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Still Life, Tribeca's Masterpiece

One of the stiller moments in Jia Zhang Ke's Still Life

By Vadim Rizov

Unless something miraculous happens, Still Life will be Tribeca's designated masterpiece and, with any justice, competition winner. Not that it'll really benefit at this late date; even after winning the Golden Lion at Venice and screening at a plethora of other festivals, Still Life still has no American distributor. Surprising, given that Still Life is a lean 108 minutes and classifies as relatively accessibly for Jia Zhang Ke, whose previous films have such inviting IMDB genre tags as "ennui" and "disenchantment."

A tip: The characters are not the story. Han Sanming (as a miner named Han Sanming) arrives in Fengjie after having been gone for 16 years to find his ex-wife, only to learn that the entire area has been flooded as part of China's massive Three Gorges hydroelectric program (ongoing since 1993, to be complete by 2009, and forcing the relocation of more than 1.2 million people in the process). Sanming broods, smokes, asks desultory questions and settles down to work at demolishing buildings as part of the gruntwork for the Three Gorges. Like Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul, Jia eventually turns away entirely from Han to set up a second, rhyming story about another quest for a long-lost person, only this time starring people with far more money.

The tension between the poorer and richer parts of the story give a comprehensive tour of the people surrounding the Three Gorges project from both the top and bottom. Still, don't look to the deadpan actors for much help: Still Life is a comedy of sorts, but so dry that it makes Kaurismaki and Jarmusch look like panderers. Life resides mostly in Jia's perfect frames, which take in crumbling buildings, poorly dressed workers, and occasionally -- with flabbergasting timing -- a whole building wall collapsing out of nowhere. Jia even improves on his previous film The World by offering not just good framing but the occasional human comic interlude, like the random townie obsessed with Chow-Yun Fat who lights his cigarette with a burning paper to imitate "Brother Fat's" inimitable cool. For a movie that should be depressing by virtue of its subject, it's oddly euphoric.

The Sugar Curtain is one of those movies you emerge from relieved it wasn't any worse. A movie which aspires to glorify the apparently idyllic '70s and '80s in Cuba -- and pauses exactly once to acknowledge that maybe things weren't perfect across the board -- certainly has the potential to be pretty poisonous. Somehow, in her interviews of contemporaries, director Camila Guzman Urzua only found one person willing to admit that maybe people who were political dissidents didn't have as great a couple of decades as everyone else.

Still, it's hard to fault Urzua for wanting to highlight an underexamined subject and even harder to argue with a bunch of people unrelated except by friendship who still share exactly the same impression of a time and place. For those who got along and didn't ask questions, it seems, Cuba was a haven of literacy, progressive artistic thought and copious snacks at school. It still is at least one of these things: the last time anyone checked, Cuba was rocking a 97 percent literacy rate, but everything else seems to have gone to shit. Urzua -- who moved with her family to Cuba in the '70s from Chile and then left in 1990 -- finds person after person who compares the good old days to the current state of things, and concludes that an economy based around tourism and money sent from abroad by relatives might not be in the best shape to create a socialist utopia. Snark aside, Urzua's impulse to create a lyrical elegy for the past clashes mightily with attempts at cogent political analysis: the result is a film that hamhandedly focuses on images of decaying playground to symbolize all that's been lost. Footage of schoolchildren yelling "We shall be like Che!" to start off their school day almost makes up for it, but not quite.

Made in 1967, Alvaro J. Covacevich's To Die A Little was an immediate casualty of the Pinochet takeover -- banned and thought lost, recently rediscovered. Still, the movie's not an intentional political flashpoint, and its importance shouldn't be exaggerated in the name of liberalism. An odd mixture of seemingly verite documentary footage with a loose, nearly avant-garde narrative framework, the movie suffers from clunky, didactic moments like an interminable montage of an impoverished village whose sole point is seemingly that poverty sucks. Covacevich also intercuts between a bird in a cage (never a good idea) and a man working in a bank. Some of the images are indelible; a Chilean nightclub where people swing-dance to "Jump And Jive" and watch a striptease is particularly memorable. Still, at $18, To Die A Little hardly justifies the price of discovery.

