“An open mind is advised,” claim the (typically, very funny) trailers for this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, but I will admit that I brought my preconceptions – and a nasty case of jet-lag – to the screening of Adrien Biniez’s Argentine-Uruguayan co-production Gigante. This Silver Bear winner, which centers on an overweight, heavy-metal enthusiast working the night shift as a mall security guard in Montevideo, is already quite well-traveled, and while its popularity with festival audiences is understandable, I couldn’t get past the essential contradiction at its core.
This is an outsider narrative that itself longs only to be loved.It’s not that hulking star Horacio Camandule is unappealing as the Montevidean Paul Blart, or that Biniez’ multimedia conceit, wherein our hero monitors his wage-slave beloved via security cameras, is un-clever (the running surveillance motif suggests a rom-com by Michael Haneke). Gigante feels tweaked for maximum viewer safety, so that even those moments which are supposed to be sobering – like Camandule’s climactic lovelorn fit of rage, during which he trashes several supermarket aisles – come across as innocuous.
Despite its title, Gigante is pretty slight stuff; a better example of truth in advertising would be Argentine director Mario Llinás’ Historias extraordinarias, a film that caused one colleague to flee two-thirds of the way through its 4-hour running time. I was puzzled, to say the least: to use some poker terminology, I’d say that devoting 160 minutes to a film, even one you’re frustrated with, is the movie-going equivalent of being “pot-committed.”
Sticking with the poker lexicon, Llinás’s film is an example of a director going all-in. Suggesting nothing so much as a cinematic game of Exquisite Corpse being played amongst a group of variably brilliant storytellers – and yet also palpably the work of a single controlling intelligence – Historias extraordinarias is one of the most narratively dense films in recent memory, It structuring conceit is three individual narratives, each loosely organized around the implicitly Borgesian notion of one man being drawn into the life and experiences of another. But in addition to sidestepping the predictable tendency to dovetail his plot strands, Llinas boldy weaves and then dangles new ones, disrupting the already complicated simultaneous-triptych rhythm by locating and then expanding on some minor detail. (The closest analogue I could think of to these passages were the ever-interrupting/interrupted ghost stories from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).
It’s not really necessary to parse the specifics of the historias in Historias extraordinarias; suffice it to say that the action is generally compelling even when it gets silly, and that there are flashes of truly poetic oddness (one man’s path takes him from a dull middle-man position to an abandoned church housing a dying lion!). The details of the narratives are less important than how Llinás foregrounds the process of telling them – which he does partly via the most omnipresent (and to some, oppressive) voice-over since John Hurt’s clipped Dogville narration (and it has a similarly ironic-omniscient tone).
Some have carped that this narration gives Historias extraordinarias the feeling of being a book-on-tape rather than a properly cinematic experience, but Llinás – whose unique niche in Argentine cinema and television was well-explicated by Quintin in the most recent issue of Cinema Scope – hardly seems oblivious to this fact. I’d go so far as to suggest that the “anti-cinematic” aspects of Historias extraordinarias are part of its very subject, a tacit acknowledgment of film’s medium-specific strictures as a storytelling device. At the same time, Llinás deploys keen filmmaking instincts throughout, not least of all in the myriad ways that the voice over fails fails to synch up precisely with the onscreen images, either via temporal disjunct (describing things that haven’t happened yet against images in the present narrative tense) or through the subtle mis-description of events.
Then there’s the question of the film’s generally ugly video aesthetics, but this too deserves closer attention. Besides the not unimportant note that Llinás pulled off such a physically ambitious epic for very little money, there’s an impressive continuity to the visuals despite the ever-shifting locations. I’d also argue that the TV-style presentation comments subtly on our willingness (or not) as filmgoers to accept run-on cinematic narratives, as opposed to television, where twists and turns and the illogical distension of character arcs is not only expected but welcomed. Perhaps the best way to describe and to recommend Historias extraordinarias, at a time when even very devoted cinephiles seem more willing to mainline DVDs of Mad Men but blanch at the prospect of a festival movie running more than 90 minutes, is to say that it feels finally like a great, short-run season of high-end television (and also that it won’t lose much being viewed on DVD).
From a film that is all – and all about – story to one that has perhaps no story at all: C.W. Winter and Anders Edstrom’s The Anchorage, which made its North American premiere in Vancouver following a prize at the Locarno International Film Festival. Shot at the isolated home of Edstrom’s mother, Ulla – and featuring her in the lead “role,” – The Anchorage can be understood as belonging to an important group of contemporary films devoted to the presentation of an (in this case, self-willed and self-sufficiently) marginal existence. The film opens with a long sequence in which fifty-something Ulla, clad in a pink bathrobe and galoshes, walks from her cabin (located somewhere in the Stockholm Archipelago) out to the water for a bracing, nude morning dip: it’s a ritual that will be repeated twice more in the film, with Ulla’s normalized yet extreme communion with the elements serving as a kind of microcosm of her life beyond an urban purview.
