DOUBLE FEATURE: The St. Louis International Film Festival 2011 - "Confidence Man" dir., Bob Streit + "The Interrupters" dir., Steve James

I was only able to see two SLIFF films while in St. Louis last weekend, both screened in Edwardsville, IL at The Wildey Theatre, an old fashioned music and film venue with impeccable sound and projection.  Aside from seeking out new experiences in film, one of my great passions is experiencing new venues, and the Wildey was an unexpected find in this regard (check out their upcoming music and film events here).

The Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, IL
The St. Louis International Film Festival had put together a great weekend of documentary programming at the Wildey, including Edwardsville native A.J. Schnak's Kurt Cobain About a Son, Rockford, IL film maker Daniel Lindsey and T.J. Martin's football documentary Undefeated, and two excellent docs existing on opposite ends of the production and distribution spectrum (and created in opposite ends of the state) Bob Streit's Confidence Man and Steve James' The Interrupters.  For Streit (an old friend and film/theatre collaborator of mine from Southern Illinois) the opportunity to screen at the SLIFF is huge, and Confidence Man, the story about a down-home band and it's internet scamming leader, is a perfect fit for the festival circuit.

Hugh DeNeal - Confidence Man
Having lived in Southern Illinois between 1995 to 2001, I count myself among the number of music fans from that time and place who often wondered why Hugh DeNeal, the subject of Confidence Man, and his band The Woodbox Gang weren't bigger than they were; at the same time, I was among those that counted it as a blessing that their live displays of quirky, comedic dark bluegrass and multi-instrumental Americana were all our own, so to speak.  For me, watching Confidence Man was literally an opportunity to glimpse re-contextualized clips of my past experiences with the band, and I was fully aware that my critical lens was being muddied by the wash of nostalgia that came along with the screening.  I had some great times in the late 90's in SoIll, and The Woodbox Gang was one of the primary soundtracks to that experience.  Beyond the nostalgia trip, what makes Confidence Man so intriguing is that Streit has so thoughtfully laid out the lyrical content of DeNeal and his band mates as an almost musical-like commentary to Hugh's haphazard journey into online high-risk investment scams.  As DeNeal himself writes:  "It's a confidence game/I'm a confidence man...genuine I am/honest I ain't/stab you in the back/smilin' like a saint."  Streit wisely jumped at the chance to tell DeNeal's story, and has made a film that not only pays tribute to a great underground band, and will no doubt turn much of it's audience on to the music of the Gang, but also serves as an interesting reflection on our current economic times.  Confidence Man is not the story of a big time scam, but rather the story of a small time musician perched on the verge of fame (Jason Ringenberg compares him in the film to Dylan and Van Zandt as a lyricist) who makes some hapless choices within an economic climate perched on the verge of collapse.  The film is an endearing, hand-made portrait of The Woodbox Gang that evolves into telling DeNeal's story in some clever ways, given that Streit and editor/cinematographer Dan Johnson were limited to working collage-style in many sections of the film, pulling together fan video from many different formats into a narrative whole.  This piece-meal presentation is one of the most charming aspects of the film, and Streit and Johnson merge much of the footage beautifully.  The screening at the Wildey was followed by Streit answering some questions from the audience where he informed us that although Hugh DeNeal is now on parole and staying in a halfway house, coming out to play at the Wildey that night was not exactly within the boundaries of his release.  Fortunately, we were treated to a rollickin' solo set of Woodbox Gang tunes performed by Gang-member, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Alex Kirt, who played a number of fan favorites, including "God Box Wagon," and "Never Kissed a Girl."

Alex Kirt of the Woodbox Gang
As I noted in my last post , Confidence Man is a film that sits comfortably on the shelf alongside other great underground music docs such as The Devil and Daniel Johnston and Half-Japanese:  The Band Who Would Be King.  For fans of alt-country music who want to discover the sub-genre of "trashcan Americana" the film is a must.  For more information on upcoming screenings and future distribution go to the Confidence Man Facebook Page, or check out Woodbox Gang fan Jello Biafra's label Alternative Tentacles for Woodbox Gang merch.

