Film of the Week: Cowards Bend the Knee

Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) comes across as William Burroughs’s take on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Like his fellow Canadian compatriot Cronenberg, Guy Maddin’s interests are also profane and experimental. Here, a star hockey player falls prey to amnesia and is manipulated into assassination. The details of the plot aren’t as interesting as what Maddin concocts with them. There’s a ghost, wax figures come to life, and a man, like Frankenstein, is haunted by a monstrosity—his own hands. Maddin shot Cowards Bend the Knee on Super-8mm and takes further steps to have the film mimic the aesthetics of the silent era, replete with intertitles and a higher FPS. Combined with its plot, Cowards Bend the Knee would be more appropriately described then as a nightmare rather than a dream. Neither the camera movement or editing (frankly, nothing in the film) adhere to conventional, aesthetic logic. Movements are repeated, the camera adopts a hurricane-like rhythm, and the image at times is slowed down. The result isn’t an assault on sensibilities so much as it is on reality, reveling in a darker truth otherwise ignored.

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Gone Tomorrow / On the Up

Just two months ago, Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s west side finally opened. For the unfamiliar, imagine: towering glass structures, boutique stores, and luxury apartments. This, the Hudson Yards website declares is “a template for the future of cities.” But for whom and at what cost? Reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Ada Calhoun’s St. Marks is Dead, it’s easy to glamorize yesterday’s New York City. One could seemingly subsist on a few dollars a day, drinking coffee and making art. The obverse, and what’s less frequently spoken about, was the constant danger of muggings, beatings, and drugs. Still, however, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to live in New York City should one not work in, say, investment banking. Michael M. Bilandic’s Happy Life (2011) traces this disappearing landscape. It’s the year 2009 and rave culture has been dead for nearly two decades. Tom McCaffery plays Keith, the schlub owner of New York Tunez, a techno record store struggling to make ends meet. In a last-ditch effort, he rallies together a rave charity event spun by the legendary DJ Liquidz (Gilles Decamps). Bilandic’s script is too cynical to ever truly believe that New York Tunez can be saved from the forces of gentrification. Happy Life isn’t without sincerity however. Keith is heckled not only for his own lackluster skills as a DJ but also for his belief in rave-culture. He is, however, given support by his Staten Island-dwelling parents, who are so far removed from his world, but still care anyway. More touching is when Keith ambles into a store and is joined by the owner in an impromptu musical session on the finger drums and flute. Keith has just been laughed out of two stores for wanting to place the flier of his charity event, but here, he finds solace if only briefly.

Hellaware (2013) is Bilandic’s appropriate follow-up to Happy Life. If Happy-Life situates itself in a pre-gentrified millennial New York City, Hellaware takes place within this millennial world—Bushwick, Brooklyn. Who better to star then than Keith Poulson, who plays Nate, a young, scrappy photographer. After stumbling onto a group of goth rappers online, Nate convinces a friend to drive him down to Delaware to photograph the young juveniles. The meeting between young and “old” is awkward, clumsy, and all the more funny for it. Bilandic whose films are on tight budgets still manages to compose impressive images by way of the great and dexterous Sean-Price Williams. But, the strength of Bilandic’s films arise from his caustic wit and the sharp delivery from his actors who seem both methodical and improvisational. Hellaware is the film Velvet Buzzsaw wished it could be. Bilandic is a director that has only now come to my attention thanks to Spectacle’s recent retrospective, but it’s no surprise that he’s part of the same circle of artists as Alex Ross Perry, Nathan Silver, and Ricky D’Ambrose. To that extent, Hellaware wryly mocks the current hipster zeitgeist strangling Brooklyn. Nate, for all his talk of authenticity, is perhaps the most inauthentic person of them all. Hellaware begins with Nate railing against a fellow artist and the audience that praises him, yet Nate’s friends rightly point out Nate hasn’t produced any work of his own. Once that threshold is crossed, however, Nate, embarrassed by the working-class aesthetic of his subjects, shuns them from the very gallery opening they helped to concoct. Righteousness follows quickly, but Bilandic withholds from any sort of finger-pointing or didactism. Instead, Happy Life revels in its chaotic finale, and a devilish punchline.

Film of the Week: Hi, Mom!

Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1970) is a bait-and-switch of a film. Robert De Niro, in a proto-Travis Bickle role, plays Jon Rubin, an amateur photographer hired to take Rear Window (1954) style erotic photos of his neighbors. To explain any further, however, would spoil the surprise. Suffice to say, the script carries with it a sense of urgency that’s comedic, sexual and political. Many contemporary American films are desperate to establish a through-line from the country’s founding to now. Hi, Mom! does so in a manner that truly shows perhaps how little has changed. The film’s political topic isn’t focused on bureaucracy[1], but rather plays out on the societal level, where De Palma depicts the social relations in a rapidly changing and explosive downtown New York neighborhood, matched by DP Michael Chapman’s frenzied camera.

[1] No art is psychic, but a sub-plot in the film involves the accessibility of video-cameras for the home-market. New York, defined in the film by its dystopian, modernist architecture, becomes riddled with cameras, mimicking the development of every-day surveillance now common in urban areas.

Out There, Alone

Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001) makes an apt comparison to her latest, High Life (2018) because both are genre films made by a director who doesn’t traffic in them. The two, however, couldn’t be any more different than one another. While both share horror elements, the genre conventions in Trouble Every Day are either pushed to their grotesque extreme or subverted. High Life, on the other hand, aims for a broader appeal (in New York City, the film is playing in select arthouse theaters but also at AMC). A broader appeal doesn’t conflate with a film being bad—even here, Denis proves to be more imaginative and enthralling than Interstellar (2014) and Gravity (2013), other recent space-faring films. Yet, High Life lacks an element of spontaneity and instead feels like a product of rigor. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and Willow (Jessie Ross) are the last surviving members of a mission to investigate black holes. The narrative jumps between the present where Monte cares for Willow and the past, where Denis reveals how the crew members died and how Willow was born. As in Denis’ sophomore feature, No Fear, No Die (1990), the camera in High Life accentuates claustrophobia and imprisonment. The images, however, are perfectly ripe for reproduction, such as the film’s title opening depicting corpses floating in space. Yes, a film like Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) contains moments of grandeur—soldiers dancing in the desert. But in that film, both bodies and camera are in motion. In the film’s finale, when the camera does stop, it’s not to entertain the audience, but to inhabit a character’s internal psychology. High Life, on the other hand, strikes one as being ready for Tumblr reblogs or Instagram snapshots. For those who have seen it, of course, the fuck-box scene is noteworthy. Juliette Binoche, who plays the mad doctor Dibs, imbues the entire film with an imperial quality that’s both terrifying and alluring. For all the seemingly radical qualities of the above scene, however, Denis is nearly two decades late.

Film of the Week: Patlabor 2

Throughout Mamoru Oshii’s filmography there lies an interest in Japan’s political history. The end of World War II and its subsequent consequences serve as the nexus through which Oshii creates the alternate setting of his films. With Patlabor 2 (1993), Oshii questions the role of Japan’s military, the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF), during times of supposed peace. Patlabor 2’s action and historical backdrop suitably allow Oshii to examine the trauma caused by war not just on soldiers but citizens as well.

The story begins after the Yokohama Bay Bridge is destroyed in a missile attack seemingly launched by a JSDF plane. A black-sheep police-unit known as the SV2 are tasked with carrying out a covert investigation on the incident. Meanwhile, martial law is declared, and civil war threatens Japan as the JSDF and various politicians begin to fight amongst themselves in the ensuing panic and confusion.

More somber than its prequels—Patlabor 1, and the ten-episode OVA, Patlabor: Early DaysPatlabor 2 is a serious spin on the traditionally light-hearted series. Further distancing itself from the franchise is Patlabor 2’s set pieces which carry a more reflective atmosphere rather than one focused on action or comedy. A montage of Tokyo’s industrial landscape blanketed in gray clouds and dim sunlight provides the scenery for an argument on the merits of a just war versus an unjust peace.

Kenji Kawai’s ambient pieces here, and Kazunori Ito’s more philosophical writing arguably set the tone for Oshii’s future and more well-known cyberpunk work, Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). Still, however, despite not dealing with cyborgs (although mechs are involved), Patlabor 2, like Ghost in the Shell, concerns itself with the cost of human life in an age defined by rapid advancements in the military-industrial complex

Elegy for Time

Hotel by the River’s opening credits inform us that filming took place between January 29, 2018 to February 14, 2018. It comes as no surprise that Hong Sang-Soo shot Hotel by the River so quickly given his output of six films in the past three years alone. By this point, Sang-Soo aficionados will know the elements that make this possible: Natural lighting, small crews, minimalist stories, and scenes shot on location. Sang-Soo’s style recalls the guerrilla nature of French New Wave filmmaking, but there’s a fifth element that enables Sang-Soo to be distinct. It’s not a dramatic climax involving soju and food, but rather, how Sang-Soo handles time. To watch a Sang-Soo film is to inhabit time or as Henri Bergson puts it, “time as duration.”Perhaps the plot first. The aging poet Younghwan (Ki Joobong) resides at the eponymous hotel located by the Han River. There, he reunites with his two estranged sons (Joon-Sang Yoo and Hae-hyo Kwon) and befriends two women (Kim Min-hee and Seon-mi Song) also staying at the hotel. Through their conversations we learn the backgrounds of these characters and the significance the hotel plays in their lives. Like other Sang-Soo films, events in Hotel by the River feel episodic and disconnected as if they were, appropriately, an assemblage of verses pieced together. Younghwan waits for his sons at the hotel cafe. Unbeknownst to Younghwan, his sons wait for him on the opposite of the cafe, hidden from view. Later on upstairs, the two women lie in bed napping, exchanging brief words between moments of waking. Sang-Soo punctuates dialogue with silence giving Hotel by the River a sense of non-urgency. Younghwan tells the two women that he has no qualms with passing away after having seen their beauty. Younghwan may initially appear to be an old and awkward man flirting, but he’s sincere enough and repeats the sentiment towards his two sons. Hotel by the River’s atmosphere, like Younghwan, contains an atmosphere of peace.

Ways of Killing

Velvet Buzzsaw seems to be from the bygone era of the literary Brat Pack’s heyday. The film’s world of selfish characters, sleek architecture, and high couture, despite its L.A. trappings, recall the east-coast set novels of Brett Easton Ellis—American Psycho, for example. Yet, an L.A. setting alongside a script meant to both terrify and satirize make it clear that the influence of David Lynch haunts the film. But Lynchian Velvet Buzzsaw isn’t.

If Lynch’s interests lie in exposing the horrors burrowed underneath our quotidian lives, then Dan Gilroy, who wrote and directed Velvet Buzzsaw, chooses instead to focus on the specific niche of the high-art crowd. The horror of Lynch’s films arguably comes from the transformation of the familiar into the unfamiliar. One of the most striking and recurring of these Lynch images is that of a car barreling down a highway. In Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), these scenes signify a territorial shift into the supernatural, and therein lies anxiety and fear. Like Jeffrey Beaumont in the back of Frank Booth’s car we can only wonder in abject horror: where am I being taken to?

The same question arises in Velvet Buzzsaw during a similar scene involving an artist, stolen paintings, and a ghost. But here, we already know the answer: certain death. Velvet Buzzsaw is a black-and-white moral tale, and a rather uninteresting one. Not because of the film’s subject matter, but because what Gilroy has to say and how he says it. Those that value art only for its commercial value are greedy and deserve to be punished. Velvet Buzzsaw’s message establishes the fates of its characters, and we understand who the film’s perennial virgins are.

There’s no one central character. Rather, Gilroy tells the story through a central group all working within the contemporary art-world. The thread of the film, however, is Vetril Dease (Alan Mandell), a painter living in solitude who passes away. His body of work is found by his neighbor, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who absconds with everything. Josephina’s boss, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), makes this discovery and blackmails Josephina into working alongside her to display Deases’ art. The exhibition is a smashing success, but par for the course, things begin to go awry when those connected to Deases’ art are grisly murdered.

Velvet Buzzsaw has been done before, and in fact, done better. Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) was similarly an attack on those who valued commerce over art. While not a horror film—look towards Week End (1967)instead—what Contempt does display is an aesthetic imagination. Godard employs the cinematic form itself to imbue Contempt with a sense of urgency, humor, romance, and whatever else comes to be expected of a genre film. Yet as the trailer for Contempt does, Godard plays with these genres. The importance of these factors doesn’t lie in their singularity—the divorce, the affair, the car crash—but in how they’re used.

Velvet Buzzsaw only hints at its artistic possibilities. Produced by Netflix, Velvet Buzzsaw had a chance to be a champion of sorts. From Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017) to Steven Soderbergh’s latest, High Flying Bird (2019), it’s no secret that Netflix allows its directors to flex their creative freedom. Velvet Buzzsaw lacks this reflective quality. Unlike Jacque Rivette’s Le Belle Noiseuse (1991), no one in the film paints. Business deals are made, books are written, and critiques published, but even these elements are handled with a sterile quality.

At one point in the film, in an attempt to woo Piers (John Malkovich), a famous artist, gallery owner Jon Duddon (Tom Sturridge) tells him, “It’s not copying if its your own canon.” Duddon’s line rings true for the relationship between Gilroy and his two films, Velvet Buzzsaw and Nightcrawler (2014). Nightcrawler, too, takes place in L.A., and there Gilroy similarly endows the script with a satirical edge. But in Nightcrawler, Gilroy makes the medium the message. When I reviewed the film four years ago, I wrote the following (coincidentally I also made a comparison to another Godard film):

