Your fearless film critic, Alice, was getting ready to cover the new edition of the AFI Fest which, this year again, was Presented by Audi and offering free tickets to the audiences – the former explaining the latter. Taking place in the historical-touristic centre of Hollywood from November 3 to 10, the festival had invited Pedro Almodóvar as Guest Artistic Director, and, of the 21 features he directed since the alluringly titled Folle… folle… fólleme Tim! (Fuck… Fuck… Fuck Me, Tim!, 1978) starring the great Carmen Maura, he elected to show La Ley del Deseo (Law of Desire, 1987), also a showcase for Maura’s talent (she plays the transsexual man-to-woman brother of the protagonist, later seduced by a high-strung Antonio Banderas). “It was,” writes Almodóvar in the program notes, “our debut as producers, the first film by El Deseo Produciones, the company I founded with my brother, which has since then produced all my films… If Law of Desire had failed, my career would have been very different and less free… But the film was a success. Law of Desire is a fundamental title in my career. Even though we made it on a very modest budget, I don’t think I’d change a single shot, and not because it’s perfect, but because I recognize myself in all of them.” He also selected four films from his dream repertoire, including Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959) by Georges Franju, this “exquisite gem of horror cinema” (PA, program notes) in which he acknowledges an influence on La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In, 2011), as well as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge (1970), Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) and Edmund Goulding’s baroque (and truly terrifying) cult film, Nightmare Alley (1947).

Down the Rabbit Hole
(Wonder-Mall, mumblecore and Panahi)

The Festival’s Opening Night is resplendent with the World Premiere of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, boasting Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench and Amies Hammer on the red carpet. Alice stays home. The Press Office had told her that her press pass did not warrant admission to galas. However, they sent her an e-mail inviting her to apply to see J. Edgar, adding that “the number of tickets is extremely limited.” Two days before the screening, Alice is informed that she is not among the happy few. To avoid further humiliation, as she really wants to hear Almodóvar talk about Law of Desire before its revival gala screening of November 7, she secures a ticket online. The order is processed. O Joy!

On November 4, she ventures out to Hollywood Boulevard between Highland and Orange to get her pass. This is prime real estate, vintage Hollywood. Its crown jewel is the 1,152 seat Grauman’s Chinese Theater, built in 1927, with its Chinese pagoda and the 200-odd footprints, handprints and autographs left by celebrities on the concrete of its courtyard, which opens onto the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2,400 stars with the name of Hollywood legends embedded in the sidewalk). Next door, the Kodak Theater, home of the Academy Awards; across the street, at the corner of Orange, the no-less legendary Roosevelt Hotel, also built in 1927 (but in typical California Spanish-style), headquarters of AFI Fest for the duration. This is where you go to pick up your press pass. Before you can do this, you have to park in a giant lot located in the bowels of the overblown, imposing and controversial Hollywood-and-Highland complex, flanked by the developers with two giant elephant statues, in homage, they say to D. W. Griffith’s (in)famous set for Intolerance. This oversized shopping mall, where you can find anything from high-end clothing to fast food, and also, almost as an afterthought, a multiple-screen theatre reeking of stale popcorn, opened in 2001 thanks to the funding provided by the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles to a private developer, Trizec Properties Inc., that later sold it, at a loss, to the CIM Group (“this is the Intolerance curse,” thinks Alice, “they shouldn’t have put those elephants there; besides, they’re an eye-sore.”) The CIM Group, in turn, manages the TV Guide building (in which its headquarters are located) as well as a number of high-rent retail buildings on the Santa Monica Promenade. The activities of the CRAs, which have been long-term leasing (read: “selling”) public property, and then providing additional public funds to private interests under the guise of “improving” (for whom?) a neighbourhood, have come under scrutiny and been the subject of hot political debates – to the point that Jerry Brown, California’s new governor, did eventually put them out of business at the end of 2011. It may have been already too late. The “redevelopment” of Hollywood and Highland, in particular, was criticised for being poorly planned, badly designed, unfriendly to people on foot, and downright ugly.

How ugly and unfriendly it is poor Alice has to experience right away. It is impossible to cross Hollywood Boulevard from the Roosevelt Hotel to try to gain access to the Chinese Six Theater, for the sidewalk is closed, to block the hoi polloi from molesting the red-carpeted entourage of Luc Besson’s The Lady. “O dear, I shall be late,” despairs Alice who had been hoping to make a 5:00 pm screening. Finally, she finds a way to Wonder-Mall. Where is the theatre? Nobody knows, and nobody cares. It’s California, the escalators unfold in open air, which means it’s very draughty. Here is another food court. She seems to remember that the Chinese Six is tucked away in one of the floors, at the same level as a friendly Middle Eastern fast food restaurant…

Indeed, she arrives fifteen minutes late for the screening of Green, Sophia Takal’s first film, which had made a splash at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival – but from the first images she is hooked and effortlessly follows the plot. A young couple of New York intellectuals, Sebastian (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Genevieve (Kate Lyn Sheil) move to the countryside so Sebastian can blog about his experiments in organic farming. The fluid camera naturally espouses the most minute movements of their interaction, this messy mixture of sexual attraction, awkwardness and emotional dependency, while rendering the eerie beauty of the landscape; the performances exude a too-rare flavour of intimacy and understatement, something as close to “truthfulness” as you can find in cinema. Sebastian and Genevieve soon find out that they are not alone in the house they sublet; through a possible mix-up, a vivacious – and a bit invasive – local girl (played by Takal) is their roommate. As an actor, Takal has starred in some of Joe Swanberg’s films, as well as in the excellent Gabi on the Roof in July (2010), directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, which she also produced and directed (and which, and not coincidentally, features Kate Lyn Sheil as well).

Apart from the films of Andrew Bujalski, this is – truth be told – Alice’s first real plunge into mumblecore cinema, (1) and Takal is a captivating white rabbit to follow. Green exudes some of the most seductive mumblecore features: a nonchalant shapelessness; a blurring of the boundaries between the different “functions” of cinema, as an actor can write or direct, a director act and shoot the film; another blurring of the boundaries, between “acting”, “performing”, “playing oneself”, “being oneself” or “pretending that one is being oneself”; a blending of documentary and fiction, or, rather, a contamination, expansion, distortion of the narrative form by an almost-Deleuzian sense of “situation”. All of this is made possible, on the one hand, by true collaborations, and, on the other hand, by a skilful use of low-cost digital technology. Long takes and small budgets. To these paradigms Takal adds a genuinely zany female touch, a sense of how female bodies and female emotions shape a narrative space. In real life, Takal and Levine are a couple, Sheil is their roommate, and it is Takal who has to deal with issues of jealousy. Green – which starts as a trip to Eden, flirts with the tropes of horror cinema (an eerie soundtrack suggests that a monster may be hidden behind all this shrubbery), espouses a slow meditative editing rhythm inspired by Ozu and ends up in a true American nightmare – uses the realism of performances and situations to enter the private hell of one woman (here played by Sheil) consumed by jealousy. Takal’s tour de force is to have fed the film with her own feelings and then attributed them to the woman against whom they were originally directed. A muted energy emanates from the performers who are recreating a distorted version of situations they may have experienced, and the film unfolds like a slow implosion. The camera (held by Nandan Rao, who is directing Takal in one of her next films) is expertly choreographed, demonstrating that the performances are all but improvised, that their “naturalness” is the result of a sublimation.

The next screening, In Film Nist (This is not a Film, 2011) is another acute example of how digital means of recording are creating more ambiguous, less easily decipherable vanishing points in our collective representation of “reality”. Confined to house arrest and awaiting his trial, Iranian director Jafar Panahi secures the help of his friend documentarist Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to film “the nothing” – these grey hours in-between as Tehran gets ready to celebrate the New Year. Panahi’s family is visiting relatives, he stays home, stuck between the telephone, his books, his middle-class comfort now devoid of meaning, and, to provide instances of comic relief, a pet iguana of imposing size and deportment, that seems to belong to one of his children and with which he entertains a cautious relationship. If there is nothing to film, in this no-exit situation, what is, then, the function of the off-screen? Instead of being eventually revealed by a cut or a change in the camera angle, Panahi’s off-screen is only manifested aurally, as a series of disparate sound sources that French theoretician Michel Chion would define as an acousmêtre (the origin of the sound will never be visualised). (2) On the telephone, the lawyer does not give him much hope; supporters call to comfort him; in the streets below, the crowd makes jolly noises; at the door, an obnoxious female neighbour tries to convince him to take care of her no-less-obnoxious little dog, while she’s going out to celebrate (he eventually refuses). This in turn changes the film’s découpage as it eventually comes to structure itself around two points of emptiness, two instances of the void. When Mirtahmasb finally arrives, he follows Pahani with his digital camera; they drink tea in the kitchen and kvetch; the texture of the film gets more complicated as Panahi interlaces his friend’s footage with grainy shots taken with his iPhone. A moment of crisis is reached when Pahani asks for the impossible. They’re going to shoot the screenplay of a film that he had been forbidden to make, and, of this non-existent work, he chooses a no-exit situation. The rug in his living room becomes the floor of a humble working-class house. Here is the kitchen, here the girl’s room, here the alleyway where she sees the young man. Against her traditional parents wishes, the heroine is set on studying an arts university, so she ends up being locked up at home. On the phone, her elder, married sister is discussing her marital problems. Panahi mimics the gestures, the movements of his protagonists, aware that, even if the film had been authorised, the shooting would have been problematic. In Iran, you can only film domestic scenes if the women shown are appropriately veiled – which, in real life, in the privacy of their home, they wouldn’t be. Panahi’s pantomime allows the young girl to move unveiled, unmolested, embodied under the features of a middle-aged man who is himself locked in his home. The vertigo of possible identification and impossible images at some point becomes too much for Panahi, who stops the whole thing. “If we could tell a film, when why make a film?”

In the last sequence, after Mirtahmasb has left, the doorbell rings again. No, it’s not the neighbour with the dog, it’s a clean-cut young man, who, on this New Year’s Eve, replaces his relative, the building’s janitor, to collect the trash. Panahi strikes a conversation with him – the young man is a student, who does a collection of odd jobs just to get by. As he’s busy with his chores, the only way to continue talking is to go with him in the elevator – a violation of Panahi’s house arrest terms. He does so, though, taking the video camera with him, and, in a space even more confined than the girl’s bedroom, films the exchange which keeps being interrupted every time the elevator stops on one floor and trash is picked up, accumulating in the lift cage. As it turns out, the young man was in the building the night Panahi was arrested, but what interests the filmmaker are the snippets of a life, so different from his, that can be gathered through this fractured conversation. The young man’s personality is smooth, pleasant, sincere and, because of this, neither Panahi nor the spectator can be sure of the veracity of what he says. It has, certainly, a connection with reality, but he is also performing, for an older man whose fame and fate he is aware of, for his 15 minutes in front of the video camera. This may not be “a film” but, marked by the urgency of the political situation, a shattering reflexion of what “filming” may (or may not) represent.

It’s very late when Alice leaves Wonder-Mall. The food court is closed, the empty hallways cold. In the only women’s bathroom that is still open, a flurry of young women with short skirts, deep décolletage and high boots are milling about. Outside, a crowd of young men (pimps or boyfriends) and similarly clad women are gathering, speaking Russian. Near Alice’s car in the semi-deserted parking lot, a blonde is sleeping, exhausted, in a cute compact whose passenger door is wide open. Three other girls glanced in the bathroom arrive, get in the car and drive off, as in a distant echo of the Hollywood Boulevard night scene in David Lynch’s Inland Empire.

The Queen’s Croquet Ground
(Wonder-Beach and Isztambul)

The next day Alice drives through a series of freeways on her way to the beach community of Santa Monica, where every year the American Film Market (AFM) attracts more than 8,000 representatives of the film industry. The hub of the AFM is located in two adjacent hotels on Ocean Avenue, the Loews and the Merigot, their luxury rooms transformed into offices, and the screenings (more than 400, including 69 world premieres) are spilling onto the three commercial cinema multiplexes of the Third Street Promenade, one of California’s most successful pedestrian areas-cum-shopping malls. For a few years now, the AFM has been scheduled to overlap with AFI Fest, with some films playing in both events, in order, says the press release, to “provide the only concurrent festival-market event in North America.” Stuck in traffic, Alice ponders this, well aware that the Santa Monica-Hollywood commute makes it virtually impossible for out-of-town, car-less and busy Market participants to attend AFI Fest; she wonders if the fact that the CIM group, this fearless renovator of American urban lands, also revamped, owns and operates a number of retail buildings on the Third Street Promenade, (3) has anything to do with it. The AFM, it is estimated, brings about $15 million a year to Santa Monica businesses. (4)

Whatever it is, while you hear a lot of accents at the Loews, Russian girls in mini-clothes are nowhere to be found, and California dressed-down style yields to black suits for both genders, designer ties for men and stylish high heels for women. Dining areas with over-priced and well-cooked dishes to go have been set up. Expensive fine coffee is available. The suites are comfortable and tastefully decorated; doors can be closed for private meetings where a lot of money changes hand. You park on the beach, with the families, the lovers, the joggers and the surfers, and a shuttle picks you up, unless you prefer a lovely walk in the sea breeze. The vulgarity and pageantry of Hollywood are far away, but the lobby and the hallways look like a noisy beehive, with the ever-present buzzing of hundreds of cell phones.

Founded in 1981, and boasting on its website (5) to be “the world’s largest film market”, the AFM is produced by the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA), a membership trade organisation representing independent film and television producers from the world over. (6) As the film industry is in flux, no matter which “territory” you are talking about, the meaning of the word “independent” has changed as well. In the US context, it meant any producing unit functioning outside the studio system. However, among the 400+ exhibitors, one finds, year after year, Focus Features International, which, starting as a merger of small New-York based independent companies, was sold in 2004 to General Electric to form the arthouse division of NBC Universal Pictures. What matters in this case, is that Focus produces and distributes “edgy” films that reflect a form of “indie” sensibility. In December 2011, they released two films at both end of the spectrum, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Dees Rees’s Pariah, a small production about growing up black, female and queer in Brooklyn which, revealed in Sundance in 2011, took almost one year before hitting the US screens in a few select cities. (7) A British-French production, Tinker, while being English-spoken, is, as a foreign movie, listed in the same “niche” category as an US indie (these two films were not presented at the Market, deals on them having been made months previously; Focus’s main activity in attending AFM was to sell the distribution rights for Last Days on Mars by Irish director Ruairi Robinson, slated to start shooting in early 2012). In US marketing parlance, one now uses the word “independent” to describe “a foreign movie”. IFTA’s definition of “independent” has become even looser at an international level, since habitués of the market include companies that are major players in their own countries, such as Gaumont (France), Shochiku (Japan), Media Asia (Hong Kong) and The Huayi Brothers (People’s Republic of China); in addition, Chinese cinema, for example, is represented by a government agency, China Film Promotion International, which means that the films presented at the Market have all passed state censorship; none of the truly independent Chinese productions is shown at the AFM (the filmmakers can’t afford it!), unless it has been picked up by an international distributor or sales agent such as the Amsterdam-based Fortissimo.

As usual, Fortissimo is one of the more active exhibitors, with a slate of 10 films from Asia and Europe, starting with the Taiwanese block-office success Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale by Weite Sheng, (8) as well as films from Japan, Vietnam, India, Iran, The United Arab Emirates, Canada and the United States. Yet it’s Fortissimo Hungarian entry, Iztambul by Ferenc Török, that intrigues Alice, for it stars the beautiful and mysterious Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege, whom she remembered as an alluring echo to Philippe Garrel’s dead love, the mythical goddess Nico, in his semi-autobiographical J’entends plus la guitare (1991) and as Lou Castel’s evasive lover in La naissance de l’amour (1993). Twenty years later, ter Steege has retained her allure, the mixture of enigma, poise and wounded sensibility projected by her younger self. Always at ease in a multiplicity of languages, she plays a Hungarian middle-class housewife, who suddenly finds it unbearable to be the victim of what the male protagonists of La naissance de l’amour were doing: sleeping with women half their age. Her husband, Janos, leaves home to move in with one of his students; meanwhile her daughter’s pregnancy becomes complicated, maybe dangerous. Faced with this double crisis, Katalin refuses to be “noble” and has a spectacular breakdown, walking through the streets dishevelled and without shoes or money. Then, in a no-less spectacular about-face, she collects herself, escapes from the mental ward, returns home for a change of clothes, her cash and her credit cards, and then uses her good looks and a truck-driver’s fondness for blondes to hitch a ride across the border – that means, through the glass darkly, or at least in the territory of “The Other”, i.e. Turkey. Hungary is a member of the European Union – and, like most countries from the former Eastern bloc, has worked very hard to integrate itself into the grand narrative of Western neo-capitalist modernity. On the other hand, the European Union has so far rejected Turkey’s application – mostly due to a certain unease in considering that a Muslim country – even currently run by a secular government – could be part of “Europe”. In addition, Turkish immigration throughout Western Europe is similar to what Algerian immigration was in France in the 1970s, or Latino immigration in the US: they are often illegal, confined to menial, difficult and underpaid jobs, and the objects of racist prejudice.

Katalin steps onto a bus, and ends up in a simpatico guest house in Istanbul, interacting with kindly old men, until she meets another guest of the hotel, Halil (Turkish actor/singer Yavuz Bingol), a middle-aged foreman away from his family on a construction site. Of course the man is married. Yet desire creeps between the two, gently at first – chance meetings in the hallway, glances from one balcony to the other. In Istanbul, to the dismay of her family and husband – first concerned then downright outraged – Katalin relearns who she is, and what she wants, but, most importantly in this open-ended narration, what she does not want.

