Chris Smith, The Pool, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Nana (Nana Petakar) and Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan).
WITH HIS MINIMALIST AESTHETIC, working-class politics, deadpan humor, and empathy with the uncommon aspirations of unsung Americans, Chris Smith is one of the more successful and least categorizable of American independent filmmakers. The MoMA retrospective “Chris Smith: An American Original” includes his two fiction features: American Job (1996), a painfully funny, spot-on depiction of an overqualified midwestern minimum-wage slave, and The Pool (2007), which, because it was filmed in India, seems a world away from American Job but nonetheless has the same working-class sympathies. Also on the MoMA program are Smith’s three documentaries, of which The Yes Men (2003) is the most hilarious and politically prescient. Directed with Dan Ollman and Sarah Price, it follows the eponymous political performance artists as they expose the audience’s failure to resist even the most absurd pretense of authority, precisely the lazy, uninformed, scared-ass mindset that led to the reelection four years ago of George W. Bush.
The Pool, which opens for a run at Film Forum on September 3, has a lyricism that is new to Smith’s work. Based on a short story by Randy Russell, the star and cowriter of American Job, it focuses on Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan), a young man who scrubs floors and delivers cups of chai in a hotel in Goa. He projects his dreams of a better life onto the glittering blue surface of a backyard swimming pool that belongs to Nana, a wealthy man—played by one of India’s greatest stars, Nana Patekar—who lives alone with Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan), his beautiful, rebellious daughter. Shot with a handheld 35-mm camera that gives a fairy-tale radiance to the riot of colors on the city streets and in the lush gardens around the rich man’s house, The Pool roots its fantasy in the details of daily life. Ventatesh escapes the hotel by becoming Nana’s gardener. The scenes in which the two repot plants and clip hedges are as magic as those in which Venkatesh and his best buddy make friends with Ayesha. For a few weeks, at least, they throw class to the wind and share the possibility of a freedom unknown to both Hollywood and Bollywood.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York presents “Chris Smith: American Original” from August 29 to September 1. For more information, click here. The Pool screens at Film Forum in New York from September 3 to September 16 and will be screened at theaters across the United States throughout September and October. For more information, click here.
Carl Theodor Dreyer, Day of Wrath, 1943, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 97 minutes.
GIVEN ALL THE EXECUTION by burning in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), it seems only natural to open a discussion of the film by asking what’s at stake. It’s not just witches. The Danish director’s 1943 tale of forbidden love during Europe’s seventeenth-century inquisition puts many things into the, er, crucible: the soul’s fate, the consequences of extreme repression, even narrative coherence. Dreyer unifies them so masterfully in pursuit of higher truth that Day of Wrath is often classified as his best work.
A reclusive type and a solitary figure in film history—no lofty predecessors to speak of, and no followers—Dreyer was not known for his edge or humor. His films are frequently described as “chaste.” Less angsty than Ingmar Bergman, the other Scandinavian auteur enthroned in cinematic Valhalla, he stubbornly played down the experimental nature of his work, which has roots in both the German Kammerspiel, or chamber drama, and the parlor magic of Vermeer. Critics have, with some justification, found nothing especially groundbreaking about the subjects of Dreyer’s fawning close-ups, wide-eyed martyrs seeking God. But his stylistically daring 1928 silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is undeniably a high point of the international avant-garde. No other movie shows such devotion to the expressive powers of the human face—“that landscape one can never be tired of exploring,” as Dreyer called it.
He drew the camera back a bit for Day of Wrath, but it is still a very unconventional film. Based on a Norwegian play Dreyer had seen performed in Copenhagen three decades earlier, it is the story of Anne, the unhappy second wife of a pastor, Absalon, who is many years her senior. When Anne and the pastor’s son, Martin, fall in love, Absalon’s mother suspects her of witchcraft. Anne uses her sorcery to kill Absalon, whose mother then denounces her. Martin, horrified by the weight of their sin, refuses to defend Anne, and she is sentenced to death by the church.
Although the religious extremists, as we would dub them today, seem to win out in the exquisitely moving finale, Dreyer’s film benefits from a highly unorthodox formal approach. David Bordwell has noted how Dreyer constructs a “circular” mise-en-scène through montage and camera movement—tracking one way, panning the other—that flout Hollywood’s code of carefully coordinated match-on-action cuts and impenetrable “fourth wall.” Space is revealed gradually, in the round. The viewer’s sense of it—in particular the rectory living room, where most of the drama unfolds—is not immediately clear, and Day of Wrath is not about cutting to the chase. Dreyer, who believed that “tension grows out of calm,” may have in fact shot and edited his films this way in order to slow them down.
It’s also safe to presume he wanted to loosen the film’s link to the natural world. The austere, somewhat theatrical set design also helps keep Day of Wrath from getting bogged down in the material. Dreyer’s nontraditional lighting schemes make the walls seem to glow, and the film’s tonal juxtapositions—a forest-idyll scene includes wood for a witch’s pyre; children sing as she burns at the stake—have an otherworldly quality. “Abstraction allows the director to get outside the fence with which naturalism has surrounded his medium,” Dreyer once claimed. You could say that Day of Wrath is tailor-made for transcendence.
The fact that Anne’s struggle does not, as in the Italian Neorealist cinema that emerged around the same time, take place against a battered backdrop—or against any sort of tangible backdrop, really—makes the intrusion of worldly suffering all the more startling. Early scenes in which an old woman is stripped and tortured by church officials, then sent plunging into the flames, haunt the rest of the film. Somewhat miraculously, Day of Wrath was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. With it, Dreyer very aptly revived the issue of social and spiritual repression. But just as the film floats somewhere between the ground and the ether, it also belongs to no one time in particular.
BORN IN LONG BEACH IN 1941 and raised all over the state of California, Fred Halsted rarely left his adopted city of Los Angeles. Capturing the city as few other films could, L.A. Plays Itself (1972), Halsted’s first film, has come to be regarded as a classic within the genre of gay porn. It looks more like an experimental film than a porno, and, in its time, it garnered Halsted the kind of celebrity that simply isn’t possible today. Halsted never held a regular job; he didn’t teach; he had no gallery representation; he had no agent; he didn’t shoot commercials or advertising campaigns; he didn’t even have a social security number. He made films and performed in them, published a magazine (Package), ran a sex club (Halsted’s), and, for a while at least, kept all of these ventures afloat.
During the ’70s, Halsted also directed the remarkable short Sex Garage (1972) and an attempt at crossover success, Sextool (1975). He gave provocative interviews in a wide range of publications and wrote a small but fascinating body of erotic stories. The apogee of Halsted’s unprecedented career came when he presented his films at the Museum of Modern Art, which acquired prints of them for its permanent collection.
After these successes, the ’80s were unkind to Halsted. He continued to direct, but his films from this period have little to recommend them beyond the obvious attractions. Pornography made its gradual transition from monstrously profitable and intermittently interesting outlaw form to almost respectable, formulaic corporate content, and after the transition, there was little room for Halsted’s artistic concerns. In 1986, AIDS deprived Halsted of his main lover/partner/tormentor, Joey Yale. Despondent over Yale’s death, unable to find his bearings in an age not to his taste, financially and creatively destitute, Halsted sought refuge with an unsympathetic brother, who put him up in an apartment building he owned in Orange County. It was there that Fred committed suicide in 1989.
Untimely deaths, legal complications, and the day-to-day indignities of living in a city devoted to ruthless development harassed Halsted the artist. Today, access to his work is all but impossible, due largely to the indifference (or hostility) of his family. Only a handful of his friends survive. Halsted’s films have fallen out of distribution, though scenes from them can be seen on various bargain-DVD compilations. The city made available to us in L.A. Plays Itself, the Hollywood of lost boys on mean streets, has nearly been eradicated. To reconstruct Halsted’s history is to imagine another world, a time when a man with no formal training in filmmaking and a small amount of money could make a sexually explicit experimental film starring himself, and the result could become a hit that enabled him to embark on a career.
Artist William E. Jones presents Fred Halsted’s L.A. Plays Itself and Sex Garage at Light Industry in Brooklyn on August 26. For more information, click here. His book on Halsted will be published next year by Semiotext(e).
FOR THOSE OF US who only know artist Richard Serra from images of him at work in the 1960s and '70s—dour, focused, workmanlike—the positively talky figure who emerges from Maria Anna Tappeiner’s feature-length documentary Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet (2005) comes as a surprise. The film is structured around the fabrication and installation of “The Matter of Time,” Serra’s monumental long-term exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao. We glimpse the artist overseeing steel-mill workers in Germany and working with riggers in the museum’s outsize galleries, and this footage is interspersed with beautifully photographed tracking shots of his sculptures in institutions and at public sites around the world. His torrents of commentary—how apt is the subtitle!—are occasionally interrupted for talking-head paeans from Ernst Fuchs, his longtime rigger; Alexander von Berswordt, one of his dealers; and Philip Glass, who briefly worked for the artist in the late '60s.
Serra is articulate (if repetitive) when discussing his own art, but few speakers can riff for as long as he does and not say something lamentable; for example, even if you agree with him, his commentary on the Bush administration circa 2003–2004 seems unnecessary in this context. And it’s quite a narrow context: There’s very little explanation of how Serra began making the spirals, tori, and spheres that are the focus of the film; completely unmentioned are major moments in his career, including the controversy surrounding Tilted Arc; and, aside from declaring himself an inheritor of Pollock’s legacy and having furthered the aims of Baroque sculpture, there’s little art-historical context. All this is not to say that the film isn’t enjoyable. The behind-the-scenes glimpse at the awesome logistical apparatus now supporting his career is worth the price of admission alone: At one point, highway-wide trucks cart Serra’s steel plates to the waterfront and load them onto a waiting container ship. Tappeiner’s reverence for her subject, however, leaves one hungering for a more complex engagement with Serra’s art and its legacy.
Richard Serra: Thinking on Your Feet screens at Film Forum in New York from Wednesday, August 20, to Tuesday, September 2.
Left: Don Siegel, Coogan's Bluff, 1968. Walt Coogan (Clint Eastwood). Right: Samuel Fuller, The Steel Helmet, 1951. Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans).
In honor of Manny Farber, a painter and film critic who died Sunday night at age ninety-one, Artforum reprints Richard Flood's appreciation of Farber's writing, originally published in the September 1998 issue.
MANNY FARBER IS THE RAYMOND CHANDLER of American film criticism. His adrenaline prose has been pumping since 1942, when he began reviewing for the New Republic. Over the succeeding four decades, he kept his writing lean and mean, florid and furious, absolutely unique. He reviewed for Time, The Nation, the New Leader, Artforum, and a parcel of other publications In the late ’70s, his successful career as a painter increasingly took center stage, and film gradually lost an important, always surprising apologist.
I first learned of Farber’s criticism about twenty years ago, at the height of my enthusiasm for the films of the B-movie producer Val Lewton, who assembled a kind of atelier for writers, directors, cameramen, an actors to churn out low-budget horror movies of extraordinary beauty and, time permitting, intelligence (including The Seventh Victim, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Curse of the Cat People). A friend gave me a copy of the 1971 edition of Farber’s Negative Space, a collection of his reviews which contains a brief obituary consideration of Lewton, written in 1951 for The Nation, and I became an instant convert, as much to the energy of the writing as to the writer’s opinions, which were singularly cantankerous. At the time, I was so thrilled to have encountered someone else’s thinking about Lewton that I didn’t notice just how elegantly parsimonious Farber was in his postmortem critique, which, typically, leads with a vice to identify a virtue. He cut to the core of Lewton’s methodology, observing that the producer “hid much more of his story than any other filmmaker, and forced his crew to create drama almost abstractly with symbolic sounds, textures, and the like, which made the audience hyperconscious of sensitive craftsmanship” and that “his lighter-than-air sense of pace created a terrifically plastic camera style.” Obviously, “hiding the story” in “a lighter-than-air sense of pace” isn’t really a great asset, but it is precisely what makes Lewton’s films so stunningly different from any other contribution to the American horror genre.
The newly reissued edition of Negative Space (Da Capo) includes plenty of material that was not presented in the earlier edition of the anthology, notably Farber’s collaborative reviews with his wife, Patricia Patterson (written in the ’60s for Artforum), which drag him kicking and, occasionally, screaming into the ’70s. While spousal collaborations can be among the most truly horrible pursuits a couple can indulge each other in, Farber and Patterson actually manage to pull off a not inelegant Pat and Mike impersonality à la George Cukor (not one of Farber’s favorite directors). A major source of critical conflict between them is Marguerite Duras, whose India Song strikes a deep, vibrant gong for him and is a mosquito batting against a wind chime for his wife. What’s lovely about the Farber-Patterson collaborations is their shared enthusiasm for certain directors, particularly Fassbinder (whose use of color and composition they liken to “Mondrian with a sly funk twist”). And it is Fassbinder who allows Farber to visit a European aesthetic on a guilt-free pass after a good twenty years of jingoistic Americanism. Let me give you a Whitmanesque example of the latter from Farber’s 1957 essay “Underground Films”: “The cream on the top of a Framed or Appointment with Danger . . . is the eye-flicking action that shows the American body—arms, elbows, legs, mouths, the tension profile line—being used expediently, with grace and the suggestion of jolting hardness.” Still, the real meat of the matter is Farber flying solo with his wild prejudices and enthusiasms boldly tattooed on the wing of his little single-prop plane of cinematic advocacy.
