The Mortality of Things:
Final thoughts on NZIFF 2012

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
Endings were nigh at the New Zealand International Film Festival—thematically, the richest on record.

The glories of digital cinema projection were placed front and centre at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, though not without a caveat with the wholesale replacement of film looming large. (The corrupt file responsible for a subtitling glitch on several festival sessions at the Penthouse Cinema reminding us that all technology, however fantastic, is fallible.[1]) Three years ago, Wellington audiences tiptoed through a side entrance to the gaudy Reading Cinemas complex for what was the festival’s inaugural DCP screening. Like everyone else who saw The White Ribbon that evening, I was impressed not only by the film—yet another trophy in the cabinet of Michael Haneke’s ironclad oeuvre—but by the game-changing digital presentation. If the sensation of witnessing those striking, blemish-free images was disorienting to begin with—akin to receiving my first pair of glasses and experiencing the world proper—what was posited by this new way of seeing was the beginning of the end for celluloid, at least as a viable format for theatrical exhibition in the not too distant future.

The speed and belligerence in which the industry has moved to standardize the Digital Cinema Package ever since caught up with the festival this winter, and the inclusion of documentary Side by Side by programmers seemed as much an attempt to highlight the logistics of managing a myriad of differently-equipped venues and the efforts of their staff to roll out the DCP system where possible (particularly, outside of the main centres), as it was an opportunity to present a timely primer on the state of the art. Chris Kenneally’s informative overview of the digital cinema revolution makes for a fine synopsis of the transition currently taking place, as well as a basic introduction to the nuts and bolts of both the photochemical process and the technology now superseding film. Unfortunately, its interests lean heavily towards the production of movies, if not the redundant debate over whether shooting on film stock or a digital image sensor is superior. (Both equally have their merits.) Regardless of a filmmaker’s preference, the camera is and will always remain just a tool, and movies will continue to be made in spite of the paradigm shift that Side by Side explores. (Case in point: Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film.) Tellingly, its title suggests an exercise in compare and contrast, and if less face time had been given to blowhard Hollywood directors on either side of the fence (most, admittedly, in the pro-digital camp), the serious concerns of exhibitors, archivists, and audiences around the now endangered legacy of film might’ve been adequately addressed.

In its discussion of the form and function of two divergent mediums, Side by Side settles for the most routine arguments in the standoff between analogue and digital art forms. Nevertheless, it does manage to strike one salient point specific to moviemaking: whether you’re Christopher Nolan (pro-film) or James Cameron (pro-digital), the fact that soon there may no longer be a choice for how directors shoot their projects is regrettable to say the least. This lament, however, doesn’t begin to consider the implications for a century of cinema mastered on film stock, and the existence of those prints in a brave new digital world. Nor does it compare, for that matter, to the human and artistic loss experienced by the practitioners of a once thriving Cambodian cinema, whose surviving members are in no position to contemplate change. As Golden Slumbers, Davy Chou’s elegant reclamation of a lost national cinema stresses, the more pressing issue is not how motion pictures will be shot or delivered going forward, but whether they will be preserved at all.

Systemically destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, the movies of a generation—some 400 melodramas, fantasies, and tawdry love stories—never stood a chance during the Pol Pot regime, nor did many of the actors and filmmakers who brought such strange and vibrant visions to the screen. Chou tracks down a handful of industry veterans and cinephiles still alive to recall the golden age of Cambodian cinema (1960-75), and through their lucid memories, a verbal reconstruction begins to take place. Scenes from such vanished oddities as The Seahorse and The Weeping Rose of Battambang are played out with surprising clarity against sobering tales of execution and devastation within the creative community, while a fertile back catalogue of Cambodian torch songs provides a heady musical conduit for these filmic recollections to flood back. With understated flourish, Chou’s documentary evokes the non-fiction films of Jia Zhang-ke, which are remarkable for their historical imagination as much as their factual storytelling. Like Jia’s recent 24 City, Golden Slumbers honours the testimony of individuals not simply for posterity’s sake, but as a way of remembering the past through a creative act—specifically, the act of telling.

There’s an intellect to Chou’s approach—one centred on relocating history from a permanent state on a constant plane to a temporary field open to recreation and imagination—that resonated strongly with me, and quite possibly coloured my interpretation of Ross McElwee’s Photographic Memory. Long-time fans of the constant autobiographer may find reason to place this latest documentary at the thin end of his oeuvre, and sure enough, the critical consensus points towards the forced assembly of the film. As contrived as the coincidences in McElwee’s search for a former mentor and lover appear, though, I found myself looking through rather than sideways at his record of far-flung youth. The themes of the film—the uncertainty of memory, the provenance of artifacts such as photos and journals, and the unreliability of even this physical evidence—go some way to reassuring me that McElwee is acutely aware of the pretense of documentary, and that the heavy hand with which he weaves remnants of the past together with his present sixty-something self is both deliberate and transparent in nature.

