NYFF Documentaries: Political Cinema Horizons from RED ARMY to CITIZENFOUR

NYFF Documentaries: Political Cinema Horizons from RED ARMY to CITIZENFOUR


the first time in 52 years, the New York Film Festival has expanded to
include a 15-film documentary sidebar. This includes the expected
portraits of artists (Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction, Albert Maysles’ Iris, Les Blank & Gina Leibrecht’s How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy),
but it also encompasses films in which Americans gaze at other cultures
and even attempt to critique them (Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, J. P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army.) There’s another strain of documentary here, which might be called the national self-portrait. Arthur Jafa’s Dreams Are Colder Than Death attempts to take the pulse of black America. Ossama Mohammed & Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait
shows the ravages of civil war in Syria. All these films suggest
different ways of making political cinema. Do any of them offer real
innovations or ways forward? 
It’s not exactly news that sports can be a realm where nationalism plays itself out in a more benign fashion than war, but Red Army
examines the last decade of the Cold War through the lens of hockey.
Relying heavily on a varied array on archival footage, as well as
present-day interviews, he centers on Soviet hockey great Slava Fetisov,
who came to prominence in the early ‘80s. Despite a few odd stylistic
tics, such as printing interview subjects’ names first in Cyrillic and
then in English, Polsky resists the urge to wallow in communist kitsch,
like the “North Korea is so cool” tone of several recent documentaries
about the hermit kingdom. He’s more concerned with illuminating the
differences between  the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Fetisov learned to play
hockey well, but his training came at the cost of a private life.
(Granted, this may be the universal price of fame and success.) When he
and his Russian peers were finally allowed to play in the NHL, Red Army
doesn’t present this as an unmitigated triumph. While acknowledging the
human cost of communism, it also depicts their culture
shock, being attacked by North American players and the media, and
having difficulty adjusting to a more individualistic playing style. I’m
not sure what Fetisov’s exact present-day politics are, but he accepted
a post from Putin as Minister of Sport. Now that American-Russian
tensions are flaring up again, this reminder of the last Cold War feels
more  contemporary—and painful—than it might have five years ago:
Russia is once again becoming the Other, a convenient source of villains
for action movies and TV shows.  
If Red Army offers a relatively mellow look at the damage wrought by the Cold War, the much-awaited The Look of Silence
serves up a full, unblinking look at the horrors committed in the name
of anti-communism. If it goes down somewhat easier than its abrasive and
deeply disturbing companion piece The Act of Killing, in which
Oppenheimer had  murderers reenact their crimes on film, that’s because
it adds some warmth and humanity to the mix—protagonist Adi, an
optician, is shown interacting with his family. However, Adi’s elder
bother was murdered in the 1965 massacre of a million Indonesian
“communists,” and Adi lives in a village alongside his killers, who were
never punished and in fact remain free today. The film’s methods are
deceptively simple: Oppenheimer shows Adi outtakes from The Act of Killing,
which gradually evolve into discussions of his brother’s death, on a
video monitor while he watches silently, and then  and goes about his
daily life, which includes making glasses for the surviving killers from
1965 and interviewing them about the bad old days. Adi seems to be the
only Indonesian who wants to remember this period in the country’s
history—or, at least, recall it accurately. In some respects, The Look of Silence feels like a response to the critics of The Act of Killing. Violence is never shown, just described, although its full awfulness may exceed what happens in The Act of Killing:
several killers describe drinking human blood. People who find
Oppenheimer’s films pornographic and exploitative may simply be
uncomfortable with an NC-17 reality. But unlike The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence depicts an inspiring level of resistance to historical oblivion. 
South Korean director Jung Yoon-suk’s Non-Fiction Diary revolves
around a group of serial killers called the Jijon Clan, but it takes in
a wide swath of ‘90s Korean history and politics. The Jijon Clan were a
gang of six youths who committed a series of horrific murders in 1993
and 1994; their crimes were so surreally awful that when one of their
victims described them  to the police, they thought she was high on
drugs. However, Non-Fiction Diary contrasts the Clan’s murders,
condemned by the whole of Korean society and quickly punished, with the
collapses of a bridge and a department store shortly afterwards due to
irresponsisble building methods, which actually killed far more people.
Relying on period news clips (especially a lengthy talk show debate
about the crisis in Korean morality) and interviews with cops,
professors and a nun, Jung also lends a stylish touch to the grim
proceedings. Non-Fiction Diary begins with still photos, and it
then goes into a split-screen montage of some of the images that will
follow. The Jijon Clan both hated and envied the wealthy; the first part
of their three-line manifesto read “the rich shall be loathed,” yet
they wanted to become millionaires. Non-Fiction Diary sees their
crimes as an extreme manifestation of the amorality implicit in
neo-liberal capitalism. At times, it comes dangerously close to making
excuses for them because they weren’t rich, unlike the head of the
Sampoong Department Store, whose fall killed more than 500 people. They
got capital punishment, he got a slap on the wrist, despite bearing
ultimate responsibility for his store’s collapse, as the film points
out. However, Jung ultimately offers a range of perspectives on issues
like the death penalty, told with a distanced touch, although he
sometimes seems to be chafing at the constraints of his film’s form. 
The Iron Ministry opens with extreme close-ups of trains as disorienting and immersive as anything in Leviathan, the film that put Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab on the festival map. (Although Sniadecki is a graduate of the Lab, The Iron Ministry isn’t an official product of it.) Shot over three years on trains across China, The Iron Ministry
is an experience in flux. Its constant  change mirrors that of the
economic and social change sweeping the  nation it depicts. Sniadecki
initially opts for a purely sensual experience; 20 minutes pass before
the first subtitle appears. It’s not edited to look seamless—Sniadecki
clearly cut together numerous train rides and makes no attempt to
smooth over the vehicles’ different looks. Taking a train in China seems
a lot like riding on Amtrak 20 years ago, when they routinely
over-booked trains and cigarette smoking was still allowed. Yet for
every moment of filth Sniadecki shows, there’s an image of beauty or
grace to counter it. He also delves into Chinese politics, interviewing
passengers on  subjects like the role of Islam in Chinese life,
pollution and possible progress towards democracy. His presence is
subtly but definitely felt. Sniadecki has crafted a film that can stand
proudly along the best recent Chinese-made documentaries. 
director Laura Poitras was the first journalist to become Edward
Snowden’s regular correspondent. (Technically, her film is part of the
NYFF’s main slate, not its documentary sidebar.) As an opening card
reveals, she was also put on a U.S. government watch list after making
her first film and is subject to constant harassment at American
airports. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled by her respectful treatment of
Snowden here. While the film starts off as a wide-ranging depiction of
issues around privacy and surveillance, it settles into a Hong Kong
hotel room with Snowden and Glenn Greenwald (then a columnist for The Guardian)
for its central hour, which depicts the meeting that led to the public
revelations about the NSA’s out-of-control spying. At first, the film
seemed strangely impersonal. Poitras uses the first person in on-screen
text and reproduces E-mail and chat sessions with Snowden. Yet she never
appears in the image  herself for more than an instant. I initially
thought that a film which dealt more directly with her personal
struggles with the U.S. government would bring home the dangers of the
NSA’s activities more forcefully. But ultimately, the film she did make,
which often resembles an elegantly shot spy thriller, does deliver the
justified paranoia of Snowden and Greenwald’s message effectively. It
also does a lot to humanize a man who’s too often been demonized as a
traitor; the Snowden depicted in CITIZENFOUR is a likable,
friendly guy who tried to do the right thing, acted on the fly and  got
caught up in a world drama  that overtook him. Poitras is on his side,
certainly, but her depiction is believable. 
The relationship of form and content in political cinema has been debated since the late ‘60s, when Cahiers du Cinéma
declared all films more conventional than Jean-Luc Godard and
Jean-Marie Straub’s work reactionary. I don’t want to jump on that
bandwagon here, particularly when a film like Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War,
although stylistically bland, has managed to accomplish real political
goals in  changing the way the military prosecutes sexual assault.
Nevertheless, there’s something disheartening about the way Non-Fiction Diary
conveys an explicitly anti-capitalist message mostly through the usual
assemblage of interviews and archival footage, which threatens to
collapse into formula. 
However, documentaries like The Look of Silence and The Iron Ministry seem to point the way forward. Oppenheimer’s touch in The Look of Silence
is a subtle one; his voice is sometimes heard, and interview subjects
occasionally refer to him, often in an unflattering light. Adi is
definitely not just a stand-in for Oppenheimer, and he’s a strong enough
presence to remind one that The Look of Silence really is a collaboration with Indonesian filmmakers, including a co-director who can only be billed as “Anonymous.” The Iron Ministry
is less politically inflammatory than Oppenheimer’s films, but it
synthesizes several documentary traditions in an inventive manner. If
Americans continue to make films about other cultures – or our own, for
that matter – it seems best to  leave traces of our own subjectivity in
the frame, as The Look of Silence and The Iron Ministry do, and honestly acknowledge our own perspective’s role in shaping the films we make.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

