Bright Lights Film Journal

The Biggest and Smallest: Melbourne International Film Festival 2011

Fruit of Paradise

“Eve is like a cat, attracted by textures — stroking a violinist’s hands with chiffon and becoming entranced by a piece of fruit. She spends most of her time in ecstatic graceless dancing; even though anger and jealousy are present, they are rendered painless.”

Under new artistic director Michelle Carey, MIFF has impressively shored up its experimental arm, with programs on Artavazd Pelechian, Eve Heller and Peter Tscherkassky, and striking individual works from Věra Chytilová and Philippe Grandrieux. The session with found-footage artist Heller was a particular revelation: she proposed that her work consists of “jamming sentence particles” together, cutting and scrambling phrases in the manner of a poet. To that end, Heller’s shorts always remind me of Gertrude Stein: although they are strongly imagistic, these films create an effect of distorted syntax, in which timelines are broken and logical sequences are interrupted. The stuttered editing of scenes has implications on the level of language. In Heller’s 2005 film Ruby Skin (a very Steinian title), the frequent repetitions of images are like poetic retakes of the same word, played again and again until meaning is exhausted and only the “senseless” rhythm of utterance remains.

One of Stein’s techniques was to sample the authoritative voice of language — a tone of pleasantry and euphemism — and then to denaturalize that authority through repetition (“in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling/In the evening there is feeling”). In Tender Buttons, she makes use of a brusque, informative tone: “Very well. Certainly the length is thinner and the rest, the round rest has a longer summer.” The line begins with a feeling of sober common sense, which then blurs into irrational, “automatic” language. The governess-like voice which says “very well” and “certainly” is forced to ventriloquise other, less coherent thoughts; while maintaining a veneer of assurance, it lapses into babyish speech.

In a similar way, Heller takes images from educational films and glues them together in strange new formations. The instructive tone remains, but the temporal logic behind the sequence has vanished. The end credits of Last Lost (1996) are scratched into a beach, with water flooding into the letters and then receding. Words are momentarily invested with meaning, but that energy quickly flows out, leaving us only with the structural impressions of language, the hollowed-out forms in the sand.

Heller has often discussed her goal of hypnotizing the viewer, and the scratch effects of repetition are certainly lulling. Most of all, the image of water creates a dreamy sense of immersion. As for Godard and Farocki, the ocean is a potent symbol for Heller. In Last Lost, she replays footage of a surging wave so that it moves back and forth, continuously re-dashing against the edge of the frame: a poetic effect reminiscent of HD and other Imagist writers. The lines of the ocean are lengthened and replicated, becoming a hypnotic pattern of beats. Heller uses a soundtrack of waves and vibrations to disorient us, similar to the noises heard on subliminal sleep tapes. (Repetitive sound is a very effective means of transfixing the audience — another MIFF film, Cold Fish, and the recent Australian thriller Snowtown feature a thudding beat that overwhelms and replaces our pulse).

In person, Heller was remarkably generous in demystifying her process; she uses an optical printer to refilm and zoom in on shots, so that we have the feeling of moving closer and closer to the image. Again, my thoughts go to Stein. Discussing her phrase “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” from Sacred Emily, Stein commented: “I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.” Like Stein, Heller has the ability to give images a sense of absolute presence; literal meaning falls away as we are hypnotized by the momentum of cutting.

Věra Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise (1969), a rarity and favorite of Carey’s, offered a very female sense of sexual abundance as well as an eros stemming from the use of nonsense language. A film like no other, it’s set in a forest where a lascivious Eve (Jitka Novákova) is pursued by a man in velvet trousers. There is a teasing relation between the sexes: anything is a turn-on, from caressing carrots to stamping flesh with ink. Eve is like a cat, attracted by textures — stroking a violinist’s hands with chiffon and becoming entranced by a piece of fruit. She spends most of her time in ecstatic graceless dancing; even though anger and jealousy are present, they are rendered painless. It’s all very idyllic, but the music keeps us on the alert. The score, which combines vocals with chimes and bird cries, sounds diabolical: we are aware of some impish force behind the scenes.

While I found Chytilová’s earlier Daisies (1966) slightly cloying, this film is utterly mysterious. The characters seem authentically demented, unlike the cutesy girls in Daisies. Here, the sound and editing implicate us in all of Eve’s reactions: the panicked chords and terror on seeing a peacock or a bisected orange. Fruit of Paradise is like an erotic version of Eisenstein, in which ever wilder associations are stitched together: two men fight using a French horn while a woman writhes on the grass. Reaction shots are grabbed from animals rather than humans: suspense comes from the turned heads of birds and reptiles, swiveling to attention. Although Eisenstein was familiar with some of the crazier effects of associative editing, he may not have predicted the erotic uses of montage in this film, where animal movements are imbued with human sexuality. The man with velvet trousers becomes a kind of sly, serpentine principle: depending on the editing, he is seen as either malign or subservient to Eve. In this harmoniously strange universe, bodies can undergo a witching at any time: turning from mortal into slippery animal and back.

Artavazd Pelechian’s experimental shorts yoke together a series of contrasting images. Early on in We (1969), we get a preview of Pelechian’s trademark gaze: a fade and then an immediate close-up, wooziness followed by clarity. The eye is jolted because the subjects we see are so disparate: a shot of a landscape gives way to a parade, a mountain vista can segue into an exploration of the Armenian political system. Pelechian gives us a view of the natural world and then plunges our eye into the contemporary and the topical, so that we become confused about how to view these images. Which gaze — soft, curious, searing — do we apply to each new frame? The films offer a dizzying juxtaposition of objects of different textures. In We, there is a mix-up of sensory associations when Pelechian cuts between the warm nuzzling of sheep and close-ups of the human face; the gaze is forced to retract or deepen in response to each shot.

Pelechian’s images are so disorientingly spaced that the “kindly” smile of an old woman, repeated as a series of flashes, becomes a discordant note. On second glance, the smile looks frozen and insinuating — the woman’s folksiness becomes artificial, a ready-made. A hug or a glance is stutteringly repeated until it becomes a compulsion, a tic with a psychological basis. With his rhythmically repeated shots, Pelechian turns the singular into a circuitous narrative: a one-off facial expression builds into an unstoppable cycle.

The biggest enigma of the festival was the Swedish feature Play. Ruben Östlund’s film deals with the dicey subject of racial profiling in a provocative yet lucid fashion. It opens with a long shot of a Stockholm mall; no protagonist is picked out, so we may look where we choose. On the soundtrack we hear several kids talking, but who can we attach these vocals to? A group of black teenage boys? Or the tentative white kids by the escalators? The film surveys the scene so coolly that it’s a while before we discover which voice belongs to which character, and even then there is an ambiguity about identity. When someone hurls a shoe at a stranger, the camera does not even flinch; we do not see the thrower or the intended victim, only the shoe in mid-air. Instead of capturing what we might consider the action of the film, the camera wanders off to play with other scenes and moments in time. This smooth and “objective” view of the world — every frame looks like security footage — is a trap. The camera moves evenly from one group to another, seeming to regard each person on equal terms. But there is always an unnatural stillness ready to be punctured by violence.

The black boys lure the white kids away from the mall to a deserted clearing. Here, they lay down the rules of the game. They deftly switch between good cop and bad cop: charming and baiting the white teens, doling out bits of praise alternated with commands. The white kids stand around numbly and obediently — they begin to fight amongst themselves rather than tackle their aggressors. The black boys’ motives remain tantalizingly unclear: are they just enjoying the flirtation with power, or are they looking to gain something tangible? Maybe they aren’t even sure what they want. One thing is clear — they know that their blackness is a threat to certain people, and they are prepared to work with that threat. Sometimes they will accuse the white boys of assuming they are thieves, as if daring them to play the race card; in the next moment, they chide them for their naïveté in trusting a group of blacks.

Several well-meaning bystanders pop up along the way; when a separate group of thugs intimidates a couple of the teens, a white commuter inquires after the white kid but not the black one. Two women criticize the white boys’ fathers for harassing a “young immigrant who doesn’t have the opportunities you do,” to which the men predictably respond that one can’t say anything negative about immigrants these days. It is an exchange of well-worn arguments that can only lead to an impasse.

The film flashes between the initial scenario and a couple of incidents that we are invited to make links to. Some are red herrings: conversations between strangers we’ll never see again. Most notably, we see a group of faux Native Americans in feathered gear who invite questioning looks, but on whom no one dares to comment. We also cut to two staff members on a train who become ridiculously flustered over an unclaimed cradle that is later traced to the black kids.

There are a number of readings to consider. The film could be saying: look at these fumbling Swedes, so paralyzed by political correctness that they ignore the elephant (or cradle) in the room. Why are the white boys so passive in acceding to the black ones, readily becoming puppets for their entertainment? Is Sweden so full of knee-jerk liberals that no-one can comment on what is happening before our eyes? Or, in the words of an anti-immigrant Tory campaign: are you thinking what we’re thinking?

On the other hand, these inflammatory suggestions may be part of the director’s strategy. In a world of guarded tolerance, no act is neutral: every person throws out a cluster of signs in relation to race, class and power. When they move, dance and speak, the boys are giving off identifiers at every turn. Some characters, such as a red-haired boy with dreads who listens to reggae, possess the signs of blackness without being categorized as black. One of the kids, John (John Ortiz), has all the demographic signs of being white, yet he may not strictly be “white.” We scan every person, every relationship, for signs of inequality and racial tension, whether or not these factors are actually relevant. The film invites us to regard its plot as a racial chessboard despite the fact that ethnicity is only brought up by two characters. Even for this review, I’ve had to divide the boys into “black” and “white” for clarity, although one of the latter appears to be part Asian. But no one is what they seem, especially the gang of South American performers masquerading as Native Americans.

When the camera monitors the behavior of an immigrant group, what are we supposed to think? There is always some doubt about Östlund’s intentions, but the script will do nothing to clear up our confusions. The camera will not make a move to contextualize any action, even to the point where we can’t see who has uttered a line. The film is absolutely cunning in showing us apparently random scenes that can subsequently be presented as “evidence” for a case. Given the strange absence surrounding identity — we don’t always know who did what — we can only guess based on statistics who is more likely to have committed a certain act. Whether this kind of racial profiling is inevitable or shocking depends on your point of view. That’s the puzzle the film leaves us with.

The Chilean director Pablo Larrain continues his dissection of the Pinochet era with Post Mortem. Mario (Alfredo Castro) is a mortician with a blank face and an obsessive nature. Although he looks austere, he is strangely effeminate, with a matronly hairstyle tucked behind the ears. He lives in a bleak apartment in Santiago, where everything looks parched: there is a feeling of “nothing to be done” about the place. As in Larrain’s Tony Manero (2008), the protagonist’s interests are limited to one snippet of pop culture: his passion for an emaciated showgirl, Nancy (Antonia Zegers). Mario’s tunnel vision blocks out the momentous events that surround him, most notably the mass killings during Pinochet’s coup of 1973. It takes a lot to coax a smile from that ghastly face, but Nancy is a peculiar object of desire. She is a big-boned woman who models herself on the Garbo/Dietrich type. Her skin is stretched tight over her large skeleton; the camera studies her bony chest during sex, and she seems more like an anatomical model than a real person. The set-up is reminiscent of Bigas Luna’s Bilbao (1978), in which a dangerously insecure man kidnaps a giantess.

There is an almost palpable air of clamminess about this film, from Nancy’s hatred of fat people and food, to the recurrent use of the word feo (meaning ugly or hideous), which conveys a shuddering sense of other people. Sex involves excruciating kisses between dry lips. Repulsion and lust are the only true responses in this world; Mario experiences both when he becomes appalled by the outsize, frankly sexual Nancy. In his mind, Pinochet’s campaign of slaughter takes a backseat to his personal views on morality. Mario’s one strong conviction is a disgust toward promiscuous women: serial murders don’t offend him, but sex with multiple men is foul. As bodies pile up in the mortuary, Mario barely notices; another staff member who is maddened by the deaths is treated as quirky and irrational. The one clear-eyed discussion of politics occurs in an underground chamber; in fact, the whole film is oddly soundless and airless, with historical events reduced to peripheral noise.

A surprising number of films featured some kind of reach for the stars: a miniature domestic scene juxtaposed with shots of the cosmos. Within a year, what might have once seemed an excitingly far-fetched leap has become a cliché. The overwrought Japanese drama Hanezu posits that a three-way love affair is a tale as old as the hills: the characters are even likened to mountain ranges. Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Indonesian documentary Position Among the Stars moves between a fly-on-the-wall study of a family, political demonstrations, and footage of the constellations. The unbroken soundtrack through all three scenarios encourages us to embrace them as one narrative: agrarian life merges with headline news, which then segues into a timeless universe. In between conversations, the camera wanders off to gaze up at the sky.

This shift from the domestic to the celestial sphere can be an exhilarating jump from micro to macro. So many recent films — Beginners, Melancholia, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Tree of Life, Mundane History (the last two not shown at MIFF) — carry a feeling of the everyday buoyed by the divine. The Tree of Life may have been the film that crystallized this sense of archaic rhythms driving the modern world, with its intimate moments traced back to the prehistoric dawn of time. It’s a tantalizing idea, but this move has been made so often lately that, at this point, a film needs to do more than show us galaxies to evoke the larger picture.

In this context, Sion Sono’s Cold Fish is a welcome satire of spirituality, in which focusing on the big picture is seen as a loser’s last resort. The plot resembles one of Roald Dahl’s adult tales: a humble shopkeeper encounters an insinuating man named Murata (Denden) who charms his wife and daughter, seducing the former and sexualizing the latter. Dennis Potter might be another reference point for this macabre story in which a devil enters an ordinary household and gives people the discipline they crave, gratifying everyone except the cuckold.

The film features bored characters and dead space punched up by an urgent and unpredictable time-clock: at key moments, racing milliseconds appear at the bottom of the screen. The constant documenting of time makes the pace feel breathless: even a trip to the supermarket reaches a pitch of hysteria, with empty seconds waiting to be pricked up by tension. The sonic equivalent of the clock is a thumping beat that repeatedly pounds the image; it lends a furious rhythm to an otherwise impassively played scene. The use of military beats to fast-track real time implies that Murata has the film on a leash: he can command the editing with the rhythm of his jerked laughs. Meanwhile, the lowly husband consoles himself with trips to the planetarium in a feeble attempt at escapism. In Sono, the astrological system, along with Mount Fuji, is little more than a poster image. The belief in a power greater than ourselves is humanist bunkum, and the film closes on an ironic pull-out to a benign universe.

Nevertheless, there appears to be a strong appetite for the sublime in contemporary cinema; as Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wenders’ Pina demonstrate, even the most austere directors want to wow us with an immersive experience. By using 3D and mind-blowing effects, the postmodern art film aims to be intense and immediate, giving the viewer a feeling of total depth involvement.

When it comes to capturing the sublime on camera, perhaps fulldome films do it best. After all, the curved screen covers all of your peripheral vision: there is nothing but the film before your eyes. Fulldome cinema can come close to the romantic, obliterating ideal imagined by Burke and Kant, instilling both fear and attraction in the audience. MIFF’s program of fulldome works, curated by Warik Lawrence, all display something of a futurist impulse. Predictably, there are spectacular shots of waterfalls and thunderous nature — these works are generally shown at planetariums, and maintain an aura of science education. But the sense of uncertain distance between the viewer and the screen means that the films can play with scale to disorienting extremes. Many of them alternate between giant and nano-cam imagery, while drifting into moments of relaxation and ambient space. However, fulldome is in its early stages, and its content is still determined by the fact that the directors tend to be scientists and fine artists as opposed to people with a background in cinema. I talked to Lawrence about the kinds of moods and genres that could potentially work in this medium; as yet, few narrative films have been attempted. Imagine a melodrama that dwarfs the viewer, or an image that encircles you like the X-ray machine in The Exorcist (1973). A fulldome horror flick would be something to see: the ultimate means of putting you through it.

The desire to wed the miniature with the epic is not unique to art cinema. In one of the most astonishing moments on TV, the first season finale of The Apprentice ended with a suspenseful interview in the boardroom. This scene was like a compressed cell: you could see the drops of sweat on each contender, trying to make their case as a future CEO. All of a sudden, that tiny cell detonated: at the last moment, Donald Trump announced to the winner, “You’re hired!” Suddenly the walls flew up and the boardroom was revealed to be a thin piece of stage equipment. In fact, the players were not on a closed set, but in the middle of a roaring auditorium — an exhilarating ending worthy of Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1953)! It’s an alluring concept, to have a tightly controlled interior scene that explodes with the force of a bursting star. Most importantly, the final expansion came from out of nowhere: we did not feel that the epiphany had been carefully prepared for.

A less successful attempt can be heard in Pavement’s 1995 song “Half a Canyon,” where Stephen Malkmus mumbles his way through a routine verse before a huge cavernous space opens up in the track: a single cry resonates through what sounds like an enormous void. It’s a thrilling moment, but there is one flaw: we can feel the guitar steadily pacing itself before leaping into the unknown. It becomes evident that the initial, throwaway verse only exists to play up the contrast with the canyon-like space. The effect is not as great as it could be, because we can sense the cautious steps before lift-off.

That’s the feeling I get from Hanezu, Position Among the Stars, Beginners, and parts of The Tree of Life: that the filmmakers are overly determined to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. In Position Among the Stars, we witness a family’s daily routines before the camera pulls back to take a long view of the nation and the world. But something is off: we can sense that this shift has been studied and anticipated. The film is less interested in the family’s discussions about money, education and aging than in comparing them to cosmic cycles. Position Among the Stars requires more structural links between its depiction of one family and a universal context, rather than just a move from the kitchen to the skies. We need to see how the dimensions of a specific case can be expanded to include larger issues of identity. Playing the move from intimacy into vastness is one of the most difficult transitions for a film to make. But it’s a potentially riveting idea, and I’m waiting to see it pulled off.