Dear Kaita Ablaze
France had the Comte de Lautréamont, a young writer who embodied the Romantic spirit even more than the Romantics, and thrust an entire generation’s literary energy into his Les Chants du Maldoror, a prose poem featuring a man so evil and ugly that he denies killing himself such that God may witness His mistake. This work would eventually spark the transgressive elements of European modernism, but Lautréamont himself would die in relative obscurity shortly after completing it. He was 24 years old, and historians posit that he died of disease in Parisian squalor.
Meanwhile, Japan had Kaita Murayama, a writer, poet, and painter whose life and influence shockingly mirror that of Lautréamont’s in France. He, too, died young (22) and unknown; he, too, made transgression itself his subject; and he, too, would provide the foundation for a flourishing modernist movement in his home country. His Maldoror was a painting titled Naked Monk Urinating, which features exactly what you’d expect, painted almost crudely in his signature garance pigment, a dark red that provides little contrast to the black landscape, making the figure blend into his environment like a spirit of the mountains. In 2018, several of Murayama’s early works were discovered for the first time, and, though these landscapes and portraits had none of the unsettling qualities of his holy pisser, this discovery revitalized interest in Japan’s young hellion who preceded even Edogawa Rampo in making ero guro (the “erotic grotesque”) a modernist art. It’s only fitting that one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Pink — a Japanese cinema genre heavily influenced by ero guro — would make a film honoring Murayama’s legacy.
That said, Hisayasu Satô’s Dear Kaita Ablaze ventures far away from the traditional biopic route. Instead, the film acts almost as a ghost story, as the spirit of Murayama has supposedly worked its way into a young man, Saku (Shintarô Yûya), in the present day. Meanwhile, a Murayama acolyte, Azami (Riho Sato), spends her days on the streets holding up an iPad with Naked Monk Urinating displayed and asking passersby to remember and to discuss Murayama’s work, but her chance meeting with Saku inspires an obsession with his claim to “hear” and “be” Murayama. Four street artists, all unfamiliar with Murayama, are simultaneously attracted to Saku due to their psychic powers (a detail just casually thrown into the mix), and follow him to his shrine in the woods dedicated to understanding the artist. This setup allows Satô to spend the remainder of the film following this troupe as they make performance art out of Murayama’s paintings and written work.
The prosumer digital camera tracks its subjects with a slight wobble here and a correction in framing there, but Satô’s filmography is filled with these imperfections, often calling the audience’s attention to the very act of recording. Much of his pinku work in the 1980s and ‘90s focused on voyeurs and snuff pornographers operating handheld camcorders; so, shots of the victims of these movies would frequently be matched with a POV shot filmed from the eye of demented desire. It’s certainly a way to justify extremely cheap and garish cinematography for those sequences, but it’s also a way to emphasize the act of recording as an action itself, not as passive observance (cinema’s own variation on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle). Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom was the first to literalize this in its camera-couteau as its protagonist’s camera-stylo, but Satô’s entire career has been an extension of this, using noise-filled CRT video monitors and cheap DV shots as long-running motifs of the dangers and detritus of obsession. So here, too, the frame quakes as the troupe records their obsessional performances. An occasional wide-shot directly from above or below (seemingly from a GoPro) disturbs this rhythm a bit as the camera remains still and flatly frames all six of our gang, only for them all to stare directly into the lens and announce they’ve found something — a secret POV shot, like seeing through the monster’s eyes in a horror film. Though the film never shows an audience for the troupe’s work, there’s always a foreboding sense that someone’s watching.
The performance art pieces are themselves fun bits of amateur choreography and set design (some are dotted with screens in typical Satô fashion — equal parts video art installation and CCTV room). Without the need for a physical space for their audience, they can dance and interpret Murayama’s work on top of a small Tokyo rooftop or deep in a forest. Saku claims that the pagoda trees of the forest are said to ward off evil, so the troupe sets up their home base in a nearby cave with Murayama’s work projected onto the cave walls, as if they were antediluvian messages. Since Satô’s work has previously focused so heavily on city life (both the basis of his noir-ish or sci-fi setups, as well as a logical place to see so many screens at once), these forest scenes, perhaps his first since 1996’s In a Thicket, stand out as a strange contrast to the video work of the troupe. In the 20th century, with the rise of an encroaching technology that documented our lives so as to better regulate them, it was at least comforting to know that there still exists a world out of reach, lest our Romantic ancestors rather than our utilitarian contemporaries be proven right. But, if Satô is making movies in the forest, that comfort is gone.
