Name: Ian Barr
Twitter handle: @ianbarr
City I call home: Sydney
Area of cinema I am most passionate about: A cop-out cliché answer, but exploring all areas of the medium is what I’m most passionate about; I like the feeling of always being at the tip of an iceberg. That being said, I’m particularly fond of films that have a good on-foot chase sequence and/or are 70–80 minutes in length.
A film that changed me/my mind: The Shining. I saw it at the age of 12, unaware of the film or Kubrick’s reputation, and it was the first time I recall being engaged with a film for reasons other than narrative/entertainment value – namely, formal qualities. I consequently stopped trying to land a kickflip, and started exploring classic/canonical cinema.
MIFF film I’m most looking forward to: Hands down, Jacques Rivette’s rarely-screened, 13-hour 1971 opus Out 1, which has been at the top of my cinematic bucket list for nearly as long as it’s runtime. Of new films: Aleksei German’s swansong Hard to be a God – I’ve watched its amazing trailer about ten times.
I’m looking forward to Critics Campus because: Meeting the other members and the mentors, improving my writing and critical thinking, and because the word “campus” promises a debauched, prank-filled romp.
Cinema excites me because: It’s inexhaustible.
A publication I’d one day like to write for: Whichever one pays the best (only half-kidding)!
Favourite Critic and why: Adrian Martin, for his clarity, passion, historical grasp, and that I share his tastes more often than not (which shouldn’t be an important factor, but is).
Review: The Immigrant
The Immigrant is bookended by shots featuring objects slowly receding into the distance, the first one being the Statue of Liberty as observed from a boat. It’s at once a blunt but forceful metaphor for the broad theme of the American dream growing out of reach, but on a more poetic level it corresponds with the film’s vaporous, spectral atmosphere. Inspired in equal parts by the recollections of writer/director James Gray’s own Polish immigrant grandparents and Puccini’s opera Il Trittico, it’s a film that moves forward in linear time and yet feels culled from the ether of memory.
Those disparate influences – personal reminiscence colliding with classical dramaturgy – also partially account for why the film is such a strikingly unusual melodrama, in that it’s largely deprived of the ‘big moments’ that one associates with the genre. Instead, shot in soft, burnished sepia tones by the great cinematographer Darius Khondji, the tone remains hushed and sombre as the story charts the plight of Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant who arrives with her sister in New York in 1921 before being inducted into prostitution by conniving pimp Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix).
Bruno is a similar character to those essayed by Phoenix in his previous collaborations with Gray (including The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers) – coiled, charismatic and able to express reservoirs of fury and vulnerability, often simultaneously. Phoenix offers an indelibly lucid portrait of a man whose true motivations remain inchoate, and Cotillard, the most expressive of actors, ensures Ewa never registers as the cipher she potentially could have. It’s the first of Gray’s films to feature a female protagonist, and if he’s obviously more at ease with writing conflicted men, it’s to his actors’ (including Jeremy Renner as a magician who offers Ewa a different path to salvation) credit that his central characters’ dynamic never feels lopsided.
Gray has a reputation as an outlier among the generation of American filmmakers he belongs to (which includes Tarantino, Fincher, Wes and PT Anderson), and a large part of this has to do with the lack of ironic distance from his characters on his part – and, as an ideal side effect, the viewer’s. At his best – and The Immigrant is arguably his best film to date – he has the ability to present each character on an even keel in terms of to whom empathy is afforded. Occasionally, this is let down by a tendency towards broad-stroke supporting players, such as Ewa’s proud, unforgiving uncle. However, as far as his central subjects are concerned, both Ewa and Bruno end up on separate planes (quite literally, in the film’s stunning final shot), but treated as equals.
It’s these nebulous qualities that make The Immigrant a somewhat emotionally muted experience as it plays out, but one whose tremors are felt on reflection, and the contours of its characters’ trajectories more visible in hindsight. It’s debatable whether individual films can make you a better person, but the fervent compassion that charges every frame of The Immigrant has, for the receptive viewer, a contagious quality that’s very rare.
Review: Experimental Shorts
MIFF’s annual Experimental Shorts program, noble though it is, has a rather thankless task in representing the best contemporary experimental/avant-garde cinema. While the quality of this year’s selection was generally very high, the sole 97-minute program of ten shorts had the effect of at once letting the intrinsic qualities of each diverse film – ranging from digital to filmic, abrasive to gentle, schematic to freeform – stand out, but also depriving them of a contextual framework.
That wasn’t as much of a problem for Richard Tuohy’s Dot Matrix, which had the advantage of playing first, with the Melbourne-based Tuohy present to explain his process. The film involved a dual projection of two overlapping 16mm film reels, each with different patterns of dots etched on all but a few frames, as well as in lieu of each frame’s soundtrack strip (typically appearing as a waveform on the right of a film strip, but here replaced with dot patterns continuing from the rest of the frame).
Tuohy slowly talked us through the film beforehand, although discerning any organising principle in his work became futile as soon as its perfect visual and sonic assault began. The dizzying amount of variables – everything from Braille to hieroglyphs to Connect Four to cartoon aliens become visible in its Rorschach-like abstraction – were set to a soundtrack of oscillating blips and bloops reminiscent of the most minimalist forms of techno and industrial music. It was a reminder of the physical effect that film’s materiality can have when exploited to its full potential, and an experience that became oddly becalming despite its sensory attack.
SJ Ramir’s b&w video No Place to Rest came directly after, and its washes of manipulated pastoral images and gently droning soundscapes served as a welcome breather. By contrast, Nathaniel Dorsky’s characteristically serene Song seemed slighted, despite being the program’s ostensible centerpiece. Like all of Dorsky’s films – shot on his standby Kodachrome 16mm format – it plays out in silence; a succession of still shots that transform everyday phenomena into wondrously uncanny abstractions, putting natural and urban environments on an even keel of poetic possibility. It’s often difficult to tell what’s being presented in each shot, and even when a relatively legible image appears – glimpses of flowers on a mantelpiece, or views of rain-slicked city streets – they don’t register instantly on a representational, language-based level.
The pleasures of Dorsky’s film were particularly ephemeral when sandwiched between two rapid-fire, found-footage shorts – Michael Robinson’s cheeky, unnerving (and MIFF Award for Best Experimental Short Film winning) The Dark, Krystle and Eve Heller’s Creme 21 – and highlighted the drawbacks of the grab-bag approach to programming experimental cinema.
It’s difficult to fault the program when taken in its entirety, which showcases a marginalised area of cinema that, at its best, makes some of the so-called ‘visionary’ narrative films elsewhere in the festival (and beyond) seem stale. Inevitably, there’s the nagging sense that each work showcased would be better served in a program that accounts for the vast amount of sub-strands that fall under the blanket of ‘experimental cinema’ (e.g. the found footage of Heller, or Tuohy’s camera-less film stock manipulation). Though of course, a tantalising, albeit-inadequate, sample is better than nothing at all.