The sixth installment from our team film critics swarming the cinemas of Auckland and Wellington for the 2018 NZ International Film Festival.
The Green Fog
If the difficulty of describing a film is a fair yardstick for its originality, then Guy Madden is the one of the most original cinematic artists alive. This is 1) clearly true, and 2) a desperate dodge for cover, because I am about to attempt to tell you what watching the latest Madden madman opus felt like, and I am going to fail miserably.
To back up for a moment: Madden’s most recent film was The Forbidden Room (2015), a toweringly berserk two hour riff on the narrative modes of classic silent movies, and my favourite film of its year. It consisted of a 1001 Nights-style stream of stories embedded within stories, each one opening out into a new one before it could finish, and each one shot to look as though it had recently been rediscovered in a lost vault of pre-sound films. It was as meta as narrative art can get, and it was insanely entertaining.
The Green Fog is half the length, entertainingly insane, and also the second half of The Forbidden Room‘s conceptual act. Where the earlier film stripped stories down to a few frantic, hilarious scenes from which you could –and had to – infer the whole, this one strips its stories right down to their basic grammar. The raw material this time is not newly shot scenes disguised as other people’s work: Madden has clipped actual shots from dozens – hundreds? – of films and TV shows, all of them set in San Francisco, and arranged them into something loosely resembling a story. By “loosely”, I mean “it’s stone hilarious and therefore does not need to cohere into anything you’d recognise as a conventional narrative, which is just as well”. We’re talking chase scenes where the people and places involved shift from second to second, the film constantly changes format and colour intensity, and the only thread to follow is the familiar shape of a chase scene. We’re talking dialogue scenes where all the dialogue has been edited out and the only bits left are the body language moments that tell you people about to speak.
The film could be described as a teaching exercise designed to show you how much meaning you can extract from form when its content is deleted; except that it is, let me say again, stone hilarious, which is not my usual experience of teaching exercises. Watch out for Michael Douglas’s nude scene, which you’ve never seen like this even if you saw its original in Basic Instinct; watch out for the extended video essay on the imperturbable stylings of Chuck Norris’s 70s-era hair. The absurdly melodramatic Bartok-goes-to-the-races string quartet score flavours everything simultaneously with high seriousness and its exact opposite. The film is fragmentary yet whole, jarring yet familiar, and I have, as promised, failed to describe what watching it felt like. It’s only an hour of your time. Go find out. /David Larsen
Island of the Hungry Ghosts
Experimental documentary is going through a bit of a quiet renaissance around the Tasman, with On an Unknown Beach and Casting Jonbenet providing exciting provocations on either side. With Island of the Hungry Ghosts, Gabrielle Brady’s film set on Christmas Island, another film enters that pantheon. Light on exposition and heavy on observation, Island forces viewers to gradually get our moorings on a remote location of uncanny beauty, replete with the visually stunning red crab migration across the island. Slowly, it becomes clear we are following the life of a trauma counsellor working offsite with refugee detainees on the island. I say “following” loosely, as we are just as likely to probe the cruel past of the island (which created the titular “hungry ghosts”), and for the first half of the film one might feel that the film may never coaelesce. And while the filmmaking is strong enough that I wouldn’t have minded that, the second half foregrounds more conventional narrative hooks without forsaking more experimental longueures.
While loosely similar to many of the “hybrid documentaries” that have arisen in recent years – see also The Red House and the work of Ben Rivers and Ben Russell – Island of the Hungry Ghosts is unlike any film I’ve seen. In a Q&A, Brady made it clear that the film freely trades in re-creation and staged scenes alongside more conventional observation, and that her cinematic influences and references were not documentary at all but instead a range of fiction films, from Terrence Malick and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives to mystery, science fiction, and horror films. This may all seem a tad abstruse, and perhaps even disrespectful to the stories of these refugees, on paper. But on screen, it’s entirely a different matter. From Chasing Asylum to Human Flow to Fire At Sea to countless years of news footage, we’ve seen no shortage of films showing the day to day lives of refugees in abominable situations. Island of the Hungry Ghosts invites the viewer into this deadeningly familiar yet utterly horrific topic matter in an unexpected way. I thought of Werner Herzog’s maxim more than once: “We need new images, or we will die.” As always, H-Dog was being a bit overdramatic, but the underlying truth is sound: new images open our hearts and minds in unexpected ways, and Island of the Hungry Ghosts does exactly that with more force than a dozen preachy agit-prop documentaries ever could. Highly recommended. /Doug Dillaman
Opening establishing shot: a city, seen from the air, vastly detailed and various, under a mountain of white cloud in a blue sky. Hand-drawn animation, a style familiar from every last one of Hayao Miyazaki’s films; and instantly I’m on board. Mamoru Hosada, writer and director of Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and The Boy & the Beast, is not Miyazaki’s equal, but neither is anyone else, and in today’s anime landscape he’s one of the best people working. It took just the opening seconds of Mirai, his latest, to set a visual mood from within which the film was going to have to work quite hard if it wanted to disappoint me.
