Marina Abramovic: the Artist is Present (Hugh Lilly) The home stretch of Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre’s documentary for HBO Films about the self-described ‘grandmother’ of performance art, Marina Abramović, has as much palpable tension as did any of the emotional, spiritual, or physical battles in the dozens of fictional stories I saw at this year’s film festival. Pegged to (and taking its subtitle from) her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the film looks at the very nature of performance itself through the past and present work of this remarkable artist. The focal point of the retrospective—which occupied all six floors at MoMA’s main building and featured re-creations of all of Abramović’s major prior bodily works by a small army of young performance artists in her short-term, cultlike employ—was a three-month residency in which Abramović performed the title work.
This involved her sitting, immobile and silent, at a table in the atrium for every minute that the museum was open (a total of 736½ hours). Visitors were able to sit across from her for as long as they wished; lines quickly went around the block and never abated. The work gained meaning as much from the participant-audience—those who just stared; the (hundreds) who cried; the one who was James Franco; the one who tried to take her dress off and, on purpose, wasn’t wearing anything underneath—as it did from Abramović’s incredible steely nature and remarkable ability to ‘refresh’ her face, creating a veritable tabula rasa for every new sitter. The physical energy required to undergo this very particular kind of interaction with countless strangers is unnerving, sometimes shocking, and incredibly moving—and the film conveys it with a specificity and intimacy rarely felt in documentary.
Side by Side (Hugh Lilly) “You can’t shoot 3-D on film,” says James Cameron at the outset of Christopher Kenneally’s comically one-sided documentary on the digital-cinema revolution. Well, thank God for that; let’s hope that particular gimmick loses its slender appeal ASAP, and that we never again see another Cinematography Oscar awarded to a film as heavily computer-generated as Avatar. But I digress (sort of). Kenneally’s film—more shallow edutainment than anything, given his choice of Keanu Reeves as host and questioner—gives far too much screentime to the insufferable triumvirate of digital-cinema proponents and pioneers that is James Cameron, George Lucas, and Danny Boyle—all three of whom are allowed to become annoyingly repetitive in their breathless enthusiasm for digital. (Robert Rodriguez gets some remarkably dumb words in, but thankfully that other enfant terrible of early-’90s Indiewood, the freakishly energetic Quentin Tarantino, is absent.)
The film seems to lay the blame for the acceptance of digitally-shot cinema squarely at the feet of Anthony Dod Mantle, and in particular his work on Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. (We all, by now, know that Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement was basically a big joke, but who knew it would be largely responsible for ten-plus years of God-awful-looking cinema?) Dod Mantle went on to work with Harmony Korine (on Julien Donkey-Boy, another Dogme film) and with Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later…, both of which made use of cheap, easily manoeuvred handheld cameras; the rest, as they say, is history. Those films looked OK at the time but they look appalling now—especially compared to 4K captures from state-of-the-art equipment like the Arri Alexa, evinced by the handsomeness of Darius Khondji’s work on Michael Haneke’s superlative Amour.
Even when he begins to explore an interesting aspect of the other side of the debate, such as a segment on restoration and archiving, Kenneally, bizarrely, doesn’t think, for example, to ask Martin Scorsese about his Film Foundation. (If Scorsese was asked about his extensive restoration and preservation work, Kenneally elected to leave that discussion out of the final cut.) At no point does the documentary explore the history of cinema—Hugo teaches you more—or why watching a film print run through the sprockets and innards of a projector provides a different cinema-going experience to watching cold, dead pixels shot out of an unmanned, poorly calibrated, soon-to-be-obsolete automated digital system. There’s a long section on how editing has become easier with the advent of digital tools, but this is largely redundant given Wendy Apple’s intelligent 2004 film on the subject, The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing. Instead of a thoughtful, measured comparison of the two kinds of film presentation, we get rudimentary examples of how a pixelated image—‘low resolution,’ we’re told, as if we can’t work that out for ourselves—compares to a high-resolution version.
