Sunday

Words Matter


These are extremely important points that must be firmly asserted, ad infinitum if necessary (at present, it's obviously, urgently necessary), and more world leaders should follow Macron's lead in explicitly rejecting the casual use of "nationalism" as an innocent, interchangeable synonym for "patriotism." It is not; even without "white" as a prefix, nationalism is an ideology (not a mere sentiment, like patriotism) that directly motivated many of the most horrific acts of the past century. It is true that the meaning of some terms blur over time: most people today probably cannot explain the difference between a "democracy" and a "republic," there is no real correspondence between these two ancient political forms and the present-day Democratic and Republican parties, and the word "liberal" carries totally different connotations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, respectively. But nationalism –– like fascism, communism, and imperialism –– still always refers, in essence, to something very specific, and deeply sinister, even if its manifestations have varied across time and space.

Thursday

"It's like they're doing the right thing. It's like they're doing the right things with all the instruments."

Tuesday

She still has a flame-gun (for the cute ones)


Not sure yet what I think of Wanderer (still sorting that out), but why not a Cat Power top twenty in the meantime? Her run from '95–2003 was amazing, and those records hold up beautifully; what's come since then is more hit or miss...

01. "Rockets"
02. "Nude as the News"
03. "Say"
04. "Fool"
05. "Ice Water"
06. "Still in Love"
07. "No Sense"
08. "Cross Bones Style"
09. "I Don't Blame You"
10. "I Found a Reason"
11. "Top Expert"
12. "Names"
13. "Enough"
14. "Maybe Not"
15. "Satisfaction"
16. "Great Expectations"
17. "American Flag"
18. "Colors and the Kids"
19. "Lived in Bars"
20. "Wonderwall"

Monday

VIFF: Best of the Fest


Josh

01. Transit
02. Burning
03. Microhabitat
04. Ash Is Purest White
05. Lush Reeds
06. The Image Book
07. Fausto
08. Three Faces
09. Edge of the Knife
10. Grass / The Darling

Performances
01. Mary Kay Place, Diane
02. Zhao Tao, Ash Is Purest White
03. Michael Jq Huang, Father to Son

Teresa

01. Ash Is Purest White
02. Shoplifters
03. Transit
04. Mirai
05. Lush Reeds

also reviewed:
*Edge of the Knife
*The Sisters Brothers
*Wangdrak's Rain Boots
*The House That Jack Built
*The Darling
*No. 1 Chung Ying Street
VIFF, pt. 6: Parts Unknown


A Land Imagined For those who felt that Crazy Rich Asians presented a too homogeneous, rose-colored image of Singapore, Yeow Siew Hua's film is the perfect, murky antidote. Part police procedural, part story of foreign migrant workers hired to literally expand Singapore (via land reclamation), A Land Imagined is the pointed opposite of jet-set luxury porn: Its protagonist, a young migrant laborer from China, can't get any sleep in his hot, bedbug-infested dorm room in a Chungking Mansions-like housing block, and so spends his nights playing video games and finding air-conditioned relief in a neon-lit, 24-hour internet cafe. It's his exhaustion--tired eyes staring blankly at a computer screen for hours on end--that serves as the catalyst for the narrative's quick turn toward the surreal. Not all of the ensuing plot pieces ultimately fit together in a coherent way (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), and Yeow's dependence on the idea of land reclamation as a metaphor for Singapore's uneven economic ascent is effective yet a touch heavy-handed (especially when one character explicitly spells it out). But on the whole, this is an impressive and provocative movie, likely to reward to repeat viewings.

Fausto Andrea Bussmann's film-poem is even harder to describe in concrete terms than Godard's latest, and it's nearly as good (!), though, upon reflection, I'm really not sure what Goethe has to do with any of it. Set along Mexico's beautiful Oaxacan coast, it's about the ways in which stories, myths, legends, etc. can be creatively projected onto the physical/natural world, creating webs, or constellations, of meaning, yet never (in Fausto's case) at the expense of the essential, intractable mysteriousness of that landscape. Or that's my take, anyway. The program note mentions "colonization, greed, and the limitations of human perception," which didn't occur to me, but sure--this is an uncommonly open film, in the very best sense.

The Darling If local cinephiles have ever found themselves hoping for a Hong Sang-soo film set in Vancouver, this black-and-white gem by Lee Seung-yup will likely be the closest they'll get. Featuring a terrific lead performance by Jang Jieun as a well-known Korean actress venturing around the Lower Mainland in relative anonymity, Lee's film is as funny, charming, and occasionally moving as Hong's signature work (its unambiguous model), if not quite as formally sophisticated and subtly inventive.

