Film

The Film Comment Selects Fest Dances in What’s Left of the Culture

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Of course the center couldn’t hold, but for anyone still kicking after its collapse — and that of all the old high/low distinctions — there’s
always more revelation to find in the rubble. Film Comment remains an indispensable guide to today’s everything-at-once movie culture, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s carefully unpredictable Film Comment Selects series soldiers on as one of the most exciting and surprising festivals on the calendar. Here’s premieres, bafflements, crowd-pleasers, high-art masterworks, and the maddest of shlock, a heap
of treasure and trash that dares you to dish afterwards on which category — if either — what you’ve just seen exemplifies.

This year’s newest doozy is Franco Maresco’s Belluscone: A Sicilian Story, a documentary — or is it? — tracing satirist Maresco’s investigation into the erstwhile Italian prime minister’s connections to the Sicilian Mafia. For all its suspense and meta-journalistic daring — it claims that Maresco has gone missing — Belluscone also works, at its core, as something of a metaphor for anyone who still takes filmed art personally. The conceit is that Tatti Sanguineti, a film critic, is attempting to discover what happened to Maresco — and just what the filmmaker had turned up. Sanguineti finds himself faced with a closet double-stuffed with Maresco’s footage: hundreds of hours that must be sorted through, just in case there’s that one bit in there someplace that reveals some greater truth. (Much of the tape consists of Maresco’s hostile interviews with Sicilians who insist they know nothing about the Mafia.) Sanguineti’s inquiry into Maresco’s inquiry into Berlusconi takes fascinating turns — and might all be bullshit — but ultimately centers on a promoter of Sicily’s “neomelodica” singers, who croon tributes to Mafiosi and are obliged, whenever on TV, to send heartfelt greetings to the imprisoned. Berlusconi, it turns out, made it big in TV. We’re told in the film,”It’s thanks to Berlusconi that Italians can enjoy commercial television full of dance shows, naked women, bunga bunga…and all this wonderful stuff!”

Bunga bunga is illustrated with priceless video of regular folks bumbling through line-dance-like steps to some goofy local hit. Later, “bunga bunga” is a TV comic’s word for the penis of a puppet. Berlusconi is inconclusive about almost everything, just as the world press has long been uncertain about the precise meaning of bunga bunga, which has often been used to described Berlusconi’s infamous harem parties. But whatever it is, you’ll probably agree there’s heaps of it in the festival’s other high-profile doc, Electric Boogaloo, Mark Hartley’s
celebration of the history of Cannon
Films. Purchased by Israeli film producers
Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus in 1979, Cannon unleashed, through most of the 1980s, giddily disreputable action and horror cheapies, many of which were loved
beyond reason by the young boys on my block. At their height, Golan and Globus proved savvier at mastering international markets than at actual moviemaking, but Electric Boogaloo argues for the charms of films like Delta Force, the later Death Wishes, and all that Sylvia Kristel soft-erotica. Many of those charms are spliced into Electric Boogaloo, which unfailingly cuts to the moneyshots of Cannon’s craziest flicks — but it’s hard not to wish for more insight into the business end of Cannon to accompany the many shots of Kristel’s well-documented breasts. A low-art bonus: The fest includes the third American Ninja film,
Sam Firstenberg’s Domination (1984), the one where the ninja is a woman, Lucinda Dickey, who is possessed by an ancient male ninja — and still teaches aerobics.

Cannon’s pricey sci-fi nudie Lifeforce is not screening, but a grim joke from its writer, Dan O’Bannon, highlights the anthology Shock Value, which surveys the
Big Bang of what has been called the New Horror. (It’s not new anymore.) O’Bannon’s bloody slit-wrists-feel-sexy curio Blood Bath kicks off Shock Value‘s assortment of student films from USC at the dawn of the Seventies. O’Bannon would go on to write Alien; his classmate (and onetime collaborator) John Carpenter is represented here with a horny short about a peeping Tom — shots from his perspective, of course, anticipate the opening of Halloween. More involving on its own terms are Charles Adair’s The Demon, about a woman facing zombie-like invaders in a desert farmhouse, and Judson’s Release, from The Howling co-writer Terence Winkless and Alec Lorimore, which in fifteen minutes founds the genre Carpenter would come to rule: A killer stalks a babysitter. (That killer, fittingly, is O’Bannon.)

There’s not much bunga bunga in
this year’s slate of new international fare. Of those available beforehand, I found Duane Hopkins’s Bypass — a fraternal British drama of crime and poverty — the most vital entry. It’s distinguished by raw, lifelike performances and a marvelous sense of light: Turns out there’s a late-film reason the frame is so often on the verge of an unclearly sourced whiteout. Julie Lopes-Curval’s well-made High Society illuminates subtleties of class in Paris, as
a fashion-designer-to-be (Ana Girardot) from Normandy finds herself among the well-heeled. It’s familiar, but it’s also smart and sometimes provocative, especially when her wealthy photographer boyfriend appropriates her working-class background for the gallery crowd.

Recommended to devotees is Ann Hui’s ambitious The Golden Era, which charts the life of novelist Xiao Hong (Tang Wei), who died in 1942 after a too-short life of quietly bucking tradition. Hui’s film honors that tradition as it sweeps through the early twentieth century, but out of honest principle Hui never pretends to be offering any definitive account. What’s most bracing here is the drama between memory, imagination, and biopic convention.

Recommended to everyone are the fest’s most inspired revivals: six films by Nils Malmros. All are rewarding, but I especially love Tree of Knowledge (1981) and Pain of Love (1993), each an exquisite study of growing up disappointed. Tree is the masterpiece, the greatest of Malmros’s coming-of-age films. Set in the late 1950s, it follows Danish adolescents at that moment when the girls at school are taller than the boys, and wraps at the age when the boys, grown at last, finally know what they want from the girls. It’s richly observed, relatively plotless but touchingly frank — and attuned as any kid to every minor slight and triumph.

It also has boundless empathy: First, we laugh at the dreary old teacher, but then, like the kids, we ache at her humiliation. The opposite occurs with the group’s least popular girl, who early on is left out of the fun — but then, once the hierarchy shifts, becomes as pitiless as the others. The key image here is gawky teens slow-dancing at house parties to “The Man I Love,” working up the courage to turn out the lights
and dare greater intimacies for the duration of one 45. But there are wondrous reveries throughout: a chain of ice-skaters, holding onto each other as the snow falls; a boy spinning a bike wheel to charge a light to see up the skirt of a giggling girl; the face of Elin (Eva Gram Schjoldager), who slowly emerges as our lead, when her mother tells her that if the other kids won’t invite her to their parties she’ll have to invite them to one of her own. Few artists cut as close to actual feelings of actual kids as Malmros, who will be at the screenings of this and Pain of Love, itself a can’t-miss heartbreaker, a teacher/student romance that, despite some moments of rapture, lists into gorgeous tragedy. This is as good as movies get — and there’s even a bit of bunga bunga.

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