Saturday, May 3, 2014

Of Horses Of Men (2013)

A scene from Benedikt Erlingsson's OF HORSES AND MEN, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24- May 8, 2014. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: This is the first feature film written and directed by Icelandic theatre director Benedikt Erlingsson, best known in the film world for his acting role in Lars Von Trier's The Boss of It All

WHAT: "You going to let me catch you?" asks Kolbeinn, the dapper Alpha male of a small, isolated community of ranchers and tour guides obsessed with all things equine by tradition if no longer exactly by necessity. His question is to his pride and joy, a white mare he saddles up for a brisk gallop across the landscape to pay a call on a fellow horse-owner and her tri-generational but patriarch-less family. Indeed, Kolbeinn (played by internationally-experienced actor Ingvar E. Sigurðsson). His ride is a show for the audience, for himself, and for the entire plateau, as he is observed (often through telescopic lenses) by just about everyone across the plateau. The expanse between dwellings doesn't prevent a close-knit community from being a bunch of nosy neighbors, intensely curious about the potential blood-line mixing of any of the horses or humans in their midst.

This scene sets up an easy laugh that I'm not sure why I'm hesitant in giving away since it's actually telegraphed through very careful editing for minutes before. But perhaps the anticipation only increases the payoff. The audience I saw this scene with yesterday let out little chuckles and other utterances during the foreshadowing moments, and then erupted into a full-scale group belly-laugh once it arrived.

The scene introduces us to glimpses of all the key characters we'll be following through various vignettes throughout the rest of Of Horses and Men; the organizers of group riding and horse-culture immersion tours, an alcoholic husband; an attractive young equestrienne, a Spanish traveler, etc. Here they're briefly shown as observers of Kolbeinn's embarrassing moment, but soon enough they'll have their own adventures to make. Many of them result in some kind of tragedy. All of them revolve around horses.

There's no question that Erlingsson and his crew photograph these beasts with awe and care, although the grim fates that befall some of them and their riders counterbalance the film's leanings into Tourist-Authority-sanctioned territory. As such, the film fulfills the long-nurtured love affair between the motion picture camera and the horse, going back as far as Eadweard Muybridge and continuing through just about every Western and large-scale historical epic made during Yakima Canutt's lifetime. But I must admit I found the film's thematic paralleling of human and animal relationships to be frequently superficial, uninspired, and unworthy of the craft put into staging and filming. Perhaps I'm just slightly allergic to the overlapping vignette framework being employed here, for the same reasons that Magnolia is my least favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film and Crash my least favorite Best Picture winner in recent memory. Though Of Horses And Men is not as facile as a Paul Haggis film, the fact that I'm thinking of one at all makes me hesitant to enthusiastically recommend it to serious cinephiles. Trot with caution.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 8:45 tonight and 6:00 Monday at the Kabuki, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: This is the only one of the films competing for SFIFF's New Directors Prize (only first- and second-time feature filmmakers are eligible) that I've seen so far, unfortunately. Luckily, all but one of the others (The Blue Wave) are still playing during the final several days of the festival. Here is the list of the competitors for the $10,000 cash award that last year went to the Turkish film Present Tense.


OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Day 10 features the final festival screenings of Lav Diaz's Norte, the End of History and Hong Sangsoo's Our Sunhi. I'd have featured the latter for today's post had my friend Adam Hartzell not already written quite a bit about it for this blog.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Yerba Buena Center For the Arts began the biggest tribute to Studio Ghibli ever presented in the Bay Area on Thursday, and tonight's double-bill of Nausicaa And The Valley of the Wind and Whisper of the Heart gives a great sense of the broadness of the kind of work being done at that Japanese animation stronghold over the years.

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