November 2019 Capsules

Jojo Rabbit
Let’s leave aside the extravagant vanity and stupidity of this, a project that seems as much an excuse for Waititi to clown around in Führer cosplay as to indulge his worst and most juvenile tendencies: the twee coming-of-age story, the playful mocking that ultimately coalesces into love. Let’s even excuse the utterly incoherent at best, downright fascistic approach to Nazism, which doesn’t so much dismantle the very real and very dangerous ideology as it presents it baldly and plainly, hoping that the viewer will find these hideous statements and behaviors from cuddly and/or blasé puppets hilarious. Jojo Rabbit would be utterly irredeemable if it just stuck to its proudly “anti-hate satire” formulations and its virtually nonexistent comedy, but it somehow manages to sink lower, into simpering, sappy romance.

Much of Jojo Rabbit is almost literally cloistered, as at least half of the film takes place solely within the eponymous character’s home, where he co-habits with both his vaguely antifascist mother and a teenage Jewish girl. Like with everything in this, Waititi’s approach comes off as maddeningly incoherent, going as far to employ a terribly overextended use of every horror movie trick in the book to accompany her first scene. But slowly, gradually, the true intent is revealed: despite her experiences fleeing the rot of fascist power, she is as flat and childlike as everyone, the object of affection — laid out oh-so-helpfully with paper-animated butterflies — and just another figure for Jojo to latch onto. In doing so, her inherent identity, which has caused the gassing of her parents and her present fearful existence, is all but erased, seemingly replaced uncomfortably with the role of both mother and lover. And in a film that refuses to reckon whatsoever with the horrors of fascism, that lies about the nature of ideologies, that closes itself off from any interesting or subversive view of the modern world, such a grievous conflation is just left there, as abject as anything in this monstrosity of a film.

2019 Festival Dispatch #3 Show Notes

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Description
The third 2019 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 half of the 2019 New York Film Festival, and features guests Graham L. Carter, Beatrice Loayza, and Dan Schindel.

0:00-26:36 – Part One
26:37-48:14 – Part Two

[A discussion of the New York Shorts program was deleted.]

Housekeeping

  • Hosted by Ryan Swen
  • Conceived and Edited by Ryan Swen
  • Guests: Graham L. Carter, Beatrice Loayza, Dan Schindel
  • Recorded in Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington D.C. on Zoom H4N and Sennheiser Microphones and MacBook GarageBand and Audacity and iPhone, Edited in GarageBand
  • Podcast photograph from Yi Yi, Logo designed by Dan Molloy
  • Recorded October 13, 2019
  • Released November 3, 2019
  • Music (in order of appearance):
    • In Vanda’s Room
    • Seventh Code
    • Belmonte

2019 Festival Dispatch #2 Show Notes

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

Description
The second 2019 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 half of the 2019 New York Film Festival, and features guests Forrest Cardamenis, Lena Houst, Jake Pitre, and Etan Weisfogel.

0:00-57:26 – Part One
57:27-1:49:38 – Part Two

[Two phrases in the Bacurau discussion were redacted to avoid substantial spoilers.]

Housekeeping

  • Hosted by Ryan Swen
  • Conceived and Edited by Ryan Swen
  • Guests: Forrest Cardamenis, Lena Houst, Jake Pitre, Etan Weisfogel
  • Recorded in Los Angeles, New York City, and Montreal on Zoom H4N and Sennheiser Microphones and MacBook GarageBand and Audacity and iPhone, Edited in Audacity
  • Podcast photograph from Yi Yi, Logo designed by Dan Molloy
  • Recorded October 4, 2019
  • Released October 12, 2019
  • Music (in order of appearance):
    • GoodFellas
    • Old Joy
    • Nocturama

October 2019 Capsules

Mahjong
“In ten years, this place will be the center of the world. The future of Western civilization lies right here. And do you know what the odd thing is? We used to study history, the 19th century with the glorious age of imperialism right? Just wait ’till you see the 21st century.”

These words, said in English by an arrogant British industrialist in voiceover towards the close of Mahjong, of course shouldn’t be taken strictly at face value; Yang’s own Yi Yi four years later acts in many ways as a repudiation of a great number of the statements made in this and A Confucian Confusion, effectively the sister film to this. But it acts as a key signifier for Yang’s own intentions: in every work of his save perhaps A Brighter Summer Day, Yang sees the future of Taipei as its past and present, continually reflecting on the former as directly affecting and molding the latter. This is reflected most obviously in the familial relationships, which dominate practically all his films and especially this one, but it reveals itself in so many other ways: the scattered rock memorabilia (especially the Beatles), the past entanglements of multiple characters, and most importantly in language. Here, too, Yang gestures towards the future: Hokkien is phased further out, and English shares center stage with Mandarin. The effect is like a less overtly reflexive version of Mountains May Depart‘s third act: slightly uncanny, immensely focused on the minutiae involved in translation (skewed or otherwise), and eventually incredibly moving. It’s no accident that the two final definitive acts almost eschew language all together: Yang’s cinema is nothing if not at turns impossibly alienated and unbearably intimate, and Mahjong contains both of these impulses at their fullest force.

