Thursday, February 19, 2009

FILM COMMENT SELECTS -- once again -- at New York City's Walter Reade Theater

The annual Film Society of Lincoln Center series that I suspect provokes the most "What?!" comments debuts tomorrow, 2/20, at the Walter Reade Theater, and as usual, there'll be plenty to delight -- and confound -- us all. While this year's Film Comment Selects roster offers nothing as Rohmer-esque (I'm joking) as last year's inclusion of Inside and Frontier, it may be that, internationally, the slasher film is taking a well-deserved siesta. (Over here, of course, our youngins are being introduced (again!) to "Jason" and even a 3-D version of Valentine splatter.)
One of my fondest FCS memories will always be that of a matinee audience of mostly senior citizens being confronted by the two French films noted above and simply guffawing our way through the blood and guts. What else could we do with these odes to over-the-top gore? This years FCS will offer some fine "action" (South Korea's popular The Chaser (shown above), a new take on an old noir (Germany's Jerichow), as well as Lake Tahoe (shown below), the new film from Mexico's Fernando Eimbcke, plus new work from Götz Spielmann, Jean-Claude Brisseau, Philippe Garrel and others.

FCS is always a grab-bag, but since the hands that have placed the prizes into the bag come from the boys and girls at Film Comment, you can expect diversity, quality and exasperation -- plus lots of argument regarding to which films that middle word should be applied. Also screening are special retrospectives of five perhaps unjustly overlooked movies and another devoted to the work of French thinker/filmmaker Guy Debord (photo, top left -- more on whom appears farther below).

The only three films I had time to see in advance were the usual FCS mixed bag, though I am glad to have viewed them all. The most interesting hails from Argentina: El Asaltante (The Mugger), which marks its writer/director Pablo Fendrik as a moviemaker to watch. In just 67 minutes, he tracks a man who commits two assaults, very cleverly planned by the culprit and executed by the filmmaker with maximum suspense and surprise. The surprise continues right up until the movie's end. Fendrik films in a documentary, hand-held style that is riveting. He keeps you close to the action and characters in a cinema verité manner but doesn't jiggle his camera to the point of distraction. In his lead actor Arturo Goetz (shown above), he's got a major -- and thus far rather unsung -- talent. You may recall Señor Goetz from The Holy Girl, Live-in Maid and especially Daniel Burman's lovely Family Law. This guy clearly deserves leading roles; here, he's got one for the ages. Onscreen nearly every moment, his performance, coupled with the writer/director's abilities, puts us in the character's shoes so thoroughly that we find ourselves rooting for the guy, despite what he is doing. In the course of what happens, there is a bit of hard-to-swallow coincidence, and by the finale you may feel a tad manipulated. But I think you'll have been more than rewarded by Goetz' fine work and Fendrick's very real skills.

I've long been fond of (some of) the films of Michael Almereyda. I think his Hamlet is one of the best filmed versions of the play ever. I am generally not a fan of "updating" Shakespeare, but Almereyda handled it surprisingly well (and cast it very well, too: Bill Murray as Polonius!). His new one, Paradise, harks back to his earlier Happy Here and Now, in both title and theme -- at least so far as I understand his titles/themes. While the new one is not in narrative form, as was HH&N, it plays with the idea of appreciating life as we are living it: the moment, the journey, and so forth. Paradise (a still from which is shown above) offers a kind of video diary, with all the homemade look and feel you'd expect from this. Yet, when it is Almereyda doing the looking and feeling, this is likely to be more interesting and thought-provoking than what you or I (or certain other filmmakers) might come up with. My quibble is that it's not quite interesting or thought-provoking enough for its 82 minute running time. Almereyda shows us a number of people and locations -- U.S.-based and international, and these tend to be what we might call "just ordinary." But that's his point. HH&N ended in a rush of music, ideas and film edited so spectacularly well that I was transported. Paradise simply ends, leaving us to consider what we've just seen. If you already enjoy the work of this filmmaker, you'll certainly want to see it. If you're new to Almereyda, I am not sure whether to recommend the film or not. Still, my advice is, as usual: Take the chance.

Several films by Guy Debord -- a name much better known to French intellectuals than to Americans (all seven of them) of similar proclivities -- are showing in the FCS roster. Even to many film buffs, bells will not ring at the sound of "Debord." For this reason alone, I was interested to find out more: why, in particular, a filmmaker like Olivier Assayas would be so taken with the man's work. The only film screened in advance for the press was Debord's 1973 The Society of the Spectacle (La Société du Spectacle). To call this fellow's work "dense" is to put it mildly indeed. His combination of constant narration (the sort of verbiage that, were I reading it, I would have to go back a time or two per page to make sure I understood what he was saying -- and even then, maybe not) is here coupled to some very interesting visuals: of famous and not-so men and women (the women often nude). All of the above might make reading intensely intelligent and lengthy sub-titles a tad difficult, right? Add to this the fact that the subtitles were not within the movie, as is done with all foreign films. Instead these were projected onto the screen and moved along "by hand" as the narration progressed, sometimes moving slowly enough to be read, sometimes so quickly that even speed-readers would fumble.

All this made the Debord screening a kind of marathon from which this reader/viewer, at least, emerged daunted. And yet I certainly liked some of what I saw and read. The Society of the Spectacle is a kind of primer in Debord's particular philosophy of detournement, which, if you click the link and start reading, you may find yourself disagreeing with almost immediately -- while still wanting to read on. Example: "Every reasonably aware person of our time is aware of the obvious fact that art can no longer be justified as a superior activity, or even as a compensatory activity to which one might honorably devote oneself." No longer? Hello: could it ever be justified so? Probably not. Individual works, yes, but art in general (paintings, novels, music, and now film), considered as a whole? Not likely. Debord is given to a style of proclamation that I would call the "We see that X leads to Y but in reality Y is leading to X" mode. We hear this sort of thing over and over in various ways and situations, and while I often agreed with Debord, he began to sound like an example of an early, highly literate "snark."

Debord's point (one of them, anyway) is that capitalism and the powers that be continually give us spectacle in place of any sustenance. And this spectacle subverts meaning and takes us away from reality and the ability to see what we really need. I think this is true. And many of us know it. But we often love the spectacle anyway. (The filmmaker gives us plenty of his own spectacle via the copious nudity.) He combines economics, politics and class into visuals and verbiage that... well, I wouldn't say they sparkle but at least they're relatively light on their feet. The movie actually put me in mind of V for Vendetta (wonder what Debord might have thought of that film?). In any case, if you feel a need to be challenged -- physically and mentally -- go for it and take in one of the Debord screenings.

Film Comment Selects plays February 20 through March 5.

Photo Credits, top to bottom:
Guy Debord from Wikipedia
The Chaser: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / IFC
Lake Tahoe: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / Film Movement
The Mugger: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / Latinofusion
Paradise: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / Michael Almereyda
The Society of the Spectacle stills: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / agnès b.

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