Tag Archives: Minimalist

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MEMORIA (2021)

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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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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)

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NO TRACE (2021)

Nulle trace

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DIRECTED BY: Simon Lavoie

FEATURING: Monique Gosselin, Nathalie Doummar

PLOT: After a smuggler escorts a woman and infant across the border, her draisine is stolen; she encounters the woman she smuggled on her trek back north.

Still from No Trace (2021)

COMMENTS: If Andrei Tarkovsky had made a film about a human smuggler in a post-civilization world, it would look (and feel and sound) like Simon Lavoie’s No Trace. The mystical energy of Canadian wildlands is punctured only by a pair of iron rails as our nameless protagonist navigates her track-bound wagon through the soft palette of black and white trees and scrub. Religion and doubt vie for dominance. And soft aural cues warn of danger. As with the journey into the heart of “the Zone“, metaphysicality in No Trace flourishes the farther our hero travels from her anchor to civilization.

What little civilization She (Monique Gosselin) comes from is made abundantly clear at the start. There is no state, just men with guns. But men with guns are often open to bribes, and so She has a living. Her latest job is transporting a young mother (Nathalie Doummar, credited as “Awa,” though I do not recall her name ever mentioned) and an infant girl across a border whose demarcation is all too unclear. The smuggler’s vehicle breaks down after She receives another assignment, and She is forced to hide in the wilds near the rails. Awa is there. And, in a tragic way, so are her daughter and husband.

No Trace‘s strangeness is carried primarily by its steady drip-drip-drip of unlikely filmic characteristics. The score is spartan, but when the “doom western” chords swell and plang, it’s all the more powerful for it. I’m at a loss for another example in which the primary musical cues climax after a fade to black. The black and white cinematography is as beautiful as the world is bleak, with soft greys highlighting the lush variance of the ever-present forest. And the dialogue, scarcely present in the first half (maybe half-a-dozen brief lines), merely elucidates what little exposition that isn’t made clear in the image.

The subtlety of the action and the actors further renders No Trace a contemplative picture. The slightest raising of the smuggler’s hand in a key scene resonates far more than any flailing histrionics or wild gyrations could. This and the surrounding quietude scream Tarkovsky, yes, but it’s the film’s climax that swerves No Trace into spiritual wonderment. Awa and the smuggler are in a ragged shack, and Awa— a devout Muslim—asks the smuggler, “You are not a believer?,” to which the smuggler coldly replies, “I’m not that desperate yet.” The closing scene, with Awa embraced by leaves and the smuggler embraced by her precious railway, culminates in a theological twist worthy of the late Russian master.

No Trace is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By stripping away artifice and taking a surrealist route and view, Lavoie ponders what lies beyond what we think we know, about an uncertain and obscure future.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: LA CRAVATE (1957)

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DIRECTED BY: , Saul Gilbert, Ruth Michelly

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Raymond Devos

PLOT: A man patronizes a shop that sells human heads, trying to find one which will please his beloved.

Still from La Cravate (1957)

COMMENTS: It took me a while to realize that the baby-faced, clean-shaven, curly-headed protagonist of “La Cravate” was actually director Alejandro Jodorowsky as a young man. The director’s early style, as seen in this mime piece, is almost as unrecognizable as his face; but look hard and you can see the seeds of themes and styles that would haunt his later work, in primitive and innocent forms. There may be none of the shock imagery, no blood or nudity or deformity, no pools of bunny blood or lactating hermaphrodites; but the theatricality, the spirit of the circus, the focus on archetypes rather than characters, the eyes turned always towards the strange, all are here in germinal form.

Created as a 28-year old expatriate studying pantomime in Paris, “La Cravate” is just about exactly the kind of production you’d expect from someone who was palling up with avant-gardists and André Breton while interning with . It’s essentially a silent film, with a soundtrack supplied mostly by calliope and accordion. Like a collection of s and s, the characters communicate humorously and non-verbally. Jodorwosky’s rival’s arrogance is obvious from his dismissive glances and the way he slides in front of the slimmer man to gaze into a shop window, forcing Jodorowsky to keep peeking over and around his broad frame. Alternating smiles and scowls, his inamorata jerks Jodorowsky backwards and forwards like a hooked fish on a line. The characters act in front of painted backdrops representing both the interiors and city streets. From the beginning, Jodorowsky is utterly uninterested in realism as a style, even if the conventional theatricality here isn’t as unique and radical a break from norms as the surreality of his successive works would come to be.

Since the plot involves a literal head shop where noggins can be swapped out at will, the story is macabre, but whimsically so. This short might delight children, which is something that can’t be said for the rest of Jodorowsky’s corpus. Although the director’s future mystical/philosophical preoccupations don’t show up here, the scenario toys lightly with the concept of identity. Once the protagonist’s head is (willingly) detached, has he been split in two? The head seems perfectly happy perched on the shopkeeper’s mantle, where he can play fruit checkers by nodding his approval of the appropriate move, and serenade his owner with a recorder sonata in the evening. 1. When his rival’s head is placed on his old body, it continues to try to seduce the cold woman, then shows buyer’s remorse and longs for reunion with its original face. If anything, the main personality seems to inhere in the costume, symbolized by the long purple cravate (which very nearly ends up doing duty as a noose). Weird stuff, when you think about it, although the whole scenario slides through the mind casually as a charmingly cartoonish fancy.

“La Cravate” was inspired by a Thomas Mann story. Co-star Raymond Devos went on to become a successful French comedian (even making an appearance in Pierrot le Fou). The film was once believed to be lost, but a print was discovered in 2006. You can only find it as an extra on Jodorowsky box sets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This odd comedy manages to incorporate a bit of the absurd and the surreal on a light level.”–Adrian Halen, HorrorNews.net (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “quirkdee” with a simple “its AJ’s first nuff said.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SUBURBAN BIRDS (2018)

Jiao qu de niao

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DIRECTED BY: Sheng Qiu

FEATURING: Mason Lee, Zihan Gong

PLOT: A team of engineers investigate the sudden appearance of sinkholes which are forcing them to condemn buildings; the story changes to follow a group of suburban elementary schoolers, with parallels developing between the two tales.

Still from Suburban Birds (2018)

COMMENTS: If Suburban Birds is any indication, the modern Chinese art-house movement will be founded in the spirit of . Cinematography will be privileged over narrative, hazy mysticism will pervade, and timelines will go out of focus as one or more histories coexist at once.

Suburban Birds begins slowly, develops slowly, and ends with two men falling asleep. We start off following Han, part of a four man surveying team investigating unstable buildings in a Chinese city. After a while, Han enters an evacuated school and finds a diary. He reads it, and we then begin following the story of a boy—also named Han—and his school chums. They hunt for birds eggs, engage in pre-adolescent flirtation, play war games with toy guns, and eventually trek off on a long journey to find one of their number who didn’t show up to school that day. This section of the film takes up an inconclusive hour in the middle of the film, and is almost entirely realistic. The temptation is to assume that young Han and old Han are the same character at different times of their lives, but the story steadfastly refuses to commit to that interpretation, and in fact several points undermine it. When we return to old Han—seen awakening from a nap—the movie seems less connected to reality than before, although the dissonances are always subtle. Motifs such as haircuts, a riddle, and a stray dog recur in both stories, and it’s possible to draw parallels between Han’s companions in each hemisphere. It ends with a coda that brings in two new characters, out on a birdwatching trip in the same forest where young Han once roamed.

What it all signifies is anyone’s guess; it’s impossible to tease out a moral from the odd story, which never develops a consistent tone or obvious theme. It does features good, if restrained, acting; the children, especially, are a believable ensemble, without a weak link. The cinematography is superior, with intelligent zooms and pans highlighting important characters and spatial relationships. Memorable visuals include a shot of tufts of grass that change color from lavender to red to green, and a dreamlike interlude where the engineers examine “clues” from inside separate plexiglass enclosures, each lit in a different neon lighting scheme. Suburban Birds may be enjoyed by fans of slow, obliquely mystical cinema in the mold of and the aforementioned Bi Gan, but I found it took far too long in developing its enigmas, which didn’t seem worth the journey.

Suburban Birds got a very limited U.S. release in 2019; a DVD/Blu-ray showed up in 2020, and it can be found for rental on some of the smaller, art-house oriented streaming services.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Qiu shows remarkable facility as he patiently adds layer upon layer to a mystery that wants to stay one. This is not a puzzle film, but its ends are elusive.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KINETTA (2005)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Giorgos Lanthimos

FEATURING: Evangelia Randou, Aris Servetalis, Costas Xikominos

PLOT: “At a Greek hotel in the off-season, a chamber maid, a man obsessed with BMWs, and a photo-store clerk attempt to film and photograph various badly reenacted struggles between a man and a woman.

