Tales of Experience [WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY]

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Hamaguchi Ryūsuke

The omnibus structure, as deployed by just one (or two) filmmakers, has seen something of a resurgence in recent years. 2018’s La Flor (Mariano Llinás) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen) both utilized this conceit to fascinating and rejuvenating ends, with the former in particular using the multiple stories as a reflection of its deliberately protracted and endlessly generative production process. It’s no accident that genre and, more obviously in the case of Ballad, storybook framing are central to the conceit of these two films: it’s a handy way to connect what might otherwise be seen as disparate stories, and to give them a clarifying purpose that is then elaborated upon and deepened in the actual films.

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke has opted for a similar model of storytelling with his first film released in 2021, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Hamaguchi, whose meteoric rise in the span of just three (or four) feature films beginning with Happy Hour (2015) — after a lengthy incubation period in cultural institutions — has him poised at the highest echelons of the film festival world, professes little anxiety when it comes to the influence of his forbears: he has explicitly said that the three-part structure of Wheel comes from Éric Rohmer’s Les Rendez-vous de Paris (1995), another single-director omnibus film. Likewise, given Happy Hour‘s mammoth five-hour running time and lengthy performance sequences, critics have cast the phantom of Rivette over Hamaguchi’s work. But a better place to begin reckoning with Hamaguchi’s work might be his moderately overlooked Asako I & II (2018), still his best film to date and a miraculous evocation of the glories and tribulations of modern love. Adapted from a novel, it finds its inspirations and intricacies from within its generic conventions, lingering on the moments in between in order to create a better understanding of the world.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy functions in a similar way, taking as its genre of choice a particularly quiet and concentrated version of the woman’s picture, which Hamaguchi explored in a different manner with Happy Hour. Over the course of its three stories, which each present a slightly modified version of a codified structure, Hamaguchi follows three women and their interactions with others that hinge as much upon the interventions of the outside world as their own concerns and histories. Numerous connecting threads emerge, starting with the structure: the first segment contains two long conversations followed by a coda, the second has two short conversations with the same man as bookends to one long interaction with a different man, and the third focuses more-or-less entirely on a single day spent with another woman. But the throughlines run deeper than that: the age of the main character increases with each segment, going from the mid-twenties to early-forties; each protagonist becomes more and more visibly lonely or unsure of herself; technology is only invoked when absolutely necessary (in the middle segment), in favor of a focus on speaking.

It is in the realm of dialogue and especially reaction that Hamaguchi thrives, and what draws him in many’s eyes close to the realm of Rohmer and/or Rivette. The first story, in which the protagonist remains largely silent during the first conversation and then explodes into a volley of words in the second, is exemplary of this; her dawning realizations and hairpin turns of emotion fold directly into the oblivious yet transfixing retelling of a magical night that her friend is relating. Likewise, the professor in the second section manages to convey arousal, trepidation, and wonder all at the same time without letting one sensation predominate. Balance and recognition of the possibilities that each character in a conversation can provide remains key; just because one character in any given moment is pensive or silent does not dictate what their future actions might be. This isn’t to say that the characters exhibit uncharacteristic behavior; the essence remains the same, but Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy‘s figures are sketched to be as complex and multivalent as any characters in recent fiction, in large part because the scenarios are so quietly odd — in a manner similar to the central conflict in Asako I & II — as to allow them to bounce off each other in unexpected ways.

That level of surprise, of course, also extends to the interventions of chance, which take the form of interruptions, unanticipated encounters, and even a computer virus that remakes the world in the third segment. Though thoroughly logical, they remain unexpected, both in their masterful deployment at key junctures and in their unfixed purposes, often serving to either bring together or tear apart the protagonist and her scene partner. Hamaguchi is frank, if not quite unsparing in his recognition that the world often cannot accommodate the fantasies of one individual, though it’s well worth noting that said dreams are often knotted themselves, compromised by each person’s own doubts and worries.

This growing disquietude comes to the fore in the third and greatest segment; while the previous two resembled something more akin to a Rohmerian moral tale, and all three possess a directness of emotion that was downplayed in Happy Hour and Asako this third segment uses it towards evermore mysterious ends. A tale of mistaken identity and thwarted reunions that then morphs into a stunning set of twinned confessions and reconciliations, its distillation of decades of irresolution into one afternoon would be unfathomable apart from Hamaguchi’s sense for conversation, and the dynamics of each scene. Often shooting in long shot as the two women talk to another, he carefully portrays the shifts in posture, the particular timbre of their voices, letting the scene unfold with a quiet precision. Each story ends with a distinct manner of grace, no matter the seemingly temporary defeat each woman has been dealt. But it is here, in this chance encounter, that Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy finds its most salutary acceptance, through a bond forged by speaking and listening.

