Reviewed forCinefile Chicago. Opens for a virtual run at Facets Multimedia today.
Tyler Taormina’s HAM ON RYE (US)
Available to rent through Facets Cinémathèque here
HAM ON RYE, a suburban coming-of-age comedy-drama with a large ensemble cast, boldly stands out from the crowded landscape of recent American indies for its genuine narrative weirdness and singular aesthetic ambition. What seemingly begins as an end-of-high-school nostalgia trip, in the vein of AMERICAN GRAFFITI and DAZED IN CONFUSED, soon gives way to something far darker and more subversive: The movie’s first half features deft cross-cutting between short, clever scenes in which dozens of teenage characters are getting dressed and prepping for a big, prom-like event, an annual rite-of-passage where kids in late adolescence are expected to congregate at a popular local delicatessen in the unnamed town where the film is set, and ultimately pair off into couples for a celebratory dance. But, as in the early work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, HAM ON RYE proves to be something of a narrative shapeshifter—the warmth and humor of the early daylight scenes are soon displaced by a second half imbued with a potent, Hopper-esque sense of nocturnal melancholy. Most of the characters from the first half disappear at the dusky half-way mark—some quite literally into thin air—only to be replaced by a new cast of more disaffected-seeming young adults. One character, Haley (Haley Bodell), who pointedly flees from the deli before the dance begins, bridges the film’s two halves but it is unclear how much time elapses in between; the second half could either be taking place the same night as the first half or a couple of years later, an ambiguity that lends the movie much of its haunting and dreamlike power. What does it all mean? I think that Taormina, a first-time feature filmmaker but hardcore cinephile who is also a talented musician, intends for the narrative to function as a kind of complex metaphor for the notion of “growing up” in general and, more specifically, the way some people leave their hometowns in an attempt to fulfill ambitious destinies while others choose to sadly remain behind. But see it and decide for yourself: independent American cinema of this uncommonly poetic caliber deserves to be seen and discussed far and wide. (2019, 85 min) [Michael Glover Smith]
I have two capsule reviews atCinefile Chicagothis week. I’m posting both reviews below. Enjoy!
Tsai Ming-liang’s DAYS (Taiwan) Available for rent through October 25 here* DAYS, Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang’s latest ode to urban loneliness, begins with a middle-aged man, Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), simply sitting in a room and staring out the window on a rainy afternoon. Tsai’s patient camera eye observes the man’s expressionless face for a full five minutes before cutting. It’s an astonishing scene in which nothing seems to happen while also suggesting, on an interior level, that perhaps a lot is happening, thus setting the tone for the two hour audio-visual experience that follows. As viewers, we are invited to not only observe Kang as the shot’s subject but also allow our eyes to wander around the beautifully composed frame, noticing the details of what is reflected in the window out of which Kang stares (since the shot is framed from outside) as well as listen to the sound of the gently falling rain. From there, an almost entirely wordless narrative proceeds, in fits and starts, as the daily life of this man, who is suffering from and being treated for an unspecified illness, is juxtaposed with that of a younger man, a Laotian immigrant masseur named Non (Anong Houngheuangsya). Eventually, the lives of both protagonists come together in an erotic hotel-room encounter before breaking apart again, presumably for good. The way these two minimalist character arcs briefly intersect reveals a surprisingly elegant and classical structure lurking beneath the movie’s avant-garde surface and also serves to function as a potent metaphor for nothing less than life itself: We may be born alone and we may die alone but, if we’re lucky, we can make meaningful connections with other people along the way. DAYS is a formally extreme film, even for Tsai, and probably not the best place to start for those unfamiliar with the director’s previous work. But I emerged from it feeling as refreshed and energized as I would if I had visited a spa. (2020, 127 min) [Michael Glover Smith] — *Only available in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.
