Chantal Akerman, Un Jour Pina m’a demandé (One Day Pina Asked..., 1983), color, sound, 57 minutes.
A BEAT, and then, of course: Who better to make a documentary about Pina Bausch than Chantal Akerman? Her 1976 classic Jeanne Dielman is not just a film but a choreography of the everyday, made manic through the stringency of its rehearsal. Screening at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the long-running “Dance on Camera” series, Akerman’s 1983 Un Jour Pina m’a demandé (released in the US as One Day Pina Asked...), follows Bausch’s Wuppertal, Germany–based troupe as they bring their compound of dance and theater, Tanztheater, to venues in Milan, Venice, and Avignon, France. The two make a fortuitous couple, their collaboration a pared instance of the art-and-dance world crossovers that epitomized New York’s Judson moment of two decades prior.
Bausch is typically figured as an expressionist, heir to the modernist tradition of Ausdruckstanz (literally, “dance of expression”) pioneered by Rudolf von Laban on the cusp of World War I. Analogizing Bausch to Judson might thus seem strained, as Laban’s variety of angular, operatic indulgence sits poorly with the “ordinary” affect often attributed to Judson. Yet the strength of Akerman’s treatment is to reveal how tenuous this binarization is: how Ausdruckstanz’s premium on involvement need not preclude Judson’s particular mode of distancing. Captured by cinematographer Babette Mangolte, a frequent Akerman collaborator and key documenter of New York’s downtown dance scene, Bausch’s work reads as equally about emotion—about “moving or being moved,” to invert Yvonne Rainer’s famous proscription—and its blockage: ineffability, estrangement, and the occlusion produced by cliché. Thus positioned, Bausch’s project both shadows and challenges humanism, comprising works at once “about a kind of humanity” (in Bausch’s words) and critical of humanism’s ideal of unfettered self-expressivity, of the self fully transparent to itself.
Consider one of the film’s first shots: a close-up on a female dancer’s face, its contours sharpened by a spotlight. Fixed at a downward diagonal, her eyes gaze inward as her hands slide slowly from her forehead to her cheeks, stretching her skin like so much putty as they descend. In the background, a recording of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” plays, the singer’s clotted tremor suffusing the scene with vague melancholy. Later, in a fragment from Nelken (Carnations), a man dressed in a backless evening gown excerpts ballet’s repertoire of forms in hysteric succession. “Là! Là! Là! Là! Là!” he intones as he executes jétés en tournant, ending the sequence with a sweep of the arms and an exasperated scream. “What else do you want to see? What do I have to show you now?” he entreats in French.
Bausch’s choreography comes as a critique of such displays of balletic virtuosity and their compulsion to pictorialize: to interrupt movement with moments of suspension, wherein the dancer’s body is offered, frontal and stilled, to the observer’s eye. The body as presented to the audience—its status as “a thing to be viewed,” to borrow a phrase from art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty—is here problematized. In Kontakthof, the German term for a place where prostitutes pick up clients, a mass of men in suits surround a woman, her eyes closed and her face heavily powdered. They proceed to perform a litany of stock gestures, of the sort which one expects from a grandmother or schoolyard crush: They tussle her hair, pinch her cheeks, tickle her ears, nuzzle her stomach, flick her skin. Iterated at an increasing clip, their caresses devolve into an assault, and the woman, limp limbed, grows more and more distraught.
Such slides of the mundane into the manic are an Akerman specialty. Her camera renders the scene in a single shot trained on the female victim’s face. Such focused framing is typical of Akerman’s approach. While recent attempts to document Bausch’s choreography indulge an impulse to visualize in full—Wim Wenders’s 2011 Pina being a case in point—Akerman’s effort resists the same. Selections from Walzer (Waltzes), Nelken, and 1980 gesture toward a multiplicity of onstage actions while withholding the whole from vision. A woman devours, then spits out an apple; a man extends and retracts a cigarette from a waiting female mouth; a line of seated dancers cross and uncross their legs in a sendup of the revue’s synchronized spectacle. In each instance, our view is partial. Full disclosure is far from the point.
Denying its viewer the idealized vantage of Wenders’s sinuous tracking shots, Un Jour reproduces the pull between meaning and its impasse that structures Bausch’s dances. Focused under Akerman’s lens, Bausch’s oeuvre resolves as a matter of the quotidian, pathologized, its order deranged not through an absence but an acceleration of some underlying logic: something, in other words, like the readymade subject of an Akerman film.
The 42nd “Dance on Camera” festival is copresented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Dance Films Association and runs January 31–February 4 at the Walter Reade Theater. Akerman’s Un Jour Pina m’a demandé (One Day Pina Asked...) screens Saturday, February 1, at 11 AM.
Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson, Charlie Victor Romeo, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 80 minutes.
IN 1965, Susan Sontag wrote of the perverse appeal of the science fiction film, which allows viewers to “participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death.” In the entirely fact-based Charlie Victor Romeo, whose script consists solely of transcripts of black-box recordings from six aviation disasters, the audience member vicariously experiences the horror of the final minutes before catastrophe.
A collaboration between Collective: Unconscious, which originated the stage play of the same name in 1999, and 3LD Art & Technology Center, where the movie was shot (to little heightened effect) in 3-D in front of a live audience in August 2012, Charlie Victor Romeo is most compelling as a showcase for the incongruous effect of hearing jargon deployed in dire situations. The title itself—the military phonetic-alphabet rendering of CVR, an acronym for “cockpit voice recorder”—immediately suggests words as detached, bureaucratic code. Set in the narrow confines of the flight deck, with fleeting scenes of air-traffic controllers (rendered as extreme close-ups of mouths speaking impassively into microphones) interspersed, this filmed documentary theater unfolds as a torrent of words at once terrifyingly impenetrable and stupefyingly banal.
The crew on Charlie Victor Romeo’s six technically bedeviled flights—which occurred between 1985 and 1995, all but one on a commercial airline—are performed by six actors (four men, two women), who rotate playing pilot, copilot, flight attendant, flight engineer, etc. The tempo and duration of each scenario varies, yet all begin and end the same way: slides of the aircraft and its particulars, including make and model name and number of crew and passengers onboard as introduction; a concluding slide with the number of injuries and/or fatalities and the official cause of accident. This cluster of cold, hard data is matched by the impersonal-sounding questions, declarations, and commands uttered, in differing levels of volume and panic, by the crew as equipment horribly malfunctions: “You want flaps fifteen?,” “Will you hit the quick dump?,” “It’s fictitious! It’s fictitious!,” “We have no controllability at all,” “Hold it down, buddy, hold it down.”
The press materials for Charlie Victor Romeo note that “the aviation community embraced the production, and the Pentagon has used it for pilot training.” Yet though I don’t consider myself an aerophobe, CVR seems to suggest, intentionally or not, just how unnatural the whole enterprise of flying is—or, at the very least, how estranging and very rarely comforting the practices and rites of its personnel are. Witnessing CVR’s bizarre cockpit exchanges about averting calamity reminded me of the uneasy feeling I’ve had when, sitting in the back of a plane, I’ve overheard the downtime chitchat of flight attendants, conversations that have made me profoundly uneasy because of how strenuously they seem to be about nothing. It is this void of meaning that unpleasantly reminds me of the void I am traveling through at considerable altitude, puncturing my willing suspension of disbelief of my own midair suspension.
Charlie Victor Romeo plays at Film Forum in New York January 29–February 11.
RINGER (1965) one of German artist Peter Roehr’s final films, spotlights a pair of jockstrapped wrestlers locked in an acrobatic embrace. Posed in front of a heady nowhere of puffy clouds and high-density sky, one figure slips off the other and slams slowly toward the frame’s bottom—then again, and again, mechanically, eleven times. William E. Jones departs from this piece—the only in Roehr’s oeuvre with homoerotic overtones, among dozens of traffic jams, gas stations, and female hair models—for his own video Film Montages (For Peter Roehr), 2006, imagining a kind of alternate continuation of Roehr’s career, cut short by cancer, which would have embraced the “physique” sexuality that coded midcentury gay pornography.
Content didn’t matter to Roehr, except as material for relentless repetition—yet here he and Jones part ways. Film Montages compiles—repeating in a structuralist manner four, six, or eight times—clips from vintage gay porn films, stressing the same charged bodily contact, yet withholding, relentlessly, four, six, or eight times, the money shot. A bondage sequence in a warehouse repeats a pan down a man’s torso, a cut to a second man chained to a crate, then back to the first man zipping up his jeans and then buttoning closed the mouth of the bound man’s mask. Eight times each. In Roehr, a then-unknown young artist deeply invested in pushing mathematical precision to its logical conclusion, Jones finds the pleasures of modernism’s sadistic repetitions.
