Just the other day, at a New York critics' screening of the zombie sequel "28 Weeks Later" (great first half, set in an allegedly zombie-free Britain under American military occupation; tedious and clichéd second half), I overheard a conversation among three young, hipsterish, clearly intelligent movie-biz guys. They weren't talking about the movie we were about to see, or about anything else they had actually liked. They were talking about whether there's another "Little Miss Sunshine" somewhere in the indie pipeline. (Consensus: "Waitress" is likable, but doesn't quite cut it as crossover hit.)
Thing is, I've had those conversations myself. With the madness of Tribeca just concluded and the madness of Cannes just around the corner -- I'll be there by this time next week, laptop balanced on my knee as I air-kiss Brangelina, talk philosophy with Béla Tarr and taste-test last year's rosé (it's a tough job, etc.) -- and a daunting thicket of new releases every week, it can be seductive to think of film as nothing more than a commodity, designed for a mass market or niche market, as the case may be. It's always like that with artistic or cultural works in the marketplace. Old Master paintings were commodities (and are even more so now). So were Fellini's films, and so is "Spider-Man 3."
Sure, movies are supposed to affect us in some way -- excite us, challenge us, evoke some subjective or objective reality, awaken a chain of associations -- but so is designer clothing or a BMW or that fine 2005 Bandol everybody was drinking at Cannes last year. If you'll pardon the phrase, there is always a complicated dialectical relationship between aesthetic and commercial value in our society; they can't be decoupled. An art-house movie with some degree of mass appeal, whether it's "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Caché" or "Pan's Labyrinth," will always seem "hotter" than the works of Tarr or Philippe Garrel or Carlos Reygadas, screened for tiny audiences of rumpled cinephiles.
Marxist economic theory aside, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe that "art," however you define it, performs some indefinable, probably indefensible and possibly spiritual function within the realm of human commerce: It repurposes ancient myths, captures the lost past, imagines impossible futures, distills our experience into shared symbols. This week, while en route to the marketplace hysteria and unbounded snobbery of Cannes, I'm delighted to have two really excellent and completely different films to focus on (both with limited commercial potential). One is an utterly realistic, almost clinical, depiction of an American suicide bomber; the other is a fanciful, fantastic reconstruction of childhood, loaded with Freudian imagery. Both are powerful and intimate experiences that will invade your dreams.
Before we get to those, let's conflate aesthetic and commercial value just a little more. I won't pretend I can summarize the lumpy, hit-and-miss mass of films that premiered at Tribeca (which only concluded last weekend). What I can do is render a subjective list of 10 new films that emerged from the festival with heightened buzz, either among the movie world's commodity traders, its grimy-spectacled cinema buffs, or both. A few of these (I'm listing them in alphabetical order) will be reaching theaters near you promptly. Others may take six months or longer to tiptoe into the market; some may resurface in your Netflix queue without warning.
"Chávez" Tribeca is always a strong documentary festival, and here was one of this year's surprises. No, this is not about Venezuela's controversial president (although that's a good idea). Instead, Mexican actor Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mamá También") has made a compelling, impressionistic study of the boxer Julio César Chávez, a quasi-legendary hero in their shared country. Its appeal to Latino audiences and boxing fans should guarantee release. (At this writing, still not acquired for distribution.)
"Golden Door" This rapturous, strange and eye-popping spectacle from director Emanuele Crialese ("Respiro") might be the most memorable Italian film of recent years. It's nominally a fable about 19th-century Sicilian immigration, with all the shipboard and Ellis Island scenes you'd expect -- but that's a misleading description for a film that's primarily a visual, auditory and even architectural experience. Vincenzo Amato and Charlotte Gainsbourg are very good in a central love story of sorts, but everything about the plot is symbolic or enigmatic (which will no doubt frustrate some viewers). A defiantly idiosyncratic film that summons the spirits of great Italian directors long past. (Opens May 25 in major cities, with wider release to follow.)
"In Search of a Midnight Kiss" I'm including Alex Holdridge's black-and-white romantic comedy, which follows its young protagonists on a New Year's Eve blind date through the streets of Los Angeles, even though I haven't seen it. Word-of-mouth has been nothing short of sensational, and despite its total lack of recognizable names, this movie has been better reviewed than any of the marquee American films at Tribeca. (Still not acquired.)
"Live!" Sleazy but highly entertaining story of a TV executive who goes too far, actually commissioning a Russian-roulette reality show. Overall the package is a little too slick, but Bill Guttentag's film is worth seeing for the slinky, snakelike, sexy and oddly vulnerable performance of Eva Mendes, a star-making role if I've ever seen one. (Still not acquired.)
"Still Life" This whimsical, wistful slow-motion docudrama, shot on the immense demolition site surrounding China's Three Gorges Dam, might be the American breakthrough for Jia Zhangke, one of international cinema's brightest young stars. Admittedly, all I mean by that is that a few big-city theaters might do well with it, or at least better than they did with Jia's 2005 film "The World." Still, whether anyone sees it or not, "Still Life" is both heartfelt and cinematically impressive. (Plans for U.S. release are forthcoming.)
"Taxi to the Dark Side" I've already discussed this documentary by Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"), which traces the recent history of torture and abuse by U.S. forces in the course of the "war on terror," from the little-known prisons of Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. As I wrote then, it's a chilling and even sickening experience, clearly one of the year's most important films. I can only hope it reaches audiences sooner rather than later. (Still not acquired.)
"This Is England" Self-taught director Shane Meadows ("Once Upon a Time in the Midlands") has quietly become one of the most appealing and accomplished of younger British filmmakers. This bittersweet reminiscence of his misspent '80s youth -- as a baby skinhead in a low-level gang in the depressed English city of Nottingham -- could have wide appeal (although American audiences are going to need subtitles for the thick northern accents). Tremendously acted and warm, but also unsparing in its portrayals; it's "The 400 Blows" plus "The Breakfast Club," with peg-leg jeans, Doc Martens and hardcore music. (Will be released this summer by IFC.)
"Times and Winds" This tremendously atmospheric Turkish film, following three rural preteens through the patterns of daily life, risks one of the hoariest clichés in world cinema -- the bucolic "village film" -- and delivers a haunting, exquisite experience. This one's destined for very limited release, if that, but don't be scared off. It's lovely. (Still not acquired.)
"We Are Together" I didn't see this reportedly rousing documentary about a choir of South African children -- all AIDS orphans and many of them HIV-positive -- but it was Tribeca's only rip-roaring, solid-gold hit. Alicia Keys and Bono hobnobbed at the premiere, but it was the real-life kids' struggles and triumphs that reduced audiences to tears. (Plans for U.S. release will be announced soon.)
"You Kill Me" A sly if not entirely graceful black comedy from veteran genre director John Dahl ("The Last Seduction," "Rounders"), this played to packed-to-the-rafters theaters at Tribeca, and looks like a sleeper hit in waiting. What's enjoyable about "You Kill Me" is its total rejection of all responsibility: Ben Kingsley plays an alcoholic Polish-American hit man with no intention of abandoning his vocation, and a marvelously funny Téa Leoni is the acid-tongued new girlfriend who decides she likes him the way he is. Implausible and unconvincing on many levels, but played dead straight, which means it's very funny. (Opens June 22.)
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Guy Maddin leans over the cafe table and says, "I know that even though we're speaking in New York right now, my mother is watching us from the top of a lighthouse in Winnipeg with a very high-powered telescope and a searchlight. She can read my thoughts. She can send me messages."
It's never easy to tell when Maddin, who looks like a bank manager or a high school teacher, but has made some of the strangest movies of recent decades, is pulling your leg. I don't know that he exactly is here (even though, as he admits, his hometown of Winnipeg is landlocked and bereft of lighthouses). His new film "Brand Upon the Brain!" is a fantastical, sometimes farcical, rendering of his own childhood as a horror movie, a detective story and a debauched melodrama, but in some sense he really means it.
Like most of Maddin's numerous films (the best-known might include "The Saddest Music in the World," "Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary" and "Tales From the Gimli Hospital"), "Brand Upon the Brain!" is a bizarre hybrid of 1920s silent film and experimental or avant-garde film. Shot in bleached-out, archaic-looking black-and-white (with occasional unexplained flashes of color), it features cornball intertitles, hambone acting and intentionally fake-sounding sound effects. Some of its images, however, are spliced together in a super-fast, post-MTV blur that Maddin says was driven by contemporary technology, and that he hopes will echo the processes of memory itself.
