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© 2017 by James Clark

      Among the many and rare skills of filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt, I think the one that most defines her work is the remarkable attentiveness to mood. From time to time we all experience how difficult it is to read the real angle coming to us by figures we have a close and clear bead upon. Often a full disclosure can only be attained by discerning a panoply of incidents (overt and covert), perhaps tracing back to a distant past.

Possessed of very high-powered disclosure in that strategic area, she has memorably deployed those resources in order to, in the film, Old Joy (2006), produce sophisticated havoc upon conventional, politically correct assumptions about the sacred cows of our orbit, for the sake of initiating the neglected, very difficult and crucial task of sensuous coherence.

Old Joy directly purports to cover a reunion of Kurt, an itinerant, getting in touch with a former friend, Mark, living, as always, in Portland, Oregon, and now married to pregnant, Tanya, in their environmentally lush home sustained by intellectually demanding jobs. Here we should note a glaring irregularity about each of them. Along the way of this saga we learn that Kurt, the self-styled, not to mention unctuous, “people person,” has waited until his considerable stay in the venue was no longer tenable before leaving on Mark’s answering machine, “I’m in town and I’m just hoping you’re in town.” As to Mark (a mark?), as the film opens, his eyes are closed as he sits in his rather overrun, “authentic” yard, staving off a nervous breakdown, with a Tanya who is pretty much fed up.

This seeming conjunction of ardent, youngish searchers benefits (if that is the word) from the eyes of the “indie” stalwarts who constitute for Reichardt a force needing shock treatment they are unlikely to like. What’s not to love about a counter-cultural rogue, drug addict and homosexual predator catching up with an academically-secured humanitarian, addicted to that liberal radio gospel hour, Air America? Let’s see.

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 © 2017 by James Clark

      This film, from 2010, touted as a remarkably “minimalist” presentation in the form of getting real about the gritty hardships of mid-nineteenth-century travel with a view to starting afresh in Oregon Territory, proves to be, in fact, a most modern story. It features three ox-drawn covered wagons, a circus-cowboy-buffoon and scout and three ladies of the convoy in bonnets and gowns so pronounced they resemble an order of nuns. There is, you might appreciate, room for large confusion in getting to the remarkable sophistication being the nub of this work’s working.

Whereas other film investigators in her orbit tend to put all their audacious cards on the table each time out—producing therewith a critical mass of mysterious logic for their fans to digest in relative tranquility—Reichardt harbors a secret trajectory (from out of the iconoclastic territory beloved by her colleagues). And that outer limit does not show up in strength time after time. In fact, to date, it has only appeared twice, in our current effort, and in the very recent, Certain Women (2016). Badasses everywhere you turn; but rarely devising something about badasses beyond the standard appalment and compromised isolation. In Meek’s Cutoff, the desperately lost wagon train captures a lone Indian and proceeds to coerce him to reveal where the water might be. In Certain Women, Jamie (an Indian woman requiring some surveillance to be seen as such) offers to show a lost lawyer where the fun is and gets a rude brush-off which smashes her equilibrium going forward. In the saga of Meek and his would-be cutoff of a supposed primitive nobody, there comes about a turning of the tables, with the outsider having somehow acquired the trappings of an insider. But so much seemingly old-school nail-biting and games-playing obtrudes there that the remarkableness of the loner does not effectively register. However, in the light of Jamie’s being robbed of her unsecured mojo, Meek’s Cutoff (Meek the boss-clown being denied his bid to annihilate the Oregon Indian) brings that “new frontier,” which tripped up Jamie, to an instinctively vivid significance. (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

      After enjoying a number of films loaded for bear, it’s a bit of a breath of fresh air to see to it that small game must not be forgotten. Whereas the likes of Kiarostami, Jarmusch and Refn are wired for blowing the planet into outer space, filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt, has perhaps a more low-tech approach to a dispensation of overrated smart-asses.

