Andrei Ujica, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, 2010, still from a black-and-white and color film, 180 minutes.
FIVE YEARS after Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) began the revival of a national cinema that had been moribund for forty years, at least half a dozen Romanian directors have made their mark on international film history. Now in its fifth season, the Romanian Film Festival (December 3–5) takes over the two screens of the TriBeCa Cinemas and the lounge bar to present a dozen fiction and documentary features, a group of shorts, and two one-man live shows.
The festival opens with Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu (2010), a tour de force of found-footage moviemaking that’s sustained through its three-hour running time by a single brilliant conceit. Ujica documents Ceauşescu’s 1965–89 dictatorship by chronologically assembling official video and television recordings—and nothing else. “Autobiography” is the operative word. This is the story of Ceauşescu as he would have written it in moving images if he could have. Romanians, of course, will write a mirror-opposite story as they watch, and the ironies will be rich—a black enough comedy to make one weep. But even for those with only the barest knowledge of this particular history, the movie is fascinating. A wild card among the leaders of the Iron Curtain countries, Ceauşescu first tacked west (there are scenes of him hosting Nixon in Bucharest and being feted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace) before he tacked further east than Moscow (receiving a spectacular reception in China and a stranger one in North Korea.) During the first years of his rule, every empty speech is greeted by standing ovations, every birthday with banks of roses. Later, the applause is muted, the roses reduced to a few bouquets. The visits to construction sites are taken on unpaved roads to nowhere. Inspecting baked goods in a market, the leader comments on the relative thickness of the crusts. The workers look at him as if he’s mad—and by this point, he likely is—because crusts are all that many people have to eat. Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were arrested after the uprising of December 1989. Shaky handheld video of their hasty trial before a military tribunal frames the movie, fore and aft. The couple’s execution immediately after the trial was never recorded. And, in any case, Ceauşescu would not have included it in his autobiography.
Two other must-see features, Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2010) and Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), were critical favorites at Cannes and the New York Film Festival. In Tuesday, After Christmas, a woman who believes she has a perfect marriage is devastated when her husband announces that he’s leaving her and their child for another woman. Except for the intensity of the immediate reaction of the wife (beautifully acted by Mirela Oprisor) to her husband’s betrayal, the film is singularly and refreshingly devoid of melodrama. The relationship between the husband and his girlfriend doesn’t seem compelling on either side, although one suspects that he needs to believe it is, in the way that you might talk yourself into going into debt to buy a new car when the one you have is just fine. Aurora, Puiu’s follow-up to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and the second film in his proposed series “Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest,” is a terrifying, clinically detailed study of a paranoid multiple murderer and a rigorous investigation of the possibilities of “observational cinema.” That Puiu both directs and plays the role of the killer intensifies the tension between identification and distance. Both Aurora and Tuesday, After Christmas will open in the US in 2011, but it could be fun to see them with the Romanian audience that always turns out for the festival and whose engagement with this burgeoning national cinema makes for lively postscreening discussion and partying.
Puiu’s longtime producer Bobby Paunescu makes an impressive directing debut with Francesca (2009), in which an attractive young woman who believes she can make a better life in Italy gradually comes to understand that she is trapped between sexual predators at home and white slavers abroad. Francesca is a spare, tough movie about gangster capitalism and misogyny in the new Europe. It’s the kind of discovery that makes festivals like this one both pleasurable and necessary.
The Fifth Romanian Film Festival runs December 3–5 at TriBeCa Cinemas in New York. For more details, click here.
JEAN GENET famously spoke of a theater among the graves, one that embraced the cagey void of death through the equally mysterious undertaking of art and cast a bit of shadow on “a world that seems to be moving so merrily towards analytical clarity.” On a recent Thursday evening, Marnie Weber conjured Genet’s sublime vision in the shadowy corners and marble hallways of the Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum, a sprawling gothic necropolis in the sleepy suburb (sorry, Genet, not your preferred Urb) of Altadena, California.
Eternity Forever, a kind of funeral for Weber’s band the Spirit Girls, comprised film, performance, collage, and rock concert and was also the latest edition to West of Rome Public Art’s “Women in the City” series. The ritual began with a nocturnal graveyard stroll featuring a cadre of ghouls wearing costumes of Weber’s creation: Three lantern-carrying crones greeted the visitors; a mutant chicken and a snowy-fleeced lamb crouched behind headstones; and a masked gravedigger led the way while muttering about the boneyard’s inhabitants and shadowboxing with the night. The parade prepared viewers for happenings at the main stage, a proscenium erected in the mausoleum’s grand vaulted hall, which had no doubt been chosen for its superior acoustics and dramatic lighting.
