Art – and reality are always a construct
By Brannavan Gnanalingham
Arguably, 2010 saw one of the strongest International Film Festivals to hit New Zealand’s shores in a very, very long time. The quality was driven both by big name directors making quality films, and by excellent smaller films – whether it was the taut thrillers Animal Kingdom or How I Ended This Summer, the enjoyable (despite what everyone said) Human Centipede or Birdemic, the excoriating Exit Through the Gift Shop or the formally fascinating A Portuguese Nun…taken together, it made for a highly enjoyable Festival.
A welcome addition was Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation films, which allowed magnificent films like the Egyptian classic Night of Counting the Years to appear in all its resplendent glory. I will forever regret missing (at least until I can find them somewhere else ) Around a Small Mountain and Melody for a Street Organ made by masters Jacques Rivette and Kira Muratova respectively. Claire Denis’ White Material was a big disappointment of the Festival, a film which trades on stereotypes of ‘Africa’ (it doesn’t deign to name a place, it’s merely full of rebels and is war torn) and features a rather limp lead performance from Isabelle Huppert. For someone with Denis’ considerable talent, White Material was a major disappointment.
Outside of the Film Festivals, the blockbusters this year were a little quiet – though the latest Harry Potter instalment benefitted from the extra running time to develop an atmosphere, instead of having to rush through plot. The Social Network was a fine attempt to catch the zeitgeist (though it’s easy to think the film will date pretty quickly and it’s essentially Citizen Kane’s narrative). By far the worst commercially released film of the year I saw was Eat, Pray, Love – a film which equated self-discovery with consumerism and white privilege. But then, that wasn’t a big surprise.
Also RIP to Eric Rohmer, Merata Mita, Dennis Hopper, Kathryn Dudding, Arthur Penn, Tony Curtis, Claude Chabrol and others
10. Toy Story 3 (dir: John Lassiter, United States)
Pixar proved that it’s not the groundbreaking technology which gets people falling for films. It is good old fashioned storytelling. And you can imagine those in the audience would have been split: kids would have been wowed by the colour, characters and the rollercoaster narrative, while their parents would have been close to tears realising what the narrative touched on – very real fears of loss, mortality, and loneliness. And some precocious kids would have felt both. It was a marvellous closer to a trilogy which had not only helped usher in digital animation, but also showcased that films can be wise, world-weary and charming at the same time.
9. Hahaha (dir: Hong Sang-soo, Korea)
Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo is one of the best directors working these days, and his films constantly and restlessly examine male/female relationships. His males are usually irredeemable (and hilariously so) and at first glance, his protagonists in Hahaha are no different. However, Hahaha features protagonists who are perhaps a little more aware of their failures and their issues are self-inflicted. Two males drink a day away talking about their various love life adventures (and friends), little realising that their lives intersected at key moments without the other realising. It’s funny, heartfelt and sharp – and Hong’s ability to nail dialogue and character motivations makes him one of the more incisive social commentators working in film today.
8. Extraordinary Stories (dir: Mariano Llinás, Argentina)
Pynchon and Borges would hardly be the most filmable of writers, but Llinás’ Argentinian four hour tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale film probably comes the closest in recent times to capturing the spirit of these writers. Extraordinary Stories features digressions, subplots, unresolved narratives, and an unreliable narrator. It was a movie you read (unless you knew Spanish), which limited its impact – but its ambition, narrative inventiveness and sheer scope meant Llinás is certainly one to keep an eye out for.
7. The Strange Case of Angelica (dir: Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)
This elegiac film captures doomed love and obsession in ways that only de Oliveira can do. It was slightly skewed, hilariously awkward, and unashamedly anachronistic – a love story told with the coyness of 19th Century tale. The director came up with the idea in the 1950s, but only made this film at 101 years of age. As a result it’s hard not to feel this film is a self-eulogy, but a eulogy in which de Oliveira is off dancing with the ghosts rather than morbidly indulging himself.
6. Boy (dir: Taika Waititi, New Zealand)
Waititi’s Boy found itself an unlikely hit in New Zealand – art-film tropes and a highly auteurist vision don’t usually sell too well in this country (let alone get much funding). However, Boy proved that if you stay the right side of emotional honesty (e.g. not tip over into mawkishness), feature some star-making performances, and above all offer up a film with considerable heart, then you can have a hit on your hands. It’s a hard film not to like, but despite all the laughs, it has a desperately sad and moving core.
