Saturday, November 15, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 37 Report #1 – “1001 Grams,” “The Tribe,” & “The Midnight Swim” make for a great first day

As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I will be relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports, which will compile my thoughts on multiple films within single articles. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link.  

While the 2014 edition of the Starz Denver Film Festival technically began on Wednesday nights, Friday was my first day at the festival, and it was a really wonderful afternoon and evening of filmgoing. While one of the films I saw today was underwhelming, the other two were positively splendid – one of them is an absolute lock for my year-end top 10 list. Quality of the films aside, though, the atmosphere of the festival is so warm and inviting, and there are so many nice surprises along the way – meeting new people, surprise appearances from filmmakers, etc. – that I suspect I would have enjoyed myself immensely even if the films had failed to impress as strongly as they did.

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But the films were, on the whole, quite excellent indeed. First up was 1001 Grams, a Norwegian film from director Bent Hamer which has been chosen as Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. The film follows Marie Ernest (Ane Dahl Torp), a scientist working for the Norwegian Bureau of Weights and Measurements, and the film immediately distinguishes itself by focusing on a topic and setting I can safely I have never before seen in a movie. Watching a character calibrate scales and gas pumps, test the physics of lottery balls, or attend an international conference on the kilogram may not sound like particularly cinematic subject matter, but Hamer has a delightfully wry sense of humor about things – said kilo conference is an exemplary piece of quiet, mundane comedy – and there is something undeniably fascinating and engaging about watching a protagonist move through such an unfamiliar world. The details against which Marie’s story is set – particularly all the material about transporting and calibrating a country’s actual, physical kilogram – lend the film an instant distinctiveness, which it revels in with a sharp, observational tone.

That's all just the surface, though. 1001 Grams is, at its core, a restrained and insightful character study about a woman at an existential crossroads. Having just ended a long-term relationship, working in a job that keeps her isolated and lacks fulfillment, and grappling with the death of her father, a great friend and mentor, Marie is adrift, distanced and disconnected from the world in ways we can all surely identify with, at one point or another. After going about her job all day, she comes home to her stark, angular, increasingly empty house – her former boyfriend takes more and more furniture with each passing day – drinking wine and staring blankly at the wall. Even when called upon to attend the international kilo conference in the wake of her father’s heart attack, Marie can only feel disconnected from the other scientists, in part because of the cold, clinical, impersonal nature of the work they all do.

1001 Grams certainly isn’t anti-science, but it does make the argument, both implicitly and explicitly, that the relentless march of scientific progress can prevent those who exist at its epicenter from taking note of the world around them. The film features some of the most intelligently composed cinematography of the year, with director of photography John Christian Rosenlund focusing on the cold, clinical nature of the laboratory spaces in which Marie works, and which are mirrored in the construction of Norway’s urban areas; the arrangement of residential neighborhoods, and even the interior of Marie’s house, is just as stark and anonymous as any laboratory, the surrounding trees and greenery not extending naturally, but as a part of an overall design that feels almost claustrophobically impersonal. A terrific model of how to employ the wide anamorphic frame in a character-oriented drama, Hamer and Rosenlund fill their frames with empty spaces and dwarfed human forms, emphasizing isolation and depersonalization in a series of images that are simultaneously striking – breathtaking, even, at certain points – and haunting. In the early going, in fact, Marie’s only meaningful human connections in the city take place in an extremely cramped hallway at work, where she goes to smoke with a friend; it is not even a space where people are meant to exist, and yet it is the only place where Marie seems to feel connected with anyone at all, other than when she visits her father in the countryside (where the natural, expansive landscape feels like a much-needed release).

Kilo-related oddities aside, Marie’s story is a fairly simple, archetypal one, then – the lost individual who must learn to feel comfortable and fulfilled within the confines of modern life – but it is passionately and empathetically told, due in no small part to the excellent work Ane Dahl Torp does in the lead role. This is a beautifully internalized performance, one of immense control and effective minimalism, illustrating Marie’s complex emotions through subtle facial movements and small gestures. Piece by piece, she turns this character into a living, breathing human being, one we understand deeply and cheer on towards catharsis. She is best in moments of silence, when Marie is left alone to ponder her emotions in solitude; in one standout shot, Marie learns of her father’s death in a single long-take, the camera zooming in towards her face very slowly as Marie digests the information. Due to the intelligent camerawork and Torp’s precise performance, the moment feels incredibly honest, and is bookended by a scene towards the end of the film where Marie interacts with her father’s ashes. I can safely say I have never seen the complex, thoroughly strange emotions of dealing with a loved one’s ashes portrayed this perfectly on film. There are some lovely, ethereal images in the sequence, and it ends on an image of transcendent contemplation so perfect that I am ultimately disappointed Hamer chose not to end his film there.

Instead, the film continues on to an epilogue that puts a bow on the romantic subplot between Marie and a man she meets at the kilo conference in Paris, a storyline that has several nice moments but is in execution the weakest part of the picture. It’s the most obvious convention Hamer bows to, for one – the male character who has gone through what the female protagonist is struggling with, and is thus both a role model and romantic opportunity – and moreover, I feel Marie is a strong enough character on her own, and the film is at its best when focusing on her internal process of self-actualization, that I personally felt no need for the romantic interludes (a story about simple friendship, which this could easily have been, may have felt much more powerful here). It is hardly a damning flaw, though. 1001 Grams happens to be the kind of film I often enjoy most – a modest, human-scale character piece – but I imagine it will have broad appeal for many, and should be a real crowd-pleaser on the arthouse circuit when and if it gets a US theatrical run.

The same could not, probably, be said for the next film I saw today, The Tribe, a Ukranian film from director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy that is as brilliant as it is challenging. Any conversation about this film will inevitably start with its mode of communication, for The Tribe takes place at a boarding school for deaf children, and not only features no spoken dialogue, but is performed entirely in sign language and presented without subtitles. The film, picked up for distribution by Drafthouse Films, is even preceded by a short textual alert to this effect.

That should not, suffice it to say, be the warning audiences are given upon entry.

The untranslated sign language of the film is far from the most significant barrier of entry to The Tribe, nor what necessarily makes the film most unique and provocative. The best silent films generally relied on physical communication, for instance – with few exceptions, the more a silent movie leaned on intertitles, the less effective it became – and The Tribe shares this quality. I don’t know even a lick of sign language, but that in no way prevents accessibility here, as the physicality of the characters, whether they are signing or not, tells us everything we need to know. It is one of the implicit arguments of the film, in fact – that codified linguistic systems are, ultimately, only a small portion of human interaction. On a fundamental level, our actions are simultaneously more simple and more complex than what can be conveyed through language, and by stripping away that literal level of signs and signifiers for the majority of the audience, The Tribe asks us to focus on everything else.

And that’s where the film becomes difficult, because The Tribe is, ultimately, a film about mankind’s brutal animalistic nature, and the sheer depths of degradation and desecration human beings are capable of when placed in isolated social settings. While the film is technically set at a boarding school for the deaf, its world is organized crime, including theft, battery, prostitution, and even hints at human trafficking – all of which is perpetrated by, and exploited upon, deaf characters. The film is a slow, gradual build, starting with the relatively simple indecency of bullying; the central character, a teenage boy new to the school, is left on his own to deal with the male gang that runs the dormitories, and quickly finds he must turn to violence himself if he has any hope of sticking around, going from being beaten up for his money to helping the gang leaders beat up other kids for their cash and possessions. From there, the film moves on to the systemized prostitution ring run by the gang – and, as it is eventually revealed, by higher-ups working at the school – a criminal enterprise the protagonist is drawn into which eventually leads both him and the film down in an increasingly harrowing road of brutality, pain, and suffering, until all remnants of what we might recognize as ‘humanity’ disappear entirely.

The film is the very definition of ‘intense,’ though it achieves its absolutely visceral terror through an incredibly patient, methodical style. The Tribe is comprised entirely of long, uninterrupted takes; with language being pushed away from the center, there is of course no need for the traditional ‘shot-reverse-shot’ technique of dialogue-driven cinema, and the kinds of actions the film invites us to observe – things like sex and violence, human impulses driven entirely by physicality – are understood best without editing, when an action can be glimpsed in real time, usually in a long shot or medium-long shot where entire bodies are visible. The film is an immense technical achievement, every bit on par with something like Birdman – the shots may not all be connected to look continuous, but each individual take is wildly complex and artfully composed – and equally experiential and immersive as a result.

At first, the film may feel slow because of this, lethargic even as it draws us into its world and sets the stage for everything that is to come. But by the time the major moments start coming into play, the style is absolutely essential, allowing sequences to play out with an unrivaled sense of immersion and intensity. The first of several extended sex scenes in the film is vastly more interesting than a typical cinematic depiction of intercourse because of this style, for instance, a moment that, in its unbroken longevity and carefully depicted character details, is essential in painting the picture of desperation and animalism the film’s portrait of humanity is built upon. Plenty of scenes before this one are harrowing, shocking, or attention-grabbing in their own right, and many more afterwards descend to a level of sickening suffering and brutality that is almost impossible to put into words. There is – spoiler alert – an abortion sequence (of the back-alley variety) in the final hour of the picture that is among the most intense, nauseating scenes I ever seen depicted on film, a sequence I suspect shall become legendary for its unvarnished depiction of desperation, degradation, and physical pain, and which hits as hard as it does because of how it is framed – showing little, but suggesting volumes – and the resolute refusal to cut away for even a moment (end spoilers).

The film only gets increasingly violent from there, though, and the final hour of the film is practically an endurance test in the sheer volume of tension and brutality it quietly slings at the viewer. This is not a movie for the weak-willed; I have a pretty high tolerance for violent films, and this one just about broke me. I felt physically ill for a good half-hour after the screening ended, and writing about it now, those sensations have once again risen to the surface.

This level of visceral engagement is, of course, the point, as well as the film’s major achievement. The Tribe is not a film of empty shocks, but a brilliantly told story about mankind’s natural inclination towards aggression and domination; the film does not argue that deaf people are any more or less capable of this than any other type of person – only that our animalism may be at its most prevalent when no one is looking, as in an ignored and displaced subculture like this one. Early on, the film asks us to identify with many mundane parts of the deaf boarding school – the opening assembly, the tedium of a classroom lecture, the fear and isolation of the cafeteria, and all the other many things that make a space for deaf people no different than a space built for those who can hear (in lieu of a bell, the classroom has a blinking light – but the effect is of course identical). Once that foundation of identification is laid out, and we understand these deaf characters are fundamentally no different than ourselves – an alternate language is the most significant difference, and that element is, by the film’s very nature, deemphasized – the film starts going to town on the crime and violence, which we quickly realize we must identify with as well. Perhaps all these many transgressions are not affronts against humanity, but a wholly nature extension of human nature – which is of course the most horrifying part of it all.

The Tribe is as bleak and cynical a film as I can imagine, but not without a point, for the corroded heart of darkness the film identifies as central to the human experience is hardly one we can ignore existing in our world (the way the film hones in on the use and abuse of women in criminal subcultures, and how the two central female characters grow to become vibrant, integral parts of the film – whose lack of voices becomes increasingly troubling – is one of the film’s great, disturbing accomplishments). Any film that can leave the viewer emotionally, intellectually, and physically affected on equal levels is one we must take note of. Plenty of films feature violence, and in more copious amounts than this, but the number of movies that are actually about violence, engaging deeply with the endless circles of pain and suffering that human brutality and exploitation causes, is small indeed. In this way, The Tribe may well be one of the great movies ever made about violence, and for that reason alone, it already has a spot locked down on my year-end top 10 – even as I wonder if I shall ever have the strength to watch it again.

I was not initially planning to see three films tonight, but after The Tribe, I felt I needed to unwind with one more screening, so I decided to check out The Midnight Swim, the debut feature of Sarah Adina Smith, a Colorado native who was in attendance for tonight’s screening (which was, in fact, the film’s Colorado premiere). The film is a Horror-esque tale of three half-sisters who reunite at their childhood home on Spirit Lake after the death of their mother, and is shot, as many horror films are these days, in the ‘found-footage,’ POV style, where one character – the youngest sister, June – is filming all the action.

I think I have made my position on the entire ‘found-footage’ sub-genre clear by now – calling it 'a filthy stain on the very fabric of cinema' might be a good general summary of my feelings – and while there are many things The Midnight Swim does poorly, I have to give it this: it is easily the best and most accomplished use of the format to date, and I think that with a better script and a tighter vision of character and theme, this could have been a genuinely invigorating ‘found footage’ experience. It falls into many of the familiar traps of these movies, where I find myself wondering where this footage is coming from or how it was assembled, and being distracted every now and again by the sheer barrage of characters voicing variations on the phrases “why are you filming this?” or “please stop filming this.” But unlike other first-person narrative films, there are many genuinely inspired images in this film, especially when the action takes place on the lake itself, and the film plays with the reflexivity and compulsion of filming in a way that is truly provocative, reminiscent of Josh Trank’s Chronicle but with significantly more subtlety and insight. Performativity is a major part of the film – we are always acutely aware these characters know they are on camera, and that influences every decision they make – and June, the photographer, is a compelling character in her own right. In fact, she’s the most gripping part of the film, and whenever she turns the camera on herself, in moments of introspection, contemplation, or seemingly possessed instinct, The Midnight Swim comes to life in haunting, provocative fashion.

For once, it is not the reflexive style of shooting where a found-footage film falls apart. Instead, The Midnight Swim suffers mightily on a basic narrative, structural level, attempting to be both horror film and character study and never succeeding particularly well at either. This is the kind of horror experience where scares are teased and then immediately defused – it’s got that familiar moment where a character seems to drown, but then turns out to only be pretending, for instance – and where the only tangible fragments of terror on display – a succession of dead birds appear on the cabin’s doorstep every night – disproportionately freak the characters out (and force them to do and say increasingly stupid things). The film foreshadows its finale with all the grace of a sledgehammer, continually restating the mythology that informs the film’s story and retracing June’s views on reincarnation.

The eerie, metaphysical aspects of the film are constantly being reinforced, even as the most compelling material clearly exists in reality, where the sisters are grappling with their pasts, personalities, and relationships with one another. The dialogue needed to be more polished throughout – improvisation is great in theory, but here, the characters all state their individual motivations and the film’s themes awkwardly and inelegantly, especially in many of the biggest emotional moments – but the central actresses (Lindsay Burge, Jennifer Lafleur, and Aleksa Palladino) are each fantastic, and were it not for the poorly-developed fantastical elements constantly getting in the way of their individual and collective arcs, I may actually have come to be invested in what each of them were going through. The film peaks towards the end when it seemingly comes up with a solid, satisfying, and emotionally charged reason for all the strange happenings, before going the conventional route and letting the supernatural overwhelm once again. If the film had more to say about heavy, broad ideas like reincarnation other than “it maybe exists,” perhaps I would be more interested; but as someone who has no preexisting belief in this stuff, I either needed the film to engage more thoughtfully with the themes it presents, or go much further out on a limb and let the weirdness and mysticism of the story permeate from the get-go, rather than holding everything at bay before letting loose in the final five minutes.

The Midnight Swim is a decent film, with enough positive qualities to recommend a viewing, but everything it has to offer ultimately feels undercooked, poorly developed and not fully connected in the way that could have landed a more significant punch. It is easily the weakest of the three films I saw today, but here’s the thing – when I am at a film festival like this, there to test myself and try things out I may not normally even have a chance to see, I don’t mind a film like this in the slightest. The Midnight Swim is a misfire, I feel, but it is a passionate and interesting one, and I value that. Seeing films like this, which may not work on the whole but are cinematically engaging in one way or another, is part what makes a festival experience compelling. Sometimes you get fully-formed greatness, sometimes you see lots of unformed potential or hints of future accomplishment, and sometimes you do indeed get utter tedium. At the end of this first day, I have yet to get anywhere near that third option, which makes these initial hours of festival-going a pretty massive win in my book. Here’s hoping tomorrow is just as exciting.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.  

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