Reviews From The 44th Mill Valley Film Festival

by on October 12, 2021

John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed from archival photography

Directors Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler’s new documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle Of Racism In America” shows why the GOP should be stopped from promoting educational cover-ups of America’s shameful racist history.  ACLU attorney Jeffery Robinson’s titular Juneteenth 2018 talk exposes the unfortunately deep roots racism has in American society…and the obligations people of conscience have to help this nation leave its racist legacy behind.  Particularly disturbing will be the hidden racist history of some iconic American places.

***

Experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs’ newest short “Maya at 24” can be called simultaneously intimate and enigmatic.  Certainly, the film evokes feelings similar to watching Michael Apted’s beloved “Up” series.   Yet Sachs’ short film maintains some emotional remove from its central subject.

 

The titular Maya happens to be Sachs’ daughter Maya Street-Sachs.  The film captures its subject at three distinct ages: 6, 16, and 24.  In this dialogue-free film, the girl’s/young woman’s three ages get linked via 16mm film footage capturing Maya’s running around her mother clockwise.

 

Yet “Maya At 24” offers more than an obvious visual metaphor of time passing for her film subject.  A silhouette of an older Maya filled out by footage of a running Maya at 6 provides a nice metaphor for the spiritual continuity between child and older person.

 

Without the medium of words, the viewer must rely on the facial expressions Maya displays at each age to have emotional glimpses of the person depicted.  Yet it could be reasonably argued that the visual results prove too enigmatic to create a realistic emotional picture of its subject.  The single-mindedness on the face of age 6 Maya treats the apparent frivolity of running in a circle as something still worth giving her all for.  The face of age 16 Maya uses her younger self’s single-mindedness as a mask for safely regarding the world.  There’s her awareness of being the object of unseen viewers’ gazes, but that awareness of gaze and viewers’ judgment is protected by her visible expressionlessness.

 

By age 24, Maya’s face displays an amused lack of self-consciousness regarding the camera’s gaze.   Rather than being intimidated by the unblinking eye of the camera lens (and by implication her mother, although that might be projection), the filmmaker’s daughter shows in her face a combination of relaxation and an awareness of her ability to control how much she will reveal of herself before the camera.

 

The drawn animated microscopic images allude to the fact that the age 24 footage was shot in the midst of coronavirus lockdown.  Yet Maya’s face displays neither fear of COVID-19 nor grief at seeing friends or loved ones succumb to the disease.  The run that Maya does at this age would, in this context, be a metaphorical act of defiance at both fear of contracting the disease or even the idea that COVID-19 requires life to completely come to a halt.

 

“Maya At 24” can ultimately be called a celebration of life…but without the sticky sentiment usually associated with that well-worn phrase.

 

***

LIfe in a drug cartel-dominated area has provided grist for plenty of films and television series.  But Teodora Ana Mihai’s drama “La Civil” delivers something different.  It doesn’t go for glorifying either action-movie vengeance or the power of the drug cartels.  Instead, it slowly sucks the viewer into a moral quandry whose resolution feels as preordained as the bleakest Greek tragedy.

 

In an unnamed town in Northern Mexico, Cielo (Arcelia Ramirez) lives a passable existence with her teenage daughter Laura.  The mother’s life gets thrown into disarray when the smug teenage thug El Puma informs her that Laura’s being held for ransom.  Despite Cielo enlisting the grudging help of her estranged husband Gustavo, Laura is not returned.  When the usual government outlets prove unable to help the determined mother, she starts conducting her own search for her missing daughter.  But what happens to Cielo when she begins accepting more morally dubious tactics to obtain her answers?

 

In a nice bit of irony, Cielo (Spanish for “sky”) lives an incredibly constricted life at the film’s start.  Her estranged bullying husband Gustavo has her so browbeaten that she just goes along with whatever he says.  She even declines to get the financial support she deserves from Gustavo despite his leaving her and Laura for the younger and hotter Rosy.  The intimidating power of the local drug cartels also limits Cielo’s actions.  But until Laura’s disappearance, the mother is unaware of the shape of that social constriction on her and other civilians in the town.

