Friday, January 27, 2023

Sisu / Immortal

Jalmari Helander: Sisu / Immortal (FI 2023) starring Jorma Tommila as Aatami Korpi.

From Wikipedia: "Immortal (Finnish: Sisu) is a 2022 Finnish historical action film written and directed by Jalmari Helander. The film takes place in Finnish Lapland during World War II, where a gold digger, played by Jorma Tommila, goes to take the gold he finds to town and has to escape from the Nazi patrol led by a brutal SS officer."

"Deep in the wilderness of Lapland, Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) is looking for gold during the Lapland War. From time to time the overflight of bombers and the distant sounds of war can be heard on clear autumn nights. Finally, the hard work is rewarded and the gold dust in pan grows into gold nuggets. Aatami leaves to take his gold treasure to the nearest town. When a thirty-strong Nazi extermination squad led by SS Obersturmführer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie) turns against Aatami, a breathtaking and gold-hungry chase begins through the destroyed and mined wilderness of Lapland, with Aatami having to wage his one-man war against this superior enemy.

AA: Finnish action rampage films tend to take place in Lapland. In Renny Harlin's Born American, three young Americans cross the Soviet border just for the adventure's sake, and all hell breaks loose. In Mika Kaurismäki's The Last Border, Lapland is an ideal landscape for a Mad Max style violent dystopia.

Our Lapland war against Hitler's Germany took place from September 1944 until May 1945. When we switched to the Allies, there were 213.000 troops in Die Armee Lappland / 20. Gebirgs-Armee. A significant part of the soldiers belonged to various SS formations. The prominence of the Totenkopf cap badge is accurate.

The historical background of Helander's story is the Wehrmacht's scorched earth strategy in Lapland. It is conveyed in vivid images, of which two are particularly memorable. One is factual: the fire of Rovaniemi, burned to the ground by the Nazis. Another is imagined: a shock image of a ruined Helsinki, with half of the dome of the Helsinki Cathedral bombed away (in reality Helsinki was devastated by the great raids of the Red Air Force but not like this).

Sisu is a tall tale with little regard for realism. It belongs to the Rambo* school of lone psychotic fighters.

Having abandoned plausibility, Helander goes all the way. The ordeals of the unstoppable guerrilla warrior Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) get increasingly outlandish. I was thinking about Tex Avery cartoons and Weird Al Yankovich's parody trailer Gandhi II from UHF (in Finland: Kaapelit irti!), mixing Shaft and Rambo slogans such as "This is one bad mother you don't wanna mess with" and "He's a one man wrecking crew". In this Tarantinoesque recycling exercise Nazis speak genre-movie American English.

Leaping from history to Neverland, Sisu enters myth, legend and fairytale. Aatami Korpi can survive fire, water and the sky. I was thinking about what my friend Kai Vase told at the time about Rambo in India: he was seen as an incarnation of Shiva.

Jorma Tommila is career-best as Aatami Korpi, a role name with Biblical resonances: Aatami = Adam, Korpi = Wilderness (as in John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the wilderness). Tommila was groomed into the cinema by Jari Halonen in several fierce roles, joining Jalmari Helander since his early days as a director, also repeatedly working with Olli Saarela. He has lost none of his furor, equally at home in fairy-tales and gangster roles, as recently seen in Laitapuolen hyökkääjä / On Thin Ice.

The DP Kjell Lagerroos excels in epic scope-frame panoramas of Lapland, often gloriously evoking classic Westerns. Actually Sisu can be seen belonging to the trend of the Northern, established in the 1910s by William S. Hart, Nell Shipman (the James Oliver Curwood aficionado) and Tom Mix, followed by Sjöström, Stiller and Molander in Sweden.

Tuomas Wäinölä creates a powerful and ominous score, during the end credits paying open hommage to Morricone.

* Rambo happens to be the name of one of the oldest Swedish-Finnish settler families in North America, dating back to the settler Peter Gunnarsson, in America known as Rambo (1611–1698), in the 1640s in the New Sweden colony in then-Delaware, now-Pennsylvania. Peter Gunnarsson was all Swedish, and his wife Brita Matsdotter, whom he married in America, was Finnish, from the city of Vasa. David Morrell picked the name of his antihero from the Rambo apple brand originating with that family. According to Nils William Olsson, the name Rambo means "raven's nest" = ramn + bo and was chosen for Ramberget ("Raven's Mountain").

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Laura Poitras: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (US 2022), featuring Nan Goldin.

