Why do I wake up? Good thing anyway because DK set his alarm for 8:00PM instead of 8:00 AM.
The hotel breakfast buffet is a travesty. The milk and orange juice are room temperature. There is no meat. I never thought of kim-bap as an early morning food, but there it is. I’m confused by the jelly packet. “What am I supposed to do with this thing,” I ask DK. “Fold it in half and squeeze the two sides together.” Okay. The thing explodes all over my suit and white shirt. There’s a flaw in the design of the jelly containers they have in this country. As I’m dabbing the jelly with cold water and a napkin, the red print from the hotel napkin bleeds onto my shirt. The jelly comes right out; the dye does not.
(DK: The ineptitude with which DJ handles modern conveniences such as tissues or jelly packs makes me fearful for the evening meal when we are almost assured of encountering wet naps.)
The ticket situation so far is quite improved from yesterday’s sopping and confused wait. I’m second in line and the dry, cool weather is nothing short of glorious. It’s actually pleasant to stand in a line for forty-five minutes with nothing to do but wait and look. I notice Harpo again. I suppose it should come as no surprise that I would see the same people in line every morning, but somehow her get-up and uncanny, unfortunate resemblance to the mute Marx brother is always surprising.
Hotel interlude. It occurs to me that I say “diddly” far too often. Let us hope that admission is the first step to recovery.
(DK: I forego the early screening in anticipation of an industry event later in the afternoon where I will dress up in a suit and masquerade as a grownup professional in hopes of generating some sort of interest for our Theater project. My plan is to arm myself with impressive documents and to smile and bow a lot.
Although I am not hopeful, I know that relying on DJ to accomplish any sort of productive human interaction is suicide. Simply suicide.)
The Nine Muses (2010, English, John Akomfrah)
I can tell you what I saw, but I don’t think I can tell you what this movie is about after one viewing. Akomfrah uses three basic ingredients: gorgeous digital photography of what must be Alaska or northern Canada, archive footage which deals mostly with black in England in the 1960’s though there is also some footage of Indians in England as well and intertitles and voiceover narration consisting almost entirely of Western Literature from Homer to Shakespeare to Beckett. It was all very interesting I just can’t say what it adds up to. I was taken with the DV sections that almost always showed a single person from behind looking out over a snowy landscape. I don’t know how the Western Literature contextualized those images, but they were always quite striking. The idea conflict of culture that results from the displacement of Africans was evident in the juxtaposition of the narration and intertitles to the images of Afro-English Diaspora, but on a first viewing, I have more questions than insights.
DK is convinced that we have time to eat bi-bim-bap before the Claire Denis program. Alas, they are closed, so now we really have to move fast. Somehow we decide that we have time for sushi. After sitting there for about twenty minutes I mention that almost every other table in the restaurant has been served since we sat down. We timed this poorly. DK runs up and cancels our order, as it is now twenty minutes to 2:00. I don’t know what any of the street food is, and there are lines everywhere anyway, so we have convenience store food. I had a 1000 won Snickers and a 1300 won sandwich. I guess I can accept that price structure.
(DK: The uncomfortable subtext to our entire expedition is that I am somehow here to merely feed, shelter and entertain DJ. He complains incessantly about things that are out of my control, such as the availability of a certain type of noodle or the barometric pressure.
Were it not for the fact that we are about to go see Claire Denis in person and that I am thus impervious to his negativity, I would seriously consider putting out a hit on him. Also, I haven’t really been keeping notes during the screenings.)
35 Shots of Rum (2008, French, Claire Denis)
You see this is why I have no time for artists that I have given a fair shot, but who do not hold my interest because they are one-dimensional or overrated. There are too many great filmmakers that I don’t know yet, and when I discover them, I have to dive in. So, to all my friends who want me to watch more movies by Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch and Charlie Kaufman – to give these guys yet another chance, I have to say, sorry, but I just discovered Claire Denis.
(DK: I want to be more rigorous, explicit and mechanical in my explication of Denis’ genius, but her films inspire only adjectival hyperbole–masterfully assured! dizzyingly sensuous! subtly complex! You leave the theater feeling drunk on fine wine.
With a nod to Ozu’s Late Spring, Denis conjures another rhapsodic meditation on bodies, love and solitude. As always, attention to narrative exposition falls secondary to the exploration of individuals and behavior; yet 35 Shots feels more deeply personal and assured for Denis, as well. The way the camera and the characters revolve around the taciturn central figure of the father (Alex Descas) resonates with a kind of respectful adulation, while celebrating his masculine mystery. She delves freely into this little-seen West-African French milieu without a hint of self-consciousness. She makes black skin appear positively luminous. Rather than rely on plot, motivations and resolution, she appears confident in the ability of an accumulation of vivid details and the occasional non-narrative discursion–such as handheld shots of railroad tracks taken from the driver’s cabin–to complete the film’s emotional arc.
