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Tag Archives: Frederick Wiseman

Review Roundup: HARD TO BE A GOD and NEAR DEATH

The following reviews, the two I had the most difficulty writing in 2015, originally appeared at Cine-File back in June:

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Aleksey German’s HARD TO BE A GOD (New Russian)

The “silence of God” has been a popular theme of serious artists working in different mediums for centuries but Russian filmmaker Aleksey German, adapting a sci-fi novel by the Strugatskiy Brothers, apparently found a completely original way to explore this concept in his final film (he died in post-production and HARD TO BE A GOD was completed by his wife and son): many years in the future, a scientist from Earth named Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is sent to observe life on the distant planet Arkanar, a place that happens to bear a strong resemblance to Europe during the Middle Ages (i.e., it’s a pre-industrial society where everyone is living in filth and misery, intellectuals are persecuted and human cruelty and stupidity are generally on display everywhere). The Arkanarians regard Rumata as a “God” but the more enlightened man is, for obscure reasons, not allowed to help the members of this alien race transcend the venality and backwardness in which their lives are mired. Some of this narrative information is explained via a sparse voice-over but most of it has to be inferred from a barrage of ugly, non-narrative images that are so rich in putrid detail that they attain a kind of mesmerizing, hallucinatory beauty. Indeed it is practically impossible to capture German’s painterly mise-en-scene using words; suffice it to say that the immersive HARD TO BE A GOD feels like some kind of scatological remix of ANDREI RUBLEV where the plentiful blood, piss, shit, and vomit of the characters commingles with the endless rain and fog of the locations they inhabit, which, when captured by the low-contrast black-and-white cinematography, creates images that resemble moving charcoal drawings in their thick, gray, tactile textures. While the use of an endlessly mobile camera and the sense of lives constantly bustling beyond the edges of the frame will be familiar to those who have seen German’s previous film–the equally formidable but more absurdist KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR!–the overall tone here is closer to something like SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM in its unbearable bleakness. It is unlikely that either Pasolini or German knew these movies would be their last but the extremism with which they approached form and content lends each film the feeling of a final testament in hindsight; when creating a work of art entails jumping into an abyss, sometimes no encore is imaginable. (2013, 170 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Frederick Wiseman’s NEAR DEATH (Documentary Revival)

Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman is famous for his thoroughness and objectivity even if he’s not quite as unimpeachable in these areas as some of his partisans claim; 2013’s AT BERKELEY, for instance, gave surprisingly short shrift to the title university’s professors while letting its administrators ramble on forever. 1989’s NEAR DEATH, however, has both of these qualities in spades and is a monumental achievement of the documentary form. The rare opportunity of seeing it projected on 16mm in its six-hour entirety should make for one of the most important local film events of the year (it has never, in fact, been projected on celluloid in Chicago at all). This screening, which will occur at Chicago Filmmakers, is an encore to the ambitious, recently-concluded Doc Films series “Frederick Wiseman: An Institution” programmed by Beguiled Cinema (aka the Chicago Reader’s Ben Sachs and Cine-File’s own Kat Sachs). NEAR DEATH takes as its subject the medical intensive care unit of Boston’s Beth Israel hospital but, unlike many of Wiseman’s most well-known films, does not focus on the organizational/bureaucratic aspects of the hospital as “institution” (Wiseman already made that film with 1970’s HOSPITAL). Instead, the narrow and immersive focus here is, as the title implies, on the human dynamics between terminally ill patients and their loved ones and the doctors and nurses who care for them. While the epic length might seem daunting to those unfamiliar with Wiseman’s work, the running time is not only justified but ends up feeling practically required by the subject matter, and the experience of watching the film is as easy as breathing (Errol Morris has even said that he thinks it is too short). Wiseman presents the ICU as a kind of self-enclosed world and structures the film around lengthy passages devoted primarily to three different intubated patients, all of whom are experiencing various degrees of internal-organ failure. These interior scenes are occasionally punctuated by shots of the mundane world outside—cars in traffic, a Citgo gas station sign—that only serve to heighten the hermetic, sealed-off quality of the ICU. Wiseman’s distanced, observational camera is aided by the Academy aspect ratio and grainy, black-and-white film stock, both of which reduce the amount of visual information available to the viewer—purifying the images and allowing one to focus on what’s most important: Wiseman’s profound exploration of ethical questions (chiefly, to what extent is it worth keeping someone alive who has no quality of life left?) as well as the emotions swirling around the circumstances of the dying patients, an approach that ends up feeling exhaustive. Seemingly every perspective on the sometimes-harrowing subject is covered and the middle third of the film is taken up by a particularly gripping series of scenes where two doctors have differing interpretations of whether an elderly female stroke victim who has difficulty communicating is telling them that she does or does not want to be resuscitated. The most emotional scenes, however, are saved for last, as the grieving wife of a man suffering from lung disease has a couple of long conversations with one Dr. Taylor, a man so compassionate and patient that he will singlehandedly increase your respect for the medical profession. (1989, 358 min, 16mm) MGS

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49th Chicago International Film Festival Preview, Pt. 2

Here is part two of the Chicago International Film Festival Preview I began last week.

Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)
Rating: 9.8

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My favorite movie at this year’s CIFF is Stranger By the Lake by Alain Guiraudie, a filmmaker too little known outside of his native France. That will hopefully soon change as his latest, which won acclaim at Cannes (and raised more than a few eyebrows due to its inclusion of unsimulated sex acts), is set to receive wider international distribution than any of the director’s previous works. Stranger By the Lake works on multiple levels: at its most basic, it’s a dark (and darkly funny) erotic thriller about a young man named Franck (the superb Pierre Deladonchamps), who witnesses a murder at a provincial lake known to be a cruising spot for gay men. Franck’s attraction to the murderer, the handsome, almost God-like Michel (Christophe Paou), prevents him from going to the police, which allows Guiraudie to explore the “transfer of guilt” theme popularized by Hitchcock — this would make a great double feature with Strangers on a Train. Unlike most most “erotic thrillers,” however, the film’s explicit sex scenes seem less designed to titillate than to serve as a jumping off point for a complex inquiry into the nature of voyeurism and sexual desire. Finally, the movie functions almost as an ethnographic documentary, and a beautifully photographed one at that, into a very specific subculture; the camera never leaves the single setting comprised of the lakeshore, the woods and a nearby parking lot, a self-imposed, Hitchcock-style “limitation” that becomes a virtue given Guiraudie’s masterful mise-en-scene. One of the very best films of the year. Stranger By the Lake screens Friday, October 18th and Sunday, October 20th.

Trapped (Parviz Shahbazi, Iran)
Rating: 7.7

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Trapped is the latest film from Parviz Shahbazi (an acclaimed Iranian writer/director whose previous work I am unacquainted with). It centers on the unlikely and tenuous friendship of two young women thrown together by fate: Nazanin (Nazanin Bayati) is a quiet young medical student, who moves from a small town to Tehran to attend college and rents a room from Sahar (Pegah Ahangarani), an extroverted perfume shop clerk. When Sahar is arrested for bouncing a bad check, Nazanin signs a promissory note in order to cover her new roommate’s debt — but this act of goodwill soon sucks Sahar into a complex legal nightmare. In a weirdly fascinating way, one feels that Trapped, as with several other recent Iranian movies, is able to seriously explore a host of legal and moral issues precisely because of the shrewd way the filmmakers have to deftly sidestep local censorship laws. Even though this won’t receive the backing of Sony Pictures Classics and go on to Oscar glory, the plotting here is at least as skillful and suspenseful as that of A Separation, without resorting to that film’s more blatant narrative contrivances. Both of the lead actresses, incidentally, are excellent. Trapped screens Saturday, October 19th, Monday, October 21st and Tuesday, October 22nd.

At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Rating: 5.1

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Frederick Wiseman has become a legend in the world of documentary film for the way he has examined, patiently and quasi-objectively (i.e., his movies eschew voice-over narration and formal interviews), a raft of American institutions: a boxing gym, a prison, a housing project, a hospital, etc. At age 83, Wiseman has become something of an institution himself, and, while this 4-hour epic about the University of California at Berkeley has earned rave reviews from its first festival appearances, it lacks the intimacy and poignance of his seminal High School (1968), the film to which it serves as a kind of belated sequel. Exhausting but not exhaustive, At Berkeley devotes a lot of time to the school’s administrators, a little bit to the students and hardly any to the teachers. This means that, as the University faces a dire financial crisis, we see endless scenes of a bureaucratic Chancellor — a man with a creepy grin permanently frozen on his face — complaining about state funding drying up, but literally no scenes of professors describing how they are affected by the crunch. The only form of protest on display is one student’s insistence on returning to the days of “no tuition,” a scene that will be all too easy for viewers to dismiss as a crackpot pipe-dream. The complete lack of scenes depicting teachers’ union meetings, teachers talking to other teachers, or teachers doing anything other than addressing their classes gives the impression that Wiseman, consciously or not, has colluded with the administration in glorifying this particular institution and avoiding the real crisis plaguing the contemporary American education system: the Wal-Martification of its employment practices (e.g., eliminating tenure-track positions, hiring part-time instructors in record numbers, avoiding offering benefits, etc.). That movie, alas, will have to be made by someone else. At Berkeley screens Sunday, October 20th.

Soul (Chung Mong-Hong, Taiwan)
Rating: 8.1

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Venerable Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang (whose latest, Stray Dogs, is also playing this festival) has indicated in interviews that he may not make another film. It was therefore fitting and intensely gratifying to discover this bold Lynchian mind-bender by up-and-coming Taiwanese writer/director Chung Mong-Hong. Soul has been tagged as a “supernatural thriller” and a “horror movie” by various critics and programmers although, in spite of the inclusion of a couple of gruesome murder sequences, it’s far more adventurous than those labels imply. What story there is revolves around the question of transfiguration — as a young sushi chef from Taipei suddenly loses consciousness and collapses while on the job only to wake up and claim to be someone else. His co-workers take him to his father’s rural orchid farm to recuperate but dark family secrets soon come to light and a series of bizarre murders ensue. The real protagonist of the film is the father (a great role for the legendary Jimmy Wang Yu), a recent stroke victim who is consumed by feelings of guilt and a desire to amend past wrongs, and the way Chung explores father-son dynamics is hauntingly ambiguous: is this a literal tale of possession or is there a psychological explanation for everything, one that demands the film be read more as allegory? Either way, this is gripping and highly original stuff. Soul screens Monday, October 21st, Tuesday, October 22nd and Wednesday October 23rd.


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