The one borderline-insightful portion of the film is its look at colour-timing. Dailies are lined up face-to-face with the timed, corrected image and it’s here, perhaps, that the film’s title becomes clear: Side by Side is not so much about digital-vs.-celluloid as it is about technology’s ability to enhance and fix the bad work that was done while the camera was running. This might have made a great Blu-ray special-feature—on the next, inevitable edition of Avatar, maybe?—but as a standalone film, it’s basically just a really cool-looking advertisement for the already-in-progress digital-cinema onslaught. Unasked questions linger in the margins of this film, as they will in your head as you’re watching—and, afterwards, as you head straight to Wikipedia to look up the entries for “35mm” and “DCP.”
Sound of My Voice (Hugh Lilly) The directorial début of Zal Batmanglij—fun fact: his brother, Rostram, plays guitar in the indie band Vampire Weekend—is an absorbing, exciting small-scale exploration of the machinations of a cult. Brit Marling, who plays the cult leader, is as magnetic here as she was in last year’s equally atmospheric Another Earth; as with this film, she co-wrote the script. The plot’s crux is that we’re following two citizen journalists who want to document the cult as part of a larger study. The film is mysterious—note the lack of an article at the start of its title—and occasionally disturbing, but it’s neither impenetrable nor nightmarish. (This is not your typical ‘puzzle’ film in an academic sense; this isn’t Memento.) Mingled with the sense of slightly unreal wide-eyed wonder are references to minor pop-culture touchstones from the material world we inhabit: a mention of the Cranberries’ early-’90s hit “Dreams” may double as a reference to Chungking Express (but maybe that’s just me).
The hopeful, open-ended outlook of Sound of My Voice is, pleasingly, part of an emerging low-budget sensibility (see also, well… Another Earth) that it would be great to see financiers nurture. (I was talking about this with Dom Corry after Holy Motors on the closing night of the festival; he had a really cool name for this trend, but I can’t remember what it was…) The film’s atmosphere is reminiscent of the low-budget achievements of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, or Primer, Shane Carruth’s miraculous micro-budget bar-setter of 2004, to name just two examples. The equally character-driven Another Earth was given a limited run at the Academy Cinemas in Auckland last year; let’s hope Voice gets the same.
Your Sister’s Sister (Hugh Lilly) I’ve been watching Mark Duplass’ animated, rubbery face in mumblecore movies for years, but Lynn Shelton’s comedy Your Sister’s Sister is the first time I think I’ve really seen it. The film, Shelton’s second feature after a middling début some years ago called Humpday, has a confessional mood to it; some scenes are so quiet that you can almost hear the camera buzzing. The actors, as is one of the statutes of mumblecore-filmmaking, seem to improvise much of their dialogue and spend a large amount of time on-set in character—you can be pretty much guaranteed that any scene involving drinking resulted in actual drunkenness. The narrative, which begins with a humorous outburst at a funeral, is driven by a depressed thirtysomething man’s quest for a little peace and quiet.
Emily Blunt—who, happily, speaks in her native British accent—sends her BFF (Duplass) to her family’s ‘getaway’ cabin; when he gets there, he finds her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt, in one of her most pleasing performances to date). Shelton brings some nice touches to proceedings: handsome establishing shots which last a beat longer or shorter than we expect; a feel for the rhythm her actors were creating, and the fortitude to continue some scenes longer than the shooting schedule may have dictated. Upon first viewing, the film’s one downside appears to be a third-act montage deployed with a heavy hand; the ending, however, is sublime.
Wrapping Up (David Larsen) ”I think that increasingly film is going to become something that we are looking at on the small screen, and a lot of the qualities of the big screen are just going to fade away”. David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) said this to me when I interviewed him a couple of years ago. Thomson is in his 70s, and if there’s a hint of golden age syndrome in his way of harking back to the lost glories of his youth, there’s also a lot of hard-earned industry insight. Which is worrying, because he also said this: “The communal theatrical experience, the feeling of going out to a packed theater, which was very common in my childhood – that doesn’t happen so much any more… I think that a lot of what look like commercial theaters now are probably going to fold in the next ten years”.
