the-tribe-posterFor all of its gimmicks — a Ukrainian film inspired by silent movies that eschews subtitles and features a cast of deaf characters — The Tribe (Plemya) is also something else: one of the most uncomfortably disturbing films you will probably see this year. It’s a challenging movie to sit through, not just because there is no dialogue for those who don’t know Ukrainian sign language, but because the notion of the distant objective camera (with no closeups) adopted from silent film presents such an unflinching gaze. The deaf teenagers writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky follows are involved with the deaf mafia, a very real organization in the Ukraine with all the rules you might expect of organized crimes, and it’s brutal (read my interview with the director and actress in Miami New Times: Ukrainian Film The Tribe Explores the Little-Known World of the Deaf Mafia).

Grigoriy Fesenko plays the film’s lead, who we meet at a bus stop located across the street from the cameraman. In the wide shot, traffic whizzes by as he struggles to get directions from a woman to the deaf boarding school. The camera lingers so long, one can’t help but notice the rusted shell of a Trabant next to the bench, half buried by dead leaves, which speaks to the ills of post-Soviet Ukraine. The camera then follows him as he begins to walk to the school. This is a movie of long takes and distant camera. It’s a bold stylistic choice. While it often looks beautiful, it also often works to the film’s detriment.

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There’s already a barrier between the audience and the characters due to the language and lack of translation. There’s a particularly frustrating scene that kills the flim’s momentum when the two female leads, who sneak out of the boarding school to moonlight as prostitutes, enter someone’s apartment surely higher up in the mafia. The characters sit around signing to one another for some time before the girls try on T-shirts advertising Italy. Only in the next scene, when the girls appear in line for a visa to Italy, does it become clear that they are to take a trip overseas to — most likely — peddle their bodies. It takes a long time before that becomes clear, and too often you’ll be thinking about running time in scenes like these.

But then there are the moments of extreme violence and raw sex acts between Fesenko’s character and one of the girls he pimps out and finds feelings for (Yana Novikova). It’s only worth noting these scenes not as spoilers but as fair warning about what you are getting into when you buy a ticket to The Tribe. You can expect some skull crushing violence, a backroom abortion that takes its time with every tool needed for the act and a sexual encounter where the two lovers 69 for sometime, where their slurping becomes a highlight for a largely voiceless movie. As Slaboshpitsky allows the camera to roll on and on … and on and on, you may find yourself tuning out of the narrative to grumble that you get the point.

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Also, for all it’s stylishness, the distant camera makes it hard for the audience to feel anything for the characters, except for the primal difficulty of their most physical experiences. It works on that level, maybe too well. But it doesn’t work on a level of character development. It is a film about outsiders, after all, and this style stays true to that, but you need some intimacy to connect with these people if you want the audience to sit through the duration of this 132-minute movie and actually care about what happens to them. However, Novikova deserves special mention as the most expressive of the lot. From her emphatic signing to a rare moment where she must scream out, she is the film’s heart.

There’s no denying this will be a difficult film for most to sit through. The film’s violent finale takes into account deafness at a harrowing level, but some will wonder if it’s too gimmicky. Maybe I am a little mixed about this movie, but it’s not an exploitation film or some movie devised to be cruel to the audience, like that terrible movie Gaspar Noe concocted, Irreversible. The Tribe is a product of the Ukraine. Anyone who has ever visited (the only ones I know visited for research or educational purposes) can speak to the post-communist chill of the nation’s disillusioned people. The Ukraine has long struggled with a corrupt leadership that has left many disheartened citizens to struggle on their own. Now Russia wants the territory back and has used some of the most flagrantly violent means and deceits to do so. What of its underclass and handicapped? This is a country coming apart shred by shred by the hollow promises of the Soviet Empire, a specter that still looms over its empty present. Sure, Slaboshpitsky has shot an unblinking violent, perverse and often shocking movie but can you blame him?

Hans Morgenstern

The Tribe runs 132 minutes, is in Ukranian sign language without subtitles and is not rated (you’ve already been warned about content in the review). It opens in our South Florida area this Friday, July 24, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and further north, in Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. It could already be playing in other locations across the U.S., if not coming soon. For other screening dates, visit this link and scroll down. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse. You can also read more of my conversation with Slaboshpitsky and Novikova in this post from a few days ago:

Interviews with the director and lead actress of The Tribe

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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Note: the Q&A with actress Yana Novikova below features frank talk about sex and may reveal plot spoilers. If you are offended by either, you might want to skip that part of the article.

The first ever deaf-led film from the Ukraine will not be an easy experience for anyone. The Tribe (Plemya) is concerned with teenagers who work for the country’s Deaf Mafia, a real thing, according to Ukrainian filmmaker Miroslav Slaboshpitsky. The writer/director was once a crime reporter in Kiev, and he has seen it all. It’s no wonder he doesn’t hold back when he presents the world of these kids with a distant camera that hardly ever blinks. The sex and violence is presented with an unflinching gaze, and it has rattled people the world over, as the film has collected many awards.

