Jim Jarmusch, Celluloid Fetishism and Cuban and Argentine Ghost Towns at First Look, Week Two

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This is the second of three dispatches on the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look, a series of formally forward-thinking world cinema that runs on the weekends through January 24. Read about the first weekend here.

Somewhere near the middle of Ozoners, a short documentary screening Saturday night at the fifth-annual First Look, a drive-in projectionist tells of the time he found a mouse inside his 35mm projector, blocking the movie from reaching the screen. Welcome to the unofficial Celluloid Weekend of this year’s festival, featuring such selections as Morgan Fisher’s 1984 Standard Gauge (Saturday, 1:30pm), a sort of show-and-tell in which the director presents snippets of 35mm film he’s collected over the years, and Margaret Honda’s Color Correction (Sunday, 1:30pm), consisting of the color-blocked timing tapes for an unidentified (and evidently chosen-at-random) Hollywood feature. (Unsurprisingly, neither film was available for streaming preview.)

Less avant-garde, but no less about the moving parts that make up the movies, is a pair of observational documentaries by French filmmaker Léa Rinaldi. She tailed the great, ghost-white-haired indie auteur Jim Jarmusch for portions of his last two shoots: first as he collects himself between takes of the actionless action movie The Limits of Control in Seville and then as he shapes the last act of the vampire nocturne Only Lovers Left Alive in Detroit and Tangiers. Rinaldi has fashioned each behind-the-scenes excursion into its own 50-minute dispatch; Behind Jim Jarmusch and Traveling at Night With Jim Jarmusch are playing back-to-back, in the same program, on Saturday afternoon (2:30pm).

Of the two, Traveling feels more in the vein of a DVD supplement, its fleeting impressions shot over what was evidently just a few days on set, but Behind alone is worth the price of admission. It goes to show that creative collaborators need not always be on the same wavelength: Here, Jarmusch drones zen-koan-like “mottoes” (“It’s hard to get lost if you don’t know where you’re going”), Bill Murray tries on Tilda Swinton’s hat, and, best of all, famously temperamental cinematographer Chris Doyle snaps “fuck you very much” at his director. If you care to reconsider the result of all this rushing around, you can: Jarmusch’s 11th feature screens, in 35mm, right afterward (5pm).

As if two docs weren’t enough, Rinaldi has a third at First Look this weekend, This Is What It Is (Friday, 7pm), which follows censored Havana hip-hop group Los Aldeanos from 2009 to 2015, during which time the act becomes popular largely through illicit distribution channels at home—but also manages to get exit visas to perform abroad. Some of the movie’s more fascinatingly contentious moments come as the band travels to Miami for the first time: They bristle at journalists and promoters eager to peg them as anti-Castro (their lyrics narrate harsh everyday realities, but they are nonetheless reluctant to proclaim their politics as they travel), and it turns out a woman who booked their Florida appearances has effectively swindled them. Prevented from getting their message out publicly at home, Los Aldeanos must face a whole other set of difficulties as pigeonholed “voices of dissent” abroad.

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Another study of the dashed Communist dream in Cuba, Carlos M. Quintela’s black-and-white narrative feature The Project of the Century (Saturday, 7:30pm, screening with Ozoners) takes place in a half-completed worker complex called “Electro-Nuclear City,” in the ghost town of Juraguá, which was to be the site of a massive Soviet-backed nuclear power plant. Project, the winner of a Tiger Award at last year’s Rotterdam festival, periodically breaks from its family drama to tell the story of the place through archival local-TV footage: The two nations came to a reactor agreement in 1976, and ground was broken on the facility in the early 1980s; faulty parts slowed construction from there, though, and then the Soviet Union collapsed, and by 1992 the whole venture was suspended indefinitely. The film’s setting is terrific—the abandoned plant looms like the shell of a basilica; the outlying apartment buildings, Dekalog tower blocks, look like lonely satellites. The funny-sad saga of three generations of men confined to the same apartment is, however, less interesting to watch.

Closing out the weekend’s festivities is Jonathan Perel’s structural documentary Toponymy (Sunday, 7pm), which tours four grid-like northern-Argentine settlements built during the Dirty War’s “Operation Independence,” prefab villages where the military corralled local peasants to stop further armed resistance. The film’s four chapters are each devoted to one of the locales, and each chapter contains a few dozen shots, which appear in roughly the same sequence every time. We peer down quiet residential streets and tour town squares teeming with whitewashed tree trunks before looking at a succession of community buildings. Voices and cars and music are audible off-camera, and occasionally people pass through the frame at a distance, but here Perel primarily documents decades-old infrastructure and the back-to-nature creep of unmanicured lawns.

These are built-to-plan portraits of built-to-plan places, but what Toponymy actually becomes, among other things, is a ruminant spot-the-difference exercise. The title itself refers to the etymological study of place-names, which here are similar but not at all the same. All the towns have basketball courts, but only at Lieutenant Berdina do the baskets still appear to have rims; all the towns display busts of their felled-officer namesakes, but only at Sergeant Moya has the commemorative sculpture gone missing. Soldier Maldonado, meanwhile, is the lone village that appears uninhabited from its ramshackle front gates (a few shots later we see that this is not the case). These settlements, built for surveillance, are themselves finally being surveilled in Perel’s remarkable film—the undisputed highlight of First Look’s middle weekend.

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