February 24, 2007

PIFF Dispatch. 6.

Ten Canoes DK Holm takes on three more films screening at the Portland International Film Festival.

If, as the screenwriting gurus say, narration is verboten, the easy way out of narrative engine problems, what to make of Ten Canoes [site]? We know what film award-giving bodies have made of it: Rolf de Heer's film won numerous Australian Film Institute and other Australian film body awards, including best screenplay, and won the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize in Cannes. And this film is all story.

An unnamed narrator (David Gulpilil) offers to present a 1000-year-old episode in the history of his people, the Ramingining Aborigines, situated in Arnhem Land in northern Australia. And his narrative style is straight out of the offbeat or modernist storytelling tradition of Laurence Sterne and Nabokov, John Barth and Robert Coover, with tales within tales, digressions and parallelisms. He jokes, makes false starts, and admits it when he doesn't actually know what happened next.

Essentially, he's telling the tale of a tribe elder, while on a canoe-building journey, attempting to impart a moral lesson to a randy youth through the use of fables. The tales and the observational humor are surprisingly earthy. This is no elegiacally noble film about the stern dignity of early mankind. That said, the photography by Ian Jones far outshines the multiple stories themselves, which aren't particularly interesting on their own. On the other hand, the cast of unknowns are robust and engaging. On the third hand, it's the kind of ethnographic film that probably only specialists want to view more than once, making it easier to admire in the abstract than enjoy in the present. A review and interview with the director are available from Richard Phillips at the World Socialist Web Site.

Into Great Silence Another big award winner (particularly at Sundance) is Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence (Die Große Stille), the filmmaker's meditation on the meditative life of monks who belong to the self-sustaining Carthusian Order, which demands a vow of silence and is located in isolation in the French Alps. In its nearly three-hour running time (169 minutes), the viewer sees the men silently pray, the snow falling in such thickness it obscures vision; bells ring, snow crunches, clocks tick, a jet is shown to be passing silently way up above, and faces are obscured by shadows and cowls, but for the first 20 or more minutes no human voice is heard. Then the ice begins to melt, flowers bloom, the monastery becomes more active, and the wind blows through the lush elms. The viewer is startled at one moment to see that one of the monks is wearing a watch. The takes are long, and fade out slowly. Occasional intertitles offer quotes that capture the philosophy of the Order, and in the end, one monk submits to an interview. Gröning was not allowed to bring modern electrical technology into the monastery, and so the film has the rustic look of, say, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. In its silence and deliberateness, the movie itself is a test for the lifestyle it portrays.

The film is beautiful in its ascetic, pleasure-denying way. It's perhaps the Christian alternative to Yong-Kyun Bae's Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? and, outside of a Bresson film, comes closet to penetrating the mysteries of extreme Christianity and its allure for some. The film is, of course, completely uncritical and does not inquire as to how certain bodily functions are endured and suppressed, nor does it explore the bizarre, contrary egotism of the monastic existance. Eye Weekly and another local view of the film are more positive.

Severance A poor man's Shaun of the Dead, Severance [site] is a horror or suspense comedy with an international flavor and a political message. And its premise is right out of traditional slasher films: a group of grouchily united individuals take a trip that turns deadly when they become the prey of mysterious killers. In this case, it is the employees of a munitions manufacturing corporation on a team-building retreat at the American CEO's lodge in Eastern Europe. What is interesting is that their nemeses are not random psychotics, but specific victims of the corporation, which only becomes clear later on. The victims and potential victims include an incompetent boss (Tim McInnerny), though even in incompetence he is no David Brent, an unlikely pothead (Danny Dyer), a nervous toady (Andy Nyman), an African assistant (Babou Ceesay), and two women, a brunette (Claudie Blakley) and a blonde (Laura Harris), who qualifies as the "final girl." The killers come in a gang of nine.

Director Christopher Smith (Creep) has a difficult time of it blending the horror and the humor, much less the politics and the satire. Quite simply, the film isn't as funny as it should or could be. When it is trying to be scary, it is wholly a horror film; when it is trying to be funny, it stops the scares and concentrates on humor. The tones are not reliably blended, as in Shaun.

In other words it is difficult to laugh when a woman is tied to a tree and ignited with flame and gas, or when a guy's leg is snapped off by a bear trap, or when the CEO accidentally blows an airliner out of the sky when he was aiming at the gang of nine. These moments aren't necessarily played for laughs, but also difficult to "enjoy" as horror elements. That the film quotes the same song (Vera Lynn singing the WWII tear-evoker "We'll Meet Again") at the end that Kubrick used to conclude Dr Strangelove only highlights the poverty of the satire.

Despite my demurral, however, Severance won some awards at a Korean horror fest, and both Variety's Derek Elley and Todd at Twitch have liked it.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 24, 2007 7:26 AM