Festivals

LIFF 2015 – Part 2: GOODNIGHT, EXQUISITE COMMUNIST DOG

HPPH

I should have perhaps mentioned in my previous post that, in addition to being good value for money, Leeds International Film Festival also boasts a number of free film events held around the city. One such event was a screening of Robert Wiene’s seminal German Expressionist picture The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – and with live organ accompaniment to boot! That’s in the Town Hall; but another, homelier place in Leeds to catch silent films scored by live music during the off-season is Hyde Park Picture House. The last of these I caught was Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, back in August; to the left of the screen sat a gentleman – whose name now escapes me, sadly – playing piano without sheet music for a full eighty minutes. A true hero, you’ll agree.

The Hyde Park Picture House is something of a safe haven for me (and is situated just down the road from my favourite live music venue in the country, the Brudenell Social Club), as a place where I have historically, in my tenure as Leeds student and worker circa 2007-2012, tucked away from life’s woes inside an array of new films, retrospectives and guest talks. The building is an old-school nickelodeon dating back to 1908, complete with ground stalls and a balcony, and it thankfully still plays 35mm whenever the opportunity arises. To cap it off, the staff are never less than courteous.

It was here that I settled down for a triple-bill of experimental and essay films on Sunday 8th; I didn’t have anywhere to go between screenings, so I sat quite comfortably three rows back from the stage and wiled the empty minutes away with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, whose tone jarred somewhat against the cheery music playing overhead.

Abandoned Goods

My first film was noble disappointment Abandoned Goods, a 39-minute short by Pia Borg and Edward Larenson that enlightens us to the existence of several thousand works of art produced by mental patients at a psychiatric home in Surrey. The film handily contextualises the process, weaving in maps and photos of the institution, voice recordings of diagnoses and group sessions, and first-hand accounts from across the art studio’s four-decade lifespan (1946-1981). The artistic process was clearly a form of catharsis, a therapeutic way for patients to articulate how they saw themselves in relation to reality. I’m glad of the film to highlight these art pieces, because not only do I think they’re some of the most astonishing paintings and sculptures I’ve ever seen – better than a lot of contemporary guff – but, as the film rightly notes at the end, their newfound appreciation helps to return these otherwise forgotten human beings to a deserved place in society. This conclusive point was made over footage of patrons observing the artworks in a gallery space; I can’t help but feel that looking at a few of these pieces in isolation from the film, with cursory knowledge of their origin, would draw the viewer to the exact same conclusion on a more profound, meditative level.

I had read more about Heart of a Dog, by singer/songwriter/multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, than any other film at the festival prior to its screening, and my ticket was purchased off the back of one searing statement quoted by an NYFF review: ‘death is the release of love’. The film is primarily about Anderson’s recently deceased rat terrier Lolabelle, and on a subterranean level about her late partner Lou Reed (with whom Lolabelle was shared), but it also tunnels off on various tangents involving surveillance, memories and dream logic. Not all of these grabbed me, but I particularly liked the parallel between our attempt to understand a dog’s inner working – complete with video recordings of a blind Lolabelle jamming away on a keyboard – and the NSA’s indiscriminate collection of data that seeks to trace backwards a human’s actions to uncover their motives.

Heart of a Dog

And while Anderson’s soothing narration is eminently listenable, her choice of imagery gives licence to look elsewhere. As an essay film, the strength here lies in the words and the elemental sounds underneath that wash over them, whereas the visuals amount to a succession of worn-out familiars: raindrop dripping down a glass pane, a puddle in shallow focus, slow shutter-speeds in a downpour…. we’ve seen these things before and we will again.

Better than both of these offerings, and at a fraction of the runtime, was The Exquisite Corpus, the latest 35mm experiment from Peter Tscherkassky – who made one of my favourite short films of all time in Outer Space. Tscherkassky again synthesises existing film footage; in this instance, a black-and-white nudist boating trip starts the ball rolling, with an adventurous couple embarking upon the shore of a beach to find a woman lying unconscious in the sand… and this discovery is where things explode in idiosyncratically disorienting fashion. Superimpositions, multiple exposures, split-screens: it’s a veritable barrage of risqué imagery, torn from commercials, comedies, erotic thrillers and blue movies from across the globe. The film’s title is borrowed from the Surrealist game known as ‘cadavre exquis’, whereby players would draw a body part on a piece of paper, fold it over and pass it along to the next participant, who would then add their limb – the resulting hybrid rendered comically grotesque. In the film, these small fragments of sexualised imagery are violently smashed together so as to comprise two or more limbs of the same body, yanking to the foreground otherwise discrete instances of sublimated desire and eroticism in the original source films. It’s riotously good fun, and feels like three lightning minutes as opposed to nineteen. I especially enjoyed hearing a number of people moan about it afterwards: “I just had to shut my eyes.”

