Jane Samborski and Dash Shaw

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Originally published on Ink 19 on August 18, 2021

Some time back in 2013, we were perusing the shelves of our local comic book shop, and a short comic book, ambiguously entitled Three New Stories, hypnotized us. Its layered color washes, unexpected collages, and heavy figure lines pulled us into the world and aesthetic of Dash Shaw, and we’ve been admirers of his comics ever since.

In 2016, we had the privilege of interviewing Shaw to talk about his debut animated film, My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea. A collaboration between Shaw, who was the director and writer, and his wife, Jane Samborski, who was the animation director, the film accomplished a handmade, playful, and bold style indicative of Shaw’s comics that perfectly matched the whimsical plot. For their second feature, Cryptozoo, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and Sundance Film Festival in 2021 in the midst of the pandemic, the duo increased the scale of their film and pushed their animation style and techniques to new heights, and the outcome is a spectacular visual world simultaneously grounded in fantasy and reality that meets the demands of the narrative and themes of Cryptozoo.

At the opening of Cryptozoo, we meet the hippie couple, Amber (Louisa Krause) and Matthew (Michael Cera), on a prototypical self-discovery experience in a forest somewhere in California in the 1960s. The two find a large, ominous barrier wall and scale it, expecting to find something defense related, but their hopes of discovering a nefarious governmental secret fade when the two encounter a unicorn roaming the forest behind the barriers. In an act of foolishness that becomes a perfect representation of how the desire to experience anything and everything can go utterly wrong, Matthew, in attempting to touch the unicorn, startles the creature and is gored by its horn. And Amber, in her grief, kills the unicorn and wears its horn on her neck. Gone are the peace and love hippies we met at the beginning: in their place, on full display, is the ugliness and mess left behind when members of the naive love generation tread into places where they should not be and try to experience things they do not (and cannot) understand, cementing a theme that flows continuously throughout the film.

After the shock of the unicorn death, we meet Lauren Gray (Lake Bell), a champion of cryptids, creatures that exist based on folklore, myths, and individual accounts, but have never been identified as known species by the scientific community. Lauren has committed her life to rescuing cryptids in trouble after a baku consumed her bad dreams as a child and has been the lead conservationist and veterinarian of the Cryptozoo, a sanctuary for cryptids funded by an eccentric heiress named Joan (Grace Zabriskie) and the place that Amber and Matthew unfortunately trespassed into. However, the Cryptozoo, in its noble intentions to protect cryptids and raise awareness around the creatures, treads into the same shaky moral grounds that zoos face when trying to preserve endangered species while showcasing them in captivity in order to sustain and finance their conservation efforts. When Lauren embarks on a mission with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), a cryptid who can disguise herself as a human, to find and save the baku from the US military, we watch on with curiosity to understand how deeply Lauren has bought into the vision of the Cryptozoo, and dread that the baku will inevitably end up in captivity either as a spectacle for entertainment or as a counter-intelligence weapon.

Like the Cryptozoo itself, the film traps the viewer in an era and in a setting where we know the outcome. Though the cryptids themselves are fantastical by definition and in their visual design, their introductions within the Cryptozoo evoke less wonderment and more unease because we invariably know that the fate of the Cryptozoo will be grim based on the actual history of the environmental optimism and good intentions of the 1960s that came to nothing (and even sometimes to the malevolent) in the decades to come.

We sat down with Samborski and Shaw to unpack the consequences of environmentalism and conservationism in the 1960s, the influences for the rendering of the cryptids along with considerations to avoid problematic exoticism in Cryptozoo, and the role of manga and comics in the animated films that the duo create. 

Q (Lily Fierro): Jane, it’s so nice to meet you! We interviewed Dash in 2016 at AFI FEST for My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea. We’ve long been fans of Dash’s comics, and we’re so excited for you both on the success of Cryptozoo. A lot has happened in five years for you both: you left New York for Richmond; you started a family; you did an animation for an episode of 13 Reasons Why. How did all of these events blend together and lead into the genesis and creation of Cryptozoo? What did you take away from your experiences from My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea and the projects you’ve done together since?

A (Dash Shaw): There was definitely a whole lot going on at once when My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea premiered: Jane was pregnant; our baby was born in November of 2016; Trump was elected; and, we moved to Richmond. There was so much there all at once, so I felt like I spent a couple of years afterwards just recovering from all of those things happening. The 13 Reasons Why piece was really wonderful, as we enjoyed doing that little two minute animation, and that sort of became the foundation for how we approached Cryptozoo. Jane learned how to do a structured production line for Cryptozoo from that 13 Reasons Why section. Also, I drew the characters in that 13 Reasons Why clip based on the actors—they aren’t rotoscoped from the actors, but they are figure drawings of the actors, and that kind of became the hope for what Cryptozoo would look like.

A (Jane Samborski): One of the big things that we learned from My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea is just—and every person in the world who wakes up and goes to work in the morning knows this—that you get up; you do your project; you have a structure; and, you complete it all little by little, and having that structure is integral, absolutely critical to finishing things. And all of that gets thrown out of the window when you have these huge life changes. I remember feeling adrift until I started working on Cryptozoo and 13 Reasons Why. A project is the thing in my life that frames the other things. There needs to be a separation between the two, but they don’t need to conflict with each other. By having time to devote to the art and to the larger project, I don’t feel like I am floating around. Right now, for example, I feel floaty because we are in between projects, and I am aching for the next project to start because being in the project is where I am the happiest—knowing that I get to wake up and solve animation problems.

Q (Generoso Fierro): There are many references and inversions of Disney animation conventions in Cryptozoo. A significant one is the opening scene, which we feel is a nod to the killing of Bambi’s mother, a moment which is sometimes considered as a spark for the modern environmental movement. How influential were those early perspectives and efforts of environmentalism on your decision to set Cryptozoo in the 1960s?

A (DS): When I started writing the movie, I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library, and one of the other fellows there was researching countercultural newspapers of the 1960s, and the New York Public Library had all of them in their archives. So, there would be this 1967 free weekly paper from Brazil and another alternative paper from that same week in Chicago, and both would have that same kind of incredible utopian optimism, as well as a particular stylistic quality that was consistent across all of these papers that is almost like a Winsor McCay, thin line, famous new artists look. When I think about people discussing all of these different key moments of the 1960s, the one that was key for me in the genesis of Cryptozoo is the moment when Walt Disney died, and Epcot Center, which was supposed to be an actual city where people would live, was turned into just another amusement park. Amusement parks are products of imagineers, so these places are supposed to be dream worlds where anything is possible, but of course, in actuality, they are very dictated spaces where you feel kind of trapped. And this becomes especially clear in a place like Epcot Center where they are trying to present the whole world to people who haven’t been all over the world, and the choices in representation that were made can seem bizarre. So, in regards to Disney as an influence, I was thinking more about Epcot Center than the Bambi moment, but totally, when you’re rendering the death of a unicorn, it’s something that is so symbolic that it needs extra attention to also be realistic. Jane gets ninety percent of the credit for making that moment actually painful and not a joke and not simply a symbolic, abstract thing happening. That was super important to the movie. You know, Amy Taubin wrote about Cryptozoo for Art Forum, and she mentioned the relation to the Bambi death scene as well, and she described the scene as “hyperreal,” and I think that that is a perfect thing to say about the death of the unicorn, hyperreal.

A (JS): Something else that makes the 1960s a good pairing for this film is that when you think of the 60s, you think of this intense idealism and this drive to fix things, but we are many years out from then, and we know that it didn’t exactly work out. And so, when you’re telling this story where you know from the beginning that the Cryptozoo is going to fall and that the principle discussions that the characters are having with each other are about “how to make the world better,” the 1960s are a time and place that set up a good framework that resonated well with the themes in the movie.

Q (LF): In the film’s narrative, Dash, you touch on how the Cryptozoo theme park, in its displays of mythical creatures from all around the world, treads into problematic territories of exoticism. We understand that, Jane, you designed all of the cryptids, and naturally, in rendering them, you could have also tread into similar difficult areas. How did you ensure that the cryptids weren’t overly exoticized or caricaturish? For example, the baku’s swirls allude to similar swirls in Japanese prints, but they are respectful in their homage.

A (JS): I think honestly that is just me having fun, as I love to paint. I really enjoy the act of painting, and so, I am approaching each of these creatures as a kind of puzzle. I am looking at early renditions from the source cultures, because every cryptid is from its own culture in real life, and it wasn’t difficult because every time I would look at those images, there would be something in them that I was excited about. But, it is all going to come through the filter of Jane. I am the artist that I am. I can only change it so much. And so, I think just focusing on the joy and the honesty of the source material and what I was going to bring to it, I would then end up with a genuine product, I hope.

A (DS): What you are talking about is something we definitely spoke about while making the movie. The goal, I believe, is that, just like all the characters in the movie, to have sincere reasons for why we’re doing the things we do. So, the movie is somehow a collage that is looking at these different motivations and their relationships with each other and with the audience. We were definitely aware of thinking that they have to have a very good reason for creating and running the Cryptozoo that we can believe, but we are also outside of it and judging it as an audience member, and so modulating our experience of that was then the hard thing to keep our eyes on while making the movie.

Q (GF): In making the film, did your perspective on the role of the human in conserving the natural and the unseen evolve over time?

A (DS): So, this is my art school answer to your question: it used to be that people would see a landscape painting as a kind of frivolous, low-genre painting that is cheesy and that has nothing to offer us. There is a Brecht poem that states, “What kind of times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime,” meaning that there is all of this other stuff going on in the world, so why would you paint a landscape when it is totally lame and unnecessary relative to everything else? And now, someone like David Hockney is spending years painting those trees, and, in many ways, they are the most politically relevant paintings that you could make. They are so powerful and important, and so I hope that the landscape paintings in Cryptozoo have some of that feeling because now I feel that it is a crime not to talk about the trees.

A (JS): I think the other thing is that the world had changed a lot over the course of the making of the film. Dash wrote that script before Trump was elected. We had the summer of racial justice as we were coming to a close. We had a very surprising resonance with a line early in the film. I think that when we wrote it, it felt very theoretical. Of course, we were interested in the idea that we were presenting, and believed in those ideas and those questions, but by the time the film actually came out, they felt very real.

DS: You know they played My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea at a theater near where we are and watching that movie again now has a lot of different things that relate to it too.

LF: I think that Cryptozoo is incredibly relevant because there have been more studies coming from academia and conservation that are thinking about how humans can play a role in other species’ evolution. This film is very timely because questions about if and how humans should help species adapt and survive are becoming more important as the environment changes. A great example is in the Great Barrier Reef where, right now, there are scientists who are trying to breed heartier types of coral that can survive the rising temperature of the ocean, but that also has a variety of implications on the environment in the future that we just don’t fully know about today. And so, I think that Cryptozoo plays with similar ideas very well.

JS: Yes, that’s a great example of someone who has this really wonderful idealistic notion, and it’s great if it works, but we always have to be checking in with our idealism to make sure that it’s still steering us in the right direction.

Q (LF): There’s a moment when Lauren and Phoebe go to Kentucky that sticks out in our minds. Lauren suggests that Phoebe would have an easier time in a large, more liberal city. Phoebe informs Lauren that having more space and privacy would be better. It made us realize that the city looms over the film as a concept, but we never really see it. How mindful were you both of the role of physical distance and isolation in the work of Lauren, Joan, and Phoebe? Cryptids, after all, live on the periphery of our notions of reality.

A (DS): Well, I think that you should be our therapist, Lily (laughs) because you’re tapping into something here. I didn’t consciously do this, but yes, at this moment right now, I am consciously thinking about how Lauren would think that the city would be more progressive than how Phoebe sees the reality of it.

A (JS): I remember this more clearly than Dash, I think, but Dash was the impetus for leaving New York. I was fine to stay, but Dash got to this point, especially after his fellowship ended where he said, “I cannot handle people everywhere,” and I get it because there is nowhere that you can go in New York without people everywhere. In our apartment, we could hear other people all of the time, and he started to find that very oppressive. And now he finds the lack of people oppressive (laughs).

DS: I love New York!

JS: But he was desperate to escape. He just doesn’t want to remember that (laughs). And you know, absence makes the heart grow fonder. You remember what you loved about the place that you lived in before. But the thing that you pointed out, there is even more to that because there were a couple of shots that took place in cities that were cut, but they were all in that crazy mayhem section of the film at the end, and so we were just destroying the city, and that was the only city-related content. So, not only did you see what was in the film, but you magically saw what was not in the film too!

LF: It might just be a personal bias because I’ve experienced that feeling of how the city drives you nuts, and you decide to leave it, and then you have some fondness for it, but finally you are glad that you’ve left.

JS: Yeah, that one snuck in under both of our radars, so I’m glad that you alerted us to it.

Q (GF): One of the strongest elements of Cryptozoo is this convergence of reality and fantasy throughout the film. One excellent example of this is the sequence in which Lauren talks about her childhood in Okinawa, where there’s a blending of illustration and archived imagery, and altogether, they pay homage to gekiga illustration styles and topics. Could you talk about the research and development process for this sequence?

A (DS): Well, I thought that Lauren needed to be connected to her childhood because many people have this love of mythological beings that’s rooted in their six year old selves. So, that had to be a real enough motivation for her to do what she does. It’s not like in Indiana Jones where they establish early on that this is the good guy of the movie. Once they [Lauren, Phoebe, and Joan] are buying the child cryptid, you can see that this is kind of fucked up, but this is also why we thought that we shouldn’t start the film with her and why we should start with these hippies stumbling across the Cryptozoo. Therefore, I thought that rooting her character in her childhood was the most important way to show that she had a sincere motivation. In terms of the gekiga, I first heard about the baku in an experimental manga anthology called Comic Baku, but I had never heard of the creature before that. I should also say that I was a sixteen year old living in the south of Nagoya as a teenager, so I have had this love of Japanese comics in me from that time in my life. Also, in high schools in Japan, the whole school takes a trip together, which is a bit weird because you end up in a hotel with all of your classmates in your junior year, and you all go to baths together, but it is a standard thing. And on our particular trip, we all went to Hiroshima. I bring this up because it has some conscious or subconscious influence here.

GF: Thank you for sharing that, as I found the blending of ideas there to be an interesting choice.

DS: To clarify, is your question more about the technical blending or the story blending?

