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The NZIFF Diaries: Part V

Tuesday 12th August 2014

The Dunedin NZIFF takes place in two cinemas: the Regent and the Rialto. The former is a beautiful old-school theatre, the latter, a smaller modern cinema. Both are large enough that a five-trip pass can comfortably get you into almost any screening at almost any time (the only festival screening I’ve seen sell out was Dial M For Murder 3D at the Rialto). They’re also a block from each other, nestled among Dunedin’s middlebrow cafes and bars.

The Festival essentially takes place in a hub. So, theoretically, my time management should be better.

I wasn’t late to Jodorowsky’s Dune, though. I was rushing, but that’s beside the point. It’s the first film this festival I haven’t been late to. Good for me, because it’s lively and dynamic and worth every second. Charting the pre-production and (no good very bad totally undeserved) termination of Argentine madman-auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune, director Frank Pavich draws its coordinates from a who's-who of its survivors. The central figure is the ringmaster himself, affectionately referred to as ‘Jodo’. His energy and enthusiasm is so infectious it carries the documentary in the best way possible. His spiritual and artistic passions spill out of him in torrents; some anecdotes he’s come to relish – he tells a story about signing Orson Welles with childlike glee – while others clearly wound him anew with every retelling.

In those sparse moments when the testimony of Jodo and his ‘spiritual warriors’ isn’t enough to capture the magic, Pavich rises to the challenge. An LSD-infused encounter between Dan O’Bannon and Jodorowsky is told in colourful kinetic typography, full of visual punchlines and hypnotic patterns; at other points, Pavich animates Jodo’s extensive storyboards, giving vivid life to a film that only exists in a static state. If Pavich trips up, it’s in the inclusion of talking heads like cult director Richard Stanley and reviewer Devin Faraci. While they’re clearly enthusiastic, that’s all they are: enthusiasts. The only thing they bring to the table is breathless platitudes.

By contrast, I’m struggling to find false steps in Snowpiercer. Perhaps that’s due to blind hype. As I’ve mentioned before, Bong Joon-ho is my jam and I’ve been gagging for this for years. But there’s only a few things I can pull out – Ed Harris’ oddly inert performance; some rough action cinematography; the conscious lack of subtlety – and tbh I’m not sure I really care about them. Snowpiercer’s a furious machine of a blockbuster, an idiosyncratic marvel totally confident in what it is and bellowing at the audience to follow.

It’s also powerfully unsubtle. Set in the near future on board a constantly-moving train full of humanity’s last dregs, it documents a bloody revolt against the front’s conspicuous consumers by the downtrodden proletariat at the back. Led by Curtis (Chris Evans, a shallow avenging angel), the poverty-line heroes push through increasingly bizarre exhibits of exploitation, hedonism and colourful delusion. These exhibits necessitate extreme, often-sudden tonal shifts and Snowpiercer nails them, incorporates them into its intoxicating rhythm of revolution. Carriage after carriage, we’re confronted with a bleak satirical vision of the body-consuming capitalism that's too often synonymous with our idea of humanity – and that vision’s hilarious, engrossing, and a lot of other things I just can’t talk about without ruining it.

He’s a man of contradictions, a pessimistic grouch who questions the value of his own films, and a fierce adversary to “industrial civilization”

I don’t have to worry so much about ruining Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, the documentary about revered Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. It ends with the release of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and the master announcing his retirement (he’s come out of retirement before, and taking the film’s cues, it’s possible he’ll do so again). The film’s a valuable and big-hearted profile of Miyazaki, one of Japan’s great artists, letting us into his philosophies, ideologies and creative processes. He’s a man of contradictions, a pessimistic grouch who questions the value of his own films, and a fierce adversary to “industrial civilization” who finds deep worth in his relationships and his work. The documentary’s less effective, though, at letting us into Ghibli as an animation studio. We get some sense of the workplace culture and business concerns, but there’s precious little on the technical side.

It becomes evident pretty early on in The Wonders, about a family of cash-strapped beekeepers in the Etruscan countryside, that the title is at least a little ironic – an alarm bell for an earnest film about the working poor. It’s cribbed from the Countryside Wonders, a kitschy television show the family’s signed up for by resilient eldest daughter Gelsomina after an encounter with the show’s radiant host (a worn-out Monica Belluci). The show objectifies and condescends to poor agricultural families and Gelsomina’s father, Wolfgang (a nervy, fiery Sam Louwyck), sees right through it. But the family needs money to upgrade their laboratory, or an unfeeling European state is going to shut them down.

Thankfully, The Wonders doesn't anchor itself to that tired underdog story. Rather, director Alice Rohrwacher’s built something more like a memory, recollections of a time and space that play out with a woozy, summer-afternoon focus. Characters drift from scene to scene (particularly Gelsomina, who engages less with dialogue, more with observation), the editing has no interest in establishing a clear chronology, and the grainy Super-16 film stock gives the Italian countryside the feel of a home video long forgotten. While I don’t disagree with Judah’s conclusion that it “lacks clarity”, I feel that’s kind of the point. It’s light and dreamlike, a childhood long since fragmented in your mind. The problem is that makes it hard to feel strongly about.

My Saturday ended with David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, a beautifully constructed horror film about that old chestnut, teen sex. I stress beautifully-constructed. Mitchell’s score feels like a film-long thunderstorm, marrying John Carpenter’s synthwork in Halloween with the brooding hum of artists like Seth Frightening. His tableaus, meanwhile, are lit to chill and designed for horror in plain sight. Working with the film’s central mechanic – when a character has sex, they pass to their partner a ‘haunting’ that takes any form and walks towards them, wherever they are, at a steady, ceaseless pace – Mitchell’s wide, symmetrical shots train you to scan the whole of the frame, to find the horror embedded in the film’s very language. What I’m saying is, if you’re after scares, this has scares.

But it’s a horror film that moralises about teen sex, the stammering guidance counsellor to Halloween’s nutbar mother. Or, at least, that was my first impression. The staggered national spread of the NZIFF encourages interaction and discussion with those in other centres, and so it came to be that one tweet triggered me to rethink the film through the prism of its central mechanic. The ‘followers’ are often people their victims trust – mothers, fathers, friends. Other times, they’re figures of transgression – a naked man on a roof, a brutalised young woman, a tall man in an inpatient’s smock. Both are linked to social narratives that pathologise sex: the transgressive figures personify ‘teen sex is a crime’, making it harder for our petrified heroine Jay to confide in those she trusts (“I can’t tell my mom” is given a good workout), especially when society so often casts those as the ‘victims’ of teen sex – after all, what would your parents think?

I’m still not entirely sure about It Follows. But I am not dark about being unsure. The NZIFF was built for this kind of provocation.

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.

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