MFF 2012 DAY TWELVE: Mourning – As Goes Janesville – Blackmail – The Ambassador

COMPLETE MILWAUKEE FILM FESTIVAL 2012 COVERAGE

DAY ONE: Starbuck – Opening Night Party
DAY TWO: Ethel – Come As You Are – Bones Brigade: An Autobiography – V/H/S
DAY THREE: Sans Soleil – Dead Weight – Andrew Bird: Fever Year
DAY FOUR: Inland Empire – Bad Brains: A Band in DC
DAY FIVE: Pink Ribbons, Inc. – 11 Flowers – How to Survive a Plague
DAY SIX: Romancing in Thin Air – Elena – The Imposter
DAY SEVEN: 5 Broken Cameras – Goodbye – High Tech, Low Life
DAY EIGHT: Big Boys Gone Bananas!* – Off White Lies – The Milwaukee Show
DAY NINE: Las Acacias – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
DAY TEN: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – Policeman
DAY ELEVEN: Quartet – No God No Master
DAY TWELVE: Mourning – As Goes Janesville – Blackmail – The Ambassador
DAY THIRTEEN: The Invisible War – Klown
DAY FOURTEEN: Old Dog – Little Red – Five Star Existence
DAY FIFTEEN: The Sessions – Detropia

10-8 M
12/15

At noon I view 2011’s Mourning at the Oriental Theater. The film centers on a young boy being driven from his home in Northern Iran (Tehran) to an undisclosed location in Southern Iran, and is the, let’s see, fifth road movie I’ve seen in the festival so far and the 29th film seen in the festival overall (the other road movies included Come As You Are, Dead Weight, Off White Lies, and Las Acacias). Mourning‘s opening shot features the first of many, many extended takes and is only distinguishable when headlights illuminate the young boy being inexplicably abandoned by his arguing parents. From here his aunt, Sharareh, and uncle, Kamran, seem to be delivering or unloading him onto other relatives, or perhaps the boy’s parents, though their location is anybody’s best guess. The young boy is a backseat voyeur to the mute driver Kamran and his wife – strange that the driver should be a man who constantly must make eye contact with the passenger in order to communicate, which they’re doing over the entire (approximately) 10 hour drive, the entire affair featured in sign-language subtitles. The plot is quite spare and is entirely rooted in character. The cinematography is comprised of extreme long shots of the Iranian countryside and the couple’s car gradually snaking its way through the rural dirt roads and lovely landscapes. The rest of the film plays out in very long single take shots of the couple, the young boy usually visible in between. They have car trouble, the boy gets out to pee half a dozen times, and they drive through lots of tunnels – this is about all there is to report of the plot (and it’s not a problem at all). What we are witnessing is the trouble caused by adults and the effects on the youth who are caught in the middle, as a great deal of time is spent listening to the couple argue, all brought on by the boy’s predicament. This is a film that gave me no problems and at 84 minutes does not grate on the viewer. Cinematographer Hamid Reza Ahmadi Ara (we’ll call him Hammy) thoughtful composes every frame and creates what I found to be an very attractive film. Some might call it slow, but not me. And from all that description, it should come as a tremendous shock to learn that the film’s director, Morteza Farshbaf, is a protégé of Kiarostami. I know. Hard to believe.

Next up is a film that Milwaukee Film is proud to showcase, Brad Lichtenstein’s documentary As Goes Janesville, concerning Janesville, WI and the surrounding Rock County’s struggle against being left bereft and desolated after the historically significant closing the the town’s GM Assembly Line plant. That half of the story, the overly sentimental part, is complemented by footage of Wisconsin Republicans, and a spare few democrats, to bring jobs back to the state and specifically the notorious Governor Scott Walker’s union-bashing which, duh, made national headlines throughout 2011. A major fault of this docu is its failure to explain how the loss of collective bargaining rights will solve Wisconsin’s economic problems in the slightest, but I suppose the filmmaker assumes most people already know this. I hope that’s the case, but I fear he just isn’t bring thorough enough. The film is a meager 83 minutes and much of this time is spent feeling sorry for laid-off residents of Janesville, two of which (both black women) are forced to relocate to the nearest GM plant, four hours away, in Fort Wayne, IN. Yes, it’s certainly sad and perhaps tragic, but I was hoping for a great deal more journalism and penetrating explanation of the scenario. Jesus, honestly. I’ve seen enough – I am utterly through being patient with documentary after documentary released which primarily aims to make us feel sorry for victims of injustice. Please, future filmmakers, be journalists, no op-ed-ers.

At 1900 hours begins Milwaukee Film’s presentation of Hitchcock’s 1929 silent, Blackmail, a print on loan from the British Film Academy and accompanied by the three-man Alloy Orchestra, who this viewer witnessed doing fine work two years ago at MFF’s stellar presentation of Metropolis (another 1929 film). We’re told that this silent print of the film is (clearly) the intended method of viewing and is unavailable domestically. This single screening finds the Oriental Theater’s main house again filled to its extraordinary 1000+ capacity, so congrats to Milwaukee Film. Quite an accomplishment. After Milwaukee Film’s sponsor trailer ends, the trailer’s quirky, bespectacled, platinum-bearded protagonist stands and mutters something smilingly to the crowd, who chuckles amusedly. I find it curious that this man – your ordinary Milwaukeean – is named Michael Winter, as he fits every preconception you’d have of the appearance of Old Man Winter. I imagine that’s Milwaukee for you. That and bad drivers.

