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The Wind Blows Where It Will directed by Portland, Oregon, based director Kunal Mehra is rigidly constructed film, running slightly over three-hours, which demands the viewer’s attention. Holding fastidiously to a Bressonian austereness and its own wrought-out languidness TWBWIW, in the end, reaches a deep and resonant poignancy.

It’s a remarkably simple story. Philippe, a solitary young man, works in a small office selling blinds. He’s in a long distance relationship with Jeanne. She comes for a visit and tells Philippe she wants to breakup; no real explanation is given. Thus Philippe, already a quiet soul, must learn to live truly on his own; their rupture serving as an impetus to his silent and spiritual unraveling.

In essence TWBWIW is a intense character study and Mehra with monk-like patience trains his camera on the recondite Philippe excavating his internal struggle like a surgeon. The world Philippe inhabits is extremely minimal with a distinctive pace and mood. Mehra’s strength lies in his ability to slow to that pace, to listen the silences, to take the slow breathes, and reveal a depth of character rarely seen.

Look how he presents Philippe at the beginning of the film:

In the twilight hour he walks home from work.

Along the street he stops to admire some autumnal trees…

…he lies down beneath the trees. The wind blows the leaves and as we share this moment with Philippe.

He finally gets up and heads home.

In his apartment he turns on the lights, places down some flowers, and removes his coat.

He then takes in flowers into the living room and places them in a vase. He smells them.

Returning to the bedroom he lies down.

After a while Philippe gets up and removes the blanket.

Carefully folding it up.

Then he removes the sheets.

In the corner of the room he unfolds the ironing board.

He places the sheet on the board and begins to iron.

Back and forth, back and forth he irons…

After a while he finishes…

…and returns to the bed, placing the sheet back on.

He makes the rest of the bed, smoothing it into creaselessness.

He now places two pillows on the bed.

Once satisfied with the bed he opens his valise and pulls out a bottle of wine.

He goes into the kitchen and places the wine in the cupboard.

Back in the bedroom he lies down again.

A moment passes and he turns on some classical music.

His feet move to the music.

After a moment he switches off the music but continues to lie in bed.

He turns on his side, leaving most of the frame now empty. Mehra holds on this image of Philippe’s back and hand for a while.

When he gets up he heads into the bathroom…

…he checks himself in the mirror and combs his hair.

Back in the bedroom he puts back on his coat and heads out.

This sequence, devoid of dialog, runs approximately eleven minutes functioning on barren images animated by very simple actions. The stills above hardly do it justice (and possibly detracts from the intricate pacing established). There’s a literary quality to this sequence. For in this sustained observation we move past the images, which are easily deciphered, into an internal intimacy that’s seen through his mechanical actions. This is the case throughout. We learn that Philippe speaks loudest in the most quiet of moments.

Mehra is also tampering with temporally. For example, when Philippe and Jeanne return home from the train station Jeanne is cold to Philippe. (PilgrimAkimbo does an excellent job describing their meeting).

Once in his pajamas Philippe enters the kitchen and pulls two glasses from the cupboard.

Then pulls down the wine.

He pours one glass.

Just as he begin to pour the second glass Jeanne stops him (appearing screen-left).

Jeanne: “No, pour one for yourself if you want. I’ll be asleep in five minutes.”

She pour a glass a tap water. Philippe stands silent. Drinks her water than exits. Philippe, disappointed, pours the wine down the sink.

He rinses out the glasses and places them back in the cupboard.

He then pours a glass of water for himself.

He stands alone.

This scene is analogous to how the entire film works: built-up, piece-by-piece, action by action (without forgetting previous scenes that preceded) to a devastating end. Jeanne’s response not only undercuts the romantic implications but also undermines the laborious efforts Philippe puts into the relationship, down to the wrinkles in the sheets. Mehra consciously shapes how time works in his film, which could mistakenly be read as tedious, but there’s genuine thought behind his methods.

Once Jeanne is out of the picture we’re not simply left with Philippe. He does meet up with a friend, runs into an old flame, and even takes another girl home, but it all seems to be happening at a distance, in a waking life. We find the true Philippe home alone smelling his flowers, listening to music, or standing beneath leaf-falling trees.

