Imagine finding yourself amidst a foggy forest of barren trees or a ghost town tucked away in the mist. Although you can barely see your hand in front of your face, somehow you do know the way and you're also familiar with how long and arduous it is. All of the sudden, you can discern a ball of white light in the distance, and as you walk towards it, it keeps getting smaller. Once you finally reach it, the luminous sphere is the size of a pill, floating in the air. You're tempted to swallow it and when you really do, a cloud of velvet darkness engulfs you in an instant, sending you straight to the heart of the void. Gradually, your weakened body disintegrates, with your mind and your spirit attuned to the dreamlife's abyss, at once disquieting and comforting. Then, you open your eyes and for the first time you see the nothingness of everything...
And that's the closest I can get in describing the mentally and emotionally demanding experience of watching Rouzbeh Rashidi's latest (and so far, lengthiest) addition to the already colossal Homo Sapiens Project. Composed of 40 short films created in the period 2000-2010 and now eternally integrated into a powerful and mysterious entity, the 8-hour feature provides the viewer with an immediate insight into the artist's formative years, plunging you into a vast and peculiar realm of melancholic grandeur. It often appears as an extremely fragmented, chronologically meandering and unstoppably mutating psychological drama whose protagonist is portrayed by several actors, every one of them bringing a heavy load of real-life issues to the table. Occasionally, the intrusions of other genres or rather, the subverted versions of the genres (such as sci-fi, horror, documentary and romance), break the flow to make it irregular, but that's where the film's attraction lies - in its ever-unexpected metamorphosis.
In equal measures profoundly personal, decidedly alienating and out of synch with the accelerated rhythms of our present, HSP (200) is the last, indecipherable word in the intimate diary lost in an Inland Empire of The Twilight Zone; a Ritual in Transfigured Time carefully performed on the outskirts of the Alphaville ruins; a storm-taming stone rolling back and forth across the meadow of silence and leaving the traces of loneliness behind... Through its strong interconnectedness with the history of (experimental) cinema, particularly the structuralist film, it washes over you with crushing waves of raw inscrutability which springs from the symbiotic relationship between its own and the filmmaker's micro- and macrocosm. And it shows you many facets of Cinema - embodied in people, objects, places and actions (even the most banal ones, such as sleeping or waiting for the bus) - a gentle spirit and relentless oppressor, rejuvenating potion and life-draining toxin, calming refreshment and boiling frustration... and during the last twenty minutes of perverse recontextualizations, a deranged and purifying catharsis.
Through the multitude of evocative, long-take close-ups, the camera of HSP (200) makes love to its 'subjects', reaching for their essence and their subconsciousness, and yet, they all remain distant and alone, trapped in a limbo that exists and persists 24 frames per second. Sometimes, it is due to the deliberately mismatched soundscapes of non-diegetic noise, doomy drones or classical music that they turn into disoriented ghosts. The grainy texture of the predominantly black and white imagery binds them to the past from which they will be constantly emerging, like unforgettable memories, to reshape the future, at least when it comes to any relevant discourse of the 21st century avant-garde film.
The film is available for rent / buy at very affordable price at Vimeo on Demand platform.
The sixth listicle of this (tiresome) year encompasses 12 films (out of approx. 80 watched) - 7 features, a medium-length offering and 4 shorts arranged in order of preference.
I Go Seek | The Scenic Route | Transfiguration: Slow Approximation
1. Я иду искать / I Go Seek(Vladimir Fessenko, 1992) - The game of hide-and-seek is transmuted into one of the most surreal, visually inspired pieces of short animation to come from Russia! 10 minutes that, simply put, have to be seen!
2. The Scenic Route (Mark Rappaport, 1978) (click on the title for a short review)
3. Transfiguration: Slow Approximation (Wolfgang Lehmann, 2020) - Draped in long, fluttering veils of haunting, otherworldly vocalizations, the incessantly trembling and inwardly decomposing images create the immaculate illusion of a transcendental experience. Each shot appears like a fading memory of an abstract impressionist painting gradually and mysteriously mutating as the film progresses, whereby the screen gets transformed into a liquid, rippled surface brimming with vivid colors. Seen in fleeting glimpses, naked bodies act as vessels for ancient souls, eternally wandering between the spiritual dimension and nature's subconscious mind...
4. In Vitro (Søren Lind & Larissa Sansour, 2019) - A ruminative and gorgeously shot post-apocalyptic short which makes great use of split-screen, as it deals with themes of memory, nostalgia and exile. The brutalist architecture of the underground compound where it is set intensifies the pervading sense of crippling melancholia... A perfect match for a double-bill with Jóhann Jóhannsson's Last and First Man.
5. Shell and Joint (Isamu Hirabayashi, 2019) (click on the title for a short review)
6. Le cortège / The Procession(Pascal Blanchet & Rodolphe Saint-Gelais, 2019) - A bautifully retro, elegantly animated pseudo-noir told from the beyond by a victim of a car acident, Catherine, whose love for her grieving husband, Philip, in a way blurs the boundaries between life and death.
The Palace | On the Comet | Stranger on the Third Floor
7. Palac / The Palace (Tadeusz Junak, 1980) - If you like your Eastern European gothic decadently surreal, unapologetically fragmented and feverishly nightmarish, then Tadeusz Junak’s puzzling, psychologically intense drama is the right film for you. Cinema at its most delirious!
8. Na kometě / On the Comet (Karel Zeman, 1970) - From the opening credits wonderfully stylized as postcards all the way to the slightly rushed ending, this oneiric, anti-war fantasy is a pure delight to watch. And it's often pretty funny too (code: pots and dinosaurs)! Putting you in a state of wide-eyed wonder, it will stay with you long after you left its phantasmagorical world...
9. Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster, 1940) - Exploring the theme of guilty conscience gradually mutating into paranoia, the first 'true' film-noir mesmerizes with its 'artifice' reflected in heavy, unnatural shadows and other hallmarks of the said sub-genre. Peter Lorre is utterly creepy as the titular enigma of a character.
10. Puccini e la fanciulla / Puccini and the Girl (Paolo Benvenuti, 2008) - Recounting the events which led to the suicide of a young maid, Doria Manfredi, who was falsely accused of being Puccini’s mistress, Paolo Benvenuti’s period drama pays a loving homage to silent cinema. Almost wordless, with only music, letter readings and sounds of nature piercing the solemn quietude, Puccini and the Girl is characterized by a meticulous frame composition which lends a painterly quality to virtually every scene. Its visual eloquence is so awe-inspiring, that you frequently forget you’re watching a story of adultery which is but a shameful episode from the famous composer’s life...
11. Zombies (Baloji, 2019) - Brimming with vivid colors, vibrant energy and outlandish costume design (which I'm not gonna spoil describing!), Zombies is a hyper-stylized musical critique of selfie-culture slightly reminiscent of Khavn De La Cruz's films, with the exception of a discotheque scene which gives off a Nicolas Winding Refn vibe. Although the music is not my cup of tea, I felt like dancing to it!
12. Pinocchio (Matteo Garrone, 2019) - A classic fairy tale gets an endearing, decidedly (and even refreshingly!) traditional adaptation in Matteo Garrone's latest, visually striking offering directed with a keen sense of (slightly grotesque) fantasy which evokes childhood memories. Its biggest drawback lies in a fact that it is released into a desensitized society used a bit too much to cheap thrills and provocations...
Recently released for free viewing on Experimental Film Society's official Vimeo Channel, 157th piece of the extensive and awe-inspiring Homo Sapiens Project is nothing short of a creative milestone in Rouzbeh Rashidi's two decade long career. As such, it deserves a more detailed write-up than the short paragraph it got in the second volume of my essay for EFS Publications.
Opening to wolves' howling and wind whispering to the trees (psithurism is the term which describes this particular sound), with the eye of a hand-held camera following Maximilian Le Cain (or his enigmatic character?) down a dirt road, the film operates like a found-footage horror or rather, a parody/deconstruction of the sub-genre. At one point, the man - as if possessed by a ghost - switches from 'strolling' to 'spinning around' mode and after he makes himself dizzy, the first thing he holds onto is the camera which, in turn and by virtue of soft focus, transforms him into something akin to an alien entity. Through the simplest of means involving an anti-illusionary act, the filmmaker's main tool is attributed with magical/alchemical properties.
A sudden, black screen cut relocates the viewer to a welcoming rural estate (somewhere in Spain) where we see the author himself (or his alter ego?) playing with a dog and a cat whose unexpected appearances portend the end of nocturnal overture. What initially seems to be a hazy, leisure-fueled day captured in long, beautifully composed takes is rendered ominous in the uncanny symbiosis of dark, droning soundscapes and fiery palette of hypnotizing yellows and oranges that gradually evoke a pre-apocalyptic atmosphere. At once an 'oblique diary' and (sci-fi?) mystery deepened by increasingly suspicious behavior of Le Cain's film-persona, HSP (157) erases the boundaries between documentary and fiction, plunging us into a wholly cinematic, extremely personal universe which exists both inside and outside of Luminous Void. 'The film is the film itself', as Rashidi claims, and sometimes it doesn't need to be anything more than that - an uncompromising, self-sufficient audio-visual experience.
However, it does manage to outgrow its purpose, in order to merge with (the filmmaker's) life into a silent, whimsical, absorbing Oneness. Hard to put into words, this 'phantasmal anomaly' - an Ouroboros of an unidentified, flickering dimension - equates 'image' with 'idea' and celebrates its immeasurable potency.
