Gianfranco Rosi, Fire at Sea, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 114 minutes.
GIANFRANCO ROSI’S award-winning Fire at Sea comes as close as possible to achieving genuine objectivity, a quality that eludes most documentaries, including those that claim not to espouse a partisan viewpoint. True objectivity does not preclude moral conviction. A strong point of view, manifested through a visual style—the hallmarks of authorship in narrative filmmaking—also characterized documentary filmmakers, from Robert Flaherty to Errol Morris. Since Rosi is the cinematographer of most of his movies, his perspective is literally synonymous with his camera’s eye—gazing with admirable equanimity at his subjects, whether that is Samuel, the young boy on the island of Lampedusa whose daily life we follow, or the pitiable migrants from north Africa who risk starvation and drowning to board overloaded vessels to reach European shores. No rhetorical commentary accompanies Rosi’s material, no talking heads attempt to explain it, and no music cues viewers as to how they should feel. Rosi’s tools are a keen and patient eye, a humanist sensibility, and a natural tendency to ignore agendas, political or otherwise. It is no surprise that all three are well-served by his consistent, uncalculated use of long takes.
As the largest island of the Italian Pelagie group in the Mediterranean south of Sicily and closest to North Africa, Lampedusa has been the destination of twenty thousand migrants over the last twenty years; another fifteen thousand died trying to get there. It has served as a gateway for hordes of people trying to get to other parts of Europe. Consistent with Rosi’s ethos, the rescue missions we witness are apparently consistent with the humanitarian policy of the island, which contrasts with the more rigid position of Italy itself. This is made clear by a doctor whose reverence for human life and description of the horrors visited upon the human body are moving precisely because, like Rosi’s overall approach, they are understated.
This is also true of the structure of Fire at Sea, the title of which refers to a popular song linked to the “rockets” that exploded in the sky during World War II. Rosi alternates scenes of the island’s everyday life with those of the rescues that have become no less a part of it. Inevitably, a contrast emerges between the desperation of those without homes facing immediate perils and unknown futures and those whose lives, however ordinary, epitomize the unsung values of safety and security: a woman’s patient brewing of the morning’s espresso for her husband and herself; a radio DJ answering phone requests from residents he seems to know; an undersea diver searching for sea urchins; and of course, Samuel, whose handcrafting of a slingshot, amateur hunting excursions, efforts to speak English, and slurping up spaghetti have charms of their own. We watch him learning to negotiate a pontoon to prepare himself, as his teacher says, to be a sailor—the destiny of most of the island’s young men. If the very ordinariness of these activities renders them precious, such an impression emanates naturally from the material and not from unwarranted stress by Rosi.
Rosi’s cinematography is as unceremonious as it is stunning. Against those who think a serious subject is compromised by a handsome look, Rosi proves that “matching” subject to visual tone is another form of editorializing. If anything, the majestic beauty of the sea and the sky as the backdrop for the human saga unfolding around them, while not played up for facile irony, is a sober reminder of the blunt juxtaposition that the world itself offers beyond the contrived efforts of any documentarian. This is as true of the film as a whole as it is of its last few shots of the gray, surging sea, the vigilant apparatus of a rescue ship against the nighttime sky, and a pale moon glimpsed behind clouds. If any single trait defines Rosi’s approach to his work, it might well be trust: trust in human nature to reveal itself without adornment, trust in his camera to observe the world without artificial technique, and trust in the viewer to see, reflect, and learn without the prodding of well-meaning sermonizing. Fire at Sea is nothing less than a work of moral character.
EDWARD YANG DIED IN 2007, aged fifty-nine, after a long bout with cancer that cost him his opportunity to follow up on his international breakthrough, Yi Yi (2000). By any measure this would be a tragedy, and I am sometimes convinced that film culture has yet to recover from Yang’s passing. Though his films never left his native Taipei, Yang was a cosmopolitan figure unusually attuned to the benefits and perils of twenty-first century globalization and corporate capitalism, who seemed not only inclined but able to explore what effects the unprecedented changes taking place the world over were having on hearts and minds, without recourse to the antique doctrines of Confucianism and Communism.
That there will be no more Edward Yang movies is an unacceptable but undeniable truth, though there is some cold comfort in the fact that the movies that Yang did manage to complete are becoming more accessible, after years of having been tied up by issues with the director’s estate. Earlier this year BAMcinématek gave a rapturously received run to Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991), preceding the Criterion Collection’s home video release of that quotidian epic, and following its success that same venue is presenting a run of Yang’s 1986 The Terrorizers.
Made hot on the heels of his Taipei Story (1985), in a rare period of productivity, The Terrorizers is an enigmatic, upsetting movie—troubling in ways you may have difficulty putting your finger on, nagging at you days later, like a sore spot that’s hard to reach. Its ensemble of disparate characters is united by their shared enervation, as though from a lingering sickness, and a vague ambiance of crisis hangs over the film from the earliest scenes: an anonymous body lying face-down in the street; the police shooting a gambling den to pieces in brisk, businesslike fashion. The editing is curt, elliptical, and at times Bressonian, while the camera generally keeps at a laconic distance, and along with embellishments like a sudden cut from an interior scene to a window washer clinging to the outside of the building or the recurring image of a huge, spherical water tank that seems to belong on a Martian colony, this all combines to keep a viewer ever-so-slightly on-edge. A manga fan and practiced cartoonist, Yang has an eye for framings that throb with implacable loss, and he lingers on scenes of departure, on footsteps sounding in a hospital corridor, or a woman’s view from her apartment window as her lover walks away after a violent quarrel scored to the conclusion of The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a gorgeous scene in a movie full of them. (As with Taipei Story and A Brighter Summer Day, The Terrorizers has been restored on DCP, the image quality not a vast improvement on the existing South Korean DVD. This means, in all likelihood, that 35-mm prints of these movies will never be shown again.)