She is quite simply our greatest cinematic poet of human touch. Like Cassavetes or Wong Kar-Wai, she does not merely show people in contact, embracing, dancing, exploring or lashing out–she creates a palpable pulse of sensation and frisson through her heightened visual attention, long takes, close-ups and music. This is no more evident than in the virtuoso central dance sequence that also neatly serves to illustrate the complex confluence of plot, theme and character that is her signature. Watch the embrace between father and daughter (Mati Diop), the graceful exchange of partners, the first delicate clasp of hands between Josephine and Noe (Gregoire Colin), Lionel’s conflicted gaze, then Noe’s undoing of Josephine’s hair and her slight stiffening leading to his kiss and her firm break and re-direction as she gently, insistently pulls him down to sit beside her, intimate but estranged. This is a symphony of meaningful gestures, a ballet of significant touches.
As always, I could go on and on when it comes to her films, but I’ll let the work do the talking… and the moving… and the crooning…)
Lecture and discussion – what they call a “Masterclass” here at JIFF. DK split for an industry event to try to find someone who will give us money to open a physical Cinema Underground so we can show some movies and offer free film school. Interesting. I notice that Chris Fujiwara is the moderator. I know that name from somewhere. As they are getting set up, Claire smashes her head on the bottom of the screen. This trauma does not stop her from saying one brilliant thing after another and from turning bad questions to gold. After watching Kidlat Tahimik the night before, I get the sense that this is a skill you have to develop if you submit to these kinds of things.
Here are some quotes:
“I love a festival because that’s the best school for filmmaking. There’s nothing better [for young filmmakers] than watching films.”
“I always say more in my films than what I can express after.”
When asked about rooting her characters to their jobs: “As an audience [member] I like to know what is their job. I don’t feel secure when I don’t know where the money comes from.”
“Love is not given like a solid thing; it is made of movement.”
“Metaphor is sometimes a little puerile. I would not make a film around a metaphor and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do so.”
If you’ve read the Cinema Underground Provisional Manifesto, you should have a good idea of what we think of film criticism and film critics in general. We both recognized Chris Fujiwara’s name, but since neither DK nor myself could think of anything he wrote I assumed the worst. In fact, when DK handed him our card I immediately thought I should go to my website and make sure that I didn’t eviscerate him in my review of the Tarkovsky Anthology. After confirming that I was safe on that front, I looked him up online and found this: http://www.insanemute.com/.
I cannot recommend his writing highly enough. In criticism I am as attracted to the salient dismantling of mediocrity as I am to insightful analysis of genius, perhaps to a fault. At least that’s my litmus test. So when I saw headings for Magnolia and Steven Soderberg’s Solaris, I went straight to them to see if Fujiwara would distinguish himself from the majority. I am happy to say that he did and does, and I am very glad to have made the acquaintance of one of the best film critics on the planet.
(DK: As usual when it comes to socialization, I was the one who had to initiate contact with Chris Fujiwara, make small-talk and contextualize our visit to Jeonju so as to make us appear as somewhat social equals. We chatted briefly about festivals and the exhibition scene in Tokyo, while I gave him my card and hinted about our theater project. At some point, I motioned to DJ as my “business partner” whereupon I think he blurted something about “I like movie!” effectively obliterating our dignity.)
Looking for the best bi-bim-bap? Get in a cab and ask the driver where he would eat. This might be better than the best bi-bim-bap ever from the first day. There’s certainly more bonchon, and that’s crucial. They even brought us some special paste that they apparently don’t give to everyone. The one thing this place does not have going for it: Harpo is here! It’s one thing to see the same eccentric in line with use every day, but what are the odds that she would end up in this restaurant that we only found out about from asking the cab driver? She’s like a real Marx brother, turning up where you would never expect.
The Turin Horse (2011, Hungarian, Béla Tarr)
First things first, the atmosphere in here reminds me of camping in Missouri in July. That’s not an ideal state to view such a slow movie. The entire audience fights against nodding off. I’m going to have to write a longer review of this film. It was deliberately grueling experience. I’ve seen nothing like it except maybe Sokurov’s Second Circle another film that, coincidentally, takes the mystery of death as its subject as well. I thought about what Claire Denis said about not making a movie out of a metaphor, and I wonder if that’s what Tarr has done.
(DK: The movie and its subject were relentlessly brutal–but not altogether dis-pleasing. It’s my first Bela Tarr movie and I feel intuitively I know where he’s coming from. He wants us to feel the terrible inertia of mortality, the dark terror of spiritual barrenness. And the theater is hot like a bloody sauna, while wild wind blows constantly over the soundtrack. It’s the kind of film that I know will grow in stature after I leave the discomfort of my immediate experience.)
Whatever it was, The Turin Horse is not uplifting, and I thought it would be disrespectful to go out partying afterwards. I don’t think it’s the kind of film you should ignore. Then again, who knows when we’ll be here again, so I agree to Miller Time on the condition that we agree not to talk about the movie. Should I be surprised that as we take our seats I see Harpo come in the front door? We had some really horrendous bar food and I believe that between the bar and the Hoegaardens in the hotel room we ended up drinking more than the previous two nights.
(DK: My reaction to the crushing gravitas of the Tarr film is to offer to shake it off with a few drinks and a few laughs in front of the local university. DJ’s reaction is to shun and denounce all form of pleasure or enjoyment. We compromise by going to a bar that we know will suck.)