Hong Sang-soo’s THE WOMAN WHO RAN (South Korea) Available for rent through October 25 here* The films of prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo have become steadily more oriented around their female protagonists since he began working with Kim Min-hee in 2015’s RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN. This mighty director/actress combo has reached a kind of apotheosis in their seventh and latest collaboration, THE WOMAN WHO RAN, a charming dramedy about three days in the life of a woman, Gam-hee (Kim), who spends time apart from her spouse for the first time after five years of marriage. When her husband goes on a trip, Gam-hee uses the occasion to visit three of her female friends—one of whom is single, one of whom is married, and one of whom is recently divorced—and Hong subtly implies that Gam-hee’s extended dialogue with each causes her to take stock of her own marriage and life. Gam-hee also comes into contact with three annoying men—a nosy neighbor, a stalker, and a mansplainer—while visiting each friend, situations that allow Hong to create clever internal rhymes across his triptych narrative structure. Hong’s inimitable cinematographical style has long favored long takes punctuated by sudden zooms and pans, but rarely have the devices felt as purposeful as they do here. Notice how his camera zooms, with the precision of a microscope, into a close-up of a woman’s face immediately after she issues an apology to Gam-hee during the film’s final act, and how the tears in this woman’s eyes would not have been visible without the zoom. This is masterful stuff. (2020, 77 min) [Michael Glover Smith] — *Only available in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.
In the future, when I come across someone who has never been to Chicago but wants to know what my hometown is like, I will tell them to watch Steve James’ CITY SO REAL. Produced by Kartemquin Films (HOOP DREAMS) and soon-to-be-aired on the National Geographic Channel, this brilliant five-part miniseries looks at Chicago in its full complexity — as a major metropolis that serves as a global tourist destination but also as a down-to-earth Midwestern “city of neighborhoods.” Most of the reviews of the series I’ve come across so far have focused on its depiction of the Windy City’s crazy mayoral race of 2019 — when an unprecedented 14 candidates vied for the spot after Rahm Emanuel, tainted by his role in the cover-up of the Laquan McDonald shooting, wisely decided not to run for re-election. To be sure, James’ access to behind-the-scenes machinations of local electoral politics offers some juicy moments (in one amusing scene, then-candidate Lori Lightfoot refers to those caught up in the Ed Burke extortion scandal as “dumb fucks”); but I think it’s truer to say that James uses the mayoral race as a narrative hook that allows him to draw viewers in while also allowing him to do something much more expansive, which is to paint an epic, impressionistic portrait of Chicago at a moment of societal tumult (complete with a digression on Bears fandom, cameos by Chance the Rapper and Kanye West and a song by the great Staples Singers on the soundtrack). A particularly nice touch: Every scene begins by including a graphic of the city showing where the scene takes place and identifying the neighborhood by name.
CITY SO REAL’s complex and provocative fifth episode, an epilogue that flashes forward to a year after Lightfoot’s election, when her “honeymoon phase” has long ended and the city is both ravaged by COVID and rocked by protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, caused me to rethink the first four parts entirely. It is here where James’ and David Simpson’s masterful montage editing, while never being overtly showy or kinetic, becomes worthy of comparison to Eisenstein in its dialectical approach. In addition to showing copious footage of the protests from a wide variety of sources, James gives equal screen time to both Lightfoot’s defense of her aggressive handling of the protests and the criticism of eloquent activists like Miracle Boyd (a teenager whose teeth were knocked out by a cop for merely wielding a cell-phone camera in public). More subtly, James offers a pointed critique of Chicago as a city still largely segregated along racial lines by juxtaposing scenes in both white and black barbershops. My personal favorite moment involves Tim Tuten, owner of the legendary Hideout music venue, trashing FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF as a supposedly “modern classic” in a direct-to-camera address after John Hughes’ movie is programmed at a drive-in theater at the controversial Lincoln Yards development site (where Tuten imagines a grown-up Bueller is now ready to move in). This angry and hilarious scene is my favorite work of film criticism in all of 2020. But James also rightly ends the series on a moment of poignancy and hope — by just hanging out in a residential south-side backyard with a pair of young girls who represent the city’s unwritten future, and a beautiful gospel song.
1. Beau Travail (Denis) - A+
2. The Bride of Frankenstein (Whale) - A
3. Halloween (Carpenter) - A
4. The Crazies* (Romero) - B
5. Antiviral* (B. Cronenberg) - B-
6. A Place in the Sun* (Stevens) - A-
7. Theater of Blood* (Hickox) - B+
8. The Projectionist (Ferrara) - B+
9. The Woman Who Ran* (Hong) - A
10. City So Real* (James) - A
* First-time watch
Garrett Bradley’s documentary masterpiece TIME opens today at the Landmark in Chicago and will be available to stream via Amazon Primeon October 23. I reviewed it and interviewed Bradley about it for forCine-file Chicago. I’m including both pieces below.
