Occupational hazards

arts@sfbg.com

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL The drama of the workplace invariably hinges on the frisson of learned and instinctive behaviors. Films that get the workplace right have a special dynamism insofar as a whole social order is at stake: this is the secret connection between Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life “(consider[ing) the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others”) and the fine art of office comedies. There’s at least one of these in this year’s SFIFF — the nimble Japanese film Hospitalité along with a few sterner features that make unusual commitments toward reflecting a work environment.

In Hospitalité, Mikio runs a print shop backing up to a cozy domicile. Under the same roof are his young wife, Natsuki; his daughter from a previous marriage, Eriko; and his recently divorced sister, Seiko. Crucially, we still haven’t sorted this web of relations when the balance is disturbed by the arrival of a stranger. A relatively harmless variation of Joseph Cotton’s character in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Kagawa parlays a vague family connection into a job, a room, and more.

Early in the film, Mikio runs into his ex-wife at the market and invites her to take Eriko for a few hours. It’s a mildly puzzling scene since writer-director Koji Fukada has let us believe (along with Kagawa) that Eriko’s mother was dead — but not nearly so baffling as the nonsensical vision of a blonde bombshell in her bathrobe waiting for Mikio and Natsuki at home (Kagawa’s Brazilian wife, it turns out). This is how Hospitalité goes, one uncertainty following another. The difficulty distinguishing what’s threatening from what’s just odd is part of the film’s charm, and Fukada deftly manages the constrained frames of his shop around the corner to unravel his characters’ mannered reactions. The mechanical operation of the printers provides nice comic counterpoint in several scenes; it also seems an almost poignant choice of occupation for a story concerning the pitfalls of self-sufficiency.

The sunken figures of Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below also live at work, but there’s nothing domestic about this world of glass and sheer verticality. Actual Frankfurt is made subsidiary to its enveloping high-finance architecture. The visual field is worryingly destabilized in these lofts and offices; Hochhäusler has pulled off the neat trick of realizing expressionistic motifs as translucence rather than shadow. The City Below’s story doesn’t truck with psychological realism, so it’s probably useful knowing that it was inspired by the David and Bathsheba myth. This being late capitalism, our David (the aging venture capitalist Roland) doesn’t need to send the husband to war to have his Bathsheba (maddeningly opaque Svenja). He contrives a transfer to fill a post in Jakarta, where a former colleague was recently kidnapped and murdered.

Hochhäusler gestures toward familiar motifs of betrayal, seduction, and deception, but with the floridness drained away. You can see the difference from something like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) in the film’s gliding camera movements, a flourish typically deployed as shorthand for power’s intoxicating effects. Hochhäusler works from unnerving angles and chops up the glide so as to retrace the same ground like a record needle stuck in a groove — one of the film’s many striking alienation effects. The title takes on a radical redefinition with a sudden exit reminiscent of the one that swallowed up Manoel de Oliveira’s A Talking Picture (2003). But even before then, the meltdowns to come have already blocked the easy flow of time and space.

The Last Buffalo Hunt might seem a leap from here, but listen to Terry Albrecht explaining how burned out he feels from decades of guiding tourist-hunters for a shot at the once-plentiful beasts: “You know how it is … another day at the office.” A documentary pitched uneasily between third-person essay and first-person observation, The Last Buffalo Hunt is the result of more than five years of tracking Albrecht and his patrons in Utah’s choked Henry Mountains. Lee Anne Schmitt and coproducer Lee Lynch do not make this material easy to absorb either at the level of sensory impressions or intellectual understanding. It’s a familiar story by now — that as the West was won, it was made consumable as iconography and fantasy — but rarely has the laboriousness of this task been brought into such close focus as it is here.

In her previous film, California Company Town (2008), Schmitt created a ruminative space by supplementing her landscape surveys with essayistic illuminations of what had been wrought in this or that place. The soundtrack in The Last Buffalo Hunt works similarly, situating the annual hunts in shards of history and variations on the Western theme (ranging from popular song to Frederick Jackson Turner’s discourses). But Schmitt’s foray into this landscape is more precarious for the simple reason that she and Lynch are dependent on Terry and his men. He’s a different kind of guide to them than he is to the hunters, to be sure, but similarly indispensable.

When I saw the film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, one viewer commented on the Western memorabilia glimpsed in Terry’s home — that it seemed typical of how American individualism devolves into a refusal to see beyond one’s myths. I suppose he’s right, but there’s something sad about how little the myth has done for Terry. At the end of his career, his livelihood is far from triumphal. Early in The Last Buffalo Hunt we see a century-old photograph of a man standing in front of a mountain of skins, and the present-tense hunts seem entirely predicated on such photo-ops. The narration suggests a common link in entitlement, though this hardly feels like a solution. If the protracted death of a single bison is finally as irreducible as Terry’s hard day at the office, they both end up in the animatronic display of history, the Indians long forgotten. 

THE 54TH ANNUAL SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs April 21–-May 5. Venues are the Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Castro, 429 Castro, SF; New People, 1746 Post, SF; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, SF. For tickets (most shows $13) and complete schedule visit www.sffs.org.