Posts Tagged ‘BIFF’

BIFF, Day Seven: Still Walking

October 29, 2009

Today we are travelling to South America and Japan. One journey I will take only once, the other I can’t wait to take again.
The Colombian road movie Los Viajes del Viento has two strengths that make up for many of its conventional traits: It never descends into a too typical South American sentimentality and it has the luxury of taking place in a geography that is seldom seen on films. The story is about an old, taciturn accordion master who recently lost his wife, and the young boy who may be his son. The old master wants to travel across the entire country in order to give back his accordion to his master. As legend will have it, he once won the instrument in a duel with the devil. The boy sees apprenticeship with the old man as his only possibility to make something of himself and thus follows his unwilling companion stubbornly through some spectacular landscape and hairy situations.

los-viajes-del-viento1While beautiful to look at, the film didn’t really stand out in any particular way. You could substitute the old accordionist with, say, a kung fu master, or a literature professor, or any old sage with a special gift to impart on the young, and the basic story would pretty much be the same. And in the history of films, God knows this has been done again and again. The accordion only really comes to the fore in an early duel with a younger braggart in a music contest. Like the rapper’s duels in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, the accordion contest consists in psyching out one’s opponent by rhyme and insult while sticking to the chosen accordion tune. It may sound far fetched, but this part of the film really worked.

vientoThe travelogue, or road movie, is often an excellent way of highlighting a country’s geography and supporting the local tourist industry. Often, the tourist industry will help finance the film if the country is represented as a series of tourist vistas. This being Colombia, I’m not convinced that the ploy will be entirely successful, but we, the audience, win anyway. Especially since most of us will not get the chance – or take the chance – of visiting the country, I can’t think of a better way to be able to experience Colombia’s breathtaking natural vistas than in the comfort of the cinema chair, where the most immediate danger is an aneurysm triggered by some popcorn-munching moron by our side.

los-viajesUltimately, the film is worth seeing for its depiction of nature and the very varied geography – or geology. The stone formations towards the end were a sight to behold, as was the endless salt flats, the village built almost on the lake itself, and the Indian village atop a mountain. I have not seen exactly these sights before and felt fortunate to witness them in this way. The film also strikes up some laconic humoristic moments and I did chuckle a time or two. As for the main plot, I didn’t feel that it resolved itself entirely satisfactorily, but, as is my habit in these posts about films that most have not yet seen, I shan’t be spoiling the end here. The titular symbol of the travelling wind has a double bottom, referring both to the literal wind that has shaped the country and the various wind instruments. There is a scene where the wind blows through a piece of wood with a whistling sound, perhaps telling us that the tradition of these men has its roots in nature itself, in a time before Man, and that all we contribute are complications of that theme.

afterlifeHirokazu Kore-eda has made some seven films, not including his TV-work and some short films. Unfortunately not all of these are readily available in the west. His first film, Maborosi, an Ozu-style examination of a young widow trying to find a new lease on life after the loss of her husband , had a limited international run. But it was his second feature, the often wonderful After Life, which made him into a household name, if that house was an art house. (Yes, I know, bad pun…) In 2001 he made Distance, perhaps inspired by the gas attacks of a suicide cult in Japan; the Aum cult‘s nerve gas attack on the city’s subway system. Then came Nobody Knows, which got a wider release and was nominated in Cannes and won a number of Asian awards. The story of a group of children left to their own devices after their mother takes off, was a masterpiece of naturalistic acting. Kore-eda directed over almost two years, and the children visibly live in the film. There are scenes in Nobody Knows that should break most hearts that are not already irredeemably broken. In 2006, two years after Nobody Knows, he made Hana, about a samurai who doesn’t really want to be a samurai. He is no good at fighting and wishes he could spend his days helping the poor people of the village in which he takes up residence. His very latest film is Air Doll, about a blow up sex doll that turns human Pinocchio-style. I have not seen this yet, but those that have, comment that it is remarkable in that the film never is exploitative, nor even is interested in the sexual aspects of this offbeat story. The film is more about what it means to be human and the innocence of the non-human in comparison. The first thing the doll learns after becoming human with a beating heart, is to lie.

still-walkingThis lengthy introduction is spurred by my absolute satisfaction with Kore-eda’s penultimate film, made in 2008, and shown this day in the BIFF-festival. Still Walking is perhaps the first perfect film I’ve seen this year. I really can’t find any faults with it. The only film coming near it in quality is the Swedish Burrowing, which I spoke of in a former post. The two films have in common that they are influenced by other directors. In Kore-eda’s case, the spectre of Japanese master, Yasujirō Ozu, is present, but not overwhelming, while in Burrowing, Terrence Malick is perhaps an even more present godfather.

The majority of Still Walking takes place within 24 hours, but including the epilogue, the time covered is three years. The real scope of the film, however, reaches much longer, as both the past and the future is so implicit in these 24 hours, that the film nears an almost general understanding of the human situation, particularly our place in the everlasting links between generations, from the very first to the last. I was most impressed by the way in which the director achieved this generality from a very specific time in a specific family.

still walking grandfatherA man who has just lost his job brings for the first time his wife, who is a widow, and her son to the annual family reunion. He clearly is not on good terms with his mother and father; “you should call your mother more often“, the father tells him. “I can’t stand listening to all her complaints“, the son answers. The father is a retired doctor who feels useless and socially in a no-man’s land, as he hasn’t anyone to continue his practice, and therefore must still play the role of village doctor himself, even though he is not up to it.

Seemingly, much of the reason for the family’s strained relationship, is that the eldest son lost his life in a drowning accident many years before, while saving a young boy from the waves. This son was the father’s favourite, and is in hindsight made to have represented the hopes for the family’s future. Every time the conversation begins to run more or less easily, the mother mentions some details about the dead son, and the family is thrown back into non-communication.

The reason for the reunion, is indeed that it marks the anniversary for the son’s death. Also present here is a sister with her husband and two children, who the father finds noisy. We can only assume that had the dead son had any children, they would be just as noisy. This is a film where I don’t want to tell much about the plot, as much of the enjoyment comes from gradually piecing together the dynamics of the family and just what has gone wrong in their lives. It is never -apart from the death of the son, which paradoxically has brought them together – the big, life-changing events that make these people be who they are, what they have become. Kore-eda is a master in communicating much bigger truths by very small movements and glances. Sometimes he lets a phrase linger a bit longer than necessary in order for us to grasp not only the context of the phrase, the feeling behind it, but its consequences, insignificant as they may seem before we have the entire picture.

still_walking_02_148953cIt’s a cliché, but movies is really a universal language. I almost can’t think of better ways for us to see the common humanity between us all, than by immersing ourselves in works by masterful directors like Kore-eda. I felt more recognition in this film than in any Hollywood work I can recall. Nothing sudden or life-changing happens in the film, yet I felt a wiser person after having seen it, perhaps even wanting to be a better person. In this film, the characters don’t have “arcs”, as they evidently teach in Hollywood script classes. The characters that we observe become persons more than characters, and persons, for the most part, don’t suddenly learn something or change just because they have attended a family dinner, even though a number of American Thanksgiving films want us to believe this. They go on with their lives, as best they can, or maybe not even that.

What makes the film magic to me is also a consequence of the characters not only being oblivious to their shortcomings that we as spectators can detect in them, but that they actually go on living as if there never was anything particularly important about the day we have spent with them. They just go on, or as the film says in its title, they are still walking. (This phrase also comes up in a song the grandmother insists on playing on an old record player, and which she says she has a special relationship to. The song so subtly illuminates something of the past of the characters that we don’t quite grasp it before a shot of the grandfather doctor’s later reaction. The world of memories and forgotten times that comes into light here is staggering).

The only hint of sentimentality in the film, is when the unemployed son’s voiceover comments on what has happened in the three years since the family dinner. The words are spoken very matter of factly, but that very restraint is heartbreaking in its seeming neutrality to the lives that are commented. I would love to present the importance of the grandmother’s speech about butterflies and how that speech is reproduced later on, but this is such an integral part of the experience that I must leave it for the individual viewer to assess.

Still_Walking_2_149507aNot only is Kore-eda a master of presenting the social interaction and directing the actors into an almost completely naturalistic style, also his setting of the story deserves some mention. The film is shot in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, a seaside town with streets climbing upwards the mountainside from the sea. Seeing the wonderful locations, I couldn’t help but think of the kind of streets so typical of Studio Ghibli films, particularly Whisper of the Heart. There just is something very magnetic to me about this kind of setting, some serene quality that helps convince me that this site is ideal for the family home, a piece of childhood we all will always carry with us. The lack of the typical features of the big city helps the film to achieve a feeling not only of timelessness, but of placelessness. While very much a Japanese setting, the feeling is more general, of the kind of place that we find beautiful in hindsight, but that we had to move away from. The reasons probably felt important to us at the time, but any place we have lived in our formative years is bound to hold the ghosts of our younger selves in some way or another, still offering us possibilities of who we could have been had we by chance chosen differently.

stillwalking2Again, all this essaying runs the risk of making the film sound as if it could be boring. It is not. In fact, there are many scenes with a wonderful understated humour, not least in the comments by and about the grandmother and grandfather. As in any real grouping of human beings, be it a family or a group of friends, there is humour to be found in familiarity. Kore-eda, being concerned with reality, has the gift of finding the humour that springs from a common humanity, from recognition, even in the idiosyncratic. The actress You (yes, that is her stage name), who played the irresponsible mother in Nobody Knows, here gets the chance to use her quirky personality in a role that never seems as it is an imposed vehicle for her brand of acting. Her presence and comedic (her voice makes me think of a Japanese Meg Tilly) timing is so strong that when she leaves the film, we suddenly feel that we have been deprived of a comforting presence in what is, after all, a scary situation; reality. Or as close to reality as we want to come.

Offering us only a short glimpse into these characters’ lives, Kore-eda still makes us feel as if we’ve known them for a long time. His telling of this story is so effective that, even as we think that nothing very important happens, we get to learn everything that we need in order to fully grasp the situation as well as its ramifications. All the characters are given flesh and blood and lives that are not neatly solved by a contrived Hollywood script. Still, the miracle is that we don’t miss the solution, even though we’ve been indoctrinated to expect it. When all is said and done, we can leave and know that all is not said and it is not done. In fact, the way the characters are not able to come to terms with their shortcomings, or their disability to solve their conflicts, is the very thing that gives the piece such a powerful end. After this film, I really had to take some minutes to let the credits roll before I could or wanted to move. Those were good minutes.

BIFF, Day Six: 9 and Sin Nombre

October 28, 2009

I’m afraid I don’t have a great deal to say about the two films of the day. One of them was good, the other very good. They are both the first feature films of directors I think have the potential to make even better films.

99 is an animated film directed by Shane Acker. He is formerly known only for a short film, also called 9( you can see it by pressing link), which won an Oscar in 2005. I was a big fan of the short film and therefore had my hopes up for the expanded feature version. Unfortunately, the transition hasn’t been to the film maker’s advantage, at least not artistically.

What made the short film 9 such a unique creature was that it threw us smack into a world that seemed familiar and alien at the same time, never offering any explanations for what we saw or why. While having many of the characteristics of a post apocalyptic earth, the protagonist was a rag doll with the number 9 painted on his back. There were no humans in sight. Exploring this destroyed world, he came upon a monstrous creature that started an intense chase of the frail doll. He found a round metallic object that, put properly together, released ghostly forms of other rag dolls who faded away into the ether or afterlife. This was the plot, and I didn’t feel I needed to know more, really. There were no dialogue and this strengthened the pure chase concept. It was certainly clear that Acker had an eye for design and a good understanding of what makes animation work. His sense of movement and gravity in animation was particularly impressive.

acker05_9shortFor the feature length version, the chase of the short film constitutes the beginning of the film and yes, ghostly figures – souls of the dolls? – are released at the end. In between we have an hour of more chase scenes and so many stock situations that I wondered if the script writers had encountered some paint by numbers guide to how to write trite dialogue for scenes seen a hundred times before.

As in the short film, the character 9 starts out mute, but unfortunately that situation is quickly remedied. As soon as these dolls start speaking American, they lose a lot of mystery, but also intelligence, it seems. All of a sudden they spout feelings that are supposed to sound dramatic or even political, but comes off as something a child would say. And no, this is not intentional. “We must save him! You are a coward! I’m sorry! You can’t hide from reality!” For some reason, the script writers have only been able to think in exclamation points while writing the dialogue. The same heavy-handedness can be found in the plot as well; never offering dilemmas we haven’t seen many times before, spouting Disneyfied sentiments about the importance of sticking up for one‘s friends and reducing everything to a fight between the good guys and the bad guys, with no grey scales. This is where animation studios like Pixar and Studio Ghibli really excels, never going for the easiest solutions or indeed world views.

7As the film, then, is never more than a question of getting from here to there, I found myself bored even by the generous amount of action taking place in the plot. What saves the film is that the animation is absolutely gorgeous and that Acker hasn’t lost his eye for design and for making the characters move in exciting and fresh ways. The world he has created is indeed fascinating and had the script been better, especially the dialogue, this could really have been something. As it is it is never more than entertaining, at times it is less.

I think I’ll blame one of the producers, Tim Burton, for this. Hell, I’m feeling magnanimous, I‘ll blame the other producer, Timur Bekmambetov, as well. For one thing, I guess it was Burton who made Pamela Pettler write the screenplay. She also had a finger in the screenplay for Burton’s Corpse Bride, so I assume her presence here is no coincidence. I have a feeling that all my objections to the dialogue should be directed to her, and to Burton. Let me take a moment to explain why I consider Burton poison to the film.

9 would probably not have been made without Burton’s name attached to it, so for that Acker must be grateful. But when did Burton really make a more than passable film? His latest, Sweeney Todd, had its moments, well helped by the dependability of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful songs. Big Fish is a cinematic atrocity best forgotten. Sleepy Hollow should have been a horror film, but was turned into an exercise in style and quirkiness and never remotely scary. His two stop motion animation films, Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, seem designed only to be different in concept from most mainstream animated features, but are they really that good? Sure, some of Danny Elfman’s music is catchy, but what is really the point of the films? That outsiders have feelings too? Burton is the cosy Goth, never daring to be different enough to be disturbing, intent on turning the borderline strange into the definite mainstream. Has he ever had any meaning behind his films other than the aforementioned call to accept the goth, the freak, the outsider? Subtle, he is not, and intelligence you have to search for elsewhere. After Edward Scissorhands, he should maybe have called it a day, realizing that he had made his masterpiece and not emulate the same formula again and again.

The point to make here, is that while the original short film of 9 retained much mystery and, by necessity of its format, perhaps, allowed the audience to actively make its own interpretations of what they were seeing. After Burton’s hands have fondled the package, every movement now has to be given a reason and that reason is never very interesting when you peel away the, grantedly, spectacular surface. Much like so many of Burton’s own films.

Pretty much all the protests I have directed at Burton’s cinema, I could also send the way of the film’s other producer, Timor Bekmambetov. He as well has made a career on pure surface, seemingly having little interest in what he is actually trying to say, or even accomplish, with his films. Daywatch, Nightwatch and Wanted all look very good, but have so many narrative problems that were they a person, Mel Gibson would seem sane in comparison.
While these big name producers ensured that Acker could bring “his vision” to the big screen, they also ensured that said vision would be severely diluted, turning all mystery into cliché and placing something that had aspirations of being original plump into the safety of the still waters of the mainstream. And that, my friends, is not where you catch the biggest fish, and certainly not the most succulent.

sin-nombre_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85Sin Nombre is a film about people seeking escape because they have to. The young Honduran girl, Sayra, has no prospects in her own country and chooses to set out on the long journey towards USA with her father, who she hasn’t seen for many years. El Casper(or Willy, as he sometimes calls himself) is a young man – or boy – who has pledged his life to a local street gang, seemingly in perpetual war with the rival Los Chavalles. After he kills the leader for a number of reasons, he knows that his life is over, but chooses to make his way to USA as well, on the same train as Sayra. I don’t want to say more about the plot, again not to give away too much.

The director, Cary Fukunaga, has formerly made a short film about the subject of Mexican immigrants dying of overheating in a truck, trying to make their way into USA. However, Sin Nombre, separates itself from a number of films about the crossing over the Mexican/US border by treating USA almost as a MacGuffin. USA is some vague goal that we doubt will influence the proceedings in other ways than to bring the action forward.

sin-nombre-gangThe film is as much about the possibility of starting anew in a philosophical sense than in the particular case of USA as the necessary site of this renewal. More than that, it is about innocence and the limits of innocence; the mechanisms that taints us by some sin, some overstepping of a boundary we only realize that we have crossed when it’s too late to go back.

I hear that the director spent some time travelling on top of trains the same distance as the protagonists, in order to get a grip of what they are going through. This, if true, serves the film well, as the train riding scenes seem very realistic, while at the same time offering the director the opportunity to show how evil and good is often a question of the geography of chance.

I should not forget to mention that Sin Nombre works very well as a thriller. It shows us a world we don’t often see and there is not a false scene or sentiment in the film. The guns are primitive, and they don’t make the explosive noise of a Hollywood actioner, but they are just as deadly. And in many ways they are more fatal.

BIFF, Day Five

October 27, 2009

The festival is beginning to take its toll on me, especially as I also have to work during these afternoons, so I only managed to fit in two films in my schedule. By shear chance, both of them were South Korean and both starred the always good Kang-ho Song.

song-kang-ho-in-thirstSong is one of Korea’s biggest moviestars, but he also is a very competent and versatile actor, often adding a touch of humour in his roles. I first became aware of him in Swiri (from 1999) by Je-gyu Kang, who five years later made the good war film Brotherhood. After Swiri, Song did J.S.A. Joint Security Area, which was his first collaboration with Chan-wook Park. Park used Song in his next project, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, as well. Park went on to make the internationally acclaimed Oldboy, without Song this time. He gave him a cameo in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance before granting him the undisputed lead in Thirst, which is the first film I saw today.

Thirst is a gorgeously filmed vampire story. For the first hour it is really good, at times exceptionally so. There are scenes we haven’t seen before and the protagonist is definitely not your typical vampire. Song plays a devout catholic priest who becomes a vampire through a tainted blood transfusion after having briefly died as a test subject for an experimental vaccine. He soon realizes his predicament, and not feeling it is a sin, as he didn’t ask for this to happen to him, he considers it an illness and not inherently bad in any moral way. There is initially no big change in his personality and he makes sure that he doesn’t harm anyone in order to procure the necessary quantities of blood, tapping blood from coma victims at the local hospital who are not likely to miss a bottle or two of the red stuff.

thirst-movie-posterSoon, however, he is introduced to Tae-joo, a young woman forced into servitude of her sickly husband and mother in law. The priest, soon to be ex-priest, and Tae-joo begin an erotic relationship which is very well represented in the film. The scenes of love making all seem natural and as a result comes off as truly erotic and not the silly wish fulfilment fantasies of countless Hollywood films. Unfortunately, it turns out that his love is a bit of a femme fatale who uses him for her own ends. From this point in, I felt the film became overlong, dwelling too much on its grantedly beautiful frames, but not advancing the plot in any surprising ways, or at all. I won’t spoil the film, so I’ll limit myself to saying that for me, at least, the film didn’t reach its potential. I saw where the film was heading and it didn’t make any meaningful detours from that direction. As a result, a short trip felt far too long. What made this second half of the film worth staying, was the stellar work of Ok-vin Kim, an actress I’d never heard of before. She really made the character of Tae-joo a full bodied creature, upping the menacing aspects of her arc in the film. I’ll recommend the film with caution, as it is very well made and looks fantastic, with some really breath taking scenes. Just be aware that the recommendation is not unconditional.

Memories-of-Murder_press08The Good, the Bad, the Weird also stars Kang-ho Song. In this film he plays almost an amalgamation of the two characters he has played in the films of my favourite Korean director, Joon-ho Bong. I assume anyone with an interest in Korean films has seen Memories of Murder, in which Song plays a policemen with a temper and some intellectual shortcomings. I personally found this even better than David Fincher’s Zodiac, being a very similar story. Song also played in the environmental monster film The Host, which was a bit of a hit internationally as well. Here he played a well meaning buffoon, possibly short of some marbles.

As The Good, the Bad, the Weird gives Song the chance to essay a character who seemingly has two personalities, he can really let loose with his two most typical screen personas. Song, of course, is the weird one of the title.

tale_of_two_sisters_2003_posterThe film is directed by Ji-woon Kim, who among others has made the solid A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life. Kim is a very visually oriented director, often presenting tableaus which are easier to admire than really like, but in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, he uses his considerable talents to give us the purest entertainment this side of Indiana Jones (disregarding the fourth near-abomination). The title of the film makes the countless nods to Sergio Leone quite clear, but more than a Spaghetti Eastern, I felt this was an adventure film, an action film like they don’t make em anymore.

goodbadweirdThe plot is all a bit of nonsense, with a treasure map serving as a MacGuffin for countless inventive chases and spectacular fight scenes, not with kung-Fu, but guns, cannons and everything that can be fired from a steel tube. In between the action scenes, we get to know the characters just enough to care about them. There is also a sub-plot regarding how Korea has been stolen by the Japanese, and as a result the three protagonists are men with no country, all now making a life lived in the eternal present in a soon to be mythic Manchuria. This gives them the chance to reinvent themselves, something Song’s character has done most successfully, gladly accepting the role as a happy-go-lucky small time thief and adventurer. Again, I can’t say more, as it would spoil a plot point towards the end.

The plot, however is not the important thing here. The unbridled entertainment on display is all that counts. I laughed out loud many times during the film and too often during the action scenes, I found myself sitting with my mouth open for a longer time than is considered proper in polite society. The only thing that was a let down was the ending, which I felt was too abrupt and disappointing in its stock situation. I felt that it was unnecessary to emulate Leone to such a degree at this point. That particular scene can probably never be bettered anyway, so it was a bit of a suicide attempt for Kim to try to get away with it. Be sure, by the way, to watch some minutes into the credits, as some resolution can be found there. Heartily recommended, but not for those who feel that all art should be slow moving, reflective and involve the deeper meaning of life, come hell or high water.

BIFF, Day Four. The Festival Strikes Back.

October 26, 2009

Such a good start of this day! The Swedish Film Burrowing (Man Tänker Sitt) is the first true masterpiece of the festival. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a better (new) film this year. Experiences like this make everything worth it; the amount of mediocrity and pretentiousness (hello again, Un Lac!) one usually has to wade through in order to happen upon small jewels like this. The film is directed by first time directors Henrik Hellstrøm and Fredrik Wentzel. If they stick with their partnership, I can’t but think that we have much to look forward to in the coming years.

BURROWING_POSTER_WWWThis is a small film, both in length and, I presume, in budget. This means nothing more than that every scene is the perfect length, everything the film wants to tell, it tells admirably and with confidence. Hellstrøm and Wentzel has made a true film, in that the sentiments it wants to communicate are not easily reduced to words, but created by images and sound. The result is at times heartbreaking. More than being just a simple back to nature fable, the film lets us see people interacting with other people and how they have each discovered an emptiness in the world that perhaps has no remedy, but that in nature can somehow be reduced. A society needs rules, but when these rules take over each aspect of human interaction, they have a deadening effect on the soul, and personal identity becomes suspect.

I feel that it is difficult to address these issues through formal language, as the very uttering of the sentiment is based on a need to be understood by as many as possible, an agreed upon system. This is where Burrowing so admirably does the job better than I can in this review, as the film is not easily reduced to a clearly delineated argument. Some of the best novels of the world has talked about these issues, the estrangement of man in society is one of the oldest tales and constitutes an important part of what we call tragedy.

cabin_walden1The film starts with a quotation of Henry David Thoreau, famous for his Walden, about a man retreating from civilized society into the wilderness, into nature, for two years and two months. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, he says in that book, which could have been used in the film as well. Instead they use another Walden quotation, from the economy chapter: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior“. The film then cuts to a young boy walking along a lake. We hear his voice narrating. This innocent, yet wise in its way, voiceover will intermittently accompany us to the very end of the film. And what an end it is! Damn, if my eyes didn’t fill up… I could write about the poetry of the scene and how well the words illuminates all the preceding scenes we have witnessed, but that would be to deprive you of the pleasure of finding the beauty of the film for yourselves.

man tenker sittAs I mention an innocent-sounding voiceover and a longing and fascination for nature, I guess most will come in mind the films of Terrence Malick, and they wouldn’t be wrong. If Malick had been raised in Swedish suburbia, this is the film he would have made. Or something close to it. There is a scene of the boy walking through high grass, or weeds, while his voice tells of his understanding of the grown ups’ world, partly naively, partly containing a wisdom that disappears with the death of innocence, of the Eden of childhood. Soon enough the boy will be put in a suit and forced to nod politely to meaningless conversations about meaningless non-topics. It is at this point he reaches a decision. That decision has to do with the other small tragedies we witness.

man_tanker_sitt_2_press1One of these is the estrangement in a young man “without direction”, always carrying his baby in his arms. The scene where he changes diapers in a parking lot and is accosted by a well-meaning woman who threatens to report him to the social services seems very real and true. She doesn’t know anything about him, but has a vague feeling that society will punish her if she does not report such an obvious break with society’s norms. The young man is seemingly unable to take “control of his life” and thus has no place in the world of humans.

Then there is the Russian émigré who meant to stay a few months in Sweden, but has now lived there thirty years. He spends his days trying to spear fish in the small brook that runs between the houses. Who are you?, a suspicious neighbour asks him. He laughs, as if he has been told a joke.

There are others, all with a restlessness they seem unable to put into words, even in their own heads. Everyone stretched so thin in the need to show their neighbours “good behaviour”, that something is about to break, to break out into violence or self destruction. I think this is a feeling that is not limited to Scandinavia and their political model of social democracy, although I assume that plays a part in it.

I’ll end my recommendation by talking briefly about the music used in the film. I have never before heard of the composer, Erik Enocksson, but the way his music was used in the film made him an integral part of the experience. He has composed some almost Bach-like polyphonic and beautiful songs. They are very explicitly linked to the theme of the film. I think all the songs are in Latin, and although I’m not exactly fluent, I was able to discern some snippets.
Somnio, somnio, I heard repeated some times, meaning “to dream“, or “imagine follishly“, I think. Other lines were “Hic non serenitas regit”, which I think means something like “There is no peace/serenity here”. Hic qui virem regit, I think can mean “Here where Man – or perhaps Green – reigns“. Non Qui Periculi Imminent must be translated as something like “There is no danger here”. And other lines about wolves and bears, possibly star signs. The final line I was able to work out was Non Spiriti Mali, “there are no bad spirits here“, or something to that effect. I mention these lines as they can tell a bit about the simple, yet complicated feelings that the film addresses.

All this might lead you to think the film is boring. It is not, certainly not if you think that you can contribute a bit yourself to the little plot there is. The film is really put together like a series of situations that are linked by the characters’ mutual discontent, albeit for different reasons. Apart from the wonderful images, there are situations bound to draw a smile or a tear out of recognition. The film will have a Norwegian premiere in November, and hopefully other countries will also be able to see it outside festivals. It deserves a much bigger audience than I fear that it will have. Please see this!

mary_and_max1The next film of the day was the Australian claymation film Mary and Max, by Adam Elliot. This is a bittersweet tale of two outsiders, who find comfort and the possibility for a meaningful life in each other’s correspondence. One is a young unattractive Australian girl, the other an older fat New York Jew with Asperger syndrome. The result is a kind of 84 Charing Cross Road for extreme outsiders. The film is by no means as depressing as it sounds, although it deals with depression and many of life’s tragedies and setbacks. In fact, it is very funny. I think the entire cinema was laughing every two minutes. I really liked this, and the animation – or claymation, to be correct – is fantastic. And it’s for adults, so the filmmakers deserve credit for making a film in this format that doesn’t depend on millions of children or unethical merchandising to keep the production afloat. Recommended!

