Sunday, March 19, 2017
This past year saw the release of the lavish collection of Wolfgang Voigt's now classic Pop Ambient techno obfuscations of German brass music, schlager and early 20th Century composers, known as GAS. Much in the way of Raster-Noton's book of related photography and unreleased material of 2008, "Narkopop", the first new album in 16 years is a tactile, multimedia affair. In accordance with the spirit of Voigt's body of work under the moniker, the triple LP with accompanying artbook and compact disc, continues the aesthetic conception of his abstract forest photography. In these images of a color saturated psychedelic "Magic Mountain", there is to be found a visual affinity to German Romanticism and the forest as a place of dreams and yearning. Wolfgang Voigt, known under a great many pseudonyms throughout the 1990s such as Mike Ink, Studio 1 and his collaborative project with Jörg Burger as Burger/Ink, stood as one of the central forces behind the rise of Cologne minimal techno. No smart part of which was the 1998 founding of the Kompakt label and distribution with fellow collaborators and travelers in the scene, Michael Mayer and Jürgen Paape. Running simultaneously with Voigt's various techno and dancefloor oriented projects of the mid 90's he began to experiment with timbrel structures of free-floating string loops sourced from classical records as a new ambient project. These disembodied tracks, their lack of beginning and end, their intoxicating, partly amorphous structure sounded to him like gaseous miasmic clouds and thus, GAS was born. David Stubbs' "Celebrating 20 Years Of Wolfgang Voigt's GAS" for The Quietus details Voigt's sonic journey through the German countryside accompanied by the sound of Schönberg and Kraftwerk: the merging of string symphony, french horn, synthesizer and kick-drum. The legacy of Krautrock's propulsive minimailsm and Kosmische yearning of the late 1970s wave of experimentalism that produced Can, Neu!, Amon Düül II, Cluster and Popol Vuh continued in a new generation of German electric invention with the coming of Detroit Techno and then Acid House in the late 1980s. These components along with the final element that Voigt conceived in his re-imagining of German Romanticism was to be found in early 20th Century Germanic composers, largely sourced from Berg, Mahler, Schönberg, Webern and Wagner. Through the confluence of these stylistic and cultural streams, a new, mysteriously singular G-ermany A-ustria S-witzerland Alpen techno ambiance emerged. One drenched in heavily laden effects, where the composers of the Vienna school met with submerged rhythms and washes of synthesized sound. Much is revealed in the way of inspiration and conceptual intent, with a rare glimpse behind the the opaque curtain of it's technical process, in The Wire's May 2008 cover story and interview with Cologne's minimal architect.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Next week Kremwerk, Lust Strength and MOTOR host the Seattle date in Kangding Ray's North American tour. Earlier that day, David Letellier will also be presenting a lecture at Mokedo Gallery, with all profits to benefit the ACLU. It's been a inspired arc since the inception of Raster-Noton, Letellier's home label, some 20 years ago. Over the course of the past two decades the label and publisher has defied the accelerated marginalized and fadishness of electronic music's short "half life", all the while transcending reductive genre codifications. On this side of the Atlantic they've made sporadic showcase appearances in major cities across the continent, from San Francisco and Los Angeles, to Mutek Montreal and beyond. Each time the occasion marked by an evolutionary leap present in each artists performance, as well as the larger audio/visual expression of the label's continuance. The second decade of the 21st Century has yielded some of the finest work to be heard from it's roster. The collaborative Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto albums are a high point, as is Carsten Nicolai's ongoing serial solo work, the Xerrox series. It's two most recent installations characterized by the enveloping vocabulary of distortion on "Xerrox Vol.2" and melodic beauty of this year's rapturous "Xerrox Vol.3". A project which when completed, will likely stand as the opus of Nicolai's recorded career. The year was also distinguished by the dou's release of the collaborative soundtrack to Alejandro Iñárritu's award winning film, "The Revenant". Frank Bretschneider's "EXP" was another high water mark for the label, this boundary pushing multi-media set of abstract audiovisual sculptural objects has not seen another peer in his discography. The label's core trio is rounded out by Olaf Bender and his Byetone project, from which 2008's "Death of a Typographer" was an unexpected meeting of energized motoric Krautrock and 80's synth-pop inspired explorations.
