10/22/14 4:00am

The Heart Machine
Directed by Zachary Wigon

At the start of The Heart Machine, the debut feature of local writer-director Zachary Wigon, Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil), are doing the long-distance thing, him in Bushwick, her in Berlin; having met on an online dating site, their relationship, though exclusive, is based around chat and funny, sympathetically bad Skype sex. But even though the two never cross paths on “Blender” (the film’s Grindr/Tinder hybrid), Cody has, by the beginning of the film, developed a dossier on Virginia, who, he suspects, lives not abroad but at the other end of the post-NYU axis, in the East Village. The paradoxes of intimacy and distance in the current age (and in an equally current New York City, featuring many familiar locations) play out intriguingly, aided by pitch-perfect performances from Gallagher and Sheil, in roles that demand a superreal degree of relatability.

Zach did his undergrad at Tisch Film, graduating in the late aughts, and has written for The L, along with a number of other local and web publications with a focus on independent film. He answered some questions of mine via email prior to the film’s theatrical opening on October 24, at Cinema Village


How was it directing Skype conversations? The camera is always in either one room or the other for the characters’ chats, which we see unfold in at least somewhat real time. I’m picturing you and your whole crew in a room with John Gallagher Jr., and Kate Lyn Sheil off in her own apartment across the city, with you occasionally directing her via webcam. Enlighten me!

Thanks to the ingenuity of the film’s producers, we actually were able to create a situation that was a lot more conducive to building a dynamic between John and Kate. Each apartment location had a space built into it that we used as a mock-up for the other apartment—so for example, the apartment we used as Virginia’s apartment was actually a two-bedroom, and the second bedroom, which we hid in the Virginia scenes, was mocked up to look like the bedroom in Cody’s apartment. So when we shot those Skype scenes from Virginia’s POV, John was actually just on the other side of the apartment. This was great because we were able to have John and Kate interacting in between takes and whatnot, which really helped them (I suspect) foster the intimate dynamic that is expressed in their Skype scenes. Of course, it’s a challenge to have to film a scene where two characters are relating to one another on a significant emotional level while only one character is in the room, but John and Kate are very talented performers and they were able to bring the emotion necessary to the scenes to supercede the limitations of the technology. Like two people who are really in love might do while talking over Skype, communicating that emotion across the digital divide. It also probably helped that we rehearsed those Skype scenes before the shoot, giving John and Kate the chance to read through them face to face, and hopefully develop some emotions while unimpeded by the mediation of a screen.

Let’s talk about the film’s technological hook, and the embedding of things like Grindr/Tinder, Skype, Missed
Connections, Facebook, Twitter into the fabric of the narrative. How do you think the film will play in a decade or two—or even, given the speed with which these things change, in a year or two? Do you worry that the film will date, or do you hope it will date?

I like the idea of the film being a timestamp of what it was like to try to fight the loneliness that is such an integral part of existence in a specific time and place. I have no doubt that humanity’s relation to technology will continue to dramatically evolve as time goes on, and so the way this film is viewed in two or ten or twenty years will surely be impacted by those changing ideas, but I also like the idea of this film, over time, preserving anxieties and concerns about technology that were visible to a generation of people, such as myself, who are old enough to remember a time before these technologies dramatically changed how we socialize and form intimate connections. My generation is the last to be able to recall growing up without smartphones, for example, and I am certain that future generations will not instinctively observe some of their flaws or contradictions in the manner that people my age do, because, as Marshall McLuhan said, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish”—that is, technology’s characteristics are invisible to those for whom those technologies are all-enveloping. So my hope is that the film will date insofar as it will preserve some anxieties and thoughts about technology that may otherwise die out, for a younger generation of people who might otherwise have trouble accessing such thoughts and therefore have trouble seeing some of the complications or understanding what is lost with respect to allowing technology to dictate how one creates intimacy. That’s not to say I’m a Luddite—I think the film also displays the manner in which technology can be a really beneficial force in creating intimate connections, like the one forged initially between Cody and Virginia—but these beneficial aspects of utilizing technology may be taken for granted in twenty years.

Additionally, though, I hope that at its base the film will play as something that utilizes contemporary technology as a conduit for investigating some very old, very human concerns—what does it mean to be loved? How does one fight the loneliness that one feels at every step without putting one’s emotions at risk? And so on.

How concerned were you with the plausibility of the story? I think, for the record, that it is plausible, but there’s a pretty high degree of difficulty…

I was as concerned with plausibility as one could be without being interested in making a work of
realism, if that makes sense. You know, there’s this great Hegel quote I absolutely love, which Slavoj Žižek referenced in an essay about Children of Men—the quote goes something like, “A good portrait of a subject looks more like the subject than the subject does.” Meaning, art takes the essence of a thing and distills it into a powerful, compact form, a form that is more concentrated than how that thing is perceived in real life. I was interested in doing that here—I wanted the story to be plausible for the sake of the audience’s suspension of disbelief, but I was interested in a kind of heightened story, a story that felt a little bit more like the world we live in than the world does on a day-to-day level. I wanted to take the defining aspects of what it feels like to live in a world dominantly mediated by these technologies and enhance those aspects to a greater degree, so their effects are a bit easier to see. There’s another good quote that comes to mind here, which is that Picasso quip that “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.”

