Monday, January 16, 2012

Terri Saul Only Has Two Eyes

It's impossible for any pair of eyes to view all of Frisco Bay's worthwhile film screenings. I'm so pleased that a number of local filmgoers have let me post their repertory/revival screening highlights of 2011. An index of participants is found here.

The following list comes from artist and writer Terri Saul, who tweets under the handle SisterRye

2011 Rep House List; Sister Rye

I could write this year's list by mentioning only one director, one series, and one venue –HANDS UP! ESSENTIAL SKOLIMOWSKI- which played from July 22-August 25 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California. I had never heard of Skolimowski until my friend Charles suggested I check him out. His films are what defined my year of movie watching more than any others. Though regretfully, I did miss a few.

Every film I saw last year that wasn't a new release, I saw at the PFA. I'm listing the films in reverse chronological order, starting from the most recent screening and working my way backward.

Although only one of the films he stars in appears on my list, Vincent Gallo both surprised and disappointed in one of the best films I saw this year and one of the worst I suffered through. The first (and an outstanding rare film on my list) is ESSENTIAL KILLING (Poland/Norway/Ireland/Hungary, 2010), directed by Jerzy Skolimowksi. It screened at the PFA on August 20th, at 9pm. Read Skolimowski's comments about the inspiration for making this film (and perhaps why it doesn't screen with much frequency) here. In TROUBLE EVERY DAY (part of the UNDER THE SKIN: THE FILMS OF CLAIRE DENIS, which ran from March 4-April 16) Gallo had to talk and act at the same time, not something he did well in 2001. Both ESSENTIAL KILLING and TROUBLE EVERY DAY were provocative, shocking, gritty, and memorable. I think the reason Gallo was superb in ESSENTIAL KILLING is because he acted without speaking much. A film without dialog is a film that works well for Gallo. The wordless script didn't only benefit Gallo's portrayal of Mohammed, but also was in keeping with the silenced, desperate prisoner on the run in a strange place. Mohammed's ability to communicate, muffled by snow, anomie, confusion, and starvation, in this timely and politically astute piece of humanist drama was whittled down to the narrow features of Gallo's roaming eyes and gnashing teeth. Not unfamiliar territory for Skolimowski, who also chose to have his supporting actress, Emmanuelle Seigner, play a mute woman, silent cinema makes up much of Skolimowski's student films.

The second film on my list is FOUR NIGHTS WITH ANNA (Poland/France, 2008) also directed by Jerzy Skolimowksi. It screened at the PFA on August 5th, at 7pm. The one sentence description of FOUR NIGHTS WITH ANNA on IMDB is enough to drive the curious to watch it, if only for its absurd premise, "A crematorium worker repeatedly breaks into a woman's house at night to help with housework." Skolimowski somehow manages to make the preposterous possible; the crude, sweet; the creepy, charming; and the quotidian, extraordinary. From Jim Emerson writing on Alt Screen, "Four Nights with Anna is one of the great movies about voyeurism (think Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love, to name a few). As such, it’s also a movie about movie-watching and movie-making" Read the rest of the write-up here.

The third film is THE SHOUT (UK, 1978), yet another by Skolimowski. I watched (and was mesmerized by) THE SHOUT as I sank deeply into my seat at the PFA on July 22nd, at 8:50pm. THE SHOUT was like a good mass-market paperback mystery by a writer who is known and trusted to transport and transform the reader. The use of sound in the film and as a plot device is indescribable and unmatched, best heard in a large space with a good sound system. One of the leading characters, Anthonyn Fielding, is a sound artist. We spend time with him in his recording studio where he traps bugs to hear and collect their reverberations against his microphone. His obsession with the power of sound is shared by his opposing character, Crossley, who brags about possessing a mystical shout. Also, THE SHOUT repeatedly references one of my favorite painters, Francis Bacon. I'm leaving out DEEP END, BARRIER, KING, QUEEN, KNAVE, MOONLIGHTING, IDENTIFCATION MARKS: NONE, and WALKOVER, all worthy of discussion and repeated viewings.

The fourth is 1900 (Italy/France/West Germany, 1976), by Bertolucci, part of BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI: IN SEARCH OF MYSTERY, which ate up a lot of my time between, July 8-August 18. 1900 played, starting at 6pm, on July 16th, and lasted 311 minutes (according to the PFA calendar). I wouldn't have cut one. Although Lincoln Spector says in his review that this wasn't the 5-hour director's cut, but a 4-hour US version. Now I'm wondering which "director's cut" I saw. I remember a brief discussion of the numerous cuts before-hand, but I didn't take notes. It was long and I was glad it was long. One well-known scene in 1900 is the forest ocarina waltz, in which dancers dance to the music of small and large ocarinas, ancient flutes (While discussing this scene with a friend I learned that there's now an iPhone ocarina app that can be played by blowing into the microphone as the mouthpiece of a woodwind). 1900 is one of the most visually musical films I've seen (The composition of each shot seems to dance and divide itself up mathematically, like music), and the most direct when it comes to telling the story of class struggle and class conflict among friends. I'm picking 1900 for my list over THE CONFORMIST, THE LAST EMPEROR, and THE SHELTERING SKY, partly because the last two are so well known and loved and THE CONFORMIST (though stunningly beautiful) didn't leave as much of an epic impression as 1900, although I'm glad I saw it.

