So I offer a favourite dish. Garlanded w/ harbinger. Like a little panther would be. Is.
There is maybe the relenting, the crystalline gaze. Maybe the relenting. Door frame.
Sudden realization of guide status. Stipulated by the proffered dish.
To point the way to the bank, from the bow, a destiny laid out like a scrim of mist.
Words might be useful. Past evidence that they can be. So: the right words then.
I would subsequently become as Gertrud w/ her hearth. But more elated. I would like to imagine.
Passion should not depend on the making fit of the parts that we would have had fit.
Youth. Shudder. I would take it and hold it up and try to sing. A dirge. A flagrant elegy.
Banjo funeral. Two banjos. His and hers. No jangling platitudes. Hoarfrost and mystic shine.
Winter is my labial deposit. Rest me in the ember, amidst dying logs, sated.
I want to show a woman to a destiny in which I have no part. I might feel good about it.
I want to watch from an Irish seaside cliff. There might be binoculars. Ha. God, what a fool.
So permafrost. All the particulars. I would offer myself up to solitude and the right kind of work.
Have had done. I should say have had done. Such pleasure in the dust and doings, alone.
September. 2016. Calgary
Thursday, August 18, 2016
But who ... who will always send you white roses
on your birthday now? The vase will be empty, the little
breath of my life that blew around you once a year will
die away as well! Beloved, listen, I beg you ... it is the first
and last thing I ask you ... do it for me every year on your
birthday, which is a day when people think of themselves -
buy some roses and put them in a vase.
- Stefan Zweig, "Letter from an Unknown Woman"
and in that knowledge he sensed a tenderness / lying there like the whole of creation.
- Rilke, "From the Life of a Saint"
David Foster Wallace once noted that when we think about killing ourselves, most of us reflexively think of shooting ourselves in the head (he, of course, hung himself, but I tend to think of this as a matter of desperation and available resources). Indeed it is the thinking that torments - especially, pace Heidegger, when it eddies, when it doubles back habitually on itself, when it refuses, pace Nietzsche, to have done with what ought be considered dealt with. Who could blame us for - at our worst, when the chips are down - considering taking out the computer? Even the gravest of physical infirmities is compounded, made all the worse, by our having to think, exasperatingly, unto death, from within it. And grieving is a matter of thinking. When we observe animals in a state of grief - the mother grieving her dead or missing cubs, for example - I cannot help but conclude that we are also observing something like evidence of something like thinking. We cannot have done with the loved one who has moved on or passed away. Perhaps it is a place or a whole entire life-within-our-own-life (a microlife - that time we lived in Boston, say, or that time we lived with Veronica, who is now married to a dentist in Vancouver) that we grieve. It is not only an inability to have done with what ought be considered dealt with, but, as is popularly understood, an inability to let go. My central concern for some time has been with domains of love and domains of desire. A question is raised: is this inability to let go a problem related to love or to desire? My answer may seem surprising. When letting go becomes a problem, it is always as a matter of desire, precisely because letting go was always at-least-partially-consciously built into love in the first place. As always, desire is perhaps central to my world even at a cosmological level. Indeed, my tendency is to take Deleuze and Guattari's concept of desire and stretch it into a teleology. I will reduce my whole world at its most essential to drives, flows, coursings, intensities, excitations. Desire. Desire desiring to go where desiring desires to go. And when we desire - when I desire - at its basis this is tantamount to a compulsion to devour, possess (even if in the context of radical instability), go after, and draw into my coursing that which it would please me to have join me. When I desire something - truly, madly, beyond reason, for the sake of having it, simply because I desire it - all at once I find space and time an obstacle. And though I do not understand space and time, not adequately comprehending advanced physics, I nonetheless know I am creaturily beholden to them. By the time I find myself desiring something or someone, both myself and the object of desire are already moving, already changing, and somewhere right away it is breaking my fucking heart. This is the core of the bittersweet in Sappho and Anne Carson. And there is always the threat that we will be driven mad by the fact that nothing can ever be possessed. Both love and desire are grappling with finitude and the insatiable. The difference is that love - adult love - knows it and is founded on it. Love is, above all, a matter of comportment in relation to desire. Love has struck me for a long time as a monumentally complicated set of concepts about which we are habitually lazy - we say "I love you" and mean all kinds of goddamn things - and for some time I thought I understood it best, paradoxically, having grown up a staunch atheist, in relation to the supplicant's love before God. And I had my ideal supplicant. It was Jeanne d'Arc. More to the point, it was Jeanne as represented in two movies, Carl Theodor Dreyer's La passion de Jeanne d'Arc and Robert Bresson's Procès de Jeanne d'Arc. Jeanne is the supplicant. She gets on her knees, having devoted herself to faith and service, and asks to be shown the way. When she sees that the way is toward an unimaginably awful death, she finds her way through anguish and terror to acceptance and surrender. Supplication and surrender also exist in romantic love. We supplicate by giving ourselves to the beloved and asking that he or she give his or herself to us as well. We surrender by acknowledging finitude; that we are already losing one another. Devotion is always a giving of ourselves that has to end. Ideally it would end cleanly in surrender and acceptance. It seldom does. Our brains and our desire upend us. We want to cradle the object of desire for an infinite moment that will never recede, and that is the root of our folly. The supplicant. Is the ultimate amorous mimesis for Jeanne on her knees in prayer not the suitor on his knees proposing marriage? But marriage. It seems like an institution more suited to the corrupting influence of phallic desire than to the reification of love (as a concept, if not necessarily as a social practice). After all, institutions exist in order to regulate anarchic forces, and in the case of marriage what is often being explicitly regulated is female sexuality. It is not only a phallic institution, but originally a feudal one, involving a trade in young people. A marriage is a thing in which a great many women could be said to have found themselves confined, and it is very much a characteristic of phallic desire that it seeks to confine. The finest work of fiction we have on the subject of a woman held in a man's captivity is Proust's The Prisoner, the section of In Search of Lost Time in which Albertine is held hostage by the narrator Marcel's paranoid jealousy. (Chantal Akerman adapted The Prisoner as La captive in 2000, and it is very much as far as I am concerned one of the very greatest films ever made, but I would be diverting my course even further if I were to go on about it (as it ought to be gone on about).) It is notable that no novelist has anatomized this state of affair more masterfully than Proust, precisely because it is Proust, along with Rilke, who has written most eloquently of love as something transitory that occurs, and occurs with an unparallelled capacity to move us, between two people who happen to be passing in separate directions. Suffice it to say that phallic desire is always trying to put the bodies that excite it in confinement. Marriage can be a metaphor or symbol for such confinement, but the cinema effortlessly offers bolder and more unforgiving ones. There is of course the cold and cruel castle of terrors Pasolini translates from de Sade into fascist Italy by way of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, where the profanation and desecration of beautiful young bodies becomes an almost-unthinkable comedy of fascism-as-impotence. An even better example, and far less frequently discussed, is Alain Robbe-Grillet's Successive Slidings of Pleasure, where Anicée Alvina plays a sexualized prisoner, potential perpetrator of a kinky lesbian sex murder, who serves as a wildly unstable object of desire for all of the men (and, you know, nuns or whatever) in the film - indeed sex object before the capital-S State itself. She cannot be contained precisely because she continues to assert her own twisted sexuality in captivity and because as long as she remains a part of the erotic equation, we are promised a world of chaos and entropy. There are scenes where she is covered in red paint and leaves sanguine prints of her own body on the white walls. We are given a reenactment of the anthropometries of Yves Klein. But red, not blue. Red like menstrual blood. Red like the blood that is not on Lady Macbeth's hands but nonetheless is (which is very different from saying 'the blood that Lady Macbeth hallucinates she has on her hands'). The investigators and the bumbling sleuths, the captors as well, embody phallic desire. The woman and the crime, the site of meaning in a world that refuses to cohere to a regime of meaning, is the feminine. This is a film about a sick and distorted phallic desire, but also about resistance to it; emancipatory sexuality, forces that destabilize. The appeal for me is purely erotico-political. This stuff, though it may titillate or radicalize or both, cannot make me cry. Love can make me cry. Love in the movies can make me cry. And the best part about love in the movies is that it can do so without threatening to destroy my desiring mind. Real life can offer me no such promise. When I try to love in my own life, my thinking can occasionally go off the fucking rails. I usually start thinking about love and desire, as I think about most important things, from a peaceful and abstracted place. I woke up one morning last week. Peaceful. I immediately found myself thinking of Hitchcock's Notorious. I think about Notorious now and then. And when I think about Notorious, I think about the kiss. If you can even call it a kiss. The embrace, kissing and talking ... the stupor. I remember a dream I had a number of years ago. It left a significant imprint upon my psyche. In the dream I met a woman. It had been a long time since I had felt safe giving myself over to a relationship in waking life, but in this dream I was in this new glorious relationship, and I was full of unimaginable elation and purpose. We were to be married. At the wedding I spoke to my beloved and her female friend about Hitchcock. I asked them what their favourite Hitchcock was. They both named a Hitchcock movie that does not actually exist in real life. I told them, the happiest moment in my life, that my favourite was Notorious, because: the kiss. Years later I awake, again thinking about the kissing. Of course, this kissing happens on a hotel balcony and in a hotel room in Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympics happened to be occurring at that very