Movie Review
New York Film Festival 2007, Part I

only six films so far, but four of them are essential, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering the jury’s boasting that it had to fight for which films to exclude, rather than for which to retain—could there really be 29 complete films, as of yet undistributed in the U.S., which are masterpieces? Since two of those films I saw were sidebar selections, and three of the four features I’ve seen certainly vie for the label, the answer to date seems to be: 28. We’ll see how far that number tumbles in the upcoming weeks.

The Orphanage

Surprising, in any case, is the inclusion of The Orphanage, a schlocky new Spanish horror film due for release in the U.S. in December. Schlock’s fine—the film uses the province of the supernatural to explain any contrived events that need explaining, so that anything goes, or rather, should be going—but the real problem is that it’s schlock directed competently with taste and restraint. A woman’s son disappears (as usual), she suspects repressed relics of her childhood may be responsible, and then stands around waiting for plot developments, which come, naturally, in sudden shocks. No interest in the rudimentary plot is lost in looking beyond to characterization, mood, or what comes most naturally to the horror genre—allegory.

Whereas the all-too-similar Pan’s Labyrinth, by The Orphanage’s producer Guillermo del Toro, debunks childhood imagination as appealing fascist myth (if somewhat unintentionally), The Orphanage is content to spout platitudes about worlds beyond our own—including the afterlife—in which everyone is happy and friendly, leading one acute journalist at the press conference to ask the director if he was promoting mass suicide. Only one semi-ingenious moment arrives when a bunch of radio experts wield a tool that lets them listen to supernatural wavelengths. But for characters and audience alike, fantasy comes at the expense of reality, though it’s not a particularly imaginative fantasy, filmed in dried-out colors and replete with scary dolls, locked closets, and abandoned playgrounds that make it seem as though director Juan Antonio Bayona decided to cop the title sequence of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” (the TV show) for two hours at a time and call it a wrap.

Conjugal Warfare, dir: Joaquim Pedro de Andrade

Meanwhile, in a retrospective of Brazilian Cinema Novo director Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, The Conspirators is a brightly colored fever dream from 1972 that uses every space it finds to a suggest an unending stage—on which people discuss Brazilian politics endlessly. Better is Andrade’s short Cat Skin, a neorealist-inspired chase movie that involves a boy falling in love with his first cat (story of my life!), before selling it off to be skinned.

But for color and gruesome melodrama alike, nothing beats John M. Stahl’s 1945 Leave Her to Heaven, to be presented in a jaw-droppingly good-gaudy new print by Martin Scorsese. Gene Tierney plays a wife who wants to kill everyone her husband loves—including herself—in order to have him for herself, and the already unabashed plot ends overwhelmingly so when a district attorney puts love on trial and cross-examines a witness by yelling at him that he stole his sweetheart; but what’s surprising are all the chilly moments that aren’t camp at all, set against a placid, deadly lake (the same adjectives apply to Tierney). Brilliantly unsettling (and colored), Leave Her to Heaven locates a civilization of tacky sofas and possessive housewives amidst a natural paradise, but it’s slow rhythms are anything but Sirkian—the closest parallel might be James Benning’s recent experimental film, 13 Lakes.

The Man from London

Back to the new, Béla Tarr’s astounding The Man from London is a return from the sentimental sham-mysticism of his previous Werckmeister Harmonies (that’s still probably his most stylistically advanced work) to the seedy, shadowy shantytown of his nourish Damnation. The Man from London is straight-up noir, from Hitchcock or De Palma—the panopticon that its protagonist inhabits seems lifted straight from Body Double—about a man who gets involved in a murder he witnesses. Using his trademark long-takes to slowly and steadily survey the depths of his nearly empty city, Tarr yields far more suspense out of scenery and camera movement alone than The Orphanage can from dead killer children in basements. The vision is all his own: from up high in the inexplicable panopticon (and the bars and shops below do look like jail cells), the silhouetted people in patches of light below appear to be stumbling around a model prop-up city.

Tarr alternates between these tableau takes from above and scenes below in which the anti-hero Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) actually enters the city, and Tarr’s camera enters into the three-dimensional space, slowly revolving around people’s faces, as if to probe them for insight (they’re often being investigated). But even below, the city appears to be a model, a world abandoned except for hints of everyday reality and life—a few guys playing pool, a kid playing with a soccer ball in an empty street, and Maloin’s daughter scrubbing floors to earn a living, much to her father’s dismay. Allegedly once something of a social realist, Tarr’s latest distills the city of its crowds and gets to the crux of economically-instigated despair and defeat for all its characters in inky compositions that probably represent the best cinematography of the year.


