Susan Morris | Reviews

2023 New York Film Festival: Structures + History

A series of films used structures that had personal resonance for the filmmakers or the characters depicted in the movies.  

Kleber Mendonça Filho's personal documentary, Pictures of Ghosts, about his hometown of Recife on northeast Atlantic coast tip of Brazil is divided into three sections.  The first, “The Setubal Apartment” about the modernist flat he grew up in near the beach, that became the location for his earliest films, weaving together home movie footage with his finished films.  We become intimately familiar with the residence and its indoor and outdoor spaces, and neighboring homes, most of which have now been swallowed up by high-rise developments. The second section, “Cinemas of Downtown Recife” is a love letter to the movie palaces — the Veneza, São Luiz, Trianon, Art Palácio, and Moderno — that attracted film stars like Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis for movie premieres and that changed Filho’s life, but are now largely closed.  The final chapter is “Churches and Holy Ghosts” about the conversion of many of the cinemas into places of worship, a different form of temple, (much like the Loew's 175th Street Theatre in upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights that became televangelist Reverend Ike’s United Palace of Spiritual Arts) many by the Evangelicals.  Others are now departments stores (the projection room stores boxes of juice), while many remain desolate. “The architectural and social structures of a city echo the movies that inspire and haunt us.”

Two shorts, Air Force Two and Boyd v. Denton, are set in the Ohio State Reformatory, a prison in Mansfield, Ohio, that was a set for the 1997 feature film Air Force One where it stands in for a Moscow prison. Filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson, who hails from the town, shows handheld B&W footage quickly making its way down the corridors in quick cuts:  the prison hallway with bars, arched windows in both. In Air Force Two, the soundtrack from the feature film is heard over the footage, while in Boyd v. Denton the audio is drawn from the US Federal Court decision to close the facility.  

In Evil Does Not Exist, Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) does odd jobs in this rural community in the Harasawa area — chopping wood, fetching fresh water for a noodle maker — and lives comfortably in the natural world. A Tokyo company has acquired swaths of land here intending to make it into a “glamping” (glamorous camping) site. A town meeting is held with representatives of the company (actually talent agents) meant to be a diverting good-will gesture but empty of any consequence.  When the neighbors speak knowledgeably about how the septic system location will pollute water downstream, and express willingness to work with them on improving the plans, the corporate functionaries are moved and bring the message back to the owners.  The scene is an true-to-life rendering of community meetings where the clear expression of poor planning (campfires in a zone prone to forest fires, water pollution issues and more) being aired by locals — and overridden. The corporate owners are disinterested, racing to meet a government grant to obtain COVID funding, and unconcerned with the repercussions, thinking that holding the meeting was sufficient to show their good intentions. The brass then suggest hiring Takumi as the “caretaker” on the glamping site, which does not interest him, although he will offer advice. It’s an eco-parable with an ironic title.  

Historical artifacts and buildings, some fantastical, figured into other films. 

La Chimera refers to a bogy, delusion, fabrication, fancy, figment, and hallucination and to “chase a chimera” is to follow an illusion with no reward.  In this film, English archeologist Arthur (Josh O’Connor), who is based in the town of Riparbella in Tuscany, Italy near the Etruscan (900 - 4th century BC) zone, has a knack for locating Etruscan gravesites which he an a group of cohorts raid and steal antiquities which they sell.  The film posits that there is no antiquity that is not stolen, and questions who owns the past. Arthur’s gang sells the Etruscan artifacts to an unscrupulous dealer who counterfeits provenance claiming that the objects are from pre-war estates, which can then be sold legally to foreign buyers.  

The Shadowless Tower is a 13th-century Buddhist temple in the Xicheng District of Beijing, the White Pagoda (Miaoying Temple), built in 1279 under the orders of Emperor Kublai Khan in the Yuan Dynasty and is the oldest and largest Tibetan Buddhist pagoda in China. Its eccentric design topped by a white stupa to house a relic of the Buddha, makes it hard to see its shadow which has given rise to the legend that the tower’s shadow can only be seen 2,000 miles away in Tibet. This feature is a metaphor for the storyline where a middle aged writer (former poet, now a food critic) feels directionless dealing with a divorce, newly deceased mother, estranged father, and flirtatious relationship with his young food photographer.  He frequently circulates around the White Pagoda, which is seen regularly, almost hovering. 

All of Us Strangers is set between a virtually empty high-rise apartment tower near Battersea Power Station in south London where protagonist Adam (Adam Scott) lives, and his childhood home in Harrogate, North Yorkshire (literally the director Andrew Haigh’s childhood home). Adam lives in his plush, modernist dwelling with views across the city, but travels back both by train and in time to his comfortable suburban house to find his parents, who died 30+ years ago, alive and living exactly as they did the last time he saw them when he was a child. Based on the the 1987 novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada, it was previously made into the 1988 Japanese film The Discarnates directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi.  

Films Mentioned:
Pictures of Ghosts, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Air Force Two and Boyd v. Denton, directed by Kevin Jerome Everson
Evil Does Not Exist, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
La Chimera, directed by Alice Rohrwacher
The Shadowless Tower, directed by Zhang Lu
All of Us Strangers, directed by Andrew Haigh

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