiterer koreanischer Roman, der der Gravitas der beiden künstlerisch ambitionierten Werke eine Leichtigkeit entgegensetzt, die erfrischend ist. Dein Schatten ist ein Montag  von Kim Jung-Hyuk ist ein Kriminalroman, und zwar ein ziemlich ungewöhnlicher.

Der Ermittler Gu Dongchi ist ein ehemaliger Polizeibeamter und Einzelgänger, nun aber ist er als Privatdetektiv unterwegs. Genauer: als "Deleter". Soll heißen, er vernichtet Hinterlassenschaften seiner Klienten. Briefe, Fotos, und vor allem auch digitale Spurenreste. Da gibt es häufig so einiges, was niemals an die Öffentlichkeit gelangen soll, und Gu kümmert sich gewissenhaft darum. Als einer seiner Klienten ums Leben kommt und verschiedene Parteien auf der Jagd nach seinem verschwundenen Tablet sind, wird er mit seinem Freund und ehemaligen Kollegen Inspektor Kim immer tiefer in den Fall hineingezogen.

Manchmal fühlt man sich als Leser mitunter genauso im Dickicht des Romans verloren, wie der ermittelnde Detektiv in seinem verworrenen Kriminalfall. Wie der eigentlich genau aussieht, ist lange Zeit gar nicht so klar. Man kennt die Figuren, man weiß wie und wo sie arbeiten und was die Interessen sein könnten - ein klares Bild der Zusammenhänge aber fehlt zunächst. Man hat lediglich eine Ahnung, wie das alles zusammenhängen könnte. Vielleicht auch eine Schwachstelle des Buches, da der rote Faden, der eigentlich Spannung generieren sollte, zumindest in der ersten Hälfte so gut wie fehlt.

Allerdings: die Vermutung liegt nahe, Autor Kim Jung-Hyuk geht es gar nicht so sehr um den Fall an sich. Da er seine Geschichte permanent mit kleinen Neben-Erzählsträngen sabotiert und sich in Schleifen und Ellipsen durch den Text bewegt, da er sofort mit Cliffhangern am Kapitelende arbeitet, sobald sich einmal ein konsistenter Erzählfluss einstellt, wird relativ früh deutlich, dass Dein Schatten ist ein Montag vielmehr ein Panorama des Alltags ist. Mit all seinen kleinen Verwicklungen und Fährnissen. Ein Einblick in die so verschiedenen Leben der Bewohner dieses ständig müffelnden "Crocodile-Buildings", die den Roman bevölkern. 

Denn um sie geht es. Eine handvoll Figuren, die ihren alltäglichen Dingen nachgehen. Ihren Berufen, Beschäftigungen und Leidenschaften. Alles fernab des Großstadtzentrums, in der Peripherie einer Vorstadt, die zwar irgendwie gesichtslos ist, die von ihren Bewohnern aber geliebt wird. Da ist der Koch im Souterrain des Hauses, der ein italienisches Restaurant betreibt; dann der Eisenwarenhändler im Erdgeschoss; der Betreiber einer Kampfkunstschule im ersten Stock; eine Aushilfe des Internet-Cafés im zweiten, und schließlich der Protagonist im dritten Stock, Privatdetektiv und "Deleter" Gu Dongchi. Der hat noch eine mysteriöse Nachbarin, die angeblich Drehbücher schreibt, und vielleicht ein alter ego des Autors sein könnte. 

Bestimmendes Merkmal der Bewohner des Crocodile-Buildings ist aber, dass sie bereit sind, einen Gestank zu ertragen, den das Gebäude auszuströmen scheint. Die Quelle des Geruchs ist unbekannt, aber jeder versucht, mit ihm irgendwie zurecht zu kommen. Möglicherweise ist eine Schlamperei beim Bau des Gebäudes schuld, man weiß es nicht und kann es auch nicht orten. Es ist skurril und stimmt das Thema des Romans an: dass hier irgendwas nicht stimmt.

Und das ist eigentlich mindestens genauso spannend wie alles andere im Roman: das Mysterium des Geruchs. Und wie dieser ein ständiger Begleiter ist, wachsen einem nach und nach die Figuren ans Herz. Die allesamt kein Blatt vor den Mund nehmen: die Dialoge sind generell eher derb. Das lässt sich sehr gut lesen, Kims Schreibstil ist äußerst flüssig und unterhaltend. Aber weil er darin so gut ist und so elegant mit den Details des Alltags umgehen kann, tritt der Kriminalfall in den Hintergrund. Und deswegen ist eigentlich der Alltag der Bewohner des Gebäudes bald interessanter, als der Kriminalfall um das verschwundene Tablet eines Medienproduzenten, der sich mit dem mächtigen Patriarchen von Noble Entertainment angelegt hat: Ilsu Chon.

Auch diesen Bösewicht charakterisiert Kim auf ungewöhnliche Weise: anstatt ihn in seinem glitzernden High-Tech-Büro einzuführen, was Autorität, Geld und Grandezza verströmen würde, zeigt er ihn auf dem Tennisplatz, wo er jeden Vormittag seine Gegner zum Frühstück verspeist. Und Ermittler Gu Dongchi fällt dann direkt aus der Ferne auf, dass der Herr sich einerseits die Zeit dazu nehmen kann - er kann es sich leisten -, zum anderen, dass die Gegner Chons so eingeschüchtert sind, dass sie die Bälle allzu gefällig retournieren. Er wird von seinen Kontrahenten nicht wirklich herausgefordert, denn alles wird in die Mitte des Platzes zurückgeschlagen. Deleter Gu hat ein gutes Auge und einen wachen Geist, der sich nicht einschüchtern lässt, was ihn zu einem intellektuellen Gegner Chons macht.

Aber um was es eigentlich geht: um Kim Jung-Hyuks subtile Weise, die Figuren des Romans zu charakterisieren. Er lässt sich solche Situationen einfallen, die auf originelle und genaue Art das Personal verorten. Eine Methode, die immer auch Nähe aufbaut. Es wird nicht behauptet, sondern gezeigt. Und deshalb ist man als Leser immer sehr dicht am Geschehen und an den Figuren dran, wenn sich in der zweiten Hälfte die Ereignisse verdichten und langsam aber unaufhaltsam auf einen Höhepunkt zusteuern.

Fazit: Dein Schatten ist ein Montag ist ein enorm unterhaltsamer Kriminalroman, dessen Autor ein genaues Auge für Details beweist. Sprachlich sehr flüssig geschrieben, fliegt man als Leser quasi durch die Seiten. Dass die Struktur etwas unübersichtlich ist, stört dabei wenig: denn die Nebenerzählstränge sind mindestens genauso interessant, wie der eigentliche Kriminalfall.

Michael Schleeh

***

Der Roman ist im Februar 2019 im cass Verlag erschienen. Er hat 287 Seiten; Klappenbroschur mit Personenverzeichnis. Er ist großzügig gedruckt und das Buch hat eine ausgezeichnete Haptik. Aus dem Koreanischen übersetzt hat Paula Weber.

***


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