Scout Tafoya | May 10, 2019 | 0
2018 is nearly over. Kinoscope had a good year, a big year. I had the great fortune and honor of becoming Editorial Director back in February, and during my brief tenure so far, I’ve tried to publish intelligent film criticism that doesn’t kowtow to hype, PR, or the fashions of the entertainment industrial complex. It has been a pleasure working with Talent Press, who select Latin American critics that, more often than not, write about filmmakers that rarely receive coverage in the English-language press. Elsewhere, I’ve given space to critics of all stripes to pursue their interests, particularly as they dovetail with Kinoscope’s vision of celebrating and championing daring, rich, and suprising cinema.
We published 72 articles this year, 18 of which were in-depth interviews. 32 different writers wrote for us. Kinoscope critics attended many festivals, including Rotterdam, Berlinale, Locarno, Venice, Toronto, Viennale, and the New York Film Festival. They covered such up-and-coming talents as Liryc Dela Cruz, Bertrand Mandico, Valérie Massadian, Marta Hernaiz Pidal, and Camilo Restrepo, as well as more established auteurs like Bruno Dumont, Jia Zhangke, Carlos Reygadas, and Tsai Ming-liang. At times, our writers dipped back into film history to re-evaluate works by Jorge Acha, Germaine Dulac, Teo Hernández, and Brian De Palma among others.
For our final piece of the year, the first installment in what I hope to be an annual tradition, I’ve invited our writers to share short essays, reviews, and anecdotes about their year, the older films discovered and re-discovered for the first time, and recent films that haven’t gotten their due yet. Consider these impressions, mere pointillest dots that, taken as a whole, resemble some fragment of 2018 in cinema.
Goodbye 2018, hello 2019.
Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)
You’re not going to like this — I don’t, particularly — but rallying as we did to the defense of FilmStruck this year was already a retreat. Cinephiles! Make a stand for your right to watch old films on your television! It’s not our fault that our taste has been downgraded to a mere demographic sliver within a colossal content industry, nor even that we’ve allowed our preference for the theatrical experience to be compromised by conveniences we didn’t ask for. (First Reformed, about a man who becomes gradually more absurd, pathetic, and delusional in his virtuous irreconcilability with an objectively bad present-day, was the American film of the year.) It’s just that I didn’t think, when I started writing film criticism, that I was basically just developing a hobby, like beekeeping.
Anyway, one morning this fall I took a half-day off of work to check out a press screening at the New York Film Festival. Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night begins with gestures from a previous generation of East Asian arthouse — like Wong Kar-wai, and the more poetic forebears of slow and hybrid cinema — recalled and reimagined by the young director with an acolyte’s virtuosity and referentiality, all oneiric long takes and musings about movies as memories. It made me nostalgic for a time, not so long ago, when I could have picked up the Village Voice — or my own magazine, The L — and read something opinionated about it in a medium that would be part of real life in the city, while also sequestering whatever other voices were chirping for my attention.
We’d been given 3D glasses on our way in the theater, and instructed, in a title card, that we would know when to put them on. So, halfway through, when Bi’s protagonist sat down in a movie theater and put on his own 3D shades, we did the same, all at once. The text had suddenly gone 3D — not just in its image onscreen, but also by expanding into the audience. We all noticed everyone around us performing the same gesture simultaneously, and then simultaneously chuckled at the formal gambit (good one, Bi Gan! movies are dreams, and we’re all in the same headspace now!), and at our own goofy, collective commitment not just to an immersive aesthetic impossible under any other conditions than big-screen projection, but to an entire activity — a choice to be there, in that room, that day, with other people who cared about what we cared about. Maybe it was as cheesy as an immersive theater experience, or as “edgy” as video projections in an opera, and as marginal as either. But for at least one moment, I felt like I’d gone back in goddamn time.
Henri de Corinth
Double Lover (François Ozon, 2017)
During my second year in college, I tried flirting with a classmate. She ultimately wasn’t interested in me, but we did become friends. About ten years later, I relocated three time zones away to attend graduate school. When my friend found out about it, she suggested that I meet her sister who happened to attend the same school. It turned out they were identical twins, and this time the sister tried flirting with me. François Ozon’s Double Lover — about a museum guard, Chloé (Marine Vacth), who begins an affair with her psychiatrist boyfriend Paul’s (Jérémie Renier) identical twin brother Louis (Renier again), also a psychiatrist — is absurd, and becomes more and more absurd as it progresses. Yet its absurdity emerges from an understanding of a person’s often-fantastical notions of identical twins.
