The 300 Week 5: THIS IS SUN RA!


Welcome back to The 300, the weekly feature that chronicles my ongoing attempt to see 300 movies in theaters in 2018. I’ll be watching new releases, classics, and hidden gems in hopes to explore the wide world of cinema in all its forms.

As always, there are three rules for The 300:

  • The movie must be at least 40 minutes long, meeting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ definition of a feature film
  • I must watch the movie at a movie theater, screening room, or outdoor screening venue
  • While I can watch movies I’ve seen before 2018, I cannot count repeated viewings of the same film in 2018 multiple times

I had to take a day off last week because of a cold, but I still caught at least one movie the rest of the week. I mostly watched repertory screenings since the selection is so eclectic: a Hong Kong action movie, avant-garde cinema by women, and the Sun Ra movie. So far, the MoviePass account is not frozen. May this river flow, long and powerful, until the end of days.

And so, onward.

33 of 300: Leviathan (2014)
(aka Левиафан; Leviafan)

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov
Country: Russia
Seen at Roxy Cinema Tribeca (New York, NY)
Thursday, February 1st

Using the Book of Job as a model, Leviathan is a compelling portrait of helplessness in the face of wealth, status, and power. The family at the center of the film fight to protect their home from being seized. Even if the law as written is on their side, there are unspoken rules of the universe that supersede statutes. The over political and religious critiques are effective because the misery is so blunt. It helps that the inequities depicted are universal. At least Job had the certainty of God. In Leviathan, God is dead, his corpse like a shipwreck or whale bones bleaching in the sun.

34 of 300: Soft Fiction (1979)

Director: Chick Strand
Country: USA
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Friday, February 2nd

Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction is a document of women’s stories. A sense of confession runs throughout the film as women recount desires, bad relationships, as well as sexual assaults. Strand pairs one of these stories with images of a woman preparing breakfast in the nude. In the voiceover, she recounts being repeatedly molested by her grandfather. The pairing of word and image reveal how normalized the assault seemed to her as a child. The bookending visuals of a woman on a train and a woman on a horse (recalling Lady Godiva) suggest the freedom of art, crafting one’s narrative, and sharing it.

Soft Fiction ran as a double-feature with Peggy Ahwesh’s documentary short From Romance to Ritual (1985). I was reminded of a description of Kathleen Hanna’s music: it sounds like it was made by a girl playing music in her room. There’s a similar sensibility here, with Ahwesh playing with ideas about sexuality in history, sex as a teenager and a mature adult, and how foreign an idea it seems in innocent little girls.

35 of 300: Dis-Moi (1980)
(aka Tell Me)

Director: Chantal Akerman
Country: France
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Saturday, February 3rd

Chantal Akerman lost all of her grandparents in the holocaust. In Dis-moi, she interviews other women about their grandparents. Her mother shares her story through voiceover while Akerman travels to different apartments to speak with elderly women. In documenting these stories, Akerman recreates the experience of visiting one’s own grandparents. An old woman warmly tells Akerman she should eat some food. Such a grandmotherly thing to do. The woman is off camera as Akerman nibbles a pastry with a girlish smile, as if the ghost of one of Akerman’s grandmothers has been conjured at that moment.

36 of 300: The Ties That Bind (1985)

Director: Su Friedrich
Country: USA
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Saturday, February 3rd

Su Friedrich’s The Ties That Bind chronicles her own mother’s experiences in Nazi Germany during World War II. Friedrich uses her mother’s narrative about trying to be a good person in spite of the surroundings to explore the roots of her own political activism. There might be some moral concern in their blood. Many of the images in the film are either complementary or contrasting, such as the model of a half-timbered house slowly being constructed. I was sometimes reminded of the films of Maya Deren, though that may just reveal my own limited knowledge of avant-garde cinema by women.

37 of 300: The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993)
(aka 射鵰英雄傳之東成西就; Se diu ying hung ji dung sing sai jau)

Director: Jeffrey Lau
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai
Country: China (Hong Kong)
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Sunday, February 4th

While Wong Kar-wai was behind schedule and over-budget on Ashes of Time, the cast got together to make the bonkers farce The Eagle Shooting Heroes. This broad Cantonese comedy plays like a postmodern Warner Bros. cartoon, even mocking the fact this is a Chinese New Year blockbuster. Jeffrey Lau lampoons the wuxia tropes of King Hu as well as the Hong Kong fantasy movies of the 80s. This one’s even got silly musical numbers. Not all of the humor works—especially if you’d unfamiliar with the genre cliches getting skewered—but what an anarchic, entertaining oddity.

38 of 300: Space Is the Place (1974)

Director: John Coney
Starring: Sun Ra, Ray Johnson, Christopher Brooks
Country: USA
Seen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)
Monday, February 5th

Space Is the Place is a bit like the Afrofuturist/blaxploitation version of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. At the center is Sun Ra, the experimental jazz musician by way of space cadet mystic. He cuts a deck of Tarot cards with a pimp-like demigod called the Overseer to determine the fate of black lives on the planet Earth. The movie is all over the place, but in an endearingly lo-fi way. Once the story settles, Space Is the Place becomes a vessel for Sun Ra’s space age black liberation. Sure, it sounds hokey on its surface, but it’s really about giving people the ability to imagine their own future, possibly a utopian one.

39 of 300: A Fantastic Woman (2017)
(aka Una mujer fantástica)

Director: Sebastián Lelio
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim
Country: Chile
Seen at Angelika Film Center (New York, NY)
Tuesday, February 6th

Had I seen A Fantastic Woman during a week-long preview last year, it would have easily made my list for the top 20 movies of 2017. As of now, it is my favorite movie of 2018. The film follows Marina (Daniela Vega), a trans woman whose older lover dies one night and upends the stability of her life. He was the only person who treated her like a woman and a lover, not a perverse freak or a monster. Vega’s performance is astonishing. She’s able to communicate so much inner turmoil through body language and glances. The muted, layered, subtle moments of grief and alienation give way to sequences of expressionistic fantasy. Sebastián Lelio might be the next-gen Pedro Almodóvar.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.