AFI Fest 2014 (Part 1)

We have once again come to the end of my favorite cultural event in Los Angeles, AFI Fest, and this year I decided to do quick write-ups on the films I saw. Even with a lineup missing many of my most anticipated festival films of the fall (Winter’s Sleep and Goodbye To Language may have been longshots, but I was genuinely stunned to discover that Hong Sang-Soo’s Hill Of Freedom didn’t make the program, especially after seeing Our Sunhi and In Another Country there the last two years), AFI once again presented an impressive group of films from around the world for free, and for that last fact I will always be grateful. Health problems forced me to miss some of my more anticipated screenings, including Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before; Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner; Sarah Smith’s audience award-winner Midnight Swim; and a restoration of Cassavetes’ Love Streams, but even with a limited schedule, I managed to catch ten screenings, at least seven of which I’d recommend to others. Here I will rank them from worst-to-first, with a short write-up of each. These wound up being longer than expected, so I think I will split it into two entries, with the first five today and the rest sometime next week.

10. Goodnight Mommy (Dir. Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala, Austria)


The first of five European films featuring very bad things happening to children on this list (the closest thing I had to a central theme of my screenings this year) is also the runaway favorite for worst film of 2014. Produced by oft-controversial Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, this film continues the terrible trend of a post-Haneke Austrian arthouse cinema that has gleamed onto the style, tone, and brutality of the master’s films without giving a second’s consideration to the theoretical and highly academic ideas regarding violence and modernity that give Haneke’s work meaning and purpose. This has left us with a mess of unoriginal films that feel vaguely like Haneke on the surface but offer nothing else in return. Of course there are exceptions, like the excellent Revanche and Seidl’s work as a director (I don’t like his films, but they do at least show some original thought), but this is the worst possible extension of that trend.

Even if you ignore the context from which this film emerged, it wouldn’t change the fact that it’s just a dumb movie. Most of the tension, especially in the first half is based on a deeply stupid and painfully obvious twist that I was able to correctly guess in the opening minutes (seriously, it’s the second thing I wrote in my notes) and will give away now, because spoilers don’t matter and I genuinely do not want you to see this movie. The story follows two young brothers in a remote house who believe that their mother, a TV host, has been replaced by a stranger after undergoing extensive plastic surgery on her face. It is very clear from the opening minutes that one of the brothers is dead and the other is just imagining him, mostly because the film goes to such obvious pains to hide this fact that the final reveal was met with just one or two gasps in the full theater. Eventually the boys and their mother begin to engage in the types of psychological mind games that you see in every European “horror” film of this type. There’s a dead cat, a bunch of cockroaches are thrown in as a lazy “Metamorphosis” reference and some “shocking” slaps to the face until eventually the boys just tie up the mother and begin torturing her for the final thirty or forty minutes of the film. Just to be clear, I am not objecting to all of this because of the content, but because of the execution. The whole final sequence is heightened to such a ridiculous degree that the torture becomes laughably dumb instead of the genuinely disturbing sequence the filmmakers intended. In the end, I guess this is just what I get for seeing a movie that opens with a scene from Sound Of Music (or some similar-looking German film, I’ve never actually seen Sound Of Music) before cutting to “Eine produktion von Ulrich Seidl.”

9. A Most Violent Year (Dir. J.C. Chandor, USA)

a-most-violent-year

Many things at this year’s festival seemed a bit odd, but nothing shocked me more than the loud praise for J.C. Chandor’s lifeless amalgamation of crime films past. It shares surface elements with great movies like The Godfather or James Gray’s The Yards, but the problem is that there’s nothing beyond the surface in A Most Violent Year. This is a film of wasted potential, from the great actors in boring roles to the many conceivably interesting plotlines that are introduced and never seen again.
Set in New York in 1981, Oscar Isaac leads an exceptional, and mostly wasted, cast as Abel Morales, a relative newcomer in the previously mostly white and currently very corrupt world of heating oil sales, who wants to succeed with relative honor. In this world, honor mostly means not hijacking your competitors, something that’s happening to Abel’s guys with increased regularity. Jessica Chastain portrays his wife, the daughter of a Brooklyn mobster, who plays the devil on Abel’s shoulder, encouraging him to arm his drivers and steal from the office as his world seems to crumble around him. Through a Job-like series of events, Abel eventually has to choose between his honor and the American dream. Again, there are some interesting ideas here, but they’re just stated, not delved into with any depth.
Isaac gives it his all, but in truth Abel just isn’t that interesting of a character. His entire moral dilemma comes down drawing a line between ripping off poor customers and wealthy competitors. There’s a far more interesting movie in here that’s just about Chastain, who, as per usual, steals all of her far-too-brief screentime as a whirling ball of anger and energy. The film looks nice, but it mostly just borrows the basic style of James Gray’s first few films and switches up the color palate, so it was hard for me to be really impressed with anything they did. I really do think there was a good film in here somewhere, but it’s just not the one that made it to the screen.

8. Eden (Dir. Mia Hansen-Love, France)

With a week of hindsight, I’m still not totally sure of my opinion of Mia Hansen-Love’s house music odyssey. The two films before it on this list are terrible, and all the films after it are at least OK, but I have no idea where exactly on that spectrum this film lies. This over-stuffed movie features about forty minutes of borderline-transcendent beauty surrounded by one hundred minutes of painfully dull mediocrity, and I’m just not sure how to reconcile the two.
Loosely based on the life of the director’s brother, the film follows Paul, a French House DJ, from the movement’s nascent beginnings in the early 90s through its global popularity today. Paul and his crew have talent, but whether through the wrong attitude or tastes that change faster than they can keep up with, Paul never quite makes it to the top. In essence, Paul is to Daft Punk as Llewyn Davis was to Bob Dylan or Monty Python’s Brian was to Jesus, a peripheral figure in the life of a great, held back from immortality by nothing more than circumstance or minor personal failings. Daft Punk allowed their music to be used in the film for cheap and even appear as minor characters (even if it’s just actors playing them, it is still oddly unsettling to see their faces without the helmets), offering the occasional glimpse of what could have been for Paul. As his friends move on and his lovers leave, Paul eventually has to face up with his failure, but of course this is handled in the most rote way imaginable.
I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a good nightclub scene in a film. As much as I hate going in real life, the music and lighting almost always makes for an aesthetically pleasing sequence, and it is in the club scenes that Eden really comes to life. Hanson-Love does an excellent job of capturing the energy and motion inherent to such a setting while also doing an admirable job of showing character and advancing plot with the minimal dialogue allowed by the music. Unfortunately, the film completely dies as soon as the music stops. It becomes an endless cycle of Paul arguing with the same few women, borrowing money from his mother and doing piles and piles of coke, which is fine the first time around, but quickly slips into monotony. There are moments of fragmented and scattered editing, presumably meant to evoke the Ecstasy-addled memories of those who lived through the movement, but these aren’t enough to break through the utter dullness of their surroundings.

