Right before True/False I watched a few knotty films that I’m having trouble writing about. This was the most alluring of the bunch, and though The Challenge played last year’s fest, and The Disaster Artist is a feature about real people making a feature, and Wormwood is a semi-doc with reenactment footage about the impossibility of knowing real truth, somehow Western is the one that I feel best exemplifies the spirit of the month. It’s a fiction film with non-actors, delicately balancing a mix of tones and ideas, usually beautiful and unaccountably tense though there’s not much action (reminded me of La Ciénaga in that regard).

Meinhard is a quiet mustache guy on a German work crew on a job in Bulgaria. His compatriots spend their downtime drinking and harassing the locals, while M. spends time alone, finds a horse and rides it into town, and over the next few weeks drifts ever closer to the locals, particularly horse owner and local business bigwig Adrian. Negotiations and conflict over the treatment of local women, shipments of stone, use of water, and the horse, most of which come down to German foreman Vincent on one side, and Adrian’s group on the other with M. floating between.

But much of the movie is quiet and peaceful, a highlight being the easygoing conversations Meinhard has in town with people who don’t know each others’ languages:
“I lost a brother.”
“You’re saying something sad.”

Meinhard:

Adrian:

Also a reference by the Germans to being back in the country after 70 years – that would be Bulgaria’s alliance with the nazis… a scene of tough guys around a campfire remarking on the softness of one’s hair… and already the second movie I’ve seen this year with Bulgarian folk dancing. Played Cannes UCR with the Cantet, the Kurosawa, the Amalric, the Rasoulof.

Andrew Chan in Cinema Scope called it “a subtle variation on the western’s themes of individuality, community, and male aggression, using these timeless tropes to frame the cultural fissures in modern-day Europe.” Grisebach, from the interview:

I was happy when I found this premise of German construction workers living in a foreign country, because I felt that then I had something more ambivalent. I am always afraid when something is too direct — I don’t trust it anymore. For me it’s not easy to say that something is like this or like that. I was really interested in how xenophobia exists between the lines, how it isn’t so direct, and how this contrasts with the official ways of telling history in Germany.

Some months you just don’t feel like writing about movies, and then you get behind and start forgetting things, and the whole point of the movie blog was to write those things down soonish so you didn’t forget them. I watched this after Heart of Glass, then kept putting off writing anything because I wanted to watch again with the Herzog commentary, but never got around to that…

1828, a languageless man with no knowledge of the world is released from his cellar by some shady dude and abandoned in town. They take him to the stables and interrogate him, reluctantly decide he’s not a criminal and take to educating him, lending him out to a family. After a while Kaspar is “beginning to be a burden on the community coffers,” so he’s handed to a circus freak exhibit, sharing a tent with The Little King (the camel-laugher of Even Dwarfs Started Small), a Brazilian bear tamer, an “untamed Indian” from Spain and The Young Mozart.

With rouge-cheeked circus leader Willy Semmelrogge:

Once Kaspar is able to hold conversations, the townspeople introduce him to music, religion, agriculture, government and take in Kaspar’s naive, Chauncey Gardener-like responses, until Kaspar is unexpectedly stabbed (two separate times!) by (I’m pretty sure) the shady dude from the beginning.

Stork eating frog:

Lead actor Bruno S. was reportedly a huge pain in the ass, but I loved his Kaspar. Little Clemens Scheitz (hypnotically hobbled as the Master’s assistant in Heart of Glass) steals every scene he’s in, as a bureaucracy-loving scribe. I liked Heart of Glass better, but what do I know – this won numerous prizes at Cannes, where it played alongside A Touch of Zen and The Passenger.

Clemens:

So soon after Moonlight and Certain Women, another movie in three parts. In 1999, Zhao Tao (I Wish I Knew, A Touch of Sin) is friends with sharp-chinned coal miner Liangzi (Jingdong Liang, Tao’s Platform costar) and petulant boss Jinsheng. When the boss decides he wants to marry her, he pulls strings to stay close to her and gets his former friend fired.

2014: Liangzi has health problems and a family in another town, moves back to the city and sees Tao again. Her father dies, and her son Daole visits from Australia for the funeral but barely knows her.

2025: Daole enlists his university English teacher (Sylvia Chang, the boss in Office) to translate conversations with his dad, now a gun dealer, then to Katy’s chagrin, Daole starts sleeping with the teacher. He thinks about visiting his mom, decides not to. Back in China, Mom dances alone in the snow.

N. Bahadur:

Neither man is willing to let Zhao make her own decision, both only desire to possess her. So in this sense Zhao’s sporadic weaving in and out of the narrative reveal both tradition and capitalism stifling femininity.

This had weird similarities with Mountains May Depart, which we watched the night before. It spans about the same amount of time, during which a boy is separated from his mother, moves to Australia and forgets her native language.

This one’s the true story of “Saroo” who gets lost while adventuring with his big brother then accidentally rides a train to Calcutta where he doesn’t speak the language and almost gets captured by a creepy man then ends up in an orphanage from where he’s adopted by Nicole Kidman and the corrupt police chief from Top of the Lake. Years later he is Dev Patel of Slumdog, going to college and dating Rooney Mara when he learns about online satellite-map programs and becomes obsessed with finding his home town, which he’s been mispronouncing all his life, and seeing his real family again.

Besides obviously getting choked up by the climactic family reunion (and the inevitable footage of the real people being dramatized) I got much of the same feeling as Garth’s Top of the Lake – it’s a good-looking prestige pic tackling Important Issues, but when it was over it didn’t reverberate in my head in any meaningful way, just made me wanna go see another movie.

Also: Darth Gavis.

