PREMIERING AT THE DIRECTORS’ FORTNIGHT, Shit Year, Cam Archer’s second feature (after 2006’s mildly experimental gay coming-of-age tale Wild Tigers I Have Known), is more satisfying to say than to watch. Ellen Barkin stars as Colleen West, a just-retired actress still recovering from her breakup with Harvey (Luke Grimes), a perfectly sculpted ephebe who costarred with her in a play. Archer’s film, mistaking willful incomprehensibility for artfulness, unfolds as a series of disjointed, dead-end vignettes (some involving Colleen’s experiments with “simulations” to bring Harvey back, others including craft projects with apples supervised by an irritatingly buoyant neighbor) that Barkin, ever game, can enliven only so much.
Shit Year would also be an apt title for Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, an assiduously researched documentary on the global economic meltdown of 2008, presented as a Special Screening at Cannes before its official theatrical release later in 2010. Ferguson, a political scientist, follows the same methodology he employed in his first doc, 2007’s No End in Sight, about the American occupation of Iraq, assembling a vast array of talking heads to explicate the pathology of unregulated markets. (Sometimes quite literally: one interviewee is a psychotherapist whose clients were Wall Streeters.)
Though the world is still reeling from financial calamity and the euro continues to slide, the hordes of ticket hopefuls outside the Palais fretted not over international crises but about getting inside the Lumière theater to see the latest by Woody Allen, a Cannes perennial. Several waved handwritten signs pleading “Une invitation: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger s.v.p.” or simply shouted their request, their vocals, in a moment of supreme auditory and cognitive dissonance, mixing with those of the man hawking copies of Libération.
MONEY NEVER SLEEPS, according to the subtitle of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel, screening Out of Competition this morning—and neither do festival-goers. The party last night on the Plage Vegaluna for Mathieu Amalric’s burlesque celebration Tournée featured Serge Bozon, the director of La France, spinning from his collection of 1960s 45s. As the film’s stars Mimi Le Meaux, Dirty Martini, and Julie Atlas Muz shimmied and batted mile-long eyelashes to “Double-O-Soul” and “Love Potion Number Nine,” others performed interpretive, twenty-first-century versions of the frug and the monkey. At 2:30 in the morning, Bozon apologized: “The party should last longer, but we can’t because of the police.”
Those who skimp on slumber can always catch up . . . during the screenings. At least one gentleman to my left was in deep REM sleep during Cristi Puiu’s Un Certain Regard entry Aurora, which unspooled at 11 AM. The Romanian director, whose last film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, won the UCR Award in 2005, sheepishly warned the audience beforehand, “It’s a long film—I’m sorry for that.” During Aurora’s 181 minutes, Puiu plays a man distressed for opaque reasons, all of which are explained in the final reel. If the endurance required for the mordantly jokey payoff seems excessive, Aurora is, at the very least, a movie with both challenging ideas and a challenging structure.
The same cannot be said of the UCR title that directly followed Puiu’s movie, Hideo Nakata’s Chatroom, written by Enda Walsh (who also coscripted Steve McQueen’s Hunger, the winner of the 2008 Caméra d’Or prize for best first film), adapting his stage play of the same name. A quintet of London adolescents, led by a charismatic, unmedicated sociopath named William (Aaron Johnson, twerpy star of Kick-Ass and the upcoming Nowhere Boy), become connected through Chelsea Teens!, a virtual space rendered as a supersaturated “real” meeting room at the end of a grotty corridor. Lessons learned: Too much time on the Internet is dangerous! Don’t get attached to your iPhone! Young people have big emotions! Suicide is not painless! “Now” is the last word of Nakata’s film, earnestly circulating pseudosociology that’s about as current as a dial-up modem.
“COULD I HAVE BEEN to that place of absolute love I’ve heard about?” wonders Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), a photographer who’s become enchanted by a dead young bride he’s been asked to take pictures of, in Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, which opened Un Certain Regard. The Portuguese director, 101 years old, was born just fourteen years after cinema itself was created; using a cane to navigate the steps to the Salle Debussy stage, where he was greeted with a standing ovation, de Oliveira displayed the energy of someone a mere two-thirds his age.
