“I NEVER KNEW the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm,” begins the narrator of The Third Man (1949). He’s referring to the most recent war—though cinema itself had missed Vienna in its sparkling heyday. The city has never been a European film capitol on the order of Paris, Rome, Berlin, Stockholm, or London. By the time movies had entered their early maturity, the days of Vienna as the center of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and crossroads of a cosmopolitan empire were already over, the Dual Empire having taken its Humpty-Dumpty fall and been permanently partitioned shortly before the Armistice in 1918.
Nevertheless, there are few cities to which cinema owes as much as it owes Vienna. It was either the birthplace of or a vital creative incubator to a passel of important filmmakers. Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger both grew up there, as did a Jewish hat-maker’s son, Erich Oswald Stroheim, who became an aristocrat sometime around Ellis Island, just as Jonas Sternberg became Josef von. The more democratic Samuel Wilder, who’d once covered the crime beat for newspaper Die Stunde, assimilated simply as “Billy.”
Championing American gumption over European breeding, Wilder allowed Bing Crosby to thumb his nose at the stuffy Hapsburg court in 1948’s The Emperor Waltz—which, along with The Third Man and movies by vons Stroheim and Sternberg, is among the “some seventy films” playing during the four-week exhibition “Vienna Unveiled” at the Museum of Modern Art, put together in conjunction with the Carnegie Hall–organized festival “Vienna: City of Dreams.”
As the title “City of Dreams” implies, there are two Viennas: the metropolis of some two million souls in Eastern Austria which can be physically located by geographical coordinates, and the city that exists in the popular imagination. Vienna made a legend of its own vaunted civilization, a reputation fit to be skewered: In William Dieterle’s Pre-Code Jewel Robbery, the best stoner comedy of 1932, William Powell’s thief wears a tux to work and puts waltzes on the phonograph to soothe his victims. Many a Viennese, however, held that civilization in almost sacred regard. Here is a passage from the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s 1942 The World of Yesterday, remembering “the old Vienna before the war”:
There is hardly a city in Europe where the drive towards cultural ideas was as passionate as it was in Vienna. […] The first glance of the average Viennese into his morning paper was not at the events in parliament, or world affairs, but at the repertoire of the theater, which assumed so important a role in public life as hardly was possible in any other city.
Zweig’s memoirs are an acknowledged influence on Wes Anderson’s forthcoming The Grand Budapest Hotel, largely set in a luxury resort hotel in a fictional alpine nation in the years immediately preceding World War II and global tragedy. In MoMA’s program, Zweig is represented by a supremely masterful film adapted from one of his short stories, Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), for which “Vienna about 1900” was created on the Universal lots, including an interlude in the winter Wiener Prater. (Ulrike Ottinger’s 2007 Prater was not available for screening, though the description of this unorthodox documentary portrait of the famed amusement park is fascinating.) More than any other single figure, however, the star of this program isn’t a filmmaker, but another author: Arthur Schnitzler.
Hans Karl Breslauer, Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews), 1924, black-and-white, 80 minutes.
Schnitzler was an ex-doctor famed for his diagnostics of sexual vanity and compulsive behaviors; Sigmund Freud, a contemporary resident of Vienna, thought that Schnitzler was simultaneously pursuing the same investigation into the subconscious that he was, though by literary rather than pseudoscientific means. Today, the most famous adaptation of Schnitzler’s work is Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The ostensible setting of this somnambulistic, trickle-paced sex odyssey was New York City—a Manhattan of second-unit shots and underpopulated streets, with Kubrick forming a simulacrum of Greenwich Village in his adopted London. But is this NYC, or somewhere else? The ballroom sway of the camerawork, the ornamental floral paintings in the Harman’s Central Park apartment by Kubrick’s wife which evoke the Wiener Secession, and the opening “Waltz No. 2” by Shostakovich—everything nods toward old Vienna, an affinity for which would be a natural outgrowth of Kubrick’s love of classical music. (Recall Johann Strauss II’s “Blue Danube,” in 2001: A Space Odyssey—and check out Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1955 Oh… Rosalinda!, an adaptation of Strauss II’s 1874 operetta Die Fledermaus.)
On the cusp of a new millennium, Kubrick was reaching toward the last, anxious fin de siècle. Traumnovelle was a later novella by Schnitzler—published in 1926 after two decades of reworking—which Kubrick had owned the rights to since the early 1970s. (G. W. Pabst, whose 1925 The Joyless Street is playing at MoMA, had once proposed to adapt it.) It was through Ophüls that Kubrick came to Schnitzler. Inasmuch as Kubrick deigned to acknowledge a master, that was Max. “His camera could pass through walls,” Kubrick marveled. “I loved his extravagant camera moves which seemed to go on forever in labyrinthine sets. [Their staging] appeared more like a beautifully choreographed ballet than anything else: a spindly waiter hurrying along with a tray of drinks over his head, leading the camera to a couple dancing, who, in turn, whirled the camera to a hussar climbing the stairs, and on and on the camera would go, all to the beautiful music.” This gliding style matched Ophüls to Schnitzler; to a contemporary critic, the author’s “dramatic method is the intellectualization, the refinement of the Viennese waltz.”
