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.

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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?”

Archival Update

I’ve recently updated my archive with my earliest writings which can be found here. Access is also available via the link found under the “Archives” menu in the top-right corner.

The pieces here cover my writings for the University at Albany’s student newspaper, the Albany Student Press. They range from reviews of albums and concerts to comedy shows and films. The writings I’ve excluded are ones that can already be found on my first blog, AEDFilms.

Hovercrafts and Cows: The Black Avant-Garde of Adult Swim

The following is a transcript of a presentation I gave at the Graduate Center’s 2018 Lightning Talks.

Good evening everyone. My name is Anthony Dominguez, and I’m currently a MALS student in the film studies track.

Today, I am here to talk about the programming put on by the television channel, Adult Swim. Specifically, as you can see behind me, The Eric Andre Show.

Before that, however, I’d like to place this discussion within proper context. The initial idea for this project was born during a Q&A celebrating Film Quarterly’s special dossier, Dimensions in Black. An audience member questioned the mainstream appraisal of Jordan Peele’s Get Out as a comedy rather than a serious drama. This, in turn, led into further questions not just about high versus low-brow art, but also the lack of critical attention on experimental works from Black artists.

With this in mind, we then find The Eric Andre Show in this dangerous milieu of critically overlooked Black experimental media. But, what is The Eric Andre Show?

A surreal riff on late-night public-access talk shows, The Eric Andre Show follows its titular host performing a variety of comedic acts, from destroying his set every episode, to street-pranks captured by hidden cameras, and finally, “interviews” with celebrities who are verbally—and sometimes literally—poked and prodded so as to be made uncomfortable.

Perhaps hearing that description, alongside this image behind me, you would find it easy to dismiss the Eric Andre Show as juvenile, low-brow, and without merit.

But, I argue that by combining absurd humor with camera techniques that point towards a self-awareness, Eric Andre deconstructs the talk-show host format. Consequently, Andre becomes a radical figure within the world of television.

We can continue from there by explicitly questioning: Why does this matter?

Well, to begin with, Andre is bi-racially Black. Certain jokes of his then take on a new and sometimes political meaning, such as when he smokes a bong outside a police station or when he arrives to a Civil War reenactment as a runaway slave.

But please, do not mistake that I am saying the virtues of the Eric Andre Show solely lie in its hosts’ racial identity. Rather, the ultimate goal of this project is to first: map out a portion of Black experimental media that hasn’t been discussed in order to preserve its cultural significance for future scholars and fans alike, and second: to perform an analysis of said media to show its merits and the historiography of its influences.

In this case then, it is not just that the Eric Andre show deconstructs the talk-show host format, but that he is part of a larger group of radical Black artists who have utilized Adult Swim as a platform to create art which ruptures conventions.

Thank you.

Recommended Reading: On the Oscar’s Popular Film Category

Over the past week a plethora of articles have been published decrying the Oscars’ addition of a “Popular Film” category, but the piece I’ve found to be most insightful (and to the point) is Richard Brody’s over at the New Yorker:

“The new category appears to be a play by the studios to siphon off some of the commercial benefits of the awards—to redistribute Oscar-related money upward from independent producers to the studios, from productions costing and yielding tens of millions to ones costing and yielding hundreds of millions.”

Wandering Women: Drifting as Resistance

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

– T.S. Elliot, Four Quartets

 

Unguided Tour
Dir. Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s Unguided Tour isn’t just about a woman (Lucinda Childs) drifting through a city, but that same woman drifting through her memories of her time there. Fitting then that the setting of the film is Venice whose architecture evokes the past around every corner. Based on Sontag’s short story of the same name, Unguided Tour centers on the crumbling relationship between a man and a woman, as told in an off-screen conversation between the woman and her friend. From the outset, Sontag establishes a bond between Childs and the city. In the opening, Childs walks around the edges of a building flanked by pillars. Rather than follow Childs’ movement, Sontag trains the camera on the building with Childs appearing every now and then. Sontag’s framing here suggests the city as a background a thematic tool. Venice is always there, decayed, rusted, and grayed, although in a beautiful kind of desolation. Despite her movement, Childs isn’t necessarily free, but rather trapped in the past of her failed relationship, symbolized by the constant presence of the city. At one point, Childs tells her lover (Claudio Cassinelli),“And then there’s a special kind of tourist. Attracted, above all, to Venice. The melancholy tourist. For that reason, a special tourist. Predestined to Venice. Venice is the capital of melancholy.” Both Venice and the past become prisons of comfort.

