Monday, April 27, 2015

In the Basement (Im Keller)

Director Ulrich Seidl

IN THE BASEMENT (Im Keller)                 B-              
Austria  (81 mi)  2014  d:  Ulrich Seidl                      Official Site of director Ulrich Seidl

The basement in Austria is a place of free time and the private sphere.  Many Austrians spend more time in the basement of their home than in their living room, which often is only for show.  In the basement they actually indulge their needs, their hobbies, passions and obsessions.  But in our unconscious, the basement is also a place of darkness, a place of fear, a place of human abysses. 
─Director’s statement, Ulrich Seidl

Ulrich Seidl likes to go where no other man dares to go, exploring what might be called the “living curiosities” of the world, like specimens from off-road museums that aren’t listed in the travel brochures.  The Austrian master of a cinema of disturbance rose to international prominence with his film DOG DAYS (2001), a relentlessly disturbing look at graphic depictions of human cruelty happening within the milieu of the Austrian middle class, a glimpse into the grotesque, described by John Waters as “The most humiliating film ever made (for both actors and audience).  Astonishingly hateful and original.  Vienna never looked so depressing.”  Earlier in his career, he filmed ANIMAL LOVE (1995), a voyeuristic documentary showing how household pets are used as sex objects by their reclusive owners who are little more than pathetic human outcasts, where we wonder just how much of this has been staged for the public benefit?  Often blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, Seidl has refused to call his films documentaries, specializing in a theater of humiliation where extraordinary incidents of human degradation are far more disturbing by their everyday commonplace and ordinariness.  Without providing context, Seidl offers no explanation for why Austrian citizens behave so indecently to one another or act in such bizarre fashion, where his cast of non-professionals often seem like they’re delving into a shock cinema showcase of the weird and the grotesque, which for some viewers can feel like endless torture.  While he’s shown signs of mellowing with age, where bleak and humorless portraits have evolved into something more sympathetic, he’s returned to a subject that captured his attention more than a decade ago while doing location scouting for DOG DAYS when he became aware of a secret world hidden in Austrian basements.  Immediately high profile cases come to mind, like Josef Fritzl (Fritzl case - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) who held female members of his own family captive as sexual slaves in the basement of his home for more than two decades, or Wolfgang Přiklopil (Wolfgang Přiklopil - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) who kidnapped a ten-year old girl and sexually abused her in captivity for eight years.  This basement syndrome was also brought to light by Markus Schleinzer, another Austrian director, in a similar fictionalized depiction of child pedophilia in Michael (2011), a film made even more fascinating by the meticulous precision of such austere stylization.  While it’s hard to minimize the damage accumulated by these highly publicized traumatic incidents, Seidl has a more benign interest, though clearly he still cherishes his role as a provocateur that continues to shock his audiences.

Once more, Seidl takes us into the meticulously clean environment of middle class Austrian homes where the streets are scrupulously clean, not a blade of grass is unkempt and everything is perfectly in place.  As the cameras follow the household residents down the stairs into their basements, we see a variety of mystifyingly strange and bizarre examples of human interests on display, all shown in medium shots composed in a portrait like tableaux setting where the subjects are situated in the dead center of the picture, often staring listlessly at the camera, showing no emotion whatsoever.  From the retired couple who have transformed their basement into their favorite pub, with every glass and liquor bottle perfectly in place, where the entire room reeks of symmetry, where you can imagine them always cleaning up immediately afterwards, as they’d be embarrassed if anyone found a speck of dirt down there, to another couple who have transformed their basement into a gaming room filled with the taxidermy-stuffed heads of literally dozens of wild game animals, where the husband can remember the details of each shoot, lining the walls with tribal masks, while the counter space is filled with authentic carvings brought home from Africa, where it may as well be a replica of a wing from a natural history museum.  We also hear a singing pistol shooter, a failed opera singer than enjoys singing opera at the top of his lungs while spending time at his own converted shooting gallery, a concrete bunker where he can blast away at various targets at different ranges, but also play a simulated life-sized video game where an entire wall is a glass screen that produces images of would-be intruders or criminals that need to be blown away, where these pop-up images challenge the speed and dexterity of the shooter.  Making little sense are the laundry women that disappear into the basement and stand inertly staring at the camera listening intently while their laundry runs through the various cycles.  Apparently these women have no inclination whatsoever to leave the room in the basement and return back upstairs and get on with the rest of their lives until the entire process is completed.  Another woman returns periodically to a locked storage room where various items or boxes are placed neatly on shelves, picking out a particular box at each visit, where inside are tissue-wrapped lifesized dolls of creepily realistic babies that she cradles in her arms, reminding them she’s their “Mommy” who will never leave them, promising unconditional love, a ritual seemingly sparked by pronounced maternal instincts that linger well after menopause.  Some men are so wrapped up with this virtual world in the basement that they barely even communicate with their wives in the upstairs world, preferring to live in two separate realms, seen occasionally yelling up the staircase or sending messages on their cellphones, receiving meals left for them on the stairs, where they barely ever leave the subterranean paradise they’ve created for themselves. 

What basement excursion would be complete without an X-rated adventure?  While this section might have been entitled Into the Dungeon, as the area is typically used for what might be considered unacceptable practices if performed anywhere else, there are several variations on a similar theme (with an emphasis on S/M), where easily the most risqué aspect of the film are the hard corps sadomasochistic practitioners who practice a form of deviant sexual behavior that is not for the uninitiated, as they take their views to such an extreme that it’s often painful to watch.  One married couple expresses a dominatrix-slave relationship where the husband performs all the housework completely in the nude wearing a dog collar, often with his genitals restricted to an extreme degree, including even more unimaginable contortions, where he must obey all her commands, which includes licking her clean after urination.  Another woman, nude and bound, informs us she worked in a supermarket before becoming a prostitute, where her Catholic history of abuse may have led to her masochistic desires to be punished, where controlled sadomasochism offers her a distinction between the fantasy aspect and real inflicted violence, having evolved to the point where she now considers herself a feminist, ironically counseling abused women at a battered women’s center.  The film takes a warped turn into historical amnesia when a trombone player likes to gather with other members of a brass band playing drinking songs commemorating Adolf Hitler and the heralded Nazi past, where the basement is decorated like a Nazi memorabilia museum, featuring his most prized possession, an oil painting of Hitler in uniform that was a wedding gift, but also other portraits of Hitler (who was born in Austria) and decorated mannequins in Nazi uniforms.  While they drink heavily and tell stories, proudly showing off emblematic swastikas, surrounded by the military hardware of guns, knives, and swords, they display a reverence for the Third Reich, where the nostalgia craze has taken a strange twist into the perverted minds of Holocaust deniers who continue to honor and adore their deranged leader as if the unopposed order of German Fascism was the Austrian ideal of perfection.   While Neo-Nazi lovers are hardly a novelty, it’s important to remember the enthusiastic welcome Hitler received when he annexed Austria in 1938, where it’s a historical anomaly for even a small contingency to continue to worship him today, as the nation’s official position is that they were Hitler’s first military victim.  Two men in the picture apologized afterwards and were subsequently forced to resign their official posts after extensive media coverage in Austria following the film’s release (Austrian town officials resign after Nazi basement film ...), where they were elected members of a town council.  Expressing sympathy for Nazism violates Austrian law, which prohibits any form of re-engagement with National Socialism, propagation of Nazi propaganda, or denial of the Holocaust under Verbotsgesetz 1947 and has been a crime in Austria since 1947.  Between 1999 and 2004 there were 158 cases sentenced under this law.  None of this is mentioned in the film, where Seidl treats the love affair with hateful ideology as little more than a harmless hobby.  Perhaps more than other Seidl films, his intentions are markedly clear, exposing the moral hypocrisy of a middle class that hides its dirty little secrets while exhibiting some kind of moral and economic superiority that hides their real inclinations.  “Humanity exposed” might be a legitimate aim, but the director’s fascination with lower base instincts never fully connects with a larger societal view, as it’s not exactly the damaged or wounded psyche of a repressed nation, becoming more of a theatrical showpiece for the prurient and the outlandishly bizarre, leaving the audience at the end as uncomfortable as the caged figure viewed onscreen.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Ned Rifle

NED RIFLE               A-                   
USA  (85 mi)  2014  d:  Hal Hartley                         Official site

But it’s funny about Henry, Tom Ryan and I had this conversation about how he would be different.  I remember Tom articulating it really well, saying, No, Henry doesn’t change.  Henry is exactly the slob, the childish, self-involved but hilarious guy that he’s always been.  The context changes but he’s like a rock at the center.  I think there’s something in that.  I think the third one could be really quite hard on him, without bashing him, but coming to the brutal truth about a character like that. I could definitely see the son saying, ‘You know, Mom’s in a Turkish prison.’  Or, think about it, if Fay is accused of treason by the United States—we’re the only country in the world that kills people for this.  She could be executed.  You can be executed.  It could really come down hard on his father.  This could definitely be a Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader type thing, like he’s going to kill the old man.  But I could imagine him finally not doing it because he understands that this man is just a child.  He’s a perpetual child.  He doesn’t know what the implications are of everything that happens to him.

