SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 1998: PART 2 Image

WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM (1971) ^ * * * * 1/2 ^ Dusan Makavejev’s inimitable “WR” is as weird and wonderful a movie as they come. Part documentary on sexual liberation pyschologist Wilhelm Reich, part comic comparison of the relative sexual and political freedoms in America and behind the former Iron Curtain, “WR” has a wildly imaginative sense that anything goes: from the amazingly sensual and unforgettable opening image to an interview with the editor of “Screw” magazine as he lies prone in a comically compromising position to some fantastically designed fiction sequences whose wild yet keen sense of color and style bring to mind people like Pedro Almodovar. ^
THE SPIDER’S STRATEGEM (1971) ^ * * ^ The problem with Bernardo Bertolucci is that he always wants to be someone else: Freud, Borges, Bowles, Buddha, Antonioni…^
“The Spider’s Strategem,” selected for the Indelible Images series by actress/director Joan Chen, is ample evidence of Bertolucci’s predilection. Here, he directs an adaptation of a Borges story (“The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”) with a bit too much eager knowledge of Freud and Greek Tragedy. The story is a kind of psychological mystery concerning a young man named Athos who returns to his hometown to inquire into the suspicious death of his father, also named Athos. Athos senior’s death, an apparent political assassanation, leads Athos junior to the ugly heart, a small town with too many secrets. In the end, despite some ravishing imagery by Vittorio (“Apocalypse Now”) Storaro, “The Spider’s Strategem” is little more than a hyper-intellectual pretentious Italian version of “Bad Day at Black Rock.”
Bertolucci’s natural gift has always been an authentic feel for the landscape and the people of the places he’s filming. If he’d stick to that, this movie and many of his others would be better.
A SUMMER’S TALE (1996) ^ * * * 1/2 ^ Part of Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons,” this little polished gem of a movie takes as its protagonist a handsome young wannabe named Gaspard. Gaspard’s problem is not so much getting the women as choosing between them. He’s utterly passive in the face of their repeated ultimatums. He seems, variously, to want all of them and none of them — and when things become too much he retires to his room to write silly songs on his guitar. There’s nothing neurotic or compulsive about Gaspard. He’s not a Don Juan, deliberately notching his belt with each new woman. And he’s no Woody Allen worrywart, constantly agonizing over his choices. He simply would rather not choose at all and avoids making decisions whenever possible. This may sound rather simple, but Rohmer, who is a master at conveying subtly the mixed-up longings of the human heart, nails Gaspard’s character so completely by the end of the movie that we almost pity him. I knew someone like Gaspard in college — I think everybody probably has known a Gaspard at some point — and it’s Rohmer’s unique achievement to nudge us with grace and humor toward an understanding, if not an acceptance, of the character’s fundamental passivity. ^
FOLLOWING (1998) ^ * * * ^ British writer-director-cinematographer Christopher Nolan’s talent is oozing out of this movie. “Following” tells the story of a writer whose obsession with following people leads him into a sinister web of relationships with a burgler and a gangster moll. The narrative is fragmented in time a la “The Usual Suspects” but has an overall feel that harkens back to Jim Thompson novels and the claustrophobic quadruple-cross noir films of the 40s. For a mere $6,000, including all postproduction before the striking of a print to show at the festival, Nolan has made a movie that would be impressive at 10 times its pricetag.
The director gets a lot of bang for his buck by both camouflaging and exploiting the limitations of his budget in the fundamental conception of his story. There’s a pleasureable, puzzle-game aspect behind “Following”‘s jumping around in time that re-energizes familiar locations. And Nolan’s expert photography takes full advantage of many cramped shooting spaces, giving the black-and-white images a paranoid feel very much in line with John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds,” a movie he says he admires.
“Following”‘s unfortunately uncommerical length of 70 minutes will make it difficult to distribute. At the very least, anyone with a brain at places like the IFC and the Sundance Channel should pick it up, as it is of an obviously higher quality than much of what they show regularly. “Following” is an excellent calling card which should have many people calling very soon.
MOTEL CACTUS (1997) ^ * * 1/2 ^ South Korean Park Ki-Young’s first feature is a mixed bag. The cinematography by longtime Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle is excellent, but the story often fails to live up to the images. ^
“Motel Cactus” is an ambitious piece of minimalism. Set in a single hotel room, it tells four separate stories about people in various stages of love and lust with one another. Each story unfolds in a single extended sequence, which, to the director’s credit, really makes the viewer feel privy to the private goings-on between characters. But the writing doesn’t seem to trust itself and instead of the quiet observation that may have spoken volumes about the characters and their relationships, the script frequently lapses into easy melodrama.
The third and most succesful episode in the movie, which revolves around a drunken one-night stand between two strangers, offers a taste of what the rest of “Motel Cactus” might have been. This story begins with a tone of playful flirtation which evolves into serious play then passionate lust and finally descends into violence and alienation. It makes a near-perfect short film in its own right. Thanks to Park Ki-Young’s skillful direction and Christopher Doyle’s emotionally bold and viscerally hungry eye, there is not a single off-key moment in this sequence. When the characters are wasted and whirling, so is the camera. And whether the characters are screwing joyously or puking reluctantly, the angle makes us feel it.
EISENSTEIN: THE MASTER’S HOUSE (1998) ^ * 1/2 ^ This German documentary about the great Russian filmmaker could be a lot shorter than it is. Co-directors Marianna Kirejewa and Alexander Iskin tell the story of Sergi Eisenstein’s life well enough, but they don’t shed much light on his revolutionary contributions to the language of cinema or on how his life relates specifically to his acheivements. You’d be better off looking at David Bordwell’s excellent book “The Cinema of Eisenstein.” ^
THE VOICE OF BERGMAN (1997) ^ * * * ^ The title says it. For 87 minutes you get not only Ingmar Bergman’s voice, but his face, talking to you on topics that range from his fascination with the close-up to his opinions of “Independence Day” and “Andrei Rublev.” Swedish director Gunnar Bergdahl doesn’t move his camera from the master’s face and decides smartly to keep his own mouth shut. ^
MOMENT OF IMPACT (1998) ^ * * 1/2 ^ Julia Loktev’s ultra-personal documentary about the aftermath of her father’s tragic pedestrian-meets-car accident is neither the naked exploitation Janet Maslin’s scathing NYT review proclaimed nor the vital and profound meditation on life that the festival hype promised. What is most clear is the deeply felt loss of her father’s previous personality/functionality, how it has worn on Julia and her mother Larisa (her father Leonard’s primary caretaker since 1989). ^
Loktev goes to great lengths trying to wring some meaning from the heart of a fundamentally chaotic and meaningless event and she stretches the limits both of her black-and-white camcorder imagery and her mother’s patience. But somehow it doesn’t all hold together — the film feels too long and ultimately unresolved in some important way. Loktev obviously knows how to make a film, though she hasn’t yet figured out how to make this one.

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