"I was tickled by this notion that I could present memory as a more neurological phenomenon," he tells me over coffee in New York. "When you fast-forward in Final Cut Pro, things just don't go faster, they skip like a stone over your footage. They touch down on an image for a few frames, and then skip a whole bunch of frames. When you're searching for something, you go past the image you want and you have to go back. You go past it again but not so far and then you have to go forward again. You end up scratching back and forth like a DJ, going back over your favorite images just the way you might recollect your favorite romantic or sexual or sports triumph. You go back and forth, fetishizing, slowing, stopping, freeze-framing, going in slow motion, doing an instant replay. I really found in this neurological skittishness, all this skipping and jumping, some analogy for the way we remember." (Click here to listen to a podcast of my interview with Maddin.)
Despite the overtly melodramatic plot of "Brand Upon the Brain!" Maddin insists that its origins lie in his real childhood. "Anyone who's remembering his or her childhood is at that moment a poet," he says. "They're launching themselves into something lyrical. They're making erroneous but metaphorical leaps into explaining things, re-creating what they've been through. I try to re-create the act of remembering in this movie. My childhood was full of terror and titillation, as proper childhoods are. There were incredibly horny periods. There were confusing periods, adventurous periods, mildewy periods."
Maddin claims that "96 percent" of the film accurately reflects his childhood experiences. When I suggest that he was not raised in a lighthouse (one that was also an orphanage) and that his father was not a mad scientist conducting nefarious midnight experiments, he replies, "OK, so you nailed the 4 percent that isn't true." Under pressure, he further admits that (unlike the character named Guy Maddin in the film) he was never friends with an intrepid brother-sister duo of harp-playing teen detectives. But the sinister sexual warfare between Guy's mother and sister in the film, he says, is drawn from life, including a mysterious incident when a pound of butter ends up stuck to the kitchen wall.
Despite the evident jokiness of some elements -- most notably the exclamation-mark-laden intertitles, which spoof the explanatory mode of silent film -- "Brand Upon the Brain!" is a surprisingly frightening and affecting film, launching itself from vertiginous peaks into shadowy hollows. To heighten what Maddin calls the "melodramatic hysteria" of the picture, he'll screen it in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago with an 11-piece live orchestra and a troupe of live sound-effects artists, along with a series of live narrators (to include Isabella Rossellini, Lou Reed, Crispin Glover and others). The result is giddy, exciting and hilarious, not quite like any artistic experience you've ever had.
"I have a sense of showmanship that I never suspected I had," Maddin says. "I've been a filmmaker for so long, and there's something in that word that makes it sound like I don't care if I entertain you. I haven't turned into P.T. Barnum -- I'm not going to do Odorama or Sensurround next -- but I enjoy feeling that I'm engaging the audience."
Maddin's rejection of nearly all the cinematic grammar of the last 70 years does not, he says, come from highfalutin aesthetic notions, but rather from delight. "You know, you're shocked at how modern expressionism feels when you first encounter it," he says. "Or how cool the fashions of the '20s look if you've never really seen them before. They just feel so modern! This stuff just never smells like mothballs to me. When I look back on the early days of cinema, it's like looking back at my own childhood. I just see the wonderment that all its pioneers must have created and felt.
Besides, Maddin continues, there are lots of other filmmakers content to display the vocabulary units of mainstream film. "I don't know, I'm not exactly a polished technician," he says. "I'm not the best at any one thing. I'm not necessarily good at any one thing. I've somehow managed to carve out a niche where I can operate pretty well. I'm happy there, and I still have plenty to say. As a filmmaker it didn't always matter if people were listening. But as a showman, dammit, those suckers are going to come in and I'm gonna take their money!"
"Brand Upon the Brain!" is playing through May 15 at the Village East Cinema in New York, with live narrators, Foley artists and orchestra. It will play May 18-20 at the Music Box in Chicago and June 8-10 at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. (Normal theatrical release, without accompaniment, will follow.)
"Day Night Day Night": Dissecting a girl who's about to blow herself up
We gather early in Julia Loktev's startling film "Day Night Day Night," a sensation last year at Cannes, where the nameless female central character is going and what she intends to do. She's going from New Jersey into Manhattan on a bus, with a large bomb loaded with nails in a backpack. At the right moment in Times Square, when she's surrounded by the right number of people, she's going to "execute the plan."
