• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (12/2/2012)

(Reviews of PVT CHAT; For the Time Being; Collective; Dick Johnson Is Dead; and Cenote)


So, we remain in the depths of Lockdown 3. This means that cinemas across the UK are still closed and all releases will be online until further notice. In addition to the offerings on Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. Good luck, and stay safe!


PVT CHAT.


Although it wasn't made with a lockdown in mind, Ben Hozie's first feature, PVT CHAT, will ring bells with anyone whose window on the world has been confined over recent months to a computer screen. Echoing themes explored in his debut solo album, Endless Scroll, Hozie makes an accomplished transition from fronting the New York punk band, Bodega, to writing, shooting and editing a risqué, if queasily sleazy variation on the romcom format that has amusingly been described as `mumblehardcore'.


Jack (Peter Vack) is a twentysomething slacker who divides his time between playing online blackjack and self-gratification. The latter comes in the form of massages in parlours around New York's Lower East Side and online chatrooms, where he favours camera models specialising in sado-masochism. His favourite dominatrix is Scarlet (Julia Fox), who blows smoke into the lens and pretends to stub out her cigaretters on his tongue.


She doesn't come cheap, however, which is a problem, as Jack is broke and doesn't have a job. In spite of the fact that his roommate has just died, landlord Henry (Atticus Cain) has lost patience over the rent arrears and has sent Will (Kevin Moccia) to paint the walls and insert a skylight in the seedy bedroom in which Jack has convinced Scarlet that he is a tech whizz kid who is developing a chip that will allow people to share thoughts through the cloud.


Will is impressed with Jack's card skills (`That's why they call me Blackjack Jack!') and asks if he can teach them to his pal, Larry (Buddy Duress), who is something of a loser. When Jack's ex-girlfriend, Emma (Nikki Belfiglio), invites him to the opening of her video art exhibition, Jack brings Will and Larry along and gets into a fight with the latter about the quality of the pieces and whether they critique the Occupy Wall Street movement.


Jack doesn't hold the tussle against Larry, however, and even introduces him to Scarlet, who has started showing him her paintings during their sessions. However, Jack's cyber crush becomes a real-life fixation when he spots Scarlet in a Chinatown 7/11 and stalks her for several blocks. She insists she's based in San Francisco and plays along with his dare that she will have to go to Paris with him if he can get a photograph of her in New York.


In fact, Scarlet does live in the neighourhood with her boyfriend, Duke (Keith Poulson), a struggling playwright who has plans to open a space for aspiring artists. However, they need money and Duke encourages Scarlet to exploit Jack's obsession, in the mistaken belief that he's rich. She dips offline for a few days to keep him keen, during which time he agrees to help Will raise his son's college fees by gambling online. Just as he's losing the lot, however, Scarlet discovers that Duke has based his new play on their life and it's only while watching a rehearsal that she realises how he sees her.


Soon afterwards, Larry spots Scarlet in the store and sells her address to Jack, who manages to sneak into her apartment unseen. He finds her camming room and fondles some of the toys she uses to decorate the walls before having to hide under the sofa when Scarlet and Duke get home unexpectedly. Although Jack manages to sneak out unseen, he has used Scarlet's laptop to check his e-mails and she tracks him down. He is surprised to see her and delighted when she flirts with him. But he's appalled when she skims his card at the cashpoint and he hits a new low when he loses all of Will's money in a game. However, Scarlet has grown tired of Duke and she shows up at Jack's new room to give him a private show on her own terms.


Subtitled `A Romance About Freedom, Fantasy, Death and Friendship' and bullishly brandishing its adult take on sex in the third decade of the 21st century, this e-chamber saga is nowhere near as audacious and woke as it claims to be. Despite the floppy haired non-incel charm imparted by Peter Vack, Jack is a misogynist sleazeball with no sense of responsibility and serial issues with boundaries, risk and the truth. By contrast, Julia Fox (who has worked as a dominatrix in the past) plays Scarlet with an alluring self-possession. But why, despite making her a talented painter, who is sufficiently independent and in touch with herself to create her own S&M persona as a cam-girl, does Hozie allow her to be such a doormat to her douchebag boyfriend before finding her soulmate in someone who would rather buy virtual sex than have the real thing?


Notwithstanding the deftness of Keith Poulson's cameo, Duke is too sketchily limned to bolster Scarlet's boho backstory and, consequently, she becomes just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, albeit a kinky one who isn't averse to removing her top and masturbating on a bed with a naked stranger at full mast. Hozie isn't really interested in her inner life, however, and advances the discussion about transactional exploitation and intimacy in the Internet era about as far as earlier variations on the theme as Mirca Viola's Cam Girl (2014). Curt Wiser's Cam-Girl (2016) or Daniel Goldhaber's Cam (2018).


