Lovers of the Arctic Circle
Do some movies begin as a snappy title? The filmmaker's sitting in the tub, say, or waiting for a train to arrive, idly spinning words through his head, when suddenly a phrase clicks, and then he can't get it out of his head. I suspect something of this sort may have been the genesis of Julio Medem's Lovers of the Arctic Circle, an arty, plushly made romantic melodrama from Spain. It's not simply that the title reads like one big commercial hook (anything with "lovers" in it is 10 points ahead to begin with). No, the real tip-off is that it's close to impossible to picture anyone sitting in a tub thinking, "a story about Spanish lovers who ultimately converge in Finland?dynamite!?but dammit, what do we call it?"
But please: What chance does a Spanish film called Lovers of the Arctic Circle have of not feeling contrived? Imagine Medem's thoughts in the moments after he settles on his title. "Lovers...guy and a girl, of course...how to get them to the Arctic Circle...hmm...make him a pilot...yeah, that's good...how do they meet...let's see....coincidence? Voila!" Some day in the not too distant future, when the inevitable colloquium is held on "The Death of the European Art Film," there will have to be a section on coincidence. I'm not talking about the old, robust sort uapologetically practiced by the likes of Fielding and Dickens. I mean the fey, fussy, post-Nabokov sort that in recent Euro art films reads like a poor substitute for conviction or real cleverness. Usually swathed in a kind of gauzy, portentous pseudo-mysticism, it's what directors like Kieslowski serve up when they've run out of real ideas and are merely keeping up the franchise. It goes along with other idle bits of decorative formalism like puns (visual and verbal), rhymes and repetitions, pointlessly elaborate shifts of viewpoint, whimsical literary references and historical disgressions and, of course, woozily "poetic" musings on fate, identity and (to quote the presskit here) "romantic destiny." Lovers of the Arctic Circle is rife with all of the above. Its characters belong less to any recognizable social reality than to the obvious wheezings of an imagination that, having decided that "Arctic Circle" necessitates making the male lover a pilot, thinks it's clever to name the pilot Otto because the name rhymes with pilot (piloto) in Spanish. And get this: Not only is "Otto" a palindrome, but its Os mirror the circles (and circles-within-circles!) that are the film's main visual motif. Like, wow. For no evident reason other than it's there to be done, the movie's story repeatedly switches between the viewpoints and reminiscent voiceovers of Otto and his female opposite, the no less palindromically monikered Ana. (In a tale that skips through 17 years of its young characters' lives, Otto is played sequentially by Peru Medem, Victor Hugo Oliveira and Fele Martinez; Ana by Sara Valiente, Kristel Diaz and Najwa Nimri.) When we first meet them, they're kids attending the same grade school. One day he sees her running and runs after her, curious to discover "where girls run to." When we see the same event from her POV, we learn that she's not running to but from something: the news that her father has just been killed in a car crash (Presumably because accidents are the dark side of coincidences, the film abounds in collisions and close scrapes.) While Otto is immediately smitten with Ana, she decides that her father's spirit has entered the boy, which gives their relationship a bit of a mystical spin from the get-go. Likewise smitten with aviation, Otto sends a flock of romantically inscribed paper airplanes sailing into the school's courtyard one day, as a result of which?quel coincidence?his dad (Nancho Novo) and her mom (Maru Valdivieso) meet and begin a relationship. Fortunately for the kids, that eventually means they get to move in together, and although they're obliged to maintain the fiction of a sibling-like friendship, they begin sleeping with each other secretly. At this point they're teenagers, and somewhere in Otto's prolonged sort-of seduction, he tells Ana the story of how he owes his name to a German pilot who was shot down after bombing Guernica. Does this typically digressive tidbit have any particular point or specific symbolic resonance for Spanish viewers? I doubt it. It feels like it's just there to add a bit of historical spice (Nazis are always good for that) and to further the film's deterministic doublings: Otto gets his name from another Otto and later encounters a third, suggesting that life is a series of mirror images (or an endless chain of Ottos). Plus, the example of the first Otto-el-piloto helps