Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright, 1971, color, 35 mm, 116 minutes. Left: Doc Tydon and John Grant (Donald Pleasence and Gary Bond). Right: Joe, John Grant, Doc Tydon, and Dick (Peter Whittle, Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, and Jack Thompson).


OUTBACK AUSTRALIA is an inhospitable environment. The light is blinding, the heat searing, and the arid, burnt-earth expanse goes on forever. Yet, ironically, it is the hospitality of those hardy souls desperate or crazy enough to live there that poses the greatest threat to civilized mind and body. Wake in Fright (1971) contrives to ensnare an educated city boy in the hard-drinking, hypermasculine pastimes of a fictional, but all-too-real, outback mining town named—as if to summon the Aussie drawl—Bundanyabba. A reasonably faithful adaptation of Australian author Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same title, the film is the bastard child of a nascent collaboration between Australian and American production companies. Directed by Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian then working in British TV, scripted by a white Jamaican, with the lead roles played by English actors (and supporting roles played mostly by Australian actors), this multinational effort is nonetheless a painfully accurate portrayal of the cruel conviviality—on condition of collective inebriation—that characterized the old, beer-and-Scotch-sloshed Australia.

The narrative arc is entropic: Said city boy, John Grant (Gary Bond), who is paying down his debt to the education department by teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere, becomes stranded in “the Yabba” en route to Sydney for summer vacation. Blowing his wad on a “two-up” game that he had hoped would release him from financial bondage, Grant reluctantly submits to the kindness of strangers and is thereby drawn into a boozy maelstrom of moronic male bonding that quickly strips him of all sense and dignity. The descent into madness culminates in a horrifying kangaroo hunt that devolves into sexualized violence: Post slaughter, macho knuckleheads Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle) square off in a drunken brawl that edges slowly toward merged unconsciousness, while “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasence), an amoral, alcoholic doctor taking refuge in “the Yabba,” waxes philosophical to Grant, who, paralytic, passes out. Rallying, Grant spirals deeper into oblivion back at Doc’s shack where more booze and gunplay lead to a semiconscious libidinal encounter. Upon regaining his senses, Grant tries to hitch a ride to Sydney, but, owing to a miscommunication, gets taken back to the Yabba. Having finally reached the end of his rope, our beaten-down protagonist attempts to off himself but instead winds up in the local hospital, spending the rest of his vacation in recovery.

Blending the psychological horror genre with cultural anthropology and fictive documentary, Wake in Fright mercilessly skewers and debunks two of Australia’s proudest mythologies—the moral rectitude of Aussie “mateship” and the romantic mystique attached to the outback terrain. Shocking in its day—the brutal hunting scenes, for instance, laid waste to the saccharine fantasy of environmental harmony promoted by the anthropomorphizing adventures of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (a hugely popular TV series launched in 1966—think Lassie or Flipper but with bizarre marsupial heroics)—the film provided a savage riposte to the operative models of Australian masculinity, Grant’s arrogantly cultured persona included. Consequently, in my mind, Paul Hogan’s lovable larrikin Crocodile Dundee will be forever stalked by the malevolent stupidity of Jack Thompson’s WiF character, and the populist desert idyll promoted by canonical colonialist art and literature will always be haunted by the image of shitfaced bozos tearing up the landscape in a battered V8, running down ’roos. Neither a redeeming journey of self-discovery nor a visual paean to majestic outback vistas, Wake in Fright is most remarkable for its unexpurgated depiction of life at the perimeter of a peripheral Commonwealth nation, spinning a tale—that rings utterly true—of culture and consciousness unraveling at the frayed edge of Western civilization.

Jeff Gibson

A new 35-mm print of Wake in Fright will be screened at Film Forum in New York, October 5 through October 11.

Left: Alexander Kluge presenting the Oberhausen Manifesto at a press conference during the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany, February 28, 1962. Right: Wim Wenders, Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities), 1974, 16 mm, black and white, 110 minutes. Alice (Yella Rottländer) and Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler).


Oberhausen Manifesto 1962: Short Films by the Signatories, 1958–67” runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from Thursday, September 27 through Sunday, September 30, 2012.

A HANDFUL OF WORDS in large type filled a page of the West German journal Filmstudio’s spring 1962 issue. The editors’ telegraphic message—devoid of punctuation and eccentric in its line breaks—proclaimed:

Papas cinema
is dead mani
festo of the yo
ung 1962 ho
pe or
disaster

By the time that issue of Filmstudio appeared, the manifesto in question was well known, even notorious, among observers of the film scene in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), who were fiercely divided in their reactions to the dramatic intervention of twenty-six brash young and aspiring filmmakers at a press conference held on February 28, 1962, during the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. In an expression of Oedipal outrage, these earnest young men—and it bespeaks the times that they were all men—assailed what they deemed to be a spiritually arid and intellectually bankrupt national cinema, announcing their intention to bring to it creative redemption and intellectual renewal. Blending harsh critique with constructive resolve, the succinct statement—its concision itself a blunt instrument—announced “the collapse of the conventional German film,” reiterating the news of its demise in the emphatic closing, which declared that “the old film is dead” before expressing a certain optimism: “We believe in the new one.” Both a devastating prognosis and a program for renewal, the document demanded a departure from the past and sketched a design for the future. Indeed, this promise of a fresh start bore a curious resemblance to the wishful thinking of Stunde Null (or “zero hour”) rhetoric that had circulated in Germany directly after World War II, with its tacit belief that one might start from scratch.

This fabled document, now hallowed as the Oberhausen Manifesto, provided the founding myth for what would become the Young German Film and, later, the New German Cinema. Against formidable odds, the manifesto precipitated radical changes in the way films in West Germany were funded and made, and it profoundly changed the equation with respect to the question of who would make them, with an immediacy, a vehemence, and a pertinacity that are truly astonishing. (One need only compare the efficacy of Oberhausen to that of the “First Statement of the New American Cinema Group,” also issued in 1962, to prove the point.) And if only a very few of the filmmakers who endorsed the statement would ultimately achieve some measure of international renown, the manifesto undeniably forced the opening that made possible the extraordinary creative outpourings—of the likes of Werner Schroeter, Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and Werner Herzog—that put German film at the forefront of international cinema during the 1970s and ’80s. As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the document’s signing, we would do well to recall the energies that spawned this now legendary pronouncement—and gave it such potency. But, at the same time, we must be alert to the more ambivalent (and less commented on) aspects of this remarkable legacy.

Oskar Fischinger, Raumlichtkunst, 1926/2012. Three-screen projection comprising three 35-mm films transferred to HD video, black-and-white and color. © Center for Visual Music. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012.


IN TATE MODERN’S recently opened Structure and Clarity Collections, a passage off to the side of the light, expansive gallery space leads to a large, pitch-black room. Here, visitors can immerse themselves in Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst, ca. 1926/2012, a film performance recently acquired by the Tate. The latest iteration is a re-creation produced by the Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles; the work comprises three ten-minute-long reels that are variably looped to make ever-new combinations. The Center took original nitrate and transferred it to 35-mm film and then to high-definition video, digitally restoring the color in the process, and also added a new percussive accompaniment—a track by Edgard Varčse and another by John Cage and Lou Harrison—derived from details of the original film events.

While all three projections offer evidence of a variety of methods, each screen is nonetheless dominated by a single technique familiar from Fischinger’s “visual music” animations. On the left, orchestrated groups of long rectangular forms push upward and sideways in ripples and forceful, angular thrusts. The right screen demonstrates his wax slicing technique (Wax Experiments, 1921–26), which uses methods redolent of those used to make murrine and millefiori glass to create liquid swirls. The subsequent vertigo effect draws viewers into a colored maelstrom, which, when it reverses, suggests infinite cosmic space. The center screen uses a combination of the other two and adds fluid graphic forms and celestial depth.

Fischinger’s creative philosophy was bent toward generating emotion through non-naturalistic, abstract, “absolute” form, color, and music. He was a filmmaker who also painted, and with Raumlichtkunst (a compound German word that translates as “space-light-art”) the variety of his experimentation can be experienced in one work. While Fischinger is still best known for his “visual music,” this three-ring circus of an installation is an occasion to revisit the given histories of expanded animation. REWIND, an important British genealogical project researching and archiving electronic media arts, includes Fischinger’s Bauhaus contemporaries (Theo van Doesburg, László Moholy-Nagy) in its history of expanded cinema, but makes no mention of Fischinger. This latest iteration of Raumlichtkunst offers undeniable evidence that he was an early pioneer of the canon.

Suzanne Buchan

Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst is on display through October 28 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and through May 12, 2013, at Tate Modern in London.

Fever Dreams

09.18.12

Dario Argento, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970, color, 35 mm, 98 minutes.


DERIVING FROM the late 1920s yellow (“giallo”) covers of the Mondadori publishers’ crime series, the giallo literary and cinematic phenomenon comprises what in English is rendered roughly as “crime drama,” and in French, the roman policier. It is to London and Paris, in fact, that the genre may be traced in the main: You see origins in Poe’s Detective Dupin prowling about the Rue Morgue, or Sherlock Holmes’s abode on Baker street. The Parisian pulp crime serial Fantomâs echoes to the far reaches of avant-garde experimentation, from Magritte’s 1927 painting The Menaced Assassin to the masked killer in Mario Bava’s 1964 film Six Women for the Murderer. Yet Italian directors, not least Bava himself, developed their own, increasingly self-conscious strain of cinema during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Bava takes pride of place in the history of Giallo all’italiana, and his influential The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) aptly features in Anthology Film Archive’s rousing ensemble of ten films by seven different filmmakers.

That range encompasses a generation from Massimo Dallamano (said to have filmed Mussolini’s corpse in the Piazza Loreto in Milan in his younger days) to Dario Argento—perhaps the genre’s best-known practitioner outside of Italy. Even still, the arc of time here is limited to a few vital years. It was a period roiling period with social and political unrest in Italy, but the turmoil of these works is a mannered one. If anxiety forms the giallo’s crux, it is an angst sealed in the hermetic chamber of cinematic convention, in which a larger world echoes only allegorically—indeed, can barely breathe. Suffocating close-ups; creeping and creepy pans; framings so portentous they border on camp—these are all here, whether in the hilarious/horrible final montage of Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) or the no less bathetic teeth bashing in Argento’s Deep Red (1975). There are too many anonymous, gloved hands in these films to count. The frequent mix of unsettling imagery with jaunty musical accompaniment bespeaks a certain irony about the meaning of violence here. (That Tarantino has taken careful note of the giallo tradition comes as little surprise.)

More than plot or acting, it is ambience that these films evince best. Far scarier than the act of murder in Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is the view of its site: an empty modern art gallery at night, its isolated objects illuminated by a stark and sour light. If Argento’s work helped push the giallo’s proverbial envelope, the genre has always been intrinsically and unabashedly pluralistic, drawing on both high and low culture. Pastiche of—and contamination by—other styles constitutes the giallo’s very quiddity, inflected as it is by horror, mystery, melodrama, noir, thriller, slasher, and seemingly infinite cinematic rubrics. The terrors and pleasures of this uniquely Italian strain of filmmaking have not so much faded since the ’70s as merged imperceptibly with other forms and formats.

“Giallo Fever!” runs September 20–30 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Ara H. Merjian

Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master, 2012, 70 mm, color, 137 minutes. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).


ONE REASON the Toronto International Film Festival has been able to attain such prominence is that it’s been careful not to step on the toes of its biggest rivals. Unlike Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Sundance, TIFF has no competition beyond a modest slate of critics awards, honors for the best Canadian entries, and the audience prize that’s come to be regarded as an early predictor of awards-season success—The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire were recent winners. That’s why filmmakers hungry for hardware typically treat Toronto as a second stop (or third, if they start the victory lap at Telluride).

Nevertheless, given the Venice jury’s much-publicized foul-up over Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—which failed to win the Golden Lion due to a technicality that prevents films from getting more than two awards—it’d be a savvy move by TIFF’s top brass to hastily concoct a shiny statuette and thereby stake a claim on the only new movie to have inspired mass admiration at the festival’s midway point.

Arriving amid much speculation over what Anderson’s period piece would or wouldn’t portray about the origins of Scientology, The Master has proved to be a meatier, more ambiguous, and more accomplished work than even the director’s admirers might’ve expected. Making an astonishing return from his still-perplexing hiatus, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a troubled war vet who comes under the wing of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Constance Dodd, a loquacious and temperamental author and speaker who bears some resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard in the early days of Dianetics. Yet Anderson is ultimately less interested in America’s perennial love affair with self-actualization philosophies than in the stormy dynamic between the two characters and the different ideas about power, control, and identity that they represent.

With its extraordinary swagger and sophistication, The Master leaves most of the other new features at the festival looking puny. The only film with anything like the same impact was Leviathan, a punishingly physical documentary shot aboard a New England fishing vessel by Lucien Caisting-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab. Then again, TIFF’s other keenly anticipated new work by a much-venerated American auteur was bound to seem meager no matter what. Largely unloved in Venice, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder struggled to find much support in Toronto, too. Fragmentary to the point of being formless, this muddled romantic melodrama stars Ben Affleck as Neil, a taciturn American who labors through a tumultuous relationship with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a beautiful Parisienne who returns with him to Oklahoma. Whereas the autobiographical nature of The Tree of Life lent a degree of relative coherence and directness to Malick’s languid, expressionistic style, To the Wonder sees the director cycling through his favorite motifs to ever-diminishing effect. The innumerable shots of Kurylenko twirling through verdant fields and sun-dappled rooms yield precious little wonder but plenty of ammunition for Malick’s detractors. (Reports that the suddenly prolific director will have two more movies next year beg the question of whether he’s so wise to shorten his movies’ incubation periods.)

Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers, 2012, 35 mm, color, 92 minutes.


The possibility that Harmony Korine may have created a better Malick movie than Malick is among TIFF’s weirder developments. Of course, the bacchanalian excesses of Spring Breakers—Korine’s slick and sleazy youthsploitation flick about coeds gone wild in Florida, who get some help from a drug dealer played with evident relish by James Franco—make the film disreputable in the extreme. Yet with its dreamlike, often nonlinear flow and wealth of images both gorgeous and grotesque, Korine’s latest provocation may very well be a Tree of Life for dirtbags.

Wayward youths made a memorable showing in another festival highlight. A remarkably clear-eyed look at his teenage self’s imperfect efforts to reconcile his nascent artistic ambitions with the anarchic fervor of those too young to have participated in the 1968 revolts but still try to keep the fire burning, Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air is subtle, substantial, and loaded with the director’s typically astute musical choices. Songs by the Incredible String Band, Amazing Blondel, and Soft Machine all figure prominently.

Even so, the most imaginative film at the festival was about not formative years but final ones. An unabashedly odd counterpart to Michael Haneke’s far more somber Amour, Night Across the Street was the last film to have been completed by director Raúl Ruiz before his death last year at the age of seventy. (Lines of Wellington, a Napoleonic epic that he’d been preparing to shoot and was completed by his widow and longtime collaborator Valéria Sarmiento, also screens at TIFF and the New York Film Festival.) Based on a novel by Chilean writer Hernán del Solar, this tale of an elderly man overwhelmed by memories and fantasies is an endlessly playful and frequently moving meditation on mortality. Like the best in TIFF’s thirty-seventh edition, Ruiz’s swan song proves that mastery comes in many forms.

Jason Anderson

The Toronto International Film Festival continues through September 16.

Mareike Wegener, Mark Lombardi: Death-Defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy, 2011, HD video, color, 79 minutes.


MAREIKE WEGENER’S PORTRAIT Mark Lombardi: Death-Defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy takes its title from the business cards that the late artist dispensed, giggling, at parties and openings. True to his self-conferred epithet, Lombardi was at once artist and sleuth, striving to distill the unseen, ubiquitous networks of power and corruption that structure our world. Wegener limits her scope to the series for which Lombardi is best known: his Narrative Structures (1994–2000), large-scale compositions of small circles and sweeping arrows, at once restrained and confoundingly dense, that furnish a visual catalogue of the international intrigues that rocked the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

The film proceeds largely through interviews with those who circulated in Lombardi’s Brooklyn-based milieu: his dealer, artist friends, and erstwhile girlfriend. A trip upstate to Lombardi’s childhood home affords screen time to his parents and siblings, whose emotions ring at a much lower pitch than his. Through such encounters, Lombardi emerges as a man possessed of a monomaniacal zeal for information, his graphite panoramas as much an effort to condense the workings of global politics as they are an attempt to depict the frenetic movements of his mind.

Lombardi himself features in grainy, saffron-hued footage, shot with a handheld camera by an unnamed interloper in his Williamsburg studio. Here, we see him charting an idiosyncratic schema of lines—alternately straight and looping, solid and dotted—with the tools of an architect: pencil, eraser, straightedge, and curves. As clusters of names and dates resolve into diffuse constellations of malfeasance, each fact returns to a single index card, traversed by Lombardi’s handwritten citations. These glimpses of the artist at work make the dual immensity and hermeticism of Lombardi’s ambition clear. His was an attempt to ascertain the present-day “order of things” through books and newspaper clippings, the figures he so fastidiously trailed the denizens less of flesh than of indices and footnotes.

Conceived on so grand a scale, Lombardi’s drive to complete the circle could never be sated. The more connections he uncovered, the more remained to be found. His networks proved equal parts involuted and asymptotic, continually approaching, but never attaining, closure. Attentive to the tensions inherent to Lombardi’s project, Wegener’s film shows his drawings for what they are: charged meditations on the pendent, unresolved nature of knowledge.

Courtney Fiske

Mark Lombardi: Death-Defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy runs September 13–18 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Amy Seimetz, Sun Don’t Shine, 2012, color, 82 minutes.


JOSH AND BENNIE SAFDIE’S short film The Black Balloon (2011), inspired by Albert Lamorisse’s immortal children’s work The Red Balloon (1963), begins as a harried balloon man accidentally releases an array of brightly-hued delights into the sky. While most of the balloons fly high up, a lone black one floats back down over a trash heap, a highway, and then Times Square. It accompanies a little girl along an urban sidewalk, joins a homeless bum who has been turned away from a restaurant, and hovers between the members of a bickering couple. (“Go back to your little cubicle with the robots up there!”) While Lamorisse’s film was a fantasy of close friendship between a boy and his balloon set in a cheerful Paris, the Safdie brothers’ balloon stays open to everyone in New York, even to its multitude of grumps.

The Black Balloon screens this weekend as part of the 92Y Tribeca’s inaugural La Di Da Festival, a display of recent narrative shorts and features curated by Miriam Bale. It was shot by American cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who specializes in photographing displaced, roaming protagonists with a 16-mm camera. Williams also filmed another La Di Da entry, Maiko Endo’s Kuichisan, an oblique and beautiful black-and-white study of the Japanese town of Koza. Americans settled on the island of Okinawa after World War II, and the film depicts Koza as a veritable melting pot of people wandering shopping boulevards at night. The town is featured in parallel scenes—of a bareheaded boy (Raizo Ishihara) native to Koza racing to play with friends, and of a newly arrived young white American woman (Eléonore Hendricks), who walks through crowds as she tells a companion on her mobile phone that she feels alone, confused, and lost. While she continues her travels in isolation, the boy and his friends and family set off fireworks on the town’s outskirts, perform religious rituals, and tell stories. “In Okinawa,” a character explains, “we welcome our ancestors by leaving food for them, to treat the ghosts well.” The behavior of the solitary Western woman, who seems to live only in the present, is in sharp contrast to the locals, who believe in the suturing of past and future.

Ghosts run throughout the La Di Da program. One is that of a strain of American independent cinema that lived briefly in the early 1970s in films like Wanda (1970) and The Honeymoon Killers (1972). The programmers suggest that the spirit of those films continues via a small group of current collaborators. Williams has previously worked with Kate Lyn Sheil, the slim, oval-faced lead actress who costars in Amy Seimetz’s Florida neonoir Sun Don’t Shine (2012) with the frantically earnest Kentucker Audley, also the writer-director of the ensemble-based relationship drama Open Five 2 (2012). In the first, a man kidnaps a woman to accompany him across the Gulf Coast; he soon discovers that she’s dangerously in love with him, to the point where seeing him with another woman makes her grab a kitchen knife. Eventually, neither can escape the other, save for small moments of fantasy. Sun Don’t Shine probably does not match the best of those ’70s films, but it shares a lot in common. It’s fiction, but it also seems like documentary, and the traditional road-movie structure allows the camera to visit places where movies don’t usually go. Light shines on rural, working-class homes, bars, and parks, and the awkwardness of the actors visiting them calls attention to their reality. As the two members of the couple fight for control, they both stumble for words and stumble physically. Whenever it seems like they’ve broken from a script, they surprise the viewer as well as each other, and remind whoever’s watching that life itself is always improvised.

Aaron Cutler

The La Di Da film festival runs September 14 and 15th at the 92Y Tribeca.

Pablo Giorgelli, Las Acacias, 2011, 35 mm, color, 85 minutes. Jacinta, Anahí, and Rubén (Hebe Duarte, Nayra Calle Mamani, and Germán de Silva).


OBSERVATIONAL CINEMA of an exceptionally subtle and affecting order and a road movie like no other, Argentine filmmaker Pablo Giorgelli’s Las Acacias has taken a year and a half to travel from its 2011 Cannes Film Festival debut to its New York opening. At Cannes, it won the Camera d’Or (for best first feature) and also my favorite Cannes prize, the Grand Rail d’Or, which is given by an organization of French railroad workers. The workers are adventurous cinephiles, with tastes running to humanist films that stretch the conventions of realism to show unexpected truths. In 1998, they bestowed the prize on Gaspar Noé’s harrowing I Stand Alone, a film that is as painful in its vision of love and loss as Las Acacias is tender and—at the risk of making it sound sentimental, which it is not—uplifting.

The film’s premise is its most traditional aspect: A single mother and her five-month-old baby girl are the catalysts of change in the life of a lonely, emotionally closed, middle-aged man. Rubén (Germán de Silva), a long-distance trucker, hauls logs from the acacia forests of Asunción del Paraguay to Argentina. As a favor to his boss, he agrees to let Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), whose mother, we later learn, works in the boss’s house, ride with him to Buenos Aires where she is going to live with her extended family. One of the film’s many subtexts has to do with how indigenous people from poorer countries in South America, as a matter of course, travel to richer countries, supposedly for vacation, but actually to settle and find work.

Rubén is not happy when he discovers that he’ll also be transporting a third wheel, Jacinta’s chubby, bright-eyed daughter Anahí. Sensitive to his irritation, Jacinta at first barely speaks a word. For the first quarter of their journey, almost the only sounds are those of the truck’s wheels and gears, the wind rushing past the open windows of the cab, and the baby gurgling and occasionally wailing. Inconspicuously, the camera changes position and focus to take in the unremarkable landscape outside the windows and the faces and bodies of the two adults and the child. (Giorgelli’s choice of shooting in 35 mm anamorphic paradoxically increases the movie’s intimacy and gives the images a warmth as yet impossible to achieve with digital cameras.) Their glances and gestures tell a story.

Charming as she is, Anahí (or, rather, Nayra Calle Mamani, who incarnates her) is not a scene-stealer. But because very young children live entirely in the present moment, her mere existence coaxes the adults on the screen and the viewers in the audience to amend their habitual patterns of attention—to set aside anticipation and memory in favor of the now. Even when Rubén and Jacinta reveal fragments of their past history—he has a son whom he hasn’t seen for eight years; she cries when she talks to her mother on the phone and tells the border guard that her baby “has no father”—these details are less expressive and engrossing than, for instance, the way Rubén holds his cup of mate, his muscled forearm leaning on the window, or how Jacinta looks down at the baby cradled in her lap and, for a split second, widens her gaze to include Rubén in this maternal dyad. When nicotine-addicted Rubén, realizing that Jacinta is concerned about the baby inhaling smoke, tosses his cigarette out the window, the action resonates as a major plot point.

And when, toward the end of the film, Rubén watches tensely at a rest stop as Jacinta chats animatedly with a young man from her hometown, we suddenly realize how attached he has become to her and her child. Back in the truck, as it approaches the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Rubén’s stiffened face and shoulders prompt Jacinta to ask if he is ill. She worries for a moment, as we might, that all those ciggies has provoked a heart attack. But Rubén is suffering a different kind of heartbreak. He is overwhelmed by separation anxiety. It takes an actor as great as de Silva to express interior emotional turmoil with such clarity, and to make us wish that this completely ordinary and utterly magical journey would never end.

Amy Taubin

Las Acacias is now playing in New York and Miami.

Magic Marker

09.06.12

Rian Johnson, Looper, 2012, 35 mm, color, 118 minutes. Older Joe (Bruce Willis).


THOUGH THE EVENT may be better known for the living luminaries it attracts, the most ubiquitous guest at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival may be a ghost. The festival’s thirty-seventh edition pays tribute to the late French maverick Chris Marker by devoting the very first screening slot to Sans Soleil (1983), the essay film–travelogue widely regarded as his signature work. The new TIFF Cinematheque section of archival screenings also includes Loin du Vietnam (1967), the omnibus project whose contributors included Marker, Agnčs Varda, and Jean-Luc Godard. That film’s proud pinko legacy is also invoked in Far from Afghanistan, a similarly provocative project conceived by activist and filmmaker John Gianvito in which modern-day muckrakers like Travis Wilkerson weigh in on America’s latest war.

Marker’s sensibility—typified by his eagerness to bend and blend cinematic and literary forms, his ability to invest political provocations with a giddy spirit of play, and his abiding love of voice-over—manifests in less overt ways as well. You can even find his stamp on the festival’s opening selection. A terse science-fiction thriller about time-traveling hitmen, Rian Johnson’s Looper may boast the star-heavy cast and commercial appeal typical of so much TIFF fare, but it also reconfigures elements of Marker’s La Jetée (1962) with the same ingenuity as Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), a touchstone that Johnson acknowledges by casting Bruce Willis in his movie too.

Of course, Marker’s influence may be more readily apparent in the selections in Wavelengths, the festival’s bustling section devoted to avant-garde and experimental works. Wavelengths has incorporated the former Visions sidebar, and now features a more substantial array of feature-length films, several of which owe more than a little to Sans Soleil. The Last Time I Saw Macau, a captivating curiosity codirected by Joăo Pedro Rodrigues and his longtime partner and collaborator Joăo Rui Guerra Da Mata, situates fixed-camera images of the Portuguese colony–turned–Asian gambling mecca within the cheeky construct of a noirish tale of conspiracy and murder, complete with references to Josef von Sternberg’s Macao (1952). That nearly all of this ominous chicanery is only heard in Da Mata’s pseudogumshoe narration is a touch that Marker would have appreciated. (The preponderance of mysterious felines would have been the icing on the cake.)

Making its North American premiere after a rapturous reception at Berlin earlier this year, Tabu is similarly cunning in its use of voice-over. A superb third feature by Rodrigues’s fellow Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes, it too has a playful relationship with an earlier screen classic—in this case, F. W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931). Knitting together a series of narratives set in modern Lisbon and 1960s Africa, Gomes creates a potent and surprisingly poignant rumination on the power of storytelling and the legacy of colonialism.

Another provocative exploration of a previously hidden history is Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s The Lebanese Rocket Society. The film recounts the true story of rocketry experiments by students at an Armenian university in early-’60s Beirut, and how their idealistic efforts were eventually co-opted by military officials before being halted altogether. Here, the narration proves to be somewhat overbearing (as does the musical score), so it’s a tonic to experience the austerity and rigor of a new film by another Wavelengths regular, Heinz Emigholz. The latest in the German filmmaker’s ongoing “Autobiography as Architecture” subseries—which already yielded an unlikely crowd-pleaser in the form of Schindler’s Houses (2008)—Perret in France and Algeria presents a set of often stunning views of buildings by French architect Auguste Perret. Emigholz’s film gives starring roles to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, Perret’s postwar buildings in Le Havre, and other structures that display his mastery of concrete and his magpielike enthusiasm for a massive range of styles and forms.

Wavelengths hardly suffers from lack of diversity. Other highlights among the feature-length works include Bestiare, Denis Côté’s alternately grim and sardonic commentary on the ways that our species regard (or disregard) our animal brethren. And differently, Molussia is a mesmerizing, randomly arranged nine-part film comprising narrated excerpts of Günther Anders’s anti-fascist satire The Molussian Catacomb (1931) and grainy vistas and landscapes that are further distressed by French cine-alchemist Nicholas Rey. New short works by Ben Rivers, Nathaniel Dorsky, Athina Rachel Tsangari, and Tsai Ming-liang offer further rewards, as does a set of heretofore little-known videos by Francesca Woodman. Seen whitewashing her body and juxtaposing her own nude form with examples of classical statuary in brief, cryptic vignettes filmed a few years before her death in 1981 at age twenty-two, the much-mythologized photographer is another of the festival’s apparitions.

Jason Anderson

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 6–16.

Between Men

09.05.12

Ira Sachs, Keep the Lights On, 2012, 35 mm, color, 102 minutes.


TRACING THE TURBULENT vicissitudes of a young New York couple over the arc of a decade, Keep the Lights On keeps the camera trained—almost unwaveringly—on the pair’s faces and physiognomies, arguments and intimacies, by turns steeped in pleasure or charged with anguish. Eric, a Danish, thirtysomething documentary filmmaker who has yet to fulfill his early promise, turns a casual trick with Paul, a closeted lawyer who—after a steamy one-nighter—tells Eric not to get his hopes up, as he has a girlfriend. Against those odds their relationship evolves, but only apace with Paul’s drug-fueled devolution. At the dinner table or in the bedroom, on the street and on the couch, we are plunged along with the pair into the travails of a relationship that never quite works, no matter how much they work at it.

The film thus stakes itself upon a rather stark solipsism of two. We get brief glimpses of the protagonists’ professions, some interventions by close friends and family into the tempest of their relationship. For the most part, however, the plot hangs on the spare skeleton of codependency, a fragile love and its mounting discontents. Not much narrative or sociological flesh is hung on those bones. The specter of HIV surfaces early in the film, in a scene rife with the particular self-blame that has so often terrorized gay men. That it happens on a pay phone only underscores the director’s deft evocation of its late-1990s moment. Yet Sachs, who has created some compelling work on the theme of AIDS, passes over that thread here in favor of the (not unrelated) problem of drug addiction. Or, rather, one man’s spiraling dependency and its effects upon his partner.

To that end, the film distinguishes itself with a keen eye for mood and moodiness. The cinematography of its close-ups is especially striking, whether in the tension of a symmetrically framed car scene, or in the economy of Eric’s searching, inquisitive eyes glimpsed over his lover’s turned head; the crinkled relief of a shower curtain betraying an embrace, or a scene of lovemaking cropped into near-abstract forms. But an idealized physical beauty—or the more quixotic ideal of perfect romance it might evoke—is not part of this film’s particular vision. Eroticism here is expressly imperfect; sex proceeds with an often discomfiting awkwardness; lovers’ quarrels are marked by a certain aggression, even violence to the self. Every relationship, Keep the Lights On seems to imply, entails its own unspoken addictions. Substances make literal—and make worse—the needs and neediness that bring individuals together to begin with. The reasons why these two particular men come together is at times rendered a bit too elliptically. That makes it more difficult to care about what ultimately splits them apart.

Ara H. Merjian

Ira Sachs’s Keep the Lights On plays at the Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday, September 5th and opens at various theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, September 7th.

Shirley Clarke, Ornette: Made in America, 1985, black-and-white and color film, 77 minutes.


SHIRLEY CLARKE’S PORTRAIT MOVIE Ornette: Made in America (1985) is an intricately knit series of riffs on free jazz giant Ornette Coleman, one of the greatest living artists twentieth-century modernism produced. What makes the movie thrilling beginning to end is the score that Coleman himself wrote for it, largely derived from one of his major works, Skies of America (1972), a composition for symphony orchestra and free jazz combo. The mono sound track on this newly restored version—supervised by Audio Mechanic’s John Polito working in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Ross Lipman, who supervised the restoration of the visuals—is brilliant. Using the original sound and picture elements, they found a richness that was lost in the 1985 film prints.

Ornette: Made in America is a movie about process: Coleman’s process of making music and Clarke’s process of using the moviemaking apparatus to convey something about his method of making music and living in the world. The backstory of how the movie came into being is no less fascinating. Beginning in the late 1960s, Clarke trained her cameras intermittently on Coleman, intending to make a movie primarily about his relationship to his son Denardo, who began to play percussion in his father’s group when he was only ten years old. The fragments of 8-mm and 16-mm film and primitive analog video languished in boxes, mostly under Coleman’s bed, until the early ’80s when Kathelin Hoffman Gray asked Clarke to document a performance of Skies of America. It was to be played by the Fort Worth Symphony and Coleman’s Prime Time combo to celebrate the 1983 opening of Caravan of Dreams, an ambitious, racially integrated multimedia arts center the likes of which no one in that part of Texas had seen before. Clarke and Gray hired cinematographer Ed Lachman to shoot the performance and Coleman’s return to the now officially desegregated city where he was born. (The police expected riots at the arts center’s opening.) Clarke and Lachman decided to shoot in yet another format, Super 16, considered experimental at the time.

The footage of the concert frames the film and gives it gravity. Clarke then spent three years editing the material, pulling together her own improvised sessions with Coleman—shot between 1968 and 1984—with this precise, visually eloquent rendering of the concert. The interaction of these two cinematic modes parallels that of the symphony orchestra with Coleman’s Prime Time combo in Skies of America. Memorably riffing conversations and inspired fragments of portraiture are woven into a crazy quilt of electronic editing. The movie’s only flaw is Clarke’s use of mid-’80s art-video image processing—thirty years ago it already looked like a garish cliché—which decidedly does not jazz up the movie.

During the interview sessions, Coleman is marvelously at ease with Clarke, who is occasionally heard but almost never seen on camera. Speaking in his inimitable voice (he always sounds as if he has an imaginary reed in his mouth), he ruminates on his theories of music and his relationship to his son, who has continued to play percussion with his father as well as becoming his manager. He talks about his admiration for Buckminister Fuller. And you hear how, beginning in the early ’70s, his playing and composition—which, discomfiting as it sounded to traditionalists, was rooted in the jazz and blues of the American South—came under the influence of world music, in particular that of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Clarke’s brief clips of Coleman’s visits to Nigeria and Morocco and of William Burroughs and Robert Palmer, who introduced Coleman to Jajouka, are gems, as is a clip of Burroughs reading. Toward the end of the movie, Clarke slyly asks Coleman to tell “the castration story,” and he launches into a strange and most touching attempt to sort out the relations among sexual attractiveness, sexual attraction, and music. Coleman’s theory and practice of music involves the connections of breath, body, heart, and mind. Ornette: Made in America holds a mirror to the man inseparable from his art.

The movie was Clarke’s last major work. Shortly after its completion, Alzheimer’s disease began to claim her, and she died in 1997. Ornette: Made in America is the second of Clarke’s movies to be restored and released by Milestone Films under what is dubbed “Project Shirley.” The first restoration, The Connection (1961), was released earlier this year. Soon to come is her masterpiece, the 1967 Portrait of Jason.

Amy Taubin

Ornette: Made in America is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York and will open in other major cities on Friday, September 7.