Reviews From The First Livable Planet Film Festival

by on May 4, 2021

About Endlessness opens with the visual of a couple (Jan-Eje Ferling and Tatiana Delaunay) floating through gray, cloudy skies. Magnolia Pictures

Milan Radisics’ short cinema essay “The Art Of Pollution” takes viewers on an aerial tour of lands colored in shades of blue-green, red, and brown (among other colors) that will prove striking to the eye.  However, the colorful sights seen here will not enhance viewers’ appreciation of natural beauty.  For the vivid colors seen on screen are the products of such human activities as tailing ponds, mining, and the residues of human-created chemical compounds.  Rather than being signifiers of the proverbial circle of life, these lands of supersaturated colors feel like harbingers of death.

The film’s subtitle is “The Hidden Cost Of Growth,” and these disturbing images unflinchingly and silently show the unacknowledged price of obtaining the minerals and creating the chemicals necessary to make a lifestyle that Third World countries will aspire to.  It wouldn’t be unfair to call Radisics’ short film more aggressive than “Koyaanisqatsi” in criticizing the modern world.

Felician Kalmus Agung’s bass-heavy music helps create a sense of dismay at human unwillingness to engage with the costs of industrialization.  The rapidly played notes evoke a feeling of factories manically going non-stop as well as a sense of desperation as time seems to be running out for nature.

Radisics’ short turns out to be part of a larger project called “Water Shapes Earth.”  It’s not clear when that project will have a public screening.  But “The Art Of Pollution” at least will increase interest in seeing the longer work.

***

Admittedly, Mark Osborne’’s partially stop-motion animated parable “More” is being shown out of festival.  It played at S.F. Indie Fest over 20 years ago, and also scored a Best Short award at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.  But this tale’s criticism of happiness through consumerism still feels relevant today.

An elderly factory worker spends his days making Happy goggles, which supposedly make life bearable in his bleak gray soulless city.  He dreams of inventing a special pair of goggles that brings him the bliss he gets from recalling a vision of children playing on a carousel.  But will completing this invention truly bring this old man the joy he needs?

Against the sonic backdrop of New Order’s “Elegia,” Osborne makes his moving parable feel like a small tragedy.  A day job building a device sold as giving its wearer happiness doesn’t translate to off the clock happiness or joy for the old man.  Finishing the invention leads to what the old inventor thinks is missing from his drab existence.  Yet the terrible truth for the old inventor is that he has ultimately changed very little.  Even free of dialogue, the message of Osborne’s film could not be clearer or more touching.

***

Blood, gore…and sustainability issues?  These may seem like unlikely story elements to put together into a single movie.  Yet the festival’s Midnight Movie offering, Elza Kephardt’s “Slaxx,” makes this odd combination work.  Or rather, the film works about as well as a reasonable person expects a movie about homicidal blue jeans to work.

New hire Libby excitedly looks forward to working as a shop clerk at a trendy Canadian Cotton Clothiers store.  The firm has built its brand around ethically outsourcing its clothing, using non-GMO cotton, and not employing child labor.  This particular store has the honor of rolling out the new season fashion line the next day.

Pride of place honors go to the new Super Shaper jeans.  Thanks to a revolutionary new technology, the jeans shape and fit even non-ideal bodies into flattering figures.  However, one particular pair of Super Shaper jeans has started literally killing store personnel.  Thanks to the store being in automatic lockdown, nobody can escape or even call for help.

The curious reader can rest assured that the filmmaker makes the film’s non-human monster hilariously credible.  Whether it’s killing an unfortunate wearer or walking around on its own, the murder jeans never appear implausible within the film’s setup.   (For the technically minded, a behind the scenes moment seen during the film’s end credits shows how a green-screened puppeteer helped create the walking jeans effect.)

“Slaxx” also does a good job of making the viewer not feel indifferent towards the humans trapped in the store.  Idealistic Libby and seen-it-all-before co-worker Shruti come off as ordinary likable types.  On the other hand, the other people trapped in the store display enough awful traits that make them worth waiting to see how they become monster munching fodder.   One staff member makes Libby feel substandard for wearing clothing that’s “three seasons out of date.”  Mundane speak would translate that phrase into “clothing that’s a month old.”  Another staffer refuses to bend the rules to give Libby an employee discount because she’s not officially an employee for another few hours.  Craig, the store manager, happens to be the worst of them.  The marriage of his ambition with his determination to be the best company man ever creates a human monster for whom human life is a tertiary consideration.

Kephardt keeps her film from turning into murder porn by wisely limiting the on screen deaths to the more significant characters.  Also, the manner by which certain characters are killed has enough visual variety that it never feels repetitive.

The store lockdown setup is necessary to isolate the characters.  On the other hand, that premise introduces more plausibility problems in a film that’s already asking the viewer to accept the existence of literal killer jeans.  If Shutdown mode prevents phoning out, what happens in the event of fire or a medical emergency?

