16 May 2011

San Francisco Feedback Sandwich

A report from the San Francisco International Film Festival

“Feedback!” explained our friend, a medical student and ex-New Yorker. “San Francisco is all about feedback. The people here don’t complain, really, they just fill you in on how things are going.” Our friend kept talking about “feedback sandwiches.” “You know, when you couch your constructive criticism in between two compliments.” But on the BART, in the café, at City Lights, we thought we were the only people talking, let alone complaining.

So we began to listen more closely. Waiting in line for the first film of the San Francisco International Film Festival, we overheard a journalist asking an older couple what they would change about the festival.

“It’s not a big deal at all,” said the lady to the journalist, “but I just want you to know that the seating in the theater gives me lower back pain. Again, not a big deal.”

The journalist scribbled in his notebook.

“Sometimes the movies are just a hair too quiet,” her husband chimed in, “just a whisper.”

“You know what really bothers me?” the lady added, surprised by her own intensity. “Waiting in line, like right now in this dreadful wind. Why can’t we just go inside?”

“I find the ushers to be rude and impersonal!” another man shouted, unsolicited.

The journalist was overwhelmed, yet we felt right at home. This wasn’t quite New York, where we once saw a fat man throw candy at a festival programmer, but it was close enough. Now we had feedback. 


Attenberg

Attenberg starts with two girls, tongues sticking out and touching, swirling around uncomfortably. Judging from this scene or from the two girls walking in tandem later in the film while singing Francoise Hardy’s “Tous les garcons et les filles,” Attenberg might at first seem too cute or whimsical, a brainchild of Miranda July or Michel Gondry. But it uncovers quirk as a symptom rather than a generational aesthetic. The characters’ attempts at nonsense and their fascination with animals point to an unwillingness to face national and environmental decay. 

Marina’s father is an architect who is dying of cancer. The complex he built and the people who live there—including his daughter and her friends—are decaying, too. Marina has a best friend, Lettia, whom she convinces to sleep with her dying father. Her love interest is an engineer played by Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of Dogtooth; he takes her virginity hesitantly in his hotel room. She is his cab driver while he’s in town, and there are great shots of her driving around a barren-looking Greek countryside before her father dies. 

Attenberg was written during the rioting in Athens in 2008, and that moment underlies every plot point, setting, and character, from the dilapidated small-city landscape, to the difficulty and expense involved in cremating Marina’s father, to her continual boredom and her frank sexual offering to the engineer in the hotel.

The film’s director, Athina Rachel Tsangari, is associated with Greece’s “New Wave” of cinema, which actually seems to consist mostly of the latest films by Tsangari and Lanthimos. Both directors are involved in each other’s projects: Tsangari helped produce Dogtooth and Lanthimos’s upcoming feature, Alps, which stars the older daughter from Dogtooth and Marina from Attenberg. Stylistically, the films have similarities, too: the post-industrial landscape, the isolated compound, a general attention to architecture and the production of space. And in both films, Greece’s troubles and weird promise bubble underneath. 

Outrage

This Yakuza film is laced with enough severed pinkies and mindless vengeance to warrant a comparison with a director everyone knows: Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino, as it happens, is a fan of “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, the director of Outrage. The affinity between the two filmmakers goes further than just basic violence. The directors share a penchant for operatic meditations on a single theme. The theme for Tarantino is often vengeance, but for Kitano, at least in Outrage, the theme is just outrage. Outrage, in Outrage, is portrayed in suitably outrageous ways. Yakuza members regularly demand that wrongdoers chop off their pinkies as a form of apology, yet never in the film is a pinky-gift accepted as a suitable mea culpa. More frequently, outrage is conveyed by the art of expressive grunting. The yakuza-actors in the film have mastered a kind of guttural Ur-Japanese, with grunts so low and atavistic that they hardly require an actual language attached to them. You just know they’re about to kill each other.

It is almost impossible to describe the plot of Outrage, other than to say that it is a trickle-down bloodbath stuffed with broken pacts and heedless power grabs. What makes it special, and what really confirms Kitano’s relation to Tarantino and Scorcese, is the film’s structure. Kitano builds Outrage on the premise that the bulk of injustice occurs within the Yakuza syndicate. This allows him to depict outrage as form of perverted honor, as a systemic force that drives the Yakuza, maintains its status quo—a constant flux—and ensures the natural selection of its members.

Takeshi Kitano is a poet, screenwriter, director, comedian, game show host, recording artist, and painter. He is also the best actor in Outrage. The closest thing America has to this range of cultural roles assumed by a single living person is probably Steve Martin. It should go without saying that Steve Martin could not have made Outrage.

A Useful Life

This black and white film from Frederico Veiroj is really quite perfect, and at sixty-seven minutes, it’s hard not to appreciate A Useful Life’s technical economy. Every aspect of the film, from the phase-shifting orchestral score to the non-actor acting, is expertly accomplished. A Useful Life is by turns slow and zippy, feeble and lionhearted, and this alternating current of pace and emotion manages to resonate from one of the great themes of recent cinema: the death of cinema as a communal art.