Self-Projected Artifice: The 49th Chicago International Film Festival

Self-Projected Artifice: The 49th Chicago International Film Festival

It was almost like a movie. Amat Escalante’s harrowing and
unapologetically bleak film Heli—which
looks at the crooked law enforcement and low-totem pole players of Mexico’s
drug cartel scene—came to a an ambiguous closing shot before dipping to white
for the end credits. The auditorium house lights came on at the press screening
I was at. No one moved from his or her seat. Utter silence. Then suddenly, a
critic in the row in front of me let out a groan. A very loud one. He wanted to
be heard. After 104 minutes of wince-inducing violence and despair, Heli offered no logical retribution for
its audience. The groaning critic was expressing one of two things: that he’d
witnessed a carefully nuanced, searing cross-section of a very real dilemma
south of the border—or that he’d just seen another arthouse trash film filled
with hot air. As other critics began leaving the auditorium, they started
chuckling at the thought of the groan. The groan seemed to carry an echo too,
as if it was a shared movie review, a unanimous proclamation that the Chicago
International Film Festival had once again managed to bring some of the more
polarizing films of world cinema to the Second City for the 49th consecutive
year. This year’s lineup was particularly dark in nature, from crude historical
narratives (James Gray’s The Immigrant,
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave) to
timely, devastating documentaries (the border crossing Purgatorio, the brotherly survival tale in Kenya’s Tough Bond). For all of its variety,
this year’s Chicago film fest found itself hovering over the theme of the
self-projected artifice, which was explored in three grossly differentiating

You see, unlike most marquee U.S. film festivals such as
Sundance or SXSW, the Chicago International Film Festival has done a consistent
job of flying just below the radar of mainstream but several cuts above other
notable film festivals. Sure, there are “movie stars” who make appearances at
opening night and certain gala events, but the main crux of the Chicago Film
Fest is focused on its usually impressive program of world cinema. The fest’s
red carpet schmoozing takes a backseat to the discovery of new artistic voices
from international films that would be hard to find stateside.