COMMENTS: If I am reviewing a film I enjoy or respect (or better yet, both), I am often apprehensive when I sit down to write about it. This is because, despite having written hundreds of reviews by now, I am always fearful I won’t find my “window” into the movie: that first sentence, or first idea, that opens up the rest of my thoughts as I write. If I am reviewing a film that I did not care for, this is not a problem, as there’s usually at least one withering put-down that acts as my window. With Kinetta, I was spoiled for choices. A high point in the movie came early on when I was relieved to find that I wouldn’t, as I was fearing, have to make use of “Closed Caption” subtitles: it turned out the film already had standard subtitles pre-rigged in the stream. This resolved, I watched and took notes; to my right, my cat, Goose, did the sensible thing and slept soundly through the entire film.

Whoever provided the summary on IMDb (which I lifted straight from the site, for the second time only), is a very well-spoken person. That is exactly what Kinetta is “about”, and no amount of “walk time” padding or shaky-cam “fight” footage can stop my train of thought from slapping quotations around everything in a vain attempt to convey how mind-numbingly pointless this cinematic exercise is. Of the three leads, the least charismatic (the “BMW”-fanboy, who may be a cop [?]) gets by far and away the most dialogue. Cameraman, with beard, has perhaps half a dozen short lines, but comes across as the only reasonable person of the bunch. The scene in which he saves the hotel maid character from a drug overdose makes for the only worthwhile stretch of movie—right in the final minutes. But well before that point, a question came unbidden to my mind, “Why don’t the MST3K or RiffTrax people make better use of their skills by tearing art-house garbage to pieces?”

I dove into this review because it was put out there by Management toward the top of the to-do pile. Though I’ve seen one of the director’s more recent movies (with other 366ers, no less), I was totally unfamiliar with his name. So I say to you, Mr. Lanthimos, as I am sure you are reading a review of your (kind of) feature debut from fifteen years ago: good job on overcoming the naysayers. While the likes of The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster prove you know how to make really good movies, Kinetta stands as proof-in-celluloid that you can make a really horrible one if you put your mind to it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewing ‘Kinetta’ with the benefit of hindsight, you can see inklings of visual and staging ideas that Lanthimos would explore more fully later on… But time hasn’t made it more than a cryptic curiosity.”–Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times (2019 revival)

CAPSULE: LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (2018)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jue Huang, Wei Tang

PLOT: A man searches for a woman from his past, who may be nothing but a dream.

Still from Long Day's Journey into Night (2018)

COMMENTS: Bi Gan creates shots of intricate logic inside narratives of unfathomable illogic. Technically speaking, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s play) is another feat of long-take virtuosity; think of films like Russian Ark or Birdman (which it approaches, but does not exceed). Scored to Chinese blues and shot on slick neon streets, the film serves up its slow, dreamy story with an intoxicating noirish melancholy.

The first half of Long Journey jumps back and forth in time, and possibly between reality and fantasy. Bi deliberately withholds narrative information: for example, the protagonist, Luo Hongwu, begins describing his search for one “Zuo Hongyuan” before telling us who he is or why he wants to find him. Repeated motifs—karaoke singing, a disreputable old friend named Wildcat, pomelo fruit, a green book, a spinning house—float around, hints of plot that tantalize more than they explain. The result is like the fractured storytelling of Mulholland Drive, but more subdued and dramatic, and with the key to untangling the story (if there is one) buried even deeper inside the labyrinthine narrative. It’s an exercise in how close you can toe the line of incoherence and still have a structure that functions in the same way as a plot.

The second half begins when Luo visits a movie theater to pass time. The line between the film’s two chapters clearly marked when he puts his 3-D glasses on, and the film pops out into its extra dimension. What follows is the most explicitly surreal parts of the film; Luo has drifted off, and meets a boy who may be his never-born son and a woman who just may be the one he has been seeking. The camerawork will astound you.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the ultra-rare art-house film released to theaters in 3-D (although only the second half is in that format). At home, I watched it in regular old 2-D (although it is available on a 3-D Blu-ray for those few with enhanced players). I doubt I missed out on much. It feels like a little bit of a gimmick; the main justifications are to create a clear dividing point between the movie’s hemispheres, and to make you feel like you are going on a journey with the protagonist. In China, Journey was marketed as a big-deal blockbuster romance and released to theaters on New Year’s Day, China’s preeminent holiday. This counts as a master prank in my book.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The only thing more surreal than the experience of going to see Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is perhaps the movie itself.”–Alex Lei, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)