Ophüls, who came from Saarbrücken, Germany, on the French border, led the rare truly international career. He was for a time creative director at Vienna’s Burgtheater, before turning to filmmaking at Berlin’s UFA. In years to come, Ophüls would retreat from the Nazis, making films—always in the indigenous tongue—across France, Italy, the Netherlands, and into Hollywood. But a dream of Vienna, and its literature, remained Ophüls’s taproot. His 1933 Liebelei comes from a Schnitzler play: It’s a goodbye to a prewar world soon to be forever left behind, seen herein to contain the seeds of its own destruction in its suicidal martial culture. Liebelei was released simultaneous to Hitler’s rise, and its Jewish author and director went uncredited in Germany. At this a word should be said about a truly unique experience at MoMA, a screening of Hans Karl Breslauer’s 1924 speculative fiction The City Without Jews, which imagines the dire straits of a Vienna stripped of its Semitic genius, and which very soon came to have the aspect of a prophesy.
Ophüls would return to Europe, and Schnitzler, with La Ronde (1950), an adaptation of succès-de-scandale stage play Reigen, a roundelay of immediately pre-and-post coital dialogues set to the music of Viennese Oscar Straus. (Oddly, just after she filmed Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman starred in a London stage production of The Blue Room, David Hare’s adaptation of Reigen.) Both Reigen and Liebelei are at MoMA, as is Jacques Feyder’s 1931 Daybreak, a considerably Hollywoodized and declawed version of Schnitzler’s Spiel im Morgengrauen.
Such softening of life’s harsh truths is hardly commonplace in the work of many of the postwar Austrian filmmakers that are showing here, works in which the City of Dreams is seen as closer to a nightmare. Representative samples include films by Kurt Kren, an affiliate of the Vienna Aktionists and participant in their project of artistic affront in the ’60s, as well as one movie each from a trio of famous Viennese contemporaries whose names are hardly synonymous with light viewing: Michael Haneke (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance ), Ulrich Seidl (Good News: Newspaper Salesman, Dead Dogs, and Other People from Vienna ), and Michael Glawogger (Slumming ). There is, then, an almost palliative effect in the most recent film on the program, Jem Cohen’s 2012 Museum Hours, which depicts the tentative relationship between two middle-aged strangers, a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and a Canadian woman abroad. It’s a film of very little glamour, but infinite easy charm.
“Vienna Unveiled: A City in Cinema” runs February 27–April 20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
AS OUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY in the States froze their buns off, Berliners were subjected to a freakishly premature arrival of spring this February. I imagine that those who only visit Berlin for the annual Berlin International Film Festival had a tough time gaining their whereabouts, as the city must seem naked without its blanket of snow. And with several hundred films on offer in a program rife with big-name gala premieres on the one hand, and debuts by mysterious unknowns on the other, it seemed that no overarching agenda would emerge for those bound to spend most of the month in the dark. So instead, I decided to drift aimlessly like the wanderers in two of the festival’s boldest cinematic statements, both reinterpretations of works by modernist masters: Brecht’s Baal (1970, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, with Baal played by Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (2014, directed by Bruce LaBruce, with the titular character played by Susanne Sachße).
There were some obvious must-sees. They included premieres of the uncut version of Lars von Trier’s overhyped Nymphomaniac: Volume 1; George Clooney’s Monuments Men, so bad that the press screening had to be interrupted so that one critic could be removed on a stretcher (it will probably win an Academy Award); and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a rather tepid coming-of-age flick whose chief gimmick—the fact that it was filmed over a ten-year period, enabling us to watch the juvenile actors grow up—was sufficient to wow most audience members into overlooking the rather banal, cliché-ridden script (though considering it runs nearly three hours in length, perhaps that’s just my sore ass talking).
The best of the A-list fare was Wes Anderson’s period piece The Grand Budapest Hotel. Based on the writings of Stefan Zweig and set between the two world wars at a Magic Mountain–esque spa hotel in an imaginary European country, this zany fast-paced comedy-adventure features Ralph Fiennes as a concierge who wins and then loses everything. The Grand Budapest Hotel seems like a guaranteed classic, even if the director’s trademark stylistic tics are beginning to feel a bit like a template.
For many, the highlight of this year’s Berlinale was the spotlight on China’s current filmmaking renaissance. The winner of the Golden Bear was Diao Yi’nan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, which takes place in a small unnamed city in northern China in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It follows an alcoholic former detective who becomes obsessed with a young widow who appears to be the sole remaining link between a series of unsolved murders from years earlier. Then there was Zhou Hao’s The Night—far less polished, but brilliant nevertheless; its night scenes shot in rich sepia tones and its script’s ambitious exploration of a trio of societal outsiders recalled the early work of Gus Van Sant. Zhou himself stars as a gay hustler whose intense narcissism serves as a wall between him and those who fall in love with him, including a young female prostitute and a fuck buddy who follows him into prostitution to get closer.
Another great existential drama is Nao Kubota’s Homeland, which takes as its setting the devastation of post-Fukushima rural Japan. A family adjusts to the internment camp–like settings of their assigned temporary housing as one of the estranged adult sons returns alone to the contaminated homestead to resume life—planting crops, harvesting soil—despite warnings from the authorities. More intensely sweet and subtle than any post-apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster, Kubota’s film offers one model for how we might continue when all has seemingly been lost.
The sixty-fourth edition of the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin ran February 6–16, 2014.
John Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs, 1987, 16 mm, color, sound, 61 minutes.
ABSENT AMONG LAST WEEK’S many tributes to cultural theorist Stuart Hall—who died February 10 following a long illness—was any mention of a letter he wrote to The Guardian in 1987 in response to Salman Rushdie’s negative review of a film called Handsworth Songs by a group of young black independent filmmakers known as Black Audio Film Collective. Rushdie accused the film, which concerned recent racially motivated unrest in the titular Birmingham neighborhood, of failing to give voice to the sorts of colorful, postcolonial narratives that were his own stock in trade. But Hall leaped to their defense: “What I don’t understand is how anyone watching the film could have missed the struggle which it represents, precisely, to find a new language.”
After all, this struggle for a new language—one frequently marginalized under what Hall termed the “authoritarian populism” of Thatcherism—was one in which the oft-labeled “godfather of multiculturalism” was deeply invested. Since the 1950s, Hall had been a highly visible fixture of political debate in the UK: He was founding editor of New Left Review, longtime director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, and professor of sociology at the Open University, and he appeared almost weekly on BBC television and radio programs to discuss Marx, race, and the media.
Hall identified in Black Audio’s work a form of cultural politics much like his own, one engaged in an active feedback loop with history—“complexly mediated and transformed by memory, fantasy and desire, [and] by the technologies and the identities of the present.” Add to this approach the radical poetics of the collective’s members—including Ghanaian-born director John Akomfrah, producer Lina Gopaul, and sound designer Trevor Mathison—and one finds in Handsworth Songs a style that approximates in cinematic form the “cut-and-mix” methods of Caribbean music then popular in London’s black neighborhoods, further echoed in the film’s dark, grungy footage of Jah Shaka and his sound system in an underground club. Of course, Hall’s defense of the collective in the letters pages of The Guardian was just one instance in a long informal collaboration that has culminated in a documentary portrait, The Stuart Hall Project, and a video installation, The Unfinished Conversation, currently on view at Tate Britain—both directed by Akomfrah with the collaboration of Gopaul, Mathison, and other former collective members.
Founded in Hackney, East London, in 1982, the Collective—which also included Edward George, Reece Auguiste, Avril Johnson, and David Lawson—arose amid a period marked by postindustrial austerity, strikes, and race riots on the one hand and increased support for independent media on the other: Channel 4 began broadcasting in November of that year, and the ACTT Workshop Declaration provided a funding structure that led directly to the founding of Black Audio, as well as other black and Asian collectives and workshops like Sankofa Film and Video (in which Isaac Julien produced some of his first films), Ceddo, and Retake. In the beginning, the collective organized screenings, workshops, and slide-tape lectures, before producing the experimental essay films for which they would become better known, an oeuvre marked by montage, hybrid aesthetics, and essayistic bricolage. The standout among these is Handsworth Songs, a kaleidoscopic work that interleaves archival imagery of West Indian migrants, interviews with representatives from Handsworth’s South Asian and West Indian immigrant populations, and vérité documentation of demonstrations, funerals, and arrests, all harmonized by Mathison’s intricate, patchwork sound design, which collages evocative poetic readings and eyewitness testimony, calypso and reggae, street sounds and ominous electronic noises into a sonic cityscape as complex, volatile, and intercultural as the community itself.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the collective continued to deploy their unique multivalent aesthetic in a body of work that seeks out the loose ends of black diasporic history: Who Needs a Heart (1991), a fictionalized scrapbook-like portrait of the Black Power movement in London told through a constellation of black and white revolutionaries, artists, friends, and lovers whose lives run in parallel to the downfall of the Trinidadian militant Michael de Freitas (aka Michael X, aka Michael Abdul Malik); Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1992), an amalgam of archival images, footage shot around Harlem and at the premiere of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and staged tableaux inspired by the films of Sergei Paradjanov and James Van der Zee’s photography in The Harlem Book of the Dead; and The Last Angel of History (1996), which explores the linkages between black culture and sci-fi with contributions from George Clinton, Octavia Butler, and DJ Spooky. (The latter film is currently on view as part of the Studio Museum’s excellent Afrofuturism exhibition, “The Shadows Took Shape.”) While the collective ceased to function as a contiguous entity in 1998—partly the result of the lack of arts subsidies in the changing media landscape of the ’90s—Akomfrah continued to collaborate with former collective members Gopaul, Lawson, and Mathison on his 2010 film The Nine Muses and last year’s The Stuart Hall Project. In 2007, the collective was the subject of a retrospective, “The Ghosts of Songs,” organized for FACT in Liverpool by Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group.
While The Stuart Hall Project would seem like the ideal occasion to tease out the connections between the theorist and the collective, or indeed between theory and practice, the film itself strangely lacks much of the radical energy of the earlier works. While no doubt heartfelt, the film functions better as an affectionate personal tribute to Hall’s life than as an evocation of his intellectual legacy, and leaves major threads largely untreated—including his activism on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, his critique of Thatcher, and indeed the whole period during which both Hall and the collective were most conspicuous. Instead, the film crafts an elegant if somewhat too placid account of Hall’s life and times, scored by Miles Davis and illustrated with a flow of family photos, BBC appearances, and archival images which function as historical backdrop in the manner of many a conventional feature documentary.
The installation The Unfinished Conversation rather more successfully conveys the complexity of Hall’s work—and this is perhaps because of its form, which manages to suggest a good deal more through its contrapuntal voices and comparative editing. As in the best of the collective’s work, there’s something unstable about the relations set up by this multichannel work: Where the film seeks the finality of the biopic, the installation takes a more appropriately fragmentary, polyphonic tack, placing Hall’s words into dialogue with those of Virginia Woolf, William Blake, and Mervyn Peake, and triangulating, rather than flattening, the personal, the cultural, and the political. If this makes the film somewhat more disappointing by contrast, both works nonetheless stand as heartfelt tributes to Hall and to a cultural exchange he helped foster.
Lukas Moodysson, We Are the Best!, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 102 minutes. Elis, Klara, and Bobo (Jonathan Salomonsson, Mira Grosin, and Mira Barkhammar).
WITH HIS FIRST two features, Show Me Love (1998) and Together (2000), Lukas Moodysson proved himself to be a gifted, compassionate director of children, especially of misfit girls. That empathy and generosity, however, curdled in most of the works that followed, particularly the horrifically manipulative Lilya 4-Ever (2002), about an abandoned sixteen-year-old sold into sex slavery, and Mammoth (2009), the Swedish filmmaker’s global guilt-tripping project propelled by overdetermined symmetries between first-world privilege and third-world misery. Fortunately, Moodysson’s devotion to feel-bad humanism seems to be behind him: The sweetly detailed We Are the Best!, his first movie since Mammoth, marks a cheering return to the celebration of female-adolescent weirdos.
Set in Stockholm in 1982, We Are the Best! is based on Never Goodnight, a 2008 graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife, Coco, inspired by her teenage years as a punk enthusiast. Her analogue in the film, the bespectacled Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), is introduced glumly enduring her divorced mother’s fortieth birthday party before retreating to her bedroom and the pleasures therein: the balm of commiserating over the phone with her best friend, Klara (Mira Grosin)—whose Mohawk establishes her own punk bona fides—about the inanities of parents and the bliss of losing herself in her Walkman.
Like most thirteen-year-olds fervently committed to a cause, Bobo and Klara must frequently defend their calling from naysayers, like the two Human League–loving blonde classmates dressed in princess pink who insist that “punk’s dead,” and from apostates, including Klara’s older brother, who now “only listens to Joy Division.” Indignities suffered in gym class help them put theory into practice: Forced to run laps for not displaying sufficient teamwork during a basketball game, the two outcasts come up with the lyrics to their first song, “Hate the Sport” (“Children in Africa are dying / All you care about is balls flying / Hate the sport / Hate the sport”), thrashing away on instruments neither knows how to play.
Bobo and Klara soon add a third member to their unnamed group, the solemn Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne, a Scandi ringer for Léa Seydoux), whose crucifix pendant has made her even more of a pariah than these scruffy iconoclasts. “It’s political of us to hang out with the less fortunate,” Bobo believes, though she also hopes that Hedvig, who had impressed her with classical-guitar performance at the school talent show, can teach them what a chord is. Unfazed when her new friends introduce her to a track called “Hang God,” the Christian fourteen-year-old will later teach her squabbling bandmates, in one of the film’s loveliest scenes, the importance of forgiveness, instructing them, “Say after me: ‘I like you. We like each other.’ ”
Era-specific but never nostalgic, tender but never sentimental, We Are the Best!, like all good films about teenage girls, finely illuminates the emotional extremes of this tumultuous development stage: how bravado and self-importance can quickly yield to existential panic and self-loathing. And in its heroines’ refusal to accept the diminishing label “girl band,” We Are the Best! reveals a political view more forceful and convincing than that found in Moodysson’s earlier misguided screeds.
We Are the Best! screens February 22 at Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of “Film Comment Selects,” which runs February 17–27; the film opens theatrically in the US on May 30.
