Lionel Rogosin, Come Back, Africa, 1959, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 85 minutes. Left: Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi). Right: Miriam Makeba.
BY THE TIME Lionel Rogosin began filming Come Back, Africa, his unsparing look at life under apartheid, in Johannesburg in the summer of 1958, South Africa’s brutal system of racial segregation had been law for ten years. The film’s US premiere, on April 4, 1960, came just two weeks after the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, in which police opened fire at blacks protesting the highly restrictive pass laws, killing sixty-nine people. (Come Back, Africa opened at New York’s Bleecker Street Cinema, which Rogosin founded expressly to debut the film after unsuccessful bids to find willing venues or distributors.) Five decades later, and almost twenty years after apartheid’s dismantling, Come Back, Africa remains a vital document of a hideous regime.
Rogosin’s second film, much like his first, the landmark On the Bowery (1957), a nonjudgmental portrait of Lower East Side drunks (their skid row now replaced by luxe hotels), combines vérité footage with staged scenes, using nonprofessional actors. (In a 1987 interview, Rogosin explained, “[W]hat I was aiming for was to fuse . . . [Robert] Flaherty’s poetic films and the fictional narratives of the neorealists.”) Setting out to, as the opening credits state, “portray the true conditions of life in South Africa,” Rogosin devised numerous subterfuges while filming Come Back, Africa, sometimes telling the ever-vigilant authorities that he was making a travelogue for a tourism board, at others that he was shooting a musical.
Writing the script with Lewis Nkosi and William Modisane (both, journalists at the time for Drum, an antiapartheid magazine, have small roles in the film), Rogosin structures his story around Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi, whom the director found in a bus line). A refugee in tattered shirts and blazers from the famine-stricken KwaZulu homeland in the nation’s southeast, Zacharia comes to Johannesburg in desperate search of a job. Without a work permit, he is unable to secure employment in the gold mines; he is quickly dismissed by racist employers (or bosses too timid to confront delusional, racist accusations) at the series of jobs he does manage to obtain: house servant, garage employee, hotel waiter.
Beyond chronicling the injustices Zacharia faces, Come Back, Africa captures Sophiatown, a Jo’burg ghetto and black cultural hub where much of the movie was shot, on the eve of its all-too-real destruction. (Soon after filming, Sophiatown was razed and rebuilt as a whites-only enclave.) It is here that Zacharia will seek out job advice at the shebeen, a bare-bones establishment for drinking and kibitzing. Toward the film’s end, the newcomer will stop by the watering hole to listen avidly to political discussions (“I don’t understand, but I like it”), the debate interrupted by the magical appearance of Miriam Makeba (a Sophiatown resident), practically unknown at the time, who sings two songs, then exits; her exuberant cameo helps explain why she was later dubbed “the girl with the smile in her voice.” Come Back, Africa is filled not only with the sounds of Makeba’s mellifluous vocals but also those of the bands of boys in short pants and newsboy caps playing penny whistles and the street buskers plinking out “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear.” Rogosin’s ruse that he was making a musical turned out to be partly true; yet no audio in Come Back, Africa is as piercing—or unshakable—as the keening heard in the closing minutes.
Come Back, Africa plays January 27 through February 2 at Film Forum.
Whitney Sudler-Smith, Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, 2010, color film, 94 minutes. Production still.
A THIN WIKIPEDIA ENTRY with occasionally illuminating talking heads, the scattershot documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston skimps on its subject but tells you more than you ever wanted to know about its director, Whitney Sudler-Smith. A constant irritant, whether as smug narrator or twerpy on-screen presence, Sudler-Smith finds it necessary to include a conversation with his mother about what “in my past inspired me to do this film,” his third. She recalls that he loved the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit and was on a best-dressed list in Washington, DC, in 1989—apparently Sudler-Smith’s only qualifications to chronicle one of America’s greatest fashion designers and the 1970s, Halston’s most prominent decade.
The director, frequently in the frame with his interviewees, often can’t formulate a coherent question or fixates on the banal, asking Phillip Bloch, a stylist and former Studio 54 busboy, “What was the most fucked-up thing you saw there?” Yet despite his complete ineptitude as an interviewer, Sudler-Smith managed to land sit-downs with many in Halston’s inner circle—including Liza Minnelli, who exhorts the filmmaker, “Go do some research. Find out about stuff,” advice that is largely disregarded—and fashion cognoscenti like André Leon Talley, who pleasingly swats the director down when he interrupts his helpful précis of the designer’s career.
Halston’s greatest successes, such as the pillbox hat he designed for Jacqueline Kennedy for her husband’s inauguration in 1961 and the simple shirtwaist dresses made of the titular synthetic material (exemplars of what Talley calls “casual chic”) are given cursory mention, as is his tumultuous relationship with window dresser and debauchee Victor Hugo. In the film’s most embarrassing moment of sociohistorical “research,” Sudler-Smith, seen driving through the streets of Manhattan in a Trans Am, says offscreen, “I wondered if Halston’s minimalist designs were some kind of reaction to the insanity around him. I needed to find out more about the dark side of New York in the ’70s.” And who better to turn to than . . . Billy Joel. The MOR entertainer, captured showing off his motorcycles, and whose only connection to the designer was name-checking him in his 1979 hit “Big Shot” (“And they were all impressed with your Halston dress”), proves even shakier on history than the director: “There was a blackout—I think it was in ’77 . . . ”
Amid such incompetence, Ultrasuede’s greatest asset is the archival material of the couturier himself, his hair slicked back, bedecked in a black turtleneck and white blazer, appearing on Donahue, Good Morning America, and The Love Boat. The era’s great ambassador of queeniness—swish imperiousness tempered by his Des Moines upbringing—once proclaimed, “You’re only as good as the people you dress.” A humble statement by a man with enormous, self-destructive appetites, the sentiment is completely lost on Sudler-Smith. After he asks Minnelli, early in the film, what she sang at the tribute she arranged for Halston after his death in 1990 from complications from AIDS, the performer looks slightly aghast and says, “It wasn’t about me.” Sudler-Smith can’t take the hint.
Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston opens January 20 at the IFC Center in New York.
PEOPLE TALK ABOUT HOW this or that director has a good eye. In the case of the experimental filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, it’s just as much about the ear. Gorin, a French-born émigré based in California, has that ear cocked toward outsiders; his films are stories from the fringes of American culture, told by a guy who refuses to tell them the way anyone else would.
Gorin’s digressive, liberated take on the documentary “reads” more like an essay or a diary than like journalism. Loose, spontaneous, and lacking any pretension to objectivity, Gorin’s films are sometimes more about Gorin than you want them to be. But then, isn’t that the case with most filmmakers? At least Gorin is being up-front about it.
Of Gorin’s three feature-length films, Poto and Cabengo (1978) is the only one that focuses explicitly on language. Gorin’s subject is Ginny and Gracie Kennedy, German-American twins who communicate by means of a rapid-fire patois that only they understand—an “idioglossia,” as linguists call it. The concept holds obvious appeal for an investigator of cinematic language like Gorin, whose early film work includes several collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard.
From the beginning, Gorin is present. There is his laconic, accented voice-over narration, which takes some getting used to. During a recording of the twins speaking their indecipherable creole, “WHAT ARE THEY SAYING???” races across the black screen. The filmmaker clearly has films like Truffaut’s The Wild Child in mind when he takes the untamed twins to the zoo, then to the library, where they dash around, tearing books off the shelves faster than he can keep up with them.
Gorin pulls off a structuralist critique that’s also, subtly, a paean to the mysteries of childhood. Their language decoded and explained by linguistic specialists, the twins are sent to separate schools. They learn proper English and the Pledge of Allegiance, part of an indoctrination that will presumably enable them to participate in the same American Dream that tangibly frustrates their parents. The twins have a volatile, infectious energy, and a remarkable dinner scene captures them absorbing and repeating the Kennedy household’s fascinating mélange of German and English. There’s constant chatter in Gorin’s sound track—language is all around us, seeping in. And while part of us craves an understanding of the twins’ alien creole, once translated, it loses its magic.
As in Gorin’s other films, the implication is that this particular idioglossia flourished because its speakers (who are developmentally disabled, although you might not know it by looking at them) were kept mostly sequestered from mainstream society. Poto and Cabengo documents Gorin’s interest in the twins’ private, ephemeral world, just as Routine Pleasures (1986) documents his attachment to the imaginative other-place inhabited by a group of model-train enthusiasts in Del Mar, California.
His interviews with these mild-mannered “train men” are painstakingly boring, which is part of the point. Their language is banal—everything is a “good-looking train”—but Gorin is fascinated nonetheless. “Obsession” and “pleasure,” he reports, are the two words he keeps writing in his notebook. Gorin’s subjects attend to every detail of their intricate simulacrum, including a sound track of train whistles and barking dogs. Having created a miniaturized, nostalgia-infused America for the trains to crisscross, these regular guys preside over it like giants.
Gorin, looking to complicate the story, weaves in regular voice-over references to Manny Farber, the artist and film critic who brought Gorin to California in 1975 to join the faculty at the University of California, San Diego. Farber never appears on camera, but his paintings do, including one of his Arizona hometown that bears a notable resemblance to the train men’s landscapes. From him Gorin takes the rather wonderful image of the artist as a termite “gnawing at the borders of a subject.”
The LA gangsters in 1992’s My Crasy Life, a Samoan branch of the Crips, are on the fringe of an outlaw group. Gorin remains entirely behind the camera, but a HAL-like computer that holds forth, somewhat bizarrely, from inside a police sergeant’s cruiser seems to do some of his speaking for him. To a greater extent than in his other films, however, Gorin gives these subjects control of their story—or, at least, of the raw materials he will use to tell it. Members of the “S.O.S.” gang rap and conduct interviews with one another, and even if scenes that are obviously staged make these mostly young men seem a bit like tokens, they also give the film the vibe of an empowering creative project, rather than an instance in which a community simply let itself be documented.
Moreover, the artificiality of certain situations (Girl in red car pulls up: “There’s a party tonight”) functions as a comment on the limited options within this adopted society. Beckoning these prisoners of the ghetto life, in typical Gorin fashion, is the otherworldly singing voice that wafts in a few different times near the end. It’s the distant call of the islands, and a moment during which another of Gorin’s recurring themes rings clearly—that of Paradise Lost.
BY THE TIME of his death in 1997, William S. Burroughs had achieved something that very few figures ever manage: He had become supra-human, a living, livid symbol. Only Burroughs’s own name can unite such disparate activities, output, and stances: writer, murderer, painter, junkie, public commentator, cultural critic, concept engineer. In addition to changing the face of literature, exploding the craft’s lexicon of possibilities with his early work, he redefined the role of the public intellectual, becoming his own creation, an “antillectual” who rebuffed even those countercultural movements that claimed him as one of their own.
A hero to artists, philosophers, junkies, and sexual outsiders, Burroughs created work that brought together spheres that tend to function as in-clubs, thereby illuminating the heavy regimentation of the social nexus. Burroughs’s universe was where the art world met the criminal nether regions, where the liberation movements were forced to confront the gun lover, where irruptions of collectivity were shot down by the erratic impulses of a pronounced anarcho-individualism, where punk rock wore a suit and tie.
It is with a supreme sensitivity to the warring aspects of Burroughs’s person that Yony Leyser’s William S. Burroughs: A Man Within transcends traditional cinematic portraiture to endow its subject with the ontological gravity it deserves; in doing so, it lets us bear witness to the enunciation of a style—the manner of being-in-the-world that Burroughs would singly occupy. Indeed, thanks to legions of hangers-on as well as fanatics who looked up to the late author for all the wrong reasons (let’s face it: His defects as a human being were multitudinous), there is a Burroughs Industry one must machete through to arrive at the substance of the man. This, Leyser accomplishes through a combination of talking-head interviews, footage of the perpetually wrinkled and crotchety old junkie at home among friends and before the public eye, and thematic animations by Aimee Goguen and Dillon Markey. A Man Within effectively shows us how a single presence animated the gray sludge of the underworld for the entire second half of the last century. In our current era, which has seen the triumph of the manufactured persona, Leyser’s Burroughs remarks the sad absence of unpopular culture and its monarchs.
IN PORTLAND, OREGON, where I’d gone to attend an old friend’s wedding a few years ago, I witnessed two hipsters in their natural habitat, just around the corner from a Stumptown coffee shop on Belmont, silently and with great efficiency performing what can only be described as a dance ritual (on weathered fixed-gear bikes, natch). Not a word was spoken, but this streetside roundelay was pregnant with pointed looks, twitchy body language, and, of course, the mutual sizing up of clothes, hair, and accessories. The boys were impeccably styled—Williamsburgers would abandon OkCupid and chuck their iPhones into the East River in a New York minute if it meant they could look like these waifish specimens of the haute hipoisie—but they somehow managed to seem unstudied.
They were there to staple band flyers to a redwood-size telephone pole, already cocooned by a dense palimpsest of the ripped and rotting remains of hundreds of other gig flyers, all held together by an anarchic network of rusty staples. A number of obscure, solemn protocols were being followed in this exchange: who would get the best spot on the pole; which old flyers were OK to cover with new ones; could two copies of the same flyer be posted, or would that be uncool? I felt like I was watching an old nature show—let’s call it Mutual of Oregon’s Wild Kingdom—where the narrator says, sotto voce, of the cheetah stalking a wildebeest, “And now there can be but one outcome . . .”
This is the type of scenario mercilessly yet lovingly satirized in Portlandia, a sketch comedy show focused on Portland hipsterism, now entering its second season. The show was created by and stars actor Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and musician Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag), real-life friends who for years had been creating comic videos under the name ThunderAnt, many of which were set in Portland and addressed similar themes. SNL producer Lorne Michaels picked up on the pair’s proposal for a series, which would be directed by cocreator Jonathan Krisel, and the show quickly acquired a cult fan base. If you yourself are a hipster or have ever lived in Portland, Seattle, or the Bay Area, the show’s targets will be instantly familiar—the obsession with food provenance, the testiness of doctrinaire feminists, the aggressiveness of goat-bearded bike messengers, the mischaracterization of crafts as art, the pursuit of being “different” in one of several preapproved countercultural ways, etc.
The earliest episodes, while charming, were little more than discrete skits strung together, with Armisen and Brownstein inhabiting different characters. As the first season progressed, and some of the characters were reprised, it felt more like a narrative show. The second season ups the cohesion, making Portlandia something like a satiric soap opera for a narrowcast audience, with the two actors accounting for most of the leads, like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Some of the jokes are a bit late—rejecting a promising paramour for being a Pearl Jam fan is so 1992—but Eddie Vedder is gracious enough to make a cameo appearance as himself, humbly acknowledging a prejudice that has dogged him for two decades. Aimee Mann’s first-season turn as herself (reduced to housecleaning in the wake of illegal downloading) more subtly referenced the songwriter’s bitter diatribes—in songs and interviews—against the music industry, but one would have to be fairly intimate with Mann’s work to get the gag in its entirety.
This is the conundrum of Portlandia: Its audience is limited by design to the members of the subcultures lampooned on the show. While plenty of hipsters have a sense of humor about the absurd extremes and “We’re all individuals!” paradoxes of their chosen lifestyles, many are as sanctimonious as Armisen and Brownstein portray them to be, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. It’s hard to imagine the most committed eco-warriors and feminist bookstore clerks finding the broad yet incisive parodies of themselves and their pet causes funny, yet they’re the only ones who would catch all the semiotic sight gags and insider slang so ably prepared and delivered by the show’s creators. One could see fast-food eating, plastic bag using, politically incorrect anti-hipsters tuning in to confirm their animus, but some of the subcultural references in the writing and production design are so cleverly layered that they’d be invisible to outsiders, even haters who’ve been paying attention.
Still, as a Seinfeld for slackers, Portlandia is a rare and welcome addition to the largely moribund field of contemporary sitcoms. Put a bird on it and call it art.
The second season of Portlandia begins Friday, January 6, on IFC.
“FIRST LOOK,” an opportunity to see new films that lack or may never have distribution, is a mixed bag. On the adventurous, if surreal, side, there is Palácios de pena (Palaces of Pity), a Portuguese tidbit codirected by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, any summary of which is bound to impose more coherence than I suspect the filmmakers intended. A group of precocious adolescent female cousins cavort about, first in a huge sports stadium where their only audience is a grandmother in a wheelchair. The omniscient aspect of this figure is confirmed by a dream she has in which she is a judge in a medieval trial of two gay adolescent Muslim boys who are burned at the stake for avowing their love. Though far less explicit, an analogy of sorts is glimpsed in the relationship between the two female cousins, prompted by a “naughty” exchange that seems to turn them on. This occurs at the moment that one has finished lining with gasoline the palatial staircase that the other has just inherited from their grandmother. As she smiles at her cousin with a newfound rapport, she blithely tosses a match over her shoulder, igniting a conflagration that somehow both girls survive.
On the same program as this work is an affecting video documentary portrait of Japanese filmmaker Masao Adachi. Once a screenwriter for directors Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima before making his own revolutionary films, Adachi joined the militant Japanese Red Army in the early 1970s, then lived in exile for thirty years. Now in Japan, he is interviewed by Philippe Grandrieux and photographed in that director’s’ characteristically dusky, low-key visual style. The portrait begins with tenebrous images of Adachi pushing what may be his granddaughter on a swing that contrast with glaringly overlit shots of him amid nighttime Tokyo, as the earnestness and solitary nature of the man come through in a grave but mellow voice-over.
Grandrieux’s title, It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, alludes to a sentiment voiced by Adachi as he reflects on his past actions, desires, and regrets, and his commitment to a cause that failed—wondering if, in fact, change is only possible and survival only bearable through the cultivation of beauty, of art and living. Grandrieux intersperses excerpts from Adachi’s films—including The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971)—which are faded beyond recognition, as if reduced to serving as objective correlatives to the man’s present state. Adachi speaks of his desire to make a movie about the changes in Japan over the past fifty years, in order to show that there haven’t been any.
Chantal Akerman, Almayer’s Folly, 2011, still from a color film, 127 minutes.
Another highlight of the series is Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly, based on Joseph Conrad’s first novel of the same title. Like much of Conrad, it dramatizes the cultural tensions aroused by Western colonizers exploiting the natural resources of the East. Set in Malaysia, the narrative focuses on the title character’s failure at the business ventures that drove him there and the price he pays for his folly: the loss of his half-Malaysian daughter Nina, to the world from which he hoped to save her with Western education. When she returns to Malaysia and takes up with Dain, a dangerous native lover, Almayer’s only reason for living dissolves. The narrative is a flashback from the opening scene, itself an uncanny fusion of cultures, in which Dain mimes the voice of Dean Martin in a nightclub, surrounded by dancing native girls, as an ominous figure—Almayer’s loyal servant—slowly approaches the stage and stabs him to death.
Made on location, the film is drenched in atmosphere—the torpor of colonial jungle life with its oppressively hot days and sultry, sleepless nights at least as palpable as in Apocalypse Now (1979), and recalling Carol Reed’s adaptation of Conrad’s Outcast of the Islands (1952). Akerman’s eye for gifted cinematographers is once again evident here with Raymond Fromont, a veteran of documentaries. Shots of the jungle drip with humidity; those of the river that abuts it exude a sickly white from the punishing sun. The effect is preternatural, even if the tale and the telling lack sufficient weight. How Almayer lost the only thing that mattered to him is only barely conveyed, so that the final, nearly ten-minute-long take of his forlorn face is less stirring than it might have been. But then no one, perhaps not even Akerman, could match the final long take in her memorable Jeanne Dielman . . . (1974). Still, this is a must for any serious cineast.
Among the disappointments is Philippe Garrel’s Un été brűlant (literally A Scorching Summer, as translated on screen), which, though it chronicles the end of a marriage and the suicide of an artist, is so blandly constructed and acted as to render its title either unintentionally ironic or misleading. It opens as the protagonist (Louis Garrel) deliberately drives into a tree, a crash that lands him in the hospital and leads to his death. A friend narrates their relationship as a flashback recounts a summer in which the artist and his actress wife (Monica Bellucci) see their love die a slow death. Thanks to the limpness of the writing and directing, little of this is of consequence, and allusions to Godard’s great Contempt don’t help.
Promising titles include Elena, a new film by Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose The Return (2003) was one of the best films from Russia in at least two decades; Valérie Massadian’s Nana, which won Best First Feature at Locarno’s film festival; and Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle.
“First Look,” curated by Dennis Lim, Rachael Rakes, and David Schwartz, runs January 6–15 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.