My favorite movie of 2020 is Garrett Bradley’s TIME, a documentary about Sibil Fox Richardson, a remarkable woman who spent 21 years fighting for the release of her husband, Rob, from Louisiana State Penitentiary after he received an unjustly harsh 60-year-sentence for a first-offense robbery. One of the rallying cries of the Black Lives Matter movement has been that there are seemingly two justice systems in America, one for white people and another for everyone else; Bradley, a young, second-time feature director, illustrates this tragic maxim in the most human terms possible—by closely concentrating on the love story between Fox and Rob and the sadness of their separation. Given the subject matter, many other non-fiction filmmakers would have undoubtedly chosen to include more information about incarceration inequality (with an emphasis on statistics presented via on-screen text, expert interviews, etc.) but Bradley daringly eschews this approach in favor of a relentless focus on just a few people and their emotions (the Richardsons’ children are also prominently featured). TIME poignantly incorporates Fox’s own SD video diaries from over the years with newer HD footage of the Richardson family in the months leading up to Rob’s release, a strategy that, in Bradley’s own words, allows the narrative to move forwards and backwards through time simultaneously. The resulting accumulation of scenes spans over two decades but has been telescoped into a tight 81-minute run time, one that climaxes with a reunion so intimate and powerful to witness that it bears comparison to the final scene of Mizoguchi’s immortal SANSHO THE BAILIFF. Adding to the film’s spellbinding effect is evocative black-and-white cinematography and a soundtrack comprised of terrific gospel-blues piano songs by the Ethiopian composer Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou. (2020, 81 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith] — More info on the in-person Landmark Century Centre Cinema screenings here.
Interview with TIME director Garrett Bradley By Michael Glover Smith
Michael Glover Smith: I’d like to start by asking you about the title of the film. Several of the subjects talk about the concept of time – sometimes in a philosophical way. Did you know you wanted to call it that from the beginning or was that something you discovered during the process of making it?
Garrett Bradley: I have a really hard time naming things in general. I think all of my films are one word! It’s funny because I remember Fox asked me a lot, in the process of being in the film, “What do you feel like the title is going to be?” She talked a lot about how, with all her sons, she would name them before they were born. And I was like, “I’m so the opposite. I need the film to be finished in order for me to name it.” I think, ultimately, I settled on that because “Time” is, oddly, very abstract. There’s no image that the word time elicits for me and yet it has a lot of different connotations. I mean, it’s been used as a form of oppression – you know, thinking about the clock as a symbol of the colonization of cultures through time, through “being on time,” through “being late…” And then it can also address these less concrete and more ephemeral and emotional ways that we move through the world. So I decided on the title of the film once it was finished and I was thinking about it in those ways.
MGS: I love how you chose not to include the logistics of how and why Rob was released from prison. I thought that was very daring on a narrative level – similar to how you didn’t focus on the robbery. I found myself Googling about it afterwards in order to find out the full story. But I’m glad you chose not to focus on those things because it was like you were saying, “That’s not what this is about. That’s not the film I’m interested in making.” Did you ever feel any pressure from anyone who was involved in producing or financing the film to make it more “informational?”
GB: Certainly. I think that was a huge part of the conversation while we were editing. I think a lot of it, for me, boiled down to audience and who I was speaking to. In the context of America, it’s very difficult to prove racism. It’s very difficult to prove what that looks like and how it’s articulated on a systematic level. And, in order to do that, I would’ve started to entangle myself into things that I felt the audience I was speaking to already knew. And I think the other part of it is when we really start to investigate this question of universality or accessibility or everybody understanding something, when we want to take that into account in the context of incarceration – if there’s 2.3 million people that are incarcerated there’s double or triple that number that are also affected by this issue – so when we talk about it being universally understood, who are we really talking about? And what is the true percentage of people that wouldn’t understand that? That, to me, is why I decided to go in the direction that I did.
MGS: It’s a beautiful movie to look at. Can you talk about your motivation to shoot in black-and-white and also, since so many of the images came from footage that Fox shot, was it difficult to color grade to get the black-and-white to match across multiple formats?
GB: I had always thought about TIME as being a sister film to ALONE (Bradley’s 2017 documentary short). And ALONE was in black-and-white because I was making another film called AMERICA, which was also in black-and-white (laughs). In my mind, I was only seeing in black-and-white. I wish I could take credit for this but Lon, who is the main woman we see in ALONE, when I showed the film to her and her sons before it premiered – her son, Jay, is the one that made this metaphorical connection of what it means for the subject matter to be in black-and-white, that it creates a sort of timelessness and that it also speaks to the black and white issue in our country. I wish I could take credit for that but I can’t. In my mind, it was really, “If I’m thinking about these as sister films, I always want them to exist together, adopting the same aesthetic and formal choices.” I went back and forth a little bit once (Fox’s) archive became available to me and I was aware of it – myself and Gabe Rhodes who cut the film – because the archive was in color and I did want to see what that would look like. There are so many spectrums with color. You are telling stories by the type of color you’re working with. I really was invested in trying to create – because I wanted this to feel like the story was moving forward but it was also moving backwards at the same time and it was constantly sort of oscillating between the two – and in order to do that there needed to be some visual uniformity. There needed to be an aesthetic linearity, a cohesiveness, and so the black-and-white really was the only thing that was going to let us do that. The color ended up feeling more like a collage and you really could feel kind of the tug and pull of time.
MGS: The music is something else that binds the footage together. I was blown away by this piano score, which I read later was composed by an Ethiopian nun. At what point did that come into play? Was that during the editing and how did you decide it was appropriate for this story?
GB: Yeah! She’s a 96-year-old Ethiopian nun. She’s still alive. I came across the music actually just through YouTube. It popped up in my algorithm. First, I just loved the music. It immediately spoke to me. And then when I laid it with picture, it was like magic. It just worked. And then there were these two other signs: Some of the names of the tracks were “A Mother’s Love,” or “A Young Girl’s Complaint,” or “Homesickness.” There were these themes that were running throughout the music itself that just felt like it spiritually wanted to be connected with those images. And then when I was reading more about Emahoy’s life – as somebody who came from a wealthy family in Ethiopia, became a prisoner of war, was classically trained in music (in Egypt) then returned back to Ethiopia, and essentially created her own genre of music and then recorded this one album in 1963 for the purpose of raising money for an orphanage – I felt like the lives of these two women were beautifully connected and how amazing it would be to bring them together. So it was both a political and musical choice all in one.
MGS: In addition to cinema, one of my other passions is tennis so I wanted to ask where you are with your Naomi Osaka project.
GB: We’ve been shooting for a little over a year and it’s been really great to work with her. Especially at this point in her life where, in many ways, a lot of the questions that she’s asking herself are the same questions the world is asking itself. She’s an incredibly mentally brilliant and strong young woman. It’s been really great to be able to work with Fox to make TIME and then also to be able to work with someone much younger but who I think has the same leadership skills as somebody like the entire Richardson family.
MGS: I can’t wait to see it. Thank you so much for speaking to me and best of luck to you.
1. Days* (Tsai) – A-
2. The Hills Have Eyes* (Craven) – B
3. Lawman* (Winner) – C+
4. Man of the West (Mann) – A
5. Time* (Bradley) – A
6. Sea Fever* (Hardiman) – D+
7. The Player (Altman) – A
8. The Lodge* (Franz/Fiala) – C-
9. Paris, Texas* (Wenders) – B+
10. Masques* (Chabrol) – B+
It was an honor to make Newcity magazine’s Film 50 list for the second time (for being one of “50 individuals who shape Chicago’s film scene”). Thanks to Ray Pride for the interview and Sally Blood for the photo. I love seeing pics of all my talented colleagues sitting in an empty screening room at the Gene Siskel Film Center: What could be a better metaphor for the local film industry during the pandemic than seeing filmmakers surrounded by empty seats? I’m #45 just like Donald Trump. Make sure to also check out Clare Cooney (the star, co-producer and casting director of my next film, RELATIVE) at #46: https://www.newcityfilm.com/2020/10/01/film-50-2020-chicagos-screen-gems/