Friday, March 06, 2015

Movie Watch: A grand time with the Zellner Bros. and their latest film last night at the Museum of the Moving Image


This trailer contains more information than I would have liked to have before seeing the Zellner Bros.' Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, but it may give you some flavor of the picture. Rinko Kikuchi, who plays Kumiko, is the biggest star -- internationally speaking -- the Zellners have worked with. Her credits include an Oscar nomination for Babel.)

by Ken

Sometimes you have to wonder how it is that people who've stumbled into an opportunity to yammer forth unto their fellow citizens don't seem to listen to their own yammering. Okay, what I'm really thinking of just now is "my own yammering."

Oh, sometimes I listen. As some of you are all too aware, lately I've found abundant opportunities to make and remake the point that I wish oh wish I could approach any movie or TV program I haven't seen before knowing as little as possible about it, the point being that we can re-watch the thing to our heart's content, especially now thanks to DVD, but we get only one crack at watching it for the first time. Last night I got to put this into practice, and it accounted for some of the splendidness of the time I had at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, which some of you already know is one of my favorite places on the planet.

The occasion was a special pre-release screening of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a film by the Zellner Bros. which has been shown to great enthusiasm at such places as Sundance (last year). I went into it knowing about as little about the film as a person could possibly hope to know. Let me embarrass myself by saying that I didn't even know who the Zellner Bros., David and Nathan, are, though I was guessing that they (a) are brothers and (b) make movies together.

Nathan and an uncharacteristically poker-
faced David Zellner, at Sundance

I expected, however, that I would come away richly illuminated, as I usually when I come away from MoMI events. Not only would I have sen the film, but I would have heard a discussion of it by the brothers themselves, who had that very morning abandoned the comfort of Austin to brave our latest snowstorm to talk about their creation. As a matter of fact, though, as David Z pointed out in a brief pre-screening greeting, though, our weather was totally appropriate to the film, and was it ever!

Let me say that Kumiko is a wonderful movie, with an outlook, and a look and sound, and a manner of story-telling unlike those of any picture I'm familiar with. It makes me curious about their other work, which will bring us eventually to the screw-up I alluded to at the top of this post, which we'll come back to. In the meantime, as MoMI's chief curator, David Schwartz, pointed out during the post-screening discussion, a bunch of the brothers' short films can be viewed on their website,, which also features this photo, taken when Nathan in particular, who's two years younger than David, had a lot more hair than he has now.

The Zellners have been making movies together since they were children, and while they both got themselves educated for real-world jobs (and yes, in cubicles, so that they had a personal-history stake in the office-centered early portion of the film -- and never mind that the office in question happens to be in Tokyo, for which they researched Japanese office life intensively), they continued making movies while they held down their day jobs.

After the screening, first David S talked to the brothers, and then he threw the discussion open to audience questions. As I've said here more than once, MoMI audiences ask the best questions, in terms of getting the subject(s) to talk about things we would have hated not to hear about. So in addition to filling us in on the origin and genesis of the project, they talked about all sorts of fascianting things about their work and this particular project. Well, mostly David Z talked, though Nathan piped in often enough, especially when the question was about the way the film's sounds were created and integrated, in collaboration with the Octopus Project. (We already knew that Nathan, in addition to production duties, is responsible for the sound plan. The scripts are written jointly, as they have been since the boys started making movies as children. David directs.) You only had to watch a few minutes of the film to grasp that the brothers don't think about movie sound the way most filmmakers do -- adding in music and effects in the later editing stages. They explained that they think of dialogue, sound effects, and music as all part of a total sound package, which they begin to imagine as they write the script and refine and solidify as they film.

As for the background of the project, here's how our lads explain it in the press kit. This is taken from the sheet of program notes that's always handed out at MoMI screenings. Let me stress that I never read the notes until after I've seen the picture, when I'm delighted to have them. You can make the decision for yourself.
In 2001, a story circulated online about a Japanese woman who left her Tokyo home for the frozen countryside of Minnesota, in search of the fictional buried money from the movie Fargo. It immediately captured our attention, the mysterious and vague details intriguing us all the more. Initially there was no more information available, and to satiate our curiosity, we began developing a story of what could lead someone into that scenario.