Along with these performances, a story about Saku’s “possession” fleshes out, featuring possible flashbacks to a barbed “demon tongue” that beckons its user to consume flesh as well as a destructive tryst between Saku and the obsessed Azami. These sequences carry the weight of Satô’s pinku past and deliver some beautiful, disturbing imagery, complemented by a stark color grading that wouldn’t have gotten past a bigger production’s bureaucratic instructions. A deep, monochromatic blue palette glistens in the fantasy sequences, the forest is made a garish green when made the subject, and a final ritualistic act of violence is blessed by Murayama’s signature Garance red. Though difficult to confirm (as hardly any primary or secondary sources about Kaita Murayama exist in English), it’s clear that his transgressive aesthetic has thoroughly influenced Hisayasu Satô, whose legacy can be seen as recorded performance art adaptations of the young master’s works — exactly like the troupe of Dear Kaita Ablaze. At one point, Azami reinterprets that masterwork of the sacred-profane, Naked Monk Urinating, as an act of genesis, the urine secretly being semen. To see such a picture and regard it as holy — such is the work of Satô, one of the greatest students of Murayama. — ZACH LEWIS
Like many films gunning to establish an immediately serious tone, Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s 13 Bombs begins with sobering news reports. One newscaster outlines Indonesia’s slow economic growth, falling exports, and the Minister of Finance’s position that its people must frugally manage the downturn. As the radio plays, a mysterious man going by Arok cocks a gun and heads out for a mission. Another reporter references the president’s statements on the recession. She claims to desire protecting the public over the financial sector, but certainly doesn’t convince the security guard complaining to his partner about his ballooning mortgage. These two are about to be blown to hell as the mysterious man appears with an RPG. He and other militants gun down the remaining guards — the score during the mayhem heavily evoking Hans Zimmer’s theme for The Joker in The Dark Knight — and then blow open the armored truck so any nearby bystanders can stuff their pockets with the money inside. The local police contact the Indonesian Bureau of Counterterrorism; so begins a cat-and-mouse game to defeat the militants, who have twelve more bombs planted around the city. Oscar (Chicco Kurniawan) and William (Ardhito Pramono), two cryptocurrency exchange founders whom Arok involves in the conflict, along with William’s fiancée Agnes (Lutesha), are the final pieces on the board.
For a film packed with ideas, 13 Bombs is wholly lacking in subtlety. The film seems to expect the viewer to take it at face value. The dialogue, when not crippled by clunky exposition, occasionally veers into comically absurd territory as characters vocalize information that both they and the audience should instantly be able to apprehend (“Bitcoin. Stock exchange. This [conflict] must be related to the financial system.”) Not only does the uninspired score repeatedly insist on what it wishes for a viewer to feel during a scene, but it is also incessant; it plays for almost the entirety of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. The goal may have been to create a gripping audio landscape that engrosses the viewer, but the result is a repetitive, groan-inducing din that eats away at the film’s vitality. Perhaps, at least for this critic, it’s also a bit headache-inducing, as much as the consistently dizzying camera rolls that don’t produce the sort of unease they’re attempting. Other aspects — the range of solid-at-best to kind of shaky acting, the artificiality of the sets, the network drama-esque level of camerawork in the non-set piece scenes — aren’t truly issues, as they ultimately feel par for the course for a film of this ilk. Standout action and storytelling are what would elevate 13 Bombs.
The film sets out to balance the kinetic, stripped-down pyrotechnics of the low-budget DTV action film with a thoughtful exploration of the tensions between morality and ideology, the sources of extremism, and the necessity of economic revolution. The action — not including one particular duel at the climax — is serviceable, but so sauceless, so lacking in distinctive flair, that it’s not even that welcome of a treat when the bullets start flying. The biggest letdown, however, is the story’s unexpected shallowness, given the richer depths it nods to. Arok is driven by his personal loss and noble goals to commit terrible acts. The counterterrorism agency is ultimately a bureaucratic arm of the state, defending the status quo and the decency it currently supports. Oscar, William, and Agnes are stuck in the middle, fending for their lives and taking matters into their own hands. The young trio’s experiences could be said to represent one vision of the next generations’ ideal pathway to changing the future: leveraging extra-institutional energies while still respecting the structure and process of the powers that be. A shame, then, that in execution, this setup is reduced to a matchup between good guys and bad guys, with the bad guys all sharing the same tragic backstory template that comes off as lazy, while also flattening their humanity. 13 Bombs also utilizes the copout of making its villain needlessly bloodthirsty, solely to show that no matter how altruistic or revolutionary his aims may be, he has at core become (or always been) an antisocial, nihilistic monster and must be put down. This film has a narrative setup that calls attention to too many fascinating dynamics to be a film “best enjoyed with your brain powered off.” The problem is it never fleshes out these dynamics more fully or examines them more critically, instead opting for a by-the-numbers shoot-em-up template too noisy to be relegated to the background. Barely passable at best, 13 Bombs could have been a blast if it wasn’t so uninterested in what it truly had in its arsenal. — TRAVIS DESHONG
The subject of the poets and poetry of Hong Kong is a natural for Ann Hui, always the most literarily inclined of the great directors of her generation, the Hong Kong New Wave. Before studying film in London, she earned a master’s degree in English and Comparative Literature at Hong Kong University, focusing on the work of French writer and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet. In a career now spanning 45 years, she’s adapted a number of literary works, including three novels and stories by Eileen Chang (Love in a Fallen City, Eighteen Springs, and Love After Love) and a two-part adaptation of Louis Cha’s wuxia epic The Romance of Book and Sword, the second part of which, called Princess Fragrance, gives Elegies one of its funniest moments, when one of Hui’s interviewees is asked by his daughter if Hui has made any “Princess films.” Hui’s good humor and self-deprecation are always charming when she appears on film (as in the recent documentary about her, Keep Rolling (Man Lim-chung, 2020), and she proves a delightful guide to the poets of Elegies.
