Tuesday, December 28, 2010

SCN offers high art -- well, medium art, at least -- with AITA from José María de Orbe

Like TrustMovies would know the difference between high art and medi-um? Or low? And if it's art at all, can it be anything but high? Maybe the descriptive range should move from good to bad. But can there be bad art, if the art in question is real? And finally: Isn't it all just a matter of personal opinion, anyway? Which brings us to AITA, the "arty-est" of the movies in this year's Spanish Cinema Now.

By "arty" I mean the movie in this series that is far-thest from mainstream. Of course it is the most "per-sonal," too -- but even mainstream films can probably be personal. (Really, can't you imagine Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg saying, "Person-ally, I hope this movies makes a billion bucks!") Aita, however, is anything but mainstream. The work of writer/director José María de Orbe, shown at left (with  the writing collaboration of Daniel V. Villamediana), the film seems to me almost deliberately obfuscatory, beginning with its title -- which the SCN program lists as Aita aka Father, but which might just as easily aka as House. That is the film's main character and what it is most about: a house and its history, renovation and meaning. ("Father," it turns out, is the person to whom the movie is dedicated.)

If movies are "personal" to their creators, they are every bit as much so to us viewers. Hence the many walk-outs during the screening of Aita that I attended, as well as the scattered applause at the film's finish. I did neither, but rather like most of the audience, I suspect, sat there for a few moments as the credits rolled and the lights came up, trying to figure out what I had just seen. It's films like this, by the way, that supply my major reason for refusing to rate the movies I view on some finally arbitrary one-to-four (or five or ten) scale of stars, apples, or any other symbol. Sure: this would give readers a quick "consumer-ish" guide to use, but that "guide" can only be very unfair -- worthless, really -- to the movie in question. And that rating would probably change within a year (maybe a month!), while my words -- that I labor over to explain how I think and feel -- will stay truer to what I have gleaned from the film under consideration. And those words -- even when I dislike a particular film -- might send some viewers to it because of its theme, cast, director, style or content.

So what did I glean from Aita?  Some beautiful, unusual photography (by Jimmy Gimferrer) -- of the interior and exterior of the house. The first image is of workmen hacking away at the overgrowth that surrounds the house. Soon we are inside it, seeing the decay, erosion -- and making discoveries. Will secrets be revealed? Not really. Or not much. Soon enough this seems to be a film of mostly images and light (or the lack of it).  I don't remember spending as much time in the near-dark -- not even in Philippe Grandrieux's A Lake! -- as here, and after a bit, the experience of the house seeming to open up to light and then closing off to it again, grows oddly appealing.

As I understand it, this house belongs to the filmmaker, and so his investment in the movie is indeed quite personal. When vandals attack (this is clearly staged, and the movie becomes another in the lengthening parade of faux documentaries that "blur the line" between real life and reel life), we fear for the house's safety. Then the movie gets all "ghosty" on us -- with apparitions appearing in a film-within-the-film. This I found more "arty-farty" than artful (because it seems tacked-on rather than organic to what is really going on), but others may disagree.

There is choral music at times, old wallpaper from another era, a discovered box of memorabilia, some wonderful photographic compositions of interiors -- but only two living characters in which to become interested: an old man, below right, whose job it is to guard the house (at some angles his face bears a striking resemblance to that of Frank Gehry, which adds a whole other dimension to things) and the priest (in plainclothes, below, left) who occasionally comes to visit.

By the time the two crack open a bottle of wine to toast, I presume, the approaching end of the renovation, you'll either be with them, ready to make a hasty exit, or perhaps a bit stumped -- like me. Aita is visually quite interesting, but it withholds so much from the viewer that it cannot coalesce into anything that might approach "meaning." However, I would surely love to visit the finished house!

Will Aita be seeing the dark-of-day inside an American movie theater? Unlikely, I'd say. But you never know. Anthology Film Archives might just jump, or some other museum/archival institution. If the film sounds like your cup of cinema, stick its name (or its aka, Father) in your memory bank, and when and if you see it playing again, make a point to go.

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