The sense that Yang doesn’t want you to settle in or get too comfortable is reinforced by The Terrorizers’ approach to storytelling, fractured in the extreme and untrustworthy to boot. The film proceeds by laying out four individual narrative strands. These involve a professionally frustrated lab technician, Li (Lichun Lee), and his wife, Chou (Cora Miao), a writer struggling with a creative block; a photographer and his girlfriend; a Eurasian girl referred to as “The White Chick” who, when not living in a kind of captivity with her mother, runs a scam of posing as a prostitute and shaking down her clients in bland, antiseptic hotel rooms; and a police detective out of central casting who has to clean up after the White Chick’s crimes.
Yang cuts freely among these stories, and occasionally lets them ricochet off one another, usually with destructive consequences. The photographer becomes fixated on the White Chick after he snaps a picture of her fleeing on a sprained ankle from the opening shootout, which is presided over by the detective. Released from the hospital to her mother’s care, the White Chick fills her days by making prank phone calls, one of which reaches Chou, and precipitates the dissolution of her marriage—though she seems happy to have the pretext to hop into bed with an ex-lover who has been trying to lure her into a job with his almost comically depressing looking business. Li, left twisting in the wind, turns to an old school friend for support—none other than the detective—and then makes off with his service revolver on a score-settling rampage which, as presented, may be nothing more than a fiction imagined by his ex-wife who, in the film’s final image, is seen vomiting, a drastic, disgorging solution to her writer’s block.
The Terrorizers presents art—and therefore itself—as a kind of ipecac, and its overall tone is one of listlessness and quietly gnawing nauseous anxiety, an unease that finds occasional expression in outbursts of violence: The White Girl, for example, keeps a knife in a concealed pocket sewn into the leg of her blue jeans, and she knows how to use it. Yang’s evident desire to situate these desperate acts within a larger social context looks ahead to his next film, A Brighter Summer Day, with its vaster and more teeming canvas, but The Terrorizers is an independent and hugely ambitious film in its own right, no mere dry run. Its interlocking stories assign it to the category of the “network narrative,” responsible for some of the most overblown, overreaching film art of the twenty-first century, though in Yang’s hands the sense of connection takes on the aspect of a threat, afree-floating menace, as he adumbrates a city of brooding isolates where an errant, idle prank can set in motion a butterfly effect ending in bloodshed.
As chains of causality whip out of control with devastating effects, the creative act can at least impose a kind of narrative order, but for Yang this appears as a brand of criminal intrusion, like kidnapping. This is evident in Chou’s enlistment of her unwilling husband, earlier heard to comment that “writing a novel shouldn’t be so deadly,” to play a character in her book, or the photographer’s imprisonment of the White Girl’s image, creating a sort of shrine to her in a mosaic portrait spread across several dozen pieces of 8 1/2 X 11” photo paper, an act of romanticization that is as vulnerable to circumstance as the shrine is vulnerable to the disturbance of the whispering wind.
All of the characters have recourse to little fictions, and their actions are spurred by these fictions. Abandoned and overpassed, Li is no innocent victim—early on we see him undercutting a friend and coworker in hopes of a promotion—and everyone here winds up with blood on their hands, sometimes quite literally. The Terrorizers is Yang at his most crabbed and cryptic, but somehow he retains that irreducible “lovability.” I know of few other filmmakers who can keep their characters at a length while remaining in such proximity to their inner lives. It is a marvelous thing to see, and Yang took the secret with him. We can only watch and rewatch the films, and mourn, and learn.
Marlen Khutsiev, Mne dvadsat let (I Am Twenty), 1965, 35 mm, black-and-white, 189 minutes.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER. At ninety-one, filmmaker Marlen Khutsiev will be paying a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, presenting a program of his life’s work in cinema, largely unknown to audiences outside of the former Soviet Bloc, though the movies were dropping jaws when they played at last year’s Locarno Film Festival. (The next stop on the tour is the Harvard Film Archive.) They are films never timid in ambition, though external factors often conspired to thwart that ambition, keeping them away from an original intended audience that was very far away from Fifty-Third Street.
Marlen Khutsiev, née Khutsishvili, was born in 1925 in Tiflis, Georgia—today Tblisi, the capital, then still-recently absorbed by the young USSR into the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. One imagines that this development was welcomed by his father, Martyn Levanovich Khutsishvili, a prerevolutionary Communist, but the bloom was not long on the Red rose, and in 1937 Khutsishvili was thrown in the clink for counterrevolutionary crimes. Marlen from a young age was smitten with communist fervor and movies, then inextricable from one another—he staged his own version of Battleship Pomtemkin as a child, and has cited 1934’s Chapayev, a heroic biopic of Red Army commander Vasily Chapayev, as an early favorite—and in 1945 he enrolled in the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, or VGIK, in Moscow.
