Mixed in between obscure world cinema and hometown perspectives, the programmers of Dallas VideoFest continually maintain an embrace with the past. This year’s nods to Ida Lupino, David Byrne and David Lean provided those fond remembrances.
Lupino’s film noir The Hitch-Hiker(1953) rattled audiences with the groundbreaking female director’s blunt gaze on toxic criminality, while the late-night time slot for Byrne’s True Stories (1986) provided for a rollicking trip down 80s nostalgia lane. Coupled with the fact that part of the movie was filmed only a few miles from the theater hosting it, and the film seemed to coalesce history and locale perfectly.
The other glance back came in the form of director and editor Allan Holzman unveiling his latest collage of film history with The Art of Directing: David Lean. Now a sort of annual presence here at the festival, USC teacher Holzman’s access to once-buried-and-forgotten interviews from the American Film Institute in the early 70s have generated a host of documentaries that weave together footage of filmmaker greats to excavate some personality between the image and the image maker. Previous incarnations included John Huston, Francois Truffaut, Steven Spielberg and Sheldon Leonard.
The major difference (and complication) with his latest subject involving David Lean remained the fact that no video existed … only audio. Luckily for him (and we the audience), there’s plenty of sweeping vistas and eye-explosion greatness in Lean’s screen works to overcome that detriment. Naturally spending a good amount of time on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), Holzman uses Lean’s answers to a seemingly rapt group of film students and their questions to give a visual answer. When someone asks about working with actors, the film juxtaposes iconic moments with Alec Guinness or Peter O’Toole.
Lean talks about his early days as a script doctor. Holzman uses trains (which seem to become a raging concept of emotion or purpose in most Lean films) as a narrative through-line. There’s great purpose in every shot chosen, and seeing them on the big screen — if only for a few minutes — reaffirms Lean’s greatness in shuffling between the macro and micro.
In one of my casual conversations with Holzman, I expressed my unreserved love for one of Lean’s later maligned films, Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Though he wasn’t quite ready to share in my enthusiasm, he explained that Lean made his crew wait for months just to capture the right amount of rain and storms. It’s this detail to film history and overt willingness to share his knowledge that make Holzman one of the most interesting modern curators of the past.
From film history to personal history, Miguel Coyula’s Nadie (Nobody) sets its sights on Cuban writer and poet Rafael Alcides. Speaking directly to the camera, Coyula crafts a subtle form of protest as Alcides recounts the moments in his life that caused him to fade from passionate revolutionary to, well, an anonymous and censored artist. In essence, the film’s title applies to Coyula himself, as the film will never be seen in Cuba due to the critical tone it takes about Fidel Castro and the government.
Alcides dominates the film with his tales of political fervor dampened to political exile, and it’s a noble effort, made all the more prescient by Alcides’ death from cancer just six months ago. But what hampers the overall impact of Nadie is the director’s insistence on reverting away from Alcides through superimposition and split screen images, including a somber young girl and frigid-looking waves crashing on a beach.
Essentially, the film is a chamber piece that does feel a bit claustrophobic at times, but Coyula’s very experimental attempt to open up the narrative somehow serves to lessen the impact of film that could have gotten by simply on Alcides’ potent history, without the avant garde pretenses.
Tying together the rhetoric about the current state of virtual reality and augmented reality in cinema that was on display most of the weekend, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night resoundingly answers any discussion on the matter. Yes, 3D can be a gimmick, but if used in the right way by a filmmaker whose incorporation of the technology feels as organic as any other technical decision made within a film, then the advancement is just as important as the tracking shot or jump cut.
And speaking of tracking shots… Bi Gan has previously been feted for his amazing camerawork in Kaili Blues (2015), which showcases a 30 minute single-take as it follows a character through, over, under and around a mountainous village, occasionally breaking off to find something else and then returning back to him. It’s as if the shot encompasses an entire universe, at once foreign to the propellant of narrative cinema and necessary at the same time.
Apparently, Bi Gan felt that amateurish cinematic gambit needed improving upon, so in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he engineers a 55-minute unbroken take in 3D that assumes much of the same responsibility of initially following a character before it sweeps off into a flowing examination of some netherworld village and the slippable nature of memory.
But before we get to that, Bi Gan unspools a mysterious first half that follows once-killer Luo (Huang Jue) returning to his hometown, unable to shake the memory of the brief love affair he carried on with his best friend’s lover Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei).
Transitioning back and forth in time between his current obsessive quest and some very dark events that occurred during their love affair in 2000, Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays with all the tenets of film noir, torrid romance and the oblique structure of Hou Hsiao-Hsien films. Moments such as two bodies wrestling in the backseat of a car obscured by rain or a theater assassination that ends with the camera flipped upside down are given little explanation. It’s as if Bi Gan crafted one entire film, then cut it up and took out the most important genre points, leaving a languid poem film in its place.
Once we think Luo may be close to finding Wan Quiwen, the film’s title card sprays across the screen, which becomes our cue to put on our 3D glasses and luxuriate in Bi Gan’s long, long take as Luo descends into a haunting village. Ideas and conversations in the first half become inversions of themselves in the second. The mention of wild pomelo fruit in the beginning becomes the jackpot symbol in an electronic roulette wheel in the latter half. The story of an apple cart becomes a daunting reminder of his violent past. Every woman Luo meets somehow reminds him of Wan Quiwen, and it soon becomes apparent that all his talk about memory and its fallibility will never allow him to find her. He’s doomed to the fragments of his past.
Haunting and immensely sad, Long Day’s Journey Into Night continues Bi Gan’s unique manipulation of cinema. I do hope this film gets some attention in U.S. theaters designed with 3D technology. As festival programmer Bart Weiss mentioned before the film, one moviegoer drove more than four hours to this 10 p.m. Sunday night showing because no theater near him has the capability to entertain such a film. I’m sure they have four screens dedicated to the latest 3D Pixar film, though. Regardless, I count myself lucky to have seen it and look forward to the adventurous programming of next year’s event.