Ceylan’s Winter Sleep

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

The festival is over, and the best films from Cannes embody what truly matters: the ability to move backward and forward, projecting a sense of the moment, live bulletins of a country’s pulse and state of mind. With his scalding and magisterial new work, Winter Sleep, the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan walked off with the Palme d’Or.

In his acceptance speech, Ceylan dedicated the film to the young people of Turkey who have lost their lives in the last year protesting the country’s unnerving political repression and withholding of essential freedom. Because of its three-hour and 16-minute running time, the film had just one official screening, on Friday, May 16th. At the screening, Ceylan and the rest of his artistic delegation wore black protest bands.

Winter Sleep is the most political of the director’s six features. The movie’s social grievances and class conflicts sharply distill the conflict between the professional, bourgeois and modernist state and the encroaching fundamentalist strain. As outsiders, it’s hard not to sense a particular cultural schizophrenia. (My friend visited Istanbul last year after Cannes, and he was immediately struck by the disparate attitudes of the women. The young and educated wore provocative, sexually alluring Western dress, in strong contrast to other women he saw that were fully covered.)

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Ceylan developed the story and script in close, even contentious, collaboration with his very gifted wife, Ebru (the two played opposite each other in his earlier film, Climates). From its visual precision to the emotional believability of the characters and their sad, beautiful and emphatic faces, I was knocked out by his original and astonishing visual syntax. The movie needs time to breathe and take hold.

Like all of the director’s movies, Winter Sleep is suffused with a painterly beauty and Ceylan has a fluent, innate ability to ground his protagonists against telling and evocative landscapes. He has a great feel for tableau imagery, like the tactile and immersive opening images of mist hovering over the rocky steppes of the spectacular mountain landscapes of Cappadocia, in Central Anatolia.

The director dedicated the work to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Voltaire. The movie’s protagonist, Aydin (played by the astounding Haluk Bilginer), combines characteristics of Lear, Prospero and Prince Hal. The name of the family hotel he runs is significantly named Othello. From his father, he inherited wealth and vast tracts of land. He appears rational and benevolent, an aesthete who earned renown as a film actor and now writes newspaper columns and is gathering material for his magnum opus, a cultural history of Turkish theater.

Winter Sleep is divided into three dominant movements. The first part underlines the extent of Aydin’s fiefdom, his subjects, and how cold-blooded and mercurial he is in his business dealings as he directs his wrath against a family of impoverished tenants unable to pay rent. (His top lieutenant, or enforcer, actually metes out the punishment).

A young boy, furious at the embarrassment and shame to which his family is subjected, responds with his own violent action. The consequences lay bare an existential dilemma that open the possibility of Aydin as either an imperial fool (“more sinned against than sinning”) or flagrant hypocrite.

As Ceylan’s superb previous work Once Upon a Time in Anatolia used genre material to meditate on the most serious moral and existential concerns, the new work counters expectation in a more radical and astounding way, through its form and construction. The film’s long middle, comprising about half the running time, reframes the action, subtly altering subjectivity, space and time.

The disruption is marked by the most transporting single moment I saw at Cannes, a radical cut as the young boy who committed the act of vandalism collapses in trying to make his contrition toward Aydin to a sudden and enthralling action of man and nature as Aydin’s workers try valiantly to corral a wild horse.

The temporal cut foreshadows the severe shift in mood and tone, as the focus of the films turns toward Aydin’s acrimonious and difficult relationships with his sister, Necla (Demet Akbag) who is reeling from a divorce, and his much younger wife, Nihal (the astoundingly beautiful Melisa Sozen), openly rebelling against her husband’s controlling nature.

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Instantly the focus of landscapes, rock formations and weather is given a wholly different range of expression in a series of private, withering and extended scenes, lasting up to 20 minutes and filled with the kind of baroque, caustic and corrosive language more prevalent in the works of Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes.

The trademark of those two great artists, the poisoned couple, takes center stage—a form of annihilation, as the pain, regret and disgust are made explicit in the tense body inflections and hurtful exchanges. The sister charges that Aydin never lives up to the privileges he was bestowed. The wife is far more cutting and damning, finding him unbearable.

Ceylan is more direct and expansive, concerned with how language distorts and conceals, the riffs and counterarguments yielding a sustained and musical flow, despite the bitterness and rancor. It’s a different kind of poetry, of faces and the architecture of bodies as the camera remains steadfast and locked in. Regardless, the imagery beguiles, like an extraordinary moment with Nihal’s face illuminated from the flare of a fire, her very presence more radiant and stunning.

Like the greatest filmmakers, Ceylan is both elliptical and lapidary. The work is beautifully constructed, but like Chekhov, appearances and illusions invite the viewer to cast about and glean from looks and exchanges deeper significance. Ceylan’s cryptic though elastic style casually hooks you.

What makes the journey extraordinary is not finding answers but submitting to the ride.

Grading the Cannes Competition

By Patrick Z. McGavin

This year’s Cannes Film festival, the 19th I’ve covered and written about, showcased a strong competition. The trajectory was like a bottle rocket, blasting off with superb work by Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu), Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep), flattening out with an uneven stretch before picking up and soaring with strong new works by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan) and French master Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria).

Curatorially, the main competition was tighter than normal (with just 18 films). Only seven of those are given what I consider mixed or negative grades. Yet, it always takes time to really fully assess the impact, range and originality of each competition. Last year’s competition, for instance, now that enough time has passed, seems infinitely stronger than it did on initial responses.

What follows are my personal rankings, with corresponding grades, of the 18 films in the competition.

1. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey): A+

2. Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland): A

3. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France): A

4. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia): A-

5. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK): A-

6. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali): A-

7. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada): A-

8. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium): B+

9. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, USA): B

10. The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy): B

11. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada): B

12. Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello, France): B-

13. Wild Tales (Damian Szifron, Argentina): B-

14. The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, USA): C+

15. Jimmy’s Hall (Ken Loach, UK): C

16. The Captive (Atom Egoyan, Canda): C-

17. Still the Water (Naomi Kawase, Japan): C-

18. The Search (Michel Hazanavicius, France): D

Cannes Awards

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

The 67th edition of the festival ended today on a superlative note. On Saturday night, the professional jury awarded the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, to Winter Sleep, the extraordinary new work by Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

The director’s sixth feature marks the ideal crystallization of his style, sharply yoking physical wonder and emotional acuity. The director Jane Campion, a Palme laureate in 1993 for The Piano, admitted going in, she felt a bit daunted by the prospect of the movie’s three-hour and 16-minute running time. “But I sat down, and the film had such a beautiful rhythm and it took me in,” she said. “I could have stayed there for another couple of hours.”

Ceylan had its admirers, though indicative of the breadth of the programming, Cannes denied any shot at consensus this year. We all have our prejudices and feel protective about specific directors and films. Film culture has mutated pretty radically in the last three decades, but one prevalent track has focused on foreign auteurs such as  Krzysztof Kieslowski and Abbas Kiarostami, followed by Bela Tarr, who assumed, whether deliberately or not, the mantle of the serious film artist, the heir of Bergman, Antonioni, Godard and Fassbinder.

Ceylan is now that man. His recent films are long though voluptuous and beautifully made. With Ceylan, the rhythms are sensuous and achieve a serpentine hold in violating narrative expectation to achieve something far more mysterious, knotty and plangent. Part of what makes the new work so exciting and involving is how it scuttles expectation, invoking the previous films as he expands his ideas and storytelling into different directions.

The Grand Prix, effectively the runner-up award, went to Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher for her second narrative feature, The Wonders, about a family of beekeepers.  It’s a lyrical and nicely observed work that draws extensively on her own life. (She even cast her own sister in the part of the family matriarch.) Rohrwacher’s movie was one of just two films in the 18-film competition directed by a woman; the other was Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water. The movie is tough and keen-eyed, alert to the confusion and stirrings of the family’s older daughter. It is never sentimental, and the camerawork is clean, patient and often hypnotically precise.

The festival had a lot of echoing movements and concerns. So it happened that films by the oldest and youngest directors in the competition shared the Jury Prize. The great Jean-Luc Godard, at 83 and offering his first film in four years, detonated the placid calm with his remarkable cine-collage, Adieu au language. It’s another of his sorrowful and contemplative looks at the end—of cinema, of the 20th century—only this time shot in 3D, with some startling and poetic imagery, layered through a nimbus of quotations, aphorisms and classical music (most prominently Beethoven’s 7th Symphony). It utilizes the depth of field in radical ways, opening up all manner of looking, hearing and watching.

Godard’s opposite, the rakish and impossibly ambitious young Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan (this is his third film in two years) split critical reaction with Mommy, the alternately feverish and grueling story of the hyper-compacted family dynamics involving a middle-aged widow (Anne Dorval, excellent) and her ADHD 15-year-old son (Antoine Olivier-Pilon). Suzanne Clement is the next door neighbor caught between the two.

Dolan invented his own aspect ratio, a highly vertical band, a negative ratio of approximately .67-1, that simultaneously centers the action and destabilizes the frame. I found himself strangely in between, finding much to recommend (especially the two actresses) though also finding it unmoored and somewhat exhausting to experience.

