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.

We interrupt this broadcast...

A new era dawns on Mongrel Muse. Along with the usual posts, each week you’ll find fresh content published here. These will be curt, yet casual dispatches on new and new-ish indie and micro-budget films. They'll also focus on films traveling the festival circuit that haven’t gotten enough attention. I want to shine a light on movies that you should keep on your radar and seek out. The first entry is on Rohit Mittal’s debut feature, Autohead (2016), which got some buzz at last year's Film Bazaar.

Water Works: A Day in the Country

A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1936)

For Fandor, I wrote about water, a motif that runs throughout Jean Renoir's body of work, and reaches an apotheosis in A Day in the Country (1936).

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Chung Mong-hong: The Antics of a Graphic Sensibility

Soul (Chung Mong-hong, 2013)

For The Chiseler, I examine a handful of films made by Chung Mong-hong, a rising Taiwanese filmmaker on the festival circuit. Coincidentally, his latest film, Godspeed (2016) is set to make its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in a few weeks.

Show & Tell: John Wiese

John Wiese

As part of Anthology Film Archives' ongoing series, "Show & Tell," musician and sound artist John Wiese presented a program of his short films. My blurb on the program for The Village Voice.

The works featured in the program include:

  • Sissy Spacek (2011)
  • The Tenses with John Wiese (2014)
  • Untitled (2014)
  • Leather Bath (2013)
  • Sissy SpacekMatta Gallery (2014)
  • I Bet You Can't Finish That Glass of Water (2014)
  • Three Glass Bottles (2014)
  • A Specific Point in a Continuous Whole (2014)

Andrzej Żuławski: On the Silver Globe

On the Silver Globe (Andrzej Żuławski, 1988)

For The Village Voice, I wrote a blurb on one of cinema's great incomplete-complete films, Andrzej Żuławski's On the Silver Globe (1988).