Wednesday, September 20, 2017

VIFF blogging commences! (plus belated Harry Dean Stanton obit)

(Note: this article has been greatly augmented since it first ran)

I am presently between jobs - the teaching gig I had was incorporated into the union and re-posted, so now I have to fight for it all over again. But my wife has hurt her foot, requiring me to double-down on my household duties, and I've had a couple of weeks' very productive writing while she is at work... so I am going to allow myself a bit more "time off" before I start farming out resumes. (Anyone looking for my skillset, which also includes editing, proofreading, teaching and tutoring, is welcome to seek out the "Contact" button on this page... I would prefer a lifetime position with great benefits, flexible hours, and lotsa holiday time that started at $40/ hour minimum, but, you know, I will probably have to settle for less than that...).

Anyhow, what the hell. Some very exciting stuff coming up this VIFF, and I have the time to take in a few films.

Bong Joon Ho's terrific Okja - which I've already written about on this blog, in a piece unambiguously entitled "I Love Okja" - is making a big-screen appearance in Vancouver. I am under the impression from a controversial Cannes screening that the Netflix original is not going to actually get theatrical distribution beyond festivals - which caused some to balk that it should compete in Cannes - so this will be a rare chance to see it projected with an audience. I recommend doing so: it's a terrific film, and will appeal to vegans, vegetarians, animal rights activists, and people concerned about GMO's - as well as to people who just like good stories (or Tilda Swinton, or Jake Gyllenhaal, who truly broadens his parameters for this role).

Co-written by Adrian Mack’s old roommate, Jon “The Men Who Stare at Goats” Ronson and Bong, it’s a fable about a giant GMO superpig raised for meat, who becomes the best friend of a Korean farm girl (An Seo Hyun), who must travel to America to save Okja from a drunken, morally compromised TV personality (Jake Gyllenhall, channeling Sacha Baron Cohen) and evil twin CEOs of a Monsanto-esque corpororation (both played with grotesque verve by Tilda Swinton). The girl - out of her depths but defiant - ends up aided by incompetent, bickering, but well-meaning animal rights activists, led by Paul Dano and “dead Glen” Stephen Yeun.

The film is rollicking and funny and touching, but be warned: it does arrive, inexorably, at a slaughterhouse (though fear not: any giant superpigs carved up therein are entirely CGI).

I was on hand when Bong visited the VIFF to introduce his 2006 monster movie The Host, impressing the hell out of a largely Korean audience, for whom he is roughly of the stature of Steven Spielberg. I am not sure if he'll be in attendance in person at the VIFF this year, or if he'll be answering questions by Skype, but VIFF audiences will have a chance to interact with him after the screening - a very cool opportunity indeed.

I actually have never seen the other Bong Joon Ho film that's screening, his 2003 breakout feature, Memories of Murder, which plays the Vancity Theatre this Saturday. It's a film my Korean students have often praised over the years, dealing with a lengthy, complex, and frustrating investigation into the real-life Hwaseong serial murders. We used to do, every third term, a class presentation on movies and Memories of Murder was right up there with Silmido, My Sassy Girl, and Welcome to Dongmakgol as a consensus favourite. (I have heard the story explained to me several times, which may be why I've never sat down to watch it; I will spare you that particular disservice).

Another doubtlessly fascinating film in the VIFF this year is Caniba, about Japanese cannibal-killer Sagawa Issei. I have not been able to see it yet, but anticipate great things. The directors are associated with Harvard Sensory Ethnography Labs; over the next day or two, I'll post an old interview I did with them about their previous VIFF entry, the immersive Go-Pro-shot fishing trawler documentary Leviathan (no relation to that Russian film of the same name that came out a couple years ago).

Sagawa's story  has actually been told before, in books, graphic novels, and, an one singularly unlikely place: the Rolling Stones’ song “Too Much Blood.”  Sagawa killed and ate a young woman he was sexually attracted to when studying in Paris in 1981. Through various bureaucratic screwups and string-pullings, Sagawa ended up free in Japan shortly thereafter, where he has attracted a certain degree of celebrity, as cannibals do, writing memoirs and occasionally complaining of loneliness.

Japanese coworkers of mine during my time there told me that Sagawa would occasionally appear on crime-themed TV shows, asked his insights into murder cases. And the story was that he’d appeared in a commercial for a steakhouse, though if it's true, that sure seems in, um… bad taste.The knowledge that Sagawa was roaming free in the same country as I was in was a little unsettling. Since he's complained of his isolation, it did occur to me that maybe he could strike up a correspondence with Canada's own recently freed cannibal killer, Vince Weiguang Li? I mean - who do you socialize with when your claim to fame is having killed and eaten someone? (Has he seen the Henry Rollins vehicle He Never Died, one wonders?). And how will this subject matter be treated by people associated with the immersive approaches of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography lab...?  

