Mid-Festival Report 2014:
The Shock of the New

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
img_undertheskin5At the New Zealand International Film Festival: double images, cinema as a frontier in Under the Skin and Manakamana, and respecting Hard to Be a God.

In the cold of July, the New Zealand International Film Festival has thrown up a number of striking double images to ponder. Genesis Potini, seen trudging through the pouring Gisborne rain, a multi-coloured quilt draped over his shoulders in The Dark Horse, comes back to haunt us in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, with the sad conquistador of that film fashioning a cape out of a duvet to brave the freezing winter of North Dakota. We later find her face down in the snow, like the alien seductress in Under the Skin; both films are rendered in a mysterious chill that is utterly spine tingling. Snow, meanwhile, is everywhere in Force Majeure, a film that seems to be building towards calamity with its disintegrating family on the precipice of their own demise, though they never quite fall over the edge—such is the black comedy of Ruben Östlund’s high wire feature. Strained marriages are also closely observed in Winter Sleep and Exhibition, two films that place architecture and environment near the foreground of their penetrating look at human relationships.

In the pursuit of singularity, Under the Skin has captured the imagination of cinephiles precisely because it is a work of total imagination. It takes us from darkness to light, abstraction to crystallization, horror to compassion, and fire to ice in the space of two transfixing hours. Evoking science-fiction greats only in passing—its early images recall 2001: A Space Odyssey—the film crafts its own embryonic wordless opening from the arrival of Scarlett Johansson, an extraterrestrial huntress who has been dispatched to Scotland to seduce and destroy as many unsuspecting stiff pricks as she can lure into her lair. In the case of her victims, much has been made of Jonathan Glazer’s use of non-actors, some of whom were unaware they were on camera at the time, however this is only a small contributing factor to the film’s memorable strangeness. The documentary-fiction conceit is nothing new in contemporary cinema, and the candid camera vibe that permeates many of Johansson’s pick-up scenes only goes so far (there is always a point, one suspects, where the men are exposed to the charade or realise for themselves that something is up). It’s all part of a greater hyper-reality characterised by pin-sharp cinematography, unnerving sound design, an equally unsettling score (composed by English singer-songwriter Mica Levi), and a preference for the magnificent bleakness of Glasgow—its depiction a solar system away from the bright, high-contrast images of the city we’re been receiving via Commonwealth Games coverage.

img_undertheskin6Other encounters, such as a provocative sequence with a disfigured man, are clearly there by design, though are no less arresting and blend seamlessly into the film’s unique sense of detachment. Whether said scenes are premeditated or unrehearsed, none of it flies without the expert pretense, the double-edged performance required to not only stay in character but also suppress the star persona, and Johansson—who hasn’t been this good in a movie since Match Point—is a deadly blank canvas. Yes, she’s unmistakably voluptuous, all estrogen in terms of her job description as a succubus, but the film finds compelling ways to subvert both the default male gaze and her function as a ‘sex object’. Glazer, astutely, is also just as interested in reading her face as exploiting her curves. Here, one is transported back to the extraordinary close-up of Nicole Kidman at the opera in Birth, a scene in which Glazer’s camera literally squeezes the emotion out of her pores, and with Johansson, he takes it further by fixating on her impassive face the second we lay eyes on it, waiting for the moment when consciousness finally registers on the surface.

In the space of two roles, Johansson has communicated an awakening through self-awareness with impressive minimalism. In Her, she only had her voice to work with. In Under the Skin, the desire to taste and touch, to feel hot and cold, to comprehend human love and pain is conveyed primarily through the eyes and small facial gestures. The more like us she tries to become, the more exposed she is to our species’ dark side. Combined with her genuinely menacing screen presence, the sum of the film’s parts—the wariness of its images, the sense of the new and unknown captured in its strange editing patterns, the eerie atmosphere, as indebted as much to weather as location—are as bracing as a cold ocean wind on the Scottish coast. In other words, a positively alien experience. If only more filmmakers embraced the shock of the new, the notion that cinema is still a frontier in the 21st century.

