Tuesday, October 05, 2010

VIFF: ten films, ten reactions

Psychohydrography: I wonder who thought to compare this to the work of James Benning? Benning - whose Ruhr screens this VIFF - makes quite formally disciplined films; I would describe them as austere and minimalist, except that, by restraining his cinematic mechanism in the extreme - using static shots that, in his film days, often lasted as long as a can of film did (and which can last even longer now that he's moved to video), he creates something overwhelmingly rich and perceptually rewarding, asking you to LOOK, to LISTEN, to PAY ATTENTION with all the intensity of a Zen master. Psychohydrography, by comparison, tricks up its images - granted, they're mostly of water, as with Benning's 13 Lakes - with a diverse and incoherent bag of video gimmicks, from time lapse photography to animation to I-dunno-what, such that it looks at times like a higher-tech version of an NFB experiment from the 1960's. Benning gets his audience to do the work, and rewards them abundantly; Psychohydrography, despite the odd beautiful image, has far less faith that we can manage unassisted, and is almost offensive in how much it tries to do for us - I kept wishing it would get out of its own way, since I would have been moved by some of its images without all the visual jazz overlay. The sound of the water running, for the most part, was undistorted, so I watched many of its sequences with my eyes closed.

Rejoice and Shout: this is not a history of gospel music, but a history of black American gospel; those of you interested in the equally musically interesting, predominantly white American forms like Sacred Harp singing will be disappointed, since - though some Sacred Harp singing creeps into the soundtrack - it is entirely untreated by the film. Which would be fine, really - African-American gospel traditions are rich enough to sustain a documentary - but Rejoice and Shout does seem to suffer from its narrowness of focus, using a noticeably small handful of interview subjects (including Mavis Staples, who gave a well-attended concert in Vancouver a few years back as part of the jazzfest) and centering on the life stories of the major players in the form, rather than the meaning of the songs, their musical properties, their histories, or such. A bit more talk of God than I needed, though I guess it's appropriate - I come to this music from an entirely secular background, but obviously its proponents don't. Some excellent archival footage and terrific musical performances made it of interest, no less.

Pinoy Sunday: one of the more charming films I saw, this one is about two Filipino migrant workers in Taiwan whose ambitions, hopes and dreams become symbolized by an abandoned sofa that they decide to carry back to the compound where they stay. It will please people who like Jim Jarmusch's "outsider" movies and/ or who enjoyed the Canadian film Heater (the only other "road movie" I'm aware of where the protagonists mostly walk). I didn't care for the performance piece that serves as the film's climax, which gets a little too extroverted and cheerful, given the tone of the rest of the movie, but overall was moved by it. One of two films I saw set in Taiwan, both of which involve girls who work in betel nut stands. I have no idea what betel nut stands are about.

5 Variations On A Long String and The Invention of Dr. Nakamats: two fascinating documentaries, billed together. I greatly enjoyed Ellen Fullman's performance at the Western Front a few years ago, but wish that I could have seen it with the eye of this camera, since 5 Variations... has lots of closeup images of Fullman's hands as she plays. Her music is beautiful and so is the documentary. The Invention of Dr. Namamats, meanwhile, is a hilarious look at a Japanese inventor, Yoshiro Nakamatsu, who ranks himself with Edison and Tesla and apparently has some 3300 patents. The film presents him as a quirky, overwhelming egomaniac and eccentric, which may do him an injustice - since he's obviously brimming over with ideas and creativity - but he's so over-the-top in his self-praising, and so utterly bonkers in some of his beliefs - like how he can best achieve ideas for new inventions by nearly drowning himself - that it is hard to imagine the film any other way (though perhaps trying to see him through the eyes of his family might be an angle; they seem horrified to have to play along with his excesses on camera). An utterly unique portrait of an utterly unique Japanese. These two films together made for the most entertaining VIFF screening I attended.

Of Love and Other Demons: visually sumptuous, with the grace and simplicity of a folktale, this Gabriel Garcia Marquez adaptation involves a young woman, bitten by a dog that may have been rabid, who is treated as if possessed by a demon; locked away in a convent, she is cared for by a young priest - shades of Antonin Artaud in The Passion of Joan of Arc - who comes to love her and rebel against the conservative, image-obsessed, and not wholly rational church. Unfortunately, for all its striking images - long red hair bejewelled with insects, a candle that burns underwater - the film somehow doesn't have much of an emotional impact; we watch its characters and their tragic arc at too great an aesthetic remove. I liked it, but wanted to like it more.