─Robert Avila interview with writer/director Hal Hartley from Fandor, August 16, 2013, MEANWHILE, Hal Hartley's Been Busy | Keyframe - Explore ...  

In typically unorthodox fashion, this is another spinoff from Henry Fool (1997), Hartley’s humorous critique of the modern world that won a Best Screenplay at Cannes when it premiered, the third variation on a theme that also includes Fay Grim (2006), where the revelation of this film is the introduction of a new character, Aubrey Plaza as Susan, identified as Simon Grim’s stalker, who is herself a study of secrecy and repressed motives, immediately fitting right in to the Hartley universe of deadpan expression and over-intellectualization, a somewhat salacious character who places herself at the center of this unraveling mystery along with Ned (Liam Aiken), the offspring of Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Fay Grim (Parker Posey), essential characters in all three features of the trilogy.  The Long Island-born Hartley studied painting before becoming a filmmaker, where critic J. Hoberman describes his work as a “Godardian mixture of ardent talk, deadpan hyperbole, and unexpected action.”  Hartley’s films are much funnier with more clever dialogue than anything Godard has done in half a century, yet he’s an author that fits into the category of least appreciated.  Think of the acidic black humor in the Coen brother’s Fargo (1996), but this is even more bleakly obscure, where the entire fascination with this film trilogy is never being able to take anything too seriously, as it all feels like a tongue-in-cheek satiric parody, where the smarter you are the more room there is for disappointment in your life, as if excellence in schoolwork and a college degree haven’t really prepared anyone for the calamity that’s waiting for them after they graduate.  Perhaps only Wes Anderson possesses the same overly satiric approach, where humor is literally entrenched through every developing scene, layered in a deadpan sarcasm that refuses to give away the punch lines.  Instead it’s the comic absurdity that awaits each character in every new situation, ensnared in a web of intrigue from which they can’t escape.  Bordering on the ridiculous, life is not what it seems, as the fear and paranoia of the post 9/11 world has altered our perceptions of one another, showing little tolerance or understanding anymore, where the capacity for human connection has become so confusing and disorienting that real intimacy is rarely ever achieved, as instead it resembles an apocalyptic sci-fi world of the future where the Keatonesque humor is so dry as to be almost unrecognizable.  Characterized by his trademark deconstructed storytelling where dialogue comes in rapid-fire outbursts, sounding like they’re commenting on the filmmaker himself, or perhaps the state of art in general, featuring deliberately artificial performances and offbeat deadpan humor, Hartley still writes his own musical scores and remains a true independent voice at a time when that term has lost much of its meaning and significance, and while his fan base hasn’t exactly grown, he’s stuck to the path that’s made him such a unique auteur.      

