Stump the Guesser (Guy Maddin, 2020)
By Gary M. Kramer.
There were some interesting discoveries, documentaries, and revivals screening at this year’s New York Film Festival. Here are a handful of notable titles that played at this year’s virtual fest.
One of the highlights is the pairing two playful and inventive films – Guy Maddin’s short, Stump the Guesser, and There Are Not Thirty-six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse, by Nicolás Zukerfeld. Maddin’s short is a cheeky, absurdist, and slightly irreverent story told in silent film fashion about a carnival act, “The Guesser” (Adam Brooks), who is able to predict things like “How many fishes have I secreted upon my person?,” when a man at the carnival asks. He can pour coffee blindfolded. But the Guesser’s talent is bested when a woman (Stephanie Berrington) inquires, “What color are my eyes?” and the answer – along with the identity of the woman – surprises him. Soon, the Guesser gets involved with disproving something (it would spoil the film to say more), but Maddin presents this quest with fabulous sound effects and eye-popping superimposed and overlapping images. A climactic “nuptial challenge” sequence contains a dizzying riot of images edited together that is pure fun.
Zukerfeld’s fabulous documentary There Are Not Thirty-six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse is a probing study of a quote attributed to filmmaker Raoul Walsh. The first 2/3s of this hourlong film features an enjoyable montage of clips edited together from dozens of Walsh’s films. (It is reminiscent of Maddin’s film The Green Fog in this regard). The scenes feature men mounting horses and riding horses, as well as some women mounting and riding horses before it segues into numerous shots of men and women entering rooms through doorways. Arguably the best sequence, from The Strawberry Blonde, involves Biff Grimes’ (James Cagney) door. Other visual themes, such as storms, getting in and out of bed, gunplay, and death emerge. But then the film gets to its point, which is sourcing Walsh’s apocryphal quote that provides this documentary with its title. A film professor tracks down the origins of the phrase through various film critics and filmmakers. The screen is black save for the subtitles and various notes, quotes, and articles that inform the quest. The truth of the remark, in fact, may be less about the number of ways, or even about horses. But it is both compelling and highly satisfying.
The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror is an enchanting hourlong film with an interesting history. Director Raúl Ruiz shot the film in 1967, but it remained unfinished at the time of his death. His widow, Valeria Sarmiento, completed The Tango of the Widower… over the last three years. The result is striking and clever. What looks like a scrappy bit of surrealism about the title character, Iriarte (Rubén Sotoconil), soon becomes an interesting meditation on death and life. The film opens with intriguing scenes of water being “harvested” from stocking and foam being collected in bottles. Iriarte is exasperated, however, and his thoughts pepper the film. Ruiz shoots much of the activity in close-ups and tightly-framed compositions that capture a suffocating atmosphere. Iriarte can’t sleep and he is haunted by his ex-wife (Claudia Paz). There are some playful images, too—feet sticking out from under his bed, wigs that move along the floor, etc. “Only the dead are healthy!” Iriarte exclaims during another moment of despair. But then, just as the film reaches its midpoint Iriarte dies – this is not necessarily a spoiler – and as his coffin is being placed in interment, his nephew asks to take a photo. Suddenly, the entire film starts rewinding and the second half of The Tango of the Widower… is spent watching the first half in reverse. Smoke and water go backward, and the sound is garbled as the dialogue is rewound. Pencil marks erase. It is a clever conceit that allows viewers to reevaluate what they have seen and felt about Iriarte. (Guy Maddin will likely have fits of envy; it is the kind of trick he’d play). What the film is saying about life or death is certainly up to the viewer to decide, but Ruiz and Sarmiento tickle and provoke viewers with this nifty experimental film.
About midway through Isabella, the tenth film from writer/director Matías Piñeiro, Mariel (María Villar), asks her brother (Guillermo Solovey) for money and tells him, that she thought if he saw her in a different context, he might understand her better. This theme resonates throughout this experimental film about two actresses, Mariel and Luciana (Agustina Muñoz), who both audition for the role of Isabella in a production of Measure for Measure. Piñeiro films the women in different contexts and time. Mariel is pregnant in some scenes and with her baby in others. Luciana is seen hiking in Córdoba and also walking through the streets of Buenos Aires. The women rehearse a scene from the play together and change the intonation of what they are reading. Piñeiro lets viewers absorb the variations as he addresses issues of doubt. A repeated motif in the film involves throwing 12 rocks into the water to release doubt. This echoes a quote rehearsed by the actresses, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” Piñeiro also includes a framework for these episodes, dividing the film into chapters, each featuring shots of overlapping purple and red rectangles that represent the actresses. These colors are also used in an elaborate visual art project Mariel creates using light, shapes (rectangles), colors (purple and red), and rocks, that reflects – and refracts – the intersecting narrative dramas. However, Piñeiro’s ambitions may confound viewers as much it is intrigues them. Even with the different perspectives on display, and a narrative that jumps around in time and between acting and real life, Isabella is mostly a multi-dimensional puzzle.