The action revolves around Jorge, a bespectacled programmer for the Uruguayan cinematheque. At the film’s opening, the cinematheque is enduring the vicissitudes of the modern repertory theater: financial collapse, possible eviction, dilapidated equipment, and a general lack of community interest. The first half of A Useful Life is a masterful elucidation of the theater as living and breathing organism, albeit one sick with black lung. Within the metaphor of cinema as a sick body, Jorge functions as a kind of antibody, tirelessly repairing the cinematheque’s equipment, tending to its dire finances, and keeping up appearances. In spite of his efforts, the cinematheque dies. Jorge faces this death stoically—and at one moment tenderly, when he cries on the city bus as he leaves for good after thirty years.

What happens next is shocking and charming and, for lovers of cinema, medicinal. Jorge’s mood takes an abrupt turn for the better. He gains a bounce in his step. He gets a stellar haircut. The music elevates to a realm where triumph and whimsy combine. Then Jorge makes his way to the law school where his unrequited love teaches. While awaiting the end of her work day, commits an act of startling imposture. He pretends to be a substitute law professor, one who gives an electrifying speech on the power of lies. “You must lie for your friends,” Jorge demands of the young law students. The entire passage is a Mark Twain quotation.

At the end of the film, Jorge asks his love interest on a date to the movies, and she accepts. Yet this begs a question hitherto unasked in A Useful Life: Where are they going to go? The cinematheque, as we know, is dead. At this point the film ends, and the spectators of A Useful Life exit the cinema and enter the world. It is precisely at this juncture that the message of A Useful Life is most powerful. The distinction between vita activa and vita passiva, Veiroj suggests, is a false one. A Useful Life is a paean to cinema as life and to life as cinema.

The City Below

The City Below’s closest cinematic kin is Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector, from 2007. Both films center around shady German firms, both involve ethical lapses by high-ranking corporate officials, and trade in a hyper-stylized vision of glass and metal skyscrapers. Both are obsessed with luxury goods, modern apartments, and a certain kind of drugged-out electronic dance music.

We can’t say that we completely understand what this film is about, but it claims to be inspired by the David and Bathsheba myth. It involves a young couple, Svenja, an alienated artist or art enthusiast of some sort, and her businessman husband, Oliver, Oliver’s boss, Roland, who was recently named “banker of the year,” and a few colleagues. Svenja is bored in a new city, and she spends her time looking at art in expensive clothing, jogging, and listening to Gang Gang Dance, until she begins her affair with Roland, who speedily “promotes” her husband to Jakarta, where he, it turns out, is likely to be kidnapped and killed—that last part is where the David and Bathsheba bit comes in. It takes most of the movie for this all to become a scandal, but when it does, it’s hard to care. The City Below is one of a new line of wimpy faux-art fantasies—like Inception, I Am Love, and the above mentioned Heartbeat Detector—wherein the capitalist class mildly atones for its sins, cries reptile tears, and flirts with the idea of giving up money and power.

At Ellen’s Age

After watching this film about activism and social engagement, we left the cinema feeling sad and useless. In the press lounge, drinks had stopped being free a half an hour before, and industry people were making plans to “hook up” after the convoluted and pointless Argentinean film Asleep in the Sun. With three dollars between us, we couldn’t get a drink (the sign: BEER $4, WINE $4, VODKA $4, cash bar till midnight). They were playing Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, and we’d just seen our fifth film of the day. We were feeling pretty low, but that wasn’t just because it was 8 p.m. on Easter and we were sitting on stools in a remodeled Blockbuster Video store. 

Before the start of At Ellen’s Age, a woman came up to introduce the film, saying “Well, some movies just don’t really make a lot of sense when you introduce them. It’s better for you to just watch the film.” This is a film about a flight attendant who walks off a plane and goes to live with a vegan activist collective in Frankfurt before moving to Africa to “give poachers a taste of their own medicine,” as a seven-year old member of the group puts it. It starts with Ellen seeing a leopard as she boards her plane in Africa; it ends with her going on a walk in the African wilderness with the seven-year old boy. But mostly it takes place in Frankfurt, which looks like it may be inhabited entirely by teenagers. Ellen’s time in the city is spent getting drunk in a building full of dogs and cats and college-age kids and, before that, dating a guy who gets another woman pregnant and hopes to buy two apartments with an adjoining garden for everyone to live in.

The film’s greatest virtue is Jeanne Balibar, singer, actress, daughter of the philosopher Ètienne Balibar, and subject of a recent Pedro Costa documentary. As Ellen, she is generally lethargic, with a crazed smile and a few bursts of energy—most notably, when she releases chickens from a van somewhere outside of Frankfurt and when she marries one of the guys in the vegan co-op so that he won’t be drafted. The film’s director, Pia Marais, means for you to be impressed by Ellen because, well, she’s not twenty anymore. Marais can’t push further than being impressed, though. Ellen is running from a shitty romantic situation, but she’s also running from doctors who are trying to diagnose her with something—cancer seems to be the implied malady. The film is just as much about death and decay as it is about Ellen’s leftist renaissance. Maybe the two are related. 

