Friday, November 13, 2020


Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (2020) - Herzog, Oppenheimer


Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog and Volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer met in Antarctica during the filming of Encounters at the End of the World in 2007. They made a big impression on each other, kept in touch and ten years later, collaborated on a film Into the Inferno, about volcanoes around the world and what they mean to people who live under their shadows. With their joyful new film, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, they embark on a globetrotting adventure once more, investigating meteorites and wondering about human existence in relation to the universe. It's a funny, engaging, inspiring and dare I say hopeful film, even though the subject touches upon the total devastation of our planet.

It is not a new thing for Herzog to focus on science and scientists in his films. Besides those with Oppenheimer, many of his documentaries over the years - White Diamond, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World and Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin - have featured enthusiastic scientists in their respective fields. It is easy to see why he likes them: it's their tendency to be obsessive and passionate in their work. It's their infectious curiosity and wonder that he has affinity with. Their unending quest for truth is not dissimilar to the essence of what the filmmaker has been doing his entire career with his films.

Spanning five continents, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, features an array of wry, funny characters (most of them scientists), introduces many different cultures, and involves meteors in one way or another. There's a great deal of majesty in these celestial imprints on earth that the film presents - from Wolfe Creek crater in the Australian desert, to Ramgarh crater in Rajasthan, to Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan peninsula: the imprint of the biggest ecological disaster the earth has ever experienced millions years ago. Its impact crater is so huge, human eyes can't even detect its enormity. Cenotes, the water cave system created around the rim of the impact site and satellite pictures tell part of its story. Then there are quasi crystals that reveal the building blocks of space and micro-meteorites- dust particles that reveals their celestial beauty under the microscope.

But the real fun part of the film is its human subjects. These bright, inquisitive, funny scientists and enthusiasts are tirelessly entertaining and the filmmakers give enough time for each of them to shine. It is quite astounding to think that Herzog and company were there to film all of them, hopping from one continent to another. Oppenheimer is in charge of all the interviews, while Herzog narrates with his trademark wry sense of humor and rarely interjects from behind the camera. When he does, as he does at the Arizona State University meteor lab, it's to crack jokes when the conversation turns to Carl Sagan's famous quote that "we are all stardust". Herzog quips "I'm not stardust. I am a Barbarian! We meet a famous Norwegian jazz musician who collects micrometeorites on the rooftops of Oslo with his DIY equipment. Then there is Brother Guy, a scientist turned Jesuit Priest in the Vatican, who embodies a perfect marriage of religion and science, as he eloquently illustrates his philosophy in front of an impressive collection of meteorites, citing "You can't do science if you don't have that sense of awe. You can't believe in the creator God without experiencing creation." Then there there is Planetary Defense Coordination Office at the Pan-STARR observatory in Maui, where two scientists are daily monitoring the night sky to catch sight of any rogue meteors coming our way that might cause the earth's destruction.

It all culminates with Oppenheimer being on the polar plateau in Antarctica, thousands of square miles of ice stretched as far as the eye can see, with a team of South Korean scientists, to collect meteorites. The polar plateau as it turns out, is where the best specimens of meteorites can be found because of its high altitudes and freezing temperature that best preserve molecules in those rocks. There, surrounded by enthusiastic and highly emotional South Koreans, Oppenheimer finds a highly valuable meteorite specimen all captured on camera from a helicopter above. How can you not be emotional, when you are at the presence of a space rock that might be 4.5 billion years old that has been frozen in Antarctic ice for another hundred thousand years?

Funny and surprisingly hopeful in these dark times, Fireball is, in essence, the amalgamation of what Herzog has been doing throughout his illustrious career: it tries to awaken that sense of awe, sense of wonder in us audiences. He finds a great partner in crime in Oppenheimer, a bright scientist with matching lust for life and knowledge to instill in us that infectious curiosity and enthusiasm about, of all things, life. I sincerely hope they continue their collaboration in the future.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds opens virtually on 11/13 on Apple TV.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Science and Sense of Awe: Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer Interview

Herzog Oppenheimer

Werner Herzog. What more can be said about the man, the original Barbarian, the legend? Meeting Herzog as a film journalist has always been an elusive dream of mine. And I never thought I would get a chance. But at seventy eight, Herzog has been as prolific as ever. This year alone, he is seeing the release of three of his films - Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce ChatwinFamily Romance, LLC and now Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds. This gave me a little bit of hope. And when the interview opportunity finally came along, albeit through a zoom session because of the world wide pandemic, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to talk with one of my true heroes of cinema.

And I am happy to report that Fireball, his new film co-directed by volcanologist/geologist Clive Oppenheimer (with whom Herzog collaborated in Into the Inferno previously) , is a thing of a beauty. It encapsulates the very essence of the legendary filmmaker has been doing all his career - trying to awaken the sense of wonder, sense of awe, sense of curiosity in us audiences.

I had to tell Herzog off the bat that I was his biggest fan and that I would not waste my precious twenty minutes with him on being a fanboy and only ask him about the film at hand. To my surprise, besides being very Herzogian, he turns out to be very warm and funny and full of laughs. And Oppenheimer, as a wry scientist, his worthy partner in crime. I really hope they had as much fun as I did talking with them.

Oh and do not miss this film. Fireball is certainly one of the best films I've seen this year.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds opens virtually on Apple TV on 11/13.

First of all, I really really loved this film. It’s certainly one of the best I’ve seen this year. It’s beautiful and philosophical and everything I want to see in films. It’s tragic that I can’t see it on the big screen in theaters, like in normal times.

So you met each other while filming The Encounters at the End of the World. Then you did Into the Inferno together and now Fireball. How did this project come about? I know that you, Clive, initiated the project.

Herzog: First of all, we were lucky that we ran into each other on top of the volcano, it was 2500 feet altitude and 30 degrees below zero. We were immediately struck with each other’s presence and we stayed in touch saying we should make a film together one day. Ten years later, Clive came with Into the inferno, about volcanoes and then he called me again and said we should do another thing about meteorites. It took me five seconds and it was clear.

Oppenheimer: First thank you for your kind words on the film and I also agree I also miss not seeing it in theaters. I miss traveling with the film to the festivals and to be with the audiences and seeing it. I hope that it will be possible that there will be screenings in the future.

In its inception it was a piece of serendipity. It was spontaneous recognition that it would be a great topic to dig into: it was on a trip to South Korea where I met the scientists who go annually to Antarctica to hunt for meteorites.


They’ve already got a thousand of those. But they keep going there to find things they never found before. They showed us some of the specimen, which were beautifully curated in the laboratory with a kind of great visual aesthetic and in a scientific veneration, these examples displayed. It was for me an echo of veneration of meteorites in cultures around the world. One of the oldest falls, recorded falls is in Nogata, Japan. Now the stone in a shinto temple. So in Nogata, every five years, it goes on a procession through the streets. The black stone of Kabaa in the grand mosque… So clearly this is a topic like volcanoes that completely entangles the nature and culture… so we were off on another adventure.

Herzog: I am a storyteller so I can tell if it’s something big. And you know it instantly, like Grizzly Man, you know it instantly, this is so big, you gotta do it.

Yep. As you know, in this country, at least the last four years, there has been an anti-science sentiment that was pretty strong. And I know that—

Herzog: It’s just not the last four years. It’s not the administration…. It’s the American culture. It has to do with that frontier spirit. You are out there and you are against the frontiers and you are against the enemies out there and you have a rifle and your fist. So it’s culturally engrained which is not set by an administration alone. Now it just becomes more visible.

Oppenheimer: If anyone hasn’t read Naomi Oreskes’s book Merchants of Doubt, I mean, this is where you really begin to understand what it’s about. I’ve been at climate change conferences and I’ve seen exactly this pitting one so-called expert against another and sowing confusion in a very orchestrated way. So that’s the way it is.

The thing that struck me most the about your films is that over the years, Werner made all these films featuring scientists and science. I am wondering  what the correlation of your filmmaking and science and how you found this affinity between the two.

Herzog: Very simple. I wouldn’t have made a single film without a sense of awe. I wouldn’t have made a single story without sense of deep excitement. That’s culture – a collective agitation of mind. It’s the core of what culture is. A cow in the field doesn’t have that. And we have it.


And the same excitement, the same sense of awe pervades science. You don’t become a scientist if you don’t have that excitement in you.

Right. It reminds me of that Jesuit priest in the film. Brother Guy.

Herzog: Clive discovered him. He gets the casting- like a credit in a good feature film. An essential character! And he found Brother Guy and what a wonderful conversation he has with him!

Oppenheimer: Who knew the pope had an astronomer? I didn’t know. (everyone laughs)

It’s amazing that you traveled all over the world for this film: 5 continents, not including the stock footage. All the time I was thinking, “OK. Werner is you know, putting someone younger in charge now to do the fieldwork and he is comfortably sitting in editing suite somewhere. But then I found that in Arizona you interject yourself into the frame. Then I realize, ‘oh my god, Werner was there the whole time everywhere that Clive went!’ How do you do it? It amazes me. That’s some stamina!

Herzog: I don’t like traveling, Traveling on planes with 8-9 hours time deference getting tossed in a different culture so we can’t really absorb it. That’s not healthy. That’s not good. But we had to go to various places because meteorites come down everywhere indiscriminately. And going to Antarctica means, of course there is less ground to search for them. But a hundred of thousands square miles of ice. So whatever on top of it is visible and it must’ve come from out of space. And just to clarify, I was with Clive in Antarctica for the previous film Encounters at the end of the world. But in this particular shoot, Clive with cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger and I wasn’t there I had started to organize the footage we shot already and put some narration and put some order into things.


Herzog: But, I knew that time it would the last thing to shoot and Clive would do it. He was fluent in what we were doing so far so I didn’t need to be there. Because crew was there and Clive was there so I had total confidence in him.

Oppenheimer: We work very close together. You wouldn’t be setting up a case that I would be his surrogate. We worked as a team along with our wonderful sound recordist and cinematographer and editor and a lot of support from production. A lot of ingredients come together. We have a very clear sense of purpose when we collaborate. We know exactly what we are going to do.

Herzog: I only understand Clive as a filmmaker.  Since he is a scientist he brings some other skills into it and I bring my voice--


Herzog: And Clive doesn’t have the crazy accent. That can not be replaced by Clive. It’s that Barbarian in me.

Oppenheimer: I have spent some time trying to emulate it…badly. (everyone laughs) But perhaps it should stay in private.

I didn’t know there were South Korean scientists looking for meteorites in Antarctica.  I am Korean. And their station there is huge! And they were eating lobsters and kimchi?

Oppenheimer: I tell you. It was so wonderful at Jang bogo station. The South Koreans, the whole program, have at least two stations there. They have research vessels and an ice-breaker and they are also working in the arctic. And this film starts with them. Meeting them in South Korea three years ago gave me the idea and on top of that Jung-ik Lee and his wife Mi-jung are such wonderful characters. Jung-ik--

Herzog: Clive, we have to point out that video they shot. It can’t get any better than that. The excitement, the exuberance screaming out by a is now in the film that we made…we have never seen anything like this. I said ‘we must have this footage in our film. We must have conversations with the Koreans!’ Nobody expected that the highlight of the highlights would come from a Korean scientist who drops on his back and screams out (laughs). So we owe the Koreans a lot.  We owe them in the previous film. We owed the North Koreans a lot when we did Into the Inferno, on the gigantic volcano in the North Korean and Chinese boarder. Those astonishing footage comes from North Korea. And we had the perserverence to get the permit to shoot there. We had the most wonderful time with the Koreans. It has nothing to do with our conversation and our movie. But I come from a country that was divided, and then reunited. Deep in my heart and I hope and pray that Korea will be reunited.

Same. Same. (taking a bow with the hands clasped)

Did you get to keep the meteorite you found in Antarctica Clive?

Oppenheimer: Well… (I hear Herzog laughing at me)

Herzog: No of course not.

Oppenheimer: It flashed through my mind of course…but I knew that Pete Zeitlinger was up there on the helicopter with a camera pointed at me. So of course I respected it. I didn’t even touch it because there is always a possibility one of these organic rich meteorites were… there were many studies to be done and look at the amino acids, sugars and other molecules in it, so I didn’t even touch it.

Herzog: Early in the film, you see a dashboard camera footage of a meteorite coming down in Siberia. That was only five years ago or so. It was in Chelyabinsk in Siberia. Since my father-in-law is a great geophysicist in Siberia not very far from Chelyabinsk. And he had a small fragment of it about the size of a walnut and he gave it to me as a present.

Awww. That’s great.

I am married to my wife who is from Siberia originally and I do have a fragment of this very same large meteorite that exploded that you see on the film.

Awesome. That’s so great.

Oppenheimer: It was such a thrill to find that meteorite not only because I am a geologist and I never found the meteorite before. It was partly, feeling the sensation of being on the polar plateau, high altitude and the quality of light the light refracted in the blue ice, which is a hundred thousand years old. And with these snow snakes, wind is blowing all the time, you walk down the wind looking side to side for five or six hours, and to find the stone was a huge huge thrill.

And the specialists who were with us, recognized that it was not like the other common types. About 95 percent of them are called ordinary chondrites. At first that they thought it might be Martian, among a hundred or so that were found. So it got back to…see it didn’t end up in my pocket.  It did go back to South Korea. (laughs) And they identified it as Ureilite. That’s a very rear class of meteorite. So it spent four and a half billion years in space and about a hundred thousand years in the glacier and now it’s on a scientific journey and I will follow it with great interests and see what it reveals.

They should name it after you… or something like that.

Oppenheimer: Well, I was quite tempted to suggest when we filmed in Hawaii, Maui Island rather. It’s where they have Pan-STARRS telescope facility with the two largest cameras in the world with billion pixel sensors – every night they open up and scan the sky, looking for near earth objects and we had a conversation with the astronomer Rob Weryk, a young Canadian scientist, who discovered the first extra solar, a group of comets which briefly visited us in the night sky and barreled out of the axis of our solar system and never seen again. It was called Oumuamua in the local language something like ‘the first messenger from afar.’ I did, I tried to suggest, because they detected four the night before and to call one of them, the biggest, the meanest one, ‘the Herzog’.

Herzog: “A badass bad guy!” (laughs)

What Clive is mentioning is something that is not in the film. But the film has a lot of humor. Sense of humor, sense of awe, sense of excitement that is what we had to do, don’t be didactic. Not even a second. Let’s make a film that entices a kid to become a scientist.


I talked with someone during the Covid. He is a documentary filmmaker. Part of his film is to do with film history. We were talking about how the Covid is affecting the film industry and he joked about if it’s the end of cinema. I think he meant it as the end of the movie going experience. Do you think this is the end of cinema?

Herzog: No I do not. It will remain but of course more limited than before. The tendency toward streaming platforms started  years before we had Covid. It only reinforced and emphasized what was already in motion.


Sure we have to face certain things but…for example kids are watching movie on their smart phones and some of them are watching one and a half speed. We have to face that fact. We have to face that world. But at the same time, the streaming Platform is uninterrupted by commercials. What you saw in documentaries, for example, they had every nine minutes there’s some sort of highlight, every nine minutes a cliff hanger then it switches to three minute commercials and keep the audience glued to the film so it has created an awful narrative structure. And that was what we had before.

Now the streaming platform has a great advantage. A fifteen year old would get in touch with me way before the pandemic struck, because he has seen Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Or the film that I made before their parents were even born. They start discovering these on the internet. They exchange wild emails and on social media. And all of sudden I am big among 15-year olds. (laughs) Thanks to the internet.