When the American Film Institute announced the winners of its troublesome contest to nominate the one hundred best American films last June, I thought of Manny Farber. I raced through the institute’s awardees and came up with the one entry I thought he might approve of. At the very least, I assumed he had to like Charlie Chaplin, but when I consulted Negative Space’s index it led me to find Farber, in an interview with Richard Thompson, trying to ditch Chaplin in an attempt to champion Laurel and Hardy. I knew better than to check him on the Institute’s numero uno film, Citizen Kane. Back in 1952, in an essay entitled “The Gimp,” he tackled A Place in the Sun (no. 92 on the AFI list) and A Streetcar Named Desire (no. 45) and pummeled them until you could hear George Stevens and Elia Kazan screaming “Uncle” across the back lots of Hollywood. However, it was not really Stevens and Kazan that Farber was after. He was tracking much bigger game, the very agent of the chiaroscuro virus they were victims of: Orson Welles. At the core of Farber’s critique was the notion that, although it was initially unsuccessful, “Citizen Kane seems to have festered in Hollywood’s unconscious until after the Wylers and Hustons returned [after the war] from their government film chores; then it broke out in full force.” His analysis (in “The Gimp”) of Welles’ first—and perhaps greatest—film is a wonderfully insightful reading of how Hollywood went about creating the postwar, A-film formula, exemplified by “a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz called The Best Years of Our Lives.” Farber is relentless in his downsizing of what he calls “solemn goiters” bearing “the label of ART in every inch of their reelage.” He is, at heart, a B-movie apologist. He’s sensational on products like Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street and Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff, without ever implying that they are more than the brute propulsive unreelings that they appear to be: “a bit of John Foster Dulles, a good bit of Steve Canyon, sometimes so good as to be breathtaking.” Farber also loves character actors, and much of his best writing is devoted to supporting cast members like Gene Evans in Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, who “plays the hot-headed [sic] showing off, the endless chewing on a cigar stump with the blast effect of water issuing from a whale’s spout, bestial and grotesque as a charm spot in a film dedicated to the U.S. Infantry.” Or Elisha Cook in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, who as “a supporting player hit his peak and managed to dry out whatever juicy glamour and heroics were in the film so that it took on a slatelike hardness.”
Farber is very much a sensitized kind of guy’s guy. His writing peaks in the presence of idiosyncratic originals like Hawks and Preston Sturges, whom he assessed in a 1954 essay coauthored by W. S. Poster (entitled “Preston Sturges”), where he seems to be arguing for himself as a critic as much for the director he is writing about. “The discrepancies in Sturges’s films are due largely to the peculiar discontinuities that afflict his sensibility, although such affliction is also a general phenomenon in a country where whole eras and cultures in different stages of development exist side by side, where history along one route seems to skip over decades only to fly backward over another route and begin again in a still different period.” In a rebuttal of Siegfried Kracauer’s critique of Sturges’ confusion of honesty and candor in The Great McGinty, Farber/Poster write: “Such criticism is about as relevant as it would be to say that Cubists were primarily interested in showing all sides of a bottle at once.” The curiously parental-advisorial end of the Sturges essay can, in many ways, stand in for a self-defense tactic by Farber, for justifying his critical capriciousness. “Sturges may not be the greatest director of the last two decades; in fact, it can be argued that a certain thinness in his work—his lack of fully formed, solid, or orthodox moviemaker’s technique—prevents him from being included among the first few. He is, however, the most original movie talent produced in recent years: the most complex and puzzling.”
It’s hard to place Farber in any subdivided pantheon. He clearly adores the work of James Agee with, natch, serious reservations: “Agee was a brick wall against pretense in small movies, but, on Big Scale work, where the Boulevard is made of National Velvet and the Limelight’s as stunning as the Sierra Madre, Agee’s reviews suggested a busy day at Muscle Beach: flexing words, bulging rumps of talent, pyramidal displays of filming cunning.” I still love Pauline Kael, but not for a second would I put her in the ring with Farber; she simply doesn’t have the chops for this kind of ham-fisted finesse. The biggest problem with his criticism is the fact that he can’t always slow down long enough to frame his passionate ardor for the art form he is alternately embracing and repelling. What is exhilarating about the best of his criticism is that it moves with the speed and linear clarity of the films he loves. It is unlikely that movies will ever again get the kind of tough love that Farber dispenses with such exuberant, bruising gusto.