moment. I had to throw the movie on to appease myself. We first meet Alicia Huberman, a circumspect, guarded, and composed woman, played by the luminescent Ingrid Bergman, as an American judge is passing sentence upon her Nazi father. When we next see her she is drunk and getting drunker, holding court at home with a bevy of guests, letting her guard down. One of her guests is a stranger: Devlin, as rendered by Cary Grant. When Alicia meets Devlin her guard is down, she is drunk, and though she is immediately clearly attracted to this man, she was already in a kind of swoon. The protracted kiss later in the film is also a kind of yielding swoon. It was apparently shot the way it was - the kiss being interrupted for bits of dialogue, the lovers moving from the balcony into the hotel room - because the production code had rules about how long a couple could kiss uninterrupted, and Hitchcock merely found a way to sustain these insane sexual pyrotechnics for as long as possible. It remains truly one of the greatest set-pieces in all cinema. It should be noted, however, that what we are watching is of course primarily desire rather than love. Desire doesn't only desire to possess, desire can also desire to capitulate, to yield. What is remarkable about Bergman's yielding swoon, however, is that it is so heartbreaking and moving. It were as though she were breaking through something substantial, in a kind of sustained amorous inebriation, in order to finally give of herself. Perhaps, then, there is something of love in this. This giving. And then the story has her in a sense martyr herself. Devlin is a secret agent working for American intelligence and he suddenly finds himself having to persuade Alicia, for whom he is falling, to infiltrate a group of Nazi conspirators in Rio in order to subvert their plans. To do so she must marry one of the members. A sham marriage. Alicia concedes, not because of some deep political conviction, but ultimately because of a kind of giving that has been rudely set off course. Implicit in this is the knowledge that what she and Devlin had on that balcony in Rio was something transitory, but something that will always have mattered, and will always inform what is to come. Here the subject of love enters the picture. Eventually Devlin will rescue Alicia from her faux husband and mother-in-law's plot to poison her, the ruse having been uncovered, and this time Devlin will heroically carry Alicia out of the lair of Nazis draped in his arms like a bride over the threshold. Alicia is basically dying at this point and is unquestionably in full swoon. Although Notorious is a total masterpiece, it strikes me as unsatisfactory as an investigation of love. It has something of love to it, though: desire + mutual aid (plus the characters are at times admirably prepared to give one another space, something love by necessity absolutely permits). This giving that love entails: how shall we elucidate it? I remember seeing Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty when it came out in 1996. I was a teenager. I really didn't care that much for the movie, but I recall even now being tremendously struck by a line declared by one of the actresses: I remember it explicitly as "there is no love; there is only proof of love." The line hit me hard. Interestingly enough, Bertolucci's next feature, 1998's Besieged, was explicitly about that sentiment, and it was a movie that meant a lot to me. The internet attributes the "there is no love; there are only proofs of love" quote to both Pierre Reverdy and Jean Cocteau, but I can swear I remember reading an interview with Bertolucci around at the time of Besieged, where, mentioning the quote, he says he got the line from Pasolini. Besieged, if it is about love, is about love as a selfless giving without hope of reward. Dedication. David Thewlis's Jason is prepared to give Thandie Newton's Shandurai, who is nominally his maid, anything to show her his love. This ultimately includes rescuing her husband from political imprisonment in Africa, and returning him to her. The ultimate "proof of love" in cinema, however, would have to be the central, organizing letter in Letter from an Unknown Woman. Max Ophüls's 1948 Hollywood film is an adaptation of Stefan Zweig's incredibly powerful work of short fiction (really somewhere between short story and novella) of the same name. The letter in the movie is the central object (object of proof) within the work as well as the central organizing agent of the narrative. In Zweig's prose piece it is the bulk of the text itself. This is a rare example of a film adaptation improving upon the already-masterful prose piece it adapts (the other example I can think of at this moment is Cronenberg's Crash). The reason the film is superior is actually because the vision is more encompassing and dense, but also because the feelings and the sentiment are writ upon flesh and in the gaze. Absence is physically powerful. The "incorporeal and passionate" woman of the prose fiction, becomes a living ghost and heartrending after-image (in both the Zweig and the Ophüls, which diverge in so many ways, we are to understand that this letter was written by a woman who is deceased by the time it is read). The letter is a proof, testament to a love - a consummate, devout, and consuming love, born of impossible-seeming (even monstrous) desire - about which the man who is reading the letter, and is its intended recipient, remained unaware the entire time it coursed through his world. I have always thought that alcohol is an unspoken agent in this story. I think of the man who receives the letter (R., a famous novelist, in the Zweig, Stefan Brand, a famous composer, in the Ophüls movie) as a heedless libertine who has failed to recognize the woman who loves him the two times she has reentered his life, not only because of the abundance of lovers he has had, but because his life has been lived in inebriation and dissipation. Regardless, it is the letter of a dead woman that opens his eyes to a profound devotion to which he was blind. The movie again is far more powerful because it ends with Stefan Brand deciding to offer himself up to likely death in a duel with an it-is-said-extremely-adept-in-such-matters gentleman that he had originally intended to avoid - a mortal responsibility he had sought to shirk. The only way Brand can do justice to the revelation he has experienced, and the love which now informs his life, is to offer up that life in somnolent capitulation. In the movie we see in love the passage toward two deaths. However, the Zweig prose piece does something better than the movie (apart from refusing to sanitize the level of debasement to which the letter-writer allows herself to sink in service to the amorous object): it demonstrates more directly that the the love of the woman for the man to whom she writes is born of a desire and a pursuit which is actually deeply aberrant and totally fucked up. Indeed if love exists here in the giving and in the farewell, there is a twisted and self-destructive desire implicit throughout in the silent pursuit and the overwhelming pining existence to which the woman has subjected herself. There is something else I love in the Zweig: the white roses. The writer of the letter has been buying R. white roses every year on his birthday, just like the white rose he has no recollection of having given her on their first night together lo those many years before. She implores R to continue buying himself roses on his birthday as homage to the love that now newly informs his world. A gift, then, a proof, that refuses to stop giving, to stop proving, for the duration of R.'s life. Though those we love are passing away from us, they will have always been there. We remain ghosts, traces, proofs, even when both parties have been extinguished as living beings, as desiring consciousness in flow. What of lasting reciprocal love? What are we to make of it? Where are we to find it? Not in Letter from an Unknown Woman, of course. There are not a lot of movies about lasting amorous relationships that can make me cry. But there is at least one, and it is one that when I announce my abiding passion for I tend to be met met with incredulous perplexity in my interlocutors. It is David Fincher's F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation (the original was decidedly not a great work of literature) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie I hold to be the greatest love story in recent memory - indeed one of the greatest ever. Benjamin (remarkably rendered by Brad Pitt) is aging backwards, that is from old man to little boy. Benjamin expresses the core tragedy of his predicament when he asserts that he is "getting younger, all alone." He is. But we are each of of us getting older on our own. Ideally we experience transitory and deep connection during that time. Benjamin's is a biological reversal, but in fascinating ways it also informs how he develops mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. His love for Daisy, then, which he carries with him for most of his life, is a love complicated by what Daisy herself calls "kismat." This is fate as compromised by incongruent realities. Because the couple are aging in opposite directions, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button offers a unique distillation of the idea of lovers on separate trajectories (though we absolutely mustn't forget that all lovers are on such trajectories). Indeed it is in the middle that true amorous reciprocity exists. Daisy herself says it: though they have always loved one another, they have spent most of their lives unable to be together, and they are "meeting in the middle." Part of what is so moving about this movie to me as I enter my late thirties, is that it presents middle age as the ideal time for romantic love (how many Hollywood movies do that !?!). Death hovers over all love. Over all desire as well, though desire I find often seeks to dispel this fact. Benjamin is reared in a halfway house for senior citizens approaching death. Death is an ever-present fixture in his early life. It is one of the residents of the house who first lays out the conditions of love for him: "We’re meant to lose the people we love," she avers, "how else would we know how important they are to us?" But the love will always have been loved. It remains imprinted on the spirit of the All, it leaves its ghosts, traces, and proofs. And it is carried to the grave by the second one to arrive there. Desire in many cases does a serviceable job of momentarily replicating the infinite moment it seeks to entrench, perhaps in a single embrace (as upon the balcony in Notorious, a balcony to which I cannot stop returning). And art. Great art itself approximates immortality. This is represented slyly in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There is a moment after Benjamin returns from World War Two and reconnects with Daisy. Together they look at Rudyard Kipling's Old Man Kangaroo at five in the afternoon, from a book that meant something to them when they were very little and their love was something all together far more impossible. The image on the page remains the same. It always will. They do not. They encounter it from the standpoint of two distinct new vantages. These are two people alone together on their separate trajectories, catching their curious reflection in the river of time. That is love.
Old Man Kangaroo
Friday, October 16, 2015
O viveret Democritus!
- Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
Off work for a bit. Got my neck adjusted today. First time since 2011. Better write something. So: so many factors. As in all things. Very shortly after The Calgary International Film Festival concluded I got brain-sick. Bad. A very heavy, grey thing. An interminable suspension in the grey, heavy present. Again. Beneath brick-heavy tidal pressure. Again. So many factors. Best not to anatomize. I am working this out elsewhere - another project, recently hatched. It is important to note, of course, that Chantal Akerman took her own life shortly after the festival concluded. This may have been the final straw. (Or perhaps I have no business whatsoever parsing straws.) Akerman meant so much to me as an artist and a human being. She was invested in play, seriously, serious play, in the manner of (and not the manner of) Derrida, and she has done far more for me than he. She routinely allowed me to invest in commitment to a kind of work that would, you know, keep me alive, keep me on my toes, keep me fresh and plasticine and escape-artist-flexible in the face of cultural concretion and the deadening illusion of alienation. I see Akerman as perhaps the one artist who best drew us a map out of modernist alienation. Alienation. That was where her art started, of course, and perhaps (I don’t presume to know) where her life ended. This is more than just another bipolar suicide (parallel to the one I have been flirting with in my mind since I was very young). And I had been binging on cinema. After a holiday in London, England and Ottawa, Ontario. A holiday of superhuman stimulation and perilous excitation. The twenty-six movies in rapid succession. Whilst working full time. There is this addict business. And the business of having spent so much of my life at the brink, where it progressively got more slippery, where I could not longer gain a purchase. I have no business going there. But life brings us there. We bring us there. Whatever. I get there. And so shall do. End of story. Equilibrium is itself pretty motherfucking slippery. We are all on a ride. What of the movies? Movies: savers and destroyers of lives? Narcotic distractions from the daily grind? Sure. All of the above. The church. The cinema remains my church. I am a sick man. I need my church. We get better there. That’s why we have churches. Honest to goodness churches and their doubles. To get better. And I carry the meter there with me. The nerve meter. The critical reflexes. The taste machine. So I want to write about some movies. The festival. The movie festival. I saw twenty-six. I intend to riff on a bit about the ten that most pleased me. And I am going to list them in reverse order of preference. Because it pleases me. First: let’s do some preliminary accounting. Of the first ten movies I saw, four prominently featured pigs. Honest to goodness hogs. The Lobster, Funny Bunny, Into the Forest, and August Winds. They all had pigs. Pigs are trapped. Fenced in. In The Lobster, people are presumably trapped inside pigs. There is nothing more absurd than a domesticated animal. And pigs, built to eat and sleep in shit - craven, filthy, known to go “hog wild” - are not exactly domesticated. And of course man is a domesticated animal. Though not exactly domesticated. It is all absurd. It was a lesson I recently learned from Borowczyk. We continue being taught this lesson. Movies with pigs will never be movies about glamor. And glamor is not life. Life is eating and sleeping in shit. I want more life, less glamor. Well, I want a little glamor. Tuned just right. It’s complicated. Aesthetics are a drug (aesthetics, as the Marxists say, are anesthetic). Glamor is a drug. And we go to the church to get well. So I do indeed want to be opiated a bit by aesthetics (big time) and glamor (a little bit). Get well? Without medicine? A lot of movies seemed to be mucking about with aspect ratio. The Jia especially. But the very impressive Krisha also. This is aesthetics as slap in the face. Self-reflexive. Estrangement of the suspended disbeliever. I like it and I don’t like it. It proved to be a major problem in Krisha. It was a wonderful, wonderful choice in the pretty goddamn wonderful Jia. I will be discussing those two. Cannes. Always at The Calgary International Film Festival the most palatable films from Cannes (and a couple surprises) show up. What was I hoping for? I was hoping for The Assassin, Cemetery of Splendour, and In the Shadow of Women. I got none of them. We got the Godard and the Dumont last year (jackpot!), so this year did not bode so well upon a cursory assessment of the lineup. What did we get? It would seem obvious. We got the Palme d’Or (Dheepan), the Grand Prix (Son of Saul) and the Jury Prize (The Lobster). We got the sublime Jia (Mountains May Depart). I do not hate any of these movies. I am in one sense or another ready to claim a fondness for each of them (though I am only barely fond of Son of Saul). I will riff on The Lobster and Mountains May Depart at greater length, as they are especially special. Dheepan. Jacques Audiard is at all times a commendable technical director and a canny caster of unknowns (and, you know, stars for that matter, though you can’t say there are any here). I can find little to complain about regarding Dheepan as a thing with which to spend an affable period of time. I would not have given it the Palme d’Or. I would have given it the honorary Clint Eastwood Award for Reactionary Inclusivity. It is kind of a spiritual cousin to Gran Torino, except that the Clint Eastwood justice-dispenser and the ethnic Other are united within one figure, the lead, as rendered by the totally wonderful (and sublimely laid-back) Jesuthasan Antonythasan. This is another out-of-nowhere fellow (like Tahar Rahim in Un prophète (2009)) who serves as a riveting locus of focus in a not-overly-belaboured sea of dramatic machinations. It is not accurate to call these guys non-actors. They are actors. Pupative movie actors who belong at the heart of an old-fashioned, professional movie spectacle (though, in this case, one deeply invested in not getting, until the final showdown, too “spectacular”). Obviously Audiard had the fortune to make a film about refugees in Europe (Sri Lankan, though, rather than Syrian) at a time that would be conducive to his finally winning a big, prestigious, international film award. It is a movie that will appeal to a great many people for whom the cinema is not a church, and they can presumably be counted upon to forget it pretty quickly. Son of Saul is engineered to win awards. It would seem a sure bet that László Nemes had a speech prepared. It’s a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque theme park ride called The Final Solution. Not much depth of field. Not much field. You find yourself looking away from the horror and staring at the guy positioned in front of you on the ride. Obviously the Dardenne brothers formal recipe has replaced the Rossellini as the de facto serious Euro-film (and beyond) template. Pretty much everybody who is anybody knows this. And it is certainly novel to come at the death camps in this manner. The tracking shots (Nemes has done his time setting them up for the master, Béla Tarr) are the meat of the matter. This is over-the-shoulder track as cosmogony. The 1.33/1 Academy Ratio frame is a brilliant choice. I cannot say enough about the sound design. It is really dense and supremely worked-out. But you know what? I don’t think Nemes can direct crowds. He mostly doesn’t let us see them, but when we do I just am not buying it for some reason. Everything is so calibrated and precise that the cattle pen of human monstrosity doesn’t come off. And the story is the exact story that an “important” Hollywood movie would tell. As a narrative, this thing would sit well alongside Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008), which is about the meanest thing I can imagine myself saying about such a movie. I was impressed, I was unimpressed, which is maybe irritating, but doesn’t quite account for how irritated I was by Son of Saul (though impressed (or not entirely unimpressed)). Of course, the mandate of the Calgary International Film Festival is not necessarily built around dropping Cannes goodies in our lap. Is there a mandate? What is the mandate? I say there is a mandate, and that mandate is built around The Discovery Award. The Discovery Award is the award the festival gives to the best (which now means most popular) debut. This means our festival brings in a lot of movies by people about whose art and the merits thereof we know essentially nothing. One gambles a lot at The Calgary International Film Festival. It paid off for me this year. Two of the highlights were Discovery nominees about which nobody I know knew a goddamn thing. August Winds and, my oh my, Fig Fruit and the Wasps. I will be riffing on those. Naturally. What else? We got two films about addiction. Which is to say documentaries that relate in some way to addiction. We got one last year. At least I saw one last year. It was great. I forget its name, suggesting I should not stop writing on this stupid blog. (Perhaps the blog, above all else, is a memory tool, like a diary, or maybe a spouse.) The two this year were important to me also. Hurt was especially special. Guess what? I intend to riff on it. The other one was Finders Keepers. This thing is a real crowd-pleaser. People are gonna love it, because in one sense we are cruel redeemers of schadenfreude, and in another we are easily manipulated and sentimental little shills (neither of these things are bad in themselves, don’t be ashamed). The story goes like this: down-on-his-luck rich-kid-gone-astray drug addict John Wood loses the contents of a storage locker he has been unable or unwilling to keep up payments for. In the locker is the leg he had amputated after the plane crash that killed his dad. The leg is in a cooker. Like, you know, for BBQ. His actual severed leg. Shannon Whisnant acquires the contents of the locker during auction, and upon discovering the gnarly severed limb decides that he will have people pay (children at a discount!) to come see the leg and the cooker. An attraction. Of the Southern United States variety. A battle ensues, lasting many years, for rightful title to the now-seriously-dessicated leg. It all culminates in the form of a verdict on (I shit you not) the Judge Joe Brown show. This is a very American movie with a lot of gutbucket, belly-laugh American I-cannot-fucking-believe-this details. But you know what? Judge Brown not only gives John Wood his (fucking disgusting) leg back (though John has to pay Mr. Whisnat some money), he also, seeing that the poor man is in a bad way, sends him to rehab. So the syrupy pathos the film has been periodically milking comes on full-fathom-five with the sudden realization that we have navigated our way into an improbably powerful recovery narrative. This insane, comic, tragic, fucking gnarled business with the (gnarled) leg sets in motion a whole cause-and-effect confluence that delivers the sick and humbled Mr. John Wood on the path to grace and salvation (at least in this world), and the giant, blundering, huckster Mr. Whisnat to total psychospiritual bankruptcy and good-old-fashion southern-fried hubris. This is some Flannery O’Connor shit. What else? Okay. Let’s close this ambling preamble out. First: One Floor Below. I’m gonna forget for a moment that there was no reason for this movie to be shot in Scope. This is a new pet peeve of mine. If you are gonna shoot your movie in Scope, I am going to be picky. I am going to be spending more time than is useful thinking about whether or not you needed to do this. That aside: the Romanian New Wave has finely tapped directly into the spirit (if not an actual source text) or Georges Simenon (and in so doing Mr. Chabrol and Mr. Tavernier). The lead: Teodor Corban. Total everyman, total gravitas. I love these Romanian films for the way they deal so bemusedly in bureaucracy, post-communist institutionality, and authority flouting. I learn the same thing via films from these Eastern European nations about communism and post-communism that I learn from Iranian films (like the festival-screened Taxi, which dares to invoke Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), and which is all about face - the face, that is, Panahi wants to show the world (he spends the majority of the movie seeming utterly pleased w/ himself)), which is basically that implicit under the surface of even the most repressive State Apparatus is the fact that people are basically going to do whatever the hell they please, even if it becomes a needlessly complicated hassle. (When all is said and done, cultural and political authority are also ultimately about face.) I think I am getting around to the end of the festival. How did the festival end? It ended, in what seemed in advance to be absolute divine scheduling intervention. Miike. Yakuza Apocalypse. My last film of the 2015 Calgary International Film Festival. This movie is 100% engineered so people can have fun. But you know what? After my nervous-system slamming vacation, my twenty-five previous movies in just over a week, and my full-time fucking job, “fun” really wasn’t something I should have considered to be in the offing. I would have preferred to trance-out on a two hour shot of a tree in the wind or waves rolling unto the shore. Not that Yakuza Apocalypse isn’t impressive. Extremely fun. Pretty exhausting. Some Miike films are brilliant. There is, however, a difference between brilliant and just basically finding, over and over, ridiculous ways to be hilarious that have not quite hitherto been discovered. And I was not really able to find anything funny. Maybe funny in theory. I was heading, unbeknownst, for a hard crash. Like a great deal of Japanese comedy, Yakuza Apocalypse feels like it has been built around a brainstorming session that got way out of hand. Lots of laughs, often inspires awe based simply on the fact it pulls off stuff that would be funny in a brainstorming session (cannabis?) but that any sane person would not believe possible to pull off. It is definitely his stupidest and most blithely unnecessary movie (that I have seen) since the aggressively stupid and unnecessary (and fun) Sukiyaki Western Django (2007). But you know what? Art is glorious and totally unnecessary. Before I close. Before I close I am going to mention the worst movie. One of the very worst movies I have ever seen at a festival. I am going to say nothing more about Chad Archibald’s heinous genre plopper Bite other than that if you were to theoretically tell me that it fits into the dubious “so bad it’s good” category, I would theoretically hate your guts. That’s it. I’m gonna write a bit about ten movies. Done gonna riff. Okay? Ready?
