Agnès Varda goes on one of her journeys around France, looking up old friends and making new ones, but this time she’s got JR, a photographer who likes to make gigantic portraits and paste them onto walls and other surfaces. This is pretty much the best thing in the world. Photographed: a mechanized farmer who enjoys his solitude, factory workers, dock workers’ wives, a shy waitress, the last remaining resident of row houses for miners, one of Agnès’s late friends, a whole town picnic. Agnès tries to introduce JR to his sunglasses style predecessor, some ex-filmmaker, but they get stood up. Besides that one hiccup, it’s a magical trip.

I thought I’d do another Shorts Month, but February turned out to be pretty busy, so I only got to a dozen (plus the Oscar Animation program). Breaking them up into two posts…

Skinningrove (2013, Michael Almereyda)

After Experimenter and now Escapes, I thought it’d be worth watching everything I can find by Almereyda. This one is simply a slideshow, narrated by photographer Chris Killip who’d spent a few years documenting the titular fishing village. We get descriptions of who we’re seeing, how his (excellent) photographs were taken, and what happened after (two of the boys died in a storm). Killip says he’s never been sure what he should do with the photos – I suppose this is what.

Me the Terrible (2012, Josephine Decker)

Girl dressed like a pirate conquers New York, from the Statue of Liberty to Wall Street to the Empire State Building, until a gang of red-suited bicyclists steal her teddy bear in Central Park and she abandons the rest of the conquest. The adults seem to be lipsyncing to voices from old movies. Not at all like Decker’s Butter on the Latch, but fully wonderful in all new ways.

Split Persona (2017, Bradley Rust Gray)

Twin sisters Karrie and Jalissa have a majorly depressed mom. Jalissa always takes care of mom, so she asks Karrie to stay home for once, but apparently whenever mom is left home with Karrie she attempts suicide. Bummer of a little film, possibly made as a PSA for mental health care – it barely exists online, despite coming from the director of Jack & Diane. This was written by a Nelson, whose mom suffers from depression, and it stars a Nelson as the mom, but no word whether it’s Mom Nelson.

Second Sighted (2015, Deborah Stratman)

Movement through space. Stock footage. Water and earth… earth under water, and flowing like water. Graphic markups on photographs. Models and data and data models. Good stuff, and I didn’t even mind the soundtrack: drones, chimes and that chirpy chatter that accompanies old computer images. My first by Stratman – I’ve been seeing her name here and there.

Woodshock (1985, Richard Linklater)

Bunch of pretty annoying dudes clown around at a Texas underground film festival. Daniel Johnston makes an appearance, then the footage starts overlapping and running in reverse in order to get groovy and psychedelic. He calls this a “film attempt” in the credits, fair enough. I spotted GBH and Exploited t-shirts! Shot by Lee Daniel, who was still working with Linklater as late as Boyhood.

Gazing at the Catastrophe (2012, Ali Cherri)

Closeup of a man’s face, his skin tone shifting every couple of frames. A photoshop cursor strokes each of his features, slowly applying scars or burns to his visage, then the picture cuts away to stuttering video horrors for a few seconds, and repeat.

A treasure trove of film prints, largely of silent movies thought long-lost, were discovered buried in Dawson City, but the films weren’t any good – dramas so generic that Morrison has fun editing together scenes from them, changing the source film with every shot and showing how it still coheres. So rather than spotlight the films on their own merit, we follow the fascinating story of Dawson City, its famous former residents and unfamous locals, illustrating this history lesson with clips from the discovered films and others, and showcasing some astounding glass-plate photography from the era under discussion. And of course we’re not limited to the most well-preserved films – different kinds of decay and destruction are discussed and displayed. Dawson City was a primary Canadian gold rush town, so it’s full of sordid and enterprising stories, and he sidetracks into any exciting bit for as long as it takes. Exciting is relative, though – Bill’s into drawing things out, slowing them down to the wavelength of the great Alex Somers (Sigur Rós) score, my favorite yet in a Morrison movie. What could’ve been a one-hour informational PBS special becomes a two-hour feature, and Katy wanted things to move more quickly.

or Gazing at Women in Cafes: The Movie

Our Hero, who looks like a shirt model, stares at girls in an outdoor cafe while accordion music plays.

