By Michael Miller.
AFI Fest unspooled along Hollywood Boulevard November 7-14, 2013 to almost entirely full houses. The event permits a sizable number of free tickets available to the public via an online lottery. This enables a large, diverse audience to partake of the equally diverse cinematic fare. Here is a rundown of a handful of films that played at the fest.
This being Hollywood, there is no surprise that a theme running through the program is the art and craft of making cinema. This is particularly evident in the selection of Agnès Varda as the guest artistic director of this year’s fest. As Varda introduced screenings of Pickpocket (Directed by Robert Bresson, 1959), she encouraged the audience to take note of Bresson’s use of a 50mm lens and the construction of the shots and the way the camera lingers on the main character Michel (Martin LaSalle) as he sizes up a mark. Additionally, the fest presented the infrequently screened Documenteur (Directed by Agnès Varda, 1981). Shot in and around Los Angeles’ Venice Beach, the drama follows a young, recently separated French woman, Sabine (Emilie Cooper), who searches for a place to live with her 8 year-old son (played by Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son fathered by Jacques Demy). A scene of the young woman on the phone with a friend explaining her new circumstance is riveting and heartfelt, not just because of Cooper’s impassioned performance, but also because of Varda’s distinctive visual style, which uses reflections to convey the emotional feeling of her characters. Documenteur is also notable for containing scenes of “gleaning”–as when Sabine takes in discarded furniture—which is a favorite theme of Varda’s.
Another notable film at the festival was Closed Curtain (Directed by Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi). The film is Panahi’s second feature produced while under a 20-year ban from directing and screenwriting. This is Not a Film (Panahi, 2011) showed the physical limitations of his confinement by shooting the feature in his Tehran apartment on his iPhone. Closed Curtain takes that theme and turns it inward exploring the psychological challenges of his sentence. The opening shot is of a man, namely the co-director Partovi playing a writer, arriving at a house by the sea. It is a vacation home and has been closed up for the season. The static shot is from inside out through security bars on the window. He enters the residence and opens a heavy duffle he carried in to reveal a docile but playful dog. The man moves from room to room draping each window with heavy black cloth. He is clearly in hiding. The allegory is set: the writer is Panahi, and the dog is his spirit. In a sequence that is difficult to watch, we learn that dogs are “unclean” in Arab culture and hunted and euthanized by Iranian authorities. The house is the mental prison they are confined to. In this crucible, the writer’s psychological struggle with being hunted and in captivity unfolds. In a scene–which may or may not be real–a young couple, Reza (Hadi Saeedi) and his sister Melika (Maryam Moqadam), appear mysteriously at the door in search of a safe place to hide from authorities chasing them. Reza leaves the suicidal Melika behind to find a car. She can be read as a proxy for the writer’s paranoia while both are trapped in the house. Likewise, a scene of the writer and his dog hiding in a safe room as we hear a burglary take place elsewhere in the house is equally metaphoric. The film then pivots and removes any doubt for those who may have been taking these scenes at face value. The writer, Melika and the dog vanish from the film and are replaced by Panahi himself. He busies himself cleaning up the broken glass and disarray resulting from the burglary. He makes tea and entertains the local men who have come to repair the window. He even at their request poses for a photo; these acts are almost cathartic. This highly personal film is extremely rewarding as we navigate the despair Panahi endures under his sentence. It is also life affirming as we watch him come out the other side. Closed Curtain is an anthem to the resilience of man against authority.
