Formalism Forever [THE GIRL AND THE SPIDER & LOS CONDUCTOS & IL BUCO]

The Girl and the Spider/Das Mädchen und die Spinne

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Ramon and Silvan Zürcher

Los Conductos

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Camilo Restrepo

Il buco

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino

I’ll freely admit at the start of this review that the links between these three remarkable 2022 (release year) films are tenuous at best. Time gets in the way of even the most trivial of interests — the reviews I write on this website, which by definition aren’t on commission — and it’s too long since I’ve seen these to give them their own proper standalone reviews. But I want to write on these films: in part because I never commented on the former two, and moreso because I feel like they’ve gotten lost in the shuffle even more than the typical small-scale arthouse release, even as they rank among my favorites of the year thus far. Additionally, Rosenbaum’s penchant for tackling multiple films in a single review has always appealed to me — even as I’ve only emulated it once — and it came to mind as a solution to my lapses in memory and energy. If the purpose of my reviews on Taipei Mansions is to shed light on such works, then I’m compelled to write on them.

Shedding light of course is a unifying theme: The Girl and the Spider, Los Conductos, and Il buco feature among their many qualities a compelling approach to the difference between day and night, light and darkness, and how these extremes intermix. They are also all the works of directors with very few features, though the path each has taken to get there varies tremendously.* Additionally, in a landscape increasingly dominated by longer and longer films, they all run less than 100 minutes; if not necessarily models of concision, they still stand out as relatively fleet works that still maintain a languid, or at least contemplative, atmosphere.

It’s difficult in some ways for me to properly assess whether these films can be said to truly exist outside of the mainstream of the festival landscape. Il buco, after all, was in competition at Venice, where it won the Special Jury Prize; both Los Conductos and The Girl and the Spider were two of the highest profile films in Berlin’s secondary Encounters section in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Especially with the deservedly strong attention towards Encounters (and the strategic placing of more prominent films in it), the simple distillation of a film’s location to the festivals and sections it played at can lead to blithe dismissal of quietly — or not-so-quietly — groundbreaking work.

As is always the case, the barometer ought to be the films themselves, and in light of that they begin to extricate themselves from the norm. All of the films, in keeping with the deserved decades-long preference for minimalism in art film, could be distilled down to a single sentence. The Girl and the Spider tracks the odd interactions and relationships across two apartment buildings in Bern, Switzerland, during two days and one night. What little plot that Los Conductos possesses rests in the movement of an unhoused man around Medellín, Colombia, tracking his attempts to survive and his fraught relationship with the society surrounding him. Il buco is mostly about the 1961 excursion into the Bifurto Abyss in Italy, then considered the third-deepest cave on Earth, while also leaving ample time to chronicle a shepherd’s slow demise. Already there are the hints of the details and motifs that each director teases out: the sheer density and queer eroticism of The Girl and the Spider, the somnambulant drift of Los Conductos, the urban-rural dichotomies of Il Buco, which also stands out for its lack of dialogue, only utilizing subtitles for a tangentially crucial archival news broadcast of the construction of the Pirelli Tower in Milan.

But each adopts its own style, the likes of which I haven’t quite seen in the contemporary landscape. In keeping with their debut, the Zürchers opt for an even more concentrated form of the close-up, almost geographic shooting style, often approaching the camera subject with a frontality that simultaneously makes clear and obscures the apartments; the film even begins with a PDF of the new apartment, an object which gets altered and shifted by human activity. Breaking from the mostly portraiture style of his shorts, Restrepo retains his use of grainy 16mm in photographing a barrage of close-ups on objects, using great tactility to ground and make tangible the near-ephemerality of the film’s narrative. I haven’t seen Le Quattro Volte, but Frammartino appears to follow a similar durational style, albeit with substantially more complications: in order to shoot the film Frammartino and his non-actors actually made roughly thirty-five voyages into the abyss, shooting with no lighting save the period-accurate helmet lights and undergoing a four-hour journey each way in addition to the demands of shooting.

What these films all share, besides their awkward placement between the mainstream and the underground, is this attention to space. Two of them are shot on digital, one isn’t; two of them use rapid editing, one doesn’t; two have a legible sense of a narrative arc, one doesn’t. But all of them use space as a jumping off point, none of them content to simply showcase directorial style, and all seeking to transform a place while taking care not to rob it of its essential characteristics. In the case of Il buco, Frammartino even manages to engineer something with a greater sense of spectacle than any film of the past few years: it’s one thing to witness the spelunkers in a journey that only ends when they reach the literal end, it’s another thing entirely to see the results of something like their method of ascertaining the depth of a cavern by setting a magazine page aflame and dropping it, watching the light slowly disappear into the distance.

And the most notable connecting point of all is each film’s devotion to a certain form of impossibility, a slight inflection of the “real world” that makes it uncanny and even otherworldly. The bright colors and melancholy bitterness of The Girl and the Spider; the reflection of downtrodden, vengeful young Colombian men in Los Conductos; the purposeful anticlimax of two ends in Il buco that gets miraculously transformed into an almost Fordian elegy: all of these films utilize the viscerality of their styles to convey engrossing complexity which, in my eyes, few filmmakers today have tried to match.

*Ramon Zürcher made The Strange Little Cat in 2013, and is officially joined by his brother Silvan (who co-produced his debut) for The Girl and the Spider. After a string of well-received shorts, including “Cilaos” and “La bouche,” Camilo Restrepo makes his feature debut with Los Conductos; it remains to be seen whether he has a similarly lengthy amount of time between films as the other directors do. Michelangelo Frammartino has his third film, and his first since Le Quattro Volte from 2010.

June 2022 Capsules

Flowers of Shanghai
I’ve never heard Shanghainese at such length before, and while I’m sure this film would be every bit as great in Mandarin or even Cantonese — it kind of sounds like Leung is dubbed when he isn’t speaking Cantonese, his voice is a little higher — it adds so much to the film. I have little knowledge of the mechanics of Shanghainese, but it sounds like it is either toneless or has tones that are much less pronounced than in other dialects. This creates a much more even-toned sound quality, an aural texture every bit as hypnotic as those repeated music cues, those tracking shots, those different yet similar narratives of decline and possibility.

Misguided Warriors [EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE]

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert

I don’t usually like to make my life and background the focus of my reviews, since my general inclinations are to let my observations assume their personality from what I choose to write about and to not interfere with the text itself. But Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All at Once begs for me to consider it in light of this. There are certain aspects of myself that, for various reasons, I can’t bring into this piece, but suffice it to say that this film — in how eerily and perfectly it captures my relationships with my parents and my heritage, along with my present circumstances — should have absolutely destroyed me, serving as an absurdist funhouse mirror that nevertheless contained my recognizable visage at the center. That it doesn’t do so (leaving aside any likely emotional deficiencies that I possess) stems from, among other things, its utterly counterproductive ambitions and its ultimate shortsightedness with regards to a certain view of Chinese-American experiences, along with its misunderstanding of Michelle Yeoh; I should say here up front that my parents are from Taiwan while the Wangs are from Hong Kong, but as I’ll get into this slight difference might be even less significant than it originally appears, to the film’s detriment.

Before fully diving in, I do wonder how much of my response to Everything Everywhere All at Once is a direct reaction to the way it has been received as a landmark of Chinese/Chinese-American representation in United States film. It’s certainly something I’ve considered, and has been at least a small part of my negative feelings towards Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell (and, much more tangentially, Minari for Asian-Americans generally). While the merits of these films vary wildly, it’s impossible not to notice that the main thing linking all these films together is that most common of narrative devices, especially with respect to Asians: family. I don’t mean to imply at all that filmmakers of Asian descent should avoid trying to make films explicitly about family; Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is my favorite Chinese-language film after all, and everyone from Fei Mu to Tsai Ming-liang has at one point or another explored what it means to be part of a family. But what comes across as a more quotidian or allegorical concern in those films is “elevated” to something of near-life-or-death consequences, the battle between the parent who wants to preserve the family unit at all costs versus the child who yearns to become more free, who implicitly wants to assimilate (or has) into the Western culture in which they live.

Such a conflict is ballooned, in the style of Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s co-producers and Marvel Cinematic Universe helmers Anthony & Joe Russo, so that Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) must literally save not only the world or the universe, but also the entirety of existence across innumerable parallel universes. As self-consciously ludicrous and unwieldy as the film gets, this struggle is more-or-less construed as, in the film’s twisted logic, the reason everything bad that has ever happened. The various events, no matter when they take place and whether Evelyn and Joy (Stephanie Hsu) are in them, are unmoored and then knit together by the presence of these two people: a mother and a daughter.

I don’t plan to get too much into the head-spinning and likely totally confused weeds of the multiverse, but instead to concentrate on the family relationships plural: for much of the film, due to the apparently unbelievably dangerous force that Joy/Jobu Tupaki — is that meant to be a bastardization of something in Chinese? Doesn’t seem to resemble anything I can remember — possesses, Waymond (Quan Kế Huy) is Evelyn’s companion and mentor, and her father (James Hong) makes a number of appearances, though always presented at a remove. The opening of the film, before part 1’s title “Everything” appears, feels very much in the vein of a recent trend in films that people like the Safdies seem to have ushered in: a barrage of colliding work and family priorities as Evelyn navigates the hectic laundromat patrons, her muddled taxes subject to review by the IRS, her impending Chinese New Year celebration, and of course her ongoing disagreements with Joy over her desire to introduce Becky (the great Tallie Medel, for once flattened into standard bland independent film acting) as her girlfriend to her Gong Gong. If that wasn’t enough, the hapless Waymond is attempting to serve Evelyn divorce papers on that same day, never mind the fact that the spouse can’t actually serve the other spouse their divorce papers.

Of course, this fits Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s general “anything goes” approach, but in doing so it leaves no room to breathe or to consider how this family arrived in this situation. While the flashbacks and alternate branches attempt to fill in Evelyn’s backstory in particular, it’s implied by omission that nothing of importance happened at all during the twenty-some years between Evelyn and Waymond’s emigration to Simi Valley, a span of time only captured by wistful-then-caustic childhood memories captured in 4:3 — the film also follows the current trend of shifting aspect ratios, using 4:3 for flashbacks, 1.85:1 for “normal” scenes and various other pastiches, and 2.35:1 for the martial arts/action sequences, never mind the fact that Yeoh’s prime Hong Kong-era work was shot in 1.85:1.

Indeed, Hong Kong and its place within Everything Everywhere All at Once, especially in relation to Yeoh, forms a prime factor in my mistrust of it and its supposed Chinese-American bona fides. One of the most immediately glaring factors comes in language: the film takes great pains to show the fluid, almost subconscious nature of how immigrants switch between two languages, speaking a few words amid a sentence and/or an entire sentence in English, even when the thought is meant to be conveyed in Chinese. This is really pretty admirable, and very reflective of how I’ve observed my parents interact over the years. However, there’s a confusion that likely isn’t discernible to any viewer who doesn’t have knowledge of Chinese: Evelyn and Waymond, despite (seemingly) being from Hong Kong, speak in Mandarin; this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that Evelyn and her father speak Cantonese to each other throughout, which isn’t reflected in the subtitles at all. Even in the flashback scenes, including the pivotal one where Evelyn and Waymond decide to leave together for America against her father’s wishes, the two of them are speaking Mandarin. The most cynical interpretation would be that the filmmakers deliberately chose Mandarin over Cantonese in an effort to further appeal to the mainland Chinese market; I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, but it’s carried out at such length that I wonder if it was the filmmakers’ unfamiliarity with the language or some other factor that led to this break with their characters’ place of birth.

This, however, isn’t as egregious as Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s near-total abandonment of Chinese for large sections of the film. It certainly can’t be a coincidence that the Alpha Waymond and Alpha Gong Gong, the two characters who have the brunt of the exposition that hurriedly explains the rules and quirks of the multiverse, exclusively speak English with Yeoh responding in kind, even in the scenes that are slower and more heartfelt. This could be maybe weakly explained away by the Alpha universe not utilizing Chinese anymore, though it *is* worth noting that the only other people seen in the technologically advanced Alpha universe are not Asian, which sticks out in a film mostly committed to casting as many Asians in speaking parts as possible. If I remember correctly, Chinese isn’t spoken in the climax at all save for Evelyn’s final acceptance of Joy, for me a very affecting scene that nevertheless speaks to many of the film’s ultimate problems, which I’ll get to in a moment.

First, I have to talk about Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s main draw: Michelle Yeoh, who eventually decidedly won out over my hatred of the wretched Swiss Army Man, Kwan and Scheinert’s previous directorial collaboration. The film is clearly in large part a tribute to and vehicle for Yeoh; while it’s patently false to claim this as Yeoh’s first starring role, it does aim to showcase her talents, though the action here generally doesn’t have anything near the weight of golden era Hong Kong cinema. I can’t be so contrarian to claim that, say, her recent supporting performance in Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy is better than this (though it’s close), and she is indeed very strong in both martial arts poses and emotional vigor alike. But the more this ventures into a meta-text, the more it fails to come close to the pathos of Yeoh’s actual career. The universe that gets the most screen time — the hot dog fingers one is likely a close second — is the one where Evelyn breaks up with Waymond stays in Hong Kong. After getting mugged, she decides to learn kung fu — her female master is played by Li Jing, best known for doing stunts in the awful live-action Mulan; in a film where Yeoh, Quan, Hong, and even the originally cast Awkwafina (in Hsu’s role) were likely all chosen at least in part for their metatextual resonances, this uninspired choice is one of countless missed opportunities in the film — and become essentially Michelle Yeoh. While she retains her Evelyn name, it’s genuinely kind of stunning when the film cuts to actual red carpet footage, a piercing of the thick veil that the film has wrapped around itself in order to fully cement its connection to reality — even if it is for the personally offensive Crazy Rich Asians.