Vaguely old-timey parlor music (that slipped into atonality) beckoned the night’s nearly five hundred guests into the main chamber, where they gathered under the sepia flicker of The Eternal Heart (2010), a film that centers on the dreamy, quasi-linear parable of Sweet Peaches (a heroine played by Weber), her crotchety father, and the demons released from her lonely heart. Each event in Peaches’s story—her endless sweeping away of dust, her conversations with a taxidermied deer, her frenzied danse macabre—contained mystical significance, meanings that begged not for analytical clarity but for blind faith. At its halfway point, the film switches from a grainier film stock to sickly saturated color that is punctuated by lyrical, materialist touches (sprocket holes, scratched celluloid) fashioned by Jennifer West, who served as Weber’s editor. Poetic intertitles and a quixotic live score—performed by Tanya Haden, Brian Randolf, Debbie Spinelli, Dani Tull, Sachiyo Yoshimoto, and Weber—lent themselves to the work’s aura of enigmatic longing, byzantine obscurity, and homespun witchiness.
As the credits rolled, the musical orchestration shifted gears and the Spirit Girls appeared to perform their final “live” set. The group’s look—matching pinafores, shawls, straw hats, gloves, and white masks à la Franju’s Eyes Without a Face—belies their driving synth-rock sound. So it was no surprise that as the music reached its crescendo, their frontwoman (Weber) reappeared dressed as a cross between Leda, the swan, and a glam rocker. The show, suffused with a dynamic femme energy, spilled over the stage into the crowd, past the columbaria, culminating in a procession that ended at a surprisingly functional art gallery located at the heart of the mausoleum. (There, a series of related collages served as a picture-perfect tribute to the girls.) Cathartic and neurotic, reverent and wicked, Weber’s performance faced the void—even if it meant donning a mask.
FURTHER PROOF of the increasing ubiquity of nonfiction movies, last week fifteen films were short-listed for the Documentary Feature category for the eighty-third Academy Awards, culled from a record high 101 qualifying titles. A little more than a hundred films also unspooled at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (Recontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal, or RIDM), which ended its thirteenth edition earlier this month. Middling, bad, and masterful, the handful of titles I saw during my three days at RIDM revealed the growing disparity in skill of those working in the genre.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 12th & Delaware, an important but uneven chronicle of the ever-escalating battle over reproductive rights in the US, focuses on the latest insidious strategies of antichoice groups. In Fort Pierce, Florida, an abortion clinic is besieged not just by a dozen or so protesters (most of whom appear eligible for AARP membership) but by the activities in the building across the street: a vaguely named “pregnancy-care center,” which counsels women, many of whom are seeking abortions but have mistakenly entered the wrong building, against the procedure through emotional manipulation and flat-out lies about health risks. If the filmmakers, best known for the docs The Boys of Baraka (2005) and the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp (2006), err on the side of repetition, they have unearthed an exceptionally eloquent speaker on the right to choose. “The only regret I have is sleeping with him that one time without a condom,” responds one patient to the pregnancy-care center chief’s insistence that she’ll have nothing but remorse if she goes through with the abortion. The woman cuts through the antichoice mumbo-jumbo even more clearly just a moment later: “That’s what abortion is—a termination of an unwanted pregnancy. And this pregnancy is unwanted.”
French filmmaker Florent Tillon also tries—and largely fails—to elucidate American woes in Détroit ville sauvage (Detroit Wild City), a poorly structured look at the blighted Motor City. Interviewees—many of whom are curiously positioned as authorities—aren’t identified until the end, with a fleeting title card that lists only names. Tillon’s incongruous collection of interlocutors is matched by his odd instincts for ostensibly mythopoeic images, reaching a nadir in a scene featuring a mime dressed like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp holding a balloon and going to sleep.
But another city symphony, Jia Zhang-ke’s beautifully lensed ode to Shanghai I Wish I Knew, towered above everything else I saw during my seventy-two hours in Montreal. Originally commissioned by the Chinese government to open the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, Jia’s latest work features eighteen mostly gray-haired subjects who reminisce about the changes, both seismic and personal, wrought by the victory of the Communist Party of China in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution. Several of Jia’s interviewees are directors who made Shanghai-set works, sampled generously throughout I Wish I Knew—an idiosyncratic history of a metropolis constantly in flux, told by a filmmaker who never underestimates the importance of both form and content.
The thirteenth edition of RIDM ran November 10–21. For more details, click here.
Maximilian Schell, Marlene, 1984, color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Production stills.
“FROM THE FLAT SCREEN she stormed the senses, looking always tangible but at the same time untouchable,” Kenneth Tynan wrote of Marlene Dietrich in 1967. In Marlene, Maximilian Schell’s 1984 documentary on the actress, she is unfilmable.
Schell, who had costarred with Dietrich in Judgment in Nuremberg (1961), spent years trying to persuade her to take part in a film about her life; she finally agreed in 1982, on the condition that neither she nor her apartment in Paris, where she had been living as a near-recluse since 1979 and where Schell interviewed her, be photographed. Contracted for “forty hours of my blah-blah-blah,” Dietrich, eighty-one at the time, gives the tetchiest performance—and one of the most quotable—in cinema history. Most of Schell’s earnest inquiries, delivered in English and German, are met with some variation of the following: “Kitsch!” “Rubbish!” “It’s in my book,” “I’m not interested in the past,” “You don’t have to show me anything—I know it all,” “I don’t know what you’re after,” or “You should go back to Mama Schell and learn some manners.” (The director makes sure to include his subject’s kinder moments as well: Dietrich, asking what time it is, tells the crew, “I made you all little snacks.”)
