Lots of films the past few days, so let's get to it.
Le Temps qui reste by François Ozon
This film was a lovely meditation on death and dying, and on the art of saying goodbye. In typical Ozon fashion, the lyrical moments contain an almost dream-like quality but are tempered by some subtle performances by the leads, especially Melvil Poupaud as the hipster photographer who learns that he only has a short time to live. The film deals directly with the act of reconciling one's self to the world, about memory and preservation of memory, and despite a truly unbelieveable plot twist which arrives out of nowehere and feels totally unearned, the film overcomes its shortcomings and by the time the sun sets on the film's amazing final shot, everything is as it should be. Despite the film's pleasures, Ozon seems to be getting stuck in some sort of rut, with Under The Sand, 5X2 and this film all feeling like variations on a theme, but none a complete masterwork. They all feel like Ozon films, but none (save Swimming Pool) has the depth of story you'd expect as Ozon's mastery matures; despite all the heavy situations and loss, somehow his films feel lighter than they should.
Take a Picture, It'll Last Longer: Melvil Poupaud in François Ozon's Le Temps qui reste
Angel by Jim McKay
McKay's latest film, about a troubled teen and the social worker who seeks to help him get through his teen years on the mean streets of New York City, is at once a formal experiment in adapting the tonal and visual language of Eurpoean cinema to an American film, and a bizarre miscalculation in storytelling that leaves the film feeling hollow. Instead of McKay's usual stories of young people in trouble, Angel tries as hard as it can to convey a familiar slice of life realism, but its formal techniques and lingering, dialogue-free shots do not carry any dramatic weight. Instead, we are left to wonder not what Nicole (Rachel Griffiths) is thinking and feeling as the camera remains trained on her after the scene seems over, but why McKay has decided to stay there with her for 5 more minutes as she pours a bowl of cereal and eats it. I am no critic of slow, well-paced scenes that convey the weight of the drama being presented, but in Angel there is no there there. Where is the story? I can't imagine there is no formal idea at play behind the long takes, but I don't think the film adequately converys what that idea is and instead of drama, Angel feels like killing time.
The rest of the day, I walked into and out of Bam Bam and Celeste of which I was not a fan, Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War which had a great deal of beauty and visual energy but whose story left me baffled. I think the film presumes a shorthand knowledge of what the Yokai legends are and I had no idea, so I am not sure how this film would play outside of Japan (or maybe it's just me). Next, I was off to John Turturro's absolutely bizarrre Romance and Cigarettes and after 10 minutes, I was not able to take any more as the projection was so loud, the film so strange, that I felt driven from my seat (as in physically compelled to get up and get out of there). I can't comment on the film because I would like to watch it through and figure out what about it drove me so nuts; was it James Gandolfini reciting Charles Bukowski, the singing of pop songs by characters in musical sequences that made no visual or dramatic sense, or the constant bickering among the characters and their use of obscenities in strange contexts that made everything feel cheaply made and written by someone on LSD? Like I said, I haven't seen the whole thing, but I have never seen a film so all over the place in my entire life. And that was only 10 minutes. This being a film festival, I then headed out with friends for the night.
After the previous day's minor disappointments, Thursday's many pleasures felt like a revitalization.
Drawing Restraint 9 by Matthew Barney
Ok. It is hard to describe my affection for Matthew Barney's films without feeling like a complete pretentious asshole and the film's official description doesn't make things easier;
"Its core idea is the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity, a theme it symbolically tracks through the construction and transformation of a vast sculpture of liquid vaseline, called 'The Field', which is molded, poured, bisected and reformed on the deck of the ship over the course of the film. Barriers hold form in place, and when they are removed, the film tracks the descent of form into states of sensual surrender and formal atrophy; this shift in the physical state of the sculpture is symbolically mirrored through the narrative of The Guests, two occidental visitors to the ship played in the film by Matthew Barney and Björk, who we first see taken on board, groomed, bathed and dressed in mammal fur costumes based upon traditional Shinto marriage costumes. In a harrowing liebestod which is the climax and centerpiece of the film, the Guests, locked in an embrace and breathing through blowhole-like orifices on the back of their necks, take out flensing knives and cut away each other's feet and thighs. The remains of their lower body are revealed to contain traces of whale tails at an early stage of development, suggesting rebirth, physical transformation, and the possibility of new forms."
