The First Look Festival Offers Most Mercurial Films


Pornographic films now employ, with some regularity, a quadruple screen/angle effect, allowing viewers to choose which feed to look at. But it’s doubtful that any smut film has featured a subplot in which hoodlums steal a fossilized egg from a mansion lawn. Also unlikely: that any porno flick to date has been based — however loosely — on a Flannery O’Connor short story.

Omer Fast’s Everything That Rises Must Converge can lay claim to such bizarre
distinctions. The film premieres in the U.S. this Saturday at the Museum of the Moving Image’s fourth annual First Look Festival, which will show roughly forty films starting January 9.

Fast’s documentary/narrative hybrid, which glimpses a day in the life of several real-life porn stars, is an unapologetic tease. Viewers can elect — from the four panels on display for most of the film’s just-under-an-hour running time — to peek at actual fellatio, actual penetration, or such minutiae as a woman primping her hair. But the somberness of the fictional bookending scenes, in which an erotica filmmaker and his star contemplate what would be the sensitive way to depict a rape, is just as
unapologetically punishing.

That deliberate wobbliness in tone
distinguishes several of the fictional First Look features. Take Fast’s even more intriguing Continuity, in which a creepy married German couple come up with perverse — even incestuous — ways to cope with the loss of their son, who fought in Afghanistan; the film is menacing and hallucinatory one minute, moving and humane the next.

Or take Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou, centered on the 19th-century German poet Heinrich von Kleist, which opens the festival and begins a Film Forum run in March. It is, in short, a rather cute, charming film about death, in which the petulant Heinrich begs a sickly, aristocratic woman to join him in suicide. It’s often hilarious, wryly skewering fastidious socialites, but too elegiac overall to be a traditional comedy; audiences will leave as disturbed as they are amused.

There’s also plenty of bravura visuals to behold this year, especially among the films not driven by plot. You can catch new works by experimental favorites like Ken Jacobs, who in his 3-D unveiling The Guests draws out a one-minute 1896
Lumière Brothers film to feature length. Or innovative short pieces like Yuki Kawamura’s Éphémères, wherein an army of fireflies flutter in nighttime lamplight, then writhe and perish in the morning rainfall. Or the wrenching, six-minute slice-of-life Cutaway World, by the Canadian Kazik Radwanski, in which we never see the construction-worker protagonist’s face — only his bruised hands alternately drilling concrete, texting an illicit lover, and quivering as he watches the unnerving ultrasounds of his unborn child.

Here are some must-sees:

International Tourism — Visiting North Korea, director Marie Voignier was struck by how the crafters of the nation’s propaganda films deliberately remove background noises — wind, insects chirping, anything natural that could disrupt the jingoistic dialogue. To astounding effect, she takes the opposite approach in International Tourism, muting tour guides’ (outrageously biased) lectures at the dictatorship’s museums and historical sites, and adding in the pleasing sounds of city life. In just 48 minutes, she somehow conveys the chilling sparseness, uniformity and self-denial of an entire country.

August Winds — A washed-up corpse throws a Brazilian seaside community into discord in Gabriel Mascaro’s sun-streaked, doom-laden August Winds. A
local man, who doubles as shrimp fisherman and coconut distributor, wants to call the police, but gets no support from the self-governing, authority-defying villagers. He calls them anyway, but the village lacks numerical addresses, so he can only describe bends in the shoreline; needless to say, the cops never arrive. Mascaro’s film will be remembered for its odd,
arresting images: a sunbathing woman pouring Coca-Cola on her body; that same woman and the fisherman copulating on a truck bed of coconuts; a seaside grave about to be swept away by the tide.

Our Terrible Country — Mohammed Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi’s documentary is an angry, frightening firsthand account of Syria at its most fractious. The 24-year-old Homsi, an active revolutionary, befriends renowned leftist dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, then embarks with him on a dangerous journey to ISIS-dominated Northern Syria when Saleh’s relatives there are
imprisoned. As political strife intensifies, both seek refuge in Turkey, while their families back home remain imperiled. Homsi’s close-up breakdown late in the film is the most heartbreaking scene at the festival.

Hard to Be a God — Aleksei Guerman’s final feature — conceived in the mid 1960s, shot between 2000 and 2006, and finalized by the crew just after his death last February — is First Look’s shallowest film. It’s also the most gruesomely entertaining. Set in the distant future, it follows a scientist from our world on assignment to observe the inhabitants of a newly discovered planet, who have evidently not advanced beyond Middle Ages ideology or hygiene. These cannibals and inbred freaks dub the scientist a god, though he quickly adapts to their lifestyle. Guerman’s style is one-note, but that note is impressively corrosive and unrelenting. For nearly three hours, he tracks his camera across rows of feral troglodytes spitting, vomiting, urinating, bleating, and bludgeoning; the most tender human exchange here is a nose-twisting.

Suitcase of Love and Shame; Audience — Jane Gillooly’s Suitcase of Love and Shame has played festivals worldwide, but it’s so delightfully offbeat that it deserves another showcase. Sometime during the 1960s, a philandering husband and his
widowed mistress recorded hours of audio correspondence with each other; the tapes ended up in a suitcase sold on eBay. Gillooly plays the most touching, sorrowful, and erotic excerpts over minimalist images: house façades, darkened roads, the tapes themselves. Even if you find these visuals drab, it’s impossible not to be tickled and disturbed by the mischievous twang in the dallying man’s audio love letters, or moved by the woman’s uncertainty as the man proves wishy-washy at commitment. Forever topping herself, Gillooly will tape the audience’s interactive participation in the screening and show a feature-length film of the results, entitled Audience, a week later; only time — or a particularly colorful crowd — will determine whether it’s as entertaining as its forerunner.