AFI FEST, entry 1

AFI FEST 2007 is progressing smoothly. With its improved emphasis on world cinema, it’s offering a better roster of higher profile titles that have played at festivals around the globe, even if it still has a way to go to compete with the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the best festival for international films in Southern California.

It’s also one of the few events here in Los Angeles sponsored by AFI worth attending, including their ongoing “100 Years, 100 Movies” series of popular “classics” (almost all of which are widely available on DVD) and their Cinema’s Legacy program that should be a lot more exciting than it actually is: filmmakers present movies that inspire them and host Q&A’s afterward. The series’ events occur every couple of months or so, but I’ve only felt the urge to attend four of them in as many years (Agnieszka Holland on Le Bonheur, Mira Nair on Aparajito, Paul Schrader on Pickpocket, and Roger Corman on The Big Sleep). Too often, the filmmakers or their choice of films can’t really compete with events at the UCLA film archive or the various cinematheques around town.

Word on the street has been attributing the better reach at this year’s festival to artistic director Rose Kuo, who actually references filmmakers like Bresson and Cassavetes in her program notes. Here’s hoping future AFI events will grow increasingly ambitious in scope.

Having said that, my viewing this week (focusing on films I haven’t seen at other festivals, or in the case of something like Secret Sunshine, isn’t already available on import DVD) has only been fair, with the clear standout being the one revival I’ve seen, Edward Yang’s The Terrorizer, which, coming on the heels of UCLA’s recent screening of the director’s cut of A Brighter Summer Day, could get a hopeful man excited at the potential for a Yang revival. (DVD producers, are you listening?)


Nosaltres

It has been said that immigration is shaping up to be the great cinematic theme of the new millennium, and I pretty much concur. As wealth is confined to select countries and labor and resources originate elsewhere, border crossings are increasingly inevitable. Moussa Toure’s film is the third (or maybe fourth) penetrating documentary I’ve seen on the subject this year, after Copacabana and The Legend of Time, a film that tackles this subject within the same setting: Catalonia, on the northeastern coast of Spain. Catalonia has become a destination spot for a large number of African workers from Mali. Like many communities, however, Catalonians and Malians remain culturally segregated, rarely offering even token pleasantries despite their close proximity; rumors, suspicions and myths abound.

Toure (who has assisted Truffaut and Sembene) interviews a couple dozen representatives of the two groups separately and then convinces them to meet, engage in dialogue, and suggest paths toward better integration. It’s a straightforward documentary consisting almost entirely of interviews, but its creative spark is the role it plays as social intermediary. Toure poses questions to his subjects offscreen, often asking for clarification or examples, or inverting their assumptions by framing their questions from the point of view of the other.

“Nosaltres” means “us,” and this fascinating film asks its participants (and its viewers) to deconstruct their notions of identity and what it means to share home, place and work with culturally diverse people.


The Terrorizer

Edward Yang’s 1986 masterpiece may not initially seem like it, dense with characters and enigmatic plotting that takes odd, unexpected turns up until its very last, intensely (but perfectly) awkward shot of a woman about to vomit. But the woman is a writer, and upon reflection, the entire film is about the painful, invasive, messy process of creation in a city in cultural transition, and it contains enough elliptical, eccentric juxtapositions to keep commentators busy for years. (If it hasn’t yet permeated cinephile conversations in this country, it’s because the film remains unavailable on video in any format and is rarely screened.) John Anderson, who wrote a Contemporary Film Directors book on Yang, describes the movie as “Yang’s most difficult, intellectually provocative, and structurally challenging film.” I don’t doubt it.

As in Yi Yi, Taipei (particularly its modern highrises) is virtually a character in itself in a fractured narrative that loosely connects a devious prank caller, a conniving doctor, a frustrated novelist and the editor with whom she has an affair, and a self-absorbed photographer. Those expecting another warm family saga a la Yi Yi might be shocked by the film’s distinctly cold and remote tone, and its emphasis on neutral characters in distraught or inert relationships. Blogger Kevin Lee accurately compares the tone of the film to Bresson’s severe L’Argent, and Yang’s distinctly modernist themes about the relationship between life and art and the moral responsibility of the artist are what ultimately determine the bizarre intricacies of the plot.

What makes the film especially compelling is its odd distancing effect, as self-reflexive and playful as Godard, even though it might take a while (or repeat viewings) to notice; its jumbled drama (with its own crisscrossing layers of fiction and nonfiction) featuring random acts of creativity suggests a city of isolated voices with no one left to listen.


Confessions of a Superhero

I’ll admit that I’m not always the most commercially observant person walking the streets of Hollywood, but until I saw this warm and unpretentious documentary, I had no idea the costumed characters loitering around the Chinese Theatre were freelance actors posing in tourist photos for tips. Not only that, they’re also somewhat controversial; apparently, some consider them little more than costumed vagrants, but I can vouch that in all my trips to the American Cinematheque down the street, I’ve never been approached by a single caped crusader wanting a snapshot or a couple of bucks.

The film follows four of these actors–with serious aspirations, all–telling the story of their lives and giving audiences a glimpse of the people behind the getups through candid interviews and home footage. Given the film’s poetic poster image of Superman lying a couch, you might expect it to delve into cultural or philosophical issues relating to America’s pop worship of comic icons, but it’s character study only, though as with any film that conveys the lives of real individuals, it’s emotionally compelling; it’s impossible not to admire the tenacious optimism of these performers.

Jennifer Gehrt (who plays Wonder Woman) and Joe McQueen (who plays The Hulk and spent several years homeless in Los Angeles) seem especially charming and well-adjusted, while ultimate fanboy Christopher Dennis (who plays Superman) seems as professional about his job as he is obsessed with his character (which is no small feat). Maxwell Allen comes across as the most problematic (and not only because he does therapy in his Batman costume or because his wife says only half of what he says is true), but because his personal salesmanship includes “remorse” over all the people he claims to have beaten up in the past: Batman has serious anger problems.

I came out of the film admiring its subjects more than the film itself, though there’s nothing objectionable about it. Granted, these are only four of the tens of thousands of struggling actors in Hollywood, but I really wish them the best.


Tracey Fragments

This quasi-experimental narrative film by Canadian Bruce MacDonald is based on a novel reflecting the histrionic teen angst of a bitter 15-year-old, her twisted family, abusive school culture, comically inept therapist, and assorted down-and-outers roving the mean streets of Winnipeg. Although its constantly subdivided and shifting frames–conveying scenes from multiple perspectives (and times) like a nonlinear editing program gone berserk–should have been impressive (if not immersive), I began to feel it was too much of a good thing around the ten-minute mark. The film clearly aspires to be the teen film to end all teen films for a particularly cynical postmodern generation, but its rampant antipathy for nearly every character and shrill emotional pitch caused me to kind of hate it. Despite an undeniably powerhouse lead performance by an actress whom Robert Koehler described to me as the new It Girl, Ellen Page, I couldn’t accept the film’s jokey, universal derision or its desperate rage against the system, and especially couldn’t wait for it to end.

More as the week progresses…