Sunday, October 07, 2007

Chicago Film Festival: The Aerial

If Guy Maddin and Leo McCarey got together to remake Brazil, their efforts might yield something like Esteban Sapir's The Aerial, a jaunty errand into silent-era surrealism and anti-corporate allegory that should, by all rights, be too obvious in its points and too crammed with fancies to generate the level of charm and light-touch magic that it does. In The Aerial's universe—billed as "Once upon a time..." but inclined, too, toward the present and the prescient—a monolithic and mobster-defended television station has already committed a whole host of crimes against humanity: its leaders have literally revoked the voices of the world's citizens; they have eliminated rival media outlets; and they have saturated the grocery market with boxes of "TV Foods," basically sugar cookies topped with a lulling spiral of white frosting. Only one woman in the film's unnamed city has retained her own voice and the right to its exercise, but at the heavy prices of hooding her face, parading her body in sultry nightclub performances, and indenturing herself to the tyrannical and devil-tailed mastermind Mr. TV. This woman, simply named Voice, has a child, a boy born without eyes whose own vocal capacity is a desperately kept secret. Soon, the fate of this pair intertwines with that of an inventor, his young daughter, and his grandfather, who live and work in a TV repair shop. When the girl arrives to visit her blowzy, cigarette-smoking mother, she befriends the sightless son of Voice. When Voice herself is abducted by Mr. TV and his henchmen—on the way to an even grander, and weirder, scheme of world domination—the two children as well as the girl's reunited mom and pop trek into the snow-swept mountains to rehabilitate an old transmitter and basically culture-jam the villains to death and the slumbering, wordless population to life.

As you will already glean, the political line of The Aerial does not distinguish itself in nuance or depth, and Sapir is much softer on the question of whether silence is coerced or whether it is passively and hegemonically accepted. The almost-ending of the movie, which suspends and challenges the power dynamics and the prevailing apportionments of Good and Bad, would have offered a richer, more provocative conclusion than the one we actually get, however much The Aerial admits of its fairy-tale contours. Sapir also indulges in some appropriations of several sign systems—Communist, Nazi, Judaic, marital, domestic—that he cheekily but indubitably simplifies in pursuit of his homiletic agendas. But all of that said, The Aerial is patently an exercise in formal and stylistic brio, and in breathing witty, creative life into hard-leftist axioms. On these scores, the movie is a robust success. The antique, tungsten quality of the flickering light and the evocative, efficient editing achieve a splendid mixture of beauty and economy. The soundtrack is bright and unimpeachable—not just the warm, funny, inspired musical score but the ingenious instrumentation that also supplies all of the film's foley effects, including footsteps and gunshots. Sapir also has great fun throughout with the placement, phrasing, and materiality of his intertitles; characters are frequently spotted waving or shoving the text out of their way, or having the summary terms of entire emotional states scrawled right over their heads.

Best of all, the gusto with which Sapir reprises so many silent-era tropes while also flexing them for new expressive potentials rhymes perfectly with The Aerial's polemical support of creativity over convention, of under-exploited powers over institutionally regulated genres and boilerplates. Even as the movie assumes discordantly conservative notions of redemption through sentimentalized childhood and of the two-parent nuclear family as ethical building-block, the geometries and overlays and eccentricities of the film stoke the very imagination which Sapir's politics almost suppress. Compared to Maddin's frequently arch and esoteric approaches to the tropes of early cinema, Sapir shows a Pixar-ish loyalty to clear, clever, and spirited storytelling, over and above arcana and idiosyncracy for their own sakes. Thinner and less adventurous than first impressions imply, but a feast for the ear and the eye from start to finish. B

Photo © 2007 LadobleA

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