After initially introducing us to a half dozen different poets, their names and dates of birth (and in a couple of cases, death) cited in on-screen text, along with a sample of their work and images of the places around the former colony they’re writing about (Xi Xi’s poem about living near the old Hong Kong airport, for example), Hui settles in to focus on two poets in particular for most of the movie’s running time. The first, Huang Canran, is an older man (though still 15 years younger than Hui herself) whose work evokes the quotidian realities of Hong Kong life, the feel of the sun, the face of a father at a table with his family in a restaurant. Being a poet, Huang talks about the many other jobs he was required to take to survive, working as a journalist, a columnist, a translator, and so on. Lately, he has found himself priced out of Hong Kong, calling himself an “economic exile” to the Mainland (contrasted to the “political exiles” who had to flee there to Hong Kong). Hui’s interviews are leisurely and friendly, focusing first on Huang’s work, the relation of a poet to words and words to meaning, and so on, but gradually, by following him on his various daily routines, broadening to encompass his family as well: his daughter doesn’t really understand why Hui wants to make a movie about him, she replies that her mother doesn’t particularly like her films either.
Hui takes much the same approach with the second primary subject, Liu Wai-tong. Again, we start with him at work — in his case as a professor preparing to lecture remotely during the height of the Covid shutdowns — and gradually broaden our view of him to include his young son (who covertly sends a remote-controlled train into the interview; “stop creating surreal scenes please,” Liu admonishes him), his friends back in Beijing’s old arts scene, and his work as a photographer. In addition to Liu’s own poetry, we get to see sections of his lecture as well, primarily focusing on the poets Paul Celan and Wisława Szymborska (who also was cited by one of the other poets earlier in the film).
By choosing these moments to highlight, Hui is consciously linking her Hong Kong poets to a wider world, and specifically European tradition (and of poets who lived under Communist regimes). The real subject of Elegies, the one on everyone’s mind that no one can come right out and say — they are poets, after all — is the political situation in Hong Kong in the wake of the 2019-2020 protests. Elegies is a lament for a lost Hong Kong. Huang can’t afford to live there anymore, and Liu is in obvious, though unspoken, exile in Taipei. Hong Kong’s special status as a nexus between Europe and China is fading just as rapidly as its old shops and housing estates are being transformed by the forces of capitalist overdevelopment and political integration into the Mainland. In this way, Elegies is less a counterpart to Jia Zhangke’s recent Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, a chronicle of Mainland Chinese writers, than it is Septet: the Story of Hong Kong, the omnibus project Hui contributed to along with six other leading Hong Kong directors. There’s a very real fear that their Hong Kong, the Hong Kong of the New Wave generation, will soon be gone forever. At one point, Hui asks Huang if, like she and her fellow directors, he feels that if their work isn’t about Hong Kong, then it isn’t really important, because it’s not about home. He agrees completely. The fear is that soon home will be gone, but what comforts Hui, and us, is that the work at least will remain. — SEAN GILMAN
With all the upheaval in recent years, it seems like there is only one constant across the film industry: producing an independent animated feature is a Sisyphean task. And there is no better illustration of that than legendary countercultural animation veteran Bill Plympton. After a difficult decade in the 2010s struggling to adapt to the digital revolution & the rapidly shifting cultural and aesthetic landscape of animation, Plympton now returns with the crowdfunded Slide, a characteristically wacky western that was initially promised for a 2022 release but has been pushed back again and again, and now finds itself at IFFR — while still unfinished!
Yes, the biggest problem with Slide is that the film is incomplete: every sequence is hampered by still elements and subpar animation shoddily papering over numerous conspicuously unfinished sequences, and on the whole feels closer to an animatic than a feature film. It also wears this storied production history on its sleeve: even granting the discount production standards, Slide fails as a complete aesthetic package. Sequences are clearly scraped together from footage made in different parts/eras of the production process, dashing hopes of spatial and editorial coherence. Plympton does not help his case with the convoluted narrative of Slide, an Old West parody with squeaky musical numbers that pits Hollywood against small-town misfits and a mysterious slide-guitar-toting man-with-no-name, drawing ambiguously (accidentally?) on High Plains Drifter. The overwrought screenplay — which bears the hallmarks of heavy last-minute revision — coupled with the underwrought visual continuity, are enough to capsize this endeavor completely.
If you squint, you can make out the vision Plympton was going for, and enjoy the film in its current state. It’s not like I Married a Strange Person had the most fluid animation in the world, but the rough-hewn pencil art style here percolated through animation software feels unnecessarily laborious (though certainly distinctive). And it doesn’t congeal well with the quick digital editing solutions used to cut corners; the use of layers and vector paths to move unanimated elements of still images is particularly jarring.
Slide feels bizarrely anachronistic, and not just by virtue of its crude comedic stylings and very 2021 environmentalist trappings (its presumptive discursive urgency reminiscent of Don’t Look Up and debates about the Anthropocene). Plympton’s art began in the post-Crumb countercultural cartoonist world of the ‘60s and ’70s alongside similarly iconoclastic figures like B Kliban. His first forays into animation were adjacent to the ‘80s through ‘90s “alternative” cultural nexus, and in the 2000s he found himself at home alongside figures like Adam Elliot in that decade’s art animation wave. But Slide and the director’s 2016’s Revengeance feel bizarrely inorganic and detached from the culture at large. Even the parodic register struck by these two films feels like an awkward holdover from the past. Watching them feels a bit like reading the new Doonesbury from the Trump era.
It’s easy to be pessimistic. Among the rise (and perhaps now fall) of monolithic studio CGI family blockbusters, the increasing globalization of animation production and consumption, the emergence of streaming as a critical node in animation funding and distribution, and the growing gulf between animation and the classic cartoonist style that Plympton roots his practice in, it seems like the already thorny path of the independent animator has become that much more treacherous. With regard to Slide, it may have been better off produced and released in a serialized form. Some of the surreal/musical sequences here are a cut above the rest, and really illustrate that more refined, completed, quantized iterations of the film might have been a better and more organic way to produce the project. One can only hope this is not the end for Plympton, who is and always will be a legend, and he finds the energy to turn things around. The great irony of DIY icons like Plympton is that it was them, not the purveyors of mass-produced mainstream gunk, that really needed the hermetically gatekept environment of the pre-Internet media environment to thrive, because as it turns out, many cultural gatekeepers had more wisdom than the raw democratic mudslinging we’re left with now. Nowhere is that more evident than the wonderful yet woefully underseen Plymptoons Youtube channel featuring some of the man’s best work. — NOEL OAKSHOT
Me, Maryam, the Children and 26 Others
The interaction between documenting the act of filmmaking and the final film as a meaning-making document for the filmmaker, subject, and spectator is a staple of postmodern Iranian cinema. Abbas Kiarostami experimented with it first in Close-Up (1990) and then in Through the Olive Trees (1994); Jafar Panahi, who served as his assistant on the latter, has been forced to do so since his filmmaking ban. Both these filmmakers filmed themselves filming their subjects to reveal something that only having them in the frame would not reveal. In other words, the combination, or better still, collision of cinema and reality — docufiction — was needed to discover something that they, the subject, and we could otherwise not see.
Farshad Hashemi’s debut feature, Me, Maryam, the Children and 26 Others, takes a similar approach to better understand Mahboube Gholami, the “naggy” tenant who leases her house to Hashemi and his crew for shooting a Marriage Story-style short because she needs urgent money. At first, she’s entirely disinterested in the film that Hashemi is making, constantly angry at him and his crew for painting her white wall blue without telling her, breaking multiple things in her house, and getting her cat’s neck stuck between a tripod’s stand (don’t worry, she comes out unharmed). Cinema is an angel of destruction for her at this point, intrusive and obstructive in the worst way imaginable. But gradually, its transformative potential comes to light. The blue paint, also used during the film’s introductory credits to first erase names plastered on the wall but then reprint new ones, becomes a symbol of rebirth; the chaos of filmmaking becomes calm chatter; the seemingly extraneous film-within-a-film about a separation becomes integral to reli(e)ving Mahboube’s traumatic past.
