LIFFe and soul : Ljubljana Int’l Film Festival ’07 : review-posting in progress : 5 down, 1 to go

1. One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later
2. Fay Grim
3. Favourites of the Moon
4. Ten Skies
5. Squatterpunk
6. Euphoria

James Benning : US 2005 : 121 mins : seen 14th November, Kinoteka (paid  ‚¬4.80)
   In 1977, James Benning was still finding his feet as a filmmaker, discovering his strengths and weaknesses: One Way Boogie Woogie was only his second venture beyond shorts. It's an hour-long compendium of 60 minute-long shots, each taken in a different location in a particular semi-industrial valley in Milwaukee, and during each shot the camera does not move.
   Within this tight (though, it must be said, rather arbitrary) structure, Benning plays out a series of visual jokes of variable impact – some of them gags involving the frame, others exploring notions fo time, others relying on an interplay between the visuals and the soundtrack. Though his later films, even the most (seemingly) austere, feature numerous instances of dry comedy, visual comedy per se clearly isn't Benning's strong suit – and though the technique of One Way Boogie Woogie suggests high seriousness, it's really a rather prankish exercise.
   27 years later, conscious that the valley as he knew it was disappearing fast, Benning went back to the locations he'd originally visited – and filmed another 60 one-minute shots: 27 Years Later. The two films are now shown as a diptych, without break, as One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later. It isn't always easy to remember which location is supposed to 'match' with which, but the soundtrack provides clues: Benning retains the sound of the 1977 film for the 2004 images.
   As a historical record, the resulting two-hour film is likely going to prove invaluable. As a viewing experience, however, it proves more interesting and ambitious in concept than it is successful execution: the second film essentially repeats most of the gags from 'part one', with similarly uneven hit-rate. Of course, the passage of time adds another dimension to 27 Years Later, but taken as a whole the bipartite film has a laboriousness which is entirely lacking from Benning's later masterworks. As a modest, relatively undemanding entry to his outstanding, daunting oeuvre for curious newcomers, however, it makes a more-than-useful starting-point.
       {{{previously reviewed at 2006 London Film Festival – rating 7/10}}}

FAY GRIM : 6/10
Hal Hartley : US/Ger 2006 : 118 mins : seen 15th November, KinoDvor (paid  ‚¬3.80)
   This unexpected, belated sequel to Hartley's own Henry Fool (1997) plays rather like a larkish arthouse spoof of the Bourne trilogy, with Parker Posey – in a startlingly angular, strikingly physical performance – literally throwing herself across the screen as the title character: a distrait American everywoman who becomes inadvertently entanged in international espionage. Convoluted shenanigans ensue - arch, snarky, clever, around half an hour too long, but ultimately rather beguiling. If nothing else, Hartley shows considerable chutzpah in handling oh-so-heavy, ever-so-pressingly-topical material (terrorism; CIA/Mossad collusion; surveillance-state paranoia) with such an offhand, light touch.
   He slyly transcends his budgetary limitations by presenting most of the "action" in the form of exposition – and plays an ace by putting most of it in the rat-a-tat-eloquent mouth of Jeff Goldblum's shadily nefarious spook, who pops up at key junctures to deliver scads of headspinning dialogue with breezy economy and utter conviction. Goldblum's nimble verbiage and Posey's unbridled kineticism  nicely to detract us from the fundamental artificality of a picture whose every frame is shot from some kind of wonky disoriented angle, and whose early ditzy comedy gives way, not entirely wisely, to a straighter, more thrillerish mode in the climactic stages. A teasing cliffhanger finale sets us up for part 3 – in 2017, perhaps?

Favoris de la lune : Otar Iosseliani : Fr 1984 : 105 mins : seen 15th November, KinoDvor (complimentary ticket)
   An ever-so-Gallic roundelay of crooks, hookers, anarchists, artisans and artists giddily revolves in a Parisian inner-city arrondissement, while – in a kind of bookending 'shadow-narrative' – events of the present are shown to somehow 'rhyme' with goings-on in centuries past. The results are episodic and uneven, with a disorienting randomness as the action jumps between various intersecting sets of characters (including a very young Mathieu Amalric as a teenage hood) - prompted, as much as anything, by the passing through various hands of a fancy china dinner-set and/or a certain aristocratic portrait. 
   Iosseliani's gracefully feather-light touch, though undeniably stimulating in its freewheeling freshness, gradually reveals itself as an anything-goes narrative waywardness – one which feels berserk (perhaps even insane?) rather than especially inspired. Incidental pleasures, absurdities and grace-notes abound throughout – but it would seem a waste of time to try to stitch it all together into anything resembling a conventional narrative, let alone to read any significance into the sprawling, madcap tapestry. This is a closed ciruit of reflections and echoes which, one suspects, adds up only from Iosseliani's own, detached, jovial perspective.

