Monday, September 20, 2010

AFF #1: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Wookie

My Atlantic Film Festival experience began on Friday with two very different ghost stories, one of them brilliant: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) is an enchanting, hypnotic, visionary film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul that, like all of Joe's movies, combines a feeling of mythic grandeur with an irreverent deadpan sense of humor. When Uncle Boonmee's son, Boonsong (who disappeared six years earlier), suddenly returns having been transformed during the interval into a monkey with red eyes that glow in the dark, the ghost of his mother asks him why he let his hair grow so long.

Notwithstanding the pre-credit sequence involving a cow (presumably meant to represent one of Boonmee's past lives), the film opens with Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), his sister-in-law, Auntie Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and his chef, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) traveling by car to Boonmee's country home, where he receives dialysis treatment from a Laotian man who's in the country illegally. (Boonmee believes that his kidney ails are divine retribution for killing too many communists during the '60s.) The film alternates between naturalistic daytime scenes and fantastical nighttime sequences in which Boonmee is visited by spirits, recalls his past life as a faded princess who meets a smooth talking catfish, and during a trek through a cave, describes a dream he had of the future, which is represented as a series of still images in an obvious homage to Chris Marker's La Jetée (1963). The latter scenes boast the most impressive night photography I've ever seen. The images are so dark that I seriously doubt the film will work on video; even more than a 3D spectacle like Avatar (2009), this is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen.

A large part of what makes the film so entrancing--like Joe's Blissfully Yours (2002) and Tropical Malady (2004), and his avant-garde short Phantoms of Nabua (2009)--is its dense ambient soundtrack (chirping bugs, a waterfall, a low Lynchian rumble). Even when the characters are indoors, the natural world never seems far away. This is the sort of movie that some people feel the need to interpret symbolically, and Boonmee's vision of the future (which Joe has said is based on an actual dream he had) is obviously an allegory for the cinema, but I have a deep-seated resistance to this way of accounting for works of art, which reduces them to the level of the daily crossword puzzle. I think the simplest, and best, way to approach the film is to take it completely at face value as a sensuous experience. And I much prefer the ending as an open-ended question than as a definitive answer.

El Amor Prohibido

Set in a Peruvian fishing village, Javier Fuentes-Léon's Undertow (2009) is a perfectly watchable if utterly unnecessary magic realist melodrama that won't change anybody's mind about gays being real men. And just as it never occurs to Jack and Ennis to rent a loft in the Village, this movie's repressed fisherman protagonist only comes out to the community after his painter amigo con beneficios accidentally drowns, and the fisherman reconciles with his pregnant wife. Fox and His Friends (1975) it ain't.

To paraphrase Mike D'Angelo, it's getting to the point where I hope that gays achieve equality, not out of any humanist outrage, but simply so that filmmakers will stop treating gay relationships as an "issue." Hell, even if gays never achieve equality, somebody's gotta put a stop to this shit. I wonder if Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) keeps getting its release pushed back, not for its intimations of gay sex (Ang Lee and James Schamus' Brokeback Mountain [2005] brought spit-lubed butt sex to the multiplex ages ago), but because it doesn't flatter viewers for their open-mindedness, and its Brechtian treatment of its protagonist (Jim Carrey, in his nerviest role to date) undermines easy identification with him at every turn.

Tati's Last Sigh

Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist (2010) is a relentlessly downbeat animated feature that's never less than pleasurable to look at and to listen to, but which ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth. The story--about a simple Scottish girl from the highlands who runs away to London with a French magician named Tatischeff--is based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati (né Tatischeff), but in contrast with the Utopian spirit of Playtime (1967), this film is closer philosophically to the glib miserablism of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), which perverts the ending of Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957) to make the useless point that life stinks and only Hollywood escapism makes it bearable.

Even at his most melancholy, as in Mon onlce (1958), which mourns the disappearance of Paris' historic working class neighborhoods (and the sense of community therein), and the rise of sterile gated communities, Tati is never depressing because the bulk of the film is devoted to showing us what we're losing, how great life can be, and how much fun you can still have, even in the suburbs--provided, of course, that M. Hulot is around to keep things lively. When this film opens, in 1959, Tatischeff is playing to a deserted auditorium with an uncooperative rabbit. Only the Scottish girl believes in Tatischeff's magic, and to keep her illusions alive, he takes a number of demeaning jobs, first at a garage and then in the display window of a department store. There are some good laughs, thanks mostly to Chomet's taste for caricature (I especially enjoyed the effeminate British rock band), but the film is essentially a dirge, a long uninterrupted sigh of resignation. Whether this is due to Tati's original conception, or to the changes Chomet has made to it, is not something I can say, but the film is the same either way: a bummer.

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