Khutsiev’s first gig out of school was at the Odessa film studio in Ukraine, once the playground of Alexander Dovzhenko, and it was here that he completed his debut feature, Springtime on Zarechnaya Street, co-directed with Feliks Mironer. The film begins as an urbane young woman, Tatyana (Nina Ivanova), arrives in an unnamed industrial settlement and catches a ride into town, where she is shortly to begin teaching Russian literature at a night school for workers, shrinking in distaste as she passes the city’s ugly industrial fringes. Tatyana sticks around despite her driver’s prediction that she will quickly defect like her predecessors, and is caught up in an uneasy mutual attraction with one of her students, a rough-edged steelworker (Nikolai Rybnikov)—a situation which, through the course of a year and the passing of seasons, lyrically used to express interior emotions, teeters between hopelessness at their impossibly different backgrounds and final surrender.
Released in November 1956, Springtime proved a massive box-office draw, and has frequently been cited as one of the best of the Thaw pictures, named for the so-called Khrushchev Thaw: the period in the USSR following the 1953 death of Joseph Stalin during which, under the leadership of new Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, censorship was eased up, Stalinist holdovers were retired from the Kremlin, and undesirables were liberated en masse from the Gulags—those who’d survived, anyways. The cinema of the Thaw is said to be defined by a new emphasis on individual desire as opposed to pure obeisance to the demands of the social group—an idea of life as consisting of different, not always complementary pressures, as opposed to a single, unified striving toward the Proletarian Paradise—though when Tatyana visits her swain at his mill and we are treated to rhapsodic, romantic images of molten steel, the old specter of Socialist Realism doesn’t seem so very far away. It ought to be added that Khutsiev doesn’t greatly gussy up his depiction of daily life, and his interiors are really not so far from what you might find in one of Hollywood’s dystopian versions of “Russia”—Howard Hughes/Josef von Sternberg’s Jet Pilot (1957), let’s say.
The uneasy tug-of-war between private feeling and public life, personal longing and obligation to the commonweal, culture and society, is woven into the very fabric of Khutsiev’s next film, a sort of modernist heroic poem whose troubled release history was compelling evidence that the brief Thaw was freezing over again. First called Ilych’s Gate, it was initially completed in a 197-minute version then, after attracting the public censure of Khrushchev, reedited and eventually given a proper release three years later as I Am Twenty—MoMA will play both versions. The film begins by literally singling out a face in the crowd—a technique that also opens Khutsiev’s July Rain (1967)—picking a protagonist from the groups coming and going on rain-slick early morning Moscow streets after casually seizing and dropping several potential candidates, finally landing on Sergei (Valentin Popov), a young man in uniform returning home from his military service. It freely moves between the conversation of its principles—Sergei and his two young friends who’ve grown up as neighbors sharing the same courtyard, now all on the cusp of adulthood and sharing the same attendant anxieties—their interior monologues, and ambient snatches of poetry, which seems to be in the very atmosphere. The defining note of the film is an itchy restlessness evident in both performance and inventive, unfettered camerawork—it was shot at least with the full cooperation of the government, and the unbounded use of Moscow as a stage is thrilling. Much of its action takes place by night, during insomniac strolls or in the interludes which Sergei spends with a young woman whom he begins courting after a pickup at the May Day parade, one of multiple instances of Khutsiev’s integration of documentary-style location shooting. Khutsiev also goes to great lengths to populate the film with nonprofessionals, including a cadre of noteworthy young poets who are heard reading at the Moscow Polytechnic Institute, in a scene that was cut from I Am Twenty.
Marlen Khutsiev, Iyulskiy dozhd (July Rain), 1967, 35 mm, black-and-white, 107 minutes.
Ilych’s Gate depicts a generation of men without male role models, their fathers either sacrifices to the war or, like Sergei’s girlfriend’s dad, rank, cynical hypocrites, dulled by the then-newfangled television, here a ubiquitous presence. Sergei and his friends, in contrast, struggle to keep their true believer ideals alive—in one scene near the film’s conclusion Sergei, slightly in his cups at a party whose guests include a young Andrei Tarkovsky, brings the frivolity to a dead stop with his statement of purpose: “I take seriously the Revolution, the ‘Internationale’ anthem, the year of 1937, the war, the soldiers, the fact that almost all of us have no fathers…” Fun guy.
For a contemporary viewer, by which I mean myself, it is difficult to see what all the fuss could have been about a film that extols such unimpeachable patriotic virtues, notwithstanding the occasional crack about “ideologically correct” movie adaptations of the classics and the presence of a wormy informer co-worker character, but exception was taken all the same. The young people listened to too much western music, it was said. The Chairman of the Ideological Commission was upset by all the scenes of loitering: “At night, people should be asleep.” In March of 1963, Khutsiev was invited to the Kremlin along with hundreds of other artists, in front of whom he received a public dressing down. When Ilych’s Gate finally saw light of day, techniques that would have been considerable innovations three years earlier now only placed it in the thick of various international New Waves, so-called, though it would still win a Special Jury Prize at Venice, and the admiration of such seemingly disparate figures as Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini, who may have seen some affinity with his I Vitelloni (1953) and its images of aimless youth.
Khutsiev’s official disfavor didn’t last forever, and he has continued to work sporadically until the present day. (He is currently preparing a new feature about the meeting of Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, a follow-up to his 1991 Infinitas.) In 1986 he was named People’s Artist of the USSR, and in 2006 President Vladimir Putin pinned him with the badge of the Order “For Merit of the Fatherland.” It is the reputation of his work through July Rain on which Khutsiev’s legacy is still largely built, though I have not personally seen his films from the 1970s and beyond, none of which are readily found with English subtitles. MoMA’s series will allow for a much fuller view of Khutsiev, comprising eleven titles in all, per the press release “many of them in new 35-mm prints”—good news from an organization who often fail to prioritize making projection format information readily available to the public.
To see Khutsiev’s films in their original format rather than on 480p YouTubes—a sad journalistic necessity in an era when press screenings are a rarity at rep venues—I will in a sense be seeing them for the first time, and hope to be thusly convinced of the crucial need for a revival. Even seen in less-than-optimal circumstances, the choreographic grace of Khutsiev’s work with cinematographer Margarita Pilikhina on Ilych’s Gate/I Am Twenty is often flabbergasting, but for all the liberated camerawork in the films of his first decade, the inevitable “reiteration of revolutionary principles” scenes bring things down to earth, and have the unmistakable tang of old wine in a new bottle. Khutsiev’s characters may have escaped the one-dimensionality of pre-Thaw Soviet cinema, but the binaries that they offer in its stead are not a great deal richer. (As counterpoint there are the literally and figuratively murkier films of Alexei German, who would shortly join Khutsiev at Mosfilm.) What I’ve seen offers undeniable evidence of a great talent, but it’s a buffaloing greatness—Alejandro González Iñárritu, who probably owes more to the midcentury Russians than any mainstream figure working today, has the same quality. It’s a greatness I haven’t yet learned to appreciate, though its day before a broader public is long overdue.
Ismaïl Bahri, Foyer, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 32 minutes.
THE FIFTY-FOURTH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL’S Projections sidebar is its most impressive to date. In addition to films by known masters, many new works are noteworthy. Among the stalwarts, Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler present new films, though they were unavailable for previewing, and Robert Beavers will show a restoration of From the Notebook of… (1971/1998). Canadian filmmaker David Rimmer is represented by three 16-mm films, and the late Peter Hutton’s In Titan’s Goblet (1991), an homage to painter Thomas Cole, is a luminous black-and-white contemplation of smoke, fog, and ships at sea.
Rimmer’s 16-mm work retains a vibrancy that feeds off the dazzling formal creativity of 1970s avant-garde cinema. His sensitivity to the medium has a physical handprint not easily duplicable in digital. This is as true of the grainy social realism of Real Italian Pizza (1971) and Canadian Pacific I (1974) as it is of the virtuosic display of Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970). The last is a nine-minute black-and-white loop of an eight-second shot, in which a female factory worker, facing the camera, unwinds and flips a sheet of cellophane in fast undulating movements while an assaultive soundtrack magnifies the gesture to thunderous effect. As Rimmer subjects the footage to aural and chemical treatment, the woman is transformed into negative and ghostlike silhouettes, until the film is finally reduced to fleeting splotches of white floating against a black screen. It’s a perfect marriage of filmic clout and social comment.
The inventiveness typical of Rimmer and his peers can also be seen in more recent works such as Tomonari Nishikawa’s Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon, also shot in 16 mm, and Ismaïl Bahri’s Foyer. The former is a subtly stimulating work. As several extreme long shots unfold of landscapes along Japan’s Yahagi River, the shadowy vertical bars that veil the foreground seem, initially, to represent a fixed perspective, as if every shot were taken from behind some off-screen grilled window. But we soon realize that distant vehicles or figures within the landscapes do not move continuously across an integral image, but actually vanish between the vertical bars, as if into black holes. Despite this optical delusion, the seemingly unobstructed view of a unified landscape endures and the film achieves the harmonious serenity of Japanese painting.
Even more ambitious, Foyer is driven by a formal strategy that reconfigures the sovereignty of the camera lens, recalling such films as Hollis Frampton’s Travelling Matte (1971). Through its richly evocative soundtrack, Foyer also realizes the implications of its title—acting as a “lobby” of sorts before the entrance to an unseen “theater” blocked, in fact, by a blank piece of paper that Bahri holds in front of the lens. Thus the physical and cultural world of Tunisia, the movie’s ostensible setting and the filmmaker’s birthplace, remains off screen, except for split-second peeks at a man’s T-shirt and a sunlit harbor. Onlookers inquire about what Bahri is doing and why. He claims he is an amateur, just learning about photography. One man assumes that eventually Bahri will “do a montage,” but Bahri discounts the possibility as contrary to his resolve to allow the wind to determine whether we see anything or not. “Ah, so the wind is the editor,” the man exclaims. If it stirs the paper, we may see something, or not. At one point a suspicious policeman imagines Bahri is filming a nearby police station, but when he looks through the lens and sees “nothing,” he declares it’s a kind of hide-and-seek approach. To be sure, we discern shadowy figures on the other side of the paper, determined by the behavior of sunlight. People express pride that Bahri lives in France, where they are certain he shows Tunisia and its people in a good light. Bahri’s technique, in fact, plays on the very notion of cultural images, which are relegated here to the imagination. People speak like people everywhere, and their visual absence evokes and precludes efforts to stereotype them. Though its aesthetic is spare, Foyer is as rich a conjuring of off-screen space and the tenors of the human voice that fill it as any movie I’ve seen in years. And in embracing the most elemental of cinematic figures, it obviates the features that separate peoples and cultures, just as it dissolves distinctions between film and digital.
