Friday, May 1, 2009

Int'l Film Festival 3

The Silence Before Bach

The Silence Before Bach, a documentary directed by septuagenarian Spaniard Pere Portabella, is a very mixed bag. It’s intermittently intriguing to watch and never actually boring, but it promises a good deal less than it delivers. The most damning thing that might be said is that it’s less satisfying than simply listening to a competent performance of one of Bach’s masterworks. But Portabella has taken on a tall order—to make a film about Bach that gives us the cinematic equivalent of the great composer’s magic. Any film that attempts to approach such a subject sideways, as Portabella has done, deserves our attention and applause.

Among the highpoints of the film is the opening narrative sequence, in which two Spanish truck-drivers converse in a truck-stop over breakfast and later hit the road together. The driver had been extolling the value of playing classical music as a release from the tensions of the road, but his companion is the one who, as the flat beautiful countryside of Castile flashes by outside the cab, can deliver a mean Bach partita on the harmonica.

Another intriguing segment shows ten or twelve cellists playing a famous piece in the subway. We don’t know why they’re doing it—there seems to be no one else on the train—but it sounds nice.

One of the best segments involves two men in an antiquarian bookshop discussing Primo Levi, Cioran, the power of music, and the pain it brings to those who have no hope. And the sequence shot from a tourist boat on the Elbe River as it passes through Dresden is also engaging.

On the other hand, most of the historical recreations are weak. For example, we spend twenty minutes watching a man buy meat in an amateurish recreation of a nineteenth-century open-air market. He brings it home to his employer, Felix Mendelssohn, who opens the meat and discovers a Bach masterpiece written on the wrapping paper. But this episode is overdubbed with a woman singing a folksong about the myth of Mendelssohn’s discovery. The song she is singing is not by Bach, the episode is not dramatically convincing, the story itself (we are being told) is not true—so why has so much of the film has been devoted to it? Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to provide some scholarly information about the true course of events?

In another scene, we spend perhaps five minutes watching a very beautiful young woman take a shower in a glass-lined shower stall. The scene may be unforgettable, but it has no relevance to the subject at hand, unless we are being asked to infer that the contours of a Bach Prelude are similar in form to that of a young woman’s body. Chalk this one up to septuagenarian voyeurism. (We later see the woman playing the cello for ten seconds in her bathrobe. So it appears she is a musician.)

In the end the misfires in The Silence Before Bach outnumber the successes, and anyone hoping to see a work on the order of such brilliant films as 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, Into Deep Silence, Helvetica, or Dutch Light is bound to be disappointed. On the other hand, as you watch it, you feel that you’re in the heart of Europe, listening to Bach from time to time, riding on a boat, looking at beautiful buildings, touring the Spanish countryside, or drinking a cup of hot chocolate in a café.
I can think of worse ways to spent a couple of hours.

Four Boxes

Four Boxes might best be described as a dystopian comedy-thriller, though the laughs and the thrills have the upper hand throughout. And that’s just as well, because suburban malaise has been with us for a long time now, and its contours have been explored more effectively in any number of films from Ordinary People and The Graduate to The Ice Storm and American Beauty. What makes Four Boxes remarkable is that the three protagonists are on camera practically from start to finish, they say absolutely nothing of interest—and yet the film becomes more engaging with every turn of the plot.
How can this be?

Credit must go, first of all, to the actors in the leading roles. Justin Kirk, well known to viewers from Weeds, Angels in America, and a long string of what used to be called B-movies, plays the thoughtful, taciturn half of Go-Time Enterprises, a youthful but morbid business whose purpose is to buy up the junk in the homes of recently deceased people and sell it on E-Bay. Sam Rosen plays his moronic side-kick. It’s almost as if Jeremy Brett were still playing Sherlock Holmes, but Adam Sandler had taken over the role of Watson.

As the film opens, the duo have latched onto an unusually creepy residence. The house is full of bean-bag chairs, futons, computers, golf tees, chopped up family photos, and plastic bins full of weird objects. The liquidators almost immediately discover that the hapless owner was also a fan of Four Boxes, a reality internet show that Rosen also watches. The jaded entrepreneurs, bored with their work and their lives, focus in on the split screen broadcast, filmed in a house—no one knows where—which was once the domain of a guileless ingénue, though it’s been taken over by a bizarre set of individuals who almost look like terrorists!

The mystery and intrigue generated by these crude internet images adds a dimension to the film, and the appearance of Terryn Westbrook completes the package. Westbrook plays Amber, Rosen’s current (and Kirk’s former) girlfriend, and the three form an irascible love triangle, sustaining a humorously nihilistic banter that must be heard to be appreciated. It’s been referred to as text-speak and Juno-talk, but as long as we’re throwing cultural references around, why not add Samuel Beckett?

One of my favorite lines is delivered by Westbrook. She’s missing her computer, and Rosen remarks disapprovingly, “Is there anyone who loves computers more than you?”
She turns to him and shouts, “My Brother!!”We’ve never met Amber’s brother. We didn’t know she had one. No one ever refers to him again. Is this funny? I guess you had to be there.

An atmosphere of youthful angst and disillusionment hangs over the film, but it can’t do much to dispel the irrepressible energy of the protagonists, and when the terrorist TV show begins to gather momentum, the drama becomes intense. (Then again, it’s hard to get too worked up about killers whose weapon of choice is a leaf blower.)

In For Boxes, writer-director Wyatt McDill, his producer-wife Megan Huber, and a bunch of talented associates have done much with little. An afterthought. McDill is well-known in Minneapolis to be a marvelous chef. Yet everyone in Four Boxes eats fast-food tacos. I’d like to see a movie about smart young people who have jobs, know how to cook, and buy their produce at Mid-Town Market.

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