Schell supplements the audio of the icon’s indignant outbursts with expertly curated clips, including scenes from her films with von Sternberg (of whom she says, “He was deliberately making life difficult for me”), concert performances (“Who is talking? Shut up,” she demands at one gig), and TV interviews (“No, I never fight with anyone,” Dietrich casually notes during one chat). But throughout her bilious explosions at Schell, the actress offers occasional self-abnegating assessments: “I wasn’t erotic. I was snotty,” recalls Dietrich, who so memorably ogled and kissed another woman on the mouth in Morocco (1930). Yet her refusal to be filmed, her rage, and her disparagement all contribute to the legend-making that began with her breakthrough performance in The Blue Angel (1930). Perverse genius that she was, Dietrich knew that adamantly hiding in the shadows in Schell’s film would make viewers crave images of her from the past that much more. Marlene is an excellent companion to the actress’s indispensable volume of alphabetical aphorisms and observations, Marlene Dietrich’s ABC (1962). Under the listing “Dietrich,” she writes, “In the German language: the name for a key that opens all locks. Not a magic key. A very real object, necessitating great skills in the making.”
Marlene screens November 23 at the IFC Center in New York as part of the “Stranger Than Fiction” series. For more details, click here.
DREAMY AND ELLIPTICAL in its fractured timeline and visual lyricism, yet so searing and bloody that it’s indelible, Claire Denis’s White Material (2009) hinges on the central conflict of its beleaguered protagonist Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert, steely and obdurate): that the Africa she loves doesn’t love her. The film unfolds in an unnamed country—Congo, Angola, Senegal, or Ivory Coast, perhaps—engulfed in civil war in a nebulous present or recent past. “The horror! The horror!” swirls around Maria as she struggles to bring in the harvest at the coffee plantation she runs on behalf of her feckless ex-husband (Christophe Lambert), her ailing father-in-law (Michel Subor), and her slothful son (Nicolas Duvauchelle).
Maria is a spiritual cousin of the landowner played by Huppert in 1930s Indochina in The Sea Wall (2008) and to a lesser extent Aurore Clement’s plantation wife in wartorn Cambodia in Apocalypse Now Redux (2001). She is probably the most physical character the star has ever played: Constantly on the move, Maria clings to the back of a bus and also drives a tractor, a motorcycle, and, at gunpoint, a truck full of enraged, terrified day laborers. She’s a heroine in denial and out of time. Her beloved farm, a holdout against all that’s reasonable, becomes the symbolic nexus of postcolonial arrogance as “The Boxer” (Isaac de Bankolé), a dying icon of the rebel forces (and Maria’s secret sharer) takes root in her son’s bedroom. As his army of kids toting huge assault weapons approach from one direction and a murderous patriot militia approaches from another, the “half-baked” son goes native.
Denis was partially raised in Cameroon (where the film was shot) and other French colonies. She began her directorial career with the semi-autobiographical Chocolat (1988), which filtered racial inequality in a ’50s colonial household through a web of desire. Her exploration of homoerotic tensions among French legionnaires in Dijbouti in Beau Travail (1999) was a typically oblique study of colonizers in extremis. When White Material slows down, interracial desire emerges as an inevitable metaphor for irreconcilability—the ex-husband has fathered a son with the black housekeeper; Maria is regarded as the troublesomely blonde, blue-eyed sexual other by the manipulative local black mayor. But it’s the threat of carnage that propels the movie over and above Maria’s need to gather, rake, and cleanse the beans to make what a hectoring pro-rebel DJ describes as “mediocre coffee” that the blacks don’t drink. It’s this imperial folie and the destruction of her family that brings this dynamic, wrong-headed woman of the earth to the brink of murder.
White Material opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, November 19. For more details, click here.
Jean Cocteau, The Blood of a Poet, 1930, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 55 minutes.
IN THE AGE of CGI digital wizardry, the homespun effects of Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy appear quaint and sometimes clunky. But even (or especially) in their simplicity, numerous scenes remain seared on our collective cinematic imagination—whether Jean Marais locked in a narcissistic embrace with his own mirrored reflection, or Lee Miller as a talking, armless statue come to life. Of course, the thirty years that separate The Blood of a Poet (1930) from The Testament of Orpheus (1960) underscore a chasm between contexts: from the burgeoning realm of sound film to the technical advances of the postwar period (including a quick color sequence in Testament), in addition to the director’s own aesthetic vicissitudes. But Cocteau’s obsession with keyholes and doorways, mirrors and passages, transformation and nostalgia, remains steadfast. So too does his navel-gazing poetics of the self, and its nexus in the charismatic negotiation between modernity and myth.
That Orpheus was himself the most renowned of poets and musicians in Greek mythology suggests the unabashed self-absorption at the heart of Cocteau’s cinematics—characteristic, too, of his larger, prodigious oeuvre as a poet, artist, playwright, and tireless aesthete. Whether in a self-portrait made out of pipe cleaners, or a cast of his profile inserted into random scenes, the director’s likeness appears in numerous guises. Even when embodied by Marais or Enrique Rivero, Cocteau looms as his films’ thinly veiled protagonist. The themes of opium and frustrated romance saturate Blood of a Poet with allusions to Cocteau’s own addiction and unrequited loves. Still, these are couched in a seamless and mesmerizing alchemy of absurdity and classicizing grace. It was just that fluid mix that got Cocteau in trouble with the more radical strain of the French avant-garde, who accused him of popularizing their work as a mere passing fad, rendered effete and genteel. Cocteau’s vexed relationship to Surrealism is in full evidence in the fifty-five-minute Blood of a Poet (which was funded by the Vicomte de Noailles, who also bankrolled Dalí and Buñuel’s L’Age d’or of the same year). Cocteau’s film borrows certain tropes from the latter artists’ bag of tricks, such as the appearance of disembodied lips on his Poet’s hand. The film’s somewhat fragmented narrative appears more faithful to a set of tableaux vivants than to a narrative drive.
Though certainly elliptical, Orpheus (1949) proceeds in a comparatively linear fashion, transposing the myth of the eponymous figure’s descent onto the underworld into contemporary Paris. For Testament of Orpheus, Cocteau himself assumed the title role, playing an eighteenth-century poet suspended in a kind of temporal purgatory. Following a somewhat overwrought, baroque script—featuring cameos by Yul Brynner and Pablo Picasso, as well as roles by Lucia Bosé and Charles Aznavour—the film fails to match real pathos to its overweening ambition. (In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther cruelly deemed it “a glorified home movie” by a Cocteau “who is no longer pretty.”) Still, perhaps more than any of his other films, Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy anticipates his influence on future generations of filmmakers, from Sergei Parajanov to Carmelo Bene. Even when Cocteau’s scenes fail to cohere, or to transcend their heavy-handed stylization, they evoke like few other contemporary films the plastic versatility of the cinematic medium as a nexus between the visual and the verbal, embodiment and cerebration, time and fixed image. At once disaffected and sensual, self-punishing and indulgent, Cocteau’s three “Orphic” films remain dedicated—as announced in the epigraph to his first full-length feature, Blood of a Poet—to the pursuit of enigma. That it is often an entirely personal enigma is, like Cocteau’s poetics in general, equal parts endearing and exasperating.
IN AN AGE when film festivals seem increasingly packaged (as opposed to programmed), when their supposed goal of something-for-everybody plurality mainly begets middlebrow blandness, the curatorial coherence—and one might even say, the unapologetic good taste—of an event like the Viennale sets it apart more than ever. Most festivals of a certain size struggle to retain any trace of personality, but the Viennale, which concluded its forty-eighth edition earlier this month (featuring some 350 screenings over thirteen days), is a big festival with a legible point of view, rooted in a strong sense both of film history and of what matters in contemporary world cinema.
The festival trailer sets the tone: Following commissions from Jean-Luc Godard (2008) and James Benning (2009), this year’s was by Cannes Palme d’Or laureate Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose atmospheric minute-long spelunk, Empire, is a refashioned outtake from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). As usual, the main selection included most of the year’s cinephile-anointed favorites—films by Apichatpong, Manoel de Oliveira, Raúl Ruiz, Godard—but also made ample room for emerging filmmakers. Quebecois director Denis Côté, the subject of an early-career spotlight, presented his new feature, Curling; the story of an isolated father and daughter in a snowbound backwater, it derives its power from a creeping flavor of mystery and a slowly emerging humanity. Likewise finding surprising depths of emotion in off-kilter moods and characters (not to mention another eccentric father-daughter relationship), Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is a wholly original coming-of-age movie, rife with erotic stirrings and mortal dread, and anchored in a Red Desert–like sense of place. (The setting is a Greek industrial town.) An equally intriguing experiment in the art of deadpan, Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation is yet another dispatch on the spiritual emptiness of the new China, but the film assumes the ingenious guise of a radically distended slacker comedy.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Empire, 2010.
Equal emphasis is given to documentaries, and this year’s nonfiction slate was notable for the range of formal approaches to politically or historically charged subjects. Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu recounts the dictator’s career exclusively through Romanian state footage (and craftily invented sound design). Similarly, Susana de Sousa Dias’s 48 looks back at Portugal’s Salazar dictatorship (the title refers to the number of years he was in power) through official archival images, pairing mugshotlike photographs of political prisoners with their voice-over recollections. Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario, Room 164 filters the familiar headlines of Mexican drug violence through a sustained, gruesomely detailed motel-room monologue of a masked ex–cartel hitman, who provides visual interest by compulsively sketching and list making in a drawing pad. John Gianvito’s four-hour-plus Vapor Trail (Clark), ostensibly an account of toxic military pollution at the US Clark Air Base in the Philippines, opens up—via essayistic digressions, archival photos, and expansive interviews with victims and activists—into a sober, epic indictment of the American imperial project. Equally ambitious and pointed in its politics, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space is a Marxist cine-essay about the contemporary maritime economy. Reminding us that 90 percent of the world’s cargo still travels by sea, the film traverses major ports (from Rotterdam to Hong Kong) and ventures inland on highways and railroads, examining the rise of the shipping container, the changes in transport systems, and the toll that global capitalism has exerted on human labor.
