Saturday, September 30, 2006

Film review: Krisana (Fallen)

Fred Kelemen's trilogy Fate (1994), Frost (1997) and Nightfall (1999) brought him international attention during the last decade on the strength of his anti-aesthetic, staunchily cinephilic evokation of an uncertain, transitional Europe filtered through his Eastern European sensitivity (Kelemen was born in Berlin to a Hungarian mother). His films are rigorous, uncompromising formal experiments that go against the grain of contemporary cinema in every respect. A disciple of the Hungarian Béla Tarr, he was hailed by the late Susan Sontag as one of the last gasps of twentieth-century cinephilia. His films tap into post-Communist bleakness where rambling characters navigate the uncertainties of their times, estranged from reality and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Kelemen takes cinema's dark cave metaphor to an almost literal end.

His new film, Krisana (Fallen), a German/Latvian production, sees Kelemen continue with his pursuit of the same aesthetic and production mode that brought him a certain degree of fame in the 1990s. In other words, he financed the film himself to keep his artistic view free from economic pressure. The result is brave and unique in the context of today's homogeneous film scene. There is no doubt about Kelemen's confidence as a director and his defiance is admirable. In Krisana, a super-noir DV take on the Blow Up template of photographic voyeurism, he takes the viewer to a place of loneliness and paranoia, but without ever providing any kind of relief or failing to sustain the atmosphere of the film. Set in Latvia, the Krisana captures the country's post-Communist spectrum mercilessly, seen through the eyes of an archivist who gets obsessed with piecing together the life of a woman he failed to save from suicide at a bridge. He manages to find her purse at a bar and from there he tracks her address and her boyfriend. His life is a void and glimpses into someone's else life seem to provide a ray of light into the archivist's dark-side-of-the-moon world.

Structured with very clear-cut sequences, the film is photographed with rigidly formal cinematography. The overall result is uneven. Shot on black and white DV, Kelemen avoids the hand-held aesthetics that most film-makers adopt when shooting on digital; he opted for a more celluloid-like approach to the cinematography. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The flatness of the image, which is often an asset to convey a type of immediate realism that in the hands of Lars Von Trier and Lukas Moodysson translate into throbbing emotional texture, in Krisana seems more like an inedequacy and not exactly a de-constructivist manifesto against the idea of 'cinematic purity'. The sound design of the film, a humming dirge of industrial echoes, plays an important role in keeping the organic unity. The director's mastery over rhythm also makes up for its shortcomings. Tristana is a significant film and Kelemen's unique voice from the "other Europe' is a force to be reckoned with. It takes time to get through the density of his vision, but Kelemen rewards those who persist.

Tristana is playing at the Ciné Lumière and the Tate Modern in London.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Online viewing: Rio Cine Festival

The organisers of the Rio de Janeiro film festival have teamed up with the popular Porta Curta streaming site to show 17 of the competing films from the festival's Première Brasil section. You can also vote for your favourites.

Fest Rio +

Monday, September 25, 2006

San Sebastian film festival: clips

Google Video already has a selection of clips with footage of the goings-on at the San Sebastian film festival. Speaking of which, Kamera's newswire received information from one of its PR friends that Tom DiCillo's new film, Delirious, is being screened at the Spanish festival. 'Delirious' sees DiCillo reunite with Steve Buscemi. While I haven't seen the film to vouch for it, the storyline sounds like DiCillo classic. Here's a description:

"Small time paparazzo Les (Steve Buscemi) has a big mouth and big dreams, but try as he might, he can’t quite talk himself into the right parties to get that one great exclusive photo. He meets Toby (Michael Pitt), a homeless kid who is drawn to the bright lights of New York City and “hires” him as his assistant.

But the two are drawn to each other and become friends. Although Toby enjoys the glamour and excitement of Les’ lifestyle he still retains a compelling innocence and naiveté that draws Les to him. Toby also has vague dreams of his own; to become an actor.

Luck intervenes for Toby when he accidentally meets K’Harma Leeds (Alison Lohman), a beautiful pop diva. As their unlikely love blossoms Toby finds himself torn between a chance to follow his dreams of becoming an actor and to fulfill his obligation to Les. When Toby leaves Les for a part on a Reality Show, partly by sleeping with the show’s casting director Dana (Gina Gershon), their blossoming friendship immediately falls apart.