Fryktelig_lykkelig_141457bAfter Mary and Max, I had to go to work, so I was unable to see more films before the last film of the day. This was the Danish Fryktelig Lykkelig, Terribly Happy, directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, most known for his TV-work. Terribly Happy wants to be a Coen brothers film, but is no such thing. A policeman is transferred to the countryside where the local village is peopled by all kinds of weirdoes and the Danish version of Texan good ole boys. The protagonist is a bit of a moron right from the start, and thus his fall from grace doesn’t contain any grace to begin with. This makes for a very bad story, clichéd and contrived. For some reason this was among the most popular films in Denmark last year, even among critics. Don’t, I say, make the same mistake as the Danish. They tell me there is something rotten in that state. Had this film been on TV, I don’t think I’d bothered to watch it through. I guess it is passable entertainment, or rather, hardly even that.

However, even the mediocrity of the Danish couldn’t take away the satisfaction of the Swedish neighbours’ Burrowing. Remember this title, should it present itself to a cinema near you. Or even at some distance.

BIFF, Day Three

October 25, 2009

Due to circumstances beyond my control (work), I didn’t get the chance to see that many films this day. I did, though, have an unpleasant encounter with a member of the film jury, which – if not anything else – convinced me that the winner of the festival’s jury prize will be left entirely to chance and incompetence. I wish the festival leaders had considered their jury choices a bit more carefully. More on this later.

mr_nobody_1jpg_rgb2I first became aware of Belgian director Jaco van Dormael with his 1993-film Toto the Hero, which generally got rave reviews and which I liked. I seem to recall that I felt it put an unnecessary sentimentalism to the world of the child protagonist, but I think that was part of its theme. Not having seen the film since its cinema run 16 years ago, I don’t want to compare it with his latest work, which was my first film of the day.

Mr. Nobody is by far his most ambitious project to date. It cost close to $50 million and features at least B-list Hollywood actors. It is filmed at several locations; Belgium, the famous Studio Babelsberg in Germany, in Canada and at several other places. Most of the money, though, must have gone to the impressive special effects which are very, very good. Very complicated fx shots integrate seamlessly with the “real” world and a number of editing tricks and film styles are on display.

The film is not only ambitious from a financial or technical perspective. The story seeks to sum up the entirety of the universe’s existence, and not only this universe. It is at times a period film, a science fiction story and a contemporary love story. It is about storytelling, parallel universes, time travel, religion, immortality and death. Most importantly it is about love.

jaredletomrnobodyJared Leto plays the grown up version of the protagonist Nemo Nobody and he does it well. I think this is his first leading role in a film of this magnitude. Then again, there are not that many films of this scope. In a way I felt the film was never quite only itself, but borrowed from a number of films and from the history of film. Perhaps it had to, but I felt at times that the director had seen the works of other directors he admired and tried to emulate them and, by combining their tropes, hoped to find something personal enough to call his own.
There is a bit of Darren Aronofsky’s the Fountain here, but on an even bigger thematic scale. Kubrick’s 2001 is quoted in some images. In a scene depicting humanity’s pre-existence, the moments before we are conceived, Van Dormael used the Melanesian music from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line while at the same time putting this music to images of white and black children playing innocently together in a heavenly innocent state. So, in other words, welcome to the beginning of The Thin red Line! The basic concept of splitting destinies – of turning into several future versions of oneself – based on a choice made while standing by a train, is found in the less ambitious Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors. The drowning in a car scene reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Europa (By the count of ten you will be dead, as Max Von Sydow laconically narrates in that film). In a way Mr. Nobody is two and a half hours awaiting said count. I could go on, but you get the point.

malickforestIt is not easy to sum up what this film is about. When the protagonist is forced to make a faithful choice at the age of nine (I think), he is separated into two persons, depending on which choice he makes. Within these two possible characters comes a further three choices – which makes it six characters(?) – based on his choice of girlfriend as an adolescent. One version of himself turns out to be a lecturer in astrophysics, who sometimes enters the action to lecture the viewer about the history and philosophy of the universe. He says there are seven dimensions in the universe; six of these are spatial, while the seventh is temporal. He then poses the question of whether the temporal – time – inhabited more than one dimension. (I take this from memory, so forgive me for any inaccuracies!) To complicate matters further, another one of these personalities takes up writing, creating a fictional world that in the film is presented as just as real as the non-fiction worlds. This fiction takes the action to space (to Mars) and the future. However, another future is also depicted in the film, a future where the protagonist is the last mortal human alive (and thus, the last who remembers love and lust; you don‘t need children if you live forever…) There is a point to this, but I won’t discuss it here, so as not to spoil the film.

While the plot of the film seems incredibly advanced and ambitious, to its credit, we are never lost and most times understand perfectly where we are in the story and what is depicted. Actually, I had no problems with the science fiction elements of the tale. They are well thought and very well executioned. It is in the way the film revolves around the concept of love that I feel it loses itself a bit; it becomes a bit too much.

11One kind of love that is decisive for Mr. Nemo Nobody is the child’s love for his parents. Another kind of love is the puppy love between nine year olds, then the lustful love between adolescents and finally the emotional, during and at times hard and stressful love between spouses. Put together, this becomes a whole lotta love, as the song says. Now, if the love theme had been presented a bit more smartly, I wouldn’t have any problems with it. (While it is presented in a complicated tale, this doesn’t make the kind of love on display any more “intelligent” or new to the viewer). Especially irritating is the extremely cliché ridden music the director has chosen for the soundtrack. There are just so many times you can hear Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream… Almost every scene has music that has been used so often before in films that it brings you as a viewer out of the film’s universe and at least I began pondering boredom and references rather than the action taking place before me.

Another unfortunate effect of the music has to do with its placement. When the protagonist as a young boy sees a girl his age, nine, swimming, a lusty soul-number is played, thus turning her into a kind of sex object. This is disturbing and can’t have been the director’s intention. While he wants to tell us that the protagonist falls in love at this moment, there must surely be better ways to sonically enhance this element!

Then there is the fact that all of Nemo’s love stories revolve around three girls that he meets as a young child. I find it a bit far fetched that these same girls shall also be his only interests in adolescence and in marriage. The film is, then, not only about premeditation, but about an emotional stiltedness, as if Nemo doesn’t really evolve during the film and this is the reason for his future being so clearly delineated into his separate possible selves. The name Nemo, by the way, does not refer to the captain of the Nautilus. You’re better served by reading it backwards.

MrNobodyIn closing, I’ll venture to say that the word ambitious will surely be used in pretty much every review of this film. (It wasn’t finished in time for Cannes, so it hasn’t been shown that many places yet). While it is certainly intricate, it ultimately doesn’t convince me. While I’m perfectly willing to take any leaps of logic that the film requires of me, I’m not sure that it ultimately adds up. I have a strong feeling that there are internal discrepancies within the fantastic logic. This should have been worked out a bit better, but I think I will need to see the film a second time to really pinpoint these errors. (And the ones I could point out would ruin the ending, so I’ll refrain).The problem is that, as much as I admired the film for what it’s trying to do, it was just a bit too long and ultimately not all that it could have been, so a second viewing will probably not take place in the immediate future. But if you are in the mood for a lengthy love story told in a brilliant technical style and with a basic sience fiction concept underlining it all, by all means take a chance on the film! I think it deserves an audience and it is without doubt a much better film than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was half the rave at this year’s Oscars, and which it also shares some sensibility with. Being the better film of the two, I’m also sure that it won’t find half the audience of Fincher’s unfortunate detour into drivel and mediocrity.

While Mr. Nobody may be flawed, it is at least interesting enough for me to have given it more attention and space than most films. This is more, much more than I can say for the next film I had the misfortune to attend this day. I guess I should have seen the warning signs; it being French the clearest.

thumbnailUn Lac – A Lake – is a minimalist work about an epileptic boy, his sister and family in an unknown wintry location. This is the second film as writer/director for Philippe Grandrieux, his fourth as director. On this film, he also serves as cinematographer, so he is an auteur in the real sense. The problem is that he is just not a very interesting one. Most of the actors are, for some reason Russian, and it is filmed in France and Switzerland. And the landscape does seem wonderfully oppressing and beautiful at the same time. That is, if any of the images had been in focus. (The images of the brother and sister found to the left are pretty much the only two clear images of the film)

Grandrieux uses a handheld camera style that is extreme in its use of closeups and movements following the characters so closely that we are supposed to see the world as they themselves do. The mother of the family is blind, though it took me some time to decipher this. Many of the scenes are filmed in near darkness and the ones that are not are foggy and out of focus. The brother has a close relationship with his sister, possibly incestuous, but I was never able to tell for sure. His epileptic fits grows in frequency. He is at times very happy for no apparent reason, at times he is moody. One day he is by the cold lake that seems to be the only contact with a wider world. A young man arrives. He says his name is Jurgen. Soon this man starts a relationship with the sister and finally they sail off on the same lake. This is the film. Or what I managed to see of the film.

UnLac_iwDo not misunderstand me. I have no problems with challenging films, be it in narrative or in film style. This film, however, is ridiculous, very boring and unbearably pretentious. The dialogue is almost non-existent. Perhaps this is a good thing, for when they speak, they speak platitudes. “You are my sister”, the brother says. Then he adds: “I am your brother”. Yes, well, you had me at sister…

Of course one can read something symbolic out of the minimalist setting and action. The more minimalist a work is, the easier to regard it as symbolical of something. But here even the symbolic meaning is trite and clichéd. Perhaps the director wants to deal with archetypes, with a biblical simplicity. If so, he fails miserably. Is he interested in hidden pockets of humanity, of humanity’s place in an unforgiving and uncaring nature? Well, he doesn’t come even close. Perhaps he wants to talk about female sexuality and awakening. If so, he says nothing new and certainly nothing of interest. – If you want an arty film about this, watch Picnic at Hanging Rock again! You will be grateful for it. Do not waste your time with Un Lac. With the basic setting of these characters in this kind of nature, you have to be pretty incompetent not to make it even slightly interesting or even beautiful even in a harrowing sense. Unfortunately, competence has no place here.
It strikes me that writing even disparagingly about the film, I make it sound better than it is. Give me a camera, this location and these characters and I would have made a better film. Look away, there is nothing to see here! By the way, this was a film I had high hopes for and that I really wanted to like. More the fool me.

