NYFF Reviews #3: Eden, The Princess of France, National Gallery, Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2014)

This new film by Mia Hansen-Løve in many ways mirrors and complements her previous work, Goodbye First Love. Both films present the coming of age and growing up of their young protagonists: a girl looking for love and herself in the last film and a young man on a similar journey in this one. In both films the lead characters are naive and pure but sincere and passionate. The films also are similar in technical and directorial perspective: tender, moody tones with melancholic and observational camerawork, shooting the subjects with closely synched velocity and intensity that matches the volatile emotional and psychological states of the characters.

One of the major differences is, of course, the source material. Eden is based on and inspired by the life of Hansen-Løve’s brother, Sven Hansen-Løve, who co-wrote the film. It also deviates from Goodbye First Love in the passions and nature of struggle of its protagonists. Paul is your guy here who is crazy about DJ’ing and house/garage music. Music envelops and completes him. In his quest for a life in and about music, Eden charts his trajectory from late teens to early thirties, during which he faces the trials and tribulations, harsh realities and invaluable experiences of growing up. This process of facing reality and losing our youthful idealism and innocence and how we hurt ourselves and others (while at the same time forming unshakeable bonds with others) is brilliantly and with effortless beauty presented by Hansen-Løve (with shades of Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air.)

Given that Paul’s passion is music, backgrounded by the inception of the Rave/House music scene in Paris, Eden also has another layer and huge subtext of what drives the artist to create art (music in this particular case), the single-minded obsessions which could be construed as naïveté in youth and unsustainable madness in adulthood. In this context, Eden is a modern-day counterpart to the genre of biographies of historical figures in the art world. Here Hansen-Løve goes for realism and authenticity and shows great technical skill. From the underground House music magazine (after which the movie is named) to the portrayal of EDM giants Daft Punk; from the pitch-perfect, hypnotic soundtrack to the various party and concert scenes (whether an expansive set piece in MoMA PS 1 in NYC or an intimate, pivotal but heartbreaking scene in club Silencio in Paris with ‘One More Time’ being played on screen), this could very well be a documentary on the beginnings of House music. Mesmerizing.

 

The Princess of France (Matías Piñeiro, 2014)

This is the latest entry in the Argentinian director’s series of films (of various lengths) dubbed ‘Shakesperiads,’ following Viola and Rosalinda. These films are neither based on the Bard’s specific plays nor interpretations of them, but rather about them or using them as inspirations. This one is inspired by ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.’ Piñeiro has been compared to Hong Sang-soo in his stylistic and directorial approach. His films are also short, airy, often funny and always with a touch of bittersweet optimism. On the surface this film might seem quite light and trivial but it would be missing the complex, delicately constructed (almost like it was diagrammed) screenplay and editing work filled with literary allusions and art references (Bouguereau’s ‘Nymphs and Satyr’ in particular) to fascinating effect. The lead, Victor, is a ladies’ man who returns to Buenos Aires after a year mourning his father’s death, where he plans to produce a radio version of the aforementioned play by Shakespeare. To execute the play, he gathers his company of known actors, essentially constituted of friends, lovers, ex-lovers and current and prospective girlfriends. LLL is a play about gender roles and how men and women approach and consider the opposite sex when it comes to love, passion and desire. Piñeiro turns this upside down by not only switching the genders of the characters when compared to the source play, but also in the radio play that Victor is trying to stage within the film, the male roles are performed by females. Added to this, the breathless pace and fluidly sensual camerawork with which the film progresses, quick (but never jarring) editing, carefully sewn narrative and the rapid-fire speed with which the characters speak, all create an overwhelming, exciting experience of watching young men and women falling in and out of love, traversing the vagaries of love with the best of their abilities. Trying to play a game of hearts with all at stake.

The prologue opens with a mesmerizing, continuous, long aerial shot (from a rooftop) of a neighborhood football (soccer) match in the nighttime with Schumann’s First Symphony in the background. The scene has little to do with the rest of the film, but its technical mastery, the complex beauty and commendable daring to juxtapose a contemporary crude physical sport with a classical music piece, is something to behold. In fact, the intricate synchronization of bodies and the game with the musical notes is something that prepares you for the rest of the film, where characters and genders overlap and transform and metamorphose into each other and with the play within, reflecting our own mercurial personalities and mind games when it comes to love and sex. It is surely a little film but not a small one.

 

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, 2014)

For the latest entry in the master filmmaker’s long and prolific career (40+ films strong and still going on in his 80s), Wiseman picks the famed, if not the biggest or largest, art gallery in London. Part of the reason seems to be logistics (it is not that big) plus approval from the museum body. In any case it is a dazzling experience, one that I didn’t want to end even after its 3-hour running time.

Wiseman has always gone behind the scenes and right into the center of various organizations and institutions he wanted to explore, laying bare with his precise and remarkable observational skills the workings of that organization that exist in our daily lives. ‘How do these structural establishments work?’ he wants us to see and think. In this documentary the meaning of ‘working’ seems to have evolved into something less tangible and less quotidian. There is a layering of the abstract and conceptual with the mundane in how he has approached this film. It is about all the ways we can see art, in all the myriad contexts where it can be seen, and the nature of the viewer and the viewee. Painting being the particular art form here.

A large chunk of the documentary is about tour guides explaining a certain painting. I find this very interesting, not because they were instructing us how to look at the painting which, if perfectly fine, is a bit simple and even pedantic. But for me it went even further into how art historians and guides view the art themselves. How their view, and not merely in the academic sense where they know more, differs from a layman’s. You not only understand or listen to the tour guide but you also see them seeing the painting. It is like the historians and guides themselves become an installation or piece to be viewed. They are the subject themselves as much as the painting.

Moving on, this movie is about the ‘viewers’ as well, whether they are the experts as mentioned above or the visitors. There are several shots, almost a third of the running time, of various people from all races and cultures, who are shown watching the paintings. Their expressions tell so much, especially if you notice what they are looking at. This gives you an idea about some person you don’t even know, by how they react to a certain painting. Addressed from the other angle, which is even more abstract, you have shots of multiple portraits and they give you (the documentary audience) an impression that the paintings are judging the museum visitors, looking back at the physical viewer, thus responding to the relationship between the seer and the seen (or perhaps continuing an endless self-reflexive looping process).

Which leads back to my earlier point, that you see so many ways of viewing art. Even among the tour guides and historians, there is great variation in how they feel about the paintings. The gallery director sees and values art in a totally different manner (wanting to maintain a certain standard while not selling out). While other tour guides have different relationships, some of them even implied as being very personal. I loved that. Each guide or historian has his/her own areas and preferences. Some are concerned with the physical, some approach it from conceptual and some even spiritual aspects. Some are interested in framing, while others do lighting (and here Wiseman does bring back and include the ‘working of the institution’ in his typical style and conventional meaning which seems to be his forte: the whole 3-panel painting installation and the issue of shadowing or how to arrange a protection for the paintings for a certain exhibition, restoration techniques, marketing plans etc.).

Then the bit at the beginning, the session being held to help blind people experience a painting, was breathtaking in its beauty and simplicity. I mean, how brilliant is it, that Wiseman gives us this unique and usually unfathomable concept: that even blind people can ‘see’ a painting (it is not like a sculpture which can be felt due to its inherent nature as art). And yet it was so simple.

Wiseman is always interested in the workings of institutions and using his observational powers to present them. But here he is also showing the workings of the National Gallery, not just in a literal sense, but from an abstract perspective of how any art museum – of ‘paintings’ to be specific – works. His definition here of ‘how an art gallery works’ is more semantic rather than physical. The idea is set and explained right from the start when the marketing manager pitches her agenda for the year, that we need to think and include the audience and public in how we handle the gallery as a charity, a museum, a public cultural institution. She is insistent that it is about them: those who come to experience and ‘see’ the art. Of course, Wiseman is also including the brilliant bits about restoration and lighting. Or the spectacular discussion of ‘Virgin on the Rocks’ and how it should be placed and where it would be most suitable in the gallery with respect to other works of Leonardo. Or the mini-argument between the experts about the musical notes on a painting and what do they imply and are they even real?

But again, I absolutely loved the interpretation of the ‘working’ of a ‘paintings’ museum from this utilitarian or ‘purpose-it-serves’ point of view. As if this time he wants to approach his subject from the user-end. What does it even mean, how an art museum works? ‘How to make it work’? And I think this is a clever decision if not a stroke of genius, because if we address the National Gallery in a typical sense, then it is pretty much like any other publicly funded cultural or media organization. So to set it apart, to have a different viewpoint on a ‘paintings’ gallery is to not look at it just from the bureaucratic or everyday process (which you would do for any other public charity/government organization) but from this more conceptual, efficacy point of view.

I have constantly used ‘painting’ above while mentioning the ‘gallery’ or the ‘museum’ and not used ‘Art’ because other forms of art can be experienced and ‘seen’ in lot of different ways. The challenge with paintings is that they are not three dimensional, nor do they have movement (e.g., sculpture), and they don’t have time (e.g., book, play, movie) to convey their meaning or rope in the audience (as is mentioned in much detail by a children’s tour guide and then so succinctly: ‘Paintings tell their story with the speed of light.’). This makes it even harder, more complex and intriguing to me, the act of watching or experiencing paintings, if compared to other forms of art.

 

Tales of the Grim Sleeper (Nick Broomfield, 2014)

Banality of evil is now a well-known, much discussed and almost universal truth about us humans. Before watching this film, I was under the impression that this documentary would be just another entry into the anthropological domain. It is about the serial killer (still on trial), Lonnie Franklin, who in his two-decade reign of terror killed 10 women and assaulted and raped, by some estimates, tens more women (some of them still alive), 99% of them black, mostly poor or living on the streets. All this time, Franklin was married with kids and close friends, and living in a close-knit, impoverished neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Of course it is about the horror lurking in the mundaneness of our everyday lives, but it is also much more. The film is a scathing indictment of the racial and class divide that is resulting, even to this day, in mass and systematic marginalization and devastation of whole communities, mostly consisting of minorities and African Americans, in ways and places one would not think even possible. Broomfield’s approach to the issue is sensationalistic, in your face and even lurid. But the simultaneous empathy that it shows to its subjects and the close and crucial involvement of one of the survivors, Pam Brooks, helps this project and diverts our attention to the real problem here. Without her participation it would have been a different film altogether. Due to police negligence, disinterest and apathy towards the poor, drug-addled, crime-ridden minority communities, Franklin was able to live and go on, resulting in the preventable murders of so many young women. The fact that almost all of them were black, mostly drug addicts, some prostitutes and other poor women, cannot be ignored while judging and analyzing the behavior and actions of the law enforcement agencies. How did it happen? Why did it happen? How were so many clues and chances missed? Is it incompetence? Racism? Classism? Or apathy towards the indigent? How can we forget that these women who died, no matter what their color, social strata or circumstances, were humans too? No less than anyone else.

The great achievement of this film is that it brings home some of these facts with full force and effect. Here, in fact, the sensationalist, hyped approach helps. Broomfield shoots with shaky cam, often through the car window while he and Brooks are cruising the streets to find information about Franklin and the women he interacted with, and this adds a certain psychological jitteriness and action to the tone of the film. Moreover, it also touches upon some ideas like how our society judges the poor and blames them for their failures due to their own choices and the crippling, self-defeating legal system when it comes to drugs and felony charges. If you are convicted of a felony, you cannot find work easily, you cannot get loans, simply buy a house or vote, and even getting help or treatment for addiction becomes hard. All of these legal blocks make a marked person of you, and rather than achieving rehabilitation, the victims get further dragged into this vicious cycle. This is something which civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, in her much-talked-about 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, explores in great detail. A final irony, or sad aspect, is that even when Franklin was caught, it was not by human investigation or initiative but by chance and computer (a DNA test).

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