For Kinoscope’s second annual “Impressions” feature, our writers highlight new and old movies that, to their eyes, are either undervalued or overlooked. These are the movies that fell through the cracks, eluding significant criticism in the film community — that is until now.
“Play the Wind” (Alex Prager, 2019)
Alex Prager’s short video “Play the Wind” is the gallery-installation equivalent of a blockbuster, a big-budget production with rollout, including a stills portfolio in The New Yorker and a cast of hundreds in beehive-chic period getup. Lightly Lynchian in its vivid accumulation of Space Age consumer-culture detritus and sinister dream-factory dream-logic, it (like Under the Silver Lake) features Riley Keough as an obscure object of desire who gets lost in the wormholes underneath Los Angeles. Watching it, you can see what used to be the shiniest edge of vernacular pop culture retreating up the cultural food chain, away from the superhero-throttled multiplexes and into the arms of legacy institutions.
The Sky on Location (Babette Mangolte, 1983)
Mangolte is best known for her work as the DP of Chantal Akerman’s ‘70s works, but this film, which she wrote, directed, shot, edited, and narrated, could fairly be said — and I say this without hyperbole — to rival the Akerman films she shot. It is a warning of the dangers of global warming (yes, in 1983), a study in light and color as striking as any by Brakhage or Benning, a history lesson on the beauties that dot the American landscape and their ties to indigenous cultures, an ode to John Ford and the Western, and a meditative tract on the disparities between human and geological time.
When she made the film, Mangolte was familiar with Barbara Novak’s book Nature and Culture, which examines the ways in which painters projected onto the American landscape ideas of the frontier and Godliness, and accordingly of colonialism. Mangolte shoots the landscape unlike any of her predecessors; she is interested not in distant horizons and unending expanses of desert waiting to be populated, but — by organizing her film around the seasons — the changes in the land. As glaciers melt and foliage falls to the ground, Mangolte considers these changes in light of the invisible history that took place centuries before her and her own decision to travel throughout America in the late 20th century. The Sky on Location is like many things — an odyssey, a landscape film, an essay film, a travelogue — but it is unlike any other entry in those canons.
Henri de Corinth
“Neo-noir” (Kirill Savateev, 2019)
The film opens in a bedroom, where two siblings — a brother confined to a wheelchair and a sister regarding herself in a mirror — prepare for a night out in Moscow. She leaves to go dancing, while he miraculously rises from his wheelchair to attend various nightclubs. My impression when I first saw “Neo-noir” was intertextual: the film’s style is arch, and it contains almost no dialogue, like the settings and prose of Marguerite Duras or Alain Robbe-Grillet. Coincidentally, the film bears some resemblance to Robbe-Grillet’s Playing with Fire (1975) and La belle captive (1983): an insular setting, a cabal of wordless people who don’t seem to socialize but surveil couples rendezvousing elsewhere. According to director Kirill Savateev, the film’s insularity was intentional, keeping the course of action confined to nightclubs, hotel rooms, and corridors, as Moscow is, in his words, “quite uncinematic.”
It comes as no surprise to learn that Savateev’s visual models derive from the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (the recurring pink-magenta color scheme and burlesque images suggest 1981’s Lola), as the arrangement of human figures and furniture, the arch hand gestures and ostentatious jewelry are all intended to have greater meaning than narrative or dialogue (“…hands speak more than faces,” according to the director). Savateev cross-pollinates this with the plight of the disabled brother, for whom the night out is a type of wish fulfillment in the form of a phantasmagoria.
As its title suggests, “Neo-noir” is in a wider symbolic sense a palimpsest of both contemporary and canonical American noir, with its subjects implicating themselves in a latent intrigue — social, sexual, or otherwise. Sexual intrigue emerges in the film’s final scenes, incorporating both the prison of the disabled body as well as the incest taboo — suggested by two siblings in a bedroom — implied in the opening scene. Because the film has divorced itself from any context, its style is then interchangeable with its subject — proceeding from the assumed symbolic value of the terms “roman noir,” “film noir,” and so on — and by taking a genre as its literal title, “Neo-noir” exists in a field of narrative conventions transposed from mid-century pop culture.
