The Wisconsin Film Festival has continued to grow, and is now one of the largest campus-based film festivals in the country. It does not challenge Toronto, Telluride, or Chicago for international renown, but it does provide a stunning variety of international and domestic releases and restored classics. The festival director has a soft spot for oddities and gives local filmmakers possibly their only shot at distribution. Funny that the opening film was about lesbian yodelers from New Zealand, while the biggest hit (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) was brought here on a whim and was not expected to fill a theater. Being in the Midwest, festivals are about the only way to see films worth a shit. Most surprising was the revival of Jules Dassin’s The Law, as well as a screening of Sergio Leone’s endearingly strange Duck, You Sucker. The festival also featured the work of Joon Ho-Bong and a sample of films from Africa.
There are some events in life that are truly impossible to understand unless they happen to you. Nothing can prepare you for coping with such situations, and empathy is forever out of reach. Shirley Adams is a single mother living in Cape Town, and her son was left as a quadriplegic (with some arm use) after being shot in the spine by thugs. The event is not portrayed, nor any reason given for the event, and rightly so since such things are meaningless for those left to pick up the pieces. Her husband left, and it is suggested that an inability to deal with his son was the reason. While avoiding melodrama, Shirley Adams gets across just how thankless a task it is to care for someone who is left a shell of his former self. The son is unable to provide even minimal self-care due to being physically shattered, and emotionally he is a husk, as he is well aware of the empty life left ahead of him. This is better than just about any film I have ever seen about the complexities of the aftermath of tragedy. It is messy, incomplete, and fraught with abrupt shifts in tone, just as it should be.
Shirley’s son attempts suicide by pill ingestion, which is extraordinarily difficult to do when you cannot use your hands. Shirley cannot understand how this feels, nor the drive for suicide; she does not pretend to. She just keeps working, and doing her best to take care of him. We are taken through the daily routines, cooking, cleaning, dealing with money and medication shortages due to being unable to work steadily, bathing him. Daily work, with no end in sight, no crying, no emotion if at all possible. The question of why this happened, and why her son was shot never comes up, though it is made clear the question circulates through her mind every moment of every day. There is a wonderful sequence where the boys who perpetrated the crime are caught, and it is made clear just how hollow any sense of victory is after the tragedy has already taken place. The mother and the son no longer have any reason to care about this, and the absurdity of daily life is written on their faces. A social worker drops by to work with her son, and her naivete is as plain and awkward as a newborn impala. She may want to find a way to help, but can never be savvy to whether that help is wanted or needed. Her ability to wake him out of his funk has an unexpected result, but then, one can never predict the effect people can have on one another.
Shirley Adams is filmed with a claustrophobic eye, often choking the viewer – this is not a comfortable film to watch as it often hits rather close to home. The technique is often jarring, and pitch-perfect. Oliver Hermanus filmed this for SABC television, but it comes off as feature film quality. The central performance by Denise Newman is bold and unflinching, and one can hope she finds equally challenging roles in the future. The resolution is as random (yet strangely expected) as anything else in the film, just as the tragedies and triumphs of life are often random and not interested in whatever plans you have previously made. Life goes on. Or not. What Shirley Adams conveys with astute observations is the relative lack of meaning in our direction; there is only the drive to survive, which not everyone has. Even more crucially, one cannot comprehend what it is like to live with disability. Those who are cut down are locked in their perspective, and those who remain whole are in theirs.
Thorn In The Heart
Michel Gondry is one of the more exciting directors today, crafting some of the more revolutionary (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or at least clever (Science of Sleep) films that consider what it means to be human, which is an elusive and complicated subject to say the least. It is surprising, then, that his new film is such a meandering slog. The subject of this documentary is Gondry’s aunt, who taught classes at various levels in the south of France… and that is about it. She tells stories, expresses regret about one of her sons who has been a ‘thorn in her heart’, and we revisit some of the places she lived in her youth in this traipse down memory lane. The question of why this demanded an actual film is left unanswered, except that Gondry has the resources to make a movie. It really is little beyond an assemblage of home movies with a few interesting scenes thrown in with no overall vision. There is one such scene where the ruins of a former school are resuscitated for one night as they show a film for the locals who have gathered in what is now a forest clearing. Probably the most inessential film of the year apart from Nightmare on Elm Street.
It is convention in cinema that the protagonist is someone special (otherwise, why tell a story about them?), destined for greatness. A chosen one on the hero’s journey, or perhaps an ordinary individual who must triumph over incredible odds. This artifice bleeds off the screen and into popular culture and the life of the viewer as one identifies with those onscreen. I like to think this plays a part in the entitled psychology of this generation. It is deeply satisfying to see this convention left for dead in Point Traverse, one of the best features of the year so far. An ordinary story is told with solid craft by Albert Shin in a confident feature debut. The background subtext, as persistent as the fluorescent overhead lighting in a fast food restaurant, is the uncomfortably bleak but practical question “What if I was not destined for greatness… or anything at all?” Fortunately this existential trip without specific direction has more than its share of interesting stops, all relating to the central theme.
