SFIFF 2013: Week Two
Posted May 11, 2013 at 2:23am by Carl Martin
In his pre-screening interview, Novikoff Award winner Peter von Bagh quoted Aki Kaurismäki: "Film is light, digital is electricity". I agree with the romantic sentiment, though I'd probably have framed it differently. Von Bagh is rightly proud of having shown, with the blessing of DP Michael Chapman, an original print of Taxi Driver, rather than the recent digital restoration, a few years back at his Midnight Sun Film Festival in northern Finland. This purism doesn't always obtain at the other festival for which von Bagh serves as artistic director, Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato, nor does it in his collage-documentary film screened post-interview, Helsinki, ikuisesti. Though comprised primarily of a century's worth of film footage--from features, home movies, etc.--of his native city, it's all been digitized before being put back to film. And while the bulk of it is Academy-ratio black-and-white, it's pillarboxed to 1.85:1 and on color stock, and a good deal of it is printed multiply to run, jerkily, at 24fps. The feeling is more of a TV special than cinema-in-itself. I did appreciate seeing familiar Kaurismäki regulars like Kati Outinen, as well as some eerily sorta-familiar faces like Finnish "Kirk Douglas" and Finnish "Gregory Peck".
"Long Live the Living" -Les BlankI realized towards its end, during a memorable episode of backwoods dentistry, that I'd seen Spend It All during last year's Les Blank retrospective at the PFA. Perhaps because of the diversity of the program as a whole (and the quality of the new 16mm restoration prints by the Academy's Mark Toscano) I found it considerably more riveting this time around. Blank's celebration of Cajun culture, part of his lifelong salute to lustful living, followed two outliers from his ouevre. Christopher Tree is a portrait of and a performance by the titular percussionist in which Les strikes a contemplative mood with his photography, swooping over and pulling focus on the leafy environs, while Chicken Real is a sponsored film rejected by the poultry processing company profiled, no doubt because of the subtle critiques proffered and ironies brought to light by Les's camerawork, editing, and deadpan narration. In all his films, Blank displays an uncanny camera virtuosity, intuiting where the flow of action is leading, and taking us there.
A microscopic fantasyscape? (Conjuror's Box)If projection kept me from watching a couple of the films I'd meant to, it also opportuned my screening two of the festival shorts for myself outside of their respective programs. Kerry Laitala's Conjuror's Box, the only totally silent film of the festival (Waxworks being accompanied) uses an amalgam of techniques in its evocation of the shadowy beginnings of cinema. Sinuous abstractions (and a few recognizable objects) are photogrammed directly onto a filmstrip, then step-printed to introduce variations in tempo and bring emphasis to certain chance formations, as Stan Brakhage did with some of his hand-painted films. The striking colors of these photograms led me briefly to wonder what they would look like through the chroma-depth glasses used to view Laitala's video works, but there was already so much apparent depth to the image that it wouldn't be worth hazarding its filmic texture. Conjuror's Box is soon augmented with fanciful images suggestive of magic lantern slides (that is perhaps what they are) inserted into the masked-off center of the frame, while in the periphery the film roils on as before. The graphic style of these insertions reminded me of the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland illustrations in Charlotte Pryce's Curious Light, seen in the Cinematheque-sponsored shorts program of last year's festival.
Kali, le petit vampire, an NFB production from the animated shorts program, pretended at a sort of striated, hand-made look, but it was all done in a computer, and I found the film more didactic than sweet.
Earlier I misstated that Waxworks would be accompanied. In fact Paul Leni's film was a mere backdrop to the drum-heavy musical combo. Fool that I am, I had come for the film. A man is hired by a carnival's wax museum to write lurid back-stories for its three star displays: The Caliph of Bagdad (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt), and Jack the Ripper, and these mini-narratives constitute the meat of the film. The first two sections are given far more exposition than the last, and both feature a tyrant whose life is spared through the use of a double (in the first instance a wax double--there is quite a system of identities and representations at play here), but who still suffers a humbling defeat at the hands of commoners. High-expressionist set design distinguishes the first section, which was fairly murdered by the combo's percussive cacophony, hellacious tinting and toning (simulated on color stock) the second. In the brief third section, our framing-device copy-writer falls asleep and is pursued, in glorious superimpositions, by Jack the Ripper. During this masterful scene the "accompanists" saw fit to perform a song with vocals, with enough sound pressure to physically shake the audience. It was obvious enough that this hubristic sonic display was little interested in following the tonal shifts of the film, even before the film ended, leaving the song playing on a minute longer.
The two principle actors in The Last Step, director Ali Mosaffa and Leila Hatami, are married, as are the characters they play and, at times, the characters those characters play in the film-within-the-film. At each step up the meta-staircase, we are less certain who is living or dead, who is real or imaginary, and the nonsequentiality of the narrative begs different interpretations of events as their contexts are elaborated. The mise-en-scène is a bit pedestrian compared to the meta-films of Abbas Kiarostami, though I was reminded by one shot of his Through the Olive Trees. And, thankfully, Mosaffa has foregone the crutch of the digital intermediate, as is still the norm in Iran, if nowhere else.
Your next assignment: I Still Wake Up Dreaming--Elliot Lavine's annual noir extravaganza at the Roxie, now in progress.