Post-Festival Report 2009, Part 3: In Praise of Slow-Burning Cinema

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
Final thoughts on the New Zealand International Film Festival.

While cinema can be an effective platform for political expression, it’s often no more than a comforting diversion, but the New Zealand International Film Festival has had an impressive proportion of challenging and thought-provoking films in every one of its 40-odd programmes. This year’s festival was no exception. For me, many of the films will be a foretaste of what I’m likely to pursue in the coming year, films of the slow-burning variety, by which I mean those that don’t reveal themselves in one sitting, but continue to haunt me until I seek them out and explore them further. Alexei German Jr’s Paper Soldier epitomises such unfinished business, a treasure that needs to be seen more than once to fully appreciate its complexity, but mostly to luxuriate in its cinematic quality.

While not quite in the same league, Greek filmmaker Yorgas Lanthimos’s Dogtooth is a film that rewards return visits. It’s hard to recommend the film to those with delicate sensibilities (cat-lovers and prudes take note), but for those with the constitution for blunt intensity and crypt-dry, pitch-black wit, the film has much to say about political manipulation. As with von Trier’s Antichrist, one can appreciate the ideas in Dogtooth without necessarily liking the film. I have time for both, although neither are likely to become personal favourites. All the same, they are well worth a look—maybe two.

I write assuming that readers have seen the film, so if you haven’t and don’t wish to know more, jump ahead. Those who have will recall that the plot concerns a privileged family of three late teen/early twenty-year-olds (one boy, two girls) who live with mum and dad in a large fenced-in property on the outskirts of an unidentified town. They have been brought up to fear the world beyond the perimeter of their home, so no one leaves the premises but dad, an executive at a security-protected factory. We never find out what the factory produces, but the various blue canisters look ominous against the bleached industrial background (colours that subtly denote the Greek flag). The stark images of the factory suggest an enterprise dedicated to profit and power: a sprawling array of windowless buildings, silos and chimneys, designed without concession to environmental, visual or psychic pollution. The fear (and paranoia) the children live with is not entirely fabricated or unfounded.

The only telephone in the house is hidden in the parents’ bedroom, and is solely for mum to speak to dad when he is at work. This alludes to ideas about restricted access, privileged channels of communication, and the corporate control of communications technology. The parents shape their children’s understanding of the world by ascribing false meaning to objects and concepts: a strong wind is called a motorway; a vagina is a keyboard; an excursion is a flooring material, etc. Such disinformation is intended to keep the children in a state of ignorance and dependence, ostensibly to protect them, but actually to control them and ensure their ineffectiveness in the ‘real’ world. But as the children listen to the taped lessons, their unease suggests that they might (on some level) be aware that they are being lied to. This alludes to totalitarian and/or religious ‘re-education’ and ‘right-thinking’, and the political double-speak characteristic of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rove-Wolfowitz-Rice-Powell tag-team.

There are no friends or wider family, although we learn that a fourth child (a boy who apparently left home before he was ‘properly prepared’) lives unhappily beyond the fence-line, enabling the parents to use him as a deterrent against disobedience. Some viewers assume that the parents invented him, but the children seem to have memories of their brother. This could be due to the effectiveness of the lie, but it’s also possible that something unspeakable may have happened to him. Either way, the parents soon decide to fabricate his death, allowing them to reinforce the dangers of the outside world and the relative safety of their controlling influence. They tell the children that a cat (a dangerous child-eating predator) killed their brother, so the family are trained to bark like dogs to scare them off. All of this could allude to the way in which enemies are exaggerated or created (often by fostering xenophobia) in order to pursue covert political or economic agendas and increase tighter security and control. “If you stay inside,” dad says, “you will be protected.”