“It’s a great brilliant modern film from such a young director, like a genius I think,” Campion said about Dolan. “When I saw the Godard film, I wasn’t expecting this. I was blown away by it. I loved the experience of the film, I found it so modern, like the fact that he throws a narrative away. It’s like a power, I found myself awakened, this is a free man, a very moving man. We coupled them, we were aware that they were the oldest and youngest director. The directors here know we owe our life’s blood to Godard.”

As expected, Timothy Spall captured the best actor prize for his role as the great British painter JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. Julianne Moore surprised with her ferocious, unhinged turn as an actress unhinged by her fading power in David Cronenberg’s deft, chilling Maps to the Stars. Working with his the skilled satirist Bruce Wagner, Cronenberg violently upends social behavior with his bracing, exceptionally disturbing, using the framework of the anti-Hollywood screed. Moore’s turn is unsettling, perverse and technically brilliant.

This is the full list of the award winners:

Palme d’Or: Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Grand prix: The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher)

Director: Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Jury prize: Mommy (Xavier Dolan) and Adieu au language (Jean-Luc Godard)

Screenplay: Levithan (Andrey Zvagintsev and Oleg Negin)

Actor: Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner

Actress: Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars

Cannes Dispatch #1

By Patrick McGavin

The 67th edition of this year’s film festival is roughly one-third over, and the early signs are pretty ecstatic. The competition has been tightly slotted, with just 18 features, three or four fewer than most years. It means the films get to breathe and live on their own.

In the first three days of the festival, three superb movies—one I think that will be seen in time as one of the greatest of its era—have already jolted the festival, defusing already the criticism of the festival selection committee playing it safe and familiar. (By the way my feeling has always been the people who criticize the programming most severely are the ones who rarely actually attend the festival.)

Cannes is the festival by which all others are judged. The competition titles are a kind of artistic referendum on the savvy, taste and ambition of the curators’ range, daring and originality. It’s early, but so far they have been vindicated. In turn it is the vast assembly here—of critics, writers, programmers and cinephiles—who get to viscerally experience the deep pleasures. (And that is with new works by Jean-Luc Godard, the Dardenne brothers, Olivier Assayas and David Cronenberg still unseen.)

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The Mauritanian-born Abderrahmane Sissako is, I think, the finest director at work in Africa today. His disturbing, powerful new work, Timbuktu, was the first competition film shown and it is altogether stunning. The movie is angry and mournful, visually expressive and bound together by a sense of outrage and horror that gathers a tremendous cumulative power.The movie opens with an act of Taliban-like act of cultural desecration of militant Islamic jihadists spraying automatic rifle fire and laying waste to a series of culturally invaluable artifacts and statues.

The horror only escalates from there. Sissako was inspired by a horrifying episode from two years of a young couple stoned to death for having two children without being married. The movie conveys the severe social restriction and cultural coercion by the imposition, through force, of Sharia law as dancing, music and soccer are banned and women are ordered covered.

The jihadists are significantly primarily Arab, not black, unable to speak the local dialect and enforce a totalitarian stranglehold that bleeds the vitality and beauty of the village culture. The jihadists are solemn, reactionary and primitive (the leader arrives there unable to drive a car). The tightly regulated social behavior gives way to an annihilating form of sexual subjugation, the jihadist leader is constantly prowling around the dedicated, forceful Satima (Toulou Kiki). The story turns on a violent encounter between her husband, a cattle herder, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), and a fisherman.

Sissako has a poetic feel for landscapes, and his velvety, sinister black imagery is haunting.It contrasts brilliantly with the open, lunar-shaped surfaces of the desert landscapes. Timbuktu weaves a spellbinding arabesque combining the lyrical (a group of young dissidents partake in an invisible game of soccer to protest the crackdown) and the absurdist (a former “rapper,” drafted to make a propaganda video to atone for his “sins,” proves incapable of carrying out the assignment).

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Mike Leigh’s enthralling Mr. Turner is, principally, a fragmented, impressionistic study of the last 25 years of the life and art of the visionary Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Leigh has been talking about making this movie for at least a decade, and his passion fortunately never suffocates the material. It’s enlivening and provides a bracing perspective of the painter whose abstracted landscape works is regarded in some circles as an antecedent of Impressionism.

Leigh regular Timothy Spall plays (or, more accurately, incarnates) the eponymous Joseph Mallord William Turner, prickly and self-contained, a man of enormous appetites and needs. There’s a ferocious pas a deux with his housekeeper Hannah (the superb Dorothy Atkinson), and his arm grabbing hold of her is like a tentacle drawn to its prey. Turner’s harsh discipline and majestic solitude grants him a commanding solidity and shapes his intuitive grasp of nature.

Like most of Leigh’s players, Spall has always been an eccentric performer. He threw himself into the part with a manic gusto, practicing sketching and painting for more than two years before Leigh even commenced his patented rehearsal process. Mr. Turner excels in the way that fits Leigh’s own strengths, his extraordinary rapport with actors. The byplay between Turner and his father (the fantastic Paul Jesson), gruff and tender, and the widow, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) with whom he carried out a serious clandestine affair, are absolutely entrancing, skillfully teasing out aspects of character, reflection and mood that color the portraiture.

The most exciting part of the film, elevating it beyond the restrictions of the biographical form, is Leigh’s acumen and skill with the camera. Leigh is a colossus on the international art film scene. It has been a revelation to chart his almost radical evolution as a filmmaker, from the early actor-driven, plaintive style of his 16mm works to the deeper range and subtlety of Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake. Dick Pope is his cinematographer, and also the camera operator.

From the majestic opening shot of a long pan in which two Dutch women slowly walk into the frame and cross the line of Turner, who’s furiously sketching, Mr. Turner is tactile and diaphanous. The cutting is also very bracing, like a sharp movement in closeup of Turner examining one of his own paintings to a jump cut of the solitary figure standing in the vast space of the interlaced rock formations and pock-marked landscapes. The man who started as a playwright, his dominant influence the work of John Cassavetes, and who cut his teeth making television commissions is now a certifiable master in his own right.

Mr. Turner is the most emphatic evidence yet.

The towering achievement, for me, is Winter Sleep, the 196-minute work by the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It deserves its own time and space, and I will return to this space soon with more.

South By Southwest 2

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Costa de Morte

By Robert Koehler

Last month, I served as a member of the jury for the international competition at FICUNAM (Festival Internacional de Cine de Universidad Nacional Autonomia Mexico), where most of the lineup was devoted to in-between cinema such as Luis Patino’s Costa da Morte, Denis Cote’s Joy of Man’s Desiring and Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart. Without identifying itself as such, much of FICUNAM’s programming (conceived mainly by festival director Eva Sangiorgi and the phenomenal Argentine-based critic-programmer Roger Koza) is interested in exploring the interstices of fiction and non-fiction, whether that may be a conversation between highly conceived mise-en-scène and moment-by-moment action (as with Costa da Morte) or a focus on actual people depicted cinematically as if characters in a fiction (as with Stop the Pounding Heart). FICUNAM understands that this is where the future of cinema lies.

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Jumping across the Texas border to South by Southwest, the values are different. The detectable cases where fiction and non-fiction intersect rarely happens there, as in the visually symphonic conceptions of co-directors Edward Lovelace and James Hall for their fluid, dreamy portrait of former Brit pop singer Edwyn Collins, The Possibilities are Endless, or the ruptures of Detroit suburban and street life in Buzzard. Lovelace and Hall, who previously made Werewolves Across America, deploy a similar technique expressively used by Tatiana Huezo in her astonishing debut in-betweener, The Tiniest Place/El lugar mas paqueno, in which the subjects’ speech is used as off-screen voice-over accompanying complimentary images—not necessarily the literal image attached to the thing being described or discussed. The result is a two-dimensional experience, in which the spoken words function as a kind of music to the pictures; in the case of Possibilities, the intent is to take the viewer inside the damaged head of Collins (best known for the hit tune A Girl Like You with his group Orange Juice), who suffered a massive stroke in 2005. It nearly wiped clean his memory and speech functions, resulting in an interesting experiment for Lovelace and Collins to record Collins’ voice as he continues to rebuild his ability to speak, supported by his devoted wife Grace. They live in a remote corner of rural Scotland, a landscape made for widescreen cinematography and moody poetics, a perfect physical antonym for Collins’ gradually repairing mindset.

The reason why movies The Possibilities are Endless are outliers at South by Southwest is simple. Like too many other North American festivals, it assumes that the non-fiction movies that matter and that audiences care about are grounded in facts and some kind of journalism. It’s the single most hidebound aspect of North American festival programming, this notion that documentary cinema must be prose and not poetry. The work that passes the documentary gatekeepers at Sundance, South by Southwest, Hot Docs and Full Frame (the four major doc platforms on the continent) is almost never of the sort that Patino makes, in which an actual place and culture are observed but not explicitly explained or “reported.” Grounded in the Pompeu Fabra non-fiction school in Barcelona (whose great teachers include filmmakers Jose Luis Guerin, Joaquim Jorda and Ricardo Iscar, and graduates like Isaki Lacuesta, Abel Garcia Roure and Mercedes Alvarez), Patino does away with talking heads or “facts” about his subject, Galicia’s imposing and awesome northern Spanish coastline and its inhabitants. Instead he uses cinema: His camera is often at least a mile (or three!) away from his subjects, who are directly miked and heard close-up, resulting in a watching and listening experience that’s layered and only possible in a cinema setting.

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Compare this with the disappointing (and prize-winning) Margaret Brown documentary about the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster, The Great Invisible. Brown does a fine job with the facts of the eco-disaster, and draws out the gnawing, drip-drip-drip horror of the episode. She has access, and talks to a remarkably wide group of folks, especially the poorest Gulf victims frequently ignored by mass media outlets. This underlines the strength of Brown’s filmmaking, displayed in her best work to date, the 2008 The Order of Myths. Like Emile Zola, she has an acute eye for the panorama and nuances of class difference, the way systems govern and define us, almost beyond our ability to recognize them.

But there’s no poetics to Brown’s approach, no cinematic passageway to a greater perception, beyond facts, beyond issues, beyond the people in front of her camera. Like far too many of her North American colleagues in documentary (and I include filmmakers and programmers together, since both have created a kind of Sundancian cosmology of sorts), she takes on a headline-grabbing story but won’t rise above the factual into something more powerful, something that reaches art. This kind of transcendence was detectable in Order, especially in how she captured the rituals of young people in the Deep South. In the tiniest moments of Order lay its largest ideas and emotions; the Deepwater Horizon is so big, so titanic in its implications, that detail is lost, and the lure of burning issues (literally) seem to blow out the possibility of a poetic approach—say, the way Peter Mettler captured the Alberta Tar Sands complex in his stunning and, yes, poetic non-fiction, Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands. Like the hidebound teacher in Dickens’ Hard Times, Brown and her fellow documakers seem to insist on the “facts,” but they’re neglecting the greater possibilities of cinema.

Vidor and Ulmer at TCM Fest

Photographer: Mark Hill

Photographer: Mark Hill

The TCM Classic Film Festival wrapped Sunday, and as always, it was a whirlwind of celebrity appearances, new prints, flocks of out-of-town tourists, and general TCM geekdom.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling this year’s program emphasized the tried-and-true and was less exploratory than previous editions. One might have hoped TCM’s recent Peabody Award for its elaborate presentation of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film would have inspired it to cast a wider net.  But even the “Discoveries” section included films such as Eraserhead, Godzilla, Freaks, The Muppet Movie, and other standards of repertory or the DVD market.

Still, a lot of great films played at the festival, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone (especially, say, tourists from towns lacking revival screens) the opportunity to see such masterpieces as The Best Years of Our Lives, City Lights, How Green Was My Valley, The Innocents, Johnny Guitar, Make Way for Tomorrow, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Nutty Professor or Tokyo Story projected on the big screen.

For me, the highlights were seeing two features by King Vidor – The Stranger’s Return (1933) and Stella Dallas (1937) – and the newly restored Her Sister’s Secret (1946), a rare melodrama directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.

I’m still catching up with titles from Vidor’s long and diverse career, but Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, in their groundbreaking 1988 book on the filmmaker, place The Stranger’s Return as part of Vidor’s “back to the land” trilogy (including Our Daily Bread and The Wedding Night) and describe Stella Dallas as a key melodrama that “lines up among the ‘pure’ weepies,” setting the stage for the “wild sexual struggles of Vidor’s postwar melodramas” such as The Fountainhead, Beyond the Forest and Ruby Gentry.

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The Stranger’s Return is a gentle ensemble drama about an eccentric farmer (Lionel Barrymore) who welcomes his sophisticated, east coast granddaughter (Miriam Hopkins) to the family farm; she gets to know the community, kindles a half-hearted romance, and instigates the jealousy of her relatives.  Most of the film takes place in the homes, cars, and porches of the small community, and the breezy drama culminates in a lightly comic ruse. Vidor’s relaxed visual style matches the airy drift of the characters, save for a standout scene in which the camera pans quickly back-and-forth in a seasick expression of Hopkins’ frantic attempts to feed a horde of hungry harvesters.  (On a completely trivial note, it’s fun hearing the characters champion the work of stage actor Fritz Leiber, the father of the fine science fiction author of the same name.)

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Film historian Jeremy Arnold (a TCM writer whose commentary for Sony’s DVD of Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome I’ve enjoyed) introduced Stella Dallas. Beginning, justifiably, by praising Barbara Stanwyck’s career diversity and performance in the title role, he went on to talk about the “sacrificial mother” theme beloved by Depression-era Hollywood, and said the film-within-the-film playing at a theater Stella visits is actually Henry King’s 1925 film version of the same material. Coincidentally, this film also ends on a ruse, this time involving Stella’s attempt to alienate her grown daughter to persuade her to leave home. While the famous, bittersweet ending reminded Durgnat and Simmon of Les Misèrables, I couldn’t help invoking Late Spring.

