Left: Jo Sung-Hee, End of Animal, 2010, still from a color film, 114 minutes. Right: Théo Court, Ocaso, 2010, still from a color film, 80 minutes.
THE THEME of the 2011 International Film Festival Rotterdam was “XL”—as in the Roman numerals for “forty,” referring to this venerable event’s ruby anniversary and to the forty additional venues, from museums and galleries to a makeshift Chinese-style tavern–cum–performance space, that the festival occupied this year, stretching far beyond its downtown hub and across this port city’s busy Maas River. Sprawl, for better or worse, is one of the Rotterdam festival’s signature traits. Sandwiched between Sundance and Berlin, and more adventurous than either, it has for some time now been a multitentacled beast, adopting a progressive stance on multiple fronts: an interest in new voices (as showcased in the Tiger competition for first- and second-time directors); an allegiance to the cinema of the developing world (nurtured through the affiliated Hubert Bals Fund); and a commitment to historical retrospectives, experimental films, and installation work.
The habitual abundance, even more pronounced in this supersize edition, can translate to a frustrating lack of focus—but there are worse problems for a major film festival to have. Many of the designated sidebars would be significant stand-alone events in other contexts. A series of “Red Westerns,” ranging from Kuleshovian adventures to Eastern Bloc potboilers, attested to the malleable iconography of the most American of genres (some of the movies are showing at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of a Soviet action films program this month). The “Water Tiger Inn” survey took in several decades of martial-arts classics, including all-time greats of the genre by King Hu, Chang Cheh, and Tsui Hark. The career tribute to Nathaniel Dorsky seemed to inspire—as befits the filmmaker’s silent, rapturous tone poems—an awe bordering on reverence: Many a newly converted fanboy-disciple could be seen clutching a signed copy of Dorsky’s artistic manifesto Devotional Cinema (2003). Agustí Villaronga, another “filmmaker in focus,” turned out to be an intriguing forgotten man (internationally, at least) of post-Franco Spanish cinema. The high point of his checkered career arguably remains his first feature, In a Glass Cage (1987), an anatomy of the dark heart of fascism and a queasy masterpiece of political, psychological, and erotic horror, in which a onetime Nazi death camp doctor, entombed in an iron lung, becomes ensnared in the sadomasochistic revenge plot of a former victim.
Many of the filmmakers who got their big breaks in Rotterdam remain part of the large extended family. In honor of the fortieth edition, a one-off “Return of the Tiger” section encompassed new work from past winners such as Hong Sang-Soo, Pablo Trapero, and Kelly Reichardt. Two of last year’s winners, Mexico’s Pedro González-Rubio and the US’s Ben Russell, were back as a participants in the IFFR’s co-production market CineMart (González-Rubio found European partners for his new project, Tree Shade; Russell, who’s collaborating with another gifted experimental filmmaker, Ben Rivers, won a special mention from the CineMart jury). The Cinema Reloaded initiative enlisted a pair of Rotterdam regulars to make crowd-funded digital shorts: Ho Yuhang’s feisty doc essay No One Is Illegal considers the rabid anti-Malaysian sentiment among Indonesian nationalist fanatics, while Alexis Dos Santos finds a winning match of form and content in the split-screened, sweetly glitchy Chatroulette romance Random Strangers. Another Rotterdam alum, Raya Martin, contributed one of the festival’s clear highlights in the form of a trailer for the Hubert Bals Fund: a gorgeous, hand-painted, minute-long sensory cascade whose pleasures only intensified with repeat encounters.
The jury, which included Lucrecia Martel, Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu director Andrei Ujica, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo (who performed at the closing ceremony), conferred the three Tiger awards to Eternity, a delicate story of love and the afterlife by Thai first-timer Sivaroj Kongsakul; Finisterrae, an insidery spoof of art-film pretensions by Sergio Caballero, beautifully shot by Eduard Grau (cinematographer of Albert Serra’s Honor de Cavalleria, one of the films Finisterrae lampoons); and Park Joo-Bong’s The Journals of Musan, a sober and finely etched character study–cum–social drama, about a North Korean defector adrift in Seoul. (Park was an assistant director for Lee Chang-Dong, and he learned his lessons well.)