Film Montages opens, though, with a throbbing Roehr homage of a different sort. The white holes of streetlights glide by above a freeway; a 1970s synth noir sound track loops four times into a sludgy beat; pornography, in this moment, is an art form. This stark peripheral image, like those Roehr drew from 1960s television advertisements, exerts its own poetry on the absent sex, like the absent products, that were the “point” of both artists’ source films. There’s pleasure, Jones argues, in watching, again, then again, the awkwardness of what you’re not supposed to notice: men draped across a couch, boots on a hardwood floor. Particularly charmed is a tangle of nude bodies in a boxcar; the faces are bare of the perfunctory intensity that has come to characterize the genre, and instead the men are playful, played-with, almost innocent.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, between screenings of Jones’s Film Montages and Roehr’s 1965 Film-Montagen on January 9, Jones read two letters. “March 15, 2013. Dear Peter,” begins the first. Jones addresses Roehr with a “work of fiction,” partly as biographer, partly to, as he writes, “figure out why you have such a hold on my imagination.” The letter laces Jones’s infatuation with certain romantic details—such as how a close friend of Roehr’s, the sculptor Charlotte Posenenske, gave up art in 1968 in favor of more direct social engagement; or that Roehr himself stopped making work in 1967, a year before his death, to run a head shop with his lover, the gallerist Paul Maenz. “Your idealism remains intact,” writes Jones, “because the dead cannot accumulate personal wealth.” Again, Jones finds most endearing, most powerful, those moments surrounding the supposed “core” of the work at hand; his personal address punctures an art context with real feeling. The second letter is archival, from Roehr to Maenz. Roehr touches on Sol LeWitt, New York, his illness, their meeting in a mailroom, with an optimism that turns art into something unfamiliar—something like love. Jones’s presentation, continuing a project begun in 1993, bends his excavation of Roehr’s brief life into an autobiographical fragment: Jones’s entanglement with his young, dead, idealized subject, four…six…eight times.
Bob Fosse, All That Jazz, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 123 minutes. Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider).
BY THE 1970S, the movie musical was almost dead and so was Bob Fosse. The ticker of the prodigiously talented choreographer, dancer, director, screenwriter, and actor, then forty-seven, was under severe strain in 1974, the result of an unyielding, self-imposed, toxic-substance-fueled work schedule: He was both editing Lenny, his Lenny Bruce biopic, and beginning preparations for Chicago, all the while gobbling pills and smoking obscene numbers of cigarettes. From Fosse’s near-death experience in the fall of that year—while still recovering from open-heart surgery, he had a heart attack—was born the largely autobiographical All That Jazz, which he directed, cowrote (with Robert Alan Aurthur, who actually did die before the film’s premiere), and choreographed.
This phenomenal 1979 film, a work of “depressive exhilaration,” in the astute words of Sam Wasson, author of the excellent, recently published biography Fosse, was the director’s third (and final) Hollywood musical, following Sweet Charity (1969), an adaptation of Fosse’s 1966 stage production of the same name, and Cabaret (1972). All three movies are obsidian prisms reflecting the darker, seamier aspects of show business, informed by the desperate ambience that Fosse observed first-hand as a teenage dancer in the burlesque halls of his native Chicago. Those formative, often scarring years as an entertainer are re-presented in All That Jazz, in which Fosse’s self-regard is no match for his self-excoriation.
Fosse’s surrogate, Joe Gideon, is played by a sexy, vulpine, Vandyked Roy Scheider, clad all in black and never without a ciggie between his lips, whether in the shower or a hospital bed. Joe’s day begins with varying doses of Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, and Visine, this morning ritual accompanied by a cassette tape of Vivaldi and concluding with a jazz-handsy, though weary, exhortation into the bathroom mirror: “It’s showtime, folks.”
Always on, even during attacks of angina, Joe has an enormous show to orchestrate, NY to LA, a transparent Chicago analogue. Lasting about six minutes, the cattle-call audition for this production, nondiegetically scored to George Benson’s funky cover of “On Broadway,” highlights not only Fosse’s tremendous skills in arranging and filming bodies—whether en masse or solo—in motion but also his eagerness to reveal, via Joe, his own unseemly business practices. “Victoria Porter—is this your home number?” he asks one NY to LA hopeful, who will make an appearance in his bed later that night.
Fosse is not above settling scores: The moneymen behind NY to LA are a particularly unimaginative, mercenary lot, and the character Lucas Sergeant (John Lithgow), partially inspired by Fosse’s archrival, A Chorus Line’s Michael Bennett, is humiliated in a restaurant. But he saves his most stinging disdain for his own incorrigible philandering. His infidelities ended both his marriage to Gwen Verdon, here recast as Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer), though she, in real life as in the film, remained his muse and most important collaborator, and his relationship with another key lover/dancer, Ann Reinking—who, as Katie Jagger, essentially plays herself in All That Jazz. (According to Wasson, Fosse made her audition for the part.) “At least I won’t have to lie to you anymore,” Joe tells Audrey in the final number, “Bye Bye Life,” before the EKG flatlines. This spectacular, morbid scene, the very epitome of “depressive exhilaration,” was a dress rehearsal of sorts: Eight years later, Fosse, with Verdon at his side, died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., where he was mounting a revival of Sweet Charity.