The last day went off without a hitch. We had only one program to attend, so we took breakfast rather leisurely before checking out and setting off for the JIFF Project digital video program.
(DK: The JIFF Digital Project is the centerpiece of the festival as it represents the artistic culmination of JIFF’s commitment to digital filmmaking. Every year three renowned directors are chosen to receive US$150k funding to create a digital short to be premiered at the following year’s festival. The works are shown together as part of a single program and also distributed through DVD and screened at other festivals and venues. Previous participating filmmakers include Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-Liang, Harun Farocki, Jia Zhang-ke and Bong Joon-ho.)
The first short was ludicrous. It was by Jean-Marie Straub, a veteran filmmaker whose works I have never had a chance to see. His early works make a significant appearance in Amos Vogel’s Film As a Subversive Art, so I will reserve judgment until I see a few more, because I do trust Vogel for the most part. DK said that An Heir is why people have a bad impression of art movies. I just thought there was no idea behind it, as if they had given him the money and he couldn’t think of anything so he filmed three shots of a guy talking.
(DK: An unbearably pretentious piece of shit. If I was JIFF, I would ask for the remaining US$149k back from Straub.)
Denis’ To the Devil is much more interesting. It’s pretty straight-forward documentary, but it tells a story you probably haven’t heard.
(DK: Denis has an arch taste, it seems, for misunderstood bad boys. It is why the delicately handsome Gregoire Colin figures so prominently in her works and also why, I suspect, she became so engrossed in this story of the outlaw Jean Bena. The film’s most telling moment is captured when Denis offers the man, now over 40 and seemingly engorged by a life of hardship, a photo of himself as a young idealist 20 years earlier. “Look at this young Jean Bena,” Bena beams with a mixture of pride and regret. The toll on the man is as apparent as the ground from which he and his associates strip-mine for gold.)
Memories of a Morning by José Luis Guerín was the standout work of the program. Like last night’s The Turin Horse it was also about death, but approached the matter from a completely different angle and with a lighter touch to put it mildly. Here is another filmmaker whose works I must now seek out.
(DK: Densely-layered, humorous and poignant. As unexpected a film about death as one could imagine.)
After the film Denis and Guerín where on hand to field questions, but everything was in French, Spanish and Korean, so I can’t say much about that particular discussion. I’ll leave it to DK and his parenthetical responses.
I see no need to bookend this tale with a description of our trip back, so I’ll draw this to a close. JeonJu was a great success for Cinema Underground. We met some filmmakers, saw some great movies and ate like kings for three days. Stay tuned for various articles about the specific films.
This year’s Jeonju International Film Festival featured a retrospective of Kidlat Tahimik. In addition to showing all of his films, JIFF had scheduled for an event called “Cinetalk” to follow the screening of Turumba. In addition, since he made himself available for a Q & A after Perfumed Nightmare, I assume that Tahimik did much more than his scheduled appearance. He introduced Perfumed Nightmare saying, “I don’t make films; I let them happen.” “If I make films,” Tahimik added, “then I make them with the cosmos.”
He was serene, thoughtful and deliberate during discussion, often mining gold out of superficial questions and staying on point throughout regarding the danger of losing local culture. His answers to questions often included the word “duende.” The thing he said that I have been thinking about most was his advice to young filmmakers to tell the local story.
There are many cinema tropes we could apply to Tahimik’s movies. Stan Brakhage once called it telling the tales of the tribes. Murnau had a similar idea about the cinema as the means to create the new mythology. Tahimik does make movies on this grand scale, yet his sense of humor, his do-it-yourself ethic and his self-taught, amateur filmmaking have also earned him comparisons to Ed Wood. The mix of these is not only his charm; it is his genius. Tahimik’s films show us how you can create a self in a global culture that seeks to eliminate such possibility. They encourage us to do likewise as the fundamental means to effect societal change.
At the beginning of Perfumed Nightmare, Kidlat, playing himself, drives his jeepie across the only bridge in and out of his hometown. In longshot we see the jeepie get almost all the way across then reverse. This is the narrative trajectory of the film: leaving and coming back the way you came. Shortly after this there is sequence that shows Kidlat working his way toward a state of readiness to depart. He drags three versions of his jeepie across the bridge with a rope, first as a small push toy, next as a child’s peddle car and finally as the actual steel vehicle. He announces, “I am Kidlat Tahimik. I choose my vehicle and I can cross this bridge,” then “I can cross any bridge,” and finally, when pulling the full-sized jeepie, “I can cross all bridges.”
The crosscutting between public events (a funeral, a beauty pageant, a wedding) and the lush countryside can seem disjointed, but it is establishing precisely the relationship between the two principle aspects of rural village life. The influence of the west is ever present. The voice of America radio is but one major presence of the western world. Kidlat leaves his country enamored with the West. Indeed one would have to be to go off with such a cartoonish American dressed, as he is in shorts, safari shirt, sunglasses and a Smokey the Bear hat. It is unclear why the American takes an interest in him, and decides to take him to Paris. I suppose it is enough that he is a comic representation of America and that as such he would take what he wants from the third world and think that he is doing someone a favor in the process.
