Monday, August 22, 2011

That was the 60th MIFF that was – Part III: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia through to Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City

This final part of my MIFF wrap was delayed in no small part due to Melbourne's just keepin' on givin' – why, in successive nights last week in Melbourne town, I attended the resumption of the Melbourne Cinémathèque's 2011 program (two terrific films by Masahiro Shinoda); the opening of the 2011 Russian Resurrection Film Festival (a quite good steam-powered gulag action flick in Aleksei Uchitel's The Edge), and a fundraising shindig looking to get some key cast and crew of Amiel Courtin-Wilson's Hail to Venice for its imminent screening in competition at the Venice International Film Festival, the first Australian film in a decade to compete there.

While I'm yet to see Hail, I none the less wish its unassuming director and his colleagues well in their quest, and for the film to be well received. My gut feeling is that it will be, and that we'll all be hearing a lot more about Hail yet.


And, without any further ado, what this blog post title promises I now deliver:

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest is ostensibly a policier which unfolds at a very leisurely pace not far removed from 'real time', in stark contrast to the urgency of its frustrated principals' interest in finding a crime scene in the middle of the night, well off the beaten track, in the centre of Turkey.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Beautiful, honeyed night-time cinematography – in full 'Scope, what's more – makes most of Once Upon a Time a feast for the peepers, while strong characterisations from a terrific array of character actors gently, probingly and often humorously help tease out several intriguing subtexts from some Tarantino-esque exchanges and badinage which come across far more naturalistically than in any of his films.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is ultimately rather less about a search for a body out on the Anatolian plains than it is interested in using that search as a prop for an allusive investigation into problematic aspects of life in present day Turkey (and elsewhere), including urban/rural divides; big city/small town rivalries; the extant practice of arranged marriage, and other backwards sexo-political manifestations of an often still highly patriarchal society; bureaucracy and incompetence in governance, and more besides.

A lengthy morning-after coda to the captivating nocturnal first portion of the film is less aesthetically pleasing – I would have it no other way, though, during a long autopsy sequence – but is ultimately very satisfying in its deep mining of the film's rich subtexts; the full implications of one particular character's words and actions take a good long while to set in after the closing credits have rolled. A terrific film.

Opening Night - The Fairy

I covered the 60th MIFF's Opening Night, and its whimsy-saturated choice as curtain-raiser, The Fairy – it seems half a lifetime ago, now – as many as four Little Lies Down ago.

Outside Satan

Bruno Dumont's latest has some imagery in it I'll probably take with me to the grave – there's one very memorable, profoundly bizarre sex scene that leaves a particularly strong impression – but I doubt I'll otherwise ever revisit it.

It gives every bit the impression of being precisely the film its maker wanted it to be, but as it operates on a wavelength I just can't tune into – there's some highly abstruse religiosity that inflects the narrative's events, something which doesn't much speak to me, incorrigible heathen that I am – I can't find much to rave about beyond its beautiful landscape cinematography. The deliberate anti-performances of its leads, equal parts neo-Bressonian and, I suppose, a function of their characters' mysticised, opaque motivations, did nothing to greater endear Outside Satan to me. Is that contrary to Dumont's intentions? I can't tell. At any rate, I'll be curious to see what he does next. I can tell he knows what he's doing, even if, in this instance, I don't.

Peter Tscherkassky – Programs One and Two and a Masterclass

I raved about Peter Tscherkassky's visit to MIFF, and in particular his masterclass based around a screening of Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), as many as three Little Lies Down ago. Additionally, ahead of the festival's commencement, and in feverish anticipation of his coming, I wrote a few thoughts on Tscherkassky's practice which I now have to concede, having only just become acquainted with a whole lot more of his work through MIFF's programs, only apply in fact to much, but not to all, of his work. That was a further two Little Lies Down ago.

Post Mortem

I wrote as much about Post Mortem as I will probably ever care to as few as three Little Lies Down ago.

Sodankylä Forever – The Century of Cinema

I was surprised by the fairly modest turnout at the screening I attended of Peter von Bagh's documentary, which I'd have thought would have served as irresistible cinephile-bait. This was a double shame as I'd also have liked to have seen a great many more people catching the short which preceded it, The First Interview.

(I wrote a little about The First Interview (d. Dennis Tupicoff), and my very small part in its realisation, as many as six Little Lies Down ago.)

