The LA film festival is more or less half way through now, and has so far been entirely satisfying in its range of movies, from great to sub-par, or unexpectedly good to unexpectedly poor. One of the latter was the much-touted Heartbeat Detector (La Question Humaine), the new film from Nicolas Klotz and starring Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Amalric is a corporate psychologist asked to investigate his CEO, a marvelously weary Michel Lonsdale. He was born in Strasbourg and Lonsdale in Germany, as was the corporate partner who might be usurping. The first half of the film is a mixture of scenes in the sterile office building, and odd punctuations of Amalric and co. letting off steam. A secret past with blackmail potential is revealed, and the plot, such as it is, grinds to a halt; the revelations are unsurprising; and the film sputters down to a black screen and the incomprehensible horror of the holocaust.
That the family history is at a generation removed somewhat clouds the moral issue, if not the social one, and the expression given to the difficulty of verbalizing that horror is necessarily self-defeating; the metaphor of the stale corporate psychology textbook is appropriate to the dry and (euphemistically) mundane reports of urban genocide in CO vans, however, and very much encourages one to decode into more emotional and moral terms what one is hearing. But Klotz scuttles himself – deliberately, one would have thought – with the film’s own incomprehension, its moment of clarity being when all it can do – as memorials only can – is to recite names, amidst a mass of words that can remain only that.
La Question Humaine is a film of clues (and words)- the numbers behind the credits, Amalric’s voiceover assuring us this story is going to be too difficult to tell chronologically – and deserves another look, but suspect it will still come up lacking. The other offering from France I’ve caught so far, Une fille coupée en deux (A Girl Cut In Two), sadly does not, directed somewhat on autopilot by Claude Chabrol. The girl is Ludivine Sagnier, rather reserved, who’s been having it off with a reclusive older novelist, who’s both famous and the member of a private club with an upstairs room for diverse sex acts. She’s cut in two because she also being wooed by the arrogant dandyish heir to a local Lyons chemicals fortune. Pinstriped Benoît Magimel – the kid from Haneke’s La Pianiste (2001) – is the best thing about the movie, his foppish habit of putting his hand to his mouth resolving impressively into a nervous tic as hints of mental illness are bandied about. There’s a marriage, and a shooting and a trial and the bourgeousie get gently skewered (is Chabrol’s heart no longer in it?) before a mistaken ending, whimsical and obvious, with the sort of stage magic that should have gone out with the music hall (yes she does get cut in two). It has nothing of import to say about cross-generational relationships, jealousy, sexual humiliation or (economic) class relations. Bof.
There’s plenty of documentaries at the festival (too many of insufficient quality, I suspect – the trend shows no sign of abatement), the most impressive of which seems to have been Man on Wire from English director James Marsh (he of the marvelously macabre Wisconsin Death-Trip). It tells the story of the French acrobat who in 1974 walked a wire between the Twin Towers, and the years of planning and collaboration that went into the event, part show, part dare, part fuck-you.
I’m bummed I missed it, but I am very glad that I caught Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton’s Derek (a “written and spoken by” credit for Swinton). The subject is Derek Jarman, for many the shining light of British art cinema from his debut, Sebastiane (1970) – a sunlit Sardinian-set homoerotic retelling of the saint’s story, in Latin no less – up to his final blue-screen meditation Blue (1993), going blind with AIDS, via a punk Tempest, mannered, splendid films about Caravaggio and Wittgenstein, personal super8 work and videos for Psychic TV, the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys. The letter which Swinton reads in voiceover is a strong, heartfelt addressing of what it was they were working for – and against – in their art, but much of the soundtrack and screen-time is given to Jarman himself, via a previously unseen 1990 interview with Colin McCabe. The film is structured more or less around the chronology extracted from this footage, with some skimping, but Jarman is such genial and entertaining company and there are enough wonderful anecdotes, insights, clips and photographs to treasure what a diverse and constantly-inquiring artist he was. A loving, and fitting tribute.
On Saturday night we were treated to an appearance by Melvin van Peebles; awesome, righteous and a man who can cut to the heart of anything. He came on stage with son Mario for a chat after the screening of Confessions of an ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha, his first feature in eight years. Best known for his great proto-blaxploitation movie Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971) and the white-man-turns-black satire Watermelon Man (1970), he’s also had a Broadway career and success as an options trader.
He’s written novels, soundtracks, scores, libretti all the while with an indomitable goddamned do-it-yourself attitude, and he is an American icon. His latest is a homemade digital melange of images, in swift editing, superimposition and tight framing, telling the story of an itchy-footed adventurer, van Peebles himself. He sits down to tell this story at the start of the film, in preparation for visiting his old, true love, and – quite perfectly – old man Peebles plays himself at every age in the recounting, from a fourteen-year old sitting at the family dinner table, to a young man stealing apples in Manhattan, and on to the merchant marines. It is a marvellous picaresque, created with such verve and good humour as to overcome its technical limitations (those damn pixels!).
Van Peebles composed the score as well, and used much of it as a starting point to the film; the rhythms may be those of the music video, but the fun of the narrative and appeal of the whole carry the hurried feel. The best thing about it, however, is its disguised political content; as van Peebles points out this is is just an entertaining movie about a guy, and it only happens to be that he is African-American.
The fact that he is African-American is at the very centre of the tribute screening to Ivan Dixon, Nothing But A Man (1962), directed by Michael Roehmer. Co-producer/ co-screenwriter/ cinematographer Robert M. Young was in attendance and provided much interesting background information as well as pursuing some interesting debates about this fantastic and important film set in the black communities of the Deep South, near and in Birmingham. Dixon’s Duff Anderson works on the railroad but, surprised to find himself accepted by the sweet school teacher played by Abbey Lincoln, finds it hard to rub along in more regular society and workplaces where his threatening status as black male is under constant suppression and his basic human dignity and expectations of being treated decently are given no place. Julius Harris plays his drunken father, his last girlfriend a sullen and mournful Gloria Foster. All the leads are fantastic, as is a young Yaphet Kotto who’s laconic delivery somehow summons the ever-present and oppressive southern heat. The film is heartfelt and tragic and its feeling of authenticity is strikingly amplified by a loving attention to the lived-in faces of these people who know whereof they speak. Superb.
The festival is still running until the end off the week – the closing gala is del Toro’s return with Hellboy II: The Golden Army on Saturday – and there’s lots of good stuff left to catch. I am most looking forward to Chilean vigilante flick Mirageman, philosophical musings on Melville in Capitaine Achab (with the great Denis Lavant) and a promised appearance by the legendary Kuchar brothers, George and Mike, at a three-hour screening of their early shorts. Then there’s Lance Hammer’s debut Ballast, which comes much-heralded as a shot in the arm for US indie cinema, thanks in part to a Dardennien tone; if you’re not tempted by a documentary about grocery-bagging championships, Paper or Plastic?, there’s plenty of others, on Heidi Fleiss, ageing rockers Anvil, middle-eastern polygamy, Chuck Connelly, a choir – or alternatively HIV+ women -in South Africa, or a Filipino transsexual. If you prefer movies, however, there’s always Sam Rockwell and Angelica Huston in an adaptation of Chuck Palahnuik’s Choke, British drama Boy A, sporting BAFTA and Berlin awards for a difficult tale of redemption (or not), mumblecore wiseacre horror-comic Baghead and even a big-screen outing for Cassavetes truly seminal Shadows. Westwood’s a pretty decent place to wander around between movies – indulge yourself!