The family have no contact with (or experience of) the world beyond their high-fenced boundary, except for Christina, a security guard at dad’s factory who is brought in once a week to service the sexual needs of the boy (after which she procures a little sexual attention for herself from the older girl). Apart from Rex (the family dog, who is away at guard-dog school), Christina is the only character with a name. The fact that family members are nameless signals Lanthimos’s allegorical intentions. It might be a stretch, but as Christina is the only non-family member we see within the ‘compound’, it’s tempting to read a touch of metaphor into her name (Christ-In), particularly as she is the one to bring ‘truth’ into the house in the form of subversive art. While Rocky and Jaws are not exactly subversive movies, their impact on the family certainly is. As a result, Christina is relieved of her duties with swift and violent precision, forcing the parents to consider the safer option of incest. One of the daughters is duly prepared.

When the family sit down to watch videos, it turns out to be their own home movies. Mouthing the dialogue as they watch, they’re obviously familiar with the tapes and clearly enjoy them. It’s a caustic comment on the pacifying nature of populist cinema: formulaic, affirming, non-threatening examples of how to be hard working, obedient, responsible, law-abiding consumers. This idea is accentuated later in the film when dad goes to see if Rex is ready to take up his position as part of the home/land security. He’s told that it takes time to train a dog. “Every dog is waiting,’ says the expert, “for us to show him how he should behave.” On the walls are portraits of dogs in erect poses that express obedience, vigilance, strength, loyalty and submission. “We want dogs to do whatever we ask of them without hesitation. Do you understand?” The question is directed towards the audience as much as to dad.

One subtle detail in the background of Dogtooth is a portrait of dad that the boy is painting, which gradually takes shape as the film progresses. It indicates the extent to which dad is pivotal to the family’s worldview, and recalls the portraits of (usually fascist) political leaders. Eventually the eldest (and most inquisitive) daughter starts to come undone. Her new knowledge of the world (via Christina’s videos) has unlocked something in her, compelling her to act. According to the parent’s theory of everything, the sign that a child is ready to leave home is when the ‘dogtooth’ (eye-tooth) loosens and falls out. She decides to hurry the process along with a small set of weights. It isn’t pretty, but it earns her a passkey to freedom—which will probably result in death.

If it isn’t patently obvious from the above description, Dogtooth is an allegory. On the one hand, the film reflects the totalitarianism Greece once endured (and that may still linger in a similar way to the fascism that continues to stalk Europe in the work of Ulrich Seidl and Michael Haneke—clear influences on Dogtooth). It’s also a metaphor for any form of ideological control (religious, political, etc.), in that virtually every scene is an allegorical reflection of a propagandised, dysfunctional society. Consequently, I’m of the opinion that the film is intended to be read as a commentary on the acquiescent ignorance of the privileged West.

Despite the influence of Seidl, the transgressive character of the film feels calculated and rather easy. There is no allegory to unravel in Seidl’s films. He doesn’t allude; he shows. His films confront us with the real, even at his most fictitious. One senses that Lanthimos wants it both ways: to be taken seriously for his subtextual intent, while courting controversy for the sake of PR. Maybe not, it’s hard to say. But there are no such doubts about the work of Jia Zhang-ke, especially his superb new film, 24 City.

It terms of slow-burning cinema, they don’t burn as surely as Jia’s. 24 City is his most dense, challenging film to date. It might also be one of his greatest achievements, but its measured pace demands concentration (a tough call late in the festival when one is getting a little punch-drunk). I could have—I should have—gone to both screenings. Instead, I gave into the temptation of Almodóvar’s trifle. So now, haunted by images and impressions, I’m hanging out to see 24 City again. The ideas implicit in Dogtooth concerning control and submission appear in this film with sobering immediacy. Its scope is vast, and Jia’s genius is in finding the perfect form to serve the film’s thematic complexity. Part documentary, part fiction, Jia initially set out to film the dismantling of the military equipment factory known as Chengfa. A real-estate company purchased the site with the intention of building a massive apartment block, and late in 2007, the go-ahead to dismantle was approved. Hundreds of workers lost their jobs, motivating Jia to film the event in order to (as he put it in an interview) ‘use cinema to keep their story from disappearing’.