A City of Sadness
Even besides the obvious narrative and thematic implications that come with language and communication in A City of Sadness, its imprint on reinforcing Hou’s style feels paramount. Taking place at a much more contemplative pace than the naturalistic conversations found elsewhere (especially in scenes with co-writer Wu Nien-jen), the viewer is forced to consider not only what Tony Leung and Xin Shufen write to one another, but how they communicate by other means: the little glances, the manner in which they pass the pen and pad of paper back and forth. It feels so indicative that the words are not shown in inserts of the paper, but in intertitles: even their most inconsequential words are imbued with an additional, almost transcendent power. And the one exception, the message given by Leung to the widow, the words of a man who he never heard or spoke to, accrues its power from the materiality of his final statement, from the imprint of the ink.

Stray Dogs
The Taipei that Hsiao-kang grew up in has almost vanished. Gone are the motorcycle rides that acted as a reprieve from daily existence, the skywalks, the flooded apartments, the street stands. They’ve been supplanted by the high-end condos like Vive L’Amour‘s, only that the erotic potential is gone; even the streets feel sterile now. So Hsiao-kang can only go almost literally underground, with offspring in tow; they wander the construction sites and gleaming supermarkets, eating from plastic takeout trays and fitfully drawing mosquito nets around their meager living conditions. It’s not much, but it’s the home he knows, and the only home he can imagine.

September 2019 Capsules

Days of Being Wild (rewatch)
Wong’s characters’ obsession with time, which reaches its early peak here, fits so deeply into his overall aesthetic concerns because it’s at once concrete and yet subjective. Unlike a pair of earrings, a car, or a lighter, time isn’t something that can be contained, even by the numerous watches or clocks scattered around the relative ghost town of 1960 Hong Kong. Instead, it floats between them, suffusing the characters and their perceptions. For the male characters, it’s more concrete: Leslie Cheung means it when he says he’ll remember his minute with Maggie Cheung, even if he forgets everything else; Andy Lau’s existence is defined by being on the clock, first in vocation and then in tentative infatuation. For the female characters, it’s something more slippery: a state of constant reverie and remembrance, wondering exactly when their relationships went wrong. But no one can escape their own subjectivity, their own flawed commitments: even Tony Leung’s hustler has to glance at his watch before he brings the lights down.

August 2019 Capsules

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2
Pushes its insistent rhymings with the first film past any reasonable limit: this is no mere referentiality, but conscious inversion and recontextualization from the opening moments, a class-flipped take on the predecessor’s opening scene. That this transpires with the two new main characters, Yeung Yeung and Paul, lends a further unpredictable charge, and a few scenes pass before the original tripartite dynamic is even partially restored — Qi Hong, not coincidentally the most (relatively) stable and committed character of the madcap ensemble, only makes sporadic appearances, which only begin more than twenty minutes in. Instead, the love triangle takes place between the volatile Shen Ran and the two newcomers, yet parallels crop up: Paul spends much of the second half in a soused state heavily reminiscent of Qi Hong in his original state, complete with a penchant for Johnnie Walker; Shen Ran takes Yeung Yeung to the same restaurant where he botched his initial engagement, directly mentioning this fact and prolonging the inevitable conversation until after dessert; Paul cooks seafood for Yeung Yeung in his own relatively humble quarters. “I must have met you before” is said by the new characters multiple times, and in a sense it’s true; by the time the opening is reinvoked once more with Chi Yan sitting on the bus in tears and Shen Ran driving by her in a sports car, the viewer would be forgiven for a strong case of déjà vu.

And yet it feels all so new, or at least cyclical in a way that feels genuine. The economic aspect sets the tone: where the global crash acted as a plot catalyst in the predecessor, here the sudden downturns and upturns feel ultimately immaterial, as of little consequence to the viewer as to the characters, wrapped up as they are in their love affairs. And as lovely as Gao Yuanyuan is once more, and as hard Louis Koo pushes himself (to great and perfectly absurd effect), Miriam Yeung absolutely defines this film. The dichotomy between her severe “queen of the stocks” status and the devil-may-care attitude with which she throws herself into love couldn’t be clearer, and her acceptance of Shen Ran’s proposal halfway through somehow feels both so wrong and so right.

That paradoxical feeling resonates throughout this, a disquietude that intermingles with the euphoria emanating from To’s visual confidence and his ensemble cast’s overflowing charisma. In a sense, this is to be expected: both Chi Yan and Genie, the octopus acting as a feebler but still wonderful stand-in for Froggy, display a consistent sense of “reverse thinking,” predicting the exact wrong thing, which proves great for sports and stocks betting but only muddles the waters further in the games of love. The continual sense of things being not quite right maps onto the sense of entrapment or limbo here, as characters enact the same scenarios over and over. But at the same time there’s such joy, such genuine astonishment on display; the last shot suggests at once infinite heartbreak, bitter defeat, and a feeling that the war is not yet over, and may never be over. In that sense, it’s a perfect sequel, in the sense that it consciously expands the original, inverting and altering it to enrich both parts. It feels so carefully considered, yet so inventive and energetic in the undertaking, that it exists both separately and apart, inextricable and yet fully, gloriously alive.

Asako I & II
Obviously have much, much more to say about this heartstopping masterpiece, but one of the most important aspects seems to be the sudden intrusion of the March 2011 earthquake, only hinted at by iOS designs amid the almost timeless/fantastical quality of the romances. Rather than grounding its surprising, almost radical approach to this odd love triangle, Asako I & II restrains itself to bounding and locating it, all the better to bring forth the flights of fancy. In a film filled to the brim with little details, feelings, and gestures, this act registers as one of the most quietly powerful.

A Confucian Confusion
The pleasures and interests in A Confucian Confusion are perhaps best expressed in two contradictory, yet not necessarily mutually exclusive, statements made less than five minutes apart: the categorization of Taipei as a small town and as a big place. Coupled with the opening statements the unusually direct intertitle (which in itself is counterposed with the elusive, mysterious dialogue snippet intertitles interspersed throughout) calling Taipei one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the impression is one of a space in total flux, befitting a milieu in which everything, no matter how seemingly settled and predestined the existing structures are. As always in Yang, the mercurial and unpredictable flights of human emotion clash with the glass windows and steel buildings: a theater director makes a swerve from postmodern abstraction to comedy, people fall in and out of love with almost alarming regularity, and people decide to seek other forms of employment. Yang, incongruously but perfectly, plays this roundelay of absurdity as farce, but there is a surfeit of scenes pitched at his usual, startling emotional level; if this doesn’t quite aim for a comedy of remarriage, the implications of its overall narrative feel deeply in kinship with his past work, with the comedy tradition, with the state of the modern world.

2019 Festival Dispatch #1

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

Description
The 2019 festival dispatch of the Catalyst and Witness podcast, devoted to exploring the films format of the New York Film Festival, hosted by Ryan Swen. This covers the announcement of the 2019 main slate.

0:00-1:02:25 – Part One

Housekeeping

  • Hosted by Ryan Swen
  • Conceived and Edited by Ryan Swen
  • Recorded in Los Angeles on Zoom H4N and Sennheiser Microphones, Edited in Audacity
  • Podcast photograph from Yi Yi, Logo designed by Dan Molloy
  • Recorded August 6, 2019
  • Released August 6, 2019
  • Music (in order of appearance):
    • Lost and Beautiful
    • Mistress America

July 2019 Capsules

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
The genius of Lang lies in his ability to make even the most abstract, most incomprehensible moments totally concrete, representing the total paranoia of a man pursued in a tilt down matched to an oscillating soundscape. Arguably the reveal of the metallic silhouette behind the curtain is already redundant; Mabuse and the figures he possesses have already transcended the normal form, and yet they retain a distinctly material existence: etched scribblings onto paper, a rigged record player, neatly typewritten memoranda. The feeling is of total entrapment, of narrowly escaping one room only to become confined within another; even the thrill of a car chase in the night is subsumed by the rear projection.

