Pablo Larraín, Tony Manero, 2008, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 97 minutes.
DISCO AND DANTEAN INFERNO, Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero portrays a dead-eyed survivor who is “stayin’ alive” during the bloody years of Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile. Set in Santiago’s bas-fonds of grubby cantinas and crumbling cinemas in 1978, the year Saturday Night Fever was released in Chile and half a decade after Pinochet seized power in a US-backed coup, Manero turns one man’s obsession with his eponymous alter ego into a scary, airless metaphor for cultural imperialism and the psychosis of fascism.
Despite his rather baroque moniker—Raúl Peralta Paredes O—and his grand aspirations to television stardom as a John Travolta imitator, the film’s fifty-two-year-old protagonist cuts an anonymous figure in tan windbreaker and dyed pompadour, his impassive mien masking murderous intent. Rushing to the aid of an old woman, mugged and bloody in the street below, Raúl gallantly shepherds her home. “Thank God there are decent people like you,” she says, bleak irony and political metaphor accumulating in the dank obscurity of her apartment. Identifying herself as an air force officer’s widow, proffering a tin of past-date tuna as recompense, and noting that Pinochet’s eyes are blue as she admires the dictator on television, the old woman, one of the film’s many Dostoyevskian characters, has no time to contemplate the hazards of gratitude as Raúl suddenly whacks her to death with his hand, calmly feeds her cat with the expired fish, and spoons a little for himself before scuttling through the eerily empty streets, color TV in tow. Psycho killer disguised as Good Samaritan, Raúl embodies a world in which the state executes the innocent and reduces the rest to mute acquiescence through fear.
Director Larraín, who hails from a right-wing family of wealth and political power, re-creates the dread and clandestine resistance of the Pinochet era with a manner by turns elliptical and overt. Frantic and implacable, Tony Manero employs a cinema nervoso arsenal of whip pans, extreme shallow- or out-of-focus images, jump cuts, and fast tracking follow shots, filmed in handheld 16 mm with a Dardennes-style adherence to Raúl’s body, itself the site of insistent metaphor. “You’re lifeless,” the madman’s girlfriend claims halfway through the film, critiquing his penis for getting swollen but never hard. (The cinephilic Larraín equates sexual impotence and everyday fascism in the manner of 1970s Italian cinema.) Looking less like taut Travolta than decaying Pacino, Raúl strips and madly capers to music in his room, but his dance is of the dead, his grin a rictus of pretend ecstasy. In the simulacrum of his country’s colonized culture, rife with Chuck Norris look-alikes and Travolta wannabes, Raúl has no authentic being, only a feigned or fantasized one, founded in caricature and maintained by duplicity and subjugation. The parallels with Pinochet are entirely intentional.
Tony Manero leans heavily on its influences, which include The Conformist, Taxi Driver, and The King of Comedy; its pervasive Catholic imagery and abrupt brutality may not derive from Scorsese, but its sense of cultural artifact as catechistic ritual does. Raúl’s treks to the cinema to see Fever take on the aura of lone pilgrimage. He enters through a crimson-lit antechamber, and recites the film’s dialogue in phonetic English as if repeating liturgy. Proceeding obliquely—nothing is indicated of Raúl’s previous life—but given to portentous detail, Manero first shows Raúl following along with the Fever sequence in which Manero’s friend tells him, “One day you look at a crucifix, and all you see is a man dying on a cross,” and then stealing a chain and crucifix from the corpse of an anti-Pinochet activist who has been shot and dumped by plainclothes police. The hidden or slant meanings of another recent political allegory about a repressive Latin American regime, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, are not for Larraín. Tony Manero sometimes outwits its own intelligence with overbearing metaphor, but its immense, fetid power undeniably places it at the forefront of the resurgent Chilean cinema.
Tony Manero is now available on DVD in the US and Canada through Kino International.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 113 minutes.
WHEN CANNES JURY PRESIDENT Tim Burton announced Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or on Sunday, the cheers that erupted from some quarters of the normally jaded press corps spoke volumes. Forget impartiality. This was precisely the improbable happy ending (“shocking” and “exhilarating,” as Manohla Dargis described it in the New York Times) that many of us had been rooting for as the increasingly suspenseful awards ceremony progressed. Not just because Uncle Boonmee was the one truly transporting film in a so-so competition. Not just because anyone who has heard Apichatpong speak about his work knows him as a man of uncommon grace and thoughtfulness. And not just because—as Bangkok Post critic Kong Rithdee noted while addressing Apichatpong at the post-awards news conference—it had been a very tough week for violence-racked Thailand.