A gem of a hybrid documentary that I discovered at this year’s American Independent Film Festival, in a sidebar curated by Roberto Minervini. It follows the adventures of three young brothers who get stuck in New Orleans’ French Quarter overnight during Mardi Gras. There isn’t much to say — it’s a very self-contained and especially funny film, as William, Bryan, and Kentrell navigate the bizarro nightlife of adults with the eyes of children — save for the fact that so few films really manage to capture the perspective of a kid: hilariously innocent yet excited and adventurous, full of vital energy, a come-what-may attitude, and a readiness to laugh at whatever life mysteriously, inexplicably throws out in front of you.
Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984–1992 (Jeremy Deller, 2019)
2019 ended with the British public handing Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party their largest majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. Under Thatcherism, the UK experienced a similar climate of austerity, but the ‘80s also heralded the emergence of acid house and what would become known as the Second Summer of Love. A reaction to the rise of neoliberalism, this was a movement that would change British culture forever, something intelligently explored in two timely works this year.
The first was Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller’s Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984–1992. An impromptu lecture delivered to a classroom of A-level politics students, Deller uses rare and unseen archive footage of warehouse parties and illegal raves to explore the origins of this hedonistic expression of rebellion. Drawing parallels between the introduction of the Graham Bright Bill (implemented by the government to make it illegal to organize a party without a license) and the state-sanctioned violence that accompanied the miners’ strike in 1984–85, the classroom becomes a space where questions about grassroots mobilization and the freedom of assembly are encouraged.
The footage Deller shows his students calls to mind the work of another Turner Prize winner, Mark Leckey, whose video “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore” (1999) has become the benchmark for films about the UK’s underground dance scene. “Fiorucci” was featured in O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, an exhibition of Leckey’s work held at the Tate Britain earlier this year. Combining social history and autobiography, this retrospective screened in a life-sized replica of the M53 concrete flyover the artist played under as a child. In an interview with the Guardian, he described the installation as being about “recollection and how things get recalled.” If memory is a faculty of the mind, in which information is encoded, stored, and recalled, it could be argued that the sensory overload of this year’s general election made each of these processes almost impossible to perform, resulting in a form of collective amnesia and widespread skepticism towards collectivism.
In Everybody in the Place, Deller explains how London’s Orbital Motorway (hailed on its completion as a symbol of British engineering) opened up the countryside to illegal ravers. Eerily reminiscent of the parcel of disused land enclosed by several motorways in J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel Concrete Island, Leckey’s bridge served a similar purpose, becoming a space where curious minds could congregate and escape the fast pace of society. This slowing down of time is like an act of resistance in today’s attention-grabbing and progress-obsessed society. Highlighting the importance of creating spaces where solidarity and camaraderie can be fostered, these two works were indispensable during this sustained period of rampant individualism.
Walking with Shadows (Aoife O’Kelly, 2019)
Adrian (Ozzy Agu) and his wife Ada (Zainab Balogun) are the picture-perfect couple. They enjoy privilege, possess good looks, and reside in a loving home, where they are raising a well-adjusted kid. They seem happy enough. Then the past comes calling. A strange phone call reveals to Ada that in a previous life, Adrian had enjoyed romantic encounters with men. This news is too much to handle and upsets the fine balance that the duo have established, perhaps irrevocably. Walking with Shadows deals with the intense aftermath of this phone call.
Directed by Irish filmmaker Aoife O’Kelly and adapted from the 2005 novel by Nigerian author Jude Dibia, Walking with Shadows deals with the universal and entirely relatable struggle for acceptance. Indeed, the film’s existence feels like a quiet act of resistance, considering that Nigeria still has a same-sex marriage prohibition act that essentially criminalizes same-sex relationships.
