Remember when Jenn and Tilda came to my neighborhood? That was awesome. It's the
2009 CINEMA ARTS FESTIVAL HOUSTON
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
seen prior to the festival
Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico, 2000) 
Teknolust (Lynn Hershman Leeson, U.S. / Germany / U.K., 2002) [W/O]
For a long time, Leeson has been one of those deeply academic, theoretically-informed filmmakers whose work made me feel genuinely guilty. Up until her creative breakthrough with 2007's Strange Culture, her work mostly struck me like the kind of films I should appreciate much more than I did. Leeson and I are certainly sympatico in terms of our interests and commitments, although she is more invested in the aesthetics of science than I am. Based on substantial segments of both Conceiving Ada and Teknolust, I find Leeson's early style rather clunky, a mode of demonstrating propositions instead of delving into the ambiguities of the aesthetic. Teknolust is clever, with Tilda Swinton playing "biogeneticist Rosetta Stone" and her three color-coded automaton clones, Ruby, Marine, and Olive. Each must go out into San Francisco and seduce men in order to collect and absorb their semen so as not to fade into biological nonbeing. Leeson applies a brash scheme of saturated colors, and the men get UPC-coded sores from the techno-STD the clones transmit. But from scene to scene and even line by line, Teknolust is plodding and thin, reliant on "tableaux" to disguise the fact that Leeson isn't all that adept at orchestrating graceful strands of cinematic time. I bailed on Teknolust after about 45 minutes. Your mileage may vary.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, U.S. / France, 2005) 
Jan 06. Review here.
The Time We Killed (Jennifer Todd Reeves, 2004) 
Discussed in Cinema Scope 37 here.
When It Was Blue (Jennifer Todd Reeves, U.S. / Iceland) [m] 
TIFF 08. Review here.
The Windmill Movie (Alexander Olch) 
May 09. Review here.
The Yes Men Fix the World (Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno and Kurt Engfehr, France / U.S.) 
A sort of homemade sequel / statement of purpose that expands on Chris Smith's Yes Men doc of a few years' back, the Men themselves (plus co-director Engfehr) display the progress of several of their anti-neoliberal capitalist media pranks from conception to execution. Fix the World offers a slightly closer look at Bichlbaum and Bonanno in action than that provided by YM1, but it also proves to be slightly more self-serving, falling into the trap of lefty cine-demagogery so familiar from Michael Moore and, more recently, Bill Maher. There is a sort of Penn & Teller Get Killedesque "frame story" in which Mike and Andy hold down a live-work in a bombed-out pile of rubble. "How can we change the world?" they faux-wonder. But as we observe the planning of actions like the Dow Chemical / BBC hoax (in which Bichlbaum poses as a Dow rep, assuming all financial liability for past, present and future deaths and illnesses linked to the Bhopal disaster perpetrated by recent Dow acquisition Union Carbide), we spend too much time watching Andy fidget nervously, when a broader context could be provided by a less star-driven documentary approach. Likewise, following the hoax, when Yes Men critics (right and left) question whether the people of Bhopal might've been unfairly manipulated by this false promise of reparations, we see the Yessies speaking with a couple of Indian activists who insist that the hoax was worth it, that embarrassing Dow was more important than the possible dashed hopes of any affected individuals. And in prank after prank, the Yes Men give us the same convenient assurance. No one personally embroiled in a large-scale social injustice is selfish enough not to keep his or her eyes on the macrosociological level, where the Yes Men's activist antics are squarely aimed. High-fives and backslaps! Everyone loves the Yes Men. And, by the end of the film, Mike and Andy have pretty firmly established their hijinx as, if not the way to "fix the world," certainly a necessary component in any collective effort toward that end. Usually one has to talk to someone in P.R. to find that kind of confidence.