BIFF, Day Two

October 24, 2009

For Day two of the festival, I dragged myself out of bed after about five hours of sleep to watch Iranian film About Elly by Asghar Farhadi. I still haven’t quite recovered after the lack of sleep, so I am very tired as I write this. The comments will thus be brief.

about_elly_04While initially giving the impression of a feel-good drama about three couples – plus one in the offing – vacationing at the Iranian sea side, About Elly changes gears midway, becoming something closer to a crime film. While some of the characters’ dilemmas are related to cultural codes, they are so never to the extent that they feel unfathomable for a westerner. If anything, one of the joys of the film is seeing Iran from a very different perspective than the media normally will offer us. In a way, the film seems unifying in that it stresses common human frailties and our common capacity for making mistakes. Focusing on relationships that have the same kind of dynamic the world over, the film seems much more true than any well meaning documentary about the infamous axis of evil. Thus, eliminating any us versus them theme, the viewer can be free to follow the story and empathize without feeling that he does so through a cultural lens. The film treats well how small lies can build into something graver. None of the characters are evil, they just don’t realize the consequences of these small trespasses of honesty. In this, they are not alone.fazeli20090501090325890

Later in the day, after having slept an hour, I caught Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam’s latest quirky film, The Last Days of Emma Blank. This is very much a black comedy. I found myself thinking of the Coen brothers quite some times during the film. While having no moral centre – or indeed any wider meaning outside its strange little universe – there is a weird truthfulness in the way the film presents its characters and situations. I especially liked the director’s role of Theo, the man who is forced to play the role of dog in the freakish family dynamics. While the situations are exaggerated, the characters live them with straight faces, making the outlandish seem positively indispensable and logical. Everything makes perfect sense within the film’s universe, I’m just not sure the film offers more than the satisfaction of seeing a well executed plot and a good time at the movies. Granted, a very good time.THELASTDAYSOFEMMABLANK

Later in the evening, I felt I deserved some Hollywood entertainment after considering the art house alternatives. Funny People, Judd Apatow’s third outing as a feature director, was surprisingly good. In fact, I liked it a lot. Lasting almost two and a half hours, this comedy-drama is rather longer than the genre normally allows. Luckily, the film easily supports the extra padding. Adam Sandler is the comedian who is told that he has a rare form of cancer and who, facing death, realizes the emptiness of his life – and perhaps of life in general. Sandler handles this role very well, bringing a bitter naturalness to the part. The film has more good jokes than ten normal comedies and has a heart and intelligence seldom seen in the genre. I liked Apatow’s first outing, The 40 Year Old Virgin, but was not quite won over by his sophomore film, Knocked Up. Funny People is an unequivocal improvement on both these films. If Apatow can continue to deliver films of this quality, he will be the most important comedy director of the last twenty years, and possibly of the next ten.

BIFF 2009, Day One

October 23, 2009

Bergen International Film Festival tries to market itself as a documentary festival. However, the program sports plenty of fiction films as well. Some of these are the usual festival circuit films; i.e. independent films and foreign films with small chances of a wide distribution. And then there are early premieres of films that will see a regular distribution later on, normally Hollywood films or films directed by relatively big art house names.
I admit that I’m not a big fan of documentaries per se. In my experience, it’s seldom that a documentary manages to be original either in subject matter or in execution. And I’m so, so tired of Michael Moore. I have enjoyed some of the work of Errol Morris and the occasional other documentary, but films like Super Size Me just seems a dumbing down of subject matters best left for newspaper articles. Often documentaries struggle to escape their talking heads format and even more often they are extremely self important, seldom if never allowing competing realities in their narratives. This works in propaganda, but a good documentary would often be better with a bit of balance in its presentation. For some reason documentaries generally get better reviews than fiction films even though they can be just as trite in execution as well as in choice of topic.

the-imaginarium-of-doctor-parnassus I was initially disappointed upon glancing through this year’s program, but after some rumination, I have picked some 25 films that I plan to see. I don’t expect every one of these to be masterpieces, but it would be nice if at least 2 or 3 of them will cut the mustard.

Yesterday, day 1 of the festival, I started what will surely be a more or less exhausting cinematic week by catching Terry Gilliam’s latest personal project; The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. While overlong and probably plagued by the death of Heath Ledger towards the end of the filming, I liked this. It is certainly much better than the work for hire he did in the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps Gilliam could have needed some script revision from, say, a Tom Stoppard, who whipped Brazil into shape, as Gilliam left to his own devices can be a bit much whimsy. I hate to say it, but as much as unbridled imagination is what gives Gilliam’s films their particular qualities, a bit of streamlining on the plot-side of things would probably have helped the film. The risk is always that his films can lose some of their Gilliamness in this way, but perhaps that wouldn’t have to be an unqualified bad thing. There are scenes here, though, that make me excuse much of the meandering in the dialogue and the “real world”-segments, and the actors are all very fine. Just don’t expect a Twelve Monkeys kind of hit, as this is a more idiosyncratic feature.

The documentary Reporter, by Eric Daniel Metzgar follows the New York Times journalist/columnist Nicholas D. Kristof to Congo. It attempts three things: To be a kind of portrait of Kristof, to examine his methods of reporting atrocities/catastrophes and finally to question whether this kind of reporting has a future in the modern world of media with cut backs and less resources for this kind of journalistic enterprise. While it is impossible to remain unmoved by some of the things we witness in the film, I have to say that it misses all three of its aims. We learn little about the journalist; apart from a brief biographical sequence early on. The film seldom asks the eponymous reporter any illuminating questions and his reasons for which places to go, what cases to report, as well as his personal stance and reflections, never quite comes into focus. As for his methods, at one point the film maker says that he has begun to question Kristof’s insistence upon finding the worst cases in order for his readers to maximize their sympathy with the sufferers. That is the only critical question in the film, and it is not even put to the Kristof himself. Tellingly, the director never picks up this thread later on.Thirdly, the part of the future of journalism is kept to two sentences lasting about thirty seconds at the very end of the film, and are put there almost as an afterthought. Needless to say, in that time it would be impossible for anyone to say anything that would be news to most people. I’d suggest you see the last season of the Wire, flawed as that season is, for more insight into this matter.

In a way I found this film to represent many of the things I dislike about the documentary genre, particularly documentaries that try to say something about human rights, relief or third world problems: It is so easy to show us images of starving people and make us vicariously suffer. And certainly I found myself touched by the destinies we meet. However, I don’t know if this makes for a good film. Kristof has received much acclaim for being an insistent reporter; even though a crisis is out of vogue or has been reported upon many times before, he continues to press the matter home, reporting on many similar incidents that, by themselves, are perhaps not news in the hard news sense. In his quest to do so, he tries to find those special cases that can sum up the larger suffering of a people in the extreme suffering of single victims – of starvation, war or usually both. I would at least venture to suggest that this method is not without problems; perhaps even unethical both in a human and journalistic sense. Kristof claims that the end justifies the means: to activate “the people back home”, the readers of his articles. I won’t say that he’s wrong, but surely it would be worth looking into while making a documentary of this type! As it turns out, the film only serves as an extension of Kristof’s own methods and concerns, and as such it presents itself as something which it is not, which only makes the single line of objection in the film pathetic and dishonest.

3122 After the horrors of Kongo, I found myself in need of some escapism, and what better way than a celebration of some of the most tasteless films ever made? OK, I exaggerate for effect. The documentary Not Quite Hollywood charts the so called Ozploitation wave of the 70s and 80s. The Australian film industry was almost non-existent until the late 60s, when more or less shady characters began to produce B- or C- films with cheap titillation as its main effect and goal. After a while Australia got a reputation as a serious film industry with films like Peter Weir’s wonderful Picnic at Hanging Rock and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant. Concurrent with these artsy and serious period films, there thrived a sub-industry based on lowbrow humour, tits, gore, ridiculous action and over the top car scenes. This, as you have guessed, is what Not Quite Hollywood is about.
As a documentary, the film is no great shakes. Various talking heads talk in 10 second snippets, offering the odd anecdote, but never any real reflection. This is interspersed with a generous offering of short scenes from the films mentioned. Quentin Tarantino is there, of course, Mad Max-director George Miller, Wolf Creek’s Greg McLean and most of the players of the time, including Brian Trenchard-Smith, perhaps the biggest name of Ozploitation. In a way I felt as if this could be the extra features on a DVD disc; any DVD of the films “discussed”. While never pretending to be more than a presentation of the type of films of the Australian exploitation scene, the film is pleasant enough and entertaining – at least for those with even a marginal interest in the subject matter.

The horror, the horror…

October 24, 2008

A small part of the BIFF-program is usually reserved for so called midnight movies, that is, horror or suspense films that are normally not associated with the “higher art” of the more typical festival films. One could write many a thesis about the exclusion of certain popular genres from the critics’ list of what they consider eligible for proper consideration when it comes to film as art. I refer here mostly to newspaper critics, who seldom have the tools or knowledge – knowing film neither as craft nor as more than a fleeting interest – to present the subject at hand as more than a brief notice about whether the critic enjoyed the movie or not. At times they don’t manage to say even that. “Professional” critics, writing for specialist magazines or certain scholarly institutions, usually have a more reflective approach to the matter of film as a whole, not least because they are bound to know more about the subject. They can thus comment from a position that is not limited to knee jerk moral reactions or the state of mind the reviewer finds him/herself in at the time of writing the article that must be printed the day after. As I say, the subject is not easily exhaustive and certainly requires a discussion I can’t fit in here.

