AFI Fest: Documenting Performance, by Scott Nye

“Every fictional film is a documentary of its actors,” Jean-Luc Godard (probably) said. Like a lot of quotes you read around the internet a lot, it’s damned hard to source. The New York Times believed it enough to print it anyway. But that’s not the point. The point is, every fictional film is a documentary of its actors, which is true. I’d just also say it’s truer of some films than others. Many films seek to insulate their actors, not necessarily from physical or emotional harm (the past few years have made all too clear the routine abuses suffered in the industry), but from forces outside of the production’s control. Some films embrace their existence in a larger world, and pit their actors against something a little bit unknown, a little bit uncomfortable perhaps, and a little bit outside of the scripts, casting, and permits that dictate much of what we typically see at the movies.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest masterpiece, Memoria, doesn’t take this model precisely as its central subject, but certainly as a significant totem. He and actress Tilda Swinton (also an executive producer on the film) are longtime associates and mutual admirers, having previously collaborated on a film festival that, for a night anyway, floated on the sea off of Thailand. I mean, if you were Apitchatpong Weerasethakul and/or Tilda Swinton, wouldn’t you? Anyway, in seeking to do a film together, it became evident to both that they’d need to step out of their comfort zones; all of Weerasethakul’s previous films were set and shot in his native Thailand, while Swinton – possibly the whitest of all people – is not generally associated with South America.

The film is most overtly about a sound that keeps waking Jessica (Swinton) up in the middle of the night or shocking her out of her daytime routine, a sort of significant “thud” or “boom” that also, frankly, wakes the audience up a good deal at the start of the film. She wanders the country’s urban and rural environments looking for, if not a solution, than some sort of explanation. Weerasethakul’s films are often haunted by supernatural phenomena, and this is an uncommonly direct crystallization – everyone else seems unaffected, which means Jessica is either deeply troubled or unusually attuned to the world.

Much of this sense of singularity is emphasized by Swinton’s foreign-ness, her character’s fluent but uneasy Spanish, her somewhat-tall frame, that hair that never seems quite in place yet perfectly-shaped. There’s a particular wide shot of her walking down some street in some city she barely knows, an event most filmmakers would get in close and handheld for, but which Weerasethakul captures in a wide, steady frame, tracking her alongside storefronts she might peer inside but never go in. Even when she goes to visit a sound engineer to try to recreate the boom in her head, his room seems an unfamiliar place she can’t reconcile, the dancing levers as unnerving as a skull she will later be shown.

That history the ancient bones represent is another recurring Weerasethakul theme, one which he always treats with a stirring imagination, drawing the past very actively into the present, filling his films with beings that, if they aren’t ghosts, well, you almost wish they would be; that’d be more explicable. Sound being so central to this film, much of this supernatural energy is expressed sonically, coming around to situating the aural and visual worlds as almost separate planes, on which either wavelength might reveal different aspects of the world. There’s a sense in which the past is constantly echoing, if only one would, or could, hear it.

The film, infamously in cinematic circles, will allegedly not receive any kind of home video release, be it in disc or streaming form. Its nationwide tour, playing in one city for one week at a time, will begin in New York on December 26th.

The past also haunts Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee, in a much more agro sort of way. Those familiar with Lapid’s films (Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher, and Synonyms) will recall his similar interest in the ways sociopolitical and national movements infiltrate the personal psyche, reshaping our thoughts and everyday interactions. It almost seems ridiculous after Synonyms to say he’s become even more confrontational about it, but if he has further still to go, he might very well show up at each screening and personally slap the audience. That too might prove difficult to translate into a Blu-ray release, so for now, we’ll have to settle for a character who may very well be his avatar (both being middle-aged Israeli filmmakers who despise the current state of their country personally and cinematically) screaming at the audience about all his country’s sins.

I suppose this reads like a knock against the film, but only if you believe such things to be inherently negative. Even leaving aside the validity of his argument, and beyond the vulnerability behind such sentiments – his anger at Israel and the “western” world often gives way to profound loneliness and desperation – his filmmaking choices are so outrageous and reflect well the scattered mindset of his characters. His restless camera spins and lands in places few, if any, other contemporary filmmakers seem to put it. There are some rotating shots, such as one in the front seat of a car, that are so nimble and chaotic that it’s difficult to assign their creation to either man or machine. His commercial peers on the festival circuit seem largely disinterested in that kind of frenetic energy, and those operating in mainstream spheres who mount similar feats only do so with considerable CGI aid.