In this connection, the scariest thing I saw at this year’s film festival – though also the funniest – was Side By Side‘s clip of someone watching Lawrence of Arabia on a smartphone. (Scary, anyway, until you reflect that this highly pro-digital-future documentary would have staged the shot as a reductio ad absurdum.) I am not good at predicting cultural change; I tend to take refuge in the complexity argument. (“Too many variables!”) But clearly the times, they are a-changing. When Devenport’s Victoria Picture Palace threw Lawrence of Arabia back onto the big screen last year and I took my sons along to it, there were seven other people in the house.
So this reflection first, now that Auckland’s festival is over: two weeks of being surrounded by large, enthusiastic audiences was an absolute treat. Especially since they were so well behaved. The tendency of all those future-of-cinema-threatening smartphones to follow us into theaters and make their presence felt is one of the major tropes of the ongoing do-theaters-have-a-future conversation. This is the first year in a long time that I’ve heard fewer complaints about oblivious bastard cellphone users in festival screenings than I did the year before: and not just fewer, massively fewer. At the screenings I went to, people talked less, used their phones less, came in late and spilled their drinks on me less… being around other filmgoers was an almost unqualified positive. I bumped into friends, I had good conversations with total strangers about what we’d each seen. The only time someone chatted at all noisily to their neighbours anywhere near me, the person in question was three, maybe two years old, and her contributions actually added quite a bit to an already enjoyable film.
This reflection second: the combination of enthusiastic, non-boorish audiences and the Civic’s big screen is transformative, and I’m already missing it. Moonrise Kingdom opens in general release soon enough that it isn’t on the Christchurch festival programme at all, so you could argue that it was a waste of real estate to give it a 7pm Friday screening at the Civic – why not give the space to something we wouldn’t get to see in a few weeks anyway? The answer is, that Friday night Civic screening rocked. Anyone who went directly from it to the 930pm screening of The Cabin In The Woods had one of the best evenings of pop cinema you could ask for. The festival is not just about letting us see films that might not play here otherwise. It’s about good viewing experiences. If I had ten cents for every time someone has said to me “I’m trying not to see the ones that will probably come back”, I’d have… well, the price of a modest meal, anyway. Leaving aside the point that sometimes – so I’ve been told – films don’t come back because distributors look at their festival door sales and conclude there isn’t an audience for them here (meaning that people who chose to “see them later”, as I did with Meek’s Cutoff last year, have shot themselves in the foot), it’s just more fun seeing films at the festival.
Or it ought to be. This year it mostly was. (See first point). There were a few exceptions. (See below).
This reflection third: the festival made great choices for its opening and closing nights. Beasts of the Southern Wild was, as advertised, a crowd-pleaser. Holy Motors was the boldest Auckland closer since Waltz With Bashir in 2007, an in-your-face self-referential Gordian knot of a film which had me scribbling notes-to-self every few seconds just so I’d be able to remember what happened, never mind what it meant. (So, um, if anyone wants to respond to my “great audiences” comment with “Yes, except for that guy who kept rustling paper in the seat next to me”, my reply would be, “…sorry”.) I haven’t seen many reviews in the days since the screenings, which will partly be because it’s a very hard film to write about without giving too much away, though I also suspect a degree of reluctance to front up and say the words “I do not understand what I just saw”. I have arrived at the possibly face-saving conclusion that the film is ultimately trivial, an exercise in puzzle-solving where the solution is, “You are solving a puzzle”. But the process of following its ingenious twists and turns is its own justification, and – trying to phrase this for minimum spoilage – it involves seeing a lot of different acting performances laid end on end, and thinking about how they relate to each other. In other words, it’s a condensed version of the experience of seeing a lot of films close together. A nicely celebratory way to close out the festival.
I saw 28 films in the end, not counting the handful I’d seen in preview before the festival opened. That was a pretty good number for winning the tacit which-of-us-has-seen-more competition with most of the people I sat next to, but not so good with friends and colleagues, some of whom saw getting on for twice as many, meaning they only had to regret missing two thirds of the festival. A glass half full mentality is essential here. I currently do not have much in the way of a functioning brain, but I’m getting through my glut of post-festival tasks adequately, which suggests that for me, 28 was about the right number. It was a lovely, lovely ride, especially the two five-film days.