In the middle third, he follows a woman through the city, past some conspicuous “Laure, je t’aime” graffiti, finally confronting her on a bus to ask if she’s Sylvie, who me met six years ago at the Aviators bar. But she’s not, and she’s less than thrilled that he’s been stalking her across the city.

An hour in, he goes to the Aviators and stares at more women while Heart of Glass plays.

He is Xavier Lafitte of the recent Saint Laurent movie which was not by Bonello, and she Pilar López de Ayala, Angélica herself. This played Venice in a packed year with Redacted, Mad Detective, The Assassination of Jesse James and I’m Not There.

Patrick Devitt in Letterboxd: “All of the imagery depicted has to do with memory in some shape or form.” Kenji Fujishima has a good writeup in Movie Mezzanine, calling it “alternately enchanting and disturbing.”

Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007, José Luis Guerín)

Shot in summer and winter 2004, this is the documentary(?) version of the previous film, in which our unseen photographer revisits the city (Strasbourg, France) where he met Sylvie 22 years before, distracting himself along the way with other women and wall graffiti.

He visits hospitals since his Sylvie was a nurse. No luck.

Besides his faded memory of this woman, he also follows the paths of Dante and Goethe and Petrarque, who all spent time in the city.

Silent and composed entirely of still photographs, cut and cross-faded. This was released a few months before the other, and maybe it would’ve made more sense to watch this first.

I listened to The Mysteries by John Zorn, which I believe was the Director’s True Intent – I called him and asked if Some Photos is supposed to be silent, and he said he’d rather it was scored by John Zorn’s The Mysteries, so there you have it. He didn’t say what to do when the album ended, so I put on some Boards of Canada.

Our first movie at the 2017 True/False Film Fest, which was an overwhelmingly great long weekend. We were among the last three people let in via the Q for this one, sat in scattered chairs and loveseats lined up in a comfy space behind a coffee shop.

Slow and dreamy visit with the residents of a Turkish retirement home, sheltered indoors while a major construction project goes up across the street (Mizrahi goes out and joins the construction workers in the final minutes of the film). Looping atmospheric sounds instead of music, patterns changing with each scene. Focused on the people, their behavior and stories, with a few great visual moments (I’m thinking of the lineup of 4-5 women sitting down watching one who gets up to leave, the same scenario repeated later in the film). Presented as a test screening, so it might be released in a different form later, though I can’t imagine it’ll get much of a commercial release in the States. Judging from the reaction to one glorious long take, it’ll have to remain in the film – two guys stand in the elevator having long conversations, pressing the buttons to go up and down repeatedly, then to their annoyance a woman in a wheelchair is rolled in, and after a long minute she looks up and grins into the camera. It’s hard to explain in words why this was so wonderful.

Memorable characters: A photographer with serious vision trouble fumbles with his camera gear speaking in helpless loops. A man with breathing problems talks in his sleep (“Merry Christmas”). A woman over 100 years old survived the Armenian genocide and is still suspicious of authority and afraid of persecution, asks to use a pseudonym on camera. And one man we revisit a few times, realizing at the end that he had a strategy all along. He reminisces about reading Lolita. He reads us one of his own erotic stories, and mentions that he prefers intimacy with a couple (no more than three!) more than the sex parties he’s attended. He boasts about the time he gave a 31 year-old woman an orgasm though he was much older at the time. Finally he proposes to the (30 year-old) director. I believe she turned him down, though we left before the Q&A, successfully sneaking into another movie.

J. Cronk:

This pairing of industrial upheaval with the burden of socio-historic tribulation can’t help but recall the docufiction experiments of China’s greatest living filmmaker, Jia Zhangke (particularly Still Life and 24 City), while Mizrahi’s formal acumen and rigorous compositional sense nod to the self-professed influence of Portugal’s Pedro Costa, whose Fontainhas trilogy similarly exposed and personified the souls of a neglected community on the brink of extinction.