Consider the above-mentioned Mexican film, Heli. For most of its running time, the
camera is deliberate in its movements. Slow pans reveal awful imagery: a boot
pressed against a man’s face, a man being forced to roll face down over human
vomit, and the devastating reunion of a woman with her husband after he was
savagely beaten. These images are all the more powerful because the characters
in the narrative are desperately trying to fool themselves into thinking they’re
bound to escape or even create a new life. In the violent landscape ruled by
the drug cartel, these poor Mexican peasants are disillusioned at best. In an
early scene, the protagonist’s wife visits a local psychic in hopes of hearing
the possibility of a new venture or at least to give validity to her current
situation. Later, during the film’s gruesome torture scene, a group of
adolescents in the background gleefully plays their American video games on
consoles. At one point, a young boy whips out his cell phone to film a victim
being tortured with fire and thinks out loud about the idea of uploading the
footage to YouTube. It’s that self-projected artifice—that daily routine to
dilute the horrors of one’s reality—which is what’s really striking about Heli. Lots of drug films have shocking
violence, but few observe the nameless people at the peripheries of the
screen’s frame and examine their ways of coping with their environment.

Sometimes this artifice is therapeutic. Part of the
festival’s documentary program, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture shows us one filmmaker’s in the 70s transcendent
retelling of his unfathomable childhood experience as a prisoner of the Khmer
Rouge in Cambodia by way of hand-made art; rather than relying solely on
historical archival footage, Panh used small whittled-down clay figures as
stand-ins for a majority of the film’s recreations. The title of the doc
resonates exponentially as the simple toy-like sets suddenly become vessels for
ghostly imagery. We can only imagine how the scenes played out in real life and
thus are forced to project our own anxieties and shock onto the stoic faces of
the tiny clay models on the screen. The effect is heartbreaking and, more
importantly, is never played for gimmickry. 

Finally, taking a hard right turn from subject matters of
drug cartels and Cambodian genocide, we land at the Cannes Palme d’Or winner,
France’s Blue Is The Warmest Color,
directed by Abdellatif Kechiche—which was one of Chicago’s festival highlights
to be sure. Centered on a remarkable lead performance by Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue chronicles several years in the
relationship of a lesbian couple. Exarchopoulos, the youngest of the pair, has
to carefully micromanage each of her self-projected artifices. At her high
school, she “dates” a male classmate in order to ward off any suspicion or
prejudice toward her actual sexuality from her peers. At home, she deceives her
parents by insisting that her partner Emma (played by Léa Seydoux) is just a
tutor. Emma even assists with the mirage and fabricates a boyfriend during a
dinner conversation. These self-projected artifices are juxtaposed with Emma’s
own vocation. She’s a painter, using Adèle as her model for many of her works.
So, on display in the walls of Emma’s art galleries, is her true love—but for a
good portion of the film’s running time, their relationship is taboo for most
of their public appearances. When Adèle and Emma are older and living together
during the second half of the film, their struggles and strife link to the restraint
from those earlier scenes. The film floored me: Exarchopoulos is the
front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar.

With these three varied film selections—Heli, The Missing Picture,
Blue Is The Warmest Color—the theme
of the self-projected artifice rose to new challenging heights. Maybe by
looking through the eyes of our fellow foreign artists, we are able to peel
back some of our own layers of artifice (at least in what we produce in
American cinema) and see some fundamental similarities in our ways of handling
those scenarios, fiction or non-fiction. And as the 49th Chicago
International Film Festival drew to a close, I thought back to the groan from
that early press screening. If it did signify a sentiment towards a festival
that vehemently sought out challenging and polarizing titles from world cinema,
then I hope to hear the same groan next year.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter

CANNES 2013: Images, Part III

CANNES 2013: Images, Part III


Crazy weather, lost luggage, a Final Destination-like near death experience, rampant larceny;
Cannes 2013 was certainly a wild ride. Looking back over the last two weeks I
can’t help but think this year’s festival will go down as one of strangest
ever. And I mean that in the best possible sense. Here are a few more images to
consider now that the lights have dimmed on the Croisette.

Bastards (dir. Claire Denis): In the elliptical and haunting
opening sequence of this devil of an abstract noir, a sharply dressed man paces
back and forth in his dark office before jumping out the window. Blankets of
rain descend from the heavens, completely filling the frame and turning an
entire building face is turned into an urban waterfall. This monumentally moody
and disjointed beginning gives Bastards
its horrifying identity. Denis eliminates typical exposition in favor of
cryptic, hypnotizing imagery that works to create an all-encompassing tonal
dread. Even when the weather subsides, Denis continues her extreme representation
of a suffocating locale: blinding white skies are contrasted with deep black
background spaces.

Behind the Candelabra (dir. Steven Soderbergh): The gleam of
wealthy and posh surfaces hides an ocean of sadness underneath. Soderbergh has
always been a master of the shot-reverse-shot, but here he favors brilliant
two-shots of Damon and Douglas surrounded by the inner workings of Liberace’s
master estate. One of the most wonderful surprises comes when the film cuts
from the couple’s first real dinner date to a medium shot of their first
Jacuzzi dip. The frankness of the transition is beautiful and adept at bringing
out each character’s needs at this specific moment, be it a need to be heard or
a desire to listen.

Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch): If pop culture
hollowness sucks the life out all that is good and noble, then it’s wonderfully
ironic that the vampires in Jarmusch’s breezy and strange love story despise
everything mainstream. Played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, this sulking
duo wraps about creative injustice and the failures of historiography to
remember the true artists, ultimately personifying the film’s themes of
artistic compromise and contradiction. One image of a starry sky blurring into
a spinning record explores the idea that art is as organic and expansive as
anything witnessed in the heavens. Inevitably, the film itself becomes a last
ditch effort by artists of all stripes and afflictions to section off a private
space to appreciate the work itself, devoid of the nonsensical context and

Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne): Basically any shot with
Bruce Dern’s character looking off into the black-and-white distance, lost in a thought or
perhaps a waking dream. These moments convey the disconnect between his
perspective and that of his family, who keep bringing him back to reality
despite his devout need to redeem a clearinghouse certificate promising a
million dollars. While the film itself walks a fine line between condescension
and sentimentality. Dern’s performance is often heartbreaking in its distance
from the actual narrative (he won the award for Best Actor at this year’s

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and
The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies
at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.




