Monday, December 28, 2020

silence & darkness

Fittingly, Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" is a key tune in Barak Barkan's unsettling drama Silence & Darkness. Anna and Beth (Mina Walker and Joan Glackin, both excellent in their screen debuts), are sisters, one blind and one deaf, living in a woodsy remote house with their Father (appropriately creepy Jordan Lage), a physician in town. Anna and Beth live a sort of idyllic, if secluded, existence: playing guitar under the influence of Bob Dylan, soaking in their verdant property, making meals, going to the cinema (a revival of Hitchcock's Rear Window--where dog-digging is also a constituent). As the film unravels this slip of their lives, we watch as they begin to assess that something isn't quite right with Father. 

What emerges in Barkan's careful movie is an involving character study of the sisters and the rhythms of their coexistence. While the film is a taut 81-minutes, the sisterly relationship is explored in a loose manner. Within portraying the sisters and the film's simmering horror elements, the cuts and editing choices by Colton Fordyce are intriguing throughout. The movie ultimately has shades of familial tone poem low-thrillers like Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth and Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's Goodnight Mommy. The cinematography (by Omar Nasr) isn't ostentatious--giving it an immediacy and eerie, clinical atmosphere. The "cleanliness" of the house-setting and of the Father / Doctor is one of the more disturbing elements, particularly his aggressive teeth-flossing (the sound mix is  effective there as it also is in his disturbing field note tape recordings--Lage's voice cuts through the screen). Smartly, the movie stays close to the events and pop references rather than aiming for oversized themes, though the film does harbor a perhaps unintentionally timely discussion about the perils of disease. The green, remote, pretty Vermont locale, with its mountains off in the distance, is a pitch-perfect setting for this chiller: a sense of smoldering wildness beneath the façade of serenity. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Monday, December 21, 2020


There are a few recent films that delve into the drama and ethics of writers writing about real people in the author's life--Let Them All Talk, Mank and Justine Triet's Sibyl. Set in Paris and also taking an excursion to the Italian island of Stromboli, where fittingly, an active volcano smolders, is a twisty, supple, occasionally soapy tale of a therapist, Sibyl (Virginie Efira), a recovering alcoholic, who begins writing her next novel. In order to clear her mind to write, she cuts ties with many of her clients, save for a young child and an actress, Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Margot, about to shoot a film on Stromboli with German director Mika (Sandra Hüller), is facing a very intense dilemma with her co-star, Igor (Gaspard Ulliel). Intertwining with Sibyl's memories of her own complicated past, Sibyl becomes drawn to and entangled with Margot's story and begins cribbing it for the novel. 

Sibyl, with its attractive cast, locales, and elegant, well-composed shots (Simon Beaufils is the cinematographer), never quite feels as intense as its characters are emoting, is still a quietly wicked and dishy film about control and destruction. Sibyl's character is an array, as she ends up both a therapist, with questionable motives and protocols, and also, briefly, a filmmaker. Aided by unusual cuts and rhythms (the editing is by Laurent Sénéchal), we see Sibyl's past life as an alcoholic in a steamy relationship with Gabriel (Niels Schneider) and in present as a therapist, vaping (perhaps a substitute for drinking), going to therapy, going to AA, and tapping a bit into the heat of her past again through writing. Watching the disasters she sometimes causes and enables can be sort of galling and simultaneously entertaining. While Sibyl, Margot, and occasionally Mika, seem to be the most flamboyant in wreaking havoc, there are men who are tacitly igniting pain and anger through their actions. Triet's movie, co-written by Arthur Harari, see-saws between melodrama, wry comedy, heated passion and chillier contemplation. The female actors are all doing tricky, strong work. The standout, for me, is Hüller, who oscillates between anger and bewilderment with pulsing quickness. Also good in a smaller part of Sibyl's sister Edith is Laure Calamy, who gets some clincher lines when explaining adults to children, "Some people are unhappy their whole lives. They can't shake it. They take tons of stuff to forget they're alive... alcohol, pills... Or both. Helps them feel better. But not entirely. And then, when they have the energy, they use it to ruin other people's lives." It's funny, but that Sibyl and Edith shared a deceased alcoholic mother--who they have stringently different feelings for--it's sorrowful too. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, December 18, 2020


One of the more grim, potent and timely films of the year, Writer / Director Brandon Cronenberg's sci-fi / horror piece Possessor impactfully threads tricky themes of mind-control, tech, materialism, and violence. It is intriguing to see the influences of Cronenberg's father within the movie--especially films like Scanners and Videodrome--in its man vs. tech / man embedded within tech concerns, provocative, icky body horror (the word "squelches" came up as a sound effect descriptor a few times in the captioning), and its chilly Canadian-set visuals that suddenly provoke and shock in memorable, harsh imagery (the flim is shot by Karim Hussain). 

Possessor is about implant-tech that helps Tasya Vos (the reliably haunting Andrea Riseborough is Tasya; I recently have been watching the Heaven's Gate doc and some of the names are reminiscent of its cult leaders) under the direction of forbidding Girder (always a pleasure to see Jennifer Jason Leigh in anything, especially a strong, icy supporting part like this one) carry out corporate assassinations. The target of the film is John Parse (Sean Bean), the obscenely wealthy tycoon of a data mining company (in touches of dark, sardonic humor and creepiness, we see people spied upon to gather their preferences of window dressings). The vessel to commit murder is a worker bee cog in the machine of Parse's company, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who is also the boyfriend of Parse's daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton). The dark-eyed, young and fit, but world-wearied-looking Abbott is a perfect casting choice for this role. He has taken on some interesting projects lately, including It Comes At Night and Black Bear; both films are similar to Possessor in that they evoke themes of disease (physical, mental, moral) and paranoia and also lay out their stories in twisty, unconventional manners. 

While the plot is rife with tension, Possessor is more of a captivating watch for all its cerebral touches and homages. It recalls the recent, underrated Leigh Whannell film Upgrade, where a man's actions are controlled by an implant. It also runs the gamut of the horror and sci-fi cinematic canon in subtle ways, perhaps unconsciously so--from Metropolis to Blade Runner to A Clockwork Orange. Two Kubrick-like, striking sets are featured: a chic apartment with white interiors and shiny gold throw pillows and Parse's lavish home--"to boredom!" he toasts from the upper-balcony to his feted-up employees below. For a lower-budget film, Possessor boasts powerful make-up and visual effects, a testament to Cronenberg and his team. We watch a face melting away in one scene--a Cronenbergian touch of audience implication in marveling at the horrific artifice of human destruction in movies; in an era of continually banal and shiny CGI, the crafts here feel textured and "real" and, like the film itself, are not for the squeamish. ***

 -Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

let them all talk

After the disappointing, ineffectual The Laundromat, I wasn't sure what to expect from another Soderbergh / Streep collaboration, but consider me pleasantly surprised by the layered, acerbic, and bittersweet Let Them All Talk. In the film, a novelist Alice (Meryl Streep) travels to England on a cruise to accept the prestigious / niche "Footling Prize" with her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), two distant old college friends, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest) in tow. Meanwhile Alice's agent Karen (Gemma Chan) is secretly aboard to try to coax information from Tyler in hopes of Alice writing a follow-up to her Pulitzer-winning novel. If this "secret agent" side plot seems tenuous, it is--dipping into fairly fluffy caper comedy stuff but still enjoyable nevertheless with its skilled young actors at the helm. I viewed this film on HBO Max, a weird experience, as I can presently only access it on my phone, that probably doesn't do the movie much justice. Hopefully I can appreciate it in the theater someday. It is an extremely pleasing-looking picture: a buttery yellow-lensed (Soderbergh as Peter Andrews) Queen Mary 2 (as a non-cruisegoer, are cruises as lovely-looking and uncrowded-feeling as this one?) that's a luxurious watch even as it’s fraught with the unrequited on all fronts.