This did not happen. Mirai – let’s get this out of the way – has the same general weaknesses as all Hosada’s films, and a lot of good animes, being socially conservative in a way that often trips over into sentimentality, and prone at times to overstated physical comedy. But it’s also sweet-souled, insightful, unafraid of difficult truths, and visually gorgeous. The story is very simple: little boy acquires baby sister, resents her, acts out, comes around. The characters are well drawn – in both senses – and if all the film did was follow their interactions over a year or two, it would be a lovely piece of quiet, intuitive realism. It does more than that. I don’t want to spoil the fantasy elements of the story, beyond saying that they exist, but they do a lot of useful narrative and conceptual work, and they also allow the animators to explore a broader range of styles than I’ve seen in a Hosada film before. The film could have a much, much weaker story and still get three cheers from me just for the motorcycle riding scene and the visit to Tokyo’s Central Railway Station, one of which is visually minimalist, while the other… isn’t. See this on the biggest screen you possibly can. /David Larsen
Chulas Fronteras / Del Mero Corazon
One of the great late-breaking pleasures of my cinema life is discovering the films of Les Blank, who for far too long I only knew as the guy who got Werner Herzog to rant about how nature is evil in Burden of Dreams. Turns out his main bread and butter was documenting the rich musical and culinary subcultures of America with a sympathetic eye and ear. This double pairing of films hones in on the Mexican-American tejano border culture. The half-hour long Del Mero Corazon, directed by Blank’s longtime filmmaking partner Maureen Gosling, is mostly a cultural and musical celebration, largely unfettered by context. Chulas Fronteras, meanwhile, integrates more interviews in explaining tejano culture, and also takes a much more explicitly political focus, including songs that focus on racial discrimination, the plight of the farmer, and Cesar Chavez.
I can’t pretend that those who find the sound of the accordion to be nails on chalkboard will be highly enthused about these films; as is often the case with performance-based films, one’s musical tastes go a long way to determining one’s personal enjoyment, and the narrative thread is too thin to really maintain interest on that level. But seeing this a day after Monterey Pop, it’s notable how Blank and Gosling’s generous spirit comes through so clearly in the faces of the performers, audiences, and passersby. Whereas many of the audience members in Monterey Pop look away or are appalled by what are clearly objectifying camera angles, both Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazon, as with the rest of Blank’s work, make you feel like a welcome guest rather than a voyeur. (It also helps that the performances are given room to breathe and cleanly observed, rather than being filmed impossibly close or cut to ribbons.) As is often the case with their films, the biggest fault is a limit of the medium: it’s impossible not to feel a pang of desire for the lovingly prepared guacamole and carnitas or an ice-cold cerveza. Nonetheless, it’s the loveliest hangout experience I’ve had this NZIFF, and you’d be well advised to take a break from darker fare to take some joy in border culture. /Doug Dillaman
Let the Corpses Tan
The cinema of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani is akin to taking the best of genre Eurocinema from the 60s and 70s and reducing it to its purest essence. Their first two features, Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, mine the imagery from films of Italian horror auteurs such as Dario Argento, but through vivid sound design and hyper-detailed attention to extreme closeups, create something more concentrated and powerful than the maestro himself, great as he was, ever did.
The traditional knock against Cattet/Forzani is that their narratives are abstruse. For Let The Corpses Tan, based on a popular French novel and their first venture outside the world of horror, the narrative density is greater than their previous two films combined, which is still not very much. Basically, there’s an armored car heist of gold bars, and it goes wrong, and there’s a standoff in an abandoned village where an artist (played with ferocious joy by Hal Hartley muse Elina Lowensohn) resides. Those familiar with the films of Sergio Leone or the Italian poliziotteschi genre might have some idea of what unfolds next. But nothing can prepare you for their delightful reappropriation of 70s cinematic devices such as crash zooms and whip-pans, their playful abuse of chronological markers, or the gleeful free association of gold with, um, a certain bodily secretion.
I watched this two nights in a row, once in the front of the theatre to soak up the glorious images, and once in the back to enjoy the surround sound and pick up the 50% of the plot I missed the first time, and each experience was glorious. Their narrative condensation – and transposition of certain scenes from the literal to the symbolic – isn’t always easy to follow. But it’s also generally gleeful, and if it’s a choice between tedious exposition and gleeful formal insanity, I’m happy to hang out with the latter every day of the week. Let The Corpses Tan is one of my three favourite films of the festival thus far, and the other two (Leave No Trace and Bisbee ’17) are ludicrously incomparable. Don’t miss it on the big screen: love it or loathe it (as one gentleman took it upon himself to inform me after the second screening, complaining about the “ugly faces”), there’s no question Cattet/Forzani make singular use of the giant canvas. /Doug Dillaman