This session is an extension of the synopsis of text. As I "read" more films, I found they influence my making as much, if not more, as the texts do. I am not writing these as formal film/exhibition/performance reviews -- am simply picking points of interest to my own advantage. (Perhaps that's why I treat them as annotations rather than synopsis.)
- 1 IDFA 2019
- 2 Light of My Life (2hr feature)
- 3 Andrei Tarchovsky
- 3.1 Stalker (3hr film in two parts), 1979
- 3.2 The Mirror (2.5hr film), 1975
- 3.3 Solaris (3hr film in two parts), 1972
- 3.4 Exhibition at the EYE
- 4 Tigers Are Not Afraid (feature fiction film)
- 5 Salt (one-woman play)
- 6 I Can Make You Feel Good, photographer and filmmaker Tyler Mitchell’s (Exhibition at FOAM. 1995, US)
- 7 Three Identical Strangers (feature documentary)
- 8 Minding the Gap (feature documentary)
- 9 I Am He As You Are He As You Are Me and We Are All Together: Shuffled Subjectivities In and Out of the Frame by Yuki Okumura (lecture performance)
- 10 IFFR 2019
No Crying at the Dinner Table
An intimate portrait of a Canadian-Vietnamese family that finally opens up to talking about feelings. The film starts with a shot where the director (Carol, one of the daughters) plays back the interviews she had done with her family members.
CUT TO an answer from her mother: I remember kissing my mom once.
Subsequent shots are moments of portraiture — very composed. (eg. Mom cutting a fish, fish on cutting board, mom closing her eyes in front of the window.) In the director's own words, they are fictional, but sometimes that brings out the truth.
The language of the images: frontal portraits -- closeups and extreme closeups -- personal (e.g. the sister takes a bath, closeups of her tattoo)
Final scene — same position as the beginning shot (probably separated by edits). Family has a moment of catharsis, mother hugs sister. Dad holds in his emotions.
The director is 21 years old and has made a name for herself in the industry already. I spoke with her and asked her how she scripted/shot the scenes.
- 6-person crew (director, DP, cameraman, recordist, PA and another person whose role I don't remember - someone who make sure everything is running and nothing is broken)
- interview first - then script with scenarios
- for the dinner table scene only cameraman and director were present (to preserve the intimacy of the family, the fact that the cameraman did not speak Vietnamese also helped)
Family story intertwined with the Iranian politics. Brother's imprisonment became the start of the story. Portrait of different family members follow the narrative of the brother's political activities.
What moves me so much was this:
The director thanked IDFA for giving him a safe platform. His film was not allowed to enter festivals in Iran. "Hope nothing happens to me," he joked about his prospects when returning Iran.
Following a German girl who's mostly blind. Scenarios featuring her:
- learning about a sculpture in an art museum
- talking in the dark (darkness gives her comfort)
- swimming (both as a portrait - dark water - and with friends - social)
- exploring in the forest
Essay film with voiceover
- Archive footage over an essay on the director's mother's death from cancer
- shots with performers
- medical imageries from hospitals and morgues
La Cordillera de los sueños
Essay film with voiceover and interviews
Melancholic, interview-heavy, metaphors are provocative but the feelings remain esoteric rather than shared (with a broader audience). Historical footage from filmmakers who shot during the Coup d'etat. I don't know how it touched other people, but if I were not trying to be politically correct, I would say "they are just like war footage". Violence, oppression, rubbles.
The scene that moved me a little:
- the director's childhood home. He flew a drone over it and showed the ruin behind the walls. He wrote that in the essay in a direct way.
Light of My Life (2hr feature)
Casey Affleck, 2019
It's medium-closeup shot from above. A dad and a child face each other in a tent. The dad starts telling a story that spins off Noah's Ark. He's not the most coherent storyteller, but he tries his best. The child asks observant questions, points out the flaws in the story, listens nonetheless. "Please do not make the story about me," says the child. Towards the end of the story the child asks, "am I the only one of my species," revealing that she is a female. Apparently something has happened to the female population for that comment.
The scene is a slow-paced, still, subtle. It sets the pace of the film. (Interestingly one American critic points out scenes of the same nature in the film and called them "patience-testing.") A few cuts to closeups of individual profiles/portraits. There is an over-the-shoulder shot of the dad's hand comforting the daughter. It reveals the characters through idiosyncrasy in their dialogue. The love and care the dad has for the daughter is palpable.
One of the following scenes
Wide shot. Dad and daughter (Rag) walk among tall, moss-covered trees. The forest surrounds them. Daughter asks dad "what's the difference between ethics and morality?" Dad, without thinking for long, answers that ethics is the system of right and wrong and morality applies to each instance.
This exchange deepens the tone of the film. As an audience, I know this film will not be afraid of talking about abstract, hard-to-pin-down things. Dad — in his rambling yet truthful telling — articulates love, death and indeed, the morality of man.
The dialogues are specific and full of intention.
Dad and daughter discusses the amount of "love" they have for each other.
Dad: You know how much I love you? Rag: To the sun and back. Dad: To the sun and back 30,000 times. It's not even our sun it's a sun of a distant galaxy we're taking a very slow spaceship we'll take some very very long time there's a lot of headwind... It's quite a trip. (beat) How much do you love me? Rag: Like, to the top of a tree... Dad: what Rag (laughs) Dad: What? Rag: And. And back down
sequence after an escape
In the follow sequences, dad assures daughter about his presence. The impossibility of death — he loves her so.
CLOSEUP - both on the floor of a church (similar shot as in the tent)
(Rag: What if someone kill you?) Dad: I am not gonna die. Nobody's gonna kill me. I'm not gonna leave you.
CUT TO CLOSEUP - dad talking to Rag
Dad: Even if someone... tied me up and stabbed me and knocked me down and put me on a block of ice and dropped me in the bottom of the ocean...I want to get out want to come find you. And we just keep on like we always do and if that sounds impossible to you, sorry, but it's true.
CUT TO CLOSEUP - profile portrait of Rag
Rag: Well we only have one sleeping bag and one emergency bag. Dad: Okay. You are worried about the things we left behind, right? And you are worried about those men. You don't have to worry about those men. They are long gone. And I don't want you to think about the stuff we left behind I want you to think about the stuff that we have and that we can be better prepared for the future. Okay? Rag:...K.
[here dad shines a headlamp, reaches his hand and touches Rag's head, Rag turns to the other side to sleep]
CUT TO - WIDE both walking in the field
CUT TO - WIDE both walking in an desolate urban space
CUT TO - MEDIUM WIDE both standing under a roof, it's raining
CUT TO - MEDIUM Rag is centered, dad is on the edge of the screen. Rag is staring off to the floor. They are talking but not looking at each other.
Dad: Rag. Rag: What? Dad: We've got a lot of walking to do. Rag: Where are we going? Dad: You remember my grandmother's house where I lived when I was young? Rag: No? Dad: That's where we're gonna go. It's up in the mountains. They've got animals there. They've got sleds. They [inaudible - "ve got a lake, it's really beautiful"] It's really far away from everyone so I think it's gonna be really — it's gonna be a really nice place. Rag: How long will it take? Dad: It'll be a lot of walking. Rag: How many days — Dad: I don't know how many days. Rag: Well what do you think? Dad: I think it will be a lot of days but we're gonna get there before it's too too cold so if we can find some other faster way of walking we'll take that. Rag: Why didn't we go before? (beat) Dad: Because we didn't want to travel that far because we didn't want to be away from all the places that we knew that were safe where we can get things, but we are done with this area now, so we are gonna move on. Rag: 'Cause of me. Dad: What? Rag: Never mind.
CUT TO - WIDE train moving on tracks
CUT TO - CLOSEUP dad looks at a map with a flashlight
CUT TO - WIDE road, one car approaching, dad's silhouette runs towards a car. It's winter and things are covered in snow.
Visual language of this intense and tender bond
- Closeup of dad and daughter face each other — the space between them is where the camera centers on
- Closeup of frontal/profile portrait of daughter (eg. dad's hand touches the daughter's head, rest of dad is off-screen)
- Closeup angle of dad looking at daughter (audience is on the daughter's side looking at dad)
- Closeup angle of behind dad looking at daughter (audience is on the dad's side looking at daughter)
The overarching objectives of the characters are crystal clear:
- The father wants to protect his daughter.
- The daughter wants to be free (as a person).
- The archetypical man wants females for sexual slavery (and worse) — this implication makes the whole film very disturbing, but at the same time, dangerously close to reality. All the information one has ever received about abuse, sex trafficking, etc. seem to amplify in the speculative fiction.
Stalker (3hr film in two parts), 1979
the conflation of dialogue, monologue and thought
With long essay-like speech, characters become archetypes and muses-wanna-be. Tarchovsky does not shy away from it — indeed the characters are "writer", "professor" and "stalker" and they do not address each other by name.
However, depriving a character of personality forcefully demands attention from the audience. The audience has to think about what is said in each single sentence. Poetry works with dreams and only sparingly in reality. This kind of expositional talk introduces agony.
In comparison, Tarchovsky's images are much more intriguing — dense textures, thoughtful movements, deliberate portraits. The logic of his image is way clearer and more poetic than the logic of the characters.
There is, however, one moving moment that includes speech. How is it different?
There is conflict. There are (relatable) emotions. There is a moment of true reveal. Here, rather than speaking from another world, the characters speak from their body.
The camera pans over the surface of water — the carrier of motifs and objects, submerged, half-legible. The image is memory, belief, coldness, distance, loss, the force of nature, the dimming of life.
The poetry itself stops mattering — one pays attention to the whisper, tone and bitter laugh rather than the words themselves.
Real time becomes space for contemplation
The Mirror (2.5hr film), 1975
Lack of narrative is torture
Watching The Mirror was quite a torture. There is no definitive narrative — or rather, the narrative is very loose, drawn-out, left for the audience to decipher. In the space of not knowing what things mean, I am left to question if anything means anything. I feel far from whatever is behind the image, even though they are composed with care. I am burdened by the metaphors.
The mother crying is very disturbing... With no causality it does not feel sad (or whatever emotion it tries to convey), but a constant state of annoyance. (I do not want to judge depression, but with no way of getting to the root of any emotion, the enigmas only push my curiosity away.)
The internal logic of images
I do like a few sequences. When I look at the images as they are, they become whole on them own. No narrative needed. Perhaps that's what the director wants me to do.
In these three long takes:
The camera seems like an ambivalent observer. The camera reveals things as are (but of course everything is staged and timed to be perfect to re-enact the moment). The camera gives a piece of what happens, lingers, does not linger, does not judge.
In the following sequence, hands appear out of nowhere. The image is the mother is not the mother herself. Everything becomes dream-like, yet with texture and weight. The boy holding a jar of milk, absolutely stunning in the surrounding darkness, is the most memorable image I took from the film.
Solaris (3hr film in two parts), 1972
Beginning sequence (almost 4 minutes of quietness with sparse environmental sounds)
- The film begins with water. Green hue. A pond. A leaf passes. The camera follows.
- Cut to: another type of underwater floral, camera moves to center on a man, close-up, who looks off to somewhere our of the frame, holding a metal box
- Cut to: soft, belt-like grasses underwater, camera zooms in.
- Cut to: plants, the camera moves to the man again, who walks out of the frame in search of something.
- Cut to: tree, camera moves to reveal the same man in a distance, again walking out of the screen.
- Cut to: man passes the pond, out of the screen, camera moves to reveal the house.
- Cut to: man walks into the frame to the pond
- Cut to: a horse gallops in the woods, camera follows it
- Cut to: man walks along side the pond, puts down the metal box, washes his hands
- Cut to: close up of the ripples of water, camera moves to reveal his hands in a medium shot and stops as the man look up
Cloud sequence & family footage
The cloud sequence is part of Burton's report of his trip. The clouds are supposed to be footage on a screen (the meeting TV device:A) inside a screen (the house TV device:B) inside a screen (the film itself:C). The audience sees the footage directly on C — I see this as an intellectual exercise of collapsing the recorded image (but then, it seems to only intellectual). There is no sound of the cloud footage.
The family footage is what Chris shows Hari the Visitor. Again, the collapsing of screen happens.
The film was "arduous" as come critics note. Even in the opening scene this is exemplified. 1 + 3 try to emphasize 2. 5,6,7 can be combined in one take. Same with 9 and 10. (Each individual cut has great aesthetics but the duplication introduces too many gaps.) These gaps are present in: Burton's retelling of his story through the TV-like screen; intercuts of close-ups of the committee members, Burton, and the family in the house are well framed, but seem repetitive for the narrative. Burton's call on the drive lasted another 4 minutes, with most of the shot as a record of highway driving. The highway is metaphoric of a near-future backdrop (shot in Japan), but tests the audience's endurance in the dark theater.
All characters speak in an enigmatic manner (from the father, to Chris himself, to the other two scientists on the station). The layers of cosmic sci-fi, withholding information and stoicism make the narrative opaque for a long time. I feel alienated from the story for most of Part I.
Part II becomes easier to understand.
Great cinematography, drawn-out narrative, opaque dialogue, water as symbol — at times too on the nose, such as in the final sequence.
Exhibition at the EYE
Tigers Are Not Afraid (feature fiction film)
Sat in the wrong theater and saw this by accident. Fantasy horror - still can't stomach gruesome images of ghosts and bodies, but what makes it better than other horror film is that all seems to be a child's dream, and in this case, nightmare.
- Morro (5/6 years old) getting shot led to immediate tears: Morro looked down at the wound, hand covered in his own blood, silent - shocked - confused
- depiction of an odd and desolated environment (plastic dolls with two heads)
- abandoned theater filled with juxtapositions: hall with broken fish tank and a puddle of fish (Estrella and Shine sits across the puddle), kids playing with the balls they find, talent show where 'rappop' beatboxes
- kid gang setting the piano on fire; the conversation darkens as the piano burns down
CLOSEUP: Shine finishes painting, touches the painted hand, CUT TO wider shot of the graffiti of the three kids saying goodbye to Morrito
Handheld cinematography is a deliberate choice. In a story filled with fantasy and drama, the slightly shaky camera brings the viewers back to reality: the feeling that "this happened" and "this exists."
Salt (one-woman play)
written by Salina Thompson
Royal Court Theatre June 2019
I saw this play on the trip to London for MIASMA. Seeing a play was exciting and comforting, like visiting a friend who I had not spoken to for a while.
We waited outside of the space. A line was forming. Fifteen minutes, ten minutes, five. They finally opened the door. The man who were the head of the line reasoned, "it's just one actors. They probably don't want too many audience in there early. It would be overwhelming."
At center stage: a plump, black woman in a white dress. In front of her: a table with a large block of salt, a large mortar and pestle, incense burning. Above her: soft, white neon of a triangle.
Bench seating. The first two rows were equipped with safety goggles. I picked a seat on the second row.
Play began. The actor gave instruction: during the play I will be using a sledgehammer. Please have the goggles on when I have them on.
Then she said, as the first lines:
I am black. I am twnety-eight.
Anger. Frustration. Sadness. Tire.
She hit the salt as she recounted stories, some from her grandmother and parents, but mostly from herself, about slavery, colonial past, loss of identity, institutional racism. I don't remember when I started crying, but I cried throughout the play. I related to her anger, frustration, sadness, tire. The notion of being somewhere yet not belonging. This diaspora (although different in our respective context). This loss of home, being privileged yet forever burdened by the past, this alternating reality of emptiness (deprived of identity, or inability to trace something and make it coherent) and lack of or mis- understanding from others.
As she laid parts of the salt down she visualized institutional racism. And she repeated
INSERT FROM SCRIPT
I was wearing my goggles. And my tears were filling them up.
Perhaps that's how affect worked. Extreme vulnerability, extreme pain, and extreme empathy.
However, I do wonder what the white, especially male and white audience thought of it.
I Can Make You Feel Good, photographer and filmmaker Tyler Mitchell’s (Exhibition at FOAM. 1995, US)
I went to FOAM on May 24, 2019. There were a few exhibitions. One of the pieces caught my eye. It is as if the captive moment is extended. Images are repeated, but each time slightly different, just like memories are slightly different (not that precise/alters with time). I lied there for a good five minutes. The position reminds me of the actual staring at the sky (which appears in the image from time to time, deliberately framed).
Four large bean bags on the ground.
One high-definition projection mounted to the ceiling.
The visitors lie down and watch slow motion scenes of:
- teenage boy on the swing (large aperture, point of focus is his face, before/after out of focus)
- teenage boy jumping rope
- teenage boy hula-hoopiing
- teenage boys playing
- teenage boys swimming (shot from under the swimming bodies)
- teenage boy eating ice cream (shot from under as the melting ice cream drips to the glass (seems to be above the lens))
Most of the scenes are shot from a few different angles. For example the hula-hoop scene. In the frame there is a large swath of sky. Camera tilted up to focus on close-ups of the upper body and the hoop. In a different frame it features two boys. Mid-range shot.
One of the most memorable scene was two teenagers skate in tandem. The camera (pointing up) captures two teenagers holding both hands, moving in and out of the frame. CUT TO: the camera (shooting from side) captures two slopes in the skate park (left third of the frame) and the teenagers skate in and out of the rest of the frame.
My least favorite scenes are about eating ice cream. A teenage boy looks at the camera (pointing up) and eats a melting ice cream which drips on the glass. The scenes are done with one pink and one brown ice cream.
The only times the characters look at the cameras are when they are on the swing and when they eat the ice cream. Both take the viewer out of the work.
Simple ambient music composition.
Three Identical Strangers (feature documentary)
Director: Tim Wardle, 2019
Shot: Interviewee comes in to the center of frame against a dark green backdrop. Starts his story. Animated.
Shot: 1970's. Outside of a house in Upstate NY. Young person loads an old car.
The first half of the documentary is composed of direct interview of the subject (e.g. David), re-enacted scenarios (per accounts from the subject), and interview of the participant of the event (e.g. newspaper editor). It's shot and edited in a conventional documentary. For example, other than the protagonists, the other interviews are off-center with a shallow depth of field. As the interviews continue, clippings from yellowed newspaper (enlarged to a degree where the half-tone pattern of the paper is visible) and old footage of television shows (again, enlarged to show the low-res look from the 90's) appear as evidence. It feels very much like a feel-good story of re-union, told via the subjects themselves, friends, relatives, newspaper editor. The overall feeling is cheesy entertainment.
The story changes rather unnoticed when the interviews with the journalist starts. It introduces the supposed evil (the experiment). The film goes on with the tone of uncovering conspiracy. As the conspiracy (and the effects) grow darker, the so-called plot thickens. The visual language remains the same. The characters (old + new ones such as the old assistant of the scientist) start to give different "sides" of the extended story. At some point the two protagonists start to recall the death -- which seems to be the central turning point, the big reveal of the absence of the third brother. The director probably ask him to recall everything in the fashion of plainly explaining.
After that the documentary continues in present tense. E.g. one brother phones the organization about the record.
A few things irk me. The director withholds information from the audience blatantly. You get the "murder mystery," but half way through you know that everyone in the film already knows the story and it's been revealed to you because sorry, you are on the other side of the screen. "I can easily see it on Netflix", a friend said after watching the movie. It is a telling: there is a hook in every step... The story becomes about plot, which makes it somewhat cheaper.
Then when you think back about the cheeriness of the first half you feel betrayed rather than being there with the protagonists. There are still moving moments, but in a way the story is exploited to give shock and ask for sympathy.
Compared to Minding the Gap (the film I write about below), the director treats the audience as entertainment seekers, a bit brainless maybe, rather than equals. This is a good pair to compare how a film withholds and its effect on the viewer.
