Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016)

Watching the Alsarabi youtube bootleg since this is only playing in museums. It’s a news and history dance video to a Kanye West song, footage sourced from all over, some with TV station and Getty Images watermarks. Lots of new-to-me clips with some very familiar images interspersed. Really great, powerful montage though (and I don’t call movies “powerful” often, search the blog and see).


Ms. Hillsonga (2017)

A minute of still images set to a fast beat by Jeff Mills, cut almost too quickly to be identifiable (including the shot my letterboxd avatar is from), then the images repeat but motion video footage is added, then it repeats again with new clips or stills substituted to keep things lively. More great montage, again full of imagery of Black freedom and oppression, the footage replacement reminding me of Zorns Lemma in a good way.


Deshotten 1.0 (2009)

Another one with repetition and variations. Young man gets shot in a busy street scene, ends up in hospital with friends and family, then it keeps rewinding and playing out differently, maybe just in his own mind. I love the music, sounds like a Squarepusher song heard from a couple blocks away. Codirected with his TNEG film studio partner Malik Sayeed (TNEG has a lofty mission statement)


Dreams are Colder Than Death (2013)

Artists comment in voiceover about the risk of losing black culture and connection… where things stand on “the goals and ambitions of the civil rights movement in the United States… does the dream live on?”

Statements range from the personal to the academic – I liked the bit comparing jazz musicians to the tension between legality and criminality – a low, constant doom-rumble on the soundtrack beneath the words.

Much more calmly paced than his other work. His most Khalik Allah-like movie, what with the street photography and unsynced sound. Stock photography (that red-sun image I’ve seen in all his films, MLK, war and slavery scenes) and slow-mo shots of the speakers (who include Charles Burnett).


One gallery says Jafa’s artworks “question prevailing cultural assumptions about identity and race,” which is pretty generic – they also say “he is a filmmaker with a unique understanding of how to cut and juxtapose a sequence to draw out maximum visceral effect,” which sounds right. Aha, he has shot Spike Lee movies and Daughters of the Dust and some music videos. I was just the 26 millionth person to watch Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” video, and all those people are onto something, this is good.


I tried listening to the ICP panel discussion, but academics are hard to listen to while at work, so I skipped ahead to Jafa shitting on 12 Years a Slave, haha. He outlines a script he’s written tying together the Birmingham church bombing, Coretta Scott and Michael Jackson through alternate timelines.

On Daughters of the Dust: “There’s an alternate universe in which Julie Dash is the Toni Morrison of film. It’s not this one, cuz this one is kinda fucked up.”

“We have to transform the understanding of the real” through film.

I blocked off late January for Rotterdance, and premiere screening Asako was fantastic, then Belmonte and Rojo were pretty whatever… so I’m looking at the remaining options for the following week… Monos, Happy as Lazzaro… movies I keep hearing are great but don’t look attractive like Private Life and The Souvenir… mass-murder fashion-thing Vox Lux… serious stuff by Loznitsa and Petra Costa… and La Flor is there on the list, the ridiculous outlier which obviously I’m not gonna watch because there isn’t time. So that’s what I watched.

Movie from Argentina, in multiple episodes, with multiple chapters, the whole thing cut into multiple parts which don’t align with the episodes (but do align with the chapters) – it’s complicated. The director helps lighten things up by introducing the project in a prologue, looking into camera without moving his mouth, narrating in voiceover, and drawing his diagram of the film’s structure which landed on the cover of Cinema Scope.


Episode 1

Proper b-movie length at 80 minutes, and shot on low-grade video. The audio sounds dry and dubbed, but looks to be in sync. Scientists receive shipment of an ancient mummy, have to babysit it after hours, but one girl (and a black cat) get mummy-cursed, so a psycho-transference specialist comes to help. “I’ll tell you more about it,” she says, as the movie suddenly cuts to episode 2. A Mac OS 9 skype window proves this movie has been in the works for a long time.

Elisa Carricajo = Marcela, lead scientist who is introduced on an awkward date before hectic work day
Laura Paredes = cool, efficient doctor Lucia
Valeria Correa = dazed, cursed, water-guzzling Yani
Pilar Gamboa = mummy-curse specialist Daniela

Dr. Elisa, Dr. Laura:

Mummy-whisperer Pilar:


Episode 2

Famous singer Victoria reminisces to her hair-streaked assistant Flavia about Vic’s rocky/successful recording career and personal life with lousy singer Ricky. Out of the blue, Flavia is in a scorpion cult with the secret of eternal youth, but cult leader Elisa Carricajo doesn’t seem to trust her. Andrea “Superbangs” Nigro, a rival singer, has a whole speech about storytelling and protagonists (it’s a monologue-heavy episode) and is present in the recording booth during the very good climactic Victoria song (but why? I spaced out for a while).

Singer Victoria = Pilar = mummy-curse specialist Daniela
Assistant/Confidante/Cultist Flavia = Laura = cool doctor Lucia
Superbangs singer Andrea Nigro = Valeria = cursed Yani
Scorpion cult leader = Elisa = lead scientist Marcela

Nigro:


Episode 3

Epic spy drama that starts out fun, tries to pivot to being mournful as everyone appears to be doomed, and takes long sidetracks into backstory. The four lead women are teammates in this one – briefly they were five, until their leader Agent 50 takes out the mole sent by a rival assassin collective led by “Mother.” Both team leaders report to Casterman, a spymaster ordered to kill off his own people. It’s like pulp Oliveira at times – it’s never comedy, but has a delightful heightened quality to it. Multiple narrators of different sexes with different viewpoints, and at one point (not even at an intermission), Llinás stops the episode to show off his storyboards.

Casterman:

Commie-trained mute spy Theresa = Pilar
La Niña, daughter of a legendary soldier = Valeria
La 301, globetrotting assassin = Laura
Agent 50, Ukranian super-spy = Elisa

The promo shot… from L-R: 50, 301, Niña, Dreyfuss, Theresa:

My favorite scene, kidnapped Dreyfuss in the cosmos:


Episode 4

After all that narrative drama, this episode is aggressively messing with us. The actresses play “the actresses,” undistinguished and ignored. Llinás introduces them to new producer Violeta in a studio scene of choreographed arguments, then he ditches his production, taking a mobile crew to film trees in bloom with relaxing string music, stopping frequently to write in his notebook. I think it’s a parody of the pretentious filmmaker who has lost his focus/inspiration.

Halfway through, the focus changes, as paranormal investigator Gatto arrives at the site of a mysterious incident, finding the filmmakers’ car high in a tree, the camera and sound crew raving mad, and Llinás missing, having left behind his journals. Gatto calls the La Flor script notes “a load of crap,” gets mixed up with some residents of a psychiatric colony, and follows the director’s tracks through a series of used book stores, as Llinás searches for an old copy of Casanova with a deleted chapter. This all sounds like nonsense, but it comes together beautifully by the end, after seeming like a waste of time for a good while.

“He never refers to any of them in particular, as if the four were a single thing:”


Episode 5

“In episode five, the girls don’t appear… at the time we thought it was interesting.” I think it’s the same Guy de Maupassant story that Jean Renoir filmed in the 1930’s. A couple of cool dudes with fake mustaches give horse rides to a whitesuit man and his son, when they’re derailed by a couple of picnicking women, who pair off with the mustache men after whitesuit rides away. This is all capped with an air show, and is a lovely diversion after the long previous section.


Episode 6

Heavy organ music and intertitles – the four stars are reunited, but blurred as if shot from behind a dirty screen. Aha, it’s filmed using a camera obscura, a pre-camera device which throws a reverse image through a pinhole. Supposedly the women have escaped from unseen savages and are dodging a giant steampunk insect before returning to their homes. Partially nude and without closeups, they’re finally indistinguishable.

Essential reading: Nick Pinkerton for Reverse Shot and Jordan Cronk’s Cinema Scope feature.

Lavinia is introduced by the lake, doing a wiccan ritual to cure her mom of cancer and get herself out of this town, when a wandering hydrologist interrupts – it’s convenient that a hydrologist is on-site exactly when an alien color-force lands via meteor and gets into the locals via the well water. Lavinia’s cancerous mom is Joely Richardson (of a movie-royalty family, previously of Drowning by Numbers and the Ken Russell Lady Chatterley), her dad is Nic Cage (toned down from Mandy, and better), doing his damnedest to inform America that alpacas are the animal of the future (they are!).