Ameena Matthews in Steve James' The Interrupters
From the new and emerging documentary film makers of Southern Illinois to the area's legend of the genre, Steve James was honored at this year's SLIFF, receiving the Maysles Brothers Lifetime Achievement Award for Documentary Film Making (the award is named after the seminal figures in American documentary film, Albert and David Maysles, the directors of Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens).  The SLIFF also screened  James's excellent 2002 film Stevie (a film Bob Streit reminded me was the "other film to come out of the Pomona, IL area"), and his new film, The Interrupters.  James and Interrupters subject Ameena Matthews were in attendance at the Wildey screening of the film, and answered questions afterwards about the ongoing endeavors of the Chicago-based anti-violence group, as well as the difficulties of capturing such an intimate portrait in the tumultuous streets of Chicago.

Ameena Matthews and Steve James at The Wildey Theatre, 2011
Based on the book by Alex Kotlowitz (who I was fortunate enough to meet at the Chicago Film Fest this year, covered here), The Interrupters follows the CeaseFire organization of Chicago, a group dedicated to saving lives and stopping gang violence by developing strategies that "interrupt" the causes of violence.  Though the film follows a number of dynamic and brave individuals over the course of a year, Ameena Matthews, daughter of notorious Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort, stands clearly as the star of the film.  Matthews is a motivated and tireless community organizer who has clearly played a large part in trying to bring down the numbers of Chicago gang-related deaths in recent years.  James captures Matthews interventions, which play like a kind of theatre for social change that would make Augusto Boal's head spin, with an intimacy that has become the trademark of James' work.  Perhaps most known for having made one of the greatest American documentaries of the last couple of decades, the recently Criterion-released Hoop Dreams, James brings his compassionate and skilled storytelling abilities to subjects and issues that might seem familiar to the realm of television, but are so often presented with less attention to detail, and with a far less patient and humane lens.  In this sense, not unlike Werner Herzog's recent Into the Abyss, The Interrupters stands in stark contrast to the kind of sensational preoccupations we have grown numb to in modern commercial media.  

Hoop Dreams

The Interrupters
James is another one of those directors, like Malick or Cassavetes, who has managed to assert his mastery as an artist in his genre with a relatively small filmography.  The three films pictured above are really at the core of what you need to know about his work.  If you organize a triple feature, by the end you might be convinced that James could shoot someone reading the phone book and manage to come out with something compelling.  Don't get me wrong--the subjects of his film are compelling enough as it is, but surely his adept hand in shooting and editing make the difference.

Congratulations to James on receiving the Maysles Award, and to Bob Streit for a triumphant entrance into the festival circuit.  I look forward to seeing more from two great Southern Illinois artists.


Goin' Down South...

In anticipation of seeing my friend and former Greylight Theatre collaborator Bob Streit's new documentary about Hugh DeNeal and the caustic acoustic cacophony of the best band to ever rise from the deep south of Illinois, The Woodbox Gang, I thought I would recommend a few other like-minded musical docs that are worth seeking out.  Streit's latest film, Confidence Man (screening this weekend at the St. Louis International Film Festival), traces the career of DeNeal and his band, weaving "a cautionary tale about how playing dark bluegrass, hosting High-Yield Investment Programs online and touring with a mortgage to pay can land you in Leavenworth Prison."  

When the Woodbox Gang were just beginning, they were the house band at a coffee shop called Mungo Jerry's in Murphysboro, IL where yours truly was a frequent barista.  The band was just a three-piece then, armed with little more than acoustic guitars, washboards, and spoons.  From the moment they broke out the didjeridoo and reved up a tune called "Showdown," to this day one of my favorites, I was forever a Woodbox Gang fan and a devotee of the Trashcan Americana genre, of which they were the sole purveyors.  

The Gang "back in the day" at Mungo Jerry's Coffeehouse
In the spirit of great musical journeys, and the hardships that come with making great music, here are a few music doc recommendations that will compliment Steit's accomplishment in uncovering this great piece of music history through film:

Wilco - I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
1.  I Am Trying to Break Your Heart:  A Film About Wilco, dir. Sam Jones, 2002 - If you want to flip back a few pages in the  history of the Southern Illinois and Eastern Missouri music scene, you will find the band that is often sighted as the progenitors of alt-country, new Americana, cow punk, or whatever you want to call it:  Uncle Tupelo.  The band famously covered the song "No Depression," which became one of the monikers for their progressive genre of music, as well as the name of the music mag that covered other Americana musicians, new and old.  One of the singer-songwriters in Uncle Tupelo was Jeff Tweedy, who would go on to be the continually and restlessly evolving front man of the band Wilco.  I Am Trying to Break Your Heart not only tells a jaw-dropping tale of one of the greatest American bands in recent history, their record company woes, and their ultimate triumph in being able to put out their music their way and get paid in the process, but also marks a unique transitional period in the history of the music recording and distributing business.  The film is an engaging portrait of a hard-working band taking creative risks, and emerging with what may be remembered as the finest album of their career, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  A rare music documentary that balances being a great concert film with an unfolding narrative through line.  The Palm Pictures dvd also includes some really worthwhile extra concert footage on a second disc.

Daniel Johnston - The Devil and Daniel Johnston
2.  The Devil and Daniel Johnston, dir. Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005 - Some consider this film in the same group of "outsider artist" documentaries as Jessica Yu's In The Realms of the Unreal and Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol, and although there are some criticisms of the audiences who appreciate those works being elitist, derisive art snobs who are simply in search of the next weirdo to praise and then forget about, the fact of the matter is that they are all great films.  And, in the case of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, it is hard to walk away from it without humming a few lovely melodies, and without understanding that there is some real musical genius at work with that strange and troubled man.  An insightful study of the relationship between mental illness and creativity, this is a great documentary that puts a fringe musical phenomenon in proper perspective.  Feuerzeig also directed the equally essential documentary Half Japanese:  The Band Who Would Be King (1993), which contains the greatest rock-geek talking head moments in the history of rock-docs.  Check it out...if you have the intestinal fortitude to really check these bands out, that is.

Jason Isbell and Patterson Hood
Drive-By Truckers:  Dirty South Live @ 40 Watt
3.  Drive-By Truckers:  Dirty South Live @ 40 Watt, dir. Eleanor (aka Shawn Foster), 2005 - Although I anticipate seeing the 2009 documentary on the Drive-By Truckers, The Secret to A Happy Ending, which evidently chronicles three tumultuous years of the band's career, I have to say that it will be hard to beat Live @ 40 Watt for documenting the band at their peak, bringing the house down with the triple front man assault of Isbell, Hood, and Cooly.  This really doesn't fit into the same category of documentary film making that the aforementioned films do, as it is primarily just concert footage cut together with the occasional backstage banter.  But, as a chance to be in a room with one of the great American rock bands, playing what will most likely be the finest set-list of their careers, Live @ 40 Watt is an exceptional gift.  Impeccable songwriting, and a pure, honest guitar assault that will rectify all the bad experiences you've ever had with less than adequate guitar wanking.


INSTANT 3: Genre Defying Film - The Avant-Garde on Netflix

I can see myself 15 years ago in Carbondale, IL, searching the back room of rare VHS rentals in an indie shop called Rosetta Bookstore, or flipping through the bootleg-heavy bins of Plaza Records, digging up a bizarre array of selections, tipped off by a variety of sources, ranging from Videoscope magazine (The Phantom of the Movies!) to the excellent "Experimental Film" course I was taking at SIU with a guru professor of the avant-garde, Lilly Boruszkowski.  I miss those days of the independent record and book stores, the musty smells of immovable bargain records and cds mixed with the herb and incense wafting in from the backrooms.  Nowadays, I can watch the Brothers Quay on my laptop from any Starbucks, and although the films themselves still inspire sweet delirium, the overall experience lacks a certain something.

The Brothers Quay - Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1988)

But, hey! - we have some great access in the internet age to films that, back in the day, would be lucky to get distributed in a decent VHS format.  I can recall taking a Fillm/Philosphy course in my grad days just to get access to some of Bresson's films (particularly, Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and Pickpocket) and then skipping the second half of the course, which was on Yasujiro Ozu (not that I didn't love Ozu, but I'd already seen those films!  It was just that difficult to see Bresson!)  Of course, we should celebrate the ease of venturing more easily into art house and avant-garde territory these days, although it is still difficult to know what you're getting into, and just how to situate your ass in the cushion, so to speak.  Here are some essential experimental offerings available with the mere click of a button in the "Watch Instantly" section of Netflix:

Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg
1.  My Winnipeg (2007) - Guy Maddin's aesthetic is one of the most recognizable and uncompromising in modern cinema, and although he has numerous past shorts and features that I could recommend just as highly--the top of my list including ArchangelThe Heart of the World, Cowards Bend the Knee, and Brand Upon the Brain!--I have to say that My Winnipeg is as good a gateway as any to Maddin.  My Winnipeg seems to be the perfect confluence of Maddin's silent film sensibility, warehouse set design, and autobiographical fantasia.  Also, the film features the greatest of Film Noir femme fatales, most remembered for Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 classic DetourAnn Savage...who Maddin somehow convinced to play his Mother.  Maddin has a tremendous ability for balancing his sense of humor with an unsettling and poetic film style that will not soon leave your memory.

