The Three Rivers Film Festival continued this week with a screening of Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” an eternally perplexing film whose presence at this year’s festival is a testament to Pittsburgh’s standing as an up-and-coming hub for the arts.
The print was introduced as one of the only copies in the country, with a 35mm print having not reached U.S. shores as of Wednesday’s screening at the Harris Theater, downtown.
In line with previous screenings at the festival, however, the night didn’t go without its share of technical hijinks. Halfway through the film, buffering issues plagued Carax’s gorgeous film, forcing flustered employees to nervously inform a jeering audience that they may not be able to see the conclusion to “Motors.” Telling an auditorium full of pretentious film buffs they can’t see the end of a film like this is like telling a mother she can’t keep the precious results of the last twelve hours she spent in labor. Some were calm, some were up in arms. But, alas, the wonderful staff at the Harris Theater made sure those who chose to stay for the thirty or so minutes it took to fix the print went home happy.
The film itself eludes description—or “fair” criticism for just that matter. It is a film perfect in its artistic execution, catharsis in its purest form. It feels unfiltered, unburdened by a studio’s overarching creative control, but not lacking a thematic direction. It tells the story of a man, “Mr. Oscar,” given the task of completing various fantastical “appointments” throughout Paris which include masking his own identity to become someone—or something—else within various staged vignettes. Each of the scenarios sees Mr. Oscar applying makeup, full body suits, wigs, weapons, even “dying” a few times, all for the sake of crafting pure spectacle for an audience—not any specific one, simply the “idea” of “the audience” that lies at the core of any performance, filmic or non. “Holy Motors” is laden with elements Film Studies classrooms spend entire semesters reviewing; intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and conflicts between diegetic/non-diegetic aspects all come into play. “Holy Motors” is a film major’s wet dream, an act of defiance against contemporary cinema’s willingness to gloss over the dark (juicy) bits of reality that places the audiences in a position to respond versus passively “receive” at all times.
It’s frustrating, confusing, intense, elaborate, something, nothing, and everything Leos Carax wants it to be all at once. Even in its most irritating portions of reluctance to let “the audience” in, “Holy Motors” is a film which can’t be faulted. After all, dreams can’t be wrong, can they? As a midnight excursion your brain may endure, the film is in a constant state of evolution, deconstruction, and re-imagination; destroying ideologies and scenarios pre-established only moments prior. There are countless references to films–classic and modern–that make “Holy Motors” a veritable treasure trove of cinematic and pop cultural history. Edith Scob reprises her role from “The Eyes Without a Face,” Kylie Minogue plays someone who is not Kylie Minogue in a film where Kylie Minogue music plays at a party, characters from other Carax films (“Tokyo!” in particular) make appearances as if they’ve never had a camera on them before. Scrapbooking for scrapbooking’s sake, I suppose. But not without purpose; this is a film which questions identity, performance, consciousness, and reality. Things taken for granted whilst commuting to work or seeing a concert, but pondered with precision and caution in dreams and cinema, the most pure forms of expression, which collide with dazzling results in “Holy Motors.”
When the print of the film lagged and skipped around thanks to the aforementioned buffering issues, one audience member (proud of himself for having such a brilliant thought) proclaimed (loud enough so the whole audience could hear) “I think the jump-cuts are intentional. This is brilliant.” While fancying himself a modern day Godard, he was shot down not only by the staff’s “fixing” of the “jump cuts,” but also by the one constant thematical message which runs throughout “Holy Motors”. The audience is a cog in a giant machine, victim (and, at times, willing participant) of the cinema’s ultimate power over any who relinquish their conscious state and hand it over to the all-powerful medium of film. He was wrong, but I’m sure Carax would appreciate his earnestness.
An acquaintance of mine from the University of Pittsburgh’s Film Studies program, Dillon Becker, has made a film called “Robinson.” You should watch it immediately because a) he’s pretty talented and b) you’d probably planned on spending the next half hour wasting your time and touching yourself, so why not let your mind get off on this biting little film for a change and spare Dillon thirty minutes.
