The first ever mostly-virtual Portland International Film Festival continues through March 14, and hopefully it’s the last virtual version ever.
That’s not a dig at the functionality of the online interface the Northwest Film Center has employed, nor is it a criticism of the quality of cinema offered up. I’ve not noticed any of the features become unavailable due to its maximum viewings allotment being reached, although I haven’t done an exhaustive search. The online portal is generally self-explanatory, and it even remembers where you are in a film if you have to pause and switch between devices, à la Netflix or Hulu, as long as you’re logged into your festival account on both of them.
There is, of course, as when viewing any streaming-on-demand content, the ever-present temptation to pause in order to answer the phone or the doorbell, or to finish the film the next day. I’ve always maintained that, along with the communal experience and the size of the projected image, the enforced maintenance of focus is one of the biggest losses when cinema is experienced at home and on demand. (Which is not to say that it can’t also be convenient at times to pause and resume later…) This enforced focus is especially valuable when the film in question isn’t the sort of typical Hollywood narrative that leads its audience by the nose, or the kind of Netflix programming that people admit to watching while folding laundry, but a cohesive audio-visual experience that can only be appreciated in its entirety.
That said, here are some PIFF titles worth investigating during its last weekend:
“One of These Days”: A few years ago, a documentary called “Hands on a Hard Body” chronicled the annual only-in-America endurance contest in which a bunch of folks put their palms on a pickup, and the last one standing (literally) wins the truck. Like the Depression-era dance marathons chronicled in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, it’s an almost too-perfect metaphor for the cruelties of capitalism.
There’s been talk of a fictionalized take on the stunt for years, and while the one that finally arrives here is fairly unhyped, it’s an effective depiction of the various desperate souls who participate, one that even musters a fair amount of suspense as to the ultimate outcome. TV veteran Carrie Preston (Arlene from “True Blood”) is an effective center of gravity as the car dealership employee serving as emcee of the event, and German-born director Bastian Günther keeps the stationary spectacle visually interesting.
“Everything in the End”: For some reason, apocalyptic narratives land differently these days than they did, say, a year ago. In this soft-spoken tale of doom, humanity is in the process of going extinct the way Hemingway described going broke: Gradually, then suddenly. A Portuguese traveler (Hugo de Sousa) finds himself stuck in Iceland during the anticipated, but unexplained, final days of life on Earth. Instead of raving it up, or descending into amoral chaos, our protagonist, and the people he meets in his wanderings through a largely abandoned countryside, approach this looming finality with philosophical poignancy and a desire simply not to be alone when the end inevitably comes.
“A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff”: Portland filmmaker Alicia J. Rose’s latest project, created in collaboration with Alicia Jo Rabins, is a deliciously offbeat take on the 2008 financial crisis and the precipitous fall of the century’s most famous Ponzi schemer. Incorporating music and dance, poetry, animation, and even a bit of synchronized swimming, it explores, among other things, the way Madoff’s Jewishness affected the perception of his crimes. This truly original piece is having its World Premiere at PIFF.
“Air Conditioner”: I had a hard time trying to decide whether to call this clever Angolan film “Kafkaesque” or “Lynchian,” so I suppose that means it’s a little bit of each. During a typically scorching summer in the African nation’s capital city of Luanda, air conditioning units have begun inexplicably falling (leaping?) from their window perches to the streets below, sometimes squashing an unlucky pedestrian or two. In the midst of this surreal crisis, a security guard and a housekeeper are sent on a quest to retrieve their tyrannical, wealthy boss’s A/C unit from a repair shop. Made by a film collective called Geração 80, it’s a surreal paean to the vast and colorful city as well as a sly jab at social and economic inequality.
“Adventures of a Mathematician”: One of the more conventional offerings at PIFF is nonetheless a fairly fascinating look at one of the pivotal events in modern history, the Manhattan Project, as seen by one its less-heralded participants. Based on the memoir of Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski), it follows his journey from a Harvard professorship to a key role in the New Mexico desert, where he clashes with Edward Teller and befriends Jon von Neumann, and where heated debates over the morality of using the atomic bomb and designing the hydrogen bomb erupt. Writer-director Thorsten Klein’s second feature isn’t flashy, but it’s smartly scripted and thoughtfully acted.