I recall a brush with her Wendy and Lucy (2008) being haunting and prompting more studies of her work. And now, particularly in the wake of the rarefied, Shirin, her recent film, Certain Women (2016), becomes a must. Let’s not, however, fail to appreciate that Reinhardt can, when apt, throw a deadly cutter in the course of diverging from the mainstream fast balls being expected by a site like Montana. (I’m not unmindful that she has a reputation for being an expert at “slow cinema” to coincide with rural settings. But her “slowness’ has been tempered by the killer instincts of Kiarostami, Jarmusch and Refn, to name but a few of the many fireballers she sees the point of.) Near the end of our movie today, a quite empathetic lawyer, Laura, visits a former client, Billy, now in jail, who hopes to hear more often from her by mail. “Talk about anything…Doesn’t have to be a tome…” But—as part of the tide of an enterprise not so far from the lone coffee drinker in Jarmusch’s, Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), contemplating buying a large gun to deal with hordes of impasse she finds insufferable—there is no effective avoidance of playing something along lines of a tome (a multifaceted outreach, a dialectic, in fact). Earthy folks imply paradoxical struggle, and Certain Women is, in its ‘slow” ways, a deep and hard look at an American, not a German, idealism.

A first and most directly palpable thing that hits us in this film is its ponderously dead visuality. Not (very much) is Reichardt about homage toward those “Transcendentalist” boosters of peppy light coming to bear across vast spheres to kiss delicious flora, faunas and contours. Those former boy scouts taking their marching orders from European Romanticism are supplanted here by an emphatic initial distance shot of a rail bed all but swallowed up by brown and grey unlovely grasses with a mountain range miles away on the horizon, pelted by overcast more impoverished than night. A freight train approaches to complement the unfriendly wind whipping along; but the mere touch of a positive motion catches our attention, as does the train’s raspy whistle. (more…)

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© 2017 by James Clark

      Kiarostami’s film, Shirin (2008), is an endeavor that is formally simple and thematically complex. It could be called a speculative minefield. What could be easier than to fathom the stars of a romantic film melodrama, Shirin and Khosrow, being a piece of work? What is tough, though, is to see that the audience of women worthies watching the movie could also be termed a piece of work, notwithstanding their giving to the courtly medieval saga what seems to be their personal best. We have in fact, holding forth, a story of wilful, wordy chaos and groundless presumptuousness. On the other hand, the ladies of the 21st century seem to be silent paragons of patient and generous discernment. Though far less noisy, they come to pass as an online shopping spree where the merchandise does not really fit them. That comprehensive disconnect is this mighty little picture’s real drama.

One deadly entitlement, making the rounds of response to Shirin and needing to be run out of town, is that the specifics of the flashback-heavy, olden bathos being watched are nothing but ignorable, ancient verbosity. (The Telegraph complains, “… the subtitles get awfully intrusive.”) Goofy, yes; but, without being abreast of the various self-justifications rattling across a soundtrack like a Depression-Era radio soap opera-cum-thriller (the visual component never seeing the light of day as we fully make the best of a so-called “minimalist” mise en scene of face-on close-ups of the customers), we cannot well comprehend the myriad, silent but expressive, engagements (of a hundred or so distaff contemporary viewers) with the flighty golden oldies. Failing to give appropriate time to the dialogue, even those commentators most fond of Kiarostami’s curious wit will limply report about women’s self-sacrifices, accessible sentimentality, thoughts flickering across faces to seemingly no more point than a flower garden and how the peculiar austerity of the experience conveys a pitch of modernity satisfying even when not fully understandable. But, more than any other carelessly perceived value, there is, from that constituency, the pleasure of seeing filmmaking conventions overturned: eschewing the reverse shot process which covers both ends of a dialogue; a fixed camera position; and the welter of minimalist productions in other Kiarostami films, like Ten, where a stationary figure puts to herself that which voluminous phenomena do for her self-sufficiency. (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

      Filmmaker, Nicolas Refn (b. 1970), has, in his works, always resorted to sensational violence as apparently appropriate for his motives. He could be described as an expert in the ways of violence. Those who assume that comprehending the phenomena of violence is readily accomplished by reason of conventional morality tend to regard our helmsman as a clever but stunted practitioner, someone who, if not emotionally deranged, settles for lucrative crudity.

His most recent film, The Neon Demon (2016), has elicited abhorrence remarkable even for the routine complement of bounty hunters hoping to put him out of business. Though grudgingly acknowledged to be a master of optical sensations, only very few would recognize his persistence as painstaking investigation at a very high level.

In their rush to display what they seem to know about the bankruptcy of LA and the fashion business—by which to fault Refn as lacking sound judgment to be touching it—they tend to refer to a battery of earlier works of his devoted to crime. There is no one, though, whom I have seen who recalls, if it comes to a most telling link, the kick-ass Norse gladiator with a world of woe and wit in Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009).

