Post Tenebras Lux, the fourth film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas demands a relaxed, open mind well aware of the boundaries of cinema and in search of something fresh. The cinephile with an adventurous taste looking for something new in the forms of narrative structure and framing will leave a film like this invigorated. Those looking for something traditional will only feel frustrated, however. But resist and miss a vital message about the class divisions that seem to perpetuate themselves via the mind-numbing escapism most filmmakers are comfortable to exploit for profit and cheap thrills.
Post Tenebras Lux (Latin for “After the darkness, light,” a term lifted out of the Book of Job) is a slippery affair that oozes a vibrant, vital energy looking to obliterate the confines of cinematic narrative for high impact of a social message that seems to trouble the filmmaker to the core of his being. He puts his own lifestyle at the center of culpability by placing his own progeny in the film as the main characters’ children. As you watch the main character Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) try to mingle with the working class while indulging in bourgeois life, which includes a sex adventure to France with his quietly suffering wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), one has to wonder how much of this is autobiographical, at least on the level of conscience. The abstract manner of this film speaks to the filmmaker’s own frustration with the hypocritical idea of it, for ultimately, how can an art film truly speak to the concerns of the other, much less the subaltern.
Illustrating the futile divisions in class systems, Reygadas, who also wrote the screenplay, juxtaposes vignettes of a small town in the lush forest landscape of Central Mexico, bookended by a children’s rugby match in the U.K. Consider the Jungian principal of synchronicity, and the narrative conceit should feel easier to accept, as both settings will illuminate the other in an incongruent but impactful manner. For the most part, the film follows an upper-class family that remains as humanly flawed as the rest of town’s denizens in the lower classes, yet social constructs result in an impenetrable division, despite Juan’s efforts to socialize and mix with those under his employ or simply living in the same area. It all comes to a head in a violent encounter as banal and distant as Reygadas dares to conceive.
The film opens with an evocative if startling exterior scene at dusk. A little girl Eleazar (Eleazar Reygadas) stomps through a muddy meadow as a pack of dogs run back and forth around her, harassing a herd of cows, some of which attempt to copulate. The child, who must be about 3 years of age, is monosyllabic, uttering words like “dog” and “cow” and what will soon be revealed as the names of her immediate family. She sloshes around, fascinated by the mushy ground, as the dogs zip around her and nip at the agitated cows. The sky looms dark with gray clouds pregnant with rain and rumbling electricity. The opening scene carries on long enough, in what seems a single take, to turn from dusk to pitch black and only the sound of animals and the child’s startlingly playful voice resonate from a darkness broken up by flashes of lightning.
Scene 2: Enter the devil. The presence of evil is revealed in the family’s home. The glowing red thing, with no features but its silhouette and testicles hanging and swaying like a pendulum, creeps through the family’s fancy home, carrying a toolbox and bathing the walls in a red glow. The thing takes its time to establish itself. It feels as long as the opening scene, inviting the viewer to wonder. When the little boy of the house, Rut (Rut Reygadas), awakes, he stares at the figure with a sort of curiosity that implies he might be dreaming it but also an awareness that such visions can wholly come to children as rather real (read: traumatic). The scene may feel long, but it allows for it to creep under the skin, so it might echo and illuminate the following scenes that range from violence to animals, subjugation of men and the environment and degradation of love. This is not any easy film to experience, and there are many lengthy, quiet scenes similar in length that range from startling to mundane. But there are also chatty scenes that illustrate Reygadas’ concern also has a sense of humor.
Despite many grand shots outdoors, Reygadas subverts the landscape with the use of a beveled lens that refracts the edges of the image leading to a doubling or sometimes quadrupling of the frame’s edge, creating an invisible if suffocating border around the people he has focused his camera on. This is not some indulgent, random use of experimental lensing. There is a symbolic relevance to the flourish. Post Tenebras Lux is a darkly poetic wake-up call about people who have lost their humanity and could very well continue to lose it should they allow themselves to succumb to complacent entitlement. It’s as harsh an experience as the recent class-concerned Paradise: Love, another exclusive screening revealing the brave programming that continues at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (My review: Film Review: ‘Paradise: Love’ peels away layers perpetuated by Disney gloss of post-colonial times). However, whereas Paradise: Love found potency in its raw delivery of frank exchanges between two different worlds of people, Post Tenebras Lux takes a more abstract approach. The narrative frequently jumps around with seemingly disconnected scenes that demand an open mind by the audience prepared for an interpretive experience. To understand, however, might mean you will have to look at something that you might not like to see, be they scenes that shock on-screen or conversations that demand inference from a social standpoint of the same hypocrisy Reygadas seems to struggle with. It does not have to feel negative, and he offers hope at the end.
Post Tenebras Lux won Reygadas the best director award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It is a brilliantly structured work that encapsulates earthy characters, startling scenes of suspense and inventive cinematic techniques not seen in his prior work. It stands as one of this year’s truly transcendent films. The director seems very aware of breaking down and recreating the rules of cinema for such an experience to hit the audience. With Post Tenebras Lux, Reygadas shows a daring vision to experiment that echoes beyond panache and into consciousness that may aggravate some but never undermines its grander, insightful message that ultimately overshadows any idea of pretentiousness.
