Chicago Film Fest Chat #4: Latins Up, Americans Down

This is the fourth installment of a weeklong conversation on the 47th Chicago International Film Festival, which takes place now through October 20, 2011. Read Part OnePart Two and Part Three.

Nick Davis: Wow! I truly had no idea what a button I was pushing. Tim, I think you liked Kid with a Bike a lot more than this, but from the standpoint of someone who’s been as ambivalent as Kevin about their previous films, right? I can’t weigh in on Bike, but I liked Lorna’s Silence best of all their work, and it got the coldest reviews.

Timothy Brayton: “Ambivalent” will do, but I think “annoyed” gets a lot closer to the mark. I certainly don’t have as much ire towards their films as Kevin evidently does, but something about their very deliberate and fussy non-aesthetic has always struck me as being much too self-satisfied; you can almost hear them bragging about how much more real and true their depiction of the sufferings of the underclasses are, thanks to their pared-down, intensely unglamorous style, as though 50 years after neorealism, that’s a bold choice to make.

But Nick has it right: I did like The Kid with a Bike, though not in any kind of broad, life-changing way. It’s not on my Best in Fest shortlist, or anything like that. Part of it is certainly that famous sense of speed that, if nothing else, makes the movie blitz by without lingering over its own miserabilism (in contrast to the slog-a-thon that was L’enfant), and goes at least some way to justifying the all-over-the-place handheld cinematography, a long-time characteristic of the brothers’s filmography that I simply cannot stand: a little dash of it here and there to give your movie a sense of on-the-ground realism is one thing, but they overuse it as madly as any shakycam action picture in the wake of the Bourne movies, and for no apparent reason other than to avoid the possibility of even accidental prettiness. So the fact that Kid at least had an internal motivation for that aesthetic choice, in the form of the manic, energetic lead, was good for at least a half-point from me.

What I really responded to about the film, though, was the way it stepped away from their characteristic realism: I’ve seen this in interviews with the directors, so I know I’m not crazy even though not many people seem to have picked up on it, but it’s basically a fairy tale, with Cécile de France as the fairy godmother. I’m an admitted sucker for genre mash-ups, so the mere fact that the arch-realist style is blended, however roughly, with such an objectively irrational narrative (for all those plot holes you correctly point out, Kevin, I’m surprised you glossed right over the biggest one: there is absolutely no sane reason for that woman to agree to be his foster mother in the first place) pleases me, and maybe darts around my critical judgment. But certainly, the sociological truth of the movie, or whatever it’s meant to be, doesn’t impress me much at all.

As far as European art movies with a deliberately low-fi style, gritty lower-class characters, and a social activist message from the 2011 Cannes festival go, I’d happily take Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 over whatever the Dardennes want to give me; at least that film’s soul-breaking seriousness is limited to its pride as a character study, and not because Trier is trying to pound us over the head with his own importance.

I have to say that you took the words right out of my mouth on My Week with Marilyn, especially the idea that Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier is the more interesting performance and, I’d go so far as to say, the more interesting character; to which I’d add, what the hell was up with throwing Vivien Leigh in the movie just long enough to do not a blessed thing with her other than saddle her with a longsuffering wife routine?

When you bring up The Last Rites of Joe May reminds me of the one thing I haven’t run into at CIFF this year that I usually see: the excellent little American character-driven drama. I’ve seen other countries’ versions of the same (Oslo, for one; the surprisingly flexible message movie Cairo 678 for another), but very few of the US movies this year seemed to be terribly promising, and from what you’ve said, it doesn’t sound like Joe May would have fit the bill.

Kevin B. Lee:  Tim, to be clear, my  problem is less with the Dardennes than with the unbridled gushing with which critics regard them; it’s as if the filmmakers and their advocates colluded on a grand project to conceptualize a post-millenial cinema of the highest pedigree, a perfect storm of form (rigorous naturalistic camerawork, grabby pacing) and content (sociologically righteous stories involving characters that art house audiences normally wouldn’t give the time of day). I acknowledge that they are very good at what they do, and the strenuousness of my criticisms may merely reflect an attempt to overcompensate for the dearth of serious Dardennes skepticism available. (The only piece I know of is by Andrew Grossman, in an epic two-part jeremiad on realism in film, that might possibly be the best piece of film criticism written in the past 10 years.)  I think your pointing out that fairy tale connection is incredibly helpful for opening a more truthful understanding of what they’re up to underneath all that gripping verisimilitude.

Alas, I haven’t seen a breakthrough American feature in the lineup (ironically, what’s perhaps the most exciting American drama out now is playing at the festival’s AMC River East venue, though it’s in regular release: Kenneth Lonergan’s 8 years-in-the-making Margaret). Martha Marcy May Marlene appears to be the Winter’s Bone of this year (John Hawkes should get some kind of special award for Indie Talisman). But, as with that film, I was left wanting. In both cases the sense of region feels bogus: an exotic setting for the creators to unspool their high-concept psychodramas involving young attractive women surrounded by folksy freaks. In both case there’s no real engagement with the landscape or with people as people instead of signposts for rural malaise.

Frankly I’m amazed that the NYFF selection committee let MMMM into their vaunted lineup, while shutting out a much fiercer, more inventive and unsettling film about a woman tragically subsumed by family: We Need to Talk About Kevin, the comeback effort by Lynne Ramsay, who hasn’t made  a film since 2002’s Morvern Callar. I have to give props to CIFF for making it one of their special presentation films. It’s no crowd-pleaser by any stretch; instead of MMMM’s languid leering at young female bodies, we have the indelible image of Tilda Swinton drenched in red liquid (ketchup? paint?) while crowd surfing a square full of anonymous young men. It’s enthralling and horrific at once, a central image to guide you through the blitzkrieg of manic, disassociated imagery that follows, fragments of a broken life that gradually fall into place. When it does come into place, it’s a bit of a letdown, but the first hour is a mind-boggling display of a filmmaker leading us through a traumatic montage through sheer force of will and instinct, slamming us into one lucid image after another like a nightmare we hope never to wake from.

I’ll take a moment to mention that I rewatched The Turin Horse, which Bela Tarr has confirmed to be his final film, and I’m all but convinced that it is a masterpiece. The first time I watched it I was left somewhere between stunned and stupefied; almost as a defense mechanism, I wanted to laugh off this apocalyptic chamber piece boasting exquisite camerawork and recurring music motifs: call it In the Mood for Doom. But the second time, I really could embrace the purity of this film, and its absolute integrity in how it pushes its subjects, and the viewer, to the brink of oblivion: that ultimate moment of human will to endure before the final snuffing of the candle. I’ll say no more but exhort everyone to read Phil Coldiron’s wonderful photo essay on the film, which gives a mere hint of the film’s magisterial beauty.

Nick Davis: Y’all are some tough customers!  I am feeling pretty good right now that I am not a Dardenne brother, a Dardenne disciple, a “derelict” discovery, a “regional” festival, or a handheld camera (which, I have to say, I think the Dardennes wield with novelistic clarity, whatever else you say about them).  But then you’ve been so generous with praise of so much that is eminently praiseworthy at this festival, which only carries more weight since you are obviously holding to firm standards.  I am so seldom the biggest pushover in a movie conversation, and even more seldom the quietest participant, so I’ve got some mileage to make up.

First: we’re late enough in the calendar that it’s been possible to follow up on other people’s exhortations, and Tim, I’m so glad you made me even more determined to see Southwest, in its North American premiere.  Readers, if there is any way to attend the final, Tuesday afternoon showing on the 18th, get thee hence.  That director and writer Eduardo Nunes and cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro never run out of scintillating, suggestively framed, subtly dynamic monochrome images is stupendous enough.  To do so on a canvas that is literally twice as elongated as a 16:9 widescreen frame is staggering.  This is what we’re talking about, though the resolution doesn’t even begin to do justice to the mercurial shimmer of the cinematography.  Best of all, more than a technical admiration for its innovative composition and its Moebius narrative loops, I felt a sustained and intimate connection to the emotional tensions that living an entire life in one day in the same small town wind up prompting: having an adult’s vantage on what your own parents try to hide from their children, having serial re-encounters with someone whose decades-old injury to you feels perpetually like it happened mere moments ago, etc.  The odd hokey shot or music cue barely stands in the way of a film that would be a keeper from this year’s CIFF even if it weren’t also a groundbreaker and a rarity among other, “bigger” festivals.

All in all, I’m having success with both the gorillas and their opposites (the foundlings? the rhesus monkeys?). Of all the movies I’ve seen, the one I felt coolest toward was the polyamorous, youth-driven, Danish musical romp Love Is in the Air, which needlessly handicaps itself with a maddening “heroine” it won’t stop fawning over and too many stock conflicts and conversations apportioned among its college-age cast.  But even at that, the Jolly Rancher color palette, the occasionally invigorating humor, and the plethora of heartily hummed pop tunes (some of them quite infectious), make this awfully good for a back-of-the-class title.

I won’t say as much about my detours into well-covered showpieces like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala.  Leave it at this: 1) they are stupendous. 2) the former strikes me as having more ambiguously subjective, Mulholland Dr.-type tendencies than has generally been reported; and 3) the latter (to crib shamelessly from my own Twitter feed) emerges unexpectedly as a Mexican drug-war remounting of Polanski’s The Pianist.  Similar elegance in framing and sequence-shots, similar spikes of absurdist irony, and similar trajectory of a stoic, impenetrable survivor who seems as hollowed out by having arbitrarily lived as by having horrifically suffered.

All of that said, and I haven’t yet gotten to ask, what are you guys kicking yourselves for having missed, or feeling likely to miss?  What are your last-ditch recommendations?  And am I ever going to get around to underscoring that *the shorts are fantastic*??  My last post will be devoted to those, all of which screen on Friday and Saturday, right after our conversation wraps up.  Some of my very favorite films of the festival, even better than Miss Bala, came in small packages.

To be concluded…

Read Part OnePart Two and Part Three

Nick Davis writes essay-length film reviews at his website NicksFlickPicks. He is
also a professor of film, English, and gender studies at Northwestern University.

Timothy Brayton writes about film at his blog Antagony & Ecstasy.

Kevin B. Lee is editor of Keyframe at Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.

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