The best thing I saw at this year’s New York Film Festival was Ben Russell’s “Against Time,” part of the short film offering “Currents Program 8: Time Out of Mind,” playing again on October 10th. Russell increasingly presents as a man without a nation, rather he seems to find purchase thematically wherever his camera finds truth. In “A Spell to Ward off the Darkness,” his collaboration with the other genius Ben of experimental film, Ben Rivers, he travels from a commune to the basement of some dark, unknowable club to see a metal act play. In “Good Luck,” he follows miners from one country to the next in pursuit of a truth about labor buried miles under the earth.
“Against Time” is set at first at a fair or carnival, then on a road, and then in a place and time only film can explain. I like Russell not just because his movies are so cinematic and hypnotic but because he seems to demand some measure of accountability in summing up the effect of avant-garde film. “Against Time” is at once a very cohesive thematic statement about film as a medium and also just a very compelling work of the obvious. The final act of the 22-minute film is a kind of strobing, piece-meal collection of segments of a journey.
The exciting part is where we look at a movie demanding our full attention and we get to decide what it means. The flickering tableaux seem to form crude shapes in their nigh-subliminal form, and the movie is successful as the gathering of shapes. But Russell has also imbued it with his own personal losses, his own travels, his people, his places, his world. Avant-garde film can be a clinical measurement of time and tide, but it can also be a window into the soul of its creator. Russell and I have never met, but I think I know a little more about him with every film of his I see. “Against Time” is a magnificent movie, I hope to see more films with its mix of autobiographical immediacy and pleasing geometry before the year is out. In general, I hope more artists are encouraged to follow their plotless instincts to find something else true and beautiful, something outside of the western image consumption.
It’s easy to find stagnation when you want to see innovation, to see the new. I like Hong Sang-soo as much as the next cinephile but my patience with his stagnation is starting to wear. A few years back, when he semi-publicly left his wife for actress Kim Min-Hee, his movies started to feel like confessions, which was exactly the kind of exciting perverse thing of which classic melodramas are made. Now it’s 2022 and I wonder how much innovation Hong’s still getting up to. People tell me “Walk Up” is his most exciting in years, and I have to take them at their word. I saw “The Novelist’s Film” and I’m left with questions.
Kim plays an actress who only works for friends. Our hero is a novelist who demands to know of her ex-boyfriend, a director, why he didn’t try harder to adapt her novel before the deal to adapt it fell through. I’ve seen Hong’s characters sit around a table drinking Soju more times than I’ve seen my own family in the last six years, I guess I want to know where this project leads. What next? Will there be a Hong movie that rewards our faith in his lifelong and life-destroying project? Will Hong sang-soo produce a movie as exciting as the idea of being Hong Sang-soo, funded by festivals to chase his every whim and will? I liked “The Novelist’s Film” well enough, there was one composition in particular that struck me as more beautiful than anything he’s composed since 2010, but in general I think his aimlessness is being subsidized to his own artistic oblivion. I haven’t yet felt that Hong’s ideas aren’t something I couldn’t get from re-watching Eric Rohmer movies. When Hong dies we’ll know exactly what he was thinking and feeling to the second, and what will we have learned?
Mark Asch’s reportage on Albert Serra’s “Pacifiction” makes me think he too was after something beyond the simplicity of pointing a camera at a problem. Evidently, he shot something like 600 hours of footage of a French colonizer taking stock of his life and influence in Polynesia. And he did get some amazing stuff in all of that wilderness. Footage of a boat happening upon some surfing protestors is among the best stuff Serra ever filmed. He finds beauty in the drunken languorousness of la vie impérial, but it’s quite clear by the end he shot a million things and then tried in retrospect to make them into a movie.
I’m just not convinced Serra’s talents are best utilized in a halfway house like “Pacifiction,” which is, it must be said, “Apocalypse Now” fan fiction. I was disheartened to see the man who made “Liberte,” one of the great films of the 2010s, reverting to old ideas and forms, no matter how adept at recapturing them he may be. When you see a man sit in a car for twenty minutes complaining that he’s going to kill his enemies, to run their nose in their idiocy, to really make them pay … and then the movie ends, it’s done all the work on your behalf.
“Pacifiction“ is about a wheeler dealer who discovers that the world will move on with or without him, and the peculiar thing is that Serra never turned that logic back on himself and imagined that the last thing we need is a talented artist doing his best impression of other talented artists for a project with the most obvious roots and ambitions. Oh, is life under colonialism a disgrace? Well shut my mouth! Since when? He should have come up with a more damning conclusion and worked his way towards it, rather than filming everything and hoping he had said enough to justify the film’s three-hour length and plotless flow. At its best, you do want to go swimming in its images. At its worst, you beg for an artist who’s answerable to no one to trust someone to tell him when he’s run out of road.