Gorgeously lensed and tenderly observed, this quiet, intensely intimate character study is boosted considerably by the lived in, committed work of the lead actors. Agu in particular does career-best work, giving vivid life to the broken weariness of a man forced to downplay elements of his personality in order to fit into the life prescribed for him by family and society.
Walking with Shadows gives a comprehensive account of the stigma and discrimination that people who fail to conform have to deal with daily. In a rigid, conservative society like the one Adrian exists in, this translates to an endless stream of assaults from home, family, work, and religious institutions. Making use of shadows, darkened alleys, and closed spaces, O’Kelly’s polished production guides audiences through what it must mean to live life on the fringes.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Walking with Shadows is ultimately a hopeful and uplifting film, and occasionally bursts of color — from the vibrant costumes, the deployment of ‘90s pop music, and the warm interactions between allies in safe spaces — explode to interrupt the dourness.
Although Adrian is at the center of Walking with Shadows, the film takes a more rounded look, stretching itself to depict how members of the public come to be affected when they intervene in such a private concern. O’Kelly’s film searches for light in the dark, truth among lies, and in doing so, reaches for a certain universal conclusion. Repression is unsustainable. No one wins when even one person is isolated and othered.
Vermelha (Getúlio Ribeiro, Brazil, 2019)
A house on the outskirts of Goiânia, in central Brazil. Two middle-aged friends fixing the roof. Two young friends trying to extract a tree stump and bring it back home. A mother dreaming and a daughter loving. A neighbor collecting a debt owned by the father, who was fixing the roof. A dog incessantly roaming around the house. What begins as a collection of fragments of a family’s everyday life smoothly becomes an enchanted field of resonances between people, things, and animals. It’s all about creating a pace that is constantly broken yet always fluid. It’s all about finding connections between the beauty of the blue veins of a hand and the harshness of a face. Filming a dream as a steady reality, while filming reality as a metamorphosing dream. Things coexist without hierarchy, while perspectives overlap. The plot includes the neighbor’s death, and his momentaneous resurrection to assure that the debt is properly payed, but that is just as important as the animals illuminated by the bonfire that gathers all the characters at night. There’s a story about men fighting as lovers and loving as fighters, but maybe the most important thing is the dog gazing at the father and daughter dancing. A film without a center, where the attention can shift from one perspective to another, from the realms of humanity to everything that exceeds it. Maybe the film is constructed around the dog’s point of view. Maybe, after all, it was just a dream by an unknown dreamer. Vermelha is the creation of a cinematic idiom. And often, when that’s the case, what festivals can offer is their incapacity to perceive what is not yet mapped, to realize what doesn’t fit into their preconceived categories of what cinema from “peripheral countries” should be. A few years from now Vermelha will be resurrected in some future retrospective made by the same festivals that ignored it now.
Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis (Anamika Haksar, 2018)
Theatre doyenne Anamika Haksar’s debut film Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane le Ja Riya Hoon is a hybrid narrative culled from many years of research — listening to stories of the people who inhabit the city of Purani Dilli (Old Delhi), as we learn from the opening credits. To reach a sense of interiority, Haksar maneuvered a unique storytelling vision that is devoted to feeling (seeing) the ancient city through the eyes of the working classes. The nimble fingers of a pickpocket, the sweet smells of a street vendor’s food, a walking tour guide’s metrical speech — all their stories interweave to reveal the underbelly of Delhi, a city with its own particular intellectual acuity. The film quivers between many subplots as it conveys a fabricated world full of dust, fiction, interviews, documentary, street performances, and amusing screwball moments; jumping from real life to character’s dreams in a playful, folkloric manner. The ambient sound, special effects, phantasmagorias, dances, native songs edited with a smart yet incredibly bizarre and ruptured manner — all add to an outstanding drama made from the subterranean consciousness of Delhi´s migrant population. Fusing documentary realism with magic realism, true events with fictionalized stories — the film is a eulogy to the syncretic culture of old Delhi and the cultural milieu that India represents by promoting tolerance and inclusiveness. A true masterpiece of contemporary Indian cinema. One of the very best from 2019.