Christos Stergioglou in Dogtooth
2.  Dogtooth (2009) - An unlikely candidate for the Academy Awards, Giorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth was nominated in 2011 for the Foreign Language Film category (losing out to the Danish production In a Better World, which I haven't seen, but from the looks of the trailer it seems like more typically Academy-friendly material).  Still, Dogtooth is one of the most wonderfully surreal modern satires I have seen in a long time, connecting it's ideas through imagery that is often violent, tempered by an absurdist humor that builds gradually in it's impact.  Lanthimos' work has been highly anticipated after Dogtooth (check out my brief report on his recent Toronto International Film Fest entry here), which tells the story of an uncommonly isolated family, the patriarch of which is working very hard to maintain his family's perceptions of the world, language, sexuality, and everything, really.  Recalling the touchstone of Absurdism in the American theatre, Edward Albee's early sixties play "The American Dream," through the way in which Albee similarly combines gruesome imagery with musical, comedic language and archetypal characters, the tension in Dogtooth between what is horrifying, hilarious, and true might tend to confuse your sensiblities at times, but it's Lanthimos' ability to create these tensions that makes the film one of the year's best, avant-garde or otherwise.

Jan Svankmajer's Virile Games
3.  The Ossuary, and Other Tales (2006) - Getting back to those independent book and record store moments of triumph, one of my favorite finds in those days was the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Czech born film maker/animator who is commonly cited as an influence on Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and the aforementioned Brothers Quay.  An entire collection of Svankmajer shorts, The Ossuary, and Other Tales is available for instant viewing, bringing together a great overview of the stop-action genius's work from the mid 60's to the late 80's.  I am partial to the two films from the 80's collected here, Virile Games (aka Manly Games) and Darkness-Light-Darkness, films that I dubbed and screened repeatedly upon discovering them the first time (even appropriating images from Virile Games for an original multi-media performance piece on Free-Speech issues a few years back).  If Svankmajer's shorts appeal to you, his excellent feature length take on "Alice in Wonderland," Alice (1988), and his tale of child rearing gone awry, Little Otik (aka, Greedy Guts - my particular title preference) are equally wild tales that utilize his signature animation style.

(Then, if you're still hungry for more weirdness from that area of Europe, you can start hunting down Walerian Borowczyk's Goto, The Island of Love...)

And, don't forget to make the occasional detour through your local bins and backrooms--enjoy them while we still have them!



Film-adelphia (Part 2)

Not to stray from the topic of film too drastically, but some of the best parts of my recent visits to Philadelphia have been within the incredible theatre scene there, with much thanks to my friend and Philly stage actor Amanda Grove.  While in town for the Philly Film Fest this year, I was able to see Grove in a new play making it's Philly premiere, Mistakes Were Made by Craig Wright (a frequent writer for Lost and United States of Tara).  It has been oft noted that some of the best film of the last decade has been happening on television, and Craig Wright has been a significant part of that, writing for the show that, as far as I can tell, set the standard for the television reformation of the late 90's and early 00's, Six Feet Under.  Wright's new play, Mistakes Were Made, is a sort of in-joke for the theatre world, portraying a desperate, 3rd-rate producer who is trying to make a last ditch effort at making it big on Broadway, his office plastered with particularly hilarious faux-playbills, including "Tom Selleck in The Elephant Man" and "Ice-T in The Piano Lesson." Grove was terrific in the primary supporting role, though, in terms of Wright's writing, I much preferred his script produced at Philly's Luna Theatre in 2009, also featuring Grove in a role that allowed her to express her true gift for intense and refined character work, Orange Flower Water.

