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Oblique journeys in film (and) criticism – Tone Madison

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I told myself (and our writing team back in 2022) that I wasn’t going to monopolize the Tone Madison film channels in covering Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, but here I am once again, doing just that. I’ve become our publication’s resident voice on the emergent auteur, who broke out abroad a couple years ago with Drive My Car (2021).

I suppose I’ve grown comfortable with that, because Hamaguchi’s high-minded, distinctly literate work speaks to me in its themes about our erratic relationships to and within the contemporary world. Or I’ve found reasons to speak through it, in my own voice. And through both means, I’m perhaps naively hoping, by osmosis, it will lead me to speak with others. Don’t know if that has quite happened in the way I’ve envisioned, though. The 2024 Wisconsin Film Festival—where Hamaguchi’s latest film Evil Does Not Exist (2023) premiered locally on April 8 and 9—was another thrilling marathon and probably my favorite since the festival’s 2019 iteration.

This year’s eight-day stretch concluded on April 11 and offered many incidental moments for chatting about the movies, whether in between snacks or scurrying en route to other nearby screenings. But perhaps it was all a little too high-pressure for someone with on-the-spectrum anxieties. Those chances facilitated by the festival were motivating, without question, during peak cinema’s time of year here in Madison. And yet those in-between moments weren’t as intentional or quiet (or intentionally quiet) for personal comfort. This was especially true for this year’s circulating “Afterglow” parties, a few of which featured ear-piercing karaoke to reproduce the core conceit of the festival bumper.

That’s somewhat peripheral to my fatigued main point here, which is how our social climate has increasingly trapped us into facile responses about complicated art. And I fear becoming the sort of humorless pariah shaking a fist at film Twitter and Letterboxd, adjoined in a perverse dance at this point in time (as it’s clear that many Twitter users have migrated to Letterboxd for their end-all social media fix). Yet, maybe this is as good a space as any to process those thoughts and think about our privileges in this city and where they might go. (I’m afraid the Milwaukee Film Festival doesn’t hold a candle to the bountiful splendor of the Wisconsin Film Festival, and not ’cause WFF arrives first—although, that’s part of it.)

While I’ve fallen out of routine film-diary writing, I was a regular Letterboxd user from 2017 to 2022. During those five-plus years, the userbase for the movie-rating site changed pretty dramatically while experiencing a pandemic surge in popularity from 1.8 million users to 10 million by the end of last year. Several years ago, the “popular reviews” tended not to be entirely consumed by meme content, one-liner shitposts, quips about some in-joke reference to a scene in the film, or a reductive nod to another movie released around the same time. (Thankfully, Evil Does Not Exist‘s Letterboxd landing page hasn’t descended into that just yet…but give it a few days here.) I am actually glad to see younger and more broadly representative audiences latch onto viewing classics and niche art films through site trends, but it’s also sort of dispiriting and thorny for someone who wants to be less chronically online, and who has trouble deciphering social-media speak and syntax.

In the few minutes I had on Monday night, April 8, between Evil Does Not Exist (2023)’s premiere at Flix Brewhouse and an encore of the North American premiere of Shinji Sōmai’s Moving (1993) down the hall, I tapped my Letterboxd app to see if any locals had logged immediate responses, not just star ratings, to Evil. Surely enough, there were a couple handfuls of them, some sharing bare-bones feelings of incredulousness. But only one, by Ani Biswas, seemed to engage with or contextualize the film’s ideas on any significant level.

Maybe part of it is related to the film-festival environment and the irresistible ambition to squeeze in as many consecutive films as our schedules will permit; but during this decade, I also feel like we’re not being conditioned to sit with things to really process them before sharing public “reviews” anymore. And the social space of a film festival is now, through no fault of its own, ironically producing a sort of distracted, antisocial climate outside the films themselves. It’s more about being the first to declare something for the viewer logs, even if what we’re writing doesn’t hold much lasting value or isn’t even a completed thought. (Maybe it’s time Letterboxd adopt a feature that Goodreads has had for years, and that’s “Private notes, shown only to you.”)

Evil Does Not Exist, which opens more widely in commercial theaters this weekend (and locally returns to AMC Fitchburg 18 for at least one week starting on May 24), puzzles in its measuredly provocative shifts of modes and tones. On its face, it’s an eco-drama, a neo-Western-tinted tale about a father and his eight-year-old daughter—Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and Hana (Ryo Nishikawa)—living in the wooded Mizubiki north of Tokyo. The symbiosis of the community has come under threat by an outsider marketing and entertainment firm’s rushed and ill-fated proposal to construct a glamping site there without considering the long-term ramifications.

These narrative notes emerge through the low-angled latticework of bare tree branches in the film’s extended opening tracking shot, suggesting an environmentalist’s ardor. Evil Does Not Exist‘s ensuing events offer a newfound portentousness shaded by satire. (Hamaguchi’s satirical sensibilities may be familiar to those who have seen 2021’s Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy and even 2015’s Happy Hour, but are perhaps unfamiliar to those who only know Drive My Car.) Further distinguishing Evil Does Not Exist from the standard conditions of movie experience and even a lot of other festival fare is the weighty, almost emotionally debilitating presence of its chamber score. Its composer Eiko Ishibashi, one of my favorite musicians of all time, uniquely served as the inspiration for the core concept. (Ishibashi initially asked Hamaguchi to create a visual landscape for one of her live performances, which then became a separate but related silent film, Gift, before their collaborative realization of this feature.)