Saw this right after rewatching Kubo and the Two Strings over Thanksgiving, noticed how they both refer to a person’s life “story,” then realized this was based on a book called Story of Your Life. So the two movies go together nicely is what I’m saying.

Amy Adams is a linguist and Jeremy Renner a physicist who are recruited by Forest Whitaker to communicate with the aliens whose giant ships have appeared across the planet. We see Adams do lots of linguistics but don’t see Renner doing any physics, and I think Adams’ final language-comprehension-enabled time-reading abilities break some movie paradox laws (she can learn from her future self), but the whole thing is so beautifully done I could care less. Also interesting that the emotional resonance of world peace is much less than the story of Adams’ own doomed marriage and child.

D. Cairns:

Dennis Villeneuve makes beautiful images, perhaps tending to exploit shallow focus a little TOO much, but in doing so he uses it in unexpected ways, sometimes throwing the whole subject of the shot into an artful blur.

Damn this movie being great, because now I have to care about Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel. An Advanced Movie, it relies on our knowledge of flashback rules in order to trick us by breaking them. Waited in my seat until the music credit came up. I liked the Jóhann Jóhannsson score but I guess I really noticed the bookending Max Richter piece. This was the academy’s exact justification for excluding Jóhannsson from award consideration, somewhat unfairly.

“Too much culture leads to barbarism and hinders development.”

One of those Ruiz movies like The Blind Owl and Manuel on the Island of Wonders, where it’s hard enough to make sense of the movie, but my low-res video copy makes it even harder. So this will have to count as a preview screening before Criterion inevitably announces their 12-disc blu-ray set of 1980’s Ruiz films. I just made myself unreasonably excited typing that sentence.

Anyway, like those two movies and City of Pirates, Ruiz blends psychology and imagery and politics and sarcasm in unlikely ways, creating a film that can be explained (as I attempt below) in narrative terms, but the story isn’t really the point.

Narcisso (Fernando Bordeu, Virgil in Ruiz’s A TV Dante) is a commie millionaire who invites a couple of sociologists (Luis: Jean Badin, who had small roles in Genealogies of a Crime and Three Crowns of the Sailor, and Eva: Willeke van Ammelrooy of elevator-based horror The Lift) to his house to study Adam and Eden, the two surviving members of a tribe with a complex and ever-changing language. Yes, the movie has characters named Adam, Eve AND Eden. But like Blind Owl and City of Pirates, the story is mainly a framework for Ruiz to pepper us with imagery (shadows and double exposures and massive red tinting), experiment with structure and language, and confound his own characters.

Luis (left) and Narcisso, with Adam and Eden in the background:

Ruiz’s and cinematographer Henri Alekan’s follow-up to The Territory. Lot of business involving mirrors (obvs, with a character named Narcisso). Mentions of offscreen wars. Characters tell stumbling stories, read lists and transcripts, boring the other characters (shades of the sleepy Stolen Painting narrator). Colonialism humor, language gags, references to similarly playful texts (I was proud of myself for recognizing dialogue from Calvino’s Invisible Cities). I think in the end, Eva and Narcisso end up together, Luis commits suicide, and Eva’s son becomes pregnant.

“7th May. Each month Adam and Eden exchange names.”

Q: “Are proletarians always strange?”
A: “Too much exploitation has made them strange. The pain has turned them insane.”
Q: “Do all proletarians of the world unite because the pain has made them insane?”
A: “No, that’s something else.”

Page 70 of the Michael Goddard book has an interesting bit on “accented cinema” which seems too long to transcribe here.

Rosenbaum:

This is one of Ruiz’s best collaborations with Chilean composer Jorge Arriagada — as much a mainstay in his work as Bernard Herrmann was for a spell in Hitchcock’s — whose scores specialize in furnishing lush, atmospheric Hollywood climaxes, often without any apparent dramatic motivation.

Dialogue exactly the same as in My Fair Lady, for the most part. Higgins here seems slightly less slimy, the ending slightly less foul than in the musical, but maybe that’s expectations talking. I suppose I enjoyed the musical more for the color cinematography and the songs; this version’s improved Higgins and more convincing/less glamorous Eliza wasn’t enough to tip the scales. Both versions could stand to lose Eliza’s drunk father.

Higgins here is Leslie Howard (49th Parallel), his pointless linguist friend Col. Pickering is stage actor Scott Sunderland and Eliza is Wendy Hiller (star of I Know Where I’m Going! and Major Barbara). G. Bernard Shaw adapted his own play for the movie, chose Wendy Hiller, and wanted Charles Laughton as Higgins. The two movie versions have the same cinematographer! Harry Stradling also shot Guys and Dolls, Johnny Guitar, The Pirate, Thrill of a Romance and a handful of Hitchcocks.

D. Ehrenstein:

Shaw, who saw film as the ideal medium for the piece, claims he never intended a romantic hookup for Higgins and Eliza. He even wrote a prose addendum to the script in which Eliza married and set up a flower shop, her antagonism toward Higgins continuing unabated. But he never wrote this epilogue as dialogue, and productions of Pygmalion, this film included, have always seen fit to end things on an upbeat note with a tantalizing hint of a budding love affair between master and pupil.

A ridiculous documentary. A pair of twins got into the news because they preferred speaking in their own invented language to English. After TV and newspaper reporters are done with the story, Gorin (a Godard collaborator in the 1970’s, codirecting Tout va bien and Ici et ailleurs) shows up to make a movie about the twins, seeming the whole time to be out of his element. My favorite scene was at a library, with cameraman Les Blank (the same year as Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe) following the twins as they run around acting like themselves, while Gorin stands by impotently trying to get them to pose for him. Finally at the end does a linguist get some input, as the story and the movie peter out. Katy hated it so much.