For folks in the second most isolated capital city in the world, the Revelation Perth International Film Festival (affectionately abbreviated to Rev) is instrumental every year in exposing the locals to the different sides of a multifaceted indie film world. More focused on person-pleasing than crowd-pleasing, Rev’s line-up for its 21st year was once again filled with works tailor-made for an array of different movie-goers with different sensibilities, which may explain a disparity in quality between these individualistic works in the programme. Strikingly identical in structure and purpose, the documentaries were as illuminating as they were clearly glorifying, no matter how familiar you were with their subjects. Though as Rev tends to put value in the auteur spirit with their programmed features, their quality was a little more straight-forward to gauge — all I had to do was see who the director was.
Following We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and Morvern Callar (2002), films that make the most of the medium to demand a visceral reaction through their unorthodox assembly, Lynn Ramsay’s spare output seems to distil all the raging ideas in her head into concise stories that are expanded upon through her palpable style. You Were Never Really Here (2017) continues her tradition of utilising both vision and sound to support the story, not the other way round as the majority of TV-esque films now aspire towards, making her cinematically strong presence in the today’s world of films a refreshing one. You Were Never Really Here indulges in an eagerness for contradictory pacing: tautly powering through our anti-hero Joe’s (Joaquin Phoenix) brutal acts of vigilantism and cutting leaps ahead of itself at a time through the more grisly moments, before allowing for a drastically longer amount of breathing room when we’re shown Joe feeling the world that he’s in. This is most memorably evident when Joe confronts two hit-men in his home — cutting through the violent moments and letting the emotional aftermath linger — which also centres the film in on its aggression-compassion duality that divides Joe’s heart. Ramsay, Phoenix, and composer Jonny Greenwood each get equal share in pushing the existential anxiety (as the title suggests) into unbearably discomforting regions. They make a hard pill of a tale easier to swallow with their assured cinematic grandness that allows this skeletal story of vigilantism to lessen dramatically in predictability the further it reaches its conclusion. This team of storytellers and mood-crafters are working at full capacity to elevate this hellish story to heavenly heights.
More Phoenix goodness accompanied by long-winded titles were present with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (Gus Van Sant, 2018), which cemented Phoenix’s effortlessly malleable screen presence through this festival alone. Against the misguidedly stoic and stone-like Joe in Ramsay’s film, Phoenix here is existentially elastic, surrendering himself to whichever higher power can best alleviate his woes, whether it be booze, spirituality, or drawing. Playing alcoholic-paraplegic-cartoonist (in that order) John Callahan, Phoenix threads along this calamitously assembled biopic, stopping it from falling over itself, along with help from one of Jonah Hill’s more sedated performances as his financially privileged twelve step coach. Van Sant’s new film crosses over between various timelines of Callahan’s life at a near dizzyingly rate (there may’ve been flashbacks within flashbacks?), but this approachable tale of overcoming addiction emerges more clearly when the story’s through-line reigns itself in. This solid core of the film makes it an unsappy and entertainingly earnest exposé of the two-punch tragedy that is Callahan’s alcoholism and paraplegia, which partially makes up for the more expendable aspects that don’t add to this scrappy equation. Primarily this includes Rooney Mara’s confusing love interest who seems engineered to instantly fall in love with a recently crippled John, and the framing narrative of John giving a speech about his life-story to an auditorium of adoring fans, which fails to help establish his idiosyncratic fame. Van Sant would strike very few as a filmmaker to use such a disparate assembly of this man’s life, given that his oeuvre can be so linear. Structuring Callahan’s life as such highlights the regrets and the self-forgiveness that he feels throughout the years of being a young fuck-up, and that can at least be acknowledged in Don’t Worry’s amiable, but sloppy sequencing that proves Van Sant is a filmmaker who continues to experiment, even if there is a sense of the director trying out new strategies through films like these.
