Film

This Week in Art House Cinema: Tower and The Alchemist Cookbook

3CR-Steve at the Movies-new

The big news is that the Cubs won the World Series and the city has been in a state of perpetual hysteria ever since. Earlier this week, we took a look at eight vintage television commercials featuring the Chicago Cubs to get you ready for the crucial Game 7.

Doctor Strange, the latest installment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, came out today. We thought the visuals were majestic and extraordinary. Hacksaw Ridge was also released today. Mel Gibson’s latest directorial effort is opulently violent, making a clear message that nothing about the battles of World War II were great. Finally, Trolls debuted today. A CGI animated film about those toys that you vaguely remember from when you were a kid, it’s relentlessly cute.

Some other interesting films came out this week as well. Let’s discuss them.

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

Tower

One of the most harrowing films at the SXSW Film Festival this year was the documentary Tower, about America’s first experience with a random mass shooting, which took place in August 1966 from atop the landmark clock tower on the University of Texas in Austin. Making the SXSW screening extra surreal was that the clock tower where over a dozen people were killed was clearly visible from the front doors of the theater where the film premiered.

The shooter, whose face is never shown and name never spoken, was a trained military sniper who picked off person after person for more than 90 minutes before being taken out by law enforcement. In the end, 16 people were killed and three dozen wounded. But in many ways, the ripples that began to cascade out that day are still being felt today.

When director Keith Maitland began assembling his incredible account of the shooting and aftermath, it became clear that there was not a great deal of actual footage of the event. We get puffs of smoke from the tower, distant images of downed students and other passers-by, and eventually police vehicles arriving on the scene. What Maitland has done (similar to what he did in his 2009 documentary The Eyes of Me) is use rotoscopic animation to capture both actors reading word-for-word witness and victim accounts of the events, and re-enactments of activity on the ground mixed with what few archival footage is available. The impact is astonishing and utterly eerie.

By animating so much of the film, it gives Maitland the freedom to create a universe without building sets. But by grounding it in reality, the cumulative impact is something more than surreal. It’s almost as pure and tragic. It’s a type of journalism that is accentuated without being exaggerated; if someone who was there at the time doesn’t say it, it doesn’t end up in the film. The way the story builds from what appeared to be a person simply dropping to the concrete to all-out warfare is beyond gripping, especially when you consider that were nearly as many anonymous heroes that day as their were victims.

As if Maitland feels we need the added kick to the gut, he reveals the (non-animated) faces of the real people actually telling their story at the end of the film, to remind us that this is no fiction and that every person who is killed or wounded in a mass shooting has a name and a face. The filmmaker also doesn’t need to tie these 1966 events to more modern tragedies; I doubt there’s a person who would go to this movie and not do that themselves. Maitland sticks to the facts without giving up his creative expression, and the result is one of the most poignant documentaries of the year, and one you won’t soon forget.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 

Photograph courtesy of Oscilloscope

Photograph courtesy of Oscilloscope

The Alchemist Cookbook

After the critical triumph of his previous film Buzzard, writer-director Joel Potrykus returns with the unnerving The Alchemist Cookbook, about Sean (Ty Hickson), a young black man living alone in a rundown trailer in the backwoods of Michigan, intent on conducting bizarre, unscientific experiments, mixing chemicals and hoping for the best (or worst). After his unidentified prescription meds run out, it becomes clear that Sean is suffering from paranoia, delusions of being a target, and the belief that he is on the verge of conjuring the devil with a combination of his alchemy and various incantations taken from some sort of Satanic bible. I’m guessing Michigan’s tourism push isn’t putting his film front and center.

Hickson’s performance is deeply disturbing and utterly authentic as a man lost in his own head. He survives thanks to the companionship of his cat Kaspar and occasional visits from old friend Cortez (Amari Cheatom), who brings him (and the cat) supplies, including his meds. But one supply drop, Cortez forgets the prescriptions, and before long Sean’s mind turns to the darker forces of the world around him, which unexpectedly find a terrifying way of answer back.

Photograph courtesy of Oscilloscope

Photograph courtesy of Oscilloscope

The Alchemist Cookbook is a difficult film to explain, but a fairly simple one to understand. Sean represents disenfranchisement in all its forms, and it’s not enough that he simply withdraws from society. He still craves some amount of power, control and influence, and he thinks moving from chemicals to Satan worshipping is the key to this. Potrykus has created a piece of uncut cinematic theater that relies almost entirely on the performances of his two actors, working the underlying threat of something terrible and unseen as well as any two performers could. I don’t think I could tell what the film is about outside of simply the experience of watching it.

A part of me almost feels like Potrykus’ message is that the daily grind of societal living isn’t the worst thing in the world, but I’m not sure that qualifies as a positive statement, which works for me. The Alchemist Cookbook might also be the most obtuse horror film of the year, complete with genuine scares, a truly terrifying soundscape, and a handbook that seems to work quite well at conjuring forces unknown. Don’t go in expecting the conventional (if you saw Buzzard, you already know that), but this work does deliver on many levels and is a fascinating look at the chemistry of fear.

The film opens today at Facets Cinémathèque.

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