David Tudor, Bandoneon!, 1966. Performance view, 69th Regiment Armory, New York, 1966. Photo: Robert R. McElroy.
No maudlin Behind the Music—but tinged with drama of a different kind—a new series of films is chronicling the seminal multimedia series “9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering,” which took place in October 1966 at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory. Led by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver of Bell Laboratories, a group of artists and engineers banded together to collaborate on ten experimental performance pieces. They brainstormed, argued, and pulled all-nighters, producing an event that détourned existing technologies and aesthetic conventions. Critic Brian O’Doherty called it “the major scandal, triumph, vision or nightmare of the season.”
For the film program accompanying its exhibition “Looking at Music,” the Museum of Modern Art is screening films of two of the performances: the documentary Variations VII by John Cage (2008) and performance footage of David Tudor’s Bandoneon! (A full documentary of the latter is forthcoming.) As the films’ riveting combination of archival footage and recent interviews makes clear, the participants in “9 Evenings” hoped that art and industrial technology would radically inflect each other. They aimed to introduce unexpected possibilities, repurposing materials and processes in order to disturb teleological narratives of modernist progress in both disciplines.
Cage and Tudor had both become increasingly interested in the use of electronic sound technologies in performance, and the films convey the intricate aural and visual effects at play in their pieces. Variations VII translated Cage’s indeterminate, unscored, anticompositional procedures into a shifting array of real-time sound transmissions, with over fifty live feeds that included telephone lines to Terry Riley’s turtle tank (Riley himself is interviewed for the documentary) and the New York Times press room, frequency generators, a coffee grinder, and a juice extractor. The movement of performers and even ambulatory audience members triggered photocells hooked up to contact microphones. High-pitched, squealing feedback and standing audio waves are augmented by the participants’ looming shadows, which flicker spectacularly throughout the film footage. Bandoneon! highlighted Tudor’s similarly voracious appetite for sound and light. The composer worked with engineers to retrofit the accordionlike instrument with programmed audio circuits and connect it to moving loudspeakers, modified television projectors, and spotlights on the balcony. Tudor had said he wanted to generate “‘white noise’ from scratch,” and we watch him begin with a simple set of low drones on the bandoneon, eventually launching a cascade of noise and optical effects into the cavernous space and “playing” its acoustic complexity.
The retrospective films could never aim at a “complete” representation of the ephemeral performances; indeed, they pointedly refuse to do so. Yet this approach is entirely appropriate, because it emphasizes the innovative and makeshift production process in “9 Evenings”—not as mere backdrop, but as integral to the meaning of each work. The experiment, in fact, may not be over.
“9 Evenings: Theater and Music” screens on August 18 at 6 PM and August 20 at 8 PM as part of the film program accompanying the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Looking at Music.” The exhibition is on view until January 5, 2009. For more details and information about the other films included in the program, click here.
Left: Gene Mogul. (Photo: Rhoda Blate Mogul) Right: Susan Mogul and Ron Schneck on road trip.
FREUD IS AN unlikely touchstone for a feminist film—unless the doctor appears in costume as a punching bag—but Susan Mogul takes such incongruities in stride. The video artist and filmmaker’s new feature-length work, Driving Men, teeters charmingly between art-house cinema and Hollywood flick, all the while provoking questions about the slippery nature of identity, memory, and subjectivity. Freud’s ghost seems to haunt the film from behind the wheel of a shiny new convertible.
In this film, Mogul (nearly) tosses aside the erotic-neurotic ethos of much of her previous work and dives headfirst into autobiography. The film opens with lighthearted music and footage that recall vintage road movies, but the levity is quickly undercut by a voice-over that explains, in clear, simple language, a car wreck that the filmmaker experienced as a young woman. The accident was fatal for the driver, her boyfriend, and the emotional fallout for Mogul is the singular trauma that informs the film. Using her subsequent relationships as a starting point, Mogul invites men—former lovers, friends, and family members—to be interviewed on camera, though it is quickly apparent that they are not the ones on the couch. In a series of disparate conversations, Mogul rides shotgun with her interlocutors, discussing past romances, the Jewish diaspora, societal mores, and, repeatedly, why she, a woman in her fifties, never married.
