October 28, 2011
Any interest in a film based on the writings of late Hunter S. Thompson comes weighted by the unfilmable sense of the narrative Thompson concocted. How would a director capture a narrative that battled against the expectations of objective journalism by a writer fueled by drink, drugs and a borderline psychotic attitude toward— what he considered— the greedy hypocrites who have co-opted the American Dream for their own permit to mow down anyone and anything that stood in the way of their of insatiable fulfillment? Thompson showed no restraint, even peppering his writings with the hallucinations he suffered as a side-effect to his lifestyle. One of the most insane directors of the 20th century (Terry Gilliam) tried hard— maybe too hard— to realize Thompson’s writing with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… and failed. Now here comes the Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in Gilliam’s now cultish failure (it flopped hard at the box office), hand-picking director Bruce Robinson as the man with the vision (both screenwriter and helmer). Though, in theory, Robinson should have been the right fit as director and writer, the Rum Diary never even comes close to that director’s long-ago apex in cinema: the over-the-top characters of Withnail & I (1987) and the black, surreal humor of How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989).* Much less, does the Rum Diary, based on Thompson’s early novel, which would not see publication until long after the writer’s early years of achieving fame as a “Gonzo journalist,” ever capture the spirit of Hunter’s swagger, except maybe in the writerly manner the characters in the newsroom at the “San Juan Star” talk. I knew going into this movie any attempt to make a film out of Thompson’s prose would be an exercise in futility (and, no, I have not forgotten the 1980 biopic Where the Buffalo Roam starring Bill Murray), but, as a fan of Thompson’s writing, I wanted to see it through.
The film opens with the hung over Paul Kemp (Depp), an aspiring writer waking up hung over from a night of binge drinking just before he heads for his first day on the job at the “San Juan Star” in 1960. Already the film establishes this man as the alter ego of Thompson, well known for having started his illustrious career at “Rolling Stone” with a two-part dispatch from Las Vegas that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1972, abusing drugs and alcohol (even ether) while running up a huge expense account for the magazine. What is less known about the author is that he tried to make it as a novelist by establishing himself at the actual “San Juan Star,” more than 10 years before his “RS” gig… which rejected him. While on the island, Thompson would write articles as a stringer on Caribbean affairs. In the meantime, he worked on two novels. The first has never been published and the second was the Rum Diary, a fictional account of a hero reporter out to undermine the development of the natural paradise that is Puerto Rico by US capitalist types who want to privatize beaches and push out the locals.
After an introduction to his hard-ass editor at the paper, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the film maintains a leisurely pace, delighting in the language of these newspapermen who all seem to have the quirk of alcoholism hanging over them, yet still banter with the strength of well-heeled news writers. I would have been happy if the film stuck to the newsroom and bar as the only set pieces. Still some other drama must drive these men as dictated by the Hollywood formula, and for awhile it seems like they are going to do some good with their intentions. Despite Kemp signing a confidentiality agreement with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a developer seeking to exploit the writer for good press for his proposed beachfront hotel, Kemp turns against the businessman. Then there is the complication of Kemp’s affections for Sanderson’s fiance, Chenault (Amber Heard). Though Depp does a great job hunching over and drinking until he is nearly incomprehensible and obviously impaired in his decision-making, Chenault throws herself at him. Right. In the end, when mostly drunk heroes get together, nothing much cathartic happens, so an attempt for some grand revolution just becomes one over-long, drawn-joke that dulls any interest for these guys long before the final scene.
Though the resulting story on film is anti-climactic, Depp does his famed Thompson imitation well, down to the staccato mumblings of his words. The supporting news characters all prove themselves as the most interesting characters to watch, especially Giovanni Ribisi as the crime and religious affairs reporter Moberg, a man who seems a further gone drunk than Kemp and looks like the future Thompson. In fact, the film slows down during all the vignettes of traveling across the island, accompanied by bland, typical of-the-era-and-location music choices that last too long. Though I do love the island, having been born there, the film drags during many of its set pieces. That said, the period detail in the sets are amazing, down to the poster art decorating the run-down apartment of Sala (Michael Rispoli), the paper’s photographer. Being filmed in Puerto Rico certainly helped, but while filming there, the filmmakers should have known that that the coquí only come out at night to make their distinctive sound.