7. Violet (Dir. Bas Devos, Belgium)

violet
We open with security camera footage of two teens in a mall. It looks nice, but we have no way of knowing where it is. They walk out of frame and the camera slowly pulls back to reveal a security council, with the sleeping guard reflected in one of the screens. The mall is pretty empty, so we see the teens walk in front of us a few times before they settle in one spot. The guard gets up and leaves right before one of the teens gets into a confrontation with some older guys and falls down as the other looks on in terror. It’s all one take with no sound. If you were thinking that this sounds like the opening of a Haneke film, you’d probably be right, but this is actually the first shot of Bas Devos’ impressive debut film, Violet.
Given how much time I spent complaining about the possible negative influence of Haneke above, it may be surprising to see me offer so much praise to a shot that’s so clearly influenced by the openings of Haneke’s two best films, Benny’s Video and Cache, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a memorable way to start a career. The rest of the film may not live up to this moment, but I think any genuinely great scene in a debut film is something worth discussing.
The boy who fell was named Jonas, and he was stabbed. The friend who survived is Jesse, and he is our protagonist. The film follows Jesse in the months after the incident and invites us to share in his grief. This isn’t misery porn, but it does a successful job of showing the impact of a trauma on a specific person. Beautifully shot in an intimate style, we follow Jesse as he hangs out with his fellow BMX bikers, some of whom seem to blame him for Jonas’ death and as he spends time with his parents and Jonas’s family. The questions of who committed the murder or why it really happened are never really considered, and while the murderers are eventually caught, it’s a fleeting moment and we never even learn their names, because the survivor’s grief is the main point here, the details are mostly extraneous. I like this approach, especially for a film that comes in just 85 minutes, but at times it is too narrow a focus, and I think the film is at its best when it spreads the net a bit wider and shows some normalcy along with grief. Aside from the beginning, my favorite scene is a long shot of workers cleaning up what’s left of the memorial for Jonas in the mall a few weeks after the incident. We never see the full memorial, just the puddle of rotting flowers and soaked teddy bears, and once it’s clean no sign of what happened remains. There’s just an empty space and immeasurable grief.

6. The Iron Ministry (Dir. J.P. Sniadecki USA/China)

Not technically affiliated with, but still closely connected to, the same Harvard ethnography program that has given us Leviathan and Manakamana, J.P. Sniadecki’s fascinating documentary is a full sensory plunge into China’s massive rail system. Shot over three years but edited to look like one journey, the film captures the chaotic sights and sounds of one the world’s largest transportation systems. Opening with two minutes of a black screen over engine sounds, we are soon quickly plunged into the world of the train. Unhindered by the search for a narrative structure, Sniadecki simply finds moments along the journey, from a butcher selling his wares to a young kid mocking American foreign policy in front of a delighted crowd.

While this kind of film doesn’t need a narrative point of focus, I do think it could have used a stronger thematic center. I know the main goal is to show this aspect of Chinese life, but to what end? So many different subject are covered, albeit all in a very interesting fashion, that it becomes hard to see how they all connect together in anything but the most obvious ways. One of the most interesting scenes in the film is an extended conversation between some young men who are ethnically Chinese and a couple of Muslims from western China as they have a smoke break. From their mostly positive, if not a bit insensitive, reactions, you can see the slow progress of multiculturalism at work, but there’s nothing else in the film to connect this with. Each moment is often so beautiful and engaging that I never minded while watching, but I’m having trouble writing anything particularly coherent about this one without a stronger central idea. And maybe that’s intentional, after all it is a completely sensory experience and words may not do it proper justice. To say the least, it is by far the best of this year’s films set entirely on a train.

Thanks for reading, I’ll try to get part two out as soon as I can

Advertisements

Noah (Darren Aronofsky, 2014)

Image

It has become de rigueur for the religious types who aren’t too offended by the very existence of the film to bash those who criticize Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Noah, as being themselves anti-religious. Now, most of the time, this has of course not been true. These reviewers have simply criticized Noah for being a pretty terrible movie, and not out of some deep-seeded hatred of religion. I, however, welcome that criticism. I will spend most of this space reviewing Noah as a film, but it would be impossible to properly do so without giving my own views on the subject within. I don’t like religion. I find it to be a dangerous grotesquery that has no place in the modern world. I am someone who reads the bible and finds it inconceivable that anyone could view the Yaweh character as anything but the story’s villain. In no possible reality could I ever hope to understand those who worship the genocidal narcissistic monster presented as a creator in those stories, and the tale of Noah finds that monster at its worst. In fact, if we’re being completely honest, I think the only thing I like less than religion is poor filmmaking, both of which are pretty prominently on display in Noah.

Please do not think that I am ignoring the existence of all the great films and other works of art about faith. I’d have to ignore the filmographies of Bresson, Tarkovsky, Dreyer and so many more of my favorite directors if that were the case (although I did once write a short, defiantly secular essay on Diary Of A Country Priest, one of my all-time favorite films, that got me into some trouble with the professor). And there have been plenty of good movies based on stories from the bible (Pasonlini and Scorsese’s tales of Christ and LeRoy’s Quo Vadis among others), but there has to be a purpose to the story for it to be anything other than a repeat of a narrative and theme that has been covered an infinitesimal number of times throughout the history of art, and that is where Aronofsky’s take fails. With only a minor focus on faith, the filmmaker tries to impart an environmentalist message, but like everything else, it just gets lost in the shuffle of endlessly repetitive scenes.

Noah is basically divided into two parts. The first takes place on land, as Noah gets his message from the creator (the film never mentions “god” by name, but if we are taking this as a history, it takes place before that name was created, so that piece of outrage really never should have taken off) and commences on the building of the ark. Noah is the last descendant of Seth (Cain and Abel’s good-but-not-worthy-of-his-own-tale-in-the-bible younger brother), while the rest of humanity descends from Cain and carries his burden. The creator has deemed humanity a failure and selected Noah to save the animals in a giant ark. Why this almighty, omnipresent being couldn’t simply kill the rest of humanity without requiring a ten-years-in-the-making ark and the death of the animals that don’t make it to the ark is sadly never touched upon. Noah is helped first by his grandfather Methusaleh, and then by a group of fallen-angels-turned-stone-monstrosities called Watchers. In terms of their movements and voices, they basically come off as low-rent Ents from The Lord Of The Rings. As Noah builds, his family grows up and soon his young sons want wives to bring along to the apocalypse beyond their supposedly barren adopted sister. In the bible, they already had wives, but I guess the filmmakers thought the end of all humanity didn’t lead to enough tension, so they through in some lamentable father-son issues as Noah fails to find them women in time. The rest of humanity is led by the evil king who killed Noah’s father and spends their time hanging out in the woods trying to scheme their way onto the ship.

Image

Noah is played by Russell Crowe in what, given how little he tends to try these days, is probably his best performance in a long time, while the family is rounded out by Jennifer Connelly, giving it her all in yet another put-upon wife role and Emma Watson as his adopted daughter/daughter-in-law (others have already done well covering the tricky, and ultimately completely unresolved, incest implications that are at work throughout the film). The sons are blandly played by a group of less-known actors while Anthony Hopkins plays Methusaleh in what is, at this point in his career, an uncharacteristically toned down and effective performance. Noah may have a great many problems, but acting is certainly not one of them.

As the deluge begins to fall, the rest of humanity tries to storm their way onto the boat, only to be held off by the watchers until just the evil king makes it on. So just to be clear, this is a movie where we are meant to root for the giant rock monsters who stomp and kill women and children in order for their leader to achieve a more perfect genocide. I would look up the king’s name, but even with a fine performance from Ray Winstone, he never evolves as a character beyond that broadest of descriptions, and spends his time hidden on the boat trying to convince Noah’s middle son Ham to join him in poorly planned mutiny. On the boat, the main stakes change to whether or not Noah will kill the offspring of his now magically pregnant adopted daughter and his eldest son. Noah believes that the creator intended for humanity to end with him, so we are left to deal with the non-drama of wondering whether Noah will kill an infant and doom humanity (here’s a hint: obviously not), while there’s barely a moment spared to considering the brutal genocide of nearly every living thing on earth because their creator was upset. When they get off, issues are resolved, there’s a montage of baby animals, Noah blesses the babies with magic snake skin that maybe makes all the coming incest in their lives ok(?) and then the film finally, mercifully ends.

In a way, I can imagine an interesting, naturalistic story in here, buried under layers of the same idiotic bombast that has ruined most biblical movies since the time of De Mille. There are quiet moments of genuine emotion that call back to what made The Wrestler more or less successful, mostly short scenes following one or two characters wandering in the woods, but I guess when you adapt a three-page story into a more or less endless film, you feel the need to expand in some way. Unfortunately Aronofsky chose all the wrong ways. Each scene is edited in a way that it feels a bit too long, as if they wanted to give time for some quiet character beats, but forgot to actually make characters. Clint Mansell’s typically very good score helps to maintain some sense of tone throughout, but even then it doesn’t have a piece as impressive as the oft-copied main theme from Requiem For A Dream or the majestic “Death Is The Road To Awe” scene from The Fountain, just pleasant consistency. While I would be hard-pressed to find a specific stylistic line through all of Aronofsky’s films up to this point, Noah is the first one to not even adhere to a consistent internal aesthetic. Most of it feels like an anonymous studio hack-job, but there are moments that clearly try to capture the frenetic editing of Requiem or the CGI awe of The Fountain, moments which may succeed in a vacuum, but only lead to an even stronger sense of inconsistency within the film. It is emotionless bombast that makes broad appeals to both the faithful and the reasonable, and winds up reaching neither.

In the end, I am simply not sure who this film was actually made to appease. It isn’t enough of a pandering mess to appeal to the increasingly pathetic and lucrative Christian film market. It doesn’t have enough the artless showiness that makes Aronofsky’s worst films appeal so heavily to the film school bro audience. It doesn’t have the moments of genuine emotion that made The Wrestler and The Fountain work as well as they did. The vague environmentalist ideas that come through aren’t forceful or clear enough to make any sort of difference. The editing is too slow and the action too monotonous to appeal to a mainstream audience. I work for a producer as my day job, and I ask myself two questions about every script I read: First, why should this story be told? Second, is there an interesting way to tell this story? In the end, Noah is a film that never bothered to answer the first and fails quite miserably at asking the second.

Top 20 First-Time Viewings of 2013

Like all film bloggers (although at the rate I post, I can barely be called a blogger at this point), I will eventually have a list of the top films of 2013, but there are still a bunch that I need to see before I feel comfortable making that post. In the meantime, I will do something only slightly less common a make a list of the twenty (or so) best older films that i saw for the first time this year. Even though I watched fewer films this year than in any since I started counting, I still think this is a pretty damn great list of 21 films, covering five continents (sorry Australia) and nineteen filmmakers working across seven decades. Since it has been nearly a year since I saw some of these films, I don’t think I can do full write-ups for any of them, but I think the list speaks for itself (and I am sorry for any formatting errors, WordPress seems to have stopped functioning fully on my computer so getting the list to even look this good was a struggle.) 

20

A wild departure from the more stripped down vision of British life that we normally expect from Leigh, this epic still offers one of the most intelligent visions of life in the performing arts on film.

19

People have been looking at the preponderance of genuinely good Hollywood product this year and quickly proclaimed 2013 one of the best for American film, and while this may be true in the end, I would like to step back and point something out. True StoriesBlue Velvet and Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece, Something Wild, arguably the three best American films of the eighties, all came out within about two months of each other in 1986, so until we have a run like that, let’s just calm down with the praise.

18

Parajanov’s visually rich and symbol-laden tale of the Ukrainian highlands is quite unlike anything else I have seen.

17

If I had made a list like this for 2012, there’s a very good chance that Faces would have come out on top. The best Cassavetes I saw this year wasn’t quite as magnificent, but it is still a haunting vision of the sadness of every-day life.

16

African cinema still sadly remains something of a blind-spot for me, but Mambety’s Senegalese version of the early French New Wave was a revalatory viewing experience.

15

I saw Vidor’s silent masterpiece on a 35mm print at the UCLA Film Archive, which stands as one of the best theatrical experiences of my life.

14

Kathryn Bigelow’s best film exists in the strange space right in between Cronnenberg’s Crash and eXistenZ that I’d never even thought about before playing this movie. One of the most underrated films of the nineties.