Post Tenebras Lux runs 115 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (this is in no way for kids, however). It opened in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which an early version of this review first ran. Post Tenebras Lux begins a limited engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, May 31. I have been asked by the Cinematheque to introduce the film on opening night, Friday, and the following Saturday night, so be there for either of those screenings and say hi and learn a little more about this movie.
In the second part of my conversation with filmmaker Whit Stillman (this is continued from: A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’), we touch on context and ways of approaching his last film, Damsels in Distress, as well as one particularly good review by a local colleague and another completely wrong review, which was not mine. I was quite critical about the film (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding), and he was game to talk about it while he visited Miami as a juror for the Miami International Film Festival, this past March.
In this part of our conversation, we also touch on where I come from as a film critic, something that I have noticed people like about my reviews but, at the same time, also seems to narrow my vision (I’m working on it): my approach to cinema as an art. Not to discredit my criticism or any film criticism for that matter, but there are many factors to consider outside a movie besides the work itself when it comes to criticism. Any work of art resides in the perceived reality of the viewer. Whatever baggage a viewer brings to a work can affect how the work is received, from whether the viewer watches a film in the morning or at night to the mood they bring with them into the theater to the amount of knowledge and life experience they interpret the movie with.
I try to look at technical things but also consider zeitgeist and theory from filmmaking to literature to psychology as well as anything distinct about the filmmakers involved in the making of a movie. Still, my own experiences and biases also inform my reviews. There are times when I do have a chance to mull things over for a month before writing. For my review of Moonrise Kingdom, which was positive (‘Moonrise Kingdom’: a different kind of Wes Anderson film) I had a month. My initial reaction was that the film felt cartoonish, distant and over-stylized. But with time, I later considered it the most innocent and honest film of Wes Anderson’s career. It turned out to be one of the most popular reviews on my blog, which says something about my final opinion.
With Damsels, I knew the film had some value, as I had written a review that was more mixed than negative. I was prepared to see it again in the theater, but never found the time to do so. Stillman told me it was in and out at the only multiplex showing it in Miami in about a week. I had even felt it worthy of recommending to my wife who, much to my delight, came to admire Stillman’s work after I had introduced her to his earlier films. As I had expected, she enjoyed Damsels much more than I did.
After I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in the theater, I left confused and unsure of what I had experienced, but I knew the film was trying to say something profound. I now consider it one of Kubrick’s most underrated and misunderstood masterpieces after more than 20 re-viewings later and a seminar paper on the film, which I used to illustrate Lacanian theory during my Master’s studies for an MA in American Literature. With anything, opinions can and do change. It’s happened even more profoundly with music with this writer. Therefore, I have no shame reconsidering any film I critique, much less Stillman’s last film (Terrence Malick, maybe you’ll be next [Film review: With ‘To the Wonder’ Malick loses sight of cinema for message]?). What an opportunity to have the director sit with you and consider your criticisms with an open, curious and civil mind.
Here is the second half of our recorded conversation from about two months back. We went Dutch for coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts off Alton Road in Miami Beach:
Hans Morgenstern: One thing I am wondering about is your intention in the film.
Whit Stillman: There’s a very serious intention in the film.
But I mean, is it a cultural criticism of today?
Of course. All the films are. But I think it’s a kind of life preserver. I think there’s a very serious intention in the film where there is all this kind of romance of suicide, the romance of depression, in college. And the way most people deal with this is to therapize it, take it really seriously and re-dramatize it. And, actually, to get out of those moods for people, when it’s not clinical mental illness, is to distract, to make active, to do these things, and then, with the passage of time, they very often get out of that cast of mind. So the things in the film we presented as a joke, but actually there’s quite a bit of truth. In fact, I think, there’s a quite important practicing psychiatrist from one of the Ivy League schools who saw the film late in its run in New York, which lasted to the 17th week down at the Cinema Village, she came up to me and said, “You know, I think the things they are doing in this film are better than what we do in the university. I think this is better.” So, they’re really depressed, everything is terrible, you know, taking a shower, cleaning up, putting on— for a girl, maybe for a guy— putting on some good scent, dancing, getting out, socializing, cup of coffee, you know, distraction. Distraction activity, hygiene distraction activity, order, work, these sort of things get people out of themselves.
But is distraction really the cure for their problems?
Yeah, it is the cure because time is the cure, and distraction is the entry ramp for time. So I think it’s a movie that’s serious by virtue of its intentions on all kinds of levels, but I can’t announce that because I like things that are not obvious, and people can take it as they want to take it or take it as silly as they want to think it is. It is a very silly film.
Well, that’s the kind of film I usually love because when I walked into the theater…
How’d you see it? Was it a press screening?
It was a press screening at a cinema.
Was [“Miami Herald” film critic] Rene Rodriguez there?
Rene was there.
Rene gave it a really nice review, coz he didn’t like [Last Days of] Disco that much.
We corresponded about it, and he said, if you like the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” you will like this film. Is that a fair comparison?
Yeah, well, Aubrey [Plaza] is the same in “Parks and Recreation,” has nice spirit. It’s not a show I follow, but, from what I’ve seen, it’s OK.
Maybe I did come at it too cynical. The thing I know is that when I was finishing considering it, which was probably too soon, was that, yeah, I do want to see it again, I do want to recommend this to my wife, and she did see it, and she loved it. So what I predicted about it was right.
And she just saw it this past week?
A few weeks ago.
Before we met up? Oh, cool. Interesting. Because it had been on the Starz thing? Do you feel your blog affects attendance?
Yeah, insofar as it is shared. Miami Beach Cinematheque shares my reviews. So he’s a big champion of my blog, and so is [The Miami International Film Festival Director] Jaie [Laplante]. In fact, this year, the director of Bonsai, which was a big award winner last year, is at the festival to give a seminar, and I loved Bonsai. In fact, Jaie said my review was his favorite review the film had received.
What’s Bonsai like?
Bonsai is actually based on a pretty famous Chilean novel, and it’s about this down and out writer who decides to take up a job to write this novel for this famous writer, and he ends up incorporating his own personal relationship into the book, and it jumps between the writing of that book, and his memories as a college kid, so there’s this great sort of self-actualization in writing going on there (Read the review: Film Review: ‘Bonsai’ breathes life into art).
Sounds great. I have a feeling your taste may be more art film than mine.
Yeah, I tend to get that.
Which is good. Someone has to do it (laughs).
I am part of that whole group, the Florida Film Critics Circle, with Rene and Connie [Ogle] at “the Herald.” They know I have this small blog but that I’m covering something different in cinema.
Rene, his review— thank God we got that— it was great. It was syndicated all over the place. That review appears all over the place, and he wrote a nice review. It’s a solid review and a kind of way-in review that tells people how to get into the film. One review that kinda annoyed me, and it’s kinda important, is this one guy who always, always attacks my films. I don’t know what his problem is. But he started this whole thing making a big deal about two posters that are on the walls. He said, the director was telling us, because he has the Lola Montes poster in the girls’ room and the Grand Illusion poster in the other thing [Xavier’s apartment],
he’s telling us this and he’s telling us that and his intention is this and his intention is that and all this hogwash. The thing is, there’s so many things you can say about a film. Why presume or state something that’s not knowable by him because I had no intention with those posters at all. I have no feeling for those films, none. It’s just that we were really hard up for posters and any art that looked non-ridiculous. No one would give us posters for free, coz we’re not going to pay for posters in a low-budget film. I mean, it’s advertising. They should want it up. So for the suicide center, I went to a place, and I had a contact, I had a connection, so I asked for, you know, the big old-fashioned musicals like Showboat, Guys and Dolls…
We asked for the right to use the posters in the Suicide Center, and they said, “Oh, no, we’ll charge you a purchasing fee of $1,000.” We’re not gonna spend a cent. If we have to, we’ll pay the $10 and put it up on a poster board, but that’s about it, and so I was stuck. From my old illustration agency we got some stuff, and then we were stuck for other things, and then, by accident, I ran into the guy from Criterion at a party, and I asked him about the posters. He said, “Yes, but you’ll also need permission from Studio Canal and Rialto.” This is the way it always is, “Yes, but.” But, the thing is, I knew they were brother and sister, the Halperns, who I know really well, so I just sent them quick emails, and within a day I had permission and Criterion sent us all these posters. And there are more posters than that up. The guy didn’t see the Godard poster that was up. It wasn’t a very good-looking poster, so we just had it in the background in Xavier’s apartment. And I go into the set and the art department has put up the Grand Illusion poster, and I wasn’t very happy about that. I didn’t want it that present.
It really draws your eye. I do remember seeing the Grand Illusion poster.
That one really draws your eye. The Lola Montes thing he mentioned, you practically can’t see that. Only someone who studied the Criterion artwork would have noticed that because it’s only half of the image. I love the artist who did the image. In fact, I was thinking when it came to do the poster for the film, I was over at the Criterion art department trying to get their ideas. I just love that guy’s work. But [lowers voice] there’s no intention at all. I was thinking, well, it’s plausible… could the character have this on his wall? Well, yeah, he could have that on his wall. It’s possible.
But it’s background. It’s nothing to the theme of your film, right?
Nothing on the walls is supposed to be focal. For instance, my university daughter still hasn’t got her posters back because I took all her posters from her wall because she had to decamp from her room and so the posters were in my apartment, and they were by an artist friend who I had represented, and so I just took her posters and gave them to the art department and said, “Put these in the girls’ room.” And, anyway, he built this whole review about my pretentiousness in my references.
Well, you see, that’s wrong. And they were just these two quick background images?
It’s wrong on so many levels. It’s wrong on so many levels, and then he pounds us in this really important review. He pounds us through the whole thing. Why kill a film based on a presumption out of thin air?
I hope you didn’t get the idea that my review was all negative.
No, your review was not bad. I had remembered it when you first mentioned it to me, but I went back and looked at it. I kind of enjoyed that I didn’t know where it was going to go. I kinda enjoyed the A, B, C thing. I, of course, I thought “A” right away: not older but definitely more cynical.