To acknowledge that the Uncle Boonmee Palme felt like a personal victory is to acknowledge that contemporary film culture can feel like a battleground, with, broadly speaking, the cinephiles on one side and the populists on the other—or, to use the insults often preferred by both camps, the elitists and the philistines. The divide is especially pronounced in an environment like Cannes, which some approach as a beacon of glamour and others as a bastion of high art. This is where journalists with a low tolerance for difficulty and difference have to contend with films that lack stars, production values, or, heaven forfend, a clear narrative, and these scribes often react with frustration and anger (as happened all too predictably this year with Jean-Luc Godard’s new provocation Film Socialisme).
What the press-room cheers drowned out on Sunday was the wariness or even antipathy that some harbor for a figure like Apichatpong—you can detect this in the bemused Cannes wrap-ups by writers who had clearly not bothered to see the film by the Thai guy with the unpronounceable name, and in the metaracist line of reasoning by which his detractors accuse his fans of Orientalism. Apichatpong’s last Cannes entry, Tropical Malady (2004), won the Jury Prize but was booed at its press screening and condemned in Variety as “incomprehensible.” In the final accounting, this was a Palme d’Or that mattered, enormously, for having been awarded to a film that would otherwise have gone unmentioned in most mainstream coverage of the festival. And now that he’s received world cinema’s highest honor (from a jury led by the director of Alice, no less), it might be a little harder to dismiss Apichatpong as an obscure filmmaker with no hope of finding an audience.
I saw Uncle Boonmee twice in Cannes (despite Apichatpong’s objections: “Better to leave it all jumbled,” he told me when I interviewed him), and it strikes me as both his simplest work to date and a step forward in his ongoing project to change the way we experience movies. For the receptive viewer, Apichatpong’s sensory immersions induce a state of simultaneous relaxation and watchfulness. This time, despite a few enigmatic detours, there are no midmovie reboots. The title spells out the premise, which crystallizes the sly paradox at the heart of the film. We watch a movie about a terminally ill man (Boonmee, a farmer suffering from kidney failure, tended to by loved ones, including the ghost of his wife) ever alert to signs of life. A water buffalo freeing itself from its tether, a disfigured princess who sees her reflection by an idyllic waterfall, the talking catfish that performs underwater cunnilingus on her, the insects whose chirps and buzzes engulf the nighttime jungle scenes: Might these be Boonmee’s past (or future) incarnations?
An otherworldly fable, Uncle Boonmee often alights on earthly sensations (the taste of raw honey, a lingering embrace) and political realities (the violent history of Thailand’s poor, rural northeast and, at a remove, the current clashes in Bangkok). Much like another high point of the festival, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, it’s both a radiant ghost story and a tale of cinema itself, concerned with the act of perception and the mysterious conjuring of alternate worlds. Both films are by artists who defy most existing categories. At 101, Oliveira is a man out of time or, perhaps, of multiple times. No less an outsider, equally at ease in a variety of idioms and registers, Apichatpong synthesizes the Western avant-garde tradition with Buddhist thought, animist belief, and Thai pop culture. As Uncle Boonmee confirms, his vision is above all a generous one. In the threat of extinction—a dying man, a disintegrating country, a disappearing medium—Apichatpong sees the possibility of regeneration.
“I WOULD LIKE to thank all the spirits and all the ghosts in Thailand. They made it possible for me to be here,” beamed Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the winner of the Palme d’Or for his animist tale Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The international press, gathered in the Salle Debussy to watch a live transmission of the awards ceremony, may have been even more elated than the director: After jury president Tim Burton announced Uncle Boonmee as the winner, many journalists cheered and raised their fists, thrilled that their own clear favorite had been selected (a stark contrast to last year’s shrugs when Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon took home Cannes’s top prize).
Over the past twelve days, several critics groused that a jury led by the man who made Mars Attacks! would be predisposed to honor the safer, more middlebrow titles in the Competition roster, like Another Year, Mike Leigh’s study of a happily married couple and their dysfunctional social set. That the nine-person committee singled out a film in which an ancient Thai princess is sexually pleasured by a talking catfish proves that what many were calling “the most boring jury ever” was actually the most daring—and generous—in its choices. The seven major prizes were spread out over as many films, with Mathieu Almaric a surprise winner for best director for his burlesque tribute, Tournée, and Mahamet-Saleh Haroun taking home the jury prize for A Screaming Man, about a father’s selfish sacrifice in war-torn Chad.