Speaking of ambitious documentaries in this year's VIFF, there is also Austrian/ German filmmaker Michael Glawogger's last film, Untitled, which he died while making. Glawogger has made some very well-received documentaries: Megacities, Workingman’s Death, Whore’s Glory. There’s also a fictional feature of his, Slumming, which graced the screens at a past VIFF, asking questions about class and privilege among globetrotting youth, intent on consuming exotic locales.

The centerpiece of Glawogger’s cinema for me is the footage of a Nigerian open-air slaughterhouse, captured in Workingman’s Death (2005). The film shows hellish working conditions worldwide - from unemployed Ukrainian miners scavenging coal from collapsed mines, which could crush them at any moment, to Indonesian workers walking up and down active volcanoes to harvest sulfur, which they carry down by hand in baskets. But the scenes in Nigeria are, I think I can say without qualification, the most powerful documentary footage I’ve glimpsed, in any film, ever… Small animals bleed out, choking on their own blood. Workers drag the heads and cattle of skin through the mud. Villagers barter over animals that they are considering buying - since, contrary to the neat plastic packages of meat you see over here, for Nigerians, Glawogger explains on the DVD commentar, it seems strange to eat meat from an animal you haven’t seen in life, before it was killed (what if it wasn’t healthy?).

The most remarkable thing about the sequence is how happy everyone seems. Glawogger shoots footage of workers singing, joking, and laughing as they kill, skin, and chop up their animals. It’s incredibly jarring. If the sheer lack of denial over death on display in the film isn’t enough to produce culture shock in you, you’re probably from Nigeria. Glawogger observes, again in the commentary, that while the footage seems a vision of hell, the fact that the workers are so well-adjusted and happy as they go about their business also suggests that hell perhaps is not such a bad place to be. (He also recommends playing the Rolling Stones' "Salt of the Earth" over the end credits: he couldn't afford the rights to the film but had always imagined that as the closing song).

Workingman's Death is truly a remarkable film, but it’s even more remarkable that VIFF audiences will have a chance to see a new Michael Glawogger film. Untitled may seem an odd title for a feature film, but it's not called that because the filmmaker died before it could be completed (he contracted an aggressive strain of malaria while shooting in Liberia). The opening narration, from a recording Glawogger made of himself, explains that this was always going to be the title of the film (which was finished by his long time editor Monika Willi, using footage Glawogger shot).

True to his globetrotting aesthetic, the film was intended to "never come to rest," to move from image to image and place to place, ceaselessly.As usual with Glawogger's cinema, the images are jarring and poetic, finding relief and perhaps a sort of redemption in the unfamiliar, from a one-legged African soccer match to a recurring motif - it's much more fascinating to see than to read about - of animals in transport. A sheep in a cage on the back of a truck is a lot more interesting to look at than it may sound. A garbage dump becomes a place of great activity and cinematic promise. Much of the film appears to have been shot in Eastern Europe and Africa, with images shown out of sequence, and unexplained. The film, my wife tells me, invaded her dreams the night we previewed it, such that she found herself amidst the film's landscapes; I was unsurprised to hear this.

If Port Moresby of Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky had become a documentary filmmaker, the result would surely be something like Untitled. The VIFF catalogue describes the piece as “a valediction on film—a gesture of love towards a troubled world.” It's also a scopophile's paradise.

It's not all documentaries that I'm excited about, of course. There's also the new film from Yorgos Lanthimos, whose The Lobster I loved and whose Dogtooth disturbed me; this film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, again features Colin Farrell, but expect something dark and surreal, not one of Farrell's more "Hollywood" roles. I thought The Lobster was  the best neo-Bunuelian movie I'd ever seen, in the vein of films - since there is more than one Bunuel - like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, except as applied to dating and romance. Dunno what it says about our relationship (or past experiences with dating), but Erika liked it a lot too (her parents sure didn't). I am excited enough about Lanthimos' new film that I am reading nothing about it until after I see it, so you will have to research it yourself if you need more. What does the title refer to? What is Colin Farrell doing in this image? I don't want to know until I am watching the film.

Then there's a six hour miniseries from New Zealand auteur (and director of The Piano and An Angel at My Table, among others) Jane Campion, which I gather is a follow up to something I have not seen (and thus am unlikely to check in with, much as I admire Campion). And there's a new film by Michael Haneke (who terrifies me, rather, and whom I have stopped following, but you go right on ahead). All of these films look to be major cinematic excitements, which probably don't need my attention.