Isaac’s question is one of the loftier expressed about matters of the heart; in several films viewed over the past twenty-four hours, the pleasures—and perils—of the flesh dominate. Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas, another UCR entry, opens with its married protagonist and his mistress in the middle of a naked romp. Putting the XXX in extramarital, Im Sang-soo’s Competition title The Housemaid (a remake of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film) tracks the disastrous outcome once the wife of a titan of industry discovers he has impregnated the domestic servant of the title. And the bosomy burlesque stars (many playing themselves) performing along the coast of France in actor-director Mathieu Amalric’s Tournée, also unspooling in Competition, excite male and female spectators alike, including one avid, matronly cashier in La Rochelle.
The protagonist of de Oliveira’s film, who falls in love with a ghost, also touches on another theme in the festival: absence, particularly that of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was asked to be a juror at Cannes but remains imprisoned in Tehran for his political views. Denied the right to join the festival in person, Panahi made a surprise appearance on-screen, in a three-minute short that preceded The Strange Case of Angelica, filmed sometime during his detention. Wry even under the worst circumstances, Panahi can’t help but note the absurdity of a security guard telling him, “I love The Circle,” his prize-winning 2000 film.
Ridley Scott, Robin Hood, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 131 minutes.
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL head Thierry Frémaux recently admitted that this is a “difficult” year for the twelve-day cine-feast, referring to the disappointment that several titles many had hoped would be in the lineup weren’t completed in time, like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Forces of nature have added to the complications: Freakish twenty-foot waves buffeted the Côte d’Azur last week; lingering Icelandic volcanic ash has delayed the flights of many festival attendees.
Those journalists who did arrive on time gathered this morning at the Salle Debussy for the press screening of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, essentially a prequel to the legend of the outlaw hero who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. As the opening-night film at Cannes, it’s a slightly perverse choice—the French, battling the English, are portrayed as marauders, rapists, and would-be baby killers. At the post-screening press conference, Russell Crowe, who plays the title role, had a different take, explaining the significance of one scene in the film sure to stir Gallic pride: “Richard the Lionhearted was killed by a crossbow shot by a French cook—that’s why we’re opening the festival.” Crowe was joking, but several journalists were not, earnestly—if inexplicably—asking the actor, a sports enthusiast, what he thought of various international soccer teams and his predictions for the World Cup.
Weightier inquiries were directed toward the nine members of the competition jury, presided over by Tim Burton this year. A reporter from The Guardian asked both Burton and juror Kate Beckinsale what they thought of the fact that there were no women directors in competition. The British actress declined to answer. But Burton, after gently reminding his interlocutor that he and his colleagues don’t decide which films are selected for the festival, replied more broadly on the dearth of female helmers, in Cannes and elsewhere: “It’s an interesting question, and I think you should ask the people who have the power to greenlight movies, some of whom are women.”
Matthew Barney, Cremaster I, 1995, color film, 40 minutes. Production still. Photo: Michael James O’Brien. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery.
THOUGH HE COMPLETED his five-film “Cremaster” cycle less than a decade ago, then topped off the whole project in 2003 with a museum-spanning exhibition of sculptures and installations at the Guggenheim, Matthew Barney has quickly become a figure from a seemingly distant, more ostentatious age—the art-world equivalent of a stretch Humvee. The cycle’s theatrical revival this year will hardly undermine his status as the epitome of a certain kind of celebrity-artist, a value lesson in what happens when the manufacture of fame in the service of increasing the monetary value of artificially rare products overtakes the art itself, which devolves into nothing but placeholders for this process. Even the distributor of the films’ current run makes pains to reinforce the moneyed-class crudity that mere scarcity equals worth. The cycle “is not now, nor will it ever be, available to consumers on DVD,” the organization’s press release warns, with overtones of the Disney vault. “The only place it can be seen is on screen in theaters, making this re-release a welcome return to true theatrical repertory programming.” By this Barnumesque logic, Barney might as well be the Feejee Mermaid.
Of course, rareness has its function in cinema programming as in the art world, but to different ends. The cinephile indeed craves obscurity—the only extant print, the never-distributed title—but doesn’t assume that the hard-to-see film is necessarily good. A slapdash movie of notable provenance might pique her interest as much as the long-thought-lost masterpiece of a great director. The Barney effect, however, depends on the notion that an inverse ratio of fame to access will magically invest his movies with the aura of true art. But the very possibility of this system, for audiovisual media at least, has dissolved. Despite awkward Hollywood-style efforts at reducing copies (this critic had to submit a signed statement that he wouldn’t duplicate the digitally watermarked preview DVDs provided for review), multiple torrents of the Cremaster films have long been available on The Pirate Bay and elsewhere for anyone who’d like to view them. In the digital era, nothing famous can be inaccessible. True cinematic rarities remain beyond the reach of the downloadable, elusively unseeded, and barely Googled. Ryan Trecartin, notably, emerged from the world of YouTube, not in defiance of the tide.