Outside of the core ensemble that initiated the imprint, Raster-Noton has enfolded a global body of work. Ranging from Japan's urban experimental dancefloor duo Kouhei Matsunaga and Toshio Munehiro, as NHK to the DeStijl inspired dynamic austerity of Emptyset to the pure datamatic audio-visual sensory environments of Ryoji Ikeda and Vladislav Delay's improvisation and jazz-informed rhythmic wanderings. The parameters of the label's scope have expanded with the inclusion of the humor and retro-futurism of Uwe Schmidt's live sets as Atom TM, most recently seen on the media package, "HD+" and the melodic dream-ambulations of the abstract pop in Dasha Rush's excellent, "Sleepstep" of 2015. Other recent additions to the label's cast include the pointilist digital rhythms and disintegrated melodic textures of David Letellier's Kangding Ray project and the complex theoretical investigations of Grischa Lichtenberger's "LA DEMEURE; il y a péril en la demeure", the first of his proposed five-part explorations on the subject of isolation and privacy. David Letellier's Kangding Ray project has been one of the most prolific of these new artists expanding the form of Raster's conception. His recent rapid-fire trilogy of albums, "Cory Arcane", "Solens Arc" and the stylisticly divergent "Pentaki Slopes" EP that initiated his current sound. These albums marking a shift toward a more aggressive, dynamic sound comprised of pointilist digital patterns and disintegrated melodic textures that morph into suggestive rave anthems and abrasive club rhythms. The juxtaposition of these contrary elements are refitted into uneven patterns not unlike a sonic deconstructivist architecture, where industrial techno stompers dissolve into granular sound design and filtered synth pads. When it all comes together in a live setting, it's dynamic endless-detouring of the parameters of techno is something to witness.
Saturday, March 11, 2017
Twelve years have elapsed since Northwest Film Forum's astounding 5 week, 27 film series, Sacred Cinema: The Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective of early 2005. In the ensuing decade span of time there have been notable single screenings of the Japanese master's film, but nothing approaching the selection on offer in Seattle Art Museum's Family Circle: The Films of Yasujiro Ozu. Illustrating the significance of Yasujiro Ozu's body of work, there are few better points of entry than Mark Schilling's "Re-Examining Ozu on Film". 50 years after the director's death, Japan Times hosted this great overview of the director's life, cinema, cultural and social contribution to Japan's post-War image of itself. It's of note that what many consider to be his masterpiece, "Tokyo Story" was Rated #1 in the director's poll and #3 in the critics' poll in the British Film Institute's Greatest Films of All Time feature of 2012. Ozu's stature among directors and lovers of world cinema further reinforced by pieces like Dave Thompson's Best Arthouse Films of All-Time column, Peter Bradshaw's "The Quiet Master" and Ian Buruma's "Yasujiro Ozu: An Artist of the Unhurried World", for The Guardian. Further reading can be found in David Bordwell's essay for Criterion, "Tokyo Story: Compassionate Detachment" and The Guardian's reviews of his final films, all going some way to describe why Ozu's quiet, poetic and personal reflections on Japanese society are regarded as legendary within the canon of world cinema. Another essential element of the filmography explored in Bradshaw's feature on Ozu's longtime lead and on-screen avatar, "The Heart-Wrenching Performance of Setsuko Hara, Ozu's Quiet Muse". On the subject of the western reception of Ozu, and Japanese film in general, the genesis of recognition and appreciation can be largely traced the work of one man and the retrospective of five films curated by critic Donald Richie for the 1963 Berlin Film Festival. Predating this influential moment in film history, Richie was a champion of all things Japanese cinema, as a post-War Japanese citizen, journalist and critic, author of "Ozu: His Life and Films" and reviews like that which he did for Ozu's "Floating Weeds" upon it's release in 1959. Over the decades following there were other high profile culture figures attuned to Ozu's quietly stirring dramas, no surprise then to find Roger Ebert among them, and arthouse institutions who had embraced his work, like those depicted in Richard Combs "The Poetics of Resistance" for Film Comment. No shortage of contemporary analysis, appreciation and criticism on Ozu's filmography exists in the digital age, with a small selection of highlights represented by Senses of Cinema's Great Directors feature on Ozu and the abundance of essays and releases offered on the Criterion Collection.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation returns to Seattle following this past summer's Noir City 2016: Film Noir from A to B with bold new 35mm prints courtesy of their collaborative efforts with The UCLA Film & Television Archive. The Preservation Society and it's annual touring festival, offering one of the country's most, "Fascinating Windows into Our Cinematic Past". The work of the restorationists at the archive feature prominently in the LA Weekly's discussion of the expansive shift to digital distribution and projection nationwide, "Movie Studios are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital are Vast, and Troubling". Their work will again be on display after the selections from the UCLA Festival of Preservation featured at Northwest Film Forum's annual series of last spring. Next week's Noir City: The Big Knockover - Heists, Holdups and Schemes Gone Awry at SIFF Cinema Egyptian screens both 35mm and new digital restorations comprising ten double bills that present a excursion through that ultimate of thriller; the heist film. Highlights from this year's program include a new restoration of one of the true classic of the genre, in "The Asphalt Jungle" John Huston delivers a complex work of human ambition, resolve and corruption. "The Asphalt Jungle: “A Left-Handed Form of Human Endeavor” remains one of the one of the greats from America's mid-Century exploring the darker underside of urban America, and the lives of those operating in the shadows. Delivering a meticulously crafted set of thrills, turns and heartbreaking failures, "Dark Passage" features an astounding ensemble cast starring, Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, Louis Calhern, Anthony Caruso, Brad Dexter, Marc Lawrence and a cameo turn that put Marilyn Monroe on the map. Japanese Noir makes an appearance in the program with Takumi Furukawa's entry in the "borderless action" genre and it's confluence of "Action, Anarchy and Audacity", made popular by his contemporaries at Nikkatsu, Seijun Suzuki and Toshio Masuda. Set in the world of the Yakuza, "Cruel Gun Story" stars the stalwart of the genre, Jô Shishido, as the sharp-witted Togawa enlisted to take on a major heist following the Japan Derby. As is the case with much of the Nikkatsu Noir, things are not what they seem as it soon becomes clear there is more to the heist, and the Yakuza who have enlisted him than Togawa knows. French director Henri Verneuil's star studded French-Italian gangland meetup is as globetrotting in it's locales as is it is twisted and turning in it's plot. Again, a strong ensemble cast of specialists is brought together by Jean Gabin's aged crime boss under the promise of the world's most challenging, and lucrative, heist. Set to the tone of Ennio Morricone's evocative score, French crime stalwart Lino Ventura pursues "The Sicilian Clan" through the thickly plotted intertwining mesh of enterprise, crime, passion and deceit.
Other high points in this year's programing include; Jack Hawkins, Roger Livesey, Richard Attenborough in the zenith of Basil Dearden's filmography, the ensemble cast of adrift post-World War II veterans comprising "The League of Gentlemen". The very British band of gentlemanly rogues literally taking their cues from the script of a throwaway pulp novel. Brits also play a prominent role as Alec Guinness leads a crew of eccentrics, specialists and outsiders in one of his great roles as the head of "The Ladykillers". Make no mistake, this 1955 comedic caper from Alexander Mackendrick is very much the real deal and should not be confused with the less achieved Coen Brothers remake of the 1990s. Back on North American soil, Robert Shaw's cool and collected soldier of fortune hijacks a subway train loaded with passengers in one of the great New York City films of the century. Equally unlikely is the duo of transit cops, Walter Matthau and Jerry Stiller, who stand in the way of the high-stakes ransom scheme. Propelled along by meticulous high-speed editing and David Shire's memorable score, "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" could only have taken place in the Manhattan of the 1970's and stands as a testament to the city's thrilling mix of classes, culture, crime and multi-ethnicity. Lastly comes two representations the true gold standard of the genre from France in the 1950s and 60s. Under the encouragement of fellow director Jean-Pierre Melville, blacklisted American expatriate Jules Dassin adapted a rudimentary crime novel into a setpiece for the one of the utmost bravura break-in sequences found in all of cinema. "Rafifi"'s central heist sequence alone has earned the film it's status as a landmark in suspense. Running some thirty minutes without dialogue or soundtrack score, the film's central scene cunningly employs devices as diverse as ballet slippers and an umbrella, and sparked Dassin's prolific career in Europe. No noir series would be complete without an entry from the French, and "Classe Tous Risques" may be the most quintessentially Francophile crime film of all time. Dogged and on the run, Lino Ventura's aged gangster navigates the multitudinous twists and turns of this Claude Sautet career-highlight, with only one ally in all the world played by the young Jean-Paul Belmondo. The definitive European "one last job" film of the 1960s, it's a one man against the world, as Ventura's Abel Davos goes toe to toe against the crime world he once ruled in this hyperstructured adaptation of a novel by José Giovanni.
Thursday, February 2, 2017
Arvo Pärt Festival at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Kaul Auditorium Reed College, Studio 2 & Northwest Film Center Portland: Feb 5 - 12
This month, the Portland ensemble Capella Romana presents the first-ever North American Festival dedicated to the work of Sacred Minimalist and Estonian Orthodox composer, Arvo Pärt. As a professional vocal ensemble that performs early and contemporary sacred classical music, the ensemble is known especially for its presentations and recordings of medieval Byzantine chant, Greek and Russian Orthodox choral works, much in the way of Pärt's regular collaborators, The Hilliard Ensemble. The form of the larger percentage of Arvo Pärt's work came after a period of creative crisis and reflection following his 1968 "Credo", and transitional "Symphony Number 3". Previous to this 1971 orchestral work, Pärt had explored a range of styles influenced by the early 20th Century Soviet era works of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók. A brief period of exploring Serialist and Twelve-Tone methods informed by the techniques of Arnold Schönberg was to follow. These shortly proved to be both a creative impasse, as well as drawing undesired attention from the Soviet authorities, as detailed in "Oxford Study of Composers: Arvo Pärt" by the composer's biographer, Paul Hillier. His course out of this impasse came in the study of Plainsong, Gregorian Chant and the emergence of early Polyphony in the European Renaissance. From this the creation of Pärt's defining tintinnabuli style (from the Latin for “small ringing bells”) was generated. An approach which the composer has described: “I work with very few elements – with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of the triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation”. The creative breakthrough enabled him to resume composing and a stream of what are considered his masterpieces followed, with "Tabula Rasa", "Fratres", "Spiegel im Spiegel" and the "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten", written in rapid succession in the mid-to-late 1970s. These all finding a home in the west on the groundbreaking Nordic jazz and contemporary classical label, ECM. Dana Jennings "ECM: Albums Know that Ears Have Eyes" for the New York Times, mines the ensuing four decades of output from the label, including the vast majority of Arvo Pärt's catalog of recordings.
