Please note: discussions of individual films reveal plot details.
Year after year I find myself frustrated by the New York Film Festival’s extreme selectivity, its policy of showcasing only a handful of films rather than presenting a broad survey. This year, partly to avoid being repetitious, partly because I missed several of the films, I won’t waste too much space reiterating my thoughts on the subject, except to say that it’s not the quality of the films that’s the issue. I personally found very little to justify the inclusion of films like Flower of Evil (Chabrol, 2003), PTU (To, 2003), Stalingrad (Dehnhardt, 2003), and Mystic River (Eastwood, 2003), but I wouldn’t care so much if these films weren’t occupying such fiercely competitive slots, if each film’s place in the Festival didn’t signify the exclusion of so many other worthy films. Many of those I wish I’d been given an opportunity to see, like Oliveira’s Talking Picture (2003), Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World (2003), Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future (2003), and Rivette’s Story of Marie and Julien (2003), may not be masterpieces. But for those of us devoted to world cinema, these movies are important whether or not they are perfectly achieved. The health of an art form is not measured solely by the number of masterpieces it produces, but on the general level of creativity, innovation, and activity. By choosing only a handful of films, the Festival encourages the mentality by which filmgoers see a few foreign movies a year but are not really interested enough to survey the state of cinema as a whole. In a culture with a profoundly limited conception of what movies can be and a stubborn indifference to movies from other countries, the goal should be to demonstrate the breadth, depth, variety, and basic health of cinema across the world.
On its own terms the most remarkable thing about the selection this year was how thematically unified the films happened to be. I’m generally averse to imposing connections on a group of films, but here it’s unavoidable. Rithy Panh’s S21 (2003), Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003), and Gus van Sant’s Elephant (2003) are perhaps the most closely linked, but their determination to investigate the psychological and social roots of murder, or at least indifference to human life, echoes through almost all the films I saw at the Festival. These movies are remarkable for their (generally) clear-eyed, unwavering, tough-minded confrontation with the darkest and most unfathomable of subjects – the capacity of human beings, not only to do evil, but to justify to themselves such acts.
The most difficult and painful of them is the Cambodian documentary S21: Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. The subject of S21 is a Khmer Rouge prison – the director, Rithy Panh, documents the return of two of the tiny handful of survivors of the prison (according to the press notes, all but seven of the 17,000 inmates died there), as well as of several of the prison guards, who acted also as torturers and executioners. The reactions of the prisoners are of course powerful and upsetting, and it’s fascinating to watch them confront their past suffering. But what’s most valuable, and most difficult, about the film are the interactions between the prisoners and their former guards – not only the pain the prisoners feel at re-encountering them, but the opportunity they’re given to question, to accuse, to damn, but also to struggle to understand how these men were able to sacrifice their own humanity, to take lives so easily. The guards’ presence accounts for the tremendous power, and also the deep frustration, of S21. Panh records the conversations between the prisoners and the guards, as the latter make halting attempts to explain their actions (explanations which are destined to be unconvincing and unsatisfying), but he also devotes a great deal of the film to their reenactments of their daily routines as guards. There’s something deeply chilling about these passages, a sense that this is as direct a connection to true evil as a film can come. The guards come to dominate the film more and more, as if Panh wants to keep them on-screen as long as possible, to give us more time to observe them, to search for answers which will never emerge. These men, who betray no visible signs of villainy or wickedness, have committed unspeakable acts, and reflect as we might, this fact never quite seems real to us – it becomes harder and harder to connect their actions to their appearances.
Like last year’s Blind Spot (Heller/Schmiderer, 2002), a feature-length interview with Hitler’s secretary which would’ve fit in perfectly in this year’s selection, S21 is an act of bearing witness, an unadorned, intensely focused confrontation with an attempted genocide, and the people involved. The strength of films like Blind Spot or S21 (or, of course, the films of Claude Lanzmann) is their studious, highly purposeful, above all ethical refusal to indulge in self-conscious cinematic strategies – they concentrate all their energies on purging themselves of any vestiges of drama or self-expressiveness. Panh fully understands that the seriousness and importance of his subject demand that he efface himself as much as possible, that his responsibility is simply to ensure that nothing should stand between us and what he is documenting – any appeal on an aesthetic level would be distracting at best, offensive at worst. When one of the former guards returns to the execution site and reenacts, step-by-step, his daily routine of striking the prisoners on the back of the head with a steel pipe and then cutting their throats, all Panh can do, and all he does do, is let the camera make a record of it. This principled restraint makes S21 a profoundly important film.