The Almereyda. Michael Almereyda is in his mid-fifties. The guy who made Another Girl Another Planet (1992) on Fisher Price Pixelvision is going to be sixty in the blink of an eye. God have mercy on our souls. Mr. Almereyda is a hero of mine. I love him. He hasn’t been making a lot of feature narrative movies. The last perfect one was the Hamlet (2000) with Ethan Hawke in what we Canadians like to call a toque. There was Happy Here and Now (2002), the New Orleans rhythm and blues VR movie. Now that is a strange movie. Recently the return to Shakespeare. Cymbeline (2014). Okay, now that is an absolutely fucking bonkers movie. An unbelievable amount of brain power is thrown at concepts and their enactment in the bizarre Cymbeline. As such, as one might expect, and appropriate to the source text, we are hit with total genius and utterly embarrassing ridiculousness in equal measure. Experimenter is a near-perfect little confection of what is ultimately admirably low ambition. It doesn’t exactly lay it all out there to be scoffed at. I dare you to find substantive fault with it. Okay. Some will scoff at it. Some may even call it, ugh, twee. They may also compare it to bad community theatre. So what? Even good community theatre is bad community theatre, and we need community theatre. Doesn’t community theatre tell us something about community? Experimenter tells the story of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard). Or part of the story. The public part. And the private part inside the public part. No real origin story. If you made it to junior high then some teacher has presumably told you about Milgram’s most famous experiment. He had people believing they were following a scientist’s directives to electrocute a dude in an adjoining room even though nobody was actually being electrocuted. The test subjects kept on believing themselves to be electrocuting somebody, because they were so instructed by an authority figure, well beyond the point where the voltage levels they believed themselves to be dealing in were way crazy high. Is this sleight of hand? Is the film about sleight of hand, so-called magic? Yes, peripherally. But all movies are. The experiment suggests (and Milgram pleads po-faced that he wasn’t sure they would prove this at all) that people are willing to follow orders to the point of monstrosity. Hence, then, perhaps the insanity of the Holocaust, for example, was a kind of workaday insanity. Business as usual for we human beings. So the movie is chilling? The study is chilling. We are aware of the study and its implications. Readers of this blog have been to junior high. The movie is not chilling. Experimenter maintains something of the same tone as Peter Sarsgaard's performance: clear-eyed and forlorn with an edge of bemusement. It’s even a bit jaunty. It is possible to know the whole sordid truth about people and still enjoy being a pithily sardonic li’l sprite in their company. Is the movie pithy? Maybe a little. Sarsgaard definitely can be. Inside the movie is the story of Milgram’s seducing of, and eventual cultivation of a basically workable marriage to Sasha (Winona Ryder (I love you Winona Ryder)), whence offspring (more humans!) are produced. I thought of Hitchcok’s Spellbound a bunch, and not just because of the rear projection (although, yes, also because of the rear projection). Why? Because there is a love story, a complicated and ultimately satisfying (for everybody) pas de deux built on psychosexual tumult and increasingly few illusions whatsoever about the messy parts of things. Also: just, you know, the human sciences. You will also be reminded of Kinsey. Obviously. If you have seen Kinsey (2004). The last such biopic of which I remember being this fond. They share more than Peter Sarsgaard in common. A troubled yet curiously pleased investigator, investigating the venal business of people being people. I picked up on two moments that struck me as total genius. It involves the one-way mirror. Or the two-way mirror. (I just Googled it - the one-way mirror and the two-way mirror are the same thing.) When the not-actually-electrocution experiments are occurring, Milgram watches them through the window that is a mirror on the other side, cop-style. Sasha of course gets filled in. She even asks for a jolt of current. She’s a game dame. There are two moments, however, where I remember Winona Ryder having an uncomfortable moment with the glass. Brilliant. Fucking spooky.
This is a feature narrative movie. The third movie about (relating to) addiction. But not, of course, a documentary. And a debut feature. Presumably a contender for the aforementioned Discovery Award. It starts with a shout-out to Altman’s 3 Women (1977). There are also shades of his Images (1972) in the early going. Promising. But it’s more than that. This thing really comes on like gangbusters. My jaw was pretty much on the floor pretty quick and stayed there for the duration of the first act. There is a de-naturing going on. A de-naturalization. We are thrown into the queasy fray of the ol’ family reunion. This is an uncomfortable and strange environment as rendered by director Trey Edward Shults. This is expressionism. How so? In the sense that the film enters this overloaded domestic hellscape in the company of Krisha (Krisha Fairchild … yes … Krisha) who is clearly very, very uncomfortable. Her debased psychic condition and raw-nerved trembling are immediately ours as well. We are in a home. Lots of bustling people. In middle America. But it feels like some nightmarish carnival in another world. Not a pleasant world. At all. Some American artists are good at looking at regular American life as though it had never been looked at before. I thought of Jon Jost and Rob Tregenza. It is also partially scored early on with some insane contrapuntal nightmare music. There is a presiding filter of dis-ease. We pretty quickly come to realize that Krisha has been rocked pretty hard by life. She is barely able to hold herself together. Facing her family so obviously torments her in the worst way. Oh, she’s missing part of a finger. Life has been hard on Krisha. She is coping poorly. She is only here so she can connect with her son. She has not seen her son in many years. Her son cannot look her in the eyes. One senses that he is totally praying for her to just plain evaporate. From the bottom of his hurt heart. Krisha is an alcoholic. Tentatively recovering. But she picks up a drink. And the drink takes a drink. Hark! The bottle is empty. Act two. It’s brief. Mr. Shults gets Krisha drunk and then … he jumps from 1.85/1 to Scope. Drunk-o-cam! She moves through the house with a brief, syrupy ease, accompanied by a smooth jazz swing. There is a problem with the switch to Scope, besides the fact that it is clearly gimmicky. The movie was projected in such a way that the Scope was letterboxed, instead of having the image cleanly expand horizontally. So instead of getting more when Krisha gets drunk, which is presumably the intention, we get less. I know the world used to seem bigger and better for a little bit when I got loaded. Krisha has found some tranquility. It does not last long. She drunkenly drops the turkey (and all of its attendant fluids) on the floor, slow-mo. Suddenly Krisha, the prodigal pariah, is the focus of immoderate, scolding attention. Everybody converges on her to shame her. She totally falls apart. She goes to bed on a couch. She wakes up and realizes it was not a dream. Oh shit. Ohhhhhhhhhh shiiiiiiiiiit. The morning after. Guess what? 1.33/1 Academy ratio. So yeah. We’re doing all the ratios. We are basically in a shame melodrama now. And the shame is fucking thick. As a recovering alcoholic I can steadfastly attest to how much this movie resembles these actual dreams I have where I pick up a drink, get wasted, and fuck me life up totally and completely in front of the enraged and/or aghast people who love me. I thought of Fassbinder. I thought, especially, of Volker Spengler in In a Year with Thirteen Moons (1978). Krisha Fairchild has me convinced that she is actually a woman, but in the same way a transexual might perform his or her way into a gender, Krisha (played by Krisha) is helplessly and hopelessly trying to play her way into Krisha. She is met with disgust. Total, unfeeling, unthinking disgust. But you know what? She disgusts herself. We bring this shit upon ourselves. Close to home. Way, way close. I am afraid what will happen, even sober, if I start to rave the way Krisha raves, drunk … and then coming down. Oh, and Krisha reminds me, even more than myself, of a close relative. A relative about whom we worry. So, yeah: family reunions, as ever, are fucking odious.