bounce our hero professionally toward the skies?and into the third act, when, after the inevitable period of separation from Ana, his work as an air courier on the Spain-Finland route positions him for a heart-thumping romantic reunion. How does his honey happen to be north of the Arctic Circle? C'mon, you know: coincidence. To Medem's credit, I guess, he puts all this across as if it's not nearly as ridiculous and fuzzy-brained as it basically is. He has a way with lush, wide-screen compositions, feverish dramatic momentum and catchy narrative filigree that makes the movie somewhat more than watchable: It's fun and fitfully fascinating, especially when you muse on the extent to which its notion of romance has less to do with how people actually love than with how movies create the fantasy that they do?in this sense, Lovers of the Artic Circle is perhaps most in love with its own, rather overheated illusionistic powers. Medem started as a film critic and his movies to date suggest a guy who's more possessed by movie-movieness than sure of what to do with it. His first film, the impressive and engrossing Vacas, had a dark, self-consciously Buñuelian edge; his last, Tierra, was a bombastic exercise in wafty surrealist allegory that put me to sleep. Lovers of the Arctic Circle, which is enormously better than the latter film though not as good as the former, made its U.S. debut at Sundance, and I can't think of any place more suitable for it. Redford's wintry confab is always full of films that have nothing to say beyond, "I want to make movies!" Medem's says the same thing, rather stylishly and in Spanish. We have no trouble understanding why everything in it runs in circles, since the same masturbatory logic guides many movies that have little to proclaim beyond their effusive interest in proclaiming something that's, um, cool.
The Underground Orchestra
Now in the middle of a two-week run at Film Forum, The Underground Orchestra is an agreeably offbeat documentary that comes with certain built-in but easily forgiven frustrations. Heddy Honigmann, the Dutch filmmaker whose Metal and Melancholy and O Amor Natural Film Forum previously showcased, sets out to make a film about the musicians who busk in the Paris Metro, but guess what: Filming isn't permitted there. Honigmann tries to get away with it, guerrilla style, and that works for a while; scurrying through the mazelike underground passages and trains, she captures some engrossing musical moments, especially an exuberant soul song belted out by a bohemian band on what seems like an endless cruise between Metro stops. (What line is this?)
But the cops intervene, and don't stop intervening. I have a feeling there's a scene we don't get to see where les flics tell Honigmann that this is the last time: once more and they'll impound her camera and bounce her ass back to Amsterdam. In any case, she moves above ground and starts talking to musicians in cafes, doorways and their homes (yep, some are housed quite nicely). They're from all over the map, and political displacement's a recurring theme: One's a deserter from the Bosnian army, another a victim of horrific torture in South America. None portrays musicmaking in the Metro as a great living, financially or otherwise; it's a grueling rite of passage, despite the beautiful sounds and moments of exhilaration. The artists are refugees, cast adrift by modern history's discontents, whose lot is a kind of suspended animation, a life between stops. Honigmann registers their lyricism and melancholy with eloquent precision. Reeling One of American cinema's most regrettable truisms is the lack of public venues for worthy short films. As a big fan of the form myself, I'm always on the lookout for new showcases for shorts, especially ones that hold the promise of some kind of durability. That's why I crossed my fingers when I read "first annual" on the press release announcing the first annual PS 99: Short Film Exhibition, which kicked off on April 5 and runs for three more consecutive Mondays at Anthology Film Archive. The series is showing 25 films overall. This Monday, April 12, the lineup includes Gillian Ashurst's Venus Blue, Michael Kang's A Waiter Tomorrow, David Kittredge's Fairy Tale, Andre Hereford's Pop Tarts, John Massey's Trevor and Roberto Lopez's Crazyheads. The screenings begin at 8 p.m. In addition to the one on April 19, PS 99 will present a panel discussion titled "Rent Money: Your Short and Beyond" at 5:30 at the Tribeca Film Center. The series is free, although a $5 donation is encouraged. PS 99 will also have a closing night party at Baby Jupiter on April 26.
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