previewed prior to the festival
Sacred Places (Jean-Marie Teno, Cameroon / France) 
Without a doubt the most accomplished of the three Teno documentaries I've seen, Sacred Places is also his most easygoing, a fact that must be related to the newfound confidence in form. Unlike Africa, I Will Fleece You and the more recent The Colonial Misunderstanding, Sacred Places finds Teno performing a highly circumscribed and quite idiosyncratic examination of time and place, one that his personal meaning to him and whose occupant-subjects are individuals to whom he can instantly relate. Within the relatively small low-income village of St-Leon, in the center of Ouagadougou, Teno examines the role of cinema, and contemporary African culture more generally. The documentary poses these questions within this bounded zone where tradition and modernity clash precisely because, as Teno makes clear, the area is a lone holdout against massive gentrification and Western-driven investment projects such as luxury hotels. While Sacred Places takes in a wide swath of local color and takes time to hear from many men and women in the unpaved street, Teno settles on three primary subjects: Boubacar "Bouba" Nanema, the proprietor of "Votre Cine Club," a makeshift film venue showing various DVDs and VCDs (action movies, Bollywood, the occasional African film) acquired through bazaars or more gray-market channels; Jules-Cesar Bamouni, a master craftsman and performer of the djembé, who explicitly parallels music's social role in Africa with that of film; and "Abbo," a former engineer who has become a writer of public letters and quotations on the wall in the village square, a street philosopher in the mold of Jenny Holzer or, perhaps better, Jean-Michel Basquiat's early alter-ego, SAMO the graffiti tagger.
What Teno finds is a disconnect between his own position as an African filmmaker traveling the international fest circuit and the fans who pay ten cents a picture to watch VCD dubs of Jackie Chan vehicles or (oh, woe be to them!) Edison Force. There is a dedication to keeping culture alive and transmitting it through modest means -- writing on the wall, making your own drum, etc. -- that Teno isn't sure whether he himself is any longer a part of. Sacred Places is at its best when Teno juggles these men's stories and allows them to serve as essayistic jumping-off points, a la Chris Marker, or when the implicit comparisons between them allow the dialectic of African global media to jostle on its own terms, not unlike Errol Morris's mad men in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. But too often Teno doesn't know the most revealing way to handle his material. It's not just that his absolute limitation to the St-Leon area prevents his drawing larger conclusions, although ultimately it does. It's that Teno's idea of compelling cinema often goes awry, as it did in The Colonial Misunderstanding. He will tell us that the great Burkinabé director Idrissa Ouedraogo dropped in on Bouba's Cine Club for a discussion after a pirate screening of his film Yaaba. We then cut to an interview with Ouedraogo. Why not show us the Q&A? But Teno's worst instincts show through in his use of music. He scores him film as though he's making a feature, and a really chintzy one at that, with roiling minor keys signifying trouble, and jaunty tones accompanying moments that I suppose are meant to be lighthearted but are really just neutral. These technical blunders are sufficiently distracting that they prompted me to dock Sacred Places a whole integer, but perhaps others will be more forgiving. Nevertheless,in the last analysis, Sacred Places
is a love letter to cinephilia that actually blossoms into something far more expansive and even philosophical, and as such is a substantial achievement.
Derek (Isaac Julien, U.K. / U.S.) 
Early promotion on this one is a bit misleading, since the makers certainly don't go to any lengths to disabuse potential avant-garde fans of the notion that Derek will in fact be a non-narrative poetic reverie on the life of the late British filmmaker and "queer cinema" pioneer Derek Jarman by his friend and protégé Tilda Swinton. In fact there's just a small and rather inconsequential smattering of that -- Swinton and Julien's rather unfocused attempts to approximate Jarman's tone-poem mode as seen in such works as The Last of England and The Angelic Conversation -- serving as the connective tissue for long passages of a career-spanning, film-by-film interview. (For some reason, Jarman touches on all his features except Wittgenstein and War Requiem, two of his most interesting.) Anyway, it is all reasonably interesting but regrettably vanilla and televisual when all is said and done; Julien was much more experimental even in his Frantz Fanon film, which at times adopted the stiffness of an Oliveira film in order to subvert biopic convention. Here, we get shots of Swinton or Julien traipsing down the drawer-lined aisles of the Jarman archive, or looking at the colorful garden on his estate, amidst clips from Caravaggio and Edward II. All in all, a frustratingly tame coffee-table-book of a film.
Picasso and Braque Go To the Movies (Arne Glimcher) [v/m] 
Apart from declaring it "good" and noting that it's an exceptional teaching tool, I find it kind of difficult to evaluate Picasso and Braque Go To the Movies. Conventional yet somehow awkward, the film functions as an engaging and flawlessly illustrated video-lecture on a valid and compelling topic in art history -- specifically, the role that cinema's invention played in reshaping consciousness and helping set the stage for the Cubists' revolution in form. A phalanx of well-informed and quite compelling experts and commentators (Martin Scorsese, Tom Gunning, Coosje Van Bruggen, Eric Fischl, Julien Schnabel) weigh in on the subject, as we examine clips from early cinema classics with an eye to their radical play with space. The cinematograph flattened three-dimensional spaces, articulated planes, and described motion within a bounded frame, all key elements within the conceptual arsenal of the analytical phase of Cubism as developed by P&B. And, as you might expect, this explication of affinities was nestled within the overall "modernity thesis," that cinema, railway travel, new optical tools, distance-canceling technologies, etc., all colluded to radically shift the turn-of-the-century subject's sense of her/his place in the world. Okay. Yes. Absolutely. But, while impeccably researched and never illustrated by less than the ideal canvases necessary to make whatever point is on the table, Glimcher's film is itself unnervingly flat, almost sub-cinema in its derivation from rhetoric rather than motion or internal formal necessity. It's, for lack of better language, "museum-loopy," the sort of illustrative video-text that should screen once a day in a nook of an exhibition, with a bench thrown in front of it. And that's not bad. It just isn't "film," or "art," or even "documentary."
