Wednesday, October 12, 2005

VIFF: Police Beat, 13 Lakes, Low Profile, Beowulf and Grendel

So here I am on a day off, worrying that I'm coming down with something, feeling fatigued and weak: but I have time to write about films at the Festival, so I'm going to -- focusing only on the ones I've really liked.

Police Beat was a very interesting experience; it deals with an African man, Z., who gets a job with the Seattle police department as a bicycle cop, and we get to view the situations he has to deal with through his outsider’s view, which implicitly is of a man with more connection to family, government, society, the land than most of the people around him; he narrates in an African language, describing his own relationship worries and his sense of the strangeness of the things he is seeing (the things he witnesses – a man mutilating a goose for no apparent reason; a cyclist doing unsafe things on his bike then justifying his actions by complaining about George Bush, whom “someone ought to kill;” a deranged man wading out into the ocean, claiming sirens are calling to him; a woman high on cocaine running naked through a park; a woman complaining to the police because a dead tree branch fell on her – are all drawn from actual Seattle cases, and are shown as brief surreal sketches. Not at all like the crimes in a police thriller, they have almost no narrative impact; they just contribute to a growing sense of a society in disorder, with no moral stability, no centre). As things get stranger and his relationship with his (largely absent) girlfriend gets more complicated, Z., without being aware of it, starts to get drawn into the madness himself, starts to lose his own centre. I liked it and respected it – it has a darkly fascinating quality to it. Like many of the best films I've seen this week, it had an odd focus on water, with images of floating bodies and of Z rescuing the siren-lured man; there have been a lot of images of water in this years festival, though James Benning's Thirteen Lakes takes the cake for the most watery...

Speaking of which, I realize that I haven't yet written about Thirteen Lakes (or Ten Skies, Benning's other film at the fest; alas, when I saw it, it was screened without sound. I gather it's being used sometimes as an instillation at the lovely new venue, the Vancity Theatre. ) The film consists of thirteen ten-minute long static shots of thirteen American lakes -- Lake Winnebago, Lake Superior, Lake Okeechobee, the Salton Sea, others; the composition of each shot places the horizon at midscreen -- each one was filmed with the front two legs of the tripod in the water -- and all you see and most of what you hear are the lakes themselves, for 130 minutes. Benning, who had a friendly, solid, but quietly intense manner and long, grey hair, and who cites Robert Smithson as an influence, explained before the screening that, as an art teacher, he used to feel that you couldn't actually teach anyone to be an artist; when he turned 60, though, he "became arrogant" and decided that he would start trying to cultivate the skills of looking and listening -- of paying attention -- in his students, being to him the most important aspects of art. He would do things like drive them out to an oil field and drop them off, individually, for a ten mile walk through it (it had "elements of a P.E. class," too); they had no one to talk to, couldn't bring a Walkman, and were instructed to really observe what was going on around them, which they would then discuss when reunited. He would contrast this experience by then taking the students to a Native American sacred site up a mountain, and having them be attentive there. The film, he said, is basically the same thing -- a course in paying attention, "but without the ten mile walk;" and as the above exercise (contrasting a sacred site with an oil field) might suggest, is not without its environmentalist aspects. On the Salton Sea, we see people bombing around on jet skis, which, because we've already grown used to the sound of the lakes alone by that point, sound horrible and intrusive; at Crater Lake, we hear (though it wasn't entirely synch sound -- Benning recorded the sound at the lake, but shortly after he had stopped filming, deciding to use it no less) the sound of target practice -- which was "more than rude," he pointed out, because the land he was on belonged to Native Americans. A few of the other lakes bear witness to human presence; one is intersected by a bridge; a train passes in the soundtrack for another; at one point a ferry enters the screen from behind a rock and travels slowly by. Some of the signs of human presence were more intrusive than others -- particularly the jet ski guys -- and Benning, when I asked him about this, said that while the jet ski guys were annoying when they were on the water, they were really pleasant to him when they got off their jet skis ; "it's easy to be annoyed, but these are lower middle class guys who need an outlet" for their frustrations, "so they don't go home and shoot themselves." Benning also criticized himself; he drove his car over 10,000 miles to shoot the footage of the lakes, so how morally pure can he be? "I'm an environmentalist, but not one who knows how to behave." The film, in any event, was a beautiful experience. Unfortunately, even if it gets released on DVD, which is unlikely, it won't really translate to the small screen -- it would become a sort of virtual fireplace; it requires more respect than that.