US 2022. Neon Presents – a Participant and HBO Documentary Films presentation – a film by Laura Poitras – photography & slideshows by Nan Goldin.
    P: Nan Goldin, Yoni Golijov, Laura Poitras. P: Howard Gertler, John Lyons. EX: Clare Carter, Alex Kwartler, Hayley Theisen. EX: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann.
    D: Laura Poitras. Colour, 16:9 HD. M: Soundwalk Collective. Music Supervisor: Dawn Sutter Madell. Archival P: Shanti Avirgan. Archival Co-P: Olivia Streisand. ED: Amy Foote, Joe Bini, Brian A. Kates.
    A non-fiction film featuring the photographer Nan Goldin.
    Also featuring: her sister Barbara Goldin (archival). The Goldin family.
    Featuring: the Sackler family.
    Featuring: David Armstrong (archival), Marina Berio, Noemi Bonazzi, Harry Cullen, Alfonso D'amato (archival), Jesse Helms (archival), Jim Jarmusch (archival), Megan Kapler, Patrick Radden Keefe, Ed Koch (archival), John Mearsheimer, Annatina Miescher, Cookie Mueller (archival), Sharon Niesp (archival), Darryl Pinckney, Alexis Pleus, Mike Quinn, Anwar Sadat (archival), Vittorio Scarpati (archival), Maggie Smith, Robert Suarez, David Velasco, John Waters (archival), David Wojnarowicz (archival).
    Loc: Metropolitan Art Museum (New York City). Marian Goodman Gallery (Paris). Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, Massachusetts). Louvre Museum (Paris). Tate Galleries (London).
    Soundtrack selections include [from my screening notes]: – Vincenzo Bellini: "Casta diva" perf. Montserrat Caballé. – The Velvet Underground & Nico: "Sunday Morning" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" – Screamin' Jay Hawkins: "I Put A Spell On You" – Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht: "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("Mack the Knife") and "Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit" ("Ballad of Sexual Dependency") from Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) * – Lucinda Williams: "Unsuffer Me".
    117 min [IMDb: 122 min]
    Festival premiere: 3 Sep 2022 Venice Film Festival.
    US festival premiere: 5 Sep 2022 Telluride Film Festival (TBA hors catalogue).
    New York premiere: 23 Nov 2022.
    Finnish festival premiere: 5 Feb 2023 DocPoint.
    Finnish premiere: 10 Feb 2023 – distributed by Cinema Mondo – Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Anitra Paukkula / Sophia Beckman.
    Viewed at a press screening at Kino Engel 2, Helsinki, 18 Jan 2023.

Chapters: – I Merciless Logic – II Coin of the Realm – III Ballad of Sexual Dependency – IV Against Our Vanishing – V Escape Hatch – VI Sisters.

Droll thing life is -- that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself -- that comes too late -- a crop of inextinguishable regrets.
– Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (the motto of Barbara Goldin, Nan Goldin's beloved sister) **

Press notes:

"An epic story about artist and activist Nan Goldin, told through her groundbreaking photography and rare footage of her fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for the opioid crisis."

Short Synopsis
"Directed by Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is an epic, emotional and interconnected story about internationally renowned artist and activist Nan Goldin told through her slideshows, intimate interviews, ground-breaking photography, and rare footage of her personal fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for the opioid crisis."
Long Synopsis
"All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is an epic, emotional and interconnected story about internationally renowned artist and activist Nan Goldin told through her slideshows, intimate interviews, ground-breaking photography, and rare footage of her personal fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for the opioid crisis."

"Directed by Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, the film interweaves Goldin’s past and present, the deeply personal and urgently political, from P.A.I.N.’s (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) actions at renowned art institutions to Goldin’s photography of her friends and peers through her epic “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” and her legendary 1989, NEA-censored AIDS exhibition, “Witness: Against Our Vanishing.”"
"The story begins with P.A.I.N., a group Goldin founded to shame museums into rejecting Sackler money, destigmatize addiction and promote harm reduction. Inspired by Act Up, they orchestrated protests to call attention to the toxic philanthropy of the Sackler family, whose company, Purdue Pharma, ignited the opioid epidemic with its blockbuster drug, OxyContin."
"At the core of the film are Goldin’s art works “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”; “The Other Side”; “Sisters, Saints and Sibyls”; and “Memory Lost.” In these works, Goldin captures her friendships with beauty and raw tenderness. These friendships, and the legacy of her sister Barbara, anchor all of Goldin’s art.
" (Press notes)

AA: Before All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, I had seen from Laura Poitras only Citizenfour, the disturbing Edward Snowden documentary that was shot in real time as one of the greatest news timebombs of our age was detonated. It was not about sensation. It was about revelation. It was about the end of privacy, the ubiquity of NSA's Big Brother surveillance in the internet age that makes Gestapo and Stasi practices as revealed in The Life of Others look tame. Later we have learned even worse about Pegasus.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is also a big league social documentary, about the North American opioid crisis which has claimed the lives of a half a million of Americans. The target is Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sackler family, and its drug OxyContin. The movie covers the international campaign of artists to boycott the influential Sackler philanthrophy in the world's major art museums. The leader of the campaign is Nan Goldin, herself an OxyContin survivor.

The ingenious structure of the documentary proceeds on several levels and dimensions. The main story is about the artists' fearless campaign at the most prestigious addresses of the international art world. Simultaneously the movie grows into a candid portrait documentary about Nan Goldin, starting from her tormented childhood and the suicide of her beloved sister Barbara.

It is also an art documentary about Nan Goldin, the pioneering photographer of milieux and lifestyles "on the wild side". Nan Goldin's major slideshows “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”; “The Other Side”; “Sisters, Saints and Sibyls”; and “Memory Lost” provide the artistic substance. The sound of the slide projector becomes a percussion element. ***

It is also a survey of the East Coast cultural underground and gay and trans communities since the 1970s. Nan Goldin was a member, not a voyeur observer. In this epic about these milieux she registers the evolution across decades from repression to acknowledging androgynous elegance, the AIDS death toll, and steps towards liberation.

Photography became a vehicle of emancipation for the young and inhibited Nan Goldin. It also becomes a weapon in the battle of life against death in successive health catastrophes: the AIDS period, the opiod crisis – and the Covid pandemic during which this movie was made.

* "Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit" ("Ballad of Sexual Dependency") was written for the character of Mrs. Peachum in Die Dreigroschenoper but withdrawn from the libretto before premiere.

** This thought, like most of the narration in Heart in Darkness, is expressed by the sailor Charles Marlow, inside quotation marks. The remark is heard soon after the declaration "Mistah Kurtz – he dead" and "And then they very nearly buried me".

*** English Wikipedia: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (slide show exhibition and artist's book: "It is an autobiographical document of a portion of New York City's No wave music and art scene, the post-Stonewall gay subculture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the heroin subculture of the Bowery neighborhood, and Goldin's personal family and love life. Critic Sean O'Hagan, writing in The Guardian in 2014, said it "remains a benchmark for all other work in a similar confessional vein." Lucy Davies, writing in The Telegraph in 2014, said it "would come to influence a generation of fledgling photographers, who fell into her truth-telling wake. She was credited by Bill Clinton with inventing heroin chic"."


Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Heojil kyolshim / Decision to Leave

Park Chan-Wook: 헤어질 결심 / Heojil kyolshim / Decision to Leave (KO 2022) starring Park Hae-il (detective Hae-joon) and Tang Wei (the murder suspect Seo-rae). Location: Geumjeongsan Mountain, Busan, South Korea. Do click on the image to enlarge it.

AA: In the film's promotion information Decision to Leave is characterized as a detective story turning into romance, and I can understand the usefulness of these words as a handle.

But I find this film a metaphysical quest. The female protagonist Seo-rae is elusive, but the film itself is elusive, too. We soon realize that we are following a narrative in which perception is unreliable. In the middle of a take the conditional mood may appear: a doubled mood of the same situation.

Decision to Leave seems to take place in the detective's mind, not in the objective world. Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is an obsessive detective suffering from insomnia. The strange disruptions and dislocations in the flow seem tell-tale signs of profound exhaustion.

For me, Decision to Leave is a film about the short attention span typical of the internet age, the lack of concentration in the mobile age, the scope of awareness getting increasingly reduced to the instant.

Decision to Leave belongs to the films inspired by Vertigo, but not in a superficial or obvious way. Falling from heights, the presence of the death drive, the centrality of a woman who is not who she seems, and the power of the sea are among the affinities. There are also set-ups in the chase sequences that seem to have a Vertigo hommage aspect.

The female protagonist Seo-rae (Tang Wei) is complex and original, and yet so mysterious that she almost feels like a figment of the imagination. Or the detective's projection is so dominating that we fail to fully empathize with the Chinese refugee herself.

Park Chan-Wook's previous films belong to the most highly regarded of the last 23 years. They have also been prominent in brutality, but brutality in art is a double-edged weapon: effective at first but may date badly.

Might the title Decision to Leave be also about Park Chan-Wook's statement of a new direction in his cinema?

Monday, January 02, 2023

On ne sait jamais / You Never Know

Victoria Schultz: On ne sait jamais / You Never Know (US/FR 2022) with Hande Kodja (Iris). Loc: Maison Louis Carré. Black and white in scope. Please click on the image to enlarge it.

Ei sitä koskaan tiedä.
    US/FR © 2022 VivaVision / Kafard films. Filmantiq. Producteur excecutif: Paul-Anthony Mille.
    Un film de Victoria Schultz, réalisatrice, productrice. Scénario: Victoria Schultz avec Pierre Mille. Directeur de la photographie: Paul-Anthony Mille – 35 mm – noir et blanc – scope. Assistants caméra: Nicolas Fouques, Juliana Vélez. Chef electro: Erwan Robert-Thomasson. Chef machino: Joseph Geremia. Ingenieur son, mixage, bruitage: Juste Bruyat. Chef maquilleuse: Natalia Vélez. Maquilleuse: Eva Goarin. Effets: Natasha Lopez. Couturière: Pinrawan Pimpimarn. Régie: Félix Louf, Stéphane Colle. Montage: Lisa-Lou Villemain. Assistant production, comptable: Ilhem Sadji. Étalonnage: Erwan Robert-Thomasson.
    Loc: Maison Louis Carré (architecte: Alvar Aalto).
Iris / Hande Kodja           
Alex / Milan Marsauche
Olavi / Jonathan Pineau Bonetti
Aino / Ronia Ava
Vera / Chantal Hecaen  
Leo / Nick Mancuso  
Roger / Olivier Che
Mauricette / Mauricette Gourdon
Ilona / Li Krook
soldats / Stéphane Colle, Olivier Le Montagner
animaux / Ronia Ava, Li Krook, Natasha Lopez, Felix Louf
barman / Jean Peyrelade
    Bande sonore:
"Kevätyö" de Selim Palmgren / Henri Sigfridsson, piano.
"Saharan uni II" ; "Sähkösoittimen ääni #1" ; "On-Off" ; "Virsi" ; "Inventio" ; "Antropoidien tanssi" ; "Preludi II" / Erkki Kurenniemi, compositeur.
"Lapsuuden toverille" ; "Karjalan kunnailla" / Iiris Tarnanen, interprete
Appels aux vaches en Carélie / Vilma Jää
"Säkkijärven polkka" / Aurélien Lehmann, accordéon
"Valse lente Op. 3" de Oskar Merikanto / Ossi Tanner, piano
    Fiche technique:   
Kodak Vision 3 ; Kodak Double X .
Arrican LT ; Arrican ST ; Arriflex 2C.
    70 min
    Versions: French version and English version. Subtitle options: English, Finnish, French.
    Private Vimeo link of the French version with English subtitles viewed at home in Lappeenranta, 29 July 2022.

