Tag Archives: CCC

TRAVEL HIPSTERS IN PERIL/ ‘THE LONELIEST PLANET’

Lonliestplanethand_body
Hard to write about a film I like so much as The Loneliest Planet, which finds Julia Loktev hiking the Georgian Caucuses with two of the best actors alive. Gael Garcia Bernal is certainly in love, or some modern equivalent, and his lover is experiencing some of the existential tremors associated with that condition. The trailer to this film left a lot of people leaning forward and still more begging quietly: wtf?

The Loneliest Planet absolutely refuses to disappoint.

What is becoming my most common complaint applies here: why the music? Loktev’s transcendent-ascetic-meditation on love and life and cold is so damn, well, meditative, that you hate to hear it ruined by self-important bursts of scoring. That they cut out in a way designed to draw attention to themselves works hard against every other strategy The Loneliest Planet is interested in (or capable of) deploying.

Some have criticized the film’s opening shot, which frames Hani Furstenberg (Yossi & Jagger anyone?) in agony or something-like-it, nude under a curtain of frigid water. How we know the water is frigid is either the great mystery of the magicofthecinema, artful color-timing, performance, or a cocktail (some would say a Lok-tail.) Whatever it is: it’s brilliant. The shot is actually typical of the Contemporary Cinema of Contemplation in that it tunes (hijacks) the viewer’s mind (and gut) to the frequency of the film. The quickest way to the viewer’s attention is the visceral. Once we (they) are looking very closely, quite unwillingly chained to the teeth-chattering cold-ness of a young girl’s morning ritual (actually, I hope not) then the narrative hits us behind like a train—a very slow train. Maybe it’s more like a glacier.

But no less forceful.

This film is extremely re-watchable. This film is the plaintive nightmare of the travel hipster. The reason people choose to backpack through remote wild (presumably) and not to ride tour buses around Trafalgar Square all day is that the real world still carries some allure. But they don’t call it that for nothing. The real world can occasionally puncture, subvert, destroy the conventions of the first world. Privilege, a few generations removed from the source of earned-wealth, can be a point of enormous weakness. And you don’t want to be reminded. You really– you just don’t. So toughen up you hipster pansies!

But really, the film is compassionate, and what’s better: far too smart to preach. Like the best of the CCC, The Loneliest Planet seems incapable of violating that deceptively old-fashioned platitude: show-don’t-tell. Rather than shout at you from a mountaintop, it whispers till you’re close, and then sticks its hands in your pockets. (I never said it was for the faint of heart.)

-Max Berwald

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, Streaming on Netflix, Thoughts

BETWEEN THINGS/ ‘BEYOND THE HILLS’ REVIEW

1_e_Cristian-Mungiu-_Beyond-the-Hills

Beyond the Hills has to be commended for talking up to its audience in such a way as to cause completely unwarranted optimism in the young cinephile. Christian Mungiu might be called a contemporary master of the close-up. He’s also so unassuming as to be disarming. So little posturing. So little talk, so much walk.

And like many great directors, he makes it look easy. The opening shot is kind of a stunner. Although, again, the word is unassuming. All Mungiu has to do is commit, and commit he does. The camera follows the back of a head, heading the wrong way up a crowded train platform. By wrong way, I mean that everyone else in the known universe is going the opposite direction of this small figure (which, as the first person on screen, we have already subconsciously assumed to be our hero.) The salmon upstream.

The conflict is so obvious as to seem narratively cheap, or visually worse—a type of shorthand or cliché. But Mungiu sticks with it. He lets the battle continue maybe ten seconds longer than you might expect. He believes in the psychological effectiveness of the tried and the true, and he comes out on top. From the beginning, we’re straining forward. We’re trying to pick out the face of our hero, and once we’ve picked it out, we’re trying to draw from it some sort of truth. Some sort of certainty, or a verification of a wholly knowable psychological/ emotional/ spiritual state. What we get is a bottomless well, and down it you shall surely fall.