img_manakamanaFor Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, cinema is very much a frontier. Incorporating experimental film practices with documentary anthropology, SEL’s latest venture sits somewhere between the lucid observation of Sweetgrass (2009), a near-wordless elegy for Montana sheep herders, and the sound and fury of Leviathan (2012), an exploration of deep-sea trawling that has been likened in some quarters to water torture. Manakamana is a different kettle of fish: a film rigorous in its methodology, yet one with a tranquil simplicity that promotes pure contemplation. Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez have assembled a tableau of 11 un-edited shots, each filmed in rich 16mm from a stationary setup within a gondola carrying people either to or from the titular Hindu temple. Whether pilgrims, tourists, or on one occasion, goats, the passengers on each trip (lasting about 10 minutes) become the subject of a form of real time portraiture. Like Frederick Wiseman, the filmmakers uphold the viewer’s autonomy by not allowing exposition to obscure what’s unfolding on screen. Through this restraint, we find our own meaning in the images.

While Manakamana is set against the faraway backdrop of the Nepalese mountains, it has an everydayness to it: if you’ve ever sat on a bus or a train opposite another commuter in silent curiosity, eavesdropped on a conversation along the way, or simply stared out the window in reverie, you’ll have a good idea of the feeling this film evokes. And quite apart from the soothing motion of public transport—for this reason, Manakamana is one of the most relaxing films I’ve ever seen—there’s an unspoken interaction between the occupants that is called attention to through the process. In this face-to-face dialogue, the film not only parallels Under the Skin in its shot composition (Glazer often reverts to a static front-on close-up of Johansson as she pilots her ‘spaceship’, a white utilitarian van, around Scotland), but also mirrors it in terms of its perception of the world through faces. Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests have been brought up in relation to Manakamana, and Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin, a film constructed from headshots of actresses who are watching a movie in a theatre, also comes to mind. Closer still, Manakamana resembles a James Benning film: its robust long takes and structural quality suggest a mixture of the American filmmaker’s meditations on landscape, transport and geography, and lately, people in sharp focus.

All things considered, Manakamana is really portraiture as a series of reflections, and by extension, a study of the implicit narrative that exists between the subject and spectator. Some of the passengers are mindful of the filmmakers directly across from them, and thus sit mostly without speaking and avoid eye contact; others chat and behave with a natural and at times delightful ease. The fascinating symmetry of this exchange is what makes Manakamana a film for the cinema. I have often wondered if Leviathan would be more at home in a gallery space—its disorienting images and discordant soundscape part of a package that doesn’t necessarily need to be experienced in the order it was intended. Manakamana, though it could surely pass for an art installation, relies on the act of being seated and facing the subject as a spectator for the duration of the journey. Position yourself outside of this configuration, and the film won’t nearly have the same impact.

img_hardtobeagod5High-impact is one way to describe the late Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, a contender for the filthiest film ever made. A three-hour medley of dirt, rain, piss, shit, snot, saliva, vomit, and blood, what’s immediate from the outset is the unprecedented physicality. German’s bruising version of medieval times, distinctly Russian in that it supersedes such stuck-in-the-mud classics as Letter Never Sent and Come and See (and outside of that context, Vincent Ward’s The Navigator), retains its own kind of veracity by virtue of his intense self-belief and devotion to the brutal and unglamorous. It’s an unforgiving world wallowed in by a collection of freaks, miscreants, warmongers, and one megalomaniacal ‘god’ whose incitement of chaos is furthered by the courageous first-person cinematography: as a ground-level witness to the barbarism, the camera is so close to the action at times that it is also beat up, spat on, and covered in grime. Certainly, no film in recent memory has committed so relentlessly to the idea of experiential viewing, putting body before mind and feeling before thought.

Evidently, the science-fiction theme of the source material—a novel about scientists who land on a planet stuck in the Dark Ages—places Hard to Be a God in the same orbit as Under the Skin. Both films imagine strange new worlds from the standpoint of a naïve visitor, and have factored in a certain level of discomfort to the viewing experience with this perspective in mind. Ultimately, though, it is German’s vision that remains the most uncompromising in terms of its disregard of the audience. That may sound like a death wish for a filmmaker, but it is in fact a timely reminder that the directors who truly deserve our respect are those who can be selfish as artists and make films for themselves before anyone else. Hard to Be a God is the bluntest example: a work that exists on its own terms, sui generis in every respect, whose visual and narrative language we must actively engage in if we are to gain a foothold in its world. It’s the opposite of “streamlined,” which is how a friend described the banality of a conventional festival experience to me, going on to champion the films that left an impression because of moments that “poked out” and distorted the “smooth edges,” sometimes in spite of other flaws. Hard to Be a God was one of those films.

