SEPARATING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF: NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS
The late Sam Fuller, master of low-budget westerns and over-the-top psychosexual dramas, famously expressed to an adoring Godard the following overly quoted opinion of cinema (but it’s relevant here): “Film is like a battleground…Love. Hate. Action. Violence. In one word, emotion.” From the evidence on screen at this 40th edition of New York City’s New Directors/New Films (March 23-April 3) — I must admit, my favorite New York movie event, given that, theoretically, the choices are early works with edge — films built around long takes and a high ratio of long shots (Winter Vacation, Gromozeka, and Attenberg, for example) are much less affecting than more dynamic fare, films with more frequent cuts and a wider variety of shot types (678 (now titled Cairo 678), Belle Epine, Tyrannosaur, and Incendies, to name just a few).
(Note: Movies in general release with Guy Ritchie-esque hyperventilated editing eschew emotion almost entirely, bringing this debate full circle.)
This is a no-brainer: Films have always been called motion pictures (movie, movement), and it took only two decades from their advent in the late 19th century until a particular narrative style, making use of long shot, medium shot, and close-up, became the accepted convention for delivering a story. Early filmmakers and movie companies seem to have recognized that their mostly immigrant and/or working-class audiences, many of whom couldn’t read English intertitles if they could read at all, required more energy for the requisite emotional impact than could be delivered by a succession of tableaus.
Not that there is anything wrong with long takes and mostly long shots: Many great films have relied on them exclusively. Often, though, directors gear those pictures toward distancing the spectator, going right for the brain. Yet they often feel…icy. More often than not, the more static films would never, say, elicit a good cry. The more energized films go primarily for the heart. They feel…warmer.
I mention all this because the difference in form is so pronounced in this year’s ND/NF crop — but enough about formal components. Let’s go on to another characteristic of the New Directors selections: recurring themes. I’ve used three below to organize the titles: Transgressive Males, The Family Way, and Intra-Gender Bonding (the weakest of the three). The best ones (subtitled Go for It!) are numbered but not ranked within each thematic category. I’ve marked the titles, unnumbered, which to me are more filler than anything else (Well, Maybe), as well as those that are, for me anyway — let’s be tactful — not going to make a dent on cinema culture (Not My Cup of Tea).
GO FOR IT!
1. Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, U.K.)
Scotsman Peter Mullan is one of the few fine actors who can direct a great film; here he plays the main role, opposite Olivia Colman. Enter British performer Paddy Considine, a first-time moviemaker who has made a striking film set in a working-class milieu in a provincial British town. Most of it is uncompromisingly grim, but true to its subject. Mullan plays a self-destructive, aggressive drunk (he kicks his own dog to death in the precredit sequence) to Colman’s Christian do-gooder, who masks her abuse at home, and whom he meets in a charity shop. Gradually and subtly, they exchange personas. Colman, a comic in Britain, is brilliant here, as is Mullan, but then, he always is.
2. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75 (Goran Hugo Olsson, Sweden)
These are not transgressors, but good people perceived by the establishment as such. To be frank, the title was a turnoff: Was this just a rehash of TV material many of us have seen over and over? Boy, was I off-base. Olsson takes footage of people and events from an important era of black history, all of it filmed four decades ago by Swedish TV directors and cinematographers. “The Swedes who shot and later edited together this film allow us to see our own history in a fresh way,” says the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Marian Masone, a member of the ND/NF selection committee. (The Museum of Modern Art’s film department is the co-organizer.) That may be an understatement. Maybe it’s because the interviewers were not American, and maybe because some of the interviews were done in Stockholm and not Chicago or New York, but this rhythmically assembled footage is strong. Contemporary voiceovers (Angela Davis, for example) describe old sequences. Great interviews with Davis, Stokely Carmichael, and many others alternate with scenes of black kids in the streets and protests; overlaid music, much of it by The Roots, gives this doc the hip feel of an enlightened music video.
3. Cairo 678 (formerly 678) (Mohamed Diab, Egypt)
Diab courageously exposes the taboo subject of sexual harassment of women in Egypt. In his directorial debut, he puts his ample screenwriting experience to good use. No black or white characters are to be found here: They are more gray. The three harassed women at the film’s center are of different ages and social classes, and they argue among themselves about vendettas: whether to prick an overly forward man’s hand or stab him in the groin (these guys are shameless, on buses, on the street, at sports events). The men in their lives are also carefully shaded. A real find and eye-opener in every way.
4. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, Canada)
I’m cheating here, because the transgressor is revealed only in the last 20 minutes of the film, and those scenes — so much more French in whatever logic there is than Anglo — almost ruin the fabulous movie preceding it. Adapted from a play by Lebanese-born Wajdi Mouawad, the film is about a middle-aged Arab mother, a refugee from an unnamed Middle Eastern country (which has to be Lebanon) who lives in Montreal with her grown twin son and daughter. She suddenly dies, and at the reading of the will, the children discover from the executor that she has left letters for their father and brother, neither of whom they knew about. So begins a search through their mother’s past, and the twins learn much more than they had bargained for. Villeneuve moves his camera gracefully; this is a powerful film, full of both horror and love. Andre Turpin’s cinematography is perfect.
Microphone (Ahmad Abdalla, Egypt)
As heavyhanded as Diab’s 678 is nuanced, Microphone follows a lost soul, a young man who discovers underground culture wandering through his hometown of Alexandria. One wishes for some of the controlled pizzazz that Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi gave to his Tehran-set No One Knows About Persian Cats.
THE FAMILY WAY
GO FOR IT!
1. Summer of Goliath (Nicolas Pereda, Mexico)
Pereda interweaves two plot strands that take place during a hot summer in the verdant but poor rural community of Huilotepec — a microcosm of the Mexican social order. Rich digressions capture culturally-specific textures and help flesh out several characters. In the mix are semi-improvised documentary-style interviews and scenes providing additional information on the current state of the locality and its inhabitants, further delineating the internal tensions Pereda lays out. In the primary plot, a woman has just been dumped by her husband. She is unable to adapt to unaccustomed loneliness. Her sole companion is her layabout macho son. The other storyline is the mostly doc-like portrait of Goliath, also known as Oscar, a 16-year-old boy accused of murdering his girlfriend. In this town, which has lost most of its grown males to the U.S. for jobs, fragmented families are the rule.
2. Majority (Seren Yuce, Turkey)
Once again, a gem from Turkey. Without haste, but never boring, Yuce tells the coming-of-age story of a chubby teen slacker who lives with his nouveau riche parents, including an authoritarian and shameless contractor father who wants to mold the resistant kid in his own image. The boy is rebellious in typical ways for his age — getting drunk, smoking dope — but also in ways specific to today’s Turkey, like taking on a Kurdish girlfriend, a no-no to his dad, who calls her “a gypsy.” Even this listless son is horrified when his father buys off the cops after the smashed boy causes a traffic accident, leaving the victim in the other car without proper restitution. Ultimately the son takes on characteristics of his father, like bossing employees around and obtaining a gun. Only then are there signs that he is accepted by his parents.
3. Octubre (Daniel Vega, Diego Vega, Peru)
Shot in the quiet, unobtrusive style that has become de rigueur in much of South American cinema (Whisky, A Useful Life), this film by the young Vega brothers focuses on a misanthropic moneylender, a loner whose services are needed by many in his poor barrio. He even satisfies his sexual needs through mechanical sex with hookers. His life turns upside down when one of the prostitutes abandons a baby on his doorstep. While he tries desperately to find her to eliminate this inconvenience, a religious neighborhood spinster seizes the opportunity to bag him by moving in to care for the child. A family is reconstituted, naturally, without unnecessary feel-good imagery and music.
4. Curling (Denis Cote, Canada)
Yet another fine film from Quebec, Curling focuses on a single father and his pre-teen daughter. A handyman, he lives far away from town and essentially keeps the girl sequestered. She doesn’t even attend school. He believes the outside world would contaminate her. The ubiquitous snow and wind add a chilling dimension to the story. Both father and child find corpses near their home, but neither tells the other. Yet the bodies are catalysts for change. Jean-Francois Sauvageau is remarkable as the maladjusted father. The title is a version of bowling; the father works at the alley.
Hospitalite (Koji Fukuda, Japan)
This movie has its charms, but the shift from carefully composed Japanese compositions and family decorum to crowding and chaos is tiresome. A man, his second wife, his daughter, and his grown sister live above his printing shop, where he struggles to make ends meet. A friendly fellow who claims to be the son of the business’s financier appears and soon asks if he can rent the spare room. With Japanese politesse, the owner answers in the affirmative. Suddenly, a sexy young blonde, whom the renter claims to be his wife, and hordes of young people move into the room with him, making a normal family life impossible for the owner. Neighbors bring the police — a smart politically motivated plotline for a country where xenophobia is rampant — and the interlopers flee, but you feel by film’s end that something is now missing from the owner’s life.
