(Disclaimer: These notes were scribbled in between screenings while waiting in line for other films. Only minor editing, for grammatical and factual purposes, occurred.) Thank God for the AFI Fest. I mean it as no overstatement to say that I was positively ecstatic to discover that the festival would be running during my stay in Los Angeles and that it was, without trickery or fine print, completely free. Here was an opportunity to check off the year's most anticipated festival films from Toronto, Venice, and New York, as well as the films I missed at Cannes, in one fell swoop. For perhaps the first time ever, I will have surveyed a year in film adequately enough to put forth a confident year-end list. I was quick to find out, however, that AFI Fest is not entirely different from Cannes – that is, not the silver platter I was unrealistically hoping for: films reach capacity abruptly, the packed schedule makes the head spin, and, most irritatingly, it’s still quite possible to wait in line for over an hour and, after standing awkwardly with confused victims as the time slot passes, be denied entry to a film. This was my start to the festival. Fortunately, it was a Kim Ki-Duk film, and I was already half-planning my first paragraph (the festival got off to a deeply unpleasant start with Pieta, because what else is new with KKK?...).
My schedule did finally begin with a bang, however, on Saturday afternoon with Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, the British director’s gorgeously shot and cut second feature about a meek English sound engineer named Gilderoy (Toby Jones) who arrives in Italy (in Rohmer-esque elliptical fashion, right at the beginning of the film) as a for-hire mixer on fictional director Giancarlo Santini’s (Antonio Mancino) giallo horror film, very much in the vain of Argento, Bava, etc. He’s expecting an inoffensive paid gig, but quickly discovers the work will be neither easy (he’s never worked on such a challenging or morally trying project) nor profitable (“money cannot be a motivator,” warns the absurdly dominating Santini). From there, Gilderoy phones in his work, begs for travel reimbursement, confesses to artistic differences, attempts to abandon the job only to be ominously turned down, and finally enters that familiar Lynchian zone of mushy disorientation where art, illusion, and reality clash and ultimately absorb one another (in this regard, Strickland's corresponding blending of image and sound through fluid transitions is accomplished).
The film hinges on a swap in female leads – a maneuver so often employed or hinted at by Lynch as a paradigm shift – and this gesture holds the key to understanding what Strickland is getting at. Berberian Sound Studio manages to be both a parodic celebration of the endless innovation and almost goofy conviction of Italian horror as well as a critical commentary on not only this particular genre but all works of art and cinema that, in aiming for so-called “brutal honesty,” end up merely perpetuating dominant and wrongheaded attitudes. Here, the target is misogyny, so carelessly flaunted in Santini’s dictatorial and borderline abusive direction, which eventually flurries into actual (offscreen) sexual offense. Gilderoy, an unwitting third-party, is finally affected by this workplace atmosphere too: after the actress switch, he begins speaking in Italian and his gestures grow remote and mechanical, the implication being that, in being swallowed up by this project, his identity has shifted, just as any artistic act must require complete commitment and immersion – one might say, the abandonment of one’s self – for it to work. Money cannot be a motivator, indeed.
In the next film I saw, very little could be boiled down to motivation. Nony Geffen’s microbudget feature Not in Tel Aviv seems to delight in its own senselessness, putting across radical tonal shifts and pieces of nonsensical dialogue with an unshakeable straight face. One might say this is a nihilistic film, but that would be disingenuous. Geffen has too much apparent joy for life and too much compassion for his wayward leads, even as he writes them into increasingly implausible scenarios. Essentially a series of non-sequiturs shared between an antisocial teacher (played by Geffen himself), his kidnapped student, and his high school sweetheart, the film has the dazed aimlessness of an Andrew Bujalski movie shot with an additional jolt of sensuality. Early on, I was bothered and even slightly put off by its incongruent approach – Geffen plays the murder of a mother as indie quirk – but slowly I found myself catching on to the film’s rarefied wavelength, and its misty light and soft pixilated black-and-white edges had a lot to do with it. Geffen’s photographic attention to his beautiful lead actresses (Romi Aboulafia and Yaara Pelzig are real finds) is near-Bergmanesque, allowing the film a genuine tenderness not often present in this kind of quasi-mumblecore exercise.
Unfortunately, the questions that were bouncing around in my head after the intoxicatingly weird Not in Tel Aviv – were the actresses actual friends of Geffen?; were the events depicted autobiographical?; to be blunt, what were the intentions? – would not be appeased as I had to ditch the Q&A to scurry a block down the street to catch Holy Motors again. Leos Carax’s hypnotic poem was resoundingly my favorite work from Cannes this summer, and I was hoping to relive some of the mystified joy I experienced watching it for the first time. Turns out that in many ways Holy Motors, by its very loony episodic nature, is designed to have a special effect on the virginal and the uninitiated (this chatty American crowd was having more of a ball with it than the French). That is not to say that I was not still deeply immersed in this dreamlike cocoon of a film, but that I lost a great deal of the shock and awe that accompanied my first viewing. In its place, though, came even greater contemplation, as Carax’s layers of association and abstraction only invite further peeling back. When I first saw the film in Cannes, I had to rush out before the credits rolled to stand in line for Amour, but this time I was able to sit through and caught Carax's dedication to the late Yekaterina Golubeva, the star of Pola X and the mother of the director's child. Knowing this placed in context the film's mournful attitude towards role-playing and the inevitability of life, and rendered Carax's self-aware sense of humor a particular bright spot.
