Friday, October 13, 2006

The Midwestern Croisette

The 42nd annual Chicago International Film Festival reaches its halfway point today, and glory be, I finally got to participate. I must say, I'm impressed at the range of films and countries represented. Even though a few high-visibility English-language tentpoles like Shortbus, Babel, and The Fountain are holding the festival together, the menu offers generous fictional and non-fictional courses from Latin America, East Asia, Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the South Pacific (read: nearly everywhere except Africa, though I'd also have loved a shot at Inuit breakout Zacharias Kunuk's Journals of Knut Rasmussen). I've actually never attended a film festival before, so yesterday marked my introduction to more than the films themselves: for example, to the way a city's immigrant or second-generation population will turn out in droves for a national export, which will barely cause a blip on the eventual commercial market; or to the exquisite pride that derives from finally deciphering the processes of ticket-buying, schedule coordination, and navigation between theaters. Had I been a little more on top of things, I would have bought a ticket to last night's 11:00pm showing of The Host before it sold out, but now that I've secured my merit badge in demystifying festival bureaucracy, I'll do better next year.

As for the two films I saw—actually one-and-a-half films—I urge you to keep an eye peeled for Syndromes and a Century. Thai sensation Apichatpong Weerasethakul once again weaves an intricate, entrancing enigma out of rhythms, scenes, and techniques so quotidian that many filmmakers would find nothing to observe in them. The opening shot is of tall, thin trees swaying in the wind while the soundtrack hums with the distant echoes of electronic apparatus and media emissions. Gradually these sounds—analogous to Cliff Martinez's minimalist score for Soderbergh's Solaris but even more muffled—give way to a soundtrack of breezes, chirping birds, and buzzing insects, but just as the image finds this more "natural" sonic referent, Syndromes cuts to a close-up of a downcast man, head tilted forward before an antiseptically white background, which instantly undermines the lingering pastoral soundscape. These sorts of editing tricks, subtle discontinuities, and creative mixing and matching with noises, images, subplots, and characters is exactly what Apichatpong excels at, especially because he bends them so deftly in service of character and narrative. The movie, following a typically playful Apichatpong structure, goes on to trace two different stories that begin with the same incident (reprised in slightly altered form halfway through Syndromes' runtime). The first iteration privileges a self-possessed female doctor in a rural hospital, managing a forlorn suitor and a memory of near-love while efficiently dispatching her medical duties to a cantankerous clutch of Buddhist monks and a crop of newly hired doctors. The second iteration aligns itself with one of those new hires, though the hospital is now an austere military facility in a modern city, and hospital business plays out largely in subterranean corridors, supply closets, and blinding white enclosures. Though Syndromes is Apichatpong's most stylistically subdued film to date, it's still an unusually patient and good-natured portrait of rural/urban crossover, of spatial and musical dislocations, of clinical, spiritual, and popular perspectives, of romance and absurdity and barely voiced grief. B+

By contrast, the Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan seems impervious to the pleasures of understatement or quiet implication. I thought that Distant, Ceylan's big festival hit of a few years ago, was an elegantly framed rumination on awfully familiar ideas (estrangement as worldview, familial imposition), enlivened only by rare bursts of humor that the palette, mise-en-scène, and self-serious direction nonetheless worked hard to oppress. Climates, Ceylan's latest effort, which nabbed the FIPRESCI laurel at this year's Cannes festival, struck me as an even more laborious mounting of dismally old saws. The obvious, meticulous deliberation with which Ceylan has framed his images and timed his edits does not conceal the banality of what he produces—marked foreground/background gulfs between alienated lovers, ostentatious and tinny sound elements, protracted close-ups that climax with inexpressive tears. Particularly hard to take was a psychologically complicated scene in which a distraught Bahar (played by Ceylan's own wife, Ebru) seems to attempt a spontaneous murder-suicide while riding a motorbike with her atrabilious lover Isa (Ceylan himself). As the two of them crash on the roadside, the camera captures every untrained, agitated whinge of these non-professional actors, relegating the whole incident into a turgid bout of queasy, inarticulate exhibitionism and eroding every glint of potential in the script. Soon to follow is an endless shot of erotic/violent aggression between Isa and an old flame; again, the performers and the film surely want to be lauded for their "courage" and rigor in realizing such a tempestuous, illegible encounter, but again, the physical vocabulary of both actors radiates a nervous, under-rehearsed improvisation, and the formal presentation offers no needed assist. The unsettling narcissism with which Ceylan films himself and his intimates working hard to render themselves unlikeable and impenetrable feels as pointless and arid as the affective fallacies of heat, chill, snow, shade, and rain imparted by the title and dully realized in the photographic and location choices. About an hour into this thing, sensing no prospect of Ceylan's Climates growing any more hospitable or sustainable, I decided to check the weather outside. Walked out

