Here's Latauro with the fifth installment of his report from MIFF.
Great work, Lataurao. Appreciated!
LATAURO @ MIFF #5: REMAIN UPRIGHT!, FANTASMA, THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES, LUNACY, MARY
The following films were all seen over the course of one day. By the end of it, my mind was pretty fried... but not because of how many films I'd seen. This was not the greatest day of the festival for me, even though I got to catch ten minutes of the Geoffrey Rush panel and catch up with some friends over dinner. Luckily, the day got better as it wore on, but given how it begun, that was a given...
This was a short Russian film shown before FANTASMA, and I wasn't mad on it when it begun. At first it seemed like the film was another one of those "Don't you hate bad service from banks? Imagine if you gave in to your desire and told them off!" ideas, but it went further than that. The idea of a man fed up with the beaurocracy of not only his job but every aspect of his life is taken to a fairly interesting place. To give a clichÃ©d concept as this one such a new and original spin is nice to see. Unfortunately for the film, it was played before...
After half a dozen or so MIFF reviews, I became self-conscious about the fact that I was praising everything I saw. Now it goes without saying that of course I'd try to pick films that I would love, but even so, I was afraid of what an endless stream of positivity would do for my reputation as a critic (cue: "what reputation?"). So, the other day, I wished for a bad film so I could balance my reviews out a bit.
Half an hour into FANTASMA, I was reminded of the saying: "When God wants to punish you, he grants your wishes." Sticking with the God theme, the following phrase entered me head after an hour: "God doesn't close a door without kicking you in the nuts and raping your pets."
This is what the MIFF guide had to say about FANTASMA: "In a complex and highly original play on fiction and reality, Alonso's lead actros from LOS MUERTOS, Argentino Vargas, arrives at the sprawling San Martin Theater in Buenos Aires where he is attending a screening of the film. In his endeavours to locate the screening room, he gets lost and happens to bump into the star of Alonso's fist feature, Misael Saavedra, who is also fumbling his way through the nooks and crannies of this labyrinthine venue. Interestingly, it is the cinema that acts as the main protagonist as opposed to the actors acting as themselves." When a friend read this description out to me (including a quote from LA Weekly describing the "most complex and sophisticated uses of sound in a movie I've heard in years"), we all agreed it sounded fascinating. Hell, I was frustrated when I discovered, after the fact, that the only two hours I'd had free during last week coincided with a screening of FANTASMA I could have seen for free! To hell with it, I thought. Even though I'm seeing three other films that day, I'll go along early Sunday afternoon and take a look.
I tell you that story to explain why I didn't walk out of the film. I came very, very close. The things that stopped me were: (a) it was the only film I'd paid for outside of my mini-pass, so I felt like I'd somehow paid more for this than anything else; (b) I was seeing a film directly afterwards in the same cinema, so leaving in order to immediately line up seemed a little pointless; and (c) after sitting through about forty minutes of absolutely nothing, I had to see if there was a payoff. In my heart, I knew there wouldn't be, but I still had to find out.
If you're wondering why I've already gone five paragraphs without telling you about anything that happens in the film, it's because nothing happens in the film. I'm not kidding. There are about five people who wander around a building. They walk up stairs. They walk down corridors. They stare out the window. They do jack shit. No exaggeration: the only thing that kept me from going to sleep was counting the number of people who walked out during the film. Eighteen. Eighteen was a pretty high percentage of the audience, so it was significant. I don't blame them one bit, either. It's close-to-impossible to sit through this crap, and I was amazed to discover it ran for just over an hour. I would have sworn on a stack of Criterion DVDs that it had gone for two or more.