A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’
May 6, 2013
During the couple of times I met with film director Whit Stillman at this past Miami International Film Festival, something has bothered me about how to present our meetings. He told me he hates those stories concerned with details about what the subject orders at a meal or what he/she chooses to wear. That’s fine. I could care less about that stuff myself. But what I found charming about this man when we met at the Italian restaurant around the corner of one of the screening venues on Miami Beach following one of his jury meetings, was his suggestion that we make the meal a “Dutch treat,” as he did not want to influence me. “That wouldn’t be ethical,” he said. I had never heard anyone use the original, full term of “going Dutch” until that moment. We agreed on a salad to start the meal and when the waitress asked if we wanted the salad with the entrée, which we literally split, Stillman said, “Well, isn’t the salad supposed to come first?” He wasn’t being a dick. He wanted the right experience. He did not want to rush this experience because when does a director have a chance to pick the brain of a critic who panned his last film, Damsels in Distress? (‘Damsels in Distress:’ Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding).
We first met a few nights earlier, as noted in an early post covering one day in my week at the Miami International Film Festival (Underwhelming films but overwhelming schmoozing on Day 3 of MIFF). I was sitting with actress Lena Olin and her husband, director Lasse Hallström at a bar during an after-party of Hallström’s career achievement screening. I had interviewed him for “the Miami Herald” ahead of this event (read the article). Stillman came over and introduced himself to Hallström, who seemed to have no idea who the man saying he was an independent filmmaker was. I felt compelled to jump in and sing the praises for Stillman’s work. I then introduced myself as a film critic to Stillman, and he asked me if I had ever panned one of his films. I said, “Well… the last one,” and he made an exaggerated taken aback gesture. I quickly informed him that I am still a fan and quite interested in his work and suggested a meal one day since he was at the festival all the way through as a juror for the Knight Ibero-American Competition. I was impressed that he agreed, and he shared his email so we might coordinate.
I think it says a lot about this director’s humble nature to sit with this local writer/film critic to learn as much about me and my experience with film in general rather than get one-sided and defensive about his work. We turned out having a nice, leisurely lunch that final Friday afternoon of the MIFF. He asked about the title of my blog (I got it from something director Kelly Reichardt had written about filmmaking) and he took down my recommendation to check out Chloë Sevigny’s surreal work in Olivier Assay’s Demonlover. He really wanted to understand where I came from as much as explain where he was coming from with his last film, and it was an interesting two-way conversation. After the lunch, which I did not document, as I wanted it as a warm-up for our talk about Damsels, we walked over to Dunkin Donuts for a coffee. If you have listened to his commentary on the Damsels blu-ray, as I did before our meeting, you already know Stillman’s preference for Dunkin coffee over the dark roast hyped by a famous competing chain.
It was there, with pop radio blasting out classic hits by Michael Jackson and the like that I hit the record button on my digital voice recorder, and we got to the review I so brazenly titled “Stillman dumbs it down after almost a generation in hiding.” We spoke about some of the statements I made about his movie, the stylized world of Damsels, how the two leads are left more open to interpretation than Stillman might have liked and how technology dates movies. Here is a transcription of the first half of our half-hour chat, slightly trimmed for clarity and cohesion. We began with my lead:
Hans Morgenstern: So I put in the article “either A) I have grown too old and cynical…”
Whit Stillman: Oh, yeah, I was going to say A (laughs).
Of course, it has to be my first choice, because of course you haven’t lost your knack for smart writing, which was option B.
But you don’t think Millennials are too dumb to speak the same language as the generation before them, which was C?
I didn’t quite get that point. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t quite get it.
So, let’s go back to the ‘90s, think Richard Linklater. That was another very smart peer of yours during the rise of ‘ 90s indie film. I came of age in college watching these films. So when I think of those characters, I feel they seem as intelligent as I had felt, whereas the characters in Damsels don’t seem as bright.
Well, I do think they’re bright, except the ones who are dumb. You go with what you love, and I love Fitzgerald and Salinger as writers, but I also love the comedy of Will Ferrell and the comedy of Animal House. What the people at the Dublin Film Festival said about the film, which is really on, is that it’s Jane Austen meets Animal House, and that’s combining things you like. So, yes, some characters are dumb, but I hope it ends up being intelligent with the line of jokes with the guy and the colors, and the rainbow and all that. But I think that Violet is as intelligent a character as we had in previous films. I mean, I felt that where we went astray… there’s certain things that are flaws as far as audience comprehension or acceptance, but I wouldn’t want to necessarily say that they are intrinsic, sort of aesthetic flaws in the film. It just means that the acceptance of the film is going to be limited on the short term, but over the long term, it might make the film more interesting for people to see it a second time or chance on it again. Because, as far as entertainment terms, I probably blundered by having the first five minutes of the film. Because, the way it’s introduced, a lot of people think these three girls are probably the mean girls, well dressed, all the sort of things we associate with being superficial people, and then there’s this girl who’s nice, the sweet character. They think she’s supposed to be the character we judge the others by. I didn’t realize how strong that would be. Because I thought that we made it pretty clear early on that it’s really about Violet [Greta Gerwig]. So I don’t see Violet as a freak. I see her as someone very appealing and, through her point of view, very interesting. And Lily [Analeigh Tipton] is sort of subverted because Lily was supposed to be a real knockout but kinda cold and superficial, and then all the guys like her. But Violet’s way better and more interesting but doesn’t have those killer looks that Lily’s supposed to have. But then, an actress comes in to audition, and she’s very good and very real, and it’s really good, what she’s doing, but it’s not really what it’s supposed to do. But I feel that my idea is a little bit clichéd, having this easily identifiable negative character and to have it less easy to identify her as a negative character, who’d make the film better and more interesting. But it just throws so many people for a loop.
It happens late in the film, as well.
They constantly see the film as being Lily’s film, not Violet’s film. They still have an uncomfortable time to find that line.
And the actress who played Lily, did you see her on “America’s Next Top Model”?
No. I didn’t see anyone. I might have seen Aubrey Plaza in something before. Maybe I crossed paths with her visually. But it’s all through casting. I mean, yes, once I knew she was good, I went back and looked at “America’s Next Top Model” and that kind of stuff.
So you never even knew she aspired to be a model?
She’s not a model, and that’s a good thing.
I mean, she was never a model. She’s an aspiring filmmaker, writer, actress who got a gig on a reality show playing someone who was trying to be a model, but she’s not a model.
I mean, the good thing is that I didn’t have the prejudice of her being a model. I just saw her as an actress, and then I heard everyone liked her on “America’s Next Top Model.” Had you been aware of her in that?
I can’t remember anyone on that show because they all look alike, slender young women.
I know that the wife and daughter of the lead investor were very excited that it was Analeigh that they liked.
So, for you, it’s really all about Greta Gerwig’s character.
It’s really all about Violet. We had many alternate titles. One was going to be the Ultra Violets, but that would have sort have been misleading, or the Violet Ultras because they’re sort of ultras, those girls.
Sure. Talk about ultra, like Rose’s revelation at the end where she says she talks with a British accent because she just came from London.
I mean the film’s not supposed to be a retro, joking film. It’s the idea that if there are things in the past that we liked, we can bring them back. We can re-create them, and we can build a future with the elements that we like in the past. It’s sort of like when a bird makes its nest, it takes little elements it likes and puts its nest together with those elements. So, in our future, rather than thinking of anything new and having new things that’s never been done before, why not take some things that seem nice from the past, like, let’s say, a style of dressing or a style of music or a style of dancing, and let’s [recuperate] that. I mean, the Renaissance was about, after the dark centuries, looking back at classicism of Greece and Rome and, see, what is this great culture, how can we bring it back? So I think there’s a bit of that in our society. I think, at the same time, there’s been technological progress and material progress and many good things in life and the Internet and cool things like that. There’s also been loss, so you see films from the ‘30s and it seems to me like a higher culture. It seems like these people are more civilized. We’ve lost a lot, but we don’t have to lose it because people are more intelligent and aspirational and have good qualities. And reality is totally checked at the door, so people shouldn’t be judging [Damsels] based on any vérité. There was a French filmmaker who did this film where at the end all these young people come and take over the house, and they’re running all around … and I found it a very cliché version of the youth of today. A lot of the industry films, it’s kind of a cliché, but really there are all kinds of types and none of my daughters are like the cliché version of what today’s youth are like.
So they’re not always texting on the phone?
No, no. I have one daughter who’s immune to all that. I mean, we did have more contemporary signifiers, originally, in the film, but you cut out a scene that has it, and therefore it’s no longer in it, so we do have a cell phone in the film, and we do have her [Violet] saying, people don’t write by hand anymore. But also I’ve seen a lot of films where they’re using whatever the technology of the day is and everything, and it gets very boring, very quickly. It’s all about whatever the latest thing is.
Yeah, it seems kind of conscious.
In Spanish films, the classic scene is someone comes in to their apartment and plays the answering machine and listens to the message on the answering machine, or we have a close-up of the answering machine leaving a message, and that is like tedious cinema. I think now we can do the same sort of thing. It’ll just be some boring thing in the future. Like now, who uses answering machines?
Yeah, and it sort of automatically dates your film. It’s not good in the long run.
Yeah, it’s sort of stupid dating. And also, all the sort of dumb action films, even if they’re good movies and they’re fun to watch, they have tons of stuff with the camera on the computer screen as the person is subverting the terrorists. Like, what is it? The Mission Impossible stuff, so you have the good people typing away at their computer screens, and you have the evil people typing away at their laptops (laughs).
Yeah, and how interesting is that going to be 10 years from now, and how much will it turn the film into some campy joke for future generations?
I did have Adam Brody writing his essay “the Decline of Decadence” on my laptop, but it got cut.
It may have been interesting if he were on a typewriter.
I’m not gonna go there. I’m not sentimental about technology, so that whole thing about people who have to use their manual typewriter.
That was my dad.
I’m not gonna go back to that. But the problem is once the technology goes out, it’s real hard to find. And occasionally to address an envelope or a short letter it would be probably much easier to write on a typewriter, a good IBM Selectric would be good to have now (laughs).
* * *
Our conversation continues here:
March 7, 2013
Yesterday, the “Miami New Times” arts and culture blog “Cultist” published an interview I performed with actor Brady Corbet. He is at the Miami International Film Festival to introduce Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar in 35mm during a one-night only screening this Friday (buy tickets).
For that article we spoke about the merits of this 1966 film, its importance in the world of cinema and his own personal experience with the movie. You can read that article here:
We spent the other half of the interview discussing the merits of watching and making movies in 35mm. Based on other posts written on this blog, a reader will notice a concern and interest I have in the format (here are two particular in-depth posts about it: ‘Side By Side’ presents close examination of digital’s quiet conquest over film; To accept the death of celluloid). Corbet revealed an equal, if not deeper concern than I about the state of 35mm, and I found it wonderful to know a filmmaker as young as he (24) not only shows concern about it, but is also taking steps to keep the format alive.
