Thursday, September 29, 2011

New York Film Festival 2011: Four More

["Why is the Siren writing up new films?" a few of you have asked. Have the rebels taken over the radio station? Is someone threatening to torch the Siren’s Warner Archive discs unless she cooperates? No, it is far more prosaic: The New York Film Festival is having press screenings, and they said the Siren could come, as long as she sits up straight and doesn’t spill her coffee. And the Siren thought it would be fun to run a newspaper. But nobody asked her, so she decided that writing short takes on new films also would be fun. That’s it. The Siren is still watching TCM. These capsules are not being filed by a robot Siren in a long dress.]

Melancholia (2011) This latest from Lars von Trier, or Prince Motormouth as the Siren now calls him, was unexpectedly marvelous. Divided like Gaul into three parts: a magnificently surreal flash-forward to the apocalypse that is about to hit in the form of a planet colliding with our own; a midsection showing the slow-motion cataclysm that is the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard); and a finale focusing on Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister, as the end approaches and the extravagantly depressed Justine drifts around uttering downers like the bad fairy at a christening. Despite its plot and preoccupations, Melancholia merits adjectives that the Siren had not previously associated with von Trier: subtle, charming, sympathetic. Some subtlety shows early, as Dunst seems like a normal, albeit disorganized bride--but small things tell us something is terribly wrong with this beauty, until (this is von Trier, after all) the party goes south in a very, very big way. The charm is largely from Kiefer Sutherland as Gainsbourg’s husband, a deeply practical man trying to cope with situations in which practicality is of no use whatever. And the sympathy comes from Gainsbourg as Claire, a caretaker personality par excellence. Justine tells Claire, with ferocious relish, that the world is evil and no one will miss it, but Claire responds to doomsday with, “Where will my child grow up?” The liveliest movie about clinical depression that the Siren can imagine, and do not mistake that for faint praise.

The Turin Horse (2011), which Bela Tarr has said will be his final film, begins with a narrated anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche's breakdown, which was occasioned by seeing the driver of a hansom cab beat his horse. After the story is told over a black screen, the film follows the elderly driver home. He and his daughter put the horse in the stable, and for days the two endure a windstorm as savage, and as exquisitely photographed, as that in Victor Seastrom's The Wind. The drudgery of their lives is shown in relentless detail, from the daughter dressing and undressing the old man, to the way they both eat boiled potatoes with their bare hands.

It is not boring, exactly, despite the long takes that show much of this in real time and despite the resolute lack of extended dialogue. There is plenty of opportunity to think about the despair of poverty, and matters such as: The absence of beauty or ornament in the house, save a glimpse of what could be a photograph of the woman's mother. The lack of books, until a band of gypsies brings one by. How mere cleanliness must seem a dream of luxury, as the daughter rinses the dishes and her face and never uses soap. Why showing kindness to your work animals might also be a luxury. Why a horse might want to commit suicide.

In the background plays the stringed dirge that constitutes the score, as mercilessly repetitive as a music box. The score does switch off from time to time, such as when a neighboring blowhard stomps in, asks for some local hooch, says the end may be nigh and delivers a rant about the debasement of modern society. At other times you hear the wind, whose shrieks and whistles reminded the Siren of the Apaches in Stagecoach. After a second or two spent forlornly hoping some equivalent of marauding Apaches might show up, the Siren began to contemplate why she felt so unmoved by this famed director's swan song, which is so far the only Tarr she has seen.

This high-styled, proudly austere movie presents its bullet points as plainly as many a melodrama--poverty, humanity, mortality, futility. In order to find The Turin Horse great, the Siren would have to believe that Tarr's refusal to give an inch to an audience's desire for characters and a story is a virtue in itself. And/or she would have to believe that through 146 minutes of well water, boiled potatoes and a horse on hunger strike, Tarr had given her insights about people, or behavior, or our place on this earth that are as valuable as those to be had, for instance, from some passengers on a stagecoach to Lordsburg. And the Siren believes neither.

Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo) The Siren has been seeing some NYFF films as close to cold as one gets in the digital age. All she had read about this selection from Mexico was that it concerned a beauty-pageant contestant who gets caught up with drug gangs. That sounded as though it might be a thriller. Um, no. Miss Bala is an extraordinarily bleak social drama that happens to feature suspense and a great deal of violence. Stephanie Sigman plays Laura Guerrero, whose simple goal of winning a beauty pageant drags her into the drug wars. Visually and thematically the film recalls Traffic, but the indictment of global folly is even stronger in Miss Bala, which after the first quarter-hour shows not a single moment of social order. The U.S. DEA agents, when they appear, are as brutal to Laura as anyone else. While it has the propulsive drive that comes from outrage, Miss Bala is what they call a hard sit. Events wipe out the heroine’s courage and even her personality, until she focuses on survival and nothing more. This is what swathes of Mexico have become, the film says; and this is what we’ve all signed up for.

Carnage (2011, Roman Polanski) When the Siren watches Supernanny with her husband, he often winds up muttering, “It’s about the parents, this show. It’s always about the parents.” Carnage is a supercharged Supernanny episode, in which the kids have been sent to have lunch in the trailer, while the adults expose their warts via the cut-glass complete sentences of playwright and co-screenwriter Yasmina Reza. John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster play Michael and Penelope Longstreet, the parents of a boy who just had two teeth knocked out by a stick-wielding peer. The parents of the perpetrator, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), visit Michael and Penelope’s boringly tasteful Brooklyn apartment to settle things in amicable fashion. How well that goes may be judged from the title. The fun--and the movie had the house rocking with laughter at many points--comes from watching four intrepid performers rage around the set like a wrecking crew sent to knock down the Actors’ Studio. The Siren was hanging on Waltz’s every smirk, and transfixed by Foster’s choice to have her character’s body language get tighter and tenser even as Penelope comes further unglued. The whole effect is highly artificial, but not stagey in the least. The Siren just read Glenn Kenny--"a potential masterclass in staging, blocking, camera angle, shot selection, shot length, pacing in terms of both rhythm of actual cutting and duration of shot”--and seconds the motion. Carnage is smart about class differences; the couples’ exchanges about careers and accomplishments are often more wounding than the open hostilities over the children. The film doesn’t offer much on the topic of parenting. But it’s clear why: The episodes that bracket Carnage tell us that children are acting in their own play. Mom and Dad may storm and stress, but they’re audience members, not directors.


joe said...

I wonder, did you find "The Turin Horse" funny at all? Because in Tarr's best work I've found there's a grim, deadpan Beckettian thing going on that saves him from monotony. I think "Satantango" is especially funny, would be interested in what you thought of it.

Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Joe, I fully agree with you; I even find "Satantango" hilarious in spots. But "The Turin Horse" isn't funny. Which doesn't mean that I don't like it--I respond to its intensity and mystery, and unlike the Siren, am not at all bored or stranded by it. For her the cross-reference is "Stagecoach"; for me it's silent cinema, Stroheim in particular, if only for its ornery obsessiveness, its lack of any distractions from its through-line One can't of course expect everyone to like it, but I consider it Tarr's second best, after "Satantango", even though it breaks just about every critical rule I would usually apply to other films--which is part of what fascinates me. It's not even a narrative in any ordinary sense--something closer to a considered howl.

Kevyn Knox said...

Actually I found parts of The Turin Horse pretty funny here. The scenes with the potatoes, the gypsies, the bluntness of the father, the drunken friend - all funny. I am still laughing about how the old man eats his boiled potatoes.

Of course at the same time the film is deeply depressing in many ways.

Great film indeed. I wold place it third in Tarr's oeuvre (after Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies).

As for Melancholia - yes Siren, you are so right about how LvT puts in sympathy and subtlety.

Great movie as well - the best I have seen at the festival and my second favourite film of the year (Tree of Life still holding top honours).

I have not seen the other two of which you speak, so I will stop right here and stop rambling.

Nice write-ups btw.

The Siren said...

Thank you very much for stopping by, gentlemen. Joe, I have to agree with Jonathan on the funniness of Turin Horse (although he clearly liked the movie much more than I did): It isn't funny. At all. That isn't to criticize Kevyn's reaction; I really wish I had found the boiled potatoes funny. But by my count there's precisely one small, bitter laugh, a line delivered by the old man, and that's it. So I won't spoil it, as there may be someone here who will need that laugh.