Silent Souls

Like last year’s My Joy, Silent Souls is a Russian road movie that involves transporting a dead body in a car. The film takes place in a Meryan community in Western Russia, where a narrator and a factory owner named Miron go through the process of cremating Miron’s dead wife, Tanya, on the beach where they spent their honeymoon. It starts with a great shot of our narrator, Aist, as he rides his bike with two buntings in a birdcage. He goes on to explain a bit about the Meryans: “no one remembers why,” he says, “that’s why we’re strange.” Aist, whose father was a local poet, wants to document Meryan culture, and he speaks of “orphaned villages,” “people without expressive faces,” and “rivers with forgotten names.” 

It’s not long before Aist’s archival impulse gives way to a first-hand engagement with Meryan historical memory. Called in to help cremate Tanya, he spends the rest of the film immersed in a complex burial culture. At one point, he and Miron undress Tanya’s dead body and prepare it for burial. The camera is positioned behind her head. It’s an incredible shot—the two men are on either side, brushing her hair, washing her body with a towel. Next, they tie bits of string to her pubic hair. Aist narrates: “we adorned her like a bride.” This is the film’s most memorable scene, though it probably isn’t the strangest or the most painful. Taking part in another Meryan custom, Miron spends most of the time in the car with Aist, talking about his sex life with his wife. At one point, he explains that “all of Tanya’s holes” were open to him. 

Of course, after seeing this movie, we became curious about Meryan culture. So we consulted our trusty Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History, and in volume 21, we finally found a reference to Meryan culture: “and a few years later, the semi-legendary Rurik had established his men in the Meryan city of Rostov.” Wait. Is Meryan culture real?

It is impossible to say whether Silent Souls is a sincere lament for a lost culture, or a parodic warning about the failures of cinema’s recent archival turn. Either way, the outcome is the same. In the end the men’s car plunges off a bridge into the water below. This is a death, we’re reminded, that any Meryan would kill for.

Mysteries of Lisbon

Veiroj’s A Useful Life is an hour long motivational speech about how cinema must tell lies in order to survive; Raoul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon is a 272-minute costume-epic about how cinema was built on the shoulders of fabulists, impostors, and gossips. Mysteries of Lisbon is loose by design; it is based on another baggy monster, Camillo Castelo Branco’s 1854 novel Os Mistérios de Lisboa. Within the first hour it becomes clear that the story will repeatedly circle in on itself as the various members of Portuguese nobility lie, cheat, and shape-shift through their shared biographies.

It is a tremendous credit to Ruiz—and his sturdy ensemble—that he manages to fashion several hours of melodramatic dialogue into something so easy on the stomach. It is clear, too, that Ruiz has selected Branco’s novel for his final project because of the tendencies he shares with that author: the mixture of realism and aestheticism is palpable in Mysteries of Lisbon. As soon as a given scene settles into realist comfort, the camera begins to sway majestically, conjuring up an awareness of the medium that just as quickly dissolves into conversation and character movement.

This is (supposedly) Ruiz’s final film, so it appropriately unfolds as a textbook Künstlerroman. It begins with the uncertain origin of an orphan named João/Pedro. After four hours of untangling and re-tangling, the only thing certain to João/Pedro is that some people tell lies out of necessity, and some tell them out of malice. At the film’s closing, João/Pedro confesses from a desert island that he is essentially rootless, that he has never felt at home, and that his life has been spent in sad wonderment at the spectacle of it all. Maybe this really is Ruiz’s farewell bid to cinema. The ending of Mysteries of Lisbon in particular recalls Borges and his great prose-ode to Shakespeare, “Everything and Nothing”:

History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work . . .’


After every film an usher handed us a little blue strip of paper. This was our voting ballot. “Tear the paper to vote,” the usher said. By the twelfth film we had a paper cut.

Then at the end of an experimental shorts program, we listened to the opinions of a young cinephile who spoke from the audience. It was supposed to be a Q&A.

“The first film was marvelous!” he yelled. “The second film was confusing at first, and then it became clear to me that the picture was moving. Then I got it.”

We fidgeted. The cinephile continued. “The third film in the program reminded me of my dad. And the fourth must have been shot on a point-and-shoot. I didn’t really like the fifth or sixth films, so I apologize for that.” The directors of films 5 and 6 stood at the podium, not at all insulted.

Back at the press lounge, we indulged in some happy hour vodka. It was our final day at the festival. “I bet free vodka never tasted so good,” said the bartender. He seemed like a nice guy. We nodded but didn’t really understand what he meant. At home, in a different time zone, our friends were eating dinner. We thought about feedback sandwiches, but we weren’t the least bit hungry for any.

Image: Attenberg (d. Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece, 2010).

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