I can venture a guess as to why horror films have usually been seen as the bottom of the barrel of the film world. News paper critics these days are mostly middle class, and the middle class likes to strive for an upper class appreciation of art. As such they are easily convinced that films should celebrate an almost classicist approach to art, with proper time for introspection and preferably include subtle moments of interaction between the protagonists and so forth. Above all films should steer away from sensationalism (in all meanings of the term, including “loud” effects, violence and “unhealthy” topics. Psychical violence is OK, though), and avoid straying too far from the politically correct.

And so they celebrate Lars von Trier’s Dogville, with its timely critique of USA and minimal art design. The film is closer to Theatre (especially Brecht), which they – maybe unconsciously – perceive as a more worthy than Film. That Dogville is just as “sensational” as any horror film, they easily forgive it – in the few cases they actually pick up on this – as the theatre of Brecht aimed to appeal to the uneducated masses, and thus von Trier must be allowed to do the same. I’d like to see someone treat that film as the banal, ugly and condescending mess it actually is. But alas, von Trier is so firmly established in the mind of the middle class critic as an eccentric genius that he can do no wrong. I doubt that any of these would consider watching Wes Cravens first film, The Last House on the Left, which is a more graphic retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. As for the plot, there is not much that fundamentally separates von Trier’s film from Craven’s so called “Video Nasty”. (This is not a recommendation of Last House… In my opinion they are both trash, but that is beside the question. I can add an equally irrelevant point; that I hugely enjoy many of von Trier’s other films).

Another problem – or advantage – with the horror genre is that it seems extremely prone to be used ideologically – not to say politically. What many conservative critics have failed to see is that the genre has mostly been used as an apology for conservatism. Maybe they shouldn’t have screamed so loudly for a ban… Horror films are frequently extremely moral, almost pietistically so. The slasher genre often warns against premarital sex and all kinds of loose-living traits in its characters. Stay at home, do your homework, keep your hands above the sheets, if you stopped believing in God – repent! – honour your parents and the chances of anything bad happening to you are significantly smaller than for the next door slut and her boyfriend. Many horrors – as many Hollywood films in general – also support vigilantism and celebrate the right for lethal revenge. In the sixties/seventies, some horror films took a leftist turn, as most of the work of George Romero bears out. But from the nineties to present day, I feel they have taken a turn for the conservative – not to say the inane – again. (Still with the notable exception of Romero). I can’t disregard that some of the more overt ideological treatment of some horror films can make them seem too oversimplified in their message. Some film critics will feel this taints them with a tackiness that genres where the ideology is not so outspoken evades.

I think that the preachy and moral aspect of horrors stems from its roots in the folk tales, where they were often meant as moral parables or warnings about the dangers of unhealthy proclivities (a bit of a tautology there…). This is evident even in modern seemingly nihilistic horrors that have little other function than to disgust. The Hostel-series, e.g., could easily be reduced to a warning about travelling abroad. Stay in USA and you won’t be attacked and tortured by those crazy Europeans! Such a message is, off course, ridiculously simpleminded, but so are the films (and don’t get me started on the so called capitalist critique of the sequel…).

The genre can boast many examples of “complicated plots” that still in its essence is a warning against a perceived danger, or the other way around; simple plots that are morally ambiguous and worth considering with some seriousness. Jaques Torneur’s Cat People could be an example of a simple plot (a woman is convinced the female line of the family is cursed to turn into felines) that is resisting any easy interpretations (it is hard to pin it down to a case of female hysteria, for example). Exactly because the story is so seemingly simple, one looks more intently for what it all means; it has to mean something more than itself! Horror seems much better suited to using this metaphorical aspect – and gaining meanings by it – than for example the Romantic Comedy or Melodrama.

Of course, a not insignificant problem with horror films, is that so many are shit. It’s a genre that many first time directors feel they can try their hand in, as a horror film is not so dependant on big names and expensive effects or even competent filming to work. Though, most often, it would have helped to have someone capable. But it is a genre that historically has showed that it is possible to score big hits without investing more than the pension of a kindly uncle. Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead and Blair Witch Project are examples. What many forget is that, at least in the first two cases, the directors were talented beyond the average, as their subsequent films have proven. So just because you have made a music video or filmed a family wedding, doesn’t automatically ensure that you are capable of making a good film. (Un)fortunately, horror films easily get distribution deals (albeit small ones), as producers have also taken notice of the fact that quite often even a very bad film in the genre will make its money back many times over due to its cheapness. Thus, there is a larger amount of these films on the market than the relative quality of the many productions would indicate.

I would venture to say that a good director is particularly important in horrors, as it is a genre that by its nature hovers close to the tasteless and ugly aspects of human experience. If one doesn’t know what one is doing, one can find oneself at best making an incompetent film or at worst contributing something ugly and degrading to the world of films. A good director, though, can reach at something genuinely unsettling, or use the genre to say something worthwhile about whatever else he’d want to communicate. I know this is vague, so let me try an example.

The last two days I’ve seen two good to very good films at BIFF that are both genre films: The Swedish film Let the Right One In (Låt Den Rätte Komma In) and the English film Eden Lake. They share some of the same approaches to their respective subgenres (the vampire film and the slasher (e.g. Friday the 13th) film). They both go a bit beyond the perimeters of the genres, but that is nothing new. Genre is, after all, just a tentative description of what type a film is. Both try to (and succeed) to humanize their monsters; to make them human. They use children as potential threats and are not afraid to show them in violent situations. (They are certainly not the first horror films that use children to accentuate vulnerability and how appearances deceive; see Night of the Living Dead, The Omen, Village of the Damned, the Exorcist, Salem’s Lot, Joshua, and many, many others).

However, while all of the Swedish film is seen from the point of view of children, a point in the English film is that the grown ups, from whose situation we experience the film, never knows the worldview of the children (or lack of it), or realizes the extent of the children’s capabilities until it is too late. Using children in the way these two films do, is always a risky proposition. They are both, though, helped immensely by the young actors’ acting abilities.

Eden Lake is the most ideological film of these. It tries to say something about the society in which it takes place, and what it says isn’t very nice. On the one hand it shows how it is the parents and a society that has allowed these parents to live like they do, that has made the little monsters. There are quite some nice touches that tell us how society has failed by allowing parents to reproduce their own inherent evil and stupidity and lack of any firm moral grounding. This attempt at a nuanced critique, though, is offset by adhering to the more sensationalist British headlines regarding the state of the younger generation. (One actually should read up on the youth debate in England before seeing the film). One can say that it is normal for a horror film to exaggerate in order to make its point, but the film came uncomfortably close to validate the conservative outcries and the sensationalist headlines of the tabloid press. Maybe that is also part of its point, as if holding the film up as a grotesque mirror, it can say, look here, this is what you say we are; are these our children, what have we made them?

Eden Lake is, though exaggerated and sensationalist fiction, highly realistic in some of its moments. The scene where one of our protagonists approaches what he thinks are just unruly kids to tell them to turn down the volume on their beat box, is easily recognizable and has a truth to it lacking in most Hollywood productions. The director does a good job in these interpersonal exchanges and every glance and unsaid word carries a weight of potential danger as palpable as the sneering loutishness of the children.
A typical example of horrors – and westerns – is that it takes place as a conflict between nature and civilization. Deliverance is a perfect example, where the three buddies take a canoe ride down a valley that is about to be put completely under water when the new dam is constructed. Their ride thus offers nature (made flesh by the rednecks) a chance to fight back against civilization (the three financially and socially established men), to show that there are parts of this world that can’t be tamed. Deliverance is such a good film that it is not possible to subsume it to only such a basic conflict – it also talks about man’s fear of nature while he should fear man the most, and how nature is already inside us even though we have tried to deny it by adhering to societal conventions that only go so far – but it will have to do for now. I felt Eden Lake alluded to Deliverance when we learnt by a road sign that the Lake area was about to be turned into a massive plot of luxury homes. I think Eden Lake thus tried for something similar to Deliverance, only by placing working class children in the roles of the mountain men of that film. As if showing society saying relax, luxury and a higher class is coming, but for the moment the inherited sins and ails of the working class will still have a say. In this one can find a similar criticism of the folly capitalism and its message as of civilization in the earlier film.

The film is very well made, and there is an uncomfortable feeling from the very first minute of the film, as the news reports from the car radio intimates what we are about to face. In the hands of a lesser director this film would certainly have been an unbearable mess. While the children initially after their attack are seen as monsters, we do get to see what made them and what makes them human. Eden Lake could easily have been a by the numbers slasher film, with limbs flying and the children doing superhuman feats, but this is not that kind of horror film. That tells me the director knew what he was doing. The sense of realism is contributing to our growing unease and makes the film a harrowing experience. I can’t yet say whether I’m comfortable with the entirety of the message the film sends; what it is trying to say, but maybe that is also a part of a good horror film, to find oneself on a ride one regrets taking but it is too late to step off.

The Swedish film is also warning about inherited evils and its consequences. Our protagonist is the smallish Oscar, a loner mistreated by his class mates until the day he meets the seemingly young girl Eli. The film separates itself from other horror films by not accentuating the horrific aspects of the supernatural elements of the story. When violent scenes come, they come quickly and are soon over, but the relationship between the boy and the girl moves carefully and slowly forward, thereby stressing the importance of a very human and very recognizable element. This film also says that more than fearing the unknown, or nature, if you will (the vampire girl), one should truly be afraid of the known (his classmates). In fact, the two films could easily be twinned in so many ways. Let the Right One In also features a group of children that are capable of committing horrific acts because they are spurred on by a strong leader, and this film also shows us the hereditary and environmental conditions that has made him.

