Tag Archives: Minimalist

CAPSULE: MASKING THRESHOLD (2021)

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Masking Threshold is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

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DIRECTED BY: Johannes Grenzfurthner

FEATURING: Voice of Ethan Haslam

PLOT: A man performs experiments in an attempt to find the source of the tinnitus that is driving him mad.

Still from Masking Threshold (2021)

COMMENTS: It’s no surprise that Masking Threshold isn’t getting a big theatrical release; it’s more of a miracle that it was able to play in a few theaters at all. This has nothing to do with the film’s quality and everything to do with its style: this is a film that is (almost) entirely narrated by the protagonist, while the camera focuses (almost) exclusively on closeups of objects for the entire runtime. A movie that plays like a paranoid podcast illustrated with a succession of moving slides—sort of a contemporary feature-length version of La Jetée—is a hard sell in any climate, but particularly at a time when movie theaters are struggling to put butts in seats.

Fortunately, the scaled-back nature of the project means it will play well on small screens (although it would be nice to hear that crucial sound mix emanating from Dolby surround-sound speakers). Despite the fact that it may only be a MacGuffin for the protagonist’s deeper psychological issues, sound—the rustle of fabric, turning of pages, test tones the protagonist generates for his own reference—-provides the texture of the film. The movie quietly ushers us into the protagonist’s mind, as we hear none of his background tinnitus in the early going, but the hum slowly and subtly creeps into the soundtrack, scarcely noticed, until by the end we hear these subtones too. These minute variations in drones, unidentifiable rustlings and buzzings, and oscillations have tremendous significance to the protagonist, but to us they remain esoteric. The movie’s production values are low, so visuals cleverly rely on extreme closeups of carbon dioxide bubbles, slices of bread, algae, ants, and mouse corpses, supplemented by various charts, graphs, alchemical prints, blinking diodes, repurposed memes, and so on. The protagonist’s face is never clearly visible. The movie is presented as a YouTube diary by one of those “independent researchers” whose peculiar-to-insane preoccupations fail to strike a chord with a mass audience; his impassioned Reddit posts leave him the subject of trolling and lols.

This is a strange movie, in that the first-person monologue script would work just as well as a short story; in a way, Masking Threshold is nothing but multimedia-enhanced prose. But that makes it a triumph; a movie literally constructed from objects found around the house or bought at Home Depot, Best Buy, and Petco, is inspirational. The protagonist is erudite (the movie is full of fascinating trivia) and arrogant; his inner monologue is profound when discussing the philosophy of science, and myopic when interpreting the results of his own experience. His narrative voice put me in mind of the antihero of ‘s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” while the madness resulting from his investigation onto cosmic phenomena evokes any number of victims. (It’s noteworthy that both authors get a “thanks” in the credits). Not to say that Grenzfurthner’s script (co-written with Samantha Lienhard) lives up to those classic influences—but it does update that psychological horror template with timely references to Internet culture, Q-Anon, and “doing your own research.”  Masking Threshold is a successful, immersive, and credible experiment in diving into one man’s particular rabbit hole universe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…his paranoid, obsessive quest digs its own rabbit hole of increasingly unhinged weirdness, escalating from the unhygienic ick of growing algae and such to… well, if you suspect a narrative like this must inevitably lead to homicidal violence, you’d be right.”–Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills

 

CAPSULE: RADIO ON (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Petit

FEATURING: David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer

PLOT: A disc jockey drives across the UK when he learns about his brother’s death.

Still from Radio On (1979)

COMMENTS: Radio On is well aware that its soundtrack is its strongest (or, at least, its most marketable) component. The movie begins with the sound of a radio dial quickly migrating through static and brief news snippets to fasten onto singing “Heroes” (the rare extended version where the crooner sings the lyrics in both English and German). The main cast are quickly credited, and then we launch into the soundtrack credits:  Bowie. Kraftwerk. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Ian Dury. A bunch of late punk/early new wave acts now forgotten. Devo. (Though not credited, a young Sting will also cameo, as a guitar-playing gas station pump jockey who sings Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven.”) Cinematic staple “Heroes” continues to drone as the black and white camera pans through a cluttered apartment to eventually light upon a body in a bathtub.