Guillermo Moncayo, Event Horizon, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 16 minutes.
Guillermo Moncayo’s Event Horizon is an equally evocative visual experience. A somewhat philosophical and poetic text is superimposed, modeled on “nineteenth-century ethnography and colonialist travel literature,” but the central image embodies the adventurous spirit the work documents and celebrates. At what seems an infinite distance we detect a white speck, so tiny it might pass for a spot on the screen, which slowly grows and approaches the foreground—or seems to as the camera moves toward it, so deftly is this done. We perceive a low canopied boat illuminated by a single swinging lamp. Floating silently through impenetrable darkness, its pilot only glimpsed, it is a stunning metaphor of the mind’s journey into the unknown. But as the text asserts, the enlightenment exploration produces has a dual effect: Myths are dispelled, but such clarity coincides with the evaporation of a people.
Watching Dane Komljen’s All the Cities of the North, a feature production of Serbia/Bosnia-Herzogovina/Montenegro, it’s difficult not to think of the work of Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov. As the latter does in Spiritual Voices (1995) and Confession (1998), Komljen exhibits a predilection for long takes, somber monologic voiceover, indifference to narrative drive, a vaguely defined sociopolitical situation, and long silences, all laced with a lyrical but subtle homoeroticism. The multinational pedigree of Komljen’s work lends itself to the fantasy that brotherly love can overcome social, ethnic, religious, and political barriers. An absence of distinctive data about the men reinforces this impression. No conflict, no drama, no rising or falling action, no climax shapes or intrudes upon the evenness of the everyday and, given the many shots of men sleeping harmoniously side by side, the apparent peace that pervades the atmosphere.
Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge, a feature of similarly mixed pedigree, is also enamored of long takes by a camera at once blunt, invasive, and indifferent to its assortment of people in Argentina, Brazil, and Portugal going about mundane tasks amid impoverished environs or lackluster employment with hardly a thought about future prospects, yet wired to the outer world via phones. Like so many contemporary moving-image artists in the developing world, Williams seems more committed to what might be called the anti-aesthetic aesthetic of Philippine director Lav Diaz than to the pictorial lyricism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Dane Komljen, Svi severni gradovi (All the Cities of the North), 2016, digital video, color, sound, 100 minutes.
Near the end of Indefinite Pitch, an award-winning digital work by James N. Kienitz Wilkins, a narrator (Wilkins?) says he’s tired of movies, that too many people are making movies. Is this work then not just not film, but not a movie? Is it anti-movie? The black-and-white stills, silvery actually, of the Androscoggin river in New England are certainly lustrous, and other artists have made movies, even films dominated by still images. But for this viewer they are a thing apart from the voiceover monologue, which plays, a bit too cavalierly in my judgment, with facts, time, history, American culture, racism, anxiety, deception, and finally itself—all in the spirit of the age of Wikipedia. I’m betting that lurking somewhere deep in his unconscious, the talented Wilkins harbors a passion for the medium that lies beyond strained irony.
In Rosa Barba’s Bending to Earth aerial shots of geometrically shaped mounds are occasionally crosscut with shots of natural cliff formations and landscapes—the layered terrain of the latter marking the ages of the earth, ironically and soberly contrasted with the unnaturally ordered shapes covering acres or miles, containing toxic radioactive material and designed to last undisturbed into the indefinite future. The miniscule shadow of a helicopter as it surveys these “time capsules” is itself a metaphor for how insignificant human concerns appear in the light of what technology has wrought.
Mention must be made of Brigid McCaffrey’s oddly lyrical Bad mama, who cares, in which 35-mm shots of local and industrial sites and railroad yards share screen time with close-ups of an old woman, at one point rendered cubistically as an apt subject of geological study. Also Rosalind Nashashibi’s Electrical Gaza, which combines documentary footage of Gaza with computer animations that subvert them to reflect political realities; Janie Geiser’s Flowers of the Sky, which continues this filmmaker’s fascinating meld of archival photographs and botanical cutouts conjuring a dream of history altogether unique and personal; Stephen Sutcliffe’s charming and witty Edwardian fantasy Twixt Cup and Lip; Jesse McLean’s affecting See a Dog, Hear a Dog; and Luke Fowler’s For Christian, a lovely portrait of composer Christian Wolff playing and discussing brief piano passages over serene bucolic images of his New England home.
The fifty-fourth New York Film Festival’s Projections sidebar runs October 7 through 9 at the Film Society at Lincoln Center.
Michael Cimino, Heaven's Gate, 1980, 35 mm, color, sound, 219 minutes.
IT WAS PERHAPS INEVITABLE that a Michael Cimino retrospective would pop up in the wake of the filmmaker’s death at age seventy-seven in June, but something along the lines of BAMcinématek’s nine-film Cimino series might very well been in the works regardless. After a career that, in the balance, was filled with more setbacks than triumphs, Cimino had recently been the subject of a rehabilitation effort. In 2012 his epic Heaven’s Gate (1980), whose over-budget shoot, box-office failure, and key role in the foundering of United Artists studio had effectively derailed Cimino’s until-then charmed professional life, was vindicated with the imprimatur of the Criterion Collection, accompanied by journalistic reappraisals like that of the Village Voice, which suggested the movie “Maybe Was a Masterpiece All Along.” Last year Cimino appeared in a jaunty mood at the Locarno Film Festival to receive a lifetime achievement honor, briefly serenading the crowd at the Piazza Grande with Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” memorably featured in his The Deer Hunter (1978).