The sense of humor, the light-hearted improvisational attitude about life is one of Tahimik’s most important qualities. A local businesswoman hires Kidlat’s jeepy to haul a huge block of ice. They don’t travel far before the block slides out the back of the vehicle and a chunk of is shatters on the pavement. Children scurry around grabbing shards of it for themselves, and there is an insert shot of Kidlat himself taking a demonstrative bite out of a huge hunk and laughing.
One of his recurring interests is the way village culture adapts industry on a small scale. In Perfumed Nightmare this is manifest in a long sequence of men working on old jeepies. There are detail shots of grimy fingernails and dirty hands manipulating metal and swinging hammers. The pings and crashes turn into soundtrack music. “An old jeepie never dies,” he says, as the mechanics repair, replace and salvage. Kidlat even makes a child-sized pedal-jeepie out of spare parts to give to his son.
From a Western perspective, which I take it upon myself to represent, there is a particularly excruciating scene that shows pre-adolescent boys “becoming men,” that is, being circumcised. It is as graphic as it could be, complete with the isolated soundtrack noise of the “clap, clap” of the hammer on the handle of the blade as it slices through the tiny foreskins.
This may make you squeamish, it’s certainly difficult for me to watch, but the point is to paint a broad picture of the culture. It is not meant to shock, but demands some negotiation on the part of the viewer to fit such a “primitive” practice into the world we have been getting to know so far. It also will serve as a point of reference later, when Kidlat finds he cannot live in the wasteful and dishonest world of the West.
Kidlat seamlessly befriends people from all cultures. It should come as little surprise that the people he develops relationships with in Paris are the street vendors. They constitute the community that is closest to what he left behind. They are also the old world relics that are being pushed out of modern Paris.
However, it doesn’t take long for Kidlat to get over being enamored of the bridges in Paris, and the only thing left for him is to become a mythological being, to change the world with his breath. He blows into the new incinerators, and they turn into spacecraft to take him back home. Only it is not mere myth, for he does not proclaim himself a God. Rather he declares his independence from the this world of limitless, unchecked “progress.”
Where Perfumed Nightmare makes a mythology of the local story, Turumba states it directly, and discloses the consequences of development explicitly. Though it celebrates the local culture, Turumba also shows how village culture is exploited and threatened.
Turumba begins by detailing the village life focusing on the inventiveness and exuberance of the people. The Turumba festival is the lynchpin of the narrative because it gives Tahimik a chance to reveal village life at its joyful best, but it also contains the seed of the familial disaster. Because she appreciates their unique craftsmanship, the German antique dealer puts the family in business making paper mache dolls far beyond their traditional output. They become rich and can suddenly afford television, phonographs and electric fans, but what begins as a positive boon quickly gets out of control. When business is good it begets more business and soon everyone is working overtime to meet the next order, skimping on quality and letting all other concerns, particularly the Turumba festival, fall to the wayside.
This is manifest most clearly in the character of the father who starts the film as an integral part of the traditional festival, but ends it as a callous businessman. Tahimik includes several scenes of the father singing and leading band practice so that the audience can understand the loss. It is a personal loss of his own values and a loss for the community because he is a revered participant in the festival.
In contrast to the father is Patí the blacksmith. He uses technology as well but he does not let it use him. In part Patí is presented as an alternative to the father because he is a proponent of rather old technology. Metallurgy has been with us for quite some time. The more salient aspect of his character, however, is that Patí is content to stay within certain limitations. He has no lust for more, no desire to accumulate things. His mind is rather one-track. He loves steel, but he loves it for it’s potential. Patí sees the trailer that has arrived to load the paper maché dolls into, and he thinks only of the machetes he could make out of its parts.
The fundamental tension in both films is between the positive and negative effects of progress. Tahimik, after all, uses the most advanced technology of the time to record and preserve a culture that technology is destroying by progressing unchecked. This was the predominant subject of Tahimik’s talk following Turumba.
During the Q & A that followed the screening, someone asked Tahimik if the community he documents exits anymore, and can it be brought about in the places it does not exist. As he was answering, I thought of how the rural areas and small towns in the States tend to emphasize xenophobia and racism as key components of community building. I wonder if this is a Western problem. In the West when we make the family the center, even and perhaps especially when that family extends to the small community, it tends to foster mistrust and fear of outsiders.
I also wonder if we are not past these kinds of communities as a global possibility. It seems to me that everyone everywhere just wants to be able to access the Internet from his or her mobile phones. Most people don’t want to really live among the trees and rivers the way Tahimik believes is necessary. Some people want retreats; they want vacations, but they don’t want to live like that. Hell, I doubt I could live like that at this point.
Maybe wholesale rejection of cutting edge technology is not the only answer. The best thing about Tahimik is that he leads by example. I don’t see how anyone could be in his presence for five minutes and not want to live the life he espouses. Maybe we don’t have to change the world if we are willing to change ourselves. Both Perfumed Nightmare and Turumba show that we do not have to submit to the march of progress. There are always options. We can do as Kidlat does in Perfumed Nightmare; we can reclaim our independence through acts of defiance and love.
A couple days before we were to leave for the Jeonju International Film Festival, DK and I were walking down the street trying to think of feature ideas for the event. He’s been pressuring me to be funnier and less serious, which isn’t really why I got into film criticism. I tend to oscillate between reverent and cantankerous. But I try to play along, just saying whatever I can think of. As Karl Pilkington once said: I find if you just start talking, you’ll say something. Eventually I suggested that I could do a Bill Simmons-style running diary of the event. DK’s eyes lit up, and I knew I had made a mistake. Then again, what the hell? The following is an account of our time at JIFF: the travel, the hotels, the food, the beer and even some movies.
DAY ONE: Friday April 29, 2011
We get on the train. There are about seven people in the car, yet they managed to seat all of us together. The rows in front of us and behind us are full, there is a guy in the seat across from us, and the rest of the car is empty. I watch Mavericks/Blazers updates on ESPN.com, and DK tries to steal my Skype password. He says that he just wants to call his parents, but I know what is really going on.
I wake DK and ask him if this is our stop. My logic is that the white people in front of us were getting off, so I figure we must be going to the same place. Instinct pays off, and we quickly gather our stuff. On the way out of the train I snag a sleep mask. The room where I stay in Seoul is too bright for sleeping at night. It’s like trying to sleep in a hotel bathroom.
The first sign of trouble (or exhibit A if you prefer the legal metaphor) that it’s a good idea to plan things: we don’t know where the bus will stop. We end up walking down the street a couple blocks to the bus station. Judging form the shops we walk past, it seems that this entire town is in the auto-parts or auto-repair industry.
(DK: A recurring theme in this report will be DJ’s paranoia and xenophobia. As well as his aversion to physical exertion.)
I don’t know what happened, because I’m just following along. Either we got off at the wrong stop or the bus stopped somewhere DK didn’t expect, so we take a cab the rest of the way to the festival. There’s a big board next to the main ticketing set-up that shows the screening schedule for the weekend. It seems that almost everything is sold out. For a moment I consider forcing DK into a suicide pact, but then we find out that they reserve 15% of the available tickets for sale the day of the show. All we have to do is get in line at 9:30 the next morning. Fair enough. We get a ticket for Ana at 8:00 and head off to look for a hotel.
After wandering around for a few minutes in the seediest neighborhood I’ve seen in this country, we reach the Hotel California. How to describe it? DK uses the phrase “Love Hotel,” and indeed the room number is printed on a heart-shaped placard attached to the door. It’s fair to assume that this place has hourly rates. Honestly I’m surprised that they have rooms with two beds. Still, it will be a place to sleep. There is even a balcony that is almost the width of my foot, so I can stand on it either sideways or on my tiptoes and enjoy the view of other sketchy hotels and gentlemen’s clubs.
(DK: How to describe DJ’s aversion to our admittedly sketchy accommodations? Like a guy taking his first shower in prison? I find his skeevishness mildly amusing considering his love of Fassbinder, Paul Morrissey and pickup basketball. I suspect that he is afraid I will try something on him while he is asleep. Latent homophobia will be another recurring theme.)
The best bi-bim-bap ever. DK promised and delivered. It’s the first time I have eaten it with raw beef. It continues to cook while you eat, trapped as it is in steaming hot rice and a burning hot pot. Actually it never really fully cooks, but so much the better for flavor and texture. If you eat meat, you should be willing and able to eat it raw. I think it was my grandmother who used to say that.
We have significant time to kill before the film, so we wander through endless shopping centers. Everything here has more floors than I expect. In the States the only thing you will find in buildings taller that two or three stories are offices and apartments, but over here they jam everything in there. Even the movie theaters we are going to all have seven or eight floors. It isn’t like we are buying things, so we abandon the endless shopping centers and have some coffee at the unfortunately named Brown City. Actually, I had a smoothie.
Ana (1984, Portuguese, António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro).
DK sleeps through much of it and then says that he didn’t think it was very good. I have a rather more positive impression. We have some discussion about whether it was mythic of allegorical. I’ll admit that it could have been overly symbolic. There were some inexplicable images – a baby laying unattended in the middle a road or a field, a woman dressed in rather pristine white who seems to be holding a fox as if it’s a pet, a rather explicitly staged Renaissance Virgin tableaux. However, since I don’t know anything about Portuguese history or culture, I just chalked it all up to idiosyncratic visual metaphor, which I often hail as a major strength. DK did point out that the adolescent daughter (I can’t remember if her name was given) wears the colors of the Portuguese flag, so I imagine that must stand for something. But is it an obvious symbol? I can’t say for certain. I thought Ana was interesting, and I tend to automatically esteem films that are slow and quiet. Also it seemed to be in direct dialog with Andrei Tarkovsky, even going so far as to quote quite freely from the end of Mirror as it reached its own conclusion. Perhaps I’m a sucker for works that seems indebted to Tarkovsky.
(DK: In reality I slept for about ten minutes and was awoken to the sight and sounds of a gaggle of wildly cackling geese. This may have been partly responsible for my unfavorable impression. More to the point, it was not the slowness or the symbolism per se that turned me off. The film seemed more like an exercise in shot-making to me. Purposely stilted acting, a largely inscrutable narrative and langour for the sake of langour. Like Pasolini or Jodorowsky without the gusto. I’d give the filmmakers another chance, however, especially given my ignorance of Portuguese film.)
We caught the last throes of some sort of event in the main ticketing and information area. There was free booze so we had some warm rice wine. It was tepid and syrupy and it hurt my feelings. There was a girl sitting by herself drinking a bottle of red wine like it was a forty. I felt a little better because of that.
(DK: I tried to encourage DJ to interact with another female human but he steadfastly declined. It was at this time I began to suspect he was purposely withholding his bowel movements in order to ruin the festival for me.)
The neighborhood around the Hotel California is now almost completely neon. Every door is a gentlemen’s club or a hotel. You mix and match. The clerk at the Family Mart where we buy our beers for the night seems far to young a woman to be working in this neighborhood, but I’m not from this country.
Loudness. I thought beer would help me sleep, but no such luck. Maybe I didn’t drink enough? It happens sometimes. Every time there is a breeze, which is pretty constant, the door rattles. All night long it sounds like someone has a hold of the handle, and he’s just jostling it back and forth, trying to make as much noise as possible. Does the breeze at least cool off the room? Not even a little. We have to leave in less than six hours to make sure we get tickets for tomorrow’s shows.
(DK: DJ complains incessantly about the room temperature while sleeping in front of the open veranda with a fan at the foot of his (larger) bed. I had no trouble sleeping whatsoever and did not notice any undue noise. In my heart, I believe DJ was anticipating intruders barging into our room and violating him. His disappointment spills over into his bitter words.)
DAY TWO: April 30, 2011
I slept a couple hours.
Pouring rain. We have to figure out what to do with all our bags. It would be annoying enough if it was clear and sunny, but when it’s raining like frogs and cats, the unwieldy turns burdensome. Did I mention that you are only allowed to buy four tickets at once? So I watch our stuff under a tent while Dave stands in line to get tickets for the Cine-Talk program with Kidlat Tahimik and Nostalgia for the Light.
(DK: I cannot trust DJ to acquire the correct tickets or to speak to the young volunteers at the box office without discrediting us with his misanthropy. So I let him stand under cover, as far away from other people as possible. Also, I borrow his jacket to quickly scour the surrounding area for some sort of convenience store selling umbrellas. DJ seems to take this as a given that I will scramble about in the rain getting drenched while he lounges in the lobby, checking his email. I regret our friendship.)
The rain stopped. From where I’m standing I can see that in front of DK in line are a girl who looks like Harpo Marx and a guy who seems to be wearing an ascot made of white mohair. DK and I alternately complain about the wait and bust each other’s balls a little bit when without warning a nearby English speaker inexplicably joins in. “Is this line even moving?” I ask. The guy, who’s wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt pipes up, “People are buying tickets to several different shows so it goes pretty slow.” Okay. Did you think I was just addressing all English speakers? After I accuse DK of being lazy, he says, “I’ve been standing in the fucking rain for an hour,” and our new friend retorts, “It isn’t raining.” Did I mention this fellow never introduced himself? Just started participating. He wasn’t even looking at us. He was addressing an invisible person floating above the crowd, but always in response to the things we were saying to each other. That’s borderline pathological.
(DK: The guy who looked like he was wearing the ascot actually had a plume of white chest hairs blooming from the neck of his shirt that reached his chin like a bird’s crest. It was simultaneously the most disgusting and fascinating thing I have ever seen involving bodily hair. Just repulsive. And didn’t those clueless hipster kids take their sweet fucking time buying their tickets due to the fact that they paid no heed whatsoever to the guy calling out the names of the sold out shows? In contrast, I completed my transaction in about 30 seconds as a long line of guests waited in the rain to purchase tickets behind me. Festival etiquette people!)
The clerk at the hotel we reserved lets us leave our stuff behind the desk since we can’t check in yet. We get breakfast at Paris Baguette. It is uncharacteristically cheap. The must have a different price structure here in Jeonju than the have in Seoul.
Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Spanish, Patricio Guzmán)
On the way in two different volunteers stopped me to say that there are no English subtitles for the film. The person who introduced the film once we got inside confirmed this. I pretend this will be okay, because one of the people on the way in told me that either the language or the subtitles were in German. I’m certainly not fluent, not even proficient, but it will be fun, I suppose, to see how far I get with my limited skills. The movie begins. It is in Spanish with French subtitles.
DK assures me that the movie was great. He goes back inside to use the washroom and leaves me standing next to a guy wearing a Jacques Derrida wig.
(DK: The film is a Chris Marker-esque rumination on the nature of time and our place in the universe. Director Guzman skillfully weaves together quantum theory, astral projection and devastating oral testimony from survivors of the Pinochet regime into a poignant and expansive documentary-essay. Filmed primarily in Chile’s Atacama Desert, Nostalgia for the Light enacts its own Copernican revolution in displacing the viewer from its local setting among the array of astrological observatories under the clearest sky on earth to a cosmic awareness of our shared humanity across time and space. Unforgettable. )
In the Japanese noodle place where we eat lunch, there is a TV playing some truly horrific pop music performances. I can’t tell if the past three songs have been performed by the same group of five girls who keep changing outfits, or if it’s a different set of girls every time. Is that racist?
(DK: No, but your hatred of things and customs which are different from what you are accustomed to is.)
Hotel interlude (i.e. naps).
Perfumed Nightmare (1977, English, Kidlat Tahimik).
Tahimik shows up for the screening, though he is not scheduled to do so. Actually, I had an inside scoop on this information, because he was standing in line behind me in the bathroom. It’s a strange place to meet a filmmaker. I saw this movie in 1995 in the first film course I ever took, and I have not revisited it or Tahimik since.
It was far greater than what I remembered. I duck out the side door before the talk begins so I can meet DK for dinner. He’s waiting for me in front of the theater. Some old ladies at the dry cleaners told him about a good place to eat meat. He doesn’t know where it is, but that won’t stop us, so we set off to look for a door in alley. We can’t find it, so we eat the first barbecue we find. There is mild disagreement about the quality of the pork. I eat a couple bugs with the bonchon. I can only describe the taste and texture as diverse.
(DK: It was the worst meal of pork I’ve ever eaten. I briefly considered converting to Islam after this meal. DJ seemed to enjoy it fine. My distrust of his taste grows.)
Turumba (1981, Filipino and Tagalog, Kidlat Tahimik).
The advertisements they run before every commercial are tedious and loud beyond what should be allowed in polite society: some guy who is utterly enamored with his own cuteness advertising tea which he believes makes his face thin, some sensitive type (you can tell by the length of his hair) taking a photo of a kitten on a rail and a bunch of high-pitched clams singing about texting. Is it obnoxious that these commercials are so tonally inappropriate for the movies we are watching here, or do they provide counterpoint?
(DK: I agree with DJ that the trailers are annoying and effeminate.)
I love this guy now. Not only were both movies great, Tahimik himself is about as peaceful a person as you will ever find. He gives long rambling answers to mostly tedious questions, but in doing so he manages to turn banal subjects into avenues for pursuing wisdom. Even though this room is unfriendly with heat and stuffiness, Tahimik remains utterly serene.
The first person to ask a question in English calls Tahimik a prophet. Settle down, buddy. The whole point of this guy’s personality is to neutralize those kinds of ideas. Perhaps it would be better to describe his film as prophetic. The difference is important. The heat in this theater is now punishing me. For what sins, I have no idea.
We are the last people to meet Kidlat before they shove us out the door. We tell him his film was wonderful, but I don’t get time to tell him my little story about being able to revisit Perfumed Nightmare with new eyes after all these years.
Miller Time. No, not the slogan from the television commercial from the seventies; it’s the actual name of a bar. We drink a pitcher. On the way out we get hung up by some middle-aged slob who, in his drunkenness, has found a way to simultaneously brag and complain about his English teaching job. Have I mentioned that almost every white person in this country is Canadian? We take his card and buy a couple Hoegaardens for the hotel room.
(DK: It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the North Americans over 30 at the Festival disgusted me.)
Flipping around, basically just looking for something in English, I find The Simpsons. The first episode is god-awful. Homer loses an eating contest; his opponent dies, and turns out to be a trucker, so Homer pays him tribute by making his last delivery for him. Not a single joke in the episode. Just coasting on characterisms. But the next one is a dandy – Homer has to wreck Moe’s car so Moe can collect the insurance and keep showing his girlfriend the sweet life. “Excellent, sir; lobster stuffed with tacos.”
(DK: Despite the rain and travel, and DJ’s annoying pretense that he is “working,” ending our second evening with Hoegaardens and The Simpsons is immensely satisfying. The atmosphere is film-festive!)
Why CINEMA UNDERGROUND?
Film is the most important medium of the past one hundred years, yet most people do not know what a good film is. Most of the masterworks of the medium have passed by the general population unnoticed or misunderstood.
We need a new aesthetics in film culture. Those that dominate the discourse and culture of cinema either fail to highlight the greatest works of art the medium has to offer or they neglect and distort what is valuable in those works.
The reasons for this are historical. Some vestige of an organic, evaluative system of values exists in the other arts because the terms for appreciating painting, architecture, dance, music, drama, poetry and literature have roots that reach far beyond the mid twentieth century. They all have rich aesthetic traditions that can withstand and absorb new trends and preoccupations. The cinema does not, and the results speak for themselves.
Film culture is currently dominated by three general aesthetic principles.
1. Success over Value
Did this movie “work?” To know what makes a movie good based on a set of cinematic rules is the domain of the professional reviewer. This leads to evaluation along the lines of “the ending was contrived” and “the acting was stiff,” comparing the film work to some Platonic ideal of cinema. Now, thanks to the internet, novices are getting involved and everyone is a qualified critic. The rules are not hard to learn after all: one need only align himself with a particular school or patron saint of popular cinema, Hitchcock and Welles from the golden age, or George Lucas, the Coen brothers or such crossover Indie artists such as Darren Aronofsky and Steven Soderbergh. The inherent problem with this system, of course, is that it internalizes an aesthetic based on the external indicators of success, either monetary or critical. But we believe art is measured by idiosyncratic vision and not by the perfection of ideal form, so this ideology is not useful to us.