Look, I can get next to the idea of a slow moving film. I loved RUSSIAN ARK, ELEPHANT and GERRY to death. Absolutely loved them. But even if I'd hated them, I like to think I could still appreciate, or even acknowledge, the intent of the filmmakers to try something new. That's because those films had a point to them. FANTASMA has no point. It is thoroughly pointless. It's not like there were layers and layers here. There wasn't some deeper meaning we were missing. My friends and I are pretty astute and open-minded when we watch films, and for a long time we were searching desperately for something to grab onto. We were searching for the director's intent, and we could not find one. Even -- and I'm being generous here -- if there is some kind of hidden point to the film, it was so poorly delivered as to render it useless. Tell you what, if the director's point was to say, "People will fund any old shit!", then he succeeded. At best, this film is an advertisement for a sound effects CD of twenty or so random sounds. At worst, it's every single other thing you could say about it.
I'm not even willing to acknowledge it as being an experimental film, because he doesn't experiment with anything. I sat in rapt attention when I saw Stan Brakhage's DOGSTAR MAN. There was no sound in the theatre but the whirring of the 16mm projector, and the images were hypnotic. Brakhage actually experimented with his medium. Lisandro Alonso, the "director" of FANTASMA does absolutely nothing. In one sequence, Argentino Vargas, the star of Alonso's previous film LOS MEURTOS, goes to see a screening of LOS MEURTOS. There are only two other people in the cinema with him, and one of them leaves. This gave us a bit of a chuckle, given how it reflected what was going on in the cinema at the time, but then I got a bit pissed off. Alonso is clearly acknowledging that people are walking out of his film, and that it's his intent. It's like a juvenile "nobody understands me!" jab at the audience for not being clever enough. It was all I could do to stop myself yelling, "Fuck you, Alonso, your film fucking sucks!".
I'm sure he's one of those directors who enjoys making his audience angry, who revels in the bad reviews. A lot of filmmakers love getting an extreme reaction from their audiences, and revel in the negative reviews because it makes them some sort of maverick. Alonso is no maverick. He barely qualifies as a director. It's not often I refuse to accept an opposing opinion on a film to my own, but I really doubt the credibility of anyone who claims to like this film. It's actually qualified as one of the worst films I've ever seen in my life; the only thing making me doubt its position on that list is that it barely qualifies as a film. It's really that bad. It's not the kind of bad, however, that you should see for its car crash value. It's not entertaining in its crapness; it's just boring. Lisandro Alonso is officially the worst director on the planet, and has absolutely nothing of any value to contribute to cinema. "Avoid" seems far too benign a recommendation, as does "run screaming in the opposite direction, and don't quit until your legs give out". "What a waste of celluloid," is accurate, but barely covers it.
THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES
PIANO TUNER has the benefit of being the film I saw directly after FANTASMA. This makes it one of the greatest film experiences I've ever had. Not the greatest endorsement ever, given I'd be wide-eyed and applauding MONEY TRAIN if it followed FANTASMA, but still...
THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES reminds me a lot of THE MYSTERIOUS GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORATIONS OF JASPER MORELLO. The only problem is I have absolutely no idea what happened. Seriously. Two hours long and I don't know what the film was about. I know it's about a piano tuner hired by a weird deserted island scientist guy to do strange things, but I'm not sure what those things were.
It's an absolutely beautiful film with some stunning production design, and an even tone that is maintained throughout the running time. I honestly think this is a film I might have disliked had it not been for the previous session, but the truth is I was so happy to see things like edits and production design and dialogue, that I just sat there with a vaguely contended expression on my face. It's almost as if you're watching an excellent actor performing a brilliant monologue in a foreign language. PIANO TUNER is in English, but I just couldn't adjust myself to its story.
Fans of the Brothers Quay may be disappointed that the stop motion animation is minimal, but the design of all the live action sets and props keeps with the tone of their previous work. I know reaction to the film was fairly mixed from the people I spoke to, so I wouldn't give it a ringing endorsement, but it's still a beautiful film that may entertain many of you on an aesthetic level alone.
Fans of the stop motion animation (beyond the easy namecheck of Aardman) will appreciate the fact that I followed up a film by the Brothers Quay with a film by Jan Svankmajer. It's weird to see live actions films from any of these guys, but there's enough animation to remind you who they are. Svankmajer, in particular, fills his film with constant interstitial cutaways to animation of meat and body parts doing some very, very strange things. For the first half, it annoyed me, but as the film wore on I adjusted.
Actually, that's pretty much how I reacted to the entire film. The first half left me a bit unsure. A man suffering from psychotic episodes is befriended by a Marquis who turns out to be absolutely off his tree. It's a bit unsettling at times, but it's frequently played for laughs. Svankmajer tells us from the outset how much he's been inspired by Poe and the Marquis de Sade. Even though the entire film is based evenly on their writings, to me it felt like there was a clear line, with the first half very much in the style of Poe and the second in the style of Sade. It was around the midway point that I began to enjoy the film a lot more, but I don't know if that necessarily has anything to do with the style or influences. In the first half, I was still trying to get a handle on where the film was going, and I was a bit wary of at least one change of direction. Pretty soon, though, it gets back on track and reassures you that it is, in fact, the film you thought you were watching. That's when I relaxed and gave into it.
Vague descriptions of my thought processes aside, LUNACY raises some very interesting questions about the definition of sanity, and the ways we deal with it. Any expectations and judgments we have are deftly turned upside down; our smugness is soon thrown back in our faces. It's masterfully done. A film I wasn't sure about in the beginning soon proved its worthiness. It's a little rough around the edges -- the cinematography in particular is a tad grainy -- but it's well worth a look.
You know you've been watching some pretty weird shit when an Abel Ferrara begins and you think, "Ah, some mainstream fare! This will be a nice change of pace!". MARY is, in broad terms, about a man who directed a film about Jesus Christ with himself in the lead role. Given that was the synopsis being bandied around, the film spend surprisingly little time on this plot, instead focusing on a talk show host who is forced to examine his own faith.
Overall, it's a good film. I was expecting something a little more subversive from Ferrara, but it's quite tame. The film doesn't have a definitive answer to any of the questions it raises, but it certainly seems to come down on the side of faith. All of the subversiveness I was expecting seems to be channelled into Matthew Modine's egotistical director, almost as if that was the film that Ferrara would have made under different circumstances. Modine's lead actress, played by Juliette Binoche, goes on a journey of self-discovery the moment filming is finished. Playing Mary Magdalene has a profound effect on her, and she refuses to go back to America and her career.
What's strange about this film is that the two common plot descriptions (the one mentioning Modine's director defending his film, and the one describing Binoche's journey through Israel) feature minimally in the film. The main story follows Forest Whitaker's talk show host as he struggles to run his talk show as his pregnant wife (Heather Graham) berates him for not being home enough. The first act balances these plotlines evenly, and some of the writing -- particularly between Modine and Whitaker -- is just brilliant.
Where the film falters a little is its second act, which is almost entirely about Whitaker's inner demons. It's not a badly-told story, it's just that of the three storylines we're presented with in the beginning, this is the least original and least interesting. You find yourself wishing he'd check in with either Modine or Binoche a bit more frequently, despite Whitaker being completely engaging in his morally-dubious role.
I'm still in two minds as to whether film raises interesting questions or not. It certainly comes across as a film that would raise those questions, but having your characters ask them out loud is a lot different to exploring them. Yes, Whitaker's crisis of faith is given a suitable arc, but it doesn't give us anything new. The real questions are simply alluded to, either angrily by Modine or in passing between other characters. There are guests on Whitaker's program who discuss different aspects of faith and religion, but their points are never challenged or explored. Whitaker usually just nods, and we move on to the next scene.
The end of the film gets its momentum back, as all three main characters feature heavily. The subtle parallels between Modine and Mel Gibson are undermined when Modine name-checks PASSION OF THE CHRIST, but perhaps this was deliberate in order to discredit the association. I think it would have worked better without the acknowledgment, but it is what it is. While highly and consistently enjoyable, the film is not quite what it could have been, nor what it promises to be.