The Mock Turtle Story
(More mumblecore)

To get back to Hollywood from Santa Monica on a Saturday night, better avoid the freeways. Alice takes meandering Pico Avenue, gets lost when trying to hook up to Highland, finds her way again, and drives north back to Wonder-Mall parking lot, a not-so-enchanted journey that takes about 75 minutes. She arrives in time for the screening of the critically acclaimed The Color Wheel by another mumblecore director, Alex Ross Perry. “Did you recognise me at the beginning of Green? I was playing a Philip Roth expert…” “I am so sorry,” says Alice, ashamed at having missed Ross Perry’s five minutes of fame by arriving late the day before. Nothing much was missed, as it turns out, since Ross Perry plays one of the two protagonists in his own film, a nerdy brother called Colin reluctantly involved in the messy life of his extroverted sister, JP (played by his co-writer, actress/stand-up comedienne Carlen Altman). Beautifully shot in black and white, and favouring minutely designed long takes – as a conscious homage to some of the directors Ross Perry admires, such as Philippe Garrel – The Color Wheel playfully hovers between abstraction, realism with a faux-improvised feel, and New York Jewish humour – a staple in Altman’s comedic routine. (9) The vertigo created by the plurality of functions – the screenwriters enacting a “version of themselves” onscreen – is here subsumed by bringing cinematic rigour to a higher standard. Ross Perry penned the script, then forwarded it to Altman who rewrote her lines but then during the shooting no improvisation took place.

As JP manipulates Colin to go with her on a road trip of sorts throughout the North-East of the US, so she can pick up the stuff she has left in the home of her former professor/lover, as the mismatched pair of siblings keep getting on each other’s nerves and getting into socially awkward situations, the ineffable quality of the “family ties that bind” slowly emerges. It is funny, it is annoying, it is dark, it is unexpected and unconventional – and yet, the elegance of the mise en scène makes us take a detached look at the sexual situation that ends the film without concluding it. The shot, the performances and the content are a tour de force, because Ross Perry and Altman know exactly where they are going with their material. Take care of the sense, and the sounds (as well as the images) will take care of themselves.

The Pool of Tears
(Passage to India, Passage Through Albania)

The next day, Alice returns to Wonder-Beach, equipped with a ticket for a Hindi-language film called Michael by first-time director Ribhu Dasgupta, which she thought to be also playing at the AFI Fest. Shot in the mean streets, waterfront and apartment buildings of Dasgupta’s native town, Kolkata (Calcutta), the film does not integrate the different genres it is flirting with (realism and hyper-realism, psychological thriller with a twinge of horror and Bollywood melodrama) tightly enough to be entirely successful – but the soulful performance of Naseeruddin Shah – considered the greatest actor in India (10) – the sincerity and energy at work in the story-telling, the sheer craft of producer Anurag Kashyap (11), the love and skills in which Somak Mukherjee’s camera (12) portrays the city, make it endearing and fascinating to watch. Years after having accidentally shot a young boy during a demonstration, former policeman Michael has been let go of the force (the same government who had asked him to shoot at the crowd now finds him an embarrassment). He makes a living of sorts by pirating Bollywood movies for an unsavoury gang, with the help of a dwarf projectionist – which prompts some of the most interesting scenes, as we witness the minute, fascinating details of how movie pirating is done in India. A widower, Michael dotes on his little boy, but is afraid not to be able to protect or provide for him anymore for he is losing his eyesight. Then, anonymous phone calls start, threatening to exact vengeance on his son for the life once lost in the demonstration. Michael’s guilt and paranoia increase, the shots become darker and more expressionist. Even in the midst of some narrative excesses (mostly involving the dwarf or the sleazy landlord), Naseeruddin Shah’s gaze commands the screen and keeps us riveted.

Back at the AFI Fest, Alice realises her mistake. There is indeed a film called Michael in the Festival, but it’s by the Austrian director Markus Schleinzer (and involves another sort of claustrophobic relationship between a man and a young boy). So much for cursorily glancing at schedules and program notes. Yet, the Austrian Michael is an arthouse darling, with a US distributor, easy to catch back later, while the Indian Michael was a genuine surprise. No time, anyhow, for self-berating, as Alice runs to the screening of Joshua Marston’s Falja e Gjakut (The Forgiveness of Blood), curiously slotted in the World Cinema section. Indeed, the film was shot in Albania, in the Albanian language and with Albanian non-professional actors, and, at the time of the AFI Fest, it was a major box-office success in Albania. The positioning of the film in that section, however, had more to do with Oscars (i.e. American) considerations than with internationalism. Marston had hoped that his film could represent Albania in the Best Foreign Language Film competition. Indeed, having won a Silver Bear in Berlin, The Forgiveness of Blood seemed to stand a good chance, but in Vancouver, Alice had seen an intriguing film called Amnistia (Amnesty), directed by Bujar Alimani, who is Albanian. The recipient of multiple awards, including a FIPRESCI Prize, Amnesty, like The Forgiveness of Blood, delves into antiquated customs of honour and blood revenge – but it ends up there, while for Marston it is a starting point. Alimani’s tone is classically Albanian, in the grand tradition of the writer Ismail Kadare: an ironic look at socialist and post-socialist absurdities subsumed into an ultimate sense of the tragic. In Amnesty a man and a woman meet while visiting their respective jailed spouses during conjugal visits. The amour fou that grows between them foregrounds the precariousness of the female condition in Albania, and ends badly when – other bizarre inconsistency of a struggle with a newfound democracy – a general amnesty is decreed and their spouses are released. Alimani won his impassionate plea to represent Albania at the Academy Awards, “not for personal purposes”, but to insure that Albanian cinematographers are “represented at a world level.” (13) On the other hand, as Marston argued, in this era of globalised film production, the “nationality” of a film is a murky issue (shot with an all-Albanian cast and crew, Amnesty is nevertheless a co-production between Albania, Greece and France.) The idea of Best Foreign Film Category is the one that may be outdated.

