Monday, February 19, 2018

PSIFF 2018: NOSTALGIA (2018)—Q&A With Mark Pellington and Jon Hamm

Nostalgia (2018), directed and co-written by Mark Pellington (with Alex Ross Perry), and starring Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn, Catherine Keener, Bruce Dern and John Ortiz boasted its world premiere at the 2018 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), accompanied by Pellington and Hamm, who introduced the film to an enthused audience and fielded questions from a sobered one.

As synopsized by PSIFF in their program capsule: “Emotional performances from a stellar cast led by Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn and Catherine Keener come together to stirring effect in co-writer/director Mark Pellington’s bittersweet reflection on the complicated nature of family, loss and the things we leave behind. Intricately structured as a chain of individual narratives linked by characters and themes, Nostalgia’s throughline is a considerate insurance man who patiently witnesses his clients’ stories as he assesses the physical artifacts of their lives. What is the value of a piece of jewelry if it once belonged to Grandma, a baseball if it was signed by one of the greats? How is the value of an object changed by the hands that once held it? Long takes and thoughtful framing highlight the nuanced script, which explores the changing attitudes of generations through both monologue and conversation. Woven throughout is the film’s unifying principle, urging us to live—and love—in the here and now.”

Pellington emphasized that—at a time when making movies is becoming harder and harder, especially meaningful movies—Nostalgia could only have come into being as the labor of love it really truly is. His time on the PSIFF stage seemed intent on acknowledging his collaborators on the film, several in the audience who stood in turns to take their bows. Shot in 18 days for a minimum amount of money (by today’s standards), he believes the film looks like a lot more money was spent on it than their allotted budget, attributable to artistry that comes from the heart, including a dedicated, spiritual and psychological commitment from his ensemble of actors. Pellington also shouted out to Alex Ross Perry who he provided notes, ideas and sketches in hopes that Perry could help him shape them into the script for a film, which Perry accomplished. Pellington has no doubts that it was Perry’s script that drew the attention of such great actors as Jon Hamm who—once he accepted the role—provided key leadership in securing the remaining cast.

Jon Hamm.  Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Media.
Jon Hamm, dressed in a khaki-colored suit, joked that he loves Palm Springs so much that he dressed up as a sand trap. He praised Nostalgia as being an emotional and meaningful story.

After the movie when they returned to the stage, Mark Pellington joked that Jon Hamm got all the laughs in the film. “There were three of them,” Hamm quipped quickly, aiming to lighten the auditorium’s somber air. Undeniably meaningful, Nostalgia was nonetheless a rough and unrelenting film to watch. Whereas most audiences predictably attend films to be taken out of their quotidian reality, Nostalgia can make no claim to do so. Its purpose is oppositional to such distraction, mining a deeper everlasting truth that informs everyday reality. Its belief in cinema is as a mirror to better understand, unflinchingly, the human condition. Pellington was humbled and happy to have shared the world premiere with his PSIFF audience and glad, at the same time, to finally “let go” and let the film be whatever it is going to be. He remained convinced that anyone from 8-80 could find themselves somewhere in the spectrum of the movie; child, parent.

When he approached Alex Ross Perry with instructions to shape meaning from his many ideas concerning loss, grief and memorabilia, hoping the film could explore same, Nostalgia’s form took on a weird momentum. It is not a plot-driven movie. Although it is being billed as a “mosaic”, Pellington more accurately described it as a record album placed on a turntable with one song leading to the next and the next. When you’ve finished listening to the album, you can put it back in its sleeve, or not. Or you take it out again and experience it all over. This musicality, this structure, was confirmed by the abstracted segues between the film’s episodes that sounded like a scratchy record, albeit blurred through half-shut eyes. At first, I wasn’t sure what this was but now understood it as the necessary break, if anticipation, of the next song.

Ellen Burstyn.  Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Media.
Some characters enter the film’s narrative for a short period of time while others—allegiant to the film’s structure as a record album—come into being with songs later on. Certain characters, such as Jon Hamm’s Will, unfold in purpose and meaning. Will is a character who comes in with one function then opens up in many different ways.

