AFI Fest, Day 3
Although I’m a fairly introverted person in a lot of ways, I have no shyness about telling people at the movies to mind their manners. Talk above a whisper? I’ll say something. Kick my seat? I’ll say something. Pull out your freaking cell phone? Absolutely. Especially at a film festival, this one shining beacon that (mostly) champions the art of filmmaking above its commercial or entertainment value (nothing wrong with the latter, but the rest of the year is disproportionately weighted towards it), I hold each screening quite dearly. That said, much like some punk keying Vincent Vega’s car, it was almost worth the gaggle of Hobbit-people texting through the first half of Chantel Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly for the victory that came when I shamed them out of the theater during the second.
But that came second. My first film involved myself and what could only be termed a murder of hipsters (to continue with the groups-of-fowl classification system I have going) going to see a pretty delightful little film called The Dish & the Spoon. But before THAT…3D bootcamp.
I’ve been an outspoken proponent of 3D filmmaking ever since I saw Beowulf in 2007, and Coraline the following spring confirmed my faith. I maintain that those who do not care for 3D, largely, just have not seen the right films, so I was interested to see what Buzz Hays, the Senior Vice President of the Sony 3D Technology Center, would have to say about the format. The result was a pretty technical, but totally understandable, lecture on how 3D works mechanical, and why it works biologically. After all, it’s all a big sham – in the end, it’s still a set of 2D projections that we’re told has depth. He got into a bit about how it could be used creatively (both in subtle, dramatic ways, and in big, visceral displays), and especially how filmmakers have to re-think how they shoot. Too many films thus far, and I’m glad he made a point of this, are just 3D versions of 2D shows, but the really successful ones (Beowulf, Coraline, How to Train Your Dragon…aspects of Avatar) take 3D into consideration from the ground up. It was a great hour.
Then, the co-writer/director of The Dish & the Spoon, Alison Bagnall, introduced the screening by assuring us that, yes, the film was classified correctly in the “Young Americans” section, and that the film would in fact feature people who fit that description (she’s middle-age, with good humor about it), though she noted that section of the festival might be better classified as the “films people don’t expect to make any money from” category. And then we were off and running. In the film, Greta Gerwig stars as Rose, who from the opening frame seems to have just found out about her husband’s affair, and is understandably reeling. That Gerwig makes her grief so simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking is a small window into the cavern of her talent, but I digress. Along her drunken morning, she heads to the coast (the film takes place in an indeterminate East Coasty place; it was filmed in Delaware, but Rose’s license plate says Virginia, so you be the judge), whereupon she finds a boy in his late teens sleeping in a lighthouse. The boy (who goes unnamed in the film, and is played by Olly Alexander) is a bit out to sea himself as a result of misplaced love – he traveled to the States from his home in London to win the heart of a girl who, in the time since they met, had gotten back together with her ex-boyfriend.
What follows is more or less what you’d expect. Rose is too old for her and the Boy (aptly named in the credits, certainly) to end up in a serious romantic entanglement; even sex seems a little sketchy (and certainly illegal). But one cannot ignore the base-level draw between two people who have recently had their hearts broken. So they dance around the subject and they have long conversations and they go to an old-timey photo store and they go fishing and do all sorts of things that people in indie movies with no jobs (it would seem) take part in. And while it’s probably (certainly) a little too affected for its own good, I was rather taken with some small, though notable, character bits, as when the boy’s rare discomfort when Rose shows him her burial plot, or Rose’s sudden silence after she screams at her husband on the phone (we never know what he says), or Rose’s early desperation for a six-pack of bear and a box of doughnuts when she has no other recourse. And maybe it was the onslaught of downer movies I saw yesterday, but I certainly didn’t mind its sweet simplicity one bit. It doesn’t have distribution, but I can’t honestly say you’re missing anything of considerable import.
However, I regret to inform you that another film lacking in distribution is jaw-dropping and wholly unforgettable. So much so that not even a gaggle of phone-wielding Hobbits could destroy it. In what I’m told is a very loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1895 novel (the action of the film has been relocated to the 1950s), Chantel Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly tells the story of a white trader forced to send his daughter, Nina, born to him by a Malaysian woman, to boarding school in France, forever destroying his relationship with both women, and Nina’s connection to nearly everything. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, however, because it’s telegraphed very effectively (and evocatively) in an opening sequence that’d surely be the most exhilarating first five minutes of any film I’ve seen this year, if not for the fact that I also saw Melancholia today, but we’ll get to that in a second.
I’m woefully unprepared to comment on Akerman’s career following Jeanne Dielman, her most famous film and truly one of the towering, essential works of cinema, but I’ll gladly brag to have seen some of her work preceding that, and for those who know her work in the 1970s, this will be at once very familiar and quite surprising. It’s much more talkative than those films, which sadly is one of its few detriments – she evokes so much with her blocking and how the characters regard one another that her rather flat, expository dialogue doesn’t provide considerable benefit. Her composition, and more importantly camera movement, however, are beyond reproach and truly the stuff of a master. The final two shots of the film, which combined probably last ten minutes, are staggering, as bold thematically as they are aesthetically. The jungle in which Almayer inhabits has a density few other films evoke. In one extended shot (the film has many), Almayer hacks away the vines that have crept up around his cabin, and one senses almost immediately that he could carry on this task forever and never have a presentable habitat. When the camera gives us a boats’-eye view of a trip along a river, the lens itself clears the hanging branches and leaves. For all its beauty, the jungle truly feels like a kind of hell. I am deeply saddened that the film will probably wrap up its festival circuit and a small run in France before calling it a day, but if you have a chance to see it and a taste for this kind of work, I strongly urge you to go.
One film you should have little trouble seeing, however, is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and well you should. It’s available OnDemand through Magnolia Pictures, though why you’d want to relegate such a film to so small a screen (if you have another option) I cannot fathom. I was enormously privileged to see this at the Egyptian, one of the nicest theaters I’ve ever attended, and the experience was indescribable. I have a rough history with Lars von Trier – I admire and so deeply love Dogville with a passion that seems to be reserved for a very few select works (I first saw it on a particularly depressing day, and in spite of its rather downbeat subject matter, I was so elated by the mastery of the filmmaking and power of the writing that I forgot my troubles instantly), but do not feel nearly as fondly towards Breaking the Waves or Europa, and that’s about where my relationship with the Dane ends (although I have seen The Five Obstructions, and, like anyone who would take the time to watch a film like The Five Obstructions, loved it).
My relationship with Kirsten Dunst is another story. One is often recommended against excessive displays of “I told you so,” but as I have regarded Ms. Dunst as a considerable and woefully underappreciated talent for nearly a decade now, I am particularly pleased for her sake and a little put off for mine that everybody else is only now getting around to seeing how freaking awesome she is. With that bit of unpleasant snobbery out of the way, however, we can move along to more pressing matters, which is to say that I adored Melancholia to such lengths that I find the film difficult to discuss at the moment. I suppose I’ll write a full review at some point, but as this is a venue for initial impressions, I’ll supply here what I can. The film has been described as being set “against the end of the world,” but that’s only really true for part of it. Von Trier spends an unexpected, but thoroughly enjoyable and much-appreciated, amount of the film’s length getting to know the characters upon the wedding of Justine (Dunst). We meet her dutiful sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland, who is fantastic here), Claire and Justine’s divorced parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) (who have taken on very divergent attitudes towards marriage), and Justine’s new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), among others. Not everyone will figure into the film’s life following the wedding, but everyone is important as a means of exploring those who do.
Antonioni said he often employed female protagonists because women were better suited to explore the subtleties of emotion, and while von Trier is not the specialist in subtlety Antonioni was (once you commit to having your lead actress have a breakdown in a bathroom while nude, that’s pretty much out the window), his means are not so different. Von Trier’s men are like bulls, barrelling towards whatever private pursuit or public more they best represent, but his women are almost burdened by some unnamed, unfathomable force, and their emotional response is a register somewhere between fascination with and fear of this weight. Justine’s is a little more abstract than, say, Bess (Emily Watson) in Breaking the Waves, but by the end no less concrete either, given the stakes. Dunst brings her usual magnetism to the role (she’s a captivating screen presence in a way surprisingly few beautiful women are), but Justine is far from a character we’ve seen from her before. The very first frame alone gives us a vision of Dunst thought unfathomable in the Bring it On (or even the Virgin Suicide) days – she’s kind of frightening. The opening moments of the film are overwhelming, achieving the emotional high present in the most extravagant sections of Last Year at Marienbad (which it visually quotes almost immediately) with nearly the same level of intrigue.
Justine never ceases to be a fascinating character. She appears at first to be a complete airhead, and even more self-indulgent than Marie Antoinette – it’s her wedding day, and she can only think of what brings her most immediate joy, which might be dancing or cutting the cake, but might very well be taking an extended bath while the guests wait downstairs. Claire explains that Justine is not well, which may very well be the case, but it seems increasingly not the case as the film goes on, culminating in, well…I’d hate to give it away. Suffice to say von Trier has made one of the best films of the year, a great piece of soul-bearing writing combined with direction at once wholly controlled and free-wheeling. It starts rolling out in theaters on Friday. See it big. See it loud. The sound design will alternately rattle and overwhelm you.
Any day that ends in a film like Melancholia inevitably goes down as a good one. One of the few that was worth the two hours I spent waiting in line (plus, while waiting, I saw Werner Herzog, so you know, there’s that). But on the whole I continue to be overwhelmed by just how alive and vital film still is in an era when it is again and again being proclaimed dead. If the audiences at these shows, and the quality of the work they’ve turned out to see, are any testament, we’ll have many more years of this great art form ahead of us. As always, you can follow by play-by-play analysis on Twitter @railoftomorrow.