There's also what sounds like a must-see fictional feature called Lucky, which, fittingly enough, is a film about Harry Dean Stanton getting ready to die - starring, to be clear, Harry Dean Stanton. I didn't write an obit for Harry Dean Stanton when he passed last week, maybe because the last couple of years of cultural heroes dying have attuned people sufficiently to obituaries that it doesn't feel like a useful function for me to perform; you'll just read about it on Facebook anyhow (as we all did, though I didn't have much to say there either). But I loved his characters, respected his long career, and always enjoyed seeing him onscreen. One does gather from what other people say that he was a bit of a difficult guy to deal with at times (Alex Cox, in his memoir X Films, talks about Harry would go on about "the Jews;" and Bette Midler, in a featurette on The Rose, said that he was not pleasant to work with at all - and she was in the midst of giving one of those gushing "everyone is great" interviews that Hollywood people give, so for her to say that, there must have been pretty serious trouble between them). I was a subscriber to Roger Ebert's Stanton-Walsh rule, that "no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad," and though he later claimed that there were films that broke that rule, it has held for me, even in cases where the only thing I enjoy about a film is the presence of either Walsh or Stanton.
Anyhow, Lucky sounds like a surefire hit. But so far, besides Untitled - more on which later, I hope - and Okja, which I had already seen, I have only looked at one film, the somewhat Lovecraftian Nova Scotian thriller The Crescent, which I am going to heretofore think of as The Shadow Over Inverness (Inverness being the town in Nova Scotia where my father grew up; the beach house in the film isn't that different from the landscape of my father's childhood, though my reference to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" above is a bit spurious; other than it taking place in a coastal town where old, menacing weirdness lingers, there's not much the film has in common with that story - no half-fish people with allegiances to Cthulhu or what-have-you).

It is maybe problematic to build this particular film up too high: the VIFF catalogue likens it to Beyond the Black Rainbow, which is pretty serious praise, and even The Crescent itself gets you totally salivating for next-level cinema with its gorgeous credits sequence, involving close-ups of paint marbling and abstract, drony, vaguely Celtic music (by no one whose name appears in the opening credits, but it's the director's own work, it turns out). This is, no hyperbole, the most inspired and visually compelling title sequence I've seen in years. So you're getting geared up for a trippy cinematic masterwork...

...and then you get a hard lesson in just how indy this film is, as soon as people start talking: the images and performances all let you know within seconds that you're in the territory of the microbudget, shot-on-video Canadian horror. Which is fine, of course: that probably also means you're watching a labor of love, which is almost always going to be an interesting experience, and Seth A. Smith definitely has resources as a filmmaker - if not financial, than for striking compositions, which this film has throughout.

But you have to adjust your expectations accordingly; going in expecting the East Coast equivalent of Panos Cosmatos will not serve you well. The biggest challenge of the film is that Smith's talent for striking compositions, like the title sequence or, say, an aerial shot of a house glimpsed from the ocean, or a great moment of a stripe of water disappearing into the sand, or some of the trippier hallucinations in the film - just doesn't mesh that well with the hand-held video technology he's using elsewhere, which gives much of the film a found-footage feel, complete with some glaringly imperfect edits. You can't have storyboarded composition shots AND a found footage immediacy, since the former owes to a very different kind of cinema than the latter. I'm not sure a tripod would have been a solution, either; there's something about shooting on video that is simply different from shooting on film, which requires - unless you can "fake" the look of film - a completely different approach. Smith seems somewhat stuck between aesthetics.

That disjunct aside,  I like the idea of a quasi-Lovecraftian Maritimes psychological thriller as much as anyone. After getting over the sugar crash that the film didn't quite live up to its point of comparison or the promise of its stunning titles, I (mostly) enjoyed it: a mother and child, mourning the death of the child's father, come to a sleepy beach town, to take brief respite and take stock. Things build slowly, from creepy encounters with neighbours - who may be ghosts or monsters or otherwise less than human - to a nicely weird moment with a hermit crab, complete with what seemed to be augmented, crablike sound effects (it's a brief moment but it made me smile; I would love to learn that they got the sound by putting a contact mike on an actual crab, but I doubt it). There are indeed some trippy visual moments, too, though you'll have to be patient to get to them. (Hopefully the dialogue is clearer when it is projected, too, since various key lines - especially spoken by children - were kind of indecipherable on my home video setup). The Globe and Mail review described The Crescent as "The Babadook goes to the beach;" esteemed colleague Adrian Mack mentioned Messiah of Evil and Night Tide (that Dennis Hopper-in-love-with-a-mermaid film that I've never seen, from the guy who directed How Awful About Allan, whose title I approve of deeply). Mack will have something on the film in the Straight, I believe. By me, The Crescent is a B minus movie (at best - I want to be nice, here) with a few A+ moments, from someone who will, with luck, get a bigger budget to work with, sometime soon...

I'll be looking at more films in the VIFF Altered States series - their cult / horror/ high weirdness section - over the next few days (and am especially looking forward to The Endless, the second film by the makers of the arthouse horror movie Spring, which I missed, but which got a lot of praise). I may have features of my own on some of the above films in the Georgia Straight. Stay tuned.

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