When the leaders at MIFF asked him to host a screening, he agreed to do so only if it were a 35mm film print. “I said, ‘Well, here’s ten films I’d be happy to screen, but I want to make sure that it’s a print. I don’t want to screen a DCP [Digital Cinema Package],’” he recalls and explains: “First of all, DCPs are very unreliable. They’re fussy, and there’s frequently drop outs. There’s all sorts of problems with them, and second of all, there’s a majesty about celluloid that at this point is impossible to replicate.”
He considers the idea to replace film cameras with digital rather premature, noting that the image capable with the highest quality digital camera has yet to match what can be achieved with 35mm. “I saw Leos Carax speak after a screening of Holy Motors this year, and he said this very funny thing in regards to the digital movement. He said, ‘I feel like we were prescribed an antidote or a medicine for something that we weren’t sick for yet,’ and so for me, unfortunately, I think that eventually, maybe in five years or 10 years, I don’t know, it will be impossible to tell the difference, but right now you still can.”
Corbet will not go as far as calling all digital filmmaking inferior to 35mm. He says there are certain master filmmakers who understand the various capabilities of either format and some that know how to work in either one when the occasion calls for it. For instance, he gives passes to both Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke (whose movies he has acted in) because they know what it is like to work on film. “I think those two guys have been making some of the best movies of our generation, clearly. But it’s an interesting thing. for them it’s probably very exciting because when they started their careers, Lars got to make his first five or six projects on film, and then I understand how freeing and exciting it must have been for him to shoot Breaking the Waves digitally. I’m sure it sort of re-invigorated his interest in the medium. So, as far as they’re concerned, I think they can do whatever the hell they want.”
However, when it comes to a current generation beginning to craft work with digital translation, a lot of the creative process gets lost, as many mechanics are taken for granted. “I think it’s a strange thing for this next generation of filmmakers to grow up on digital without having to learn the analog, for lack of a better word. I feel like you should have the experience of working with something tangible first and understand that deeply and then make a choice.”
Corbet knows firsthand what it’s like to shoot a film on 35mm. His first short film, which played at the Miami International Film Festival in 2008, was shot and projected in 35. He is disappointed that most people will now only have a chance to see it online:
“The transfers that have existed online, there’s a lot of problems,” he notes. “They’re either too bright or too contrasty. When you get into the process of exporting it or the output or whatever, when the contrast goes that black, then suddenly you don’t get that milkiness or that nuance that 35mm has naturally. So it’s kinda hard to tell on a computer, but you could tell when it was projected. And Darius Khondji shot that film, so it’s very striking visually. I mean, I was 18 or 19 years old when I made it, so it’s sort of like looking at baby pictures now. But there’s still something to it I think. I haven’t seen it in a while.”
Corbet has also shot in digital, most recently regarding a much-liked music video for Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes. “I always knew people will be watching the video on computers,” he says. “It’s a very modern video, so we shot that on the Alexa, and I’m very happy with the look of it. It’s very appropriate for the content, very suitable. That was shot by Jody Lee Lipes who shot Martha Marcy May Marlene and other things that we worked on together. I basically wish—my hope for 35mm is that simply it remains an option.”
Corbet does recognize that digital technology has unique aspects in certain lighting environs that makes 35mm obsolete. He brings up Simon Killer, a film he co-wrote with its director Antonio Campos and which he plays the titular role. “I think there are plenty of occasions when digital technology is more appropriate,” he says. “For example, a film we have coming out in a couple of months, called Simon Killer was shot on the Alexa, and we couldn’t have really shot the movie on any other format because the Alexa and its sensitivity to light sees more than human eyes see. You can shoot in really negative lighting circumstances and you still have a viewable image. That film we shot without any film lights. We shot it with augmented practicals and available light, so we could have never made that movie for the price we made it for and made it look as good as it looks without that technology.”
It’s an uphill battle for 35, and Corbet recognizes this. When producers and studio heads or even your own collaborators on the films, like actors and actresses, want to see that day’s takes before the end of the day, it cannot be done with 35. “The problem is also that it’s an issue of immediacy too,” he notes. “They want to see dailies shot all day, and they want to review it at 7 p.m., as soon as you’ve wrapped up photography for the day … People are just getting less and less patient.”
He notes that impatience has a detrimental effect on the creative process. “I believe that sometimes affects the content in a really negative way because you’re rushing things and sometimes it’s nice to sit with something for a little while, and imperfections are a nice thing too. They give an image life.”
Going back to the screening tomorrow night, Corbet has hopes that the film print will look quite nice. “I have a feeling that the print that we have of Au Hasard Balthazar is probably going to look pretty pristine because I imagine it’s a print that Rialto did of the last release of it, so I think that they’re new prints.”
Au Hasard Balthazar will screen Friday, March 8, at 7:15 p.m. with an introduction by actor/director Brady Corbet as part of the Miami International Film Festival (buy tickets to the event here; this is a hyperlink).
Note: This was to be a post on Day 6 of the Miami International Film Festival and Dark Blood, but a meeting at the “Miami New Times” dragged long into the night, and I missed the screening. Day 7 it’s back to an intimate venue: O Cinema for a film with less hype following it than Dark Blood but much critical acclaim: Post Tenebras Lux (click here for tickets).