I, Curmudgeon (2004) was the last Alan Zweig I saw. The only other one I had seen before that was Vinyl (2000). I, Curmudgeon was just like Vinyl except that it was about curmudgeons instead of record collectors (though they are very often the same thing). Hurt is a significant advance in every respect, both for Mr. Zweig and for the documentary form, especially the Canadian documentary. We are Canadians. We are documentary people. Our national cinema, pathetic little outlier though we are, going way back to the degree zero, is all about them documentaries and them animated shorts. That is what we are known for. We have John Grierson to thank for the legacy of the Canadian documentary. You know what’s funny about John Grierson? Dude’s not Canadian. Scotsman. Alan Zweig? Jew. Grumpy. Stout. But he can tell a joke. Hurt, however, is compassionate (though the subject, Steve Fonyo, is maddeningly frustrating), dead serious, and totally important. It also has a complicated and extremely compelling relationship with discourses on documentary practices. The primary question: what is the role of the filmmaker in terms of the ethics of investment (and even participation (or insistent non-participation)) in the lives he or she records? Zweig is not a vérité guy, or a direct cinema guy, or an Allan King-style “actuality drama” guy, or whatever you want to call it. However, he is coming way closer here than he has in those two earlier docs. Those movies were made up almost entirely of talking heads. Including Alan’s. Talking to himself. And his camera. In the mirror. Back before the ubiquity of the selfie. He was literally an untucked and hiked-up shirt away from staring at his own navel. Mr. Zweig has gotten further outside of himself in Hurt, but has made the exceedingly wise decision (which is who he is, he couldn’t help but make it, nor should he) not to attempt (what filmmaker actually can?) to remove himself from the equation. (He may get way outside himself in a bunch of other movies, I don’t know, I believe I have only seen those two I already mentioned.) Steve Fonyo. Oh Christ. So this is one of the two documentaries I saw at the festival, in addition to the aforementioned Finders Keepers, that relate to an addict who happens to have had a leg amputated. Steve Fonyo contracted bone cancer as a boy and had to have a leg amputated. Quite a blow. But at one point he appeared to have made the most of it. Like Terry Fox before him, Fonyo went on the road, running to make money for cancer research. The run was called "Journey for Lives” and it made Steve a national hero. However, one of my parents tells me that back then a lot of people already knew that Steve was one messed-up cat. One way or another, he was given the Order of Canada. That’s a pretty bid deal. Then the slide. Dude slid. Slid like a motherfucker. Slid into debauch and ignominy. Off the fucking rails. Enter Alan Zweig. A few decades later. Alan paid intermittent visits to Steve over a relatively short period of time and filmed these encounters. Steve was not in good shape. His life was a disaster. We watch it get worse in a kind of time-lapse. Every time Alan comes calling, things appear even worse. Steve had his Order of Canada revoked many years ago. It appears to still sting. And Steve is totally and completely incapable of seeing his part in this. There is a powerful scene where the filmmakers take Steve to a beach that was named after him. Steve pouts and swears and doesn’t want to see the beach. You go see the beach. I’m gonna go sit in the car. I sympathized a little with him there, as I would sympathize with a child who was nonetheless irritating the heck out of me. Drugs, crime, and poverty. Plus kamikaze decision-making in general. We watch him make bad, bad decisions. Again and again. Alan watches. Alan chimes in occasionally. He talks to Steve. He talks to Steve’s girlfriend. Can this continue? Can this go on? There are many ways in which Alan stands back. This is best demonstrated in a crazy-amazing scene in which Steve gets into a ridiculous physical altercation with his girlfriend's nefarious ex. We watch. Alan watches. Alan stands back. And films. But at other times Alan asks a lot of questions. These are often questions that almost plead. But you can only say so much to someone who refuses to hear. Alan makes a radical decision. A deeply uncommon decision for this kind of movie. He finally gets Steve a little help. He sets up an appointment with Vancouver addiction guru Gabor Maté. Mr. Maté is a national treasure. He is one of my very favourite Canadians. Right up there with Nardwuar the Human Serviette and Peaches. Zweig makes the interesting choice of not identifying Mr. Maté. He lets the man speak (and hear) for himself. What is the crux of Mr. Maté’s message? He asks Steve if he is a victims. Steve is grateful. Yes, exactly. Finally somebody gets it. You are not a victim, counters Mr. Maté. You are produced by your circumstances, by and unsatisfiable need that will never be alleviated by anything outside of yourself, and you have never, despite protestations to the contrary, been a happy person. I suspect that Steve is mostly angry about having the Order of Canada taken away from him because he believes himself unworthy. Not only of the Order of Canada. Like so many addicts, Steve will put up a big front, will carry on and build himself up, because deep down he is convinced that he is just plain unworthy. It is easy to turn your life to shit when you are convinced that this is what you deserve. All fans of Canadian-TV-comedy-institution The Trailer Park Boys should see Hurt, just so they have a clearer sense of what it is really like to be getting paralytically high and stealing car parts way out on the Canadian margins. A day or two after I saw the film I was taking the escalator up to the theatres at Eu Claire Market and Alan Zweig was coming down the opposite escalator. “Hey Alan,” I enthused, “I loved your movie.” He looked at me in such a bewildered manner that I found myself wondering if this was the first time a Canadian documentarian had ever been recognized in a shopping complex.
7. Mountains May Depart
You will gain no traction with me by attempting to reckon with the character and concerns of contemporary cinema without going headlong into a reckoning with Jia. Jia Zhangke. He is our #1 man(darin) on the ground. He is in China. Mainland. At the heart of the heart of the New New World. He is there gleaning for art and truth. He is not in the war-of-blockbuster-attrition business that is the Chinese film industry’s raison d’etre. There are a hell of a lot of people in China. That’s a lots of asses (attached to wallets) to put in seats. Increasing disposable income. Increasing production of big, brash motion pictures. Jia also makes big movies. Little big movies. He makes movies I need. I crave the new ones, be they documentary, fiction, or hybrid. I have had the luxury of seeing a bunch up on the big screen where they belong, which is a luxury available to exceedingly few of his countrymen. Truth? Yes. But beauty. The form and tone. We are talking about an artist. A master of form and tone, who happens to be working in a fresh way and with clarity about a world that the authorities have done their best for a very long time to prevent us from seeing at all. China is a dissident-manufacturing behemoth. You don’t get to make art there without becoming a dissident. You become a dissident just by telling the truth. Or the wrong lie. Jia’s last feature was A Touch of Sin (2013). I was one of the few who was pretty seriously disappointed. Why? Formally it struck me as lazy. Tonally it struck me as kind of blah. I think the fact that he was clearly making some concessions to the asses-in-seats mandate that is always going to dog the expensive art of feature-narrative-movie making (not in and of itself necessarily always a bad thing), caused Jia to kinda not fully invest himself. It is wrong to say think. I can only say I suspect. He is more profound when he is less obvious. A Touch of Sin, particularly toward the end, started to really hit on the obvious. The poetic, sure, but obvious about it, dig? It was not remotely terrible. Just a disappointment. To me. And who the hell am I? Mountains May Depart is just so completely not formally lazy that I cannot presume to do its fastidious construction justice. We are used to the three act structure. Here we have essentially three movies. The literary equivalent would be a book containing three novellas about characters (and characters connected to those characters) at three different disparate points over the course of their lives. And they are three different movies, told in different ways, working in different registers. Remember the talk of aspect ratios? Yes, all three of the predominant aspect ratios are employed, one for each section, with increasingly widening horizontality. The first movie is absolutely stunning. 1.33/1 Academy ratio. I love Jia working in Academy. These frames are exquisite. He sculpts action in real time magnificently, and uses the frame with total wisdom. His cutting is like perfect silken arrangements. The film begins in 1999 with a group of young Chinese dancing pretty ecstatically to the tune of The Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West.” Let’s call it foreshadowing. We arrive into the midst of a love triangle. Jia’s ever-present perhaps-muse Zhao Tao is the female lead. She is torn between the wealthy, arrogant, and bitterly insecure character played by Zhang Yi on the one hand, and the benevolent, kindly, and generally kinda humble character played by Liang Jin Dong, who essentially works for the Zhang Yi character, on the other. While Liang Jin Dong is clearly the better fit, Zhao Tao opts for Zhang Yi for reasons related above all to money and security, and the fact that he will presumably be able to offer same for any prospective offspring. There is a standoff. The moment where Liang Jin Dong slaps Zhang Yi is so skillfully shot and cut that I shuddered. A terrible, decisive moment, decisively rendered. The second section leaps forward to 2014 and the 1.85/1 ratio. We are in another movie. The tone is more elegiac. It is a sad movie. Adult sad. Earned sad. Zhang Yi’s character has left Zhao Tao’s character and taken their young son with him. (The movie perhaps overplays its hand having materialistic father name his son Dollar.) We also meet up with Liang Jin Dong’s character. He is sick. Dying, even. All those years in the mines take their toll. This is an old, pervasive story conjoined to industrial modernization. But heartbreak. Heartbreak takes its toll, too. But this is heartache brought to us by progress, no? Everybody is off in search of happiness-by-way-of-progress and a whole hell of a lot of people have to be ground to dust. Dollar comes for one last visit to see his mother. This is one of the saddest and most deftly understated sequences in all of Jia. The final section (in Scope) takes place in Australia in 2025. Be careful what you wish for. A great many people have “gone west” and not liked what they found. And so it goes. Father (Zhang Yi) and Dollar, now a young man, live in a minimalist mini-mansion, the type somebody might live in in an HBO series or a Michael Mann movie. But in Australia. Here we find Dollar and Daddy totally at odds. They don’t even speak the same language anymore. Literally. A level of disconnection and dislocation and no-fucking-real-intimacy-whatsoever has taken root in a way that weirdly invoked for me the (mostly quite terrible) films of Atom Egoyan (apparently one of those played at the festival! I believe it won the Audience Choice Award! Yikes!). Many complain about the actors in section three. Especially Zijian Dong, who plays Dollar. This young man was supposed to have been raised in the west, right? So how come he can barely speak English? And he can no longer speak Mandarin at all? What gives? The nature of the performances strikes me as a metaphor for dislocation and confusion, foregrounding the significant gulf between the Chinese and the Western experience of the world, whilst also foregrounding just how anchored we are to our origins, no matter how vigorously we try to liberate ourselves. It’s not actually something I had to “get over.” It actually worked for me in a deeper place. In a place where I feel people. It doesn’t look like Dollar will every see his mother again. We end with her, swaying to “Go West” in a post-industrial greyscale purgatory. Her swaying reminds me of Kim Hye-ja in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009). Alas, these poor, wearied mothers, barely propped up by the music.
