Dispatches from the VTIFF

Cinephiles are an easily jaded lot. Most any such obsessive will admit to a similar mounting disenchantment. Call it building a tolerance. Even so, taking as deathly-serious a form meant (twisted?) for entertainment can be a dicey and difficult-to-justify proposition. Disaffection is both byproduct and necessary armor against easy feeling. Cultivating a clinical distance helps cut through the layers of artifice and gloss that are often part and parcel with the seduction of film. Once tipping in this direction, it can be difficult to chart a course back to the simple pleasures and visceral experience the cinema has in spades.

This past week I ran the mild gauntlet of the Vermont International Film Festival, an appropriately understated, accessible affair with a surprisingly stacked 10-day lineup. I took this festival as both opportunity and challenge, subjecting my mind to as little pretext as possible in engaging with the roster. I sunk back into base attractions: an interesting looking cover image, a familiar name (already too much information, probably), a passing suggestion, or simply whatever worked best with my schedule. It was also an occasion to indulge in the communal aspect of film that I herald so often—that too-rare experience of sitting in a crowd of people with unsolidified expectations. Forcing oneself into the darkness and demanding rapt attention for ten days straight can require endurance, but like most pursuits in this vein, new ways of looking and experiencing and thinking are opened up with such trials. It really reinforces how context colors film more than we even care to admit.

VTIFF is not the most prestigious festival, to be sure, but it’s scrappy. And that’s some of the beauty of the filmic experience—these works are shown in a variety of different displays across the world, and the experience will change accordingly, but, large and small, there’s an undeniable connectivity. The lineup featured selected films from around the world. I saw thirteen. Here they are with some thoughts and opinions in order of preference, with theory set aside and criticism embraced, in all its subjective glory. These titles are bound to crop up over the coming year, so consider this a primer on what to look for and where to start the discourse.

The Forbidden Room (2015) – Dir. Guy Maddin, Co-Dir. Evan Johnson

It is estimated that half of all American films produced before 1950 and 90% of all films made before 1929 are lost forever. Kudos to Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson for fleshing out snippets, taglines, and context-less titles into something reverent, singular, and mirthful. The result plays like a barmy pre-code Josef von Sternberg crossed with Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. The plot begins with a perverse instructional on how to take a bath, then transitions to a submarine crew fretting over their imminent demise at the hands of exploding jelly, then to the sudden appearance of a “sapling jack” aboard the vessel and his story, then through various rabbit-holes, dead-ends, and absurdities before all the tangles inevitably pile up and viewers lose track of just where we are in the warren. We moderners don’t think too much about silent film anymore, and when we do, our thinking is entirely backward. Thankfully, Guy Maddin curates the form from on high—that is, Winnipeg, Manitoba. His eye is ever attuned to the playful potential of visual storytelling, and he crafts incongruous and silly tales with a form that is wrongly perceived as inaccessible and stuffy. Over the years, Maddin has blurred the hard line that was long-ago driven between silents and talkies, crisscrossing styles with a poetic eye and surprisingly meticulous precision. The Forbidden Room is perhaps the best and purest showcase for this singular skill. The interwoven jazzed-up lost films are brimming with inspiration, and they display the wide range of untapped potentials filmic form holds in even its most vintage timbre.

Living in Oblivion (1995) – Dir. Tom DiCillo

A seldom-regarded cult classic from ’95, Tom DiCillo’s rabbit-hole meta-movie is like Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie pulled through the curdling independent film scene of the early-’90s. In three acts, a filmmaker (Steve Buscemi) and his crew attempt to lay down a few movie scenes. Each act revolves around a different scene, and the context and nature of the production shifts with each prism. The movie is mostly known for featuring early-career performances from the likes of Catherine Keener and Peter Dinklage, but its riches are due for rediscovery. Oblivion’s clear-cut structure and regimented screenplay carve out a fascinating recursive space where repetition deadens progress. The rigid structure and the transmuting dream-mechanics create a friction that is appropriately emblematic of the contrivance of film production as an art form. DiCillo—who shot Jim Jarmusch’s first two films before striking out on his own—was on hand afterward, and his engaging personality, sardonic wit, and story-heavy Q&A complimented the film nicely, coloring the process of creating this thing that lays bare the circuitry of the filmic process while simultaneously concealing its own wiring. Each moving part of this work has a lived-in quality crossed with a wild-eyed, fast-forward manic-ness that makes it both maddening and enthralling. It justifies but doesn’t fully buy into the constant search for that elusive creative spark that keeps artists coming back to the well. If anything, this film upends the perception of serendipity and inspiration in commodified art (some shades of Adorno there). Here, the process is painful, absurd, redundant, and never guaranteed to pay off. The artist is mired in a constant process of self-doubt and plagued by the myriad outside pressures squeezing and delimiting the translation from brain to celluloid. All the filmic components are placed in fragile balance and Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. 

