Berlinale Day 3: No Intenso Agora (2017)

Brazilian director Joao Moreira Salles wrote and directed this documentary (English Title: In the Intense Now) wrapped around the years 1966-1968 and the intense revolutionary spirit that engulfed certain parts of the world: France, foremost, but also Czechoslovakia, China and Brazil. Although the movie is inherently political, it rises above politics to express the fleetingness of self-actualization, the kind moments of such a spiritual coming together catalyzes. Although a tad long and sometimes too explicitly ponderous, Salles’s work provides a unique frame to a very particular moment in time which is exceptionally relevant in the present day climate, all around the world.

in-the-intense-now

The starting point for this project, composed predominantly of amateur archival footage, was Salles stumbling across film recordings his mother had shot during her visit to China in 1966. It was the first year of the Cultural Revolution, but what’s really striking is the almost transformative effect the experience had on his mother. Providing a somewhat pedantic observational narrative, brimming with suppositions about what certain scenes mean, or what protagonists recorded on video might be thinking and feeling, the director spends most of the movie in Paris, where he lived for a while around the same period. Then, in May 1968, protests broke out among students in France, against the class-driven hierarchization of society and sexual conservatism. The dispute between students, on the one side, and university administration and the government on the other, escalated quickly, as worker unions joined the protests. All of a sudden, France was paralyzed. And liberated, at the same time, as Salles observes.

The events of those months are about more than social discord though. Salles nuances the idealism which spread like brushfire, manifesting itself in certain leading characters of the otherwise leaderless ‘revolution’, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit – a student at the University of Nanterre, where the protests were ignited before reaching the Sorbonne and Paris. The shift in communication dynamics, from a stifling top-down approach rooted in centuries of class division, stood out in interviews of the time. Yet, more than anything else, the protests also developed a renewed sense of belonging and generated an artistic flurry of dissent, Banksy-esque almost, including:

Les Affiches de mai 68 ou l'Imagination graphique : [exposition,
Be young and shut up.
Soyez réalistes demandez l'impossible
Be realistic, ask the impossible.
plage
Under the paving stones, the beach.

It’s hard not to feel something. And then, the movement slowly withered – in the approximate words of Jean-Paul Sartre, who personally interviewed Cohn-Bendit: Spring belongs to the students, but Summer belongs to the holidays. Moreso, the commercial potential became obvious and even Cohn-Bendit, exiled for a short while in Germany, ended up writing a memoir of the events for a quick buck and a publishing deal. The Revolution that never was, lead with spontaneity and not with political manifestos and lists of demands, then faded, resulting in minimal, percentage-sized improvements to worker wages. The divide persisted as well, even between the protesters, as the worker class and the student class never found the equal footing. In the wake of it, desolation set in for the idealists, even though the landscape for social and political movements had changed forever. Salles contrasts martyrdom across Paris, Prague (the Soviet occupation, after the Spring protests) and Rio (march against the military dictatorship), focusing on the familial textures as well as the wider social impact of these deaths, questioning whether they represent persistent hope or the effigy thereof.

What really hits hard is the sense that for many involved, especially among the students, those days of 1968 were the highlights of their lives, the purest form of ébouillant existence, living ‘in the intense now’. There’s a joy of camaraderie, of a mutual and subliminal understanding which stem from the joint struggle. One wonders whether the depth of those weeks of protests, of standstill, is something that can still be today, with the rhythm of life and the exhibitionist nature of social media. Although subverting the status quo should be easier, just by looking at the recent (and ongoing) protests in my home country, Romania, I’m left more with vague hope, than conviction. I don’t dare draw further parallels, because these are not trifles; they are intricate manifestations of a shared design of what life should be, in spite of apparent similarities.

Salles stumbled across the perfect time frame per chance. His work on No Intenso Agora started in 2012, before the world went aflame – in his native Brazil, in Europe, in the United States. The choice of spanning over four different manifestations of revolt is overbearing and tentative at times, but one can sense an inner core holding them together. Perhaps what bothered me, if anything in particular, was some of the narration, coming across as professorial. Once purpose was established, more natural expression and feeling coming directly from the images could have enhanced their impact and their significance, not unlike something as eccentric as The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010).