Unfortunately, the zeitgeist tunes and superior camerawork (by associate Martin Schäfer, one of several connections to the German director found in Radio On) are the movie’s only real draws. Made just as Thatcherism was taking hold in the U.K., Radio On is as dour and torpid as the mindset of liberal intellectuals of the period. That body in the bathtub belongs to our DJ protagonist Robert’s dead brother, who, after 25 or so minutes of dilly-dallying, staring off into space, and getting a haircut in what seems like real time, sets him off on a journey to find out what happened. The camera focuses on the ugliest examples of modern British architecture it can find—factories, tenement skyscrapers, freeway on-ramps—so that when we finally see the flat and bleak English landscape outside his car window, it looks pastoral by comparison. Newscasts blather on about crime and obscenity raids, until our expressionless antihero turns on some Kraftwerk in boredom. It’s all very esque, stylishly alienated and dispassionate. Once the journey gets afoot, Petit livens up the scenario (not a difficult task) with a few chance encounters: a Scottish army deserter, Sting, and a plot detour with a German woman (Wenders’ ex-wife Kreuzer) fruitlessly searching for the daughter her ex-husband has taken to England. Robert’s car deteriorates throughout the journey, until it ends up stalled out at a quarry by a beach. We never learn exactly what happened to the brother.

I’m sure Radio On accurately captures the mood of anomie among leftists in 1979 England. As a time capsule, it has some value beyond the soundtrack and cinematography. But the aggressively disenchanted pallor makes it a hard sell for people who weren’t there. Despite the Bowie tunes, most of the movie informed by long, ambiguous-but-sad silences.

Radio On was a surprise late 2021 release from Vinegar Syndrome (via partner label Fun City). The movie has a small but loyal British following, and among the surprising number of extras on the disc (including a Kier-La Janisse commentary track and multiple interviews with director Petit) is “Radio On (Remix),” a 24-minute experimental film composed of altered Radio On footage with a schizophrenic audio mix and lines of poetry appearing in subtitles. I’m personally much fonder of this abstract, dreamlike approach to the material, but it’s difficult to say how it would work as a standalone piece for someone with no knowledge of the feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an enigmatic and offbeat walk on the wild side.”–Rob Aldam, Backseat Mafia (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: GERRY (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Gus Van Sant

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Two young men become lost in a desert, and wander aimlessly in search of a way out.

Still from Gerry (2002)

COMMENTS: The plot synopsis above may seem unhelpfully brief, but there’s the very real possibility that I’ve actually said too much. Describing Gerry is an almost futile task, because very little actually happens, and that’s very much the point. Even before they get lost, the two men motoring down the highway aren’t really doing anything. Their sojourn into the desert is a vague trek to see “the thing,” a goal they dispense with pretty early on. They don’t even speak for the first eight minutes of the film until Damon reminds Affleck to stick to the path, as blunt a piece of foreshadowing as one can imagine.

Gerry is largely a sensory experience. Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides capture a some truly spectacular, desolate vistas (a mélange of Death Valley and Argentina), against which Affleck and Damon seem puny and immaterial. Meanwhile, the soundscape of designer Leslie Shatz is cranked up to the maximum, with every trudge and scrape slamming into the red. It’s not just that these two men are lost and doomed. It’s that we’re right there with them.

For a story about people walking blithely into harm’s way, Gerry is unexpectedly entertaining. Affleck and Damon improvised much of their dialogue and they have a casual repartee, best exemplified by a scene where Affleck manages to get stuck atop an enormous boulder and the pair has to figure out a way to get him down. (Affleck also nails the film’s most brutal slice of gallows humor: “How do you think the hike’s going so far?”) They exude a surprising amount of personality for as little as they say, and as little as we know about them. Even their names are a mystery; they might both be called Gerry, but they also use the word as shorthand for making a dumb mistake, so the very title of the film could just be a way of busting their chops.