Often, when we think of the origin of modern movies, we turn to the conventional avenues of theater, literature, or simply other movies. And while, yeah, you can sort of pin down the unusual confluence of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) and (Hamaguchi mentor) Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Charisma (1999) with this one, Hamaguchi doesn’t seem to invoke or lead with a web of cinematic symmetries. From its first frames, the sweeping beauty and lurking melodic menace is omnipresent.

In the introduction to Filmmaker Magazine‘s interview with Hamaguchi, critic Leonardi Goi writes, “Evil doesn’t seem to originate from images so much as sounds, forsaking a linear plot for a more oblique and confounding journey.” In the following graph, he completes the thought by asserting that “Evil isn’t concerned with telling us a story as it is with questioning our expectations as to how one should unfold or what it should look like and heightening your receptivity to things and textures that would normally go unseen—or unheard.”

In meditating on all this further, I began to consciously put together the parallel between those of us pressured into seeking social-media validation and the hapless but three-dimensionally sketched Playmode company representatives in the film—Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani) and Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka). In rushing to simply get something done for the sake of it, a significant part of the equation is inevitably neglected, unseen/unheard. While the validity of film writing is comparatively insignificant to the village of Mizubiki’s concerns of a glamping site’s septic tank overflow contaminating spring water sources (lol), it’s still a kind of loss to me, as someone who’s spent thousands of hours over a decade-plus trying to interpret and promote the art form’s most potent facets. So I’m, as the internet might characterize, back on my bullshit, asking the obsessed listmakers, Letterboxd loggers, and the begrudging Tweeters among us to please find capacity to ponder a film for more than six minutes before posting an unyielding conviction or empty gesture for all to see.

In years past, Rob Thomas, of the Cap Times (and formerly of Madison Movie blog and, more recently, of a movie-centric Substack), hosted once-per-month “Movie Chats.” That is, until mid-2020 when things shifted to virtual conference calls and then fizzled. Between March 2013 and that time, though, Thomas privately coordinated events through his blog and also graduated to schedule things officially with Sundance Cinemas (and then AMC Madison 6 after the changeover in 2017). Thomas centered the original chats on Sundance theater chain’s “Screening Room” films, which trended towards indies and slightly more obscure fare. His efforts “not to give a lecture but facilitate conversations between the audience,” as Thomas writes, were absolutely welcome. (And it was at one of them in 2013 that I first got to talk with him at length as a nervous, overzealous blogger.)

Around this same period, starting up in September 2014 and subsiding in June 2016, James Kreul, Jake Smith, and Taylor Cherry, and others involved with Madison Film Forum mirrored Thomas’ organizing. They functioned as a kind of underground alternative to get people together for “Madfilm Meetups” on discount Tuesday nights. Their primary goal seemed to be a bit less about spurring conversation and more about simply supporting smaller movies (and Bollywood special events) in bigger commercial spaces.

Currently, it seems that the CineMadison group on Meetup.com is still standing, reassuringly, even after hitting pause for a couple years during the pandemic. They’ve been hosting regular monthly events since returning in March of 2022 with, by some coincidence, Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. Their next one, on May 14, is about De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), as the final part of a three-part series called “Background Checks,” at the Rathskeller in the Memorial Union. (That’s another space that can be quite noisy, but perhaps a bit chiller on a Tuesday after the spring semester ends.) While I haven’t checked in on the health of this group in person, their steady web presence suggests it’d be a perfect complement to those who seek out Madison Public Library‘s Cinesthesia series, which is programmed by one of our freelancers, Jason Fuhrman.

Yet, the conversation environment I’m looking for, as I may have indicated in the first part of this piece, is something a little more elusive for someone as elusive and weird as me. That might be defined as a skewed combination of these two previously existing and current meetups—hushed, sober, and open local events untethered to event-specific mingling, where people can gather to talk about new movies lacking in prestige or pre-formed reputations. They’d be spaces where viewers can get out of their own heads and feel comfortable talking about a film aloud and listening to others in order to process their response. Those exchanges are underrated and an invaluable part of the writing process itself.

I wonder if another splintering movie-meetup group is something to seriously pursue, or if I should awkwardly slip into a CineMadison meetup to jovially vent and connect. Nevertheless, if we could save one person from logging a frustratingly mystified or comatose meme review on Letterboxd in the pursuit of instant validation, I think it’d be worth it, for a while. In the meantime, go see Evil Does Not Exist when you can, and, rather than bait reactions and jump to conclusions—to quote YouTube critic Karsten Runquist—”form your own opinion.”

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A Madison transplant, Grant has been writing about contemporary and repertory cinema since contributing to No Ripcord and LakeFrontRow; and he now serves as Tone Madison‘s film editor. More recently, Grant has been involved in curating Mills Folly Microcinema. From mid-2016 thru early-2020, he also showcased his affinity for art songs and avant-progressive music on WSUM 91.7 FM. 🌱

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