At Land
Dir. Maya Deren

Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) can be better understood by comparing it to the work of one of Deren’s thematic descendants: Chantal Akerman, specifically, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. To explain, in Jeanne Dielman, Akerman employs a static camera and horizontal framing to capture Jeanne’s domestic space. The lack of camera movement in combination with long takes and Jeanne’s repetitive routine shifts the audience attention to the mis-en-scene of the film. Consequently, Akerman subtly shows how Jeanne’s Sisyphean-like life is derived from the prison of her domesticity. On the other hand, Deren’s camerawork and editing in At Land function in the opposite manner. A film ostensibly without a plot, but not a story, At Land follows Deren playing an unknown woman journeying between a beach and a house. She encounters well dressed guests at a dinner party and later on, two women (and then herself) playing chess on the beach. Unlike Akerman’s camera, Deren’s is free; it floats over the dinner table, it spins around a sick-room, and when Deren is scaling a beach cliff, it captures her from all angles. Both Jeanne and Deren move through the spaces of their respective films, but whereas Jeanne is trapped, Deren knows no boundaries, thus, the match cuts of the film. When Deren reaches the cliff’s top, her hand comes to rest not on the smoothed edge but the previously mentioned dinner table; when she crawls through a bush, match cuts between the film’s spaces join them as one. Through editing, Deren breaks the physical boundaries of space, and later on when she begins to encounter herself, time. Just as in her other films Meditation of Violence (1948) and The Very Eye of Night (1958), Deren’s editing in At Land offers an escape from corporeal limits, thereby re-contextualizing both dance and gesture as radical movements for understanding our bodies.

0.5mm
Dir. Momoko Ando

0.5mm begins as a somewhat quirky black comedy. Sawa Yamagishi (Sakura Ando, Momoko’s younger sister) is an at-home nurse for the elderly. One day, the wife of Sawa’s current patient asks for a rather strange request: she wishes for Sawa to wear the kimono of said patient’s mother and to sleep next to him. With some hesitation, Sawa accepts and when she beds next to him, things seem to be all right. That is until, she awakens to find her patient licking her eyeball. In the ensuing scuffle, Sawa inadvertently knocks out her patient and a space-heater, the latter starting a fire. She attempts to drag him out but can’t muster the strength, so she runs down the stairs, trips, and at the bottom, finds the house mistress’ body hanging. Of course, Sawa is fired from the job, and the rest of the film follows her misadventures drifting and exploiting elderly men into letting her stay with them. If none of this sounds funny, that’s because I’ve left out descriptions of Momoko’s directing technique. For example, in the opening of the film, as Sawa is changing the diaper of her patient when he begins to urinate. In a rush, she grabs hold of a cup and holds it between his legs. Ando then cuts to a close-up, and we see imprinted on the cup is the face of a smiling cartoon. Meanwhile, urine sprays everywhere and Ando cuts between the face of the bewildered patient, and the uncomfortable Sawa who is attempting not get her face wet. There’s no musical accompaniment; only the dripping sound of urine. The result of Ando’s technique here—the designated cup, the cuts, the sound of urine—creates a farcical tone for the rest of the film. As Sawa’s drifting continues, however, her comedic relationships with those she exploits transforms into a sincere examination of the past and it’s continual haunting effects. One disgruntled professor finally opens up to Sawa after initial annoyance. He reveals that he suffers not only from dementia but from survivors-guilt dating back to World War II. In a harrowing goodbye scene, Sawa can only sit and listen as he repeats the final war-cries of his dead comrades—emperor banzai.

Vagabond
Dir. Agnes Varda

Vagabond is both the story of its protagonist Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), but also a story told through Mona. To explain, the film begins as a pseudo-documentary with Mona’s dead body being found frozen in a ditch. As the voice-over of Varda explains, the woman behind the camera wants to discover who Mona was, so she moves backwards in time, tracing the people who interacted with Mona in her final days. These interviews take on a conventional form, but they’re scattered throughout the film, serving as punctuation for Mona’s own narrative—that of her wanderings in the French countryside. After the opening scene, we bear witness to Mona, naked, walking out of the water at a beach. The image here conjures up the image of the original woman; as if Mona were being born from primordial ocean. Fitting then, that this image is preceded by that of a postcard, also depicting a nude woman. Yet the difference between the two results from the postcard’s nudity being pornographic. An implication arises then that Mona’s appearance will be one mediated through connotations of what a woman should be—and it is. Take for example the maid Yolande (Yolande Moreau) who sees Mona asleep in the arms of a fellow male drifter. Yolande watches the two with dream-like eyes, and we later learn she wishes her own lover would treat her in a similar romantic manner. Or, for another example, a wealthy heir whose wife won’t have sex with him. He berates her for her prudishness and wishes that she was more like Mona—free and uncaring about their surroundings. Of course, the Mona the characters of Vagabond see isn’t truly Mona at all, but simply facets of her or even misrepresentations. It’s this imprinting that Mona runs away from throughout the film perhaps best seen when she shacks with a family of farmers who endow her with land. Despite the comfort, however, Mona doesn’t care for working and eventually leaves. The words of the farmer resound with a haunting effect: “You’ve chosen total freedom but also total isolation.” With Vagabond, Varda creates her own rebel with a cause—a total resistance towards social, political, and economical establishments, but at a cost. A total sense of nihilism that drives its wielder to extinction.