6. The Lobster
So basically I am telling you that I like The Lobster a little more than Mountains May Depart. What is wrong with me? Lots. Lots is wrong with lots of us. The Lobster will be loved by many. For a very, very long time. This thing is here to stay. This should in no way be taken to denigrate Mountains. But The Lobster. I love The Lobster. I have given myself to it in this kind of wretched, sodden, consummate capitulation. And God bless me, sir. I don’t get the impression that critics are particularly won over by Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film. People really don’t care. I mean people do not care about critics. Rotten Tomatoes. There are people who take that stuff seriously. I don’t take those people seriously. In fact, you will never even convince me that critics care about critics. Not for the most part. This totally whacked-out and endearing parable, with its delectable screenplay and fastidious direction, enters my life at the exact right moment. It has helped demystify for me the crisis of coupling in which I currently find myself (crisis? oh please). The takeaway is that the insidious directive to hook up and the militant assertion of lone-wolf status are equally harebrained. There is laughter, here, and the upending of the stakes. I want to emphasize the screenplay. It is busily brilliant. So many ideas, gags, slips, and reversals. This is a movie that is thinking and scurrying and laying waste. David is our, ahem, hero. He is rendered by a flaccid, paunchy, schmo-version Colin Farrell. David is shortsighted and has just been cuckolded by his wife. She and her goddamned wandering shortsighted eyes. Yes, they are both shortsighted. This is important. Being cuckolded is an issue in The Lobster’s alternative universe. You see, people who are single have an issue. The issue is that they are not allowed to be single. And one isn’t exactly given much of a post breakup grace period. Single people, it turns out, are routinely rounded up and dumped at an altogether-pretty-nice hotel where they are forced to couple-up with another single person (they are on the clock) or risk being transformed into the animal of their choice. WTF, right? Exactly. David has decided he wants to be, if he has to be, a lobster. They are blue-blooded “like aristocrats,” they live a long time, and David likes the water. Everything at the hotel is zany, uncomfortable, bluntforce comedy. Blood is shed. A lot of blood is self-shed. Autobleeding. Lanthimos likes this sort of thing. Have you seen Dogtooth (2009)? Remember the bit about shortsightedness? Right. The things is that in the world of The Lobster, people can only hook up with somebody with whom they share in common a defining characteristic. Isn’t that ridiculous? Yes. This is also ridiculous. But you know what? We ourselves hook up stupidly, for stupid reasons. We do this all the time. As though it were a fucking competition. To save his soon-to-be-lobster ass, David hooks up with a sociopathic woman who feels nothing. David pretends to feel nothing. This works for a while. Until she kills his dog. His dog also happens to be his onetime-unfortunately-single brother. Oh boy. David escapes (conveniently) into the woods. In the woods he finds a group of single-people drop-out insurrectionists ruthlessly run by the humourless Léa Seydoux. God, Léa Seydoux is always a drag. Bless her heart. These people mean business. They are not only single, they are rabidly anti-coupling. Those that are not rabidly anti-coupling have to pretend to be. Just like David had to pretend to be a guy with no feelings. And obviously he falls in love. With a shortsighted woman. Rachel Weisz. IMDB says her character’s name is “Short Sighted Woman.” Léa Seydoux’s Leader of the Neuters (my appellation) finds out. You know what she does? I’m not going to tell you. It’s grim. It’s merciless. It’s funny. Be a couple? Don’t be a couple? We are totally fucked. Either way: fucked. Great screenplay. And Lanthimos is a crafty, very smart director. He sets things up and lets them fall into place. Sequences, scenes, and shots repeatedly avoid telling you what they are doing at the outset. We are being led by the collar into all kinds of little surprises. Obviously this film will appeal most to single people and the people who identify with their previously single selves far more than the mutants that they have become by virtue of hitching their gear to someone else’s wagon. I’m single, baby. I’m Walt fucking Whitman. Alone in my urban crawlspace, connected to absolutely everything. But you know what? You never know ....
5. August Winds
August Winds is the debut feature film by erstwhile documentarian Gabriel Mascaro. Despite the fact that August Winds is consequently not Mr. Mascaro’s first movie, it was nonetheless a Discovery Award nominee. There is a strong ethnographic bent to August Winds. I love the right kind of ethnography done the right kind of way. The movie revolves around a small coastal community in Brazil. For much of the film we are essentially hanging out there, picking up on little details of day to day life, ensconced in the seasonal fluctuations of the weather and the tides. The tides become central. This is the first truly exceptional fictional movie I have seen where the filmmakers have made a commitment to look at what rising sea levels mean on the ground. There is an ecological investment here. The weather is also important, hence the titular “winds.” Mr. Mascaro even himself shows up as some mysterious interloper who comes to the community with his rig to record the wind and other ambient sounds. This speaks to me. Deep down I believe I am the kind of fellow who goes to the movies to dig on stuff like ambient sound more than I go there for narratives (though this might not be immediately clear to readers of this blog). This is conducive to the medicinal opiation of which I am so fond. Sound is a tonic. The ears are always so much more free than the eyes, all the better to build sensory landscapes from the ground up. All the better to wander off unhindered into dreamy inchoate incandescence. The movie is dominated by non-actors. Any reader of my blog knows of my predilection for well-utilized non-actors. Those who have not been trained, especially if they have also not been bombarded to excess with movie stimuli (as most of the “performers” in August Winds have presumably not been), are less likely to have assimilated endless cliche modalities as part of their working repertoire. Drama will never trump life. This is the cinema, after all, not the theatre. Our way into the world of August Winds is Shirley. Shirley is rendered by Dandara de Morais, the only “performer” in the movie who has any previous acting experience (she appeared in a single episode of a Brazilian television program called Young Hearts). Shirley has come from the big city to tend to her grandmother. She knows the place. She is half insider, half outsider. Her fondness for sunbathing nude, slathered in Coca-Cola, whilst listening to punk rock seems particularly outsiderish in this world she currently (and presumably temporarily) inhabits. She drives a tractor with a flatbed from a coconut plantation to the place where the coconuts are unloaded. She has a boyfriend named Jeison whom she will occasionally fuck on a mountain of coconuts, pulled off to the side of the road. She is a carnal woman. She is a compelling woman. She is a woman at once of the city and of the land, of the sea. This is not a hurried community, nor is the movie hurried. We spend a lot of time basically hanging out. This is definitely an approach to people and places that I can get behind. And so have traditionally done. I was reminded at times of the cinema of Filipino master Lav Diaz. But whereas Diaz makes films that are traditionally many, many hours long (all the better to immerse us in a sense of being in a slow-moving place in time), August Winds runs slightly less than eighty minutes. We are still in a slow-moving place. It’s just that we are made to feel the time only moderately. Then comes the skull. Not long after comes a corpse. When the bones and bodies enter the picture, August Winds locks into focus. Forensic questions come up when we find a skull. Whose skull is this? How long has this skull been out in the world independent of a living body upon which to be sentiently perched? Then the corpse. A corpse is a reminder that we are a bundle of bones, and that between the time we are a living person and the time that we are a bundle of bones, we go through a messy process of decay - a process that may happen after we are dead, but which is just absolutely and fundamentally a process related to organic life. What are all of our collective bones but a kind of library? They are what everybody who is not incinerated leaves behind. But what if there is no one around to take notice of our bones? August Winds ends with a wall being built around a cemetery to protect it from rising sea waters. First we turned on the planet, and then the planet turned on us. This is a nice poetic encapsulation. In fairly short order, my friends, there will be nothing on earth with a consciousness as elevated as our own to take notice of the fact that we once were. August Winds may not have a lot of meat on its bones, but I hope that I have made it clear that the bones themselves are what matter.
4. Sea Fog
Leading in to my discussion of Mountains May Depart, I mentioned that the Chinese film industry has spent the bulk of our young century engineering ways to dominate the Asian film market by producing wildly expensive movie spectacles that tow the company line and attempt to please as many people as possible so as to bring in serious box office. Hollywood, obviously, has established the template. Unfortunately for the Chinese, the Koreans continue their entrenched, all-bets-are-off campaign to make the best mass-entertainment in the world. And certainly the Asian markets establish their tenacity in the regards. Korea is not just producing big movies for Korea. They are producing big movies for Asia. They are doing a commendable job of it. Korean filmmakers benefit from a freedom to dabble in sin, sexual politics, naked cruelty, debauch, and subversive agitation that the Chinese do not possess. Censorship and good taste are a serious hindrance for the Chinese in terms of their being able to make the kinds of films upon which adult human beings might be interested in getting off. Enter Sea Fog. Sea Fog is expertly honed, and deeply politically problematic, mass-entertainment. It is a real coup. The director is Shim Sung-bo. Shim was a co-writer on Bong Joon-ho’s already-a-classic Memories of Murder (2003). That movie is a personal favourite in terms of subversive Korean mass-entertainments. Bong Joon-ho has gone on to make increasingly-large and widely-seen movies, culminating in Snowpiercer (2013), an honest-to-goodness English-language super-spectacle filled to the brim with a whole bunch of white folks, some pretty goddamn famous. Apparently Bong doesn’t forget the people who helped to get him to where he is today. Here he is co-writing the debut feature of his Memories co-writer, an undertaking which on the face of it would appear to be below his current station. Like Memories, Sea Fog is calibrated to entertain, which is not to say that it will not piss people off or turn them off. Some people. People being people. This stuff is not built to go down easy. It is violent, blunt, and eager to remind us how rotten we can be. One way to suggest what Sea Fog is doing would be to ask you to imagine a film produced in something of the style and with the production values of a contemporary Hollywood movie, but with the devil-may-care no-bones-about-it chutzpah of the more subversive testosterone-infused New Hollywood movies on the 1970s (think Friedkin and maybe Cimino). It is also, of course, very Korean. And super timely. This is maybe the best peril-at-sea spectacle ever. A little bit of Steamboat Bill Jr., some of that Greengrass pirate-movie shtick, and, of course, spectres of Ahab and William Bligh. The added element is the hot-button issue of China-to-Korea human trafficking. Kim Yoon-seok plays Cheol-joo, the epically insidious captain of the Jeonjinho, a fishing vessel that has seen better days. Cheol-joo, hard up for cash, conscripts his ship and his crewmen into a gambit to smuggle a passel of desperate Chinese migrants into Korea. It all goes horribly, horribly wrong. Park Yoochun plays Dong-sik, a kindly crewman (and a kid basically), who is unable to countenance the inhuman cruelty that begins to overtake his captain and fellow crewman in the wake of a number of fairly catastrophic complications. That the whole thing is based loosely on real events is extremely chilling. But this is obviously a movie. Big time. Proudly so. This is a movie intoxicated by the possibility of movies. That this is a debut feature is almost sort of baffling. It reeks of old-fashioned seen-it-all professionalism. Taking all this into account, you will probably not be surprised to hear that Sea Fog inveigles itself of something not unlike a love story. Indeed, Dong-sik falls for Hong-Mea (played by Han Ye-ri), a young woman who finds herself amidst the human cargo. When everything goes horribly wrong, Dong-sik hides Hong-mae in the engine room, protecting her from the ever-overhanging threat of sexual violence and certain death. This is a ruthlessly nasty movie. The violence is matter-of-fact and … ruthless. There were people near me in the theatre who were clearly (and audibly) having a bit of a problem with that. By and large, however, the people of Planet Earth have spoken, and they have voted for violence. It has become something of a lingua franca for us. This is not cartoonish violence, being as it is too close to that which exists in our world every day. However, the violence here is disproportionately theatricalized. It would be perhaps reasonable to call the violence orgiastic. Or close. I might be giving you the wrong idea. God, people love their screen violence orgiastic. Still: this is, to risk getting repetitive, violence grounded in our experience of real violence, and this is where the discomfort of some of the folks in my vicinity was stemming from. Though these are nightmares we encounter in the movies, they are also the nightmares we encounter in the news. Unfortunately, of course, we are each of us somewhat complicit in these nightmares. Dong-sik’s heroism is admirable, and there is no mass-entertainment-style movie without it, but it is inarguably also married to a kind of always-eventually-fatal naiveté. His fellow crewman are not so much monsters as products of their circumstances. The same could be said of Captain Cheol-joo, if not for the fact that circumstance transfigure him into a truly mythic beast. He is one of those captains. Long after he has sealed his own doom, Cheol-joo rages against the dying of the light until he, of course, is forced to go down as absurdly as possible with the ship, his little private apocalypse mirroring so many larger ones already well in the works.
3. Fig Fruit and the Wasps
The second really spectacular film about which I knew next to nothing, following August Winds, and the second one to floor me. It really, totally, holy shit floored me. It’s rare that one of these unheard of international dispatches enters my life and illuminates the interiors so … luminously. Magnificent. Truly magnificent. This is one of the most special things about taking chances at festivals (and the Calgary International Film Festival is admirable in its routinely encouraging us to take such chances (though I may occasionally grumble when I see the lineup)). We get to see things very few will see, that we will presumably never get to see again ourselves, and we get to see them projected on screens up at which we gaze in wonder. Always better than a TV or a monitor. It was Godard who reminded us that we look up at movies and look down at TV. How below-the-radar is Fig Fruit and the Wasps? It doesn’t even have an IMDB entry. How’s that for indie cred? This is the debut feature of M.S. Prakash Babu. It is not the kind of movie one follows. It is the kind of movie one gets inside and lives in, like a warm coat, for a brief time. It is the kind of movie inside which one luxuriates. Shot in Scope. I’ve been grumbling about Scope. This is kinda my new thing. Even when I am not grumbling about Scope in my written ruminations, I am often grumbling about Scope in the echo chamber of my skull. Fig Fruit and the Wasp needed to be shot in Scope. It is the only film I saw at the festival about which I can absolutely say 100% this is the case. It earns is lavish wide frames. We are talking about a place the same way we were talking about a place in regard to August Winds. Fig Fruit finds us in the company of two individuals, a female documentary filmmaker (Bhavani Prakash) and her cameraman (Ranjit Bhaskaran), who visit a removed outpost (this time in Southern India) where they (and we) primarily just hang out. The movie is composed primarily of long takes, shot from a distance, of people suspended in landscapes. I suspect that the two leads were cast because they each have a face and a manner that suggests something more than wisdom or certainly intelligence. They suggest an ineluctable sense of having lived. These people have seen more than their age might suggest they have. They are not anxious to do much of anything other than inhabit the world with their bodies and all their attention. They are forlorn observers, long since having outgrown the youthful indignity of being prone to surprise. There is an ennui in this. There is a sapience as well. Sapience, as elaborated upon in Eugène Green’s recent La Sapienza (2014), being all about the kind of knowledge (not necessarily quantitative) that is useful for those in search of something like genuine wisdom. So yes, wisdom. Here wisdom is something that is worn on the person, like an expression or a piece of ornate jewelry, more than it is something the person demonstrates. The documentarian and her cameraman, who have developed the kind of relationship that doesn’t require them to say much of anything to one another, have come to this outpost as part of a project whereby they intend to explore how different kinds of music and different kinds of musical instruments (right down to the shape of the instruments) emerge from different regions. What they do not do in the movie is make much headway in terms of gleaning much information that would serve them in this endeavour. (A villager, improbably, reminds the cameraman that Adorno got there first.) Rather, they merely inhabit the region. The mysterious hereness of a here. As do we. That is what we have entered this movie in order to do. To be, with the full weight of what is meant by “to be,” in a here that would to us have otherwise been an elsewhere. International cinema has always been bequeathing this gift unto us. It is art. It is also a kind of circumscribed, modulated travel. I love movies like Fig Fruit and the Wasp that have few ancillary interests beyond dropping us off somewhere we have never been to primarily look, listen, listen to our listening (as Heidegger would have us do), and feel our feelings along with the humming of our distanced thoughts. The idea here, however, is that a specific region will pick up different frequencies of universal spirit than will other regions, hence the different forms of music that emerge from different places. It is spirit. Geist. There is spirit and music coming out of a place. To be in a place is to always be in proximity to a particular variation of intensive cosmic elements. Spiritual elements, hence musical ones. The onus is on us. To be. Here. Any here. But to really be here. I was compelled to go see Fig Fruit because the festival program compared it to works by Satyajit Ray, Yasujirō Ozu, and Robert Bresson. Great. Bresson is my God. Those other two guys are great. I love them. Well, no. This is all very misleading. If you want a sense of what M.S. Prakash Babu is doing with form and tone, you would be better off looking at the bits in Antonioni or in Nuri Bilge Ceylan (I thought especially of the wonderful Uzak (2002)) where not much of anything is going on. People call this stuff “slow cinema.” I don’t really want to be the “slow cinema” guy. Nonetheless: long live “slow cinema”!
2. The Forbidden Room
Ah, dreary, windy Winnipeg’s finest export: the inimitable Guy Maddin. You love Guy Maddin. Obviously. I know I am always ready to hand my grey neural spheres over to him so that he can prod at them with his malevolent screwdrivers and such. The Forbidden Room is a brain (and attendant networks), fit to be endlessly prodded. And guess what? There is honest to goodness neurosurgery in The Forbidden Room. What would you expect? Udo Kier plays a bunch of characters, one of whom is this crazed guy who cannot leave the behinds of ladies alone (Udo? oh please). Increasingly invasive brain surgery is employed to alleviate him of his compulsion to reach out and touch someone. Each increasingly invasive surgery is more debilitating than the last. But the asses. Oh, unceasing, profligate asses with your siren songs. It is a musical number. It is called “The Final Derrier.” With music by Sparks. Are you beginning to get the picture? You have not even fucking begun to begin to get the picture. Does something come after postmodernity? If anything does then Maddin does. I have previously called Maddin cinema’s greatest DJ. He continues to prove me right. I also remember suggesting that the experience of watching Miike’s Izo was like being a needle constantly jumping back and forth between phonograph grooves. Well, Maddin is the master. Samples, sampling, total multivalence, and that jumping back and forth, pinwheel, between phonograph grooves. The way his movies have been edited since the immortal Cowards Bend the Knee (2003)(still his best), it were as though he were bent on amphetamines and trying haphazardly to land each short on a blurry aircraft carrier. The DJ thing really started with his masterful short film The Heart of the World (2000). Cinema: Year Y2K. That was when the montage went into overdrive. He has not come back to earth. Earth? What earth? Whatever comes after postmodernity does not exactly happen on earth. I am beginning to think that he has started to speed things up to such an extent so that he can pull off some Hadron Collider shit and start to bi-locate like in Pynchon’s Against the Day. I would call The Forbidden Room high concept, except you really need to pluralize concept. The temptation in describing it is to start a whole bunch of places at once. I am already kind of doing that, aren’t I? A couple basic concepts: 1) Maddin wanted to film little movies based on films that have been lost - as have been the bulk of silent films, seeing as back in the day nobody could see a future in this stuff - and he took a bunch of names of such films and quasi-free-associatively started making little movies based (sort of) on lost movies; 2) Maddin found himself invited to make little movies (or movie-happenings) at the Pompidou in Paris and the Phi Centre in Montreal, and large groups of spectators converged in these places to watched him shoot some of the fragments that would be incorporated into The Forbidden Room, with some pretty game movie faces such as those belonging to Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, and Maria de Medeiros; 3) Related to the previous two undertakings (and The Forbidden Room), Mr. Maddin has embarked on an experimental journey to bring all of this madness together on a complicated, immersive website to be called Seances (I am assuming that a lot of stuff that is in The Forbidden Room will also be reworked into the universe of Seances). What Maddin has ultimately concocted here is concentric movie-world asteroid belts through which the audience is trafficked in something entirely unlike a straight line. So basically there are a lot of movies inside this movie, revolving around no central body. They are all emphatically Guy Maddin movies. Though George Toles is no longer writing scripts for Maddin, we are still basically getting George Toles. Praise the Lord. We also get Maddin’s new collaborator, co-director Evan Johnson. It seems that Johnson’s primary job is to build the world of the surface of the movie in postproduction. He takes the shot footage and digitally reworks it in such a way that is all suffused with the patina of different kinds of film-film worlds going to pot. We are getting something like the decaying film stock of Decasia (2002) built exclusively with a digital toolbox. There is some real entropy at work here, and the sense that, with no central body, the movies we are watching are sliding out of orbit. Submarine movies, woodsmen rescuing damsels from wolfmen movies, virgins fed to volcanoes movies, Indonesian vampire movies, crime movies, a movie about a guy who forgets his wife’s birthday and so gives her all of his stuff and says he got her duplicates but when she asks where the original stuff is the world caves in. There are a lot of movies here. They are diverting. They are fun. Some of it is pretty close to sketch comedy territory. But the cinematic machinery in place is the stuff of pure demonic magik-with-a-k. So bring on Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton. I want more!
Love, otherwise known as Love 3D. You may be excused if you think I am putting this at the top of my list to be needlessly contrarian or provocative. I am not. I can see how you might think that this is something I might do. Not because I might do something like this, but rather because I am canny enough to see how I may be perceived, incorrectly, to be the kind of person who might do something like this. I am not immoderately political about what I like. I know what I like is good. I know what I say is cogent and well-reasoned (if sometimes slightly scattershot in execution). I also fully expect to meet opposition in regards to the efficacy of these two assertions. That’s how it goes. I believe that there were critics who liked Gaspar Noé after his first two films. I get the impression that they have almost uniformly washed their hands of him at this point. Sure, he was asking for it. Does that make it just? Not in this case, no. I do notice, however, that I often come into contact with intelligent artists, working in all the various domains, most of them fairly young, for whom Noé’s work means a lot. (I will also mention that my sister once told me he was the worst person she ever met.) I was somewhat ambivalent about Enter the Void (2009). Ambivalent is not the right word. I greatly admired the filmmaking. This guy is an absolutely peerless visual artist. I hated, hated, hated the concept. This dunderheaded, embarrassingly literal-minded idea about reincarnation as explored in the Tibetan Book of the Dead made me blush it was so stupid. That’s some ludicrous Christopher Nolan shit (ouch!). It also struck me that some of the criticism about the way he deals with sordid things is apt. He cheapens the sordid in Enter the Void, which I don’t believe he did in Irreversible (2002). I really loved Irreversible. A woman at a party almost slit my throat because I said I love Irreversible. And Love. Love is almost completely not sordid (unless you are a total prude). Almost. There is the abrasive 3D cum shot, after all. There is the POV from inside the vagina as it is pounded. Two extremely sordid moments. Almost there because they unfortunately have to be there. I am prepared to accept them and move on. The movie was famous in its way from the word go. 3D sex. Unsimulated sex. Graphic sex. 3D porn. Let me make this extremely clear: this is an erotic movie, not a pornographic one. A lot of these tableau reminded me of Catholic paintings. If the walls of Italian churches featured hardcore sex, I can assure you it would look a lot like this movie (though there would doubtlessly be more Renaissance-appropriate clothes on the floors beside the beds). And nothing meant to excite or titillate for the mere sake of exciting or titillating could conceivably move a person, touch a person, or make a person as sad as I was made by Love. And the sex is utterly glorious. Some people have complained that the sex is unremarkable. Not enough fancy positions and stuff. Some people have claimed that you can get this stuff online. I have a pretty good working knowledge of what you can get online. You can absolutely not get anything like Love (especially as seen 3D in a movie theatre) online. And you want fancy sex calisthenics? The film is about how sex and love haunt us, and I’m a meat and potatoes guy for the most part, so I was happy that we were dealing with the exact kinds of sex I can remember myself having had. I have become something of a monk, vaguely chaste, mostly alone, remembering. Sex is primarily for me something I remember. I am coming clean. Is this making you queasy? I apologize. And romantic love primarily exists in my life as something that is abstract or theoretical except, of course, when its real-life (my real life) iterations are haunting me, driving me mad, totally threatening to upend me. I have to remember the most important thing about romantic love: when mortal beings find one another, the most fundamental underlying reality is that we are dealing in some serious fucking impermanence. We meet up with the people we love. This is the first step in letting them go. Noé is famous for making films that are unpleasant. The implication often seems to be that only a sick person could enjoy them. Right. Show me a person who is not a set of symptoms. Still, there is something deeply unpleasant about Love. Our protagonist (Karl Glusman, playing a character with the Beckett-invoking name of Murphy) is extremely unlikeable. Early on it the movie I was troubled a bit, convinced it would be easier to like Love if the main character were not so objectionable. But then it would tell us men less of the truth about ourselves. If we grieve the past embrace, if the best sex we ever had haunts us and threatens to destroy us, it is because we are selfish. And we are. We are selfish in the face of God's gifts. As for the sex (God's best gift?): I can find almost nothing profane about it. It is intimate and real for the most part. There is serenity. There is also drunk sex, sad sex, and angry sex. A litany of our personal sex experiences is always going to parallel a difficult litany of moods, instabilities, failings, yearnings, embarrassments, and feelings that are often too much to entirely feel. We spend a lot of time fucking the pain away. And when the fucking is over? I don’t know about you, but both Murphy and I have had to spend a lot of time grieving. So pretty much all of the sex in Love is remembered sex, sex from the past. The power of 3D, however, is that it brings us right into the sex in a haptic and immersive way. When we remember sex, of course, we are remembering it, whether we give into this or not, with our whole bodies. The sex scenes in Love (oh my, there are so many) bring us headlong into a past present. The 3D immersion is amniotic. We are inside an act, inside a room, inside the past, but Noé’s great gift here is to make everything exceedingly present - very here, very now. An act in a narcotic bubble, suspended there. This is why Murphy is in such grief. He can feel a living in the past from which he is endlessly jostled by the insistent intrusion of reality. He has lost his love (her name, oh boy, is Electra) who is dead or had might as well be. If you love properly you will grieve. If you grieve properly you will let go. Murphy cannot let go. Sigh. I’ve traditionally had a hell of a time of it myself.