We follow this young woman (played with strange, quiet clarity by newcomer Luisa Williams) from her motel-room rendezvous with a clique of mysterious masked men to a group of bomb-makers who are apparently working for hire and finally into the chaos and cacophony of 42nd Street. There's a mundane and almost terrible intimacy to this film: We watch the girl -- and she does seem like a girl, although she's probably an adult -- wash her underwear, clip her toenails, sit and wait in silence. She says "please" and "thank you" a lot, and not much else.
Finally freed from that atmosphere, the woman wanders the streets of midtown Manhattan, apparently overwhelmed. She buys a candy apple, eats three bites, and throws it away. She waits patiently for a bathroom stall while a group of teenage girls gossip and argue. She buys a slice of tomato at a deli (65 cents) and throws that away too. Is her resolve weakening? Not really. At the beginning of the film, she has told an unseen person or deity, "I have only one death and I want it to be for you." As she approaches a crowded intersection and reaches for the button in her pocket, the tension is almost unbearable.
"Day Night Day Night" has captured viewers' attention around the world for its remarkable craftsmanship, technical command and distinctive vision, but also (somewhat to its director's discomfiture) for what it does not do. Although we observe every detail of the would-be bomber's preparation, we never learn what group she belongs to or what her motivations are. Her accent is, as Loktev puts it in an interview near her house in Brooklyn, N.Y., "standard TV English." Her ethnicity is ambiguous and her religion unspecified. At one point her handlers strap her into a fatigue jacket and a bandolier, hand her a rifle, and sit her in front of a grim clenched-fist graphic. Just as they turn on their video camera and hold a script where she can see it, the scene ends.
Some published reviews (and a great many viewers) have assumed that the girl must be a radical Muslim, but in fact there is nothing in the film that either confirms or denies that. "Look, anybody can imagine why somebody might become a suicide bomber in Times Square," says Loktev, an intense, dark-haired woman of about 35. "The reasons why that might happen are well understood. We did not want to eliminate the most obvious suspects, let's say that. We structured the film in such a way that [the bombers] could be the most obvious suspects, but they also might not be. It's the same with the character; she could pass for being Arab, but she's not necessarily Arab. We didn't cast someone with brown skin and brown eyes. It could go either way.
"The film is not about how a girl becomes radicalized," Loktev continues. "The first thing she says to us is: 'I've made my decision.' At the moment you meet this character, she's already come to this place. I very much wanted to get under her skin, from that point of conviction onward. In so many American movies, there's this cliché: You get to know a character because they give you a monologue about their troubled childhood. There's this pop psychology that serves to explain the character, digest them and put them in a package. I didn't want to explain her; I wanted to put her under a microscope and dissect her."
After one screening of "Day Night Day Night," at the New Directors New Films festival in New York, one audience member responded that she didn't find the film convincing because Williams' character had no accent. A gasp arose in the theater, Loktev says, but at least that viewer had verbalized her discomfort. "I didn't want to confirm people's prejudices; that was my goal," Loktev says. "And what I told that woman was that, these days, if it happened -- even if it happened with the most obvious suspects -- the bomber would be someone who was American-born. At least that's quite likely."
Ultimately, Loktev hopes her film will be judged on its highly unusual treatment of the subject matter, not on its literally explosive plot. "People can plug this film, I think, into what they read and what they see. If they want to know about causes of terrorism, there are a lot of books I hope they open after the film. This film is about a girl who has this incredible conviction; she believes she's doing something morally right. Most of all, it's about what happens when that doesn't quite go the way she wants it to go, when her faith is confronted by the real world."
Loktev was born in Russia (although she herself has no trace of a foreign accent) and has read many accounts of Chechen female suicide bombers. One case that stuck with her was that of a young Chechen woman who successfully detonated a truck bomb. On her way to the bombing, for some reason, she stopped at a market to buy bananas. "The best way I can describe this film," she says, "is that it's about the bananas, not the bomb."
"Day Night Day Night" is now playing at the IFC Center in New York, and available on-demand through certain cable TV systems. It opens May 18 in Boston and Los Angeles, June 1 in Atlanta, June 8 in Denver and Portland, Ore., June 15 in Burlington, Vt., and July 20 in Columbus, Ohio, and Tucson, Ariz., with more cities to be announced.