New York Film Festival 2015 Part Two: The Banality of . . .

October 5, 2015
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Post by Martha P. Nochimson, Critic

William Wordsworth made us believe in the ecstasy of the humble daffodil. Hannah Arendt isolated the potential for evil in the ordinary acts of people doing the business of their society. There is a long history that affirms that banality isn’t banal, for better and for worse. Three noteworthy films in the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival that draw us into this tradition delve with imagination, tact, and skill into the ordinary to reveal the horrible, the beautiful, and the marvelous (in the root sense of the word.)

Experimenter, directed by Michael Almereyda (108 mins.), obviously one of Arendt’s spiritual children, is a highly imaginative yet cleanly factual, quasi-fictionalized documentary about the 1961 experiments Stanley Milgram conducted at Yale University. Almereyda breaks the fourth wall repeatedly to guide us toward the text and subtext of Stanley Milgram’s controversial engagement of numerous ordinary people, both male and female, and of various races, in what he presented to them as an exploration of how people learn. The truth was, however, that, directing them to administer electric shocks to a “learner” with a “heart condition” when they answered questions incorrectly, what Milgram actually discovered that the vast majority of what we consider decent citizens will inflict terrible violence on fellow human beings, albeit generally unwillingly, if ordered to do so by a confident, seemingly rational authority.


Well we know that, don’t we? So Almereyda’s film is less concerned with the results of the study than with the responsibility of the experimenter and the response of a society confronted by what is literally in this film an elephant in the room. (You will need to see Experimenter to understand what that means.) If you believe that America willingly embraced Milgram’s revelation, you have an interesting awakening in store for you. Peter Sarsgaard plays Milgram, the son of Holocaust survivors, with just the right blend of sincerity, irony, compassion, and disdain as he is drawn into combat with the academic, scientific, and entertainment establishments because of his chilling discoveries. Winona Ryder brings abundant, nuanced life to her portrayal of his wife, Sasha, a role that could have blended into the furniture in lesser hands. Kellan Lutz and Dennis Haysbert turn in hilarious performances as Ossie Davis and William Shatner, respectively. Yup they’re there too, in a devastatingly bad fictionalized television drama about Milgram which unsurprisingly turns his exploration of the evils embedded in the banality of obedience into a hymn to American exceptionalism and individualism.  None so blind as those who will not see.


No Home Movie (115 mins.), the new Chantal Akerman, is of the Wordsworthian persuasion about banality. A valentine to her aging mother, this vérité, digitally shot documentary finds Akerman in top form as she demands that we slow down and really look at landscapes, people, and, above all, at the apartment occupied by her mother that she puts before us, usually with a static, unmoving camera. Akerman aficionados will grin with pleasure at the film’s very Akerman-like initial approximately five-minute shot: an unchanging perspective on a lone tree buffeted by a howling wind that might have the duration of almost five minutes. “This must be for some purpose,” said the critic next to me, with affection rather than exasperation. Once we learn, through very understated, matter-of-fact conversations between Akerman and her mother of Mama Akerman’s life, particularly her survival of the Holocaust, it seems more than likely that it is a metaphor for her endurance. But the real point is patience, the patience required for observation. So Akerman directs our eyes toward lengthy wide angle shots of desert terrain through the window of a moving car; extended images of the simple unmoving green turf of mama’s backyard; and the light, comfortable rooms in which mama lives, seen from so many perspectives you almost feel you’ve walked through them. From time to time, Akerman surprises with severely framed perspective shots that limit our vision to thin slivers of sight through almost completely closed doors that are fascinating digressions from full frontal visual exposure. How does this visual rhetoric contribute to the film’s portrait of a genuine mother-daughter relationship on-screen, untricked out by the decades-long Tinseltown distortions of this crucial connection? Perhaps it’s all about what we miss in Hollywood films that are too fast and furious to allow us an unsentimental but warm and caring experience.

Finally, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour (122 mins.). Although in previous films, Weerasethakul has at times stunned us with mythological beast humans, and suspense-packed tracking shots through portentously mysterious jungles, in this film he locates almost all the action in the monotonous quiet of an unexceptional rural Thai hospital in which the patients, wounded soldiers, sleep almost all the time. Out of this somnolent, dully routine setting, Weerasethakul out-Wordsworths Wordsworth by producing miracles. By this I do not infer miracle cures discovered by intrepid medical practitioners, but the sudden visibility of the invisible, the psyches of the slumberous soldiers, and the spectacular history, now long gone, of the land on which this modest structure now stands, and the delicate emotional tides within ordinary hearts. The main characters are Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas), a dumpy, middle aged, lonely volunteer; a young, pretty psychic (Tawatchai Buawat); and Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), a young, handsome patient who sometimes wakes up. Jenjira and Itt form a quasi-maternal, quasi-erotic relationship, as they make the most of his waking time by going to local events and to dinner. The psychic makes the rounds of the hospital beds, holding the hands of the sleeping men and reading their dreaming minds in order to give administrators information about who they are.


The psychic also takes Jenjira on a tour of the grounds mystically filling the the space, through her words alone, with evocations of the completely vanished elaborate and beautiful castle that only she can “see.” Her excavation of the past lives of the men and the place is complemented by strange futuristic machines to which each soldier is attached, bizarrely expensive technology for such a makeshift hospital. Composed of computer-like boxes to which are attached long question mark shaped tubes that glow red, white, and green in succession, they are said to be gifts from the United States, medical devices developed to help American soldiers in Afghanistan. I have no idea if they are completely fantastic or actual technical support equipment. But it is clear that this ordinary place is packed with past-present-and-future, once Weerasethakul shows me how to look. His is not a Western sensibility, and all western influences intrude on the scene as alien objects while westerners, like Jenjira’s American husband Richard Widner (Richard Abramson), appear as alien intruders on whom we get unexpected perspectives that may move many pleasurably beyond their comfort zone. One of the most amusing is Jenjira’s regret that she didn’t marry a European. They, she says, and not the Americans, are currently living the American dream, a sentiment that I found unexpectedly, poignantly, and insightfully echoed in an American film I will discuss next week.

UPDATE: On October 6, 2015, it was announced that Chantal Akerman died at the age of 67. I mourn the much too early death of this wonderful filmmaker. Her passing adds a new dimension to the context of No Home Movie.

AntennaCinemaJournalJune-300x103NEXT WEEK: Only Connect?

This post is part of an ongoing partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and the Society for Cinema & Media Studies’ Cinema Journal.

Martha P. Nochimson is a film and media critic, and the author of David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire (University of Texas Press, 2013). More about her work can be found here.


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