Other than that though, this was the best movie I had the chance of watching at the Berlinale. It’s a strange mix of analytical-poetic-social justice, that ultimately leaves a lingering sense of how fleeting and unique some of the most important moments of our lives can be. There is no recipe to it, but Salles clearly indicates that a tempestuously exhibited shared belief, with the deep tributaries of 1968, can change our perception of purpose and existence. I’m not sure I completely agree, but the thesis is compelling and No Intenso Agora is good at expressing it.

****

Sour Grapes (2016): Schadenfreude

I don’t even drink wine, so my understanding of the collector’s impulse is bound to be limited. Nonetheless, the themes flowing through Sour Grapes, smoothly prepped in the movie equivalent of a decanter, provide a certain sparkle on the tongue, a deeply flavoured experience with a tinge of Schadenfreude. The latter is essential, as it frames the human impulse behind what is ultimately no more than an astute con.

sour-grapes
There’s a palpable story at the roots of this documentary: Rudy Kurniawan, a skinny, wise-beyond-his-years kind of fellow, appears on the international wine auctioning scene in the early/mid 2000s and becomes a big player at an impressive pace. If there’s one thing that’s universally known about the early/mid 2000s, it’s that they preceded the latter 2000s – hah, just kidding! But not really, for the decade started with the fake excess of the dot-com bubble and then flourished in the fake excess of the housing market bubble. Per chance (or not), Kurniawan’s trajectory does well to parallel these cautionary tales, only that its conclusion is brisk and there were few tears shed about the victims. As one usually does, when it comes to the rich losing out in their Bateman-esque games of self-affirmation and chest thumping.

The fascinating bit lies in the possibility of a fraud existing in a world so tightly strung by expert knowledge. A wine connoisseur has a special kind of fame attached to his or her ability to discern the exceptional from the good. It’s something acquired through years of sophisticated training and a lot of expensive wines. Additionally, as important sums of money are thrown around, it is also the kind of area ripe for pretense. Similarly to, perhaps, the market for art collectors, there will always be people who understand art, historically and aesthetically, and those who collect it for the sheer exercise, be it financial or egotistical. The same applies to wines.

It’s in this contrast that Sour Grapes comes alive. The story is told through a limited collection of archival footage of Kurniawan and present day interviews with people in the business: collectors, sommeliers, wine producers. It paints this canvas of wine as an ultimately simple and beautiful experience, pandering somewhat to Domain Ponsot’s lavishly poetic narrative. Lavish to the point of being hypocritical, even. And it also frames Kurniawan as this endearing character, much liked by those who bought his wines. There’s surprisingly little sourness to the movie, especially for so much money being involved. Yet, that also plays into this idea of the exclusive wine club, where people are so enlightened (and rich), that they can look beyond trifling deceptions worth millions.

So perhaps that’s part of what I didn’t quite like, the neatness of it all, the lack of further prodding. You also get a sense there’s a template for these meta-documentaries, where a deeply ironic situation is framed with lyrical prowess, only to sustain some unnecessary ambiguity about its central character(s). Kurniawan is guilty and a bunch of people were defrauded, even if he might have had to bear the brunt of it.

But there’s also a certain beauty to being caught in such a great deception, because the contrast is so stark. The story sells itself, so the point of the movie was to somehow capture it with the limited footage it had of its lead. Atlas and Rothwell came good and they also managed to leave any sardonic undertones as just that, undertones. Ultimately, even for someone with no taste for wine, I was excited by the end, having sat through this very particular tasting menu of intricate lies. The thought that nothing is quite black and white lingers in the knowledge that thousands of Kurniawan wine bottles are still in wine cellars around the world.

Some real, some fake – and the afterthought that one might not really want to know the truth.

