Friday, April 27, 2012

Attenberg


          “Because something is happening here, But you don’t know
           what it is, Do you Mister Jones?”                 Bob Dylan (1965)
     
                                           Review by Ken Burke
     
A funky, disjointed Greek film about a young woman trying to find her identity with help from a more liberated friend and restrain from her obligations to her dying father.
     
            Given the constantly unexpected aspects of the narrative flow and quirky attitude in Athina Rachel Tsangari‘s (recipient of an MFA in film directing from my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin) Attenberg (2010, but just now making it into our theatres), a review that matched its spirit would wander off somewhere along the way and comment on the critic’s cats or something else just as unrelated to an analysis of the film.  This independent offering from Greece is a constant, if at times confusing, delight about a young woman (23), Marina (Arlane Labed, on the right in the photo), trying to find her personal and sexual identity at a time in her emerging adult life when her constant companions are her dying father, Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), and her more libertine friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou), but she wants more even though she’s not sure at all what more should be.  Most other reviews of this film use the photo of Marina and Bella seemingly French kissing (not really; it’s just Bella’s attempt to show virginal Marina what kissing is all about, but the passionless spit-swapping that occurs in this scene is the most un-erotic encounter that you could image—and it doesn’t do anything for Marina either, although she seems to enjoy more the play fight [like a couple of kittens] that ensues after the saliva has dried up), an image which likely attracts some readers or even flilmgoers with the incorrect assumption that this is a lesbian romance, but there’s nothing lesbian and very little romantic going on in this film (although there is some blatant, virtually clinical sex, which Marina finally seeks despite her initial aversion to “piston” encounters with men).  However, there is a strong friendship between these women that shows they don’t have to enter each other’s bodies in order to enter each other’s souls.  In fact, much of the film’s charm is in the illogical cutaway scenes where these two kindred free spirits simply “dance” in various strange harmonies that seem to have been choreographed by Monty Python’s Minister of Silly Walks.

            From its unconventional opening the film then glides us through silent, empty spaces, some of which will have marginal importance later, before establishing the mundane but regular connection of Marina and Spyros.  Another ongoing connection is the shared fascination Marina and her dad have in watching David Attenborough’s (younger brother of actor/director Richard) BBC nature documentaries, to which Marina often responds in a visceral manner by squawking or grunting back at them on her TV screen in harmony with the birds and mammals she’s viewing (she also mispronounces Attenborough's name, leading to the title of our film, which is a bit of a mispronunciation of its own, at least in terms of normal cinematic expectations of cause and effect in a narrative film).  Contrasted to Marina’s occasional animal outbursts we have quiet shots like the opening (or post-opening, to be precise) montage that shows us the environment of Marina’s story:  the factory where she works as a driver for various people (including the visiting engineer [Giorgos Lanthimos] with whom she willingly loses her virginity in scenes that almost seem designed to not require harder than an R rating because they’re so functional [so to speak, given the full body shots and high key lighting], although the penetration is still implied rather than explicit [there’s also a full frontal nude shot of Marina in a mirror which shows off her attractive form but again it’s intended not as erotic but as the embodiment, also so to speak, of a human being in complete contemplation of her true unprotected persona; nevertheless the film is released as unrated—one of the early but now discarded strategies for Bully [Lee Hirsch]—a marketing ploy which avoids the notorious NC-17 but also results in a lot of theatre rejections, so you’ll most likely have to search for this one on DVD), father and daughter eating, daughter taking father on her motorbike to his appointed medical procedures, a mundane landscape that is the “other” Greece beyond those ancient ruins and sun-baked Aegean isles, etc.

            Well, I told you that a proper review for an unusual film such as this one should break off for some commentary on my cats—because Attenberg is consistently goofy enough that I wouldn’t be surprised to see some footage of something just as personal to the director suddenly jumping into the flow of the film (and possibly everything we see is very personal to her but there’s little way to know that).  Therefore, I give you a back view of Annie and Inky sharing our unlit fireplace with their big toy doggie pal, which is just as reasonable an addition to this review of the film as any of the unpredictable scenes that pop up on screen, especially concerning the wacky walk-along segments of Marina and Bella in their purple and blue dresses, which you can see an example of in the suggested short clip noted below at the end of the review, a beautifully-shot, lyrical music video of sorts.

