Left: Bruce LaBruce, Otto, or Up with Dead People, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Right: Bruce LaBruce, Otto, or Up with Dead People, 2008, production still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Fritz Fritze (Marcel Schlutt). Photo: Bruce LaBruce.
BEL AMI THIS IS NOT. Bruce LaBruce’s latest, most adventurous skin flick, Otto, or Up with Dead People (2008), which tracks a fetching young melancholic zombie (played with turgid aplomb by first-time actor Jey Crisfar) on his journey of self-discovery, is not quite a “zombie porn,” as I’d previously heard it billed—though a more suitable appellation eludes me. Despite his pornographic leanings, sex has never been LaBruce’s forte; he seems willfully antipleasure, far too indulgent of an aimless intellectualism to visually, or viscerally, tantalize. The sex scenes, while gruesome and occasionally witty—featuring, for instance, a zombie eating a hole out of his boyfriend’s stomach and then doggedly fucking the cavity—are sparse; the camera doesn’t linger nearly long enough to delight. This might come as a relief to some viewers, but I was anticipating something a tad smuttier.
Otto’s a piece of work, flush with innumerable digressions and dead ends. Much of the narrative tension revolves around whether or not Otto is in fact a zombie, an ambiguity that is never fully resolved. A genuinely bizarre film, it still has its precedents. George Romero’s quiet masterpiece Martin (1977), which features a lonely young man who believes—against much evidence—that he’s a vampire, is one. Gregg Araki’s “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” (1993–97) comes to mind. In its blend of sexuality and hyperbolic agitprop, there’s also a tinge of Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). Mostly, however, LaBruce borrows from his own singular body of work, revisiting several familiar themes (skinhead fetishism abounds) and devices: a pretentious lesbian underground filmmaker named Medea Yarn (a play on Maya Deren) who is making an anticapitalist film about zombies called Up with Dead People, motivates much of the plot, harking back to LaBruce’s use of the pretentious lesbian filmmaker Googie in Super 8 1/2 (1995).
If Romero’s undead are typically ciphers for the mindless subjects of consumer culture, LaBruce’s are ambivalent, anomic, gay-bashed ephebes—untapped radicals who come across as more sympathetic than their living counterparts. This is LaBruce’s most compelling, if not entirely novel, twist on the zombie genre, and it gives way to a few gems, such as a scene in which Otto, filmed rising fist-first from a grave, is exhorted by Yarn to “raise it in solidarity with the lonely and the weak and the dispossessed of the earth . . . !”
Hustler White (1996), which LaBruce made with photographer Rick Castro, remains the director’s apogee, if only because it’s such a perfect vehicle for Tony Ward’s charismatic strutting. But Otto’s winsome sound track and Crisfar’s charmingly stilted performance manage to pull together a movie that otherwise might have collapsed under the weight of its many pretenses.
Otto, or Up with Dead People, opens Friday, November 28 at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in Los Angeles and at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.
Milk, a biopic of the first openly gay man elected to an important political office in the United States, opens on Wednesday, a day short of the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of its protagonist, Harvey Milk. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the movie is an elegantly constructed, emotionally volatile piece of storytelling, which combines agitprop how-to with classic tragedy: It begins with the death of the hero foretold and ends with a proper mix of pity, terror, and catharsis—the whole schmear, as Harvey might have said. At its center is the most life-embracing performance Sean Penn has given since his irresistible, star-making turn as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).
The film opens with a collage of newsreel footage of police raids on gay bars and clubs beginning in the late 1950s and ending with the 1969 Stonewall riots. We then see Harvey Milk (Penn), alone in his Castro Street apartment in 1978, making a cassette-tape recording of his last will and testament—to be played only in the event of his assassination. Cut to more newsreel footage—this time of Dianne Feinstein, Milk’s colleague on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, tearfully announcing that Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk have been shot dead by another supervisor, Dan White. Flashback to New York in 1970, where Harvey, on the cusp of his fortieth birthday, picks up a much younger man, Scott Smith (James Franco), and overwhelming Smith with a combination of self-mocking wit and sexual hunger, locks lips with him in tight close-up. In an instant, we are disobliged of any prurient expectations that somewhere in the course of this movie we will be treated to the spectacle of a reputedly heterosexual star engaging in hanky-panky with another man. Milk is matter-of-factly gay from start to finish, as is Penn’s performance. And if there’s no fuss, there’s also, perhaps, too little muss. Indeed, I had to ask a friend who was part of the scene around Harvey’s Castro Street camera store (lovingly re-created for the film in its original location) whether Harvey might have sublimated his libido almost entirely into politics or whether the young men who became part of his grassroots political team and alternative family were quite as chaste in their flirtations as they appear on-screen. After he finished laughing, he reaffirmed that the Castro in the ’70s was specifically about sexual liberation, rather than a polite quest for civil liberties.