Sodankylä Forever – The Century of Cinema
Sodankylä Forever – The Century of Cinema

Sodankylä is a town 120 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, and is host to the Midnight Sun Film Festival, from which all of the material in this documentary – but one 90 minute portion of a 270 minute long whole, I believe – is sourced. Von Bagh is the festival's director as well as this film's, though any such contextualising information is absent from The Century of Cinema, perhaps attributable to its being but one segment of a larger, unseen whole. Instead, it gets straight into the business of presenting thoughts on the cinema, on filmmaking, and on the events of the 20th century's influence upon both from an extraordinary roll-call of major filmmakers, as prompted by von Bagh and delivered to attendees of Midnight Sun. These excerpted interviews are occasionally interspersed with scenes of folks wandering the grounds of probably the only film festival on the planet where, outside of the cinema, the sun never stops shining (and which was founded by the Kaurismäki brothers, a noteworthy fact I don't recall The Century of Cinema mentioning either).

Visiting this festival, both for access to the wealth of talent it clearly attracts, and for its unique astrological conditions, would have to be a very special experience. Consider me tantalised; Midnight Sun looks like a shoo-in for inclusion in “101 Film Festivals You Must Attend Before You Die”.

But back for a moment to Sodankylä Forever – The Century of Cinema. I greatly enjoyed hearing from the horses' mouths anecdotes from the filmmaking frontlines, whether from Miloš Forman, Jerzy Skolimowski, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Powell, Dušan Makavejev, Sam Fuller, or from countless others. Sure, most of the filmmakers profiled were of a certain generation (and 95% were male), but many – Fuller, for example, and several filmmakers to have worked under totalitarian regimes in Central and Easterm Europe – consequently had great stories of resistance and persistence to tell, linking struggles with filmmaking with wider struggles in wartime and its aftermath, regularly reminding this viewer of Sam Fuller's famous description of the cinema in Godard's Contempt: “Film is like a battleground: It's love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion.”

Surviving Life

I seldom see any one film twice at a festival but this was always likely to prove an exception, such is my long-standing fascination with Jan Švankmajer. Furthermore, I'm learning the Czech language, so another engagement with the wordiest Švankmajer yet was always going to be as much fun as I could possibly have doing my homework ahead of my next weekly class.

Surviving Life
Surviving Life

Happily, seeing Surviving Life a second time went some way to comforting me that I might not have been too wide of the mark in a hypothesis I advanced four Little Lies Down ago concerning whether Švankmajer has placed a Godlike entity in his film's dreamscapes, indicative perhaps of an inquiry on his part into the existence of a higher order of intelligence, much as had been striven for contact with by a number of other major figures, e.g. Tristan Tzara and William Burroughs, in their similarly frontier-probing, conscious mind-dodging art practices.

However, my second viewing prompted me to re-read what I'd first written on this film, only to find some serious shortcomings in my original articulation of this hypothesis, something which has gnawed away at me ever since, all the more so as I couldn't find time before now to right matters.

In particular, it must be mentioned that this entity I speak of, manifest as a haggard, foul-breathed old bag lady, is explicitly identified, both within the film's unreliable narrative, by the psychiatrist, and in the film's credits, as being (Evžen, the protagonist's) “super-ego”. It irks me no end that I failed to mention this the first time around, whether through tuning that out of my recollection when composing my initial appraisal or through too hastily cobbling that piece together. (Which is also to say: I can't bear to countenance the thought that I might have failed to pick up on something so obvious the first time around. And... yet?)

However, let's say that if super-ego she indeed is, then... whose? For this is not at all a clear-cut proposition. In her final manifestation (in which, compatible with my hypothesis, she proclaims herself to be known by all manner of recondite noms de Dieu, far in advance of the earthbound authority figures “Karl Marx” and “Napoléon” the psychiatrist had warned Evžen his super-ego would claim to be (correctly though, it must be said, as if in a wish fulfilled))... in her final manifestation, she is in fact appearing, and waxing omniscient, within Evžen's wife's dream.

But then, whether his wife even dreams that is up for grabs; it could well be that her dream is something Evžen had himself dreamt up in the first place. (In which case, perhaps the old crone is Evžen's super-ego after all!)