As Toby’s fortunes continue to rise, Les tries to reach out, while also maintaining a bitter resentment toward his former protégé…"

Festival site

Google video

Agnès Varda's video installation

A tip for those passing through Paris until 08 October: the doyenne of the Novelle Vague (and the movement's only significant female presence behind the camera), Agnès Varda, has prepared a series of video installations called L'Ile et Elle as a result of a commission from the Fondation Cartier.

Update: Agnès Varda will be in London on 28/10 for a talk at the Cine Lumiere, where she will be presenting Cinévardaphoto. The programme includes three films chosen by director Varda, all dealing with photos and together forming a meditation on what photography and the artistic impulse mean to her. Ydessa, the Bears, and etc... is about an artist/curator who is obssessed with collecting pictures of people with teddy bears from the early years of the 20th century. Ulysse is an examination from 1982 of a photo Varda took in 1954. Salut les Cubains, the earliest of the three films, looks at the Cuban revolution via a photo exhibition mounted some 10 years after the event.

Further info +

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

London Film Festival

When the London Film Festival announced its programme a few days ago, I went straight to the experimental section to see what was on offer. I was pleasantly surprised to see two films on two American underground luminaries: Anger Me, about Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith and The Destruction of Atlantis about Jack Smith, both curated by the ever reliable Mark Webber.

Anger was a legendary pioneer of independent filmmaking who used to hang out with the Stones, made the homoerotic Scorpio Rising (1964) and wrote the infamous book Hollywood Babylon. Smith, on the other hand, worked in the pre-Warhol New York art scene and was heavily influenced by kitsch 1940s star Maria Montez, blending film with experimental theatre, fashion and photography. His most famous film, Flaming Creatures, is "an epic fantasy, featuring blonde vampires and bohemians cavorting amid a tangle of naked bodies". A baroque genius.

Excerpt from Anger's Lucifer Rising (1972)

Jack Smith's short Scotch Tape (1963)

Festival site

Monday, September 18, 2006

Filmosophy and Harmony Korine

Wallflower, the London-based publisher specialised in film theory, has rung in to tell us about an event connected to one of their upcoming titles, and soon to be reviewed on The Filter, Filmosophy, by Daniel Frampton, filmmaker and theorist, founding editor of the online salon Film Philosophy. The event will take place on Sunday 15 October 12noon and will include a screening of Julien Donkey-Boy, followed by a conversation between director Harmony Korine and Frampton. Very likely to sell fast, so book your ticket now on 020 7837 8402 (Renoir in London's Bloomsbury).

Saturday, September 16, 2006

David Thomson's Suspects

In anticipation to the No Exit Press re-release of David Thomnson's fabulous book Suspects, in which the narrator writes short biographies of classic film noir characters and then these characters start to meet each other outside the films as if they were real people with real needs and passions, here are some Noir classics culled You Tube, the universe's converging point for all things that move. Kamera (the independent film site I edit) will be running an interview with Thomson soon, so watch this space.

Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard

Edward Robinson in Scarlet Street

Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity

Okay, this is not footage from a film but Joan Crawford was the star of one of the greatest Noir films ever, Mildred Pearce (1945), which is not to found on YT. However, I did find this bizarre interview with a tipsy Crawford arriving at an aiport in America in 1968.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Orson Welles' wine commercial

Orson Welles remains one of my all-time favourite film personalities and this video showing what Gawker described as a "long-debauched Orson Welles drunkenly slurring his way through a few takes on the Paul Masson wine commercials from the 1970s" brings Welles even closer to my heart. Salud!

Touching Politics

The Goethe-Institut London will be presenting between Wednesday 20 September and Tuesday 26 September a series of films selected from the archives of the Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek, Berlin, under the banner Touching Politics. The mini season is curated by film practitioner Florian Wüst.

Set against the backdrop of outstanding moments in 20th century history, the four programmes combine avant-garde classics, and rarely screened documentary and experimental films by filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baillie, Hollis Frampton, Joris Ivens, Sharon Lockhart, Hans Richter, or Joyce Wieland. Made between 1926 and 1994, the twenty-two films of these programmes present an "exemplary synthesis of artistic vision and political engagement, of autobiographical approaches and social contexts, of sensuousness and conceptual rigour". Florian Wüst will introduce the first two screenings.

The Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek in Berlin is one of Germany’s most important film institutions. It maintains an archive and runs a distribution branch that share an extensive international collection of historical and contemporary feature, documentary and experimental films characterised by their formal experimentation as well as their engagement with social and political issues.