The thing that separates them most is the tempo. While Eden Lake is supercharged, going from peril to peril, delivering a continuous adrenaline rush, Let the Right One In takes its time to let us know its lead characters. It has the patience to linger on silent shots of snow falling, of the grey Swedish apartment houses at night, illumined by street lights and more snow falling and the faces of the children, with an unintruding, subtle camera that lets us read many more shades of feeling and experience than the English film.

The Swedish film has almost no time for grown ups at all. The vampire girl is followed by a grown up servant that could have been her father (which he is posing as), but that I think was once another boy that she met and made a connection to. He says himself that she has no need for him if he can’t procure blood for her, and she doesn’t disagree. The boy’s relationship to his parents is of a similar nature. His father is a good man, but alcoholic, and Oscar leaves him. He understands that he can’t trust him to be of use to him. His mother likewise doesn’t understand anything about what life is like for him and is always out working anyway. The rest of the grown up cast is an even sorrier lot, maybe made a tad too laughable in the film. The children are thus left to their own devices, good children and bad alike.

I assume that the Swedish film will get much better reviews than Eden Lake. It is beautifully photographed and works against the usual norm for horror films by taking a leisurely pace and its own good time to get to the end. I admit that I myself liked it better, but that is not to say that it is objectively the most worthy of the films. It depends on what type of film one prefers, and I’d say both films succeed in being the films that they want to be. In many ways the ruffian Eden Lake can give just as much food for thoughts and interpretative possibilities as its Scandinavian politer cousin. Furthermore I’d say that I was seldom surprised by anything that happened in Let the Right One Come In. The end was pretty much how I imagined it would be after an early scene where the servant of Eli said “could you at least not go out to play with that boy tonight? Could you do that for me?”, and I understood the nature of their relationship. Eden Lake, on the other hand, is never so narratively safe and offers us an ending that is one of the bleakest I have seen, but still very much a natural consequence of everything the film has tried to tell us all along.

I think that Let the Right One In will gain advantages from the critics by almost not being a horror film at all. For one thing, it has a near fatal flaw in that aspect: it is never really scary. Then, it is a vampire film, which is something that most reviewers have understood can be acceptable to like. It is kind of the respectable stately prince of the genre, and critics like the obvious metaphor of bloodsucking for sex, and consider themselves up to date and “down with it” by identifying it. (I think that this film makes some wise choices in that regard, by showing the boy kissing the girl’s bloodied mouth rather than the more traditional neck biting and chest-sucking, and it kind of has to, seeing as these are children we are talking about).

Another reason why the film will be appreciated by many, is that it is set in winter, and who doesn’t like films with snow? (e.g. The Shining, On Dangerous Ground, The Sweet Hereafter, The Dead Zone, Lost Horizon, Fixed Bayonets!, Day of the Outlaw, Jeremiah Johnson, Where Eagles Dare, Dr. Zhivago, Edward Scissorhands, Fargo, The Ice Storm, Indian Runner, It’s a Wonderful Life, the Snowman and, finally, Bambi, just to mention some really great films….) The only snowy vampire film I can recall at the moment is the recent 30 Days of Night, which was a bloodier affair than this. It was unfortunately marred by some plotholes and pacing difficulties that made an inclusion to the above list unwarranted. (EDIT: Iforgot to mention Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, which I had tried to erase from memory, also another Swedish film from last year: Frostbitten, that, unfortunately was a bit of a fiasco. Of course, there are also vampire films that feature just a bit of snow, as Blade2 and the low budget indie Vampire Diary (in its last shot), and probably many more. Van Helsing, an excreable product, I won’t deem a proper film. End EDIT).

After coming out of Eden Lake, my wife asked me, with a hint of irritation in her voice, what was the purpose of seeing films like this? Weren’t there enough frustrations in everyday life, why should one go to the movies to feel anxiety? I could have answered her by citing the well known cathartic example, but I don’t know if I can fully adhere to it and besides it is a bit of a cliché, is it not? (And my wife wouldn’t need me to explain the concept to her anyhow…) Catharsis, a concept of emotional cleansing, purification – or maybe clarification – that is supposed to be beneficial to the spectator of violent/tragic dramas at the end of the play/film, was not altogether fitting here anyway. Eden Lake, being more of a social tract of sorts, offered an unrelenting bleakness and the end of the film did little to alleviate this. One thing is the entire Danish court dead except Horatio, and Fortinbras can well command that “these bodies High on a stage be placed to view”, but Eden Lake denies us even the bodies as proof of the tragedy, and nothing will likely change, much less be learnt.

Of course, one can in theory achieve this catharsis by witnessing the suffering of others, but we hardly need fiction for that. So if the cathartic element is not in play, what is the purpose of seeing films as this? For one thing, good horror films can show us a primeval part that we luckily seldom have to face in our daily lives. A return to pure undiluted and base nature is a regular feature of the better of these films. It is telling that a certain Freudian aspect is hard to evade here. Usually the heroes – or actually most often heroines – have to be reduced to a primal state, often involving crawling through shit and blood in order to escape the attackers and be born again as better people in a Darwinian sense. This rebirth then enables them to survive their ordeal and take revenge on the threat at hand. What Eden Lake does effectively is following this pattern, but then showing us the uncomfortable reality of the new persona that now has the means to strike back. I can’t say much more without revealing important plot points, but notice what the heroine does after having hidden in a trash container where she had to submerge in the indelicate contents it held.

Then, one can’t disregard the adrenaline rush of watching effective horrors. For some this will seem uncomfortable and a waste of time, while others will find the experience fulfilling. It would be silly for me to speculate about the reasons for this. Apart from this, I will have to refer to this article – the rich interpretative soil of the horrors – and hope it contains sufficient reasons for my wife to at least give me the benefit of doubt…

Birdwatchers at BIFF

October 22, 2008

Being a person who would readily understand why the Grouch stole Christmas, I have not been spoilt lately by too many undiluted positive experiences in my irregular sojourns out among the people that form my fellow audience in the movie theatre. Today, however, everyone behaved as well as could be expected, and while this should be no superhuman feat, one has to polish the silver lining where one finds it. I have to say in all fairness, though, that the audience members are not the only contributor to the decline in one’s possibilities of cinematic enjoyment. Often the films themselves take well care of ensuring that the visit is a disappointing one. However, once in a very seldom while one is rewarded for wading through so much mediocrity and incompetence (see yesterday’s post on Helen), and when the elusive prize presents itself, it can make everything seem worthwhile. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece neither, I’m more than content with a pleasant surprise or two. As luck would have it, today offered exactly that (and it is a bit of a master piece as well…).

The Birdwatchers is an Italian production, set in the Brazilian rainforest/countryside and is the first film to use the indigenous Guaraní people as actors. That should by no means be the only reason to see this beautiful film. Unlike the amateurs in Helen, it turns out the Guarani can actually act. I suspect the director, Marco Bechis, has spent quite some time in order to pick his cast. All the Indians (I hope that is an accepted word these days) have readily distinguishable features and are easily recognizable as the characters they are meant to portray. By this I mean that I assume the director picked people who were not too remote from the personalities he needed to portray in the film. I don’t want to fall into the trap of automatically assuming that they have no theatre schools or drama projects in the areas they come from, but I somehow doubt it. Of course, for all I know, they may all have been living in a Brazilian metropolis prior to filming, but if so, their acting here is of an even higher order. (After writing this, I’ve done a bit of research, and found that none of the actors had acting experience, but were used to performing, since that was what praying meant to them; a performance for their gods and fellow tribal members. At first they talked incessantly while being filmed, but the director showed them clips from Hitchcock’s The Birds and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West to show them the importance of silences in film acting. They understood immediately. See here for more information about the filming process.)

For act they do. The reason I know this is that the film tells me so. I don’t consider the story as far away from reality – or a possible reality. I know that it is not a documentary, but it is a well told story, too well told to be pure reality. That doesn’t take a sense of immediacy away from it. The customs we witness and the situations the Guaranís encounter all have an air of not only possibility but inevitability. One kind of knows that the film will not have a very happy ending – after all, we are talking about indigenous people opposing the “civilizing” forces of rich landowners and the government – but for the 100 minutes the film lasts we witness something valuable and something I’m very glad to have seen.

The film is, according to the Indians themselves, close to reality and the Indians were very satisfied with it when they saw it for the first time. It was also the first time any of them were inside a cinema, except one of the actors, who said he was once in a film theatre, in Campo Grande, many years ago: “It was scary. There was no way out.” They have said in an interview that they prefer to be represented in this way, rather than in a number of well-meaning, but false nature documentaries: “The white people only show ugly things; they don’t talk about what needs to be done, what needs to change. They talk about malnutrition, and soon all seem to be suffering from malnutrition. But that doesn’t solve the problem. And the mothers and fathers get the blame. But they don’t discuss the lack of lands, the devastation carried out by the whites, the lack of work and opportunities. Without forest there are no animals and it is not possible to perform the “kunumi pepy” (initiation ritual, also known as “fura-labios”).

