Little Film Review: The Fall (2006)

The Fall (2006)
Tarsem Singh

Tarsem Singh’s The Fall is a film’s film with a storyteller’s story.

A central question in this film is “who owns a story?” Or rather, who controls its meaning and interpretation? As a frame narrative, the plot calls attention to the act of storytelling. However, the story within the story is also being crafted and challenged in real time as the frame narrative unfolds.

If the film’s plot structure was its only self-referential aspect, that would be more than enough to qualify The Fall as an interesting study of storytelling. Yet the setting and cinematography each add their own multi-layered meanings. After all, this is a film’s film.

Despite the intricate plot, The Fall is primarily a visual film, not a literary one. The cinematography is decadently baroque. The film is set in silent film era Hollywood – an industry devoted to storytelling through pictures.

This exploration of self-referentiality and authorial control is increasingly relevant in today’s media environment. Such questions have implications for both copyright law and popular media criticism, as films are meme-ified and digested multiple times the moment trailers are released.

This self indulgent filmmaking can actually be worthwhile and rewarding here. In the same way that a science fiction viewer suspends disbelief in order to appreciate the film on its own terms, suspension of propriety aids appreciation of The Fall. Those indulgently sumptuous visuals are indeed a delight to behold. The many-layered story provides ample fodder for conversation.

Little Film Review: The Red House (2012)

The Red House (2012)
Alyx Duncan

An expression can never fully capture the entirety of what it is trying to express. No matter how precise, little gaps between a word and its referent persist. Memories are always a step away from the reality. An interpretation of an expression will differ slightly from the idea that sparked that expression.

Alyx Duncan’s beautiful and genre-bending first feature film is an elegant and loving exploration of these little gaps.

Lee is an environmentalist living in rural New Zealand with his wife, Jia. When they met, he only spoke English and she spoke only Mandarin. Twenty years later their language proficiency has changed very little, and yet they have forged a deep and intimate understanding.

They are preparing to pack up and move to China, to the home Jia left decades ago. This simultaneous homecoming and departure allows for varied and nuanced experiences of nostalgia – both on an intimate level, and within the context of globalization. Home is never exactly as you remember. It never was, but more importantly, it never stopped changing while you were away.

Fittingly, this film’s production started as a documentary about the filmmaker’s father, stepmother and their house. However, they were uneasy appearing as themselves on camera. So Duncan decided to give them fictional roles to play. This pretext was just the gap that they needed to let down their guard. As a result, the film is much more truthful than it might have been otherwise, if not as factual.

Writing on writing on film, and my own self-confidence.

Earlier this year I was applying for a job at a film festival as a programming associate. In addition to the usual cover letter and resume, they asked for three short film reviews.

I didn’t get the job (boo) but the process of writing was good. I actually wrote five, so that I could pick out the best three. Once it was clear that I wasn’t getting he job, I kept the reviews around. I’ve known for a long time that I want to keep a blog/website, but I’m still figuring out what to put here. These reviews are as good a place to start as any other.

I will share those reviews, but first I would like to talk about the writing itself. This blog/website is still quite new, and I am the only reader. So I suspect that a lot of the content, at least at first will be somewhat confessional (and self-indulgent). I need a place to write down my navel-gazing for a while. With luck and perseverance, I will hit onto something worthwhile.

Anyway. Back to writing on film.

The job posting didn’t specify the context for the reviews. So I wondered quite a bit about what voice I should use. A program book note? A report for a senior programmer? A traditional review for publication? What about an academic paper?

These are subtly different categories, but they are important distinctions. The intentions of the writer and assumptions about the reader are quite distinct. A program note is selling something, in a sense. You are aiming to frame the film in the best possible way. You want to set the expectations for the audience so that they have the best chance to be satisfied.

A report from one pre-screener or programmer to another is never meant for public view, and can be much more candid. It is not a simple assessment of quality, (although that is a component) but also an assessment of fit. How does his film fit with the festival’s mission, as well as with the rest of the program?

Of course a review from a critic is the most widely known format. But it’s also the one I have the least experience with. I’ve wondered why I was drawn towards festival programming rather than towards film reviewing. They are similar positions, in a way. Both the programmer and the critic tell their audiences which films are worth watching. But a critic also tells her audience which films are not worth their time.

I am reminded of one of my favourite moments in the film Ratatouille: Anton Ego’s review of the meal prepared by Remy the rat. You can watch it here. Around 36 seconds in, he talks about the role of the critic in “the discovery and defense of the new.” That line always stuck with me. It is something that I think programmers and critics share, in their own ways.

There is a part of me that feels that I do not know how to write seriously about film, especially as a critic or an academic. I know this sounds silly. I’ve written program notes for films at multiple film festivals, and received some positive feedback from colleagues and bosses. I have undergraduate and masters degrees in cinema studies. I even took a course on art criticism in high school. I have written many many papers on film. Some of them even received good grades!

But… I also feel like I lost a lot of those skills after I finished school. Not to mention the ever-present impostor syndrome I experienced while I was still there.

I never quite became fluent in film theory. And although I enjoy film history, I have only scratched the surface when it comes to watching the important films and directors of the world. Many of my friends who work in other fields always seem to have seen more movies that I have.

When I read a good review of a film, even a film I have seen and given much thought to, I stand in awe at all of the nuanced and well informed insights. It all seems so plainly obvious, and yet I missed it all.

I have acquaintances and classmates who have written on film or pop culture for different publications and websites. How did they start? Where does the authority and confidence come from? Where do the clever insights about films come from?

Well, I warned you about the confessional tone and the navel gazing. It is not my intention to make this blog a personal diary. But some individual posts, like this one, might take that tone.

Just as different forms of writing on film adjust their voice according to their assumed audience, I will adjust my tone as I start to have readers besides myself.

What is my taste in cinema?

When you study film, people like to ask you what your favourite film(s) are. Or your favourite genre. And like many film students before me, I have a hard time narrowing it down. So I say something along the lines of, “Oh I like lots of genres, it’s impossible to choose.” Or “it depends on my mood.”

While true… those answers also kinda feel like cop-outs. But I’ve actually given a decent amount of thought to this subject… but the more I think about it, but broader my answer gets, rather than narrower. I find that I often like movies that are radically different from each other.

On the one hand, I really like stories of life that don’t feel the need to include some big dramatic arc or conflict. Think Old Joy, Museum Hours or a documentary like The Sower. Peaceful films.

On the other hand, I also like films that are super violent and completely about conflict. Think Dredd, The Raid or John Wick.

So then I thought, maybe I like films that are clear and simple in their aims? Well, not really. I also love films with fussy intricacies, or sprawling ambitions like Terry Gilliam films.

I do tend to like films that look nice… I am a sucker for some Wes Anderson. I don’t care if the films are all just very expensive dollhouse play sessions and daddy issues. I love them anyway. Oh, and The Fall. Can’t talk about good looking films and leave out that one.

… But I don’t exclusively like nice-looking films. Gritty, cheesy B movies are great. Heck, I even like a lot of grainy, portrait-oriented cell-phone videos. (Yes, I’ve mostly been talking about feature-length films… but the borders between Cinema with a capital C and other types of moving pictures are pretty porous these days. It’s all grist for the mill)

But this isn’t to say that I like all films… Just that it is very hard to come up with a list of characteristics that all the films I like or don’t like share.

I’m nowhere near an answer. But there we go.