Gathered to meet the press immediately after the awards ceremony, the jurors uttered platitudes and remained deliberately vague about their selections. One reporter became fed up with the niceties, insisting, “You’re very quiet and not very talkative and we need you to talk about the festival”—a demand that led only to more banal evasions from the jurors. Director Victor Erice, best known for The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), stated the obvious: “The list of winners is always the result of a vote. Perhaps we haven’t given sufficient justice to all the films. And for this I apologize.” But it was actress Kate Beckinsale, who had remained silent for nearly the entire thirty-minute press conference, who spoke most concretely: “There’s a slight nausea at the ones that were left behind. We tried to invent more prizes.”
“TRY WRITING a pretty poem every day,” the sixteenth-century Korean naval hero Admiral Yi advises Jo Munk-yung (Kim Sang-kyung) in a dream in Hong Sang-soo’s Hahaha, which screened this morning in Un Certain Regard. Munk-yung, a Seoul-based director on the skids visiting the coastal town of Tongyeong, tries his hand at verse to impress the tour guide he initially assesses as possessing an “average face, but a very nice figure.” Like most of Hong’s recent films, Hahaha unfolds as a featherweight, auteur-stamped rom-com, with the men pickled in alcohol and hopelessly bumbling, and the women mercurial, capricious, and often right.
Lyrical compositions serve more serious purposes in Lee Chang-dong’s Competition entry, Poetry. Lee, last in contention for the Palme d’Or with 2007’s Secret Sunshine (for which Jeon Do-yeon took home the Best Actress prize), creates another powerful narrative about a woman raising a child on her own. Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee), a proper, sixtyish home aide in the early stages of dementia, lives with her sullen adolescent grandson, whose mother is looking for work in Pusan. Enrolling in a poetry class, Mija anxiously awaits inspiration from the muses—which arrives the moment she decides her charge must finally suffer the consequences of a heinous act he has committed. Perfectly paced and performed, Poetry stands out as both a quietly scathing condemnation of male violence (and the craven attempts to cover it up) and an ode to the strength—and moral compass—of senescent women.
Pure poetry of another sort, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s rapturous tale of reincarnation, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, playing in Competition, includes visitations from dead loved ones, men who are half monkeys, and talking catfish who know how to sexually gratify ancient princesses. “I don’t know how I will find you after I’m dead,” the title character (Thanapat Saisaymar), suffering from kidney failure, frets to his wife’s specter. “Ghosts are attached to people, not places,” she assures him—and anyone else who aches to reunite with someone who left them too soon.
A STAR TERRORIST FROM THE ’70s, a CIA operative betrayed by the Bush II administration, Grace Slick: A trio of disparate lives has been examined in three vastly different ways over the past twenty-four hours. Olivier Assayas’s five-and-a-half-hour Carlos, a maximalist, globe-trotting look at the Venezuelan-born Ilich Ramiréz Sánchez, more famously known as Carlos the Jackal, rightfully received a standing ovation yesterday after its sole, Out of Competition screening in the Lumière. Played by Edgar Ramirez (who also had a role in 2008’s Che, the last multihour biopic about a South American revolutionary to premiere at Cannes), the Carlos of Assayas’s film mixes libidinal kicks with his far-left militancy. “Weapons are an extension of my body,” he boasts to one of the many sisters of the revolution whom he beds, using a grenade as foreplay.
Several different languages are spoken in Carlos—often by the priapic insurrectionist himself—adding to the film’s epic sweep. Doug Liman’s Competition entry Fair Game, about CIA agent Valerie Plame, however, operates solely in the standard biopic vernacular: talky tub-thumping. Naomi Watts plays the covert operative whose cover was blown in retribution for the damning New York Times editorial her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV (Sean Penn), wrote condemning the Bush administration’s manipulating intelligence to justify the Iraq war. Or is Penn—whose press obligations in Cannes were preempted by his testifying in Congress yesterday, urging the US to expedite relief efforts to Haiti—simply playing himself? “Speak out! Ask those questions! Demand those truths!” a fiery Wilson, lecturing college students about their civic duties, bellows—dialogue similar to what the actor must have said countless times before on Capitol Hill.
Lodge Kerrigan’s Un Certain Regard title, Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs), features Géraldine Pailhas playing both herself—as an actress cast to star in Somebody to Love, a biopic about Grace Slick directed by. . .Lodge Kerrigan—and a mentally ill woman who, inspired by Slick’s music, wants to leave France for Monterey, California, to start a recording career. The doubling and the film-within-a-film become even more mesmerizing when the real Slick appears, in snippets from the concert docs Monterey Pop (1968) and One P.M. (1972). Combining meticulous mimesis, metanarrative, and lengthy, Dardenne-inspired, back-of-the-head tracking shots, Rebecca H. reimagines the biopic as an exercise in giving and withholding.