img_hardtobeagod1The films with rounded corners and straight lines are essential to the ecology of the New Zealand International Film Festival, but at the same time, if we tiptoe around all the odd, ugly, misshapen titles in the programme, how does that make this one month of cinema any different from the other eleven in a calendar year dominated by increasingly conservative film distribution? Thinking about this in the lead-up to the festival, I wrote as part of a Lumière Tour Guide” that as filmgoers we would be seeking the “out of the ordinary.” Our choice of which film to sponsor this year was guided by that tenet, and on those terms Hard to Be a God—a fearless monument to elemental beauty and savagery—is not hard to recommended at all. Predictably, the film has also been labelled difficult, austere, inscrutable, unpleasant, and transgressive. These are valid observations, though unfortunately that doesn’t stop them from being mistaken as valid criticisms by both writer and reader. The ease in which we lash out or reject something that disturbs or agitates reminds me of the backlash to Ulrich Seidl last year, a major filmmaker whose Paradise Trilogy was either cowardly ignored or fled from in panic. He’s pertinent to the discussion because he’s just as committed, visually and thematically, to tackling matters head-on, however uncomfortable it may be for audiences. Hearing some of the chatter around Hard to Be a God has made it sound like German’s up-close-and-personal approach was an error of judgment. On the contrary, it’s the full-contact nature of his film that has made it so palpable, immersive, and vitally challenging.

While not a polemic in the tradition of Seidl’s oeuvre (although the allusions to life in Putin’s Russia have been a critical talking point, among other allegorical readings), Hard to Be a God is resolutely in-your-face and makes no apologies for it. But the notion of facing grim and unfashionable truths isn’t limited to this ultimate autuerist production: the same could be said of Sebastiao Salgado’s art, subject of Wim Wenders and son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s far more charitably received The Salt of the Earth. Salgado’s powerful photographs of famine and genocide are worthy of more than our averted gaze. The desperate faces captured are reflections of a fucked up world, and Wenders—who brilliantly conceived the talking head portions of his previous documentary Pina as a gallery of faces in introspection—turns their collective image into an intermediary plane. From one side, we are asked to confront the humanity and the horror. From the other Salgado faces us, with his commentary to the camera not only a direct address but also a live response to the memory of the people in each photograph. From what I could gather (although I could be completely wrong), Wenders employs an interviewing system not unlike Errol Morris’s ‘Interrotron’, and he uses dissolves to reveal Salgado’s weary eyes looking deep into the images. The effect of this tandem contemplation with the artist is doubly profound.

img_hardtobeagod2At 177 minutes, Hard to Be a God has invariably prompted complaints of excessive duration. Faulting a film’s running time is seldom warranted and is lazy criticism for the most part (novel length, by contrast, is rarely subjected to the same scrutiny), though it has nonetheless been a conversation starter at a festival boasting a record seven features near or surpassing the three-hour mark. On the subject of long-form cinema, would the outstanding Norte, the End of History have attracted a better attendance this year with strength in numbers? And would it be churlish to argue that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood could and should have been longer given the ambition of its concept? (Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday, a similar film shot over a five-year period, was definitely sold short at a paltry 106 minutes.) In regards to Hard to Be a God, I would say that any film as visceral as German’s has a finite length, and it is pushed to the absolute limit. It is gruelling from start to finish, and yet I can’t imagine my experience being anywhere near as engrossing and indelible without that significant amount of time spent in the cinema. It may be stating the obvious, but Hard to Be a God is not a film of instant gratification. Once I had washed myself of its muck, it stuck in other thought-provoking ways. It remains unforgettable. 

Hard to Be a God’ was proudly sponsored by The Lumière Reader at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other

Manakamana (Stephanie Spray/Pacho Velez, USA/Nepal, 2013)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington

Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German, Russia, 2013)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington

Filed under: Features, FILM, Film Festivals

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.