AA: Victoria Schultz was born in Finland but has worked all her life in the United States and France and established independent production companies in both countries (Viva Vision and Kafard Films). After a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent, documentary filmmaker and photographer Schultz has worked extended periods with the Finnish Broadcasting Company and the United Nations.

Recently Schultz has embarked on a new path of expression with intimate poetic quests, returning at a mature age to painful encounters of youth in the 30 minute Memories of Desire (2019), photographed mostly in stark black and white, channeling personal confessions in an Expressionist mode.

Like its short predecessor, the feature length You Never Know is a dream play, a time play and a memory play, also a case of Traumarbeit and Trauerarbeit, but the visual frame of reference is the opposite to Memories of Desire. Instead of its striking contrasts, You Never Know is painted with gentle, tender light and has affinities with 1960s European Modernism, urban studies of alienation such as the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Instead of the Academy aspect ratio of the previous film, You Never Know unfolds in scope.

The main location is Maison Louis Carré designed by Alvar Aalto, the architect who was more than a rigorous modernist, enchanted by nature and feminine curves, favouring wave-like forms and welcoming the presence of light.

The film is anchored in the early 1960s in the life of a young woman born during WWII. We are learning to understand better that post-traumatic stress disorder does not concern only soldiers but also women conducting medical service and children exposed to war. I know that from my mother who told that her childhood ended on 30 November 1939 when she stared in the eye a Soviet Red Air Force bomber pilot in her home town Lahti.

Memory montages evoke the city of Viipuri lost to Russia and the epic masses of refugees from Karelia. Red Army soldiers rape (but don't kill) a woman who later gives the baby born from the act to an orphanage. Traces of war are everywhere. Landmines and explosíves keep getting detonated for years after the war ends. Reminding of the horrible human loss are the war invalids. Memories are alive also on the soundtrack in tunes referring to the lost Karelia as "Säkkijärven polkka" and "Karjalan kunnailla" and ancient Karelian cattle calls interpreted by Vilma Jää.

Paranoia is a recurrent theme. The caretaker Alex hallucinates about Soviets everywhere. We are anchored in the 1960s, the decade of political assassinations, most prominently that of JFK, still unsolved in the sense of what it was all about. Like in The Irishman, the news of the assassination hits us obliquely but unforgettably.

Young sexuality awakens in circumstances of a ménage à trois where mother and daughter share an interest in the caretaker, the young hunk Alex. He desires Iris but belongs to the mother. The father's clothes are still hanging in the closet (he left his wife and daughter for another woman). A convention is reversed in the sauna sequence where the male is nude and the female is clothed. The young woman's éducation sentimentale evolves in twisted circumstances of shifting affinities and loyalties.

Adding to the ostranenie is the presence of animal-headed characters, reminders of the dream space in which we find ourselves. Perhaps this is a grown-up fairy-tale.

Memories of Desire was an Expressionistic dream. The shimmering You Never Know is a lucid dream.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Holy Spider / Ankaboote moghaddas

Ali Abbasi: عنکبوت مقدس / Holy Spider / Ankaboote moghaddas (DK 2022). The figure in the Persian carpet: a prostitute gives the "come on" sign.