It’s impossible to dismiss the technical difficulties that set the scheduled start time of the film back an hour and a half. When the film did begin, it was clear that the issues had still not been entirely resolved: in the moody, suggestive opening of Carax himself surveying his bedroom and then opening a hidden door to reveal a sleeping crowd at a cinema, the projectionists were still fiddling quite conspicuously with brightness and contrast, causing some images to blotch up indecipherably. When Carax finally cuts to daylight, an unflattering fog of green and a blowing out of the highlights was overwhelming for the first 10 minutes until finally the projectionists cleared up the matter. Oddly enough, this unpredictable happenstance helped bolster Holy Motors’ argument for celluloid; even though it’s shot in digital, it’s constantly calling attention to and mourning the intangible instability of its medium, the unsettling question of what exactly it means to be a digital recording in the first place as opposed to a concrete film strip. In fact, the film even offers some digital distortions of its own towards the end, as traveling views of nocturnal Paris crumble into incomprehensible fuzz and glitch. These shots are not unlike the unplanned problems at the beginning of the film (I’m sure some unknowing viewers suspected these were reprisals of the projection difficulties, or, conversely, that the issues at the beginning were intentional), and they contribute to the overwhelming feelings of sadness and loss that permeate the film – towards decay, larger purpose, and past selves.
Next up was Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air (French title: Après mai) the following afternoon, a coming-of-age drama set amidst the political turbulence of early 70s France when young, angry, and overeducated leftists were lashing out at a reactionary government stubbornly stuck in its ways after the May 1968 protests. For the most part, the film doesn't emphasize the detail of the political situation, instead allowing its explosive opening riot scene – wherein some of Assayas' most impressive and fluid visual choreography, feeling both hectic and precise, traces the beatings and chases through a thick fog of tear gas – to form the unsettling groundwork for the protagonists' bitterness throughout the film. Further acts of violence and vandalism ensue: Gilles (Clément Métayer), Christine (Lola Créton, gradually becoming the new Anna Karina in her puckish expressions, on-and-off sass, and unshowy ease), and Alain (Felix Armand) seem determined to see how hard they can push the buttons of their school officials before being expelled or arrested, and when they appear to have reached that breaking point after hurling a flaming bottle at a portable on school grounds, they decide to flee to Italy for a short time. This is precisely when the film reaches its peak (I could swoon in those picturesque shots of Italy much longer), and what follows descends slightly down a familiar path of free spirits, Pollock-inspired paintings, activist folk, agitprop filmmaking, hard drugs, and foggy religious epiphanies.
That Something in the Air ultimately coalesces into very little (or perhaps just something more elusive that I didn't catch on first viewing) after promising so much is disappointing given Assayas' track record of making seemingly simple films that expand outward to account for multiple layers of emotion and subtext. The film continues the fleet-footed cool and bright pastel ambiance of Summer Hours (both of which were lensed by Eric Gautier, a disciple of the late Harris Savides in his naturalistic lighting and confident camerawork) but lacks something as revelatory as that film's wise commentary on the value inscribed in objects or the irreconcilable divides between generations. It's expertly scored with period-specific rock and folk tunes, as always with Assayas, and there is also his characteristically rapt attention to tactility and sensations – to the feeling of breezy currents in open air rooms, of cigarette smoke wafting through fiery debates, and of thin surfaces of summer sweat lining the skin – but as I left the theater, I could not escape the feeling that Something in the Air was missing a sense of a larger purpose or a core idea other than nimbly handled nostalgia.
The next film more than made up for any disconnect I felt in the latter stages of Assayas' movie. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan, in its perfect (terribly, terribly perfect) harmony of form and function, elicited the most physical response I've had to a film since either Antichrist or Irreversible. At a certain point towards the hour-mark of the film, I regrettably had to step out just to regain my gravitational bearings and walk off a growing nausea that was threatening to act up (if you catch my drift). Plunging the viewer into the nightmarish labor of deep sea commercial fishing via an onslaught of abstract imagery captured with an array of Go Pro cameras hooked to various parts of the sea vessel (chains, anchors, workers' helmets, even maimed fish), the film achieves a profound groundlessness that is the very poison of anyone prone to seasickness. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor's visuals have a lo-res harshness that occasionally bleeds into downright abstraction as it is, and when they couple that with an adventurous editing style that cuts invisibly from darkness to darkness so that one moment the camera is being pummeled underwater by the wake of the ship and the next it's staring into the gaping mouth of a bloody fish on deck, there's no ground zero to grasp on to. It's a hallucinatory succession of sensual image and sound, making the rare moments when the camera settles itself briefly (as in an amusing long take of a fishermen falling asleep to drab television on his break) a much needed repose.
Whatever my own personal physical objections to Leviathan, I cannot deny the groundbreaking accomplishment that it is. This is authorless, distinctly 21st century cinema; or rather, I should say that its author is the ocean, the wind, the fish and the seagulls aboard the ship – that is, all elements untouched by the human hand, but only made visible through technological advances in image capture. (To go a step further, the fact that some of the film's moments end up feeling so aesthetically sublime, such as when flocks of angelic seagulls seem to be flying in mystical awareness of the camera, implies that nature itself has an artful side.) The result is something vaguely akin to David Gatten's aleatoric scratch film series What the Water Said, but whereas Gatten's work points backwards and sideways to Brakhage, Thorston Fleisch, and Bruce McClure even as it paves new roads, Leviathan is even more unmatched in the history of seeing, even more progressive in its optimism for the limitless possibilities of the medium. It was fitting, then, that for some unknown reason the couple seated behind me brought their very young daughter to the screening. Her whispery pronouncements of awe ("look, the fish!", "where are we?", etc.), particularly impassioned during the short about herding in the northern hemisphere that preceded Leviathan (called Reindeer and directed by Eva Weber, who has a hell of an eye and whose future work I look forward to), put into further perspective the mysterious blank slate vision of this film.
(Note: My next screenings are tonight and Wednesday, not to mention any surprises I might throw in between, so expect a Part Two by Thursday.)