Few films have captured the level of complex pragmatism it
must take for a desperate person to survive in a completely new place with no
support or ideological context. James Gray’s arresting period-piece melodrama The Immigrant achieves this feat.
Examining in fine detail the difficult experiences of a Polish woman named Eva
(Marion Cotillard) who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921, the film constructs a
sense of prolonged panic out of the most poetic images. Easy answers don’t
exist in this film, just life-changing decisions that must be made quietly on a
moment’s notice. Early scenes confirm that Eva has already been forced to make
a few tough choices on the voyage across the Atlantic.

From The Immigrant’s
magnificent opening shot, a hypnotic zoom-out starting on the Statue of Liberty
and eventually including a well-dressed man staring into the distance, Gray
establishes a sense of wooziness in the mise-en-scene. Inside the processing
center, lines of swaying bodies fill the dour space and long corridors stretch
in all directions. It’s a highway of varying perspectives and stories, the
American dream in transit. Despite the extreme foreignness of this situation for the
characters involved, their hope remains alive. “We’ll make our own families,”
Eva confidently says to her sickly sister as they walk in single file. Seconds
later, the coughing young woman is quarantined in the island infirmary, leaving
Eva alone in a gray new world.

And the obstacles keep coming. Labeled a woman of “loose
morals” due to a previous incident on the boat, Eva immediately faces
deportation. That is until a shady theater owner named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix)
steps in to help, offering housing and employment, but at what price? Stuck
between moving forward and sliding backward, Eva takes a chance. What’s most
fascinating about their dynamic, though, is that Eva understands from the very
beginning that Bruno will be poisonous. But he represents her only option, so
she takes it.

That Eva falls deeper into a bad situation—becoming one of
Bruno’s “Little Doves” in a vaudeville-style peep show and the more salacious
activity that follows—isn’t surprising. Gray’s treatment of the material,
however, is never less than nuanced and engaging on an intimate scale. Family
infrastructure, something he has explored to some extent in all of his films,
becomes more complicated and warped in The
. Gray usually positions a male protagonist and a matriarch at the
center of his work, but here a single woman without a family is being
manipulated by a false patriarch. When asked by Bruno if the meager
compensation she receives is worth the sacrifice of her body and soul, Eva
responds: “I love money. I hate you. And I hate myself.”

Shame also plays a pivotal role in The Immigrant, both as an emotion felt by multiple characters and a
way of thematically expressing the cost of pragmatism in their lives. Bruno
suppresses his romantic feelings for Eva in order to exploit her business
prospects. Eva foresees another potential partnership with Orlando the Magician
(Jeremy Renner) only to have her hopes dashed in an instant. This trend of
self-despair climaxes with a pair of separate, messy confessionals,
intense scenes that solidify The
as a great study of emotional contradiction.

For all its thematic heft, The Immigrant also functions as a striking cinematic collage of
tinted shades and shadows. Whether it’s the luminous shot of colorful light
streaming through massive stained glass windows, or a police beat-down inside a
tunnel lit entirely by flashlights, the film’s images, shot by the great
cinematographer Darius Khondji, have a ghostly quality that directly connect
with the characters’ desperate will to survive. For all its internal despair, The Immigrant never loses a
sense of hope and resiliency. You should look no further than the film’s brilliant final shot of mirrors and windows working in harmony to see an image of a pair of lost souls
finally diverging for the better.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and
The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies
at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2013: Nicholas Winding Refn’s ONLY GOD FORGIVES

CANNES 2013: Nicholas Winding Refn’s ONLY GOD FORGIVES


In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, to witness God is to experience the devil. The
grim reaper glides through the night in the form of Chang (Vithaya
Pansringarm), a corrupt police enforcer who lords over a seedy neon-dipped slumhole in Bangkok as judge, jury, and executioner. In the early moments of the film, after a
thuggish American ex-pat boxing promoter named Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and
kills a 16-year-old local girl, Chang steps in and allows the victim’s father a
chance at brutal revenge. The grieving man takes it. This sets in motion a series of escalating
retaliations involving Billy’s brother and partner Julian (Ryan Gosling) and
their visiting horror-show of a mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), each
bit formed to brutally triangulate Refn’s masochistic view of familial

Unlike Drive,
Refn’s semi-hopeful ode to pure genre cinema, Only God Forgives wallows in the misery of its bleak and
quasi-surrealist urban setting. Brooding characters move through shadowy spaces
at a snail’s pace as if each were in the process of being defrosted from a
cryogenic sleep. These human zombies barely speak, and when they do their words
resemble grunts more than coherent sentences. Everyone appears to be perfectly
at home living in hell, but exactly whose nightmare this belongs to is nearly
always obscured. When action does occur, as with the restaurant shootout that
acts as the centerpiece for the film, it’s mostly revealed in slow motion,
turning even the violence of Only God
into a protracted variation on Refn’s lobotomy aesthetic. 

A few bizarre sequences inside a brothel involving Julian
and his Thai prostitute/girlfriend hint at a more sexually psychotic
form of repression and guilt. Coated in vibrant colors and texture, these
disjointed “love” scenes are often complemented by a deafening score and
sporadic gong beats that seem to echo from the heavens above. It’s almost too
much kinetics to spare. Here, Refn isn’t interested in exploring anything
beyond the surface of his own vision; he’d rather just bang the drum loudly and
crush you into submission.

