In the summer of the Year without a Summer, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. She, her husband Percy, Lord Byron, and Byron’s physician John Polidori — whose existence in Byron’s mansion resembled something more like an in-house drug dealer than a typical country doctor — wrote ghost stories and debated the Enlightenment to distract themselves from the coldest summer that Nature could damn upon these Romantics. Though her Frankenstein remains champion of these monsters, a perfectly imperfect Lucifer to Enlightenment science’s God, the obscure doctor also made a lasting impact with his “The Vampyre.” It was based on Byron, both the philandering aristocrat and his writings, and was likely the byproduct of several nights’ use of medical-grade laudanum, the English set’s drug of choice. It was also a wild success, but its consistent misattribution to Byron kept Polidori’s name out of literati households.
Somewhat later, Karl Marx would come to share Mary Shelley’s conflicted feelings about Enlightenment optimism. Sure, the factories were a blight upon London: blood goes in, blood products come out, and all the extra blood money goes right to the boss. But, considering that these factories did significantly reduce labor time for needed products, they could be imagined better — so long as capital, which is not a person and is therefore dead, did not control the factory as it does now. Marx also enjoyed the day’s popular Gothic fiction, especially the works of fellow German E. T. A. Hoffmann, so much so, in fact, that his tome has been charged with being a Gothic work itself, straddling the dialectical (we’re talking about Marx here) moment between Enlightenment and Romantic views of world and self. This may explain why Vol. 1, Book 10 of Capital contains this quote, now one of Marx’s most popular: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Marx would not have been familiar with Dracula, a work published fourteen years after his death. He would have only known Polidori’s Byronic Lord Ruthven.
Marx does not turn this metaphor into allegory, but director Julian Radlmaier imagines this quote’s potential in his Bloodsuckers. The film opens as a “Marx-critical Marxist reading group” discusses this quote, leading one member to frankly ask if it should be taken literally. He’s right to ask: a mysterious “Chinese flea” infestation has ravaged their Baltic town, but the bites they inflict look an awful lot like a certain other creature’s. But, the majority of the movie follows Ljowushka (played by another Berlin entrant, Aleksandre Koberidze), a baron imposter who fled the Soviet Union after Stalin demanded his performance as Trotsky in Sergei Eisenstein’s October be removed. Aristocrat Octavia (Lilith Stangenber) and her assistant Jakob (Alexander Herbst) take him in — Octavia intrigued and sympathetic, Jakob more than a little jealous. What follows is a comedy of manners and sensibilities as Ljowushka fails to convince Octavia’s ruling class friends and relatives of his nobility and attempts to solve his problems by making a vampire movie. Scenes of fancy costume parties, peasant uprisings, didactic conversations about the nature of capital, and less-didactic conversations about the best new investments pass by Ljowushka who remembers the revolution fondly but never quite challenges these industrialists. He’s living through the 1920s, but Coke cans, crotch-rockets, and contemporary Berlin fashion whimsically dot the landscape. Oh, and Marx was right: these capitalists really are vampires.
But, they’re likable vampires. Octavia uses her infinite money to live as a flâneuse, speaking highly of a literary education and Ljowushka’s filmmaking and looking down upon “practical talk” of both the industrialist and proletariat variety. She demands the progressive “assistant” title for Jakob, rather than “servant.” And the eccentric Bonin (Daniel Hoesl), who arrives at the estate by parachute, cajoles Ljowushka into accepting his charming asshole schtick. Still, Radlmaier doesn’t allow too much sympathy: after all, they still drink peasant blood, which, keeping with a Marxist allegory, does not induct the victims into the aristo-vampiric class, but literally drains their life, making subservience easier than revolt (again, more Ruthven than Dracula). A million inter-left arguments could spring from such an allegory — the Marxist reading group literally has one — but Bloodsuckers‘ strength derives from its simplicity and whimsy like a Straub-Huillet-shot, Wes-Anderson-penned version of Brian Yuzna’s Society. There’s a clever scene in which the revolting townsfolk are redirected from class hatred to race hatred, and there might be something to be said about how easily Ljowushka falls in love with Octavia, only for Octavia’s vampiric nature to extend no loyalty in return. But, Radlmaier avoids lingering on any political specifics: this is a great genre film masquerading as arthouse treatise work, a tincture of Polidori’s laudanum whiffed by those who, like Marx, know that imagination is required of critique.