5. Certified Copy (dir: Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy)
Abbas Kiarostami certainly confused audiences with Certified Copy. It was probably sold on the idea of a delightful Tuscan romp with star power (Juliette Binoche) and with Kiarostami mellowing out a little with his philosophical ruminations. Unfortunately his brilliant film has suffered the fate of being underestimated because of all of the above. Essentially, Kiarostami continues here his lifelong obsession with challenging the objectivity of film. This time, he includes a narrative which veers from ‘truth’ to ‘lies’, amid fake sets (e.g. the fountains, the chemist store are constructed or photographs) in an ancient Tuscan town, and art which could be fake or original etc – all of which suggests that real-life is the outcome of the value judgments associated with each binary opposite. Binoche has never been better (the other lead, William Shimell was a little creaky), and Kiarostami’s playfulness and delight in ‘everydayness’ meant that this was another great film by the Iranian master.
4. La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (dir: Frederick Wiseman, United States/France)
The great American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman built his career by taking on institutions with unobtrusive style, via his attempts to capture ‘real-life’ by remaining ‘objective’ (whether the films were just as ‘false’ is a dispute for another time). With La Danse, he took on another institution, this time the world renowned Paris Opera Ballet. It’s an exquisite study in rehearsal and bodies in motion: the cumulative effect of the background detail giving more of an insight into an iconic organisation than simply seeing a final performance would have done. As Wiseman has always done, he frames the ‘real-life’ in subtle and pointed political points. He questions the balances between art and commerce, talent and stardom, practice and performance, and makes it all look so beautiful.
3. Asylum Pieces (dir: Kathryn Dudding, New Zealand)
The late Wellington filmmaker Kathryn Dudding made one of the most unheralded and scathing pieces of film released in 2010. Dudding looked at the changing way in which New Zealand society has viewed mental illness, and charted the changes by looking at the architectural changes in the Porirua asylum. The tight focus was a perfect symbol for Dudding, who looked at the original fear of mental illness (treating it as something akin to imprisonment) which shifted to that which could be ‘cured’ through EST ….to that which is now the domain of pharmaceutical companies. She did it simply through photographs, archival footage and contemporary footage of Porirua hospital. It is a devastatingly bleak and complex film, but one which ultimately ends on hope. Tragically Dudding died of cancer before her work had the chance to be truly appreciated for the brilliant film that it is.
2. Ne Change Rien (dir: Pedro Costa, France/Portugal)
There aren’t many people who are genuinely excited each year about the “In Praise of Slow Cinema” section of the Film Festival – but it is frequently the source of some of the most intriguing and challenging films released in the country. Ne Change Rien was no exception. It was the first time a film by Portuguese director Pedro Costa had ever been shown in New Zealand, and well worth the wait. He had made his name through his studies of people on the fringes, but like Frederick Wiseman above, Costa is interested this time in the mechanics and sheer physicality of performance. He films the rehearsals (and occasional live performances) of singer Jeanne Balibar, showing that what is discarded or thought of as inferior is just as beautiful or powerful as that which is deemed to be ‘perfect’. Filmed in stark, high contrast, black and white, the film manages to take Costa’s empathy for the forgotten and apply to the creation of art itself.
1. Police, Adjective (dir: Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
A film almost simply about semantics and police procedure is further proof of the incredible films coming out of Romania at the moment (admittedly this film came out in 2009, but only hit our shores this year). Undercover cop Cristi wanders the streets watching a kid who apparently has been selling dope. However, he thinks the process is futile, and doesn’t want to make an arrest. He subsequently gets into an argument with his superior, culminating in an absolutely bravura ‘scene. By composing the film in long, precise takes, Porumboiu draws attention to the way in which ‘reality’ in reduced by language. Each cut, each facial movement, each word subsequently becomes incredibly important in the context of the film. It’s also about the power that this reduction brings – the power of words in defining something means that we necessarily control and subjugate it. It is certainly not objective. For those who are in charge of the defining process – whether it is an artist or a policeman- the process entails a brutally draconian exercise of power.