VIEWS FROM THE HBOX: If there's one thing I should've learned by now, it's not to wait until the last minute (or the last day), since something always manages to come up at the most inopportune time. The HBOX, a portable video gallery designed by Didier Fiuza Faustino and commissioned (as were the works inside it) by Hermès, pulled into town weeks ahead of the festival, a mere five minutes from my home. The fact that I tried (and failed) to cram all the 90 minutes of viewing into one cramped afternoon speaks to my lameness, but also to what a bitch Oct/Nov has been all around. Saddest part is, it looks as though I saw some of the worst pieces in the line-up, and missed some of the most interesting ones (by Matthew Buckingham, Dora Garcia, and Sebastian Diaz-Morales).
Open Score (Su-Mei Tse, Luxembourg) [v/s] 
The video's title is a kind of double-pun, since the main action (processed though it is) takes place in the empty white cube ("open") of a handball court ("score"), the female figure generating motions hinged between sport and slightly abstracted dance. The beginning to the work focuses on her midriff and waist in highly ambiguous close-up, the result being that her tennis skirt becomes a swishy, undulating form given to the grunts and thrusts of athletic exertion. Tse's post-production work smears the red, adding a slightly painterly but visually unexceptional fillip to the truncated body. Then, we see the woman's figure in full as she moves against an imaginary ball or other physical force. Perhaps in response to her movements (although compositionally, this remains unclear), Tse overlays colors lines around certain edges of the court space. First red stripes, then aquamarine; soon a drone soundtrack lends atmosphere of sorts to the space in transition. Basically Tse's interventions describe and define the cube in which the athlete maneuvers her body, perhaps alluding in some way to the typical gallery space and certain conceptualist interventions that have historically been brought to bear upon similarly spartan environments. But Open Score, for the musical promise of its title, gives both performer and viewer / auditor very little to go on.
Citizen: The Wolf and Nanny (Cliff Evans) [v/s] 
Program notes indicate that Evans's intention was to glean a wide array of images from cyberspace and create a suitably psychotic (my word, not his) singular environment from the incompatible elements. What at first starts out like a glib "Sims"-esque game, with a naked nuclear family popping out from a geometrically hilly, vaguely Irish landscape, soon morphs into a compelling but muddled zone of discontinuous signifiers, arranged so as to form an occasionally viable 3D space but more often collapsing into a stuck-on, Colorforms nightmare. Think of it as Bad Lewis Klahr, a sort of randomizer with no taste or intuition spewing forth a "world" from garbled Baudrillardian image-fluff, all with the keen sheen of CGI and digital processing. What is actually fascinating about Citizen is Evans's consistent, rapid-fire destabilization of video space. He will generate an open area, with (for example) pillars or facades implying a portico or an arcade, and then suddenly, either via an artificial "pull-back" or an outright image-thrust from the bottom of the frame, Evans will close those spaces off decisively, with gates, walls, buildings, and other symbols accreting around them. As plant life commingles with flying robots, the Honeywell and BP logos dance alongside Tibetan mandalas, it's clear we're getting an undifferentiated mishmash of civilization across the ages, a kind of Worst Case Scenario for globalization as we know it. If anything, Citizen is a touch too glib about all this, since it would be easy to see this human stew as an aliens' view of humankind. And, since the piece comes back to the rolling hills and naked family at the end -- a pure loop -- Evans doesn't trouble himself with statements, answers, or even a trajectory. Video artists have it so easy sometimes.
