This great film is attuned to how people remember trauma: that mix of agony, revulsion and shame, cooled ever-so-slightly by time. Its goal is to make a true story from America’s deep past, which of course stands in for millions of similar stories, feel immediate—so that the viewer can go beyond, or beneath, the historical aspects, and understand the lived experience of slavery.
I’ve had such a hard time trying to write about 12 Years a Slave. Considering the criticisms of previous Steve McQueen films and that fact that I have only seen McQueen’s installation work, I felt like I wasn’t truly able to criticize the direction of McQueen.
12 Years aSlave is one of the most powerful and masterful films I have ever seen. Still, I was seeking to express a concern I had while watching the film. There is, in moments, an artful distance (which this article speaks to), that feels similar to the righteousness of the slave owners within the film. Of course, this film attempts to depict a specific, visceral, historical, painful truth. Is my criticism fair when accounting for this? Considering trauma and memory, isn’t this kind of righteousness the most crucial thinking anyone who experiences trauma can see? An absolute truth? Then, still, one must consider the impact on the audience. Does this pain have an impact? Circular thought returns me to the question of subject matter: Shouldn’t we all bare witness to this?
Matt Zoller Seitz’s article has me rethinking about it all over again. A great read.
I might need to write about this film, and all of Shelton’s films, again at some time. What was intended to be an indepth review is really an introduction to my feelings about Shelton’s films. Well, here we are!
Lynn Shelton’s films are difficult to review. It’s difficult to separate my own experiences with her films, and with Shelton, herself, from my experiences of the films. They are quite similar. Let me explain.
It was several years ago that I came across Shelton’s work the way that most people did; I saw Humpday at a film festival, (Traverse City Film Festival, to be specific). It was an uproarious and enjoyable midnight screening, and I was really flabbergasted by Shelton’s ability to reach at the complexities of heterosexual commitment and love. There are strange lines that we draw for ourselves, that are socially expected, and are often drawn along lines of gender.
Not only was I impressed with the subject material discussed in the film, but I was also very invested in the way that Lynn Shelton makes films. Small cast and crew working very closely together to create. While there is still a hierarchy, much of the organization of her productions appears to be closer to horizontal power structures rather than vertical ones.
I had a lot of doubts about my ability to be creative. I emailed Lynn Shelton. I was surprised that she responded, and responded quickly. I was embarrassed as to how present my anxiety was in my letter to her, for I was unaware of this. Lynn was not, she is receptive, something her film work clearly shows. She gave me pointers, told me to breathe, and said I’m doing fine. “Realize that Rome was not built in a day.”
I revisit the emails from time to time, squeamishly. When I heard that “Touchy Feely” was going to be shown at The Music Box as apart of Sundance U.S.A., I got giddy. I built up this idea in my mind that I would be able to meet Shelton, show her how put together I was, and really make a connection with her.
Long story short, I missed a bus, it was a dangerously cold Chicago night in January, and I ran half of the way to the theatre, in an attempt to not miss the film. Lynn was standing in the lobby, eating up popcorn as patrons entered the theatre. I came up to her, covered in snot and out of breath, to thank her. I was embarrassed, yet again.
Lynn Shelton’s films are unique in the way they are viewed. As a theatrical film, they always play more comedically than dramatic. In home viewings, the drama is felt heavier than the comedy. “Touchy Feely” is no exception. In Shelton’s first thoroughly scripted film since her first film, “We Go Way Back,” “Feely” follows three members of the same family as they struggle with their own current crises.
Abby, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, is a masseuse. Her brother, Paul (Josh Pais), is a very anxious dentist. Paul’s daughter, Jenny (Ellen Paige), is ready to start her own life but feels that her Dad can’t live on his own without her help. Following an evening dinner where all of their background concerns are discussed, the characters experience deep, deep problems. Abby is suddenly horrified by skin. Contact frightens her, makes her nauseous. Jenny is deeply lonely, yearns for forward progress in her life, and love (specifically, the love of her aunt’s boyfriend). Paul, in a very different way, becomes an incredible healer at his dentistry office, and becomes locally famous for “curing” patients suffering from TMJ, or Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction.
