Sunday, March 12, 2023

True/False 2023: Fathers and Mothers

Red Herring (2023, directed by Kit Vincent) starts with an image of a man swimming at twilight. This man is the director's father, Lawrence, who is dealing with the knowledge that he is going to outlive his son. The Sword of Damoclese hanging over Kit Vincent and his family is an inoperable brain tumor that will kill him in four to eight years. The film covers four of those years. It's mostly about the relationship between Kit and Lawrence, and how they deal with impending mortality, but it also spends time with Vincent's estranged mother, and less so with his partner. His father's confrontation with mortality leads him to philosophical Judaism and ultimately a conversion to that faith. His mother has been keeping a secret about her own parentage that the film drops about two thirds of the way through, potentially creating a drastic reexamination of Vincent's relationship to his mother, though that never materializes. The film is organized around the director's brain scans which provide chapter stops for the film of a sort, in which the entire family gathers around the cell phone to listen to the results.

Cinema has been described as an empathy machine and I think that description is particularly suited to this film. It's not a tear-jerker in spite of its subject matter. Instead, it lets the audience get to know this family during the process of dealing with their situation without ramping up any emotional manipulation. Vincent himself tells us that he's never cried during the process of living with a brain tumor and on the evidence, he doesn't want to make the audience cry either. Instead, he's concerned with the minutiae of living with his condition and his small defiances of its inevitability, whether it's riding a carousel when he shouldn't, getting stoned with his father as a potential therapy, or accompanying his dad through Lawrence's conversion to Judaism. Vincent says in the text of the film that he doesn't want to make a sad film, but in spite of his intentions, he's made an emotional and keenly empathetic one.

Like many films by directors telling stories of their own lives and families, this is a film that places a premium on the intimacy of its shots. Most of the close-ups of Lawrence talking about his philosophy (he is an academic) or the steady gaze at the director himself as he has seizures on-camera or the interaction of people in close quarters are shot more closely than a film intent on any distance would allow. In between such scenes, Vincent has placed occasionally startling images. The most outre of these is during one of his brain scans when his head is held in place by a mask of green rubber webbing, like he's Hannibal Lecter. His father dressed as Albert Einstein for a Purim observance is another such image, as are shots of him tending marijuana plants with the intent of harvesting the oil. There's a tenebrism in these last shots that are the equivalent of paintings by the Dutch masters.

To an extent, the film exists as a testament that Vincent lived and meant something rather than as any kind of document of cancer and death. It's an assertion of meaning and existence. His partner, Isobel, bristles at Vincent's life on camera as if that's all that's important to him, all that he'll leave behind, as if without the film he'll have never existed at all. But the film is too disciplined for that. It knows that humans leave a void when they leave. It's a document that our lives touch others in profound and ever-expanding ways that will continue even after our deaths. It's among the most joyful movies about death I've seen, perhaps because it's not about death at all. It's about life in all its boring quotidian details.

The Taste of Mango (2023, directed by Chloe Abrahams) charts a more fraught relationship between generations. Another film in which the director turns her camera on her own family, this features dreamy memories from old home movies that at first seem joyous, only to take on darker and darker meanings as the film's story unfolds. Add to this old photographs that have been torn in half and you have hints of a tragic past. At the outset, director's mother, Rozana, has been trying for years to get her own mother, Nana Jean, to leave Sri Lanka and relocate to London. The catch is that Nana Jean's partner is not welcome. Something bad happened in the past, and unraveling that bad thing is central to the film's theme of sexual violence as a generational patrimony. Note the "patri" part of the word "patrimony." All three of the women in this family have experienced sexual assault, but Nana Jean has gone one further and continues to live with the man who molested her daughter. Apparently, he has a history of molestation. It's inconceivable to her offspring that she would choose to stay with such a man at the risk of completely alienating her own flesh and blood. This man is not a blood relation, Rozana's father having died very young. Nana Jean begs off with the excuse that people would think badly of her if she left. This is the focus of Nana's visits to London. Rozana has had enough, though, and delivers an ultimatum.

This is another first person film in which the director chooses to move its gaze very close to its subject, sometimes too close for the focal length of the camera. Combined with the lo-fi nature of the archival footage, it creates a kind of dream fugue throughout the film. This can be jarring at times. Much of its storytelling is reliant on the director's voice-over. This is a flaw common to films in which parts of its narrative don't exist on film. The whole film has been carefully framed to avoid looking like a talking heads film, though it often is one. None of this is insurmountable, and the film generally transcends its limitations.

This is the documentary as chamber piece. There are really only three people in this movie (although Rozana's current fiance exists in the margins), and men hardly appear in the film at all. The film returns again and again to the wedding video from Rozana's first marriage, in which she's escorted down the aisle by her mother's abusive partner. Every time this footage reappears it turns into an example of the Kuleshov effect in which its meaning changes in relation to the footage around it. The first time we see it, it seems like a fairy tale, full of joy, with a radiant bride at the center. The last time we see it, there's a hint of panic, of abject loathing. Same footage, different meaning. It's effective.

It is easy to demonize Nana Jean in all of this. She's known that something happened between her man and her daughter that estranges them, but seems unwilling to confront it. From a Western feminist perspective in the relative safety of London, it's inconceivable that she would act as she does. Sri Lanka is a world away, though, and neither the audience nor her daughters are really privy to the fears and social pressures that motivate her. The ties of blood are strong, but the ties of culture are sometimes stronger. Eventually, the film becomes a contest between these two impulses. Nana speaking for herself says that they don't understand what she's been through, what she's had to do to live in her society, and it's a flaw in the film that it is unable to convey that. Its limited first-person point of view comes with a set of blinders to this part of the story. Eventually, the prospect of losing her daughter and granddaughter in favor of her partner is too much for her to bear. It's shocking to an audience that knows the man raped Rozana that she can't shake him off. It's even more shocking that he can grin so serenely as he gives her away on her wedding day. The cinema's capacity as an empathy machine has to work overtime to bring the humanity of this woman to life, though it eventually manages it in the end.

The Taste of Mango was paired with the short film, "The Feeling of Being Close to You" (2022, directed by Ash Goh Hua), which is an apt juxtaposition. It is likewise a film that superimposes brutal realities on seemingly joyful home movies from the director's past. The film shows the director as a child having a birthday and playing with other children, while the soundtrack features a conversation between the director and her mother in which Ash asks her mother point blank why she tried to kill her. It's a portrait of abuse papered over with a good front. That's what most families are, aren't they? Chaos behind appearances? That's this film all over.

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