IN SEARCH OF FATHERS: A REPORT FROM SFIFF 53
The 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival ended yesterday. I had not been at the festival since Sunday, in part because I had begun coughing up blood and was trying to contain spontaneous nosebleeds during screenings. “Holy TMI dude!” as Craig Keller might say. But I assure you I’m reporting only what is germane to my experience with the films at SFIFF this year: I attribute these unsavory symptoms to anxiety stimulated by a recurring theme which chased me through my final two screenings and out the door. I have ignored and disrespected my emotions for so long that they have learned how to speak through my body. This report will inevitably contain spoilers and here’s the first: I am going through some major changes in my life which prevent me from seeing my children as much as I’d like to. Call it a filter, call it a bias. Let’s see if my circumstances can be instructive as I examine films which treat the subject of fathers and fatherhood.
I recently raided a VHS cabinet while spending the night in an unfamiliar house and the result was a first-ever viewing of Stripes. For personal reasons, I was particularly sensitive to the scene near the beginning of the film in which slovenly, employed-when-he-feels-like-it Bill Murray is told by his departing girlfriend, “It’s not cute anymore.”
Watching Cyrus and happythankyoumoreplease near the end of my time at SFIFF, I kept thinking, “It’s not cute anymore.”
When did the manchild become a thing? How long ago?
Cyrus and happythankyoumoreplease feature quasi-adult male protagonists who are thrust into surrogate fatherhood—in one case by a single mother who doesn’t mention her drinking-age codependent son before it’s too late, in the other by a quiet little guy who refuses to return to his foster family. I recognize that my frustration at these two apparently harmless comedies might be distorted beyond all reason. Seeing them with large audiences, I can confirm that both are successful as crowd-pleasers, and I don’t want to be a wet blanket. I should leave these films to the crowds they please and move on to stuff with more nuanced themes, the films which got me so worked up about fatherhood, conceptually speaking, that I had no stomach for yuk-yukking through these slapdash mock-family scenarios.
Okay, let’s call that a false start.
This time I’ll start with Linha de Passe, which is hardly news as it played at Cannes two years ago. It was revived for SFIFF to screen in conjunction with the master class in directing offered by Walter Salles, the unassuming recipient of the founder’s directing award this year. Directed by Salles and Daniela Thomas, Linha de Passe employs an all-first-timer cast and crew as a putative nod to Salles’s neo-realist influences. One shouldn’t be too cavalier with the term “roots,” but clearly Salles considers this film a return to… something. The camera dashes through Sao Paulo to track the poverty-stricken hijinks of four fatherless boys. And they are very, very fatherless. This is not a subtle film by any means. Salles introduced the film with a statistic (thirty-five percent of families in Brazil are fatherless, if I recall correctly), which is a bad sign whether you’re settling in for a narrative feature or a documentary, but in this particular case I think I actually shrank in my seat. The film provides a catwalk for a jumble of “main” characters to exemplify everything that fatherless boys can exemplify. We shudder—or at least we’re meant to. Tendentiousness gives way to a rapid enumeration of key points on a script-map and drama disappears altogether. (Which reminds me: I recently watched an ancient court-appointed video about divorce-trodden children, and there are scenes in Linha de Passe that are as clinical and dramaturgy-free as those peddled by the state to convince parents to be responsible and stick around.) “I’m going to look for my father,” says the youngest boy, who has been taught bus driving basics by an avuncular driver. And degrees of avuncularity is another element worth examining in films which (don’t) involve conspicuously absent fathers. There are plenty of adult men in the world, and fatherless children are not particularly discerning when vetting role models. I found myself celebrating the harmlessness of this bus driver, as if harmlessness were a quality to possess and pass on. Harmlessness contains nothing like authority, and that’s probably the first thing to go when a father does—security being inextricably bound to it. What a kid looks for in lieu of that is someone who knows his name.
You’d hardly notice the authority/security dialectic in the eponymous character in The Father of My Children. He is the only male in his family—the three bourgeois daughters here provide a stark inversion of the favela-dwelling all-boy family in Linha de Passe—and his attentions are groped after. When the younger girls stage a living-room play, it derisively involves him. He laughs them off but we are certain of his irrelevance, even if he is numb to it. Later, during a sliver of vacation in rural Italy, traipsing through the ruins of a monastery, he dishes on the Knights Templar as if reading aloud from a Wikipedia entry—not porous enough for questions, let alone conversation. His children predictably drift through defunct doorways and away—a delicate moment which hardly gives us time to ask ourselves which came first: the detachment or the irrelevance? Of course it’s not hard to guess; families are shaped by what they lack. In scenes like this one, director Mia Hansen-Love hopes that abbreviation and abruption equate to subtlety and emotional sophistication, a trope which is unmistakably French (I risk implicating my own debut feature here, so I should pipe down). As with Rohmer, who often reported an array of uninflected moments in his characters’ lives before offering anything resembling drama, this film takes you by the shoulders as you walk down the street afterward rather than while you’re seated before it (there are other odd tingles of Rohmer: the garish, multicolored opening titles; the Films du Losange imprimatur). There is some Assayas to be found here as well, especially in the humdrum nuts-and-bolts view of film financing and production, the stomping grounds of Irma Vep. Structurally The Father of My Children is syncopated in a way which intrigues and satisfies—there is an event near the middle that serves as a bifurcating fulcrum to which the two halves pleasingly cleave. I fell for the false ending in which the oldest daughter orders a coffee from an offscreen barista who asks a few terse questions about how she’d like it prepared, chasing the furtive customer back to the comfort and security of hot chocolate. But a few minutes later the family car rounds a city corner and the increasingly aloof mother says, “We don’t have time to go to the [spoiler].” Alas, we sense that the director is trying to dupe us with “poignancy.” This terminal flourish is likely to be endorsed in a screenwriting manual, but that rules it out as a moment of pungent verisimilitude collected by an indefatigable observer. Over-clarification for the slow kids is always ill-advised.
Of course subtlety and emotional sophistication can be achieved through other methods. Illustration 1a: the Slow Film. The Father of My Children is not so much edited as diced, whereas Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar is languorous, untidy and redundant in the way of celebrated elliptical films. If we fault it for having less intentionality than a Malick work, we must also grant that it’s thoroughly imbued with a place and culture which preclude that sort of artistic intentionality. That is, it knows itself. It is fundamentally unforced. Is that a Bible the old man is reading? This is the work of a masterful observer, not a brilliant director. Alamar serves as the counterpoint to a Silent Light or a Bubble, in which “interestingness” in the form of a plot is grafted onto films largely motored by ethnographic documentary (the sore-thumb narrative contrivance is far more successful in Bubble than in the disturbingly exploitative Silent Light).
In Alamar, a young boy who is the product of an unlikely cross-cultural union spends some quality time with his fisherman father in a doorless Caribbean shack before going to live with his mother in urban Italy. The boy and his father fish. They wrestle in and around hammocks. They play patiently with an egret. The film is so effortlessly but mercilessly poignant that I am in fact weeping over this paragraph. Here we see a fatherhood which consists of manual dexterity and zoological savvy—how conveniently the egret scene answers the Knights Templar scene in The Father of My Children. This mad-maned fisherman is inclusive and warm; his knowledge of the world is not just organic but elemental. There are moments of apparent neglect (the boy is occasionally left alone in a small boat alongside dangerous implements; and the, um, crocodile scene) which register somehow as part of an orientation to fatherhood which is beyond reproach. Bad fathers aren’t native to these parts.
There is a shot in Alamar which is cinema itself (I would use the word “quiddity” if I felt the film in question could withstand the pressure of such verbiage): two pairs of feet—first the boy’s, then his father’s—pass along a reclining branch in a desiccated mangrove copse. The image transcends whatever “happens” before it and after it. Miraculously this shot is a triple threat: it exists as an embodiment of the film’s theme; it efficiently serves the plot (they’re searching for the egret); and it stands as an inviolable image in its own right. There is no other single shot in the films at SFIFF which resides within the same universe of cinema with this one (though the kangaroo hunt in Wake in Fright is easily the most indelible sequence). Alamar appropriately won the New Directors Award at SFIFF 53.
Alamar is so thematically rudimentary that one wonders where “sophistication” occurs—I mean, why would I call Alamar more sophisticated than The Father of My Children, as if such a thing could be measured or quantified? I say this despite González-Rubio’s indiscretion of depicting the boy standing on a footbridge alongside his mother in the final shot, a kind of expressive precision which is dissonant to the rest of the film—a very wrong chord. Not that I want to talk about the film that wasn’t made, but seeing the father go about his daily routine without his son would have been muscular punctuation for these various meditations on conspicuously absent fathers—a man registering the impact of his conspicuously absent child.
Excuse me. That Alamar is a metaphor for my life at the moment is emotionally inconvenient.
There is no authoritative adult male presence to guide 17-year-old Pierre in Patric Chiha’s Domain. The film begins with a grandfatherly mathematician recounting the chalkboard breakthroughs of his glory days, and we prepare for a passing-of-the-mantle tale, but this character does not appear again and provides only a scrawny specter of authority when mentioned later. Pierre’s tumultuous relationship with his sufficiently masculine aunt (Beatrice Dalle, marching sonorously with her hands thrust into the pockets of a pantsuit) is conducted largely as a brittle gay fetish. The other males whom our protagonist encounters are openly predatory—his aunt inexplicably abides a dark, disheveled, leering character who descends on their table in a dim estaminet populated with the forgotten. What does this aunt want from her half-formed ciphery nephew? This symbiotic relationship ends with a scene that is equally disconcerting and inevitable. I’m still trying to determine whether Domain has greatness in it. Possibly. It’s a good sign that I’m still thinking about it.
The barrel-chested Swiss farmer at the center of Animal Heart is positioned between sonhood and fatherhood but within the bounds of the film he is neither. His venerated father exists only as a hallowed vacant bedroom and his own hopes for fatherhood are indicated by a toast to his wife’s “belly,” a more-ignorant-than-tasteful euphemism for her could-be pregnancy. The events and characterizations stack up to meet every expectation of the audience (“Knife in the Water on a farm,” I dismissively thought at the beginning of the second act) but then it swerves into another kind of film altogether around the halfway point. The final shot, two bodies clumsily engaged in a putative attempt to disengage, is dramaturgically incorrect but so emotionally and psychologically astute—a bucketload of understanding that does not correspond to the meanderings of the film up to that point, demonstrating that if the follow-through of a third act must always be a foregone conclusion, the final shot can skewer that with little apparent effort. Animal Heart is the debut feature of a female director, Séverine Cornamusaz, and I can’t help but think that the emotional-veracity-trumps-narrative-convention formula has something to do with both her sex and her inexperience. Blessings on both.
My Queen Karo contains a particularly disturbing group sex scene: Karo, a barely pubescent child, is framed in the same shot with orgiastic goings-on. She wakes and witnesses these confused and confusing acts, then buries her face in her mother’s armpit and tries to go back to sleep. If you want a monotonously condemnatory view of commune life, here it is. The age requirement for a coming-of-age tale is at its minimum here, the L’Effrontee ballpark—I mean, Christ, do we really have to depict girls of this age “coming of age”? If you have any sensitivity at all to the fucked up situations into which children are carelessly thrust, you will writhe in this one. Take the scene in which Karo is baptized by her visiting aunt, a nun, and then practically waterboarded by her hysterically atheistic and anti-establishmentarian father in order, ostensibly, to reverse the baptism! (Oh, the extremely high price of the cultural fissure created by those who define themselves by what they reject.) Soon Karo is baptizing and freezing her pet rodent into a block of ice, that psychotic conflation of maternal instinct and pain-inflicting which drives Munchausen syndrome by proxy. As in the case of Lars von Trier, bringing a child up without imposed order is a surefire way to chase her into the arms of, say, the Catholic Church, or whatever she perceives to be the ultimate authority. When two of the children in the commune are whisked away by their father, who yells at his free-loving quasi-wife that he wants his kids in a safe environment, Karo chases them into the street, hoping she too qualifies for such unceremonious salvation. Her stop at their oasis of cartoons and junk food is brief. My Queen Karo illustrates that political ideals are useless when it comes to providing security for children. The degree of responsibility Karo is given for herself, the magnitude of the choices she is presented with—staggering. When she excels at swimming, she matter-of-factly states, “I taught myself, all on my own.” Compare this with Alamar, in which a little boy has no identity to speak of but the rituals, abilities and knowledge his father has precisely and attentively handed down. Now how do we feel about that? Comforted? Secure? I think so.
There. I wanted to end this report talking about Alamar.
— Alejandro Adams
Joseph Jon Lanthier
A phenomenal “theme”-grounded round-up, Mr. Adams. I think that filial — and mainly paternal — anxiety was definitely a pervasive motif throughout the festival, and the trope is broad enough to encompass a handful of figurative fathers by way of half-hearted analytical legerdemain (Can’t Clouzot be faulted for egocentrically “overparenting” “L’Infer” in the same manner that the hideously Plutonian “Yabba” incubates cancerously inchoate patriarchal expectations without a sexual-generation hierarchy to protect the throngs of overgrown adolescents from their own ids?).
In any case, though, the only film on which we slightly disagree is ALAMAR, a movie that was certainly a festival highlight and, as I referred to it at Slant, undeniably an “an aural-visual masterpiece” with subtly but indelibly investigated ecological and familial ideas. As you write, “…we must also grant that it’s thoroughly imbued with a place and culture which preclude that sort of artistic intentionality. That is, it knows itself. It is fundamentally unforced. Is that a Bible the old man is reading? This is the work of a masterful observer, not a brilliant director.”
I’m still uncertain how to unpack the observer/director distinction. I agree, of course, that it’s there, and that the film could not have been made by anyone without a documentarian’s sense of capturing the moment precluding the fictive director’s sense of controlling the microcosm. González-Rubio “writes” ALAMAR with his patient camerawork rather than with words or even with psychological inquiry; these characters cannot be “penetrated” or “understood” or “read”–they’re too archetypal, too prototypical, too gloriously rudimentary in both literary and cosmic senses for them to function as anything but “beings,” and we get off on the absence of symbolism and narrative doubt because it’s a powerful existential affirmation (the primary conflict here is a nearly tribal mourning over a soon-to-be absent child without any further subtext). This is part of the movie’s power. We don’t feel like these are characters who exist for our intellectual/moral/dramatic pleasure. And when films achieve this kind of diegetic autonomy they seemingly, and monumentally, stand apart from most of the traditions of western performance (cinema might be the only art form that can manage this, though that’s another discussion).
What’s bothersome is the nebulous line between faked art and well-bottled poeticism. It matters not that the family of ALAMAR is real, or that the father isn’t really a fisherman, or the boy isn’t really in Italy today. What matters is how these fictive elements obfuscate the raw earthiness of the scenarios that somehow González-Rubio both stages and allows to happen. In this way it’s actually similar to your own debut film, AROUND THE BAY, which I recently saw — the cameras and the actors are all given the freedom to find their own sweet spots so long as they operate within the boundaries of a pre-determined structure. But with ATB, the murmuring plot and inter-character conflicts were necessary–the form and content there had to be chained to a story before they could be lyrically liberated from it. With ALAMAR I feel the imposition of the “last daddy boat trip” a bit too much — it’s a dramatic catalyst, yes, but at what cost? Do we imagine the Gulf salt in the air any more vividly? Is the buried mysticism of the primitive, sustainable fishing techniques any more spellbinding?
I realize in writing this that my criticism of the film is almost indefensibly anal — because ALAMAR is neither a fudged-fact documentary or a contemplative “based-on-a-true-story” fiction (it’s somewhere in-between even those two compromised sub-genres, lost in tone-poem land) it gives me hermeneutical indigestion. And regardless of its difficult categorization, it is, most definitely, a very, very good film. But I’ll end with a response to something the director mentioned during his Q&A — while he rightfully proposed that the blend of fact and fiction is subordinate to the on-screen content, I’d go a step further. What matters isn’t what’s on the screen, either — it’s what’s in front of the camera. ALAMAR has one of the most nuanced, meditative, and crucially respectful camera-to-scene relationships I’ve ever witnessed in the movies, so the moments where that partnership seemed strained or at risk (most notably during the custody details and the opening and closing scenes) were downright devastating.
Then again, this might be yet another of the film’s gifts: Its successful moments are so supernally captivating we demand the same perfection of the remainder.