Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Eternal Frame: Art of the Real 2015


Last year’s inaugural edition of Art of the Real set a high bar for the annual series. With a conceptual imperative similar to that of the established likes of True/False and FIDMarseilles, the Film Society of Lincoln Center series instantly staked a claim alongside its contemporaries with a wide-ranging program of progressive work of both past and present vintage, rooted in the ideals of nonfiction but with only nominal regard for its narratives tenets and formal techniques. Co-programmed by Dennis Lim and Rachel Rakes, this year’s follow-up is equally liberal in its conception of nonfiction cinematic parlance, with an even larger investment in its contemporary iterations.

The program is appropriately bookended by two of the strongest examples of this ever-expanding principle. Highlighting the opening night selection of short films is Iec Long, the new film by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, the directorial duo behind The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012), itself emblematic of the conceptual impetus behind a series such as Art of the Real. Again returning to Macao, Rodrigues and de Mata take as their subject an abandoned fireworks factory which once stood as one of the city’s primary economic vehicles before the rise of the textile industry in the 1970s. Through a combination of archival footage, still photography, poetic text, figurine mockups, and newly shot images of the factory grounds, the directors are able to construct something like a living diorama of a bygone vocational lineage. The miniature reconstructions call to mind Rithy Pahn’s The Missing Picture (2013), in which handmade tableau stood in for nonexistent footage of the Cambodian genocide, but Rodrigues and de Mata are less concerned with reassembling an epoch than reflecting on the cultural condition and commercial nuances of a region lost to time’s unyielding forward march.

The closing night film, The Royal Road, by veteran San Francisco author and filmmaker Jenni Olson, is a highly personal effort in which the director works as narrator and tour guide on a trip down the California coastline and through a decisive emotional event in her younger life. Framed around a drive on the El Camino Real highway which took her from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to meet an ex-lover, the film takes on characteristics of both the travelogue and essay film as Olson ruminates, in her words, on “love, and loss, and San Francisco,” marrying images of the land and cityscape to an internal monologue fueled on romantic illusions and nostalgia for the movies. The latter initially takes shape against the background of Los Angeles, wherein Olson conflates instances of intimate urban affairs and episodes of chaste romance from Sunset Blvd, Double Indemnity, and Roman Holiday, before an extended exegesis on Vertigo brings her back north and into her own tale of unrequited love with a married friend. In form and content, The Royal Road makes unmistakable allusions to the work of Chris Marker, just as Olson’s wry, uninflected voiceover and disquisitions on cinematic iconography recall Thom Andersen and Mark Rappaport. In fact, two new shorts by Rappaport originally commissioned by the Criterion Collection are paired at Art of the Real with Olson’s film. Both Becoming Anita Ekberg, a look at the forgone fate of the eponymous actress, and The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk, a compendium of footage dedicated to the thematic implications of the dressing tables featured in the director’s mid-50s melodramas, are droll, charming visual commentaries, but in context evidence just how influential this brand of essay filmmaking has become.

At just about thirty and sixty minutes each, Iec Long and The Royal Road also illustrate Art of the Real’s dedication to not only the liminal state between fiction and nonfiction, but also to work that falls between traditional definitions of short and feature-length filmmaking. Matt Porterfield’s Take What You Can Carry, for example, may ultimately stand as a transitional work between features, but in its carefully disclosed detailing of a young woman’s existential reckoning in Berlin and Antonioni-esque interest in the psychological/environmental divide which claims her ambition, it may in fact portend something more ambitious. For American ethnographic experimentalist Ben Russell, who most often works in the short form, the exposure can only encourage the efforts of one of our best young filmmakers. Russell’s latest, Greetings to the Ancestors, is the third entry in a trilogy exploring the rituals and remembrances of South African consciousness and its manifest genealogy. Moving from the eye of the ecstatic religious ceremonies of the Jericho Congregation of Ikwata E Madoda through a series of patterned sequences in which the director’s camera follows a dirt path to a desert hut as solitary figures sit and recall dreams, memories, and occasions of violence in the current state of apartheid, the film accumulates spiritual weight and cultural gravitas as it progresses from blissfully hypnotic to richly surreal. Like all of Russell’s work, Greetings to the Ancestors is a highly rhythmic, intensely physical, and provocatively psychedelic experience.

The use of dramatic reenactment is one of primary considerations of this year’s series, with a sidebar dedicated to major auteur works such as Jean Eustache’s Une sale histoire (1977), Harun Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire (1969), and James Benning’s Landscape Suicide (1987), which masterfully exploit this oftentimes hackneyed storytelling technique. Li Wen at East Lake, the new film from China-born, Canada-based filmmaker Luo Li, utilizes reconstructions in a seamless manner worthy of these forebears. Following the eponymous Li Wen, star of Li’s prior film, Emperor Visits the Hell (2012), as a fictionalized version of himself, the film tracks the actor as he surveys Wuhan’s East Lake and navigates the fallout from the recent construction of an amusement park upon land previously thought protected. As the film progresses, it begins to take on greater dimensions of fictionalization, as Li is revealed to be a detective investigating the whereabouts of a local man whose ravings about an enraged Dragon King have the townsfolk on edge. Amidst this loose narrative of legitimate interviews and observational documentation, Li also stages council meetings, performance art pieces, and argumentative encounters which subtly heighten the atmosphere of impending misfortune. What it amounts to is a kind of existential rumination on the nature of self and the historical identity of a landscape caught in the throes of commercial evolution.

