#180 Horse Money (2014, Pedro Costa)
“While the young captains lead the revolution in the streets, the people of Fontainhas search for Ventura, lost in the woods.” - Costa’s description of Horse Money.
Walking into this, the first narrative(ish) Pedro Costa feature I’ve seen, I expected to be a little lost, but I found it much more cogent and self-sufficient than expected. its a hard question to answer, whether and when its best to enter a text free of exterior knowledge, context or bias, or when a little reading or understanding of the filmmaker, the country or the film itself can aid enjoyment. In the case, I went largely blind (though I had a vague understanding of Costa’s working practise and the nature of his characters) and found a work that reveals itself directly in the image. What was odd, was the context I saw or imagined, lined up with a context in all likelihood was intended, as Costa’s visually astounding compositions layer meaningfully to reveal a film laden heavily with mounting grief.
Enveloping semi-abstract imagery in beautiful lighting, Costa makes a portrait of the aching, time-heightened hurt of leading man Venture that stands in for the pain of any oppressed people. Ventura, in a phenomenal performance (and from what I can gather, the most performative and projected of his roles in Costa films so far) shakes and stumbles around in a state of dementia, revisiting imagined scenes from his past and from the national past, mumbling poetic remembrances and generally struggling with the memory of a difficult life.
Costa stages these run-ins with past friends in elaborate tableaux, bathing his 4:3 frames in a lighting style informed by German expressionism, but re-envisioned through a more colourful, hallucinatory lens. Ventura wanders aimlessly, on a path another describes as a “road a perdition” and the ghosts of the past, long repressed, surface around him. The emergence of these spirits is as much exorcism as therapy, some haunting Ventura and other soothing him. The past is a part of us, and Costa seems to be using the gift he has for images to mercilessly evoke it. The more we repress something, the more violently it eventually emerges.
In the film’s most harrowing, powerful moment, across an extended sequence Ventura is bullied by a particularly vile ghost, a revolutionary soldier who in turn calls into question his commitment to the cause, his marriage, family and his life’s work. Such is the empathy Costa has generated to this point, and such is the power inherent to Ventura’s expressive, weary face, this scene hurts. Returning to the context issue, I saw this scene in isolation as part of the Centro Historico project and it was a nice, abstract visual piece. Seen with the surrounding scenes that Costa supplies in Horse Money, and with a certain mindset from which I’d come to approach the film (whether intended or not by Costa, I think so) it was profoundly impacting. By the time Ventura pulls out that totalising gesture, I was convulsing, my stomach knotted.
Indeed, to me this is a deeply empathetic work, torturous but also magnificent. Miserabilism faces criticism as it beautifies ugliness for mere aesthetic affect. In this film, and presumably others, Costa makes art out of suffering not as mere visual ploy, but as a way of illuminating the collective anguish, hurt and anger of the persecuted, evoking a profound sympathy that comes (from what I’ve heard) from direct experience and ingratiation, rather than distanced observation. Costa reclaims the darkness, cloaks it in his stark, transformative light, and creates justifiably morose art.
#178 Goodbye to Language (2014, Jean-Luc Godard)
Just as 2 or 3 Things seemed to depart from Godard’s 1960s narrative method and presage his essayistic, fragmented post-2000s style, in some ways Goodbye to Language seems to look back, leaping back and forth between the two styles (and perhaps some of the 80s stuff too?) whilst embracing an entirely new one for a new cinema. At the start of the 60s run, with Breathless, Godard demonstrated a new cinematic language, and with Goodbye to Language, a wash of colour, shape and texture across the newly expanding plains and axises afforded by an added dimension, at the end of a different run entirely, he again dismantles to create anew.
The Godardian sound-image-text construct in 3D is something to behold. As an essay, its more torn apart, more deconstructed than ever before, and as a cinematic object even more so. Dimensions, perspectives and shapes are ripped, flipped, warped and twisted as Godard plays with the depth and width of the cinematic image. “What’s difficult is to fit flatnessinto depth” Yet despite the extremity of the abstraction and the harshness of the use of the 3D planes, this new film is one of Godard’s warmest, softest and most poetic. A celebration of humanity expressed through the eye of a dog.
Godard’s collage style cut-paste, lift-rework text/image montage always appeals, but I think here it is put to best effect. I have this sitting in a strong 2nd place after the Histoire(s) in my all-time JLG rankings, which seems bold given how recently I saw it, but it really does bring together everything that works in the later-period films, the digital boldness and visual prowess of In Praise of Love, the cut-paste aesthetic, sound displacement trickery and wilful obfuscation of Film Socialisme and the historically-infused-cinephilia of the Histoire(s), and adds to them a third dimension and a broad reaching, infectious and emotional. These are some of the most beautiful images put to screen, and (presumably, I can look, appreciate but I cannot decode) some of the most expansive, testing ideas too.
#177 Hard to be a God (2013, Aleksei German)
After premiering to scattered but exultant acclaim at Rome in late 2013, the profile of the late Alexei German’s final feature has grown. I saw it first on a online rip, and was taken by it immensely on a visual and technical level, but not overly able to engage with it on a narrative or thematic basis. Second, proper time round at LFF, the film remained difficult and occasionally patience testing, but opened itself up much more, cataloguing more comprehensibly the struggle of a man of intellect, hurled unforgivingly into a situation of peerless barbarity, tasked to wade through omnisciently, whilst somehow still retaining his humanity . Few films this challenging are also this engrossing, and even fewer are this well constructed. Seen big, and with a little context in mind, this shows itself as much more than a mere visual treat, but a complex work worthy of the greatest respect and attention.
Hard to be a God is a meticulous, awe inspiring work, as a production story and in execution. Adapted from a Arkady and Boris Strugatsky novel (authors of the source novel for Tarkovsky’s Stalker), the film has been in conception since 1968. Only upon German’s death, after a 10 year shoot and a similarly lengthy editing process, was the film finally assembled by his son Thought unlikely to ever reach completion, the project is a product of its own painstaking process. This shows clearly in the film, every horridly gorgeous frame has been weighed upon and calculated for the most visceral effect, the richly detailed mise-en-scene loaded with carefully orchestrated chaos, blood, mud and miscellaneous fluid spraying around the frame as characters and objects in the foreground and background clatter together in balletic disarray.
Largely in tactile closeup, German expertly draws the audience into his vivid, deeply physical, world (a geographically and temporally displaced Sci-Fi version of the middle ages where the vulgarity of the actual period is amplified for cinematic effect) as the camera tracks around carefully choreographed long take trudges through a theme park of savagery. In a particularly effective fourth wall collapse, characters make frequent and pointed direct eye contact with the camera, leering back at this almost-documentary platform that serves to record their barbarous theatrics. Many even play up for this anachronistic observer, smearing mud or clobbering each other, revelling in the madness of the spectacle. It’s a tour-de-force, a seemingly endlessly expanding world collapsed under a microscopic lens that also amplifies. In Hard to be a God the camera acts as a travelling alien eye joining lead man Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) as he trudges ever onwards through.
Beyond the visual though, on second viewing the film surrenders something more comprehensible. Informed by a reading provided by Calum Marsh, the film’s relentless bludgeoning of horror takes on one of many meanings. For him, German’s cesspit is “at the cusp of its Renaissance, when civility will begin to win out over perpetual barbarity,” which Rumata is sent to observe, a proposition made interesting by the fact that civility never arrives, Rumata becomes disheartened at his own position (see: the film’s title and central monologue), and it looks like the light of civility may never shine on a film where, like in Bela Tarr’s aesthetically pessimistic visions, it always rains. For Marsh, “the film thus becomes a thought experiment asking us to consider what society and culture might look like had the Renaissance never ignited.” It’s a little simple to state, “cruelty and brutality are the default modes of existence” but there is something there. You can place the horror within a context of Russia, now and then, or anywhere really. The takeaway that I like in Marsh’s unpack, is that even if futile, “culture is only our only weapon against an endless deluge of muck and filth and shit.” “Great art must survive.”
For me, exact readings aren’t overly important, just the understanding that there are ways of seeing, that its not all basically meaningless (ironic, considering that may be exactly Hard to be a God's central proclamation.) Hard to be a God is an unspeakably grand film, a feat of sophisticated constructional achievement, and very much the kind of madly ambitious vision you have little choice but to respect. The comparison’s made for the film have been to one Hieronymous Bosch, not other directors. The film’s I personally want, are the ones that feel unlike most else. This is one of those.
#176 From What is Before (2014, Lav Diaz)
Following only a year on from last year’s Norte: The End of History, From What is Before sees Lav Diaz return to more familiar territory. Gone is the colour, relative brevity and a literary source, and back comes monochrome, collective memory and pain, and a runtime in excess of five hours.
In Norte, a surprisingly heavily plotted film, almost all takes were loaded with event, foreground and background stuffed with activity. For four whole hours, things are constantly happening. Expectedly, From What is Before is much less momentum focused and more traditionally slow. For large parts of the 5.6 hours, Diaz uses duration to emphasise and elongate the mundane, but also to construct detailed character. More than any of the other two Diaz films I’ve seen, characters are introduced and then built upon richly (The two sisters, in many ways the ideal avatars for Diaz’s films of national hurt.) It is a great use of duration, serving as television does to establish, build, subvert and reinvent character through the time afforded.
Early hours pass largely without dialogue. The natural rhythms of the landscape (including a suitably beautiful/ruinous beach rock formation against which tumultuous waves crash and characters gaze and workshop longingly at) and community (a broad multi-dimensional ensemble) that inhabit emerge, as Diaz gently formulates them into being. Patterns, societal, interpersonal and individual, are examined and fixated on, all before narrative action is introduced, meaning a synthesis between character and place is cemented before it can be dismantled.
It makes for a hard going first two hours, but as a result a much more successful last two, as when mishaps occur they have meaning and impact. More than any other Diaz Ive seen, From What is Before operates in that unique rhythm that the best filmmakers who work in a slow mode can conjure up. Diaz builds a society then destroys it, as military intervention and moral compromise serve to break ties that community made look unbreakable. Diaz’s durational style affords him the time to truly transform, the temporal perseverance heightening the resonance of each momentary cause and effect.
Diaz’s prime interest (announced again at the start of this film with the announcement that these are just stories and memories of a people, and the 1972 setting as Martial Law is about to announced under dictator Ferdinand Marcos) is the Philippine national history and suffering. Wisely though, in this film this interest surfaces late and less bludgeoningly than has come to be expected from a director understandably preoccupied with cruelty and devastation. As a film, it’s the most low key of his I’ve seen, but as a result the most affecting, and the one where the trauma ultimately announces itself the hardest.
There is definitely something to the argument that Diaz, over twenty years and many (long) films down the line, needs to adapt and evolve his style (miserabilism grows old fast without elaboration or maturation) and method (some of the technical work remains shoddy), but due to the mostly hyperbolic praise he receives, is not inclined to or even aware of his shortcomings. Call a man a God enough times, he will think he is one. Its just very hard to not lavish that praise upon him, when the films work as they do.
#026 Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008, Matt Wolf) (T)
#025 The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013, Isao Takahata) (T)
#024 20,000 Days on Earth (2014, Jane Pollard & Ian Forsyth) (T)
#023 The Kingdom of Dreams & Madness (2013, Mami Sunada) (T)
#022 Red Army (2014, Gabe Polsky) (T)
#021 Winter Sleep (2014, Nuri-Bilge Ceylan) (T)
#020 Wild Tales (2014, Damien Szifron) (T)
#019 In the Basement (2014, Ulrich Seidl) (T)
#018 Magical Girl (2014, Carlos Vermut) (T)
#017 Love is Strange (2014, Ira Sachs) (T)
#016 Girlhood (2014, Celine Sciamma) (T)
#015 Jauja (2014, Lisandro Alonso) (T)
#014 August Winds (2014, Gabriel Mascaro) (T)
#013 Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold) (T)
#012 Chrieg (2014, Simon Jacquemet) (T)
#011 The Princess of France (2014, Matias Piniero) (T)
#010 The Tribe (2014, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky) (T)
#009 The Drop (2014, Michael Roskam) (T)
#008 Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014, Yiao Dinan) (T)
#007 The New Girlfriend (2014, Francois Ozon) (T)
#006 Mommy (2014, Xavier Dolan) (T)
#005 Goodbye, First Love (2012, Mia Hansen-Love)
#004 Love Hotel (2014, Phil Cox & Hikaru Toda)
#003 The Strange Little Cat (2013, Ramon Zurcher)
#002 Alphaville (1965, Jean-Luc Godard) (T)
#001 The Double (2014, Richard Ayoade)
Maybe a film not made this year next month.
#156 August Winds (2014, Gabriel Mascaro)
All is governed by the order of nature in Gabriel Mascaro’s languid, delectably Weerasthethakulian slow mover. Though August Winds is his feature debut, Mascaro is an experienced documentarian, explaining the semi-ethnographic approach to his visual method here. Images, frequently both poetic and comical, are complimented by a sampling of cacophony of ambient sounds creating a perspective both observational and pictorial as we witness the day to day activities of a small community in rural Brazil.
In this brief tone poem he shows a real affinity for composition and rhythm, sequencing beautiful images in endless succession to create a broad picture of the beauty of a leisurely approach to work, love, death and life. “Those who die here don’t end up in heaven or hell, they end up in the sea” one of the characters ruminates. Mascaro’s vision of rural Brazil is a community governed by the tides.
#153 The Tribe (2014, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky)
In a particularly literal approximation of the idea of ‘gestural cinema,’ in The Tribe all characters talk entirely in sign language, and without any subtitles, non-diagetic sound or voiceover, those with no understanding of sign have only gestures, expressions and the degree of bodily animation through which to interpret events.
Simultaneously chaotic and precise, Slaboshpytskiy guides his all deaf ensemble through elaborate tableaux as they fight, fuck and gesticulate their way silently through a series of meticulously choreographed long takes that together form an aloof, but compelling picture of savagery in isolation. The director shows a particularly warped vision of Ukrainian life. a violent, twisted boarding school where the rules are unclear, an imposing hierarchy of power looms over always, and violent upheaval and sexual depravity are a constant.
A truly modern ‘silent film,’ The Tribe is original, unpredictable and exasperating in equal measure. Less a film, it seems more of a cinematic game. One that asks questions of both the audience, in their facility to decode situational information with aural cues; and of the director, in his ability to successfully convey narrative entirely through visual language. A film that demands secondary viewings, The Tribe enthrals for its duration, even if thematically, and even narratively, it will take some unpacking. A memorable, if not always cogent visual experiment.
#152 The Princess of France (2014, Matias Pineiro)
Back in familiar territory for Matias Pineiro, with another vision of Shakespeare, chopped and screwed. This time he tackles Love’s Labour Lost, reworking the original text into a radio play, whilst staging his modern interpretations across a variety of inventive movements including an expertly staged scene set in a museum closed for the night and a stunning aerial opening observing a football match.
The same velvety cinematography, graceful camera work and insightful, expertly framed closeups that made the other two parts of his new Shakespeare trilogy, Viola and They All Lie, so compelling return, and the adapted dialogue is snappy and the interactions engaging.
Pineiro manages again to make overtly stagey material genuinely cinematic, taking a leaf out of Hong Sang Soo’s book, and repeating his scenes with gradual alterations. It is intelligent filmmaking, and an admirable fusion of literature, art and cinema; but due the limitations of scope, the films can’t help but feel a little minor.
#150 Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014, Diao Yinan)
In Diao Yinan’s Berlin winner, a conventional noirish narrative is interrupted frequently by pleasingly surreal interludes. Over the two hours, and always out of nowhere, there is a Claire Denis referencing solo dance sequence, a ferris wheel sex scene and an inspired, explosive, out of nowhere conclusion. The alluring cinematography mixes neon lit crumbling urban settings with more traditionally rural industrial expanses, and Yinan’s handheld camera glides around in often inventive arcs and swoops, contrasting a more experimental visual language against the more crowdpleasing narrative content. Somewhat ungraspable as a film, but satisfying none the less.
Back from San Sebastian 62. It was very good, if initially overwhelming. After a few days, I started to get a feel for things and learn the rhythm of a festival a little better. They are an intense experience, films all day, sauce all night. Little sleep, lots of social contact etc. but by the end, I felt almost at home.
Firstly, going to a first festival through one of these ‘workshops’ is a great aid. As opposed to going alone, staying alone in a hotel room, and trying to make a swing at viewing, eating and socialising alone, going with a a group like this gives a basic framework. Having people to show you the ropes, people to watch films with, people to eat and drink with, and people to bounce ideas off, makes things initially a lot easier. Obviously, as you continue, you build a network, and you are never really alone, but for the first dive having that safety net was essential, I think.
As for the idea of being a ‘film critic,’ I’m still not sure about whether I could get there. There is a certain type of person that makes a good critic/journalist, and I can’t identify whether I could be that person yet. In the group I was in, I only saw that person in one individual. She was 28, and still struggling to ‘make it,’ but the way she operated, working secretly constantly, exploiting opportunities, socialising strategically, yet building honest relationships seemed closest to the type of professional that these workshops should be helping.
The freelance writer is highly driven, highly persistent, and highly social. You need to make connections, constantly push yourself to make new ones, find your own work and do your own work. You need to get to know people, always pitch and always think about getting an invite to the next festival. You travel constantly, often chaining festivals together. Its terrific, but its a real toil. I knew this, but the trip solidified this. All this ignores the ability to write, which I presume counts too.
What was pleasing was that I do feel closer to that ‘ideal’ than I expected to be. Forgetting about the writing for a second, I socialised well, entered new situations with minimal anxiety, watched and understood films, and managed to file work to deadlines. I still have huge reservations about many things, my writing, my social ability, my tolerance for travel, but the trip was a fantastic thing for me at this time.
Whilst there, I watched 21 films, wrote 4 reviews, interviewed 2 (debut) directors, slept about 30 hours and lost almost a stone in weight. Journalism.
Of the things I saw, Winter Sleep, Phoenix, August Winds, The Tribe and In the Basement were the standouts, all of which premiered elsewhere. As my first festival, I used San Sebastian to watch a lot of the things that other festivals carried, which is not really how it should be done. I missed most of the festivals many international premieres, something a journalist looking to actually make some money would never do. I did however see and review two world-prems, feature debuts Chrieg (Jacquemet) and Cain’s Children (Gero) and interviewed both of the film’s young directors. (A life-first for me.)
Next up, pay2view viewership at LFF (Hard to be a God, From What is Before, Adieu au Language and Horse Money) and applications for another workshop (Rotterdam, Locarno being the goals.) That, or maybe give a real writer a shot. For now, back to the grind.
Haven’t quite worked out how to write this, but will stream of consciousness it and see if at the end I click post. I wanted a context in which to frame it, and a talk by the Sight & Sound editorial team I was supposed to be attending tomorrow would be been just that frame. I’m not going to the talk, so the frame has collapsed. I guess I’ll have to just outright say it, albeit within a set of confines, justifications and measures that make it less direct and frightening.
On Friday, I will be flying to San Sebastian, in the Basque part of Spain, to cover the film festival there as part of a YuNg CrItIkZ W[o]rKsh0p. Some details and doubts first.
Details. It is a programme ran by an organisation called Nisi Masa, who receive EU grants to operate these sort of things at a number of festivals (most recently Venice.) I’ll be amongst a team of 10 or so writers from around Europe. I’ll be writing for their platform, Nizimasine, which is sometimes digital and sometimes print, and circulated at the festival itself and online. I’m not sure exactly who the audience is, but they claim 40,000 readers of their Cannes edition. I’m free also to pitch to other outlets.
Some doubts. I don’t write often enough, I’m not good enough, nor am I remotely committed enough. I don’t particularly think I have the inclination, skill, networking aptitude or dedication to write about film professionally. Any scheme that would accept me is not worth doing. etc etc. Though my flights are half-paid for (unusual), I’m required to pay 8- euro for accommodation (also unusual.)
Some realisations. None of these things matter. Opportunities come rarely. Experience is good. Doing things is good. If it improves my CV, its good. If it doesn’t, its a very cheap holiday, a chance to meet people and a chance to see such films as Winter Sleep, Eden, Phoenix, Jauja, August Winds, Black Coal Thin Ice, Pasolini, The Tribe, In the Basement etc etc.
People I have spoken to have said that these things can be hard to get onto. (In this case, I feel not, but am willing to drop my cynicism on arrival.) I was also told they can be a tremendous opportunity. I was told San Sebastian is lovely, has a number of world premieres, cheap tapas, good weather and sights. I was told many things that meant at this time in my life, this is something i should go forward and do.
My business cards have been dispatched (LOL) My bag is mentally packed, and my programme coming together. From the 19th to the 26th September, I’ll be abroad, gravitating between watching films, fiendishly trying to write something of worth about them, and nervously trying to connect with other humans. It will be something.
'If you do not have that hunger—to be heard, to be read, to be questioned, to be criticised, to be ignored, and of course to be humbled and taught, time and time again—you will find out soon enough.'
Related. Devastating..Michael Pattison on Festivals and Film Criticism - It’s Alright For Some.