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Virginia Has A Film Festival

November 20, 2013

Thanks to generous benefactress — I will discreetly refer to her only as Not Defeatia Short, because I still have the hope of someday writing posts that will make this blog something no one would ever want to be associated with — who passed along a five-film pass to me, I was able to attend five screenings at the recent Virginia Film Festival. Under the current leadership the festival is more popular than ever and poorer in quality. Nonetheless I was able to find four excellent movies to watch and one that was okay. In order of appearance:

Computer Chess

Spring BreakersUpstream ColorComputer Chess…  These three movies alone are enough to have made it a great year for American independent film — independent in the artistic sense, not just the commercial, independent in audacity and vision. I can’t be sure how they will stand up over time, but seeing them in the theater this year renewed my faith in movies, and in the imagination and resourcefulness that can still be found among those who make them.

After shooting his first three films in 16mm, Andrew Bujalski moved on to vintage black-and-white analog video for this one, a choice that automatically gives it a strange distinction. Set around 1980 at a computer chess tournament, it starts out in the guise of a mockumentary, but that conceit is quickly abandoned. It continues in the mode of warped comic realism, but then starts tossing off glimpses of the fantastical and surreal. I was not always so happy with those glimpses, preferring to see the movie teetering on the edge of the the real rather than going over it. The former is a greater and more interesting feat than the latter, and more respectful of the characters, who are the strength of Computer Chess. They may all be moderately-to-very strange people, but they are not merely projections of whimsy, they have solid cores of mystery and humanity. These nerds have soul. I couldn’t help feeling that they deserve a more reliable reality that Bujalski is willing to give them, a staging that allows them to shine without the distraction of the inexplicable trapdoors and trip-wires he lays out for them. But the movie won me over despite this, and maybe on re-watching it I would not have this concern at all. I am not sure I really have it now, as I revisit Computer Chess in my memory, and savor its oddities. It is a work that is both observant and inventive, and if those two qualities don’t always harmonize perfectly, at least they are always there, keeping us interested, keeping us wanting to see more.

Computer Chess is already streaming on Netflix.

Le Joli Mai

In May of 1962 Chris Marker and his collaborators took to the streets of Paris, filming its daily life, interviewing its inhabitants, and probing its politics. I am relieved to say that the resulting movie is pretty great, because Chris Marker is one of coolest, most beloved icons of cinemaphilaland, and it would be sad not to be delighted by his work, to have to say it’s not really that good after all, that — God forbid — Chris Marker is overrated. But no, it is a beautiful, lively, sharp-eyed film. The first part more than the second part, which concentrates on the politics and drags a bit at times, particularly if you are not keenly interested in French politics circa 1962 but also, I would hazard to say, if you are,— nonetheless all of it is well worth watching. The handheld camerawork, often just make-do in documentaries, is excellent; the camera probes and sniffs and observes with an intelligent and playful curiosity. The people interviewed are ordinary enough to count as representative while being interesting enough to be worth representing. As in Computer Chess, there are cat cameos, brief yet compelling, the Cat being totemic for Chris Marker.

The Birds

When Anti-Defeatia asked why this was one of my favorite Hitchcock films (North by Northwest is another that comes to mind), I was not sure how to answer, and ended up saying that I liked that it didn’t have a score. Which was a weak response, but it seemed like it might point vaguely in the right direction. She said she didn’t like it as much as some of Hitchcock’s others, that it seemed to be missing something, and that although that lack left her a little cold she could see how another might appreciate it. And maybe that is what I like, an absence, of music but also something more, some heart or meaning or human fullness, or busyness business bullshit, or just music, that allows other things to come forward. There is nothing to distract you from the pure cinematic pleasures of the film, everything is flat and up there in a dream of a picture plane that becomes a nightmare. You witness conversations between the characters, stabs at psychology, and also the familiar set-pieces of the master. You get the face of Tippi Hedren and the special effects of bird attacks. Content and style, set and camera, character and circumstance,— it is all one thing on the screen. A cunning surrealist pure art artifact. Any fault you may find with it can be placed back in the mosaic of the picture to find its place of perfection.

So no, I am not entirely sure why I like The Birds so much, but it was very good to see it in the grand auditorium of the Paramount, projected from 35mm film. It holds up.

Post-Script: This was my first film of the festival to feature no cats, an interesting fact when you consider the subject, even the very title, of The Birds.

Il Futuro

A new release out of Italy, based on a Roberto Bolaño story, this is not a bad movie, just an overly familiar one. Generic International Arthouse. You’ve probably already seen it in another form, so I won’t spend time on it. It was fun to see Rutger Hauer again, but I can’t say he really did the film any favors with his performance.

Blue Ruin

There is a scene in Blue Ruin set at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway that I have loitered  at countless times over many years and it makes no sense that the scene takes place at that location but I didn’t care: my heart leapt to see it. Sheer provincialism  is one reason I love this movie. Central Virginia does not get so many movies set and shot here, much less ones as emphatic in their sense of place as Blue Ruin. Most of the settings are nondescript, but somehow they are Virginia nondescript. It is how around here looks. That was a treat to see on the screen.

But even apart from that it is a real fine movie, would have been one had it been set in North Carolina or, hell, even Kentucky. Macon Blair plays Dwight, a beach bum in Delaware who gets news that sends him back home to Virginia with bloody vengeance on his mind. As the focus of the film, present in almost every scene, Blair has to be good and he is. Dwight is an unlikely avenger, clearly not too keen on the idea and not ideally suited to the job, but he has a need and a drive within that carries him along. As you might guess from the title, this is a tragedy. The basic story, minus the guns and the cars and the state of Virginia, could have been lifted from the ancient Greek. And the movie has the classical virtue of a lean economy of expression. It keeps things simple and on point, so the tension stays high. A low budget was probably an advantage in this way; it certainly doesn’t show itself as a detriment.  We simply follow Dwight through his travails, keeping close to his lonely desperation, fear and physical pain and determination, firmly rooted in a daily reality that lets the violence, when it comes, to come full force: shocking, bloody, undiluted and irreparable. But I did not find Blue Ruin grim. It is not cold or cynical. It does not lead us that way, but toward the feeling of how very much we want to stay alive, and not hurting, and to have some purpose,— never more so than as we hurtle over the edge.

Blue Ruin was directed by Jeremy Saulnier and will get a theatrical release in the spring. I hope it does well, but even if not I don’t think it will be forgotten.

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  1. John permalink

    Can you say exactly which part of blue ridge parkway that blue ruin was filmed? I feel like I’ve been there to that overlook too but can’t place it.

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