Writer: Zach Lewis
A Cop Movie
Like an episode of Cops filmed by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ A Cop Movie is a nesting-doll narrative that plays freely with documentary forms before pulling back and engaging with its own fictional artifice. It’s a fascinating structural gambit, one that manages to both empathize with and interrogate the men and women in blue. Divvied up into five chapters, Ruizpalacios’ film first introduces officers Teresa and Montoya. Teresa drives around in her cruiser with the camera planted just behind the windshield, creating a frame within the frame, while answering distress calls and recounting her personal history directly to the audience via voiceover. She tells of always having wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a cop, how he was initially resistant to the idea, and then how overwhelmed she was when he wrote her a private letter detailing how proud he actually was. But Ruizpalacios, who here employs some visual distortion — an anamorphic lens that tends to warp images on the far right and left of the screen — also begins manipulating narrative conventions almost immediately. He places Teresa in re-enactments of her own stories while she’s in the process of telling them, in effect interacting with her own memories. In Chapter 2, we follow Montoya, an altogether surlier narrator, who is quickly shown to be Teresa’s partner. Chapter 3 details their relationship both on and off the job, before ending in a complete narrative rupture, with someone yelling “cut” and the camera pivoting to reveal a film set full of crew and equipment. Chapter 4 chronicles the training that the actors portraying Teresa and Montoya went through in preparing for their roles, actually enrolling in a police academy, taking classes, and recording diaristic testimonials via their cellphones. Monica del Carmen (formerly Teresa) seems invigorated by the physical challenge, while Raul Briones (Montoya) admits that he doesn’t like police and almost immediately regrets taking the role. Finally, Chapter 5 switches gears yet again, featuring brief, portrait-style talking head interviews with actual trainees describing what attracted them to the job and then introducing the “real” Teresa and Montoya, although by this point the line between real and fake, or documentary and fiction, has totally blurred into a largely theoretical distinction. The real Teresa and Montoya begin trading off storytelling duties with their fictional counterparts, Monica and Raul, while detailing what appears to be a true story of their conflicts with their commanding officers and their ultimate demotion and then dismissal from the force.
Having begun production in 2019, A Cop Movie predates the eruption of anti-police sentiment during the many Black Lives Matter protests in the spring and summer of 2020, as well as the plethora of detailed policy papers about what exactly a de-militarized and de-funded police force might look like. And while one obviously cannot draw a direct line between Mexican and American societies, however intertwined they may be geopolitically, it’s nevertheless awkward timing to release a largely sensitive account of the trials and tribulations of low-level beat officers. In other words, this isn’t an ACAB-style diatribe, although Ruizpalacio is careful to show not just how casually corrupt the police force is, but also how obsequious it is towards minor politicians and how it is unable to respond to even the basic needs of citizens. (Early in the film, Teresa helps deliver a baby because there are no ambulances to be found, and the unavailability of paramedics becomes a recurring motif throughout the movie.) Ruizpalacios has spent the last few years working mostly in television, including helming a few episodes of Narcos: Mexico for Netflix, which is also releasing A Cop Movie. As a behind-the-scenes look at the real people behind these kinds of police-centered entertainments, A Cop Movie is a clever bit of deconstruction. But it doesn’t seem to add up to much beyond this clever grab bag of meta-techniques, and it certainly isn’t engaging in any up-to-the-minute political discourse, but at least it’s not brandishing Blue Lives Matter copaganda either. Ultimately, Ruizpalacios seems to value individuals while properly chastising the flawed institution they operate within.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
In Sophy Romvari’s Still Processing, an intensely personal diary of remembrance and catharsis, the director receives a box of photographs taken during her childhood with her three brothers, two of whom have since passed away. The negatives, stored away for many years, now see the light of day; they are brought into the darkroom to be processed, the reality of their images finally realized for the eye. “There are some things that cannot be said out loud,” Romvari writes, the kernel of her grief slowly easing only since, and with the emotional support of her remaining brother. Hence, the photos speak for themselves: close-up portraits of the siblings, wide-eyed and candid, recall a time lost to the present in all but memory, one the viewer has the privilege of witnessing but not experiencing.
Romvari’s piercingly beautiful short achieves, in seventeen minutes, an authenticity that eludes the languorous hundred of Memory Box, the latest from filmmaking duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The latter’s premise, arguably, is the same: a collection of memorabilia arrives on the doorstep of teenage Alex (Manal Issa), belonging to Maia (Rim Turki), her mother. Living an ordinary life in the suburbs of Montreal, far from the war-torn Lebanon she fled years prior, Maia has largely avoided her past, whether in remembrance or recounting. Somewhat inexplicably, Alex’s insatiable curiosity outweighs all sense of propriety; against Maia’s wishes, she intrudes upon her private life, peeling away the covers of scrapbooks and cassette tapes to uncover her memories etched within. Snapping pictures of them on her phone, speculating with her schoolmates on her mother’s first love and shared fondness for photography, and reading up on the attacks that killed both her own uncle and grandfather, Alex assumes a voyeuristic role in the examination of this personal history, attempting to reconcile with what ultimately does not belong to her.
An ill-conceived inertia plagues this work of semi-autobiography, “freely adapted” from Hadjithomas’ own correspondence between the years of 1982 and 1988. Utilizing quirky photographic manipulation and febrile trifles that unquestioningly serve as pastiches of Maia’s repressed adolescence, Hadjithomas and Joreige construe out of the fragments a fictionalized series of conceptual and emotional platitudes, sullying the rich prospects their intimate provenance could have afforded. This observation, however, links to an important question about Memory Box concerning its perspective: are we looking at one’s self-reckoning, or watching the generation after appropriate the former’s? On either count, the self-satisfied statements from mother (“we’re all lost, longing for ideals”) and daughter (shamelessly accusatory: “All your life is a lie!”) go off with a whimper, and the film pads their threadbare psychological characterization with little more than irksome nonchalance. “Trauma,” notes Romvari, “is relative; it can bond the ones who share it, or break them apart.” In Memory Box’s case, its magical-sounding title conceals the roteness of its false catharsis; the stills bond and break, but only superficially, as they have already been processed for the viewer.
Writer: Morris Yang
Rock Bottom Riser
Located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean — a body of water so macroscale it covers nearly half of the planet in terms of surface area and depth — is a relatively small island group built on borrowed time. Or, more specifically, the crisis surrounding this archipelago’s s structural foundation is one dependent upon environmental variables which might be agitated enough to one day finally “go off,” so to say. This is the precarious nature of Hawaii’s existence, which is the central concern of Fern Silva’s Rock Bottom Riser: that this hot crater built from magma will violently burst out of control. That isn’t to suggest this isn’t already occurring in nature, but when the volcanoes do erupt, at least here, Silva’s camera scrupulously observes the outpouring of vaporous emissions and oozing, viscous basalt discharge in a manner that suggests a cosmic unity to the proceedings; the sheer magnitude of these natural movements are impressive on a phenomenological level and mesmerizing formally, with each new modulation the lava takes while rippling across the molten, foaming black mass.
Now, located somewhere within a different division of quantitative measurements — think time, not space; Rock Bottom Riser’s hour-plus runtime, in this case — there is a rigorously mounted, richly-textured short work that succinctly conveys its central thesis in about 15 minutes. This is a mode (and, more importantly, length) more typical amongst Fern Silva’s previous ethnographic pieces, but this being his first foray into feature-length duration, there obviously needs to be a little more going on to justify the additional 55 minutes. And there certainly is — including discussions of the colonial legacy of science, the communal debate around the construction of a 30-meter telescope on the sacred Mauna Kea mountain, the controversy surrounding Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson being cast as King Kamehameha when the actor isn’t an Indigenous Hawaiian — but none of these various threads are particularly fleshed-out on their own, as they’re usually thrown together to convey some nebulous notion of connectivity. Included in this mix are two particularly strained, highly-cornball sequences involving residents of the island — the first, in a vape shop and set to dubstep; the second, in a classroom setting where students are listening to Simon and Garfunkel — that aim for frivolity but come up short. The latter moment especially, where a teacher — a real hippy-dippy type who would unironically claim that Paul Simon is a poet — plays “I Am An Island,” is so didactic in intent that it throws the work’s internal rhythms out of whack. Ultimately, Riser’s biggest issue lies with the half-hearted attempt to shoehorn a haptic political throughline into the truly incredible footage Silva was able to capture; it ends up bogging his work down with the unnecessarily mundane, or at least that’s what it feels like when considered next to to the weight and totality of Earth’s most destructive exoergic release.
