The way our culture produces, consumes, and shares information and entertainment is changing with vertiginous speed. That indisputable fact not only provides the subject of the freaky new sci-fi fantasy The Congress, but also accounts for the film’s no-longer-that-unusual release strategy. (Ari Folman’s half-animated head trip has been made available on iTunes, Amazon, and on demand weeks in advance of its Aug. 29 theatrical release.) The Congress imagines a late-late-capitalist dystopia in which a corporate media behemoth unsubtly named “Miramount” has effectively usurped control of all human consciousness. Stuck as we are in the August doldrums of summer movie season (which now stretches from the first thaws of April well past Labor Day), it’s hard not to feel that we live in that future already.
Every summer, Marvel blockbusters and Marvel-approved takeoffs of Marvel blockbusters and unasked-for-by-anyone Transformers sequels and other mass-produced global entertainments choke up the Cineplexes like kudzu. Some of them are sharp and exciting, and some of them are awful, but collectively they leave ever less room for the cinematic wildflowers—the small-scale indies, foreign-language films, and challenging work of the sort that got many of us excited about film in the first place—to spring up. This week, plans for the next six years’ worth of Marvel/DC sequels were ceremonially unveiled, with release dates staked out years in advance of the projects even having titles. Contemplating that vast stretch of future time, a barren zone marked only by the regular reappearance of as-yet-unnamed buff superheroes, fills me with a sense of futility previously engendered only by the Book of Ecclesiastes.
But those of us who despair at the current state of summer-movie monoculture would do well to keep an eye on the cracks in the sidewalk. Video-on-demand cable channels, independent streaming-video services like Fandor and MUBI, and more familiar sites like Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes are rapidly becoming the first places to look for offbeat, inventive new releases. Yet they’re resources I often forget to avail myself of, in thrall as I am to the familiar who-will-win-the-weekend? model that privileges theatrical release over all other means of distribution.
As Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer approaches $5 million in VOD grosses, though, it’s clear that from a business standpoint theatrical release is not the only path for an unusual and ambitious new movie to take. The experience of being in a darkened theater with strangers looking up at a screen will never lose its thrill, but there are times of year when much of that territory has to be ceded to the SUV-hurling robots and chimps on horseback. And so this week I’m taking a pass on the multiplexes, which sort of seem like they’re turtles all the way down, to write about three new films, available via various home-delivery systems, that deserve to worm their way into our Miramount-controlled brains. Maybe they’ll free up enough space in there to help us imagine a different cinematic future.
Ramon Zürcher’s debut film The Strange Little Cat, true to its title, is both the strangest and the littlest of this alt-movie lineup. Only 72 minutes long and set almost entirely within the confines of a small Berlin apartment, this quiet yet unsettling film accompanies a middle-class family over a normal Saturday as they prepare and serve a meal for some extended relatives. The mother (Jenny Schily)—the main character, to the extent there is one—seems inexplicably distracted and short-tempered as she interacts with her children, two teenagers (Luk Pfass and Anjorka Strechel) and a girl of about 8 (Mia Kasalo.) It’s clear that, however Mom feels about the evening’s visitors (who include her own, now ailing mother), she has something weightier than dinner prep on her mind.
But the characters’ inner lives and motivations are just one of many forces at play in The Strange Little Cat, which is as much a film about the movement of objects and bodies through a space as it as about the relationships of the people who live there. Zürcher films the cramped interior of the apartment with a curiously neutral camera, which he often leaves in one place for a while, letting actors, kitchen implements, and occasionally the orange tabby of the title move in and out of the frame as the action takes place just off-screen. The framing and blocking appear offhanded and casual at first, but as the film goes along the careful thought that’s gone into each of Zürcher’s directorial choices becomes clear. The circulation of common household objects seems to take on a strange significance; repeating motifs emerge that suggest, rather than explain, an overarching story or theme. (In several instances, one family member attempts to share a private recollection with another, only to be interrupted by a whirring appliance or ignored completely.)
We don’t know exactly what we’re supposed to be noticing about this apparently normal day, which makes us notice everything. At first I felt frustration at The Strange Little Cat’s refusal to cohere into a recognizable genre: Was it a drama or a comedy? Was the free-floating sense of anxiety ever going to turn into actual suspense? But once I settled into the film’s idiosyncratic rhythm, it struck me that these are, to some extent, the kinds of questions that the VOD experience helps viewers to take in stride. When it doesn’t cost $30 plus babysitting to see a new movie, maybe it’s easier to allow yourself to experiment with something genuinely new like The Strange Little Cat, which issues a bracing challenge to its audience’s assumptions about what movies are or ought to do.