While this month's event marks the first domestic festival dedicated exclusively to his music, there have been numerous performance series and showcases of the Estonian composer's work stateside. Notably a series in Manhattan at the time of the extensive New York Times Magazine feature of 2010, "Arvo Pärt: The Sound of Spirit". New York again hosting 2014's Carnegie Hall week of performances comprising the Arvo Pärt Project by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Which was covered in The Times feature, "His Music, Entwined With His Faith: At Heart of Arvo Pärt’s Works, Eastern Orthodox Christianity". One of the great chroniclers of 20th Century classical music, Alex Ross, host of The Rest is Noise, produced an exceptional overview of the composer's life and work for The New Yorker, "Consolations: The Uncanny Voice of Arvo Pärt". Ross also present at the Pärt's 80th birthday celebration throughout the city, which included a 24 hour marathon on New York's WQXR and New Juilliard Ensemble concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Outside of New York, other notable events have included, "A Symphony for Los Angeles, Just One Otherworldly Delight" presented in Los Angeles Philharmonic's Mozart & Pärt Festival of last year. The United Kingdom has played host to some of his most significant works, including 2015's Manchester International Festival. Wherein the composer collaborated with Abstract Expressionist painter, Gerhard Richter producing a work grappling with differences in art’s direct messages and allusions, "History is Everywhere and the Present is Fleeting". Alex Ross again playing a pivotal role in London Southbank Centre's 2013 The Rest is Noise Festival featuring Pärt among a set of Eastern European composers in a showcase titled, "Late 20th Century Politics and Spirituality", on the changing political and social landscape of the 1970s and 80s shaping of the era's mood and music. Pärt's home country of Estonia is no stranger to his works, this past year saw the release of "The Lost Paradise", a documentary on the famously media-averse composer's collaboration with director Robert Wilson. Framed around the staging of “Adam’s Passion” featuring three key works by Pärt in Tallinn's Noblessner Foundry, a former submarine factory. Its creation is followed in documentarist Günter Atteln's account of their time together during the many months of the project's genesis and development, "My Year with Arvo Pärt: He is a Man of Courage, Humility and Authenticity".
Saturday, January 14, 2017
TOP FILMS OF 2016 IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
Lucile Hadžihalilović "Evolution" (France)
László Nemes "Son of Saul" (Hungary)
Ciro Guerra "Embrace of the Serpent" (Colombia)
Aleksander Sokurov "Francophonia" (Russia)
Barry Jenkins "Moonlight" (United States)
Bi Gan "Kaili Blues" (China)
Maren Ade "Toni Erdmann" (Germany)
Alain Robbe-Grillet "L'Immortelle" Restored Rerelease (France)
Louis Malle "Elevator to the Gallows" Restored Rerelease (France)
Wim Wenders "The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" Restored Rerelease (Germany)
Sidney Bernstein "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey" (United Kingdom)
Krzysztof Kieślowski "Dekalog" Restored Rerelease (Poland)
Byron Haskin "Too Late For Tears" Restored Rerelease (United States)
Karel Zeman "A Deadly Invention" Restored Rerelease (Czech Republic)
Seijun Suzuki "Gate of Flesh" Restored Rerelease (Japan)
King Hu "Touch of Zen" Restored Rerelease (China)
Makoto Shinkai "Your Name" (Japan)
Denis Villeneuve "Arrival" (United States)
Paul Verhoeven "Elle" (France)
Matteo Garrone "Tale of Tales" (Italy)
Pablo Larraín "Neruda" (Chile)
Shunji Iwai "A Bride for Rip Van Winkle" (Japan)
Albert Serra "Story of My Death" (Spain)
Avishai Sivan "Tikkun" (Israel)
Mauro Herce "Dead Slow Ahead" (Spain)
This past year was marked by the inescapable reality of a election cycle in which both liberal and conservative media elevated a reality TV celebrity, media mogul and real estate magnate to one of the most influential positions of power in the world. All the while, the other aspect of the dominant two party system marginalized their more viable candidate. Less travel this year, both domestic and international translated as nothing in 2016 being comparable to attending the Okwui Enwezor curated “All the World’s Futures” and the Venice Biennale, of the year before. Grounded here in the United States, with the noise and confusion of the theatrical pantomime that was this year's election cycle, it was a great relief to find memorable festivals and exhibitions domestically. Gallery-going and the cinema played an even more prominent role, with the 300 mark hit it was a year in which a new personal record was set in theater attendance. The most notable arts event witnessed this year was the second-annual Paul Allen funded Seattle Art Fair, which again proved itself to be decidedly more than a rich man's vanity project. Particularly so for the inclusion of Pivot Art + Culture hosting the return of the KaiKai KiKi collective and it's cultural figurehead, Takashi Murakami in collaboration with Juxtapoz magazine for, "Juxtapoz x SuperFlat". Taken with the collateral "Out of Sight" exhibition, returning to the King Street Station exhibition space for its second-annual survey of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest, the two produced an international caliber event. Reflecting the changing economic and cultural landscape of Seattle two regional festivals which had previously brought an international scope to the city had closing and transitional years in 2015. That year saw the final installments of the region's two dominant, global festivals of electronic, neoclassical and experimental music. The final Northwest edition of Rafael Anton Irisarri's Substrata Festival came and went, and in an open letter Decibel Festival's 13th year closed with programming director Sean Horton's farewell to the city. In lieu of the more expansive international forums offered by these festival settings, Seattle's monthly showcases of electronic and experimental sounds, Elevator, Secondnature, MOTOR and Wayward Music Series produced a string of memorable one-off events in 2016. Elevator's maturation this past year into exhibition curation with their first annual Corridor Festival was hailed as a unmitigated success in local press. It's day-long meeting of audio-visual media, installation art, music and performance may be the city's best new hope in filling the festival void. Corridor's second edition this month promising an equally engaged festival of light, sound, and movement from the media and performance underground.
For the larger part of global cinema, the digital age is still proving to be at a narrow impasse rather than the promised plateau of abundance, which many are learning to navigate. Particularly evident in the world of film distribution, though footing has been found on some of the growing independent streaming platforms. Award winning films from festivals in New York, Berlin, Vienna, Venice, Hong Kong, Seoul, Cannes, Paris, London, Toronto and Cannes topping both Film Comment, Cinema-Scope and the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound annual overviews have yet to screen in the United States, or even show up streaming online. So count yourself fortunate that you live in a international city if you do, as more and more of the world's greatest film aren't to be found for purchase, rent, streaming or even download (legal or otherwise). This year's Seattle International Film Festival somewhat stronger showing than the less than memorable selection of the year before, which was disheartening after the exceptional year had in 2014 for their 40th Anniversary. Their year-round programming at SIFF Cinema compensating for the oversights of the festival, bringing advance screenings, rare prints and numerous exclusive screenings to their three cinemas including the Film Center and recently restored Egyptian Theatre. Their second-run Recent Raves series being the best thing SIFF had going until it's suspension at the end of last year. Here's hoping for it's return in 2017. With indie cinemas closing around the nation, it was that much more important to support the local theater opportunities such as the fast-shrinking and now halved Landmark Theatres, and occasionally rewarding Sundance Cinema in Seattle.
Our own Northwest Film Forum had a strong calendar year as did what's fast become the greatest programming seen on a screen in this town, The Grand Illusion Cinema. In the past year this micro-sized, yet longest continuously running theater in Seattle, stepped up to fill the growing theatre void after strengthening their nonprofit partnership with Scarecrow Video. Many of the best films seen this year, when they did come to the cinema, had runs that lasted no more than a week. Others were never to appear again outside of an initial festival screening. Again proving the wisdom of getting out there, seeing the city and prioritizing the remaining opportunities that we're fortunate to have in our urban crossroads. Even so, no mall percentage of these films even avid theater-goers living in urban centers didn't get to see. Making a resource like Scarecrow Video, last year's Stranger Genius Award-winner, that much more irreplaceable. One can't imagine in the age of digital piracy that this process has aided films in finding their audience. More worrying, the lack of genuine cinema available on the dominant streaming resources, particularly with Netflix phasing out the diversity offered in their physical media. Amazon not being a real alternative either, despite their claims. Resources like Fandor, Mubi and FilmStruck, the newly launched endeavor of Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection, are fast becoming the almost singular streaming platforms through which online viewers have access to the true scope of the past twelve decades of moving pictures. Particularly with all three platforms being avidly involved in the festival dialog, with curation and criticism offered throughout the year in their respective digital magazines, Notebook, Streamline and Keyframe. In the end Mubi coming out on top, their "It's About Time: The Cinema of Lav Diaz" feature on the Filipino director's extended duration film was the cinephile streaming event of the year.
Rated by The Guardian as the number one film screened in the United States last year, László Nemes created in his award-winning, unlikely directorial debut, "'Son of Saul', an Expansion of the Language of Holocaust Films". Understandably even the century's most confident filmmakers have quailed before the terrifying responsibility of massacre, torture and sadism that is the Holocaust. Only documentaries have successfully addressed the immensity of the subject, namely Alain Resnais haunting "Night and Fog" the plumbing of the personal in Claude Lanzmann's monumental achievement "Shoah", and the recently reconstructed "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey". The latter detailed in HBO's "Night Will Fall", as a "Recalling of a Film From the Liberation of the Camps" that features some of the most unflinching footage dedicated to film in the whole of the 20th Century, and stands as a profoundly significant "lost" document on the subject. Few have ever gotten as close to the three works mentioned above to penetrating the mysteries of this most cataclysmic of human horrors. Neme's film approaches the untouchable by taking the viewer into the close-viewed final chapter of it's protagonist's life as a Sonderkommando in a unnamed concentration camp. This is a raw, pitiless cinema that pulls no punches, and does the "unrepresentable" in it's fictional representation of human dignity amid the torrent of the Holocaust. Documentarist Claude Lanzmann, famous for his disapproval of dramatic representations of the Holocaust on screen, and even well-meaning and educational entertainment's "threat to the Incarnation of the truth" surprised everyone by praising Neme's film, calling it the “anti–Schindler’s List”. Lanzmann himself resurfacing in 2013 with the release of his extended interviews with the last living Ältester of the Judenrat in his belated documentary, shot in the 1970s in Rome and not completed until present day about the divisive Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein. With his documentary "Last of the Unjust", Lanzmann gifted the world a "Fascinating, Subtle Study in Survivor Non-Guilt" and "A Remarkable Companion to the Document of 'Shoah'".
Atrocities of quite a different kind were addressed through fictional characters in the historic setting of Ciro Guerra's "Embrace of the Serpent". His award-winning film stands as a capaciously researched work of Colonial fiction richly drawing from the accounts of ethnologist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the American botanist Richard Evans Schultes. The latter widely considered the father of modern ethnobotany for his global studies of indigenous peoples' ritualistic and medicinal uses of entheogenic plants and fungi. As described in Nicholas Casey's piece for the New York Times, Guerra arrived in the jungle with an anthropologist who aided the conveyance of his project to a local shaman, who in Guerra’s words, carefully “explained the project to the forest.” This project became, "Embrace of the Serpent: Ciro Guerra's Searching Tale about Invaded Cultures in the Amazon". Almost directly referencing the life's experiences and knowledge contained in the pages of Grünberg's "Two Years Among the Indians: Travels in Northwest Brazil", "The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Charles Evans Schultes", Schultes' own book co-authored with chemist Albert Hofmann, "The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers", and for it's larger context, "One River", Wade Davis' account of the explorations of Charles Evans Schultes. Guerra's tale is viewed largely through the aggrieved eyes of a shaman by the name of Karamakate, a Cohiuano spiritual leader living isolated in the jungle, his tribe on the verge of extinction. “Embrace of the Serpent”'s fantastical mixture of myth and historical reality "Where Majesty Meets Monstrosity" adopts Karamakate's non-Western concepts of time and storytelling into it's very structure. Guerra gives us a damning condemnation of Colonial encroachment, a "Dreamlike Exploration of Imperialist Pollution" seen sidelong through Western man's journey for knowledge in the spiritual landscape of the Amazon.
The strongest directorial debut in recent years appeared as an entry in what has become the European forum for the vanguard in contemporary narrative cinema. The Locarno Film Festival has emerged as one of the most important Western festivals to support Asian cinema, particularly works without commercial distribution prospects. For mainland Chinese filmmakers, the affirmation and support from the global independent film industry has become more crucial in recent years. Particularly as the government under President Xi Jinping continues to carry out the broadest crackdown on free expression in the "25 Years of Amnesia" since the events that culminated in the Tiannanmen Square protests of 1989. By way of example, China’s most prominent arthouse director, "A Guy From Fenyang" by the name of Jia Zhang-ke, would not have had the global reach of a "Filmmaker Giving Voice to Acts of Rage in Today’s China", without the support of the international festival circuit. Those filmmakers are also aware that as recently as 2010, Locarno awarded the Golden Leopard, it's top prize, to an unknown Chinese director for Li Hongqi's “Winter Vacation”. Further bolstering it's role in supporting independent film from mainland China and broader Asian subcontinent, Locarno established “Bridging the Dragon", a traveling workshop aiming to foment co-production partnerships for both European and Chinese films. So it is that "Chinese Independent Filmmakers Look to Locarno Festival" in growing numbers and diversity. Ranked among Film Comment's Best Undistributed Films of 2015, Bi Gan's "remarkable arthouse debut" swept up Locarno's Best New Director prize, it's screening in the festival hailed as one of the most assured directorial debuts of the decade by both Film Comment and Cinema-Scope. In "Kaili Blues" Gan offers up an increasingly dreamlike elegy for bygone Miao traditions and sweeping changes seen in the landscape of China itself. Delivered through extended shots and images that are achingly melancholy, and teasingly cluttered, "Kaili Blues: A Dream without Limits" describes the subtropical province of Guizhou, a mountainous, lush region of sporadic human habitations. Intriguing associations of the narrative's emotional landscape can be found in the depicted real-world recurrences of transition and disrepair.