I’ve always found it comforting catching up with a new McElwee film, and to see his half-obscured face pressed to the eyepiece of a camera crop up regularly throughout Photographic Memory spoke not only of the personal tenor of his documentaries, but of the people and histories captured between his reflection and the lens—a double image, if you will. It was therefore a shame that the aforementioned themes weren’t treated with the fullness that they deserve, however, in the context of a festival already rich in related ruminations, the film’s murmurs were heard loud and clear. McElwee, who has been photographing himself, his family, and his acquaintances since the seventies, at one point ponders the tactility of his filmed memories against the digitization of the medium, an upheaval brought into sharp relief by his son Adrian’s full immersion in the digital age (now a sullen young man, head regularly buried in a laptop or smartphone), and his own adoption of technology through the making of this documentary (Photographic Memory is McElwee’s first feature to be shot with a digital video camera). His thoughts were yet another echo of the slow death of film, with Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea reverberating strongest of all as a requiem for celluloid’s power, alchemy, and materiality. Rivers literally closes the aperture on the final scene of his unforgettable film. As the glow of the campfire agonizingly fades to black, we realise, in a moment of sobering finality, that without light, the magic of the chemical process cannot begin.

Two Years at Sea was the most invigorating film I encountered at the festival, however as a desolate, edge-of-the-world reverie, it was hard to escape the certitude of its ‘last rites’ tone. Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, on the other hand, pushed cinema to the precipice, and then asked us to consider what comes next (if anything at all). Ever perceptive, The Lumière Reader’s Steve Garden has already grasped many of the references present in the film in his post-festival report, and it would be remiss of me not direct readers there before offering my own thoughts. (New Zealand blogger Doug Dillaman also writes vividly of his reaction to the film.) Needless to say, Holy Motors is a work of abundant imagination and intertextuality, but also one tempered by a deep, abiding sorrow. In the end, Carax’s film is less ecstatic than it is eulogistic about the outlook for cinema, and for all its expressive and performative qualities, the spectre of mortality lurks around every corner.

When its star, the singular Denis Lavant, bemoans how small movie cameras have become—a pointed remark about the digital revolution vis-à-vis the diminishing truth, spectacle, and beauty of cinema—the film’s momentum shifts from the outrageous exhibitionism of Lavant’s ‘job’ (a series of appointments in which a character is performed for the public’s entertainment, one a feral sewer dwelling man earlier conceived in Carax’s sequence for the portmanteau movie Tokyo!), to a sort of death march through the darkened streets of Paris. Holy Motors has jolted and bemused audiences, and its capacity to inspire and exhilarate cannot be denied, but there’s also no mistaking the pensive mood of the film, and in light of its dedication to the late Yekaterina Golubeva, the heavy heart with which Carax has made it. Even its closing vignette, of a row of limousines that begin talking to one another, is anchored to a depth of feeling that transcends its outwardly goofy appearance. Locked away in a warehouse, like outmoded equipment put out to pasture, the limousines—mobile prop and costume departments used to transport Lavant and his fellow actors between appointments—are really no different from the toys gathering dust in a box in Pixar’s Toy Story movies. Out of sight and mind, they also can’t help but contemplate their fate.

A force to be reckoned with, Michael Haneke collected his second Palme d’Or (with consecutive films, no less) for the festival’s centrepiece, Amour, a masterpiece in the most obvious sense of the word. It’s difficult to imagine a more sparing and distilled depiction of physical and mental deterioration, and contributing to its potency, Haneke has loosened his steely grip enough to allow the actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both extraordinary) and the circumstances they portray to stand alone. In claiming the top prize at Cannes so unanimously, though, critics and audiences have been too quick to exalt Amour as the last word on death by illness. For my part, nothing can top the savagery and human complexity of Maurice Pialat’s 1974 film La gueule ouverte (A Mouth Agape, NZIFF 2006), while in closer proximity, German director Andreas Dresen offered an equally valid and truthful representation of terminal illness. Unfairly overshadowed, Stopped on Track wears its emotions on its sleeve without nose-diving into melodrama, with its performers couching their anger, confusion, and embarrassment in a controlled naturalism typical of Dresen’s cinema. To have two films explicitly about the physical and emotional exhaustion of death at the festival was unusual; not so much the inherent mortality in all things, a theme that spread far and wide across the programme. What edged Dresen’s film ahead for me was its commitment to a hands-on realism, one as constructed as Haneke’s, yet very much within arm’s reach. Its achievement aside, Amour is a courageous work of fiction experienced from behind a glass screen. We see everything with clarity, but still can’t touch.