13

Look at that picture of Sam Fuller and Jim Jarmusch wandering around the jungle together and try not to get excited for this grotesquely underseen documentary.

12

One of my/everybody’s favorite John Ford films. I don’t think I can say much that hasn’t been said before.

11

The fact that it made it this high despite Harvey Keitel giving one of the most distressingly awful performances in all of film as Judas really speaks highly to the beauty of Scorsese’s vision and the majesty of Willem Dafoe’s performance.

10

From my original review: Through our sad protagonist, we get to see a wide spectrum of the issues facing Brazil at the time, and probably to today. She wanders her city, lost and alone, a blank slate for us to try to comprehend. Her intellectual simplicity and earnest worldview leads to an emotional depth matched by few other films, making this wildly underseen film, which somehow doesn’t even have five hundred ratings on IMDB, one that I must recommend as highly as possible.

9

All of Sokurov’s films feel like dreams, this one just takes it a little further than most. Father And Son is as visually and emotionally stunning as his previous Mother And Son, which would have made this list in 2012, only this one seems to take its primary influences from Francis Bacon and Billy Budd (or maybe just Beau Travail)

8

Woody Allen’s best film finds the auteur looking back at his roots and essentially remaking 8 1/2 but with a focus on his own minor neuroses instead of Fellini’s more existential concerns.

7

Umbrellas Of Cherbourg may get more attention, but for my money, Young Girls Of Rochefort is just as brilliant as Demy’s more popular earlier film. There is an almost-impossible-to-explain joy to these movies that very few artists can every truly match.

6

The most recent film on this list is unlike anything else in recent American cinema. In the years since this came out, James Grey’s reputation has deservedly grown (The Immigrant is one of two guarantees I can already make for my best of 2014 list) because of his remarkable technical abilities as a filmmaker and the unmatched liveliness and emotional depth of his characters.

5

The first of two films by my favorite working director to make this list (Hou’s The Assassin is the other guarantee I can already make for my best of 2014 list), Hou’s first true masterpiece finds the master, as is so often the case with his early work, looking back at his childhood for a personal vision of the early days of Taiwan’s split from China and the heartache this caused for so many.

4

My favorite by Ray (given, I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of his large filmography) offers a tender and incredibly sensitive look at one woman’s struggle for self-determination. Every single moment of the film is filled with endless emotion, but it is only expressed through the subtlest of glances and the smallest of motions.

3 add rest later3 also

I remade this list a few times, but no matter what, these two films by Agnes Varda kept showing up right next to each other, so I figured I’d sneak one more film in the back and make them into one entry. Vagabond is probably Varda’s best known film since Cleo From 5 To 7 and is centered around one of the most heartbreaking performances in film history. But if you forced me to pick between these two masterpieces, I would almost certainly go with Jacquot De Nantes, Varda’s love letter to her husband Jaques Demy, written as he died of AIDS. The film intertwines contemporary documentary footage of Demy at their home with extended flashbacks to his childhood under the occupation of France and his early love of cinema. I doubt there is a single more loving image in all of cinema than the first shot of young Jacques with his first camera.

2

This much-loved Czechoslovakian epic finally saw a proper US release recently thanks to the miracle workers at Criterion, and it was worth the wait. This film is strange and beautiful and completely unique, and I don’t think I have the words to properly explain it, so I will defer to the great Tom Gunning, who wrote in one of the Criterion essays: “Most films lay out a journey for us, take us for a ride, exhilarate or charm us, but give us some idea of where we are going. Marketa Lazarová sweeps us up in a sort of rapture before we even get our feet on the ground. František Vláčil directs with a symphonic variation of tone and pace, moving with assurance from the frenetic to the contemplative, the horrific to the erotic. This may not be a film for everyone. It calls for stamina and for surrender to the wonder of vision and hearing, even when the way remains obscure and seems a bit dangerous. It forces us to rediscover the power of image and sound—and what happens when you bring them together.”

1

Much like The Time To Live And The Time To Die, Hou’s masterpiece presents the experiences of a single family during the White Terror immediately following the second world war and the struggle for Taiwanese independence, just on a grander and more beautiful scale. Like The Crowd, I saw A City Of Sadness on a 35mm print thanks to my wonderful former bosses at the UCLA Film Archive, something that stands as almost certainly the best non-Bela Tarr related theatrical experience of my life. I’m not sure what else I can say here. Part of the reason I’ve struggled so much to write about film in recent months is that I feel like I’ve run out of interesting ways to articulate my emotional response in writing, and this is the film that drew the biggest emotional response from me all year. This is perfect cinema, nothing else should really matter.

War And Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1966-67)

Image

The original Russian poster for the film

In his introduction to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest Dave Eggers writes, “We’re interested in epic writerly ambition. We’re fascinated with what can be made by a person with enough time and focus…We’re interested in human possibility, and we are able to cheer each other on to leaps in science and athletics and art and thought, we must admire the works that our peers have managed to create.” As little as I may care for his other work, I take this statement to heart. I very much prefer my art to be absurdly massive in scope. My three favorite films have an average run time of four and a half hours and my three favorite books (a list that does include Infinite Jest) average 1065 pages. So it would seem that when one of those three books is adapted into a film that runs over four hundred minutes, I should view it as a sort of miracle convergence of everything I love in the world. Alas, this is not the case with Sergei Bondarchuk’s frustrating and mediocre War And Peace, a work that proves massive scope is not always enough.

Although it is ultimately an exasperating film, there is actually much to learn from Bondarchuk’s War And Peace. First, and perhaps most problematic to the film’s success as an adaptation, is that when you’re an inexperienced director making what is, by almost any measure, the single largest film that the medium ever has and likely ever will see, do not cast yourself in the lead. I’ll deal with my issues with the adaptation later, but needless to say, Bondarchuk is as ill-suited to play Pierre Bezhukov as Henry Fonda was in the unwatchable American adaptation from the previous decade. Second is an issue that is more problematic for its success as a film: under those same circumstances, do not skimp on film stock. This was of course the most expensive film ever made in the Soviet Union, so they chose to use terrible Soviet-made 70mm film stock instead of swallowing their pride and buying German or American stock. This worked out about as well as you would imagine.

