SFIFF50, Diving In

Johnny Ray Huston May 8, 2007

The 50th annual SF International Film Festival is as good a time as any to put forth an argument. Here’s one: The most compelling movie stars of the current era are athletes, and the most dynamic 21st-century cinema is sports cinema.

Surprisingly, the SFIFF’s proof of this isn’t delivered by “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait,” the most celebrated athletic film of the last year or two. (Though Douglas Gordon’s and Philippe Parreno’s spectacular, meditative work does have a San Francisco engagement soon at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.) Instead, it comes from a comparatively ignored work of such intense pleasures — in terms of mining the extreme subjectivity and sheer visual splendor of athletic competition — that it’s ridiculous it has yet to be picked up by a distributor. Veronica Chen’s “Agua” isn’t just one of the best works of pure cinema I’ve seen in years. It also possesses a lean narrative framework closer to commercial Hollywood propulsion (in effect, not spirit) than to art film or indie dawdling. To dive into it during San Francisco’s hottest day to date this year was revivifying.

Color me happily surprised, because I wasn’t a fan of Chen’s debut film, 2001’s “Smokers Only,” which also played at the SFIFF thanks to programmer Linda Blackaby’s ongoing (and oft-rewarding) commitment to Argentine cinema. There is no doubt that Chen has moved past that work’s posing sessions and meandering tendencies, but the greatness of “Agua” has me seriously second-guessing my first take on her first effort. “Agua” is a warmer, less pretentious, dare I say improvement upon Claire Denis’ celebrated “Beau Travail,” right down to the resemblance between the older male leads in both films, and the likeness of the younger male leads as well. (Denis seems an obvious influence upon Chen’s visual aesthetic, but in comparison, Chen’s moviemaking is in touch with a quality all-too-lacking from today’s international festival circuit: dynamism.)

As Agua’s young protagonist Chino, Nicolas Mateo possesses the soft, doughy, and doe-like beauty of “Beau Travail’s” Gregoire Colin. Agua’s troubled masculine elder, the corollary of “Beau Travail’s” Denis Lavant, is Rafael Ferro, who recently blazed through the hottest passage of “Ronda Nocturna” by Edgardo Cozarinsky — a veteran director and pointedly political Argentine ex-exile who has gone to bat for Chen’s talent in the New Left Review. One of the delights of Chen’s films to date (and one that Cozarinsky no doubt appreciates) is her sensual regard of male physicality. Here, thanks to a great connection with both actors, it manifests in a manner different from her Fassbinder-indebted debut, where she applied ATM surveillance camera footage to a hustler’s lifestyle.

I’ll return to the fierce force, light grace, and compassionate quality of Chen’s contemporary, future-focused female gaze later, after citing (and in a pair of cases briefly exploring) a handful of SFIFF 50’s many other rewards: the revelatory austerity of Pedro Costa’s “Colossal Youth”; the formally inventive musicality and refreshing traditional French New Wave touches of Christophe Honore’s “Dans Paris”; the light philosophical touch and documentary inventiveness of Heddy Honigmann’s “Forever”; the dance-inflected drama and symphonic spellcasting of Garin Nugroho’s contribution to the New Crowned Hope series, “Opera Jawa” (which leads one to hope his tsunami doc “Serambi” gets U.S. screenings); and the electric if erratic magic of “Notes to a Toon Underground,” an intricately designed fusion of live music with both recent and archival animation.

Close to the end of “Notes to a Toon Underground’s” Cinco de Mayo unveiling at the Castro Theatre, Chris Smith’s subtle percussion and Devon Hoff’s bass helped the morphing magic-marker animation of Emily Hubley’s “The Tower” bring daydreams to the movie screen. Playful, simple, traditional, and yet still quite capable of inducing wonder, the Tom Tom Club-influenced “Tower” was one of the overall program’s highlights. The irony is that while Hubley helped supply visuals for “Notes on a Toon Underground’s” live music, her sister and collaborator, Georgia Hubley, helped supply the music for what is still perhaps the most successful live event in SFIFF’s history, the 2001 Castro evening that brought together Yo La Tengo and the underwater visions of Jean Painleve.