I can understand how one might see Van Sant’s barely carnal representation as a cop-out, but since I’m not keen on seeing people fucking their brains out on screen, I really didn’t mind. Rather, I chalked it up both to sensibility (Van Sant’s movies are modest even when they’re most desirous) and to a political strategy akin to Harvey’s, when he cut his hair and donned a suit before beginning his campaign for public office. The conventional packaging is intended to disarm the straight world, making it more hospitable to a militantly gay message. Speaking to the San Francisco Teamsters, whose union representative became a loyal Milk supporter after Harvey organized a Coors boycott in the Castro, he begins with his signature line, “I’m Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you”—thus embracing the verb used by homophobes to incite panic, as in “They want to recruit your children.” He then quips, “I’m sorry I left my high heels at home.” For Milk, coming out was an absolute necessity—the key to personal strength and political power—and the film makes that point repeatedly. He was forty when he came out, inspired by the Stonewall movement, and he believed that his life truly began at that point.
Penn burrows inside his character, capturing not only Milk’s Long Island Jewish intonations and his gay body language but also the intensity of his beliefs and the particular mix of fear and desire through which he viewed the world. He carries the film in the same way that Milk shouldered the fight for gay rights in the Castro. Van Sant loves his actors—he gives them the time and space to breathe on the screen—and the ensemble cast is so vivid and true to one’s memory of the period that it seems unfair to single anyone out, but the warmth and wicked humor that Emile Hirsch brings to Cleve Jones (Milk’s young activist protégé) is particularly memorable, as is the combustible mixture of confusion, resentment, and repressed rage in Josh Brolin’s Dan White. With his sideburns and hair swept diagonally across his forehead, Brolin looks more like Van Sant than he does the real-life murderer of Milk and Moscone. Someone was being very perverse.
Dustin Lance Black’s exceptionally well-researched script (Jones was an important source, as was Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk) homes in on Milk’s years in the Castro (1972–78), racing through his first three losing campaigns and his victorious one in 1977, then ratcheting up the intensity when Anita Bryant’s anti-gay-rights “orange juice” bandwagon comes to California in the form of Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that sought to ban homosexuals and their supporters from teaching in public schools. In his militant struggle against Prop 6, Harvey secures his place in the history of the civil rights movement, and the film finds its most intense moments of political drama.
When asked what he would do if Prop 6 succeeded, Harvey responds, “Fight in the streets.” The film, thus, supplies opponents of Prop 8, California’s 2008 anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative, with a clear answer to the question “What would Harvey have done if he had failed at the ballot box as we did?” Indeed, Milk has such resonance with contemporary politics—the final words of Harvey’s testament are “You’ve got to give them hope”—that its strengths as a work of art are nearly upstaged by its topicality. But thanks to the fluidity of Harris Savides’s camerawork, the images have surprising vivacity throughout. Similarly, the work of another Van Sant regular, sound designer Leslie Shatz, while not as conspicuous as in the director’s more formalist films such as Paranoid Park and Elephant, adds a nearly subliminal emotional coloration.
In the final scenes, Van Sant moves from the conventions of realism to a register that is both more emotive and more abstract. Harvey’s face, shown in lingering close-up as he sits alone at the back of the San Francisco Opera, gripped by the finale of Puccini’s Tosca, is a tragic mask. Dan White’s murder of Mayor Moscone, his walk—as the camera tracks behind him and then in front of him—down the long corridor between the mayor’s office and the room where an unsuspecting Harvey is engaging in morning chitchat, and his shooting of Harvey at point-blank range replay the horror of Elephant in a world of adults. The film ends with a candlelight vigil the night after the murders, in which thirty thousand people walked from the Castro to the steps of City Hall. Just as some have argued that the film’s depiction of gay sex should have been more explicit, others have criticized Milk for not including the White Night Riots, the furious reaction that followed Dan White’s sentencing. (He got off with seven years.) I prefer the formally satisfying catharsis of a candlelight vigil. The facts about White and the riots are duly noted in the end titles. The fighting is better left for the streets.
Left: Brian Gibson, Breaking Glass, 1980, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Hazel O'Connor. Right: Julien Temple, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, 2007, still from a black-and-white and color film, 123 minutes.
THERE IS A FUTURE, it appears, in England’s dreaming. “Punk ’n’ Pie,” an awfully named but well-programmed UK punk retrospective at BAMcinématek, gathers ten features and documentaries from the thirty-plus years since the class of ’77 first stuck a pin through the queen’s nose and pilloried Tory and hippie culture alike with equal ire. Though sown in New York—the Velvets, the Dolls, the Ramones, Richard Hell, CBGB—with ample fertilizer from a nice Ann Arbor boy called Iggy, punk flowered fully in England, where bleak environs and civil unrest were matched by vibrant street fashion and a serious approach (in demand and execution) to pop music. Malcolm McLaren, peering into a grimy bar on the Bowery, may have seen the next big thing in Dick Hell’s spiky hair, safety-pinned shirt, and blank-generation stare, but the world saw Johnny Rotten. Ever since, punk has seemed as English as kidney pie.
So despite a title playing on a distinctly stateside holiday, there’s no domestic fare here. The Decline of Western Civilization, Repo Man, and American Hardcore aren’t on the menu. Nor, surprisingly, are there any helpings of live footage from Brit ur-punks the Sex Pistols. What “Punk ’n’ Pie” does offer, though, is rich enough to have you sporting torn Tartan by Christmas. Divided between documentaries (early UK punk and reggae, New Wave, Joe Strummer, Joy Division, Depeche Mode), biopics (Sid and Nancy, 24-Hour Party People), and streetwise fantasias (Breaking Glass, Jubilee), the retrospective reminds us how, since the Beatles and the Stones, Brits have continuously transmuted American musical ore into gold records with art school experimentation and a keen understanding of style.
The fiction films—Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1977) and Brian Gibson’s Breaking Glass (1980)—capture late-’70s London, however impressionistically, in all its outré glory: waxed-up, unnaturally hued hair; bondage gear; Nazi iconography (and neo-Nazis themselves); mannered nihilism. And strangely, both evoke a world where punks are instantly (and willingly) co-opted by revanchist record-business moguls. Breaking Glass, particularly, is an old showbiz story trussed up in New Wave clothes, something like Flashdance meets Liquid Sky starring Siouxsie Sioux. Jubilee is an arty, pretentious time capsule in both directions: Queen Elizabeth I travels forward to ’77 London as we journey back there through the film. Lambasted at the time by Vivienne Westwood and other punk scenesters, Jubilee nevertheless offers the most immediate view of that moment, albeit through Jarman’s overwrought Renaissance-painting perspective.
Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten and Grant Gee’s Joy Division (both 2007) further explore the inherent contradictions animating Jubilee and Breaking Glass—purity versus sellout, anger versus vulnerability, past versus future—and the toll they took on real musicians. Strummer, a diplomat’s son and hippie-turned–pub rocker, bizarrely became a symbol of uncompromising authenticity by undergoing a style makeover and denying his past lives. After too much success with the Clash, he fled the music business, only to reemerge years later as a wizened world-music shaman. Not a band that has suffered cinematic neglect, Joy Division has a story that is well known yet remains terribly moving. Ian Curtis’s love triangle, his epilepsy, and his suicide on the eve of his band’s first American tour get their most complete, intimate rehashing in Gee’s well-made doc, with full participation from the surviving band members (New Order) and Curtis’s then lover, Annik Honoré. Too sensitive for mass success and perhaps for human life, Curtis seemed to offer a way out of punk’s constraining paradoxes; sadly, as with so much of punk, his life ended with a negation.
“Punk ’n’ Pie” screens November 21–30 at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. For more information, click here.
TO UNDERSTAND JERRY LEWIS the performer, simply rewatch a handful of his sixty-odd films, from the self-described “handsome man and a monkey” comedies made with Dean Martin in the 1950s, through the movies Lewis directed at the height of his gooney powers like The Bellboy (1960), The Nutty Professor (1963), and The Family Jewels (1965), up to his late-career revival via the angsty slapstick of Hardly Working (1980) and Cracking Up (1983), and the disturbingly unfunny reflexivity of his performance in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). But to understand Lewis the thinker—the theorist, even—it’s useful to dig up a copy of his 1971 book, The Total Film-Maker, a primer in Lewis’s own concept of auteurism, containing a cogent study of film comedy. Here, Hollywood’s spastic, saccharine goofball reveals himself to be a Siegfried Kracauer of the wisecrack, a Georges Bataille of the banana peel.