Um, yeah. Actually, despite whatever internal defense mechanism is triggered by that description (how can your bullshit-o-meter not go off?), the preceding paragraph does accurately describe the film's "story" but in no way captures the visual thrills and thematic repetitions that, somehow and someway, drive me to fits ecstatic curiosity. Despite being best known for his photography and sculptural work, Barney is an amazingly consistent filmmaker. So consistent, in fact, that his previous Cremaster films seem like a single, extended meditation on art, life, and lots of white goo (ok, it's petroleum jelly). Drawing Restraint 9 continues on the path laid by the Cremasters if not in setting (the new film takes place in Japan and on a Japanese whaler), then certainly in its sumputous representation of ritualized action and its trademark camera work and sound design. Barney's long, slow tracking shots and his camera, constantly zooming and pulling out in precise patterns that will be familiar to Cremaster fans, are things of wonder. While my earlier complaint about a lack of an artisitic idea in Jim McKay's Angel and the nonsensical aesthetic on display in John Turturro's Romance and Cigarettes may seem contradictory to this point, I have to say that Barney's style and dramatic structure are so well organized and constructed, so rigorous, that it makes up for the pretension on display in his films. Watching his kilt-clad figure scale the interior of the Guggenheim Museum in Cremaster 3 was some of the most thrilling moviemaking I've ever seen, and despite his bizarre logic, Barney's ideas come across as if he is creating an entire cosmology; every film is a new sphere to be explored and discovered. There is a fierce, masterly intelligence at play in this film, and while I have no idea how these big budget films get made when they have absolutely no commercial appeal, there is something about the scale and ambition on display here, a rejection of the commercial model wherein box-office means absolutely nothing and ideas are everything. Anyway, Barney and Björk are excellent in their almost silent parts, and their "wedding" ceremony (wherein they cut off each other's feet and legs in a room filling up with petroleum) made all the other marriage movies seem a bit easier in retrospect. There are lovely moments in the rituals, including a Matthew Barney bachelor party, where, with Barney asleep on the floor, a man comes in and shaves a strip of hair off of the top of his head, removes his eyebrows with hair clippers, and leaves a can of Asahi next to the sleeping Barney. Good times! Let me end on this note: I know somewhere in the Sea of Japan, there is a ship full of very confused sailors who have no idea what the hell Drawing Restraint 9 is about. That doesn't stop it from being beautiful and compelling, and I really liked this film as a start to my day.
From there, it was a quick cab ride to the Paramount Theaters for Larry Clark's low-budget homage to Latino punks in present day Los Angeles, Wassup Rockers?. As a teen, I was hugely influenced by watching Penelope Spheeris' LA punk films Suburbia and The Decline of Western Civilization and Wassup Rockers? feels like a direct descendent of those early, amazing films; it is funny, honest, full of real-life punk rockers and great music. About an hour and half in, I had to remind myself that I was watching a Larry Clark film; gone are the (in my opinion) confused exploitations of beautiful young boys and girls, gone is fetishzed nudity, and in their place is a real affection for and belief in the importance of these boy's lives. The story of the film starts off like Kids-era Clark, following the lives of a group of skateboarding friends as they make their way from impoverished, adult-free homes to school where they are ostracized for not being into the hip-hop lifestyle. But when the boys decide to take the bus to Beverly Hills so they can skate, the film suddenly shifts into a Warriors-like story of innocent punks on the run, simply trying to get home and finding nothing but trouble. There are some amazing scenes in this film that literally thrilled me; the boys' band rehearsal, where the beautiful Johnathan (Jonathan Velasquez) screams a song in english over the thunderous punk rock music, the scene between one of the boys and his Beverly Hills crush, talking about the violence the boys face in the ghetto, and a great scene where the boys try dangerous and very very painful skateboard tricks before being stopped by a racist police officer. There is a big heart on display in Wassup Rockers? that comples me to re-visit Clark's earlier films and re-think them; maybe it's been there all along. Regardless, there is no wya this film should not find an arthouse audience. It is amateur, shot on a film stock that makes the film scream "1980's", but it is a really wonderful, unexpectedly poignant exploration of identity and friendship among these boys. I will be begging someone for this film for my festival, I can tell you that much.
Finally, the day brought me to Tsai Ming-Liang's The Wayward Cloud. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner for the most misunderstood, wonderful movie of the year. How did this film receive such a negative response? I'll be bold enough to say, right now, the world is wrong; The Wayward Cloud is a masterpiece.
Mmmmmelons: Chen Shiang-chyi knows what she wants in Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Clouyd
There must be some sort of prudish conspiracy working its way through critical circles, but just as I suspected, Tsai is the perfect director for this story about unfulfilled desire between a porn actor and the unsuspecting woman who loves him. There is a great deal of graphic sex in the film, but almost all of it (save for the film's devastating climactic scene) is played as slapstick; When Tsai was at the 2003 NYFF with What Time Is It There? he mentioned in his press conference that he would be making a "Buster Keaton-esque comedy", well, this is it. The film is an inversion of The Hole (which detailed a flood in Taipei, The Wayward Cloud deals with a drought), where, instead of desire unleashed by a torrential rain, desire is bottled up (literally) and expressed through some wonderful musical numbers (at which, if you're reading this John Turturro, you should takle a look). While the characters never speak of their desire for one another, they instead harbor it in a wonderfully symbolic way; ripe watermelon becomes the vessel in which desire literally is contained. There are some great visual gags; A crew shooting a porn scene in a shower with no running water, a sex scene with a watermelon that will forever change my idea of that fruit, and the musical pieces are a lot of fun. All of this play and unspoken desire comes to a screeching halt in the final 10 minutes of the film, where the empty, deadening realities of pornography and its impact on intimacy are expressed in as fiendish a scene as you could imagine; Tsai has outdone himself. One would never expect the film's final two shots, and the devastation they impose on the characters is so powerful, and held so long in a post-coital stare down, that I found myself on the verge of tears. If sex is comedy, Tsai has found the perfect tragi-comic balance to make The Wayward Cloud, poignant, powerful and a must-see for all fans. More on this film, and its baffling exclusion from the NYFF, in coming posts.
Off to see Scorsese's Bob Dylan biography, then back to NYC tomorrow. I will post more later, but as my TIFF winds down, I think I have seen greatness a few times, but I will always remember this as the year of The Wayward Cloud.