Marston, who returns to feature filmmaking after a few years on television (he directed episodes for Six Feet Under, Law and Order and In Treatment) approaches this Albanian story through the prism of his own interest: the vulnerability, malleability of young people in different cultures. As demonstrated in his critically acclaimed Maria Full of Grace (shown in the US Dramatic Competition at Sundance 2004), in which a pregnant Columbian teenager becomes a “mule” to import drugs into the US, Marston has a fine eye for these moments of crisis and transition that are experienced by teenagers throughout the world, as “youth culture” becomes globalised and pervasive. Rudina (Sindi Lacej) and her brother Nik (Tristan Halilaj) are “normal” high school students, with cell phones, buddies and a social life. Their family makes a living delivering bread, and one day their father gets into a scuffle with a local farmer about a right of passage over what he considers his property. Tension escalates, the farmer is killed, the kids’ uncle is arrested and their father is on the run. Blood feud between the two families exacts a high price: the male relatives of the murderer cannot leave the house until the “debt” is paid, or they might be killed themselves. Nik and his little brother cannot return to school, and Rudina, a brilliant student, is pressured by her mother to give up her studies so her brothers don’t feel too bad. Besides, she is now in charge of the bread delivery, driving the horse cart on dangerous country roads where people view her with hostility.

Marston takes the notion of “rite of passage” seriously; while demonstrating real sympathy for the character of Rudina, he eventually shifts the centre of gravity toward Nik, and offers him a solution that was not available to the protagonists of Amnesty. They had discovered that they could not leave home, that society has ways of catching back with you. Nik represents hope. At the price of an extreme sacrifice – he will never set foot in the family house again – he is allowed to leave unharmed, and start a new life somewhere else. If it sounds a little bit like the American dream, it’s because it is – an American dream shared by thousands, millions of teenagers around the world. Marston pits Nik against a society closed upon itself – he may end up selling vegetables in the streets of Tirana, or illegally cross the border to Greece, or try to swim his way to Italy. Co-written with Albanian co-producer Andamion Murataj, The Forgiveness of Blood is a delicately crafted ensemble piece with superb acting and a keen sense for the small details that define a place and a culture. It does speak Albanian, but with an ever-slight American accent.

The Lobster Quadrille
(Mumblecore Trilogy)

The next screening is Silver Bullets, the first part of The Full Moon Trilogy directed by another mumblecore filmmaker, Chicago-based Joe Swanberg. AFI Fest will show a different film every night, and, on Wednesday 9, a marathon screening of all three films, Art History and The Zone, following Silver Bullets.

Each screening was graced with a highly pleasurable Q&A session with Swanberg, who is both modest and unassuming – “I don’t expect to become rich from filmmaking” – and extremely precise about his goals, his creative role and his cinephilic inspiration. Because Swanberg plays the role-of-a-filmmaker in all three films, he’s sometimes been accused of “narcissism”, which misses the point. What the Trilogy strives to capture is this moment of cinematic vertigo when reality, the recording of reality, the representation of reality, the editing of the representation, then the watching of the editing, collapse into one impossible, elusive vanishing point. As Lacan noted, it is precisely in the vanishing point that the subject can anchor himself/herself in the “picture”, so Swanberg offers us nonchalant morality tales about the construction of subjectivity and how sexuality can undermine these subjective constructions and throw attempts at representation into an abyme. There are a number of scenes in which a young woman – still the object of representation par excellence – is shown having sex, being penetrated by a male protagonist. The long takes and unobtrusive camerawork allowed by digital modes of recording open disturbing questions: is this a documentary take and is she really having sex? Or is she faking for the sake of the film? But then, as she is faking, maybe she is yet experiencing something? So, what are we watching? Does she know herself how far she is going in the mimesis?

A quietly ambitious artist, Swanberg contextualises these questions into an ontological reflection on the moving image – pondering, in particular, whether or not cinema “uses” the bodies it puts on the screen, and what happens when these bodies, instead of being “cattle” à la Hitchcock, are the willing, playful and determined accomplices of the filmic illusion. This questioning also redefines the notion of “frame”, not only the physical boundaries of the moving image, but what we define by “a film” with a beginning, a middle and an end, a work of art that is one step removed from reality. Intent on blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion, The Full Moon Trilogy also dissolves the notion of “individual film” into a continuous ribbon (a Moebius strip, even), in which characters and situations reappear under another guise, echo and mirror each other without a definitive “end” in sight.

In Silver Bullets, Swanberg casts himself as Ethan, a low-budget filmmaker whose girlfriend Claire (Kate Lyn Sheil, the rising star of mumblecore) is asked by Ben, a horror filmmaker (played by Ti West, himself the director of such hip classics of the genre as Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever [2009] – a film he disowned – The House of the Devil [2009] and The Innkeepers [2010]) to appear in his next film. Plagued by an unhealthy mixture of sexual and professional jealousy, Ethan plunges into self-doubt and depression, and retaliates by casting Claire’s best friend, the actress Charlie (Amy Seimetz, another figure of mumblecore, a talented actress/director who also produced the film) as his girlfriend in the autobiographic “art film” he was initially working on with Claire. As Claire has heavy werewolf make-up applied to her face, and is introduced to various props of the trade (guns, threatening mirrors), the “monster” in her is unleashed and the couple dissolves. Eschewing traditional ending, the film concludes, months later during an unrelated country outing, with a long-held close-up of Sheil silently crying, that is as daring, disturbing (and beautiful) as the final sequence of Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’Amour (1994).

While in Silver Bullets, the protagonist is haunted by what he cannot see (Claire’s interaction with Ben), Art History explores another figure of the intertwinement between sexual jealousy and mise en scène. Still played by Swanberg, our filmmaker (here called Sam) now seeks control of the woman he desires, Juliette (Josephine Decker, who also contributed to the dialogue) by directing her in sex scenes…. with another man, Eric (Kent Osborne, who co-wrote the screenplay with Swanberg and Decker and executive produced the film). As this is an extremely cheap film, in-between takes Juliette and Eric are often left alone in the room, naked under the bed covers, and start developing warm feelings for each other, which upsets Sam. As a result, he spends less and less time on the set, pondering instead about the shots he has just taken by watching them on his MacBook and exchanging comments about the nature of filmmaking with a friendly actress, Hilary (Kris Swanberg, Joe’s wife) and his cinematographer, Bill (played by the real cinematographer of Art History, Adam Wingard – he and Swanberg taking turns to shoot or sometimes propping the camera in front of the set-up.)

