Terra Incognita: 19 unknown pleasures from around the world to look out for (Film Comment)

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo
(Jessica Oreck, U.S./Japan)

The sense of wonder that pervades Jessica Oreck’s debut film owes more to David Attenborough than the dull-thud misanthropy of Werner Herzog. A kaleidoscope view of Japan’s past, through the traditions and customs that survive to the present, Beetle Queen bristles with kinetic energy. Lightning bugs become flares in the night as the micro-world of insects is portrayed as an exalted and adventurous place. Boasting beautifully accentuated sound design, it’s a film to be heard as well as seen.—Michael Chaiken

(Duncan Campbell, Ireland)

In this 37-minute film essay, Campbell uses 16mm archival images to deconstruct the figure of Bernadette Devlin, the charismatic socialist activist from Northern Ireland who became the youngest member of the British Parliament in 1969 at age 21. By exploring Devlin’s face and words, Campbell evokes a form of political idealism and compromise that today seems lost, while the deliberately choppy and haphazard editing reveals the limits and perversity of media discourse.—Manuel Yáñez-Murillo

The Blacks
(Zvonimir Juric & Goran Devic, Croatia)

A Croatian paramilitary death squad self-destructs: soldiers out for revenge suddenly start shooting at each other; things fall apart. A No Exit experience directed with rigor and precision down to the smallest detail, camera movement, gesture, even the pronunciation of every word—it’s perfection pure and simple. Tough, unflinching, and fearless.—Olaf Möller

The Blue Generation
(Garin Nugroho, Indonesia)

in an era in which rock and street dance pulse with the rhythms of a narcissistic culture, an experimental documentary like The Blue Generation must be regarded as a revolutionary object. How else can one label this collaboration between an independent auteur (Nugroho), a popular Indonesian rock band (Slank), and a group of dancers? Their goal: to exorcise the memory of recent tragedy from their country, and then quickly set the stage for peace and unity.—Manuel Yáñez-Murillo

(Fredrik Wenzel & Henrik Hellström, Sweden)

The first feature by two thirtysomething Swedes is a weird one: an Astrid Lindgren story, as re-told by Elfriede Jelinek. At first, it seems dangerously close to the type of “haunting ambient installation” favored by the Scandinavian art world. But its passively roving look at affluent suburban brain-death soon mutates into a much more engaging—and socially scary—setup: a child sleuth’s midsummer run-in with demons. Seventy-six minutes of digital film do not a career make, but these two newcomers are probably worth betting on.—Alexander Horwath

Contact High
(Michael Glawogger, Austria)

The strangest of beasts: a big-budget avant-garde entertainment. Detailing the misadventures of two aspiring hot-dog entrepreneurs who unwittingly find themselves on a psychedelic road trip, the film resembles a Hunter S. Thompson/Kurt Vonnegut version of a Louis de Funès film with a touch of Danny Leiner. On first viewing, it plays like an amusement ride full of idiosyncratic moves, surprising twists, and stunning visual ideas; with repeat viewings, one discovers the film’s riches, its intricate structure and its multitude of layers and subtexts. The film brings order to a chaos that includes a commotion over the contents of a mysterious bag, drugs, hot “Go-Go” dogs, a shrunken hotel room, the Polish pig police, and a Mexican albino.—Olaf Möller

(Jean-Marie Straub & Cornelia Geiser, France)

Co-director CorneliaGgeiser sits by a window on an easy chair reading aloud a few verses by Corneille, then a somewhat longer excerpt from Brecht—each writer referencing Rome but really condemning injustice in his own era. The dead are mourned and their memories evoked. Straight cuts, sharp breaks in lighting continuity, and a few costume changes—and that’s it.—Olaf Möller

Double Take
(Johan Grimonprez, Belgium/Netherlands/Germany)

Working up a brisk assemblage of TV and newsreel material, artist/filmmaker Grimonprez muses on Hitchcock’s persona and humor, reading his films of the Fifties and Sixties against the climate of atomic-era political anxiety. Hitchcock’s preoccupation with doubling turns out to recur obsessively in the maestro’s jokey television intros; the theme is further expanded in an apocryphal story borrowed from Borges. Thought-provoking and hugely entertaining, not least in its extensive use of Folgers Coffee ads.—Jonathan Romney

The Feature
(Michel Auder, U.S.)

Compiling four decades’ worth of diaristic video into a fiction masquerading as documentary—and vice versa—the magnum opus of artist and filmmaker Michel Auder has much to say about marriage, fatherhood, and the vicissitudes of old-school bohemia. In plumbing his own memory bank, Auder archives the biography of video itself, returning us to the bleary, low-res childhood of the medium.—Nathan Lee

Film Is a Girl & a Gun
(Gustav Deutsch, Austria)

The latest installment of Gustav Deutsch’s epic recombination of archival film footage creates a grand meta-narrative, “a drama in five acts”: Genesis, Paradise, Eros, Thanatos, Symposium. Deutsch deploys texts from Hesiod, Sappho, and Plato, but the shadow of Freud is omnipresent in these struggles between men and women, chaos and order, life and death. Who knew that cinema was constantly writing and rewriting Beyond the Pleasure Principle?—Thom Andersen

The Haunted World of El Superbeasto
(Rob Zombie, U.S.)

in which Murders in the Rue Morgue is revamped for Rob Zombie fans (who already know that The Devil’s Rejects was the best American horror film of the last 20 years). An X-rated neo–Fritz the Cat for the post-Simpsons generation, Zombie and collaborator-star Tom Papa’s El Superbeasto continues the director’s fascination with masks (cf. his much-maligned Halloween diptych), the latest one belonging to the libidinous and loquacious luchador upon whom the fate of the world depends, if only he can tear himself away from that delicious plate of hot wings. Cartoons aren’t just for kids anymore . . . again.—Chuck Stephens

Helsinki, Forever
(Peter von Bagh, Finland)

This Marker-esque essay by the former head of the Finnish Film Archive relates a multifaceted history of Helsinki (and, more incidentally, Finland, including its cinema and pop music), with beautiful clips and paintings, and narration by three voices, one of them von Bagh’s. We are introduced to the best ever Finnish camera movement and the best Finnish musical, and invited to browse through diverse neighborhoods and eras; throughout, we can’t help but marvel how much spectacular footage comes from this city.—Jonathan Rosenbaum

It Felt Like a Kiss
(Adam Curtis, U.K.)

The latest installment in Adam Curtis’s ongoing 20th-century media-meltdown, It Felt Like A Kiss expands Curtis’s dazzling found-footage mastery into the third dimension—especially when seen in all its “olfactory-audiovisual promenade-style theatre production” glory “performed” as a multi-environment installation in Manchester last July. Curtis is the BBC’s answer to Craig Baldwin. Though the film’s top-billed stars are Rock Hudson, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Saddam Hussein, Curtis’s not-so-covert mission is mostly interested in the ways that political power and media manipulation over the last half-century, particularly for women (as “embodied” by Jackie Kennedy, Mia Farrow, and Tina Turner), have come to feel a whole lot more like a hit than a kiss.—Chuck Stephens

(Peter Thompson, U.S.)

“Exploring the effects of war upon domestic and creative life” via the wife and widow of Vermeer, and culminating in one of her dreams (in the form of a masque and oratorio), this 59-minute marvel by Chicago’s best (and least-known) filmmaker (see the Fall 2009 Film Quarterly for more details) also delves into 1996 Bosnian war crimes, Vermeer’s paintings, and startling rhyme effects between the two.—Jonathan Rosenbaum

Lunch Break
(Sharon Lockhart, U.S.)

the premise is simple: document the interior of a shipyard corridor, where workers spend their lunch breaks, by means of a single forward tracking shot. It’s a gesture that combines a primitive notion of capture that dates back to the Lumière Brothers with advanced cinematic manipulation. The shot is stretched out to 80 minutes through super-slow motion, evoking a sensual, mysterious, and hypnotic “epic of weightlessness” not unlike the pop processions of Wes Anderson. Call it 2009: A Proletarian Odyssey.—Manuel Yáñez-Murillo

The Old School of Capitalism
(Zelimir Zilnik, Serbia)

A heady yet lucid mix of documentary and fiction created during the first wave of mass strikes in Serbia since the advent of capitalism. It’s cinema verité meets the Western meets noir, shot fast and loose, and featuring a number of scenes in which the “characters” (many of them real-life activists) and actual strikers interact. Stellar partisan filmmaking.—Olaf Möller

Plato’s Atlantis
(Alexander McQueen, U.K.)

For his Spring-Summer 2010 collection, fashion designer Alexander McQueen staged an exquisitely sinister trance film featuring an elite tribe of rapt, ineffably empowered avant-amphibious glamazons. Advancing on couture lobster claws with 10-inch heels, their bodies reconstituted through digitally printed dresses of flabbergasting complexity, the models circulated a stage mounted with two remote-control robotic arms relaying their images to a massive video screen. Broadcast live at SHOWstudio.com, Plato’s Atlantis was the year’s most chilling and hypnotic science fiction.—Nathan Lee

The Storm
(Kazim Öz, Turkey)

A young Kurd comes to town to study—only to suffer the injustices that Turkey’s cultural majority has in store for him, culminating in persecution and torture by the state. Öz’s film is a social-realist epic (with modernist touches) addressing the rise and self-realization of the Kurdish extreme left, and the ways in which youth go underground, taking their reasons, passions, and hopes with them.—Olaf Möller

(Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan)

a man dressed in colorful pajamas enters a Kafka-esque nightmare in the interior of an enormous, empty, white-walled room from which there is no escape. The man is played by Hitoshi Matsumoto, a stand-up comic cum filmmaker à la Kitano, and the man behind the caustic and crazy Big Man Japan (07). Here, he refines his control of mise en scène and reaffirms his sense of humor—from the deadpan to the histrionic—to construct a monumental farce about existential angst and religion.—Manuel Yáñez-Murillo

© 2010 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center

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