In the interest of full disclosure, the session I attended of Crazy Horse screened without subtitles (due to gremlins in the system, as noted above), meaning I’m unable to write with any certainty about the merits of the film until I catch up with it properly. Still, as a natural progression from the bodies in motion in La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, Frederick Wiseman’s latest remained interminably watchable despite the insurmountable language barrier. At the risk of sounding like a perv, my full attention was ushered towards the eye-popping (and occasionally fascist-themed) routines of the Crazy Horse dancers, whose nudist numbers are transformed by all the masking, silhouetting, and patterned lighting that goes on; the blacked-out stage even approximating the dimensions of a cinemascope frame. The best analogue I can offer is the quintessential opening title sequence to a 007 film: hard outlines, shapely women, garish colours, psychedelic geometry. Beyond its abstract visual pleasures, I expect Wiseman’s uncluttered observational style to reveal an internal narrative, if not a social or political tension, in the behind-the-scenes conversation captured that was, alas, indecipherable, although by no means crucial to the enjoyment of the film.

On a completely different note, the earthy Winter Nomads documented a world far removed from the nightly artifice at the Crazy Horse revue. Old-school shepherd Pascal sets off with his eager-to-please female assistant Carole on another ‘transhumance’—a season-long trek across rural Switzerland that’s designed, as centuries-old tradition dictates, to naturally fatten sheep. The 800-strong herd marshaled by the stoic duo and several sheepdogs is no walk in the park, at times resembling a scene from Red River, although a closer movie relative worth mentioning is the delightful Cave of the Yellow Dog. Like that film, Winter Nomads exudes a simple charm while presenting a lifestyle that isn’t as liberally enlightened as one might expect. Indeed, what’s nice about Manuel von Stürler’s debut feature is how it effortlessly fuses tradition and modernity, minus the usual tensions associated with change. Yes, occasionally Pascal and Carole struggle to find a suitable route to direct their sheep and set up camp, often having to inch their way through countryside demarcated by privately owned lifestyle blocks. If urbanism is suggested as a threat to their way of life, though, the pair take it in their stride. They certainly don’t say no to a visit to the supermarket, nor for that matter, treating themselves at the deli section to foie gras: the irony of their inhumanely produced supper not lost on this viewer.

Elsewhere, the arm wrestle between tradition and modernity was quietly observed through the haze of globalization by three lyrical films—all, incidentally, situated on islands. Gonçalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth, Not the Moon illustrates the languorous rhythms of ‘island time’ by unhurriedly documenting the topography and community of Portuguese settlement Corvo, although his seemingly relaxed approach to ethnography belies the urgency of the volcanic island’s situation. With less than 500 inhabitants, and the lure of Lisbon an ever-present temptation, the island’s constituency appears to be constantly in the balance. As tourism and development opportunities set the tone for life in Corvo to come, Tocha’s camera gravitates towards the elders, whose stories of the island’s rich, unknown history form the basis of what might be described as a kind of ‘living archeology’. Paul Janman’s aptly titled Tongan Ark also has preservation in mind as it chronicles the intellectual legacy of Futa Helu, founder of the ‘Atenisi Institute. This alternative university, which promotes free thinking and expression outside of the influence of the Tongan government and Christian faith, is similarly at a crossroads insofar as its survival and continuity relies—and thrives—on the conflation of European and Polynesian traditions. Janman’s vital documentary is thankfully no hagiography, and the complexity and unease of the cultural binding it explores is plain to see—particularly, in the film’s dramatic footage of the 2006 Nuku‘alofa riots. And then there’s Alyx Duncan’s The Red House, a discursive narrative feature attuned to a sense of the world in flux. Relayed both intimately and globally, the film’s masterstroke is to locate its central concerns—among them, notions of belonging, upheaval, and memory—along a moving axis between island and country, if not fiction and reality. Its thematic ambition alone cements it as not only one of the most stimulating New Zealand films in recent memory, but of this year’s festival.