If anything, Only God
proves that Refn is out to create something akin to a kind of red-light-district cinema. Compositions are excessively balanced and held for long
amounts of time. These images are meant to be watched and desired, lusted after
simply because they evoke a form of evocative skin-deep arousal. Refn
ultimately fails in his efforts. The front-on shot of Kristin Scott Thomas’s
serpent queen sitting ready to strike at a restaurant table engulfed with
crystal ware is a perfect example of why Only
God Forgives
is mostly poseur filmmaking. Whatever visual impact it may
inherently carry, it’s devoid of any actual character tension, relegating the
vulgar key scene that follows into the territory of camp. 

Style aside, Only God
is of interest for an oddly compelling thematic structure that
involves a series of decisions (and non-decisions) by fathers and daughters,
mothers and sons. One small but harrowing example comes when Chang approaches
the man responsible for setting up the aforementioned hit on the restaurant.
During their muted conversation, the impending victim’s handicapped son watches
on from a nearby chair. The man takes responsibility for his action but asks
Chang to spare his boy. Such sacrifices and deals inevitably define Only God Forgives as a super-excessive
morality play where some characters act nobly in their final moments, while
others attempt to weasel out of their inevitable fate. Either way, gushers of
blood are inevitable.

Finally, the duality between public and private performances
(be it violence, song, or confession) is something to consider before labeling Only God Forgives a massive failure.
Chang’s karaoke sequences before his police brethren are both intimate and
collectively creepy, a religious ballad of sorts performed by an earthly deity.
Mai’s peep show for Julian behind a wall of dangling beads is initially framed
as something private, until Refn cuts to reveal other men in the room. When
Julian assaults one of the men for laughing at Mai it proves that Only God Forgives is deeply concerned
with the moment-to-moment shifts between closed and open spaces, and how each
character invades and retreats between the two. Interestingly, Chang’s long
blade often severs these spatial connections with one swipe, as in a sequence
involving ice picks and sharp hairpins. Only God can permanently sever Refn’s
fanatic and indulgent underworld.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and
The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies
at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2013: Images: Part 2

CANNES 2013: Images: Part 2


After nearly four straight days of rain, sunshine has
finally graced the Croissette. It’s glorious. Wardrobes have gotten
significantly skimpier and smiles have broadened greatly, and everyone at
Cannes seems to be settling in. The great irony about this festival is that just when one gets used to the insane schedule, it’s time to depart home. Anyway,
here are some more cinematic images I’ve been thinking about from films inside
and out of the competition.

Shield of Straw (dir. Takashi Miike): A much needed reprieve
from the usually heavy-handed fare at Cannes, the newest Miike (at least until
he releases another one next week) is genre cinema on fire. Two security agents
are tasked with protecting a serial child murderer after the wealthy yakuza grandfather of one of the victims puts a public bounty on the killer’s head. Everyone
they come in contact with (nurses, civilians, mechanics) could be an assassin,
including the police officers themselves. The hunt is on almost immediately,
beginning with a brilliantly mad action scene involving a massive parade of cop
cars and a nitrogen truck bomb careening down the freeway. But it’s the
sequence right before that contains my favorite image in the film. As the opening
credits play, a sharply dressed shooter takes aim at an off-screen target and
fires, producing a thick plume of blue-tinged smoke that engulfs his body
before slowly evaporating. It’s a
perfect visual analog for the film’s fleeting veil of protection, so integral
to the film’s themes of honor and sacrifice.

Borgman (dir. Alex van Wamerdan): Five minutes of pure
cinema open this unsettlingly bleak dark comedy about a drifter/demon who causes
havoc within a wealthy Dutch family on the verge of collapse. Sans dialogue, a
gunslinger, a knife-wielder, and a shotgun-toting priest ramp up for a morning
hunt, sharpening weapons and loading clips. The trio then moves forward into
a dense forest, stalking a contingent of devils living underground in primitive
dwellings just below the surface. As the titular Borgman realizes his life is
in danger, the sharp blade of a lengthy staff strikes through the ground and
nearly impales his skull. Too bad the rest of this ambitious yet strangely
cyclical film succumbs to deadpan suffering and obscured religious

Tip Top (dir. Serge Bozon): Utterly insane. This
indescribable anti-procedural from the great young French director of La France, about two I.A. detectives
attempting to solve a series of murders involving Algerian drug informants, is
the oddest film of Cannes 2013. The
great Isabelle Huppert plays Esther, a blunt force female hammer of a woman who
openly reveals her sadomasochistic tendencies, which involve very rough sex. Her
obsession produces a moment so strange that it’s sure to be the one I remember
most. After participating in a brutal beat-down session with her husband,
Esther goes back to work the next day sporting some serious morning after
scars. A particularly nasty one on the bridge of her nose opens up, producing a
trickle of blood that smoothly drips down to the tip of her outstretched
tongue. Not only does this shocking image express the film’s evocative and
challenging sense of humor, it becomes a symbol for unresolved rage that cannot
help but ooze from the body in the strangest of ways.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and
The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies
at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2013: Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

CANNES 2013: Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

nullPlenty of films exist about struggling young artists trying to be great and failing in the process. But Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is unique in focusing on a great struggling young artist resigned to the idea of his own impending failure. Not surprisingly, sadness is one of the film’s strongest and most resonant themes, expressed primarily through Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) searching eyes, which convey yearning and defeat simultaneously. Yet the Coens match the character’s extended melancholy with a sense of narrative openness, especially in the random events that allow the meandering stream-of-consciousness story to exude hopeful qualities along the way.