To Die A Little is preceded by the deceptively named Memories Of Sayat Nova, a half-hour assemblage of footage excised from Sergei Paradzhanov's oblique classic The Color Of Pomegranates. The constantly embattled Paradzhanov had his hallucinatory, near-incomprehensible barrage of images hacked up by the USSR, and Paradzhanov's editor Levon Grigorian has found a lot of what was cut. Some of the images are just as astonishing as anything in the film, but Grigorian pulls off an even neater trick: While narrating the footage (intercut with some contextual shots from the film), he explains much of the extant film's formerly impenetrable symbolism. The result is essential viewing for Paradzhanov fans and a neat introduction for anyone who hasn't encountered him yet; Paradzhanov works image by image rather than linearly anyway, so this cut-and-paste assemblage hardly seems like a desecration.

As far as documentary trends go, Hoop Dreams spawning a bunch of imitators is one of the more innocuous ones. There's still plenty of fertile ground to plow at the intersection of American race relations and sports, and Hellfighters seemingly takes Spike Lee's appearance in Hoop Dreams as a jumping-off point. Spike came in to warn the kids that white society only cares about their sports abilities and not their intellect or lives, and coach Duke Ferguson of the Harlem Hellfighters announces early on that his real purpose in coaching is to hopefully help the kids get into college on athletic scholarships, possibly their only real option.

Hellfighters minimizes the well-edited game footage, not even showing the team in action until the 25-minute mark. The main conflict here isn't the team vs. the world, it's Duke vs. his team. PSAL, the organization which monitors high school athletic teams, forces the Hellfighters to repeatedly forfeit games for improperly filed paperwork. Duke -- a former college and pro athlete -- believes such difficulties are endemic of widespread racism and antipathy towards Harlem; his charges are more skeptical about where he sees racism. Duke also takes the bizarre position of not calling any plays, allowing the quarterback to manage the game; as Shawn Lewallen (one of 4 assistant coaches fired by Ferguson for disagreeing with him) points out, that's insanity not allowed at any level of play. Still, Duke insists that this method prepares the kids for adult responsibility. Seemingly everybody also has an overblown idea about what football represents - American society, suggests Duke - or what it prepares young men for (apparently, it helps you learn how to treat women). While Hellfighters doesn't delve as deep into the many questions it raises as it could, it's a zippy, entertaining doc for people who can't get enough of these things.

The main attraction of the endearingly named Cao Hamburger's The Year My Parents Went On Vacation is the opportunity to get three cliches for the price of one. A combination of the Young Child Lives Through And Misunderstands Turbulent Political Times, Sports Unite A Divided Nation and Grumpy Old Man Bonds With Cute Child sub-genres, the film tries to look back at Brazil 1970 through those three crowd-pleasing genres and comes out bland if engaging. Young Mauro (Michel Joelsas) is dumped at his grandfather's doorstep when his parents have to beat a hasty temporary retreat from the country; there are rumblings about Communism in the background, but nothing specific. With bad timing, grandfather has passed away that very day, and Mauro finds himself under the reluctant wing of neighbor Shlomo (Germano Haiut). Mauro's Jewishness, previously a non-factor in his life, becomes very much a big deal in his newly religious surroundings.

Still, the religious angle turns out to be pretty much a non-factor for the movie, seemingly just an excuse to integrate cute shots of heavily bearded Orthodox Jews cheering on Brazil through the World Cup. For good measure, Hamburger throws in some brief segments about the sexual awakening of pubescent boys, but the movie proceeds mostly on auto-pilot, mixing and matching gentle but non-suffocating childish whimsy with moments of sadness and glimpses of Brazil's totalitarian government in action. The result is a laid-back crowdpleaser that never pushes too hard, never integrates all its disparate elements, and never really affects the audience.

The Tree is a documentary about a tree that, of course, is not about a tree. Documentarian Gustavo Fontan returns home to find his parents Julio and Maria arguing over the fate of the tree in their front yard. Maria says it needs to be torn down, Julio disagrees. That's about it as far as plot goes, but Fontan isn't really interested in that. The Tree is a mood piece in which the tree becomes a metaphorical repository for all the things that have disappeared from the aging couple's life. More than people or places, Fontan cares about abstract visual textures, and The Tree struggles valiantly to take small fragments of daily life and make them strange and new. With a few memorable exceptions - notably a close-to-the-floor shot of washing water flooding over floor tiles and filling in the cracks - Fontan fails to create much of a compelling aesthetic, resulting in a bunch of murky high-def images that never add up to much. Lesson learned: Steer clear of any movie described as a "meditation" on anything.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Still Life
The Sugar Curtain
To Die A Little / Memories of Sayat Nova
Hellfighters
The Year My Parents Went On Vacation
The Tree

Posted at April 26, 2007 6:48 AM

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