Saturday, July 20, 2013

some thoughts on NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY

The boundaries of what is acceptable in cinema today are nowhere more circumscribed than what is an acceptable duration, and so when I say that NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY is a four hour film, those who would think nothing of watching, say, four episodes of MAD MEN in a row nonetheless immediately dismiss NORTE as not being of any possible interest. A four hour film carries certain connotations, few of which are, apparently, positive.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY is the best film I've seen at the New Zealand International Film Festival since 2010's CERTIFIED COPY, and possibly even better, so I'm pretty passionate about trying to convince people why they should see it. But maybe first it's easier to talk about what it's not.

It's not "slow cinema".

It's not austere.

It's not humorless (although it is serious, in the best sense).

It's not pretentious.

It's not forbidding, or difficult to follow.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY, directed by Lav Diaz, is a film that's four hours because that's the right length for this film. It's not about "changing your perception of time and slowing down" or any of that carryon. (I like some of those films - AITA, SWEETGRASS, LE QUATTRO VOLTE come to mind - but this isn't one of them.) I've been in 80 minute movies that tested my patience to much, much greater levels. If I could cut a minute out of this film, I wouldn't.

The other day, I imagined a book festival that was like a film festival: not a "writer's festival" where you hear writers talk, but a festival where you curl up and read books. Today, I saw a film that was novelistic in its feel; detail accruing gradually, characters that lived and breathed and surprised, plot a background function that unfolded organically. I can't think of a film that felt this way since Edward Yang's YI YI in 2000 (although that film is much more "cuter" and likable). Even the structure of NORTE is novelistic: rather than cross-cutting between characters, NORTE will spend quite a chunk of time (a "chapter", if you will, though they're not broken down like this on screen) with a character, then double back to another character.

I often have a bias against films that are socially conscious in some way because they use their dramaturgy to evoke a political point in a way that feels cooked. I generally feel this way when I watch a Dardennes film, I feel it when I watch Farhadi films, I feel it acutely when I watch a fucking Ken Loach film. And an 80 minute version of this film (which you could make, if you believe that cinema only exists to offload narrative in the most efficient manner possible, in which case, you should just skip the cinema and read the plot summary on Wikipedia, shouldn't you?) would have the same problems, which is to say, these films rely on synecdoche to make their political points, e.g. you meet a cop, he's evil, it shows all cops are crooked.

Diaz doesn't believe in synecdoche; instead of having a part stand for the whole, he shows the whole. You see the characters at length, and observe them, and whilst you can place them in a greater sociopolitical context, they don't function solely as signifiers of a critique of a system; rather, they function as humans, with all their messy complications. They are often unpredictable, sometimes in gentle and beautiful ways, sometimes in tragic and horrifying ways, and yet these surprises seem almost inevitable in retrospect. The length of the film shortcircuits your traditional biorhythms of expectation: there's no point where you're like "oh, we're here, so this is what needs to happen now". (Not wearing a watch helped, probably, but still.) His naturalistic observation brought to mind 2010's ALAMAR, only that film was merely about naturalistic observation, where every scene here advances the story and our character understanding.

Directorially, Diaz, like many others who work at duration, is a believer in the long take. He's also a believer in the slow deliberate camera move: some of his push-ins are so slow, you have to watch the edge of the frame to work out that the camera's actually moving. I am also a believer in the slow push-in, so I approve. But he's not overly locked into a single manner: there's quite wide shots, there's closer shots (although no real close-ups, per se), there's shots that have complicated camera movements and blocking, there's POV shots that are handheld. It's always well-considered and well-framed, tasteful without being dull, and intriguing without being unnecessarily showy. Diaz isn't a believer in cinematic manipulation - there's no score to the film - he just uses cinema to accrue detail and character understanding, and that takes time when you're not using cheating shortcuts. But that investment bears a fantastic return.

NORTE does contain a few dark scenes, and that's my only hesitation in recommending it too widely, although the most explicit bits are generally handled off-camera. It's nothing compared to, say, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, but maybe it hurts more here because you care.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY is a film that will never come back. There were, maybe, 25 of us in the theater today. It plays twice more in Auckland: once on Wednesday night, and once on Monday afternoon. Maybe eventually you'll find a sneaky way to download it or import a DVD or something, but it won't be the same: it's a film whose sprawling wide shots are made for the big screen. If anything I've said here makes it sound like something you might enjoy, then please: don't miss it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ten Hidden NZIFF Gems (I hope)

Whilst focusing attention on Best Worst Podcast, I've neglected the written word a bit when it comes to the New Zealand International Film Festival. But I imagine somewhere out there, there's someone who hasn't got past page 7 of the brochure, is realizing NZIFF starts TOMORROW, and is making last minute decisions. The temptation in such a case is of course to go for the names you know: Jarmusch, Soderbergh, that film your friend was a wardrobe assist or a background extra on, that's enough, right?

