Monday, June 27, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, June 20, 2011-June 26, 2011


Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, seen on the left, at Terminal 5 Friday night


BAM CinemaFest 2011 (all films screened at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.):
Septien (2011, Michael Tully)
I should probably preface this by admitting that I kinda/sorta know the filmmaker, who is also the creator of the film site Hammer to Nail; at the very least, I've met him on a few occasions (including the night of this particular screening at BAM CinemaFest), and we are on friendly terms. So feel free to take the following capsule with a grain of salt, if you think it's appropriate. Moving on...

This a refreshingly idiosyncratic, occasionally funny and oddly moving mix of family drama, Southern Gothic and fairy tale, featuring Tully himself as a bearded prodigal son who returns to his two siblings (Robert Longstreet and Onur Turkel) after 18 years in the wilderness. Actually, that's exactly how Tully, with the help of cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier (shooting in 16mm, no less—though the film was projected digitally), presents his return: in silhouette, we see the prodigal son get up from tall grass, walk through a literal wilderness and back into the home of his siblings. There are plenty more of these kinds of imaginative touches in the film, all of which create a surreal atmosphere that allows us to take this story as a fable, not as realistic psychodrama. For all its bold mixing of tones and genres, though, the film's essential serious beating heart—its depiction of a band of brothers trying to come to terms with the skeletons in their closets—stays intact. (It helps that, for all the dark humor in the film, Tully encourages his cast to play things completely straight.) And even if the film perhaps ends on a rather psychologically facile note (in which a shot through a basketball hoop is enough to wash away years of trauma), the film is at least modest enough that it never overstays its welcome at a trim 79 minutes.

It begins a theatrical run at IFC Center on July 6; it's worth checking out.

Green (2011, Sophia Takal)
This is actually my second viewing of Takal's eerie psychological drama—I wrote about it for The House Next Door while at South by Southwest earlier this year—but this is my first time seeing it on a big screen, having seen it on a screener DVD earlier. My opinion of the film is basically unchanged: not a great film, but still an immensely promising first effort from Takal, brimming with confidence and guts.

One thing I'd say about the film that I didn't mention in my earlier review: Despite what Takal has said publicly about the film being her way of working through feelings of jealousy she was feeling within herself, I found myself gravitating a bit more toward the issues of class snobbery that are suggested in the way she takes this Brooklyn hipster couple—first seen at a party arguing about Philip Roth and Marcel Proust—out of their bubble and drops them into this, um, green-er landscape of manual hard labor and considerably less high culture. For the most part, neither seem comfortable in this kind of environment...and when the unabashed country gal Robin (played by Takal herself with a broad but convincing Southern accent) enters the picture, their condescension starts to show—first in private, then in a long scene in which Genevieve (Kate Lyn Sheil)—who is obsessed with the notion that her boyfriend Sebastian (Lawrence Michael Levine, who is Takal's fiancé in real life) is cheating on her with Robin—steers a picnic conversation to the topic of a New York-based artist both she and Sebastian know, deliberately trying to exclude Robin even as Sebastian makes genuine attempts to include her in the conversation. If anything, Sebastian starts out as especially condescending, but eventually softens his snobby stance, while the increasingly unhinged Genevieve goes the other way. This thread strikes me as more fully realized than its depiction of sexual jealousy, which remains a bit sketchy by comparison.

Plus, putting aside Ernesto Carcamo's ominous electronic score (which felt a bit more oppressive this time around, maybe too much so), some of Takal's camera movements feel positively Rohmerian in the way it coolly pans across characters during lengthy conversations. Hell, Le Rayon Vert had that long scene in which Delphine desperately tries to defend her vegan leanings, while these two Brooklynites profess themselves to be vegans, if I remember correctly...

This still doesn't have a distributor...but I hope it gets one eventually.

Surrogate Valentine (2011, Dave Boyle)
Here's another film where deep personal identification on my part trumps whatever misgivings I may have about the whole. Goh Nakamura—the Asian singer-songwriter whose travails are the focus of this film—is pretty much the way I often imagine myself to be: impassioned when it comes to art, passive and awkward in just about everything else, especially when it comes to women. So you bet I was rooting for the guy to do what I often have trouble doing: just declaring his love for his old (and gorgeous-looking) high-school flame (Lynn Chen) already. As for the film itself, Surrogate Valentine has an amiably loose, ramshackle vibe that carries it past its messiness and lack of focus. And Nakamura's music is pretty good, especially the title song, which plays over the closing credits.

Another Earth (2011, Mike Cahill)
This might have been a truly great film if its main storyline—about a young woman (Brit Marling) trying to make amends with the father (William Mapother) of the mother and daughter she killed in a car accident when she was 18—didn't seem so old hat. Marling and Mapother both give intense, committed performances, but even their best efforts aren't quite enough to leaven the feeling that, emotionally speaking, we've been around this block before, if not in the context of a sci-fi movie about the discovery of a second Earth. Still, Cahill keeps the philosophical undertones of his premise hovering above the action just enough that the film is, I think, worth seeing anyway...especially to get to its final shot, which Cahill wisely cuts away from quickly enough so that one leaves the theater pondering its myriad implications. (This one is getting a theatrical release here in New York on July 20.)

A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes), screened on DVD at my apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.
When I heard that Peter Falk had died on Friday, I immediately remembered that the one DVD I currently had at home from Netflix was...John Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence! With Peter Falk! And yeah, Gena Rowlands, but...Peter Falk! Anyway, I actually hadn't seen this film before, so I decided to spend my Friday afternoon in its company...and yeah, it's an amazing work, no doubt about it. And Falk is terrific—playing a less showier role than Rowlands, but still coming up with a full portrait of a man who loves his emotionally unstable wife dearly, and finds her outbursts simultaneously appealing and appalling. He may also have a few screws of his own loose, as one trip to the beach unforgettably displays. "A rationalist torn with passion" is the way Richard Brody described his work in A Woman Under the Influence in his remembrance on Friday at his New Yorker blog, and as far as describing the character and Falk's performance of it, I couldn't have said it better myself.

Oh, and Falk was in one of my most cherished cinematic discoveries of last year, Elaine May's devastating Mikey and Nicky (1976), which I wrote about here. And, yes, my parents know him best as Columbo. RIP Peter Falk.

Just one more thing (not a question, as per Columbo, just a thing): As for Rowlands, now I see the template for the character she would later play in Cassavetes's valedictory Love Streams (1984): a woman who perhaps loves too much, and expresses that love in ways that the rest of "polite" society finds off-putting. If anything, she's under the influence of life rather than under that of drink or drugs or anything of the sort. One thing Cassavetes doesn't do is try to foreground medical explanations for her bipolar mood swings, which makes this film as abstract as it is painfully specific. If Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt had taken a similar approach for Next to Normal, maybe that much-praised musical might have been truly worth all the hype (I explained my misgivings about it last year at my blog here).

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Nicolas Roeg), screened at Film Forum in New York
Honestly? I was bored by this film as often as I was intrigued. A lot of interesting themes hover over this film, but to me none of them ever really cohered into an engaging whole. Maybe the film is supposed to feel as deadened as David Bowie's Thomas Jerome Newton gradually feels as he stays on Earth and loses sight of his mission back on his home planet. But that "it's not boring, it's about boredom" kind of argument could also be applied to just about any Antonioni film after L'Avventura (1960); Roeg seems to be paying some kind of desiccated spiritual tribute to the Italian master of ennui in The Man Who Fell to Earth. One can grasp the intentions behind it, but it doesn't make it any less tedious...or, at least, so it feels to me after a promising opening in which Roeg shows a talent for defamiliarizing familiar American locales to render them as alien to us as it surely does to Thomas. And let it not be said that the film doesn't lack in visual interest throughout. I'll probably revisit this somewhere down the road and see if it works better for me the second time around. For now: meh.


Joko from Village to Town (2000, Youssou N'Dour)
Nothing's in Vain (2002, Youssou N'Dour)
Egypt (2004, Youssou N'Dour)
Rokku Mi Rokka (2007, Youssou N'Dour)
Apparently sometime in the 2000s, Youssou N'Dour ditched the synthesizers that had been a part of his musical arsenal and decided to go the all-acoustic route. All to the good, I say. The most essential of these four, to my mind, is Egypt, in which the great Senegalese musician tries to mix melodies and rhythms from his home country with Egyptian orchestral sonorities—a cultural crossover as much as it is a musical one. The results, to my ears, sound fresh, intoxicating and sublime.

★ An Evening with Youssou N'Dour, seen at Terminal 5 in New York
And finally, the night came when I put all that Youssou N'Dour preparation to the test. What a show! It was about two hours in length, including an encore set that lasted even longer than the actual set! Speaking of which, Youssou performed one of his big hits, "Set," early on in the concert, turning it into an elaborate production number complete with dancers running across the stage and even jumping over each other. It was dazzling, but it turned out to be hardly a one-off; he tried to top it many times in the encore set with even more elaborate acrobatics during later numbers. Through it all, Youssou didn't seem to break a sweat vocally; in fact, I don't think he missed a note once during the whole concert. It was the kind of exhilarating performance that leaves you feeling high and ready for more.

P.S. Yes, this was where I was at when same-sex marriage was made legal in New York. It felt like a party at Terminal 5, anyway, so I think it sufficed as my way of marking the momentous occasion.

And now I'm ready to face this week!

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