Damon Bonetti and Amanda Grove
in Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water
In even more film related Philly theatre news, Grove was also featured in a premiere production this summer for the Madhouse Theatre Company, Playing Leni, where she portrayed one of the most simultaneously revered and despised film makers in cinema history, Leni Riefenstahl, director of the most famous of Nazi propaganda films, The Triumph of the Will, and subject of the 1993 documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Given the excellent reviews, and the tie-in with one of the most fascinating and confounding figures in the history of film, I am sending out a plea for a remount that takes place when I can be in town!  Or, dare I hope, a possible film production?

Amanda Grove and Robert DaPonte in Playing Leni, 2011
Leni Riefenstahl in her own directorial debut,
Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), 1932
Aside from getting the opportunity to experience her skilled work in the Philly theatre, one of my favorite aspects of spending time with Amanda is her mutual love and respect for the horror genre, and given that the Philly Film Fest overlapped the Halloween weekend, we not only created our own in-house horror marathon, featuring Wes Craven's despicable debut delight, The Last House on the Left (1972), Eli Roth's nearly successful torture absurdity, Hostel (2005), and Ti West's completely brilliant exercise in the early 80's satanism genre, The House of the Devil (2009--covered here in my "Instant 3-Buried Treasures" recommendations segment), but I was able to top off the marathon with a late-night Philly Fest screening of British director Ben Wheatly's new genre-bending brutality, Kill List.

Michael Smiley in Kill List
Aside from a naturalistic acting style that makes the intimate and dense intonations of the dialects in Kill List a bit tough to decipher, the film is a completely engaging character piece that consistently surprises in its narrative structure and character arc.  The less you know going in, the better, as Wheatly is relying on the surprise effect of the shift in genre.  Although this sounds like a scheme that could succumb to gimmickry, Kill List succeeds by virtue of its impeccable and surprising performances, expansively considered and riskily executed.  Also, Wheatly's writing here shows a tremendous patience, as well as a propensity for creating gaping holes of mystery that recall the best aspects of David Lynch.  To compare/contrast the film to Lynch's Lost Highway, which uses negative space, slow journeys and fades into black spaces as a visual reminder of the spots of indeterminacy inherent in all narrative interpretation and construction, Kill List employs quick, black-out flash edits that play in a similar way, while creating a perfect stylistic fit with the film's unflinching and abrupt violence.  As we reach the end of the film's literal "kill list," the editing becomes even more frantic, employing jump cuts to great effect, allowing the swirling questions of the audience and character to converge in a frightfully effective manner.

Neil Maskell in Kill List
Kill List is maybe not entirely successful based on the criteria of it's genre predecessors, but it emerges as essential viewing for the way in which it confounds those genre expectations, in part by rooting it's characters in relation to some of the bloodiest and most corrupt conflicts of recent history, with mentions of the professional killers in the film (there may be more than you think) being involved in both Iraq and Northern Ireland.  On one level, Kill List seems to be operating as a sort of payback directed at the murderers involved in the last decade of atrocities committed under the guise of military action.  It may take another viewing of Wheatly's new film to decide whether he is successful in seizing all he is grasping for here, but stumbling upon it in mostly blind fashion was a blissful treat on Halloween night.  

Ben Wheatly's Kill List
Speaking of films surprising in their ambition, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter (though not a part of the Philly Film Fest) is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the moment, though certainly a movie that divides audiences, which most likely has to do with it's tenuous relationship to the horror genre (not unlike Kill List).  Take Shelter, though certainly unsettling due to it's excellent and sparse utilization of horror film technique, is not a horror film.  And, although Take Shelter's lead actor Michael Shannon is just waiting to knock a perfectly penned creepy caretaker role out of the park (ala Tom Noonan in The House of the Devil), his recent work in this film is most definitely the peak of a rather remarkable and short career, which dates back to his 1999 role as Dundun in the excellent Allison Maclean-directed adaptation of Denis Johnson's darkly humorous junkie parables, Jesus' Son.  

Michael Shannon in Jesus' Son 
Michael Shannon in Take Shelter
It was Shannon's previous work that had me entering Take Shelter with caution, not knowing what to expect from Nichols since I hadn't seen his sole previous film, 2007's Shotgun Stories, also starring Shannon.  Although I had no expectations director-wise, I was mostly worried that this film might be the death knell of typecasting for Shannon, who had definitely been to paranoid weirdo territory before, with great success (i.e., William Friedken's Bug, 2006; Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road, 2008; the Herzog/Lynch joint My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, 2009)  Fortunately, Take Shelter proves to be the most seasoned, and perhaps the most challenging, of all of those performances.  This is due in part to Shannon, but also to the precision of the script, which ties our perceptions to a character who is both grounded and honest, but dealing with a unique and gradual onset of delusion.