Van Sant marries this non-story with potent visuals that would be comically overwrought if they didn’t serve the film so well. A perfectly framed closeup of the men slogging through the desert almost resembles a horse race, until you realize each ear-splitting crunch in the dirt is leading them ever closer to nowhere at all. A long, slow dolly around Affleck, capturing his utter dejection is paired with a similar dolly looking outward, taking in the stunning scenery that is doing him in.

Gerry kicks off a sort of unofficial Gus Van Sant trilogy about young death. This film’s death-by-misfortune is followed by Last Days (suicide) and Elephant (murder). Uniting the three films is a sense that that last day of life is not momentous or weighted with significance. The days are just days. And there is beauty and terror in them, just the same.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you can imagine Dude, Where’s My Car? rewritten by Samuel Beckett, you have some idea of what this intriguing, ferociously austere, but subtly and unlocatably humorous picture feels like… Gerry requires a leap of faith and an investment of attention: but with its fascination and weird exhilaration it handsomely repays both.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motkya, who called it “ a masterpiece of minimalism” and argued “[t]his movie deserves to be in the List, if only for its uncompromising refusal to be a traditional cinematic experience.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)   

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MEMORIA (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A Scottish woman traveling in Colombia thinks she’s losing her mind when she intermittently hears a mysterious thumping sound.

Still from Memoria (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Memoria is a deliberately-paced accumulation of subtly odd incidents, with one big weird reveal.

COMMENTS: Memoria has a lot on its mind, but Weerasethakul’s philosophy, if not his film’s purpose, is summed up in a discussion in a doctor’s office (a conversation that Pfizer might not appreciate). Jessica has come to see a physician in a small Amazonian town seeking relief from her increasing auditory hallucinations and concomitant insomnia. She hints about pills. Tranquilizers, the non-prescribing physician advises, “will make you lose empathy. You will no longer be moved by the beauty of this world. Or the sadness of this world. Do you know Salvador Dalí? Salvador Dalí understood the beauty of this world.”

With all of the potential themes weaving their way through this movie, and through all of Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, the simple directive of not overlooking the beauty of this world is a constant. As with other minimalist filmmakers, Weerasethakul pauses on scenes like a shot of a woman silhouetted in the silvery night, or an quietly teeming Amazonian jungle seen from a balcony, long enough so that you can absorb all the detail, all the beauty. Though she seeks a brief relief from the pressures of her world with Xanax, Jessica is not alien to this insight: on an errand at a music studio, she stops in a doorway to listen to a spirited jam session from a jazz quartet. Not many movies take time out in the middle of the story for a brief and totally superfluous recital—but for Weerasethakul, beauty pops up unexpectedly, and we must take time to savor it when it arrives.

It should be noted that much of the beauty he arranges for us is strange beauty, the beauty of the inexplicable and the supernatural. The movie’s second scene is a symphony arranged for car alarms, whose various honks and sirens, set off by some poltergeist, perform an aleatory rhythmic concert. Another early scene involves Jessica talking to sound engineer Hernán, who takes time out of his schedule to help her recreate the sound she’s hearing in her head in the studio, working from a library of movie effects, sculpting waveforms to create a “more earthy,” “rounder” sound at Jessica’s direction. This is an unusual scenario, to say the least. From this meeting Hernán takes a strong and peculiar interest in the older woman—that is, until he suddenly disappears from the story. Then, oddly enough, in a remote village Jessica meets a fish-scaler and mystic who just happens to also be named Hernán. This second Hernán understands the language of howler monkeys, does not dream, and holds the answer to the source of the thumping sound Jessica has been hearing… a rather astounding answer, it turns out.

Swinton is reserved here. She is quietly lost in the world, never raising her voice, reacting with widening eyes and tightening lips to the alarming noises echoing in her head. She is the perfect  Weerasethakul heroine, reacting just enough to these beautiful mysteries to guide us towards absorbing and savoring them. Memoria is a wispy piece of poetry that rewards concentration, but doesn’t demand it. If your mind drifts, you won’t miss anything. You see what is there to be seen, and hear what is there to be heard.