Dots and Rays [THE VELVET UNDERGROUND]

The Velvet Underground

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Todd Haynes

Ranking the level of subjectivity across various artistic media might seem foolish. After all, the entire goal of art is to connect with an individual or collective, and no particular person in either area will have precisely the same viewpoint or reaction to a work of art. But I’ve always felt that music, especially in recorded form, has an even greater susceptibility to subjectivity than, say, film or literature. The lack of visual stimuli encourages people to experience music in a much wider array of settings and circumstances, and associations and moods seem to crop up with every song listened and relistened to, over and over again.

This is a roundabout way to say that Todd Haynes’s first documentary The Velvet Underground seems targeted at a specific audience — one which I feel very much a part of. Not necessarily for the obsessives, those who have hunted down every bootleg and knew about the Primitives beforehand, but for those who have nevertheless been deeply molded by one of the most influential and groundbreaking acts in modern music.

As a reflection of this seismic impact, Haynes continually expands outwards his seemingly unlimited range of archival material. The opening moments themselves provide a bounty of colliding sources: a Baudelaire quote in combination with John Cale’s keening viola, which explores the whole stereo range, before cutting to a Winston cigarettes advertisement that segues to Cale’s appearance on the game show I’ve Got a Secret, which then explodes into a montage of Warhol screen tests, a brief glimpse of Empire, Cronkite’s announcement of JFK’s assassination, and a man being interviewed about his heroin usage, among many other assorted moments.

While all of these retain obvious relations to the sociopolitical climate in which the Velvet Underground arose, the thrilling nature of The Velvet Underground arises in no small part because it evokes a more phenomenological approach to the experience of history and culture, as well as a certain familiarity with modern art and especially avant-garde film of the 1960s. It’s one thing to evoke the aura of Andy Warhol and the Factory, but it’s another entirely to throw in extended passages of Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith, and Shirley Clarke works amid the collage of more recognizable and/or fashionable artists.

Mekas, to whom The Velvet Underground is dedicated, looms large and generously over the proceedings: it’s quite possible that he has as much or more footage than Warhol does, considering the amount of his signature blurry, sped-up handheld that registers in the first third of the film. The film possesses few moments as uniquely thrilling as listening to a contemporary interview with him, less than a year before his death, which is mixed alongside “European Son,” as the viewer watches in Chelsea Girls-inspired split-screen his footage alongside his Warhol screen test, before, in tandem with the song’s plate-shattering moment, the film splits into a twelve-screen kaleidoscope of New York City art, eventually changing into a bevy of Warhol screen tests.

While talking so much about the artists who surrounded the Velvet Underground might seem counterintuitive, it’s a testament to Haynes’s aims that the Velvet Underground hardly feels diminished in the slightest, though predictably Lou Reed and Cale are highlighted much more than Sterling Morrison or Maureen Tucker, though the latter gets some of the best interview moments. Rather, it’s a reflection of the way in which Reed especially, due to his demise and lack of interview footage, is evoked by the work of other artists. His introduction, juxtaposing stock footage showcasing the average American family and his especially intense screen test, introduces the same, almost unnerving pace that the film typically holds fast to, something akin to the drone that typified Cale’s music as developed with La Monte Young. The screen test itself only lasts four minutes, but played in full it takes on an uncanny effect when the viewer is juggling a constantly shifting screen on the left and a number of different voices on the soundtrack, including the almost spectral voice of Reed. The sequence seems to stretch to nearly ten minutes, such is the nature of Reed’s shifting melancholy, and that tone and aim of continual experimentation remains for a good long while after.

Haynes’s stated aim of only interviewing people who were alive and present during the Velvet Underground’s heyday produces fascinating results, in no small part because he holds off on designating explicitly who, say, Allan Hyman or Thomas Freeman are outside of context clues. Of course, more recognizable and delightful subjects, Amy Taubin and Jonathan Richman especially, abound, but there’s a pronounced sense of a tapestry being assembled. It helps that there’s a great aesthetic unity in the interview scenes that avoids being monotonous in the style of a lesser documentary: Ed Lachman’s Academy 35mm goes a long way to making the shots more lively.