Blackmail, my first silent H-cock, is the director at his characteristically archetypal best. It is a simple and tawdry story of a young London flapper who is lured up to the studio of a lecherous artist who gets fresh and then gets murdered. Of course, she is a victim of circumstance – is there any other type with Hitchcock? His métier is melodramatic contrivance. Once the young woman commits the act she spirals into delusion and paranoia, milked for all the humor available via composition and dialogue. The Alloy Orchestra, doing wonderful work, complement the film with a soundtrack highlighting the paranoia – enigmatic, dissonant keyboard strains, harp lilts, even that bizarre 1950’s UFO-hovering sound effect (which I cannot instrumentally identify) to bring the heroine into somewhere otherworldly. The next morning a delectable Hitchcockian super creep turns up with knowledge of the night’s indiscretion and twists the arms of the girl and her cop beau. But of course this cop does not allow such a situation to endure and before long is chasing Super Creep past surreal and mammoth ancient Egyptian sculptures in the British Museum, a H-Cockian finale if ever there was one.

I have two complaints about this film: 1) the story itself is rather slight in the long run, more of an exercise, and 2) H-cock likes dialogue here too much and we cut from the image to title cards far more often than necessary. But perhaps this is merely H-cock being a master prognosticator of what was to come. Still, no reason not to give it 4/5 stars. During this screening I often thought of what it would be like to view during its real release, and I found myself musing that silent films are like operas for the working class. The lack of sound forces a great deal of actor internalization, then rather over-the-top expression and even reveling in all the minutiae of feeling in close-up; this melodramatic extrapolation of feeling does take on operatic proportion, yet the stories more often than not feature characters and situations that low-income audiences can relate to – so tawdry becomes the name of the game. When we’re not just focusing on glamour, that is. Truth be told, I have a great, great, great, great deal to learn of film from its first three decades.

Dane Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador is a sort of companion piece to his 2009 film The Red Chapel (also featured at MFF, also produced by von Trier’s Zentropa) in which he places himself into one of the most dangerous places in the history of the Earth just so he can act as insouciant as possible and get a laugh. Most of the time his success is palpable, laughs are had out loud and often, and audiences are shocked and impressed. But like his other film there seems to be no particular goal, destination, or discernible purpose except those of a shallow and solipsistic opportunist – an opinion I do imagine few would argue. Indeed, I do not believe a single word out of Brügger’s mouth and never will – but he definitely makes me laugh and this was a film I was not going to miss.

For reasons unfathomable to anybody but himself, after his stint of managing a comedy troupe’s performance in North Korea he wishes to establish himself as a diplomat in the Central African Republic and get his greedy mitts on as many goddamned diamonds as he can, seemingly for pure novelty (it was a hook that brought me in) and, maybe, for the purpose of exposing criminal enterprises. Incredibly, Brügger contacts two organizations which claim to manufacture diplomatic credentials (one of which is easily accessed at DiplomaticPassport.com) though both only get things moving and do not eventually deliver their promised goods. Despite the curiosity and protestations around him, and via positively convoluted bureaucratic hurdles, Brügger does manage to get into CAR under the auspice of a businessman wishing to construct a match factory (an homage to Kaurismäki?), a resource for which the country could certainly benefit (all matches in CAR are idiotically imported). And the rest of the time he passes himself off as a consul to the west African country Liberia, though nobody in that country vouches for him.

Throughout his inane mission Brügger enlists two pygmy assistants (hilarious), encounters a surprising number of CAR government entities, is fleeced for millions of dollars and is not infrequently in mortal danger. And all along he knowingly presents himself as a profound shithead, perpetually clad in opaque sunglasses, white devil suit and smoking out of his conspicuous cigarette-holder. In essence, he gets very far by presenting himself as opportunistic and utterly corrupt – a practice which lands him among bedfellows. Any “allies” Brügger makes along the way are dubious at best and are transparently as corrupt as Brügger only appears to be. In fact, CAR’s Head of State Security, surreptitiously videotaped and referenced a great deal in the film (full of useful information, you can imagine), eventually disappears from the narrative because he, like his predecessor, is assassinated under highly suspicious circumstances. The film is really too much to be believed. If it had actually gone anywhere it would’ve been astounding. But as in his previous film, Brügger only wanted to get in and act like a big shithead. The film only ends because Brügger runs out of friends and dollars, still quite far from the diamond mine he wished to… co-own? His motives are elusive, if existent. According to Wikipedia, Brügger is in the process of being sued by the government of Liberia for the embarrassment to their country. Brügger did, however, achieve his main goal: I and others watched his film. Lucky for him he can make me laugh.

written by David Ashley

Seen so far:
Starbuck
Ethel
Come As You Are
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
V/H/S
Sans Soleil
Dead Weight
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Inland Empire
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
11 Flowers
How to Survive a Plague
Romancing in Thin Air
Elena
The Imposter
5 Broken Cameras
Goodbye
High Tech, Low Life
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Off White Lies
The Milwaukee Show
Las Acacias
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Policeman
Quartet
No God No Master
Mourning
As Goes Janesville
Blackmail (w/Alloy Orchestra)
The Ambassador

Ranked:
Sans Soleil
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Inland Empire
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Goodbye
Elena
5 Broken Cameras
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
Mourning
Policeman
Las Acacias
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
11 Flowers
How to Survive a Plague
Ethel
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
High Tech, Low Life
Come As You Are
Off White Lies
V/H/S
As Goes Janesville
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
The Imposter
Quartet
Starbuck
Romancing in Thin Air
No God No Master
Dead Weight

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