The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

ART-HOUSE MIXTAPE 2011: Selections from New Directors/New Films

<i>Hospitalité</i>, directed by Koji Fukuda. Image courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Hospitalité, directed by Koji Fukuda. Image courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

This year’s edition of New Directors/New Films, presented annually by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society at Lincoln Center, marks the festival’s 40th anniversary. Created as a venue for young filmmakers who found themselves crowded out of the New York Film Festival by graying masters, ND/NF has served as an early champion of now-classic works, and become something of a standard-bearer for the new tradition of quality that emerged during the third act of the 20th century. Though receptive to unproven names, its programming has from the beginning evinced an aesthetic conservatism that favors formally unambitious, medium-budget features that tell stories of individual struggle within familiar narrative conventions, often set within some realm of specific sociopolitical import—the kind of approachable art-house fare for which the word “poignant” became the film critic’s most trusty cliché.

It seems this year’s lineup shakes out much like those that preceded it: there are few films to love or hate, and a slew of mediocrities—Sundance Labs boilerplate like Pariah and Circumstance, didactic liberal dramas as well-meaning as they are inept like The Destiny of Lesser Animals and Cairo 6,7,8, and charming but utterly undistinguished works like Man Without a Cell Phone. It is tempting to sneer at the bien pensant that prescribes this vision of world cinema, but next to the array of market-oriented festivals that have opened shop within ND/NF’s bailiwick in the years since its founding, it is a reliable and genuinely idiosyncratic guide to the middle of the road.

ND/NF’s legacy is as intertwined as Sundance’s with the “independent” film boom of the 1990s, and the festival’s previous decades offer an archaeology of the values and terms which shaped it. It is appropriate, then, that two of this year’s cagiest films perform autopsies of the grunge era. Hit So Hard narrates the life of Hole drummer Patty Schemel from her earliest home recordings through the crack and heroin addictions that took her career and left her homeless. Director P. David Ebersole makes almost every one of the insipid, garish directorial choices that plague the pop music documentaries discharged in increasingly voluminous spurts every year, but if you can keep your eyes open while cringing, you will find heftier material than in most others. Ebersole’s patient interviews allow Schemel and the other assorted talking heads the time to exceed the boundaries of the rock-star addiction narrative. These thoughtful accounts collude with Hi-8 home movies at the film’s core—which Schemel recorded and then somehow preserved during her years on the street—to provide a textured, complex account of the worlds Schemel passed through.

Matthew Bate’s Shut Up Little Man! traces the history of another Gen X boombox staple: an eponymous set of cassette tapes that featured vicious, unhinged shouting matches between a pair of 50-something alcoholic roommates—one gay, the other a virulent homophobe—recorded covertly in 1987 by two young punk rockers who shared a wall with this nightmare couple in San Francisco, and which found a cult following that climaxed in a series of adaptations and a three-way race for the film rights. Bate provides a comprehensive history of the tapes’ production and dissemination, but his sights are set on the larger ethical, artistic, and technological issues that surround their success. His investigation stimulates and rewards to the extent that it situates these questions within the sensibilities of a particular generation and the subcultural networks of a particular time.

<i>Hit So Hard</i>, directed by P. David Ebersole. Image courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Hit So Hard, directed by P. David Ebersole. Image courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Another of the series’ footage-driven docs, Göran Hugo Olsson’s The Black Power MixTape 1967–1975, embraces compilation status in order to maintain the integrity of its archival material: a stash of 16mm footage from the apex of European infatuation with the American New Left and black power in particular that Olsson unearthed in the basement of Sueriges Television headquarters. Excerpting interviews with Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and Huey Newton, Olsson adds little to the mix, providing no more than the score, some contemporary audio commentary, and hip, low-key production frills. The original material is essential viewing, and though I appreciate Olsson’s light touch, the film’s flattened trajectory makes for restless viewing, and his attention to design only highlights the sediment of nostalgia that has settled on images such as these.

The two most anticipated fictions on this year’s slate, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg and Denis Côté’s Curling, both depict isolated father-daughter duos, and are both characterized by an empathy and good humor that serves as a riposte to last year’s breakout hit, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, a shallow grotesque on similar themes. Conveniently enough, Lanthimos himself appears in Attenberg as an intruder into the equally strange, though far less sinister filial universe drawn by his frequent collaborator Tsangari. In tentative but confident steps, Tsangari locates her cockeyed form on the streets of the dilapidated model city in which the film takes place and in the gestures of her actors, producing a peculiar, deeply resonant emotional timbre. Curling’s chilly austerity is no less honestly come by, mapped perfectly as it is on to its rural Quebec setting and the lonely lives of Jean-François (Emmanuel Bilodeau) and his 12-year-old daughter Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau). Dropping us into their world without providing context for the father’s proud, self-imposed exile from society, Côté leaves their motives obscure as the film follows their gradual movements toward community. He is not interested in the why, but the how, providing it in thick, deliberate strokes. Curling is impeccable, as self-contained and singular as its protagonists.

Less pure but more invigorating is Koji Fukada’s Hospitalité, another take on familial claustrophobia, and the festival’s most welcome revelation. In Fukada’s burlesque of the Japanese middle class, the sheltered and closely knit family at its center is not an eccentric curio, but the product of a larger parochialism. Most of the film’s action is confined to the two-story Tokyo house into which Mikio Kobayashi (Kenji Yamauchi) has somehow crammed his second wife, his daughter, his sister, and a modest print shop. Into this cozy domestic scene, Fukada unleashes Kagawa Hanataro (Kanji Furutachi), who enters as an employee, stays as a boarder, and leaves having transformed the family through a feat of anarchic creative destruction, the film’s initial comedy of manners overwhelmed by totally unexpected Dadaist provocation. Fukada’s hand is steady throughout, keeping a tight lid on the rage that boils over at the film’s conclusion, even in this fury maintaining a gentle equanimity. If only every film at ND/NF were this willing to peer beneath its smooth surface. 


Colin Beckett

COLIN BECKETT lives in Brooklyn and is currently the Critical Writing Fellow at UnionDocs.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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