Cimino’s final feature film is the twenty-year-old Sunchaser, a failure by virtually every measure that a movie could fail by. After Heaven’s Gate and the accompanying stigma, he returned to work sporadically beginning with Year of the Dragon (1985), an overcooked policier starring Mickey Rourke as a Brooklyn Pole assigned to duty in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where he sets about breaking up the conspiracy of silence around the triad gangs and starts up an affair with a reporter played by model-cum-stiff-line-reader Ariane. To a very large degree, however, Cimino’s reputation would continue to rest on his output of the 1970s, turned out during a brief moment when he appeared to have the Midas Touch.
He was raised in a comfortably well-off Italian-American family in Old Westbury, Long Island—this much, at least, is certain. Cimino’s own accounting of his biography has to be taken with a grain of salt—his reports of his Vietnam service, after the success of The Deer Hunter, buckled under scrutiny, and his birthdate was long a matter of some dispute—but he has stated that his mother was a costume designer and his father a music publisher who worked with marching bands. This would make some sense, for among the most consistent features of his work are an interest in the American immigrant experience and a love of pomp and ceremony: funerals (Year of the Dragon has three), weddings (the Russian Orthodox blowout that opens The Deer Hunter), and dances (the Harvard graduation ceremony and big-tent hoedowns in Heaven’s Gate). Another consistent item is a rather nasty view of women—it’s tempting to call Cimino a misogynist, though I’m not sure he was sufficiently interested in women to actually hate them, notwithstanding reports in a 2000 Vanity Fair profile that he was planning to launch his own brand of ladies’ blue jeans.
Cimino moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Yale with an MFA in painting, and turned his visual arts background into a career in the commercial field, directing ad spots, and made inroads into screenwriting from there. Two films on which he shared script credit, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) and Magnum Force (1973), the second screen outing for Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan, will play BAM. The latter, on which Cimino collaborated with fellow director-to-be and gun fancier John Milius, is a roundly impersonal and dirty-effective little directed-by-committee number that has Harry going Internal Affairs, confronting a rogue, clandestine unit within the San Francisco Police Department. It’s no masterpiece, but well understands the basic laws of Harry’s firm, measured conduct in a firefight, “a model of Apollonian restraint next to the Dionysian incontinence of his enemies,” per the critic Dave Kehr.
Michael Cimino, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes.
Eastwood gave Cimino his big break, co-starring with Jeff Bridges in the Cimino-scripted-and-directed Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), produced by Eastwood’s Malposo company. A wryly funny, strangely sweet road movie built around the chance partnership of a greenhorn crook and an old hand (Bridges and Eastwood, respectively) looking for a big score, it has a real feel for the contemporary west—Cimino would always favor Albert Bierstadtesque landscapes fringed with whitecap mountains—and the ceremonies of masculine ribbing. Until his 1990 Desperate Hours, a remake of a 1955 William Wyler home-invasion thriller starring Rourke and Anthony Hopkins, terribly miscast as a Vietnam vet baseball buff, it’s certainly Cimino’s most reigned-in undertaking, content to suggest rather than belabor. In fact, it’s the only wholly satisfactory movie that he ever directed.
The Deer Hunter, of course, was the film that garnered all of the prestige—like Coming Home, the same year it was received as having lifted a moratorium of silence around the national trauma of Vietnam, though in fact disreputable drive-in pictures like Welcome Home, Soldier Boys (1972) and Deathdream (1974) had been the real point men. The film’s first act, set in a Monongahela Valley, Pennsylvania mill town but mostly shot in the precincts of Cleveland, has a gorgeous Ashcan School grit as shot by the prodigiously gifted Vilmos Zsigmond, but the “In the shit” passages are flatly bogus, and the blue-collar vamping is embarrassing when placed next to really coal-dusted Keystone State–set films like George Romero’s Martin (1977) or Wanda (1970), whose director, Barbara Loden, got a lot less chances at the brass ring than did the eternally snakebitten Cimino.
As to Heaven’s Gate, Cimino’s nearly four-hour retelling of the circumstances around the Johnson County War that rocked rural Wyoming during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, it is every bit the rough going that its reputation would suggest. Cimino is at his best when indulging his ethnographic impulse, re-enacting the rites of the new Mitteleuropean immigrants in the no-longer-so-wide-open west, and he has an undeniable enthusiasm for violence—in his hands a conflict that resulted in a couple of dozen fatalities is shot as the Battle of the Somme, with lots of lip-smackingly gory vignettes. Whenever he has less than a four score of background actors at his command, however, things get dicey. In laying out the triangular relationship between Walken, Kris Kristofferson, and Isabelle Huppert, Cimino follows an impulse to draw every scene out into a “moment,” then drizzling the results with David Mansfield’s treacly soundtrack. The aim appears to be American Visconti, but the result is an abiding monotony that is something like being force-fed lyricism as a goose is prepared for foie gras. The financial catastrophe that followed the movie’s release is often cited as one of the death blows dealt to so-called “New Hollywood” which, legend has it, had given heretofore-unknown, unchecked clout to the director-artist, though as a filmmaker Cimino is rather closer to another bombastic commercial-director-turned-imagist-auteur, Ridley Scott, and his failure to eventually transition into the snowblind 1980s of Bruckheimer and Don Simpson is in many respects baffling.