Writer: Paul Attard
The Good Woman of Sichuan
After five uninterrupted minutes of a camera looking out a train window at the passing greenery — we know it’s a camera looking and not just a person, because we can see the reflection of the camera in the reflection of the window opposite the one we’re looking out of — an intertitle somewhat helpfully informs us that what follows is not an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, and that though there are lines from that play in the film, they’re the only ones that are “supposed to be fictitious.” The emphasis there is mine; this being a classically slow cinema film, any emphasis one finds is, by design, one’s own.
What little plot there is in Sabrina Zhao‘s The Good Woman of Sichuan revolves around an actress who has traveled to the city of Leshan, about two hours south of Chengdu and three hours west of Chongqing, in the province of Sichuan. She’s there to prep for a production of the Brecht play, which she says the director wants to make abstract and fluid, with the performers finding “a way of expressing and performing that only belongs to each of (them).” What seems to be at play in the film is a chronicle of her attempting to figure what exactly that means, though festival screening notes suggest something more dramatic: “By accident, she loses control of the camera, and drifts into a polyrhythmic experience of stasis.”
Regardless, the film is undeniably comprised of often beautifully composed 4:3 frames, long takes without editing or camera movement (with one exception) or apparent meaning or point of view. It seems the actress’s process involves taking in all the mundane details of life, the grass and the rain, jungle gym equipment and a night by the river, a hair salon and chicken-related wedding games, and, above all, that most essential element of the creative process: sleeping. The images aren’t showy — the best of which are a shot of a green riverside where the reflection on the water makes it look like the river is dissolving into a gray blankness, and an early shot of what appears to be just a pile of clothes but turns out to contain a sleeping person and, when revisited later, a cat, which reminds of a similar shot in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye. Like a great performance, these images aren’t obvious in their construction, and as such, there’s a very present truth to them.
Writer: Sean Gilman
Fighter is that rare film able to work within a typically male framework — here, the underdog boxing flick — and translate it to a powerful woman’s story, without really altering much of anything. Lim Sung-mi plays a North Korean who stumbles into amateur boxing after relocating to the South, and her performance as a defector feels genuinely authentic to the fictional transplant narrative. She’s likewise believable as a young boxer prone to self-destructive behavior: entirely unpredictable in her reactions, seeming anxious and withdrawn (for most of the film) despite her tough exterior, and temperamental to the point of snapping at random. Important, then, is that Jéro Yun’s film is not a stereotypical boxing film, nor is the role of Jin-ah just a male archetype grafted onto a female character. Lim understands that the character she is embodying is a girl whose particular traits relate to her social circumstances, rather than her sport: thrust into a new environment, Jin-ah’s internalization of others’ views of her often leads to behaviors that reinforce those very judgments.
The moment in the film that kick-starts this character development comes during Jin-ah’s first impromptu training session, when a compliment on her fighting skill is misinterpreted, by her, as a malicious preconception: “How come South Koreans only consider North Koreans as commandos,” she asks, “as if they are cold-blooded creatures only bred to kill people?” Her reaction is extreme, as we can tell from the face of her coworker, who obviously meant no harm. Jin-ah’s conclusion, though, is quite a somber one: “North Korea is also a place where ordinary people live.” The focus here is always on the sociopolitical — boxing mostly just constitutes the background of this refreshingly grounded defector (the subs refer to Jin-ah as a “refugee”) drama, and, in fact, there’s more excitement packed into one joyous amusement park sequence than there is into any of the boxing scenes. The legacy of separation is so woven into the subtext of South Korean cinema, though, that even without delving particularly deep into boxing, Fighter can still match the emotional scale and intensity of the genre’s more overtly political entries. Yun’s film also skirts those film’s favored form of catharsis: Jin-ah’s arc demonstrates the personal growth that she’s achieved, but still acknowledges that her own fight to define herself is far from over.
Writer: Willy Marah