Musan, which also won the critics’ prize, was part of a robust showing from young Korean filmmakers. A fellow Tiger competitor, Yoon Sung-Hyun’s Bleak Night, which probes the aftermath of a teen suicide, is likewise notable for its tenderness and maturity (especially given that it was the director’s graduation project at the Korean Film Academy). An even more impressive debut, Jo Sung-Hee’s restrained, sustained End of Animal is a postapocalyptic parable with a killer premise (pregnant woman shares cab with mysterious stranger who knows her past and forecasts her future), poised between religious allegory and monster movie, with shades of Ballard, Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, and Lost before the series succumbed to overwrought explanations.
Rotterdam often welcomes the too-small-for-Sundance American indie, and there was a regionalist bent to many of this year’s US dramas, which included Matthew Petock’s A Little Closer, about the respective plights of a single mother and her two boys in rural Virginia; R. Alverson’s New Jerusalem, also set in Virginia, about an Irish-American war vet and his evangelical co-worker (played by Will Oldham, modifying his Old Joy gadfly); Malcolm Murray’s slacker romance Bad Posture, set among gun-toting Albuquerque petty criminals—all a touch predictable, and perhaps modest to a fault, but sensitively observed and each promising in its own way. (Michael Tully’s Septien, one of the few Amerindies that did play Sundance, smartly undercuts the regional-realist trend with a wry riff on the eccentric, trash-humping Deep South.) But the most interesting film by an American director was perhaps the very un-American Headshots, a first feature by Texas-born German resident Lawrence Tooley, a flinty portrait of a Berlin woman’s psychic distress that gets at the empty heart of modern urban disaffection.
Two of the best films would have made for a fine double bill. From Spanish director José Maria de Orbe, Aita is a memory piece about a building (in the Basque village of Astigarraga) and the passage of time, as seen in the shifting light and felt in every dusty nook of this centuries-old mansion. When the sun is up, schoolchildren roam and workers talk shop; the ghosts come out at night, as flickering celluloid projections on the walls. Similarly set in a crumbling house, surrounded by woods and shrouded in fog, Théo Court’s Ocaso follows a Chilean caretaker on his solitary daily routines—it’s a Lisandro Alonso story in an Aleksandr Sokurov world, an atmospheric immersion in a fading twilight zone that alights on startling passages of beauty and quietude. In this maximalist festival, it was the moments of plangent minimalism that made the strongest impression.
The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 26–February 6, 2011.
Pablo Trapero, Carancho, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 107 minutes.
TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS are the number one cause of death in people under thirty-five in Argentina, eight thousand fatalities a year. Profiting from these “incidents” are ambulance-chasing lawyers who sue insurance companies on behalf of the victims and keep most of the spoils for themselves. In Carancho (the title means “bird of prey”), Pablo Trapero crosses the social realism of his early and strongest movies—Crane World (1999) and El bonaerense (2002)—with the brutality and slightly steamy sex of film noir. Most directors settle for the stylistics of noir—venetian blind shadows and oblique camera angles. Trapero goes for the substance: institutional corruption that robs everyone it touches of their moral compass.
The picture opens with Hector Sosa (Argentine star Ricardo Darín) getting beat up for reasons that become clear only much later. As a result, he goes though the film with the dazed though antagonistic demeanor of the prototypical noir protagonist. While he waits for his license to practice law to be reinstated (we never find out why he lost it in the first place, which reinforces our sense of the utter confusion and corruption of the justice system), Sosa works for a scummy supposed community service organization, chasing down accident victims and convincing them or their grieving relatives to sign on the dotted line. Disgusted with his part in this lucrative scam, he tries to quit but discovers that the only way he’ll escape “The Foundation” is if its thugs go too far and kill him instead of just roughing him up.