Lest this description make The Anchorage sound schematic, let me clarify by saying that it is not: although Winter and Edstrom do exercise an impressive level of formal control over the proceedings, the film feels bound the movements and stasis of its main characters as opposed to putting her through any sort of symbolic/metaphorical paces. It could be said that the film describes two intrusions, the first happy (the film opens with the arrival of Ulla’s daughter and boyfriend, who seem content to sit quietly by the radio and do crosswords) and the second slightly unsettling. Ulla’s spare, diary-style voice-over reveals that the brightly-clad man who starts lurking at the edges of her property after her daughter’s departure is a deer hunter – and given the season, not an unexpected presence – but her calm seems shaken, and the sheer physical fact of her isolation is thrown into anxious relief.
These events might have occasioned a shift into genre movie territory, but The Anchorage stays resolutely austere: neither the hunter’s behavior nor Ulla’s panic are ever overstated. And, in the same way, the cinematography eschews any sort of lyrical presentation. Edstrom told me that there was a day when he and his co-director employed the help of an additional DP; he said that the man was amazed by the number of “beautiful” shots that were being discarded; “if you make too much of any shot,” said Edstrom, “it takes away from the others,” Anchorage does contain some remarkable visuals (including truly impenetrable nighttimes), but it is distinguished by the sort of equanimity – aesthetic and ethical – hinted at by Edstrom’s anecdote.
Vasncouver has a reputation for being a juicy showcase for the best of Asian cinema: certainly, the programming team of Tony Rayns and Shelley Kraicer has the sort of track record that encourages high expectations. I’m thus a little bit surprised – and maybe a shade bashful – to report that the two Dragons and Tigers titles I saw at VIFF – Ho Yuhang's At the End of Daybreak and Joko Anwar’s Forbidden Door were both quite underwhelming. I say bashful because, in my schedule-making, I either missed or sidestepped a number of personally recommended titles, including Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II (the sequel to her wonderful 2005 debut) and Zhao Liang’s Petition. (In both cases, the films screened after I was scheduled to depart the festival.) I should also add that there were also a number of worthy Asian films that I had already seen screening at VIFF, including Bong Joon-ho’s cheeky psychodrama Mother (perhaps the Korean auteur’s most breathtakingly well-directed piece to date) and Raya Martin’s Independencia (a challenging film that looks better a few weeks removed from the TIFF maelstrom).
As for the two titles that I did watch: At the End of Daybreak takes its basic narrative – a rich teenage girl’s parents extort money from the mother of the 23-year old boy who (consensually) deflowered her; he responded by killing her – from a real case, and Ho tries to distance the material from movie-of-the-week status via arty flourishes (accelerated montages, onscreen text, unexpected insert shots). Leaving aside the facile character psychology (the girl is presented as a spoiled brat who has learned the wrong domestic lessons about entitlement) and odd dramatic emphases (a final scene involving the murderer’s mother feels out of place), the fact is that At the End of Daybreak is really just a predictable crime drama bereft of much ambiguity or subtext. “Was that film better because it was subtitled?” moaned a girl to her date as the screening ended. “Because it reminded me of Mystic River.” Me too, I wanted to say.
The late-night crowd at Forbidden Door was much happier during its final credit reel, my own date and I excluded. Although it boasts what is easily the best credit sequence of the festival, Joko Anwar’s all-stops-out thriller – about a sculptor who stumbles across an odd club featuring televisions broadcasting disturbing images of child abuse – goes steadily downhill en route to an extended theatre-of-cruelty set-piece worthy (if that’s the right word) of the pandering gorehound calculations of Park Chan-wook. An allegedly heady final reversal merely confirms the film’s dearth of real ideas; if Anwar thinks that the revelation that his film’s title is A) metaphorical and B) refers to a dark portal that is Inside All Of Us justifies nearly two hours of stitled genre wankery, he either watches too many movies (or not enough of them).
Still, Forbidden Door was not without its pleasures (i.e. that jazzy credit sequence), which indicates that the loved it/hated it discourse that dominates so much festival reportage is a byproduct of ornery, schedule-addled critics trying to have the first – and, if they are aggressive enough, the last – word. The fact is that most festival movies – and, indeed, most movies, and indeed most artworks of any kind – are neither masterpieces nor debacles, and as such, a critic must be willing to meet them somewhere within the middle ground.
