New York Film Festival 2007, Part IIDirector:
wo pointless folk tales:
A flat-footed mistake, Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park (a bit like his earlier, broader-played films) intends to be both a psychological thriller and a sympathetic satire, and fails at both. Satire, let’s hope, because its insight into the language of disenchanted middle-class skater teens in Portland includes such lines as “Dude, I’m gonna get so laid this time,” “True that,” and “We totally did it,” from a girl calling her friend about 20 seconds after losing her virginity. I can very distinctly remember mocking all this language when I was the protagonists’ age, but the only reason Van Sant’s clichéd teens are funny are because they’re totally preposterous in the context of a psychological drama that’s beyond Van Sant’s contemplative capacities (as evidenced in the brilliant trilogy of his last three films), and way beyond the capacities of the awful actors, who were recruited via MySpace and look—but definitely do not sound—the part.
Using a jangled jig-saw structure of shots (or snapshots), Van Sant’s arty narrative juggling has no room for the slow, organic rhythms of his recent films, but pointlessly slows down shots to put on moody bits of Nino Rota, Elliot Smith, or some Animal Collective imitation group. It’s indie-trash, really, from one of my favorite directors, but it looks good with Christopher Doyle’s muted cinematography, and some astoundingly fluid Super 8 footage via Kathy Li of the skaters’ feet and boards as they skate around. That said, the supposed psychology of the stereotypes—a kid who may have murdered a man is bummed about maybe getting accused—is obvious, and a hot preppy girl is nothing more than every 14-year old boy’s super-sexist dream. For such arty nonsense, the surprise comes that the murder and sex scenes are so good in their disoriented editing, but then Paranoid Park, after all, is really just an exploitation film.
I’m Not There
As is I’m Not There. Trading in even a failed investigation into a much too complex, guarded, and self-inventing pop star (as he did in Velvet Goldmine), Todd Haynes stages the Dylan myth as a series of superficial myths; as he admitted in a press conference after the film, his goal was to let Dylan be all the characters he’s wanted to be: priest, cowboy, hobo, and poet, with the complexity—or lack of complexity—that each label would imply. Using six different actors to play Dylan at various stages, Haynes also attempts six different derivate styles that don’t so much represent his own take on different genres as offer a studied pastiche of Fellini (he, like Dylan, was besieged by journalists), Godard (he, like Dylan, had mixed feelings about women), and talking-heads documentaries. At its worst it’s a series of trite homages; at its best, it’s an entertaining collection of greatest hits moments in Dylan’s life with a great (it goes without saying) Dylan soundtrack.
Like all of Haynes’ features, I’m Not There is about the quest for freedom—from historically-based societal expectations and one’s own limitations—but the problem is that both Dylan and Haynes have complete freedom to become or do whatever they want. Like Poison, I’m Not There peddles the usual postmodern genre clichés; like Velvet Goldmine it’s about an alien incapable of feeling who writes super-sensitive songs (“love and sex are two things that really hang people up” is probably the most revealing line of the film). It’s this complete lack of sincerity—both Haynes’ and Dylan’s—that turns the film into little more than a fanboy’s deliberately phony exercise. Things get better near the end, when Christopher Bale’s Pastor Dylan is in complete ignorance of the tacky reality around him, and Richard Gere’s neglected cowboy doesn’t seem to exist for the sake of putting on an act. But overall I’m Not There, about a real-life figure and full of gimmicks, lacks both reality and imagination—as they say of Dylan, great music and rhythm without much of a voice. When will Haynes end his imitations of life and movies, show some restraint, and get away from his genre covers to produce something like his creepy, unflinching, and wholly original Safe? As one professional genre-sampler making a movie about another, Haynes’ should have come up with his most personal film, but all I’m Not There feels like is another generic Todd Haynes film.