It’s safe to say Philippe is obsessed with Jeanne. He sees her places she’s not and at home labors over a unfinished sculpture of her face with an eerie gentleness. At its core TWBWIW is about where you put your faith, and if that’s challenged how do you coupe?

To be sure there are minutes in TWBWIW which pass in silences that are both palpable and piercing. And in such scenes, once succumbing to their rhythm, settling in the listlessness, your mind isn’t so much processing or analyzing the images as it is simply responding to the subtle movements of light, to the heartbreaking gentleness of the piece. Rarely has a film tested with such boldness the boundaries of quietude and boredom (I use that term not in a derogatory sense) in order to reveal the true wounds of solitude. Like reading Dostoevsky or Proust you wade through the waters and when something happens, even the tiniest of events, it takes on astronomical importance.

Does it pay off in the end? Yes. The last couple of scenes validate everything that has come before and resonate with deep emotion. Mehra has definitely taken a risk making a film of this length and in this style but he succeeds. Not a simple achievement, especially from a first-time director. I will not write here that TWBWIW is flawless but its merits without question outweigh its drawbacks. It certainly should be seen more widely.

Contemplative cinema hasn’t made much headway in American films so it’s admirable to see a young director willing to take a large leap into the unknown. TWBWIW may just be one of the most relevant American debuts I’ve seen in quite a while.

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Paraguayan Hammock (2006)

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The sun rises slowly on a shot of two trees, the ground covered in leaves. A dog barks incessantly somewhere in the distance. After a while an elderly couple wanders out from the woods behind. The woman constructs a hammock and they sit (see picture above, this is the shot in which much of the film plays out). Their conversation meanders from the weather, the dog, food, health problems, to “the war,” and their son who has left to fight that war.

As the story unfolds (told through a few other static shots, always from a distant position) our grip on reality slips. We realize that on this isolated farm time has become an enigma, shuttling back and forth like the hammock on which they sit. The couple’s conversation (presented via-voice-over) blankets shots of the old man harvesting, the woman sitting beside a stove, the man sitting outside their home, etc. The woman vaguely recalls someone telling her her son has died in battle, but the person doesn’t give the right middle-name for her to fully believe.

Has the son actually died in war? Is the mother disillusioning herself? And when did the son actually leave? How long has he been gone? Is the war over? Has it been over for quite some time?

These questions merge into obfuscation as night falls. It begins to rain. The couple, effete from their mental-rummaging, reach a breaking point as the darkness engulfs them; cognizant of their fragile morality.  They pack up the hammock and enter the dark-dark woods as the rain patters on . . . most likely to repeat this scene until their son returns or death whisks them away.

A beautiful minimalist experience by first-time director Paz Encina. In Guarani with subtitles.

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Billy the Kid (2007)

DV Documentary

Dir: Jennifer Venditti

DP: Donald Cumming

 

 

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Billy the Kid—on limited run at the IFC Theater in Manhattan—has been garnering accolades & awards for months. Shuffling through reviews the classic buzzwords fly out: “haunting,” “utterly original,” “important,” a “heightened metaphor for the universally torturous condition that is adolescence.”” But it is glaringly obvious this (long) 84min documentary was shot in only eight days without much attention to detail.

Its subject: Billy, a socially-awkward, talkative, outcast 10th grader who lives in Maine with his mother (and unseen stepfather). Billy has a bumpy familial back-story (a drug addict father who abandoned him) and there’s no doubt he’s an interesting subject, due mostly to his peculiar vernacular. He uses words like “damsels,” speaks cryptically about battles he’s had within himself, and has a quixotic view of heroism and chivalry. He’s overtly kind-hearted, to the point of naivety, that inevitably leads to discomforting situations.

From the start we see Venditti has spent zero time establishing an intimacy between herself, the camera, and Billy. Virtually every scene plays out as if it were planned, staged, or arranged. We’re constantly told things about Billy but rarely do we see the sophistication alluded to. For instance Billy is said to have explosive tantrums; not once does he go over the edge. His mother tells us Billy is “borderline genius” but there’s absolutely nothing that validates this. Another story tells us of a concerned librarian calling home to see if everything was okay, that day Billy had borrowed three books on serial killers. All these are red herrings, superficially painting a picture more complex than we’re given.