Take Shelter
The pacing of Take Shelter is very deliberate, threatening to crush the film under the weight of it's own patient storytelling.  Although I imagine many will give up on the film before it reaches the emotional and visual components that truly succeed in making the film a transcendent experience, I can't stress enough how important it is to allow the film it's detailed and risky game with cinematic time.  Take Shelter makes some brilliantly subtle moves in how it masks the passage of time, playing with the audience's perceptions in a way that mirrors Shannon's character, Curtis.  Nichols ties your perceptions so effectively to Curtis that you can't help but empathize when Curtis leaves his sleeping wife and his hearing impaired daughter in the car, steps out onto the road, and gazes in horror at the oncoming storm, the centerpiece of his increasingly frequent hallucinations.  Shannon's intonation is chilling, as he speaks words only we can hear:  "Is anybody else seeing this?"

Michael Shannon and Trova Stewart in Take Shelter
Take Shelter is far from a one-man show though, featuring a terrific supporting cast, particularly Jessica Chastain as Curtis's wife Samantha, Trova Stewart as his daughter Hanna, and Shea Whigham as his best friend Dewart.  Although I may have wanted more of Kathy Baker as Curtis's mother, and Katy Mixon as one of Samantha's social clique, every piece of the puzzle snaps into place perfectly here, with Nichols getting exactly what he needs out of each performer.  It is particularly refreshing to see Chastain being used so well, as we have so often seen similar roles to Samantha's slighted in lesser films.  For a film that is so rooted in the psychology of it's central character, it is amazing the degree to which we come to empathize with Samantha's confusion.  Chastain skillfully allows us access to the progressive unfolding of Samantha's perceptions of Curtis's condition, knowing how essential our access to her emotional journey will be in the film's final frames.  (I could use this as a way to criticize Malick's use of her in Tree of Life, as I have heard a couple of critics do, but although she is more of a "prop" of a female character in that film, I think Malick's goals in relation to character, not to mention his drastic propensity for minimizing/maximizing/dropping altogether entire performances, puts him on a whole other level of discussion).  

Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter
Jessica Chastain in Tree of Life
Just when you begin to read Take Shelter as a film that may be solely about a man struggling with a mental illness, of which he is frighteningly aware, Nichols slowly allows the context of current blue collar hardships to creep into the drama, and the storms in the distance, whether imagined or real, begin to carry a shifting metaphorical weight.  As I wrote in Part 1 of this post in regards to apocalyptic film making, from Roland Emmerich to Lars von Trier, there is an ongoing preoccupation with the end-of-days, whether it takes the form of a big, sad, blue planet deciding to turn around and crash into the earth, or the current fear of the potential irreversible nature of the economic collapse.  I am not an apocalyptic thinker, and I often read doomsayers as naive and egotistical, but I find the variety of ways in which this phenomenon has risen to the surface of screen culture worthy of ongoing analysis.  It seems to me that the storm in Take Shelter is as much about a world being increasingly saturated with post-apocalyptic, zombie-fied play-station visions and PG-13-ized CG raptures as mental illness, as it is about one man's battle with mental illness.  What makes Take Shelter a great film is how well it works on the sole level of being an important film about mental illness; but, as the ending of the film shifts our subjectivity, and the viscous, oily rain begins to fall as it did in the opening, this time being felt by different skin, the ways in which it resonates may surprise you.