IN 1971, about twenty miles northeast of Cannes, the Rolling Stones began recording their first double album, Exile on Main Street, in the basement of Nellcôte, Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg’s rented mansion in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Thirty-nine years later, Mick Jagger returned to another Côte d’Azur subterranean cave—the theater in the bowels of the Palais Stéphanie—to welcome the audience (many of whom had stood in line for ninety minutes or more for an hour-long documentary) to Stones in Exile, presented as a special screening in the Directors’ Fortnight. Jagger, sixty-six, evoked Exile’s epoch: “Nixon est dans la Maison Blanche . . .” Though he spoke very fine O-level French, the singer, before switching to English, apologized for any syntactical errors, admitting, “I hate when I make French tense mistakes.”
Directed by Stephen Kijak (who helmed the 2006 rock doc Scott Walker: 30 Century Man), Stones in Exile traces the making of that landmark 1972 LP, first in France, where the tax-plagued band decamped before the British government could seize their assets, and then—after there were arrest warrants out for the drug-bingeing group—at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. The screening was bookended by brief testimonials from Don Was, will.i.am, Martin Scorsese, and . . . Benicio Del Toro (who, as a jury member this year, at least has a connection to Cannes, if not to the band in this movie); most of Kijak’s film consists of outtakes from Robert Frank’s 1972 Stones doc, Cocksucker Blues, and photographs from Dominique Tarlé, Nellcôte’s photographer-in-residence for six months.
Enduring a postscreening Q&A, Jagger, who executive produced Stones in Exile along with Richards and drummer Charlie Watts, explained the significance of repurposing the archival material, all from the group’s vault, for the doc’s look: “It was important that we keep it in the period—that we don’t have too many people sitting in chairs.” When asked how he and his bandmates could have worked with such quantities of drugs and booze, Jagger referred the audience to an article he had just read in the New York Times on marijuana-smoking chefs. Responding to the burning query of what he thinks about pop today, the singer was far more direct: “There’s great music and there’s shit in every era.”
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI’S competition title Certified Copy, which screened for the press last night, received the first boos I’ve heard for any film at the festival—though one colleague rapturously described it this afternoon as “Before Sunrise directed by Antonioni.” Set in Tuscany, Kiarostami’s latest follows a day in the life of a gallery owner (Juliette Binoche) and an art historian (British baritone William Shimell, making his film debut). We assume they’re complete strangers getting to know each another. But at the film’s midpoint, the dynamic shifts, and they assume the roles—or become the copies—of a couple married for fifteen years.
At the Certified Copy press conference today, the real Binoche was flanked by her own replica: A Brigitte Lacombe photograph of the actress, clutching paintbrushes in both hands, is the official poster of this year’s festival. But before journalists had their chance to direct their shopworn questions to the performer (one typical exchange: “How do you choose your projects around the world?” “They choose me”), matters of actual gravitas prevailed. Kiarostami politely announced that before discussing his Palme d’Or contender, he would address the situation of his jailed compatriot Jafar Panahi: “The fact that a filmmaker has been imprisoned is itself intolerable,” he said. Kiarostami, who provided copies of the open letter he sent to the New York Times in March regarding Panahi’s incarceration, added that on the car ride over to the Palais, he had received a message from Panahi’s wife—a sign, perhaps, of good news. Just a few minutes later, however, an unmiked journalist relayed that she’d heard that Panahi would not be freed and was, in fact, about to start a hunger strike. Kiarostami remained completely placid behind his trademark sunglasses, but emotion in the room ran high. One reporter, stirred by the director’s mere presence, asked if he “does not go in fear” himself. “I am not afraid,” he answered—a response that moved Binoche to tears.
Jean-Luc Godard, Film Socialisme, 2010, still from a color film, 101 minutes.
AN INTERTITLE READING “NO COMMENT” is the final image of Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, and the director himself followed suit, canceling the press conference—which many were expecting (praying?) would be the highlight of this year’s middling, low-energy festival—after the 11 AM Un Certain Regard screening. Rumors began circulating last night, via Twitter feeds and second- and thirdhand accounts, that Godard, who was last at Cannes with 2004’s Notre musique, wouldn’t attend, but these weren’t confirmed until anxious journalists began forming a scrum outside the press-conference room. According to AFP and Libération, the seventy-nine-year-old auteur, who led the charge to shut down Cannes in 1968 as a sign of support with France’s striking workers and students, sent a fax to festival head Thierry Frémaux with this cryptic explanation: “Following problems of the Greek type, I cannot be present at Cannes. I will go to my death with the festival, but I will not take a single step more.”