Smooth Talk, Joyce Chopra’s 1985 adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” is one of the features of the New York Film Festival’s retrospective this year. (It will have a virtual release at Lincoln Center in early November). This independent drama is one of the defining films about teenage female sexuality, and the incandescent Laura Dern delivered a star-making performance in the lead role. Chopra zeros in on how teenage girls behave from the opening scene as Connie (Dern) and her friends Laura (Margaret Welsh) and Jill (Sarah Inglis) hitch a ride from a guy in a truck after oversleeping at the beach. When Connie returns home, she has yet another battle with her mother (Mary Kay Place) who chides her for having “trashy daydreams.” 15 year-old Connie is dreaming – about boys. She practices come-on lines in the mirror and dresses in a halter top she hides under a baseball shirt. She and her girlfriends go “scoping” at the mall, checking out the boys with “cute buns.” But the girls also run into a pair of older guys who frighten them. Still, Connie is keen to explore, and with Laura as her coconspirator, they sneak off to Frank’s hamburger stand where she meets Jeff (William Ragsdale) who gives Connie what is surely her first kiss. Smooth Talk, however, concentrates on how Connie changes after she gets a taste of what she wants. And then she meets Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), who has her number. In the film’s spellbinding last act, Arnold shows up at Connie’s house poised to seduce her. She resists until she relents. Williams is a mix of charm and creepiness, especially when he purrs, “Don’t you want to go for ride?” Williams’ grandstanding turn does inject the film with some verve, But Smooth Talk is really a showcase for Dern. Watch her at Frank’s counter in her halter top, where she is vulnerable and exposed and self-conscious one minute, and dancing over to the jukebox, all sexy and confident the next. She also exudes emotion as Arnold seduces her through her screen door. Dern excels at making Connie mercurial, especially in her passive-aggressive interactions with her mother and sister (Elizabeth Berridge), both of whom try to warn her about moving too fast too soon. It’s a lesson Connie does not heed, and Chopra is deliberately ambiguous when it comes to revealing what transpires between Arnold and Connie. Smooth Talk is still impactful 35 years later, despite being dated in some respects, but mostly it is a testament to Dern’s talents as an actress.
Tragic Jungle is director/cowriter Yulene Olaizola’s captivating fable set in the jungle along the Rio Hondo (on the border between Mexico and Belize). The film features a voiceover that implores folks listen to the jungle. It is later followed by the claim, the jungle likes to talk. As such, viewers who pay close attention to the sights and sounds that comprise this haunting film will be rewarded. Agnes (Indira Rubie Andrewin) is a virginal, mixed-race woman in the 1920s who is fleeing Cacique (Dale Carley), a British landowner who wants her for his wife. In the jungle, Agnes is discovered by a group of Mexican workers who are harvesting gum from zapote trees. She does not understand their Spanish, and they mistake her for a doctor. Agnes is treated with respect at first, but the men soon jump to conclusions about British rivals that prompt them to tie her up. Agnes says almost nothing once she meets the Mexicans, but Andrewin’s performances speaks volumes; her character is seen to be a goddess, a stranger, a seductress, a victim, a danger, and a savoir. As she exerts influence on the men, they consider revolting against their boss. One character even goes mad. Tragic Jungle is compelling as the bodies pile up, and the film builds to Cacique closing in on Agnes and the workers. Olaizola ratchets up the tension and creates a tense and palpable atmosphere, with men hunting one another, shots of a crocodile slithering into water, or ants swarming on a corpse. This is a stunning tale of oppression writ large, that really should be seen on as big a screen as possible.
Atarrabi and Mikelats is Eugène Green’s splendid fable about two brothers in the Basque country. A prologue has Mari (Adelaïde Daraspe-Lafourcade) arriving at a man’s house insisting that she sleep with him. Mari is next seen taking her two sons – they are born several minutes apart, “but not twins,” she explains – to meet The Devil (Thierry Biscary) whom she hopes will raise and educate them. As young men, Atarrabi (Saia Hiriat) wants to leave and serve God and the world, but Mikelats (Lukas Hiriart) prefers to stay, and takes an oath to become immortal. When Atarrabi escapes, his shadow is held back, which means he cannot receive the light of God. This spoils his chances not only to become a monk (he enters a monastery) but also marry Udana (Ainara Leemans), a young woman he loves and who loves him. Green’s film addresses themes of good and evil and well as sin and salvation and if God is unjust, with a surprisingly light touch. Atarrabi and Mikelats is shot with a crispness and austerity that is befitting to the mythical nature. Even a sex scene with Mikelats is filmed discretely, as shadows on the wall. But Green does employ moments of magical realism – such as an episode where Atarrabi talks with animals and inanimate objects – as well as fantasy, as in a scene when Atarrabi visits Basajaun, a being who lives between two worlds, and might be able to help him recover his shadow and get salvation. Even if the film may feel whimsical at times, with deadpan line readings, and a handful of musical performances and dancing scenes, it is enchanting. And it does feature a nice message about how thinking differently can help one approach the truth.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.