Hashemi’s “cinema as healing reality” mantra is undoubtedly sincere, but it works best when revealing itself, not when directly stated. Everything before Mahboube’s unpredictably open acceptance of Hashemi and his crew, then, feels potent. Our protagonist’s guardedness is key to this: we, like her, feel thrown right into the chaos without necessarily knowing how to respond. Like her, we too signed up to give ourselves over to the filmmakers, but such is their disorganization that annoyance negates sympathy, at least initially. The more we learn, though — about the budgetary restrictions of the crew, the intention behind the story, the story of other crew members’ life stories — the more we push closer to embracing them. Crucially, it’s still not stated out loud: it’s the leaning forward and listening, the imagining of oneself for the briefest second within the film-within-the-film that’s charged with the sensation of discovery, the unsureness of knowing what this union of cinema and reality will eventually entail.
About halfway through the film, though, Mahboube explicitly states this discovery. She’s then actively involved in helping Hashemi finish his short film, and through that, her story with her dog, Shellman, her deceased father, and her romantic partner. To some extent, it’s admirable that Hashemi doesn’t “solve” Mahboube (we only see glimpses of her romantic past, even less of anything of her relationship with Maryam). But, within the context of the film’s open-heartedness, these unexplained events feel frustratingly vague, not mysteriously ambiguous. For little of Me, Maryam, the Children and 26 Others is about discoveries that instigate further questions, especially on our part: it’s a sweet film about celebrating the heart as the art of filmmaking. — DHRUV GOYAL
Light, Noise, Smoke, and Light, Noise, Smoke
The syntactically redundant title of Tomonari Nishikawa’s latest film provides a subtle hint as to what the filmmaker is up to. If one watches the film, one will discern that the title explains exactly what is in the frame. A series of images shot at a Japanese summer festival, Light, Noise, Smoke and Light, Noise, Smoke consists of shots of the night sky illuminated by a fireworks display. So aside from the black of the sky, which in this case is a sort of stand-in for the movie screen in the dark, Nishikawa shows us the colored sparks of the pyrotechnics themselves (“light”), the haze left in their wake (“smoke”), and a soundtrack recorded at the time of filming (“noise”). The double title, meanwhile, refers to Nishikawa composing the film from two separate reels of similar material.
But fans of experimental cinema may lodge an objection here, because aside from the screen, the light, the noise, and the smoke, there is one additional component in this system. That is the film apparatus itself, and by subjecting his footage to a mathematically derived form of editing, Nishikawa permits the celluloid, the camera, and the projector to assert their own particular identities. The filmmaker shot Light, Noise, Smoke using a Super-16 camera that allowed the image (“light”) to spill over onto the optical soundtrack. With optical sound, the recording head translates noise into a strip of light, which is then reinterpreted as sound by the head on the projector. But since both machines — camera and projector — must accommodate these two mechanical functions, they are synced but separated. That is, the sound is recorded on the strip exactly 26 frames ahead of the image, with a similar spacing between the playback head and the projector gate.
So instead of recording synchronized sound from the fireworks display, Nishikawa simply recorded more “light,” which is then read as sound, or “noise.” Using this 26-frame distance as his primary editing principle, Nishikawa cut both reels into 26-frame segments, which he then spliced together non-continuously. At the midway point of the film, it becomes evident that Nishikawa is alternating shots from the two reels, generating a rhythmic thumping that plays contrapuntally against the bursting light images, which themselves Nishikawa sometimes runs in reverse.
In six short minutes, Light, Noise Smoke, and Light, Noise, Smoke transforms a familiar sight into a pulsating tone poem. The fireworks’ dispersal, sparks falling from the sky while smoke hangs in the air, provides a minimum of visual information, such that at times it seems we are looking at the film grain itself. Like an analog equivalent to digital pixels, the film provides discrete points of light, which are themselves reinterpreted as audio, resulting in a regular alternation of bass tones. Fireworks, which are typically launched in conjunction with some popular observance, here become a celebration of our ability to see and hear, giving proof through the night that our consciousness is still there. — MICHAEL SICINSKI
Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s (L for Leisure, Two Plains & a Fancy) new film Dream Team boasts two assets not often paired together in a feature film: a sense of humor open to the silly and an eye for interesting visual phenomena. The film stars Esther Garrel (Lover for a Day, Call Me By Your Name) and Alex Zhang Hungtai (a musician formerly of Dirty Beaches who more recently provided the score to Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland) as “two hot INTERPOL agents” investigating a series of coral-related deaths, and is organized into seven episodes (adding up to a bit over 90 minutes) with titles like “Asses to Ashes” and “Coral Me Bad.” Though each episode begins with a brief credit sequence listing the directors, composers, and one of the film’s actors, the structure is otherwise haphazard. Some title cards appear after the credits, some at the end of the previous episode as a tease. Perhaps this is in keeping with the film’s affinity for ‘90s basic cable thrillers — in her programming notes for IFFR, Michelle Carey suggests “Baywatch Nights were it directed by Maya Deren” — an earlier, less prescriptive period for that medium, as the gauzy photography certainly is.