Surviving Life
Surviving Life

With all of this play with Freudian and Jungian constructs of the human unconscious throughout, it's no surprise that the film should resolve with a variation upon that old chestnut, the primal scene. However, there's nothing pat about the superficially cliché parlaying of same to resolve Surviving Life's narrative, for there's nothing about any number of sequences leading up to those final explicative scenes which can be taken at face value. For, just as Švankmajer himself advised us in the film's introduction, he had always wanted to create a film within which the orders of reality and dream are blurred. A most disingenuous warning, it must be said: such play has long been the meat and potatoes of the Švankmajerian oeuvre. But Surviving Life might represent the first time in his work that dream has so been blurred with the 'reality' of dream, which is to say, Surviving Life is Švankmajer's Inception, albeit one rather more resistant to a definitive parsing than Christopher Nolan's blockbuster. I have already recommended to myself a further viewing, the better to sift through the devil in the details, the better to discern the godhead in the unconscious mind. This though will have to await my procuring a DVD from BontonFilm.

Tales of the Night

As an admirer of Michel Ocelot's Kirikou films, beautiful folkloric silhouette animations of a slightly adult bent, I was intrigued to see how he'd handle Tales of the Night, a compendium of six fairy tales inspired by folklore originating from every which where, each tale buoyantly conceived and enacted in turn by two projectionist-sorceror's apprentices, a young actor and a young actress, and listed in the MIFF program as suitable for ages 8 and up, “lovingly animated in silhouetted 3D”.

“Silhouetted 3D”! How on Earth was that going to be accomplished? Silhouettes can have... girth?

Well, of course they can't. The 3D in Tales in fact serves principally to add depth to the composition of its backgrounds, seldom impinging upon the foregrounded action where the various fairy tales' protagonists do their bit to prevail over whatever circumstances the two young thespians' flights of fancy have dreamt up for them(selves) in the sequences just prior.

Occasionally the fairy tales' heroes and antagonists might move along the image's Z-axis but, for the most part, it's business as usual for Ocelot; the 3D in Tales, whilst not unpleasant, doesn't really add anything to what is, happily, already a perfectly pleasant way to while away an hour-and-a-half, much in line with his previous works. That said, I'd have rathered that Tales of the Night was made, like Ocelot's earlier animations, with a slightly older audience also in mind.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye

I wrote about The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye as many as three Little Lies Down ago.

The Kid With a Bike

The Kid With a Bike
The Kid With a Bike

The Dardenne brothers don't seem able to put a foot wrong. The Kid With a Bike is yet another terrific evocation of life on the fringes in struggletown Belgium, with a truly remarkable performance from its young lead (Thomas Doret) who plays Cyril, a boy strongly in denial of his abandonment by his father who, worse still, has not left Cyril his beloved bicycle.

Many are the adults who would like to help Cyril, but he has a terrifying propensity to bite the hands which feed him – figuratively and literally. In fact, Doret bodily throws himself so heartily into his role that I sincerely hope, for his wellbeing, that single takes were enough for the Dardennes! This all the more so as, while this film feels so real, its camerawork's dynamism and the images' compositional preciseness are such that one can't help but feel that some of its sequences must surely have taken several takes to get right. And, if so: poor Thomas! 'Cos he'd have had to have become just one big, giant bruise after a few takes of certain scenes in Kid With a Bike (and his castmates, too), such is the seeming reckless abandon with which he hurls himself about the place. (And not to forget that, at one point, he falls, with a sickening thud, out of a tall tree.)

I've gotta hand it to the Dardennes; they sure know how to work the smoke and mirrors to make it look like they're doing absolutely nothing of the sort, because, after all: seeing is believing, is it not? Oh, if only more filmmakers had such powers and knew to use them for such good! And so doing produced films which, like The Kid With a Bike and others of the Dardennes' before it, actually matter, actually manage to immerse the viewer in an appreciably 'real' world, and so consequently resonate long after the viewing is over.

The Mill and the Cross

Lech Majewski made for a very locquacious guest at this year's MIFF and it was fun to hear him pontificate at great tangential length on, for example, the very specific need for clouds shot in New Zealand (!) to round out his Breughel work-in-progress fantasia, The Mill and the Cross (the work being Breughel's 1564 painting “The Way to Cavalry”, the actor cast as Breughel... none other than Rutger Hauer).

The film itself, however, was hard to love, no matter how beguiling and/or grotesque some of its Inquisitorial and Passion play imagery, nor how intriguing and lofty its central conceit of presenting to us Breughel's epic painting, under construction, as a series of alfresco tableaux vivants, set against backdrops derived from actual Breughel paintings, each with umpteen superimposed planes of period-approved goings-on offset against it, with the allegorical aspects of “The Way to Cavalry”'s scenes being explained by Breughel as he goes about composing them.