All That Jazz screens January 24 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens as part of the series “See It Big! Musicals.”
Alain Guiraudie, L’Inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake), 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes. Michel (Christophe Paou) and Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps).
“WHAT IS IMPORTANT IS THE ARCHITECTURE,” Claude Chabrol once claimed. “You can’t actually see it in a film, but it is there. It is abstract but you must have it.” Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake imposes an architecture, more obvious than abstract, on a wild and isolated setting: a gay nude beach and forested cruising area in southern France. The film’s formalist structureStranger takes place in a single location over ten consecutive days, all but the final two introduced by a similar fixed shot of an adjacent parking areaintensifies its depiction of the vagaries of desire, an amour so fou it courts death as its inevitable end. Reminiscent of Chabrol’s rural thrillers, particularly Le Boucher (1970), which also opens with a high-angled pastoral view (of a Périgord valley), Guiraudie’s film turns an open, Edenic space into a circumscribed arena of erotic ritual that culminates in violence and collusion, its summer idyll suddenly become sinister. In this wind-gusted arcadia, an “innocent” becomes both pursuer and prey, his yearning for a dangerous stranger leading him into a Chabrolian transference of guilt as he conspires to protect a killer, thereby imperiling his own life.
A regionalist attuned to the workings of enclosed communities, Guiraudie observes his lakeside enclave of naked gay men, perturbed by territorial spats and lurking masturbators, with characteristic acuteness and affection. (In a film intent on bodies and topography, the “manscaped” pubes on many of the sunbathers, who run the gamut from abs to flab, seem laughably apt.) Lithe, handsome Franck, bearing an air of superfluityhe drives a discontinued Renault 25 and is between jobs after a stint as a vegetable vendorreturns to his old haunt and immediately befriends an outsider who is his opposite: the older, portly, melancholy, and ostensibly straight logger Henri, clothed and isolated on his own patch of land, where he is nursing his hurt over a recently ended affair. The growing friendship between Franck and Henrione of the loveliest and most touching descriptions of male amity in cinemais played out in long takes of digressive conversation, while Guiraudie’s rigorous attention to composition, as in the strong diagonal shot four minutes into the film or his preference for protracted, wide side-by-side two-shots over a conventional shot-countershot breakdown, connects the two men both spatially and emotionally. “I like talking with you,” Henri says simply. Guiraudie’s precisely planned visual organization, in which Franck’s point of view is often intercut with objective shots to heighten ambiguity, does the rest of the telling.
As Henri warns Franck about the lake’s reportedly giant silurus (a kind of catfish), an actual slayer makes his way into this all-male environ. In the distance, behind the oblivious pair, the malign form of Michel, whose taut body and anachronistic mustache and grizzle suggest a Colt Studio fantasy of Tom Selleck, emerges from the water. A smitten Franck pursues the hunky intruder and, on the fourth day, finally has sex with the étranger (who reveals his name only halfway through the film) on the beach. When Stranger by the Lake premiered at this year’s Cannes festival, its alfresco erections and CinemaScope close-ups of cocksucking and cum ensured instant scandal, although the film’s suggestion that danger acts as an aphrodisiacdeath as the ultimate culmination of loveshould have proven more notorious, so fatigued is its contention. (Though Guiraudie claims the film is about passion jusqu’au bout, Stranger can conversely be read as an allegory of concatenating death wishes or a castigatory tale about the mortal heedlessness of desire.) An abrupt edit segues from sex to death, from a cum shot to a murder, as Franck surveys the lake at dusk and, in a long-held image, witnesses Michel drowning his previous lover. His attraction to the psychopath intensified, Franck becomes complicit in the crime by lying to the inspector investigating the murder. (Is it an intended or inadvertent joke that this pale wraith with the unlikely name of Inspector Damroder resembles the late Eric Rohmer?) As in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), the gradual dissolution of patternfor instance, the excision of the expected establishing shot on the ninth dayportends a violent unraveling. Stranger becomes increasingly constricted, nature ever more obscure and ominous, as the two lovers play a cat-and-mouse game in which their dialogue takes on Hitchcockian ambiguity. “And what’d you do with yours?” Franck asks Michel of his former boyfriend, while the killer later dismisses his qualms: “There are two of us. What can happen?”
João Pedro Rodrigues, the Portuguese director with a similar interest in homoerotic fixation and ritual (for instance, O Fantasma ), recently told Guiraudie that Stranger’s generosity of spirit made him “think of a homosexual version of Jean Renoir.” But it is Renoir’s opposite, the chill, geometric Chabrol, whose work the film most resembles. At the end of the French master’s Le Boucher, a schoolteacher who has been complicit with a serial killer stands numbly gazing into a bucolic setting of trees and river. At three key junctures in Stranger by the Lake, Guiraudie places Michel’s visage close and central in the frame, suggesting his murderous dominion, while in the film’s final, barely discernible image, Franck’s face tentatively displaces his lover’s as he stares into the impenetrable darkness, helpless before his fast-approaching fate.
Stranger by the Lake opens January 24 in New York and Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Artforum.
FOR JUST UNDER A WEEK, Anthology Film Archives serves as the downtown annex of the Whitney Museum’s “Rituals of Rented Island” exhibition. Titled “Further Rituals of Rented Island,” the Anthology series brings together films and videos made by or documenting the work of many of the artists in the Whitney show, returning them to their point of origin—the underground venues of Lower Manhattan.
I am not the ideal viewer for the Whitney exhibition, subtitled “Object Theater, Loft Performances, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980” (with a preamble in the late 1960s and an afterward in the early ’80s), for the simple reason that I “experienced” almost all the pieces in the show when they were presented as live performance or were screened hot off the Portapak or Super 8 camera, almost always with the artist present. Though I may complain about getting old, I also am still thrilled by the memories of Jack Smith’s after-hours performances in his Grand Street loft, Michael Smith’s “Baby Ikki” pieces at the Kitchen, Vito Acconci masturbating under a ramp cut into the floor of the Sonnabend gallery, and Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson’s glacially paced plays with their strategically placed eruptive visuals.
In the mid-’80s, when I was the video and film curator at the Kitchen, I programmed and distributed almost all the film and video in the show and felt then that moving-image documentation was a poor substitute for the live confrontation of performer and audience, which was the essential factor in the most subversive of these works. Although there are some very strong pieces in the Whitney exhibition—Michael Smith’s apartment-styled installation; an Acconci video that you have to crouch down to see; large projections of two of Ericka Beckman’s early films, which have great presence even at a distance—the show as a whole is as respectable as a mausoleum. It is, however, valuable in suggesting that the underground art of the ’70s was a preview of the performance-dominated mainstream in the first decades of the twenty-first century, where painting itself would be invisible were it not enveloped in the traveling circus that is the art fair. Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” meets Warhol’s “business art,” indeed.
Anthology’s series, organized by “Rented Island” curator Jay Sanders and catalogue essayist and éminence grise J. Hoberman with Anthology curator Andrew Lampert, has the virtue of demanding that audiences spend substantial amounts of time with essentially time-based works and/or documentation of the same. Most of the thirteen programs are each devoted to a single artist and run between sixty and 150 minutes. The series opens with Acconci’s monumental minimalist 1977 video The Red Tapes, in part a tribute to American visionaries Gertrude Stein and Jimi Hendrix. Not to be missed are the shows by artists named Smith: Michael Smith will appear in person with video documentation of his early Down in the Rec Room, which stretches time almost as deliriously as Jack Smith did in Midnight at the Plaster Foundation (ca. 1975), a Portapak recording of which makes the program devoted to the artist who coined the term “Rented Island” necessary viewing. Fragmentary, mostly Super 8 films of four of Richard Foreman’s great mid-’70s Ontological-Hysteric Theater productions should interest devotees of Foreman’s work, but I’m not sure they tell you more than that his recent work is as different as it is the same. Julia Heyward (once Duka Delight) will appear with her 1977 performance video Conscious Knocks Unconscious, one the Whitney show’s best rediscoveries.
The one artist in the exhibition who should never have been unearthed is Ralston Farina. Hoberman will present videos of Farina’s performances and attempt to explain why his support of the artist’s work is not just outré for the sake of being outré. Sometimes work that appears to be dumb and irritating is exactly that and nothing more. Among the Whitney show’s serious omissions were the ’70s films and videos of James Nares, many of which were performances created specifically for the camera. Anthology provides the remedy with a program of short pieces that include the powerful 1976 seventeen-minute version of Pendulum, and the Super 8 farewell to the ’70s, the 1980 Waiting for the Wind.
“Further Rituals of Rented Island” screens January 16–21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Denis Côté, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, 2013, color, sound, 95 minutes. Vic and Flo (Pierrette Robitaille and Romane Bohringer).
