MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Arthouse Redux: How Very Verite of You

Filipino arthouse director Brillante Mendoza’s 2007 film Tirador (Slingshot) opened in NYC this weekend, but I’m still thinking of the film he made a year later, Serbis. In one of those instances of cinematic scheduling perversity, Tirador is releasing after Serbis, which debuted at Cannes in 2008 after Tirador played at Toronto in 2007. It has been argued that Mendoza is the most brilliant Filipino director working today. But is Serbis really the brilliantly executed artistic use of verite to mire its audience in poverty and plight many critics seem to think, or is the Emperor parading down the street naked, while the citizenry admires his invisible fine clothes? Either way, Mendoza’s certainly made a name for himself as one of the most talked about filmmakers of any nationality.

Mendoza is big on the verite style of filmmaking, taking the audience down, baby, down into the grit and non-glamour of his homeland, bringing the poverty of Manila to life with all the sweat, loving closeups and money shots of a porn film. In Serbis, he takes his audience deep into the dirt and grime of a family-run theater and cafe in Manila that’s making ends meet by showing soft-core porn to mostly male audience members who come there to get, well, serviced, while the staff politely looks the other way.

Mendoza’s films have a great deal of ambient noise; in the opening 20 or so minutes of Serbis, you feel with immense clarity the clamor, the noise, the bustle, the press of humanity that flows down the streets of Manila. Almost, you smell the smells. Serbis has the mood and nervous energy of a hopped up meth freak on a crowded bus; it’s jittery, claustrophobic, and ear-poundingly loud, so layered with visual and aural stimuli that the very verite that Mendoza was using for (presumably) artistic effect just pulled me completely out of the film.

I made it through the lingering, gratuitous camera-fondling of a young Filipino girl in the film’s opening shot, the sensuous close-ups of an infected boil on a guy’s ass, and the transvestive blowjob in a projection booth, but that was about as much as I could take. All these converging storylines might have been interesting, perhaps, if I’d cared enough about any of the characters to pay attention to the things Mendoza had happening to them, but whoever they were that might have made me care about them got buried by the director showing us too much of what the characters did rather than who they were.

I must confess I’ve always felt a little guilty and, well, contrarian for not liking Serbis. After all, a good many smart film critics who saw it at Cannes praised it so it must be good, right? Actually, as I recall not a lot of colleagues I talked to during Cannes actually liked Serbis — the film made a stir, to be sure, but not in what I would characterize a good way, at least at the time. But Serbis — and Cannes that year, by proxy — is where I became convinced that there is some truth to the theory that at certain fests, if a couple of well-respected critics talk up a film like Serbis, others will fall into line after them, no matter how many jokes they were making at the film’s expense just a few nights earlier.

Sure, the jokes about goats and pus-filled boils had billowed up through the starry night sky the night Serbis screened, but over the forthcoming days and weeks, as a couple of key critics weighed in, people were practically clamoring to speak its praises, perhaps fervantly hoping nobody had been paying much attention to their drunken theorizing a few nights earlier about ass-boils as an artistic expression of the corruption of the Bourgeoisie.

Serbis was made, part and parcel, for the kind of folks who will brave hours spent in endless lines waiting to sit in the dark watching daring, artistic, even experimental movies, and more hours in endless lines hoping to get into the same late-night beach party that seems never to end at a fest like Cannes. Everybody’s on “the list,” noboby’s on “the list,” and at the end of the day/night, some invisible, unflappably polite French butler simply tucks the whole thing away neatly as dawn breaks over the Mediterranean, only to shake it out fresh and lay it back out again at sunset — complete with the same people, smoking the same cigarettes, standing in the same places in the same lines, still talking about the same movies they were talking about the night before.

Perhaps films of the sort Mendoza crafts are made only to be appreciated by a few fine, lofty minds pondering their greater meaning over many cheap drinks at Cannes’ Le Petit Majestic bar on a late summer night, swept up in the not insubstantial gravitational pull created by the convergence of many brilliant cinephiles of varying nationalities discussing a plethora of arthouse movies. Cannes is the perfect environment in which to discuss the films of a befuddling director like Mendoza.

My colleague and I left Serbis shortly after a glass pop bottle is used to pop the boil on the kids’ ass in lovingly rendered, close-up glory (too bad there wasn’t 3-D), making us feel as if we, too, were boils filled with rage at having sat through this much of this film, and desperately in need of the pressure-release of a quick drink or at least a panini to pop all that nastiness right on out of our systems like so much diseased pus. And spare me the lectures on Third World health care, apologists and defenders; just because a remedy for popping your boil with a pop bottle exists, doesn’t mean we need to see it in graphic detail on a big screen. Somewhere on a list labeled “Private Grooming that Must Never be Seen in Public,” popping your nasty ass-boil in vivid Techincolor is surely near the very top.

