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Virginia Film Festival: Reflections

As I sit at Mudhouse typing this up, a student volunteer is peeling the Virginia Film Festival posters off the front windows of the Violet Crown Theater across the aisle of the Downtown Mall, leaving no trace of this short-lived but enriching and entertaining cultural event. This year’s line-up featured a healthy garden-mix of genres and post-genres, if we’re going to go there. I had the schedule and resources for an isosceles constellation of three films: two documentaries – one on a visual artist, one on a poet – and a Spanish drama.

*imho=in my humble opinion: my star-rating out of 5 stars

**Note that there will be many spoilers throughout these reflections.

Eva Hesse

I’m perched at Rapture Restaurant and Night Club – catty-corner to the Violet Crown, where this documentary was presented – scribbling down leftover thoughts on the film. Lying next to the stack of cocktail napkins just beyond my Bulleit on the rocks, the bar strainer seems to me much more aesthetically than practically purposeful ever since my immersion in the turbulent life and wondrous works of Eva Hesse. The stainless-steel tool with a semicircle of coil spring looks like something Hesse would have manipulated into a masterpiece.

The film commemorates German-Jewish sculptor Eva Hesse (1936-1970) as a brilliant champion in avant-garde art, her life cut too short by a brain tumor at age 34. As told through her family and friends’ memories, her journal entries and her letters, difficulties in her personal life and as a woman in her milieu assume agency as both hindrance to and harbinger of creative fertility.

An adversarial marriage to sculptor Tom Doyle only festers during a troubling postwar visit back to Germany, the home country she and her nuclear family fled when she was three years old. Caught in the trappings of a makeshift studio in an abandoned factory, Hesse copes with her situation by getting resourceful, experimenting with the artistic possibilities of the industrial pieces littering her surroundings. Hesse’s conversion to found objects as medium affords her art the voluptuous dynamic hiding in her heart, although her early drawings and paintings are also lush in their own right. When she returns to New York, her work is received with pleasant shock and is recruited into the mainstream through art shows at renowned galleries and publicity in fine arts periodicals, one of which describes her work as bristling with “synchronistic oddities.”

Present-day interviews with family and former fellow artists illuminate the complex stages and layers of her emotional life and artistic career. We also follow her journal entries and unfold the envelopes of her archival correspondences. The lauds of her contemporaries are genuine and foil the dark patches of her life. Their charming testaments are regaled with admiration of her anti-categorical project, as well as her beauty. One witty lady concedes with fondness: “She was all about vanity.” A glassblowing artist Hesse worked with toward the latter part of her career recalls a more romantic sensibility, stating “I was in love with her, but I don’t think she was in love with me…” then, cheekily, “but she was infatuated with me… she was definitely infatuated with me.”

The eponymous documentary’s artistry mirrors the essence of Hesse’s ideal in her pioneering post-minimalist sculptures; a flux of “sensitivity and strength.” Tone and setting inform color scheme: the unanimously radiant interviews vivid across the visible light spectrum, archive footage of Hesse either in greyscale or age-faint color. The dreamscapes she outlines in her journals are integrated into the cinematography as semi-realistic sketches, a stave against modern animation to honor Hesse’s own progressive movement in her time, as well as a parallel illustration of “the realm of […] rationalism and the realm of surrealist dream objects” convergent in her artistic vision.

She royally f***s the world with her style-defying, timeless art, despite her conjecture only weeks before she died:

“Art doesn’t last. Life doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter.”

imho:: *****

A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet

Another heart-wrenching documentary about yet another soulful muse receptacle. I know. I’m sorry. But worry not. If you elect to watch it, A Late Style of Fire will rock you as a fully threshed biography of an idyllic yet bohemian spirit of a writer.

The poète maudit was born and raised in a likely soul-shaping ranch in Fresno, California. He worked in vineyards among – as the documentary is ardent to repeatedly point out – Mexican and Mexican-American workers, emphasized probably to underscore the inspiration Levis gathered in bunches from the migrant worker’s experience and translated into his poetry. The film charts a stormy symphony of earthy upbringing, precocious obsession with encyclopedias and words, and swirling syndrome of desire across three marriages and a number of affairs. Because his roles as a talented poet and professor are never called into question, the film does call into question the notion of fidelity as a condition of love. Even so, despite expressing frustration, his ex-wives maintain a sort of merciful, gracious understanding, perhaps out of self-effacement and/or to cater to the documentary. Perhaps they were more resilient or nonchalant about it than I give them credit for. In classic posthumous reverence, nonetheless, they support his voluntary and involuntary experiences as all part and parcel of the deepening of his poetic mind, though unfortunately to the point of bottomlessness. He, like Hesse, died relatively young, him at 49 of a heart attack likely from coke poisoning.

Every directorial choice, on the other hand, seemed directly in sync with the stunning literary brilliance of Larry Levis flaunted at interval readings from his poetry by a former colleague. Archive footage of the California vineyards depicts an earth-toned but garish, sun-toasted palette, in keeping with the autumn season threaded throughout the recited Levis poetry. As metal and grapes comprise the substances of Levis’s childhood spent in a tractor harvesting vine fruit, Iron & Wine supplies the instrumental score as a trellis for the film’s espalier of a subject in a covenant of unconditional yearning, yet insatiable lovesickness.

imho:: ****

Julieta

I got my ticket for this Spanish film scanned instead of stub-stripped at the Culbreth Theater. I thought I was about to enter a Laser-Tag arena once the red light zapped my ticket’s bar code with a sonic alien raygun flourish. Certainly set the mood for me; not in a sci-fi sense, of course, but just to be ready for generally any pixelation this film would have to throw in my dark direction.

In a nutshell – though it is absolutely much more intricate and elegant than my reductive summary – woman meets man on a train, they fall in ~luv~, they part for years, reunite, have child/start family, dad dies, mom grieves, daughter takes on parental responsibilities for emotionally comatose mom, daughter leaves for a spiritual quest for over twelve years, daughter finally writes to mom again. And the film was… spicy. Picante, if you will. Had a few, ahem, raunchy scenes.

The movie seems to begin in media res, and continues to play out in a state of chaos kept at bay. The chronology is subtly framed by Julieta’s recounting of the story in a forward-moving flashback sequence, a great move that reflects Homeric myth narrative, classics being Julieta’s area of expertise. An operative motif, Greek mythology also enables the drama’s play-by-play toward the verge of absurdism without breaching into the fantastical. That is, except for a computer-animated stag specter running in the snow, “shot” through a window from the inside of a moving train, which caught me off guard because it felt like we the audience were all engorged in the backwoods arcade of a bar, playing the deer-hunting game, but we were all hunting for one stray reindeer from The Polar Express. And except for a slight horror-score that haunted the film and struck a cognitive dissonance in shots where omen didn’t seem warranted, or at least timely. But I willfully suspended my disbelief which accompanied my visceral reaction to these two directorial choices as anomalous, fake-feeling blips, because it’s a “drama.”

Dualities of visual and poetic devices are deployed either seamlessly or slightly too on-the-nose, but cleverly nonetheless, so we are reminded of the mastermind of the filmmaker, for better or worse. Metaphorical dialogue first appears when Julieta’s boyfriend Lorenzo asks what she is doing, Julieta tells him that she is “boiling water” – literally has a pot of water on the stove. But, in this scenario, she is also figurative incarnation of “boiling water,” a live-action realization of stewing over her decision to stay in Madrid to find her long-estranged daughter, rather than move with her boyfriend to Portugal. Ineffability of grief is executed in vast deserts of dialogic silence; its blank radio space allows us room to question how human nature is to redeem its own capriciousness. Plastic rhymes are also braided into the film. Key mood costuming occurs during a scene at the tail-end of the film in which Julieta and her estranged daughter’s best friend reunite by chance at an outdoor basketball court: both are wearing red and black, colors of passion, blood, grief, vengeance, among other bold themes. Love and abandonment lead to vegetable situations. Each of the multiple storylines is complicated, yet well-meshed into a clear multi-helix of narrative, a magisterial anabolism.

imho:: ****


Addie Eliades is a fourth-year who owns 15 copies of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room on DVD.