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Finally, Ulmer’s Her Sister’s Secret is a compelling and unusual melodrama produced at Poverty Row studio PRC. Nancy Coleman stars as a young single mother who secretly gives up her child to her married but childless sister; things don’t go as planned, of course, and when the true father turns up, the characters are embroiled in turmoil.  Shot by the noted German cinematographer Franz Planer, the film has an elegance that belies its meager budget, but what really impresses is the humanist goodwill of every character in the film – there’s not a baddie to be found in the bunch, just wounded characters trying to act honestly and graciously in trying circumstances. It’s a guileless and gripping film.

Standout Melodramas at IFFLA

One of the great things about living in Los Angeles is the many smaller festivals throughout the year that focus on regional cinema, giving us a broader sense of the movies being made in any given country than the typical artistic skimming that occurs at the larger fests. Now in its twelfth year, the well organized Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles is about midway through its run, showcasing about 16 features (plus shorts) that generally fall within the thoughtful mainstream of Indian cinema.

Two films screening tomorrow – debut features, both – are intriguing melodramas about adolescents: Phoring and Fandry (Pig).

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Phoring dramatizes a friendship between a neglected boy (Phoring) and his doting new teacher (Doel), a beautiful newcomer to their rural Bengali town who suspects Phoring is capable of better things. The film has an easygoing charm to it, often dipping into gentle comedy, absurdist fantasy sequences – even toilet humor – but just as it begins to feel predictable, it takes some dramatic turns that send Phoring on a transformative journey through the streets of Calcutta.

If the story sounds vaguely familiar to cinephiles, the film is loosely based on Ritwik Ghatak’s early feature, Runaway (Bari Theke Paliye, 1958), in which another youth with a bullying father seeks his fortunes in Calcutta and meets a variety of mentors, but ultimately abandons his fantasies in light of the harsh realities of urban living.  Both films are coming of age tales with different emphases: Runaway’s protagonist develops a social conscience but Phoring is about a boy who quiets his insecurities.  It’s director Indranil Roychowdhury’s feature debut, but it reveals a sure hand with disparate, even clashing, sensibilities.

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Fandry is a more issue-driven melodrama that targets the unofficial caste system in India, and it proceeds at a slow boil until a volatile ending implicates even the viewer. In broad strokes, it follows an untouchable Dalit boy whose poor family is a Maharashtra village’s wild pig rustlers. The story’s use of a rare black sparrow as an unwilling sacrifice is a bit too literary, but the emotional turbulence poet-turned-filmmaker Nagraj Manjule builds by layering tensions in the final act is unsettling and provocative.

South by Southwest 1

Buzzard (2014)

By Robert Koehler

Marty Jackitansky, a rather foul human being whom you can’t take your eyes off of in writer-director Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard—by many millions of miles the best movie yet screened at South by Southwest—is a feral, degenerated form of the classic grifter of the 1930s. He temps at a bank office, but can barely tolerate anyone around except fellow office staffer Derek (an amusing Potrykus) and finds innumerable ways to make petty cash by bilking people, or just by getting over, like grabbing equipment he’s ordered for the office and returning it to an electronics store for cash. Once he gets the terrible idea of signing over bank customers’ checks to his own name, Marty’s track is relentlessly downward, a course that traces from corporate America to homeless in Detroit until the final shot (worthy of a long post-screening discussion), a metaphysical transference of sorts. Potrykus casts his regular go-to “star,” Joshua Burge, from the first (the 2010 short Coyote) and second (the debut 2012 feature, Ape) pieces of his Animal trilogy, and by this point, the director and actor have developed a electrifying collaboration that recalls Lindsay Anderson (If… and O Lucky Man!) and Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) allowing young Malcolm McDowell to let his id to run free. The connection is explicit: There’s a late sequence in Buzzard, an extended take of Burge’s bug-eyed Marty consuming a hotel room service plate of spaghetti, that deliberately quotes McDowell’s Clockwork spaghetti scene with Patrick McGee and the hospital finale. Buzzard is in fact a salad of cinephilia; the penultimate scene, an astonishing travelling shot following Marty running down a Detroit street, just as deliberately quotes from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. There’s not only the line from McDowell here; Burge can easily be viewed as Denis Lavant to Potrykus’ Carax, and more than in Ape, the expression of young male animality, stemming from unresolved anger and self-hatred, reaches the level of dance and unexpected ecstasy, perhaps even transcendence.