However, what stands out most strongly as the film enters its last third or so and focuses evermore on the band, is the relative paucity of discussion of the actual music. Of course, the music is, if not a constant presence, then deployed frequently and prominently — a lesser director than Haynes would choose a much more obvious introduction to White Light, White Heat, my favorite VU record, than the thrillingly jarring “I Heard Her Call My Name,” though he leaves out my favorite VU song “The Gift” — but little time is spent discussing it once the Velvet Underground forms, and almost none in the actual studio, though the last two-thirds is ostensibly structured around the four albums, which progressively receive less and less time. Rather, much more space is given to the tours and shows, to the particular experiences that could not have been witnessed by the vast majority of viewers.

While that might rankle some — and indeed, it’s possible to imagine an even stronger and longer version of The Velvet Underground that does “justice” to the Doug Yule era — that in and of itself is a sign of Haynes’s true aims: to provide a resurrection of the sensations, attitudes, and promises of the ’60s NYC scene. It is very much the work of a fan, of someone in love with not just the brilliant and daring music, but also the whole vibe. It’s also to his credit that he chooses such a simpatico, dense mosaic of images to pair, and that there is something of an odd modesty, if not humbleness to Haynes’s approach throughout. Rather than issue a series of hosannas from the 30,000 people who started a band — Richman is excused due to sheer exuberance — he goes back to the original sources, to the personal elements that meshed so well with the technical skills and social factors to produce a fount of inspiration that might never be matched. The Velvet Underground were completely, thoroughly unique, and in its own way, The Velvet Underground stands on the shoulder of giants to capture even a little bit of that glory.

2021 Festival Dispatch #2 Show Notes

Listen to the podcast here.
Subscribe to the podcast here.

Description
The second 2021 festival dispatch of the Catalyst and Witness podcast, devoted to exploring the films and format of the New York Film Festival, hosted by Ryan Swen. This covers the second week of the 2021 New York Film Festival, and features guests Forrest Cardamenis, Edo Choi, Soham Gadre, Susannah Gruder, Jeva Lange, and Jason Miller.

0:00-54:44 – Part One
54:45-1:55:41 – Part Two

Housekeeping

  • Hosted by Ryan Swen
  • Conceived and Edited by Ryan Swen
  • Guests: Forrest Cardamenis, Edo Choi, Soham Gadre, Susannah Gruder, Jeva Lange, Jason Miller
  • Recorded in Los Angeles, New York City, and New Jersey on Sudotack Microphone and MacBook GarageBand and Audacity and Zoom Recorder and iPhone, Edited in Audacity
  • Podcast photograph from Yi Yi, Logo designed by Dan Molloy
  • Recorded October 8, 2021
  • Released October 19, 2021
  • Music (in order of appearance):
    • The Power of Kangwon Province
    • Blissfully Yours
    • Touching the Skin of Eeriness

Same As the Old Flesh [TITANE]

Titane

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Julia Ducournau

Going strictly by the marketing and discussions that have surrounded Titane, one would think it impossible to sense a whiff of ambivalence or equivalence in the film or in Julia Ducournau. Already predestined to be enshrined as a take-no-prisoners whirlwind of sex and ultraviolence, it has been seized by hyperbole and outrage even more forcefully by the social media apparatuses than the average arthouse sensation. But as is so often the case, the most buzzworthy aspects of the film, its explicit provocations, have overshadowed the actual progression of the film.

It isn’t just that Titane is half gleefully gonzo body horror and half tender, unconventional family drama, though in pure runtime that might be the case. Ducournau gets through the bulk of her kills awfully quickly, frontloading most of her most outré, non-vehicular-pregnancy related material into something like 30 minutes. Additionally, calling it a breathlessly-paced thrill ride isn’t a terribly fitting description either: the first kill is as much focused on an almost clinical process of cleaning up as it is the hairpin in the head, and an equivalent amount of time is spent on Bertrand Bonello — basically a sight gag for the small percentage of people who know his directorial oeuvre — heating pasta as it is on the succession of murders in the house, as memorable as the image of a stool leg through someone’s face might be.