The halfway point of the movie, when Cody arguably reaches his nadir, finding a possible friend of Virginia’s on social media and contriving a flirtation with her outside The Levee, is important for the film structurally and in terms of how we feel about each character; it’s also a very striking sequence of, well, cyberstalking. Did you intend that sequence to be at all alarmist, or were you more interested in using Cody’s stalking technique to explore current realities?

I did not intent it to be alarmist—I don’t think we’re all in danger of being stalked in real life because of the information we share over the internet, though of course it is a possibility and sometimes things like that do happen, but that wasn’t the crux of what I was interested in. I was more interested, in that sequence, in exploring, through Cody’s behavior, the obsessions that the internet, with all the information available on it, can foster. We’re all familiar, I’m sure, with the sensation of seeking out information via the internet with a deep hunger and desire—googling a potential date, trying to do research on a co-worker, etc. I wanted to explore what it might look like if that internet-generated obsession carried over into the real world, so as to better manifest and depict the kind of desire/obsession that these technologies engender.

10/08/14 4:00am

Listen Up Philip
Directed by Alex Ross Perry

As set dressing, inserts, and over the end-credits sequence, Listen Up Philip, like The Royal Tenenbaums, presents us with covers of the books associated with all the film’s major characters, in styles from vintage Penguin paperback templates to the minimalist typefaces and negative space of oversized 70s dust jackets. (The books were mocked up by the local musician and graphic designer Teddy Blanks.) This sets the film in a particular, nostalgic version of New York, one whose cultural and social life is expressed through the production of literature.

This is also an idealized perspective on the city—one whose backwards glance overlooks the private trauma of writer’s block, the huddled masses of creative strivers from which only a select few fully arrive, and the drying-up of media and academic sinecures. Listen Up Philip, the third feature from 30­-year-­old Park Slope resident Alex Ross Perry, opens on Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) around the publication of his second novel. The book was not easy to complete, nor has its completion changed Philip’s life, and this may be the source of his considerable anger, beginning with his pre-credits strafing of the bridges connecting him to an ex-lover and an ex-friend, and continuing throughout the film. (Schwartzman retains the catalogue-adjunct wardrobe and occasional precocious flourish or plaintive appeal of his work in Bored to Death, so all the more blood is drawn from barbs like, “If you were a groupie, you likely would have read both my books.”)

Much of the film traces Philip’s declining relationship with his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, getting introspection across without overplaying), and his deepening friendship with “difficult” novelist Ike Zimmerman (played by Jonathan Pryce; strange that Perry, having named Schwartzman’s character “Philip,” didn’t pull the trigger on “Zuckerman”), who educates Philip by example in the myth of the novelist as relationship saboteur for art’s sake. Since Listen Up Philip debuted at Sundance this January, writing on the film has frequently sought some sort of equilibrium with characters who, I’m reliably informed, are quite “unlikable.” This is probably necessary given Perry’s prickly sensibility, carried over from his first two no-budget features (and assorted interviews) to a film with a name cast and national release. But what’s jarring about the behavior of the characters in Listen Up Philip is maybe less the attitudes they express—competitiveness with one’s intimates is surely a “relatable” feeling—than the spectacle of self-conscious, literate people producing textual details which are shocking in their transparency. When Ike pours glasses of 25-year-old Laphroaig for himself and a friend, and a glass of the 10-year batch for Philip, it’s the kind of gesture that would get laughed out of a creative writing workshop as “too obvious,” but the difference between the elegance of finished work and the blind, reflexive atavism of everyday life is very much the point here. (It can also be quite funny, if you welcome laughs that emerge from a single short, sharp, shocked contraction of the diaphragm.) This difference is perhaps why Philip refuses to acknowledge his idol’s frequently toxic exploitation and one-upsmanship, privileging his admiration of Ike’s work over his experience of the man. It’s perhaps also why the voiceover in the film’s closing scenes juxtaposes Philip’s subsequent professional success with his personal nadir.

Throughout, in fact, the narration (delivered by Eric Bogosian) is cruelly omniscient about the characters’ motivations, and far more eloquent in a pinch than they’re able to be, widening the gulf between art and life. But beyond the sharp script and lit-world milieu, it’s worth lauding the other ways in which the film is eloquent. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams shoots handheld on Super 16mm, like Robert Yeoman in The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach’s filterless writer-types are an antecedent here, with Ike’s unfatherly advising of Philip a specific echo), and the autumnal palette and grain of the image, as if already slightly faded, makes the film seem an artifact from an earlier era of NYC moviemaking. So does Keegan DeWitt’s meandering score, like isolated instrumental tracks from a falsely upbeat 70s singer-songwriter record. Structurally, the film is also mature: in a move similar to Kate Lyn Sheil and Carlen Altman’s late, gender-balancing monologues in Perry’s Impolex and The Color Wheel, the film abandons Philip for an extended midsection, to observe Ashley as she spends summer in the city without him, and adopts a cat.

