For our final dispatch from the 2018 New York Film Festival, we take a look at each of the features from the fest’s avant garde-themed Projections program (our previous dispatch featured our takes on some of the titles from NYFF’s Main Slate). Included in this year’s impressive line-up: The debut feature film from “filmmaker/animator/composer” Jodie Mack; Taiwanese narrative filmmaker-turned-avant gardist Tsai Ming-liang’s latest; the provocative Catalan independent filmmaker Albert Serra’s very appropriate follow-up to his 2016 film The Death of Louis XIV; New York-based director and film critic Ted Fendt’s second feature; and an oddity from filmmaking duo Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt.
No one would likely suggest that the dialogue and interactions in Ted Fendt’s previous films (comprising three shorts and 2016’s 61-minute debut feature, Short Stay) were naturalistic, or even lifelike, but that purposeful stiltedness approaches the sublime in Classical Period. That’s because so much of the dialogue here is recited straight out of books (mostly Dante, but also the likes of 17th-century English dramatist Philip Massinger), delivered with the same flat and palpably prepared intonation as purportedly casual interactions amongst friends. Like Fendt’s previous films, Classical Period was shot in the Philadelphia/Camden County metro area on sumptuously grainy 16mm, by Sage Einarsen, with the same formal rigor and precision — full of unfussy setups and only the most necessary of camera movements. Youngish, ambiguously employed intellectuals parse John Ruskin for fun (in elective adult education classes and at home) and “rediscover” the poetry of Denise Levertov to pass insomniac hours. All you need to know of the milieu is that the most stinging barb delivered in the whole movie is, “You know Vitruvius was a hack, right?” That blowup, and the film’s other articulate discussions, align this work with Whit Stillman’s (also beautifully grainy) Metropolitan, as well as the films of Eugene Green and 2006’s Les Amitiés maléfiques, directed by Green’s cohort Emmanuel Bourdieu (and also about a group of intellectual friends). The latter is slicker and more libidinal, though some committed exchanges here between primary character Cal (Fendt regular Calvin Engime) and the proud Evelyn (Evelyn Emile) are not without erotic charge. The noncommercial- (/high-) minded intent here is simply irresistible, and allows Fendt to include extended shots of characters silently reading in bed, and lines like this one, about Philadelphia’s Powel House: “You can fairly conclusively date this building to the 1750s based on the flat pediment of the frontispiece above the door.” Justin Stewart
Originally conceived of as a gallery performance, Albert Serra’s Roi Soleil is more than a filmed theatre piece or a mere record of a performance (although it is also both of those things). Following his 2016 feature The Death of Louis XIV, Serra and actor Lluis Serrat present the death throes of Louis as a kind of absurd dance, a prolonged gasp that lays bare the pompous banality of absolute power. Louis lays on the ground, unable or unwilling to stand — and Serrat gives an astoundingly physical performance, letting loose a string of unceasing guttural utterances, heavy sighs, and whimpers which are both animalistic and pathetic. The harsh, neon red lights of the single, multi-level set cast everything in a hellish glow. The opening shot of the film (roughly 5 minutes long) is set-up along a proscenium, Louis a distant figure in the background. But the first edit brings us closer to him and gives way to more elaborate set-ups that allow the angles of the architecture to become more pronounced. Eventually, a small audience becomes part of the performance, their movements shown in jet black silhouettes that encircle Louis. They watch, uncaring, as this king succumbs to… something. Roi Soleil is a strikingly political work, presenting the once powerful as a literal bloated gas bag who can’t help but scarf down sweet treats and primp for the mirror. Serra revels in the absurdity of how the mighty have fallen, the accoutrement of a royal legacy becoming a mere fetish object, as Louis fusses with his wig. Our leaders are vain and venal, corrupted by greed and hubris — vive’ la revolucion. Daniel Gorman
The first feature-length work from avant-garde filmmaker/animator/composer Jodie Mack defies easy categorization. The Grand Bizarre is a sort of musical (like her Yard Work Is Hard Work and Dusty Stacks of Mom) in that Mack’s rhythmic editing is synchronized with her original synth-pop score, which seamlessly integrates the ambient sound of machines, human voices, and wildlife. Grand Bizarre is also a landscape film, in which wide shots of scenic vistas around the world become staging areas for the stop-motion choreography of colorful fabrics, their geometric and floral patterns pirouetting and ping-ponging across the frame, or filling it in vibrant close-up. The film then becomes a strange kind of ethnography of labor, but one in which laborers themselves remain mostly out of sight, the shipping containers they move and looms they work lent a perpetual, dehumanized momentum by Mack’s animation of the 16mm images. The combined effect of her animation, the time-lapse photography and the movement of natural elements such as wind, water, and the rise and fall of the sun captured within gives The Grand Bizarre a polyrhythmic dynamism. Mack’s cutting has rarely been so purposefully kinetic; the sequence where she rapidly edits together images of machines in a textile factory with the half-formed fabrics they’re weaving approaches a kind of analog glitch art. She seems less interested in charting a linear journey from point A to point B than remixing the entire chain of production into an hour-long audiovisual feedback loop. Location is abstracted throughout: maps appear in extreme close-up, chopped into shapes and colors, while globes spin wildly and bounce across the floor. As with her recent short, Hoarders Without Borders, Mack’s manipulation of the materials becomes an element of their animation beyond simply contributing to the illusion of their movement. The viewer becomes especially aware of how the textiles are positioned and juxtaposed within the frame, at the end, when Mack slows down the pace and lets the sound of the winding Bolex become the soundtrack. Her work as filmmaker cataloguing and capturing these objects becomes part of the perpetual motion machine propelling them around the world, just as the montage that opened the film linked her travel in producing the film to that larger process. Alex Engquist
These days, Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang seems deeply interested in the tiny variations of approach available to him in presenting the images of his subjects within the film frame. Tsai‘s latest in a string of recent avant-garde works, Your Face, is at its most compelling when it focuses intently on the dialectical relationship between the things the filmmaker controls (lighting, camera angle, soundtrack, the cut) and the things that he does not (his subjects’ voluntary and involuntary movements, the pace of their breathing, the expressions that ephemerally flash across their faces, and their choice of when and when not to speak). In the passages of his film in which the camera is trained on close-ups of unspeaking faces, Tsai essentially abandons tenets of film-making and allows his role to become purely that of the camera, in its most fundamental sense: capturing images, but not directing them. This observational mode forces an engagement with the subjects’ responses to the camera first, and the filmmaker’s aesthetic choices second. Almost paradoxically, it’s when these faces start speaking that they actually lose some agency — because then they become more traditional documentary subjects, performing for, or responding to, the behest of the director. Tsai‘s film does not abide by the same formal rigor as, say, Abbas Kiaraostami’s Shirin, in which the captured images of women’s faces are entirely defined by their relationship to the cinema screen that they’re watching. The faces here deliver long soliloquies about their life, laugh uncomfortably, give exercise instructions, one even plays harmonica for a little bit. It’s a peculiar experiment — especially the final shot, which features no faces at all, but rather shows the visage of the space in which, presumably, Tsai shot his close-up testimonials. At its best, Your Face introduces a sense of humane, observational intimacy to the filmmaker’s post-narrative project. Sam C Mac
Diamantino, the brainchild of directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, comes out guns-a’-blazin’, with frenetic, intertwining, impossible-to-link story threads listed-out via voice-over and referencing (in the manner that a press kit might) subjects including “giant puppies,” “the refugee crisis,” and “neofascism.” Diamantino Matamorous (Carloto Cotta) is introduced as the “world’s most famous” soccer star, and thus the opening shots creep around a CGI-rendered Earth, as Cotta breathlessly intones a self-important monologue rife for parody. The camera works its way down through the atmosphere until the giant net of a soccer stadium comes into view — then, eventually, Diamantino himself, who reveals that his secret to ‘being the best’ has been to imagine the field filled with giant puppies instead of players. And there it is, what we’ve waited six long minutes to arrive at: some mildly humorous, random-ass punchline. That voiceover gimmick wasn’t just for the opening, either — it extends through the entire 96-minute runtime. Diamantino, as a character, is a fop — very sincere, but extremely stupid and childish. The film’s structure runs this naif through various sketches that are tied together with the loosest of threads: his sisters use him for an evil plot involving Portuguese nationalists’ efforts to clone his likeness, and make an unstoppable soccer team, while also making him a puppet PR representative for the cause of Portugal leaving the EU. This can all sound like fun on paper (maybe in a press kit!), but these ridiculous story ideas (here’s another: a Portuguese government operative (Cleo Tavares) disguises herself as a Mozambican refugee boy to spy on Diamantino’s estate) get tiring, and generally don’t even try to complicate or challenge expectations. Diamantino is the emotional fulcrum but he remains an idiot throughout; his ignorance is assumed comedic, his mere presence in a scene the joke. Cotta is clearly the highlight here, his commitment to the ruse making the film slightly bearable. And yet, the filmmakers continually handicap the actor with lifeless monologuing, which just reiterates events we’ve already seen. The dramatic irony of a character being unaware of the zany plots occurring around him loses its punch quickly. And for all the nuances brought to these specific, wacky ideas, there’s little of that imagination found in Abrantes’ and Schmidt’s direction. The strange sexual politics of a bisexual woman disguised as a boy sharing a mansion with a hot-yet-dimwitted adopted father, for example, are rife with possibility. But, like the worst Sundance-film fodder, literally nothing beyond the paint-by-numbers “she investigates and he doesn’t know” plot reoccurs until the shoehorned resolution — they fall in love. Despite the good intentions of the film, and the hot-button talking points it brings up, Diamantino never seems to have much to say. Joe Biglin