INCHILD’S POSE, director Calin Peter Netzer offers a fresh look at the ancient prototype of the “monstrous mother.” Cornelia, an upper-class architect in post-Communist Romania, is so unabashedly controlling, invasive, and suffocating that she eerily conjures the atmosphere of a Stalinist state: Big Brother reincarnated as Mommie Dearest. Though we may at first sympathize a bit as Cornelia bemoans her son Barbu’s absence from her birthday party, we soon realize her true nature in her response to his involvement in a tragic accident. From the moment she learns that his reckless driving has caused a child’s death, she stops at nothing to ensure that he escapes full responsibility: interfering with police procedure, making her son lie about how fast he was driving, trying to bribe a witness to change his testimony, and ransacking Barbu’s apartment for the presence of drugs and medications that could jeopardize his case. There is no clearer sign of the unhealthiness of their relationship than the scene of Cornelia giving her acquiescent son an erotically tinged massage. So when we learn later that Barbu frequently fails to climax during intercourse with his lover, Carmen, we are hardly surprised.
The great strength of the film is that it escapes the stereotypical reduction that such conspicuously pathological behavior would suggest. Thanks to the brilliant, utterly convincing central performance by Luminita Gheorghiu as Cornelia, and a strong, sympathetic Bogdan Dumitrache as her son, the characters are continually surprising and complex, difficult to dismiss as “types.” We think we “get” Barbu immediately when he yields to his mother’s bullying takeover at the police station, but when later he demands that she return the keys to his apartment, we glimpse signs of the resistance his present circumstances have aroused. Here is an overgrown boy who wants desperately to be a man, barely coping with a tragedy that unwittingly becomes an opportunity to change his life. Eventually, he confronts Cornelia—not angrily, though hardly with affection—and says that if any future relationship is possible between them, he must make the first move, however long it takes. The alternative, he flatly declares, is nothing at all. It’s a brutal, understated exchange between mother and son that rings wholly and painfully true, but which is rarely performed as free of melodrama and theatrics as it is here.
Neither Barbu’s father nor Carmen can stand up to Cornelia; only the witness she tries to bribe seems a match. But if anything is as continually compelling as Gheorghiu’s Cornelia, it is Andrei Butica’s masterly, restless camerawork, which scrutinizes every scene as if it were another character. So attuned is the camera to the subtlest shifts in action and performance, even to the nuances of a look or a word, that its repeated pans left and right, from character to character, are neither redundant nor routine. Indeed, in registering genuine surprise at each development, the camera behaves as if it had no prior knowledge of the screenplay.
In the deceptively simple final scene, Cornelia, Barbu, and Carmen visit the parents of the dead child. Unsurprisingly, mother appeals to the parents while son waits in the car. Rather crudely, she plays her “only son” card, and when they refuse money for the funeral, she insists they take it for their “other” son. Despite the bluntness of her purpose—to win their forgiveness and prevent Barbu’s imprisonment—Gheorghiu’s performance imbues Cornelia here with the complexity of emotions at play: Her efforts to identify with the family’s grief are manipulative, but they are fueled by her awareness that she has in effect also lost her only son for different, but equally irreparable reasons. True to the film’s tendency to eschew melodrama in favor of a more ambiguous truth, the emotions that suffuse the scene are capped by a simple, unanticipated gesture. As they are about to drive off, Barbu sees the father standing outside of the house; he suddenly demands that his mother unlock the car door, gets out, and walks back to face the man. Neither uttering a word and barely a foot apart, the space between them—charged with everything that cannot be said—is quietly breached when the father reaches out to take Barbu’s hand. Significantly, we see this gesture indirectly, reflected in the side-view mirror of the car—that is, obliquely, not actually, from Cornelia’s point of view. The choice is both calculated and subtle: The image within the mirror can be read as a sign of Barbu’s independence, but the frame around it connotes his mother’s continued, if decentralized, presence in his life.
Child’s Pose opens at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday, February 19 and at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles on Friday, February 21, 2014.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Medea, 1969, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes.
“I NEED HIM like the axe needs the turkey.” This is Barbara Stanwyck’s spurned card sharp in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941), speaking of a man she loves, and loves to hate. Such a bloodthirsty sentiment is typical of “Vengeance Is Hers,” BAMcinématek’s twenty-film program that highlights a particular aspect of female desire—the desire for revenge.
Stanwyck’s target, a socially incompetent ophiologist (Henry Fonda) who has thrown her over, gets off relatively easy: She marries the dunce. We may chalk up this light sentence to the fact that The Lady Eve is a Valentine’s Day screening, for most of the (overwhelmingly male) targets in the series aren’t so lucky. They will die slowly, screaming, by tooth and claw, by sword and poison and aphrodisiac overdose, by fire and firearm and scissors.