If Roy Andersson had been Japanese with a strong, almost perverse fixation on insects and arthropods, his feature debut would have probably been fairly similar to that of Isamu Hirabayashi. Entirely composed of static, minimalist and often geometrically precise tableaux vivants, Shell and Joint presents a successful (if a tad overlong) blend of wry, absurd humor and quirky ruminations on life, sex, bugs, suicide, relationships and (after)death. Its high levels of eccentricity are elicited from the quotidian simplicity, with the boundaries between reality and surreality / existence and non-existence blurred or completely erased. What makes it compelling are unforeseen flourishes of weirdness, both verbal and visual, such as the guerrilla butoh performance that may bring Matthew Barney to one’s mind, or the marionette interludes that evoke the memory of reading Victor Pelevin’s The Life of Insects.
Available as a part of the Nippon Connection Film Festival selection @ Vimeo on Demand, until Sunday, June 14, 2020.
The past and the present of cinema seem to converge in Mark Rappaport's romantic (melo)drama which melds narration and dialogues delivered in a wry, deadpan manner, mythologized banalities of everyday life(lessness) and dreams inspired by pieces of classical art to a great surreal effect, with the film's forte lying in the singularity of its author's vision. A love triangle between two sisters (Estelle and Lena) and a man (Paul) plays out in a hypnotizing series of almost static, yet meticulously composed tableaux vivants, as the decorative wallpapers change in a blink of an eye, without any explanation, or completely disappear to reveal a forest, just because one of the heroines is in a desperate need for a change of scenery. Strong yet understated feelings of love, anger, desire, jealousy and resentment are 'vulgarly' verbalized, concealed in actors' micro-expressions and/or depicted in a constant interplay between real and imagined, both shrouded in layers of filmic artifice. Ultimately, it is both the director's and his characters obsession - embodied in a 19th century-styled engraving - that dominates The Scenic Route.
Unlike the previous two editions of Cinematic Favorites (March | April), the May list will be decidedly shorter, with each feature entry accompanied by a mini-review (unless it has been previously reviewed on the blog).
1. Tabu (F. W. Murnau, 1931)
2. Medea (Frans Zwartjes, 1982) | At his most Bergmanesque, Zwartjes delivers a streamlined, yet powerful rendition of the well-known Greek tragedy, fetishizing close-ups and making great use of minimalist sets. Darkly sensual, austerely beautiful and utterly transfixing, his Medea is a subversive, way-ahead-of-its-time gender-play carried by Ganci Geraedts and Josée Ruiter's masterclass in acting and on-screen chemistry.
3. Mongols / Mogholha (Parviz Kimiavi, 1973) | In a playfully surreal exploration of cinema and its unpredictable nature, Parviz Kimiavi ponders if it exists in the filmmaker’s head long before the film is even brought to fruition. Daydreaming in the very point where history, documentary, meta fiction and elusive ideas intersect, he pulls the viewer into a strange, multifaceted world that is only possible if spinning 24 frames per second. Similar to Charles Dekeukeleire’s dada ‘thriller’ Histoire de détective (1929) or many New Wave offerings, his adventurous drama subverts our expectations, leaving us disoriented in an unreal place that’s simultaneously on both sides of the illusory gate...
4. The Story of the Voyages / Сказка странствий (Аleksandr Mitta, 1983) | A dark, bizarre and unorthodox fairy tale which boasts hectic energy and some brilliant set pieces, while following a couple of lovable characters on a larger-than-life journey through medieval Russia of a phantasmagorical dimension. Although it is a cautionary tale aimed at children, the grown-ups will likely find a lot to enjoy here as well.
5. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948) | Drenched in vivid colors and propelled by delightfully theatrical performances, this ballet-centered romantic drama is pure magic, especially during the mesmerizing 15-minute-long dance sequence that is a quintessential viewing for every movie buff.
6. The Doll Merchant / Nukkekauppias ja kaunis Lilith (Jack Witikka, 1955) | A hyper-stylized, infinitely charming genre mashup which satirizes totalitarian society, suggesting fantasy and childlike playfulness as weapons against the life-and-joy-draining bureaucracy. Taking cues from silent comedies, early avant-garde, German Expressionism and film noir, this dystopian, proto-Gilliam fairy tale brims with anarchic energy (and dutch angles).
1. Last and First Men (Jóhann Jóhannsson, 2020)
2. The Painted Bird / Nabarvené ptáče (Václav Marhoul, 2019) | A cold, unapologetically harrowing war drama or rather, meditation on human evil, sparse in dialogues, but rich in astonishing B&W imagery.
3. Primal: Tales of Savagery (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2020) | Composed of four episodes of animated TV series Primal, this omnibus-fantasy is not only replete with gory scenes of primordial carnage, it is also imbued with raw, genuine emotion that stems from the unlikely relationship between the man and the beast.
4. Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge (Ethan Spaulding, 2020) | One of the most famous (not to mention most violent) fighting game series finally gets the adaptation it deserves - a B-movie-like cartoon whose angular artwork is in line with gritty, flesh-tearing and bone-crunching action scenes.