The screener copy I received on DVD was preceded by an short apologia from Weerasethakul and Swinton reminding us to “respect that this film was intended for a very, very much larger screen than the one you’re probably viewing it on now, and to keep that sacrosanct.” I didn’t get it at the time–I thought it was an unnecessary plea to not pirate the film, or simply to take into account that this was a sub-optimal presentation. But it turns out that these critics’ screener copies are reluctantly granted exceptions to the film’s rule: Weerasethakul intends for the movie to be shown only in theaters, with no home video or streaming release. (I imagine they will relent on that restriction after a few years pass, but then again, never has.) In the U.S., it begins its release on December 26, traveling from town to town, one engagement at a time. We’ll post a schedule when we can. If you want to see Memoria, you’ll have to make a point to seek it out; it won’t come to you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…watching Memoria is like sleepwalking through an unfamiliar territory. It’s like a lucid dream; you are not quite sure if you are awake or dreaming… Memoria, with languid long takes and tranquil setting, is a deeply contemplative film that offers you to experience a dreamscape in a place strange yet familiar, where you can embrace the mysteries of life.”–Dustin Chang, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2019)

Om det oändliga

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Serner, Bengt Bergius

PLOT: Wan, deadpan vignettes, including stories of a priest who has lost his faith and a couple who are inexplicably flying over a burnt-out city.

Still from About Endlessness (2019)

COMMENTS: If you’ve seen a Roy Andersson film before, you know exactly what to expect from About Endlessness. If you haven’t seen one before, it’s as easy to describe the style as it is difficult to capture the poetic impact. Andersson movies are a series of short vignettes (some under a minute), mostly grim and bleak in tone, staged on immaculately detailed sets composed of earth tones and enacted by pale actors with mostly deadpan deliveries. Endlessness is not the work I would advise Andersson neophytes to start with (begin at Songs from the Second Floor and work your way forward). This project feels less like a climax to the now-78-year-old Andersson’s brilliant career, and more like an unexpected encore, a gift to hardcore fans who are not quite ready to go home just yet.

Taken together, the patchy events of an Andersson movie suggest a tapestry of human life. Here, most of the segments are introduced by a detached female voice, whose descriptions set the stage for each bit: “I saw a young man who had not yet found love,” “I saw a couple, two lovers, floating over a city,” “I saw a woman who loved champagne.” Endlessness differs from previous entries in Andersson’s canon in that there is less obvious surrealism and absurdity, and also less obvious humor. On the other hand, while he remains a Swede who makes look jovial by comparison, there is more hope here than in the past. A scene at the railway station does not end in the disaster we predict; a fight seems to be resolved, if not happily, at least with closure; and a moment where three young women break into spontaneous dancing is the most life-affirming moment the aueteur has ever chronicled. Even so, the ratio of joy to quiet despair here is unfavorable to humanity; but at least, on occasion, he admits rays of sunlight to break from the overcast skies.

The miniatures are spare, cut to the bone, with no extraneous detail to detract from each parable. Dialogue is rare, action rarer, so we have plenty of opportunity to indulge ourselves with Andersson’s specialty—set design. While the director staged a few outdoor scenes in Endlessness, it’s next to impossible to distinguish those shot in the wild from ones filmed entirely inside his warehouse using trompe l’oeil backdrops. Often the only way to know is by checking whether the clouds move, or whether birds in the sky recede or stay nailed in place.

Recurrent check-ins with a depressed priest who has lost his faith best—and possibly too obviously—express the major theme that runs through Andersson’s work: the disappearance of God from Western culture, and the persistent longing for Him. Meanwhile, the title comes from another vignette, where a young physics student attempts to wring  a spiritual lesson out of the Laws of Thermodynamics, only to be undercut when his girlfriend fails to appreciate the metaphor. At any rate, About Endlessness is an ironic title for a film that runs a brief 75 minutes, and is haunted by premonitions of death. The ending, which will likely serve as the final shot of Andersson’s cinematic career, is a whimper. It suggests that he has run out of gas. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I mean that his final statement seems to be that his movie ends as everything will end: broken-down and alone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘About Endlessness’ is one of the least fanciful of Roy Andersson’s films. There’s less of the deadpan surrealism that tinged his prior, singular movies… The ‘endlessness’ of the film encompasses a lot of absurdity and disappointment, but its notes of grace sound the loudest.”–Glen Kenny, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)