Ozon’s film abides by several conventions of the psychological thriller, yet those conventions function as a platform for sexual intrigue — that being the viewer’s erotic-fetishistic fascination with the subject — carried out vicariously through Chloé. The film is based on the 1987 novel Lives of the Twins by Joyce Carol Oates, written under her pseudonym Rosamond Smith. Like her, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time thinking about twins and twin studies. I knew everything Louis would say in his monologue about monozygotic twins (“jumeaux miroir”) before he said them, and everything he says in that monologue is true: My friend was left-handed and had a birthmark on her right shoulder, while her sister was right-handed and had a birthmark on her left shoulder, for example. Mirror twins also have inverse internal organs.
In its portrayal of identical twin psychiatrists, the film owes something to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), about identical twin gynecologists having an affair with the same woman (there is a scene early on where Chloé recalls a dream in which Paul was her gynecologist). Vacth and Renier, both attractive actors, here have the insalubrious, plastic look of characters in a late-Cronenberg film. The monochrome design of the film’s offices and flats is predicated on Chloé’s erotic imagination — white marble walls and black leather chairs, a white blouse and a black turtleneck, etc. — suggesting an artificial, almost clinical theater where her perversities (and ours) seem less out of place.
Ozon makes it clear, however, that the viewer isn’t meant to take the film that seriously. There is eventually a surprise post hoc ergo propter hoc explanation for Chloé’s attraction to Paul/Louis involving fetal resorption, leading the viewer to accept on-screen events as farce. The recurrence of songs by Elvis Presley on the soundtrack is less than subtle in the knowledge that Presley was a twin whose brother was stillborn. I’ve always admired cinema that manages to use the “language” of exploitation films as a means of expressing something else. Double Lover delivers the inverse: A film set in a moneyed world of luxury apartments, art museums, and psychiatry — portrayed with the veneer of arthouse legitimacy — that ultimately arrives at a subversive farce about bourgeois identity.
Your Face (Tsai Ming-liang, 2018)
My father saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) (most likely a censored print) as a young student in Communist-era Bucharest just as it was released in cinemas — and his memory of the screening still glows like embers. It’s not just modern audiences that find arthouse fare hard to digest; as he observed scores of spectators filing out of the freezing cinema, he elaborated a personal theory about how the specific moment during the film in which they would walk out was indicative of their characters. Some audiences nowadays are unable to face the darkness of the era, others are unwilling to accept an escape onto a metaphysical plane. My dad remained seated until the lights came on, sharing silent, wistful glances with those who’d done the same as him.
Some 30-odd years later, I’m living the exact same thing in Vienna’s Gartenbaukino at a midday screening of Tsai Ming-liang’s Your Face as people started leaving the room during the very first sequence of the film: a five-minute static shot of an elderly woman’s mostly silent, smiling face. Throughout its 76-minute runtime, Tsai shows 13 faces of men and women past their prime, some talking about strange coincidences, others just speaking volumes through their silence. It finishes on a five-minute shot of a hall at dusk on a cloudy day, lights shifting across the floors and walls. One of the men featured does nothing but close his eyes and fall asleep in front of the camera, slowly waking a couple of minutes later.
It’s one of the most empathetic films I’ve seen this year — and maybe even in general — one that tests your patience only if you are unable to open your heart to the persons depicted, unable to allow yourself to enter a contemplative, meditative state. “What words could one even say about such a film?,” someone close to my heart wondered later. Those expecting narrative twist and turns, acrobatic cinematography, and Day-Glo colors were probably those who left within the first 15 minutes. Those expecting even a sliver of a story or any other central metaphor than that of the passage of time probably were those who left within the next quarter-hour. As the theater’s crimson drapes fell over the screen, little more than a dozen people were left — melancholy smiles on their faces as they, maybe unwittingly, searched the faces of others who had stayed until the end.
While the audience members leaving Stalker in 1980s Bucharest might have been bugged by Tarkovsky’s obstinately poetic and abstract cinematographic language, it’s simultaneous grit and phantasmagoria that has seemingly little to do with reality itself, those exiting Your Face were in a similar, yet opposite spot, having probably awaited a work that would transport them far away from reality, that would offer simplistic, shallow emotional titillations. What remains certain is that both pieces reward its forbearing spectators in extraordinary ways.