Set in early 1960s Greenwich Village at the dawn of the folk music revolution, the film opens with the bearded Llewyn performing in medium shot in a smoky beatnik bar. From the outset, his raspy musical voice is honest and vulnerable, two traits that seem to vanish the second he must deal with the real world in any discernible way. Even more interesting, the audience in the film doesn’t quite jive with Llewyn’s brooding and inclusive musical persona. The crowd’s lethargic faces look on in jest, proving the lack of connection between performer and patron. Much of Inside Llewyn Davis is about the often-futile attempts at translating original artistry into mass emotional consumption.

From the dimly lit stage to the only slightly brighter streets, jobless Llewyn aimlessly breezes from one NYC borough to the next, crashing on different friends’ couches and dealing with the wake of conflicts he’s helped to cause. Time passes by slowly, and deceptively minor scenes involving Llewyn’s agent and family quickly build on each other both thematically and emotionally, adding to the film’s fluid and whimsical pace. Music is always in the air, with the Coens’ sprinkling of full performances by Llewyn and other folk personalities throughout the film. But often it appears only the film’s audience can hear their genius (and absurdity). They are all truly ahead of their time in one way or another.

An unexpected pregnancy involving the girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) of a close friend and the non-impact of his unsuccessful debut solo record prove to be small ripples in Llewyn’s life. Hilariously, what most films would construe as “major” melodramatic conflicts become dwarfed by a small inconvenience involving a friend’s cat that turns into a sublime romp through the city streets. Holding the feline tightly after its near escape, Llewyn sits noticeably out of place on the subway. In an amazing moment, the Coens show the cat’s face inquisitively peering out the window, awake to the kinetic world rushing by. Whether the animal is transfixed by its own reflection or the passing terminal signs remains one of the film’s great wonders.

If Inside Llewyn Davis shares the deceptively shapeless and wandering trajectory of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it feels profoundly breezy in a completely different way. This can be greatly attributed to Oscar Isaac’s heartbreaking performance, which gives even the smallest moment palpable weight. He even manages to convey an entire generation’s frustration and malaise in a single spoken farewell without the hint of indulgence. Llewyn understands that aside from bits of bad luck and potentially a few cultural circumstances, his life has been defined by missed opportunities involving love, family, success, and artistic creation. He may seem at peace with these failures on the surface, grooving with disappointment as if were his permanent dance partner. But those lovely eyes are all hurt. What’s inside Llewyn Davis is pure regret. 

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and
The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies
at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2013: Images, Part 1

CANNES 2013: Images, Part 1

Thick grey clouds paint the coastal horizon, and rain keeps
falling. Massive yachts bob up and down in the choppy water while scattering
festival attendees take cover under umbrella canopies. Usually a sun-dipped
wide shot of blue skies and vibrant colors, Cannes in 2013 has instead been
dominated by a blurry and blustery Tarr-esque vision of enraged weather. Throw
in an endless supply of cinema, and naturally, it’s hard not to have images on
the mind. Here are a few of my favorite
snapshots from films screening early in the festival, with added analysis.

Heli (dir. Amat Escalante): A tale of Mexican manhood
broken, singed, and reborn through violence. In the middle of act two, the
titular character, now embroiled in a terrifying drug deal gone bad, stands
stoically poised for battle against a massive black military truck mounted with
a machine gun. The vehicle’s hood practically touches Heli’s chin, as if war
machine and man were debating between dance, embrace, or death.  

nullThe Past (dir. Asghar Farhadi): Nobody does emotional
collision better than Farhadi. Script, performance, and mise-en-scene work in
perfect harmony despite one too many narrative wrinkles. Glass boundaries
sprout up during moments where communication is essential. The opening sequence
finds Marie (Berenice Bejo) trying to get the attention of her estranged
husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) as he departs the airport security check.
Separated by a thick windowpane, the two speak even though they cannot hear each
other, momentarily pausing before joining together on the other side.

Like Father, Like Son (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda): Tender,
patient, and sincere, traits best represented in a single shot of a two hands
(father and son) playing the piano together. This lovely melodrama about
parental wisdom and arrogance proves that time shared will always be thicker
than blood. 

The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola): Celebrities are no
longer physically necessary. All we need to get high on glam is to touch and
possess their stuff. The best thing about Coppola’s ultimately tiresome pop
culture social study is one amazing shot of the young burglars spryly romping
across the frame atop a dark hill flanked by the Los Angeles skyline in the
background. This is where the vapid wild things are and forever will be.

nullJimmy P (dir. Arnaud Desplechin): Middling and flaccid, with
very few aesthetic flourishes. But there is a drop-dead gorgeous dreamy
pastoral of Benicio del Toro’s Jimmy P standing in a bed of tall flowers looking
up at the blinding sun. For a moment, this mostly talky tale of friendships,
traumas, and goodbyes expresses itself in a beautifully visual way.

The Selfish Giant (dir. Clio Barnard): British miserablism,
the pre-teen years. If you’ve seen Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, Ramsay’s Ratcatcher,
or any Shane Meadows joint, this thing feels stale and reductive by comparison.
None of the aesthetic flair Barnard showed in her great debut, The Arbor, is on
display, replaced by a dour monochromatic haze. Still, the final act provides a
harrowing image of two hands holding, one white and fresh with life and the
other one charred to a crisp black.

More images to come…

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and
The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies
at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

The Technology, the Art, and the Ethics of Watching: Talking With Brian De Palma at Toronto

The Technology, the Art, and the Ethics of Watching: Talking With Brian De Palma


"I suffer from the fact that people have so many preconceptions about the kinds of movies I make," Brian De Palma lamented, "that they don't really look at what's on the screen." At the time, the 72 year-old New Jersey-born filmmaker was talking about how his reputation as a cynic made it impossible for some to see his sincere attempt in the 2000 sci-fi oddity Mission to Mars to replicate the sense of "awe" astronauts get when they visit space. "The exploration of space fascinated me when I was in high school: going to the moon was all we thought about," De Palma said, in a recent conversation during the Toronto International Film Festival. "I'm fascinated by this technology. And what you discover when you talk to people that have done these missions is that they're extremely idealistic, they're extremely awed. They've seen things we've never seen. And their reaction is that of, how can I say? Awe."