Some scenes appear to just be filling time: Billy knocking snow off trees (slow-motioned & strobe effected) reciting a Frost poem; Billy playing a shoot-‘em-up game in an eerily empty video store; Billy playing guitar (is he even playing?) in his room to a VHS tape of his favorite rock band. These scenes are clumsily photographed and histrionically stagy. Why is Billy attracted to 80s glamor rock? What are these inner ‘battles’ Billy has had? We’re left to wonder.

The heart of the film is also the most troubling: Billy’s supposedly ‘love affair’ with a sixteen-year-old waitress, Heather. Heather (who has a condition that makes her eyes shake) works in a family-owned diner that Billy frequents. After an introduction and awkward conversation Billy gets excited. He returns the next day, speaks to Heather, and meets some of her family. The next night they’re out for on a walk. Finally he officially asks her to be his girlfriend, she accepts, onlookers applaud the lad.

On the page this is very sweet, but on-screen it’s harrowing to witness. This “romance” unfolds with everyone painfully aware of the camera and it appears Heather awkwardly agrees to Billy’s advances simply because it would be rude to otherwise. Her family parades out, like deer in headlights, to see this odd young man (and to check out the movie sideshow). Nothing here is genuine other than Billy’s growing infatuation with Heather and his inevitable fall from grace.
The myth of Icarus comes to mind here. Venditti’s camera emboldens Billy, supplying his wings of wax. Day after day his love grows…as he gets closer and closer to the sun. And ultimately the camera is rolling when his wings melt and he falls into the sea.

When we see Heather after the breakup, she can’t say a word. Yes, she’s shy, but she also has no idea who Billy is and seems baffled by the whole situation. (We must keep in mind this all happened in a few short days) Heather, like Billy, has been a pawn in their game.

Many major periodicals, in print and on the web, have not taken the stance written here. Nor do they mention that the film is riddled with sub-par photography. The handheld camerawork undulates distractingly, sometimes in the most pivotal of scenes. Many shots were so under and overexposed they should have never left the editing room. Still photos of Billy and his family were hastily shot, blurring in and out of focus. And scenes between Billy and Heather are so heavily cut that it raises serious questions about the presentation of this courtship. None of these are stylistic choices but blatant evidence that the film was rushed and slapped together. This is the work of a film shot in eight days. Yes, Venditti is a first time director, and that should be taken into consideration, but there has to be a standard on with cinema is judged (especially when accolades and awards come into play).

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But it’s not entirely Venditti’s fault. Too many critics (and judges) are not doing the work they’re paid to do. Week after week reviews and critiques roll out rife with platitudes, buzzwords, and effusions of praise or disgust but with no real insight or investigation as to why. This is troubling for readers of criticism and filmgoers alike.

Venditti missed an opportunity here to present a unique individual. Authenticity does peek out from the corners of this film but is left unexplored: the way Billy steps over a bus stop bench, the empty quiet town which serves as the backdrop to Billy and Heather’s walk, the seemingly tragic story of Billy’s mother (which really deserved more time). We don’t even met Billy’s younger sibling(s?) running around the perimeter of the film laughing and playing.

And why does Venditti end the film with a photograph of Billy and Heather? Their four-minute romance is exploited to melodramatic heights. And to add insult-to-injure the filmmaker includes a phone call from Billy’s mom (speaking for Billy) asking the filmmaker to omit portions of the film where he said he’d die for Heather. Of course they took it out…but they inserted the phone call.

The lovable nerd with a heart of gold has become an iconic American character—no matter how much the critics pretend Billy is the first outsider to be presented on-screen—like the court jester we admire their wit. But now we’re tricked into thinking we actually relate to them. Ironically, we’re just laughing more openly. Sadly, Billy is no exception.

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deconstruction.pngA recent Sunday afternoon I walked north up 21st street in Long Island City, Queens; three candy caned-striped smoke stacks standing tall above the industrial landscape immediately reminded me of the late Antonioni and his masterpiece Red Desert.

Large shadows blanketed 44th Road cast from the non-descript monstrosities flanking either side. What happened inside these buildings, who knows? But I did know what was happening at Local Project, located at 21-36: three young Chilean-born directors were to present four short films. Together they call themselves (and their blog) The New Canon (El Nuevo Canon).

A boney, ornery, orange cat sauntered past as I entered. Inside wide, white walls covered in candy-colored comic book-like designs lead me towards the screening room. A modestly sized crowd murmured before the lights dimmed and the first film—digitally projected onto a makeshift screen—reveled its opening images.