Elephant and S21 stand in a fascinating relationship to each other – to compare them is to enter into an aesthetic and ethical thicket almost as dense and tangled as the moral one at the heart of so many of these films. Similar to S21 in its single-minded concentration on acts of unspeakable violence and its acknowledgment of the intellectual impotence inevitable in the face of such moral desolation, Elephant is, however, a fictional construct, not a documentary, a distinction that has crucial repercussions on the way it functions. A recent convert to the cinematic approach of Béla Tarr – a cinema of long-takes, fluid, often inexorable camerawork, flexible chronology, and multiple points of view – van Sant structures Elephant as the day in the life of a high school, but a day destined to end in violence. He gives us an intimate yet detached glimpse into the lives of several of the school’s students, following closely as they make their way through the day, intersecting with others, before jumping to another student’s perspective during the same period of time. It’s a hypnotic, compelling approach, and van Sant certainly captures the experience of high school with an authenticity and a palpable sense of presence that few films can claim. But Elephant is basically a long, foreboding, queasy countdown to a final passage of unspeakable horror, a passage presented with the same detachment and the same sense of presence as everything that has come before. It’s powerful, to be sure – watching helplessly as these kids are murdered one after another, you experience the violence with an intensity and dread few films have achieved. But I think the value of representing something like this on-screen is questionable.
I don’t question van Sant’s genuine interest in confronting the phenomenon of high-school shootings, of facing up to an unpleasant reality and contemplating it. But unlike Rithy Panh, he doesn’t seem to understand his own ethical responsibility in portraying such horror. The appropriation of Béla Tarr’s cinematic style, besides being derivative, is terribly inappropriate to the nature of the subject. It gives us a palpable sense of being present, which is clearly what van Sant desires, but it also aestheticises the material, calling attention to the filmmaker’s artfulness, in a way that sits badly. The long, unbroken shots of the students walking through the school put us on intimate terms with them, but they also register as tour-de-force achievements; and the overlapping continuities similarly advertise van Sant’s resourcefulness, precisely where it’s crucial to concentrate our attention entirely on the content of the film. When van Sant introduces us to a new character during the massacre, a silent, seemingly fearless black student who wanders through the halls searching for the gunmen, and who manages to sneak up on one of them only to be shot down just moments before springing into action, it feels like the kind of manipulative suspense more appropriate to a conventional action movie. And while it’s easy to criticise as obvious the scenes in which the eventual killers shoot down human targets on their gameboys or watch a TV program on Nazi propaganda as they unpack a mail-order gun, details which may not be especially perceptive but may very well be accurate enough, to my mind the more dubious decision is to end the film with a beautiful shot of rolling clouds overlaid by a soundtrack of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, a final image that provides a kind of safe, comfortingly artful refuge to the viewer.
The clash between van Sant’s mode of filmmaking and his subject is infinitely more interesting, though, than the similar dynamic in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. It would be wrong to dismiss Mystic River entirely. The story of three childhood friends, grown distant in adulthood, whose lives become re-intertwined through the murder of one of their daughters, portrays a recurring cycle of violence and hatred – a grim story which only gets grimmer. It’s strong stuff, in other words, and in the context of ever-squeamish Hollywood, this is a plus. Its greatest quality is its utterly unsentimental, understated portrayal (in a film in which very little is understated) of lapsed childhood friendship – perhaps the film’s only major aspect to partake more of human experience than of Hollywood convention. These men grew up together but have drifted far apart, and Eastwood makes it very clear that their shared childhood results in a certain familiarity but not in any kind of affection or comfort – that these men have known each other all their lives, that they have shared formative experiences, only means that the resentment, and even hatred, that exists between them has had plenty of time to grow and fester. This may well be as unsentimental a portrait of life-long friendship as any in American movies.