Image

One of the many impressive battle scenes

When I began the film, I wanted to avoid discussing issues of adaptation in my review. The film and the book are completely separate works of art and I did not want to judge them by the same criteria. Unfortunately, in this case I don’t think that would have been possible. The film is less an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel than a staging of certain scenes with little connective tissue. I honestly do not believe that the film would make the slightest bit of sense to someone unfamiliar with the book. There are dozens of examples throughout that I could pick, but I think the most notable is Napoleon’s retreat following the burning of Moscow at the end of the war. In the book, Tolstoy gives us a long and detailed explanation of the historical factors and of the philosophies of war and history to set the stage for how this could have happened. In the film, a messenger comes and says that the French are gone, even though the scene before is them looting the city in victory. How is a viewer, particularly one who isn’t familiar with the intimate details of the Napoleonic wars, supposed to see this moment? I really don’t know. Of course the biggest problem with adapting War And Peace is that the novel’s main themes are laid out in non-narrative authorial digressions. The story itself is of course magnificent, but to express the philosophy and psychology of the novel on screen would take a far greater talent and far more time than this film possessed.

I also have no idea which changes were made to please Soviet sensors. Almost all of the religious subplots are completely dropped, most notably Pierre’s flirtation with freemasonry and Princess Maria’s Christian awakening, which seems to fit right in with Communist ideology. In the book, many characters, particularly Nikolai Rostov, spend countless pages praising the czar as a sort of God, which was of course not going to make the film. That being said, the film puts much less focus on the suffering of the common man than the novel. Outside of the war scenes, which are occasionally rendered inert by the lack of recognizable characters, we see very little of the suffering of peasants and serfs. We are presented with the novel’s wealthy characters for the narrative and wide shots of soldiers for national pride, but the issues of the proletariat are inexplicably ignored. Most confusingly, we are given nothing of the people’s decision to use a scorched Earth technique against Napoleon. Tolstoy makes it clear that this was a choice made by the common people and is ultimately the main reason that Napoleon’s army was destroyed, something you’d think the Soviets would celebrate rather than ignore. I think it would have been fascinating to see the story through a more aggressively communist perspective, but instead we just get a bunch of half measures.

Image

Natasha weeps over the injured Andrei

The movie focuses almost entirely on the stories of the book’s three most important characters, Natasha Rostov and her two potential suitors, the longtime friends Pierre Bezukhov and Andrei Bolkonsky. This means that it more or less entirely drops every subplot and limits the supporting characters, such Nikolai Rostov, Princess Maria and the German Dennisov, to little more than cameo appearances. This in and of itself does not necessarily bother me. I understand that the book is still far too large for eight hours to cover everything. I am bothered because even with the focus on these three main characters, we still do not get enough to really tell their stories. It’s just a series of moments in their lives with no sense of how we got there or who these people are, and it’s up to the performers to sell it on their own. As I’ve already said, Bondarchuk is a pretty lousy Pierre. He is far too old for the role and he doesn’t have the range to sell Pierre’s internal crises that forms half the story’s philosophy. Pierre is the heart of the story, and without him it is almost impossible for anything else to work. Vyacheslav Tikhonov is an acceptable Bolkonsky, but his character is perhaps the most underwritten of the three and his psychological and moral shifts throughout the tale are more or less ignored. That being said, he is still able to sell the film’s best moment, perhaps my single favorite moment in all of literature, which is when the wounded Andrei sees his hated romantic rival Dolokhov dying next to him after a battle and suddenly releases his years of hatred and resentment. Of the three, Ludmila Savelyeva’s Natasha easily comes off as the best. She is able to express the giant range of emotions required of the character without ever coming across as histrionic. The utter joy and infinite sadness that Natasha must go through are all spelled out perfectly across her face in an utterly bravura performance.

I do not want to come off like I hated every aspect of the film. If I had, there is no way I would have forced myself to sit through eight hours. I have not seen his other films, but Bondarchuk is clearly a capable filmmaker, even if he was in a bit over his head (the movie took nearly six years to make and they went through dozens of crew members as people kept quitting). The battle scenes may lack in emotional depth, but I’ll be damned if any Hollywood epic from the time could match them in terms of sheer impressive scope. Given the full use of the Soviet army, Bondarchuk crafted marches and formations unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The burning of Moscow, seen through the eyes of Pierre as he runs through the ashen great city, is as compelling a sequence of cinema as you will ever see. Perhaps not coincidentally, this sequence is also Bondarchuk’s greatest moment as an actor, a place where the physicality of his performance overwhelms any other issues with his character. The various dances are gorgeous, with the camera sliding through and over the crowds as they celebrate their brief times of peace. Bondarchuk’s camera is very subjective, often experimenting with a variety of different techniques (split screen, long tracking shots, inserts, dueling narration and more) to usually successful results. At best, these moments recall this movie’s infinitely superior cousin, Andrei Rublev.

Image

French soldiers execute Russian prisoners after the burning of Moscow

I actually waited on watching War And Peace until this week because I knew that I would be seeing Rublev in theaters last Saturday, and I wanted the best possible comparison.  The two epics make for interesting companions. They show the violent birth and death of Russia’s early modern era. One takes place as Russia began to consolidate into one nation and fight off its Tartar invaders, and the other shows the moment where Russia defeated Napoleon and became a part of Europe. They both deal with questions of faith in times of turmoil, although of course the Tarkovsky film does so with far more depth and subtlety. Visually, War and Peace is probably the more experimental film, often bringing to mind the work of Sergei Pajanarov or even Tarkovsky’s greatest student, Alexander Sokurov, and this why it is still possibly worth watching. Unfortunately, this is also where the issues with the film stock would seem to come into play. This really could have been one of the most beautiful films ever made, but instead half the shots are faded and unclear and the colors are kind of a mess. The fact that the camera is clearly doing the right things all along makes these issues so much more frustrating.

I’m still not entirely sure what I should make of this movie. There are moments of virtuoso filmmaking that are unlike anything I have ever seen, but these are few and far between. The scatter-shot narrative cannot possibly work for someone unfamiliar with the books. Many of the actors are miscast, but at least occasionally effective. The score is occasionally perfect, often slipping into ambient noise that fits the chaos perfectly, but otherwise it is obvious and manipulative. The scope is massive, but still too small. It runs eight hours and covers most of the story, but somehow fails to scratch the surface of the heart, mind and soul of the novel. All of these little contradictions render this film as little more than a frustrating curiosity, something that fans of the novel should probably check out for the sake of curiosity, but also something that is sure to disappoint them in the end.