While the editing of the film connects these events in a mystical way, a sort-of series of transferring energies, the film never commits to that. In fact, what I actually really enjoy about this film, and this will soon sound contradictory, is how natural and loose the narrative ties itself. There are no explanations. We are witnessing the struggles of these three connected characters, two who ache and struggle to move, and one who is moving forward in his life for the first time. The film trusts its audience to come to their own conclusions about what they are witnessing in these characters lives.
While this film allows the audience to create so many connections, the film is also very strictly structured. Checking in with each character begins to feel like clockwork. The logic of the structure is very circular. Admittedly, the film becomes a little predictable and wooden. This is true, at least, until the final act, the majority of which takes place in the perspective of Abby and Paul’s own drug trips, respectively.
Shelton wanted to prove with this film that not only could she make a traditionally scripted film, but one that was more cinematic than her mumble-core origins (something her films have always been above in their narrative depth and character development). In the most beautiful work that her and her long time DP, Benjamin Kasulke, have accomplished, Abby processes her experiences of her first breakup with Adrian (Ron Livingston), who may be real, a figment of her imagination, or something else entirely.
Despite this loose final act, the film closes with the family, whole again, at the dinner table. In a film that gives so much trust in its audience, a truly rare thing, we are left with a film that feels all too pat for what has taken place. While the characters in the film end in better places, emotionally, they haven’t addressed their concerns. And, maybe that is part of the point. Some things cannot be answered. We are filled with this great, impossible doubt, and we must continue to live, to find purpose. The answer to what the film is about might be in the perfect song that is played over the final montage of the film: “Is it a gift or a curse to be found? Is it a burden or a gift to be bound?”
I’m disappointed to see this film has such a small release. But, I also realized the film’s unevenness. In the context of Shelton’s career, it is a very interesting film. On it’s own, it’s worth some wonderful imagery and great performances (And what has to be a Terror Firmer visual gag). It’s currently on demand and will be in select cities starting September 6th.
There a couple films that I saw that I couldn’t quite find the energy or capacity to write a full article about. There’s also one film in particular that I felt simply wasn’t worth the time. Here they are:
Elaine Strich: Shoot Me
Elaine Strich is such a pleasure to watch. Incomparable, uncompromising, fierce. She is sheer force, a wild fire, and incredibly fearful. This film chronicles a year or so in Strich’s life, as she contemplates retirement and seems incapable of letting go of performing, the one thing that seems to make total sense to her.
The description of the film on isotope films’ website describes the film as a series of “stolen moments,” but even in Stritch’s old age, I don’t think she’s ever unaware that the camera is present during this documentary. That’s what makes the more tender moments in the film, especially the events that take places after Stritch has what sounds akin to a minor stroke, so surprising; Eliane Stritch feels comfortable enough with filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa to share a side of her that most people have never seen publicly.
Equal parts touching and uproarious, if you know or like Elaine Stritch, you can’t go wrong with this doc.
Your Day is My Night
Lynne Sachs is a fascinating filmmaker, and it’s important to know about who she is and what she’s doing before seeing her films. Or, maybe it doesn’t matter at all. Maybe it makes her films better not knowing.
Lynne’s site describes her as an experimental documentary filmmaker, and that’s as close to accurate as one can get. Weaving fictional aspects of filmmaking into her documentary work, Sachs work is far from what your average audience would describe as documentary. Your Day is My Night is no different. Telling the stories of Chinese immigrants who live in shift bed apartments with a cast of actors who are all Chinese actors who have lived in shift bed apartments (but not the shift bed apartments shown), improvising from a script that Lynne wrote. As Sachs doesn’t know a word of Chinese, the actors quickly went off book and Lynne didn’t know what she had until post…it’s a hard film to categorize.
I was surprised by the film. The description of the film in the program guide mislead me into believing this film was going to explore the nature of shift bed living, but the film is certainly more about the people that live in shift beds, not the apartments themselves. No historical discussion, no politics with a capital “P”, except the personal politics of space and struggle. And, can we call this documentary? This is certainly a type of truth; a part of truth.
There is a performance piece to the film, and in NYC, there is a live portion of the film that I would love to see. Lynne Sachs is a wonderful person. I sense that she has been misunderstood for most of her life. She had lost her voice prior to the screening, but wanted to speak at length to every question asked and even those that went unasked.
I don’t know. I’m confounded by this film. I recommend Sachs work.
Propaganda presents itself as a smuggled documentary from North Korea. Within this supposed propaganda film, the “North Korean government” details how the United States has successfully brainwashed an entire nation of people and is attempting to bring its brand of mental domination to the rest of the world.
Of course, this film is not from North Korea, and it isn’t good. It plays on your own preconceived notions of North Korea as a country where a poorly produced film would be made (block captions and poor editing, ala tricks in “Borat.”). Even knowing before hand that this film was a mockumentary, I expected this film to give my some sort of insight into North Korea…why, I don’t know. Instead, the film was 80 minutes I really wish I could have back. You ever see something a pot-smoking, illuminati-believing, libertarian posts on their wall on Facebook?
Imagine that over and over again, for eighty minutes. That’s how you win the Founders Prize, essentially Best Film, at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival.
Looking back, can we say that An Inconvenient Truth was a successful film? I remember when the film was released how much discussion it spurred. I was in high school (yeesh). I remember one particular teacher telling me how profound he thought the film to be. He went off his schedule one day to talk to our class about the film. “I’m really gonna try to start doing something about this,” he told us.
That same year, he also spent a day of class telling us how important Kenny Rogers was to him. These two issues appeared to hold equal weight.
I remember seeing An Inconvenient Truth and feeling quite upset. I do believe that climate change is real. I do believe that we need to change our ways to slow the cycle down. I think humans have the ability to make the world a better place, specifically when speaking of climate change. However, I felt Truth was an over-dramatic, simple, offensive film. It spoke down to its audience. The dramatic music was turned up all the way to 11. Information was barely explained. The message was clear: Be afraid and do something.
(Pictured: Director Jacob Kornbluth and Robert Reich)
Jacob Kornbluth’s debut feature and Traverse City Film Festival Audience Award Winner for Best Documentary, Inequality for All, is aggressively modeled after Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim’s film. Replace Al Gore with Robert Reich and replace global warming with income inequality; these are the only real changes. The film is inspired by Robert Reich’s books, course lectures, and career which he has devoted to reducing income inequality. Currently at historic highs, income inequality damages the lives of families worldwide. However, much like Reich’s work, the film focuses on America, and the solutions Reich claims to have and has been preaching about for over twenty years.
What follows is a film that is split up into lecture, graphs, and interviews with Reich. The information is barely dissected. The poor are only brought up twice in the film. Focusing on the importance of the middle class, the film frustrated me. I am on Reich’s side. Much like my experience viewing An Inconvenient Truth, Inequality felt like it was speaking down to me. Unlike Truth, however, the film cuts to millionaires agreeing with Reich’s claim; we can fix this, we should fix this. It isn’t helping the millionaires either! It’s an effective argument: Those who would be seen as the enemy of income inequality are speaking out, too, and they don’t like the way our financial system is working.
Of course, with a film modeled so closely after Truth, I kept asking myself, “Why?” Was An Inconvenient Truth a successful film? And, what makes an activist documentary film successful? I don’t think we are any better off, environmentally, than we were prior to the release of Truth (please correct me if I’m wrong!). While the filmmakers clearly want to help solve the widening inequality gap, I’m not sure if the film, or their new texting program that they are implementing with the release of the film, (see the film’s site for more info), will do much good.
Again, I’m on the side of the filmmakers; I want to see this change. I think it’s important to note that, as Robert Reich says, himself, in the film, Reich has been saying these same things for nearly twenty years. I’m not sure turning his research into a film will make it anymore effective. Palatable, sure, but effective? Not to mention that this film is technically average‑ half of the film involves Robert Reich sitting in a chair talking to the camera, and all of the audio from these segments features a dreadfully irritating high pitch noise that I hope is fixed before the film’s wide release.
All of these things considered, I hope the film is a success, whatever that may mean. To me, this means mobilizing effective change. Putting pressure on representatives to do things for communities that are being damages by poor policy. But, perhaps this overreaches the power of cinema. I do think films can do that, I’m just not sure this one can. A disappointing film that could have been far, far better.
Roger Ross Williams God Loves Uganda was the best and most effective film that I saw at this year’s Traverse City Film Festival. Following individuals in both the United States and Uganda, the film focuses on missionaries belonging to the International House of Prayer. Within recent years, IHOP has been focusing intensely on Uganda, as Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world, with a median age of 15 years. It is a country and a population, in IHOP’s eyes, that is ready to receive their influence.
The culture wars, whether they are viewed as a creation of the media or something very real, have been a losing battle for US conservatives. What Williams film posits, and shows incredibly well, is the Christian Right’s intent on battling for their beliefs in territories outside of the US. Mostly notable is the International House of Prayer’s influence in Uganda, where they are spreading not only their specific brand of Christianity, but pushing the Ugandan government to pass laws that coincide with their beliefs.
One particular bill of great concern is the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Often referred to as the “Kill the Gays” Bill, God Loves Uganda highlights IHOP’s efforts to endorse and pass this bill, for what they believe to be the betterment of all of Uganda. I was surprised at how the film approached the issues presented in the film. In a typical documentary dealing with hate groups of a religious nature, filmmakers turn to scientific sources to dispute the damage done by groups of note. However, in Uganda, the voices of dissent are other religious leaders, and their voices are powerful.
Murdering people because you view them as something other than they are, as somehow sinister and subhuman, which the lgbt community certainly is not, does nothing to make any community better. Yet, IHOP, with its growing global influence, wants to prove that it’s beliefs are the right ones. They are losing their battles in the US. They are the face of globalization in many countries throughout the world. What are we to do as citizens of the world?
God Loves Uganda reveals powerful information and imagery. The film asks powerful questions. It does not look down at its audience, or offer up clean conclusions like Gideon’s Army or Inequality for All (review to come). Roger Ross Williams’ film challenges us all to think, to reflect, and to act on issues that are in motion, today. I couldn’t recommend the film more.
One of the most popular forms of documentary filmmaking involves depicting individuals that are effected by problematic systems. This kind of filmmaking usually involves both factual and emotional arguments. Documentaries like this are successful because they are both deeply personal and informative. This past Wednesday, I saw the films Good Garbage and Gideon’s Army back to back, and the two films provided excellent examples of what makes such documentaries successful.
Good Garbage, directed by Ada Ushpiz and Shosh Shlam, begins in a trash dump. Trash swirls in the wind. The audience sees middle aged men, older men, and children all searching for valuable trash. They exchange the trash for what appears to be very little money. Eventually, as the film progresses, the audience goes from watching this chaotic hunting to focusing on a select few families, each with very unique circumstances, that are all struggling to live off garbage to support themselves. No family wants to, but whether it deals with poverty, illiteracy, or imprisonment, the film attempts to highlight the difficulty of escaping poverty in the Middle East.
This story, on its own, is a compelling one. The issue with Ushpiz’s and Shlam’s delicately told story is the lack of any factual grounding in the film. Were it not for the description provided in the Traverse City Film Festival’s program, I would have never known how powerful and symbolic the garbage dump is. From the program:
Each day, garbage trucks take loads of trash from neighboring Israeli settlements to the landfill on Mount Hebron, where groups of Palestinian men and boys pick through it in search of scrap metal and other recyclables. Two hundred families in the Palestinian village of Yatta unite in this daily struggle to survive off of their neighbors’ garbage.
This knowledge further complicates the imagery in the film. There is never a single piece of information provided as to where the garbage is coming from in the film, or why families have begun to depend on the garbage financially. What is intended to be a powerful story with a unique perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is instead a muted tale of a community’s misfortune.
Shosh Shlam was present for the screening, and she frequently referred to the symbolic power of the garbage dump. The imagery in Good Garbage is powerful, but not effective. Were there more basic information about the dump and the situation in Yatta, I believe the film could be much more powerful. It appears that the filmmakers assume such information is already known. In an ideal situation, it would be, but, these are the kind of stories the world needs to know. We simply do not. And, Good Garbage, on its own, it’s an effective way to tell the story.
