Tonight, Joss Whedon, director of THE AVENGERS and writer of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS* screens MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at Lincoln Center. Note to code rats: Whedon and Goddard (see interview, below) are seeking a game developer for CITW. Whedon's new film affords me the opp to remind folks who haven't seen CITW just how worthwhile it is, and to also note five other 2012 favorites, two of which don't yet have distro. Please ignore all typos.
You can get tickets to tonight's screening HERE
From a director who consistently delivers a gritty, nearly judgment-free look at our innate humanity and savagery, often within even the most extreme circumstances, comes a haunting, instant classic about one of the most important issues of our time. AMOUR played the usual cities, yet it could and should have a far greater impact if made available online and on PPV. Hurricane Rita, France's 2003 heatwave and countless other events remind us also of the dilemma of elder care in natural disasters.
You can read my review of Amour from the New York Film Festival HERE
Gritty in its execution, rich in visual metaphor, and completely naturalistic in its populist subversion (and I don't mean this in a pejorative sense), ARAF is the story of Zehra (Neslihan Ataguul ) a young woman seemingly intent on leaving her rural nowheresville-town amidst constant reminders of why she has to go, as well as naysayers who share with her their own defeatists sensibilities, disguised as practical advice. ARAF's heroine emerges as both national metaphor and case study of many young Turks - in fact, at the NYFF press conference, director Yeşim Ustaoğlu explained that the ARAF's episodes are an aggregate of actual case studies.
In her desire to leave, she is outgrowing her boyfriend Olgun (Baris Hacihan), with whom her rapport seems more fraternal than romantic, and one easily imagines how quickly their youth will fade after marriage and, presumably, many children. Testing her freedom, she embarks in a series of trysts with a country-criss-crossing truck-driver (perhaps a metaphorical bad choice for a nation which pays a price when it seeks too much outside interaction), and when she tells her boyfriend (with whom she has not yet had sex) that she is pregnant, he goes into a violent frenzy and tries to burn her house down.
These depictions of a misbegotten alliance and corruption from without, followed by an absolute tyrannical reaction and violence within, seem again, like terrific metaphors for peoples and nations walking a tough line, though one senses in the character of Zehra, that if not she, then her daughter (if she were to have one) would live much better than prior generations in terms of elemental expansion of opportunity and all that this implies for subsequent generations. It might make for a great Turkish sitcom, or better yet, dramedy.
The unexpectedly non-catastrophic ending seemed didactic, though perhaps not in a bad way, or rather in a manner which an outsider shouldn't presume to judge, and it raises an important question: to what extent is tempering dreams to human scale amidst calamity perhaps an inhibitor of bold thought and to what extent is it perhaps an important grounding element for coming-of-age youth who've made bad decisions, in a transitional country? More succinctly, does the marriage at the film's conclusion signal an end or a beginning?
At NYFF #50 hearing the director speak with a pride in her land and people, and hearing her near social-worker acumen when speaking about young persons in Turkey, affirmed again that film and filmmakers are oracles of our time and irrespective of thousands of years of a certain kind of history, women are coming into their own in Turkey, more importantly in crucial rural and semi-rural regions. I hope she runs for political office, though she is probably accomplishing more making movies.
In addition to its localized depiction of a classic cultural and generational quandary (which is beautifully shot - waiting for a truck on a dingy, snowy rural road emerges as cinematic beauty lush in its stark grit), ARAF contains one of the most harrowing scenes affirming (at least that's how I read it) a women's right to choose to appear on any screen in the East or the West or more importantly somewhere in between (the subtitle "somewhere in between" was added to the title for foreign export), in 2012. I hope it'll make it onto screens soon, and I'm looking forward to director Ustaoğlu's next film. I would love to know what Turkish-Americans who've been here less than five years think of this film.
BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW
Audience member to director, at post screening Q&A: Have you eve taken any drugs, or [did you do] anything [with drugs] while you were working on this film?
Panos Cosmatos, Director: No. Well, in high school I did, but I haven't in a really long time."