The most interesting cinematography of the year, though, belongs to Redacted: indulging in his beloved and cheesy 1st person takes, Brian De Palma himself uses home video camera POV shots to both immerse the viewer in unflinching takes of murder and rape while calling attention to the virtuosic camera filming the blatantly contrived scenes itself. The film’s all sorts of paradoxes—a heartfelt parody, and a scabrous cri de coeur with a boundless range of targets that’s still one of De Palma’s most humanistic films. It’s also probably the closest a major Hollywood director will ever come to Brecht (and that includes Douglas Sirk); not so much an attack on the “war” in Iraq itself (though that too in the notion that things get Hobbesian when anyone is allowed to build a country from scratch), Redacted is mostly an attack on the ways the war is presented, from a documentary seeking to aestheticize the attacks to, at the other end, an officer hoping for exciting events to make a better doc.

Detractors (which seem to include most people who have seen the movie) cite hammy acting, flippant devices, and an overall complete lack of realism in dealing with an all-too-real problem, but that’s all part of the point that everything is staged, and not once is De Palma presumptuous enough to show any event from his own point of view—everything is seen through security cameras, fake documentaries, youtube footage, real (and staged) photographs, home videos, and so on. Whatever Iraq is like, De Palma’s nailed the crudities of American amateur technology in what seems an implicit reaction to “docudramas” like United 93 and The Road to Guantanamo that want to make you feel like you’re “there,” which for De Palma, is safe inside a studio.

“The American Dream’s only a dream and our people need to wake up,” says one YouTube comment in the movie; and so Redacted is not so much the sound, expected attack on the administration as it is a fuck-you to those who would use flippant devices, as well as all those content to watch at home (a favorite theme of De Palma’s); it’s a group which includes the director himself, who is heard in the final scene to be holding the camera and directing everyone to applaud a soldier’s story about his complicity in rape. A remake of sorts of his all-too-complicit Casualties of War, De Palma goes back to his Godardian roots with Hi, Mom! and to contemporary news in one of his best movies—albeit one that manages to satirize anyone and everyone watching it.

The Flight of the Red Balloon

By some perverse coincidence or programmer, Redacted—ever the wake-up call, schedule for a 10am screening—bookended a day’s screenings with Hou Hsiao Hsien’s wonderful The Flight of the Red Balloon, a naturalistic, ultra-realist take on everyday life in a child’s Paris, and yet one that, like Redacted, contemplates the effects of proliferation of digital technology. None too surprisingly, Hou’s conclusion about watching and film isn’t exactly the same as cinema-fist De Palma’s that images batter the viewer into a particular state of consciousness and sensation far removed from reality (as is always wonderfully the case in his own films); Hou, on the other hand, shows watching as an essential means of staying curious about and attuned to real-life—as is always wonderfully the case in his own films.

It’s hard not to read the balloon itself as some sort of counterpart for Hou’s camera, hovering over and roaming about the city at a distance, unnoticed, and serving as a sort of guardian for the child that’s the film’s focus, even while it takes in so many other unrelated details. Playing pinball and playstation, watching puppet shows, taking train rides, going to museums, getting the piano tuned, cleaning up a room, fighting over bills with an ex—Flight bristles with bits of everyday life that are often quite at odds with each other but occurring simultaneously in single takes that, for all Hou’s meditative reputation, allow anything to happen. Fights break out, trains rush by, and inevitably the camera comes back to the cozy (tiny) safe-haven of an apartment that looks to be lamp-lit.

After Three Times, a major statement about history and our own times, Flight is along the lines of the more modest Café Lumière, a curious look at all the rumblings of city life, and after attempts at different strains of minimalism, is his busiest, bustlingest film since at least Goodbye South, Goodbye. The inevitable comparisons though, will be to Edward Yang’s Yi Yi: an unflinching look at modern life, but one seen through a child and his sense of wonder at a world in which the chaos is muted—but present.

Next week: Paranoid Park; I’m Not There; Silent Light; Secret Sunshine; Underworld; Margot at the Wedding; The Last Mistress.

By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-10-02
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