Only in its second year, the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look has staked its claim in that undiscovered country of films that have traveled the international festival circuit, but haven’t yet found a venue in New York. While the city doesn’t lack for film festivals and specialty programming, each year new work by major auteurs and important rising filmmakers slips by with little recognition. First Look has sought to redress this by bringing together 26 features and shorts from a dozen countries, most of which fall through the taxonomic cracks, defying easy genre categorization or the festival catalogue blurb. Last year’s inaugural edition of the festival, for example, premiered some of 2012's most elusive masterpieces, including Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly, Philippe Garrel’s A Burning Hot Summer, and Gonçalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth Not the Moon.
This year’s iteration begins on a no less pointed note with Hors Satan, Bruno Dumont’s enigmatic, gorgeously filmed, and characteristically divisive new film, and closes with a program of short films by the Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose Neighboring Sounds was among 2012’s most impressive first features. (Dumont himself also shows up in Joana Preiss’s Siberia, which unflinchingly chronicles the decline of the two filmmakers’ romantic relationship on a trip aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway.) Also along the way are a number of accomplished hybrid films that we’ve had occasion to write about in these pages. Eloy Enciso’s mannered and richly textured Arraianos is a curious docu-fable about rural peasants awaiting hellfire on the northern Portuguese border; Mexican director Nicolás Pereda’s Greatest Hits tells a bifurcated tale of a prodigal father's return to his family, told in fictional section and then in a documentary one; and Philip Scheffner’s Revision restages testimony in a hastily tried, real-life investigation into two Romanians shot on the Germany-Poland border in 1992. Each of these films plays at points of intersection both generic and geographic.
Even First Look’s more straightforward documentary offerings are still obstinately equivocal. Urgent and sprawling, Winter, Go Away! is a remarkable, immediate account of the days before and after the 2011 Russian election, shot handheld and from the hip by 10 filmmakers and former students of the filmmaker Marina Razbezhkina at her School of Documentary Film and Documentary Theatre. Amid nationalist and pro-Putin fervor, opposition activists from various parties struggle for footholds in a democratic process gone awry, and are met with swift and Kafkaesque responses from authorities. Pussy Riot’s offending incident at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012 (which the film captures) is only the most familiar example. But alongside this event, the film presents a litany of infuriating and surreal encounters, including police thuggery, denial of the freedom of the press, and blatant election official high jinks, culminating in the protests of December 2011, which resulted in hundreds of arrests. Most maddening of all is the endless, self-satisfied apologia from devotees of Putin’s insidious personality cult, the nadir of which, we soon learn, is a small church called the Chapel of Russia’s Resurrection, which claims to have an icon of the once and future president that actually weeps.
Protest of another kind arises in several films that revisit and reconfigure popular genres. While German director Thomas Arslan reinvents the heist film with In the Shadows, veteran experimental filmmaker James Benning attempts a still more radical revision of the road movie with Easy Rider. Having spent a good part of the last four decades riding around America on his motorcycle shooting films, it seems natural that Benning would have an affinity for Dennis Hopper’s 1969 generation-defining hippie-biker manifesto—but a remake? What seems like a fantasy film devised by film nerds on a long road trip is in fact Benning’s new film, a sort of (post-)structuralist remake in which, as in his recent recut of John Cassavetes’s Faces, Benning stays true to the tone and structure of the original film, but takes its defining stylistic motif to the limit. Whereas the prior film reconstructed Cassavetes’s original using only closeups of the actors’ faces, Benning’s Easy Rider reduces Hopper’s film to its most basic (and least problematically egoistic) state: as a landscape film, in which highways, deserts, small-town Main Streets, and New Orleans porticos are each framed carefully and for the duration of entire scenes from the original film. Dialogue by Fonda, Hopper, Nicholson, et al, is occasionally heard in distant snatches on the soundtrack, and in a further auditory nod to Hopper's film, Benning even bridges shots with his own selection of songs, which regenders the original film's acid-rock machismo with drum machine-driven selections from Chan Marshall, his own daughter Sadie Benning, and Suzy Soundz (a k a The Space Lady) doing a mean, electro-psych cover of “Born to Be Wild.”
Further eliding categorical boundaries is Kongdej Jaturanrasmee’s delicate, elliptical P-047, which toys with being both a thriller or a spy film (more Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express than The Bourne Identity) before settling into its own eccentric genre. Lek and Kong are two gentle, inquisitive housebreakers who use their distinctive skills (Lek’s locksmith business, Kong's experience doing continuity on film sets) to enter people's houses and subtly rifle through their belongings without leaving any trace of their entry behind. When one such entry goes wrong, the film’s structure follows it, playing with memory and identity in a way that suggests Christopher Nolan’s Memento with a softer and slipperier touch, more in tune with infinitesimal sensory details like scents and ghostly residues of the past left in spaces by their former inhabitants. Given the film’s pace and milieu, it's hard not to see similarities with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films too, but Kongdej’s roots as a commercial filmmaker (here, making his first independent film) suggest a rather different approach, one more committed to recalibrating narrative conventions than eschewing them entirely.
Subtle innovations characterize the series’s one retrospective screening, as well: Xavier, something of a lost classic of recent Portuguese cinema by the little-known Manuel Mozos, mentor to Tabu director Miguel Gomes. (A champion of his teacher’s work, Gomes organized a Mozos retrospective at this year’s Viennale.) Filmed in 1991 but only completed a decade later, Mozos's film follows a boyish and nervy Pedro Hestnes, in the title role, as he tries vainly to find his footing after his years of military service. Coasting between dead end jobs (for a shady TV-antenna company, a chocolate bar factory, a construction company), and drifitng aimlessly among various friends, girlfriends, and girlfriends of friends, the wayward Xavier also seeks out a series of parental figures, including an earthy nun, a wealthy, reprehensible godfather, a mother in a mental institution, a former commanding officer with a pet monkey. Picaresque and prone to mood swings, Mozos’s film bares some similarities with French art cinema of the same period, echoing Philippe Garrel’s flighty yet precise structures and Arnaud Desplechin's narratives of extended, dissolute adolescence. But Portugal’s horizontal rays of sunlight and the occasional burst of fado on the soundtrack give Xavier a rare and obscure texture of its own, and its quick, oblique editing lend it the melancholic air of life errantly slipping by.
More of this dreamy melancholy can be found in two of the festival’s most exquisitely composed films: Jang Kun-jae’s cozy, concise Sleepless Night, an unabashedly minor-key film that follows a young married couple as they negotiate small career problems and contemplate having a child; and Pedro González-Rubio’s Inori, a document of the aging population of a small mountainous Japanese village. Where it falls short of González-Rubio’s gorgeous 2009 hybrid film Alamar, with its precise and intimate characterization, Inori more than compensates in its lush natural detail and intricate blend of field recording and electronic sound, creating a hushed atmosphere of quiet mourning that follows the movements of the village’s elderly inhabitants and hints at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which occurred during filming. González-Rubio’s sensibility is inquisitive and light of touch, and like many of the films in First Look, Inori manages to be all the more seductive for being hard to pin down, capturing and reinventing its subject through a shrewd and transformative way of looking.
First Look Runs from January 4 – 13 at Museum of the Moving Image.