by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

Venice International Film Festival 2020 — Dispatch 1: Mainstream, City Hall, Notturno

September 10, 2020
Credit: Venice International Film Festival

Mainstream

Social media, as captured in cinema, is largely a trap. The past decade has demonstrated its allure among filmmakers, and it’s easy to understand why: it’s fertile, dramatic territory, rife with irony, hypocrisy, and mystery to tease out into some ostensibly meaningful cultural commentary. It’s also always evolving, allowing for habitual reinterpretation whenever a new platform or trend emerges. The problem, then, is that internet culture frequently reshapes itself faster than films can be made, and this reactionary instinct to court the lurid markers of the now results in films that already feel dated by the time they hit the big screen. Films that avoid this pratfall typically do so by either including some broader context of a society in flux (The Social Network) or mining the tension of human-machine intersection and its psychological implications (for instance, in Pulse) rather than resorting to pat caricature in the guise of incisive satire.

Gia Coppola’s Mainstream specifically takes aim at the monolithic influencer culture that saturates YouTube, Instagram, and, most recently, TikTok, but sadly and somewhat surprisingly given the director’s relative youth fails to rise above some half-baked kitsch-critique that feels filtered through the gaze of a geriatric rather than a millennial. In fact, its narrative and spiritual predecessor is very clearly A Face in the Crowd, the comparison so strong that it seems more of an unabashed, internet-era re-interpretation than any original creation. An abrasive, eccentric charmer (Andrew Garfield) of dubious mental stability is discovered, commodified, and turned into a media monster, a mixture of corporate interference and personal animus uncorked by both moral laxity and external validation. There’s a certain absurdism (at times bordering on anti-humor), to early proceedings that suggests something wilder and more unwieldy may follow (ruminations on the freedom and difficulty of influencer marketing results in such dialogue as “How do you market sneakers to someone who thinks he’s a cat?”) And yet, while Mainstream demonstrates little restraint, there’s a toothlessness to its out-of-touch commentary and its Pollockian approach to seeing what sticks. Even the familiar DIY aesthetic of modern social media magnates is here bafflingly traded for a glitz and glitter talk show setup.

None of this critical vapidity is enlivened by Coppola’s odd visual flourishes. Weakly attempting to portray the modern, heavily virtualized experience of living, she throws in a few inconsequential animated sequences, such as one character’s vomit manifesting in some rainbow-colored array, and other moments of digital fuzz and sub-clip-art quality graphics. She also opens her film with, and occasionally recalls, a series of silent-era intertitles that are only here to emphasize the evolution (and perversion) of the moving image across the past century, but that too is little more than a depthless affect. By the time Mainstream reaches its climax, which finds Garfield’s internet persona, waning in popularity, issuing a fourth-wall breaking screed directly to the camera, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the film’s shallow sanctimony. It’s a moment that simultaneously recalls Michael Haneke’s familiar accusations of audience complicity and A Face in the Crowd’s jarring ending, but it’s the latter that feels like an appropriate summation of Coppola’s soapbox. It’s as if she, rather than Garfield’s scuzzy brat influencer, were talking to the audience, borrowing Andy Griffith’s famous send-off as cynical signature: “Good night, you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs.” Luke Gorham 


City Hall

What Frederick Wiseman does, at this point, can be boiled down to an easy elevator pitch, which at once vastly undersells the depth and subtle variations of his mode of documentary filmmaking, but also speaks to the consistency of his model. Indeed, the approach rarely changes much, but it doesn’t really have to when Wiseman, over 50 years deep into his filmmaking career, remains something of a genre unto himself. Wiseman’s approach to documentary filmmaking has proven invaluable as a means of summarizing the functions of countless cultural and governmental institutions and communities; his unobtrusive camera and patient edits produce uniquely complete portraits of these subjects.

City Hall is no less robust than your average Wiseman film; in fact, its 4.5-hour runtime earns it the distinction of being his 2nd longest film to date. As implied by the title, this one ventures inside Boston City Hall with the intent of mapping out the eclectic and occasionally obscured responsibilities of the City Council and Mayor Marty Walsh. It’s a natural choice of subject for Wiseman, an artist who regularly excels at locating human perspective within this sort of bureaucratic machine, and City Hall isn’t without such moments (a heated community meeting with a recreational weed vendor looking to set up shop in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods is a stand out). But surprisingly, Wiseman here frequently loses track of them, as the narrative focus repeatedly slips back to Mayor Walsh. This is an unusual choice, and one that isn’t precedent in Wiseman’s filmography, but Walsh ends up becoming the film’s protagonist in a sense. This may have been an unavoidable angle of the project after all, the mayor’s office accounts for half of city hall in a sense but Wiseman affords Walsh more screen time than he’s ever afforded a human subject, a choice that reads as tacit celebration.

Outside of Boston, Walsh is famous for his swift, public condemnation of Trump’s “Muslim Ban”, and it seems clear that this is partially why Wiseman pursued him as a subject. Walsh ends up presented as a sort of anti-Trump, embodying some of his populist “authenticity,” but with good liberal values. One’s appreciation for City Hall will hinge on your willingness to buy how Walsh is being sold, which can be challenging in scenes where police reform is being discussed, for example. The film has value in the abstract, both as a depiction of the working life of a politician and as a means of understanding city hall’s presence outside the literal building, but as an attempt to speak to America, it feels out of step. Landing in a moment when there is a mass rejection of establishment politics and neoliberal centrism, it’s hard to invest in a 4.5-hour film largely built around someone who embodies those very values. This is something of a disappointment after Monrovia, Indiana, Wiseman’s previous feature which focused on “Trump country” with absolutely none of the condescension typically implicit with that phrase. That film found a way to discuss the fraught state of American politics without actually discussing it, recentering the narrative on the material realities of rural life in America. City Hall lacks that sort of nuanced, curious approach to its material, and in its absence, Wiseman doesn’t have much to offer beyond standard homage to contemporary liberalism. M.G. Mailloux


Notturno

The echoes of war reverberate throughout Notturno, a film of unnerving quietude that, as per its title, unfolds in something like a perpetual gloaming. Directed by Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi, the film was shot over three years on the borders between Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon, but it almost entirely forgoes present-tense images of violence and destruction, limiting the sight of drone strikes and bombs to a video played during a small theater production. Instead, Rosi trains his camera-eye on those whose lives have been effectively placed on hold, yet who must press on all the same: a group of female soldiers in a remote outpost; a classroom of young children who recall extreme violence at the hands of ISIS soldiers; a teenage boy who scavenges for work each morning to provide for his mother and younger siblings. All this the film conveys in fixed-frame images of stark, forbidding beauty — though beyond this raw imagistic power, what we chiefly get is a sense of the waiting, of the uneasy breaths taken before the bombs fall once more.

Rosi’s restrained approach sidesteps the sensationalism that so often characterizes reports of Middle Eastern conflict. Indeed, Notturno might even be said to avoid the “reportage” label altogether: Those on screen come across not as subjects of human interest, or windows for (Western) understanding of the region’s wars, but as, well, people — which is only as it should be. There are, of course, limitations to such human affirmation — and if Rosi’s previous film, the Golden Bear-winning Fire at Sea, was rhetorically pointed, if dubiously structured, Notturno comes across as oddly diffuse. But perhaps the silences of this film serve their own rhetorical purpose. When faced with those who’ve experienced such harrowing brutality, the act of filmmaking is, after all, no great comfort. When confronted with lives lived on the brink, in the midst of circumstances so obviously unjust, perhaps there is nothing left to say. Lawrence Garcia


Yellow Cat

Godard once declared that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. With Yellow Cat, Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov has taken that maxim to heart, crafting a deadpan road comedy that’s equal parts lo-fi Wes Anderson and Thieves Like Us (both the novel and its Nick Ray and Robert Altman adaptations). The film traces the paths of holy fool Kermek (Azamat Nigmanov) and hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold gal pal Eva (Kamila Nugmanova) as they go on a quixotic journey to build a movie theater in the middle of nowhere. The pair winds up on the run after stealing money from a local gangster, and the majority of the film charts their misadventures as they travel from place to place and meet colorful, frequently violent weirdos. Apparently more interested in quirks and punchlines than traditional plotting, Yerzhanov paints in pretty broad strokes here: Kermek is obsessed with Alain Delon and Le Samouraï, even reenacting scenes at random to disinterested onlookers, while Eva is a kind of childlike manic pixie dream girl. He’s not shy about his intentions, either, boldly inserting musical cues from Carl Orff’s theme for Badlands (also sampled by Hans Zimmer for True Romance) and references to the landscape paintings of Andrew Wyeth (at one point recreating the famed Christina’s World). 

Throughout Yellow Cat, there’s an interesting tension between the goofball characters and brief moments of extreme violence, but even that is undermined by the actors’ constant underplaying. Eventually even gunshots and stabbings take on all the weight of a Looney Tunes short. Yerzhanov tends to arrange people in stationary positions in the frame and then relies on brief, jagged movements and offscreen space for laughs (one example: a man jumps on a trampoline to shoot at some invaders, the reverse angle shot just shows the shooter’s head bobbing up and down from behind a roof). It’s all fitfully amusing, but there’s not much left to chew on once the film becomes repetitive and predictable. Yerzhanov has a keen sense of framing, fully utilizing the widescreen format, and cinematographer Yerkinbek Ptyraliyev has a great eye for lovely, sun-dappled landscapes. But Yellow Cat is the kind of film that teaches you nothing about the culture it came from — or really anything about actual human behavior — and everything about the kinds of movies its director likes. Daniel Gorman


Apples

What would society look like if amnesia occurred with the frequency, unpredictability, and suddenness of something like a car accident? This is the high-concept starting point of Greek director Christos Nikou’s debut feature Apples, which unfolds in an Athens where ambulances are routinely called in to deal with memory loss, and where an entire bureaucratic system has been established to deal with afflicted citizens. One such unfortunate is a bearded, unnamed forty-something played by Aris Servetalis, who wakes up at the end of a bus line not knowing who he is or where he’s going. After a few weeks at a medical evaluation facility, he joins the city’s “New Identity” program, intended for those whose families have not come to take them home. Having forgotten his past, Servetalis’ sad-sack solitary must now navigate an uncertain future.

If that broad description recalls the work of Yorgos Lanthimos, this is no coincidence: Nikou worked as a second assistant director on Dogtooth, and Apples, like so many of Lanthimos’ films, uses its speculative, reductio-ad-absurdum setup as a vehicle for social observation. The government doctors-cum-handlers draft a list of activities intended to give their amnesiac patients a sense of normative experience — Servetalis’ character is instructed to see a movie, get a lap dance at a strip-club, dive into a public pool, and attend a costume party, among other things — which of course only lay bare the absurd assumptions that undergird the notion of “normal” behavior. (The title refers to the protagonist’s predilection for apples, though it also brings to mind the Garden of Eden’s forbidden fruit, and thus the constructed nature of what is considered good or evil or just socially acceptable.) Nikous understands the inherent comic potential of his material — though as his directorial touch is far less acerbic or confrontational than Lanthimos’, Apples skews closer to a conventional sketch comedy than to a film like The Lobster, with its bifurcated structure and behaviorist wit. In itself, this is no great fault, and to his credit, Nikous builds his debut to a conceptually potent (and potentially heartbreaking) final scene. But despite the richness of his starting premise, this first-time director too often falls back on tired, obvious punchlines and lazily sentimental touches. For a film so explicitly concerned with the question of starting anew, Apples too often comes across as a case of unexplored possibility. Lawrence Garcia


 

I predatori

It would be easy to write off the dark comedy I predatori (The Predators, in English) as an exercise in nihilism. The corpse of Friedrich Nietzsche even pops up as a major plot point, as anthropologists wish to exhume the body in order to discover the philosopher’s cause of death, which in turn could help to explain the workings of such a complex mind. I predatori is another in a lineage of ensemble pieces where a large group of loosely connected characters are followed over the course of several days, with a timeline that occasionally loops back on itself. It’s not the least bit surprising to discover that this is the debut feature of writer-director Pietro Castellitto, an Italian actor who also co-stars here as an infantile, wannabe bomber; the filmmaking is deeply self-conscious, all artfully-composed wide shots and minimal, deliberate camera movements that draw attention to themselves while adding nothing of substance to the film. It looks and feels like any number of generic, would-be art films, replete with careful blocking, splashes of color, and a deadpan sense of humor that hope to trick the viewer into perceiving some level of depth otherwise lacking. 

Nearly all of the characters here are passive nihilists, individuals who express belief in traditional values despite any conviction in their veracity. All cling to the idea that wealth and status lead to the ultimate goal — power. In I predatori, the ruling 1% are explicitly amoral, giving no thought to the consequences of their actions precisely because none exist. Conversely, the film presents another group who have obtained power through more violent means, but they are viewed as inherently lesser simply because they are struggling financially. The problem, then, is that Castellitto offers no new insights into his portrait of a broken system: the rich are assholes incapable (or unwilling) of introspection because it would lead to self-destruction, while the working class cling to their humanity, which in turn proves their downfall. They reject the values perpetuated by the ruling class, and instead, erect their own. What Castellitto fails to understand is that, passive or active, nihilism is a cinematic dead end, a roadblock that makes it nearly impossible to invest in anyone or anything happening onscreen, and that deadening effect is here magnified by the detached approach to narrative, all efforts at dark humor rendered one-note and stultifying. An argument could be made that Castellitto is taking an anthropological view of his subjects, much like the film’s Nietzsche scholars, but I predatori practically suffocates the viewer with its pat, sanctimonious ideologies. Rich people suck. Got it. Steven Warner

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