As Helen, a widow whose house has burnt down to the ground, Ellen Burstyn delivers simple lines strangled with emotion as she ponders the moment in which we all might conceivably find ourselves: of what to save from a burning building? Given less than a minute before she is forcibly removed from the house by policemen, Helen chooses her husband’s autographed softball, not because it meant anything to her, but because it meant so much to him, and it was the meaning he had ascribed to it that announced itself as the meaning she wanted to preserve, even though afterwards it means little to her. She sells it to Will who trafficks in the marketability of such things. Helen’s story empties into Will’s when she travels to Las Vegas to meet him.

The movie as all about endings and beginnings, Pellington explained. You can’t have a beginning without an end. But this wasn’t something he had to direct his actors to understand. When filming the scene where Ellen and Jon’s characters meet for the first time, his job was to step back and just let great artists do their thing.

Due to budgetary and time restraints, Hamm added, there wasn’t much time for he and Burstyn, or any of the actors for that matter, to workshop and rehearse. When he and Pellington first shared a restaurant booth in L.A. to discuss the possibility of making the movie, they just rambled about memory, loss, grief, things they had already experienced in their relatively young lives. There was a working script that Pellington hadn’t yet run by Perry that expressed a progression of ideas about grief, about how people process grief, and how it’s different to lose a house than it is to lose a parent or a child, to lose a spouse against losing a physical thing that may have had emotional resonance for a spouse.

As Donna, Catherine Keener’s scenes towards the end of the film compound the difficulty she is having getting rid of her parents’ things with intensified loss. To film all of that in one day was hard and, for Hamm, complicated because Keener looked exactly like his half-sister. As actors, it was a trying sequence of events to get through, all the more for having already touched their lives and, eventually, being something each of us has to deal with.

Asked if making a movie like Nostalgia changed his life and if he now finds more meaning in objects than before, Hamm paused momentarily and then smiled, “No. The importance of objects is lost on me. What this film actually does to me as a person rather than as an actor playing a role is that it gives me so much more perspective on other people’s pain. The ability to look at someone and not just judge them for whatever they might be going through that moment or that day and understand that there’s a root cause for a lot of the trouble we find ourselves in is, I think, an important part of being a highly functional human being. A lot of time it’s easy to dismiss people who are going through stuff without really taking a minute and understanding that that’s coming from something. To reach out and connect on a human level and try to appreciate at least—you might not be able to help in the moment—but, just the act of connecting with another person and basically saying, ‘I understand’ is incredibly therapeutic.”

Though he and his half-sister have both lost each of their parents, Hamm detailed, life goes on. “When something tragic happens to someone you care about,” he added, “all you can do is say, ‘I’m here. Take my hand, if you want. Don’t, if you don’t. But I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.’ That’s what families do. That’s what friends do. It’s certainly what parents do. That’s a major theme of this film.”

Distributed by Bleeker Street Media, Nostalgia opens in select theaters in San Francisco on Friday, February 23.

 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

DOUBLE LOVER (L’AMANT DOUBLE, 2017)

Don't you know that I can tell 
Whenever I look at you 
That you think that I'm untrue 
'Cause I say that I love two? 
But I really really do 
'Cause you're a split personality (personality) 
And in reality (reality) 
Both of them are you baby (they both are you) 
Well, I've got two lovers and I ain't ashamed 
Two lovers, and I love them both the same.—Mary Wells, “Two Lovers”

In a perverse stroke of humor, François Ozon’s Double Lover (L'amant double, 2017) opened theatrically on Valentines Day and—not having read any reviews—I presumed it was going to be a frothy if sexy French love story. Little did I know it would be a French extremist psychosexual thriller comparable to the horror flicks with which I frequently frighten myself. But as psychosexual thrillers go, Ozon’s Double Lover makes 40 Shades of Grey look like white-on-white mother’s milk. And with an increasingly provocative “me too” climate of recriminatory perspectives, Double Lover seems even more subversive and transgressive than it admittedly already is.

