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Articles by

<Jeremy Polacek>

04/24/15 12:00pm

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Voluptuously chatty and wistfully searching, Jenni Olson’s The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2014) are twin meditations on time, landscape, desire, and cinema, if twins delivered nine years part. Despite the almost decade abeyance, Olson’s marveling, wide-eyed images of sleepy apartments, quiet factories, and depopulated, signposted streets have not dramatically changed: studiously shot 16mm lovelies awash in sun and street lights—kissed by magic hour’s glow, shaded by downy clouds, hazed by San Francisco’s atmospheres of fog and light. Reading from his “The Changing Light” in The Joy of Life, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is her bard (and character witness): “with sharp clean shadows making the town look like it had just been painted.”

Her movies could be your life, Olson seems to feel. Or at least resemble your life, or a life suffused with beauty, ideas, thoughts, and film. Both films reference Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the history of California, and the love life of an unnamed kinda-Casanova, all unfurled in a confessional, cerebral, film-obsessed monologue that, diaristically told, seems surely based on Olson’s, or someone else’s, true experiences. Yet, the movies shimmer with grander emotions and deeper images, Olson’s narration enchanting like the spells of wizard . With a simple word or a few simple words, light suddenly seems more resplendent and prismatic then it was just a moment before Ferlinghetti’s poem. What a little talk about moonlight can do.

Fortunately—and fittingly—the pair will grace big screens this weekend, giving audiences a chance to see the two, if not back to back, at least closely together. The Joy of Life will screen tonight, Friday, April 24 as part of BAM’s “The Vertigo Effect” series; The Royal Road closes out the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real on Sunday, April 26. (Jenni Olson will be on hand for &As at both screenings.) And yet, if The Royal Road wasn’t just released and playing at Art of the Real, it, and not The Joy of Life, would be the the more fitting selection for Vertigo Effect.

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04/08/15 6:12am
Photo courtesy of The Orchard

Dior and I
Directed by Frédéric Tcheng
Opens April 10

Considering the circumstances, Dior and I sounds tailor-made for high suspense, pressurized stress, strained nerves, and frayed hems. Raf Simons, incoming artistic director of the revered fashion line Dior, has eight weeks to complete his debut couture collection. Normally, he’d have five or six months.

But while worry and stress weighs on everyone, what Frédéric Tcheng’s felicitous documentary zeroes in on is the grace and craft of this rarefied world—that and its spirited connection to Mr. Dior’s looming legacy. With a keen, playful sense for the ways that history and expectations hang in the air and in the mind, Dior and I charts the space between inspiration and limitation.

Murmuring about the film are excerpts from Dior’s memoirs (author Omar Berrada serves as the voice of Dior). Raf cannot hear them, yet it is likely he thinks of them, sharing that he read the memoirs, but had to stop, their similarities too uncanny. In one inspired scene Tcheng projects archival footage onto the dresses of the future, a lovely, haunting collapse of time and heritage.

Flies on the walls (or, in this case, perhaps, ghosts in the halls), Tcheng’s cameras bring back great footage, none better than from the ateliers where the seamstresses work. Skilled, wise, and behind it all, they are the lifeblood of Dior, some with 30 or 40 years of experience. Winningly at ease among them, Tcheng picks up on their rhythms and quiet distinction.

By contrast, the inward Raf is the most seen, and the least probed, his creative process largely unexamined. Leaning on his double—Dior—to fill in some of the blanks, Tcheng has a tendency to reflect more than reveal. Which makes the presence of Dior run a tad dry as conceits go.

Tcheng’s deep wit and observation makes up for this shallow patch, though. The I of Dior and I, for example, remains subtly, deliberately undefined. It could refer to Raf, hidden by Dior’s fame. Or might it be the seamstresses? Evoking the dynamics of a family—the pleasure of belonging mixed with the longing to be unique—Tcheng perceptively brings the high culture of haute couture a little bit further down to earth.

07/30/14 4:00am

Calvary
Directed by John Michael McDonagh

No one likes a saint, not in these high days of anti-heroes and irony. If you’re going to include them, better run them and their compassion through the mud of cynicism and disaffection. This seems to be the trick—or, rather, the earnest subterfuge—John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson use in Calvary, a uniquely sincere film and surprising follow-up to their hit action-comedy, 2011’s The Guard.

You could almost call it a sort of modern-day story of Job, the good-hearted Irishman Father James (Gleeson) besieged by a hamlet full of hedonists, cynics, and nihilists: the cuckolded butcher (Chris O’Dowd), his philandering wife (Orla O’Rourke), a morbid, cocaine-snorting doctor (Aidan Gillen)—general no-goodniks who respond to the sight of the local church caught in flames by flatly informing James, “Your church is on fire.”

But Father James is not plagued by the whims of divine gamesmanship. No, quite unlike Job, he is overwhelmed by a modern, worldly set of maladies: doubt, distrust, desire, and, crucially for James, a vengeance that cannot forgive. He has been given seven days to prepare himself for death, threatened with murder by an unseen local in the dark of a confessional. Like so many moments in the movie, the scene starts outs bawdy before then becoming painful and wrenching. “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old,” the voice tell James, calmly going on to explain that he seeks to avenge five years of repeated sexual assault from a vile, now dead priest by killing a live, good one. Gleeson plays his character with soft, towering grace, the sort that comes from a person of faith and which, when put to the test, makes for a powerful examination of the worth of being good.

All the while, the days tick away. What starts off as a wickedly dark comedy overlaps into an unexpected morality play—seven days of mounting tribulations. Unfortunately, the
countdown conceit doesn’t work. Too many elements and storylines move with differing tempos, the moral half more deliberate than the comedic one, and both of them at a snail’s pace compared to its mortal clock. One hour and forty minutes is perhaps not enough room for all the moving parts, which makes for an ending that feels a bit hurried and uneventful. But when it does come, it becomes apparent that McDonagh and Gleeson have been pulling the wool over our eyes, concealing a magnanimous heart that had been there all along, and which unabashedly longs for a better world, even if it is full of cranks and baddies like those in this town.

Opens August 1

03/26/14 4:00am

Mistaken for Strangers
Directed by Tom Berninger

“Do you have any idea of organization and plan for this film?” Matt Berninger, frontman of indie-rock band The National, puts this skeptical (meta) question to his younger brother in the first few minutes of this singular, revealing music documentary. Invited by Matt to serve as the band’s roadie for their 2010 world tour, director Tom doubled down and decided independently to make a rock documentary. No plan? No problem! But actually Mistaken for Strangers is full of problems: the film’s half-baked plans; Tom’s envy of his older brother (while Matt tours the world, Tom, a thirtysomething fuck-up, still lives at home); and almost everyone’s dubious opinion of the project and Tom’s job performance. Halfway through the tour (and movie), Tom gets the boot, kicking the documentary to a personal, problematic crossroads. What’s a rockumentary without a rock band?

The film mirrors life; life mirrors the film. Mistaken for Strangers is more Exit Through the Gift Shop than The Last Waltz, but the better comparison is Stanley Booth’s seminal book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. Following the Stones over a year from 1968 through the tragedy at Altamont, Booth lived with the band, sharing their stories and some of their addictions. It took him over 15 years to write, but what Booth brought back was not just a document of the Stones on tour but of the 60s as a whole.

Off the tour, Tom returns back home, where his parents kindly, indiscreetly—as a parent might do to, say, a 13-year-old—negotiate his downbeat questions. “What have I always told you?” his mother says between nervous laughs. “You’re my most creative.” Tom is depressed, frustrated by his lack of success. But then Matt and his wife invite him to move in with them in order to finish the movie, giving him their daughter’s playroom. Watching Tom put together a plan for the film is unexpectedly poignant, a moving, meta vision of a film’s genesis. Slowly, but irresistibly, I began to root for the movie to succeed not just because I craved a good movie but also because I wanted Tom to succeed. Mistaken for Strangers captures the delicate, intimate gap that can separate failure from success—
or families.

Opens March 28 at IFC Center

02/13/14 4:03pm

river of fundament matthew barney

In isolation, River of Fundament, Matthew Barney’s mythopoeic epic of death and rebirth, excrement and divinity, cars and men, is a towering morass of ideas, symbols, and anuses. Given enough rope, as Barney amply furnishes, the film might convincingly be seen as a spectacular auto-execution, like that of Gary Gilmore, whose life and later death-by-firing-squad Barney welded into his Cremaster Cycle. To its detractors, the Cremaster Cycle was what its title, referring to the muscle that lifts and lowers the testicles, suggested—a masturbatory mess. River of Fundament (at BAM through February 16) could likewise be dismissed as a stream of shit.

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But River of Fundament invites such criticism. Adapted from the Norman Mailer’s disastrous 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, the nearly six-hour-long art film repurposes the wreckage of Mailer’s grand overreach, a 700-page, decade-in-the-making tome chronicling the three-time death and reincarnation of an Egyptian nobleman, Menenhetet I, who must pass through a river of feces to be reborn. Fast and loose in its use of the book, the film replaces Menenhetet with “Norman,” at whose wake the bulk of the story takes place, the production unstintingly reproducing Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights brownstone. Joining his three reincarnations across three acts are some famous friends and family—Jeffrey Eugenides, Fran Lebowitz, and Salman Rushdie playing themselves as gathered literati—and, as the wake grows lower and more decayed, Egyptian spirits and pharaohs: Paul Giamatti as the carnal, indolent Ptah-nem-hotep; Madyn Greer Coakley, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ellen Burstyn as different version of the the devoted Hathfertiti.

With the wake scene, Barney crosscuts a narrative of automotive death and renewal. Standing in for Norman and Osiris are a 1967 Chrysler Imperial, a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. Here and elsewhere, Barney’s direction is remarkably assured. His camera scrolls moltenly across scenes rich in shadows and light, suffused with great beauty and wanton baseness. Music-laden sequences—composer Jonathen Bepler lends a portentous, fitful score—play out in the flowing streams of LA’s freeways, the tainted rivers of Detroit, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. River of Fundament approaches Pier Paolo Pasolini and company in its incontinent commitment to the sacred and the profane, Barney conjuring a vertiginous allegory to the sordid transcendence of waste, life and renewal. The expression “it has something to do with” will probably circle around this film for some time, like so many flies to excrement.

More immediately interesting and significant, though, is the way in which River of Fundament roils the line between art and cinema, melding avant-garde sensibilities with the aesthetic sorcery of a high-quality film production. One sequence alone, KHU from Act II, has long been rumored to have had a budget of $5 million. In burrowing deeper into the alchemy of film and his often overloaded imagination, Barney is a luminous challenger to the look and experience of not just film but of a totalized art film, that of a modern-day Gesamtkunstwerk.

That’s the good part. The awful truth is that River of Fundament is occasionally attenuated and overwrought, a scatological Tower of Babel. While some may find humor in its many movements, as in the thin case of a masturbating beat-boxer, they’re too few and far between. River of Fundament seemingly never breaks its stern pace to offer a wink or any sort of break. As talented as they may be, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ellen Burstyn are just not able to lift the duller, stiffer parts of the film. It doesn’t need to be funny—but neither does it need to be quite so inflexibly sedate.

Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament will screen at BAM through February 16. More info here.