The film focuses upon language—evident in Alice’s portentously vague musings on “words.” What’s said and unsaid is scarred, awkward and tense, even with alcohol flowing. Between the relationships among these former friends who haven’t seen each other in over thirty years, Roberta doesn't even recognize "Al" anymore--not because of the way she looks, but the way she speaks. Deborah Eisenberg’s script, a brilliant debut screenplay, understands Alice’s universe well. Even if the moments of the plot can be on the flimsy side, perhaps purposefully flimsy (“plot-driven” novels of the famous thriller writer aboard the ship are pitched in a vein of light jabbing), the dialogue is sharply-realized and rhythmic. If there are notes of improvisation among the pro-players and their wry director, I wasn’t aware or distracted by it, instead, I felt the emotional calibrations of the interactions. I was taken aback to the sort of halting punchline rhythms of Lawrence Kasdan & Barbara Benedek’s The Big Chill. The dialogue is sparkly but not really overly distracting, inauthentically speedy nor talky—the silences are impactful as the barbed words. Soderbergh’s films, as absorbing and meandering as they can be, often tend to run their course and get baggy in their final acts, with unsatisfying endings. This movie, however, takes a nervy swerve that ends up changing the tone of a previous scene and also the characters’ previous actions in insightful, fascinating ways.

Besides the sharp screenplay, as usual, Steven Soderbergh's film delivers in the tech departments. Thomas Newman’s jazzy score is a very atypical Newman score (no twinkling pianos or chilly, sly American Beauty instrumentations or chord structures here). It may not be the best music to listen to on its own, but it’s essential to the film itself—a warm, frothy soundtrack that helps carry the mood and tone of the picture along. Between this, Unsane (which he composed under pseudonym) and Side Effects, Soderbergh and Newman have been a great team in recent years, with Soderbergh encouraging Newman's talents out of his usual output.

Another praiseworthy element on display are the costumes by Ellen Mirojnick. Contemporary work like this, including her dynamic effort on Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, rarely get as many accolades as fantasy or period pieces, but Mirojnick's work shines again, offering comic touches while enriching characterization. There’s something bold and quietly desperate about Roberta’s animal print ensemble as she goes to the “gala” to meet a match or her penchant for fringy denim shirts. The costumes illuminate the separateness of the trio, often epitomizing each woman’s far-reaching geographical location (Seattle, NYC upper-class, and Dallas).

This is a fine ensemble to watch, especially the women in the film (Streep, Bergen, Wiest, and Chan). I was struck particularly by Candice Bergen. Roberta is out of a failed marriage. She blames it on Alice's famous novel which may have cribbed details from Roberta's life. Now Roberta is single and ready to mingle, hopefully with a Queen Mary 2 passenger with deep pockets. Through Bergen's complex turn, this isn't a pitiful character, it's a fascinating one. I, perhaps very unjustly, never thought of Bergen as a compelling thespian. This performance, however, is brassy, but also extremely sophisticated and understated. She has an uneasy, swaying gait and disposition. Her Texas twang comes and goes—perhaps by accident—or perhaps purposefully, when her character either wants to turn up the charm or the savagery. Bergen's comic timing, pained facial expressions, quick raised eyebrow, all kill from her beginning scene where she is dealing with an annoying, disgruntled character in the low-grade Victoria Secret knockoff store she works at. It is a high wire act to steal scenes from someone as ostentatious as Meryl. Viola Davis managed it in Doubt. Bergen does it for me here—the character of Roberta became real to me, despite the star power of the performer. Her presence, along with Wiest and Streep, all add to the poignancy of the movie: these actors in their later years, giving us some their best work. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Sunday, December 13, 2020