Thus Serbis gained the distinction, such as it is, of being the only film I have ever — that’s right, wusses, EVER — walked out on at a film festival. Hate it, like it or love it, I generally sit through fest films from start to finish, but not this time. We heard later we missed the bit with the goat. Maybe that would have changed my mind about the film, but I kind of doubt it.

When I chatted with a very respected critical colleague in Cannes a couple days later, we traded our thoughts on what we’d seen and she gushed that Serbis was, by far, her favorite of the festival. And she wasn’t even joking. She was completely in earnest, and I was therefore rather flummoxed by her unbridled admiration for a film that I had dismissed out-of-hand as repulsive and overrated. I must also confess that, for half-a-second there, the mere fact that this particular critic was so enamored of this film very nearly made me reconsider it.

If I’d had time, and the schedule had so allowed, I might even have revisited Serbis on a warm, lazy Cannes afternoon toward the end of the fest, and seen it in all the things my colleague had seen in it to so enrapture her. After all, many of my colleagues, according to the ever-ripe Tomatometer, aver to the tune of some 80% that Serbis is great. Which puts me firmly in the minority. Makes me, you might even say, a bit of a contrarian, which is one thing when you’re talking about some big-studio film that everyone hates but you took guilty pleasure in, or everyone loves for its big explosions, while you bemoan its lack of plot — but perhaps another thing when you’re talking about a smart, artsy film that so many people other than you seem to “get” and you don’t.

It’s the divisive, not easily likable films like Serbis; the slow-paced, hopeful build of a Tulpan; the achingly deliberate pacing of Claire Denis’ films; the harsh political landscapes explored by Sixth Generation Chinese filmmakers like Jia Zhangke (The World, Platform); the crazy, inexplicable likability of many of Harmony Korine’s films; the chilling familial trainwreck of a Dogtooth; or even a film like Woman Without Piano, (which played at this year’s SIFF) which uses exquisite shots and camera angles and lighting and color to tell its simple, quiet story — that make film criticism, particularly at a festival, both intellectually challenging and fun.

As it happens, at Cannes that year I much preferred the very different verite style of Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, whose Linha de Passe, along with earlier film Foreign Land (Terra Estrangeira), is a part of an intended series of narrative films revisiting the impact of growth and industrialization on the middle class of Brazil’s major cities every decade or so. I found Salles’ and Thomas’s work with Linha de Passe to be borne of a greater intellectual inquistiveness, and to deliver its polictically-charged messages with a far greater grace and subtlety, than Mendoza accomplishes or even attempts with Serbis.

I prefer not to be dragged through the gutters of the worst filth one can find, to have that poverty and despair put on display like a broken-down, diseased crack whore staggering on a street corner, and told that is “art,” which is what I felt Mendoza did with Serbis. But others disagree. Mendoza is a critical darling, especially at Cannes. His film Kinatay (The Execution of P) won all kinds of accolades (including director and the Golden Palm) at Cannes in 2009 … after which that film played a handful of respectable Euro fests and virtually nothing in the States before disappearing — taking with it, as so many Cannes winners seem to do, any likelihood of vast commercial success. So spin the wheels of independent arthouse cinema.

Maybe this is all a part of the intrinsic value of watching obscure, artsy films at film festivals in exotic locales to begin with. We go to immerse ourselves in art, and art is not always shiny-shiny and pretty to look at. So we look, we turn away, perhaps, in disgust … and perhaps later, we revisit and reassess based on where we’re standing this time around. Maybe it looks glowingly brilliant upon a revisit, maybe it still looks like bullshit, or perhaps we see an entirely different sort of bullshit altogether — but if we are not open to exploring, how will we know? This is why, in spite of Serbis being the film that holds the honor of finally knocking The Adventures of Shark-Boy and Lava Girl out of its lofty position as my most hated film ever, I still want to see Mendoza’s Tirador and perhaps even give Serbis another shot.

In the meantime, please hold my spot in the Mendoza “contrarian” section, while I explore the possibility that a reexamination of his work will suddenly make me see the light and appreciate the filmmaker’s brilliance.

This column is the start of a new subset of “Arthouse Redux” columns, in which I will revisit films from festivals, or interesting films from artsy or “classic” directors. Some will be films I’ve seen before and am revisiting, others will be attempts to fill in some gaps in my filmic knowledge that keep nagging at me like a missing tooth. Generally they will be pairs or series that have some connection to each other, however obscurely.  Hopefully it will be interesting for me to write about and for you to read about. If you have suggestions of films you’d like me to consider for this column, please send them my way.

– by Kim Voynar

July 24 , 2010

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