Holy Spider / Holy Spider / عنکبوت مقدس /  Ankaboote moghaddas.
    DK/DE/SE/FR © 2022 Profile Pictures / One Two Films (PC) and Nordisk Film Production, Wild Bunch International, Film i Väst, Why Not Productions, ZDF/ARTE and ARTE France Cinéma (co-PC).
    A film by Ali Abbasi.
    In cooperation with DR – Danish Broadcasting Corporation and SVT, in association with The Imaginarium Films, Rotor Film. Supported by The Danish Film Institute, Eurimages, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Filmförderungsanstalt, Swedish Film Institute, DFFF, Nordisk Film & TV Fond, MOIN Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein. 
    Produced by: Sol Bondy, Jacob Jarek. P: Ali Abbasi. Co-P: Eva Åkergren, Calle Marthin, Peter Possne, Fred Burle, Vincent Maraval, Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlat, Olivier Père, Rémi Burah. Assoc P: Holger Stern, Alexander Bohr, Barbara Häbe, Zar Amir Ebrahimi. EX: Ditte Milsted, Christoph Lange.
    D: Ali Abbasi. SC: Ali Abbasi & Afshin Kamran Bahrami. DP: Nadim Carlsen. PD: Lina Nordqvist. M: Martin Dirkov. ED: Olivia Neergaard-Holm.
    C: Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Rahimi), Mehdi Bajestani (Saeed), Arash Ashtiani (Sharifi), Forouzan Jamshidnejad (Fatima), Alice Rahimi (Somayeh), Sara Fazilat (Zinab), Sina Parvaneh (Rostami), Nima Akbarpour (judge), Mesbah Taleb (Ali).
    Loc: Jordan.
    117 min
    Language: Farsi.
    International sales: Wild Bunch International.
    Festival premiere: 22 May 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
    US festival premiere: 2 Sep 2022 Telluride Film Festival.
    Finnish premiere: 23 Dec 2022 – released in Finland by Future Film with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Janne Kauppila / Marcus Hallenkranz.
    Viewed at Finnkino Strand 2, Iso Kristiina, Lappeenranta, 26 Dec 2022.

"Ali Abbasi’s riveting true-crime story follows a serial murderer of prostitutes in Mashhad, Iran’s holy city. Working from a screenplay cowritten with Afshin Kamran Bahrami, Abbas presents Saeed, superbly played by Mehdi Bajestani, not as a frothing-at-the mouth, eye-bulging maniac, but as a hard-working, pious family man who hopes to do something meaningful with his life. In a parallel story, the female investigative reporter Rahimi (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, winner of Cannes Best Actress award for her intense performance) must constantly confront the misogyny of her colleagues, the cops and of Iranian society, which in some cases even encourages the killings. Abbas’ first film BORDER was a delightfully disturbing and comedic erotic horror film that unfolded in Sweden. Here, with a story set in the country of his birth, he transitions to a documentary-style social realism with astonishing skill. –LG (Denmark-Germany-Sweden-France, 2022, 117m) In person: Ali Abbasi, Zar Amir Ebrahimi" (Larry Gross, Telluride Film Festival, 2+3+4 Sep 2022)

"A female journalist travels to the Iranian holy city of Mashhad to hunt a serial killer."
"Female journalist Rahimi travels to the Iranian holy city of Mashhad to investigate a serial killer targeting sex workers. As she draws closer to exposing his crimes, the opportunity for justice grows harder to attain when the murderer is embraced by many as a hero. Based on the true story of the ‘Spider Killer’ Saeed Hanaei, who saw himself as on a mission from God as he killed 16 women between 2000 and 2001." (Holy Spider press notes)
AA: First impressions and remarks:

1. "Everyone must meet what one wants to avoid." The film's motto seems to refer to the protagonist, the journalist Rahimi.

2. Serial killer fiction is a tired trend, but Holy Spider is different in many ways.

3. The account of sexual violence is brutal and unflinching, but Ali Abbasi's gaze is not sadistic. It is revelatory.

4. The story of sexual violence precedes the serial killer narrative. The victims are opium-addicted sex workers. Their customers identify sex with violence. Their agenda is to make women suffer. There is even an explicit purpose to damage the vulva. Women are serially punished, then murdered, the corpses disposed to wasteland.

5. Martin Dirkov's powerful score is hallucinatory, and one might call it hallucinogenic. It seems to connect with the opium-altered state of the sex workers' consciousness.

6. The performances of Zar Amir Ebrahimi as the journalist Rahimi and Mehdi Bajestani as the serial killer Saeed are extraordinary.

7. Saeed is a pious family father. On the topic of whether he is crazy he answers: "I'm crazy about cleansing the world", "I'm crazy about God".

8. The fearless journalist Rahimi knows about harassment. She was fired from her previous job having refused her editor-in-chief's advances. Now in Mashhad she has to fend off a police officer's violent harassment, and refuse her male journalist colleague's unwelcome passes.

9. Themes revealed along the investigation: the post-traumatic stress disorder of Saeed, a veteran of the Iran-Iraqi war. The despair of the women of the street. The complicity of the wife who knows about her husband's murderous ways.

10. The violence escalates. It culminates with the tough woman who proves almost impossible to kill. Followed by Rahimi who risks her life by turning into a decoy.

11. After the journalist Rahimi has exposed the killer, the imam congratulates the police.

12. Like in Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing, the execution procedure is played in almost real time. There is time to reflect on capital punishment. Capital punishment does not reduce crime, on the contrary. It brutalizes society because when a one-time killer knows that he may be executed, he can kill more without concern for further punishment.

13. The film begins when it ends. The next generation may follow in the father's footsteps. Much of the society condones Saeed's acts. But as we know from today's news 20 years later, women of Iran are increasingly following Rahimi's way.

14. The spider is a many-layered image. The spider killer is Saaed. His neighbourhood is his spider's web, and the center is his home where many murders take place.
    But there is more. I quote from the Ali Abbasi interview in the press notes of Holy Spider:
    Q: "Discuss the spider in your title".
    A: "There’s a double meaning there. In the Iranian press, Saeed was referred to as the Spider Killer because he was luring victims into his web — often his apartment itself. The metaphor came out of that. But when I flew into Mashhad, I saw the famous shrine in the center of the city and it looked like a web. Saeed probably visited it often, and many of his victims were picked up in the vicinity. The idea of him coming out of that web and dragging his victims into darkness became a strong image for me, because in his mind he was doing holy work."
    Spider associations in culture run from tarantella dancing and dreamcatchers to arachnophobia and Spiderverse. Luis Buñuel, the great entomologist, and his entire family were obsessed by spiders (Luis devotes a chapter to them in his memoir Mon dernier soupir, the juiciest parts supplied by his sister Conchita).
    I don't know about other countries, but in Finland the sexual symbolism of the spider is familiar even for children, who can draw the female Thing-In-Itself as a stick figure of the eight-legged creature. (See the final image beyond the jump break).

15. Among serial killer films, Holy Spider is exceptional. In many of the best, the elusiveness of the killer seems to evoke that more is at stake than tracking down the singular culprit.
    A prototype of a serial killer stalking sex workers was Jack the Ripper in film adaptations of The Lodger, including Hugo Fregonese's Man in the Attic. (Not forgetting Weimar fascination in Jack the Ripper in Das Wachsfigurenkabinett und Die Büchse der Pandora).
    The distinction of Holy Spider is that it opens into the wider horror of misogyny in religion, society and history.
    Like in The Silence of the Lambs, the investigator protagonist is female.
    In both movies, killers evoke insect imagery. In The Silence of the Lambs, it is the butterfly: "Caterpillar into chrysalis, or pupa, from thence into beauty".
    In Holy Spider, we begin to realize that the monster is sustained by a world wide web of misogyny.

The holy city of Mashhad, the second most populous city of Iran. Photo supplied by Ehsan Khoshbakht. After Mecca, Mashhad is the second most important Holy City. Near the border of Afghanistan, it is a pilgrim hub.


Friday, December 23, 2022

Jeanne Dielman as Number One at the Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll 2022

The cover of Sight & Sound – Volume 33, Issue 1, Winter 2022/2023. Photo from: Chantal Akerman: Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce – 1080 Bruxelles (BE/FR 1975) starring Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman.

The announcement on 2 December 2022 that Number One in Sight & Sound's prestigious The Greatest Film of All Time poll is now Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce – 1080 Bruxelles has elicited a lot of comment, this week also in major Finnish media. Tero Kartastenpää covers Jeanne Dielman in Helsingin Sanomat, and Tuomas Karemo at Yle the Finnish Broadcasting Company website.

Jeanne Dielman has its official Finnish theatrical premiere today, released by the enterprising ELKE society – coincidentally just now, and independently of the Sight & Sound poll.

The status of Jeanne Dielman has slowly consolidated. It featured prominently in Mark Cousins's epic survey Women Make Film (2019). The film historian Gerald Peary conducted in April 2022 a vast survey on the best films directed by women, and Jeanne Dielman was number one also in it.

Jeanne Dielman is far more radical and experimental than any other Sight & Sound Top Ten film during the last 70 years.

These polls started in the year 1952. Those were the days of classical cinephilia, when there was consensus about classics.

Consensus prevailed until the 1980s when home viewing formats and the explosion of films on television and later in the web made us all more aware about the world wide wonders of the cinema.

Simultaneously, a silent film revival took place. Although most silents are lost, we have now wider access to silent goldies than ever.

This is an age of a thousand flowers. The collective top ten is the most boring part of the top ten exercise. Individual top ten lists are more interesting, such as this one:

Alice Rohrwacher

Strike / Stachka (Sergei Eisenstein, SU 1925)
Miracle in Milan / Miracolo a Milano (Vittorio De Sica, IT 1951)
Nights of Cabiria / Le notti di Cabiria (Federico Fellini, IT/FR 1957)
The Earth Seen from the Moon / La Terra vista dalla Luna (Pier Paolo Pasolini, IT/FR 1967)
Getting to Know the Big, Wide World / Poznavaya belyi svet (Kira Muratova, SU 1978)
Tale of Tales / Skazka skazok (Yuri Norstein, SU 1979)
The Blue Planet / Il pianeta azzurro (Franco Piavoli, IT 1982)
Vagabond / Sans noit ni loi (Agnès Varda, FR 1985)
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, FI/FR/DE 2011)
The Colour of Pomegranates / Nran guyne / Sayat Nova (Sergei Parajanov, SU-Armenian 1969)

What do I make of Jeanne Dielman's new standing?

I think it's a great twist to the consensus.

In Helsinki, Jeanne Dielman has belonged to our programming repertory since 1988 when it opened our series "The Challenge of Feminism" curated by Tuike Alitalo. Before that, I had seen the film in West Berlin where it was regularly screened at Arsenal. Freunde der deutschen Kinemathek possessed a 35 mm print of their own.

Tuike Alitalo in our 1988 program note stressed the revolutionary status of Jeanne Dielman as a feminist film. It was not only about tearing away from a traditional way to portray a woman. It was not only telling different stories about women or portraying women differently. It was about questioning the very idea of the cinema. It was about a totally novel relationship between image and story, cinema and storytelling. For Alitalo, Jeanne Dielman reflects on all subsequent feminist cinema.

Since then, I have been getting to know Akerman's versatile oeuvre better. Her presence was felt at Midnight Sun Film Festival in 1991, hosted by Peter von Bagh at the morning discussion. I have learned to appreciate her talent in non-fiction and also in fresh approaches to unfilmable classics such as In Search of Lost Time in La Captive, based on La Prisonnière.

As her penultimate movie Akerman filmed Joseph Conrad's first novel, Almayer's Folly. It is a veiled confession, a coming to terms with the director's distant father. A deep Conradian bond was based on the theme of exile and a fascination with the Other. Akerman discussed all this in an illuminating interview with Cyril Béghin.

Then came the final movie, a last will and testament: No Home Movie. In Almayer's Folly, Akerman was indirectly discussing her own father. No Home Movie was about her mother, just like Jeanne Dielman.

Both No Home Movie and Jeanne Dielman take place in homes that are spaces of homelessness. No Home Movie could be an alternative title for Jeanne Dielman, and the same could be said about The Captive, as well.

The sense of a philosophy of history is powerful. Akerman's oeuvre can be seen as a coming to terms with the Holocaust, the trauma unhealed, the basic bond of trust in society broken, the faith in humanity unrestored.

Jeanne Dielman is superficially a naturalistic movie, even kitchen sink. But in many ways it is an uncanny film. "No Home Movie" is a possible literal translation of an "unheimlich" movie, "unheimlich" meaning "not homely". But the word has a double sense, since in German the main meaning of "heimlich" is "secret".

Many currents in Jeanne Dielman's world lead to the experience of the uncanny. From the viewpoint of feminist theory, Julia Kristeva's concept of abjection is the most essential. It covers the Jeanne Dielman experience.

Towards the end of Akerman's oeuvre many of those currents connected, made sense and illuminated also retroactively the towering achievement of Jeanne Dielman, which Akerman created with a great sense of purpose at the age of 25 – the same age in which Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane.

To evoke yet another top ten film, Akerman's work, although set at home, also grows into a space odyssey – an interior space odyssey, un Voyage autour de ma chambre. Or Tao Te Ching, as channeled by George Harrison in "The Inner Light":

Without going out of my door
I can know all things on Earth

Without looking out of my window
I could know the ways of Heaven

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Avatar: The Way of Water

James Cameron: Avatar: The Way of Water (US 2022) starring Zoe Saldaña (Neytiri) and Sam Worthington (Jake Sully).

US © 2022 20th Century Studios, Inc. / TSG Entertainment. A Lightstorm Entertainment Production. PC: Lightstorm Entertainment & TSG Entertainment. Distributor: 20th Century Studios. P: James Cameron, Jon Landau.
    D: James Cameron. SC: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver. Story by: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Josh Friedman, Shane Salerno. Based on: characters by James Cameron.
    Cin: Russell Carpenter. Camera: Sony CineAlta Venice 3D. Source format: X-OCN RAW. Master format: Digital Intermediate 4K. Release format: D-Cinema, 4K, also 3-D: RealD 3D, Dolby Cinema, IMAX ja IMAX 3D. Select showings also support dynamic high frame rate up to 48 fps. Released in Dolby Vision.
    PD: Dylan Cole, Ben Procter. AD: Luke Freeborn, Kim Sinclair. Set dec: Vanessa Cole. Cost: Bob Buck, Deborah L. Scott. Makeup & hair: Sarah Rubano. Senior VFX Supervisor: Joe Letteri. Lightstorm's VFX Supervisor / Virtual 2nd Unit Director: Richard Baneham. Tattoo artist: Michael Krehl. Prosthetics: Jess Reedy (ProFX). Animatronix: Weta Workshop. VFX: Weta FX, Lightstorm Entertainment. AN: Weta FX.
    ED: Stephen E. Rivkin, David Brenner, John Refoua, James Cameron. S: Dick Bernstein, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle. M: Simon Franglen. The Avatar theme: James Horner (1953-2015). Casting: Oryan Landa.
    C: Na'vi / Recombinants (recoms): Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldaña (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (double role as Kiri and Dr. Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang (double role as Colonel Miles Quaritch Recombinant and the original Quaritch in a recording), Kate Winslet (Ronal), Cliff Curtis (Tonowari), Britain Dalton (Lo'ak), Jamie Flatters (Neteyam), Trinity Jo-Li Bliss (Tuktirey), Bailey Bass (Tsireya), Filip Geljo (Aonung), Duane Evans, Jr. (Rotxo), CCH Pounder (Mo'at), Matt Gerald (Corporal Lyle Wainfleet), Alicia Vela-Bailey (Zdinarsk), CJ Jones (Metkayina interpreter).
    Humans: Jack Champion (Spider), Joel David Moore (Dr. Norm Spellman), Edie Falco (General Frances Ardmore), Brendan Cowell (Captain Mick Scoresby), Jemaine Clement (Dr. Ian Garvin), Dileep Rao (Dr. Max Patel), Giovanni Ribisi (Parker Ribisi).
    Studios: Stone Street Studios (Wellington, NZ), MBS Media Campus (Manhattan Beach, CA).
    Filming dates: 25 Sep 2017.
    Languages: English, Na'vi.
    192 min
    London premiere: 6 Dec 2022.
    US premiere: 16 Dec 2022.
    Finnish premiere: 14 Dec 2022, released by Walt Disney Motion Pictures Finland with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Timo Porri / Janne Staffans.
    3D HFR DCP viewed at Finnkino Strand 1, Iso Kristiina, Lappeenranta, 17 Dec 2022.

AA: I liked the original Avatar (2009) 13 years ago, as I liked Titanic in 1997.

First impressions of Avatar: The Way of Water: there is an irresistible, compelling drive. Although James Cameron had given his permission to go to pee during the movie, I did not go, nor did I glance at my watch, and it took a long while until I was able to start to take notes.

James Cameron belongs to what I call the architectonic-industrial school of the cinema: these directors are like generals or urban planners designing huge public spaces and spectacles. The Way of Water is a new amazing achievement in this major current of popular cinema.

One of the best pieces on James Cameron I know is Daniel Mendelsohn's essay on Avatar in The New York Review of Books. Mendelsohn's point of reference is The Wizard of Oz, Cameron's favourite movie. Like in The Wizard of Oz, there is in Avatar a visual contrast between the drab monotonous world of normality and the staggering colour and the ravishing light from beyond. Mendelsohn names Cameron's visual look, already familiar from The Abyss, "bioluminescence". Mendelsohn found visual ravishment the principal experience of the movie, enhanced by the "surprisingly subtle use of 3-D technology". (I blogged about Mendelsohn in 2010.)

The use of 3-D technology is much more advanced in The Way of Water, and the 3D High Frame Rate (48 fps) presentation I experienced was impeccable. But as in the first Avatar, I noticed the preference for cold colours. Although a celebration of life is intended, the colour world is that of death. Anyway, the waterworld is breathtaking in 3D, the deep focus unique, the composition in depth stunning all the way.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) was the first film I saw in 3-D HFR. It was ultra-sharp and superior to previous 3-D experiences, but the ultra-sharpness also emphasized the uncanniness. The ambiguity remains in The Way of Water, but it is getting more refined.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a science fiction epic, a cyberpunk tale, a disaster film, a dystopia about ecocatastrophe, a fantasy, a myth, a war film and a guerrilla hero saga.

It is not a film of psychological subtlety or immortal dialogue. But it creates compelling worlds of imagination. It is about escapism, but also about the impossibility of escape: everywhere we find ourselves.

In the first Avatar we had destroyed the Earth and attacked Pandora to exploit its resources and suppress indigenous peoples. The war starts again in the sequel. Warlords of "the sky people" (= us) who have already died are resurrected as recoms. They can also assume the form of the indigenous Na'avi.

We encounter a whole new world of sea tribes, the Metkayina clan, and a new and original universe of visual fantasy is introduced. A central role is played by intelligent sea creatures, the tulkun, sentient, whale-like creatures. The entire ecosystem is interconnected in peaceful harmony. Other new creatures include the ilu and the skimwing.

As a poet of the ocean Cameron is a follower of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Rachel Carson. He has explored the oceanic theme before in Titanic, The Abyss, Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. The Way of Water takes the Cameronian "bioluminescence", the term coined by Daniel Mendelsohn, to the next level.

Cameron also connects with the greatest sea tale of all, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. When the "sky-people" attack the tulkun, the usually peaceful creatures finally react like the white whale.

Because life on Pandora is based on peace, love and harmony, it is vulnerable to the brutal attack of the sky people. The fact that the most evil power can brutalize all is one of the greatest tragedies in history. In The Way of Water, the war between the physically superior imperialists and the weaker guerrilla people evokes Russia's Feldzug in Ukraine and the USA's Quixotic attacks in Vietnam and Irak.

At stake is the pacifist's dilemma. The principle of "resist no evil" is an expression of the highest order: the reverence for life. Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King lived as they taught and were executed or murdered. Did they lose? It is too early to tell. By dying for their cause they became immortal. Leo Tolstoy was devastated when the Czar's Imperial Guard massacred Father Gapon's peaceful demonstrators on St. Petersburg's Bloody Sunday in 1905, a turning-point leading to the violence in 1917.

As always, James Cameron creates strong female roles. Men are incarnations of the death drive. Women are the carriers of the life force. The young generation features prominently. Indigenous Maori actors are highlighted in this film largely produced in New Zealand.

The Avatar movies are milestones of animation, and in animation, human or humanoid characters are still far from being as engaging as actors in regular live action movies. There is still the uncanny valley: it is inherently difficult to relate to digital humanoids. James Cameron has created many fantastic worlds of imagination. The characters inhabiting the Pandora worlds are not yet irresistibly memorable, but they might be in the process of becoming so.