the swerve

Circling around down into the lower rungs of a character's personal hell isn't always the most enjoyable movie-watching experience, but it took a second viewing for me to really admire the craft of Dean Kapsalis' domestic dread-piece The Swerve. There's a clean symmetry from the get-go--key elements and symbols quickly established: minivan at night, insomnia, a pesky mouse in the house, an apple pie, stressful and distressed family members, prescription pills. Violin music of the score (by Mark Korven, who also penned unique soundtracks for The Witch and The Lighthouse) imitates the sound of an alarm to wake--a sense of discord and unease that the picture settles into. Azura Skye's Holly is at the center--an AP English teacher with two unpleasant tween boys and a distant husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham plays the nondescript-type man well--a man with simmering tinges of anger).  Staring at a wedding photo and photos of the kids when younger in the shadowy bluish light of morning, you get the sense of the heavy weariness of the years on Holly, and eventually we see how unloved and underappreciated she is. 

Interestingly, her kitchen where she discovers one of the film's intruders--a scurrying mouse behind a garbage can--is painted a cheerful lemon. It's one of the ways Kapsalis plays with the juxtaposition of color and light; the movie takes place in bright, bright morning and day and pitch black night. There are very few, if any, moments of dusk or sunset. And despite the differences in the light of day and the darkness of night, Holly's unease and despair exist in equal harmonies. 

Skye creates a searing portrait--thin with large, freezing azure gazes--she dresses in dark colors--a sweater with a collared shirt underneath, in skirts and black hosiery, with pointy shoes or lace-up boots--her stringy blondish hair dapped into a messy bun. At times, I felt we were in Holly's dreams and nightmares, and I couldn't always discern the "real" versus the imagined--the waking hours blurred. Was it a mouse that bloodied Holly's finger under the bed? Or did she imagine? The film's presentation of Holly and what she is experiencing cannot always be trusted as reality--just as one of her doctors asks her to stop believing that she has rabies. The film examines what can be controlled and what can't (the unruly mind). In one scene we see her scratch marks, like those of an animal, on her husband's neck--but Holly doesn't remember this happening. Skye's performance of mental anguish is captivating, painful and fully-embodied. As a foil supporting character, Holly's sister Claudia is played by Ashley Bell (The Last Exorcism). Bell envelopes the role--with her piercing, intimidating looks, an intensity and scathing directness from a place of hurt. In a way, this directness that Holly lacks is a bizarre breath of fresh air, though it's blunted by Claudia's cruelty. I really enjoyed Bell's immediacy and presence in the picture. 

The feel of Holly's predicament is captured in the filmmaking and pace. In addition to the use of contrasted lighting, cinematographer Daryl Pittman sometimes frames Holly in the slow, winding motion of a night drive--those yellow double-lines. We see her in Rob's bright supermarket as she slowly walks the aisles for apple pie ingredients, a lowly clarinet intoning on the soundtrack. Or in the school, walking alone down a locker-lined hallway. The movie is filmed in Roanoke, Virginia, a few towns or so over from where I grew up, so I identified with the setting's atmosphere--especially Kroger, the old houses, and those dark roads. Kapsalis' script sprinkles in symbols and actions that somehow don't feel too pat or too laboriously significant, even though the film is very heavy in its brief runtime. Holly, in teaching Dante's Inferno, scrawls "Describe three types of moral dilemmas" on the chalkboard for the class. Her student, shaggy-haired Paul (Zach Rand), who has a crush on her and also happens to be the checkout guy at her husband's grocery store (a certain nightmare logic there), looks on. These sprinkled elements, like rat poison laced into peanut butter, are layered in the story's ambivalent, fever-dream concepts and provocative actions. *** 