The recreations in Masa Sawada’s I, Kamikaze, by contrast, are less visual than verbal, recollections of a privileged perspective offered as much as an act of representation as reconciliation. Featuring 90-year-old war veteran Fujio Hayashi in what amounts to a series of extended testimonies regarding his time spent as the leader of a squadron of WWII suicide pilots, Sawada’s film (whose interviews were co-directed by French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello) facilitates a vital feat of bearing witness for a faceless generation of idealistic soldiers, while also functioning as a gripping first-person cinematic memoir of a man who by all accounts should be long dead. Shooting in and around Hayashi’s home, Sawada and Bonello capture their subject in a series of intimate interviews which were then edited into a continuous verbal account of the atrocities, responsibilities, and lingering miseries which were implicitly accepted in pursuit of his company’s end goal. Reflecting on such unimaginable burdens, Hayashi is a sympathetic, noticeably traumatized yet noble figure, recalling in great detail the procedures and politics behind the war and his regiment and their essentially fatal part in supporting such efforts. When a model fighter plane and miniature ship are provided as props for Hayashi to replicate the attacks, he finally breaks down as his memories become something more tactile and immediate. No such physical intermediary is needed on behalf of the viewer, however, so gripping and evocative is Hayashi’s spoken testament.

For nearly a decade, Mexican director Nicolás Pereda has been quietly producing some of the most sterling, unclassifiable works in experimental cinema. Screening with the The Palace, his recent docufiction short featuring 17 women housed together as they train for a life of domestic assistance, is Pereda’s most ambitious feature yet, The Absent, a waking life ghost story attuned to the rhythms of the natural and metaphysical world alike. The director’s approach, in which he situates both professional and non-professional actors against landscapes of vast personal and historic intrigue, finds a new spiritual expression in The Absent’s tale of an aging man whose daily routine is disrupted by the repossession of his land and the destruction of his home. Alongside this civic drama is the arrival of an unidentified young man whose actions echo that of his elder counterpart. As the film progresses, the identities of the two men seem to merge, with Pereda’s long, roaming takes simultaneously positioning the bodies of his subjects in physical proximity even as they appear to exist in parallel realities. Eventually they breach the divide, their conversations intimating a duality in their (perhaps shared) personas, yet Pereda, in a bold move, refuses to expound on the mortal intrigue of their convergence, ending at a philosophical stalemate all the more intriguing for its ambiguity.

Elsewhere are two films which articulate aspects of urban experience through the inner monologues of their characters. Through very different formal means, both Sarah Francis’s Birds of September and Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin allow their narratives to be shaped by the dialogue of their participants. Francis’s debut is a portrait of contemporary Beirut painted by the language of its citizens, as locals board a large van and sit facing the camera as the cityscape rolls by in the background. The voices of these figures, which include a male bartender, a married business woman, a middle-aged nurse, and a worldly young vagabond, are mostly relegated to the soundtrack as they pose silently for Francis, mid-frame. Birds of September features a structural unity similar to the recent Sensory Ethnography Lab triumph Manakamana (2013), but Francis’s anecdotal narrative and less rigid visual language allows for a formulation of social intrigue unique to this promising first film. Snakeskin is equally concerned with the sociopolitical aspects of its milieu, but Hui approaches such considerations from another plane entirely–specifically, the future. Narrating from the year 2066, an unidentified survivor of a Malayan cult speaks of footage from fifty years prior (“When people still used film”), shot by his deceased leader and featuring dialogue from members of their religious subculture. What the viewer quickly finds we’re witnessing is this footage as if it were being projected back for us, in effect outlining a historical record of present-day Singapore through familiar images of urban and rural life. Myths and personal histories populate the soundtrack, but as aberrations in the visuals and onscreen text become increasingly pronounced as the film proceeds, a future of both civic and cinematic ruin grows all the more unsettling as we watch as the events are set in motion by our very own hand.

The science fiction intimations of Snakeskin are brought to the fore in both Ion de Sosa’s Androids Dream and Adirley Queiros’s White Out, Black In, two of Art of the Real’s standout fiction features. Philip K. Dick’s namesake novel is reimagined in de Sosa’s unsettling depiction of a dilapidated future Spain, wherein an unnamed assassin traverses the city’s ruins and murders innocent civilians. With animals locked up and locals seemingly resigned to an apocalyptic fate, the motivations of the killer grow ever more ambiguous while the allegorical, economic subtext of the film suggests a bleak and inexorable fate. In White Out, Black In, a literal agent of reconciliation is introduced to the narrative in an effort at facilitating a brighter tomorrow. Set in Ceilândia, the film follows a researcher sent from the future to gather information from two disabled men, victims of a police raid, whose former lives in the 1980s Brazilian club scene persevere through pirate broadcasts, underground activist social networks, and technological experiments. Employing elemental visual effects, dusty vinyl cues, offhand cultural details, and Afrofuturist imagery, Queiros proposes, in strikingly original fashion, a cinema informed by histories both real and imagined, recollected and recorded–a composite approach typified by the best of contemporary nonfiction, but one only rarely balanced so expertly in the framework of fiction. [The L]

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