Film-adelphia (Part 1)

The Philadelphia Film Festival celebrates it's 20th Anniversary this year, and although I was not able to be in the city for the entirety of the fest I was still able to catch up with a few great films, and even re-watch one of my favorites films from this year's Chicago International Film Festival.  I may not have enough material to construct a 13-day Diary, as with the CIFF, but here are some short re-caps of my experiences--film, theatre, and otherwise--while in the "City of Brotherly Love":

Jean Dujardin in The Artist
Michel Hazanivicius (OSS 117:  Cairo, Nest of Spies, OSS 117:  Lost in Rio) has received a lot of hype recently for his new silent film era homage The Artist.  This French production features Jean Dujardin as the Rudolph Vaentino-esque George Valentin and an impressive, well-utilized cast of American actors, including Penelope Ann Miller, James Cromwell, Ed Lauter, and John Goodman.  The Artist has been highly praised as a result of it's previous festival screenings, from Cannes to the final night special presentation at the CIFF.  Having not been able to attend the CIFF closer, I was excited to be able to catch it with an audience at the peak of the Philly Fest, especially since the film is tailor made for an audience of film buffs.  It would be easy to write off The Artist as a simplistic crowd-pleaser, especially since it is so wrapped in the celluloid of the past that one wonders if there is anything beyond the film as a tribute to the transitional period when Hollywood production made the shift from silent film to synchronous sound recording.  Personally, films dealing with this period get me deeply hooked from the word go, so I may not be the most objective critic when it comes to The Artist, which, if handled cynically, could be boiled down to a series of quotes, from the silent era ruled by Valentino and Chaplin to the great early 40's films of Sturges and Welles.  It may be my love of this period that has led me to champion Scorsese's The Aviator so often, though many seem unimpressed, but I find Hughes's journey into the sound era, as well as his war with the Hayes office, a very telling bit of history, particularly in relation to where we are now with film technology and expression.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Gwen Stefani in The Aviator
Maybe The Aviator failed to reach it's audience (though I consider it to be one of the best of Scorsese's late career), but The Artist is a crowd-pleaser of the best sort; a popcorn romance/rise-and-fall story that no one has to be initiated into, often told with an unexpected emotional heft.  As it replays the tricks and tropes of the silent era in joyous fashion (as in a wonderful scene where a silent film starlet, Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo, slides her arm through the sleeve of Valentin's jacket, mimicking a romantic encounter between them with her own substitute hand) it never succumbs to the easily sunk-to depths of commercial parody (I'm thinking more of the recent spate of Friedberg/Seltzer-helmed atrocities, where the simple act of pop-culture reference has usurped actual attempts at humor, than something like Mel Brooks's Silent Movie).  Not to mention that, aside from a few seconds at the end, The Artist is an entirely silent picture, including a few inter-titles which the film does not rely upon in excess.  I think the best way to read The Artist is as a celebration of, and return to, the visual aspects of cinematic storytelling, which is so often lost between the extremes of garish spectacle on one end, and on the other, film stories that never required a camera to be told in the first place.  An example that encompasses both of those extremes (and a film I happen to like quite a bit for what it demands visually) is Christopher Nolan's Inception.  In short, if Christoper Nolan had a quarter of the visual savvy of a Metrolpolis-era Fritz Lang, he would have saved Inception from  the unfortunate weight of it's own exposition.

Berenice Bejo in The Artist
Fritz Lang's Metropolis
Christopher Nolan's Inception
From a silent film to a nearly silent film:  I was able to catch one of two screenings at the Philly Fest of Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse...which might actually be better described as "a film containing fitful bouts of speech" than "a nearly silent film," because the character speech, though scant, is crucial.  One of the reasons I wanted to see Tarr's final film a second time has to do particularly with being able to go into the film with a sense of where the language occurs, as it tends to come out of nowhere, and, in some cases, just when you've forgotten language is even a component of the film...and in Hungarian.  With that in mind, the film carried an even greater impact for me the second time around.  Although I think the exciting aspect of Tarr's work can be the surprise of discovering how differently his filmic language operates, it was equally compelling to return to his work with a clear sense of the pacing and themes, which allowed me to see just how expansive the film is in terms of how it plays with an audience, as well as it's thematic scope.