Speaking via Skype, Slaboshpitsky says he noticed something rather funny about the cultural differences of certain countries with how they reacted to either the film’s sex or violence. “The film is already released in 144 countries,” he says, “including the United States … We had this discussion with my French distributor. It received the rating of 16+ in France. It’s very big. I think 18+ … only 10 films per year receive this rating, but 16+ is not good. For example Blue is the Warmest Color has 13+ and my French distributor told me, ‘We have no problem with sex in your film, but violence was a problem for French audience, and this rating, 16+, can inform the audience it is a violent film, so for this reason we can lose some viewers.’ Anyway, we have a successful release in France, but I have the same with my American distributor, and he told me, the violence wasn’t the problem with the film, but the sex is. It’s very funny. It’s a different culture,” he adds with a laugh.

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It took a special cast to put the film together and Slaboshpitsky spent about six months working on casting the film. He said he auditioned approximately 300 deaf people for the movie before settling on the bold group of actors that make up the teenagers of The Tribe. Of lead actor, Grigoriy Fesenko, he said he needed some patience before he could tap into the talent he saw from the start. “A friend of Grigoriy sent us his photo,” he reveals, “and I thought his look was very nice. Then he came to audition, and it was very tangible because Grigoriy is a real street guy. He is a parkourist. He has experience in street fighting and hooliganism and something like that. In the audition, he was so nervous he completely fucked up the whole audition. It interested me because it was a very interesting mix of the brutal street guy and … very, nervous … and I ask him to come to the audition again, and I asked him come again and finally we took him in the film.”

Meanwhile, the female lead, Yana Novikova, took the director by surprise. She stood out during an audition for someone else Slaboshpitsky was considering for the role. “Yana it was a very special story because I wasn’t sure about Yana before we started to shoot the movie,” he recalls, “so [the character] is a prostitute, and I’m looking for someone who is more sexy, much more Marilyn Monroe style, something like that. So I go to audition at a special deaf theater in Kiev, and Yana was one of the persons who tried to take part in this audition, and I’m coming to see the other girl, which really looks like a sex bomb. When I saw them doing all these different tasks for the audition, I didn’t notice this sex bomb anymore. Yana took all my attention. Finally, we invited her to rehearsal, and she really, really impressed me.”

To read more from Slaboshpitsky about the film, as well as Novikova, jump through the logo below for the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog:

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Now, for those still here, below is my complete interview with Novikova. She responded to my questions via email which were translated for her and then translated back and sent to me. It was a lot of work for everyone involved, and she gave some long, intelligent and insightful responses, so I wanted to share the entire interview somewhere, and Independent Ethos is probably the best place for it. Note: this is also where the frank talk of sex and spoilers come in, including reference to an incident on set that would make for a funny blooper reel on the home video release were it not X-rated.

Hans Morgenstern: Your performance is incredibly powerful. Did you ever think you would become an actress? I read you have always dreamed of acting since childhood. What attracted you to it when you were a child?

Yana Novikova: I was 6 or 7 years old and I went with my mother to see “Titanic.”  I loved Kate Winslet’s performance. I realized then that I wanted to become an actress, and what an interesting thing it is to do. It’s such a beautiful profession.

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Which of the films the director showed you in preparation for your role did you like best and why:

Last Tango in Paris
La vie d’Adel (Blue is the Warmest Color)
9 Songs
Shortbus
Any of the films by Lars von Trier or Larry Clark or Pier Paolo Pasolini?

The director advised me to watch some good movies. I was most impressed with Blue is the Warmest Color. We saw it with the guys who also star in The Tribe. I was so impressed with the performance by the lead character. It is because of her performance in that film that I changed my attitude towards the role in The Tribe. I was no longer afraid.

Where did you find the courage to express yourself with such a demanding performance that includes nudity and violence?

After watching Blue is the Warmest Color I realized that working in cinema is art. Internally I was ready for it. The movie is not about nudity. This is a very profound film, and I came to its subject and depiction seriously. I rehearsed and worked on the role for a long time, trying to get used to the image of myself as a prostitute. When it was time to film the intimate scenes, I asked Myroslav to keep the set to a minimum number of people. So the only one’s present were the camera, sound and translator. Even Myroslav was in another room, watching at the monitor. I still do not feel comfortable about being naked in front of strangers, it is unnatural for me. And we had to do a lot of takes. I had a good understanding with my scene partner, and I did what I intuitively felt. This was not porn, the scenes have an aesthetic purity, there is feeling to them. These scenes are important to convey a sense of fullness, so that the audience believes and empathize with the hero. In some ways it’s like a cinematic representation of some of the great Renaissance art. For example, one of our scenes is very similar to the painting of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer.

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There is a disturbing scene where you undergo an illegal “backroom” abortion. What was it like to shoot and how long did it take?

Myroslav prepared me well in advance that there would be a graphic abortion scene. I agreed immediately, but I was also worried about it, because I did not know how I should move or react like a real person might when having this procedure because I had never had one. The first day I was in rehearsal with Marina [Panivan], who played the woman performing the abortion. The second day we went to the director of a hospital, and we rehearsed in the hospital with a gynecologist. There was a special doll, a dummy, that they used to let doctors train on, so we could watch how it is done. The next day we filmed the scene, and it all turned out. And each time it was necessary to re-live the pain, to cry, to put forth the necessary emotion. In addition, I felt physical pain. The whole day I had to lay on that bare board, and by the end of filming that scene I was all cried out.