The emotional tenor of this latter topic at times threatens to maroon more subtle, repressed themes. At one point, while the filmmaker attends a reunion, a photographer asks members of the Mogul clan to pose together in family groups. The scene and voice-over could have been snatched straight from Sex and the City; over her smiling image, Mogul asks rhetorically, “But I am not a family—where do I stand?” Throughout, Mogul poses more questions than answers, allowing her driving partners to define her. She is variously described as “intense,” “funny,” and “like a balloon filled with helium.” Several men point to her incessant need for documentation, which one perceptive friend describes as a search for something she doesn’t really want to find. This sense of seeking ripples through the hilarity, heartbreak, and homecomings that constitute the events of Driving Men and fluidly stitches questions about the shifting constructs of woman and man, identity and truth, into a poignant love story.
Driving Men has its North American premiere at Los Angeles Filmforum on Sunday, August 17, 2008.
Left: Alleged Gallery on Ludlow Street. Right: Barry McGee and Steve Powers.
“A BUNCH OF US used to hang out in this little storefront on the Lower East Side that, y’know, we called it a ‘gallery’ but it wasn’t really a gallery, it was more of, like, a party spot.” Investing unashamedly in the romantic narrative of misfits-made-good, and leaning perhaps a little too hard on a tirelessly youthful, borderline counter-intellectual ethic (“a culture that’s made for kids by kids”; “It was really just a bunch of kids, a bunch of dumb, bored kids”; “geniusly [sic] dumb”), director Aaron Rose’s Beautiful Losers, an account of the rise and partial fall of the scene around his own Alleged Gallery in ’90s New York, is a periodically irritating but often inspiring watch—whether one finds the featured artists’ cutesy variations on unschooled/street style genuinely resonant, merely likable, or verging on the grating. Rose’s close connection with his subjects makes for an engagingly candid set of interviews. And the film is nicely judged, too, in its impressionistic mix of borrowed and original footage.
Tracing the interlinked trajectories of a small but charismatic group of young artists—including Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, Ed Templeton, Mike Mills, and the late Margaret Kilgallen—from their common roots in America’s urban and suburban hinterlands to the creative mecca of Manhattan, the film is unequivocally self-mythologizing but at least wears its heart on its sleeve. Friendship and fun are repeatedly emphasized over the significance of the work, and while the feel-good factor does tend to preclude conventional analysis of what’s going on in the art itself, as a portrait of an attitude, Rose’s project is oddly coherent. (Mills: “I think nerds are the dispossessed who inherit the creative earth. If you’re not dispossessed, why make art?” Jo Jackson: “I got subcultural when I was in the seventh grade.”)
Beautiful Losers often returns to the centrality of a do-it-yourself methodology. Alleged is presented as a skin-of-the-teeth operation that was ultimately doomed by its inability to compete with established dealers—those with a professional interest may wonder about the details of Rose’s dark allusions to “serious trouble” with the big boys. The artists, for their part, dilate on subcultural backgrounds in graffiti art, punk rock, and skateboarding. Especially skateboarding. Alleged’s 1992 group show “Minimal Tricks” is presented as a watershed in both the history of “skateboard art” and the visibility of the gallery, a review of the show in skate rag Thrasher facilitating a tour to Hollywood and nudging the niche gently toward the mainstream.
“The Independents,” a 1997 group show, upped the commercial ante still further, but what seems to have sealed the deal was a lavish tour to Tokyo in 2001, bankrolled by a canny Japanese promoter. According to artist Stephen Powers, the funders “invented the myth, perpetuated the myth, encouraged us to be the myth.” His distaste for the incursion of big money is patent, but Geoff McFetridge’s awkwardly self-justificatory account of working with “big clients” like Pepsi makes for a necessary, if uncomfortable, counterpoint. Ultimately, this is art that, as Rose freely admits, often came from the commercial realm and has in some cases returned to it. Cultural history has a way of refusing convenient linearity; perhaps only attitude abides, and Beautiful Losers has that in spades.
Beautiful Losers is currently playing in select theaters.
Rodger Grossman, What We Do Is Secret, 2007, color film in 35 mm, 92 minutes. Production stills. Left: Lorna Doom (Bijou Phillips). Right: Darby Crash (Shane West). Photos: Kevin Estrada.
IN 1975, fellow high school outcasts Jan Paul Beahm (known as Bobby Pyn and then, more famously, Darby Crash) and Georg Ruthenberg (soon to be christened Pat Smear) resolved to start a band, but with a backward strategy: Recruit members, advertise, do a gig, and then learn how to play the instruments. The group’s first show, as chronicled in director Rodger Grossman’s debut film What We Do Is Secret (2007), is a noisy, incompetent rumble that devolves into Crash (played by Shane West, an eerie doppelgänger) flinging flour onto the audience and sticking a microphone into a jar of peanut butter. The band is kicked off the stage after only five minutes, but clearly they’ve caught the performance bug. So the Germs—one of Los Angeles’s most notorious punk bands—are born.
What We Do Is Secret details the Germs’ volatile run from 1975 to 1980, reenacting the band’s frequently destructive performances—Crash would often cut himself onstage, among other stunts—that caused them to be blacklisted from nearly every club in LA. Interviews, documentary-style, break up the film’s chronological narrative—Crash’s are presented as black-and-white flashbacks, while his bandmates’ are filmed in color, presumably conducted after Crash’s death. (On hitting the mark of his much-iterated “five-year plan,” Crash committed suicide by heroin overdose in 1980.) Shot on film—which gives a pleasing richness to fluorescent lighting and the grimiest of punk clubs—What We Do Is Secret is a realistic snapshot of an era’s nihilistic drug and music culture. But it’s not all anarchic despair: A sense of playfulness pervades, from a quick shot of Joan Jett, “producer” of the Germs’ sole album, (GI), who is shown passed out on the studio’s couch, to the subtitles for a pretentious club owner’s English, to the occasional sight gag, such as the exaggerated, ill-fitting wigs on some of the characters, a jokey contrast to West and Bijou Phillips’s otherwise meticulous punk aesthetic.
Despite a fifteen-year struggle for funding, Grossman managed to secure a solid, charismatic cast—West (an ER regular and Mandy Moore’s costar in the 2002 romance A Walk to Remember), Rick Gonzalez as a guileless Smear, Phillips (seemingly typecasting herself as a drug-addled delinquent) as a bristly but vulnerable Lorna Doom, and Noah Segan as the arty, optimistic drummer Don Bolles. Citing Vincente Minnelli and Bob Fosse as influences, Grossman structured the film as a musical, where each song’s performance (in this case the “hits” “Sex Boy,” “Circle One,” “Lexicon Devil,” and the eponymous “What We Do Is Secret”) means to propel the narrative forward. Of course, no one breaks spontaneously into song, and the significance of each “live” performance will be lost on the uninitiated. Indeed, serious Germs fans will be satisfied, but the movie’s archetypal rise-and-fall story does offer a broader appeal, if not for the needle-squeamish.
West’s expressive portrayal of Crash is substantive as far as the dialogue allows, but the film never offers any real insight into the tragic singer’s thoughts or motivations. (Why a five-year plan, exactly? And why his obsession with circles?) Meanwhile, Crash’s conflict with his homosexuality is only briefly alluded to, and certain characters serving as foils are relied on too frequently: By the third time someone reads aloud Crash’s lyrics and proclaims him a “genius,” we’ve gotten the point—but otherwise, the musician’s reputed intellect doesn’t quite come through. Crafted with painstaking attention to detail, Grossman’s film is an engaging trip back to the nascence of West Coast punk, but Crash’s internal life remains largely a secret.
What We Do Is Secret is currently playing in select theaters.
Patti Smith. (Photo: Steven Sebring)
IN ANY GIVEN ROOM of people, punk icon Patti Smith is probably the most charismatic by a long shot. Steven Sebring, the director of Patti Smith: Dream of Life (2008), has that much figured out. To its advantage, Sebring’s homage to the legendary singer, poet, and all-around downtown figure—filmed with much input from Smith herself—has none of the talking heads of a typical rock documentary. It features neither cute toddler photos showing early musical proclivities nor the requisite play-by-play of a band’s lineup and history of managers. Chronology is scrapped. The film’s only sense of order emerges from thematic recurrences: In the most memorable of these, Smith sits in an armchair in one corner of her room, doing a show-and-tell with meaningful objects she’s collected over the years (including a guitar once tuned by Bob Dylan).
The film has its powerful moments—and not just the expectedly electrifying footage of Smith in performance. In one scene, the singer holds an urn that contains the ashes of her long-dead friend Robert Mapplethorpe. She unscrews the vial and pours some of the ashes into her palm, but only after much fumbling. Smith’s technical problems with the urn lend the scene an aura of candor, and the whole gesture has the subversive intimacy and symbolism of some good performance art. In comparison, visits to the graves of William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley are heavy-handed, though fans of Smith surely appreciate—or at least, by now, expect—the defiantly ambitious reach of her references.
Throughout, there’s a sense that Sebring and Smith shot spontaneously, trusting that a blueprint would develop in the editing of the material. After nearly two hours and several false endings, the film is more a trove for her most devoted fans than an attempt to win any new ones. When Smith mentions that she and Sebring have been working on the project for ten years, it comes as no surprise. It seems likely that the filmmakers simply grew attached to too many shoeboxes of ephemera.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life plays at Film Forum in New York August 6–19.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, La Promesse, 1996, still from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Igor (Jérémie Renier).
“ONE THING IS CERTAIN: small budget and simplicity everywhere.” When Luc Dardenne articulated these twin principles—curiously, as though they were one—in his diary in 1992, did he have any idea they would guide him and his brother, Jean-Pierre, so surely into the upper realms of cinematic achievement? Several Cannes victories later, the Belgian duo—the subject of a mini-retrospective that begins at New York’s Anthology Film Archives on Thursday—are responsible for some of the screen’s most disarmingly resonant portraits of modern Europe. And they haven’t availed themselves of much more than a handheld camera, a pocketful of virtually unknown actors, and a single Belgian town.
The skies over Seraing, the postindustrial heap the filmmakers hail from and film in, are gray. That gray seems to seep down through the city’s dull buildings and into the frigid, inert river Meuse. Against this drab backdrop and a concomitant atmosphere of moral indifference, the Dardennes etch minimalist narratives of the urban underclass that are infused with tension and urgency. The characters, acted naturalistically, sink in. The scenarios, free of the overblown drama so often found in the similarly stripped-down Scandinavian Dogme 95 films, never feel exploitative or unreal. And yet they become captivating.
In La Promesse (1996), a teenager struggles to help an African immigrant whose husband has died in an accident; in Rosetta (1999), a girl tries to hold a steady job and keep her mother from sinking into complete dissolution. A carpenter mentors the boy who killed his son in The Son (2002), and The Child (2005) tracks the wanderings of a young hoodlum who sells his baby.
The critic J. Hoberman has described the cinema of the Dardennes as “spiritually infused social realism.” The brothers, who started out making documentaries, have a detective’s eye for authenticity. Look closely, and you’ll notice that Olivier Gourmet’s woodshop instructor in The Son has a blood blister on his left thumb. Their movies look raw and modern, but there’s a classical rigor at work in them: The Dardennes film scenes at different paces before deciding which feels right, and if they don’t detect the “life force” in a scene, Jean-Pierre has said, they reshoot it—often in another location.
The ghost of Rossellini lives in their frames—also, Bresson. The actors in these films don’t seem like they’re acting, and the dialogue is minimal. The Dardennes are known for honing body language more than delivery. And while they like to foreground the human face—especially in tight, over-the-shoulder close-ups—they have pretty much staked their career on the assumption that the camera can’t get into someone’s head. In Luc’s words: “We film what we can see. This starts you thinking.”
Thinking about economic injustice, among other things. The Dardennes deliver memorable images of life on the brink—as when Rosetta, wrestling with her alcoholic mother near their trailer, falls into a muddy sinkhole. She flounders, cries out, then drags herself out of the slime alone, gasping desperately. You can almost hear the filmmakers crying out: How can a civilized country tolerate anything so abject? Seraing is not so much postindustrial as postapocalyptic: Bruno, the protagonist of L’Enfant, spends money as if it will be useless the next day; Igor, in La Promesse, and Rosetta bury their meager possessions in the ground. Most of the characters occupy not livable neighborhoods but dead zones of cement, mud, and barbed wire.
Tragic conditions like these, the films posit, breed almost unfathomable apathy. When his girlfriend confronts him about selling their child, Bruno says: “We’ll make another one.” But even if he isn’t aware of it, his panting and scheming are leading him toward a redemption of sorts. On the one hand, the abrupt, ambiguous conclusions of the Dardennes’ films are a snub to the Frank Capra ending. Marginal types in particular, these endings say, move their lives ahead on their own—certainly the watchful eye of a couple of high-minded filmmakers doesn’t budge them. Maybe some divine force does? Beautifully, the lingering threat of violence that pervades The Son is most vividly expressed on a plank of plywood, by a red stain that almost seems to have appeared there by accident.
Ultimately, the Dardenne brothers’ films are not about their austerity—a default aesthetic, after all, for many a penniless filmmaker—but their richness. Simplicity can be a complicated proposition. Even, potentially, a heroic one.
“Swimming Upstream: Films of the Dardenne Brothers” plays at Anthology Film Archives August 7–10, 2008.