I am here to tell you: resist temptation. Seek the hidden gems. The Soderbergh will come back. The Jarmusch will come back. (I can't speak to your friend's film.) These almost definitely won't. And while I haven't seen any of them, I've got a pretty good feeling, which means I can guarantee at least seven of them will be great. (Sorry, can't guarantee which seven. Just playing the odds.)

A BAND CALLED DEATH: remember that SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN film that everybody loved? Now imagine if a. Sugarman was a 4-piece black band from the 70s in Detroit that were playing punk rock before punk rock was even a term that existed and b. it was based around a family story. Okay, that's a terrible analogy. What I'm trying to say is that this music doco might be overlooked by those that would most love it, hidden away in the Incredibly Strange section (along with another music doco, the very different-looking but highly intriguing THE SOURCE FAMILY), but it's winning the hearts of everyone who takes a chance on it, regardless of their music taste. That it fucking rocks is only a bonus.

ERNEST AND CELESTINE: I would have thought with only one animated tale this year, this watercolor-styled story of the friendship between a bear and a mouse would be a massive hit, but it seems to be one of the few Bridgeway sessions that hasn't sold out, which makes me think it's been ignored somehow. To be fair, it is playing against both NORTH BY NORTHWEST and CHARLUATA in said session, which gave me pause when making the tough decisions, and forced me to break my "no trailer" rule to confirm that I wanted to see it. 20 seconds later, my smile was already in danger of being permanently affixed to my face. And did I mention that the directors of previous NZIFF hit A TOWN CALLED PANIC are involved? Because they are.

LEVIATHAN: I thought everybody knew this was essential viewing, but word of mouth makes me fear that the guide is scaring people off with its allusions to potential nausea. So maybe sit in the back, but do show up to see this. It will be unlike anything you've ever seen on the screen: the use of small GoPro cameras around a trawler captures the sea and the act of commercial fishing in intensely visceral, abstract, horrific and beautiful ways. I've watched the same clip online, like, twenty times, and it never loses its magic. I can't wait to see it at scale on a cinema screen, and if I could only see one film this year, there's a damn good chance it would be this one.

STRANGER BY THE LAKE: let me get the disclaimer out of the way first: apparently it has reasonably explicit gay sex, so if that bothers or offends you, you know what not to do. That notwithstanding, this was one of the sleeper hits of Cannes: virtually everybody who saw this unconventional suspense thriller raved about it, and while director Alain Giuraudie is an NZIFF newcomer, the one film I've seen of his before (NO REST FOR THE BRAVE) is a fascinatingly unconventional piece of filmmaking. Guessing this is going to end up high on my list of fest favorites.

BLUE RUIN: another word-of-mouth Cannes hit, also tucked away in the Incredibly Strange section. Whilst there's no shortage of bloody crowd-pleasers in this section this year (including the incredibly enjoyable YOU'RE NEXT, which I've seen, as well as V/H/S 2, LESSON OF THE EVIL, CHEAP THRILLS, and MANIAC), this one seems perched much closer to the arthouse; the clips I watched brought to mind the Dardennes brothers slightly in their observational quality. It's just a feeling, but I'm pegging this as the sleeper hit of the Incredibly Strange section this year.

THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT: okay, this one is probably only for the more arthouse-tolerant, but at least two trusted Twitter arthouse fans are calling this the film of the year, full stop. I did watch the trailer because of a painful conflict, which gives away nothing as near as I can tell; it's confounding and captivating all at once, and I think I'm going to have to beg to leave work early to check this one out. (My Hong Sang-Soo completism being what it is has caused some scheduling problems, as usual.)

THE MISSING PICTURE: So there's two documentaries this year about mass killings in Southeast Asia. Most of the press has been around Joshua Oppenheimer's THE ACT OF KILLING, which to be sure sounds absolutely deserving (it comes with stamps of approval from Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, for starters) and this tale of Indonesian death-squad members re-enacting their crimes should be a must-see for you. But less heralded, perhaps because it just debuted at Cannes (where it won an award), is this documentary about the Cambodian genocide, which tells its tale in part using wood-carved figurines. The curious blend of form and content has me just as intrigued to see this as THE ACT OF KILLING.