Goethe-Institut London

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Milano Film Festival

After Venice, it's time for the Milano Film Festival, which starts on Friday 15 September. According to the organisers, the event's aim is "to promote and give young and less known directors a chance to emerge". The films are screened without being divided into categories. They will all be screened in original language with Italian and English subtitles, and their directors are invited to present their works to the festival audience.

Full programme +

Venice 2006 winners

The Golden Lion went to Sanxia Haoren (Still Life) by Jia Zhang-Ke, the Silver Lion for Best Director went to Alain Resnais for the film Private Fears in Public Places and Ben Affleck got the Coppa Volpi award for Best Male Actor for his role in Hollywoodland. Check out the rest of the winners of the Venice festival here +

Monday, September 11, 2006

Destricted: not a turn-on

Ever the film anthropologist, yesterday I tried to see the art/porn flick Destricted, currently showing in London. A group of short films directed by Marina Abramović, Marco Brambilla, Matthew Barney, Larry Clark, Gaspar Noe, Richard Prince and Sam Taylor-Wood, Destricted was curated by New York-based arts man Neville Wakefield. Sadly, the screening was sold out, which seems to indicate that sex continues to sell, despite the current media saturation of sexual imagery that is enough to make the idea of a chastity vow seem like a viable protest option.

I will try again tomorrow because I'm very curious to see what the artists/filmmakers have come up with (I haven't taken the vow yet, you see). I personally think the one name involved in the project that makes absolute sense is Larry Clark's because blurring the line between art and pornography is his leitmotif - but where is Bruce LaBruce? And why Sam Taylor Wood? While I can't give you my personal verdict on Destricted, here's a round-up of reviews around the web.

Film Threat claimed that "as a sociological statement on human sexuality, it’s practically worthless". Future Movies didn't like it either and said: "Whatever most of the filmmakers here were trying to achieve, it sheds no light on porn, simply reproducing it at its most trite, stale and unimaginative." Deep Focus's review was a bit more lubed. It said, "Destricted is as hit-and-miss as you'd expect of a collection of art-porn shorts." I also found an interview with Larry Clark on Nerve magazine about his contribution to the project and I particularly liked his correction of the information previously given to the interviewer that all collaborators had had talks with Neville about what they would do. Said Clark, "My deal was, they gave me the money, I made the film, they didn't know what I was doing until I sent them a rough cut of the film." Clark, it must be said, is blessed with a delightful penchant for straight talking and incapability to use art world lingo, an aspect of his rebel personality that I experienced first-hand when I saw him at the ICA last year.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Film review: Little Miss Sunshine

littlemisssunshine If further proof that so-called 'independent cinema' has become a formulaic exercise in style and a mere marketing tag was needed, the hit comedy Little Miss Sunshine provides plenty of it. The biggest distribution deal to take place at the Sundance festival, where it was snapped by Fox for a cool US$10.5 million dollar deal, this crowd-pleasing, middle-to-low-brow family road movie is to independent, art cinema what retail chain Gap is to counterculture: a simulacrum.

What saves this disingenuous underdog comedy from the brink is its cast, who occasionally succeeds to shine through the thick layers of contrivances and improbable plot twists that pervade the narrative. Toni 'Muriel's Wedding' Colette plays Sheryl, the worn-out mother of the Hoovers, a blue-collar New Mexico family. Her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear, previously seen in As Good As It Gets) is having trouble at selling his nine-steps-to-success programme (how ironic!). To make things worse, she has to look after her gay brother Frank, a Proust academic who tried to commit suicide after losing the throne as 'the most eminent Proust scholar in the U.S.A' to a rival who also stole his younger boyfriend. Carell, it must be said, was a casting coup: his bookish European good looks and understated comic style add a smart air to the film. He's definitely a rising star, especially since the success of The 40 Year-Old Virgin.
The rest of the family is made of the Nietsche-reading teenager Dwayne (Paul L.I.E. Dano)(the Nietsche reference coming across as clichéd) who has been locked in a silence vow for the last nine months, Olive (Abigail Breslin}, the Little Miss Sunshine of the title who miraculously gets invited to the finals of a beauty pageant in California, the ignition of the family's adventure on the road and, finally, there's Alan Arkin's hedonist, leather-jacketed grandpapa, surely a very embarrassing role for an actor of his ilk. Grandpa's function is to take drugs and endlessly talk about sex, a cause of chagrin to the all-American Richard. His 'shocking behaviour' gets tiresome very quickly.