GF: It is a bit of both actually. There is a technical element in that we believe that it is the only scene where any archival-like footage exists.

DS: The idea of the collective trauma of the bombings of Japan during World War Two is played out in so many anime where they are still processing this horrible event that happened. Also, with incidents like school shootings, the archival footage has a similar connection to this kind of “duck and cover” imagery, which I think is traumatizing for a lot of children today as well. As for that decision on the combination of archival and drawn images, I think that it is about the boundaries of our fantasy movie where the fantasy world and reality are close to each other and how that can be disorienting. This is opposed to so many fantasy movies where there is a very clear allegorical space that is removed from our world, and you are kind of outside of it: Cryptozoo is closer to our world, and it’s bumping up against our world, which is unusual and interesting.

JS: Yes, I think that a lot of those decisions come out of this place where we need to express this idea and ask: what visual ideas can we throw in there, on top of it, that make sense? I know that originally there was just straight archival footage there, but it didn’t feel right. And that is a very intuitive process and part of what is so fun and joyful about the film is that Dash and I were doing the bulk of the creation of assets, and we had a lot of other people coming in, so each scene is kind of compartmentalized, and we were looking at this space and asking, “How can we make this as exciting as its own little short film?” And how can we marry these elements and be true to the intent of the original artist? And so, the whole film is very much a collage and very much about how we can make this work.

DS: There are collages that try to melt everything together, and then there are collages where things still have their individual integrity as separate elements, and you are creating the associations and connections between these separate parts. I think that I lean more towards the latter.

Q (LF): Manga definitely has influences on the visual style of Cryptozoo, but I also wanted to talk about the influences of comics on the dialogue in the film. Economy and compactness of dialogue is a part of your comics style, Dash. How much of that approach to dialogue did you transfer or walk away from when creating Cryptozoo, which is more complex in concept than My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea, and yet feels more sparse in its conversations and narration?

A (DS): The best way that I can answer that, and I don’t know if this is a good answer, is that comics are so different from movies and that one thing that helps out in comics is that words take up physical space, so you learn to reduce things down. Even when you are lettering a panel, you’re often, in the act, deciding to cut certain words out. Good comics writing is like Peanuts or something like that, in that it has a very reduced and refined kind of an exaggerated abbreviation, and that is sort of like Hollywood movie dialogue. Meaning that people are speaking in this kind of heightened way that is a little more effective than the Rohmer version of dialogue. There are definitely parts of Cryptozoo where I tried to tap into that.

A (JS): Also, with this project, we knew that we could potentially get some really amazing actors. With My Entire High School Is Sinking Into The Sea, the film was created with normal dialogue for normal people to say, but with Cryptozoo, we had more confidence going in that we could have more heft with the words.

A (DS): But, I do think that there is some kind of alternative comic contrarian impulse in me to write some cartoonish dialogue and then see a weird positive quality emerging from it in the film. There are some key scenes in Cryptozoo that I can think of as an example of that quality, such as where the antagonist Nicholas says, “We’re not so different.” That is such a cliché to have him say that, but, in a way, it is like a moment you would expect in a Hollywood movie, and cartooning is often a similar exaggeration of a pre-existing thing or idea. So, in the end, I think that it is a contrarian impulse.

https://www.cryptozoofilm.com

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

A Dark, Dark Man

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Originally published on Ink 19 on April 8, 2021

A Dark, Dark Man
directed by Adilkhan Yerzhanov

Like many of you who love cinema, I was devastated upon reading the news that the great director Bertrand Tavernier passed away on March 25th. Throughout that day, I felt genuinely blessed to have had the opportunity to speak with him in person four years ago on the occasion of a small retrospective of his work that took place at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, California. In many ways, that moment for me was a culmination of a lifelong appreciation of Tavernier’s work which began with a stroke of luck of sorts, as the first film of his that I ever took in was his widely appreciated 1981 feature, Coup de Torchon, which years later, when I eventually devoured the rest of his filmography, was still the film that I always returned to when I thought about the distinct strengths and artistry of Tavernier’s work.

Truth be told, I was barely a teen when I saw that film, and I had not read the Jim Thompson novel that it was based on (Pop. 1280), but there was something that appealed to me in the way that Tavernier approached the ugliness that was inherent to the film’s setting of a corrupt and floundering small town in colonial French West Africa in the days before the Second World War. The film’s antihero, a bumbling sheriff named Lucien (played by the brilliant Philippe Noiret) is a drunken philander who is so marginalized by those around him that he willfully becomes a non-entity in the place where he is supposed to represent some semblance of the law. In the early moments of Coup de Torchon, Tavernier applies an almost Chaplin-esque level of buffoonery to the hapless Lucien, but when our sheriff casually decides to execute and frame all of those in his way to inadvertently right the environment around him, the shift in tone illuminates and further amplifies the evil inherent in the colonialist practices of the era and the uselessness of trying to uphold the policies of a place whose mere existence is a crime.

In Tavernier’s honor, and for the first time in a decade, I rewatched Coup de Torchon on the evening of March 25th, and perhaps due to it still being fresh in my mind, when I watched Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s neo-noir, A Dark, Dark Man, the next evening, I felt an effective, and perhaps an unintentional, nod to Tavernier’s masterful film.

Yerzhanov’s feature is set in present day Kazakhstan in a region that is as far off the world’s radar as the 1930s West African village in Coup de Torchon. And similar to the opening of Tavernier’s film, at the start of A Dark, Dark Man, we observe the silent interactions of a group of people in an expansive space where the neglected natural setting has left little to consume for personal survival. At the center of this interaction in this opening scene of A Dark, Dark Man is Pekuar (Teoman Khos), a harmless-looking man with a cognitive disability, who is joyfully playing an elementary school game in a depleted cornfield with his girlfriend, Adema (Adema Yerzhanov), and a young boy. We then cut away to a law enforcement official in a barn examining a very grim crime scene involving a small dead child under a bloody blanket. As the officer emerges from the barn, he collects Pekuar and bribes him with chocolate bars to masturbate into a cup, the contents of which are then planted as evidence onto the dead body by the officer. As this bleak moment unfolds and leads to Pekuar thoughtlessly agreeing to take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit, we see the other officers on the scene engage in an absurd and infantile game of pantomime that seems pulled out of an Aki Kaurismäki comedy, but placed against the vile framing that has just occurred, it only serves to amplify a feeling that we are in a place where normal societal rules have been completely abandoned.

It is here where we meet the film’s antihero, a young policeman named Bezkat (Daniar Alshinov), who stoically rides into this tableau in his nondescript black sedan, complete with a Tangerine Dream-like score blaring on his radio and a cowboy hat on his head. Cinematically, Bezkat is being set up as a might of right, but that possibly heroic role ends quickly when Bezkat is commanded by our previously pantomiming officers to collect the planted evidence found on the dead child’s body to seal Pekuar’s fate. As our hapless officer does his duty and chronicles what he discovers on the lifeless body in the barn, he casually gobbles down a bowl of ramen. Clearly, Bezkat has had to fulfill this role on more than a few occasions, and when he returns to the station with his suspect, our young detective is charged with another task that also seems too familiar to him—the task of murdering Pekuar to close the case, which Bezkat also agrees to do without complaint.

With no real agency or desire to resist, Bezkat sets off to keep this endless cycle of horror in motion, but before he can do so, a journalist from the city named Ariana (Dinara Baktybaeva) has arrived in town to follow Bezkat to ensure that an actual investigation of this child’s murder will be done properly. Ariana’s concerns about a miscarriage of justice have brought her to this village where a recent spay of murders of several orphaned children have led to a different bodycount of captured suspects who have all been mysteriously found dead from suicide while in police custody. And so, with the officers who rank above Bezkat unable to do little more than squawk about Ariana’s presence because of some unknown outside power that has sent her there, she is off to bird-dog Bezkat, who must now also take Pekuar and Adema with him as he goes through the facade of finding the real killers.

As with Lucien in Coup de Torchon, Bezkat in A Dark, Dark Man is able to commit his crimes without any real opposition, which sets up both men who serve as law enforcement officials to become pure representations of the failures of their respective governments to monitor their actions—Lucien in a far flung West African French colony on the brink of war, and Bezkat in the last of the Soviet Republics to declare independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Where A Dark, Dark Man differentiates itself from Tavernier’s film is primarily seen through the impact of Ariana on Bezkat. True to its pre-World War II era, the idealist schoolteacher Anne in Coup de Torchon, a character whose arrival should inspire in Lucien a sense of order and fairness, instead becomes another traditionally virtuous entity who is usurped by the dysfunctional colonialist social order. On the other hand, Ariana, a big city journalist in contemporary Kazakhstan who must stand tall against corrupt local government officials, crooked cops, and gangsters, manages to exact some influence on our antihero through her decency and commitment to the truth despite the constant threat of violence against her. As Anne in her day was limited to just the chalk and a blackboard in her schoolhouse to communicate with those around her, does Ariana’s strength then emanate from the possession of modern devices that can eliminate the geographic isolation of this small Kazakh village, or is it Ariana’s keen understanding of her native country that provides the necessary connection to Bezkat to affect him? This mystery behind Ariana’s ability to persuade then becomes a key reason as to why A Dark, Dark Man excels as a modern noir.

Though there are no direct references to Coup de Torchon in Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s impressive feature, our director, with help from Galymzhan Moldanazar’s score and Aydar Sharipov’s cinematography, instead alludes to a myriad of noirs such as Felix Feist’s The Man Who Cheated Himself, Michael Mann’s Thief, and Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks to misdirect our belief in what the outcome of the film will be. From the very beginning of A Dark, Dark Man, we have an understanding of who the evildoers are and how desperate they can be, but we still attentively watch to see if anything will be done to distance this community from a corrupt status quo and move it towards a place where it can afford to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

https://adilkhanyerzhanov.com/en/films/a-dark-dark-man/

Generoso Fierro


Mandibles

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Originally published on Ink 19 on March 23, 2021

Mandibles
directed by Quentin Dupieux

Earlier this month, here on Ink 19, I enthusiastically reviewed director Quentin Dupieux’s 2018 surrealist crime comedy, Au Poste! (Keep An Eye Out), a film that had finally received a full release in the U.S. years after its French debut. Though I had capsule-reviewed Dupieux’s 2019 film, Deerskin, for our AFI Fest coverage that year, my lengthy piece on Au Poste! gave me a greater opportunity to explain in detail my affection for Dupieux’s work, affection that has grown stronger in the last decade as I’ve watched him progress as a filmmaker following his third feature about a tire turned killer, Rubber.

My piece on Au Poste!, a film which bears similar themes to the 1979 feature by Bertand Blier, Buffet Froid, also allowed me the opportunity to confirm my long-held position that Dupieux has become the heir apparent to the great Blier, who like Dupieux, had taken an even more surreal and ridiculous approach to comedy than Buñuel had done before him. If you have been watching Dupieux’s work over this last decade, but are unfamiliar with Blier, all you need to see is the scene from Blier’s underrated 1976 sex comedy, Calmos, where the miniature versions of actors Jean-Pierre Marielle and Jean Rochefort hang glide into a vagina to sense that Blier and Dupieux are audacious, kindred spirits with absolutely zero restraint between them.

Though Dupieux fans in the States had to wait three years to see Au Poste!, his newest dark comedy, Mandibles (Mandibules), which premiered at Venice last fall, was shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival that was held virtually this month through Films at Lincoln Center. In a conversation with programmer Dan Sullivan that followed the screening at the festival, Dupieux described Mandibles as his first “positive film” with an elevator-pitch of “E.T. meets Dumb and Dumber,” but since I am fixated on this “Dupieux is the next Blier” rap, I think that it is fair to say that Mandibles is actually more like, “E.T. meets Blier’s Les Valseuses (Going Places),” but with a lot less sex than Blier’s notorious 1974 film. Actually, there is no sex at all in Mandibles, but all of the cluelessness, random violence, and whimsical theft exhibited by Jean-Claude and Pierrot in Les Valseuses are on full display in Mandibles via its anti-heroes, Manu and Jean-Gab. As for a creature like E.T. in Mandibles, you get an entity that is less glowing and sweet than Spielberg’s extraterrestrial, and something that is more in line with the economic status of its downtrodden rescuers.

Set around a small beach community in the South of France, Mandibles is a caper story centered on lifelong downtrodden friends in their 30s, Manu and Jean-Gab, who are portrayed to slack perfection by Grégoire Ludig and David Marsais, who are known in France mainly through their long-running sketch-comedy television program, Palmashow. In short form, visually and philosophically, Manu and Jean-Gab are that perfect personification of a tourist destination that is only frequented during the summer months and mostly abandoned for the rest of the year. As a tourist, you gleefully go to an idyllic spot for your yearly vacation, and although your life has progressed in that time since you last visited, the place you return to every year has eerily remained the same.

As the film opens, we find the homeless Manu comfortably asleep on the beach where he is awakened by a friend who offers Manu a seemingly easy mission that could put 500 Euros into his empty pockets. This possibly nefarious assignment is of course the classic cinematic setup of picking up a thing from a guy and giving that thing to another guy fifteen miles away for the loot, but there is just one snag…Manu has no car to do the drop. To fix his transportation issue, Manu simply hot-wires a junked Mercedes he finds unlocked and is now clear to start his task, but before he can do this achingly easy job, he must pick up his friend Jean-Gab, who is lazily attending to his mother’s shabby gas station. After laying the assignment on Jean-Gab, Manu and his best friend share a secret horned-fingered handshake that is combined with the exclamation of “toro,” and they are now off to do the job…

Driving down the road to their destination, Manu and Jean-Gab hear a loud buzzing coming from the trunk of the car, which they first deduce as the sound from a hair dryer. Yes, that is who we are dealing with here. Unfazed, the pair shrugs off the noise, but after a few repeats, they stop and find inside of their trunk a docile housefly that is the size of a three year old child. Only slightly spooked, Jean-Gab doesn’t panic, and quickly he imagines a future where they will train this fly to rob banks for them. This plan is not a hard sell for Manu, who then plots out a location where they can train their new accomplice in the art of fetching cash. Of course, just going down the road to finish the job they set out to do is not even an option at this point, so the pair forcibly evicts an old man from his dilapidated trailer to serve as Jean-Gab’s and Manu’s makeshift fly school. Unsurprisingly, the former owner of the trailer did not stock enough food in his fridge to feed two men and a giant fly, so in true Jean-Claude and Pierrot fashion, Jean-Gab and Manu take the gun that they found in their newly acquired trailer and relieve a local nebbish of all of his groceries.