The presence of Fluffy—Alex Ross Perry’s own pet, as his Twitter followers know—is maybe a good joke within the insular world of Brooklyn film culture, and similarly it’s a personal pleasure for me to see that Philip and Ashley live on Washington Avenue between Myrtle and Willoughby, and to recognize so many local artists and personalities whose careers I’ve been following. But beyond any smile of recognition, it’s striking to see this stuff of real life transformed into a work of art that exists fully apart from it, and will in time stand in for it.

Opens October 17

10/08/14 4:00am

The Overnighters
Directed by Jesse Moss

So, how broken is America? Though the film changes shape more than once after establishing its topical hook, the first twenty minutes of The Overnighters are comprehensively harrowing. At Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota, “the overnighters” are the men sleeping on cots and in hallways, and in cars and RVs in the parking lot, as the region’s fracking boom—“people with felonies getting a hundred grand a year,” a man avers on a phone call back home—draws unskilled workers, from all across a recession-plagued nation, to a rural city without the infrastructure or willpower to accommodate them.

“Socialism is UnAmerican,” reads a banner, incongruously, on one of the neo-Okie’s trailers, and indeed Pastor Jay Reinke, the man behind the Overnighters program, struggles against general anti-migrant-labor sentiment, manifest as both angry outbursts and a proposed RV ban, as Williston works out its conflicted feelings about the industry propping up its local economy, and stripping its resources. At Overnigthers, background checks are administered by a reformed convict, while Pastor Jay advises new arrivals to cut their hair (“Jesus didn’t have our neighbors”). Issues such as the environmental cost of the honest work so coveted by the overnighters, and the temptations of meth and alcohol, are alluded to sufficiently to make one wish that director Jesse Moss had explored them more, but this is understandable given the direction the film goes instead.

The Overnighters retains a sense of its process, in which Moss set out to make a social-issue documentary and found another subject while shooting. While a few of the overnighters find employment, allowing Moss a narrative through-line for Willistion’s fool’s-gold-rush, Pastor Jay becomes the very personal face of the film’s consideration of social responsibility. His dedication to “service” extends as far as letting a registered sex offender live in his home, without the knowledge of church elders (partly to keep him out of the church, where he’d be more visible; his wife and children support the decision), and becoming increasingly isolated in the community. A portrait emerges of a flawed man (“I don’t say no very well”) struggling to live up to his ideals, and to live with their costs.

The film is also interesting as a case study in documentary practice and ethics, for more reasons that the deftness with which Moss manages his shift in focus. Moss shot in Williston for around one week per month for sixteen months (often sleeping in Concordia Lutheran himself), and seems to have stayed true to actual chronology while shaping a storyline from a wealth of story data (we don’t see Pastor Jay turn anyone away until well into the film—how accurate is that?). Though it occurred after the film’s premiere, enough time has elapsed between now and the arrest on trafficking charges of Keith Graves, the sex offender who lives with the Reinkes, that Moss should have added an end-title card. But the director does admirably well in integrating and foreshadowing an “… and on that bombshell” ending that came to him late in the process, and left him with no clean way of fulfilling his obligations to his subjects and his audience. Unlike many documentaries pushing comparably hot buttons, he Overnighters’s form will remain worth discussing when (if?) some of the urgency of its content burns off.

Opens October 10 at IFC Center

09/24/14 4:00am

Talking to Hellaware

Director Michael M. Bilandic

In Hellaware, which opens on September 26 at Cinema Village, Nick (Keith Poulson), a lethargic but ambitious art photographer living in North Brooklyn, is messing around on YouTube when he finds the video for “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off,” by the Young Torture Killaz, a bunch of ICP-wannabe teenagers from Delaware. After he visits them with his platonic roommate (played by the Brooklyn-based indie filmmaker Sophia Takal), they become the subject of a photo series, as Nick, promising big-city exposure and Purple Drank, angles for a solo show at the new Bushwick space to be opened by Chelsea gallerist Olivier LaFleur (Gilles Decamps, never without sunglasses). A pointed satire of both insider and outsider art, Hellaware is the second feature from its writer-director Michael M. Bilandic, who lives in the East Village; he worked as a clerk at Mondo Kim’s while at NYU’s graduate film program, and as Abel Ferrara’s assistant after that. He answered some of my questions over email.

One element of the film, for me, is the newfound visibility of oddball subcultures in the digital age, and the protective diffidence or condescension with which young, hip urbanites shade their engagement with anything outside their own demographic. So I’m curious about your own knowledge of or interest in Insane Clown Posse, “rap-rock,” et cetera prior to this film. Was this kind of music always on your radar (say, prior to the Great NYC Media Juggalo Frenzy of the early 2010s), or did it fit into the project later in its germination?
I grew up in downtown Chicago and that culture was something that was always around. The midwest has a special knack for abject horror rap and scorched-Earth home-brewed entertainment. I’ve actually seen ICP a million times and even attended two of the earliest Gatherings of the Juggalos, one in Peoria, Illinois and another in rural Ohio. I always wanted to tell a story set in that world. The initial seed was planted when [the ICP song] “Miracles” came out and every art student and their brother started making these faux-ethnographic or super-aestheticized documentaries and art pieces with that backdrop. Like, “check out these exotic freaks.” Some of these projects were legitimately great, honestly, but it was that culture clash that provided an interesting and humorous jumping off point for Hellaware.