We don’t see the faces of Rodney Ascher’s five ‘experts’ in Room 237—his nominally entertaining, but otherwise disingenuous inquiry into Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Ascher, of all people, knows that if he were to present his tin foil hat analysts as talking heads, their theories on the hidden meanings within the film would be laughed off the floor. As things stand, their collective investigation into The Shining as anything from an architectural paradox to proof of Kubrick’s involvement in the faked Apollo moon-landing is already hard to take seriously—either because it’s conjecture, or just plain bogus. By editing excerpts from The Shining and other Kubrick films to the voiceover commentary of his pundits, Ascher at least affords their interpretations a degree of objectivity through relative anonymity. Even so, there’s something dishonest about the way he ferries what are clearly delusional theories—many of which are based purely on continuity errors—through the guise of serious film criticism. Only the hypothesis that The Shining is an allegory for genocide is remotely plausible—because let’s be honest, many real film critics have projected barely credible ideas onto movies in search of contemporary relevance before this one. In keeping with this notion, may I also speculate then that Room 237 is yet further evidence of our gullibility as a society? The folks behind Room 237 aren’t charlatans; rather, through their own curiosity and willingness to magnify the smallest detail, they’ve fooled themselves into believing the ridiculous.

Gullibility was also a central conceit of Craig Zobel’s Compliance. True to form, Steve Garden has written insightfully on the subtext behind the film’s controversial reenactment of a prank call-turned-sexual assault, and his reading certainly illuminates many of the grey areas not necessarily apparent to the enraged viewer. (Compliance has garnered a reputation for inciting walk-outs and shouting matches.) I agree there’s plenty going on beneath the shock value of its premise, although for mine, Zobel’s script is still disappointingly short on psychological inquiry. While the nature of compliance is primarily explored from the viewpoint of the subservient restaurant manager (chillingly played by Ann Dowd), the physical humiliation and abuse of the victim—as instructed by the ‘police officer’ over the phone—is carried out by the manager’s gormless fiancé. In the aftermath of this crime, a burning question remains: what really compelled him to sexually molest the victim beyond the fact that he was told to do so? The disturbing notion—that part of him wanted to against his own judgment, if we are to believe he had any in the first place—is all but sidestepped in favour of exposing the phone prankster in person, humanized here as a middle-aged family man smugly lodged in the comfort of his suburban home. To contextualize the perpetrator while overlooking the mindset of his accomplice—reduced to a mere cipher in the scheme of things—is a cop-out on Zobel’s part, leaving us no wiser to the complicity of those involved.

Finally, some unmistakable highlights: principally, the festival’s classy presentation of Victor Fleming’s flirty silent era comedy, Mantrap, featuring a seamless live accompaniment by Wellington band City Oh Sigh, as well as the DCP restoration of Howard Hawk’s glorious reverse-sexist musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (note to programmers: more Technicolor musicals, please); Studio Ghibli’s latest, From Up on Poppy Hill, a welcome return to the poignant, nostalgia-inflected youth melodrama of yesteryear (namely, Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday); Miguel Gomes’s sensuous Tabu, the best example of classical black and white cinematography since Pedro Costa’s O Sangue, and surely the only film to evoke both Jean Renior’s The River and the swooning melodies of Phil Spector’s girl group hits in the same breath; Christian Petzold’s impressive Barbara, easily the most clear-sighted and precisely executed feature I saw at the festival; Neighbouring Sounds and I Wish, two superb films I’ve written on previously (here and here); Joss Whedon’s masterminding of the deviously entertaining The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that, like Holy Motors, asks the question “where to from here?”; and, with the element of surprise, Ben Wheatley’s painfully funny Sightseers. Granted, the homicidal maniacs portrayed are little more than caricatures—it’s why Sightseers can conveniently be described as a cross between The Trip, Human Remains, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Natural Born Killers—however as far as disgruntled black comedies go, it sure hit the spot (as did Nash Edgerton’s preceding short film Bear, a perfect piece of programming). In a month also crowded by the grim media spectacle of The Dark Knight Rises, a bit of extra class rage didn’t go amiss at a festival porous to the here and now.

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2012 continues throughout the country until November. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

[1] A bit of perspective: The technical difficulties experienced by the Penthouse Cinema during the festival, although an obvious inconvenience, seem minor when compared to other digital projection issues reported around the world, such as the New York Film Festival’s aborted premiere of Passion, or closer to home, the magnificent Astor Theatre’s sometimes rocky relationship with the ‘digital revolution’. (Recently, a local preview screening of Moonrise Kingdom was also cancelled due to an incompatibile KDM.) All of which can be attributed to either general teething problems, or a lack of forethought by an industry too eager and impatient to reconstitute the means of film distribution and exhibition.