Microhabitat Jeon Go-woon's wholly wonderful and remarkably assured directorial debut takes place in Seoul, not Vancouver, but it nonetheless presents a serious dilemma with which Vancouverites can acutely identify: the increasing challenge of finding decent, affordable housing in a city that is ostensibly growing ever-more "liveable." Centering on a problem too infrequently considered in films (or TV shows) set in urban locales other than New York, Microhabitat finds both droll comedy and low-key tragedy in the either/or decisions imposed by a tough market: choosing between life's small pleasures and personal living-space (hence the film's title), layering up indoors to avoid a massive heating bill in the wintertime, switching to an inferior brand of cigarettes as prices inflate yet again. When the couchsurfing protagonist tells her friend that she's saving up for a deposit and holding out for a place with cheaper rent, the friend replies, "Seems like you're living a fantasy." But few recent fictional films hew closer to real life.

Friday

VIFF, pt. 5: Little Earthquakes


Grass Robert Christgau wrote the following about Sleater-Kinney's All Hands on the Bad One: "Locked into a visceral style and sound that always maximizes their considerable and highly specific gifts, they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967." I mention this because what was true of the Stones in 1967 and of Sleater-Kinney in 2000 is also true of the mind-bogglingly prolific and consistent Hong Sang-soo in 2018. It's worth noting that Christgau made this observation at the start of a CG blurb for an album that almost everyone liked and almost no one regarded as S-K's best. Similarly, among Hong's recent work, Grass lacks either the total, caustic impact of On the Beach at Night Alone or the effortless, ebullient charms of Our Sunhi. It also feels fairly minor compared to Lee Chang-dong's Burning, another Korean film about the process of creating fiction and the writer's relationship to the world around him/her, except in Grass the Elusive Woman (of course, the ever-terrific Kim Min-hee) is the writer in question (and arguably, unlike On the Beach..., the on-screen director-surrogate), rather than the enigmatic object of the writer's interest. All that said, its pleasures––the crisp black-and-white photography, the way DP Kim Hyung-koo films people talking to one another, Hong's alternately funny and incisive dialogue, a young couple heatedly arguing and then gradually reconciling while Pachelbel's Canon in D Major plays on the café stereo––are genuine and abundant, especially for a movie that clocks in at a super-lean 66 minutes to Lee's 148.

Father to Son Roughly halfway through Hsiao Ya-chuan's intimate character study, it occurred to me that this might well be my favorite film of the festival. Hsiao's film is wonderful to look at, beautiful and elegant in an unforced way, and so vividly detailed. Hsiao served in the past as Hou's assistant director, and the Taiwanese master's guiding influence (a line in the opening credits reads "with the support of Hou Hsiao-hsien") is evident throughout the film's excellent first half or even two-thirds, although Hsiao's movie is warmer and more character-focused than most of Hou's films of the past twenty years. Alas, at a certain key point in the narrative, Hsiao's movie becomes overwhelmed by the soap opera-like melodrama that it had earlier treated in a more restrained, naturalistic manner. With this shift toward the histrionic, the filmmaking itself also seems suddenly clumsier and more artificially stylized, with obvious cross-cutting between moments in the present and flashbacks shot in an antique-looking black-and-white, pointless slow motion, and over-use of the musical score for unnecessary emphasis. It's a real shame, but we're left at least with half, or even nearly two-thirds, of a great film.

Diane My ultimate impression of this fictional debut from critic/programmer-turned-filmmaker Kent Jones is more or less the same, except that it stays great (in a distinctly Kenneth Lonergan-like way) for a little longer into its runtime, then when it careens downhill it's more abrupt and jarringly incongruous in scope and tone with what had preceded it. Nevertheless, Mary Kay Place, giving one of the best performances of the year, is superb from start to finish. Even where Jones's narrative choices in the film's final twenty or so minutes feel dubious or false (I shouldn't say more), she redeems the material with an extraordinary level of commitment and grace.

Monday

VIFF, pt. 4: Believe the Hype


Burning Like the books of the Bible in medieval exegesis, Lee Chang-dong's film can facilitate an enormous range of readings, from the literal (an ambiguous psychological thriller, via Murakami via Faulkner) to the tropological (it's really a story about repressed homoerotic desire) to the typological (the characters are stand-ins are for elements of fictional storytelling: it's really, really an allegory for the internal violence of the creative process, à la Vertigo) to the sociopolitical (actually, it's about simmering, or "boiling," class tensions in the shadow, or earshot, of the DMZ, playing out in an age of increasing political extremism). Some books/chapters/verses/scenes seem to particularly invite (or permit) readings on one of these levels, while others seem open to several at once. Even at its most literal, Burning seems like at least two different movies, split down the middle by an extraordinary, long scene that doesn't feel like it's necessarily part of either what preceded it or what follows it. Of course, as with biblical readings, interpreters of Lee's rightly lauded film have to work with what's there; but--in both cases--there's a lot there, so much so, in fact, that a very loaded text can, in effect, be treated almost like a tabula rasa, or a new document in Microsoft Word, inviting a would-be novelist to shake off his writer's block and get on with the business of creation.

The Image Book Near the end of his latest video essay, Godard reflects that our civilizations (i.e., the West as well as the Arab World, which Godard pointedly contrasts with the more limited Western conception of "the Middle East," much like his sharp distinction between America and the United States in In Praise of Love) come directly from the religions of the book, through which the word became sacralized and thus reified (a friend, afterwards, referred to John 1:1, but I think Godard, like Derrida, has never fully settled on the Johannine primacy of verbum vis à vis imago). This is not an original observation, but in the context of Godard's restless sorting out of the complex relationship of image and language across modern history and of the affects of visual art and literature (both essentially image-making) employed by cultures at liminal fins des siècles, it's a mournful observation--post-biblical history as, in a certain sense, fait accompli, the longed-for utopia evoked by Godard having not only failed to materialize, but (maybe) having been doomed from the get-go. If cinema, for all its polysemous potential to complicate the fateful, scriptural marriage of word and image, offered a kind of Plan B, but also ultimately failed to subvert (or liberate us from) the fixed subject-object representation whereby power is reiterated and reproduced, this is why Godard turns (again) to the Brechtian "fragment" as a last refuge of that malleable, polysemous potential--a last gasp as guttural as his octogenarian smoker's cough.

Friday

VIFF, pt. 3: Masters and Disciples


Ash Is Purest White Here, Jia Zhangke is performing his greatest hits--a little Xiao Wu, several cuts off Platform and Unknown Pleasures, lots of Still Life, a touch of A Touch of Sin--while continuing to survey the uneven patterns of "progress" and change in China's recent history. As usual, Jia is particularly concerned with what exactly it means for ordinary people to live through such epochal social, economic, and cultural changes. Where Platform followed its characters, in Jia's native province of Shanxi, from 1979 to the early 1990s, Ash Is Purest White opens in 2001 and concludes in the present, beginning and ending in Datong, the Shanxi industrial city where Unknown Pleasures took place; the new film's middle section is set in Fengjie, along the monumental Three Gorges Dam, which was the setting for Still Life and its companion documentary, Dong. Jia fuses these familiar settings, elements, and themes into something new within his oeuvre, namely his most humane and empathetic film. A friend observed that it's both Jia's least formalist narrative feature and his most emotionally moving work. This is precisely on-point, and within this less formally rigorous context, Jia's muse, Zhao Tao, gives her best performance to date; her co-star, Liao Fan, is nearly as impressive.

Three Faces Similarly drawing from earlier works in a truly fruitful manner, Jafar Panahi's latest not-a-film is his most Kiarostamian, pre- or post-"ban." Indeed, this must be a conscious homage to the late Iranian master: obscuring boundaries between documentary and fiction in both its premise and execution, Three Faces evokes, most of all, Life, and Nothing More and The Wind Will Carry Us (two of my personal favorites among Kiarostami's oeuvre). Yet in its focus on two would-be artists prevented from practising their art (three if one counts Panahi himself), and specifically on the constraints circumscribing the lives and careers of women (in contrast to the director, who has clearly found clever ways around his punitive sentence), this is also quintessential Panahi.

Lush Reeds Yang Yishu's film never fully settles on what type of movie it is--social commentary? investigative-journalism thriller? domestic drama? dreamy mood piece?--and it's this ambiguous, shifting quality that ultimately make it something really special and exciting. In a post-screening Q&A, Yang noted that her film's Chinese title and its structure are drawn from the classical Book of Songs, which may account for its stately rhythms and elliptical form, but not necessarily (to my knowledge, at least) its pervasive sense of mystery. The less said about plot specifics, the better--see it, by all means. Unhurried and quiet (in a rather ghostly way), it's a knockout.

The Eyes of Orson Welles I never grew tired of watching this documentary, jam-packed with film clips, archival footage, drawings, and paintings by Welles, just as I never tire of revisiting most Welles films, but I did tire of listening to Mark Cousins' ponderous voice-over, jam-packed with annoying rhetorical questions, on-the-nose jokes, and interesting stray observations framed as revelatory insights, as well to the treacly, repetitive score that Cousins lays over virtually the whole film. Admittedly, some of the connections that Cousins suggests--particularly between Welles's many surviving drawings and his distinctive film style--are remarkable and persuasive, but these points could've been delivered more effectively (and less irritatingly) in a conventional documentary format, rather than as an indulgent epistolary essay addressed, presumptuously, to "Orson."