José Luis Torres Leiva’s Women Workers Leaving The Factory (Obreras Saliendo de la Fabrica) set the pace for the evening. The 28-minute film quietly observes a workday in the lives of four female factory workers. Each of Leiva’s weary, expressionless women are shown in a moment of quietude leading back into their clamorous daily tasks—the subtle ebb and flow of their simple existence. The end of the workday arrives, the women journey home, and end up strolling along the shoreline.

Leiva leans heavily on the aural: sounds of heavy machinery, over flying aircrafts, and the ocean surf suffuse the film. Nominally and thematically the film recalls the Lumiere Brothers’ Workers Leaving The Lumiere Factory (1895), one of the first films ever made. And like that 50-second film Leiva’s short unfolds like a silent. The problem is Leiva isn’t making a silent. His female characters are unnaturally speechless, marring the film significantly. Cloaked in silence certain scenes come dangerously close to pantomime.

To be fair there are some great photographic moments. One comes as the women walk gingerly home, the camera loses interest in them and pans up to reveal light dancing through leaves of nearby trees for an extended period, intoning the melancholic mood of the piece.

The final image focuses on the eldest woman. She peers longingly out to the sea. Leiva fades down and up on an old sepia photograph revealing the woman at a younger age (with a male). It ends again on the longing face of the woman.  A non-sequitur ending with forced elegiacism.

The following two films, Along Comes The Rain and From Afar (Lo Que Trae La Lluvia y Desde Lejos), were directed by Alejandro Fernandez, a true talent. Matt Pendleton at Cinema Stubble writes Fernandez “claim[s] to lack the talent of a great director. Hence, his careful attention and studying of cinema.” Fernandez’s modesty contradicts his work. Along Comes The Rain is the story of an elder country woman’s day and her preparations for a visit from her city relatives. Simple as it sounds Fernandez makes it simpler. The woman wakes up early with her husband, milks a cow, kills a chicken, cooks breakfast, makes and sells goat cheese on the highway, buys cookies (which we learn are for her grandson), and later welcomes her relatives.

Fernandez’s view of rural Chile is transfixing. The decaying, worn facade of the countryside—peeling paint, rusty machines, crumbling buildings—is brought almost to the level of a supporting character due to the stellar cinematography. (One shot of the old man walking through a field in early dusk is flawless) Without a hint of nostalgia Along Comes The Rain like an Ozu film hints at the encroaching modern world without exclaiming it. When a businesswoman, in a nice suit and nice car, buys goat cheese from the older woman on the highway we know she’s headed to some big city somewhere outside our reach (and Fernandez’s interest). When the young grandchild comes into the home, unthinkingly grabbing the cookies, and immediately turns on the television (to watch noisy anime) we understand that this world we’ve been shown is violently disappearing. Yet Along Comes The Rain is not a swan song it is an observation. The apathetic shot of the old man staring blankly through the cartoons speaks louder than words.

Fernandez’s second film From Afar isn’t nearly as interesting. It follows a middle-aged city man’s trip back to the country to visit his mother (who lives alone). She fixes him food, does his laundry, as he tries to fix her air pump and plays with the dog. The pace of the film mirrors the county setting and is dragged down by the nothingness that occurs. One conversation of note comes from the mother telling her son about a local group of women seeking to preserve some of the country rituals that are gradually being forgotten, she is pleased. (It is hard not to suspect this is also Fernandez’s modus operandi) From Afar is lighter in tone than Along Comes The Rain, with even a few attempts at comedy, but it doesn’t hold the emotive density I sense Fernandez is capable of.

Cercanos, the final film of the night, directed by film critic Jerónimo Rodríguez, was easily the most formal and ascetic of the bunch. Rodriquez’s view of Chile is seen mostly through the windshield of a car. And like Leiva’s film Cercanos borders dangerously close to being too minimal and ambiguous. None of the characters (three of them) identify themselves; illuminates their relationship between one another; nor explain what they’re doing. The film nonetheless holds your attention as the cityscape lethargically rolls past.

The plot is as follows: a brother and sister drive through the city; brother drops off sis; brother oversees a construction site; brother lunches with father; brother picks up the sister again. “How’s dad doing?,” the she asks. “Better,” the brother replies.

