This year’s London Film Festival brought nearly 300 feature length and short films to London from 20 October to 4 November and was, as usual, a popular and critical success. The films were organised into categories of origin (Asian, French, British, European), as well as genre, and included for the first time documentary features. The Oxonian Review of Books reviews a selection of four of the films shown: French director Agnes Varda’s Cinevardaphoto (three short documentaries); American director David O. Russell’s feature I Heart Huckabees; the new American experimental documentary, Tarnation; and Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, the festival’s gala screening.
Cinevardaphoto, by the marvelously original French filmmaker Agnès Varda, is a triptych of short films ‘triggered by photographs’ consisting of her latest, Ydessa, the Bears and Etc; Ulysse, from 1982; and Salut les Cubains!, a portrait of the Cuban people in 1963. Varda interprets the photograph more or less along the lines of Barthes’ Camera Lucida, considering the photograph as a document of ‘that which was’, and taking the image’s content as starting point. In Ulysse, she tracks down the subjects of a photo she took in 1954, where a man and young boy pose by the ocean. The man, who Varda found working as the art director at French Elle, had no memory of the photograph at all, but remembered the day of the shoot—mostly that the young boy was always carried from place to place. Varda came across the boy, called Ulysse, at his small bookstore in Paris; Ulysse had no recollection whatsoever of the day, but did not doubt that it happened. While investigating the studium of the still photograph (what Barthes defines as the the interest the image elicits in us) Varda masterfully gives the film its own punctum—its sudden pinprick of meaning. The reason for the excursion to the sea was to cure Ulysse, who had fallen ill in Paris and could barely walk on his own. A short scene three-fourths of the way through the film shows Ulysse’s mother recounting the ordeal of that time: her voice breaks and the discursive film is suddenly transformed by this pierce of emotion into a portrait of maternal solicitude.
Ydessa, the Bears and Etc chronicles the eccentric art exhibition of Canadian gallerist Ydessa Hendeles, who spent years tracking down antique photographs where subjects pose alongside teddy bears, and recently mounted them in the Haus der Kunst gallery in Munich. Varda’s camera regards the photographs and Hendeles herself with the same amount of bemused curiosity and sympathy. She finds that the repetition of the single subject matter forces attention on the ancillary effects of the photograph—what becomes interesting is the different type of chairs people posed in, the way they held the bears, where they focused their gaze. She refuses to let Hendeles become a figure of fun: with exquisite compassion she tells of Hendeles, alone in her big house, with only teddy bears to keep her company. As in The Gleaners and I, which examined the past and present practice of gleaning, Varda’s recuperation of what might be overlooked and her foregrounding of these elements through intimate, informal commentary turns the films’ emphases on Varda herself as the human, fallible filmmaker. Such free and unassuming self-representation gives Varda’s films a feeling of irreverence and joy—as when, in Ulysse, she gives her photograph and the drawing of it to a group of schoolboys, who tell the filmmaker they definitely prefer the drawing—or as in Salut les Cubains!, when still photographs of the musician Hector Angulo become a dance to the beat of the soundtrack.
I Heart Huckabees
With the pace of a sprinter on speed, I Heart Huckabees pulls out all the stops, goes for broke, skids off the rails, and keeps on mixing metaphors until the audience gives up. The film, directed by the American David O. Russell, is a bewildering mess, and one leaves either exhausted or exhilarated, probably depending on the number of Charlie Kaufman titles you own. The film’s premise is a broadly drawn Manichean struggle between meaningfulness (as embodied by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman, bumbling but lovable existential detectives) and meaninglessness (Isabelle Huppert, in stilettos). The two sides fight for the sympathies of Jason Schwartzman, an environmental activist who, armed with Do Not Cross tape and bad poetry, is trying to halt urban sprawl; Jude Law, a corporate yes-man at the superstore chain Huckabees; his girlfriend, Naomi Watts, Huckabees’ perky spokesmodel; and Mark Wahlberg, Schwartzman’s existential buddy, a firefighter with a fear of petroleum. All this in Pop colours, played cartoonishly, with the screen’s pixels breaking apart at various moments to demonstrate how everything is interconnected.
Best known as a satirist or as someone who titled a film ‘Spanking the Monkey’, Russell is much less hip than he’s made out to be. His project, here and in previous films, is deeply earnest and his commitment to moral concerns surprising. The 1999 Three Kings – the single best depiction of the first Gulf War—couched a moral dilemma in a film shot like a music video and headlined by Ice-T and Marky Mark. Here, the characters are less important for their role in the improbable narrative than for their ability to highlight the connection between everyday choices and ethical consequences. I Heart Huckabees aims to show how we are responsible for this world—one dependent on petrol, okay with megachains, and full of pretty girls who are objectified and (what’s more) unhappy. To accomplish this without pontificating, Russell employs screwball antics and farcical explications of the opposing philosophies—Tomlin and Hoffman, in game, spirited performances, explain the meaning of life by holding up a wool blanket; Huppert demonstrates her motto of ‘cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness’ by sleeping with Schwartzman in the mud. Such scenes are eminently likeable, and when the film slows down to catch its breath you can see glimpses of Russell’s talent for pointing out the absurd in what passes for normal. Taken as a whole, however, I Heart Huckabees is one of those rare things: a film that has too much going for it.
Tarnation, a film edited on an iMac for a total of ¬£125, has been this year’s Sundance-to-the-Phoenix success story. Comprised out of reams of home footage that Jonathan Caouette, the film’s subject, has been taking since a child, the film is the sweetest and most complicated of things—an homage to his mother, Renee.
Caouette, now in his 30s, was born to a beautiful young Texan—‘a highly successful regional model’, as the film describes her with unintentional irony—who underwent regular doses of shock therapy from the age of 16 on. Schizophrenic and unstable, she married early and her husband left her before Caouette was born (he did not know she was pregnant). She then moved to Chicago, where she was raped in front of Jonathan—and that’s where the trouble begins. He’s put into foster care, abused, given to his only slightly sane grandparents; smokes PCP by accident at his mother’s; frequents gay clubs dressed as a Goth girl; and is hospitalised time and time again.
The force of the film derives from Caouette’s personal story. Tarnation’s early footage is astonishing and heartbreaking: Caouette impersonating an abused housewife, Caouette cutting himself in front of the mirror, Renee blissfully, unnaturally happy.
But while the audience leaves moved by Caouette’s history, Caouette himself has larger ambitions—where he is not as successful. The film’s aesthetic strategies—low-budget abstract imagery that punctuates, à la Pink Floyd, scenes of trauma and drug use; an exasperatingly literal soundtrack; a disproportionate reliance on captions to give the back story—are patently bad. It is tempting to write off this amateurishness by pointing out that Caouette actually is an amateur, and that his decision to use multi-coloured floating graphics does not demean the power of the film. This rationale, however, submits that the film is powerful because of its content rather than its form. It is heralded for being ‘raw’—as in the less stylised, the better, because it allows closer access to what is interesting about the film, i.e., Caouette’s life. The formulation is on the one hand patronising—Caouette does ask, albeit through the graphics, to be taken seriously as an artist—and also underestimates what a film ought to achieve. The best examples of film-as-life, such as Jonas Mekas’s Lost Lost Lost or Stan Brakhage’s oeuvre, succeed precisely because they engage with the problem of what it means to represent life aesthetically: the extent to which life can present itself unmediated, what happens to a life incessantly recorded, how to affix ‘meaning’ to ‘reality’. Caouette passes over these concerns in favour of unceasing footage of himself and his mother, and the film degenerates into a kind of emotional eddy—Caouette, besotted with his and Renee’s story. In one episode we watch him trying to work himself up to tears in front of the camera: he is nostalgic for the good old days of being entirely messed up, when the tears came naturally. It is the romance of madness, the last lines of Trainspotting—the emotional individuality of the subject in pain. Tarnation is indeed riveting—particularly in its portrayal of the young Caouette—but only for half of the reason that makes a great film great.
The release of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 answers years of speculation and anticipation among the substantial tribe of Wong acolytes—and those less convinced—with a triumphant portrait of romance, with a capital R, rising and subsiding. In the works for more than four years, the film had been delayed so many times it seemed like some expensive process art joke. When news came of its impending completion, the film world bent over backwards. A provisional version (lacking special effects) premiered out of competition at Cannes—three other films were moved around to accommodate its screening time—and the print was driven down from Nice, escorted by an armed motorcade, only three hours before its delayed curtain call. Such treatment speaks to the esteem Wong (justly) enjoys.
A drama set partly in 1960s Hong Kong and partly on a train time-traveling towards the year 2046, 2046 barely reveals the traces of the previous versions it is woven out of—the initial idea, a futuristic thriller about the year 2046, for example, or a possible sequel to In the Mood for Love, Wong’s 2000 film with Tony Chiu-wai Leung and Maggie Cheung. Rather, 2046 is pervaded throughout by one singly struck chord of romantic longing. Leung here plays a solitary, quietly confident rake, who takes a room in a Hong Kong hotel to write science fiction novels. Women come in and out of his life—the daughter of the hotel concierge, a nightclub dancer (played by Zhang Ziyi, best known in the West for her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a gambler called the Black Widow (Cheung)—in slow, glamorously filmed episodes marked by long drags on cigarettes and profiles at dusk, scenes drunk on romance and cinematic indulgence. Figures of impossible glamour and beauty, the women of 2046 give exceptional performances and make the film: Cheung seems nothing more than a cipher for the author-character who brings them to life and onto the screen.
Tightly controlled, Wong’s films do not so much elicit emotion as represent it onscreen; which is why one walks away from the film awed by the sheer beauty of the sentiment, but not moved. The elaborate and creative costumes, the stylised cinematography, the actors’ tendency to quote their lines (they are given the script only moments before they shoot the scene, and often do not know who they are playing)—all contribute to a consciousness of the drama and artistry that is more decadent and gorgeous than a distancing strategy ought to be. Wong’s use of slow-motion in certain key scenes—of characters smoking, crying, registering shock or bad news, smiling—isolates a feeling and makes it palpable, even unbearable. The image of the Black Widow, one black glove swinging by her hips, her vamp lipstick smeared across her face, captures heartbreak in a way it feels only mawkish to write about.
Wong has been criticised for being self-indulgent and inconsistent, but he, like Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang, is re-imagining the ‘feature-length film’ with a reverence for cinema that recalls the members of the France’s Nouvelle Vague and a feel for texture that is unparalleled. 2046 deserves all the attention it gets.
Melissa Gronlund is an American MPhil student in cinema studies at Exeter College, Oxford. Her thesis is on the use of photograph in Chris Marker’s films. She is also a freelance art critic and publishes regularly in arts magazines.