I have had the pleasure of watching three excellent films in this year's Local Sightings, a festival organized by Northwest Film Forum and dedicated to regional features, shorts, and documentaries. One of the films is a feature (International Sign for Choking) and two are documentaries (Off Label and Coast Modern). The feature is by Zach Weintraub, the director of Bummer Summer, which was shot in and around Olympia and voted best film of the 2010 Local Sightings. One doc, Off Label, is by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, Portland-based filmmakers who made the nightmarish October Country, a film about a family's and a community's connection to the local bullet factory. Lastly, the doc Coast Modern is by Mike Bernard and Gavin Froome—Bernard is a designer and filmmaker, Froome is an art director and producer of electronic music, both are from Vancouver, BC. The feature is about sex, the first doc is about politics, and the second doc is about architecture.
After watching International Sign for Choking, I went on the web and searched for reviews of the film. I wanted to see if other critics noticed what I noticed. I found one review—by Variety's Robert Koehler. The thought that entered my head did indeed appear in the review: "Though never indulging in any explicit homage, Weintraub has made something of a hipster Ozu film out of his fleecy material, and as with Ozu, the theme of loss is paramount." Why Ozu? There is a stillness in this film that echoes Ozu's films. Weintraub shoots a scene like he is taking a picture. The camera does not move but just watches people as they talk, drink, eat, kiss, fuck, brush teeth, play the piano. Weintraub's camera is like Ozu's camera—little to no tracking, little to no panning, no handheld anything, and lots of still objects.
The film is set in Buenos Aires and concerns the early moments of an affair that may or may not lead to a serious relationship. The lovers are American. He, Josh (played by the director, Zach Weintraub), is there to work on some photography project; she, Anna (Sophia Takal), is just there. What brings them together are two rooms in a shared house: Josh happens to move into the room that's next to Anna's. Both rooms are dominated by colorful wallpaper. At first, Anna seems uninterested in Josh, but he is clearly attracted to her. They go on a date, drink, dance, meet other Americans, find common ground (they are not like the other obnoxious Americans), and become lovers. But as soon as they are romantically linked, Josh loses interest in Anna, and she immediately sees the loss of interest and goes after another man, a local musician. When Josh learns about the other man, he pursues Anna again. She reluctantly resumes the romance. He tries to maintain interest, but can't (he has work to do, a project to finish—that sort of thing). The end is near, the end is sad, the end is brief.
International Sign for Choking is much better than Bummer Summer. Weintraub is clearly growing as a filmmaker. The same is true for Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, the directors of Off Label. Their second film is much stronger than their first, which placed politics in the background and the life of a working-class family in the foreground. In Off Label, the politics is right up front and directs the course and thinking of the film, which concerns the social impact of prescription drugs on a country that's dominated by the forces of the market. A number of people are interviewed. Some are forced or willing human guinea pigs for drug corporations. Some take drugs because they actually need them. Others take drugs because that's the best they can get from their indifferent doctors. All are or have been exposed to the icy cold logic of the profit-driven pharmaceutical industry.
An Iraq War vet and a black American ex-con tell Off Label's most compelling and harrowing stories. The vet has a mind that was severely deranged by Bush's illegal war (he witnessed and participated in the crimes committed in Abu Ghraib). The ex-con has a body that was permanently damaged by the drugs he was tricked into taking while serving time (he did two years in the '60s for selling pot). The soldier has memories of dismembered arms, noses, legs; the ex-con's hands are monstrously swollen and his nails are disfigured. The soldier finds some hope in peace activism, the ex-con in recondite theories about God. This is the real America.
After having your soul shaken to the root by Off Label, which is a beautifully photographed and scored film, watching Coast Modern is not a bad idea. The doc is about the history of modernism on the West Coast, from LA to Vancouver, BC. The music is tranquil and sometimes dreamy, some of the discussions about the modernist movement (why it happened, when it happened, how it failed) are meaningful, and the cinematography captures the utopian moods of the homes and apartment buildings. My only problem with this doc is it could have been more political. Modernism and politics cannot be distantly separated.