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, December 11, 2020


Writer / Director Lee Isaac Chung's Minari moves with a graceful, wavy, yet precise pace. I sometimes pictured the motions of the arms of a conductor in front of an orchestra playing Emile Mosseri's lush score. Mosseri also composed the almost unbearably beautiful music for last year's (has it only been a year ago?) The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Films and film scores like this feel unusual in 2020. There's a gentleness to the story, an unwavering sense of humanity, even in its flits of tension, sorrow, and bitterness. Its goldenrod-tinged photography (by Lachlan Milne) captures a Korean family's new life around the mid-to-late 1980s in Arkansas--in a trailer (a "house on wheels," at first, without front steps) among pastoral, sun-dappled fields--where the father, Jacob, played by Steven Yeun (who was so brilliantly ambivalent in Burning), builds his farm with the "best dirt in America." Even in moments of bleakness [the parents' depressing work of separating male and female chicks in plastic containers within a hatchery--David (Alan S. Kim), the young child, running around its gravelly perimeter], the film is warm with humor. I've been conditioned in this still-young century of indie films to expect the very worst to befall characters, but Minari seemed to be guiding me on a divergent path: one of compassion and promise--in a sense, it's a very American picture. Elements of the Western are here: a man on a new frontier, sometimes stubbornly, staking his ground (here, he is carving out a piece of his own land, without pillaging others, and takes it back from his oppressors—like factory farmers); the covered wagon now a station wagon--a small crack in the windshield; David totters through fields in a red-striped polo, blue shorts, pulled-up striped-at-the-top gym socks (I donned a similar pair as a kid) and brown cowboy boots. Later in the picture, a young friend from church plays country on the boombox, imitates the swagger of a cowboy and gives David chewing tobacco. But I also felt that the film sometimes swayed out of iconography into something more Biblical, ghostly and mysterious. Paul (Will Patton, who manages to not make his wild character a simplistic caricature), a Korean War vet, who brings Jacob his tractor and ends up helping him farm the land, prays mightily, sometimes dipping into tongues, sometimes hauling a cross along a dirt road. He asks for an exorcism of the land--of the past--and its former owner, who is suggested to have committed suicide. 

Besides Paul, another character who disrupts, but also quietly (or maybe not-so-quietly) enriches the family, is the grandmother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), who, to David, has "a Korea smell" and is not like the "real Grandma" of perhaps his Westernized imagination of a cookie-baking, white-haired smiley old lady of commercials. Soonja is blunt and energetic, teaching her grandkids card games and forcing David to consume a broth for his health (which David humorously turns on her). Monica (Yeri Han), the mother of the family and daughter of Soonja, is immediately unhappy in her new surroundings, and hopes her mother will assuage her isolation. Like any family, nothing is perfect, and people lash out, mean things are said, feelings are hurt. Besides Youn's wide-ranging, piercing  portrayal, Han's performance and Monica's character was particularly affecting to me. In a scene that subtly references the small town's ignorance and tendencies towards belittlement, two fellow churchgoer women ask Monica questions and tell her she's "so cute," and Monica shyly flees. Monica, who within her family, confronting her husband with her concerns, in setting up a swing-set for her kids with rope and a wood-slat, is strong and firm, suddenly becomes another woman here.   

The elements of water, earth, and fire have strong symbolism throughout. These symbols could be wrought with groaning heavy-handedness, but Chung imbues them with unusual implications that drive story and inform the specificity of the characters. The perspective of the film is important and intricately designed--it's mostly felt through the view of David, but there are some side scenes of conversations, experiences, and arguments of the adults out of the child's comprehension. In a small trailer, how can David not overhear so many things said between his distressed parents? And so the natural elements have a sweeping feel, like the fever dream fears of a child: water comes down in a torrential storm--Tornado Watches a scary new reality. Water is lavishly wasted in a bath and then suddenly runs dry--the fields cracked, the tap stopped. But water has more humorous connotations too--in urine and in Mountain Dew, which David claims his father says is "water from the mountains." Weaving these elements together, Minari is about growth, sustenance (the titular plant, next to a creek bed, is described as a substance for rich and poor). It's a film about broken-ness, deterioration, and disrepair and the literal healing of a heart. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Monday, December 7, 2020


My review in the Los Angeles Review of Michael Montlack's enjoyable poetry collection, Daddy, here! 