****

Pozitia Copilului (2013): People at its Heart

Upon its release, I happened to catch a screening of the film (English title: Child’s Pose) attended by the director and some of the actors, followed by a short Q&A. This sort of effort is part of a greater plan to bring appraised Romanian films closer to the Romanian audience, while also creating an association with the people responsible for their success, more often than not “against the odds”.

pozitia copilului.jpg
The story is set around a pampered man-child who ends up committing  a bit of involuntary vehicular manslaughter and his mother who works towards sorting out his predicament. What sets Netzer’s film apart from some of the other recent Romanian works of cinema is its sardonic humor which works best when it’s aimed at the characters and not at some of the pervasive practices of society. I’ve personally always felt that personal stories, meaning character stories, always came in second to some grand piece of social commentary, usually on the communist background of the country, in most of the acclaimed Romanian cinema of the 21st century. Not to say that such commentary lacks relevance, but there’s just more to modern life than its dark red heritage.

Of course, Pozitia Copilului is deeply rooted in antics which one could call symptomatic of Romania and as a means of characterization, the backdrop is justifiable. Occasionally though, when certain aspects come across a bit too hard pressed, they do a disservice to the otherwise excellent balance of a difficult story. This in no way undermines the beautifully detailed portrait of the film’s main character, a highly controlling, bossy, arrogant, mean-spirited mother. Her faults go quite a way to being redeemed by the passionate dedication with which she tries to protect her son, if one were to count such moral trade-offs. The ambivalence is so finely portrayed by Luminita Gheorghiu that both the moments of involuntary humor and the moments of pure drama work just as well.

It’s ironic that Mrs. Gheorghiu also played in “Moartea Domnului Lazarescu”, a film I found to be close at heart with “Pozitia Copilului”, in that it relies heavily on a complex central character and its critique is subtle, yet scathing. I’d go so far as to say that these kind of films, while still dominated by a type of post-modernist bleakness, can lead a shift of focus to the greater importance of characters as individuals in Romanian movies, not only as symbol stand-ins.

****

Originally published on imdb.

Sieranevada (2016): A Winter Wonderland

Although Romanian cinema has been ‘mainstreaming’ of late, this year has brought some old-school/new-school movies received to widespread critical acclaim, like Cristian Mungiu’s Bacalaureat (Graduation) or Bogdan Mirica’s Caini (Dogs). Both pictures, alongside Puiu’s Sieranevada, were premiered at Cannes and between them they picked up the Un Certain Regard prize (Dogs) and the best director prize (Mungiu). Interestingly enough, Sieranevada will be Romania’s push for the Academy Awards Foreign Film category, in spite of being the most demanding of the three movies.

sieranevada

At almost three hours’ breadth, preponderantly shot inside an apartment of fifty square meters and with more than ten characters coming together for a forty-day memorial service since the passing of the family’s patriarch, it amounts to a real-time experience of the event. There isn’t a lot of narrative to go about: we start with the oldest son, Lary, and his wife, Laura, dropping off some shopping and organizing the evening for their child, before setting off to the family apartment, where everyone else is gathering. In spite of being late, most guests arrive after them, until the apartment is overflowing with a heterogeneous, inter-generational group of people and their many opinions. The event takes place just around the Charlie Hebdo shooting, which sets the stage for a prolonged conspiracy theory discussion about 9/11. But seemingly countless topics are sprung to life, whether in the bedroom (the story of an abusive husband), in the kitchen (communism versus monarchy versus religion), in the small office (the memorial service traditions), the dining room (the convergence point for most discussions) or even the tight hallway (an inebriated stranger dropping in), from where we constantly pivot. We only escape the apartment once and, really, it makes you wish you were back inside, after a vicious public scene caused by a ridiculous triviality.

And so it goes on for most of its runtime, brimming with family tension, personal frustrations and everyday minutia. If anything, Sieranevada has no actual climax, but it elevates smalltalk to an art form, masterfully managing an engrossing and complex conversational ebb and flow between characters you struggle to familiarize yourself with. It will take quite a while to get to grips with who is who and how everyone is related, which is part of the reason why the movie is so demanding, requiring your attention throughout. But if you stay tough, you’ll figuratively be eating dinner with them by the end, as a member of this daunting family event.