I think it is great that Depp had such affection for Thompson to produce such a film, and God bless all those who think they can do justice to a man with such a unique voice. But the man was about the written word. It was as much about the medium as it was the message, which happens to have been unabashedly clouded up by drug and alcohol abuse (if there is anything sadder than movies that pay tribute to Thompson it just might be the writers who abuse illicit substances to try and imitate his style). The man was inimitable. The recent documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, narrated by Depp, is probably the best Thompson celluloid tribute, as Thompson is right at the center of the action, in the flesh, down to his funeral where his ashes were shot into the sky for a fireworks display. A Gonzo funeral for a Gonzo guy.
The Rum Diary is Rated R and runs 110 min. It opens Friday, Oct. 28, at most theaters. I attended a preview screening hosted by the film’s PR company for the purposes of this review.
*In between there was the ho-hum serial killer thriller Jennifer 8 (1992) and nothing else until the Rum Diary.
October 27, 2011
It’s not really “disco” per say. “Off-beat,” “odd,” “quirky” and “infectious” all work to describe “Open Blue,” actually subverting the genre that is now the ancient precursor to what one might consider today’s dance music, which, in the nineties entered more intellectual territory thanks to pioneers like Aphex Twin and Autechre and other IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) artists. “Open Blue,” certainly fits into IDM and is the lead single off the up-coming collaborative album by Old Man Diode and Rick Holland by the same name (due Nov. 21 on the UK-based indie label WW Music). After working with ambient music and art rock pioneer Brian Eno (Eno collaborator/poet Rick Holland corresponds on craft – An Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 1 of 2]), Holland recently shared a video to this latest work, which also features the vocals of Beth Rowley.
I admitted to him that I do not usually get excited by follow-ups to music I was already impressed by, as cynical skepticism often takes hold and becomes a large, stiff barrier for anything to break through. In some way or another music must evolve and change or rise to another level to impress me further or in a different way from what I heard in the prior work. Color me impressed (full screen for maximal effect):
The slow-burn gorgeousness of the gravity-defying visuals of this video work well to draw the viewer in, not to mention the pretty visage of Rowley hanging off the wall with one foot. The images mesh strongly with the music, which offers a great departure from the more cerebral work of the master tunesmith that is Eno. It is not a comparison of better or weaker— easy terms to bandy about. Though delivered more musically by Rowley’s sing-song voice, Holland’s words still feel spoken and maintain an evocative, intelligent impression. Add Old Man Diode’s (aka Jo Wills) distinctly artsy dance-like sound, and you have something with the DNA required to please a cynical music snob such as myself.
I can certainly appreciate an almost deadpan delivery of dance music that seems to try to tear itself apart from the inside out. The rhythm recalls the break beats of Aphex Twin, as a steady synth pulses, providing the glue to the scattering rhythm. With the expressive coo of Rowley’s voice above it, the cake is complete. I found some nice remixes on Old Man Diode’s Soundcloud page. Here is the highlight:
Holland noted that the album is indeed collaborative, with the vocalists also participating in fulfilling the ultimate results. “I have known him [Wills] for many years now, he was one of the first people I ever wrote with specifically for music and I knew this project would be genuinely collaborative, opening the process up to all of the really special vocalists he had in mind,” Holland said via email. “We understand each other and our languages overlap enough to make working together really easy and fulfilling and also enabling each guest writer to fully engage in the writing process. Every track in the project is fully collaborative, with some startling talents.”
According to a press announcement, other collaborators featured on the album include: Chris James, lead vocalist with Stateless, Onallee from Roni Size’s drum and bass troupe Reprazent and multi-instrumentalist jazz composer and vocalist Andrew Plummer.
A sumptuous period movie, Mozart’s Sister, offers a bleak and intimate look at Mozart in his early years as a child prodigy while his sister faded into his shadow. His family of four is struggling to make a living, traveling Europe by horse-drawn carriage, making appearances for the nobility. Taking center stage is the gifted, 11-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (David Moreau), but the movie’s director René Féret, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses on the elder, 14-year-old sister of the man who would later become singularly defined by the name Mozart.
An underlying sense of hopelessness coats the two-hour film. Maria Anna Mozart (Marie Féret), or “Nannerl” as she is nicknamed, quietly concedes to any challenge she is presented after trying to follow her passion for music on her own. Ultimately she is submissive and makes for quite a footnote as the older sister to the prodigious “Wolfy,” but a footnote, nonetheless.