On a less serious but somewhat darker note, The Congress (Directed by Ari Folman) explores Hollywood’s potential relationship with its talent in the not too distant future. The film is a split into two parts: the first portion is live action and the remainder is animated. Robin Wright stars as herself, an out of work actress of a certain age with a reputation in the business for being difficult. Her agent Al (Harvey Keitel), is pitching one last job. Jeff, the head of Miramount Studios, (Danny Huston, excellent) wants to acquire the license to Wright’s image in order for the studio to create virtual entertainment content. In return, the actress receives a sizable sum and promises never to act again. The live action portion crackles with sharp dialog particularly when Huston is on screen. The film takes square aim at the business side of the movie business, where talent is just a commodity whose sole purpose is to generate profits for the studio. The animated portion of the film joins the story 20 years later. Robin attends the Futurological Congress where technology enables ordinary people to transform themselves into the avatar of their choice. This is illustrated by the psychedelic animated background which shows references to characters from film, art, and literature dancing and generally misbehaving. This portion of the film doesn’t work as well narratively compared to the opening half. There is an insurrection, a chase, and a rescue; not all of it makes sense. Yet, it is all interesting. This film seems to demand multiple viewings if only to catch the cultural references as they jump across the screen. Some viewers will be up to the challenge; others are likely to just turn their backs and run. That is something of a shame as Folman is considering the ways in which some people splash their images and stories online with little concern as to who accesses or misappropriates it for their own purposes. The intersection of technology and the essence of one’s humanity is an interesting place to probe; unfortunately, The Congress is too muddled to clearly make its point.
One benefit of film festivals is that a portion of the audience can seek out difficult and/or transgressive work. This year’s AFI Fest catered to that craving in the form of Moebius (Directed by Kim Ki-duk). Told entirely without dialog, it is a story of a family, Father (Cho Jae-hyun), Mother (Lee Eun-woo) and teenage Son (Seo Young-ju), as they navigate duplicity and devotion in unconventional fashion following a family crisis. Mother (none of the characters are named) is incensed at her husband’s infidelity as he brazenly cavorts in public with his young mistress (also played by Lee Eun-woo). As her revenge, she plans to slice off his penis as he sleeps. The man successfully repels her attack. Still enraged, she sneaks into the Son’s bedroom and castrates him instead, much to the Father—and son’s—horror. That’s all in the first reel. Moebius then sets out to explore the Son’s journey to deal with this life-changing event. Depictions of gang rape, mutilation, incest and further castrations test the viewer’s capacity for cruelty and violence. This film is tough to watch, but tough films generally reward the audience with a revelation or other payoff that redeems it for all its transgressions. Unfortunately, Moebius doesn’t quite deliver. The Father’s debt to the Son for his injury is palpable. His various solutions, while outré, can provoke a sly smile. However, the violence exacted on women, particularly the young shopkeeper who is the Father’s mistress, is stunning in its misogyny. From his previous work, Kim Ki-duk has a reputation as a provocateur, and his assault on middle class values is unmistakable here. Yet there does not appear to be any redeeming point. Other filmmakers (Haneke, Seidl, von Trier) have been equally provocative but the success of their work depends on the audience recognizing themselves (or at least people they know) in the characters and bringing the filmmakers’ opinion and reflections of humanity (or lack thereof) home. Moebius presents characters that are so far removed from viewer experience that any observation on human nature is hollow.
Charlie Victor Romeo (Directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson) uses the cockpit transcripts from multiple aviation mishaps to create a performance documentary infused with all the drama and urgency of the actual events. The title refers to the NATO Phonetic Alphabet abbreviation for the Cockpit Voice Recorder from which the transcripts were obtained. Shot on a very spare set and presented in 3-D, the ensemble cast realistically and compellingly convey the emotion of these disasters. Each segment begins by identifying the flight designation of the aircraft and the date of the incident. Engineering schematics of the airliner and other documentation of the episode is flashed on the screen as from a carousel slide projector, adding the feel of a postmortem presentation. The ensemble cast switch roles for each act, keeping the dynamic in each cockpit fresh and different from the others. Viewers will marvel at the skill of the actors as they recite multiple minutes of complex dialog without a cut. The segment involving a South American airliner is particularly impressive. Originally written for the stage, the 3-D effect recreates the visual depth of that experience and places the viewer mere steps from the action. This is a highly effective technique that makes this gripping material even more effective.
Michael Miller is an independent scholar who frequently reviews documentaries for Film International’s Around the Circuit column.