Are you an avid film watcher, desperate to fill gaps in your knowledge of film’s history and independent present, but lacking the drive to seek films out without a sense of urgency? If so, or even if not, I’ve been looking for a way to recommend my recent favorite streaming platform and chime in on the regular discoveries it’s yielding for me. Mubi is a curated streaming service that doesn’t allow you the unrestricted access of Netflix, Fandor or Hulu Plus, but for good reason. Every day they introduce a new film to their streaming service, and users have 30 days to watch that film before it vanishes. It’s not only introducing unique foreign, historic and independent films, but it’s ensuring that you watch them now and not later. It’s a fantastic kind of responsibility.
Rather than wait till the last day they’re available, we’re determined to give our thoughts and recommendations of their latest selections on a weekly basis, so you still have a chance to catch up with them. First up is a double feature from a “rising talent” (he’s approaching 40 now) in American documentary filmmaking, Robert Greene. Greene’s films thus far don’t submit to the usual focus of documentaries, such as social, media or global issues and phenomenons, but instead display the intimate details of the lives of people normally not given the urgent attention of a documentarian. To wit, one of Greene’s earliest films, Kati with an i (2010), sheds a very personal light on his younger sister, Kati, as she prepares to graduate high school while dealing with the many uncertainties about her future.
The experiences Kati with an i covers could well apply to a broad spectrum of teen experiences, and yet there’s such casual specificity in the moments revealing Kati’s recent past and fears about the future. While the first twenty minutes focus on Kati’s relationship with her friends, who’ve become a sort of surrogate family after her parents’ moved away, it soon shifts focus to her interactions with her boyfriend, James. James’ manchild elements afford the film’s most sneakingly affecting moments – a scene of him and Kati singing to a rock ballad while driving becomes unexpectedly heart-pounding – but they also hint at a possible collapse in their relationship, and indeed an end to a period of hopeful naivety in their lives. The film ends on a bit of a left-field gut punch, but one that feels realistically in sync with the risky abandon of contemporary teendom.
Kati may be shy of adult maturity, but her measured acceptance of her circumstances is something we see the subject of Robert Greene’s latest film struggling to achieve. Those who missed the small scale theatrical run of Actress (2014) can now catch up to it on both Netflix and Mubi, though it feels more special as the latter’s selection than as part of the former’s immense catalog. Again, Greene’s subject is someone from his personal life, his neighbor, but like Greene’s half-sister Kati, Brandy Burre has a vivid and charismatic screen presence. Unlike Kati, that’s also her profession. Formerly a star on HBO’s revered series The Wire – which somehow remains underseen given how often you hear someone say “You’ve gotta watch The Wire” – Burre’s primary role, and Greene misses no opportunities to capture the performative aspects of this routine, has recently been as a mother.
Perhaps its Burre’s openness as a performer that makes her so forthcoming and accommodating as a documentary subject. The first shot of the film is this luridly stylized composition of her leaning over her kitchen sink in a red dress, the dazzling image of cracking domesticity. When we later see her in the shower, or confessing the circumstances of her collapsing marriage, it feels at once unnaturally intimate, yet almost complicitly fabricated, though not to the point of dishonesty or being inauthentic. Burre’s thirst and desire for both parts of her life, at home and at work, make the slight blurring of the two feel inevitable. Greene’s assembly of the film is captivating; a crisp, wintry portrait of a turning point in Burre’s life, but his interests, as ever, lie most in the casual moments of domestic beauty. Greene’s work suggests there should be as much space for cinematic portraits of everyday life’s aches and pains in documentary as in fictional filmmaking, but it’s always the energy and charm of his unconventional subjects that makes them sing.
The rest of Mubi’s output this week is just as contemporary in focus, as they launch their retrospective of the Locarno Film Festival, this week celebrating their 68th year in Switzerland. Fashionably kicking off their slate is the online world premiere of Andrea Staka’s Cure – The Life of Another (2014), a Persona-esq melding-of-identities drama that struggles to fulfill the potential of its multi-faceted narrative. Set in Croatia just following the Siege of Dubrovnik, Swiss teen Linda finds herself suddenly absorbed into the family of her friend, Eta, whose death she may have some accidental or inadvertent hand in. It’s a role she’s all too happy to fulfill given the vacuous energy she feels within her scattershot family, but one where unexpected complications inevitably arise.
The identity-swap starts when Eta and Linda switch clothes, but by the time Linda’s reading her old friend’s diary of her experiences during the Croatian War of Independence, it’s clear she’s taking on traits and experiences she cannot understand personally or historically. Eta’s family is also an unusual bunch, with the seemingly confused grandmother slowly revealing herself as a more controlling matriarch than she seems, and Eta’s mother ultimately becoming a sign of those inherited traits. It’s fascinating what confidence Linda gains from this experience, but at a point the identity-fusion becomes outright comical. The loss of this girl’s life and identity has begun to feel coarsely handled by the time Linda and Eta’s ghost are literally fused together by their hair braid. There are valuable questions about how much we can or should understand about others’ experiences, but they feel undercooked in a film whose occasional queer flirtations feel slightly shallow.
Requiring a greater commitment of time and energy than any other film this week is What Now? Remind Me (2013), Joaquim Pinto’s autobiographical document of a single year of drug treatments for Hepatitis C and HIV. At close to three hours in length, Pinto could be accused of going into too exhaustive detail depicting the circumstances and experiences of his own life, but he can’t be accused of lacking creativity in his depictions. At first Pinto shows a desire to use any offbeat tool at his disposal, from super-impositions to time distortions, but it doesn’t feel like feverish spontaneity simply for its own sake. Always Pinto is finding ways of expressing his physical and emotional exhaustion throughout this period of time, so it feels natural that over time his framing of experiences would become more, well, naturalistic.
There’s a struggle in the film’s focus, though, that makes it occasionally difficult to connect to as fully as we’d like. Pinto’s voice is heard almost constantly, discussing his own personal history, filmmaking relationships, and struggles in understanding his circumstances scientifically and religiously. It’d be difficult to be more precise about his ruminations because they’re so exhaustive, occasionally taking focus away from what we, the audience, and perhaps Pinto himself, find more emotional release in: the sensitive joys and trials of everyday life. There’s care in his observational instincts, gleaning moving cutaways to a dying wasp or a bird pulverized into pavement from his surroundings. At times we forget about Pinto infection, the film’s ostensible raison d’etre, but only because the decay of animals and nature are reminder enough of his, and our own, inevitable decay. As immense an undertaking as it may seem, its emotional weight comes less in summary than in experience, as intimate details of light and life become the most resonant takeaway of Pinto’s compelling snapshot compilation.
On a significantly darker note, South Korean director Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010) is only an easier watch in that it feeds viewers’ natural thirst for genre thrills, but its characters’ lives contain a surplus of nastiness and misery. The film follows two men. One is a simple bus driver who favorite pastime happens to be abducting women and viciously mutilating their bodies. The other, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), is the cop fiance of one of the women he’s hacked to pieces. Kyung-chul (Oldboy‘s Choi min-sik, taking his psychopath appeal to hysterical heights) is a hideously revolting monster, but even more disquieting is the suggestion that he may not have always been that way, and that our brokenhearted protagonist could easily snap under Kyung-chul’s dark influence. They don’t come nearly as close to making out as Hugh Grant and Mads Mikkelsen do on (currently) NBC’s Hannibal, but the night is young and the mood is right for a seduction.
In no uncertain terms is Kim Jee-woon crafting a morality tale as simple and clean-cut as his compositions, but he does so with vibrant energy, which seems to offset the squalid environments and devastating emotional circumstances. It’s liberating when Jee-woon spares us the horror of watching a school girl be repulsively assaulted, but the cruel suggestion of it is enough to twist our guts. Still, those who don’t delight in such squeamish horrors should be excused for backing out. Even thrilling genre filmmaking such as this can beg the question “But what else?”, especially for a film that could arguably have ended less miserably halfway through. When you flirt so salaciously with sinister acts, though, it’s hard not to go all the way, especially when the fits of carnal violence are enacted with such gut-churning intensity. Its greatest hinderance, though, is a score that pounds too hard for such moments to sink in deep.
Anyways, happy thoughts, nice things. Art and the love of it. How about Museum Hours (2012), Jem Cohen’s generous appreciation of the life behind art and the artistry behind life. Centering in on an Austrian museum guard and a Canadian visitor’s casual friendship, Cohen’s film is an undeniable wealth of artistic and personal riches, but it can be a bit much to take in. Coming from a documentary background, Cohen’s filmmaking is naturally about gleaning small, precious details from his surroundings. There’s plenty of beauty to pull from the surrounding Vienna, but the lengthy portions in the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum feel reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery in their focus on insightful dissections of art.
Here, though, the artistic ruminations feel more like distractions or detours away from the film’s human narrative, about Johann and Anne’s friendship, while the latter waits for a relative to either get better or to die. There’s a specifically autumnal beauty to the film that suits both the historical artifacts on display and the weathering bodies and spirits of the protagonists. “I’ve had my share of loud. Now I have my share of quiet,” Johann says at the onset of the film. What Cohen suggests is that even amidst auditory silence, there’s no ways to escape the overwhelming weight of art and experience surrounding us. It’s both a joy and a different kind of burden for the soul. The lonely permanence of art only embitters the aching impermanence of human life.
If Museum Hours is ultimately beholden to austerity, What Now? Remind Me to exhaustion and relief, and Robert Greene’s films to compassion, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan (2012) submits itself to a pure exhilaration of the senses. This isn’t the first time we’ve emphatically recommended oceanic visual odyssey from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography – I wrote about its uniqueness among 2013’s documentary slate and Hilary Kissinger ranked it as her #3 film of that year – but now it’s so readily available you can’t conscionably ignore it.
The flow of elements, sound and image, is so carefully modulated from the first scene on, as details of light, water and assaulting metal slowly appear out of the dankness. That camera yanks itself to and fro, seemingly without cameraman as the viewer is threateningly kept on the edge of falling overboard. Then the viewer is pushed vigorously under the water, seemingly where no human body could go to operate a camera without being pulverized. It often feels like the film’s direction has been yielded to nature’s vigorous force, but Castaing-Taylor and Paravel keep a thrilling balance of natural and industrial elements. Both are unsentimental, but the former does so with grace and a inevitability. The latter does so with gratuitous, disarming force.