THE WOMEN-BEHIND-BARS GENRE, dating at least as far back as the Barbara Stanwyck–starring Ladies They Talk About (1933) through Orange Is the New Black, has been a steadfast source of sapphic entanglements, whether presented implicitly or explicitly, luridly or not. Denis Côté’s wry, elliptical, but compassionate Vic + Flo Saw a Bear adds to this illustrious tradition by imagining the prisons his same-sex, ex-con lovers find themselves in—some of their own making—after they’ve been sprung.
Dragging a rolling suitcase behind her, sixty-one-year old Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) installs herself in the sugar shack owned by her infirm uncle in backwoods Quebec. Her lover, Flo (Romane Bohringer), roughly two decades her junior, is heard before she is seen, introduced via amorous tussling under the covers. Precisely when their relationship in the pokey began is never specified, nor is the reason for their incarceration; of the exact nature of their crimes, all we learn is that Vic had received a life sentence and that Flo frets about the thugs looking for her. Their sylvan outpost serves as merely a tenuous haven: The former yardbirds are still subject not only to numerous visits by Guillaume (Marc-André Grondin), a sympathetic yet rigidly rule-enforcing parole officer, but also to the aspersions cast by neighbors and kin. Even worse, their isolation exacerbates the tension in their own union: Flo finds their remote location to be “like death,” while Vic insists on staying put in the sparsely populated area, declaring, “I’m old enough to know that I hate people.”
Yet this off-the-grid utopia, where a golf cart suffices as a mode of transportation, that the older woman believes she’s created for herself and her beloved will later be the setting of a particularly nasty revenge scheme against the couple. Côté, a film critic turned filmmaker who has written and directed seven feature-length works since 2005, coolly examined the terrors lurking within seemingly tranquil Canadian woodlands before in Curling (2010), which has another cloistered dyad at its center, an overprotective father and his twelve-year-old daughter. Like Curling’s restrictive dad, Vic is terrified of losing Flo, setting in motion a push-pull between the two women that grows only more painful to witness. Vaguely aware of her girlfriend’s infidelities with men picked up from the local bar and go-kart track, the otherwise immovable Vic becomes increasingly needy and desperate, asking Flo, “What do you like about me?” and pleading, “Tell me something you’ve never told anyone before.”
Her entreaties only drive Flo further away, of course. But Flo’s nonresponses also highlight Côté’s particular gifts for probing the secrets and silences of his outcast and marginalized characters, who seem just beyond the grasp of those who love them most. This dynamic is scrutinized even further in Côté’s 2012 zoo-animal documentary, Bestiaire, an excellent treatise on the limits of interspecies comprehension, the hubris of trying to exercise control over living things that are ultimately unknowable. Pinning down Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is likewise futile: Equal parts love story and horror show, it honors two unapologetically unassimilable women.
Alexandre Rockwell, Little Feet, 2013, black-and-white, sound, 60 minutes.
FAST BECOMING the season’s indispensable film event, the “First Look” series at the Museum of the Moving Image once again presents an array of unusual cinematic pleasures. This year’s lineup, from ten different countries, demonstrates that filmmakers continue to tease the boundaries between fiction and documentary. How else to consider Juan Barreros’s The Inner Jungle (Spain, 2013), which mischievously weaves Darwin’s report of an encounter between a child and a mosquito in 1830, a discovery involving a self-pollinating orchid, an old woman who recalls Spain’s Fascist era, and the personal fates of the filmmaker and Gala, the woman (wife?) he lives with who becomes pregnant against his will? And is Alexandre Rockwell’s Little Feet (2013), the opening film, simply a fable about two delightful children fending for themselves and adjusting to the apparent death of their mother? Or, since the children, Lana and Nico, are Rockwell’s daughter and son, and he dedicates the work to his wife—and their very much alive mother—isn’t there a bit of macabre cross-breeding of genres here?
Among the certified documentaries, at least three stand out: Caroline Martel’s Wavemakers (Canada, 2012), Richard Misek’s Rohmer in Paris (UK, 2013), and David Cairns and Paul Duane’s Natan (Ireland, 2013). Martel’s is an intriguing chronicle of the martenot, a musical instrument inspired by its inventor’s fascination with the “radio electric interferences” he heard in transmissions during World War I. Named after Maurice Martinot, this instrument, unlike the theremin and similar devices, is still in use. It not only served to create sound effects in prestigious movies by, among others, Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier, but was embraced by swing and pop bands from the 1930s on, and was prominently used in such rarefied compositions as Olivier Messiaen’s opera St. Francis of Assisi (1983) and Marie Bernard’s 8 Haikus (2011). Martinot says his invention was designed to help musicians “control the parameters of musical sound…by becoming an extension of the interpreter’s nervous system.” Plenty of experts, as well as Martinot’s son, are on hand to flesh out this corner of musical history with engaging instruction.