Hour Of The Star (Suzana Amaral, 1985)

Image

From Valuska in Werckmeister Harmonies to, well, pretty much all of Jodorowsky’s protagonists, films have always done a good job of re-orienting their world view through that of the simple-minded wanderer. These modern updates on the old Russian trope of the holy fool often serve to help orient the audience to the strangeness of the world of the filmmaker, but what if one of these characters was dropped into the real world, and not into the surreal landscapes of someone like Jodorowsky? That’s the question asked by Suzana Amaral’s Hour Of The Star, which places its simple protagonist in eighties Rio and lets her wander around and try to understand her environment.  

Marcelia Cartaxo plays Macabea, a young woman from the rural north who moves to Rio looking for work. Macabea finds work as a typist, listens to the radio a lot, slowly befriends her new roommates and eventually tries to start a relationship with another slum-dweller, but something is off. While nothing is ever made fully clear, it’s clear from the beginning that Macabea is not fully mentally developed. She struggles at work and clearly has no idea how to fully function in the world. She’s a virgin whose idea of a pleasant Sunday off consists solely of sitting in the subway and watching those around her. The full extent of her condition remains unclear, although Amaral herself has given the slightly problematic reading that “Macabea is an example of the mental undevelopment of the poor people of the world. Facing the solitude of the big city, she possesses the emptiness of someone who does not have the means to be cultured.” On the one hand, I do cringe at the phrase “does not have the means to be cultured,” which seems to imply that rural peoples are completely unqualified to live in the city. On the other, issues of this sort have been a major problem in rapidly urbanizing nations like Brazil and, more notably, China, which is quickly importing its large rural population into its new urban centers without any thought on the impact this will have on that population.

Image

Cartaxo is absolutely brilliant in this role (for which she won best actress at the Berlinale), expressing that intellectual emptiness while also showing a believable joy at the few small positives in her life. A nearly silent early scene shows this off perfectly. Macabea walks onto a subway platform and looks back at a security guard. Through Amaral’s editing and Cartaxo’s brilliantly ambiguous performance, we can infer her attraction before a word is even said, even though it’s obvious from the beginning that the guard is just looking at her and coming over because she’s standing over the yellow line. Cartaxo sells the hope and near-simultaneous disappointment without really changing her face. Scenes such as this abound throughout the film as Amaral does an absolutely masterful job of visual storytelling. She always manages to place Macabea at the perfect place in the frame to show her loneliness within the crowd while still maintaining the more free-flowing aesthetic of traditional cinematic realism.

Suzana Amaral is one of the few major female Brazillian filmmakers, and aside from the prevailing themes of urbanization, she is also very much concerned with the issues facing women in her country. Macabea eventually begins a quasi-relationship with a man named Olimpico who wants to eventually become a congressman, but will of course always be stuck in the slums. He is somewhat physically abusive toward her, but Amaral puts far more emphasis on the emotional abuse that Macabea must go through. Every single conversation with Olimpico ends with him insulting and demeaning Macabea and threatening to leave her, which he eventually does. The only decent man in the film is her boss, who seems unwilling to fire Macabea despite her incompetence, although there is a sense of overwhelming patriarchy to their conversations, which makes it difficult to see any sincerity in their interactions. Through our sad protagonist, we get to see a wide spectrum of the issues facing Brazil at the time, and probably to today. She wanders her city, lost and alone, a blank slate for us to try to comprehend. Her intellectual simplicity and earnest worldview leads to an emotional depth matched by few other films, making this wildly underseen film, which somehow doesn’t even have five hundred ratings on IMDB, one that I must recommend as highly as possible.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, 2013)

Image

A truly magnificent poster that exceeds almost anything in the actual film

If my fellow critics need to learn one thing (a wild understatement), it’s that just because a movie is languidly paced, conventionally pretty and has characters speaking in southern accents, you can’t lazily compare it to Terrence Malick and end your review there. And if I need to learn one thing (another wild understatement), it’s not to get too excited when my fellow critics start making those comparisons. On the rare occasion that a filmmaker can live up to that hype (early David Gordon Green is of course the first thing to come to mind), it is still wrong to not look at their work on its own. And when a film doesn’t live up to that hype, it becomes incredibly difficult to take an objective look at the film without considering my disappointment. I say all of this in an attempt to contextualize my thoughts on one of this year’s most hyped, and ultimately most disappointing, films, David Lowery’s debut feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Would I have been able to enjoy the film, which isn’t necessarily bad, without all those months of wrong-headed hype? Maybe, but it would still be fairly mediocre. Casey Affleck plays Bob, an outlaw who takes the blame for his pregnant wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) when she shoots a cop after a robbery gone wrong. Four years later, Bob escapes from jail and begins the long trek back to Ruth and the daughter he’s never met. The narrative follows a fairly conventional structure from there, as Ruth struggles to decide whether or not she wants Bob to find her and begins to explore her complicated relationship with the cop she secretly shot, played by Ben Foster.

Malick was certainly one of Lowery’s many influences (as were Altman, Green and Michael Cimino, among others), and at times Lowery does seem to want to capture the spontaneous natural poetry of Malick’s movies, but this just never works. Malick’s early films both have a fairly limited color palate, but he uses natural colors in a way that fits the story. Saints is similarly limited in this regard, but Lowery just uses the standard overly-shadowed blue and orange palate that pervades so many digitally shot films these days (normally I’m totally pro digital, but Yeezus this movie needed to be shot on film). The framing is great, and even with the weak color choices, most of the individual shots are good, but when mixed with some poor editing it all becomes incredibly monotonous.

Image

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

It isn’t all bad of course. I can all but guarantee that there won’t be a better score in any film this year and the acting is as brilliant as you’d expect.  Affleck is in familiar territory, playing a character that is more or less indistinguishable from his role as Robert Ford in The Assassination Of Jesse James, but nobody in Hollywood is better at that type of laconic weirdo role right now, so it works, even with some incredibly annoying faux-poetic dialogue. Mara is as great as always, showing a wider range of emotion than has been required in most of her past roles, further leaving behind the ice queen sensibility that she could have been stuck with after Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But it’s Foster who really stands out. His nervous energy has always been his best tool, and his natural chemistry with both Mara and the actress playing her daughter leads to some really incredible moments.

This is a film of oft-brilliant individual moments strung together by nothingness. You could flip to any random moment and find something worthwhile, but the next few moments will be so similar that you begin to question what was good in the first place. My complaints have nothing to do with the pacing, which has been a common refrain in many reviews (I mean, I was wearing my Bela Tarr t-shirt to the screening for god’s sake), but more with the film’s general construction. This is a film that had the chance to be something great, but it veers toward the conventional at almost every turn. The actors and musicians involved are so good that the film is still probably worth a look, but if you believe the hype, then you may be disappointed. 