True to Lewis’s own technological prescience (he developed and patented the video-assist system that became standard in professional filmmaking), The Total Film-Maker wasn’t written in the typical pen-to-paper fashion. Rather, Lewis recorded lectures he gave during a stint as professor at the University of Southern California, then distilled a two-hundred-page book from a reported “half million feet of audio tape.” For Lewis, the total filmmaker is one who controls all aspects of the film, working as producer, director, and star (Lewis himself performed the three roles in seven pictures, from The Bellboy on, and directed himself as an actor in many others), and must have an absolute passion for the medium. “I have a confession,” Lewis writes. “Crazy. I have perched in an editing room and licked emulsion.” He must translate this devotion into a comprehensive technical knowledge and be enough of an on-set diplomat to sway the work of a team toward his personal vision. “The goal,” he argues, “is to have a one-man project made with one hundred and two pairs of hands.” In order to achieve this, the filmmaker must embrace creative “mind fights” within himself since he “cannot lie to any of his separate parts.” Being “totally identified with his product,” he risks never being satisfied. “There’s no easy way to shake that schmuck you sleep with at night,” Lewis confesses. “I have to sleep with that miserable bastard all the time. Very painful, sometimes terrifying.”
But the intellectual core of The Total Film-Maker resides in its final thirty pages, in a section simply titled “Comedy.” Here, Lewis forges a philosophy of humor as a form of social redemption. “The premise of all comedy is the man in trouble, the little guy against the big guy,” he argues. “It is the tramp, the underdog, causing the rich guy, or big guy, to fall on his ass.” Therein lies an essential link between comedy and tragedy—the depiction of violence. “Road Runner is worse than Bonnie and Clyde,” Lewis observes, but yukking it up is an attempt to ward off danger: “A hollow laugh is the normal reaction to being backed into a corner by a guy with a shiv.” Play also enables the catharsis of regression. Noting that all actors, himself included, possess the mentality of “nine-year old children,” Lewis observes that “at that age, hurt is possible, but degradation is seldom possible.” For Lewis, comedy is nothing less than the “surviving fabric of life.”
At the end of The Total Film-Maker, Lewis concludes by predicting—prematurely—his own retirement from acting in favor of directing. “I am moving more behind the camera,” he writes. “I have been taking pratfalls for thirty-seven years, and my ass is sore.”
Paolo Gioli, The Perforated Cameraman, 1979, still from a black-and-white film, 9 minutes.
PAOLO GIOLI GAVE Dziga Vertov a quintessentially Italian two-finger salute when he unsubtly subtitled one of his films Man Without a Movie Camera. Since the late 1960s—when the Sarzano-born, Venice-educated artist first encountered the cinematic stratagems of Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, and Michael Snow during a residency in New York—Gioli has rejected the Bolex-toting habits of Vertov’s heirs in favor of a more materialist-minded approach.
His own tactics have included creating collages of found footage, abrading and painting on leader, and, most infamously, constructing pinhole cameras from bread loaves and seashells. Closely related to his experimental photographic work (which has already wended its way into the collections of MoMA and the Centre Pompidou), the often dazzling results constitute an iconoclastic and prescient body of film work that’s only now coming to wider attention.
Following a special program at the New York Film Festival in 2006, a screening at Cinematheque Ontario this week includes three shorts making their North American premieres. Made largely without the benefit of what Gioli dubbed “consumerist” film technology, the likes of The Perforated Camerman—a 1979 film in which Gioli reimagines the lowly sprocket hole as a frame within the frame—establish him as a bridge figure between the New American Cinema he discovered as a young artist and found-footage maestros such as Austria’s Peter Tscherkassky.
Gioli’s use of weathered scraps of celluloid also anticipates Bill Morrison’s odes to decay, though many of Gioli’s works display a larkish humor that befits a devotee of Duchamp. In Little Decomposed Film (1986), Gioli’s manipulations of the film stock further strain the nude figures in his source material, which principally consists of Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Eakins’s Victorian-era studies of humans in motion.
In Commutations with Mutation (1969), the earliest work in Cinematheque Ontario’s program, the wavering lines of the sound strip and the vertical cascade of sprocket holes force the film image out of its usual position of privilege. Considering that much of the footage Gioli places under duress is lifted from an old western, his film could almost be regarded as a blueprint for Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, Tscherkassky’s mesmerizing 2005 tribute to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). In any case, it appears that Gioli got along without a camera just fine.
VIEWERS FAMILIAR WITH FILMMAKER LES BLANK’S extensive catalogue of slice-of-life Americana may be surprised at the opening shots of All in This Tea (2007), which depict street scenes in Hangzhou, China, and women conducting an elaborate tea ceremony. The hourlong film, which was coproduced and codirected by Gina Leibrecht, is Blank’s first feature in a dozen years and also his first shot on digital video. It follows avid tea enthusiast and importer David Lee Hoffman on his quest to acquire the finest teas produced on China’s terraced mountain slopes. Blank, who followed Werner Herzog up and down another mountain for his classic 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, scrambles after Hoffman as he sinks his nose into bag after bag of fragrant leaves in urban back alleys and in the deep countryside. (Herzog himself makes an appearance in a scene shot in Hoffman’s Northern California home, and a handful of tea experts provide historical information and paeans to the beverage’s virtues.)
What begins as the tale of an intrepid obsessive broadens as Hoffman attempts to disentangle himself from Chinese bureaucracy and import organic teas directly from small farmers. Their livelihoods, he suggests, are endangered by the competition from industrial producers of their crop, and in an attempt to secure their traditions, he introduces compost fertilizer, that Marin County backyard staple, to regional agriculture bureaucrats. One of the film’s few comic moments ensues as Hoffman tries to explain the concept of worm shit to the man seated next to him at a luncheon. Despite Hoffman’s friend-of-the-farmer politics, Blank and Leibrecht’s deft blend of biography and adventure tale is never weighted down by didacticism.
All in This Tea, which ran briefly at New York’s Cinema Village over the summer, anchors an eponymous survey of Blank’s five-decade corpus at the city’s Film Forum. It’s a capricious body of work. Among the titles that will be screened are his humorous portrait of an American group tour through Europe, Innocents Abroad (1991); films celebrating garlic, gap-toothed women, Cajun cooking, Chicano culture, and bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins; and the delightful six-minute Cigarette Blues (1985), which is equal parts music video and PSA. Blank’s Herzog films—the second is Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980)—are paired with A Well Spent Life (1971), a forty-four-minute portrait of Texas blues legend Mance Lipscomb. That film contrasts Blank’s characteristic close-ups—he dwells on hands and faces—with panoramic skies crisscrossed by telephone wires. “I’ve had it hard, sometimes good. I’ve been a farmer all my life,” Lipscombe announces at the beginning of the film. By the time it was made, he had been blessed with some ease and had made a living as a regional performer for eleven years—evidenced by his finely polished stories about his wife of half a century and how his neighbor lost his leg. Lipscombe’s a showman with great homilies (touching on the big problems, love especially, that beset us all) and even greater music. That Blank tracked him down and artfully captured him on film is something for which we can be thankful.
Kenneth Anger in front of T. E. Lawrence's motorcycle. (Photo: Damon Cleary, Imperial War Museum)
WELL, HE’S STILL ALIVE. At filmmaker Curtis Harrington’s funeral last year, Kenneth Anger predicted that he himself would die on October 31, 2008—the date that he later chose for the London premiere of his two most recent videos: Ich Will!, comprising found footage of a Hitler Youth rally, and Uniform Attraction (both 2008), a study of US Marines. (“I’ve always found men in uniform very attractive, and I think a lot of women do, too,” he told the rowdy crowd at the debut.)
The screening’s venue, the Imperial War Museum, turned out to be more portentous than the forecasted Halloween date; gone were the Aleister Crowley occultism and rich, decadent symbolism the now-eighty-one-year-old filmmaker deployed in such classics as Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) and Scorpio Rising (1964), which was also screened. Instead the recent work carried forward, a little thinly, Anger’s interest in the eroticism of masculine subcultures, made manifest through found footage and military propaganda rather than via the extraordinary ceremonies, rites, and pageantry the filmmaker orchestrated in his earlier work.
It has been widely acknowledged that Anger’s best period is past, and the boisterous mood in the museum seemed less enthusiastic for a new Anger video or film than nostalgic for the older, tried-and-true Anger flair. His mythos was palpable: Seen through the Anger prism, the Imperial War Museum looked wonderfully camp, with two enormous cannons pointing at spectators as they entered the courtyard, and a fat, shiny motorcycle (T. E. Lawrence’s, apparently) guarding the cinema. The audience greeted Scorpio Rising as if it were an old friend, and moments that originally functioned as parody—the biker striking a match with the back of his teeth, for example—appeared tinged with affection: Ah, men were once like that!
The Nazi-era footage of Ich Will! was presented largely unaltered, with one scene given special effects (distorted colors and mirrored images) and sepia and red tones added throughout. The young men are shown exercising, marching, saluting, and serenading “Fräulein” with accordions, with the footage culminating in the spectacle of a Nazi rally, where companies spell out the initials AH and form the shape of a swastika. Humor is the reigning mode in Uniform Attraction, where a troop of poorly acted (though apparently real) marines exercise in skimpy shorts and T-shirts, some of them coming to full (ahem) attention as they are addressed by their pudgy sergeant.
