31 Days of Cinema, Days Fifteen and Sixteen: “The Fast Runner” | “Dogville”

When a people, a culture, a world enters the film industry for the first time, I welcome it gladly—and part of that welcoming is a critique of that culture’s inaugural film as a film in and of itself, equal to all others, no better or worse for its foreign novelty. The Fast Runner is the first-ever Inuit film—by which I say, the first film made entirely on Inuit terms, in their language, Inuktitut—and I think that some critics were quick to hail it as a masterpiece for this reason, a tendency that indicates to me a sort of racial condescension. “Oh look!” the attitude seems to be. “The Eskimos have discovered the cinema!” I am not so easily won over and not so enamored. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, Runner adapts an ancient Inuit parable in which the titular athlete beds a woman betrothed to a rival clan’s prodigal son, ends up being framed for his older brother’s murder, and flees the premises. As an ethnography, of course, this is beyond criticism. The fur coats and tattoos; the construction of igloos; the way marine meat is prepared with a hammer; the openness towards sex; the treatment of sled dogs; the migration from snow to grass and river; the way life is lived—not just survived—in such a barren perpetual winter—these are all sights to behold. Critically, the Inuit culture values sport and physical strength, as one must be Spartan and horse-like to spend one’s life in the tundra of northern Canada. There are contests that routinely test such mind-blowing corporeal skills as kicking one’s feet up to knock down a pole and trying to use the back of one’s head to maneuver an elastic band off another’s hand. Similar contests—punching and mouth-pulling matches and such—serve as set pieces here. The scene in which the Fast Runner runs away from his brother’s slaughter, barefoot and nude, pecker literally in the wind, across snow and ice and stream in freezing weather, is marvelous, and one gains an immense trust and appreciation that the actors performed all their own stunts, with no stunt doubles (those jarring, albeit sometimes necessary, blemishes on agency and performance). Yet, as with most debut films, there are novice errors. The mise en scène is often lazy and generic; the actors often stand around like middle-school kids loitering in a park after hours smoking pot. Nearly three hours of that, where there could have been two, is hard to let pass. This is mainly a fault of the direction, though I do feel that the non-professional actors are overall better at small scenes between two or three people, for which their minimalism is more fit, than larger crowd scenes, which demand more incentive and animation. There are two pivotal scenes—a love scene in a crowded tent, and a coup d’état by stabbing—that are so absurd and so badly staged, I could not buy them, try as I might, and they nearly lost me. But they didn’t; The Fast Runner’s story is plenty gripping to recommend.

Grade: B


In Dogville, the title village is constructed on a soundstage. The streets and the buildings’ floor plans are labeled in chalk. There are no ceilings, no walls, no windows, just some furniture—though the ensemble, in the tradition of theatre and by extension of cinema, acts like what’s missing is there, in character throughout. The existence of doors is mimed with action and sound effect, with no irony. We see the entire village population going about their day, performing quotidian tasks, within their walls, unaware of what’s going on beyond them—though we are. The camera may close in on action in one house and capture mundane movement in others, as if by accident, yet the actors on the periphery never let their guard drop. An entire culture is on display; we’re even allowed into these characters’ private thoughts, via John Hurt’s faux-literary narration. It goes to support what I wrote a few weeks back in my review of In Vanda’s Room: interiors are fallacious. Walls are not structures insomuch as they are concepts, secrets, barriers from knowledge, spheres of influence. More to the point, I don’t think this is a conceit (as some critics have said) but rather a different, more multi-dimensional way of perceiving life and action. The director, Lars von Trier, has given us access to see through walls as time travel would let us break those boundaries, to be omniscient. This—in tandem with the numerous shots looking straight down on the soundstage, depicting the actors’ heads as roving Pac-Man dots—convinces me that von Trier, in another of his endless controversial moves, wants us to play God, to exercise power, to judge these characters, to decide for ourselves between justice and mercy. It’s amusing how small, even petty, actors of the stature of Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany can look through the machinations and dissections of von Trier’s ruthless eye.

