Seattle International Film Festival Report #4

If the subject of a documentary is interesting enough the film may be worth seeing even if it’s not that well made. Case in point: Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde.

Today’s viewing includes two standout feature films, The Hedgehog and Amer, another feature which is flawed but has sufficient merit to make it worth a look (The Prince of Tears) and a documentary which makes poor use of potentially fascinating material (Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde). 

11-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) is rich, precocious and extremely judgmental in the way that only a privileged child can be. She’s so disgusted with the adults around her that she’s decided to end it all rather than become one of them, but not before creating a video diary as her legacy so everyone can appreciate how deprived they are by her absence. The story of The Hedgehog, directed by Mona Achache from a screenplay based on the international bestseller “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery, is how Paloma, in the process of creating her magnum opus, acquires some wisdom to temper her cleverness. This she gains while getting to know several of the building’s inhabitants, including the world-weary concierge Renée (Josiane Balasko; her character is the hedgehog of the title) and a Japanese émigré (Togo Igawa) recently moved to their upscale apartment building.

The Prince of Tears by Yonfan is an old-fashioned epic set in the period of the White Terror in Taiwan, a time during which thousands of citizens were executed and tens of thousands arrested on often flimsy charges of being “subversive” or sympathetic to communism. The melodramatic story (based on real events) centers on two girls whose parents were among the unfortunates to be thus arrested and despite much moving forward and backward in time the plot is easy enough to follow. More problematic is the mismatch between a visual style which would make Douglas Sirk envious (some of the scenes are shot so beautifully as to seem unreal), slow pace, and frequent use of voiceover which have the unintended effect of discouraging the audience from becoming emotionally involved. There’s also a ghost, a gay plot twist and a coda which lets us in on the real-life models for the characters so if nothing else you certainly get your money’s worth with this 123-minute film.

Another film which really delivers in the visual department is Amer, directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Style is everything in this homage to giallo masters like Mario Bava and Dario Argento, from the blood-red font used in the title sequences (the color is frequently repeated within the film as well) to the use of music from giallos of the 1960s and 1970s. The film’s three sequences correspond to three key moments in the life of the unnamed central character, who is seen as a girl, adolescent and adult. The logic is that of a dream rather than a straightforward narrative and those looking for a traditional horror film will be disappointed, while those willing to immerse themselves in the film’s own peculiar sensibility (never before has the connection between horror films and pornography been more obvious) will find it to be a rewarding, if also disturbing, experience.

If the subject of a documentary is interesting enough the film may be worth seeing even if it’s not that well made. Case in point: Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde by Chuck Workman (known for, among other things, creating the montages screened at the Academy Awards each year). Arguing in favor of the film is the opportunity to see many clips from avant-garde films including rare materials from the likes of Robert Downey (father to Iron Man) and Norman Mailer (who even knew that he made a film?). There are also lots of interviews with filmmakers and some opportunistic interviews which seem intended to prove that young filmmakers don’t appreciate the struggles of those who went before them (well, what younger generation ever did?). In balance Visionaries is an opportunity squandered: what the talking heads have to say is mostly banal and Mekas comes off as a smiling leprechaun who loves to hear himself talk. In fact it’s mostly one feel-good session all around and there’s no attempt to examine any questions very deeply, including “what qualifies as an avant-garde film and why should we care?” The films deserve better, as does Jonas Mekas. | Sarah Boslaugh

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