“Slaxx”’ bigger problem concerns its playing into stereotypes.  Yes, Shruti is right for calling out Libby for assuming that because she’s Indian she’s into Bollywood music and knows Indian dancing.  But Kephardt then looks like a hypocrite for then turning around and confirming Libby’s assumptions about Shruti.  Worse, the film goes farther by making the Indian-Canadian worker able to read Sanskrit easily.  Unconscious absorption of Bollywood music played incessantly by parents or having a limited understanding of Sanskrit could have made Shruti more than a still stereotypical character.

Death by homicidal blue jeans makes for an interesting film gimmick.  But the above-mentioned flaws keep “Slaxx” from rising above “dispose after viewing” level.

***

Tim Kressin’s short “Dear Mother Nature” gets off to a good start by introducing the viewer to Wyn Wylie.  In the drag persona of Pattie Gonia, Wylie’s committed to bring public attention to the problem of Hawaii’s currently unwelcome reputation as the Earth’s most plastic polluted spot.

Thanks to such factors as ocean currents, man-made plastic waste has been regularly brought to Hawaii’s shores with devastating consequences.  Beachcombers who amused themselves finding what shells the waves washed ashore now find themselves becoming impromptu collectors of the plastic garbage washed onto the beaches.  Sea creatures that unknowingly ingest microplastics are unable to rid them from their digestive systems, resulting in their having less stomach space for the nutrients they need to survive.  In a particularly horrifying moment, the viewer sees accumulated underwater plastic waste which has coalesced into inches-thick ropes.

Admittedly, this information is important.  But Kressin emphasizes these facts at the expense of shoving his potentially intriguing subject into the background.  True, there are some nice shots of Pattie Gonia attempting to walk across a sandy beach in high-heeled boots.  And seeing cleaned up plastic waste turned into artful dresses is good.  However, aside from aesthetics, this ecological cause never comes across as personally mattering to the drag queen activist.  Nor does the director find a way to create a happy medium where both the ecological knowledge and the unique ecological activist are both important to his short film.

Despite its drag queen subject, “Dear Mother Nature” ultimately fails to bring a sense of fabulousness to addressing an important public concern.

***

A resident of Vieques notes in Cecilia Aldarondo’s observant documentary “Landfall” how Hurricane Maria acted like a big broom on Puerto Rico.  It swept away everything and showed the poorer residents just how screwed they were.  Without the natural beauty and the amenities for partying, what was Puerto Rico?  The answer that Aldarondo uncovers in her film is that of a land and people far more multifaceted than the offensive stereotype peddled during the Orange Skull’s reign.

The director accomplishes this goal through two methods.  First, her film takes the viewer around the territory to such places as Vieques, Orocovis, and Mayaguez to take in Puerto Rico’s various levels of wealth and poverty.  More importantly, “Landfall” shows how ordinary Puerto Ricans tried to survive the unfortunate real world devastating consequences of the territory’s abstract-sounding debt crisis.  So-called hard decisions made in response to the territory’s debt problems lessened the resiliency of Puerto Rico to recover from Hurricane Maria’s impact.

The time frame covered by the film goes from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello and the rest of his corrupt (or at least criminally incompetent) governing cabinet.  Over this two year period, the viewer is shown everything from harassment of long-time residents to socialistic ingenuity in the wake of disaster to the unapologetic greed of disaster capitalists.  Interestingly, Governor Rossello and his band of government crooks are treated as just as much an abstract force of destruction as Hurricane Maria.  Neither of them is ever seen on screen.

Yet in the general scheme of things, the Rossello government and its predecessors delivered the bigger devastation to the Puerto Rican people.  Hurricane Maria was created by a confluence of particular climate conditions.  The devastation wrought by Rossello and his people was the product of bad or malicious choices.  Literally thousands of Puerto Ricans died in the wake of Maria because Rossello’s government chose not to act.  One of the more damning moments Aldarondo captures on film is the sight of literally millions of bottles of undistributed potable water left to rot.  The Puerto Rican authorities’ failure to distribute such supplies to hurricane survivors who lacked even electricity several weeks later boggles the mind.  But then, the austerity policies the governing authorities embraced over a decade led to serious cutbacks in Puerto Rican infrastructure.

Former President Obama definitely deserves to be held at least partially accountable for the Hurricane Maria deaths attributable to weakened infrastructure.  He was the one who chose the seven people for the fiscal oversight board which prioritized repayment of Puerto Rico’s debt over anything else.  The Junta, as this board was called, emphasized diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for government functions to debt repayment.

Aldarondo interestingly avoids going into discussions or details on why the debt crisis occurred.  Her focus is on de-othering the Puerto Rican people and showing their strengths and shortcomings in the face of disaster.   There are people who find joy in the pleasure of playing dominoes on the beach with friends while music is playing on the radio.  Food is so scarce in Puerto Rico’s metro areas that people make do with only a single meal a day.  An act of everyday socialism leads a group of homeless Puerto Ricans to commandeer an intact but closed school and turn it into small apartments.  A popular reggaeton song goes ”Mami, I wish I could stay/But the streets are calling me.”  A later lyric adds “Don’t wait up for me.  The streets are on fire.”