Acting on tips from EMS workers and hospital higher-ups (not to mention the police, who also get a piece of the action), Sosa is usually first to arrive on accident scenes. He repeatedly encounters a young doctor, Luján (Martina Gusman), fresh from the provinces, who works with an ambulance service and moonlights in the ER. Self-medicating to stay awake and to numb herself to the horrors of her jobs, Luján has become a full-fledged addict. The two begin an affair, but Luján breaks it off when she discovers that Sosa is trying to make amends to the clients that his boss ripped off by staging accidents that will give them another chance to make a claim. Luján doesn’t only have moral qualms about the scheme; she also realizes that there’s no way to limit the injuries that the fraudulent victims will sustain. Nevertheless, she can’t entirely close the door on Sosa.
Shooting at night on highways and suburban streets, in rundown corners of Buenos Aires and in ERs so poorly equipped they might as well be in a third-world country, Trapero has created a claustrophobic, sordid landscape that takes its color scheme from the brownish-red of dried blood and the yellow-green of hospital neon. The body count is high, the deadly denouement inevitable.
Trapero is a force, as both a director and a producer, in Argentina’s exploding though financially strapped film industry. His most obvious attempt at commercial filmmaking (car crashes, blood, sex, drugs, ER drama), Carancho is probably too downbeat to make money at the box office and too realistically brutal to please art-house audiences. (The remake rights have already been bought by Hollywood, with Scott Cooper of Crazy Heart  slated to direct.) I prefer Trapero’s more humanist films—the two mentioned above plus Rolling Family (2004)—but I can’t imagine a less exploitive, more disturbing depiction of institutionalized corruption than the one he has made.
Carancho opens Friday, February 11, at the Angelika Film Center in New York. For more details, click here.
Aaron Katz, Cold Weather, 2010, still from a color film in HD, 97 minutes. Gail and Doug (Trieste Kelly Dunn and Cris Lankenau).
AARON KATZ’S DANCE PARTY, USA (2006) is in the top ten of my Best High School Movies list. His third and latest, Cold Weather has one of the subtlest last lines ever, and when I can find where I buried that particular list, I’ll add it in. “There’s something at the beginning of this,” says Doug, our protagonist, to his sister Gail, who’s sitting next to him in the front seat of his car. There’s barely time for the words to register before the screen goes black. Doug is referring specifically to an old mixtape that he’s trying to play, but he could also be talking about their relationship, how what happened that day renewed their childhood bond and also concluded it, and that what’s ahead is the beginning of their life as connected but independent adults.
Katz is one of American indie cinema’s most talented lyric poets. Delicate and utterly beguiling, his movies coalesce around fleeting images and bits of casual conversation layered with meaning. Cold Weather, like Dance Party, USA and Quiet City (2007), is a movie about how people who are not quite sure of who they are find themselves through the process of making connections—however tentative and oblique—with others. Cold Weather adds a new element. About a third of the way through, it turns into a rescue-the-maiden thriller, a genre movie as it could be playfully imagined and enacted by devotees of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.
And of Sherlock Holmes—the stories, not the movies. Doug (Cris Lankenau) has dropped out of college just short of getting a degree in forensic science and is crashing in the Portland, Oregon, apartment of his slightly older sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). He gets a job in an ice factory, where he strikes up a friendship with Carlos (Raúl Castillo) and spends the rest of his time lounging on the couch reading the Sherlock Holmes books that were his boyhood favorites and that he also lends to Carlos. Just when the movie threatens to become slackerish, Doug’s former girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) arrives in town. Carlos asks her on a date (with Doug’s permission) and when she doesn’t show, he’s convinced there’s been foul play. Ridiculous, says Doug, until he glimpses a guy in a pickup truck watching the motel room from which Rachel has vanished and seizes the opportunity to become the Holmes of his imagination for real.
