Pasolini directed by Abel Ferrara starring Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli
In the period leading up to his brutal and controversial murder on November 2, 1975 on the beach at Ostia, iconoclastic Italian poet, writer, and film director, Pier Paolo Pasolini was working on the edits of his last feature, his loose adaptation of the book by the Marquis de Sade, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which was released weeks after his death, a screenplay for his next film, Porno-Teo-Kolossal, and an experimental novel, Oil (Petrolio). In the film Pasolini, American director Abel Ferrara brings the auteur’s final works to cinematic realization and interweaves these pieces of Pasolini’s artistic and intellectual being with moments from his reality in the days before his death, creating a portrait of one of the most important artistic figures to emerge from post-war Italy which breaks away from the rigid constraints of the biopic by allowing the subject’s creative output and voice to endure far beyond his all too brief existence.
Through the performance of actor Willem Dafoe as the titular character, Ferrara recreates the final days of Pasolini’s life in a somewhat traditional fashion. We observe Pasolini’s creative process and his interactions with his mother (Adriana Asti), friends, and colleagues, and it is these intimate views that form the fragile human element of Pasolini’s portrait, which Ferrara combines with acted out excerpts from actual interviews conducted with Pasolini leading up to the release of Salò and an internal dialog based on the director’s own correspondence to give us a glimpse into his complexity as an intellectual and somewhat prophetic being. However, these interactions and dialogs primarily establish Pasolini, the Man, so in order to capture Pasolini, the Creator, Ferrara intermittently shifts his focus away from the representation of the last hours of his life and devotes a significant percentage of the film to the vivid productions of the last artistic and unfinished works of Pasolini. In the creative efforts that we see, Ferrara draws a clear distinction between what was realized during Pasolini’s life and what he was planning to release. We see a moment in the studio where Pasolini works on the final cut of Salò, and here, there is no attempt by Ferrara to recreate the footage of that film. In contrast, Ferrara stages his adaptation of moments from the incomplete novel, Petrolio as well as scenes from the screenplay for Porno-Teo-Kolossal, going as far as casting Pasolini’s lover and actor Ninetto Davoli as the protagonist of these never before visually realized segments of Pasolini’s unfinished creative output. In combining the extracted scenes of Salò with the staged interpretations of Pasolini’s unreleased works, Ferrara amplifies the tragedy of the director’s death by exhibiting the loss of potential while simultaneously extending the immortality of his artistic expressions and intellectual thoughts well past his own physical mortality.
In previous interviews, Ferrara had stated that his original intended approach for this production was an in-depth examination of Pasolini’s murder through multiple perspectives of the crime in order to present the audience with the different theories that have been suggested in the forty plus years since his death. Though Ferrara didn’t elaborate on why he considered then abandoned that approach, one can only imagine that given the turbulent aspects of Pasolini’s life, you could gain a greater understanding of his complex persona via the plethora of enemies whom he acquired during his life through his incendiary statements made in his art or direct interviews. Pasolini has often been described as a Catholic Marxist, but neither his Marxism nor his Catholicism was in line with the dogma associated with either ethos. Adding to the resentment shown towards him while living in a primarily Roman-Catholic country, in 1963, Pasolini contributed the segment, La ricotta to the compilation film, RoGoPaG, and it was that film which saw governmental prosecution of its creators due to an outdated law from the fascist era that banned “insulting the religion of the State,” which subsequently resulted in a large fine for the producer and a suspended prison sentence for Pasolini. He was a consistently ardent and vocal critic of consumerism, and in 1975, shortly before his death, Pasolini accused the Christian Democratic party leadership of a number of crimes including: collaborations with the CIA, cover-ups of bombings by neo-Fascists, , and ties with organized crime, and, thus, the number of potential assassins who could’ve been culpable for his death is high.
Consequently, Ferrara could have easily constructed a piece that relied more on a factual analysis of Pasolini’s life through the perspective of those who disagreed with him who could have contributed to his demise, but that approach would have diminished the pure essence of the man who most importantly was a creative being. As such, in order to understand how Pasolini dealt with the negative aspects of the world around him, the most effective approach to representing his existence is the one that Ferrara eventually decided upon and employed in Pasolini, for the images from Petrolio and Porno-Teo-Kolossal that we see onscreen as interpreted by Ferrara depict Pasolini’s internal self: his belief in the freedom of hedonism, his revulsion of the loss of identity in Rome, and his reaction to societal loathing of homosexuality. These moments from his works now visualized say more to the fact that, although Pasolini was in conflict with the world around him, he was still creating art to depict a world that he would feel free to dwell within.
A fact that I found stunning in this production was that not only did Ferrara have the ability to shoot at many of the locations that Pasolini frequented, but also he was fortunate to have access to many personal items belonging to the late director which allowed him to further combine the imaginative and real. In his performances illustrating Pasolini’s daily life, Dafoe wears Pasolini’s own clothing. And, in the final frames of the film, we see an object that solidifies one of the greatest dichotomies about the writer and director: his appointment book. Ferrara presents the book open to the following day’s page, allowing the audience to clearly see that despite Pasolini’s pessimism about the future, he had hoped that the next day would be one where he could continue to reimagine and challenge reality through his art
Long Day’s Journey Into Night directed by Bi Gan starring Huang Jue, Tang Wei, and Sylvia Chang
In his impressive debut feature, Kaili Blues, Bi Gan told a story in two halves of a formerly incarcerated doctor who goes on a journey through the countryside of Guizhou in search of his nephew, who has been sold to a watchmaker. In that film, Gan conveys the meaning of the words in the Sutra he presents by defying the restrictions of time itself in the storytelling process, allowing for a freedom in movement and image to ascend past conventional narrative and structure. Like Kaili Blues, Bi Gan’s alluring and immensely enjoyable latest feature, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also divided into two segments, with each distinctively challenging our understanding of time, narrative, and character to setup a contrast that dares us to unravel all of our notions of cinema, storytelling, memory, and experience.
The first part of the film spans a timeline between the year 2000 and present day that begins with Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returning to his mountain hometown of Kaili for his father’s funeral. Here, Luo unrelentingly searches for the woman whom he once loved, Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei), beginning his quest after he finds a photo of her behind an old clock. As the memories of their relationship are recalled in a fragmented manner that purposefully confuses the sequence of events and the past and present identities of the characters in a nod to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, Gan plays with the clock to create an element of uncertainty in the viewers’ perception of the real and the unreal.
Through a pastiche of scenes that seem all too familiar, Gan playfully utilizes cinematic language primarily through tropes found in Hitchcock’s Vertigo that could be seen as homage, but serve more importantly as references that force us to draw from our memories of moments and characters in Vertigo and other film noirs so deeply embedded in our consciousness, to take us further away from the story that we are witnessing on our own, leading us to distort our interpretation of the main narrative with our recall of similar images and how they impacted us.
Gan also starkly employs color to pull us between the world he creates and the world he knows we imagine, seen most evidently in the choice of the green dress that Quiwen wears, evoking memories of Kim Novak while blending Quiwen into the natural surroundings, making manifestations of her appear like hallucinatory events that further the misinterpretation of real moments through potentially clouded, passed memories. As the flashbacks of Luo and Quiwen’s troubled, violent beginnings are deliberately obfuscated by Gan using the aforementioned approaches, what remains for the viewer is a sharp comment on the role that the police and restrictive government has played during the elapsed era between Luo and Quiwen’s affair at the beginning of the millennium and today.
Apart from the delivery of the crucial political comment realized in the first half of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, what that section of the film establishes is an important setup for the much heralded 3D tracking shot that sends Luo after he wakes up (or perhaps doesn’t wake up) in a movie theater on a new journey under tunnels, down cables, through Kaili as he further searches for Quiwen. In the second half, Gan examines the same themes as the first, the same characters, the same moments with a somewhat similar approach by referencing his own tracking shot in Kaili Blues, but while we are thinking about that great accomplishment in Kaili Blues or are paralyzed by our awe that such a continuous tracking shot is happening, Gan forms a different, clearer visual aesthetic that sends us into a dream state where the weaving of memories into the dream takes an oddly linear form, free of the impediments caused by the natural stimuli response and activation encountered in a conscious state.
As much as the first part of the film utilizes cinematic tropes and symbols, narrative construction, and memory recollection to assemble the characters’ disjointed realities, the second part of the film strips away all of that and becomes purely an experience, one that is languid and trance-like, but is perhaps the truest way that we navigate psychological representations assembled from reality, and in turn may be the way we interpret and understand reality itself. Whereas Godard’s recent film, The Image Book, addresses the failure of cinema to capture reality because the medium’s conventions are antithetical to reality with jarring images and sounds in an entirely experimental framework, Long Day’s Journey Into Night addresses this same conundrum with the contrast between the two parts of the film. The continuous shot that forms the second part of the film feels documentary-like, but the moment we are reintroduced to Quiwen as a new character, we start to see how the dream can emphasize the real, resembling how we reimagine people in our lives, places we’ve seen, and ultimately ourselves in our dreams. If the first part of the film presents reality in constructed, contained moments in non-linear order like how we recall our memories, then the second part of the film explains how we intuitively, instinctively perceive all of those moments when we travel to the deepest parts of our unconscious mind and explore.
Babylon directed by Franco Rosso starring Brinsley Forde Kino Lorber Repertory and Seventy-Seven
There is a single, glaring line from the obituary for director Franco Rosso that was written in The Guardian by Quadrophenia and Babylon screenwriter, Martin Stellman, that I am compelled to begin this review of Babylon with, solely for the reason that I feel that this film in particular and Rosso’s life are forever intertwined:
“Babylon marked him [Rosso] out as a fearless chronicler of the dispossessed.”
I don’t usually isolate quotes, but I have always felt a deep kinship with director Franco Rosso, as we were both children of Italian immigrants who had left the homeland shortly after World War II to the countries that had defeated Italy: Rosso’s parents emigrated to England, specifically to Streatham, south-west London, and my parents to the United States, to a working-poor section of South Philadelphia. We both grew up in areas where Italians were few, and we were both inexplicably drawn to Jamaican music, as that music, like it has been for so many who have felt isolated, became an anthem for our feelings of alienation. In my mid-20s, I took my lifelong love of ska and reggae and became a DJ at WMBR, an FM station in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and thankfully in his mid-20s, Franco Rosso, who had worked as an assistant on Ken Loach’s classic British film, Kes, and as an editor on John and Yoko’s documentary, Bed Peace, became a cutter on what many consider the first documentary on reggae music in England, director Horace Ové’s chronicling of the 1970 Wembley concert that featured Desmond Dekker, The Pioneers, and the Maytals: Reggae.
In 1973, Horace Ové co-produced one of Rosso’s earliest directorial efforts, a short documentary entitled Mangrove Nine, which was a critical view of the arrests that occurred during an action where black residents protested the longtime police harassment of The Mangrove Restaurant, a community activism center in Notting Hill. The landmark case that followed the arrests resulted in the first judicial recognition of “evidence of racial hatred” in England. As Stellman also noted in his obituary for Rosso, “The film [Mangrove Nine] was so uncompromising in its portrayal of police racism that the BBC delayed its transmission.” Stellman also noted that for years after the Mangrove Nine documentary was shown, Rosso found it difficult to get a project going and felt that he had been blacklisted for his views. It wasn’t until 1979 that Franco produced another stark and honest documentary, this time on Jamaican dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson entitled, Dread Beat an’ Blood, which focused on Johnson’s work and his desire to use his words to detail the injustice in the London community where he lived. Dread Beat an’ Blood remains as one of the most powerful examples of the pervasive influence that Jamaican and reggae culture had on 1970s England, and it was out of these efforts that Rosso’s 1980 film, Babylon, was born.
Fittingly, the funding for Babylon came together through the efforts of Gavrik Losey, the son of American director, Joseph Losey, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and Mamoun Hassan, the Saudi-born head of production of the British Film Institute, who, since the early 1970s, had furthered the BFI’s “radical” policy of assisting low-budget experimental and narrative films with a political agenda. Like Perry Henzell’s seminal reggae film starring Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come, the movie that Babylon is often compared to, the small budget worked to the film’s advantage, as the cast would consequently be comprised of mostly unprofessional actors, led by Brinsley Forde, founding member of the British reggae group, Aswad, who was the perfect choice for the film’s lead character, Blue, a sympathetic young English-Jamaican auto mechanic and sound system operator who cannot get over with his family, his neighbors, the police, and even from time to time, his fellow West Indians whom he calls friends. Blue’s raison d’être is to build up his young Ital Lion sound to clash against the mighty and notorious Jah Shaka sound system, but in the days leading up to the event, everything around him is falling and obstructing his path.
Given the extraordinarily difficult struggles that Blue and Ital Lion go through in setting up their sound in Babylon, the score of the film had to capture the chaotic intensity of a sound system clash mixed with the constant racial tensions that existed in late 70s London, and this vital score was provided by former South London Jah Sufferer sound system operator and dub producer, Dennis Bovell. The Barbados-born Bovell spent nearly a year in prison in the mid-1970s after he was arrested during a police raid at a sound clash he was performing at in the Carib night club in Cricklewood Broadway in 1974. Bovell’s conviction was eventually dismissed on appeal, but it is evident that the impact of the incident heavily played into the formation of the soundtrack and also the construction of the narrative of Babylon. With the actors and soundtrack in place, for the visuals, director Rosso called on his former collaborator, cinematographer Chris Menges BSC, ASC (Local Hero, The Killing Fields), whom Rosso had previously worked with on the aforementioned British classic, Kes, a film with a keen eye for the plight of working class youth. With his bold kinetic framing and hazy tones, Menges added an essential element to the raw aesthetic of Babylon which succeeds in presenting a grim view of England that offered its young people limited possibilities.
One of relationships in Babylon that epitomizes the state of racial tensions in 1970s London, comes via Blue’s friendship with the only person he can really confide in, Ronnie (Karl Howman), a white man who has been a friend of Blue’s going back to their youth as skinheads. A hint to the length of their time together is cleverly suggested in a scene where Blue and Ronnie discuss their inability to get into the very 1970 Wembley reggae concert that resulted in the film that director Rosso edited a decade earlier. It should be noted that this particular concert transpired during a time in England’s history when skinhead culture was primarily a combination of working-class white youth and young Jamaican immigrants who came together because of economic status, music, and style.