The story is typical of urbanization in China today, and fits neatly into Jia’s thematic concerns. 24 City mirrors his artistic methodology: his practise of alternating between documentary and fiction. Jia says that he makes documentaries to discover things, and fiction to express, particularly to comment on the transformation of China. In 24 City, he does both, signalling a major formal and aesthetic development for a filmmaker renowned for his rigor and intelligence. 24 City depicts both physical and cultural transformations: the dismantling of Chengfa is not just the loss of a building, but of a monument to a particular ethos, just as the 24 City housing complex speaks to a new and entirely different one.

24 City focuses on individuals, each compartmentalised (and isolated) by the film’s episodic structure (nine segments consisting of five interviews with real people and four fictional monologues that cover Chengfa’s early years to the present day), a formal representation of the shift from collectivism to individualism for which the Chengfa/24 City transformation stands as a potent allegory. The dismantling of the building is used as a metaphor for the dismantling of a people, and with them, an ethos (or faith) based on communality. The sacrifices of earlier generations are also dismantled, broken into chunks and sold to contractors. It recalls Edward Yang’s comments (after the release of Confucian Confusion) that wealth was never intended for the people, and conformism and sacrifice were stressed for the sake of social harmony and security. In some ways, nothing has changed, except that now there is less chance of harmony and security, unless you can afford it.

The first five interviews are the more emotionally penetrative and resonant, probably because they are real people. The last four are actors, which marks a shift to a slightly more analytical mode. It’s interesting that actors take over once the film moves closer to the present day, as if to avoid seeming critical of real people. Remembering the past (respecting it, learning from it, cherishing it, living with it) is an important part of Jia’s cinema, in which he attempts to ensure that China (and the rest of the world) doesn’t forget.

Chengfa was like a large family where everyone played their part. In return, social services (such as health and education) were provided for workers and their families. 24 City illustrates the contrast between the submissive attitude of workers then, and the entrepreneurial attitude today—a reversal of the shared responsibility of the past. In Jia’s press release, he says that history is a blend of ‘facts and imagination’, carefully avoiding the word ‘fiction’ with its suggestion of fabrication, if not lying. While there is no overt reference to it, the whiff of Western economic penetration is everywhere.

Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take is an idiosyncratic blend of historic fact and fiction that casts a wry eye on commercial and political duplicity, by assembling archival news footage, sexist television advertisements, and Alfred Hitchcock’s droll introductions to his late 50s TV series, ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. To this he added a Borges inspired Tom McCarthy story, in which Hitchcock takes an extended lunch during the making of The Birds in 1962 to meet a man in a hotel who turns out to be his future self from 1980—the year of his death. There is also a kind of documentary portrait of Hitchcock look-alike, Ron Burrage (who played Hitchcock in Robert Lepage’s The Confessional).

The archival material mostly reflects the anxiety of the Cold War period, using footage of the space-race; the Cuban missile crisis; the Kennedy/Nixon debate; Nixon meeting Krushchev; Fidel Castro in Russia; etc. The notion of doubles is given a contemporary parallel with footage of the Empire State Building after being hit by a small plane back in 1945. This is paired with footage at the end of the film of Rumsfeld delivering his infamous speech about ‘known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns’, clearly contextualising the film with a pointedly modern political anxiety, and giving emphasis to the notion of ‘double-dealing’ that has percolated throughout the film. Instant coffee ads (promoting the product of the Hitchcock series sponsor) underline the theme of manipulation and coercion, neatly wedding the insidious practise of convincing consumers to ‘buy’ something they don’t need (and which, more to the point, is fake) to broader considerations about entertainment, televised news, and duplicitous political rhetoric.

