Emotion Smoothing [THE BEATLES: GET BACK]

Let It Be — and Get Back, and the bulk of the sessions and the rooftop concert — have always posed a conundrum in its relation to The Beatles. Simultaneously the flawed but fascinating final statement and a stopgap before Abbey Road, with a series of mixes that haven’t been able to displace the less-fitting excesses of Phil Spector and a film of its making nearly suppressed for decades, it is almost ignored, an album maudit where engagement is filled with complications.

The Beatles: Get Back, which chronicles the month of January 1969 that led to the fabled rooftop concert, seeks to bring forth both the complications and correct the record to a certain extent: while it presents a view of the extended recording sessions that is by no means the totally fractious chaos that it has often been characterized as, there are still flare-ups and disagreements, often characterized by long arguments. Unfortunately, however, Peter Jackson’s molding of the 60 hours of footage at his disposal — as directed initially by Michael Lindsay-Hogg — aims for something close to a recreation of what ends up being something less consistently or genuinely engaging than might be hoped; I say this as a great fan of the Beatles, though it’s been a while since I read Mark Lewisohn’s descriptions in his invaluable tome about the recording sessions, and Let It Be is among my least favorite of their records.

Initially announced as a documentary film, which then turned into a roughly six-hour three-part series, The Beatles: Get Back has now ballooned into an ungainly seven-and-a-half-hour series, with the second part alone, covering the two weeks between George’s departure and just before the rooftop concert preparations, running almost three hours. Length itself is not a problem in and of itself, but the emphases, or rather lack thereof, that Jackson chooses to place are: music is played frequently but in snippets, and a desultory mood quickly sets in, a lethargy that might be warranted if the series was able to sustain and uphold it with its sense of form.

But Jackson is limited by the footage he has, and for inexplicable reasons has chosen to tamper with it further. It appears that Lindsay-Hogg had something like ten cameras all rolling simultaneously, in both Twickenham and Apple, with some of them set in direct close-up of even marginal figures, and Jackson decides to cut rapidly between them almost without pause, holding few shots on either the band as a whole or wide shots of individual figures, aside from ones that emphasize the cavernous space of Twickenham. Moreover, the already discussed anti-archival implications — “restorations” which have heavily degrained most of the footage, thus erasing the 16mm textures that now only truly exist in the nicely vibrant colors — are immediately and continuously distracting in their lack of tactility, and the reframing done, switching the 1.37:1 footage to 1.77:1, might be even more off-putting, cutting off faces and shoving close-ups into angles that were never intended.

With all of this distraction — along with some cutaways, some (the Beatles singing “Rock and Roll Music” intercut with their performances of it on the 1966 world tour) considerably more integrated and lively than others (immigration protests which inspired “Get Back”) — the overall sense of the Beatles running on fumes rings even stronger. And yet… these still are the Lads, and the music when it truly clicks still has a sense of motion and closeness that’s still palpable. The problem, which extends even to the truly fantastic rooftop concert that almost closes the series, lies in the paucity of material that makes it past the vaguely noodling rehearsal stage. The impact of the forty-minute rooftop concert lessens somewhat when the Beatles only play five distinct songs, plus one reprisal each of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” and two reprisals of “Get Back,” especially when the night before they had floated the possibility of playing such songs as “Oh! Darling,” “All Things Must Pass,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” The confusion of the entire month, with constant downsizing of plans and missed dates, even extends to the Beatles’ indecision on the day of the rooftop concert; while Jackson’s decision to include this state of mind makes sense from an accuracy standpoint — which, it must be said, only occasionally feels extended to his patience with showcasing entire rehearsals of songs — it makes for amorphous filmmaking, only made more confusing by frequent mismatching of audio and footage.

Still, bland and blithe filmmaking can still yield some fantastic moments; the Beatles even at low ebb are prime camera subjects, though it’s a pity that Ringo (my favorite) has a minimal presence, a charming performance of “Octopus’s Garden” and some little moments aside, due to his general reticence to speak. In one of the few moments that derives its power from duration, the camera holds on Paul as he gradually comes up with “Get Back”; the first jam with Billy Preston yields an energy that registers nicely; it’s genuinely a pleasure to see the exact contexts in which some of John’s studio banter on Let It Be came from. Key figures in the Beatles’ orbit — George Martin and Mal Evans especially — have a nice presence, though it’s somewhat strange to see how much involvement Lindsay-Hogg and Glyn Johns had in the proceedings. And in one of the best aspects, Ono Yōko emerges vindicated; she is a constant presence by John’s side, but remains fairly subdued aside from some really cool moments in which she jams with the Beatles (all of whom seem engaged) using her trademark vocal style, which Paul’s adopted daughter Heather adorably mimics on the recording of “Dig It.”

On the whole, though, The Beatles: Get Back feels both overstuffed and incomplete, something which might be best indicated by the ending. The rooftop concert is enlivening, in large part because of the split screens and perspectives that Jackson utilizes and the corresponding use of proper aspect ratios; the music could be turned up a bit louder than the police constables’ exasperated attempts to close down the production, but a great deal of fun is had in mixing in the voices of the spectators and their bemused appreciation. But rather than close on that, there is a coda of the Beatles and company listening to the recordings, followed by a regression to the desultory studio recordings that they embarked upon immediately after. There is also no mention of the long delay in release, or Spector, or Abbey Road. It’s definitely possible to argue that it’s justified by the overall focus on the sessions themselves (aside a blitzkrieg of a well-executed, if slightly achronological opening ten-minute recap), but so much else of this feels unnecessarily thrown-in — there are even handy chyrons showing who each person is, even the members of the Beatles, for each part — that such an omission feels off. That might be the best description of The Beatles: Get Back: an admirable but compromised effort, to an even greater degree than the album it partially documents.

Away With Language [DRIVE MY CAR]

Drive My Car

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Hamaguchi Ryūsuke

The depiction of the creation of art is certainly nothing new to film, and has yielded both some transcendent works and some profoundly mediocre movies. But something that continually eludes the grasp of all but the finest of cinematic artists is the capture of that most intangible yet essential of elements: inspiration. Whether bestowed by the muses or birthed by external forces, it emerges without warning, upsetting the artist’s entire worldview with the force of their expression.

In his own unassuming, humble way, Hamaguchi Ryūsuke has joined those select few with Drive My Car, his second truly great film of 2021, and a giant step forward in his ongoing synthesis of various influences to create something entirely his own. That he has blown up the forty page Murakami Haruki short story of the same name into a three-hour epic is one thing, but his care on all levels — the script co-written with Oe Takamasa, the purposeful direction, and most of all the extraordinary feats of casting — yields something altogether more complex, emotionally direct in a similar way to his previous film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy yet tied up in the narrative and emotional reverberations across that most typical of surrogate families: the theater troupe.

Drive My Car finds its pater familias in Kafuku Yūsuke (Nishijima Hidetoshi, a regular in Hamaguchi’s mentor Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s films), a theater director/actor whose signature style involves staging classic plays with actors speaking their own native languages — examples in the film include Indonesian, German, Korean, Mandarin, Thai, and, in one of the most galvanizing touches in recent memory, Korean Sign Language. A forty-minute prologue, set two years before the rest of the film, quickly establishes the elements that continue to permeate throughout: his love for driving his bright red Saab 900, his cosmopolitan engagement with the theatrical world, his daughter’s early demise, and most of all the mysterious, erotic relationship he has with his wife Oto (Kirishima Reika). She is the focus of the film’s first shot, a hazy nude silhouette against the sunrise, narrating a story about a young girl who habitually enters her crush’s house. As the film relates, this mixture of eros and inspiration is crucial to her creative process, as sex — with either Kafuku or the coterie of affairs that she embarks on, which unbeknownst to her he is aware of — sometimes triggers a dreamlike series of recollections that her partner memorializes for her. She is also involved in Kafuku’s own creative process, recording the other roles of plays that he is acting in to help him internalize the rhythm that forms the bedrock of his productions.

The tape of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which Kafuku plays over and over, reciting to and against while in that Saab, ends up being the last tangible vestige he has of Oto: she dies unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage, and the grief and unresolved tensions inherent to their relationship enter into the swirl of emotions and relationships to be elaborated upon. Two years later, Kafuku is invited by a theater festival in Hiroshima to direct Uncle Vanya, and learns that, due to the rules of the contract, he is not allowed to drive his Saab during the residency. His assigned driver is Watari (Miura Tōko), a taciturn young woman with a prominent scar on her left cheek, whose driving allows Kafuku to enter a state of bliss and concentration in his car that he has never felt before. The gradual growth of their relationship, as they open up more and more about their pasts of grief, trauma, and loss, intertwines with Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya, as he enlists, among others, Takatsuki (Okada Masaki), Oto’s final lover and a notorious playboy, to play the much older role of Vanya; and Lee Yun-a (Park Yu-rim), a mute Korean woman, to play Sonya.

Drive My Car‘s mystery lies in its sense of balance, its ability to juggle all of these already myriad relationships mentioned above and the numerous other connections that Kafuku — and, by reticent extension, Watari — form with the company at large. For this is a true ensemble film, and one that understands that a transcendent moment of connection, within a group of people that requires it for both artistic and personal reasons, can arise between any pairing and within any moment, whether it be a charming dinner — featuring one of the cutest couples in film history — a fraught, emotionally and temporally taxing car ride, or a reconfigured rehearsal in the sunlight that adds new depths to relationships only hinted at before.

Rehearsals, as might be expected by the Rivettian label that has been, rightly or wrongly, ascribed to Hamaguchi, form a significant chunk of Drive My Car‘s non-car driving scenes, but their nature, and the back-and-forth that Kafuku has with his actors, goes far beyond simple questions of duration. In keeping with the rhythmic sense that Oto’s tape provides, the actors are instructed to speak slowly and without emotion, internalizing both the text and the reactions from their fellow players, so that it has formed a bedrock that blocking and motion can build upon in emotional terms. In explaining why he has refused to play Vanya, as he did just after Oto’s death, Kafuku explains that Chekhov brings out the reality of a person’s soul, extracting all that is hidden and buried, and that quality comes through forcefully in the many tape scenes in the car. Each extract is deployed judiciously, often seeming like Oto — or any number of other characters — is talking directly to Kafuku through Chekhov, while at other times embodying Kafuku’s perspective, hinting at inner fonts of rage, insecurity, and distress that he can’t permit himself to express.

Nishijima’s performance acts as a perfect channel for these mixed feelings, precisely because so much about it is simultaneously fixed and shifting. Sometimes within the same shot, his face appears to change age, with the slightest movement able to embody a cheerful youth or a wearied maturity, and his emotional range occupies that same continuum. Such a quality meshes beautifully with Miura’s role, especially as she becomes more and more prominent through the final hour, which breaks from the theatrical setting to embody a flight into the unknown, a space for pondering and emotional excavation that zeroes in on the most guarded feelings of two broken people. Her contribution rests in that stoicism, borne from the experiences of someone well beyond her years, an exterior that seems almost impenetrable until what first seems to be an unusually direct and standard — for Hamaguchi — scene of emotional catharsis, the third-to-last sequence that might well be the last lingering moment in a far lesser film.

That is where the last two scenes come in, and especially Park’s role. Kafuku and Watari’s relationship gradually becomes mapped onto the Vanya and Sonya relationship, and Hamaguchi brings it full circle with the second-to-last scene, performing the final scene of the play with Kafuku as Vanya. Lee emerges as a central character, embodying the hope and optimism that, as in Uncle Vanya the other characters can’t quite bring themselves to fully believe in, and so much of that comes through the particular nature of the sign language, the physicality of it and the duration that it invites. As the actors become more and more familiar with the text and she is translated for less and less, the performance seems to reach across into the viewer, a direct communication to the camera that emphasizes each stroke and motion with a deliberateness that transmutes the already considerable emotional catharsis of the play.

And if that weren’t enough, Drive My Car offers a final coda, set in another time and another place. The precise meaning of it is purposefully elusive, radically reconfiguring the accumulated objects present throughout the film to provide another form of catharsis entirely. Hamaguchi understands in his bones the interplay of emotionality and mystery, the weight that he must give to each character and their hopes and dreams, embodied in so many manners: even the score, a supremely pleasant and relaxed jazz score by Ishibashi Eiko, casts an entirely different light on the driving scenes, inviting a new sense of contemplation. Drive My Car marks out that space for thought, for pondering, and in doing so crowns the ascension of one of the 21st century’s finest filmmakers to date.