Perhaps it’s the modern era’s disconnection with films of the Silent era, where they simply don’t recognize nonverbal communication anymore, but Aubrey Plaza gives a master class on facial expressions and making the most out of silent moments, then completely catching the audience off guard with a verbal barrage of such intellectual weight and unaccustomed insight that we hardly believe what we’re hearing.  This emotional and intellectual imbalance is at the core of Hartley films, because it requires an off-center perspective to make sense of it all.  The beauty, of course, is that it doesn’t even have to make sense, but exists in a wonderfully constructed netherworld all its own.  Few other artists are so consistently unique and weirdly original where they can ever hope to actually create a look that is all their own, but Hartley’s been doing it with a loyal group of actors working with next to no budgets since the early 90’s while receiving some of the more scathingly negative reviews from film critics.  Despite having American indie roots at his core, he remains an enigma, a stranger in a strange land, something of a misunderstood misfit who places his own artistic dilemma front and center in his films, poking fun at his own obscurity.  As the film begins, the focus is upon Ned Rifle, the gloomy offspring of Fay Grim (Parker Posey) and Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), first seen as a 6-year old in Henry Fool where the debauched Henry brings him to a bar/strip club and offers him his first taste of whisky, now being raised in suburbia by a kindly minister (Martin Donovan) and his wife in foster care, hidden under the witness protection program, becoming a devoutly religious young man with a deeply troubled past, where he’s about to reach 18, the age of emancipation where he’s free to go where he wants.  On television we see the news reports of public demonstrations angrily protesting against the light prison sentence of his mother who is given a life sentence, with an irate public clamoring for an even harsher death penalty for betraying her country after having been convicted of committing a terrorist act, charged with conspiring with the known international terrorist Henry Fool who remains at large.  Immediately we see the mindsets at odds with one another, as we know his mother is no terrorist but simply an overprotective mom who was coerced by the CIA to retrieve valuable documents from what was believed to be her deceased husband, only to be drawn into a nefarious network of politically questionable operations by her very much alive at the time husband, where the government’s twisted spin on the story is a fabricated lie meant to conceal and protect their own bungled secret operations.  Nonetheless, Parker Posey is hilarious as a maximum security prison inmate, visited first by her loving son, somewhat astounded that he’s a religious convert, affectionately urging him to call as he leaves, reminding him “I’m always here,” and later visited by the minister who informs her that her son has left home with Oedipal designs to kill his father, who he blames for all his mother’s dismal misfortunes.  With that, the film turns into an extended road movie where Ned seeks out his father, where except for an aerial shot of Seattle consists entirely of local establishments in the state of New York made to resemble other parts of the country.  

Before he hits the road, however, Ned pays his Uncle Simon a visit, a poet laureate holed up in a New York City hotel that he never leaves, where he’s undergone his own conversion, of sorts, refusing to write serious poetry anymore that no one would ever read anyway, throwing that aside for a more popular YouTube website that channels his inner clown, writing jokes and posting comic videos, coached by a comedy instructor, believing in this manner he actually connects with his public, where among the more popular draws to his site are regular posted comments of excoriating personal denouncements of Simon’s stand-up blog coming from a disenchanted viewer somewhere in Seattle whose disgruntled voice can be none other than Henry.  Hanging out in the lobby of the hotel, however, unbeknownst to Ned, is a stalker of Simon, Susan Weber (Aubrey Plaza), someone who wrote a phonebook-sized graduate school dissertation on his work, who remains planted on the premises hoping to catch a glimpse of him.  With a penchant for lipstick, excess mascara and an overcoat covering thigh high stockings, she coolly nestles up to Ned for her way inside, becoming an alluring femme fatale figure, literally attaching herself to Ned throughout the rest of the film where she’s infinitely more interesting than he is, though she’s secretly motivated by traumatic events during her troubled childhood, which includes stints at a psychiatric hospital.  With Ned playing straight man to her crazy antics, she provides the twists of fate, the hyper-literate dialogue, the comic bewilderment, and the central thrust of the film, much as Parker Posey did in the previous installment, becoming her natural heir apparent.  Simon is obviously deeply touched by the complexity of her academic analysis, showing incredible psychological insight into a dysfunctional situation that he finds a bit troubling, believing she must be seriously disturbed herself.  But when she recommends he ditch the website, he asks, “You think its okay for me to be unpopular?” to which she bluntly replies, “Oh, I think it’s necessary.”  Ned and the uninvited Susan, who always seems to show up, set out for Seattle on an adventure together searching for the missing Henry, perceived as a diabolical fugitive from justice, where the trip only grows more convoluted along the way, where the personal motives and deeply reflective philosophizing are subject to change at any given moment, where Hartley’s shrewd writing ability blends a group of irreverent moments and satiric asides into emotionally compelling glimpses of an underside of America, as seen through unanticipated detours (delusions) and side effects of the war on terror, religious fundamentalism, secret prisons, the CIA, Homeland Security, gun love, a pharmaceutical industry gone amok, and the pretentiousness of academia.  Like a world spinning out of control, the innocent get arrested while the guilty remain free to commit even more havoc, where Ned’s naïve innocence is manipulated at every turn, leaving him devastated to discover that his dad is even more incorrigible than he ever imagined, a man incapable of expressing remorse, yet even his innate goofy charm doesn’t begin to match just how delightful the unusually bewitching Susan becomes over the course of the journey, where her intoxication level rises to the unimaginable, leaving the open-ending film in a state of limbo, with no real resolution except an ending that recalls the zany prison finale of THE PRODUCERS (1968), as Fay forms a book club in prison where they begin with some of the longest works on record, like Don Quixote and War and Peace, as these women have plenty of time on their hands.