Tag Archives: A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

2014 European Union Film Festival Preview, Pt. 2

Here is the second part of my preview of this year’s European Union Film Festival. The full lineup can be found on the website of the Gene Siskel Film Center here:


A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia/France, 2013)
Rating: 9.1


I’m not sure if this should qualify as an “Estonian” entry in the EU Film Fest — the co-directors, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, hail from the U.S. and the U.K., respectively — and most of it was shot in Scandinavia, yet any excuse for the Siskel Center to show an experimental film this masterful is a good one. It begins with one of the most incredible images I’ve seen on a cinema screen in some time: an epic panning shot of a Finnish landscape, first from right to left, then from left to right, as the last traces of sunlight disappear from the night sky. As the screen grows increasingly dark, a band of hilly forest becomes nothing more than a thick, black horizontal line separating the midnight blue of the sky in the top of the frame from the same shade of color as the lake in the bottom of the frame. After this auspicious prologue, Rivers and Russell’s film moves through three distinct movements: a bearded, tattooed black man who never speaks (Chicago musician Robert A.A. Lowe) commingles with the members of an international hippie commune in Estonia, explores by himself the remote wilds of Finland, and performs a concert with a “black metal” band at a club in Oslo, Norway. The substructure binding these three segments together is the theme of man’s desire for transcendence by returning to a primordial state, whether that means trying to create a utopian society from scratch, communing with nature a la Thoreau, or losing oneself in the primal screams and jackhammer rhythms of the most extreme of musical genres. Although I am no fan of black metal, I found myself utterly transfixed by the final 20-minute concert sequence, which is shot from the stage in long takes and features extreme close-ups of the musicians and their instruments. The viewer’s immersion in the music during this climactic scene is total — to witness it is to feel that one has jumped into the abyss. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness screens on Thursday, March 13.

The Stuart Hall Project (Akomfrah, England, 2013)
Rating: 6.8

A BFI Release

The acclaimed British documentarian John Akomfrah tackles the important British cultural theorist and founding member of the “New Left” Stuart Hall in this innovative non-fiction feature. Akomfrah eschews new talking-head interviews, voice-over narration and explanatory title cards in favor of only using Hall’s own radio and television appearances to tell the story of the man’s life and work. These archival appearances and interviews are interspersed with documentary footage of England and Jamaica (where Hall was born) as well as, more intriguingly, extended musical excerpts from the catalogue of Miles Davis (with whom Hall had a lifelong infatuation). The end result of this dense interweaving of texts is a film that fascinatingly resembles the contrapuntal rhythms of jazz music itself. Akomfrah’s methods, however, also have their limitations: his deliberate choice to not use more traditional non-fiction filmmaking techniques to impart information means that viewers don’t learn as much as they might have about either Hall specifically or the field of Cultural Studies in general. Though one could argue, I suppose, that this movie will at least serve to point those who want to learn more in the right direction. The Stuart Hall Project screens on Friday, March 14 and Wednesday, March 19.

Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy, 2012)
Rating: 8.3


I tend to think of Sardinia as a vacation spot for wealthy tourists but Pretty Butterflies, director Salvatore Mereu’s gritty and powerful adaptation of a novel by Sergio Atzeni, shows off a distinctively seamier side of Cagliari, the Mediterranean island’s capital. A remarkable portrait of a teeming working-class neighborhood, Mereu’s film centers primarily on 11-year-old Cate (Sara Podda) and her best friend, Luna (Maya Mulas), and their misadventures over a span of two days: the girls — who may also be sisters — visit the beach, rip off a young man who solicits them for sex, eat copious amounts of ice cream, avoid predators at every turn, and half-heartedly look for Cate’s older brother in order to talk him out of murdering another local boy. By focusing on pre-adolescent characters who have had to grow up too fast, Mereu illustrates how the world can be a terrible and scary place; and yet, because the friendship between Cate and Luna is so tight, and because they seem so indomitable as characters, this movie is also gratifyingly full of unexpected humor and warmth. As a director, Mereu makes some intriguing stylistic decisions: he occasionally rewinds and pauses shots seemingly at random, and has Cate continually break the fourth wall to directly address the camera. But, even if you find these quirky choices at odds with the naturalistic dialogue and performances, you will probably be glad he didn’t go down the tired pseudo-documentary route. This is singularly pungent and unforgettable stuff. Pretty Butterflies screens on Sunday, March 23 and Thursday, March 27.

Those Happy Years (Luchetti, Italy, 2013)
Rating: 7.4


Director Daniele Luchetti returns to the subject matter of his acclaimed 2007 film My Brother Is an Only Child for another look back at the dynamics of an Italian family in the 1970s. Those Happy Years, however, is more personal than political: young Dario (Samuel Garofalo) is the director’s alter-ego, exploring his budding desire to make movies after he receives the gift of a Super-8 camera, a story that is juxtaposed against that of the marital troubles of his parents. Dario’s father, Guido (Kim Rossi Stuart), is a philandering artist dealing with a disastrously received exhibition while his mother, Serena (Micaela Ramazzotti), explores Italy’s burgeoning feminist movement as well as her own repressed lesbian desires. This modest and winning film offers a poignant reminder that we often realize our happiest moments only in hindsight; and the cutting satire of the art world on display is, for my money, far more effective than in Paolo Sorrentino’s overrated The Great Beauty — mainly because Luchetti doesn’t seem like he’s Zeus judging his artist-characters from on top of Mount Olympus. Those Happy Years screens on Sunday, March 30 and Wednesday, April 2.


Last Thoughts on Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais


Learning of the recent passing of directors Alain Resnais and Harold Ramis was, for a number of reasons, particularly painful for me. In a weird way, these two great artists, so seemingly different on the surface, were always linked together in my mind: following the lead of the critic Glenn Kenny, I was only half-joking when I introduced a screening of Last Year at Marienbad in a class just weeks ago by saying that it was “the arthouse version of Groundhog Day.” Both movies explore the premise of having a character relive the same time frame over and over again while trying to convince others that they are not crazy in the bargain. But the affinity between the whip-smart creators of these movies goes deeper than that. Resnais was a critical darling frequently characterized as “cerebral” and “intellectual” but he had a poppier side that was often sadly overlooked. (He was fond of comic books and Stephen Sondheim, and his love of The X-Files directly resulted in a fruitful collaboration with Mark Snow, the composer of that show’s theme song.) Ramis received a kind of grudging critical respect for being a successful-but-vulgar showman and yet his films also explored serious philosophical issues that went unremarked upon at the time of their initial release. Alain Resnais was one of the last living links to a heroic era of European art cinema and Harold Ramis was one of the last remaining “good guys” directing for the major Hollywood studios. The world now feels like a much emptier place without them.

Jack Black and Michael Cera in Columbia Pictures' comedy YEAR ONE.

Harold Ramis’s death ended up being the occasion that got me to recently watch his final film, the Jack Black-starring caveman-comedy Year One. Even though I was a fan of Ramis when it was released in 2009, I had foolishly avoided seeing it in theaters due to its mostly negative critical reception. After having a rough couple of days in which I found myself feeling creatively and professionally unfulfilled, however, my wife and I finally decided to watch Year One last night — and found ourselves laughing uproariously through the whole thing. Of course, the Mel Brooks-inspired effort has its share of fart and piss jokes but the director of Groundhog Day also managed to slip in a sly and resonant message about the importance of not following leaders and being the master of one’s own destiny. Ramis, who once rhetorically asked of those who preferred movies that didn’t make them think, “Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?,” was making smart comedies that were ahead of their time until the end. In a neat coincidence, I also recently saw Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s masterful experimental film A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, which contains the loveliest tribute to Ramis imaginable (even if it was unintentional): in a documentary segment set in a hippie commune in rural Estonia, a young woman lifts up her Animal House t-shirt to breastfeed her baby while simultaneously engaging a male friend in a philosophical dialogue about how to make the world a better place. “The world needs more parties,” the woman decides. Her intellectual companion concurs, noting that “parties are autonomous zones.” I’d like to think that, somewhere, the author of Animal House is smiling.


Last August, Harold Ramis’s wife, Erica Mann Ramis, was a guest in my Intro to Film class at Oakton Community College. She graciously allowed me to interview her in front of the class, sat through a screening of a documentary she had produced about the Joffrey Ballet (which she’d probably seen 500 times) and participated in a question and answer session with the students afterwards. She acted both surprised and pleased when I told her how much I loved her husband’s unheralded black comedy The Ice Harvest. She told me she was going to tell him I said that, and I really hope she did because — even though he was super-famous for playing Egon in Ghostbusters — he never really got the critical respect that he deserved as a director. My thoughts go out to Erica and the entire Ramis family. You can read my interview with her here:


You can see my personal photo tour of the Woodstock, Illinois locations featured in Groundhog Day here:



Prior to screening Last Year at Marienbad, I told my Perspectives on Film class that I considered Alain Resnais to be one of the world’s five best living filmmakers. Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine what the past half-century of cinema would have looked like without him — the hotel-corridor tracking shots in The Shining; the nonlinear structures of early Tarantino; the narratives doubling back on themselves in Run Lola Run and Too Many Ways to Be Number One; the backwards storytelling of Peppermint Candy, Memento and Irreversible; the Cubist editing schemes of Upstream Color; and the entire filmography of Wong Kar-Wai, with its obsessive focus on the themes of time and memory. Would any of these things have been quite the same had Resnais’s formally innovative and groundbreaking films not come along first to provide a shining example?

In my list of the 50 Best Living Film Directors, from which he has just been removed, this is what I had written of Alain Resnais:

Although often lumped in with the Nouvelle Vague, Alain Resnais was a successful documentary filmmaker years before his brethren at Cahiers du Cinema took up cameras and started doing it for themselves. Among these early works, Night and Fog remains, for my money, the best movie ever made about the holocaust. That film’s elegant use of tracking shots and cross-cutting foreshadowed the intellectually provocative and formally dazzling qualities of Resnais’ classic early narrative features: Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Resnais’ brilliant editing schemes, in which chronologically scrambled stories dovetail with his cherished theme of subjective memory, have been massively influential on the last half-century of world cinema. After the underrated La Guerre est finie in 1968, Resnais’s output became more hit or miss (I personally have no use for Stavisky or Smoking/No Smoking); but later masterworks like Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Wild Reeds are disturbing, hilarious, deeply satisfying examinations of human behavior that reconfirm Resnais’s status as a giant of the medium.

Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Muriel (1963), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

Alain Resnais’s final film, Life of Riley, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month, where it won the prestigious Silver Bear award. One hopes that it will receive stateside distribution soon.

You can read my long review of Resnais’s penultimate movie, the splendid You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, here:



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