Though I only made it to one film yesterday at the Miami International Film Festival, it proved a memorable screening due to the fact that I stayed for a question and answer session with the film’s director. My German Friend had its North American premiere at the festival and sold out both nights. When I arrived at the film’s second night, a huge crowd had gathered with scores hoping to get their hands on standby tickets. It played at the intimate Coral Gables Art Cinema and was only one of about five 35mm prints at the festival. However, I later learned it was shot using the industry-favored Red digital camera with 35mm components, according to director Jeanine Meerapfel.
The film is quite a sentimental affair tackling an extremely complex matter: the first generation of Germans (of both Jewish and Christian faiths) growing up in Argentina. The clash of cultures is seen through the Romeo and Juliet type pairing of a Jewish girl, Sulamit (Julieta Vetrano), and a Christian boy, Friedrich (Juan Francisco Rey). As they grow (played as adults by Celeste Cid and Max Riemelt), so does their love and the entanglements associated with their cultural contrast. Considering the history of the Holocaust, which remains an unshakable part of their past, I had expected a more involving film, but it fell flat, for the most part.
Though the film opens with a promising grand aerial-view sweep of the Patagonian landscape contrasted with some very intimate shots between the lovers at the center of the film as children (particularly a glance at them at the bottom of a staircase from above), the film’s framing soon became distant and banal. The chemistry between the older couple also proves difficult, as Cid, well-known in Latin America as a soap opera actress, does not speak a word of German and uttered her lines phonetically, according to Meerapfel.
Ultimately, however, the cultural impact struck a very interesting and raw nerve in the crowd. Many seemed enraptured by the film, which features a stirring orchestral score by Floros Floridis, a Greek jazz musician, who was also present at the screening. This film will appeal to Germans, Jews and Argentines alike, as the film spans several decades from the 1950s onward and covers definitive political and cultural themes as our heroes travel from Argentina to Germany and back again to tragic consequences.
During the Q&A with Meerapfel, who is of German/Argentine descent, and after the usual banal questions of budget and duration of the shoot, one woman wanted to comment from the Cuban perspective. She told the director she found the film “repulsively leftist” because of Friedrich’s decision to join an Argentinian guerrilla movement, not to mention the cultural presence of Mao Tse-tung in the student movement virtually everywhere in Europe during that time. However, a German man sitting just a row in front of her choked back tears as he said the film spoke to his shameful past as a German. As far as relevance of commentary, I would side with the German. This is not a Cuban film informed by that experience, which is another entire other monster.
It stands as a testament to a dark and complex history that a mostly cold and sentimental film like My German Friend could have such a powerful impact. If only it had as much life in the filmmaking. I would still expect this film to have quite a life ahead of itself at niche festivals like Jewish Film Festivals or German or Argentine festivals.
On schedule for today is another highly political movie, No. One of five films nominated for the Foreign Language category at this year’s Oscars, I have higher hopes for this one to stand above the crowd of the films I have seen thus far at MIFF. It screens at 7 p.m. at the Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami (this is a hyperlink to tickets). My coverage of this screening is scheduled to appear in the “Miami New Times” tomorrow, so expect a briefer post here and a link to that final article at the paper’s culture and arts blog “Cultist.”
Day 3 of the Miami International Film Festival started as a bit of a drag with a pair of films that underwhelmed. However, the night ended on a high note as the festival’s director invited me to a VIP party to close the night in celebration of that night’s career achievement award recipient: Lasse Hallström.
I spent most of my time at O Cinema that day, walking in with high hopes for Bob Wilson’s Life & Death of Marina Abramovic. Though I could not have expected to see a filmed version of the actual stage play/opera by Robert Wilson with music by Antony Hegarty and Matmos, I had at least hoped for something beyond brief scenes from the performance and people patting one another on the back. It starts promisingly with Wilson recounting the moment the performance artist called him up to ask him to design her funeral.
The snippets from the performance and rehearsals were as startling as anyone familiar with Wilson’s work should expect. Willem Dafoe delights wearing expressionistic face paint like a Technicolor version of the makeup painted on the actors in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. However, I could not help but notice the sentimentality of it all, which stands in stark contrast to the aesthetic of the work of the performance artist herself. Abramovic is well-known as having put her body through the ringer for her work. She stood against the idea of staged performances with fake blood. Wilson’s work is stagey to the extreme. Abramovic searches for some pain to relate with, and it arrives in her taking the role of her own, abusive mother.
In the end, the talents here are unparalleled and maybe should be forgiven some self-appreciation. Perhaps an exploration of a staged, rehearsed performance with props and costumes will serve Abramovic well in her continued evolution as she approaches a deeper sense of her own mortality. An artist should be allowed to evolve for the sake of the integrity of her art, which should never be reduced to gimmick in order to maintain relevance. The documentary was interesting though it did not leave me as enraptured as I would have hoped for.
