To Valhalla

In 2016, the Norwegian MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter Emil Weber Meek attempted to make a name for himself by fighting Rousimar Palhares, who had been kicked out of the league for violence. The story seems like a work of fiction—a young outsider, determined to make a name for himself goes up against a world champion. The documentary TO VALHALLA (Even Evensen, 2017) charts the journey to the Meek’s big fight.

While the story plays out like a fairly common sport’s narrative, the film plays with national imagery and the sports genre in interesting ways. Meek seems endlessly fascinated with ancient Vikings and those warriors and explorers that made it to Valhalla through their heroic deeds. Valhalla—a wooden hall helmed by the god Odin himself, is a place in which chosen and tested warriors plan their next battle. The film definitely capitalizes on the Viking motif, filming Meeks at abandoned forts and castles and in candle-lit wooden structures. Moreover, the film is peppered with shots of the fantastic mountains and rivers that evoke a previous, ancient era of warriors and tribes.
Sometimes, however, he seems like more of the joyful kid he his, excited about breakfast cereal, or more vulnerable than the Vikings, such as the moments in which he’s trying to make weight. The films most interesting moments, in fact, is when it charts the machinations that have to be done to Meek’s body. To shed 10 kilos, he must not eat or drink and sweat out fluid through hot baths and steams. Afterward, when he’s allowed to eat, he looks physically and mentally smaller, spooning out yogurt in his hotel bed.

The Nordic styling can verge on somewhat overdone here. The film vacillates between being an investigation of the event and pro-MMA propaganda, and the propagandistic side can appear a bit over the top.
Over, even the film’s enthusiasm leaves room for a bit of ennui. Without giving away who wins at the end, I think it’s fair to say that the end is a bit anti-climatic. As Meek himself say “Its six years of training for 45 seconds,” and there is, of course, always the next fight to look forward to. Much like the Vikings will have to fight for Odin even in the afterlife, an MMA fighter only continues to be good if he (or she) is still in the game.

Bench

In the United States, it’s estimated that between 20 to 25 percent of the country’s homeless are mentally ill, compared to 6 percent of the broader population. It’s unsurprising; while many in America find themselves homeless at one time or another, individuals with mental conditions are less likely to be able to hold down a steady job or engage in some of those necessary functions that allow people to live independently. In the US, people can fall through the cracks and out of the system.

In BENCH (2017), Charles J. Ouda attempts to humanize both homelessness and mental instability—in this case, in the form of a veteran’s PTSD. This film starts with Emma, a young job seeker in a new city that feels like she’s having a really bad day. She stabs herself with her mascara wand, spills coffee on herself, and fails about in her morning job interview. She finds herself in the park, complaining to her mother about her failures. While she’s there, however, she meets a George, a black man who may or may not be homeless. George gives her a pep talk and tells her to have more confidence. Even as he makes her feel better about herself, she gets a call from her prospective employer that turns her day around.

This seems like, at first, the classical “magical negro” trope, in which an older black man helps a younger white woman to be happy. However, the films take a more interesting turn when he needs help, and it turns out that she is incapable of helping him, in part because of real and assumed prejudices against mental illness.

BENCH explores the ways that the world is set up to benefit some and not others. Emma spills coffee on herself and acts like a spaz, but still gets the job, as the interviewers like her verve and “spirit.” When George acts abnormal, he (and the rest of the world) sees it as threatening and shameful.

Despite the film’s at times uneven technical elements, it does highlight the talents of Nathan Hinton, who conveys the horror, fear, and shame of PTSD without overplaying it. The final image, of George fearfully hugging himself on the sidewalk, far away from his beloved park, shows the director’s potential as a nuanced filmmaker, able to show complex problems that might not have individual answers.

The Bed

In India, prostitution is a multibillion-dollar business, with as many as 10 million sex workers conducting business there at any one point in time. Anand VRS Tomar’s THE BED (2017) attempts to illustrate the ways that this trade can affect children and, indeed, the ways that early exposure to prostitution can shape how children live their lives. THE BED primarily works in simplicity and frankness, which creates a kind of horror.

The film takes place in one long-take reverse zoom, which initially focuses on a child’s amidst the sound of disconcerting masculine sexual grunting. Because the shot is so tight, it’s impossible to see what’s actually happening. As the shot pulls outward, the viewer can see that the child is a little child, terrified, hiding under a bed, while above sex is being sold, most likely by her mother. After the man gets up, pays, and leaves, the woman attempts to comfort the child. It’s the juxtaposition, however, of the man’s grunting with the child’s face that is entirely unnerving and horrific. Like the child, we are unable to see or know what’s going on—we also sit in the vulnerable position. Moreover, it’s the young girl’s acting that really works here. It’s incredibly challenging to have child actors maintain the character for such a long take, and she accomplishes the task masterfully.

While the subject is both sensitive and relevant, the film does read more like a public service announcement or another kind of commercial than as a piece of cinema. It is absolutely shocking, but its length means that it really can’t go into the challenges and nuances that exist in the world regarding sex work, underage prostitutes, and trafficked children in Asia. Because of its length, it does gesture toward melodrama do much of its work. However, as a short work that attempts to introduce its audience to a painful and often shameful problem, it does simply and elegantly that primary staple of film –the close-up—to make its point.

City of My Heart

Of the city, Walter Benjamin wrote that “to lose one’s way, in a city, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley.” Michel de Certeau, a bit more clearly, wrote that “The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates– makes the city itself an immense social experience of lacking a place — an experience that is, to be sure, broken up into countless tiny deportations (displacements and walks), compensated for by the relationships and intersections of these exoduses that intertwine and create an urban fabric…” Both writers thought, in other words, that cities are not only spaces but also movements and practices. Streets are not static but change with time and persons present, in that they are pulsing with life more in that instant.

The short, experimental piece CITY OF MY HEART (Kostas Petsas, 2017) seems to agree. Madrid, it appears, is a city of dancing. Petsas juxtaposes images of architecture with dancing feet and music with poetry. In so doing, the film imagines the city as an amalgamation of disparate elements that are able to connect from time to time, in fleeting moments. Moreover, the camera follows this sensibility of synthesis. It starts with a bird’s eye view of a crowded sidewalk, in which people rush by, unconcerned about looking at the camera. It often switches, however. In other shots, pedestrians stand still in front of the camera, or the film gives us a close-up, POV shot, or a wide cityscape that appears to be taken by drones.

This makes for a stylistically coherent piece, despite its seeming restlessness. If a city is more than its businesses, governments, and corporations, if it—in fact—a different city at every second in every day, then it must be captured through the vacillations of everyday life, be it from a bird’s eye perspective or from the point of view of its denizens. While the film struggles to illustrate it a larger point, it nonetheless is a beautiful technical collage of sounds, images, and rhythms.

Beulah

In the short psychological thriller Beulah (Denise Alessandra Ambroggio and Gordon James Asti, 2017), an emerging actress names Mia attempts to understand her fears in the days before the opening of her play. At night, she seems plagued by dreams that her boyfriend is attacking her, that her director is a Machiavellian monster, and that she can never escape being lost in the woods. Despite all these fears, everything appears to be going her way, and so she begins to feel more and more unnerved when can’t account for these feelings.

BEULAH is at its best when it thins the lines between the stage, film, and real life. Mia switches from the pink, fake, wonderland forest of the stage to a more dark, imposing forest as she moves from reality to dream—at certain times, her dreams appear to be in the milieu of the real world when she is not. The same slipperiness occurs as well. Later in the film, it shows us a scene of Mia’s boyfriend screaming threats on the telephone. As the camera pulls back, however, we learn he’s merely portraying a character in a film. And this makes sense: filmmaking and the theatre are in and of themselves surreal by design. Each gives viewers an uncanny sense of reality not through mimetic representation but through the ability to illustrate a mode of truth and reality through metaphor.

However, this slipperiness also proves to be BEULAH’s greatest challenge. While its milieus are fabulous and strange, we don’t necessarily know enough about Mia to sustain her character arc. Mia remains opaque throughout the film; all her dreams tell us that she is afraid, but they don’t necessarily explore why, at least, not to the extent that we understand them. In her boyfriend is cast as the main villain, yet he is nothing but sympathetic to her career and her person in real life. Is she jealous? Does he have an evil side? The film never tells us.

Nevertheless, BEULAH embraces some of the most interesting traits of surrealism and links them to the historical importance of Italian theater. In its world, the theater, the dream, and reality are all part of a continuous system through which its character navigate. And, like life, can take both disastrous and magnificent turns.

Soul Communicator

Despite its unnerving mixture between cuteness and absolute tragically, the oddest, most surreal part of SOUL COMMUNICATOR (Liang Kai Wei, 2017) is its personified animals, or, more precisely, Yu Zhou’s mental image of what these animal souls look like. Yu Zhou, it seems, can communicate with animals, or, more precisely, their souls, through a psychic connection. Animal owners come to her when the animal has been (or appears to be) unhappy or distressed, and Yu Zhou helps the owners figure out what’s wrong.

When the film lets us see what Yu Zhou sees, however, the animals souls are both cute and disturbing. Dressed in their underwear, with beatific smiles or small whimpers, these animal souls explain what’s wrong; a rooster wants to know why he’s not bought like the chickens, or a bunny suggests that the pressure to love is just too much. Crouching and shivering, these animal souls placed into human bodies have a bit of the uncanny valley to them. And Yu Zhou knows this as well—these humans don’t really want to know what the animals think, they want simple solutions that make them feel like their pets or work animals are happy. The rooster wants to be loved, for example, as the chickens are loved, and taken away, but this is, of course, too morbid for the owners.

Yu Zhou’s psychic animal connection is the backdrop for the story’s larger narrative thread—the disappearance of a girl from Yu Zhou’s school. The girl in question, Ying Ying, helps Yu Zhou with odds and ends around her establishment. She also brings Yu Zhou a client: the headmaster from school, whose bunny is anxious around his wife. While the bunny is not actually anxious, he lets a few secrets slip, disturbing Yu Zhou, and leads her to question the moral character of the headmaster.

This strange, unnerving thread mirrors the animal souls and the aesthetic of the film in general; on the one hand, everything is adorable (roosters! bunnies! children!). The film’s visual tone is made seamless by a general wash in a light Hello Kitty pink. However, everything is also askew, off-kilter, and odd. These animals don’t really know what’s happening, Ying Ying’s happy demeanor hides malevolent secrets, and adults manipulate children, who really don’t understand anything.

While the film’s end monologue is a bit overly melodramatic and doesn’t remain stylistically consistent with the rest of its sensibilities, SOUL COMMUNICATOR nevertheless points the inherent problem of cuteness. Cute things are cute because they don’t understand; they are vulnerable and childlike. However, what is cute is also a subject with goals, intelligence, and their own desires, however hidden.

Melody

The best kinds of cinematic love triangles are the ones that we aren’t even sure are love triangles: Tom’s obsession with Dickie in The Talented Mr. Ripley; Julio and Tenoch queer friend-zoning in Y tu mamá también, or Mrs. Danver’s unhealthy fixation on the dead Rebecca deWinter. These ambiguous relationships hint at the deep intimacies that friendships can bring. The same is true—at least at first, in Bernard Kordieh’s MELODY (2017. Leah, who is having a hard time with her boyfriend (who may or may not be cheating on her), chooses to go out and forget her troubles with the dynamic Melody (played by Maisie Richard Sellers of The Force Awakens, Legends of Tomorrow, and the world’s most ridiculous TV show, Of Kings and Profits). The two friends seem intensely intimate, to the extent that the viewer questions Melody’s designs on Leah. Does she want to make her only feel better, or is it something else?

The night fills out as one would expect. They smoke some pot, take some pills, make out a bit in the bathroom, and dance until dawn. However, when Leah’s boyfriend reinserts himself into the picture, Leah can’t help but take him back, even though he’s clearly a smarmy rogue who’s up to no good. The power struggle between Leah and Melody, however, seems to eventually decide whether or not the two lovers will stay together.

The performances are generally quite sophisticated; Leah (Maja Laskowska) retains that half-drunk/half-startled deer-in-headlights look that is characteristic of confused, lovelorn young women. But it’s Richard Sellers that is the force behind the film. She really embodies that kind of ultimate version of the self that awkward, self-conscious girls want to be. Gorgeous, demanding, and honest, she controls herself and world around her.

While the very end undermines the fun of the first three-quarters of the piece, MELODY nonetheless speaks to ways that women can really know each other as themselves, in a way that their boyfriends or lovers do not. This female friendship, intimate, physical, and honest, highlights the ways that women’s introspection—and their emancipation from their male counterparts– may be key to their own self-fulfillment.

The Truth Danger

In Luigi di Donato’s IL PERICOLO DEL VERO (THE TRUTH DANGER) (2017, a man struggles with memory, unsure of what did or did not happen. But, in a larger sense, the film is interested in the masks we wear and how—if at all—those masks speak to what’s going on inside of us.

In the film, the unnamed protagonist (Giovanni Pagliaroli) lives his day-to-day life, going to work and being a normal citizen. However, as the film progresses, he appears compelled to take a trip to the country, perhaps to attempt to remember something that he has tried to forget. As he takes his journey, ghosts appear to him to reveal past nightmares—or perhaps even past actualities.

The film’s most interest sequence is the shift from the more realistic milieu to the highly artificial theatrical stage. The protagonist is reaching deep into the art of melodrama, shouting to an empty theater “I didn’t want this.” The “this”—in this particular scenario, could mean a lot. On this one hand, it could mean anything, his bourgeois life, his job, his car. But more likely, he means his memories, or the fundamental knowledge of the truth of who he is.

The film’s plunge into the highly theatrical augments the early narratives highly melodramatic sensibilities, perhaps even calling into question the truth of the previous story. Here, the piece seems to revel in its own performance, aware of the possibility of the masks of theatrical performances and those of our performances in the rest of the world may be more similar than different. As such, it brings a sense of playfulness to what seems to be a rather serious text. While the film has challenges as a naturalist piece, its move toward theatricality marks it as a more thoughtful interaction between highly performative theatrical drama and the more naturalistic drama of narrative film.

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