Monday, October 5, 2020


I was very moved and excited by Merawi Gerima's movie Residue as it was capturing moments and observations in a fresh, bracing way. It's in the company of other distinctive recent films like Joe Talbot's The Last Black Man in San Francisco and  Ephraim Asili's The Inheritance which try to reconnect with a past they are haunted by in the midst of violence of gentrification committed by white people against blacks. In Residue, a young screenwriter Jay (an excellent Obinna Nwachukwu), after years long-gone, travels back to his Q Street neighborhood in Washington D.C. Jay has plans in mind: he wants to work on a film and reunite with a childhood friend, Demetrius (Julian Selman). A summer feel is in the air--the sound of humming insects and heavy sunlight bending into dusk. This natural aura is irrevocable in this world. But quickly Jay is visibly and emotionally struck by the changes on the street: the on-going construction all-around, the hot pink notes on doors pleading for selling homes for cash, and whites milling about, looking at property, and complaining about the loud music from his car. Demetrius' home is now inhabited by a bearded white man who opens the door to Jay suspiciously. Jay is now a stranger in his old universe, even unrecognizable (and questioned if part of the police) at first glance to squinting elders on a stoop.

Captured by Mark Jeevaratnam's smoldering, fuzzed photography, Nwachukwu's attuned performance, and the quiet stitching of flits of conversation--often obnoxious and demeaning--of the white invaders, the pang of this new, changed universe of Jay's childhood, is raw and painful. The ramifications of gentrification have been part of many films (and also blissfully ignored), but Gerima's piece in particular doesn't soften blows, it's direct and angry, and plays on some potent visuals like the maroon blood of ghosts running through the grooves of sidewalk, up to the shiny brown-maroon leather platforms of mimosa-toasting brunch-goers, complaining about the stragglers of "old D.C." These visions of Jay are part of what make Residue a strong experience. The movie weaves between past and present, nightmares and waking hours. As a child, we see Jay (JaCari Dye), passing through strands of conversations about 2Pac's death. Whether or not Jay remembered this conversation, or if this is the older Jay projecting upon the past, or if this is filmmaker Jay creating a scene in his mind--is not clear. But the dreaminess of the film (those sparklers alight in fourth of July memories) shouldn't be mistaken for ambiguity--there is sharp and decisive clarity in Gerima's vision. In conjunction with the striking visuals and Gerima's excellent script are the Q Street characters--portrayed by an engaging ensemble--in past and present, who Jay interacts with, listening to and sharing conversation with. His visit isn't always warmly received, and at times, we sense a strain of longing, melancholy and guilt in Jay's moving away. His visit also sparks reminders of a past for those who have stayed, who are no longer a part of. In one scene, a show of photo slides has a winsome quality of what cannot be returned to, of possibility stunted by violence. Later this image of a face flickers within a devastated, rainy mourning of the present--a weeping character's face that the film can't bear to show. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, September 30, 2020


Recently I reviewed Song Fang's The Calming which dealt with journeys of quiet solitude in a noisy world in the wake of personal change. Chloé Zhao's (The Rider) brilliant and haunting Nomadland also deals with similar themes, in this case, with a piercing use of fiction mixed with raw realism. Empire, Nevada, a community built around a sheet rock factory which closed during the recession, ultimately became a ghost town--its zip code vanished, the houses, offices and the dust-covered helmets of factory workers abandoned. Fern (Frances McDormand) and her late husband both worked there. They lived a modest life in a ranch tract house. As in The Calming, we learn certain pieces of characters' lives from the witnessing of circumstance and through storytelling and conversation. 

Nomadland follows Fern's way of surviving in the aftermath of Empire and her husband's death, as she lives out of her van, traveling from place to place through the landscapes of the American West, looking for work. We see her taping up boxes at an Amazon factory (its cavernous, gleaming, fast-paced facility a stark contrast to the ruins of Empire), working in a kitchen, helping clean up trash. While mostly living in solitude and oft-aloof, we see her come in contact with other "van-dwellers," like a Vietnam vet with PTSD, at places like the "Desert Rose" RV Park, with other workers, and at one point, some of her family. McDormand joins a cast of mostly unprofessional actors as themselves who are telling their personal stories (Charlene Swankie, in particular, is memorable). Joshua James Richards' moody photography oscillates between the vast, bluish, beautiful landscapes and the extreme close-ups of the film's storytellers. Remarkably Zhao's picture, adapted from a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, manages to neither simplify nor pity the characters' experiences. Instead, this is a movie of tremendous empathy and close observation (the movie is carefully and gracefully edited by Zhao herself). McDormand--known for her shrewd performances, intimidating glances--gives her most compelling characterizations here. I am drawn to the intimacy of her turn: watching her listen, touching the bark of a tree, fiddling with a radio, describing the dinner plates of her childhood (one of the few physical objects of sentimentality that she hangs on to--her "counterspace" is her husband's old fishing box), folding laundry, singing "What Child is This?" on a darkening road (her lonely celebration of Christmas). Frances / Fern is singular, distinctive and quietly emotive, but she also blends in with everyone in the picture without any sense of superiority. She can also be sly and funny--short-haired, dressed in a pale navy hoodie and tan vest or overalls, tiny hoop earrings intact--with moments of droll physical and emotional comedy. Even as we experience the pangs of loss and difficulties in the lives of the nomads, we also witness their sense of hope and relationship with nature in their grind of survival. ****

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

the calming

 "Facing the universe makes you feel small," says one character in Song Fang's movie The Calming. This character has witnessed the Milky Way, making him feel "so small and insignificant," capturing it on film. The shots in The Calming, carefully composed by Fang and cinematographer Lu Songye, are less extravaganza and more spectacular in their ordinary beauty. This is the story of an artist's journey, in the wake of a break-up, back to establishing a sense of creation again. A documentary filmmaker, Lin (Xi Qi), travels from Tokyo to countrysides and towns by train, and ultimately back to her childhood home. It's a simple tale really, oft in solitude and stillness. People come and go that she vists in small scenes--many times people she hasn't seen in quite some time. The film does not announce who they are, instead we learn what her relationship with them may be, in moments of both clarity and opaqueness. 

What the film and Lin are most enraptured by are surroundings--especially the natural world. We see a dissonance between the natural and the technological from the beginning in the opening shot of a projection screen of a forest, establishing human's ability to facilitate the manipulation of natural imagery ("I think the brightness can be turned down a bit..."). Later in an answer and question session post a screening of Lin's film, an audience member asks, perhaps with a shade of disdain, "... would an art gallery be a more suitable place to show your film?" Fang seems knowing and unashamed with her film's tone and lingering visuals. In a film of such spareness, the contrasts can seem especially stark--the sounds of people talking in the streets, cars, and the cawing of birds. Between long pauses in dialogue, the airiness of "empty sound" is even heard on the mix. When sharing a meal in a restaurant, a place noted for not changing in in forty years, out the large window, a garden. In one of the more visually arresting slices of the picture, Lin finds herself in a snow-swept town. We watch her in her black heavy coat, denim bag slung over shoulder, a single braid, and listen to the crackle of snow--snow heavy on branches on which a single bird flutters out. In contrast, we later see a bird nest heavy on a high, bare tree. In one moment, she studies historical artifacts behind glass, including a copy of Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country. We learn later that Lin has long been entranced by snow since childhood. 

As hear wind through trees, as we watch Lin clean the surfaces of a very beige apartment, and arrange houseplants, there's always a sense of contentment with a sparking hint of dissatisfaction. Another train ride. Another lonely room, looking out at a city skyline or factories alight in the night. In one shot, the camera peers through a curtain at a still audience in red plush seats listening to Handel's aria "Convey me to some peaceful shore." And then we see Lin's face among the listeners and viewers, tears brimming her shut eyes. The Calming is a lovely ride, leaving us to "some peaceful shore," as sounds run over the credits (locusts, birds, and bubbling streams), but it's grounded in the frail, sometimes banal, sometimes quietly joyful and quietly agonizing realities of human existence.  ***

-Jeffery Berg