At Ellen’s Age (Pia Marais, Germany)
Although her French accent is a bit distracting, the gifted Jeanne Balibar saves this hackneyed project. She plays a flight attendant who leaves her German boyfriend, gets fired for abandoning a plane ready to take off, and hooks up with a “commune” of animal activists. It’s sort of ‘70s redux. And, to boot, she begins to “find” herself in a remote part of Africa.
NOT MY CUP OF TEA
Copacabana (Marc Fitoussi, France)
As much as I try to remain positive, this is one of the most misconceived — and boringly constructed — films I’ve ever seen. It’s conceit: it stars Isabelle Huppert (so thin it seems a lettuce leaf might fatten her up) and her real-life daughter (too filled out). Huppert portrays a broke bohemian mother to her daughter’s conservative bore, who is ashamed of her unpredictable mom. Huppert gets carried away playing an outspoken and eccentric manipulator; the final scene with Brazilian dancers surrounding the arrhythmic star could win a Razzie on its own. Someone must have wanted a “name” at the festival, even if it’s her worst performance. Why else would this be shown?
GO FOR IT!
1. Belle Epine (Rebecca Zlotowski, France)
We don’t experience the death of this young teen’s mother. Nor do we know why her father has left the family for Canada. These events have preceded what we see on the screen. That is a plus here. The film is about a troubled girl, a lost, lethargic Jewish soul who bonds with a wilder schoolmate to spice up her life with motorcycle gangs and macho poseurs. Zlotowski doesn’t fill in the blanks, neither with information nor with her wonderfully unpredictable shooting style. Her technique allows interesting digressions, such as her uncle’s treatment of his gay son at a Sabbath dinner.
2. The Destiny of Lesser Animals (Deron Albright, Ghana/U.S.)
In spite of some imperfections, this story of a cop caught between a rock and a hard place in his home country of Ghana offers satisfying glimpses of that nation and its culture. For a change, the bad guy isn’t the white man. This is more of a real inside look, locals versus locals; there is no need for a white person to make it palatable for western audiences. The policeman pretends to lose his gun in order to retrieve a counterfeit passport he has paid for but has lost to thieves. In Accra he bonds with a head inspector, the former seeking his documents, the latter a serial killer. Throughout this thriller there is tension between corruption — bribery, prostitution — and integrity. Well worth a see.
Gromozeka (Vladimir Kott, Russia)
This is not nearly as good as his earlier The Fly, but it was made for television and shows it. Three men in Moscow have grown up together. They have moved into different classes and professions and endure very different problems (one finds out his daughter is a prostitute, another that he has terminal cancer). Their lives criss-cross, and there is a nice sprinkling of dark Russian humor that makes this worthwhile viewing.
NOT MY CUP OF TEA
Memory Lane (Mikhael Hers, France)
A group of French twentysomethings gather in the provinces during vacation. Nothing much happens. This would be fine if shown in a suburban multiplex.
Winter Vacation (Li Hongqi, China)
Four bored teens wander around through a nest of extremely long takes and mostly long shots that are not earned as a formal component. That’s the best they could find from Asia?
Attenberg (Athine Rachel Tsangari, Greece)
In this overly studied film Tsangari places inserts — symmetrical travelling shots depicting two young women walking arm and arm and maybe kicking their feet in the same direction (a homage to the Nouvelle Vague) — into a contrived narrative of one of them learning about life in a coastal Greek resort. It’s all very bourgeois. So was last year’s revelatory Dogtooth, but it was about more than a large Greek house and wealthy family: It took on the existential dilemma. The title Attenberg is a deliberate misspelling of Attenborough, as in Sir Richard, who observed various species. Seems the director wrongly feels she is doing this with the human race.
Some Days Are Better Than Others (Matt McCormick, U.S.)
Of all the American indies to select! Three young people work at fairly thankless jobs in Portland, Oregon, and their lifestyles suffer as a result of low incomes and general alienation. A disciple of Miranda July, McCormick seems to want to dispel Portland’s reputation as a paradise for alternative culture and lifestyles. The film is incredibly thin.
Unseen: Circumstance; Happy, Happy; Hit So Hard; Man Without a Cell Phone; Margin Call; Outbound; Pariah; and Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure