Art and the Limits of Morality: The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte 1974)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Film Festival.

Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte 1974) is probably the most twisted film I’ve seen in my twenty-eight years of life on Earth. Not, it should be said, because of the sexual kinkiness, or even the portrayal of a twisted psyche, but because of what it threatens to do to the viewer’s vicarious identification. From an artistic perspective, it’s a pity the film doesn’t follow through.

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On Nonverbal Cinema: Obscure (2019) and The Color of Pomegranates (Nřan guynə / Նռան գույնը 1969/2014, aka Sayat-Nova)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Film Festival.

Cinema began as a record of physical movement. The advent of sound brought it more in line with the naturalism of everyday life, but it also de-emphasized the camera’s possibility for intimacy. The last half-decade or so has seen a reversal on that front, with renewed arthouse attention to microgestures and minute shifts in affect. I’m thinking of films like Her (2013), Gone Girl (2014), 45 Years (2015), Moonlight (2016), A Ghost Story (2017), and Phantom Thread (2018), among others. (A Ghost Story would fit perfectly in this piece, too.)

Continue reading “On Nonverbal Cinema: Obscure (2019) and The Color of Pomegranates (Nřan guynə / Նռան գույնը 1969/2014, aka Sayat-Nova)”

Thoughts on Dovlatov (Довлатов 2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Literature Film Festival.

We in the West know about Soviet Realism, the dictum that art must be about how the State and Party lead the people to prosperity, but how does a society feel with only one kind of art? Dovlatov (Довлатов 2018), directed and cowritten by Alexei German, Jr., with Yuliya Tupikina, gives us a glimpse by following famous-late-in-life Russian émigré writer Sergei Dovlatov (a tone-perfect Milan Marić) around Leningrad for a week in November 1971 as he suffers isolation, rejection, indignities, and the loss of friends to death, arrest, and emigration—the lattermost an option he would finally take in 1979.

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Love in a Fallen City: Transit (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Literature Film Festival.

The German fascists are taking Europe by force. Cities are closed off and raids are carried out block by block. If you disagree with the new regime or don’t have your papers in order, your best bet is to get yourself to Latin America (the US doesn’t want you), but with no flights, you’ll need a ship ticket, and transit visas for each place the ship stops en route. That entails long lines at various consulates, all while the number of ships at port dwindles one by one. Welcome to present-day France.

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L’art pour l’humanité: A Bread Factory, Parts I and II (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is on the 2019 Urban Nomad Film Festival, and it benefits from two post-screening Q&As, and a subsequent panel discussion of which I was a part.

The question of the power of art is an ancient one. Confucius said, “If you do not study the Songs, you will be at a loss as to what to say.” And Plato had such a powerful view of the performing arts that he banned all poet-singers from his ideal Republic for fear their work would override people’s reason. But under the utilitarian logic of our contemporary neoliberal society, the question “What does art do?” has been reduced to a mere shadow of its storied history: “What can art do?” Writer-director Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory (2018), four hours split right down the middle into two parts, ambitiously attempts to answer this question, not intellectually with auteur-surrogate characters spouting exposition, but performatively and cinematically, juxtaposing the contrast between bean-counting life and expansive humanist living in almost every one of its vignette-like scenes. Most audacious of all, the film doesn’t rest on its Manichean haunches; instead, it humanizes even the supposed antagonists, offering us the formal victory of art in the face of its thematic defeat.

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Thoughts on Being There (1979)

Editor’s note: This piece is on the Far Out in the 70s: A New Wave of Comedy, 1969-1979 retrospective at the Film Forum.

Being There (1979) tells the tale of Chance the gardener (Peter Sellers), a TV addict with an extremely low-level intellect who, through a series of absurd coincidences and by dint of his inherited upper-class raiment, is mistaken for an elite businessman down on his luck named Chauncey Gardner, taken seriously by the president (Jack Warden) on economic issues, and as the film ends is being considered for president himself. Truly, WASP men fail upward.

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Fear and Loathing in Outer Space: High Life (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.

Despite having seen Trouble Every Day (2001), nothing could’ve prepared me for the savage nihilism of Claire Denis’s High Life (2018). Set in a future when humanity sends its death row convicts into space for science, the film centers on the crew of ship #7, headed by de facto leader Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and ostensible moral leader Monte (Robert Pattinson). Their primary mission is to explore the possible use of black holes as an energy source, making it for all intents and purposes a suicide mission; a secondary objective is revealed when Dibs forcibly impregnates the women via artificial insemination with sperm donated by every man but Monte: to answer the question, Can human life be created in space? The answer is always no, because of irradiation—almost always.

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A Tale of One City: Widows (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.

A heist film is usually focused on the heist: who’s the mark, what’s the take, who brings what skills to the table, what goes wrong, and (with the rare exception) how do they get away with it? Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018) turns all of that on its head, giving us a heist film about a band of unskilled reluctant criminals stealing for someone else from a place they have to determine for themselves. The plan of this particular heist is pretty straightforward; it’s everything else that’s hard. And that “everything else” encompasses the very idea of the city of Chicago.

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When God Gives You a Suicide Vest: First Reformed (2017)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.

Writer-director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), starring a subtly powerful Ethan Hawke as whiskey reverend Ernst Toller in a dark night of the environmental soul, may not succeed on all fronts (for example, I have issues with two scene transitions that cut away too early), but it works its magic where it counts: It’s a textbook case, literally, of Schrader’s concept of transcendental style. Schrader tries to portray a world in which supernatural grace can intervene at any moment. To do so, he uses static and flat compositions, understated acting, grayscale colors (cinematography by Alexander Dynan), and no music cues (to a certain extent substituting Toller’s quiet voiceover monologue) to craft a muted everyday existence—until it suddenly isn’t, at which point all these elements rush back in. The poster for the film conveys the same idea.

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Cinema as Deep Healing: August at Akiko’s (2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is on the 2018 Taoyuan Film Festival.

August at Akiko’s (2018) is the debut feature from Christopher Makoto Yogi, who also wrote and edited, and it’s nothing short of transcendent. Many a time have I felt a film to be limited by its need to follow a plot, which is why Terrence Malick is one of my favorite directors. But Malick’s films still have a plot; he just distracts us from it at every step of the way. His films therefore only come together at the level of auteurist vision, without which they would merely be three-hour-long scattershot images with soundtrack and voiceovers. Yogi gives us the real deal, and nothing distracts us from being immersed in this plotless marvel.

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