Thursday, March 5, 2015

These were the conventions... before the War.

From Panorama of American Film Noir:
The moviegoer is accustomed to certain conventions: a logical development of the action, a clear distinction between good and evil, well-defined characters, sharp motives, scenes more showy then authentically violent, a beautiful heroine and an honest hero. At least, these were the conventions of American adventure films before the War.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ithaca International Film Festival Jury Duty

I recently had the opportunity of being a jury member for the Ithaca International Fantastic Film Festival (IIFFF), which screens fantasy and horror films from around the world. The festival is put on by Hugues Barbier, who organizes the festival in Strasbourg, France and Ithaca, New York. More information on the NY edition can be found here:

As one of the four jury members, I attended screenings for the nine films in competition and a few extras I thought I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise, such as Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922), which was introduced by Dr. Andrew Utterson with live accompaniment by the band Transit.

Competition categories included: Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and a Jury Special Mention. The official awards can be found at the IIFFF website, but I thought it was worth saying a few words about some of my personal picks here. Like other competitions I’ve judged, the official awards were a process of negotiation between the four jury members. Everyone had their favorites, and there was little unanimity, indicating the richness of the films at the festival. The films mentioned below aren’t discussed in any particular order, but official winners can be found at

The Five (Yeon-sik Jun):

The Five is a South Korean revenge film starring the popular actress Kim Sun-a as a woman who loses her family to a serial killer. While this premise deviates little from the genre, the killer cripples Sun-a in the beginning of the film and she must take her revenge wheelchair-bound. To do so, she sets up a ‘chain-reaction’ using a set of individuals as her proxies, prefigured in the beginning of the film when she carefully constructs an elaborate pattern of falling dominoes for a film set.

While the revenge film often focuses on the interiority of its suffering protagonist, after her transformation Sun-a gives a stony performance that expresses her solipsistic vengeance in a manner leaving the viewer looking elsewhere for an emotional connection. It is through the individuals she surrounds herself with that we see transformation in character motives and narrative progression. The finale of the film seems like a small point in comparison to the dynamic relationship gradually built between ‘The Five.’ Fans of the genre are sure to enjoy the film, but the interaction between the different personalities of The Five warranted a ‘Best Film’ argument from me and will broaden the appeal beyond the revenge film genre for most viewers.

Der Samourai (Till Kleinert):

Der Samourai was by far the strangest film in competition, and as a lover of strange films it certainly struck a chord with me. It was also the most divisive in the jury deliberations. The film is set in a small, German town surrounded by forests. While appeasing a prowling wolf that has taken up residence in the nearby forest, a local deputy somehow summons a nightdress-wearing, katana-wielding, German samurai that proceeds to wreak havoc in the town. The film follows these exploits while suggesting some sort of metaphysical connection between deputy and samurai. Without giving too much away, this relationship does not fall into any typical pitfalls regarding pseudo-Freudian connections to some subconscious impulse. What results is excess: a Freudian reading would be too contained, too manageable, whereas Der Samourai relishes in pure desire (whatever that means).

I argued Best Director for Der Samourai due to the film’s experimental nature and what felt like more of a director’s ‘unique vision’ than a tightly crafted narrative. This is a film that will likely leave many viewers thinking, “What just happened?” If you don’t mind a more affective and aesthetic experience as opposed to a narrative experience, however, you will likely find something enticing about this film.


Spring (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead):

Spring follows a young man’s trip to a village in Italy after the death of his parents. On a trip to ‘find himself,’ which starts off feeling like a gap-year travel film with beautiful digital cinematography of idyllic foreign locations, he encounters a local woman and a loose relationship ensues. The woman turns out not to be who she appears in line with the ‘fantastic’ part of the film festival. I voted Best Screenplay for this film, and this was a complicated vote for this film, because the screenplay runs in two directions, one less impressive than the other.

The overall narrative arc of this film ends up being fairly conservative with a predictable ending. What I liked about the screenplay is that the story of the young woman is compelling and fresh in its pseudo-scientific register, and that is situated well within the bounds of the ‘travel film,’ including its beautiful digital cinematography. Even as I saw the film descend towards the predictable ending, the dialogue and details of the woman’s story were enough to keep me interested until the end. While the jury members all agreed that this was a script that needed to be tightened in certain respects (and this could be done through another round of editing), the story synergizes with the cinematic experience well.

Midnight Swim (Sarah A. Smith):

Midnight Swim was not my pick for Best Film, but I am thrilled that it ended up taking the award through jury deliberations. I doubt the director would be happy with this assessment, since no director seems to like this label, but the film feels like Mumblecore in the way it dwells upon relationships through dialogue and the close, sometimes awkward, study of communication. I mean this designation in the best possible way though, because the film distills these elements of the style and shifts them to the relationship between a set of sisters after their mother passes away (rather than the white, heterosexual couplings of 20-somethings).

There is a ‘fantastic’ side to this narrative as well, but like most of the films I enjoyed at the IIFFF, the fantastic wasn’t the main focus of the film. When this side of the narrative finally is revealed, it feels like less of an ‘aha’ and more of a capstone to the relationship between the sisters. The dialogue and minute expressions detailed carefully by the cinematography develop each sister fully so that the larger relationship between them is complex and compelling. As a lover of horror and science fiction, the fantastic is icing on the cake of what are already excellent films.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Even the appropriation of models which appear to be only technical, industrial, scientific, etc., leads to a conceptual dependency

Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, "Towards a Third Cinema"
The placing of the cinema within US models, even in the formal aspect, in language, leads to the adoption of the ideological forms that gave rise to precisely that language and no other. Even the appropriation of models which appear to be only technical, industrial, scientific, etc., leads to a conceptual dependency, due to the fact that the cinema is an industry, but differs from other industries in that it has been created and organised in order to generate certain ideologies. The 35mm camera, 24 frames per second, arc lights, and a commercial place of exhibition for audiences were conceived not to gratuitously transmit any ideology, but to satisfy, in the first place, the cultural and surplus value needs of a specific ideology, of a specific world-view: that of US finance capital.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

To endow with a poetic value that which does not yet possess it, to willfully restrict the field of vision so as to intensify expression

Louis Aragon, "On Decor."
Poets without being artists, children sometimes fix their attention on an object to the point where their concentration makes it grow larger, grow so much it completely occupies their visual field, assumes a mysterious aspect and loses all relation to its purpose. Or they repeat a word endlessly, so often it divests itself of meaning and becomes a poignant and pointless sound that makes them cry. Likewise on the screen objects that were a few moments ago sticks of furniture or books of cloakroom tickets and transformed to the point where they take on menacing or enigmatic meanings. The theater is powerless where such emotive concentration is concerned. 
To endow with a poetic value that which does not yet possess it, to willfully restrict the field of vision so as to intensify expression: these are two properties that help make cinematic decor the adequate setting of modern beauty.
 From French Film Theory and Criticism: 1907-1929 (Princeton UP, 1988: 166).

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Anti-Paranoia in the Pacific Northwest: Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013)

*minor spoilers ahead*

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Night Moves (2013), continues the director’s trend of setting films in the Pacific Northwest. Reichardt collaborated once again with Oregonian Jon Raymond on the screenplay for the film, lending the film an aura of authenticity as it relates to the Pacific Northwest – although Reichardt probably knows the area well enough by now! Like most of Reichardt’s films, Night Moves centers on the loss of something fundamental to the subjectivity of the protagonist: an old friendship in Old Joy (2006); a life companion in Wendy and Lucy (2008); masculinity and (literally) the way forward in Meek’s Cutoff (2010). In Night Moves this loss is less corporeal than in these other films. While each character weathers the effects to different degrees, the protagonists in this film struggle with the loss of their own rationale or surety for the destruction of a local dam as an act of environmental activism.

As half the film follows the planning of the bombing of the dam, and the other half the fallout from this act, an air of paranoia pervades the film. The characters must buy truckloads of fertilizer to build their dam-destroying bomb, and post-bombing the group fears they might be ‘found out’ by whatever government agency is tracking them. Jesse Eisenberg’s nervous gestus, in the Brechtian sense, fits this film well, as he comes across simultaneously as paranoid and irrevocably resigned to his choices, even while vocally challenged by other mentor-type characters in the film. What I find most fascinating about this film is the way that this paranoia becomes what Thomas Pynchon and Friedrich Kittler referred to as ‘anti-paranoia’ through the film’s subdued cinematography, acting, and editing. Pynchon writes, “there is… also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long” (434). With paranoia, one assumes they will find the ‘Truth’ that has been obfuscated – Mulder says, “I want to believe,” and we as viewers always hang out the possibility that the global conspiracy/collaboration with aliens will be revealed to us, but in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, narrative directions proliferate to the point where there can be no single Truth in the end. Night Moves resists revealing anything beyond the immediate perception of its characters to the point where we, as viewers, take on their unrequited paranoia, but the film ultimately never delivers the conspiracy.

As I mentioned previously, this anti-paranoia comes through the formal construction of the film, and it shifts attention from the narrative to both the physical and mental environments these characters live in. Fans of Reichardt will recognize her subdued style immediately, with her long takes, focus on labor, and emphasis on environment/bodily gest over action. Eisenberg’s character works and lives on a farming co-op, and the film doesn’t shy away from his day-to-day labors. At one point, the three environmentalists interact with an exuberant camper, but barely even respond to his friendly gestures. After the bombing, there are long shots of Eisenberg staring offscreen intently at the sound of a car – the FBI pulling up to the farm? – but such shots eventually dissipate without confirming any paranoid expectations we might have. Tomas Hachard at NPR called this an “ultimately unsatisfying new film” and I’m not too surprised by this assessment, but I also think this is precisely the point. Whatever paranoid delusions of eco-terrorists or the thriller genre the film might fulfill are replaced with issues far too complicated for narrative summation.

I was fascinated by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s ability to capture these physical/psychological environments in beautiful detail. I posted a few images that illustrate the attention to the environment of the Pacific Northwest, but you really have to see the film to understand the way this is done with the mental landscapes. Dakota Fanning’s character develops pretty obvious rashes as a result of the stress of her anti-paranoia, but I preferred Eisenberg’s watchful gaze as he tries to connect imaginary dots. I also appreciated the honest look at the farming coop culture in the Pacific Northwest, with the film intimating the farm’s location not too far away from Portland. Cascadians might also be interested in the politics of the farming coop and its relation to the federal government. If you’re a fan of Reichardt, you know what you’re getting when you see this film, but I love the style she’s developed that is area-specific without resorting to flashing establishing shots of recognizable monuments.