Lavinia and little brother Jack-Jack:

Cage vs. The Color (Purple):

Soon the mutations begin. Mom reabsorbs Jack, stoner brother Benny and his buddy Tommy Chong see otherworldy visions, the alpacas fuse into a many-headed blob, and Cage takes care of business with a shotgun. I think Lavinia helps bring about the apocalypse! Stanley is beloved for some 1990’s cult films… good music by the composer from Hereditary… shot by a music video vet (Grinderman’s “Heathen Child”). The first major Lovecraft feature since Beyond Re-Animator and Dagon in the early 2000’s (RIP Stuart Gordon).

Hydrologist, Benny, Tommy:

Hi, mom:

Not as Wes Andersonny as I’d been led to believe, just thoughtfully designed with attention to light and color, and ends with one of the characters putting on a play for all the others. Both Jimmie’s insistence on reclaiming his (false) heritage to find a place he belongs, and Monty’s long-suffering loyal hanger-on who can only speak his mind through the voices of others, are terrific characters. Jimmie Fails was in Talbot’s previous short film, and Jonathan Majors will be in the new Spike Lee.

Jimmie with a nudist who is not Neil Young:


Hair Love (2019, Cherry & Downing & Smith)

Before the feature, we watched this short, just a few minutes after it won the Oscar. It’s cute, the character poses very Disneyfied. Seemed minor to me, and I preferred the unruly hair drama of Random Acts of Flyness, but it’s also the only nominee I’ve seen, seems to be connecting with a lotta people, and it’s an indie kickstarter project, which is a welcome change since Pixar has won half the awards lately.

Oh no, it opens with ironic home-video texture. Heavy midnight-movie style-vibes, after the guy from Girls is tempted to murder his baby, and the baby says “you know what you have to do, right?” He needs to tie up a prostitute then kill her with an ice pick. Midnight vibes confirmed when he rehearses chopping up a body, the movie giving us the sound effects in his head over smooth jazz music while he mimes the actions.

Part of the point of Rotterdance is to check out the hot new filmmakers, so this year instead of catching up with The Image Book or Happy as Lazzaro or Anthropocene, I decided to watch only new-to-me directors. In the time since Piercing‘s release, Nicolas “Nicky Fish” Pesce has already made an unloved reboot of The Grudge. Coincidentally, the last time I saw Chris Abbot was also a genre movie by a promising young director whose third feature just came out to not-great reviews.

Mia W appears as the chosen prostitute, and it turns out Chris isn’t as cool and capable in person, but acts transparently like a serial killer (flashbacks to the Second Incident). Also, Mia turns out to be damaged and complicated – we don’t know much about her, but the movie gives us some damaged/complicated shorthand and asks us to trust it. This proves difficult when the movie’s logic falls apart… Mia stabs herself in the bathroom then takes him to her place in Diorama City… he calls home from the hospital and his wife (Laia Costa, Alia Shawkat’s costar in Duck Butter) now appears to be in on the murder plot, even though last time we saw her Chris was lying about going on a business trip?

This is all played for absurd comedy – it’s really a laugh-a-minute sex-murder movie. They do finally tie each other up, but she finds his journal, drugs him, beats the shit out of him with a can opener, turns the tables, etc. Wendell Pierce appears for four seconds in a split-screen – why?

Mike D’Angelo in AV Club:

The playfulness works beautifully, even though it bears little resemblance to [Audition author Ryu] Murakami’s deep dive into two badly broken psyches … Re-conceiving the tone was a smart move on Pesce’s part — a faithful, ultra-grim adaptation would likely have been unbearable. Trouble is, he loses his nerve … The movie turns ugly, but the ugliness hasn’t been earned.