Cold Fish: an amazing Japanese film, sure to get attention, I saw it simply because it is based on a crime that took place in the prefecture where I lived and worked in Japan, Saitama-ken - though the film relocates the story to a Shizuoka, perhaps just so it can give us the odd glimpse of iconic ol' Mt. Fuji. Like The Invention of Dr. Nakamats, this film shows the inverse of the public image the Japanese prefer; while they're best known as being a polite, cooperative, restrained, careful, and refined nation, there is also, in their character, a capacity for vanity, narcissism, egomania, eccentricity, and excess, symbolized within this film by the character of Murata, a larger than life fish shop owner (played by former comedian Denden, who also had a role in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure) who takes total command of the family of a rival - a milquetoast eunuch of a man who lacks the respect of either his wife or daughter and has almost no capacity to assert himself. The less you know about this film before seeing it, the better, but you should be warned that, though it plays as a comedy for most of its length, it's also the bloodiest, goriest, most disturbingly violent Japanese film I've seen since Kichiku Dai Enkai (the capacity for and fascination with excessive violence is another one of those Japanese character traits that don't get a lot of publicity). Though some of the violence actually disturbed me - and I have a pretty strong stomach - I think I recommend seeing this. Miike's Visitor Q is also, perhaps, a relevant reference point... Hopefully it will screen again.

R U There: a mood piece involving a young Dutchman, in Taiwan for a video game tournament, who is unsettled by an accident he witnesses and moved to connect to the country and people around him, I was skeptical that this film would - like, say, Gus van Sant's embarrassing Paranoid Park did with skateboarders - offer a too-preachy view of gamers and the virtual world (a "these kids today..." movie, tsk tsking at how alienated its characters are). Instead, a goodly portion of the film is spent hanging out in Second Life, where our lead's inner transformations are made most visible. A moving, intriguing piece of cinema... and by the way, this is the other "betel nut girl" movie. I must read up on betel nut.

The Infidel: a comedy about a British Muslim slob who discovers in the same week that he's to be related by marriage to a fanatic Pakistani cleric and that he's actually Jewish, this seemed a really promising - and really funny - film. Sadly, though this packed what I believe is the largest of the VIFF's theatres, the Visa Screening Room, and was clearly delighting the audience, after the first few reels, it had been spliced together incorrectly, so that the film ran upside-down and backwards. This was entertaining in its own way for awhile but a poor substitute for the real thing. Vouchers were issued; the film, assuming its been fixed, screens again this afternoon and on October 11th, but I won't be able to make it. Let's hope it gets distributed.

Barney's Version: a great performance by Paul Giamatti anchors this Mordecai Richler adaptation - funny, warm and smart. Light fare, but highly enjoyable.

Crossing The Mountain: the theatre had no air conditioning. After half an hour, the movie had no discernable structure. It was either walk out, or start snoring. I walked out.

8 comments:

ammacinn said...

Betel nut girls discussed here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betel_nut_beauty

Anonymous said...

Allan, some questions: because Psychohydrography wasn't a James Benning film, it was a failure? Was there no merit to the film, or were you more upset that you thought you were going to see a James Benning film, and it turned out not to be one after all? Also, shouldn't there be room for evolution within the genre? What are filmmakers to do if they can only mimic their predecessors?

ammacinn said...

Bear in mind that I didn't make the inital comparison between the film and Benning - the VIFF catalogue did. Perhaps, if I saw the film without having been thus cued beforehand, I would have had a different response - I cannot say, but having been set up, I found myself noticing contrasts, more than similarities, between Benning's aesthetic and the one on display here. Part of my irritation, true, is with the comparison in the first place, and not with the film - because like I say, other than the fact that this film, like some of Benning's, has static shots of water and landscapes, formally, they couldn't be more different. I don't even concede that this is an "evolution" of Benning's style, since taking a so-to-speak minimalist approach (or "contemplative," "Zen," or call it what you will) centred on long, quiet, relatively un-manipulated meditative takes and then overlaying it with video effects and relatively rapid cuts is not an "evolution" of minimalism in any sense - it is simply no longer minimalism, but something else. KOYAANISQATSI?

...but regardless of Benning and his aesthetic, I think my comment that PSYCHOHYDROGRAPHY is far too gimmicked-up, busily trying to make its subject matter interesting, when it would have achieved more by just quieting down and observing, stands on its own, and that I would have found myself agitated by the "bag o' tricks approach" on display no matter who I was cued at the outset to compare it to. I found the fast-forward video effects and the manipulation of the images unnecessary and distracting, rather than enlightening; in looking at a film comprised largely of images of water, I'd really rather just see the water, which requires no artifice to be beautiful. The few landscapes that did move me and would have been enjoyable to contemplate were whisked away within minutes and replaced with something else, often again with overlaid artifice. I mean, yeah, sure, maybe if I saw it through fresh eyes, I would feel differently... but frankly, I'd rather just go watch some water.

michel s. said...

