Nuclear war was in the air this month, so I double-featured two hour-long films.


Atomic (2015, Mark Cousins)

A bunch of period footage cut with no sense of rhythm… not sure what this adds to the conversation. It’s not fair that Cousins gets to use and manipulate the music of Mogwai, instead of vice versa. It’s diverting, at least.


The Bomb (2016, Kevin Ford & Smriti Keshari)

Started out so promising… scientific documents expertly composited over footage that was mostly unique from the other movie. Then it devolves into mumford-scored bomb montages with a long segment from that old standby Duck & Cover, ending up on the surface of the sun, just like the other movie. If we could’ve taken the first half of this movie and scored it with Mogwai, then we’d really have something.

Possibly even more of a casual hangout movie than The Other Side, refusing any backstory or narrative momentum. And as with that one, I never have any idea if what we’re seeing is pure documentary, or what has been invented for the film. These aren’t complaints! Handheld cameras shoved right into actors’ faces in low lighting while nothing much happens isn’t usually my aesthetic preference, but I do love Minervini’s work so far.

Sara lives and works on a goat farm with her large, homeschooling family (there are “bad influences” in the public schools), sells at farmers’ markets and directly to neighboring families, like the rodeo down the street, where Sara makes smalltalk with young Colby. It’s so low-key that you wouldn’t think there’s a budding relationship there, but for a couple marriage conversations she has at home (and is that an old-fashioned wedding dress she’s wearing in the final shot?). More than half of the movie is rodeo and praying. Substituting for the armed, drunken racist horror that was the last half-hour of The Other Side: a short scene, unexplained, of a cross burning in a field at night.

Hollywood Reporter:

Minervini is particularly successful at suggesting the parallels between Colby and Sara. A skinny, sweet-natured cowboy who’s all sinew but no muscle, he needs focus and determination to master his rodeo skills and avoid injury. A born nurturer with a special feeling for animals, she holds sacred beliefs yet at the same time is needled by doubts and fears that she’s unable to articulate, which her mother assures her are an inevitable part of the battle for inner peace … And while it isn’t quite a performance in the standard sense, it’s difficult to imagine the film working to the extent it does without a figure of such emotional transparency and innate spirituality as Sara Carlson at its center.

Naturalistic slowcore – I think it’s another hybrid-doc film, and it was a bad move for my attention span to play this right after Orleans and the Sarah Morris shorts. On the other hand I’ve been meaning to watch anything by Pereda since the 50 Under 50 list almost five years ago, so I’m glad I finally did.

Gabino seems to be rehearsing a breakup poem composed of song titles – ah, no he’s selling mp3 discs of romantic songs, and for some some never-explained reason he thinks he needs to memorize the titles of all included songs. Gabino lives with his mom, has a couple siblings, and his dad is trying to get them involved in a pyramid sales scheme with his friend Gonzo. Gradually we figure out that the dad abandoned the family many years ago and has just returned… Gabino is tentatively spending time with him but mom is trying to throw him out. I lost the thread of things towards the end, when the dad returns as a different actor.

Dad #1 would like to sell you a CD:

Enter Dad #2:

Oddball film techniques: sometimes the action freezes, people standing still without speaking for minutes while some harpsichord-sounding music plays, recalling My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done. At least once we simply repeat a scene, but it plays out differently. A few durational “see how long any audience will put up with this” shots. Then mid-movie, someone behind the camera starts talking to an actor, asking about his past. Role-playing: in my favorite scene, Gabino pretends to be his father, making in-character excuses and pleas while mom rehearses telling him to leave. By the end I didn’t know what’s real, and was convinced that Gabino really sells CDs on the subway, but no, he’s an actor who has been in 40 other movies. He also plays “Gabino” in all the other Pereda movies.

Pereda in Cinema Scope:

Greatest Hits is a film where the same scene happens more than once in the film, and some of the scenes that repeat themselves were separate takes. I enjoy the repetition, but when I see that a take is a bit different than the first one, only I can enjoy this difference. In this film I tried to give the audience the pleasure I would get from noticing the differences from one take to another.