I also find some elements of silent cinema in it, like The Wind as I said. I respect filmmakers like Tarr, working well outside notions of conventional moviemaking and presenting their vision on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. But "stranded" is a not-bad description of my reaction.

DavidEhrenstein said...

As I believe The Siren knows I'm in the process of writing a book on Polanski for Phaidon's "Masters of Cinema" series. He thrives on intense conflict in confined circumstances (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Cu-de-Sac, The Tenant, Death and the Maiden, The Ghost Writer)

Looking forward to your review of Vito.

(Hi Jonathan!)

The Siren said...

David, I'm looking forward to Vito as well. The Celluloid Closet was all you say. And I'll also look forward to your Polanski book; agree heartily with your remark here. Carnage worked better for me than the also-play-based Death and the Maiden. I was expecting Carnage to look great but I wasn't necessarily expecting to like it at all, and yet I did. Which is always nice.

glennkenny said...

I dunno. The part where the dude says "That's rubbish" after the bald fellow's long monologue about debasement and mediocrity (which I OF COURSE decided was entirely about Dan Kois and everything he stands for) was pretty funny. And the bit where the gypsies offer to bring the protagonists with them to America, that was pretty funny too. Other than that, though, no, not a LOT of laughs.

I liked "Turin Horse" A LOT more than you did, but I'm finding my appreciation of Tarr as more relative to literature than other cinema. What I keep thinking about whenever I remember "Horse" is Kafka's story "Josephine, the Singer, or The Mouse People," which for me works best if you take it absolutely literally—that is, as a story about MOUSE PEOPLE—rather than making an allegory of it. That might not make sense in the context of a blog comment, but don't worry, I'm working on a Unified Field Theory of The Fantastic in Eastern European Art that'll clear everything up. I'll get to that right after I get to my own individual posts about this years NYFF fare, which ought to be ready by 2015 or so.

The Siren said...

So I refrain from spoiling the one line that was funny and Glenn reveals it anyway! HA! I'm kidding. Spoilers are about as relevant to The Turin Horse as Nietzsche is to Sixteen Candles.

So that's two votes for the gypsies being funny. To me they were sinister. Manohla Dargis liked The Turin Horse too; maybe she found the gypsies funny and that helped. To me the themes were so obvious, so right there in your lap, that I couldn't understand why the structure and technique was necessary to keep underlining everything again and again. In that sense the score mirrored the action very closely.

Yojimboen said...

“So that's two votes for the gypsies being funny.”

I’ll hold my vote in abeyance until I see it (who’m I kidding, I’ll never see Turin Horse - I simply can’t watch the portrayal – even implied – of animal cruelty), and I’m still trying to recover from the legendary bait n switch title I Even Met Happy Gypsies.

With the usual respects, dear lady, to my overly-jaundiced eye your piece isn’t remotely optimistic. When the most promising offering so far at the current NYFF is Von Trier’s Apocalypse Now and Then (the same Von Trier who has publicly – gleefully, in fact – stated that in Denmark filmmakers aren’t governed by any Humane Society – they can do whatever they want with animals), then despair looms large.

What’s left? Christoph Waltz? I confess I like him. But if the price of seeing him is also seeing Kate Winslet, frankly I’d rather chew tinfoil.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I gather you didn't watch Todd's Mildred Pierce Yojim

The Siren said...

Yojimboen, in my first roundup I mentioned Le Havre. If you and the majority of my regular readers here dislike that movie, I really will chew tinfoil. The Turin Horse's title character is the most authentically lovable thing in it although as you can tell I am not telling anyone to rush out and see it. I haven't seen anyone love it without prior Tarr experience.

Waltz is the best thing in Carnage and I don't know how much that is his part, which is the most openly villainous and therefore the most entertaining, and how much is him (he won an Oscar playing a Nazi, so a part as a ruthless corporate lawyer wasn't even going to have him break a sweat). Winslet is very good.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Don't forget Polanski, Siren. He prides himself on total control of his actor's performances.

The Siren said...

David: my friend Vadim tweeted very amusingly about Carnage: "Fun. Featuring Christoph Waltz as the amoral, survivalist foreigner. Wonder who he's speaking for."

DavidEhrenstein said...

Obviously Rupert Murdoch.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Attention all L.A.based Sirenistas. Tomorrow morning at 10:30 I will be moderating a panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair.