Language in Film Socialisme, with a typically prolix script, becomes even more mystifying in its subtitles, which JLG chose to render in what he has called “Navajo English,” the predicate-less idiom of Native Americans in old Hollywood Westerns; a digression on Africa in this overstuffed cine-treatise is translated as “aids tool for killing blacks.” The director returns to the topics that have dominated his film essays for at least twenty years: Israel and Palestine (“staying Haifa / right of return”), the Holocaust, the death of Europe, war. Film Socialisme may, however, be the first Godard work with LOLcats. But probably not the last.
Film Socialisme is available through Video on Demand Monday, May 17 and Tuesday, May 18 here.
PREMIERING AT THE DIRECTORS’ FORTNIGHT, Shit Year, Cam Archer’s second feature (after 2006’s mildly experimental gay coming-of-age tale Wild Tigers I Have Known), is more satisfying to say than to watch. Ellen Barkin stars as Colleen West, a just-retired actress still recovering from her breakup with Harvey (Luke Grimes), a perfectly sculpted ephebe who costarred with her in a play. Archer’s film, mistaking willful incomprehensibility for artfulness, unfolds as a series of disjointed, dead-end vignettes (some involving Colleen’s experiments with “simulations” to bring Harvey back, others including craft projects with apples supervised by an irritatingly buoyant neighbor) that Barkin, ever game, can enliven only so much.
Shit Year would also be an apt title for Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, an assiduously researched documentary on the global economic meltdown of 2008, presented as a Special Screening at Cannes before its official theatrical release later in 2010. Ferguson, a political scientist, follows the same methodology he employed in his first doc, 2007’s No End in Sight, about the American occupation of Iraq, assembling a vast array of talking heads to explicate the pathology of unregulated markets. (Sometimes quite literally: one interviewee is a psychotherapist whose clients were Wall Streeters.)
Though the world is still reeling from financial calamity and the euro continues to slide, the hordes of ticket hopefuls outside the Palais fretted not over international crises but about getting inside the Lumière theater to see the latest by Woody Allen, a Cannes perennial. Several waved handwritten signs pleading “Une invitation: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger s.v.p.” or simply shouted their request, their vocals, in a moment of supreme auditory and cognitive dissonance, mixing with those of the man hawking copies of Libération.
MONEY NEVER SLEEPS, according to the subtitle of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel, screening Out of Competition this morning—and neither do festival-goers. The party last night on the Plage Vegaluna for Mathieu Amalric’s burlesque celebration Tournée featured Serge Bozon, the director of La France, spinning from his collection of 1960s 45s. As the film’s stars Mimi Le Meaux, Dirty Martini, and Julie Atlas Muz shimmied and batted mile-long eyelashes to “Double-O-Soul” and “Love Potion Number Nine,” others performed interpretive, twenty-first-century versions of the frug and the monkey. At 2:30 in the morning, Bozon apologized: “The party should last longer, but we can’t because of the police.”
Those who skimp on slumber can always catch up . . . during the screenings. At least one gentleman to my left was in deep REM sleep during Cristi Puiu’s Un Certain Regard entry Aurora, which unspooled at 11 AM. The Romanian director, whose last film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, won the UCR Award in 2005, sheepishly warned the audience beforehand, “It’s a long film—I’m sorry for that.” During Aurora’s 181 minutes, Puiu plays a man distressed for opaque reasons, all of which are explained in the final reel. If the endurance required for the mordantly jokey payoff seems excessive, Aurora is, at the very least, a movie with both challenging ideas and a challenging structure.
The same cannot be said of the UCR title that directly followed Puiu’s movie, Hideo Nakata’s Chatroom, written by Enda Walsh (who also coscripted Steve McQueen’s Hunger, the winner of the 2008 Caméra d’Or prize for best first film), adapting his stage play of the same name. A quintet of London adolescents, led by a charismatic, unmedicated sociopath named William (Aaron Johnson, twerpy star of Kick-Ass and the upcoming Nowhere Boy), become connected through Chelsea Teens!, a virtual space rendered as a supersaturated “real” meeting room at the end of a grotty corridor. Lessons learned: Too much time on the Internet is dangerous! Don’t get attached to your iPhone! Young people have big emotions! Suicide is not painless! “Now” is the last word of Nakata’s film, earnestly circulating pseudosociology that’s about as current as a dial-up modem.
