That Feeling When … you arrange your travel to get you to the 75th Anniversary edition of the fabled Venice Film Festival in time for opening night, but you miss the gala first film anyway. That title was Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” about Neil Armstrong and his whole first-man-on-the-moon bit, and the press screenings were on the morning of the 28th, I didn’t get settled in my hotel until about 2, and nobody was offering me an invite to the gala evening screening.
So I resolved to hit a press screening of “The Mountain,” a new film by director Rick Alverson, the director of the shit-stirring Indie Projects of Mild Controversy “The Comedy” and “Entertainment.” I was describing Alverson’s work to a friend who was contemplating joining me for the screening and he said, “Oh. So he makes anti-movies.” That’s as good a way of describing his work as I’ve ever heard.
While “The Comedy” was set in hateful hipster Brooklyn, and “Entertainment” made its Misanthropic Statements via the circumscribed world of the anti-comedian Neil Hamburger, “The Mountain” is set in the American 1950s, and stars Tye Sheridan as Andy, a disaffected young man who, upon losing his father (a scowling Udo Kier), is taken under the wing of Wally, a psychiatric doctor who specializes in electric shock therapy and lobotomies. Wally asks Andy to travel the country with him and chronicle his work, equipping him with an early Polaroid Land Camera to take portraits of his patients.
Wally is played by Jeff Goldblum, and aside from his star power it’s also clear that Alverson cast him for his Goldblum-ness. Although, no doubt at his director’s request, he turns that quality down about three dBs and also adds shadowing. Wally is an alcoholic and a womanizer and a man with a deep belief in his mission and the means he uses to accomplish it, except for the times when he seems to believe in nothing at all. As I write this, though, I feel like I’m applying a spatula’s worth of interpretation on a movie that mainly wants to be felt. Alverson frequently resolves scenes on long, uncomfortable silences and then cuts to loud sounds—an object falling, or some bowling pins crashing down. The disruptive strategy keeps the viewer from consistently following a train of thought. The narrative, such as it is, adds to that with character elements, particularly the introduction of Denis Levant, the eccentric French performer who’s a staple of Leos Carax’s films. Levant plays Jack, the father of Susan, a subject of Wally’s. Jack is also a big drinker who lives in a handsome modernist house and is prone to monologues, which he conducts in a mix of French and English, on the subject of art and reality.
Tye Sheridan, who is also an executive producer of the movie, is an object lesson here on how hard it’s getting to earn indie cred—after an energetic, likable performance in “Ready Player One,” he spends most of this picture doing two kinds of simulations of catatonia: one close-mouthed, the other with jaw slightly slack. This is a meticulously made movie, which is impressive: given how much Alverson clearly despises the medium, and human life itself, I’m surprised he has this kind of motivation. Alverson’s anti-pleasure sensibility seems visionary to many but I think he’s a tedious prig. My friend thought the mild applause that greeted the film last night was sarcastic, but I wasn’t so sure. I am pretty sure it won’t get too far in the competition, unless they’re giving a “Best Anti-Movie” prize this year.
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” is one of the most anticipated films of the fall festival season … and as much as I disliked “The Mountain,” seeing Cuarón’s movie directly in its wake underscored the ways that “Roma” does satisfy certain conventions even as it seems (hell, it actually IS) intensely personal.
Shot in mesmerizingly beautiful widescreen black-and-white, “Roma” is set in Mexico City in the early 1970s. A bustling upper-middle class family undergoes great turmoil as the patriarch decides to up and indulge whatever mid-life crisis he’s having, but the narrative isn’t about the clan. Its focus, rather, is on one of its housekeepers, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous Mexican woman beloved of all the household’s children. She finds herself pregnant by an ex-addict, martial arts nut.
The story is not told in a mainstream dramatic fashion. Cuarón’s style here takes cues from early Fellini and Tarkovsky, particularly his “Mirror” (look no further for this influence than the movie’s opening shot), and is also informed by the director’s own particular penchant for long takes. But there’s nothing here that immediately makes the viewer think “how’d they do that” in the manner of “Children of Men,” although really, you SHOULD think that, particularly in the visit to the furniture store to buy a crib for the baby scene in which a large scale riot breaks out on the street below. There are many scenes in which incredibly choreographed action is backgrounded (as when Cleo goes back to her home village and finds the father of her child participating in mass martial arts training exercise) while smaller dramas are enacted by the characters. It’s a way of looking at the world, and of course that way is defined by memory: even if the publicity materials didn’t tell you, it’s clear that the family is the filmmaker’s.
I was moved by “Roma”; it gave me all the feels that I myself wasn’t having in 1971. (My own parents didn’t divorce until I was in my early 20s, which is both less and more awkward at the same time I think than having them break up when you’re 11.) It works both as a personal statement and a larger philosophical humanist love letter to life itself. It arrives with such expectations attached to it that its true force might be obscured somewhat in this atmosphere. I’m looking forward to seeing it again. Watching it in festival-consciousness mode, I couldn’t help but imagine the pitch meeting. “So, Alfonso, you’ve set the world on its ear with ‘Gravity,’ a technical tour-de-force and a massive box office hit! What do you wanna do next?” “Well, how about a black-and-white autobiographical film that’s ALL MASTER SHOTS.” I thought of the movie’s poor second-unit director, having to beg for scraps. When the family goes to the movies after New Year’s, they wind up seeing “Marooned,” and I’m thinking, well of COURSE he wants to make a movie about this time of his life, this is where he got the whole IDEA for “Gravity.” Going to film festivals makes you cynical, people!