While on the road, which is most of the film, we are given a diagnosis of 'contemporary' America: the obsession with diets and the obesity issue, the dark side of the not-so-inclusive American Dream, American competitiveness, in short, a menu of formulaic indie themes. And the pageant sequence, the moment the whole film trudges towards, is a messy disappointment. The films uses it as the catalyst for the Hoovers' self-realisation, the culmination of the bonding experience achieved by a couple of days on the road together. But this is only achieved because they regain a certain degree of self-esteem by contrasting themselves against the 'American freaks' found in the universe of beauty pageants, an overused stereotype that has lost its power as social comment.

There are moments of genuine humour (like the VW bus's horn getting stuck in a continuous beep) and the cinematography is quite often easy on the eyes, revelling on the visual potential of motorways and yellow objects (at least I noticed quite a few yellow elements throughout the film...). But there's an undercurrent of charlatanism and a hypocritical sense of realism about Little Miss Sunshine that leaves an unpleasant dust on its trail.

Little Miss Sunshine is released in the UK on 08/09/06.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The film cult: Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon

Like many art film pioneers, the work and legacy of Maya Deren (1917-1961) is often more talked about than actually seen. This is set to change with the inclusion of her classic short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) in the latest instalment of the Cinema 16 series, an anthology of American short classics including other gems such as Andy Warhol's Screen Test: Helmut, D.A. Pennebaker's 1953 Daybreak Express and Standish Lawder's 1969 cult classic Necrology (Roll Call of the Dead).

The daughter of an educated Jewish émigré family from Kiev who arrived in the USA in the early 1920s, Deren has become an emblem of independent American cinema and a feminist icon. She is the woman behind the black and white window glass pane, looking out enigmatically from within a pattern of reflected trees, emanating an air of daydreaming madness, which is what Meshes of the Afternoon is about. Although its aesthetic roots are in Europe on account of its Surrealist form and Deren's interest in Eisensteinian montage, her film is distinctly American: it is pregnant with a sense of otherness; the voodoo, trance-inducing soundtrack alludes to a black culture that doesn't exist in Europe; the spiralling narrative flow that evokes a sense of shifting identities. It's no coincidence that America's most famous film surrealist, David Lynch, was inspired by Meshes when he made Lost Highway (1996), arguably one of his best films.

The film was Deren's first, and marked the beginning of her collaboration with Alexander Hammid, the Czech cameraman who she married. Laden with symbolism, it stars Deren herself as she often did in her films. Deren started her career as a dancer with choreographer Katherine Dunham's company, with whom she toured the USA. She met Hammid in Los Angeles in 1941 and it was this encounter that ignited her change of focus from dance to film, although her physicality and beautiful, dance-trained expressiveness is an integral part of her work.

Meshes of the Afternoon is an atmospheric, paranoid reverie where the main character repeats actions (walking up the street, looking out of the window) while a mysterious, hooded finger with a mirror for a face provides a black, nightmarish touch in a sun-lit Los Angeles street. It became the most famous experimental short film of the 1940s, and the thousands of music video clips that adopt similar strategies to disrupt conventional narrative are testimonies to Deren's influence, if not necessarily acknowledged by younger generations.

But, as in the case of a lot of good art, Meshes of the Afternoon, is best enjoyed if we avoid reading too much into it. The symbolisms are clear and allude to ideas of sexual angst, fear, death etc. But like poetry, the images are not there to 'educate'. Instead they serve a more lyrical function. Sometimes it's best to succumb to our intuition, like Deren seems to have done when she conceived it.The real meaning in this film is in the editing, in the beautiful synchronisation between image and sound which constitutes a perfectly formed organic whole. If Deren's intention was to cast a spell on the viewer and lead us into a state of trance like a celluloid priestess, she was completely successful.

Cinema 16 is out now:

Monday, September 04, 2006

DVD Review: Woman of the Dunes + Funeral Parade of Roses

At first it looks like an unassuming art-house Japanese film with its typically elegant cinematography and the poetic attention to details. But when the percussive, experimental soundtrack kicks in and the story is established, something unusual emerges: a very universal allegory of the human condition and human conditioning with echoes of Kafka's The Trial, Albert Camus and Marxist theories about freedom. Like the characters in this film are engulfed by sand, Hiroshi Teshigara's Woman of the Dunes creeps in the viewer's attention right from the start.

