VTIFF II

Part II: Chapter 1, the ballad of the “nasty little bitch” – The Handmaiden

In three acts stuffed to the gills with lush detail, erotic intrigue, misdirections, and double-crosses, Park Chan-Wook’s lascivious mindfuck thriller shifts from chaste to gleefully, madly tawdry. By the closing moonlit, profane-romantic, silver bell adorned tableau, some transcendent amalgam of the two has been spawned—the title having fully blossomed from a signifier of the handsome, tasteful period piece one might expect into grandiose, splendid euphemism. Any summary of this work doesn’t convey the sheer oddness and density that Park brings to the gnarled material. Even as events are folded over into oblivion, the off-hand details and cracks in practiced affectations come to define the piece, aiding in the myriad manipulations, and contributing to a sensibility that grows ever more wild-eyed. Park works in a gonzo pulp mode that’s mesmerizing. He revels in the oddness, artificiality, and deception of details and performances with fetishistic intensity. To see him apply this to a period-drama is even more idiosyncratic, exploiting and exploding the restraint he displayed in his last, and first in English, Stoker, and the lusty romanticism of his sumptuous vampire film, Thirst.

The many-tentacled grand-scale machinations and visceral, incestuous unease that permeated through Oldboy are still very much on display, deconstructed with intimidating confidence, calculation, and mischievousness. The first chapter ends in a tragic reversal; the second chapter doesn’t continue on linearly, instead doubling-back, all the way back, reversing the polarity of the whole picture while opening up its scope into a mess of contradictions and manipulations. A dramatic tale recounted by a schemer in the beginning plays out in a far more fevered bacchanal of cranked power dynamics, psychosexual fixation, and life-sized marionette theatrics. The style up-shifts into a new level of expressiveness and dynamism. Characters unearth the many striations that rippled under the surface in the first section. All the darkened edges and concealed wings of the castle are plumbed. The narrative gets kinkier in multiple senses, and the delivery grows increasingly ecstatic, diving deep into white-collar fetish rings and rampant, cold-blooded scopophilia on both sides of the screen. Rather than meditating on the act of spectatorship, The Handmaiden tries to drown you in voyeurism. 

Internet as “Antichrist,” with muffins and scones/danishes – Lo & Behold: Reveries of a Connected World

Heir Werner’s witheringly description of the “repulsive” UCLA hallways where the internet was “birthed” is enough to trigger that masochistic, submissive reflex in your brain stem that paradoxically produces laughter in the face of consuming insignificance. Werner Herzog doesn’t make documentaries like mere mortals. His intimidating Teutonic German accent is omnipotent and guiding; his pace is idiosyncratic and unbalanced. His gaze dominates bilaterally, as he mesmerizes viewers with his formidable authority, and his subjects unleash their craven impulses under the cold, insistent stare of his camera. Throughout Lo and Behold, a movie about no less than the entirety of the internet and its implications for human communication and cosmic destruction, this tome traces the evolution of the modern technology and the rapid, irreversible metastasis of digital interconnectivity.

Lo and Behold is brimming with eccentricity, but, fittingly, and unlike other Herzog texts, it doesn’t boil over into catharsis, instead maintaining a dopamine drip of expectation and shallow reward. From the opening scene where a spry, performative early-internet participant ushers us into hallowed ground then bangs on the one-of-a-kind machinery without hesitation, to Elon Musk giddily-but-guardedly considering Wi-Fi on Mars, to a tatted-up astrophysicist who professes humanity’s singular ability to destroy planets rather than successfully inhabit and colonize, grand connection and undercurrents are key, and Lo and Behold plays this out across twelve illuminating and misleading chapters of varying length and inquiry, doubling as mere browser windows into an uncontainable and ever-expanding behemoth. Herzog often lingers several beats beyond the ebb and flow of people conveying missives, as if in defiance of the rapidity of modern thought patterns and editing. He’s unafraid to insert himself into the proceedings and he is keen to inject arid humor in atypical places. He lobs philosophical curveballs at eggheads and eccentrics alike, some of whom field them with admirable, nerdy aplomb, generating considered and well-informed treatises, others wane when faced with a glimmer of the abyss beyond their narrow worldview. Herzog is a thrill-junky so computer monitors and Q&As with indoorsy-types makes for an odd, fascinating fit. As he stares at a screen and envisions the universe, he grasps at a grand question: Who will win in a race to blot out human existence, us or the Sun?

Chapter VI is the shortest and the most enigmatic. It bundles its contradictions in mutant symbiosis: Titled “The Dark Side,” the segment takes place in the dining room of the “Porsche Girl” family where the parents of the deceased girl, surrounded by their silent, scale-model doppelgänger children, recount the disturbing events that lead to photos of their decapitated daughter callously and cruelly distributed across the internet. Herzog composes a strange and uncomfortable tableau—the family of five done up, around the kitchen table, in matching attire, (15) muffins and (9) scones/danishes neatly laid out on the table and untouched, parents standing in the back and the children seated—then lets the camera linger beyond the bounds of the story and the natural pause and reflection. In the uncomfortable silence, the mother starts to posit her elliptical thoughts about the internet as the manifestation of the Antichrist, proliferating and pillaging civilization at large. This brief, stilted chapter stands as the film’s summation of the evils of interconnectivity, per the sequence title.

Stylized composition and restraint collide in an evocative cinematic moment. His search for these beguiling, off-kilter moments of discomfort and protraction is the real story of the movie in search of a rhythm that is decidedly analog. He seeks out incoherence between the lines and within the silences that we desperately snuff out with information inundation. Once again, his interest is in the human condition that gives rise to antithetical frameworks and impulses, but this time with a fascinating subtlety and surprising restraint. Leaving my phone behind in the theater was an appropriate Luddite denouement under the circumstances.

“What are we in Europe?” – Under the Shadow

In The Babadook, maternal ambivalence and grief manifests as an inescapable, insect-like Victorian-esque bogeyman. The metaphor is squeezed for all its culture-shame potential, intensifying the lead’s gnarled guilt and responsibility into something mutant that exhumes and amplifies her latent, seemingly maladaptive resentment and hate. Under the Shadow follows the mold, and though not as artful or visceral, it’s equally claustrophobic and, to its merit, more culturally specific. The film opens with the heroine getting resolutely rejected by the Iranian patriarchal state in no uncertain terms—denied return to medical school in light of her political activism years earlier. This is projected onto her constricting relations with her family, particularly her daughter. When she looks at her, still spared from wearing the culturally mandated garb, she undoubtedly sees a bleak future filled with the same closed doors and perpetual cultural shame; and she, like Amelia, responds with frustration and shades of antipathy—especially considering her pregnancy was the reason she abandoned her studies.

Few horror films bask so thoroughly on context. In the first reel of Under the Shadow—a runway typically reserved for subtext—it’s unclear where exactly the ratcheting tension is heading, in part because the sociology is so concrete. Instead, undercurrents are fully textualized, the threat and horror of the Iran-Iraq war ever-present, and the dynamics of the family unit crumbling like a far less nuanced but still affecting Farhadian melodrama. When the hostile ghoul begins to make its mark, it feels like overkill—an unfathomable horror added to the pile of absurd tyranny and perpetual violence. As the haunted-house tale unspools, the antagonist takes a more pointed and piercing shape—reaching peak metaphor in the form of a threatening, all-enveloping chador—pulled from the very myth she has unconsciously rejected and manifesting in a variety of forms that reinforce her fundamental victimization.

The horrid allegory comes to a point in two interconnected sequences. The first is rightly the most cited: After an all-out assault from the Djinn, Shideh grabs her daughter and flees their apartment building with no shoes and no Hijab. She is immediately picked up by two patrolman who chastise her for her attire; she’s brought to the station, threatened with lashes, and eventually let off with a warning. It’s a searing moment that makes the whole of the country into a haunted house, the two threats coming to a head from diametrical positions and revealing their ugly kinship. There is no escape beyond the besieged confines of the home; fragile havens are fundamentally porous to the ills of the external. More so than most horror films, Under the Dark makes clear that supernatural and systemic horrors are mutually informed and don’t operate within a vacuum-sealed hermeneutic. When the second moment arrives, a final air raid blackout in the apartment complex, the concern is not about the threat of explosion, but what is waiting for them in the bunker and its inescapable symbolic significance.

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings in Full Form – Miss Sharon Jones!

Sharon Jones is a vivacious force with intimidating pride, making her bout with pancreatic cancer all the more heartbreaking. And yet, as her body slowly eats away at her deep energy reserves, her vibrancy and rare talent are paradoxically reiterated, her magnetism magnified amidst the tragic turn. That Miss Sharon Jones! never succumbs to its dispiriting narrative is due in no small part to her indomitable personality and wit. For most of this doc, she is dealing with tough odds and the brutal, deteriorating effects of chemo. Pair that with a challenging, ruthlessly competitive industry that only rewards relentless pursuit at all costs—and the timing of her diagnosis at a turning point in her career where her hard-fought rise to a modicum of mainstream success is at its fragile apex—and the layers of this piece come clear. Hers, and her band-mates’, is a precarious position, one that throws the industry in relief as time drifts away during seven months of treatment, with the ticking clock of tour dates set well in advance looming.

There’s plenty to smile about in Miss Sharon Jones!, especially in the force-of-nature opening salvo. It sets an explosive tone and an impossibly high benchmark for recovery. Starting with the descending, lilting horns of “100 Days, 100 Nights,” the “Funky and Dynamic Sista” hits a retro-concert film crescendo before settling in for harder times and more harrowing, hard-won peaks. It’s a bit of a pump-fake, setting up a different kind of doc that feigns rags-to-riches and finds a more satisfying character study and victory arc—part sobering cancer treatment diary, part redemption narrative, part music industry exposé. That her personality and humor is able to elevate through these sections is a testament to her outsized character and life of dogged pursuit. Think of this bulk as deepening the soul of hers and the Dap King’s old school stylings, giving weight to the opening blast. That crowd-pleaser of an opening passage is part fan-service, part introduction to an under-the-radar star, part staccato climax for an attention-grabbing life story. Without it, the disparity might not be so stark, and the path back to the Beacon Theater performance, and into an uncertain future, would be less complex and curvaceous. 

Stroll through the pinball machine – Phantasm

In this genesis story of the Tall Man and Morningside—a simpler time when John Carpenter’s iconic “Halloween Theme (Main Title)” could be pilfered without fear of reprisal—the sparks of creativity were alive and well, what with horror tropes past and then-present distilled and agitated: dreams of sentient switchblade pinballs, corridors of imitation-marble lined with dead bodies in wait, or empty coffins of those already compacted and reanimated, scurrying Jawas, and Angus Scrimm watching and lurking. They all hold up, especially under the reverent Bad Robot restoration polish, and reinforce the cleverly calibrated lore that birthed this second-tier franchise. There are many uproarious-cum-asinine moments throughout the cult classic Phantasm; its mix of amateurism and legitimate ambition is disarming. But Michael’s trip into the monstrous, inter-dimensional funeral home sealed the fate of the series, pulling out all the tricks in a single sequence. The first victim of the chrome balls lives and dies within the borders of this mythology rich sequence—a Tall Man paean who puts his face in its path and gets stuck, drilled, and spewed in a stream of blood and yellow viscera out the tail end of the sphere. Even amongst ice-cream truck corpse preservation, intergalactic tuning forks in blinding chemical storage closets, impromptu front porch jams, and a slapstick sequence involving muscle car repair, the stroll through the mausoleum takes the cake.

Dancing with the Dybbuk – Demon

Marcin Wrona committed suicide shortly before his final film made its debut and gained momentum. This context casts a shadow over Demon and, regrettably, gives it added dimension. There’s undeniable melancholy amidst the party-heavy, rain-soaked possession narrative, but, no matter the demons haunting the director’s final years, the film is still undeniably raucous at points, threading a tonal needle to combine horror and comedy into a singular haze that never condescends to the often silly amalgam produced through the synthesis of these uneasy bedfellows. Come for the eponymous dybbuk; stay for the oceans of vodka. Demon does well to approximate a debauched, libation-fueled event, with all the bitterness and awkwardness this implies, and frequent flashes of the pain that the waves of alcohol are meant to dull and dilute. The best of intentions give rise to your darkest impulses in the wrong company. Combined with the unraveling ritual of the marriage, it all turns into a whirlwind, one that is more culturally attuned. Wrona wants to blow up this microcosm of regret and inter-generational incivility to a national scale, mourning the unmourned dissolution of time and repressed past events as the tether to reality grows slack and the memory of what was gets saturated and fuzzier.

A sequence in the eye of the story encapsulates the tension beautifully, all in a dizzying, strikingly choreographed long take followed by a choppy denouement: We move from the emcee setting up the ritual of the first dance, to the crumbling intimacy of the newlywed couple spinning on the dance floor, to the swap, as the deteriorating groom moves on to dance with his intoxicated and uncomfortable mother-in-law, through to the next switch, where a stray Aunt or some such relative is thrown into the mix. These transitions are fluid and organic, and with each pass, the sustained take makes the atmosphere ever-more tense until reality breaks and the specter finally enters the picture in full. The third dance partner is swapped out for the conjured spirit and, as the editing kicks in and grows more frantic, the twinning of the two entities—that of the out-of-his-element groom and the exhumed woman from a tossed-aside tragic near-past—is consummated. Our ballast’s mind drifts beyond retrieval in this succinct, imaginative, intoxicating hinge. In fragments like this, Wrona crafts one of the better wedding receptions this side of Rachel Getting Married. This centerpiece sequence in particular hits a rapturous note that’s somewhere between Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, Time of the Gypsies, Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, and the extended sacramental opening act of The Deer Hunter.

“Helen of T” & “Jupiter Sends a Message” – Sixty-Six

In a moment of utter silence in the theater during the Sixty-Six screening, an older woman speak-whispered to her unfortunate companion, “I really hate this.” Which, oddly enough, made me like Sixty-Six more. Her crotchetiness and total lack of self-awareness helped re-square the receptive aims Lewis Klahr fiddles with across the twelve segments of his Pop Art, stop motion Mod Podge pastiche piece, built from the spare parts of magazine, advertising, and comics cutouts from the titular era and spanning that particular year. The referents could be said to range from early animation movement studies like Ballet Mécanique or Rhythmus 21—manipulating shapes and patterns repetitiously—to Robot Chicken. Considered and practiced at drawing the eye and exploiting the organic-filmic predictability of info retrieval, the omnibus basks in surfaces and superficiality and pure experience (an entirely silent late passage composed of intercut images of rankled table settings, in particular, makes use of the coughing and fidgeting of the live audience to fill in the awkward soundtrack).

These sections range in their consistency and their tactics, but, against the wishes of the filmmaker, I’ve chosen the two that stuck out: early segment “Helen of T” and short entry “Jupiter Sends a Message.” Both are wordless and elegiac, but with a clear and simple arc. And both capture the peculiar melancholy of the time and place Klahr is looking to evoke, if from different angles. “Helen of T” brought to mind day-in-the-life studies from Groundhog Day through Breaking Bad’s ballad of Wendy and the doomed waitress in the final season of Mad Men (not to mention the show’s title sequence). It’s Todd Haynes Superstar by way of Roy Lichtenstein. In the quiet and reflective “Jupiter…,” the film finally moves from the confined metropolitan to the pastoral, and still finds veils and restriction in the ur-pixelated, Ben-Day dot color and the grain of the paper material. Colorful natural scenes, gnarled branches, and a gathering storm take on the abstracted nature of Rorschach blots on pulp paper. The natural becomes artificial and vice versa. The claustrophobia of the metropolis, with its erratic movement and inescapable and constricting signification, paired with a nebulous malaise, finds no release outside the maze. In the mélange of surfaces, noir, pulp, and Roman mythology intermingle in a dot matrix of complimentary and clashing textures. An inhabitable, hermetic world is conjured through expressive editing and familiar symbology; its two-dimensionality is inescapable and claustrophobic.

The motor-mobile-home hits the open road – Microbe & Gasoline

For a time, it’s not quite clear what Michel Gondry’s latest will be—a low-key coming-of-age rom-com or a customary cut-and-paste creative exercise. It is of course an amalgam of the two, though the balance of the cocktail is unique to Gondry’s oeuvre—the former taking precedence over the latter. The kernel of innocent angst that gave rise to “Fell in Love with a Girl”’s frenetic Lego cavalcade is alive and well, but the pace is less distressed, more wistful, and the whimsical, heightened, and eminently imaginative magical realism employed in The Science of Sleep to paper-over a more-or-less familiar plot is downplayed, restrained even. While not close to the complexity and innovation of Eternal Sunshine, and without an overt aesthetic onslaught, a decidedly loose atmosphere takes hold—an iota of Francois Truffaut’s early poeticism and diffuse experimentation creeps in, plus, a dash of Wes Anderson circa-Moonrise Kingdom in its attention to design and its drifting, spritely, episodic take, without overburdening the whole with self-seriousness on the path to the young adult singularity.

After roadblocks and waffling ambition, when Daniel and Theo finally set their long-gestating plan of escape into motion, the film’s purpose, and unhurried sensibility, starts to come into focus, and the groundwork of the first-act gradually pays satisfying, if vaporous, comedic dividends. A lightweight buddy comedy turns into a precocious pre-lost youth road movie where the two are given room to wax ur-nostalgic and engage in episodic, uber-French-European adventures that reflect back on their varying degrees of familial difficulty. The perspective of the two become conjoined, and the film’s outlook comes clear, paving the way for some classic-Gondry airplane trickery and a final voice over note that inverts the picture and opens the scope of these halcyon days—before the inevitable purgatory of adulthood—into a wider, hopeful vista.

The natural rhythm – Evolution

Probably for the best that Junior didn’t much ponder the purpose behind impregnating Schwarzenegger, and its ripple-effects on the overall ecosystem. Or, how the tenor of the times led to this technological nexus. The decidedly Duchovny-free Evolution responds to that landmark ’90s text with understatement and cold, clinical detachment. By stripping out all the buddy comedy shenanigans and niceties like audience identification, Hadžihalilović crafts a lean tale of isolation, unnerving inversion, and sideways development. Its unhurried angularity and austere craft makes the incongruities at its core all the more apparent before they are made explicit, constructing something like a Los Olvidados crossed with Wicker Man crossed with many-a-body-horror tale hybrid. The remote volcanic island inhabited solely by pale women and young boys paired-off in sickly mother-son symbiosis crosses barren and lush, organic and inanimate at their extremes. It’s like being dropped beyond the veil of the Sirens, observing the motives behind their songs enacted systematically and pitilessly—minus a lone nymph with a budding curious conscience.

In the opening crawl—a jade see reflecting the sun, off-shore anemone swaying to the simple and unnerving score, the underwater suction sensation in your ears—amidst the metronomic beauty of it, there’s a terror in its dispassion—this outgrowth teeming with life thriving on insularity and operating with ruthless patience driven by pure instinct. It sets a tone that gradually tightens through the rest of the piece, as the repercussions of human virality reverberate under the surface. That the piece bookends and concludes with an escape to a shoreline riddled with the luminous perpetual grind of industry makes the opening all the more cogent and evocative. In between the poles, it dabbles in the horror tradition of repurposing, transfiguring the male body as if out of cosmic vengeance, splitting down the middle between thunderous shoreline happenings and unsettling clinical procedures with an ordained grim endgame. Evolution’s arc comes clear in this symmetrical structure: Progress and regression, industrialization and nature’s rhythms, human and inhumane; all are out of balance, engaged in an ongoing struggle with indefinite, undeniable, but perplexing collateral damage.

“Springtime for Hitler” defibrillated – The Last Laugh

Wry, absurdist quotes about discussing comedy exist in abundance. The prevailing wisdom is that pairing the two is invariably deflating, antithetical, and inimical. And yet, contemporary purveyors across all walks seem intent on deconstructing into infinity, explicating to no end about what qualifies as humorous and why, and what unequivocally doesn’t. The pursuit of the blurred line between verboten and rich taboo is unrelenting. Amidst the lectures, the surest examination is through comedy in action (which this tedious sentence violates expressly)—i.e. competing sensibilities colliding in the tapestry megatext that is postmodern culture. Pearlstein’s doc is nothing if not a battle between talk and performance, theory and practice. The title of this non-fiction metatext probably doesn’t references F.W. Murnau’s somber, silent classic, but the connection feels germane—pitting a constellation of historical ideologies under one roof, and because Murnau’s tale of poverty and alienation sprung from the economic tailspin in Germany post WWI, a significant factor in the rise of fascism in the country.

No surprise that this The Last Laugh functions best when it embraces its compendium clip-show, irreverent cultural bricolage instincts, even if the survivor story other-half has its affecting moments. Even with Chaplin’s grace and foresight well represented in the remix, the two biggest laughs among the clips are, intriguingly, not just Nazi-bait spit-takes. From two wildly disparate vantages, and two generational perspectives, a gentile and Jew find convergence in meta-comedy; we get concurrent, if longitudinal, sentiments on representation: one from Louis C.K., talking to Conan, eliding direct holocaust address by illuminating the lucid absurdity of a Shindler’s List casting call, and the other, an apt and revitalizing Mel Brooks refresher course. In these moments, commentary and performance achieve synthesis, and the doc lives up to its Aristocrats redux ethnography intent. For his part, C.K.’s facetious piss-take is not that far afield from Claude Lanzmann’s Spielberg denouncement, while shading toward his cheeky absurdist wheelhouse and knack for undercutting the omnivorous dream factory. But Brook’s The Producers still reigns supreme for its audacity and forward-thinking reflexivity, straining Nazism through masquerade, presenting poor-taste on purpose and out in the open, reduplicating the aghast audience. Between the two is a sizable gap in time, wherein the cultural discourse lives, and ideas of progress and myopia and decay can be meted out. And, damn if “Springtime for Hitler” isn’t still a showstopper, wrestled from the clutches of milquetoast mavens Broderick and Lane, and revivified amongst its progeny.

History written by the winners – The Interrogation

The Interrogation culminates in a shot: an empty, ground-level interrogation room, the setting for the inconclusive series of conversations that give the film its title. At the back, a concrete wall parallel to the fourth wall, is muddied and stained from ground soil leakage, two empty chairs are set on either side of a modest wooden table in the middle-ground of the frame, and a forced perspective typewriter looms large in the foreground, hanging over the chair on the left, that of the interrogator. It evokes a fascinating system of implications: The storyteller’s perspective over the environment and the proceedings is dominant in the composition, but, given the lengthy, frustratingly ambiguous, dissociative conversations that ensued, it implies a pyrrhic victory—hard-won and indisputable moral high-ground that’s nonetheless permanently broken in the face of evil that exists without explanation or coherence. It’s not the last of the film, but it should be—a pure visual testimony to the limited capacity of words that punctuates a document about a lengthy conversation defined by evasion, self-deception, the banality of evil, and the crushing weight of long-term historical perspective. Much of the film is sleepy and sober, never digging deep into the irreconcilable gulf between atrocious acts and the wall in the mind that enables such overt dissonance, purposefully or not. Sometimes a film can be effectively condensed to a single illuminating frame.

 The Tall Man on his deathbed – Phantasm: Ravager

It’s a strange experience to jump from the first installment to the fifth-and-final of a near-forty-year sub-marquee franchise. Not being up on the mythology, it was a not-insurmountable leap, but a jump nonetheless. It’s especially off-kilter to see a series that began so totally unselfconscious live long enough to wallow in its own elegy. This culminated in a serene moment of vulnerability with the unkillable villain, the Tall Man. Despite the concavity, the most direct moment of reflective repose worked the best. And it capped with a remuneration of the unsettling symbiosis from the first frames of Phantasm I—with Jebediah’s female succubus under the bed, umbilically linked at the arm and hissing for one of the few and far between visceral moments of a piece mired in a different, less-charming budgetary battle on a larger, matte-hellscape scale. Plus, it had some artful blocking, with the Tall Man’s face withheld for just long enough to be effective and enticing. It also succinctly drives home the point that the rest of the movie tries to beat to death: Your demons will always be following you; you will never have time to rest. It’s one of the few times when the SyFy-caliber surrealism and time-hopping cohered and transcended the low-budget effects and unwieldy universe-building, a moment of self-reflexivity that holds water, as Scrimm’s iconic character effectively crosses over with the real-world frailty and failing health of its actor. Oh, and Ravager has massive orbs that lay waste with lasers; what more do you need in life?

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

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