SLIPPED DISCS: PHYSICAL MEDIA STILL EXISTS
I saw another one of those “articles” the other day that purported to list the “Twelve Movies to Catch Before They Leave Netflix on Saturday,” or some such. It’s the sort of list-based journalism one expects of clickbait websites, but this was in the New York Times. And it wasn’t the first such exposé I’ve seen on the Grey Lady’s URL, either. Maybe I still bear some residual resentment from my time as a video store martyr—I mean, owner—but I don’t understand why a private company (Amazon Prime, HBO, and other streaming services get similar treatment) should obtain free publicity almost lauding the fact that its products are ephemeral and can be withdrawn at any time.
Of course, you never see pieces about “Six Movies to Catch Before They Leave Blu-ray on Saturday,” because once a film is released on physical media, it is permanently available to anyone who owns a copy or has access to a rental outlet that owns a copy. Such outlets went virtually extinct (although, fortunately, Portland still has Movie Madness) thanks to the cheap lure of the $10 Netflix subscription, but a few devoted companies still put effort into releasing a selection of curated films onto disc.
The paragon, of course, is the Criterion Collection, which continues to showcase “classic and contemporary films” in exquisitely packaged, thoughtfully supplemented editions. Criterion recently took some well-deserved heat for the lack of African-American and female filmmakers among the works it has canonized, a lacuna it has begun to address on its own streaming service, The Criterion Channel. The same could be said about Black African filmmakers, but a pair of recent releases constitute a step forward in that regard.
Last month, Criterion released Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene’s second feature, 1968’s “Mandabi,” which was the first feature ever shot in an African language, Wolof. When his nephew in Paris sends him a money order for 25,000 francs, an unemployed family man finds himself the center of attention. Neighbors look to share in his good fortune, while the recipient himself struggles to find a way to actually cash the otherwise worthless piece of paper. A pointed, humanistic parable about the legacy of colonialism, it’s nonetheless highly entertaining. Criterion’s disc also serves as a veritable primer on the career of Sembene, who’s best known for his seminal debut feature, “Black Girl.” It includes one of his short films, a marvelous documentary portrait of him, a half-hour introduction to the film by a noted African film scholar, and a deep conversation between a Senegalese author and a Senegalese feminist activist. The entire package is a refreshing example of commentary and context provided from an intimate, lived perspective, rather than an external, coldly analytical one. In addition, Criterion recently released the breakthrough 1973 film from Sembene’s countryman Djibril Diop Mambéty, “Touki Bouki.” It’s a New Wave-influenced tale about a young couple desperately trying to raise the money to book passage to Paris and a new life, and it, too, demonstrates the challenges faced by Africans adapting to a postcolonial world. Worthy of note: Both films are also currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.
Another company that continues to do yeoman’s work by releasing or re-releasing classic films and hidden gems, accompanied by worthwhile supplemental material, is Kino Lorber. The venerable art-house distributor unleashes loads of content each month, with titles ranging from the silent era to the grindhouse era, and pretty much everywhere in between. Among their recent triumphs are a newly restored digital master of Sam Peckinpah’s notorious, sweaty crime saga “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” which features Warren Oates at his edgy best as a bartender-turned-hit man leaving a bloody trail across Mexico. Kino, unlike Criterion, continues to regularly feature audio commentary tracks on its releases, and this one’s got two: one by the film’s co-writer, and another by a panel of film historians. Cult filmmaker Alex Cox provides the commentary for another Kino release, the 1971 anti-Western “Doc,” which stars Stacy Keach and Faye Dunaway in a revisionist take on the Wyatt Earp legend. Turns out Earp (Harris Yulin) isn’t the paladin we’ve been told, but an amoral politico bent on riding his reputation to a position of power in Tombstone.
After a pair of cynical flicks such as those, “Little Fugitive: The Collected Works of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin” would be a welcome palate-cleanser. These four features, collected on Blu-ray for the first time, were made by the New York-based husband-and-wife filmmaking team between 1953 and 1968, and they capture both a lost vision of the city and a charming take on childhood freedom and precocity. The fourth of the features, “I Need a Ride to California,” making its home video debut, is the exception, but is a fascinating time capsule nonetheless. The three-disc set also includes a bevy of shorts, home movies, and commercials, as well as separate documentaries on each of these pioneers of American independent cinema.