Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I Used to be Darker (2013) A Film by Matt Porterfield

Like Richard Linklater, Charles Burnett, and Kelly Reichardt, among others, Matt Porterfield has emerged as a key American regional filmmaker. These directors, at one point or another – Linklater in the early stages of his career and on and off since, Burnett for only a few shining moments, Reichardt for her Oregon trilogy – have been notable for their obsessive cataloging of the small-scale dramas of the nation's less represented alcoves. I Used to be Darker is Porterfield's third feature, and his third in a row to be set in the lower to middle class suburban neighborhoods of Baltimore. In each of these films, Porterfield examines a tight-knit group of townsfolk and a collection of unremarkable, lived-in locales through loose narratives that put a greater emphasis on family, community, and atmosphere than plot. For the tourist-spectator, the result is a veneer of intimacy and authenticity, the impression of being privy to the most accurate firsthand representation of a particular way of life.

Of course, Porterfield interrogated the very notion of this authenticity with Putty Hill through that film's uncanny meshing of observational drama and direct address interviews with cast members. With I Used to be Darker, Porterfield has taken another measure to distance his work from the impression of unvarnished, documentary-like truth: the film is his first fully scripted undertaking. Yet even as Porterfield has moved away from outright improvisation, his latest exhibits the same casual rhythms and miniaturized focus that have defined his cinema so far. The lessons learned from Putty Hill's inspired if decidedly messy blurring of documentary and fiction tendencies – namely, that "realness" is futile if emotional content is pure – have been carefully put into practice in I Used to be Darker, which approximates the texture of daily life in Baltimore while also taking dramatic liberties to pursue with greater precision a specific emotional upheaval.

Like Putty Hill, I Used to be Darker takes on the sort of universally damaging subject that is likely to divide a group of people before bringing them hesitantly back together. In the prior film, that topic was the death of a close friend. Here, Porterfield hones in on a subject he and his co-writer Amy Belk allegedly know well: divorce and its repercussions. One gets the sense that Porterfield is drawn to these agitated in-between states because they simultaneously test the limits of a community's (or in this case, a family's) internal bond and raise the unsettling question of how to carry over a prior stability in a new, uncertain future. This is the central dilemma experienced by Bill (Ned Oldham) and Kim (Kim Taylor) – parents enduring a bitter legal separation – and their daughter Abby (Hannah Gross). To complicate things further, their Irish niece Taryn (Deragh Campbell), who has escaped to America against her parents' knowledge, has arrived with her own set of pending issues: an unwanted pregnancy, a growing alienation from her lewd peers, and a rocky relationship with her mother.

With this scenario alone, Porterfield establishes the ingredients for a hot-blooded domestic melodrama, but I Used to be Darker is less invested in the collisions of conflict embedded within its circumstances than it is in the drawn-out pockets of uncertainty occurring between the respective emotional spikes, the laze-about afternoons and evenings when frustrations simmer beneath a mundane surface. Indeed, in the few instances when the film does indulge in dramatic skirmishes, its weakest tendencies are illuminated: particularly the thespian shortcomings of non-actors and real-life musicians Oldham and Taylor, who struggle with selling the script's more darting emotional pivot points, but also a few grand gestures – Bill beating his guitar like Kurt Cobain against a pole in his basement after the camera watches the entirety of his impromptu ballad performance – that tip the scales towards melodrama. In nearly every other case, Porterfield shows a gift for imbuing seemingly arbitrary details or moments with a wealth of character information. For instance, a feverish jazz record reverberates throughout Bill's house while the camera follows Abby through it, suggesting either her father's loss of a stable center or his nostalgic desire for youthful pleasures. In another scene, Abby is shown performing a subpar monologue at school, a one-off moment that doesn't cohere until later when she mentions an unsuccessful audition in New York; her vague urge to become an actress registers as a compulsion to circumvent the reality of her fractured family life, a form of escape less drastic than Taryn's literal relocation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the characters audition their own potential future paths. Kim's musical aspirations take center stage, culminating in an extended live performance (of Taylor's actual song "American Child") with its own hints of a much-needed getaway. While assuming Kim is sleeping with her male band members, Bill mostly sinks into a depressingly introspective version of middle-aged bachelorhood made up of unproductive mid-day lounging and aforementioned bouts of aggressive despair. Ironically, Taryn, perhaps seeking a surrogate for the airhead who impregnated her and ditched, ends up being the flirt Bill expects of Kim, impulsively hooking up with one of her musician friends in an abandoned camper van in a nocturnal sequence reminiscent of Putty Hill's final scene of empty house loitering. As much as these characters seek alternate realities, though, Porterfield is too pragmatic a filmmaker to let them off easy. The very title of I Used to be Darker implies the tentative healing of past wounds, and fittingly the film concludes on an impression of difficult rectification tinged with the stoic acknowledgment that nothing's ever permanent.