The film that I viewed immediately following Good Garbage did everything right that Garbage did wrong. Gideon’s Army follows three public defenders, all apart of a unique mentoring program called Gideon’s Promise (formerly the Southern Public Defender Training Center). Throughout the film, Army relays, through interviews and text on the screen, the difficulties that public defenders must endure in order to defend their clients. All three defenders have well over 100 cases at a time, and the film highlights their struggle to effectively defend their clients and, at times, stay above on a basic human level.
What’s truthfully the most impressive aspect of Gideon’s Army is the access it has within the judicial system. In following all three public defenders, the filmmakers were given access to the courtrooms for hearings, something that is quite rare. The director, Dawn Porter, is a lawyer, herself, and her insider connections were crucial to getting such access.
Where the lawyers in Gideon’s Army don’t provide context, the film does, and this would be crucial to Good Garbage making an effective statement. Gideon’s Army has it’s flaws, too. For me, where Garbage is too ambiguous, Gideon’s Army is too neat, too constructed (Something the PR folks involved with Gideon’s Army didn’t see as a bad thing). The judicial system is broken in all sorts of ways, and public defenders simply cannot be effective when their caseload is as large as it is. Both films deal with the struggles of individuals in poverty, those who cannot speak for themselves.
In Good Garbage, the filmmakers attempt to give them a voice. In Gideon’s Army, it is the public defenders that try to give those who have been handed an unfair hand in life a fair shake in the system. Army ends on a happy note, as if change is coming to the judicial system. I don’t think it’s that simple, and as these films show, the story is always more complex than it appears.
This morning, I’ve hemmed and hawed over whether or not I should begin my coverage of this year’s Traverse City Film Festival with a recap or reviews. As I was unable to review the films as I was going…as I planned to…I’ve decided to start with the reviews. Hope you enjoy!
It is incredibly difficult to present philosophical concepts through the medium of film. I wonder if it is actually possible for a philosophical film to sustain itself for a feature length span of time. Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is yet another example of how a film rooted in theoretical philosophy discussion is simply too dense to remain engaging. At a whopping 136 minute running time, the film becomes exhausting about an hour in. Despite this, there’s still quite a bit I like about The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.
To start, the film begins with one of the most simplistic and effective title sequences in recent memory. In bright, contrasting colors, the title cards reveal one title at a time. The cards slowly crack diagonally in two, just enough to see new colors and titles emerging. As any good title sequence should do, the title cards prepare us for what’s to come.
(Zizek inside of Taxi Driver)
From here, Slavoj Zizek is transported from scene to scene of various films throughout cinema’s history. Zizek, in his own entertaining fashion, discusses the importance of ideology behind the films he’s transported inside of, from The Sound of Music to Titanic. He uses these films as a platform to also discuss ideology in the real world: How one must address ideology, categorize it, critique it, and battle ideology.
While watching this film, I was reminded of Astra Taylor’s Examined Life. Life was a film I saw years ago at the Traverse City Film Festival, and it was easily one of the most exhausting films I had ever seen. Separated into ten minute chunks, a series of philosophers, including Slavoj Zizek, discuss one specific topic of their choosing. While Examined Life wore me down, I thought about it a lot. Years later, when I saw it was available on Netflix Instant, I returned to the film, watching it ten minutes at a time.
(Zizek from his segment in Examined Life. He returns to his same argument in a segment of Ideology)
Over the course of nine days, I found the film to be so much more enjoyable. The film, in the segments that it already divided itself into, is digestible because the audience is able to contemplate the theories posited and dissect what is presented to them. Zizek and Fiennes Ideology is arguably twice as dense as Life, and I kept thinking to myself “Wait, wait, slow down! I need to digest this! What is Zizek really saying!” Like Life Examined, I would really love the opportunity to watch The Pervert’s Guide in segments. I feel it could be far more effective and much easier to understand as a series of shorts or a webseries.
Of course, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology speaks to the effectiveness of cinema hiding ideology, much like the reality in which cinema is often trying to recreate. Would Zizek’s points be as effective if they were easier to understand? Perhaps part of his point is to present his discussion of ideology in the same way cinema presents its own set of ideology. This makes sense, especially as Zizek argues that you can only confront ideology from within. Perhaps we must just settle with this films thick, thick theories. It proves difficult.
