Saturday, November 19, 2016

Brooklyn Magazine Capsules (July - November 2016)

Coverage of The 54th New York Film Festival

The Ornithologist (Joāo Pedro Rodrigues, 2016) 

The 54th New York Film Festival was strong, maybe not as strong as the 52nd, but strong nonetheless. I saw many good films and a few great films (A Quiet Passion and The Death of Louis XIV). Below you'll find a collection of pieces I wrote for Brooklyn Magazine, Desistfilm, and Hyperallergic:

Cilaos (Camilo Restrepo, 2016)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Drum (Keywan Karimi, 2016)

Drum (Keywan Karimi, 2016)
On October 13th, 2015, the Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced the Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Keywan Karimi to six years in prison and 223 lashes for “Writing on the City” (2015), a documentary short about the graffiti in Tehran from the 1979 Islamic Revolution to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Karimi appealed and had his sentence reduced to one year in prison, 223 lashes, and a fine of 20 million Rials (approximately 660 USD). The ruling is final. This form of capital punishment is reprehensible and an attack on freedom of expression. Many intellectuals, artists, and organizations decried this violent act of censorship. The SanSebastian Festival rejected the ruling. At Cannes this year, filmmakers and professionals signed a document written by the European Film Academy. It asked the Iranian authorities to grant Karimi clemency. To raise awareness, the Punto de Vista Festival asked filmmakers to make a short uttering one word for each of the 223 lashes. Agnès Varda, for instance, says "hope" in her video. And in a piece for Al Jezeera, Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi described a moving encounter with Karimi, saying the director “hails from the Kiarostami corner of our global visions of truth.”

As of now, Karimi is in a limbo state. He hasn’t been imprisoned yet, and he cannot leave the country. In effect, Karimi is under house arrest. Still, Keywan remains creative. Like Jafar Panahi, Karimi shot his first feature, Drum (2016), secretly in Tehran. It has the look and feel of a subterranean movie.

Drum opens with a low-angle shot. In it, a man with a limp drags himself along a narrow and desolate street. In his hands he cradles a package. He brushes past the few people who cross his path. As with the rest of the film, the scene is in stark black-and-white, and the post-sync sound is sharp. This beginning has the right amount of poetic abstraction that Karimi sustains for the rest of the film.

The noir-tinged story is deliberately thin. The limping man delivers the package to a washed-up lawyer. With the help of his friend, a junkie who talks to himself by whispering into his collar, they hide it. But mobsters come knocking, demanding the coveted package. When they murder his wife, the lawyer seeks revenge.

From this stock pulp story (adapted from Ali-Morad Fadaei-Nia’s eponymous book), Karimi creates a film sopping with atmosphere. Drum is a slow-burning mood piece with snaking camera movements that crawl backwards, diminishing the on-screen action that’s now taking place in the background. Its slow camera movement, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, and emphatic post-sync sound design, share a passing resemblance to Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Béla Tarr’s work. And aside from “The Adventures of a Married Couple” (2013), Drum is nothing quite like Karimi’s prior shorts.

None of the characters in Drum have a name, hence an identity. What reverberates is Tehran. Characters utter the name of the city throughout the film. Drum transforms Tehran into harsh lines and pools of light and darkness. It becomes a shadow world where one gets lost, but never found.

Movie in My Head: Bruce Conner and Beyond

A Movie (Bruce Conner, 1959)

For The Village Voice, I wrote a brief notice on the Museum of Modern Art's recent film series devoted to Bruce Conner.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Crude and Chaotic Art of “Strata-Cut” Claymation [On David Daniels]

Still from the 'acid trip' sequence in an episode of 'Gary and Mike' (2001)
For Hyperallergic, I take a look at a form of Claymation, 'Strata-Cut,' and the animator who pioneered it, David Daniels.

Matthew Barney: Facility of DECLINE

Still from Matthew Barney's AutoDRONE (1992) courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery

Matthew Barney's first New York show returns to the Barbara Gladstone Gallery (September 9th-October 22). I wrote a few words on it for The Village Voice.

David Holzman's Diary (Jim McBride, 1967)

For The Village Voice, I wrote a blurb on Jim McBride's seminal film. 

In the Country (Anders Jedenfors, 2014)

In the Country is a slick black-and-white, medium-length observational documentary. Anders Jedenfors follows the daily routines of a middle-aged Swedish couple. Lena and Gunvall Carlsson live in the country and, for the most part, have only each other for company. There’s plenty of dead time, which they fill listening to music, dancing, doing housework, cooking dinner. Lena and Gunvall chat, but the conversations are a bit facile; they remain on the surface. You sense an invisible barrier between the two. The first red flag that something’s amiss is that they sleep in separate beds in separate rooms. Later, in one of the film’s rare instances of a direct address, Lena tells Jedenfors why she sleeps alone. She says they have different sleep patterns. It sounds unconvincing. It’s not until film’s end that Jedenfors reveals why their relationship is chilly. It’s a kind of reveal that makes you reflect on everything that you saw leading up to it. And it’s also a reveal that’s inappropriate for such a documentary.