Eastwood’s resolve in refusing to soften the darkness of his material is admirable; but he’s able to do so only in terms of a cinematic sensibility that undercuts this integrity at every step. His utterly conventional approach to telling a story smothers every moment that threatens to break through into truly affecting emotional territory. And while the actors are all skilled, theirs is the kind of acting that’s all effect, all surface contortion, that signals human feeling and psychology rather than truly communicating it. In any case, any power and authenticity Mystic River has built up is utterly squandered in its last half-hour, an orgy of narrative contrivance, emotional manipulation, and thematic incoherence that qualifies as perhaps the most dramatic fifth-act botch in recent memory. Sacrificing all in the name of plot twists and cheap irony, Mystic River sells itself out almost totally before whimpering to a close.
Fog of War is concerned with many of the very same issues as S21. Its subject however is not a group of state prison-guards, but a single man, Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of State under JFK and Johnson, and therefore a man whose relationship to institutionalised murder is entirely different. McNamara is a statesman, a man who makes national policy, not who carries it out. To call him a murderer or an evil-doer is to court controversy, but he himself observes, in the film, that he could be seen as a war-criminal. A feature-length conversation with McNamara, Morris’ film is a similarly direct confrontation with a man responsible (though not solely) for a far greater number of deaths than any of the prison guards in S21, but who is far more removed than they from the literal act of killing. In contrast to S21, though, the killing involved here is not the universally decried murder of one’s own people, but the more complex, ambiguous, and socially accepted case of war. In any case, it’s unquestionable that McNamara’s conscience is far from clear, as he admits freely: “Any military commander, if he’s being honest with himself, will have to admit that he’s made mistakes, that he’s killed people out of errors of judgment”. The fascination of Fog of War, more than its historical testimony (which is often of great value), lies in this exploration of how a man who has caused death on a great scale justifies, accounts for, and lives with his actions. It’s something that was a part of S21, but here the figure is of greater importance and his relationship to his actions takes centre stage. McNamara’s testimony is interesting because in some ways he is remarkably forthcoming and honest, making his ultimate refuge in tried and true evasions stand out all the more clearly.
On the one hand, McNamara acknowledges the impossibility of commanding without making mistakes, and gives a remarkable account of General Lemay’s policy (to which he contributed) of cluster bombing cities all over Japan, destroying many of them almost entirely and causing a massive loss of civilian life, concluding that according to Lemay, “if we’d lost, we’d be prosecuted as war criminals; and I think he was right. Lemay, and I, were acting like war criminals”. It’s to his own credit, and the film’s, that this unexpected self-appraisal concerns a war normally thought of as the definition of a morally justified one (at least until the use of the atomic bombs). When it comes to Vietnam though his testimony is more unsurprising. He concedes that mistakes were made, but he thinks of them only as strategic mistakes, errors in judgment, not as morally questionable. Fog of War ends, in a postscript recorded over the phone some time later, with an exchange that goes a long way towards encapsulating McNamara’s character and personality. When Morris presses him to expound on his responsibility in Vietnam, McNamara hesitates. Morris asks, “Is it a matter of, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t?” To which McNamara responds, “Yeah, that’s right. And I’d rather be damned if I don’t” – a response as witty, honest, and intelligent, but ultimately as evasive as McNamara himself. The film itself shares some of this quality – Morris presses McNamara to account for his role in the conflict, but, following the lead of more than three decades of “liberal” media coverage, there is never any serious discussion or questioning of the motives behind the US’s involvement in Vietnam, of the morality or legality of the venture in the first place; only of the handling of the war. There’s no investigation, in other words, into truly troubling, challenging territory.
