Poi E, Lovesong, Certain Women and more: all the things that don't get said

by David Larsen / 17 July, 2016
"Raise your hand if you've never used a poi", said the no-nonsense woman with the guitar. I was just walking by on my way to the film festival. The crowd outside the Auckland Public Library was pretty large, but only a couple of people raised their hands, probably because this is New Zealand and no one gets through school without trying poi dancing; or possibly because this is New Zealand and no one wants to be pulled out of a crowd and made to learn poi dancing in public, which is what happened next.

So, kapa haka on Lorne Street -- bloody good kapa haka, it was Te Wharekura o Hoani Waititi, division one winners at this year's Polyfest -- with poi lessons for the unintiated, just over the road from the world premiere of Poi E: The Story Of Our Song, one of the best films ever made about the Maori renaissance. Pure coincidence as far as I can gather; the kapa haka was part of the launch celebration for the Turama Matariki light show festival.

Another pure coincidence: the next day I went to Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson's extended free-associational riff on life, death, and the relationship of narrative to reality. (This is my own attempt at summing up a narrative whose relationship to reality is a long way from straightforward). In the course of discussing the way cameras sprang up all over New York in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and the potential for individuals to get caught up in the security industry's narrative constructs when bits and pieces of data are pieced together in the wake of a crime, Anderson talked a bit about phosphene patterns: the little grains of false light that float in your field of vision if you close your eyes. You can assemble all sorts of images from them, she said, once there are enough of them: once there's enough going on, the mind finds patterns.

This is not a new idea, though Anderson is good at shaking the dust off ideas and making them strange again. But my point is, before you can start seeing patterns in the data flakes, there needs to be a lot going on. My experience of the film festival opening night was framed by poi dancing: the street performance as I walked to the theatre, and then the Patea Maori Club's on-stage performance after Poi E's final credits. It felt richly meaningful. Part of that was just coincidence; but we seem to have a city now where enough is going on for meaningful concidences to be possible. I believe the phrase for this is "a rich civic life".

Patea Maori Club
Poi E.


So, rich life experiences at the Civic. Poi E. I am not usually lost for words when it comes to describing films. And in fact I have plenty of words now. Here are some: "ecstatic", "lovely", "important", "thank god it isn't the 1970s any more". But there are two limits on my ability to tell you what to expect if you go to see this, which I hope you will. First, I saw it with most of the people it's about sitting a few rows behind me and then coming up on stage afterwards and giving a live performance of Dalvanius Prime's number one hit - the song that brought Te Reo into the mainstream life of this country, the song that moved the Queen to request a command performance, which almost didn't go ahead because no one would give a little Maori group from Taranaki the money to fly to London. (Dalvanius mortgaged his house.) It was just profoundly moving.

Second, I think even without the unrepeatable context, this film would be in the "I can't think analytically about this one" box for me. (It is not a box I use often). It's a deliberate, willed act of positive memory, celebrating a man who did something unlikely and difficult at just the right moment, and in a small way (or maybe a better word than "small" would be "pivotal") helped make this a better country than it easily could have been.
It's a film which quietly acknowledges all the things that used to be ghastly about New Zealand

Therefore it's a film which quietly acknowledges all the things that used to be ghastly about New Zealand; I can see that the quietness of that acknowledgement may be a problem for some people, not because of the lack of negativity but because of the lack of explanatory context, and I can think of a few points in the film where the dialogue between images and music or audio commentary felt elusive. But I can't find the distance to assess how much that matters. Or in other words, I find that to me, it doesn't matter: not the most useful film critic's response, unless you find it useful to be told that this is a film capable of disarming criticism. It made for a triumphant festival opening night.

 

As I write this it's the morning of day three. I've seen eight films so far. I'm off to three more shortly. It's heaven. I had this idea of heaven, actually, when I was young, and trying to make sense of the idea that God was infinite -- that anyone could be in some sense a person, and yet be without limits, limits being the thing that define what we normally mean by "person" -- that maybe heaven was a place from which you were somehow able to see into all times and places at once. "In my father's house are many mansions": I imagined this vaguely as an endlessly, delightfully complicated building, a building you could ramble through forever, but with the defining feature that there were windows in every room, each one looking out onto a different time and place. I guess I was twelve or so. Anyway, you see the relevance. So far this festival's heavenly windows have opened onto a free-association elegy for a piano-playing dog; an electric brink-of-puberty story in Montreal; two lesbian love stories, both womderfully well observed; a brief, melancholy friendship between a buffalo calf and an Italian folklore archetype (no, really); a nice, undemanding story about two French doctors; and a wild, brilliant, not entirely successful fictional recasting of a great South American poet's life.

16185_Lovesong_still1_FerrisWheel KEY.tif_cmyk-0-800-0-450-crop
Lovesong.


Three straightforward yeah-just-see-this recommendations. Poi E, obviously. Also Lovesong. I haven't encountered Korean-American writer-director So Yong Kim previously. Quiet, searching intelligence infuses every frame of this story. Two central performances, from Riley Keough and Jena Malone, playing old friends Sarah and Mindy. Sarah's marriage seems to be ending; the two women spend a little time together; their mutual attraction is obvious.
A lot of the film's considerable power is in the things that don't get said. They end up sounding very loud.

A lot of the film's considerable power is in what you might call its negative emotional space: the things that don't get said end up sounding very loud, because Kim leaves room for them to be audible, and because Maloine, and especially Keough, convey extraordinary amounts of shifting second-by-second nuance through their expressions. Also the cinematography is first rate, mostly in a very unshowy way consisting of good use of space; though Kim knows exactly when to deploy a drop-dead gorgeous shot to open out and complicate her story's emotional possibilities.