Minding the Gap (feature documentary)
Director: Bing Liu, 2019
The films starts as a skater movie, portraying young people in a skate park and friends having a good time. The characters emerge quickly: Zack, Keire and Bing (the filmmaker). Secondary characters: Nina, Keire's family...
The first half of the film feels somewhat conventional: footage from the past with voiceover talking about teen years, interviews with a documentary look. But even in the beginning something is different from a "proper", educational documentary. When Bing interviews the skate shop owner, he asks to talk about his impression of Bing as a teenager. (The filmmaker paints a self-portrait without painting it himself.) As he walks through his old house, his half-brother says "this is my brother's room," to which Bing responds off-frame, "you can refer to me."
This director's ease (or choice to be perceived this way) of being in and out of the frame (from different angles, mostly virtually) is unique. Bing's presence in the film is self-aware, both as a character and a mediating voice. What strikes me the most is his ability to hold his discovery (about Zack and Nina'a argument) and the choice he makes to continue observing. In a car, he directly and respectfully asks Nina (in the driving seat) how he should approach the subject (Zack is out buying food). Nina tells him to not to just as Zack opens the car door. This scene, as I recall it now, is filled with weighted decisions.
Bing develops the weight through further conversations with Keire — who apparently does not know about the incident. Throughout film he never reveals to Zack (or any of the main characters) what he knows. When he asks Keire to speculate, he asks in a non-judgemental way. In doing this, the audience and the director are withholding what they know together and waiting to find out about what the other person has to say.
Bing never confronts Zack directly. When he films Zack in Colorado, Zack jokingly asks him "is it one of those films where I talk to you or one of those where I pretend you are not there?" Bing answers, "it's up to you, how you feel." The trust involved in this film is incredible. Without this trust Zack would not have been able to talk about his desperation towards the end of the film, and we would have never got to know him as a full human being. It feels as if that Bing knows Zack more than what he does, and however disagreeing his acts were, he sees him as a whole person. And in developing the narrative around Zack, he lets the audience go through the same depth of understanding.
The revealing v. not revealing is also quite unique. Other than the knowledge about Zack, Bing tells Keire later on about why he is making this movie. "I am making it because I see myself in you." This surprises Keire, "wow, I never knew." The trust is also apparent when Bing captures Keire's visit to his dad (in which Keire cries).
The deliberate framing the talk between Bing and his mother is interesting, but perhaps not the most affective scene... Somehow all the other emotions ring true, but this one feels — because it is framed, almost in a performative situation, with the mother in front of the light and the filmmaker/son on the second camera from the side — wrapped up on a pedestal. The conversation is heart-wrenching. Bing remains stoic until he says, "I cut."
I Am He As You Are He As You Are Me and We Are All Together: Shuffled Subjectivities In and Out of the Frame by Yuki Okumura (lecture performance)
19.30, Apr 14, Nederlandse Filmacademie. 'Japanese artist Yuki Okumura will discuss how he has positioned himself in the process of his film making, and how he has staged lectures and interviews with simple yet particularly interventional instructions and employed them as materials for his projects tackling the notion of individuality that is defined by language and based on our physicality, where film’s very nature of framing time and space plays a key role.'
In his works he uses the process of translation as a mechanism to visualize authorship, (auto)biography and subjectivity. In one video ('Jun Yang: A Short Lecture on Forgetting and Remembering, 2011'), he films a translator (who spoke on behalf of the artist, Jun Yang, giving a lecture). Without context, the interpreter in the video becomes the artist as she speaks with the subjective "I".  In another project ('Hisachika Takahashi by Yuki Okumura, 2016 (curated by Reiko Setsuda)'), he creates an exhibition with the prints made by Hisachika Takahashi (which is reflected in the title of the exhibition). A related video features him being interviewed as Hisachika Takahashi (Okumura had memorized Takahashi's biography for this interview).
I wrote down a lot of points during IFFR 2019. Jujube/2019-iffr-log
Seems fitting to cross reference here.