For instance, I wouldn’t feel comfortable really praising the talented Austrian director Michael Glawogger’s oddball generational comedy-drama Kill Daddy Goodnight (the title refers to a videogame designed by the film’s protagonist that allows him to mow his detested father down Wolfenstein-style. I found it generally lurching and tonally awkward. But I would also hesitate to dismiss it, since its subject – the disconnect between the Austria that experienced the Second Word War first hand and the one growing up in its shadow – doesn’t exactly countenance easy equations –or, for that matter, completely satisfying movies.
In fact, some movies can be too satisfying: take Romanian director Radu Jude’s well-traveled The Happiest Girl in the World. The title, is, of course, ironic: its teenage protagonist Delia (Andrea Bosneeag) is actually quite surly, having been informed by her parents that the spiffy new car that she’s won as via a juice company’s giveaway contest is going to have to be sold to facilitate their plan to open a boarding house. The bulk of the film’s action involves a film crew shooting a commercial – starring Delia – in the middle of Bucharest; asked to recite only a few simple lines and eagerly gulp down the company’s product, Delia sinks into tired, juice-bloated misery, angering the director and bickering with her needling parents as daylight wastes away.
The film gets maximum comic mileage out of its repetition-variation structure, and the actors are all vivid. There’s also a valid theme here: the falling away of youthful ideals, with Delia – who wants to keep the car despite her father’s advice that it will quickly depreciate in value – coming to unhappily acknowledge the reality of being lower-middle class in a depressed European economy. All to the good, but unlike his countryman Corneliu Poromboiu (whose Police, Adjective, the best new film I’ve seen all year, was also at VIFF), Jude is a bit too generous in explicating his themes – and the attempted bittersweet tone of the ending rings both predictable and a little bit pat. (One can only imagine a movie in which Delia’s realizations about reality didn’t match up so neatly with her response to it).
A slightly superior – but still very modest – portrait of late-teenage frustration would be Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl, the only significant North American dramatic feature that I saw at VIFF. (On the doc front, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s sheepherding doc Sweetgrass was as amazing as advertised, while R.J. Cutler’s Vogue documentary The September Issue, while perfectly entertaining as a real-life version of The Devil Wears Prada, is a sneaky EPK masquerading as an expose; note that it was also the only sold-out screening that I attended.)
But back to The Exploding Girl, which has unfortunately been tarred with the “mumblecore” mantle since its premiere at Tribeca. Yes, it’s set in Brooklyn, and yes it does detail the personal and romantic lives of young (white) people, and yes the people sometimes alternate between introverted tongued-tiedness and hyper-articulate liberal-arts-collegese, but unlike, say, Joe Swanberg, Gray has a discernible visual sense. The VIFF program note invoking Hou Hsiao-hsien was perfectly apt, not because The Exploding Girl is the technical equal of Café Lumiere, but because Gray has a distinct way of seeing his characters, rather than just evacuating all formal responsibility to indulge their chattering. His visual signature here is to catch sight of epileptic arts student Ivy (a lovely, unself-conscious Zoe Kazan) as she weaves between – or is impeded by – heavy neighborhood traffic, and while the imagery is definitely “lo fi,” it’s also highly sophisticated.
It’s arguable that the film’s throughline, which finds Ivy falling-in-like with her beloved best friend Al (Mark Rendall) over summer break – and at the same time as she’s being dumped via cryptic cell phone conversations with her boyfriend – is a little on the cute side, but it’s not cute like Gigante: Gray is willing to have Ivy confuse us (and herself) with her behavior, trusting that Kazan’s communicative performance will carry us through. Good call: even as Ivy clings somewhat implausibly to her asshole boyfriend and all but pushes Al into the arms of other (perfectly nice) girls at a variety of parties, she remains sympathetic and relatable.
This is not necessarily a prerequisite for quality, of course: the idiotic recent New York Times review by Stephen Holden for Maren Ade’s superb Everyone Else – which made its way to Vancouver after being noticeably absent at TIFF – took the film to task for not having “likeable” characters – as if Ade’s soul-and-skin baring exploration of interpersonal dynamics would have been better (or more valid) if its principals had been really swell folks. One would think that at this point, a critic as experienced as Holden would have gotten the memo that good films can be made about bad people (and the couple in Everyone Else are hardly bad people anyway, just believably tetchy and flawed, both individually and as a couple). At the risk of sounding pedantic, such are the contradictions out of which good and great filmmaking comes. Before the Times blithe dismissal jeopardizes this fine film’s distribution chances, I’d advise Mr. Holden to take another look: and I’d advise he do it with an open mind.