The film also opened with a very loose narrative short film that had nothing to do with Abramovic. “Ebb and Flow” was a 29-minute short that at first seemed to recall Pedro Costa’s work in the slums of Lisbon, with an opening scene of a shirtless man hanging laundry inside a bricked building in shadows sliced by incongruent light. The film turned out to be a series of loosely linked scenes about the young man trying to raise a young daughter in Brazil while keeping a job building extreme car stereos. Oh, and he’s deaf. Though the scenes are often rambling and slight, with little conflict, they are quite humanistic and raw.
I broke up the screenings at O Cinema by dashing over from the Wynwood base of the art house to Downtown Miami and the festival’s primo venue, the Olympia theater, for Hallström’s career achievement award tribute and presentation. I greeted he and his wife actress Lena Olin at the end of the red carpet where festival director and kind champion of this blog, Jaie Laplante introduced me with words of flattery. Olin and I had a nice chat, and I was happy to shake Hallström’s hand after “meeting” him only over the phone for a conversation that ended up published in the “Miami Herald” (read it here).
They were soon whisked away for the presentation of Hallström’s career achievement award. I watched it from the back of the room. It began with a montage of marvelous scenes from some of his more famous films. During the intertitles someone messed up the dates noting Abba: the Movie as a 1985 film and then My Life As a Dog as coming from 1977. Murmurs from the crowd proved I was not the only one to have noticed this flub. But the typo was soon forgotten, as one enchanting scene after another surprised members of the audience. They gasped at the breadth of this man’s work since his U.S. debut in Miami, which included Chocolat, Cider House Rules, Once Around, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The producer of Hallström’s first English-language film, Once Around, actor Griffin Dunne presented the award, noting the embarrassing amount of tears he shed when he first saw My Life as a Dog. When it was his turn to speak, Hallström could not help but express how precious the moment was when the film premiered at the 1987 Miami International Film Festival. It clearly stands as one of the most memorable experiences of his life.
As I had already seen that night’s Hallström film ahead of my interview with the director, I headed back to O Cinema for one more movie. Part of MIFF’s Mayhem series, Errors of the Human Body proved downright disappointing. I had hoped for something at least slightly Cronenbergian, but ended up with a film way too long for its own good. It lingered on scenes for so long dread turned to boredom. To make matters worse, the film ended with a twist that trumped anything prior. As one moviegoer outside O Cinema exclaimed, “I feel as ripped off as when I watched Lost!” Errors has been picked up by IFC Films, so you may be able to see it for yourselves soon enough, be it in a theater near you if not on-demand.
After that film, I took up Laplante’s invitation to stop by the VIP party at the Epic Hotel, a fancy new hotel a few blocks south of the Olympia in Downtown Miami, just before the Brickell financial district. It was a chilly walk on an extra cold night for Miami (like yesterday, low 50s), but it proved worthwhile. After not seeing anyone I recognized around the whole bar, I saw Olin and Hallström sitting alone at a small table and approached. We ended up chatting the night away. I mostly spoke with Olin who shared her feelings about what a leap of faith acting in film is, considering she came from live theater in Stockholm. She shared that, while making the Unbearable Lightness of Being, she had feared the end result would be an embarrassing mess. But what a nice surprise she would be in for, as most cinephiles know.
Later, one of 1990s great American independent filmmakers came over to introduced himself, who Hallström seemed not to know. Whit Stillman is at the festival as part of the jury for the festival’s long-running Knight Ibero-American Competition. I gushingly vouched for the talent of Stillman while also introducing myself to him. We bonded after he dared asked if I had ever panned one of his films, and I shamelessly admitted that indeed I had (read it here). Regardless to say, an interesting conversation turned even more interesting, as we all hunched over the tiny table to hear everyone speak.
At the end of the night, I wished Olin and Hallström a pleasant trip back to their home in New York for which they are headed to today. Stillman shared his email address with me, as he and I look to make plans for meeting at some point during the festival. I hope to make up for my harsh review of Damsels in Distress, which the Stillman-centric fansite whitstillman.org called “thoughtful.” The man was utterly agreeable and down to earth and is truly looking forward to our conversation, which I hope to share here.
Today, I have a ticket to only the following screening:
Monday, March 4th
7:00 PM: MY GERMAN FRIEND (EL AMIGO ALEMÁN)
It’s a weekday, so it will mean a lot of writing. Among assignments to get to: transcribing an interview with actor Brady Corbet who will be down at MIFF on Friday to host a 35mm screening of Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar (if you have nothing else to see, buy tickets).
This is a quick post previewing Day 3 of the Miami International Film Festival. This morning an article I wrote on Swedish director Lasse Hallström appeared on the front page of the arts section of the “Miami Herald.” The festival will hold a tribute to him tonight at 7 p.m. (buy tickets).
I’d be lying to say this does not feel like a big step in my writing career covering film, art and music. But this is about Hallström who has made quite a name for himself in Hollywood. I spoke to him over the phone as he moved around furniture at his summer home in Stockholm. He credits the festival for hosting him and his breakthrough film My Life As a Dog back in 1987 (now available on the esteemed Criterion Collection).
Though the film went on to gain two Oscar nominations, outside of the foreign language competition, Hallström says it still could not beat the film’s US premiere at MIFF. “Most of all, I remember the Miami Film Festival, when I, for the first time, saw it with an audience outside Sweden,” he told me.
You can read the overview of the director’s illustrious Hollywood career, including works with Johnny Depp and Richard Gere, by jumping through the image of the Herald’s logo: