My Week in Movies* (October 30 to November 5)
TraumaZone, Trenque Lauquen, Plan 75, The Viewing, and more
Since this is my first proper post here, an introduction/some context.
I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but motivation is rarely there, life gets in the way, etc., so I’ve decided to just go ahead with it. This is largely a sandbox for things I’d like to write about that feed into my own niche interests: films seeking North American distribution, the festival circuit, and probably more things involving the film industry that will be of interest to maybe a dozen people. I might get into why I find all those things so interesting at some point, but for now I’ll start with what I hope will be an excuse for me to contribute to this semi-regularly. So here are some thoughts on what I’ve seen over the last week.
I’ll get the longest title out of the way first, which is also the reason for the asterisk since it took several weeks for me to get through Adam Curtis’ Russia 1985 - 1999: TraumaZone (I only finished it last week).
Taking thousands of hours of unseen footage from BBC News taken in Russia from the fall of Communism to the rise of Vladimir Putin, Curtis compiles a seven-hour overview of what happened that eschews his trademark narration and soundtrack (all we get are several ambient tracks by Lawrence English and old pop songs from some of the clips). On-screen text provides guidance and context, but it’s the footage that dominates the proceedings. It’s a departure for Curtis, one that puts the experiential ahead of the informational approach we’ve come to expect; rather than tell us what happened to Russia post-Communism, he shows us what it’s like through his careful curation.
From the start, TraumaZone rubbed me the wrong way. Every episode opens with the title, followed by “What It Felt Like To Live Through The Collapse Of Communism”, a dramatic beat, then “And Democracy.” That last part lingers on the screen for a second or two longer than the other blocks of text and serve as an immediate red flag as to how Curtis wants to deal with his subject matter. It’s a heavy hand setting the scene for a piece that’s meant to be more hands off than what Curtis usually does.
It might just boil down to me disagreeing with how Curtis decides to approach his project, like treating the BBC archives as a definitive source on observing life in Russia and its surrounding nations. That’s obviously not the case, yet every hour we get “What It Felt Like” flashing on screen, with the expectation that we’re supposed to just go along with it.
In the past, this hasn’t been an issue since Curtis always puts himself at the forefront, stating his conclusions and then guiding us down multiple pathways meant to support his points. At his best, he can call attention to the ways powerful people and institutions exert control over the population by using those same methods in his filmmaking (easy to swallow narratives, sympathetic figures, and reductive hero/villain categories, to name a few). Curtis’ decision to relegate himself to the background leads to him imposing a false sense of objectivity that clashes with the subjective nature of his source material.
While doing press for TraumaZone, Curtis acknowledges one of the reasons why he made these films is because people in the West have little knowledge of what happened to Russia in the 1980s and 1990s. If the intent is for these seven hours to act as a primer for Russia in the late 20th century, it’s a shoddy attempt. It covers the basic points (the end of Communist rule, the “shock therapy” democracy and capitalism that ruined society and made oligarchs suck up as much money and resources as they could, rising tensions in other nations like the Ukraine, Yeltsin’s war on Russian Parliament, the war in Chechnya, and so on) but the structure and presentation leaves them adrift among raw footage that overwhelms everything without cohering into much.
Curtis’ tendency to home in on specific people pops up here multiple times, like following a woman getting out of prison, a mother visiting Chechnya during the war to convince her son to come back home with her, or a serial killer put on trial in an OJ Simpson like spectacle for the public. These threads tend to abruptly end given the nature of the material, so their purpose amounts to little more than easy juxtaposition, like watching a woman on trial for stealing while we learn about the oligarchs robbing the country with no consequences. It’s all fleeting, so it never makes a case for itself to have much staying power.
I think Curtis is much better than this. There’s an inherent conflict between his overall goals here and what he’s using to try and achieve them, which he isn’t bothered to ever try and engage with. And the overall point seems to be drawing direct links between Russia and the West today, to show how some of what they went through is similar to what we’re going through right now. That just shows the experiential angle here is largely bullshit, and that much of this project lies in the hacky dramatic pause he puts around “And Democracy” at the top of each episode. I can’t say I have much use for it beyond some of the striking footage he showcases, which isn’t enough to justify the seven-hour investment.
It was a long week, since I also got around to Laura Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen, a four-hour drama/mystery that got raves at Venice and New York. Citarella comes from El Pampero Cine, an Argentinian production company well-known for 2018’s epic 14-plus hour La Flor by Mariano Llinas. Citarella mercifully takes about a third of the time as Llinas to tell her story, where academic and radio host Laura (Laura Paredes) vanishes, prompting an amateur investigation into her whereabouts by her boyfriend and a friend/sometimes lover.
Given that I went so long about TraumaZone I’ll be as brief as possible about Citarella’s film which, like La Flor, left me feeling somewhat ambiguous. Both films have promising starts, several captivating sequences, and a playfulness with storytelling that makes them relatively easy to watch given their imposing runtimes. But once both films lay everything out, I don’t have much interest in picking up what they’re laying down. The second part of Trenque Lauquen ties up the loose ends of its first part, introduces another mystery altogether, then strips away the narrative piece by piece until we’re just left with Laura herself, who remains as an enigma even when we’re left with just her (to underline how we’ve seen Laura defined by those around her, Citarella changes the aspect ratio and shifts from digital to 35mm when the film finally takes on her perspective).
With La Flor, I was excited to see how Llinas would develop his four central characters through the six different narratives he put them in, only to discover that his film was exactly as advertised in just telling six different stories with the same group of actors (I’m fine with La Flor, although it might be controversial to say I found its centrepiece spy movie section to be a slog). I had fun with the genre hopping of Trenque Lauquen and the nested storytelling, but the boundary setting of its latter half and conclusion is a sputtering out I don’t find that subversive or interesting. I don’t want to sound too down on the film since I like El Pampero Cine and the highs of this film are quite good, but the more I see from them the more I recognize there are points where I diverge from what they’re going for. It makes for an interesting level of tension while watching them, although given the lengths of these films I wonder if I’ll soon reach my limits with them.
Having missed Hayakawa Chie’s Plan 75 at both Cannes and Toronto, I got a chance to catch up with it thanks to a screening held by the Ageless International Film Festival, which is a relatively new fest in Toronto that’s been entirely virtual since its first edition in 2020.
It’s a high concept ensemble piece set in what most reviews describe as a dystopian future. The title refers to a law passed by Japan where anyone 75 or older can choose to get euthanized for the “greater good” of lessening the burden of an aging population on the economy.
Hayakawa opts to direct her film with no distance from our present day, shooting it as a naturalistic, low-key drama about a country embracing the genocide of their elders. That stylistic blandness works in the film’s favour, with Hayakawa never really giving her film a moment of self-awareness as she plays out all the various ways her scenario can bring about forms of banal, systemic cruelty like luxury euthanasia resorts, pushing people into homelessness and poverty to incentivize them to opt into the program, and only offering resources and assistance to those willing to get killed.
There are some issues with how Hayakawa structures her film, with its ensemble too spread out and several characters who function more as opportunities to build out the film’s world than anything else, but Plan 75 is a solid debut whose humanist perspective will continue working like gangbusters on festival audiences.
I spent Halloween taking a look at The Viewing, Panos Cosmatos’ contribution to Cabinet of Curiosities, the new Guillermo del Toro hosted/produced anthology series on Netflix. Del Toro assembled a roster of decent names for the season, but I was curious about Cosmatos’ episode given he only has two features to his name.
After the fun, more mainstream-oriented Mandy, I was glad to see Cosmatos returning to the weird atmospherics of his debut Beyond the Black Rainbow with this episode. What I’ve liked about Cosmatos’ films is how his approach to nostalgia doesn’t align with any other filmmaker working today. Most people approach the past with the intent to evoke it, usually through familiar pop culture references that offer a limited rush of recognition or longing. Cosmatos uses nostalgia to open things up and then take it to entirely different, weird places. The elaborate use of analog technologies, the predominantly orange lighting, and the conversation pit where the characters spend most of the time are all part of The Viewing’s 1970s setting, but Cosmatos’ direction renders these artifacts as almost alien in how they’re deployed. It’s like he’s finding a seedy underbelly to the era that’s not often seen, or portraying the time period like a dream of a memory. Cosmatos’ style doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve always admired how he’s able to take nostalgia and turn those feelings inside out.
I had a good time with The Viewing, which has the audacity to only bring in the horror elements in the final ten minutes but sustains itself nicely up to that point. It’s a simple cautionary tale of ultra-rich hubris, with a billionaire realizing the limits of his influence when faced against a force of cosmic horror. This kind of story was always part of the appeal of a service like Netflix, which could use its status and boatloads of investor money to fund works that studios would pass on and indie financing couldn’t fully realize. That turned out to not really be the case, but I guess it’s nice to catch an eccentric flicker from that opportunity every now and then.
Other Titles Watched This Week
Un Couple (2022, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
Henry Fool (1997, dir. Hal Hartley)
On Cinema, S13E1 - ‘Prey for the Devil’
On Cinema, S13E2 - ‘My Policeman’ & ‘Enola Holmes 2’
The Banshees of Inisherin (2022, dir. Martin McDonagh) [Rewatch]
Nobody May Come (2020, dirs. Ella Hatamian & Stiven Luka)
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