A very different experience was had with Low Profile (the German title, Falscher Bekenner, means "False Confessor," a much more literal title). The film follows an alienated young man, Armin, as he looks for a job, tries to get a girlfriend, and deals with his upper-middle class, somewhat distant parents. The world of the film is grey and bleak and oppressive, with all feeling somewhat subdued; Armin, with a rich and disturbed interior world, apparently has a hard time connecting to anything around him, and instead pursues a fantasy life where he masochistically submits to fellating menacing motorcyclists, whose membership he eventually joins. His dark fantasies lead to him falsely confessing to a number of crimes, and eventually participating in some, which gives him an increasing sense of his own potency and strength (and pardoxically seems to help him have the confidence he needs to deal more successfully with the more mundane world around him -- for awhile, anyhow). Towards the film we are not always sure whether what we are seeing is in Armin's mind or in the world... The film subtly connects Armin's dark attraction to the taboo and transgressive with terrorism, and contains one absolutely brilliant sequence, which, much as I'd like to, I cannot allow myself to ruin for new viewers -- save for mentioning that it involves a bathtub (like I say, most of the best films this year seem to involve shots of water, tho' the polluted water of Armin's bath is probably the least appealing).

The Canadian/Icelandic/British co-production, Beowulf and Grendel, was a more conventional film, but also much more moving. It's odd watching a serious film with action sequences; I generally avoid movies wherein men clash swords, and am unaccustomed to seriously considering them, or indeed any film that deals with war, particularly if it involves themes of valour and honour and so forth. It's not that I'm immune to such things -- I sometimes brag that I wept during Rambo III, felt all the right things at all the right places; tho' of course I despised the Stallone film (which I saw at the insistence of a friend -- it needs justifying), I am sufficiently sincere in my surrender to cinema that it moved me regardless, and in fact I'm somewhat proud of this. Beowulf and Grendel deserves much more respect than Rambo III, of course, and does not belong on the shelf next to Braveheart or even Lord of the Rings, though I fear that it will be marketed thus. It modifies the original narrative somewhat -- the "trolls" of the film are nothing monstrous, merely outcast, "wild" humans, and there is probably more focus on contemporary political themes than appeared in the original (I suspect Sarah Polley's character is a radical departure from the poem -- which I haven't read since I was very young and only dimly remember; I'm considering reading the new Seamus Heaney translation). It's still, well, how to put it, a damned exciting movie? And I wept far more than during Rambo III. I suppose if I were to try to sell it to an artsy friend I would pitch the beauty of the photography and the lovely scenery -- which again, involves a lot of water.

I've seen other films I enjoyed -- in the program of Canadian shorts, Little Things, I was greatly entertained by a film called Hiro, about a Japanese insect collector caught up in an intrigue which is much, much larger than him (it opens and closes at the seaside; yet more water); and I was delighted to see the short by Andrea Dorfman, "There's a Flower in my Pedal," which had a wonderful rhythm to it. Certain shots of it remind me of a short I saw years ago at the now-defunct Blinding Light, involving girls, rings and superheroes; I always wondered who the filmmaker was, and now I suspect it might have been Dorfman. (I guess I should try to find Alex MacKenzie and ask him -- note that if you're reading this and have more money than I do, you should send some to Alex via the Blinding Light link above -- apparently they're still in debt, nearly three years after they closed). Featurewise, I watched Claire Denis' The Intruder, as well -- also a very watery film, following a man who appears to be some sort of retired cold war spook as he organizes heart surgery and sets about securing a legacy for his sons. The film leaves one with the feeling of having seen a complete and coherent work of art, but a fair number of narrative issues remain unresolved and enigmatic, at least at the end of the first viewing, and it leaves one at least a little dissatisfied, unsure of what has been seen... Again, I suspect I'd pitch this at friends on the strength of Agnes Godard's cinemaphotography. There are lovely shots of the French alps, in particular; I'm a sucker for mist in trees. An odd number of dogs in the film, too... but I like dogs...

Anyhow, these have been the high points of the festival so far, neverminding previous films. Time to check to see what I'm going to see today -- Heading South and The Prince Contemplating His Soul are definitely on the list.


Mathew Englander said...

Great reviews! I also thought Police Beat was fascinating. I’m thinking of watching it a second time tomorrow, unless I go to 4. I'm also deciding among Pavee Lackeen, Horloge Biologique, and Paradise Now (schedule allows for any two of those three). My blog has my reaction to most of the films I saw at VIFF and TIFF.

ammacinn said...

Matthew -

Thanks! I'll look at your blog tomorrow -- it's bedtime as I write this; I just got in from the late show of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, the only non-VIFF film I'll be seeing this week (it's a very interesting film, particularly given the fineness of the line Cronenberg walks in it). It was nice to finally have an excuse to go to the Paramount, which is about as soulful and art-loving an environment as your average airport; I suspected it would be, but I've been curious. The screens and the design of the auditorium are okay, tho' the seats are below average even for a barn like that. I'll be at THE GIANT BUDDHAS tomorrow and PARADISE NOW on Friday... I'll explore your blog and leave further comments there. Cheers!