Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Week in Review - 21/6/09

Winter solstice - I love it! There's a change in energy and from today the days start to get longer. The two-week Guerín season started at Melbourne Cinémathèque and, if you missed this week (a highlight of my year so far), make sure you see the coming screenings on Wednesday.

  • Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, Australia/USA, 1971)
  • En la ciudad de Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia, José Luis Guerín, Spain, 2007)
  • Unas fotos en la ciudad de Sylvia (Some Photos in the City of Sylvia, José Luis Guerín, Spain, 2007)
  • Tren de sombras (Train of Shadows, José Luis Guerín, Spain, 1997)
  • Reservations (Aloura Melissa Charles, USA, 2008)
Wake in Fright + Q&A session
I don't have time to go into detail. I found this really enjoyable, a gutsy Australian film, made by a Canadian. Maybe it takes an outsider to take an honest look at ourselves, for that is what Kotcheff achieved. It's very authentic and has dated really well. It looks a helluva lot better than the pirated DVD copy of a VHS that screened at MUFF last year, but I was aghast when about a minute or two disappeared from the screening I attended. Grant wants to leave the pub when the cop (Chips Rafferty) is about to take him to task for not offering to shout a drink in return. We missed that, but the first-time audience wouldn't know it.

The Q&A was with director Ted Kotcheff, editor Anthony Buckley and moderated by Mark Hartley (Not Quite Hollywood). Various stories and anecdotes were shared and enhanced the evening. I raised the issue of the missing bits, but given that the speakers weren't in attendance during the screening, couldn't really comment. Buckley assured me that the film is present in its entirety, so I'm assuming it was a one-off glitch.

In the City of Sylvia
José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia has been described using various well-deserved superlatives. Not only is Guerin's unique film an amazing cinematic accomplishment, but it does it with almost no dialogue. It taps into primal human desires for connection and desire, exploring the nature of memory.

Humanity is a strange beast, full of contradictions. On the one hand, “man is gregarious” and we desire love, friendship, community and so on. On the other, there is an inherent incompatibility between both individuals and communities, who seemed destined for conflict. True friendship is, it appears, quite rare and many friendships seem to depend on absence for sustenance (a type of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, I suppose).

The Melbourne Cinémathèque screening of In the City of Sylvia was greatly enhanced by Some Photos in the City of Sylvia which is much more compelling than it looks on paper. Not only is it completely silent (no dialogue, voiceover or music - which highlighted my rumbling belly and no doubt disturbed those sitting close to me), but there are no moving images either. It consists of a series of still photographs by Guerín that effectively constitute (unconventionally) a type of making-of documentary that explains the original film.

Not only is the original film highly autobiographical or self-reflexive, dramatising the director’s own experiences over twenty years earlier in the same locations, but it sheds light on his intentions with the film and the theme of the struggle between the human desire to connect and the natural resistance to the same, or disconnection.

The film has both a naturalistic look and feel, yet stylistically heightened. The visuals are stunning, with Strasbourg an amazing backdrop as our artist protagonist traverses the streets of this picturesque small city in search of his lost Sylvia. The film assumes a voyeuristic perspective, highly observational, perhaps as the guy sees the city. We see lots of images of women, particularly young women. Some are gorgeous, some not. Often they are backdropped by large perfume advertisements that feature the faces of gorgeous young models, underscoring the director’s fascination with femininity.

Guerín’s preoccupation with faces takes various forms and he often portrays how people appear from the voyeur’s perspective. He could almost be toying with the audience, demonstrating how from a distance one person looks relative to another: they are not seated together but from the viewer’s perspective appear to relate. Deep focus is used to good effect, differentiating between the different scenarios. Similarly, Guerín seems fascinated by the dual or parallel imagery of filming someone through a window whose reflections superimpose over the person, creating a unique kind of visual experience.

Couples kissing are a recurring theme. Several characters reappear intermittently, like the African belt seller. A homeless woman is sitting in the street and, while we don’t see her again, we recognise her discarded beer bottles. “LAURE JE T’AIME” appears to be scrawled all around the city. Who is this Laure? And who is her lover?

In a film where dialogue is near absent, the music takes on a heightened sense of importance. It powerfully punctuates the narrative in an organic manner as our protagonists wander the steets. Sometimes there are performers at the conservatoire, buskers in the street or music blaring over speakers in a bar or passing car.

In the City of Sylvia is poetic, original, beautiful, captivating and moving. It is an experience and a privilege. If you get the chance to see it, don’t miss it.

Tren de sombras
Fatigue set in during this screening and I don't think I imbibed it as well as I could have otherwise. So I don't want to comment on it, other than to say I'd like to see it again.

Nice film, but unexceptional. Co-presented by ACMI and Women in Film and Television, it naturally has a woman director and features Australia's Kerry Armstrong in top billing in an ensemble piece. Like In the City of Sylvia, it deals with themes of human disconnection as we encounter various lonely individuals spending one night in the same New York hotel.

Reservations is what I find myself now calling a "worthy" film, and that's not a compliment. Like many local films of recent years that tackle "worthy" issues, it somehow lacks dramatic impact. Sure, a film doesn't have to be hyper-real, but it just lacks pizzazz, oomph, mojo, something. We can see where it's going, it seems a bit too derivative and the film's conclusion is a bit too neat. But it's worthy!


Glenn Dunks said...

"Maybe it takes an outsider to take an honest look at ourselves"

See I don't quite get that argument since so many Australian filmmakers like to make films detailing how much of a shit country we are, don't you think?

Paul Martin said...

I don't get your logic, Glenn?

"so many Australian filmmakers like to make films detailing how much of a shit country we are"

That doesn't equate to honesty, though. Have you seen the film? I think Kotcheff has filmed Australia as he sees it as an outsider. There's many details an outsider notices that an insider won't. For example, when I'm in another country, I'm fascinated by the tiniest of details like what you find on supermarket shelves or in stores in general. Kotcheff's depiction is very fresh.

Paul Martin said...

Bear in mind also, that this was made nearly 4 decades ago.