Because the historical record is loose on her, the stories surrounding this time in her life covered by the film is a “speculative account.” After all, who in 18th century Europe would care to document any one woman’s story? Her father Leopold (Marc Barbé) sure does not. Flipping through pages of her notebook, Nannerl seems frustrated with how many pages of her book Leopold has dedicated to Wolfgang’s minuets and compositions. “I suffer my father’s preference even in my own notebook,” she tells her mother, Anna-Maria (Delphine Chuillot).
Inherently, one cannot expect much action and dynamism from the portrayal of such a woman, who knows to submit to her position while her father and brother make their mark with a music career that would become legacy. To his credit, Féret does not try to sugarcoat it, staying true to the era by keeping Nannerl’s battles small and fruitless. The drama of the story in turn becomes subdued and almost insignificant. The opulence of the set pieces even overshadows the drama. The period quality, a world of fireplaces, melting candles and quills, is so luscious it spills from the frame in almost three dimensions. The costumes are especially impressive, up there in quality with Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but never so over-the-top. The world of Mozart’s Sister is filled with the repression of femininity and feels more grounded in the everyday drama of that era. This is indeed a truer, harsher world than Coppola’s film. The set pieces, from the real Versailles to the “humble” abbey where the young daughters of King Louis XV dwell are all magnificent and transporting.
The actors give sincere, if subdued performances, which includes the daughters of the director, the one in the title role and his younger daughter Lisa Féret as the ostracized daughter of the King Louis XV, Louise de France or “Chiffe.” “Like I’m made of Chiffon,” she tells Nannerl.
The leading sister offers more subtlety and performs quiet suffering very well. The younger Féret is a bit stiff and distant, but her performance brings a stoic, tragic air to the character, nonetheless. Left to grow up in the care of nuns at the convent, along with two of her other sisters, they are never allowed visitors from their own royal family. Chiffe’s story is the more bleak of the two plots, as she accepts her fate with hopeless resignation.
Though the drama is low-key, the film maintains an enchanting atmosphere with the snippets of the musical masterpieces that made Mozart famous as a child prodigy. There is one moment of hope for Nannerl, when the ambiguous dauphin (Clovis Fouin) gains an interest in her. He only first ever gives her a chance to share her musical ability because he meets her dressed as a man, a disguise she was ordered to don in order to deliver a letter to the son of the music master at Versailles from the smitten Chiffe. There are obvious hints to the dauphin’s homosexuality, adding another frustrated and repressed character to the mix. Though he seems a villain in the dynamics of a film where the biggest evil is the strict but stunted rules of social place he too shares a common struggle with Nannerl. But he can express his frustration with angry tantrums. Still, even after she admits to her deception, he shows affection for her. Despite her admission, he commissions her to write a piece of music for his court.
However she dresses, Nannerl remains a girl. Despite her socializing with the future king of France, her mother slaps her for keeping her family waiting up late and skipping rehearsals. Her father refuses to give her any advice on composing music, stating harmony and counterpoint are concepts beyond the minds of women. Still, she will spy in on his lessons to her little brother, and when the opportunity arises for her to finally see her music performed for the dauphin, she must again dress like a man. She maintains her disguise to participate in her public debut as a composer and her ruse will wind up backfiring in a humiliating and pathetic way.
The drama of Mozart’s Sister is based on the title character’s quiet suffering in a world far from suffrage and women’s lib. The film explores this world with reserved respect and captures 18th century Europe beyond costumes and sets. Chiffe suffers for her father’s own debauchery and Nannerl for her brother’s future. Women would have a long way to go before any would become leaders of a nation or musical wonders, and this film is a stark reminder of that while not compromising its tone as a period piece.
Mozart’s Sister has not been rated and premieres in South Florida Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7:30pm at UM’s Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables featuring a special panel discussion between the audience and distinguished members of the University and Miami Community after the film. The film then opens Friday, Oct. 21, at select theaters.