Highlights from Toronto

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

With some 278 features shown at this year’s edition, Toronto is not just a film festival; it’s a virtual orgy of cinema. No matter how hard one tries, the festival proves logistically impossible to fully assimilate. Even if you include the films screened beforehand, primarily at Cannes and Sundance, I saw only a fraction of the program. According to figures the festival released, nearly half a million people attended the festival.

To their credit the festival organizers have a method to the madness. Toronto has always had a fairly egalitarian, open-ended approach to its programming. It has proven very adroit at yoking together a mélange of high echelon Hollywood, international masters, documentaries, works by emerging and unknown filmmakers and probably most impressively, an experimental offshoot with its Wavelengths program.

At the same time it is possible to make all manner of connections and dovetailing themes and preoccupations. Two of the most talked about works, for instance, were the science fiction-inflected Gravity and Under the Skin.

Gravity is the new film, his first in seven years, by the superb Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. The story of two astronauts (superbly played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) unmoored in deep space, the movie is infused with a majestic and soulful purity. The extreme digital manipulation of the image is, of course, the dominant technological story of the last four decades of cinema. The great paradox is as the technology has become more seamless and expressive, the directors have become enthralled a little too much, losing a great deal of personality in the process.

Gravity is a bravura technical work, made explicit in the stunning opening fourteen minute shot as Cuarón’s gliding and highly mobile camerawork draws on the vast and infinite space that evokes a daunting and magnificent physical world. Cuarón’s great skill here is to personalize the material (he wrote the script with his son, Jonás Cuarón). He intuitively contrasts the immaculate and stunning imagery against the particulars of the human quest, in this case, the mission involving the jocular, veteran pilot (Clooney) and the gifted scientist and doctor (Bullock) tasked with her first mission.

The poetry and beauty of the opening is soon disrupted by a frightening blowback, a firestorm of debris from a downed Russian satellite, leaves the two astronauts the only survivors of their mission. With their own station damaged beyond repair, the two must improvise to secure their own safety. The movie, which does not have a wasted moment in its fleet and sharp 93-minute running time, is the only aesthetic justification of 3-D I know of late.

Cuarón is savvy and smart enough to meditate on the classics of the form (2001, Solaris), but the marvel, complexity and impudent wit that are his signature are subtly woven into the movie’s rhythms. It’s a sly and subversive comedy of marriage as the extreme pressure and intensity of incident draws out a marvelous and lyrical exchange between the two principals, Clooney’s natural wit masking his extreme competence and Bullock, the serious one haunted by a personal tragedy, discovering untapped powers of thinking and problem resolution.

To say anything more risks overstatement. Just see it, again and again.

 

under-the-skin-scarlett-johansson-slice

Under the Skin is just the third feature by the exceptionally gifted London-born Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), and his first feature in the nine years since his fascinating though rather problematic Birth. If Gravity is a work of a lucid and emphatic wonder, this movie is composed is wholly different register of exacting strangeness.

The movie generated a highly polarizing response, from rapture to walkouts and it is easy to understand both points. As storytelling, the movie seems an acute failure, deprived of clarity, emotional insight or psychological intricacy. It’s frequently hypnotic though inchoate and the parts rarely cohere.

No less than Gravity, the movie testifies to the power and alluring wonder of image and sound. The movie has some truly knockout images, a motorcycle cutting like a blade through the nocturnal landscapes, the coastal cliffs of the Highlands or most frightening, the transmogrification of those avid, ready men seduced by the mysterious central character.

Perhaps most interestingly, Under the Skin is a meditation on the form and erotic wonder of Scarlett Johansson. She plays the alien seductress who falls to Earth and takes the shape of a carnal loner who navigates the streets of Glasgow in a white van, seducing a series of men, before leading them to a rather unsavory fate, one utterly transfixing to watch, the men led into a inky-black pool of slit as the alien being walks, as if suspended, on air.

The movie is adapted, very loosely, from Michael Faber’s novel, by the director and his writing partner Walter Campbell. Johansson, who’s so astoundingly beautiful, has never really received her just due, as both an actress and very skilled comedienne. She is electric, especially in the movie’s brilliant centerpiece, an extended pas a deux between her character and a virginal, severely deformed middle-aged man she meets in the street and offers a kind of erotic sanctuary. The emotional exchange alters her being, deepening her own humanity and, conversely, exposing her to a wholly different form of vulnerability and weakness.

Johansson avails herself emotionally and sexually in a way she has never really been demanded of in the past. Under the Skin is a great many things, often contradictory, the exasperating and annihilating alternating side-by-side. Personally I could have done with less of the severely disassociation. The tradeoffs, Johansson’s performance, the score (Mica Levi) and the voluptuous, sinister visual rhyming, offer more than compensatory thrills.