After a cold open in which researcher Dr. Theresa Gorgeous is killed, while taking a steamy bath, by poison gas released from coral in her house, the first two episodes both start with Zhang’s Agent Close dreaming of a marine murder. The first dream he recounts himself to his interns, placing more emphasis on his positionality as a dog than the murder. The second dream, though, is told back to him by a witness to the murder when he and Garrel’s Agent No visit the crime scene. She describes not only the content of the dream, but the surreal visual effects in which the murder victim is multiplied by repeated exposure, drawing the surreality deeper into the fabric of the film. Later episodes also begin with effects-heavy sequences in which curious movements eventually triangulate an invisible man, later revealed to be named Carl, when he interrupts Agent No’s sexual encounter with another witness in order to share some disturbing information.
By the time the film’s narrative jaunts off to a co-ed co-op basketball team participating in a wine tasting, it has become clear closure isn’t the plan. Despite the appearance of Agent Chase’s ex-wife, which Carl warns Agent No of, the only particularly relevant information is doled out via news broadcast, as Agent No and Agent Chase’s scientist contact, Dr. Vanessa Beef (creator of the coral simulator Beef Reef v1.4), is revealed to be one of a number of further victims of the unresolved coral conspiracy, and the final title card advertises an upcoming season that seems unlikely ever to exist. Though the film is bursting with narrative incident when compared to similarly lo-fi American independent films — if this is your first exposure to Kalman and Horn’s films (as it was for this writer), the recent productions of Omnes Films might be a useful association — it couldn’t be mistaken for a mainstream film driven by narrative. The incident instead fades into a fabric that also makes room for light smut, again in keeping with its television influences, as well as more abstract sequences, like a significant chunk of the fourth episode that crosscuts the agents at a strip club named “Dress 2 Undress” with Chase’s interns rehearsing modern dance. Kalman and Horn also devote far more screen time to non-human subjects than antsy television audiences would allow; most often coral or other aquatic landscapes, but even a series of establishing shots of the library housing the interns is allowed to unfold deliberately as Kalman and Horn excavate all the visual interest they can from the specificity of the location’s design. Dream Team isn’t likely to satisfy audiences nostalgic for the lowbrow entertainment it evokes, but it certainly entertains at a baser level than the art film audiences for which it is actually intended are used to. — JESSE CATHERINE WEBBER
Pablo Marín’s cinema can be deceptively simple and deceptively complex. Having worked exclusively on 8 and 16mm celluloid, the Argentinian filmmaker has gravitated, as with many still tending the flame of analog filmmaking, toward artisanship. As such, his tools are as much the subject of his work as is the (loosely) travelog content. Two planes are at stake in each of his shorts: the landscape and the surface of the film strip. In his best work, a superimposition occurs — and a literal one often coincides — wherein the attention to form does not obscure the content, but rather, both are illuminated.
An early work, sin título (2008), exemplifies this harmony of form and subject, with Marín rotating from a fixed position and varying his zoom in order to construct a 360° portrait of his neighborhood in Buenos Aires. If the single-frame exposure pace feels frantic, it’s nonetheless the evidence of a careful, exacting attention. Buenos Aires, and later the urban geography of Berlin, will become hallmarks of Marín’s cinema, along with images of the sun’s rays scattering across moving water, wild grasses blowing in the wind, and deciduous forests. But always meeting this impressionist obsession with landscape is his structuralist investigation of the aesthetic needs of the film strip.
Take Resistfilm (2014), for example, which is titled after an early Brakhage experiment. The film comprises four sections, each of which deploys different strategies of fragmentation, and each of which is the standard 50-foot length of a Super 8 cartridge captured at 18 frames per second. Each section makes use of a different mask to fragment and superimpose his images from nature. Again, the viewer’s attention is split between the details caught in the camera and the details of their capture. In an interview with Dan Browne from the time of Resistfilm’s release, Marín described leaving the black sections between reels in the film so as to avoid jump cuts. The fact remains, however, that for approximately a minute and a half of Resistfilm’s 13-minute runtime, between masked geometries of landscape photography, we’re watching nothing more than the scratched and grainy surface of blank film.