Oppenheimer: I want to add two things. One is I really miss live events. I miss being part of an audience. I miss seeing things on a big screen. But I also think the human perception and human imagination are incredibly adaptive. For example, an experiment where people were given inverting goggles, so everything was upside down. And pretty soon, they didn’t have any problems walking around and picking things up. And they could take them off again and few hours later they were back to normal. I suspect that people who are watching on a smart phone with one and a half speed, will probably still be able to project themselves into the world of that cinema. I don’t think I can do it. But I suspect a fifteen year old would probably have quite meaningful experience doing that. At least I hope so.

That’s an interesting point.

Well. Thank you gentlemen. I really appreciate you talking to me. This has been great. Much success to you and the film. Hopefully I will get to see this film on the big screen sometime soon.

Herzog: Very good talking to you.

Thank you so much.

Oppenheimer:  My pleasure.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at


Art of the Real 2020 Showcases Constantly Evolving State of Filmmaking


I was devastated back in April that Art of the Real, my favorite annual film series at Film at Lincoln Center didn't happen because of Covid Outbreak. But here we are, 7 month later, the celebration of non-narrative/hybrid filmmaking is back, again with superb offerings. Better late than never! And I am so grateful for it. So if you want to get over the election hangovers, and plunge into far reaching, innovative, refreshing and adventurous cinema, please join me to explore some of the most delectable choices in non-narrative/hybrid films the festival is offering. Presented with the support from MUBI, Art of the Real runs two weeks 11/13-11/26 with 34 films presenting. Please visit Film at Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema for tickets and info.

Below are 6 films I had a privilege of sampling:

La vida en común la vida en comun

Ezquiel Yanco’s La vida en común tells a story of a group of teenage boys in Pueblo Nación Ranquel, an indigenous settlement in the San Luis territory in the middle of Argentina. The first thing that you notice is its government built housing the inhabitants live in– a geodesic concrete huts with pipes sticking out, looking like an unfinished 70s sci-fi movie set. There is an unseen puma stalking the village, and these boys see tracking and hunting it as the rite of passage to adulthood.

Part Lord of the Flies, part Waiting for Godot, La vida en común is an engrossing coming of age story that emphasizes the absence – of adults, of things to do in the vast and arid territory. Kids let their imagination go wild, while continuing their machismo culture based on the folklore of the Rankülche tribe.

La vida en común touches upon a lot of issues such as colonial past, assimilation, globalization and cultural heritage. The film is intimately observed and endlessly fascinating. 

Bird Island Bird Island

Maya Kosa and Sergio da Costa’s Bird Island takes place in a bird rehabilitation center in Switzerland. Antonin, a young man with a long bout with illness and isolation, is assigned to the center to reintegrate into the work force. He has to learn everything about taking care of birds from Paul, whose retirement is just around the corner. Paul’s job was prepping meals for various birds in the sanctuary, including breeding and ultimately killing mice for birds of prey, being a part of reintegration procedure when rehabilitated birds are released into the wild.

At a first glance the film with real life characters (all characters are playing themselves), their short exchanges and their wooden demeanors might come across as awkward. But as it plays out, with beautiful full frame photography, this simple, observational documentary exude human kindness and compassion without trying hard. Also interesting is how Antonin’s reintegration to the humanity mirrors that of birds. With his gentle nature, Antonin may never learn how to kill mice before Paul retires, or how to show his crush on the center’s veterinarian Emilie, but the life goes on. Some birds die, some live, some come back after their release, some heal completely.

Emilie wonders why there is an upsurge of wounded birds? What are they feeding on outside that make them sick? With that, here is also an environmental message in this lovely film.

Małni – Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore Malni

Mostly narrated in chinuk wawa, a rhythmic language of Chinukan people of the Pacific Northwest, by director Sky Hopinka, Małni- Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore follows Sweetwater and Jordan, two people of the Chinuk origin, as they talk about home, identity and keeping the tradition alive within the frame of the origin of death myth of Lilu and T’alap’as (wolf and coyote). With the two (un)related young expecting parents, Małni is a lyrical contemplation of cyclical nature of life in the gorgeous backdrop of the lush, mossy Pacific Northwest. Everything is related to water – waterfalls, rain, the sea, enveloping everything – death, birth and everything in-between. Beautiful filmmaking.

A Shape of Things to Come  A Shape of Things to Come

Directed by Havard Ethnography Lab alum J.P. Sniadecki (The Iron Ministry, El Mar La Mar) and Lisa Malloy, A Shape of Things to Come tells a story of Sundog who leads a survivalist existence in his trailer with the Sonoran Desert as his back yard. Sniadecki met Sundog while filming El Mar La Mar, a visually arresting film that also condemned the US Government’s inhumane immigration policy near the Southern border.

The film starts with a constant electronic noise and shots of satellite towers. It’s pretty clear that they are communication towers used by the US border patrols.

Capturing Sundog’s day-to-day life, the filmmakers document the essence of outdoor living- hunting, gathering and animal husbandry with all the connotations that associated with it – freedom, America, western expansionism, self-reliance. Being an herbalist, Sundog collects various of fauna, mixes in with alcohol to make medicine that he sells. He also collects toads at night to extract their white secretions to make hallucinogens out of it, which he eagerly partakes after drying the substance into a fine powder. He also practices with his long range rifle.

Part nature documentary, part character study and part eco-terror fantasy, A Shape of Things to Come offers another fascinating mix of non-fiction/fiction with great intimacy and urgency.

The Two SightsSecond Sights

Shot and collected from various Scottish isles, The Two Sights is composed of little eerie Gaelic tales that were sent down in oral tradition. An old timer narrates in the beginning that these sight-seers, either see or hear something in and out of their surroundings. It makes sense as director Joshua Bonnetta sets up his microphone in the windy field and just exits the frame in the beginning of the film. The often picturesque Scottish outdoors feature the elements of nature – rain, waves, birds and other animals, as well as boats and other human made sounds. By looking at the images and hearing sounds Bonnetta collects, you can totally see how these tales took their forms – the rustles against the thatched roofs, a seal floating in the water, the reflections on a calm loch surface, nature can play tricks on you very easily in these parts of the world.

But the narrations take much more spiritual tone. Singing/humming at their loved one’s passing, caring for a beached whale until it expires –the connection and communing with nature are the points of The Two Sights.And it’s also one of the most beautiful cinematic experience I’ve ever seen and heard.

The American Sector Screen Shot 2020-11-12 at 11.18.05 AM

Pacho Velez (Manakamana, The Reagan Show), another Havard Ethnography Lab alum and Courtney Stephens direct this travelogue of sorts. They document concrete slabs that used to be the Berlin Wall which are scattered all over the US. The American Sector is an extremely fascinating examination of symbols, metaphor, propaganda, personal historicity, bias and bigotry, physical artifacts vs intangibles....

You'd find these memento mori in expected places - museums, public parks, college campuses, military stations and government buildings. But they can be also found on the curbside of interstate highways, in front of a restaurants, in private homes, gated communities, corporate headquarters and theme parks.

The film posits some very interesting questions about how to put contexts in inanimate objects to its surroundings. Once removed from its original space and time, does the object hold the same meaning? Its layered spatial-temporal musings on the subject make The American Sector a delightful cinematic experience.


Saturday, October 17, 2020

Struggle is Never Over

Born in Flames (1983) - Borden Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.26.10 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.27.28 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.28.30 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.28.50 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.29.12 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.32.23 AM Screen Shot 2020-10-17 at 10.33.27 AM 

Revolution is over. The Democratic Socialist government has taken over. Everyone is equal. Woman's liberation struggle is done. Or is it? 'Struggle is never over' as the truest socialist revolution mantra, Lizzie Borden envisions the future where the socialist revolution has won over the United States. Is it utopia? Hardly. Dystopia? Maybe. There's still residue of hundreds years of patriarchal society and misogyny everywhere. Faced with economic hardship and 'workfare' system still struggling with sexism and racism, there are daily demonstrations and violent clashes with the city cops on the street. There are daily sexual harassing on the streets and subways and the only difference is women watch out for themselves as a group - trained and find strength in numbers.

The post-revolution USA left is still very much factionalized- there is white activists who publish influential 'The Socialist Youth Review', there's the party officials who are very much keen on keeping taps on noise-makers, there's the woman's army- a radical militant group who is preparing for armed struggle and there's radical artists and singer types who preach their own little radical feminism.

The main character of Born in Flames is Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield), a lesbian and a varsity athlete who is a radical women's rights activist. She is under surveillance by the FBI. Norris is the one who sees through the system for what it is even after the revolution: the power corrupts, and the society is once again tilting towards fascism. As before, she is everything white patriarchal society hates - a homosexual woman of color. As Norris slowly gets into the world of armed struggle with the guidance from Zella (Florynce Kennedy) and tries to unite the prevalent factionalism of the left, the government goons assassinate her in the jail cell after snatching her at the airport, as she did training with the sisters in the Middle East. It's her death that unites all activist women.

Born in Flames is quite a prophetic film and a stark warning against people who dream of utopia after one revolution. As all of us Bernie supporters knew, even if we ever have our fundamental change in our society, there will be a hard work ahead of us. We have to be ready/strive for continuous revolutions in order to keep the ideal. The film foretells the importance of media as well. Like many of the 80s dystopian films, namely, Carpenter's They Live, the film ends with blowing up the TV antenna on top of, get this, the World Trade Center. Shot in documentary style with news and surveillance footage and narration through out in gritty 80s New York setting, the film is a truly independent, original, American film. There are scenes of women's rape prevention bicycle gang, a rapid montage of working women in all different jobs, including sex work, as seamlessly cut from packing meat, to putting on a condom on an erect penis, to selling coffee at a bodega. There's a women punk rock concert with some great music. Can't believe I haven't watched this before. Born in Flames is a radicalest feminist film I've ever witnessed. It's so good.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Like Berlin, Old Folklore Gets a Makeover in Christian Petzold's Beguiling Undine

Undine (2020) - Petzold Undine Undine is a water nymph or spirit that appears in many folk tales and literature in Europe. One of its various versions is Little Mermaid, widely popularized by Hans Christian Anderson. It is said that she takes a human form only if she falls in love with a human. But when that human is unfaithful, he is fated to die. 
Christian Petzold, not a stranger to making films with strong female characters and using genre conventions to reflect the contemporary German issues, takes a stab at a fairytale romance involving the history of the city of Berlin in Undine. It starts with a breakup scene of a couple in progress at the terrace of a cafe. Undine (Paula Beer, seen in Frantz and Petzold's Transit), a historian at the city museum, is understandably upset when her smug boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) announces that he is seeing someone else. She is on a break from her job across the street and she warns him that she will kill him if he doesn't say he loves her when she gets back. The threat is overly dramatic. She gives a talk to the museum visitors about the transformation of the city of Berlin over the years - West and East, what was lost and what was promised, laying out the theme of constantly changing and renewing state of affairs. When she gets back to the cafe, Johannes is gone. By chance, smitten Christoph (Franz Rogowski, who played opposite Beer in Transit) who was present at the museum tour, is there to ask her out for a coffee at that moment. All of sudden, the fish tank shatters, knocking them both off of their feet. Their rather wet first encounter rapidly develops into a sweeping romance where the two become inseparable. 

Water is the constant motif here that stands for change. Christoph happens to be an industrial diver and spends much of his time under murky water of the river Spree. His job is taking care of the leaky turbine and other maintenance issues under water. Once he encounters a big catfish, nicknamed Gunther by his colleagues in one of his dives. Is Gunther a fish or some sort of water spirit? 

Gunther the catfish makes another appearance when Christoph takes Undine diving on a date. He was there to show her a remnants of an old bridge under water that bears her name. In an unusually beautiful scene for Petzold’s standard, since he is not known for his visual excess- we see Undine without her scuba gear, swimming with Gunther, slowly passing over Christoph. On land, Christoph tries to revive unconscious Undine, singing "Staying Alive" by BeeGees under his breath. Later he explains to her, it's the rhythm of that song that is perfect for CPR. Their love affair is sweet and intimate. Undine plays out like a whimsical romantic comedy at this point. And chemistry between Beer and Rogowski is quite remarkable. They both are unbelievably good in their roles as ill-fated couple. 

There is another history lesson as Undine practices her presentation on Humboldt Forum, a museum that is a replica of Stadtschloss (Berlin Palace), at her small but practical apartment overlooking the said building. If you've been to Berlin, you had noticed that everything is rebuilt after WW2. Stadtschloss was rebuilt in the 21st century. Undine's presentation tells that modern architecture teaches that form follows function. But it's not the case with the museum in the form of the eighteen-century ruler's palace. That Germany's pragmatism doesn't quite coincide with people's wishes concerning reviving the soul of the city. 

The Story of Undine gets a 21st century makeover too. She was upset when she was betrayed, but she gets a second chance at happiness being truly loved. Petzold, a master storyteller, reinvents the mythical water creature story paralleling the history of the city of Berlin while acknowledging the past just underneath the surface. 

Its whimsy and romance works thanks largely to Beer and Rogowski's excellent performances. It's so good!

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Monotony vs. Chaos

The Woman Who Ran (2020) - Hong The Woman Who Ran Gamhee (Kim Minhee) is visiting Youngsoon (Seo Younghwa)'s house in the outskirts of Seoul. It's an almost pastoral setting. Youngsoon has a back yard and her neighbor has a chicken coop. Gamhee, married for five years, tells her long time friend that her trip to the house is the first time she is not accompanied by her husband. They never have been not together for even a day. How is that possible, Youngsoon and her roommate wonder over the grilled meat that Gamhee brought along with liquor. Gamhee says her husband believes that if they love each other, then they should be together all the time. And she doesn't seem to mind.

Again, Hong's new film is built around his muse Kim Minhee's character as she observes her surroundings. And of course the conversation naturally leads to reveal her relationships with men. Although Kim played many roles in slightly varying degrees in previous Hong's films, her characters were, however beguiling, more often than not, confrontational toward her male counterparts. In The Woman Who Ran, Gamhee seems to be more subdued and more comfortable with her situations and herself. Being a little bit older, it's as if she is tired of human entanglements and unnecessary interactions. But as the title suggests, Hong might be playing with something here. And everything is not what it seems. Who is the woman who ran if not Gamhee?

While they are having pleasant BBQ dinner, a new neighbor visits them. It's a young man and he passive aggressively complains about Youngsoon and her roommate feeding stray cats. His wife is afraid of seeing cats in their backyards and he wants to discourage them to feed the cats. They decline to do so, arguing the cats needs are just as important as humans. There are many references to animals in the film, including chickens, cows and cats, as women make case that humans are not the only animal with a conscience. With that, Hong seems to suggest that these relationships and entanglements are silly, in a larger scheme of things.

The next house Gamhee visits is Suyoung (Song Seonmi), a pilate instructor and a dancer friend. She lives alone in a modern apartment with a great view of a mountain. She recently bought the place with divorce settlement and some bank loan. She even scored a major discount because the building owner favors artistic types to live there. Gamhee again, tells the story about how she and her husband being inseparable. She could be so lucky. Their peace is interrupted by a 26 year old lovelorn poet at the door. He is in love with Suyoung. She shoos him off. The young man makes matters more complicated since she likes the neighbor who frequents the bar also frequented by the young man, she tells Gamhee. Gamhee makes an observation, "You live an interesting life!"

Considering Hong's penchant for a double take, these two encounters with older female friends might be a variation of the same encounter, suggesting infinite possibilities. And both of these encounters are interrupted by irate males.

Now Gamhee is in a cafe of a cultural center, coincidentally run by her frenemy Woojin (Kim Saebyuk). Gamhee used to date Woojin's now husband Jung (Kwon Haehyo), who is doing a book tour in the same building downstairs. Gamhee says she is there to watch a movie. Woojin, feeling guilty about stealing a man from her, apologizes to Gamhee who says it's all in the past and insists that she is not there to see him. Gamhee asks if he changed in any way since his career took off. Woojin says he is a chatterbox now and he comes across as insincere as he repeats his stories a lot in front of other people. It's becoming annoying.

She runs into Jung who was taking a cigarette break outside the building. Did she really come to see a movie or did she come to tell him off?

Deceptively simple yet deliciously playful, The Woman Who Ran again shows that Hong, a truly unique voice in cinema at his best, honing his skills as a storyteller by constantly experimenting with his usual theme.   

She goes back to watch the movie that she just came out of. It's the same scene of a beach with a jangling guitar soundtrack seen previously. Is Hong suggesting watching the film again to give it a second take? Or does the movie theater work as a sanctuary, a comfortable place for our heroine? In these Covid times, whether Hong intended or not, I'd like to think the latter is the case. As Gamhee sits alone in a cushy movie theater seats alone, eating a piece of bread, I want nothing more than being in the comfort of a movie theater, preferably alone.

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Legacy of Colonialism in The Middle East

Notturno (2020) - Rosi 
NotturnoGianfranco Rosi, the documentarian behind such astonishing work as Sacro GRA and Fire at Sea, comes back with a biting and enormously affecting documentary on people living on the periphery of the Middle-East conflicts. Culling from the footage shot in Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon for three years, Rosi patches together the impact of years of carnage and violence has on its inhabitants, especially on children. 

But Notturno, as the title implies, night precedes daybreak. Hopefully, this affected generation can break the cycle and move forward. 

Notturno starts with grieving mothers paying a pilgrimage to now an empty prison building where their sons are tortured and killed. One of the mother touches the walls, saying that she feels her son's spirit. She wails again as she feels the spirit leaving. 

There is an otherworldly image of a hunter/solider duck hunting in a marshland in his little paddleboat. Two oil field fires on the horizon bathes the night sky with an ominous orange glow, as he sets the trap with a set of fake ducks in the water and silently waits. Prevailing sound is the gunfire in the distance. There's a hunger in his eyes - no politics or war, just pure survival instincts. 

A young couple, dressed in western clothes on the rooftop overlooking the city, smoking hookah- the setting is very romantic. There's occasional gunfire in the distance. The young man is getting ready to do his nightly rounds as a singing messenger of god, leaving his secular day world behind. He walks around with his drum, chanting in a clear voice at night, casting his shadow under the dim street light. 

There's a platoon of Iraqi women soldiers patrolling a vast outposts. They come back to the shared barracks, tie their long hair all at the same time- it is a silent, communal ritual. Then they huddle together around a small gas stove to warm up their hands. Even in harsh surroundings, Rosi sees beauty everywhere. 

A doctor in a psychiatric ward where people with PTSD are treated is preparing to stage a therapeutic theater session. He gives out the scripts to a group of patients. These patients practices and memorize their lines in their bed, trying to do a good job for the doctor. The script is about how the colonial powers provided the settings for decades of armed conflict, government corruptions and the rise of religious fundamentalists. 

We move on to a very young boy in yellow rain cover in a fishing vessel at night. He is operating the pulley. He comes home exhausted and crashes on the sofa. It seems he is the oldest of the 8 siblings and one who provides income for the entire family. He goes out in the morning with his pellet gun to hunt for birds for food. His name is Ali and we go back and forth between the progress of the stage play in the psychiatric wards and Ali's daily life. 

Then we are introduced muddy tents city that is a refugee camp. Many children are experiencing flashbacks of being beaten and tortured by ISIS. They were captives of those fundamental extremists. Their crayon drawings depict unimaginable horror - decapitations, hanging, maiming, etc. Their teacher consoles them but helpless to stop them from having nightmares. 

Ali gets up early in the morning to stand on the side of the road until hunters drive by. They need to have someone to pick up their prey after they shoot them down. It's a grueling work. But in order to feed his family, he has to take any kind of job. 

The film features not only a human toll in the region but the broken infrastructure - river crossings are largely dependent on rickety square rafts that bump into each other, cars driving over the waterfall created by bomb blasted ravine in the middle of the road. The rows of ruined empty buildings... it goes on forever like that. 

Notturno ends with the close up of Ali's incredibly youthful face, his bright eyes darting the sky, unsure of what future will bring. The image invokes some of the cinema's most provoking shots - the freeze frame of Antoine Doinel's face in The 400 Blows, Monika's dead stare in Summer with Monika and the close up of Florya in Come and See to name a few. Then again, I am reminded that Ali is not a fictional character, but a real boy growing up in an unforgiving world. Notturno is undoubtedly, one of the best films of the year.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Powerful Indictment of Religious Patriarchy

Beginning (2020) - Kulumbegashivli Beginning
Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashivli's powerful drama Beginning has to be one of the most self-assured debut films in recent memory. Her approach in creating a suffocating, isolating environment for her main subject is so impeccably done, it easily invites comparisons to masters' work- Tarkovsky, Haneke, Akerman. With its metaphysical tinge, it also resembles the work of its executive producer, Carlos Reygardas's. 

With its slow build-up, treading on the verge of religious allegory, the film demonstrates Kulumbegashivli's mastery in how a female is perceived in religious, patriarchal society. With its use of full frame cinematography reflecting the claustrophobic atmosphere of the protagonist's mental state, Beginning is a truly mesmerizing experience. 

 The film starts with a five minute uncut scene inside of a Jehovah's Witness church. From the fixed camera in the front of the room we see congregants milling in, greeted by the pastor, David (Rati Oneli, who is also a co-screenwriter) and his wife Yana (Ia Sukhitashivli). Soon after David starts his summon on Abraham and him sacrificing his son before god, firebombs are thrown in, causing chaos. Next we see the church engulfed in flames in the distance. 

The church happens to be in the middle of an empty field. It's stated that it's some religious fundamentalist's doing. And it's not the first time the violence was committed upon David and Yana. And the local cops aren't doing much about it. 

Through the dialog, it is revealed that Yana doesn't want to be where they are. Their young son doesn't have any friends. Being a former actress now a pastor's wife, she feels life is going by, as if she isn't even there. Stubborn David still wants to concentrate on his career and asks Yana's unwavering support. She tells him forebodingly, "It's as if I'm waiting for something to start or to end." 

The centerpiece of the film is a seven minute uncut scene of Yana going into a forest and laying down on the ground. She closes her eyes and lies there motionlessly. The whole world and the sound around her - birds chirping, the wind and the shadows casting on her face by the swaying trees slowly fade. Her peace is only broken by her son's nagging. 

Her wish for some kind of change comes in the form of a devious character, Alex (Kakha Kintsurashivli). First seen in the burning church as a policeman, he comes in to Yana's house while David is away (to ask for elders assistant in building another church). He comes on to her aggressively, asking sexually explicit questions. Either paralyzed with fear or aroused, she starts answering his questions. 

She is then raped by Alex at night in a violent attack near a creek. Just like everything taking place involving Yana and the world, the scene is observed from a far in a wide static shot and as impersonal as possible. Why did she go out at night? How did she end up near the creek? The question mounts. 

Yana retreats to her mother's house with her son after the attack, but can't bring herself to tell her mother what happened. She thinks that Yana is having an affair. "Don't tell David if he doesn't know," she quips. Yana asks her why she didn't get a divorce from her abusive husband. "It was different times", she answers. 

David finds out what happened by listening to security tapes in the house. With the shame and guilt she feels, even though none of it was her fault, she breaks down sobbing. How could you do this to me after what I have done for you- is how David plays out the scene. 

As the film reaches a shocking conclusion, suggesting that Alex might be a physical manifestation of Yana's fears/wishes in order to escape her suffocating life, it becomes a strong indictment of religious patriarchal society. Sukhitashivli in a very demanding role gives quite possibly the performance of the year. Beginning signals an impressive arrival of another major female director, Kulumbegashivli, to the current global cinema scene.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Read Books Kids

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020) - Jia Untitled 
Jia Zhangke, the master chronicler of China's changing times, presents Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, a touching documentary on four contemporary Chinese writers. This is his third feature documentary on contemporary Chinese culture after Dong, about painter Liu Xiaodong and Useless, about the clothing industry. 

The film lays out four writers and their works chronologically. Sometimes in lengthy interviews, sometimes other people reciting the samples of their writings in various places, Jia highlights their individual stories. It starts from the beginning of the People's Republic, the land and marriage reform, the wars, the Cultural Revolution and to the recent economic prosperity. But instead of going through historical events, Jia opts for anecdotal storytelling of his subjects and people around them. Going micro and personal instead of expansive and historical, he achieves something far more intimate and engaging.
Jia starts the film by visiting his hometown Fenyang in Shanxi province. This is the region where the famous writer Ma Feng is from. He interviews the town elders who have been living in the region all their lives. They remember the deceased writer through the war against Japan and Russia and the Cultural Revolution. We get the glimpse of tumultuous Chinese history in rural areas through these interviews. As Chairman Mao's many initiatives, including marriage reform, the fabric of the society changed dramatically. Ma Feng's writing reflected these. 

Jia Pingwa, born in the 50 and from Shangluo, recounts his past: how his father's association with KMT was hard on his family and him getting a job. He tells how his good handwriting started his career, and how he was able to move to cultural bureau from doing physical labor. 'Returning to the place you grew up in, even though you are educated somewhere else' is the running theme with all four writers' life trajectories. It's something in the land that they grew up which Jia Pingwa describes it as 'blood land'. 

Then there's Yu Hua, born in the 60s in Haiyan, near the yellow sea. His anecdotal stories of trying to be a writer are often hilarious. He mastered his writing by reading handed-down books (banned during Cultural Revolution) that are missing front and back covers and often missing the end part of the book, so he had to imagine the endings himself. Growing up in rural community, he wanted to be somebody. After countless rejection letters, his writing finally caught an eye of a big time editor in Beijing. One of his books was To Live, one that got a screen adaptation treatment from Zhang Yimou in the 90s. 

Liang Hong, born in the 70s, is a writer and professor. Growing up in a big household in Liangzhuang, a small village in Henan province, she had to endure her mother's illness, her village people's prejudices (her father remarried after mother's death), and crippling poverty. Her work became synonymous with a case study for China's rural villages and migrant workers. In corresponding chapters (like a book, 18 chapters total), we get to hear about and from her family members, including her 14-year-old son. 

The title of the film is from Yu Hua's phrase, as he reminisces about his childhood. The sea is supposed to be blue in his school textbooks, but the sea near his house has been always yellow. 

As always with his films, Jia tells the story of changing times, migration and coming home. Added here is his love for literature. It's a big plus that all writers he features are gifted storytellers as much as he is. As an avid reader who is very concerned about the younger generation only capable of fragmented thoughts growing up with Twitter and Weibo, Swiming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is not only a lamentation of the disappearing past but also an effective reading initiative campaign.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Agony and Ecstacy

Days (2020) - Tsai Days
Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang abandoned scripted narrative since Stray Dog (2013). Days is his first feature film since then. His output has been limited to short to medium length films in relations to What Time is it There? (2001) and its sort-of sequel Wayward Cloud (2005) and various commissioned films, omnibus contributions and gallery installations, all of them starring his muse, Lee Kang-sheng. Personally, Lee was struck with debilitating health problems in recent years and Tsai documented his recovery over the years in various places. So it seems only fitting that the couple's new film would feature some of Lee's harrowing medical treatments. Days is also the most intimate and touching Tsai film in years.

The film consists of series of uncut long takes where camera is stationary, except for certain scenes in the middle. It starts with Lee sitting on a chair looking out the window. The scene seems to go on forever. It is slowly revealed that he is in some sort of health rehab in the countryside. In the next scene, he is seen soaking in a tub motionlessly. Next is wide shot of a squalid kitchen where a young foreign man (Anong Houngheuangsy) making a fish soup. It's the whole process from beginning to end. He cleans the fish, rinses vegetables, drains, starts a fire, gets the soup start, tastes it constantly as he puts more ingredients, lets it simmer while he goes in and out of frame, all taking before your eyes.

Next is Lee getting what seems to be an elaborate and painful acupuncture procedure. This long scene also consists of long takes but from different angles. It's an agonizing scene to look at- the treatment Lee is receiving is a combination of acupuncture, electro stimulation wired on the needles and moxa (burning of mugworms) on top of those needles. From the low angle in an extended period of time, we see both agony and ecstasy reflected on Lee's face. It is quite jarring as some of the moxa embers fall on Lee's skin and the pins catch fire near his face. This combo of agony and ecstasy turns out to be quite a theme in Days.

The next scene is Lee with a neck bracelet, precariously supporting his head with his hand, walking down the busy Hong Kong street while onlookers glancing at the camera.

We see these daily routines of two characters separately as they go on. It is crazy to think that baby faced Lee is 50 years old now. In a series of unflattering close ups, you could tell the time has taken a toll. His gait also is not as youthful. He knowingly lets his ailing flesh to be recorded in a brave performance exposing his vulnerability out in the open for all to see. 

The two men, one old and the other young, finally get together in the second half of the film, albeit as a business transaction. It's Houngheuangsy as a erotic masseur and Lee his client in what seems to be a fancy hotel room. Again, this sexually explicit scene is that of an agony and ecstasy: the young man give the old man a massage and a handjob. Lee moans in pain and pleasure.

After their intimate sessions, Lee gifts Houngheuangsy a tiny music box that the young man plays for a long time. They engage conversation in broken English over the noodles in a street market.

Portraying sexual intimacy and urban loneliness  are not new territories for Tsai, but its his acknowledgement that beauty is fleeting is something new in his oeuvre. This nearly silent film is both melancholic and tender. It's a deeply philosophical examination on human connections and the fleeting beauty of life.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Life's Little Disappointments

 The Disciple (2020) - Tamhane

Chaitanya Tamhane's follow up to his great debut, Court, is The Disciple, about an artist struggling with a life long self-doubt. It might be a more personal subject, but it's even more nuanced observation of life than his previous film. The Disciple shows Tamhane is wise far beyond his age portraying subjects such as ambition, devotion and pride as well as realizing life's crushing disappointments as we age.

Khayal, I am told, is a classical Indian singing style that puts emphasis on improvisation and micro-tonal changes. For devotees of this art, mastering it is an eternal quest. Young Sharad (Aditya Modak), practicing this Hindustani classical music is a vocation he was sort of born into - his father was a devotee of this music tradition even though he ultimately failed as a singer. Studying under his guru Alwar (Arun Dravid) and listening to lectures, given by legendary, reclusive singer Maai, who was guru to both his father (who secretly recorded her lectures) and Alwar. Maai was almost a yogi figure, preaching purity and discipline in body and mind to truly devote to the music. She never allowed recordings of her music nor had her images taped or photographed. Tamhane provides some great night tracking shot of Mumbai, of Sharad riding his motorbike in slow motion, listening to Maai's lectures on tape. Emphasizing the lonely road the young man has chosen. The year is 2006.

Sharad practices and practices while dealing with all the distractions of life - constant nagging of his grandmother, pressure to get a job, loneliness, lust, etc. He is not winning any awards at singing competitions, at least not yet.

Sharad now is a fat middle aged man with a mustache, still trying to get his music career off the ground. He teaches music at a school, still takes care of his now ailing guru, while seeing others, more talented than him passing him by, career-wise. One of his pupil's mother comes to the school asking him for his advice: should her son join a fusion band in his college? He tells them not to come back to school if the young man joins the band. Some TV singing competition shows a young woman's transformation from a homely classical singer to a Bollywood style pop sensation. Is purity of the music and personal pride that important? Even Maai's words get warped in his mind. She directly addresses to him that his guru loves him so he doesn't have hearts to tell him that he is not talented, just like his father.

In one flashback scene, meeting with a rare music collector who seems to have dirt on everybody crushes Sharad's idols, including his guru and even Maai, whom he recalls as a self-righteous, pretentious fraud.

The Disciple deals with any artist's nightmare - total devotion is hard to achieve while living in the real world. In the mean time, self-doubt eats you away slowly over the years. Modak gives a beautiful, heart breaking performance, transforming himself from a bright eyed young man to a defeated middle-aged schlub . Both Modak and Dravid are actual singers and the music in this film is truly glorious. Tamhane again, proves himself to be one of the brightest and most talented filmmakers working today.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Pushed Down the Road

 Nomadland (2020) - Zhao

In the film's prologue, it is stated that the high desert mining town of Empire, seized to exist after the company shutting down its operation during the 2008 economic meltdown. The town's residents were forced to relocate and it became a ghost town. It lost its postal zipcode status even. Welcome to the dark side of corporate America. 

Frances McDormand disappears into the role of a woman living in her van in Chloé Zhao's affecting humanist sketch(es) from the seldom seen Americana. These are people without homes, living in their cars, moving up and down the American West, taking menial jobs to support their hands-to-mouth living in the margin of society. Mcdormand is Fern, a widowed woman first seen in a large Amazon facilities sorting out the orders during Christmas time. She, like many other Americans, take part in seasonal jobs like working in Amazon warehouses.

Fern befriends with characters like Linda May and Swankie, who are playing fictional version of themselves and who are not far from themselves. They all have stories to tell. They are in fact living the original spirit of America, on the road, in their cars, rather than having a picket fences and lawn and dogs and family. The difference is that they are forced to be on the road, not for the romantic notion of free spirited of the American West.

Hitting the road is an American concept. More so than a German (Autobahn and all that) one. I mention this because of I remember the talk I had with the great Berlin School director Christian Petzold whose films often present people in transit. There’s even a paper written about the role of the fugitive family’s white Volvo in one of his movies (The State I am in). He told me that his characters hit the road not because of the notion of some misguided freedom and romanticism which the post war affluence brought- in films of Wim Wenders for instance, but because of financial hardship brought on by global economic downturn. 

I mean, there's quite a bit of romaticism too in Nomadland- because this land is just too god-damn beautiful wherever you go. Arizona's desert, Nothern California's Redwood Forests, Nevada, anywhere Zhao and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards point their camera at, there is poetry everywhere, even though in the next scene Fern and her colleagues are cleaning puke stains from the toilet seat of a public bathroom of the camp ground, shitting into the one gallon bucket inside their vans and scraping gunk off the grills of tourist trap chain restaurants. The cars of their choice is not Pontiac GTO from Two-Lane Blacktop or some gigantic RV, it’s modified non-descript van you see in construction sites.

There's a sort of love interest in there too for Fern, in the form of David Strathairn, who plays Dave, an aging dad and grandpa who's been running away from his sons and family but eventually goes back to the normal life.

Zhao is obviously very talented at getting unbelievably natural performances out of professional actors and non-professionals alike. McDormand's performance is undoubtedly immensely moving. Each stories of friendship and human connections are also extremely touching without being ever succumbing to cheap sentimentality. Too bad that music goes all extra gooey. With Zhao's documentary aesthetic of the film doesn't really need any soundtrack other than what mother nature provides, in my humble opinion.

Still, it seems Zhao is headed for greatness. Her ability to find an intimacy between a rock and a hard place is truly remarkable. I hope she keeps it up.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

A Prophetic Vision of Europe in Philosophical Terms

Malmkrog (2019) - Puiu Malmkrog Cristi Puiu, a director closely associated with the Romanian New Wave, of realist films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Aurora, take a very different approach with Malmkrog, a three hour twenty minute verbose chamber piece and a formalist cinematic daring-do that will certainly try patience of its viewers. Based on Russian philosopher's Vladimir Solovyov's texts in turn of the twentieth century, prior to WWI, Malmkrog's five main characters extensively engage in serious religious and political discussions in six chapters, named after the characters and István, the head of the servants in the wintry manor the film takes place in. 

There are three heady discussions they are engaging in: war and peace, grand vision of unified Europe and the existence of good and evil. It takes a dramatic turn and there is a big tonal shift after the second discussion. The last one-third of the film could be interpreted as a dream or imagined but Puiu decidedly leave it opaque. Malmkrog starts out in a large, opulent manor in the middle of a wintry forest. The structure is in pastel pink, giving it a whimsical fairytale look at its first impression. 

Inside, within very long takes in meticulous blocking, the actors crisscross the screen as they speak on and off screen. Camera pans slowly here and there, but otherwise it's stationary. Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), a wife of a Russian war general starts the film with her indignant support for military might. There is a good war and there is a bad peace, she exclaims. Her view is pitted against the youngest member of this wealthy, aristocratic group, Olga (Marina Palii). Olga is a good Christian and a staunch pacifist. And because of that, she becomes a target of constant belittling, albeit politely, especially by Nicolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), a former seminary student and the host of the manor they are gathered at. The group splits in either defending Olga or chiding her. Ingrida receives and reads a letter from her husband announcing victory over Ottoman soldiers on the frontline. In a letter, he justifies slaughtering the enemies in the most grotesque manner because they roast babies in front of their mothers in the villages they raided. She enforces her assertion that the war is necessary. Olga disagrees. With her faith, she could've turned those 'savages' around by praying. Near the end of discussion just before lunch, in an intense interrogation in defense of her position on pacifism, Olga faints. 

Lunch is served. They are back in another deep discourse. Edward (Ugo Broussot), a wealthy merchant and a gambler, espouses the grand vision of unified Europe. He says because Europeans are the most advanced, progressive, therefore they are superior civilization. And Russia can play a big role because of its proximity to Asia in fending off the influence of Asian nations. Then the discussion turns to the existence of good and evil with Nicolai chiding Olga with her interpretation of the bible verses. 

Of course, in accordance with the era and society, all dialogue is conducted in very proper French. Only other language spoken (very briefly) is German, when Nicolai cryptically whispers to Olga travel paths. Did he see what was coming? Is he planning an escape with the young believer? 

As the second discussion draws to a close, a drastic incident happens to break the otherwise tranquil gathering of the high society: a broken childish song that sounds like coming from a gramophone plays in loop all of sudden and all the servants disappear or not answer Nicolai's ringing bell. Panicked, our guests leave the room only to be gunned down from an unseen force. Next scene is a wide shot of the snowy landscape outside and people calling out Ingrida, who seems to be treading the snow away from the manor. Puiu keeps everything ambiguous from beginning to end. 

The next scene is business as usual. All the guests seem to be alive and well and carry on the subject on good and evil. How do we know that god is good? He can preach us to be good. But is he himself good inside? Olga is pushed to defend her positions. She seems composed but not able to speak anything remotely compelling. This dinner scene with five characters speaking back and forth, is a fine example of how you do coverage and make Bohemian Rhapsody's Oscar winning editing to shame. 

 I don't doubt that Malmkrog's script being as thick as Dostoevsky's Brother's Karamazov. It deals with dense, heady philosophical musings from another century. But context is everything. What these characters are discussing has relevance in pre-revolution, WW1 Europe as well as the age we are living in. 

Veering off the Solovyov's texts, Puiu reinforces its prophetic, dystopic view of Europe - decadent, spiritually hollow, hubristic, jingoistic and also on the cusp of violent upheaval. Puiu being Romanian, growing up in a country in the Soviet Bloc, Solovyov's texts are a good fit for him against anti-spiritualism associated with communism along with many other ills Europe and Russia are suffering right now. 

Malmkrog is a slog of a movie. But it’s truly one of a kind. If you are an adventurous spectator like me and stick to it, with a bit of background knowledge beforehand, the film is a very rewarding and satisfying cinematic experience. This will make a great double feature with Lázló Nemes's Sunset, as a frustrating yet richly rewarding cinematic history lesson and a prophetic vision of Europe.

A Quintessential Almodovar Plus Tilda Swinton in Short Form

The Human Voice (2020) - Almodovar

The Human Voice Conceived as a short project during Covid lockdown, Pedro Almodovar's The Human Voice, based on Jean Cocteau's stage play, with its popping colors and its melodramatic theme, is a quintessential Almodovar film. It is also a great reflection on filmmaking in the face of a worldwide pandemic. And it's all Tilda. 

In his first English-language film, Almodovar puts his full trust in Tilda Swinton, who, over the years, has become a larger than life international movie icon, to carry the whole 30 minutes alone carrying on an imaginary conversation with herself. 

It starts with Swinton in various haute couture clothing walking around in what appears to be a big sound stage. The title sequence is made up of beautiful renderings of various tools, foreshadowing what's to come. Tilda is in her apartment, a bright colored, stylish multi room apartment that is the typical set-up for all of Almodovar's domestic melodramas. What is different this time is that we can see that these rooms are sets in the sound stage the film starts in. It reminds that everything we've seen in his films previously, however lived-in those rooms seemed, were elaborate sets, designed by Antxón Gómez, Almodovar's long time set designer, in the movie stages. 

It also reminds that his melodramas make you invest in his films to the degree that you suspend your belief that you are watching make-believe, that is, cinema. It doesn't really matter, because as soon as Swinton engages us in her tumultuous breakup story with her lover of four years, we are hooked once again, suspending our belief and being absorbed into the melodrama of her life. 

Swinton takes a quick trip to, of all places, a hardware store. She buys a large axe and puts it in her Gucci bag. When she gets home/stage, she tries to axe the man's black suit that is laid on her bed. Her border collie barks at all the violence. She shouts at the dog to shut up. She goes to a living room and picks up a ceramic tea set, which is obviously a movie set decoration and throws it out the balcony/stage floor. She then proceeds to take colorful pills and passes out on the bed. Then her phone rings. 

It's presumably her lover who she just broke up with three days ago. She carries on a long-winded conversation with him, cooing, pleading and yelling and apologizing into her air pod. It's a familiar scene of love and heartbreak. They had four years of a passionate, intoxicating relationship and now it's all over. They didn't even get to say a proper good-bye and she doesn't want to do that over the phone. But he is not even going to stop by to pick up his stuff. 

As film productions around the world slowly pick up again with limited crew and strict restrictions (daily testing for cast and crew, limited numbers on the set and in premises), this one-person show reflects the state of the film industry today very accurately. 

The Human Voice, in true Almodovar fashion, ends in satisfying conclusion: in flames, where the stage, the make-believe literally burns down. Hopefully, this isn't the first and last collaboration between Almodovar and Swinton, because this short film is an extremely enjoyable experience.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Sam Pollard's MLK/FBI Reminds Us MLK's Legacy Resonates Now, More than Ever

MLK/FBI (2020) - Pollard MLKFBI

Packed to the brim with historical documents and recently declassified materials, Sam Pollard, documentarian and editor of Spike Lee's films among many others (Mo' Better Blues, 4 Little Girls, Chisholm '72, Venus and Serena) brings us MLK/FBI, a searing indictment of government surveillance and a smear campaign on one of the most revered figures in American history. Based on David Garrow's book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From Solo to Memphis, where the author and King biographer accuses King of participating in a rape in a hotel room in 1964, based on the declassified, handwritten memo over FBI documents that is now on National Archive website.

With Trump's 'Law and Order' rhetoric rising amid nationwide protest against police violence and BLM movement during the worst pandemic in American history and the nation's top cop Bill Barr's threat to charge the racial justice protesters with sedition, MLK/FBI truly resonates now, more than ever.

Pollard gets it right by framing the film with King's rise as a leader of the Civil Rights movement from Birmingham, AL days, to March to Washington and his famous speech, to LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act into law, to him winning the Nobel Peace Prize, to his opposition to the Vietnam War and the Poor People's Campaign, to his assassination in 1968 against the backdrop of the FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and the head of the bureau's Domestic Intelligence, Bill Sullivan, obsessing over 'the most dangerous negro in America' and figuring the way to 'neutralize' King.

Threatened by King's eminence as the leader of nationwide non-violence protests, Hoover, with RFK (then AG of New York and later the nation)'s blessings, ordered unprecedented surveillance on him, tapping his and his colleague's phones and bugging hotel rooms where he stayed. Hoover first wanted to tie him with the communists. Stanley Levison, a Jewish lawyer who served as King's advisor, has had a tie with the communist party. Media also played a big part creating the 'G-men' and FBI culture Hoover cultivated after his own image - a conservative Christian white jockey male. These government recruits were indoctrinated to see themselves as guardians of American way of life and perpetuate white dominance. Communists and their sympathizers were seen as direct threat to that racial hierarchy. It is amazing to see people still buy this belief, since we still witness this in this election cycle.

As the King is a communist narrative didn't bear any fruit, they then switched to more salacious material on his private life as these bugs turned up some goods on his extramarital affairs.

Interviews with the Civil Rights luminaries and King confidantes Andrew Young, Clearance Jones and historian Beverley Gage as well as David Garrow and unseen James Comey, Pollard poses a difficult question on how we handle information on a private life of a public figure, when the source is from a place as prejudiced and biased as Hoover's FBI. 

Pollard also rightfully sheds a light on many uncomfortable truths. However a maligned Hoover is in history books, he was in charge of the FBI for 37 years until his death in 1972. He had ears of the so-called friends of the movement in the highest power - JFK, RFK and LBJ and conspired against King. LBJ and Hoover are even on tape discussing sordid private life of King and what to do about it.

It all came down to a boiling point after King received a Nobel Prize and Hoover called him a notorious liar. Johnson arranged the meeting with the two to diffuse the situation. There is footage of King emerging from the meeting saying the polite conversations he had with Hoover. However, obsessed Hoover played the black deviant card, which dates all the way back to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and sent a threatening letter guised as one of his black supporters with a tape recording of one his hotel room encounters to his wife, Coretta Scott King.

Emotional impact must have been immeasurable to King family. But there were so much work to be still done- Selma, The Voting Rights Act and protests against the Vietnam War.

Pollard is quick to note that general public was on the side of Hoover, not King. Even Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an influential black organization and integral part of the Civil Rights Movement, was not on board with King's stance against the war. He didn't have any business having an opinion. Sounds familiar?

MLK/FBI strongly resonates with what we are going through as a nation right now: Hoover's notion of racial hierarchy is still very much in place in law enforcement mindset as police unions endorsing a candidate whose rhetoric is nothing but racist, so as irrational fear of anything that sounds like 'communism' or 'socialism', putting way too much emphasis on personal lives of elected officials, the list goes on and on. But more importantly, it resonates that no other social movement since King and the Civil Rights Movement, we had a real possibility of a fundamental change in this country, than Black Lives Matter Movement. Those sordid FBI tapes on King are sealed until 2027. We can deal with Martin Luther King Jr. a man then and there. It's his victories over insurmountable odds that we need to take lessons from and be hopeful, not the smear campaign designed to take our eyes off the ball.

Dustin Chang is a freelanc