2. Does this conform to my (political) belief system?
In academia–by which we mean what is taught in university film courses and what is published in scholarly journals, quarterlies and books and presented at academic conferences–external interpretive strategies dominate the scene. These methodologies are “external” in that they are not organic – either to cinema or to the fine arts. They are very often not aesthetics at all but analytical models imported from the social sciences, usually employing Marxism, feminism or queer theory to describe a given film as representation of a demographic group or their presumed ideology.
3. The Cineaste
For the movie buff, everything is good in its own way. Even if we happen to disagree about the relative value of something, the end result is inconsequential, because we are merely discussing opinions, and no one has the right to take away another person’s right to the enjoyment of beautiful cinematography or an especially charismatic performer. In ethics, this is an adequate system but aesthetics has to make evaluative judgments, and since the cineaste refuses to do this, her ideology is inadequate.
These aesthetics are insufficient. The first two are misleading and damaging. The third is ineffectual.
CINEMA UNDERGROUND is a response to the state of contemporary film culture. We do not pine for the halcyon days of yore when the opening of a new Godard or Bergman at the New Yorker was a society event. We do not have any first hand experience of those times. We must focus our attentions on our own time. And in our own time art cinema is marginalized and treated as a niche market.
Within that market are many conflicting tensions. On one hand, everyone is entitled to their opinion, whatever their training in the arts may be, whatever their level of experience. On the other hand, we have a film school system that teaches rigorous, technical appreciation for the Cinema, but makes little qualitative distinction between art cinema and mainstream movies.
- We find too many opinions about a given work or artist. They are all over the internet: emotional, knee-jerk, unreasoned positions that people want to share, but have no interest in revising.
- We believe in deliberation. We believe in digging beneath your likes and dislikes to find where those inclinations come from. The next step is to bring them to light and examine them.
- We believe in debate. One must consider alternatives to her interpretation even as she formulates it. Watching a film, deciding how good or bad it is and sharing the verdict with others is not a three step process.
- We need a new aesthetics in film culture based on the organic qualities of the medium. This is how aesthetics were developed for all other art, but in cinema appreciation we have been sidetracked by the above ideologies.
As a starting point we offer the introductions to the four modes. At the top of the homepage you will find tabs for pages that discuss:
- We believe in watching movies again and again. We believe some films are better than others. We believe there are wrong interpretations and wrong ways of interpreting. We know the difference between the mainstream and a work of unique vision. We want to champion the greats. We want to discuss the difference between genius and commercial fodder. The difference often rests on the tiniest filaments of meaning and on the subtlest decisions.
- We believe artists do things for a reason and it is the responsibility of the viewer to understand those reasons. It is not a clear message that a work of art imparts to its audience; it is not a statement that can be boiled down to succinct and eloquent verbal language. It is a matter of attention to style. It is not an ideological statement that a filmmaker may want to make through narrative, but what he does by holding a shot for ninety seconds instead of ten, by filming a doorway for a few seconds before the characters step into the frame instead of starting the take on the character’s action or the effect of having no score on the soundtrack. The style is the statement.
- We have developed a canon which is flexible and subject to change. Our expertise is not exhaustive. The filmmakers we champion as the patron saints of the medium did not preach suprasensible truths, and we do not posit their works as perfect answers to abstract questions.
Truth in art, as in life, is more of a suggestion than a solution. Artists seek myriad, conditional truths, not ultimate Truth. Likewise, we at CINEMA UNDERGROUND continue to seek out new truths, new forms of cinematic communication and new masters of the medium. We form our canon based on decades of combined experience. We know where our blind spots are and we will program series and events that address those weaknesses, particularly the cinemas of Latin America and Africa.
- We want to champion minor vision as well. Cult films and B-movies are interesting because they fail by commercial standards. To the market there is little difference between an art film and a cult film. We know the difference between them and we acknowledge it, but we also want to explore the quality that they share. Both the cult film and the art film subvert the mainstream. Both are often products of singular vision.
- We have no ideological antagonism toward entertainment. Yet, even in more light-hearted affairs we try to challenge and surprise the viewer. Roger Corman and Russ Meyer are not bad at doing what Spielberg and Michael Bay do. They deliver spectacle, but spectacle on their terms; spectacle which is not test-marketed; spectacle which does not hide beneath a veneer of technical virtuosity, spectacle which does not congratulate itself for dealing with important issues.
Throwing art into the free market is not enough. Simply presenting an alternative to the mainstream will only appeal to a certain kind of temperament (such as the aforementioned movie buff). Thus a theater with alternative programming is not sufficient. This is why we have a website that delineates our four mode aesthetic foundation, and offers what we believe to be a new kind of writing about cinema. We appeal to anyone who is curious about art cinema, not just film nerds or college students. We strive to give to the public the tools to appreciate the alternative we offer.
- We believe in comedy performance as a subversive art. We honor certain works and certain artists with reverence, but we also honor them with joy. We are scholars but this is not an academic mission. The writing you will find here is not scholarship, or it is a new kind of scholarship. Not that it is less thoughtful or poorly reasoned, but that it is open, stream of conscious and provisional. We want to be read by anyone who would be interested in watching these films, not just film students. We want to attract and inspire new viewers of the films we write about.