Zanburak (Farrokh Ghaffari, 1975)
Farrokh Ghaffari (1921–2006) directed Zanburak just a couple of years after Pier Paolo Pasolini finished his “Trilogy of Life” — The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). Though Ghaffari never intended to make his last film as a response to this trilogy — especially the third film, which was shot partly in Isfahan, Iran — Pasolini’s experiment with the Persian narrative model of stories-within-stories in Arabian Nights draws comparisons with Zanburak. Actually, for Ghaffari — who was an avid filmgoer, was the first person to open a cinémathèque in Iran, established the National Iranian Film Society, and was affiliated with Cinémathèque Française and a close friend of Henri Langlois — Pasolini’s film was not a model, but maybe a trigger to make one of the most Iranian films of our history. Zanburak took a road less traveled by selecting Iranian narrative devices such as the aforementioned stories-within-stories, Pardeh-Khani (reciting stories based on detailed, narrative paintings), and Iranian fine arts like Persian miniature — the scene that involves a theatre troupe in the middle of the film is a good example — as a model for its visual elements.
This episodic road movie tells a story of an accidental friendship between three men after an attack in a caravansary: a simple-minded commoner (played by the legendary Parviz Sayyad) who is responsible for a falconet (the titular zanburak) and who went astray from his legion; a righteous champ (Enayat Bakhshi); and a young dreamer (Nozar Azadi) looking for a cave of treasures. Each goes his way after the attack, but they’ll surely meet again and again. This episodic story contains bawdy folk tales — look closely at the scene in which an old merchant’s unfaithful young wife double crosses her husband and sleeps with two different men — and slapstick comedy. Although the film takes place in ancient times, characters talk like typical Iranians in the 1970s, using then contemporary idioms and slang. By doing this, Ghaffari bridges Iran of yesterday and today, showcasing a country always crippled by opportunists, lousy commanders, contradictions on all levels, debauchery, larceny, and an illiterate and ignorant mass who only think about satiating both their hunger and sexual desires.
I got the chance to watch Zanburak a couple of months ago at Iranian Artists Forum, and while watching the film in a state of absolute awe, felt the film was as fresh as Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights (2015). Farrokh Ghaffari was at least a decade or two ahead of his time, and he never received the respect and recognition he deserved, neither in nor outside Iran, and I hope someday we compensate for such unforgivable neglect.
Ray & Liz (Richard Billingham, 2018)
Richard Billingham’s debut is an arresting vision of urban hardship that’s unique in its understanding of the link between household objects and memory. This is best observed in the film’s first flashback set within a recreation of the West Midland’s house that the director grew up in. The scene lasts two minutes, and contains only four lines of dialogue, but Billingham’s ability to communicate his lived experience through mise-en-scène illustrates a rarely seen side of working-class life.
Every element of the production design is posed, and selected, with a fastidious attention to detail, highlighting a beauty that, despite not conforming to a societal notion of “good taste,” has its own value and appeal. In this smoky living room, the haunting voice of Dusty Springfield can be heard over the sound of Billingham’s brother loudly playing with a wooden hammer bench. Meanwhile his mother, Liz (Ella Smith), sits at a table, carefully arranging flowers like an artist contemplating their next brush stroke. Billingham’s camera doesn’t linger on her face, or the torn wallpaper that lines the walls, instead he draws the viewer’s eye towards the China mug Ray (Justin Salinger) passes to Liz. This is the first time the film’s protagonists are seen together, but instead of concentrating on their interaction, he frames their relationship through the objects that adorn their home, inviting the viewer to examine how the ornamentation and decoration of this interior space has become its own form of artistic expression.
“Oh, it’s bitter!’ announces Liz, before diluting the dangerously full cup of tea with sweeteners — an act that could be read as an attempt to sugarcoat the impending deprivation of life in Thatcher’s Britain. This scene depicts Liz as a woman who has chosen and created the environment she inhabits, one at odds with the type of kitchen sink realism commonly associated with on-screen depictions of life on the breadline. Gritty social realist films often overlook this aspect of working-class life in favor of showing characters living in a passive state of misery. However, the expansion of the welfare state in the U.K after the Second World War and the subsequent emergence of mass consumerism had a profound effect upon working-class households. Materialism continues to play a major part in social perceptions of class, habitually favoring the person who owns rather than lacks expensive possessions. Therefore, during the late 1970s through to the mid ‘90s, when the neo-liberal economic policies of Thatcherism made the social mobility of the post-war period feel like an intangible myth, the decoration and care of the home became an important statement of consumer identity. A work of self-identification and self-illustration, Billingham’s understanding of how objects like this mug evoke dormant memories of the home is a prime example of why working-class voices in film should be given more platforms.