Every Night at Eight (Raoul Walsh, 1935)
This year, I saw Raoul Walsh’s Every Night at Eight (1935) for the first time. The passage below is based on a short Facebook exchange with Andy Rector and Dana Najlis.
Every Night at Eight has a cross-fade that will break your heart: a girl faints, falls to the floor, and is surrounded by people who are trying to resuscitate her. Over that, a hamburger and a cup of coffee. What happened right before? She and her two girlfriends are at the beach. She tricks them into thinking she already ate and buys them hotdogs with their last pennies. Later, they have to walk home, where they get kicked out by their landlady who wouldn’t forgive a few days of late payment. They see an ad for a radio contest. If they sing well enough, they will win a hundred bucks and solve all their problems (for the night). Their turn comes and they sing beautifully, but in the middle of the song, she goes down for the count. They give her water, but water won’t fill you up. And then the cross-fade comes. A hot meal because someone else is paying tonight. Had she fainted on the street, she would have stayed on the pavement with her broke friends. She wouldn’t have had the hamburger and therefore the energy to sing again, this time at the bar, in front of all the customers. Her time stopped briefly when she fainted, then she stopped time for everyone else as she sang. So she wasn’t the only lucky one that night. Every Night at Eight is a talkie filled with unspoken yet direct words. For example, this is all happening in 1935, and there are no cross-fades to get you through the night. As Andy Rector said, it’s a more straightforward Das Kapital.
The Image You Missed (Dónal Foreman, 2018)
In a year when thorny Brexit negotiations have led to a rise in tensions between England and Irish Republicans, Dónal Foreman gave us what may well be the year’s most vital piece of political cinema. The Image You Missed is a stunning work of intellectual montage, combining imagery from news broadcasts, propaganda films, murals, home videos, and various other sources to reflect on a century of conflict arising from the struggle for Irish independence. The film is structured as a dialogue between father and son. Much of the footage was culled from the archive of Foreman’s late father, the great counter-cultural filmmaker Arthur MacCaig, who extensively recorded the activity of the IRA during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Foreman alternates this with his own footage shot in contemporary Ireland, in which the utopian dream of a fully self-controlled, socialist Ireland that the IRA fought for seems further away than ever — the Good Friday Agreement may have officially brought an end to the Troubles, but it was also a compromise in the vein of the Anglo-Irish treaty which closed the War of Independence in 1922. Foreman’s take on the subject is complex and ambivalent: although he expresses distaste for the violent tactics committed by certain subgroups of the IRA, he also recognizes the value of the cause that drove them, and understands the necessity of adopting forceful action to combat imperialist power. He approaches the film with the tenor of a cynic who longs to channel the revolutionary spirit of his artistic forbearers: one of the most insidious aspects of neoliberalism is that it socially conditions us to believe that there is no alternative. Foreman is aware of this and mourns the widespread apathy of his own era in relation to the passion of those that came before, while simultaneously working to revitalize a belief in the power of cinema to change the world. Ultimately, The Image You Missed is not hopeless; it is a testament to the power of radical art, an invaluable archive of counter-images which challenge the dominant narrative of the Troubles as a religious war rather than a colonial one, and a self-reflexive exploration of the ethics of political filmmaking.
“Daybreak Express” (D.A. Pennebaker, 1953)
A few of my favorite things commingle in D.A. Pennebaker’s orange-tinged ode to public transportation: observational documentary tactics, Duke Ellington’s hot jazz, and a glimpse of old New York. I want to believe riding the Third Avenue El was less nervewracking than taking any of the trains in the MTA’s current ineffectual network. Anyway, this is a five-minute treat, an unalloyed joy for the eyes and ears.
“T” (Keisha Rae Witherspoon, 2019)
A fabled anthropology, a glorious sadness, a collection of miserable souls who must be happy for the dead. A mother who smokes when she wants to cry, oedipal lust for her only dead boy dripping out instead. The finest film about what we miss and what we can’t let go.
Top image: Dónal Foreman’s The Image You Missed