By and large, 500 words — give or take a dozen — are sufficient for a typical Big Screen Berkeley review. This week, however, 500 wouldn’t allow me to even scratch the surface of the astonishing La Flor (screening in four parts at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater beginning on Saturday, Oct. 26), so I’m going to grant myself a few hundred more.
Officially clocking in at 14 hours and 28 minutes (though about 40 minutes shorter if you exclude its built-in intervals), La Flor is currently the second longest film to ever garner a theatrical release (there’s a 21-hour Bangladeshi film waiting in the wings that will eventually push it to third). So move over Sergei Bondarchuk (War and Peace), Andy Warhol (Empire), and Joe Dante (The Movie Orgy): there’s a new auteur of the epic, and his name is Mariano Llinás!
Though split into four parts, Llinás film actually consists of six unique episodes, five of which feature the same four female leads: Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, and Laura Paredes, all excellent. The episodes vary considerably in length; episodes three and four are extremely long, while five and six are relatively short.
There’s a brief preface during which Llinás briefly describes each episode: one story will be a musical, one a spy story, one a B movie and so on. These descriptions are reasonably accurate but serve only as starting points for what will, 14 and a half hours later, transform into a bizarre, deconstructive exploration of the meaning of cinema.
That sounds pretty high brow, but rest assured there’s a puckish, cheeky humor running throughout La Flor. Some of the stories have an ending, most do not. Episode four is a bizarre and often hilarious meta-movie about a film within the film, in which the director (playing himself) experiments with the best way to film trees.
The further we travel into La Flor, the more we notice the film’s recurring themes and locations: empty billboard frames, an abandoned gas station and the director’s distinctive red notebook reappear throughout. Occult writer Arthur Machen gets the most cultural exposure he’s had in a century, while there are nods to the Dreyfuss Affair, the Saragossa Manuscript, painter Édouard Manet, and film directors Sam Fuller and Roger Corman. Composer Gabriel Chwojnik’s disturbing score ably echoes the music of Nino Rota, Georges Delerue, Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann.
Perhaps the most satisfying episode is the fifth. Described during Llinás’ preface as ‘influenced by an old French film,’ this segment is a wonderful tribute to Jean Renoir’s short drama, Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country). Most of this episode is completely silent: there’s no dialogue, no music and no ambient sound, except during a brief episode-within-the-episode that also features some impressive feats of synchronized flying.
By the time we get to episode six, things have become even more primitive: shot through a gauzy mesh, this section looks like it was shot in super 8 and then blown up. Clumsily placed intertitles skitter across the screen, and then there’s the final credits — if you thought superhero movies had too many, prepare yourself for La Flor’s relentless 38-minute crawl!
Are the episodes of La Flor suggestive of the petals of a flower, the body of an ant or a spider? Did Llinás’ deliberately intend to mimic the over-before-it-begins structure of Laurence Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’? Why did he settle on six episodes across four parts, interrupted as they are by intervals, empty spaces and narrative breaks?
In sum, there’s more food for thought here than can be digested in a single sitting, and — assuming I can find the time — I’m already looking forward to my second screening of this cheeky masterpiece. Perhaps I’ll begin to piece together the clues and make sense of it all. Assuming, of course, there’s sense to be made.
‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that Roy Cohn was one of the nastiest men of the second half of the 20th century. A Columbia Law grad at 20, Cohn began his career helping prosecute Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, counseling Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy Hearings, and scouring the State Department of gay employees.
And that was only for starters. As vividly documented in Where’s My Roy Cohn? (currently playing at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas), Cohn went on to represent all sorts of mob villains, including John Gotti and one Donald Trump, when he and father Fred were being prosecuted for federal housing violations in 1970s New York City.
Indeed, it was Cohn who taught Trump the fine art of stonewalling, and though Cohn died of AIDS in 1986 (true to form, denying he had AIDS — or was gay — until the very end), his repellent legacy is very much alive today. “Donald just wants to be the biggest winner of all”, we see Cohn saying 30 years ago, and here we are.