While film culture in Memphis has improved dramatically over the last five years, there's still a whole world of vital cinema out there that never shows up on local screens. For example, of the 126 films that received votes in The Village Voice's Take 3 national film critics' poll last year, only 66 have been shown on local screens (and three of those -- Cure, George Washington, and La-Lee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton -- were one-time-only festival screenings). But most of the others are (or will be) available at local video stores, so instead of risking a sunburn while indulging in some of the summertime activities highlighted elsewhere in this issue, you could spend some leisure time in the comfort of air-conditioning and catching up with how the other half of the film world lives. Here are a few viewing suggestions, all available at your finer local video establishments:
The highest-ranking film in the Take 3 poll that never found a home on local screens is The Circle (ninth on the Voice list), a wrenching, harrowing film from Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Best known for the child-centered The White Balloon, Panahi takes aim here at the Islamic country's "woman" problem. A maker, like many of his celebrated countrymen, of accessible art movies, Panahi here crafts a richly metaphoric yet concrete and graspable film. The film is structured the way Richard Linklater's Slacker was -- the camera follows one character (or set of characters) until he or she intersects with another then the camera picks up the new character to follow him or her, etc. This structure emphasizes a social problem rather than the plight of an individual, with the succession of women appearing in the film standing in for the country's entire female population.
The Circle's women, most of them recently released from prison (their crimes unspecified), are trying desperately to find their place in a country depicted here as a patriarchal police state, a country where merely being a woman is portrayed as a crime. (The film, unsurprisingly, was a precariously made production that has been screened in Iran only once.) A long day's journey into night --from a hospital nursery to a jail over the course of a single day --The Circle is framed by the plight of a single, unseen woman whose predicament attains intense power when seen in the context of all that comes in between. The film builds to an unbearable anxiety and is governed by a Kafkaesque nightmare logic -- except this is basically a neorealist film.
But, for you subtitle-phobes, not all the movies that bypass Memphis are foreign-language films. The highest-ranked American film on the Voice list is Donnie Darko (16th), an idiosyncratic, iconoclastic teen film that deserves to be discussed alongside similar recent works such as Rushmore, Ghost World, and Gummo. The debut feature from twentysomething writer-director Richard Kelly, this muted, nostalgic film about the plight of a delusional teen in the 1980s carries echoes of The X-Files, David Lynch, and comic books. Downbeat and doleful on the surface yet with mysteriously hopeful undercurrents, this highly original, high school gothic defies easy description, but it is spiked with brilliantly filmed set pieces (a few applause-worthy slo-mo tracking shots and a great reverse montage at the film's most crucial moment), genius stunt-casting (Drew Barrymore as a beatnik English teacher, Patrick Swayze as a sleazy New Age guru), and wonderful, small details (personal faves: Donnie Darko and his girlfriend watching The Evil Dead in an otherwise empty theater; Donnie's little sister's school-talent-show dance troupe, Sparkle Motion, almost as sublime a name as Ghost World's bar band Blues Hammer).
Released roughly concurrently with his Waking Life and no less an experiment, Richard Linklater's Tape is definitely worth a look. Shot on digital video, containing only three actors, and taking place entirely within a single hotel room, the film is talky and theatrical (based, unsurprisingly, on a play) in a manner that may evoke David Mamet or Neil LaBute except it's considerably more relaxed and philosophical than either. Linklater's little experiment is essentially a film about subjectivity.
This compellingly tossed-off film depicts a 10-years-after reunion in a Lansing, Michigan, motel room between high school buddies Vince (Ethan Hawke) and John (Robert Sean Leonard) -- the Dead Poets Society heartthrobs reunited! John is an aspiring filmmaker in town to screen his latest at a local festival. Vince shows up for moral support, armed with lots of drugs and a hidden agenda. The good times deteriorate quickly between belligerent Vince and condescending John, and when mutual ex-girlfriend Amy (Uma Thurman) shows up, the film's vaguely Rashomon-like discussion of a high school date rape takes center stage in a reunion charged by ricocheting agendas and mind games.
Or if you want a good laugh, you might try Larry Clark's Bully, in which the Kids director takes the same social concerns and visual style on a trip to suburban Florida. As with Kids, Bully forces viewers to question their own role as partial creators of the film: Is this a searing social commentary and cautionary tale or prurient sleazebag voyeurism? You decide! I choose the latter and say that it ranks pretty high on the Unintentional Comedy scale (unless Clark is sharper than I'm giving him credit for and you're supposed to laugh at this "tragic" story). But, whatever your take, Bully clearly isn't as accomplished as Kids -- it's missing the identification screenwriter Harmony Korine brought to that lightning rod of a film.
Bully is based on the true story of a group of emotionally blank Florida teens who murder one of their friends (a little River's Edge here too), but Clark is less concerned with the crime than with finding an excuse for his young, hard-bodied cast to get naked. In other words, it's classic teen exploitation -- ogling decadence laced with a moral.