From February 15th through March 4th, the wealth of films with which Portland overflowed was both a warm, welcomed feeling and an overwhelming prospect, the 41st Portland International Film Festival once more flooding a bunch of theaters all over the city, tiny and inexpensive and second-run and corporate alike, with almost 90 films most Portlanders won’t get a chance to see, let alone in theaters, ever.
Aside from the occasional visiting artist or director, no one really travels from out of town to attend the festival. The Northwest Film Center knows this, scheduling the countless screenings over the two-week pre-game to the Oscars hangover. Not in any sort of pretentious defiance of the Walmart-fed event, but more as a reminder of the variety of films the world has to offer apart from everything everyone is always talking about, conversations dominated by a select few pushing an inherently limited narrative. The festival has no theme or intent past providing a special resource to the people of Portland—who, maybe earned or not, consider themselves pretty culturally horny, and, outside of the couple who demanded their money back after seeing Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous because it was “barely a movie,” they usually act like it.
Lines form at most screenings throughout the course of the festival’s 18-day span, thickening over the weekends, during which a theater like Cinemagic could fit in three or four screenings on a Saturday or Sunday, Portlanders of all ages (and especially the retired-seeming, those who have the blessed ability to spend seven hours at a small theater drinking the occasional beer) willing to pay and buy concessions to discover something new. More than that: to be a part of a group of people discovering it together in a public place, bearing witness to and gladly taking on responsibility of being witness of the kind of support that most directly supports the people making these films and the organizations which build communities around a demand for such discovery.
Per the Film Center’s typical raison d’être, PIFF is a survey of what the past 12 months of worldwide festivals have yielded, culling from genre celebrations like Fantastic Fest or premiere showcases like Cannes and Sundance. It calibrates accordingly, loosely organizing around such a designation as “Masters,” featuring the latest from Hong Sang-soo, because what’s a festival without 17 Hong Sang-soo films, as well as recent opuses by Sergei Loznitza, Claire Denis, Hirozaku Kore-eda, Agnieszka Holland, Philippe Garrel, Bruno Dumont and Lucretia Martel, whose Zama was one of the best films at the festival (and is getting a small U.S. release in April). PIFF showcased, too, “Films for Families” (including Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert’s animated, fablistic French-language The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales) and “Short Cuts,” offering 40-something short films with an eye for local Oregon talent. “Animated Worlds,” sponsored by LAIKA, offered up the remarkable and apparently unmarketable Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, by Spanish directors Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero, which, despite the magnitude of its imagination (and a Goya Award), languishes in GKIDS’ vaults without much in the way of a U.S. release strategy.
Attempting to find a through line through it all is maddening, though opening the festival with Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (at pretty much the same time news broke of Jeffrey Tambor’s removal from the film’s marketing) could be a convincing argument to not give up the good fight of finding meaning in the world where there is none.
Like The Post, Iannucci’s film announces itself breathlessly of-the-moment, as limber and unrelenting as everything Iannucci’s done before but palled with equally unending misery. Unlike The Post, The Death of Stalin doesn’t seem particularly concerned in reframing history, except to heighten it, Anglicize it, which is really funny and enjoyable lest anyone stop to ask why it does that at all. Set in 1953, mostly in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s sudden stroke, the film reveals what Iannucci always reveals: In any power structure, the most ruthless are always the smartest and surrounded by buffoons. As Stalin’s cronies scramble to publicly mourn and privately vie for influence, players like Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi, simultaneously round and spindly), Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, haughty doofus), perennial Stalin yes-man Molotov (Michael Palin, blissfully dumb as shit) and Stalin’s head of security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale, sinister) scheme over one another, conjuring up an image of Russia Americans really want to get behind in 2018. Iannucci’s vision, bleak and bloated with dipshits, while undoubtedly believable and most likely on the money, could bear resemblance to pretty much any current administration, which is perhaps why The Death of Stalin might not feel capable of bearing the weight of the points it’s making were it not making points whose weight has already been dispersed well throughout the zeitgeist. Yes, doom is imminent and oppression inescapable. Hook it to my veins.
Another “timely”-as-fuck showing was Joseph Kahn’s Bodied, which PIFF After Dark programmer Nick Bruno admits he found at the Toronto International Film Festival’s similarly minded Midnight Madness, which the director, who was at PIFF’s screening, admitted was the last and only festival to actually accept his film. About one college-aged ginger’s profanity-leaden odyssey towards cipher celebritydom, Bodied confronts pretty much every type of trigger—racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, commercialism, elitism, whatever, all filtered through an artistic expression unapologetically shitting on them—with the delicacy of a wet fart, equally exhilarating and infuriating for it. As much about Adam Merkin’s (Calum Worthy) ascension from academic worshipping at the altar of KRS-One to title-holding battle rapper in his own right, the corpses of those who helped him along the way littered in his whitebred wake, as it is about the evolution of hip-hop as a full-on commodity, Kahn’s film pleads for discussion, for exactly the kind of Q&A that followed. Between white people standing up to tell Kahn their favorite rappers, and older couples congratulating Kahn on being so scintillating, conversations began, at least obliquely, that mostly involved viewers taking stock of themselves and where they belonged in the world of this vibrantly upsetting, wonderful, inviolably watchable screed. Kahn seemed satisfied, mostly opening up about how hard it was to get this movie out into the world, maybe too deep in the thing to see how it was hard for most of us to understand why that was.
Additional After Dark options Bruno picked out entailed South African director Michael Mathews’s Five Fingers for Marseilles, an epic Western bloodbath juiced up on sexy, smoldering outlaws doomed to roam the purgatory between Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese sensibilities. It’s fine. Handsome too, but immobilized by its melodrama, not all that much fun to sit through.
What was: Belgian directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan, an unmitigated genre overload, assaultive and seductive, but nothing in between, pushed to the stylistically breaking point so hard that extreme sex always becomes extreme violence. It all looks very cool. Ostensibly European and perilously vintage, Cattet and Forzani’s pulp adaptation concerns a movie-long, synaesthetic shoot-out, the result of and aftermath following an armored vehicle robbery. The culprits hide out in the high desert outpost of aging artist Luce (Elina Löwensohn), where two highway patrol officers begin a violent setpiece that plays out over one long night. Everyone, pretty much, dies. Spectacularly, too, whether in soul-stirring pain or splayed out in technicolor. Let the Corpses Tan is all instinct, all sensation, absolutely no subtext, enrapturing all the way to the bottom.
Bruno also brought The Endless, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s follow-up to Spring, to PIFF. As Lovecraftian as its predecessor, beholden not to any sort of gothic horror but instead to the incomprehensible terror of the beyond, The Endless pushes a kind of mumblecore ease into more and more mind-meltingly existential dilemmas. Benson and Moorhead play two brothers who, years after “escaping” a cult and pretty much failing at re-integrating into normal life, receive a cryptic package encouraging them to pay their former family members a visit. Genres and plots seem to sublimate and contort into increasingly convoluted shapes in the directors’ hands, but rather than lose the thread of what they’re doing, The Endless maintains a naturalistic core, demanding the audience keep up even as the characters kinda don’t. Regardless of where the film wants to go, or how much it may whiff an overly ambitious ending, no one is making these kinds of sci-fi films right now, besides maybe Charlie McDowell, whose The Discovery sunk that good-natured speculative fiction ship. The style of The Endless isn’t so much an aesthetic as it is an easygoing tone, which allows its overlapping themes and knotted plot threads to feel like natural extensions of these normal guys’ normal reactions to their whole sense of time and reality obliterating before their eyes.
PIFF’s “Global Panorama” mostly encompasses everything that isn’t overtly anything else. Former Portlander Aaron Katz came to watch his latest, Gemini, with us, willing to divulge his already obvious Raymond Chandler influences and entertain his more oneiric Persona pulls while proclaiming, albeit nervously, his love for L.A., his home of the past four years. (One does not simply walk into a Portland theater and say they love L.A.) Appropriately, cinematographer Andrew Reed cushions Katz’s every manicured shot in somnambulance, while Keegan DeWitt’s score romanticizes the city’s smoggy haze. It’s a lot easier to draw direct lines from Katz to the origins of mumblecore than either McDowell or Benson/Moorhead, which makes Gemini so assured in its looseness, as famous person Heather (Zoe Kravitz) and her assistant/best friend Jill (Lola Kirke) drive around a city seemingly built for them, their casual conversations juxtaposing woozily against pristine mansions and too-expensive vacation cabins. Katz might be exploring his own feelings about his new home, never judging the bougie nature of his characters, especially of Heather, whose celebrity has cocooned her from the reality of her privilege, even when that privilege plops Jill in the middle of a prototypical noir narrative, Detective Edward Ahn (John Cho) on her trail. Cho’s is an inscrutable character, as is much of Gemini’s tone, steeped in fantasy despite the dread that seems to hang over every moment. Which is maybe Katz’s impression of what it’s like to be famous. Katz told us that he let Cho decide what his character really thinks about the truth of the case he’s assigned to, and in turn, Cho plays Ahn as suspiciously aloof. It’s not hard to imagine Katz trying to get over that suspicion himself so that he can keep making pretty movies with actors like Zoe Kravitz and Lola Kirke and John Cho in them.
Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s Under the Tree seems just as ambivalent about the modern urban milieu, no matter where one calls home. As two families feud over a large tree claiming coverage in both backyards of their connected townhomes, their grudge grows more and more demented, one family’s grief over the mysterious loss of their oldest son scapegoated on the petty squabble, leading to especially egregious punishment care of matriarch Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) and a vicious climax that would be surprising if you’d never seen a movie like this before. Its violence feels inevitable, the natural conclusion to a way of life in which people live on top of one another, their pain given no room to resolve itself without hurting another.
Less given to any discernible message about class struggle or internecine strife between family members is Icelandic-born director Hylnur Pálmason’s Danish debut, Winter Brothers. Set in an isolated limestone mine and the seemingly transient town supporting its small community of laborers, the film portrays the lives of its inhabitants just as disconnectedly, the dank rooms in which they live and the old TV shows or instructional videos in which they quiet their minds and the liquor in which they drown appearing to come from the same alien world these mineworkers can’t escape. That’s literally the case with the liquor, at least, which lanky weirdo Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove) concocts from chemicals he steals from the mining company, then sells to his fellow workers with the help of his much more physically appealing brother, Johan (Simon Sears), a guy who fits the archetype of salt-of-the-earth manual worker all too well. When one of Emil’s customers falls fatally ill, due no doubt to his daily intake of poison, both the mining company and Emil’s peers alienate him even further, while his brother starts sleeping with a woman Emil fantasizes about, Anna (Victoria Carmen Sonne), who may as well be the only woman on the planet. Of course, all of this Pálmason filters through Emil’s degrading perspective, fueled by the homemade hootch he guzzles indiscriminately, eating at his brain and his sense of not only basic civilized decorum, but of reality itself. Upsetting and strange, punctuated by visceral scenes of fleshy humanism set against an industrial wasteland, Winter Brothers is a lot of things, but maybe most a premature eulogy for a way of life that should probably just die already.
The most salient evidence of boundary-pushing cinema thriving around the world often falls in PIFF’s selection of documentaries, split into two categories—making a clear delineation between the more challenging films and those which typically don’t encourage viewers to demand their money back—which brings critically lauded work from such festivals as True/False and the Toronto International Film Festival to Portland. This means Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, Travis Wilkerson’s devastating coming-to-terms with his Alabama family’s racist, murderous past, can draw a big audience to a communal kind of introspection, while Spanish documentary hit Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle gets what is most likely going to be its only Portland showing, even though Gustavo Salmerón’s often hilarious home-video ode to his eccentric mother would probably do well at any small theater in the city.
In 12 Days, Raymond Depardon and sound designer Claudine Nougaret craft a quietly wrecking study in bureaucracy at its most neutral, filming ten individuals, each undergoing various degrees of psychiatric care at the the Vinatier Hospital in Lyon, who must appear before a judge to determine the futures of their hospitalizations. Structuring his documentary around a law passed in France in 2013 dictating that involuntarily admitted psychiatric patients must appear before a judge within 12 days, and then every subsequent six months, to double-check on the doctors’ evaluations, Depardon sets up three cameras at each hearing, providing coverage but never shifting view. In that manner, we’re slightly removed from the proceedings, except for the occasional respite watching a particular inmate walk in circles outside or dreamily moving down a nondescript hallway, accompanied sparingly by Alexandre Desplat’s somber piano ditty. More than sustaining a beautifully empathetic mood without steering the audience toward any particular side of the hospital’s complicated power dynamic, 12 Days should be commended for not letting Desplat simply crank out one more obligatory score.
With the Sonoran desert an unforgiving canvas, Joshua Bonnetta and J. P. Sniadecki’s El mar la mar attempts to graft deeply person stories across a vastly impersonal divide—namely, the U.S./Mexico border. Excising any guiding semblance of structure, preferring to cast the voices of the region’s storytellers, telling tales from the absurd to tragic, sometimes against a completely black screen, the better to draw you in to that single voice trying only to let you know what’s going on there, in the dark. As Bonnetta and Sniadecki patch in ambient soundscapes, allowing the soft noise of a thunderstorm or the squeak and rustle of night creatures to seep into the picture, as their camera lingers on stretched out, scorched landscapes, they end up with a grainy pastiche of this godforsaken part of the world, nothing instructive, just a lasting, melancholy impression. El mar la mar may be a film about memory, but it resists regurgitation, instead about tragedy time-stamped for an eternity in the desert, about the immigrants who’ve crossed that desert to come to the U.S., about how the U.S. expects them to forget everything that came before, and about how the desert won’t let them.
Then there’s Tatiana Huezo’s Tempestad, the aural record of two women ground under the heel of Mexico’s corrupt government and criminal network of cartel control. In measured voice over, Miriam and Adela tell their stories while visual notions and slice-of-life vignettes magnify the prolificacy of their pain across so many lives in Mexico: The former tells of a sudden arrest, accused of a crime she didn’t commit and lost within the cartel’s prison system, and the latter, a traveling circus clown, remembers the ineptitude and cruelty of Mexican authorities in failing to help her get back her kidnapped daughter over the course of the past decade. They persevered, though the intensity of their hardships makes one wonder why; Huezo refrains from inflating, or really even exaggerating in the slightest, what these women experienced. Miriam eventually makes it back to her son, suffering severe post-traumatic stress disorder to this day, and Adela never finds her daughter, continuing to perform, to coach upcoming ingenues, to generally find a reason to keep going every single day. Tempestad ends on a note of transformation, on an image of a silhouette that only grows in importance the more we remember what these women told us. That feels like hope enough—an image, if any, to tie all these films together, not that anyone would want to.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.