Even considered on their own, with historical distance from the financial context of their making, the films constitute an epic fail unto themselves. Barney never grasped the value of editing, structuring his work in a clumsy back-and-forth between parallel actions whose unproductive tedium sabotages any spectacular value of his shopwindow production numbers. The destroyed luxury cars in Cremaster 3 (2002), the football-stadium kick lines in Cremaster 1 (1995), and even the aerial shots in the relatively low-budget Cremaster 4 (1994) prove unable to evoke feelings of majesty and profundity, coming off instead as just showy. Seen in 2010, one cannot but help hear a Project Runway voice whispering behind every shot: “It looks expensive!” Unsuccessful on the terms of their own medium, the films actually undermine Barney’s true talents as a sculptor and photographer. He has an undeniable eye for the striking image, in his best moments marrying symmetrical elegance with corporeal ooze, but these deluxe shock effects grow wearisome without an advanced or even competent temporal structure. Thus his deployment of numerous systems of arcane symbolism—Masonic, Mormon, Gaelic, biological, or otherwise—seems a desperate move, as if he hopes piling on more and more stuff will grant some deeper meaning through the force of nothing but acquisition and accumulation.
Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle plays May 19–June 3 at the IFC Center in New York. Barney will appear in person with curator Richard Flood on Thursday, May 20 at 7 PM. For more details on screenings, click here. For the cycle’s official website, click here.
IF YOU WANT to make people uncomfortable at your next family get-together, stream Bryan Poyser’s Lovers of Hate (available on IFC Films on Demand until June 15). Poyser’s first feature skimmed slightly above the radar at this year’s Sundance and SXSW film festivals and went straight to VOD, which may be the best place to watch it. The sibling rivalry narrative is likely to get under the skin of even well-adjusted brothers—and some sisters and wives as well.
Disconcerting in both form and content, Lovers of Hate begins like a drab version of a Seth Rogen mismatched rom-com, then veers into stalker-horror before slacking off into . . . but no, I don’t want to entirely give away its apposite inconclusiveness. The film’s title derives from the novel on which older brother Rudy (Chris Doubek) has long claimed to be at work, although, like Jack Nicholson’s blocked author in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)—clearly on Poyser’s mind—he may not have gotten past the opening page.
Rudy is first glimpsed attempting furtively to hose the sweat off his droopy body at the local gas station. He’s been living in his car since his wife Diana (Heather Kafka) kicked him out. When younger brother Paul (Alex Karpovsky) arrives in town on a book tour and discovers the breakup, he puts the moves on Diana. Rudy confronts them, and his humiliation-fueled rage gives the movie a charge of negative energy that director and actor sustain almost to the end. But Rudy’s resentment of his facile, opportunistic sib predates Paul’s poaching of Diana. Although the children’s books that have made Paul the American near equivalent of J. K. Rowling bear the dedication “For Rudy,” Paul has never publicly acknowledged that they are based on narratives and characters that Rudy invented to entertain him when they were kids.
Rudy follows his brother to a sprawling, snow-covered Utah vacation house where Paul has gone—ostensibly to write, but actually to tryst with Diana. Skulking unseen behind half-closed doors, Rudy is mesmerized by the sight of his brother and his estranged wife fucking themselves blind: They fail to notice his presence for days. Since Paul and Rudy are both, each in his own way, total shits, it’s fitting that Rudy employs a toilet as his instrument of terror, his regressive maneuver recalling acts of aggression by and against various nuclear family members forced to live in intimate conditions with people they are supposed to love but in fact loathe. As in The Shining, the oversize digs only reinforce the sense of psychological claustrophobia.
The movie opens in Austin, home of SXSW, then repairs to Park City, where the ski lodge that the Austin contingent shared at the 2009 Sundance festival became the principal location. Production values are barely existent, but the camera placement and editing, particularly in relation to Rudy’s s/m voyeurism, are brilliant. Ditto the script and the performances. Doubek, Karpovsky, and Kafka should be commended for making their characters thoroughly unappealing while eschewing villainous flourishes. The horror in Lovers of Hate is all too familiar—or, as Freud would have termed it, Heimlich. It’s rare, however, to see it depicted with such disgusting specificity on the screen.
Lovers of Hate is available on IFC Films on Demand through June 15. For more details, click here.