There’s a sense of cinéma vérité in how Lou goes about his job. Lou wants the truth and is willing to manipulate the cinematic image not to distort the truth but to accentuate it. One of the philosophical ideologies in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2004 “Notre Musique,” is that the truth has two sides to it. That very same multi-faceted truth is found in Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler.” Despite filming for the news–film which should only present the truth because it seeks to inform on the objectivity of events–there are no qualms with Lou’s manipulation of scenes. The morning audience of L.A. revels in the violence of its nighttime counterpart and Lou is simply giving them what they want. In a montage of images mirroring the opening shots of the film, morning L.A. is too characterized by its own series of images and sounds. The shots here focus on the satellite television dishes adorning the various houses as well as the mixture of sounds of different morning news programs being turned on

Perhaps Velvet Buzzsaw’s most interesting moment comes from a scene where paint drips from art, and like a snake, engulfs a woman. The scene is a marriage between the film’s horror and aesthetic sensibilities, yet the execution still leaves something to be desired. Instead, it plays out like the string of poorly produced horror films found in Netflix’s recommendation queue.

Top Films of 2018

Let the Sunshine In – Claire Denis
Zama – Lucrecia Martel
First Reformed – Paul Schrader
Burning – Lee Chang-dong
Shoplifters – Hirokazu Kore-eda
Madeline’s Madeline – Josephine Decker
Shirkers – Sandi Tan
Notes on Appearance – Ricky D’Ambrose
Hale County This Morning, This Evening – RaMell Ross
Golden Exits – Alex Ross Perry

Still Worlds

With 24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami creates a film akin to a piece of ambient music. The key difference, however, is that Kiarostami works backwards; the image comes first, and then the expected sounds proceed rather than the other way around. Think of, for example, Brian Eno’s Music for Films in which Eno created ambient tracks for films that don’t exist. And yet, listening to each piece of Music for Films evokes a story that should be accompanied by an image. Using the image as a starting point allows Kiarostami to play with time, and thus, proceed from there to craft a mood. Similar to Chris Marker’s low-budget La Jetee (1962), there is little to no movement in 24 Frames. Kiarostami’s focus on the still image does more than point toward a flirtation with experimentation by highlighting a new form of storytelling. Comprised of twenty-four images, Kiarostami sets out to evoke the mood of each image by way of sound. The sound of wind, chirping, distant logging and soon thereafter, the fall of timber, accompanies the image of a bird resting on stacks of lumber. Nearly two-hours in length, there comes a point in 24 Frames where our gaze stops its incessant movement in search for secrets, and where our eyes become used to the stillness. If Kiarostami has always been a director who challenged how films were watched as he did in Close Up (1990), then with 24 Frames, his technique becomes more radical, minimizing the film’s visual aspect, and training us to hear a story rather than see.

Film of the Week: Stalker

Like Andrei Rublev (1966) before it and The Sacrifice (1986) after it, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is a film about faith. What distinguishes Stalker from these two counterparts, however, is the lack of a miracle within the film’s narrative. Consequently, Stalker presents a much more bleak outlook on life. Yet, in the script’s dealing with anthropocentric issues, the lack of a miracle falls in line with the rest of the film. The story centers on the eponymous Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), a man who guides people through a paranormal area known as the “Zone.” At the center of the Zone lies the “Room” which is said to grant any person’s wish. The Stalker is hired by two clients—the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko)—to guide them to the Room. Despite its science-fiction trappings, Stalker is anything but the B-movie Soviet-film its plot sounds like. Rather, the film’s style follows the same poetic approach Tarkovsky had been known for previously. Stalker begins and ends in sepia-tone while its middle section is colored and filled with saturated greens and blues. Tarkovsky employs the Zone’s aural backdrop as a diegetic soundtrack. Both dialogue and silence are punctuated by the chirping of distant birds, the soft crunch of footsteps on grass, and the sound of water, whether its the sound of droplets leaking through a roof or a pool being disturbed by the trio’s movement. Nature is at the heart of Stalker on both a technical and thematic level. The Stalker decries the absence of God, and by extension, the industrial growth of Man. Detritus and decay pervade the Zone in the absence of human settlement, and so nature has reclaimed the area. Images of vines, grass, and weeds crawling over buildings, tanks, and telephone poles are littered throughout the film’s middle section. The Stalker deems his life a prison—colorless, drab, and silent. But upon arriving to the Zone, he greets the Earth in religious reverence as if finding freedom. But, this too will turn out to be its own prison. The Stalker places his faith in those he guides through the Zone, and the dialogue of the film devotes itself to exploring the nature of man. Of the many film posters for Stalker, one depicts the Writer wearing a crown of thorns, recalling the image of Jesus. The Stalker seeks such a figure, but by the film’s end can only exclaim, “My God, what kind of people are they?”