Elevating I Used to be Darker beyond its subtle articulation of family anxieties is its delicate evocation of a particular place and subculture, a trait that, in rooting its characters to something convincingly lived-in, only further validates the emotional dynamics of the narrative. Porterfield's continuing aversion to cinematic glossiness – natural light is favored, regardless of whether or not it provides flattering illumination, and shooting locations appear to have been kept the way they were when found – results in an intimate panorama of suburban banality, the textures of which feel at once specific to this Baltimore district and true to any middle-class neighborhood anywhere in the country in the past decade. More esoteric but no less palpable are the film's sojourns into the city's independent music scene. In this regard, Abby and Taryn's journey into a murky, sweat-and-beer-soaked thrash metal show provides the film's most striking scene, captured in one long take that adopts the perspective of a roaming crowd member.

The virtue of Porterfield's regional filmmaking is precisely this balance of atmospheric immersion and emotional directness. His work refuses to deal in platitudes even as it adopts narrative content that relies on generality. I Used to be Darker easily could have fallen into the shape of a conventional dark comedy of dysfunction, systematically limiting its characterizations for the sake of simplistic dramatic equations. Instead, it projects the sense of having no clear end goal, patiently waiting with its casual, observational mise-en-scène for possibilities of harmony amongst characters who seem, at first, so hopelessly combative. I Used to be Darker does end up gesturing towards a few displays of tenderness – specifically, Abby placing her head on Taryn's shoulder – but the bitterness and unpredictability that hangs over its edges are suitably encapsulated by Kim's exit song:

Days like this.
Yeah you think about the ones that went before you.
Have you ever seen the sky such a clear blue?
And all I wanna do is live my life honestly.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) A Film by Bruno Dumont

I'm fairly let down by Bruno Dumont's latest, which is receiving an unlikely US theatrical run thanks to the unlikely presence of Juliette Binoche. Read why here.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Screening Notes #20

Leones (2012): I'm quite bewitched by how debut director Jazmin Lopez moves her camera here. Gerry and The Loneliest Planet are Leones' obvious stylistic and narrative cousins, but while the film shares a similar structural identity with those precedents (a steadicam wandering along with characters lost in an open natural environment), there's a particular energy in the camerawork that is all its own. Almost as if to suggest sentience, Lopez's camera slides like a ghost around its subjects, sometimes abandoning them altogether in accordance with some ineffable logic. Its boldest gesture – enacted three or four times with transcendent results – is to depart from them into some unremarkable patch of woods, perform a lugubrious 540 degree spin, and then catch back up with them minutes later, all while wind vibrations animate the frame and imply an unseen presence (this movie emphatically revives the "beauty of the moving wind in the trees" that Griffith pined for). Lopez's work here is less traditional mise-en-scène as we know it and more futuristic 3D environment mapping; characters weave in and out of the camera's vision even as the camera gains its own vision separate from any narrative anchor. The forest becomes an infinite space, or, as characters seem to temporarily vanish, a space in constant flux.

The Inner Scar (1972): If you have a prior understanding of Philippe Garrel's career path, you can imagine my cognitive dissonance upon watching The Inner Scar only a week after Jealousy (2013) offered my introduction to the director's work at NYFF. This tedious, humorless, drugged-out brainstorm feels at least a couple thousand pounds heavier than Garrel's breezy latest without achieving a fraction of the insights into human relationships. There's obvious psychic pain at the core of such a brazenly autobiographical venting exercise, which is fine, but Garrel's effort to elevate it all to apocalyptic significance is just patently absurd even before muse/composer/star Nico unleashes the first of many speaker-shattering wails of romantic anguish. As more and more vague mythological overtones are shoveled in wholesale, it becomes difficult to escape the suspicion of heroin injections in between takes; besides arbitrary aesthetic fetishism and a compulsion to over-emphasize beautiful landscapes, what else could explain the endless, sludge-like tempo of Garrel's scenes? I haven't even touched upon the central issue of characterizing Nico as a volatile, unknowable Other and the Garrel surrogates (one of which is himself) as martyrs. This is all probably good for college art students with high levels of lingering angst, but not for me.

The Searchers (1956): The first thing that strikes me, and probably everyone, about The Searchers is the scope – how vast and heavy the landscape feels in those unbudging, deep-focus images. How everything (the houses, the teepees, the people) is both built from the Earth and swallowed up by it. The land is rough, unforgiving, nothing to screw around with, but these characters try anyways, partitioning off sections of land with fenced-off property lines. Ford establishes a tension between a man-made desire for order and symmetry and the natural inclination towards borderless chaos, which is embodied by the landscape and thus cycled back into the characters. It is this cyclical inevitability that leads the movie logically to its coarse characterizations, Ford treating no man as free of abysmal disorder and rage, yet clinging always to some shared sense of communitarianism.

Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004): Coming back to these films at different points in my life is proving to be so rewarding. Not only am I spotting subtleties in the films' designs that I never caught before but my emotional reaction is also evolving. Young Jesse and Celine seemed so intelligent and admirable to me in my late teens; now they come across as dorky and naïve. One of my more specific discoveries was the calculated reverse symmetry of the two films, the sense that they are constructed as different sides of the same coin. Sunrise closes with a montage of still shots showing the places Jesse and Celine spent their time at throughout the film; Sunset offers a similar sequence at its beginning, only this time the images foretell the spaces in which they will soon traverse. Another example: In the opening act of Sunrise, Hawke and Delpy chat in the back of a trolley car in two-shot, with Hawke on the left and Delpy on the right, and Jesse grazes Celine's hair, unnoticed; in the closing act of Sunset, there is a similar shot, only with the actors' positions switched, in the back of a passenger van, and Celine attempts the exact same gesture. Linklater's quiet formal mastery shows through in such deceptively simple bits of staging and framing.

Almayer's Folly (2011): I entered an afternoon screening of Chantal Akerman's first fiction feature in a decade the most exhausted I've been before a movie in a long time. Usually, out of respect for the cinematic experience, I bypass the opportunity to see a film I might fall asleep to, but in this case, it was the only time Akerman's movie would screen in Boston. I nearly dozed off a few times in the first hour, but at a certain point the force of this magisterial slow burner, in spite of its mood of tropical languor, was totally enveloping. Even as she gets older, Akerman is still a whiz with the camera; Almayer's Folly shuttles between dusky jungle abstraction (snake-like tracking shots through thickets of foliage, iconic images of a slowly encroaching tug boat that are reminiscent of Tarr) and sun-bleached long-take rigor that stinks of sweat and decay (it's impossible here not to mention the movie's show-stopping, 10 minute final close-up). Dean Martin and Mozart waft through this thick, humid atmosphere, providing a fitting sense of cultural displacement to this dark, pitiless meditation on the existential dead end of greed and colonialism. Must watch again.

The Act of Killing (2013): In the vigorous pursuit of a seeming greater good, logic can lead inexorably to delusion – this is one of the uncomfortably simple truths at the center of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, a startling documentary that dares to dig out the roots of humanity behind heinous genocide. In doing so, the film is packed end to end with, and thrives on, contradictions; both within the casual commentary by the carnivalesque ensemble of amoral gangsters and within the dense compositions, writhing with intimations of justice, heroism, and community on the one hand and overt acts of evil and carelessness on the other. Anwar Congo is such a complicated and disquieting figure to watch because he's at once the most vicious criminal in the film (being the head honcho behind 1,000 murders) and the man whose vulnerabilities (to pack mentality, media entertainment, image-identity lust, and matters of torture) are most transparent.

The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (1997): Oppenheimer's Harvard thesis film clearly planted the thematic seeds for The Act of Killing – namely, a focus on individuals who have continually justified immoral actions or worldviews as a way to maintain complacency in a warped system – but in other ways its effect is quite different. The closest comparison I can think of in relation to The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (which has almost nothing to do with the Louisiana Purchase) is Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, another medium-length concoction of historical reality, tabloid sensationalism, myth, and science fiction in which no obvious distinction can be made between found footage, newsreel, fly-on-the-wall observation, and staged artifice. In that film, Baldwin disguises a scathing critique of American imperialism during the Vietnam War in the trappings of a pulpy alien invasion fantasy; on the other hand, Oppenheimer's target, as well as the form he uses to attack it, are far less fixed and specific. The film introduces a host of self-proclaimed something-or-others (antichrists, microwave inventors, etc. many of whom have dissolved into the cultural ground zero of Las Vegas) and proceeds to showcase them in moments of startling confessional strangeness, subsequently layering in surreal narrative content that envisions them indulging the most heinous extremes of their attitudes. While Louisiana Purchase feels at times like a mere succession of sideshow freaks – it seems to lack the brave humanism of The Act of Killing in favor of more grotesque portraiture – the inscrutable way in which it snakes from subject to subject, from potential "documentary" to dreamlike fabrication, and from retro interview footage to expressively blotchy 8mm experimentation gives it a pulse that's uniquely unnerving.

