Thursday, July 27, 2017

Cat's Away: Showing, not telling

This is the second night of Cat's Away, the nightly film festival I'm running while my wife is overseas. Um, I'm running it for myself.

Yesterday I outlined the reasons why Contact made a good opening night film for Cat's Away, so I figured I ought to follow suit with The Tribe on night #2.

There's no particular reason this is well suited as a second night film, particularly since a second night film tends not to have a personality to speak of. But there's a good reason it's a film festival film, which is that my goodness is it challenging. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's film originates in Ukraine -- my wife tells me not to say "the Ukraine" -- but language difficulties are not what make this film difficult. Or, not the way you think. There's no spoken language, and there are no subtitles for the Ukrainian sign language in which the film is told. What's more, it proceeds this way for a full 132 minutes.

So it's kind of doubly foreign, but even more than that, because it would be impossible even for most Ukrainians to understand. In fact, an argument can be made that few films have been made in the history of the medium whose language is understood by fewer people than The Tribe. There may be more Aramaic scholars in the world who can understand Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (without subtitles) than there would be Ukrainians fluent in Ukrainian sign language. In fact, I might not be underestimating if I said that there existed only 5,000 to 10,000 people in the world who would be able to tell exactly what the characters are saying to each other in this movie.

Which is the point, of course. In a medium in which the maxim is to "show, don't tell," The Tribe shows like no other film has before it -- shows without ever a single crutch of occasionally telling. Consequently, we don't even know the character's names (although the wikipedia plot synopsis has somehow managed to learn them), let alone the exact nuances of what they are saying to each other. We can go only on their actions, their expressions, and what they must be saying given the vigor of their gesticulations and the context of those actions.

Although I could mostly follow what was happening, as much as it was necessary to follow it, unfortunately the exercise became increasingly tedious as the story became increasingly nihilistic. The story is set in a Ukrainian school for the deaf, and it's seen through the eyes of a newly enrolled young man who becomes plunged into a gang of reprobates who run the school by robbing, abusing and intimidating their classmates. But mere petty lunch money stealing is small beans for these guys, who also assault members of the public and even prostitute out their women to the men sleeping in their big rig trucks in snowy rest stops.

At first I loved the "gimmick," if we want to call it that. I could indeed glean character dynamics and plot developments from nothing more than what was happening on screen, captured in numerous unbroken takes that sometimes lasted minutes on end, and certainly aided by the fact that sign language resembles the movements of a mime from time to time. Gestures were assigned their meaning in this language because there was something universal and intuitive about them, like the frequently used flicking of the arm that's the international sign for "Get lost." So while there were some moments when I didn't get exactly what was transpiring, or who a newly introduced character was supposed to be, the overall thrust was something I could follow without a problem.

But as gimmicks can do, this one started to become arduous. And I started thinking about the 2015 German film Victoria, directed by Sebastian Schipper, an astonishing technical achievement in that it occurs in a single 138-minute take with incredibly high degrees of difficulty in the choreography. That should have been my favorite film of that year, but instead it ground me down and gave me major gimmick fatigue (as I wrote about here in the context of the similarly conceived Open Windows).

The Tribe started to do the same, not necessarily because I was fighting against the gimmick to extract meaning or understanding from the film, but because I began realizing it was not going to be in service of anything I found enriching. In a quick glance of the reviews of this film on Metacritic -- the fast majority of which were very possible -- I saw a couple mentions of Larry Clark's Kids, which is apt. The Tribe imagines an apocalyptic world in which a sophisticated criminal ecosystem has cropped up at a deaf school, one that knows no limits to its malfeasance and extremity. Yet it seems just to wallow in this sense of anarchy without exploring why the conditions of a deaf school might create this environment, or whether their being deaf even plays a role in it.

And then I started to consider the exercise highly artificial, because although it takes place at a deaf school, the actual details of the school's day-to-day operations -- like the fact that a light strobes when class ends, rather than a bell ringing -- become a red herring. Because the idea is to give us a film in which words play no function whatsoever, it's not just the students and staff of the school who are deaf, but all the characters that these characters come across. When they are signing to truck drivers in rest stops and people they are mugging on the train, the sign language becomes less a diegetic element of the world of the movie and more a linguistic choice. The filmmakers chose to tell this story in Ukrainian sign language in the same way that a French filmmaker would choose to tell his film in French. If that was going to be the case, why even have them go to a school for the deaf in the first place?

Had this film been cranked out in a quick 90 minutes and found a clever and intrinsic way to incorporate the deafness into the story -- instead of just having a guy get run over by a truck because he doesn't hear it backing up -- we might be talking masterpiece. Instead, I admired quite a bit about The Tribe, but I did not like watching it and I will never watch it again.

But this, too, is an experience a person might have at any good film festival.

Back to something lighter and less arduous on Thursday night.

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