“COULD I HAVE BEEN to that place of absolute love I’ve heard about?” wonders Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), a photographer who’s become enchanted by a dead young bride he’s been asked to take pictures of, in Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, which opened Un Certain Regard. The Portuguese director, 101 years old, was born just fourteen years after cinema itself was created; using a cane to navigate the steps to the Salle Debussy stage, where he was greeted with a standing ovation, de Oliveira displayed the energy of someone a mere two-thirds his age.
Isaac’s question is one of the loftier expressed about matters of the heart; in several films viewed over the past twenty-four hours, the pleasures—and perils—of the flesh dominate. Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas, another UCR entry, opens with its married protagonist and his mistress in the middle of a naked romp. Putting the XXX in extramarital, Im Sang-soo’s Competition title The Housemaid (a remake of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film) tracks the disastrous outcome once the wife of a titan of industry discovers he has impregnated the domestic servant of the title. And the bosomy burlesque stars (many playing themselves) performing along the coast of France in actor-director Mathieu Amalric’s Tournée, also unspooling in Competition, excite male and female spectators alike, including one avid, matronly cashier in La Rochelle.
The protagonist of de Oliveira’s film, who falls in love with a ghost, also touches on another theme in the festival: absence, particularly that of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was asked to be a juror at Cannes but remains imprisoned in Tehran for his political views. Denied the right to join the festival in person, Panahi made a surprise appearance on-screen, in a three-minute short that preceded The Strange Case of Angelica, filmed sometime during his detention. Wry even under the worst circumstances, Panahi can’t help but note the absurdity of a security guard telling him, “I love The Circle,” his prize-winning 2000 film.
Ridley Scott, Robin Hood, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 131 minutes.
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL head Thierry Frémaux recently admitted that this is a “difficult” year for the twelve-day cine-feast, referring to the disappointment that several titles many had hoped would be in the lineup weren’t completed in time, like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Forces of nature have added to the complications: Freakish twenty-foot waves buffeted the Côte d’Azur last week; lingering Icelandic volcanic ash has delayed the flights of many festival attendees.
Those journalists who did arrive on time gathered this morning at the Salle Debussy for the press screening of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, essentially a prequel to the legend of the outlaw hero who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. As the opening-night film at Cannes, it’s a slightly perverse choice—the French, battling the English, are portrayed as marauders, rapists, and would-be baby killers. At the post-screening press conference, Russell Crowe, who plays the title role, had a different take, explaining the significance of one scene in the film sure to stir Gallic pride: “Richard the Lionhearted was killed by a crossbow shot by a French cook—that’s why we’re opening the festival.” Crowe was joking, but several journalists were not, earnestly—if inexplicably—asking the actor, a sports enthusiast, what he thought of various international soccer teams and his predictions for the World Cup.
Weightier inquiries were directed toward the nine members of the competition jury, presided over by Tim Burton this year. A reporter from The Guardian asked both Burton and juror Kate Beckinsale what they thought of the fact that there were no women directors in competition. The British actress declined to answer. But Burton, after gently reminding his interlocutor that he and his colleagues don’t decide which films are selected for the festival, replied more broadly on the dearth of female helmers, in Cannes and elsewhere: “It’s an interesting question, and I think you should ask the people who have the power to greenlight movies, some of whom are women.”
Matthew Barney, Cremaster I, 1995, color film, 40 minutes. Production still. Photo: Michael James O’Brien. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery.
THOUGH HE COMPLETED his five-film “Cremaster” cycle less than a decade ago, then topped off the whole project in 2003 with a museum-spanning exhibition of sculptures and installations at the Guggenheim, Matthew Barney has quickly become a figure from a seemingly distant, more ostentatious age—the art-world equivalent of a stretch Humvee. The cycle’s theatrical revival this year will hardly undermine his status as the epitome of a certain kind of celebrity-artist, a value lesson in what happens when the manufacture of fame in the service of increasing the monetary value of artificially rare products overtakes the art itself, which devolves into nothing but placeholders for this process. Even the distributor of the films’ current run makes pains to reinforce the moneyed-class crudity that mere scarcity equals worth. The cycle “is not now, nor will it ever be, available to consumers on DVD,” the organization’s press release warns, with overtones of the Disney vault. “The only place it can be seen is on screen in theaters, making this re-release a welcome return to true theatrical repertory programming.” By this Barnumesque logic, Barney might as well be the Feejee Mermaid.