Monday

VIFF, pt. 2: Res Canadiana


Both Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown's Edge of the Knife (SG̲aawaay Ḵ'uuna) and Bojan Bodružić's The Museum of Forgotten Triumphs are classified as Canadian films, and indeed both were made possible by grants from federal or provincial funding agencies, yet there isn't a word of English or French spoken in either. The former, the first narrative feature in the Haida language, takes place at the edge of the world, on the islands of Haida Gwaii, at some point in the nineteenth century, presumably post-contact but before extensive colonization had made its way up the B.C. coast; "Canada" avant la lettre, or only from hindsight. The latter, a documentary, was shot entirely in Sarajevo, though if you look closely you'll spot a couple Vancouver Canucks T-shirts on the Bosnian-Canadians visiting older relatives who never left Europe.

If Edge of the Knife is fated to be regarded as the West Coast Fast Runnner (it received some of its funding from Zacharias Kunuk's production company)--well, that's very high praise, and indeed Edenshaw and Haig-Brown's film is as thoroughly captivating as Kunuk's masterpiece. But despite its similar origins in local folklore and communal initiative, the story driving Edge of the Knife is markedly different from that of The Fast Runner. This is, in a certain light, a horror movie--complete with a stunning exorcism scene!--but also a powerful examination of forgiveness and reconciliation. Its power stems in large part from its affect of immersive authenticity, from the ravishingly beautiful, unspoiled natural locations to the uniformly excellent cast.

The "triumphs" in Bodružić's film all relate in some form or another to survival through the most perilous of circumstances, across decades of war and austerity--experiences that Bodružić's elderly grandparents speak candidly about in front of his camera. With both palpable affection and intellectual curiosity, Bodružić follows them and other family members across numerous years, alternating interviews about their memories of the past with quotidian scenes of daily life in their Sarajevo apartment. That apartment, and its rebuilt yet unmistakably war-scarred urban envrions, are the "museum" of the title. Where one of the major objectives of Edge of the Knife was clearly to create a vibrant, living record of the Haida language in action, The Museum of Forgotten Triumphs is similarly trying to preserve something important, to retrieve it from near-oblivion--namely, the shared lifetime of two remarkable, resilient individuals. In this respect, both films are exceptionally poignant.

Sunday

VIFF, pt. 1: Missed Connections


On paper, Transit sounds essentially of a piece with Christian Petzold's last two movies (Barbara and Phoenix, both superb), albeit lacking Nina Hoss and taking place in France rather than Germany: a fastidiously detailed period film, set in a time of high anxiety and moral murkiness in Europe's twentieth-century past. In its execution, Petzold's latest is something else entirely: an atemporal, cyclical series of starts and stops, entrances and exits, merging Europe's past and present (and near future?) into a purgatorial loop, equal parts social morality play and ghost story. The adjective "Kafka-esqe" is turning up in most reviews, and it's wholly appropriate in this case, not least for the distanced, highly literary voice-over narration, though in its doubling of the action on-screen it also calls to mind Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, which is to say, that "literary" (or for that matter, "theatrical") need not be invoked as an antonym for "cinematic."

Yet, if this is Petzold's most literary work (adapted from a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers), it's also the roughest-around-the-edges of his recent films, opting for undisguised real-world locations over museum-like sound-stage curations. The effect is genuinely radical. What seems initially to be a story of Jews, communists, political dissidents, et al. attempting to escape from the the Nazi forces in occupied Paris is quickly confounded by the presence of anachronistic, present-day cars, buildings, graffiti, clothing, hair-styles, plastic products, etc., and later by the trans-Mediterranean migrants from the Mahgreb whom the protagonist encounters hiding out in Marseilles. Ah, so, this is actually a contemporary narrative? Not so fast. While numerous indicators of twenty-first-century (or at least definitely post-WWII) life are conspicuously present, others are no less conspicuously absent––in particular, digital technology. Unless I blinked and missed it, I didn't spot a mobile phone ("smart" or otherwise) or computer of any sort––elements that, unlike T-shirts and haircuts, would've altered the range of possible actions for Seghers'/Petzold's characters.

The result is a film that is neither properly "period" nor contemporary, but located instead in some kind of uncanny time out of linear-historical time, a singular aspect that renders Petzold's sociopolitical allegory both eerie and impactful. In this respect, I thought of BlacKkKlansman, another film this year that blurs conventional lines between past and present, though, to be sure, Petzold's film is not nearly as explicitly polemical as Spike Lee's; I thought also of Groundhog Day and of Peter Watkins' great La Commune (Paris, 1871). And in its sustained psychological tension and suspense (even, and perhaps especially, in moments of apparent stasis) Transit did call to mind Barbara and Phoenix, which can rightly be called Hitchcockian. But ultimately, in the way that all of these elements are brought together, this is quite a singular film, and an essential one, by one of the best filmmakers working today.

Tuesday

Even better than Caputo on OITNB


(though, that said, it was my favorite moment of the season).

Monday

An obituary-by-committee––a sad, nostalgic must-read; it really is getting harder and harder to be optimistic about much of anything beyond one's immediate orbit.

Friday

I know it's late / But wait


Another favorite, also utterly inexhaustible; sixteen years on, it just gets better with age.

Monday

You're just a thought that someone somewhere somehow feels you should be here


When I can't think of what else to play, I tend to put on Forever Changes, while working, reading, exercising, cleaning the apartment, etc. It's inexhaustible, and there are few better records.

Wednesday

If the year ended now...

(but VIFF is just around the corner!)

01. BlacKkKlansman (Lee)
02. Zama (Martel)
03. First Reformed (Schrader)
04. Hereditary (Aster)
05. The Third Murder (Koreeda)
06. The Death of Stalin (Ianucci)
07. On Happiness Road (Sung)
08. You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay)
09. Oh Lucy! (Hirayanagi)
10. Paddington 2 (King)

Monday

This article on mind-boggling hypocrisy (by Stephen Miller's uncle) is really important.

Similarly mind-boggling: I just explained to my son (who is 10 years old, thinks mainly in terms of good guys vs. bad guys, and has recently gotten into the Indiana Jones movies) that America's two primary foes in the twentieth century were the Nazis and the Soviet Union. Whatever one thinks of the more dubious aspects of America's own political/military/imperialistic history, there are very good and obvious reasons why these two groups make for ideal movie villains. And yet now--it really only dawned on me as I gave him this ad hoc history lesson--the US president and his administration are unambiguously friendly both to people who explicitly self-identify as Nazis and to a Russian autocrat who used to work for the KGB and who aims to restore Russia (and other sovereign territories that he thinks should be Russia) to its former, Stalin-era "greatness."

We cannot for a moment lose sight of just how wholly surreal and profoundly fucked up all of this is.
Real Resistance Cinema


To call Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman the movie of the moment, or of the year, feels like a serious understatement, although it's certainly the former and probably the latter. In short (for now), it's utterly sensational, and one of the most incredible movie-theatre experiences I've ever had: a sold-out Sunday-night(!) screening, with palpable, opening-night-of-a-festival-type anticipation in the air and the crowd proceeding to loudly cheer, laugh, gasp, groan, cringe, and ultimately clap at length before sitting momentarily in stunned silence as Lee's '70s protagonists dolly-float into the future, toward the grimmest of codas. (Contrast this with Kanye's pointlessly contrarian remarks on Kimmel, concerning the past's relationship to the present.) Among Lee's non-documentary work (his docs have been consistently excellent), this one's right up there with Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour--a singular master at the height of his powers, combining all the things he does best to push his art forward in a really exciting, and thoroughly vital, way.
Twenty-first-century TV


I really like The Ringer, but its list of the best TV episodes since 2000 is largely dumb, baffling, and pointlessly provocative--even if it inevitably gets some of the obvious milestones right. My top 25 below (one episode per show, or there'd be way more Buffy and Sopranos).

01. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer: “Once More, with Feeling”
02. The Sopranos: “Whitecaps”
03. Mad Men: “The Suitcase”
04. Black Mirror: “San Junipero”
05. The Young Pope: "Episode Eight"
06. Twin Peaks: The Return: "Part 8"
07. The Shield: “Family Meeting”
08. Angel: “Not Fade Away”
09. Gilmore Girls: “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?”
10. Friday Night Lights: “Always”
11. The Wire: "Final Grades"
12. Orange Is the New Black: “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again”
13. True Detective: “Who Goes There”
14. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: "Party Monster: Scratching the Surface"
15. Wolf Hall: "Master of Phantoms"
16. Breaking Bad: “Fly”
17. Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere”
18. Freaks and Geeks: “Discos and Dragons”
19. Community: “Intro to Political Science”
20. Parks and Recreation: “Li’l Sebastian”
21. Dollhouse: “Epitaph One”
22. Supernatural: “The French Mistake”
23. Fringe: “Transilience through Unifier Model-11”
24. The West Wing: "Two Cathedrals"
25. Riverdale: "A Night to Remember"