The land of the screen

A ride on the rails of the Vancouver International Film Festival


My flight to Canada was delayed, so I missed James Benning's RR, the first film I planned to see at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. Plane snafus kept me from seeing Benning's film about trains, which had graced the cover of a recent Guardian issue devoted to life on the rails (and by extension, American capitalism off the rails). The first face to greet me in Canada was that of Sarah Palin, on TV screens by the arrival gate and above the luggage carousel. There she was, again, this time at the Vice Presidential debate. Since the airport TVs were muted, her lines of dialogue took the form of subtitles.

Even though I missed RR, Benning's influence was present in a pair of sharp-eyed features by women who map personal visions of the United States. Train-hopping figures in the beginning and end of Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt's follow-up to 2006's Old Joy. At the start of the film, Wendy (Michelle Williams, in a role that's taken on an added subtext of grief) and Lucy (played by Reichardt's dog of the same name) walk into a beatific but beat-up nighttime campfire scene that's like a Polaroid Kidd photo come to life. By the end, at least one of them has forsaken fuel car for train car.

A different story involving one woman, a camera, and the land, Lee Anne Schmitt's California Company Town takes a more direct look at the American landscape. Schmitt's documentary adds another volume to a growing collection of rural and urban US portraits by Cal Arts alumni, from Benning to Thom Andersen (whose 2003 Los Angeles Plays Itself shares Schmitt's focus on California history) and William E. Jones (whose increasingly significant 1991 Massillon might be the precedent for Schmitt's mix of voiceover and radio chatter, as well as her use of 16mm film). No doubt about it: Schmitt's dry, scathing report on the fatal nature of California capitalism and the greater American dream was the festival's timeliest film.

The unsentimental relevance of California Company Town hasn't kept some viewers from blaming the messenger, who aims to provoke by capping her survey of the state's ghost towns with a voiceless look at Silicon Valley, where even nature takes on a sterile, cult-like ambiance. At Vancouver and elsewhere, Terence Davies has been praised for Of Time and the City, his voiceover-heavy screed against capitalism's facelifts for Liverpool, yet Schmitt's relatively low-key approach to similar subject matter pisses off more people. For some, maybe the truth — especially when accompanied by Irma Thomas' "Time is on My Side"— stings most when spoken by a woman. Andersen and Fred Halsted have demonstrated that Los Angeles plays itself. Schmitt shows how California plays us.

Both capitalism and socialism are skewered with no mercy and maximum mirth by Jim Finn's The Juche Idea, which takes the published film theories of none other than Kim Jong-Il as its point of entry. If the extreme solitude of Schmitt's film demonstrates one type of (autobiographical) radical filmmaking ideal, then Finn's madcap feature demonstrates another. It's a playfully braided collaborative effort. The main actresses (Jung Yoon Lee, and Daniela Kostova — a painter, video artist, and "the lesbian" on Big Brother Bulgaria 4) wryly insert their authorial voices and visual creativity into the film's world. And what a mad, mad, mad world it is: one where Korean language courses teach kids how to pronounce "Karl Marx was a friend to children" and instruct adults on how to relieve their "loose bowels."

This world — where shoveling duck dung together makes for a romantic first date — looks like North Korea, one has to guess, or at least "Dear Leader's" ideal version.

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