As with Scorpio Rising, Ich Will! and Uniform Attraction present their subjects as objects of lust, and it is clear that Anger’s declaration of his desire for men in uniform was intentionally provocative. I wish more had been made of this problem of eliciting inappropriate lust in the spectator, or that said inappropriateness had been approached with more complexity. Since his earliest films, Anger has used swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia as ambivalent symbols of violence and passion, enticing the audience to both identify with and reject them. With Ich Will!, the audience’s disgust seems assumed; against this aversion, Anger overplays his alignment with the period, adding an exclamation point to the title (which means “I Want!” in German), setting the opening credits in Fraktur, and dedicating the film to his cousin Karlheinz Anger, who had been a Hitler Youth and was killed, Anger explained, in World War II. Whether the latter is true or not is impossible to tell.
The videos, however, uphold Anger’s larger move away from dramaturgy and toward citation. The artist’s work has always demonstrated an impulse to collect—Pop songs, for example, in Scorpio Rising, Tinseltown scandals in the tell-all book Hollywood Babylon (1959), and iterations of Mickey Mouse in the video Mouse Heaven (2004)—and the explorations of men-at-arms in Ich Will! and Uniform Attraction can be read as samples of a ritualized homosociality. Ich Will! succinctly calls to mind American and British obsessions with World War II footage, but while prior explorations of the erotics of violence—and its larger cultural implications—have been the subject of both profligate veneration and generous satire, here the only complications to the libidinal theme are those supplied by irony and farce. The works made for a lively afternoon at a War Museum on Halloween, but something of the old Anger, with his corruption, subversion, and saturnalia, was lacking.
“NEVER HAVE I experienced so much in one week as here. I feel as if I’m in a film.” So wrote the young Robert Frank to his parents soon after his arrival in the United States in 1947. The Swiss-born Frank is far better known (and vastly more influential) as a photographer than as a filmmaker, but it is arguable that film is more central to his aesthetic project.
One might even think of Frank’s first photography collection, The Americans (1958), as the prototypical road movie—a journey through America’s vernacular landscape. Frank’s mid-’50s trip to the Strip realm of billboards, drive-ins, and gas stations has been recapitulated in American films from Ron Rice’s Senseless (1962) and the unfinished Merry Pranksters epic through the echt ’60s Easy Rider (1969) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) to Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Thelma and Louise (1991), and—need we go on?
Distilled to a single overarching concern, the quintessential Frank enterprise would be either the existential drama of being a stranger in a strange land or the existential situation of being an actor in a movie. His letter home merges these states, as do his own road movies—the (very) quasi-commercial feature Candy Mountain (1987), a collaboration with Rudy Wurlitzer, and the legendary Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues (1972). In the latter film’s most extended sequence, Frank persuades the Stones to forgo their private jet and drive from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Nashville. Initially bored, Mick Jagger is soon prancing with delight to be jiving and shooting pool at a roadside juke joint filled with down-home black folk—which is to say, to find himself in The Americans.
An acerbic European commentator once remarked of that volume that Frank’s photographs revealed “a land of children wearing masks, acting out roles with no comprehension of the self, no awareness of the infinity of history and humanity, no awareness of what is called culture.” Yes, to be sure, but what those pictures also intimated, particularly for Americans, was an alternate America of subcultures and counterculture. And the same must be said of Frank’s first real movie, Pull My Daisy, which he directed with Alfred Leslie in 1959, the same year that The Americans was first published in the United States.
It is symptomatic of Frank’s subterranean film career that his best-known movie would still be this Beat family portrait. Just as Frank’s photographs provided images of American beatitude, so his early movies provided an image for American beatniks. Based on the third act of Jack Kerouac’s unproduced play The Beat Generation (1957), Pull My Daisy, for instance, features poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky; painters Larry Rivers and Alice Neel; plus Delphine Seyrig, a young French actress who had come to New York to study the Method. The unseen Kerouac describes the film’s action—scarcely more than a series of antic doings in Leslie’s Fourth Avenue studio—speaking for all characters in a humorous and grandiloquent monologue that’s interspersed with sound effects and David Amram’s music. Like the painter’s theater that first appeared on the cusp of the ’60s, Pull My Daisy suggested the culmination of postwar trends in acting, painting, music, and poetry that variously proclaimed improvisation, spontaneity, and “emptiness” as their hallmarks.
Pull My Daisy was championed by then Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas (himself an émigré of Frank’s generation), for whom the movie pointed “towards new directions, new ways out of the frozen officialdom and mid-century senility of our arts, towards a
new thematic, a new sensitivity.” Nine years later, Leslie published an article, also in the Voice, debunking the notion that the film was (as Frank had termed it) a “spontaneous documentary”: The extreme informality that characterized Pull My Daisy was a deliberate and sophisticated aesthetic strategy.