Beyond the Hills is an apt title for a film all about peering beyond the physical, about trying to get a peak beyond the geography of our world and our bodies. What’s out there begins as anyone’s guess, but becomes a sort of key question. What’s in there represents an echo of that question, or else its natural and lonely answer. The battle between good and evil on earth is rendered by Mungiu as a love story, and if the viewer clings to that love story even as the story hurtles forward, they won’t be disappointed.

Mungiu, a student of English literature, has since drawn upon the Cinema of Contemplation’s progress—whose films in particular is a question I leave for the comments—and come away with a generous supply of techniques for filming his questions or theses or stories.

Besides the obvious durational influence (the aesthetics of the slow are here) there is also the tendency to show the corner of something, so as to make us look closer. To show a fragment of the whole, not to imply helpfully (about the nature of the whole) as a documentarian might, but to productively torment, to bring us to the question of what is that? This is the ledge beneath which the uncanny is always creeping, ready to remind us how small we are.

This particular tendency has led filmmakers to photograph the backs of lovely young girls’ heads for a long time, and it’s a game that Mungiu is up for. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, but I suspect that back-of-the-head game is a bit different in its end, but hardly in its means.

The other great locus of the Mungiu-uncanny (although some jaded viewers may find it so boneheaded as to embarrass me) is the way he mines his environment (while many directors would find it one-note) for expressionism. Expressionism as a tendency is criminally rare and clumsy these days, and the clumsiness and rarity made mentionable by one another. That is, because solid environmental expressionism has all but vanished from the Western cinematographic vocabulary, it’s become a psychological heavy-hitter again.

The back of our hero’s head, at one point, only partially eclipses an out-of-focus window, perhaps occupying a sixteenth of the frame. Beyond this window, snow is falling. The falling snow is the only mentionable movement in the frame. The space between it and the (in-focus) back of our hero’s head, is the only space we wish (subconsciously or quite consciously depending on the viewer) to occupy, because it contains the face, and if we only could see that face, we feel, we would be able to guess the ending of this parable. We would be able to see whether all of this were occurring in heaven, or in hell.

But the world is never that simple, and graciously, generously, torturously, vitally, neither is Mungiu’s cinema.

-Max Berwald

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, Thoughts

SLEEPING WITH/THROUGH KIAROSTAMI/ ‘LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE’

like_someone_in_love
Hitchcock said something like: drama is life with the boring bits cut out.

If we’re to take him at his word, maybe we have less use for drama now than ever. Kiarostami is doing something different. I don’t think it’s radical to suppose there’s drama to what he does, but it’s surely life with the “boring bits” restored.

Kiarostami has talked openly about a cinema of naps (my own phrase,) suggesting that falling asleep during one of his films might add a level of experience. Tuning out becomes a radical type of “reading.” The work becomes a context to be lived and breathed inside, rather than a text to be read.

Such a philosophy is useful (at the very, very least) insofar as it gives us a context for understanding what’s so fun about a Kiarostami. Like Someone In Love may not be the director’s best, but it’s probably better than Certified Copy, a certifiably great movie that it seems decidedly in dialogue with. (They were both made in countries other than Iran, and address cultural differences only in the sense that they are there. The rest is about characters, some of their relationships colored somewhat mysteriously. Such relationships are distinct but comparable to those that David Denby described as “perversely ambiguous” in Certified Copy, if that helps you.)

Like Someone In Love is not so unfathomably opaque as some critics would have you believe. It only looks opaque when you try to read it out in Bazinian, Freudian, Kantian or Ebertian terms. Watching the film is not so much like staring at an opaque text as like putting on a prickly, woolen sweater. Maybe a family heirloom, but more likely an artifact from an old relationship.

The greatest gift the movie has to offer is its willingness to wander (unless someone really has broken down the mechanics of why everything-follows-everything in this odyssey.) We get really intimately acquainted with our small cast of characters, and we have plenty of time to see them being themselves.

That’s the medicinal quality of Like Someone In Love: there’s plenty of time. That restoration of time, the concession or discovery that the passage of time need not be feared—but that it can be savored—is something that is whispered to you, in the audience, until you resort to frantic texting or else leave the theater for Dead Man Drop. In a culture where “time is money” can, occasionally, be uttered without irony, there is perhaps nothing so unnerving as a film that suggests just being alive may be enough. That looking carefully at the things that surround us everyday might be worthwhile.