At times I sort of interview them, Gabino and his real father, and I ask them real things about their real lives. When the film starts over, in the second half, that’s when it becomes a lot more obvious, because there’s one new actor who’s playing a character that we saw before, but the new actor — my uncle actually — is more of a documentary subject. He doesn’t know when we’re filming him, so he’s just talking away. I told him what the movie was about, but I didn’t tell him at that point that he had to act, I just said we’re making a movie and this is your character.

Some ancient maps and drawings and texts about Joan of Arc – good timing, since I was just reading about Bruno Dumont’s new Joan movie before putting this on. Then a half hour spent at a strip club (or exotic pole-dancing, if there’s a difference). The girls spend most of their time trying to uncomfortably (to me) hard-sell patrons to join them in the expensive private cabins. In private conversations we learn this is a job where girls tend to stay too long, as we’ve recently seen in LoveTrue. “But in my case I know this is only temporary,” says the new girl.

New Girl and her mentor finally venture out into town and meet the girl playing Joan in the town celebrations, spending a moment alone with her horse in the woods. They go to the parade to see their new friend in all her glory, then wander to a church… it’s all pretty low-key, a pillow-film between more substantial LNKarno screenings, but it ends the way all movies should end: telling secrets to a falcon.

A hybrid-documentary, it turns out. Vernier looks prolific, and his Mercuriales appears to be a similar sort of movie. Of the actors, I’m only seeing that Damien Bonnard later starred in Staying Vertical… but who was he, a strip club patron? If so, you could barely make him out under the murky red lighting.

Single-take camera move (always on the move) through a crowded park in Chengdu, China – further into the center of the country than Katy will travel this month (while I watched this, she was some 900 miles east, in Shanghai). There’s dancing and games and crafts and napping and work and food and commercial demonstrations and so much music – I don’t think there’s a moment where you can’t hear live or recorded music playing.

The camera seems to be waist-high (I later learned that Cohen held the camera while Sniadecki pusher her in a wheelchair), and it’s not hidden – people stare back all the time, and most of my interest in the movie (since the park itself isn’t historically/architecturally fascinating) comes from watching the people, and seeing their reactions as they watch back. I wouldn’t say there’s enough people-watching interest to justify its full 75-minute length though, and roaming a park from my couch kept making me wanna get up and go outside. Funny how far removed this felt from last week’s people-watching doc Austerlitz. The ending is good, the camera circling around a crowd watching a dance routine then breaking through into the center, ending on a great image.

Dennis Lim got the press kit:

Over three weeks they shot 23 takes ranging from 45 to 100 minutes, with many more aborted because of mishaps like miscommunication with each other or children running into their path. The final film… uses a 75-minute segment from the 19th try.

F. Furtado:

In a film with such an evident voyeuristic aspect as this, one usually expects to see the shot at eyes height; but, instead, the vantage point in People’s Park is lower, an unexpected perspective which sometimes breaks with the more repetitive patterns of some of its moments and procedures … There is undoubtedly an element of intrusion in these images: people often look straight at the camera suggesting curiosity and, other times, irritation (the film never allows us to forget that the filmmakers are not an element that belong to that landscape; this is literally a foreign look).

Glimpsed through the crowd – man with rooster on a stick:

Vadim:

Bursts into musical numbers via karaoke fiends co-existing with refreshing indifference to each other, mass dances and sing-alongs to Cultural Revolution standards, the state otherwise conspicuous by its absence … Few people stand out in memory, the point being the democratic proliferation of things to watch.

Produced by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Leviathan). Codirector Sniadecki made earlier HSEL movie Foreign Parts, and later The Iron Ministry, and both were thanked in the Manakamana credits.

The movie itself was a bit frustrating – we’re told that burlesque star Tempest has a famously hot temper (with no examples), that her life was full of fascinating incident (with no details) and that she changed the face of burlesque dancing (with no support). But the stories Tempest told in person were fun, and she’s one of the most interesting people we’ve ever had dinner with.