Fog of War is of great interest because of McNamara’s importance and because of the inherent complexity of the subject, but Morris’ treatment of his material is the antithesis of Panh’s in S21 – his visual style and cinematic instincts consistently undermine the subject of the film. His is a TV ad aesthetic, reducing everything to glib, redundant visual illustration or distracting stylistic flourishes. Filming the interview itself, Morris often relegates McNamara to the far corner of the frame, tilting the camera in a desperate attempt to create a dynamic composition. During discussions of power struggles and changing tides of war, we actually see dominos falling in slow motion across a map of Southeast Asia. And far more unforgivable is his insistence on cutting freely within McNamara’s responses, sometimes as much as three or four times during a single sentence. The sad thing about all this is that Morris undoubtedly intends these gimmicks to help hold our attention. But they have exactly the opposite effect, distracting us from McNamara’s words and gestures, and preventing us from engaging with him fully.
The third documentary in the Festival, the German-produced four-hour Stalingrad, directed by Sebastian Dehnhardt, naturally covers similar territory, though it concentrates less on the architects of that devastating battle than on the experience of fighting it. The film records in great detail the sufferings of the soldiers on both sides of the battle, but especially the Germans, who by the end of the nearly six month long conflict were dying at a rate of a thousand a day, as a result of enemy fire, freezing temperatures, or starvation, and who were finally reduced to cannibalism. Towering over all this suffering is the figure of Hitler – Stalingrad is a document of an atrocity less familiar to us than those inflicted on the Jews, the gypsies, or the invaded peoples, this one directed at his own soldiers. Sacrificing hundreds of thousands of his own men unnecessarily, for the sake of the prestige at stake in taking the city bearing his enemy’s name, Hitler ignored all testimony and entreaty. One officer interviewed here tells of being allowed an audience with Hitler, who listens quietly and patiently for three hours as he gives report of the horrors at Stalingrad and pleads with him to surrender, only to dismiss him in the end and ignore his advice, his mind long since made up.
Insofar as the filmmakers of Stalingrad ask us to contemplate the nature of Hitler’s actions, a man in a position, both structurally and psychologically, to take lives even more easily than McNamara, it’s a fascinating complement to Fog of War. It’s a counterpoint in terms of documentary technique as well, for better or for worse. Stalingrad‘s approach undermines its material just as surely as does Fog of War‘s, although in a very different way. They fall into opposite pitfalls of documentary filmmaking – where Fog of War bends over backwards trying to hook us, Stalingrad stuffs its subject into a tired, utterly conventional mould. A film like S21 seems to have no style, but that’s not to say that it’s artless – it’s simply that its art is aimed solely at effacing itself, at conveying its substance most directly and honestly. This means avoiding obvious, superficial artifice, as well as rejecting all the meaningless, soothing conventions of the Ken Burns-History Channel style of documentary filmmaking, an approach that reduces all of history to a television program, a chapter in an ongoing, inconsequential soap-opera. This sort of film turns living, breathing history into something remote and unthreatening.
Bright Leaves (2003), Ross McElwee’s latest feature-length film essay, wouldn’t seem to have much to do with these far more weighty, sober-minded films, but funny and fleet as it is, it is in part a compelling investigation into the deadliness of tobacco, and an exploration into the psychology of those otherwise decent, thoughtful people who grow, package, and market it. Without overstating it, there’s a sense in which the tobacco farmer who McElwee films talking with pride about his tobacco farms fits in comfortably with the guards in S21 and with McNamara. There’s unquestionably a crucial distinction between cutting people’s throats or authorising bombings on civilians and peddling cigarettes, but just how great or small a distinction that is, is debatable. The tobacco farmer’s moral culpability is far more banal and unspectacular, but it’s for just this reason that Bright Leaves is a fascinating companion film to S21 and The Fog of War – they each stake out a different part of the same territory.