However, I think we are well advised here to leave in a subsidiary role those off-site matters and take a close look at what The Neon Demon actually presents. One thing it offers is a stream carrying the opening credits, constituting a big picture demanding far more attention than the products of the snack bar. We are, with this listing of names, offered the keynote of the action, before the residents of planet Earth get down to their penchant for butchering it. Since no one ever cares about those names and positions anyway, why not, our movie decides, bring forward the surfaces of distant, stony bodies in outer space, undergoing rich and changing color touches—red, purple, blue; shaped by the interstices of those inert entities—and a sonic rain of urgent percussion: pulsing, tinkling, resonating, as periodically interrupted by the rattle of machinery. On the heels of this inducement to ditch immortality, there is a shower of what resembles glitzy casino chips not entirely able to shroud the look and the sound of something priceless. The film title accompanies the neon-forward, distressed light, and from there we meet our world as represented by Jesse, the young protagonist, positioned on a sofa in the manner of a blood-drenched victim of an assailant bypassing all those lovely and loving reasons just on display. (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

      We coffee drinkers appreciate the world of taste. (I suppose smokers could be included as seekers of such deal-making, but in the sense of diminishing returns.) What is there about wide consumption of those stimulants which merits strong attention to the point, in fact, of producing a feature film, namely, Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), by that finder of diamonds in the rough, Jim Jarmusch?

One factor to be recognized, in fathoming the characteristically odd unfolding of the disclosure, is that in all (but one) eleven disparate vignettes the players are seated at a table in a coffee shop with, with one exception, at least one other aficionado. That leads us to a first premise that something about the interaction at those tables is largely (though not exclusively) responsible for the supplements of a cup (or more) of coffee and a cigarette (or more). Though most of the conversations consist of rather bewildering tatters of good will, there is one tete-a-tete which seems to have found its way to a field of reflection which might provide more than those copious dead-ends which most viewers of Jarmusch’s films readily assume to be all there is and consequently find themselves obliged, in respect to the whimsy and comedy, to maintain that grotesque errancy is as much as anyone will ever know and that that status quo is acutely gratifying. One other element of this scenario, which should be mulled over, is the cast’s being show-biz notables, many of whom having appeared in previous Jarmusch movies and consequently bringing those dramas into renewed considerations. (more…)

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© 2017 by James Clark

 This film (from 2016) is as devoted to the undeclared war, between old world-history and something beyond that, as Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997). The latter, in its denouement, pours out a Bronx cheer upon an oldie for the sake of its overwhelmed eccentrics, knowing all too well that victories will be very scarce and very incomplete. Elle shows us what such victory of the “selfish” self-starters is apt to look like.

Our more than unusual protagonist, Michele, on being raped one evening in her house by a figure pleased to look like Spider-Man, has her doctor arrange a STD blood test next day—a “full panel”—and, in line with the physical and financial authority she exerts, the specialist suggests a new medication, PEP. She has already covered that avenue and declares, “Too many side-effects… I can’t miss any work.” She adds, metaphorically blowing the roof off the tony clinic devoted to classical science, “I guess we roll the dice…” Albert Einstein, a master of pushing the envelope the better to hide out, poured forth a Bronx cheer of sorts upon youthful researchers in the early days of quantum studies, who were struck by a creative field shot through with uncertainties, by, that is, unpredictability in the ways of nature as crucially including humans. He capsulized his contempt for those renegades by declaring, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Immediately after that appointment she and we are in the midst of the first of a series of locales (at Christmas time) where chains of small white lights flash about, approximating elemental phenomena soaring in electrodynamic outbursts. That such heady take-offs are far from carefree is announced—truth to tell, with nearly as much shock as the oddly truncated sexual assault—at a lunch bar (lights in its doorway and visible through the whole scene) where a splenetic diner dumps the dregs of her tray all over Michele’s shoulder and sleeve, along with the denunciation, “Scum! You and your father!” Her still and silent response is a reprise of her undemonstrative rally after the rape.

Although several melodramatic narratives seem to be vying for attention which would pay dividends, we might find that the outcomes very closely approximate that inconsequentiality of the suicidal obsessive in Taste of Cherry; and that it is the major-league (which means far from perfect) coordination of Michele amidst myriad cons and a few pros which lifts the proceedings to regal stature. (Isobel Huppert’s performance as Michele, though marvellous, constitutes another distraction by which those not having a clue about what is going on can invest the action with a shot of the “powerful,” which can mean anything they want it to mean. This is, in fact, a film [like so many of Kiarostami’s works, and those of Jarmusch] to embrace, not to pigeonhole.) (more…)

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