A Great Lamp (2019)

This year’s New Orleans Film Festival was a 30th anniversary celebration, one that (in the social media marketing, at least) looked back at the festival’s gradual transformation from indie film & video showcase to increasingly massive Oscar-Qualifying institution. The no-budget feature A Great Lamp was an excellent programming choice for that occasion, then, as its sensibilities are evenly split between the early indie boom of the late 80s when the fest started and the radical earnestness of modern day. In look & texture, A Great Lamp feels akin to the aimless slacker comedies of yesteryear – the kind of deliberately apathetic, glibly existential art that put names like Jarmusch & Linklater on the map back when Independent Filmmaking was first becoming a viable industry. It’s got the handheld, high-contrast black & white look of a zine in motion (and I’m sure many a Clerks knockoff from festivals past), evoking a bountiful history of D.I.Y. no-budget art. However, in both tone & sentiment there’s no way the film could have bene made by previous generations of artful slackers, as its heart is clearly rooted in a 2010s sensibility.

A homeless, gender nonconforming punk named Max spends their structureless days wheat-pasting a flyer that memorializes their grandmother all over their sundrenched Southern town. Their aimless adventures committing petty, punk-af crimes like jaywalking, vandalism, and sleeping outside are interrupted when they meet a sharply dressed weirdo named Howie. Max is initially put off by Howie’s insistence that they attend a fabled rocket launch that will supposedly occur in three days’ time, but eventually the unlikely pair become incredibly intimate friends & collaborators. Their joint excursions around town frequently border on a mundane version of magical realism and are often interrupted by vignettes of a seemingly unrelated character suffering from the ennui of a much more privileged life, never truly coalescing into a coherent linear narrative. That aimlessness is intentional, of course, as waiting for that mythic rocket launch often feels like waiting for Godot. The unrushed, unfocused slacker vibe of this set-up might have been a patience-tester in any other modem return to Gen-X filmmaking, but Max’s exuberance & sweetness mutates the genre into an entirely new, exciting specimen. Max’s generosity toward Howie’s emotional wounds, their genuine eagerness for new loves & new adventures, and their exposed vulnerability as a grieving, lonely street kid are unusually earnest touches for this tried & true slacker formula. It’s like if Buzzard had a heart instead of a fart.

When director Saad Qureshi introduced the film at our screening, he said it was made during a particularly miserable summer for his social circle; making a movie just seemed like a great excuse to hang out with his friends. It’s likely that summer-bummer motivator and the crew’s total lack of production funds are what dictated the film’s throwback slacker aesthetic rather than any intentional exercise in 90s nostalgia. Still, they chose to accentuate that Gen-X patina by animating hand-drawn scratches & scuffs over the black & white digital images to simulate the look of a vintage 16mm cheapie. These meticulously applied “scratches” are fascinating to watch in a way that an editing filter approximating that same effect couldn’t be, as they often transform into crude animation artistry (provided by Max Wilde, who also performs as our eponymous hero), accentuating the film’s lowkey magical realist bent. This is a film that was made with no money and no real goal beyond making a film, any film, and so its existence is in itself a kind of minor miracle. Making any movie is always a triumph over frustration, logistics, and funding, so turning such limited resources into a work this heartfelt & nimbly crafted is a feat worth celebrating. Despite its modern earnestness, it’s the exact kind of D.I.Y. passion that’s been filtering through film festival lineups for as long as NOFF has been in existence – and with good reason. There’s apparently still new textures & sentiments to be mined from the time-honored slacker tradition.

-Brandon Ledet

Miss Hokusai (2016)

fourstar

Brandon directed us to keep it spooky this past October, and although that’s normally my forte, there was a dearth of time to check out much horror goodness this past month (notably, my only review last month was of Magnificent Seven, while my review of tense anxiety-driven thriller Don’t Breathe found itself online during September). I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of the animated feature Miss Hokusai, which, despite not being a scary movie, does have a lot of the hallmarks thereof: ghosts, dragons, demons, and spectres.

The film exists less as a straightforward narrative and more as a series of vignettes that depict short periods of time in the life of Katsushika Ōi, the daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, a painter most well known in the west for The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which I (and probably you) had a poster of in college. Plot descriptions of the film imply that the plot will largely center on the fact that Ōi was herself a painter whose own work was overshadowed by her more famous father, but this is actually a relatively minor element. The most overarching themes are Hokusai’s failure as a father to Ōi’s blind younger sister O-Nao (a character invented for the narrative), whom he ignores in favor of his work and because he feels responsible, as well as Ōi’s attempts to transcend her own artistic limitations. Along the way, she fends off an overzealous suitor and spends time with O-Nao, taking her for walks and treats.

The more striking visual elements come largely from dream sequences and a few scattered moments of magical realism. Most notably, a dragon that Ōi paints (after ruining Katsushika’s painting of the same) appears in the sky over their humble abode, and a courtesan whose neck is rumored to grow overnight is shown to have a spectral head that leaves her body in the night and attempts to fly away, but is kept in check by bed netting. In another sequence, a woman is haunted by dreams of Hell and the demons therein after receiving one of Ōi’s paintings depicting just that scene; Katsushika must correct this error by including an image of salvation in a tiny corner, underlining the apparent message that art releases beauty and terror into the world in equal measure. Ōi herself is also haunted by strange dreams of being trampled by gods when she realizes that O-Nao will die, and that the young girl fears damnation because her handicap prevents her from being a “good daughter” to her parents.

There’s a lot more going on in Miss Hokusai than is first apparent, but the film is not without its flaws either. The vignette nature of the film leaves something to be desired narratively, and there are musical choices that are, frankly, puzzling. Still, this is a beautiful movie with images that intrigue and disquiet, and it’s well worth watching if you can track down a screening.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond