OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen. | Most of the United States has opened up to a significant degree, and parts of it, predictably if you believe in science, are beginning to shut back down. But films have been increasing in plenty over the last 6 weeks, and our June 2020 edition of Before We Vanish is richer for it. This month brings a new Abel Ferrara flick, his first narrative feature in half a decade, Tommaso; a myth-minded documentary about the masterpiece that is Showgirls titled You Don’t Nomi; the first official U.S. release of Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, and Lewis Klahr’s latest a-g collage doc, Circumstantial Pleasures; among others.
Originally premiering in the Special Screenings section at 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Tommaso marks Abel Ferrara’s return to narrative filmmaking after five years. In this autofiction, which the self-exiled director refers to as a home movie, he follows his regular leading actor Willem Dafoe in Rome (his camera shooting guerilla-style) as a stand-in for himself. Ferrara not only sets and shoots the film mostly at his own apartment, but also features his real-life wife and daughter (Christina Chiriac and Anna Ferrara) as fictional versions of themselves and the family of Tommaso (Dafoe), a recovering drug addict filmmaker/actor who restlessly struggles with his obsessions of jealousy and anxieties regarding both his personal and professional life. Here, the traits that define Ferrara’s best work are present and precise: the raw, low-key punk aesthetics; a mixture of the mundane and the otherworldly, the physical and the spiritual, the material and the mystical; the dissolution of reality into nightmares and dreams; and the expressive lighting which embodies a spatial and temporal purgatory. Further familiarity can seen in the opening shot: Dafoe steps into the film to attend his Italian language class – the necessity of communication, verbal and physical, is another predominant aspect of Ferrara’s work – while the sound of church bells and heavy rays of light fill the screen, the crumbling facade and ancient columns of the building surrounding him.
Ferrara dedicates a considerable part of Tommaso to an observance of everyday activities – domesticity seen in cooking and family dancing; the pleasures of meditation and lovemaking and shopping; the work of acting classes, rehab meetings, and Tommaso’s late-night, head-clearing wanderings – while his protagonist attempts to seek a way out of his created labyrinths of illusion and selfhood. His spiritual search dominates: in one hallucinatory scene, near the film’s end, Tommaso pulls out his heart and hands it to some black immigrants, while in another he crucifies himself in front of a crowd saddled with cellphone cameras (a reference to Dafoe’s performance in The Last Temptation of the Christ). And in between all this, Ferrara uses video clips as interludes to intensify the film’s emotional constructions of joy and melancholy. During a rehab session, Tommaso confesses his desire to remake Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but Ferrara’s latest feels much more like his 8 ½ , a deep reflection from an artist on his art and its genesis. It’s like Tommaso teaches in his acting class: “We’re just doing the action in a pure way. That’s when we get closer to experiencing, for me, the beauty of life.” Ayeen Forootan
You Don’t Nomi
Jeffrey McHale’s documentary You Don’t Nomi takes a hard look at one of the biggest critical and box office bombs of the 1990s, Paul Verhoeven’s notorious NC-17-rated Showgirls. What was once seen as a reprehensible dumpster fire has become a true cult phenomenon, embraced by audiences around the globe for its campy theatrics and over-the-top performances. But is there more to Showgirls than meets the eye? McHale sets out to find that answer by dividing his film into three distinct sections, all reflective of the film’s reception over the years: “Pile of Shit,” “Masterpiece,” and “Masterpiece of Shit.” Clever, to be sure, and more than a tad tongue-in-cheek. But the brilliance of You Don’t Nomi lies in the fact that McHale is trying to unravel not only the enigma that is Showgirls, but also the viewer’s preconceptions regarding cinema — and by extension art — as a whole. McHale wisely does away with any talking heads, instead pairing voice-over commentary from a variety of critics, both yea and nay, with newsreel footage, publicity interviews, and clips from Verhoeven’s entire filmography, sometimes going so far as to manipulate and insert Showgirls clips straight into them.
This tapestry of Verhoeven-in-Verhoeven is not only visually inventive, but shows the connection between all of Verhoeven’s films — his love of mirrors, the portrayal of sexual violence, even the… uh… dog food. Depending on the footage shown and the narration provided, Verhoeven is at once both a misogynist and a purveyor of female empowerment. Showgirls itself embodies a similar dichotomy, as scene after scene is analyzed to reveal that, yes, what you are seeing is pure shit, but that shit can be viewed as art through the right prism. The film’s rape-revenge fantasy is labeled as misogynistic by one critic, who sees nothing more than a privileged white male who believes the answer to a woman’s pain is to inflict more pain, while a victim of sexual assault discusses how the film helped her through her own PTSD. There is also the fact that Showgirls has been adopted as a new staple of queer cinema for its embodiment of how sexuality can be used as a form of empowerment. Hell, this is a documentary that somehow is able to use Elizabeth Berkley’s infamous “I’m So Excited” scene from Saved by the Bell and show how it links Showgirls to a handful of other once-reviled female-led films (Valley of the Dolls, Mommie Dearest), revealing the intent behind a performance that’s often looked upon as nothing more than wide-eyed sneering and pouting. By film’s end, You Don’t Nomi makes clear that our current form of film criticism and its frothing extremes has become reductive; true worth lies in the discussion itself. That message certainly doesn’t suck. Steven Warner
Yourself and Yours
In Yourself and Yours, we find Hong Sang-soo amusing himself by writing scenes that are completely ambivalent in nature, mainly due to having lead actress Lee Yoo-Young play a woman, Min-jeong, who refuses to be identified — either to other characters, to the audience, even to herself. She takes up this gambit after a fight with her long-term boyfriend, Yeong-soo (Kim Joo-hyuk), over issues related to her conduct — she drinks too much, had agreed to limit herself, was seen at a bar somewhere. After the fight, Min-Jeong sets out on her own, sending Yeong-soo into a period of prolonged misery during which his attempts to reunite with her are continually thwarted. Meanwhile, a woman played by Lee appears at a bar, where multiple men recognize her as Yeong-soo, though she claims only to be her twin. Min-jeong haunts the various quarters of Yeong-soo’s life, and everywhere there are ghostly indicators of her existence. While we are shown scenes in which Min-jeong’s “twin” goes out with other men, capriciously fielding their questions about maybe knowing her from somewhere, Yeong-soo’s longing for his partner edges into desperation as he continually runs into blind alleys in his search for her.
The most potent and strange metaphor that Hong utilizes is a shot held at length on a mannequin in a store where Min-jeong may or may not have worked — we feel her absence. Other surreal, unexplained incidents crop up, too: Yeong-soo’s leg cast just becomes part of the film after Min-jeong’s disappearance, with no attempt from the filmmakers to mold it into the plot; or Yeong-soo’s hallucination of Min-jeong running into his arms, communicated in an elegant panning shot. The film’s ending is a stroke of brilliance, a brief, decisive rupture of its dreamy universe by a forceful realism. Yourself and Yours never lets us know for sure if Min-jeong’s twin is Min-jeong or really somebody else, though our suspicions border on skepticism. When Yeong-soo’s friend finds her at a bar, however, she inadvertently reveals to him that she’s the one they’re looking for, and the jig is up — though Hong decides to let the play-acting continue. The way this happy reunion comes bursting into the film through sheer fictive magic is reminiscent of Classic Hollywood comedies, and is perhaps a weird match for the exploratory, tricky film which preceded it. One wonders if the happy couple vibes that permeate the final shot complete this puzzle, or if we’re blocked from ever solving it. Tony G. Huang
Over several decades of consistent output, collage artist Lewis Klahr has been recontextualizing the past to make sense of the present. A student of avant-garde titan Paul Sharits, Klahr has produced work decidedly less grandiose than that of his teacher — or of his contemporaries such as Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, and Ken Jacobs — choosing instead to work in a mode that film scholar Tom Gunning designated as a “minor cinema.” This designation wasn’t meant qualitatively, to say that these works were not in some sense “major” (other notable experimental makers who were lumped in this category includes both the late Mark LaPore and Phil Solomon). But the term suggested that these artists were less concerned about making big statements about the state of the cinematic image — Sharits notably claimed all narrative cinema was on the level of filmed theatre — and more interested in “prob[ing] the hieroglyphics of imagery rather than the depths of self.” The images Klahr has employed over the years have been taken from a variety of outdated print sources: shopping catalogs, weekly comic serials, picture books, and even some from his own personal collection. His photomontages exist at the intersection of free association and loose fiction; narrative is often suggested, but never strictly enforced. A sense of longing underscores the vast majority of his output, though its underlying melancholy and alienation has shifted over several periods of personal and artistic growth. Klahr has transitioned from shooting with 16mm analog film to now strictly using digital, which has allowed him further creative control and a greater economic freedom. Working mainly out of his garage, where he hoards stacks of magazines that may one day be incorporated into a new short, he is able to rapidly produce works for a fraction of his usual budge.
While most artists with his level of prestige would be comfortable playing it safe — he’s been chugging along at a steady rate for some time now — Klahr has decided to further challenge himself in each of his most recent undertakings. His latest, Circumstantial Pleasures, is no exception: it’s quite possibly the most radical, abrasive, and explicitly political work he’s crafted yet. Utilizing charged contemporary iconography (including images of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the Turkish police officer who assassinated Andrei Karlov), Klahr crafts an incensed mosaic for our precarious times, one that scrutinizes the failures of late-capitalism and rapid globalization with an expressly exasperated tone. There are no simple answers provided for the world’s ills, and no easy solutions either; instead, as in all of Klahr’s previous outings, we’re provided with an emotional dissonance that’s pushed to its most extreme ends. As the film is composed of six episodes, which each build in intensity, it’s easy to be lost in the (completely justified) anger found in each individual segment. But as a whole, this represents something of a creative breakthrough: the endeavor of a master who’s refined his craft to its most affective forms, while still engaging with newer technologies and techniques in the process. Juul pods are thrown in, serene live-action footage serves as a breather from the onslaught of harsh noise provided by composers David Rosenboom and Tom Recchion, and right when things seem to be winding down, the final stretch is set to Scott Walker’s deranged 20-minute long “Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter” before plunging into a hopeless twilight (“What if I freeze?/And drop into the darkness?”). Considering the state of the world as it currently stands, the failures of capitalism more exposed than ever before, there could hardly be more fitting a conclusion — a natural endpoint for the film’s various movements, and a kind of coda for the world at large. And with that, a relatively “minor” artist has produced possibly his most major work yet. Paul Attard
Miss Juneteenth, the debut directorial feature of Channing Godfrey Peoples, could hardly come at a more important moment for the black community, and her authentic drama about an African American mother concerned for her daughter’s future is rather emblematic of the community’s constant struggle to establish a seat at the table. Despite the family’s electric supply having been cut off, Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) feels that her money would be better spent on enrolling her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) in the state’s greatly-renowned ‘Miss Juneteenth’ pageant, named after the anniversary of slaves’ emancipation in America (the historical date specifically refers to the Texas-based proclamation on June 19, 1865). Although the film deals with the familiar trope of a former pageant queen pushing her reluctant daughter to follow in her footsteps, played out in fairly generic terms most recently in 2018’s Dumplin’, the relationship between mother and daughter here is refreshingly adult. It’s a credit to the natural abilities of Beharie and Chikaeze that their connection feels so established, Beharie affording Turquoise’s hard-edged maternal approach plenty of relatability.
As for the pageant itself, it celebrates etiquette and elegance as ideals of femininity, giving its contestants familiar tasks such as exhibiting good table manners, and culminating in a talent show. While Peoples’ script addresses the rigidity of tradition and conservatism, and the institutional politics that comes with contests like these, it isn’t overly judgmental about the people who cherish them. Instead, it finds ways to show catharsis and learning, Kai’s interpretation of the Maya Angelou poem ‘Phenomenal Woman,’ which famously promotes the idea of self-empowerment, helping to perpetuate a positive message about using hardship as a way to educate and move forward. Miss Juneteenth‘s discussion around the lack of opportunity too many face feels particularly resonant, and doesn’t register in the current tenor of righteous anger that has captured so many, it represents a gentler look at ways to promote and encourage racial equality through one’s own actions. Calum Reed
An unadorned tale of woe, grief, angst, love, mortality, and familial hardship, Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth struggles to create any sense of cohesiveness in either theme or narrative through-line. Haphazardly oscillating between off-kilter quirk and stilted emotionality, it fumbles in its attempts at both poignancy and sincerity. Eliza Scanlen plays Milla, a 16-year-old whose cancer recurrence sends her and her parents spiralling into social collapse. As the affairs of each family member become increasingly knotted, every scripted gesture unfolds in relation to some crux purpose, which is eventually revealed to be a rather dimensionless construct. In the first half of the film, a rather transparent veil of sardonic eccentricity hangs over each casual family interaction. But once the characters are forced to reckon with the fact that Milla is headed for an early grave, Babyteeth heads into more discomfiting territory. This earnest attempt, though, is blunted by the film’s archetypal narrative. Murphy’s haphazard control of the story’s mechanisms obscures any gestures towards finely articulated sentiment: unnecessary chapter titles explicate already obvious story movements; brief formal flourishes suggest complex interior states that the larger plot structure simply cannot support; and then the climax, most damningly, uses a series of metaphorical contrivances to arrive at a kind of false catharsis. Each step towards the coda is inundated by a plethora of superficially symbolic moments, all of which serve only to justify the film’s plot trajectory. Zachary Goldkind
The House of Hummingbird
The feature directorial debut from filmmaker Bora Kim, House of Hummingbird has finally been released after a lengthy festival run where it generated plenty of good will. Taking viewers back to 1994, House of Hummingbird tells the story of Eunhee (played brilliantly by Ji-hu Park), an eighth-grade student on the brink of major changes in her life. As friendships begin to bloom, her home life becomes increasingly stressful, leading her to bond with a professor (Sae-byeok Kim). Featuring gorgeous photography from cinematographer Gook-hyun, House of Hummingbird at first feels like an artful but superficially familiar coming of age tale, an impression that is decidedly upset. A quiet and understated film told through a series of static shots, Kim embeds within her narrative thematic heft, mostly in examining the oppressing strain of sexism and societal traditionalism. The film portrays Eun-hee’s life as one of deep detachment, an internalization that encompasses both her home life and a social life populated by schoolmates. Navigating this detachment, she manages to almost passively evolve from a quiet, reserved child to an altogether stranger person on the brink of adulthood.
The direction is both intimate and somehow rigid, a formalist edge rendering each brief and otherwise minor emotional beat with a surprising potency. Ji-hu Park’s performance is particularly special: instead of fulfilling the caricature of a loner or performing a stereotype of an oft-kilter child from a broken home just waiting to escape adolescence, she instead plays Eun-hee as more inscrutable, absorbing the everyday moments of interactions without overt demonstration. Glances and gestures form the currency of dense and textured emotional connections, and this focus on interiority carries much of the narrative weight. These missable moments, instances that so typically disappear without so much as a thought, elucidated here by the marriage of director and performer, prove the real soul of what is one of 2020’s most surprising, unassuming discoveries. Josh Brunsting
Boaz Yakin has had a bizarre career, a textbook case (or cautionary tale) of a young, independent director struggling to finance personal films while finding steady work in the Hollywood machine. After years of occasionally successful toil (Remember the Titans was a sizable hit; his last film, Boarding School, barely got released), Aviva is very much a conscious attempt to reclaim that independent spirit. Unfortunately, the film is a cliched relationship drama obscured by so many bells and whistles, so much self-reflexive artistic intent, and so many grandiose pretensions, that it collapses under its own weight. It’s the kind of bad film that can only come from a deeply personal place, and as such, it seems almost churlish to pan it, like insulting a friend who has sheepishly shared their terrible poetry with you. Aviva is largely familiar material, following the tumultuous relationship of sullen, depressed Eden and the more outwardly normal Aviva from the beginnings of their romance through an ill-advised marriage and the inevitable dissolution of that marriage. The kicker is that the characters of Eden and Aviva are each played by both a man and a woman, each of whom represents different aspects of their respective character’s personalities, and who all share the screen together. Aviva is mostly portrayed by Zina Zinchenko, who occasionally cedes the screen to Or Schraiber. Eden is predominantly played by Tyler Phillips, as well as Bobbi Jene Smith. It’s not particularly difficult to keep track of, thankfully, but the longer the film goes on, the more it feels like a gimmick than an actual attempt to grapple with the inherent contradictions inside each of us.
All of these performers are dancers, not professional actors, a fact that Smith announces directly to the audience at the beginning of the film. Like a musical of sorts, Yakin has his performers break into intricately choreographed dance numbers throughout the film, and Smith tells us that all involved thought it would be easier for professional dancers to attempt to act than the other way around. That might very well be true, but the problem becomes a matter of non-professional actors trying very hard to make dialogue sound authentic and naturalistic and mostly failing. Yakin also has his cast repeatedly break the fourth wall, commenting directly on the movie we are watching, which is also broken up into separately-titled sections. It’s an absolute avalanche of ideas, presumably everything Yakin has ever wanted to cram into a screenplay before being told ‘no’ by studio heads. But these pseudo avant-garde ticks are simply that — a patina of modernist tropes and affectations applied to a scenario that doesn’t need them. It all seems like special pleading, a showy attempt at intellectual grandeur (and I haven’t even mentioned the extended flashback that has a young version of Eden narrating his youth with a terrible rap song). Even the copious amounts of male and female nudity and explicit sex scenes feel like a decade or so too late, when European directors where really pushing the envelope with on-screen, unsimulated sex acts (Yakin is no Breillat or Noe or Carax). Aviva certainly feels meaningful to the director, and one hopes that Yakin got some kind of cathartic closure by completing the picture. There’s certainly nothing of value here for the hypothetical audience to whom he keeps talking. Daniel Gorman
MS Slavic 7
Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s low-key, documentary-style drama MS Slavic 7 is about a young woman, Audrey (Campbell), who discovers her late, great-grandmother Zofia Bohdanowiczowa’s passionate letters to a Polish poet. Primarily set in the archive where the letters are stored, the film follows Audrey as she reads, examines, and interprets Zofia’s letters, often speaking her thoughts aloud to an off-screen interlocutor. The filmmakers seem mostly interested in conveying the experience, and the process, of literary analysis: MS Slavic 7 opens with an invitation for us to read a poem meant for Zofia, and throughout we see shots of actual letters, accompanied by commentary from Campbell’s Audrey. The film generally refrains from over-explicating subjectivities, so we’re often left with a mysterious image of Audrey thinking over the meaning of the letters, appearing a model scholar — with a reserved temperament and slightly opaque demeanor.
But as MS Slavic 7 proceeds, the reasons for this ambivalence are gradually revealed: Audrey’s attempts to further her work have been frustrated by bureaucratic mischief. We find out that although she is the literary executor of Zofia’s estate, the letters have been mishandled by her aunt (Elizabeth Rucker), a bourgeois type who doesn’t share her academic or personal interests in the materials, and who exhibits a condescending, antagonizing attitude toward this project. The archive, too, is reluctant to give up its materials without going through a presumably lengthy legal process — and so Audrey’s work is seriously forestalled. Still, the filmmakers here mostly elide the drama of estate wrangling, favoring a Chantal Akerman-like approach that views moments of the mechanical processes of work, and subtly contrasts these with scenes in a hotel room, where Audrey gets dressed and makes coffee, or with scenes at a social function, where she is a passive observer. The emotional life of this character is depicted in a fragmented way — but it gradually becomes the focal point here, and the passionate content of Zofia’s letters echos, or suggests, certain elements of this inner life. A surprise romantic encounter at the conclusion, then, at once confirms and reconfigures our understanding of this point, as the directors leave us with an ambiguous contrast between the worlds of unabashed passion and disciplined, scholarly inquiry. Tony G. Huang
Kicking the Canon | Film Selection
At the crossroads of about a half-dozen genres and borrowing the best that each has to offer, there’s no other movie quite like Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise. It’s remarkable that a Brit previously known for atmospheric slow-burns like Alien and Blade Runner helmed what is now considered a quintessentially American and groundbreakingly feminist action-comedy. At its core are two women, beautiful, freewheeling Thelma (Geena Davis) and sensible, no-nonsense Louise (Susan Sarandon), whose abiding, unshakeable friendship guides them through attempted rape, murder, and an exhilerating interstate manhunt.What started as a clandestine vacation morphs into an escape. Not only do they flee a crime scene, they’re also escaping the doldrums of conventional, small-town Arkansas – and, by extension, conventional, small-town womanhood. Thelma is married to a controlling and insecure carpet salesman (played with beady-eyed self-righteousness by Christopher McDonald), the only man she’s ever been with. Louise, a career waitress, dates a well-meaning but flailing musician who’s often on the road (a sad sack Michael Madsen). A running theme is the idea of getting what you settle for: Thelma settled for Darryl’s snide condescension, while Louise, who seems to genuinely care for Jimmy, nonetheless brushes off his proposal with a platitude about “bad timing.” Neither women lack the courage or resolve to find, much less fight for, something better. They just have never had an opportunity until now.
Callie Khouri, who won the 1992 Academy Award for Best Screenplay for what was her first-ever film, astutely captures the nuanced warmth and exasperation of female friendship. We’re initially led to believe that of the two, Louise is the responsible one, occasionally bordering on uptight. Yet in a moment of rage and trauma, she’s the one who pulls the trigger and sets the film into motion. Her own backstory, involving an incident in Texas she refuses to acknowledge, binds her even closer to Thelma. Later, when she has a breakdown after being robbed, Thelma is the one who immediately springs into action. The women take turns mothering each other; when one is in need, the other taps into a reservoir of ingenuity and resilience to create a plan, no matter how dire the situation. Neither woman is “the pretty one” or “the strong one” – they are both of these things and so much more. A huge part of the movie’s appeal is seeing these women transcend the cliches that have been forced upon them. When Detective Slocum (an improbably avuncular Harvey Keitel) explains to Darryl that Thelma is linked to the murder, his incredulous, spluttering response reveals not only his inanity, but the depth of his ignorance and the limits of his imagination. Later, after she calmly forces a state trooper into the trunk of his own car, she says with more than a little pride, “I know it’s crazy, but I just feel like I got a knack for this shit.” She’s absolutely right, and her evolution is a joy to behold.
Khouri has stated that she didn’t set out to write a feminist manifesto, and there’s a key scene that perfectly illustrates the perniciousness of even attempting such a thing. After Thelma’s encounter with Harlan, her would-be rapist, she and Louise have a tense exchange in which Louise essentially victim-blames her for the murder: “If you weren’t concerned with having so much fun, we wouldn’t be here right now!” Despite their friendship, their closeness, and everything these women know about the world they live in, this conversation still has to happen before they can address the situation. Harlan was a known creep, but it’s understood that men like him get away with violence all the time, just as, on a smaller scale, Darryl gets away with being a selfish, insensitive oaf. Even J.D., the charming grifter played so memorably by a young Brad Pitt, is another vehicle for harm. His violation is financial rather than physical, but equally damning. Jimmy and Slocum seem to exist outside this paradigm, but it doesn’t matter. Their efforts to reach Thelma and Louise are too little and far too late.
In a world where men are constantly committing large and small acts of cruelty against the women in their lives (and, just as often, women they don’t know – like the crude truck driver who so satisfyingly gets his comeuppance) it’s no wonder these women aren’t convinced by Slocum’s entreaties. Scott and Khouri squeeze into two hours a vast spectrum of female experience, from sexual violence to sexual pleasure, cagey domestication to outlaw freedom. Even as the FBI closes in, we see them driving down endless empty roads in Louise’s bright green Thunderbird, singing along to the radio and simply enjoying each other’s company. When backed into a corner (or in their case, a canyon), why wouldn’t they, once again, choose each other? In this case, they’ll settle for nothing less. Selina Lee