Puiu creates a claustrophobic atmosphere within an oppressive, environment, whether inside or outside the apartment. To some degree, the viewer becomes attached to Lary, who leads us through the movie and mostly stays above the bickering and the conflicting undercurrents. He is a stoic figure and creates a sense of being the only ‘normal’ person in the room for most of the time, the adjudicator, in this fresco of the harrowing micro- and macrocosms of present-day Romanian society. The backdrop of the memorial service is decisive, because it sets the expectations of a sombre tone, yet the ensuing moments are anything but sombre. In essence, this contrast between excessive formalism and improvisational realism is the defining conflict of Sieranevada. It is also the cause for so much strife and malcontent in Romania, as we fail to either commit or compromise, feeding the urban anxiety of big-city life.

Still, this is not a movie for any time of day or any state of mind. The conversational authenticity is fascinating, but it wears you down, just like when you’re invited to a reunion with a bunch of strangers and sit silently in the corner. It makes you want to shout out, but you are too foreign to do so. The nearly 180 minutes it stretches over makes it hard to keep the momentum going at all times, with the last quarter suffering the most because of it. And with all the arising themes, you will need at least some understanding of Romanian clichés and history to get on board quickly.

Overall, however, I feel it is worth the time, because Sieranevada feels true. It’s a bit of a nightmare, sure, but it also manages to find and weave its story with quality fabric, highlighting meaningful contrasts between society, family and the individual and their ‘forced’ cohabitation. And it is ostensibly a universal story about the inner workings of family life, a hardcore version of movies like Margot at the Wedding or August: Osage County. With any luck, you will also share in Lary’s laughter at the end.

****

The Baby (1973): A Slight Phenomenon

Several months after first seeing it, it feels like The Baby has been an unassuming life lesson. I was in Brussels at the time and as chance would have it, a small film festival called Offscreen was taking place just across the street from my hotel. That’s as clear a sign as any, thought I, and made room in my oh-so-busy-wannabe-tourist schedule to go see something. High-Rise (2015) was premiering during my stay, but that felt too mainstream and potentially too busy, so through a process of elimination, I ended up with The Baby.

the baby.png
So here’s the movie poster…in Spanish.

If ever using this expression was justifiable, this is the place: Oh. My. God.

You know you’ve got something special on your hands when the votes to reviews ratio on IMdB is below one hundred. Let me detail with some examples: Star Wars Episode VII has a ratio of 1:143; Captain America has a ratio of 1:256; Finding Dory has a ratio of 1:404; Finding Nemo has a ratio of 1:794.

The Baby’s ratio is 1:35.

Sure, it’s likely that the more mainstream a movie is, the higher the ratio is going to be, but c’mon! One in thirty five people rating the movie just felt the urge to write something about it, that says something. Perhaps this is a reasonable measure for cult status (Manos: The Hands of Fate 1:47; Morvern Callar 1:62; Irma Vep 1:99). Or maybe all it does is highlight how bat-shit-crazy in a totally fascinating way The Baby is.

First released in 1973 in limited theaters, the movie got revived in 2000, when it came out on DVD and – oh, the sweet days of the last millenium – VHS. It has all the makings of a TV movie, in terms of budget, cast and production value, not to mention narrative ambitions. This was all nicely laid out for the thirty or so viewers gathered to enjoy a late night masterpiece in both Flemish and French, with the backdrop of a run down, industrial looking cinema adding to the charisma of the moment (it is actually the picture in the header). I recall someone took their shoes off and that also added a little something to the place.

The story is deceptively simple: a social worker, Ann, goes to look out for the wellbeing of a ‘child’ in a house run by the three Wadsworth women, the matriarch and her two post-adolescent daughters. The twist is that the child, referred to as ‘Baby’, is a grown man behaving like a toddler. Encountered with a healthy dose of hostility, Ann tries to establish whether Baby really is mentally hampered, or whether he has been conditioned throughout his upbringing to remain totally dependent. And that’s the struggle.

