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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Thoughts on Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap 1973)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the Golden Horse Bergman Centennial Retrospective.

After seeing Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap 1973), I think I finally get what Bergman is doing.

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Thoughts on The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet 1957)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the Golden Horse Bergman Centennial Retrospective.

At first glance, the two parts of The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet 1957) don’t seem to have much to do with each other. One is the famous story of a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) for his eternal soul. The other is the picaresque tale of a ragtag group of travelers who band together for protection and, having nowhere else to go, follow the knight’s squire, Jons (Gunnar Björnstrand), to the knight’s castle. The A plot is existential, somber, and symbolic; the B plot is witty, satirical, and socially conscious. They don’t seem to fit together at all.

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Thoughts on The Magician (Ansiktet 1958, aka The Face)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the Golden Horse Bergman Centennial Retrospective.

 

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Thoughts on Persona (1966)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the Golden Horse Bergman Centennial Retrospective.

Apparently, Ingmar Bergman’s elevator pitch for Persona (1966) to Kenne Fant went like this: “It’s about one person who talks and one who doesn’t, and they compare hands and get all mingled up in one another.” Though not inaccurate, it’s a bit like pitching Before Sunset (2004) as “the story of a guy and a girl who meet on a train, walk around chatting all night, and agree to meet again.” I’m not a fan of metafiction and think discussions of identity (outside of hegemonic oppression) are much ado about nothing, so I only have a few things to say about this Mount Everest for film critics. (The record for best climb is probably held by Roger Ebert’s Great Movie review, which draws blood in the first paragraph.)

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The Stories That We Tell Ourselves about Telling Ourselves Stories: Burning (Beoning / 버닝 2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is technically not part of a series on the 2018 Taipei Film Festival, but as the film was shown as part of the festival, and the theatrical screening I attended was screened at the festival venue during the festival using what appeared to be the same film reel that was used for the festival, I’m including it in the series anyway.

We’ve never seen a metafictional film quite like this before. Beyond the knowingness of Deadpool (2016) and reticent where Adaptation. (2002) is giddy, Burning (Beoning / 버닝 2018) is a silk-smooth character study from acclaimed South Korean director Lee Chang-dong (who co-wrote) that morphs midway through into a Hitchcockian thriller, before ending in the realm of social commentary—if you can figure it out, that is. The filmmaking is assured to the point where long takes go unnoticed, and the impeccable pace makes the 148-minute running time feel all too short, especially given how tight the plot is, as you’ll see from the length of the plot summary below. (For an exploration of the film’s liminal mood, see Jackson Bentele’s rather dense piece at Bright Wall/Dark Room. To experience the film without actually seeing it—but why do that to yourself?—read Walter Chaw’s review here.)

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