Touchy subjects are meant to be poked and prodded. It’s then that you get the most genuine response from people. Gut reaction is pure, unfiltered, and often the most “right” response a person can have. If you call someone a racially insensitive word, they might scream at you or punch you in the face; an appropriate reaction to the hate-filled word slung their way. The nonexistent consideration for their being might provoke violence, but it’s a fleeting moment. Art isn’t afforded the same luxury of escaping beyond the scene of the crime, as it endures far beyond the momentary instance of a passing conversation or verbal jab.
That’s why we need artists to latch on to such subjects and make them topics of conversation. It’s my gut reaction that someone else’s gut reaction is often wrongfully violent. Take, for example, the release of No Doubt’s music video for their latest single “Looking Hot,” which has sparked outrage from Native American groups for being “insensitive” towards an entire culture of people, and was quickly taken down off the band’s official YouTube page.
Let’s start with the song, which is about finding something uniquely attractive, with Stefani’s lyrics at once welcoming objectification (“stare on my ragamuffin”) but at the same time consciously playing into the role of said alluring entity. It’s a stagnant message of “female empowerment,” but a message nonetheless. The song takes on a satirical air, poking fun at the “male gaze” and its obsession with things like ragamuffins and demeaning the entity of woman by labeling her simply “hot.” The male cages the female, the female breaks free and harnesses control. The music video merely compliments that idea—if you think about it, that is.
Let’s take a trip back to early America, not unlike the one depicted in No Doubt’s music video (if we want to get really philosophical—they don’t explicitly say this is America, or Native Americans, or—you get my point). It’s a time not a single person alive today experienced. But it is a time we’ve come to accept as being ruthlessly unpleasant for women. While the Industrial Revolution afforded women meager jobs, they were given just that in return; a meager way of life. Housewives, cooks, and family caretakers were still the most common roles for women to play. A woman’s say in politics, culture, and society was largely silent until suffrage movements reared their courageous heads in the early 1900s. Women and Native Americans were minority beings in every sense of the word.
So, we have a time period that valued male brutality, conquest, and strength over dark skin and vaginas. Do we see how it’s appropriate, purely in an artistic sense, for Stefani to take on the role of an imprisoned female Native who’s delicate frame is poked, prodded, and held captive (physically and ideologically) by the upper male hand? The clues are all there. In the lyrics and in the quick-draw between the attractive woman and Adrian Young as a “Cowboy,” Tony Kanal as an imprisoned Native, Stefani leading a tribal ceremony in dance around a fire…the list goes on; repressed versus the repressor, caging the “other,” and finally showing us the beauty of the uniquely mysterious “minority.” A battle rages towards the end, signifying an important clash of the underdog and the iron fist of dominant ideals keeping them down, an important message that, by all means, should not be stifled in today’s volcanic arena of social injustice.
I can understand backlash against things that are mindlessly provocative. Incoherence in art makes it easy to target those merely using something like race at face value to make a fleeting headline on Perez Hilton. Art with intent beyond making a momentary splash, however, is different. Think of the episode of “The Sarah Silverman Program” where Sarah mistakenly dons blackface to experience what it’s “really like” to be black. She believes she’s starting a racial dialogue, but merely brings criticism upon herself for her careless decision and strayed focus from the task at hand. The act becomes about her, not about the issue. It’s a brilliant episode. The same logic can be applied here. Trying to empathize with the struggles of another group of people is pointless and irrelevant to the progression of society. You can’t understand struggle unless it happens to you. Sympathy turned into action, however, is where change is made. No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” music video may be part gorgeous aesthetic and part social commentary, but the thread of coherence runs throughout the entire piece, which deserves a fighting chance to be heard versus quick dismissal like its subjects and real-life counterparts years ago.
Shower me with accusations of premature vitriol, but they’re cowards for taking it down.
High profile productions aren’t just made in the Steel City these days; they’re also headlining Pittsburgh’s very own Three Rivers Film Festival, which made its 31st debut tonight with screenings of some of this Oscar season’s buzziest titles. But, that doesn’t stop a little brokedown Pittsburgh “flair” from seeping into the mix. It’s hard to imagine a projector merely “slipping” off its axis mid-screening, or a festival showrunner announcing the dispensing of sandwiches and cheap wine after the show (simply because “well, uh, because it’s opening night,” he so eloquently concluded) at Telluride, Toronto, or Sundance. But alas, these things happen. You must constantly remind yourself (the cutesy mishaps might do that for you) that this is merely Pittsburgh charm at its finest.
As a city sprawling in artistic evolution, there’s undoubtedly a comfortable amount of room for the film industry to nestle itself firmly in Pittsburgh’s bosom. The Dark Knight Rises and Adventureland are a mere sampling of the big-name studio productions filmed here over the course of the past two years. Pittsburgh is making a name for itself as a Hollywood of the East Coast, and its priority film festival should reflect that.
Around 7:00 PM, small crowds of people dotted the sidewalks of Liberty Avenue as the historic Harris Theater prepped Rust and Bone for its Pittsburgh debut. After screening in competition at Cannes earlier this year, Bone leads an impressive trifecta of Oscar bait goodness headlining Pittsburgh’s two-week long festival. Joining the film on opening night were Silver Linings Playbook and Beware of Mr. Baker, playing at the Regent Square Theater and the Melwood Screening Room, respectively.
The night intensified as Rust and Bone screened, however, with audience members responding audibly (gentle sobbing, jeers of disgust) to the French-Belgian co-production starring Marion Cotillard in a role that surely makes her a worthy contender in this year’s already crowded Best Actress Oscar race. The performance is a thing of fantasy, a fantastical fruit plucked from the highest branch of cinematic perfection.
The film itself is a masterful emotional powerhouse, telling the story of two people entwined in a delightfully tragic dance of magnetic attraction. Stephanie (Cotillard) is a killer whale trainer treading water amid a stagnant love life; Ali is a twenty-something drifter running away from a murky past filled with one-night stands, an ex-wife, and the liveliest souvenir to show for it all; a sprightly five-year old son. Together, the pair feed off what they lack but are able to find within each other; Stephanie’s inherent ability to harness and control what’s “larger” than her and Ali’s ruthless path to self-gratification don’t meet with fireworks, but rather a slow melding together—sometimes messy and dripping with unsightly bits—of a beautiful relationship that’s as imperfect and alluring as the people who comprise it. It’s hard to call Rust and Bone an optimistic film, seeing as its protagonists suffer far more than they prosper, but it is a celebration nonetheless. Rust and Bone finds beauty in pain, delicately savoring the jagged edges of experience learned from life-altering tragedies instead of offering quick-fix, unrealistic solutions to unexpected hurdles.
Opening night sets the tone for the days (in this case, weeks) to come, and the Three Rivers Film Festival will screen pictures such as Holy Motors, Compliance, and a score of this year’s competitors for the Foreign Language Oscar; a dazzling high note hopefully crescendoing to a roar by the festival’s end. Although it’s hard not to chuckle at the inclusion of a low-brow “Pittsburgh Dad”-based production playing the same field as Oscar frontrunners. That’s Pittsburgh for you.
While filmmakers Q&A’s, receptions, and other standard film festival razzle-dazzle are expected, something tells me Pittsburghers will be pleased simply with a comfy chair, a working projector, and a film of any kind playing overhead.
More updates as the festival goes on.
Brilliant screenwriting is unmistakable. We count on it to carry us through a film’s entirety. Careless writing in an otherwise enjoyable screenplay, however, can mar even the wittiest of writers’ work. A mere moment of sloppiness degrading a film as an unwelcome party guest showing up two courses through dinner.
Such is the messy plate of Pitch Perfect‘s interpretation of a “gay” character, the butch, short hair sportin’, pussy-lovin’, titty-grabbin’, black bulldyke stereotype otherwise known as Cynthia Rose. But, what’s the point of giving her a name? Those offensive descriptors are how the filmmakers want you to see her, anyway. It’s a shame, because Pitch Perfect, otherwise effectively written by Kay Cannon, is an enjoyable film without a malicious bone in its celluloid body, telling the story of an all-female acapella group struggling its way to the to the top of yet another male-dominated field. It’s at once powerful social commentary on the trickling down of patriarchal dominance, but it’s merely the sloppy, outside-the-lines pandering for humor at the expense of a gay character that gives the film a sour aftertaste.
Cynthia Rose is given no purpose in the film other than to generate laughs in one of two ways; A) When any other characters questions her sexuality and B) when she indiscriminately grabs for any body part of the nearest female character. She’s plopped into the screenplay without much motivation; she tries out for an accapella group, makes the cut, and is never given much thought again–until a cheap joke at her expense can be thrown her way. The other girls get a kick out of speculating about her sexuality. A few of them find themselves in various compromising positions whilst in her proximity; Cynthia Rose is there, lust in her eyes and nothing but air in her hands, copping a feel whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Let’s take, for example, a scene which sees Cynthia’s fellow group member, Fat Amy, reeling on the ground after a rival group throws food at her from a moving bus. Amy writhes on the ground, screaming for help as if she’s been shot. Cynthia is first on the scene, beaming at the opportunity to give way-open-mouth CPR to a friend who’s clearly breathing (enough so that her screams alerted Cynthia) on the ground. The joke would be funny if it were, say, someone with a prior sexually-induced trait; we laugh at Quagmire on “Family Guy” because we know he’s a sex addict. A breast, leg, or thigh comically coincidentally finding its way into his line of vision, for example, might inspire an actual sexual response. We expect this because of his addiction to sex, not because of his gender or sexual orientation. Pitch Perfect has you believe Cynthia Rose’s only motivation is that she’s a woman attracted to other women. The straight men in the film, however, keep their hands to themselves. They proposition women, but we’re never given even the slightest inclination that they’re resisting the insatiable urge to to grasp every piece of female flesh which walks before them. Countless other scenes draw on this same “gay is funny” principle; Cynthia makes attempts at grabbing other girls constantly throughout, and each instance comes at a time when far funnier things are going on around her. Say I’m a whiner, but the carelessness in presenting a gay character in such a ridiculously backwards manner is distracting (and detracting) from an otherwise pleasant comedic excursion.
Some might say the film also mocks “fat” people with the inclusion of a character with “fat” in her name. The joke with Fat Amy, however, is not that she’s a “fat” person. “You really call yourself ‘Fat Amy’?” one character asks her. “Yes, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back,” she responds. The humor lies within Amy’s insistence on taking control of an otherwise oppressive situation. She embraces herself enough to throw the criticism back into the face of someone who might try to do the same to her. She’s a step ahead. Cynthia instead fuels the criticism by mere existence, the laughs coming at the expense of her inherent desire versus her harnessing control away from the social status quo.
I remember watching the documentary “The Celluloid Closet”, listening to Harvey Fierstein discuss the offensive “sissy” characters of early cinema. Forgive me, for exact quotes always elude me, but I believe he said something to the effect of “I’d rather have offensive screen time than no screen time at all.” The phrase struck me as well-intentioned, but misinformed; that response diminishes an entire culture as desperate for attention versus long overdue for equality. Pitch Perfect, a film by all means about a subject completely different, will have you oddly pondering the presence of gay characters in a similarly muddled fashion. Sure, the joke is “funny” at face value and the gay character is “there,” but are audiences laughing such characters back into the closet, mocking inherent attractions characters like Jack Twist and Nic Allgood feel simply because they’re attractions?
Disregard all the “whining,” if you will, but I’ll leave you with this question: Is Pitch Perfect a better film because of the addition of the content I’m talking about? A worse film? If you can answer that, there’s a problem.