Pin Boy

Pin Boy (Parapalos)

My brief, several-day stint at the San Francisco International Film Festival turned out to be a great reunion with friends but an extremely lackluster screening experience. And I’m not the only person who apparently felt this way–the SF Weekly questioned how an “international film festival” could be be 40% American films, and groaned at the fest’s motto (“Every Film is a Foreign Film Somewhere”), which only seemed to rub it in.

Ten films, two incontestably good ones and one interesting mood piece, summarize my take, although I should note that the festival continues for another week and could improve; I’ll be returning to Los Angeles tonight.

ïMy favorite film by far was Argentine filmmaker Ana Poliak’s Pin Boy (Parapalos), a minimalist take on the life of a young man, Adri·n, who works in a manual bowling alley, setting up remaining pins after each player’s throw. The job includes equal doses of dead time and physical precision, requiring careful attention to avoid serious injury as the workers are seated directly above and behind the pins. The festival notes claim the bowling alley is set in Buenos Aires, but the film itself never explicitly states this, focusing existentially on the day-to-day experience of Adri·n in his dark quarters, talking with coworkers, returning balls and arranging pins, and collapsing in his apartment each morning as his cousin heads off to work.

Poliak’s DV camera maintains a steady gaze, intensifying the subtleties of the workers’ conversations in their cramped and shadowy confines with tight compositions. The film’s careful sound design emphasizes the ambient noises and shapes them to reflect Adri·n’s subjective experience. In many ways, the film’s formal claustrophobia is reminiscent of Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl, but Pin Boy is far less lush, emphasizing its austere and potentially dangerous environment with flat lighting and compelling, matter-of-fact realism.

The film is quite effective at conveying the plight of a particular variety of workers in a seemingly Sisyphusian task with little future, particularly with the growing threat of modern machinery. Their conversations are suffused with a deep sense of professionalism and camaraderie, and their insular but fragile environment is further made poignant by their ongoing efforts to observe and sketch each other in various poses.

Pin Boy is a film that manages to addresss the frustrations and uncertainties of Argentina’s working class without didacticism or sloganeering–it’s a precisely-rendered and touching portrait.

ïI also thoroughly enjoyed French filmmaker Raymond Depardon’s Profiles of Farmers: Daily Life, an incisive summary of the rural LozËre and Haute-Loire mountain region of France and a variety of farmers who live there. Interviewing an array of people, from the young to the aged, Depardon conveys the attitudes, hopes, and fears of a profession and a way of life that seems (like Argentine pin boys) on the brink of extinction. The compositions are striking (Depardon also works as a still photographer), the personalities are vivid, and Depardon’s own farming roots clearly and quietly invests his film with genuine feeling.

ï Innocence, by Gaspar NoÈ’s romantic partner, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, is an intriguing, highly atmospheric mood piece somewhat reminescent of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock with its story of a mysterious and often disturbing boarding school for young girls. Hadzihalilovic’s eye for visual flair and enveloping sound design is considerable. But while the child’s-eye view of the ambiguities and threatening potential of the adult world are skillfully rendered, the film stumbles with a lack of dramatic cohesion and never seems to fully develop its allegorical aspects to any statisfying degree. Nevertheless, it’s a work that is admirable in its restraint and poetry.

ïThe one unmitigated failure I saw was Jean-Pierre Denis’ La Petite Chartreuse. Denis has apparently collaborated wih the Dardenne brothers in the past, and his film contains two of their trademark elements–handheld camerawork and Olivier Gourmet–without any degree of their artistry. For two-thirds of the film, one might even think that Gourmet’s formidable acting talents–emotion conveyed almost exclusively through physical movement–redeems an otherwise heavy-handed melodrama about a man “who cannot cry” who accidently runs a girl over with his truck. But eventually, the film’s emotional manipulation and truly bizarre narrative choices overwhelms him in a denoument so poorly executed it’s shocking.

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