The Look of Silence (2014) – Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

“The Past is the past.” In 1965, a military dictatorship came to power in Indonesia. In the years following, over 1 million people were labelled “communists” and summarily executed in barbarous fashion. For many in Indonesia, they are desperately trying to forget. And, throughout the running time of this film, there are numerous allusions to the cyclical nature of violence in human history and the constant fear of reprisal that still grips this archipelago. The central figure of this story is optometrist-cum-human rights hero, Adi. He is a window into this world and surrogate voice for all the fear and repression that has overshadowed the lives of the Indonesian people for a half-century. The Look of Silence downplays the formal devices that made Oppenheimer’s previous document, The Act of Killing, such a striking and polarizing exercise in documentary filmmaking, but by no means is the scope diminished, and Oppenheimer still treads in the precarious overlap between direct cinema, observational cinema, and cinéma vérité. As a documentarian, Oppenheimer takes some cues from producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog in his approach, but he charts his own course in manufacturing scenarios in search of an essential truth, where sentiments are exposed rather than dictated. The film operates at extremes—concealed camera presence/exposed camera presence, the depths and heights of the human condition, depravity and resilience, urgency and tranquility. And it remarkably finds ways to explore the areas in and between, unearthing the unlikely connective tissue that links all these elements on a single tapestry. The Look of Silence, like The Act of Killing, gives over a disquieting amount of screen time to the perpetrators of the atrocities at the center of the films. They are allowed ample time to brazenly boast about their involvement and to bask in their continued influence. But, The Look of Silence is also rather unprecedented in that it is likely the first time a victim of such a large-scale atrocity is documented confronting perpetrators while they still hold sway and are still in power. In this work, cinema itself is both a weapon and shield. Oppenheimer’s sometimes ethically dubious journalism ultimately, ironically, gives more power and depth to the unarticulated emotions of the silent majority Indonesian people. There is no easy or clean path forward when bringing the pitch-black ugliness of human depravity to bear. The cognitive devices that allow evil people to rationalize and dissociate are linked with similar devices and fear-enabled contortions that allow victims to too-easily neglect the past. It’s a harrowing work that ends up encompassing a crisis of global conscience. The Look of Silence is a pure testament to the continuing power of film and filmmaking in the modern world. That so many credited at the end of the film are listed as “Anonymous” provides a chilling summation of the longevity of fear and the long road ahead.

The Assassin (2015) – Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s took a relatively long detour from feature filmmaking, and his The Assassin suggests he spent that time attuning to the vernacular of unknown dimensions. Set in 9th century Tang Dynasty China, it’s appropriately, confoundingly enigmatic, presented in drips and rushes, bird song and ringing metal. Crafting a legitimately alien world is not just about setting and ambiguous abnormality. Here, behind each gesture, each ravishing and long-held composition, each seemingly-jagged transition, and each piece of curious iconography, there is an inaccessible sea of culture and meaning. Compositions are routinely veiled behind mist and smoke and curtains. Characters drift in and out, and possibly change, with nary an introduction and few signposts. Through this simple, curious, patient style, wuxia is expressed as more than a code or style; it’s a slowly-evolving, never-resolved world-view glimpsed in something lengthier than real time. Describing The Assassin and its effect is both reductive and delimiting for a movie that courts expectation only to deliver an entirely different experience. It exists within its genre, with fights that are strikingly incongruous, stealthy, and graceful, but fleeting and disorienting—the sharp sound of brandishing metal momentarily piercing the lull of reverie. Like in The Thin Red Line, these bursts are both an affront to the thick aura of the surrounding world and deeply ingrained in its mythology. It’s a work that’s a little easier to appreciate than it is to get wrapped in by design. But, if you give yourself over to its singular, patient alienation, there are rewards and insights to glean if not fully comprehend.

Goodnight Mommy (2015) – Dirs. Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz

VTIFF featured an “After Dark” series of three films over three nights held off-campus from the rest of the proceedings. Goodnight Mommy was not one of them, but it was touted as a spiritual capper to those other films. Really, it was a sobering counterpoint.  I saw this one on Halloween and it was chilling. Whereas the three films in the “After Dark” series were gleeful about their splatter, and the audience expectant of a certain amount of darkly comic thrill, Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz assured debut film, produced by the notably ruthless Ulrich Seidl, threw fun out of the equation and settled firmly on bleak, crafting a nastily deliberate gauntlet of squirm-inducing isolation (producing some early Michael Haneke comparisons, but we’ll see). What’s so dreadful about this piece is how inevitable the violence is and how easily things turn from unsettling to reviling. In the film, twin boys, recently moved with their mother to a remote, modern home surrounded by corn fields and forests, begin to suspect that the mother, who recently underwent cosmetic surgery and spends the majority of the film with her head wrapped in bandages, is not the same person. There are twists, and they are telegraphed, but I think that’s firmly the point, as the clarity of the discordance casts a pall over the whole thing. There is an underlying imbalance to all the carefully composed austerity, and eventually the scales tip. That we are so firmly tied to the psyche of the main boy(s) makes matters all the more difficult. The primal affection and connection between mother and son is thoroughly rotted in an alarmingly short span of time, and the clinical detachment and ease with which each escalation is executed is nothing but ruthless.

Final Cut—Ladies & Gentlemen (2015) – Dir./Ed. György Pálfi

Laura Mulvey would have a field day with this cinematic collage. Pálfi’s film(?) is an act of protest in more ways than one—against the floundering and upended Hungarian film industry and against the notion of copyright. The categorization of this piece as an “educational film” is the only reason it can be shown in this setting (film foundations have that latitude). He and his crew spliced together bits from over 450 works—many of them popular, well-known Hollywood movies—into a relatively linear love story. I say relatively because it does constantly overlap with itself as the repetitive movements and actions from films are piled on top of each other in a stuttering forward momentum. This pileup reveals some depth beneath the sugary outer-layer, hinting at a buried critique of the familiar and predictable ways that films, and mainstream films especially, tend to tell stories and elicit patterned responses through critical mass. In the process, it not only catalogues the classic romantic arc in cinematic narratives over the last century and a quarter, it also fetishizes it (and the cinematic form). Final Cut offers an entirely different mode of viewership overlaid overtop of a highly standardized mode of viewership, and spectators are forced to reconcile the easy pleasures with the constancy of recognition and exhuming. This is closer to what I thought Thom Andersen’s masterful doc Los Angeles Plays Itself would be, and it functions as a spiritual heir, one that is a bit straighter, but possibly more oblique in its purposes. It’s a little too reverent, and its straight-arrow (mostly) telling of romance is a bit clean, but it’s also pointed in this way, and has some gravity beneath the gloss, illuminating how the mind processes and compiles information, and how this can be both gratifying and frustrating simultaneously.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) – Dir. Peter Greenaway

According to Peter Greenaway, Sergei Eisenstein is “the greatest film practitioner we’ve ever seen.” His filmic take on this figure is curious, though. Guanajuato encapsulates Eisenstein’s time spent in the eponymous city to film his never-finished epic ¡Que viva México!. Guanajuato is a strange sort of homage to this idol, a fascinating and flamboyant portrait of the artist as a blowhard clown with beguiling innocence and naiveté combined with towering ideals. In a matter of course, his portrayal fittingly likens artistic passion to a torrid and consuming love affair. Formalist pioneers collide and the resulting form is both dazzling and unwieldy. Their respective styles never cohere, to the benefit of both. Greenaway’s film is restless, consistently bisecting itself, dividing its frame with archival footage of the titular pioneer and the icons he met in his travels after the worldwide success of Battleship Potemkin. At turns goofy, provocative, affecting, and rambunctious, it’s a scattered film of many tones, and it constantly destabilizes itself, bearing its ersatz but extravagant heart. It also happens to compile a canny intro-film-esque narrative of ’20’s cinema in the process. It’s also pretty romantic and vivacious, with a compellingly passionate homosexual relationship at the center, which, since its initial screenings, has doubled as a decidedly political act of rebellion against the aggressive homophobia that Putin’s Russia continues to amplify. The style and the energy are transfixing, but there is immense potential in the tale of Eisenstein’s 250 mile-long film that is lost in the fray (doubly lost, then), and the film ends up distended rather than incisive. The clownishness is the point, I’m sure, but pitting two preeminent thinkers and semioticians in league like this is too salacious not to expect monumental fruits. There’s more going on under the surface than the feast that meets the eye, but no thesis, which is vexing but never not interesting.

 Tu Dors Nicole (2014) – Dir. Stéphane Lafleur

“Don’t you think the atmosphere feels unusual tonight? Seems as if everything is in slow motion.” So goes a lyrical pickup line from 10-year-old Martin, a boy with a prematurely deep voice and a poetic soul, delivered to the titular pseudo-dreamer. It also happens to sum the tone of this French Canadian piece, a somnambulant, slanted reverie of a dramedy.  It has already drawn deserved comparisons to Frances Ha and Ghost World for of its tempo, emphasis on women and relationships in transition, and wry-cum-irreverent wit. Nicole features some beautiful sound design and lovely black-and-white photography. There is a pervasive hum to its world. Nicole’s brother’s (pretty decent) band—recording at their parents’ house which Nicole is tasked with watching while they are away on vacation—tries to tap the ethereal wavelengths in the air and ends up both cutting through and complimenting it. Sound bleeds through walls and is chopped and mixed between rooms, rounding out the out the space in well-observed ways. What sticks out here, and elevates this above a dreamy trifle, is the way Lafleur finds the unusual in the everyday. It’s as if the strange and beguiling aspects of the world that Nicole once found so invigorating have suddenly lost their flavor. Strange images crop up but are grounded in the placid and tactile environment. The black-and-white overlay and muted tone belie the supposed vigor and heat of its season making it feel surreally cold. It’s a particularly lost, numb dreamscape, but affecting for how relatable and airy it all is. Everything seems slightly out of step—à gauche. It’s not really disorienting; but it strikes an off-kilter tone through muted fringe eccentricities and an untethered internal compass sure to reverberate with those who are restless and desultory. It’s dreamy without ever calling attention to the contours of its dreamscape, which is precisely how dreams go, no?

Turbo Kid (2015) – Dirs. François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell

Two parts Road Warrior, one part Bad Taste, three parts Degrassi. The first of the “After Dark” series held just south of town, garnered goodwill with its charms. The decidedly different-type crowd helped too, removed from some of the “high-art” expectations these affairs tend to stoke.  A lust for gore was perhaps the unifying feature of this series (fittingly enough since it was co-sponsored by The Green Mtn. Gore Society in celebration of “OkGoreberFest”). Turbo Kid tracks a comics-loving loner, orphan it turns out, forced to navigate a harsh-ish post-apocalyptic landscape, which he does with an interesting mix of cautious optimism and guarded amusement as each day he maps out the terrain in crayon and rummages for survival tools and long-forgotten discarded trinkets. He eventually comes across an oddly effervescent, pink-haired girl, who latches onto him despite his efforts leading to an inevitable showdown with the warlord-emperor of the land and his mum metal-masked, buzz-saw shooting enforcer. The very presence of Michael Ironside tells you these young Canucks live by the cheese. Turns out, gleeful gore and post-apocalyptic 1997 are agreeable bedfellows. The buoyancy gives his tale a bit more charisma and light-tragedy than the slight plot possibly deserves, but the well-worn set-pieces and sandbox-adventure style keeps things lively and engaging, and the gore effects, laugh lines, low-level BMX moves, and tongue-in-cheek synth score don’t disappoint.

He Never Died (2015) – Dir. Jason Krawczyk

Henry Rollins, starring as “Jack,” was clearly the draw for this flick, the third of the “After Dark”s, and he was the target for many cheers throughout the run, especially in the back-half. Rollins holds things together at the center for most of the film, playing against himself, and drawing on his outsized personality to suggest registers of menace bottled beneath a man trying to go straight. But, I’m not sure that the allegory works as a whole. The plot follows Jack in his day to day activities, which are interrupted by several house-guests, most notably a daughter he didn’t know existed. True to form, all this leads to some carnage in the effort to save the girl. As a man trying to reform, Jack lacks any other motivation besides his desire to sleep, eat eggplant parmesan, drink hot tea, and keep mysterious and illicitly obtained packages in his vegetable bin, just in case. Around this mysterious and slow-burning center is a routine pot-boiler that lets him off a little easy. His baser conflicts are given outs and justification and the central relationship never deepens, especially once Andrea disappears and becomes more device that human, and late scenes devolve into exposition. If we are actively rooting for a character to fail in his gone-good aspirations to satisfy our blood lust, what does that say about our investment? That’s the real, unexplored dilemma at the center here.

The Hallow (2015) – Dir. Corin Hardy

I don’t know why, but all these ended up in a row. The second of the three “After Dark” features, The Hallow is mostly interesting as a structural workout. It also marks a subgenre reintegrating appendages—that is, taking back what science fiction borrowed. The story involves a couple and their newborn who’ve recently moved to a quaint house in rural Scotland surrounded by dense forest. They are clearly not wanted there—the husband’s work involves marking trees to be extracted. Eventually, mysticism creeps in and it becomes eminently clear that the woods harbor creatures with ill-intent of their own—they want the baby. Really, once the car stalls deep in the forest at about the 1/3 mark, it’s all forward momentum and sustained tension until the end, which is admirable, but lacks punch to put it over the top (especially with the follow-through on the baby-roulette). The third act takes a District 9 turn; and this combined with the early focus on recognizable-ish science marks this as a creature feature with smudges of sci-fi. The environmental angle is never fleshed out in much detail (cutting down trees=bad?) and abandoned fairly early on in favor of the malevolent critters. I’m not sure what the significance of baby snatching is in relation to the larger metaphor, either. It might all make more sense if I were more familiar with the rural politics of Scotland. Either way, it still remains engaging and fairly creepy at points—a late night siege while trying to get an overgrown car engine started and an eye-piercing home-invasion, in particular. Unfortunately, there’s not a ton to distinguish it from more accomplished and considered creature features, but it’s solid enough—and has a relatively high GoT quotient to boot—to recommend given the right environment.

Experimenter (2015) – Dir. Michael Almereyda

Experimenter, a biopic of Stanley Milgram, never lives up to its opening moments. Once all the tricks of Milgram’s experiment are revealed the film becomes a bit tedious, frankly. Peter Sarsgaard’s eminent skill at underplaying his charisma has a sleepy effect here that may suit the character but devalues the material, which Almereyda seems uncertain how to handle. The approach ends up collapsing into a combination of pseudo-reflexivity, melodrama, biopic, and instructional video that never bridges the gap between its obvious aesthetic ambitions and the low-rent, half-baked devices employed. It ends up feeling far sillier than it should and undermines the work of the titular experimenter and the real-world implications that are beaten to death. There is a kernel of a great idea in those first moments, though—the material has all the elements of a great, chilly, twisty, metadiegetic exercise. The experimentation theater is a perfect microcosm for many of the conditions of the cinema: divides between spectators and spectacle, actors, annotated recordings of emotions and micro-gestures, illusory borders, choreography of knowledge, a script, artificial sets. If the film were more disciplined, more interested in experimenting on the expectations and lapses of our perspective, it may have been something remarkable, a Kubrick-ian exercise in restraint and protraction. Frankly, there is too much about his personal life, too much direct address, too much artifice that borders on lazy, too much telling and not nearly enough sleight-of-hand. It has all the diffuse displeasure of a magic trick that has just been revealed, but not enough build up to nor exploration of the intricacies, significance, and heft of this necessary dénouement. We’re primed to be subjects in the cinema, so why insist on deflating our roles? At least it had the good sense to try to inject some humor here and there, spotty as it is.

The Dinner (2014) – Dir. Ivano De Matteo

The Dinner has many of the hallmarks of a capital-D Drama—ascetic environments, glowering professional-types, broad social commentary, contrived plot mechanics. Following a cold open where road rage turns to tragedy, we follow a doctor tasked with caring for the child who got caught in the crossfire, then we eventually are led to his brother who is defending the officer responsible for the boy’s injury. Eventually, the son of the doctor and the daughter of the lawyer commit a callous and indefensible crime. The two brothers, and their put-upon spouses, are tasked with handling the dicey ramifications and must reconsider previous stances on crime and punishment. It all bounds toward a foregone conclusion, where previously rigid beliefs and ethics reverse polarity. Problem is, in the haste of undercutting, it never finds a grey area, and never deepens to relate, offering only impenetrable, stilted, and cold family dynamics at the center. There’s not an ounce of levity to be had. There are also several indications that the tinkerers behind the camera are so caught up in their thesis that they are overlooking the intricacies of the point. Characters and plot points are introduced sloppily, with little awareness of how they are meant to fit. It’s all so decidedly aloof and haut that it never manages to touch its feet to the ground or hit on anything of note. It’s big picture filmmaking and it’s broad and cumbersome.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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