The seminal moment—and perhaps the saving grace—is the construction site scene. (Rodríguez informs me the brother is an architect though nothing in the film alludes to this) In this sequence we see the destruction of one building while another is constructed, side by side, adeptly summarizing Rodríguez’s muted view of Chile: a dualistic country transitioning into the 21st century. (One can also detect this duality by comparing Cercanos’ urbanity to the first three films) It’s a powerful sequence, perhaps the strongest of the night.

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Cercanos is a hypnotic experience. You watch it searching for answers Rodriquez is not eager to divulge. Is this film simply about a quiet family driving around Santiago? Is the father being “better” some metaphor for Chile’s development? I’m uncertain. Either way it must be noted, again, that it isn’t an enthusiastic better but an observational one. Rodríguez is a director who keeps his distance (maybe too far), more documenter than eulogist.

When an audience member inquired if Rodríguez ‘s film had a single viewpoint or was open to multiple interpretations he responded with a few words from Abbas Kiarostami: “The best cinema is that which questions. And it is left to the spectator to look for the answers to complete the unfinished work.”

One would be hard pressed to not admire what these filmmakers are doing, what they’ve achieved, and what they stand for. In a nutshell The New Canon seeks “to explore new directions in cinema and to call attention to a new breed of filmmakers…whose work challenge the way we usually understand cinema.” Although the films I viewed weren’t as revolutionary as the directors may have hoped for each is extraordinarily mature for first films. Not for a second would I be surprised to see any or all of these directors producing stronger, more sophisticated work in the near future.

But I left the screening scratching my head, asking that age-old question a film sage once asked: “What is cinema?” What does The New Canon really mean when it says it sets out to challenge the way we usually understand cinema. Who is this we?

I’d argue The New Canon is discharging their barrels in the wrong direction. There has been, and will always be, a cleft between high art and popular culture. Popular culture has its tropes and clichés as much as independent and art films do. And while popular culture has a vested interest in belittling, suppressing, and commercializing important works (and movements) of art there’s likewise a surreptitious glee the art crowd gets from lamenting the decaying state of cinema. Of course each new generation of artists must negate that which has preceded them in order to progress. The New Wave had to overthrow the “shabby hacks” & “profound nullity” of their cinema before forging new ground. But the specific approach to cinema The New Canon is interested in is not for the masses. They’re building on a foundation poured by directors like Bresson, Antonioni, and Ozu, carried on by Kiarostami, Tarr, and Hou. In the cineaste’s world these names majestically ring out, in popular culture those names are as foreign sounding as their films. So the battle The New Canon is proposing to wage is non-existent, if not futile. Besides, as a famous philosopher once wrote, “the crowd is untruth.”

Walking away from those smoke stacks I realized with the recent passing of Kubrick, Altman, Bergman, and, of course Antonioni, that there are major seats open for a new breed of filmmakers. There are countless stories to be told, thousands of rules to be challenged and changed, and acres and acres of unexplored cinematic territory waiting to be discovered & excavated. Pendleton points out that The New Canon “wears their influences on their sleeves.” This is one part blessing, one part damning. The path these ambitious filmmakers have chosen to take is certainly not the easiest, hardly rewarding; but I can almost hear Rodríguez stridently say, “it is the only path!” Admirable. And can one challenge the status quo while so blatantly paying homage to inspirational filmmakers? The answer put simply is yes.

At their roots The New Canon is calling and reaching for a purity of cinema. This purity they seek—masterfully demonstrated by so many of their influences—hopefully leads to deeper truths which cinema can reveal about the world which surrounds and baffles us. Frustratingly, as many modern directors have shown, these truths are often ambigous.

And although The New Canon directors may wince at this point, this purity, austerity, or minimalism, can be traced back to the very origins of cinema. Hence I’m not surprised that (at least in spirit) the Lumiere Brothers were evoked that evening—and all the better for it. So much of what those brothers did was about observation, cinema at its purist, its most truthful and revealing. And while The New Canon has chosen enormous footsteps to fill one hopes they will eventually trot out in their own direction…maybe to stray into some of that unexplored territory.

Cinema has taken major strides in the last two decades yet I feel this younger generation have yet to find their voice—a true voice. Granted these things take time. But these three filmmakers are well on their way. T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” I’d say The New Canon is closer to thievery than mimicry.

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