Les Demons NZIFF
Les Demons.


Almost as good: Les Démons, the first dramatic feature from Philippe Lesage. I say "almost" only because Lovesong has a perfect simplicity to it, and Les Démons is attempting something more complex and in some ways more challenging, and in a couple of its final moments the strain of that becomes detectable. But my goodness, what a great film. The opening shots show us a class of happy, healthy tween-age kids going through an exercise routine with their teacher. Lesage scores it to the opening bars of Sibelius's Finlandia, a piece whose somber weight would be appropriate for scenes of Viking raiders setting out into rough seas from which few of them are likely to return. The disparity is hilarious, and yet the threatening quality of the music is undeniable; so you laugh, and you worry, and you admire the film's capacity to elicit both responses at once. Lesage keeps on being this surprising, scene after scene. The child actors, especially Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, playing our central 10-year-old, Félix, are remarkable; I saw this the same day as Lovesong, and it was striking how much power each film gained from the presence of actors capable of registering the subtlest shifts of emotion.
The film feels as large and unpredictable as the world might feel to a ten year old boy.

Félix and his classmates are right on the edge of puberty; the world is full of new possibilities, and they're not all good ones. In a bravura early scene, Félix's parents fight while he and his two older siblings try frantically to stop them. A little later, a few casual homophobic remarks from his teenage brother's friends hit Félix in just the wrong way at just the wrong moment. The film deftly makes it clear both how uncertain and full of bluster these older boys are, and how god-like they seem to Félix; and from these and a few other standard childhood experiences, the pieces of a possible tragedy quietly assemble themselves. But maybe the film won't go that way. Or maybe it will manage to go that way and not go that way simultaneously. Lesage creates such a sense of possibility that the film feels as large and unpredictable as the world might feel to a ten year old boy.

lost and beautiful
Lost and Beautiful.


And now I'm nearly due at my next film, but very quickly, some remarks on other things I've seen so far: Lost and Beautiful is a curiosity, the sort of thing you will only see at a festival, and if it drops neatly into a gap between other things you want to see, it's worth taking in. I'm pleased I saw it, but also pleased I saw it at this end of the fortnight, because my tolerance for extreme quirkiness is going to go down. I am not going to attempt to describe it. It's helpful to know that it began life as a documentary and was adapted into something more like a fable when its principle subject died midway through filming. It may also help to know that its narrator is not human.



If you're a Laurie Anderson fan, you should certainly see Heart of a Dog. I used to be a Laurie Anderson fan, and about halfway through this film I noticed that I'm not any more, and that in fact her singsong voiceover intonations and semi-random juxtapositions now irritate the hell out of me; but that isn't the film's fault. It's a fair representation of a particular aesthetic, and it's also an engagement with ideas about mortality and the presence and value of animals in our lives. Many people will find it very moving.
Her singsong voiceover intonations and semi-random juxtapositions irritate the hell out of me.

The Country Doctor is entirely nice and entirely unchallenging. I will have forgotten I ever saw it by this time tomorrow; but it was pleasant.

neruda
Neruda.


Neruda bugged me in a bunch of ways, pleased me in others, did not entirely work considered as a whole, but was as far from boring as a film can well get. As with Pablo Larrain's last film, No, the visual grammar does weird surreality-skirting things: conventional-seeming narrative sequences keep doing little location jumps, so that a continuous conversation between a pair of characters seems to be occuring in three or four places at once. Characters are framed against the light again and again, in a way which seems deliberate but strains your eyes and serves no useful purpose. Voice-over naration is interpolated with dialogue so densely that scenes feel footnoted and busy to the point of overflow. But the voice-over is deadpan and hilarious, and serves to establish our narrator, Gail Garcia Bernal's self-important police inspector, as a great comic creation. His pursuit of the fugitive Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda is delightful enough to justify a great many of the film's stylistic oddities; but it would be nicer if they could justify themselves.

Certain Women.
Certain Women.


And finally Certain Women, which I've left until last not because it's the least of these films, but because I'm still deciding what I think of it. The great Kelly Reichardt has adapted three Maile Meloy short stories as an integrated tryptich study of women's lives in Montana. The cast is attention-getting -- Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart -- and they deserve the attention, though in fact it was Lily Gladstone's performance in the third story that really stood out. My problem with the film as a whole was precisely the extent to which that third story stood out: a quietly dazzling portrayal of a young ranch hand falling helplessly and perhaps hopelessly in love, it made the rest of the film feel under-considered. I'm still mulling the extent to which this is a weakness; saving your best material for your final third is a reasonable enough strategy, but the film has not yet assembled itself in my memory as a single cohesive entity, and I'm not certain it's going to. It's well worth seeing though. (The opening shot, of a long-haul train coming slowly round a distant bend and moving towards us, is the great oh-my-god visual astonishment of my festival so far.)

 

Right, I'm off to more movies. First one quick story. (It is a story with a moral.) I left my backroll behind at a SkyCity screening on the first day (I can't sit in theatre seats all day without a lumbar support roll, my back packs up), and I had to run back for it later in the day. I chatted a bit with the ushers while I was waiting for the film playing in the theatre to end. One of them was rostered on for that night's screening of Green Room, a thriller I saw at the festival programme launch a month or so ago. Oh, it's great, I said. "Not sure it's for me", she said. "Not really one for violence." Well, it does have a bit of that, I said, thinking of the scene where a dog basically eats someone alive. "Mind you", she went on, "you know that Eric Bana film from a while ago, Chopper? Very brutal film that was. I was never going to go to that. I mean! But I was rostered on, so I had to see it, and you know what, it was so good. I saw it five times in the end".

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