Avshalom Pollak forms the film’s center, a man only called Y, visiting a remote Israel town to show one of his films as part of a local library program, overseen by the Israeli national government and administered by a well-meaning, always-smiling woman named Yahalom (Nur Fibak). She shares many of Y’s concerns about Israel, but not so much that she’d sacrifice her position; she’s content to quietly prod things by booking his controversial films. Neither Pollak nor Fibak have loads of screen acting experience – this is Fibak’s only credit, and Pollak only has five others; he is more famous, it seems, as a dancer, running a company at a theatre named after him. Both make striking figures, especially the further Lapid isolates them, as they kill time during the screening simply wandering in the desert, neither his frown nor her increasingly-unnerving smile seemingly disrupted by the heat and wind.

Like Tom Mercier in Synonyms, Pollak functions as a sort of vessel for Lapid to unleash his most toxic and socially unpleasant instincts; or, if I’m assigning too much motivation to the writer/director, he doesn’t seem to shy about the potential for such alignment. Pollak is closer to Lapid in age, though a few years older, and there’s something about assigning all this energy to an older man that emphasizes how pathetic he can be. When he’s not seizing every opportunity to offend those around him, he’s texting with girls on hook-up apps to clarify that he’s at least kind of famous. Pollak’s lack of vanity in doing so is remarkable; Mercier gave one of my favorite performances on 2019, but his good looks and strong build perhaps made the rough edges a little more palatable. Pollak, with his greying hair that Y seems, along with a wardrobe too young for him, desperate to make fashionable, is a more pitiable figure, whose perspective might be easier to buy into if he were a more serious person. But if you become flippant about one thing, you become flippant about everything.

Flippancy is a big part of Miguel Gomes’ latest film, The Tsugua Diaries, a film with probably fewer commercial prospects than his earlier works Tabu or Arabian Nights, but which is just as invigorating and fresh. Co-directed with his wife Maureen Fazendeiro, The Tsugua Diaries is, at first, loosely about three people – a man (Carloto Cotta) and woman (Crista Alfaiate) in their late thirties or thereabouts, and a younger man (Joāo Nunes Monteiro) in his twenties. They seem to have a vaguely sexual relationship, and seem to be vaguely starting a farm. Or they’ve just started it, rather, as the narrative starts to wind backwards, day by day, and the farm is considerably less put-together. At some point, the film also shifts into a sort of documentary about Gomes, his crew, and these actors making the narrative portion of the film. And it all sort of seems scripted or in some way predetermined, but there’s also probably some element of improv, and perhaps those “documentary” scenes are scripted from life.

I really don’t know. I can only describe the film, and note that I was completely vibing with it the entire time. I suppose there are things to tease out about sexual dynamics, the fact that both men are perhaps romantic figures for Crista (all of the actors go by their own names, regardless of how “fictional” a given section is) but not for each other; or the relative freedom in which their “characters” live in contrast to the heavy restrictions they have to work around shooting in the midst of the pandemic; or the sort of odd situation where it’s just the three of them towards the start of the film – which, chronologically in the fiction, is the end – but as the film progresses and time moves backward, other people start to appear, and what the heck happened to them in the reality of the fiction, and how confusing it is to use a phrase like “reality of the fiction” when talking about a film that either freely mixes the two or is purposefully obtuse about the existence of either.

This is especially complicated by not only the actors using their real names throughout, but also by the fact that their personalities don’t shift too wildly. Like, they talk about character decisions as separate from their own, but their whole vibe doesn’t change between the various sections. And since the “narrative” section is largely consumed with physical labor, they really have as much if not more character to play in the “documentary” sections. So when we talk about a film being a documentary of its actors (or, as Rivette further proposed, of its own making), this is really a prime example, drawing that idea as far as it can and abstracting both. And I don’t think it’s just my calling to mind Godard at the beginning of this piece that got me thinking about his post-New Wave work into the 1970s while I was watching this.

But all that stuff wasn’t what was really getting me off here. What was getting me off was the sun and the fields and the pretty people and the super-saturated, slightly-beat-up 16mm stock and the petty arguments about film production. Simple pleasures. And Godard was not as much into that.

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