Sunday, January 06, 2008

Palm Springs International Film Festival: Day 1

Greetings from Rancho Mirage, California, where the only things more ancient and craggy than the towering desert mountains are the residents.

No, I kid the old Rancho Miragers...They're good people.

I'm in town for the first few days of the annual Palm Springs Film Festival, which boasts a tremendous selection of contemporary films from around the world. And it's a good thing the selection is tremendous, because it took 4.5 hours to drive here yesterday from LA.

After spending the early portion of my first day in town enjoying the best sightseeing the Greater Palm Springs Area has to offer ("Look, a Starbucks! And a store that sells items that change color in sunlight!"), I settled down for two rather terrific 2007 European films.


Based on the graphic novel/memoir by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is a journey through the last 30 years of Iranian history seen from the perspective of a headstrong young girl. The film's expressive, stark black-and-white animation mirrors the style of Satrapi's book, visualizing her emotions, frustrations and dreams and detailing her encounters with arbitrary authority and cruel indifference, both at home and abroad.

The film works best as compelling, narrative history. Anyone not familiar with the fall of the Shah, the rise of the Ayatollah, the Iran/Iraq War, etc. will likely learn much from Persepolis, and those already vaguely aware of these events will appreciate the personal recollections of someone who was there, taking it all in first-hand.

The film tends to drift around a bit when recalling Marjane's personal struggles with romance and depression, which I think is a direct result of its relatively simple, sketchbook-inspired look. It's hard to make these characters too emotive or resonant with such simple line drawings, and the film overall seems much more comfortable creating fantasy montages and large-scale action-oriented sequences than more immediate character development or pathos. A sequence in which Marjane recalls a string of prior Viennese residences while leaping between rooftops is a standout.

I found it somewhat hard to concern myself with Marjane's Austrian friends, for example, who tended to blend together, but I was ceaselessly engaged by all the scenes in which she brushed up against the brutality of the ruling regime's footsoldiers.

This is not just an entertaining movie but also, I sense, an important one for Western audiences to see. We're so often presented very cut-and-dry, over-simplified versions of life under oppressive Middle Eastern governments; Satrapi's Tehran is far more nuanced, composed like the film in shades of gray. True, it's rulers are greedy, hypocritical and cruel, and Saddam's bombs rain down in the night obliterating once-beautiful neighborhoods, but the city and its residents are not without their charms. I particularly enjoyed the sequences featuring discreet late-night alcohol-fueled parties and hustlers selling Iron Maiden tapes on street corners. The harder you try to stamp out progress and to hinder merriment, the harder the people will work to obtain these precious commodities.

You, the Living

This is the second film I've seen by Swedish director Roy Andersson. 2000's Songs from the Second Floor is available on DVD in this country, and I highly recommend adding it to your Netflix queue immediately. But this year's You, the Living is even better, a surreal and darkly funny series of vignettes about despair, humiliation, failure and the desperation of modern life.

Neither Second Floor nor You, the Living have what could be considered "plots." Though it's not a perfect analogy, they're really the film equivalent of short story collections - motifs, characters, themes and ideas run throughout, but tucked away inside individual, beautifully conceived and immaculately realized shorts.

Much of You, the Living follows members of the Louisiana Brass Band as they perform, rehearse, make love and otherwise live their daily lives, and other various musicians drift in and out of the various sequences, but the focus here is entirely on Andersson's deft comic touch and the ceaselessly brilliant, washed-out cinematography of Gustav Danielsson. Seriously, this may be the best-looking film I've seen in 2007; using a relatively static palatte of icy blues and grays, Andersson and Danielsson have crafted a film that would be totally mesmerizing even without any kind of audio track. Andersson's camera is frequently motionless, setting up a single perspective on a scene and then finding ways to include all the requisite action within that one frame. So ingeniously composed are these sequences, pretty much any still shot could be taken from You, the Living and hung in an art gallery.

So what's it all about? Well, it's somewhat difficult to say. Much of the success of the film is in its ambiguity, how it sets up peculiar scenarios and then allows the viewer to interpret them as he or she pleases. The Film Festival program describes the film as showcasing "the human condition," which is about the most vague description anyone could even theoretically offer for a film.

The movie's more focused than that. It zeroes in on a few universal human foibles and exploits them for comedy and poignancy. Many sequences focus on fear - fear of humiliation, fear of loneliness, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown, fear of the imminent destruction of our world and everything in it.

Andersson's also fascinated by contradition, how people's attitudes and behavior can shift in an instant for no particular reason. In an early scene, a woman weeps and yells at her lover, telling him to scram because he doesn't understand her. As he walks away, she spins around and tells him she may come by his place later. Later, a father expresses disappointment with his mooching son, right before agreeing to send him more money. A hairdresser loses his temper with a customer and lashes out, before apologizing profusely and offering to fix his mistake. The movie seems to suggest that these individuals are not flighty or inconsistent purposefully; they are just bewildered and confused by life, particularly its mandatory social graces and customs. They don't seem to know how to behave at all, and thus make constant errors which then must be corrected. So, I guess, in a way, the movie is about the human condition, like pretty much all great films. I'm not sure what the plans are for releasing You, the Living properly Stateside, but if a DVD release is in the works, this is must see material.

1 comment:

Palm Springs Savant said...

Hey there...glad you are enjoying the Palm Springs Film Festival and our beautiful desert. Nice blog! Stop by and say hi sometime