Wednesday, December 08, 2010

AIFF 2010: Erik Knudsen - Silent Accomplice and Cinema of Poverty Workshop

[UPDATE: Dec. 8, 11pm: I got to see The Silent Accomplice tonight on the big screen and it is a totally different experience from what I had watching it on my laptop last week. The visuals are beautiful and sound is, well, sound, not noise with real speakers. An important lesson to remember. And especially for a movie that has no plot or dialogue. I've also added the video of Erik talking about "What makes a movie good" at the bottom.]

I'm putting the video up now because that's what I have available.  I'll try to put up my thoughts on Knudsen's The Silent Accomplice which plays today at 4pm at the Bear Tooth.

For a list of today's events see the Anchorage International Film Festival tab above (and below the header.)

[UPDATE: 1pm]

My recommendation on this whether you should see The Silent Accomplice:
[It plays today (Wed) at 4pm at the Bear Tooth.  You don't have to miss anything else to see it.  Also again Saturday at Out North at 1pm.]

1. If you hate Hollywood films and come to the festival to see experimental stuff, don't miss this film.

2. If you are interested in the film making processes, then go see this and pay attention to what works and what doesn't in this film and what this film adds to our conception of what a film can do.

3. If you don't like abstract paintings and you don't like music without a clear melody and beat, and you enjoy Hollywood blockbusters but not films with subtitles, then stay away from this movie.

It's easier to justify seeing this film if you bought a festival pass than if you have to shell out $8.

Tony Shepherd, the AIFF founder liked this film.  He writes in the hard copy festival program:
"A masterpiece of visual complexity that blurs the line between experimental and mainstream"
In my normal understated way, I'd say, I see it a little differently.  Here are my thoughts after seeing the film on DVD a week ago. If you're going to see the film, you might want to wait until afterward to read further.

[Dec. 8 - I feel I have to remind the reader of the notice at the top. I saw the film tonight on the big screen and it went by quickly and I enjoyed it very much. So my points here become less of an issue because the power of the visuals does carry the film for me.]

I saw this as a dvd on a very small screen. It’s very possible seeing it on a larger screen would change my reaction to the film.

About five minutes into the film I looked at my wife. You don’t have to watch this if you don’t want to, but I should watch more. At the 30 mnute mark I would have left if I didn’t feel some responsibility to the film maker and festival viewers.

At the end, they listed the cast - there were lots of people in this movie. But early on I was thinkng the key actors were the water and the various water containers - lakes, rivers, bottles, pails, sinks, watering cans, washing machines, etc. The people were mere props. There was no dialogue. A word or two may have escaped the lips of the props, but the only talking came from scenes that had the radio and television on.

But the camera lingered way too long for me on way too many scenes. There was nothing subtle about this. It wasn’t clear what the message was, but it was about water and its importance to people. Probably something environmental. We watched a little girl on the floor playing with some sort of wooden toy. It was probably 30 seconds, but it seemed interminable. Plus you couldn’t really tell what she was playing with. A truck? A train? And then at the end, we could see it was Noah’s Ark. I felt like I was being hit on the head with this vague water/environmental message. Later we got more than background television sounds from a show about whales. Bang, another hosing off with the water message.

But I have to stop and ask myself, “Am I missing something here?” If I don’t like this, can I explain why? Can I do it in a way that allows potential viewers to decide for themselves if it’s their kind of movie? Can I do this so that the film mkaer isn’t trashed, but is given honest feedback about why I thought this didn’t work?

At the 2008 AIFF, the Australian movie “Street Sweeper” was this sort of genre. (No real story line, not much dialogue, long lingering shots of every day things.) I don’t remember how much talking there was - I do remember a scene where the street sweeper spouted poetry - but basically the camera followed a Newcastle street sweeper who bizarely (that’s not a negative comment) arrives from the ocean to take his cart and sweep his way across the city for three days. It’s all visual and audio (almost none of it verbal.) Some people walked out. One Anchorage reviewer dismissed it. I thought it was fantastic - like a visual concert.

Recently we saw a Mexican film, “Ala Mar,” where the camera lingered far longer than would be tolerated in conventional film making. But it was appropriate to the story - of a small boy from the city visiting his father who lived in an offshore Mexican fishing community. Life there was much slower and the lingering shots were beautiful and got the audience into the pace and rhythm of this fishing community.

So, I’m not averse to non-traditional movies or long, slow shots. But they didn’t work for me in this film. A couple of reasons:

1. Water was the star of the film, but there were all these people. The credits at the end of the film didn’t mention the water or all the vessels that held water. It just listed people, but in a sense, they were the props, not the actors.