The last-named implement is wielded in Chantal Akerman’s epic of everyday attrition Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) by star Delphine Seyrig. Seyrig can also be seen in S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1976), a short she codirected with Carole Roussopoulos, reading chapter and verse from the platform for the Society of Cutting Up Men penned by founding member and would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas. In making a point to include these and other works by female filmmakers, “Vengeance Is Hers” coprogrammers Nellie Killian and Thomas Beard prove that the camera can itself be a tool for settling scores. Quite literally so in Sarah Jacobson’s High School Reunion (2003), in which the late DIY filmmaker returned to her Edina, Minnesota, alma mater ten years after graduation to interrogate her former tormenters. (In a pairing that typifies the series’ ingenious, harmonic programming, Reunion plays before Brian De Palma’s 1976 Carrie.) Kathryn Bigelow, one woman who has commandingly held her own in the male-dominated action field, is represented here by Blue Steel, a New York City–set 1989 thriller which stars Jamie Lee Curtis as a rookie cop who enters into a game of mutual obsession with a white-collar psychopath (Ron Silver, imminently hateable). A box-office underperformer and a less-heralded entry in Bigelow’s filmography, Blue Steel gives ample evidence of Bigelow’s bold visual imagination—the film is pierced by shards of light in jagged, Ed Ruscha–like diagonals—and may be seen as a rehearsal for her Zero Dark Thirty (2012), as both films have in common monomaniacally obsessed female protagonists clinging to their intuition in the face of disbelieving male bureaucracy, and summations which emphasize drained, exhausted comedown rather than grim satisfaction.
The best “revenge” movies—this pointedly does not include Quentin Tarantino’s output—acknowledge that retributive anger, stoked past a certain point, becomes a destructive force that consumes indiscriminately, making no distinction between guilty and innocent, vigilante and victim. In Carrie, cruel classmates and sympathetic gym teacher alike burn together in the apocalyptic gymnasium fire. In Kaneto Shindô’s stark and sensual Kuroneko (1968), two women brutalized by warring samurai return as murderous wraiths, only to find that their vow for justice has made an enemy of their husband and son. In Abel Ferrara’s nauseatingly immersive Ms. 45 (1981), Zoë Tamerlis Lund’s mute seamstress Thana sets out on a simple mission to punish the various won’t-take-no-for-an-answer bullies on the streets of Midtown. As Thana’s righteous vendetta continues, however, she grows increasingly indiscriminate in her targets, and each kill further destabilizes the viewer’s identification. A scene in which one designated victim wrests the misfiring gun from his would-be executioner before turning it on himself emphasizes the suicidal impulse at the heart of masculine aggression, and the degree to which the avenging angel is a figure of wish-fulfillment. By the time that Ms. 45 arrives at its bloodbath finale, the gendered rules of engagement have become hopelessly obscured, and Thana is cut down by a woman wielding a knife in absurdly phallic fashion while leveling her gun to shoot a man in drag.
Abel Ferrara, Ms. 45, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 80 minutes. Thana (Zoë Lund).
The name “Thana” comes from the Greek for “death”—it’s a touch of classical literature in the grindhouse—and Ms. 45 isn’t the only film at BAM that connects the drive for violent catharsis to the earliest of sources. Ferrara has most recently commenced work on his long-rumored film about Pier Paolo Pasolini, who is represented here by his 1969 Medea, freely adapted from Euripides. Starring opera grand dame Maria Callas in her lone screen role, Pasolini’s film is set in a science-fiction imagining of the ancient world, shot among the cave-churches of Göreme, Turkey, with production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Piero Tosi spared no indulgence in realizing their fantasies of primitive splendor.
The other work with highbrow literary pedigree here is the 1949 Paramount Pictures production of The Heiress, based at some remove on Henry James’s Washington Square (1880). While James’s short novel ends on one of the more crushing phrases in our literature—with protagonist Catherine Sloper, confirmed in eternal spinsterhood, sitting down before one of her knitting samplers “for life, as it were”—William Wyler’s film affords a sort of chilly grandeur to Catherine’s final abnegation, Aaron Copland’s score lashed to climax as she bars her home and heart to the adventurer who had once paid her court (a supernaturally beautiful young Montgomery Clift). Olivia de Havilland won a well-deserved Academy Award for playing Catherine, whose winsome expectation hardens into steely desolation, her final expression every bit as scorched-earth in its quiet way as the bellowed “It’s useless! Nothing is possible anymore!” that closes Medea.
Where the staunchly antierotic Ms. 45 teases viewer prurience only to frustrate it, other exploitation entries undercut expectations of titillation even as they fulfill them. Much bare flesh is seen along the road to retribution in 1972’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (the title literally translates as “Love Slave”), a Shaw Brothers production starring Lily Ho as a kidnapped farm girl, forced to work in a brothel, who plots to systematically slaughter the province bigwigs who’d bartered for her virginity, a film in which male authority is embodied by a burlesque of sweaty mugging. In Jack Hill’s Blaxploitation staple Coffy (1973), Pam Grier presides over a staggering catfight, a scene whose brazen ridiculousness plays as self-parody, with Grier vanquishing a room full of harpies wearing break-away blouses, each hitting the floor with exposed breasts a-flopping. Coffy was produced by American International Pictures, where Stephanie Rothman had worked with Roger Corman in the 1960s before going on to make her Terminal Island (1973), a dismantling of the Women in Prison formula which Corman, Hill, and Grier had perfected, and an object lesson in Audre Lorde’s “using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” In each of the above works, the only hope is to be the last woman standing when the smoke clears—call it a convention of S.C.U.M. at BAM.