TEN SKIES : 9/10
James Benning : US 2004 : 104 mins : seen 17th November, Canjarkev Dom (complimentary)
Ten skies, the camera holding steady for ten minutes at a time. We see clouds, light, passing birds, vapour trails, the occasional aeroplane; we hear the roar of jet-engines, dogs in distress, the rumbling cacophony of civilisation. In one way unadorned in its baldness, in another an ineffable network of tantalising possibilities and interpretations. Yet another masterpiece from the director who's becoming arguably the film-maker of the decade.

Iskwaterpangk : 'Khavn' (Khavn de la Cruz) : Philippines 2007 : 79m : seen 17th November, Kinoteka (free screening with live piano/voice accompaniment by Khavn)
   Jagged, ragged, uncompromising and uncompromised, this scattershot, almost entirely dialogue-free tour of a teeming Philippines slum is much easier to admire and reflect upon than it is to actually watch or like. Director Khavn – mainly working with monochrome, low-tech digital video – skirts and eschews conventional shot-composition and editing, instead compiling a quasi-random, gleefully-uninhibited collage that mirrors the energy of his youthful subjects. There are some quiet and lyrical moments, most of them taking place on the waterfront where the kids are able to cool off and explore a whole new (litter-strewn element). But for the most part it's a case of "mode : frenetic."
   The in-your-face, no-holds-barred technique is bracing but, at feature length, somewhat wearing. And at times the film feels more like a celebration of dire poverty, rather than any kind of indictment of it. Khavn includes several visual references to the heavy industry taking place on the horizon – vast structures which looks like shipbuilding cranes – but whatever prosperity is accruing to this nation, it doesn't seem to be trickling down to the poor-but-'appy protagonists (none of them exactly 'squatters', nor, come to think of it, 'punks') of his zero-budget enterprise. Next time out, perhaps he might want to start asking why.

Eyforiya : Ivan Vyrypayev : Russia 2006 : 74m : seen 17th November, Kino Komuna (complimentary ticket)
   Russian art-cinema in excelsis: big landscapes, vast skies, boundless emotions. A fable-like tale of infidelity and revenge in a picturesque but extremely isolated corner of the underpopulated steppes – three hours, by car from the nearest town - becomes a soaring meditation on human transience and folly. The story is an old one: a bumpkin becomes infatuated with the wife of a glowering, vodka-swilling farmer. The wife, increasingly dissatisfied with her lot, eventually reciprocates her admirer's attentions. Romantic complications ensue, leading inexorably to a violent climax as the cuckolded husband reaches for his bottle and his gun.
   The camerawork is attention-grabbingly extravagant throughout, the action punctuated by numerous helicopter-shots which pick out the protagonists' tiny figures in their wild environment – seas of grass, horizon-filling plains, surging rivers – before cutting to more intimate, conventional narrative sequences. The soundtrack is also a thing of contrasts, grand orchestral themes alternating with jovial, tinny, folky brass interludes.
   Director Vyrpayev takes painstaking care with his compositions from start to finish, and achieves some astonishing effects here and there. He's equally adept whether his camera is static or in rapid motion, though his greatest coup is a painterly, timeless and achingly beautiful sunset-tableau of two distant silhouetted women walking quickly, several yards apart, from one farm to another, pausing as a gunshot rings out, then resuming their progress at precisely the same moment and pace.
   Elsewhere, the handling of moods isn't so smooth – at times the overheated, suppressed, operatic passions create such an overcooked atmosphere of tragic/romantic intensity that proceedings hover on a dangerous brink of absurdity. But at only 70-odd minutes the the picture certainly doesn't get a chance to outstay its welcome – and audiences willing to go along with Vyrpayev's stylised vision of human relationships may find Euphoria a beguilingly exotic journey into love and death.

Neil Young
26th/29th November and 1st December 2007

all films seen in Ljubljana, Slovenia, at the 18th LIFFe (Ljubljana International Film Festival)

roundup article written for Tribune (mainly on James Benning)