Sunday, June 26, 2011


Collectors is now officially on a much needed hiatus. Damon and Paul need some rest. They are over-scheduled and uncertain about their immediate futures.
This hiatus should last until the end of July, when we will resume as normal--and with a long-ish essay from Damon. Questions, comments, or concerns until that point may be e-mailed to Damon at
This is all.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Troll Hunter

(Troll Hunter/2011)
          The fact is: Norway has one of the highest percentages of atheists in the world. Around 70% of the country’s population are estimated to be nonbelievers. This is relevant not simply as a curiosity, or as a sign of how far godless certain western nations have become, but also because of the absurd, prank-hilarity goofball Norweigen movie Troll Hunter. The film has not received much in the way of distribution so far, and that’s a pity. But it also may be because—well, no more should be said. According the film, we aren’t supposed to know about any of this.
            Troll Hunter starts with a shaky camera in an awkward position in a car, showing somebody’s arm. This is a documentary being shot by three students from Volda College (a real college) as they navigate their way through upper Norway, tracking a mysterious, illegal bear hunter. The hunter, Hans (Otto Jespersen) drives around in a banged up camper, staying in anonymous campgrounds each night. After several encounters where he brushes off his trackers, they finally follow him deep in to the woods and realize that the man believes he is hunting trolls. He agrees to let them film him, and on their next nighttime excursion, they realize that he really is hunting trolls, whose existence been covered up by the Norwiegen government for years. Trolls, while they may be dumb giants, can smell the blood of a Christian and will not hesitate to kill one. All three students claim to be non-believers. Hans has the aura of someone so thoroughly beyond belief that a church would distintegrate within ten feet of him. But still, the Trolls must be kept “in their territory.” Because recently they have been breaking out in to more civilized areas. 
            For the following hour and a half, Troll Hunter is a monster movie. Except not quite. It is also a very silly deadpan comedy, a grand allusion to Norse mythology, and a satire of government bureaucracy and the ways cultures dismiss their history, stories and their sense of fun. It is this last bit that is most decisive to Troll Hunter, because the film chooses to be fun and un-bureaucratic. Stylistically, the film may take its cues from other recent genre-mockumentaries such as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. It suffers from the same inherent flaw as these other films; that is, a non-professionalism that too easily veers from cleverness to laziness. However, where those films took themselves and the most evident tropes of horror and action movies deadly seriously, with no sense of sarcasm Troll Hunter is a sort of Gulliver’s Travels of digital age B-movies. It aims for laughs only after a whole chunk of scenes come in to perspective, not with moment-to-moment jokes. And if we don’t have to believe its pretentions—towards Scandinavian history, culture, and government—have any significance on the story, then we can still see director Andre Ovredal’s style, as jagged-edged as it is, as a sometimes sweeping form of scene craft. The first true troll encounter, where the filmmakers and Hans are being chased by a gigantic, three-headed “Tosserlad,” is seen mostly from the cameraman’s own point of view, as he alternates (first intentionally, then by chance) between night vision and regular camcorder vision. The cameraman is the most frantic of the students, though at first we don’t know why. To make matters worse, he is the one who is lost. Ovredal is smart enough to realize that with the formula he has chosen, the camera can in fact represent several subjective viewpoints, and the real-time shooting technique can provide its own ironies. He is the first filmmaker working in the mock-verite style to turn the camera operator—the guy who has our vision in his hands—in to an unreliable narrator.
            Troll Hunter is sequenced between two titles: the first claiming that, after the footage we are about to watch turned up at a television studio anonymously, a team of investigators spent a year trying to determine if it was fake or authentic, and determined it was authentic. It is a given that, of course, the footage we are watching is not at all authentic. As realistically stern as actor Jespersen remains throughout each escapade, he is in fact a famous stand-up comedian in Norway; perhaps this is his way of trying out a prolonged practical joke. But how authentic Troll Hunter is as cinema is still unknown. It may be thrilling, weird, informative and never boring, but it is a firm product of the age of kids dicking around and thinking it looks cool. (The students in this film never stop grinning to themselves). Whether Troll Hunter wants to be merely hip or a more elaborate stunt is not clear, nor is it in any other recent genre-mockumentary. This means that it’s high time we see one of these films with only professional actors, or with no appeal to teenage enthusiasms whatsoever. Let’s say, a courtroom drama mockumentary. Will that be too boring? Filmmakers need to take that risk. You can’t create cinema if you don’t first risk tedium.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Road to Nowhere

(Road to Nowhere/Montery Media, Inc, 2010)
        As its title may suggest, Road to Nowhere is a bit of stilted, if admirable, poetry. Its opening scene says nothing more than "Get this"; a girl sits down in a drab neon room and injects a disk with the title “Road to Nowhere” scrawled on it into her laptop. We zoom in on the screen, showing a girl lying on a bed at night, drying her hair with a blow dryer. For the next few minutes, which include credits and a song, we are in the film “Road to Nowhere” directed by Mitchell Haven. Then we get back outside that movie. Haven (Tygh Runyan) is being interviewed from prison by a reporter who wants to know all about how and why he came around to making a film based on a real-life murder in North Carolina. In flashbacks, with inserted scenes from his film, Haven casts a mysterious, pretty girl named Laurel (Shannyn Sossamon) who insists that she’s not really an actress, though she looks exactly like the woman Velma, the real-life culprit in the murder. But it appears, based on Laurel's secret conversations with another actor that she may in fact have something to hide.
            Bodies disappear. State funds disappear. Haven becomes infatuated with Laurel, even as his creative consultant (Waylon Payne) and a pesky blogger (Dominique Swain) are on his and Laurel’s tails. Yet what never even makes an appearance is internal logic. Haven and his actress fall in love. Fine, but why, aside from her being physically gorgeous? Why does their relationship remain in blissful stasis until the very end? The recognition, by those working with Haven on his film, that this is a dangerous relationship is the most interesting point of conflict in the film, but it brings up even more illogicalities. Why stage a crucial scene near the dark entrance to a tunnel, and then back away from the scene before it can be played out? And if about half of what we’re seeing is, in fact, staged footage, how did it even get to the point of being assembled, given what transpires?
(Road to Nowhere/Montery Media, Inc 2010)

            It is these questions that stay on our minds more than director Monte Hellman’s wishful pandering to the what-is real-and-what-is-not-ideal that has blown up so much of recent cinema. The 78-year old Hellman has completed his first feature with this film since 1989, and he seems desperately eager to catch up on things. Twitter, Facebook, DSLR cameras and talk shows figure prominently in this film, and it looks like Hellman has been watching Michael Haneke and Christopher Nolan’s films to get a sense of what’s arty these days. But Road to Nowhere, despite beautiful photography by Joseph M Civit, never manages to transcend anything beyond the above summary. We can be grateful that the wonderful actress Shannyn Sossamon carries so many of the scenes with pure charm, and that we are as in love with her as Mitchell Haven is. For example, one small early scene that shows her putting on her socks is a lovely, seductive bit of acting. But we’re also as in love with her as Hellman, and in the way he frequently shoots her half-clothed or implicitly naked, we feel like we are indulging in someone else’s fantasy (a concept mentioned several times in the film). The film never escapes the impression of being by and for out of touch, dirty old men.
            But Hellman’s main subject is that which is as obvious as air: filmmaking. He rightly wants to get us thinking about what a filmmaker does to their collaborators through their visions, and what harm they cause themselves through obsession. But look: a good book about writing should make writing look vigorous, alive, and sensible. Hellman’s film about filmmaking makes the whole craft look obnoxious. He wants us to take a man who insists that it matters when a bottle is full of tequila instead of rum as a sympathetic director-figure. He wants us to believe that merely looking at scenes from films like The Seventh Seal on a T.V screen will remind us of what good filmmakers aspire towards. He thinks that a director’s “vision” is something so sacrosanct that it is perfectly natural to accept no compromises and to act like a general pain in the ass. All of which can be seen in the figure of Mitchell Haven. Some people might go in to Road to Nowhere thinking it will delve in to the strange logic of a filmmaker’s personal life and their films, like what Fellini did in 8 ½ . Instead, they’ll get an old director showing them that a filmmaker should be bearded and stubborn; well, plenty of them are.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Motion Studies: “Clive, but you can call me Sir.”

       In addition to being his most optimistic film aside from Happy Go Lucky (2008), and a charming microcosm of four intersecting lives, and a film that brings us to smiles through the self-consciously corny humor of actor David Thewlis, Mike Leigh’s short film The Short and the Curlies (1987) contains one of the most annoying continuity errors of his career. On a bright but banal street, Clive (David Thewlis), walking his bike, tells his name to Joy (Sylvestra Le Touzel), adding, with a guffaw, “…but you can call me sir;” and the camera politely waits for even their shadows to exit on the left. This is all going so lackadaisically well, it jars the viewer when the next shot shows the two youngsters walking uphill on a residential road, from left to right. Why no continuity person (script girl Heather Storr?), camera operator (DP Roger Pratt?), or Leigh himself seemed to care about this break in the motion of the two main characters cannot be known for certain. But it looks strange, just as the horn and bass music sounds strange and the young Thewlis just is, all around, strange.
            Also uncertain is how much continuity matters. If a film is basically working, every visual error is followed by the question of whether or not it is an error at all. The Short and the Curlies is a wistfully unpretentious, well-acted bit of mini-cinema, so why let an awkward shot sequence get in the way? For the viewer, there is no way of fixing this glitch of right-left, then left-right motion, either in their head or on screen. Yet it is a problem that, if expressed to a director, would make most directors kick the perfectionist in the crotch and move on. So we shouldn’t tell Leigh he goofed. Perhaps the error does fit with the theme of awkward humor as a means of social approach. Perhaps it works with the whole brightness, chipper accents, incessant talking, and gross bodily and hair-related problems that are at the center of the film. Ruminating on mistakes made is a bit strange.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Film Appreciation: Satantango

            Satantango, Bela Tarr’s 1994 glacier of cinema, recently screened at New York’s Anthology Film Archives as part of Jonas Mekas’ “Boring Masterpieces” series. The title for this series is, obviously, disingenuous. Satantango may require 7 ½ hours of attention, and in normal circumstances the film would be quite boring. But Satantango is drily humorous, apocalyptic, suspenseful and just too damn ambitious to be boring. It is something to write home about, and an experience that is not easy to put in to words.
If anything must be said to summarize Satantango, is that unlike other films, it does not reduce minutes of existence to mere seconds. To watch this film is to see actual time not simply unfold, but become extended in to some sort of trance, beyond the distracted and mentally cluttered way we ever experience it in real life. A truck pulled by horses moves towards a deserted house in the middle of the Hungarian plain; it creaks and grumbles over the dirt road as we move closer and closer to the house’s giant door. A brother and sister dig a hole in the ground amidst a few trees, as the brother instructs the sister on how to tie the bag of coins they will bury; the camera anxiously approaches from afar, until settling on a close-up of the bag. Drunken reveler’s dance to incessant, catchy accordion music in a pub, for a real half hour. These are actual observed experiences. Satantango uses the observational qualities of cinema— the acts of watching something move, and spying on people in front of you—and brings them to their extreme, in shots that rarely run shorter than five minutes. With these long takes, we are getting a narrative of essential minutes rather than trimmed, potentially essential seconds.
            There is no need to state that this is what long takes inherently do, because most long-take driven films fail to accomplish such a thing. The achievement of Bela Tarr’s, which is also cinematographer Gabor Medvigy’s, composer/actor Mihaly Vig’s, and really all of the cast and crew’s achievement, is that they made us see rather than look. This is the ideal state of all films, but Satantango actually did it, in an ominous, rumbling way. Never mind, if possible, that seeing this film means sitting still for more than seven hours (with an intermission or two). Satantango leaves one with the feeling of having accomplished a rewarding ordeal, similar to hiking a tall mountain, or going for a marathon run. It is endurance cinema, but the opposite of boring cinema.

            But the film’s technique has already been praised elsewhere, quite extensively. As it happens, Satantango is not so full of its ambition as to be story-less experience. The structure is that of a tango, dividing the film in to twelve sections, many of them overlapping The setting is a rundown Hungarian village in the early 90’s (we can only assume). A long dolly of cows wandering around a field, past a barn immediately lets us know this is a farming community. But it’s a farming community gone to seed. A group of villagers are conniving to escape the town, with a chunk of money. The one obstacle is that rumors are going around town that two men thought to have died have actually returned to the village; these men are Irimias (Mihaly Vig) and Petrina (Putyi Horvath). They have recently been released from prison and possess big plans for prosperity. That these men are righteously lazy and renegade and spontaneously gangster-ish—in one scene, threatening to blow a bar full of people up with dynamite—does not detract from Irimias charisma and the willingness of many villagers to listen to him. (It is given to understand that they came up with some brilliant farming solution years before that temporarily saved the community.) But Irimias and Petrina are in fact con men of gigantic proportions, and all they need to carry out their scheme is the folly of everybody else. Villagers quarrel, drink, lose focus. A prostitute mother rejects her disturbed daughter, leading to one of the weirder, scarier sequences in the film, and ending in her daughter’s death. These events lead Irimias to gather the villagers together and start, as he lies about it, a new farming collective.
            It is generally not good practice to impose an allegory on every film to come out of a downtrodden, if not third world, country. But Satantango, with its central theme of a criminal proclaiming himself a leader who knows the solution, thereby leading a group of regular people to their doom, makes it pretty easy. That the film was shot the moment Soviet Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe makes it even easier, though to be fair, it was adapted from a novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai published a few years earlier. To a worldly western audience, watching the film as an allegory may be the best thing our minds can jump to. 

In any case, general audiences will sooner recognize that Satantango is a black, sometimes hilarious comedy before anything else. Tarr and Krasznahorkai’s sense of humor is not highbrow, and sometimes self-referential; it is made up of jokes such as an accordionist who stays soberly playing music while drunken bar-goers pass out all around him, before drinking up their remaining alcohol and vomiting off camera. Or like that of Irimias kneeling down in a clearing in the woods watching the ever-present fog creep over a stone building before Petrina asks him; “What’s the matter? You’ve never seen fog before?” If this is a film that can make a joke about its own artiness before slipping back in to pure, omniscient engagement, then perhaps we really do have a masterpiece on our hands.

The key figure to Satantango may be the town doctor, played by the German actor Peter Berling. Ill, short-tempered, and reclusive, the doctor spends his days drinking brandy and spying on his neighbors out the window. In a sequence devoted to him, he leaves the house to get more brandy, gets lost in the rain and collapses by the side of the road before being rescued. The doctor is the artist of the film, an all-knowing presence who can’t even take care of himself. We can either identify with him the most, for being the artist’s perspective, or like him the least, for not doing anything about the town’s plight. But he certainly is on to something in the way he observes and takes notes. This is precisely the way we watch Satantango. Since there is no other film like it, why shouldn’t we observe it again and again? I for one, like Susan Sontag, would gladly watch this film repeatedly, at least once a year.