“Vengeance Is Hers” runs February 7–18 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.
“NEW FRONTIER,” the mini–art fair component of the Sundance Film Festival, was headquartered this year in and around the building where casual or well-heeled festivalgoers buy movie tickets. (Industry professionals register for passes and “packages” in advance.) Between the ticket buyers and the not inconsiderable numbers of viewers who are excited by the promise of expanded and interactive media, “New Frontier” drew crowds every day to its primary location—between Park City’s Main Street and its free bus depot.
With the exception of jury members and the rich and famous who have their own cars and drivers, almost everyone at the festival gets from theater to theater via Sundance shuttles or Park City buses, mingling on the latter with skiers. “New Frontier”’s location, therefore, also worked in favor of the installations that at night spilled onto the streets near the stairs to the depot. From there, one could be lured toward James Nares’s Street (2011), projected on a large, freestanding screen surrounded by benches and heat lamps, its extreme slow-motion images of New York in summer rendered surreal by the subfreezing temperatures and patches of ice and snow. A half-block in the opposite direction from the depot put you in front of David Adjaye’s circular, two-thousand-square-foot pavilion designed to house Doug Aitken’s The Source (evolving), an open-ended series of video conversations between Aitken and “pioneers” of various creative disciplines (among them Paolo Soleri, Tilda Swinton, and James Turrell) about art in the contemporary world. As bland and vaguely nauseating as Pablum (a throwback to the early years of Sundance where “granola” was the favored descriptive adjective for far too many of the film selections), the videos were omnipresent at the festival, projected outside and inside the dedicated pavilion and shown as short clips before feature films screened in the theaters. (You can find many of them here and on the New York Times website.)
Much livelier, the Klip Collective celebrated the festival’s thirtieth anniversary with high-speed multiple projections of images from Sundance hits (and some misses). These covered the facade of the Egyptian Theater, the Main Street movie minipalace that used to be the festival’s most important venue and which is now used largely for foreign-language film premieres and repeat screenings. It remains my favorite venue—not too big, as are the Eccles and the Marc theaters, not too small like the screens in the Holiday Village four-plex. The work, awkwardly titled What’s He Projecting in There?, was also used as a teaser for the film screenings, a better choice than excerpts from the lugubrious Aitken interviews.
Inside the “New Frontier” exhibition space, crowded with new media work, viewers queued for a chance to don virtual reality headsets designed by Oculus Rift. The headsets are basically a gaming device that will hit consumer stores this year, but here they were used to best advantage by Chris Milk to put you “virtually” onstage with Beck in concert, as the musician covers David Bowie’s 1977 single “Sound and Vision.” The Oculus fans, hanging out on disco-like settees, were face to face with the most subtle and haunting piece in the exhibition, Marina Zurkow’s Mesocosm (Wink, TX) (2012), a hand-drawn animation of a sinkhole around which insufficiently wary birds, coyotes, butterflies, and occasionally humans circle. The animation, which captures the fragility of the threatened ecosystem, develops and changes over time in response to software-driven data inputs, recombining in condensed, seemingly slowed motion (twenty minutes equal one day; 144 hours, one year). The piece is part of Zurkow’s “Mesocosm” series, which can be seen in full on her website. I doubt that the VR enthusiasts paid the piece much attention, but its canny placement in the room (a decision by “New Frontier” curator Shari Frilot) perhaps allowed it to be absorbed into their collective unconscious.
The thirtieth Sundance Film Festival ran January 16–26 in Park City, Utah.
ON FIRST SEEING Paul Schrader’s Cat People in 1982, my reaction was a wave of almost nauseated confusion: What was Schrader up to with this hodgepodge? Why did these voluptuous, neo-gothic jigsaw pieces sometimes feel like they had been soldered together by a blind monk in shop class? Precisely what the fuck was he thinking? I could barely sort out my own responses to what was thrashing around on-screen. It was as though the director, writer, actors, and designers had set out to make a perfectly respectable shocker, overlaying the sex, horror, patriarchal gore, and New Orleans juju with a nice ironic sheen of self-consciousness. (Cat People was a remake of the 1942 Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton cult talisman, albeit in name only.) But like an artificial entity that develops a twisted mind of its own, the movie had other ideas.