The way that De Palma sought to achieve such an ecstatic effect is intriguing: like the hard science fiction sub-genre of literature that inspired it, De Palma's film is primarily concerned with the mechanics and terrestrial procedures that allow the film's astronaut protagonists to see and experience more. Seeing better through technology is a recurring thematic concern for De Palma, from Passion, his most recent thriller, to the 1974 black comedy/cult musical Phantom of the Paradise, and even earlier. For instance, in films like Phantom of the Paradise, where cutting-edge technology is represented by the bulky recording machinery in the Phantom's studio, technology is impossibly big. However, more recently, in films like Passion and De Palma's provocative 2007 war drama Redacted, technology is tiny, and it’s everywhere. 

"That's what inspired me about Redacted, the way that the soldiers were communicating, either with their loved ones or in their diaries," De Palma explained. "Everyone has these digital cameras and now they're getting smaller. Everyone’s phone's going to get a camera that's even better, and we're going to see this stuff all over the place. So, I don't know. Am I a big investigator of this? Absolutely. I'm fascinated by all the new forms that pop up on YouTube, all these video forms. Plus, all the surveillance cameras that are around all the time. Everything's being watched by somebody."

This is just as true of Passion, a remake of the 2010 French thriller Love Crime in which two business colleagues, played by Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, use various cameras to implicate each other in convoluted schemes. In a key scene, one of these two characters has a meltdown in a parking garage, and the other uses surveillance camera footage to publicly humiliate her at a company party. To De Palma, the surveillance camera is inherently cinematic, an extension of the point-of-view shot.

"What's unique to cinema is that you shoot the point-of-view shot," De Palma suggested. "The audience is getting the same information as the character is getting. We're seeing what the character is seeing. And then, in Hitchcock, you cut back as he's smiling or leering–it depends on how you react to visual information that's being presented to you. But the fact is: the point-of-view shot is a unique tool of cinema. So when we start moving into surveillance cameras, that's an extension of the point-of-view shot. And much of cinema is about watching. Watching people do things, following people—which is what we do when we're sitting around. We're looking over here, we're looking over there. We're living a point-of-view shot."

The fact that De Palma sees this as an extension of human nature speaks to the amoral nature of voyeurism and watching in his films. In Passion, McAdams and Rapace's dueling anti-heroines photograph themselves using camera phones and are in turn furtively filmed by each other using those same miniature phones. This creates an interesting power dynamic: according to De Palma, if the voyeur's subject knows that they're being watched, there is nothing to implicate the viewer in whatever act they are looking at. "It's like a keyhole that everyone's looking through," De Palma explained. "If everyone's looking through it–otherwise it's on the internet. I don't know, you have a kind of anonymous complicit-ness. Who's looking at it? The world's looking at it. So because I'm part of the world looking, does that make me part of the crime? I think it's more to do with exhibitionism. I think anyone that's taking a photograph of themselves or a video for themselves is posing for the camera. If they're posing for the camera, they want to be seen. So anybody looking is hardly complicit, they're basically fulfilling what the exhibitionist wants to do: expose themselves."

This is an important distinction, given that Rapace's character in Passion is one of the two subjects of a sex tape filmed without her knowledge and then circulated. Funnily enough, De Palma did not have to give his game cast members detailed instructions on how to film this touchy scene. "In the [sex tape] they made in the hotel room in London, I just gave them a camera and said, 'Go in there and make a sex tape,'" De Palma shrugged. "I just gave them the camera and closed the door. And for when they got into bed, I said, 'Make sure the camera goes here, because that's what we're going to use to show when [Christine] humiliates [Isabelle].' They did five or six takes, with one wild thing after the other. And Noomi is quite aware of being photographed. They're posing for the camera together, but they're making a sex tape together."

He continued: "And if you've ever looked at sex tapes, both participants—in the ones I've seen—seem to be aware of the camera. They don't say, 'No, no, don't do that,' they're sort of passively aware that the camera is there. Well, as I found when I was editing the movie, it makes Noomi more sympathetic if she's not. She's not aware that she's being photographed. He's making the video, like a guy that takes a girl into a bedroom and has a hidden camera somewhere. And that to me made her more empathetic, as she's a victim of this sex tape."

The fact that this violation could only be caught on film because of the small size of the camera filming Rapace's character is a vital detail. But the fact that cameras are now almost invisible does not mean that voyeurism is now exclusively the province of camera phones. Again, De Palma insists that all roads lead back to the point-of-view shot. When asked if the way that his films treat sex and violence as spectacle spoke to the fact that cinema, as a medium, could best represent the id, De Palma’s response was impatient but insistent.

"You're pointing to things that are intrinsic to the cinematic form. You're pointing to the point-of-view shot, you're talking about violence, so you're talking about images that are quickly cut together that exist in no other art form except cinema. So you're talking about unique building blocks of cinema. So when you say, 'Can this be considered exploitative,' or 'excessive,' or whatever other pejorative you want to use, the fact remains: these are colors in the palette of the filmmaker."

With that in mind, it makes sense that De Palma is not anti-3D so much as he opposes the constant abuse of the technology. De Palma's innovative aesthetic takes the Eisenstein-ian concept of montage as the collision of individual shots with each other to its logical conclusion: the collision and juxtaposition of moving people and objects on separate visual planes within a single shot. But he considers 3D, as used in films like Avatar ("Cameron knows what he's doing with it."), to be "just another technique, and you'd better know how to use it." "But to shoot everything in 3D is debasing the form," De Palma added.

