Phil Collins, Tomorrow Is Always Too Long, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 82 minutes.
LURKING IN THE SHADOW of the Frieze Art Fair and relegated to the very back pages of the print catalogue of the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival was Experimenta, an assembly of nineteen programs devoted to experimental cinema and artists’ film and video. Curated for the second year running by LUX’s Benjamin Cook and the BFI’s Helen de Witt and William Fowler, the sidebar showcased some sixty-two works varying in length, ranging from productions with crews the size of a Sundance darling to films made by a single individual in the artisanal mode long associated with avant-garde cinema.
Indeed, the breadth of the program captured the extent to which “artists’ moving image”—seemingly the preferred term in the contemporary UK context—today encompasses not only a plurality of formal and conceptual approaches, but also strikingly different financing structures and modes of production. In Britain this sector is witnessing a clear push toward bigger budgets and longer running times, coming as much from art-world interest as it does from the changed funding policies of an organization like FLAMIN (the Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network), which now offers awards of between £20,000 and £50,000 ($32,000 and $80,000) to a handful of large-scale projects rather than disbursing a greater number of more modest grants.
One outcome of this is the “artists’ feature film,” an entity that must be distinguished from the established tradition of long-form experimental filmmaking not only due to its mode of production but also its crossover aspirations. Features like Emily Wardill’s When You Fall into a Trance (2014) and Phil Collins’s Tomorrow Is Always Too Long (2014) cultivated distinct alliances with conventional genre cinema: Wardill offered a family melodrama complete with a teenage suicide attempt, while Collins staged Glaswegian musical numbers not unlike those found in Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl (2014). If one had not known their makers to be fine artists, the presence of these films within the Experimenta strand would have been somewhat perplexing, particularly given that works far more challenging and daring—to name only two, Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before (2014) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage (2014)—were shown elsewhere in the festival. This is not to suggest that Diaz and Godard would have been better accommodated in Experimenta, but simply to point to how thoroughly the parameters of “artists’ moving image” have been transformed in recent years.
Despite this tendency, it was striking how many of the program’s most outstanding films revisited the history of a more artisanal way of working and testified to its ongoing viability. Robert Beavers’s Listening to the Space in My Room (2013) is an intimate account of self-transformation that retains his mastery of craft while integrating a joy and tenderness not always present in his earlier films. Works by younger filmmakers such as Mary Helena Clark (The Dragon Is the Frame ) and Sylvia Schedelbauer (Sea of Vapors ) engage with established paradigms of experimental film—the diary film and the flicker film, respectively—without feeling slavishly bound to their iterations by preceding generations. Clark’s beautiful memorial to her friend, artist Mark Aguhar, wanders through the San Francisco area, past the locations of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), searching for answers but finding only reminders of loss. Schedelbauer, meanwhile, mesmerizes the viewer with pulsating confusions of scale that turn the human face into landscape and vice-versa. Margaret Honda’s Spectrum Reverse Spectrum (2014) is a cameraless 70-mm film made at FotoKem in Burbank, California, the only lab in the world that continues to process the format. By using color-timing tape to control the opening and closing of the red-green-blue valves, Honda immerses the viewer in a passage across the visible light spectrum, from violet to red and back again, producing a spectacular effect through simple means.
Emily Wardill, When You Fall into a Trance, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 72 minutes.
The clear highlight of the archival selections—and indeed, one of the highlights of the festival as a whole—was “Meditations from Our Lady of the Angels,” a program of eleven films from Los Angeles recently restored by Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive. Toscano’s peerless selection included impeccable presentations of classics like Morgan Fisher’s Projection Instructions (1976) and Chick Strand’s Kristallnacht (1979), as well as world premieres of the Academy preservations of three very different, but very accomplished films: Amy Halpern’s Invocation (1982), Pat O’Neill’s Coreopsis (1998), and Penelope Spheeris’s I Don’t Know (1970). When Toscano describes I Don’t Know as a “truly major work” in his program notes, he makes no overstatement. An almost-unclassifiable documentary portrait of the relationship between the transgendered Jimmie and Linda, who identifies as a lesbian, the film is a moving, playful, and lingering early work from a woman best known as the director of Wayne’s World (1992).