Yung (Henning Gronkowski, 2018)
23 years after Larry Clark’s seminal Kids and two after Michał Marczak’s entrancing All These Sleepless Nights, here comes another visually stunning and poignant coming-of-age film zeroing in on a tight-knit group of youngsters united by a flair for aimless drifting, music, and class A drugs. Henning Gronkowski’s debut feature, Yung, is a hypnotic tour-de-force into the ecstasy-, booze- and EDM music-propelled lives of four 16 to 18-year-old Berlin-stranded girls frittering time away amid raves and self-destructive habits. Janaina (Janaina Liesenfeld) works as an escort and webcam girl; Joy (Joy Grant) cuts and sells her own drugs to friends and ravers; Abbie (Abbie Dutton) dreams of moving to LA in between raves; and Emmy (Emily Lau) is so addicted to drugs by the time she confesses to “hav[ing] done enough stupid stuff for three lifetimes” that the claim sounds like a polite understatement.
More a collection of vignettes and episodes than a traditional three-act plot, Yung trails behind the quartet of best friends, dancing between fiction and reality until the distinction hardly matters. At once committed to documenting the girls’ excesses with a gritty, warts-and-all flair for details and yet sensitive towards their meanderings, what makes Yung stand out as a remarkable new entry in the genre is Gronkowski’s ability to avoid parceling out simplistic judgments, steering clear from either patronizing or glamorizing the quartet’s lifestyle. To be sure, the film makes no mystery about the dangers of substance abuse, but that the girls’ addictions are lethal is its starting premise, not a lesson we are taught ad infinitum throughout it. A heartfelt sense of empathy permeates Yung’s 95 minutes, courtesy of Gronkowski’s personal approach (in one surprisingly emotional Q&A during Yung’s international premiere at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, the 31-year-old spoke of the film as a cathartic experience, a means to come clean after years of living close to the girls’ lives) as much as his ability to write the four as multi-dimensional characters, leaving them plenty of space to just be and speak for themselves.
Interspersing all the partying and the near-ubiquitous EDM tunes — a gift of musical artists as varied as MCNZI, DJ Hell, Abblou, Vegas, Fango, Malakoff Kowalski, Benjamin Lysaght, and Cameron Avery — are several talking-head shots, where the girls sit alone and share their musings about life, eyes fixed on the camera. It’s an unadorned setting that mirrors an AA session, but there is nothing to take away from these moments: far from placing them in a cage for us to study them — but at an arm’s length — the confessionals serve as windows for the quartet to open up about their fears and aspirations for the future. Unapologetic and shamelessly insouciant about the hedonistic and derailed life they’ve chosen to lead, Janaina, Abbie, Joy, and Emmy may be imperfect and deranged, but there is something disarmingly endearing in the way they reclaim their right to be young, care-free, and self-destructive. All the raving notwithstanding, this pulsating dream of a film remains an ode to friendship, bursting with a heart-warming humanism debut features seldom capture.
Yara (Abbas Fahdel, 2018)
The task at hand was difficult to say the least. Abbas Fahdel had directed what might’ve been the best movie of this decade, Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015), which chronicled the Iraq War from inside the country both before and after the initial skirmish executed by the United States Army. Everyone was surprised when it was said that he’d follow that up with a fiction film, which premiered at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, but no one should’ve doubted him. Here, he presents a documentary-like reality through the motions, language, and idea of fiction. The film opens with a direct reference to Chekhov’s gun to knowingly nudge us into the realm of fiction, but his camera remains in a vérité mode, inspecting the way that characters move and interact with each other, using an Ozu-like shot structure that clearly shows us the time of day, what the people are doing, and how time passes. The protagonist, Yara (Michelle Wehbe), is a young woman who lives alone with her grandmother in a remote house in the hills, who falls in love with a man that comes from the city. The narrative might seem cliché, but Fahdel uses this fictional arrangement to present us with the reality of the people that live there, to show us the abandoned houses (ravaged by time and conflict), as well as using it as a point to present a more telling relationship between men and women, especially in the world portrayed there. It’s one of the few great, muted films of the year that surpasses one’s expectations, and I can’t wait for it to be discovered by more people.
Woman of Tokyo (Yasujirô Ozu, 1933)
Even in an early work such as Woman of Tokyo, it could be said that a large part of the unmistakable signs in Ozu’s universe are already present, particularly his interest in famial relationships in motion. These domestic dynamics play out in tragic scenes that advance without turning shrill, without pausing. Chikako (Yoshiko Okada), a beautiful young woman, secretly prostitutes herself every night to pay for her younger brother Ryoichi’s (Ureo Egawa) studies. When Harue (Kinuyo Tanaka), his fiancée, tells him the truth about Chikako, Ryoichi can’t stand it and commits suicide.
