Friday, August 05, 2016

THE HEART OF ART: LLÉVATE MIS AMORES (ALL OF ME, 2014) / MUJERES LUZThe Evening Class Interview With Claudio Talavera-Ballón

As part of their developing RoxCine programming curated by Isabel Fondevila, and co-presented by Galería de la Raza, Cine+Mas SF Latino Film Festival, and the Latino Community Foundation, the Roxie presents a special presentation of All of Me / Llévate mis amores (2014), directed by Mexican documentarian Arturo González Villaseñor, Friday, August 5 through Monday, August 8, continuing on to the Galería de La Raza, where All of Me will play Wednesday, August 10 through Monday, September 17.

As synopsized, Mexico and the United States share the greatest border between the first and the third world. That makes it a bridge for thousands of migrants who expose themselves to every danger as they travel through the country on a train called La Bestia ("The Beast"). That's where they meet the Patronas, a group of Mexican women who, every day since 1995, make food and toss it to the helpless as the train rushes by. This documentary is an intimate approach, a personal diary that draws a border between the life they were given and the life they chose. In a world where all hope seems lost, the Patronas breathe life into a human value that seems to be fading with each day: love for one another.

All of Me's festival pedigree includes awards for Best Movie, México Primero at Los Cabos International Film Festival; Best Documentary and Audience Award at Mostra de Cinema Latinoamericà de Catalunya, Lleida; Telesur Best Documentary and Jury Special Mention at Festival de Cine Pobre de Gibara, Cuba, among others.

Arturo González Villaseñor is from Mexico City and studied Social Communication at the UAM-Xochimilco. In 2013, he founded Acanto Films, a production company for films and artistic events. At the moment, he writes film reviews for the magazine Revista Proceso. His first film All of Me participated in over 60 film festivals around the world including the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), DocsDF, Guanajuato International Film Festival, among others. Iñaki Fdez. de Retana seized the opportunity to talk with Villaseñor during the film's April 2015 screening at SFIFF.

Patrona Guadalupe González Herrera, Director Arturo González Villaseñor and Director of Photography Antonio Mecalco will be present for a Q&A on Friday and Saturday, August 5 and August 6 after the 7:00PM shows.

The art exhibit "Mujeres Luz", a painting series by Claudio Talavera-Ballón inspired by the film, opens August 5 at 518 Valencia Street (The Eric Quezada Center for Culture and Politics) in conjunction with All of Me's opening reception with the filmmakers and Patrona Lupe as special guests. "Mujeres Luz" will then move to the Galería de la Raza on Thursday, August 11 for All of Me's Closing Reception with filmmakers and Patrona Lupe as special guests.

A Panel Discussion moderated by radio host and producer Chelis López (Radio Bilingue & KPOO) with Patrona Guadalupe González Herrera, director of photography Antonio Mecalco and Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of Carecen SF, will take place after the 7:00PM Galería screening on Wednesday, August 10.

"Mujeres Luz" is an art exhibit dedicated to Las Patronas and migrants who travel on La Bestia inspired by the film All of Me (Llevate mis Amores). When Talavera-Ballón saw the movie at the San Francisco Film Festival last year, he was so moved that he traveled to Veracruz, Mexico to meet and paint these incredible women. Claudio and I took time during my last visit to San Francisco to sit down to talk about his development as an artist and the genesis of the "Mujeres Luz" series.

* * *

Claudio Talavera-Ballón is a Peruvian-born painter based in San Francisco, California. His work highlights the lives and struggles of farm workers, indigenous people and immigrants throughout Latin America and the U.S. He has exhibited in museums, universities and embassies internationally and in the U.S, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cusco and the Peruvian Embassy in Washington DC. He has been selected for the SF Arts Commission 2015-2016 Artist Pool, has participated in Friday Nights at the de Young Museum and is currently a member of ArtSpan Open Studios committee.

Hailing from Arequipa, Peru, one can only describe Claudio Talavera-Ballón as blessed. Most of the cities in Peru are named in Quechua, usually as a description of the place, and Arequipa comes from the Quechua words ari (which means volcano) and qhipaya (which means valley), so Arequipa refers to the valley at the base of a nearby volcano. Arequipa is surrounded by three volcanoes. It's in the mountains, an hour and a half from the coast.

As Claudio was growing up in Arequipa, everyone around him wanted to grow up to be managers, economists, and anyone who wanted to make art was considered a devil. He couldn't stand the social judgment and pressure. Every time he told someone he was a painter, they would respond, "You don't work?" His family was the same way.

When he was six years old, his mother took him to visit his grandparents. His mother worked in the afternoons so when he got home from school he was left to run free in the nearby fields and to visit the river. He'd return to his home fifteen minutes before his mother was scheduled to return from work, and would start in on his homework. His mother noticed, of course, that he couldn't have possibly spent all afternoon working on homework and realized he was doing something else inbetween school and her coming home.

One time he went out to play in the countryside, crossed the river, had a conversation with a farmer, and played with a dog and played with a cow. But this time when he returned home, his mother was waiting for him. She asked him where he had been. He told her, "Well, I have been in the country." She asked, "All afternoon you've been in the country? In the fields, all afternoon?" Yes, he answered. "Okay," she said, "what did you learn?" "Learn?" he responded, "I go to the school to learn. I don't learn in my free time so I don't know what you mean." She continued, "So you passed all afternoon in the country, in the fields, you crossed the river twice, you played with a dog, you played with a cow, you talked with a farmer, and you didn't learn anything?" He said, "No. I didn't learn anything." His mother said, "Okay, then let's try something. Tomorrow when you get home from school and go out to play in the fields, cross the river twice, look for the dog, look for the cow, look for the farmer. Duplicate everything you did today but this time learn something. And if you don't want to learn anything, then you have to paint what you see."

He had already started painting when he was really young so his mother knew that—even though he was just a child—he had talent. So he did what she said and returned to the field and began drawing what he was seeing. He frequently walked with his mother in the countryside through the fields. They traveled a lot. And when they came back each night, his mother would encourage him to draw what he had seen during the day. So he started drawing mountains and people. He began drawing in the spirit of play; it was a game for him.

He started studying graphic design when he was 19. At that time computers weren't yet used for graphic design. He learned everything by hand. Once, after finishing his homework, he turned off the light to get some sleep and realized it was already morning and the sun was coming up. So he had to jump in the shower and get ready for the next day of school. It was really hard. He carried on like this for three years. In his third year, and all in one year, he was taught various techniques of painting: oil, water color, charcoal, air brush, pastel. The moment he started to paint, he realized how much he really loved it and that it was for him.

His parents had divorced when Claudio was two years old. He began asking his mother about his father's whereabouts? But his mother didn't know. She responded instead by telling him stories about a Peruvian painter, Luis Palao Berastain, who had been a boyfriend of her's when she was younger. So when he asked about his father, she answered that she didn't know where he was, but there was this painter in Cusco who painted indigenous people. So he began to ask less about his father, and more about this painter from Cusco. He lived all his life, in fact, with his mother's stories of this painter ever in the background; like an inherited ancestor, an antepasado. Palao came up frequently in conversation because he was a famous watercolorist who had been born in Arequipa. He had acquired a reputation as overly emotional and ill-tempered with a bad humor. When people would visit and knock on the door, he would open and tell them gruffly, "I'm not here" and close the door. He became known as a misanthropic hermit.

Once when he was older, 21, Claudio was walking around Arequipa and spotted Palao in the street. Claudio realized it was his opportunity to finally meet him. So he walked up to him and presented himself as his mother Gabby's son. "Oh really?" Palao enthused, "You are Gabby's son?" They struck a swift friendship in the moment. They walked around together and talked about art. Palao asked him what he did in life and Claudio revealed that he wanted to paint; that he had finished his degree in graphic design, but didn't know how to proceed. Palao asked after his mother and Claudio told him that she had been really sick but that she would love to see him if he had time. So they exchanged phone numbers. One year later his phone rang and it was Palao asking if he could stop by for a visit. Palao talked with his mother, they cried some, and after two or three hours he said to Claudio, "I want to look at your work. Show me your work." So Claudio showed him a few pieces he had painted at the Institute.

After seeing his drawings, Palao told him he was off to a good start but that he needed to go to art school, but Claudio protested that he didn't want to go to art school because he didn't believe in it. Respecting his point of view, Palao then offered: "Do you want to return to Calca with me?" Palao lived in Calca, which was about an hour and a half outside of Cusco. Claudio asked, "What for?" "To be my student," Palao asserted. For Claudio it was as if Picasso had asked him to be his student. He said yes. At the time, he was working as a drawing teacher at two institutes, and had 42 clients as a graphic designer, so he began disengaging from his clients, insuring his accounts were clear, and then he moved to Calca, where he began to study painting with Palao, now his master.

The first day that he went to his teacher's home, Palao told him: "These are the rules. We serve breakfast at 8:30 in the morning. If you want to have breakfast, come at 8:00 in the morning. At 9:00, you have to go outside and study the light. You have to try to paint the same image during the day as an exercise. At 12:00 we serve lunch and, so, if you want lunch, come at 12:00 and show me your watercolors. If your watercolors are good, you can have lunch; but, if they're not good, you don't get lunch. Lunch is served until 2:00 in the afternoon. At 2:00 you have to go back outside to paint the afternoon light. At 5:00, we serve light snacks. If you want to have snacks at 5:00, show up with a painting. If you don't have a painting, you won't have snacks. Then it's back outside at 5:30 to paint the sunset. At 7:00, dinner is served. If you want to have dinner, you have to have a painting. If you don't have a painting, you won't have dinner. After the dinner maybe, maybe, we'll want to paint something together." That schedule (buttressed by dining rules) was how Palao and Claudio worked together for years.

He studied four years with Palao, although "studying" would stretch the term. He simply practiced his art. Adhering to Picasso's celebrated statement that "painting is 90% work and 10% inspiration", Claudio learned from Palao how to live as a painter; how to wake up every morning as a painter. Everyone knows a painter doesn't earn much money so Claudio learned from Palao how to live as an artist on limited means; how to let go of things, expenses, that weren't really necessary. Truthfully, Palao taught him more about how to live as an artist in the world than about painting in particular. He taught him not to be afraid of the blank paper because a little fear always surfaces when the artist faces blank paper. Palao taught him that fear does not exist in the paper itself, or in art itself. Fear resides in the artist and must be tempered.

Palao's relationship with Claudio was as a paternal mentor, compensating for Claudio's poor relationship with his father. Palao never criticized his work; he mainly expressed interest in seeing it. Palao himself painted indigenous people, granting them credibility, dignity and sovereignty. His portraiture influenced Claudio's portraiture.

Claudio moved to Cusco partly to get away from the social constrictions of Arequipa and partly to be with Palao; but, even under Palao's guidance, even as he became centered as an artist, Claudio was still not receiving the support he needed to make a go of it in Cusco. But ever since realizing that he wanted to live his life as an artist, Claudio began learning how to make a living to support his love for art. For a long while he made tourist maps for one of Peru's most-visited tourist destination, the Colca Canyon. He was paid good money for those. He decided to move to Calca, which was only four hours away from Arequipa, where the cost of living was so low that he didn't need a lot of money to live comfortably. He could return to Arequipa whenever he needed to earn money and he would earn just enough to last him a year or a year and a half in Calca. When he was in Calca, he would paint all day long.

Musing on how loneliness was often deemed dangerous in society, Claudio didn't understand the fear of loneliness because being alone was the best thing that ever happened to him. For him, being alone was the only time he had to think about himself, what his goals were, and what he was doing on the planet. It was by being alone in Calca, undistracted, focusing on his thoughts and fears, that Claudio learned to confront and conquer them.

The first day he arrived in Calca, after organizing his home, he went to the main square near the cathedral and began sketching the church. He started at 8:30 in the morning, and then at 2:00 in the afternoon a child offered him a plate of food sent by his mother who had noticed that Claudio had been working since 8:30 in the morning without taking any time to eat. At that moment he immediately realized the difference between Arequipa and Calca. While he was living in Arequipa, he took a trip to Australia, and was surprised that it wasn't as much of a cultural shock as he had expected; whereas, when he moved to Cusco, which was in the same country and only a few hours away, he felt a dramatic change. He grew closer to his own soul and the soul of the people he wanted to paint.

The woman who had sent him the food became like a mother to him. She, in a sense, adopted him. When he finally met her, she asked him, "What do you do for a living?" He answered shyly, "I'm an artist." He was reluctant to answer because in Arequipa every time he answered he was an artist, all the girls would say, "You don't work?! You have to think about working. Art is very nice, but....." But this woman—when he revealed he was an artist—responded, "Really? You're an artist?!" "I'm trying to be," he said. "Well then," she said, "here is the refrigerator. When you're hungry, come and get food out of the refrigerator. Take anything that you need because I know the life of an artist, and they're often hungry and cold." She offered her home as his own if ever he was cold and / or hungry. She offered food and blankets. There were even many times when he was in his own home at 8:00 in the morning and there would be a knock on the door. He would open it and there would be this woman offering half of the jam she had just bought in Cusco for her children. He would protest but she would insist, "Take it. You don't have any, so take it."

After living for a while in Calca, he came to realize that—though it was a beautiful affordable place where he could create his art—life, the outside world and its opportunities, was passing him by. He didn't want to become 50 years old living his whole life in Calca. So he relocated to Cusco. More accurately, for two years he shifted between Calca, Cusco, Arequipa and the Colca Canyon. When his mother passed away, he moved full-time to Cusco, where he began to have exhibitions of his work, with one opportunity dovetailing into the next. But eventually he became bored with Cusco and moved to Lima, where he lived for three different stays. He never liked Lima; it was not a beautiful city. But he was able to stay there for a year and a half during an exhibition of his paintings. He earned money as a teacher and rented a house cheap for $50. It was going to be demolished and his rent was reduced because he served as something of a watchman for the property.

Eventually the owners gave him one day's notice to leave so they could demolish the house. He didn't have any money—Lima was very expensive—and he didn't have any place to go. So he phoned friends in Cusco who encouraged him to move there, which he did the next day, passing en route through Arequipa on the bus. He had his paintings, and sold five of them to a collector in Arequipa, which at the time was a lot of money for him. It allowed him to rent a home in Cusco where he was invited to exhibit in their beautiful Museum of Contemporary Art. It was at that exhibit that he met his creative partner-to-be, Mariela.

Mariela was supposed to have gone on a tour to the Sacred Valley, but it was the tail end of her trip and she was suffering from a mixture of altitude sickness and food poisoning. She had fainted and cut her head, requiring stitches. She opted out of the tour and decided to visit the museum to lift her spirits with art. She was deciding which gallery to visit when she spotted Claudio's name—Talavera-Ballón—and its musicality lodged in her mind. She found herself rehearsing his name over and over. It was as if the name had called to her. She wondered idly if Talavera was a first name?

This was the second time Claudio had exhibited at Cusco's Museum of Contemporary Art and—after his first experience there—he had learned that in order to sell his paintings, someone had to be present at the museum to negotiate deals. Many people had asked for his paintings during his first exhibit but—because there had been no one there to effect sales—he didn't sell anything.  This time, in an effort to sell his paintings, he elected to sit in the Museum all day long. For the first week of the exhibit, he stayed in the museum from 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening. He'd sit in a chair watching the people watch his paintings. That was his entire life for a week. By the time Friday came around, he had his fill and decided, "No more." It felt too much like a waste of time and he reconciled that—if he sold paintings, fine; if he didn't sell paintings, fine—but, he preferred to be home, painting.

On Monday he was organizing his home when the phone rang. It was the Museum advising that there was a woman interested in buying one of his paintings. They needed him to come down where the prospective buyer had agreed to meet him at 12:30. On the way to the museum he met a friend on the street and was delayed by conversation, making him five minutes late for his appointment. The prospective buyer had already left, saying she would be back later in the afternoon, so—hoping to sell the painting—he decided to wait for her. First, he had lunch, then returned to the museum, and after 15 minutes Mariela arrived (whereas the woman who allegedly wanted to buy the painting never showed up). It was a fortuitous encounter, meant to happen. Believing in destiny, Claudio committed himself to the notion that everything that has happened to him in his life has been for a reason, right to the current moment.

Fast forward and Claudio had found a way to live in San Francisco, where one of his first collaborations was "The Bird Song", an Art Span mural on the side of a building at the corner of Van Ness and Market. The building, soon to be demolished, was acquired by Art Span to offer studios to displaced artists and the wall to paint on until the building was scheduled to be demolished. Nearly 25 volunteers worked on "The Bird Song" but Claudio was the only one who arrived every day, working two shifts, from 9:00 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening, assisting Joshua Coffy, who had designed the mural. It was an amazing experience for him to collaborate on the mural with Joshua.

As his experience in San Francisco evolved, Claudio became committed to painting portraits of the Mission's "real", if beleaguered, community. When he lived in Peru, he had painted portraits of farmers and fishermen who lived in the small villages. He considered them wise, unknown people who he felt compelled to paint. When he first moved to San Francisco, he missed Peru and its people. Besides painting portraits, Claudio likewise painted houses, buildings, considering himself something of a preservationist in his effort to paint and preserve these things before irrational progress; but, much of that work had already been done in San Francisco by the time he reached the city, where several old buildings had already been restored and many more replaced by modern condos for San Francisco's increasing tech demographic.

One day he was walking in the Mission and realized that the people he had been painting in Peru might just be the same people who have migrated to the United States and were making a living in the Mission in San Francisco. He realized they could easily be the children or the grandchildren of the elders he painted in Peru, whose portraits he painted to relate their struggle, how they were farmers without land, or laborers who were segregated away from the upper classes, considered subhuman. That was part of his enthusiasm for painting them: he wanted to save them and their way of life, much as he wanted to restore old buildings. In San Francisco, he came to the weighty insight that immigrants in San Francisco faced the same social issues as people in Peru, though complicated by immigration, ICE, and displacement.

Claudio went out to meet these people on the streets of the Mission. He took photos. He realized they shared the same problems as the people he had painted back home in Peru—they didn't have work, they didn't have money, and they were always relegated to positions behind the scenes. He started to paint these people in big-size format (4'x4') because he wanted them to be seen and noticed, often utilizing an intimate focus on faces to achieve recognition. He wanted to say to the ruling classes of San Francisco: "These people are here. They're part of the system, whether you like it or not." At the time of our conversation, Claudio had already painted eleven portraits for this immigrant series.

It was the immigrant series that creatively segued into his next suite of paintings inspired by Las Patronas. He and Mariela had met Arturo González Villaseñor when his film Llevate Mis Amores (All of Me) screened at SFIFF. Claudio was deeply moved by the film and invited Arturo to look at his paintings. Arturo loved them, and he suggested to Claudio that he paint Las Patronas because—attendant to Claudio's commitment to capturing the immigrant experience in the U.S.—the sad fact was that so many of these immigrants began their journey North on the train by passing through Las Patronas. Many of them had been helped by Las Patronas. Claudio accepted the cue and traveled twice to Las Patronas where he began to paint portraits that he folded into his series on the immigrants, resulting in his current exhibition "Mujeres Luz", which—as stated above—opens August 5.

Of related interest: Hans-Maximo Musielik's photo essay of Las Patronas for Remezcla.

 
All of me / Llévate mis amores - English Trailer from Arturo González Villaseñor on Vimeo.
 
Mujeres Luz. Painting Series by Talavera-Ballón - Trailer from Izote Studio on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

FANTASIA 2016—3 QUESTIONS FOR GUILLERMO DEL TORO

For its 20th edition, the Fantasia International Film Festival (Fantasia) presented leading genre filmmaker Guillermo del Toro with its prestigious Cheval Noir Award, which del Toro accepted in person in his first-ever Montreal appearance.

As contextualized on the festival's website: "A childhood in Guadalajara, Mexico ripe with ghosts (real and imagined), comic books, Edgar Allan Poe stories, Santo mash-ups and classic Universal monster movies has led to one of the most fertile careers in genre films for 51-year-old master of the dark fantastique, Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro first introduced us to his cinematic uniqueness with the newfangled vampire movie Cronos in 1993, and he has bounced back and forth between big studio films (the Hellboy duo, Pacific Rim) and more personalized independent features (The Devil's Backbone and the Oscar®-winning Pan's Labyrinth) ever since. Common themes and images weave their ways through all of del Toro's movies, and his personal stamp can be found on every frame."

Del Toro hosted the Canadian premiere of Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet's Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex (2015), a fascinating documentary on the history of movie monster makers, in which he is featured prominently. As was to be expected, he could not accommodate individual requests for interview, but generously provided an afternoon press conference and an expanded Q&A "master class" after the screening of Creature Designers. Seizing those two opportunites, I asked the following.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Guillermo, welcome to Fantasia.

Guillermo del Toro: Thank you! I'm very happy to be here.

Guillén: I've been thoroughly enjoying The Strain on television. I'm interested in what the difference has been for you to present The Strain on television rather than as a feature film? And could you speak about the character of The Master and the creation of the Master for the television series?

Del Toro: After the first season, The Strain is Carlton Cuse. It's Carlton's baby. Having co-written the books with Chuck Hogan, I'm too close to the books. I suffer a lot when there's a change and there have been a lot of changes. They kill people that we don't kill in the book—they kill them in the second season—and people that we killed in the first book live forever. So, you know? There are many many changes. What I think is interesting is we went through adapting The Strain for comics, for Dark Horse, and it was a seamless experience. On TV you learn quick that the dynamics of a TV show are very different.

