Monday, September 29, 2008

VIFF high-points, continued: RR, Ballast, and... JCVD?

Wow: three of the most impressive films in this year’s VIFF are actually covered in a single issue (#34) of CinemaScope (edited by the VIFF’s Mark Peranson). There are interviews with Lance Hammer (Ballast), James Benning (RR), and Wakamatsu Koji (United Red Army - see below; it plays again at the Empire Granville theatres tonight at 9PM). Glad I picked this mag up when it came out - since I had no idea that I would be interested in Wakamatsu's latest or in Hammer's film at the time. For the record, Benning's interview with Peranson is online here; Tom Charity's interview with Lance Hammer is here.

RR - Benning jokes that he prefers to render that when speaking as Railroad, since RR “sounds like a pirate movie” - is a film I enthusiastically recommend to anyone involved in either visual or sound art; in particular, the noise musicians and Soundwalkers of Vancouver really should go see it on Thursday, when it plays again. The newest film - and, I gather, likely the last to be shot on 16mm - by American experimental filmmaker James Benning (bio here), whose 13 Lakes I still rave about - it’s basically two hours of looking at and listening to trains (43 of them, in total, shot from fixed cameras) and their environment (often the American landscape - there are no shots of passenger trains in cities, for instance). The sound is largely natural, as recorded on location, though bits of “aural commentary” are added to certain sequences, such as Eisenhower’s famous speech about the dangers of the military industrial complex, which accompanies one train midway through the film. Shots begin when Benning - who would choose his angle and set up his camera with no particular permission or fanfare and wait - hears the train approach, and end when the train is out of sight (alas, sometimes cutting off the last lingering echoes of the sound, which a couple of people I've spoken to found disappointing). There are various surprises in the film - both in terms of sound and image, and even one sequence that prompted several viewers to laugh out loud. (Another sent me, and apparently only me, into near-hysterical paroxysms, which I stifled to the best of my ability - both hands clamped to my face - lest I disturb other viewers who might have been experiencing the film their own way; I won’t tell you what it is, lest I rob you of anything). Though the compositions are lovely and at times rich with meaning, I mean it as the highest compliment to Benning to say that at various points I was compelled to watch RR with my eyes closed, to better appreciate the sound, which is astonishing. Anyone interested in ambient soundscapes and field recordings owes it to him-or-herself to see this film! (People concerned with our imprint on the environment - fans of Burtynsky, say - would likely find it compelling, as well).

Oh: but stay home if you have a cold, and for god’s sake don’t buy popcorn. This is a quiet, trance-inducing experience. Smoking a joint before going in, on the other hand, might just be a great idea.

Hammer’s Ballast (official site here) plays as a quiet, deeply moving meditation on human emotion, telling an at times painful, often suspenseful and harrowing, and quite moving story of three people struggling to find their way in the wake of a suicide. Somewhat surprisingly, given how powerful the human elements are in the film, like Benning, Hammer is also very interested in place; the genesis of the film, he explained to VIFF attendees in a post-screening Q&A, was inspired by the “sadness of the Mississippi Delta,” and a desire to convey the tone of the place in winter - considerations which shaped the narrative itself, he says (I paraphrase, since there’s only so fast a man can scribble during a Q&A). Unlike RR, there is absolutely no extraneous music added to shots, since Hammer didn’t want to “contaminate” the sounds of the Delta. Further, the film is cast with non-professionals that were from the region where it was filmed, and selected over a long casting process (“working with non-professional actors is 100% about choosing,” Hammer told us). Scenes were workshopped with the actors in a rather unique way; they knew their character’s backstory, but not what was to happen to them, since as human beings we don’t know this, either; actors never saw the script. The VIFF guide sites the Dardennes (L’Enfant) and Ken Loach as filmic points of reference; I personally was reminded at times of Lars von Trier, without the snideness or sadism. I was considering asking Hammer about other influences, but he volunteered in answering someone else’s question that “Bresson is the only one that matters,” which should excite some of you. Ballast is a must-see, though its run at the VIFF appears to be over. There may be added screenings, and I have no doubt the film will get a theatrical release, so keep your eyes and ears open.