On a personal level there were three films in the year that spoke to aesthetic, philosophical, emotional and conceptual interests like no others. Curiously, this trio shares as little in common as anything viewed in the year, yet they are all bound up in a dedication to form in their exploration of meaning. With “Evolution”, her first film in over a decade, Lucille Hadzihalilovic has again created a tantalizingly atmospheric cinematic "Miracle of Life" that’s utterly sui generis. Yet it is one which also resonates with recognizable echoes of genre forms found in French Fantastique and Giallo, all the while remaining enigmatic from its opening to dystopic close. This "Eerie Body Horror with a Tender Undercurrent" watches as a transporting coming of age tale, similarly in the case of her "Innocence" of 2004 and again it is equally mesmerizing and troubling, a entrancing confluence of the beautiful and sinister. The two films also share in an effect of, "Going to a Magical Place You Wouldn’t Want to Live In" yet as a viewer finding that its entrancement lingers beyond the closing credits, if only to further parse out it's mystery. It is a film who's function is in part about the construction of irreducible tension, and the satisfaction of finding that it remains unresolved at it's completion. Special mention goes to the sound design and score by Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown as Cyclobe, who like the work of Jóhannsson for Villeneuve's "Arrival", play a significant role in reinforcing the sensory bedrock of the film's the fantastical setting. A setup equally out-of-time serves a diametrically different purpose in relation to Aleksander Sokurov's "Francophonia". This time around the Russian experimenter has put nothing less than his whole self into the film, quite literally. Sometimes acting as an unseen interlocutor, host and guide, the director speaks with the ghosts who haunt the Louvre over it's centuries of existence, his inquiry echoing across time. Through the vehicle of the museum's own life under varying governments, empires and states, some benevolent, others hostile, like in that in case of it's central passage, "About World War Foes Turned Allies, for the Sake of Art". But Sokurov's larger theme this time is the cruelty of greatness itself. It is in this age-old alliance of art and power, and the crushing distance of both from the lives of those who serve them, that is the film's central concern.These are detailed through Sokurov's own nocturnal ruminations about the connections between war and peace, art collections and conquest, Western and Eastern Europe. Like its theme, his "Meditations on the Louve" is in itself a work of art that troubles the conscience; putting forward the consideration that no art is innocent, and that both its preservation and destruction, depends on the very influence of that power which has shaped history.
Barry Jenkins' exploration of inchoate desire is as wise as it is generous, and as a portrait of masculinity it is both as unflinching, and deeply empathetic, as anything in all of contemporary cinema. That a film of such cultural specificity manages to be so overwhelmingly universal is another of it's many feats. Another is that Jenkins and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney have crafted a film which originates from so deep in its own DNA that it often comes across as as impossible to separate any one aspect from the context which produced it. Through the tandem of urban sounds in concert with Nicholas Britell's expressive soundtrack, the poetry of James Laxton's cinematography, and a few beautifully executed acknowledgements to Jenkins' cinematic heroes, the moments that comprise "Moonlight" are deeply immersive. The result in concert is that there are extended passages of Jenkins "Song of Myself" that watch as though the viewer is experiencing them with all their senses. The product is a very real sense that the journey of Jenkins and McCraney "From Bittersweet Childhoods to ‘Moonlight’", is the story of the film itself. "This Magical, Majestic Portrait of Young, Black Gay Life" as Matt Sandler puts it in "Miami Melancholia" for the Los Angeles Review of Books; "Makes a swerve on the broad and compulsively historical cliches that usually frame American filmmaking about Black people, by being more historical, by looking so closely that a new kind of filmic history emerges. Moonlight’s sublimity depends on the specificity of its setting in the age of neoliberalism and particular as a site of transnational, African diasporic, utopian dreaming." Phil Coldiron's approach in Cinema-Scope is to consider how differently this film addresses America’s ongoing history of structural racism and the preponderance of occasions in which black communities in popular cinema face poverty and oppression so that a singularly-able hero might transcend it. If not escaping the conditions of systemic poverty, then suffer them nobly or more productively "as the means for analyzing some relationship of power marked off by the distance of history". No such devices are at play in Jenkins' film, and it is much more superior for it.
While a strong year for contemporary cinema, some of the greater revelations came from decades past. The highest concentration of which was seen delivered by the work of institutions like Criterion Collection, Masters of Cinema and Kino Lorber, who continue to fund the restoration and rerelease of some of the past century's greatest film. Criterion Collection's vision continues to be enriched by masterpieces of decades past, this year seeing long overdue restoration of one of the most notable works of the whole of the Taiwanese New Wave in Edward Yang's "A Brighter Summer Day". This evocation of the "Heartache and Confusion of Adolescence from an Arthouse Master" is among the rarest and most significant films to emerge from world cinema in the 1990s. From quite another era of Asian cinema, King Hu's preeminence as a "Martial-arts Pioneer Who Brought Dynamic Grace to the Genre", was reestablished with Janus Films and Criterion producing new 4k restorations in a domestic theatrical run this past summer. This marked the first opportunity to see these films in the west for most filmgoers, particularly in the case of "A Touch of Zen". With "A Touch of Zen's Masterful Concoction of Cinematic Flavors" Hu emerged in 1971 as a "Martial-arts Filmmaking Master, Bending Light and Arrows to His Will". Befitting a body of work of this influence and stature, in a rare move for genre works Senses of Cinema have dedicated a Great Directors feature on Hu's warping and reformatting of the three tenets of 20th Century Wuxia cinema: the political world of the Jianghu, bewildering martial arts action, and thirdly, and most artfully in Hu's case, abstraction in representing Buddhist concepts. Polish cinema also featured prominently. SIFF again played host to the annual Seattle Polish Film Festival, with this year's programming coupe the exceedingly rare screening of "On the Silver Globe", a truly lost "Thwarted Sci-Fi Masterwork" by "Polish Cinema Rebel, Andrzej Zulawski Who Died this Year at Age 75". Coinciding with the Criterion Collection's release of the restored blu-ray box set of the apogee in all Krzysztof Kieslowski's filmography, "Dekalog" returned to cinemas for the first time in almost two decades. SPFF featuring not only Kieslowski's restored ten-part masterwork, but also his earliest collaborations with cinematographer Sławomir Idziak, "A Short Film About Killing" and the director's first film outside of Poland, "The Double Life of Veronique".
The year's two most notable retrospectives were brought to town by Northwest Film Forum in collaboration with The Grand Illusion and SIFF Cinema. Again decades since many of the German director's work was seen in cinemas domestically, "Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road" brought a rare and overdue opportunity for "Looking Back at the Road Ahead" at the life's work of one of Senses of Cinema's Great Directors. A quest spanning the five decades from his earliest 16mm experimental shorts of the late 1960s to his recent award-winning documentaries, his global cinematic journeying was celebrated with a honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. This "Misfit, Outsider and the Man Who Helped America to See Itself" first came to wide attention in the 1970s for his string of existential road movies exploring modern-day alienation, spiritual confusion, loneliness and dislocation. This body of work featured in Criterion's new blu-ray restorations helped establish the New German Cinema alongside the work of his contemporaries, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta as arguably the most significant national cinema movement of the 1970s. The other side of the globe and a decade in advance, the course described by "Action, Anarchy and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective" was as much of the great outsider director, as the Japanese studio system itself. Particularly that of Nikkatsu and the decade of action films from the studio that flooded the Japanese market. These appeared in genres spanning yakuza movies, urban thrillers, jazz-inflected youth pictures, Nippon westerns and French New Wave-inspired emotional dramas and crime films. Amid this abundance of action potboilers, Mukokuseki Akushon (or “borderless action”) crime films emerged, the best of these originated from the then-new, and stylistically daring directorial talent of, Toshio Masuda, Takashi Nomura, Seijun Suzuki and Buichi Saito. Arrow Films' Nikkatsu Diamond Guys and Criterion's Nikkatsu Noir represents a standout cross section from the best of what the genre had to offer. Nikkatsu in the throes of cranking out successful lower budget gangster and Noir-ish crime movies, initially had a ideal director in Suzuki. As time progressed, Suzuki increasingly bridled against these formulaic restraints, and from within the budgetary constraints that bound him, he began down his own divergent path. Choosing instead a personal denial of service to rote, prosaic plotlines, his response was instead to approach his works as exercises in technically bold, visceral visual expression. It was the fallout over his singular 1967 stylized shocker "Branded to Kill", that Suzuki was banished from the Nikkatsu clearing house that had once brought him great success. And though, "Branded To Kill 'Made No Money and No Sense' it's Still a Classic", it is an act of creative defiance many consider to be Suzuki's right of admission into the Japanese New Wave.