Number five is Lisandro Alonso’s debut feature LA LIBERTAD (2001). I'm partially favoring this screening because of the odd short that preceded it and made for a unique film night overall: CHEESE (Mika Rottenberg, U.S., 2008). CHEESE and LA LIBERTAD (Argentina 2001) were featured as part of FIRST PERSON RURAL: THE NEW NONFICTION, which ran from March 26-April 17. LA LIBERTAD was like a view taken in while having nothing to do, or a chore done with loving attention and mindfulness. The camera is allowed to disappear in LA LIBERTAD. The audience is left to fend for itself in the wild solitude of the film. CHEESE just has to be seen to be believed. You won't have to go to art school because you'll give yourself an honorary degree and afterward dream of sustenance, substance, hair, and the feminine ability to create something out of nothing.

The sixth film is BEAU TRAVAIL (France, 1999). I caught BEAU TRAVAIL as part of the previously mentioned Claire Denis retrospective at the PFA, on March 25th, at 9pm. I would like to write an essay about BEAU TRAVAIL, especially the ending, which I won't spoil for you if you haven't seen it. Denis Lavant is amazing as Galoup. BEAU TRAVAIL is an extended dance, a ballet with an eclectic score, a study of the male figure, military limbo, domination, jealousy, competitiveness, colonial anxiety, boredom, and Sisyphean feats, all shot with impeccable attention to light, color, dimensionally, and detail.

Number seven is NENETTE ET BONI (France, 1996), also part of the Denis series. It screened at the PFA on the same night, prior to BEAU TRAVAIL March 25th, at 7pm. Sound and corporeal puns–cheap coffee percolating, kneading pizza dough–make for some startling, sexual and poetic transitions between scenes. Vincent Gallo shows up in this one too, briefly speaking English amid French, and providing comic relief. Tindersticks provides a typical Claire Denis soundtrack. I can't imagine her films without their music. "Tiny Tears" will always remind me of this film.

The eighth film on my list is WHITE MATERIAL (France, 2009), another by Denis, one that was shown early in the series, on March 4th, at 7pm. Michael Koreski wrote well about the film in Reverse Shot here. I haven’t seen any other film that addresses the issue of child soldiers so clearly and with so much tenderness. Everyone in the film is misguided, corrupt, delusional, and seeking short-term pleasure, the freedom of psychosis, or revenge. But the gun-toting children seem mainly driven by hunger, craving for basic comforts, and hero-worship. Denis does an excellent job of critiquing or examining colonialism and the post-colonial, while also laying out some possible responses to finding oneself born or awakening into it on one side or another. The only thread tying all characters together is their commitment to staying in place, rather than fleeing the violence that arrives one day and escalates without pause, although one key difference is the ability to make the choice to leave. Some of the people don’t have that choice, either because of illness and advanced age, youth and poverty, or those driven mad by their situation. Isabelle Huppert’s character is all about stubbornness, almost a play on the word “plantation” as if she had planted her own feet into the soil, like a dominating country would.

Ninth on my list is LA CEREMONIE (France, 1995), by Claude Chabrol, part of SUSPICION: THE FILMS OF CLAUDE CHABROL AND ALFRED HITCHCOCK, January 13-February 25, following the death of Chabrol in 2010. I haven't read A Judgment in Stone, the Ruth Rendell book that LA CEREMONIE is based on, but considering the primacy of plot and social circumstance, it makes sense that LA CEREMONIE is based on her writing. LE BOUCHER should also be on my list, but I chose LA CEREMONIE, probably because it features two of my favorite French actresses, Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert, not to mention Jacqueline Bisset.

Number ten is the film I saw first in 2011, TOUKI BOUKI (Senegal, 1973), directed by Djibril Diop-Mambéty. I was introduced to this film while studying the history of ethnographic and international film as an undergraduate. It was part of the series last year called WORLD CINEMA FOUNDATION: SAFEGUARDING CINEMATIC TREASURES, which ran from January 15- February 10. In the story, friends become divided over a pull to escape hardship, coruption and petty crime and flee to mythical Paris vs. remaining in Senegal and continuing political action. Humiliation and revenge over political differences features strongly, as well as decisions about theft, subservience, tricksterism, magic, and dressing up to pass as European. The film uses magical realism, experimental editing, such as jumpcuts, flashbacks, and jarring cutaways to mysterious and sometimes violent sequences in a way that seems appropriate to its decade. This film, as do many on my list, is critical of capitalism, colonialism, and post-colonial corruption, but also the behavior of those seeking revolution. The use of the Josephine Baker singing "Paris, Paris, Paris!" is unforgettable, and contrasts well with the action on screen. A good summary of the film can be found here.

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