Tobacco is only one strand in a film exhilarating for being so multi-faceted. McElwee brilliantly weaves a number of apparently unrelated themes and stories into a whole that has the exhilarating richness, breadth, and comic-invention of a Chris Marker essay-film or the uncategorisable books of W. G. Sebald, albeit with a distinctively American (and Southern) sensibility. Bright Leaves is ostensibly a film about McElwee’s decision to revisit his home state of North Carolina, in search of a “transfusion of Southerness”, as he puts it. But given McElwee’s brand of first-person cinema, what we get is no straightforward, reality-TV-like record of his visit home, but rather a highly subjective, freely discursive, yet tightly interwoven mosaic of thematic strands, interviews, spontaneous interactions (always with McElwee safely behind the camera), caught moments, and old footage, all held together by McElwee’s witty, searching, self-deprecating, perceptive narration. The catalyst for the film is McElwee’s discovery of a largely forgotten Michael Curtiz film called Bright Leaf (1950), allegedly based on the life of his great-grandfather, a tobacco manufacturer driven out of the trade by the more powerful, and far more famous, Duke family. But his research into this film, which he regards as a “surreal home movie”, leads to a profusion of related themes, not least the passing of time, the aging of his own family, his obsession with filming, the importance to him of his birthplace, and finally the crucial and troubling role that tobacco plays in not only the economy but the history and culture of North Carolina.
All these themes come across eloquently and movingly, and McElwee’s skill at interweaving them is breathtaking, as is his mastery of tone, his confidence in balancing the most serious of subjects with a gentle but sharp sense of humour. But if tobacco is no more prominent a theme than the others, it’s what gives the film its sense of gravity, allowing it to expand beyond the limited scope of McElwee’s personal experiences and preoccupations. Bright Leaves is not a didactic or preachy film – McElwee’s intention is not to judge self-righteously but to identify the tragic paradox of a state like North Carolina, where something as destructive as tobacco plays a role in the life of the people which is also highly positive and important – it is not simply a product or even a crucial part of the economy, but a way of life, a tradition, a cultural presence. Its importance in many people’s lives emerges most powerfully in an interview with the daughter of a prominent tobacco farmer, still devastated by her mother’s death by lung cancer, who movingly voices her sorrow before flatly proclaiming, “Tobacco had nothing to do with her death – it has nothing to do with people dying”. A more concise expression of the human capacity for denial would be hard to imagine. There’s no question that any moral culpability attributable to this woman is in no way comparable to that of the executioners in S21 or of Robert McNamara, but this mechanism by which she is able, psychologically, to render her reality morally simple and untroubling sheds light on what must be similar mechanisms in their minds.
Marco Bellochio’s Good Morning, Night (2003), an investigation into the psychology of a group of leftist revolutionary terrorists in Italy, in particular the Red Brigade members who kidnapped and eventually executed Italian president Aldo Moro in 1978, focuses on Chiara (Maya Sansa), the one female member of the group, and observes the process by which this mechanism of moral simplification and denial increasingly fails her. The lover of one of the other members, and a young, upper-middle class, well-educated woman, her presence in the group seems as much a result of circumstance and confusion than of conviction. And her role – it is her responsibility to keep up a conventional public profile – ensures that she continues to engage with the world at large, unlike her fellow revolutionaries whose reality shrinks to exclude all but their own beliefs and convictions. Torn between an intense and passionate political devotion to the group’s cause (along with a terrible feeling of guilt at the thought of betraying it) and a deepening moral unease, it is precisely her inability to shut off her moral instincts that dooms her as a revolutionary. In the context of S21, The Fog of War, and Elephant, Good Morning, Night is interesting for addressing yet another category of violence – not mass repression, war, or individual murder, but violence as a tool of revolutionary politics. However problematic the concept of murder as a revolutionary tactic, the protagonists of Good Morning, Night are acting in the name of a cause, out of dedication to a vision of social justice rather than a thirst for power or national dominance. In this light, it’s a frustrating film in many ways – a movie about revolutionaries that is itself disappointingly polished and cinematically conventional (the fact that it was funded by RAI, the Italian state-run television station, is clearly significant). This is a paradox that’s increasingly difficult to resolve at this historical moment though, when the idea of a revolutionary cinema is largely a thing of the past. And in any case, Bellochio’s purpose here is not to make a political statement, but to demonstrate the necessity of numbing one’s moral instincts in order to commit murder, no matter how laudable the motivation.
The issue of motivation is the driving force of Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold (2003), a film that opens with a botched jewellery store robbery and resulting murder, and then backtracks to trace the events leading up to it. Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin), a war veteran making a living in Tehran as a pizza deliveryman, is driven to crime by his sense of powerlessness and social humiliation in a city with a profound and highly visible gulf between rich and poor. Despite this ostensible concern with the causes of crime, however, the link between Crimson Gold and so many of the other Festival films is tenuous, if only because this aspect of the film is its weakest and most conventional. Panahi’s social observation is sharp and revealing, but there’s something derivative about the film’s structure and its restrictively sociological approach to its protagonist (the film sometimes traps him just as surely as society does). Panahi’s two previous films, The Mirror (1997) and The Circle (2000), concerned themselves equally with social pressure, but they concentrated more on conveying the experience of living in such a society than on providing concrete explanations for its characters’ actions.
As it goes on, though, Crimson Gold comes more and more to resemble these more ambiguous, loosely structured films. Panahi’s strength lies well outside the demands of narrative – he’s at his best when he frees himself from the linear march of events and lets himself sink into a situation – and if he’s saddled himself here with a relatively constrictive narrative, he increasingly shrugs it off. The high points of the film are two extended passages in which Panahi leaves any hint of forward narrative movement almost entirely behind. The second, in particular, goes on so long it ends up overwhelming the film. This scene, which must last almost half an hour, begins with Hussein delivering a pizza to the spoiled, obnoxious adult son of a fabulously wealthy family. The man, lonely and so spoiled that he’s oblivious to the disparity in class between himself and this deliveryman, invites him into his luxury apartment in the penthouse of a towering building and tells him to make himself at home, an instruction Hussein gradually takes more and more literally. Panahi’s emphasis on this scene is not insignificant – the suggestion is that after this intimate look at a lifestyle so inaccessible to him, there is no turning back for Hussein. But nevertheless, Panahi stays in this apartment so long, watching Hussein, who is more than a little eccentric, shower, shave, wander around the apartment, and eventually go for a swim in the indoor pool, that the film comes to a complete stop. This passage takes on a weight and a presence that resists any sort of narrative movement or simplistic social or psychological hypothesising – dramatic structure falls away almost entirely and the film partakes of the formlessness, and the pulse, of lived experience. In a sense, Crimson Gold is like a laboratory experiment, comparing and contrasting two different ways of conveying a character’s life. In the more conventional parts of the film, we can feel Panahi’s mediating intelligence from moment to moment, organising and commenting on Hussein’s life. In this final scene, this mediation is minimal – the scene is so long and the emphasis so even that we feel almost as if there were no director, as if we are merging with the character. In much of Crimson Gold, Panahi seems stuck in a familiar, restrictive groove, but in these two dominant scenes he jumps the track, and finds himself in boundless, infinitely promising territory.
Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003) is very much of a piece with these other films in a certain sense, as an investigation into human beings’ capacity for cruelty and exploitation, their thirst for power, and their talent for self-justification. But Dogville is a slippery, prankish film. Always the provocateur, von Trier consistently operates with the audience’s, and the critics’, reactions in mind. In the eyes of many critics (myself included), von Trier has developed into a manipulative, cynical, unchallenging filmmaker. Dogville, though, is undeniably remarkable. As I see it, it is both a parody of his own movies and, ultimately, a bold, comic answer to his detractors. For most of its three-hour length, it looks like an even more than usually insufferable tale of an innocent, saintly woman suffering at the hands of a cruel world. Set in a tiny Rocky Mountain town, the film chronicles the appearance of a beautiful outsider, Grace (Nicole Kidman), on the run from gangsters, who is taken in and protected by the town (which has only 15 or so residents). The townspeople are initially suspicious and fearful of Grace, convinced to help her only by the efforts of Tom (Paul Bettany), a local do-gooder. They come to like and accept her briefly, but it is only a matter of time before the power which by definition they have over Grace corrupts their relations with her; before, in other words, the true baseness of their natures rears its ugly head. As in Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), von Trier’s conception of human nature has no force thanks to his crude rigging of the game and his utterly simplistic characterisations. Dogville shows, or seems to show, his faults at their worst – not only is Grace eventually martyred, she is literally shackled with ball and chain, and raped on a nightly basis by the townsmen.
Dogville is not what it seems, though (stop reading if you haven’t seen it yet). At the last minute, it takes an abrupt and utterly unexpected turn that casts everything we’ve seen in a new light. As Grace apparently meets her doom, only to gain, and use, the kind of power over her tormentors that they have thus far had over her, it becomes clear that the film has played a brilliant joke on us – that what seemed like unselfconscious excess was in fact straight-faced self-parody, and that the sadly typical von Trier heroine is in fact triumphantly the opposite. As a practical-joke it packs a tremendous punch; its deeper value is harder to judge. But this last-second twist is more than simply a stunt, I think – it forces us to rethink everything that has come before, to recognise that the film is operating in a more satirical, perhaps even allegorical mode, than has been apparent. It’s every bit as provocative as his other films, but it’s a different kind of provocation than usual, and perhaps a more complicated, fruitful, or at least novel one.
Three other films in the Festival had certain thematic affinities to these others, but had more in common with each other. Distant (2003), Raja (2003), and Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) all share a preoccupation with the daily struggle against depression, emptiness, insecurity, and disconnection – above all, with simple human loneliness.
Distant, by the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, calls to mind the films of Otar Iosseliani or Elia Suleiman, or perhaps even Tsai Ming-liang, in its studied detachment and its mixture of deep sadness and deadpan comedy. Beautifully directed and acted, it sometimes threatens to resemble these films too much, but is saved by its distinctively unpleasant, mean-spirited protagonists – Yusuf (Emin Toprak), a lazy, unmotivated man come from the country to Istanbul looking for work, and his photographer cousin, Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir), who puts him up but can barely conceal his loathing for him (and for all other people). Above all, this is an utterly unromantic, biting portrait of a misanthrope (Mahmut), and the strength of the film lies in Ceylan’s fearlessness in putting such an unlikable, black-hole of a man at the centre of his film. Mahmut has no warmth left in him whatsoever; deeply alone and miserable, we feel sympathy for him but never affection. The key moment, all the more powerful for being so casual, comes when Mahmut, driving back from a photo shoot, stops the car briefly, overcome by the beauty of a particular spot in the landscape. For a fraction of a second he considers photographing it, but the emotion passes almost instantly and he mutters “Why bother?” before driving on – an unforgettable portrait of a man lost to anger and joylessness (if there’s any connection between Distant and the other films I’ve discussed, it’s that this seems like just the kind of psychological state that might easily result in the sort of cruelty and inhumanity that they portray). Ceylan’s comic sensibility makes Distant far from unpleasant to watch (it’s often extremely funny), but this underlying sadness seeps through every moment, a sadness that stubbornly resists the catharsis of sentimentality.
The protagonists of Jacques Doillon’s Raja are equally memorable, unfamiliar, and beautifully drawn. The film itself is unspectacular but note-perfect – it displays a distinctively French frankness about matters sexual, social, and psychological, matters usually glossed over if not ignored in American films, as well as a similarly French sensitivity to the way men and women interact. Raja (Najat Benssallem) is a young but sadly experienced Moroccan girl, a sometime prostitute who works more legitimately as a gardener at the well-appointed home of Fred (Pascal Greggory), a much older Frenchman who develops an instant attraction to her and sets about seducing her almost immediately. This is far from the kind of arty romance, or perhaps male fantasy, it may sound like – from the very beginning, Doillon fully and realistically confronts the disparity in age, culture, class, and language separating Fred and Raja. The film is exhilaratingly complex, clear-eyed, and messy, allowing its central characters a relationship that involves genuine pursuit of love, but harbouring no illusions about all the other factors, financial and sexual above all, which doom it. Raja and Fred carry the film equally, but it is perhaps Fred who is the most memorable. Sleazy and exploitative on the one hand, miserably sad, emotionally needy, and self-hating on the other (observing Raja at one point, he says “She’s a confirmation of life, the opposite of me”), he’s charming, monstrous, and pitiable all at once. Everything about the film rings true, including its formlessness. There’s no linear shape to events, no clean resolution – power shifts back and forth between them, endlessly, exhaustingly, and when the film finally draws to a close, it’s on a moment that feels dramatically right without suggesting in any way that the cycle has played itself out.