 

One of the great ironies teased out by Habacuc Antonio de Rosario’s script is seeing how Cielo’s growing awareness of the grip of the local drug cartels liberates her from passivity to more actively participating in her life.  She even goes from fearing Gustavo to finding him a loudmouthed afterthought.  However, her increased self-confidence doesn’t translate to adopting Gustavo’s role of humiliating those weaker than himself.

 

Two critical moments provide key changes to the dynamic between Cielo and Gustavo.  One is the second ransom sequence.  Cielo wants proof of life from El Puma before handing over a peso; Gustavo doesn’t pause for a second to give up the money.  The other is the differing attitudes of Laura’s parents as the days pass.  Gustavo is probably right that Laura is dead at this point.  But that suspicion becomes an excuse for him to emotionally sweep things under the rug.  Cielo by contrast is driven to get as definitive an answer as she can regarding Laura’s fate.

 

That drive is not aided by a society that seems incapable of dealing with the local narco scourge.  The cops seem to engage in triage on what narco-related crimes they will investigate.  The civilian status quo involves either giving the narcos what they want or otherwise staying off their radar.  The military patrols resemble security theater exercises rather than an actual deterrent presence.

 

Mihai’s film embraces the ambivalence of Cielo’s accepting Lieutenant Lamarque’s extra-judicial methods of combating the narcos.  Her gathering intelligence on Commandante Inez’ gang may have been intended to spur official action.  But it’s not clear the cops would have been willing to act off the data Cielo gathered.  Certainly Cielo’s neighbors are notably absent when some narcos pay her a violent evening visit.  At least Lieutenant Lamarque proves willing to act on the desperate mother’s accumulated information.

 

Yet being a witness to beatings and shootouts that Lieutenant Lamarque and his troops engage in raises questions about Cielo’s moral complicity for the soldiers’ actions.  On one hand, the current status quo of basically unchecked criminality is definitely undesirable.  On the other hand, having the likes of Lieutenant Lamarque exercise unchecked power against the cartels can’t be called an ultimately necessary societal good.

 

“La Civil”’s satisfying refusal to offer neat solutions or resolutions will of course spark viewer debate.  That approach may explain why the film garnered a Courage Prize at the recent Cannes Film Festival.  Yet one could also wish for a more riveting treatment than what is presented here.

 

***

 

Why has it taken over 55 years to finally get a documentary feature film on The Velvet Underground?  Even though the legendary avant-garde rock band existed for five years and left a small handful of recordings, they would influence such legends as David Bowie and Jonathan Richman.  Yet taking the bog standard documentary filmmaking approach of talking heads, archival clips, and period media presented straight would be a disservice to the band’s very unconventional legacy.

 

On the other hand, it could also be argued that making a film about the Velvet Underground would have been commercial suicide.  The band’s musical output never became gold or even multi-platinum sellers.  Their music celebrated drug culture in a way that would have ensured whoever broadcast any such film could count on lots of hairy eyeballs from sponsors of various stripes.  Props should be offered to David Blackman of Universal Music Group for starting the rolling of this cinematic ball.

 

Congratulations are thus in order for filmmaker Todd Haynes for taking the plunge and making the first ever documentary about Andy Warhol’s Factory house band “The Velvet Underground.”  Haynes’ well-made feature documentary debut strikes the right balance between sharing the basic facts about the band’s history and telling their story in a visually inventive manner.  Then again, this is the director who used Barbie dolls in a Karen Carpenter biography (“Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story”) and did a picture about Bob Dylan which had Cate Blanchett as one version of the famed singer/songwriter (“I’m Not There”).

 

Viewers who have never heard of The Velvet Underground will be introduced to the band’s significant moments ranging from Lou Reed and John Cale discovering a mutual love of rock music and sonic experimentation to the band’s unceremonious break-up at Max’s Kansas City.  Yes, later band addition Doug Yule gets some short shrift in Haynes’ film.  But it can be argued that Yule’s later attempts to revive the band couldn’t even lick the soles of “Venus In Furs”’ boots.

 

Haynes’ film stands out because he doesn’t treat his subject as things to be scrutinized in isolation under a microscope.  Instead, he creates a fascinating cinematic terrarium which shows the band’s significance by depicting both the cultural milieus it reacted against and the avant garde world it epitomized.  Footage of Levittown and other icons of late 1950s-early 1960s consumerist safety and conformity deliver a good sense of the mind-numbing banality of that era’s mainstream culture.  A moment where the screen is split into a dozen tiny images captures a sense of the creative ferment that the Velvet Underground became a part of.

 

“The Velvet Underground” constantly surprises with its visual storytelling.  Warhol’s cinematic studies of the band’s members get juxtaposed with interviews filling in intriguing personal details such as Reed’s sister commenting on her brother’s mental health.  Samples of an Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia event suggest how ahead of its time Warhol’s show turned out to be.  Valerie Solanas’ attempted murder of Warhol is presented in a way that conveys what happened without sliding into melodrama.

 

And of course the Velvet Underground songs heard on the soundtrack demonstrate their durability with both their lyrics and the sounds used to bring them to life.  “Heroin” and “Waiting For The Man” suggest what might have happened if Jean Genet had turned to rock music rather than the stage.  The Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday Monday” may have been a bigger popular hit than anything Lou Reed and crew put out.  But it’s Reed et al.’s more experimental songs that still retain the energy of Now.

 

Haynes shows how the strengths of the band also contained the seeds of its eventual destruction.  Reed may have shared Cale’s interest in sonic experimentation, but he ultimately wanted to be a successful rock star.  Nico brought iconic beauty and singing talent to the band, but she had little interest in making her work with the group a long term gig.  Warhol did a great job guiding The Velvet Underground into the rock world, but his presence overshadowed popular attention that might have gone to Reed.

 

Of the main members of the Velvet Underground seen on screen. Yule comes off the most colorless thanks to a hunger for rock stardom not matched by commensurate talent.  Cale’s able to look back on his period with the band without rancor, even given the shameful way he was booted from the group.  Drummer Moe Tucker obviously brought a quietly grounded presence to the Velvet Underground.

 

It is, of course, Reed who displays the most emotionally complex personality.  He turned his encounters with the seamier side of life aka the wild side into the stuff of unforgettable poetry.  His determination to be the Hubert Selby/William Burroughs of the rock world is definitely admirable.  However, Haynes makes clear that Reed’s ambition would ultimately undermine the Velvet Underground’s long term existence.  “The Velvet Underground” doesn’t quite show that Reed would never achieve his dream of rock superstardom.

 

Reed’s failure, though, might be attributed to the shortcomings of the period’s audiences.   Then as now, rock superstardom and reverence for distinct individual artistic rock voices frequently don’t intersect.  Tours by the Velvet Underground outside New York led to a standing joke among the band members that a good touring show was one where only half the audience walked out.

 

Rock celebrity appearances in Haynes’ film are a mixed bag.  Jonathan Richman justifiably treats the Velvet Underground’s Sterling Morrison as a mentor, but his admiration ultimately comes off a little too fanboyish.  Rock tastemaker Danny Fields brings a nice balance of admiration and innocence.  But late Bay Area music impresario  Bill Graham has the best moment with his pre-show encouragement to the Velvet Underground of “I hope you guys f**king bomb.”

 

Haynes has performed a valuable cultural public service by making “The Velvet Underground.”  Not only has he introduced their music to new audiences, but he shows to older audiences that the brevity of the band’s existence is outweighed by the fact that they were even able to come together at all.  If the viewer watching Haynes’ documentary streaming on Apple TV Plus doesn’t skip over the end credits, they will be treated to a performance of a classic Velvet Underground song that’s only hinted at earlier in the film.

 

(“Maya at 24” screens as part of the “There She Goes Again” shorts block.  Both that shorts block and “La Civil” are available for online streaming at mvff.com until October 17, 2021.

 

“Who We Are: A Chronicle Of Racism In America” screens in-theater at 12:00 PM on October 16, 2021 at the Smith Rafael Film Theater (1118 4th Street, San Rafael, CA).

 

“The Velvet Underground” debuts on Apple TV Plus on October 15, 2021.  It also screens in-theater at 12:00 PM on October 17, 2021 at the Smith Rafael Film Theater (1118 4th Street, San Rafael, CA).

 

Tickets for all the films reviewed are available at mvff.com.)

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