It brought to mind tales of Spanish explorers searching for gold, in particular the film Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Instead of a 16th century conquistador searching for El Dorado, it's a modern day Japanese woman looking for a bag of money in the snow. The idea that someone in the twenty-first century would cross the globe searching for a mythical treasure seemed strangely anachronistic, as if these sort of tragic, foolhardy quests just don't happen anymore. Sadly there are no more uncharted or unknown lands. In the age of globalization, social networking and satellite mapping, the world is no longer the mysterious place it once was.

Over time more details emerged online around the actual story, eventually debunking it as simply an urban legend. All of the sudden there were different versions of The Truth floating around. A Japanese woman did in fact venture into the Minnesota wilderness; though the treasure hunt, the obsessive quest spurred by a film, were all the stuff of fables, taking a life of its own via the telephone game. At first this discrepancy alarmed us, and then we realized it was the legend and the quest elements of the story that drew ourselves and others in to begin with. As with all folklore, this tale had its own sort of truth to it, though on more of a human level than factual. And that endeared us to it all the more.
Last night at MoMI, David Z stressed how much information-spreading has changed just since 2001, when it took a lot longer than it does now for additions and accretions to a story like this one to add and accrete. He also filled us in on some of the extremely strange history of the project over the dozen or so years between that initial inspiration and the making of the actual film.

Another questioner asked about the brothers' acting in their films, and David explained that yes, they usually do. They both have roles in Kumiko, which David confirmed they had indeed created for themselves. Beyond that, he said, well, it all depends on the needs of the project they're working on, according to which each of them may wind up with a larger or shorter role, or none at all. He stressed that they carefully respect their limitations as actors, but that after all they've been acting in movies since they were children making movies, when one of them would be acting while the other was filming. Back then, he said, they knew what acting is; what they still had to find out was what directing is.

He also explained that in casting they like to mix real actors and non-actors. We learned the more or less serendipitous path by which the internationally celebrated Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi became not just associated with but passionate about the project, and became the biggest star the brothers have worked with. (As it happened the vast time scale of the project worked to their mutual benefit in one way. When the brothers first met Rinko, they had to speak through an interpeter. By the time they actually started making the movie, four years later, she had become fluent in English, though you wouldn't guess it from the film.)

At the opposite scale of acting credentials, the older gentleman seen in the scene with Nathan Z of which there's the quickest hit at about 1:46 of the clip turns out to be the boys' grandfather! There's no question, David explained, of getting him to learn lines. They just clued him in to the situation and let it roll! David himself, by the way, has quite an important role in the film, and he does it so splendidly that, not realizing who it was while I watched (gimme a break; he's shaved off the moustache he has in the film and, I see, in all the other pictures of him), I made a mental note to be sure to find out who the actor was!


Good question, and the answer is the aforementioned David Schwartz. whose judgment about movies I have come to not just value but cherish. In my experience at MoMI, when he schedules a movie, he knows what he's doing, and there's something worth seeing.

Movies make David S happy!
Which brings me back to the screw-up I mentioned at the top. Yes, I trusted David S's judgment, which I have touted here before on multiple occasions, to the tune of yet another $15, and that's a distinctly pricey tune for someone as cheap as me. What I didn't do, however, was take a closer look at the MoMI schedule to see whether this screening perhaps tied into any adjacent programming. (I might mention that the museum screens a lot of movies, and non-"event" movies are generally free with museum admission, meaning they're free to members.) I said earlier that on the basis of seeing Kumiko and getting acquainted with the Zellner Bros., I would love to see more of their work. Well, it turned out that this screening-and-event was -- you guessed it -- the climax of a retrospective of that work.

To make this still more embarrassing, I've done this before. Shortly before the commercial release of Darren Aronofsky's Noah, the museum announced a special free-for-members screening, which I naturally signed up for. Since I pay much less attention to the current movie scene than I once did, I'm embarrassed (again) to say that I didn't even know who Darren Aronofsky is. I had an extremely jolly time at the screening of Noah, and naturally one of the first things that popped into my head afterward was that now I was really curious about his other work. Imagine my chagrin to discover that I'd just missed a MoMI Aronofsky retrospective! (Some months later, though, the museum had another screening of Noah, so I saw it again, and appreciated even more the ingenuity with which it's put together.)

What can I say except that the museum screens so many movies (always with the best materials they can lay hands on), and my time is already overcommitted, and it's a schlepp for me getting out to MoMI and then home. Somehow, though, the trip home last night didn't seem all that arduous.



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