Cinema Scope: Berlin and Beyond

Maxim Gaudette and Kathleen Fortin in Denis Côté’s Social Hygiene (2021)

The new Cinema Scope is out, and much of this issue is given over to conversations about and deep readings of some of the most notable films that premiered last month at the Berlinale. For the cover story, Jordan Cronk talks with Denis Côté about Social Hygiene, a film that Cinema Scope editor and Berlinale programmer Mark Peranson calls “the ur-pandemic text, a term I use just to raise the hackles of its author.”

Sure enough, Côté tells Cronk that he has “a hard time considering this film as a COVID-related affair.” Social Hygiene was, after all, written back in 2015, “and it was already called Hygiène sociale at the time.” The film is a series confrontations between Antonin (Maxim Gaudette), a man Cronk calls “a hopelessly pretentious dandy,” and five women in his life, all of whom outline the many ways he is not living up to his full potential. Cronk suggests that Social Hygiene plays like “a Straubian comedy—that is, if Straub dropped the highbrow references to Pavese, Hölderlin, and Schoenberg and fully embraced the existential narcissism of post-millennial living.” Côté admits that “it’s a little hard to recognize in Hygiène sociale the person who wrote and made films like Répertoire des villes disparues (2019) or Curling (2010), but I like what we achieved, even if by accident.”

Last week we mentioned that filmmaker Blake Williams is working on A Woman Escapes with Sofia Bohdanowicz and Burak Cevik, and here he talks with Ramon and Silvan Zürcher about The Girl and the Spider, their “overdue, much anticipated follow-up to their masterful debut feature,” The Strange Little Cat (2013). In the new film, the Zürchers spin a complex web of friends, neighbors, and strangers as two roommates part ways. In The Girl and the Spider, Williams finds “an acknowledgment, shot to shot, cut to cut, that there is more to the world than what we can presently see or say that we know. Which is to say that the Zürchers’ cinema . . . is one that is actively, playfully, and quite deeply concerned with contemporary intersubjectivity—an apt project for a pair of identical twin brothers, who despite their similar features could never experience the exact same thing in the exact same way. And at the present moment, I can think of few worthier undertakings for a narrative cinema practice than one that challenges and is curious about the ways that humans perceive themselves, others, and the perceptions of others.”

There’s an echo of this theme in Michael Sicinski’s essay on the work of Fern Silva and his first feature, Rock Bottom Riser, which takes “as its central point of conflict” the construction of an interstellar observatory in Hawaii. “Walter Benjamin spoke of ‘dialectical images,’ particular historical arrangements whose complexity could reveal the thick archaeological history that led to their present dispensation,” writes Sicinski. “This, I think, is as close as I can come to offering a satisfactory description of Silva’s films. By showing us a collage of discontinuous moments from a given lifeworld, Silva expresses the density of any given social formation, its atmospheric pervasiveness and resonance. As such, his films show us things that serve to emphasize just how much we cannot know.”

In Sabrina Zhao’s The Good Woman of Sichuan, an actress prepares to stage a production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, and Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne offers a series of impressions of Métis life in Manitoba. “Both of these ambitious first features by women allude to established narratives in order to push at their outer reaches,” writes James Lattimer, “stripping these structures of most of their usual incident and occurrence and filling the resultant spaces with vying, sensorial, frequently hypnotic modes of observation, atmosphere, and dream, expressed via techniques that belong more to experimental cinema traditions than narrative ones.”

We should note that the print version of this issue includes two more Berlinale interviews, Christoph Huber’s with Dominik Graf (Fabian: Going to the Dogs) and Adam Nayman’s with Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe (The Beta Test). Online we find Cinema Scope’s list of the top ten films of 2020, and Tsai Ming-liang’s Days, a film that premiered at the Berlinale last year, has been voted up to the #1 spot.

Beyond the Berlinale

Robert Koehler offers another top ten of sorts, seven favorites from this year’s Sundance plus three more he’ll “toss in.” Overall, he’s found that the 2021 lineup rolled out “a wave of half-realized works that often bore the marks of being designed as calling cards for Hollywood or, worse, that actually tried for something outside the industrial mainstream and came up painfully short.” But he does admire Shaka King’s “superb” Judas and the Black Messiah, a film that Andrew Tracy, too, prefers over that other recent movie featuring Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Tracy finds that “there’s something almost daring about the distortions [Aaron Sorkin] visits upon the event.” Gabrielle Marceau writes about another Sundance premiere, Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix, “a restless, kaleidoscopic portrait of our media-saturated moment.”

Josh Cabrita suggests that in The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) and Southland Tales (2006), Fritz Lang and Richard Kelly, respectively, both seek “to test our phenomenological responses to the vast network of perches and vantages, cameras and screens, that make up the respective media regimes depicted in their films. The author, as God, is dead, and so we, just like the characters, have become responsible for the terms under which the realities of the movies are to be understood.”

Beatrice Loayza writes about Joyce Chopra; the film she made with Claudia Weill, Joyce at 34 (1972); and Chopra’s first fiction feature, Smooth Talk (1985), based on Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Connie, a teen played by Laura Dern, can’t wait to experience all that life has to offer—until she meets Arnold Friend (Treat Williams). “Friend’s uncanny menace, Connie’s ‘trashy daydreams,’ and the idea of coming-of-age as a kind of macabre seduction are all present in Oates’s story,” writes Loayza, “but Chopra and her screenwriter (and husband) Tom Cole liberate Connie’s ruinous quest for independence from utter bleakness and render it a more expansive tale about the negotiation of feminist values across generations.”

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