By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Los Muertos,” Facets Multimedia Distribution, 2007]
Art film minimalism has self-modulated a sweet amount since the days of Antonioni’s wanderings and Ozu’s autumnal fixations in America, it remained a Jarmuschian joke until Gus Van Sant took to camera-roaming without a story. But internationally, things were only lushly Tarkosvkyian after Tarkovsky died (minimalist-maximalist that he was), leaving a handful of ravishing, observant shot architects (Angelopoulos, Sokurov, Tarr, Hou) in his wake. No, it took Kiarostami, in the ’90s, to reset the cinema-as-art experience default to near zero before modern minimalism took hold; after that, Tsai, Bartas, Weerasethakul, Reygadas, Jia and Ceylan established new standards for time and emptiness, and films came from Sri Lanka, Spain, sub-Saharan Africa, Morocco, Portugal (Pedro Costa, oy gevalt), Tajikistan and nearly everywhere else exploring how little a movie could tell us.
Of course, the irony and wonder of minimalism, however dire it might sound in any synopsis, is that usually the less plot an attentively made film has, the more that movie ends up showing us about landscape, the characters’ sensual rhythms, the knowledge of time and seeing, and the nature of patiently experiencing life, not simply being told about it via dialogue or narrative contrivance. Lisandro Alonso’s “Los Muertos” (2004), which took three full years to find an American release, is the effortlessly expressive example of the moment, a trip through the Argentine jungle that measures out to be about 10 percent action, dialogue and motivation, and 90 percent raw vision. Less is absolutely more those stingy dollops of context have a seismic punch, and what we don’t know makes the ellipses all the more troubling and resonant.
First, we get a single shot preamble: a woozy, fixed-focus perspective walking through the jungle, glimpsing first a few bloodied corpses in the brush and then a passing machete evoking an abrupt but dreamy memory of Argentina’s late-’70s-early-’80s “Dirty War” and oppression by the military juntas. Indeed, 15 years pass (or so it is obliquely suggested) in a cut, and suddenly a laconic middle-aged man named Vargas (Argentino Vargas, a non-professional and, perhaps, ex-con) whiles away his last hours in a relaxed, low-rent jungle penitentiary. Soon, he is free to nearly wordlessly venture back into the jungle to return to his now-adult daughter. We get hints of what his crime had been, but not much more than that what is happening right now in the new minimalism is the priority, not backstory or what comes next. “Los Muertos” transforms this threadbare outline into a magical mystery tour, in which Vargas feeds himself on honeycombs and the occasional stray goat (watch out, it’s a one-take takedown, slaughter and skinning), and responds undramatically to nature. Alonso’s camera responds as well, with patience and exaltation we witness the forest, the river, the sky, the swamps, the trees buffeted by wind, all as experiences eloquent and moving on their own, which, of course, they are. But what’s unsaid about this man and his journey indeed, the “deaths” referred to in the title is backlit by the chaotic richness of nature, and the tingly upshot is haunting in ways that conventional dramatic setups and payoffs cannot approach.
Recently, American indie minimalism, because it’s inherently narcissistic, has morphed into something called mumblecore (a criminally idiotic coinage that one hopes is already being forgotten), deftly represented by Aaron Katz’s “Quiet City” (2007). Katz’s aesthetic is, on one hand, Ozu by way of high-def (lots of lovely haiku cutaways to New York City skylines and textures), and on the other, decelerated realism (twentysomethings chatting aimlessly and guardedly). It’s easy to mock in the overview, but Katz has an eye for the in-between moments, and a satisfyingly subtle agenda for his films’ overall arcs. “Quiet City” is so delicate and spare it could crumble in a stiff breeze: Jamie (Erin Fisher) is an out-of-town girl visiting a scatterbrained friend in Manhattan, and finds herself stranded on a subway platform. She asks for directions from a passerby named Charlie (Cris Lankenau), who eventually, and rather gallantly, decides to stick with her until she can find her way in off the street. They end up at his apartment, chastely, and spend what amounts to a long weekend together, before and after finding Jamie’s deadbeat buddy. Nothing cataclysmic happens between them, and their talk is almost entirely banal and insignificant, but of course Katz is after what’s not being expressed between them, until we finally see a single, simple expressive gesture that was, in its gentle way, worth all the waiting.
Katz has been praised for his naturalism, but “Quiet City” has its fair share of tenderly contrived dialogue; at various points, it’s difficult to buy that these two kind-hearted kids would have so little, or at other times so much, to say to each other. (Fisher and Lankenau share screenplay credit for the heavily improvised film.) It is, in any case, a difficult balance to strike if you’re working this close to mundane realities. Katz gets props just for keeping his focus and staving off the impulse toward broad narrative gestures, and casting his film with such surprisingly ordinary yet compulsively watchable actors. That said, “Quiet City” is filthy with intimate images of the kind that epitomize cinema’s infectious glow, whether it be of Fisher’s unsure smile or the Brooklyn Bridge. The DVD set, out from new video startup Benten Films, also features Katz’s first feature, “Dance Party, USA” (2006), which makes up for its weightier degree of awkwardness with sharp-edged sexual frisson.
“Los Muertos” (Facets Video) and “Quiet City & Dance Party, USA” (Benten Films) will be available on DVD on January 29th.