New York Film Festival Dispatch #5

Heinz Emigholz is a prolific filmmaker who has been active since the ’70s, and his Streetscapes series and other films have been available on MUBI in recent years. I never actually made the time for them, however, so The Last City was my first encounter with his work. It consists of five dreamt dialogues, following one character into their own dream until we return to the first. We begin in Be’er Sheva with a psychiatrist-turned-weapons designer (Jonathan Perel) speaking to a filmmaker-turned-archaeologist (John Erdman), move to Athens for an encounter between that filmmaker and his younger self (Young Sun Han), who, in the third segment, becomes a priest living with his brother and mother in Berlin. The mother (Dorothy Ko), now in Hong Kong, lectures a “Japanese” woman (Susanne Sachsse) about Japan’s atrocities during WWII in the fourth, while the “Japanese” woman, actually a German, recounts the strangeness of dreaming herself as Japanese and discusses extraterrestrial life with Perel, now a cosmologist in Sao Paolo.

Those who have seen Streetscapes will recognize Perel and Erdman, and recall that they did, in fact, play therapist and filmmaker in that film; for the rest of us, the reflexive tip of the cap is the mention of that former filmmaker’s film taking place “in five cities,” as this one does. But a more immediate tip that The Last City is concerned with more than the matters of its narrative is Emigholz’s framing and editing. The dutch angle is a mainstay, as are close-ups with the character’s head low and off to one side. Cuts occur mid-speech and frequently either cross the axis of action or place the characters in a new location altogether. The Last City behaves so unlike most films that its difference is obviously integral rather than incidental.

Such deliberate highlighting of the film’s constructedness, along with the heady conversations and the stylization of the acting, reminded me of Straub-Huillet films. But I imagine Straub-Huillet tend to find their material and then find an aesthetic that appropriately conveys the implications of the material and the contemporary relationship to it that they wish to highlight. With Emigholz, I imagine the opposite; that is, the narrative, with its intimations of time travel, trans-continental locations, and foregrounding of dreams (including, by extension, dreamed spaces and architectures) are as much a justification for Emigholz’s method. He seems concerned with the architectural and spatial possibilities of filming.

In an interview with Jordan Cronk for Cinema Scope, Emigholz explanation of his method is concerned in large part with its deviance. “In traditional filmmaking this kind of photography is supposed to signify the perspective of a nutcase or something,” he says, “but for me it’s the right thing to do. Some of these old rules of creating space or continuity are just fucked up — or used up, let’s say!” Emigholz here seems to recognize his framing and his breaking of editing rules as a cinematic taboo, and his film is replete with discussions of taboos. Here he is explaining one of them in the interview:

“Incest is a taboo for everyone, young or old. But the reason behind an incest taboo is to not produce birth defects in children. But what about incest between two brothers? Why should that be taboo? It’s illogical?”

Whatever one might think of this attitude, it reveals an interest in interrogating taboos, and the film is self-evidently concerned as much with cinematographic ones as societal ones.

Indeed, The Lobby, Emigholz’s other film in this year’s New York Film Festival, is a prolonged monologue about our greatest taboo: death. Erdman here plays a man (referred to in the credits as Old White Male), much cruder and more indignant than his gentle characters in The Last City, who sits in building lobbies in Buenos Aires and lectures the viewer about death. Emigholz shoots and edits this feature with the same exploratory verve as The Last City, and winks to the audience even more: Erdman frequently refers to the audience watching the film in a theater “or even at home on a media device,” remarks on the film’s lack of commerciality, and even curses the director while claiming ownership over the film and his words, thereby confusing the boundary between the film’s writer-director and its performer. It’s a helpful addendum in that it adheres to the same dynamic as The Last City, even if its more unique concerns largely eluded me.

More convincing in linking form to metaphysics, in fact, was Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Labor of Love, which renders death’s opposite as a haptic wonder. It takes words from Peter Wohlleben’s Trees of Knowledge BBC3 broadcast and plays them over colorful, kaleidoscopic images punctuated by soft fades in and out of black. The words are effective as a purely textural force — they seem to take on an affective force outside their meaning — but they also provide an entrypoint to the film’s central metaphor. Per Schedelbauer, “love opens new internal spaces, invites possibilities — and allows for change, generosity, and human growth.”

Wohlleben’s work is about how trees communicate, and it reveals a communicative world that is inaccessible to outsiders. The “argument,” of Labor of Love is that loves does the same, and it attempts to visualize that internal space in the same way Wohlleben attempts to explain the communication of trees. Whether this sounds either pretentious or naive on paper, the proof is in the pudding; Labor of Love is as fulfilling a sensory experience as you could hope to find.

Ben Rivers’ Look Then Below is equally adept at capturing impossible spaces. Science fiction films tend to make their world look believable; they resemble ours, bound by the rules of verisimilitude. Even special effects aim to look convincing. Look Then Below, by contrast, uses digital trickery to make its world look strange. The colors and sounds, the score by Christina Vantzou and the narration by Therese Henningsen (written by sci-fi author Mark von Schlegell) work together to take us somewhere strange and almost out-of-time, rather than somewhere futuristic but fundamentally familiar. To say that the tools that can be used to make films better are on display here is true, but it takes away from the fact that Look Then Below is already one of the better films those tools service. There is nothing quite like it.