Welcome to a new feature for the site. Hopefully a semi-regular one but it could just drift out into the blogging ether, joining other great features of the past such as The Bergman Files and Bondfest.
Opinions on all kinds of films differ and really, as much as people may argue otherwise, there is no right or wrong opinion. As Chris put it really well in a preface for his piece when he emailed it to me: “Film criticism is a totally subjective field; I truly believe that there is no definitive answer for whether or not a film is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. So when I’m talking to one of my friends and they say “dude, the last Transformers movie is the best film I’ve ever seen” (and yes, my friends talk like stoners from early nineties teen movies), I’m inclined to believe that they truly think that the last Transformers movie is the best film that they’re ever seen, even if the film lover in me dies a bit.
The aim of POV, is to look at a film that has divided opinion. This is not designed as a competition or to decide who is ‘right’. In fact there is no arguing. Neither Chris nor I saw each others thoughts before we wrote our own. The Loneliest Planet (2011) is a film that really has garnered its lovers and haters. For me, it’s a fringe top 10 film of the year. For Chris, it is by far his least favourite of the year. Here are the reasons why.
Five things I love about the Loneliest Planet by me
1. The scenery.
Damn this film is pretty. It is shot well, but also the landscapes it takes place in. Set in Georgia (though not sure if shot there), it is the kind of incredible physical world that is not seen on film too often. The locations manage to somehow be green and lush as well as barren at the same time. Even better than just looking amazing, the scenery plays a role in the action as well, influencing the characters as they travel along. The scenery is also thematically important. The Loneliest Planet is a film about the cycles of sullying and cleansing that we undertake throughout the course of our life. So shots of water – bubbling brooks, raging currents and industrial blasts of it – all comment on the action and status of the narrative.
2. That one, achingly elongated shot.
There is one shot in the film that not only encapsulates everything I love about the film (and probably what many others hate) but also I think says a lot about the film as a whole. It is a wide shot, of the three main characters traversing along the side of a green hill. The camera is stationary and lingers, unmoving for around two minutes as these small, almost insignificant figures make their way. When you think about it, two minutes is a long time in film terms. I think this shot is symptomatic of the whole film in that the film is a reflection of life. Shit happens in real time. Sometimes that is boring, sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly. This single shot makes for an interesting viewing experience, and will probably tell you if you are going to love or hate the film.
3. How it totally hinges on a single moment.
There is a single moment in this film that changes the entire complexion of the film and the relationships of those in it. The moment (which I won’t spoil) comes from nowhere in a single jolt. The moment forces one character to act instinctively in a way that will affect them no end. Have you ever done something in a split second and realised it was incredibly wrong? And no matter how much you want to, you can’t take that moment back. The film captures that perfectly. What’s more, everything that follows in the film harks back to that one moment and the attempting to not erase it (because that is impossible) but to move past it and gain a redemption of some sorts. The film doesn’t give any easy answers in that regard.
4. The performance of Hani Furstenberg
The three central performances in the film – from Hani Furstenberg, Gael Garcia Bernal and Bidzina Gujabidze – are all really good. But it is Furstenberg (someone who was previously unknown to me) who really shines. She plays Nica, a woman who has a genuine lust for life and approaches it in a playful manner. Adventurous and tough, she is strident in her determination. Also, without reverting to histrionics or tracts of expository dialogue, Furstenberg manages to take the audience on Nica’s emotional journey that is in many ways the heart of the film. There is a moment where Nica falls into a freezing river and it is the high point of Furstenberg’s performance. She physically transforms, showing the audience the torment her body is in whilst all the while maintaining the very specific mental state that her character is currently in.
5. It is a (rewarding) challenge
Some films that are a challenge to watch give the audience no reward. You merely have to slog through the film and survive it. But The Loneliest Planet gets the balance right, and at least in my case, rewarded me for my persistence. And the film is a challenge. There are stretches of dialogue with no subtitles, it is slow at times and there are occasions when the film is raw and confronting. The pace and lack of plot also means that you really have to work to stay in the world of the film. But there is a lot of joy to be found in the film from picking up the nuance and contrast that populates it. Not all of life is easy, so not all of film should be either.
Five things I hate about The Loneliest Planet by Chris Smith
1. It’s Boring. This is the worst thing a movie can be.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against movies that are deliberately paced for effect. Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece Elephant benefits enormously from the hour or so build up where we follow characters walking and talking around the corridors of their school with nothing much happening. The difference is that in Elephant we come to care about the characters and something actually happens, in The Loneliest Planet the uninteresting characters wander around for an hour until an event happens which some critics have interpreted as “earth shattering” but I found to be equally as uninteresting as the characters.
2. We already have one Werner Herzog, and he is awesome. We don’t need pretenders.
A good deal of director Julia Loktev’s visual style seems to consist of (admittedly) gorgeous shots of the Georgian landscape set to strong orchestral music, essentially the same visual style Werner Herzog has been employing in his films since as far back as Aguirre: The Wrath Of God (1972). When he does it, it has the effect of penetrating the viewer’s very soul, here it feels empty and pads out an already excessive running time.
3. 113 Minutes.
113 minutes is the film’s running time. A movie with so little plot (that is actually narrative cinema) cannot sustain a 113 minute running time. Ten minutes in and I was already checking my watch. I’ve used this analogy before, but the extended version of Sergio Leone’s final masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America (1984) clocks in at 229 minutes and uses some of the same meditative and slow moving techniques as The Loneliest Planet, but does it so, so, so much better. After watching something like that, I could easily go back to the start and bask in its glory for another four hours, after 113 minutes of The Loneliest Planet, I wondered if I could ever make it through a feature film again (not really, but you get what I mean).
4. Characters We Don’t Care About.
It’s important to distinguish between characters we don’t care about and characters we don’t like. I don’t mind watching the rare movie or television show that has at its core characters that aren’t likeable (Tony Soprano for instance), in fact they make for fascinating viewing, but regardless of whether or not I like them, I still care enough to keep watching them. The characters in this film are so uninteresting though. They walk and talk, walk and talk and don’t say or do anything remotely interesting. When the “shocking” event does come and changes their dynamics entirely I found myself not caring about them in the slightest, and next to boring that might be the second worst sin a movie can commit.
5. It’s vulgar.
I’m no prude, well at least I don’t think I am, but having the camera linger on Nica (Hani Furstenberg) while she’s throwing up or relieving herself is just downright tasteless. I know it’s in the film’s style to have long takes that focus on the mundane, but come on, the Movie God’s created the cutaway for a reason, and I personally have no interest in seeing that kind of thing, but hey, each to their own.
Chris Smith is a Melbourne based freelance writer who is passionate about film, books and music. His work is often featured on Film Blerg and various other places.