Movie Review
New York Film Festival 2007, Part IV

thirteen new features in, and there are some recognizable motifs: the implications and limits of voyeurism (four films), trains and trams (six films), and, less a usual staple of movie themes, the relationship between a struggling independent mother and her young, occasionally estranged son (four films, or five if we count the grandmother in Alexandra).

That last category has yielded two of the lesser films of the festival (The Orphanage, easily the worst film to date, and Secret Sunshine) as well as two of the very, very best: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon (probably the best film to date) and Noah Baumbach’s stunning Margot at the Wedding. A major step up from the sophomoric high jinx of the yet-promising The Squid and the Whale, Margot, about a woman returning home for her estranged sister’s wedding, is not without its faults, almost all of which stem from an occasional simple-mindedness about character. Margot (Nicole Kidman) is nearly pushed to caricature as a woman so brutally honest with everyone she meets that she nearly seems like some narrator’s damning commentary come to life; while on the other hand, her dumb androgynous son is a bully’s dream. Once again, we encounter a Baumbach world in which the adults are extremely intelligent at the expense of sympathy or sensitivity and the children are sensitive and moody at the expense of nearly any intelligence whatsoever. And the pattern of characters revealing each other’s deepest secrets to third parties becomes systematic.

Margot at the Wedding

Whatever; it may be stupid for Margot to say such intelligent things, but it’s unlikely there will be any other character on-screen all year with her astuteness, and gradually it becomes obvious—largely thanks to Kidman’s breakneck near break-down of a performance—that anyone so intent on attacking her closest family members (namely Jennifer Jason-Leigh as her sister) clearly cares deeply about the ways they behave and, it goes with the territory, is lashing out against her own deep-set insecurities. Like some Greek tragedy, Margot at the Wedding is about a woman who thinks it would be easier to be a monster, but the best moments of the film come in sudden tonal shifts as the characters are torn between being themselves, being self-conscious and funny, and being the bastards they’d like to be; moments like when Jack Black can’t help making a joke during a fight, or the two sisters collapse against each other in laughter, or Black, knowing how pathetic everyone thinks he is, says, “I haven’t had that thing yet where you find that you’re not the greatest person in the world—I’m anxious for that to happen.”

A film of immense empathy, the movie’s own sincerity comes through in its unflinching formal qualities: Harris Savides’ mellow and shadowy naturalistic lighting, and cutting that’s as ruthless and reckless (and cutting) as its characters—Baumbach edits as if he’s filmed a continuous battle scene, which of course, he has. Everything comes in glimpses, with occasional inferences to missed moments, but also with the freedom to allow for little moments as when Margot masturbates in bed or, at the start of the film, the son walks in between the cars of a train where nobody can hear him and yells outside as loud as he can. And the breathless pacing helps pull the film through its few missteps to a perfect, unexpected ending which finds Margot both rediscovering her true roots and moving on at last.

In the City of Sylvia

Equally auspicious and formally brilliant—and different in every other way—is José Luis Guerín’s much too charming In the City of Sylvia. Like Vertigo’s contemplative chase scenes abstracted from their dark context, Sylvia ostensibly follows a lame Bohemian bearded type as he stalks women around Strasbourg in hopes that one of them is a woman he met at a bar six years ago; but really, as Guerín has said, the protagonist, as in a video game, is the viewer. Working wonders with this slight, stupid premise, Guerín uses it as an excuse to watch the city at work and its women at play, with astoundingly well-attuned sound design that matches a sound to everything on-screen depending how far away it is from the camera (not unlike in Jacques Tati’s own city symphonies). In some sense, the film’s an avant-garde musical, replete with cute choreography as the protagonist misses seeing his objects of prey by a second.

But Sylvia is at its best when it ditches the gimmicks to marvel, like Flight of the Red Balloon, at all the possibilities of people just walking and moving around, watching the wind send a woman’s hair fly every which way, or a tram whose windows and reflective surface allows for triple superimpositions of women brushing by in every direction, or a woman sitting down and swaying at the bar to Blondie. So in love with women of every type as they’re allowed to appear in everyday situations, Sylvia can hardly be accused of being sexist, though it’s questionable whether the film recognizes the creepiness of its protagonist. To his immense credit, Guerín constantly plays games that make it impossible to tell whether the camera represents the protagonist’s subjective perspective or something more objective; a standard shot-reverse shot is debunked when it turns out two people successively facing the camera weren’t facing each other at all, certain sounds are emphasized a bit too much (like a melodramatic violin), and often the protagonist comes into view of the camera when it seemed as though it was placed in his point of view. On the other hand, the movie doesn’t really have any conception of life beyond going to cafés, drawing sketches, and following women around with platonic intentions—a lovely way to pass an hour and a half, but here’s hoping Guerín makes a war movie.