Teshigara's 1964 film boasts an impressively coherent organic unity, a very original mise-en-scene, which is as integral to the story as the two main characters, and top-notch performances from its two leads, Eiji Tokada and Kyoko Kishida. The story, based on the homonymous book by the existentialist writer Kobo Abe, who also penned this screenplay adaptation, is very simple and straightforward: an entomologist called Jumpei Nika (Tokada) is collecting insect specimens on the sand dunes of a remote shoreline in Japan. He misses the last bus home. The local villagers offer him shelter in the house of a young window at the bottom of a sandpit. When he wakes up the next morning, the rope used to hoist him down is no longer there. While still under the impression that the rope will re-appear soon enough, he agrees to help the woman in her nightly labour of shovelling away the sand that threatens to bury them.

At this point the erotic tension between the two rather good-looking actors becomes visible. The stark black and white photography often focuses on the texture of their skin and hair while the ever-present sand creates a menacing atmosphere. The cluttered and claustrophobic space of the hut is also infused with erotic frisson. Kishida is particularly skillful in alternating between femme fatale, slave and geisha-like 'wife'. She masterly switches from plain-faced woman resigned to a financially secure life without freedom to a sensual, mysterious presence. Her transformations throughout the film provide some of the pillars that sustain the interest in a work that could easily have been monotonous but which manages to remain as edgy as a thriller. Moments of dark humour also strike a balance needed to keep the film consistently engaging.

When Jumpei realises that the deceptively benign villagers trapped him and that he has been made into a prisoner, at their mercy for food and water, he starts making plans to escape. After a spectacularly failed attempt, he finds out that there is water bubbling under the surface. The prospect of an experiment greatly arouses his scientific instincts. It also prompts a shift in his attitude and the way he deals with a terrifyingly strange change in his life.

Woman of the Dunes won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1964 and looking in hindsight and at how well the film holds up, it seems like a deserved recognition of its technique and the material of the film. It is also worth pointing out the angular, punctuating soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu, which often cuts through the narrative like a dangerous intervention. Absorbing, intriguing, ironic and universal in its human interest, Woman on the Dunes is on pair with Orson Welles's The Trial and Antonioni's most inpired moments such as L'Eclisse.

Plus:(Funeral Parade of Roses. Dir: Toshio Matsumoto. Released by Eureka!): Although stylistically worlds apart from Woman of the Dunes, the 'swinging Tokyo' Funeral Parade of Roses was made by a peer of Hiroshi Teshigara, Toshio Matsumoto. Both were part of a newer generation of Japanese directors who took their inspiration from Italian neo-Realism and the Novelle Vague. While in Teshigara's case he took the ideas and made them their own, Matsumoto was limited to being a good imitator, if Funeral... is a anything to go by. A cross-dressing adaptation of Oedipux Rex, it often lapses into over-the-top attempts at hipness and formal experiments that come across as naïve and ill-judged, like the travail of a film student trying to pay homage to his idols. Still, as a time-capsule film with a great soundtrack, it does provide a glimpse into the rarely-on-screen Japanese gay culture and anticipates the Crying Game by more than two decades in its use of a 'lady-boy' as a female protagonist and object of desire, with a similar fascination for his/her body as a site of lust and ambiguity. Real-life transvestite Peter (who plays the queen of clubs Eddie) makes a riveting lead (he also played Kyoami the Fool in Akira Kurosawa's Ran) and the support cast of non-actors also create a feeling of a well-populated film. Despite the tragic mainline, there are moments of priceless humour, such as the scene when three drag queens get into a fight with three 'tough' women a la Faster, Faster Pussy Cat, Kill, Kill! in the streets of Tokyo. Moments of self-mocking humour like this fill in the gaps left by Matsumoto's immaturity.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Venice's blonde ambition

Maybe I'm imagining things, but this year's edition of the Venice Film Festival seems like a blond fest, or at least that's what it appeared to me when I was checking the photos that arrived at the Filter's picture desk. Why, even Juliete Binoche, who's been a patron saint of brunette film stars since she became a brunette film star in the 1980s, has shown up at the sinking city doing an impersonation of Nastassja Kinski in Paris Texas. Maybe they all got inspired by the golden mane of the lion or something...
(pictured: Juliette Binoche, Scarlett Johansson, Guillermo Del Toro, Douglas McGrath, Catherine Deneuve, and Aaron Eckhart)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Venice Film Festival

Pan-European, polyglot film journalist Boyd van Hoeij, who runs the superb site, gives us the lowdown on the sometimes not so dolce vitta behind the scenes at the oldest and, according to Boyd, worst organised film festival in the world.

Read more +