Morvern Callar
Dir. Lynne Ramsay

In Morvern Callar, the world falls apart. Morvern (Samantha Morton), a young Scottish woman, finds her boyfriend’s dead body in their living room. He’s committed suicide and left a letter of instruction for Morvern on their computer. “Read Me.” “Sorry Morvern.” “I love you.” In between, we learn that he’s an aspiring novelist and has left Morvern with instructions on mailing his manuscript out to potential publishers. Morvern finishes reading the letter, hangs around a train station, opens the Christmas presents left under the tree, takes a bath, and then goes out to party. These descriptions aren’t meant to give the impression that nothing is happening in the film but rather that Morvern Callar takes more interest in inward experiences than it does in external, marked narrative events. The narrative of Morvern Callar is one of mourning, and one of the techniques by which Ramsay allows the audience into Morvern’s head-space is through the film’s diegetic soundtrack. While the exact device by which Morvern listens to her music is never shown, the film was release in 2002, just a year after Apple’s iPod. The portability and mixture of songs—ranging from the vintage cheerfulness of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You,” to the drum-led tricked out ambient beats of Board’s of Canada’s “Everything You Do is a Balloon—bring to mind the advent and possibilities of new musical technology. In Morvern Callar that possibility is escapism, whether it’s the drudgery of walking into the 9 to 5, or the reminder that your boyfriend’s body is rotting in the room next over.

Wanda
Dir. Barbara Loden

Perhaps the most popular film in this program thanks to the recent revitalization caused by Nathalie Leger’s “Suite for Barbara Loden,” Wanda (1970) was also the most divisive upon its release. Loden plays the eponymous Wanda, a rebel, unlike Mona, without a cause. Wanda too isn’t interested in doing much of anything, but rather than perform any sort of action against the system, she merely lumbers along. Her husband divorces her at the film’s start, and when he takes her to court, she shows no interest in either the marriage or the custody of her children. Later on, she gets taken in by a Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins) who berates her for getting the wrong type of burger and forces her to commit a bank robbery, which, of course, goes awry. Critics decried the film for its portrayal of a passive woman who allows herself to be abused by the hegemony. But one forgets that there is indeed a moment of resistance in the film. Wanda meets a man at a restaurant; he flirts with her, gives her a ride in his car, and takes her to a secluded area. He begins to kiss her, and then, attempts to undress her. Wanda remains frozen until the camera pans out, and then, she releases a yell and begins to fight back. This singular moment can serve to explain the rest of the film. That is, Wanda’s passivity is an effect of exhaustion. What can she do besides nothing. But the fury builds, and Wanda displays a pro-activeness. At the end of the film, when she returns to slinking in a bar booth, we can only wonder when she’ll righteously explode again.

D’Est
Dir. Chantal Akerman

Unlike her earlier travelogue film News From Home (1977), Chantal Akerman’s D’est contains no dialogue whatsoever. What remains is Akerman’s sheer dedication to long-takes and frontal angles, and what’s born isn’t a meditative examination of images but rather, a rigorous study of people, places, objects, and things. The film is made up of footage Akerman recorded while traveling through Eastern Europe, following the fall of the Soviet Union. Four years earlier, Jean-Luc Godard made Germany Year Ninety Nine Zero, but there Godard mixed fiction with history to critique the West. Places were real, people were both (although even the historical figures were played by actors), and so Godard’s film comes across as a collage of the director’s own theoretical ideas concerning communism, capitalism, and so on. Akerman’s D’est isn’t absent of her own markings—individual shots returning to women in domestic spaces recall Jeanne Dielman (1983)—but Akerman’s film certainly has more breathing room to allow in audience subjectivity into the lives of its citizens. A balance between East and West.