I’ve tried several other films, including a few less serious. Religulous, soon to begin its theatrical run here, is very smart and a lot of fun, though, I think, not particularly instructive, and morally somewhat suspect; it mostly amounts to Bill Maher inviting us to laugh at stupid people, or in this case, stupid religious people, which, among other things, is not that much of an accomplishment. It’s not surprising that Borat’s Larry Charles was involved, since blindsiding people and making them look very, very bad is part of the film’s MO; even religious figures interviewed who seem surprisingly lucid and self-critical are made to look idiotic through the editing, played for the cheapest chuckles around. I suppose that the ends - calling into question the value of organized religion - may justify the means to the filmmakers, and there is a certain degree of liberation felt in dispensing with the need to be nice and to say that a great deal of what people do, say, think, and believe in the name of religion is utter happy horseshit. It was only towards the end of the film that I realized that there wasn’t much meat to what I’d seen - no serious consideration of why religion so often serves as a destructive force, why it has such a huge place in American political life, or whether there is “another” side to the coin - which might have come if Charles and Maher interviewed people like Daniel Berrigan, say. It’s just as well, given the viciousness with which they mock people, that they didn’t. I enjoyed the experience of watching this film, and laughed aloud several times, but afterwards neither particularly respected it, nor myself, for having played along.

JCVD, on the other hand - which I hope will be a huge international hit - I have nothing but praise for, and nothing to say about, save that you should go see it. I’m not sure how Jean Claude Van Damme fans will feel about the movie, which is a very sophisticated and clever meta-movie (as the VIFF programme says - their description is bang-on); I loved it, and may go to see it again. No, really. It's sort of Killing Zoe meets 8 1/2. Trailer here, hiliarious (meta-meta) teaser here.

And to briefly make clear that I’m not just saying good things about everything - The Fallen: A Silent Collapse, about corruption and criminal negligence in Mexico, is a serious and righteously angry film, and it will probably be of interest to union organisers and such, but as a layman and non-Spanish speaker, I must say that it relentlessly barrages one with so many names of Mexican corporations, politicians, and unions, and does such a piss-poor job of organizing its information for an outsider, that I’d consider it unwatchable outside of the country of Mexico... which is kind of funny, because the director, Rudy Joffroy, does not appear to be a Mexican. I walked out at the halfway mark, head hurting; part of it that it just wasn't the sort of film that I was in the mood for... but I'd stay clear of this film, unless the discription in the VIFF catalogue gets you really excited.

Mock Up on Mu, on the other hand, is just really fucking weird - arguably not a documentary at all, since it is comprised mainly of footage from fictional features and/or scenes shot with actors, and much of its premise is fictional (it begins with L. Ron Hubbard operating on a secret moonbase, trying to orchestrate a scheme involving Jack Parsons - who is not really dead - and Lockheed Martin). If you’re the type who has read bios of Jack Parsons - rocket scientist and ritual magician - and Hubbard, or the sort of viewer who will laugh when Forrest J. Ackerman’s name comes up, just to demonstrate loudly to the rest of the theatre that you know who Forry is and that you are in on the joke, then this film may be for you. Guy Maddin devotees might find it exciting formally, too, since there's something of his insanity present here (which I mean as praise). I considered sticking around for the Q&A so I could ask the first question of the director, Craig Baldwin, which I decided would have to be, “What the fuck was that?” But in the end I decided that I’d be better off going home and going to bed, and I walked out of that one, too... I'm not saying it isn't a great film, it's just... Jesus, I don't know. More on that film here.

Think I may take a break for the next couple of days and do some writing and laundry. Wendy and Lucy is coming soon!

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