The Zone (presented at the AFI Fest as a world premiere) develops the comic vein that is always latent in Swanberg’s oeuvre. In a messy apartment occupied by three roommates, Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Sophie (Sophia Takal, the couple playing again another version of themselves) plus the enigmatic Kate (Kate Lyn Sheil), a seductive stranger (filmmaker Kentucker Audley) smilingly endeavour to seduce all three, one after the other, like Terence Stamp in Teorema (1968). The reference is not accidental, but while for Pasolini pansexuality was a way of breaking off with bourgeois conventions, saying “fuck you” to the moral order, and, in the process, meeting a “jealous God”, for Swanberg and his collaborator, it is – as incest was in The Color Wheel – a question of “no big deal”. Yet – and this how the film becomes a morality tale, this time ogling more toward Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain (1973)while sexual conducts have become fluid and less inhibited in our time and age, especially for the 30-something generation, feelings still constitute these big blocks of unresolved anxiety, anger, sense of loss, on which the protagonists remain stuck. Hence the second half of the film. With all its “improvised feel”, the first part was entirely scripted by Joe-the-filmmaker; in the second, he discusses what he has just shot with his cast and crew (Levine protesting, “as an actor”, that Audley’s sex scene with him was shorter than the ones he has with the girls) and then tries to design a follow-up, a triangle between Levine, Takal and Sheil. For the director the question is: will Takal manage to play the part while curbing her own jealous feelings? For the audience the question will be: from which layer of Takal’s self as a person and an actress does this eruption of physical violence come from… as she would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance?

A Mad Tea Party
(The King of Shlock, the long wait to nothing)

The next day, Alice returns to Wonder-Beach for an exhilarating screening of Corman World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by 31 year-old African American director Alex Stapleton, which had premiered at Sundance in 2011 and then screened in Cannes to great acclaim. Traditional in form – talking heads, excerpts of films – the documentary, five years in the making, is a labour of love and radiates through the charisma of movie stars such as Jack Nicholson (whom Corman cast in his first film, The Cry Baby Killer, in 1958, and with whom he worked for 20 years), Robert de Niro and Pam Greer, the reigning queen of Blaxploitation, filmmakers of the magnitude of Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme and the Master himself who, born in 1926, turned 85 when the film was completed.

Singleton, who grew up in an artistic family on a diet of non-mainstream films, is particularly sensitive to the “rebellious” and “oppositional” aspects of Corman’s work. From 1955 (date of his first directorial efforts) to 1963, he worked with the great DP Floyd Crosby (1899-1985) who had won an Academy Award for F.W. Murnau’s Tabu 1931) and had shot, among others, Pare Lorentz’s The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) but was virtually blacklisted for his left-wing ideas from the mid-1950s on. (14) With The Intruder (1962), released one year before the March on Washington, he described the deadly effects of racism on a small Southern town. In The Wild Angels (1966), he cast Peter Fonda in a biker’s film three years before Easy Rider: Corman’s films marked an interesting point in US film history, where a teen culture that was going to be tapped on by mass marketing interacted with the oppositional counterculture of the 1960s. For all the “schlocky”, campy or exploitative aspect of his “three-day wonders” (since they were shot in a radically short amount of time) Corman was extremely sophisticated in his approach to cinema as an independent art form. While working as a “hired gun” for American International Pictures (AIP), he founded his own production company, Filmgroup, with his brother Gene in 1959, and then, 1971, a small independently owned production/distribution studio, New World Pictures, that made history. In particular, he secured the US distribution rights of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) and François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975)…. while simultaneously producing Andrew Meyer’s Night of the Cobra Woman (1972), Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972), Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974) and Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975). So Corman may have been the first film professional to link “foreign cinema” with a new indie sensibility.

Singleton celebrates his indomitable spirit, the warm relationship/collaboration he has with his wife Julie, his humour and charm, his energy and curiosity. She follows him in Mexico on the set of the made-for-TV Dinoshark (directed by Kevin O’Neill, 2010). She records him as he takes a stand against Hollywood’s new gigantic budgets. Indeed, it is super-productions like Jaws (1975) that gradually took his films, with their “cheap” visual affects, out of the mainstream. Always outspoken, Corman criticises the dearth of creativity in the new Hollywood, seeing instead reasons for hope in digital culture and the brand of DYI hyper-independent films. The veteran of schlock, the banned Iranian director and the mumblecore filmmakers are, de facto, fighting the same combat.

Then it’s time for Alice to return to Hollywood for Almodóvar’s presentation of The Law of Desire. She arrives more than an hour in advance, but is nervous. A few days ago, she was told that the positive response she had received online was the result of a computer glitch. There are no tickets available online for galas. “Don’t worry,” they had told her, “with your press pass you’ll get in.” So Alice dutifully waits with a bunch of hopefuls, on Orange Street. They wait and they wait. Twenty minutes after the event starts, they are told that nobody in the line will get in. Alice rushes to the entrance of Grauman’s Chinese, tries to plead her case. “I am press, it would mean a lot to me if I could attend the event.” “This movie was released four years ago,” responds the Footman, “there is no need for you to review it.” “Curiouser and curiouser,” says Alice. “Surely, you must be mistaken. This movie was made more than twenty years ago.” Two young men with a heavy Spanish accent also try to get in. They are “friends of Pedro”. They are just coming from the AFM, and got stuck in traffic. Alice nods sympathetically, but now they are told that fire regulations won’t allow anybody to enter. “How am I to get in?” she repeats, aloud. “Are you to get in at all?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.” “But what am I to do?” says Alice. “Anything you like”, says the Footman. So Alice returns to Wonder-Mall, where a kind publicist tells her that the film is about to start, for Almodóvar just finished speaking, and he can offer her a ticket. But she had wanted to hear the talk, and besides, there are these fire regulations that won’t let her in. She consoles herself with shish kebabs at the friendly Middle-Eastern restaurant.

Alice’s Evidence
(Morrison and Tarr on Hollywood Boulevard)

The next day, Alice goes to see Bill Morrison’s Spark of Being, the most experimental film of the AFI Fest (that went on to win the Los Angeles Film Critics Association). Based in New York, Morrison has designed original ways to pursue his passion: working with archival footage, especially “damaged” ones, and to play with the exquisite textures of shapes and colours created by the disintegration of nitrate or celluloid filmstrip. Not unlike the painting and scratching of film of a Brakhage, these alterations create a second narrative hidden in the original mimesis, or totally subvert the cinematic space, turning it into a sort of abstract-expressionist canvas. One way or another, Morrison’s work puts cinematic representation into abyme, forcing the spectators to confront the demons or the unexpected beauty emerging from the most cliched narrative tropes. This is time-consuming, meticulous work, involving months of research, clearance of rights and careful editing. To support his endeavour, Morrison usually partners with musicians, who commission “visuals” to accompany a score, or work with theatre artists in multimedia pieces involving music, screened images and live performance. This insures his independence from the modes of financing prevailing in experimental film circles: certain (limited) grants, teaching jobs… Displaying a flair for the best of contemporary music (his collaborators include Bill Frisell, Michael Gordon, Vijay Iyer, Jóhan Jóhannsson and Todd Reynolds), Morrison has to insure the resilience of his “decaying” images against a wall-to-wall accompaniment. He also manages to insert gaps, breathing moments in the music, often with extreme wit. In Spark of Being, for example, the end of a German country dance unfolds in complete silence. And sometimes, Dave Douglas’s inspired jazz composition (performed by his six-man band, Keystone), when combined with visuals that are even more formidable, sounds like a haunted silence.

Spark of Being is an original re-telling – or an exhilarating deconstruction – of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The Monster is nowhere to be seen (except, maybe, as a lone caped figure in the last, mysterious image), but the film explores the theme of the monstrous, as it starts with an enigmatic shot of a crowd of long-dead men wearing fedoras and gaping at a spectacle off-screen. It then segues into footage from the 1914 Shackleton South Pole expedition, the events being “told” in two different “chapters” (separated by intertitles, as in early cinema) from the point of view of “The Captain” then of “The Traveller”. Images of a ship and icebergs, ship sailing among floating ice, ship stuck on ice field, men driving dog-drawn sleds, the crew’s survival efforts on the vast expanse of snow or on the stranded ship, return in the last ten minutes of the film, bookending it (as in Shelley’s original story). The second time, though, instead of functioning as a narrative device to introduce the Creature, they represent the odd spectacle offered to his eyes. From an object of fear (and desire), the Creature becomes a subject of the gaze, in a setting that underscores the outlandish conditions under which early cinematographers (Frank Hurley in this case) worked, and the harsh determination (madness to some) they displayed to bring these images back. Cinema itself may be the monster, as it begets images are not always in the realm of the visible, but of the imagination. What early cinema was pointing out, in the off-screen, was the heroic conditions of its production. This is an apt metaphor for the revamping of the myth of Frankenstein performed by Morrison and Douglas: it’s not easy to make a man, it’s not easy to make a film. In both cases we have a composite creature “stitched” from disparate parts, some recognisable, some not. Morrison combines barely legible shots (decayed footage) with images partially obscured by various states of decomposition or by an absence of context. The familiar – family pictures, pageantry, educational films – is made uncanny, as in this lovely sequence excerpted from a 1970s soft porn film, in which lovemaking in the wood between two attractive models is artificially degraded, suggesting the innocence of early erotic cinema (did Alice dream, or did she catch a floating moment from Hedy Lamarr’s nude scene in Gustav Machaty’s 1933 Ecstasy?), the lost paradise of an unattainable “normality”.

Earlier, Alice had received an email that an additional screening of Béla Tarr’s A torinói ló (The Turin Horse) was added that same evening in Grauman’s Chinese. She had already seen the film, yet in another shopping mall, a gigantic 12-story affair hosting some of the screenings of the Hong Kong Film Festival. Having made a date to speak with Tarr, she invites Morrison to join her. “I have always missed The Turin Horse,” says Morrison, so they decide to watch the last hour of the film on the spectacular screen. As the Sixth Day starts, father and daughter gradually prepare to die, and they come to say goodbye to the horse. There is no water, and soon no fire and no light. Darkness engulfs their poor dwelling. In the last minute of the film, sitting at the table across each other, they try to eat raw potatoes. You hear the sound made by the man’s teeth on the unappetising texture. You cringe for him. He can’t go on. It is the end. As Stéphane Breton writes, “Tarr describes a world that comes after totalitarianism, after the fall, after the knowledge of pain. For those who have seen communism extend to infinity, this world has a real, sinister existence.” (15)

During the Q&A, Tarr is brilliant, sarcastic, unpredictable. He talks about his choice of locations, his work with the cinematographer. Yes, it is his last film. It expresses what he thinks of the state of the world – it took god six days to create it – and now its undoing takes another six days. He cannot go any further. He’s done. And the melancholy gaze of the horse that knows he is going to die is indeed a muted allusion to Bresson’s Au hasard, Balthazar (1966) minus the spirituality. Hungary’s post-socialist sky is empty. And yet – being cast in the film saved the real horse from the slaughterhouse. “He is happy now.” And Tarr is going to use his production company, T. T. Filmműhely, to help young filmmakers. The world as we know it is coming to an end, but there is always another image to be made.

The Q&A ends very late. Alice, Tarr, Morrison and Adam Hyman, artistic director of the Los Angeles Filmforum, dedicated to showing avant-garde movies, look for a place to hang out. There is an all-night hamburger joint in the ground floor of the Renaissance, but they arrive five minute too late to be able to get a drink – according to California law. Disgusted, Tarr asks for a glass of water, and starts ranting and raving about the United States, where he swears not to return, since they insist on him applying for a visa (“I can go anywhere in the world without a visa”) and getting fingerprinted upon arrival. Alice, a naturalised US citizen, profusely apologises for her country’s misbehaviour in terms of homeland security and liquor regulations. Tarr on Hollywood Boulevard at 2:00 am is a surreal spectacle to behold, a historical irony. In a post-socialist world, the US is not faring so well.