Despite the turmoil, the drama never loses its quiet tone, partly because Woman of Tokyo is perhaps the first of Ozu’s films in which his famous pillow shots acquire an unusual magnitude. A steaming kettle, clothes hanging on the wall, watches, and other objects lying on the floor appear again and again. These mute witnesses to the events, painfully human signs of a drama that seems to have been devised by a vengeful god, also serve as homeostatic elements, charged with maintaining the balance of daily life and the film’s own forms before seeming collapse. By giving such a preponderant place to these domestic objects, Ozu also adheres to a part of the historical development of art in Japan, specifically the aesthetic concept of mono no aware, in which the harmony of the everyday is linked to the ephemeral nature of existence, to the sensation of finitude, and as a consequence of the delicate feeling of melancholy that is generated from it. Every artist, even though he incarnates in himself the most fecund features of modernity, establishes a dialogue with a past that points to the horizon; they always respond, agreeing or in dispute, to a tradition.
Too Early/Too Late (Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, 1982)
“It is the grand cycle of elements in Straub. We see only the deserted ground. But this deserted ground seems heavy with what lies underneath it. You may ask me ‘how do we know what’s underneath it?’ That is precisely what the voice is telling us. It is as if the earth is buckling from what the voice is telling us.”
— Gilles Deleuze, “What Is the Creative Act?”
By far, the most captivating cinema-going experience I had in 2018 was catching a 16mm screening of Straub-Huillet’s 1982 feature Too Early/Too Late. The film is bisected into two parts, both focusing on sites of historical revolutionary action. The first presents a sequence of modern French landscapes, a combination of rural areas such as Marbeuf, Tréogan, and Harville, and urban locations near Rennes and Lyons. Layered atop these visuals are excerpts from two texts: a letter written by Friedrich Engels in 1789 detailing the destitute conditions of the French peasantry in the months preceding the revolution; and Cahiers de doléances, a list of complaints voiced by French citizens to the royal government, railing against the poor economic conditions they were forced to live in. The second section focuses on Egypt, detailing the resistance of the peasants against English occupation and its subsequent neutralization in the form of the 1952 “petit-bourgeois” revolution. The guiding text here is Class Conflict in Egypt, a more modern Marxist piece written by journalist Mahmoud Hussein.
The French landscapes captured by Straub-Huillet are empty of human activity, and the sustained attention the filmmakers pay to them encourage the viewer to take in every physical detail at leisure — clouds drifting overhead, leaves blowing in the wind, insects floating in the distance, the flow of water through a stream. By stretching out these shots for extended lengths of time, Straub-Huillet are asking us to re-activate our sensual engagement with the natural world, to explore the image, and take in details we may overlook if the image had been subsumed into a more fast-paced, narrative-driven approach to film form. At first, these sites seem to be peaceful and placid, until the narration contextualizes them, making them charged with historical import. While the film envisions France as having settled into the structures of neo-liberal bourgeois capitalism (huge economic inequality remains within the structures of modern France, though the idea of substantial revolution now seems, to a layman, like an outdated concept), Egypt remains alive with volatility. The oppressed proletariat remains in France, though the class struggle has become suppressed as a prominent political discourse. In Egypt, however, such a belief in the power of revolutionary uprising remains very much alive. The juxtaposition of these two events is a reminder of the necessity of militant political activism, lest society settles into complacency.
Cruise (Robert Siegel, 2018)
Robert Siegel has only a few films to his name, but his stock-in-trade is already ferociously articulated. He’s got his camera trained on a single spot in a person’s life, the spot where affection becomes poisonous, and he waits. In his script for The Founder (2016), Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) buys an idea he loves and then smothers it. In Big Fan (2009), Patton Oswalt plays a guy whose obsessions, a football team and its star player, turn inside out, as he becomes a pariah and a criminal in the name of both. And in the 1980s-set Cruise, a boy’s desire to keep a girl who seems unobtainable in his life leads him down a predictable path of bad decisions, petty larceny, and grand theft auto. Cruise hangs back, avoiding easy nostalgia or an objectifying gaze, and shows both the life his hero Gio (Spencer Boldman) thinks he’s living and the one he’s actually stuck in. Siegel cannily balances the imagined and the real, time and again putting Gio in situations that would prove how cool he really is, only to have the world nab the brass ring from out of his grasp. He learns in quick succession that his dream girl is a human being, his souped-up jitney can’t outrun problems, the posse that idolizes him won’t help him in a crisis, and being perfect isn’t a life plan. The most charming thing about Cruise and Siegel’s reserved, unaffected shooting style is that no one gets dramatically punished for movie mistakes. Provided you can learn to embrace the ordinary, the imaginary can only hurt you for so long. The cool guy drag racer and carjacker persona he wore like cologne was a fantasy, and those can get you if you don’t let them go.