Le Quattro Volte, dir. Michelangelo Frammartino
Cold Weather, dir. Aaron Katz
All of a sudden, reincarnation has become a major subject in contemporary film. In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul followed his title character’s soul in its movements between the animal and human worlds over a thousand years of Thai history, while a drug dealer’s wait for rebirth becomes the occasion for frenetic trip through the Tokyo underworld in Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times), a beautiful new film by the novice Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino, seems to likewise be about the transmigration of souls, although it is made with such quiet and reserve (and a complete lack of dialogue) that any singular interpretation risks squashing its texture.
An elderly goatherd tends his goats in the pastures above a town in a remote, rural part of Calabria. He’s dying. To help with his cough he takes dust from the floor of the village church. One morning, in the midst of preparations for an Easter procession, a series of mishaps lead to his goats getting free from their pen. They go into the goatherd’s house; he dies just as they come into his room to inspect his bed.
After the old man’s funeral the camera cuts to the birth of a baby goat. Is this him? I assumed so, but Frammartino gives no overt indication that it is. The next segment of the film follows the goat during its brief life. It then shifts its attention to a tree, which is cut down and used as the centerpiece of a village festival, before being further chopped down into logs and taken to a charcoal maker and turned into ash.
Seated somewhere between a haiku and a documentary, Le Quattro Volte is a difficult film to categorize. Frammartino shoots many scenes from a considerable distance, observing long, meticulously choreographed sequences (featuring some very expert dog handling) from what seems like a great height. It’s further than you expect for a documentary, but not quite high enough for God. This remove and the absolute avoidance of narration might bring to mind minimalist epics like Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale, but Frammartino’s film isn’t anywhere near as abstract, or as cold.
Actually, it’s probably impossible to be cold once you have baby goats onscreen. But whether it’s meant to be about the carbon cycle or the seasons or the rhythm of life in rural Calabria, Le Quattro Volte isn’t particularly interested in the mechanics of camera movement. Strangely, the most compelling thing in it might be the wood pile used to make charcoal, a towering mound of logs arranged in a ring then covered with dirt. Fire burns in its center and smoke escapes through a network of holes in its sides like out of a steaming colander, and it looks cooler than almost any piece installation art.
Frammartino seems to be aware of this; the first image in Le Quattro Volte is of men standing on top of the mound, beating it down with a shovel. That sound provides the subliminal heartbeat for the following sections, and it returns at the end when whatever is left of the goatherd drifts off in a puff of smoke.
Jean-Luc Godard once said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun (before deciding that you also need the history of Western art, confused celebrity guest-stars and loads of Mozart). It’s a nice formula, first of all, because like the best of Godard it sounds smart and makes you feel free, and second, because it realizes that the moment you put a girl on screen you have the promise of sex, and with a gun you have the threat of violence. And once you have those two, what more do you need?
Aaron Katz’s mumblecore pseudo-noir Cold Weather follows this advice up to a point, and then runs from it. The movie starts promisingly, with images of Portland so damp and overcast it looks like a place you’d commit crimes just to cut through the gloom. That mood of enticing dread doesn’t last long once Doug, the film’s shambling protagonist, ambles on screen.
Doug is an aspiring forensic scientist on permanent vacation from college. He’s living with his beautiful big sister, Gail, and looking for work. Doughy, lazy, and irresponsible, he eventually finds it at an ice factory where he befriends one of the workers – Carlos, who is a DJ and Star Trek fan. Soon, Doug’s implausibly attractive ex-girlfriend Rachel shows up in town. Like the two boys, she’s a collection of perfectly random character traits – hipster, stripper, and Star Trek fan.
For a moment, it seems like there might be some romantic tension between Rachel and Carlos. Suddenly, Rachel disappears, and Carlos persuades Doug to look for her. They discover that her motel room is under surveillance. Doug throws himself into the search – by skipping work, buying a pipe and then taking a nap. That’s how the whole film goes. As soon as anything that might be dangerous or sexy or exciting happens, Katz makes sure to drown it in oafish whimsy.
I love movies like The Vanishing, The Lady Vanishes, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me where someone suddenly disappears into thin air. The idea of someone vanishing conjures up a universe full of hidden trap doors and sinister powers. It forces you to question your own sanity and the sanity of the people onscreen. In Cold Weather, it’s an excuse for a Hardy Boys mystery, which in any case gets solved so quickly it barely registers. The solution leads to a new task that Doug takes on for no apparent reason, which leads to one of the most listless heists ever perpetrated on film. Strangely, a little bit of tension does creep back in the end. Doug and his friends seem so incompetent that even minor obstacles threaten to derail them. Basic tasks acquire an aura of excitement: will Carlos make it to work on time? Did Gail pack enough snacks for the stakeout? Can Doug execute a three-point turn?
All of which would be fine in an Antonioniesque the-real-mystery-is-the-source-of-our-ennui sort of way if the characters in Cold Weather weren’t such children. Because without responsibilities or relationships, sex, money, or desire, that’s all they are. Or as Godard, in better days, might have put it – hold on to the gun, and don’t make the girl your sister.