“We live three times as long since man invented movies.”

First movie watched in 2017. Interweaving life stories of family members during the year grandma spent in a coma, with mirrors of behaviors and situations across generations.

NJ and daughter Ting-Ting with the happy couple:

NJ is Nien-Jen Wu (cowrote Hou Hsiao-Hsien films including City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster). He’s a reasonable, middle-aged, frowny-faced guy disillusioned with his job. He bumps into an ex, Sherry, at the wedding, then arranges to meet her in Japan while courting software developer Ota (Issei Ogata, the emperor in The Sun) for work. Having casual conversations with Ota about music and spending his days with Sherry (Su-Yun Ko also played a lead male character’s Tokyo ex in Taipei Story) gives him nostalgia flashbacks of first love, while his daughter Ting-Ting is home dealing with similar issues firsthand.

Ting-Ting starts the movie feeling guilty that she might be responsible for grandma’s stroke, and soon adds more typical teenage problems into the mix, as she picks up her new neighbor Lili’s barely-ex-boyfriend Fatty, but the two of them are nervously unsure how to be in a romantic relationship (and incidentally, he later murders the neighbor’s mom’s boyfriend).

The neighbor with Fatty, who is not fat:

Min-Min is the mom of the family (Elaine Jin, also a mom in A Brighter Summer Day), has a breakdown while trying to talk to her comatose mom then disappears to a meditation retreat for the rest of the movie. And young son Yang-Yang is a slightly offbeat kid (spotted in his room: Astro Boy, Mickey Mouse, Batman, Pikachu… and the Hindenburg) who takes photos of the backs of people’s heads (a naïve, questioning photographer/observer who shows people things they can’t see for themselves, named after the film’s director, hmm).

Yang-Yang couldn’t deal with the wedding reception food:

Newlywed astrology nut A-Di is Min-Min’s brother, can’t keep his financial or romantic act together, with his longtime ex-girlfriend Yun-Yun showing up at the wedding and baby shower and making scenes. His wife Xiao Yan threatens to leave then comes back thinking A-Di has attempted suicide – he says he just fell asleep in the tub with the gas on. And I think A-Di’s money is stolen by business partner Piggy (yes, there’s a Piggy and a Fatty).

Yang won best director at Cannes, and died of cancer seven years later without producing a follow-up, which was rumored to be an animated Jackie Chan feature.

Kent Jones:

The New Taiwan Cinema was a predominantly urban phenomenon, the better to dramatize the rapacious speed of cultural upheaval. And Yang, Hou, and the slightly younger, Malaysian-born Tsai have employed, each in his own unique way, the sights, textures, rhythms, and social configurations of city living to devastating effect … Yang has set his city symphonies in a variety of emotional keys — the doleful lament of Taipei Story, the gridlike coolness of The Terrorizer, the comic hysteria of A Confucian Confusion, the carefully modulated fury of Mahjong. In Yi Yi, he brings all of these moods together, never allowing any one of them to take precedence over another. Which is to say that this is a grand choral work, with a panoptic majesty.

Feels like it wants to be Mulholland Drive-ish, as young beautiful Elle Fanning arrives in the L.A. fashion business and experiences nightmarish visions before she’s eaten alive by her competitors. Dialogue delivered in weirdly silent rooms – I was expecting more keyboardy soundscapes, and maybe that would’ve helped get me on the wavelength of cool horror and deep mystery the movie seemed to think we were on together.

Elle is the Fanning from Super 8 and The Boxtrolls (older sister Dakota is the Fanning from Night Moves, War of the Worlds and Coraline). She arrives in town with her photographer friend, Karl Glusman from Love – another lethargic, sex-minded movie I had to struggle to keep from turning off. Elle meets makeup artist Jena Malone (the girl Donnie Darko likes) and a couple of evil models, gets work with famous photog Jack, and avoids her awful landlord (a miscast Keanu Reeves).