Romanian films have often served well at this festival over the years, and Aferim! proves no exception. Set in Wallachia, 1835, the film traces an eventful horseback journey for police constable Constandin and son Ionita; both have been tasked by a local boyar to hunt down escaped gypsy slave Carfin, who just so happens to have made out with the boyar’s wife before making off unscathed. Director Radu Jude has said he intended for the film to bring awareness to the abhorrent slave trade and ethnic cleansing that dominated Romanian society up to and during the 19th century. Appropriate, then, that the film is scripted and shot in the style of a Western, a genre that has continually re-examined the American myth over the course of the last half-century. DP Marius Panduru captures the whole film in black-and-white 35mm, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. His camera pans and tracks in single takes, keeping a substantial distance in order to fully capture the Romanian countryside and also because, as the maxim goes, tragedy + distance = comedy. That’s not to say the subject matter is trivial; the film is an absurdist escapade foremost and especially in its first half, and the distance undertaken by the camera shows up the characters as a fragment of the frame, emphasising their ignorant viewpoints next to their humble stature and encouraging them to run their mouths for the duration of a take.

Aferim!

One colourful encounter along the road involves a hate-filled priest with no tolerance for any ethnic or religious group that doesn’t resemble himself, especially the Jews (and we know where such rhetoric inevitably leads). Constandin is content to listen and nod along, though he doesn’t stay silent on these matters for too long. Jude is acutely aware that chuckling at these embarrassments is all well and good up to a point; in jolting the viewer upright by the final third, the film reminded me of last year’s magnificent Timbuktu, which began as an amusing display of dude-bro jihadists pathetically enforcing sharia law and ended up rooted in cold reality. Still, my favourite moment of Aferim! features a man using his teeth to try to snatch a dime out from a burning candle, his friends excitedly egging him on in the background. And he does it!

Eisenstein

‘Funny’ is not the word I would use to describe Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajato, although that entirely depends on the length of one’s patience. The titular Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet filmmaker and father of montage film theory – played here by Finnish actor Elmer Back – bursts onto the scene with all the skittishness and exuberance of a child, almost a man possessed. Viewers may take a while to warm to him; some may perhaps regard him just as F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri did Tom Hulce’s Mozart in Amadeus; luckily, sanguine guide Paolmino Canedo (Luis Alberti) is present to both accompany and pacify the fish out of water, and in more ways than one. Greenaway is more than glad to indulge and match Sergei’s restlessness, though, since he plasters the screen with image overlays, split screens, extreme wild angles and repetitions, to name but a few parlour tricks; this jarring approach is ironically the Brechtian opposite of Eisenstein’s own theories about editing and manipulation. As this film progresses, however, a narrative begins to take form and the camera thusly settles – only slightly – into the more symmetrical, painterly compositions at which Greenaway excels, and these are complemented by extravagant décor and cleverly situated lighting. We begin not just to dart around but to follow; in one virtuoso tracking shot, Greenaway uses the cover of pillars to continually alter perspective, folding around the players and their environment. Eisenstein likewise allows his heartrate to settle, and, as we come to learn, it is his experiences in Mexico that come to influence the aesthetic of his later Russian films – a shift from the mass-centred ideological texts of Battleship Potemkin and Strike, over to the individual-led epics Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. The latter film was highly suspected to be about Josef Stalin, who is absent here except for as a distant, paranoid lover, curious as to when his precious filmmaker will be making his return home. Greenaway’s latest is an enjoyable romp once it settles down into something more focused, though its various degrees of gratuitousness do often hamper proceedings.

My thumbs waver in the middle for Grandma, a brisk, digestible indie comedy from Paul Weitz that coasts by on the charisma of leading lady Lily Tomlin, for whom the script was specifically written. As Grandma Ellie, she’s approached by granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) for a $400 cash-sum required to fund an abortion; both of them being broke, a quasi-road-trip unfolds in which the pair deign to covertly raise the money under the nose of Sage’s mother – and Ellie’s daughter – Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). It took a while to warm to this one, primarily because the pensioner-with-attitude archetype has frankly been done to death: to wit, Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine and Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey are two recent examples. In both these cases, however, the characters are reduced to little more than sideshows to the main narrative, a comic relief from more serious matters. What Weitz is perhaps going for here, by placing Tomlin’s abrasive character front and centre, is testing the audience’s tolerance for an elderly woman willing to speak her mind, and not often being wrong. This becomes clear once Ellie is juxtaposed against former lover Karl (Sam Elliott), who, in believing he is still owed something from years back, conceals his true intentions under passive-aggressiveness, only flashing his true colours when his back’s to the wall. Through examining these small nuances of communication and how they can widen cracks in familial and romantic relationships, Weitz’ script rescues itself from being just another ‘journey’ film. Even so, it is perhaps worth noting that scant few laughs were to be heard in my sold-out screening.

