Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dispatches from the Tribeca Film Festival – " Toby Dammit" & "The Beyond"

My first reaction while watching Frederico Fellini's "Toby Dammit" was "oh no I am going to hate this movie." The film (that appeared to share the same makeup team as "Beetlejuice" [double feature?]) is full of seemingly nonsensical images: people with paper mask faces; packs of sunglass wearing nuns; a cardboard chef on the side of the road holding a basket. I felt the need to treat these images as symbols and decode them (what does it all mean ?!?!) and I was all ready to slot the film into the category of: needs to be seen more than once to be understood at all, (not that the "ring"esque little girl as devil would have encouraged future viewings on my part, I am a total wimp when it comes to horror).

As a rule, I am not a fan of films that force the audience to work hard and uncode some "deep hidden meaning (DHM). Good films do gain from repeated viewings but a good film should not need to be repeated. So I was worried that despite how much I love Terrance Stamp, this film was going to disappoint. And yet as the film continued I realized that my initial reaction of frustration and confusion was in fact all part of the grand master Fellini plan.

I once had a dream that my face was being smothered by a pillow and I could not move my head to avoid being suffocated. I tried and tried to turn my head but no matter what, lack of air and panic ensued. This is what the world of Fellini's "Toby Dammit" is like. For much of the film, Dammit is trapped driving around a strange town, unable to find his way back to Rome (turns out not all roads lead there). No matter what he does, he cannot escape.

The frustration that Toby feels is not unlike my initial frustration at trying to decode the film's images. All through the first half of the film I was trying to decipher and keep note of various images and characters in case they were to return later. But that is just what Fellini wants you to do, to try to make sense of that which is nonsense. Like Toby, we are trying to find roads where there are none. The nuns, the chef, these are all red herrings. Fellini has created an unsolvable maze for the viewer that mirrors the maze that Toby tries to navigate. So in a way, we feel what Toby feels.

(note: Spoilers Ahead) In "The Beyond," Lucio Fulci does not try to bait us with red herrings to get us to feel boxed in, and yet the world he creates is eerily similar in feel to the world that Toby is trapped in. Fulci, through the narrative, simply shows us the horrors of the place ( a hotel that is actually a gate to the underworld oh no!). He is telling a story in a more traditional way in comparison to Fellini. The hell that he shows us is a world in which no matter where you turn, you are faced with the same view. The protagonists find themselves surrounded on all sides by the same painting never to see or find an escape ever again. This place is a hell that battles the world of "Toby Dammit" for the title of worst and most inescapable prison on earth. Even though Fulci simply tells us the story and does not provide us with the "feel" of the place, can we say that this place is any less scary? These are two similar situations, presented very differently in terms of filmic style by two different directors, that end up, perhaps, not so far from each other in the end (both have me hiding under bed covers).

Other Tribeca screenings In brief:

"Night Tide"/ "Picnic"
(Curtis Harrington) - Surprise visit from Dennis Hopper! Pity that they got the reels in the wrong order (!!!). I was distracted.

"Three Kingdoms" - (Daniel Lee) All over the place. Should have picked one kingdom.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"The Fall" & "Goodbye Lenin"

I admit it freely: I did not like Pan's Labyrinth. I was disappointed by the effects which I found sparse, and by the black and white simplicity of the film's story (fascists are bad bad bad!!!). I bring this up only because when Tarsem Singh's "The Fall" is released on May 9th, comparisons between the two films will inevitably be drawn. Both star a young female fatherless protagonist who escapes into a fantasy world. Unlike Pan's Labyrinth, however, the fantasy world of "The Fall" is lush and vibrant. If there is anything to be said about Singh, it is that he has a wonderful eye. Even in the "real" world of the film, simple objects such as oranges and blocks of ice are lingered upon and presented as beautiful objects. (The film would work well in a pairing with any of the recent visually opulent Zhang Yimo films.) So Pan/ Fall double feature (sorry Guillermo).

What is so refreshing about "The Fall," visuals aside, is that characters are not clear cut (with the exception of the aptly named Governor Odious). And that through the characters, larger issues about the the nature of fantasy are raised. Roy, who tells the story to the girl, Alexandria, is a jilted lover who befriends her and tells her a fantastic story full of bandits, rare butterflies and mysterious shamans. In her eyes (a perspective we share for much of the film) he is the hero, "the black bandit" and a substitute father figure. Yet at the same time as he spins these tales his thoughts are only on his own suicide and he takes advantage of Alexandria's innocence; conning her into bringing him morphine. He uses the fantasy to get what he wants in the "real" world. While for her the fantasy is healing the wounds her father's death has left, for Roy, the fantasy is merely a means to an end (the end to be precise). The same story serves two very different purposes.

(note: spoilers ahead) In one scene, when Alexandria has finally realized that Roy means to kill himself and he has realized the pain he has caused her by using her, Roy begins to kill off the characters in the story. All of them die valiantly; sacrificing themselves so that Alexandria can continue. They all commit suicide in ways deemed acceptable and heroic. One blows himself up along with hundreds of enemy soldiers, one shields Alexandria from arrows with his own body. It is as if Roy is justifying the idea of suicide through the fantasy. But who is Roy justifying the idea to? Is this a message that Alexandria needs to hear or that he needs to? Thus we are faced with the question of who the fantasy benefits: the storyteller or the listener? Who is the fantasy for?

Another film that confronts these same issues is "Goodbye Lenin". In the film, the character of Alex, his mother having been in a coma though the collapse of the Berlin wall, constructs in her bedroom a mini socialist museum. He tries to ensure that she never has to go though the potentially deadly shock of realizing that the wall has fallen. The fantasy he creates is ironically the mundane. His fantasy protects her from the fantastic: the massive historical and cultural changes around them (pickles from Holland!). But is it simply his fear of shocking her that drives his creation of the fantasy? Or is he driven by guilt as he was the one who had caused her initial heart attack? Just as with "The Fall," the question remains as to who the fantasy is for? Who needs the fantasy? The creator? The listener? Neither of these films answer these questions. Which is just fine. I appreciate that I am left wondering…and imagining.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"We are Wizards" & "Intimate Lighting"

I recently attended a screening of Josh Koury's doc "We are Wizards" at Anthology , thanks to "Wizard's" composer Stan Oh, a familiar face to the patrons of Posteritati (even New Yorkers with the most enviable day jobs have secret "real" jobs and talents). The film does for Harry Potter Fans what the 1997 Doc "Trekkies" did for, well… trekkies. Instead of Star Trek themed dentists, there are 7 year old Wizard Rockers, bloggers turned Potter historians and, of course, Harry and the Potters. On a side note, fellow Anarchist Cinema fans will be pleasantly surprised to see appearances by MIT Media Studies expert Henry Jenkins (author of "What Made Pistachio Nuts").

In finding the perfect double feature pairing for "Wizards," a Trekkie Potter fan mania documentary double feature would be a good, though obvious choice. Riffing on the idea of fandom and obsession another pairing could be Wizards / Les Enfants du Paradis or a Wizards / Diva (recently restored and screened at Film Forum). But "Wizards" although a film about fans is less about the mania and the far out and more about the "normal". Koury does not portray his characters as two dimensional oddballs, he shows them as what they are: regular (often lovable) people who just happen to love Harry Potter.

This nuanced 3D view of the subject is no small feat. In documentaries especially it is easy to fall into the trap of portraying the subject as some kind of exotic other: "Look at him, he's so weird!?!? Isn't this bizarre?!??!." These kinds of films have always made me uncomfortable. It is akin to seeing someone picked on in middle school and not having the power/ courage to do anything about it. Does one laugh? Should one laugh? (check out a film called "The Cruise," a doc about a guide on a gray line tour bus. The film's subject clearly has a few screws loose and the film does a good job of walking the fine line of judging and understanding him. Funny enough, Bennett Miller, the director of the film, went on the write and direct "Capote." Now there is a double feature!)

A good example of films that have made me uncomfortable for all the reasons above is Milos Forman's early film CernĂ½ Petr (Black Peter). Peter, a fictitious character, fails miserably to function in regular daily life. Forman does not try to understand Peter, he is presented as only awkwardness. We see only the sides of him that make us laugh at him. On the flipside, Forman's Czech contemporary, Ivan Passer, in his film "Intimate Lighting" shows us the daily goings on of one family of musicians with a unique warmth. We follow the family, much as a documentary does, from family dinners, to old fashioned exercise routines, to drunken romps and back to family dinners. There are moments where family members behave inappropriately or do things that would, if seen out of context, appear ridiculous and silly, but these are merely moments in a much larger picture. In the last scene (don't worry this won't spoil the film), the family attempts to drink a toast but the drink they are drinking has congealed. They stand there, their heads tilted back, waiting for the pudding like substance to make its way down into their mouths. The audience laughs, but we have grown to love the characters throughout the film and we are not judging. We are merely enjoying another moment with them. The film is not named "Intimate Lighting" by accident, and by the end I felt draped in the slow sunny glow that fills the film. So no, there are no fans, or wizards in "Intimate Lighting," but the two films share a warmth and an understanding that characters are people too.