But to return momentarily to Mars: it's also not surprising that De Palma is fascinated by the recent Mars photos from the Curiosity rover. To him, these photographs represent the apex of what technology can allow us to see. He added that he can't imagine a future where the act of looking wasn't dependent on the limits of the technology we use. "What happens is that you discover things the technology reveals," De Palma said. "You just have to be attuned to see—it's like Curiosity, wandering around on Mars. It's fascinating to me, because we're seeing images that we would never see any other way. It's so awe-inspiring."

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Local Heroes: The New York Asian Film Festival Strikes Again (And Again, And Again)

SIMON SAYS: Local Heroes: The New York Asian Film Festival Strikes Again (And Again, And Again)

The New York Asian Film Festival, now a pop culture institution unto itself, started eleven years ago. Its movies were first screened at the Anthology Film Archives in the summer of 2002. For a while, the festival was just a colossal labor of love for fest founders Goran Topalovic, Nat Olson, Paul Kazee, Brian Naas and Grady Hendrix. The air conditioning at the Anthology broke a lot during the festival's first few summers, and the programmers paid for much of the festival's expenses with their personal credit cards. Most years, the festival earned just enough to break even, but each following year, they'd come back stronger and more determined than ever to show attendants genre films and arthouse experiments from across Asia. 
nullWith raffle drawings before each film, surprise screenings, and a plethora of special guests, the festival has become a staple of adventurous New York cinephiles' annual calendars. So while this year's program may seem like it's filled with familiar titles and faces, that's only because the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) helped those titles and faces to become familiar. Oldboy, the poster child for the short-lived "Asia Extreme" movement of the early aughts, screened this past weekend with star Min-Sik Choi in attendance. And the first two Infernal Affairs movies, the crooked cop/gangster saga that inspired Martin Scorsese's The Departed, will screen this Friday. Which is fitting, since Infernal Affairs previously screened at NYAFF in 2004, while two of Oldboy director Chan-wook Park's films screened at the festival in 2003 and 2007, respectively. These guys don't jump on bandwagons, they get people on them: Park's Joint Security Area screened at NYAFF (before it was officially NYAFF) a year before Oldboy came out in America, and Infernal Affairs played NYAFF a couple of months before it got a miniscule limited theatrical engagement, thanks to the Weinstein brothers. 
NYAFF also got Janus Films to dig up Nobuhiko Obayashi's psychedelic House, a film that has gone on to be one of the Criterion Collection's biggest sellers, from their vaults. They've started cults around filmmakers like Katauhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea; Funky Forest: The First Contact), Johnnie To (Exiled; Throw Down) and Ji-Woon Kim (I Saw the Devil; The Good, the Bad and the Weird). These guys may have started from (and with little!) scratch, but they went on to become wildly influential taste-makers.
This year, the original NYAFF programmers are not present: Olson and Naas have left the festival, while a couple of other succeeding NYAFF curators have assumed diminished responsibilities. And the festival's venue has changed over the years, too; this will be NYAFF's third year at Lincoln Center's fully air-conditioned Walter Reade. But not much else has changed. The festival continues to show support for the artists they've previously championed, further fostering a sense of community, with high-energy events for each of these screenings. 
nullFor example, Hong Kong filmmaker Edmond Pang has had a film screen at the festival before (Pang's Exodus screened in 2009). But this year, NYAFF will screen two of Pang's features and an eclectic shorts program called Pang Ho-Cheung's First Attempt. First Attempt was a one-time-only reprisal of an interactive experience where Pang talked about four of his early short films before, after and while they screened. Pang made these shorts with his mother and two brothers when he was 11, 12 and then 26 years old. The earlier shorts, where Pang improvised slow motion effects and spliced in footage from John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow, were definitely the highlights of what was shown. Their make-do aesthetic has a cockiness to it that makes every boombox song cue and every spliced-in scene of buildings exploding that much more endearing.
Better yet, before a screening of Pang's romantic comedy Love in the Buff, Pang and Hendrix re-enacted (with hand puppets!) the events of Love in a Puff, the romcom to which Buff is a sequel, for anyone that hadn't seen it. The NYAFF gang will do anything to make first-time attendants feel welcome, and they do it with such a unique combination of storied grace and aw-shucks charm that it's almost scientifically impossible to not be won over.
nullAnd the festival hasn't stopped making new discoveries either. On Sunday, the festival screened The Sword Identity, the directorial debut of Chinese screenwriter/action choreographer Xu Haofeng. Haofeng is the screenwriter of The Grandmasters, Kar-wai Wong's upcoming martial arts epic. Watching The Sword Identity, you can easily see a similarity between Haofeng's interests and Wong's. Haofeng has made a genre film ideologically grounded in the notion that actions reflect character and that physical gestures and techniques always express the essence of things. That's the kind of story that the protagonists of both In the Mood for Love and 2046 dream of writing and the kind that Wong tried to make in Ashes of Time
Still, The Sword Identity, which screens again on the 11th, is very much an accomplished self-sufficient work and a compelling festival find. In his Sunday introduction to the film, Hendrix probably overplayed the fact that the film got a blase critical reception at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. But The Sword Identity is now very much a NYAFF find, a film whose vision of heroism perfectly matches the festival's ethos. NYAFF programmers know that, when it comes to screening exciting and innovative films, it's not just the thought that counts. These guys never program in a half-assed manner; they always pull out as many stops as they can. To paraphrase Harlan Ellison, the most important thing about NYAFF is not that they became a great film festival–it's that they've remained a great film festival. Here's to another eleven years of discoveries at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.