These works evoke an observer spending as much time in nature as on small gauge message boards, but they’re equally informed by the personal and political. Stephen Broomer, in an overview of Marín’s cinema, reminds us of Angelus Novus’ (2014) implicit reference to Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” description of Paul Klee’s painting of the same name. “His face is turned towards the past,” Benjamin writes of Klee’s angel. “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed.” In addition to the unfortunately nostalgic pursuit of analog filmmaking, it bears mentioning that Marín is also a stalwart proponent of experimental cinema in Argentina, and of Argentinian experimental cinema abroad. He’s translated the writings of Stan Brakhage, Manny Farber, and J. Hoberman into Spanish, and his curated programs of Argentine small Super 8 films have opened inquiry into a fertile tradition too often sequestered from Western-centric narratives of experimental film. Marín’s own films can be seen as an extension of this work and a reflection on it, situating himself as a latter-day participant in a tradition that seems to persist on borrowed time.
Watching Denkbilder (2013), with its images of maté and crossed women’s legs split between Berlin and Buenos Aires, I couldn’t help but think of the novelist Julio Cortàzar, whose Rayuela (1963) straddles Paris and the Argentine capital as it flits back and forth out of time and forever in a state of departure. I came to Cortàzar with much of my generation, through Roberto Bolaño, another Latin American artist fixed in a rearward gaze, unable to step out a door without leaving something behind. Denkbilder is, to my eye, Marín’s most emotional film. Flashing superimpositions — of rooftops, zoo animals, a woman’s face, silhouetted — imbricate scenes spanning the Atlantic. The film’s amber glow (Denkbilder is a rare color offering from Marín) aches of a bygone summer, and his manic structure translates these fleeting moments as the delirious state of dislocation typically known as nostalgia. This is also the emotional core of Cortàzar’s and Bolaño’s fiction, the ache of the time that’s slipped past continuing to accumulate.
Materia vibrante (2024) — or, translated, Vibrant Matter — for its first section, would seem to access a tranquility relatively novel in Marín’s filmography. A series of mostly still frames are allowed to proceed undisturbed: we look through gaps in leafy trees, at laundry hanging between apartment buildings, ducks floating idly in the water. A short fade to black bookends each image. Initially unobtrusive windy tones emitting unobtrusively slowly gain decibels on the soundtrack. A tension becomes apparent in the procession — a fluctuating balance in each image between the manmade and the natural. Through the trees we spied the peak of a roller coaster’s trajectory; between the dominant residential buildings, a few sidewalk-bound trees craned for sunlight; a disconcerting stream of foam passed under the idle ducklings. We emerge in the forest, and the windy tones on the optical track have suddenly achieved gale force. At once, the tranquil pose is discarded, and Marín zooms frantically on a single tree in the forest, as if urging, begging, the viewer to look.
Of Angelus Novus, wherein overlapping images of sun-dappled waves interspersed with two people walking in a field, fireworks exploding overhead, Marín offered a description: “Sentimentally turbulent images prompted unconsciously by the end of times… At some point I will have no choice than to call this film a political film.” 10 years past this point, things have evidently progressed. Despite Kodak’s unveiling of a new Super 8 camera retailing at $5,845 USD, the situation of low-budget analog filmmakers has not dramatically improved. On a more macro level, the new Argentine president Javier Milei “promised” not to meet reduced emission targets by 2030, and, in a new omnibus bill introduced last month, proposed scaling back legislation regulating the country’s protected forestry zones. The past continues to accumulate.
Following the manic break halfway through Materia vibrante, Marín returns for a moment to the relaxed pace of the opening section, lingering on these images of trees that are punctuated with fades to black. But the rupture redoubles: the virtuosic superimpositions that have heretofore pervaded his filmography refract the urban landscape with all of Dziga Vertov’s manic energy and none of his optimism. It’s a late period city symphony that Marín prefers to term “a mausoleum for our present existence.” We see a long shot of a town double across a verdant hillside, traffic scenes layering atop one another, and apartment buildings folded into origami, colonizing every grain of negative space.