Mary-Koszmary (Yael Bartana, Israel) 
"Warsaw, 2007," reads the title card. A young bespectacled announced addresses the assembled at a football stadium. He is pleasing with the three million Jews "missing from Poland" to return, to "change the lives" of 40 million Poles. As his discourse becomes more impassioned, and somewhat less plausible, he begs the Jews to "cease being the chosen people," and to return to become Europeans, and to revitalize Europe. "Jews" and "Poles" are chalked out on the field like lines of scrimmage. The speaker beseeches the Jews to come back, to save the post-Communist East from the dual ills of mercenary free-market capitalism and chauvinist nationalism. In short, the Poles are begging their Other to come back, like an abusive spouse sweet-talking a wronged lover. Come back, I'll change. It's clever, and entertaining, and its larger allegorical meanings from an Israeli artist are, um, rather hard to miss. Still, it's not much more than a political one-liner.
Paques (Slab) (Shahryar Nashat, Switzerland) [v/s] 
No worries, Mr. Bordwell....Nashat isn't proposing a return to SLAB Theory. But in a way, he is drawing very subtle attention to homologies that would never be observable were it not for the specific kind of viewing and listening that Paques demands. The film compares the factory fabrication of a giant concrete slab with Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's Toccata in C Minor, examining both creations as instances of physical labor and, perhaps more importantly, the sculptural shaping of material. Nashat shows us the wet concrete in close-up, looking like unformed mud; it's poured into a rectangular template by machine, but the nuances of smoothing and shaping the slab are all accomplished by hand. We go into extreme close-up on the faces and sleeves of burly factory workers (shown off, I might add, in full beefcake display), twisting and turning around the concrete to perfect its surface. Hazy colors of their clothes and skin whiz by the camera; the tight shots of trowel work perform an unexpected filmic reflexivity, since it looks as though the men are smoothing out the screen itself. When Nashat plays excerpts from Gould's Bach performance in this context, the man's absolutely singular style (which even today has its detractors) can be heard as a kind of laying-down of concrete notes, the most supple and restrained "banging" ever accomplished on the instrument. Every note retains its individual character, and its sonic journey into the next note is more of a dialectical jostle than a river-of-time disintegration into Kantian wholeness. When Nashat pulls back to show us the wet slab, and then the thing in its final form, dried and hoisted by a crane, we get the sense that sculpture and music have a different kind of relationship than we might have expected. It is about negotiation the heavy into lightness, without ever resolving or evacuating the tortuous gravity of the mass of things. Nashat quite logically leaves us thinking about Richard Serra, whether or not he meant to.
The Birth of RMB City (Cao Fei, China) [v/s] 
It's entirely possible that Cao Fei's work has a particular meaning that is lost when removed from the specific circumstances of 21st century Chinese culture and its race-to-modernity turmoil. But seen here, it looked to me like a lot of obvious effort expended on....not much. The video is an exploration / mapping of the urban environment that the artist has built within Second Life, for and through her online avatar China Tracy. We get, for example, some neat ideas, like a mid-bay sculpture of a submerged shopping cart with skyscrapers in it, like rolls or wrapping paper. We get a whimsical but also rather cramped, claustrophobic view of a mental China, a collision of its sprawling metropolises. But mostly Cao is showing us her demo through a videogame, and it just doesn't add up to a very satisfying aesthetic experience in itself. The questions remain. Do the material facts of Chinese modernity make "escape" into cyberspace a more politically charged, emotionally risky proposition than it would be for other Second Life users in other cultures? Does RMB City in some way critique urban growth in Shanghai or Beijing, in ways that were not readily apparent from the video itself? Not sure what to do with it, honestly.
Nora (Alla Kovgan / David Hinton, U.S. / U.K. / Mozambique) [v/m] 
A specimen from the relatively (and now understandably) obscure, corners-of-the-film-world genre of "dance film," Nora is a short autobiographical performance document written and danced by Zimbabwe-born choreographer Nora Chipaumire. It starts out magnificently, with Nora walking alone on desert sand, then a series of extreme close-ups of drumming hands and jumping feet, all assembled with remarkable rhythm and physicality. Practically Bressonian in its economy and synecdochic approach, this opening section is deceptive, since soon we get the first pas de deux setpiece, Nora dancing with someone representing her father. This highly abstracted official-confrontation number -- the ejection of a father from his home, or essentially the enforcement of a restraining order, envisioned as the attraction and repulsion of body-magnetism -- is the clearest and most rigorous of Chipaumire's dances. But as Nora proceeds, and ironically, as the "Nora" character develops a stronger sense of self, the dances and the film become more and more muddled, and the film effectively sinks into its own redundancy. Was the uplift of personal triumph supposed to be its own justification, with no further need of active creative shape?