Rude Awakenings [BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORN]

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Radu Jude

Though I’ve now seen four of his features, I can’t claim to have a strong knowledge of Radu Jude’s career: he has directed somewhere in the neighborhood of eight features, including at least two found-footage documentaries, two fiction films before he first made the slightest of marks stateside with 2015’s Aferim!, and I haven’t gotten around to Uppercase Print, which premiered last year and seems to be a somber affair. Nevertheless, Jude’s shift to outright satire, as filtered through his distinctive sensibilities, is shaping up to be one of the most pronounced and productive career pivots in recent memory, in a similar manner to Bruno Dumont’s. Not to say that something like the pictorial Scarred Hearts doesn’t have a charge of its own, but his aesthetic seems both refined and amplified when applied to the present moment. My favorite of his films, “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History As Barbarians” (2018), opted for a dialogue-filled, sprawling approach to its collision of present recreation and the lingering specters of past state violence.

The delightfully named Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn goes for something more and less focused for Jude, while extending the sexual provocations in that film into outright text. Its protagonist is Emi (Katia Pascariu), a respected teacher at a prestigious Bucharest secondary school, who becomes embroiled in controversy when a sex tape she makes with her husband is uploaded to PornHub through unknown means. Said sex tape is presented in full, seemingly unsimulated detail at the very beginning of the film before the title card, which categorizes what’s to follow as “a sketch for a popular film” with an epigraph from the Mahābhārata. Such an trifocal volley — obvious provocation, poppy aesthetic, and serious intellectual references — typifies Jude’s approach throughout the film: this is willfully crass and hilarious, but an urgent anger undergirds nearly every moment, a plea to examine perspectives and politics inherent in the everyday.

Indeed, Bad Luck Banging takes place across three parts of mostly equal length, each of which approaches the central conundrums raised by this sudden intrusion of private intimacies into the public world in very different ways. In the first, which takes place across the span of an afternoon, very little in obvious narrative terms occurs: it is made clear that the sex tape has already leaked and that Emi is due to be examined at an impending parent-teacher conference. But aside from a visit to the headmistress and a few phone calls with her husband, the film merely observes Emi as she walks what feels like the entire breadth of Bucharest, navigating a city in the throes of the mid-pandemic: masks are everywhere, and the corresponding etiquette is beginning to break down. Shot, like the rest of the film, in Scope, the camera pans across numerous incidents of arguments and rancor, intensified by the pandemic: a woman yelling at another woman paying with food stamps in a checkout line, only to suddenly tell the cashier to put her mask up; a driver practically running over an irate pedestrian; even Emi gets her own scene, heatedly arguing with a truck driver who has parked on the sidewalk.

The overriding impression is of a realization that things are as normal, despite the pandemic, with the streets, stores, and restaurants remaining as busy as ever. Jude’s pans especially serve to emphasize so much commercial detritus: a woman in a TikTok shirt, Emoji Movie backpacks, slot machines, numerous advertisements for real estate agents and a billboard for chocolate inscribed with the phrase “I Like It Deep.” The fiction even appears to rupture for a second, as an elderly woman strolls up to the camera and utters the phrase “eat my cunt.”

Bad Luck Banging then mutates in its second part, “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs, and wonders,” which as might be expected covers an array of louche, horrifying, and unexpected entries, accompanied by equally unexpected illustrations formed principally from found footage and objects. These can take overtly Romanian forms: the former dictator Ceauşescu (whose ghost haunts the majority of Romanian New Wave films), the celebrated national poet Eminescu. But more often, they follow more general concepts, marching from A to Z, containing everything from “Nature” and “History” to “Blonde Jokes” and “Social Distancing.”

A brief explanation is proffered alongside the entry in the English subtitles, and here an almost schizophrenic attitude is adopted: the entry for “Aboriginies” describes them as persons of little worth, while “The Romanian Orthodox Church” is condemned for its complicity in the dictatorships, complete with a video showing nuns singing a Fascist Youth song. Numerous contradictions and perfectly unpleasant moments abound: “Blowjob” — accompanied by, of course, unsimulated fellatio — is noted as being the most looked-up word in the Online Dictionary, with the runner-up by “empathy”; “Efficiency” is simply represented by a pan from a funeral home to an emergency room; “Family” solely relates the statistic that six out of ten Romanian children are subject to domestic violence. This second part registers as both a stopgap between the two overtly Emi-related sections (though she makes a brief appearance, under “Close-Up”) and an extension of the overall challenge that Jude puts for the viewer, a synthesis in intellectual terms that is perhaps a more adult version of Emi’s own challenges for her students.

Those challenges form a large bulk of the final section of Bad Luck Banging, as what begins as a discussion of Emi’s fitness as a teacher in light of her indiscretion spirals in to a referendum on all manner of issues: the sanctity of institutions, the limits of education and grades, the responsibility of parents, the Holocaust, and even whether blowjobs and whips are part of normal sexual behavior. Jude keeps bouncing between the parents, who come from different strata of Romanian upper-middle-class life — an army officer, a belligerent pilot, an officious mother who shows the entire sex tape in full twice, a priest, precisely two people of color — and the headmistress and Emi. It remains contentious but funny throughout, full of interjections crass and insightful alike, including two separate instances in which Emi and a sympathetic man quote extensively from studies on their phones that cut against the traditional views of teaching, with him stressing the institutional aspect and her the benefits of memorization.

All the while, the night grows darker and the color gels increase in intensity, until the climactic vote, at which the film splits again into three separate possibilities. It’s crucial that, even though in one of them Emi is allowed to continue as a teacher, she never truly triumphs, at least in the eyes of the most vocal participants. Her autonomy, insight, and awareness are supported by her vociferous rebuttals, but in a society as fractured by history, nationalism, and a plague as Romania, only a certain transcendence can give satisfaction. Jude’s great achievement lies in his deconstruction of this society, so horrifying that it becomes funny once again.

November 2021 Capsules

Shanghai Express
It’s so crucial here that none of von Sternberg’s characters fundamentally change, perhaps not even Dietrich. Despite their harrowing journey, they are either too enmeshed in China (Wong and her quiet patriotism) or too set apart from it by their foreign mindsets to be truly shaken. What matters here, and what von Sternberg so vividly conveys in his structure, which treats the entire upheaval of a vicious power struggle, is how events shed new lights on preexisting perspectives. Carmichael, previously the butt of most every joke, emerges as a guiding light, a conduit towards a deeper understanding. And it is with a great, unexpected tenderness that Dietrich rises to receive it, while keeping her luminescence intact.

The Souvenir: Part II
Aside from its clear purpose as an elaboration of an artist’s vision liberated from the strictures of a threadbare film school student’s budget and limited sets, the climax’s imagined short film acts as a synecdoche for Hogg’s larger vision. The Souvenir: Part II itself cycles through styles, throwing in privileged moment after moment, with the metafilm conceit helping the viewer to cast a different glance on each successive shot: is this Julie’s film? Garance’s? Patrick’s? Of course, it’s all Hogg’s film in the end, but there’s a productive tension of reality and unreality, most evident in Julie’s amusing but honestly painful attempts at communicating messy interior life to well-meaning but confused actors. In general, there’s a fitting sense of instability and tentativeness, thrown into further relief by the greater time spent with Julie’s mother and her own modest burgeoning artistic practice. And the very ending acts as a strange hall of mirrors, both an entrapment and a liberation, a closing of a chapter.

Round Midnight
I keep coming back to the moments where Gordon talks about his reeds. He seems to be playing on a single reed at a time, specifically requesting a Rico 3. I don’t know what the reed market was like in 1959; now reeds come in boxes of five (for tenors) and aren’t all that expensive. Moreover, Ricos are the starter reeds, the ones that come gratuit with your new horn. I play Vandoren Java 2 1/2s, designed specifically for jazz; I wonder if Gordon opting for the stronger reed helped with the richness of his sound, which regains its former luster over the course of the film. That Round Midnight can carry and sustain that detail only goes to show the key role experience should play when it comes to the creation of art.

Corrupted Memories [PROCESSION]

Procession

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Robert Greene

Full disclosure: I am a friendly acquaintance of Robert Greene.

Over the course of about a decade, Robert Greene has cultivated one of the more nervy and bold oeuvres in American documentary filmmaking. Since Actress (2014), a portrait of actress Brandy Burre that openly embraced the fuzzy lines between common and quotidian notions of performance, his work has proceeded within fascinating, deliberately uncertain areas. Kate Plays Christine (2016) enlisted Kate Lyn Sheil to play Christine Chubbuck, who died by her own hand on live television, in a fictional film-within-the-film, in the process capturing all the simmering tensions and misgivings about such an endeavor. Such issues of filmic representation were rendered on a much larger scale in 2018’s Bisbee ’17, tackling the implications and ideologies of an entire city on the anniversary of the infamous Bisbee deportation.

Now, with Procession, Greene has created something like a hybrid of a hybrid, in both scale and filming style. The documentary’s concerns are certainly of a national, even international nature: child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, as reflected by the traumas of six middle-aged men in the Kansas City area, and there’s a concrete nature to Greene’s reportage that hasn’t been present in his past work: chyrons and intertitles are used at key junctures throughout, and there’s a topicality that dredges up history in a much more overtly sensitive area than the slightly buried stories in his past works. But this also becomes perhaps even more intimate than its predecessors, in no small part because of the conceit: Procession is pointedly credited as “a film by” the six men at its core — Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano — and follows a form of drama therapy that took place from 2018 to 2020, in which the men would write and direct short films that represented their own experiences of abuse as a way to come to terms with the horrors that continue to haunt them.

These scenes, interspersed through Procession and arriving with greater frequency towards the close, effectively act as the means for these closed-off men, who appear to have never met before their first meeting, to both draw closer to those who have suffered similar experiences and to open up, to literally externalize their nightmares. But they do not form the bulk of the film, and largely for the better, as Greene spends a purposeful amount of time with each man, often placing two or three of them in conversation on specific missions, often involving journeys to the sites where the abuse happened. Laurine, who previously served as a location scout and set worker on films and commercials in the Kansas City area, often facilitates these trips, which provide substantial amounts of catharsis and relief.

Such catharsis, as Greene recognizes, doesn’t necessarily mean definite, lasting change, much less justice under the eyes of man, not even the Pope. An undercurrent of rage and despair — especially in the time given to Foreman, embittered from the partiality shown by purportedly independent review boards — runs through the film, and the information doled out about each man remains, understandably given the size of the cast, as minimal as possible: Eldred’s prosthetic limb is pointedly unremarked upon, no questions of sexuality are raised, and domestic situations or predilections — like Foreman’s nightly ritual of blasting The Who and rocking back and forth on his couch to drown out his thoughts — arise without warning. Part of the way through, Viviano reveals that he has deliberately abstained from making a scene of his own: though he acts as the pedophile in a number of the sequences, his level of comfort has not arisen to being able to even explain his experiences. While he is able to provide in his own way, helping to realize these other men’s visions, he has only a limited recourse.

Similar transferences of reckoning take place throughout Procession, in no small part because of the casting of the men in various roles of abusers and enablers throughout the shorts. Gavagan, who explicitly references the opening of All That Jazz in his segment, notes that he cast Sandridge as the priest because they had similar experiences of abuse; Laurine mentions that in scouting for the lake house that Eldred was raped in, he was able to put aside his own lake house traumas. But the effects of recognition are never far away, largely because this sort of endeavor forces this sort of confrontation (with reasonable barriers): Eldred, who was able to walk upon the steps of the house that haunted his nightmares for decades, begins shaking uncontrollably while watching a scene that he wrote; Laurine, in searching for his own house of horror with his brother, explicitly denies that he has found the site despite all evidence to the contrary. At the same time, these moments are counterbalanced by moments of joy, even levity — Gavagan swings on the church bells that used to hold him aloft as a young boy, and in general the relations between the men remain remarkably intimate and accepting.

And it is in the short films, and in their striking presentation, that Greene finds his most delicate balance, embodied in the young actor Terrick Trobough, who plays each of the men as a young boy in the shorts. He is cast by the men in a deliberate gesture to show the universality of their experiences, the shared damage that has been done to them, and in the process he acts as a kind of projection: at least a few of the men say that talking about their experiences makes them feel like an adolescent again, and in Foreman’s segment — a particularly forthright scene in a studio space that allows him to say what he was unable to say to the independent review board, complete with shadowy lighting and a constantly dollying camera — and in Eldred’s second scene — a reading of a letter he wrote to his younger self, which closes the film — the men appear alongside him, a particularly pointed illustration of the harsh, lingering effects of institutional exploitation and blindness. Trobough’s resilience and general amiability act as something of a light in what could be a suffocating darkness, a hope for the future. Procession thus emerges as a new kind of dedication, as a space for expression and exploration that refuses to shy away from the mixed, often bruising emotions that result from excavations of the past, at once both universal and specific in the most salient of ways.

The Beautiful Gaze [WHAT DO WE SEE WHEN WE LOOK AT THE SKY?]

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Alexandre Koberidze

It is tremendously difficult to make a successful feature film that consists more-or-less solely of optimism. Partly due to the demands of narrative, and in large part the more visibly perilous state of the world, there has been a shift towards, if not cynicism, then an ambivalence that reflects society on the edge, whether it be in the apocalyptic superhero films or the much smaller yet equally precarious works on the festival circuit.

Enter What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?: a two-and-a-half-hour romance-turned-city-symphony that is filled with nothing but compassion for its characters, their fellow dwellers, and the space that they live in. Aside from the pivotal turn of fate that forms what little conventional story there is, and certain allusions to disasters just outside the camera’s point of view, Alexandre Koberidze’s second feature — after the three-and-a-half-hour, Sony Ericsson-shot Let the Summer Never Come Again — is content to survey the simple pleasures in life: reading, beer, filmmaking, and most of all association football (soccer), which is tantamount to sacred tradition in the city of Kutaisi, Georgia. And yet, Koberidze’s sheer exuberance of expression and invention makes this far more than the placid or dull observation that such a description might suggest: this is a thoroughly alive film, moving through the everyday with an irrepressible energy.

To say that this is a plotless film wouldn’t be accurate, however. What We Do We See may diverge almost entirely from its inciting incident, but it relies on it — in a manner not too dissimilar from the hammock cinema of Apichatpong — to give it its shape and ultimate resolution. In the opening twenty minutes of the film, Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze), a pharmacist, and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze), a football player, literally bump into each other on their way to their respective professions; upon meeting a second time at night, they agree to meet each other the next day at a new outdoor café, and leave without exchanging means of communication — while the film appears to take place in the modern day, there are no cell phones, and apparently only a few televisions in the whole city.

The next time the two of them speak takes place a full hour and twenty minutes after this first interaction, and in the meantime everything has changed: due to a curse cast by an “evil eye,” the two of them have been given totally new appearances — and are now played by Ani Karseladze and Giorgi Bochorishvili, respectively — and have lost the ability to perform their professions. While both of them show up to their rendez-vous, they fail to recognize each other — despite Lisa, in the first of countless whimsical touches, being warned of elements of this curse by a seedling, a surveillance camera, and a drain pipe. The two of them subsequently take jobs working for the café owner, she at the ice cream machine and he at an amusing series of carnivalesque games, including a pull-up bar that nets anyone who can hold on for two minutes a prize.

From what might be a slowly deflating balloon in lesser hands, What Do We See truly develops into a study of the most pleasurable sort, all purported digressions which in actuality function as the lifeblood of the film. This is heralded, as in many of the great portraits of community, by song, courtesy of a group of teenagers sitting at the café at that night when Lisa and Giorgi both make and miss their meeting. The camera pans across, often catching a person who is merely listening, at the periphery of the conversation and revelry, another lonely soul like the two would-be lovers.

To recount the bounties of What Do We See would take a much longer piece than this, but aside from the delightful framing device of the World Cup, with Giorgi’s favored Argentina and Messi as the focal point, it is worth emphasizing the role of the narrator, which appears to be directly from Koberidze’s perspective. First emerging as a handy, voluble expositor of the narrative events, especially ones taking place just offscreen, he morphs into something of a tour guide for Kutaisi, introducing the viewer to the various denizens, human and not: the dogs of the city are recurring characters, and of course they also love football, down to favoring specific venues to watch the World Cup. And even more winningly, Koberidze treats the secondary characters with a watchful interest: the café owner, a profit-minded but fair man; a filmmaker looking to photograph couples to complete the five-year filming of her amusingly named project Stray Dogs Caressed by the Wind; and various other characters, some only glimpsed as recurring threads throughout the film; indeed, there is a paucity of dialogue; the majority of talking is likely relegated to the voiceover.

What persists strongest in What Do We See is Koberidze’s inflection of the seemingly mundane. Even the central twist is downplayed as much as possible: there are no investigations by Lisa or Giorgi’s family or former employers, and after a few inquiries everyone they interact with simply accepts them as who they are, with no name or prior history required. Koberidze’s style — and, it’s worth noting, his brother Giorgi’s pleasingly multivalent score — thus exists in the moment, malleable and open to whatever the scene or sequence requires: a Bressonian close-up here, an extreme wide-shot there, a raucous montage over here.

Said montage takes place just before the Part 1/2 dividing point, and represents perhaps the film’s most inventive — save the utterly delightful exhortation to the audience just before the curse occurs — and soaring moment: it consists solely of slow-motion shots of children playing football accompanied by the 1990 FIFA World Cup anthem, simultaneously seeming to conform to and defiantly move away from notions of screen action and sports filming. It is totally unclear who is on what side, and the sequence ends with a truly sepulchral series of shots as the children watch in awe as the ball soars into the air before landing in the river that runs through Kutaisi. The narrator’s voice comes in after this, discussing the problems that the world is facing, but even he is befuddled by the events of the film at the end, acknowledging the limits of his perspective. No matter: what lingers and moves is the experience, the meandering yet thoroughly energizing tributaries that exist along the way.

Shouts and Murmurs [THE FRENCH DISPATCH]

The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Wes Anderson

As it turns out, everything I had written about the omnibus film a few weeks ago is applicable to Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, though not as overwhelmingly as one might think. Instead of operating in a neat, three-part structure, the film more-or-less sprawls into irregularly shaped sections: a brief introduction, the preposterously named Herbsaint Sazerac’s (Owen Wilson) brief bicycle tour of the even more preposterously named Ennui-sur-Blasé, and a final coda wraps around the three features that form the core of the film.

This doesn’t mean that these sequences are superfluous, or devoid of a similar amount of interest. One of Anderson’s great strengths has been what some might uncharitably regard as a flattening of local color and detail into a series of tableaux; however, there’s a wondrous sense to how quickly and carefully The French Dispatch establishes Ennui. It immediately gets to the heart of, if not necessarily an actual French city, then an American idealization of France outside of Paris: small yet tightly-knit, romantic where it counts, but also rundown, in rapid change, openly situating the sex workers and pickpockets as something to essentially be taken for granted. This romanticized view is left largely unchallenged during the course of the film: strife, danger, and desire are always around the corner, and in its own way, the film achieves a certain unity in its steadfast, charmingly simplified view.

The French Dispatch, however, aims for something messier and more complex than unity. The three parts all have to do with art and creativity in different realms — painting, politics, and cooking respectively — but the way that they unfold results in an uneven set of approaches, though for better or worse the momentum of each segment is fairly self-contained. Much of this comes down to issues of presentation, as each story, despite the article framing, is narrated by Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Jeffrey Wright in starkly different ways. All linearly told, both Swinton’s freely disjunctive art lecture and McDormand’s terse diary nevertheless offer something more herky-jerky than the astonishingly mellifluous recitation of Wright’s memorized article.

This isn’t a problem, per se, and it can be readily chalked up to the different styles of the writers within the magazine’s stable. But it marks new territory for Anderson, which is at once welcome and something of an unsteady endeavor. More than any of his other films, this meanders and places odd, unexpected emphases on scenes that act more as illustration or elaborations, isolated little bits that serve individual, often secondary characters than an appreciable sense of the world/city of Ennui. Even the single-night narrative of the third story finds an ultimately arresting beat, in which Saoirse Ronan’s dancer-turned-kidnapper has an exchange with the police commissioner’s son, in the process making way for one of the film’s relatively few color shots.

Those color moments form something of a backbone for the film, a continuing device that almost never loses its potency; it’s amusing to see Anderson work predominately in black-and-white, almost as a dare to himself or to the innumerable video essayists who focus on his palettes. Indeed, some of the most surprising uses of color come in the first segment with Benicio Del Toro’s unconventional painter — the unabashedly modern art’s resemblance to Honoré de Balzac’s Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu, and perhaps Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, is perhaps the film’s most elegant Francophile reference.

Those bursts of inspiration emerging from a pleasurable, if mildly enervating surface seem to typify The French Dispatch‘s modus operandi; there’s little of the historical sweep and resonance of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but its ultimately small yet thorny approach lends itself to some beautiful moments all the same. The final story’s denouement, returning the focus beautifully to Wright and Steve Park’s immigrant chef, captures the prevailing spirit of so many lost people within the film, both French — the surprisingly intense characters embodied by Léa Seydoux and Lyna Khoudri, whose French subtitles accumulate with a considerable force — and all the American journalists, a motley collection that nevertheless comes together as a family, working towards a common goal.