Friday, July 3, 2015


JAUJA                        B+                  

Argentina  Denmark  France  Mexico  Germany  Brazil  Netherlands  USA  (109 mi)  2014      
d:  Lisandro Alonso             Official site [Japan]

My films aren’t narratives. I observe people, different moments, and I put them all together in the film. The audience has to imagine or create something sitting in the chair.   
—Lisandro Alonso, from Michael Guillen interview, August 28, 2009, Twitch: director interview

This may be the most accessible of all of Alonso’s films, most of which are imbued with a plotless, dreamlike quality that resembles more of an atmospheric state of mind than a coherent storyline.  Every one of his films pits solitary men in extremely barren and isolated circumstances in search of some largely unknowable destiny, using little to no dialogue, where the harshness of the desolate landscape offers a commentary on the difficult and often deteriorating psychological state of mind.  While all his films include lengthy, uninterrupted wordless sequences bordering on the abstract, this one does as well, while also offering a bit more clearly defined dialogue and an actual historical backdrop, including a recognizable narrative and more clues than usual that at least initially offer a map to begin with before the journey takes us into unchartered territory, leading us into mysteriously inexplicable destinations that remain elusive and ambiguous, leaving each individual viewer something of a Rorschach test to make sense out of.  One thing’s for sure – a significant amount of time passes which does seem to alter the landscape considerably, where there is a final coda, much like there is in Pocahontas’s abrupt visit to the ornate civilization of British royalty in Malick’s The New World (2005), that in this film jumps ahead more than 100 years, offering an unusual perspective to say the least.  Like Malick, the film begins in a specific moment in history, and while never named, it is likely the 1870’s and early 1880’s campaign by Chile and Argentina to wipe out the indigenous populations in Patagonia, and what might be read as an allegory about colonialism soon takes a circuitous path through mythology into an unrecognizable dreamscape, with touches of the supernatural found along the way.  No historical background of this purge is provided, though in a time of Chilean expansion into Patagonia, historian Ward Churchill has claimed that the indigenous Mapuche population dropped from a total of half a million to 25,000 within a generation as a result of the notoriously brutal military assault on the Kingdom of Araucania and Patagonia that led to their subjugation.  Coinciding with the Chilean intrusion, Argentina General Julio Argentino Roca (who was eventually named their President) was instructed to settle the frontier problem of Patagonia, which he did by directing a military campaign known as the Conquest of the Desert, which established Argentine dominance in the region and effectively ended the possibility of Chilean expansion while also killing and displacing tens of thousands of Indians from their traditional lands.  Once rid of Indians, ethnic European settlers eventually developed the lands for agriculture, turning Argentina into an agricultural superpower in the early 20th century.  This is a particularly contentious period of Argentinean history, where the Conquest is commemorated on the 100 peso bill in Argentina, which some historians have claimed brought Civilization to an otherwise wild frontier, opening the lands to European farmers, while others have claimed it was little more than genocide.

Alonso has always used nonprofessional actors and written his own material, though here he collaborates with a professional writer, Argentine poet and novelist Fabián Casas, while working with an internationally recognized star in Viggo Mortensen, who also contributes the music, as well as longtime Aki Kaurismäki cameraman Timo Salminen, who certainly elevates the look and production values of the film, where much of it, with the boxed frame and rounded corners, is meant to resemble old photographs.  Coming six years after his previous feature LIVERPOOL (2008) that remains arguably his best work, and the first to feature such extensive interior psychology, as does this follow up work, the film opens with inner titles making reference to Jauja, an ancient Incan settlement founded by the Spanish conquistadors that subsequently became Peru’s capital city, suggestive of a land of plenty, or El Dorado, a mythical utopian paradise that drew many on an endless quest for its discovery, but eventually driving them to ruin.  This “big lie” was invented to get Europeans on board the ships in quest of adventure, where the inhospitable lands that greeted them were endlessly desolate and empty, a sparsely populated region at the southern tip of South America consisting of deserts, steppes, and grasslands where only indigenous Indians roamed wild.  Nonetheless, the lure of hidden riches suggests Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972) and the ruthless Spanish expeditions in search of lost cities filled with wealth and gold.  This brief outline guides us to a journey into a distant new world, where Danish captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) and his fifteen year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Mallin Agger) are stationed with the Argentine army at a remote coastal outpost in Patagonia teeming with giant seals sunning themselves on the rocks, their purpose only vaguely hinted at, as Dinesen is a military engineer, with dozens of soldiers dispatched to dig trenches in the hot sun under his orders, presumably hired to build up the army’s defenses for the Conquest.  The film is uniquely set in two distinct places and time periods, linking the past to the present, where the lengthy opening sequence may all be a dream by Ingeborg, a young girl living in a Danish castle in the present, imagining herself connected to Dinesen in some mysterious way.  Dressed in the finest European fashion, she is of an age to be leered at by the crude and lecherous army officers, whose racist regard for Indians is equally troubling, causing her father some concern, but rather than allow them to indulge their pleasures, she decides instead to run off into the wilderness with a handsome young soldier (Misael Saavedra), where the outlying landscape becomes some idyllic natural paradise.  Dinesen quickly chases after her, where the marshy grasslands turn into a desolate rocky terrain, as the everpresent sounds of birds disappear altogether, leaving him alone in a solitary existence where the changing topography only grows more empty and barren, where he may as well be on the surface of the moon.

Through a long and treacherous journey, much of which resembles the years-long search of Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS (1956), Dinesen loses all traces of his former self, where the very things that define him, his map, his discipline, his hat, his firearm, and even his horse, are lost along the way, where he’s forced to continue his seemingly endless journey on foot, step by step, where the man is literally consumed by the enveloping landscape of emptiness that stretches to infinity in all directions.  With its similarly congested box shape and equally futile search through the expanse of the arid desert, though in search of water, the film parallels Kelly Reichardt’s Meek's Cutoff (2010), as both reveal the aimless wanderings across a desolate frontier, leading to a deteriorating state of mind as they run short of faith and water.  In one extraordinary sequence, Dinesen rides off into the desert singing what is perhaps an army song, where the accompanying piano and guitar composition was written by the man seen drifting offscreen, where only the sound of his voice remains, as if the reality of his existence has literally disappeared, crossing into mythological territory.  Action as we know it has ceased to exist, replaced by signs of a treacherous journey, riding horses, climbing mountains, or crawling through challenging landscapes.  By then the pace of the film has slowed to a crawl, yet he persists, where it becomes apparent that what he’s pursuing exists only in dreams, long ago having lost any contact with reality.  Like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and Jarmusch’s DEAD MAN (1995), these are films that make extraordinary use of natural landscapes, where man’s quest across the wilderness gradually loses steam, where the context is altered over time, where the original reality vanishes into thin air while something new emerges, driven by a spiritual realm that is expressed in near hallucinogenic, dreamlike imagery.  His strength depleted from lack of food and water, Dinesen follows a stray dog in an interesting parallel to one of the last thoughts his daughter spoke, speaking of her desire to own a dog, one that would follow her everywhere.  Little could he suspect, that’s exactly what Dinesen becomes late into the film, blindly following every last trace of her, where the dog leads him into a mountain cave where he encounters an elderly witch (Ghita Nørby), whose pronouncements defy logic, making little sense initially, much like the witches riddle from Macbeth, but the moment resonates simply due to her mere presence, evoking unknowable mythological destinies.  “What is it that makes a life function and move forward?”  Like Alice down the rabbit hole, where it all leads is a spiral into an inexplicably mysterious abyss, coming out on the other side where a completely new world exists in another time dimension, strangely connected to the original one, but curiously different.  In this case the end of the journey is back at the beginning, where it takes an exceptional determination and a willful plunge into the unknown to retrace those steps to board those same ships for another journey in search of El Dorado, where European prosperity is linked to this colonialist era of plundering the resources from distant nations.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Slow West

SLOW WEST             B-            
Great Britain  New Zealand  (84 mi)  2015  d:  John Maclean            Official site

John Maclean is trying a second career as a writer/director after being a keyboard player for the Scottish indie-rock group The Beta Band, which broke up after 8-years in 2004, but were included in a prominent scene from HIGH FIDELTY (2000), High Fidelity - YouTube (2:23), leading to another group called The Aliens, which lasted only about three or four years.  After making two short films with actor Michael Fassbender, his feature debut premiered at Sundance to great acclaim earlier this year where it won the Jury Prize for World Cinema and was released on the Internet along with a limited American release.  Shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who also shot Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (2009) and Sally Potter’s 2013 Top Ten List # 10 Ginger & Rosa, in the stunning Mackenzie Country region on New Zealand’s South Island (Images for Mackenzie Country, New Zealand), it’s a story of the American West in the 1870’s that begins with a voiceover under the stars recalling the origins of an infamous love affair between 16-year old Scottish aristocrat Jay Cavendish, Kodi Smit-McPhee, the ten-year old kid from John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic The Road (2009), and his first love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who flees to America with her father after an unfortunate accident that Jay feels responsible for results in an untimely death.  Guidebook and heart in hand, Jay sets out after her alone, filled with a naïve determination that he can manage a perilous journey of this magnitude on his own.  It comes as no surprise then to discover that he’s immediately in trouble, caught in the midst of fleeing Indians running on foot through a dense forest and armed frontiersmen chasing after them, where Cavendish is saved by none other than the narrator himself, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a grizzled bounty hunter, with a stogie in the corner of his mouth at all times, who agrees to protect him on the rest of his journey for whatever money he has in his pocket.  Persuading him that it’s just good business sense, the two team up as unlikely partners for the slow ride to Colorado, meeting many colorful characters along the way, most having little to do with the story, but they all add to the mystery of the journey.  In something of a sinister twist, we also learn that a bounty has been issued for Rose and her father as escaping felons, which explains the real interest of Silas, using a love torn innocent to lead him right to their door. 

While there’s a standoffish distrust between the two men, Cavendish, one must acknowledge, is still a boy filled with childish notions of love and adventure, perhaps a bit too stubborn and headstrong, but is a man on a mission, thoroughly convinced he will find Rose, though we learn through a series of flashbacks that Rose may not be terribly excited to see him again.  Seen as one who deeply cares about all things, continually philosophizing on the trail, while Silas couldn’t care less, speaking bluntly, “You haven’t bedded her yet have you?”  In this manner, the more weak and submissive Jay tends to be the butt of all jokes, a condition Silas and his more acerbic wit and humor continuously takes advantage of, leaving the poor kid flummoxed for a good part of the journey.  But none more so than when they come upon a trading post in the middle of nowhere.  Checking out the merchandise, they are interrupted by settlers in desperate straits who demand the merchant’s money, whose reasoning falls on deaf ears when he utters, “You know, if you take my money, this is the only place you could spend it.”  Nonetheless, it ends badly, with the situation growing even more absurdly troubling than first imagined, but Silas pulls the kid out of there, a bit shell-shocked by the violent outcome.  Veering between a western and black comedy, there are surprisingly humorous moments interspersed throughout, like the time Jay leaves his campsite to relieve himself, taking a wrong turn back where he stumbles into an entirely different campsite.  Rather than show any signs of malice or suspicion, he’s warmly welcomed and treated to one of the more amusing stories of the film, only to apologize politely afterwards and correct his errant ways.  But nothing is as boldly impressive as the gorgeous landscape mixing a combination of barren plains and spectacular mountains, including panoramic vistas of multicolored wildflowers and wide-open spaces.  In perhaps the most absurd scene of the film, the two bickering partners separate, leaving Jay to fend for himself, which he does impressively by receiving the kindness of a lone anthropologist who shares some stories along with food and coffee and a safe place to sleep before secretly gathering together Jay’s horse and all his belongings while taking off in the middle of the night.  When Jay awakes in the morning feeling refreshed, he finds himself alone and on foot, with no sign of his generous host for as far as the eye can see in any direction. 

While it may be beautiful to behold, with a memorable score by Jed Kurzel, this might be called an idiosyncratic western, as it’s told in a quirky manner, where Jay just happens upon a group of Congolese singers (speaking to them in perfect French), or hears recurring references to the plight of Indians, while repeated flashback sequences fill in the missing pieces.  Making matters more interesting, Ben Mendelsohn plays the psychopathic leader of a rival group of bounty hunters that Silas once rode with, who have latched on to Jay’s secret quest, an ill wind gathering momentum for a coming storm, where by the end of the picture all signs point to the exact same place, where it becomes harder for Silas to protect the boy from the dangers of a world he isn’t prepared for, describing him as “A jack rabbit in a den of wolves.”  At 84-minutes it’s surprisingly concise, all leading to an inevitable showdown when they finally meet Rose, who defies expectations and could easily be the poster child for the National Rifle Association.  While the film attempts revisionist history when it comes to racial depictions, where African immigrants and Indians are shown with more sympathetic treatment, but the mythological problems with most westerns remains the same, where there’s a diabolical attraction to guns and killings, where the director uses violence to resolve various plot points, where his ease with the use of multiple killings is all too simplistic, where the final standoff becomes a reverie of death, which hardly amounts to anything we haven’t seen before.  Unlike Kelly Reichardt’s Meek's Cutoff (2010), which this film resembles in its aimless wandering through vast stretches of the American West, or even Lisando Alonso’s more abstract Jauja (2014), rather than delve into psychological implications, where whatever plot intentions are sucked into well-crafted characterizations, this film resorts to the same standard pattern used by directors of westerns for the past 100 years, where the character development is far too stereotypical, and there’s only one way out of every problem ― someone gets killed.  Just like westerns of old that continue to accentuate bullets and blood, this sends the exact wrong message, as it romanticizes the excess violence, which is little more than the typical Hollywood treatment, instead of discovering a new and different path.