Once back at home with supplies in hand, Jean-Gab begins training his fly, and Manu cooks a meal for them all, but as uncooked food needs fire and a chef with some commonsense, Manu accidentally sets ablaze their new insect training center, which forces our beat trio to find shelter elsewhere. With no gas in their Mercedes (I guess that getting petrol at Jean-Gab’s mother’s gas station required too much foresight), Jean-Gab and Manu must tow their car with the unicorn bicycle that managed to survive the fire.

On the road with no place to go, they get picked up by a young woman named Cécile (India Hair) and her carload of posh friends and family who offer Jean-Gab and Manu a place to stay after Cécile mistakes Manu for an ex-lover of hers from school. Having no other choice for a home base, Manu plays the role of the boy who had tryst with Cécile, so they can all settle down in their new comfortable digs, but he and Jean-Gab must hide Dominique, their newly named fly, from everyone, but especially Agnès, (a grandiose over-the-top supporting performance from Adèle Exarchopoulos) a well-to-do woman who is afflicted with a consistently full volumed speaking voice due to a ski accident. Lacking any social graces of her own, Agnès is also equipped with an abnormally heightened sense of suspicion with the bonus added feature of a 24/7 need to define class prerogatives and manners to the new houseguests. Though Jean-Gab and Manu must lie to everyone in order to hide Dominique, they are polite when confronted by Agnès and offer frank insights into their own poor upbringing and apologies for their consequent lack of refinement. As Agnès continues to boorishly lash out about manners, Dominique ostensibly becomes less repulsive and even borderline adorable through her infant-like cackles and overall calmness.

There is a lot going on in the compact seventy-seven minutes running time of Mandibles. The film succeeds beyond just the fun and positive experience that Dupieux had hoped to create, and the humor is as inventive, funny, and surreal as it was in his previous effort, Deerskin. In addition, Mandibles draws another similarity to Deerskin in how it builds on an interesting point about the ways that friendships are formed and sustained within economic lines, and like Les Valseuses did forty-five years ago, the insertion of the extreme in both films provides an excellent diversion that allows you to personally discover the class and cultural observations that lie underneath the madness.

Sure, I admit that this might seem like an exceedingly pretentious read on a slacker comedy about a cute giant fly and a couple of hapless deadbeats, but Dupieux deserves a lot of credit for his ability to address issues of class and privilege while never pulling you too far away from the strong friendship between Jean-Gab and Manu, and their new buddy, Dominique. With its distinctively Dupieux blend of sweet, bizarre, and comedic, Mandibles highlights the bedrocks of friendship, time together and unconditional love, which ultimately allow Jean-Gab, Manu, and Dominique to move forward in their lives as a united trio, a unit far stronger than their individual spirals to nowhere when apart.

http://www.magpictures.com/mandibles/

Generoso Fierro


Keep An Eye Out

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Originally published on Ink 19 on March 3, 2021

Keep An Eye Out
directed by Quentin Dupieux

The hard-boiled American cop film reached its maximum gritty effect in the 1970s through the reckless exploits of the likes of the Sheriff Buford Pussers and Inspector Callahans, and with their immense popularity, the inevitable occurred—versions of these characters began appearing overseas in the plots of wildly violent poliziotteschi, better known as Euro-crime films. Offering a harder edge to counter the tan corduroy clad/soft rock Me generation, these Hollywood films and their imitators provided an endless array of exceedingly macho antics from peace officers, whose glaring ultra-macho behavior made for fertile ground for director Bertrand Blier and his surrealistic, comedic take on the crime genre, Buffet Froid.

For this abstractly dark and ferociously funny 1979 feature, Blier tapped his own father, veteran actor Bernard Blier, who had a long and storied career of portraying both hood and Gendarme, and teamed him up with France’s answer to Roy Scheider, Gerard Depardieu. Paired together as cop and suspected murderer respectively, Bernard and Gerard irreverently poked holes into crime film while simultaneously performing a societal gut check on the state of masculinity at the closing of the 1970s. In fact, throughout his entire career, Blier grossly and cleverly exaggerated the actions of his male lead characters and genre tropes to draw attention to the ridiculous attitudes of the day. Sensitive males were often reduced to sheepish cuckolds, while the dominant males were forced to take an ego trip that spun them out of control to identities somewhere between marauding beast and pretentious pseudo-intellectual, which usually left them either facile, insane, or dead. Blier was the perfect comedic director for that era, as he took aim at mainstream Hollywood’s depiction of leading men like Oliver Barrett IV or Mr. Majestyk.

In 2010, France’s heir apparent to Blier emerged when director Quentin Dupieux gave life to a serial killer car tire named Robert in his genre-destroying third feature, Rubber. Released during a time when any out-of-the-norm script brought to screen was haphazardly labeled as “Kaufmanesque,” Dupieux’s Rubber was praised, but wrongly classified in the Charlie Kaufman file. As his subsequent films would further bear out, Dupieux’s work explored much of the same ground as his forefather, Blier, and with a similar level of audacity, but by leaving France for the States, Dupieux sought to strike at the very heart of the Hollywood system that created many of the established film archetypes for men, right in its own home turf.

Rubber was followed up in 2012 by Wrong, a feature where Dupieux applied a healthy dose of the absurd to deconstruct the “lonely man with the trusty pet” film that was so popular in the 70s. 2013’s Wrong Cops distilled the classic ensemble L.A. police drama into ludicrous slices of cops on the loose mania, slathered with a thick glaze of Tim and Eric-style ickiness. Reality, in 2014, effectively looped five minutes of a Philip Glass score to amplify the monotonous futility behind a French director’s quest to make a Hollywood film that no one wants and that he might have apparently already made.

During his sojourn in the States, Dupieux tore through our filmmaking traditions as he developed some inventive visual themes of his own, which included multiple animals being utilized as goody bags and spy cameras, hulking men attempting to be masculine whilst attired in stained boyish tighty whities, and our idyllic safe little homes morphing into big scary question marks. Quentin did indeed have some fun here, but perhaps it was time for him to go home and pick on French cinema for a while.

Amazingly, 2018’s Au Poste! (Keep An Eye Out), which is finally enjoying a full virtual U.S. release this week, is Dupieux’s first feature length film shot in his native land. At the film’s lean 73 minute center is the classic seventies squad room interrogation setup where the highly domesticated, but heavily mustached Fugain (Grégoire Ludig) must endure the repetitive questions of Commissioner Buron (Benoît Poelvoorde), who suspects Fugain of murder after he foolishly reports the discovery of a dead body outside of his eerily quiet apartment building. I should stop here to write that as far as 70s squad rooms go, Dupieux’s set designer and wife, Joan Le Boru, has made this one a real gem, as it is expertly stocked with clanky oversized typewriters, hundreds of flickering fluorescent overhead lights, and pop-ins from polyester attired cops who look like they haven’t had a decent wink in weeks. It’s a bleak scene for the sleepy and hungry Fugain, who is forced to stay in his seat and regale Buron with multiple forced retellings of his boring evening at home with his sleepwalking wife which led up to his encounter with the corpse in question.

As Fugain’s stories repeatedly send the viewers for trips back to his poorly lit hovel, I was quickly reminded of Depardieu’s soulless, Brutalist apartment complex that provided the perfect dystopian setting for the random criminality and innumerous keystone cops’ shenanigans seen in the middle of Buffet Froid. In Keep An Eye Out, though, we have only keystone cop, Philippe (Marc Fraize), a one-eyed, ultra-paranoid hapless detective who commits a devastating blunder in Buron’s absence that Fugain will most likely be blamed for in the end. After Buron returns, Philippe is gone, and Fugain starts his testimony again, but with a sort of fear-induced and sleep and hunger deprived logic that leads to appearances from Philippe, as well as Philippe’s doting wife, into Fugain’s memories as he tries to articulate them yet again to Buron. As we watch Fugain struggle to keep his composure as his stories and current reality get interrupted with increasingly bizarre moments, we laugh as our curiosity grows, and we ponder his outcome.

In his previous film, Reality, Dupieux used his protagonist’s dreams to determine the direction of the narrative, but in Keep An Eye Out, we get the inverse, as Dupieux experiments with the way that the present plays into Fugain’s memory. Yet, despite their differing approaches, both films stress the futility of the practice of repackaging and repurposing known devices in cinema, with Dupieux, like Blier before him, twisting all of those elements that you’ve seen before, waving them loudly in front of you, and then pulling them apart or away, so that in the end, you have no choice but to laugh.

Keep An Eye Out opens on VOD on March 5th through the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in multiple other independent theaters across the U.S.

https://www.dekanalog.com/films/keep-an-eye-out

Generoso Fierro

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

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Originally published on Ink 19 on January 26, 2021

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time
directed by Lili Horvát

Shortly into the narrative of Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, we observe Hungarian-born doctor Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) and her former medical school professor, now chief of surgery, Dr. Fried (Andor Lukáts) watching an online video of Dr. Vizy describing an intricate surgical procedure. In the video, Dr. Vizy, who was until recently a resident at the New Jersey Neurosurgery Center, describes in exceptionally precise English her innovative technique which requires the brain surgery patient to be awake and verbal so that she can monitor her patient’s response to the procedure. Though it is abundantly clear that Dr. Vizy was a respected professional at her previous hospital, why then has she suddenly abandoned her entire life in the States for a return to her homeland where she must now struggle to have her own voice heard?

Part of the answer to that question is found in the opening moments of writer/director Lili Horvát’s intriguing second feature, which, at first, looks seemingly like a romantic genre film. Dr. Vizy, who has lived in the states for almost two decades, recounts a chance encounter that she had with a fellow Hungarian neurosurgeon named János Drexler (Viktor Bodó) at a medical conference in New Jersey. It turns out that during their fateful meeting, the pair chose not to exchange information, but rather to vow to meet again, one month to the day at the Liberty Bridge in Budapest. So, following the prescribed elements of the genre, Dr. Vizy boards a plane back to her native land to make good her promise to her newfound love, but once at the bridge, Dr. Drexler is nowhere to be found. Spurned by his absence, Dr. Vizy races to the medical university where he teaches, but when she encounters him, he has absolutely no recollection of her which causes her to blackout. When she awakens, Márta is obviously dejected, and so she silently heads back to the airport to return home, but, once there, she makes the sudden and unprovoked decision to abandon her life in America and remain in Hungary for good.

While dealing with the severe feelings of rejection expected from traveling across the ocean for nothing, Dr. Vizy makes the decision to speak to a psychiatrist, a burly man who somewhat resembles our Dr. Drexler, who might be able to help her make some sense out of the whole affair. In their first session, Dr. Vizy describes her meeting with Dr. Drexler, but as she speaks and offers odd testimony about her initial encounter with him, Márta’s psychiatrist suggests a possible misunderstanding on her part, which further suggests that perhaps this entire scenario might have been a complete fabrication produced by her mind. As she commits to further counseling, Dr. Vizy begins to work at Dr. Fried’s hospital, despite his insistence that the place is woefully suited for her level of expertise. Dr Fried also fears that his hospital, which appears to have not changed since the 1960s, is a place where she will be met with jeers from the staff who are likely to find her methods and techniques in conflict with the ones they’ve commanded, but not updated, over the years.

Despite Fried’s protests, Márta continues to make the rounds with her fellow surgeons, but as Dr. Fried predicted, she is instantly rebuked the first moment that she offers a diagnosis that conflicts with the senior doctors on staff. Unflustered by the resistance she experiences, Márta continues to work and is given a case of an affable older man who is having issues finishing his sentences and driving his car. Márta examines her patient and gives her diagnosis and plan for his surgical treatment, but here she is questioned again, not by an older doctor, but by Alex (Benett Vilmányi), the youthful and handsome medical student son of her patient. When Alex insists that his father’s surgery must be performed by the older staff doctor and not Márta, he is overruled, and Márta performs the procedure with the older physician as her assistant. But, when he proves to be unsatisfactory in his role, Márta relieves him in favor of Dr. Drexler, who was elected by the patient’s family to observe. Márta’s confidence excels while doing what she does best, and the surgery is successful. After witnessing the outcome, Alex offers his apologies for doubting Márta and also becomes enamoured with her, while Dr. Drexler starts to respond to her and also apologies for not remembering their first meeting.

In her use of formal elements of romantic cinema to actualize her protagonist’s reawakening of cultural identity, director Lily Horvát has created a feature with echoes of Fatih Akin’s 2004 breakthrough film, Gegen die Wand (Head On). But unlike Gegen die Wand, which utilizes stark and at times violent moments of ultra-realism for its protagonist to reach catharsis with his inner self, Horvát imbues a constant ambiguity between inner and outer realities to externalize the disorienting cross-conscious states and cross-cultural spaces that Márta is trying to navigate. Throughout Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, it is this ambiguity that compels us to examine what we see and hear through Márta’s subjective interpretation. Over the course of the film, we, and Márta, become less concerned about what is real and unreal, and instead, watch on as Márta absorbs her surroundings and senses and begins to react intuitively in life as she would in the surgical room.

By the end, we are left with an understanding that Dr. Drexler may be a projection of Márta’s true self, the love she had always wanted, the person she wished she could be, or some combination of some or all of these things. Although she had a few friends and was well-respected in the United States, Márta’s voice there was never her own, which prevented her from developing the expression she desired. But by seeing (or inventing) Dr. Drexler, the fellow surgeon and gifted writer and teacher, she, under the influence of an overwhelming romantic idea, is finally driven towards the opportunity to find her true voice. And it is this reconciled, discovered voice, in combination with her outstanding professional acumen and knowledge, that will allow Márta to overcome the surrounding antiquated patriarchal structure that she originally left and that will inevitably try to drown her out again along with her own doubts about her mind and self.

Márta’s precarious and intimidating boundaries between the real and the imagined have fallen, and she doesn’t have to watch everything from a distance anymore. She can listen and speak, and most importantly, partake in all that is inside and outside and everything in between.

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is playing virtually through January 28th via the Acropolis Cinema and the Coolidge Corner Theater. Please also check with your local theater for additional screenings and showtimes.

https://www.preparationsmovie.com

Generoso Fierro

Best of Film 2020

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Originally published on Ink 19 on December 7, 2020

Two words embody our list of the best films of 2020: process and reaction. In a year when the pandemic has put filmmaking and much of its connected ecosystem (i.e. festivals, theaters) on pause, it seems only appropriate that many of the selections for this year’s list involve either a reflective study on the process of filmmaking and/or a discourse on how the modern audience member reacts to scenes on screen, particularly when, like in moments of reality, we don’t know all of the contexts and motivations of the people we see. This year’s films remind us of the power and vitality of new cinema, and as we remain in our homes for the upcoming winter months watching content made some time ago, the films we’ve selected this year instill a hunger for a hopeful future day when cinema can be made again and can continue to expand on the definition of itself as an art form, on its attempts to replicate, modulate, and stray away from reality, and on its relationship to us as the audience.

A special thanks goes out to the good folks at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, New York Film Festival, Independent Film Festival Boston, the Brattle Theater, and the Coolidge Corner Theater for their exceptional programming efforts that provided us with an immense amount of joy during a very tough year. We ask you to please support these festivals, microcinemas, and independent theaters as they all need your help now more than ever.

1) Liberté / France • Portugal / dir. Albert Serra

There is a danger in the excess charge of a transgressive film: its audacity may automatically render all other films less extraordinary. Albert Serra’s Liberté has all the makings of a highly transgressive work. Sadomasochism. Check. Orgies. Check. Violence. Check. Bodily functions. Check. But, Liberté doesn’t rise to the top of this year’s list for the memorability of such extreme elements. It is here in the number one spot because, by taking us back into the past, into the era of supreme hedonism of the libertines during the reign of Louis XVI, Serra forces us to look at the now and toward the tedium of our voyeuristic future. In Liberté, a group of exiled libertines led by the lecherous Duc de Wand (Baptiste Pinteaux) drop their velvet lined carriages in the forests outside of Berlin. At dusk, Duc de Wand describes his nauseating Sadean visions of pleasure, and once the sun has completely fallen, he and his court commence a night of sexual debauchery. However, no one in this massive orgy seems to be having a good time. Some have even become so bored that their bodies no longer can be aroused. And as the events of the evening become more ridiculous, the sumptuous aesthetic of Serra’s period piece gradually becomes increasingly garish, and by the end, we are left with a sickly, bleached, over exposed image of the forest surrounding the libertines, as if their pointless indulgences have taken the life out of the trees. On the surface, Liberté can certainly be examined as an exercise in filmmaking: in interviews, Serra has described his laborious and innovative methods, but looking underneath the sex, violence, and powdered wigs, the master director and artist is holding up a mirror to us. The libertine’s hedonism marked the end of an empire, a fall of a specific kind of aristocracy, and as we watch how they watch each others’ sexual activities in the open or through the windows of carriages, slowly and disturbingly, we see the current decline of the empires of today and the near future as we sit in our homes looking at images that can fulfill any and all of our desires on-demand. So, when the blasé countenances of the libertines on screen fade away, and the trees arrive, our own boredom begins to dissipate, leaving a bitterness in our mouths because shouldn’t we have been affected by what we have seen? What does our boredom truly say about who we are in this day and age? And for eliciting such a contentious question and unsettling feeling within us as viewers, Liberté is our favorite film of 2020. An extended review of Liberté can be read on Ink 19 here.

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2) Vitalina Varela / Portugal / dir. Pedro Costa

A singular faceless figure walking barefoot emerges from a plane that has landed on a desolate airstrip in Lisbon. The plane has traveled from Cape Verde to bring a woman to attend the funeral of her husband, Joaquim, who had left their homeland to work as a bricklayer decades earlier and who had promised, in vain, to purchase the woman a plane ticket so that one day they could be together. The woman walks from the airstrip, like a disembodied soul herself, through the darkened, maze-like streets and alleys of the impoverished Lisbon suburb of Cova da Moura to reach the hovel that was as much a false promise from her husband as it was a disappointing reality. The woman is the eponymous Vitalina Varela, and if this scenario sounds familiar, Vitalina once recounted these events in the early moments of Pedro Costa’s previous feature, Horse Money, and after six years, Costa, with Vitalina’s and the townspeople’s assistance, has reconstructed this heartbreaking moment from her life with a filmmaking process and visual style that has defined his particular approach to nonfiction storytelling. Throughout Vitalina Varela, Costa continuously reinforces the brilliance of his established methodology: his distinctive audiovisual compositions exemplify and revitalize the longstanding tradition of portraiture. A good portrait artist captures the essence of reality, adds a layer of fiction/bias on it through perception/perspective and preserves the combination across time. As a result of his years of entrenchment in the physical edifices and lives of the people of Cova da Moura with his small crew, Costa is able to assemble an intimate, deeply layered portrait of Vitalina Varela from the living pictures captured by cinematographer Leonardo Simões’ masterful eye and the keen sound development by João Gazua and Hugo Leitão. And, due to Costa’s intuitive, time intensive construction of docudrama, we, the viewers, feel a heightened level of empathy for Vitalina that few filmed portraits have ever been able to accomplish for their protagonists. Our full review of Vitalina Varela on Ink 19 can be read here.

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3) Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets / U.S.A. / dirs: Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross

It was over a decade ago when 45365, the feature documentary debut by the Ross brothers, landed on our top ten list for the year. That film, shot in the Rosses hometown of Sidney, Ohio, was the perfect condensed snapshot of nine months of day-to-day life in a small American town. Subsequently, through the decade that followed, the Rosses have unscrambled the underneath of various communities in the States through the personal experiences of a select group of the area’s inhabitants, such as the view of New Orleans as experienced by three brothers during one night’s escapades in the Ross brothers’ 2012 hybrid documentary, Tchoupitoulas. With Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Bill and Turner have again utilized a docudrama style and set it over one endless evening like Tchoupitoulas, but for their affecting newest feature, the Rosses have assembled a large and, at times, caustic ensemble of barflies, who could’ve easily staggered out of casting call for Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz, to spend one night together in a single location—a Las Vegas dive bar called The Roaring 20s that is having its final last call. Again, like TchoupitoulasBloody Nose, Empty Pockets has the aesthetics and construction of a documentary, but with the addition of carefully added elements of film history playing out on the televisions in the bar and in the dialog of the archetypal cinematic characters represented by the gritty urban patrons, suggesting that the desire for contemporary filmmakers to lionize and repeat the idioms contained in American narrative filmmaking of our golden age of the 1970s has lost its place in today’s era of hybrid cinema. And so, like the bar in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the need for hard-edged urban stories to be depicted on screen to invoke some sense of nostalgia has also had its own last call.

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4) Ich war zuhause, aber ( I Was at Home, But…) / Germany / dir. Angela Schanelec

As Angela Schanelec’s feature opens, we observe the pastoral activities of a rabbit, donkey, and wild dog, which are then suddenly juxtaposed with a scene involving two school children awkwardly reciting Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These conflicting moments set the tone of I Was at Home, But…, which finds at its center, Astrid (Maren Eggert), a widowed mother of two, who is silently and then not silently grieving over the loss of her husband and communicating with everyone just one step or two away from the natural flow of human interaction. When we first see Astrid, she is distraught and grateful as she embraces her son Phillip (Jakob Lassalle), who has just returned to her, muddied and haggard, from an extended truancy in the woods. The exact reason for Phllip’s disappearance, as well as the cause of death of Astrid’s husband are intentionally left unexplained, but more importantly, the ramifications of these traumatic moments of loss manifest through Astrid as disconnected reactions to everything from what should be a banal purchase of a second-hand bicycle that turns out to be defective, to her exiling of her own children when they begin to not need her, to the emphatic vocal condemnation of the construction of a film that occurs on a Berlin street when Astrid by chance encounters the film’s director. As I Was at Home, But… continues on its structure that feels as loose as it is intentionally shaped, you willfully abandon the search for narrative allegory between Astrid, Phillip and possibly Hamlet, in favor of immersion into a fascinating collection of moments that Schanelec has instinctively woven into each other to paint a compelling portrait of a disjointed life upended by a recent spay of constant disappointments both large and small.

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5) Les enfants d’Isadora (Isadora’s Children) / France • South Korea / dir. Damien Manivel

After a tragic car accident that led to the loss of her two young children, the mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, choreographed her original work, Mother, an elegy to her children and to her motherhood cut short. In Isadora’s Children, Damien Manivel presents four women interacting with Mother. First, we see a dancer (Agathe Bonitzer) intently studying the history of the piece and attempting to translate its abstract Labanotation symbols into movement. Then, we observe the rehearsals between a choreographer (Marika Rizzi) and a young dancer (Manon Carpentier) with Down syndrome preparing for her upcoming solo performance of the piece. At the end, we watch the reaction of an audience member (famed dancer Elsa Wolliaston) who attends the aforementioned performance. In each of these sections, Manivel captures each woman’s interpretations of Duncan’s original gestures alongside their natural body cadences, and in doing so, he allows us to see each woman’s relationship to dance, motherhood, and womanhood. The first dancer is precise and diligent in her pursuit to execute Mother, but as a young woman without any children (and what looks like no plans to have any in the near future), she seemingly mistrusts her instincts and repeatedly refers back to the Labanotation document as a crutch in her rehearsal studio. The choreographer and the second dancer rehearse from videos and notes, and in hearing the choreographer’s stories about missing her own children who have moved abroad, we can see the sorrow in her motions and their consequent interpretations by the dancer. And lastly, the audience member moved by the performance travels home, lights a candle by a picture of a man who is likely her son, and mournfully performs a solo from the piece. Without much dialog in Isadora’s Children, the camera carefully studies the bodies of these women as they move to and from their lives and Mother, and as we watch their daily gestures and dances, we are mesmerized by what the reach of an arm, the step of a foot, says about each. With Isadora’s Children, Manivel celebrates the female form—the beauty in the diversity of shape and stature, of grace in movements across space and time, and of conscious and subconscious gestures revealing relationships to one of the most distinctive parts of the female experience, motherhood.

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6) Martin Eden / Italy / dir. Pietro Marcello

In his adept transposition of the novel of the same name by Jack London, director Pietro Marcello, along with his Lost and Beautiful co-writer, Maurizio Braucci, seamlessly shifted the setting of Martin Eden from early 20th century Oakland to Naples, which given the history of Italy during that era, serves London’s vision of Martin well, as he is a man who champions individualism over the tenets of socialism. As Martin Eden begins, we meet Martin (Luca Marinelli), a working class, simpatico, but uneducated Neapolitan sailor engaging in a moment of random carnality with a local woman he meets at a bar. In the days that follow, Martin is on a boat of his employ, and during a moment of pause, he rises to pugilistically intervene when he witnesses a hulking dockworker about to pulverize a nebbish man named Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi), who happens to be the son of a wealthy nobleman. As a sign of gratitude, Arturo takes Martin back to his stately familial home for a meal and introduces his rescuer to his refined sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), whom our protagonist immediately fancies. After they dine together, Elena shows Martin some of the books in her family’s study, and Martin, who senses the glaring social divide between himself and her, immediately begins to devour novels with the goal of closing the gap. Soon, Martin’s growing intellect surfaces, and he begins to write verse to impress Elena, which leaves him in a quandary of no longer being able to relate to his peers while never fully being allowed to integrate with the classes above him due to his proletariat origins. As the film progresses, Martin becomes trapped between art and life as he navigates the struggles to acquire what is needed to sustain himself, the hypocrisy of the elite, and the crushing of the individual coming from the political ethos sweeping his country. After a decade plus of directing documentaries, Pietro Marcello, with Martin Eden, has ingeniously integrated newsreel, classic cinema, and a career-defining performance from Luca Marinelli into an ambitious second narrative feature that feels like a historical epic in form, yet paradoxically refuses to hold onto period identifiers that would keep the film’s central character’s struggles at a safe distance. This unique structure allows us to see that Martin’s class conflicts and issues with social ascension are no different from today than they were nearly a century before.

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7) Rizi (Days) / Taiwan / dir. Tsai Ming-liang

As their partnership has now spanned over thirty years, it is impossible to mention the name, Tsai Ming-liang without bringing up his onscreen counterpart and alter-ego Lee Kang-sheng. Since their 1989 film, All The Corners of the World, the pair have collaborated on a multitude of features, but since 2013’s Stray Dogs, their output together has mostly consisted of shorts, documentaries, and even a foray into virtual reality for 2017’s The Deserted: VR. Sadly, in recent years, Lee has developed a chronic neck pain that is ironically reminiscent of his character’s affliction in his earlier film, The River, and so, as the real life Lee seeks treatment for the condition, Tsai incorporates the documentation of Lee’s healing process into his newest feature, Days, a meditative and purposefully unsubtitled film where conversation is replaced by physical and emotional contact. As the film begins, we see Kang (Kang-sheng Lee) in his rural home mired by relentless physical pain which forces him to travel to Bangkok where he can find a holistic healer who might be able to offer him some relief. We then separately meet Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a man much younger than Kang, who methodically cooks for only himself in his small and lonely Bangkok apartment. When Kang and Non clandestinely meet for a sexual encounter in a hotel room, their coupling transpires with a fluidity and deliberately meditative pace that we have come to expect from Tsai’s filmography, so as the nearly thirty minute scene transpires, you not only feel the intrinsic connection between Kang and Non, but also that same level of caring between Lee and Tsai. After their encounter, Kang gifts Non a music box that plays the score composed for Charlie Chaplin’s later, and deeply personal film, Limelight. As the song plays, we as the audience are treated to one more eloquent cinematic connection between Lee and Tsai that even goes another level beyond their own storied artistic partnership together.

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8) Isabella / Argentina / dir. Matías Piñeiro

While Matías Piñeiro’s previous feature Hermia and Helena centered itself on the experiences of a writer working on a translation of William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s DreamIsabella focuses on the person tasked with bringing a Shakespearean female character to life—the actress. Named after the protagonist of Shakespeare’s Measure for MeasureIsabella has a syncopated rhythm and oloid-like shape as it follows the paths and connected center of actresses Mariel (María Villar) and Luciana (Agustina Muñoz) as they audition for the role of Isabella at different points in their career. Former classmates, the two women’s professional and personal lives crash together when Mariel desperately needs a loan from her brother, and when she receives a tip that Luciana is his lover, she travels out of Buenos Aires to try to find him at his rendezvous point with her. However, when Mariel arrives, she sees only Luciana, and the two spend the rest of the day together walking and talking about their work: Luciana’s work on a film in Portugal and the consequent need to turn down the role of Isabella in a staging of Measure for Measure, and Mariel’s inability to find work as of late. Over the course of the walk, Luciana encourages Mariel to audition for the role of Isabella now that it is vacant, and offers to help her prepare for the role. As they rehearse the lines, repeating them over and over and using stones to represent different emotional motivations and inflections, sometimes with success and sometimes not on the part of Mariel, they set into motion the rhythm of the rest of Isabella. We see Mariel and Luciana at various points of their lives after this initial intersection out of sequence, interspersed with concentric rectangles shifting between shades of blue, red, and purple. And through such a deconstructed approach, the sequence of the images and the shifts in time mimic how Mariel and Luciana may recall the moments that motivate their final decisions on whether or not to continue their art. We see scenes from their slight competition with each other, their personal lives, and most importantly, their struggles as actresses who regularly depend on the judgment of men (be it directors or writers) in order to receive the opportunity to express themselves. Isabella honors the role of the actress in narratives and instills a deep respect for the vulnerability she must show and the effort she must exert, and with its irregular pace, sheds a bright light on the array of personal and artistic trials and errors that make it exceptionally difficult for an actress to determine whether being herself also means being other people for most of her life.

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9) Collectiv (Collective) / Romania / dir. Alexander Nanau

On October 30, 2015, a fire occurred in the Colectiv music club in Bucharest that directly resulted in the deaths of 27 people and left over 100 injured. An investigation that followed proved that the club had received an operating license without a proper inspection from the Fire Department, which caused a public uproar, but when a subsequent story written by Gazeta Sporturilor journalist Catalin Tolontan and his team verified that 38 of the victims, many of whom had non-life threatening burns, had died in the weeks following the tragedy from hospital infections caused by a criminally negligent dilution of the disinfectants supplied to the burn wards, it led to demonstrations that forced a toppling of the Romanian government. Now, with a population out for revenge, Vlad Voiculescu, a well-meaning patient rights advocate, is selected to fulfill the role of Health Minister to control the damage, and it is here in the narrative where director Nanau provides you with seldom-seen, simultaneous access into both the inner-workings of the Minister’s office and the diligent team at Gazeta Sporturilor as they continue to uncover a wide-ranging network of corruption that existed at every level of a government that strived to defraud the very healthcare system it was charged to administer for its officials’ own personal gain. Throughout Collective, director Alexander Nanau carefully balances this rare glimpse into both sides of a system going down in ruins, while masterfully keeping the human suffering of the victims, and their families, omnipresent in the viewers’ minds.

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10) Ōkoku (aruiwa sono-ka ni tsuite) (Domains) / Japan / dir. Natsuka Kusano

As Domains opens, a young woman named Aki (Asami Shibuya) listens calmly while a police officer informs her that she is being detained on the suspicion of murdering Honoka, the three year old daughter of her childhood friend Nodoka Kakiuchi (Tomo Kasajima) and Nodoka’s overbearing husband, Naoto (Tomomitsu Adachi). Aki starkly and unemotionally confesses to the crime, and suddenly we are then at a table reading involving the three actors who portray Aki, Naoto, and Nodoka as they run the lines that describe the backstory of their relationship to one another. As the actors go over their scripts and the disembodied voice of the director is heard demanding changes of camera positioning, lighting, and the inflections of the performers, we as the viewer weigh the impact that every nuance adds to or subtracts from the narrative. Simultaneously, as the scenes are repeated, we also gain a sense that the words as they are changed are not only reflective of the director’s desires, but also of the actors’ personal feelings finding their way into the motivations of their characters, which bring into question the very nature of the why and how behind what we experience and interpret in fiction cinema. What director Kusano and her cast achieve with Domains is a kind of dual storytelling process that has, at its core, all of the elements necessary for a standard police procedural, but through the added deconstruction of the filmmaking process, we are more compelled to follow through with the evolution of the plot as determined by the actors’ responses to direction, and more urgently, the emotional effect that the total process subsequently has on the cast.

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SUPPLEMENTAL LIST

Tommaso / Italy • U.S.A. / dir. Abel Ferrara

One of our only regrets this year, as we sit down to write this capsule review, is that we have not yet had the opportunity to see Ferrara’s newest feature, Siberia, a film several years in the making, whose costly production supplied a great deal of the underlying tension for the titular Willem Dafoe/Abel Ferrara hybrid character in Tommaso. Regardless of this missed screening, we still found Tommaso on its own to be one of the most impactful character studies that we saw this year. Over the last two decades, real life neighbors Dafoe and Ferrara have collaborated on a large multitude of projects, both narrative and documentary, so it was seemingly inevitable that their best effort together to date has combined both forms. Here, Dafoe is an American director conceptualizing the aforementioned Siberia whilst living a seemingly content existence with his much younger wife Nikki and their toddler daughter Anna in Rome. During most days, Tommaso plays the role of dad, takes Italian language classes, and leads acting workshops for young thespians when he isn’t working on his new feature, but when night falls, Tommaso cathartically confronts his years of addiction by sharing his stories at a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. By all accounts, Tommaso seems to have his life under control, but as the film progresses, and he conceptualizes the rugged story of Siberia for Nikki, and in turn the audience, you begin to sense that our director is starting to feel his age and doubts his ability to remain vital to both his generations-younger partner and his craft. By implementing a production ethos that forced Dafoe to improvise his way out of tense situations while constructing a narrative that references both men’s cinematic careers, Ferrara has masterfully blurred the line between actor and director in a way that forces us to question the current state of the medium.

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Notturno / Italy • France • Germany / dir. Gianfranco Rosi

The winner of the Arca Cinema Giovani Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno is his first feature since his Oscar nominated 2016 film, Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea), which dealt with the tragedy of the European Migrant crisis as seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old refugee named Samuele. As the aftermath of war has been the focus of his work, Rosi, with his fifth feature, Notturno, filmed, for over three years, the regions where the actions of ISIS have been the most devastating between Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, pausing his camera on the people of these places where horrific acts of violence have occurred. For everyone you meet in Notturno, war has been their reality for a very long time, and so Rosi includes into his narrative observational footage of more of the mundane actions of people who are trying to regain some sense of normalcy, such as hunters looking for game at dusk, to present a harsh contrast to scenes of people who cannot get through the day without dealing with the grim reminders of conflict. From the child who discusses the brutal images of war that are realized in his classmates’ crayon sketches at school, to the mother who listens on her phone aloud to voicemail messages from her daughter who had been abducted by ISIS, Notturno goes beyond those war documentaries that flood you with scenes of carnage until you are rendered numb. By employing an impressive array of sumptuously framed landscapes, coupled with a sound design of overwhelming silences against the witnessing of crushed souls and cries of sadness, you are forever reminded that war is not a contained moment of time that can be simply examined like the pages of a history book.

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Ghost Tropic / Belgium • Netherlands / dir. Bas Devos

After a five-year absence from feature filmmaking, director Bas Devos released two features in 2019 (screened here in 2020), both dealing with the aftermath of the 2016 Islamist attacks in Brussels: Hellhole and Ghost Tropic. Each film adopts a drastically different tone in depicting how the Belgian city has attempted to progress past the extremist violence that had taken place there a few years before. The more placid and ethereal of the two Devos films, Ghost Tropic has as its protagonist Khadija (Saadia Bentaïeb), a middle-aged Muslim woman who works as a second shift maintenance worker. At her job, Khadija gets along well with her coworkers, but when she ends her shift, she falls asleep on her bus ride home from work and misses her stop, leaving her on the opposite edge of town with no return bus to ride back or money for a taxi. Having no other options, Khadija must walk through the cold late night streets of Brussels where she then encounters a plethora of different nocturnal residents who range from a night watchman, to a store clerk, to a deathly ill homeless man whom she tries to rescue, to an immigrant squatter who lives in the house where she once worked as a maid. As Khadija peacefully travels through the various Brussels neighborhoods, you are imbued with a dreadful feeling that some kind of violence will be inflicted on her based on the 2016 attacks, but these moments never arrive, and yet, the lack of expected transgressions against Khadija never feels overly optimistic, for Devos cleverly suggests throughout Ghost Tropic that Khadija’s journey may not even be a real one. Could her walk be part of her bus ride dream state where she is as much a part of her city’s landscape as the icy billboards advertising an almost impossible tropical escape? Or could she possibly be the victim of the 2016 violence that has left her as a saintly presence who oversees the city she called home? By leaving the reality of Ghost Tropic ambiguous, Devos creates a fiction with limitless possibilities that invariably forces us to challenge our assumptions of what we believe is the potential outcome for a character based on our limited knowledge of the history of a place.

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Piedra Sola (Lonely Rock) / dir. Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf

Inspired by a poem from legendary Argentine folk singer and writer Atahualpa Yupanqui, director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf has crafted his successful debut feature, Piedra Sola, which smartly blends ethnographic film elements with a fictional plot that balances the physical and metaphysical through the observance of nature, cultural rites, and the day-to-day necessities of human survival. Over the course of one year, director Tarraf, cinematographer Alberto Balazs, and a small crew lived with llama farmer Ricardo Fidel and his family in their home high in the Andes in the remote village of El Condor in Sierra de Jujuy, Argentina, and it is there where he filmed the story of Ricardo and his community’s efforts to preserve the harmony between their people and Pachamama (mother nature). Piedra Sola begins with Ricardo’s family and the ritual slaughter of one of their llamas as a blood offering to Pachamama, but despite their oblation, some of Ricardo’s other llamas are found dead, which prompts Ricardo to hunt for the mythical puma that he believes is singling out his herd alone. As Ricardo travels away from El Condor on his quest to find the puma, he goes on both a physical and spiritual journey that ascends the mountainous landscape and varying planes of existence contained in his village’s cosmology. What is remarkable in Piedra Sola is that with most ethnographic cinema, there is always the fear of exoticising the people witnessed, and in turn, an exploitation of a culture’s identity, but that feeling of exoticising never exists in Piedra Sola, as Tarraf and the masterful lens of Balazs blend pure observation and the constructed narrative elements into a form of storytelling that is always reverent in its discovery. This is an exceptional achievement for Tarraf, especially considering Piedra Sola’s lean 82-minute running time. You can read Generoso’s interview with director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf that took place during AFI Fest 2020 here.

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Selfie / Italy / dir. Agostino Ferrente

Originally motivated to document the story of Davide Bifolco, a teenage boy errantly killed by the police in the troubled district of Traiano in Naples, director Agostino Ferrente, upon witnessing the media bias against Davide, shifted the scope of his project by boldly handing filming responsibilities to Pietro and Alessandro, two boys from Traiano who are best friends and who were exactly Davide’s age when he died. Ferrente then directed Pietro and Alessandro to chronicle their everyday experiences together on their smartphones, and these extremely candid views into their lives were then edited together with footage taken by the security cameras affixed to the storefronts in the neighborhood that they once shared with Davide. As Selfie progresses, and we watch firsthand the genuine emotional bond between these two young men who are coping with their loss of their friend while simply trying to live in a zone notorious for criminal activity, we are ever reminded of the dehumanizing effect that the interspersed CCTV footage has on our perceptions of the people who live in economically challenged areas like Pietro and Alessandro. By giving the storytelling agency back to these two teens in Traiano, Ferrente has underscored the gravity of the loss of Davide Bifolco in a way that no traditional documentary could ever do. Though we will never meet Davide, Selfie at least gives us some sense of who he was by allowing us to view the lives of two of his peers who continue to endure in the place where Davide’s life was unfairly cut short.

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BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE (TIED)

Série noire / France / dir. Alain Comeau

Many thanks go to the folks at Film Movement for their excellent 2K restoration earlier this year of Série noire, director Alain Comeau’s raw and daring 1979 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s heartbreakingly tragic crime novel, A Hell of a Woman. For Generoso, it had been several decades since he had first seen the film, but yet it has long remained in his mind, along with James Foley’s After Dark My Sweet and Bernard Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, as one of the strongest of Thompson’s works transposed to screen, and this updated reissue reconfirms his feelings. Though French film legend Bernard Blier and then newcomer Marie Trintignant are excellent in their respective roles in Série noire, much of the credit to the success of this film has to go to the late Patrick Dewaere, who went all in as the lead, the lovelorn, down and out, door-to-door salesman, Frank, a reluctant criminal who has to turn to murder to escape his and his paramour’s dire predicament. Reportedly, director Comeau had such faith that Dewaere was the only actor who could embody the character of Frank that he threatened to walk away from the project if Dewaere couldn’t take the role. Having been a huge fan of Dewaere, Generoso has always felt that he was that perfect fit for Thompson’s hapless antihero, Frank “Dolly” Dillon (changed in the film to Frank Poupart), as the late actor possessed that rare ability to emote a fragility combined with a desperate intensity that was so vital for the part, which he overwhelmingly delivered in one of his last great performances before his death in 1983. As you watch Série noire and observe Frank sinking deeper and deeper into trouble due to his love for Mona and his desire to break out of his miseries, you are waylaid by Dewaere’s commitment to the role as he imbues Frank with such a profound level of self-loathing and self-abuse that you almost forgive him for his many evils.

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Out of the Blue / Canada / dir. Dennis Hopper

After the overwhelming success of Hopper’s 1969 directorial debut, Easy Rider, Universal Studios greenlit the actor/director’s next production, The Last Movie, and gave him a budget of one million dollars and total creative control of the project. With money in hand and a major studio’s backing, Hopper flew to Peru and spent most of 1970 making his sophomore film, which garnered the Critics Prize at the 1971 Venice Film Festival, while notoriously falling at the box office. Disheartened by the failure of The Last Movie, Hopper concentrated solely on acting over the next decade, and turned in a plethora of excellent performances, most notably in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend and in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. After Apocalypse Now, Hopper was signed to star in a small Canadian feature titled CeBe, but when producers fired the film’s director, Hopper immediately stepped in to direct and quickly authored a script geared towards the talents of his young co-star, Linda Manz, and her admiration of punk rock. The film would be renamed Out of the Blue, and Manz would turn in a once in a lifetime performance as a troubled young woman who turns to punk rock and her love of Elvis Presley to cope with the crushing realities of having a heroin-addicted mother (Sharon Farrell), and a father (Hopper) who is serving a prison sentence for killing a school bus full of children while driving drunk behind the wheel of his truck. As Cebe, Manz’s emotionally erratic portrayal feels natural and embodies the punk mindset in a way where so many mainstream Hollywood films of that era failed, like Times Square. Generoso has long been a devotee of Out of the Blue, and he loudly extolled its virtues when he heard the sad news that Linda Manz had passed away in August of this year. The new 4K restoration that screened at AFI Fest 2020 finally allows audiences to experience the full effect Out of the Blue, with its loud thuds and its bleak imagery that harshly examine the rapid decline of the American family.

Generoso and Lily Fierro

Director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 17, 2020

Initially inspired to locate the mythical rock that is the subject of the 1941 poem, “Piedra sola,” by legendary Argentinian folk singer and writer Atahualpa Yupanqui, first time feature director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf journeyed to the Northern region of his native Argentina where by chance he met llama herder Ricardo Fidel Tolaba. After many conversations with Tolaba, Tarraf took a small crew to the remote village of El Condor, located between the bordering mountains of Northern Argentina and Bolivia, where he and his team lived with and filmed Tolaba and his family over the next year. As the crew immersed themselves in Tolaba’s community, they documented the native rites there and subsequently combined the footage that they shot with a fiction written by Tarraf and Lucas Distéfano that was inspired by the Andean Cosmovision to make Piedra Sola. This compelling 71-minute feature follows Ricardo after he and his family ritually sacrifice a llama and journey to a nearby village to sell the animal’s meat and pelt as a means of survival. Soon, when several more of Ricardo’s llamas are found dead, Ricardo goes on a physical and spiritual journey away from El Condor to locate the unseen puma that he believes is killing his herd. I thankfully caught up with Tarraf when his transcendent first feature screened as part of the New Auteurs section at this year’s American Film Institute’s Festival.

Q: Looking at your film and your blending of documentary and fiction cinema, my mind immediately went to Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela and the process that Costa utilized as he lived in the community of his actress for some time. I understand that you did this as well—you lived with Ricardo Fidel Tolaba and his family in making Piedra Sola. Costa knew Vitalina’s story before filming the recreation because she appeared in his prior feature, Horse Money, and so I wondered: how did you meet Ricardo, and how familiar were you with the rituals of the people of El Condor before you moved in with his family? Also, at what point in the process did you and Lucas Distéfano start to create the fictional elements of your script?

A: Well, I am from Buenos Aires, which is very far from the Puna region, about 2000 kilometers away actually. So, my first encounter with the region was via a poem from Atahualpa Yupanqui. Yupanqui is a very important poet and musician in that region, but I should also say that he is better known as a musician than as a writer. The first poem which I read of his was called, “Il Tempo Di Hombre (Man’s Time),” where he speaks of a universal man. Then, I read his first book of poems, Piedra sola: poemas del cerro, where he speaks about a rock that falls from a mountain and lands in the valley, and that rock becomes a refuge for the shepherds where they can contemplate. Originally, my romantic idea was to go and find the rock Yupanqui wrote about, and so, my wife and I went on a journey to find this place and in turn find out more about Atahualpa Yupanqui to make a documentary on him. That was the initial idea, but then on this journey, I met Ricardo and really was touched by him, and so, I put aside the documentary on Yupanqui, and thought to write my own script. But in the back of my mind, I was still thinking of Yupanqui and considered the way that he approached art, in that it is universal and without borders. I was with my wife when we met Ricardo, and after a half of an hour of conversation with him, I began to cry because I knew that I had found someone who had so much wisdom.

We became friends, and I stayed with him for a month that first time. Afterwards, I went back to Buenos Aires, and then back again to Ricardo. At first, the community was very closed off, as it is on the border between Bolivia and Argentina, and thus they needed time to open up and adjust to me being there. Also, I always said to myself that if I were to film there, then I needed to do it from the inside and not from the outside, and so to do that, I needed time. In that way, I feel my process was like that of Pedro Costa, as he insists on spending a good deal of time with the people in his films. I agree that you need to spend the time with these people to create a home environment and a family. So, I did a few more journeys with Lucas Distéfano and our cinematographer, Alberto Balazs, and I wrote a script which I presented to the Institute of Argentine Cinema to solicit funding for my first feature. But then, I went back to Ricardo in El Condor and wrote another script, which constantly evolved. When we began shooting, the film was a pure documentary at first that was done with Alberto (Balazs) and a very small crew of about four, which eventually expanded to about ten people as shooting continued. However, I would say that fifty percent of the filming was still done with just four people in the crew. In the beginning, we had all this documentary footage that I gathered together and watched, but it left me with a dilemma, as I then had the desire to add some fiction to what I had in order to organize what I felt was a bit of chaos with the documentary (laughs). I then used all of the stories Ricardo told me to create a very precise script.

Q: At that juncture, did you feel that the script aligned well with what you had filmed?

A: Yes, but I subsequently did take another journey back to El Condor with a sound designer to record only sound for two weeks. And with all of that material, I was able to make the film. But regarding the region, it is an amazing place, Generoso. It feels so remote and untouched in a way, and thus you feel like you are looking at a place that could very well be the origins of the planet. And it is for that reason at the start of the film that we show the storm to put the viewer in a mindset that they are indeed viewing the creation of the world and the place of first humans. It is a very mythological place, the Puna region, because if you have ever been to Buenos Aires, it is the exact opposite—it is a very cosmopolitan and modern place.

Q: When you speak of the first moments of your film, seeing and hearing the storm and this feeling of being put at the beginning of time, I also think of the image of the hobbled horse that you present. While watching Piedra Sola, I believed that Pachamama was simply a representation of mother nature, but now, as I understand from your director’s statement, it can also mean time and universe, as in the poem by Yupanqui. What then did you wish to suggest by showing the horse at that moment? Should we see it as a reflection on Argentina’s past by way of Spanish rule? If not, what does the horse suggest in terms of the time and history of the region?

A: The horse is very important in many ways. First, the ritual that you see involving the horse in the film is a real ritual in that region. When they go to the bonfire, the horse becomes a vehicle as a means of transportation to the other world. But for me, in the north, there is a synchronicity between the Americans and the Spanish because, as you know, the horse is a Spanish animal. When you see this lighting of a fire with this horse, it was also in a way a symbol of fusion between these two cultures. This was important to me as I feel that we need to integrate more in this way and not be separate because, when it is all said and done, we are all in the human race. What is funny is that the horse that you see is white, and it is called, “The Gringo,” which you know means, “the foreigner,” and so the idea was to show the horse in the beginning, so, at the end, you could see a transformation in a non-linear way as to give respect to the idea of time and the universe. As you see that in the end of the film, you are ascending, and you are not very clear as to the destination, like a Fata Morgana, and as you ascend, time becomes a bit more unclear, which was my goal as to keep the narrative non-linear. But the horse is indeed about this colonialism and our need to transcend this.

Q: In Apichitapong Weerasethukhul’s 2010 film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, as the titular character is dying, his past, present, and future all collapse into one plane of existence. As Ricardo lives in El Condor, which, in the Andean Cosmovision, is where the past is thought to be ahead and the future behind, what then does the ascent of Ricardo at the end of the film suggest to you about the boundaries between the physical and the spiritual?

A: You know many people believe that Ricardo has died at the end of my film, but I don’t see the ending that way. For me, the end of my film is a condensing of the past, the present, and the future. I feel that we are always thinking in a linear way, but the idea of the film is to bring in these planes of the present, past, and future, and we are eternity itself. And when Ricardo shows a shadow, it is because when we are eternal this shadow will integrate with ourselves, and we will become complete.

There is a phrase that we say in Spanish, and I don’t know if you also say it in English, but we say, “In a grain of sand, we can see the totality of the desert.” So for me, it was exactly the same thing, but with the stone.

Q: In Buddhist doctrine, when a food or drink sacrifice is offered to a spirit, it shouldn’t be eaten by people and must eventually be thrown away. As you have stated in a previous interview, there are three planes of existence for the people in the Puna Region: the level of the condor, which is the elevated level, the level of the puma, which is the current plane, and the level of the serpent, which is underneath. In Piedra Sola, when Ricardo goes into the village to sell the llama meat that he used for the ritual, people refuse to buy it, and a woman whom he offers it to even says, “Oh, it is from El Condor. I have heard that the meat from there is tough.” Is the custom in El Condor to sell the meat and pelt of the ritual animal, or in a sense, given the “meat is tough” statement, is the puma singling out Ricardo’s herd as some sort of punishment for treating the llama as a commodity?

A: I can say this: in the North of Argentina, life is very simple. So, the puma and the llama are part of the level of man, and thus, their relationship to each other is very sacred, but eating the llama is also the only way that the people can survive. In the ritual that you see in my film, the blood that is painted onto the house is the offering, and then the family will survive off of the meat because you must remember that this is a mountainous and very unfertile region to grow agriculture. Therefore, their relationship is very sacred, and that is why when Ricardo sacrifices the llama, he closes his eyes as to connect with the animal, so Ricardo really does understand what the sacrifice means in that this animal represents so much to him and his family. For that reason, the llama gives so much to these people and to the survival of their community, and because of this importance, the llama is sacred in human territory. But, at the same time, the people cannot do the same thing with a condor because that is on another level, the world of the gods, and so that is not a good thing, but the llama is part of this world.

Q: So then, when Ricardo’s son sells the llama pelt for cash, I wondered what needed to be purchased with money in what is seemingly a bartering community like El Condor? Money of course, isn’t necessarily modern, so I do not believe that it in conflict with Pachamama specifically in terms of time, but does it suggest a level of unnaturalness in El Condor, as money becomes an intermediary outside tool in a community where most of life’s necessities can be traded for?

A: Yes, I can understand this thought about the money that they make by selling the meat and the pelt, but with it they purchase vegetables to eat, and they buy the coca leaves that they use in rituals because you cannot find the coca leaves where they live, so they have to travel to Bolivia to get buy them. I’m sure that you understand this, but the coca leaves are key to the whole cosmology there, and for that reason, we closely filmed the veins in the leaves so you see the totality of it all.

Q: Are the coca leaves crucial for just that community, or did you find that they were essential to the entire Andean cosmology?

A: Yes, in Northern Argentina, but also in Bolivia, the north of Chile, and Peru, they are sacred. You know that we are so removed from the sacredness of the coca leaf because we only think of it in its refined state for drugs, but for them it is so sacred in the way that they can “see” with it. In the end of the film, when Ricardo sees the fire, you should know that in the actual community when they see and read the smoke from a fire, they can tell who is going to die. So, the fire was always prescient for me when I was filming. When people in the community gathered around a fire, I felt that it was part of the totality as well.

Q: There is a danger in ethnographic filmmaking, and that is of a sort-of exoticizing of the culture, which I feel your film never does because of the connection to the pain that exists in the life of Ricardo and the people in El Condor, but at the same time, there is a physical and spiritual ascension that goes beyond the human form. How concerned were you that the people whom you were filming would become too subject-like? To specify, as an outsider, were you ever concerned about the perception that we as the viewers might have that you are studying the people of El Condor as clinical subjects?

A: Here, I should say again that it was always crucial for me to film from the “inside” and to do that, apart from spending time with the people, I had to be like them, and they had to be like me, so we could have a kind of fusion. Like, if you film a storm, Generoso, you need to feel a storm—you have to be under that storm in order to show that you are there. Otherwise, it would feel like you were watching it from outside. Also, because I lived there, I had so much respect for the Cosmovision that I was trying to bring my camera to the level of the circumstance. It is a matter of being present, and because we are in the present, we can then have the ability to play with time. Lastly, I should say that I always felt that I had to have one foot on the earth and one foot in the sky at all times there because in order to reach the sacred I need to be on the earth too.

Q: In terms of the practical aspects of filming when you were in such a remote location, I am so curious as to your exact access to electricity when you were in El Condor.

A: Electricity wasn’t everywhere in El Condor when I was shooting, and there wasn’t access to the internet at all. This is quite funny, but in the scene when Ricardo and his son are coming back to El Condor on the bus, if you look at the newspaper, it mentions the internet, which was on its way there at the time. So now in 2020, there is the internet, and I can communicate with the people there, but for the year that I was there, it didn’t exist. So yes, there was some electricity there like in the school and in the small clinic that they operated for the community, but for our electricity needs like charging the camera’s batteries and the lights, we had to bring some gas generators with us.

Q: Given the way of life in El Condor, do you feel that your lack of access to modern conveniences, aided you and your crew in feeling more inside of their world?

A: Yes, it did, but to explain further, in El Condor, when we were filming there, the method that was used when someone needed to communicate with others involved going some distance to a place with a radio transmitter and communicating that way. They would also get the news like that, so it was a difficult situation. Now though, I do wonder how El Condor will develop as they have the internet there along with some other conveniences. In that way, I feel that Ricardo is between generations, and for that reason, I wanted to put those three faces in that house: this old person, Ricardo, and his son.

Q: At this point, do you have a desire to go back to El Condor to film how the modern world has changed the people and place?

A: No, for me it definitely is a curiosity as far as keeping track of these people, but it is not an artistic curiosity. No, for my next project, I am looking at another region of Argentina, in the northeast, because I think that it is very important in my country as a filmmaker to not always be in Buenos Aires, but to give a voice and good stories to other communities. You see, we have this idea to always show Buenos Aires as the European capital of South America and to avoid filming the native people, and so, I have no desire to feed into that tradition. That is also why I am very happy about my film being shown at AFI Fest because their festival supports this kind of cinema that I have created here with Piedra Sola.

Q: Lastly Alejandro, for your next project, do you want to continue working in a documentary fiction hybrid style?

A: No, I feel that in the next film I will move more into fiction, but I will continue working with local people from the region, non-professional actors, because I feel that to make a good fiction film, you need to do it like a documentary. And conversely, if you want to make a good documentary, you need to think in terms of fiction filmmaking. So, in a way, I am going to put my focus in the story, the fiction with this documentary approach, but this is a challenge for me because to make a good fiction, you need to be very real.

My thanks to Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf for this conversation and a special thanks goes to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, for introducing us.

vientocine.com/Piedra-Sola

Generoso Fierro

AFI Fest 2020

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 4, 2020

AFI Fest 2020
Virtual • October 15-21, 2020

Since our landing in Los Angeles back in 2015, we have made the American Film Institute’s yearly showcase, AFI Fest, the definitive festival to help us define the year’s achievements in the medium. Arriving during the anchor leg of festival season each fall, AFI Fest is that curatorial effort that not only draws in significant world premieres, but also the finest efforts that have been honored at different festivals throughout the year.

As 2020 has seen a new normal go into effect for almost every aspect of life thanks to the novel coronavirus, and with every public event with live attendance being either cancelled or dramatically reduced down in scope, we wondered over the summer if AFI Fest would decide to sit this year out, as Cannes had so prudently chosen to do at the height of the outbreak in Europe. We also pondered as we read the news of Cannes’ cancellation as to how that highly influential event’s absence would take its toll on the festival programming that usually follows in its wake, but when Toronto, New York, and Venice made their decisions to move forward with varying degrees of scope, we started to have a glimmer of hope that AFI would find a path towards at least a virtual festival, and thankfully, between October 15th and 21st, they did.

Last year, AFI Fest added a dedicated section of documentary features and shorts, and the inaugural AFI Conservatory Showcase, and this year’s completely virtual edition of the festival proudly continued its commitment to these efforts. In total, AFI Fest 2020 programmed 124 titles which played in the aforementioned Conservatory Showcase and Documentary sections, as well as blocks dedicated to World Cinema, New Auteurs, Cinema’s Legacy, Short Film Competition, and the Meet the Press Film Festival.

Beyond the eclectic film programming this year, each day also saw a different informative edition of the AFI Summit, a series of thought-provoking conversations and panel discussions featuring acclaimed filmmakers, top industry executives, and high-profile thought leaders. 2020 also included four tributes, as AFI Fest honored documentarian Kirby Dick, directors Mira Nair and Sofia Coppola, and Academy Award-winning actress, singer, and dancer Rita Moreno.

Given that this year’s AFI Fest was virtual for all, we converted the time that we normally would have spent waiting in lines into consuming even more content than we have ever during any of our last five trips through AFI Fest’s programming. Similar to our method in years past with our coverage of the festival, we will not review any of the Summits, Tributes, or short films that we saw, but unlike years past, rather than providing reviews for every one of the twenty-three features we viewed, we will instead only focus on our absolute favorites from AFI Fest 2020 because, during these strange and urgent days, we want you to know that these are the films that need to be seen.

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Collectiv (Collective) / dir. Alexander Nanau

On October 30, 2015, a fire occurred in the Colectiv music club in Bucharest that directly resulted in the deaths of 27 people and left over 100 injured. An investigation that followed proved that the club had received an operating license without a proper inspection from the Fire Department, which caused a public uproar, but when a subsequent story written by Gazeta Sporturilor journalist, Catalin Tolontan and his team, verified that 38 of the victims, many of whom had non-life threatening burns, had died in the weeks following the tragedy from hospital infections caused by a criminally negligent dilution of the disinfectants supplied to the burn wards, it led to demonstrations that forced a toppling of the Romanian government. Now, with a population out for revenge, Vlad Voiculescu, a well-meaning patient rights advocate, is selected to fulfill the role of Health Minister to control the damage, and it is here in the narrative where director Nanau provides you with seldom-seen, simultaneous access into both the inner-workings of the Minister’s office and the diligent team at the Gazeta Sporturilor as they continue to uncover a wide-ranging network of corruption that existed at every level of a government that strived to defraud the very healthcare system it was charged to administer for its members’ own personal gain. Throughout Collective, director Alexander Nanau carefully balances this rare glimpse into both sides of a system going down in ruins, while masterfully keeping the human suffering of the victims, and their families, omnipresent in the viewers’ minds.

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Notturno / dir. Gianfranco Rosi

The winner of the Arca Cinema Giovani Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno is his first feature since his Oscar nominated 2016 film, Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea), which dealt with the tragedy of the European Migrant crisis as seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old refugee named Samuele. As the aftermath of war has been the focus of his work, Rosi, with his fifth feature, Notturno, filmed, for over three years, the regions where the actions of ISIS have been the most devastating between Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, pausing his camera on the people of these places where horrific acts of violence have occurred. For everyone you meet in Notturno, war has been their reality for a very long time, and so Rosi includes into his narrative, observational footage of more of the mundane actions of people who are trying to regain some sense of normalcy, such as hunters looking for game at dusk, to present a harsh contrast to scenes of people who cannot get through the day without dealing with the grim reminders of conflict. From the child who discuss the brutal images of war that are realized in his classmates’ crayon sketches at school, to the mother who listens on her phone aloud to voicemail messages from her daughter who had been abducted by ISIS, Notturno goes beyond those war documentaries that flood you with scenes of carnage until you are rendered numb. By employing an impressive array of sumptuously framed landscapes, coupled with a sound design of overwhelming silences against the witnessing of crushed souls and cries of sadness, you are forever reminded that war is not a contained moment of time that can be simply examined like the pages of a history book.

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Piedra Sola (Lonely Rock) / dir. Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf

Inspired by a poem from legendary Argentine folk singer and writer, Atahualpa Yupanqui, director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf has crafted his successful debut feature, Piedra Sola, which smartly blends ethnographic film elements with a fictional plot that adeptly balances the physical and metaphysical through the observance of nature, cultural rites, and the day-to-day necessities of human survival. Over the course of one year, director Tarraf, cinematographer Alberto Balazs, and a small crew lived with llama farmer, Ricardo Fidel, and his family in their home high in the Andes in the remote village of El Condor in Sierra de Jujuy, Argentina, and it is there where he filmed the story of Ricardo and his community’s efforts to preserve the harmony between their people and Pachamama (mother nature). Piedra Sola begins with Ricardo’s family and the ritual slaughter of one of their llamas as a blood offering to Pachamama, but despite their oblation, some of Ricardo’s other llamas are found dead, which prompts Ricardo to hunt for the mythical puma that he believes is singling out his herd alone. As Ricardo travels away from El Condor on his quest to find the puma, he goes on both a physical and spiritual journey that ascends the mountainous landscape and varying planes of existence contained in his village’s cosmology. What is remarkable in Piedra Sola is that with most ethnographic cinema, there is always the fear of exoticising the people witnessed, and in turn, an exploitation of a culture’s identity, but that feeling of exoticising never exists in Piedra Sola, as Tarraf and the masterful lens of Balazs blend pure observation and the constructed narrative elements into a form of storytelling that is always reverent in its discovery. This is an exceptional achievement for Tarraf, especially considering Piedra Sola‘s lean 82-minute running time.

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Hopper/Welles / dir. Orson Welles

A year after Dennis Hopper achieved worldwide acclaim and was tabbed as a counterculture icon for directing his debut feature, Easy Rider, he sat down in Los Angeles for conversation, dinner, and what appeared to be several hundred gin and tonics, with the great Orson Welles, who, some thirty years prior, had equally realized a similar status as an outsider auteur who was also about to feel the wrath of the Hollywood system. Recently restored as a stand-alone feature, Hopper/Welles was originally filmed to be a small segment for the unsuccessful Welles project, The Other Side of the Wind. Edited together in a way that feels as raw and vital as when the conversation occurred fifty years go, it doesn’t take long for the pointed questions by Welles, all asked for dramatic intent, to hit their mark on Hopper, who responds on the shaky, but sharp side for the early portion of the film, but when the gin and tonics begin to take their toll and waves of indifference fill Hopper’s responses, the film’s tension is lost. Until those less lucid drunken moments though, the pair share their personal thoughts on the state of cinema at the time, discussing the work of Renais, Antonioni, and Buñuel. And when questions of American sensibilities and issues of national identity arise, Hopper’s life and his home studio editing of The Last Movie in Taos, New Mexico, which was situated close to multiple governmental munitions factories, bring out the paranoia in both men and some of the most interesting conversation in the film. For cineastes particularly, there is a special takeaway from Hopper/Welles: in knowing the poor outcome of Hopper’s sophomore effort, The Last Movie, and in listening to Hopper’s commitment to his maverick approach, which he is confident will not be well-received by the public, we gain a deep respect for his singular vision. In the end, despite the downturn in intensity during the latter third, Hopper/Welles remains as an amazing document of when the torch of old Hollywood’s dissatisfaction is handed off to a bright, irreverent talent, who based on his explanations and reflections, might have seen the road of cinematic misery coming, but moved forward regardless of his fears due to his profound love and knowledge of the medium.

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El Prófugo (The Intruder) / dir: Natalia Meta

What is the source of the phantom sound that is suspiciously emanating from voice actress and choir singer, Inés (Erica Rivas)? Based on the novel, El mal minor by C.E. Feiling, and with a screenplay written by director Meta, this clever feature sits in a giallo-esque frame and plays out with comedic undertones as our protagonist Inés deals with the ramifications of a shocking incident that occurs at the start of the film while she is on vacation with her boyfriend, Leopoldo (Daniel Handler), whose ideas of romance and frivolity in a foreign land are never quite what Inés seems to have desired. When Inés eventually returns home, the ugly event that she witnessed begins to infiltrate her mind through bouts of insomnia and nightmares, which dissolve the border between her reality and dreams, and as Inés returns to the studio and her career of dubbing voices for films, the microphone she uses begins to start picking up some mysterious sounds that seem to come directly from her own throat. As these odd sounds disturb Inés’ ability to perform at work, the perplexing utterances also manifest when she is singing in the all-female choir that is her passion, leaving her unable to stay in key with her fellow vocalists. With Inés’ world coming apart, she receives “support” in the form of her mother, Marta (Pedro Almodóvar regular, Cecilia Roth), who comes to stay with her for a while. But despite Mom’s dispensing of rapid sage advice, and the introduction of a Phantom of the Opera-styled organ tuner named Alberto (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) into Inés’ life, the “intruder” living inside of Inés, continues to express itself at will. The traditional horror genre elements in The Intruder and its deliberately slow pace work exceptionally well in creating a mood for the film which places Inés in what feels like a dangerous physical predicament, leaving the door open for you to interpret her phantom voice as less of a paranormal or psychic warning system, and possibly more of a symbol of the internal struggle of a woman who is seeking to find her own way in dealing with traditional interpretations of love and family. Much of the credit to the film’s success goes to Erica Rivas, who embodies Inés with a complex blend of fragility and sadness, coupled with a staunch determination to realize her inner self.

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Jacinta / dir. Jessica Earnshaw

While at the Maine Correctional Center working on a photo essay that examined aging in prison, director Jessica Earnshaw met Rosemary, an inmate at the center, and the mother of the titular Jacinda, who was also incarcerated at the same prison. As Earnshaw began to spend time with both Rosemary and Jacinta, observing their relationship closely, Earnshaw turned away from her photo essay and began to record the interactions of this mother and daughter who have been battling years of addiction in and outside of confinement. When Jacinta is paroled before her mother, Earnshaw chooses to follow Jacinta back to her hometown of Lewiston, Maine, where the young woman checks into a sober home to try and stay straight while attempting to reestablish her relationship with her then 10-year old daughter, Caylynn. Over the years that follow, Earnshaw closely documents Jacinta’s struggles to stay sober, her stumbles back into drug abuse and theft, and her family and friends who take both passive and active roles in Jacinta’s quest to stay clean so that she can be the mother she wants to be to Caylynn. For her debut documentary feature film, Earnshaw presents us with one of the most intimate portrayals of addiction that we have seen in some time, as we the viewers are given this rare view of not only the sometimes harrowing life or death choices of Jacinta, but also her personal dialogs with Earnshaw, who as a filmmaker, consistently straddles a difficult line between being the objective observer of a subject and a concerned friend. In the end, Earnshaw’s portrait of Jacinta never feels opportunistic, divisive, or exploitative, as it was clearly made with Jacinta’s full approval, and with the overall mission to serve as a harbinger for those who might be on the same destructive path.

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Mila (Apples) / dir. Christos Nikou

The global pandemic at the center of Christos Nikou’s debut feature, Apples, is a very powerful malady that is attacking the memory of all of its victims. One of these victims is Aris (Aris Servetalis), a mild mannered Athenian man who wakes up on a bus in a state of amnesia, a disease which has become so prevalent, that a governmental memory recovery program has been established solely to deal with the large influx of new patients. Set during the time prior to when we all became slaves to our digital devices, Aris is tasked by his doctors to create new memories for himself based on a prescribed list of recommended activities, and he is also given a Polaroid camera to document the completion of these essential new experiences in order to assemble a scrapbook that he can use as a substitute for his lost past. Doing as he is told, Aris spends his days fulfilling the duties needed to make his picture-perfect moments (riding a child’s bicycle, posing with a sex worker), and on a trip to see Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a local movie theater, Aris meets Anna (Sofia Georgovassili), who is equally afflicted with amnesia and medically charged with capturing the required, yet violent cinematic excursion, with a photograph of herself alone in front of the film’s poster. Having now met, this pair of amnesiacs share their similar predestined memories in an analog version of today’s social media culture where we all post the same media selected items of daily importance in an banal attempt to state an individual voice. Having worked as an assistant director to his fellow countryman, Yorgos Lanthimos, for his breakthrough 2009 feature, Dogtooth, Christos Nikou, has clearly gained some inspiration from Lanthimos’ style of depicting people who exist in an alternate universe constructed specifically for them that allows us to question the societal norms that we follow as law without resisting. Nikou’s use of absurdist humor throughout Apples is effective, in that it allows the film’s message to be delivered without a heavy-handedness that might overwhelm the essential humanity of Aris and Anna, who like us, may someday look back on a lifetime of experiences that we might have never wanted in the first place.

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SPECIAL MENTION: Out of the Blue / dir. Dennis Hopper

After the overwhelming success of Hopper’s 1969 directorial debut, Easy Rider, Universal Studios greenlit the actor/director’s next production, The Last Movie, and gave him a budget of one million dollars and total creative control of the project. With money in hand and a major studio’s backing, Hopper flew to Peru and spent most of 1970 making his sophomore film, which garnered the Critics Prize at the 1971 Venice Film Festival, while notoriously falling at the box office. Disheartened by the failure of The Last Movie, Hopper concentrated solely on acting over the next decade, and turned in a plethora of excellent performances, most notably in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend and in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. After Apocalypse Now, Hopper was signed to star in a small Canadian feature titled CeBe, but when producers fired the film’s director, Hopper immediately stepped in to direct and quickly authored a script geared towards the talents of his young co-star, Linda Manz, and her admiration of punk rock. The film would be renamed Out of the Blue, and Manz would turn in a once in a lifetime performance as a troubled young woman who turns to punk rock and her love of Elvis Presley to cope with the crushing realities of having a heroin-addicted mother (Sharon Farrell), and a father (Hopper) who is serving a prison sentence for killing a school bus full of children while driving drunk behind the wheel of his truck. As Cebe, Manz’s emotionally erratic portrayal feels natural and embodies the punk mindset in a way where so many mainstream Hollywood films of that era failed, like Times Square. Generoso has long been a devotee of Out of the Blue, and he loudly extolled its virtues when he heard the sad news that Linda Manz had passed away in August of this year. The new 4K restoration that screened at AFI Fest finally allows audiences to experience the full effect Out of the Blue, with its loud thuds and its bleak imagery that harshly examine the rapid decline of the American family.

