AT A TIME when even high-profile movies face a nebulous afterlife, the First Look Festival at the Museum of the Moving Image, now in its sixth edition, has become increasingly indispensable to New York’s film community. Indeed, First Look is often the only look many worthy titles receive before falling into the bottomless pit of the forgotten, the neglected, and the impossible to see. From its opening feature—Hirozaku Kore-eda’s After the Storm—to the end, there isn’t a loser in this year’s lineup, and there are at least half a dozen must-sees, not likely to be better projected than on MoMI’s lustrous screen.
Among the must-sees is Alexandra Cuesta’s gorgeously photographed Territory. Its lovingly observed cinematic long takes of Ecuador exude a living sense of place and time that renders microscopic gestures and environmental sounds credibly present. With her all-too-human eye and patient sensibility, Cuesta wisely avoids commentary and has no use for images loaded with transparent “relevance.” Whether she focuses on a group of young boys lolling about, a man digging a well, an old woman recalling her once bounteous hair, or a child idly sitting on a hammock, every image is blessedly free of the triteness of a cultural agenda.
The serenity of Cuesta’s work contrasts with the urgency of several nonfiction films. German filmmaker Philip Scheffner’s Havarie is actually two movies—its audio and its visual tracks are brilliantly fused into a humanist document of the first order. The image track comprises a single three-and-a-half-minute shot protracted virtually frame by frame into a ninety-three-minute runtime. Originally filmed on September 14, 2012, the shot is of a small craft filled with immigrants from Algeria making their way across the Mediterranean to the coast of Spain. Like the lives of the people in the boat, the movie is suspended in time, the fates of the immigrants no more or less relevant than the coast guard officials patrolling the area and communicating—in English, French, Arabic, and Russian—with loved ones and one another about the present crisis, terrorism, migration, and life at sea. At a loss for solutions, these men may be no less adrift than the figures in the boat that occasionally slip into the distance where they become little more than a collective blot on the screen.
Ognjen Glavonic’s Depth Two is yet another testimony to man’s inhumanity toward man. Recounting an event of 1999 in which a freezer truck containing fifty-three dead bodies sank into the Danube River near the Romanian border, it traces the bureaucratic cover-ups that ensued until the trials of dictators such as Milošević and Šainović, held between 2002 and 2011, exposed the ugly truth: that the bodies were of citizens—of Yugoslavia, Serbia, and Kosovo—murdered by their own government. Like Havarie, the data is provided by voice-overs while contemporary views of the Danube, its environs, and neighboring villages unfold with an indifference to, if not an erasure of, recent history, a strategy that recalls Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985).
First Look has always been alert to movies that bridge or fuse genres. At least three of this year’s features could be taken equally as works of fiction and as exercises in fictionalized “reality.” The characters in Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer, a relatively slight narrative about domestic ills and a husband’s midlife crisis, share first names with the actors who play them. Christopher LaMarca’s Boone follows three earnest people forced to give up their goat farm. Since we don’t learn that until the end, the film engages us in the manner of any narrative with affecting incidents, disclosing its dispiriting outcome as a footnote, perhaps to allow us to feel the same letdown that beset the disappointed farmers. Camila Rodriguez Triana’s Atentamente (Sincerely) so warmly paints the life of an old man in a retirement home—particularly in scenes of muted affection between him and a daughter he abandoned years before—that it is readable as a sensitive chronicle of an actual situation.
In wildly disparate ways, several features reflect on the history of cinema. The simplest of these, Andrew Gil Mata’s How I Fell in Love with Eva Ras, is set in a projection booth in a theater in Bosnia/Herzogovina, where a middle-aged woman spends her days—and nights—running old features and newsreels mostly set in former Yugoslavia. The monotony of her sparse, uneventful existence contrasts with whatever cinematic illusions from the past are unspooling before an unseen audience.
