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

Monday, September 21, 2020

the inheritance

Ephraim Asili's first full-length feature film The Inheritance mixes the feel of documentary and narrative fiction in a fascinating portrait of a Black Philadelphia social collective named House of Ubuntu. Julian (Eric Lockley) helps set this collective alongside a small group of people in a home of books, music, political readers and magazines inherited from his grandmother. There are guest speakers, like those who shed light on the story of MOVE, the philosophies of John Africa, and the 1985 tragedy inflicted by the government of Philadelphia. This is a pivotal, captivating part of the film in particular, utilizing and mixing footage with the heartbeat-feel of the present. Also within the film are moving poetry readings by Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker and spare shots of hard-hitting, meditative quotes for the characters and viewer to ponder over. 

However, The Inheritance is not a ponderous piece. Visually, the movie is very involving and rich. I was particularly drawn to all the loving shots of old books and LPs, their covers and jacket designs (Toni Morrison's Tar Baby is a striking moment of a young woman in reading--perhaps ignoring someone's green smoothie mishap in the kitchen). The items of Julian's grandmother's past, in the hands of a new generation, are warmly captured--a tapestry of Black experience / art infused into the current. Asili seems Godard-inspired (a poster of La Chinoise figures) both in style with those bright primary colors and moments of electric, exquisite compositions (the film is shot and edited by Asili) and in genre-play, tone and sound (the mix and editing style is rough, occasionally jagged, but never in a flashy, obtrusive manner). The color palate, of course, is not Godard's alone as Asili creates an exquisite piece of his own collage-like piece of art: per Asili in Artforum, "Once I accepted the conditions of studio filmmaking, the black box became my blank canvas and I built the set design color by color, object by object. I spent about nine months traveling around to different stores and markets buying the objects that provide much of the mise en scène. I also used a lot of materials from my personal collection. Every book, poster, painting, piece of fabric and furniture was handpicked." I am fascinated by his process and care here. But this film is more than just canny craftmanship, it's lovably worn-around-the-edges, especially in the unfussy performances of the ensemble, and is stirring in its subject matter. With any group of people trying to foster a community under one roof, there are squabbles here and there--trying to remain shoe-less, creating chore schedules, figuring out who should be a guest speaker--the ramifications of which can be both minutia and of upmost significance within the fold of the collective's vision. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, September 18, 2020

lovers rock

After watching Steve McQueen's "Lovers Rock," I was reading Langston Hughes and came across these lines from his poem "Harlem Night Club": "Jazz-boys, jazz-boys,-- / Play, plAY, PLAY! / Tomorrow.... is darkness. / Joy today!" The sensuous dance party held in "Lovers Rock" encapsulates a fleeting, joyful party in a particular moment in time. Even within the party, as undercurrents of disharmony and moments of distress arise, we know paradise can't last forever. "Lovers Rock" is a gem within McQueen's Small Axe series, about the Black West Indian experience around 1980. 

I have been a fan of McQueen's work, especially 12 Years a Slave which, despite being a story that had been told before and despite its subversively old-fashioned presentation in the vein of familiar "heroic" white cinematic tales, was still a  startling movie and one that struck like a bolt of lightning in the middle of 2013. I was enraptured too with both Shame and the very underrated Widows, both of which didn't get the same galvanizing response from audiences and critics, but offered similarly complicated characters and unflinching subject matter within rapturously specific tales that few films of today offer. There is something broadly painted about his films, yet so honed-in and microscopic.

"Lovers Rock," a day into night into the morning after piece, begins with a train moving through darkness akin to a rolled-up carpet we see being moved for the dance floor. Much of the opening, elegantly filmed, is the set-up for the event in bay-windowed sun-glinted, paint-chipped interiors, elegantly filmed (photography is by Shabier Kirchner). Immediately we are eased into the rich, transporting sound mix. Women in a kitchen preparing food happily singing "Silly Games" (an overture to an unforgettable, what's-to-come centerpiece moment of the film). Young women gleefully singing Blondie's "Sunday Girl" with handclaps. The textured sound of flipping through papered-45 sleeves. Getting the sound-systems and speakers right and the echoing mic checks. Usually I am sensitive to and irked by the over-amplification of the rustling sound of burning cigarettes / joints in films (a phenomenon in indie films of recent years), but here it doesn't seem superfluous--its intrinsic to the atmosphere. As the film moves to the party, the lighting morphs to a rosy orange glow, a bulb hung around the DJ's neck, and here we begin to see the frictions (big and small) between men and women in a social setting--women on the dancefloor in the beginning chopping it up with "Kung Fu Fighting" and then down with a strand of Chic's "He's the Greatest Dancer" (compare and contrast that to Chic's desperate, chilly appearance with "I Want Your Love" in Shame) as the men pose as wallflowers, scoping out the scene, and then soon, the men and women are dancing together, with some on the outs, vibing, eyeing on in moments of loneliness. Like a ballet, a dancer enters out-of-rhythm and off-kilter, setting a new, impassioned tone on the floor. Time literally stopped and nothing else mattered when I first saw the dance set to Janet Kay's "Silly Games." It's such an unbelievably gorgeous, haunting experience--one of the most ecstatic filmmaking moments of song and dance I've seen in a while. And as the flitting images of crosses suggest, this party is communal, holy. As with much of McQueen's other work, the movie is more about experience rather than complex narrative, so the encounter, potential-relationship story at the center of "Lovers Rock" of young Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) in a faintly glittering purple sheath (perfect costuming all-around by the reliably great Jacqueline Durran) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), isn't as riveting as the world rotating around them. But as this paradise moves into the morning after with a beautifully-shot bike ride and our buzz killed by a red-haired white man, "we can see it in" her "eyes," Martha relives her night with resplendent joy. ****

-Jeffery Berg