Grimonprez is perhaps best known for Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, his 1998 cine-essay on plane hijacking. In Double Take, he does a bit of hijacking of his own by constructing archival footage into a thoughtful piece about, among other things, the use of fear as a powerful political tool (regardless of political persuasion). As such, there is a distinct parallel between Grimonprez’s thematic intentions and those in Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, and (less overtly) Jia’s 24 City. However, despite the seriousness of Grimonprez’s film, it isn’t (in my view) in the same league as Jia’s masterpiece or Lanthimos’s challenging allegory. Double Take isn’t a long film, but it might have been more effective shorter. The tale about Hitchcock meeting himself and (particularly) the Burrage segments are recursive and somewhat tiresome, and yet they dominate the film. It’s as if Grimonprez and his producers weren’t confident that the allegory (which is more interesting and pertinent) would be enough to sustain an audience’s attention. While Double Take is entertaining and interesting enough to sustain one viewing, it isn’t enough for two.

Speaking of second viewings, prior to the festival I saw a DVD screener of Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis on a television. It was enough to give me a sense that the film and its director were worth checking out, but it didn’t prepare me for the experience of seeing it in a theatre—a salutary reminder that cinema requires scale. Serbis is exhilarating. Bristling with energy, this messy, noisy, angry but compassionate film is a clear signal that the grunge poetry of this award-winning director shouldn’t be ignored. Mendoza’s constantly roving camera explores every nook and cranny of the dilapidated theatre within which the film is set (appropriately named ‘The Family’). Its flooded toilets and dusty interiors evoke the dank texture of Tsai Ming-liang’s sodden cine-scapes, but the passing likeness to Tsai is superficial. Mendoza has thick Filipino blood in his veins, and there is nothing post-modern or minimalist about his visceral style of filmmaking. Where Tsai’s characters are alienated from their environment, Mendoza’s people are fully alive to their world, even if they have little control over it. While the milieu and ennui may be similar, the expression is all Brillante. It seems that Filipino cinema has a striking and important new filmmaker in their corner, and we may have a potentially great new auteur to keep our eye on.

Another second viewing worth mentioning briefly is Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours. In my earlier capsule, I mentioned how Assayas used the opportunity of contributing to the recent series of films commissioned by the Musee d’Orsay to take a swing at the custodians of public art—in other words, the museum that commissioned him! It now seems that the Musée d’Orsay have disowned the film. Zut alors! I’m going to assume therefore that with his new film, Assayas has hit a few nails squarely on their ‘precious-elevated-opinion-of-themselves’ heads. Assayas can be patchy, but that depends on one’s taste. For the life of me I can’t understand why demonlover is so highly rated, just as I can’t understand why Desplechin’s hollow A Christmas Tale gets people’s juices flowing, or that possibly fewer people than I care to admit are likely to recognise how far-reaching (and ultimately saddening) the perceptions in Summer Hours are. Claire Denis’s near-transcendent masterwork 35 Shots of Rum aside, this was one of the better French films in the festival, and one of Assayas’s most mature films.

Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira made a sporadic handful of films between 1931 and 1965, but in 1972 (at the age of 64, when most people are retiring), he returned to filmmaking in earnest. He made three films in the 70s, seven in the 80s, and has made at least one film a year since 1990. We have been lucky to see a few of them over the years (thanks to the NZIFF and those available on DVD), but much of Oliveira’s oeuvre remains teasingly elusive. Consequently, it’s hard to get a firm handle on it, although there are one or two certainties. He has a fondness for literary adaptations, especially by Portuguese writers. He has an equal fondness for history and philosophic thought (particularly as expressed in the arts). He is world-wise, has a subtle but playful sense of irony and an extremely dry wit. His influences include Dreyer, Buñuel and Bresson, and his work is characterised by an appreciation for allegory with strong philosophic and moral underpinnings, and sensitivity to the ironic tensions between life and art. His films express a love of cinema, but an even greater love of life. When asked about his views recently, he had this to say: “If you stop, you die; if you keep going, you live. Education is the most important thing. From a government’s point of view, the most important thing must be health. A sick country is nothing. But in second place must be education, and then there is art and culture, which go hand in hand with education. Knowledge is the essence of humanity, and without that we cannot progress.”

His new film, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, is an adaptation of a story by Portuguese realist Eco di Queiroz, and is the tale of a young accountant who falls in love with the titular blond. He tells his story to a stranger on a train, a journey that will frame the film as well as inform the broader implications of the tale. Namely, that life is a measured portion of time (stressed by the regular tolling of the town clock marking the passing hours, and frequent shots of the township from a repetitive vantage point but at different times of the day) that is invariably compromised by our insistence that it conform to our expectations. In a nutshell, the story is about the man’s aspiration to woo and wed (or more to the point, be wedded to) his vision of loveliness, the trials he endures to achieve that aim, and the final unbearable realisation that she is (like all of us) a fallible human being, something his principled romantic severity simply cannot accommodate.

Some have complained that Eccentricities of a Blond is old-fashioned and ultimately slight, but in my view, that’s why it’s so good. Oliveira depicts the conflict between the worldly and the spiritual that, depending on how one reads it, could also be a critical comment on the state of the global economic climate and the underlying attitudes behind it. When the blond hair girl is left rejected and alone at the end, we sense that the image alludes to more than her personal agony.

Like the best art, it requires the essential element of the perceptive input, experience and understanding of the viewer, so one’s appreciation of this (and all Oliveira’s art) is dependant upon what one brings to it. As always, Oliveira has followed his own muse, and in doing so has made a wise and witty study of delusional idealism, reminiscent (in some respects) to Orson Welles’ late (and also brief) 1968 masterwork, The Immortal Story. The quality of the craftsmanship is exemplary, and the vivid intelligence behind every gesture, camera placement, subtle use of sound, and aspect of the rich and subtly detailed mise-en-scene speaks of an alert, compassionate, and generous soul.

Eccentricities has a fable-like, moral-tale-like, bedtime-story-like character that belies the depth and wisdom beneath it’s graceful, carefully composed surfaces. It is far from the flippant diversion it might seem to be to the casual or impatient viewer. Like many of the films I most enjoyed at this year’s festival, Manoel de Oliveira’s exquisite gem belongs to a style of cinema intended for those who are prepared to bring themselves fully to it. Subtext and allegory aside, the quiet magnificence of Oliveira’s filmmaking not only lifts the heart, it is a fine argument for cinema as art. Best of all, one doesn’t have to understand it.

*  *  *

As the films I saw at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival gradually settle within me, the film that currently resonates the most is Alexei German Jr’s Paper Soldier.

Other standouts were 35 Shots of Rum (second only to Paper Soldier), Jeanne Dielman, Birdsong, 24 City, Still Walking, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, Wendy and Lucy, Blind Loves, Modern Life, Treeless Mountain, Serbis, Un Lac and Our Beloved Month of August. We certainly weren’t deprived of our cinematic jollies this year, despite the recession or the rumour that the festival was apparently feeling the financial pinch.

Trailing in a tight pack behind the leading bunch are Four Nights with Anna, Dogtooth, Summer Hours, Van Dieman’s Land, Samson and Delilah, Tulpan, Theatre of War, Enjoy Poverty, Examined Life, Before Tomorrow, Mary and Max, Mid-August Lunch, Che and the Len Lye programme.

For me, the ‘standout’ films are distinguished from the ‘trailing pack’ in terms of the way form and content successfully relate to each other, and (of course) to me. The sort of films that ring our respective bells is wholly governed by our personal sensibilities. In my case, I look for films with qualities on formal, intellectual, poetic and political levels, ideally all at once! It’s a big ask, but there was an abundance of rich and satisfying examples in this year’s festival, thanks to Bill Gosden and his team.

I’ve also been thinking about Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. I’m fascinated by the reaction to this film, particularly the number of critics who are dismissing it so categorically, something that is potentially more disconcerting than the film itself.

I’m envious that Wellington got to see the new Michael Haneke film, The White Ribbon. I expect it would have been one of my ‘standouts’ had it screened in Auckland. Es ist Leben.