I think some have been reluctant to talk about Kiarostami in terms of a contemporary contemplative cinema because of his metaphysical/ surreal bent. But you find that in Weerasethakul-World as well. There is a way of being surreal, of leaving the world outside the theater outside the theater, and all the while keeping a firm grasp on the reflexive consciousness of the viewer. Kiarostami’s new film is uncanny in much the same way that Certified Copy was; you hold your breath at first, wondering what secrets are about to be explained to you, and all the while they explain themselves to your untrained ears. Whether you start feeling the film a fourth of the way through, halfway through, or in its final moments is not entirely up to you– but I believe it is partially up to you. Think of this like listening to narrative music.

If you’re looking for a thematic statement, you might look elsewhere. But for introspection, sally forth.

Kiarostami reminds us that in a culture sluggish with the weight of anti-realism, of pop-fantasy and dependably body/mind/soul-alienating commercialism, a film that grounds itself in the rhythm of real-life and real-unknowability, is radical.

-Max Berwald

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, Thoughts

‘LOURDES’/ “UNCERTAIN CRAP” IN THE QUASI ART HOUSE

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 1.21.58 PM

“Miracles happen why play with if or if not. Why not have a movie that does not beat around the bush. Anyone can get healing at any time God wants and He does not jerk people around like secular writers of religious things who write about uncertain crap. He heals who He wants when He wants and it never hurts to ask. if He heals you you are healed – period. Also the half-assed level of faith displayed by many in this movie is frankly the most unreal part about it. The movie is just not how it is, which too bad because it would have been nice to see a more positive display of things. Basically the script is written by a struggling agnostic and represents the typical crap that wanders through their feeble non-commital minds. It is one of the Jesus got people to share the loaves and fishes rather than multiply types – crap. Miracles happen – the pretending what if or if not is literary crap not some dynamic cinematic twisty who can tell it is in the eye of the beholder thing. I can even tell you how the screen writer votes.” (sic) – Netflix User Review. 2 stars.

Some critics have noticed an increasing polarization in the cinema after the year 2000, with the art house becomes more “artsy” and the megaplex becoming more commercial. This is evidenced by the vigorous film culture alive online and at certain festivals, as well as the increasing laughability of any given year’s top ten (at the box office.)

If we take a year like 2011, which I have a noted admiration for, and look at the top ten grossing films, we get this:

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  3. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  4. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1
  5. Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol
  6. Kung Fu Panda 2
  7. Fast Five
  8. The Hangover Part II
  9. The Smurfs
  10. Cars 2

Well, fair enough with the top 5, I’d say. Hyper-visible, mega-budget franchise breadwinners. Crap, but tried and true and expected crap. Aside from the Tourette’s-like compulsion toward colons and sub-subtitles, nothing out of the ordinary. But what are we to make of the next 5 entries? Laughability turns to horror as we near Cars 2 and The Smurfs. (The latter enjoyed a 500% profit margin at the box office, virtually assuring a hundred years of Smurfs sequels and reboots.) What are we to make of this?

Business, as they say, is business.

And the deliverable product embedded in all of these movies is a kind of certainty. It’s a certainty that nothing will deviate from the sacred code of multiplex expectation. You can take your children and your grandma and no one will be in the least surprised by anything. The producers and directors and screenwriters are complicit, right down the line, and obediently oblige to undergo the transformation from artist to cog.

While the system that gives us The Smurfs 2 and eight Harry Potter films is practically predicated on its own eventual collapse (a blog post for another day) it remains muscular right now. The certainty it pedals seeps down into the farthest reaches of its mainstay audience’s subconscious (or barely conscious) expectations, creating a feedback loop in which the slave becomes the master becomes the slave. (Having formatively molded the wants of their audience, the studios are doing what they perceive their audience to demand of them, and experiencing (not-so) puzzling diminishing returns.)