Something like Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra. Which, despite its plot—a stubborn domesticated old lady, Alexandra, visits her soldier grandson in Chechnya—is actually neither the war movie nor the cultural comedy that the bizarre premise suggests. In fact, it’s a question whether the film, despite its hot topic, is even political at all. Natives are sometimes resentful, and the soldiers’ bodies are eroticized despite the campfire civilization they’ve erected at what looks to be some forgotten edge of the world, but the film only gets moralizing in a vague speech about the power of the mind over the power of the body—which is perhaps ironic, considering that Sokurov is nearly eliding any treatment of the mind in favor of a tremendous treatment of body. The weight of Galina Vishnevskaya’s lead performance is literally in her own (hefty) weight, as she trudges around the quiet compound at night, chatting with soldiers, and going out to market to buy them candy.

The post-apocalyptic mood and minimalist mood seem allegorical, in the vein of Sokurov’s films about families, but the setting seems utterly realistic; likewise, the best scenes, as when the old lady sits with her grandson in a tank, not going anywhere, not doing anything, seem both completely unremarkable (in execution) and preposterous (in conception). Similarly, the film’s remarkable photography, with its completely faded colors and greenish tint—which demand to be seen on film, even though this is by far the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen from an HD camera—aestheticizes the people even while it emphasizes the sickly green sludge dirtiness of the camp. In some sense Alexandra is a mood piece, albeit one with slight suggestions of excessive violence, hopeless futures, regretted pasts, and complete poverty and desolation—massive human traumas—at the edges of some reconfigured version of everyday life, shopping, walking, and braiding hair at the outskirts of civilization.

Harun Farocki

Harun Farocki’s 40-odd minute silent short Respite is another digital movie about everyday life in war—a sort of documentary which takes the 16mm footage from an inmate at the Westerbork concentration camp during WWII who was attempting to make some sort of tourist’s guide to the place before he was deported and killed. Among the footage are pictures of kids jump-roping and Jews putting on vaudeville shows, as well as shots of the fateful train rides. Throughout it all, Farocki slows down and stops images to investigate details and report his own findings, conclusions, and feelings in 1st person intertitles that nearly condemn the misleading footage while recognizing that it provides a much fuller version of what happened in these camps than we’re used to. Reporting with literally silenced bombast, Farocki, for all his insights in mining the material, appears helpless and furious. It’s a perfect reaction to watching such footage whose content, for all his manipulations, undeniably happened; like the audience, Farocki is subjected to watch it as it is, able to think about it, of course, without his thinking doing anything at all. A brilliant essay-poem-documentary, the movie is one of the absolute highlights of the festival, and it’s presented with two other digital shorts in a larger feature called Memories. One of them, Eugène Green’s Correspondences, which means to be both pretentious and silly and succeeds wildly, is hopefully the festival’s nadir, while the middle segment, Pedro Costa’s The Rabbit Hunters, is one of Costa’s very best and shows him moving in new directions towards brisker editing and shifting perspectives.

Some other highlights from the avant-garde sidebar: Ken Jacobs’ and Rick Reed’s live nervous Magic Lantern performance of Dreams that Money Can’t Buy, a slide show from hell (not for the epileptic) that a friend described as “Stan Brakhage meets Hieronymus Bosch meets a Japanese noise band”; Phil Soloman’s equally hellish Last Days in a Lonely Place, which takes video game footage of glitches to capture a world in which the underground, earth, sky, and sea all threaten to overlap amidst billowing smoke; Robert Beavers’ reverie on coming home and getting older, Pitcher of Colored Light, which demands a second viewing; and a preview from Gregory Markopoulos’ 80-hour Eniaios cycle, completed long ago and still being revealed in pieces, like the one here which featured off-beat blinking images from a church, suggesting epiphanies, perhaps, or some sort of silent musical.

Next week: Abel Ferrara’s heart-and-genitalia-swelling Go-Go Tales; The Last Mistress; Useless; A Girl Cut in Two; Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.

By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-10-15
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