Feature film directors (and Meryl Streep) tell the tales of American feature film directors in the 1930’s and 40’s who were sent to war to make documentaries for the homefront… with one of the best motion-graphics-meets-stock-footage opening title sequences. If you’re interested in filmmakers and/or war, the whole thing’s just fascinating.

William Wyler, fresh off the inspirational Mrs. Miniver, rages against racism while Frank Capra is producing Private Snafu cartoons. Working (mostly) under Capra, John Ford and George Stevens are sent to film D-Day. John Huston makes the gritty San Pietro, using mostly reenacted fight footage but real dead bodies. And Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland proves himself a poor director. Stevens went on to film the liberation of concentration camps, while Wyler snuck a trip home and found the holocaust had killed his family and all their neighbors. In the end, Huston’s final work about emotionally wounded soldiers was censored for decades, Ford returned to make They Were Expendable, and Capra/Wyler/Stevens founded their own Liberty Studio, which immediately went broke on the flop It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’d love to watch a bunch of the original documentaries themselves, all available on netflix: Battle of Midway, Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro, Let There Be Light, The Negro Soldier, The Battle of Russia, Nazi Concentration Camps and Memphis Belle. But that’s six hours of WWII docs, and it’s Cannes Month now, and six movies I want to see opened in theaters this week, and a new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 just came out, and it’s baseball season…

Peter works his own organic farm in Vermont, long abandoned by family. It’s at least the second doc I’ve seen about an artist/farmer – Peter was a painter and sculptor before a sawmill accident mutilated his hands. Not the finest camerawork I’ve seen (also: graphic scenes of sheep killing/butchering and cow exploration), but among the shaky unfocused scenes there are some pretty nice shots. Filmmakers seem to be trying to stay out of the movie themselves, but Peter is always talking with them, asking questions, bossing them around. He’s an alcoholic, pondering getting sober but that would mean leaving the farm for a month. Nothing is really finished at the end – the farm is in decline, and maybe he’ll kill himself.

Ehrlich:

Despite his occasional delirium, Dunning is painfully self-aware for a drunk who needs to guzzle rum in the middle of the night in order to stave off the DTs. The more he caterwauls into the void, screaming at chickens like a crunchy King Lear, the more comfortable he seems asking for help. He asked Stone to document his suicide, but — over time — it begins to seem as though he wanted the filmmaker there in order to make sure that he didn’t go through with it.

We closed True/False fest with a crowd-pleaser (literally, there was spontaneous mid-film applause) about high school step-dance teammates in their senior year. Can they overcome poverty challenges at home, excel at their school work, get accepted into college and win the coveted state championship while growing as people and taking Black Lives Matter concepts to heart? Yes! Katy’s only reservation is that it’s an advertisement for charter schools at a time when they’re politically contentious. It’s far from the most structurally or artistically interesting movie we saw at the festival, but the girls are wonderful, and we were treated to a pre-film live dance and a post-film Q&A, which the excitable director beamed into via Skype. Enormously good vibes all around.

The same promo image everyone is using:


That wraps our True/False 2017.

Musicians seen:
13 Strings and a 2 Dollar Bill
Mirah
Prahlad
Open Mike Eagle
Jesse and Forever
Mary Lattimore
US Girls
Thanya Iyer
Very Be Careful (three times!)
Travis McFarlane
Bella Donna
DeQn Sue

Good Food and Drink (abridged):
Apples and sausage on a waffle at Cafe Berlin
Pierogies at Cafe Poland
Pizza and burrata at Midici
Excel wine-barrel saison, and Boss tacos at Craft Beer Cellar
Rock Bridge cinnamon imperial milk stout on cask at International Tap House
Double rye IPA and cold nachos (but good service) at Broadway Brewery
Pretzels and an array of belgian ales at Günter Hans
Cast Iron brown ale and a reuben at Uprise Bakery
Beet juice and a breakfast burrito at Main Squeeze
Quinoa Benedict and strange coffee at Nourish
Thai slice at Pizza Tree
Mushroom fries, taro chips and a spicy sour at Room 38
and a Lagunitas at Bier Station Kansas City (on the way)