But the proliferation of entries into the new canon of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema continues to demonstrate its potential for provocation.

When you look at a film by a contemplative director, there’s always a tendency to see their work at the art house as hanging in a naïve void. With art films becoming more durational, and requiring ever more intense commitment, patience, love, and attention, how frustrating it must be to mistakenly believe they exist as abstract or theoretical musings, off to the side of the arterial mainstream.

The truth is that the Cinema of Contemplation is a reaction against the certainty of the box office. Here, the currency is narrative ambiguity. This ambiguity seeds contemplation, because contemplation becomes the only way to derive meaning. The burden of creation is shared between artist and audience.

All that said, sometimes one who enjoys (apparently profoundly, even morally) the certainty sold by Hollywood stumbles across the Cinema of Contemplation. The wheels are greased for this accidental discovery, by online streaming. Netflix and Hulu Plus allowed the user above to stumble across Lourdes (2009.)

Now, Lourdes isn’t particularly demanding Contemplative Cinema. It’s got some of the tonal qualities, and has been clearly influenced by that tendency, but it’s hardly an exemplar. There’s a lot of great conventional drama, commentary, and some humor in Jessica Hausner’s film. The characters are expressive and a lot of the missing context is never called on, so you don’t really miss it. It’s quirkier than it is austere; sillier than it is theologically rigorous, or existentially morose… you get the point.

But often times we’re presented with visual truths that are difficult to explain, to understand, to reconcile. What kind of world is this movie happening in? It looks like a movie, it sounds like a movie, but occasionally it presents bits of evidence that contradict one another. Sometimes characters appear to have souls, concerns, doubts, and sometimes they experience profound difficulty communicating with one another. Sometimes what we see on screen is not clearly explained to us by the characters. One could almost say that Lourdes resembles real life…

But it does not resemble the world photographed (not even) in The Smurfs, nor the one in Harry Potter. For all their magic, you usually know just what’s going on in films like these.

My point is that it doesn’t take much ambiguity to provoke. If you read over the commenter’s problems with Lourdes again, you’ll notice that the hostility is almost always focused at the locus of ambiguity, at certain doubts about the way that the universe works, presumed to be complicit between artist and character.

-Max Berwald

1 Comment

Filed under 2011 Art House, Streaming on Netflix, Thoughts

‘ELENA’/ IMPRESSIONS

Screen Shot 2012-12-15 at 5.18.28 PM

Elena‘s opening shot recalls Silent Light, with its real-time exploration of daybreak. In Elena we aren’t privileged with movement though. We sit still, among the branches of a wintry tree. However, Elena‘s opening does have an element of travel. There’s a slow rack-focus going on, creeping through the branches, so that over time, as more light filters into the world, we are forced to look deeper and deeper, through the branches. A crow eventually comes into sharp focus. This traveling may or may not be analogous to the tracking forward in Silent Light.

Either way, the world wakes up before Elena does.

“Shoot this film in black and white and cast Barbara Stanwyck as Elena, and you’d have a 1940s classic.” (Ebert) Well, not exactly. The tendency towards a Cinema of Contemplation has again changed everything. Here we monitor Elena’s waking with an objective stillness that recalls neorealism, while at the same time completely uprooting it. This is not dead time, but reclaimed time.

What we can say about the neorealism connection in Elena is that the camera’s voice seems forfeited. The aesthetic might be composed but it’s not really admirable, because it’s not mobilized to any particular end except “reporting.” It’s not crazy to ask for more from a film like Elena. It’s already got the Philip Glass score in there, driving at some sort of commentary. Especially given the first shot, there seems to be some sort of longing to communicate-via-camera.

But mostly we just get the variety of wide shots that leave details intentionally obscured, so that it takes some time to figure out who’s thinking what (facially.) And all of this without stretching into the kind of durational-endurance territory necessary for solid contemplation.

Although: as the film boils on, the cinematography does begin to communicate the sterile insulation of wealth. There’s melancholy to the blue grey cleanliness, the shine of everything in Elena’s husband’s home. Especially his car: a too-clean generic thing that successfully tucks its master away from the world, where he can switch manically between classical and bluesy-rock radio.