Let me stress again, that this is not just an “exotic” film, showing us the noble savages or “the beautiful nature people”, but a valuable work of fiction in its own right. The film is entertaining and thought provoking (which is a rare thing these days and maybe all days), it is comedic and it is sad. Above all it’s damn good. The film begins with the Guaranís standing naked by the riverside to add a piece of exotism and excitement for the white tourists traversing the river. After the day’s show is ended they return to their transport and dresses in ragged jeans and t-shirts. I think the film is early on trying to warn us of the dangers of regarding these people as “others”, as harmless idols for the new age crowd or overly idealistic environmentalists. Later they try to fend for themselves by moving out of their allotted reservation and closer to the place their forefathers inhabited, and by this move are perceived as a threat by the local landowner. Conflict gradually ensues. But apart from the overt conflict with the land owner, there are several other conflicts and themes that run its course; nature versus civilization (as always!), man’s relation to Death; suicide, love, attraction; in many ways it is also a coming of age story told better than 99% of what comes out of Hollywood.

I guess it is impossible to make a film of this theme without showing certain well known examples of how an entire race has been extinguished, not necessarily by guns, but by commerce and alcohol. Capitalism and its good friend Catholicism has played such an unquestionable role in the eradicating of the indigenous people of South America that it is hard not to include certain aspects of these institutions. The local shop owner likes to give them hard liquor before negotiating prices for the goods, and as such comes across as a bit of a cliché. We know this character from the “Indian Agents” haunting the reservations of the North American Indians, poisoning entire tribes with his “fire water”. But maybe there is no way around including what is already known to us in order to show us what we don’t know? The reason I mention this is that the film is in other ways remarkably reflective and doesn’t unduly demonize the white landowner. (His speech about his grandfather working the soil sixty years ago is both laughable in his short view of history as well as true in that the Indians themselves have seldom bothered to cultivate the soil).

I won’t say too much about what further happens in order not to spoil the film for anyone, and therefore will not attempt an analysis here. Let me just say that the feeling of inevitability that I mentioned is both fulfilled and denied. There is a victory for good at the end of the film, but maybe not in the battle we thought we were watching. The end of the film is indeed one of the most satisfying I can remember having seen in recent times, expanding the arch of the film as well as giving the only kind of closure we can hope for in a film of this type.

A few words must also be granted the music, which is in part natural sounding incidental pieces by the score’s composer, Andrea Guerra, which work well by introducing an ominous aspect to the proceedings. But the most noticeable part of the soundtrack is definitely the choral works by early eighteenth-century composer Domenico Zipoli. The end credits inform us that he was a Jesuit missionary in Argentina and known as the “Indos composer”. By letting Zipoli’s stringent arch-European compositions accompany the images of the Indians’ mundane tasks, the film illustrates the Western constant presence, legacy and continued influence over their situation. It is a beautiful sound, but completely out of place here, like a dream or a feverish glance of heaven. I’ll let others read into that what they will.

BIFF and Two Independent Films

October 21, 2008

BIFF, or Bergen International Film Festival, is well under way, and seems to continue being surprisingly popular, judging by some of the lines forming at certain key times. One of the things I like about the festival is that they have a film quiz in the evenings that give ample opportunity for receiving free tickets en masse. Also, if one at the final day of the quiz has the highest score, one wins a free pass for next year’s festival. Needless to say, we won again this year.

I also like that many of the films are not subtitled, so the audience has to actually listen, and maybe take a pause in their incessant devouring of sweets from crinkly plastic bags. Even uncomfortable Rumanian films about illegal abortions or quiet independent films about suicide are, for some, opportunities for succulent saccharine feasts. I will never understand this need to stuff things into one’s mouth while out among people in places that are not restaurants, and the apparent blind – or deaf – belief that one’s chewing is inaudible to the person sitting twenty centimetres away. While I describe the custom here in a spirit of seemingly prandial jocundity, let me spare no adjective in describing it as positively opprobrious. (For every episode I watch of Jeeves and Wooster, my English vocabulary seems to be stretching towards lexical heavens heretofore unsuspected).

Never having to pay for one’s passes presents opportunities to watch films one would normally be hesitant to risk, especially if – like me – one has a certain Scottish disposition when it comes to spending money. (And I am, after all, quite poor, at least in the pecuniary sense). So this explains why I patronize my share of smaller films, but what is one to make of the fact that even very “difficult” (to euphemize) films play for an almost packed theatre during the festival, while if, say, an Armenian/Azerbaijan co-production were to receive a regular theatre run, not more than five people would see it during the five or six days it played? I suspect it must be the fabled festival spirit…

Of course, one of the risks of going without reservations to so many films that will never receive a general run, but at best limited or festival runs, is that sometimes there is a reason why these films would never see the light of day in a cinema, let alone in even the smallest multiplex, if it hadn’t been for festivals needing to fill their programme. Still, one would assume that there has been some kind of quality control at work before inviting the film to attend the festivals. This control must have been sleeping or absent in the case of the English film Helen.

I have during my 35 years on this once green planet seen some 4000-5000 films, which is almost the equivalent to one year of watching films 24 hours a day, and Helen is perhaps the most inept film I’ve ever seen. The acting makes Plan 9 From Outer Space seem like a master class in method acting, the script is full of clichés and attempts at insights that would be unsurprising for any 9 year old. For a while I thought that the only redeeming quality of the film was the photography, music and editing. That was before I realized that the cameraman only had two tricks up his tattered sleeve. One time the protagonist was filmed from above her as she walked slowly past. This was one of the first scenes of the film and I still had some hope. The rest of the camera moves were a slow, slow sideways panning of the camera, always in the same tempo, never with any intent other than finding a way not to keep the camera completely still. Sometimes this pan would evolve into a semicircle, but without giving any information or artistic effect that a medium range shot would not have given us in a second. At times I thought about the less adventurous daytime soaps.

I guess I wouldn’t have deemed this laziness in thinking up camera angles inexcusable if there had actually been anything worthwhile to film. No such luck, not by a long shot (pun intended). I felt sorry for the amateur actors, who couldn’t even act amateurishly and much less naturally, as amateurs we have seen from USA or France are frequently able to. The girl playing the eponymous protagonist was clearly the most talented of the cast, but while able to keep her face in the frame for endless interior soliloquies that the – judging by this film – talentless scriptwriter had put in her mouth, she was equally helpless in any situation that required interaction with her fellow amateurs.

The story itself was not much of a story and was constructed around a procedural part of the police work that I felt was stretching credibility: That the police required a girl that looked like a murdered girl in order to recreate her movements. Our protagonist was thus taken out of class for weeks so she could dress up in the dead girl’s clothes and move around the area that the dead girl had last been seen, so the police could get a sense of … of what? As soon as the plain protagonist dresses in the yellow (!) leather jacket of the dead girl, she begins to identify with the dead girl and to wish she could live her life. She eats dinner with the aggrieved parents and sees the boyfriend of the dead girl. She loses her identity because she hasn’t any identity to begin with, the film tells us, because she is an orphan. Yes, quite. And all this told through the most horribly clichéd and stilted language possible, not one word, not a single thought coming out of the character’s personalities, only from the writer’s misguided pen and then put into the character’s mouths. Even an actor would have struggled with this material.

I actually became physically sick by the utter ineptness of this film. Every word spoken hammered into my nervous system as if it was a badly cooked piece of dog’s ass in India. I really have never realized that pure badness can be so physically felt. The only reason I stayed to watch the film through was that I knew that it didn’t last more than 76 minutes and I wanted to see how one ends a film as bad as this. The answer is: One doesn’t. I want to stop now, is the last sentence spoken in the film. Yes, please, please, do stop.

On a brighter note, I saw Ballast yesterday, an American independent film that, while no masterpiece, is more than solid and manages to do more with its first thirty seconds than Helen would have been able to had it lasted three hours (god forbid!). It is interesting to have seen these two films in a row, because they have pretty much the same financial resources and both feature an amateur cast with little to none acting experience. The most palpable difference is perhaps that here the amateurs can actually act, or if not, the script is written in such a way that they can play characters closer to their real personas.

This can’t be the entire explanation, though. While Helen knew that it wanted to tell a story of a girl that is apprehending another – or any – identity and went about it by a script that spelled it out for us, Ballast leaves much more room for the viewer to inhabit the tale as well. While in Helen the girl actually has to say “I wish I could be you”, in Ballast one only gradually learns the most basic connections between the characters and they don’t say a single word too much. Helen is like something written by a twelve year old trying to impress his or her teacher by artificial and imposed connections that are obvious for any adult, while Ballast always takes care to stay true to the characters even when they do or say things that hinder the viewer’s understanding of their immediate motives.

One of the obvious symbolic tools filmmakers often utilize in order to show the character’s function in the drama they are trying to communicate to us is the clothes – and the colour of the clothes – of the key players. In Helen it is the yellow leather jacket that we have learnt is the essence of the dead girl by a scene in which the mother takes a good minute to smell the jacket. (This is actually the only remotely passable scene in the film). In Ballast it is the young boy who starts out in a heavy parkas with a hood that covers his face and how – as his situation improves – he reveals more of himself by dressing in lighter clothes. This is not genius, but as one has to be more or less attentive to catch it (meaning it is not spelled out in capital letters), it adds a layer to the tale the filmmaker wants to tell without rendering the story meaningless if one overlooks it.

Another symbolic tool the two films have in common is the representation of the seasons. They both start out as autumnal films. Ballast is seemingly always between sleets of snow and frozen land, and wet and rotten fields, as if warmth and compassion is of another region entire. The handheld camera lets us feel participant in the frost and the gradual thaw with an immediacy that Helen lacks. Helen is, as its camera, always static, always in autumn, and there is nothing but posing qualities to the landscape, as if it is just a pretty picture to put the protagonist into; faux-sad and empty of any meaning fit for grown ups or passably bright children.