Spheeris’s unorthodox documentary resonates with a major strand of contemporary practice, one that received deservedly strong representation in Experimenta: the engagement with complex contaminations of reality and fiction. Ben Russell’s Atlantis (2014) is a twenty-minute film shot on Malta that explores the enduring myth of the island utopia as imagined both by Plato and by a 1970s American television series. Judith Schalansky has written in her Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, “An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature.” Atlantis interrogates this space of fabulation without ever leaving the real island behind, finding itself caught between a portrait of place and the conjuring of a drowned paradise. Eric Baudelaire’s justly celebrated Letters to Max (2014) also confronts the tension between the real and the imagined, albeit in a very different register. Baudelaire addresses the problematic of the nation as imagined community through epistolary correspondence with Maxim Gvinjia, the former minister of foreign affairs of Abkhazia, a largely unrecognized state that seceded from Georgia in the 1992–93 civil war. The simplicity of Baudelaire’s letters belie his sophisticated knowledge of the region and deep engagement with questions of nationhood, facts that become evident through the film’s deft deployment of the relations among sound, image, and text. Some might see Letters to Max as fitting into the paradigm of the essay film, and in certain ways it does. But it departs from many of the conventions that have lately been deployed with such frequency, such that the mode has calcified into an all too recognizable genre. The essay is by definition something that challenges established categories and gambles on experimental forms; beyond all those who seek to ventriloquize Marker and Resnais, Letters to Max remains faithful to these aims and reveals the enormous potential that resides in doing so.
Joining Letters to Max in this desire to think within and beyond the essay film was Harun Farocki’s last completed work, Parallel I–IV (2012–14). This series continues the late filmmaker’s longstanding investigation into the rise of calculable, actionable images possessing a relationship to reality very different than that of the cinema before them. Tracing the evolution of video game graphics from the two-dimensional schematics of the early 1980s to the photorealistic environments of today, Farocki foregoes the obsession with novelty that too often characterizes discussions of so-called “new” media, instead situating games within a longer history of representation. The Parallel series is a major achievement that exemplifies a key attribute of a singular practice cut far too short: Farocki joins poetic speculation with analytical strength to call upon the viewer not simply to look and listen carefully, but also to think along with him. The closing title of Laure Prouvost’s How To Make Money Religiously (2014) offered excellent advice for Parallel I–IV and many other works of this year’s Experimenta: “MULTIPLE VIEWINGS ARE RECOMMENDED.”
“Experimenta” ran October 8–19 at the British Film Institute in London.
Production still from Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day, 1913. Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams.
“I THINK THEY DIDN’T release it because it wasn’t racist enough,” said Ron Magliozzi, associate curator in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, before a press preview of assembled footage of a movie shot in 1913 but ultimately abandoned—the earliest surviving feature-length production with a black cast. The stunning rushes for this work—a lively project devoid of many (though not all) bigoted grotesqueries—are being presented as part of MoMA’s twelfth annual film-preservation program “To Save and Project”; this particular rescue mission has an exceptionally long history. These seven reels were part of a trove of materials acquired by Iris Barry, MoMA’s founding film curator, from the Biograph Studio’s Bronx facilities shortly before their destruction in 1939.