That still leaves at least an hour, and the vast majority of that is taken up by much subtler, tender, and thus less marketable elements. It’s well worth noting that much of the true parallels, genderfluidity, and even pain could have been conveyed without recourse to a serial killing spree or car-induced pregnancy. Alexia could simply have needed to go on the run for some impulsive crime, devised the same scheme to disguise herself as Adrien, and needed to do the same painful breast and stomach bindings. This feels especially relevant because of the fundamentally mundane yet deeply perverse nature of Vincent’s own body issues: a man on the opposite end of the age spectrum, subjecting himself to rituals of externally-induced regeneration and degradation equivalent to the virtual mask-wearing and performance that Alexia is enacting on a more overt basis.

Indeed, many of Ducournau’s most memorable images and moments — a talent which, from my hazy memory, she has improved upon considerably from Raw — don’t stem from its explicit body horror at all. The looming shadows in the parking lot, a few scenes of group dance that then shift focus to Alexia, and most of all fire — Titane is certainly explicit in drawing parallels between father and surrogate son, and one of the most effective lies in the almost holy, all-consuming way in which fire is featured and adapted throughout the film: a curling and implacable element, which is never shown truly extinguished on screen.

Vincent Lindon embodies that sense of a man being eaten alive by his obsessions and past so well, and more than any other element in the film, he displays that quick-witted, unpredictable range of emotions that Titane can sometimes lack. The dinner scene in which he attempts to get Alexia to talk, begins dancing with an amusing levity, then fights her in a manner that straddles the line between violence and play, succeeds precisely because Lindon is able to turn the somewhat abstract way in which his — and every other character, including Alexia — character has been written into a source of tension; instead of falling back on it as an excuse to exude menace 24/7, he takes his time to skillfully modulate his presentation, even within such a short span of time.

In contrast, Agathe Rousselle, while ably embodying the blasé, rebellious sociopath of Titane‘s first part, struggles some with the plentitude of ciphers placed upon her by Ducournau. Is Alexia actually a true serial killer prior to the beginning of the film? Is this really her first time with a woman (in one of the more effective graphic scenes, despite or perhaps because of its more typical outré nature)? Such questions ultimately aren’t important, and it’s a relief and something of a revelation when she transforms herself into Adrien and consequently settles into a much quieter, much more creepily compelling mode of performance. Of course she looks like herself when she was a child, getting that all-too-important metal plate put into her head, but the potential head-slapping obviousness of such an image is outweighed by its effectiveness on a purely photographic level, and her body movements and trepidation act as a perfect sounding board for Lindon’s stolid, outwardly assured persona; the clash between his established stardom and her screen ascension alone provides for a compelling throughline.

So it really is a true shame each and every time Titane cuts back to another scene of Alexia scratching away at herself, leaving deep scars, or leaking motor oil from her orifices; there’s even a very late recapitulation of car sex that feels thrown in entirely at random, perhaps in an attempt to remind the viewer of what the film had been up to before it plunged into more interesting and knotty territory. The pregnancy element seems to come and go whenever Ducournau feels that the viewer might be losing interest; something like twenty minutes go by at one point before a squeamish person would feel compelled to cover their eyes. Far be it from me to claim that a film like this is being unrealistic or not beholden to the rules that it has set for its world — this is, after all, a film that more-or-less begins with erotic dancers being mobbed by fans asking for autographs — but this is more a question of what the film is actually trying to say, whether it be regarding gender, sex, family, meat, and metal.

Without going into each element specifically, there is an incoherence that seems unproductive in all respects except family, which remains productively muddled to the very final image. Despite his statements to the contrary, Vincent’s level of dedication to his son despite the eventually-obvious nature of her deception remains in constant motion, hinging in the last scene on the statement of names, the interpretation of certain actions; the gender-bending here feels vital as well in further confusing the lines of performance and perception. Where the film falls is in trying to collide these thought-through, small-scale but graspable ideas to the plotline of a person being distended by an automobile fetus, which ostensibly remains one of the two driving elements of the entire film.

If I was being uncharitable, I’d say that Titane almost felt like it was initially conceived along similar lines as my hypothetical retelling of the second part as its own film, free of such fantastical elements, given the amount of time and care put into the interactions between Rousselle and Lindon. After this initial draft was written, whether from internal or external pressures, Ducournau could have lost her nerve and decided to add in this early bout of violence as a means of grabbing a wider audience’s attention and to sprinkle in bits of body horror throughout to avoid a sense of alienation on the part of gorehounds and the like.