More ambitious, Charlie Lyne’s Fear Itself explores how the titular emotion has been cleverly, often perversely captured, evoked, or otherwise exploited in movies since the medium’s inception. There are generous clips from more than eighty films, many of them unfamiliar, whose titles—in Japanese, Hindi, and Spanish—are somehow left untranslated. While some landmarks are here—Hitchcock, Cronenberg, Whale—they are cleverly defamiliarized by the way the editing integrates them or by replacing their sound tracks—e.g., the famous shot of Martin Balsam climbing and falling down the stairs in Psycho (1960) excludes the Herrmann score. Narrated by Amy Watson in a disarmingly—no doubt deliberately—affectless voice, the film, despite its title, includes excerpts from films driven less by fear than by horror and repulsion—not the same things at all. This sometimes leads to blurring the lines, say, between Willem Dafoe’s realization of his wife’s psychosis in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), the horror of cannibalism faced by the survivors of the Andes crash in Alive (1993), and Catherine Deneuve’s hallucinatory breakdown in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). While such clips attempt to match the nuances of the narration, the tendency is to slip across boundaries. Unfortunately, the narration itself eventually succumbs to clichés, to wit, that what we really fear is the monstrous in ourselves, which we displace onto notions of evil and the supernatural. Fortunately, such rationales are quashed by an intelligent selection of excerpts, ample proof of film’s universal embrace of our most troubling emotions.
Takehiro Ito’s Out There reflects, at great length, on movies in relation to our sense of place, of being in the world here and now. If this stab at the existential overreaches, it is saved by a grounding context. The director of a film within the film interviews an actor named Ma—played by Chun Chih Ma in one of the film’s self-reflexive gestures—to revive a film project. Ma, born in Taiwan, now lives in Tokyo, which he explores on rollerblades to master its space, he attests, and how to “be” within it. His dilemma of whether to remain in Tokyo or return to Taiwan is complicated when he falls for a Japanese girl, but it also fuses with the search of the fictional director, as well as Ito, to create what is ultimately an engaging meditation on displacement and the uncanny way movies have of lending credence to place and one’s place within it.
César Vayssié’s UFE (Unfilmévénement) may well be symptomatic of the current state of French cinema. Disguised as a narrative about a theatrical troupe’s efforts to blow up the system, we are reminded that it is all a show. But this reflexivity, as well as the film’s congenial young actors, conceals a genuine frustration and disgust not only with the status quo but also for the feeling that there is no way out. In that sense, its allusions to Godard and Bresson imply a longing for a form and a mission not presently within reach.
Unabashed sadomasochism—on both sides of the camera—drives Andreas Horvath’s Helmut Berger, Actor, a portrait of the Austrian naughty boy that outstrips the tawdry exposés of the National Enquirer or Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Narcissistic and delusionary, Berger mopes about a cluttered apartment, his bare-assed, ornery demeanor flanked by images of Brigitte Bardot, Romy Schneider, and Luchino Visconti—pitiable reminders of his short-lived glory days as a bisexual prima donna. But for Berger’s near campy turns in Visconti’s Ludwig (1973), The Damned (1969), and Conversation Piece (1974), it’s doubtful anyone would remember him. Invoking the ghosts of the famous and infamous, he curses the off-screen, mostly mute Horvath, whose repeated requests for a real interview are met with demeaning slurs of his persona and talent. The result may not have been what Horvath sought, but there’s no doubt he knew that what he was getting was rarer, if much queasier: a self-flagellating exhibition, which, for all its brassiness, comes off as a masturbatory tantrum. It’s like watching an incontinent inmate of an asylum unravel before your eyes—less a tragic fall from greatness than a desperate plea for attention.
Last but far from least, Ken Jacobs’s new work epitomizes what big-screen video projection is all about. Jacobs dares to turn the hellish attack on the World Trade Center, long seared into our brains, into a three-dimensional spectacle in which every unbearable sight courts self-immolation. Crumbling, decomposing, shattering, fragmenting, disintegrating, dissolving, and melting, the images weep and bleed into each other and beyond the edges of the frame. He calls it Reichstag 9/11, and there is no better canvas on which its Bosch-like fury could be unleashed than the one at MoMI.
The sixth edition of First Look runs January 6 through 16 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.