Of course, rareness has its function in cinema programming as in the art world, but to different ends. The cinephile indeed craves obscurity—the only extant print, the never-distributed title—but doesn’t assume that the hard-to-see film is necessarily good. A slapdash movie of notable provenance might pique her interest as much as the long-thought-lost masterpiece of a great director. The Barney effect, however, depends on the notion that an inverse ratio of fame to access will magically invest his movies with the aura of true art. But the very possibility of this system, for audiovisual media at least, has dissolved. Despite awkward Hollywood-style efforts at reducing copies (this critic had to submit a signed statement that he wouldn’t duplicate the digitally watermarked preview DVDs provided for review), multiple torrents of the Cremaster films have long been available on The Pirate Bay and elsewhere for anyone who’d like to view them. In the digital era, nothing famous can be inaccessible. True cinematic rarities remain beyond the reach of the downloadable, elusively unseeded, and barely Googled. Ryan Trecartin, notably, emerged from the world of YouTube, not in defiance of the tide.
Even considered on their own, with historical distance from the financial context of their making, the films constitute an epic fail unto themselves. Barney never grasped the value of editing, structuring his work in a clumsy back-and-forth between parallel actions whose unproductive tedium sabotages any spectacular value of his shopwindow production numbers. The destroyed luxury cars in Cremaster 3 (2002), the football-stadium kick lines in Cremaster 1 (1995), and even the aerial shots in the relatively low-budget Cremaster 4 (1994) prove unable to evoke feelings of majesty and profundity, coming off instead as just showy. Seen in 2010, one cannot but help hear a Project Runway voice whispering behind every shot: “It looks expensive!” Unsuccessful on the terms of their own medium, the films actually undermine Barney’s true talents as a sculptor and photographer. He has an undeniable eye for the striking image, in his best moments marrying symmetrical elegance with corporeal ooze, but these deluxe shock effects grow wearisome without an advanced or even competent temporal structure. Thus his deployment of numerous systems of arcane symbolism—Masonic, Mormon, Gaelic, biological, or otherwise—seems a desperate move, as if he hopes piling on more and more stuff will grant some deeper meaning through the force of nothing but acquisition and accumulation.
Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle plays May 19–June 3 at the IFC Center in New York. Barney will appear in person with curator Richard Flood on Thursday, May 20 at 7 PM. For more details on screenings, click here. For the cycle’s official website, click here.
IF YOU WANT to make people uncomfortable at your next family get-together, stream Bryan Poyser’s Lovers of Hate (available on IFC Films on Demand until June 15). Poyser’s first feature skimmed slightly above the radar at this year’s Sundance and SXSW film festivals and went straight to VOD, which may be the best place to watch it. The sibling rivalry narrative is likely to get under the skin of even well-adjusted brothers—and some sisters and wives as well.
Disconcerting in both form and content, Lovers of Hate begins like a drab version of a Seth Rogen mismatched rom-com, then veers into stalker-horror before slacking off into . . . but no, I don’t want to entirely give away its apposite inconclusiveness. The film’s title derives from the novel on which older brother Rudy (Chris Doubek) has long claimed to be at work, although, like Jack Nicholson’s blocked author in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)—clearly on Poyser’s mind—he may not have gotten past the opening page.
Rudy is first glimpsed attempting furtively to hose the sweat off his droopy body at the local gas station. He’s been living in his car since his wife Diana (Heather Kafka) kicked him out. When younger brother Paul (Alex Karpovsky) arrives in town on a book tour and discovers the breakup, he puts the moves on Diana. Rudy confronts them, and his humiliation-fueled rage gives the movie a charge of negative energy that director and actor sustain almost to the end. But Rudy’s resentment of his facile, opportunistic sib predates Paul’s poaching of Diana. Although the children’s books that have made Paul the American near equivalent of J. K. Rowling bear the dedication “For Rudy,” Paul has never publicly acknowledged that they are based on narratives and characters that Rudy invented to entertain him when they were kids.
Rudy follows his brother to a sprawling, snow-covered Utah vacation house where Paul has gone—ostensibly to write, but actually to tryst with Diana. Skulking unseen behind half-closed doors, Rudy is mesmerized by the sight of his brother and his estranged wife fucking themselves blind: They fail to notice his presence for days. Since Paul and Rudy are both, each in his own way, total shits, it’s fitting that Rudy employs a toilet as his instrument of terror, his regressive maneuver recalling acts of aggression by and against various nuclear family members forced to live in intimate conditions with people they are supposed to love but in fact loathe. As in The Shining, the oversize digs only reinforce the sense of psychological claustrophobia.