The panels will be Sam Irvin ("Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise"),
Michael Gregg Michaud ("Sal Mineo: A Biography"), Randy Schmidt ("Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter") and

(wait for it)

Jennifer Grant ("Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant")

G said...

I have not see The Turin Horse but will refer to another Tarr film: I think I had to see Satantango one or two times before I could really appreciate and laugh at the black humor - especially the segments with the trials and tribulations of the Doctor (the first time I saw it most of my mental energy was taken up just trying to figure out what the heck was going on).

I admit I don't think any other of the other Tarr films I've seen are very funny, but from the descriptions I've seen of "Turin" it sounds like maybe being 'broken in" first on Satantango may help to appreciate it more.

Trish said...

I was worried Christofe was going to be the next James Bond villain. I'm glad he's doing so well.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Saw Carnage last night and it's absolutely wonderful. Adapted by Polanski and Yasmina Reza from her play God of Carnage it's a truly superb piece of "filmed theater" giving both Alain Resnais and Sacha Guitry a run for their money. Just 80 minutes long and cracklingly paced, it's set entirely in one apartment and hallway -- outside of the opening and closing shots. Those shots are of a playground where we see -- in long shot -- a group of schoolboys arguing. Suddenly one of them (Elvis Polanski) picks up a stick and strikes another, who falls to the ground. Then we're in the apartment (small but not at all claustrophobic as designed by Dean Tavoularis) where the respective parents of the boys (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly as the "hosts" and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as their "guests") chat -- quite amiably at first -- about what to do about the situation. What really started the fight? Is the attacker going to make a formal apology to his victim with the parents as witnesses? Right off it becomes quite clear that these are proper bourgeois who think an enormous deal of themselves. Foster's character is even writing a book about Darfur. Waltz clearly thinks Foster and Reilly are trash but acts utterly "polite" -- at least at first.

The fun really starts when Winslet's upset stomach results in her projectile-vomiting of the apple and pear cobbler she's offered them. Because Winslet has upchucked on one of Foster's most prized (and therefore displayed) books it's equivalent to a declaration of war. Class tensions surface as Winslet-Waltz are far better fixed than Foster-Reilley. Running "gags" of constant cell phone calls to Waltz from his associates over a lawsuit and Reilly from his mother (the voice of Tanya Lopert) are augmented as the couples not only square off against each other but themselves. Winslet hates Waltz's obsession with his job. Reilly thinks Foster is a pretentious twit. The cream of the jest is that from the very beginning Waltz and Winslet are trying to leave the apartment, but keep getting drawn back in the moment they try to cross the threshold. Thing of a cross between Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Exterminating Angel with a soupcon of Seinfeld and you've got it.

Yojimboen said...

Nice review, DE; thank you for further obviating my need to see the film (typed with a grin). You do remind me that way back when we were children, I remember hearing a rumour - how apocryphal, I know not - that at one time Albee actually contemplated creating (or creating an alternative version of) Virginia Woolf as a piece for four male actors – the missing child I imagine would be an hysterical figment – but somehow the time wasn’t right yet.

Of course as an all-male piece (perhaps it’s not too late – Albee’s still working at 83 - now that would be a play) we’d have missed out on the various Broadway Marthas - Uta Hagen, Mercedes McCambridge, Kate Reid and Elaine Stritch.

You’ve also reminded me of a nicely symmetrical event one July afternoon in swinging 60s London; as I exited the Curzon cinema in Mayfair I collided with, and almost knocked over a short-ish man who was headed in to see the movie I had just seen: viz Virginia Woolf, and the short gentleman? Roman Polanski.

DavidEhrenstein said...


And for that anecdote -- here's your reward

As for Albee the notuon that he wanted to do an all-male Virginia Woolf is completely untrue. As I've mentioned before (probaly elsewhere on the 'net) George and Martha were inspired by Williard Maas and Marie Menken (poets and experimental filmmakers who were so close that when Marie died Willard expired a few hours later.) Andy Warhol made a movie of Willard and Marie but declined to show it publically "because it would upset Edward."

Noel Vera said...

Siren, if you think Bela Tarr's a chore, you should get a load of Lav Diaz. Joke is he's forgotten how to make a film under four hours...