Movies in March, 2015

  1. 20,000 Days on Earth at the Dryden, March 4: Jenn and I caught this quasi-documentary. It's a fascinating film that ostensibly documents a "day in the life" of musician Nick Cave. However, it is fiction-within-a-fiction in that it actually documents Nick Cave's public persona, and as such is a fake documentary. Regardless, it's a unique and wonderful method of storytelling.
  2. A Year Along the Abandoned Road at the Dryden, March 5: I was thrilled to get to this first of two short films. This one is an unbelievable time-lapse film shot in motion along a road in a Norwegian lakeside village. It must have been a strange and unique experience to shoot—apparently taking one image each day, moving the camera a few inches, then waiting to take the next image the next day, and repeating for a whole year. It's an eerie and beautiful experience to watch, making one feel like an otherworldly being floating through the world unseen.
  3. An Injury to One at the Dryden, March 5: The title is taken from the Union phrase, "an injury to one is an injury to all", and the film documents the relationship of business and labor in the mining town of Butte, Montana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a haunting and evocative film that highlights the philosophy that winners write history. In this case, the winners were the lucrative mining companies; the biggest loser being International Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Frank Little who was murdered by mining company goons parties unknown.
  4. Whiplash at the Little, March 7: Jenn, Chris, and I went to see this together, although I was leaning toward another movie. The first thing I noticed was the dark and muddy digital recording—in attempting to capture the early morning of New York like an homage to Taxi Driver, it only succeeds in making itself look like a 1970's horror movie with inky blacks and dingy colors. Fortunately, I got over that. The movie moves along well and pits two passionate characters against one another: one a driven, aspiring drummer, and the other a abusive music professor obsessed with perfection in his collegiate ensemble. I assure this is no spoiler: the moment of divining greatness is not something that can be found through calculation, but rather through passionate happenstance.
  5. The Gang's All Here at the Dryden, March 16: I went to the Senior Matinee today … I guess to feel even younger than at an average Dryden screening. I guess set in mid-war America, it makes sense, but otherwise it's about a reprehensible man who stalks and rapes a dancer (née "uses his soldier's bravado to win the heart of a dancer"), all the while stringing along his soon-to-be fiancée. Fortunately it works out in the end because the girlfriend knew all along it was just a relationship based on familial ties just like the rapist believes, and the dancer loves the rapist, so it wasn't rape after all! Howeverrr … it is worth seeing two rather unbelievable Carmen Miranda-centered Busby Berkeley dance numbers that push the boundaries of cinema and clearly pushed the limits of Technicolor filming (just watch those giant cameras shake as they are rapidly hoisted into the air—yikes!)
  6. Cotton Road at the Little, March 21?: Jenn and I caught just one of the films at the Greentopia Film Festival this year. It's the story of how cotton is grown in South Carolina, shipped all over the world (particularly China) where it is made into fabric and clothing, then shipped back to South Carolina. Notable to me was how the manual laborers—the American cotton farmers and the Chinese clothing makers—existed in insufferable conditions while each step removed lived in more comfort: the American industrial cotton gin, the refined cotton warehouses, and the Chinese warehouses for fabrics faring better; the shipping companies in both nations and the American retailers faring best of all. Jenn and I both found the music to be cloying and melancholic (revealing the only evidence of the filmmaker's bias), but many other people liked it. While the Rochester audience lobbed lackluster questions at director Laura Kissel, she revealed at one point that the hardest place to film was not in China but in American retail stores. One final note: the Greentopia Film Festival asked us to fill out a survey online for a chance to win an Apple iPad—without a lick of irony—despite the widespread knowledge that Apple's products are made in Chinese factories with working conditions as bad or worse than depicted in the film.
  7. What We Do in the Shadows at the Little, March 22: Jenn and I went to this hilarious mockumentary about a group of vampires living in New Zealand in modern times. I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I was pleased that I found it extremely funny. Perhaps it was from bottling up all my criticisms after my recent indoctrination into the Cult of Buffy, but the juxtaposition humor was plentiful.
  8. The Red Shoes at the Dryden, March 27: Jenn and I went to this Technicolor classic featuring the revered camerawork of Jack Cardiff—which was, sadly, projected from a restored 35mm print that itself did not use the Technicolor 3-layer process. It's that 3-layer process with its imperfect color registration and the impossibility of perfect focus (since each color is a different distance from the lens) that gives it its nearly imperceptible shimmer whereas the modern color emulsion made from digitally-scanned 3-strip negatives has perfect registration and a single focal plane that affords razor-sharp perfection, as undesirable as it is in this particular case. Anyway, the movie itself is quite good: music student Julian and ballerina Victoria join a ballet troupe with a hard-nosed director (making the later Whiplash comparable in subject-matter). As both rise to stardom, the latest production is The Red Shoes, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story in which a dancer wishes for red shoes which happen to be cursed and she can't stop dancing until she finally dies. Both get intertwined in one another as they are central to the ballet.
  9. Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) at the Little, March 29: Jenn was excited to see this after seeing the name Agustín Almodóvar, thinking he directed it, but it was actually Damián Szifrón and Almodóvar produced it. It's a series of 6 short stories of vengeance. And as is the case with successfully-executed vengeance: it's always and already gone wrong. The tales are told as black comedy and largely succeed … I thought the more-petty violations made for funnier stories. In the end, it all felt kind of repetitive, and I was reminded how much I liked the similarly revenge-themed black-comedy, God Bless America, which I wrote about.
  10. OnFilm Shorts by Karpo Godina and Davorin Marc at the University of Rochester Hoyt Auditorium, March 30: I go to see this fantastic program—check out the blog post for the complete review.