Audience Member: "Wow, that's even more badass
This is the kind of film I go to festivals to discover. Although it's a little storyboard-ish and maybe some (though certainly not all) of its set design is overly informed by homage, there is (as is often said in reviews of good debut films) no doubt an original vision, in this case an icy warm execution and a sense of control that makes for a dually seductive and nightmarish scenario of an ingenue-slash-savant (beautifully played by Eva Allan, who delivers a silent film performance without the silent film excess) held captive as a guinea pig by a Dr. Frankenstein of sorts, on a warped quest for a mind-control utopia promising better living through chemistry circa 1983 (hence the DeLorean).
Kudos to the Tribeca Film Festival for screening this. In fact, if it had not been cancelled at the last minute form the first night of press screenings, my experience of the festival would have been hugely different. Instead, BLACK BUTTERFLIES, a film about South African poet Ingrid Jonker was shown. By way of a musical merging of the two films' titles, here is a randomly selected song from Black Moth Super Rainbow.
Although I missed the 2013 TFF I'm looking keenly forward to TFF's second decade -- with a new artistic director, I hope they are going to expand their programming with much more challenging cinema.
BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is available on DVD.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, or Socrates Dissatisfied, or I Don't Want To Start Any Blasphemous Rumors, But I Think That God Has A Sick Sense of Humor, or it's up to you not to heed the call-up.
If the end of the world is when you say what you really want to say, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard are giving the final say over the human race's fate to the fool on the hill - a stoner literally trapped between a rock and a hard place, who must decide whether or not to exercise his capital "E" Existentially heroic "NO" to negate his facticity. See Sartre, Being & Nothingness.
Simply put, this ode to the horror genre is a transcendent parable for our times and a timeless indictment of human nature - once again affirming that it is often through cartoons, Sci-Fi and Horror, that humanity has been delivered great parable. To be done with the judgment of God, indeed - or, at least, an existentially heroic "No" to corporate buck-passing, self-justified by a gross, utilitarian, reflexive calculus of self-preserving satisfied pigs (as opposed to Socrates dissatisfied) in fealty to a, or perhaps only the idea of, a, vindictive, wrathful God.
My intention herein (and as stated by Whedon during an interview conducted at SXSW 2012) is not to trample on anyone's beliefs. Though I claim myself a stone-cold atheist, secular humanist with a (non-metaphysical) pantheistic belief set for whom Being & Nothingness is a singularly important book - I know far too well the value a belief system can have. We also know the ungodly damage caused daily by same - whether it's a drive by shooting of a day school for girls in Pakistan, or the burning of a sacred text on a suburban lawn in Florida.
This film does not subvert God's word -- it subverts the intentions of those who, by staking far too great a claim over what they passionately believe to be a revealed truth of divinity, subvert the very message of God's word (see the gas station attendant, and the former tenants of said cabin). And perhaps, much worse, it depicts causal, workaday nihilists who simply, innately know that in order to survive, someone always has to get thrown under the bus.
During SXSX 2012, I went around Austin preaching about this to every film writer I met as a post-Matrix, process-aware, self-aware film, though certainly not mere spoof like, say Scream, warning -- well, begging -- anyone I told not to use that line. The PR company asked me if they could quote ma=e and I said okay; I don't know if they did, but I told a lot of folks in the Sundance lounge, and I definitely convinced a few who would otherwise have no interest, to see the film, adding that it was not a film I would normally bother to see. I simply believed, as it were, in this film this much; even when I considered the extent to which, as someone who is overwhelmingly indifferent to horror films, I might be overly impressed with the fact that I actually loved THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, I still find the subversion of Pop-Cult with bigger themes - and, as importantly, vice versa -- in this film to be truly unique. And as powerful and, well, important as, say, ARGO, or any of the Oscar-nominated films, bar none. It also boasted the best bestiality - necrophilia actually, insofar as the beast is taxidermed -- tongue kiss twixt archetypical blonde and wolfhead.
I never got around to posting about this film from SXSW, I was busy instead file this impromptu write-up on Iran's persecution of filmmakers (and the year prior I lost a day of screenings working on this fundraiser post, after Japan's nuclear disaster from The Sundance lounge which proved very useful to me.
I was able to leave my computer to head cross-town to the press junket (a bizarre experience in media control) and I sat down with Whedon and Goddard, beginning the interview with an inchoate question about the religious notion of a vindictive God, and Whedon explained that beyond simply religion, "There were certain societal, sort of, trends and structures that look like they could use a little improving."
Michael Vazquez: I loved that you made the paranoid fool the voice or reason.
Joss Whedon: The fool is actually usually traditionally that character; for example in King Lear - it's his job to amuse, and also to understand. And also, we're writers, so I think we respond to that guy, the one who's separate from things jus a little bit, whether it's because he's in a womb of reefer or because he's, you know, anti-social and has emotional problems like me.
Drew Goddard: He's also the one that everyone always dismisses. Because he is dismissed, it gives him that perspective.
MV: I appreciate the extent to which he's a stoner and not an alcoholic
JW: (laughing) We can write both.
MV: This seems to me like it would be great for build-outs like a video game.
JW: I think so; very much.
JW: The one thing we learned though is we are not video game designers. And there's definitely been (voice trails off)
DG: Its' a very different skill set
JW: It's a very different skill set, and having worked in genre a lot, I've noticed that when filmmakers try to make a video game, it just doesn't work. You have to just find videogame makers and just trust them to do their job.
DG: But we'd certainly offer them a lot of ideas and venues
JW: Yeah, we'll let them. If there's a videogame designers out there, please, take it.
MV: Can you tell me about the set design?
DG: The set design I was influenced by my hometown -- at least for the grown-up section. Because I grew up in Los Alamos New Mexico which is, you know, it's a nuclear lab - all they do is create weapons. But it's [a community comprised of] suburban people who are trying to do the best they can, and I would just go to their jobs and watch this mixture of hi-tech and suburbia run together, and when it came time to deign so much of this, I just pulled pictures of the Manhattan Project and said, 'Make my hometown! Make my hometown!, and a lot of that set design comes from there.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is available on DVD. To be done with the judgment of God, indeed.
At the fifth annual HOPE conference, I along with a few thousand others participated in a rudimentary feat of social engineering: from the podium, one of the speakers dialed up a fast food restaurant in the United States, convinced the manager that he was calling from corporate headquarters, and succeeded in having the manager perform a task - checking supplies or some such thing, after which he cordially and professionally said good-bye to the restaurant manager and hung up the phone, to wild applause and raucous cheers.
In COMPLIANCE, a film in which the title is the star, a phone call is also made to a fast-food restaurant, and the social engineering that occurs provides a kind of trans-personalities litmus test during which the Friday night crew will all run their programs from their respective conditioning, which informs their vantage points of denial, self-preservation, bad-faith, low-self esteem, class constriction, opportunism, and above all, the servitude to fear.
An equally scathing indictment of human nature as THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (without any of the budget, special effects, nor metaphysics), this case study (based on actual case studies; this is not solely a parable) takes place entirely within the confines of a fast-food chain -- a highly symbolic location which both heightens its parabolic poeticism and manifests its practical importance as exemplum of our inability to see as individuals, and thus beyond the power of presumptive control over us by (presumed) Authority, (which like THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, is a voice on a telephone) to which (nearly all of) the characters in this film adhere, surrendering their volition and indeed, their very common sense in subordination to Hierarchy (after all, nobody wants to lose their job) which they follow to, again, a cruelly mindless logic, irrespective of the dehumanizing consequence.
Tragically, this film's relevance is not only based on real events, case studies (over 90% of test subjects behave the same exact way, the director explained after the screening); its relevance is found also in the recent real-life snuffing out of two of the billions of life forms on this planet, more or less capable of contributing, and doing so: a British nurse, believing herself to be in compliance with reality as she knew it, was lied to and humiliated by a radio station, and a promising young man with a track record of civic-minded computer activism, who, fearing the many Draconian laws still on the books (in this time of ostensible change). Both are dead, both by suicide.
Why a film like this doesn't get an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, I will never know. I honestly wonder if it had been French if I would have given it greater attention. SImply put, this is a very smart American indie and it should have gotten greater recognition.
COMPLIANCE is, like BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW a film which affirms one of the key reasons one attends festivals.
At that (2005?) HOPE conference, like anything else that was discussed during the panels, the conference was really about technology, not mal-intent, be it lock-picking contests or the challenge to shut down the network. It was terrific to hear Steve Wozniak talk about his early days as a phone phreaker, a fact which has been noted. I also remember the discussion of the case of Kevin Mitnick, who recently published a book.
At the time, I presumed that we would change the laws on the books which woefully mis-categorize hacking with cracking, white hats with black hats, and all of the above with brick and mortar mechanics, rather than cyber mechanics -- not unlike the mandatory minimum drug sentences (which I wrote against during the ravey days of the -90s) which weigh the paper a substance is on instead of the substance itself, making say, a sheet of paper blotted with a 16 doses of a substance, far heavier than a medicine dropper of a substance containing thousands of doses. I happen to believe these substances should be legal in all cases, and that's another discussion, though it's nice to see therapeutic psychedelics (a topic I wrote about in the '90s, examining the work of MAPS and their help of veterans with PTSD) getting wider attention.
THE SEVEN ACTS OF MERCY, or Les Miserables, We're No Angels, or Freeze Die, Come To Life
This near-silent story of the slow re-humanization, the redemption of individuals which we call marginalized takes place in a shanty that could be anywhere, and happens to be on the edges of Turin, Italy, which is perhaps fitting, given that city's famous shroud with its ghostly imprint, and the absolutely beautiful final scene in which two street urchins riding on a bus seem to disappear. Oddly, this scene reminded me of the end of Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince" when God asks his angels to bring him the most sacred items in the city.
The film revolves around a trinity of characters: Antonio, an old man (Roberto Herlitzka) a young woman, Luminata played by Olimpia Melinte who is master of internal monologue and reaction shots, and a young boy Max, Ignazio Oliva. who follows her like a guardian angel of sorts. The relationship between these latter two had me thinking about a film I saw long ago called FREEZE DIE COME TO LIFE. Additionally, the train sequence reminds me of the opening shot of a train in STYLE WARS.
Taking place on the growing economic fringes of the city, the film specifically depicts the daily struggle by illegal immigrant Luminata, an amoral survivor, snatching bags and purses to get money for her nightly rental of a shed, as life goes from bad to brutal, in her quest to obtain ID papers from a hospital morgue employee, Angelo, (Stefano Cassetti), who, like a few other characters in the film, is cold in his dealing with her, yet has enough compassion to give her food and water.
Despite its ecclesiastical title, and the fact that I might see this film differently if it were called something else, whether or not this is an attempt to semiotically infuse Christian messages, can be an irrelevant question regarding much of Italian cinema, in which, as has been said many times before, Christianity is nearly a part of the Italian psyche.
And, simply put, the Christian messages herein are absolutely beautiful, and universal. The idea of grace being relative and nearly unrecognizable in challenging contexts, drives home the fact that it is mortal grace which will save humanity, and does so daily. I would love to read a Pasolini review of this film.
Nobody seems to be selling God here; they are simply manifesting that idea that even one small act of good in a hellish universe is not just precious, not just essential, but doable - and by anyone, anytime, and in this case, from within very real modes of existence at yes, the fraying edges of our societies, where many individuals are living increasingly - to employ gross euphemism - nomadic existences. Although this is a film which the less patient, less tolerant might find boring (the long silences), or disturbing (there are two kidnappings and a major beating), I hope that you can discover it for yourself soon, though it's certainly not for everybody. Kudos to one of my favorite film series, Lincoln Center's Open Roads: Italian Cinema Now (which is coming up, though I have not seen any of this year's films) for screening this one. I was actually surprised that this didn't play the NYFF, it was certainly worthy, even if there would have been walk-outs.
My first ever HuffPo award for Best Nearly Wordless Performance sees a three-way tie between Roberto Herlitzka, Olimpia Melinte and Eva Allan. Andrea Riseborough's near-silent performance in SHADOW DANCER is a contender for this year.
While I don't love best-of lists, in an effort to promote films which may not yet have been seen, here are my 10 favorite films from 2012, which manifest the fact that I need to attend more festivals.
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