Materia vibrante’s tension derives from a duality — the slowness inherent to “process cinema” and the urgency demanded by the climate crisis. The film closes with two uncorrupted shots: one showing footage on an iPhone, and the other a statue of Pegasus against the night sky. The attendant feeling is not one of resignation, but of knowingly futile effort in the face of obsolescence. Speaking further of Klee’s Angelus Novus, Benjamin adds: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” — DYLAN ADAMSON
The spanning dramaturgy of an ensemble piece is often a precarious balancing act, determined by the intentions of a writer who seeks to utilize the cast in a manifold of manners. Examples include (a) ciphers onto which the film’s concepts are projected, their responses to given circumstances articulating the thematic crux of the work, e.g., Clement Virgo’s Rude; (b) idiosyncratic personalities, whose robust dramatic heft carries a connective tissue which is often more vaguely adaptive to the characters’ respective situations, not dissimilar to (a) but far more malleable and slippery in its handling of character mechanics, e.g., Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour}; or (c) the total flattening of character into mere invocations of thematic intention, where character might as well be plot — see, for instance, Garry Marshall’s holiday extravaganzas, romps of next to no import. Toshihiko Tanaka’s ensemble work Rei premieres this month in Rotterdam’s main Tiger Competition, and it is a work comfortably situated in category (b), although it faces difficulties unifying the many narrative strands attached to its four distinct characters, culminating in a collection of the forked plotted trajectories that are rendered rather arbitrarily.
Rei states its intentions from the very beginning, a title card elucidating the meaning behind “rei”: a kanji character that has no direct meaning in and of itself, yet simultaneously carries many disparate meanings that blur its margins. “Rei” can only find material meaning in relation to another character, in the combination of kanji characters to produce legibility. Certainly, the narrative that unfurls here is indicative of this sentiment: Matsushita Hikari (Takara Suzuki), a stable 30-something company employee, finds another to fill a void she has heretofore occupied with a parade of theatre plays attended in solitude. This other is Mato Utsumi (played by Tanaka), a deaf landscape photographer whose images in the performance playbills attract Matsushita. The two ignite a relationship whose undulations affect not only the monotonous stability of their lives, but of those around them too.
Cheating husbands, repressed homosexuality, the implosive exhaustion of single motherhood, mental and physical breakdowns, the compulsion for violence as an expression of irreconcilable woes — there’s a staggering degree of crisis explored over Rei’s three-hour runtime, and yet these hours don’t feel at all sufficient. Tanaka’s investigation into the recesses of isolation only ever feels veiled, cordoned off to a fringe superficiality that so often confuses need and desire. Dialogue is always centered around dramaturgy, incessantly punctuating the goals of each scene and their place within the larger matrix of relations. All the while, these relations manifest in platitudinous existentialism, pointedly reflexive of the given happenings and disinterested in anything outside of those boundaries. This lack of complexity is not augmented, of course, but underlined by IFFR’s profile of the director, whose bio concludes with: “The displayed intersection between the beauty of nature and the dark side of humanity is a crucial characteristic in Toshihiko’s work.” Such a prescribed binary succinctly describes the dynamics ladder throughout Rei. It would also be irresponsible not to note how the project’s use of disability feels rather condescendingly aestheticizing, its utility appearing to enunciate the dissonance Matsushita feels and therein consistently failing to humanize Mato and his experience with deafness. Tanaka’s debut is a disoriented work, one whose sundry of machinations fails to ever cohere. — ZACHARY GOLDKIND
The tragic history of the Nakba — the Israeli occupation — and the resulting diaspora have led to a distinctive voice among Palestinian experimental filmmakers. A recent generation of artists like Basma Alsharif, Rosalind Nashashibi, and Razan AlSalah have made films that use varied tools, from animation and Google Maps to elusive metaphors and genre film, to express the violence of displacement and the longing for a stolen homeland.
The films of Kamal Aljafari work in this mode, seeking poetically indirect means to express the inexpressible: the ruin of one’s home, a people who exist outside of place and time, the thousand daily incursions through which life has been stolen from Palestine. His latest, UNDR, is constructed largely from wide shots of the landscape, culled from mostly archival material. The camera pans across the landscape from a helicopter or tripod, and observes its controlled demolition. The footage is transparently a hodgepodge cobbled from a variety of sources, and much of it features rocks, ruins, and holes or caverns in the cliffs.
Interspersed throughout are brief shots of farmers at work and of kids playing hide and seek. A girl’s voice can be heard against the empty, rugged hills as she counts to one hundred; a woman hums idly as she works. Beginning from a perspective of calculated distance and austerity, the film becomes heartbreaking precisely in its impersonality as it circles around its themes. The obscured traces of human presence, hidden by montage or the nature of a kids’ game, take on terrible gravitas as they contrast with dozens of explosions that tear apart and reshape the land. The dominant overhead perspective is a constant reminder of the state of surveillance and control of the Palestinians who remain on their land, a living contradiction for an occupying power that seeks to erase a people not just from their land, but from history and memory. UNDR is a collage of images from the past, but it reveals terrible truths that are all too relevant for the present. — ALEX FIELDS