We can also see here a pleasant commitment (increasingly common) to selecting the focus of a sequence and holding that focus. You can see the tendency, and you want it to work, but there’s no commitment in Elena to this style of commitment. The trouble is this movie is never as radical as its, I’ll admit, difficult-to-pin-down posturing. (You do get the sense the film wants to be radical, although I’m not sure how. It might be Elena’s preoccupations with class that give the game away.)

It has to be said: the commitment to charting routine, and even, more trickily, filming extraordinary events methodically, bit by bit, as if they were a part of quite ordinary routines, begins to pay dividends right away.

The gym provides a place for Elena’s husband to engage artificial problems with simple solutions: the treadmill.

Another admirable thing about Elena:its great breadth. Hiking into the film’s world, you realize how constrained much of contemporary film is in its exploration of a few conventionally interesting cinematic spaces in the lives, or adventures, of its characters. The spaces explored in Elena are ordinary, but the filmmakers handle each with equal attention, so that we see the characters move through gymnasiums and churches and hospitals and homes in scenes that usually consist of normalcy, with a single signature twist of irony, or jolting comment. It’s an effective mechanism for reaching even a jaded viewer. We learn that we don’t know what’s going on. And when things are as complex as the real and ordinary world, they can take 110 minutes (easily) to understand.

The screenplay alternates between quiet mystery and fast-paced narrative gameplay. One fun example of the latter is a father daughter scene, in which a character is colored as suffering from a chronic inability to do anything but hungrily consume. “Drugs and alcohol only on the weekends,” she says, but we learn that she lives off the support of a hardly reluctant father whom she hates. She’s always seen hungrily smoking.

Troublingly, the quest for prettiness seems to have left the low-class, no-income household, well… easy on the eyes at best, and desirably cozy at worst. Since there’s a lot of thematic resonance riding on the contrast between high-income insulated living and low-class needy living, this is actually a big problem.

The film consistently devotes its attention to the coming and going of light, with entire sequences devoted to the switching on and switching off of indoor lights, and the shutting out or letting in of natural light. Curtains and fluorescents.

The low-income family the film tentatively works to build sympathy for, is interestingly unsympathetic. The potbellied dad (Elena’s son) walks about demanding beer and playing video games with his slacker son.

Finally, the most interesting thing about Elena might just be its strangely conservative politics, framing the low-income family as a bunch of moochers, sustained only by the willing violence of the titular character. Were it not for her risk, her amorality, and her charity, they might starve in their own laziness before, the film suggests, they would seek employment. If there’s an irony to this, a more nuanced statement about the paralyzed low-income strata of contemporary Moscow— it’s lost on me. Even the film’s final showpiece arrives as a scene from another film completely.

I didn’t understand this film.

-Max Berwald

Screen Shot 2012-12-15 at 5.21.35 PM

Leave a comment

Filed under 2011 Art House, Reviews, Thoughts

2011: GOOD OR GREAT YEAR FOR GLOBAL ART HOUSE?

Screen Shot 2012-12-15 at 4.15.50 PM

2011 was a great year for the cinema at large, but especially the art house. There’s been increasing complaint about the polarization of the cinema between the extremely commercial-commodity film and the extremely subsidized art house film (see Michel Ciment’s terrific SFIFF State of the Cinema address from 2003,) but so far, the polarity suits me fine.

For your consideration, 2011 gave to the international art house cinema:

Shame (McQueen) UK

The Skin I Live In (Almodovar) Spain

Certified Copy (Kiarostami) Iran/ Italy

Melancholia (Trier) Denmark/ US

Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt) US

The Future (July) US

Tabloid (Morris) US

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Ceylan) Turkey

Elena (Zvyagintsev) Russia

The Turin Horse (Tarr) Hungary

Miss Bala (Naranjo) Mexico

Hors Satan (Dumont) France

House of Pleasures (Bonello) France

The Tree Of Life (Malick) US

Long-takes, the continuing affectation of the Contemporary Cinema of Contemplation, were used to a variety of ends. Although, for most devastating, soul-rending long-takes, the award continues to go to Bela Tarr (this time for The Turin Horse,) they were also weaponized anew for some (somehow) Tarantino-esque existential banter in Ceylan’s incredible Once Upon A Time In Anatolia.

2011 also included new career highs for a number of prominent names/auteurs. Lars von Trier arguably doing his best work in years (and completely reclaiming science fiction as a genre) with the at once operatic, novel-esque and ceaselessly cinematic Melancholia.

The “thriller” got the art house treatment from Gerardo Naranjo, with his breakout political-adventure-suspense ride, Miss Bala (working overtime as a critique of body commerce and a send-up of girl-as-object psychology.) Miss Bala follows a would-be beauty-pageant entrant on a harrowing journey into the underbelly of a prominent drug cartel.

Almodovar and Kiarostami both delivered the perfect ratio of their usual preoccupations to the completely unexpected (The Skin I Live In, and Certified Copy respectively.) The latter: romance as narrative puzzle. The former: colorful saga of lust, revelation, punishment, and… art-design.

Miranda July outdid herself completely with the underrated The Future. The film merrily lampooned mumblecore self-indulgence by holding it tight, and mobilized that particular breed of hyperbolic narcissism to comment on a couple of tragic laptop-loners.

Shame was another home-run for Brit Steve McQueen: part soaringly lyrical take on hyper-modern malaise, part pitch-black character study of a handsome-urban-sex-addict.

Kelly Reichart continued to be the big-fat brain of the American indie scene. Meek’s Cutoff is a hugely effective as the most ascetic travelogue to ever be describable as “ very fun.” It’s also capable of making you very, very thirsty.

And of course, The Tree Of Life won the Palm d’Or. Terrance Malick’s long-awaited epic-of-epics offers the most expensive exploration of metaphysics in memory (although by no stretch the most interesting or the most fun.)

And that’s just the (glorious) tip of the iceberg!

With 2012 drawing to a close this month, we’ll be able to see how the years measure-up.

-Max Berwald

Others:

2011 was also the year of Drive, The Forgiveness of Blood, Contagion, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, A Dangerous Method, the ill-fated but storied Margaret, and the fucking The Color Wheel, all of which borrow (some) from the art house tradition.

And this is all on the European/North American front!

Unless I’m missing something huge, where were the Asian auteurs in 2011? I’m looking at you Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon-Ho (Korea,) Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang (Taiwan,) Wong Kar Wai (Hong Kong,) Shunji Iwai (Japan,) Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai (China,) Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand) to name a few!

1 Comment

Filed under 2011 Art House, Thoughts

BORING FRENCH ART FILM

A smattering of 40-somethings wait for the latest from Bruno Dumont. They do their best to get comfortable in the 4/5ths empty theater, the back of the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco. The French Cinema Now series brings Hors Satan to us for two screenings only, and it’s hard to know when the film will be back on the big screen. I’ve brought a date. We’re the youngest people in the room.

It takes Dumont about 30 seconds to create a cinematic church inside which worship is both impossible and irresistible.

Dumont’s films are fertilizing critical mold online: an aura of distaste, accusations of smelly pretension. It’s hard to tell where from specifically. The impression one gets is that they are the “cultural vegetables” Dan Kois told us all about in the NY Times (last-last Summer.)

Maybe no one is watching these movies. Dumont is one of the most compulsively watchable writer-directors in recent memory. His shots often resemble cosmological staring contests, containing layers of visual gameplay that collide violently with the shots around them. Even when a mystery seems to have resolved itself narratively, visually it returns to haunt the action. Dumont tackles the uncharted depths of paradox with enviable calm, enviable clarity, and enviable enthusiasm. If he were unclear all of this would be unbearable.

think Jonathan Romney (over at London Review of Books) is trying to be positive when he says Hors Satan represents “ ‘slow cinema’ at its rawest and most austerely uncommunicative.” One can only reply: compared to what? More austerely uncommunicative than Taken 2LooperSeven Psychopaths, or Chasing Mavericks? Maybe it’s unfair to grab a smattering of recent releases, unrelated except in their united commitment to tedium (which approaches provocation in its extremity.) And maybe the word “austere” really is beyond reclaiming. If so, I’ll settle to call these recent “commercial” releases exuberantly uncommunicative, passionately uncommunicative, or colorfully, eagerly meaningless.

Yes, it’s fair to expect to walk away from any Dumont film with more questions than answers. But this doesn’t make the film uncommunicative or “opaque.” Most Hollywood releases manage to stumble through a single coherent question/answer in 90 minutes. And we can be certain that the question will be a familiar one, and that the answer will be a conventional and conservative one.

If the question is fresh, or if the question is sufficiently interesting, who needs an answer? Who even wants an answer? Hors Satan has an abundance of questions. It states a few and begs more. Maybe the frustration is that articulating the questions is so difficult. But if you could articulate them, Bruno Dumont would probably be able to as well. And if Bruno Dumont could articulate the questions in Hors Satan, making the movie would be a Hollywood endeavor. Or else a painfully shrill sermon from the avant-garde. It would be unbearable.

Have we really come so far, that to ask messy questions in the cinema is to be “un-commercial?”

But getting back to the bafflingly lukewarm critical response surrounding Hors Satan, I would be totally negligent if I didn’t give you at least one hilarious quote from the Rob Nelson’s review, writing for Variety (that authoritative commentator on the art house.) “[Hors Satan] contains only a dozen ‘dramatic’ events, but they all register indelibly, such is the director’s talent for making the minor appear momentous- and maybe religious.”

I couldn’t have said it better. Only a dozen?! One dozen?! Where is the drama?! What Rob Nelson is probably missing: events of “melodramatic” weight. As for dramatic events, Dumont’s film blisters with them. Hors Satan explodes with dramatic events.

An unseen character knocks, and several moments pass before the door is opened. One character draws a sharp breath as they crawl over a dune. A dog wanders to a sleeping man’s camp, and circles him for several moments before he wakes. These are moments of infinite and crushing drama. But Nelson is totally right to address a scarcity of “events,” because this film features no divorces, no wars between men and alien robots, no spy-craft, and no time-travel. Yes, Dumont’s latest is a wasteland. What is there to care about? Hors Satan just seems to be about humans living on earth, caught between cruelty and faith. Caught up in their own lives, while the lives of others rage on.

What’s fascinating: the way in which Dumont reclaims the “event” period. His stories hold up moments of character action, or else of character fear- character trembling- and study the nature of these moments as “happenings.” He and cinematographer Yves Cape have such a knack for finding the infinite weight of “happenings” in the natural world that they nourish our souls. (In that sense, maybe they are “cultural vegetables.”) They feed our natural but repressed suspicion that the world is incredible, is strange, is brutal, is beautiful, is frightening. I’m pretty sure this is what Nelson refers to when he refers to Dumont’s talent for “making the minor appear momentous- and maybe religious.” Of course, the minor is momentous. Our culture’s major filmmaking machine just refuses to reflect it any longer. Fantasy: the new default. Reality: scarce.

Maybe Hors Satan’s approach, its reclaiming of the event as meaningful, nourishes us because most new Hollywood films confuse causality with drama so criminally and so often. Hollywood believes that by rapidly charting the why behind every moment in a momentous plot, they can grow a great story. We will care if we understand why. It’s not true (witness the gargantuan, unfriendly plot machine of Nolan’s Inception– a film so bleak that viewers had to relegate it to the realm of gimmickry and cheap puzzles: “didja get it? I did.”)

The Hollywood approach often yields a parade of events- a blizzard of events. But none of them constitute anything, and we always forget them all the moment we’ve left the theater. Sooner or later, summoning the energy required to “care” about any of the latest Iron Man’s promised multitude of events, will prevent us from paying to see it. I don’t think the day is far off. Not at all. Not when Bruno Dumont’s films are so much more watchable in every way. It takes only minutes to care about the lives of his characters. That’s drama.

-Max Berwald

2 Comments

Filed under Thoughts