As at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the Viennale’s closest counterpart in terms of sensibility, retrospectives comfortably share center stage. In conjunction with the Viennale, the Austrian Filmmuseum organized a monthlong Éric Rohmer survey. The festival also honored another recently departed giant of French cinema, the director of photography William Lubtchansky, showcasing his collaborations with Jacques Rivette, Straub/Huillet, Godard, Agnès Varda, and others. A less obvious choice, American B-movie pulpmeister Larry Cohen received his own tribute, and the comic anarchy and tabloid energy of films like God Told Me To (1976) and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) seemed as fresh and subversive as ever. It was one of the festival’s most successful retrospectives in years, and Cohen, a youthful seventy, was in conspicuous attendance, wisecracking his way through Q&A sessions. At one introduction, he graciously thanked his hosts for the honor, then added: “Don’t let it happen again.”
The forty-eighth edition of the Viennale ran October 21–November 3, 2010. For more details, click here.
COSMIC RAY FOREVER! Pelting the screen with flickering invocations of sex and death and set to Ray Charles’s arousing, carousing “What’d I Say,” Bruce Conner’s 1961 electrifying five-minute granddaddy of all music videos is the opening salvo in a retrospective of movies by the artist, who died in 2008 at age seventy-four after a long illness. Conner’s reputation as a maker of still images—assemblages, collages, photographs, drawings, and paintings—has taken off in recent years, but it is his moving-image work that cements his place among the innovators and masters of twentieth-century art.
An inveterate tinkerer, Conner was determined to leave authorized versions of his films when he passed. The retrospective “Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage” playing at Film Forum (November 10–23) comprises seventeen single-screen works, varying in length between ten seconds and thirty-five minutes, and is divided into two programs of roughly seventy-five and seventy minutes respectively. Program A is the stronger of the two, with six breathtaking works: Cosmic Ray, A Movie (1958), Marilyn Times Five (1968–73), Easter Morning (1966/2008), Valse Triste (1978), and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977). Program B starts strong with Mongoloid (1978), America Is Waiting (1981), and Report (1963–67), but the two films that conclude the program—Looking for Mushrooms (1959–67/1996) and Crossroads (1976)— are lesser works (others strongly disagree) and, at thirty-five minutes, Crossroads is also the longest. If you are unfamiliar with Conner’s work, you should start with program A.
With a few exceptions, Conner’s films were originally released in 16 mm. After his death, the Conner Family Trust transferred the film masters to digital for preservation. (The Trust also removed the bootlegs from YouTube.) At Film Forum, all the films are being projected in DigiBeta, and they look so splendid that for a minute I thought I was watching 35 mm.
Conner began working in film in the late 1950s, extending his assemblages and collages into the time-based medium. It was the moment of Rauschenberg’s Combines and Burroughs’s cut-up novels (and, with Brion Gysin, cut-up audiotapes and movies). Conner’s fascination with underground movies began when he was part of a small circle of filmmakers and artists—first in Boulder, Colorado, then in San Francisco—who organized screenings in galleries and impromptu spaces. In the evocatively and concretely titled essay “How I Discovered Electricity” (reprinted in the new anthology Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Area 1945–2000), Conner describes how he had no choice but to make his own movie when filmmaker Larry Jordan, who was running the Camera Obscura film series, refused to allow him to insert a filmstrip of a nude woman in the countdown leader for someone else’s film. (This anecdote was perhaps the source decades later for one of Brad Pitt’s character’s subversive activities in David Fincher’s Fight Club , except by then the forbidden image was an erect penis—or, for all I know, this was a practice adopted in the intervening years by bored projectionists/frustrated filmmakers everywhere.) Conner looked on both soft-core nudies and the countdown leader (used to focus the film but unseen by the audience unless the projectionist is careless or is an avant-gardist dedicated to the materiality of the medium) as the cinematic repressed and suppressed. He collected examples of both categories along with other “worthless” genres—old newsreels; training, educational, and science films; cartoons; and 16-mm condensed versions of Hollywood westerns and other kinds of B movies that were sold for home entertainment (they were the predecessors of VHS cassettes).
Conner’s first official film, the twelve-minute A Movie, is a rapid-fire edit of clips from all these categories. It begins, as movies do, with the title and the filmmaker’s name writ large on the screen. The opening also includes flashes of the taboo girlie flick and various focus leaders as well as the intertitle THE END. After this introduction, what could be termed the “film proper” begins (although it is in fact no more “proper” than the title sequence, variations of which punctuate the succeeding eleven minutes) with a celebration of the essence of all movies—they show stuff moving—and of the kinetic effect on the viewer when subject movement or camera movement or both at once is combined with lightning-fast editing, especially when the alternation of predominantly bright images with predominantly dark images produces a flicker that seems to expand the screen. The thrills and laughter induced by the initial cascade of speeding cars, galloping horses, a charging elephant, and careening wagon trains (as if the trailers for a dozen different movies were contesting for first place in the viewer’s eyes) soon give way to a darker strain of images: The cars crash, the Hindenburg explodes midair, the soldiers fall, the A-bomb releases its mushroom cloud. Horror and elegy are one. The apocalypse is nigh. A Movie contains the infamous seemingly causal montage of a German U-boat gunner looking through his periscope/a naked woman posing/a missile speeding toward an unseen target—a two-second sight-gag illustration of D. W. Griffith’s maxim, later claimed by Godard, that “cinema is a girl and a gun.”
Like all of Conner’s films, A Movie both embraces and critiques that maxim and everything else that thrills and appalls us in the movies and in the history of the century written in the language of movies. A Movie is—as are the films that follow, different though they are from one another—an engine of desire, of analysis, and of transcendence. If the first two speak largely to what is called “content,” the last has to do with form—the deployment of light and time, cinema as cosmic ray. Or, rather, cinema is Cosmic Ray. The title of Conner’s second film refers both to the eponymous musician and to the ecstasy induced by the combination of the incantatory sound of Charles’s voice and the pulsating radiance of the image, which meet where the orgiastic dissolves into pure visual and aural vibration.
Even in my brief period of scorched-earth feminism (around 1978), I found Cosmic Ray irresistible, a more carnal version of the light and movement overload in the final sequence of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). In those years, I had no patience, however, with Marilyn Times Five, which now seems to me not only one of Conner’s greatest films but also among the most witty and poignant of so-called structural films. Its basis is a filmstrip of a Marilyn Monroe look-alike posing as if for the calendar photo that jump-started Monroe’s career. The model teasingly removes her undies, caresses her breasts, twists her torso this way and that while reclining on a towel, takes a bite from an apple and rolls it down her body, sips from a Coke bottle—all this (but not necessarily in that order) while the camera hovers over her, angling for a shot that might make the exercise seem erotic rather than ridiculous. Conner edits this tawdry footage into five variations of equal length, step printing and overexposing the original image of the simulated Marilyn so that her flesh turns to white light as if she were burning up from within even as she’s buried in the tumultuous motion of the film grain. He sets each of these variations to the same recording, from the sound track of Some Like It Hot (1959), of the actual Monroe singing the torchy “I’m Through with Love” in her heartbreakingly breathy voice. In the last variation, the play of real and fake, desire and boredom, reaches a climax via negation. Just when you feel as if you’ll go nuts if you have to look at this woman writhing around once more, Conner denies the viewer the image of the fake Marilyn, replacing her with black leader until halfway through the song. Absence creates a desire more intense than does the film incarnation of her flesh when it finally reappears. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” applies even to simulacra.
Conner is often categorized as a found-footage filmmaker, but several of his movies include or are entirely edited from material he shot directly from life. His last film, the lyrical, lushly colored Easter Morning, is derived from 8-mm Kodachrome footage that he shot during the ’60s, the images superimposed in two and three layers in the camera. Forty-two years later, he transformed and rearranged these images, pixelating some, lingering over others in slow motion. The yellow-red flame of a candle seems to illuminate the dark foliage and riotously colored flowers of a garden and then the interior of a house in which a naked woman sits; a large cross atop a white church is glimpsed through an open window. It is a deeply personal, erotic, cryptic, and mysterious work, as personal, erotic, cryptic, and mysterious as another last work that may have been its inspiration: Duchamp’s Étant donnés, with its “illuminating gas,” its garden, its naked female figure. In the last months of Conner’s life, one devotee of the peep show (the sexual substratum of modernist reflexivity) paid tribute to another.
Robert Kaylor, Derby, 1971, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes.
ROBERT KAYLOR’S 1971 documentary Derby is a quintessential movie about the American dream. The film centers on a young factory worker, Michael Robert Snell, and his pursuit of stardom on the professional roller derby circuit, but due to the proclivities of its eccentric subject—a handsome, twenty-three-year-old husband and father of two who has not outgrown his wild adolescence—Derby is also a movie about harsh American realities. Since we never know whether Snell makes it, Kaylor’s movie emphasizes the process of personal transformation rather than the goal of that transformation, and in so doing confronts the viewer with the sadness of a reinvention more deluded than courageous.
Surely over the years we’ve seen enough evidence of the disparity between American dreams and their true, pathetic circumstances—from Grey Gardens (1975) to American Movie (1999) to Capturing the Friedmans (2003)—but Derby flirts with the gawking condescension of those films without ever succumbing to it. Focusing on the boyish insouciance of Snell and the strange movie-star life he leads in Dayton, Ohio—where the sunglasses-sporting pseudo-greaser juggles nine-to-five drudgery with a rotating roster of lovers and indulgences in strip clubs and motorcycles—Kaylor taps into a Midwestern disappointment and ennui that was also finding expression in contemporaneous New Hollywood landmarks like The Last Picture Show (1971) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). Except, of course, Kaylor’s film is all too raw: patio-set confrontations between wives and mistresses, good ol’ boy boasting about extramarital conquests, accounts from returned vets about the battlefields of Vietnam.
There’s also plenty of roller derby, a sport that, judging from the terrific footage Kaylor has compiled, appears to be a succession of brutal fights intermittently broken up by skating. Legend Charlie O’Connell offers a vague history of the game and his own rise to the top, while a host of characters provide colorful locker-room commentary. The almost anarchic violence of roller derby is no doubt a perfect fit for the obliviously destructive Snell, but ironically, our quasi hero is never once shown skating, and thus we can never evaluate his potential in the sport. It seems doubtful that Snell can cut the required training period down from six weeks to three, and his plan to sneak out on his job and transplant his family to San Francisco smacks of horribly selfish judgment. Appropriate, then, that we only see Snell at the rink as a spectator, waiting for the beginning of a contest as the national anthem is canceled due to technical difficulties.
Derby plays Saturday, November 13 at the 92Y Tribeca in New York. For more details, click here.
Damien Chazelle, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, 2010, black-and-white film in 16 mm, 82 minutes. Production still. Madeline (Desiree Garcia) and Guy (Jason Palmer). Photo: W. A. W. Parker.
IN GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (2010), director Damien Chazelle draws on the visual language of direct cinema, an elliptical narrative, and a series of musical numbers to tell the story of a jazz trumpeter and a young woman as they seek their separate paths before effecting a tentative reunion. A studied naturalism seems almost de rigueur for low-budget American films these days, and Chazelle obliges; shooting on 16-mm stock, using handheld cameras and unmotivated zooms, and lingering on peripheral, “documentary” details, the film faithfully adopts the observational aesthetic of nonfiction filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman—only with faster cutting.
But if Chazelle’s adoption of these techniques is marked by a self-consciousness mannerism—the sense that he’s only giving us shots of random people walking down Boston streets because that’s what filmmakers like him are supposed to do—then the musical numbers involving Madeline (Desiree Garcia) use the same reflexive awareness to marginally more productive ends. Simply put, in 2010 you can’t have a young woman burst into song in the middle of a park without calling attention to the deliberate anachronism of the gesture. And Chazelle is more than happy to play up the artificiality, bringing in a background chorus of restaurant workers for Madeline’s second number, set at a local seafood shack. The film’s other musical moments, the live performances by Guy (Jason Palmer), are less successful. Fixing the musicians in close-up as they take their solos, Chazelle attempts to bring us nearer to the soul of the music. The added proximity reveals little, though, given that the tunes are mostly by-the-numbers hard bop and blues.
This is a movie of moments that don’t quite cohere—that don’t even seem to want to. While that may lead to a frustrating opacity, many of said moments are self-contained triumphs: a meeting between Guy and a young woman on the subway that’s viewed as a succession of tighter shots as the two bodies edge closer together; an impromptu jam session in the studio; and a final solo recital by Palmer, shot in a single take as he navigates a ballad of piercing intensity, delivering, for the first time, a performance that can stand up to the relentless scrutiny of Chazelle’s camera.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench opens at Cinema Village in New York on November 5.
THE NOTION OF A PEDRO COSTA musical might seem incongruous in light of the Portuguese filmmaker’s best-known work: the stringent, momentous Fontainhas trilogy, about the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants in Lisbon slums (released earlier this year in a Criterion box set). But the hypnotic Ne change rien (2009), a black-and-white study of the French actress-turned-chanteuse Jeanne Balibar’s musical endeavors, is very recognizably a Costa film, from the sculpted lighting and precise compositions to the particular combination of sensuousness and severity, of tender immediacy and analytic distance.
Costa speaks often of the value of work and the daily grind—in describing the Fontainhas films, made in close collaboration with the neighborhood’s poor inhabitants, he has invoked the model of the old-Hollywood studios—and he brings a materialist focus to his subjects and the activities that consume them. The obvious point of comparison for Ne change rien is Costa’s 2001 documentary Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, for which he holed up in the editing room with the filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. But while that film was about a specific creative endeavor, the postproduction of the 1999 Straub-Huillet feature Sicilia!, this is a more free-form monument to artistic work process, composed of performances, rehearsals, and studio sessions.
Costa’s extreme chiaroscuro effects push his images to the verge of abstraction: Most scenes are submerged in inky darkness, barely illuminated by a single, sometimes offscreen light source. Balibar and her band are mere silhouettes at times; more often than not, at least half her face is in the shadows. The camera doesn’t move; the framing and lighting tend to render ambiguous the context of a performance. What matters is the moment. Even though a few of the songs ended up on Balibar’s 2006 album Slalom Dame, the movie resists a making-of trajectory. More than a music film, Ne change rien is a film that’s musical in form, and also one that’s utterly committed to filming music as a thing in itself.
Balibar has brought both to period roles (Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais ) and to contemporary ones (Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life ) a striking blend of poise and vulnerability, and this paradoxical allure extends to her singing: Her sultry voice has a pearly ring to it but it’s also a bit unsteady, and as a screen star in a world of music pros, she gives off a hint of diffidence. In scene after scene, Costa captures Balibar and her collaborators (most prominently, the guitarist Rodolphe Burger) as they work through long, looping jams, or break down a song into bars and phrases. Costa, a former musician, recognizes the sheer labor involved, most pointedly in a sequence that begins with a wordless vamp—Balibar, chain-smoking, tapping her knee, going da-da-dee-da-dum—and slowly layers on lyrics and instruments over the course of an obsessive, trancelike fifteen minutes. (Costa has said he’s noticed that the walkouts tend to start around here, “when the work begins.”) There are moments of comic exasperation, too, when the singer practices an Offenbach opera, accompanied by an off-screen voice coach whose running critiques (“Genoux doesn’t have three n’s”) provoke a curse under Balibar’s breath.
Above all, Costa has an uncanny feel for what it means to make music together. In one scene, Balibar reshapes and repeats a refrain—“peine perdue” (“pains in vain”)—wringing nuance from the dreamy incantation; Burger backs her up on guitar, singing softly. They never share a frame, but in cutting between a shot of Balibar and a reverse shot of Burger as they listen to the playback track, make adjustments, try again, crack each other up, stop, start again, Costa establishes the shivery intimacy of collaboration. (La Peine perdue is the title of an abandoned script by Jean Eustache, and Ne change rien’s neo-chanson repertoire includes, alongside a few Balibar-Burger originals, several film-buff choices: Kris Jensen’s “Torture,” immortalized in Scorpio Rising ; the Johnny Guitar theme; “Weeping Willows,” from Chaplin’s A King in New York .)
Costa’s films have inspired some fine and enthusiastic writing, but the director, an eloquent polemicist and keen cinephile, may be his own best critic and explicator. Anthology Film Archives is supplementing its run of Ne change rien with a carte blanche selection by Costa that doubles as terrific contextual criticism, connecting the movie’s ideas and gambits to other examples of portraiture and music films. The selections include Eustache’s rarely screened first feature, Numero Zero (1971), which consists mainly of an interview with the filmmaker’s grandmother, and a Thom Andersen double bill, pairing the new Get Out of the Car (2010) with - — (1967), his seminal experimental rock doc, codirected with Malcolm Brodwick. Jean-Luc Godard is represented not with One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968), the Stones-in-the-studio chronicle that Costa has cited as an inspiration for Ne change rien, but with the Jerry Lewis–inflected comic riff Soigne ta Droite (Keep Your Right Up, 1987), which features the noodlings of the electro-rock duo Les Rita Mitsouko. The one performance documentary in the series, also one of the acknowledged classics of the genre, is The Sound of Jazz, a 1957 CBS special that peaks with Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Fine and Mellow.” As Lester Young steps up to deliver a piercing, mournful sax solo, Holiday, perched on a stool, looks in his direction, listens, smiles, and responds. It’s as vivid an instance of artistic collaboration as has ever been filmed: a goose-bump moment involving two people and a third thing.
JEAN-LUC GODARD memorably hailed The Pajama Game, George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s exhilarating 1957 movie musical, as “the first left-wing operetta.” The first, and maybe the only: The film, an adaptation of the hit 1954 Broadway show, centers on labor unrest at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, whose employees are threatening to strike if their demand for an hourly seven-and-a-half-cent raise isn’t met. The Pajama Game, a Bob Fosse–choreographed paean to worker solidarity made during the decade when union membership in the US was at its peak, takes on particular poignancy when seen in today’s era of outsourcing and permalancing.
Loyalty to the union is so important that it derails the romance between Babe Williams (Doris Day, the only principal performer in the film who wasn’t in the Broadway cast), the head of the grievance committee at Sleep-Tite, and Sid Sorokin (John Raitt), the factory’s new superintendent. “No matter what’s with us, Sid, I’m gonna be fightin’ for my team and fightin’ hard,” Babe emphatically spells out to her boss, reminding him just how political the personal is.
Beyond the cognitively dissonant pleasure of seeing the tenets of socialism espoused in a Warner Brothers musical, The Pajama Game will convince audiences of the inaccuracy of the notion of Day as a symbol of virginal, fanatically scrubbed blandness. First appearing on-screen in a light-blue patterned utility smock and surrounded by several Sleep-Tite female staffers devoted to her, Day, peroxided head cocked, fearlessly confronts Raitt about a complaint that’s just been filed against him. The actress’s entrance was greeted by several wolf whistles at a Pajama Game screening I attended almost three years ago, a lusty response that’s fully warranted: Day’s Babe is sexily, supremely self-assured, a sensuous proletariat rousing the members of Local 343 in cherry-red pedal pushers. (Babe’s confidence may have been a reflection of Day’s own: “I must emphasize that I have never had any doubts about my ability in anything I have ever undertaken,” the actress says in her 1975 autobiography, Doris Day: Her Own Story). A Day-Raitt duet, “There Once Was a Man,” remains one of the most ecstatic love songs from films of the 1950s, rivaled only by Day’s solo “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane (1953). Once Sid and Babe reconcile—after the union’s demands are met—you can only imagine what their pillow talk might be.