Dogville is an epic set in the American West during the Great Depression. Von Trier hates America. He’s never been to America, though I’m not yet sure whether that’s because he hates it or because he’s afraid of flying (maybe both). Dogville has been called anti-American—not that there’s anything wrong with that by itself, but some have thought it a narrow position to take, and a naïve one when the lack of time spent studying the location in person is considered. To this, I advise you to bear in mind: Shakespeare never visited any of the exotic European locales he wrote about. Also: the film is kept bound within its tiny, nondescript village isolated in the Rockies to the point where I bought it. It’s an allegory of America, and it can afford to be inaccurate and even a little trite, and von Trier can get away with using it as a cathartic dumping ground for his various spites against the nation (you can get much relief out of doing that) because he is a sophisticated artist. The story he tells—like most of his stories—is simple, even when the canvas is broad and the ensemble vast. He sets his narrative up as a game, with rules and goals built to focus and challenge their characters, rules and goals that are constantly shifting but always clear. Grace (Kidman), running from the mob, hides in Dogville. She befriends the deliberately named Tom Edison (Bettany), the town’s writer—hence an inventor, so to speak, of tales and ideas—who persuades the close-knit-to-a-fault town to let her take sanctuary there, provided that she serves each of them with labor. She educates the kids, does the laundry, tends to the gooseberry bushes, acts as a surrogate to fill in the townspeople’s many disabilities and dysfunctions. She labors to survive. Who hasn’t? The whole plot jumps from there.

Von Trier is not for everyone. Not every actor wants to work with him. He is unafraid to disturb, upset, provoke, in the name of his art. On the other side of that penny, he can be soapy. Yet even the worst soap opera can be rescued by good performances (Cf. Shakespeare), and Dogville’s broad motley cast is fascinating to watch. Where else can you watch something like Stellan Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson as the ultimate mismatched couple, the husband a philandering boor and the wife a tight-assed, prudish spinster who puts up with seven kids and schools Grace on Stoicism? Not to mention Lauren Bacall as the old miser mooching off the townsfolk with her beauty products and figurines and crafting a ludicrous etiquette to observe around her gooseberry bushes? And James Caan as the mob boss with a surprising connection to Grace? Add to that Philip Baker Hall, Jeremy Davies, Chloë Sevigny, Ben Gazzara, Udo Kier, Zeljko Ivanek, etc., and you have all sorts of acting styles and archetypes clashing in such fashions that one has to applaud von Trier for having the imagination and chutzpah to put it all together, and the ensemble for putting up with him. I hesitate to give away anything else about the story. I will say, though, that while the other two von Trier films I’ve seen (Breaking the Waves and Nymphomaniac) stumbled if not fumbled on their endings, Dogville’s denouement is a success. It is brutal, maddening, but well-earned and inevitable. Von Trier may be insane, but he has a point and he makes it well: the village’s poverty does not excuse its crimes. Grace’s ultimate actions against Dogville may horrify us, but would we judge the town differently?

Grade: A

Tomorrow: Reviews for Aguirre, and Bicycle Thieves, which I watched instead of Lore due to timing issues.

31 Days of Cinema, Days Fifteen and Sixteen: “The Fast Runner” | “Dogville”

Review: “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”

agirlwalkshomealoneatnight_iranianfilmdaily The place is called “Bad City,” and I believe there’s a pun. A common suffix for cities in the Middle East is abad, which indeed roughly means “city” in Arabic. Hence, “Bad City” could well translate into “City of Cities,” a place in which the sense of urbanity—and perhaps too its inherent badness—is intensified, if not doubled. One can also interpret Bad City to be a mirror, or a representative, of cities, one in which part and parcel of the exacerbation of urbanism is that there is a mise-en-abyme, a metropolis-within-the-metropolis, a reiterative element that is often hidden and opaque but that is nonetheless crucial to its identity as a city. Lastly, and this may be stretching it, but there are affectations of arrogance, insistence and dubious uses of power in the emphasis that are far from irrelevant to the nasty history of the Middle East. Remember how Muammar Qaddafi (rot in Hell) styled himself as the “King of Kings.”

This nuance is just one of the endless things to admire about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a Farsi-language film shot near Bakersfield, California, that has been billed as an “Iranian vampire western.” The directorial debut of one Ana Lily Amirpour, Girl wears the trappings of the genres it stirs together on its sleeve with such pride and braggadocio that I doubted it was satirical or even tongue-in-cheek. For all of the narrative traditions it copies, it takes itself seriously—but it more than earns the right to do so because it deals with the genre conventions on their own terms, even when it twists them. I imagine that a city that has a city inside itself would be more aware of its own urban qualities and more capable of challenging and subverting them. Likewise, the characters in Girl have so many classic film genres and precedents around them that they have no choice but to attune to and reckon with them.

In its most critical riff on the vampire trope, Girl announces itself as a radical (maybe post-) feminist statement. This much is evident from the way the opening credits (and the trailer) wring every possible drop of tension out of the film’s verbose title. Some men may not understand the conflict and risk innate in the very act of a girl walking home alone at night, but most if not all women do. Anyway: in our culture, the vampire is a placeholder for the predatory man, draining young girls of blood in lieu of raping them. In Girl, that tradition is reversed; the vampire is the girl (Sheila Vand, the treacherous maid in Argo), and she targets the men of Bad City who treat women like crap. It’s vigilantism, yes, but it’s still bloodlust; there’s one telling scene in which it’s clear that this girl truly struggles with her homicidal nature. Feminism is an essential good, but it is no less vulnerable to abuse than the world’s plentiful other isms, and the film gains much of its strength from wrestling with this truth.

Frankly, I’d be more hesitant spoiling the film’s vampirism if it wasn’t already advertised so much. The film takes its time to introduce us to Bad City, its futurist western landscape and its Persian population: the young James Deansian car fanatic Arash (Arash Marandi), his cat, his ne’er-do-well father Hossein (Marshall Manesh, the limo driver on How I Met Your Mother), the stylish courtesan Atti (Mozhan Marnò, the reporter on House of Cards), her über-tattooed client Saeed (Dominic Rains), and a little boy with a skateboard. Amirpour’s Bad City is one of broad interiors, Magrittean architecture, lurid industrial piazzas and oddly subdued suburbs, and I felt at home in it right away. The first scene where the girl shows her ace is an extended confrontation between her and Saeed that arrives about half an hour in. The pop soundtrack, the reliance on character and action more than dialogue, and the slow pace—which at once is relaxed and stores a blistering payoff—reminded me much of the botched-drug-deal climax of Boogie Nights. I mean it when I write that Amirpour could be the next P.T. Anderson.

Especially deserving of attention and study in Girl is its use of juxtapositions. Of course, it is shot in black and white, and Nick Schager of The A.V. Club has written a stupendous analysis of Lyle Vincent’s cinematography that I will not maim by quoting. For now, I will elaborate on a small but crucial way in which the film’s self-referencing buttresses its contrasts. To the extent Girl has a plot (it’s best viewed as a tone poem), it’s a romance between the girl and Arash, who meet after a Halloween party. Arash is buzzed on ecstasy and dressed as Dracula; placed next to the actual bloodsucker, he is garish and almost hilarious. The problem with love in cinema is that the effort to cram a well-developed romantic relationship into about two hours is often an exercise in futility. (Usually, love takes years to blossom.) Girl approaches this issue with a refreshing honesty—in which it is understood that Arash and the girl are acting on instinct and mutual lust and could well be having a brief fling—and with a counterpoint that contrasts its short timespan with its measured pace. Its best scene involves Arash in the girl’s room, walking to her, slowly, and her accepting his advance, slowly, all to the tune of White Lies’ “Death”—a song that is still stuck in my head. The moment is so simple and banks so much on its soundtrack choice that it demands flawless acting—and gets it. David Thomson, a tough and contrarian British film critic, is already on record naming this “one of the most ecstatic scenes in film history,” and it’s hard to argue against that.

As a hodgepodge of genres, Girl is constructed in part as a series of vignettes, and as a film buff, I will treasure most of the vignettes on display here for a long time. Smitten with the girl, Arash spends one breakfast prodding a sunny-side-up egg with his fork; he hesitates to break the yolk, in contrast to the girl’s impulse to break skin with her teeth. The girl has a run-in with the skateboarding boy, and we can see the post-feminist perspective wherein she might be taking it an inch too far. In a cinéma vérité diversion, Hossein loses his shit and goes postal on the cat, with ugly consequences. Even a fleeting shot of a world map is infused with much power here. If we are in the real world, then are we in California, Transylvania, or Persia? Most of the suspense comes from Arash’s unawareness that his love interest is a vampire. As the story builds up to Arash’s inevitable epiphany, the characters devolve, the mood grows more somber, and dialogue is eschewed more in earnest, with the final five minutes or so being totally wordless, elemental and pure. I can see where some critics would call the last scene a copout, but in the end, the Ah-fuck-it bravado of the resolution won me over. Endemic as sequels are in cinema today, I will have no issue if Amirpour decides to return me to Bad City in her next film. Neither will you.

Grade: A

Review: “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”