I walked out of Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” feeling pretty good. Trier’s a great writer/director, the kind who makes movies that feel exactly as long and full as they ought to be. Good ideas given the right amount of space to breathe and express themselves. I’ve been a fan since “Reprise,” his debut, and it’s been most edifying seeing him become a film festival staple. But, as I walked away, my smile faded. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d never have to see that movie again. It was so smart, and so aware of its place as art in 2021, and so compellingly performed and every detail is underlined and thoroughly explained, and I felt more like the movie had invited me in and just as quickly shown me the door. There wasn’t any room for me in this movie, it’s done everything, thought about itself and how I’d view it and what we’re all dealing with now. I realized that “perfection” is just not what the moment calls for. Nothing is perfect, why should our art be?
Neil Young has had the same thought, though in slightly different circumstances. He’s a critic and a programmer and an old friend. Years ago, we spent a rain-soaked weekend in Philadelphia alternating between landmarks, dive bars, and house shows. He’ll sneak me into a very expensive party later, but for now I’m watching him moderate a talk between Radu Jude (here with his Golden Bear-winning “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”) and Sergei Loznitsa (who’s here with “Babi Yar. Context,” as the name implies something like a very intense sketch for the next film he wants to make, though obviously a film capable of standing apart). He mentions that both Jude and Loznitsa have had obscenities screamed at them at festivals, both have proven controversial, both have made waves, in essence. But if you made a movie and everyone loved it and said “Oh my, Sergei’s finally made such a nice film ...” wouldn’t that be the end? The death of thorny, messy, real film art?
I was thinking about all of this as I kept seeing movies that seem to exist as either one camp or the other. There’s Amalia Ulman “El Planeta,” starring the director and her mother Ale as themselves. They’re not in lockdown, but they don’t have money so they might as well be. There’s a lot of breezy humor about what modern feminism means and how attempts to codify it feel absurd in the face of everything else the two have to deal with, from a guy trying to pay the younger Ulman to pee on him, or the fact that the police are looking for the older Ulman because she can’t stop stealing everything she can’t afford. It’s a gorgeous little movie (fans of Nicolas Pareda’s “Fauna” should seek it out) about decaying dreams for girls gone wild, and I can’t imagine it having much of a life without festivals.
Dina Duma’s “Sisterhood” meanwhile is exactly the kind of promising film festival pick that you can’t escape, a beautifully shot tale of kids behaving badly. Their phones and their divorced parents make them worse people and there’s just no stopping badness when it starts. I can’t help but feel like it was made precisely to screen at festivals—easy moralizing and beautiful images. Change some signifiers and you could have released it in 1953.
It’s the polar opposite of something like “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” a movie Jude tells me he wanted to feel like a historical look back at right now. In fact, it’s also something of a side mirror image of Trier's “Worst Person.” Both have characters in COVID masks, a hysteria over a woman’s sex life, jokes about mansplaining, frank depictions of sexuality, broad but somehow not unrealistic depictions of the dying generation of men who gave us all our scars, and yet one of them feels more dangerous, more vibrant, more exciting. Trier’s made a movie about right now with the tidiness of a 1,000-word essay on a poem. Jude’s made something halfway between a Eugene Ionesco play, a town hall meeting, and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Week-end.”
Jude is a director after my own heart. Not only has he made some of the great ambitious films of the last decade—“Scarred Hearts,” “Aferim!” “I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History as Barbarians”—he seems especially plugged into what makes this era tick. He talks about how he wants his movies to piss people off, to ask questions no one else will. “Why will no Japanese director make a movie about their treatment of the Chinese during the Second World War?!” He says that film schools are lazy places compared to conservatories. You make one 10-minute film every six months instead of practicing piano or painting all day. If you were a baker and you took years off between making cakes, people wouldn’t be all that keen to trust your instincts anymore, and yet with filmmaking it’s the accepted reality. I’ve got to talk to him. I meet him a bit later for a beer and we have a loose and informal chat. It’s guys like him and art like this that make me excited to get out of bed and do something other than marvel at the gorgeous Czech architecture.