October 19, 2011
So what would it sound and feel like to experience Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws with John Williams’ signature score replaced with the experimental, ambient drone of distorted synthesizers? The duo of Spielberger have imagined it, though it was purely inspired by the chapter titles of the DVD, and they swear they never watched the movie as they came up with the music. Heck, they even admit they did not exactly create the music from scratch, as they used a program available as an iPhone app to “generate” the music. Though both Ed Matus and Bert Rodriguez are musicians who can play a guitar if they wanted to, they chose to explore musicality in quite a different way. The result adds a strange, ethereal sense of gravitas to the movie, in a remote sort of way. If you know the film as well as I do, then just the titles of the tracks, like “Hooper Goes In” or “Town Meeting,” conjure images of the iconic film. The collision of these titles and the haunting drone of the music that seeps forth like the sludge of an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack for a David Lynch movie, brings an unknown artsy quality to the movie while still capturing the film’s over-all dread.
Already at work on a third collection of music, Spielberger are currently promoting this recently released conceptual ambient album entitled Chrissie’s Last Swim (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It is available at all the expected mp3 download sites for purchase without the album art, as the iTunes store rejected Rodriguez’ design, a play on the famous Jaws poster art (but join their Facebook page, and you can get the album for free, with the original art). Rodriguez is actually best known as an artist. He’s received numerous grants for his work and has exhibited at the esteemed Bass Museum in his Miami neighborhood, at well as Art Basel Miami Beach, but also at New York’s Whitney during the 2008 Whitney Biennial and in London during the Frieze Art Fair. Most recently he was the focus of a feature-length documentary that played at the Miami International Film Festival and screened theatrically at the Miami Beach Cinematheque called Making Sh*t Up.
A conceptual artist who never limits himself to any medium, Rodriguez adores the prankster aesthetic of the Fluxus movement of the 1960s. A post-Dada, post-futurist, post-surrealist movement, Fluxus owes a debt to all those movements but is probably best known for its wit. For instance, staging a dramatic play with the curtain lifted a couple of inches to only ever reveal the shoes of the performers. Rodriguez notes one stunt he is famous for that involved him buying up picture frames from retail stores and replacing them for purchase soon after with the sample pictures replaced by photographs of himself. He noted that for the Whitney Biennial, he designed a space…
… with comfy chairs, a tissue box, etc. to give psycho-therapy sessions to anyone who registered for an appointment on the Whitney’s web page, in effect creating a living, breathing example of transference between the artist and the spectator with art object taken out. In some ways he does not take himself too seriously, yet he does. “It’s like if Andy Kaufman were in a gallery,” he sums up.
He and Matus recently dropped by my apartment in the Kendall suburbs of South Florida to casually talk about these mp3s they recently conjured up. Rodriguez sits still in the corner of my couch and always seems to look straight ahead as he talks, looking at the blank TV screen in front of him. “This was a way for us to do something fun and awesome,” he said simply of the collaboration.
Matus, who was once known as the singular artist behind the experimental electronica act H.A.L.O. Vessel and most recently as a member as the eclectro-pop-rock outfit the Waterford Landing, looks for a record to put on and immediately gravitates to my Neu! box set. Rodriquez approves, and Matus selects the Krautrock masters’ 1972 debut. They both marvel at the timelessness of the grooves that inspired everyone from David Bowie to Stereolab and maybe even them, a bit.
Spielberger’s debut EP, Music for Cruises, came from a project Rodriguez had developed as a commission for a cruise line, inspired by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, the concept album that paved the way for what Eno would term “ambient music,” an unobtrusive and atmospheric instrumental form of music that was part of the spatial environment where it was played. Though Rodriquez said the client liked the music he generated using the iPhone app called Mixtikl, they went another way. The music did not go to waste, however, and after some treatments by Matus, they released Music for Cruises (the cover art for the EP features the duo with their “instruments”). Matus, who first appeared on the local music scene as a member of the art-rock/hardcore/punk outfit Subliminal Criminal in the early nineties, spent a great part of the later years of that decade experimenting with electronic music (Here’s a story I wrote for the “Miami New Times” about his early forays using keyboards and a bank of effects pedals for instrumentation). “We were discussing that there really isn’t any ambient music,” Matus said. “Nobody’s done a real serious ambient album like Eno in the seventies.”