So, the process of actually writing the Young Torture Killaz songs, and shooting the standalone video for “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off.” There is a very lo-grade, backyard feel to the video which is different from the film, and the music, for as much total shit as Nick talks about it, is pretty compelling in a sort of unfiltered terrible primitivist way (as distinct from the terrible faux-primitive drawings at the Brooklyn gallery show in the opening scene). Was the process of writing the music, and shooting the video, in any way different from the process of writing and shooting the rest of the film?

It was completely different. While the movie was shot by Sean Price Williams, an accomplished cinematographer, the music video was filmed and edited by a high school kid, Hunter Zimny. He came to us after being street cast as a robo-tripping druggie for an anti-cough syrup abuse PSA (no joke). He’s kind of a prodigy and has been consistently working on a bunch of indie movies since. I wrote the song and did the music with my friend Louie Miller, who is a bartender at KGB Bar. We premiered “I’ll Cut Yo Dick Off” on WorldStarHipHop instead of through traditional film outlets and it had a very strange life of its own.

Early on, Nick mentions Diane Arbus; I was also thinking of Larry Clark’s Tulsa and Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as photographic projects which seem to depend on a mix of participation and intimacy, on the one hand, and artistic intervention and possibly exploitation, on the other. Is photography an interest of yours? Did you do much reading or thinking about the processes and ethics of “ethnographic” art photography?
Absolutely. Those names you mentioned would definitely be in Nate’s pantheon. People are obsessed with this notion of authenticity. They can never seem to get enough of the “beautiful loser” concept, the attractive misunderstood social outcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about the JT LeRoy scandal recently. Laura Albert, the woman behind it, is a total genius in my opinion. Everyone desperately wanted to believe the character she created was real because it was like a composite of all things “authentic.” Who could resist an underage, HIV-positive,West Virginia-birthed truckstop prostitute, petty thief, drug addict, with a sensitivity and proclivity for literature, who also parties down with Courtney Love and goes to the opera with Winona Rider? The whole story got kind of forgotten, or swept under the rug, because it was embarrassing in its implications.

Rusty, the head of the YTK, is a tricky role, and correct me if I’m wrong, but this would appear to be Brent Butler’s first movie. How was the casting process for the YTK crew?
Casting the rappers was definitely tricky. All the arty characters were basically friends or friends of friends who were completely familiar with that world. We didn’t have any Delawarean white rappers in our immediate circle so we had to reach a little farther. Brent is actually a talented musician in real life. I was impressed with his ability to rap poorly for the movie.

Keith Poulson brings a very distinct affect, sort of a mix of haplessness and bitterness, which I’ve noticed before in his performances (particularly in Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me). Was the role of Nick written with him in mind, or did it evolve much once he entered the frame?
Keith’s awesome. He’s really funny, generous, and not like the Nate at all in real life. The part was not written with him in mind, though. And with different casting it could have gone a much darker, sociopathic way, which I’m glad it didn’t. His natural demeanor added a lighter, more humorous quality that actually made the character more complex.

09/24/14 4:00am

Fishing Without Nets
Directed by Cutter Hodierne

The 27-year-old Cutter Hodierne won a directing prize at Sundance for this story of a Somali fisherman who turns to piracy, and it’s easy enough to see why. Shooting in part on the open ocean, wrangling a non-professional, largely non-Anglophone cast, Hodierne stages action clearly, with assured camera movement, and imparts the scope of his locations; he sneaks many-angled glimpses at the logistics of modern nautical hijackings, while carrying out revealing stress tests within the band of pirates who capture an oil tanker; and, as others have praised him for doing, he dramatizes contemporary politicized violence from an African point of view. Fishing Without Nets is an achievement not without consequence; the fatal miscalculations at its heart are therefore meaningful, not merely disqualifying.

The film’s first movement introduces us to Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), and endeavors to render his character and decisions sympathetic to a Western audience. He hauls in nets, walks through slums, cuddles with his young son, watches his loving wife sing as she prepares food alongside a toothless old woman; in voiceover, he reflects: “These waters are my home. My father fished here, and his father before him.” But now the waters are drying up, polluted by foreign vessels. Abdi’s boyhood friend has money in his pockets; Abdi needs money as well, to follow his wife to Yemen, where they’ve arranged for her to be smuggled. Their parting words hit the conventional beats of melodrama without the poetry (to be truer to impoverished, uneducated characters?): “I’ll wait for you there.” “We have to take a chance.”

Abdi joins the pirates at almost precisely the twenty-minute mark (I note with pleasure the persistence of the one-reel-of-exposition rule past the phaseout of reel changeovers). As they set out to sea on a ramshackle trawler, the musical score kicks up, the editing rhythm accelerates, and the subtitles drop out. In fact, the pirates’ dialogue goes unsubtitled in several sequences in the movie—not merely during rapid-fire exchanges in which tone and context are sufficient, but particularly during moments of impending violence, their suddenly alien speech building an atmosphere of threat and confusion.

The pirates’ raid on the empty tanker initially goes smoothly, but unease builds as their well-fed “Chairman” preaches patience during negotiations with the (evidently uninsured) shipping company. As his boss Blacky (Abdi Siad) chews khat nonstop and grows increasingly paranoid (he alludes to the Americans’ “invisible planes”—drones), Abdi bonds with a hostage and places furtive sat-phone calls to the human traffickers in possession of his wife and child; with ever-greater frequency, rising dramatic tension is played in counterpoint to flashbacks of Abdi frolicking with his happy family unit, or cut-ins on Abdi looking weepy as the rest of the pirates stand around looking menacing. Eventually, it becomes clear that we’re watching the story not of a three-dimensional figure making understandable decisions until he becomes a terrorist under Western eyes, but rather of a good Somali Muslim who is kidnapped by bad Somali Muslims and forced to do terrible things. As the loosest cannon among the pirates, Siad—unblinking, erratic and shortsighted, conditioned to a mythic view of power, not so much greedy as resentful—embodies a compelling, challenging, genuinely foreign figure, but despite the film’s consciousness-raising intentions, Hodierne only has the imagination to use him as a villain.

Opens October 3 at Cinema Village

09/10/14 4:00am

20,000 Days on Earth
Directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard

20,000 Days on Earth is a portrait-of-the-artist documentary, subset atmospheric, presenting glimpses of its subject at work and in life rather than an objective or introductory career overview. It is distinguished by a subject, in the eloquent and watchable Nick Cave, rewarding of such scrutiny; and by an unusually strong formal hand. Given Cave’s evidently close participation with the filmmakers (he takes a cowriting credit), these two elements are likely related.

Cave, in his post-punk apocalyptic blues-prophet mode, is shown at work, both in the studio and in live performance, so that we see a song come together, cohere, and then break apart; he shares an affable lunch with longtime Bad Seed Warren Ellis, while other previous friends and collaborators periodically appear, like noir-ish apparitions, in the passenger seat or backseat of his car as he drives around rainy Brighton (Kylie Minogue, casually revealing a heretofore unexpected and enviable gift for prose, tells him that the first time she saw him live, he reminded her of a tree, a big bare-branched tree, in silhouette, in a black-and-white movie). Cave shuffles through childhood memories in an effectively strange, staged hybrid of interview and psycholanalysis with a plummy and open-ended interlocutor. In dirgelike voiceovers, he reflects on performance and transformation, on art as pushing towards the Other within the Self; like his persona (the dyed-black hair and scarecrow physique, the sharpish suits with open-collared dress shirts and goth rings) and his music, his literary contributions are overwritten by 10%, but entertaining for it, and compelling for their sustained dialogue with folk-mythic tradition.

If the film does not transcend its fans-only destiny, this cannot be blamed on any failure of execution. (If anything, the atmosphere of heavy portent makes a well-calibrated case for Cave fandom.) Still, one sequence in particular is especially compelling, expanding the film’s reflexive reach outward to both the nonfiction genre, and the act of recollection more generally. In an “archive,” ostensibly consulting with researchers into his life, Cave narrates a slide-show of black-and-white photos of his wild years in Berlin: a series of snaps from a Birthday Party gig in which a fan got up onstage to take a mid-song piss, and a portrait of Cave in his bohemian loft/curio cabinet. Narrating the events, and branching off into memories, his recall, once triggered, is sharp and lyrical, but not without its gaps; as the mental archive is sorted according to the evidence available, the film digs into the ambiguous, almost mystical process by which things are forgotten, remembered, preserved, or retold as a story.

Opens September 17 at Film Forum

09/10/14 4:00am

Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien
September 12-October 17 at the Museum of the Moving Image

By his own admission, Hou Hsiao-hsien was not a promising youth. In interviews such as in Olivier Assayas’s HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hisen (1997), the filmmaker has recalled arriving in Taiwan in 1949 as a two-year-old when his family fled mainland China; his father, a low-level bureaucrat, died when “A-ha” was quite young, and the director came to filmmaking after an aimless adolescence spent gambling, fighting and running from the cops. But the semi-autobiographical films Hou made in the 1980s are proof that no life experience is wasted on a great artist. The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), about four scrappy provincial lads killing the time before their compulsory military service, and A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985), with its alternately tender and rambunctious childhood vignettes, mix spirited indulgence with passages of introspection; in both, a disabled or dead father stands as a reminder of expectations and responsibilities deferred, for now at least.

The comprehensive traveling Hou retrospective hosted by the Museum of the Moving Image traces a satisfying career arc, from Hou’s commercial apprenticeship, through the reminiscences and muted recent-historical backdrops of the 80s Taiwanese New Cinema movement, and then an opening out from the personal into the political (and beyond). In fact, it’s a nation that we see maturing, as much as the director: A City of Sadness (1989), released at the end of a decade of gradual reform, and the year following the death of Chiang Kai-shek’s son, was the first Taiwanese film to deal with the nationalist violence of the 228 Incident and the White Terror. A family-scaled, epic-length drama, the film renders the anguish of historical trauma in dispassionate, elegiac long takes; it took the Golden Lion at Venice, announcing Hou as a major auteur on the international festival circuit and at home. He and his enduring screenwriting collaborator Chu Tien-Wen followed it up with two progressively more complex layerings of past onto present, and memory onto cinema: in The Puppetmaster (1993), the eponymous “national treasure” Li Tien-lu narrates lovingly re-staged scenes from his young manhood during the Japanese occupation, while Good Men, Good Women (1995) features a far more contemporary guide, an actress preparing to shoot a historical drama, whose private ghosts guide her reinterpretation of the past in ambiguous ways.

Hou was compared by critics to Ozu before he’d ever seen an Ozu film, but the placid, fixed master-shot style he developed with his cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-bin, evolved throughout the 1990s into the virtuousic drift often imitated by Jia Zhang-ke and others. Hou’s explicit Ozu tribute, Café Lumière (2003), a Tokyo-set story with echoes of Late Spring, most strongly echoes Ozu by dramatizing profound family ties self-effacingly, with restrained characters and an elliptical narrative. Hou’s films are not plotless (though many of his best ones are blessedly light on incident), but character motivations and causal connections are often swaddled in hypnotic rhythms and rapturous surface textures. In a signature Hou shot, the camera slowly circles characters eating and drinking together, savoring the moment as it stretches out, while challenging the viewer to take the emotional weather. (Much has been written about Hou’s enveloping long takes, rather less about his editing, though it’s often astonishing in its breadth and directness: one of the boys from Fenkguei, restless in a movie theater, suddenly remembering his father; or a cut in A Time to Live and a Time to Die, from a misty windowpane to school picture day, bridging ephemerality and posterity.)

Hou’s most conspicuously beautiful films, to opposite ends, are probably Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Three Times (2005). The former, set entirely within a 19th century brothel, is an extended opium trance—with the typical scene lit by candlelight, covered in a single three-minute take, rounded on either side by a fade to black—running against the grain of an anti-nostalgic inquiry into political and sexual freedom. In the latter work, Hou rewrites three phases of his career, with more self-reflexive, movie-movie photography, production design, and people—Shu Qi and Chang Chen play lovers in all three parts of the triptych, from 60s pool-hall puppy romance, to a period piece, to a study of urban post-everything inter-/dis-connection a la Millennium Mambo (2001). The film also features perhaps Hou’s most sentimental use of music—a noted karaoke devotee, the filmmaker uses genres from traditional to techno to match his films’ languid pace, and provide an outlet for their sublimated crescendos.

Three Time was followed by Flight of the Red Balloon, made in Paris with French money, and starring Juliette Binoche as a frazzled single mom (“I asked Hsiao-hsien, ‘Do you like the idea of me being blonde?,’ and he said, ‘Yes, great, with the roots showing.’”) and master of Chinese-style puppetry, whose Beijing-born nanny is filming a digital remake of Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. Cross-currents of longing for people and places are suspended in the solution of the everyday; and a ticket to the movie is cheaper than therapy.

When Flight opened in New York on the same day as My Blueberry Nights, few would have predicted that Wong Kar-wai would finish his follow-up martial arts epic before Hou. Following a Wong-like gestation period, The Assassin (2014? 2015?) is a film to be eagerly anticipated: to see what Hou, having crossed eras, generations and borders, does in a new genre; and to dissipate whatever air of the valedictory has gathered around this retrospective (though who knows how many of its featured 35mm prints will ever be projected here again).

Among other things, Hou throughout his career is one of the all-time great directors of trains. (And the history of trains in cinema is also the history of cinema.) In Café Lumiere, the sounds of Tokyo’s commuter trains cocoon the characters in a hum of routine, while the play of light on their windows makes for a daydreamy alchemy of transit and serenity. Dust in the Wind (1986) opens with the view from the front of a train as it climbs a verdant mountainside, the world flowing towards and around you; the second shot of Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) is the reverse-angle, gazing backwards from the rear platform for a full minute. An open-ended visual reverie, it’s Hou in his purest form: the individual consciousness borne through space and time.

I’ll give another example of what I mean. Two thirds of the way through Dust in the Wind, the culmination of Hou’s semiautobiographical new wave period, the young protagonist returns to the mountain village he had left two years prior, to work in Taipei. At night, everyone sits in the town square—or wanders in and out of it—to watch a scratchy, rose-faded print of an old movie, projected against a sheet billowing slightly in the wind. For about a half a minute of frame-filling close-up, you have time to watch the movie-within-the-movie and wonder about it; to think about the day-to-day life of the village, and this momentary intervention from a concrete cultural history that’s perhaps as remote to them as it is to you or I; to marvel that the protagonist has left this behind to live in an urban loft where movie posters are painted, and is young enough, unlike his parents, to be carried along into modernity by a country on the cusp of it. And maybe your mind also wanders to the last movie you watched outside, on a summer night grown unseasonably chilly by the end credits.

A decade ago, the city’s last big Hou retrospective, at Anthology Film Archives, marked my first exposure to the filmmaker, very early in my career at the L, a period I remember now as a jump into the deep end of film culture. Thrashing around with The Puppetmaster, I grasped for “history as call and response,” a phrase which I’m more confident in today than I was then—now that I’m quoting my 20-year-old self, I actually know what I meant. If my own personal moviegoing history is hardly the point here, I at least understand a little better the simultaneous distance and intensity with which Hou contemplates these sorts of passages; and have seen for myself the way his films work over time, like memories forever remembered and inhabited anew. These are movies to live your whole life with.

08/27/14 4:00am

Starred Up
Directed by David Mackenzie

Set entirely within the walls of a UK prison, Starred Up is concerned with two equally rigorous codes of ethics: both the hard-man standards of pride and knife’s-edge self-containment that obtain in lockup, and the morality of the seemingly remote but real world beyond. The title, slang for a young offender transferred to an adult facility, is a cue to think about the main character, nineteen-year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), as a precocious lad: indeed, he’s both an animalistic scrapper capable of overcoming riot-geared guards and upending inmate hierarchies with a kick and a shiv, and also, eventually, the star pupil of volunteer prison shrink Oliver (Rupert Friend). Eric is a demanding but expansive role: some sort of superpowered savage innocent, capable of breaking the world or saving it. Rising Brit star O’Connell handles it with a showmanlike physique (though he’s not quite as hammy, in multiple senses, as Tom Hardy’s breakthrough role as another inmate, in Bronson), and a fresh, projectible face.

O’Connell is called upon to hold up his end of laconic, dick-measuring staredowns, and to give and receive bloody beatings, to scream in his cell, to be nearly garroted in a shower, and to hold a guard hostage by clamping his teeth around his genitalia, as Eric claws his way up a pecking order—encompassing both prisoners and their jailers—in which both coolheadedness and brutality can earn respect and subservience. He is also articulate, cocky and worldly, a natural leader, when in repose in group therapy sessions, where Oliver attempts to model an acceptable and conscious peace with one’s inevitable moments of dependence and confusion. (The screenwriter, Jonathan Asser, a poet and therapist, has previously worked with inmates.)

Clearly, Eric is Asser and director David Mackenzie’s conception of raw youthful talent to be either squandered or saved, with the prison milieu a very cinema-genic intensifier. So Eric’s prison wing becomes the village it takes to raise him: a teacher in Oliver; older peers from group and General Pop, to act as good or bad influences, bullies and guardians. And among all that, whaddaya know: it’s Eric’s actual father! As lifer Neville, making up for a lifetime of absence with terrible active parenting—playing stern disciplinarian dad by bossing Eric into line like he’s a new cellmate, or steaming against his hard-learned defenses when trying out a sensitive sweater-dad role—Ben Mendelsohn displays his full Ben Mendelsohn range, from zonked-out immobility to capable-of-anything psychotic lid-flipping. The film’s conflict is for Eric’s future: the different paths available to him give the movie a frankly polar structure, but are shaded with frequently compelling transitional textures. It is darkly amusing to see the inmates testing their way around therapy-speak, talking about trust and weakness in the same tone of voice that they say, “You’re getting blood on my floor, now fuck off.” (Too, Eric’s confused response to his father’s prison lover doesn’t fit neatly into any larger schematic, and though Mackenzie and Asser use it in Eric and Neville’s evolving child-is-father-to-the-man dynamic, they wisely leave it largely unresolved.)

Starred Up is initially effective in its manipulation of its audience. Eric’s first display of personality is an unjustified assault on a fellow inmate, and it takes several scenes for him to show a side of himself other than a penchant for brutal, preemptive, preening violence. The filmmakers encourage us to write off his changes, to root for him to rot behind bars, before allowing Oliver to reach him, open up new facets of his personality. Gradually, too, in a way that may be relevant to our current moment, and our understanding of rebels at home and abroad, the film shows how flawed, passionate individuals interact with an equally and differently flawed, basically omnipotent authority. (The hermetic space of the prison makes a good microcosm for the kinds of less visible social hierarchies which we’re more used to seeing engaged in a push-pull with antisocial behavior.) But Mackenzie and Asser ultimately go to far. The warden doesn’t just have regressive ideas about law and order, and the confidence of his government: he’s straight-up evil, which comes through via Sam Spruell’s sneering performance almost as much as the character’s eventually revealed hypocrisy and premeditated bad acts. (A more subtle movie would depict guard-on-prisoner violence more accurately, as a matter of impulse and cover-up carried out by people of ideological conviction.) The film loses its battle with contrivance, pitting family love against pantomime villainy in order to arrange a cross-cut rescue sequence with family redemption on the line.

Opens August 27

08/27/14 4:00am

The Congress
Directed by Ari Folman

The Congress stars Robin Wright as a fortysomething actress who won the world’s heart in The Princess Bride, but its sci-fi elements are closer to reality. In the film’s alternate-present first act, Wright plays “Robin Wright,” a faded star with a “difficult” reputation. She is “scanned” so that her eternally youthful digital likeness can be manipulated to perform in Hollywood garbage; motion capture, with “capture” the operative word. Writer-director Ari Folman is continuing an evergreen dialogue about manufactured icons and manufactured consent—about performers, actresses especially, as the dream factory’s exploited labor.

Folman’s cast, particularly Harvey Keitel and Danny Huston as Wright’s anachronistically conceived schlemiel agent and studio boss, acquit themselves well with his stilted dialogue, creating the not-unpleasing sense of a very faithful adaptation of a translation from the Polish. But in fact, The Congress begins its borrowings from Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress only with its fully animated second act. Here, twenty years hence, Wright is pulled out of retirement into the “animated zone,” a Second Life Vegas where drugged-up consumers choose their own fantasies, existing as cartoons from a mishmash of genres (banditos with bendy six-shooters!). Common dreams like movies are so turn-of-the-century—as Wright discovers when she falls further into a dystopia of cloud-life wish-fulfillment via a sequence of nested hallucinations. Already a formal hybrid, The Congress overreaches as if in hopes of being described as “sprawling” in its elements of mixed­-media critique and matrix-y mindfuck, at the expense of ontological clarity, or subtlety.

Not all “hallucinatory” imagery is necessarily visionary. Folman and his animation team oppose the escapist-industrial complex with hippy-dippy nonsense—as when the animated Wright grows wings, then undulates ecstatically atop her spirit guide-cum-love interest (voiced by John Hamm and rendered with an unbuttoned dress shirt and pencil mustache—very Plato’s Retreat) before a backdrop of exploding airplanes. Too, given the film’s pointed conflation of its star with her same-named, iconoclastic character, it is a shame that we lose Robin Wright’s face for fully half of the film. Her anime-eyed avatar is hardly a substitute for her own visage—at once taut and lined, severe and consoling, and such a perfect advertisement for “aging gracefully,” it could have been generated by a computer.

Opens September 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

08/22/14 11:20am

The title of the series “Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi,” beginning tonight at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, has a rather obvious double meaning: visions of the world beyond the stars, from the world beyond our borders. (The series was programmed by Nicolas Rapold, who is, of course, the L’s senior film critic.)

This is especially the case given that all but three titles in the eleven-film series come from Eastern Bloc countries, and all come from the Cold War era—they are, then, the products of the ultimate alternate universe. Looking for clips for this playlist, I was somewhat surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, by how many fan-made trailers I was able to find for Kin-dza-dza!, a late Soviet comedy about two classic bickering, bumbling types stranded in a ramshackle world far, far away:


There is the potential, in the socialist-sci-fi genre, for both state-sponsored utopianism, and sneaky allegory; the Czech film The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (from 1967, the year before the Prague Spring), offers a dark vision of the sort of humanity likely to survive a nuclear war:

The title of “Strange Lands” also has a triple meaning, as Eric Hynes has pointed out in the Times: these are also the visions of another time, from whence, perhaps, comes the series’ not-inconsiderable camp factor. The past is a foreign country and they do things differently there, after all, including imagine the future. Particularly one of my favorite Pop Art films, The 10th Victim, and its monochromatic, plasticine, proudly commercialized sex-sells dystopia:

The series depicts many different epochs of technology—via both the stories depicted in the film and, as the linked-to “General Purpose Robot” clip above indicates, the means available to the filmmakers.

Indeed, it seems as though the definition of “science” in this science fiction series is quite capacious. It encompasses everything from space exploration, to 20th century medicine (via the adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s early novel Hospital of the Transfiguration), to the proto-cinematic 19th century technology—and hand-made animation—of Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous World of Jules Verne:

Arguably the greatest science-fiction film of all-time is, of course, a Soviet filmmaker’s Brezhnev-era adaptation of a Polish novel. Stanislaw Lem is represented in this series via the recent-historical novel mentioned above; other literary adaptations abound. The Strugatsky brothers, who wrote Stalker, Hard to Be a God and Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel, are here via Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse; there are also the Westerners Verne and Robert Sheckley (The 10th Victim), and South American Adolfo Bioy Casares (the Italian film of Morel’s Invention). And the myth of the Golem is handled in the Polish film of the same name, and given a surrealist, Solidarity-era dystopian update:

The series is programed as nightly double features, with two films each from the represented countries (plus Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando, which is a double feature, at least, in and of itself). In tribute to the juxtapository goodtimes promised thereby, we close with two very different East German films of the 1970s, In the Dust of the Stars and Eolomea, and their pleasurably mistmatched strains of soundstage earnestness and lens-flared, lounge-y trippiness. Here’s Dust of the Stars:

… and Eolomea