M. Sicinski:

Neon Demon is an inert object, mostly comprised of color-saturated tableaux and walking-dead, anti-psychological “performances” … Much like Matthew Barney’s films, The Neon Demon delivers in chunks and slabs, but never seems cognizant of cinema as a time-based art.

“There were always secrets to be uncovered in the most mundane of photographs.”

I’ve waited a long time since the great Bright Leaves with its promising ending. After spending that whole movie looking into the past, Ross shows his son Adrian playing at the beach and looks towards the future. That future is now and Adrian is graduating high school, but Ross being Ross, he retreats back into the past, using his son as an excuse to revisit some people and places from when father was the same age as son, trying to find a place for himself after graduation.

The present segments don’t work for me. Ross plays the old fogey card, telling us he can’t understand his son with all the iphones and the internets and the facebooks, dismissing technology while shooting on a digital camera. Adrian seems to be doing fine, talks to his father plenty and goes on fishing trips, is taking up videography (they help on each other’s projects), so the frame story’s attempts to tell us that the two are unable to connect seem untrue, as do Ross’s claims that his son is lost and aimless, since we see Adrian stunt-skiing, writing films and developing his own media startup.

Ross retreats to France, seeking his old photographer boss (Maurice) and his girlfriend from a few months later (Maud). He marvels at the changes that time brings, finds the late Maurice’s ex-wife and finally finds Maud. Ross and Maud each thinks that they’re the one who ended the relationship, after which she married another photographer. I’m sure it was an extremely cathartic trip for Ross, and it comes off as a reasonably pleasant trip for us, really coming together when Ross gets back home with Adrian in the last few minutes.

Isaac (Ricardo Trepa, star of Eccentricities) is called to a rich estate in the middle of the night to take final photographs of a just-deceased girl (Pilar Lopez de Ayala, star of In the City of Sylvia), whose image he falls in love with, then it starts coming to life in his photographs (if MdO can embrace digital sfx then anybody can). Isaac spends his days photographing field laborers and his nights dreaming of Angelica, to the concern of his meddling landlady Justina. Excellent shot at the end: sick Isaac rises trance-like from bed, pushes the doctor aside then collapses, as his spirit continues out to the balcony and flies away with Angelica.

Mouse-over to hallucinate like Isaac does:

There are few indications that the movie is set in any recent decade until we see cars in the last half hour. This is by design: old-fashioned, simple-living photographer Isaac seems overly interested in old-fashioned things. I’m not sure of the significance of his being Jewish, but it’s mentioned a lot.

Film Quarterly explains:

As a Jew, Isaac is a stranger to the community, but he’s fascinated by Portugal’s religion, dying agricultural traditions, and quasi-mystical, late-romantic literature. (The Strange Case of Angelica grew out of a film Oliveira wanted to make in the 1950s, dealing with Jews who migrated to Portugal after World War II.)

I didn’t spot Leonor Silveira, but trusty ol’ Luis Miguel Cintra (Inquietude, Non) stays at the same boarding house. That’s him above with Ana Maria Magalhães of The Age of the Earth.

Mouse-over to awaken Isaac from his dream:

Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931, Oliveira)

The DVD guys have kindly included Oliveira’s first short, documenting workers on the river (as Isaac documents them in the fields – but not precisely). He pulls shots in and out of focus, gets in every striking angle he can muster, edits still and motion shots together in jarring ways. Definitely some staged situations. A truck driver, distracted by a passing plane, bumps an ox cart which then runs over a young man. The man is okay, but starts beating the oxen in anger until a policeman shows up, and he and the beasts make up.

I only played a few minutes of the very good (so far) commentary, instead watched an Oliveira monologue. He is against television, pornography and violence. He is for fantasy, Melies and Avatar. He methodically lists all the well-known great filmmakers, saying they’re the ones who maintain proper separation between the private and public spheres – an ethical discussion that I didn’t follow, then methodically lists the exact same filmmakers a few minutes later as if we didn’t just go over this. Cinema as an art should be “a reflection of the more critical, richer, graver and higher aspects of the human condition.”