Though never titled at the time, MoMA is calling the unfinished film Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day, in reference to its lead, the Bahamian-born actor who was the best-known black entertainer of the era (and who appeared in only a few movies, making his central role here all the more remarkable). During the roughly one hour of unedited material (for which no inter-titles were found), Williams is established as a banjo-playing boulevardier and con man vying for the attentions of the neighborhood beauty (played by Odessa Warren Gray, once a prominent milliner, according to Magliozzi). The couple attends the annual picnic and ball sponsored by the titular fraternal organization for the town’s black residents; Williams and his date eat ice cream, share a lollipop on a carousel, and, later that night at the Lime Kiln Club, take part in a fancy-dress cakewalk. (Cultural critic Margo Jefferson, during a brief panel discussion before the screening, wittily compared this dance number to “a Don Cornelius Soul Train moment” and more broadly noted the scene’s “proud élan.”) As the suitor walks his lady home, the film concludes with the two of them kissing—a bit of romance between a black man and a black woman played not for laughs, as was almost always the case at the time, but as an honest expression of love. (The moment is anomalous not just for 1913; throughout the next several decades, black actors would rarely be permitted to display any affection on screen.)
Despite this and other singular traits of the film—notably the cast’s ease and camaraderie with the two white directors, Edwin Middleton and T. Hayes Hunter, and other white crew members, glimpsed during the rushes and in the production stills that line MoMA’s theater-lobby galleries—the project is not without egregious stereotypes. Williams performs in blackface; the sign for the book-lined room of the Lime Kiln Club announces it as “De Libray.” In the prescreening panel, Magliozzi—who, with another MoMA colleague, led the team that spent the past decade identifying as much as possible about the production—emphasized that he didn’t want to further exacerbate these painful incidents during the assembling of the footage: “We felt like we were trapping these performers in a minstrel narrative...Being white curators, we missed things.” (Keen to hear others’ observations, Magliozzi asked Jacqueline Stewart, a leading scholar of African American cinema, and social-practice artist Theaster Gates to also look at the footage.) Flickering on a screen a century-plus later, the actors are, at the very least, no longer confined to an even greater ignominy: being forgotten.
The world-premiere presentation of the assembled rushes for Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day will take place on November 8 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the film-preservation festival “To Save and Project,” which runs through November 22. “100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History” is on view in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater Lobby Galleries at MoMA through March 2015.
Albert Serra, Story of My Death, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 148 minutes.
ALBERT SERRA’S STORY OF MY DEATH (2013) animates the past with glinting life. Serra, a thirty-nine-year-old Catalonian, focuses on a corpulent, decaying, half-mad Casanova (Vicenç Altaió) who spends his waning days in a Swiss castle admiring himself—and younger women. He leads a group of followers on a trip to a sunlit pastoral setting where no less forbidding a figure than Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) awaits them. The group succumbs to vampirism within a film whose nighttime images often hover on the precipice of visibility. We witness the spectacle of an older world burning out like a candle on its way to being replaced by times that could prove even darker.
Story of My Death won the Golden Leopard at last year’s Locarno International Film Festival and will begin its US theatrical premiere run November 20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Story also recently headlined a Serra retrospective at the fourteenth edition of Brazil’s Indie Festival, an exciting program of contemporary film offered to audiences both in São Paulo and in Belo Horizonte. We observed the honing of Serra’s methods prior to Story, in works like Quixotic/Honor de Cavalleria (2006) and Birdsong (2008). Serra typically adapts canonical source material (Don Quixote, the Bible) into low-budget, largely improvised films with nonprofessional actors wandering across vivid landscapes, lost within a fragile present.
At first glance, Serra’s films seemed strikingly different from those of this year’s other Indie retrospective recipient, the sixty-seven-year-old, US-born and France-naturalized Eugène Green. While Serra transforms literary characters, Green depicts contemporary people seeking texts by which to live. In fiction films such as Le Pont des Arts (2004) and The Portuguese Nun (2009), the longtime writer and theater director presents ensembles of aspiring and established actors, artists, authors, and musicians who engage one another with the hopes of filling empty spiritual lives, and who choose to do so in the most controlled ways that they can. A typical Green scene alternates between two people, each in his or her own fixed frame, each formally and precisely reciting his or her thoughts to the other and to the film’s viewers.