But Yeoh, who was born in Malaysia to a Malaysian Chinese family, didn’t grow up in Hong Kong or learn kung fu in order to break into the entertainment industry. As laid out by Sean Gilman in his typically essential MUBI Notebook article, she, like Cheng Pei-pei and Zhang Ziyi, never learned kung fu, instead utilizing her ballet training to aid in her understanding of the moves, along with her daredevil approach to doing her own stunts. Additionally, she grew up speaking English and Malay, even deciding to go down the career path of action rather than comedy where she felt her still-burgeoning Cantonese wasn’t good enough; she had to learn her Mandarin lines in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — still the greatest performance of hers for me, and in a number of ways a vastly superior consideration of what it is to be a woman and mother (figure) in Chinese-centered society — phonetically. Quan’s history, while less storied, still remains complicated; he was born in Saigon to a Hoa family with Han Chinese ancestry. If I’m not mistaken, they were of Cantonese descent, and he resided briefly in Hong Kong before emigrating to the United States, thereafter bouncing back and forth between the two continents on film shoots during his hiatus from acting; endearingly, he still retains something of the squeakiness of his voice from his role as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Kwan & Scheinert, however, for all the supposed imagination they possess, can’t seem to bother with crafting anything close to the immensely complex and fascinating possibilities that Chinese heritage, across national and local borders, possesses. Their ideas of heritage in this lugubrious 139 minute film are simply reduced to “Hong Konger chooses to defy her parents and move to America.” Even a film that takes a decision to immigrate as a starting point, like Mabel Cheung’s lovely An Autumn’s Tale, or as a late-breaking plot point, like Peter Chan’s masterpiece Comrades: Almost a Love Story, knows that cities and places are realms to inhabit and to render as believable places full of genuine interactions, that there is a specific relationship that Chinese people have between their homeland and this strange new place they’ve come to.

When I was growing up in Irvine, where Asians formed a sizable proportion of the population, I was fairly blasé with my ethnicity, shrugging off attempts to learn Chinese and becoming rapidly bored with my family’s semi-frequent trips to Taiwan and China. As I started to live in a city where I habitually interacted with people of different heritages and became more obsessed with Chinese film, I found my love for my native country, experiencing a pronounced longing that still persists within me.

In Simi Valley, which is overwhelmingly White and where Chinese people make up 1.2% of the population, I’d expect there to be more of a desire to engage with what it means to leave a place. After all, in a multiverse that has room for a 2-D animated world, an admittedly very funny and well-executed Earth where no life developed and Evelyn and Joy are manifested as rocks, and a party where the two women are piñatas, it would seem that getting an idea of what a place means to a person, whether they live in it or apart from it, would be essential to ground the film. But there is apparently no room for such supposedly mundane considerations even in a film called Everything Everywhere All at Once, even in one where the mundane issue of not revealing a child’s sexual orientation to their grandfather — something immensely common in a Chinese-American culture where Evelyn’s very acceptance of Joy’s queerness isn’t the norm — lights the fuse for the near-collapse of existence.

Before going further, I should mention that Everything Everywhere All at Once isn’t all bad, and has some interesting and genuinely really good parts. Yeoh, Hsu, Quan, and Hong are all quite strong and do their best to sell the ludicrous sentimentality of the film; Hsu especially does well with the attitude and blithe disregard that her villainous incarnations have to play. And there’s a stretch of about thirty seconds when Yeoh entirely fractures the multiverse that, in its rapid editing using Yeoh (I think) as its focal point, plays like something close to Jodie Mack.

However, it’s easy to nitpick Everything Everywhere All at Once, given its sprawling canvas and refusal to let even the smallest gag be resolved in a non-happy ending — the implication of course being that this one declaration of love is enough to right the wrongs across all manifestations of space and time. I could point to my annoyance with the laundromat showing some British-Indian musical romance with dancing — even without probable colonialist intimations, why isn’t it a Chinese film? It could even have been an homage to Li Han-hsiang’s heartbreaking The Love Eterne, one of the most popular films in Hong Kong history and itself, via a simple but devastating conceit, a watershed queer film that might have played off well against the supposed central issue.

There’s even the issue of the Wong Kar-wai homage, which bafflingly deploys the green filter used on In the Mood for Love‘s Criterion reimagining. Quan’s suit certainly recalls Tony Leung’s, though I don’t think Yeoh is wearing a cheongsam; Quan was the assistant director on 2046, while Yeoh of course has never been in a Wong film. But aside from a few blurred/step-framed shots, the film is shot in the same bland digital as the rest of the film, with fixed frames and shots that are just-off-center, coming nowhere close to the hazy romanticism of Wong’s films. Like everything else in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and utterly unlike Wong, who even introduces complexity into his voiceovers, there’s no depth, no ambiguity as to what’s being depicted or discussed; it’s simply a near-monologue by Waymond recounting his abiding longing for Evelyn.

That very lack of depth is what makes the insufferably simple resolution ring so hollow, where “the everything everywhere all at once was love” is the message the viewer is *supposed* to take away from Everything Everywhere All at Once. While love is unconditional, the circumstances in which you see loved ones are not; love (at least between humans) can be in some ways strengthened by distance and should be seen as something that takes so many different forms. But Kwan and Scheinert see love as an unyielding thing that can be sealed by a single act; even Evelyn’s decision to let go is repaid by Joy coming back instead of going into the abyss. That it comes so close to getting it, so close to getting me and my situation, makes it bother me all the more.

April 2022 Capsules

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
I’m sure others have discussed the Céline and Julie Go Boating parallels/potential homage by Rivette, but it’s fascinating how Lorelei and Dorothy’s own pantomime relies on a relative interchangeability that Céline and Julie decidedly lack. Despite their differing viewpoints on the attractiveness of a man, they both share an unabashed openness about said views, and consequently are able to inhabit each other, whether in intelligence or lunacy, shrewdness or naivetie. Like so much of the film, the illusion is as alluring as the reality, and the space created to inhabit it is as immaculate and wondrous as they come.

All of the Lights [WOOD AND WATER]

Wood and Water

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Jonas Bak

Without getting into the thoroughly litigated relationship between fiction and non-fiction, there’s always a certain charge when “unmediated” reality recognizably intervenes within a fictional narrative. The difference between, say, a group of extras and a crowd of random pedestrians can produce startling ruptures in the diegesis, and transmute the documentary qualities present within the act of filming to a wider consideration of time and place, of how society collectively chooses to interact with their setting and culture.

One of the most special parts of Jonas Bak’s feature debut Wood and Water is its play with this constant, and how casually it integrates what in other films would be the lynchpin of their concept. For while the glimpses of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, seen both from high-above and briefly on the street, are moving and presented with a certain vital distance, it remains resolutely focused on its central character. Anke (Anke Bak, the director’s mother), who recently retired from her quiet work in a church office in rural Germany, has come to the city in an attempt to reconnect with her son. The 79-minute film makes its leap across the continents a third of the way through, only returning to shrouded trees in brief dream sequences.

While Wood and Water isn’t strictly based on a true story, it constructs its drive along two aesthetic and narrative parallel lines: the family relationship and the evocation of the countryside and the city. Essential to both is the fundamental sense of warm austerity that permeates throughout each setting and Bak’s style: while frequently light on dialogue and filmed in long shot, with trees and skyscrapers often totally dwarfing Anke in the frame, Brian Eno’s score and the hazy 16mm photography lends an entirely different feeling to either the wild dynamism or hard-etched grit that represent the greatest extremes of the region’s films before the turn of the century.

In forging this middle-ground but nonetheless adventurous approach, Bak extends the curiosity of his mother to the potential of discovery within Wood and Water. The ruminative conversations between Anke and various family members in the first third have their own immediate sense of intimacy, going on small tangents while emphasizing the drift of the rural setting. By contrast, the very first night in Hong Kong thrusts Anke into a shared hostel room, as she talks with the woman in her top bunk, another tourist about to leave the city after residing there for a number of years who is only seen in silhouette. Over an extended take, they speak much more tentatively yet concretely, and the much younger tourist piercingly comments that the aging mother’s story “is just beginning.”

This delicate balance between the old and the new becomes the unspoken engine of Wood and Water, whose own title refers to the Chinese fortune telling elements of wood and water. Anke is identified with water, signifying her nobility, with wood being her greatest deficiency. The advice to move to the forest is gently recognized as being inaccurate later in her conversation with her impromptu translator — an elderly social activist and former artist played by Ricky Yeung, the only professional actor in the cast — but the scene is just as moving in its presentation, long reams of unsubtitled Cantonese followed by translations, as it is in the observations the fortune teller does get right.

Most of the Hong Kong denizens Anke interacts with appear to be around her age, but Wood and Water is as much a present film as it is a nostalgic one, albeit a kind of modernity that both attracts and excludes Anke. She is seen either on the ground level, gazing at nearby actual protestors before walking away, or elevated in her son’s high-rise apartment, looking at the distant lights and tear gas clouds through glass. By the end of the film, a unity of thought and existence is demarcated, but it exists just as brilliantly in the transition between the two parts, two tracking shots through two tunnels. Another filmmaker would make it seamless, probably taking advantage of the darkness to disguise a cut. Bak instead opts to focus on the lights on the roof of the tunnel, as they pass by, fall into darkness, then switch to an entirely different design of lights to show the shift in location. Settings thus become two sides of the same coin, a commonality of purpose that is manifested with vastly different means, both of which are represented with the same wonder.

March 2022 Capsules

Spirited Away [rewatch]
It’s a piercing testament to Miyazaki’s genius here that, for all the earned sentimentalism that flows throughout this, the film ends with Chihiro’s perspective of the tunnel receding into the distance. No view of her newfound friends, or her potential life partner, or even the mysterious gods is possible in the ultimate dichotomy between these worlds. As much as she was able to bring a great vitality to the bath house, there are forces greater than magic or love ruling over these realms, and so she must return to the living, and the sensations of the other side must remain a memory, just like the river that saved and nurtured her so long ago. It’s too far in both time and space, and that’s the way it must be.

Pom Poko
The interlude with the foxes, already comfortably assimilated into modern Japanese society, helps clarify and differentiate the plight and journey of the raccoons. It’s said early in the film that their nature doesn’t allow them to have the same focus as the foxes, too prone to sloth to be as convincingly for as long. While that may be true, that’s also exactly what allows them to produce such grand and beautiful feats: their community, their ability to feed off of each other’s energy to bolster each other. In their final decision to join Tokyo, it is still with that same compassion, a splitting up to keep as many alive as possible, an invisible community of bodies built up with each celebration, each humorous yet poignant transformation.

Measure for Measure [THE CATHEDRAL]

The Cathedral

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Ricky D’Ambrose

Full disclosure: I am on friendly terms with Ricky D’Ambrose.

Ricky D’Ambrose’s oeuvre forms one of the most fascinating collections of works in recent American independent cinema. Now composed of two features and a number of shorts, it has come to signify a flourishing of a honed directorial voice that has come to take on an increasingly historical register, the obsessive recreations of print media and invocations of political undercurrents in “Spiral Jetty” (2017) and his first feature, Notes on an Appearance (2018), marking a turning point in augmenting and expanding the potential of his Bressonian close-ups.

D’Ambrose second feature The Cathedral marks another such turning point, and a remarkable melding of his filmmaking hallmarks with something that might be called more conventional, though such an appellation would seem to cheapen the achievement. Gone are the recreations of newspapers; the large acting parts for New York independent film denizens, who only appear fleetingly in a wedding scene; and even to a large extent the enormous close-ups against a blank backdrop. There’s even a smaller but significant break present; D’Ambrose chose to film “Spiral Jetty” in 4:3 due to his use of videotape footage and accompanying desire to not shift aspect ratios, something not carried out here, with the blend of standard-definition news footage with 1.66:1.

But in many other respects, The Cathedral hews closely to D’Ambrose’s style as adapted to a newly legible form. Something sometimes lost in discussion of his work is their subterranean sense of emotional arcs: think the sudden rupture in “Six Cents in the Pocket” (2015) or the bittersweet bookends in Notes on an Appearance. Here, it is captured in an unmistakeable bildungsroman format, following Jesse, a boy growing up on Long Island from the 1980s to the beginning of the 21st century, whose living situation — the only son of divorced parents played by Brian D’Arcy James and Monica Barbaro, the first even moderately-high-profile actors he has worked with — closely mirrors that of D’Ambrose himself. But Jesse, as played by three remarkably similar-looking actors over the years, is never quite centered in the way that might be expected. Other arcs are given almost equal focus: the plight of his grandmother on his mother’s side, who is passed from relative to relative in cycles of neglect; the questionable business dealings of his father; and above all the state of the apartment that his father lives in, which is the actual apartment in which D’Ambrose himself grew up.

Irresolution, as is so often the case for D’Ambrose, is the key to The Cathedral; what registers more forcefully than ever, and is at least partly to do with the extra half-hour running time compared to Notes on an Appearance, is the means by which his objects and settings accrue meaning and resonances over the grand amount of narrative time. The title itself refers to a book about the construction of a cathedral while his parents violently argue in another room, and the illustrations of an enormous structure built in segments speaks to the flow of time that D’Ambrose aims to establish; the news footage serves as a good anchoring method, acting as signposts of specificity, but they are treated in largely the same way as the quotidian moments that register just as strongly. A few parties act as major moments: the wedding, Christmas, confirmation, graduation, but everything else is allowed to drift, with D’Ambrose’s eye as a piercing factor.

The acting here is more naturalistic, especially in the growing frustration and anguish of James, but The Cathedral lets much of it play out in long shot, contextualizing and refracting each person’s outbursts in the environment around them. Jesse’s growing fascination with filmmaking, which Madeleine James’s narrator describes as focused on measuring time and a growing distance from the world rather than an attempt to catalogue memory, would seem overly self-inserting were it not for a particular dissection of a photograph that he does near the end of the film, a long shot that contains within it a record of a memory of a time just before his life was irreparably changed. And in the progression of Jesse’s graduation, a series of D’Ambrosian close-ups of changing table settings which accrues in an inexorable way utterly unlike his previous work, this newfound synthesis of narrative and form achieves D’Ambrose’s fullest expression yet.

Meta Mining [SOMETHING IN THE DIRT]

Something in the Dirt

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead

Something in the Dirt is something of an outlier in this year’s Sundance NEXT section. While its remit is to show more inventive or formally innovative work, with no particular stipulations otherwise, all of the other films were by first or second-time filmmakers, many working in documentary or quasi-documentary modes, and all running less than ninety minutes. By comparison, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are indie superstars, having now made three relatively well-known films (Spring, The Endless, and Synchronic, none of which I’ve seen) which all had TIFF or Tribeca premieres, and showcase their trademark deployment of science fiction. Additionally, their latest is the only NEXT film in Scope and the only one that runs a hair under two hours.

But Something in the Air wears its relative lo-fi nature on its sleeve. Shot during the pandemic, though apparently not set then, it takes place mostly in and around a small, rundown apartment complex in Los Angeles, following bartender Levi (Benson) as he moves in and meets photographer John (Moorhead), the only other present resident. Soon afterwards, they discover a curious phenomenon: a crystal in Levi’s apartment that hovers at seemingly random intervals, possibly related to the scribblings all over the closet. In response, the two men resort to the most obvious recourse in this day and age: to begin filming in order to make a documentary to sell to Netflix or some other streamer.

It is fairly swiftly revealed that Something in the Dirt is also this documentary, though it remains unclear whether it is completed or not: bits of archival footage are strewn throughout, including during ostensibly “real” scenes — to complicate matters further, at least some moments are designated retroactively as reenactments, even poking fun at the shoddy special effects — and there are talking heads that crop up, including with experts and frazzled editors. Despite these intrusions, the film otherwise proceeds in a linear progression, moving through increasingly eerie occurrences while also taking a good amount of time to delineate the relationship between Levi and John.

Something in the Dirt‘s best moments and its faults come from this central relationship, which both offers a kind of bewildered comedy and a too-familiar depiction of a friendship undone; an emphasis on backstories being revealed at incongruous junctures highlights this feeling. But Benson and Moorhead are fairly compelling presences, especially the latter, whose well-groomed short hair and spectacles make a nice contrast with the former’s general sloppiness. There’s a certain charm to the way this operates, flashing lights and cameras to simulate earthquakes, and the deliberately offhand way that conspiracies are brought up and dismissed, with trips outside the apartment designed almost exclusively to show the proliferation of symbols around LA. If the personal drama, already hinted at and hammered home over and over in the ominous talking heads, tends to weigh this down, it’s balanced to a certain degree by the genuine delight this takes in the silliness of the central image, and how seriously the two men take it; a budget approach to an extraterrestrial concept that remains out of reach.

February 2022 Capsules

Who’s Stopping Us
There’s a scene in here that feels almost like a lo-fi version of the go-fast boat to Cuba in Miami Vice, two characters acting on an urge to kayak briefly across to Portugal. Though they have to return sooner rather than later, that spirit of freedom within certain limits feels so resonant with the experience of teenagehood, of all these characters moving in and out of focus as Trueba’s style shifts in response. Talking heads, voiceover, extensive hangout scenes, all of them feel integrated yet disruptive, a steady stream of insights and bullshitting that doesn’t aim to necessarily take any of the events (fiction or non-fiction) at face value. It is about the experience, the cross-section of life and vitality that gets at so much more.

Tree of Knowledge
The key moment early on (among many) is the journey of the dissected fox, first seen in long shot as the children, quiet and respectful for once, gather around the table in a circle. Gore is liberally shown but never gleefully, and the emphasis remains on the children, who have a certain awe at seeing this mini-spectacle. Two of the boys then take it, attempt to scare girls with it — only succeeding with the outcast Mona — then take it home to attempt to recreate the experience themselves. If Tree of Knowledge is as much a film about education as it is about the cruelty of children, this moment demonstrates it most clearly: a startlingly visceral punctum that breaches the bawdiness of its society that leads them to want to imitate their future selves. Unfortunately, some futures are more grown-up than others, and therein lies the essential, awful problem.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Everything comes forth from Pasolini’s early decision to convey the Sermon on the Mount in a seemingly endless series of forward tracking shots, framing Jesus the Anointed in front of a boundless and blank sky. It gets to the heart of what makes the New Testament such an oddly difficult collection of books to adapt to a different medium, even the nigh-universally known gospel. Pasolini’s great genius was to lean into that almost anecdotal quality, the procession of incident and teaching that the Book of Matthew provides, in doing so emphasizing the inherent integrity and value of each moment. The words spoken in each sentence of the Sermon function both in tandem and separately, and by placing them in formal conversation, by having them spoken directly to the viewer, their power is interpreted and conveyed with a stark impact.

Sound As Vision [EXPEDITION CONTENT]

Expedition Content

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Ernst Karel & Veronika Kusumaryati

“Imageless” films — which both exist in defiance of and in tandem with their more traditional, camera-photographed cousins — have established a small but notable lineage, and not even exclusively in the realm of the avant-garde. Derek Jarman’s landmark Blue (1993) is probably the most beloved example, with the sole image of International Klein Blue representing its ailing director’s eyesight. Anthology Film Archives is currently running a series which highlights such works, including Movies for the Blind, Volume 2 (1999, Jeff Perkins) and The Disappeared (2018, Gilad Baram & Adam Kaplan); to this series could also be added the borderline case of James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s The Republic (2017), which very slowly shifts from a black screen to a white screen, and João César Monteiro’s Branca de Neve/Snow White (2000), which, partly owing to unspecified filming difficulties, takes place almost entirely in voiceover save for interspersed shots of clouds.

Especially for the examples from before the past decade, however, there is the question of what “imageless” truly means, on the most basic level of form and experience. Even in something like Blue, there is, or at least was, still the sensation of watching a series of projected images on multiple reels, and the inevitable print alterations that occur as a print is run through various projectors over and over. In the present digital configuration, the black “leader” is still a projected image of sorts, as film grain-less as it may be, and the lack of an image may (and perhaps should) cause the viewer’s eyes to wander more towards fellow audience members, emergency exit lights, and the like. “Imageless” films can thus cause an even more interactive experience, without even getting into the sonic possibilities and thematic resonances that each of the above examples invoke.

Into this heady mix of films steps Expedition Content, the first significant salvo in a few years from the esteemed Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, and appropriately credited as being “composed by” Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati. The choice to craft an “imageless” film may seem especially strange from the SEL, considering that their films have yielded some of the most beguiling visual textures of the century, from the rich 16mm of Manakamana to the wild digital experimentation of Sweetgrass and Leviathan. But Karel — who has sound edited and mixed not only the above films but also for the SEL at large, along with films by Anocha Suwichakornpong, Luke Fowler, Trương Minh Quỳ, and Ben Rivers among many others — and Kusumaryati — a Harvard University Film Study Center fellow — both making their feature directorial debuts, are after something different, and not only because of the near-total lack of conventional image.

For Expedition Content is, unlike most SEL films, a found-footage film, or in this instance a found-recording film, editing together and remixing the thirty-seven hours of audiotape recordings made on a 1961 Harvard Peabody Museum anthropological research trip to West Papua among the Hubula (or Dani) people. Among the participants were the filmmaker Robert Gardner, who made the notable ethnographic film Dead Birds (1963) during the expedition, and, of all people, Michael Rockefeller – son of Nelson and great-grandson of John D., who had invested in oil exploration in New Guinea decades prior – who made the recordings and disappeared later that year while attempting to gather artifacts on the island. Aside from a late, brief flash of Gardner’s footage that lasts about a minute and a half, depicting a dark cave interior along with native villagers and a fire, the only images that appear are a few explanatory intertitles and some interpolations of baby blue leader, which are accompanied by a low tone and seem to presage the minimal number of translations of Dani provided; the rest is pure sound collage.

What predominates then, in the deliberate absence of both image and translation, the Western viewer — bearing in mind that, despite Kusumaryati’s own Indonesian background and dissertation focus upon West Papua’s highlanders, Expedition Content is ultimately an American film and very much aware of that fact — is left to focus on audio as its own form of immersion, and upon the role of Rockefeller and his fellow travelers as interlopers. Rockefeller has a very particularly tentative manner of introducing the myriad audio cuts that Karel and Kusumaryati highlight at the beginning of almost every recording, and the initial irritation eventually becomes a structuring device, a purposeful intrusion that often cuts against the supposed naturalness that the researchers are attempting to capture.

At some points, the beauty and power of what is being captured speaks for itself. The rush of a waterfall, the sonorous communal chanting, private singing; an astonishing amount is contained within Expedition Content‘s scant 78 minutes. But by freely moving across all of these privileged captured moments, Karel and Kusumaryati implicitly make the ethnographers themselves the subject; the black screen allows the viewer to focus on the precarious nature of the recording apparatus itself, all blown out audio and faint whispers, something only highlighted by the inclusion of a few crisp modern recordings of the cataloguers of these tapes.

Immediately after the aforementioned film footage, the tensions simmering within Expedition Content come to a head in the longest piece of continual audio recording within the film, though it is unclear whether it was done accidentally by Rockefeller or not. During a ten-minute tape of a drunken birthday celebration, the researchers speak in blaccents; converse about Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, and Oscar Peterson; and speculate about the possibility of copulating with one of the natives. In an additional touch, Karel and Kusumaryati provide subtitles that compel the viewer to stare at and contemplate the true nature of the ethnographers’ interactions with those they purportedly attempt to understand, casting the previous hour’s recordings in a light that had been latent until this moment of nakedness. By using the traditional means of translation as reinforcement, they are examined with the same unrelenting gaze that they themselves deployed elsewhere.

The brilliance of Expedition Content lies, in large part, in its ability to be so direct, so unflinching in its perspective, while also seemingly refracting its observations through the plethora of direct field recordings. If the opening and ending intertitles confront the political and ethnic issues in a manner uncommon for the SEL — the former implicitly links the expedition with Attica via Nelson Rockefeller, the latter raises the United States and Nations’ ongoing support of the brutal Indonesian colonization of West Papua — that sentiment is bolstered and transmuted by the contemplation that is engendered by the uncommon aesthetic experience. In the same way that, say, Leviathan‘s elemental torrent or Manakamana‘s durational interconnectedness arise moment to moment, Karel and Kusumaryati’s ultimately defiant aims exist within the gap between the researcher’s perspective and the previously undisturbed world, a distinction that becomes only more glaring with each fumbled appellation, each interrupting utterance.