It is during this scene that we can suspect that the character of Ronnie is the film’s stand in for Rosso, because Ronnie is the only main character in the film who is white and loves reggae music, and neither Blue, because of his race, nor Ronnie, because of his affiliation with Blue and Blue’s sound system crew of young Jamaicans, are accepted by the working class whites around them, as this is a different England than the England of the early 1970s. This is an England that, by this point in time, had over a decade of the National Front’s influence and Thatcher’s implementation of stricter immigration policies, and thus, in the scenes that Rosso constructs where the Ital Lion sound system crew is verbally attacked by their neighbors, there is no distinction in the level of disdain directed toward Ronnie or Blue and his Jamaican friends by the racists around them.
Throughout Babylon, Blue is consistently singled out for punishment regardless of his best intentions, and thus he becomes the embodiment of the frustrations of immigrants in England as he is harassed over and over again for simply trying to work his auto repair job, set up his sound system, tend to his younger brother, and walk home late without being abused by the police. To try to alleviate his feelings of alienation, Blue seeks out a Rastafarian leader from his neighborhood. And, in searching for some hope and guidance after being tested like the Biblical Job, Blue attends a prayer vigil where the group’s leader welcomes him and utters the following line, which solidifies in Blue’s mind his bleak status as a disenfranchised member of the society around him:
“To the East, Africa, to the West, Jamaica, first Babylon. To the North, England, second Babylon. Babylonian triangle of captivity.”
Since its release in the UK in 1980, Babylon has only been available in the United States through poorly transferred versions with fuzzy visuals and muddied sound, where much of the patois is lost on American audiences due to lack of subtitling, but the recent restoration by Kino Lorber corrects all of these former shortcomings, so now, we can see Franco Rosso’s masterpiece for all that it was meant to be: an energetic, brutally honest, and again, uncompromised statement by Rosso on the treatment of West Indian immigrants in London during Thatcher-era England. The movie, as seen now in theaters, pulsates with Bovell’s life experiences in sounds now clear, raw performances by the cast that you now fully understand, Stellman’s knowing screenplay, Menges’ daring cinematography, and a narrative that gives empathy to all of us who feel like we’re on the outside looking in, no matter where we are living, regardless of the time. With Babylon getting a long overdue theatrical release in the United States, I am beyond glad that I was able to see the film the way it was meant to be seen and also that I finally have the opportunity with this review to say publicly: Grazie, grazie mille, Mr. Rosso.
A sincere thanks as well to Martin Stellman for his obituary on Franco Rosso that appeared in the January 2nd, 2017 issue of The Guardian.
Touch Me Not directed by Adina Pintilie starring Laura Benson, Tómas Lemarquis, Christian Bayerlein, and Hanna Hofmann
At the beginning of Touch Me Not, Romanian director, Adina Pintilie’s controversial 2018 Golden Bear winning film, Pintilie, as she herself appears on a screen in front of a camera, asks the question, “Why haven’t you ever asked me what this film is about?” An essential question indeed, as the apparent documentary and fictional elements will soon purposefully merge into one another to raise fascinating questions about the veracity of the events that occur in the lives of the film’s main protagonists, Laura and Tómas, who will soon begin an intense, sometimes cathartic investigation of intimacy, where they will encounter people who challenge their understanding of the necessity and importance of touch, which will force Laura and Tómas to examine their pasts and how the attitudes of the people around them have impacted their perception of self.
Laura (Laura Benson) is a British woman in her fifties who has put up rigid emotional walls due to what we are to understand is a strained relationship with her hospitalized father who she visits throughout the film. While Laura attends to her father, she feels the need to overcome this closed aspect of her persona, and so Laura sets out to work with a sex therapist on techniques that might allow her to open up again, and she also begins to interact with sex workers, who both identify as gender male and female, and speaks with these people about their lives, how they view themselves, and how they express their own sexuality. One of the sex workers whom Laura questions is a transgender woman named Hanna (Hanna Hofmann), who with her gentle, yet provocative nature, quickly raises Laura’s defense mechanisms, causing Laura to repel at first. But, after a clear discussion of individual boundaries and Hanna’s candid sharing of aspects from her own past, she encourages Laura to open up about her insecurities, beginning Laura’s progress to becoming a more intimate person.
Tómas (Tómas Lemarquis) is an Icelandic man who has been afflicted with alopecia, which has, in turn, impacted his own sense of self. To begin resolving his personal dilemma, Tómas ventures to a hospital in order to participate in therapy sessions which are formulated for people to touch one another and voice their honest opinions of their experiences in a group setting with a therapist present to guide and monitor their interactions. While in one such touch session, Tómas encounters Christian (Christian Bayerlein), a married computer programmer in his twenties whose life has been changed due to severe spinal-muscular atrophy. Christian is readily aware of how his physical appearance might cause a negative reaction, but Christian has fully accepted his disability, and through the peace and confidence in his acceptance, he has no fear of intimacy and is quite apt to explore his sexuality unlike Tómas. Through his communication with and observation of Christian, Tómas becomes more assured, and thus, he too can begin to accept himself as someone who can become closer to others.
The core technique that director Pintilie so effectively utilizes in Touch Me Not is an intentional vagueness of the reality of our protagonists’ interactions for the purposes of examining intimacy without formal construction. Neither narrative nor documentary structures exist within the film to impede the solicitation of our feelings and reactions for what we are seeing on screen. As we watch Touch Me Not, sometimes, we feel like we are observing pure documentary when Pintilie presents the touch therapy sessions between Tómas and Christian and the conversations that happen between Laura and Hanna. However, these moments are juxtaposed against other, more staged scenes, such as the one in an S&M club that takes place in the final third of the film, where many of our protagonists are seen and where their conversations and observations look intentionally scripted like a narrative film’s depiction of a dream or fantasy sequence. And, herein lies the unique essence and strength of Pintilie’s work. When dealing with issues of intimacy in cinema, we are normally presented with sexual scenes created to appeal to prurient interests. On the other hand, when a documentary approaches intimacy, it tends to observe human interaction in a clinical and unemotional manner. Pintilie does not use any scene of intimacy to evoke drama or sensationalism, and she does not strip empathy from any of those moments either. Instead, she makes every scene into a rich stimulus to extract our reaction and force it to the front of our consciousness, giving us a rare opportunity to confront our own issues of intimacy simultaneously as she progresses the film.
Much was made of the stark sexual elements in Touch Me Not when the film garnered the top prize at the 2018 Berlinale, but with the exception of the moments seen in the sex club, those elements are consistently countered with carnal scenes in open, therapeutic, and emotionally detached settings that provide blank canvases so that when we are forced outside of Laura’s and Tómas’s comfort zones through the carnality that we and they are presented with, we can easily see ourselves in the same places as either active participants engaging in the moment or as passive observers, where we can judge for ourselves the lines between our own forward facing façade and the reality that lies within that is sometimes hard to discern. Pintilie’s experimental and courageous approach to depicting intimate conversations and visuals rarely encountered in a non-exploitative manner has given us a much needed thought-provoking manipulation of the medium of film that we can use to examine ourselves and our own fears of how we are perceived by those around us
The Image Book directed by Jean-Luc Godard Casa Azul Films and Ecran Noir Productions
The 88 year old voice of Jean-Luc Godard is heard throughout the interweaving of visuals, both found and created, in his newest work, The Image Book (Le livre d’image), as the master director quotes widely from George Orwell, Edward Said, Arthur Rimbaud, André Malraux, Charles Baudelaire, and Alexandre Dumas, but it is the line from playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht, “Only the fragment conveys authenticity,” which Godard decisively gives us at the end of The Image Book that we can use to draw a surface to navigate through the construction of his film.
As with his work over the last few decades, The Image Book is a montage piece, editing together concepts and created with a narrative, or rather the creator’s personal thoughts, that appear selected by the current era. We must gaze upon this work as an installation piece, gathering the combination of sounds and visuals as a combined form in a single viewing and releasing any sense (and expectation) of traditional film language, as it has been Godard’s goal to further the language of film past any sense of where we feel entirely comfortable viewing it.
When experiencing Godard’s construction here, you see attempts to look at the ability of sound and image capturing and playback to actually freeze, perceive, and repeat reality, and without being pessimistic about the form, for this may be the director’s way of dismissing the medium, The Image Book’s primary concern is whether or not film is an appropriate conduit to capture reality. We understand that we experience what is real and recall what is real in desperate ways, and fundamentally, if cinema does the same, then it may be the closest way to show how we understand our world, even though that recollection, that attempt to recall the real may result in a falsehood. In utilizing some selections from modern cinema, most notably Gus Van Sant’s 2003 feature film revisioning of the Columbine shooting, Elephant, Godard articulates films’ tendencies to want to show true stories, which raises an existential question of whether or not the attempt to tell the story is always going to produce a work of fiction, and the same question applies for what we see in the news and what we are shown to believe is real, for the context of these snippets is designed by the channels that capture and replay them, and thus, we are presented these real moments in a manner that is completely separate from all of the images and sounds, all of the preceding and succeeding moments we would sense and experience if we were there.
Throughout The Image Book, we were constantly reminded of our favorite viewings from 2017 and 2018 respectively, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time It Gets Dark, and Gürcan Keltek’s Meteors, both films dealing with the way memory is processed and manipulated, not only by media, but also by time. These two films look at fiction interweaving with reality to get to the heart of human existence before and today, whereas Godard’s film is more about a need to document reality and the struggles to do so, both through fiction and non-fiction storytelling constructs. Godard’s film is more about filmmaking, but it is also about any other art form that we’ve participated in for centuries that attempts to frame and interpret real events.
At the center of The Image Book is Godard’s contention, through his selection of the fictional elements juxtaposed against documentary ones, that representation is flawed because the act of representation gives a shallow, distorted view of reality. Great thinkers and creators have had issues with this problem in their respective art forms: for example, author J.G. Ballard had problems with writing failing to be innovative, which likely came from the fact that writing is attempting to take reality and transform it into this representation that is antithetical to how reality is experienced. How do you describe so that you can fully sense at the same time? Sensory experiences can be ambiguous, so how do you then capture that ambiguity without writing something that is too opaque or oblique? That is the heart of the writer’s problem—this need to balance clarity, vagueness, and distance in description to evoke perception, then interpretation. However, with film, because its core elements, the image and the sound, are sensed, not read, which is closer to how we experience reality, that same writer’s balance has been diminished, and often purposely so, because we’ve desired a polished representation of reality, and we’ve liked what we’ve seen and heard because it is not as fragmented, not as confusing, not as challenging as the real. Godard knows our weaknesses in our expectations and standards for film, the manicured images and the sounds of films mistakenly luring us into believing the integrity of the representation of reality, and he wakes us up from our hallucinations in The Image Book.
With cinema, there are two things that have been overwhelmingly discussed for as long as the medium has existed, and that is love and violence. We then wonder if Godard’s closing call for revolution in The Image Book is also a plea for a new way to look at these concepts or to walk away from them completely. What are the purposes of the images of war here? That the West does not understand the Middle East? Perhaps, but, we think that there is more to his inclusion of these images than any particular geopolitical statement or condemnation. Simply put, the wars of the Middle East are the moist current violent conflicts in the popular mind, and if this film had been made some sixty years earlier with the same media capabilities that we have now, we most likely would be looking at the atrocities of the Algerian War, which Godard chose to handle with urgently-made narrative films like Le Petit Soldat and Les Carabiniers. The Image Book is about the relevance of the image, so we do see an entire section of the film dedicated to contemporary conflict, and older footage of previous conflicts does appear, but does not garner as much screen time, for Godard wants us to focus on the current incarnation of conflict, though not without an understanding of its past forms.
Fundamentally, the overwhelming success of The Image Book, as with most of Godard’s work throughout his career, comes primarily from the experiments attempted—successful or not as these experiments may be, they operate within the structure of the film to create a unique cinematic language. With his 47th feature, Godard, through the unique exploration and manipulation of old and new visuals and sound, has been able to duly note and thoughtfully deconstruct the core facets of cinema in order to find paths for its continued evolution as a vital device for interpreting reality
Between November 23rd and 26th, we lost three very distinct talents who were the creative forces behind some of the most innovative films of the 1970s: Nicolas Roeg, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Gloria Katz. During these three days when each of these artists passed away, we were in the process of writing the below list of our favorite films from this year and needless to write, but the conversations we had about these filmmakers’ works at the times of their deaths greatly influenced the selections that we made.Therefore, in keeping with these artists commitment to evolving the language of cinema, we feel that the films that we have selected from our feature film viewing from 2018 made valiant and substantial strides in moving cinema forward. We dedicate this year’s best of list to Roeg, Bertolucci, and Katz, and we cannot express enough our deepest thanks for their films that have meant so very much to us.
We would also like to thank the following organizations for programming the cinema that made this list possible: The American Film Institute’s Festival, The Acropolis Cinema and their Locarno in Los Angeles Festival, The American Cinematheque’s Egyptian and Aero Theaters, and the Central Cinema.
1. Meteors (Meteorlar) / Turkey, The Netherlands / dir. Gürcan Keltek Weaving together scenic and tumultuous images from nature with footage of people in the midst of political action and violence, Meteors stunningly and repeatedly layers these images on top of each other to form an elaborate discourse about the transient, fleeting nature of peace and violence in our societies and in our world. Director Gürcan Keltek uses two specific political events, the Turkish military’s breaking of a ceasefire with the Kurdish Workers’ Party and the Women’s Initiative for Peace, as starting reference points to capture the emerging political landscape of conflict in southeast Turkey. With the footage from these events, Keltek lures you into believing that Meteors will be a political film that will offer first person insights into the context and climate of these events, but when the images of hunters and prey, meteor showers, and even a solar eclipse takeover, and no deep explanations of the political conflicts are given, a larger conceptual discussion rises, asking the question: “Is violence a fundamental part of nature?” While the footage of aggressive moments across species (humans of course included), suggests that violence is inherent in our nature as animals, Keltek’s deft intertwining of more tranquil, meditative images reminds us that even though violence is part of us, we can have peace. Thus, like a meteor falling to earth, violence, though it catches our immediate attention, can and must fade, and it is our responsibility to remember that peace, like the meteor before it burned into non-existence, did exist and that the beauty of peace is something to be preserved, since we know it will end.
2. Occidental / France / dir. Neïl Beloufa We saw Occidental in the first weeks of 2018, and it stayed as a highmark for us throughout the year. Nonchalant in its political ideas, audacious in its visuals, and purple-pink-soaked throughout, Occidental is a claustrophobic film of collisions that all take place in one night at the Hotel Occidental. With its set built entirely in director Neïl Beloufa’s studio, Occidental’s images are meticulously constructed with the hope that every character, every object, every sound will evoke a reaction from the viewer. Clashes based on race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality emerge, simply based on how different characters interact with each other, and the film maintains an unwavering hysteria from a prolonged feeling of entrapment due to the political uprising happening outside the hotel and the possibility of some terrorist activity inside the building. What makes Occidental exceptional is one very basic thing: you cannot look away from it. Beloufa, who is primarily a sculptor and installation artist, throws everything he has at Occidental, and the outcome is a piece of art that has the visual mystery of an installation with a deceptively minimal narrative that makes you want to soak yourself in its intriguing glow and not leave until Beloufa forces you out.
