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Filmmakers’ Presences

Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela (2019)

For the time being, film festivals aren’t strictly local events anymore. Many of the films screening as part of two robust events that opened this week, Chicago and AFI Fest, are viewable from anywhere in the country. For guides, recommendations, and how-tos, turn to Kathleen Sachs in the Chicago Reader and Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times.

DOC NYC, in the meantime, has announced a lineup of more than 200 films and events for next month’s edition, and come February, the Berlinale will be celebrating the comedies from the 1930s and ’40s starring Mae West, Rosalind Russell, and Carole Lombard. No Angels is the title of the retrospective, and the festival is optimistically planning to present the bulk of it in theaters on 35 mm.

Here’s some of the week’s best reading to take with you into the weekend:

  • Renowned philosopher and cinephile Jacques Rancière has contributed an outstanding essay on Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela (2019) to the latest issue of Trafic, and Sabzian has posted Sis Matthé’s translation. Rancière suggests that we might “consider the entire cycle that begins with In Vanda’s Room [2000] as one long effort to invent a new form capable of rendering the lives lost in the slums of the Lisbon suburbs or in other shanty towns of European metropolises.” But in this new film, “Vitalina’s gaze and words redistribute the game: it is not about male workers” who “agree to capitalist exploitation if it allows them to live their misery comfortably among themselves and to confirm their privilege over women who are left, somewhere far away in a domestic underworld.”

  • Introducing his list of sixty-two films that have “shaped the art of documentary filmmaking,” the New Yorker’s Richard Brody sketches a brief history of the impacts major technological innovations from lightweight synch-sound equipment to digital video have had on filmmakers’ aesthetic choices. Brody argues that throughout this history, the “most artistically advanced documentaries are those in which the participants are engaging conspicuously with the filmmakers; in their most radical forms, they show the influences, inspirations, or perturbations that the people onscreen experience from the filmmakers’ presence. Which is another way of saying that, although documentaries follow real people, their crucial material and subject is nonetheless performance.”

  • Martin Eden, painter-turned-filmmaker Pietro Marcello’s loose adaptation of Jack London’s novel, sees a virtual release today, arriving “like a bolt out of the blue, bursting with ideas, not unlike its hero,” as J. Hoberman puts it in an excellent primer on both Marcello and London in the New York Review of Books (whose freshly designed site, by the way, has swept out all the old must). For Filmmaker, Forrest Cardamenis talks with Marcello about technique and composition, Soviet cinema and pink neorealism. “By deftly summoning touchstones of Italian cinema,” writes Melissa Anderson at 4Columns, “Marcello adds to the pleasing anachronisms of this epic tale, a study of a larger-than-life character whose grandness is magnified by the brio of [Luca] Marinelli’s performance.”

  • In an inspired pairing of writer and subject, the Notebook has musician and critic Sasha Frere-Jones not just watching but also attentively listening to the two films composer Jóhann Jóhannsson made before he passed away in 2018. In Last and First Men (2019), “as in most of his film scores, Jóhannsson uses voices and electronics to open up the timbre of the traditional string section,” writes Frere-Jones. “It’s interesting that here, and in End of Summer [2014], when in full control of the cinematic experiences, he doesn’t entirely abandon narrative or coherence. There is a liminal space, an edge much like the orbit of Neptune, where Jóhannsson takes us, though he doesn’t strand us there.”

  • Last and First Men is narrated by Tilda Swinton, who in 1987 appeared in the late theorist and filmmaker Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death. A new restoration begins its virtual run tomorrow as part of the London Film Festival. Swinton’s Friendship is an alien sent to our planet to discover “why Earth’s human inhabitants appear hellbent upon their own destruction, and that of the other species they share the planet with,” as Henry K. Miller explains in a piece for the BFI. “Friendship’s Death may be as studded with recondite information and highbrow references as any of Wollen’s books, but this comparatively artless question, which might come from a child, is meant to be taken straight. Wollen had himself been a kind of foreign correspondent—an experience he had earlier drawn upon in his screenplay, co-written with Mark Peploe, for Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). But another side of him, the enquiring essayist, always going back to first causes, is reflected in Friendship.”

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