NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2003:

DOGVILLE (Lars von Trier, Denmark) **1/2

This is truly a devious film, enough so that it took several hours for me to come up with a star rating. Just when it seems headed down a particular path, it changes direction and tone. In the wake of the many appropriations of the Dogme style, von Trier has responded by radically changing his film’s look. Handheld camera and jump cuts are still present, but they’re part of a larger visual vocabulary. No one’s going to get seasick here. The biggest change is DOGVILLE’s blunt - and Brechtian - theatricality. von Trier makes no concessions to naturalism, depicting the town of Dogville with an assortment of props and flimsy walls on a bare soundstage. Street names are chalked on the floor, as are the names of residents.

 Grace (Nicole Kidman) comes to Dogville as a fugitive. Meeting up with Tom (Paul Bettany), who fancies himself a writer and the town’s conscience, she initially feels at home there, but eventually it turns on her. Tom is a more complex and interesting character - in his  failure to live up to his goals and ultimately ambivalent attitude towards Grace, he’s something of a von Trier stand-in - than the opaque Grace, who’s presented as a saintly victim for much of the film. It loses focus when it shifts f its attention to her about halfway through. The whole film is marred by a cheap cynicism: the townspeople’s nastiness stems as much from von Trier’s allegorical intentions as  anything we’ve learned about their character. The leap into dark comedy in the finale only enhances this feeling, even as it salvages DOGVILLE from being another story of female martyrdom. (Minor spoiler : Critics who’ve accused it of misogyny overlook the way Grace successfully fights against her degradation. In fact, his treatment of this theme may be a conscious self-parody or response to his detractors.) The closing credits’ use of photos of impoverished Americans, set - oh so ironically - to David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” left a particularly bad taste in my mouth. It’s a cheap shot at best, forcing a political point already implicit, and exploitative at worst. Nevertheless, DOGVILLE is dense enough that I suspect it rewards multiple viewings - and that my opinion might change the second time around.

Distributed by Lions Gate. Opens spring 2004.
CRIMSON GOLD (Jafar Panahi, Iran) ***

Starting with THE WHITE BALLOON, his very first - and most accessible - film, Jafar Panahi’s shown a formalist fascination with duration. The opening shot of CRIMSON GOLD, a jewelry store heist, lasts 4 minutes without  camera movement. After that, I expected an example of the currently hip master-shot style, in which cutting  as soon as characters leave the frame is considered a grave error. I was wrong: Panahi doesn’t use any  extremely long takes until the final shot. However, he builds tension brilliantly by stretching scenes out in real time. Opening and closing with the robbery, CRIMSON GOLD devotes the rest of its time to exploring how pizza delivery boy Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin, a real-life pizza delivery boy and schizophrenic) could be driven to such an act. Hussein, who looks bloated by medication,  gives an extremely believable performance - remaining expressive even when completely alone - in the context of near-surreal extended set pieces. In one, he can’t enter an apartment building to deliver his pizza or go back to work because the police are busting a party; in the penultimate scene, he meets a rich, borderline crazy man and visits his deluxe apartment.

Panahi’s intention to show a cross-section of Iranian society comes through loud and clear. While this project might seem schematic on paper, the characters are individual enough not to come across as  symbols of their class status. Nevertheless, CRIMSON GOLD doesn’t really add up to a satisfying whole, just a collection of memorable vignettes.

Distributed by Wellspring Media. Opens February 2004.
THE FLOWER OF EVIL (Claude Chabrol, France) ***

Chabrol’s 50th film is the kind of late work hardcore auteurists like to celebrate. Others don’t seem to like it much: a friend told me that it looked like a piece of hackwork from some director trying to rip off LA CEREMONIE. I’m no hardcore auteurist, but I fall into the former camp. Depending on your perspective, THE FLOWER OF EVIL is a formulaic retread or a summary film that stands in relation to his earlier work like Howard Hawks’ EL DORADO does to RIO BRAVO. Chabrol’s familiar themes - a Hitchockian sense of guilt, here tied to French complicity during WWII; the perversity of the bourgeoisie - are played out with a serene detachment that conceals amoral glee. (That glee is well incarnated by the elderly Suzanne Flon.) Much like the last 20 minutes (not counting the credits) of DOGVILLE, THE FLOWER OF EVIL really pulls itself together for a darkly comic finale. A decidedly minor film, but a genuine pleasure.

Distributed by Palm Pictures. Opens October 10, 2003.
ELEPHANT (Gus van Sant) ***1/2

As the first semi-mainstream feature to address Columbine, ELEPHANT carries enormous weight, especially since it will eventually reach a wide audience as a made-for-HBO movie Like Ben Scoccio’s accomplished mockumentary ZERO DAY, it shies away from easy solutions. invocations of various “causes” of Columbine - violent video games (this one based on GERRY!), bullying, fascination with Nazism - are not presented as explanations. Apart from Matt Malloy and Timothy Bottoms, the actors are all non-professional high school students playing characters based on themselves. Despite an air of naturalism (often compared to Frederick Wiseman), the atmosphere is rather dreamlike.

Stylistically, ELEPHANT is a triumph. To me, GERRY felt like a pretentious mishmash of avant-garde and European influences. Bela Tarr’s tracking shots, long takes and circuitous structures are still an obvious inspiration, but van Sant transplants them into a completely different context. Seemingly endless shots of kids walking down hallways make high school look like a wasteland akin to the Hungarian hinterlands. He made the unusual decision to shoot in 1.33. The aspect ratio, which leads to cramped framing and an emphasis on walls, is crucial to the film’s tension: I can’t imagine it in any other format.

ELEPHANT is a reverie on Columbine - and high school in general - rather than investigative journalism. It’s also a monument to the fragility of normalcy. In one key scene, members of the school’s gay/straight student alliance wonder whether one can tell if a person is gay just from the way they look. Van Sant opts for physicality over psychology, leaving us to ponder a world of charged - and often beautiful - surfaces He makes several mishaps, including a snide scene in which a trio of shallow girls puke up their lunches. More problematically, he has the killers kiss, raising the charged issue of their sexuality without really addressing it. Van Sant claims that he doesn’t intend to depict them as gay;. If so, perhaps he should have staged the kiss somewhere other than a shower.

In the wake of the massive editorializing and agenda-pushing (from both left and right) inspired by Columbine, ELEPHANT accomplishes something  elusive: depicting teenage alienation from the inside. Those tracking shots are perfect visual corollaries for its characters’ emotions. Instead of looking for answers, ELEPHANT suggests that we simply imagine what it might have felt like to be at Columbine. It’s a good start.

Distributed by Fine Line. Opens October 24, 2003.
GOOD MORNING, NIGHT (Marco Bellocchio, Italy) **

What drives a person to kill in the service of ideology? It’s one of the most crucial questions of our times, and one that GOOD MORNING, NIGHT botches. It centers around the real-life 1978 kidnapping of Italian President Aldo Moro (Roberto Herlitzka) by the Red Brigade, a group of communist terrorists. Chiara (Maya Sansa), the cell’s sole woman, serves as the audience stand-in, gradually becoming increasingly unhappy with the Red Brigade’s use of violence. Few spectators are likely to find their dumb slogans about proletarian  justice appealing, and even fewer will find their kidnapping justifiable. Given the massive differences between our times and the  countercultural ‘70s, Bellocchio has a lot of gaps to fill.  Volker Schlondorff’s THE LEGEND OF RITA etched in the appeal of being a political outlaw far more skillfully. The Red Brigade’s passion seems entirely theoretical. Chiara never seemed to partake strongly of it, making her growing moral repugnance a *fait accompli*. However, Herlitzka gives a really touching performance, making his character the only three-dimensional one in the film. A good sign of the film’s laziness: it cranks up Pink Floyd whenever a little mood elevation is needed. By the fourth time we hear “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” I was ready to throw something at the screen. Between that and DOGVILLE’s  “Young Americans,” this year’s festival has some offered some choice lessons about the misuse of music.

No distributor.

SINCE OTAR LEFT (Julie Bertuccelli, France) ***

No, it’s not about expatriate Georgian director Otar Iosseliani (with whom Bertuccelli has worked), but it is set in Georgia.  A likably modest story, SINCE OTAR LEFTdepicts a household of three women. Aging matriarch Eka (Esther Gorintin, who made her acting debut at 85) lives for communication with her son Otar, now living in Paris. She lives with her daughter Marina (Nino Khomassouridze) and granddaughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova). A key plot twist  turns it into an allegory about denial. Eka’s delusions operate on both a personal and political level: she’s nostalgic for Stalin, whom she insists never ordered anyone killed. Refreshingly, they refuse to portray Eka as cutesy or lovable. SINCE OTAR LEFT drags a bit towards the middle, until the story moves to France, but it’s a promising start for Bertuccelli.

Distributed by Zeitgeist Films.

VIEWS FROM THE AVANT-GARDE

LORETTA (Jeanne Liotta)
WHAT GOES UP (Robert Breer)
I BEGAN TO WISH (Julie Murray)
TRAUMA VICTIM (Robert Todd)
MEDITATIONS ON REVOLUTION V: FOREIGN CITY (Robert Fenz) **1/2
THE GALILEAN SATELLITES (Courtney Hoskins)

The spirit of Stan Brakhage hangs over this program’s two most memorable films. Dedicated to the late filmmaker, THE GALILEAN SATELLITES uses hand-painted animation (plus some footage taken in an aquarium and from NASA) to evoke outer space. LORETTA offers up a yellow screen with human figures and sprocket holes, set to a booming soundtrack that includes projector noise. Both take the influence of Brakhage’s hand-painted films in a new direction - the 26-minute GALILEAN SATELLITES is particularly well-paced and rhythmically varied - and have a monumentality specific to film. (Given its reflexivity, LORETTA feels like a deliberate evocation on  the medium’s physicality.)  The other films on this program were harder to get a handle on. WHAT GOES UP begins with some imagery that evokes 9/11, but Breer’s film, which mixes animation with live action,  doesn’t seem to have anything so specific on his mind. It’s a major work but not one readily accessible on a single viewing. MEDITATIONS ON REVOLUTION V: FOREIGN CITY has a seductive look,  cityscapes captured in luscious grainy b&w cinematography,  and an extended interview with jazz musician Marion Brown. Fenz reimagines his New York as a foreign city, as if through a newcomer or immigrant’s fresh eyes, but the material with Brown seems to belong to a more conventional film. TRAUMA VICTIM originated as part of a project on the death penalty, although I never would’ve guessed that from the film alone. It’s a jarring vision of the American landscape, full of sped-up footage  and threatening waterfalls and tides. I BEGAN TO WISH, made for a Brakhage tribute, creates a virtual bouquet out of backwards time-lapse footage of flowers de-blooming.

DISTANT (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) ***

DISTANT springs from a familiar template: a young man, Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), comes to the big city and stays with Mehmet (Muzaffer Ozdemir), an older, seemingly more responsible relative. Its style - full of long takes from a static camera - will be familiar to viewers of recent Asian art films. However, Ceylan assembles these elements with a wit and visual acuity all his own. (His best joke is the scene in which Mehmet watches STALKER with Yusuf, switching to porn after his cousin goes to bed.)  He has a real knack for  strikingly bizarre images - like a capsized boat, covered with snow - and a strong sense of place. The wintry setting all but dictates his characters’ actions. The title accurately describes Yusuf and Mehmet’s remote attitudes. At first, it also describes the film’s style, but Ceylan builds up a real emotional charge by the end.

Distributed by New Yorker Films.


PTU (Johnnie To, Hong Kong) **1/2

The NYFF hasn’t shown a Hong Kong genre film since Jackie Chan’s POLICE STORY in 1985. I can’t fathom their motivation for suddenly shining a light on Johnnie To, who has a lengthy and eclectic filmography. I can think of at least 5 To films that would have been better choices.  (FULL TIME KILLER, released last spring, is his only film to find American distribution.) In recent years, he’s turned his back on the harsh crime dramas he directed and produced in the late ‘90s in favor of more obviously commercial fare. PTU is a partial return to that period, most reminiscent of THE MISSION. Taking place over the course of one night, it follows middle-aged policeman Lo (Lam Suet) as he interacts with fellow cops and criminals on a search for his stolen gun. With its blue-tinged  cinematography and careful framing, PTU looks great. However, it picks up on the most shallow, mannerist thread of To’s oeuvre, which began with THE MISSION. He seems primarily concerned with photographing guys standing around in symmetrical positions looking cool. The rest is (admittedly) well-crafted boilerplate policier. If the NYFF wanted to make a populist choice, they surely could have done better.

No distributor.

THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (Denys Arcand, Canada) **1/2

THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS drew the loudest applause I’ve seen in the festival. It’s probably destined for Oscar nominations and an eventual wide release. A middle-aged man’s film in the worst sense of the term, it’s as cozy and complacent as  the Miramax logo promises. The terminal illness of professor Rémy (Rémy Girard) brings his millionaire son Sebastien (Stéphane Rousseau) and old friends together in a Montreal hospital. (It’s a sequel to Arcand’s DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE, which I haven’t seen.) Although sometimes very funny (especially when Sebastien goes to a police station to ask where to buy heroin), the tone wanders all over the place. Much of the first third is a broad satire on Canada’s bureaucratic health care system. Then Arcand throws in some out-of-context footage of planes crashing in to the World Trade Center, followed by some vague statement about barbarians invading. (Primo Levi and Alexander Solzhenitsyn get name-dropped as well.) His use of 9/11 to evoke one man’s death throes is rather exploitative, but I’d forgive it if the social commentary wasn’t so muddled.  The film eventually turns into a Quebecois BIG CHILL, with Remy and his fiftysomething pals passing a joint around and reminiscing about their radical pasts. Generation X is represented by a junkie and Sebastien; Gen. Y by a trio of college students so venal that Sebastien has to pay two of them to visit Rémy. As a generational statement, it’s pretty narcissistic, with critical moments (such as Rémy’s memories of his foolish praise of China’s Cultural Revolution) tempered by an overriding nostalgia.

Distributed by Miramax. Opens November 21st.

RAJA (Jacques Doillon, France/Morocco) **1/2

Made in Morocco by a French director, RAJA doesn’t pretend that interracial desire is a cure for prejudice. Far from it,  Doillon demonstrates the way that power inequities  poison everything they touch. His French protagonist (Pascal Greggory) views Moroccan women as potential prostitutes, while they tend to see him as a walking bank. As the film progresses, its story grows darker and more outrageous. In theory, the characters and setting  could be fascinating, but their transition to screen is unsatisfying in ways I have trouble pinpointing. Part of the problem is that Doillon’s style is a familiar, relatively low-key naturalism: Maurice Pialat without the elliptical plots or willingness to get ugly. It’s a bit staid and distanced to  convey much intensity.

No distributor.
LIKE ALL BAD MEN HE LOOKS ATTRACTIVE (Michele Smith)
THEY SAY (Michele Smith) ***1/2
If found footage films often bring hip-hop turntablism to mind, Michele Smith’s work is closer to a symphony. Her extremely quick cuts never feel assaultive because the films return to images and motifs like melodic fragments. Blitzkrieg editing conceals their lucidity. LIKE ALL BAD MEN HE LOOKS ATTRACTIVE revolves around images of actors, including a screen test of an unknown man; THEY SAY around animals, incorporating much footage from a Greek film about a boy and his horse. (PETA members beware: it shows cats and dogs being killed, albeit bloodlessly.) They hint at themes and symbols without spelling anything out, while remaining enjoyable and accessible on a purely visual level. Smith compiled them by gluing all kinds of material - plastic shopping bags,  folders, viewmaster slides, photos and, yes, films - onto 35mm and 16mm. However, the work is inconceivable without video, since the prints are so physically dense that they’re impossible to project. For once,  a director has acknowledged the incest between film and video and synthesized the two media inventively.