I think it might surprise people how much pre and post production manipulation Benning does himself with his work. Although he wants to give the viewer the impression that his films are something more akin to a static version of Direct Cinema, often the opposite is true.

On Ruhr, for instance, pre-production played a large part in the Richard Serra shot. Cleaning of the piece was halted, and then rescheduled to coincide with Benning's travel to the area. Benning even selected certain parts of the piece to be cleaned up beforehand in order to control the desired composition. The beginning tunnel shot had pieces of litter edited out, and only certain cars were chosen to be shown driving through. The final shot was accelerated into darkness quicker through post-production. The end result, of course, is not to make you aware of these changes, but instead to push you into a space where everything seems to have extra significance. Because you may only see one piece of trash move in the tunnel, it gains a special quality. The distractions aren't there, but to say that Benning has simply gone into nature and watched carefully and observed to compose his pieces would be incorrect.

It is interesting that you bring up Koyaanisqatsi as I believe it is also mentioned in the VIFF write-up for Psychohydrography. I disagree with this comparison. Although both films rely on quicker editing for rhythm, Koyaanisqatsi seems to want to be about everything, while Psychohydrography focuses only on the modern cycle of water in southern California. Psychohydrography revolves around a very specific environment, while Koyaanisqatsi mixes conventional forms of shooting about anything with its anthropocentric time-lapse footage. As for being "gimmicked-up," I have another question for you. What is more gimmicky: multiple "bag o' tricks" video techniques scrambled together, or a didactic, 9/11-esque, hour long ending shot that must be manipulated in post production to give its desired effect? I could make a case for either. Again, "quieting down and observing" is one way to approach the world, and that seems to be tread quite thoroughly through Benning's, Dorsky's, and Lockhart's films. I can only hope that people watching avant-garde cinema will attempt to keep an open mind to new ideas in a dynamic medium.

michel s. said...

I think it might surprise people how much pre and post production manipulation Benning does himself with his work. Although he wants to give the viewer the impression that his films are something more akin to a static version of Direct Cinema, often the opposite is true.

On Ruhr, for instance, pre-production played a large part in the Richard Serra shot. Cleaning of the piece was halted, and then rescheduled to coincide with Benning's travel to the area. Benning even selected certain parts of the piece to be cleaned up beforehand in order to control the desired composition. The beginning tunnel shot had pieces of litter edited out, and only certain cars were chosen to be shown driving through. The final shot was accelerated into darkness quicker through post-production. The end result, of course, is not to make you aware of these changes, but instead to push you into a space where everything seems to have extra significance. Because you may only see one piece of trash move in the tunnel, it gains a special quality. The distractions aren't there, but to say that Benning has simply gone into nature and watched carefully and observed to compose his pieces would be incorrect.

michel s. said...

It is interesting that you bring up Koyaanisqatsi as I believe it is also mentioned in the VIFF write-up for Psychohydrography. I disagree with this comparison. Although both films rely on quicker editing for rhythm, Koyaanisqatsi seems to want to be about everything, while Psychohydrography focuses only on the modern cycle of water in southern California. Psychohydrography revolves around a very specific environment, while Koyaanisqatsi mixes conventional forms of shooting about anything with its anthropocentric time-lapse footage. As for being "gimmicked-up," I have another question for you. What is more gimmicky: multiple "bag o' tricks" video techniques scrambled together, or a didactic, 9/11-esque, hour long ending shot that must be manipulated in post production to give its desired effect? I could make a case for either. Again, "quieting down and observing" is one way to approach the world, and that seems to be tread quite thoroughly through Benning's, Dorsky's, and Lockhart's films. I can only hope that people watching avant-garde cinema will attempt to keep an open mind to new ideas in a dynamic medium.

ammacinn said...

An anecdote re: Benning's post-production - I remember seeing 13 Lakes at the VIFF a few years ago, and Benning, answering questions after the screening, told the viewers that he had altered the soundtrack: one of the sequences of the film is accompanied by the sound of a passing train, which we hear approach, pass by, and fade. Benning, as I recall, revealed that in fact the train had passed by some minutes after his can of film had run out, but he'd made an audio recording of the train, and, since it was recorded at the same location and was roughly the same length as the shot in question, decided to synch them together. When he revealed this, some fellow in the audience - not me! - was outraged, and pretty much accused Benning of betraying his own principles, as this audience member had intuited them... Benning, as I recall, responded that he saw himself under no such constraints to "just" observe, that he saw himself as an artist, free to alter things as he saw fit for the desired effect... This is a rough paraphrase based on something that happened several years ago, mind you...

But anyhow, yes, much of what you say is true, tho' it doesn't change my reactions to the film in question. Really, I have nothing else to add to the discussion - just wanted to offer that anecdote, since it was relevant.

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