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OnFilm Shorts by Karpo Godina and Davorin Marc

The University of Rochester OnFilm group organized a screening of short films by Karpo Godina and Davorin Marc. I was very pleased to notice that the group was still vibrant despite having a complete (or nearly complete) change of guard.

Anyway, the Dryden's new film programmer, Jurij Meden, did an excellent job giving context to each of the five six films. Meden originates from Yugoslavia along with Godina, and he spent quite a while studying film in Marc's home country of Slovenia.

First up were two films from Karpo Godina. In the early 1970s he was interested in filming motion from a fixed camera position. His films of this era are fast-paced 8mm films. They screened Gratinirani Mozak Pupilije Ferkeverk (The gratinated brains of Pupilija Ferkeverk, Karpo Godina, Yugoslavia, 1970, 15 mins, Color, 35mm) first—a very odd film in which five people dance around abandoned natural salt evaporation ponds (I guess). (As a side note, I was scribbling notes into my Palm Pilot [Samsung Galaxy Player] but I couldn't transcribe fast enough so all I got was "Graduated brains of… P… Browned brains?" Thankfully, an obscure blog post led me to the complete title posted at The Northwest Film Forum; and that obscure blog has the translated title cards and scenes from this film.) Anyway, Meden said—I'm fairly certain this is the gist of his wild anecdote—the filmmaker and theater troupe Pupilije Ferkeverk went there and ingested a lot of drugs, filmed for a week, and had no recollection of the events save for the exposed film. It was produced by then-generous funding from the communist state, but was an indictment of the obedience-centric government, ultimately concluding that the only thing to do is to take LSD.

A year later, Godina produced 14441 kvadrat (About the Art of Love or a Film with 14441 Frames, Karpo Godina, Yugoslavia 1972, 11 min., 16mm). This time funded through the military, it was destined to be a propaganda film to glorify the army and military service. Godina was assigned an artificial rank to command a division of troops, alone, in a remote area. He made a rather humorous film centered on a folk song about having the men and women so close but never actually together. The centerpiece is the beautiful rolling hills with scattered soldiers running about in formations (and notably never using a weapon). Godina's recollection was that it was nothing like what they expected, so they destroyed all but one print which he personally smuggled out. However, Meden met with the army a few years back, and an aging officer told him revealed they kept the negatives—"we knew he was a national treasure!"

Davorin Marc was considerably different. He lives in a small fishing village and created over 200 films in his spare time. According to Meden, every single one is a completely different experimental style. Having little contact with the outside world, he thought what he was doing was entirely new and unique although worldwide, others had used similar techniques much earlier. First up was Ugrizni me. Ze enkrat (Bite Me. Once Already, Davorin Marc, Yugoslavia, 1978/80, 1:35 mins, Silent, Color, Super 8mm). It is a cameraless film where Marc bit the 8mm film stock. His unique biological imprint flutters by on the screen and it's actually quite fascinating.

Next was Ej klanje (Slaughter Ahoy, Davorin Marc, Yugoslavia, 1981, 16 mins @ 18 fps, Silent with separate sound on CD, Color, Super 8mm). In this, he uses several fixed-camera shots to show the slaughter (perhaps) and butchering of an animal (a pig, I surmised) as well as his own soundtrack. We watched the sole original copy which starts showing only the boots of a few people at the legs of a small table—the blood-slicked ground reveals ghostly reflections of people working at the table. A second shot reveals the splitting of the animal's head with a hatchet to retrieve its tongue and brain.

The official final film was Paura in città (1181 dni pozneje ali vonj po podganah) (Fear In The City (1181 Days Later or Smell of Rats), Davorin Marc, Yugoslavia, 1984, 21 mins, Color, Super 8mm transferred to 35mm). (I had managed to transcribe Parada on città? Fear of rats? which was enough to stumble on another Northwest Film Forum post.) It's split into two parts: the first being a sort-of "video diary" and the second a sort of "found footage." Both are filmed with a quick succession between starts and stops (presumably by the remote control you can see Marc holding in some shots) which gives the whole thing a fantastic frenetic pace with its quasi-timelapse technique, enhanced by Marc's staccato soundtrack. And since there was no footage to be found, Marc resorted to filming the television, sometimes adding motion to the quasi-timelapse technique. This was a 35mm restoration from the 8mm originals and it looked fantastic.

The unofficial final film was one Marc gave Meden recently. If I remember correctly, while "Fear In The City" was being restored, they sent samples of the 35mm stock to Marc to review. Marc sliced the film into strips the same width as 8mm film, creating Perf form me for Meden. As he noted, the projector will likely add sprocket holes and the film will be destroyed while playing, perhaps destroying the projector as well. As such, it was screened on a "less valuable" projector and the film just moved slowly through the projector, melting as it went through, and we never did arrive at a scene containing any images.

Interestingly, the American promise was always that filmmakers should leave their communist countries so they could make films without censorship. But as often happened, those who took the offer found there were no public funds like there were under communism so—just as both filmmakers more or less stopped in about 1991 when communism fell—immigrants also could not afford to make such artistic works. The heyday of the 1960s Black Wave political films followed by the Pink Wave of the early 1970s when the government changed were both generously state-funded.

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