Green’s latest, La Sapienza (2014)—which premiered at this year’s edition of Locarno and will be released in the US early next year—offers many such moments. The film’s four main characters form mirrored pairs, with two middle-aged, malaise-stricken French spouses seeing reflections of themselves in younger Italian counterparts they meet abroad. All four seek other people’s histories to stand in for their own. The two men together devote themselves to studying architecture, and the Frenchman (Fabrizio Rongione) turns his attention toward the work of Francesco Borromini, whose Baroque edifices express a designed perfection that he desires for his own inner life.
Green, like Serra, finds beauty in human mortality. Something similar could be said of two other filmmakers represented in the Indie program, both with works that function as moving, sensorial autobiography. The first is twenty-seven-year-old Argentine Eduardo “Teddy” Williams, a brilliant crafter of lively, semistaged short films in which young male friends joyfully explore towns and cities together. I Forgot! (2014) catches a bantering group of youth whose members race around Hanoi roads and streets that appear in fleeting, pleasurably unfamiliar ways, as though all the young men—including Williams—were savoring these grounds for the very first time.
Eighty-one-year-old New Yorker Ken Jacobs knows the Brooklyn Bridge well but finds new ways to render it in A Primer in Sky Socialism (2013), a silent 3-D revisitation of his earlier film The Sky Socialist (1964) that uses a succession of stills to render the bridge as he and his wife Flo see it on New Year’s Eve. For more than fifty years, Jacobs has sought new ways to depict human figures. Here, warm reds and greens surround streams of celebrants, who appear as happy blurs of light.
The fourteenth Indie Festival ran September 3–10 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and September 17–October 1 in São Paulo.
Gregg Araki, White Bird in a Blizzard, 2014, color, sound, 91 minutes. Kat Connor, Beth, and Mickey (Shailene Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe, and Mark Indelicato).
GREGG ARAKI FOLLOWED his 1992 breakthrough, The Living End, one of the foundational titles of the New Queer Cinema, with what he called his “teenage apocalypse trilogy”: Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997). Yet in the seventeen years since the final entry of that triptych, Araki has rarely strayed from the theme of adolescents or young people confronting the end of the world. Sometimes the planet quite literally blows up, as in 2010’s Kaboom. In Araki’s latest, the uneven White Bird in a Blizzard—which he adapted from Laura Kasischke’s 1999 novel of the same name—what shatters is the complacent facade of a San Bernardino, California, family, the shards collected and sifted through by the adolescent daughter of miserably married suburban parents.
“I was seventeen when my mother disappeared,” Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley) says in voice-over as the film opens in the fall/winter of 1988. Mom, named Eve and played by Eva Green, is seen in flashback and in Kat’s dream sequences, a shellacked, stay-at-home beauty slowly unraveling from the hate she feels toward her timid husband (Christopher Meloni) and from a life in which the only creative outlet is preparing crab thermidor. Araki does little to shape this mad housewife into more than a rough sketch of camp flourishes; Eve is made even more absurd by the wildly rampaging accent of the French-born, London-trained Green.
Grounding White Bird in a Blizzard and providing its warmth, however, is Woodley, who, earlier this year, starred in two high-profile adaptation of YA novels: the dystopic Divergent (depicting another kind of teen apocalypse) and the weepie The Fault in Our Stars. Born in 1991, Woodley has been acting since she was eight—the same age that Joseph Gordon-Levitt (born in 1980), the star of Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004), was when he began his career. As Mysterious Skin did for Gordon-Levitt, White Bird marks a major transition for Woodley, calling on her to reveal a sexual confidence and hunger previously tamed or elided.
“Whatever—can we just stop talking and fuck?” Kat asks of her dim boyfriend, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez). The teenager may follow through on the police department’s suggestion that she see a therapist (Angela Bassett, always a boon no matter how itty-bitty her part) after her mother vanishes, but Kat is not bereaved, unable, at first, to mourn for someone who had already seemed long gone. No grief dampens her concupiscence; she easily beds the taurine, middle-aged cop (Thomas Jane) assigned to her mother’s case. In that same bed three years later, when Kat is home on break from Berkeley, the detective will tell her what he really thinks happened to her mom—a revelation that may seem inevitable but that nonetheless causes the young protagonist to completely reassess her image of both her mother and herself. Araki’s ending to White Bird is a radical departure from that in the source novel (which I haven’t read), apparently, and will not surprise anyone who’s seen any of his films before. What is unexpected—and ultimately moving—is the director’s deep empathy for and curiosity about the impossibly fraught nature of relationships between mothers and daughters. He may bungle the topic often in White Bird, especially in Eve’s outlandish caricature, but the final minutes of the film disclose a profound filial reckoning.
White Bird in a Blizzard opens in limited release on October 24.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse, 1986–90, still from a TV show on CBS. Cowboy Curtis and Pee-wee Herman (Laurence Fishburne and Paul Reubens).
PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE ran for five critically acclaimed seasons on CBS Saturday mornings from 1986 to 1990, producing a grand total of forty-five episodes. The third season was limited to two episodes by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. After the fifth season, burned out by the workaday grind of the production, Paul Reubens, the creator of the Pee-wee Herman character and star of the show, put the character on hiatus. (The attrition is even evident in the product—the series finale is a clips show!) When, in the following summer of 1991, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure while leaving the XXX South Trail Cinema in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida, the widely circulated mug shot showed that he’d grown Pee-wee’s close-cropped black hair out long and ratty.
Reubens’s career as a children’s performer was ignominiously ended, and in the aftermath of his public yank, his show, winner of twenty-two Emmy awards, was unceremoniously yanked from reruns. Nevertheless, the dear, sweet, vulnerable children couldn’t be retroactively protected from the deviant entertainment that they’d already been submitted to, and the influence of the Playhouse on impressionable minds has in subsequent years proved to be inestimable. In 2010, Reubens returned to the stage as Pee-wee, playing for an audience undoubtedly comprising in large part grown-up kids whom he’d helped to raise, and in a recent Rolling Stone interview, he alluded to Pee-wee’s forthcoming return to the big screen. And now, courtesy of Shout Factory, the entire run of Pee-wee’s Playhouse is available with heretofore-unseen image quality on eight Blu-ray discs—a fresh opportunity to contemplate what a strange and remarkable thing this show actually was.
Shortly after the story of Reubens’s public humiliation broke, Dennis Miller, manning the desk of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” cracked that “Pee-wee Herman finally reached puberty.” In his gray glen plaid suit and red bow tie, Pee-wee had the aspect of a boy who’d been dressed up as a little gentleman by some doting parent with a bizarre idea of decorum. He was, of course, a grown man, though his waxy make-up job gave him a preternaturally smooth complexion. (While removing a whipped-cream beard: “I’m shaving just like daddy.”) He lived in the titular Playhouse, where darn near every object from floor to chair to window was anthropomorphized, with no real adult supervision but with a pet Pterodactyl, Pterri, and Jambi (both John Paragon), a downright swishy genie in a box.
While Pee-wee was distinctly presexual, the show was rife with elements associated with gay camp. In a 2012 essay, “Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp,” the queer writer and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce places Pee-wee Herman in the category of “Subversive Camp,” alongside “Roddy McDowell’s Tam Lin” and “Brett Anderson of Suede.” In the first season of Playhouse, Pee-wee is keeping company with Dixie, a butch lady cab-driver; Mrs. Steve, a houseboat-size neighbor woman made up like a drag queen (Shirley Stoler, star of family-friendly fare like Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties and The Honeymoon Killers), and an absolutely ripped pool boy named Tito, never seen with a shirt. (In the second season, when the show moved from New York to Los Angeles, he was replaced by the no-less-handsome-but-slightly-more-clothed Ricardo.) In the show’s 1988 Christmas Special, a veritable parade of gay icons stops by the Playhouse to pay homage to Pee-wee, including Joan Rivers, Grace Jones, Little Richard, and k.d. lang.
On the inside the Playhouse looked like a cluttered vintage shop, on the outside, a roadside attraction. The show appeared in the midst of a Golden Age of weird Americana, when the symbols of 1950s car culture and suburban prosperity were reemerging in distorted form, a phenomenon which was occurring simultaneously in the gallery (the paintings of Eric Fischl) and the funny pages (Gary Larson’s Far Side). Playhouse arrived on the air in the year of David Byrne’s True Stories and Blue Velvet—when Pee-wee’s lip-synchs “So long and goodbye for now” to a scratchy record at the conclusion of one episode, he recalls nothing so much as Dean Stockwell in David Lynch’s picture. With Pee-wee, Reubens was doubling down on the inherent oddness of the Eisenhower-era kids’-show hosts that he’d grown up with—Pinky Lee most particularly—while adding an element of Jerry Lewis simpering and just a sprig of Mister Rogers’ Gayborhood.
The camp element was lost on child viewers, this author included, and probably many an adult as well. I’m not sure what my father, also a regular viewer, made of it, but I do remember that he impressed upon me the sheer amount of work that went into each episode, chock-a-block as they were with all manner of animation. The average Playhouse is a cabinet of curios, full of self-contained “features” like little drawers to be pulled out, their contents examined, and then closed again. Arranged as a sort-of variety show, each episode was a weekly history of animation techniques—“I wanted to try to use every kind of animation that was being done,” says one of the show’s architects in an interview included in the Shout Factory set, and the contemporary fetish for the handmade and artisanal is very much present here. Pee-wee’s Ant Farm was rendered with a silhouette animation technique reminiscent of that created by Lotte Reiniger in the 1920s. The disoriented, possibly sloshed King of Cartoons came by to screen 1930s animations by the likes of Ub Iwerks and Max Fleischer. When Pee-wee would visit to his “toy shelf,” he was greeted by stop-motion creations as disturbing as anything in the Quay brothers’ corpus, while a distinctly Ray Harryhausen–esque Dinosaur Family lived in the Playhouse wall. The recurring “Penny” skits, which illustrated the free-associative ramblings of six- and seven-year-old girls in Claymation, were courtesy of England’s Aardman Animations, the home of Wallace & Gromit. There was even early computer animations: Pee-wee’s “Connect the Dots” adventures, courtesy Ellen & Lynda Kahn’s TWINART.
Reubens was the linchpin of the show, but he surrounded himself with talent, and the Playhouse was in fact a workshop that brought together and activated a plethora of creative minds. Wayne White, who just ended his show “Invisible Ruler” at New York’s Joshua Liner Gallery, won three Emmys for his puppetry and design on the show, and voiced J.D. marionette bully Randy. (Spazz Pee-wee probably would’ve been a punching bag in the schoolyard, but Randy was the only threat at the Playhouse.) The underground cartoonist Gary Panter was honcho of the set design squadron and created the Playhouse’s aesthetic of jaggedly clashing patterns and bric-a-brac business. The score was provided by a revolving cast of hip musicians—the Residents, George Clinton, Van Dyke Parks—with the reliable standby being Mark Mothersbaugh, who joined the show on a hiatus from his band Devo. (I still remember the wistful longing his closing theme created, signifying that you were now leaving Pee-wee’s world—you couldn’t wait until next week to come back.)
Reubens was an art-school kid who knew how to engender creative collaborations. He’d attended CalArts in the 1970s before joining the Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings, where he’d premiered the Pee-wee character and worked closely with Phil Hartman, who played sea salt Captain Carl on Playhouse before departing for SNL. Rounding out the show’s flesh-and-blood cast was future Law & Order star S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady, seen to best advantage in the “Playhouse in Outer Space” episode, and Laurence Fishburne as Pee-wee’s best friend Cowboy Curtis—the concept is a little Gene Autry, a little Gene Nabors, and a little Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse isn’t P.C.—Pee-wee’s pen-pal letters from around the globe all riff on national stereotypes, and there is a slanty-eyed egg roll with a Fu Manchu mustache in his freezer box—but the cast is, in an offhand, no-big-deal way, quite diverse. (I almost wrote “for the time,” before realizing that very little has changed. In an interview on the set, Fishburne confirms that this diversity existed on the behind-the-camera crew as well.) On revisiting the show, what is striking is its embracing, absolute decency—a decency that’s in no way at odds with the happy perversity bubbling under its surface, and which in fact makes the very thought of such a dichotomy seem absurd. Reubens, whose shyness when out of character has only been exacerbated by legal harassment, doesn’t appear on camera for any of the boxed set features. Which is to be regretted—but then, he’s already given us quite enough.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series is now available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory.
SO MUCH OF CAMP X-RAY, writer-director Peter Sattler’s first feature, is so thuddingly didactic and yet morally obtuse that my writing anything else about the film beyond this sentence may be a further violation of the Geneva Convention. But as bad as this dubious project might be, the two performances at its center elevate it: Kristen Stewart as Cole, a soldier stationed as a guard at Guantánamo Bay, and Peyman Moaadi as Ali, the detainee she befriends. Both actors impressively shade impossible roles with alert nuances.
Before it descends into facile metaphors, Camp X-Ray begins with startling, astute clarity. As a newscaster narrates, in Arabic, the events of 9/11, with footage of the burning twin towers behind her, a man (whom we will later learn is Ali) begins to pray in his apartment. His salat is interrupted by blurry figures who approach him from behind and place a black hood over his head. This chaotic action is immediately followed by a shot of a trio of similarly shrouded men, who are also shackled and wearing orange jumpsuits and noise-canceling headphones, being transported by motorboat to the infamous US-military prison where they will be beaten and encaged.
The scathing critique of Guantánamo so forcefully laid out in these first few minutes is then inexorably undermined by Sattler’s outrageously flawed feel-good premise: that Cole and Ali have something to teach each other and, more broadly, are in equivalent situations. Even worse, Ali serves as the catalyst for his captor’s moral awakening; Cole’s time at the detention center might as well be the extended, east-Cuba stop for “Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend” tour. “I wanted to do something important,” Cole tells Ali through the narrow, rectangular, thick glass pane of his cell, explaining why she enlisted in the army. “Yeah, I understand,” replies the man who’s been locked in a room no bigger than a veal-fattening pen for the past eight years, stripped of all liberties without ever being convicted of a crime.
And yet, even as Camp X-Ray builds to its preposterous final scene, Stewart and Moaadi remain fascinating to behold. This is the actress’s first role since the conclusion of the Twilight series in 2012; Moaadi has enjoyed international exposure on a much smaller scale, playing the irascible husband in Asghar Farhadi’s multiple-prize-winning Iranian marital drama A Separation (2011). Far removed from their earlier personae, both performers display a deep commitment not just to their shabbily sketched-out characters here but also to the push-pull dynamic between them. While Cole tries to make sure her flinty composure never drops during her patrol of D block, Ali—who, during one of their initial encounters, flings a cup of his shit at her—lures her in with his incessant questioning and haranguing. Throughout these cycles of repelling and attracting, and even during the more risible scenes, when the divisions between the two characters magically disintegrate, Stewart and Moaadi imbue each moment with agile reflexes: holding pauses just long enough, stiffening or relaxing postures to convey more about their characters’ backstories than Sattler’s prolix script ever does.
Camp X-Ray is now playing in New York; it opens in Los Angeles on October 24.