Lost in Translation
Dir. Sofia Coppola

If the films in this series up until now have been defined by an atmosphere of weightlessness then Lost in Translation stands out for its world and characters being anchored. The film centers on Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a film star with marriage troubles currently shooting a commercial in Tokyo, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johanson), a college graduate on a trip to Tokyo with her photographer husband who’s on assignment. Charlotte, left with nothing to do, wanders Tokyo, and Bob, with too much time on his hands, does so too. After a series of accidental run-ins, the two begin to meet on occasion. Like Morvern Callar, the soundtrack here plays a major role in establishing mood. Produced by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine fame, the music of Lost in Translation takes its cue from the dream-pop and shoe-gaze genre, blanketing the film in soft guitar reverb and the fuzzed out noise of gently distorted vocals. Already foreign to its American characters, the city of Tokyo becomes layered in another veil of alienation thanks to Shield’s musical choices and compositions. And yet unlike the cold barren sets of Vagabond or the gritty Pennsylvania of Wanda, the sense of alienation in Lost in Translation becomes one of comfort, bridging the loneliness of its characters.

Wendy and Lucy
Dir. Kelly Reichardt

Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) isn’t rebelling against the “system,” although she does steal from a supermarket. She’s simply a vagrant traveling to Alaska with her dog, Lucy. Arriving in Oregon, however, her car breaks down, and when she’s arrested for the aforementioned crime, she returns to the scene to find her dog missing and sets out about town to look for her. Reichardt is exceptional for shooting on film when most directors have now moved on to the digital medium. While her films can be described by their “texture”, to do so would be reductive. Equally difficult is describing Reichardt’s directional technique, and the way in which her actors behave. Yes, there are gestures akin to the films of Claire Denis, but whereas Denis can be said to be more focused on the relationship between people as mediated by their geopolitical (Beau Travail) or immediate societal boundaries (35 Shots of Rum), Reichardt’s focus lies in a formalist and uniquely American rigor. The fruit would bear more strongly in her later film Certain Women (2016), but it almost seems that Reichardt is channeling elements of the American western in the way her landscapes are beat down by the sun, and in the manner that towns seem forever yellow and languid. Like a cowboy or blues-man, Wendy too is on the move. Armed not with a revolver or musical instrument, but instead, vigor, ardor, and man’s best friend—her dog.

Marseille
Dir. Angela Schanelec

Films are about watching, and the films in this particular series especially draw attention towards the ways in which women are watched, no apparently greater than in Angela Schanelec’s Marseille. Sophie (Maren Eggert), a photographer, temporarily exchanges her apartment with a student, moving from Berlin to Marseille. In the first half of the film, Sophie wanders the streets, taking photographs, and befriending the locals, and the audience is given vantage to it all. Schanelec places the camera in doorways, up top on hills, in between people, and other manners in which vision is mediated through the mis-en-scene. The result produces an effect of surveillance, perhaps a nod to the surveillance culture which dominated Berlin following World War II. Otherwise, Schanelec’s technique initially draws upon Laura Mulvey’s seminal theory on the male-gaze, but in this case, it may not entirely be correct. While the camera and by extension, the audience, attain a certain voyeuristic quality, it is never that of the sexual or titillating kind. Rather, it may be apt to compare the cinematography and blocking to that of observational or ethnographic cinema. Through Sophie’s wanderings, we become acquainted with her surroundings, whether it’s the locals at the bar, garage, or even street. But Schanelec’s camera which remains ever so distant, refuses any sense of intimacy. Sophie may be watched, but her interior remains protected, and so she, elusive.

Masks for Films

Nathan Silver’s The Great Pretender is part of a bigger milieu of independent New York city-based films this year, joining its immediate predecessors, Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits and Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes on Appearance. All three films are concerned with White upper-middle class New Yorkers navigating thin lines between work, life, art, love and so on. While this narrative description might produce an eye-roll, and sound unoriginal, the direction displayed by all three is anything but. Perry, for example, bridges scenes through fades, blanketing Golden Exits in a dream-like atmosphere that calls attention to the miserable bourgeois reality of its characters. D’Ambrose on the tightest budget of all three utilizes unique sound and visual design to tell a larger story. An image of a map depicts the process of traveling, and the absurdity of a Q&A is represented by a rapid-montage depicting the sullen faces of its guests. Silver’s cinematographer Sean Price Williams1 films The Great Pretender with whimsical movements of the camera, lending the film a playful, sometimes absurd, comedic tone that lampoons its characters. The story may ultimately center on Mona (Maëlle Poésy), a French theater director attempting to reconcile with her ex-boyfriend, but the narrative jumps between the perspectives of its four characters. The addition of internal voice-overs for each “chapter” aid the film in establishing the psychological conflict between how the characters feel and how they act, ultimately coming to a climax in Mona’s play. As in the ending of Vivre Sa Vie (1962), The Great Pretender too suggests art as the most sincere form of communication. But of course by then, it’s too little, too late.

 

Williams has also worked as the cinematographer for Perry’s Listen Up Phillip (2014), Robert Greene’s (who served as the editor for Golden Exits) Kate Plays Christine (2016), and the Safdie brother’s (two more NYC-based independent filmmakers) Good Time (2018), all three which I highly recommend.