I’m trying to ask him about the crisis of modernity, at least as I see it and because I can’t stop seeing it everywhere. Films are all about other films now, nothing feels new, nothing feels productive. Attempts like Jude’s and Ulman’s to get at least something of an aerial view of Right Now feel like exercises in exhausted futility, but at least they understand that—indeed that becomes text in thrilling ways. The ending of his film has a reference to not just the recent spate of superhero movies but also the behind-the-scenes behavior of their stars. “Maybe it’s a little conservatism on my part but I’d rather see a John Ford movie or a pre-code film from the states than all the new cinema. I have two kids, so I’ve seen all the Avengers movies. Many times. I must admit I try to get a bit of sleep ... especially because they’re getting longer.”
He expressed some regret that he never developed the kind of style that cinema studies tend to reward. “I was kind of angry at myself for years because I didn’t have that kind of style or thematic universe. You recognize an Almodovar film, you know it in three seconds. I would have liked to be like this but at some point I had to accept that I’m not. For me cinema is a way of thinking. A way to think about life and history and society and in order to create the work you need specific devices, figures of speech, tools, language. My quest for form has to do with how can you express yourself better.”
I tell him it must also be freeing to not have such specific fetishes, and anyway, there’s no mistaking his political point of view, a gleefully dark reckoning with the way history repeats itself. Every time I try to work my way back to his films Jude is happily caught up in semantic thickets. I start to tell him that there feels like an intuitive approach to his more pared down aesthetic in his latest work and he stops me, a slight, sly smile in the corner of his mouth.
“It depends on what you mean by intuition. Do you know about this? Antonio Damasio is a neurologist and he explains what intuition is. He says that there’s no intuition without previous experiences. When you jump from point A to point B, your brain makes the shortcut because it’s been there before. Let’s say three identical looking men come to beat you up. One beats you up, the second beats you up, when you see the third guy you know he’s here to beat you up. If there’s intuition, it’s only based on my previous experiences. There’s a lot of anti-intellectualism out there and I don’t want to lean on the idea of intuition, because a lot of work goes into every single thing.”
We’re both laughing as I try to regroup. I restate my question as a matter of resources. That a movie like “Aferim!,” a kind of witchfinder Western set in medieval Romania, is a more complicated work of art than “Bad Luck Banging.”
“Maybe there’s something to what you’re saying though, there’s a kind of evolution. I wouldn’t make a film like 'Aferim!' again. Not because of the effort it took, but because all of a sudden you feel you don’t need to make something so complicated. I did a bit of theatre after I made it and you don’t need all these resources.” He grabs a cup off the table. “This can be Hamlet’s castle, you know? You can just say it. You don’t need this huge set. I think cinema can learn a little from theatre. I think ["Bad Luck"] is a very specific film in a very specific time and place. I wanted it to feel very contemporary film, like it was made from a historical perspective. The details and little things, I thought This will disappear, so maybe if we capture them for all time, it becomes meaningful. You go to Pompeii and people are really taken with a brick or a drawing on the wall that they wouldn’t care about. I wanted you to look around with the eyes of someone seeing history happening. This is something to debate here. There are people, especially in European and Hollywood cinema, one life of it from the beginning was to make things non-specific. You see now there’s a film set in Croatia, but it could be France or Hungary or London - it’s just a 'European' film. Directors try to cut out what’s specific about their country and culture or society to make something 'universal.' But I’m interested in specifics! I strongly believe universality comes from specificity. I want to see an American film I want to see something from America, I want to see a Japanese film not an American version of a Japanese film.”
I tell him that it feels like something has to break, if we keep sanding off the specifics, every movie will look the same.
“I think it’s already happened. People now just watch what they want on their streaming services. Olivier Assayas said last year that cinema was designed to bring people together and that’s happening less and less. People who go to a classical concert are less likely to go see a pop concert or a metal concert. This fracturing of the audience ... I don’t see how this can be reversed. I believe in general education, though it’s not just education because new technology makes it complicated. My kids are on their phone all the time, it’s hard for them to read a book. This changes with every generation. When I became interested in cinema in post-communism there wasn’t private TV networks. The only place to see movies was the Romanian cinematheque that black and white copies of old movies. I saw 'Taxi Driver' in black and white four or five times. I still remember it in black and white. You’d wait six months for a film to appear. When I saw that they were showing a film I really wanted to see like “A Clockwork Orange” my hands would shake with anticipation, I got there 40 minutes early. Now I have the hard disc, which is great, but the attention I used to pay was much higher. It was this film to be seen now. You had to be present to meet the work of art head on.”