(Images © 2006 Chicago International Film Festival; © 2006 Kick the Machine/Fortissimo Films; and © 2006 Pyramide Films/Zeitgeist Films)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, so that Thai director has intrigued me since Tropical Malady, but could you remind me what all of his films are besides these two?

6:49 PM, October 14, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I think my favorite of his movies might be Blissfully Yours, which is unfortunately the one that isn't on DVD (not in Region 1, anyway). Before that, he made a playful sort of fictional-ethnographic-exquisite corpse oddity called Mysterious Object at Noon that I found really charming (and you can at least rent that one on DVD in the US).

10:04 PM, October 14, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Wow--I can only remember your having walked out of a couple of things in the past. That one must have been a stinker indeed. And from you I've now learned my new word of the day, atrabilious. Thanks, guy!

12:50 PM, October 15, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

...and thanks to you, inadvertently, I've reminded myself for the millionth time that I always misspell this word. Thanks, gal! :)

3:32 PM, October 15, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Oh, and indeed, my history of walkouts hereby increases to only five, out of nearly 2700 moviegoing experiences: The Matrix (though I returned later to confirm my worst suspicions), Town and Country (because, really, why?), About a Boy (though I returned later to confirm my worst suspicions—though admittedly, it has its good qualities, and I've certainly stuck it out through much much much much worse), Layer Cake (because it wasn't good enough to cajole me into taking a later bus), and now Climates. Adds a much-needed demographic of pretentious art-trash to what is otherwise a very commercial list, no?

3:36 PM, October 15, 2006  
Blogger tim r said...

Wow. You really hate Nuri Bilge Ceylan. I've yet to see Climates but I have to say I was dreading Uzak and ended up loving it. It really spoke to me, which I know always sounds like bullshit, but it did. What you say about Climates would work, almost word for word, for what I think about a lot of Tarkovsky, which is interesting... nice to see someone having the courage to call his bluff, anyhow.

4:23 PM, October 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, do you have a list of all the movies you've seen in the theater? Because that would make me swoon.

I can't remember ever walking out of a movie at the theater, although God knows I've seen my share of films that didn't deserve my time.

And thanks for "atrabilious."

5:27 PM, October 15, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: Are you kidding? I love it when art speaks to me and have no qualms about saying so, or hearing it said. Meanwhile, the lovely and logical intersection of our Ceylan/Tarkovsky problem is clearly that funny scene in Distant where the host-brother is trying to mask the fact that he's watching lesbian porno by clicking the channel over to Tarkovsky's Stalker whenever the guest-brother walks through the living room. Imagine watching this scene together: you can enjoy the piss being taken out of Tarkovsky, and I can wish Ceylan would sport his funnybone more often.

@Goatdog: I do, indeed, have such a list. Three versions, in fact, alternately organized by title, year, and director. Not to mention the diary I keep of the days, theaters, and company on/with which I saw them. I'm just letting it all hang out here, Goatdog. (It would almost be harder to imagine possible ways of listing movies that I haven't already realized on Excel, or on scrap-paper floating around the house.)

6:41 PM, October 15, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

I love you.

7:02 PM, October 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You had me at "indeed."

8:40 PM, October 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Author !
What necessary words... super, a magnificent phrase

9:04 PM, November 17, 2009  
Blogger mastroiani said...

Your review of THE CLIMATES, by NBC was, to put it mildly, ridiculous and shallow and betrayed your inability of deeper perception.

1:45 PM, January 26, 2010  

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