New York Film Festival: Part IIDirector:
ith ten David Lynch feature films to choose between, I unreservedly name Inland Empire “the weird one.” The Great Pervert has said he embarked on this several-years production without much of a plot in mind; with every reason to laugh off that claim, it turns out the disaggregated product demands that kind of explanation exactly.
Inland Empire twice bucks story in favor of mood: First, it abandons its setup, and then it abandons its payoff. The stars of a film learn that an earlier production was cancelled after the twin murders of the leads. Upon this windfall, that plot strain evaporates almost entirely, becoming only a distant reference point. Back-story and subplot take over; after then promising intriguing, violent revelation in spades, Lynch opts not to deliver.
The film is also severely internal. If there are more than a couple of scenes without Laura Dern in them, I missed them. As with the best (Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks) and the worst (Lost Highway) of Lynch, characters are not concrete. The decreasingly stoic Dern, on some unidentifiable (Californian? Balkan? Backstage at a Camusian rabbit-headed sitcom?) stairwell clutching a rusted screwdriver, could easily be any of the several characters she instantiates.
There is something liberating about Inland Empire. There’s also something auto-derivative about the loonies here (a stable of light bulb eaters and line-dancing prostitutes). Would the film’s tricks translate without the Lynch brand to back them up? The movie walks a fine but confident line between inspiration and shark-jumping. But it’s the confidence that matters here; it’s the space allowed for large hollow moods, and the battered feeling you’re left with when the lights come up.
The second film by filmmakers Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), The Journals of Knud Rasmussen returns to the igloos of Nunavut. But far from being a sequel, it is an affecting and meticulously researched story of the final throes of traditional Shamanism’s struggle at the hands of missionary Christianity.
The 1920s journals of a Danish adventurer provide the basis for the story. Rasmussen interviewed last-standing Shaman Avva, living in self-decided exile, just before his capitulation at risk of starvation. What’s so impressive about the film is its rawness: In this world, you’re either in the wild or inside in public, and the all-or-nothing intimacy almost reads as claustrophobia. It is more likely a default existence, one that makes our culture look positively prudish. With Atanarjuat, one marveled at having such access to something so distant; here, we witness the extremity of colonialism, as the Westernizing machine (both the British and the French had working missionaries) tracked down and conquered these most far-flung and already-devoted people.
Indeed, aside from Journals’ emotional immediacy and the aesthetic beauty of the scenery, the political and historical act of making this movie is essential. In a post-screening press conference, the directors explained that the filming location approximates the actual location of these events, and that the cast of local actors (Kunuk’s own community) boasts many direct descendants of those portrayed. Kunuk claims to have imported Nunavut’s first movie camera. Now, he’s used it to tell the story of how the now-taboo ancient culture was dismantled—and of what was left behind.
Private Fears in Public Places, by well-loved British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, seems to be a reasonably well-loved play. It can be difficult to judge theater by its filmic incarnation, and from the new adaptation by the once-legendary Alain Resnais (Night and Fog, Last Year at Marienbad), Private Fears is not such a fabulous sight. The director has been around for enough decades that he’s an expert technician, and has a remarkably easy time making each moment of his movie feel intimate. Impressive as that might sound, it doesn’t automatically make his film interesting, and may even obscure the intelligence of the original script.
The play concerns six London lives (two real estate agents, one bartender, one unemployable, etc.) and their various intersections. Among the topics covered are old love versus new love, the fanatical/comical edge of taking the Bible too seriously, and the effect on real estate value played by the partitioning of bedrooms. It would take a delicate hand to cull the nuance from these scenes, and since Resnais’ fluidity of style seems to amount to just that, it might be fair to conclude that the play is a failure. But it’s just as easy to surmise that said glossy fluidity glosses over the beauty in the play, obscuring its rough edges. The characters as they stand seem uncomplicated and generally unworthy of attention. Simply put, too few answers are provided in this movie, and in the absence of answers, too few questions are posed.
The press notes for Climates proudly announce a blurb that compares the Turkish film to the work of Antonioni. Indeed, the break-up story of a professor (director-star Nuri Bilge Ceylan) and his far younger TV producer girlfriend (real-life wife Ebru Ceylan) is seriously indebted to the L’Avventura trilogy. It succeeds at that rare task of isolating a character in quiet existential moments, while somehow allowing the environment sound loudly, as well. At the same time, Climates doesn’t dip into the toxicity of Red Desert’s industrial landscapes—which Todd Haynes’ Safe attempted, in turn, to out-do—but is rather a more measured and local story.
There is an oddness to the casting of the husband-wife team. The characters are by no means thin, but considering that there are more glances than words in the movie, the real-life marriage provides perhaps more context than is desirable. Still, Climates is uncommonly articulate, with sudden jolts in all the right places, and quietness everywhere else. It’s most painful when examining the ultimate insufficiency of loneliness, the inability of a person or a place to express themselves without company and connection.
The Mexican director Guillermo del Toro sees no shame in slipping back and forth between lowbrow trash (the sequel to Blade) and hard-nosed politics. His latest film, Pan’s Labyrinth, unsubtly combines these seemingly polar proclivities. While a Franco-enforcing totalitarian hunts Republican holdouts in the 1944 backwoods, his stepdaughter finds herself the heroine of underground fairytales involving a Spanish-speaking centaur, a fetal mandrake root, and an uncooked-chicken doppelganger called The Pale Man.
Del Toro’s overrated The Devil’s Backbone also combined monsters and the shocks of war, but it was a more straightforward ghost story. In this movie, fairies flit about above land that feels like a mass gravesite, and something smacks of sacrilege. Maybe it’s just the feeling that del Toro wants to impress an audience looking for a yet-nastier movie monster, but fascist savages sharing a stage with the wonderment of CGI makes me a little uncomfortable.
I’m sure I’ve got the wrong humor about this. To be fair, those fairies eat meat and are not exactly friendly. Not only that, but the fairytale half of Pan’s Labyrinth is much more convincing than the political half—which is exceedingly simplistic, composed of various will-she-get-caught gags and sundry cruelties. And the director is decidedly not making light; his post-screening press conference started with a history lesson on the plight and impact of anti-Franco Loyalists. Death-centered allegory certainly features in Mexican culture, and the doubled story is clearly this fabulist’s preferred medium to get at his topics of willpower and disobedience. But the incoherent nature of this fable makes it feel childish. The magnitude of the politics demands precise and meaningful fairytales—and, without invoking M. Night Shyamalan, I’ll just remind del Toro that bad storytelling bores an audience.
By: Jonas Oransky
Published on: 2006-10-30