Erika Bok in The Turin Horse
At a second pass, one aspect of note is how unexpectedly current the movie is thematically, considering it looks like it was somehow, impossibly, made in the pre-cinema era it's set in.  One way to read The Turin Horse is as an "end-of-the-world" or "apocalyptic" film.  As commercial cinema has recently returned to the mid-to-late 70's trend of "Disaster" cinema, the repetition of the Airport franchise has given way to the repeated, PG-13-rated global destruction genre, mostly due to the abysmal efforts of Roland Emmerich.  And, while I'm on the subject, let me just say that I payed to see Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 in the theatre, so forgive me if I feel a bit burned, but, putting aside the joys of using them as fodder for cultural insight and critique, those films are neither art nor entertainment, lacking the basic ability to build anything close to a memorable scene or character;  in short, they are mostly noisy, abrasive, clumsy shit.  More importantly, consistent messages get sent through the availability and relentless cable-based repeat-ability of these films that discourage any serious reflection about the rather weighty matters at hand.  Perhaps The Turin Horse, along with Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, can be read, in part, as the blow-back of Emmerich's shallow output, compounded by the current financial crisis and subsequent uprising of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement.  In fact, my screening partner for The Turin Horse in Philly was Jason Del Gandio, recent author of the essential activist text, Rhetoric For Radicals.  Del Gandio, who also is currently teaching a course on "Social Movements" at Temple University, had taken me on the previous evening to the "Occupy Philly" general assembly, where we witnessed the ongoing occupation of Philadelphia's City Hall grounds in the financial district, which was (in Ecstatic fashion) a real eye-opener.  On the following day we both agreed that any consideration of the most central, substantial character speech in The Turin Horse is difficult to separate from the Here and Now:
Because everything's in ruins. Everything's been degraded, but I could say that they've ruined and degraded everything.  Because this is not some kind of cataclysm, coming about with so-called, innocent human aide.  On the contrary... It's about man's own judgement, his own judgement over his own self, which of course God has a hand in, or dare I say: takes part in.  And whatever he takes part in is the most ghastly creation that you can imagine. Because, you see, the world has been debased.  So it doesn't matter what I say because everything has been debased that they've acquired, and since they've acquired everything in a sneaky, underhand fight, they've debased everything. Because whatever they touch - and they touch everything - they've debased.  This is the way it was until the final victory.  Until the triumphant end. Acquire, debase. Debase, acquire.  Or I can put it differently if you like: to touch, debase and thereby acquire, or touch, acquire and thereby debase. It's been going on like this for centuries.  On, on and on.  This and only this, sometimes gently, sometimes brutally, but it has been going on and on.  Yet only in one way, like a rat attacks an ambush.  Because for this perfect victory it was also essential that the other side... That is, everything that's excellent, great in some way and noble should not engage in any kind of fight.  There shouldn't be any kind of struggle, just the sudden disappearance of one side, meaning the disappearance of the excellent, the great, the noble.  So that by now these winning winners who attack from the ambush rule the earth, and there isn't a single tiny nook where one can hide something from them, because everything they can lay their hands on is theirs.  Even things we think they can't reach - but they do reach - are also theirs. Because the sky is already theirs and all our dreams.  Theirs is the moment, nature, infinite silence. Even immorality is theirs, you understand?  Everything, everything is lost forever!  And those many noble, great and excellent just stood there, if I can put it that way.  They stopped at this point, and had to understand, and had to accept that there is neither god nor gods.  And the excellent, the great and the noble had to understand and accept this right from the beginning.  But of course they were quite incapable of understanding it.  They believed it and accepted it but they didn't understand it.  They just stood there, bewildered but not resigned, until something - that spark from the brain - finally enlightened them.  And all at once they realized that there is neither god nor gods.  All at once they saw that there is neither good nor bad. Then they saw and understood that if this was so, then they themselves do not exist either!  You see, I reckon this may have been the moment when we can say that they were extinguished, they burnt out. Extinguished and burnt out like the fire left to smolder in the meadow.  One was the constant loser, the other was the constant winner.  Defeat, victory, defeat, victory and one day - here in the neighborhood - I had to realize and I did realize, that I was mistaken, I was truly mistaken when I thought that there has never been and could never be any kind of change here on earth.  Because, believe me, I know now that this change has indeed taken place.
Granted, there are a lot of interpretive threads to be plucked from this speech, which reads as much like poetry as philosophy, and, like many other significant Tarr moments, are more about creating platforms for questioning, rather than clear statements of the film maker's ideology or intent.  Also, who's to say that Tarr isn't more aligned with his primary character, the physically disabled horse driver, who has taken longer to come around to his grim fate than his own abused animal?  Possibly perverse and definitely xenophobic in his old age, he responds to the above speech with impeccable comedic timing:  "Rubbish!"

Janos Derzsi in The Turin Horse

More Film-adelphia coverage to come in Part 2,
including Ben Wheatly's Kill List and Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter.