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Suspiria Suspiria
Hovering tensely and amusingly between kitsch and high art, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was the highlight of my several days at Perth’s Revelation International Film Festival, an aesthetically challenging and pleasingly intimate event hosted by program director Jack Sargeant and Revelation Chair Richard Sowada.

Suspiria

Fixated on the tropes of horror and suspense thriller films, Argento elaborates on and lingers over them with calculated artificiality—his world is spatially exaggerated, surreally dreamlike and richly lit with unlikely colours, his characters hyper-types with severely limited vocabularies.

At times Argento’s generation of suspense and shock is masterful (hands plunging though a window and pulling the face of the person inside flat to the breaking glass), at others he over-relishes the moment draining the image of affect—as in the scene with the blind pianist lost with his Doberman amid neo-classical buildings on an empty black space. The ‘consolation’ is that the dog turns on his master, with close-ups of the animal tearing at real meat (but not in the graphic manner of the contemporary horror film where we’d doubtless see the face and throat of the victim). Elsewhere the blood is patently fake, artfully applied, as is a large shard of glass neatly sculpted into a face. Characteristically, Argento’s play with depth of field and the use of doorways (leading into ambiguous spaces or sheer nothingness) yields both existential eeriness and visual delight. These are crafted excesses.

Of apparent secondary concern in Suspiria, narrative provides sufficient foundation for the largely visual realisation of a murder mystery with a witchcraft theme. Music is another matter. Tautly thematic and un-clichéd, its percussion shimmers, bass lines sink into otherworldliness and the musicians’ voices form an enveloping ghost chorus. Performed at REV live by Goblin, the creators of the original soundtrack, to a vivid print and clear dialogue, the tightly cued music gave the film even greater cogency, making for a wonderful audio-visual experience—a heightened viewing of a classic rarely encountered on the big screen.

White Reindeer

White Reindeer (USA,2013) a largely crowd-funded American film by Revelation guest the writer-director Zack Clark, was a cut above standard Indie fare. If conventionally filmed, the creation and evolution of its central character, Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a real estate agent whose TV weatherman husband is murdered very early in the film a few days before Xmas, is adroitly realised. Deeply depressed and increasingly manic but largely calm on the exterior, she finds herself sucked into unusual situations (a very funny orgy, drug-taking, a friendship with a black woman—her husband’s sometime mistress—and shoplifting) that take her well beyond her comfort zone and the narrow world of her timid parents (who suddenly divorce) and us with her on a largely unpredictable journey, some of it into deep abjection. What is special is the uncluttered ease and absence of rationalised motivation with which Clark allows his protagonist to go on this journey into excess and potential healing. Also effective is the way the director satirically frames Suzanne’s fall and rise, heightening the sense of an un-nuanced world in which people privately indulge in extremes. White Reindeer is at once funny and sad, and feel-good without being a turn-off: the road of excess into grief by way of abjection leads to a palace of wisdom, if a humble one.

Upstream Colour

Upstream Colour (writer, director, cinematographer, composer, actor Shane Carruth, USA, 2013) was an altogether more demanding experience with little of the Indie inclination to straightforward novel-ish narratives. Its calculated lack of narrative certainty, its distant characters and unusual shooting were too much for some of the audience, while others found it exhilarating. Naturally there was debate, but little in the way of middle ground agreement. The film’s various disorientations make for an engrossing experience as an animator, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who appears slightly off kilter at work, falls prey to a man who drugs her into signing over her property and leaves her lost, amnesiac and deeply wounded. Such is the filming that we share her delirium. Unlike Suzanne in White Reindeer, Kris’ full recovery looks unlikely as she rejects a sensitive if similarly withdrawn male’s approaches, his character tainted for us by obsessive paper folding. Heavy with deeply ironic references to Thoreau’s On Walden Pond, with images of rotting and infection (maggots pushing up veins in her leg, to which Kris takes a knife) and of farm pigs (whose care might signal salvation), Upstream Colour (the title is a clue to solving one of the film’s mysteries) is abundant with excess. But its juxtaposition with the spare characterisations created a dynamic I enjoyed in these pedestrian times, if having to accept the film’s metaphysical pretensions à la Terence Malick.

Sam’s Gold

Sam’s Gold, a short drama by Australian filmmaker Julietta Boscolo and writer Rebecca Clarke, cleverly frames a young boy’s struggle to maintain a sense of self with the tale of a young wizard written for Sam by his gaoled father. The father, reading aloud in prison, is the first person we see before we follow Sam on his way to school listening to the story on an iPod, a gift from his father. Local bullies steal it from him, burning his hand with a cigarette lighter, but he assertively regains the player. The film deftly delineates the boy’s needs (his father absent, his mother delinquent), his courage and ethical good sense.

Interior, Leather Bar

Producer James Franco and director Travis Matthew’s docu-fiction Interior, Leather Bar was inspired by the mystery of the 40 missing minutes (cut presumably in the face of censorship) of William Friedkin’s Cruising, an infamous 1980 film about a detective (Al Pacino) going underground and gay in order to catch a serial killer. There’s much talk about the casting of the Pacino role with Van Lauren, a very straight actor whose objections are met with bland, mumbled assertions from Franco that he wanted to show the warmth of gay male sexuality. After watching the cock fondling and sucking from the edge of the action, sharing meaningful looks with one of the cohorts and joining the subsequent dancing, our new Pacino (“I’m not the same man I was when I came into this”) goes home happy to his wife. Or does he (“touched by the intimacy of the couple”) see something that he likes? There is nothing to indicate the nature or the depth of the change. The sex scenes are conventional soft core, tarted up with video clip editing and overwrought ambience.

Surkhaab

One of the stranger films in the program was Sanjay Talreja’s Surkhaab (India, Canada, USA, 2012). The leading actor, Barka Madan, a Buddhist nun who has forsaken the martial arts she demonstrates in the film, addressed us in robes and shaved head. Surkhaab is about people smuggling (the relatively good father smuggler and his bad smuggler son) and their clients, in this case an educated, elegant young woman, Jeet (Madan), who has become the victim of aggressive sexism in her hometown in India. In a post-film talk, Madan explained that the director decided that the film was too linearly predictable and asked the editor to re-order it. The result is two intertwined narratives, one following the woman to Canada, the other cutting back to India to gradually reveal the increasing seriousness of the plight that finally drives Jeet to become a refugee. Madan aside, there are naïve performances, some clunky scripting, improbable plotting and a limp feel-good ending. But the film makes it evident that you don’t have to be poor, the victim of political terror or war to be driven to become an ‘illegal’ immigrant. But even if she has found a new home (still as an ‘illegal’) Jeet learns that in Canada “I am just another immigrant; just another story.” More positively, she is a woman at the centre of a serious film, a trend Madan said was developing in Indian filmmaking.

Experimental Showcase

Jason Wen’s Let Everyone Create Their Own Title (UK, 8mins) is a fascinating impressionistic ‘biography’ that conveys some sense of what it might mean to suffer Parkinson’s Disease. Wen limits our vision of the sufferer’s world to a narrow vertical strip of screen in which we view him, his home and nature—each seen as blurred or quaking, utterly still or pondered close-up in intense detail.

In Long Life (1) (Australia), Merilyn Fairskye magically works the horizontal plane, playing simultaneously with our perception of horizon, depth of field and our sense of up and down. Sky and reflective water overlap near what we’d expect to be the horizon, but it takes quite a while to grasp an eerie otherness in which drifting weeds below appear above like a bird flock, ducks float seemingly out of scale with the waterscape above the horizon while what we take for islands drift by. This seven-minute, characteristically contemplative Fairskye work was one of the several works that justified the experimental label.

With a very different perceptual challenge (keeping up with the speed of image turnover), Dan Browne’s multi-award winning Memento Mori (Canada, 28mins; https://vimeo.com/54265266) offers a long, fast ride through a constantly morphing, heavily layered image-scape, which the maker describes as “a meditation on (im)mortality, mediated by a lifetime of images.” The 100,000 photographs and film images (some of them classically ‘experimental’) that constitute the work’s content from the filmmaker’s archive fly by—richly coloured, merging into one another, creating abstract patterns and spectres, their flow occasionally ‘slowed’ by the persistence of a specific image (a police car, a receding railway track). The multi-layered soundtrack comprising radio snatches, toy piano, a man talking at length about death (the film speeds on while the aural plane at one level slows), religious chants, birds and rain is deeply absorbing in itself as well as matching and counterpointing the pulse of the film. The moon, a boy’s hand resting against grass, a tale of a Buddhist monk’s philosophical conviction (“I could have your sword run though my belly without a blink of my eye”) and a chiming church bell in the film’s final moments, complete with a glimpse of the filmmaker’s face, underline a sense of mortality, our spirit buoyed by the richness of what has passed.


Revelation Perth International Film Festival, 4-14 July

Keith Gallasch was a guest of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival.

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 21

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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