But, one must wonder, what sort of musicianship does Mixtikl call for? The pair both admit “none.” Rodriguez explained the parameters to create the music requires some vision, however. “It takes a certain level of intention, discipline and comfort with the capabilities and limitations of the tool itself to produce a sophisticated sound that can be guided or coaxed to create a mood or express an idea effectively,” he explains further via email. “Those qualities have very little to do with what is traditionally defined as ‘Musicianship.’ All those qualities I mentioned above are what define creative intellect as opposed to technical skill. Although one is not better than the other, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. At the end of the day, the music has to be good and/or interesting regardless of how it was produced, and that can only be decided by a third party.”
Though they are working with a program that comes finely tuned, Matus notes it does call on a musical aptitude to realize some sort of vision. “Bert and I are both trained musicians,” he explains via email, “so there is a bit more clarity when it comes to knowing how to intentionally create a certain mood, as opposed to messing around blindly.”
The program indeed offers an intimidating amount of variety that calls on musical creativity to produce a specific form of music, as demonstrated by the poster art promoting it (click the image below for a larger view of the various screens involved):
Rodriguez had said, in the end, it’s not too different from how Eno designed works like Music for Airports or its predecessor, 1975′s Discreet Music. “It’s just how Eno would have done it. You set up certain parameters, you pick key, scale, whether it’s major, minor, then you pick tempo, and the banks of sound [the program offers].” He also noted that Mixtikl “was created by the same guys who created Koan, which Eno pioneered the use of around ’95, ’96.”
The result of the duo’s first collaboration, Music for Cruises, can be streamed in its entirety right here:
For ambient music, it does offer quite a dynamism, from the rhythmic ebb and flow of the tracks to the variety of pulsing electronic sounds that offer an array of tonal color and textures. It sounds kind of like post-Dark Side of the Moon era Pink Floyd with the guitars, drums and voices stripped away, leaving only the bare, skeletal hum of the backing electronics sighing and groaning on their own.
Spielberger’s latest effort, Chrissie’s Last Swim, already reveals a bit of a departure for the duo. Opening with the white noise of “The Town Meeting,” the album starts with a roar, like a long frozen moment of horror that is the shark attack. “The Expert,” arrives to bring some calm to the proceedings, as a whispering howl ever so slowly fades in for over a minute and then seems to blow and recede, as a soft metallic metronome beat keeps a rhythm for the ghostly sound that only seems to follow the pattern of the wind. “July 4th” opens with a metallic quaver that sounds like it must come from an electric guitar, yet one cannot discern any plucking on it. The noise ebbs and flows for eight minutes to reveal a calm layer of whistling synth noise below the din, which quietly fades away over the course of a minute. Steve Reich would be proud.
From the album title to the individual tracks, all the titles are indeed lifted from the chapter insert found inside the DVD case of Jaws. The album rounds out with the following tracks:
4. Face to Face
5. Hooper Goes In
6. End Titles
Rodriguez explained that Spielberg the director has no direct influence over the music or its theme. “We never really chose Spielberg in favor of any other director or something. Our relationship to him is actually pretty random. It’s just become a starting point for an ongoing joke that started with how the name came up for the group. We never set out to make fun or pay homage to him over any other director or even anyone else at all for that matter. It was a funny exploration that has led to the images I’ve created thus far, which we’ll either move on from or not.”
Rodriguez shared more images that iTunes would probably never allow as future album covers. All are variations of famous posters for even more famous Spielberg movies, while offering a typical example of Rodriguez repurposing existing art as his own. Though he created an array of these images, he and Matus have not committed to future albums designed the same way as Chrissie’s Last Swim, with music named after other chapter titles from other Spielberg DVDs. Rodriguez presents Music For Cruises as an example contrary to such assumptions, which he called “a riff on Eno’s Music For Films .” In that album’s case the titles were inspired by the feminine word for “Sea” in different languages, Rodriguez noted. “There is really no reference to Spielberg in that record at all,” he said.
Matus even noted that to consider Spielberger only a musical project would be unfair. He and Rodriguez did hint that they are trying to conceive a live show out of it sometime before year’s end. “We can reproduce what we do live,” Matus stated. “However, due to the generative nature of the program, things will be different. The mood of the song will be the same, and there’ll be enough for someone to recognize it, but the events will be happening at different times, intervals etc. … We do plan on doing this live. However, we don’t want to define ourselves as just a music project or a band. Spielberger has many facets, which we hope to show during our performance, as well as the follow-up to Chrissie’s Last Swim, which we are working on now. Our intention was to create a vehicle in which anything and everything can happen. We are currently planning a performance in which the generative aspect is a tiny component among many. Hopefully, this will happen in December.