 

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

Finally, it is impossible to discuss Toronto without the work that towered over much of the festival, relegating much else to the shadows. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave arrived amid a torrent of excitement after it showed as a sneak preview at Telluride the week before. It is the kind of galvanizing work that actually matches the hype.

The third feature of the English director and artist (his first two features were Hunger and Shame), the movie repudiates the trash aesthetics of Django Unchained and The Butler, accurately reducing them to vacuous minstrel acts. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” the great social theorist and black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his landmark, The Souls of Black Folks.

The irreconcilable is the movie’s dominant mode of expression. McQueen and the writer, the talented though erratic John Ridley, adapt the astonishing memoir of Solomon Northup, a mid-19th century black Northerner who, victimized by an elaborate ruse of white bounty hunters, was kidnapped and sold into the service of a succession of vicious Southern plantation owners. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, a dandy and aesthete, a gifted violinist, subjected to the same peculiar brand of self-lacerating as Michael Fassbender endured in McQueen’s first two features.

What registers, initially, are the images, especially the frightening rendering of captivity and confinement worthy of Robert Bresson, especially the deft early sequences that contrast Northup’s freedom with his appalling new conditions. He personifies DuBois’ notion of the black “twoness,” a man who must renounce his own abilities, talents, his very worth and being, in order to survive.

Again working with his great cinematographer Sean Bobbit, McQueen locates the poetry of terror in the everyday, an overhead shot of a wagon as its tarp is uncovered, revealing the black bodies, some quite small, packed into compacted space; the churning of a steam engine boat, echoing the Middle Passages that brought the first generation of Africans to the New World; and the harshness of the Rembrandt lighting as Northup comes to the sobering realization of his loss of status, identity and existence.

The movie is bound by harshness and staggering injustice, at the systematic and brutal manner blacks are denied their worth, sexually subjugated or worst of all, violently torn from their families. (“You’ll forget your children,” is the most chilling line spoken.) Like Edward P. Jones’ great novel, The Known World, the work has a moral sophistication and depth, especially about race and class, that defies easy analysis, evident in the figure of the great Alfre Woodard, who plays a former slave and now wife of a more progressive white Southern plantation owner. She provides learned counsel and friendship to a traumatized young black woman (the astounding Lupita Nyong’o) desperate to retain her humanity.

12 Years a Slave looks both backward and forward. McQueen, like Claude Lanzmann’s great Shoah, exists to bear a particular kind of witness. Like Lanzmann’s masterpiece, it is great filmmaking shaped to a subject that stands outside our ability to ever explicate. Call it the sorrow and the pity.

Cannes Rankings

01

Only Lovers Left Alive

By Patrick Z. McGavin

My Cannes started this year with the cooly suggestive image of a beautiful young woman under surveillance, as captured in the viewfinder of a pair of binoculars, in French director Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful, and ended with probably the most famous fall in the history of cinema, that one that concludes Alfred Hitchcock’s magisterial Vertigo.

The Ozon was part of the official competition selection, the Hitchcock, preceded by a terrific introduction from Kim Novak, the concluding work of the Cannes Classics program. All told, I saw 37 films: 20 in the official competition, two in official selection, out of competition, seven in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, three in the Directors’ Fortnight and five in the Cannes Classics.

Every festival is an object lesson in frustration and thwarted ambition. I especially regret not being able to see more of the Un Certain Regard program, because I was largely impressed by what I did sample. I also heard or read about especially encouraging reports of Lav Diaz’s reportedly extraordinary 250-minute long Norte, the End of History, Rithy Panh’s prize-winner The Missing Picture, Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Diego Quemada-Diez’s La Jaula de Oro and Hiner Saleem’s My Sweet Pepper Land.

The competition is what excites and infuriates the critics, writers and assembled press. These are the also titles most likely to dominate the art-house release schedule and also turn up at other festivals, like Telluride, Toronto and New York, in the fall. Many of the key works have already been acquired for American distribution, and new deals are still being announced.

What follows are my own rankings, if you will, with corresponding grades, of the films of this year’s competition. Let the arguments begin.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (A)

Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin (A-)

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (A-)

James Gray’s The Immigrant (A-)

Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) [A-]

The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (A-)

Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (B+)

Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (B+)

Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (B)

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (B)

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (B)

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s A Castle in Italy (B-)

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Grigris (B-)

Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son (B-)

Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful (C+)

Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman (C+)

Arnaud des Pallieres’ Michael Kolhaas (C)

Amat Escalante’s Heli (C)

Takashi Miike’s Shield of Straw (C)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (D)