SFIFF programmer Sean Uyehara’s lineup for “Notes to a Toon Underground” was, comparatively, a great deal more intricate and ambitious, showcasing five different animators, with a different musical lineup for virtually every single one of the 15 shorts screened. The results were as varied as one might expect from any various-artist music or video comp. Wladyslaw Starevich’s “The Cameraman’s Revenge” kicked things off with a marvelous tale of stop-motion insect romantic paranoia. Though made in 1912, it came off timelier than ever in today’s camera-phone and hidden security camera; the dissonant score led by Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart added both comedy and a disturbing quality. The high concentration of shorts by Jim Trainor didn’t benefit Trainor or the program, though around half of his efforts (especially the shiny-plastic-checker cell streams of “Blood,” and the torn-paper reverie of “Leafy, Leafy Jungle,” set in part to an instrument created by the late Lou Harrison) didn’t wear out their welcome.

The seemingly micro-pixel YouTube-ready appeal of Kelly Sears’s “Crucial Crystal,” on the other hand, achieved a whole new magnificence on the Castro’s huge screen, where its sliding abundance of wizards, dragons, rainbows, rock amps, rainbows and, yes, stalactites, maintained vivid color and while losing no resolution. With its original MIDI score, “Crucial Crystal” has belly-laugh potential — I found it hilarious the first time I saw it, while also loving its visuals at face value — but the live “Notes to a Toon Underground” composition created for it by Marc Capelle, Jason Lytle, William Winant, Carla Fabrizio, and Gadget, used MOOG, wind chimes, bowl percussion and laser sounds to shimmering hypnotic effect. Along with the Starevich, and Hubley’s “Tower,” it was one of the evening’s peaks.

A program such as “Notes to a Toon Underground” adds pop appeal to short film and video works that might otherwise be left ignored as experimental. Pedro Costa’s “Colossal Youth,” on the other hand, is a monumental experimental work of such austerity and rigor that even an English title borrowed from an a classic underground rock album (by Young Marble Giants) fights an uphill battle in terms of generating commercial appeal. Perhaps knowing that’s the case, select critics and scholars have thrown down the closest possible essayistic equivalents to live musical epiphanies on behalf of Costa’s movie, from James Quandt’s appreciation in ArtForum and “Los Angeles Plays Itself” director Thom Andersen’s measured view in Film Comment to the more impassioned, infectious, and devoted praise offered by Mark Peranson in Cinema Scope over the past year.

Costa’s use of mirrors and nature as sole light sources can’t be noted often enough. His appreciative nod to Jacques Tourneur’s shadow play during an enjoyably contentious post-screening audience discussion at last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival is worth a mention. But rather than add to the many well-phrased descriptive passages already devoted to “Colossal Youth’s” wholly unique and flat-out masterful digital video cinematography, I’d like to point out that lovers of theater in particular can find much to savor in the performances that bloom from Costa’s and his collaborators’ approach, which allows existential theatricality to bloom from documentary observation of real lives, or better yet, from the drag and flow of life.

During my second viewing of “Colossal Youth” — a classic I’d be excited to see twice or thrice more if a bold distributor or local film house takes up its cause — I found myself especially loving the leisurely verbal baton-passes between the film’s protagonist, Ventura, and Vanda, the central subject of Costa’s previous movie, “In Vanda’s Room” (from 2000). What can be said of Vanda except that she’s the type of great one-of-a-kind natural presence that can only discovered far outside any industry or major studio system, a mordantly funny cross between Lotte Lenya, Nico, and Edith Massey in one of John Waters’ early films? With two well-placed words, she can shrug off a volcanic quarter-hour monologue about her misadventures giving birth. When the paternal Ventura quietly and stumblingly tries to bring his troubles to her new bedroom, she keeps her eyes fixed on an off-screen television, interrupting his confessions with a running commentary on the “nature” program being broadcast. (Seems a 40-foot anaconda makes quick work of a crocodile.)

Throughout my second viewing of “Colossal Youth,” I kept placing — perhaps because of the recent Andersen essay? — Costa’s movie next to true unrecognized classics of U.S. urban cinema, such as Kent MacKenzie’s “The Exiles” (1961) and works of the subsequent Los Angeles School: Billy Woodberry’s “Bless Their Little Hearts” (1984), and especially Charles Burnett’s newly-revived “Killer of Sheep” (1977) and Haile Gerima’s “Bush Mama” (1979). Like those films, “Colossal Youth” brings Brechtian tactics to bear upon its portraits of neighborhoods and people, and its visual style is both formal and formidable; more revealingly, perhaps, while these films partly about African diaspora occupy different spots on the globe, they all bear witness to specific place(s) and their protagonists’ displacement. The critical enthusiasm around “Colossal Youth” is inspiring, no doubt about it. But I’d especially love to read a filmmaker such as Burnett’s take on the film.

Likewise, it would be interesting to see “Zidane” co-directors Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s response to “Agua,” which successfully transplants the transcendent meditative qualities of their singular sports-performance doc into a scripted fictional framework. Both soccer and swimming are sports that television has trouble doing justice to in terms of perspective and camera angle, and because of this, “Zidane,” and now “Agua,” are especially revelatory. At times locked into the heartbeats and gasps of Ferro’s character Goyo and Mateo’s character Chino (Martin Grignaschi’s sound design is exceptional), the latter film’s swimming sequences are downright breathtaking, moving through skin-caressing sensual observation into gorgeous yet violent bubbly sunlit passages of interior abstraction, and then on finally to moments when suspense subtly gives way to crushing defeat or to these isolated men’s vast surroundings.

There’s a largely silent dance going on between Chen and her lead actors. Sabine Lancelin’s cinematography partially devours Ferro’s character — nicknamed “the River Shark” — right from the start, getting around to some crotch-level views of his desert solitude in the film’s prologue. But this isn’t the kind of rote plastic-doll objectification of male beauty one finds in today’s dispiriting gay cinema. (Nor is this male beauty bimbo-, or “himbo”-like.) Whether channeled directly through the camera or filtered through the movie’s compellingly different (if small) supporting female roles, Chen’s lust for, or at least appreciation of, these men allows for an emotional complexity that makes the desire all the more electric. As enacted by Ferro, Goyo is both self-aware and yet completely clueless about how perceptively and compassionately Ana (Leonora Balcarce) observes him.

Goyo reflects the current moment in athletic competition, when doping has clouded the waters of swimming and complicated other sports with international Olympic or American apple pie appeal. Just this spring, the Argentine tennis player Guillermo Canas has returned from a year-long doping suspension (itself the subject of much debate, as Canas claimed the illegal substance was administered by an official) to twice upend that sport’s top player, Roger Federer, when he was receiving a mass-media and thus mass-marketing coronation as the “greatest of all time.” A competitor such as Canas is far from the sport’s most marketable figure, but (almost crazed in his born-again competitive zeal) he might be its most fascinating one. In “Agua,” Chen treats a similar situation elliptically — at the beginning of the film, Goyo’s in complete exile, and the events that follow track his attempted return from the shameful aftermath of doping scandal. This approach derives great drama from very few words.

Zinedine Zidane and Goyo: these men, real or fictive, take on a gladiator role within the spectacle of contemporary sport. They’re as volatile as they are ambiguous. Attempting to go deep into the experience of these performers, Gordon’s and Parreno’s “Zidane” and Chen’s “Agua” might only emerge with instances of what they experience. But these resplendent moments make CGI false or tame. Simply put, they amaze.