To be honest, this plot outline does not do the movie any justice. But it would take a lot of the disbelief away if I went any further into things. Let’s just say that not much is at it seems and there’s a brutal, almost Tarantino-esque ending to the story, with a crapload more absurdity to it.And yet, in spite of its bizarre characters and their equally strange behavior, the movie comes together into a real spectacle, constantly one-upping itself and keeping the viewer guessing as to what crazy stuff will come next.

Beyond the implicit (perhaps involuntary? I don’t know) humour of the movie, it also bears a heavy cross and builds a dark story around the theme of child abuse. That’s part of why it’s so fascinating, because The Baby goes from drama, to comedy, to thriller, to horror in a seamless manner and actually gets away with it by the end, with some glorious twists to boot. Ruth Roman, who plays the matriarch, portrays an excellent villain and manages to ground some of the more laughable moments that might otherwise have just been too much.

I was saying something about a life lesson. When the lights came on, I have to admit to feeling dazzled. And I kept wondering why, beyond the inherent craziness of the movie. So I ruminated deeply and found a pattern to so many of the films that I really enjoy: the not knowing what’s going to happen. A big part of that is going into a cinema blind, so literally not knowing what the movie is about. It’s not very practical, but then again, most of my favourite memories throughout the years have been about things that were not planned and ended up surprising me. So perhaps less control, more flow, is that the lesson?

Any way, you now know perhaps too much about what a weird thing you should expect if you ever watch The Baby, but I hope that not enough to spoil the fun out of it. Just get some friends together, don’t tell them what they are about to witness, and enjoy the shit out of it.

****

The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010): The Fetish Rises

Everybody fetishizes something. As much as I’d like to convince myself otherwise, I seem to fetishize over the American high school drama/comedy. Give me The Breakfast Club (1985), Dazed and Confused (1993), Clueless (1995), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Easy A (2010),  The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), Pitch Perfect (2012), hell give me Carrie (1976) at any time of the day! Or serve me up some Veronica Mars, some Freaks and Geeks, even a season or two of Glee and I’ll eat ’em up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If there’s any film type that I consistently overrate, it has to be the American high school drama – although I was left unimpressed/really disliked some ‘classics’, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Mean Girls (2004), or the recent The Spectacular Now (2013).

Why this inclination? Guess someone else will have to do the psychoanalyzing by the end of this. But in order to get here, I first had to ask myself an important question a couple of weeks ago: what other movies did David Robert Mitchell direct? As an astute observer might have recognized by now, I am a quite the fan of Mitchell’s recent horror-masterpiece It Follows (2014). That was just…well, maybe I shouldn’t get into it now, as there is a time and a place for everything. But this was the connection that led me to The Myth of the American Sleepover, the first and only other feature film written and directed by Mitchell.

TMotAS

If It Follows is the poster child for the loss of innocence and the social stigma ensuing from sex and whatnot, then TMotAS represents the antithesis, it is the search and the obsession for a sexual/romantic ideal. Visually, it does feel like the two movies were shot almost back to back, with the same quaint suburban America providing the backdrop for a bunch of horny teenagers or teenager-have-beens to fulfill their cravings. And, as things usually go, especially around high school, everyone is interested in someone different to those interested in them.

The story revolves around three teens and an almost teen, who criss-cross throughout the movie in not particularly meaningful ways. What this does achieve though is to create a sense of claustrophobic closeness, a feeling that there are firm walls to the world in which these romantic entanglements occur. A pre-Tinder world, so to say. Each of the characters strives to draw the attention of one person or another. It is the end of summer, a new school year is set to begin, and there’s the thirst for setting a distinguishing mark in these last, eventful days. I’m not sure how popular sleepovers really are in the United States, but they’re frequently included in movies, and as movies always tell the truth, I can only conclude that they’re pretty popular. In Mitchell’s story though, the sleepover becomes a rite of passage, a faux ritual wherein the individual rejects the group in search for a personal connection, some sort of half-lurid gratification. So the goal becomes to break from conformity, to break from the confines of annoying peers and find something else.

The soulful, confusing, idealistic alcohol-infused journeys are laid out before the viewers in an overlapping melange of scenes, one the extension of the other, if not in content, then in spirit. And they blend well enough to feel accommodating and not too much so that they lose their individuality. Whether it’s Rob’s search for the perfect girl he met for a second in the supermarket, or Maggie’s craving for a loose and spirited pool boy, or Claudia’s attempt to integrate herself in a local high school clique, or Scott’s drive to find an ignored high school crush, or any of the other smaller side tales peppered throughout the movie, they fit the mellow and introspective frame of the wider story.

By the time it takes its final turns, the movie becomes a shameless exercise in wish-fulfillment, but it stands out because of the pacing and the familiarity of the experience. I would argue that’s part of the myth, the good guys and girls escaping the maze of misfits and mistimings and getting their due. And by ‘good’ I only really mean the protagonists, although the movie does imply that they are the principled ones who make choices to define them, usually in contrast to someone around them who just go for the romantic/sexual jugular. Mitchell’s achievement was that he made me root for all of them and anyone’s enjoyment of the movie will hinge to some degree on this. Not that it’s hard to like the dreamy-eyed, the naive, the brave/shy, the romantic, but it’s also a bit on the nose.

Going back to my not-quite-sexual fetish, upon further reflection I would say it is defined by the spirit of the movie (book), more than by its setting. TMofAS isn’t set in a school, but it has that glitter of bubbling, life-affirming craziness of youth associated with it. Important to me is that it stays some distance away from being overly dramatic and too ridiculously serious in tone or that it does not simply perpetuate some of the common tropes of high school movies.

Mitchell’s Myth is just a great throwback to a kind of simpler time, set, like It Follows, in an undefined past where technology did not rule our teenage minds. It’s pure fantasy.

****

Amy (2015): Discovering Anew

Amy tells a tragic tale, in what amounts to an enthralling documentary that does an exceptional job in humanizing the artist. It’s a challenge, because of the disconnect between the public persona and the human being, ever-widening when a musician, actor or any other individual with a modicum of fame goes “global”. Personally, I rarely thought of Amy Winehouse, as I had heard little of her music and related more to the tabloid facts that swamped the internet. So the movie’s effect on me was powerful in revealing a passionate artist who lost her way between the lights and flashes.

amy

Her story is relayed to us through a number of homemade clips and films, shot by friends or acquaintances. It takes the viewer to her earlier days as an artist, where the entourage is not an entourage in its hyped sense, but just a circle of friends. From there, the seemingly small steps towards worldwide fame are contorted and unreadable. Because the film is a composition of private videos, it creates a familiar and intimate experience and tears down the sense of artificiality often inherent to biopics which jump between the now and the then. It becomes impossible not to get involved emotionally and empathize without feeling as if you’re being manipulated to do so.

The film is powerful because it knows how to construct and frame all the public fragments that made up Amy Winehouse from within, so to say – by transcending from her personal experiences. Sure, there’s a touch of the banal in the story, a been there, seen that kind of feeling. But it is this banality that actually makes for a powerful tragedy, the mesh of strange personal networks, personal quirks and public politics that shaped Amy’s life and fate. Once you go beyond the narrative, it’s unlikely not to be touched by how hard it all hit the bubbly girl from London.

My main critique to the film is that, similar to his work on Senna, the director puts Amy on a pedestal: she appears trapped by her social circles, the people trying to control her, her own addiction, but it looks mostly inflicted upon her than anything else. This deterministic approach, while surely pertinent and enhancing the sense of tragic, undermines the idea that Winehouse was a powerful artist, something that comes across through her music. The paradox is part of the core artistic choices made by Kapadia, a token from how much intimacy is imbued in the documentary.

As such, it is wise to look at Amy as something else than an exercise in exploring the downwards spiral of addiction. It does her right as a musician and duly criticizes the destructive power of parts of the media that catalyzed all her insecurities, her troubled family life and her relationships. It brings her closer to her fans and the audience, and provides ample food for thought about how sweet and sour and short life can be.

****

Originally published on imdb.

The Family Fang (2015): Sibling Togetherness

After ‘Bad Words’, Bateman the director appears to be heading in the right direction and takes on a more ambitious, layered project. This film deals not only with a dysfunctional family, a concept that has fascinated American cinema ever since American Beauty (1999), but also with the relation between art and life. Thematically, the family ensemble has been portrayed more incisively in the recent past (The Squid and the Whale (2005), to name just one example with a similar character ratio), but the manner in which relationships are blurred and redefined here gives Fang a captivating spin.
The-Family-Fang-Movie-Poster

We are presented with two seemingly wayward, middle-aged siblings who, it turns out, grew up in a tradition of ‘intempestive art’. Alongside their eccentric parents, they enacted hoaxes of different scales in front of onlookers who were not in on the game – all with the aim of eliciting life out of the an otherwise mundane, controlled existence. As an accident reunites the family, which had drifted apart in the mean time, tensions persist, culminating when the parents disappear and the obvious question is asked: is this just another hoax?

The story works primarily because Kidman (Annie) and Bateman (Baxter), child A and child B, as their parents called them, convey an understanding that does not require explanations. It’s the kind of sibling relationship that draws from so many shared experiences, joys and traumas that it defines a common frame of existence which time has difficulty in erasing. Similarly, we as an audience draw the faith required to suspend our disbelief from the energy the two control when on screen together. The questions pertaining to the philosophy of art, its authenticity and veracity, are interesting to ponder, but they only provide the backdrop to what Annie and Baxter have going on. The point of convergence between the two themes is that of control – its purpose in art, its purpose in relationship building.

This is fascinating, as control is so inherent to anything that happens in the early years within a family: the setting of constraints to the socially unrestrained spirit of childhood. It does not have to be coercive, but it is a matter of natural imprinting that occurs along the way, whether overtly or not. As adults, the struggle becomes to establish what we can (and should) control and what we need to let run freely. The mantra their father had instilled in Annie and Baxter emphasized the idea that by staying centered, one can let the surrounding chaos sweep over and past you. A lot of the time it’s easier said than done. We also see that different people need different things in order to express themselves – a given, sure, but finely synthesized in Annie’s qualms as an actor and Baxter’s writer’s block.

Where the story does fall a bit short is in the resolution. In a way, it’s predictable and boring, but it’s also inevitable. Inevitability is usually a good thing to have in an ending, especially in one dealing with the nature of art. Still, a stronger build up and a more resolute finale would have turned Family Fang into a really memorable piece of work. As it stands, it overemphasizes the idea that unrestrained (performance) art comes at a hidden cost both to those involved and to those affected by it. That it becomes hard to keep art and life contained. And, surely, that the price for this is too high.

Nonetheless, my newly found penchant for movies about siblings really let me enjoy this story. Perhaps just a bit more than I should have, but that’s thanks to how authentic Annie and Baxter feel and the depth they lend to the experience. Also, Carter Burwell, one of my favourite composers, contributes with a sweet theme, really letting you sink into the intimate melancholy and nostalgia of it all.

****

An Honest Liar (2014): The Skeptic Inside

There truly is something mystical about An Honest Liar, that allows it to transcend its flawed structure and be relevant in spite of it. At its core, the ambition of the film is to establish and walk the line between what constitutes an illusion and what rises to the rank of deception. To achieve this, it takes a good, long look at the life of James Randi, renowned magician and skeptic of things in the paranormal.
randiGoing beyond its overarching ambition, An Honest Liar builds on three parts – Randi’s life as an artist, his challenges as a skeptic and his (intertwined) personal travail. The first is as interesting as magic can be, without ever revealing the secret behind tricks – I’m sorry, illusions. But the pace really picks up as the case for skepsis takes shape, trying to untie the blatant lies and manipulation from the willing suspension of critical thought and disbelief. The question of what really constitutes the truth, as expressed through the power of belief, both religious and – ironically – scientific, gets a fair, balanced and creative tackle. Ultimately, Randi’s personal life and some surprising insights into the act of deception lying close to its core, becomes a bit of a meta-analysis of the previous two parts.