Given Raw and her statements, this is unlikely to be the case, but it’s hard not to note that Titane ends in exactly the most logical manner that it could, with a final set of actions that could have easily be pulled off without the need for metal prosthetics. If the ending — effective, emotionally visceral, and genuinely moving as it is — is so legible in its intent, so removed in all the senses that matter from the surface provocations that have dominated the conversations surrounding it, might it not be the case that this purportedly out-of-this-world work bears a marked resemblance to the quiet dramas that it tries so hard to distinguish itself from?

Waves of Time [ISABELLA]

Isabella

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Matías Piñeiro

Before Isabella, Matías Piñeiro’s films have almost been defined by their lack of anchoring images. Whether as a result of his segmented structures — adding and discarding characters and foci — or his tendency towards experimentation and formal gambits that are seldom repeated — think the brief use of negative photography in Hermia & Helena, or the opening surreal association football game in The Princess of France — his work has been caught up, usually for the better, in a youthful sense of currency, constantly moving forwards in his characters’ lives. Even the hopping time structure in Hermia is clearly segmented, the moves between Buenos Aires and New York City a conscious incorporation of the delightful inbetweenness experienced by its characters, perpetually on the move.

Not so in Isabella. Focusing on something like four moments or stretches of time — some separated by hours, some by years — Piñeiro abstracts the relations between not only the four stretches, but also the moments within each into their own sets of associated images. Often, the precise location of each discrete shot in connection with its narrative container is left to be filled in later, most notably with the recurring image of Agustina Muñoz walking on the streets, which repeats something like six times before she finally arrives at her audition.

Were this placed in a more forthrightly experimental film, it would likely be total catnip. As it stands, existing in one of Piñeiro’s typical narratives — notably more downbeat and ruminative than usual as it is — it begs the question of whether this playful and bewildering structure exists at odds with its central narrative. One of said anchoring images offers a way in: that entrancing, somehow practically-made light installation, which builds on its numerous inner rectangles to create an ultimately harmonious whole — so harmonious that when it is ruptured by María Villar walking around within it, it’s a legitimately shocking event.

Calling Isabella is perhaps too strong a statement to make, but there’s an evident design to the syuzhet that, as random as they may seem in the moment, eventually rises to form a coherent, moving arc of acceptance: Villar’s disappointment at losing the part, though evident from very early on, retains the same effectiveness when deployed at the end, and it makes the juxtaposition with her playful interactions with Muñoz at the fabula’s endpoint more charged with the memory of the past. And as his wont, Piñeiro throws in little moments that themselves rupture the texture, cast everything into a new light: the extraordinary moment when Villar almost fades out of existence, the dream represented by actual behind-the-scenes footage from “Sycorax,” his new short co-directed with Lois Patiño.

Even on this second viewing, Isabella was at times extremely elusive and even enervating, so willful in its time-hopping. But the overall serenity, captured so well in the installation and the rock-throwing ritual as the tide quietly ebbs and flows, remains compelling to the end.

2021 Festival Dispatch #1 Show Notes

Listen to the podcast here.
Subscribe to the podcast here.

Description
The first 2021 festival dispatch of the Catalyst and Witness podcast, devoted to exploring the films and format of the New York Film Festival, hosted by Ryan Swen. This covers the first week of the 2021 New York Film Festival, and features guests Forrest Cardamenis, Soham Gadre, Susannah Gruder, and Patrick Preziosi. (Edo Choi was also on the call but could not be included due to technical difficulties.)

0:00-34:08 – Part One
34:09-1:11:09 – Part Two

Housekeeping

  • Hosted by Ryan Swen
  • Conceived and Edited by Ryan Swen
  • Guests: Forrest Cardamenis, Soham Gadre, Susannah Gruder, Patrick Preziosi, Edo Choi
  • Recorded in Los Angeles, New York City, and New Jersey on Sudotack Microphone and MacBook GarageBand and Audacity and Zoom Recorder, Edited in Audacity
  • Podcast photograph from Yi Yi, Logo designed by Dan Molloy
  • Recorded October 1, 2021
  • Released October 5, 2021
  • Music (in order of appearance):
    • Our Beloved Month of August
    • Poison
    • The Souvenir