Melbourne International Film Festival – Day Thirteen. By Simon Miraudo.
“Nothing cleanses the palate after watching a movie about Satan (or perhaps a vengeful Jesus) wreaking havoc on Earth like a documentary about Elmo.” “You know what I LOVE? Silent films about circus folk living in a war zone.” “No day would be complete without a viewing of a movie in which a superhero – preferably one that is half-man, half-zebra – fights a Lady Gaga impersonator and then battles a giant farting Alien in a futuristic Tokyo landscape.” If you agree with any of these statements, then please read my reviews of Silent Sonata, Outside Satan, Being Elmo and Zebraman 2, films 44-47 of my MIFF 60 Films in 17 Days challenge.
44) Silent Sonata
I greatly enjoyed Silent Sonata, and not just because one of the actors looked like a cross between Tom Hardy and Michael Keaton (don’t you love spotting weird, parallel-universe lovechildren like that?). Slovenian director Janez Burger thrusts us into the aftermath of a war zone, in which a father (Leon Lucev) tries to keep his children sheltered within his house, whilst bringing the corpse of his recently slain wife in from the cold. Then, from out of the blue, a travelling circus rolls onto his estate. They’re similarly displaced by the warfare, and need to find a resting place for their dying ringleader, but their serendipitous appearance at this very place at this very time illuminates an even greater truth than the base need to survive. The film concludes with the circus folk enacting their elaborate show to the joy of the grieving family, the dying patriarch, and the performers themselves. Silent Sonata – in which not a single word is uttered, nor does one need to be – is all about the power of art and entertainment: to distract, to bring happiness, and to even bring significance to a life. With enigmatic digressions into the nature of the afterlife, Silent Sonata is a visually sumptuous and moving little picture in which volumes of meaning are passed along – between characters, and also to us, the audience – wordlessly.
45) Outside Satan
Speaking of enigmatic … Bruno Dumont’s Outside Satan stars Alexandra Lematre as the unnamed disciple of a similarly unnamed and mysterious nomad (David Dewaele), who may be either Jesus Christ or the Devil. The duo’s exploits – primarily consisting of walking through the fields in their small French village and praying – aren’t particularly gripping; slow-moving would be a generous description of the film’s speed, although after The Turin Horse, everything else seems as frenetic as Crank by comparison. Such is the film’s ponderous pace, the woman sitting to the right of me had fallen asleep, and was snoring so loudly that the sounds of her unconscious grunting eventually woke her up – now there’s a paradox akin to the old ‘sound of one hand clapping’ classic. There are the occasional moments to jar us awake, namely bursts of extreme violence inflicted by the man upon those who have hurt his singular disciple. In the final act, the Biblical allusions come to the forefront, and we bear witness to an understated exorcism, something of a walking-on-water sequence, a meeting with a randier version of Genesis’ Eve, and even a resurrection. Dumont even divides up the sequences with fade-outs, as if they were Biblical passages come to life. Outside Satan raises some interesting theological questions. The Bible quotes Jesus as promising to come back to the land of the living not as a lamb but as a lion. Is this wandering stranger just Jesus resorting to some vigilantism instead of preaching the word? Or is he truly Satan, gathering followers and believers by claiming to be a god, despite putting everyone in unenviable situations in the first place? The question raised by Dumont in Outside Satan isn’t, “Would we recognise our saviour if he came back to Earth?’, but rather, ‘How would we tell him apart from the devil?” Are these thoughtful digressions worth the film’s general unpleasantness? Just.
46) Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
There weren’t quite as many (or any) behind-the-scenes puppet brawls as I had hoped in Constance Marks’ doco Being Elmo, which instead focuses on the life of puppeteer Kevin Clash. He regales us with tales from his early days as a Sesame Street obsessed little boy, to the man behind (or rather, up) the internationally-beloved Elmo. Not once illuminating or revelatory, Being Elmo coasts on its eponymous subject’s cuteness. Everything is viewed with rose-tinted glasses, I have to assume, because life with Jim Henson and Frank Oz on the set of all those Muppet programs are portrayed as being more idyllic than if they had all worked in a factory of dreams, built out of marshmallows, floating amongst the clouds. The occasional narration from Whoopi Goldberg is ultra-cloying and unnecessary, but it doesn’t diminish the tear-jerking moments (Elmo/Clash hugging a Make A Wish kid; Jim Henson’s funeral etc.). The audience really is putty in Marks’ hands; the crowd is already on side with the subject before the film begins. After all, the thesis of the film is essentially that ‘people really love Elmo’, and the reaction at the MIFF screening was only further proof of that. In fact, being in a crowd of 20/30-something festival-attending hipsters and watching all those Muppets in action was about as close as we’ll get to experience group age-regression therapy. A brief mention of nostalgic favourite The Dark Crystal is made in the film, leading to a hushed gasp from the crowd, and immediately followed by a chuckle of recognition. I’m a sucker for Henson’s magical creations just like the rest of them. I loved Sesame Street. I love, and still watch, The Muppet Show. Their songs frequently rank amongst my most played on iTunes. I even check out, regularly, the heartbreaking post-death tribute show to Henson, and the underrated Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas special. All of them make me cry. I clearly have some issues I need to work out.
47) Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City
I wondered as the lights dimmed in the cinema for Takeshi Miike’s Zebraman 2 if there had been a Zebraman 1, or if it was more like a Leonard Part 6 situation. Either way, it was too late to catch up on the story now. I just prayed that if there had been a predecessor, it would be succinctly surmised at the beginning of the sequel. When the film finished, I still had to ask Google if there was a Zebraman 1, such was the nutty incomprehensibility of the Zebraman lore as spelt out in Attack on Zebra City. From what I could gather, Zebraman (Show Aikawa) was once a mild-mannered school teacher, who, thanks to the power of aliens, turned into … a Zebraman, whatever that is. At the film’s beginning, he’s an internationally beloved superhero, finding it difficult to carry on with his life. That interesting thread is almost immediately abandoned, and we find ourselves inexplicably thrust 25 years into the future, where Japan has been taken over by a ruthless evil dictator and his even more evil Lady Gaga-esque singer/murderer daughter (Riisa Naka). Tokyo, now renamed Zebra City, has long forgotten about Zebraman, now a relic of children’s TV programming. Still, he decides to rise up and fight the corrupt politicians to save the world once more. Then, a lot of things happen in the climax, which, late on the 13th straight day of movie watching, didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Allow me to just list the important elements: a 25-year-old child, an anti-AIDS advertisement, a midget scientist, a giant human-dividing washing machine. Zebraman 2 is exceptionally silly, occasionally funny, and thoroughly baffling. Apparently Zebraman 2 wasn’t exactly a hit at the Japanese box office, because – and I’m trusting Wikipedia on this – the political nature of the content rubbed viewers the wrong way. The political content. I’m sorry, was this thing actually written by Paddy Chayefsky, or does it feature a giant alien farting? Because it can’t be both, and the last thing definitely happened.