Heaven’s Gate, shot in spittoon tones by Zsigmond, does have its share of indelible images. With the exception of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Cimino is better as a crafter or grace notes than entire movies: the bunkhouse bristling with bodies in Heaven’s Gate, the dumb-drunk basketball court scene in The Deer Hunter, the death of a punkette gun moll buffeted between cabs and left splayed in the street in Year of the Dragon. Among contemporary filmmakers, he reminds me of another director with a very strong visual sense who is highly capable of producing distinctive standalone images, but shows little ability to ground those images in a larger emotional framework: Zack Snyder.
While the reassessment of Cimino continues apace—and has long been underway in Europe—he by no means has shed his notoriety as a cautionary tale of ego run amok. In this respect it is fitting that his most consistent collaborator in his latter days was Rourke, to whom he gave an early speaking role in Heaven’s Gate, and who, like Cimino, also underwent a significant cosmetic transformation that almost certainly adversely effected his professional standing. Cimino himself might have preferred to identify with another “Roark”—Howard, that is—the architect protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, which he had hoped to adapt throughout his life. (And which, oddly enough, has longtime been a passion project of Snyder’s.) A more instructive point of comparison might be Cimino’s elder and onetime benefactor, Eastwood, who at no point has displayed an overwhelming genius for film form, but through dint of hard-headedness, economy, and solid nuts-and-bolts fundamentals has turned out a dozen or more films of the first order, including one just released in his eighty-sixth year. It comes down, again, to the old issue of “Apollonian restraint” and “Dionysian incontinence.”
Watching Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, it’s tempting to read an autobiographical note into the mentor-student relationship that Cimino develops between Eastwood’s taciturn Thunderbolt and Bridges’s fresh-faced, cocksure Lightfoot, introduced gabbing with a car dealer who taunts, “I don’t know if you’re man enough to take on a car like this,” a note of ribbing that will recur throughout. The feeling for youthful braggadocio and quiet adulation here have a tenderness and earnestness that’s absent from the small, slight Cimino’s later films, with their recourse to callous, tough-guy postures, and it all makes for a fine, tender movie deeply cut from the American grain, with its amber waves, hidden treasure in a one-room schoolhouse, and sense of the schoolboy’s anxiety about measuring up against the big men he wants to become. And in this film, at least, Cimino more than measured up.
EVERY GENERATION SHOULD HAVE A ROAD HOUSE OF ITS OWN—a gamy little refuge on the outskirts of good taste, reeking of smoke, liquor, cheap music, oiled pecs, pin-up legs, clenched fists, paperback sex, bad blood, and bad hair. The 1948 and 1989 films claiming that title have just been separately but almost simultaneously reissued on disc: Sharing naught but a commitment to period-specific cheese/beefcake and endearing/enduring tawdriness, these lean-to Road Houses represent an all-American continuum. Jim Morrison encapsulated their lowdown philosophies in the Doors’s “Road House Blues” (1970): “I woke up this morning and got myself a beer / The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” Weltschmerz rendered as a tramp stamp—Road House as perennially inebriated, eternally recurring state of mind.
The 1948 variant finds cagey Ida Lupino in full-blown tough-dame form, essaying a down-on-her-luck saloon singer who is hired to play at an upscale dive called Jefty’s. Its eponymous owner (a disconcertingly boyish, ungainly, high-pitched Richard Widmark) has given it a hunting-lodge décor, with an upright piano stationed near the bar like a lookout post. Her Lily Stevens’s hard-bitten big number, “One for My Baby,” leapfrogs later treatments by Sinatra and Billie Holiday to foreshadow the retro-barfly world of early Tom “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” Waits. Lupino’s thin, toneless rasp is spiky as a raw oyster dropped in a Bloody Mary, but the key to the mise-en-scenery is that the bar adjoins a bowling alley—how do you say “gutter ball” in culture-speak? Using bowling instruction as sexual sublimation, its leagues ahead of the Big Lebowski in appreciating the hands-on erotic potential of the working stiff’s sport.
A film noir as much by association as affect, the picture is dominated by Lupino as a shapeshifter who can quick-change from neorealist survivor to siren in tight shorts and exclamation-points bra, making for quite a self-possessed contrast with hunky, flustered love interest Cornell Wilde. He is constantly sweating testosterone bullets even while fussing over the cigarette burns she carelessly leaves on the furniture. As Pete, Jefty’s lifelong underclass buddy and brotherly protector, he runs the joint even as his spoiled-rotten pal sometimes treats him like a glorified pin monkey. Wilde’s pent-up virtuousness and sleek physique are tinged with jumpy neuroticism, a North Country Tarzan raised by Presbyterians instead of apes.
Directed in uniformly efficient fashion by Jean Negulesco (a Jack-of-all-genres Romanian émigré), the plot sets up the standard romantic-triangle offense. Jefty figures he’s entitled to Lily (finders keepers), leaving Pete to “look after” her while he goes on a hunting trip to work up the nerve to propose. Pete and Lily immediately rub each other the wrong way, meaning sparks fly, plans to elope are quickly made, and the third-wheel pal/suitor will not take it well. (But are Jefty and Pete fighting over Lily, or is Pete the real crux of the tug of affections between J. and Lily?) Throwing a jealous snit fit, Jefty frames Pete for embezzlement; the twist is that he then gets Pete’s sentence suspended and has the poor Schmoe paroled into his sadistic custody.