3. Zama / Argentina / dir. Lucrecia Martel Based on the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, Lucrecia Martel’s first feature since The Headless Woman in 2008, is set on the coast of Paraguay in the late 1700s. Zama explores the grotesque legacy of European colonialism in South America by witnessing the mental collapse of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cachoa), a Spanish officer, who fruitlessly awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires. Our protagonist saunters through one borderline surrealistically hideous example of imperialist exploitation after another and descends on a course of continuous rejection as he visits his other Spanish compatriots who never fully accept him, as he is not of Spanish birth, and as Zama’s mood declines, so grows the cards against him as he is severely disciplined by his superior officer and then rejected by the indigenous woman who gives birth to his child. Martel’s bold storytelling devices are the true strength of the film, as she incorporates hallucinatory visuals and sound constructed into intentionally overlayed conversations so that you can share Don Diego’s psychedelic journey into madness. Just as Martel masterfully did with her central figure in The Headless Woman, with Zama, she has created a film that expresses a sharp social statement while delving so deeply into her central characters minds as they sense everything falling apart around them that you feel the regret in every poor choice they make.
4. The Wolf House (La Casa Lobo) / Chile / dirs. Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña
Filmed in a single astonishing animated sequence, Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s feature, La Casa Lobo, is the story of Maria, a German-Chilean woman who hides from danger in a dilapidated house with two piglets. Using a storybook construction to amplify the insipidness of the horror Maria is trying to escape, the plot of La Casa Lobo is based on the abhorrent Dignity Colony in Chile, a secret society founded by Germans who left their own country after World War II. The Dignity Colony, which existed for almost forty years and thrived under Pinochet, operated a facility that detained and tortured political prisoners, and was founded by a former Nazi and child abuser, Paul Schäfer. León and Cociña’s particular technique evokes some of the eeriness that is present in the work of the Quay Brothers, which amplifies the ugliness inherent in this tragic moment in their country’s history. Nothing written here will do adequate justice to the brilliance of the visual elements of this incredible and affecting film.
5. The House That Jack Built / Denmark / dir: Lars Von Trier Von Trier’s use of the grotesque pushes the limit on image-based studies of pain, which are all too common in today’s film and television. Today, we see many media studies that are so precise in conveying people’s pain under the veil of bringing attention to a social or political problem, when in reality, many of these media properties are simply created to appeal as banal eye-candy, or even worse, as exploitative imagery that is there to appeal to prurient or morbid interests. With The House That Jack Built, Von Trier deceptively pulls in the viewer’s natural desire to feed off of human misery to deliver a sharp critique of the creators (even going so far as to critique himself, and with the final scene of the film, the hubris that that consumes creators) of this type of media, and the audience members who devour it without conscience. The House That Jack Built is a must see for the fans of the Serial podcast and any other dramatized true-crime media who feel as though they are elevating themselves while thriving off of the pain of others, but ultimately are unaffected by their brief sense of thrill that they saw and heard a polished, non-offensive story about something forbidden (but really not forbidden). Von Trier throws at you all of the lurid images and sounds of murder that most crime-related media would avoid, and at the end, he mocks yours and his desensitization.
6. Burning (Beoning) / South Korea/ dir: Lee Chang-dong It has been eight years since Lee Chang-dong’s eloquent and culturally critical feature Poetry, which has as its protagonist an elderly woman who attempts to enrich herself by taking poetry classes while desperately trying to solicit funds to compensate the victim of her grandson’s sexual assault. It is a searing critique of contemporary South Korea, and with Burning, Lee returns with a caustic statement about the loss of Korean identity for both older and younger generations. Loosely based on the short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning, like Poetry uses literary devices as its engine in stressing the importance of creating in a rapidly shifting world. Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), a fledgling writer, runs into Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), a neighbor from the same rural village where Jong-su grew up and now resides in while his father, a failing farmer, awaits trial for assaulting a government official. After an intimate encounter, Hae-mi asks Jong-su to look after her cat while she’s on a spiritual trip to Africa. During Hae-mi’s absence, Jong-su develops feelings for Hae-mi, but when she returns, she arrives with Ben (Steven Yeun), an enigmatic young man of mysterious wealth who will come to represent the soulless realty of contemporary South Korea. Like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2017 masterwork, Loveless, Burning is a flawlessly executed allegory that cuts deep into a society that values status infinitely more than art or humanity.
7. Diamantino / Portugal and USA / dirs. Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt Considering the gravity of the myriad of crucial world issues addressed in directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s fractured fairytale of a feature, Diamantino, it is stunning to us that the whole affair chimes in at a mere ninety-two minutes and is as enjoyable as it is. The whimsical and somewhat Guy Maddin-esque narrative construction is centered on the titular character (played by Miguel Gomes’ favorite, Carloto Cotta), a Cristiano Ronaldo stand-in, who carries the hopes and dreams of his native Portugal on the pitch, whilst images of giant fluffy puppies dance through his head. Prior to his World Cup Final appearance, we find our Diamantino lounging comfortably on his yacht without a care in his gleeful skull with the one person who has truly adored our soccer star throughout his life, his pure-hearted and loving father. However, during this day on the sea, Diamantino is confronted by something he normally does not have to deal with, as approaching his pleasure cruise is the grim reality of the refugee crisis in the form of people who are clinging to life on the waters outside of his luxurious boat. This moment of reality has finally inserted something in the head of our football star that is not in the shape of a mammoth Pekingese, and due to this intense reality, Diamantino blows the penalty kick that costs Portugal the World Cup. What follows isn’t an existential crisis for Diamantino, but rather an acknowledgement that a far different world exists outside of his life and football, which leads our protagonist into a conflict between the need to do good for those around him by adopting a refugee of sorts and the instinctive, naïve response to blindly follow the commands of his older, twin-hydra evil sisters, with Diamantino’s siblings being utilized as a fitting representation of modern greed and anti-European Union/and anti-refugee movements. Abrantes and Schmidt frantically and comedically present to us a Europe that is now struggling with the divide between its more benevolent identity of the past, and the grim fact that a growing faction of the population wants to desperately close all borders and cling to a mythical version of a Europe that has only existed in children’s stories.
8. Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília) / Brazil, Portugal / dir: Adirley Queirós For the past sixty years, WA4 (Wellington Abreu) has been flying around the galaxy while dining on copious amounts of churrascaria, exiled after trying to squat on private land, but now, WA4 has been given the opportunity to legally acquire land for his family and to do so, he must travel to earth to assassinate Juscelino Kubitschek, the president who founded Brasília, on the day the city was to be inaugurated. Unfortunately, WA4 is desperately low on meat to grill and fuel, and crashes down in the middle of Ceilândia, a nighttime city on fire, where departing trains take away political prisoners. It is here where WA4 meets a colorful group of intergalactic space fighters (think Mad Max meets homemade Go Bots), who are hell bent on total anarchy as a political adjustment. Creatively drawing from the finest low grade elements of D-level science fiction films, and the cinematography of Joana Pimenta, who perfectly utilizes the darkness and burning to heighten the chaos, director Queirós uses the absurdity of his rickety homemade visuals and the unrestrained talents of his mostly non-professional cast to fuel a wildly inventive narrative that forces the viewer to experience the very real absurdity of contemporary Brazilian politics (Rousseff’s and Temer’s shenanigans are omnipresent here, of course). We are not sure if we have seen a better film so far this year that makes less so much more than it seems.
9. Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) / Italy / dir. Alice Rohrwacher All is not well in the small village of Inviolata, a community that exists in a sharecropper state that has not been seen in Italy for generations. In Inviolata, we meet Lazzaro (played by seraphic-faced actor, Adriano Tardiolo), who is the gleeful recipient of two layers of exploitation. The primary layer comes from the Marchesa Alfonsino de Luna (how thrilling it is to see actress Nicoletta Braschi again, even as a villain), who uses the residents of the village to grow her tobacco that she sells at high profit, which keeps her and her family in the lap of luxury whilst the villagers barely subsist. And, the second layer comes from the villagers, who use Lazzaro’s puerile joy and motivations to mock him and to get the affable, good-natured Lazzaro to toil for them as well. The timeless and surrealistic quality of the narrative suggests that exploitation is not only a basic human trait, but also one that has and sadly will endure for generations to come. Biblical references aside (Lazzaro does translate into Lazarus, and the actions surrounding an encounter with a wolf loosely allude to the story of the Wolf of Gubbio that St. Francis tamed), Lazzaro functions in a somewhat similar way that Abrantes and Schmidt’s Diamantino and the Hae-mi character in Lee Chang-dong’s superb feature of this year, Burning, do, serving as an innocent, pure-spirited figure that allows the viewer to judge the evil around them more effectively. While Diamantino and Hae-mi offset malevolent societal imperatives of Portugal and Korea, respectively, Lazzaro functions to challenge the installation of morals through Catholicism. Furthermore, Rohrwacher, through her central character of Lazzaro, exposes a contemporary Italian population in economic freefall that is highly disconnected from its natural state due to its collective conscience’s reliance on guidance from organized faith and from government structures that have failed them over and over again. Using surrealistic elements that are more in tune with the hyperbolic Italian grotesque features of Ettore Scola and Marco Ferreri than those of the Italian neorealists to effectively amplify urgent issues to impact the audience more than any reality appears to do these days, Rohrwacher has made a heartbreaking and beautifully realized third feature film. Please check out Generoso’s interview with director, Alice Rohrwacher, on Ink 19
10. 3 Faces (Se Rokh) / Iran / dir: Jafar Panahi Needless to write, it is always good to see any film these days that has Panahi’s name on it, given the governmental ban that has been imposed on him on producing any cinema. With a framework that offers a small, respectful nod to the late Abbas Kiarostami’s 1999 feature, The Wind Will Carry Us, 3 Faces has director Panahi and actress Behnaz Jafari playing themselves as they drive away from a film shoot towards a remote village after receiving an alarming video posted online of a young actress who commits suicide due to her inability to leave her hometown to attend the acting conservatory in Tehran. Once Panahi and Jafari arrive in the village, we soon understand the impetus of the suicidal actress’s thespian desire, as the young woman has befriended a reclusive actress who has been exiled in her home due to her work in pre-Revolution Iranian cinema. Absurdly comedic at points and clever in its utilization of an naturalistic metaphor involving cows, 3 Faces is an excellent companion piece to Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 feature, Certain Women, in that it exhibits the evolving role of women in society, and in turn, the resultant changing roles of men. In 3 Faces, the idealization of male gender roles is not progressing, and that is causing dangerous tension between men and women, and we see this tension compellingly play out in this small story that is expertly told by Panahi.
SUPPLEMENTAL FILM LIST
The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci) / Turkey / dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan Delivering his first feature since his Palme d’Or winning 2014 film, Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan returns with his most personal film since his 2006 comedic gem, Climates. As many of his films are at least semi-autobiographical, here the Nuri role is filled by Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol), a recent college graduate who returns to his rural hometown of Çan to live for a while in the home he grew up in, where his father (Murat Cemcir), an eminently-retiring teacher and notoriously bad gambler, lives in total disharmony with Sinan’s sister and mother. As a graduated literature major, Sinan has every intention of writing and publishing the great first novel, but in the midst of his decaying family, the young writer takes trips into the nearby town of Çanakkale for advice on his artistic ambitions, and the advice he gets comes from the local literary celebrity, who despite his success offers little more than cynicism, and as books need to be published with actual money, Sinan seeks potential funding from the local business head who offers Sinan advice on writing a book that would serve more as a guide for tourism. Throughout this engrossing, and at times humorous, 190 minute long Homeric journey, Sinan debates with himself his motivation for the creation of the novel he so badly wants to publish, and his experiences along the way include a telling phone conversation with a fellow literature classmate whose violent career choice is a reflection of the contemporary Erdoğanian Turkey, an illuminating conversation about how to interpret the Quran with two younger imams, and a constant witnessing of his father’s and his family’s movement away from teaching as a profession. In the end, The Wild Pear Tree becomes an interesting reflection for Ceylan at this point in his career, as the film cleverly references the director’s earlier features, most specifically, Clouds of May and The Town, works that harken back to the director’s original motivations for making art in the first place, and one wonders if the central message delivered in his newest feature is: given the state of his country, if that same young Nuri Bilge Ceylan was beginning his career today, would he even attempt to make a film?
The Nothing Factory (A Fábrica de Nada) / Portugal / dir: Pedro Pinho Given the film’s subject matter of Portugal’s dire economic situation, and its forays into a multitude of genres during its three hour running time, it is nearly impossible not to compare The Nothing Factory, Pedro Pinho’s debut feature, to Miguel Gomes’ six-hour masterwork, The Arabian Nights, our favorite cinematic work so far this decade. Whereas The Arabian Nights uses individual stories, sometimes farcical, sometimes humanistic, to reveal the facets of Portugal’s economic problems and its impact on its citizens, The Nothing Factory mixes humanistic storytelling with the distant political overnarration and staging techniques of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet to form a story of about the reaction of a team of laborers who are stunned when they discover that the corporation that governs their workplace is sending in crews at night to steal machines and equipment from their factory before shutting it all down. One by one the workers are offered a redundancy package, which they know will only last them so long, and when it runs out, they will be forced to be look for work in a fiscally strapped Portugal that offers them less than nothing. Armed with this knowledge, our embattled workers do the only thing that they can do: refuse to leave their factory so that they can stave off the evitable for at least some period of time. There is much to love in The Nothing Factory, especially when the film steps away from its stylistic desire to overextend into a variety of genres in order to create an empathetic frustration and situational confusion for the viewer which is not always successful. The narrative thread that follows the path of one of the workers, a family man who ponders endless issues and yet still progressively turns into a leader, forms the most affecting scenes of The Nothing Factory, which has so much to offer in terms of real empathy for the people trapped in this grave situation.
Knife + Heart (Un Couteau Dans Le Coeur) / France / dir: Yann Gonzalez The second feature by French-born director Yann Gonzalez, Knife+Heart is a stylish, inspired, affectionate look at the gay porn industry of the late 1970s as imagined by the director Gonzalez through a cinematic language that includes the pornography of that era, giallos, the excesses of Brian DePalma’s 70s output, and, most notably to us, William Friedkin’s 1980 film, Cruising, which despite the negative backlash from the gay community against the film at the time of its release, has come to be seen as a rare glimpse into an era and culture that would soon be destroyed by the AIDS epidemic in the subsequent years to follow. Knife+Heart centers on Anne (a perfectly casted Vanessa Paradis), a gay porn producer whose substance abuse issues have destroyed the one relationship that matters the most to her, that being her longtime affair with her editor, Loïs (Kate Moran). Even though Anne and Loïs’ relationship is broken, and a killer has begun to target Anne’s actors, the show must go on, and many of the best scenes in Knife+Heart develop from Anne’s new film approach, which weaves in the tragedy around her and her film crew to create her masterpiece, which drives our producer to hunt for the truth behind the murders of her actors, which may be hidden in the past lives of some of her crew and even herself. One of the most inventive, provocative, and disarming films to appear in the midnight programming of AFI Fest these last few years, Knife+Heart captures the distinct voice, style, and approach of Yann Gonzalez, a director whom we very much look forward to seeing more from in the future.
Dead Horse Nebula / Turkey / dir: Tarik Aktaş
Our favorite of this year’s selection of New Auteurs film programming at AFI Fest is Dead Horse Nebula, the debut feature by Turkish-born director, Tarik Aktaş. The story centers on Hay (Baris Bilgi) and begins with Hay as a child during his first experience with death when the boy discovers the carcass of a dead horse in a field and encounters life contained within the dead animal. Throughout Aktaş’ confident first feature, we see Hay’s interactions with death through the results of his passive and active role in the passing of life, but what becomes the core essence of the film is how past memories play a role in Hay’s connection to the natural progression of life leading to death. Dead Horse Nebula in tone is somewhat similar to Michelangelo Frammartino’s 2010 film, Le Quattro Volte, in the way that it allows the viewer to naturalistically gaze at the states of life, but whereas Frammartino’s film is about the transition of a life into other forms, Dead Horse Nebula excels in allowing you to see and hear the moments Hay experiences first-hand that build his perception of the natural world around him. Tarik Aktaş has created for his first feature, a carefully constructed and fully realized essay on the circular nature of memory and experience. Generoso spoke at length with director, Tarik Aktaş about his film and his process during AFI Fest 2018 for Ink 19.
MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM
Dogman / Italy / dir: Matteo Garrone
In a huge step backwards in his development as a filmmaker, Garrone’s newest feature Dogman selectively takes aspects of the very real and gruesome case of Pietro De Negri, a dog groomer, who murdered and mutilated a local thug who had been victimizing him over the years. What Garrone does here is little more than an emotionally and cinematically empty revenge film that neither makes a substantial social comment, nor is produced in a way that sheds any light on the original story. Save for Marcello Fonte’s performance as the titular character, Dogman is a disappointing follow up to Garrone’s 2015 feature, Tale of Tales, which was an imaginative treatment of Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone. The real crime of Dogman is that it was selected as Italy’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar over some truly wonderful films from Italy this year, including Happy as Lazzaro.
BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE
Burt Reynolds in Person at The Aero Theater, March 23rd, 2018 /Films Screened: Gator and The End We have been fortunate that during our time in Los Angeles, we have gotten to be face to face with many of our cinematic heroes, and now, we should write that in no way should the following statement be perceived as one that diminishes any of those experiences, but the moment on March 23 of this year when Burt Reynolds, one of the last of great shining screen legends, and an actor whom we’ve admired our whole lives, took the stage at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, our hearts, and the hearts of most of the audience, dropped a beat. Despite the cane he needed to walk, or the way time and lifestyle had taken its toll on his body, the smile and the attitude was all Burt, and we were so thankful to be in the presence of that man. The setup for this appearance and a few other Burt appearances that weekend was the release of a new film that 82-year old actor lent his talents to, The Last Movie Star, but given the widely reported state of his health, many of us in the crowd saw this as a chance to possibly say thank you for the final time. We sort-of didn’t care that the films that were screening on March 23rd were Burt’s directorial debut, Gator, a notoriously hot mess of a good ole’ boy smash ‘em up film, a genre that was made even more popular by Reynolds back in the day, and another Burt directorial effort, 1978’s The End (admittedly we love this one)–we were all just waiting for the screen legend’s comments during the Q&A session in between the two features, and here there was no disappointment. Burt seemed to light up when every question from an audience member was followed by some form of declaration of love, and he gave thorough, well-thought out, and grateful answers that showed a great deal of respect for the audience in attendance. The evening culminated when Burt, upon saying thank you, stood before the crowd for what seemed like ten minutes as people, many of whom were women, but to be candid a lot of men too (Generoso included), yelled out their undying love for Mr. Reynolds. Sadly, Burt passed away five months later on September 6th, but we are so thankful to the Aero for making this moment with Burt possible. Rest in peace Burt.
Burt Reynolds at the Aero Theater, 3/23/18, Photo by Generoso FIerro
It has been two years since we last saw Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), the African refugee from Burkina Faso who settled in the Calabrian port town of Gioia Tauro and who is the protagonist of director Jonas Carpignano’s much heralded debut feature, Mediterranea. What distinguished Mediterranea was its intimacy with Ayiva’s experience as a newly arrived immigrant, and this intimacy is continued in Carpignano’s second feature, A Ciambra, but with Pio (Pio Amato), a Romani boy, now teenager, whom Ayiva sporadically encountered in Mediterranea. As a resident of Gioia Tauro himself these last six years, Carpignano has a rare and honest understanding of his surroundings and the perspectives of the people who live in it, which enable him to create film experiences that are true to his fellow residents while being reflective of his own process of assimilating into the community.
Originally a peddler of small stolen goods in Mediterranea, Pio, in A Ciambra, has ambitions to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato), who subsists in the underground economy, the only economy that is accessible to the Romanis that offers any ability to ascend out of poverty. When a desperate need for Pio to contribute more to his family emerges, Pio develops a friendship and also somewhat of a partnership with Ayiva that draws into question Pio’s allegiances to his own family. As was the case with Mediterranea, A Ciambra is fervently committed to its central figure, Pio, and as a result, the film serves as the astute second installment of a triptych of character-driven films that aim to form a comprehensive examination of the town that Ayiva, Pio, and Carpignano call home.
We sat down with Jonas Carpignano during AFI Fest this past November and spoke at length about how his experiences with the people of Gioia Tauro shaped his approach to telling their stories.
Q: Lily Fierro: We recently watched Ettore Scola’s Brutti, Sporchi e Cattivi, which focuses on a Romani family living outside of Rome and is also a really fine example of Italian grotesque cinema, a genre which also includes films such as Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy and Marco Ferreri’s Le Grande Bouffe. We think that a lot of people who see your film will probably connect it to either crime or neorealist genres, but, for us, we see your film, A Ciambra, as almost an update and a modernization of the Italian grotesque, mostly because it is completely unrelenting, which is a key feature of the grotesque. Even though the films that I mentioned somewhat play on comedy and yours does not, could you talk about your approach to making everything unrelenting, and in turn, perhaps updating and extending the grotesque?
A: Carpignano: I think that the major distinction to make, even though I love all of those films, is that you feel that those films look to contextualize those communities and those people within Italian society, and that is why I feel that those films come off as slightly comic, or completely comic, so to say. There is certainly a way of dealing with a real situation through humor, which is common in the tradition of comedy. I think that the major difference and the reason why people tend to connect my film more to the neorealist movement is that there is an idea, or better put, a desire here to make the protagonist of the subject matter also the protagonist of the film.
The goal of both Mediterranea and A Ciambra, and what was very important to me, was to show underrepresented communities, but through their actual experiences and not the way Italians experience these underrepresented communities. There is no let up. There is no moment to step back and say, “But this is the context that they live in.” This is their life from their perspective, and if it is not important to them, then it is not going to be important to us either. One of the things that people always harp on is, “Where are the Italians in these films?” and they always say to me, “Where is the port? Gioia Tauro is a major port town, so where is it?” For me, it is not important to show that because it is not important to the protagonist of the film. In Mediterranea, people always ask, “There is a mafia presence there. Why don’t you show that?” Well, if something is not important to Ayiva, who has just gotten off a boat, who is literally just looking for his next meal, and who is literally just looking for a way to bring his family over, then you will not see it. So, if the mafia is not going to be important to him, it is not going to be important to the film. It is the same thing with Pio. People always ask, “Where are the beaches in this town?” I’ll tell them, “Well, Pio never goes to the beach because Pio doesn’t swim.” So, if it is not going to be important to him, I don’t feel the need to stop and say, “This is his life, and also this is his context.” And I think that this is why my film feels so unrelenting, so to say, because they are systematically and dogmatically married to the perspectives of the people who are the protagonists of the films.
Q: Generoso Fierro: We can understand your exclusion of showing the mafia in the film as you have no need to contextualize things that your protagonists do not encounter as part of their experiences. However, that is not to say that Pio’s experiences and interactions are entirely insular to his own Romani community. A Ciambra captures Pio’s interactions with many people, and from them, we get a sense of the social structure that Pio sees and must learn to navigate. In one particular scene, where Pio almost gets run over by a car, and in the car we see a mirror with cocaine, you expose the different kinds of criminality that occur between the groups that Pio encounters. With the “Italians,” the criminality is seen through protection and strong-arming. With the Africans and Romani, their crimes are mostly petty ones and auto theft, yet with none of these groups do we see drug trafficking. Is your omission of narcotics sales a statement on these two groups’ limited powers of organized crime? Or, did you simply not experience that form of crime in these communities?
A: Carpignano: It gives me immense amounts of pleasure and satisfaction when people draw these conclusions based on these small details because, in my own life in Gioia Tauro, I have to figure things out like that through small observations. I made a similar reflection a few years ago when I realized that no one here (in the Romani community) is dealing drugs, and no one in the African community is dealing drugs. And then one day, just like you see in my film, a car rolled up like that, and I remember Pio’s mom telling me to hide because those people were drugged up, and they were people from the “Italian” community, and that’s how I sort of managed to put it together. If you are going to be dealing drugs in that community, or in that society, you need to be in a different place in the social hierarchy than the Gypsies and the Africans, and the more I did research, the more I realized that that was true. There is a very strict hierarchy that the film tries to lay out, but not didactically, because I hope that the audience can piece it together through these little details—like I had to in my own experiences—so the fact that you did, brings me so much pleasure. Also, when we were first putting that scene together, my colorist said, “I don’t think that people can see the cocaine.” So, we put a little window on it, and we changed the shading and placed a mirror underneath—I wanted to make sure that it “popped.”
Pio Amato in A Ciambra
Q: Lily: As you mentioned in the discussion after the AFI Fest screening of A Ciambra, you are creating a triptych of Gioia Tauro. You started with Ayiva’s story in Mediterranea, and Ayiva continues his thread into A Ciambra, but did you write something that details Ayiva’s progression in between the two films? What are we to assume about Ayiva’s integration into this world in the time period between Mediterranea and A Ciambra?
A: Carpignano: I didn’t write it, but it was something that sort of wrote itself just because I live with him (Koudous Seihon). I have seen the difference in his, and I don’t want to say “status,” but position in that community. Whereas in the beginning he was just someone who picked oranges, years later, he has become someone who can move in a different way around Gioia Tauro because of his charisma and because he has been living there for so long. So, I have been able to see what should happen to Ayiva through what has been happening to Koudous and to many people as they sort of try to move into the underground economy. Obviously, there is no place for them in the actual economy; no one is going to give them jobs as we’ve seen in Mediterranea, so where do you go when you are sick of picking oranges? What is that next step? And naturally, that next step is participating in a kind of commerce that is somewhat underground in background. And, where are those relationships where a commerce role can exist for Ayiva? Obviously, they are between the gypsy and African communities, and not necessarily where the other communities exist in the town. How I see what happened to Ayiva between his arrival and now, is in some way, parallel to what happened between Pio’s grandfather and his family in the years since they settled and became part of Gioia Tauro. That process of becoming sedentary, of deciding that you are going to stay and live in a specific place, changes your occupations and your possibilities within this underground economy.
Q: Generoso: In regards to the underground economy, there is a particular scene in A Ciambra that suggests that, at least in Gioia Tauro, the Italians and the Romani might be growing closer by how the two groups set themselves apart from the newly arrived African immigrants. The scene we are thinking of here is when Pio’s older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) returns from prison and tells his younger brother about how the Romani and Italians joined forces in jail and distanced themselves from the African inmates.
A: Carpignano: I think that very rarely, when a new kid comes in, the last new kid says, “Let me help you make your life easier here.” Faced with the option of helping the new kid, the last new kid most likely will make a jump to be with the group that was there before them, and I think that is what happens here. There is now a sort of lower rung on the ladder, which inadvertently brings us closer to where we want to be, which is to this more established community. They are basically saying, “We may be Gypsies, and they may be Italians, but we are definitely more Italian than the Africans, and this place is more ours than theirs.”
Q: Generoso: You in fact have a scene in Mediterranea, which is what brought up our comparison to the Ettore Scola film that we mentioned earlier, where Ayiva begins to experience the harshness of the conflict against him and his fellow African immigrants, so he responds to a rat that enters his room by stomping it to death. It seems to suggest that we have a natural inclination to step on someone in a lesser position to gain some sense of control?
A: Carpignano: Wow, do you two read my emails? You just say a lot of the things that we talked about as we made the film that no one has ever written into an article. I am feeling so weird right now (laughs). Yes, that scene of Ayiva stomping on the rat is a statement that says: “This is the thing that is invading my space. This is the thing that is reminding me of where I am, so if I could kill that thing or distance myself from that thing…” This is a moment where his frustration can come out.
Q: Generoso: Thinking now about that change from being nomadic to sedentary, which is an essential theme in A Ciambra, you show this shift with a motif of citrus fruits (oranges and lemons) in both Mediterranea and A Ciambra. In Mediterranea, we paid close attention to how Ayiva eats the oranges that he picks. At first, he doesn’t eat them, but by the middle of the film, we see him beginning to eat the oranges, but he does so by only peeling away a small percentage of the orange peel and eating, as if he is slowly uncovering the community where he lives. By the end of the film, he is sorting out just the peels on a conveyor belt. You then begin A Ciambra with an image of a young Emiliano, Pio’s grandfather, when he was still a traveling Romani, slicing a lemon and drinking its juice, which then cuts to the present day, with Pio handling a lemon in his kitchen. Thematically this is one of our favorite elements of your first two features.