Blue Jasmine (2013): A single close-up of Cate Blanchett – quietly intense, bleary-eyed, and halfway gone – dropped into an otherwise lighthearted dialogue scene twists Woody Allen's new movie from a familiar neurotic comedy into a much darker psychological horror film, a transformation it never returns from. Instead, the film, like a knife slowly entering one's torso, burrows deeper into the chasm of avarice and denial that is Blanchett's character, a Gucci-clad liability spawned by, baked in, and ultimately abandoned by privilege. While a lion's share of Woody's recent films have eyed the upper crust with a certain level of cool disdain, Blue Jasmine maintains a refreshing neutrality in regards to its title character, even while tunneling her through an ever-more dour and fatalistic sequence of events. Here's that classic moral quandary again that Woody has dealt with on and off throughout the years: how can we better ourselves in a world tainted with cruelty, and is it even worth the effort? As difficult as Blanchett can be to watch, Woody locates this woman's predicament, recognizing it as a bizarre result of human circumstances. Also, side note: Woody is still one of the most intuitive stylists of bodies moving through cramped apartments.

Museum Hours (2013): (From an aborted essay...) When you live in a city, it's easy to slip into a default mode of exasperated testiness. It's easy to ignore everyone who walks by and every tree in your vicinity, to be disgruntled by the slightest disruption of privacy, or, for the more experienced urban travelers, to build a cozy shell of insularity that desensitizes one to any stimuli that's not useful for getting from Point A to Point B. For me, the best option to alleviate this problem is to simply leave the city for a period of time, preferably to a much quieter, calmer place. But when that's not possible, a certain type of film comes in handy, and Jem Cohen's Museum Hours is precisely that kind of film. So was Hirozaku Kore-Eda's Still Walking, Raul Ruiz's Time Regained, and Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien, to name a few other arbitrary examples of theatrical experiences I've had in the past few years in Boston that have thoroughly re-oriented my sense of awareness in an urban setting, as well as my entire perception of space and time, if only for a brief, magical time shortly thereafter. It's appropriate to say that any "good" film should grant this kind of reward to some degree, but it's particularly the films that make radical breaks with metropolitan standards of processing the busy world that have special impacts when seen in the city context.

Fittingly, Museum Hours is set in a city itself. Contemporary Vienna is the film's location, and increasingly it also becomes one of the film's main subjects. Many scenes take place within the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where the ruminative guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) treats the audience to his private thoughts while patiently idling through eight hour shifts, but an almost equal amount of screen time is devoted to the spacious, pasty streets of the archaic German city. A chance meeting with the ever-curious Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) – an American woman in town to oversee her hospitalized cousin – enables Johann to reacquaint himself with his home city, and their ensuing wanderings simultaneously connect our gaze to the sensory pleasures of Venice. This generous relay of information – from Johann to Anne and from Cohen to the viewer, as well as, in some ways, vice versa – lends the film an organic, intuitive pulse, the form of a casual conversation branching out in several directions.

Monday, October 7, 2013

NYFF Loose Ends

Now that my formal coverage of the 51st New York Film Festival has concluded (see my dispatches here, here, and here, and also take a listen to my appearance on Peter Labuza's Cinephiliacs podcast), I wanted to post about some of the stray thoughts that have stuck around in my head since leaving the event. The following are descriptions of scenes, moments, and sensations that stood out in one way or another from the sensory overload that constitutes a film festival. I wish I could provide corresponding images for all of these snippets, but unfortunately press images are limited for these films at this point in time. These are by no means comprehensive in their discussion of the films (check my actual coverage for that); instead, they offer a record of fleeting impressions.


Manakamana // dir. Pacho Velez and Stephanie Spray // Nepal/USA

One of the feats of Manakamana is in democratizing the frame; despite the film’s self-imposed limitations, one has the desire to look at one thing and everything simultaneously. Do I look at the contours of the elderly woman’s skin or the lush vegetation passing by outside, the goat ass staring me in the face or the texture of the steel encasing the animal? You’d think that after two hours spent on one cable car service, a fairly comprehensive familiarity with the film’s location would be inevitable, and to a certain extent, one of the film’s pleasures is developing an awareness of the tangible particulars of its rhythm to such an extent that it’s possible to know what’s coming next, a relative certainty that contrasts the genuine unpredictability of the human subjects. But even this supposed stability is tested; at one point, during an uphill ride with three young punk rockers, one of the guys points out a small gathering halfway up the mountain, just in time for the bottom left corner of the frame to catch a brief glimpse of a group of gung-ho visitors that I had missed every other cycle prior. What was previously an undifferentiated mass of sun-baked greenery becomes, for this short moment, alive with other signs of life – just one example of the way in which the film allows for miniature discoveries even within such seeming redundancy.

Norte, The End of History // dir. Lav Diaz // Philippines

There’s an acute, non-specific desire for escape that permeates the characters in Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of History, a feeling of existential restlessness that imprisons them both literally (scenes at a country jail are interspersed throughout) and figuratively (repressed secrets that cumulatively crack sanity). Diaz’s widescreen compositions – some of the most commanding, painterly images of the festival – are alternately liberating and restricting, creating vast expanses through different dimensional planes while also keeping boundary markers (walls, patches of trees, roads) ever-present. About 100 minutes into this 4-hour Greek-sized epic (and twice after with less impact), when the sheer burden of the present has become nearly unbearable for these people, something wondrous and unexpected happens: the camera, now in desaturated DV haze, departs from the ground entirely, taking on the floating perspective often used in football broadcasts to survey the dilapidated villages and untouched marshland in which the story is set. The remote-controlled Helicam technology is a bit janky, if not deliberately operated to embrace messiness, so the vision has a jittery, handmade quality as if to suggest one of the characters actually learning to fly. It’s a moment of release both formal and thematic, from the static weight of Diaz’s preferred long-take style, from the high-fidelity gloss of the film’s visuals, and from the drudgery of solitude and labor that defines the narrative – a dream of escape, not only for the characters, but also a momentary instance of flight for the viewer out of this heavy, intoxicating work.

The Wind Rises // dir. Hayao Miyazaki // Japan

Even in his lesser works, Hayao Miyazaki’s animation is defined by a Felliniesque appreciation for and expression of the fullness of life; the glorious diversity of emotions and experiences, usually depicted at their most passionate and intense. I was disappointed with The Wind Rises on the whole, but there’s still no shortage of these moments. Miyazaki’s skill with such expression is so strong that it often transcends some of his storytelling deficiencies, as in the case of a particularly tender detail in the latter stages of a haphazardly developed relationship between the film’s main character and his dying wife. Their time together is dwindling, and Miyazaki does everything in his power to elevate feelings of deep, consuming affection, most beautifully in a moment when the two are lying in bed. Tight close-ups of their faces are embellished by almost embarrassingly intimate sound effects (the smack of a lip, the soft hum of breathing), and when the two finally settle into their respective positions, Miyazaki offers a poignant wide shot from just beyond the shōji. It’s a predictable cap to the scene, but what’s unanticipated is the addition of several extra beats before the cut, a long, silent pillow on the tail end of the shot that recalls Ozu or Bresson. This subtle editorial decision just barely interrupts the ostensibly natural flow of the drama, standing out as an emotional epiphany existing not for but above the narrative.

Spring // dir. Nathaniel Dorsky // USA

“What exactly am I looking at, and from what angle?” This is a fundamental question aroused by the cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky, a pleasant confusion that, when pondered over and over, adds up to a radical reorientation of the visual world. Spring, one of the films in Dorsky’s latest lyrical couplet, offers an extended shot that not only begs this query but also sets off other levels of discovery. The composition is of an architectural structure composed of a succession of golden circles that meet at a central point, shot from a head-on angle to visually suggest a tunnel. Is it part of a church ceiling? An intestine-like space shuttle interior, perhaps? Dorsky holds the shot for the audience to mull over. Then a ripple grows from the bottom of the frame, slowly revealing itself as a water surface. Are we in the midst of a molasses-like dissolve from this baroque structure to a shot of rippling lake surface? No, a longer exposure to this image brings the perception-shattering realization that we’re looking at only one half of this autumnal industrial form, the illusory other half reflected in the water as in Bill Viola’s famous video piece The Reflecting Pool (2010). It’s an awareness that also clarifies the identity of the form being photographed, making it clear that it’s a tunnel running parallel with the ground and not some floating cylindrical oddity. Cuts, compositions, physical objects, inner frame movement – they’re all red herrings in Dorsky’s work.