            And while we’re off the subject of the strange Greek film under semi-coherent analysis here, let me also offer another animal-based commentary (but actually connected to the Attenborough nature documentaries so appealing to the characters in Attenberg), which is for you to consider seeing the Disney Nature documentary Chimpanzee (Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield; to which I’d give 3 ½  stars if I were doing an actual review of it because of the stunning camerawork, informational value on the lives of our close primate relatives, and sympathy generated for its sweet little guy but with hesitations about the simplistic narration story, although I’ll admit that the explanations have to be easily comprehendible to children [Good Lord! I’ve actually watched a G film and enjoyed it.]) shot on location in the jungles of Africa with many months of footage of two competing chimp tribes and the very unusual bonding of an abandoned baby, “Oscar” (as named by the filmmakers), with the reigning stud of his group, “Freddie,” after his mother is killed in a raid by a rival tribe (led by fading tough guy “Scar,” who’s probably now more concerned about the stability of the Social Security system than those nut trees he was trying to acquire domain over).  This is a marvelous look at the ongoing reality of the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest (not just in physical strength or number of combatants but mostly in well-conceived battle strategy—a frightful understanding of where our propensity for aggressive conquests comes from), with an impossible-to-resist attraction to little Oscar as he finds his way into his preordained society—not unlike Marina in the film I’m supposed to be reviewing.  (You can see the official site for Chimpanzee at http://disney.go.com/disneynature/chimpanzee/ and a trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CI5BjbI_IZ8; when you put in the title on YouTube you’ll also get options for several short clips from the movie if you’d like to explore the community building and tool usage aspects of the chimp world.  Also, if you see Chimpanzee before May 3, 2012 Disney will make a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute to help protect our endangered primate relatives, so if you’re considering seeing nature in the raw—even though it’s given a structure via a corny script delivered in corny fashion by Tim Allen—get moving quickly).  OK, enough Attenberg-appropriate digression—except to remind you how wonderful my lovely kitties are and how they’ve understood (?) their urban jungle so well that they still don’t seem to realize that this dog isn’t going to move over at some point so they can get closer to the fire, if it ever comes on—and now our return to the actual review, if it doesn’t dance away from us in a crazy Marina and Bella ballet before I’m finished.

            I offer this last image from Attenberg, in all its unvarnished ordinariness, as indicative of the ongoing spirit of this very independent, very unusual film.  This is simply the industrial landscape that borders on the bay where Marina and Bella have returned after scattering her father’s ashes.  (Which, our ongoing Spoiler Alert Policy aside, would come as no surprise at all as you’re watching the film; this is clearly a dying man who shares what little energy he has with his doting daughter as best he can but is clearly on the way out—despite which, Marina maintains her consistently quirkiness here as well with her complex interests in Spyros, admitting that she imagines him naked but without a penis so that there’s once again no eroticism intended [just as she admits that she admires women but doesn’t lust after them so as to not leave any false impressions with Bella, her easily-prone-to-lust platonic girlfriend who has dreams of "prick trees" where penises abound like fruit ripe for plucking].  Marina’s just a fascinating study in the ongoing emergence of her full personhood, a more contemplative version of Zooey Deschanel’s Jess Day in the FOX New Girl TV series who explores life in her late 20s with her three supportive but perplexed male roommates.)  Spyros’ death is handled in the same straightforward fashion as the rest of the actual narrative of the film (unlike the various sideways excursions, usually with Marina and Bella in their dumbfounding dancewalks):  first he’s in the hospital, then his body is being shipped overseas for cremation (he has his own quirks about where this must be done to avoid local "contamination"), then the urn with his ashes is brought back to Marina, then the girls are out in their little motorboat uniting Spyros for the last time with the waters of the world.  It's all direct, emotionless, with no unnecessary diversions.

            In a fashion now typical of this film (which does a good job of securely establishing its offbeat mood so that the strange parts do fit nicely together), after our two remaining protagonists drive or bike away the camera just lingers on this empty shot for a maddeningly long time, reminding us that the larger planet just goes on with its non-dramatic existence whether anyone we care about is part of its every location or not, as well as reminding me of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 The Eclipse (L’eclisse) in which two lovers (played by the marvelous Monica Vitti and Alain Delon) struggle all through the film to repair their broken relationship, agreeing toward the end to meet one more time at a favorite location but neither of them show up so we’re left with 10 min. of "story" beyond the structure of the narrative, simply revisiting previous places we’ve been shown but not without the presence of our protagonists (in a manner not unlike the seemingly anonymous empty locations that open Attenberg ... that is, after Marina and Bella finally close their mouths).  I’m not comparing Attenberg to what I consider to be a masterpiece on the part of Antonioni but I will say that this Greek morsel which comes to American screens 50 years later has touches of what worked so well for me in the films of Tsangari’s Mediterranean neighbor, although Attenberg has a lovely insanity that would have completely eluded Antonioni in both purpose and presentation.   I doubt that anyone more interested in movies such as Think Like a Man (Tim Story) would care for anything I’ve written about here, but for those of us somewhat off in the deep end Attenberg provides the opportunity to dive into some refreshingly unexpected waters.

            If you’re interested in exploring more about Attenberg please consider the following sites:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzmgVN6M5E8 (short clip from the film)




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