A: Carpignano: You know you two are killing me right now, because the scene that was the toughest for me to take out of the film is a scene after Pio’s brother comes back from serving time in jail, where he and Pio are sitting together the morning after their grandfather’s funeral in silence when Pio cuts a lemon and gives himself some citrus, and then he gives his brother a slice, and his brother eats it, and then the little boy comes in and grabs a piece of lemon and sits down in the chair.
Q: Generoso: Oh no, why did you cut this?! We so wondered why we didn’t see the citrus used as much in the film.
A: Carpignano: I am going to my editor’s wedding on Sunday, and I am going to make him pay (laughs).
Q: Lily: Also part of our sadness is that Generoso’s family is from Campania, and you know they have the prettiest citrus there, so we were a bit sad not to see it. (laughs)
A: Carpignano: Yes, it is the dominant agricultural element of that region. The plain is famous for the citrus industry. People say even further back that the ‘Ndràngheta started to form because of the bergamot, that bigger yellow lemony-looking citrus thing. The bergamot was one of the first things that they exported, and they cornered the market on that, and that was the beginning of their agricultural syndicates. So, citrus is a very prominent part of the plain, and that is where they got a lot of their commercial viability.
Q: Lily: Speaking of motifs, there is also a key visual motif of Emiliano and his horse that appears throughout the film. You begin A Ciambra with a scene showing Emiliano traveling with his caravan and his horse, and then, Pio sees his grandfather as a younger man with his horse as a recurring image/vision. Why does Pio see this? Is Pio one of the last of the members of the generation who is connected to the past of his grandfather, or is this past just romanticized because he has heard about it from his grandfather?
A: Carpignano: It is all of the above. This is very much Pio’s story, and I think that the film tries to, through being very specific through Pio’s experience, arrive to larger truths about the Romani community in general, and one of the most important things I think about that community is this solidarity that they feel that they have. History has a weight on all of us, and this sense of tradition is what makes Pio’s decision at the end the inevitable one. I think that the greatest limit and the greatest potential of this community is its solidarity, because, on one hand, they have created this really intense social network that has kept them alive for years. There, they always say, “No one here is going to die from hunger,” and that is is because they have each other’s backs. But in another way, Pio is unable to transcend the social architecture of that place because that tight knit community won’t let anyone else in or out, and I think that part of that is because they feel that they all come from the same tradition. They still refer to the others, mind you, they are as Italian as anybody, but they still refer to the others as “Italians” and themselves as “Gypsies.” And, why is that? It is because they believe that they have a past that is different from everyone else’s, and to me, that is what the horse represents. Pio needs to feel tied to the past in some way, shape, or form. He needs to feel as part of this tradition to justify, even to himself, betraying someone who might be even closer to him than his own brother. The sense of community, the identity politics that we all fall back on, is something that I think comes from this constructed identity that exists within many communities, and most specifically this one.
Q: Lily: Staying on Pio for a moment, another of his characteristics that we wondered about was his fear of closed spaces, specifically being enclosed in a space that is moving. What is the origin of that fear?
A: Carpignano: First of all, just speaking about the motifs, thank you for using the word “triptych” rather than “trilogy” before, because when you look at the great triptychs, they are really tied together through overlapping characters and motifs, even less than narrative logic, so to say. When you look at one of the great triptychs of all time, the Kieślowski Three Colors films, the things that tied those films together are not only the motifs and the use of color, but also the recurring actions. But speaking about Pio, specifically his claustrophobia, to me, that is less of a dramaturgical device as opposed to a psychological one—to come up with that and to put that in a film and find the right context for it, I had to get to know him better because that is something that actually happens to him. The elevator where Pio panics is my elevator, and that apartment is my apartment, and Pio has never gotten in the elevator to get to the apartment. Every single time, we had to go up and down the stairs to shoot that scene, and we had to rebuild the elevator, putting it on the terrace so that there is a removable wall for him. Pio is actually afraid of enclosed spaces, and he is actually afraid of things that go fast, and I find that to be incredibly fascinating because we are talking about people who historically were on the road in small spaces, in caravans, and in boxcars, moving together. Now that they have become sedentary, they almost have this aversion to these things. Moving too much, moving too fast, getting in an airplane, and getting in a train are things that he just would hate to do. And, that is why the train is there as a reminder in the background. There is the possibility of movement, of mobility, but now paradoxically, the gypsies feel more true to their tradition and their people and their identity by staying put. It is as if they have gotten this piece of land finally, and they are claiming it and saying that this is ours, and now that land is the source of their identity. So, that to me was something that was very important to put in the film, because in the end, when Pio is finally forced to move, he is enclosed in this tight space in this train, and he gets flashes of everything at this one point. He begins to freak out as he is put in the position to do something that he doesn’t want to do, and that connects him to his past, his present, and ultimately, that is where he gathers the courage to do what he needs to do. I felt that putting Pio in a position where he isn’t able to reflect on what he is doing, like when he is living through this phobia, this paranoia, brings out the raw emotions in him, and that is why I felt O.K. to open it up to that dream-like space again in that scene.
We were fortunate to have the opportunity to see twenty two feature films during this year AFI Fest held in Hollywood from November 9th to the 16th. Many were from veteran directors whose work we have appreciated over the years like Hong Sang-soo and Laurent Cantet, who gave us wonderful new features during the festival, but it was director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who we have admired since his 2003 film, Vozvrashchenie (The Return), who provided us with our favorite film of this year’s AFI Fest, Nelyubov (Loveless).
In Loveless, Zvyagintsev follows Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a soon to be divorced couple, whose constant battling has caused severe emotional trauma to their young son Alexey, who in the midst of his parents’ other ongoing dalliances, has gone missing, a fact which is not even noticed by his parents until days later. Loveless then becomes a film that plays with its audience by putting you in the position of the argumentative couple, who seem more concerned with their anger towards one another and seemingly unfulfilling affairs than the welfare of their own child. Throughout Loveless, we see youth as a commodity in contemporary Russia in terms of romantic pursuits, yet children are often seen as an encumbrance by adults for their attainment of more financial and status oriented goals. Another dichotomy that is also depicted in the film is the divide between religion and faith and how that plays out in the decisions of key characters, which became the focal point of my discussion with Andrey Zvyagintsev, along with a comment from Zvyagintsev’s longtime collaborator, producer Alexander Rodnyansky.
Q: In an early scene shot in a cafeteria that is adorned with religious paintings, we see Boris (Aleksey Rozin) speaking to a coworker about his boss, a character whom you never see, who has a requirement that all of his employees must be married. That scene drew my attention to how faith or religion is seen through certain key characters in your film. How does faith play a part in the narrative?
A: Zvyagintsev: So, the boss is not a completely fictional character. He is more of a composite of conservative ideals in Russia, but there is a person who we were thinking of specifically. There is a factory in Russia where the boss, Vasily Boiko, had 6,500 employees under him, and in 2010, he told all of his employees who were spouses to get married in a religious ceremony or else they would be dismissed. In terms of religion, for a true believer, there is a clear distinction like the one between an ostrich and an eagle, a clear difference between good and bad, and that line goes through that person’s heart. And for those who are not true believers like the boss, that line is between them and the world, so they truly believe in their own Pagan ideas, conservative views like the ones displayed by this character. So, in my film this character is quite satirical. Oh, and one more thing, Vasily Boiko has added “the great” to his title so now he is Boiko The Great. (laughter)
A: Rodnyansky: It was really important for us that the comments that we are making are not about faith, but about the religion. We want to make it clear that we are speaking about the church as an institution, and let’s say the intrusion of the church into secular life as an organization, so our film does not make any comment about faith. Of course, we have a lot of true believers, perhaps not as much as we used to have one hundred years ago, but we still do have a lot. When people speak about the church, we can see it is playing a role in what the people perceive as faith. The church is a kind of an administrative department of the contemporary government. That is why we believe that this is an extraordinarily effective tool to implement the so-called conservative values in Russia today. That is why when we speak about the “religious” people, we always have a distinction between the true believers and the ones involved with the institution.
Q: You show youth as a definitive commodity in contemporary Russian culture as seen through the extramarital affairs of Zhenya and Boris. I was impressed in the film by the intense level of the search that the private/non-governmental organization mounts when Alexey goes missing. Is that level of intense search more a function of the value of youth in Russian society, or more due to Boris and Zhenya’s affluent economic status?
A: Zvyagintsev: Because this is a volunteer organization that has existed for seven years called Liza Alert, the people involved work regular jobs and do the searches for missing people for free. This organization looks for all missing people, so it does not have to be a child who is missing. When they receive a request, there is no money that changes hands, so the economic status of Boris and Zheyna does not play a role here. It could of course be the parents of a lost child that the organization has been asked to help, but it could also be a wife looking for her spouse, or children looking for their parents, so age does not matter, financial status does not matter. It is the awakening of citizens and their ability to organize themselves, and they do this only because of their empathy and desire to help in a way that the government cannot.
Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) speaks to her son Alexey (Matvey Novikov)
Q: Have organizations like Liza Alert become more prevalent recently because of a specific crisis, like the refugee crisis in Syria or the conflict in the Ukraine?
A: Zvyagintsev: No, not specifically the Ukraine or Syria, it is just a need that had to be addressed by citizens in a way that the Russian government was unable to do.
Q: I ask this question as you regularly show dire, almost apocalyptic political situations in Russia via news clips seen on television during your film. This brings me back to my initial thoughts on how religion and faith are exhibited by the characters and how there may be a divide between older Russians who are gravitating towards religion because of the state of their country, and younger people who have become more secular because of the failings of the previous generation. Organized religion as you stated earlier is being used to foster conservative ideals. In general, is the current political situation driving more Russians closer or farther from organized faith, away or towards being “true believers’ as you say?
A:Zvyagintsev: Statistics show that 74% of Russians say that they are believers, but when they asked that 74% if they had read the Bible or the central text of their faith, only 30% admit that they have actually read the text. It is essentially like Paganism in that there is a social sickness, and a lot of people who consider themselves “believers” don’t understand which god they serve. So, questions about growth of numbers really don’t reflect what is going on in society. It is a social sickness of Paganism rather than true belief. This sickness isn’t just unique to Russia, it is going on all over the world. There are a lot of people who look for God, but find a short God. So, the criteria for a person who is a true believer, a true Christian, like I mentioned earlier, is that he has his border between good and evil going through his heart. It is an epic battle between your real self and your fake self, and if the person sees that evil is not within him, like this religious person who considers the line between good and evil to be outside of him, then he is a fake and not a true believer.
Since moving to Koreatown in the spring of 2015, whenever we begin seeing the jack-o-lanterns adorning the lawns of the homes on our drive to work, we know that Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con (SLLACC) is just around the corner. Usually held in the days before Halloween, if not Halloween itself, this con is now becoming a fall fixture here, with this year’s installment (the seventh in its short existence) being the biggest one yet in terms of its Guests of Honor, which ranged from The Rock to Kevin Smith to Stan “The Man” Lee himself. Of course, Stan’s appearance is never a surprise, but it is always thrilling as he has begun every one of his cons that we have attended with a personal appearance to give an update on new projects by his company, POW! Entertainment. A friend described our SLLACC attendance as one of being “panel heavy,” and this is indeed true that we do love the panels a bit more than those who indulge on the one on one experience that is available on the expo floor or in the gaming rooms, but we feel that we did more than our fair share of admiring the work of cosplayers, talking to comic and show creators at their tables, and even buying the odd Rick and Morty pin too, as the popular Adult Swim show was well represented in every material form available at the con. We selected our favorite moments from this year’s edition of SLLACC to share with you.
It usually takes some resolve to wake up super early on a Saturday morning, but when presented with an opportunity to see Stan Lee in person, it becomes a much easier task to avoid hitting the snooze button for an extra fifteen minutes because that bit of extra sleep might cost us a prime spot near the main stage. The Stan Lee Panel did not disappoint, as we were all informed of the status of two upcoming projects being helmed by Luka Contents and Lee’s Pow! Entertainment: Chroma and Prodigal. Jim Krueger, the winner of the Eisner Award for the DC Comics series, Justice was on hand to introduce Lucy Kim from Luka and Gill Champion, who was representing Pow!. Krueger soon expressed his excitement for being able to write a new hero with the comicbook, Chroma, which the book’s sizzle trailer later described as Korea’s first superhero. Kreuger described his inspiration for Chromaas coming from reading the first thirty six issues of Stan Lee’s Spiderman and imagining how to create a character using modern writing techniques while capturing the spirit that went into Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s partnership, and the dynamic images that we saw for Chroma in the sizzle reel gave us a preview of the work that artist Drew Johnson of Midnight Society: The Black Lake and DC Comics contributed to the series. The story begins with Chroma as a young boy who is traumatized by the killing of his sister, who was burned to death. When the boy turns into an adult, he becomes a scientist who experiments with the regenerative skin of octopi to help burn victims, but he soon stumbles upon a corporate conspiracy and an attempt is made on his life. We then were told that the Chromacomicbook will soon become a Korean-language superhero film, the first of its kind, and the film will be directed by Jee-woon Kim, who is best known for the 2008 neo-western, The Good, The Bad and The Weird. Kim was unable to attend the panel, but he sent a highlight video of clips from his previous films, and an interview where he expressed his deep admiration for Stan Lee.
Prodigal director, Yong-hwa Kim, speaks as Stan Lee looks on
Prodigal, based on an original idea from Stan Lee, was next up for discussion on the panel. As described by Kreuger, Prodigal is about a young adult named Warren, whose dad is a vigilante superhero, but Warren soon finds out that he is adopted, and that his birth father is a supervillain, which takes the narrative into the age-old questions surrounding nature versus nurture, with the two fathers battling over their son’s transformation into an agent of good or evil. It was at this point that Gill Champion invited Stan Lee to take the stage before any further discussion about the project. Stan was as sharp and funny as ever when he set up the Prodigal trailer by asking the crowd to “pay attention, as there may be a test afterwards.” A trailer with some storyboard images followed and ended with the announcement of the release date of summer of 2019. It was then that the director chosen to helm Prodigal, Yong-hwa Kim, was introduced to the audience. The director explained that his wife recently gave birth to their first child, so he has naturally channeled his personal experiences as a father into this project, which will be unlike what you normally see through DC or Marvel, as family is such an integral part of the Korean way of life.
Since the toy’s release some forty years ago, there have been many rumors about the production of a media property to couple with the popularity of everyone’s favorite rubbery hero, Stretch Armstrong. Films were slated to be made by Disney and Universal in the ’90s and 2000s, respectively, but alas, nothing came to fruition. Now, Netflix has picked up the gauntlet with the production of the animated series, Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters, which follows frantic teen, Jake Armstrong and his two best friends, who all have been exposed to a chemical that makes them super stretchy, and in response, they use their rubbery powers to fight evil. The sneak peak of the series that we saw had a ’67 Spidermanfeel about it as Jake and his pals wisecrack away whilst performing superhuman feats like turning themselves into human slingshots so that they can launch cars at giant monsters. Netflix seems to be going all out with this venture, as they have recruited some big name voice talent in the form of Steven Yeun, Wil Wheaton, Keith David, Kate Mulgrew, and Henry Rollins.
The Stretch Armstrong and The Flex Fighters Panel
As much as Stan Lee’s appearance brought out cheers from the crowd around the main stage, it wasn’t at deafening as the higher-pitched screeches of joy that emanated from the crowd when the original voice actors of The Powerpuff Girls: Tara Strong (Bubbles), E.G. Daily (Buttercup), Cathy Cavadini (Blossom), and Tom Kane (Professor Utonium, and HIM) were brought onto the stage. Released almost twenty years ago, this trio of kindergarten-aged superheros took the world by storm and are still enjoyed in reruns on the Cartoon Network. The quartet discussed their auditions for the series and the extended length of time it took before the series began to hit TV screens. Our favorite part of the panel occurred early on when the moderator asked our actors to give their favorite voice from their main character on the show and then a voice of a different character that they had done on The Powerpuff Girls. It was startling to watch adults instantly transform into four year olds right before your eyes, especially when the women sang “Love Makes The World Go Round” in their Powerpuff Girl voices.
The reunion of the original voice actors of The Powerpuff Girls!
So, if you did not have enough of a ’90s nostalgia injection with The Powerpuff Girls reunion, the cast of the crown jewel of ABC’s TGIF programming, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, arrived at Comic Con! Yes, they were all there onstage to represent their much-beloved show that was based on the Archie Comics series: Sabrina Spellman herself (Melissa Joan Hart), her aunts, Hilda (Caroline Rhea), and Zelda (Beth Broderick), her cat, Salem Saberhagen (Nick Bakay), Sabrina’s sweetheart, Harvey Kinkle (Nate Richert), The Quizmaster (Alimi Ballard), her coffee shop boss and crush, Josh Blackhart (David Lascher), her college roommates Roxie (Soleil Moon Frye), and Morgan (Elisa Donovan). First, they all spoke of the international appeal of the show, as evidenced by the cast’s ability to know the word “witch” in the different languages of the nations where the show aired around the world, and yes Caroline, “strega” is indeed the Italian word for witch (it is also a very tasty liqueur as well). We learned about the sometimes negative reactions of fans to Sabrina’s onscreen boyfriend selections and the cool tidbit that surprised us — Melissa Joan Hart’s mother, Paula Hart, was the executive producer of the show, and she was responsible for getting the show added to ABC’s Friday night lineup, a fact that Melissa was more than proud of to share with the attentive audience at SLLACC.
The cast of Sabrina the Teenage Witch
It was soon back to present day for us, as no SLLACC would be complete without a stop at one of the Troma panels, and this year we selected the Troma Entertainment Presents: Toxie’s Friendship Celebration panel, which was moderated by Megan Silver and included a brief visit from Toxie himself, who, after a brief introduction (without his signature broom which had sadly been confiscated at the con’s weapons check), had to run back to the Troma booth. After Toxie departed, it was the Lloyd Kaufman show for a bit, as the President of Troma regaled the crowd with some dark stories of their group’s banishment from this year’s Cannes Film Festival where they had been a fixture for over forty years. Hugo Award nominated author and Tae Kwon Do Master, Dr. Chuck Tingle, spoke of his recent writings, and battles with his Jerky Neighbor Ted. Also on the panel was professional wrestler and former WWE/NXT Tag Team Champion Simon Grimm, who talked about his experiences leaving the world of wrestling for life with Troma. As the panel veered towards its conclusion, we saw what we had all been waiting for, a trailer for the soon to be released Troma feature, Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High aka Volume 2</i?, which includes the last ever onscreen appearance of Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister. We love the Nuke ‘Em High series, and this one looks to be the goriest and silliest one yet. A more somber Troma panel than the ones we’ve seen in years past, but it was one that was still full of great laughs, stories, and encouragement to create independently. We also caught up to Lloyd Kaufman after the panel for an interview to soon be published here on Ink 19, where he expressed his thoughts about his former collaborator, director John G. Avildsen, who passed earlier this year, and what exactly occurred at the Cannes Film Festival that got Troma banned.
Troma Entertainment Presents: Toxie’s Friendship Celebration panel
After the Troma panel, it was back to the main stage for one of the most loveliest moments of this year’s SLLACC, A Tribute to Adam West. Moderators Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman sat with the late actor’s real life friends and Batman cohorts, Burt Ward (Robin) and Lee Meriwether (Catwoman) for a charming, sad, and at times, funny conversation about working with the late actor on the seminal 1960s TV show and the feature film. Ward brought up how West made him laugh from the very first moment they met at the screen test for Batman and told audiences that “the last thing that Adam would ever want you to do is cry for him, as he spent his whole life trying to entertain people.” Meriwether, who replaced Julie Newmar in the role of Catwoman for the feature film, revealed in a story of how badly she wanted that part, and how sad she was that West was not present at her audition for the role as she admired him on the television show. Story after story told onstage by those who knew West confirmed one fact over and over, and that is that West was the same funny and irreverent person off-screen as he was on it. Smith and Garman were excellent in their roles as moderators as they calmly straddled the line between excited fanboys and thoughtful interviewers.
The original Robin (Burt Ward) entertains the panel, and the audience at the Adam West Tribute
As the heart of any comic con lies in the spirit of creating comics, we were eager to attend the Publishing Your First Comic Book panel which was led by Rylend Grant, the writer/creator of Aberrant for Action Lab Comics, who smartly led a discussion with five comic book, television, and film professionals. It never ceases to amazes us that no matter how many of these nuts and bolts panels we attend, we always come away with some new pieces of information about this very complex process. Much of the early conversation of this panel centered around the art of the pitch, specifically on what should be the length of what you submit to publishers: Is this a few pages, a few issues, or a completed book? Most of our panel fell on the side of a completed issue so that the publisher can see clear ability to tell a story with sequential art. This is the first time that anyone actually acknowledged and discussed the exact avenues to enter comics in a clear way, going so far as to having panelists who have experiences with publisher submission, independent publication, and anthology contribution. In the end, the Publishing Your First Comic Book panel was one of the most well moderated and helpful panels that we have attended at a con in some time.
The Publishing Your First Comic Book panel
There are three absolutes for us at Stan Lee’s L.A. Comic Con: Seeing Stan The Man in the flesh for our first activity there, spending some time with the denizens of Tromaville, and the antithesis of the blood-spurting, four-letter word throwing activities that are akin to the world of Troma, Jordan B. Gorfinkel’s Heroes and Faithpanel. For all of our years of attending both professional and pop culture conventions, this panel is hands down the most consistently strong in terms of moderation and discussion, and much of that credit belongs to Gorfinkel, a former editor for DC Comics who supervised Batman for over a decade. The panel, which normally discusses the role of a specific motif from faith and religion (including atheism) in media and culture, chose as their focus this time around: hymns, rhythm and music. On the panel was David Sacks, writer/producer for The Simpsons, Lisa Klink, a writer/producer/novelist who has worked on Star Trek: Voyager, film composer Kurt Farquhar, who is working on music for the CW drama, Black Lightning, and composer James Covell, who is currently scoring Fast N’ Loud for the Discovery Channel. The panel was hit by Gorfinkel with intense thoughtful questions like the following: within the Old Testament, can you speak about a specific time when music is important to faith? Can you give some examples of where religious-type music is successful in enhancing and movie or television show? The answers that followed such questions created engaging conversations throughout the panel, and led up to the always exciting and illuminating lightning round of short questions that closes this event every year.
A group photo of the always thoughtful and entertaining Heroes and Faith panel
For our final panel of SLLACC 2017, we selected The Kaiju Kingdom Podcast Live: Tribute to Haruo Nakajima, and we were so glad that we did, as hosts Chris Eaton, Jessica Tseang, and Mark Jaramillo provided endless astonishing facts about the man who brought to life not only Godzilla, but also Rodan, Moguera, and many other kaiju in over one hundred films during his illustrious career. In fact, our respect for Nakajima grew exponentially as we heard stories of his struggles wearing costumes that weighed over 200 pounds, being submerged in icy water for hours upon hours while wearing those overweight suits, and even, on an occasion, being severely electrocuted while filming, yet still working later in the day. It indeed was a loving tribute as our hosts not only dispensed intriguing facts, but they also shared their personal memories of meeting the late actor at various events over the years. Sadly, the audio visual department at the con failed our panelists as they were unable to show the clips that they had collected for their presentation, but that didn’t matter as the love and respect that they gave to the actor, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 88, was felt by all of the attendees in the room.
The sweet and informative Tribute to Haruo Nakajima Panel
We were somewhat lighter on the panels on Sunday (we only did the three), which did allow us significant time to travel down artist alley and the adjoining creator booths in order to spot emerging projects, and two have caught our eye that we would like to share with you.
The new science fiction comicbook, Oasis, attracted our attention due to the absolutely stunning cover art by Breno Girafa. We actually stopped by the Oasistable just to acknowledge how impressed we were with what we saw, and we were greeted by the comicbook’s writer, Alex Wills, who gave us an enthusiastic overview of the series which spans four volumes, with each volume containing two issues. Based on our conversation with Wills, we picked up volume one, and so far, we have been very impressed with not only the art, but also the writing as Wills and Girafa create a dystopian world that is somewhat reminiscent of the world Ballard creates with High Rise, for Oasis is the name of a protected city that is removed from the harsh reality of a futuristic downtrodden Los Angeles. After reading the first two installments, we are curious to read the subsequent volumes as our main character, Miranda, has assembled a sort of dysfunctional family Ã la Fagin of Oliver Twist, a master who guides his “children” in the same dubious manner, but here set in futuristic and more violent world with the class struggle being at its core. The situations our “family” are put into and the choices they make that challenge their own emotions are compelling after just a few pages.
Like many attendees these days at comic cons, we are always on the lookout for new cartoons that would fit into the realm of Adult Swim’s idiosyncratic, if not disturbing programming, so we were intrigued when we saw concept art on a monitor for a new animated pilot that is looking to be funded on Kickstarter entitled, The Oracle Of Outer Space, which is about the last-existing AM radio station in the cosmos that is about to explode and crash into the earth. We spoke with the show’s creator, musician and writer Carl King, who like us is a huge fan of the legendary CBS sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati, which turns out is one of the key inspirations for the show that he wants to create. Assembled by King for this project is veteran animator Lance Myers, who amongst his credits, was the lead animator for Richard Linklater’s feature film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Also on board is famed voice actor Jon Schnepp, who has worked on Adult Swim shows such as Metalocalypse and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Given that we have been doing a radio program for the last twenty plus years ourselves and the fact that we love The Swim, we found this project to be one we would love to see come to fruition.
The creator of The Oracle of Outer Space, Carl King
In 2015, when we attended our first Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con (then called Stan Lee’s Comikaze), it was housed in two exhibit halls at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and during that year’s three day run, both halls were fairly packed with the robust attendance. For 2016 and this year, SLLACC has been relegated to just the one exhibit hall, which we found somewhat odd given its growing popularity. We wonder if last year’s one-time decision by the group that handles San Diego Comic Con to move Wondercon, which is normally held in Anaheim, to the Los Angeles Convention Center was the cause for this downsizing of space. As Wondercon is now back in Anaheim, we hope that future editions of SLLACC go back to an even larger space as before as this is one of the most entertaining and eclectic collections of panels and speakers about pop culture in the Los Angeles area.
We dedicate this top ten list to David Pendleton, the brilliant and lovely co-curator of the Harvard Film Archive, who passed away on November 6th at the age of 53. We wholeheartedly feel that our education as cinephiles was enhanced greatly by not only the quality of programming that he presented to us at the archive, but also from the film knowledge that we gleaned from him before each screening from the podium and after the screenings in the hallway. We miss you.
In 2017, we were fortunate to have had a greater access to international film screenings than ever before, thanks in large part to the efforts of a few organizations here in Los Angeles who were committed to bringing the finest titles that they could find to the film community here from abroad, and it was this unprecedented ability to see foreign titles that became a large reason as to why our list is so heavily weighted towards international cinema. We would like to thank the good people at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, the South East European Film Festival, Cinema Italian Style, Canada Now, Cambodian Town Film Festival, and Recent Spanish Cinema Los Angeles for their diligent work in bringing the best contemporary world cinema to our city.
If we had to isolate two major themes that were indicative of this year’s selections, they would the creative process and the suffocating nature of modern industrialization. This year there are multiple films that capture the experience of artistic experimentation and creation. And, there are multiple films that contrast nature to modern civilization. Appearing at the top of our list this year is a film that excelled in incorporating and expanding on these two themes, an exceptionally ambitious and complex work that immediately set the standard for exceptional film for this year. 1. By the Time it Gets Dark (Dao khanong) / Thailand / dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong Countering the current banal trend towards overly self-aware film referencing that many consider viable postmodernist cinema is Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time it Gets Dark, which has no novelty in its allusions to the history of cinema and yet, manages to maintain a lightness throughout its discourse on the role of cinema in capturing and retelling collective memories and realities. The film begins with a scene set in 1976, and a real event that is currently being suppressed in history books by the Thai government, Bangkok’s Thammasat University massacre, where a large number of student protesters were executed by the Thai military. This piece of history comes to the attention of Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), a filmmaker who locates a survivor of the killings, a writer named Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), who Ann has invited to a secluded country home for an extended conversation. In this setting, we encounter another woman, who becomes a recurring character throughout the film, who drifts from job to job. After Ann interviews Taew, we are introduced to an handsome actor named Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri) who is filming a more commercial film than the one that Ann is currently creating about the Thammasat University killings. With each of these characters’ stories, Suwichakornpong shows a different perspective and context of film history and its motivations. There is an ode to cinema and a chance for transformation there is also an undercurrent of how film was viewed during different political and social climates within the timeline of the progression of cinema itself. The director, in order to accomplish this ambitious dissection of cinema, blurs the reality of what is in the film or to be specific, the films within the films, to stress what is most likely a change of character or outcome that has been mandated for purposes of entertainment or sadly because of the failing of a nation’s collective memory about a real event that has been altered by media itself.
2. Loveless (Nelyubov) / Russia / dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev We have been fans of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s work since his 2003 feature film debut, The Return, and since that feature, he has continued surpassing each previous work in quality. It has been three years since his previous, highly regarded film, Leviathan, so we were beyond excited to see his new film, Loveless, the 2017 Jury Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival. In Loveless, Zvyagintsev follows Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a soon to be divorced couple, whose constant battling has caused severe emotional trauma to their young son Alexey, who in the midst of his parents’ other ongoing dalliances has gone missing, which is not even noticed by his parents until days later. Loveless then becomes a film that plays with its audience by putting you in the position of the argumentative couple, who seem more concerned with their anger towards one another and seemingly unfulfilling affairs than the welfare of their own child. During the AFI Fest screening’s question and answer session with Zvyagintsev, the director deflected assertions that were made by the moderator that his film is political and clarified that his feature is one that intends to shine light on the social and moral imperatives of a modern Russia that is quickly on the verge of breakdown. Alexey, who only occupies a tiny percentage of the film’s running time, becomes a brilliantly conceived symbol of a generation of Russian citizens who are fanatically striving to retain their own youth, which is the most precious commodity in the face of an uncertain future.
3. Sieranevada / Romania / dir. Cristi Puiu Lary (Mimi Branescu) and his wife, Laura (Catalina Moga) begin Cristi Puiu’s film trying to get out of a traffic situation on a busy street in Bucharest. This all too familiar scene of urban misery deliberately plays out slowly so that you can take in every single moment of frustration that this situation can provide. Once Lary and Laura are freed from the car trap, you learn that they are off to mourn the passing of Lary’s father with his family, who will now become the human version of traffic jam they couple just escaped. The predominance of Puiu’s stiflingly grand film takes place in the apartment where Lary’s family has congregated, and over the next few hours you will witness their rants on political situations that have been gleaned through personal experiences and to a greater degree, various nefarious websites. You will then see the seemingly trapped guests drag in their friends with their miseries into the fray, whist all await the priest who will consecrate this beleaguered affair before dinner can be served. Puiu has reimagined contemporary Romania in Sieranevada as an ant farm where the inhabitants disgustedly move around their glass cage, expelling their frustrations with neither truth or faith serving as a guiding force to lessen their anger. No real answers are given to any of the concerns of our grieving clan, except perhaps during one short scene when Lary and Laura are accosted by neighbors when they venture outside to try to move their car. It is at this very moment that you begin to understand that at least the dysfunction they see at home, as oppressive as it is there, is infinitely better than the conflicts that exist outside of the familiar familial box. For the almost three hour running time, you are transfixed by every conversation that occurs in Sieranevada, and you watch, sometimes in disbelief, at how these frenetic moments are sewn together by Puiu.
4. The Workshop (L’Atelier) / France / dir. Laurent Cantet In The Workshop, longtime collaborators Laurent Cantet and Robin Campillo deceptively set up a scenario where you expect a beneficent teacher to help needy adolescents understand themselves through the beauty of writing, which could potentially be extremely sanguine and unrealistic like so many “teacher changing student movies” à la Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. However, Cantet and Campillo weave together a film that gets to the essence of writing. Here, writing is not a lofty art form that brings some level of dramatic catharsis, but rather a way to explore and accept one’s own motivations and flaws. Cantet and Campillo use a bait and switch technique that plays on established cinematic clichés in the order to create an interesting narrative, but more so to illustrate the flaws in Hollywood’s films, which stress unreal expectations for a saccharine ending. Cantet and Campillo purposefully lead the viewer through their main character Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a highly intelligent but brash and combative young man, on several potential clichéd thriller endings in line with the thriller that the students in the workshop are tasked to write. The selection of any of these potential thriller endings for the film is irrelevant, as each ending option only goes as far as to clarify the true purpose of the film: the self-realization that comes through in writing is more important than the craft of writing itself. The Workshop is an expertly conceived film that deftly builds its thesis by confronting the assumptions made by audiences, who might project their own expectations about the beneficence and motivations of teachers and students based on Cantet’s 2008 Palme d’Or winning film, The Class.
5. Personal Shopper / France / dir. Olivier Assayas Kristen Stewart playsMaureen, a young American woman living in France who seems adrift as she goes through the day to day tasks of her titular position, working for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) a vulgar parody of an American actress. We see Maureen in a state of perpetual limbo due to recent passing of her twin brother, Lewis, who has promised his sister a sign from beyond, which Maureen eagerly awaits for, and witnesses early in the film while staying at the abandoned house of her deceased brother. Maureen’s supernatural connections with Lewis do little for Maureen in terms of coming to grips with her loss, and so she continues to glide through her life with no connection to both her boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger), a computer programmer working abroad in Oman, who Maureen communicates with only through Skype, and Kyra, who sends purchasing requests to Maureen via phone. The aforementioned detached voices, including a new one in the form of an unknown text-messenger, add to this state of lifelessness we see in Maureen, who becomes somewhat of an apparition herself, a phantom who secretly parades around the apartment of her employer whilst wearing her bosses new expensive garments. Though some elements exist, Personal Shopper never operates on the level of standard genre horror film, though the film does contain moments of suspense through Maureen’s reactions to the mysterious and threatening texts that she receives. Assayas uses the combination of the unreal and real to solidify his thesis, a thesis that does more than simply examine the grief associated with physical death: it’s a look at not only the emptiness that coincides with that loss, but also the loss of physical connection due to global economics and subsequent distance between people in their methods of communication in our digital age.
6. Western / Germany | Bulgaria / dir. Valeska Grisebach Valeska Grisebach’s first film in over a decade, Western, which was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is a surprising examination of the conflicting attitudes towards and evolving definitions of masculinity that are derived from predetermined notions of contrasting cultures. In the film, a team of German workers is sent to the outskirts of a small village in Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric power plant. Amongst the team, we are immediately introduced to Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), who is said to have been a French Foreign Legionnaire who has grown tired of war. Even though he does have some camaraderie with his German colleagues, Meinhard gravitates towards the villagers near his worksite, and he attempts to gain favor within the village as to earn a place there for some semblance of permanence, but perhaps even more so to exist within a community that eschews the trappings of self-serving aggression that historically is attached to Western practices of conquest and expansion. Through the use of a primarily non-professional group of actors, Western accomplishes its ambitious conceptual goals with a documentary style that allows the viewer seemingly unfettered access to Meinhard and the world around him. Grisebach has created, for the central character of her film, a complex and compelling study, as Meinhard’s former existence as a Legionnaire is an excellent device to explain his innate ability to acclimate to different interpretations of masculinity because of the international participation that exists within the French Foreign Legion. Given Meinhard’s desire to be part of a new community, combined with his ability as a Legionnaire to adapt to foreign cultures, will he be able to establish his value, which he believes comes from his ability to commit violence, but, in doing so, will his actions go against acceptable levels of aggression within the community he wishes to serve?
7. A Ciambra / Italy / dir. Jonas Carpignano In the final scene of Mediterranea, Jonas Carpignano’s impressive feature film debut, we see the protagonist of the film, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), an African refugee who, since arriving in southern Italy, has tried to play it straight, entering a party at the home of his connected orange orchard boss. This simple act of entry by Ayiva, symbolizes his acceptance of the criminal code that governs his region. When we begin Carpignano’s follow up film, A Ciambra, we are reintroduced to Ayiva’s young friend from Mediterranea, Pio (Pio Amato), an illiterate adolescent from a Romani community who peddles stolen items. In A Ciambra, Pio lives with his family and does what he can to help out, including the aforementioned small-time thievery and stealing electricity for his home so that his family can dodge bills they cannot afford. As for Pio and Ayiva, despite their ethnic allegiances, they have become close friends with Ayiva assuming a protective role over Pio, as Pio’s older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) begins serving time in prison, a place where he begins to look at the ethnic divide in a different way. What we admire the most about A Ciambra is the film’s unwillingness to compromise its realistic vision of a Romani community in contemporary southern Italy and how that community functions in a static environment between established Italian nationals and a new migrant group, African immigrants, who draw some of the ire away from the Romanis. Though by genre definition, this is a crime film, we have come to realize that A Ciambra is more of a film about the stigma attached to immigrant groups from outside and from inside of their communities. We see three groups in the film: the Calabrians, the Romani, and the Africans, and we learn their perceptions of each other and themselves from their interactions.
8. Bright Sunshine In ( Un beau soleil intérieur) / France / dir. Claire Denis In Bright Sunshine In, Juliette Binoche plays Isabelle, an older visual artist whose success in her career fails to translate into her inter-personal relationships. On the surface, Bright Sunshine In looks like an exploration on fleeting and turbulent love, an exercise on a quintessentially French premise, but Claire Denis uses love and relationships to form an intricate conceit about the life, interactions, and career of an aging female creator. On one level, Bright Sunshine In is about how an older female actress presents herself to the people and characters she meets in life, on stage, or in cinema impacts the course of her interactions. Throughout the film, Binoche comedically dresses as a caricature of a young French woman. She’s always in a miniskirt that barely meets the top of her audacious thigh-high boots, and whenever we see Isabelle’s outfits in Bright Sunshine In, we see a manifestation of Binoche the actress’s and Isabelle the artist’s need to prove to outside eyes that they still can carry the energy, beauty, and vitality of their youth. As much as the film is about the aging actress, it is also about Claire Denis herself as a female director navigating through the archetypal male characters in French cinema and the male actors who play them, which is why the film must end with scenes from Denis’s longtime collaborator Alex Descas and the iconic Gérard Depardieu. Bright Sunshine In appears like a lighter film for Denis, but it is a completely exemplary one because of its ability to show the creative process and experience for aging women in cinema who have seen the past and contributed their own work to it, but want to continue to progress, and for that it is a film that only Denis can present because her grace, honesty, and perceptiveness are evident throughout.
9. Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres) / France | Belgium / dirs. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani Before we say anything else about Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan, let us say this: it’s not perfect by any means, but it is one of the most conceptually and visually daring films we saw at AFI Fest 2017. Cattet and Forzani’s latest blood-soaked feature is, at times, an outstanding display of ideas that draws visual and aural conventions from everything from low budget Euro-crime films of the 1970s to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s landmark novel of the same name that re-defined police stories, Let the Corpses Tan uses a violent heist as the galvanizing moment in the narrative, but the film is less about why the crime was committed and more about what each character sees, feels (in a tactile way rather than an emotional way), and hears as he or she has to deal with the consequences. As thus, there is an overwhelmingly impressive dedication by Cattet and Forzani to construct meticulous shots of the actions, big and small, of each character, which makes every scene in the film palpable. We can hear and see the paint that Luce (Elina Löwensohn), the owner of the home that doubles as the film’s stage, shoots onto a canvas. We can feel the sun beating down on the characters as they move around Luce’s sparse and desert-like property in Corsica. We see and hear shots fired from each perspective. We can even smell the pee that is part of Luce’s performance art. This action-focused approach bypasses any character development and exploration, but keeps you fully engaged because you would like to see, hear, and feel what is next, especially because Cattet and Forzani never present a less than intriguing scene. As part of the sensory explosion in Let the Corpses Tan, the directors include scenes from surreal performance artwork from Luce, and these moments emphasize why you should see the film: Let the Corpses Tan is a showcase of how the motifs that we know from genre cinema, when included and expanded in similar and contrasting contexts, can form their own kind of performance that is analogous to Luce’s strange, but also reference heavy, performances. Let the Corpses Tan is a dazzling spectacle, and even if there are no characters and no firm narrative to hold onto, you’ll be mesmerized by all the sounds and images of liquid gold slathered on bodies, lamb meat being grabbed, bodies being beaten, and gunshots fired in close range and through windows interspersed with close ups of sweaty, furtive glances. As you can tell from that description, some of the scenes in the collage of Let the Corpses Tan may be overly masturbatory or fetishistic, which without key characters are made even more so, but as long as you give up trying to understand why this is all happening before you, you’ll have fun, too much fun experiencing this film.
10. On The Beach At Night Alone (Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja) / South Korea / dir.Hong Sang-soo There were three features directed by Hong Sang-soo this year, which is a fairly standard output by the prolific auteur, who uses a different method in each film to examine his own personal issues, which has also been a mark of his career. One of the most candid talents working in cinema, his 2017 output, Claire’s Camera, The Day After, and On The Beach At Night Alone, are all different artistic treatments of Hong’s much-publicized affair with actress, Kim Min-hee, who, like her married paramour Hong, has been vilified by the South Korean press, in a similar way that Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini had been demonized some seventy years ago after their affair became public, and also as Bergman and Rossellini were able to do, Hong and Kim’s collaboration has led to some magnificent pieces of art, which brings us to On The Beach At Night Alone. The most structurally ambitious and affecting of Hong’s films this year, On The Beach at Night Alone begins in Hamburg, where Kim portrays Young-hee, an actress who has just departed South Korea after having an affair with a famous director. Kim is in Germany visiting a divorced friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), and the pair peacefully wander through the streets, shops, and parks of Hamburg, and in one funny scene, they even dine with a German friend where they engage painful conversation of poorly spoken English. Though this scene of misspoken words, combined with the redundancy of phrases is seemingly there for comic relief, it mostly exists as a harbinger for the final two thirds of the film that take place in South Korea, where a reunion of sorts with Kim’s director-lover occurs that stresses the power of language and the brutal honesty contained within words to convey pain. As strong as the construction is for On the Beach at Night Alone, its power primarily comes the emotionally complex performance by Kim Min-hee, who seems to have channeled all of the negativity that has been directed at her by people responding to the real-life controversy connected to her off-screen affair with Hong into her impressive range of abilities as an actress.
My Father’s Wings (Babamin Kanatlari) / Turkey/ dir. Kıvanç Sezer An impressive debut feature from the Turkish-born, but Italian-educated Kivanç Sezer about his country’s worker safety issues that have been worsened by earthquakes in Turkey and subsequent shortages of properly built homes, My Father’s Wings uses as its narrative engine the story of master builder İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar), who labors at a construction site where payments have become nebulous and is in dire need of funds to support his family. İbrahim works at the site with his nephew Yusuf (Musab Ekici), a brash young man who is eager to climb the ladder of success and become his own boss. A pensive drama that is framed in the Italian neorealist tradition, My Father’s Wings provides the viewer with a glimpse into the growing crisis of housing demand leading to an exploitative situation for low wage builders who are trying to maintain a balance between survival and dignity. The flawless performances by Samancilar and Ekici create complementary perspectives on life for two different generations, and combined they form characters that express our own concerns and sometimes naïve optimism in our changing society. This is the first part of a projected trilogy that Sezer hopes to make that centers around the building of this property in the suburbs of Istanbul. We sat down with the director for an interview that you can read here.
Pendular / Brazil / dir. Júlia Murat Whereas Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition is solely focused on what it means to see and show art from a creator’s and an audience’s perspective, Pendular is more self-contained in its discourse on the reconciliation between space and body. At the start of the film, we see a couple, the woman, a dancer, and the man, a sculptor, forming a line of separation in an abandoned factory that doubles as their home and studio. From this image of the line that splits the man and the woman’s working spaces, we immediately understand that invasion of space will become an issue—for him, the space needed to build his sculptures, and for her, the physical space of her body, the key tool of her work. As Pendular proceeds, the dancer and the sculptor battle to expand their respective physical spaces of performance/creation, and as a result, we see what happens when their need for expansion and creation in their work bleeds into the confines of their human relationship. Beyond our sculptor and dancer, there is a third creator who also wants space: the filmmaker. In conversations in Pendular, there are constant references to mainstream cinematic language and video game play. Then, in one brief moment, we see the dancer move towards the couple’s personal collection of films, which contains multiple works from Tsai Ming-liang and Claire Denis. All of these references to external media serve to try to relate the experience of the sculptor and dancer to known properties for the audience, but all of these references are interruptive and brief, almost in a jarring way, showing the filmmaker’s own battle for narrative space in the film itself in order to set cinematic language anchors for the viewer. Thus, Pendular emerges as an exploration into the experimentation and the struggle to find harmony between three artists: dancer, sculptor, and filmmaker, and in the closing, when the three finally come together, the outcome is a hypnotizing visual exhibit of space, body, and movement. Given the intricacy required to convey the concepts in Pendular, the film de-personalizes its central characters, but more moments of their personal interactions would have given more fluidity and spontaneity to the film. Regardless, Pendular ranks high on this list because it underscores the ability of cinema to provide a dialogue about art, of multiple forms, with time, images, and sound.
Hermia and Helena / Argentina / dir. Matías Piñeiro The latest of Piñeiro’s ongoing “Shakespeareads” series of films based on The Bard’s heroines, Hermia and Helena is a charming, but no less poignant repurposing of the characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream taken over international borders. We begin our film with Carmen (María Villar) who is nearing the end of her arts fellowship in New York City and is giving practical academic, and not so practical romantic advice to her friend in Argentina, Camilla (Agustina Muñoz), who will shortly be switching places with Carmen at the university, a switch that may be packaged with the added bonus of an administrator named Lukas (Keith Poulson), a hipster doofus and notorious lothario, who has been spending time with Carmen during her appointment. Once Camilla arrives in New York, she takes advantage of the always amourous Lukas, while she attempts to balance a precarious mix of translating A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a search for her biological father and her long lost lover, and a preoccupation with whomever has been sending postcards during a cross-country roadtrip to Carmen’s apartment. The scenes contained in Hermia and Helena bounce freely from the stories going on in both Buenos Aires and New York, so in one way, Piñeiro’s film has a formal structure, but it is not necessarily a chronological one, which allows for the individual parts of the film to have impact on their own, like the scene where Camilla meets her father, yet at the same time they reflect on one another’s importance in the narrative. The effect allows you to delve into any part of the film without having to rationalize its place in the story. You can also view the film after digging up and digesting your Cliff Notes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from junior year of high school to refresh your memory of the play’s characters to draw comparisons, but it is not necessarily needed to enjoy this refreshingly alive film, which is as much about distance as it is about star crossed lovers.
Hello Destroyer / Canada / dir. Kevan Funk One of the most impressive films in quite a while on the systematic cultivation of violence and the pervasive nature of sports on a society, Kevan Funk’s unrelentingly merciless feature debut, Hello Destroyer, features a powerful performance from Jared Abrahamson as Tyson Burr, a rookie forward for the imaginary Prince George Warriors junior team. Funk painstakingly follows Tyler’s horrific journey through an athletic system where he is first encouraged to by coaches and teammates to be aggressive on the ice, which then becomes a story of infamy as Tyler is subsequently ostracized for his actions during a game that lead to him permanently injuring an opposing team’s player. The film exposes the deep flaws of a sports culture that consistently enforces an ideal of teamwork, an idea that crumbles easily once the unspoken rules of the sport are broken. The structure and tone of Hello Destroyer is courageously uncompromised as director Funk never allows for even one positive moment to distract you away from the film’s dour central message, one that stresses the pressures that are internalized by a young person when they enter the arena to play their country’s most coveted sport and the life-changing ramifications that arise once the public feels that their beloved institution has been violated. Given the realistic treatment of the subject matter, combined with the raw performances in Funk’s film, it was impossible not to think of real-life NHL players Todd Bertuzzi and Marty McSorley, whose entire careers and lives were forever altered by their one moment on the ice where their aggression went too far past the normally prescribed violence that is expected by the fans and management of their sport.
The Girl Without Hands (La jeune fille sans mains) / France / dir. Sébastien Laudenbach Amazingly for the second year in a row, we have been presented with a impressed feature that has been written, directed, and animated by one person alone. In 2016, director Nick DiLiberto released the film that he labored over for four years to hand-illustrate over 60,000 frames for, Nova Seed, his homage to the 2-D animated sci-fi/fantasy films of the 1980s, and this year, celebrated animator Sébastien Laudenbach wore as many hats as DiLiberto and faithfully adapted the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, The Girl Without Hands. The girl (Anaïs Demoustier) has chosen the pastoral setting of an apple tree near her father’s mill as her place of rest, but that place is forsaken when her father (Olivier Broche) makes a Faustian deal with the Devil (Philippe Laudenbach), which costs him not only his apple tree, but his daughter as well. The Devil further instructs the greedy father to cut off his own daughter’s hands, which he is heartbroken to do, but he obliges in fear of further retaliation. Without her hands, the girl slowly crawls into the woods where she is saved from drowning by an earth mother spirit (Elina Löwensöhn) who subsequently shows the girl to a castle where our wounded heroine meets a prince (Jéremie Elkaïm) who falls in with her and who makes for his new love, a pair of golden hands, but our story is far from over. Utilizing a flowing impressionistic style of watercolor strokes that form more than just a pretty effect on the visuals, Sébastien Laudenbach achieves a softness that impeccably compliments the naturalistic elements of the story, as this particular adaptation of the Grimm fairytale is indeed more than a simplistic hero versus villain story, as it becomes a parable about the pure redemptive power of the natural state against man’s need to be in conflict with that state.
Turn Left Turn Right (បត់ឆ្វេងបត់ស្តាំ) / Cambodia | USA / dir. Douglas Seok
When Turn Left Turn Right begins, we see Kanitha (Kanitha Tith), a quintessentially modern looking woman, decked out in her royal blue cocktail dress. Kanitha has a raw, almost childlike intensity to her stare and stance as she wanders quietly through the ruins of Angkor Wat while Khmer era music plays in the background. As the screen fades to black, the song continues, and you are presented with a title card announcing the beginning of “Track Two” and then the image of actress Dy Saveth, the star of the international 1970 fantasy hit, The Snake Man, and one of the few stars remaining from the Golden Age of Khmer Cinema, dancing to the same song that introduced us to Kanitha, who we now see watching the video of Saveth. Kanitha is taking a break from her unglamorous job as a waitress in a rock club, where she slightly bobs her head to the music while going through the motions of work, before ending her shift and riding home to fall asleep in her work clothes on a mat next to her sleeping grandfather. End of track two. Kanitha has two jobs: one as a waitress in the aforementioned nightclub and another as a hotel clerk, but she must still live with her grandfather and mother, who continue to badger Kanitha about her unmarried status and her lack of desire to create a family of her own. In the eyes of her family, Kanitha’s lifestyle may appear selfish, but her desire to remain outside of traditional roles appears justified when we witness the economic struggles of her friends and their lives in the marketplace. When her grandfather becomes ill, Kanitha and her mother discuss using their small amount of savings just so Kanitha’s grandfather can be treated in a hospital. Faced with such a grim financial future, Kanitha continues to work her jobs, but the dancing that once only occurred in her dreams, begins to find an unwelcome home in the reality of her day to day urban existence. It is only through her trips into the natural settings of waterways and her friend’s farm that Kanitha can finally feel unencumbered by the world around her enough to share her desire for freedom with others. In his short, but complete sixty-eight minute second feature, director Douglas Seok creates a compelling and elegant visual narrative that intertwines scenes from a rapidly changing modern life with glimpses into an era of Cambodia that has long since passed. Seok also mixes in contemporary and Khmer era vintage songs, minimal dialog, and physical expression, which altogether with the images, allows his protagonist to delve deeply into a dream state without ever losing focus of the film’s essential central construct of creating a character whose choices are influenced by the conflict between her own desire to live a simpler life because of the complexity of today and the expectations and needs of the people she loves who are fundamentally connected to traditional values from a time that no longer exists.
MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) / Chile / dir. Sebastián Lelio During the Q&A with lead actress, Daniela Vega, after the AFI screening of Sebastián Lelio’s ultimately disappointing new feature, A Fantastic Woman, a clue was given as to why the film failed to create an emotional connection with us, despite an intense performance from the newcomer Vega. As she described her feelings towards reading the script that Lelio sent her for A Fantastic Woman, Vega uttered the following line, “I was fifty pages into the script, and it was all about my character Marina’s love interest, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), so, I had some second thoughts.” In the cut of the film that we saw, the character of Orlando barely has ten minutes of screentime, so we have to wonder if Lelio once intended to create a much more thorough portrait of the relationship between Vega’s character, Marina Vidal, and Orlando so that the audience would better understand Marina feelings for her partner and her state of mind when he passes away. Instead of witnessing that relationship first hand to empathize with Marina, we only see scenes where Marina is upset by Orlando’s family as they deny her the right to mourn Orlando and where she practices boxing to vent her frustration. In A Fantastic Woman, we only get dramatic devices to represent Marina; we get no character examination, which Lelio is more than capable of, as seen in his widely celebrated film Gloria. Another rift between the viewer and any emotional connection comes by way of the failing of the editing style, which removes space during scenes where Marina’s emotions could be absorbed by the audience in favor of a cut to the next scene. Much respect has to go to Vega in her first lead role in a motion picture, and we feel that the worst failing of A Fantastic Woman was its missed opportunity to capitalize on the actress’s raw talent. Because of the film’s shallow character construction and rapid editing, we only get glimpses of Vega’s abilities—we never see them fully exhibited. We both highly regard Lelio’s previous feature, Gloria, which was a top ten film for us in 2014, and we were very disappointed that A Fantastic Woman was not given the same level of breathing room and character development that made Lelio’s previous film so affecting.
BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2015, we attended a screening of a bizarre 70s exploitation film called, The Sexorcists. That night we got in line early as we had never been to the Silent Film Theater on Fairfax, and it was there where we met Monty Lewis, a gregarious and epically knowledgeable lover of cinema (and comicbooks). Monty was the first person to actually welcome us to the city, and that night at Cinefamily, he ran down a list of the numerous locations in L.A. where one could see great rep house fare, and for that we are eternally grateful. Sadly, Monty unexpectedly passed away on July 2nd at the age of 45. We both miss our chats in line with Monty before the films, and his booming laugh from the back row of the theater. So, before we offer up our favorite experiences in the rep houses in Los Angeles from 2017, we just want say thanks again to Monty for extending his knowledge and humor to us.
We are now midway through our third year as cinephiles here in Los Angeles, a city that up until the last few years was never widely regarded as being a real competitor to New York City in terms of its ability to present as eclectic an array of older titles on the big screen in repertory houses. These days though, on any given night in Los Angeles, you have not only the potential of seeing lost gems that you may have never seen before, but also the fortune of seeing them with the film’s director and stars, who are more than happy to regale you with stories from the film’s production, issues with certain prima donnas, or why some suit thought that a revisionist western starring a young Robert Duvall as Jesse James wouldn’t be worth a real ad push. We were so fortunate to have had a wealth of such moments in 2017 that choosing just one is almost impossible as we are not only judging the film, but that experience combining the film screening with hearing from these legendary talents. There was the night when the great Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer, who was as sharp as ever at 84 years old, showed up at the New Beverly to discuss his role in Fireman’s Ball, which he co-wrote with director, Milos Forman, or the Saturday evening double feature of La Vallée and More at The Aero in Santa Monica with director Barbet Schroeder and actress Bulle Ogier, whom Generoso has admired since seeing her decades earlier in Jacques Rivette’s 1969 masterpiece, L’ Amour Fou. We also spent a brilliant summer afternoon, again at the Aero, with director Bertrand Tavernier after he screened his massively underrated 2002 film, Safe Conduct. That day he spoke openly about his admiration for the filmmakers who worked for the French Resistance in World War Two. We loved seeing and hearing Jacqueline Bisset at the UCLA Film Archive discuss her bizarre experiences, most notably her being taken by boat to a deserted island, which led to her being cast in John Huston’s Under The Volcano. There’s also the time when actor Bruce Davison’s gave the crowd a spot-on imitation of Burt Lancaster, who Davison starred with in Ulzana’s Raid, which screened at the New Bev, or the lovely way that director Philip Kaufman thanked film critic Stephen Farber for championing Kaufman’s woefully underappreciated revisionist western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, when the film was released to lukewarm reviews after its initial release in 1972. We were so taken by that conversation that we transcribed the entire talk, and it was published on Ink 19. So, if it has to come down to one repertory moment for us this year, that would have to be when screen legend, Martin Landau, appeared at the Egyptian Theater after a screening of North By Northwest back in January, which was only a few months before he passed away at the age of 88. The actor arrived directly from a meeting held at the Hollywood branch of the Actors Studio, which Landau headed until his passing. Landau seemed so excited to address the crowd and was in rare form that afternoon, as he gleefully explained in detail his process when working with the late Mr. Hitchcock. Landau went into detail on his reasoning that went into his interpretation of the character of Leonard, whom he portrayed in the film as gay at a time when such things were simply not done in Hollywood. The actor then spoke of his unique preparation for his multi-faceted performance in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Generoso’s favorite film of Landau’s long career. The conversation never felt rushed that day, as it sometimes does when conversations of this type are done on a day when the venue has multiple screenings—no, Landau took complete advantage of that moment at the Egyptian as he was so giving with his answers. Even though he was in his late 80s, the actor spoke enthusiastically about his craft, and we will forever appreciate the knowledge dispensed to us from such a fine actor who enjoyed a such a long and distinguished career.