PIFF: Dust to Dust

In travel, as Spalding Grey used to say, you’re always holding out for that “perfect moment.” With this year’s PIFF festival, I’ve been waiting for my “perfect film” to come along. It almost happened yesterday. For me to really love a film it has to be what I feel is exceptionally well-made and also hit me personally. In short, I want to be impressed and moved at the same time. Dust, a movie out of Luxembourg, accomplished about 95% of each.

Dust is what good cinema is all about. The great thing about movies as a storytelling device is the way they reveal a story through images and sounds. Film is not really about dialog; it’s about presentation. Books can’t do this, and neither can theater. Director Max Jacoby utilizes the full spectrum of what is available in the form to his advantage. Little is said in this movie because the camera and soundtrack take up that narrative role more than any dialog could. Jacoby, through cinematographer Fredrik Bächar, is an expert in blocking and framing. Every shot seems intended to give you a clue about what these three characters are thinking and feeling. It could be choice in focus, a slow dolly into one character’s face, someone intentionally cropped out of the frame, or someone moving in or out of the frame. The sound design also plays a strong role, with liberal use of offscreen sounds. We hear a door open and we wonder; we hear the crackling of glass under footsteps and realize something happened here; we hear the arrival of a car and we feel what that means.

In essence, Dust is a post-apocalyptic love triangle. But the setting is not simply a device. The environment and situation almost acts as a fourth character. It’s something the other three must contend with. It has a say in their decision-making and it forms the particularites of the relationships that have developed and will develop. Jacoby presents the landscape as monumental in size and scope, both containing and reflecting their own dilemma. This space and setting, combined with the sparse dialog, also gives the audience plenty of headspace to wonder how all of this is going to work out. I found myself a lot of times thinking “well shit, they can’t…” or “oh right, so how…?” The slow pace kept me in suspense and kept me wondering. And when that happens, when you realize how involved you are, that’s when you know you’re watching a great movie.

Which brings me to the remaining 5% of this movie that I didn’t like, that being the ending. Again, it’s revealed by the camera, and it was… not hugely disappointing, and not unexpected. But it wasn’t enough. We needed a third act and we didn’t get it. The director had done such a fine job of telling this story and creating an atmosphere of tension, and three minutes before it ends I’m thinking, oh crap, now they have to deal with x. But Jacoby let me off the hook. He had me in suspense and I was gearing up for an interesting final 20 minutes or so, but then he let me go. In short, we needed a conflict and we didn’t get one. I warn you that the next sentence is a bit of a spoiler: Yes, the penguin kept the ring, but the spell was broken without the penguin having to face the consequences of that, so it didn’t really matter anyway.

Still, good lord what a beautiful work of art this movie is. Unfortunately, the movie I saw afterward, The Dust of Time, wasn’t. It was horrible. Seriously, my god, I hated this movie. That wooshing sound you hear is the sound of this movie going right over my head. I had no clue who these people were and what was going on. Well, I did eventually, but by the time I caught up to what the director was trying to do, I didn’t care. Willem Defoe is laying it on so thick that it’s almost campy. This movie has so much melodrama — heavy moments, crying, slow motion — that was empty because I didn’t give a damn. It’s so strange to be watching actors on screen pouring it all out and I’m just empty. And I had to endure this for over two hours. I kept thinking “it has to end sometime it has to end sometime it has to end…” but it just kept going and going and going. After a while I’m just staring at a point in the center of the screen like a laser, not looking at anything, just waiting for the damned thing to end. When that didn’t work I tried to open up some latent telekenetic ability so I could peel the corners of the screen in order to make a paper airplane out of it. Anything just to end the damned thing.

Every movie experience is like a relationship between the maker and the audience member. And in this relationship, maybe it’s not about you, it’s about me. Maybe I just missed what all this passion was about. I’d like to give some benefit of doubt and think that. But I could see other people squirming. And when it finally faded to black and those first text images started to roll onto the screen, people practically lept out of their seats heading for the exits. Usually PIFF-goers will wait for the credits to end, clap, and then leave. But not here.

Luckily this isn’t my final film. I’m seeing my last one tonight, the one I was hoping to see — Paju.

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