All films were screened at AFI Fest 2020 presented by Audi. Many thanks to AFI for another outstanding year of cinema and conversations, and a special thanks to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, who made our festival coverage possible.

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Feature photo: Still of Catalin Tolontan from Alexander Nanau’s Collective. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

fest.afi.com

Generoso and Lily Fierro

Liberté

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Originally published on Ink 19 on June 23, 2020

Liberté
directed by Albert Serra

This review of Albert Serra’s Liberté was inspired by and is dedicated to the experimental filmmaker, Luther Price, who died at the age of 58 last week, leaving behind some of the strongest images that I have experienced on screen. The very first piece of Price’s that I viewed—which was fortuitously screened at the film society run by his teacher, Saul Levine—was his 1989 short which was produced at the height of the early AIDS epidemic, Sodom. To create this work, Price assembled gay porn footage that he salavged out of dumpsters in Boston’s red light district, affectionately known then to locals as “The Combat Zone.” This borderline grotesque, non-couple friendly porn was mixed with the sounds of Gregorian chants and additional found footage from Biblical epics that were discovered by Price, which altogether left me emotionally staggered by an atmosphere that no constructed narrative film has ever been able to duplicate.

So, for that film and for much of his subsequent work that I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to see, I will always be forever grateful to Price for expanding my expectations for what can be achieved in film by incorporating a radical and distinct production ethos. Price’s work throughout his career, like many experimental filmmakers, was so reliant on process. In his particular idiom, that process was not in filming, but in the selection of found footage, the manipulation of what he found, and the way that the film would be shown, be it the chemicals added to the print or the burying of film reels in his own backyard to produce rot and mold. What I gained from Price was not this fleeting feeling of solely witnessing the notorious or audacious within his work, but a hunger as a viewer to understand the minutia contained within the creative process of a filmmaker prior to, or even shortly after, seeing the final product to fully appreciate the work. Over the years, in uncovering the creative mysteries behind a film, whatever magic in the unknown that I’ve lost along the way has usually been replaced with a keener understanding of how the elements selected aimed to advance the director’s intent, leaving me to judge the final piece’s success based on not only my immediate reactions to the work, but also on whether those reactions aligned with the director’s desires.

As for Albert Serra’s Liberté, my viewing came on the heels of my appreciation for what the director accomplished with his feature, The Death of Louis the XIV, a claustrophobic observation of the final days of the bedridden monarch who was adeptly portrayed by French New Wave icon, Jean-Pierre Léaud. Serra’s camera hovers over Louis’ bed as his family wanders in and out of the room, politicians debate, and doctors unemotionally probe Louis while his body rots from gangrene and his reign slowly dissipates along with his mortal coil. Serra’s ability to keep an emotional distance throughout these morbid proceedings, even during uncomfortable moments of physical intimacy, breaks with much of what we have come to expect from a historical period piece. My admiration of The Death of Louis the XIV was distinctly aided by understanding Serra’s unique process in its creation, so I feel that in order to properly review Liberté, which uses a bold experimental production ethos to generate its narrative through performance, I must give a basic plot setup, and then explore what I gleaned from reading and listening to multiple interviews with Serra about his production philosophies in the making of Liberté, as it is a feature that demands to be reviewed on both a procedural and outcome level.

Set entirely in a small patch of forest, Liberté begins in the short moments before sunset. As the sun falls from the sky, a group of libertines engage in discussions that set the historical context of their period, one in which the emerging French Revolution’s impact has become a concern for the libertines, who must now seek other European nations for shelter as they have lost their prerogatives of status and protection which were once bestowed upon them by the now ravaged monarchy. This pastoral setting away from the mob violence engulfing Paris is converted into a hedonistic court in which the libertines can exercise their now infamous agendas as they see fit. When the sun has completely set, and the group is covered under the security of darkness, they begin their nefarious practices of sexual and violent acts upon one another, and Serra moves our focus from one flesh abused cluster to another within and outside of the libertine’s appointed carriages and gives us only graphic conversations and verbal descriptions of depravity to break up the unrelenting visual debauchery.

Liberté, the film, is the third incarnation of this libertine material. Serra originally produced Liberté as a stage play in Germany, and subsequently developed it into an installation piece involving two separate screens that couldn’t simultaneously be seen by the audience. He then adapted this installation into its feature film version, which based on the description above, you may believe is yet another film inspired by the writings of Diderot and de Sade. But the particular way in which Serra decided to create Liberté distinctly sets it apart from its predecessors—it embraces the libertine ethos in not only what the scenes present, but also in how the scenes were captured, all while paradoxically providing evidence that any verbatim visual retelling of libertine practices on film will be less distressing and less impactful than our own imagination’s ruminations on such practices of supreme hedonism.

Liberté had little that could be called a script: no dialog was composed by Serra, and he only created the atmosphere for the shoot. Professional and non-professional actors were used (including some of the film’s technicians who were drafted into graphic scenes without much notice), and Serra did not offer any specific direction for what the actors should do during filming. As he commented to film critic Dennis Lim in a recent interview: “The cast was naked in all senses. Everyone is naked in front of the camera. They have no help, no external help.” Serra utilized his lack of communication to encourage more action amongst his actors, as he relied on the conflict between professional actors’ natural inclination to craft a character, their expectations of direction from him, and his silence and non-intervention to ultimately force them into more natural, rather than expository or dramatic, actions.

Furthermore, Serra instructed his camera operators to only use zoom lenses and to remain distant from the performances. The exclusive use of the zoom was specifically designed so that the actors would never truly know where the focus was at any particular time, preventing their trained impulses from altering their positioning and body language to adjust to the shot. Separately, the distance of the film crew even further lessened the actors’ physical connection to the director, whom they might have seeked for protection or guidance if they felt a scene was failing. Lastly, Serra insisted that shooting occur in hours-long stretches to reinforce the actors’ feeling of indifference towards the camera. Amazingly, this amount of improvisational freedom, combined with physical distancing, resulted in the portrayal of sexual acts that never transpire in a shocking fashion by today’s standards. Nor are these moments sexually gratifying for the participants, which amplifies the feeling of waste that is at the core of the libertine doctrine.

The aforementioned filming process by Serra resulted in over 300 unique hours of footage which was then given to three editors to assemble. Each editor was instructed to only utilize the footage that Serra deemed to have merit, and those pieces were then combined in a way such that no traditional narrative tension could be formed. As a result of these narrative elimination efforts, the editing structure creates its own form of tension for the viewer, who continuously searches for meaning within and between the scenes and may not find anything satisfactory in all of the excess.

Though differing in their genres, their source images, and their addressed codes of morality, both Luther Price’s Sodom and Albert Serra’s Liberté use extreme images cultivated from reality to underscore our apathy towards human suffering. In the case of Sodom, the visceral images of tissue damage during the sex act mixed with the austere sounds and visuals related to Christianity embody the public’s craven demonization of gay sex during the AIDS epidemic that led to the hypocritical apathy towards the vulnerable, high-risk group that increased and prolonged their suffering overall. And in Liberté, Serra’s transformation of the libertine’s lurid concepts into perfunctory and mundane images forces us to confront our own apathy towards the suffering and extremes we regularly see and dismiss in our current media saturated world. Through their processes and their films, Price and Serra remind us that it is not the image that should disturb us—it is the absence of our reaction to it and the lack of our desire to understand its subject and context that should keep us up at night and inspire us to change.

www.cinemaguild.com/theatrical/liberte.html

Generoso Fierro

Tommaso

Standard

Originally published on Ink 19 on June 1, 2020

Tommaso
directed by Abel Ferrara
starring Willem Dafoe, Anna Ferrara, Christina Chiriac

In one of the more bizarre twists to occur to me as a critic, I am forced to reference two songs released by The Monkees in 1967 in back-to-back reviews. Just a few days ago, I stepped outside of my normal comfort zone of critiquing film for Ink 19 to share my thoughts on the latest offering from Sparks, A Steady Drip, Drip Drip, which includes the wonderfully poppy cut, “Lawnmower.” It was there where I referenced, “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” the Monkees-sung, Goffin-King hit, which like the aforementioned Sparks track, is a bouncy tongue-in-cheek ode to suburban splendor with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Astonishingly on that same Monkees-wavelength, director Abel Ferrara’s film Tommaso, his latest effort with frequent collaborator actor Willem Dafoe, made my thoughts turn to the Neil Diamond-penned, Monkees classic, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” For those who are familiar with Ferrara’s filmography, you might be wondering how this mental phenomenon could’ve happened in me, and I believe that my cognitions lie somewhere in the realistic design Ferrara implemented in Tommaso that culminates in a constant tension and moments of vitriol between the titular character (played by Dafoe) and his wife Nikki (played by Ferrara’s real-life spouse, Christina Chiriac). It is these ugly verbal moments that mirror Diamond’s iconic song the most, where more than one partner must share the blame for their collapsing relationship. The major difference between Tommaso and Diamond’s song is that you never entirely know whether the culprit sparking the conflict that transpires in the film is Tomasso, Nikki, or the remnants of Ferrara’s and Dafoe’s personal and artistic pasts being dredged up through the experimental process that formed their characters.

For Abel Ferrara, this new merging of memory, performance, and process with fiction comes on the heels of his last five years of filmmaking, which largely saw the director creating feature-length documentaries on subjects ranging from a portrait of the eclectic neighborhood in Rome that Ferrara currently shares with Dafoe (2017’s Piazza Vittorio), to a look at the vital and raw 1970s filmmaking that was spawned from Ferrara’s hometown of New York City (2019’s The Projectionist). Both filmmaking and Rome are at play in Tommaso, which has a Dafoe/Ferrara hybrid, an American director conceptualizing a film entitled Siberia (yes, that same fiction feature that Ferrara has been working on for the last few years) whilst at first living seemingly contently with his much younger wife Nikki and their toddler daughter Anna (Ferrara’s actual offspring) in the Eternal City. Tomasso goes about his days sharing his parental duties with Nikki, taking Italian language classes to allow him to assimilate into his new country, while running acting workshops for young thespians. But during multiple evenings, Tommaso confronts the grim moments that occurred during his years of substance abuse at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where he appears to have cathartic releases while sharing his experiences and listening to others recall their issues with addiction.

As night turns back into day over and over again and Tommaso voices more of his demons, he continues going about his routine, but concerning images start to appear around him, and he rapidly magnifies them in his mind, causing him to lose control of his emotions. Perhaps his moments of anger are due to the witnessing of actual harbingers that threaten his family, but as we the viewer question whether these precarious moments are real or not, there is one thing that is certain: Tommaso’s actions reveal a man who is falling deeply into destructive behavioral patterns which could potentially cause irreparable harm to the family he loves.

It would be easy to assume that Dafoe is merely a stand in for Ferrara, given the casting of Ferrara’s own wife and child and that our protagonist is a film director, but the constant references throughout the film that harken back to Dafoe’s own career, most notably one scene involving Dafoe’s role as Jesus in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, indicates that perhaps this character study is more than just the case of an actor portraying the verité of his director’s life: it is a psychological exploration of the actor and director relationship and the collaborative, but possibly personally destructive, process of storytelling. Furthermore, Tommaso directly references one of Ferrara’s previous efforts, a feature that also blurs the line between fact and fiction and deals with certain facets from his own career, 1993’s Dangerous Game, where Ferrara tabbed Harvey Keitel, who starred in Ferrara’s iconic Bad Lieutenant, to take on the role of maniacal director Eddie Israel, who destroys his own family when he obsesses over the underlying truth in a story he is filming about a couple’s disintegrating marriage.

Like in Dangerous Game, Ferrara also presents a film within a film in Tommaso by incorporating ruminations on Siberia, the film that is consuming Tommaso and likely Ferrara himself. The frustrations from this rumored overdue production from Ferrara are brought up in conversations between Tommaso and Nikki and through storyboards that he shows her, and us the viewers, on multiple occasions. Siberia‘s focus on a rugged main character, one who battles the savage elements of nature, suggests to us that Tommaso may be having doubts about his own masculinity due to his advanced age, which contributes to his mistrust towards Nikki. In addition, as we see Nikki’s face appear as inspiration in the production materials, we begin to suspect that his lack of trust in her as his wife may also be a projection of his lack of confidence in his own artistic abilities to finish his project, which adds an additional layer of tension to the narrative and to their imploding relationship.

As Ferrara expounded upon during interviews when Tommaso premiered at Cannes in 2019, the techniques used for this film were greatly informed by the director’s recent documentary work. Given the improvisational methods incorporated here, cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, who has worked extensively with Werner Herzog since 1995, having lensed notable Herzog documentaries such as Grizzly ManInto the Abyss, and Encounters at the End of the World, was brought in to film in a documentary style in order to maintain the feeling of realism and to capture honest reactions from the actors. One key scene that exemplifies the benefits of this production approach occurs when Dafoe’s Tommaso is sent downstairs from his apartment to engage with a homeless man who is howling outside of his window. According to Ferrara and Dafoe in interviews, that scene was virtually unscripted, with Dafoe meeting the offending character/actor for the first time during their filmed confrontation when they were both forced to improvise the moment.

Though distinctly different in terms of their respective production processes, Tommaso in many ways brings to mind Jafar Panahi’s superlative 2018 film, 3 Faces, a film that also incorporates fiction and non-fiction elements to focus in on both a filmmaker’s distinct personal dilemmas in conjunction with the shift in attitudes in that society while continuing the contemporary trend of examining the significance of traditional narrative storytelling. With Tommaso, Ferrara has clearly gained much from his recent forays into documentary film, and the final result is a vital and contrasting type of intense living portraiture of two creative people whose lives have become intertwined geographically, personally, and artistically.

www.kinolorber.com/film/tommaso

Generoso Fierro