In the hands of a lesser writer-director, the Holmes/forensic science backstory would feel forced and unbelievable, since Doug seems constitutionally averse to questioning anything—neither himself nor the outside world. But Katz, aided enormously by Lankenau’s subtle performance, lays a trail of psychological clues—in effect turning the viewer into a detective—so that one realizes that Doug idolizes Holmes precisely because his own curiosity has been somehow stunted; he probably studied forensic science in the hope of overcoming his inhibition, but it’s been to no avail, until the changes in his circumstances and pure chance free him to act on his desires and intuition.
Katz is a triple threat, his editing every bit as important as his writing and directing for his movies’ sense of place, shifting tonalities, and emotional vibrations. He’s a master of abrupt cuts and big temporal ellipses. The best joke in Cold Weather is the shot that’s omitted from the final caper, but how can you laugh out loud at something that’s not on the screen? Eight minutes into the movie, having set a brisk pace—despite the absence of action—by clipping scenes short of where they seem to be leading, he allows a single shot to run a full sixty seconds. Doug has persuaded Gail to play hooky from work and drive to the ocean with him. We see them in long shot sitting at a picnic table, too far away to hear what, if anything, they might be saying. The sky is overcast, as it almost always is in this very Portland movie, and its variegated gray-blue is only slightly distinct from the variegated blue-gray of the surf. (Cold Weather was exquisitely lensed by Andrew Reed, Katz’s regular cinematographer, using the RED camera.) A gull is circling them, trying to pick off the remains of their sandwiches. Toward the end of the shot, a bit of Keegan DeWitt’s bouncy but ever so faintly ominous score kicks in and carries over to the next shot of the sibs as they drive back to the city. With those sixty seconds, Katz allows us to enter the world of the movie of our own volition. By the time Doug says his last line, “There’s something in the beginning of this,” I want to go back again to rediscover exactly what that something is.
“THE FANTASTIC WORLD OF FRANTIŠEK VLÁČIL” is one of the most important retrospectives to hit New York in recent memory. Although Vláčil’s first feature, The White Dove (1960), drew considerable attention, and his medieval epic Marketa Lazarová (1967) was voted the best Czech film of all time in a poll of European critics, his work is virtually unknown in the US. Pressed to name the notable figures of the Czech New Wave, few critics would cite Vláčil among such better-known directors as Jiří Menzel, Milos Forman, Jan Němec, and Ivan Passer. Arguably, Vláčil approached life under communism less directly than his peers, preferring symbolic narratives set in the Middle Ages or in the more recent past under Nazi occupation. Nonetheless, his films reflect the complex cultural and linguistic tapestry of the country’s politically divided history and identity.
Both lyrical and naturalistic, his work is infused with moral conviction, viewing present evils as manifestations of eternal conflicts. In The Valley of the Bees (1967), the protagonist struggles between carnal desire for his stepmother and the severe code of the Teutonic religious order in which he was forcibly raised. A rigorous formal structure enforces the fatalism of the parable, its bleak landscapes and stark black-and-white cinematography evoking Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957). In Adelheid (1969), set at the end of World War II, a Czech officer is assigned to reclaim an estate of a Nazi collaborator sentenced to death. Later, he learns that Adelheid, his servant woman, is the collaborator’s daughter. Though neither speaks the other’s language, their interactions assume an affecting depth that makes the denouement all the more tragic. As in Shadows of a Hot Summer (1977), about a farm family held hostage by Ukrainian partisans at the end of World War II, Vláčil addresses big themes via narrowly focused, even domestic situations. In both films, he shuns the theatrical in favor of a more terrifying low-key realism.