Grandma

Slovenian director Sonja Prosenc delivers a confident debut in The Tree, an enigmatic chamber piece in three acts. Mother Milena, older son Alek and younger brother Veli are introduced to us within the small confines of a house and its walled-in front yard. We’re immediately invited to guess the circumstances of their entrapment, and the film unspools its chapters out of order to help the mystery heap up. Each family member has their own thing that keeps them down, whether it be guilt, grief or loneliness. It’s all reasonably engaging, owing to DP Mitja Licen’s reduced colour palette and excellent navigation of space that help define the physical and psychological parameters surrounding the characters; still, there are only so many morose, prolonged stares I can withstand over the course of eighty minutes.

Goodnight Mommy

Be sure to tread with utmost caution for Goodnight Mommy, a slow-burning horror of sorts from Austrian directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, and produced by well-known Austrian director Ulrich Seidl. Indeed, some of the scene-setting cinematography by DP Martin Gschlacht resembles Seidl’s wide-shot, near-static compositions. We peer into a house of pale colours and vacant space to find two young brothers, Lukas and Elias (real names for the real-life Schwarz twins) under care of their Mother (Susanne Wuest), whose face has been horribly scarred and completely bandaged following an unknown accident. Taking the boys’ perspective, we begin to suspect something is not quite right about dear Mother; in fact, this woman may not even be Mother at all, perhaps even a sinister entity taking on her form. The film steadily drip-feeds information and misinformation, guiding the viewer down a pathway of ingenious construction. Then, at precisely the right moment, the carpet is pulled out from underneath to reveal true, unbridled terror. The final twenty minutes of the film are incredibly hard to stomach; I must be getting old, because I had to look away more than once or else I was in danger of being quite ill, and even then I wished I could block my ears. (Karma for my amusement at Exquisite Corpus reactions?) Not only are these final moments physically uncomfortable to withstand, but they also challenge the viewer to continue questioning what is known about each identity, thereby testing the beginning and end of one’s empathy. A remarkably well-made and engaging picture, then, but not something I ever hope to – or need to, given an eye-rolling ‘gotcha’ moment in the film’s final minutes – ever endure again. You should see it, though.

Gripping in an entirely different way is Chuck Norris vs. Communism – not literally Chuck Norris vs. Communism, but instead a mixture of talking head recollections and stylish reconstructions of life under the Ceausescu dictatorship in late 80s Romania, and specifically the escape from said life as facilitated by smuggled videotapes of Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone and other US action heroes. Director Ilinca Calugareanu takes us into the living rooms of those who dared to dream, and we sit beside them as the light box shows Mr Norris clenching a rat between his teeth in the name, ostensibly, of freedom. Hearing the nostalgic testimonies gives a pleasant reminder of one’s own cinephilic beginnings, and this fond backwards-gaze is reflected in an aesthetic two-for-one: HD digital footage used for present-day interview segments is traded for grainy, textural 16mm for scenes set in the 1980s. The latter scenes are suffused with a steel moonlight, or otherwise minimal lamplight, DP Jose Ruiz painting a world of moody blue tones in which cinema-smugglers sneak through shadows as if they themselves are living out an espionage movie, with icy piano keys and violin strings helping to fuel the cold, courtesy of Rob Manning and Anne Nikitin. One man’s reality is another’s entertainment: I would have liked to have seen more of these scenes, almost an entire movie at that, but I suppose the talking head segments are imperative to provide not just a sense of perspective, but an idea of which racket insiders were suspected of belonging to the secret police. Voiceover Irina Nistor, who dubbed up to ten videotapes a day, was under suspicion of double-crossing, as was head racketeer Teodor Zamfir.

Chuck Norris vs Communism

In fact, Zamfir is the most fascinating character of this entire saga. As much as the film places emphasis on the liberating property of escapist cinema and the role it played in inspiring the people of Romania to rise up against the regime, there exists a small kernel of ideology manifested in Mr Zamfir that’s not a far cry from the American exceptionalism as envisioned on the smuggled videotapes. By recognising the value of supply and demand, Zamfir manages to expand his power beyond the communal living space and into the corridors of power, bribing the state police, the attorney general and even Ceausescu’s son. Present-day Zamfir looks back fondly on his days as a monopoly capitalist, and the film frames his younger self in the manner of a mastermind, waltzing through shelves stacked with VCRs that beep to the sound of his drum. Young Zamfir assumes the role of middle-man between artist and commerce, a philistine for whom culture can only ever equate to profit.

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