Returning to long-form feature filmmaking eight years after the acclaimed Winter’s Bone (2010), Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2018) is just as damp as her predecessor in tonal and literal atmosphere, though is likely to similarly reach fans with its subtle emotional centre and understated, yet very alive leading performances (its star Thomasin McKensie could very much be touted as the next Jennifer Lawrence). Tackling themes of home and homelessness in a similarly cold American environment as Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace is a profound, yet meandering journey, painted with the dense textured greens of thick Oregon forests that may remind some viewers of cinematic broccoli. Following exiles Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (McKensie) through a series of legal misadventures as they attempt to live primitively in government-owned forests, this loose and airy slice-of-life story will be rewarding or infuriating depending on what you’re after in a story: most conflict points that arise for this father-daughter team fizzle out naturally as they always keep a cool head with any obstacles they face, even it’s between themselves. The film’s title may expose itself to a cheeky pun about its resonating power, but Leave No Trace succeeds in marking its footprint with its cinematic prowess and careful handling of ethereal plot-points, though the emotional power of this big-screen little-story is reaching through a very thin funnel to the audiences’ hearts. It’s a more memorable and less stodgy experience than Granik’s overpraised tiresome predecessor from eight years ago, but this viewing experience is equal parts gruelling and rewarding, perhaps rendering it a worthwhile one-time watch.
The spotlight moment of the festival was the presentation of three classic films of Hal Ashby, in celebration of the release of the retrospective documentary Hal (Amy Scott, 2017). Ashby was one of the great counterculture directors because of how much he honed in on the humanitarian aspect of the movement, rather than focusing solely on the culture’s popular topics such as sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. He exemplified his ethos most directly and simply in The Last Detail (1973) and Being There (1979), which were given two screenings each in Luna Leederville’s new Red cinema (the perfect cinema if you’re sitting right in the middle). It was these two films that showcased his hard disdain for the dehumanisation through a commercialised bureaucracy and his even harder affection for group camaraderie and the value of the individual, achieved with a different tone of comedy and drama in each of his ‘70s films. His strengths in presenting this joyous humanism were unsatisfyingly broken by the screenings of Shampoo (1975), Ashby’s brief foray into the navel-gazing world of the upper LA elite, resulting in the hardest of Ashby’s characters (from the ‘70s) to identify with. Maybe some viewers found this a thankful break in this long-haired director’s hippy-isms from what they may have found overbearing in his actual masterpieces. As with many documentaries revolving around a single person, there was a constant threat of hagiography as if this retrospective was a video dedication to be played at Ashby’s funeral. Documentaries such as these hypothetically will work for those eager for a positive-minded recap, but they do tend to stick to a safe, inoffensive, single-minded depiction, rather than presenting an authentic all-encompassing multifaceted portrayal. And the simplistically devised and simplistically titled Hal, typifies this approach to documentary. For Ashby fans, it’s a satisfying delight to have his somewhat brief but illustrious career presented in just under 90 minutes. Not much time is spent on his troubled youth or even how it connects to his artistry, but Hal’s saving grace is it doesn’t entirely dedicate itself to his watershed moment throughout all of the ‘70s.
Despite saying mostly what’s already been said, Hal was still a relatively satisfying exposé on a highly regarded figure. In contrast, McQueen (Ian Bonhôte & Peter Ettedgui, 2018) was the eye-opener to the fashion-designer/art-installation provocateur who I’d never heard of. Similarly simplistic to Hal in approach and title, McQueen turned out to be the rather breath-taking experience for a film I was merely watching to pass the time between two other screenings. Sitting in the packed cinema, relegated to the front row where I was a close spectator to all the standard-definition archival footage and intensely close talking-heads interviews, I was enamoured not so much with the dresses themselves, but the darkly kooky art-installation styled twists McQueen applies to them, which produced audible gasps from the audience. McQueen keeps its presentation of the titular fashion designer/artist’s career very formal, paying the most attention to his craft, but does spend the time to illustrate how McQueen’s personal troubles inspired his fashion/art design.
As great as it would be to give praise to the off-kilter experimental works that played in Luna Leederville’s new intimate Blue cinema, the two “documentaries” I saw were disappointments for either being too vague or too pointed. The Foaming Node (Ian Haig, 2018) began my 2018 Rev experience, not exactly setting a precedent for the programme’s quality. This body horror mockumentary art-film uses words to fuel the imagination more than gory effects to feast the senses, with talking-head actors describing the grotesque scientific experiment that resulted in the addition of mysterious new organs in the human body. This fascinating concept likely would’ve been preferably executed in a traditional horror way rather than as this formless failed experiment that typifies all the agonising clichés of art installation video nonsense.
The Foaming Node’s cinematic experimentation is made evident through four or five post-production peculiarities, each worth roughly three minutes of interest, that stretch out this documentary to 80 minutes, including some nonsensical rapid-repeat editing reminiscent of You Tube Poops, but without any humour or impressive technical charm, just dead-air surrealism. It also doesn’t really contain a screenplay, but rather a bunch of notes Haig probably scribbled down on his phone and put into categorical order, with a consistently flat progression all throughout – I was only stirred out my slumber each time one of the four or five techniques first appeared, which I became sick of after three minutes. The Foaming Node is at one extreme of conceptual purpose, existing in an existential chasm, whereas [Censored] (Sara Braithwaite, 2018) is at the other extreme, an essay film with a sharpened point that prods uncomfortably. Seeing this mashup of various excised clips from all films that played in Australia from 1951 to 1978 sounded like a fun way to spend a Wednesday night – as a fan of the mashup formula, I imagined that [Censored] would chastise and ridicule this draconian era of censorship through an inventive reinterpretation of these outdated once-censored clips. Unfortunately for any film-goers that just happen to be of the anti-censorship persuasion, [Censored] is an uncomfortable watch, not because of the violence and degradation on display, but because of Braithwaite’s rebranding of this array of problematic clips outside of their filmic context. Her manipulation through isolating these scenes of a questionable nature, removing them of dramatic context, results in a disappointing rendition of her personal and didactic views on this censored material, rather than standing back and taking a more encompassing view that regards the history of these clips and certainly their relation to the films they were presented in.
Concluding my Rev experience this year was Desolation Centre (Stuart Swezey, 2018) a dedicational documentary to the live music event of the same name that placed such early-‘80s outsider favourites of the rock, punk, and industrial scene in the Mojave Desert and other unorthodox music stages for bus-loads of LA kids who thought the punk scene was getting too conventional. These concerts were heralded by Swezey, who thirty-five years later has now also made his feature-length directorial debut with this look-back, a nostalgia-fest for all these ‘80s outsiders to relish on these memories (and for everyone else to vicariously do so as well). Intercut with priceless and previously unearthed grainy footage of these performances (whose lo-fi audio recording, of course, makes the music sound even better) and newly filmed talking-heads from a collection of the remarkably still youthful-looking audience members, Desolation Centre as a retrospective identifies the thesis that this music event eventually birthed: a brief moment of musical transcendence that avoided being diluted by repeat offerings. Desolation Centre is certainly not much more than a self-congratulatory documentary, one that eventually climaxes with the revelation that these one-off concerts spawned similar live events, such as Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Burning Man. But Desolation Centre’s interviewees believe their experience, for its impermanence, for its spontaneity, for its immediate excitement, and for its danger, made it a more worthwhile live show – not that anyone will likely get to re-experience or replicate an event like that in the ever-dwindling and ever-safer punk and industrial scenes. Desolation Centre recollects all four concerts, which feature rock-against-metal-bashing Einstürzende Neubauten, guitar-frenzied Sonic Youth, party-friendly punks Minutemen, and an unfortunately brief overview of the fourth and last concert (taking place in an actual industrial warehouse), unforgivably showing only half a minute of my favourite band playing in their live performance prime – Swans in the mid-‘80s. I’m holding out for its DVD/Blu-Ray to be packed with all the unedited live material in all their lo-fi, VHS colour-bleeding glory. This documentary is worthy of at least one trip down memory lane, but this live footage that will hopefully surface will be of even greater rewatchable value, for new and old fans.
As of the middle of August, six films from the festival are getting an upcoming release at the Luna cinemas, who are giving folks the chance to catch up on what they missed out on (like American Animals, whose last screening I missed due to its sell-out, which equally delighted and disappointed me). There was a higher disparity in the quality of films taking or introducing a more experimental and riskier manner, and a predictably satisfying quality to the ones that kept themselves more conventional and harmless. But one of the beauties of being a cinephile is the gamble with how worthy the films you’re going to watch are, and the pleasantness of the ones that match the more optimistic of expectations is still available in the Rev experience.
Revelation Perth International Film Festival
5-18 July 2018
Festival website: http://www.revelationfilmfest.org/