Arcana

Streamers: Recapping the pandemic, reimagining Jack London

No, we are not stuck inside the bars of various online platforms. (Did someone say "bars"?)

Portland’s independent theaters continue to provide virtual programming, as the shutdown of in-person cinema-going enters its 437th month. (Some, however, are allowing members of the public in under certain circumstances—see below.) Here are some of the recent local “openings” (how long till those scare quotes disappear?) worth your digi-cash and quaran-time:

Martin Eden

Luca Marinelli and Jessica Cressy in a scene from Martin Eden, photo by Francesca Errichiello, courtesy Kino Lorber

This Italian drama, based on a 1909 Jack London novel, was initially scheduled to screen during March’s Portland International Film Festival. Now, it’s being offered as a streaming option online, with a share of proceeds going to the Northwest Film Center.

The story follows the evolution of the titular proletarian worker (Luca Marinelli) from traveling laborer to literary sensation, as he first ingratiates himself with a bourgeois family in 20th-century Italy and goes on to become a politically active iconoclast and disaffected celebrity. In the process, his romance with the daughter of said bourgeois family (Jessica Cressy) waxes and wanes, as does his proximity to the socialist ideals promulgated by his aging, radical mentor (Carlo Cecchi).

Director Pietro Marcello has made a handsome film, with a handsome lead actor—“Martin Eden” often feels like a more polished version of a John Sayles or Ken Loach production. And its overall depiction of the cradle-to-grave arc of an artistic life has moments of both swelling promise and bracing pathos. But there’s a frustrating lack of specificity to much of the action: you’ll notice I mentioned above that it’s set in “20th-century” Italy, because frankly it’s hard to tell exactly when things are taking place. References to Italy’s fascist history come sparingly and late, and references to any other historical specificity are essentially nil. (Marcello will occasionally insert purportedly authentic, sepia-toned silent footage of things like shipwrecks, but it’s not clear what they are supposed to represent.)

In addition, the lead character’s politics are hard to figure. Soon after being bitten by the autodidactic bug, Martin happens upon the work of Herbert Spencer. Spencer, little-known today, was an influence on Charles Darwin and the originator of the phrase “survival of the fittest.” In other words, he was closer to a eugenicist than a socialist. Despite publicly chastising a leftist rally, Martin is tarred as a socialist, a misunderstanding that haunts him in the latter part of the film. But we’re not (or at least I wasn’t) ever really clear on what his political philosophy exactly is. Before watching “Martin Eden,” I was aware that the film had been effusively praised by the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, who saw it as a cautionary tale centered on an empty enigma, and reviled by The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, for whom it was the film itself, rather than its protagonist, that was “slick and hollow.” This division of opinion clearly depends on how knowingly the film indulges in its conceits. I come down, with reservations, on the side that Marcello intended to craft an indictment of the various ways society exploits and deadens its creative voices. I just wish he’d done a somewhat more coherent job of it. Northwest Film Center (Silver Screen members only). Trailer.

Totally Under Control

Dr. Rick Bright, one of the heroes of Alex Gibney’s documentary “Totally Under Control.”

Alex Gibney is the undisputed king of the 21st-century, ripped-from-the-headlines documentary genre. But he may have outdone himself in timeliness with this two-hour investigation of the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic and the American government’s disastrously ostrich-like reaction to it. There aren’t any bombshell revelations here, just a recapitulation of the “lost month” that most experts say is the primary reason that we are still engaged in the pendulum swings of infectious outbreaks instead of dealing with the aftermath of a horrific but temporary episode.

So much has transpired, and so much scientific theory has been bandied about, over the last six months, that it’s actually quite useful to take, as Gibney’s film does, a tentative step back to those days in January and February when COVID-19 first started to creep into headlines. The stars of “Totally Under Control” are figures like mathematician Eva Lee, whose predictive models augured early on for widespread calamity, and Rick Bright, a government immunologist who demonstrated the patience of Job before finally breaking with the administration and blowing the whistle on its incompetent response.

For me, the biggest takeaway was the emphasis on the flawed testing kits sent out by the CDC in February. “Totally Under Control” (which, of course, takes its title from one of Trump’s many cocksure, dismissive quotes about the virus) focuses on the applied science behind this disastrous mishap in a way I hadn’t seen or read previously. Another revelation (again, to me, at least) came from the testimony of a disconcertingly young volunteer member of the Jared Kushner-“led” task force dedicated to obtaining more N-95 respiratory masks. The level of institutional idiocy he relates is, amazingly enough, still shocking in an environment where the bar for governmental competency is at an all-time low.

It might seem like just so much more doomscrolling to take in a film like this at a time like this. But, by prosecuting a level-headed, science-based indictment of the government’s response, and refusing to indulge in partisan outrage, “Totally Under Control” remains just that, and is all the more powerful for it. Northwest Film Center. Trailer.