The great thing about The Master for me is that he changes bodies. And that you don't have a single actor playing him. The first time The Master is shown on the screen was not well-lit. I was doing my day job—I was shooting—and I was not on the set that day. I don't like the way it's lit. I think it's lit flat. There's no make-up that can look great. The next episode, I was there and I made sure that The Master was lit nicely. What I love about him—and it's revealed season by season, and in the books—is that he's a creature of pure hunger. Now, the TV show and the books sort of divert enough for the second season, and I think the series is going to have a different finale than the books.

I remember Mike Mignola telling me during Hellboy how weird it was for him because it was not his Hellboy. His Hellboy would never have fallen in love with Liz. Now I understand what he meant. It does feel strange to see something you did transform.

Guillén: You've asserted your belief in monsters and their capacity to save your soul; but—in consideration of last night's massacre in Nice and the 84 dead there—how does the imagination in monsters in any way address or redress the monstrosity of human nature?

Del Toro: In all my movies I always think about real monsters that are human. If you watch my movies—Crimson's Peak, Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth—the monsters are the humans; not really the monsters. That's real, saddening. We live in a brutal world. We address it by making the monsters creatures that serve a more symbolic function and that illuminate the human tale. Do you know what I'm saying?

Guillén: Yes.

Del Toro: As I say verbatim in Crimson's Peak: "It's not a ghost story. It's a story with a ghost in it." The ghost illuminates the human condition. The Faun and the Paleman illuminate the human condition in Pan's Labyrinth. But the scariest thing in Pan's Labyrinth is not the Faun or the Paleman; it's the Captain, y'know?

I don't address it. You talk about what you feel, like any other artist. The only important thing in art is to be yourself. Don't try to be anybody else. You can imitate, when you're young, but you should not try to impose a different range of your voice. That's why I don't try my hand at anything other than what I do. I'm not trying to do a drama about a violin player—I don't give a fuck!—to me reality can only be reached through these things. I address reality through them.

Guillén: I love listening to you because you're so funny....

Del Toro: It's the accent.

Guillén: ...which makes me curious about humor and terror and how you use humor to supplement and articulate terror?

Del Toro: Well, I think they are very close, you see? For example, the audience that saw Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein, 30 years later those movies were funny to a separate generation. I have watched some horror movies from the '70s with an audience and people laugh. I realized that horror and terror are always on the verge of being funny—sometimes they're funny the first time—but that's my line: you always have to go close to ridicule. Because, if you don't risk it, the image doesn't have the power. You can fail or succeed. It depends on who you're connecting with.

To make a movie voluntarily scary and funny like Joe Dante, that's a separate art. It's truly an art. It requires that that is your voice. That is what you do well. I'm not good at that. I don't do that often. I love humor and I put humor in most of my movies—even something like Crimson's Peak has moments of humor in it—but, it's always close. If you watch The Exorcist, there are moments that are so enormously risky and yet they provoke horror. If you think about a prat fall by Chaplin, if that prat fall happened and his head cracked open and half an inch of brain popped out of his head, it ends up being not funny anymore. It's so close.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

FANTASIA 2016—BED OF THE DEAD (2016)

The team aesthetic of the Black Fawn production group impressed me (and inspired me to develop my own creative team) when—at last year’s edition of Fantasia—I had the opportunity to talk to Chad Archibald about his entry BITE, whose gooey allure I was able to program into San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival. As a business and creative strategy, the Black Fawn stable of talent work on and promote each others’ films so that each, in turn, can have their moment in the spotlight. At this year’s 20th edition of Fantasia, it’s Jeff Maher’s turn with the World Premiere of his directorial feature debut Bed of the Dead (2016). Maher served as cinematographer on BITE, Antisocial and Hellmouth, and has co-written Bed of the Dead with Cody Calahan, who earlier directed and co-wrote Antisocial (and its sequel), as well as co-writing The Drownsman.

Walking the talk of Black Fawn’s team aesthetic, it amused me to no end to see Chad Archibald in Bed of the Dead’s opening sequence in a cameo performance as a carpenter who takes wood from an accursed gallows tree, which he planes down to craft into a bed. The dispirited souls of all those who have been hung from the limbs of this tree inhabit the bed with its ornately sculptured headboard and wreak havoc on four swingers hoping to have a little fun at a sex club where the bed has ended up.

One of my mother’s favorite guilt trips was always to say, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” Bed of the Dead tweaks that truism: “You’ve made your bed; now die in it.”

Black Fawn makes no pretense at elevated genre. They’re creating content for balls-out gorehounds and cleverly re-work and assemble tropes they know will satisfy their audiences. Hunky dudes are going to get eviscerated and lovely young women will be bathed in blood. That’s what Black Fawn promises and that’s what Black Fawn delivers. After all, as Stephen Sondheim has penned, “Who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights are low?” Onto the expected sequence of being dragged under the bed or, for that matter, dragged onto the ceiling, Maher and Calahan have written some commendable flourishes worth noting, however. Two in particular.

First, the fabric of space and time is bent by cell phone texting. To hell with the roaming charges, police investigator Virgil (Colin Price) is trying to determine how five victims of a fire ended up in such a fate. The audience is told straight off that everyone is going to die and so, spectatorially, it’s a process of appreciating the choreographed kills. But when Virgil contacts one of the young women—“final girl”, in effect—fate seems less formidable.

More importantly, and with a deeper cogency, Virgil represents every white police officer who has killed an innocent black teenager. It seems obvious that nothing is more horrifying than real life, especially these days in the United States of America where the Black Lives Matter movement has brought into searing focus an institutionalized racism enforced by an increasingly militarized police force. Leave it to Canadian filmmakers to incorporate this American social issue into a genre format and this reviewer thanks them for their bravery in approaching the subject, albeit indirectly.

FANTASIA 2016—THE UNSEEN (2016)

The narrative theme of the absent father is leant a startling new visibility in Geoff Redknap’s feature debut The Unseen (2016), screening as a World Premiere at Fantasia’s 20th edition. Redknap would be the first to admit that The Unseen, which he wrote as well as directed, was greenlit due to his well-earned cred as a master special effects and make-up artist (on such films as Deadpool, Watchmen, The Cabin in the Woods, the Final Destination and X-Men series, and such TV series as Fear the Walking Dead, Masters of Horror and—as Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis phrased it—“back in the day” X-Files. Quite the resume!

Adding to that impressive roster of credits, Redknap offers a brooding subdued re-visioning of the Invisible Man story. Mill worker Bob Langmore (in a taciturn performance by Aden Young, who has cornered the market on troubled masculinities, most recently on the TV series Rectify) is beleaguered by debt and regret. He abandoned his wife Darlene (Camille Sutherland) and daughter Eva (Julia Sarah Stone) eight years earlier. Eva is acting out and Darlene, unable to handle her, calls Bob for help. “She needs her father,” she pleads. Langmore comes out of his self-imposed isolation to do his part.

What first appears as an oft-told tale of parental estrangement and a struggle for reconciliation takes a shocking turn when it is revealed that Bob suffers from a hereditary illness that is causing him to vanish, chunk by chunk. Redknap has rounded up some of the best make-up, special effects and animatronic specialists to depict this malady, first hinted at when Bob stands in front of a television set and its blue light is seen shining through his body.

Folded into this taut narrative is an incisive critique of the harvesting of wild bear organs for Asian herbal cures and the shady characters who traffic same, with whom Langmore becomes inadvertently involved. But most compelling is the idea that we each must come to terms with the self-isolation we impose upon ourselves in response to an emotional suspicion that we have been abandoned by the generations before us. The Unseen suggests that blood is, indeed, thicker than water and that we are informed and guided by our fathers before us and their fathers before them by the articulation of abiding presence, even when—by all visible accounts—we seemingly stand alone.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

FANTASIA 2016—RUPTURE (2016)

After a 10-year hiatus from filmmaking, Steven Shainberg returns to the fray with a disturbingly original study of abduction, Rupture (2016), a genre exercise boasting its World Premiere in Fantasia’s 20th edition. It’s a bit unsettling to consider that it’s been a full decade since I spoke with Shainberg for Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006): I was just starting out as a film journalist while he was, presumably, just about to discover how difficult it is these days to get a film financed. Kudos to the film’s production team—including Andrew Lazar and Bruno Rosato, accompanying Shainberg at Fantasia—whose tenacity helped Shainberg realize his unique vision. Shainberg should not be absent from the scene as long as he has been.

As Renee, Noomi Rapace comes off as an everyday single mother raising her young son Evan (in a fresh-faced turn by Percy Hynes White). At odds with her ex, she tries to shake off her troubled marriage by accepting an invitation to skydive. En route, she is abducted and taken to a remote undisclosed facility where she is subjected to bizarre tests that capitalize on her arachnophobia. Where is she? Who are her abductors? What do they want? Why is bringing subjects to the brink of terror so essential for their genetic research?

Though the edges of the script Shainberg has crafted with Brian Nelson (Hard Candy) are, perhaps, tucked in a bit too neatly—folding vagueness in upon itself like origami to achieve form—there’s no question that considerable thought has been exercised in keeping events as mysterious as possible until the narrative’s reveal. This responsible effort elevates Rupture with an art house intensity that offers the viewer a rewarding engagement with the film’s aesthetic tone and rhythm. The latter, especially, drives the film forward with a tantalizing momentum that allows you to know only as much as you are meant to know. Clear answers remain apples out of reach.

Rupture's narrative uncertainty is augmented by a lurid and lustrous palette of deep reds and purples effected by cinematographer Karim Hussain (who worked on my favorite horror film of last year, We Are Still Here). Hussain is rapidly rising through the ranks, and rightfully so, as one of the most adventurous and imaginative DPs in the business. Combined with Jeremy Reed's immersive production design, Sean Breaugh’s art direction and Shayne Fox’s labyrinthine set design, replete with honeycomb motifs throughout (and a tip of the hat to Kubrick’s The Shining), Shainberg’s production team has created a claustrophobic crawl through what is gradually perceived as a hive. From thereon, the film avidly embraces its sci-fi underpinnings as Renee intuits her role in a new world order.

Smart with its questions, less so with its answers, Rupture will cater to an audience somewhere between diehard genre fans and arthouse enthusiasts.

Friday, July 15, 2016

FANTASIA 2016—OUTLAWS AND ANGELS (2016)

What first attracted me to the Fantasia International Film Festival was its unbridled passion for genre—not only horror, sci-fi, and martial arts—but, all genres. I’ve seen remarkable police procedurals, psychological thrillers, race car adventures, epic disasters and ride alone westerns emerge out of Fantasia’s annual program to traffic the international genre circuit and, often—as with last year’s Goodnight, Mommy—advance to Oscar consideration.

For their 20th edition, Fantasia opened with two World Premieres—Daniel Grou [Prodz]’s King Dave (2016) and John Stockwell’s Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016). My flight into Montreal arrived a bit too late to take advantage of either of those, though I did manage to rush down to the J.A. DeSeve to catch the Canadian premiere of JT Mollner’s debut feature Outlaws and Angels (2016), which premiered earlier this year in the Midnight Section at Sundance.

For me, it was perfect to start the festival out with what San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleague Dennis Harvey deemed “a Grand Guignol nod to spaghetti Westerns.” Something of a family affair, the film’s female lead Francesca Eastwood is not only Clint’s daughter, but also Frances Fisher’s (Fisher plays an ill-fated cameo as Esther). It’s all in the eyes, isn’t it? Francesca’s baby blues take after her mom, but here and again they narrow to the steely vengeance of her dad’s iconic countenance in Sergio Leone’s cult westerns.

The outlaws of the film’s title identify themselves early on as they kill innocent passers-by shooting their way out of a bank heist while wearing white hooded masks (that reminded me of Karen O’s concert persona where she painted on a face over a white hood), though real-life outlaw and highway robber William (“Brazen Bill”) Brazelton is allegedly the true inspiration for their get-up. A posse takes after the robbers, headed by bounty hunter Josiah (Luke Wilson) whose character provides a pensive, philosophical voiceover on the loss of innocence and the origins of violence.

And this movie is violent, no bones about it, and equally perverse. As women get slapped around, the kneejerk response is to deem Outlaws and Angels misogynistic, even as Eastwood’s character Flo surfaces as the narrative’s switchback protagonist. Mollner purposely treads a fine line and pushes boundaries here. When the robber gang lands at the remote home of the Tildon family, the film enters suggestive softcore territory as the story becomes a prolonged rape fantasy. That indiscretion is indulged through the casting of Chad Michael Murray as gangleader Henry. Murray harkens to the physical beauty of Franco Nero and Terrence Stamp in their own turns as spaghetti western anti-heroes. Stripped down, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept his forlorn position that he’s just too old to be an outlaw.

My favorite performance, however, was Teri Polo as Flo’s Bible-thumping mother Ada whose reliance on Jesus as savior demarcates her unhinged denial of all the glossed-over darkness swirling between her husband and her daughters. Each time she’s forced to consciousness, she lets out a banshee wail both pathetic and comic. As she succumbs to the probing fingers of one of the outlaws, she reveals a woman deeply conflicted about her own sexual needs.

Comparisons to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight are unavoidable, right down to the shift from panoramic landscapes to widescreen interiors and—even though Outlaws and Angels is arguably a lesser film—Mollner stamps his own promising signature on every derivative turn and it will be interesting to see what he does in the future freed from the grip of homage. The lensing by Matthew Irving is allegiant to the genre, costuming by Liz Pecos is grimy and believable, but the score by Colin Stetson is distractingly indecisive: one moment electronic, the next all piano arpeggios. All in all, a bloody violent ride, now available for streaming on multiple platforms.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

FANTASIA 2016—FIRST WAVE (A-F)

The Fantasia International Film Festival (Fantasia) will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary in Montreal this summer from July 14 to August 2, 2016, once again returning to Concordia Hall Cinema as its main base. The full lineup of over 130 feature films will be announced July 6th. The Frontiéres international co-production market and Industry Rendez-Vous weekend will be held July 21-24. The following capsules have been drafted by the Fantasia team and supplemented with personal commentary and critical overview (where available).

Fantasia's 20th edition will present leading genre filmmaker Guillermo del Toro with its prestigious Cheval Noir Award, which del Toro will accept in person in his first-ever Montreal appearance. Del Toro, best known for such fantasy and horror classics as Cronos (1993), The Devil's Backbone (2001), Pan's Labyrinth (2006), the Hellboy movies (2004, 2008), and Crimson Peak (2015), will also deliver a Master Class at Fantasia. In addition, del Toro will host the Canadian premiere of Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet's Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex (2015), a fascinating documentary on the history of movie monster makers, in which he is featured prominently.




Fantasia is equally proud to present Director Takashi Miike, one of the most groundbreaking filmmakers of his generation, with a Lifetime Achievement Award. No other filmmaker has left a mark on Fantasia's first 20 years as he has. Since Fantasia's screening of Fudoh: The New Generation in 1997—which was the first time Miike's unique vision was shown in North America—no fewer than 29 of his films have been showcased at the festival, including such modern classics as Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001), and Visitor Q (2001). Miike's work also opened Fantasia three times with Yatterman (2009) and North American premieres of the Cannes selections For Love's Sake (2012) and Shield of Straw (2013). In addition to receiving his award, Takashi Miike will be hosting the North American Premiere of Terra Formars (2016), a sci-fi extravaganza where a team of misfits must fight humanoid cockroaches to colonize Mars, and As the Gods Will (2014), a surreal deathgame where Japanese traditional objects turn playground amusement into modern video-game blood baths.



Additional First Wave Highlights

Abattoir (2016, USA, Dir: Darren Lynn Bousman)—The murder of her family leads a real-estate reporter into a nightmarish mystery in this ghoulishly original film that haunts the netherworld between blood-soaked supernatural horror and hardboiled neo-Noir. Darren Lynn Bousman, the man behind Repo: The Genetic Opera(2006), Saw II-IV (2005-2007) and The Devil's Carnival (2012), has returned. Abbatoir had its World Premiere as an Official Selection at the 2016 Los Angeles International Film Festival, where Drea Clark synopsized: "Julia, an investigative reporter with the style and confidence of a young Bacall, happens upon a series of gruesome murders tied to real estate mysteries, where entire rooms have been dismantled and pulled from their foundations. The fact that those rooms were the exact settings for heinous tragedies sets Julia and hardboiled cop Grady on a search for the unimaginable. The stakes go up when it suddenly becomes very personal in this stylized and increasingly horrifying modern-noir." Bousman talks up Abattoir for Deadline / Hollywood, The Daily Dead and Shockya. IMDb. Wikipedia. International Premiere.

 

The Alchemist Cookbook (2016, USA, Dir: Joel Potrykus)—Sean has dropped out of life, set up shop in a small trailer in the woods, and decided to pursue the forbidden art of alchemy. An irreverent, abrasive, and horror-infused take on modern-day alienation that plays like a punk-rock EC Comics tale, from the acclaimed director of Coyote (2010), Ape (2012), and Buzzard (2014). Official Selection: SXSW 2016. IMDb. Facebook.

At Variety, Dennis Harvey writes: "Fans of absurdist indie comedies who find themselves watching a quasi-horror pic are likely to be happier than horror fans who find themselves watching an absurdist indie comedy with a demon in it. But while The Alchemist Cookbook certainly won't be for everyone, it will surely delight and surprise those who can grok its idiosyncratic content." Critics Roundup offers four more takes, including Richard Brody at The New Yorker who adds: "Potrykus, wandering with [his protagonist] into disturbing psychological territory and absurd humor, displays a bold dramatic virtuosity." At The House Next Door, Carson Lund notes: "While austerity has typically been Potrykus's go-to directorial strategy in spotlighting the eccentric speaking patterns and physical tics of his performers, The Alchemist Cookbook does introduce some canny aesthetic digressions as the film wades into psychological horror." Lund qualifies: "In its dogged rejection of easy audience identification points and its gradual untethering from logic, The Alchemist Cookbook only offers a platform for Potrykus to push his authorial quirks further."

Americana (2016, USA, Dir: Zachary Shedd)—A film editor must battle his own demons when an on-set eruption of violence leads to a deeper, darker conspiracy. A beautifully brooding neo-Noir, more calculated and compelling with every twist and turn. Official selection: Seattle International Film Festival 2016. Official Site. IMDb. Facebook. International Premiere.

At The Hollywood Reporter, John Defore's bottom line is that Americana is a "quietly effective debut drama" and notes that Shedd's decision to set his "quiet psychodrama against Bay Area backdrops [does] more than add easy production value." He explains: "Handsome photography by Justin Foster nails down the picture's sense of place, with hilly vistas in the city and nearby Marin County emphasizing how alone [his protagonist] is with his pain, even when surrounded by people." Shedd talks with Victoria Stevens for Anthem.

Antigang aka The Squad (2015, France, Dir: Benjamin Rocher)—A police squad's rough and unconventional methods are challenged just as a rash of robberies put Paris on edge. Jean Reno stars in this explosive, captivating and highly entertaining action film. IMDb. Wikipedia. North American Premiere.

At Variety, Peter Debruge has some reservations about the film. He writes: "Director Benjamin Rocher clearly saw the project as a chance to pay tribute to such 1980s American action movies as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. To his credit, the helmer ... delivers playful, high-octane action on a fraction of the budget those star-driven Hollywood pics had to work with, and yet, he seems to have overlooked the elements that made those pics so memorable: namely, unpredictable characters in dangerous underdog situations." The Squad, Debruge argues, is redeemed by a "terrific" and "sleek" outdoor action sequence midway through. At The Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer concurs that the midway action sequence is impressive "when the cops chase the crooks in broad daylight around the massive wood, steel and glass towers of the Bibliotheque Nationale Francaise. Never have so many bullets come so close to so many books, as if Michael Mann and Michel Foucault joined forces to kick ass, and have a great time while doing so." Otherwise, Mintzer's bottom line is that The Squad "delivers much more violence than intelligence."



Atmo HorroX (Quebec, Dir: Pat Tremblay)—All is well in the land of the mad, in the latest surrealist opus from Pat Tremblay (Hellacious Acres), twisted titan of the Quebec underground. One thing is certain—rational thought has left the building and hasn't left a number where it can be reached. Official Selection at the 2016 Revelation Perth International Film Festival: "With its combination of occasional violence, deconstructed camp, and full on wild insanity the film rightly positions its surrealism and dream-logic front-and-center of its genre-bending narrative, creating a movie that embraces its zero-budget and takes the audience on a one of a kind journey unique to each person." Official Site. Facebook. North American Premiere.

The Bacchus Lady (South Korea, Dir: E J-yong)—Senior citizen So-Young takes in a mixed-race kid while tending to her many clients. A thoroughly compassionate and revealing look at the lives of aging prostitutes in South Korea—with a murderous twist! Official Selection: Berlinale 2016 (Panorama). IMDb. Wikipedia. Canadian Premiere.

At Variety, Maggie Lee enthusiastically observes: "Taking on a potentially sordid subject, E brings attention to the harsh realities of growing old without a safety net, but also infuses his characters with warmth and racy humor.... The film expands beyond senior prostitution to explore a range of social issues, championing diversity in a subtle, unpatronizing way." Praising lead actress Yeo-jeong Yoon's "reflective and thoughtful" performance, Lee proposes that it "may still count as one of her lifetime achievements." At The Hollywood Reporter, Clarence Tsui's bottom line is equally laudatory: "A tour de force from the grand dame of Korean cinema." He adds: "Given the obsession with beauty and youth in South Korean screen entertainment, The Bacchus Lady is certainly audacious, and a powerful reminder of how lives could or would be lived once the youthful vigor is gone."



Bad Blood: The Movie (USA, Dir: Tim Reis)—What's the deal with all those frogs in the gas station's makeshift basement laboratory? This old-fashioned creature feature is a goopy new lab sample of the growing Atlanta, GA horror scene featuring hand-crafted make-up effects designed and created by James Sizemore. WINNER: Audience Award, Best Feature, Chattanooga Film Festival 2016. Official Site. IMDb. Facebook. International Premiere.

Screen Anarchy's Andrew Mack first reported on Bad Blood when it participated in last Summer's Works-In-Progress series at Frontières and later dispatched: "A love letter to the Stuart Gordon / Frank Henenlotter mad science opuses of the '80's, Bad Blood: The Movie is an amphibious twist on classic werewolf mythology, equal parts X-files and Tales from The Crypt, with a familiar blend of humor, horror and practical creature effects (handled by James Sizemore). I love it, it is so gleefully lo fi."


Bad Cat (Turkey, Dirs: Mehmet Kurtuluş, Ayşe Ünal)—Forget Fritz the Cat, this is Garfield-goes-Bad Lieutenant! Guaranteed fun for cat lovers, fans of international animation, and hopeless degenerates. Which one are you? Official Selection: Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival 2016. Official Site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook [Turkish]. North American Premiere.

Dispatching from Annecy to Screen Daily, Wendy Ide offers a qualified appreciation of Bad Cat, praising the film's polished production, but specifying that "the 3D computer animation is considerably more sophisticated than the story, which is trying so hard to shock that it ends up chasing its tail." Further: "Bad Cat embraces the filth of Seth MacFarlane's Ted, but not the fun." Notwithstanding her reservations, Ide writes: "The madcap energy and unapologetically crass humor could, however, endear it to a young festival audience which is willing to accept this singularly unattractive cat at face value."



The Bodyguard (China, Dir: Yue Song)—The new master of the Iron Kick clan sets out in search of a lost friend, earns a job protecting a rich man's daughter, and clashes with a criminal gang in one of the most exciting and auspicious martial arts films in years! IMDb. Wikipedia. Canadian Premiere.

Chihayafuri Part 1 & Part 2 (Japan, Dir: Nori Koizumi)—Chihaya is driven like few shojo heroines are: she wants to become the world champion of karuta, the traditional, competitive card-playing game mixing ancient poetry, extreme hand speed and almost violent card tossing. Adapted from the acclaimed manga, this perfect blend of coming of age tale and exhilarating sports drama will make you laugh, cheer and probably shed a tear. IMDb (Part 1 & Part 2). North American Premiere.

Creepy (Japan, Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)—After forays into auteur cinema like the magnificent Tokyo Sonata (Un certain regard Jury Prize at Cannes 2008), J-horror pioneer Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose classics Cure and Séance were adored at Fantasia in their day, makes a triumphant return to the horror thriller genre with the Berlin Film Festival selected Hitchcockian horror thriller Creepy. Kurosawa brings terror to a quiet neighborhood where an ex detective and his wife have to deal with their deranged new neighbor spectacularly brought to the screen by the excellent Teruyuki Kagawa. Official Site [Japanese]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Canadian Premiere.

At Variety, Maggie Lee states: "While some critics have hailed the pic as a return to Kurosawa's earlier 'straight' horror films, like Pulse or Cure, it in fact represents a conscious move away from past phantasmagoric stylizations to evoke the horrors of modern existence in plain sight and form." Lee praises the film's tech credits as "seamlessly low-key, reflecting Kurosawa's clear aesthetic decision to discard the formalist architecture of Loft and the stylized color play of Cure and Retribution. Akiko Ashizawa, who has lensed Kurosawa's works since Loft ... composes clean, compact shots that deliberately downplay the danger and trauma at hand. Production designer Norifumi Ataka (Norwegian Wood, Kurosawa's The Seventh Code) captures Tokyo suburban life with impressive verisimilitude, and with dirt and ugliness unceremoniously accumulating around the corners. Music and sound are never used to ramp up the horror factor, while deft touches, like a sudden dimming of lights, register with chilling impact." Though less enamored with the film for The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young still finds much to admire, concurring with Lee: "Ambience also plays a major role, and Akiko Ashizawa's lighting keeps a cloud of gloom hanging over every shot. The cluttered, claustrophobic houses with their narrow entranceways and low ceilings suggest the characters' repressed desires, in much the same way their junky backyards pockmarked with abandoned appliances and overgrown chain fences remind us of some unresolved issues in the attic." At Screen, Jonathan Romney says Creepy is "a film that not only amply merits its name, but would make Norman Bates scratch his head at the sheer weirdness of what goes on here behind closed doors."

The Dark Side of the Moon (Germany, Dir: Stephan Rick)—A psychedelic mushroom trip turns a successful lawyer into a wanted man in this tense and violent thriller starring Moritz Bleibtreu and Jürgen Prochnow. Official Selection: Zurich Film Festival 2015, Hamburg Film Festival 2015. IMDb. North American Premiere.

Embers (USA / Poland, Dir: Claire Carré)—Since the apocalypse, humanity has been deprived of its memory. Two strangers wake up together. Are they somehow connected? A thoughtful science fiction tale from a promising new voice in independent cinema. Official Selection: Oldenburg Film Festival 2015, Slamdance 2016. Winner: Narrative Feature Jury Award, New Orleans Film Festival 2015. Official Site. IMDb. Facebook. Canadian Premiere.

At Variety, Scott Tobias acknowledges that Carré's "clear intelligence, resourcefulness and vision combine to make this calling card tough to forget." At The Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck likewise describes Embers as "a stylish debut effort" and notes: "Obviously reminiscent of Memento with more than a little touch of Andrei Tarkovsky thrown in, Embers strains for a philosophical profundity that eludes it. And despite its brief running time, so little actually happens in the plot that it feels much longer than it is. But the film has many resonant moments, especially in its charming depiction of the relationship between the couple who decide that they should kiss to see if they're indeed romantically involved. It's metaphorical aspects like that, and the striking visuals that delineate the stark contrast between the worlds above and below ground, that make Embers memorable."

 

Monday, June 27, 2016

IFF PANAMÁ: HEART OF A DOG—A Conversation With Laurie Anderson By María Zacco & Michael Guillén

With evident Buddhist mirth registering in her twinkling eyes and her dimpled smile, Laurie Anderson gamely accepted the challenge of engaging a whirlwind series of 10-minute interviews, one after the other, when she attended the 2016 edition of the Panamá International Film Festival (IFF Panamá) to accompany the screening of her lauded essay documentary Heart Of A Dog. My thanks to colleague María Zacco for agreeing to combine our 10-minute allotments to have something near a decent conversation with Anderson, whose film is now available on HBO.

The Evening Class: Your film speaks to the limitations and possibilities of language. It's not the first time you've talked about these things but in this case, with Heart of the Dog, how did these themes lead you?

Laurie Anderson: When Arte asked me to do the film and asked what I cared about as an artist, I said I cared about words and how you can shape the world with words. So I thought I would try to do a film about stories, why we tell stories, and what happens to them. And also who's talking? Who's looking? For example, you see part of it from the dog's point of view and then cut to the next shot which is from a surveillance camera's point of view. You're always being asked to look through different eyes at stories. You have to decide, "Which is the view I look through?" There are so many!

The Evening Class: You also talk about manipulation.

Anderson: Yes, because everything is manipulation. This interview is manipulation. You frame it as a question and then I have to have an answer. Maybe I don't have one? Maybe I've no answer? It's sometimes a game of ping-pong we should stop playing.

The Evening Class: One of the most beautiful aspects of Heart of A Dog is how it profiles the almost archetypal emotional connection between dogs and people. I'm not sure if you know this or not but some consider the very first "art" in the Americas to be an incised dog skull found in a cave in the Valley of Mexico, which says a lot about the creative devotion humans have to that animal connection.

Anderson: I aspire to learn from dogs, particularly their skills at being a puppy. They're so good at that, as if they would really like to see what makes people run. They watch. Okay, we're their food supply, but we're much more.

The Evening Class: I love that moment when your terrier is looking at you as if saying, "Is this going to be fun?"

Anderson: Dogs understand who has chi and who doesn't. They're infallible chi detectors.

The Evening Class: You've woven multiple themes into your film, including the human abstraction of creating identity through persona making. Is persona the identity or is persona-making the identity?

Anderson: It's the persona-making. You can't create your identity particularly. You already are something. Creating persona is putting what you are into some framework of words or images. It's a big theme and really is one of the things the film is about. How do you express yourself? How do you identify yourself? In the current blogosphere, it's a kind of branding exercise and that's really alienating for most people to represent themselves as "out there" as one who does something. It's your avatar, in a way, that walks around. Sometimes people mistake this persona as their actual self, which is dangerous.

The Evening Class: Another heady subject in your film is death, which you treat so lighthandedly, as you do with memory. You're whimsical with both throughout the film and then suddenly the floor drops out and the viewer is plunged into grave depths, like these Panamanian pelicans out in the bay diving straight down for fish. I'm intrigued by this balance you've stuck between insouciance and the grounded recognition that death and memory compose the spine of our being.

Anderson: I use everyday language, and always have, to talk about things. I try to do that with subjects like death and memory as well. I look at the—in a way, everyday language of the Tibetan Book of the Dead—and tried to tell that story through sensation. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a huge book and pretty complicated in terms of identity, persistence of self, abstraction, memory; but, I tried to make it work on a sensual level. What happens when things start breaking apart and looping and doing these things to your senses? Because this sense of disorientation is one of the things that the Tibetan Book of the Dead begins to describe. It takes you through the disintegration of your self.

One of the things I try to say in the film is that, as a child, I felt kind of disintegrated already. As a five-year-old I looked up at the sky and thought, "That's where I came from. That's where I'm going. Period." I feel part of that. I never was too attracted to any other system that taught me something else, something that had to do with more solidity. I was always very sure that it was somehow part of some vibrational thing. So sky is a very big thing in this film, and so is up, which is to say the sky is a symbol of hopefulness but also of fear. Hawks dive bomb the dog so you see that can also come from the sky.

The Evening Class: And the sense of dispersal.

Anderson: Dispersal, yeah. And freedom. So it's freedom and fear at once. You're right about the duality of this. It's what F. Scott Fitzgerald was saying to writers: try to imagine that you have two opposing ideas and they're both equally true and one is in each hand. Try to hold them both without going crazy.

The Evening Class: Do you think we're alone when we're dying?

Anderson: Are we alone when we're living? No, I don't think so, no. In my own personal belief system, I think we're part of an energetic system that continues; that you can feel every moment. Like now. You can feel the connection between living things. Of course, we're encouraged to think of ourselves as alone and isolated single people, but we're really not. You can do many exercises that show you that that's not the case. Many people do really interesting work in terms of how things are very contagious: how fear is contagious, how love is contagious. In various situations, you feel an emotion of others and you become part of that system. I see it as energetic systems; but, of course, Western civilization encourages you to think that we're each a heroic, single person; the only imperfect one in the world.

The Evening Class: You talk about the existence of the bardo. Do you think we are living here and now in a bardo state?

Anderson: Yes, this is the bardo now and in fact, of course, we're not really "here." It's maybe a little too late to say that, but we're not. I don't think we understand very much at all, really; but, that's okay with me. I don't really need to know that much except that I try to accept that I don't know. But, still, I would like to try to find out. It doesn't make me depressed. It makes me think, "Well, I still would like to try." Even though I can see that it's completely hopeless.

The Evening Class: You've said in your film that you "try to feel sad without being sad."

Anderson: Those are the words of my teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. It's a difficult thing to do; but, I think, it's always hard when you're experiencing something and then observing yourself at the same time. Every artist, of course, does that: you make something and then you edit it. Every writer does the same. You try to make something intuitive and then you have to step back and give it some shape. You judge it and shape it.

But I don't think that feeling and being are about that so much. It's more integrated than the artist and the internal editor. Mingyur Rinpoche is a Tibetan teacher and he's the happiest man in the world, according to the University of Wisconsin Neuroscience Department who give a series of tests through sound. They immerse people in sound and measure their ability to contain their composure. They play some horrendous sounds and it doesn't mean that you're hard-hearted if you don't begin to cry when you hear things like that; but, that you have a balance and a way to see the world.

Happiness is key. He's a teacher who says, "We're here to have a very very very very good time." That's what we're here for. We're not here to suffer. We're here to become open to all of this. That's quite difficult for a lot of people. There's a whole series of reasons: guilt and blame, and disbelief that we're in bliss. I'm a Buddhist and an artist because they're the same. All it is: you look for yourself. There's nobody in charge. Nobody's saying, "You have to think this or do this." Nobody's there. Which is intolerable for most people. They would love to have "Daddy" up there telling them what to do.

The teaching is that you're Buddha. You are. It gives you an incredible amount of responsibility, obviously, and power, and humility, all of those things, to try to understand things as well as you can for yourself. It's very much about trying to be aware in your own way. Find your own way.

The Evening Class: Your film serves as a loving tribute to Lolabelle. What can you tell me about her?

Anderson: She was, like most dogs, able to live in a natural zone, which is guilt-free. When you watch dogs, they're not burdened with this. That's why it's good for people to look at them. You can learn so much from their sense of freedom. As I said earlier, we are their food supply and it might be a different world if they were our food supply. If they were feeding us, it would be a different world. Power shifts are important in this relationship; but, the important thing is that they are able to live in the present, which is a skill that most people do not have. They're too afraid. They're always planning or thinking about the past. There is such a thing as history and we learn from it and all of that, and there is such a thing as planning for something; but, the skill of being in the present is also something that I think would be very useful for more people to have as a skill.

So when a teacher like Mingyur Rinpoche says something like, "Try to feel without being"; it means exactly that. It's a big mistake to become sad because you see something sad. You do not have to become the thing you see.