Charlotte Rampling and Michael York make appearances too in what proves ultimately to be a curio more interesting in theory and in principle than in the experience of actually viewing it.

The Slap

Seeing the first two episodes of a television series soon to be broadcast is not something I would ordinarily make a priority of at a film festival, but I'm very glad I troubled to catch episodes 1 and 2 of The Slap on the biggest of the big screens in the Greater Union, before a full house, at this year's MIFF. For, atop enjoying those two episodes on their considerable merits, both in and of themselves as well as in successfully adapting portions of a book I greatly esteem, by an author, Christos Tsiolkas, whom I consider to be a really stand-up guy (and cinephile), seeing The Slap at MIFF has given me plenty of pause for thought on how narrow now is the gulf between television and cinema.

The Slap simply looked terrific projected onto the big screen. And of course it did – why wouldn't it, after all, when the present day TV industry standard, HD video, is what so many 'films' are now being shot on? The image quality is just superb; HD video needn't – and here, didn't – lose anything by being projected onto a cinema screen. And then there's The Slap's widescreen aspect ratio, something the cinema lorded over TV for the longest time, but which it no longer can claim bragging rights over. 16:9 is the norm for television now too.

There's certainly an irony in that, in television's earlier days, many shows were shot on film. And heck, live studio broadcasts were often filmed off television sets by studios and home viewers alike in order to record them for posterity!

Yet again, it is proven, that the more some things change, the more they stay the same.

Ruminations about the mutability of media aside, I'm really looking forward to the remaining episodes' broadcast later in the year on the ABC. Auntie's onto a winner with The Slap, and no mistake!

The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse
The Turin Horse

What an epic piece of transcendental miserabilism Béla Tarr latest (last?) film is. Some – if they even lasted the distance – might grizzle about The Turin Horse's amounting to little more than an exercise in aestheticising misery, but I'll have no truck with any such sanctimony here.

I was utterly mesmerised by The Turin Horse; I was there, in the image, windswept away. Inexorable, elemental forces were at play. Such beauty, such grace!, in the camera, gliding first this way and then that, pausing time to time to take stock of the precious little 'of interest' going on within a rough-hewn stone house in relief against a furious windstorm without, occasionally tiptoeing incrementally towards a window or doorway to get a better look at the deathly inhospitable land beyond, a world of increasingly little succour for the weatherbeaten father and daughter whose lives are the stuff of inescapable drudgery (and easy parody per this year's celebrated and well-travelled MIFF trailers), depicted in miniature and yet at great length, in The Turin Horse.

I've said it before – nobody, but nobody, gives long take like Béla Tarr. There are but 30 beautifully fluid, staggeringly well orchestrated shots in all of The Turin Horse's two-and-a-half hour runtime. That hoary old cliché about the camera being a character unto itself has seldom resounded so strongly. The camerawork finds a perfect accomplice in the score, in which variations upon the one figure are repeated time and again, its intensity swelling, pulsating, yet also sympathetic to the film's diegetic sound – when that house's door opens, the howl of the gale is just extraordinary – you are there, just as the sound of the wind always had been too, even with the door shut, integrated into, and perfectly modulated with the composed elements of, the overall soundscape.

Seeing The Turin Horse strongly reminded me of the Melbourne Cinémathèque's screening of Victor Sjöström's The Wind (1928) a few years ago when, in an inspired selection, it ran the music of the Dirty Three as The Wind's soundtrack, in turn reminding me of the Dirty Three's spine-tingling set at the Meredith Music Festival several years previous when the band and the elements were just as one. Supernatural forces certainly felt like they were at play that day; in The Turin Horse, similarly, an experience far transcending that of merely going to see a movie is on offer. Seeing it at MIFF – being it at MIFF – was an altogether transcendental experience, and one I'll long cherish.


Destined for release a little later this year through Rialto, Céline Sciamma's Tomboy is a lovely film on queer childhood graced by terrific, naturalistic performances. The kids in it are just superb, and the girl playing the title character's little sister is just adorable without any attempts on the director's part to imbue her with a contrived precocity as is so gratingly common in American TV and cinema in particular. I wrote a little more about Tomboy four Little Lies Down ago.

Zebraman 2: Attack On Zebra City

I wrote on this preposterous, throwaway but fairly enjoyable effort from Takashi Miike as many as four Little Lies Down ago. His other MIFF 2011 film, the samurai flick 13 Assassins, will be in release around these parts in just a few weeks and that I'm really looking forward to; I hear tell he doesn't wink at his audience even the once in it. Time will tell.