by Niles Schwartz
The Walker Art Center’s Cinema is revamped, remodeled, revised, rejuvenated, and ready to rock and roll this weekend, with state-of-the-art equipment to nurture film fans, and with cinema selections from all over the planet, past and present. To celebrate, the lead-off films slated for Friday, Saturday and Sunday are a cosmopolitan mixture, though oddly consistent in how they are documents obsessed with the past while envisioning a future through images.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
7:30 pm Friday, June 22, sold out
Friday will feature the much-discussed Sundance darling feature debut from director Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which takes the broken levees of New Orleans and reimagines history as folktale, with a defiant pre-adolescent heroine (Quvenzhané Wallis) determined to survive the terrain. Zeitlin sees the environment following Katrina as something post-apocalyptic, and that world has, in his words, “its own story that it’s telling and its own story that happens internally.” (More on Beasts of the Southern Wild when it opens at the Lagoon cinema next week.)
7:30 pm Saturday, June 23, $9 ($7 for Walker members)
Frank Capra said that film was a disease, something that infects your bloodstream and creates an addiction. And like a substance addict, the cure for the disease is simply more film. That probably applies to any creator or enthusiast of whatever art-form, leading one to wonder what if that individual is deprived – by the most absurd bureaucratic means – of the desired outlet of expression. This then reminds us how images affect us while dancing with reality.
Jafar Panahi is an acclaimed Iranian filmmaker whose support for anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrators, in addition to an already salty relationship with government censors, led to his house arrest, impending prison sentence, and a “ban” from making or writing films for 20 years. Is it an act of defiance, frustration, or stir-crazy desperation that Panahi invites his documentarian friend, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to film a day in his life, as the indicted filmmaker acts out scenes from an unproduced incendiary screenplay, written before his arrest, about a prospective female art student whose traditionalist parents keep her locked in a room?
In Scorsese’s short film Life Lessons, Nick Nolte’s artist remarks that you don’t make art because you’re good; it’s against your will. You have to do it, as if it were a divine mandate, even a pain in the neck. How claustrophobic life must be for Panahi, restricted from using his viewfinder, sculpting and re-transfiguring reality, while reality – the amateur actors, the expressive environments – simultaneously directs him and explains the film more wholly than his own words ever could. “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” he asks rhetorically, discouraged while trying to abstract his story for the viewer.
This film – This is Not a Film – expresses the mercurial alchemy of moving pictures, which can be unexpectedly funny, as we see Panahi trying to surf through censored web-sites that speak of how Iran’s House of Cinema is finally “concerned” with the ideals of the Revolution, the image cutting occasionally to his daughter’s pet iguana, Igi, climbing on a bookshelf. But it’s also startling, and jarring, like when we see Tehran late at night, with fires and social unrest that, in the final images, suggest a frightening apocalypse. That “weird atmosphere” is elsewhere suggested with an image within the image, as Panahi is transfixed by the global news images of Japan during 2011’s March tsunami and (potential) nuclear disaster.
In his apartment, Panahi has been, as he says, “marking time.” Mirtahmasb tells him that he probably should have turned on his cell phone camera at the beginning of his troubles to “document” what was happening. “It’s important that the cameras are on.” Images control in totalitarian societies, but they are also the useful tools of revolution, funneling information to the outside world (This is Not a Film was smuggled outside of Iran on a USB drive, planted in a cake). For example, during the 1968 Soviet invasion, instructors at the Prague film school gave students cameras and rolls of film to shoot what was happening; some of that footage was incriminating for the filmmakers, but some of it also got to the West (and is masterfully incorporated into Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being with staged footage).
What we are seeing in This is Not a Film is also a “lie,” according to the tragic filmmaker. The picture feels like one day, but was apparently shot over the course of ten. Panahi is acting a role that he doesn’t want, but the institutions that put him where he is are more fantastical and ridiculous than any fictional concoction. The ecstatic truths and ideas are sculpted, fashioning this “non-film” into a great film, perhaps one of the best of the year, an expressive work of art (there’s even a delicate touch of making visible a DVD of the Ryan Reynolds thriller, Buried, about a man buried alive and running out of time, which may prompt the most sardonic of doomed grins). The fashioning of filmmaking, of capturing and enclosing a reality while imprinting one’s own private sense on it, is irresistible for Panahi, whose camera-eye gazes through the windows onto the night, and probes closely at his apartment building’s trash dispenser. Cinema contemplates the historical (the Persian New Year) within a present context (Japanese tsunamis; the Iranian government’s condemnation of fireworks for the New Year celebrations), seeking both the big picture of a polis in chaos, and the close-up of an individual, a random stranger, with dreams and daily duties. The deprivation of active vision is the also negation of freedom.
3pm Sunday, June 24, $12 ($10 for Walker members)
As Ridley Scott’s Prometheus dominates talk between passionate moviegoers, perhaps it’s a coincidence that the Walker has selected Yakov Protazanov’s adaptation of an Alexei Tolstoy story, about the mutual enthrallment between two worlds, to finish this special weekend. “Show me the other worlds no one else will know,” the queen of the title says, and in this early chapter of science fiction, moviegoers taste the voyeuristic tools of a medium that is still developing, maybe in its infancy. Aelita may be the very first Soviet feature film, crossing between the worlds before the Revolution and after, just as it thinks about the dynamic between Earth and Mars. D.W. Griffith, the master film grammarian of the West, clearly influences the melodrama in Aelita, of lovers’ jealousy, duplicity, and murder; but in the early images we also get a sense of a fascination with machines, of how things work and change, which anticipates the cinematic philosophy of the Soviet kinoks and Dziga Vertov: a dream of a utopia and a new world, where man and machine meld together perfectly.
Aelita is thinking about its “glorious past,” in addition to the dreams of the future. A group of former czarist cronies think about a time when the wine, manners, and social order was “better” (i.e., when they had power), as its protagonist, the scientist Loss, is pre-occupied with his dream of distant worlds. The Martians meanwhile exhibit some of our worst traits, such as slavery, jealousy, and obsessive desire, with Aelita obsessing over Loss’ face from afar. The “great process of rebuilding Russia,” where citizens forsake personal foibles and concerns for the construction of a utopia, is a lesson from which the Martians could perhaps learn.
The current Prometheus is also thinking about our past and future, contemplating images and technology along with a pot-boiler about intergalactic space travel, wrought with domestic melodrama (which may drag the narrative down to earth for a lot of disappointed multiplex guests). But watching Aelita side-by-side with Scott’s colonial space epic makes for an intriguing reflection on how filmmakers analyze and construct the future, the architecture of which is conceived in the never retraceable past. Given the Stalinist horrors that would befall Russia in the coming years, Aelita is a melancholy experience. Grieving at the coffin of the beloved woman he murdered, Loss says, “The past turned out to be stronger than I.” Is this a prophecy for the lost dreams of a Marxist paradise, before that paradise was even finished?