Best film seen: Amour. No question. I’m so glad I saw it. I honestly don’t know if I could watch it again.
Most fun had: The Cabin In The Woods. The queue for Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing starts wherever I’m standing.
Films I saw on a whim and now have on my “great pleasures of 2012″ list: Le Tableau and The Loneliest Planet.
Best post-film arguments: with my sons after The Wall (one of them insists it’s beautifully contemplative and lacks for nothing) and with two friends after The Loneliest Planet (they each insist it’s marred by implausible character behaviour at a crucial point).
Greatest regrets: missing The Flight of the Airship Norge and In The Fog.
Greatest irritation: every single one of the handful of screenings I attended at the festival’s only multiplex venue had sound bleed-over from the theaters next door. In every single case, it was the sound of Bane beating the crap out of Batman. Wuthering Heights: desolate silence attends the moors, except for the sound of Bane, beating the crap out of Batman. Platige Image: Warsaw is laid waste, and in all the vast cityscape, not a soul stirs… except for Bane, who’s just out of shot, vigorously kicking the crap out of Batman. Reality: actually, this film could accommodate intermittent supervillain action rather well. Still. It got old fast.
High hopes well met: Wuthering Heights, and the APO silent film double-feature. Chaplin’s Easy Street was especially delightful. (But next year, take the orchestra out of the pit, please. It made sense to try putting them out of sight… but I want to see them. It’s part of the fun).
When I write about film I use the word “fun” more often than I should, in pure stylistic terms. It’s somewhat deliberate. I made myself a promise, when the Listener offered me this job getting on for five years ago, that if and when seeing most of the films that come out stops being fun, I’ll walk away. There are weeks when Adam Sandler, Scandinavian crime writers and some random mid-range American careerist with Oscar hopes seem hell-bent on convincing me the time has come. The past fortnight has been right at the other end of the enjoyment scale; I honestly don’t think I’ve had such a good festival before.
Wrapping Up (Hugh Lilly) The one thing the film festival can offer us that’s totally different from the regular movie-going experience is a standing ovation from a full house at the Civic. It’s a wonderful sight, and something I witnessed only once this year, for the Peter-Jackson-produced documentary West of Memphis, about three men who were, as teenagers, wrongly convicted of triple-homicide in Arkansas. There was a trial-by-media of sorts, cries of ‘Satanism’ and what-not. A series of documentaries was made starting in 1995 by Joe Berlinger for HBO under the title Paradise Lost; in 2006, after seeing the first of these and realising that the wrong people were still in jail, Jackson and Fran Walsh decided to produce their own film with the documentarian Amy Berg. I have some issues with West of Memphis’ construction—namely its occasional use of shock tactics—but I think it’s mostly well-made and insightful, and it seems to highlight some new issues that past films on the case, which found an ending of sorts last December, were unable to pick up on. Seeing Damien Echols—who had spent nearly two decades in solitary confinement on death-row—speak afterwards was incredibly moving. (The questions reportedly went on for more than an hour and a half.) I’d be remiss if I didn’t reiterate here what I said on Twitter at the time: seeing Cabin in the Woods in the Civic with an enthusiastic capacity audience was ridiculously fun.
I enjoyed, to varying degrees, four films that were vaguely about filmmaking: Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country; Pang Ho-Cheung’s Vulgaria, Darezhan Omirbaev’s Studyent, and the festival’s pièce de résistance, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Someone once called Hong “the Korean Woody Allen,” and with this new picture, which stars three variations of Isabelle Huppert (all named Anne), he proves that dictum correct. The film’s delights come from the subtle changes in those around Huppert’s shape-shifting character, as well as the sometimes major differences between her three incarnations. Cheung’s film, which is 90 per cent toilet humour, is a far cry from the horrific wonder of Dream Home or the innovative tenderness of his rom-com Love in a Puff (and its sequel); there’s something vaguely interesting, though, in his exploration of the role of technology in contemporary storytelling. Omirbayev’s resolutely spare Dostoyevsky adaptation was a treat, and opens with a fun segment in which the director makes a cameo. Speaking of director-cameos, the start of Carax’s bizarre, wonderful, Lynchian concoction features him in his pyjamas. He gets out of bed, walks to a wall, feels around for a knob or a handle or a recess, finds a socket, and inserts a digit which has turned into an inverse Allen-key of sorts—basically, he’s giving us, the audience, the middle-finger. The film’s fun is easily ruined by enumerating its episodic narrative, but suffice it to say that, given the prologue, it’s fun to read the ensuing madness as an essay on the decay of cinema. Also, the bluesy, accordion-driven entr’acte is just about the best thing I’ve seen at the movies since The Tree of Life.
Sergei Loznita’s impeccably shot, thought-provoking In the Fog was sparsely attended at the Civic screening I went to, which is a pity since it’s not only better than his previous film, My Joy, but will surely come to be regarded as one of the year’s best war films. Miguel Gomes’ Tabù is a delightful period-piece romance, a puzzle of a film buoyed as much by the director’s genre-playfulness as it is by its superb central performances (including a baby crocodile). It’s at the ‘experimental’ end of the art-house scale, but it seems commercially viable enough that it might return to cinemas. You never know. James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer, a taut espionage thriller, was great; I can’t wait to experience its entrancing cinematography and sound-design again—this time, hopefully, with a more respectful (read: quiet) audience. Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner Amour and Christian Petzold’s Barbara share a wonderfully tense stillness, about which more will be written when I’ve had the chance to see the Haneke again (it’s coming back soon). Amour was the best film I saw in the festival, but my highlight was Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom; my full review will be in the September 1 issue of the magazine. I’ve written about Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish in next week’s issue, and my review of Walter Salles’ On the Road will appear in the September 15 issue.
I overslept one Saturday morning and missed Ben Rivers’ apparently wonderful Two Years at Sea; it would be fanciful to hope for a theatrical run, so I’ll just look forward to catching it on DVD. Judging by reports from friends, I’m right to be less concerned about having missed Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts and William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, which were both, I hear, pretty damn awful. I don’t know of anyone who saw Ursula Meier’s Sister, which I also missed, but I liked her previous film Home a great deal, so I’m hoping Sister returns to theatres soon.
At last year’s festival, I hated Ben Wheatley’s sophomore film Kill List with a fiery passion because its ending punches you in the guts and then rips those guts out and shows them to you, and then the credits start rolling. So it was with reluctance and trepidation that I went, on a whim, to see his new film Sightseers, my fifth film of that particular day. I’m so glad I did, not only because it’s the funniest film about serial killers I’ve ever seen but also because it was preceded by Nash Edgerton’s excellent new short Bear, which is sort of a sequel to the momentarily gag-inducing Spider (YouTube it, if you dare). Wheatley’s used to working from his own scripts, but here the film’s stars, stand-up comics Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, are credited with its script. It’s occasionally bloody, but never grisly; think The Office (the good, British one), but if David Brent were one of two hapless, slightly twisted murderers, and you’ve pretty much got the vibe of this.
Finally, How to Meet Girls from a Distance—the “Make My Movie” winner—was a great, fun way to end my festival run. Shot in 17 days and with a total production budget of $100,000, the film, about a guy trying to get a girl by learning everything about her before meeting her ‘by chance,’ is pretty “safe” comedy, but has some fresh, inventive elements. Hopefully it’ll be back in cinemas as soon as it’s finished on the festival circuit.
An addendum: of the 40 films I saw in the festival (38 in its 16½ days + 2 before it began), these are the ten I enjoyed the most:
1. Amour (Haneke, France/Germany/Austria)
2. Holy Motors (Carax, France/Germany)
3. Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson, USA)
4. Shut Up and Play the Hits (Lovelace & Southern USA/UK)
5. Tabú (Gomes, Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France)
6. Marina Abramović: the Artist is Present (Akers & Dupre, USA)
7. Student (Omirbayev, Kazakhstan)
8. Shadow Dancer (Marsh, UK)
9. Barbara (Petzold, Germany)
10. В тумане (In the Fog) (Loznitsa, Russia)