The movie opens in Austin, home of SXSW, then repairs to Park City, where the ski lodge that the Austin contingent shared at the 2009 Sundance festival became the principal location. Production values are barely existent, but the camera placement and editing, particularly in relation to Rudy’s s/m voyeurism, are brilliant. Ditto the script and the performances. Doubek, Karpovsky, and Kafka should be commended for making their characters thoroughly unappealing while eschewing villainous flourishes. The horror in Lovers of Hate is all too familiar—or, as Freud would have termed it, Heimlich. It’s rare, however, to see it depicted with such disgusting specificity on the screen.
Lovers of Hate is available on IFC Films on Demand through June 15. For more details, click here.
IN THE AGE OF AIDS—its losses, its stigma, and the militant defiance that tried to stem these in turn—silence is a charged phenomenon. As the famous activist slogan has it, SILENCE = DEATH; an equation rendered a matter of fact by the government inaction that exacerbated an already rampant pandemic throughout the 1980s. In Ira Sachs’s eight-minute film, Last Address, however, silence evinces a different valence.
Here, in the string of poker-faced facades—the last residences of seventeen New York artists who died of AIDS between 1983 and 2007—the film invites reflection on the lingering absence of some of the city’s most dynamic cultural personalities. The barely discernible agitation of leaves against 542 LaGuardia Place and the chirps of a few birds are the only hints that the camera is rolling film, and not simply shooting a still image of Keith Haring’s old building. By contrast, the procession of cars along Bleecker Street offers up a less solemn memorial to the last address of Cookie Mueller and Ron Vawter. Charles Ludlam is evoked through the synecdochal image of his building’s doorway; to its glass the reflections of passersby lend an involuntary lyricism. Occasionally, the camera homes in on a seemingly fateful detail (a potted plant on a windowsill; the froth of leaves in the wind). In most instances, though, Sachs fixes his camera and lets the city run its fingers over the screen. Its unwitting indifference to the memory of these individuals constitutes the film’s most haunting melancholy.
Last Address, which premiered at this year’s Sundance and Berlin film festivals, represents Sachs’s return to the short format, which he pursued to great acclaim in his work Lady (1993). The film will play in conjunction with a public installation of photographs in the exterior windows of the Kimmel Center on LaGuardia Place (on view through the end of May), which offers further biographical information on the figures commemorated in Last Address.
Ira Sachs, Last Address, color film, 8 minutes.
On May 6, Ira Sachs’s Last Address will play every fifteen minutes from 6 to 8 PM at the Tisch School of the Arts on Broadway in New York. For more details, click here. The exhibition “Last Address” is on view at the Kimmel Center in New York through May 31.
Gregorio Rocha, Los rollos perdidos de Pancho Villa, 2003, black-and-white and color film, 49 minutes.
WITH LOS ROLLOS PERDIDOS DE PANCHO VILLA (The Lost Rolls of Pancho Villa, 2003), Gregorio Rocha has constructed a fascinating document of the intertwining histories of cinema, politics, and culture. The film grows out of a surprising contract made in 1914 between the Mutual Film Corporation and Pancho Villa, in which the leader of Mexico’s Constitutional Army granted the company exclusive rights to film him in exchange for 20 percent of the profits from any resulting movie. From this odd agreement came The Life of General Villa, 1914, a heroic portrayal of Villa’s life that included select footage of the Battle of Ojinaga. In subsequent American movies, after Villa’s troops invaded Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, he was portrayed as a villainous bandit from across the border.
Rocha’s film documents his exhaustive search for the original Villa footage. In it, the Mexico City–based filmmaker travels to New York, London, and Amsterdam, only to return home empty-handed. His funds depleted, Rocha begins to audition actors for a new Villa picture when an anonymous phone call inspires a change of direction; he heads to Texas, where, in a dusty garage, he discovers a remarkable, patched-together film.
Decades before reality television warped our vision of truth in media, a father-son team, Félix and Edmundo Padilla, fused artifice and history to make La venganza de Pancho Villa (The Vengeance of Pancho Villa), 1937, a clever pastiche of newsreels, clips from The Life of General Villa and graphic footage excluded from that film, scenes from the patriotic American movies The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Liberty (1916), and new footage shot in Texas. The Padillas renamed fictional Mexican towns and heroes in the American movies after their original counterparts, and they re-created Villa’s assassination. The film turns stereotypes—principally those of the Mexican bandit and the innocent American girl—on their heads, and returns Villa to heroic revolutionary status. A phenomenal example of early appropriation, it had languished in a bin until Rocha unearthed it on camera—not unlike the Padillas’ film, his own merges cinematic activism with engrossing narrative.