This period thriller-thing was an improvement over Belmonte. As with that movie, it’s sometimes hard to tell what it’s adding up to narratively, but it effectively builds atmosphere. Where this is all going must be more apparent to Argentinians of a certain age than it was to me. I did notice that whenever two dudes have a disagreement, one of them ends up disappeared into the desert, which gave me flashbacks to the post-Pinochet doc Nostalgia for the Light.

Darío Grandinetti (from Talk to Her) publicly psychoanalyzes a rude stranger into freaking out and committing suicide. Neighbors call Darío “counselor,” but he’s obviously not a mental health counselor, just a respected lawyer, who is close with government man Vivas who wants to “buy” a house that isn’t on the market because its previous owners disappeared before they could sell (leaving behind bloody handprints, how sloppy), so now the paperwork’s all a mess.

Eventually a famous Chilean detective (Pablo Larraín regular Alfredo Castro, the dog trainer in The Club) will come around asking questions about the suicided man, who turns out to be Vivas’s wife Mabel’s brother. While we wait for the detective plot to kick in, all the sidetrack scenes are intriguing… Mabel freaks out at a museum… a government official welcomes three American cowboys whose performance was postponed by a previous official… Darío’s family attends a slow-mo rodeo and has a great time while an animal is slaughtered to mournful string music… his wife encounters a stranger while peeing in the woods during an eclipse.

The Wives:

The Men:

According to Michael Sicinski, Naishtat is “a highly experimental filmmaker aim[ing] for greater accessibility,” so it’s be interesting to see his earlier features. I remember hearing things in Cinema Scope about El Movimiento. V. Rizov in Filmmaker summarizes Rojo: “A really unpleasant lawyer kills a guy because he can and then commits all kinds of similarly unsavory bullshit. The movie is, nonetheless, very fun…” and Adam Nayman writes more about cynicism and disappearance.

A Rotterdance selection from Uruguay. Belmonte is a morose painter who does good business selling morose nudes to rich people. He would like to spend more time with his daughter, but it’s complicated with the pregnant ex-wife. Belmonte has grave concerns about his parents, the business his brother runs, the opera, family and acquaintances he meets at the opera, his daughter, and an upcoming exhibit. He’s kind of prickly and no fun to be around… but the movie has some nice colored lights sometimes, and it’s short.

Veiroj’s fourth feature – two others have more promising descriptions. Lead actor Gonzalo Delgado has also been an art director, writer, you name it. Played in Rotterdam 2019’s “Voices” section with Knife+Heart, The Mountain, Genesis, and Cities of Last Things. Dan Sallitt loved this and Grass, so I’m having a very Sallitt-approved week.

Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

What makes Belmonte rather unique is the fact that, at least for most of the film, it avoids the clichés of the creative life. Instead, Veiroj treats art as labour, coextensive with the demands of fatherhood and other familial duties … Veiroj is Uruguay’s leading auteur at this point, and as with his earlier film A Useful Life (which centered on a cinematheque programmer), Belmonte is a sensitive examination of the ins and outs of a life in the arts.

Rotterdance! Premiered at Cannes 2018, showed up at Rotterdam at the end of its festival run, opened in NYC in May then slid onto video in November.

Cute girl Asako meets shaggy guy Baku. He’s a bit quiet and mysterious, and she hardly says anything, just looks curious. They hang out together with her friend Haruyo and his friend Okazaki. They are sweet and young and that’s all there is. “Six months later, Baku said he was going to buy shoes and never came back”

Two years later Asako works at a coffee place and spots Salaryman Ryohei, who looks just like Baku, but is no Baku, neither quiet not mysterious. They hang out with her actress roommate Maya and his amateur acting critic friend Kushihashi, who just tears her apart after they watch one of her performances. Asako is drawn to this fake Baku but torn about the whole thing, runs away, comes back the night of the March 2011 earthquake. I’ve got nothing but plot description, but it’s unusually gripping for this sort of dramatic film – every scene is good. It’s no wonder Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour popped up on decade-best lists.

Five years later, he’s moved up at work, she’s still at the coffee shop, and they’ve been together since the quake, when Haruyo shows up, and the movie takes a flying leap into melodrama (my notes during this section just say “holy shit this can’t be happening”). Baku comes back for her, the night before she and Ryohei are moving into a house together, in the middle of a farewell dinner, and she goes with him – then changes her mind along the way, but Ryohei might never trust her again. “I always had a feeling this would happen. That guy with the same face keeps haunting me.”

