(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)
24 City (Jia Zhang-ke)
Jia is one of the most interesting filmmakers to watch right now, partly because he’s hooked in to one of the world’s most fascinating subjects – China’s continuing modernization and the effect upon its inhabitants. His greatest expression of the theme was in The World a few years ago: since then he’s taken a more incremental approach, exploring with documentary and semi-documentary techniques. 24 City continues this project, focusing on a long-standing Chengdu factory now being demolished, to be replaced by a modern commercial/residential complex, and interviewing a cross-section of those affected (some of them real; others played by actress, notably by Joan Chen who achieved fame in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor). The recurring theme is the place, or even the plausibility, of individual desires and dreams and aspirations, set against a social and industrial momentum that will marginalize, if not crush, all but the strongest/most fortunate (I was lucky enough to go to China a few years ago – mostly to Beijing and Hong Kong but also a little off the beaten track – and I’ve never felt so fully how one might simply get swallowed up). So whereas the relatively fortunate can dwell on a memory of breaking up with a girlfriend, and remembering how she resembled the heroine of a particular TV show; for others, the testimony is much grimmer, testifying to a lifelong battle for self-actualization, if not for basic human rights. Jia ventilates his film with often-ironic snatches of popular song, poetry, and asides, and overall it’s a compelling social document. My only reservation (as it was with his last film Still Life, which built a not entirely dissimilar project around the dislocation of the Three Gorges dam project) is that Jia is so talented that I can’t help feeling we’re missing out on potentially more ambitious and even more resonant works.
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
Assayas has recently seemed preoccupied by the intersection of tech and trashiness in the confusing new world; Demonlover and Boarding Gate had a perfect feel for contemporary turbocharged alienation, but left many people feeling merely, well, alienated. The new film is superficially far removed from there – one of those typically French creations (with Juliette Binoche yet!) built around family get-togethers and conflicts. In this case, the matriarch – who’s largely dedicated her later life to preserving the memory of her uncle, a famous painter – dies, and her children must decide what to do with the house and its contents (and by extension with the heritage and worldview they represent). Two of the siblings work outside France in the new global economy; the third lives in Paris and has written a book questioning whether the economy – as usually discussed – even exists. Not hard to guess whose views prevail, and there lies the thematic link to the other recent films. Put that way, the film sounds fairly straightforward – take for example the use of a modern telephone (not even an iphone!) as a symbol of too much progress. But it’s very skillfully handled (Assayas is a master coordinator of overlapping movement, and the house and its artifacts are wonderfully conceived), and I found it quite gracefully moving overall. Assayas is no doubt a pragmatist, but the film’s sense of loss is palpable and convincing – whether directed at furniture removed from context and function into a stark museum where visitors merely snooze by on the way to the jazzier stuff, or even at the way that transgression and misdemeanor aren’t as poetically alluring as they used to be. The cast is uniformly ideal.
It Might Get Loud (Davis Guggenheim)
Guggenheim’s follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth is an all-too-convenient contrivance – he brings together three generations of rock electric guitar mastery, to see how loud it gets (answer – not as much as you might think or hope). The participants are old pro Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, U2’s famously obsessive stickler The Edge, and Jack White from The White Stripes, who most prizes atmosphere and authenticity. The actual encounter makes up relatively little of the film though, and what there is of it is pretty lifeless – the rest is separately shot footage and archival retrospectives of the three. It’s all entertaining of course, but it doesn’t feel like a very logical or necessary movie, and it doesn’t even do that good a job of showcasing the music. An Inconvenient Truth was obviously acclaimed more for the inherent worthiness of its content than for any cinematic skill – likewise, Guggenheim doesn’t bring much to the table here…indeed I’m not sure he fully realizes what’s on the table.
Nuit de Chien (Werner Schroeter)
Schroeter has been cited as a major art-house name for decades now, and his new film made the festival’s Masters section, but I don’t know when anyone might actually get a chance to see his work. The profile on the Senses of Cinema website says that ambiguity is “a constant trait of his films (allowing) for a degree of openness that tends either to engage or frustrate viewers depending on their tastes...his work is a testament to the very possibility of the coexistence of both celebration and parody, of both 'high' and 'low.'” His latest, the first in six years, is set in an unnamed European city undergoing major political breakdown. A high-ranking soldier returns in the middle of all this, in search of the woman he loves; along the way he brushes up against the various military and secret police factional leaders, skirmishing and plotting for control, all of which is seemingly hopeless anyway in the shadow of a pending invading force. There’s no sign of what caused the breakdown, and throughout the city little pockets of activity – usually involving hostesses, seedy bars, or surprisingly tenacious cab drivers – continue in hardy isolation. Schroeter’s approach is stark – not exactly realistic, there’s a knowing air of baroque melodrama to much of it – and of course, given the subject matter, there’s a pervasive resignation (the opening and closing epigram, intoning that “death will come when it will come,” seems to warn against our investing ourselves in the film’s apparent narrative). Given his reputation though, it works better as a semi-conventional yarn than I expected (indeed, perhaps both celebrating and parodying the broad social breakdown genre). Being totally new to his work (and maybe even if I wasn’t), it’s hard to determine what more complex strategies might lie below the film’s surface, and I do find myself wondering whether it’s viable just to dip into this one presumably late work, without any prior grounding. But maybe the use in one scene of Orson Welles’ voice from his classic War of the Worlds hoax is a tip-off not to take it too seriously. The festival program calls the film an “extraordinary gift,” but doesn’t offer much of a hint of what the specific nature of the gift might be.