Rodriguez goes into further detail: “… the nature of ‘Generative Music’ is such that once you create and play that composition the first time, any time after that, even if the rules and parameters are exactly the same, it’s never the same exact composition. We can definitely save those parameters and perform a likeness to the original but, it will never be exactly note-for-note to the original. That’s also really liberating and exciting for me because it gives us a chance creatively to think about live performance outside of the traditional way where you sit there and play music while a bunch of people just sit there and watch you do it … That’s why I describe Spielberger as an ‘experimental duo’ formed of… We created Spielberger as a platform for us to be able to explore and execute any idea we had musically or otherwise. This is just the beginning. We’re working on a new record which will sound nothing like the last two records. And we already have ideas for other recordings in the future that are even less like any of those. We have ideas for some videos, even some limited edition projects or releases. We have lots of plans for things that also have nothing to do with music at all. I believe we both enjoy using this program so much and have so much yet to explore within it that we’ll probably continue to release generative compositions like the ones on the first two records in the future. We’ve only really worked together for a few months and have produced a great deal of music in a short time. For our live show, we’re planning on incorporating the music into a much larger context of what a performance can be, from anywhere between Andy Kaufman, Stanley Kubrick and the Pet Shop Boys.”
So, consider these two releases Spielberger’s calling card for something much grander to come… stay tuned.
October 10, 2011
Eastern Europe and its sensibilities for the grim and gloomy will make another one-night only appearance in South Florida, thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Prepare for Aurora, a film by Romanian director Cristi Puiu, the director of the Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). That film arrived on the scene in 2005, a full two years before 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) really kicked off the buzz about the Romanian New Wave. In the mid, 2000s, the scene was bursting with directors who won critical if not commercial acclaim in the US art house scene (do not forget Corneliu Porumboiu, director of both Police Adjective and 12:08 East of Bucharest and the fact that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was first released on DVD in the US as a Borders exclusive, many months ahead of a wider release as a marketing gimmick for the store).
Despite their acclaim, these films were never known for their perkiness and happy endings. Hence, none had the true crossover, mainstream appeal of say a Zhang Yimou film. Aurora will do nothing to perk things up, as it follows a psychopath as he commits what seem random murders until he surrenders to police and confesses. It is no giveaway to say the main character, Viorel (played by the director), is the killer. The kicker arrives as Viorel offers his reasoning for the murders, revealing their connections and offering the final piece of the puzzle. The trailer does a nice job of setting up the film:
Knowing that this man is preparing for a spree of murder in fact livens up the first hour of this three-hour movie, as for the first hour, what you mostly see is a morose guy going about his day, doing mundane things. A distant, stationery, almost voyeuristic camera presents shots of Viorel doing nothing that seems out-of-the-ordinary, much less acting psychotic. Do not expect to see Buffalo Bill, from Silence of the Lambs, smearing lipstick on his face, dancing naked to “Goodbye Horses,” as he waits for his victim’s skin to soften up with lotion so he can skin her. Instead, you will see Viorel showering in all his flabby paleness making sure he has scrubbed well down there. Peeking around corners, the camera finds him simply waiting. The distance of the camera does not allow for any sort of sentimentality, as there are no closeups to allow for subtlety, much less a glimpse at the soul or thoughts of the character. This is not a man deep in thought or emotional turmoil. This is a man waiting. He waits to get somewhere in a car, he waits for someone to pick up the line on the other end of a phone, he waits for the elevator to arrive. The industrial equipment that offers much of the backdrop or the ruin of his apartment, which he tells relatives and neighbors is under renovation, only enhances the gloom.
Adding to the humdrum proceedings is the director’s choice not to use any extra-diagetic music or sounds. If there is any noise or music, it comes from the props in the scene. Even without close-ups, the characters do nothing to draw you in. They all seem to have faces frozen in frowns. When you do see something that might offer some levity to the proceedings, it only appears incidentally, on odd props denoting the everyday, like the rows of bright red, little hearts that ring a white broom stick handle in the corner of a room or the Tom and Jerry cartoon character stickers on the dashboard of Viorel’s car, slightly blurry, in the corner of a frame.
But, indeed this is all leading to something. By the time Viorel is handling the giant double-barrel shotgun that will become his murder weapon, putting it together in his bedroom, surrounded by stacks of books and CDs and rows of LPs and DVDs, not to mention a shelf dedicated to a miniature car collection, it makes your skin crawl to see how he nonchalantly turns the weapon at his chest and then under his chin, unable to reach the trigger, only an inch or so away from the reach of his outstretched arm.
Puiu has done an ingenious trick. By offering repetitive shots of the everyday as a set-up, he has reminded the audience of the banality of life, enhancing the shock when the shotgun finally goes off without showing the gruesome side-effects of the result. When Viorel first fires the weapon, it is inside his own house at some furniture. But it does not come with any immediacy, as the film— though long— unfolds with the efficiency of very few edits. The camera lingers as Viorel stands up, points the gun at some cushions, positions himself in a stance, snuggling the rifle’s butt into his shoulder. He decides to turn off the light. There’s a delay in the shadowy image and time again for him to find the right stance. The waiting again. Boom! Bright yellow lights up the dark. With very deliberate patience, it all seems to lead to that gun blast that comes with a shock. When Viorel finally goes out to use it on someone, you never know who these people are until the very end. The distance of the camera enhances the mystery. The shots never come fast enough, as Viorel spends some decent time bracing and positioning himself before firing the weapon. When the first fatal scream penetrates Puiu’s coldly directed film, the ghost of it seems to echo throughout the rest of Viorel’s ho-hum day.
In the end, Puiu makes distance, be it physical, emotional or social, the most creepy aspect of Aurora. Viorel is not always alone in the movie. He interacts with co-workers, neighbors, relatives and even loved ones, which include one of his 7-year-old daughters, almost never giving off a hint of edginess, until the killings begin, then he seems to loosen up, growing bolder with his mouth, most of all. Then the film truly starts to roll, as the presence of Viorel seems threatening to everything around him, including his own child. Halfway through the movie, all of a sudden the tone and the drama has been heightened, and everything Viorel does is tinged with a bit of edgy tension that culminates with him finally turning himself over to the police, where he admits to the killings and shares the connection and reason behind the murders, which is the real mystery that loads the movie.
The film is an odd experience and a true test of audience expectations, offering something beyond what one would expect in a suspense thriller, where the killer is often cloaked in darkness. Indeed, by shining a light on a lonely man, barely ever putting him outside of the frame (except one scene, where the camera seems to hesitate in following Viorel, as he commits one of his atrocities), Puiu flips the psycho-killer movie on its head, but maintains a creeping sense of dread, nonetheless.
Aurora is Unrated and will make its Florida theatrical debut at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a screener for the purpose of this review, for one night only: Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m.
Mysteries of Lisbon offers a cinematic statement like no other film the 21st century has offered. The theatrical release is actually an abbreviated version (at four-and-a-half-hours!) of the six-hour European TV mini-series, based on a three-volume novel of the same title by Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, which has never been translated into English. The fact that a film adaptation arrives in this lengthy, literary (at least in a cinematic sense) form by the late, prolific and intelligent director Raúl Ruiz, should be something to celebrate. In his “preface” to Mysteries of Lisbon from the film’s press book, Ruiz, a Chilean who directs the actors in the movie in Portuguese and French, offers dense insight into Branco’s approach to story-telling, revealing how well attuned he was to translate it to the cinema. About his own experience reading the books, he said, “[W]hen I try to summon the characters and the twists and turns of Mysteries in my memory … I am only able to find fragments of ghost stories that were never written.” In turn, Ruiz has left movie-goers with a similar sensation with this lengthy, meandering film.
Ruiz offers literate reasoning behind his decision to film not just a complex story, but a complex loom of stories, woven together by— if anything— circumstances. In his preface (not to mention the film itself) he goes on to damn the traditional Hollywood narrative, as defined by famed cinema academic David Bordwell, which dictates a movie must have a single protagonist (or group of protagonists) who must overcome a variety of obstacles to reach a single goal, causing conflicts meant to entertain the audience (see Armageddon, for instance). “When [producer] Paulo Branco asked me to direct Mysteries of Lisbon, I understood that I had in fact been waiting for this kind of offer for years … for an eternity…”
Unfolding over many years, before, after and around the turn of the 19th century, across countries as diverse as Portugal, France, Italy and Brazil, the film opens as a priest, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), decides to tell an orphan boy named João (João Arrais) about his origin. A slew of shifting characters emerge, from the boy’s mother (Maria João Bastos), a countess who later becomes a nun, to the assassin (Ricardo Pereira) turned wealthy businessman assigned to kill off the bastard child sent off to Dinis’ boarding school. Father Dinis undergoes several transformations, from the life he lead before becoming a priest as a gypsy to an enlightened man searching for spirituality beyond God, after leaving the priesthood. Hence, characters emerge within characters, but Ruiz never dwells on the transforming conflicts that births these “new” characters. The boy himself grows up to take on another name altogether when he appears later in the film as an adult (José Afonso Pimentel).
You could try to grasp for a common thread between these characters. One that jumps out of the proceedings is that these are stories of parents lost to give birth to lost children, and when the connections happen between the characters, not to mention their evolving and shifting identities, it is almost epiphenal. Again, in his notes, the director states, “the characters that form the social fabric of Mysteries of Lisbon go through three stages: birth, betrayal and redemption … But does this explain the jubilatory tingling triggered by the accumulation of stories that are in turn disparate, truncated, labyrinthine and baroque?” The film can indeed feel exhilarating to watch unfold, and it leaves this viewer wondering what other treasures were left on the cutting room floor in the 90 minutes of footage excised from the European mini-series version of this movie.
As the action unfolds, a recurring moody, melancholic orchestral theme often swells up. The music has a droning atmosphere about it and appears like those over-the-top musical stings do in the soap operas this film comes close to spoofing. It goes to show Ruiz’s wit when handling one of the most complex narratives ever committed to film while also adding a surreal mood to the scenes. Throughout, the film tests the audience’s attention, as there are no cinematic devices like title cards to reveal leaps in time and place (the sets in the film are simple but capture the eras of the 1800s and 1900s well, especially with the help of the dynamic costumes the actors don). The shifting characters are also so extreme as to involve name changes, leaving one to wonder if these are only the same actors playing other characters. In some ways, this might be accurate, but the best way to experience Mysteries of Lisbon, is not to over-intellectualize the events and enjoy the unrelenting journey that unfolds over an amazing marathon pace for a theatrical screening (there is a pause for an intermission). Keeping the pace brisk is a restless camera that constantly pans and swivels around the action, which is mostly dialogue, though there is some hitting and even a couple of duels to liven up the drama.
But, ultimately all these cinematic tools work to serve story, and the story of Mysteries offers something beyond anything I have ever seen in a movie theater. It is much more than a linear storyline. One might imagine it follows a path that can only be illustrated in a three-dimensional cone that begins as a dot and spirals wider into a curlicue with gaps while branches sprout off the curls and twirl off in their own twisting manner into a dark abyss. One of these little branches ripe with mystery appears when Father Dinis takes João out for a walk, early in the movie, as he begins to explain his origins. A little boy interrupts to ask João if he would like to come with him to see something. After Father Dinis nods his permission, the boy leads João to a nearby gallows. “It’s my father,” says the boy, pointing to one of three hanged men. Though it appears only briefly, this little boy’s shocking story offers a penetrating encapsulation of the extreme stories and mysteries that saturate this film. So many of these stories, no matter how brief or long, are swollen with implication and possibilities.
The movie’s layering of stories comes across almost dream-like, recalling a recent Hollywood movie that excited movie goers by diverting from the traditional form of blockbuster films, by meshing together layers of ever-shifting settings and even goals: Inception. Like Inception, when the finale in Mysteries of Lisbon arrives, the audience is left to wonder: was all that happened really a sort of fever dream, brilliantly adding a layer of infinite possibilities to the proceedings with another surreal bow on top.
Mysteries of Lisbon tries its damnedest to illustrate the complexities of the world by never offering a concrete definition of character, who all still change in dynamic ways. No one can ever rely on anyone else, and things that seem as life-defining as a marriage are just a point in a single person’s existence. It was Orson Welles who said: “We are born alone … and die alone.” Not many films succeed in illustrating this reality, but Mysteries does so in spades.
Mysteries of Lisbon is unrated and opens today, Friday, Oct. 7, in South Florida exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It will play for one week only. See the cinema’s website for screening times, which vary by day. If you live outside South Florida, the film’s official website lists screening dates across the US (you can also download the full press notes and see the film’s trailer).