2. In The Street Sweeper - I’m probably making a leap here since it’s been a couple of years now - I’m pretty sure that the camera either was focused on the streetsweeper or looked at the world from his perspective. There was a point of view for the viewer. In Accomplice, I never knew why I was looking at something - from whose point of view? Why these people? Well, of course, there was usually some relationship with water, but not always. And we weren’t seeing the world from the water’s point of view, though we saw people interacting with water.

There were some nice camera shots, but many where we lingered were not particularly striking or interesting shots. The opening with the little girl looking at her reflection in the water through the magnifying glass was absolutely cool photography, but that level was not sustained. The click/still after the photos were takien in one scene is an old film cliché. And even if had been a totally original technique, two or three shots would have been enough.

3. For much of the movie the sound was variations of white noise - water flowing, lots of rain, machinery, vehicles. I found it annoying. The sounds of breaking glass, even the radio announcers, was a welcome break from the noise.

4. What was the point? I’m guessing there was some vague, but not subtle, environmental message. We saw people filling water bottles, watering flowers, washing dishes, washing clothes, cavorting in a fountain, floating in water. We saw boats floating in water and ice cooling fish and we saw steam,. We saw streams and a river and falling rain and the ocean. We saw clean water and we saw water with some sort of nasty looking white foam. And we saw men with flourescent green vests that said “Environment” on them throughout the movie. Was this supposed to remind us how important water is in our lives?

5. And the title doesn’t make sense to me. Merriam-Webster online defines accomplice as

one associated with another especially in wrongdoing

So, who does the title refer to? Who is the criminal and who is the one who helps the criminal? The people in the film are mostly silent, but it says “the” which implies one. The water - whether flowing or as rain - is hardly silent. What is the crime? Is the crime something people are doing to the water? If so, then the title is another less than clue about the message. If the water, then I have no idea what that would mean.

There are lots of films in the festival. This is one that pushes the limits, takes risks, tries something different. I don’t think it works. But, if film is to not get stagnant, people have to take risks. Many of these risks won’t result in great films. But they will discover new techniques, new ways of looking at the world through a lens.

Somewhere I have a bit of video of Mr. Knudsen.  I told him my thoughts about the movie and on the clip I asked him what makes a good film?  I'll put it up when I find it among all the clips I've put on my computer this week. Note, I just sprang this question - if you make an unconventional film and already break the rules of traditional film making, what makes a film good? Is every film good or are there some standards?

OK, 10:56pm  - Here's the video:


  1. I was intrigued by Tony Shepard's comment in the festival program and went to see Eric Knudsen’s The Silent Accomplice because of it. And, differently from the reviewer above, I found this film fascinating - worth every penny of the $8 I shelled out.

    Maybe the movie lost some thing when seen on a small screen, that’s too bad. On the big screen I found it to flow. We know nothing for sure about any of the people in this movie, but there were subtle connections between them. The fact that there was no narrative, no one telling us the back-story of the characters, no one filling in the blanks so that we get where the characters are coming from, added to the experience of just being present with these people and the anything but quiet sound of water.

    One particularly layered connection that stood out to me started with an elderly man tending the garden. Silently, with prunings in hand, he moves back into his home. There we get a glimpse of a framed photograph of a woman smiling. The man returns to the photo after milling about the kitchen making coffee. He lingers on the photo, then goes back out to continue watering the vivacious blooms. We are told nothing, in the silence I found myself wondering if she was his wife. He’s much older than the woman in the photo, did his wife die long ago? We aren’t told.

    The scene shifts and someone is carrying full coffee mugs an offers one to a man washing a car. The camera pulls back; the car is a herse.

    It is very tempting to jump to a conclusion: ah, yes, the man was a widower. But, again, we never really know for sure.

    That is the power of this film. In a world of instant gratification of our desire to know – as if knowing information could possibly fend off the unknown – this film asks us to get real. It may not keep us from assuming stories, but it never lets us know if we’re right. About anything.

    The title leaves us not knowing anything for certain either. Though there are hints of crimes in the lives of a few characters, including the “crime” of overlooking the people in our community, we aren’t told who the accomplice is. Are we to think that water is the accomplice? To what crime?

    Yet I found the title provocative. My experience of witnessing small slivers of people’s lives and not being allowed into the story beyond my assumptions, left me to wonder what does my life look like if I stopped my own narrative. What is my life, or anyone else’s, if I stop telling myself what to think? For me, the crime is allowing incessant thoughts to separate us from our own sense of life. The accomplice, then, is narration. Shown to us only by its quite distinct absence.

  2. avenue marie - I amended my post after seeing The Silent Accomplice on the big screen. I knew this was a film that would appeal to some and not to others. I think your comments reflect the power of the film to speak differently to each viewer. Thanks for leaving your thoughts here. I know that Erik will appreciate them. I'll try to get some of the Q&A up, but I've got a long backlog of video to process. (I had to rescue your comment from the spam catcher. Not sure why it got in there. First time I can remember a legitimate comment getting caught there.)


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