Excitement, disgust, humor, and ennui had all been locked together in this perverse, ungainly ritual of control and release. And so Cat People took on a clanking, lurching, irrational momentum that dragged everyone involved along for a ride down into the unconscious. The signposts of a standard horror film were tangled with a cerebral romanticism that seemed to be trying to wrestle those generic elements into submission, or repurpose them as votive art. Unless secretly, sadomasochistically, Cat People wished to submit to that primitive pulpy grip of myth-smeared mumbo jumbo, the pagan dance of splattered viscera and a beautiful child-woman who turns into a big man-eating cat during the witching hour and/or the sex act.
Much as I might have wanted to dismiss it as an orgy of hopeless cross-purposes, its discomfiting images, performances, sounds, and even imaginary smells stuck in my head the same way the David Bowie/Giorgio Moroder theme from Cat People—aka “Putting out fire with gasoline”—did. You could make fun of it, disdain it, sneer, giggle, throw the reels under the bus of aesthetic propriety: It knew something the viewer didn’t and yet maddeningly refused to disclose exactly what that knowledge consisted of. You could resist it, but the movie would win out eventually: It possessed the luster of sin, Eros as incurable disease.
Watching the movie again, on Blu-ray, in a new edition that beautifully reproduces the film grain as it looked when I originally saw it, I could not resist feeling a jolt of awe. Schrader, even more than his pals Scorsese and De Palma, tried to fully reconcile mainstream commercial work with the rigors of art cinema—in other words, to live the impossible dream. In Cat People, with an intensely visceral yet peculiarly ascetic voyeurism that nods to Vertigo (1958) and Cocteau and Dante’s Beatrice (the zookeeper hero plays a cassette audio translation of La vita nuova while reading the original), Schrader projects a rapturous obsessiveness onto twenty-year-old star Nastassja Kinski. That he was also having an affair with her during shooting will not come as a surprise: Of all the cinematic valentines of directors to an actress, this is among the most absolutely prurient and the most detached. She was at the pinnacle of her run as an international sex symbol. (Everyone who was sentient in the 1980s remembers the infamous Richard Avedon photo of her naked on a concrete floor with a boa constrictor wrapped around her like a bulging ribbon on a Christmas present.) Radiant, super vulnerable, otherworldly—the sex symbol presented as stained-glass icon.
I don’t want to slight the rest of the cast: Annette O’Toole is a marvel as the sensible, all-American woman eventually stalked by Kinki’s cat persona; John Heard does his best playing in essence Schrader’s stand-in (the role’s conception as a Jimmy Stewart–type straight arrow seems to have gotten muddied with the addition of the director’s fixations, or else Schrader felt he was just getting in the way of the camera’s undiluted gaze on his beloved); Ruby Dee is surprisingly credible as the voodoo housekeeper; and Malcolm McDowell’s sourly hammy brother-monster fulfills the film’s horror-cliché quotient. (He’s window dressing to reassure you that this is just a movie, while slowly the picture’s morphing into another beast behind his back.)
Kinski, though, with that amazing innocence-meets-experience bearing, little-girl voice (which could drop an octave into an ominous purr when required), and young-boy haircut/physique, allows Cat People to go into truly unsettling areas. Schrader likes to tell the story of going to a preview screening, sitting behind a couple of teenage girls: “And it came to that scene where he is tying her to the bed…it was shot as a religious ceremony but it was a zoophilic bondage scene, and I remember this girl in front of me going, ‘Oh my God,’ and I turned to [producer Jerry Bruckheimer] and said, ‘I think we went a little too far here.’ ”
Let’s not kid ourselves. The operative word here is not the demurely exotic zoophilic; it is the more old-fashioned, taboo-saturated, terror-stricken pedophilic. Kinski is playing a character who not only is symbolically underage (a virgin, “sheltered” in the extreme, yet coming from a family where incest is practiced, as it were, religiously), but who, in this scene, naked and bound spread-eagle on a bed, looks perhaps fourteen years old. No wonder the girl in the audience gasped: That could be her little sister up there. The zookeeper has stripped his Beatrice bare and found—Lolita. Schrader speaks of how “cool” the movie is, but cool is what Quentin Tarantino achieved when he lovingly appropriated “Putting Out Fire” in Inglourious Basterds. Cat People definitely wades straight into uh-oh, it’s-too-late-to-stop-now territory; smart folks like to bandy around concepts like “transgression,” but leave it to an erstwhile Calvinist to really hit the self-crucifying nail on the head.
The cat nymphet presents her suitor with a stark choice: You can save me or you can have sex with me, but you can’t do both. Being a man as sure of his own righteousness as he is helpless before his own unleashed desires, he seeks to do both—to finesse damnation into some pretzel-shaped approximation of redemption. Which results in a staggering final sequence that is simultaneously romantic, tragic, and genuinely, existentially horrifying. If there is a kind of wondrous buried joke here, it is that the critic turned director Schrader took his mentor-cum-adversary-cum-friend Pauline Kael’s idea of movie “trash” and managed to use it as a springboard to the most purely transcendental ending in all his movies.
Cat People is now available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory.