Leslie Thornton, Jennifer, Where Are You?, 1981, still from a color film in 16 mm, 11 minutes.
THE PENULTIMATE INSTALLMENT of Thomas Beard and Ed Halter’s “Summer Knowledge” series at Artists Space featured early 16-mm films (1975–1987) by the seminal and enigmatic Leslie Thornton. In keeping with the spirit and format of Light Industry, the programmers’ home venue in Brooklyn, Beard and Halter facilitated an open, rigorous conversation to complement each of the series’s six evenings of work by moving-image artists—William E. Jones, Anne Charlotte Robertson, Michael Robinson, Paul Sharits, Emily Wardill, and Thornton—artists whose practices straddle the film and art worlds and whom some consider unrecognized or underappreciated in the latter. Following last Friday’s screening, Thornton was joined onstage by the artist Seth Price, a student of Thornton’s at Brown in the 1990s whose work shares an erudite reticence with hers.
With a matter-of-fact, ominous sense of humor, Thornton wished the audience viewing her early works “good luck.” The screening began with X-TRACTS (1975). Like many of her films taken in their rawest sense, X-TRACTS explores language and technology by mixing structuralist strategies inherited from her mentors (including Hollis Frampton, Peter Kubelka, and Sharits) with a more personal style of filmmaking rooted in narrative and its abstraction. Until X-TRACTS, Thornton had worked primarily in painting, and she described the work’s intention as “primitive”: She aimed to replicate painterly gestures by cutting together incomprehensible pulses of sound and image. The pulsing motif recurred in her next film, All Right You Guys (1976), and eventually evolved into the usage of phrase repetitions, as in Jennifer, Where Are You? (1981), in which the titular question (spoken atop a baroque sound track) plays against a close-up of a young girl’s face. The girl circles her mouth in lipstick until she looks something like Heath Ledger’s Joker, while, in the foreground, a flame consumes a match.
The notion of “generations” was, according to Halter, a cornerstone of the series, an idea that grew more resonant throughout the evening, as Thornton shared projects that she has revisited and reworked to illuminate a genealogy of her own practice. Following Jennifer she showed, for comparison, a one-minute clip of the same work on HD video, and after that a rarely screened short film, Oh China Oh (1983), which seemed a coda to her better-known, contemporaneous meta-Orientalist meditation Adynata.
The exemplary model for Thornton’s tendency to reopen even “completed” works is also her best-known project, Peggy and Fred in Hell, a sprawling antimasterwork the artist built over twenty-five years (1984–2008; a “final” version was presented during the 2008 Whitney Biennial). At Artists Space, Thornton showed the first section, known as “The Prologue” (1985), in which the audience is introduced to two children who are “raised by TV” in a world evaporating into a miasma of media. “Writing with media,” she says of her work, and indeed Peggy and Fred in Hell can be read as a diary of eras shaped by their technologies—or itself as a technological creation with its own dimensions of empowerment/disempowerment. “We’re in the hell now,” Thornton noted at the screening, describing how the film anticipated an “information overload” and a “loss of agency and responsibility.” “And I don’t mean hell as a negative thing, necessarily.”
TERRY GILLIAM’S AMBITIOUS FANTASY, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, set to open in the US on Christmas Day, already did well in some parts of Europe when it premiered there in October—notably Italy and the UK, where it placed third during its opening weekends in both countries. I saw it the first time myself in Saint Andrews, Scotland, with an appreciative audience in early November. The lead character, Tony—played by the late Heath Ledger and three other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell) who were called in when Ledger died halfway through the filming—is partly conceived as a spoof on Tony Blair, though one wonders whether this conceit will register with much clarity for the American audience. But it’s also unclear how much this will matter, given all the other points of attraction (such as Tom Waits as the devil and Christopher Plummer as the Methuselah-like Parnassus). Far more relevant, it seems, is the way Gilliam has ingeniously adapted the avant-garde multiple-casting ploy of everyone from Yvonne Rainer (Kristina Talking Pictures ) to Todd Haynes (I’m Not There ) in terms of his own mainstream fantasy plot.
Roughly speaking, for both its postmodern mishmash of periods, locales, and styles and its metaphysical ambiguities about age and identity, Gilliam’s postmodernist salad belongs in the special company of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)—the most commercially successful domestic release in the history of Japanese cinema, almost completely ignored in the US for what I suspect were partially ideological reasons. (Apart from his antiwar sentiments, Miyazaki’s unorthodox vision in which old age and youth, callowness and wisdom, peacefully coexist rather than succeed each other is no less challenging.) To a lesser extent—more a matter of design than of spiritual depth—it also shares a certain imaginative freedom with Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, released the same year, which by contrast placed eighty-seventh in one of Boxoffice magazine’s two recent “all-time” lists of the most commercially successful American releases (the one unadjusted for inflation).
Will The Imaginarium’s stateside fate be closer to that of Miyazaki’s parable or to that of Burton’s less coherent meditation on class difference? As storytelling it’s harder to track than either of those 2005 features, but its seductiveness as a digital smorgasbord is more apparent, and it’s even profitable to view these two qualities as interrelated. Gilliam’s orientation as a former comic-book artist is basically that of a hippie bricoleur whose concepts seem to grow out of his images rather than vice versa. Even if The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) sporadically calls to mind Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965) as much as his Brazil (1985) echoes Orwell’s 1984 (1949), one often feels that the graphic designs in Gilliam’s films supersede (and perhaps even yield) the literary concepts.
More relevant here is The Imaginarium’s parallel collapsing of diverse historical eras and various kinds of flat and three-dimensional space under the same old-fashioned proscenium, reeking of a nostalgia for nineteenth-century English traveling players planted in some version of both contemporary London and its postapocalyptic future, a mix already evident in the opening shot. The Imaginarium—an elastic space behind or through an onstage “mirror” occasioning both the film’s best digital effects and its multiple casting of Tony—might be compared with both the title talisman in Balzac’s 1831 novel La Peau de chagrin (a wild ass’s skin that gratifies the desires of its owner, progressively shrinking—along with the owner’s life force—every time it is used) and the more abstract and metaphysical Zone in Tarkovsky’s 1979 Stalker, which is bit closer to a kind of spiritual Rorschach test for anyone who tries to enter it. (Still another cross-reference might be Charles G. Finney’s 1935 novella The Circus of Dr. Lao.) But the metaphoric significance ultimately pales beside the “Open, sesame” it offers to Gilliam’s free-form improvisations.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens December 25.
Dash Shaw, The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D., 2009, stills from an animated Web series.
CINEMATIC IS OFTEN A FRAUGHT TERM when used to describe comics. On the one hand, it can aptly express a story’s visual syntax (close-ups, jump cuts, dissolves); applied a different way, however, it derogatorily suggests that a series of panels are ready-made storyboards. But for a cartoonist like Dash Shaw, who revels in drawing’s fluidity and expressive imperfections, the transition between comics and animation is a natural one. His splendid four-part animated web series for IFC.com, The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D., underscores what’s best about all of his work—its eclecticism and intimate drama.
The quartet of short films (hand-drawn by Shaw and Jane Samborski, with a score by James Lucido) concerns Rebel X-6, member of an antidroid organization that opposes the prevalence of droids in all areas of society. He is sent on assignment, at the request of an artist’s guild, to pose as a nude-model droid for a life-drawing class, where students aren’t allowed to sketch live people. Shaw emphasizes the body—using its inescapable physicality to examine our perception of what is “natural”—and the complex sense of self that he so delicately explored in his 2008 graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button (in particular with the character Peter, whose feelings of outsiderness are represented by his frog head). These explicitly human characteristics threaten to undo Rebel X-6’s mission: Droids don’t sweat, cry, or develop erections, and when he undresses, he finds himself laid bare.
With a few exceptions, language is largely expressed through thought bubbles and intertitles. In the film’s wonderful abstract sequences, Shaw lets loose from the mapping and diagramming that characterizes Bottomless Belly Button. The movement of color and form recalls early-twentieth-century abstract film: Walter Ruttmann, Oskar Fischinger, Viking Eggeling. There are also evocations of Jeremy Blake’s color gradations from Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and frames that resemble animated Rothkos. It’s refreshing to watch a film that so embraces animation’s foundation in drawing and painting. As a lesson, in both form and content, about the natural over the artificial, Shaw’s first animated series offers much about film’s potential for spontaneity—or life as we live it.
BAM’S TIMELY REVIVAL of Howard Hawks’s great 1940 screwball comedy showcases two once-thriving, now nearly extinct traditions: print journalism and meaty roles for women in funny films. In one of cinema’s most felicitous gender reassignments, Hawks’s movie, written by Charles Lederer, transforms the two male leads of its source material—Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 hit play The Front Page—into ex-spouses Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) and Walter Burns (Cary Grant). Hildy, an ace reporter for the Morning Post, arrives at the office to tell Walter, also her editor, that she’s quitting the business to tie the knot and settle down in Albany with dopey insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy); Walter schemes to win her back, to both the paper and the altar.
A paragon of what Stanley Cavell has called the “comedy of remarriage,” His Girl Friday, with its rapid-fire banter, is a battle between equals, the defining dynamic between men and women in comedies of the 1930s and early ’40s. (Hawks’s other comedies from this era, like 1938’s Bringing Up Baby and 1941’s Ball of Fire, offer further proof.) Seen today, when women in romantic comedies are routinely humiliated, such as Katherine Heigl in The Ugly Truth or Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, a film made seventy years ago seems completely radical: Hildy’s drive and love of her profession aren’t treated as pathologies, as they are in these two 2009 releases, but as the very core of her being. “I’m no suburban bridge player. I’m a newspaperman,” Hildy, racing to meet deadline, typewriter keys flying, tells baffled Bruce, slowly beginning to realize she’ll never join him on the 9 PM train to Albany.
Though every cast member in His Girl Friday, including the numerous bit players, has a star turn, the film belongs to Russell, giving her best performance and sealing her place in the funny-lady pantheon. But according to Turner Classic Movies’ website, she wasn’t Hawks’s first choice: Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, and Ginger Rogers all told Hawks no before he cast Russell. Convinced that Hawks was treating her like an also-ran, Russell snapped at him early in filming: “You don’t want me, do you? Well, you’re stuck with me, so you might as well make the most of it.” He did.
His Girl Friday screens at BAM December 18–24. For more details, click here.
Left: François Ozon, Ricky, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Left: Ricky (Arthur Peyret). Right: Lisa and Katie (Mélusine Mayance and Alexandra Lamy).
A STIFF DOSE of domestic melodrama topped off with a head-spinning chaser of sci-fi horror, Ricky is a celebration of a conventional virtue (parenthood) that still manages to take the road less traveled. Katie (Alexandra Lamy) and Paco (Sergi López) are two blue-collar coworkers who one day sneak away from the assembly line to fool around in the bathroom. Cut to a few weeks later, and Katie is explaining to her mature, responsible daughter Lisa (Mélusine Mayance) that the apartment’s occupancy is about to double: Paco will be moving in, and she will soon be joined by a baby brother. “We’ll be like a new family,” Lisa says.
But when young Ricky is born, the simple harmony of this fragile family begins to unravel. Paco doesn’t know how to handle the responsibilities of fatherhood, and while Katie knows the routine, she panics when she begins to glimpse mysterious bruises on the boy’s back. Katie accuses Paco of abusing Ricky. Paco is so hurt by the allegation that he leaves the apartment. Lisa, at first jealous of her new baby brother, rushes to fill the parental void. The bruises, however, only get worse, gradually revealing wings that allow the infant to fly around the apartment. As the doctors marvel, the press catches wind. Katie and Lisa are thrust into the national spotlight.
As far as plot twists go, the wings are a doozy—so unexpected and grotesque that they nearly derail the story. Until the feathers break through the skin, Ricky veers dark, lingering around traumatic narratives of abuse. Later, things skew silly, as Ricky masters the art of hovering and becomes something of a public freak show. These extreme moments undercut the pathos that director François Ozon tries to evoke from the vision of a family coping with a crisis. Here is a movie teetering between genres—no surprise, perhaps, for those familiar with Ozon’s oeuvre. In Under the Sand (2000), a missing-person drama transitions into a tale of psychological delusion when the body is never found. In Swimming Pool (2003), a writer’s rural creative retreat turns treacherous after an unexpected murder. Ozon enjoys watching characters cope with the unexpected, and he begins Ricky with an image of domestic routine destabilized by the introduction of a new father and son. If the film’s second act is too contrived by half, that’s the risk you take when you step into Ozon’s world. He’s a mad scientist set on manufacturing whole new brews. And I’ll give him this: I’ve never before encountered a film quite like Ricky.
Ricky opens December 16 at IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.
Left: Andy Warhol, Vinyl, 1965, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 66 minutes. Gerard Malanga. Right: Andy Warhol, Screen Test #2, 1965, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 67 minutes. Mario Montez. Both images © 2009 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.
DRAMA, AS WE ALL KNOW, IS CONFLICT. Ask any aspiring screenwriter. Conflict between characters, conflict within characters, conflict between characters and external circumstances. Among the many subversions and perversions that shape the film oeuvre of Andy Warhol, the treatment of conflict is paramount. In the films of the silent period, which by and large are portraits—the four-and-a-half minute Screen Tests and the longer single-subject movies such as Eat (1964) or Henry Geldzahler (1964)—conflict resides within the person on the screen and usually involves the ambivalent emotions and impulses that arise when one finds oneself on camera with no specific instructions on how to fill time. This conflict may also apply to the viewer, who may feel similarly ambivalent about sitting through (enduring) a movie in which time and drama are so relentlessly split apart. “Should I stay or should I go?”—the apropos lyric for the audience, especially when faced with a movie, no matter its visual pleasures, where the subject is unconscious (Sleep ) or inanimate (Empire ).
It’s not surprising, then, that when Warhol began to avail himself of the sync-sound capability of the Auricon camera (largely used in the 1960s for news gathering), all hell broke loose. The Warhol talkies are defined by the extraordinary level of verbal abuse hurled by the actors at one another. And yet for all the arguing, sniping, and fighting, the talkies are hardly any more dramatic than the silents, since the arguments themselves have no resolution and effect no change. Inertia prevails.
The Anthology Film Archives series “Beyond the Absurd: Ronald Tavel & Andy Warhol” includes ten of the talkies on which Warhol collaborated with Tavel, the playwright who coined the name the Theatre of the Ridiculous. (Tavel’s program note for the first Theatre of the Ridiculous stage production, the 1965 double bill of his one-act plays Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro, succinctly states: “We have passed beyond the absurd: Our position is absolutely preposterous.”) According to Callie Angell, Warhol scholar and author of the catalogue raisonné on the Warhol films, the difference between the Warhol-Tavel collaborations and Warhol’s other talkies is that Tavel’s screenplays had an explicit agenda that Warhol, the director, tried to subvert or foil. Drama, therefore, was built into the film object through this calculated conflict between the vision of the writer and that of the director, rather than being implicit in narrative or performance.
Andy Warhol, Vinyl, 1965. (Excerpt)
For example, Vinyl (1965), Tavel’s reimagining of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, was written for an all-male cast. Sixty-six minutes long, it was shot from a single fixed-camera position, and the deep-space Renaissance perspectival composition is among Warhol’s richest and most elegant. The action in the foreground involves the “re-education” of a self-described “JD” (Gerard Malanga), who is chained, whipped, and tortured by various supposed agents of the police state. The actors read their lines from a script, and their rough-trade posing is unconvincing even as parody. In the shadowy recesses of the image, however, another man is being stripped and beaten, and although it is difficult to make out exactly what is transpiring, something about the brutality seems disturbingly real. At the last minute, Warhol threw a cog into the dialectic of Tavel’s exclusively homoerotic s/m machine by giving Edie Sedgwick, his newly discovered Park Avenue superstar, a nonspeaking role. Sedgwick is positioned in the extreme right foreground, her bare arms and platinum-hair-topped visage dazzlingly white—literally and figuratively, she’s overexposed. Chain-smoking, occasionally laughing at nothing in particular while attempting to ignore the meaning of the fictitious spectacle occurring next to her and the actuality of a man being tortured, perhaps not unpleasurably, behind her, she is, in Hollywood lingo, the fish out of water and, in the complete otherness of her gender and class, the most perversely fascinating object on the screen.
Vinyl and The Chelsea Girls (1966), for which Tavel scripted two sequences, are the most familiar films in the series. Among the other must-sees: Kitchen (1965), one of the funniest of the Sedgwick vehicles; Space (1965), which gives the lie to the myth that Warhol never moved the camera; and Hedy (1966), Screen Test #2 (1965), and Harlot (1964), all of which star Mario Montez, the most intense and moving of the drag queens adored by the cameras of both Warhol and Jack Smith. Montez, who lives in Florida and performed publicly for the first time in decades at a recent Smith conference in Berlin, may be present at some of the screenings on December 13 and 14. Angell will introduce Screen Test #1 and Screen Test #2 tonight (December 10). Tavel, sadly, died suddenly this past March at age seventy-two. His website, ronaldtavel.com lives on, and there you will find, in addition to most of his plays and screenplays, his brilliant reflections on Warhol, Smith, and the still resistant, still resonant underground movie and theater scene of the ’60s, in which he played no small part.
“Beyond the Absurd: Ronald Tavel & Andy Warhol,” runs December 10–17 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Warhol scholar Callie Angell introduces Screen Test #1 on Thursday, December 10. For more details, click here.
IT’S ODD, AND SLIGHTLY UNSETTLING, when a great director assumes the style of another great director, but that’s what seems to have happened in Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a surreal psychodrama loosely based on the bizarre matricide committed by talented student actor and basketball player Mark Yavorsky in 1979 San Diego. Written by Herzog and longtime associate Herbert Golder, a classics professor at Boston University, the film was executive-produced by David Lynch—and it shows.
Renamed Brad McCullum for the movie, the Yavorsky character is played with bewildered intensity by Michael Shannon, who, guided by Herzog’s sensitive direction, delivers a moving portrait of a well-meaning but clearly unraveling personality who ultimately kills his own mother with an antique sword at a neighbor’s house. In Yavorsky’s mind, the murder was inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Orestes, whom he’d been rehearsing to play as a graduate student in drama at UC San Diego at the time of his psychotic break. A subject of classic tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Orestes murdered his mother, Clytemnestra, for having killed his father, Agamemnon, years earlier. While the script takes great liberties with the Yavorsky story, these details remain intact.
The rest is pure Lynch. The blank, ingenuous cops (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) who arrive at the murder scene are borrowed from the beginnings of Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Brad Dourif (McCullum’s ostrich-farming redneck uncle) from Blue Velvet (1986), and the always disturbing Grace Zabriskie (McCullum’s mother) from Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks (1990–91), and Inland Empire (2006). There are pink flamingos, the aforementioned ostriches, black Jell-O, God as the Quaker Oats man, a coffee mug inscribed with the phrase RAZZLE DAZZLE, and Udo Kier (an honorary Lynch character actor if ever there was one). The combination of dark thoughts and behavior with San Diego’s oppressively bright sunlight also seems typically Lynchian, even if dictated by the location of the source story.
If you like Lynch’s best work (I do), this isn’t fatal, but viewers may feel the same anxiety-of-influence uneasiness one feels when watching Brian De Palma’s earlier thrillers (Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, etc.). At the time, De Palma so wanted to be Hitchcock that these films teeter on the edge of pastiche, but his cinematic talent and obvious love for the medium make them compelling nonetheless. Such is the case with My Son, where core elements seem drawn from Herzog’s characteristic obsessions—beleaguered visionaries, extreme situations—but are operating in a world designed by Lynch. Indeed, the film is something of a science experiment in the field of auteur theory. Because My Son has all the surrealist trappings of a Lynch project but lacks the tone of creeping ambient dread that he has refined and trademarked, one could say the film proves Andrew Sarris right—directors do leave a distinct personal stamp on their work, even in an otherwise highly collaborative medium.
Most, if not all, of Herzog’s plagiaristic excesses in My Son are atoned for by his prominent use of a song by the haunting dolceola-playing prewar gospel singer Washington Phillips, who, though long dead, deserves a wider audience.
Tom Ford, A Single Man, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Production still. Jim and George (Matthew Goode and Colin Firth). Photo: Eduard Grau/The Weinstein Company.
PHILADELPHIA FOR THE ART-HOUSE CROWD (with crossover appeal to readers of Allure and fans of Mad Men), A Single Man is a gay film designed for the tolerant admiration of straight audiences. For his directorial debut, Tom Ford, the former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, has adapted Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel (the author’s personal favorite of his books) about a day in the life of George, a fifty-eight-year-old gay Englishman who teaches literature at a small college in Los Angeles; memories of his longtime partner, Jim, who died eight months prior in a car crash, frequently interrupt George’s interior monologue.
In his take on Isherwood’s text—praised by Edmund White as “one of the first and best novels of the modern gay-liberation movement”—Ford has crafted one of the most laboriously art-directed, mawkish depictions of pre-Stonewall gay life. After nixing a completed screenplay by David Scearce, Ford (who put up almost seven million dollars of his own money to make A Single Man) wrote a script, introducing several misguided plot points. George, played by Colin Firth, now begins his day knowing it will be his last, assiduously attending to pre-suicide errands: arranging farewell notes on his desk just so; laying out the suit (designed, of course, by Ford, as is all of Firth’s attire) he is to be buried in, specifying a Windsor knot for his tie; retrieving documents from his safety-deposit box at the bank, where George will have a mystical encounter with the pigtailed moppet who lives next door. The protagonist of Isherwood’s novel, lonely, melancholic, but still vigorous and determined, has been stripped of his vitality, portrayed as a tragic, extremely fussy homosexual.
Preparing for his own death, George experiences all the events and interactions of the next twenty-four hours (set on an unspecified day sometime before Christmas 1962 in Isherwood’s book but assigned the specific date of November 30 in Ford’s movie) with heightened appreciation. George and a Madrileño hustler he meets in a liquor-store parking lot remark on the pretty pink hue of the smog hanging over Los Angeles at dusk—another narrative addition of Ford’s whose sole function is to allow Firth to show off a Castilian lisp.
Nothing randy happens between George and the pretty, pompadoured rent boy; Ford, notorious for his carnal fashion spreads in the 1990s, has made a sexless film. We catch a glimpse of well-sculpted butts when George and Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, also outfitted by Ford), a student who’s hot for teacher, skinny-dip in the Pacific. George’s flashbacks to life with Jim (Matthew Goode), the love of his life for sixteen years, reveal a furtive nuzzle. In Ford’s most grotesque intervention into Isherwood’s text, George has the most bodily contact with Charley (Julianne Moore), George’s neighbor and fellow British expat, depicted on-screen as the pushiest of fag hags. “If you weren’t such a goddamn poof, we could have been happy,” Charley, soused on Tanqueray, her bouffant collapsed, slurs at George after he rebuffs her. Desperate women, suicidal gays: Ford may have perfected the retro look of 1962, but beneath the superficial glamour of his movie lies an exceptionally retrograde sensibility.
A Single Man is now available through Sony Pictures on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King, 1972, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 140 minutes.
THE NEW GERMAN CINEMA that blossomed in the 1970s is often reduced to three directors—Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder—for US consumption. The distribution company Facets has slowly been working to counteract this trend: Soon to come is a stream of Alexander Kluge DVDs; for now, Facets has completed its release of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s trilogy of films on the roots of German pathology, following Hitler, a Film from Germany (1977) with Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) and Karl May (1974).
Ludwig blends the influences of Wagner—who is repeatedly name-dropped by the characters—and Brecht with those of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith. It’s easy to imagine eccentric Bavarian King Ludwig I (played here by Fassbinder regular Harry Baer) holding court in the Chelsea Hotel. The film presents a series of colorful tableaux with very little camera movement. The stylized performances make for an unusual type of narrative film, but it nevertheless tells a story, and one less drawn toward elaborate metaphors than its successors. (Though May and Hitler both get cameos.) Syberberg here seems less sure-footed than he is in his later work, but the mix of cinematic and theatrical influences, reflected both in visual style and in acting, draws one in nevertheless.
Karl May is the most conventional of Syberberg’s films. Until its final half hour, it reads as a naturalistic biopic of the eponymous author (played by Helmut Käutner). Stylistically, it’s a step forward from Ludwig’s minimal cinematography; Syberberg seems to have suddenly become aware of the expressive potential of camera movement. (He’s also fond of wipes.) May stands in for Germany’s tormented relationship with the rest of the world: He claimed to be a world traveler, with firsthand knowledge of Native American customs, but never left his homeland and wrote many of his books in prison. It’s the subtlest film of the trilogy, but one still powered by an overwhelming sense of paranoia and anxiety.
Hitler, Ludwig, and Karl May are all available through Facets. For more details, click here.