Milton and I have recently seen three very diverse films at the New York Film Festival – Shame, The Turin Horse and the Special Work In Progress Screening.
Shame is an erotically charged psychological drama directed by Steve McQueen about Brandon, an affluent, Manhattan-based sex addict in his early-30s, brilliantly played by charismatic, Michael Fassbender, who makes this relentless horndog sympathetic. Brandon lives a successful double life earning pots of money in his high tech job, while screwing anyone he can buy or bang for free at any hour of the day or night. When overcome with the urge in the office, he visits the men’s room for a wank. A quiet evening at home involves pounding a beer and eating take-out Chinese while streaming his favorite porn site. Riding the subway into work he exchanges such penetrating eye contact with a woman doling out a boatload of come-hither glances back at him, one feels like a voyeur visualizing exactly what he’s imagining he’d like to do to her.
Brandon is content with satisfying his disconnected sexual compulsion until Sissy, his emotionally needy, hot mess of a cabaret singer sister, played perfectly by Carey Mulligan, invades his well-ordered empty life. When he watches her perform New York, New York dirge-style, he is so overcome with emotion he cannot stop a tear from rolling down his face. Needy Sissy also invades her brother’s privacy and discovers his secret, prompting him to suffer an existential crisis in response to her cloying need for love and connection. Following one of their battles, he takes impulsive action to cleanse himself of his habit. He even tries dating a co-worker with conventional ideas about relationships, but that temporary fix reinforces his natural inclination for the detached and impersonal. As Sissy craves rescue, Brandon is trapped in his desire for escape, colliding penchants that ultimately exact heavy tolls on both of them. As the ending credits rolled I was unsure what I wanted to do more, weep or take a shower. Milton declared:
Milton: Compared to what we’re seeing next, this was Disney.
What we saw next was the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s last film, The Turin Horse, a 146 minute black and white opus that was inspired by a horse that Friedrich Nietzsche saw being whipped. This act of brutality upset Nietzche so much he threw his arms around the animal to protect it and then he pretty much went off his rocker until he died ten years later. This film is ostensibly about what happened to the horse, but the narrative is so lean, it’s borderline anorexic.
It opens with a grizzled peasant with a paralyzed right arm who looks 70, but is probably 45, driving a wooden cart pulled by his weathered workhorse through a fierce windstorm. Once home, he is wordlessly met by his adult daughter, who looks 40, but is probably 20. They go about their routine of unharnessing the horse from her cart, putting her in her stable, and then they enter their stone house where she helps her father undress, and redress, he lies down, and she boils potatoes for their meal. When the potatoes are cooked, she announces, “It’s ready.” They eat wordlessly with their hands. She clears the table and then sits at the window with her back to the camera watching the wind wreak havoc outside until her father orders offscreen, “Go to bed.”
This segment is followed with the next six days of their lives, basically a repetition of the same routines in their thankless existence — fetching water from the well, dressing, undressing, boiling potatoes, eating potatoes, drinking a shot of palinka (a Hungarian fruit brandy), occasionally dealing with the horse that is looking increasingly ill, getting a visit from a gasbag neighbor, getting a second visit from an unwelcome band of gypsies that leave without incident, the well running dry for a reason that is never explained, an attempt to leave, failing to leave and finally, returning to what could be their doom — all while that windstorm of biblical proportion is blowing. The storm stops, the lantern no longer lights, without water, the potatoes can only be eaten raw, and the screen fades to black.
How I managed to stay awake, much less find myself completely riveted to the monotonous routines of these two miserable souls essentially living the saying, “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” is a testimony to whatever it is that Béla Tarr does with the camera. I never looked at my watch once. In fact, it never even occurred to me to look at my watch.
As the ending credits rolled, Milton eloquently confided:
Milton: I never want to see a potato again if that shit ain’t fried.
Afterward, Dennis Lim, a member of the festival’s selection committee, conducted a q&a with Béla Tarr, who insisted on standing throughout.
Béla Tarr succinctly explained it best why this film works so well for the viewer:
BT: The details are more important than the stupid story.
He answered the question about why this is his last film with a question:
BT: Do you think I can say more?
He added that he felt no reason to repeat himself. Afterward, Milton shared another confidence with me:
Milton: I want to screw Michael Fassbender and marry Béla Tarr.
Our mystery work-in-progress screening was for Martin Scorsese’s adventure in the world of 3D, Hugo, based on the novel by Brian Selznick titled, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Hugo is a caper about a clever orphan boy who secretly lives in a railway station in Paris with a broken automaton he’s determined to repair. On a narrative level, the first hour is so leaden with cliché chase scenes and contrived suspense, it made The Turin Horse seem light as a soufflé. In the second half, it veers into an entirely unpredictable direction when it turns into a compelling film history lesson about filmmaker Georges Méliès, before reverting back to more contrived shenanigans, yet another chase, and the predictable tugging at the heartstrings ending. I looked at my watch several times while watching this one. Hugo is scheduled to open November 23rd in time for Thanksgiving. Pass the turkey.