The problem is that this last segment mostly fails, because it appears very tangential to Randi’s quest and shifts the focus on fairly mundane personal matters that are contorted somewhat to fit the wider arch.

Yet, it came easy to me to go beyond it.

Just because the directors’ reach exceeded their grasp does not mean that the film doesn’t work artistically, as an expression and an experience of boundary blurring between truth and lies. It achieves this by dragging you into taking a stand by the end, in a narratively artificial yet intellectually testing personal battle for Randi, after seventy minutes of case building and creating an emotional connection with the subject. In that, it is fun and relevant, stressing the strength of belief over fact, over truth and the challenges that lie in dealing with it.

****

Taxi (2015): A Journey Around Censorship

Somewhere, in the corner of my mind, the information about Jafar Panahi’s predicament was lying around unguarded. His 2010 jail sentence and twenty year ban from filmmaking were a result of what was deemed as propaganda against the Iranian government. Obviously, it has not hindered him in producing three movies since, all smuggled outside the country and released at the Cannes and Berlin festivals before receiving wider distribution. The story of the man is fascinating enough, but it is his artistic and humanistic sensibilities that make Taxi a memorable experience.

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In a world…full of taxis.

Filmed via a number of small cameras, some fixed within the taxi itself, some carried around by other protagonists, the story sees Panahi acting as a cab driver and encountering pieces of the Iranian Weltanschauung. The irony of his position is highlighted as his first passenger criticizes his geographical orientation, noticing that something must have gone seriously wrong for Panahi in order for him to have to resort to something he has no clue about. And after a short argument between passengers about whether stealing the wheels off a car should warrant the death penalty or not, “just to send a message”, you get the sense of how easily people become desensitized to such matters if only they are faced with them frequently enough. Paradoxically, the man suggesting this course of action is a “freelancer” himself, but more of a Robin Hood mold, which apparently should exempt him from a similar punishment.

This contradiction between wrong and right is explored throughout the journey, as Panahi encounters a series of colourful characters: a man selling pirated international films (who actually recognizes the director and takes quick advantage of him), a woman weeping over her dying husband, two older women fighting for their lives, an old neighbour who had recently been the victim of a robbery, a woman suffering a similar fate of marginalization due to the her political views, and Panahi’s niece, who is just being introduced to what “publishable films” are in Iran.

Panahi strikes a fine balance between some more comical aspects of Iranian life and the very dire need for self expression, that is severely limited. The humanism that pervades Taxi poses the same question repeatedly: what causes crime and who is a criminal within Iranian society? Drawing from a well of personal experience, he manages to create an endearing context for all his protagonists and their tales and it feels like he is taking us by the hand and guiding us, not so much physically, as emotionally. His smile spreads these emotional cues, from affection to sympathy, confusion and intense discomfort, and this gives off the sensation of being joined by a friend throughout this journey.

The worst that can be said is that the scripting of events does occasionally feel a bit heavy handed, in order to condense all the experience in what is ultimately a very short film. And while generally avoiding the lure of leaning too heavily on caricature, it ends on a slightly underwhelming artistic note.

But those are all the complaints I have to make. I very much enjoyed Taxi and gathering from the vibe around me, so did many of the other people watching it. While I feel the focus should generally be on the art, more than on the artist, here’s hoping that Panahi will have the chance to one day echo the affection he receives and generates in festival venues around the world, by having the freedom to openly appear alongside Iranian artists and their uncensored visions.

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Originally posted on imdb.