Vláčil had a remarkable gift for creating child characters and directing the actors who played them. Among the must-sees in the series that demonstrate this magnificently are the aforementioned White Dove and Sirius (1974), which won the Grand Prix at the Tehran Children’s Film Festival. Though both films concern a relationship between a child and an animal, they avoid sentimentality. Each child makes a tough decision that wrenches him from a sheltered view of the world. In Sirius a boy’s father is seized by the Germans for rebellious activities. To avoid surrendering his dog Sirius, named after the Dog Star, to be trained to hunt and attack men like his father, the son opts to have the animal shot by the local forester. An afterword affirming the perpetual “return” of the Dog Star suggests that freedom, sacrificed or lost under tyranny, is always reborn. Unsurprisingly, communist officials suspected that Vláčil’s allegory, as well as the stern resolve of his young protagonist, were hardly restricted to the Nazi past.
Belying its debut status, The White Dove manifests a visual eloquence that testifies to Vláčil’s ability to narrate in purely filmic terms. Paralleling its tale of a quasi-crippled boy afraid of the outside world with that of a young girl who awaits the homing pigeon of the title, the film cuts between an apartment building in Prague and an island in the Baltics. Though the boy’s slingshot appears to have killed the bird, he is inspired by an artist neighbor to nurse it back to life, a miraculous rebirth that prefigures his own. When he frees the bird to fly home, the single feather it sheds prompts him to leave his apartment in order to retrieve it. With minimal dialogue and a consistently inventive framing and shooting style, the film achieves a poetic realism worthy of Dovzhenko.
The series includes Tomáš Hejtmánek’s Sentiment (2003), an uncanny portrait of Vláčil in the guise of a documentary, in which the director is played by Jiří Kodet, an actor of comparable gravity, thinly masked by old world charm and wit. More than one viewer will believe they have encountered Vláčil himself.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE a space makes. For four years, the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier section struggled along in the basement of Park City’s Main Street shopping mall. Installations and performances were scattered around an early-1970s disco-styled lounge. Not much of a showcase for the work that Sundance—the Festival and the Institute—has dubbed “transmedia,” and which it views as a purchase on the future. This year, New Frontier has claimed the old Miner’s Hospital, a compound of three historic buildings, easy to spot from the buses shunting festival goers from one theater to another. For the first time, New Frontier curator Shari Frilot has a venue in which she can put together a coherent show, and she has come through with smarts and élan. (Many of the pieces are being shown simultaneously at the Salt Lake Art Center in Salt Lake City.)
With its exterior painted crimson and its four-floor twisty interior subdivided by black drapes, the largest of the three buildings suggests an amusement park’s haunted house; the ghosts are projections of an entirely mediated reality. In the front yard, half buried in the snow, the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s installation We Like America and America Likes Us (The Corpse) finds a site more suitable to its vision of used-car-lot entropy than any museum or art fair could offer. Dystopic visions dominate the show. Lance Weiler’s Pandemic 1.0 and Blast Theory’s A Machine to See With are interactive works that spin their webs from their central location via mobile phones to encompass (theoretically at least) twenty thousand Sundancers. In both pieces, the operations at what could be termed command central are probably more interesting to observe than any interaction one might perform out in the field. I.e., it’s more provocative to contemplate a plague spreading among the hapless festival goers, or to consider that a few dozen people might be receiving instructions to hold up a local bank (the moral decision rests with the individual, one of the Blast Theory artists assured me), than to “perform” in either piece. Like almost all the works in the show, these two have websites that one can get lost in. (For A Machine to See with it’s www.blasttheory.co.uk; for Pandemic 1.0, go to lanceweiler.com.) Aaron Koblin & Chris Milk’s The Johnny Cash Project and The Wilderness Downtown involve participants in the creation of music videos that are both collective and highly personal. (See www.thejohnnycashproject.com and www.thewildernessdowntown.com.) The Wilderness Downtown, one of my favorites, employs the Arcade Fire song “We Used to Wait” and Google Maps to access your childhood memories.
Jonathan Caouette, All Flowers in Time, 2010, still from a color film, 14 minutes.