Some of “Landfall”s more appalling moments come from seeing people who don’t bother hiding the dollar signs from their eyes when they look at the disaster-stricken territory.  Hiram Albino of Lux Estates Puerto Rico burbles about selling luxury condominiums with views of the nearby beach and the Atlantic Ocean, as if wealth provided instant immunity from hurricane conditions.  Quinn Esher and Brock Pierce of Blockchain fail to shed either their White Savior credentials or their attitude of innovation and creativity being solely their property.

However, Most Nauseating Disaster Capitalist honors goes to a business conference speaker who encourages his audience to seek personal profit by privatizing practically every aspect of Puerto Rico’s government.  The greater good proves less important than the bottom line.  His exception is for the police, probably because the rich greedheads need flunkies to put down a populace angered by their for-profit dismantling of the country’s government.

“Landfall” doesn’t delude its viewers by claiming the Rossello Administration resignations will help Puerto Rico turn a figurative corner.  But it’s too bad nobody on screen brings up the idea of either a debt jubilee or raising taxes on the rich foreigners operating in Puerto Rico and directing the collected money towards the territory’s debt repayment.

(“The Art Of Pollution” can be accessed for free by going to Vimeo.  “More” can easily be found on YouTube.  “Slaxx” is currently available via the Shudder streaming service.  “Landfall” will eventually be broadcast on the “POV” series on PBS.)

***

Approaching Roy Andersson’s new film “About Endlessness” is simultaneously a straightforward matter and one fraught with difficulty.  Describing Andersson’ s new film happens to be the straightforward part.  “About Endlessness” is a collection of vignettes about human behavior.  The events depicted range from big (e.g. a defeated army marching to a Siberian prison camp) to small (e.g. a legless beggar playing the guitar for spare change).  The incidents go from the present day (e.g. a dentist dealing with a reluctant patient) to the past (e.g. Hitler and his generals awaiting the doom promised by the advancing Allied forces).  The tone of the vignettes run an emotional gamut from joy (e.g. three young female travelers doing an impromptu dance to a radio song) to tragedy (e.g. a man who regrets too late committing an honor killing).  The sketches’ themes cover a spectrum from the pleasure of simple sensation (e.g. a woman who enjoys drinking champagne) to the emotionally complex (e.g. how can a man be a priest if he’s lost faith in God).

A few characters who recur throughout the film surprise the viewer.  A man insulted at being ignored by a former classmate later tries to denigrate the classmate’s Ph.D. by taking pride in his climbing the Eiffel Tower’s stairs with a bad knee.  The dream of being forced through the street to re-enact a crucifixion is held by the aforementioned priest who’s lost his faith in God.  The couple who fly through the air as if in re-enactment of a Marc Chagall painting do not turn out to be the film’s apparently omniscient narrator.

But if the narrator’s voice doesn’t belong to the flying woman, does it belong to God?  The boundaries of time and space mean nothing to this mysterious woman who describes what she sees, whether the event takes place inside a person’s dream or outside at a train station.  And is it a coincidence that the narrator generally remains silent when the film returns to the priest who’s lost faith in God?  “About Endlessness” refrains from answering this question.

The aforementioned difficult part in talking about Andersson’s movie is in explaining why a viewer might choose to check out the film.  Nothing is done to visually spice up any particular scene.  Nor do these vignettes take place in any hyper-real location.  Bland ordinariness describes such settings as a fish market, the top of a flight of stairs, and a bar.

Harvey Pekar’s classic autobiographical comic “American Splendor” provides a good basis for starting to understand “About Endlessness.”  Pekar displayed a gift for transmuting such ordinary life moments as mentally unwinding in the bathtub into a tale of existential despair in his classic “Waking Up To The Terror Of The Same Old Day.”  He could also turn the simple process of preparing a glass of lemonade on a hot day into a celebration of both the moment of drinking and the moments that lead up to the drink’s consumption.

Andersson’s film, by contrast, may not draw on finding bigger meanings in the everyday.  What the viewer sees with a missed dating connection or a mother finding a way to keep shopping despite a broken shoe heel is nothing more than the event itself.  On the other hand, unlike Pekar’s sticking firmly to what he personally sees and hears, Andersson is quite willing to let his film run into the realm of fantasy (the flying couple) or imagination (Hitler in the underground bunker) while sticking to depiction of the moment.  The film’s only nod to metaphor comes at the very end.

Yet “About Endlessness” can’t be dismissed as an empty-headed and boring compilation of mundanity.  The conversation between a young couple that’s the closest the film comes to explaining its title will irritate those who feel religious belief embodies humanity’s highest state.  Nor will the religiously obsessed be happy with a therapist explaining how a person can live a satisfying life despite lacking a belief in God.

“About Endlessness”’ equating of life moments both great and small will anger those who demand generating momentary bursts of outsized emotion be the criterion for judging a film’s success.  Andersson’s film attempts to widen viewers’ perceptions to appreciate even the “insignificant” moments as a facet of the miracle of existence.

(“About Endlessness” is now available for screening via the Roxie Virtual Cinema.)

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