Major Arcana

A scene from “Major Arcana.” Courtesy Good Deed Entertainment.

No, it’s not a military drama about an officer with magic powers. Check your Disney+ subscription for stuff like that. (Not that it doesn’t sound cool.) Writer-director Josh Melrod’s debut feature is a small-scale, classic American indie about a damaged man trying to rebuild his life and reconnect with his past. Despite that “Garden State”-sounding premise, it’s an intimately powerful piece of work.

Ujon Tokarski, convincingly grizzled and wounded, plays Dink, a wandering soul who returns to his rural Vermont hometown after his father’s death. Newly sober, he undertakes to build a cabin with his own bare hands on the property he has inherited. In the meantime, he tentatively re-establishes a relationship with Sierra (Tara Summers), a woman from his past and fends off his dysfunctional mother’s efforts to claim his inheritance.

The film is an understated but extended metaphor about the challenges of transcending past sins, addictions, and inadequacies, while maintaining a connection to one’s heritage and home. Melrod never pushes too hard to make these points, and Tokarski inhabits the character of Dink seamlessly. The latter might have something to do with the fact that Tokarski is in fact a carpenter who Melrod met when he was working on the director’s house, and that an actual cabin was actually built during the production of the film. “Major Arcana” (yes, there are Tarot readings) is exactly the kind of film that would likely get irredeemably lost in the shuffle during a normal cinematic economy, but can serve as an unexpected treat in the current wasteland.  Cinema 21.

The Antenna

Gül Arici and Ihsan Önal in Orçun Behram’s THE ANTENNA. (Photo Credit – Dark Star Pictures)

This one isn’t screening in conjunction with any local theaters, but it’s too odd not to mention. In a nondescript apartment complex in Turkey, the building manager, Mehmet (Ihsan Önal) arrives to work one day to find a large new antenna being installed on the roof. Within minutes, the installer has plummeted to his death, and that’s just the beginning of Mehmet’s bad day. It turns out that these antennas are being installed all across the nation, with the specific purpose of broadcasting a midnight message which all citizens are expected to receive. Over the course of the day, as we meet the various residents of the drab dwelling, a black, tarry substance begins to ooze into bathrooms and bubble up from storm drains. Pursuing the source of this disgusting substance, the hapless Mehmet discovers (duh) that it’s emanating from this new technological intrusion.

Turkey, under the authoritarian rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has ample recent experience with mass-media propaganda and creeping repression. In fact, it’s a little surprising that the making of this film was tolerated, until you realize that authoritarianism and free speech don’t have much trouble co-existing in our neck of the woods either. Anyway, things get progressive more bizarre and disturbing as the anticipated broadcast approaches and arrives, and director Orçun Behram maintains a creepy, darkly deadpan tone that wouldn’t be out of place in an early David Cronenberg film. Unintentionally adding to the vague political overtones is the fact that leading actor Önal looks like no one so much as Pete Buttigieg after a three-day bender. Available to stream through various services.

In-person screenings? In-person screenings!

Living Room Theaters: Private screenings for up to 10 people are available, featuring first-run films such as Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” and Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor.” Check website for details.

Cinema 21: Theater rentals for $250 includes admission for 10 people (with an additional $10/person above that) and includes $100 in concession credits. Titles available include those mentioned above and more.

MusicWatch Weekly: Second summer chills out

Portland cools down with Montavilla Jazz Festival, two-score local bands, orchestral hip-hop, and a bunch of bleached assholes

Happy Indonesian Independence Day! Seventy-four years ago today, Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands after three centuries of Dutch colonialism (I’ll bet you thought they were always just about tulips and weed). To celebrate, here’s a little video (if you can’t read Indonesian, skip on down):

So in a minute I’m going to tell you where to hear a zillion local composers rock out this weekend, and Senior Editor Brett Campbell has some things to say about the Montavilla Jazz Festival starting tonight, but the gamelan band I’m in Bali with just played its freshly blessed instruments for the first time this morning, so as soon as I wipe these tears of joy out of my beard I think it’s about time to give you all a little music theory lesson.

Caution: All comparisons to Western phenomena are meant as a starting point, not an accurate description of genuine Balinese music. The present author is no expert, but only an egg. Caveat emptor.

Start at your piano, accordion, Casio, or other Western style keyboard. All those white keys make up the diatonic major scale, and if you shift around the starting pitch you get the seven so-called church modes. Music students learn about all that in first year theory and never use them again.

Start with the note E on your white-note keyboard. Play the next two white keys: F and G. Then skip one, to B, and then to C. Skip up to E and you’re done. In the West we might call that a Phrygian Pentatonic. In Indonesia they call it pelog, and it’s everywhere. Even the ubiquitous roosters crow in pelog.

Continues…