UDVFF 2: Comparmentalized Collapse

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second program of our Virtual Film Festival, which offers a weekly watching schedule of moving image works (mostly) available for free streaming. Previous programs can be found here. Next weeks’ program is ‘The Death Channel’, curated by Michael Sicinski.

If you enjoy this week’s program, we ask that you please consider leaving Patrick a tip or making a donation to the ‘One Fair Wage Emergency Fund for Tipped and Service Workers‘.

As always, links to all of the films and supplementary materials referenced can be found in a table after the program notes.

by Patrick Preziosi

In these strange, scary and all around unprecedented times, there’s considerable fretting in finding the most “relevant” film to best encapsulate what feels like an consistently devolving, worldwide health crisis. A full spectrum of emotion is evoked by these new circumstances, and while the obvious choices may still be solid films (Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion continues to make the rounds), they are little more than pinpoints on an ever-widening scale of confounding reactions. This program, titled Compartmentalized Collapse, attempts to reign in this spectrum, to break it down into more recognizable and even digestible sensations –– anger, sadness, confusion, even occasional calm –– as this seemingly downward spiral continues. This is a political issue, a personal one, a social one; it affects romances and friendships, makes apparent the fissures in an already failing system, and reinforces the importance of addressing the world’s humanitarian crises. Political rot continues to proliferate, but for the individual, it’s still important to at least try and get some sleep, to clear the mind as much as possible. We’re forced to reckon with an impossible amount of new information these days, and within that, we still need to find the means to soothe ourselves.

Compartmentalizing in this time of free-fall collapse is important, of comprehending which self-sustaining injustices are only exacerbated by the current state of things, and which new ones are borne directly from this crisis. All this while making sure you are being fair to yourself, your own personal space, and the individuals close to you –– who may even be stuck with you at this time.

Movie watching is a balm, no doubt. Some feel more comfortable marathoning titles in these times, and some may feel their focus compromised by the real world encroaching upon the fiction on the screen (as acknowledged by MLP in his program notes for Ultra Dogme’s inaugural installment of this Virtual Film Festival). This program strives to occupy more of a middle ground, including shorts, features and those in between. Bookending this program’s longest stretch are two short films, 16 and 12 minutes respectively. The second and third are 87 and 65. The longest is the penultimate entry, at a (comparatively) whopping 108 minutes! Those closing 12 minutes will then provide a proper denouement.

Atlantiques (2009), dir. Mati Diop

The first film is Mati Diop’s short Atlantiques (2009) – adopted as the framework for her stunning debut  one decade later: Atlantics (2019) – which acknowledges the multi-faceted concerns of the world’s ongoing immigration crisis from those who  face the perilous journey. A campfire conversation between a group of young Senegalese men –– shot on consumer grade DV so that the back and foreground consistently blend together –– discuss the inherent dangers of crossing from Africa to Spain, or Europe in general. Some hold forth that it is a fruitful goal to make it through the choppy waters, while others maintain that their focus should be directed towards their immediate home; another current of this conversation coursing throughout centers around a friend’s unfortunate passing while making the treacherous crossing. Interstitial shots of the hazy, sterling blue Atlantic and the chrome mechanisms of a lighthouse double down on the short’s already remarkable tactility. For how this fits into Diop’s already considerable body of work –– which has constructed a little filmic universe defined by lives governed by physical, temporal and metaphorical borders –– I’d recommend Dennis Lim’s piece “Crossing Over”, from Film Comment’s July/August 2019 issue.

(For those without access to either Mubi’s Amazon extension, or the Criterion Channel, you are encouraged to seek out a casualty of timing of this program, Straub-Huillet’s 1963 short, Machorka-Muff)

The intensity is then ratcheted up from that comparatively more meditative piece with Peter Watkin’s frightfully prescient (a quality of this I cannot emphasize enough), experimental, docu-fictitious horror film, Punishment Park (1971). As a means of countering civil unrest in the Vietnam era, the United States has implemented an insidious element of choice to political dissenters facing lengthy prison sentences; they can either go through with the jail time, or participate in a brutal, three day military/police/National Guard training exercise in the oppressive desert terrain of Bear Mountain National Punishment Park. Under the pretense of inviting documentary crews to objectively capture this new extension of the penal system, Watkins kinetically cuts between the tribunal court’s unabashed lambasting of the young dissidents (some whose crimes are as simple as draft-dodging, or writing inflammatory material) and the harrowing trek they then undertake, under fire from expectedly unforgiving law officials. The visceral nature of the project belongs in conversation with such allegorical horror films of the same decade, such as Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which also prominently feature arid, sweaty and grimy American landscapes. Perhaps then, there’s no one better to consult with than J. Hoberman, who wrote about the film for the Village Voice in 2010.

Punishment Park (1971), dir. Peter Watkins

Next is Isiah Medina’s essential, experimental 65 minute pseudo-documentary 88:88 (2015), which counterbalances its dense and philosophical abstractions with potent humanism. Through auditory and visual obfuscation, Medina succeeds in channeling the daily, suspended sensations of those in poverty, an impressive feat considering how he also acknowledges the 24/7 information overload that perpetuates itself. Snatches of rap music, basketball, Plato’s Republic, all swirling around a midfilm monologue that lays bare the film’s guiding concerns in one long, heartrending bout, the images, the text, the sound, all unraveling exclusively from one another, but still somehow inextricably bound. Recommended is the equally dense, but worthwhile Cinema Scope interview by Phil Coldiron with Medina. Also of note is a masterclass with Medina, held by the Berlin Revolution Film Festival on April 11th, at 1-pm CET time.

Then comes Glauber Rocha’s Terra em Transe aka Entranced Earth (1976), a powderkeg of a political film from one of the Cinema Novo movement’s most prominent and revered figures. Rocha’s film, largely told in flashback, tracks the gradual erosion of one writer’s political idealism, as he pinballs back and forth between a conservative technocrat and a more progressive, but all too impressionable and complacent politician, who after being elected to local government, finds himself still under the Republic of Eldorado’s economic thumb, doing little to spark any social change. Bleak and with a mordant sense of humor (“I’m left wing!” the progressive candidate exclaims at one point. “Left-what?” someone replies), Rocha surpasses the oft-compared Godard to occupy a similar restless visual ingenuity as Nagisa Oshima, whose Violence At Noon (1966), Terra em Transe feels to be in formal conversation with. Considering how dense and rich a text Terra em Transe is, those with lots of time are encouraged to read Lilia Lustosa de Oliviera’s academic article dissecting the broader political and historical spectrum that surrounds the film.

Finally, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blue (2018). Longtime Apichatpong actress Jenjira Pongpas sleeps in some open air set with a painted backdrop and the odd palm tree. As flames begin to lick the screen, and the backdrop changes, Pongpas continues to lie in bed, only opening her eyes for a scant few moments. Is she immune or just oblivious to the surrounding circumstances? Depends on your mood. Reactions can feel both necessary and superfluous. Everything can feel like the worst and best decision at the same time.

Stay safe out there.

PROGRAM 2 – Compartmentalized Collapse

TitleYearFilmmakerRuntime (min)Supplementary Material + Resources
Atlantiques2009Mati Diop16Crossing Over
Punishment Park1971Peter Watkins87The Man Tortures the Hippies in Punishment Park
88 : 882015Isiah Medina65Masterclass (April 11th)
[snack time]2020You[however long you need]kitchen
Entranced Earth1967Glauber Rocha108Beyond (and within) allegories
Blue2018Apichatpong Weerasethakul12Kick the Machine
1963Danièle Huillet + Jean-Marie Straub16

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Patrick Preziosi is a graduate of Literature (BA) from the State University of New York at Purchase. Based in Brooklyn, NY, Patrick began pursuing film criticism after a foray into music criticism. Patrick has written on film for Little White Lies, Metrograph Edition, Photogénie, The Purchase Phoenix and the Irish Film Critic.

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