Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Baaaaa Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry

When watching documentaries like Way of Nature, Hell Roaring Creek, and Sweetgrass, I always find it interesting to observe the audience's reactions as animals behave like animals, unintentionally provoking laughter and satisfaction from onlookers they will never meet. Throughout such films, the constant cacophony becomes a symphony of bells, baas, and bleats, of groans, grunts, and glissandi, as the animals routinely meet, mate, and munch.

"I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille!"

Such films require a viewer to have enough patience to sit back and watch nature in action, to abandon the pretenses of modern civilization and just listen to the beauty of the beasts as man's ego is minimized and the animals dominate. Written and directed by Michelangelo FrammartinoLe Quattro Volte is the latest addition to the genre. Starring a herd of unruly goats, a fanatically territorial border collie, a big tree, and the process of making charcoal, it is a film in which few, if any words, are spoken.  Frammartino explains the inspiration for his film as follows:

"According to Whitehead, Pythagoras was the first real philosopher. His influence is echoed everywhere from Plato’s doctrine of ideas, Kepler’s system of celestial spheres and Galileo’s geometric theology to Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return and Einstein’s physics. Pythagoras’ knowledge of eastern philosophy led to his belief in metempsychosis and in the reincarnation of souls. He claimed to have lived past lives as an animal and as a plant and stated that the meaning of his own existence and that of others consisted in the eternal return to nature’s cycle. 
Pythagoras lived in Croton (in present-day Calabria) during the 6th century BC. His school taught the doctrine of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls. Legend has it that Pythagoras used to teach to his students from behind a curtain. Seated before this screen (not unlike in a modern-day movie theatre), for five years his students would listen to their teacher’s voice and discover the hidden meaning of things, the meaning that lies beyond the veil that conceals them. This veil may cloud our gaze, but it also helps us understand that meaning is not perceived through sight because it is made of number, soul, and idea. Ultimately, it is made of dust and luminous particles like the ones we see in the projector’s beam when we turn around in movie theatres. The deep-seated animistic beliefs that have survived in this land to this day are secretly and instinctively steeped in his thought." 

Filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino

"Calabria is a land that exerts an archaic fascination. It is a repository of ancient traditions. Its coal men, for instance, have been applying the same methods to the same materials since the dawn of time. The 'Pita' tradition, which dates back to the presence of the Lombard people in the region, takes place annually in the village of Alessandria del Carretto. The inhabitants leave the village and head for the forests where they look for a big fir tree, cut it down, and haul it back to the village. Thus, without any deliberate action on my part, the four realms had fallen into my lap: the shepherds represented the human realm; the goats, the animal realm; the tree, the vegetable realm; and the charcoal, despite its being derived from vegetable matter, was in fact transformed by the coal men into mineral matter. 
This reminded me of a sentence that has been attributed to Pythagoras, which I paraphrase here: 'Each of us has four lives inside us which fit into one another. Man is mineral because his skeleton is made of salt; man is also vegetable because his blood flows like sap; he is animal inasmuch as he is endowed with motility and knowledge of the outside world. Finally, man is human because he has the gifts of will and reason. Thus, we must know ourselves four times.'"

Poster art for Le Quattro Volte

"Le Quattro Volte encourages us to liberate our perspective. It urges the viewer to seek out the invisible connection which breathes life into everything that surrounds us. The film starts in a traditional way: by placing its focus on man. It then diverts the viewer’s attention to man’s surroundings: the objects that are usually a part of the scenery. The human being is removed and made to blend in with the background, and what was in the background is brought to the foreground, thereby giving way to a pleasant surprise: the animal, vegetable, and mineral realms are granted as much dignity as the human one.
Spending time with Calabrian shepherds gave me the opportunity to observe animals up close. I am intrigued by the animal world. Their unawareness of the camera naturally led me to accomplish something I had always aspired to in my filmmaking: transcending the boundary between documentary and fiction." 
There are a surprising number of hearty laughs to be found in Le Quattro Volte, mostly coming from the goats and their domineering border collie. Not knowing about the town's participation in the "Pita" ritual does not hinder the viewing experience, although it goes a long way to explain what these people are doing (making charcoal) and why. Here's the trailer:

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Coming up at Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is a farm-based film directed by Benjamin Cantu. The promotional blurb for Harvest is heavy on oversell:
"Marko is an enigma. He’s withdrawn from his fellow students, he doesn’t drink alcohol, and he lives alone. Rigorous in his hands-on studies and unmotivated in other academic pursuits, he’s listless about his future, unsure if he even actually wants to be a farmer. It takes a new apprentice, Jakob, to pull him from his shell.
With adorable curls and an easy smile, Jakob jumps right into the work. He seems to have his head in the clouds, but his humor and sweetness allow him to get through to Marko. In turn, Marko steals increasingly bold glances at his handsome colleague. Their languid, agonizing crush comes to fruition with an urgent kiss in the barn. Emotionally overwhelmed, Marko tries to keep his distance from Jakob. But when the two country mice escape together to the big city, they spend a revealing night together that cements their endearingly clumsy love. If you’ve been waiting for a rural love story without the usual clichés, Harvest delivers with an abundance of romance."
Ummmm, no. Some of the cows in this film have better communication skills. Here's what's really going on:
  • Marko (Lukas Steltner) is one of 12 apprentices on a farm in the Nuthe Urstromvalley district of Germany. His mother was an alcoholic and he describes his father as "not worth mentioning." Marko is very much a loner who has probably spent most of his life repressing his emotions. As an introvert, he finds the other apprentices boring. Having done all kinds of grunt work during his apprenticeship, he finds it hard to believe that passing a written examination will make him fully qualified to be a farmer. After cleaning up lots of cow shit, he doesn't see the point in writing a report about his activity (no matter what his supervisor says).  The work seems futile. His future is bleak. Although he's a competent worker, he's bored shitless.
  • Jakob (Kai Michael Müller) lives nearby with his mother. Although he had a banking internship in Berlin (about 60 km away) which could lead to a handsome income, he quit his job in the city because he found the work boring and the people superficial. He doesn't mind working on a farm because, unlike Marko, he has a comfortable home life. 

Marko (Lukas Steltner) and Jakob (Kai Michael Müller)

Neither Marko nor Jakob is especially gregarious. Because both young men have been hired as farm laborers, the physical demands and rhythm of farm life must take priority over any personal ennui. Cows must be tended to, carrots sorted on a conveyor belt, and hay loaded onto trucks. As the filmmaker explains:

“During my research I helped out on the farm. This was when I began to believe that I could actually create an improvised drama in which the apprentices and farm workers were a natural part of the story. I was fascinated by these people’s lives which, after all, are so very different from my own. I was surprised to learn that, although the city isn’t that far away, it really doesn’t mean anything to them. I was influenced by the way they work together and talk to each other, and so together we created the story line for Harvest.  I think this film is about showing something very personal about yourself to someone else. These two characters are not so conscious about their sexuality. They've never experienced encounters with men.”

Jakob (Kai Michael Müller) and Marko (Lukas Steltner)

Thanks to Alexander Gheorghiu's cinematography, Cantu succeeds in capturing some beautiful visuals as his two leads do work around the farm. But the budding gay romance depicted in Harvest has a lot more to do with the fact that Jakob found the keys to an old abandoned car that was sitting in one of the fields and managed to get its motor started. Apparently, the car's engine wasn't the only thing he managed to rev up.

After Jakob and Marko drive into Berlin for the night, he manages to get Marko to have a beer, which helps the young man overcome his inhibitions. By the end of the film there is, at the very least, the possibility of a tentative friendship with benefits. Nothing more, nothing less. Here's the trailer:

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