From the onset the viewer is incriminated—seduced?—by Chloé’s (Marine Vacth’s) direct address while she is having her long tresses mercilessly shortened. Instantly, we know she is in a state of transformation and we are to bear witness. Her “cat ate the canary” half-smile seems to ask, “Don’t you want to bear witness? Aren’t you curious to know how I’m going to change?” Is she, for starters, a young woman fashioning herself into a young man? Arguably, the film insists on being mesmeric, manipulating the viewer through the self-hypnosis of expectation.

Chloé suffers from a continuous and mysterious stomach ailment and sets an appointment to visit analyst Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renier) who might “cure” her, succumbing to the feigned conceit that the understandings lured from psychoanalysis might constitute a cure. Philippe Rombi’s score—evoking Bernard Herrmann’s obsessive leitmotifs for Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Marnie—accompany Chloé’s ascent up a spiraling staircase that feels, at the same time, as if we are whorling into her psyche. Within her first analytic session, Chloé aligns the ache in her stomach with the feeling she gets when judged by her mother. Marnie, especially, lends precedent as it’s not long before analyst and analysand fall in love and into bed, psychoanalysis melding with the “applied techniques” of sex therapy to melt the frigidity of our pretty doe-eyed Chloé who, true to common practice, lies to seduce. Chloé’s frigidity surfaces as her main symptom and points to deeper, repressed motivations, enough so to quote William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.”

Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse has a field day texturing the film’s mise en scène with doublings, twinnings, mirrorings, replications, reflections, inversions, refractions; the deflections of shiny surfaces that steer the film’s tense narrative traction and fuel spectatorial voyeurism. Often the camera captures bodies in action duplicated in mirrors and—as much as this reveals by way of angles of intention—it likewise tantalizes for not revealing enough; for supplying a surfeit of visual surface that, though ample and naked, remains impenetrable and inscrutable.

To further this barrage of doubled images, Ozon peppers the plot of his twisted case study with two cats—in some circles, a psychological shorthand for split personalities—and introduces Danton, a tortoiseshell cat who is a rarity for being male. We learn that most tortoiseshells are female with two colors, but 1% are male with three colors (Danton=Three Muskateers?). Male tortoiseshell cats are a “genetic eccentricity” that start out as twins in utero but end up as one when the dominant twin “absorbs” the weaker. This “trisomy of the chromosome” is interpreted as parasitic or cannibalistic, and might be extended to the premise of what happens to a perception of reality when it encounters a more dominant fantasy of reality?

Of course, Ozon is not content to leave scientific fact alone. He introduces a gift in a jewel box that is, at first, a brooch in the shape of a cat, then later the pumping heart of a cat. On whose lapel this jeweled brooch ends up reveals all!

One never quite knows if the fantasies projected on the screen are indicative of Chloe’s psyche—fractured fantasies in service to her characterization—or more decidely auteurial, characterizing the filmmaker’s narrative intent. One thing is for sure: there’s never a dull moment as Ozon startles the viewer again and again—right to the final image—inducing significant, if sensorial, headscratching.

 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

DIVERGE (2016)

Following a year long festival tour including awards at Lund International, Julien Dubuque International, Tallgrass, and the Barbados Independent Film Festivals, Gravitas Ventures has acquired worldwide rights to James Morrison's feature directorial debut, the independent science fiction thriller Diverge, now available on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.

As synopsized by Gravitas Ventures: “In the aftermath of a mysterious pandemic that’s turned cities into wastelands, a man desperately searches for a way to cure his ailing wife as she battles a deadly virus. When he is captured by a cryptic stranger, he is offered the chance to save not only his wife but the world. Equal parts science fiction and morality tale, Diverge tells the story of how the choices of one can have dire consequences for all.”

If chance is our fate, then the choices we make determine our destiny. This all-too-human scenario has concerned such noted poets as Robert Frost with his choice in the “yellow wood” where “two roads diverged”, no less than it has been a prime narrative device for time travel scenarios, which Diverge deftly employs. As if to honor Frost, the typography of the capital “V” in the film’s opening titles signifies the divergent path of two directions posed to the film’s protagonist, Chris Towne (Ivan Sandimore).

Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
In its wordless introductory sequence that sets the scene, Chris discovers dead animals and people while scouting the desolate salt flats outside the quarantined zones of a dystopian near-future. Impressive horizontal compositional cinematography by Darin Quan captures the bleak terrains of a dessicated world. His ailing wife Anna (Erin Cunningham) is suffering from a viral disease, detectable by a rash along her neck, that was first observed in livestock, and then spread to humankind, causing a devastating decimation.

A stranger, cryptically named “Leader” (Jamie Jackson), appears in the middle of the night with proffered supplies as barter for the warmth of a fire and human company, plus a mysterious offer, which at first Chris soundly opposes; but, which later—persuaded by grief once Anna dies—motivates him to become a reluctant accomplice assigned to return to the past to stop the virus that “was never meant to happen.”

With a well-publicized flu outbreak this year resistant to this year’s flu shot, it is becoming more and more tenable that our own human bodies and their susceptibility to viral and bacterial agents will most likely be our undoing. This is a body horror not as amplified as in the imagined fictions of David Cronenberg, but rendered poetic and thoughtfully restrained in Morrison’s vision of an imminent, if horrific, biological disaster. 

Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
A well-mounted sci-fi thriller of prescient perplexity—nodding to the plight of the homeless as a poignantly placed sociopolitical reminder that Death honors no class—Diverge is a doppelganger doublefuck and a cautionary near-future tale in a suspenseful race against split time and the split agendas of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, the Tyrell Corporation. It’s difficult not to infer a citation to Blade Runner, not only in the corporate name but in the frequent appearance of an origami crane, representing in Diverge—as in Blade Runner—the future’s uncertainty, particularly when the past intervenes.

In its encounters with the past, each time-travel narrative lays out its own rules and internal logic. In Diverge, contact with the past creates an alternate history; i.e., an alternate outcome, which complicates the capacity for choice.

This reviewer was particularly impressed with Morrison’s apt usage of mementos as the emotional markers of time. A music box plays the “Blue Danube” theme to put a child to sleep and, likewise, puts a mother to sleep when she has lost her child. A hand-hewn doll in a lifeless hand recalls the life that hand once held, and a conch shell—itself the ocean’s concretization of the whorl of time—holds the sound and memory of the ocean on the cracked silt-bed of salt flats.

Gravitas Ventures, a Red Arrow Entertainment Group company, is a leading all rights distributor of independent feature films and documentaries. Founded in 2006, Gravitas connects independent filmmakers and producers with distribution opportunities across the globe. Working with talented directors and producers, Gravitas Ventures has distributed thousands of films into over a hundred million homes in North America and over one billion homes worldwide. Recent releases include some of my favorites: Score: A Film Music Documentary, California Typewriter, and For The Love of Spock.

 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

SHADOWS IN MIND (2018)

In 1965, Sydney Pollack directed his first feature-length film The Slender Thread featuring Sidney Poitier as a college volunteer singlehandedly manning a hotline crisis center. He receives a distress call from a suicidal woman (Anne Bancroft) who has taken an overdose of barbituates. Poitier struggles to keep her on the line until her whereabouts can be traced and an emergency crew dispatched to save her.

Although Shadows in Mind (2018) is not director Mark Schwab’s first feature—he has been writing and directing films for over 25 years—it’s hard not to cite The Slender Thread when considering Schwab’s Shadows In Mind, with the issues of Pollack’s film updated to contemporary queer concerns, some 50+ years later.

For starters, Simon (Corey Jackson)—a recently trained hotline operator at a Silicon Valley LGBT crisis center—is, notably, a Black man with the same earnest desire to make a difference for his community. Whereas Poitier’s performance had the concern of the Civil Rights movement and efforts towards racial equality as topical if unstated underpinnings, Simon struggles no less in trying to be professional and taken seriously by gay men phoning into the crisis center with self-deluded definitions of what constitutes a crisis. Moreoften than not, they’re hoping to use the hotline to complain about their jobs, whine about their boyfriends, or flirt for sex chat. After his first week on the job, Simon is already beginning to lose faith in the efficacy of his position.

Until he receives a phone call from a young gay who identifies himself as Danny (Christian Gabriel), recently transplanted from a sheltered upbringing in Nebraska to a high-paying tech job in the Silicon Valley that nonetheless doesn’t allow him to afford the best the Bay Area has to offer. Just as I began to cringe that the narrative would veer towards one more entitled and self-piteous tech bro, the subject of suicide and murder is introduced into the conversation. Not only is Danny going to kill himself but he’s going to kill three other people: his boyfriend Kyle (Pano Tsaklas) and his boyfriend’s employers Lance (August Browning) and Christian (Christopher Fung). Why he’s planning to do this is, of course, the thrust of this film’s narrative, which transforms into a slow burning thriller, effectively paced, nuanced in restrained measure, and disturbingly intent on successfully building suspense.

Just as flashbacks in The Slender Thread revealed how Bancroft’s character felt abandoned by her husband (who discovers their son is not biologically his)—in essence, Bancroft is exposed as engineering a lie—so flashbacks help Simon piece together the engineered lie that has brought Danny, Kyle, Lance and Christian to their fateful denouement. As the song goes, “Your lies will find you.” What makes this lie contemporary and its betrayal searingly relevant to the film’s intended audience is its involvement with the underground pornographic subcultures of the Darknet. Shadows in Mind is a cautionary tale for unsuspecting, if naïve, gay men who use online dating sites to seek out companionship without either recognizing or acknowledging the predatorial hazards of such liaisons.

These concerns are what motivated Schwab to shape Shadows in Mind “as a psychological LGBT/Thriller tackling the issues of suicide, sex, social media (and how relationships are created from it) and online exploitation, all wrapped up in a race-against-time thriller.” Schwab has done his research. In a survey conducted as recently as 2016, 56% of gay men revealed that they used online dating apps in public, while 78% said they credit an online app with starting a conversation with a guy they otherwise wouldn’t have. Even more surprising was the statistic that 66% of those surveyed said they used online dating apps with the intention of “seeking long-term potential” and not just a fun fling. Naturally, this led Schwab to his cautionary hypothetical: what if a vulnerable, lonely young man—and Lord knows, he doesn’t necessarily have to be young—meets someone online who has specific, ulterior motives?

Just as The Slender Thread was noted for detailing how a call could be physically traced through several electro-mechanical telephone central office switches, Shadows in Mind leaps over the hurdle of the obsolescence of the telephone wire (the proverbial “slender thread”) to reconfigure the trace through email addresses and internet protocols, let alone the prurient fascination gay men have with erotic opportunity online (the proverbial “shadows in mind”).

Directing restrained performances from his handsome cast, inducing just the right mix of fantasy and prurience without cascading into the all-too-familiar softcore trappings that characterize too much of LGBT filmmaking, Shadows in Mind delivers a stern, thought-provoking warning and adds a twist that makes the lie—whose cold heart is a dark betrayal—allegiant to Bancroft’s in The Slender Thread. Whether intended or not, Shadows in Mind is a citational masterstroke.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

PFA: REVERSE ANGLE / DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (2016)—An Evening Class Question for Bill Morrison

There are some who might argue that Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) was robbed of its due Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature of the year, and I would be inclined to agree. Rarely does one view a documentary of such arousing idiosyncracy and unexpected scope.

Kino Lorber, Dawson City’s distributor, provides the context: “This meditation on cinema’s past from Decasia director Bill Morrison pieces together the bizarre true history of a long-lost collection of 533 nitrate film prints from the early 1900s. Located just south of the Arctic Circle, Dawson City was settled in 1896 and became the center of the Canadian Gold Rush that brought 100,000 prospectors to the area. It was also the final stop for a distribution chain that sent prints and newsreels to the Yukon. The films were seldom, if ever, returned. The now-famous Dawson City Collection was uncovered in 1978 when a bulldozer working its way through a parking lot dug up a horde of film cans. Morrison draws on these permafrost-protected, rare silent films and newsreels, pairing them with archival footage, interviews, historical photographs, and an enigmatic score by Sigur Rós collaborator and composer Alex Somers. Dawson City: Frozen Time depicts the unique history of this Canadian Gold Rush town by chronicling the life cycle of a singular film collection through its exile, burial, rediscovery, and salvation.”

As further synopsized in the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) program capsule: “Much of our cinema history has been lost, and so the discovery of more than five hundred reels of silent nitrate film, buried for decades under permafrost in a former Gold Rush town, could only be greeted with ‘Eureka!’ Morrison’s film is a beautiful meditation on this rare, often damaged, footage as well as a history of the corner of the Canadian Yukon where it was found. ‘In addition to being filled with as many twists and turns as a first-rate suspense thriller, Dawson City is packed with near-metaphysical intimations, both awe-inspiring and humbling’ (Glenn Kenny, New York Times).”

Dawson City is part of PFA’s probing program “Reverse Angle”, a series of films that question the function and capabilities of cinema in our daily lives and in society by interrogating the medium itself (through narratives, documentaries and experimental film) and, thereby, “finding answers that are passionate, precise, and unexpected.” By looking at lost films, Dawson City adds to our knowledge of film history and is, thus, perfectly situated in PFA’s “Reverse Angle” program. The Archive added value to its recent screening by inviting Bill Morrison to introduce the film and interact with his audience.

As relayed by Kathy Geritz in her introduction, Bill Morrison often draws on archival film material, and has almost single-handedly introduced audiences to the beauty of decaying, damaged film in films as diverse as Decasia (2002), The Miners’ Hymns (2010), and The Great Flood (2012), as well as many shorter works. One reviewer noted: “Beautiful, terrible decay somehow meshes with an innate poignancy of old film images to create an awareness of transience.”

Morrison works in a number of ways, often with composers and musicians, including Richard Einhorn, Michael Gordon, Dave Douglas, John Adams, Philip Glass and, close to home, the Kronos Quartet. A number of his filmic presentations have been accompanied by live music, some inside cinemas, some inside music theaters, sometimes in music halls and other spaces.

Morrison has also created film installations and—unusual among filmmakers who fall within the experimental film tradition—he largely makes work as commissions. Some of his films have been called “trance films” and, in fact, his company is called Hypnotic Pictures. He’s also been called an alchemist.

Some of his works examine historical moments, such as WWI or the Mississippi River delta floods of the 1920s, while some of his films overtly explore film history, such as Dawson City: Frozen Time and his earlier The Film of Her (1997), which looked at paper prints. Of course, Decasia looked at nitrate damage and his other works have looked at archival collections or specific films. In his case, the historical examination and research is done through the making of the film, which is a wonderful way to conduct such explorations. Dawson City might be deemed the most “documentary” of his films. It works with damaged films in an unusual way to provide its history.

Low-key and wry in his introduction, Morrison expressed feeling well-embraced by the East Bay and found it unusual to be involved in a “Spring” series in January. Having not been to the PFA in several years, he commented that it “looked different” than two venues back. He promised to have “more jokes” during the Q&A.

* * * 

Photo: © Lisa Predko; Assistants: Jacqueline Ayala, Tom Michas;
Retouching: Tom Michas
Michael Guillén: My question follows on Kathy Geritz’s earlier description of Dawson City as a “trance film”, which registered specifically for me in the montages where you aligned similar actions; for example, in the sequence where the women were turning around in place, shifting from an ethnographic image of an African woman to that of a seemingly upper class white woman and onward. I found that aligned discrepancy hypnotic and it struck me as an “aha” moment or, more appropriately, a “Eureka!” moment. Can you relate any particular “aha” moments that occurred for you during the compilation of this film as you were sifting through all this discovered material? 

Bill Morrison: First of all, the tropes of silent film are often well-defined, so that a woman was often asked to spin. A lot of the narratives were advanced by listening at the door so that a sound card could say what they were hearing, or as a letter was being read. As I sifted through almost 400 titles of film, and as these moments recur over and over again, as sort of a joke to myself I was keeping a list (or “bins”) where these things occur and those became sequences; really just for fun or as a way to organize the imagery, but then—as they advanced—as a narrative device. The women listening at the door were, in my mind, the films rummaging through the library without anything left to do and left to their own devices.

There’s also the sequence of brutality or harassment of women, which made this a very timely film in the making of these Hollywood moguls and the studios that some of them found and lost. I had any number of bins: baseball—elephants caught my fancy—and that was just a way of trying to get through all this footage and finding light stuff, which found its way into the narrative.