Finally Alice walks back to her car at 3:00 am – again with echoes of Inland Empire in her head. After-party debris, paper cups and pizza plates are pushed away by the wind. The Cheshire Cat who sits on her right shoulder quietly comments: “Oh, you can’t help that, we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. You must be mad, or you wouldn’t have come here.” How right this cat is, thinks Alice. Here we are, film people, skipping dinner and breathing kilometres of exhaust fumes to see a film; displaying a questionable sense of entitlement and being rude to Chicano Footmen when we want to enter a screening, the producers and sponsors convinced they are more deserving than the critics and curators who believe otherwise… And then, at 3:00 am, we still harbour a secret longing for Hollywood and Highland, as the aleph of vintage Hollywood; we become all mushy at seeing the star of a Marilyn Monroe, a Groucho Marx, a Harry Belafonte; we still dream of Santa Monica as the “Bay City” (a town with too much money and too much corruption) described by Raymond Chandler. And, of this madness, this contradiction, this delusion, the AFI/AFM is an accurate reflection. It combines the vulgarity of commercialism, more than a dash of American ethnocentrism and the blissful discovery of unexpected gems. They fulfil a function, we need them, their imperfection is ours. Los Angeles is a fascinating city, but difficult to pin down – so are her festivals – and, for this reason, she has the festivals she deserves.

AFI Fest
3-10 November 2011
website: http://www.afi.com/afifest/

American Film Market
2-9 November 2011
website: http://www.americanfilmmarket.com/

Endnotes

  1. The first mumblecore film was Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) and the term appears to have been uttered for the first time by Bujalski’s sound editor, Eric Masunaga at the 2005 South by Southwest Film Festival. In 2007, two major New York film critics embraced the term, as well as this informal movement of DYI filmmakers. For Jim Hoberman, “First, the 16mm New Wave; then the super-8 No Wave; and now, an American film movement, based on DV: It’s Mumblecore!… These home-made, low-key comedy-dramas of 20-something angst… began turning up in New York, while critical fave Funny Ha Ha achieved something like cult status.” And he concluded, “It’s impossible to predict how the Mumblecorps will mature but, given their immersion in the moment, I suspect that the films they’ve made will age very well.” http://www.villagevoice.com/2007-08-14/film/it-s-mumblecore/ In The New York Times, Dennis Lim concurs: “Specimens of the genre share a low-key naturalism, low-fi production values and a stream of low-volume chatter often perceived as ineloquence. Hence the name: mumblecore… More a loose collective or even a state of mind than an actual aesthetic movement, mumblecore concerns itself with the mundane vacillations of postcollegiate existence… What these films understand all too well is that the tentative drift of the in-between years masks quietly seismic shifts that are apparent only in hindsight. Mumblecore narratives hinge less on plot points than on the tipping points in interpersonal relationships.” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/movies/19lim.html?pagewanted=1&8dpc Mumblecore is not a movement, so some directors are more “in the margins” or “in the centre” of this trend, but one should mention, in addition to Bujalski, Takal, Levine, Alex Ross Perry (see below) and Joe Swanberg (see below), Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair, 2005; Baghead, 2009), Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy, 2009), Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, 2006), Lyn Shelton (Humpday, 2009; Your Sister’s Sister, 2011) and Ry Russo-Young (You Won’t Miss Me, 2009; Nobody Walks, 2012).
  2. See in particular Michel Chion, Audio-Vision, New York: Columbia U Press, 1994, 129-31. Chion links the notion of acousmêtre to that of invisible power. This notion acquires a new meaning in Panahi’s situation, as a man confined to house arrest by powers that are clearly outside his apartment, and whose destiny is dependent on that at the society-at-large which surrounds him.
  3. Sources: http://cimgroup.com/ourFirm/pressReleases.aspx See also: http://www.observer.com/2011/real-estate/cim-city-mystery-california-developer-has-landed
  4. See Variety, posted: Thursday, December 8, 2011, retrieved December 30, 2011: “research from the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that the AFM will contribute more than $100 million to the local economy over the next six years.”
  5. http://www.americanfilmmarket.com/
  6. http://www.ifta-online.org/
  7. On Pariah see my report on the 2011 Sundance Film Festival: http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/festival-reports/take-the-train-and-don’t-look-back-the-30th-sundance-film-festival-and-the-19th-pan-african-film-and-arts-festival/
  8. The version of Seediq Bale shown at the Market was the international cut of 150 minutes, not the original two-part Taiwanese version shown in Vancouver.
  9. Altman also plays a role in Ry Russo-Young’s critically acclaimed second feature, You Won’t Miss Me (2009).
  10. Born in 1950, Naseeruddin Shah has acted in more than 170 films since 1967, mostly in Bollywood, with titles such as Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh (Touch, 1979), Mahesh Bhatt’s Sir (1993) and Chaahat (Desire, 1996), and Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal (2006) – as well as Indian auteur cinema such as Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded, 1980), Rabindra Dharmara’s Chakra (that won a Golden Leopard in Locarno in 1981), Shekhar Kapur’s first film, Masoom (The Innocent, 1983) or Goutam Ghose’s Paar (The Crossing, that won several awards in Venice in 1984). He also appeared in English-language films, such as the Merchant-Ivory production of The Perfect Murder (1988) directed by Zafar Hai, Mira Nair’s Moonsoon Wedding (2001), Stephen Norrington’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and Danny Leiner’s The Great New Wonderful (2005).
  11. Only 39 years old, Anurag Kashyap is already a main force in the revitalisation of the Bengali film industry, as a director, producer, screenwriter and actor. The first feature film he directed, Black Friday (2004), dealt with police repression after the 1993 Bombay bombings, and was shown in Locarno. He also wrote the screenplay of Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005).
  12. A major talent in the Bengali film industry, Somak Mukherjee died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 37, in April 2011, shortly after completing Michael.
  13. http://open.salon.com/blog/kikstad/2011/10/16/a_missed_opportunity_for_albanian_cinema Amnesty did represent Albania for the Oscars, but didn’t end on the short list of the 5 nominated foreign films.
  14. Floyd Crosby was also the father of musicians David Crosby and Ethan Crosby.
  15. Stéphane Breton, “L’homme qui marche. A propos du cinéma de Béla Tarr”, Esprit, December 2011, p. 160. Translation mine.