Thoughts on Three Political Documentaries

In the spirit of our political age, I watched three political documentaries about prominent liberal American politicians (I vote Democrat, for what it’s worth); hagiographies they may be, but they still evince various degrees of insight.

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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 Free Solo (2018)

Free Solo (2018), the documentary by the married climber duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin about Alex Honnold’s successful quest to be the first person to scale up the vertical face of Yosemite’s El Capitan in 2017 alone and without ropes or tools, is a vertiginous puzzle both visually and conceptually.

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The Museum Must Be Decolonized: The First Monday in May (2016)

The first Monday in May is when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds its annual Met Gala to raise money for the museum, especially for its Costume Institute; the Gala also serves as the opening night of a fashion exhibition at the Met. The First Monday in May (2016) is a documentary about the preparation for the 2015 iteration of this event, when the exhibition was China: Through the Looking Glass, on the influence of China on Western fashion, in cooperation with the Met’s Department of Asian Art. It turned out to be a record-breaking exhibition.

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Dialectics False and True: Captive State (2019) and A. I. Rising (Ederlezi ébredése 2018, aka Ederlezi Rising)

Look, most films are garbage; that’s just a fact. But sometimes when you go dumpster diving you find something that, when looked at from just the right angle, isn’t too garbage after all.

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Thoughts on Half-Life in Fukushima (Demi-vie à Fukushima 2016)

Mark Olexa and Francesca Scalisi’s documentary Half-Life in Fukushima (Demi-vie à Fukushima 2016) is an hour-long glimpse into the life of Naoto Matsumura, a man of almost sixty years of age who refused to evacuate with his wife and son, instead staying with his elderly father. The film follows him around as he takes care of his livestock and other affairs, and nothing too formally special is needed or deployed: The mere existence of these arresting images of abandoned civilization, often in long takes, is enough to continuously remind us that everything we see is radioactive.

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