The Ultimate Trip [LA FLOR]

“But in that case, the entire magical, mysterious world in which I move would be shattered in a moment. And that’s not possible.”
– Colin, Out 1

“And who is this kind of Sultan who appears to have devoted his life to them?”
– Gatto, La Flor

At first glance, La Flor, Mariano Llinás’ magnum opus created in collaboration with the actresses Pilar Gamboa, Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes, and Valeria Correa, lacks the unity —structurally, tonally — that typifies so many of the greatest films of all time. An unashamed anthology film in every way aside from its conception by a single director, it spans no less than six genres/modes of filmmaking across its six episodes; counting the seven fifteen-minute intermissions and a luxurious forty-minute end-credit sequence, it runs 868 minutes (over 14 and a half hours), and takes as its very aim the exploration and co-opting of these disparate forms. Each part has its own flavor — a mummy B-movie, a musical “with a touch of mystery,” a spy movie (which itself spans multiple genres across five hours), an unclassifiable hybrid that piles something like four metafictions upon one another, a reimagining of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, and a obscured visualization of an apocryphal text about 19th-century women held captive by Native Americans, respectively – starring the four actresses in all but the fifth episode in wildly varying roles. As might be expected, the process of making this film took ten years, shot episode-by-episode and piecemeal amid other films and across multiple continents. As part of the concept, the first four episodes tell stories that have no endings, the fifth tells a complete story fashioned from a famously unfinished film, and the sixth has an ending but no beginning.

Understandably, a project like this has never been made before, and in many ways it stands alone amongst other films; even something as sprawling as Jacques Rivette’s 13-hour Out 1, one of the films most commonly invoked in connection with this work — which in many (but not all) ways feels like its true spiritual successor — was shot in just six weeks. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a less outwardly focused all-timer: Out 1, for all its extended theatrical rehearsals and narrative digressions, emanates an overwhelming dread and fear in post-’68 Paris; the famously bifurcated shoot of Mulholland Dr. only enhanced the strange seductive pull of that dream factory known as Hollywood. So what makes La Flor the overwhelming, all-encompassing, electrifying masterpiece that it is?

Of course, one must start with the experience — I saw it in the largely de rigeur formulation of three parts, over the weekend that comprised the Locarno in Los Angeles 2019 festival — as with most films past a certain runtime. In a sense, La Flor both initially precludes but eventually invites a sense of complete and total discovery: the genres are laid out in Llinás’s introduction at the start of the film, giving the viewer a general road-map of the destination, complete with the diagram that gives the film its name. However, as with many of the best, most fascinating films, the journey is considerably stranger than initial appearances would suggest. Part of this is due to the slightly outmoded or schlocky nature of the first three genres in the film, especially in the context of world arthouse cinema, which consequently leads to a certain adjustment in expectations regarding rhythm — this is a far cry from slow cinema in every way except temporal duration — and how narratively “conventional” Llinás’s film might end up actually being. As might be expected, however, Llinás’s sensibility, while deeply committed to the intentions of genre in a way that proves vital for the film’s mastery, is too protean to play it all entirely like the films of each genre’s heyday, something which only becomes clearer in the later episodes: the Lewtonian mummy movie is inflected with a Cat People-esque subplot, the mystery mentioned in connection with the musical turns out to be a scientific cabal obsessed with using scorpion venom as a possible elixir for eternal youth, and so on. This approach, of course, is in keeping with Llinás’s previous film from 2008, the great four-hour Historias extraordinarias, which used its starting narratives as a jumping-off point to delve into a whole wealth of perspectives and stories.

What sets La Flor apart, however, is its recognition of the infinite possibilities that come with what might appear to be the rigid framework of genre. For all the invention of Historias extraordinarias — whose general sensibility is reprised multiple times throughout this film, most notably in the second half of episode 4 — it was bound more-or-less to the “real world,” and its concerns were strictly with the recognizable. No such compulsion is present here, and unexpected divergences arise, not just in the macro premise but in the micro: the sudden emergence of a character to the forefront of a narrative, a transformation of a certain group of characters that takes place with little prior warning. More importantly, this conception of a film world as something that is designed to be disrupted accomplishes the rare feat of pairing two distinctly contrasting things — continually upending the viewer’s conception of the world even as they recognize it is a world in which such things can (and logically should happen) — which are both fully thrilling in their own right, but produce an even greater frisson when placed in concert.

It might be useful to invoke Out 1 once more here. While Rivette’s film, certainly has more of an explicitly political bent built into the characters’ (mostly) unspoken reckoning with the current sociopolitical state, it shares that same fundamental mode of exploration. Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Colin and Juliet Berto’s Frédérique are perhaps the most visible instigators, and their investigative presence is echoed at various points in La Flor, most notably with Casterman in episode 3 and Gatto in episode 4. But to suggest that the other characters involved aren’t attempting a similar form of exploration would be inaccurate; in many ways such exploration is the attempt to make sense of their world, whether in an intellectual, artistic, or other such pursuit. Thus, the extended theatrical exercises explore both in a literal sense for the viewer, testing — pleasurably for some including myself, negatively for many others — the bounds of duration and observation, and in a more ideological sense, with each motion conjuring its own strange reflection and inflection.