Best Of The Decade (So Far)

I’d like to apologize for not writing any reviews this week. I haven’t given up on this blog again, but I am currently working at the Los Angeles Film Festival. And aside from taking up much of my time, it would be at least somewhat unethical of me to post reviews of anything I see there while the festival is ongoing. So instead, since we are right around the 1/3 mark of this decade, I thought I’d take the lazy blogger’s route and look back and make a list of the best of the 2010’s so far. I don’t think there’s any real point in judging a whole decade based on just 40 months of films, but it seemed like a good occasion to see where we’re at so far.

Image

Joe Swanberg’s best film to date shows a slightly more refined style than his past work and is centered around a truly amazing performance from the always wonderful Jane Adams.

Image

The best of Soderbergh’s five legitimately great films from this decade, Magic Mike finds the prolific master turning his eye toward a unique version of the American dream.

Image

At a press screening, I heard another critic describe this film as being “as dull as Antonioni.” Not only did this teach me to drop whatever respect I still had for my peers, but it actually makes a fair comparison. Antonioni would undoubtedly be proud of this contemplative and beautiful western.

Image

I called Michael Shannon my favorite working actor in my last post, so I’m sure you can imagine my appreciation for this, one of his best roles as a traditionalist father coming to terms with shifting family structures in post-recession America.

Image

This documentary, made by Panahi and his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb while Panahi was under house arrest, explores one day in his life, as the great director struggles with boredom, fear and the summary execution of his artistic voice. While discussion of the situation and the horrific problems of the Iranian government are included, the simple fact that the film exists is its most important political statement. True radicalism in cinema cannot simply come from the statement of an issue, it must come from the specific way the filmmaker chooses to fight that issue. This Is Not A Film is one of the strongest statements against oppression and censorship in the entire history of cinema, if not art itself.

-From my original review for Realtimepodcast.org

Image

One of the most emotionally harrowing films you will find, McQueen and his brilliant star Michael Fassbender layer this film with a perfectly overwhelming sense of dread.

Image

I’ll admit that I more or less hated all of Korine’s films before this one, but Spring Breakers is by far the best film I’ve seen on the (often overstated) narcissism of the Millennial generation. Few films can claim to pulse with as much energy as Korine’s masterpiece, a garish, dubstepped-out horror story for my generation.

Image

Akerman adapts Joseph Conrad’s first novel into a scathing look at the legacy of colonialism. Armed with her standard gorgeous framing and deliberate aesthetic, this late-career masterpiece proudly stands alongside Jeanne Dielman and Les Rendez-Vous d’Anna.

Image

Another look at the effects of European colonialism, Gomes’ film takes the novel approach of looking at its subject through the lens of cinema, offering a wholly unique vision of the west’s imperialist past.

Image

Leos Carax’s welcome return to feature-length filmmaking represents a fully fledged vision of the power of cinema. Each piece is a totally unique celebration of acting and filmmaking, unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Image

If there is one way not to react to this film, it is to focus on the supposed mystery at the center. Almost all of the dialogue in the film, particularly when it involves her son, could be interpreted to support either answer, and I do not think Kiarostami really wants us to know if they are married or not. Of course, the answer could be both: we could be seeing both of these moments in their relationship, just with the same actors and the exact same setting. This was my first reaction, but now I realize that it just does not matter. This major thematic concern of the film is a question of the value of reproduction. The writer’s book states that a reproduction of a work of art still has value because it was created by someone, and that a copy can have greater cultural significance than an original. In an interview in the most recent issue of Cineaste, Kiarostami said: “The value of copies is that they can direct us toward the original.” He uses the Mona Lisa as an example. The original is a beautiful painting, but people would not be as aware of it without the endless copies. Does either of their relationships—as two single people with similar interests and as two married people trying to figure out where it went wrong—lose value because it may not be an original? No, of course not. For them, whichever one is just a copy will undoubtedly lead in the right direction, and for us both relationships are emotionally engaging, beautifully filmed and brilliantly acted. Neither affects the audience any more or less than the other, even though logic states that one has to be “false” in some way.

-From my original review for Light & Shadow

Image

After a relatively uninspiring group of winners last decade, the Palme d’Or is off to a good start for the 2010’s. Two of the three winners (I’m not even counting Blue Is The Warmest Color since nobody outside of Cannes has seen it yet) made my top ten, starting with Weerasethakul’s brilliant fever dream. I don’t know if it’s his best (I’d vote Blissfully Yours), but I do know that there’s never been anything quite like this film.

Image

2013’s best film to date represents a bold new step for Terrence Malick, cutting down his already minimal narratives to nearly nothing in favor of purely poetic take on cinema. Occasionally laughable acting prevents it from reaching the same highs as his very best work, but there is something to be said for this distilled version of his style, which I hope to see explored further in his next two films.

Image

Alexander Sokurov’s is one of the most distinct voices in all of cinema, so you just knew his version of the classic tale would continue cinema’s long line of great Fausts. Re-imagining the aesthetic of his early movies like Mother And Son  on a much grander scale, this take on the story gets by on an enthralling dream-logic.

Image

Outside of a few Bela Tarr films (more on that later), I can’t think of another film that had as much of an immediate emotional impact on me as Melancholia. I still vividly remember stumbling out of the Parisian movie theater, so drained that I couldn’t walk the mile back to my hostile and had to stop at a cafe and gorge on coffee and wine just to regain my strength. And yet I was drawn to see it again the very next day, to a very similar result.

Image

Emotionally, what makes this, Anderson’s best film, seem so different from his other work is the frank and sincere portrait of young love. Of course we still get the strange and awkward moments that are the heart of Anderson’s work to date, but there is far less distance between the characters and the audience. I think this largely comes from the fact that the protagonists are actually children and not just extremely childish. Anderson realizes this and changes his visual style to match, adding more movement and a greater sense of urgency to his usual tableaux.

-Taken (and slightly edited) from my original review for Real Time Podcast.

Image

I’m not even sure what to say about Reygadas’s wonderful head trip. I’ve only seen it once, and it was such an overwhelming experience that parts of it certainly flew over my head. All I can say for sure is that I genuinely loved it, and even now, eight months later, I still routinely think of images from this film that will never leave my mind. Reygadas is already responsible for one film in my all-time top ten (Japon), and this, the best film of 2012, so his continuing career is one of the things I am most excited about in cinema.

Image

True story, I saw this film five times in theaters (in four different countries). I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything else more than twice. Need I say more?

Image

I don’t know if it’s really possible to pick the single best aspect of Ceylan’s epic masterpiece, but now, a year after I first saw it, the thing that I remember most is the sound. So much of this film’s greatness is about atmosphere, and the carefully constructed sounds of people walking on dirt and digging, and especially of the autopsy at the end are the aspects of that atmosphere that have stuck with me every time.

Image

I have no means of doing a short write-up on this film, so I will instead re-post a slightly edited version of my original review, written as part of a series on Tarr for Real Time Podcast coinciding with the Harvard Film Archive’s Bela Tarr series last spring.

If you have to go out, you may as well go out on top, right? I doubt that idea played any part of Bela Tarr’s thinking when he shocked the film world by announcing that 2011’s The Turin Horse would be his final film, but at least it does hold true. This was the first time the announcement of anyone’s retirement has ever brought me to tears, but at the very least, our greatest director left us by more or less guaranteeing that he would finish in the top spot of my eventual “best of the decade” list for the third straight time. And if you think that it is a bit too early to make that claim, you clearly do not yet understand how I feel about this man’s art. As his goodbye, he has given us his most tragic, most minimal and most apocalyptic work, a movie that slaps traditional narrative cinema in the face while clearly mourning the death of film itself.

As the story goes, in 1899 Friedrich Nietzsche was walking the streets of Turin when he saw a cabdriver whipping a horse that had stopped moving. The hysterical philosopher threw his arms around the neck of the horse and begged the man to stop. After this, Nietzsche never spoke again for the remaining decade of his life. The Turin Horse may or may not be the story of that horse. I say may or may not because many people seem ready and willing to automatically label them as the same, but, given the fact that the film is very much set in Hungary and, as in all of Tarr’s later films, the time in which the events shown take place is never actually clear. Rather, I think Tarr sees this film (and its horse) as his own Turin Horse, and after he is done with it he will never speak (artistically) again. In the film itself, an old farmer and his daughter attempt to eke out a meager existence on their small plot of land in Hungary, but this cannot last forever. Their horse has stopped moving, and can no longer carry them anywhere. The constant overwhelming wind storm has rendered the outside world inhospitable so, like Akerman’s great Jeanne Dielman, we follow a few days in their lives, with specific events playing out in real time as they eat, get water and work around their home. At one point a friend comes over for a quick drink and later some gypsies try to take some of their water. Of course, this doesn’t really matter. It is what Tarr is able to do with this sort of hyper minimalism that enthralls us.

As always, we must begin our discussion of the film’s aesthetic with Tarr’s use of the long take. While the setting and lack of supporting or background characters renders the shots generally less complex than in Werckmeister Harmonies, there are also fewer of them. While Werckmeister had thirty-nine shots in its 140-minute runtime, The Turin Horse only has thirty in the same amount of time. As Werckmeister and Satantango, this makes it very clear that Tarr, more than anyone else is interested in cinema as a spatial and temporal art, and unlike Haneke, Tarkovsky or Sokurov, great filmmakers who are known to use the technique frequently, Tarr has made it the very basis of his aesthetic. The emotional weight of these films comes from the duration of the shots, and this is never as clear as it is in Turin Horse. The way the local retrospective of Tarr’s films was set up allowed me to see this the day after Damnation, and this timing made it very clear how much Tarr’s style changed over time. The shots are obviously longer, but the camera also moves much more and the lighting is much more subtle and interesting.

The film’s much-discussed opening shot shows the farmer riding the horse back to the farm at a high speed with the camera rushing to stay in front and Mihaly Vig’s brilliantly simple score blaring in the background. This is the single most energetic and surprising shot in all of Tarr, and by holding it for as long as he does, we soon begin to project any emotions we have onto the massive, struggling horse. The most memorable animals and objects in cinema are not cloying tools used to make the audience smile (as in the dog from The Artist), but rather creatures that, through great direction, are presented in a way that they reflect the emotional weight of the story. Think Bresson’s Balthazar or even the titular toy in The Red Balloon. That is how Tarr presents the horse in this film. This horse is giant and fairly intimidating, but because of how it is presented, I can only see it as something utterly tragic. It is no surprise that the most emotional moment of the film comes when the daughter makes one last attempt at trying to get the horse to drink. There are no histrionics and the horse doesn’t even move, but this moment has moved me to tears on three separate occasions and I can’t see that changing with future viewings. Tarr makes it very clear that there are comparisons to be drawn between the father and the horse, and seeing their respective struggles play out in parallel makes the film only that much more tragic. The rest of the shots after the opening are more like the Tarr we know, providing us a privileged viewpoint to see the emotional struggles of this father and daughter. The film is so much more than a normal aesthetic masterpiece though, and its merits cannot just be discussed in regard to the long take.

The Turin Horse is one of the most emotionally engaging filmic experiences I have ever had, and aesthetics only play one part in this. For one, the performances from János Derzsi (as the father) Erika Bók (as the daughter) are among the greatest in any of Tarr’s work and the film could not succeed without them. As in the previous films, the characters here are not motivated by the usual psychological explanations found in Hollywood films, but rather by the existential search for some kind of dignity and meaning in their lives. When the farmer’s friend comes over for a drink, he gives a speech about how the world has become “debased” and how, once the good and intelligent realized that good and evil do not actually exist (furthering the Nietzsche connection), they disappeared and life became meaningless. The farmer dismisses that as “rubbish.” He is an old man with nothing but one working arm, a loving daughter who can barely read and will struggle mightily if ever left to her own and a dying horse, but he cannot accept the inherent meaninglessness of the universe. Eventually, they try to leave the farm behind, but they do not have the strength to go on. To see them give up and accept that they will die on this already dead farm with no more water and no horse is one of cinema’s greatest tragedies. Even at the very end, when the wind that has made up the entire soundtrack of the film stops blowing and they are able to sit in quiet, they, like their horse, can no longer even bear the thought of eating. Throughout the film, I was also aware of Tarr’s mourning of the loss of film as a technology. As the director who I would vote least likely to make the transition to digital, this does make sense. Eadweard J. Muybridge’s early photographs of horses in motion were one of the single most important influences on early cinema, and so, for Tarr, it ends with a horse unable to move.