Though it is shocking movie, I’m sure you also must have enjoyed doing it. What did you enjoy most about making it?  Was there anything that you didn’t enjoy so much about the shoot?

I like that the film is completely without subtitles and words. It seems to me that a deaf actor can convey more emotion than a hearing actor, because everything must be written on the face, all of the emotions: joy, sadness, hatred, resentment. Wherever we showed the film, viewers who hear all understood. Of course, when deaf audiences see it, they pay attention to the gestures, to what the characters say with their hands. But that’s not the signed dialogue, that is the emotions, because deaf foreigners who don’t understand International Sign are like hearing audiences forced to understand it from the emotions. When Myroslav explained to us what he needed us to do, he emphasized that the main thing was what emotions we give. If we forgot a word, he did not want us to worry, the main thing was to show emotion. It was okay to improvise, especially when there are gestures, not words. You do not need to hear dialogue when everything is written on the face, you can see all you need to in the movements. Because of that, The Tribe is truly a film for everyone. I like that.

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Was there a fun moment you had on the set?

Yes, there was a funny moment where Myroslav said to me and Grigoriy that it was necessary to come up with a position we liked for a sex scene. I laughed, and I could not pick a position, then Myroslav came up with the “69” position, but I did not want to do “69,” and I wanted to choose something else. But Myroslav showed us the “69” position and how beautiful it looked, like how a “snake” moves. We were in rehearsal and we just could not be serious about this. We were laughing so hard, no one could keep from laughing about this.

Do you have any other roles lined up in the future?

I have received several offers for new films, and I hope to be working on a new project soon. I’m also planning to study in the U.S. and earn my masters in dramatic arts.

Hans Morgenstern

The Tribe opens in our South Florida area this Friday, July 24, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and further north, in Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. It could already be playing in other locations across the U.S., if not coming soon. For other screening dates, visit this link and scroll down. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this article. All images are courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

It-Follows-Movie-PosterSometimes you have to strip back the horror to make a horror movie work. It Follows does that to thrilling effect, keep gore to a minimum and the threat of it at a maximum. It plays on the fear of an unknown presence following its victims. There’s no dwelling on rationalizing beyond the idea that the presence is deadly, it takes on the form of a lumbering, catatonic person and it begins haunting victims after intercourse with anyone who already has it following them.

This marks the second feature film by writer/director David Robert Mitchell, who made an impression in the world of indie teen drama with The Myth of the American Sleepover in 2010. Now taking on the genre of teen horror, Mitchell understands how to write likable young characters and balance confrontational scares with the terror of a presence always on the move. It’s the latter notion that works so well and keeps the suspense buoyed throughout the film. Even when the entity is off-screen, it has a presence. As amiable as his characters are, the background has as much payoff as any action or banter in the foreground.

Mitchell establishes the mystery in a twisted, tense opening sequence featuring a young woman frantically running for her life in short silk pajamas and high heels in a suburban neighborhood, with no pursuer in sight, and a pounding, screeching industrial score enhancing the unease. Whatever is chasing her must be near but remains unseen. Her neighbors outside, doing banal things like washing a car, give her puzzled looks before she gets into a vintage sedan and peels off. Sitting on the shore of a beach, she phones her parents for a final, desperate goodbye and a plea for forgiveness of all her trivial, dumb actions. Her car’s tail lights illuminate the brush and trees behind it in a bright, blood-red glow. Its headlamps shine on her in harsh light, falling far short of lighting the void of the ocean behind her. Darkness and what lies beyond is the film’s star, after all. A smash cut, and we are hit with daylight and the victim’s lifeless wide-eyed face, a cut to a more distant picture, and we see her lifeless body has been unnaturally bent, a heel pointing at her face.

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It’s a great moment of establishing the danger that lies for the film’s protagonist, doe-eyed Jay (Maika Monroe, who looks like a younger version of Greta Gerwig). As with all horror films, the rules that the entity lives and stalks by eventually come to light, but no rationalizing of its presence undoes the terror of its almost random appearances. That it materializes with Jay’s sexual blossoming reeks of all sorts of implications of end of innocence. However, Mitchell never veers into the realm of exploitation, showing respect and genuine endearment for his characters, who all come across as sympathetic.

Mitchell also shows respect to a purist notion of horror that the film mines for its scares. It Follows is ultimately about the dread of the unseen. It’s in the nameless pronoun of the title, after all. And there are no safe places from the unknowable threat, as it remains unrelenting in its task to grab Jay and do who knows what to make her into a human pretzel. It’s the unease of that looming fate and the lack of security anywhere from anyone that feels consistent in the film and taps into our primordial concern about the unknown. It’s a smart play on elements that made the 1980s versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing so good.

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Speaking of older horror films, the production design of It Follows has a strange, vaguely familiar quality of era for those familiar with its predecessors. Though a few characters have cell phones and one of them has an e-reader in a compact, Jay and her friends watch campy black and white horror movies on old tube TVs and almost everybody drives sedans from the 1980s or 1990s. This gives the film a surreal quality out of the films of David Cronenberg. The dreamlike atmosphere of this incongruously dated era also recalls Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Mitchell plays with viewer’s associations with these greats to infuse the film with a subconscious yet familiar sense of fear.

Its roots in 1970s and 1980s horror cinema is further enhanced by its synth-based soundtrack by Disasterpeace (Berkeley-educated video game music composer Rich Vreeland working on his first film score), which owes a lot to Goblin and John Carpenter. Its hybrid industrial/new age melodies are cheeseball chic. But, like the film’s narrative premise, it works best when it’s stripped to screeching or rumbling drones instead of overdosing on the schlock, which, the music sometimes does.

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Even stronger than the film’s score is its cinematography, both in what the camera shows and what it doesn’t. Beautifully shot by Mike Gioulakis, who did stellar work last year on creating atmosphere with light in a film few have seen but should called Lake Los Angeles (it made my top 20 of last year), the look recalls the films of Dario Argento. Light and shadow vary constantly, complimenting each other throughout the film. The actors all seem lit from the center and shadows often loom in the distance. Even better is the frequent use of a slow, drifting zoom in many of the movie’s shots that adds a sense of an omniscient gaze between the moviegoers and the characters on-screen. The sense of its presence is always there.

It Follows is one of those conspicuously directed films that never looses momentum and will be hard to forget. But the best thing to note about the film is that it harnesses the potency of mystery to grand effect. There are no subversive twists that upend the film’s logic. The entire concept is a well-maintained variation of the genre that finally will not insult the viewer’s intelligence but tap into their primal sense of fear.

Hans Morgenstern

It Follows runs 100 minutes and is Rated R (for horror with sexuality that all works for the film and veers from exploitation). It opens everywhere today, Friday March 26. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review, which is the only indie cinema in our area showing it. For other locations across the U.S. go here and put in your zip code.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

duke 1sheetIt’s funny that the 50 Shades of Grey movie will hit the multiplex on the same day as The Duke of Burgundy enters select art house theaters. I haven’t seen 50 Shades, but there’s no way it can present as complex a picture of a relationship between a sadist and a masochist than The Duke of Burgundy. Director Peter Strickland, who also wrote the script, presents a bold vision of S&M that not only tests the limits of its value in a relationship between an amorous couple, but he makes the couple women. He heightens the relationship further by placing them in a world only populated by women (the title actually refers to a variation of a genus of butterfly, but there is no “Duke” in the film, per se). Furthermore, Strickland also adopts a cinematic style that recalls early 1970s Euro sexploitation films like those by Jesús “Jess” Franco and Jean Rollin.

The atmosphere of the film is so on point and other-worldly, the viewer will forgive any superficial judgment of the two women at the center of the film, as the director explores the dynamic break-down of the relationship that gradually frays feelings and questions the roles between these two women, the lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her younger lover and servant Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who reveals an amateurish interest in the moths and butterflies Cynthia studies. The film’s opening scene immediately seems to fetishize atmosphere. We meet Evelyn in a velvet cape sitting by a babbling brook, her back to the camera. Smash cuts to close-ups on some green moss that coats the bottom a tree trunk and protruding, brown mushrooms emphasize a fantasy world. Then there’s a cut to the brook and its sparkling surface reflecting the sunlight that dapples through the leaves overhead.

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Next, there’s a wide shot of the mountain forest, what appears to be a Bavarian wilderness. Evelyn rides out of the trees on her bicycle, as the opening titles begin with the film’s theme song by the film’s composers, Cat’s Eyes, a duo from London, who have a sound comparable to the ‘60s-influenced Broadcast, the composers of the music in Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio (2012). At a time when many Hollywood films are eschewing the opening title sequence in favor of cutting to the action, this moment in The Duke of Burgundy stands as a terrific musical testament to the importance of setting a mood for a film. First, the music sounds like a slight chamber pop song from the late ‘60s. Over the bright, pastoral rambling of an acoustic guitar, Cat’s Eyes vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira punctuates the soft tap of a beat with staccato sighs. After a flute plays a circular, cheerful melody, shimmering, languid strings join the track, and Zeffira hushedly (maybe) sings, “One day you’ll be back … when you’re done dreaming … about lust.” Her breathy voice sounds as though it is coming out of the ether of a dream. Her partner in the duo, Faris Badwan, who also sang on the band’s previous self-titled record, has no vocal duties in the score, once again, keeping the film strictly female-centric.

As the credits appear, the pictures freeze, like what Ti West did with the opening of The House of the Devil (2009), another contemporary indie film interested in recalling a film style of the past. Strickland takes it further, washing them out to monochromatic images of various colors using flickering filters of various primary colors. Another funny detail in the credits: lingerie and perfumes are given credit. Early in this sequence, when Evelyn pedals her bike out of the forest, the music is interrupted as a distant voice calls out her name and a young woman on another bike travelling the opposite direction waves at her. Her echoing voice has a surreal, archaic quality that speaks to Strickland’s detailed tribute to the past style he is emulating.

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Sound is incredibly important in this movie. When the title song ends in a flourish of flutes, twinkling harpsichord, swooning strings and that sighing voice, the chirp of birds and the mundane rattle of Evelyn parking her bike and grabbing her hard leather bag sounds jarringly pronounced. After buzzing the doorbell, Cynthia opens the front door with a creak and greets her with, “You’re late.” Evelyn does not reply but follows. The sound of their footsteps even vary, speaking to Evelyn’s smaller size to the older and taller Cynthia. When they speak, there’s an almost disembodied character to their voices, as if the dialogue has been dubbed into English. One could go on and on about the sound in this movie, which gradually grows from scandalously suggestive (behind a closed bathroom door it won’t take much imagination to figure out what one of Evelyn’s punishments entails) to surrealistically evocative (in several montage sequences the dissonant sound of insects, from chirps to fluttering wings evoke the internal state of things).

One could also go on at length about the rich use of lighting and shadow or the dynamic camera work, which often highlights reflections and double images, not to mention the atmospheric set design and the loaded mise-en-scène within those refracted images, as duality and role-reversal abounds. It’s also important to note that none of this could be pulled off without the sincere, heartfelt chemistry between the two leads. The Duke of Burgundy is such a rich film that upon returning to the opening scene after the first watch, I could not help but notice the witty foreshadowing of the babbling brook and all the water Cynthia gulps down as the movie unfolds.

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Though it all might sound a bit salacious or gratuitous, the film never goes there. Strickland keeps much of it suggestive, and that’s where the sex appeal lies. I think there was only one nipple shot in the entirety of the film, and when Cynthia sits on a chair with her legs open, all you can see is darkness. It’s not about keeping it classy, though. Strickland seems more interested in evoking mystery. Who knows? Maybe the women in this world do not even have genitalia. There’s always a sense that something is missing. During a languid pan of the audience at one of Cynthia’s lectures, the camera reveals not only are there no men in the audience, but there are also some mannequins of women sitting in the audience. It’s a stylistic flourish that calls attention to something being amiss in a world of only women.

The film soon reveals that S&M seems to be the de rigueur choice for intimacy between women who have paired off in the world of this movie. At least in the case of Evelyn and Cynthia, it is also revealed that their relationship is so mannered that it is the master Cynthia who is actually obliging herself to the commands of her servant Evelyn, who leaves notecards with instructions of what Cynthia should tell her as her punishment looms. Evelyn’s desperation to be punished also makes it feel as though the passion between this couple might falter at any moment despite such declarations as Evelyn whispering to herself, “Cynthia, as long as I am yours I remain alive.”

As the film lumbers along to even more twists, scenarios are repeated between the couple that reveal the terrible thread they have hung their relationship on. The idea that the spice of sadomasochistic sex might heighten romance is profoundly questioned in this film lush with atmosphere and a disturbingly probing insight into relationships. I highly doubt 50 Shades of Grey will dare to go as far as The Duke of Burgundy.

Hans Morgenstern

The Duke of Burgundy runs 105 minutes and is not rated (this film features all sorts of advanced sexuality between women except for the kind you might expect). It opens in the South Florida area exclusively at Miami’s O Cinema Wynwood on Friday, Feb. 13. It will later expand to the Miami Beach Cinematheque on March 12. It could be playing in your area if it isn’t already on its way. It’s also available on VOD, but we always encourage the viewer to give in to the controlling mercy of the dark theater. IFC Films sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

Once you’ve seen the movie, you may want to return to the soundtrack. Stream it here for the time being, or you might want to just go ahead an pre-order the vinyl version here.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Deep_City-1

Miami is known the world over as a city full of surprises. As a freelance music writer here for more than 20 years, I have become accustomed to expect some mind-blowing realignment of my perspective of this city every year. The last surprise happened about a year ago, when I learned the photographer of some of my favorite ‘70s glam rock albums lived here (read that article here). Now comes Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, a documentary that opens a portal to a ‘60s-era soul scene I never knew had existed in Miami.

Among those who also never knew about this distinctive music scene was the film’s co-director and writer Dennis Scholl. I dropped him an email to ask what inspired him to make this documentary. He wrote: “When a friend sent me the Número re-release of the Deep City catalog, knowing I loved soul music, l listened to it, and before I read the liner notes, I called him and said, ‘This is great, where is it from?’ My friend said, ‘Don’t you know? This is all from Miami.’ I was shocked.”

Eccentric Soul, Vol. 7: The Deep City Label is a diverse and amazing compilation beautifully preserved by the Chicago-based reissue label Número. It’s even available on vinyl. It features bombastic horn sections and swinging grooves that eccentric-soul-the-deep-city-label-2speak to the region’s Caribbean influence at an almost molecular level. There are also famous, gorgeous female voices by the likes of Helene Smith and Betty Wright, who went to levels of great notoriety in the early ‘70s with “Clean Up Woman” and was on the cutting edge of the disco scene.

Scholl could not believe the riches he found in the compilation. “I had lived here close to 50 years and never heard about it,” he says about the Deep City label. “The quality of music was so high that it sent me on this exploration of our soul scene that, as DJ Spam says in the film, had been virtually forgotten. The more I got into it, the more I felt a strong need to bring the work of these artists to the attention of our community, and thus began an almost four-year odyssey to make a documentary film about the birth of the Miami Sound.”

So he, along with co-directors Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle, made this documentary, which first premiered in South Florida at the Miami International Film Festival in 2014 and enjoyed a run at SXSW before airing on Miami’s public television station WLRN and won an Emmy. It’s a punchy, colorful examination of a time in Miami focused around the music released by the independent record label Deep City. The film features interviews with artists like the soulful songbird Helene Smith and legendary Helene_Smithguitarist/vocalist Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, who both recorded for the label. Then there’s label co-founder and songwriter Willie “Peewee” Clarke, who grew up in Overtown during the years of segregation in Miami. Also featured is Clarence Reid, who also recorded for the label, co-wrote many songs with Clarke and continues to perform in Miami as the notorious and original shock rapper Blowfly. Then there’s Arnold “Hoss” Albury who brought in fellow members of the Florida A&M University marching band and added big arrangements to the pop songs released by the label.

In the documentary, Clarke credits label co-founder Johnny Pearsall, who owned a record shop in Overtown, for coming up with the label’s name. He says it was because Miami was the deepest city in the South. In 1963, Deep City was the first black-owned record label in DEEP CITY JOHNNYS RECORDS MIAMIFlorida, notes Clarke in the documentary, and it spawned some slight hits in its time, which got lots of regional airplay but also some airtime on national TV shows like “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand.”

Deep City is a well-rounded film, featuring additional testimonials by Miami’s well-respected music historian Jeff Lemlich, Miami’s TK Records’ founder Henry Stone and, as Scholl noted earlier, Andrew Yeomanson, a.k.a. DJ Le Spam of Spam All Stars fame, among others. Yeomanson is real proud to be associated with this documentary. “The film provides the uninitiated with a snapshot of a crucial time in Miami’s musical development and the characters who made it happen,” he says about the documentary. “Most people in Miami had no idea that there was a soul scene here in the 1960s until recently.”

Miami will get a chance to get re-acquainted with the label on Sunday afternoon during a special screening at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, as part of FilmGate Interactive, a workshop-oriented film festival in its third year. I was invited by the festival to host a Q&A with Scholl and Clarke after the screening. Before the film, DJ Le Spam will be spinning ‘60s Miami soul records as people walk into the screening, so if you have tickets get there early.

Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound runs 56 minutes and will screen Sunday, Feb. 8 at 4 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The screening is nearly sold out. For tickets jump through this link. All images here are courtesy of the producer, WLRN, except the image of the vinyl of Eccentric Soul Vol. 7, which was provided by Número Records.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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When asked why a couple of collaborators in avant-garde film are discussing their works in a shorts program at a Jewish film festival, Miami Jewish Film Festival director Igor Shteyrenberg responded via email, “At the very heart of the Miami Jewish Film Festival we aspire to celebrate artists who push the cinematic edge. We are thrilled to honor Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon this year, as they have explored the outer edges of film and music like few others.”

Indeed, experimental filmmaker Morrison and music composer Gordon have long been favorites of ours at Independent Ethos for the same reason. Neither I nor my wife, co-author of this blog, will forget the screening of Decasia we attended at the Rewind/Fast Forward Festival in 2003 with Morrison in attendance. The film was a revelation and has gone on to earn well-deserved preservation status in the Library of Congress.

Ahead of their visits to Miami, I had the honor to speak to both of these artists. Morrison was in New York, where he lives, and Gordon was traveling in Amsterdam for a couple of performances there. Some of my interviews with Morrison and Gordon can be read on the Miami New Times’ art and culture blog “Cultist.” Read it by jumping through the logo below:

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However, there was so much more we spoke about. Their work is an example of pure cinema, as far as light and sound. Narrative becomes almost subconscious with Morrison’s entrancing images and Gordon’s hypnotic music. That it often transmits a profound message speaks to the power of cinema too often overshadowed by narrative control in language and editing. The fact that the music comes first and Morrison edits mostly found footage of old decayed nitrate film to Gordon’s music, speaks to the abstract impetus of their work.

The two met in the late 1990s. Morrison was the Ridge Theater’s resident filmmaker when Gordon — then most famously known as a founding member of Bang On a Can, noticed Morrison’s work. Their collaboration has flourished ever since. Their first work together was an opera for the Ridge Theater called Chaos (1998). Their first film together was “City Walking,” but they had yet to meet, notes Morrison. “I created the film, and he created the music,” he says. “He did so without ever seeing my film. I did the film without ever hearing his music, and I don’t think we even met, so that was kind of a blind date that turned into a very long marriage. Part of the success of that marriage is that I’ve cut to his track in all the other circumstances.”

That’s right. Ever since that first film collaboration, Morrison has received Gordon’s music first and then put together the film to Gordon’s music. “I write the music first, and he builds the films to the music,” Gordon confirms. Sometimes Gordon does have a look at raw footage Morrison has either shot or found as a starting point, but the films are composed to the rhythm and flow of Gordon’s music. “The beautiful thing about working with Bill is that he’s very sensitive to the sound and very sensitive to the music,” says Gordon, “so if the music builds, he’s going to reflect that in the film and in the images, but the nice thing also is there’s an independence. I get to write the music without having to score the film, and then he gets to make the film, and he has the soundtrack to guide him through it.”

Decasia, notes Gordon, was one of those cases where he had a look at the raw material Morrison was working with, and it inspired him to some extent. It’s a 70-minute film that feels like it crescendos up from near silence for the duration of the film. The music seems to build ever so gradually to an unsettling cacophony. There’s a sense that Gordon is meticulously exploring crescendo. “Generally, a lot of the music I write is in waves and builds up and dies away,” he says.

Describing the music of Decasia, Gordon says, “It’s almost like a storm gathering or something like that, where you see the clouds and the wind starts up. In the same way that a storm gathers power and then all of a sudden you’re in the middle of it — lightning and going crazy — but that doesn’t necessarily last forever, so a lot of the things that I do have that feeling, and when you’re working with a symphony orchestra, the orchestra lends itself to having this epic sound. You’ve got 90 people or a hundred people on stage and all these instruments. You can just make this fantastic and incredibly rich and big reverberant sound that’s just gonna echo in the hall.”

Gordon, a classically trained composer, admits to having been influenced by Brian Eno, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Though he said he finds the music of Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Godspeed You! Black Emperor interesting, he says he does not really keep up with music outside the classical world. He also said he has no interest in singing and lyrics, which speaks to his interest in communication via the abstraction of music. It’s an ethos that bonds with Morrison’s “storytelling” to profound effect, as the filmmaker also has little interest in literal expression through voice. Decasia, after all, defines itself via the reconceptualization of past images celebrated in decay. Images once filmed for narrative were given new life and meaning through the blurred, distorted images that resulted from the nitrate film’s chemical reaction to the passage of time. It resonates with impressive subtext. Many have read into the idea behind this redefinition of the images as an allusion to the fragility of life. “Yeah,” agrees Morrison. “Film works on a couple of different levels, but the thing that it’s delivering to the image is it’s plastic. It’s material. It’s of the world. Whereas the image that you receive is actually ephemeral, and it’s light. It’s shadows. It’s ghosts. There’s a dualism there between this plastic thing and this ephemeral thing, and it’s not a big leap to the same association between our bodies and our souls.”

In one film showing tomorrow night, a Florida premiere, “All Vows,” the deterioration of the image is so pronounced that it looks as if an abstract image has been overlaid the more recognizable image: a man helping a sickly woman to bed. It’s a scene from Queen Kelly (1929) by Erich von Stroheim. The appearance of random blotches distort the picture, filmed almost a hundred years ago, yet the abstract decay and the recognizable images of people are elevated in their juxtaposition to something grander.

“There isn’t any actual overlays,” notes Morrison. “What you’re seeing there between the recognizable image and the abstract images is simply organic decay, so that is the process of time at work, which I think also has a spiritual or, if you will, religious overtones to it as well.”

Morrison says he was inspired to look at decayed film nitrates worth recontextualizing like this after he saw Dutch filmmaker Peter Delpeut’s “Lyrical Nitrate” (1991). “I’d already been working with film in a lyrical way,” he says, “and I guess I was already splitting the image from the base already, but the idea of looking for occurrences where that had already happened, especially in nitrate deterioration, really came from seeing that film and then many years later — probably eight or nine — I came upon this trove of films at the University of North Carolina, many of which had deteriorated, and also the idea of looking at actuality footage or newsreel footage that had deteriorated rather than narratives seemed to have more potential for me.”

Alongside his name on his personal website, Morrison uses the name Hypnotic Pictures. Asked whether his aim is to lull the audience into a state of hypnosis, he says, “I think ontologically the decay does work on people’s retina in a certain way because there are some images that are more abstract and then some that you recognize. I think naturally we’re drawn towards trying to identify those images that we can recognize, seeing when they’re gonna pop out again from the morass of decay, and that creates some kind of relationship between the screen and the audience that people aren’t really accustomed to, and while you’re playing this hide and seek for a recognizable image, the decayed images seem to be working on you on a different level, so I don’t know if I’m going for hypnotism, but I do find that there is that kind of effect that works on me as well, in this kind of footage, and I think it does set up a different relationship between the viewer and the image because on some level you’re always aware that you’re watching a film going through the shutter gate or whatever it is, through a projector, rather than being engrossed in what is truly hypnotic, the suspension of all belief and entering another fantasy world. In some ways you’re hypnotized, and in some ways you’re positioned in a much more real or correct relationship to the screen.”

Asked if he is trying to achieve some sort of transcendental experience, Morrison says,Yeah, definitely, hopefully, but it would be kind of pretentious going around calling my company ‘Transcendental Pictures,'” he adds with a laugh.

Hans Morgenstern

Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon will appear at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Tuesday, January 27, at 7 p.m. in conversation with David Meyer, an author and film studies professor at the New School in New York. There will also be a live performance accompanying two of the shorts by New World Symphony members. For ticket information, visit miamijewishfilmfestival.net. On Friday, January 30, and Saturday, January 31, the New World Symphony will present the world premiere of El Sol Caliente, a tribute to Miami Beach by Gordon and Morrison. For more information, visit nws.com.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

goodbye-to-language-3d-posterAnyone who loves cinema — and I’m talking about visuals, sound and editing, with acting and narrative falling into fourth and fifth place — needs to see Jean-Luc Godard’s first 3D film, Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage). The pioneer French New Wave filmmaker has long moved into a more subversive yet pure exploration of cinema. There is something about his movies that celebrate cinema while trying to tear it down. Though that dichotomy is always fun to watch, with 3D Godard finds a fresh level of experimentation that adds a new thrilling perspective that also does not stray too far from his thinking of cinema.

There simply has been nothing like Goodbye to Language in the movies, and some will be uncomfortable with it while others will delight in it. Those familiar with late-period Godard, like his last movie, Film Socialisme (my review: Godard’s ‘Film Socialisme’ and the entrancing “music” of visuals) will recognize a certain style. The quality of his visuals vary. There are diverse images like the hyper-color-saturated shots of flowers in nature and grainy black and white archival film and cheap, low-def video but also crystal clear HD images of an obscure drama following two couples who are almost doppelgängers of each other (or it could be a sense of Jungian synchronicity that makes us perceive them as one and not).

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Godard’s synopsis of the film in the press kit is quite funny. He opens with “the idea is simple,” and continues:

a married woman and a single man meet
they love, they argue, fists fly
a dog strays between town and country
the seasons pass
the man and woman meet again
the dog finds itself between them
the other is in one
the one is in the other
and they are three
the former husband shatters everything
a second film begins
the same as the first
and yet not
from the human race we pass to metaphor
this ends in barking
and a baby’s cries

That is the basic story or, better put a taste of the sequence of events in Goodbye to Language, but the effect of these events and the connections between these “narrative elements” are so creative and loaded with so muchd48a139f-e443-4096-ac49-f41c7628cc59 meaning, it defies plot. Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Darwin, Sartre, among others, make appearances in quotes and Shelley even appears in the flesh (Jessica Erickson). But great thinkers are actually playing second fiddle here.

Beyond narrative and philosophy, there are the moments of 3D trickery, whether it highlights the pubic hair of an actress (Héloise Godet) or the snout of the director’s dog Roxy Miéville, it also plays with depth of field focus in ways that can feel dizzying, like a pylon’s view of a ferry gliding over the sea or Godard’s interest in floors that highlight their disappearance in an unseen horizon or looking into the depth of a flat mirror. But what most will notice is how he overlaps left and right images to create a super-imposition like no other in cinema. It happens on three occasions. Each time Godard finds a new way to make it relevant to his exploration of the medium as well as the action in the scene.

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But it’s not that these visuals try to move a narrative forward as much as capture the experience of time and space overlapping as an experience while celebrating creation in cinema. His “narrative” is loaded with meaning and history while also destroying any of its relevance in existence. He covers all sorts of heavy topics: gender roles, Hitler, marketing, nature, literature, socialism, but demands the viewer to inform the topics. It’s an invitation to bring competence to a work of abstraction.

Of course his film is also dense in commentary. For instance, a man, Gédéon (Kamel Abdeli) claims to take the position of Rodin’s Thinker while sitting nude on a toilet taking a noisy dump. It’s a profound gesture but also humanizing in uniting him with his female lover, Josette (Godet) who is also naked and watches him as he shit/speaks. He thinks it puts them on the same level as human beings. d1095a57-21c3-466d-9aae-c40d0dee4780But, as a man of a certain era, Godard cannot help but raise the woman to a higher state. The naked woman, her back to the camera, is all clean, curved lines. He’s a scruffy, unshaven troll sitting below her. He is still the man shitting, while she possess the great forest where life comes from (an unseen narrator, perhaps Godard himself, mentions a Native American tribe that refers to the world as “the forest” as he trains the dual camera lens on her hairy pubic area).

Staying true to the notion in the title of the film that language is a weak symbol for truth or expressing reality, the unseen narrator captures the unknowable character of woman in another great line repeated in the film regarding women: “A woman can do no harm. She can annoy you or kill you. That’s all.” Two extremes with the mystery of woman caught in between. The film, is about dualities on many levels, in another wonderful moment Gédéon says, “The two greatest inventions: infinity and zero.” She counters: “sex and death.” This review could be five times longer in exploring the play of dualities, it’s lush with them. Godard is a naturist in the way he celebrates nudity in a mundane sense, and it’s great fun in 3D, but then there is also the way he treats nature itself with his dog roaming through it. These moments provide wondrous respite from all his intense experiments in 3D, whether it’s the face of Roxy or a camera wandering up the trunk of a tree.

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Ultimately, with Goodbye to Language, you will feel something unequivocal in cinema. With the 3D medium, the master has once again found a new way to bring visuals to the forefront of the cinematic experience. Long frustrated with any idea of “truth” in cinema, Godard has gone on to make movies that expose the faults in the medium as far as storytelling but also raising them to a higher level. With Goodbye to Language he comes closer than ever to making the medium the message. He seeks to create a cognitive dissonance for anyone seeking some straight narrative informed by human history or current social concerns in an exhilarating way. Goodbye to Language is so much more than film or even experience for that matter. It is a portal meant to wake the mind out of a stupor numbed by expectation and trained by plot and narrative. It is awareness incarnate in image.

Hans Morgenstern

Goodbye to Language 3D runs 70 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (there is violence, language and nudity).

Update: Broward County will now have a chance to experience this extraordinary movie. It opens December 19 at Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale.

It opened exclusively in South Florida this Friday, November 28 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. 

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)