As it is for one masterpiece, so it is for the other. The creative relationship that eventually created La Flor stemmed from Llinás attending a play in 2006 put on by Gamboa, Carricajo, Paredes, and Correa as part of their theater troupe Piel de Lava (which is still operating today). Inspired by the quintet’s shared love for fiction in almost primoridial form, Llinás’s intention was, according to his Cinema Scope interview with Jordan Cronk, to “make pictures with them a genre in itself. So that’s when I had the idea to make one picture that would be all the pictures — every picture.”

Despite these origins, La Flor conspicuously eschews the overtly theatrical moments of Out 1 — which, among other things, is driven by a bevy of similarly transcendent performances, although they stem from multiple traditions including cinema (Léaud) and theater and involve a larger, more consistently characterized cast — or the Shakespeare-riffing oeuvre of Llinás’s compatriot Matías Piñeiro, who (along with nearly every figure in Argentine cinema) helped out on the film and whose films have featured Paredes and Carricajo. Instead, Llinás’s concerns appear to remain consistently cinematic; though certain other artistic traditions are invoked like the music industry in episode 2, and he himself describes a strong affinity with painting, such influences are inherently associated with the artifice that the cinematic apparatus provides.

This extends to Llinás’s visual schema, which favors extreme close-ups in shallow focus, frequently abstracting the background, both items and faces, into a textured blur. This approach, which remains more-or-less constant for at least the first three episodes, and opens up only slightly in the rest of the film, was adopted in large part due to the limited budget, offering the potential for suggesting things like killer cats, explosions, and the like. But it also feels truly indicative of the sense of exploration involved in the film; the rack focus is the most obvious element, holding on a solitary face in the very immediate foreground for an unconventionally long time before shifting to the background to allow the viewer, previously waiting in anticipation, to see the reaction. At every single juncture, the viewer is invited in to participate in this strange and long endeavor, to piece together both the moment-and-moment interplay and the larger connections that La Flor weaves.

This expansive view translates to the film, which both pushes boundaries and consciously returns to past “outdated” forms, exploring both the concrete past and ephemeral future of cinema. That the central actresses had little cinematic experience (Llinás: “most of them had not even shot one picture. So we had to make their career. This picture would be their career. You’ve seen their lives, and through these images you now understand their process.”) only furthers this sense of a past (invoked in the long-standing collaboration the actresses had) and future (the episodes that these women and Llinás will continue to make, and which the viewer knows are to come) existing simultaneously.

Even the actual text of the film bears this out: in episode 3, each of the four women’s characters gets her own “origin” story. Though they all end up as spies, their narratives leading up to the point when the viewer first meets them differ drastically in both narrative and generic treatment: Gamboa’s is a traditional spy plot, complete with double and triple-agents; Correa’s is a South American revolutionary legend; Paredes’ is one of doomed, unspoken attraction between two assassins, and incidentally one of the best love stories I’ve ever seen; and Carricajo’s is an arduous mole hunt through Siberia. Each of them is brought to embody the force of these genres, and in placing them as part of the same group synthesizes them into a heterogenous blend; as with the episodes, the individual stories fascinate and move, but their impact is exponential when placed together. One of the many unspoken arguments brought forth by La Flor, and one of the most moving, is that each of these modes, whether it be a B-movie or a remake of one of the most iconic films by one of the greatest directors, has its place and should be recognized for its genuine worth in the cinema.

For this reason, though it is certainly possible to do so, it seems unwise to watch any of these in total isolation. Their cumulative impact operates on an emotional level, whether it comes in the levity of the first scene in episode 4, where the actresses (playing a version of themselves) openly bemoan the French dialogue they had to speak in the previous episode (both in La Flor and in La Araña, the film within the film) or in the genuine appreciation of Llinás’s personal appearances, as he thanks the audience for their patience in watching his film. Perhaps most open-hearted of all is the final passage of episode 4, where the four actresses appear by themselves amid nature. Scored to the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, it is no simple portraiture: each of them are obscured in some way, whether it be by their distance from the camera, their facing away from it, or the foliage in the way. It is, like many of the greatest moments in the film, revealing, mysterious, slightly embarrassing, and transcendent all at once. This, perhaps, is the greatest achievement of La Flor: a 14-hour film that lacks any trace of insincerity, pompousness, or bloat, instead emerging in every single moment as a monument to a vision and to four immensely talented actresses. May it last forever.