Two religious films without points:
There should be more perfectly decent movies like Secret Sunshine. Not really a character study, and definitely not a mood piece, Lee Chang-dong’s latest is a plot-based film with a plot that almost purposelessly has no direction, and instead meanders through a few genre premises before twisting in new directions altogether every time. A woman, Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), moves to the city of her late husband and plays games with her young son, but what starts off as a very light comedy turns into a thriller and then a spiritual quest as the woman decides to join forces with God and then turn on Him as an enemy. Part of what’s so good about the religious struggles of the second half is that the film is so rooted in the everyday life of the city of Milyang that the spirituality seems to be nothing more than the spoils of a battle Shin-ae is fighting with herself, with no external root in an all-too-material city. There’s an astounding scene in a jail, but overall the film is sloppy, even deliberately so: the TV-style camerawork, wasting wide-screen, is sloppy, the plot is sloppy, and the tone, veering between light comedy and occasionally clichéd tragedy, is sloppy. Yet the sloppiness is also all indicative of a world that’s mostly dull, but also capable of just about anything, where narratives can twist and continue indefinitely—just like real life, though, without much to say or suggest about its lead, that purposelessness seems to be the film’s only real point.
Everyday reality and religion dovetail more easily in Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (spoilers ahead). Mostly filmed in a Mennonite community outside Chihuahua, Mexico, Silent Light opens with an astonishing shot that begins in the middle of the night in the cosmos and ends in the middle of the day on earth—depending on how one looks at it, it’s either a shot of an sudden but everyday sunrise or, as the famed blogger Filmbrain has suggested, a depiction of Genesis. That same ambiguity of events that are somehow quotidian miracles—love, death, and birth chief among them, all seen as primarily physical occurrences—informs the rest of the film, the story of a married man who thinks he’s in love with another woman, but possibly just really needs to fuck her (or perhaps he’s in love). Minimalist in its deadpan approach and grandiose in its themes and use of endless Romantic landscapes, the film’s dichotomies come to the fore in a scene—but not really a climax—that nearly closes the film, in which Reygadas quotes the greatest of all cinematic miracles in Ordet. After the screening, Reygadas emphasized the difference: that everything in Ordet circles around that miracle, whereas in Silent Light it’s just another everyday event.
Everyday, to absolutely no purpose—with no narrative point (it resolves nothing), no emotional point (it’s completely unmoving), and no thematic point, except that extraordinary things are once again treated as common occurrences. One way to see the scene is as another revelation in a world under Reygadas’ constant discovery; another is to simply say that Reygadas has undermined whatever realistic credibility he’s garnered. Which isn’t much; Silent Light is formally rigorous, in the sense that the compositions are perfectly symmetrical and look like IKEA ads (with doorways and roads dividing the frame in the middle, as paths outwards), but exploits the Mennonite people and their particular culture to make them placeholders in some pretty pictures and some standard myth about love—or maybe it’s death—conquering all. Not at all the profound meditation it promises to be, the film’s better considered as containing a few stunning effects—the opening and the closing; an amazing Malick-inspired scene in the rain, in which the cinematography hovers a bit instead of subjecting its supposed characters to a wallpaper aesthetic; well-attuned sound design with a creepy sense of outdoors; and even the clever tip-of-the-hat to Ordet, always a lot of fun on its own.
And then there’s Josef Von Sternberg’s 1927 Underworld, mother, father, grand-mother, grand-father of all gangster movies and presented in a dazzling new print as part of a NYFF sidebar, with live music by the Alloy Orchestra. Exciting music on Sternberg’s silents always seems a bit unfortunate, considering the super-minimalist sound design he would use on his subsequent features, but the film is a beauty—a gangster who controls not only the town but people’s individual identities finds himself betrayed when he suspects his lover is plotting autonomy with his best friend, Rolls Royce. The girl’s ability to find dignity in sleeping with multiple men anticipates Marlene Dietrich’s strange brand of anti-patriarchal feminism (or as patriarchal standards would label it, sluttiness), and the general mood of dawdling and playing around with cats in an air of complete fatalism of doom is entirely Sternberg’s and writer Ben Hecht’s own—nowhere better expressed than in the film’s awesome centerpiece, The Gangster’s Ball. “Check in your gats at the door!” cries one man in the intertitles.
Upcoming: Noah Baumbach’s superb Margot at the Wedding; Asia Argento’s romp The Last Mistress; Alexandra; In the City of Sylvia; Go-Go Tales; and more.
By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-10-08