Baku I & II:

Would watch Asako III & IV. Cowritten with one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s regular screenwriters, and Baku/Ryohei Masahiro Higashide starred in his Creepy (as the detective’s ex-partner) and Foreboding. Haruyo was in Lesson of Evil, and Kushihashi was in some Ju-on and Ring sequels. In competition at Cannes the year of Shoplifters and Burning and Ash Is Purest White – tough crowd.

Hamaguchi summarizes his career to date in a Filmmaker interview.

Lawrence Garcia: (I thought the autotune song was horrendous, but this is still good)

Like Karata’s unexpected performance, the film is opaque in ways both confounding and thrilling, as if internalizing one character’s advice not to over-interpret. Equally adept with subtle, naturalistic sketches (a visit to a seafood festival in a far-flung town) and well-timed bursts of emotion (an offered hand and a rising auto-tuned anthem to stop your heart)…

Josh Cabrita, who compares it to Rohmer’s Winter’s Tale:

Asako I & II sets up and throws out stylistic paradigms faster than you can grab hold of them. As if to maximize the frustration of viewers who prefer to distinguish the fantastic from the “real,” Hamaguchi’s amorphous aesthetic — blending naturalistic and affected performances, unobtrusive and flashy editing — renders inseparable inner and outer and public and private forms of experience.

Hamaguchi, who adds that Baku/Ryohei’s accents were different:

Employing [genre] conventions allowed the film to move a lot faster than usual without losing the audience. Those who don’t really understand those conventions might feel what is happening to be a little strange or even grotesque — or maybe a better expression is absurd, surrealist, or illogical. But one of the things I wanted to do was to have realism and surrealism coexisting: allowing something real to come out of this absurd situation, or to have some absurd quality rooted in the reality that we crafted.

“How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been drinking.”

Opens with long-take conversation about a dead friend, the camera zooming in then panning back and forth. He (Ahn Jae-hong, his fourth Hong film) walks out to smoke while she (Gong Min-jeung, her third) is still yelling at him. Then we see Kim in a corner typing on her laptop, not looking up, commenting on the couple’s conversation in voiceover. Separate shot, so she’s possibly not there at same time – could be writing about this, or inventing it and we’re seeing the fiction she’s creating. Later it’s established that she hangs out at this restaurant and overhears conversations – in any event, it’s a heavy opening scene.

Conversation 2 is Ki Joo-bong and Seo Young-hwa, both Hong veterans, and there’s more death talk. He is depressed, attempted suicide over a love affair. She has a new place, and he is persistently asking if he can move in, but she refuses, the string music getting fuller and louder. I think both men have been actors so far.

Next couple is outdoors, oooh, and he’s another actor, though he wants to write screenplays. He is Jung Jin-young, the film director in Claire’s Camera, and she is Kim Sae-byuk of the Hong movie that premieres next week. Anyway, she says no, so the actor corners Kim instead and asks if she wants to cowrite screenplays – there are some persistent dudes in this movie.

The fourth couple is there to see Kim – it’s her brother (Shin Seok-ho of Hotel by the River) and his fiancee (Ahn Sun-yeong of On The Beach At Night Alone). Kim is dismissive of their relationship, and shitty to her brother: “They call themselves men, but in dealing with pain, or when ending things, they act like cowards.”

Another conversation in the same restaurant during dinner – and it’s more people blaming each other for a suicide. Each convo has been a single take, and this one is unusual for not showing the man’s face. She is Lee Yoo-young, the lead of Yourself and Yours with the slippery identity, and he is newcomer Kim Myeong-su, who makes her cry as “Oh Susanna” comes on the radio.

Four from earlier end up drinking together, Kim still listening in (“Do you know I hear everything you say? I have good hearing, you know?”), and they repeatedly invite her to join them, which she finally does. “By the end of the film, Areum is forced to reckon with the very people she so casually, even callously inserted into her writing” – AV Club made more sense out of it than I did, comparing the story to In The City Of Sylvia.