The odd scene raises a smile (no one will ever feel comfortably claiming to be in the middle of James Joyce's Ulysses ever again), while Kit Sheridan's production design captures the claustrophobic boxiness of millennial bedsitland. But there's something arch about the use of shaky cam on the nocturnal streets, while Hozie (who pops up as the rehearsal actor playing Duke to Sam York's Scarlet) seems less concerned with the plot hanging together than he does with giving the impression he's a hip subversive - although that does rather tie into the notion that it's now possible for people to project any image of themselves they wish for online users who simply have to take them on trust.


FOR THE TIME BEING.


Several films have recently focused on firestarters. Coming hard on the blazing heels of Oliver Laxe's Fire Will Come, Camila José Donoso's Nona, If They Soak Me, I'll Burn Them and Pablo Larraín's Ema (all 2019) comes Salka Tiziana's debut feature, For the Time Being, a delicate study of human interaction with the landscape that draws on the Barcelona-raised 29 year-old's recollections of the childhood holidays she spent with her Spanish-German family in Andalusia's Sierra Morena range.


While nine year-old twins Jon (Jon Barder) and Ole (Ole Barder) sleep in the backseat, Larissa (Melanie Straub) pulls over to stretch her legs and have a smoke. Meanwhile, on the farm where mother-in-law Pilar (Pilar del Pino) lives with her daughter, Amalia (Amalia Amián del Pino), preparations are being made for the guests, who will be joined by Larissa's husband, who is travelling alone. He calls to let his mother know his flight has been delayed, while Amalia is watching TV news coverage of the wildfires that are spreading amidst high temperatures and the women worry about whether Larissa will be able to reach them before the roads are closed.


Following long held shots of Amalia getting stuck behind some cows on a narrow country lane, car headlamps picking out a route along a pitted road and torch beams flickering in the darkness while dogs bark incessantly, the next day dawns. The visitors arrive at the gate at the edge of the estate, as a man walking his dog finds a wooden boat upturned under a tree. Having spent much of the journey playing video games with headphones to cut them off from their mother, the boys enjoy splashing in the swimming pool. Ole chides his mother for smoking outdoors when his grandmother had said it was banned and they are all alarmed while getting ready for lunch by the sound of shell fire from a nearby army base.


While the grown-ups doze, Ole breaks something while rootling around and flees the scene of the crime. The peace is disturbed by the dogs barking at a pair of cyclists who had strayed off the road and Pilar lets them know in no uncertain terms that they have no right to trespass on her finca. She goes for a siesta and Ole creeps into her bedroom to have a snoop around. He goes for a wander on his own and Jon wakes Larissa so they can search for him, leaving Pilar to fret because the pool is leaking and there is no water in the taps. Eventually, Amalia finds Ole propped up on the bridge from which he had been watching two couples larking about in a boat on the river.


The chorus of cicadas is silenced by the wind getting up around dusk. There's still no sign of Pilar's son and she leaves Larissa watering the garden, as she and Amalia drive off in their trucks. It's quieter down by the river and the small boat glides into the darkness, but it's not possible to make out who is rowing. When morning comes, the boat is found moored in a dry inlet by a man with a gun over his shoulder.


Writing on the MUBI website, where the film is showing as part of a Rotterdam festival special, Tiziana has described the emotions she felt on returning to this landscape for the first time in several years and having to deal with childhood memories and the changes in the landscape before being able to make sense of them and channel them into her film. While this is clearly a deeply personal journey, however, she sometimes struggles to take us with her, as we know so little about the characters and their relationship to each other to appreciate the subtle interactions that are obviously going on between the women.


Little suspense is generated by either the missing son/brother/husband/father or the potential encroachment of the fires, while we are left to infer the significance of the walkers, cyclists and boaters who seem oblivious to either the boundaries of the finca or the dangers posed by their intrusive presence on the parched scrub. Played by a real-life mother and daughter whom Tiziana had bumped into a decade after their last meeting, Pilar and Amalia have an intuitive relationship with the land that seems to alien to Larissa and the boys, who don't quite know how to cope with either the open spaces or the slowed rhythms of life.


Complemented by periodic drone shots providing a celestial perspective, Tom Otte's digital views of the bleached fields, dusty paths and verdant foliage of the trees and bushes enhances this sense of otherworldliness that is reinforced by Felix Roggel's sound mix and the quirky soundtrack composed by Plastiq. Otte also seemingly created a further contrast by shooting some of the interior sequences on 16mm. But, while this may well have been a cathartic experience for the returning writer-director, it is most likely to leave lockdown audiences in the depths of a bitterly cold February pining for the warmth of the great outdoors.


COLLECTIVE.


Those familiar with Cristi Puiu's Romanian New Wave classic, The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), will know all about the shortcomings of Bucharest's hospital network. But documentarist Alexander Nanau latches on to an even bigger dereliction in Collective, an exposé of the systemic failure of the national health service that shows what can happen when a film-makers lets life write the script. The focus may fall squarely on the corruption and ineptitude of Romanian officials, but Nanau is well aware of the universality of his subject, which will seem all the more potent as the anniversary of the first UK Covid lockdown hoves into view.


On 30 October 2015, fire ripped through the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest during a free concert by the metalcore band, Goodbye to Gravity. Footage shows the moment the lead singer spotted the flames and the subsequent stampede for the doors, as 27 were killed and many more were hospitalised with severe burns. Such was the outrage as Romanians took to the streets that Social Democrat prime minister Victor Ponta was forced to resign on 4 November. Health minister Nicolae Banicioiu was also among the casualties, as 37 families complained about the quality of care for loved ones who had succumbed to infections in hospitals across the capital. One father was even prevented from transferring his son to Vienna because the administration was so adamant that it could bring about his recovery.


It couldn't and grieving relatives were joined in their protests by survivor Tedy Ursuleanu, who had made herself a visible reminder of the failings of the medical staff and the ruling party after losing a hand and suffering third-degree burns on 45% of her body during the blaze. Also present at one of the meetings was Catalin Tolontan, the editor of Gazeta Sporturilor, the country's sole sporting paper. In conjunction with reporters Mirela Neag and Razvan Lutac, Tolontan had discovered that the city's specialist burns units were not only ill-equipped to deal with the number of casualties, but were also being actively hindered in the battle against the infections harming the survivors by the fact that the disinfectants being used on the wards had been deliberately diluted.


An undercover investigation found that Hexi Pharma owner Dan Condrea had been watering down antibacterial supplies before using bribes to sell them into hospitals that further weakened them before they were assigned. In a bid to discredit Tolontan's claims, health minister Patriciu Achimas-Cadariu produced test results that showed the Hexi fluids were 95% effective. Furthermore, he insisted that Bucharest's medical facilities were on a par with anything in Germany.


Smelling a rat, Tolontan and Neag stuck to their guns and were able to demonstrate through the whistleblowing testimony of Dr Camelia Roiu that payments had been made to keep the practice secret and ensure that any incriminating documentation conveniently disappeared. On 9 May 2016, Achimas-Cadariu was forced to resign and prime minister Dacian Ciolos added patients' rights advocate Vlad Voiculescu to his technocratic cabinet. Eyebrows were raised when the 33 year-old launched his first press conference with the words, `Hi, I'm Vlad.' Further concerns were raised when Condrea perished in a car crash on 22 May amidst rumours that the death was just as likely to have been foul play as suicide or an accident.


But Voiculescu quickly proved to be an incorruptible champion of the Colectiv families and he made a point of meeting Roiu and Ursuleanu, who had recently been fitted with a mechanical hand and had posed for a series of accusatory photographs that were about to go on display. Within a month of taking office, Voiculescu had blocked the routine appointment of 60 hospital managers and had accepted the finding that disinfectants had been tampered with and that kickbacks had been accepted to ensure the fact was hushed up. However, his plans to implement further reforms before the November general election were sidetracked by Gabriela Firea, the Social Democrat mayor of Bucharest, who accused Voiculescu of withholding transplant licences when they had been sanctioned by external observers.


Voiculescu won this battle by highlighting a complete lack of special aftercare units, but he lost the war when the Social Democrats were swept back into power, even though the short-lived Ciolos administration had done much to expose their flaws. As he contemplates his future, Voiculescu is advised by his father to leave Romania and resume his life in Vienna. But, while he weighs up his options, Tolontan, Neag and Lutac were gearing up to ensure that at least one newspaper was going to strive to make the new PSD government accountable to the people.


Such is the compelling nature of both Tolontan and Voiculescu's narratives that it's easy to overlook the journalistic acuity demonstrated by Nanau in abandoning one for the other as the focus of the story shifted. Having watched Tolontan break the news about the hospital scandal, Nanau gains unique access to the new health minister to see how he approaches cleaning up the mess. He does so in a manner that manages to put people and their rights and expectations to the fore. while also avoiding cheap party point scoring. Indeed, the closing sequence puts the electorate in the dock for returning to power the very politicians responsible for the scandal. In so doing, Nanau and co-writer Antonaeta Opris make it clear that, when it comes to corruption and incompetence in high places, the Romanian experience is anything but an isolated case.


This won't come as a surprise to anyone who has watched our own government flounder its way through the coronavirus crisis. But we should also note that the British print media has hardly excelled itself during the pandemic, unless you count the Daily Star's front page depictions of Boris Johnson's cabinet as a bunch of clowns. What shouldn't be forgotten, however, is that lives are at stake while ministerial cronies are being handed lucrative contracts that will impact on frontline performance and that every voter will have a chance to punish them and their ilk at the ballot box.


Serving as his own cameraman during the 14-month shoot and co-editor (working over 18 months with George Cragg and Dana Bunescu), Nanau employs the Direct Cinema approach used on The World According to Ion B (2009) and Toto and His Sisters (2014) to excellent effect. He misses nothing, particularly when he focuses on Tolontan and Voiculescu in the throes of making difficult decisions that reflect the uphill nature of their respective struggles.


The inclusion of Ursuleanu's quietly dignified campaign to confront the authorities with their crimes and abnegations is also inspired, as it captures the human angle without resorting to overt emotionality. Closing captions to update the situation since 2016 might not have gone amiss, but this is an exceptional piece of work that reminds us all of our civic duty to hold powerbrokers to account.


DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD.


Having made such an indelible impression with Cameraperson (2016), documentarist Kirsten Johnson pays affectionate tribute to her father in Dick Johnson Is Dead. Partly motivated by the fact that she had so few audiovisual memories of her mother, Katie Jo, before she succumbed to Alzheimer's disease in 2007, this bid to seize back a modicum of control from C. Richard Johnson's own battle with dementia is both profoundly poignant and audaciously courageous, as the fiftysomething Johnson strives as daughter and film-maker to give her octogenarian best friend the cinematic send off he both wants and deserves.


Three decades after he had survived a heart attack, retired psychiatrist Dick Johnson is diagnosed with the first signs of Alzheimer's. He agrees to vacate his surgery office and the sprawling Seattle home where his wife had disappeared into the same cruel condition that Kirsten claims had made it feel as though she had lost her mother twice over. Installing her father in the New York apartment building where the fathers of her two children also live, Kirsten embarks upon a unique act of love that requires Dick to participate in a variety of fatal scenes from which he resurrects unscathed.


A stunt man is hired to stage a tumble on the stairs and a fall in the street, while another takes the full force of a plank being carelessly wielded by a builder. The confusion and discomfort that Dick exhibits over the use of a fake blood pump in this sequence suggests that the bad days are slowly starting to outnumber the good ones. But he still relishes chocolate cakes and engaging with his grandchildren, most notably during a beach holiday in Lisbon (when he is buried in the sand) and on his 86th birthday. Moreover, the lifelong Seventh-Day Adventist gets to experience a miracle when a Jesus lookalike rights the fact that he had never had toes on his left foot. He even gets to play clarinet in a celestial party sequence, in which a stand-in has a last dance with Katie Jo, as though the clock had been turned back half a century.


There's a huge amount of charm in these reveries, with the conscious kitsch tempering the macabre wit of lethal set-pieces like the one in which Dick is crushed by a falling air-condition unit. But there are starker moments, such as the appointment with the specialist in which it becomes clear that Dick's memory is starting to falter and the chat with Marta, the career carer who has nursed 10 people through their final illness. Mercifully, even though we hear reports of him having delusional episodes in the middle of the night, Dick is spared the worst of a long fade-out, as he suffers a fatal heart attack on 23 June 2019.


But Kirsten and co-writer-cum-editor Nels Bangerter structure the film to allow Dick to attend his own funeral in the same church as his beloved Katie Jo. Having struggled to suppress a laugh, as his oldest friend stifles sobs at the lectern while playing a last post on his hunting horn, he makes his grand entrance and glad-hands the members of a congregation who don't all seem to fathom the eccentric grace of an occasion rooted in the deepest and fondest affection.


Bound to evoke memories for anyone who has lost a parent, this is a delightful record of an evidently special father-daughter relationship. Viewed during a global pandemic that has robbed so many of the closeness they crave, the `prebituary' acquires an added resonance. Yet, for all the playfulness of a cathartic enterprise that was also designed to `break cinema', Kirsten Johnson lets slip a little guilt at her failure to recognise the incipient signs of her father's condition.


She also avoids delving too deeply into the terrible trauma of dementia and the enveloping inevitability of death. Similarly, she skirts her own fears for Dick's decline and how she will cope with his loss. But this blend of reluctance and restraint is entirely understandable, as Johnson's focus rests on helping this genial, gentle man make peace with his fate and leave his loved ones something positive (if gleefully imperfect) to remember him by. Indeed, their love and compassion for each other are so heart-warmingly apparent that little else needs to be said, other than `Long Live Dick Johnson!'


CENOTE.


Born in Osaka in 1987, Kaori Oda has spent much of her film-making life in Bosnia. As a student at Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr's Film Factory in Sarajevo, Oda followed the shorts Thus a Noise Speaks (2010) and Conniving (2014) with a pair of documentary features, Aragane (2015) and Toward a Common Tenderness (2017), which furthered the interest in the host country that Oda had exhibited as part of the team responsible for the Tarr-sponsored, Lost in Bosnia (2014). Now, Oda has struck out on her own in heading to Mexico with a phonecam and a Super 8 camera to make Cenote, a poetic, if somewhat meandering 75-minute treatise on some of the 6000 limestone sinkholes that dot the Yucatan peninsula.


The ancient Mayan civilisation used cenotes as a source of water, as there were no rivers or lakes in the northern region of Yucatan. In addition to being a source of life, however, the fountains were also used for human sacrifices to the rain god, Chaac, who was thought to dwell in their depths. Indeed, they also believed that they were a conduit to the afterlife, as twins One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu used a cenote to descend into the Xibalba underworld in the Popol Vuh creation myth.


The silence of the opening captions gives way to a cacophonous din that sounds like a recording taken at a swimming pool during the summer holidays is being played on an ultra-slow tape loop. Bubbling noises complement the din, as the camera captures the colours and striations created by the dance of light on water. After a lengthy passage of aquatic optics, Oda comes up for air and lets the lens linger in close-up on the faces of the locals whose voices are heard chanting on the soundtrack.


Back underwater, fish glide past and rock shapes loom out of the bluish haze. A whispering voice wonders how it is possible to get out of the cenote once someone has already melted into the water and they suggest that it would be easier for the living to come and join them than for anyone to escape. As the water takes on the green hue of the foliage dipping towards it, male voices tell tales of small boys getting lost in the canal caves that branch out from the cenotes and how the waters rise in bad weather to carry the unsuspecting away. An old woman recalls how a nursing mother jumped into a cenote in the middle of the night and how a drunken young man fell in and was later found in a well.


A brass band strikes up, as an animal is slaughtered for a village celebration and children relate myths about the meteorites that had created the landscape. While women dance in brightly coloured dresses and cowboys circle an embattled bull in the ring, a torch beam picks out details of the grotto walls in the murky depths. At Uzil, a woman claims that bodies go missing because people no longer make sacrifices to the cenote, which is supposedly owned by a winged dragon snake that has frequently been seen flying around the nearby woods.


Emerging from the cenote bed, the camera picks up fireworks exploding silently in the sky before we pay a visit to a cemetery where a skull is being inspected. An echoing voice tells of human interaction with such Mayan gods as Tepew, Kukumatz and Huracan, as the camera scours the rocks and vegetation in the depths (along with the odd discarded bone) and simple hymns and the ringing bells from a church service stray into the audio mix. A girl playing the spirit narrator thanks the reciters of old for preserving memories for the future, as the screen fills with a Brakhage-like flicker montage and we hear about the birds who hover over the cenote to bring happiness at the dawn of a new day.


At times mesmerising, at others mystifying, this is the kind of film that needs to be seen with an audience tuning into the experience. In isolation, time can hang heavy and it becomes all too easy to nod at another passing fish without appreciating the intensity of the imagery that was amassed over three separate trips to Mexico. The sound mix designed by Oda also has its hypnotic moments, although a little scuba breathing can go a long way, even when it's accompanied by a chorus of unearthly groans and screeches.


More a meditation than a travelogue and a reverie rather than a work of ethnography, this moves assuredly between long slow digital takes underwater and jerkier rhythms of the Super 8 collages. But this duality is not merely for effect, as Oda makes numerous contrasts throughout between surfaces and depths, clarity and opacity, pagan and Christian, ancient and modern, life and death. On the audio side, however, it's not always clear whether we are listening to testimony, mythology or poetry. But the overall effect is intriguing and this would hold its own on a double bill with Sergei Eisenstein's ¡Que viva México! (1932).


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