ORACLE DRIVE: FANTAIL, GISELLE, THE WEIGHT OF ELEPHANTS, and THE DEADLY PONIES CLUB seem to have the local heat this year, but I'm entranced by this unheralded North Shore absurdist essay film. At least, I think that's what it is. I watched a little bit from their PledgeMe page and it looks completely unconventional. In a country known for its rolling hills and lush coastlines, to see a filmmaker making a place-based film about the back of billboards amuses me to no end.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY: How do I convince you that a four-hour film is worth taking a chance on? It's great value for money? It will undoubtedly never come back? It's a rather short piece by the filmmaker's standards (he often works with seven to nine hour runtimes)? I'm reasonably sure none of this will work, and I can't quantify quite why I'm excited about it (I've never seen another Lav Diaz film). But his use of long takes appeals to me, especially after just having survived a blockbuster that shall will remain nameless that never saw a shot it was willing to sustain for more than 3 seconds.

EVERYDAY OBJECTS: This German film is the only international film that I'm seeing that I've heard literally nothing about. Over the years, some of my favorite NZIFF films (LONGING and 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST leap immediately to mind) have been completely unheralded, selected solely to fill a slot, and so I try to see one or two a year that fit that bill for that very reason; in a fest where there are many films that I have already been anticipating and therefore know a bit about, it's great to see something that's undigested, a complete surprise (and hopefully a pleasant one). Key words that struck me from the description and got me excited: "Concise", "coolly formal", "intelligent and seductive".

Plus, also, too, maybe you might, if you can: MUSEUM HOURS (by Jem Cohen, and sponsored by the discerning souls at The Lumiere Reader), LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (new Kiarostami; his last film CERTIFIED COPY is still my favorite film of the decade), COMPUTER CHESS (this thing looks INSANE, which I mean as a compliment; read Jacob Powell's interview with Andrew Bujalski to get excited), A FIELD IN ENGLAND (Ben Wheatley of KILL LIST and SIGHTSEERS creates a black and white drug trip), NOBODYS DAUGHTER HAEWON (I am endlessly fond of Hong Sang-Soo films), and CHARLES BRADLEY: SOUL OF AMERICA (which, I mean: just watch this and tell me you don't want to know that guy's story; need I mention that he put out his debut album at 62?).

And, oh hey, while I'm here: five films you can't miss on the Civic screen: UPSTREAM COLOR (! = the followup to PRIMER, you guys, this will look amazing), THE GREAT BEAUTY (!! = the new film by Paolo "Only The Best Director of Cinematic Motion Alive" Sorrentino), THE HUMAN SCALE (which: read Alexander Bisley's excellent interview and you'll probably get excited as I did), THE DANCE OF REALITY (new Jodorowsky, this will be amazing to argue about after it's done, come hang out with me in front of the Civic and we'll shoot the shit until the wee hours), and of course GOBLIN PLAYS SUSPIRIA, the single most exciting festival announcement of the 10 years I've lived in New Zealand.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

NZIFF - Best Worst Podcast crib notes

So: most years I do a big long writeup about all the films I'm intending to see at NZIFF. This year, circumstances haven't given me a lot of time. 

However, Jacob Powell and I have recorded two installments of Best Worst Podcast covering what films we're excited about.

However however, I'm also acutely aware that some of my friends (to say nothing of my enemies) would rather punch themselves in the face for three hours before listening to three hours of me talking about movies.

Herewith, then: the titles that we discussed on each program. If you want the why, you'll have to listen, as our highly paid interns who do transcriptions do not exist.


Record 1 (ep 19):

Must-sees (Doug and Jacob):

Jake must sees:

Doug must sees:

Jake must sees part 2:

Doug must sees part 2:

Tier 2 (almost definitely)


Music Docos:

Record 2 (ep 20): 
reviews of You're Next and Stories We Tell
top ten additional pics:
Nobodys Daughter Haewon
Computer Chess
Only Lovers Left Alive
Like Someone In Love 
Harmony Lessons
Cheap Thrills
Blue Ruin
Ernest and Celestine 
The East
Die Welt
Museum Hours 
Oracle Drive 
La Jaula de Oro
Outrage Beyond 
A Band Called Death
The Spirit of '45
A Field In England