(Zizek as a priest. The biggest laugh in the film)
All of this aside, I believe The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is worth the exhaustion. It’s a very compelling film, especially for those who are self-proclaimed cinephiles. Slavoj Zizek’s understanding of cinema is more grounded in reality than, say, Mark Cousins. Prior to Ideology’s screening, I attempted to view some of Cousins’s mini-series, The Story of Film: An Odyssey. I couldn’t begin to describe how disappointed, frustrated, and angry I was with Cousins’s series (and how quickly these feelings arrived!). Cousins’s series presents itself as truth, but is entirely illogical, hyperbolic, and romantic. While there is romanticism in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, there is also grounded logic and well constructed arguments. And the ever present sniffling of Slavoj Zizek; a comforting sound.
My Paternal Grandfather was not a nice man. I learned this as I grew older, the majority of the information coming to me as my grandfather passed away. When I was younger, he would always bring Church’s Fried Chicken to our house for dinner. I later discovered this was not out of the kindness of his heart, but the hatred of the smells my father’s cooking produced. When my parent’s first wed and were considering where to live, my Grandfather vowed never to visit them if they were to get a house in Detroit. They decided to live in Warren.
The day of my Grandfather’s funeral, I remember how pieces of the chandelier consistently clang in the breeze of the incredibly powerful air conditioning. Commenting on the suit my Grandfather wore in his casket, one relative stated, “He was always particular.” This was the nicest thing said at his funeral.
His slow departure from the world was complicated, and something we don’t often talk about in the family. His second wife died from complications of a stroke. At her funeral, he specifically stated he wanted time alone. He would go on to suffer two strokes. There were many instances when I can recall him stating he no longer wanted to live. Yet, he remained. “This is costing too much money,” he would often say. “I don’t need this.”
My mother claims he was waiting for me. The last time I saw him he looked nothing like my Grandfather. He was shriveled, his eyes sunken; his body was barely a reminder of who he was, only that he was a person and barely that. It had been weeks since he refused to continue drinking Vernors (a full, open bottle, was by his bed when I last saw him), and the night after I saw him, he passed in his sleep.
Michael Haneke does an excellent job in Amour reminding you that this film is about being an audience to the decaying world around you; being an audience to death. So much of what made this film powerful for me was hearing so many sobbing audience members. Following the showing, my friends and I were somewhat shaken. We immediately shared stories of our experiences with death. Amour immediately takes you to your own history with death. It is hard to separate yourself from your own history as Emmanuelle Riva gives her all in a breathtaking and heart-wrenching performance that is so accurate to my own memory of my grandfather’s passing.
In Haneke’s typical still, photograph-like presentation, only what is necessary is presented in the film. Sometimes less, and I was often left fascinated and enthralled by what Haneke did not show us. I’m not incredibly familiar with Haneke’s work, but I know he’s been criticized for being emotionally manipulative. In this film, it is certainly not the case. I found it, quite honestly, to be one of the least emotionally manipulative films I have seen.
I’d like to close with discussing the title. Many critics seem to take this film as a presentation of undying, devoted love. I do not see that in this film at all. To me, the film is constantly asking the audience “Is this love?” This is the only way to interpret the film cohesively considering the close of the film. So many characters question each other, their commitment to one another, and if what they are doing is “right” or in line with caring for someone. Again, this took me back to my experience with death. Was it right for us to keep Val in hospice? I truly believe he didn’t want to live. I think we were selfish, as love often is, in keeping him alive. Amour is a powerful examination of what love is, is not, and the damage that love can cause.
(We conclude my brief return to film writing with my favorite film of 2012. Thanks for reading!)
Erik hides in the shadows. Keep the Lights On is quite the perfect title for this quiet, heartbreaking film. Perhaps its because of the title, but I found myself fixated on the lighting in this film. The lighting of the picture is so expressive. We follow Erik (Thure Lindhardt) through a ten year relationship with Paul (Zachary Booth), who frequently struggles with drug and sexual addiction.
The opening sequence, one of the best sequences I’ve seen in quite sometime, also trains us for the picture we’re about to see. Erik fights internally over his feelings and choices. Struggles are always personal, always intimate. Erik is a gentle creature, but he is passionate. Subtle camera movements highlight the small moments in Erik’s life with Paul that amount to something greater, and frequently, something dangerous. It’s fascinating how this film is able to depict a wholeness of a relationship, warts and all, when scenes are frequently incomplete. Beginnings and endings, middles without a beginning. In many ways, this film is like a memory; there is no explanation for Paul’s troubles, nor is there really an explanation for what brings Erik to Paul. They find each other and there we begin.
Through Erik’s perspective, Ira Sachs (Director and Co-Writer with Mauricio Zacharias) does a wonderful job of detailing the struggles of being in a relationship with an addict. The film does not feel exploitative. Early in their relationship, Erik overlooks Paul’s drug use and frequent absence. Erik passionately loves Paul, faults and all. While the film highlights how addiction can damage a whole community, Sachs doesn’t labor the point. This isn’t about fixing a person; this is a film about love. You cannot fix the ones you love. You can only care for them so much that it damages both of you.
What Erik and Paul have is not what you would call a healthy relationship. It is not easy to watch. But, I found myself relating to Erik. I share his longing, his want for intimacy, and sometimes ignoring the problems that come with such desires. I know individuals that have struggled with addiction like Paul. In and out of our lives, in the shadows themselves. The film leaves us without answers. It is just a moment in their lives. Ten years go by in a blink.
“I don’t want to be in the dark with you,” Paul says to Erik. Sometimes its hard to know where the light is.
(Hey, now this is a series of three films! I have yet to see so many quote-unquote important films this year, so this remains influx. But, it will probably just be a series of three. Enjoy!)
Post-modern cinema—films about films—have been so masturbatory. Quentin Tarantino has been at the forefront of the movement (if it can be called such a thing), and filmmakers have been trying to emulate his hip insular filmmaking ever since. Tarantino got it right with Inglorious Basterds, a film that didn’t erase history. Instead, Tarantino played with and critiqued cinema and brought all these elements to something greater. However, most recent films about films, films within films, don’t see much past Tarantino. History is clipped and messages are empty vessels.
Such was the case with Seven Psychopaths. Martin McDonagh’s film is fun enough. I appreciate its attempt at critiquing ensemble action films. However, like most post-modern films, it critiques tropes only to fully submit to them and get away guilt free, or so they think. I am left frustrated.
Holy Motors is not such a film. Denis Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, an actor. Or is he? Transported via limousine from “assignment” to “assignment,” Oscar dons makeup and plays various roles in Paris. There are no cameras, or so it seems, and there are no actors, at least we’re originally led to believe.
You may be done with the film by the time Lavant dons a fake beard and nails, travels through the sewers, and reappears in the Père Lachaise cemetery to kidnap a world famous model played by Eva Mendes, with which he reenacts a problematic beauty and beast scenario. Yet, the longer I sat with the film, the more I fell in love with it.
Unlike most films about film, and this film is very much about the death of cinema, it does not forget that history began before Reservoir Dogs. References to early French cinema, (and intercut with one of the earliest films in history), the film is as much about society’s technological advancement and its interaction with our evolution as much as it is about cinema itself. Because of this, it is not so insular that someone without any film knowledge will go leaving scratching their heads. For the best reasons, this film will leave its audience scratching their heads, regardless of their filmic knowledge. I did so with a smile on my face.
This is a truly agnostic rendition of what Terrence Malick was trying to do with Tree of Life, and it is far more entertaining and rewarding. Here is a film that understands the struggles to be authentic while also understanding that performance is still real and very much part of everyone’s life. In one scene, Lavant plays a dying man. A woman playing his niece weeps for his imminent passing. As he dies with her by his side, Lavant must excuse himself for his next “appointment.” In a bizarrely sweet moment, the two actors thank each other for a wonderful scene. The least authentic moment in this film somehow becomes one of the most poignant. There characters find happiness in their “Assignments,” despite all odds. We are growing old and obsolete. That is not the end, there is still more to be ha.d
One character in the film states, “Beauty? They say it’s in the eye, the eye of the beholder.”
Oscar responds, “And if there’s no more beholder?” An ironic statement, considering where the film begins, in a full theatre. Beauty remains, regardless of a beholder.