No true cinephile should miss the delightful Rohmer in Paris, which, short of prompting an immediate flight to Paris, should urge viewers to rewatch every movie Éric Rohmer made in that city. While the work is an undisguised love letter to the filmmaker, it is also a deft piece of film scholarship. Compiling shots of numerous locations across Rohmer’s works, Misek scrutinizes the telling glances and “chance” encounters among his appealing flaneurs, whose moves generate a network of amorous entanglements that constitute Rohmer’s view, not only of his favorite city, but of life itself. Noting the filmmaker’s beginnings in the Nouvelle Vague when he brushed shoulders with Godard and Truffaut, Misek illustrates how Rohmer converted the geography of the world’s most romantic city—its boulevards, gardens, plazas, and subways, its cafes, hotels, and monuments—into a style unmistakably his own. Misek wonders if Rohmer was not, in fact, making the same film all along, an endless loop documenting the daily gestures and routines of the Parisians of the era. With the help of a bountiful collection of clips from the films, placed with the precision of an astute film historian, Misek has created a work of intelligence and passion worthy of his subject.
Natan is also about a filmmaker who worked in France, but this tale is far from joyous. Bernard Natan arrived in Paris in 1905 from Romania, where he was born Natan Tannenzaft in 1886. Almost immediately he became involved in the movie business, working as a chemist for Pathé, then a projectionist. After serving in World War I, he became a French citizen, then produced newsreels and many of Pathé’s biggest films, including La Merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d’Arc (1929), Les Miserables (1934), and Gaietes de l’Escadron (1932). Amid the anti-Semitic atmosphere in France in the ’30s, he was accused of hiding his Jewish identity, found guilty of trumped-up charges of swindling Pathé, denaturalized, and sent to Auschwitz in 1942, where he died a year later. Interest in Natan was revived when it was alleged that he made and played in pornographic films in the early 1900s. Although we see footage from films that could support the case, several individuals, including Natan’s granddaughters, deny the allegations. This is a piece of early cinema history well worth any serious filmgoer’s attention.
Ahmad Abdalla, Rags and Tatters, 2013, color, sound, 87 minutes.
Even some of the narrative features in the series have a documentary air. Both Aran Hughes and Christina Koutsospyros’s To the Wolf (2013) and Ahmad Abdalla’s Rags and Tatters (2013) treat contemporary circumstances in their countries of origin (Greece and Egypt, respectively) in muted, nontheatrical tones. The former begins with a man bemoaning the disastrous state of economic and political affairs in Greece, where average people face hunger and poverty with no sign of relief. Virtually plotless, the film moves through a series of tableaux as impoverished looking as the dismal lives they etch.
Rags and Tatters, though set amid the same events in Cairo as the recent documentary The Square, could not be more different. While The Square immerses us in the immediacy of current events—its rhetoric and politics a bit too neatly drawn—Abdalla’s story unfolds quietly, nearly bereft of dialogue, with a denouement both inevitable and surprising. Rather than tackle the larger questions that consume the vocal demonstrators of The Square, Rags and Tatters, as its title suggests, deals with the mundane lives of ordinary people, disengaged from the momentous uprising occurring nearby, despite TV coverage and pleas on public address systems. The thin narrative thread follows a young, apolitical Muslim searching for the family of a wounded man he encounters in the beginning, carrying the latter’s cell phone where he had recorded the violence in the city square. The unnamed protagonist runs to assist the man’s family when he learns they are being attacked by anti-Christian thugs, and dies in the chaos as the cell phone records yet another “minor” casualty gone ignored.
In two narrative features from Chile, unsettling circumstances unfold amid magnificently photographed settings. Marcela Said’s The Summer of Flying Fish (2013) is a coming-of-age tale about a young, idealistic daughter of a plantation owner who becomes distraught over her father’s treatment of the locals. More offbeat but far grimmer is Sebastián Sepúlveda’s The Quispe Girls (2013), based on actual events that occurred in Chile in 1974. Set in an austere, punishing mountain terrain far from any city, the three women of the title follow a rough, daily regimen herding sheep and goats, hoping to sell their cheese, spending long days in the cold outdoors and living in a sparsely furnished, fire-lit cave. Though dialogue is minimal, they speak of vague fears that “everyone is leaving the area because something bad is going on.” An occasional visitor confirms a police-state atmosphere and widespread arrests in the city, and the women learn that a new “erosion” law threatens their livelihood since it requires killing goats to reduce grazing. Hopeless about the future, the women resort to an extreme solution, as bluntly and unsentimentally presented as the rest of this bleak, unforgettable image of primal existence.
“First Look” runs January 10–19 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.
Thom Andersen, Los Angeles Plays Itself, 2003, video, color, sound, 169 minutes.
THE VIDEO ESSAY has become an increasingly popular critical approach in the past decade, but we’re still catching up with Los Angeles Plays Itself. Thom Andersen’s “city symphony in reverse”—an essay movie clocking in at just under three hours—first appeared in 2003, when the CalArts professor and filmmaker was sixty years old. Andersen had spent most of those years in Los Angeles, and his intimacy with the city, as well as his grudgingly proprietary relationship to it, is evident in his narration text, laconically read by filmmaker Encke King. King’s narration interprets and interrogates the accompanying images, original footage of Los Angeles filming locations, and, principally, excerpts from some two hundred different movies shot in the city.
The announced intention is to search “fiction films for their documentary revelations.” The clips are drawn from the breadth of cinema, although with a pronounced emphasis on films made in the years immediately preceding the completion of Los Angeles, when the idea was presumably percolating. (That many of these featured titles have since been practically forgotten doesn’t do much to disprove Andersen’s apparent dismissal of industrial filmmaking.) The high-definition remaster of Los Angeles that will be playing for a week at New York’s IFC Center is a 2013 “re-edit,” replacing the VHS-dubbed clips of the original with higher quality sources, but there have been no additions to account for the decade of film that has intervened since the film’s release, and most of the cuts are cosmetic in nature.
Andersen approaches his subject from a number of novel angles. The filmographies of certain landmark buildings—the Bradbury Building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Innes House, Union Station—become cross-sections of film history. Andersen is very good on architecture, analyzing for example the tendency of Hollywood to turn Los Angeles’s treasure trove of Utopian modernist residences into villain’s lairs. As Andersen sets about extracting such unconscious agendas from the margins of fiction plotlines, it is tempting to call his reading of the history of Los Angeles as seen in films a “secret history”—though he disdains the very idea of a secret history of the city’s betrayal, as most famously represented in Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), much as he disdains the surrender of that film’s famous final line (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”), noting that “Cynicism has become the dominant myth of our time.”
Andersen has disdain to spare, and few idols of the Los Angeles pantheon are left untoppled. He slags the diminutive acronym “LA” and brushes aside “The mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and company about the automobile and the freeways.” The word “masterpiece” occurs only twice in Andersen’s text—and not in the expected contexts, but in reference to Fred Halsted’s 1972 gay porn epic L.A. Plays Itself, from which Andersen adapted his title, and 1974’s Gone in 60 Seconds, with its materialist cinema of “conspicuous destruction.” “Condescension” occurs several times, however, and Andersen is constantly on the lookout for it. For Andersen this is the cardinal sin, the sin of movies that despise the city in which they are made without even knowing it. By debunking the claims of industrial moviemaking and “their betrayal of their native city,” Andersen is in effect defending Los Angeles from “Hollywood”—not a physical place like Los Angeles, but “a metonym for the motion picture industry.” Andersen is arguing for his own Los Angeles cinema, opposing geographic and historical license with Neorealism, opposing a commuter cinema that drives through with a pedestrian cinema that lingers. (Andersen’s follow-up to Los Angeles was 2010’s significantly-titled Get Out of the Car.)
Scene from Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself, 2003
Andersen’s proposed alternative canon includes many of the “high tourist” films of European filmmakers passing through Los Angeles: Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), the works of the Jacques Demy and Deray (1969’s Model Shop and 1972’s The Outside Man). Of native talents, Andersen singles out “Toby” Halicki for the geographic fidelity of his Gone in 60 Seconds car chase, as well as John Cassavetes, for whom he composes a piquant eulogy: “Suffering is self-evident, and its promise of wisdom is illusory. For Cassavetes, happiness is the only truth. So he drank himself to death.”
Andersen is also enamored of those pedestrian filmmakers who have documented the lives of Los Angeles’s pedestrian classes. We see much of Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), about displaced southwestern Native Americans living in the since-bulldozed Bunker Hill neighborhood, and Los Angeles concludes with a discussion of the films produced by a generation of African Americans in Los Angeles: Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979), Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979). As was the case with Killer, Los Angeles has long been prevented from wide release because of copyright issues, but that hasn’t diminished its influence. In the years since Los Angeles first appeared, there has been a touring retrospective of the films of the black “LA Rebellion” filmmakers, and both The Exiles and Killer have enjoyed well-received revivals. If the measure of a work of criticism’s potency is the success with which it argues for a particular view of film history, Los Angeles Plays Itself must be considered one of the most persuasive critical works of the young century.