James Robert Douglas
Name: James Robert Douglas
Twitter handle: @jamesrobdouglas
City I call home: Melbourne
Area of cinema I am most passionate about: South Korean cinema. Particularly the directors Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon, who are remarkable not only for possessing the kind of laser-sharp formal acuity that seem to have been wholesale abandoned by Hollywood filmmakers, but for their tonal playfulness as well.
A film that changed me/my mind: Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, which I saw at MIFF ’08, reshaped my ideas about a) how long I am willing to sit still for a good movie, and b) the rich detail and depth of feeling a master filmmaker can summon with a big enough canvas.
MIFF film I’m most looking forward to: Our Sunhi, because seeing a Hong Sang-soo at MIFF is like a yearly ritual at this point.
I’m looking forward to Critics Campus because: MIFF is pretty much the most exciting time of year for me anyway. This year I get to be there full time, with all my focus, and get a lot of writing experience and mentoring to boot. What could be sweeter?
Cinema excites me because: For me, no other art form has the capacity to sweep an audience off its collective feet like cinema does. When movement and rhythm, sound and image, are working in harmony, the effect can be ecstatic. I have had experiences in crowded theatres that are irreproducible anywhere else.
A publication I’d one day like to write for: Locally, The Monthly. Overseas, The New York Review of Books.
Favourite critic and why: David Thomson, for his longevity, the wonky idiosyncrasy of his opinions, and his comprehensive grasp of film history. His book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film also satisfies my highest criteria for great criticism, which is that it be a fulfilling work of art in and of itself.
Feature: The Infinite Man
Hugh Sullivan’s debut feature The Infinite Man is an intricately conceived comedy about the thin line between self-improvement and self-destruction. Dean (Josh McConville), a socially awkward but brainy inventor, is a firm believer in the adage that practice makes perfect. When his attempt to stage a perfect romantic getaway with his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall) goes awry – caused in part by the unanticipated appearance of her macho ex, Terry (Alex Dimitriades) – he develops a time travel device that allows him to go back and tinker with the events of the weekend until he can make them right. But as he travels back, Dean finds himself tangled up in a time loop, and has to grapple with the competition of his past and future selves, as the possibility of neatly patching things up with Lana grows increasingly remote.
Shooting for thirty days in a desolate looking South Australian motel on what seems to be the edge of the desert, with a cast of only three, Sullivan has made a film that is woozily romantic and dryly funny, as well as a stellar example of conceptual ingenuity in the face of limited resources. In the wake of a successful first screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I spoke with Sullivan about The Infinite Man’s complicated inception, and the meaning of time travel.
The metaphorical possibilities of time travel are, Sullivan tells me, “quite rich”, but the film wisely doesn’t linger over just one. Instead, the central conceit is pushed and bent so that it gathers meaning as the story goes along. The time travel gimmick begins as a way for Dean to go back and correct past mistakes, but pretty soon he’s locked in a contest with past and future versions of himself, and his consequent insecurity delves right down into the heart of the problems of that which lie between him and Lana.
Another thing on Sullivan’s mind was the issue of mistaken assumptions: “[s]ometimes you might operate under a certain basic misunderstanding or misreading of a situation and then later you come to realise that the truth was in fact quite different than you perceived it at the time.” As he loops back over the same weekend, Dean (and the audience) is given ample opportunity by Sullivan’s script to learn that there is nothing simple or clear about the solutions offered by travelling back in time, or about the impulses that got him there.
Sullivan credits the “forward thinking” people at the South Australian Film Corporation for The Infinite Man’s existence. The project was funded through SAFC’s FilmLab initiative, which also produced this year’s acclaimed gender-transition drama 52 Tuesdays. FilmLab finances projects to the modest tune of about $350,000, and with one key location, three actors, and minimal frills; The Infinite Man is a film of modest means. Nevertheless, it appears energized by its limitations.
As Sullivan points out, although the time travel story is a metaphorical means for exploring Dean’s faults as a character, it is also a way to work to budget. For instance, the production was able to limit the project to one primary location in a way that stays narratively motivated. It’s easy for a low budget film to feel constrained by a lack of resources, and there can be a distinct discomfort as an audience member in watching a film’s reach so obviously exceed its grasp. But Sullivan and his crew seem to have worked conscientiously to turn The Infinite Man’s restrictions into advantages.
This layering of meaning took time to develop, but the film does feel rigorously thought-through as a result – despite the headaches the story’s tangled, interlocking chronology presented. Even minor changes to a scene during the development process had what Sullivan’s refers to as a “terrible knock-on effect”, necessitating further changes to all the scenes that play off it, which in turn necessitated even more alterations; a process of “continual complication”.
As Sullivan describes it, “the story becomes richer” as it goes along. The narrative has been designed to circulate around and re-contextualise the same handful of events. Dean, Lana, and Terry find themselves re-playing the same scenes, or observing them from afar, as they dodge around the various temporally distinct versions of themselves. As these moments repeat, the characters’ (and the audiences’) understanding of the motivations and subtext in each is continually revised.
Sullivan admits that this made for a challenging experience for McConville, Marshall, and Dimitriades, who had to keep track of the very non-linear journey their characters make, and even, in some cases, play scenes opposite themselves. Much of the film’s rehearsal process was apparently spent poring over diagrams, helping the actors map out each scene’s placement in the film’s circuitous time-line.
The story is tightly nested into itself, with each scene playing off and repeating key elements from a previous one, and if any footage from the shoot were out of balance the whole thing would fall to pieces. But the film is confidently pieced together. Despite the complexity of arranging the various narrative pieces, Sullivan characterises the four-month editing process as “surprisingly smooth”, a benefit he attributes to the film’s thorough development: “[w]ith a film like this you can’t go messing with the chronology too much. It has to fit together. So that kind of made it easy. There wasn’t so much room for experimentation. It had to adhere to a certain order.”
The film had a much acclaimed world premiere at Texas’ South by Southwest festival in March, and has since played at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Sullivan’s pleasure at warm reception it received is still palpable. “At every step of the way we had no idea how it would be received by an audience. It was really very hard to tell with this film. So we were incredibly relieved when they seemed to connect right away.”
But this reception is hardly surprising, given the thoughtfulness on display in this film. The Infinite Man is an elegant puzzle, skillfully assembled.
Review: Our Sunhi
Lo-fi Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo’s guiding principle seems to be that watching a movie should be like pulling on an old sweater. His films are wry meditations on the same dramas of romantic confusion, populated with the same recurring character types (always film directors, professors and their students), and filmed with the same precise formal conceits. Repetition is his game, and his career is a reflection of his craftsman-like sense of dedication.
Hong’s latest film to screen at MIFF is Our Sunhi, in which a diffident young student re-enters the lives of three men who obsess over her: an ex-boyfriend, a former professor and their mutual friend. In her romantic entanglements with each, Sunhi grapples with the problem of self-assertion. Each man seeks to define her, but Sunhi is not yet sure she knows who she is, or whether she wants to hear about it from others.
Repetition is not only Hong’s interest from film to film, it is also his organising narrative principle. Some films, like 2012’s charming In Another Country, are structured as three different versions of the same day. In 2011’s The Day He Arrives, a film director travels to Seoul and keeps meeting the same people and drinking in the same bar over and over. He might be in a Groundhog Day-esque loop, or he might be in an existential rut; Hong playfully conceals the difference. His technique as a writer is to re-stage the same events so that they grow in resonance with each recurrence.
In Our Sunhi, as in many Hong films, the drama is played out as a series of marathon drinking sessions. As the central four pair off in turn to down sōchū and fried chicken, Hong slowly unveils the central thematic issues, articulated as a series of self-important speeches of advice the men give to Sunhi, which grow funnier and more deluded as they are offered over and over. Hong’s jokes get better each telling.
The subtlety of this method is almost concealed by the simplicity of his technique. The prototypical Hong staging is two characters facing each other over a table. His camera is mostly stationary, and in lieu of cutting from shot to shot within a scene, he zooms in to re-frame action. Like most aspects of his style, this would seem amateurish, were it not executed with casual artfulness.
This casualness is all part of Hong’s charm. His films are sketches, not oil paintings. Our Sunhi feels like an especially minor effort, though, struck with some loose timing that undermines Hong’s light touch. It’s also the least visually pleasing of any of his recent work, with sparse locations indifferently lit and shot in a watery digital video. Thankfully Hong’s regular pace of output (five films at MIFF over the past four years) helps to forgive any variations in quality, as does the familiarity of his methods. Watching a Hong movie is like greeting an old friend. No matter their current state, they are welcome company.
Review: Goodbye to Language
Jean-Luc Godard has a reputation for making challengingfilms. Ever since he shrugged off the natty suit of the French New Wave he has cloaked himself in a thick, almost impenetrable veil of formal and intellectual ambition. His new film Goodbye to Language – his first 3D feature – is a tightly arranged visual essay, made up of dense, aphoristic dialogue, flashing text, and documentary footage of Godard’s own dog. It makes few concessions to conventional narrative or stylistic forms.
Rather than offering mere depth of field, Godard uses 3D to create nausea-inducing voids of visual data, arranged with an Escher-like sense of perspective. It can be physically tiring for the eye to parse. But films are never so difficult as to be utterly insensible to their audience, and although Goodbye to Language can be aesthetically exasperating, it operates to an engagingly direct central conceit.
Godard is interested in the dialectical possibilities of the 3D image. 3D movies are stereoscopic: the effect is created from filming with two different lenses mounted side by side. When these two images are projected, one on top of the other, and filtered through the glasses, the shot appears to be three-dimensional. This technology is the logic of the dialectic – two distinct elements synthesized to form a third – and this is the formulathat Godard plays with throughout the film.
In one revelatory sequence, Godard cuts between a medium length shot of his dog’s head and footage of an oncoming train. He repeats these two shots in succession and then, all of a sudden, they are one: the image of the dog is now in front of the oncoming train, which zooms into the station. The meaning is elegant. In one brief sequence Godard has leaped across the entirety of cinema history: from the shot, echoing the Lumière brothers’ own pioneering footage of a train; to the dialectical possibilities of the edit, inspired by Soviet montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein; to our current digital3D.
The film is organised as a series of such dialectical arrangements, which Godard offers as both form and content. Much of the film is taken up with an ongoing conversation between a nude man and woman – the meeting of the sexes being itself a kind of synthesis. There’s a lot going on in the film in terms of subject matter – the title alludes to a recurring interrogation into the synthesis of speech and text – but Godard always makes it intelligible with reference to this overarching formal logic.
On two occasions a simple 3D shot of the man and woman is disrupted when the woman walks away from the man and Godard pans the camera to follow. But he pans only one of the two lenses, and so the two resulting images are pitched on top of each other in a sickening double-vision, until, as the woman walks back and reunites with the man, the images re-unites as well. The film is like a series of visual and auditory puns.
The title is Goodbye to Language, but this is not a farewell to meaning. Godard’s film is a playful demonstration that our possibilities for communication – in speech and text, sound and image – are richer than ever.