By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall September 8, 2007 at 8:58AM
As many times as I try to remind myself that a film festival is a marathon and not a sprint, choices and professional obligations conspire to keep me going at top speed all of the time. I'm nowhere near fatigued yet, as I made a good decision by not socializing outside of the cinema last night, but after seven movies yesterday, my eyes still burn with the lingering visions of the images I had taken in. If there are twenty four frames per second, yesterday I saw 1,090,080 frames of film. No wonder my dreams seemed to flicker ever so slightly from behind my eyes.
The day was bookended by films I really liked; Kevin Macdonald's intriguing examination of Klaus Barbie's career in My Enemy's Enemy and Jason Reitman's terrific Juno (one for pleasure, always a good idea to keep things going) played as polar opposites, one in the morning and one before bed, that bracketed some regrettable choices and some modest successes. A lot of ink has been spilled on both of these films, and rightfully so as they were both very enjoyable, but one film I saw yesterday had me thinking long after I turned down the sheets and buried my head in the pillow.
Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' (Endless) played to a spare Press and Industry audience during its only P&I screening at 8:00 pm, but for those of us in the theater, what a delicious digestif after a day of the undercooked and somewhat bland. The film, which is Nemescu's only feature (he was killed in a car accident last summer while still in post-production on the film), won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival and for the screening to have been so lightly attended here, I certainly hope that most of the press and industry saw the film in France. I have since read some articles and comments that have compared Nemescu's work on the film to that of Emir Kusturica, but I don't see any of Kusterica's black pessimism here at all, and while California Dreamin' is an absurdist vision of international relations, a fantasy about holding the powerful accountable for their transgressions, the movie feels hilarious, generous and warm as opposed to that feeling you get when watching a Kusturica film that you're being subjected to a little bit of propaganda. Nemescu has no agenda here except to reject all claims to power and authority in the name of stolen kisses.
The plot, what there is of it, revolves a round an impossibly absurd scenario which, once you resign yourself to the impossibility of it, works like a charm in spite of itself; When a NATO train carrying radar equipment for the war in Bosnia pulls into a small Romanian village in 1999, the local station master named Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu) forces the train to stay put until "the proper customs papers arrive." This decision infuriates Captain Doug Jones (a hilarious Armand Assante), an American C.O. with a company of Marines who have little choice but to wait out the misunderstanding. And so, Nemescu uses the stranded soldiers, the corrupt station master, his beautiful daughter (a special mention here for the actress Maria Dinulescu, who is phenomenal in the film), the powerless small town mayor (12:08 East Of Bucharest's terrific Ion Sapdaru) and the helpless Marine commander to showcase his own vision of international relations between a small town and its superpower guests.
It's A Small World, After All: Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' (Endless) (© Marian Hanciarec)
And here, the film shines; A re-hashed celebration is planned, and the local girls and the Marines, unable to communicate with words, dance the night away to the music of a local Elvis impersonator, inspiring outrage and jealousy among the local lads. Meanwhile, bureaucrats in no hurry to resolve the situation, drink together and fax paperwork from office to office, passing the buck and washing their hands clean. Romances form, friendships are forged, and soon, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Nemescu uses the stasis of the situation to make his arsenal of cinematic tricks seem plausible; From flashbacks in black and white to magical realism, the film achieves its power from its good-natured use of a wide-array of techniques and the Director's vibrant humanism. While each character acts in a self serving way, Nemescu's film never points fingers, instead embracing the complexity of his character's motivations.
The film does, however, have a few flaws; Nemescu having died before post-production was completed, there must have been a sense of responsibility to put every idea in the script into the final film, and the movie ends up being too long by about a half an hour or so. The film never loses momentum, but the final third seems held together by a less rigorous understanding of the material than the middle third (and particularly the town celebration sequence) seems to indicate. That said, the movie shows more ideas and vibrancy in its flawed passages than most films do at all, and so while I was left thinking that a gentle tightening of the story could have made it into something transcendent, I was also grateful to see the Director's ideas on the screen, a fitting response to tragic events.
After the blissful reminder of the greatness that is coming out of Romania these days (can they make a bad film?), a late night treat of Jason Reitman's Juno was a perfect way to end my seven film day. As I said, this one is going to be written about ad nauseum because it is a very special little movie, but I did want to say that Reitman himself is to be praised (as is screenwriter Diablo Cody) for making a politics-free movie about the freedom of choice that never wags a single finger in any direction. What is so refreshing, aside from Ellen Page's fuss-free, star making turn as the titular teenager, is the film's decision to be funny while taking its characters and their feelings seriously; Which is to say, Juno is a movie that understands what it means to have a sense of humor. There isn't a mean-spirited frame in this film, not a single joke or crack is made by any character that they first wouldn't say about themselves and yet Juno still delivers big laughs because we care about these characters and their feelings. It is a rare talent that is able to embody a foul-mouthed teenager with such a deep-felt humanity (that word again), but Ellen Page's small frame and wide open face add a palpable sense of vulnerability to Juno that make her barrage of bon mots seem like little love letters spoken by a friend who cares too much to let you not "dream big". I am deeply out of touch with teen culture, but if people out there care as much about one another as they do in Juno, I think the kids will be alright. Again.
Time to run... Today's third screening awaits...