Five selections from across the RIFF programme
‘Art and Craft’
dirs. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker
Mark Landis, one of the more prolific art forgers in American history, shopped for arts and crafts supplies at Hobby Lobby; painted, stained and varnished over photocopies from auction catalogues; and donated copies of the same works to multiple museums. While observing the ease with which the suggestion of largesse will open art-world doors, the film is less a meditation on creativity and originality than a sympathetic character portrait. Landis, a diagnosed schizophrenic often seen hunching over TV dinners in front of reruns, with few anchors in the world since the death of his mother, has a lifelong gift for drafting, but, he says, simply can’t think of anything new to paint.
‘The Council of Birds’
dir. Timm Kroeger
Supposedly based on an (actually spurious) unsolved mystery, this German film sustains an atmosphere of obscure expectation and spiritual portent, with beautiful, often low lighting, a woodsy palette of greens and browns, and a Steadicam slowly weaving through spindly tree trunks alongside characters trekking to and around a remote cabin. Three friends have come to visit the hermitage of an old friend, an erratic-genius composer whose letters have turned increasingly worrisome; the audio track, mixing birdsong with ethereal, atonal and uncanny music, floats above and around the characters like a ghost.
dir. Lisandro Alonso
Alonso, known on the international festival circuit for beautiful films equally slow of pace and light of incident, attempts a Western—after a fashion. Viggo Mortensen, speaking both Danish and Spanish like a sorta-native, plays an engineer stationed in Argentina with the Spanish Army, circa 1882, who rides out of camp in search of his eloped daughter, and into the unknown. The expansively lensed Patagonian landscapes—including natural hot springs and crumbling lava flows—make a suitably otherworldly backdrop, and Alonso, borrowing from the entire history of film style, slyly unfolds an intellectually stimulating, dreamy shaggy-dog story.
dir. Mike Leigh
UK cinema titan Leigh, the featured guest at this year’s RIFF, is renowned for his process as much as for his results: though tightly controlled in structure, his films retain the spillover liveliness of their pre-production, during which Leigh and his trusted cast members develop characters via long-form, open-ended improvisation. ‘Topsy-Turvy’ is his film about the creative process, following Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta ‘The Mikado’ from its creators’ mid-career lethargy, through its inspiration in the late-19th century “Japanese mania,” to rehearsals, backstage politics, and out into the culture. Full to the brim with process and personalities, the film’s 160-minute running time seems like highlights from a wholly realized world. At the world’s centre is a surprising, comic and tender performance by Jim Broadbent as W.S. Gilbert, known to history through the wit of his lyrics, but here a heavy, booming, barking presence, who casts a long, awkward shadow even with his jokes.
‘Walking Under Water’
dir. Eliza Kubarska
Polish director Kubarska travels to the South Pacific archipelagos to document the life of Alexan, an underwater fisherman, from the stateless Bajau people, as he passes along a mix of folklore and acquired knowledge to his young nephew. There is a larger story here about the persistence of indigenous traditions under global capitalism, evident in the recycled speedboat, flimsy siphon used as an air hose, and homemade spear that Alexan does his fishing with. But what mostly stands out is the diving photography: you’ve never seen so many shades of blue, from the steely gray clouds to the electric transparency of the ocean’s surface when the camera looks up at the sun through a funnel of fish.