A more traditional moving image installation, Mark Boulos’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air places the viewer between two large-screen projections. One depicts Nigerian guerrillas struggling for control of their country’s petroleum; the other shows traders on the floor of Chicago’s futures market. After Ghostcatching, a collaboration between choreographer Bill T. Jones and OpenEnded Group, uses 3-D imaging technology to create not a stronger sense of reality but rather the physical sensation of disembodiment. Daniel Canogar’s Spin and Hippocampus 2 collect the detritus of the digital age to construct visually dazzling, conceptually elegant sculptural pieces. Located in one of the smaller buildings, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s RAW/WAR is an interactive database (you can also find it at www.rawwar.org) of moving picture documents of dance, performance, and political actions, along with interviews, home movies, photographs, and experimental videos and films—a mother lode of spoken words and images that add up to a history of four decades of art by women. Leeson, a performance artist–turned-filmmaker, has also organized these same materials into a lively, useful feature-length documentary titled ! Women Art Revolution, the most straightforward of the five features grouped under the New Frontier rubric.
By far the most beautiful and moving work in New Frontier is also the most direct and simple. Jonathan Caouette’s All Flowers in Time is a fourteen-minute movie that resurrects childhood fears and perhaps lays them to rest. Technically more sophisticated than Caouette’s autobiographical debut feature, Tarnation (2003), All Flowers in Time circulates around a girl’s memory of seeing herself in a photograph with red eyeballs and thinking that she had demons inside her. There is a limpid performance by Chloë Sevigny sitting on a bed talking to a young boy whose name I couldn’t figure out from the credits. There are remarkably lyrical images, many of them digitally constructed, and there is a subtle sound design, filled with small surprises, that takes you deeper inside Caouette’s magical world than any 3-D technology could.
New Frontier continues at the Salt Lake Art Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, through March 25. For more details, click here.
KEVIN BROWNLOW’S Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite gets its title from one account of the snowball fight in Gance’s Napoléon (1927)—so notable was the French silent-film pioneer’s ability to rally the troops, even in an era when spectacle was often measured in mobilized masses. Part profile and part compilation, the 1968 film is being presented, paired with Nelly Kaplan’s short 1963 doc Abel Gance: Hier et demain, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where his antiwar epic J’accuse (1938) will also screen. The program shows a filmmaker whose career sometimes seems stuck under the sign of rediscovery—from Brownlow’s seminal written history from 1968, The Parade’s Gone By (where Gance is the climactic figure), to Kaplan’s chronicles (which include a 1980s postmortem look), on through Flicker Alley’s reconstructive DVD editions of La Roue (1923) and J’accuse.
Brownlow’s presentation is the better known, part of his acclaimed efforts to restore Napoléon to its complete glory, as a panoramic portrait streaked with examples of Gance’s physically and optically acrobatic filmmaking (from mobile camerawork to three-screen montage). Narrated by Lindsay Anderson, Charm of Dynamite flourishes extensive clips and draws on interviews from Gance’s 1965 visit to the National Film Theatre. As critic, historian, and filmmaker, Brownlow is justly getting Oscar recognition for this and other projects. But Charm of Dynamite’s predecessor Hier et demain comes from equally intriguing hands; Kaplan, a filmmaker, journalist, and Surrealist, had been Gance’s assistant (and more) for years. Framed by slow zooming shots on the filmmaker’s enigmatically shifting expressions, Hier et demain feels like an autobiographical journal, narrated in first-person quotations and densely moving through life and cinema with well-chosen detail. The death of Gance’s wife, a visit to New York (where he met instant pioneer-soulmate D. W. Griffith), and a subsequent comedy with Max Linder make for one especially poignant pivot in a personally felt time line.
Gance bore the stamp of the early cinema showman-visionary, forever steeped in the twin rhetorics of lost and unlimited potential. “Look at the people coming out of our cinemas,” he says late in Hier et demain. “Their faces are heavy and sad. It’s rare that they are content. They have been cheated.” With J’accuse returning to the screen (not to mention a general minifestival of fellow silent luminaries at the Museum of the Moving Image, including Marcel L’Herbier’s equally ambitious L’argent, 1928), it’s as good a moment as any to evaluate what was and what might have been.