Shot on high-contrast film, In the Country looks polished, but also rough-hewn. Jedenfors pays careful attention to compositions. In long shots, he not only frames Lena or Gunvall, he also captures the space around them as well. Jedenfors will alternate these shots with extreme mobile-close ups, shooting inches away from bodies and faces. In fact, In the Country is a bit too composed. A pre-title, one-take traveling shot follows Lena from behind as she walks along a road, reaches her home, and shovels snow off her front door. It’s a calling card shot, indicating a film that asserts its formal bravado. It becomes questionable, even unbearable, when applied to the narrative structure. It’s a documentary that leads up to a reveal that drums up shock for an actual incident in this couple’s life. By basing the film around this reveal, Jedenfors uses it as an affective strategy to wake up the viewers. One person's gnawing pain, another's entertainment. Reducing it to a narrative shock tactic, In the Country doesn’t pay suffering the respect it deserves.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Go Down Death (Aaron Schimberg, 2013)

Go Down Death
Go Down Death is an analogue anomaly. An indie film with a stew of characters and events ripped from a fantastical folkloric Americana, it resembles a cross between Guy Maddin and Robert Crumb.

Filmed on grainy black-and-white 16mm stock, and shot within an abandoned paint factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Go Down Death has a ruined and artificial look. It’s remarkable that such a low-budget film seamlessly evokes photos from the 19th century.

No standard narrative arc and three-act structure to speak of, Go Down Death is a mishmash of vignettes set mainly in a Podunk brothel. It moves between a handful of characters that include: two “Mutt and Jeff” soldiers stranded in the woods, surrounded by birch trees; johns sharing post-coital chit chat with their prostitutes; and a boy named Butler, who just so happens to be the town’s gravedigger too.

The topic of conversation in these monologues and dialogues revolves around looming mortality. “Womb don’t rhyme with tomb for nothing,” one of the soldiers tells Butler, enticing him to enlist in the army because he’s guaranteed a grave. Although Schimberg borrowed the title from a 1944 Spencer Williams film, it was first the name of James Weldon Johnson’s funeral sermon. If not exchanging thoughts about inevitable death in hilariously dry scenes, they sing about it. Go Down Death is a cross-eyed musical as well. A cabaret performer sings the nightmarish “Too Young to Die,” in which the title is the only lyric, and it’s repeated endlessly.

Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle (2015) is a film with a similar budget that depicts the past with convincing results. Where that film deploys naturalism, Go Down Death uses artifice. It conjures half-recalled and imagined moments from the dustbin of American history. Go Down Death is fabulist folklorama.

Rita Azevedo Gomes' Amorous Atmosphere

Fragile as the World (Rita Azevedo Gomes, 2002)

For The Chiseler, I track a gesture that appears in a pair of films (Fragile as the World and A Woman's Revenge [2012]) by the under-appreciated Portuguese filmmaker, Rita Azevedo Gomes.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Dark in the White Light (Vimukthi Jayasundara, 2015)

Dark in the White Light

Dark in the White Light has something to do with death. Three men—a surgeon, an organ dealer, and a student—suffer and wander in the jungles of Sri Lanka. They are stark characters—mere figures in fact—in this contemplative and horrifying meditation on life, death, and the state between the two.

Dark in the White Light competed in the main slate at the 2015 Locarno Film Festival. Jayasundara rose to prominence when he won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for his first feature, The Forsaken Land (2005). Ever since then, he has been a staple of the festival circuit. Judging from Dark in the White Light, I can see why. The film uses long shot, long takes, the stock-in-trade of art house cinema. Jayasundara stands out by enlivening this default aesthetic. In bold shots, Jayasundara shows his knowledge of space and spatial relations, often staging action in the background. These shots draw attention to bodies that are raped, stabbed, hanged, burned, and beaten. By focusing on body trauma, Dark in the White Light threatens to become an art house miserablist film. It says little about violence, but shows a lot of it. A young Buddhist monk learns of an ever-present “Lord of Death.” It’s in the air. From scene to scene, you wait for death and his brother, violence, to make their inevitable appearances. Death and violence are as concrete and abstract as the film’s poetic title.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Autohead (Rohit Mittal, 2016)

Autohead (Rohit Mittal, 2016)

A micro-budget docu-fiction with a stress on the fiction, Autohead is Rohit Mittal’s first feature. A three-man film crew follows the daily life of Narayan (Deepat Sampat), an auto rickshaw driver in the slums of Mumbai. The crew documents a thirty-year-old man racked with sexual frustration, growing paranoia, and seething anger. And things only get worse from there.

Mittal shows promise with his first film. Autohead appropriates clichéd documentary grammar (handheld shots, direct addresses, editing in the middle of scenes, moments in which Narayan tells the crew to stop recording, etc.) to draw attention to cinema’s role with poverty and class conflict in India. In this way, and as inevitably mentioned by critics, Autohead is a blend of Man Bites Dog (1992) and Taxi Driver (1976). But Mittal’s film doesn’t have the former’s comic exaggeration nor the latter’s full-fledged urban expressionism. Nor should Autohead mirror these qualities exactly. It is its own film after all.

Autohead poses blunt social issues; it gushes forth from the dialogue. But what lingers in the mind after a few days away from the film is Sampat’s performance. A portrait is as good as its subject, and this is the case with Autohead. Captured in long takes, Sampat imbues Narayan as an enigmatic and protean figure. His behavior erratic, he changes from one scene to the next. He swaggers like a puffed up peacock, delighted by the attention he gets from the camera’s eye. He explodes when talking with customers or his mother. Narayan is an enigma who reveals his riddle by film’s end.