The last act, where Pete and Lily decide to make a desperation run for it, has a headlong, rushed quality—melodrama erupts in a cackling burst, like Widmark’s daffy psycho laugh. His last gasp, after Lily finally shoots him, alone earns the film’s place in noir history: “I told you she was different,” he grins, as if toasting the bride at the wedding reception. From there, Widmark went on to greater roles, Wilde carved out a solid second-string niche for himself (eventually directing a few fascinating B pictures), but Lupino somehow got stuck as a permanently underappreciated figure who flirted with greatness—a woman with the backbone of Barbara Stanwyck, who went against the grain of 1940s and ’50s conventions, and showed terrific promise as a director herself without ever breaking through Hollywood’s misogynist type-caste system. By the ’60s, she was doing guest shots on Batman and directing episodes of Gilligan’s Island. That’s Hollywood’s reward for being “different.” Or growing older while being a woman.
A pity there wasn’t an early-’70s House party to go with the Doors’s readymade title song. By the late ’80s, it fell to producer Joel Silver (who had just hit his ultra-commercial stride, having launched the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises) to pluck a former gaffer with the unlikely moniker Rowdy Harrington from obscurity and task him with the direction of a Road House to fit the steroid-injected times. It would be pitched over the top of Top Gun, a slamdance of every reluctant-hero macho cliché taken to the far edge of an R-rating. Dirty Dancing heartthrob Patrick Swayze would incarnate Dalton, the stoic samurai-like “cooler” who is charged with cleaning up a dirtiest bar this side of Sodom. This means disrupting the criminal idyll of Ben Gazzara’s millionaire madman, a Midwestern baron who brags that he brought J.C. Penney to his Gomorra’s shopping mall. (Very civic minded for a bloodthirsty, tyrannical maniac.)
So what we get is not so much the quintessential ’80s formula movie but a stainless steel shaker into which a shot of every formula floating around Hollywood has been deposited: Shane and the Man with No Name, redneck drive-in villainy and Dukes of Hazzard comic relief, romantic posturing and music video boogaloo (stiff extras dancing in lockstep abandon: Disney’s High School Musical if it included shirtless cokeheads), mock existentialism (Dalton has a philosophy degree from NYU) and pseudo-spirituality (he practices shirtless Tai Chi, embodying the Tao of a Playgirl centerfold). Bouffant mullets meet monster trucks and Elvis karate moves, with Dalton picking up Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall for some cozy bedtime reading after a hard night’s head bashing.
Through sheer muscular density of clichés, every shoehorned element achieves an almost seamless equilibrium. Here the male gaze registers as a continuous series of double takes: ogling Dalton’s gaping knife wound while he hands the hot emergency room doctor the copy of his medical records he always carries with him (along with a trunk full of spare tires, because he knows they’ll be slashed at work); surveying the “room” Dalton rents above a bearded geezer’s barn, laid out like a rusticated Manhattan loft in an Architecture Digest spread; savoring the Three Stooges interlude where Gazzara chews out and punches a hapless henchman; gawking at the sizzling man-on-man riverbank action between a blood-frothing killer (“I used to fuck guys like you in prison”) and our whitebread Narcissus (“Go fuck yourself”). The former’s throat is ripped out, by way of a money shot.
As director, Harrington’s contribution is much like Dalton’s: the cooler who tries to tamp down Silver’s most boorish, pandering impulses. (He is the rare director who declares the edited-for-commercial-TV version of his movie, shorn of gratuitous crudeness, is closer to his personal vision of the film.) But he wasn’t shy about heaping on the brutality and titillation, merely injecting a dimension of raised-eyebrow cartoonishness to soften the overkill. This pastiche is all about embracing the contradictory. Dead serious yet patently harebrained, Road House can be read as an outlandishly populist version of the Coen Brothers aesthetic. But as the Coens were then still in the process of forming that aesthetic, and weighing the role Sam Elliott plays in Road House against his more arch manifestation in The Big Lebowski, would it be terribly remiss to call Lebowski a Road House for the arthouses?
Studded with Dalton pearls like “Pain don’t hurt,” Road House deserves more probing audio commentaries than the tepid ones Harrington or aged fanboys Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier provide. Fortunately, by the grace of the Mystery Science Theater spinoff known as Rifftrax, the film’s mysteries are delved and parsed with a thoroughness both anthropological and theological. Originally “riffed” by Mike Nelson ten years ago, a new three-man gloss underlines and footnotes the movie’s sublime nonsensicality: “Well, the place might be a Thunderdome-like hell den, but there is plenty of parking.” “God, Ben Gazzara and my mother have the same taste in bathrobes.” “Shoutout to the band for having the presence of mind to switch to fun fight music.” “He’s wearin’ his fuchsia fightin’ blouse!”
Supposedly a reboot of the 1989 version is, or was, in the works, starring Rhonda Rousey and written/directed by Nick Cassavetes. The idea of mixed-martial arts fighter Rousey is almost too perfect, but I’d rather see a David Mamet or Neil LaBute—either of whom could use a comeback vehicle about now—grab the purple creative reins and ride that mechanized bull into the Twilight of the Whup-Ass Gods.