Cinema Scope and the NYFF

The Daily — Sep 30, 2020
Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno (2020)

Well over half of the new issue of Cinema Scope is now freely accessible online. Alongside such excellent pieces as Michael Sicinski’s on Ulrike Ottinger and Adam Nayman’s on Charlie Kaufman are two interviews and two reviews tied to four films that either have screened or are about to at the New York Film Festival. Editor Mark Peranson has the cover story, a conversation with Gianfranco Rosi, winner of the Golden Lion in Venice for Sacro GRA (2013) and the Golden Bear in Berlin for Fire at Sea (2016). Rosi began shooting his new film, Notturno, which screens as part of the NYFF’s Main Slate from next Tuesday through October 11, around three years ago in parts of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon ravaged by ISIS.

Introducing his interview, Peranson notes that Rosi “approaches his subject, which has been dealt with in straightforward ‘horrors of war’ fashion innumerable times, with a conscious attempt to subvert viewers’ expectations of what a documentary focusing on the victims of war should look like (in a visual sense) or accomplish (in a narrative sense).” Rosi says that he’s been told that Notturno looks “like a John Ford film, and this is what I want to achieve: the highest quality of filmmaking, but with the strong element of reality. In order to do this I need to go very deep in terms of intimacy with the characters.” For Rosi, “the film starts where the duty of a photojournalist or reporter ends.” And he has stories to tell. “I still have a knot in my throat, as I went through so many things, moments where my life was in danger, with people that I never met before, who became my assistants and my best friends.”

Reviewing Notturno for Variety, Jessica Kiang writes that, yes, the “personal is political, but it can also be very private, and where Rosi’s imagery is often arresting in its vivid sharpness, that dividing line—between insightfulness and invasiveness—like every border in this ancient, troubled region, is blurred.” For Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, though, while “the structure increasingly gravitates towards reckoning with ISIS atrocities, both as processed through drawings made by war-survivor children in therapy and in a climactic sequence of a woman listening to voicemails from her kidnapped, now-presumably dead daughter . . . nothing about Rosi’s approach strikes me as gruesome or inappropriate, and the results are as striking as ever.”

In 2013, Peranson, working with Raya Martin, cast filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (Her Smell) in La última película, “a remake, or perhaps a reimagining,” as Calum Marsh put it in the Village Voice, of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971). Now Peranson has had Perry tackle Hopper/Welles, a 130-minute interview with Hopper conducted by Orson Welles in Los Angeles in November 1970, which would be, as Perry points out, after Hopper had completed “his totemic masterpiece” but before it was released, eviscerated by the critics, and ignored by moviegoers. At the time of Welles’s interview, in other words, Hopper was still the youngish maverick who had turned Hollywood upside down with his massive surprise hit, Easy Rider (1969).

Perry also points out that Hopper/Welles “stands in opposition to the scripted/performed L. M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller’s The American Dreamer (1971),” a film that hangs out with Hopper as he goes about the slow business of completing postproduction on The Last Movie. “In as much as The American Dreamer has long been instrumental in solidifying the Hopper myth of the Taos-dwelling, gun-toting, orgy-hosting maniac whose lifestyle became an extended performance of the themes and characterizations of The Last Movie,” writes Perry, “the Hopper on camera in Hopper/Welles is the Hopper who would have been in on the joke of The American Dreamer. Lucid, articulate, and questioning what it means to undertake the godlike act of creating film, this is likely closer to Hopper as he was, not as the public wanted or needed him to be.”

Hopper is starkly lit by kerosene hurricane lamps and shot in black and white on 16 mm by Welles’s devoted cinematographer, Gary Graver, using just two cameras. “Hopper is earnest, elliptical, sometimes almost smugly modest, which Welles challenges frequently,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant, “though Hopper often appears to be honestly uncertain about his role in pop culture and almost desperate to flee from it—a desperation, a simultaneous desire to be heard and to vanish, which can spur volcanic violence.”

If Hopper is playing himself with as much sincerity as he can muster, Welles is not. Hopper/Welles is essentially part of the sprawling project that Welles started shooting in 1970 and never completed, The Other Side of the Wind. Producer Filip Jan Rymsza and editor Bob Murawski were part of the team that reconstructed The Other Side in 2018, and they have now honed Hopper/Welles down from around five hours of footage.

In an illuminating piece up at Wellesnet, Joseph McBride, who appears in The Other Side as a gangly, awkward film critic, recalls that a few months before he sat down with Hopper, Welles told him that he hadn’t yet cast the lead, Jake Hannaford, the gnarly Hollywood director eventually played by John Huston. So in Hopper/Welles, Welles is a stand-in for Hannaford, both threatened and enthralled by the encroaching New Hollywood. “Welles sometimes slips into his own persona,” notes McBride, “and sometimes the dividing line is not clear. That is nothing new for Welles, since he always maintains an ambiguous relationship with his protagonists, one of the finest features of his work, which, as François Truffaut put it, examines ‘the angel within the beast, the heart in the monster, the secret of the tyrant.’”

The Guardian’s Xan Brooks finds Hopper/Welles “periodically fascinating” but “generally exasperating,” while Leonardo Goi, writing for the Notebook, calls it “a solemn and rambunctious scrap of film and U.S. history . . . That it feels so alive and vibrant is nothing short of extraordinary.” The NYFF Spotlight presentation is on through Saturday.

The NYFF’s limited rental windows for the other two films covered in Cinema Scope have already opened and closed, unfortunately, but they’ll most definitely be back in one form or another. Filmmaker, DJ, and radio personality Ephraim Asili opened the inaugural edition of the festival’s new Currents program with The Inheritance, which James Lattimer calls “a playful, erudite, and boundary-blurring examination of what performing Black theory, literature, music, and testimony in a contemporary Philadelphia commune might set in motion. Given even greater topicality by the current moment, Ephraim Asili’s first feature has no problems transcending it, not least in its insistence on continuity and process. Too smart to trade in conventional activism and too wry and funky to feel overly academic, Asili’s unique project is ultimately about intertwining theory and practice and making sure both are passed on to the next generation, an idea that reverberates far beyond the walls of the house.”

In The Inheritance, Ashley Clark finds “not a single frame that is not interesting in terms of color and composition, not a single sonic intervention that isn’t textually enriching. There is one short sequence involving fruit, veg, a blender, an AM radio signal, and a Godard film poster that’s so simultaneously casual and thematically rich that it made me laugh out loud.” In the Notebook, Michael Sicinski explains why The Inheritance is “the logical consequence of the political aesthetic that Asili has been honing, and perfecting, for years.”

Jordan Cronk has spoken with Asili for Artforum, and for Cinema Scope, he’s interviewed Nicolás Pereda, whose ninth feature, Fauna, has also screened in the Currents program. “Following a decade working at the intersection of fiction and documentary, Pereda has, in recent years, mostly forgone the aesthetics of nonfiction in favor of a unique form of narrative cinema in which real-world issues and anxieties are couched in forms at once grave and fantastical,” writes Cronk in his introduction. “Fauna charts a sidelong course around one of Mexico’s more pressing sociopolitical concerns—the impact of narco culture on Mexican society and its troubling representation in the media—by situating its characters within a subtly expanding dramaturgical framework in which notions of performance and identity are made to blur and reanimate as the narrative shifts between the quaint and the cryptic.”

Two actors, Paco (Francisco Barreiro) and Luisa (Luisa Pardo), take a road trip to visit her family, and after they arrive, they abandon their characters and Fauna seems to become an altogether different film. Michael Sicinski finds “something almost defiantly minor about many of Pereda’s films, as though he were less interested in them on their own terms than as part of an ongoing conceptual style.” But for Lawrence Garcia at In Review Online, what’s “remarkable is that through canny compositions, shot selection, and judicious shifts in behavioral emphasis, Pereda manages to maintain a coherent tone across both sections, while still keeping the story framework of each distinct and surprising.”

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