The opening shots are drenched in the realism of drudgery; Adwin works in a small town burger place, generally by himself, and seems content with this responsibility and the steady paychecks spent on his solitary apartment. Cael is a drifter, hitching rides and going from one random place to crash after another, stealing when possible to stay alive. Cael went to school with Adwin; presumably neither saw a reason to go past high school. In short, one is tethered to a stable job and an adequate life, the other is in dire poverty but is completely free. The characters are neither eloquent or particularly self-aware, and the film is devoid of expository dialogue, requiring you to read between the lines to understand who these people are and how we relate to them. Our plot, what little there is, sets in motion when Cael drops in on Adwin to hang out for a while before moving on to the next town. Nothing is revealed apart from their circumstances, and Adwin and Cael drink the night away. There is no overt reflection on this night, at least not immediately. The only progression in the story is that of character development, which is largely wordless.
Adwin and Cael are on two opposite sides of a looking glass, and they wonder, with remarkably internal performances, what lies on the other side. For Cael, freedom is his prison, and the source of his crushing poverty. He gets a job, and a girlfriend, but his habits make it impossible to keep one, then the other. And he moves on as always. Adwin glares balefully at the tools of his trade and begins to wonder what else there is in life. He hires a girl and cultivates a relationship, but being a pathologically lonely social retard, this does not go the way he plans. All he has is the dead-eyed endurance that allows him to do well in his job. In one exemplary scene, he is sawing chicken carcasses, and the scene stretches… a little too long. Similar to how a word hanging in the air long enough becomes awkward, he considers his situation and the silence magnifies his absurd existence. Such nothingness itself can organically grow tension, much as Jean-Pierre Melville would as he advised his cinematographer “Kiddo, let’s stretch this one out a bit.” Both Adwin and Cael tread water in their isolation, but this isolation has emotional investment. There is a murder, but it has no import or relevance to the story; at least, no more than the trees the people trudge through, the lakes they overlook, the mountains that stare down upon them. Such things will stand long after our minimal existences cease, and function as signposts for those who walk by.
So much of Point Traverse is a blank slate (filled with symbolism and beautifully shot moments, of course) that one is free to project and consider their own lives in a similar context. In a way, your enjoyment may depend on what you bring to the theatre, and whether you are in the mood for something entertaining in its own right, but with room to stretch out and get philosophical.
Izulu Lami (My Secret Sky)
Films taking place in the most impoverished parts of the world begin their lives at high risk of devolving into tragedy porn, and it takes a sure hand to steer the ship into such troubled waters without losing an audience. There is nothing worse than feeling manipulated, even if the goals of the manipulator are noble. Izulu Lami, a remarkable new film from South Africa, avoids sentiment and hokey cliche in favor of a narrative designed to bring its audience to understand the life of an orphan in one of the most harsh places in the world to be one. Shot on location in KwaZulu-Natal, a boy and girl watch their mother die, ostensibly of HIV/AIDS, and their world falls apart quickly. All they have left in the world is a woven mat their mother completed just before her death, and it comes to embody their hopes for the near future. This is nowhere near as precious as it sounds – Izulu Lami is a surprisingly cynical and knowing film.
There are an estimated 11 million children orphaned in sub-Saharan Africa, and HIV is only one of the causes (about 70% in this part of the world). Rural areas are unusually affected due to a relative lack of preventive education and support services. When parents die, the only common solution is for distant relatives to adopt them, and so they do for the benefit check. Often they are exploited in ways physical or sexual that the community tends to ignore. Izulu Lami nails this sense of the world crumbling beneath the feet of the two children as their aunt sells off everything of value before leaving forever. Funerals happen in every community, no matter how small, every single weekend, and this sort of thing is common enough to be accepted. They are left with a bare house of no value – but the older girl has managed to hide the potentially valuable mat. The village prays to the ancestors and ancients to protect these children as the myth of universal African generosity is skewered mercilessly. It is satisfying to see these cliches burned at the stake – Africans are no more or less greedy than anyone else, and this intensifies if the dead relative had the AIDS curse. The children are more than poor – they are untouchable.
Left with few options, they decide to flee for the city – that other cliched source of hope and boundless optimism. There is a white priest there who had purchased a mat from their mother in the past, and perhaps he would favor them this time. They do not have a name, only a photo and maybe an address. But Durban is a five hour drive from their remote village, and these children are wandering on foot. The journey is a difficult one, made all the worse by their discovery that kindness is hard to come by. Eventually they reach the sprawling urban center of Durban, only to find that religious figures are of no help to anonymous street kids like them. The only assistance they can find is of the accidental kind, as a glue-sniffing street kid, played with considerable charisma and presence by Tshepang Mohlomi, lends a hand while figuring out how to wring some money from these farm children. Sobahle Mkhabase turns in a complicated performance as the young girl who must obtain some street smarts in a hurry or the city will swallow them whole.
In the end, the mat along with any other potential source of hope turns out as false as the supposed cohesion of their home village. Izulu Lami takes a fascinating and circuitous route in showing that true hope only comes from within; any external source is worthless. In a quiet scene with considerable emotional punch, the children set aflame not only a source of such false hope, but a symbol their ancestors, their religion and everything that failed to provide even minimal solace. It is only too common that children orphaned by AIDS in Africa must fend for themselves. For these two children, there is no way out, but there may be a way through. Izulu Lami is at turns funny and heartbreaking, but above all else it is grounded in reality.
The movement of aggressively quirky, ironically detached cinema has given way to more dreary mumblecore dramas with pretensions of neorealism, which in a way is like meningitis becoming a persistent vegetative state; less of an emergency during which you shit yourself, more of a languid bore that is easily forgotten. In that vein, let us explore, and then promptly ignore The Exploding Girl. This is a tale of love lost and then sort of found again, which is something you have experienced unless you have been aborted in the first trimester.
The Girl in question has a boyfriend, Greg, who moves across the country, and the two have a long distance relationship. As so often happens, one (in this case Greg) loses interest and finds someone else. Meanwhile, a guy from her college moves in with her and her mom (since his parents sublet his room) and the two begin to gel in the way people do when not afflicted by agoraphobia. This is nothing you have not seen before, and is crushingly straightforward without the benefit of an incompetent director to bring something interestingly ludicrous to the table. This whole thing is so much more inconsequential on the big screen than in real life.
I wish I had more to say on the matter, but there just isn’t much here. An element of drama is attempted as the girl has a seizure disorder which manifests itself when she drinks too much after being dumped. This gimmick adds nothing of value other than unnecessary metaphor. Meanwhile, I managed to compose an elaborate grocery list and read The Onion twice. So, at least you can get something useful done if you wish to see The Exploding Something Something.
Ferragosto is the harvest festival, traditionally at the end of summer, reduced from one solid month of faffing about in Roman times to a single day of celebration in the present. With that setting, Gianni is about to host his own small, but significant festival in his flat. Gianni takes care of his 93-year-old mother, and lost his regular job, making it impossible to pay rent. Fortunately, his landlord has a solution: watch his mother so he can get away for the weekend. As it happens, additional professionals drop off their elderly family members to cancel out unpaid debts, and our hero is running a miniature assisted living facility. This lighthearted and gentle farce is a considerable change of pace for the director of Gomorrah, to put it mildly. It does not have a larger point to make, apart from noting that a lust for life can last well into the twilight years, barring onset of dementia. These ladies are very much alive, ready for one glass of wine after another, dancing, and enjoying the fine cuisine that our long-suffering host can provide. Initially this is a burden for him, as these women are quite the handful. One in particular is all about the bar scene, nipping out to troll for ass and then drunkenly trying to seduce Gianni. This is not a ham-handed commentary about neglect of senior citizens, it is just a slice of life plugged into a cooking-heavy film where everyone has a glass of vino in hand at all times.
Mid-August Lunch is brisk, and almost slight enough to blow away with the breeze. One grounding aspect is Gianni’s push well past middle age. He seems to understand just where he is headed, and can only hope to appreciate the time he has left as much as his charges do. This effortlessly charming film is funny, and emotionally involving without a hint of manipulation, never for a moment overstaying its welcome.
Touted as a beautifully shot look at the life of sheep farmers in Montana, Sweetgrass had considerable potential as a meditative look at an extraordinarily lonely job. On these terms, Sweetgrass works reasonably well, though it is so distanced from its subject that one is left with a sort of ‘huh’ feeling at the end. The landscape photographs well, and the director manages to capture not only the beauty, but the unforgiving roughness of the terrain. Odd scenes such as the opening shot of a sheep staring gormlessly into the camera evokes a mood rather than offering illumination into how such a life is lived. The ranch hands take their sheep on epic strolls across the mountains to graze on public lands (until 2003 this was the case), a massive effort with shorn wool as the fruit of their labor.
It captures the absurdities inherent in the life of a cowboy in the modern age; open grazing is coming to an abrupt end as factory farms produce nearly all of our food supply. Sheep no longer scrabble along ridges for sweet grass – they are jammed into massive warehouses and fed chemical mixtures with antibiotics. The men working this herd do not appear to enjoy their jobs, or at least that is the impression given by one hand who is raving about the motherfucking terrain, the cocksucking sheep, and his son of a bitching knee. He needs to walk on it considering his dog is too exhausted to even stand, and his horse is approaching lame status thanks to the fucking piece of shit mountain. Times change, and Sweetgrass considers the end of this way of life.
Check back for longer individual reviews of the following films from Wisconsin Film Festival: The Law, Cell 211, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, A Film With Me In It, and Police, Adjective.