Tsai Ming-liang’s films have all concerned themselves principally with loneliness, with his characters’ (usually vain) desires to connect with others. What Time Is It There? (2001) broadened the scope of his universe – both geographically, by taking place in Paris as well as his usual Taipei, and thematically, by focusing on cinema itself, represented by Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and a cameo by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Goodbye Dragon Inn is both an expansion and a contraction of the previous film (they are separated by a short, The Skywalk is Gone , which, from the sounds of things, might make for an interesting transition between the two). Reversing the trend of What Time Is It There? by focusing not only on Taipei alone, but on a single building, a dilapidated and soon-to-be defunct movie theatre, Goodbye Dragon Inn follows on the earlier film by focusing even more intently on the subject of the movies. A lament for the passing of this particular theatre, and by extension of a vanished experience of movie-going, Goodbye Dragon Inn observes the gestures towards connection, both emotional and sexual, of a small cast of characters during a screening of King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1966), on a quiet, rainy night. Even more radically non-narrative than his previous films, with almost no dialogue, no camera movement, and a minimum of shots, Goodbye Dragon Inn creates a world whose reality is highly ambiguous. Opening with a shot of Dragon Inn playing to a packed audience, the theatre is from then on nearly abandoned; and as the film ends, those few spectators have disappeared, vanished into thin air. It is, in other words, a ghostly, mysterious film, a movie that consists of memories and moods rather than a coherent reality. On first viewing I found it sometimes frustratingly over-extended. I’ve always loved Tsai’s static, minimal style, but here for the first time I often found myself losing interest in his compositions before they were over. I can’t wait to see it again, though – it’s a remarkably bold, exhilaratingly experimental piece of work in any case, and there is at least one shot that is revelatory. When the film ends, the crippled janitor of the theatre, the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, turns on the lights and cleans the theatre, and Tsai holds this long, wide shot for a breathtakingly long time (almost five minutes, I believe). At first it taxes your patience, but as it goes on and on, much longer than it has any right to, your experience of it changes – you are forced to redefine its meaning and function, as you move through several layers of perception. By the time the shot comes to a close, it has taken on a remarkable weight and density, almost as if it’s a physical object, and you have come to feel that Tsai is testing an outer limit of the cinema, pushing it to transport us in a way most movies never conceive of.
The Festival featured a sidebar consisting of a complete retrospective of Yasujiro Ozu’s (extant) films, a section that would’ve overshadowed even a far superior main selection, and a weekend of avant-garde films (most of which I missed), including a wonderful program of newly compiled films by Jonas Mekas – short, modest little films of great beauty – as well as a screening of Ken Jacobs’ humongous, ever-changing and expanding Star Spangled to Death (1957-2003) (I had to miss this six-plus-hour version, although I saw a three hour version earlier in the year that was astounding).
For all my misgivings about the Festival in general, there was something satisfying about the thematic cohesiveness of the films this year (at least of those I saw), a sense that the selection itself had a shape and a meaning. I don’t care to speculate too deeply about the possible reasons for this unity – certainly issues of violence, terror, abuse of power, exploitation, and atrocity are very much part of the political and social climate these days, but when are they not? Fog of War has of course a special (and unforeseen) relevance to recent events of international concern; and Elephant is very much a response to a terrible sickness in American culture. But most of the other films are relatively detached from the tumult and urgency of current events, although their subjects’ are ever topical. It may be that there is a deepening unease in many parts of the world, a fear of moral disintegration. But the testimony of these films, taken together, is that such disintegration is a constant danger, common throughout history, and that it is always crucial to investigate the social and psychological sources of cruelty and violence, to confront rather than ignore it.