New York Film Festival, Part 3: Werner Herzog as a Plastic Bag and Experimental Russian Animation

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Ramin Bahrani‘s lovely 18-minute whirlwind, Plastic Bag documents the existential and eye-opening afterlife of a poster-child for pollution. It is voiced by Werner Herzog. The Bavarian auteur — who has been in the blogosphere of late with a new, $1450-priced seminar called the Rogue Film School — lends his familiar brogue to the plain-brown plastic as it goes from the checkout line into its “Maker’s” life.

The “Maker,” as Herzog refers to her throughout, appears to never have heard of other sorts of bags (zip-lock, canvas, so on) and she re-uses our protagonist to hold lunch, tennis balls, ice, and even dog food.

No matter: all bags become flotsam and this is when the bag’s determined, air-to-sea search for meaning and home commences, with Bahrani’s usual DP Michael Simmonds framing it drifting against and past lifeless structures and breathtaking nature scenes (on land, in air, under water). Throughout, the plastic runs into seagulls, horses, and jellyfish — each invariably called “monster” — before the idyll pointedly ends at the Pacific Trash Vortex, a swirling, 100-million-ton mass of the selfsame objects.

Here lies the increasingly apparent message (Herzog: “I wish you had created me so I could die”) of an ecological PSA that’s still poetic and quite potent, one bolstered by Sigur Rós keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson’s lush score. Happily, you’ll be able to watch it online in the near-future since it’s one of the 11 films that make up Futurestates, a new series commissioned by The Independent Television Service (ITVS).

Meanwhile, there’s a beautiful plasticity to Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s A Room and a Half, an ode to the exiled poet Joseph Brodsky and his search for lost time. The Russian animator offers a resplendent visual outing as he freewheels through the post-WWII Leningrad/St. Petersburg that shaped and haunted the Nobel Laureate (class of ’87). The film’s framing device is an imagined voyage by the elderly Brodsky (Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy) back to the Motherland and past; while at sea, he warns us that the “linear” is better left to math books, that his “memory is simply a developing film.”

With this carte blanche, Khrzhanovsky delicately mix-and-matches the poet’s elegiac time in America — where he’s free but bereft of family — with affectionate, sigh-coated scenes of his childhood, adolescence, and political awakening; archival footage of the Soviet culture from which he was eventually cast off for being a “social parasite”; and animation that’s simply magnificent, from a cut-out orchestra going airborne on a wintry night to exquisite pencil drawings of cats in aerial contraptions.

It turns somewhat sappy as it nears the end, but Khrzhanovsky does slip in a eureka sequence: calling forth Brodsky’s ghostly and incantatory voice, he edits shots of a foreign St. Petersburg to coincide with his line breaks, each sentence flows into the following as each image vanishes into the next, tying life and language into a mighty reverie.

Lebanon, on the other hand, is Israeli writer/director Samuel Maoz’s tank-chamber drama whose myopia curbs its initial promise and its resonance. Set on the first day of the 1982 Lebanon War — and based on the director’s own traumatic combat experiences — the Venice Film Festival prizewinner entraps the audience inside a combat tank where four, unfit-to-serve soldier boys are assigned to man its murderous apparatus.

Plunged into this mucky and claustrophobic interior, the only way to see the ruined outside world is through a gunsight that moves from side to side with a mechanical whirring noise, and whose zoom sounds like a computer pop-up. Cross hairs are stamped on each and every exterior image — whether enemy fighters, crumbling facades, or a Lebanese woman in search of her daughter — and it’s a truly inventive way to simulate the limited, disoriented perspective and power of those in war.

When the shit hits the fan during their supposed “stroll” through a bombed-out town, the action is largely a relentless aural and psychological blitz as the gunner can’t bring himself to fire. This do-or-die tension unsettles since there’s often little clue of their relation to the enemy, and the where-we-be paranoia reaches a fever pitch when a pair of shady phalangists (Christian Arab allies) are enlisted to lead them to safety. Yet throughout these fraught movements, the soldiers never rise above cardboard cutouts (mama’s boy, shell-shocked leader, etc.), these empty signifiers whose darting and frantic eyes can only signify a textbook motif: the horror, the horror.

Lebanon was preceded by Paolo Sorrentino’s wordless Slow Game, in which the Italian’s flamboyant style explores a rugby squads on- and off- field dynamics to metaphorical effect.

Now 81 years old, Cahiers du cinéma alumnus and auteur Jacques Rivette helms Around A Small Mountain, a beautifully-shot, melancholic, but ultimately trying exploration of a few of his usual idées fixes, such as the nebulous intersection of art and life and the processes behind creation. Herein, a small-time circus, rather than the theater, provides the multipurpose stage for what some propose is Rivette’s au voir.

Jane Birkin stars as Kate, a woman who returns to the troupe following her father’s passing and after a 15-year hiatus; she suffers from an emotional backlog that dates back to the freak accident (to reveal it is to snatch half the plot) that led to her departure. First seen beside a broken car, she’s rescued here and hereafter by a peripatetic Italian knight-in-shining automobile named Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto). From there, the sly, charming Vittorio trails the heavy-hearted Kate and her circus, but the interactions between the two seem slight owing to Birkin’s hard-to-swallow performance. The rest of the film feels unmoored as a result, although the nightly fine-tuning of a skit with broken plates and bullets is something to behold, especially once Vittorio steps in for an improvised diversion.