Populated by bohemian personalities basically playing themselves, blurring the distinction between documentary and artifice, Pull My Daisy presaged Frank’s subsequent interests. The dialectic between staged and unstaged, as well as between celebrity and obscurity, informs his impure documentary features Me and My Brother (1968; revised 1997) and Cocksucker Blues, as well as the smaller, more personal, process-oriented movies Frank began making in the late ’60s—many of which derived their integrity from a sense that the filmmaker couldn’t care less if they were ever shown.
Conversations in Vermont and its successors Liferaft Earth (1969) and About Me: A Musical (1971) are rooted in the chaos of the late ’60s and steeped in the pungent, disheveled clutter of hippie life. Jumping chronology, however, is the unknown gem C’est vrai! (One Hour) (1990), a sixty-minute-long single-take chunk of real time choreographed one summer afternoon in the artist’s Lower Manhattan neighborhood. Here, thirty years later, is the (almost) spontaneous action documentary Frank claimed to have made with Pull My Daisy. Even the milieu is similar. C’est vrai! begins in the artist’s impressively shambolic studio; the camera moves outside to the corner of Bleecker and Lafayette streets and into a beat-up van, which proceeds to drive in circles around the area, occasionally stopping to allow the camera to foray out into a diner or to record a bit of on-street conversation.
Technically speaking, C’est vrai! is a minor miracle—although the nature of its truth is an elastic concept. The movie is full of staged events. Frank obviously planted actors around the neighborhood, and drove from location to location to harvest their performances; but, given a confused meeting with a woman in the middle of Houston Street, it’s possible that the production stumbled across at least one acquaintance by chance. For the greater part of the film, however, Kevin O’Connor, the protagonist of Candy Mountain, is charged with addressing the camera, until the irrepressibly garrulous Peter Orlovsky clambers into the van and more or less supplants the younger actor as the center of attention. Frank himself never appears, although his voice is heard now and again.
Ranting all the while, Orlovsky leads Frank down into the subway, where the filmmaker records his longtime star serenading expressionless straphangers with a snatch of an aria from Pagliacci and a toneless “Home on the Range.” It’s an aptly underground ending for a piece that is both street theater and an urban road movie.
The complete version of this article appeared in the April 2007 issue of Artforum. “Mapping a Journey: The Films & Videos of Robert Frank” runs November 7–16 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more information, click here.
COSMO VITELLI’S (Ben Gazzara) final advice to his team of strippers in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) is “Be comfortable.” Near the end of A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) begs his wife, Mabel (Gena Rowlands): “Just be yourself!” Rough-edged studies in jostling forces, these two midcareer John Cassavetes films explore why neither is an easy task.
Cassavetes, who died in 1989, has come to be recognized as a pioneer of outsider American cinema. Known for his detail-oriented household dramas, his petri-dish sets—on which lines were often improvised and amateur actors played off professionals, and vice versa—and his stubborn disregard for the traditional rules of planning and shooting a movie, Cassavetes earned a belated place in film history.
An actor by training, Cassavetes could charm when he wanted to. He took roles in films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to finance his own low-budget projects. But he also made a point of shunning the mainstream film community; to cite one example, he once kicked New Yorker critic Pauline Kael out of a restaurant mid-interview because he didn’t think she appreciated his films enough.
Cassavetes had a similarly strained relationship with audiences, and his protagonists in these two films share that unease and sense of struggle. They are constantly molding themselves for a world of impatient spectators, memorably evoked in such probing close-ups as the marathon dinner-table scene in A Woman, in which Nick’s team of construction workers, hunched over plates of spaghetti, crowd into the frame from both sides. Even as Mabel makes eyes at her husband, we never forget the presence of these participatory onlookers, and neither does she. In her eager, eccentric way, she addresses each one of them: “What’s your name?” Characters, even the principals, shift into and out of focus, and the camera lingers on the last guest to tromp out the door.
Most of the action in A Woman is confined to Nick and Mabel’s modest home, which they share with their three children and a constant flow of friends and relatives. Few nonperiod American movies have made social pressures and influences feel so ever-present. But A Woman doesn’t preach the familiar gospel (as salient in Hollywood as it is in art-house cinema) of transcending it all. As Raymond Carney writes in American Dreaming (1985), his book-length study of Cassavetes, “[i]n even more detail than [his] previous films, A Woman Under the Influence argues that personal freedom is not achieved by attempting to break away from influences into a less compromised, purer, more autonomous selfhood, but by making oneself vulnerable to them, by plunging into them, navigating them, and if possible mastering them.”
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which Cassavetes made while fighting to secure distribution for A Woman, can be read as a shift away from this combative anti-romanticism and toward despair. The earlier film has flashes of bighearted lyricism; both its structure and its musical score owe a great deal to opera, and there’s a moving scene in which Mabel has her kids act out “The Dying Swan” in the backyard. Perhaps most important, much of Mabel’s community, though confused by her weird antics, also wishes her well.
In Chinese Bookie, the odds are stacked more heavily against the hero. “My name’s Cosmo Vitelli. I’m the owner of this joint,” he announces, before his girls take the stage. “I chose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them. You have any complaints, you just come to me and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.” He’s got a hard-boiled devotion to his club, and he genuinely views it as a stage for art. The double-crossing gangsters chasing him down for a debt, though, couldn’t care less. “Money, money,” as one of them puts it, comes before everything—including, even, Cosmos’s status as a stand-up fellow Italian in multicultural Los Angeles. The greedy thugs give Cosmo no breathing room, and in the context of their extortion, the “style” he has so proudly cultivated begins to seem delusional. There are obvious parallels between Cassavetes and Cosmo, who fancies himself more sophisticated than he is and tugs on cigarettes as the performances he has orchestrated are booed by the audience, and Chinese Bookie is often referred to as the director’s most personal film.
The traditional view is that uncompromising filmmakers like Cassavetes have complete ownership of their art, but it was never that simple. Shortly after making A Woman—which, thanks in large part to Rowlands’s groundbreaking performance, has achieved classic status—Cassavetes lamented how hard it was to be an auteur without a support network: “The pressures are too unnatural.” He goes on, in an interview reprinted in the liner notes of the new Criterion edition: “I don’t know if I could do it again. I would want to have more ease and relaxation; I would want to have some endorsements of my talent and the film I’m making.”
He’s received plenty of endorsements since. And now there’s the Criterion reissue, which includes both the original, 135-minute version of Chinese Bookie and the 108-minute cut he made after the film’s disastrous premiere. And it’s important to note, as the film’s producer, Al Ruban, does in a taped interview included on the second disc, that no distributor made him trim it: In typical Cassavetes fashion, he did it on his own.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and A Woman Under the Influence are available now on DVD from the Criterion Collection. For more information, on Chinese Bookie, click here; for more information on A Woman, click here.
Left: Pedro Costa, In Vanda's Room, 2000, still from a color digital video, 170 minutes. Zita Duarte. Right: The Capricci DVD edition of In Vanda's Room.
IN VANDA’S ROOM (2000) is the second of the three remarkable films Pedro Costa has devoted to the Lisbon slum suburb of Fontainhas. While the enigmatic and beautiful Bones (1997), shot on 35-mm film by a proper crew and featuring (a few) professional actors and a (fragmentary) plot, remains an art-house film in the classic sense, In Vanda’s Room is something altogether different. A “documentary fiction,” the nearly three-hour film was shot on digital video over a period of two years by a crew essentially consisting of one person—Pedro Costa. It depicts the reality of the destitute neighborhood through a nonnarrative sequence of intimate portraits of its inhabitants and their everyday lives of drug addiction and poverty.
Focusing on the sisters Vanda and Zita Duarte, who spend most of their time smoking heroin in Vanda’s room, the film defies the distinction between fiction and documentary, with the protagonists acting the roles of themselves rather than being merely depicted in situ. The undermining of narrative conventions and genre codes; the awareness of the qualities and limitations of the recording technologies employed; and the devotion to the reality, rhythm, and visual and aural characteristics of a certain time and place all point to the radicalism of Costa’s work and create a new realist cinematography keyed to the present. Without diminishing the gravity of the social situation, however, In Vanda’s Room does not only put misery and desperation on display. Rather, it depicts people who do not accept the conventional understanding of their own conditions, people who should be victims but who, lacking access to reasonable means of life, are forced to design another existence in the margins of the social order. The protagonists of Costa’s film find a certain pride in what is generally considered valueless.
In a two-hundred-page interview in the book that accompanies the new, outstanding French DVD edition of In Vanda’s Room, Costa discusses his influences and predecessors. The names that figure in the conversation range from the apparent to the unpredictable and include Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, whose programmatic idea about the director’s absolute responsibility toward the aesthetic qualities of a specific time and place clearly informs Costa’s work, and Andy Warhol, whose patient fascination with his protagonists and their existence in space influenced Costa’s long takes of Vanda as she smokes, coughs, quarrels with her sister, and sleeps in her decrepit bedroom. More surprising yet ultimately quite obvious is the relation Costa points out between his punk-rock idols—Wire and the Clash, John Lydon’s Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited—and his own DIY aesthetic, which dismisses traditional, encumbering models of film production and creates a portrait of a population that exists on the borders of society and established culture.
Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room is now available on a French-language DVD produced by Capricci Films. For more information, click here. Costa will introduce Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's Too Early, Too Late at Light Industry in Brooklyn on Sunday, November 9. For more information, click here.