ONE OF THE GIANTS of Japanese cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi achieved international renown following awards at the Venice Film Festival three years straight for his masterpieces The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Unfortunately, despite unprecedented access to international DVDs, many of his earlier films are little known. All the more indispensable is the Museum of the Moving Image’s month-long Mizoguchi retrospective in which all thirty surviving films—of the more than eighty he made between 1923 and 1956—will be screened, most in 35 mm, a few in 16 mm. It’s unlikely there is a more important show in town.
Mizoguchi’s reputation as a woman’s director rested not only on strong female performances in his films but on his privileging women and their plights in pre- and postwar and even feudal Japan in a majority of his narratives. By contrast, his male characters, with few exceptions, are generally unsympathetic, including the radical leader allegedly championing women’s rights in My Love Has Been Burning (1949). As plot descriptions confirm, even Mizoguchi’s lost films manifest these hallmarks. While he initially followed the shimpa tradition—a form of melodrama that often depicted self-sacrificing women ruined by social circumstances and weak-willed men—the intense pathos of his approach and the visual style he perfected elevated the genre, especially in his later films, to high tragedy. If so many of his women are geishas or street prostitutes, it is largely because he felt those conditions symbolized the subjugation of women in Japanese society.
Some Japanese critics believed that this preoccupation reflected an “archaic psychology,” out of touch with the modern world. But while Mizoguchi’s attraction to period pieces might support such a critique, his tendency to confer saintlike status on all women, including concubines and geishas, is beyond social realism. For example, though the protagonist of Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955)—set in the eighth century and one of Mizoguchi’s two films in color—is the Emperor’s great love, she is sacrificed to appease “the people.” At the end of A Geisha (1953), an older geisha assumes the role of “patron” for her young protégée to keep her “pure.” As film historian Tadao Sato suggests, this obsession of Mizoguchi’s work may have autobiographical roots: His sister was a geisha forbidden to marry the aristocratic patron to whom she bore four children, but by remaining his concubine was able to support the young Kenji and their parents.
Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy (both 1936) depict spirited young women trying to manipulate conditions to their advantage, only to end up destroyed by callous men (the former) or ousted from the family that their sacrifices have sustained (the latter). In both films a vivid social reality is always just beyond the frame, a quality more feverishly insistent in Women of the Night (1948), in which an in-your-face grittiness—not unlike Italian Neorealist films of the time—matches the urgency provoked by postwar conditions and government efforts to curb the increase of prostitution and venereal disease brought on by desperate women, having lost their men and security, forced to the streets during the American occupation. The film’s rougher style contrasts with the more subdued, prewar Sisters of the Gion, the very title of which implies a social containment now out of control. Though message-driven, Women of the Night transcends the sheer propaganda that marred The Sword (1945) and Victory of Women (1946), made near the end of and after the war. Shortly after the release of Mizoguchi’s last film, Street of Shame (1956)—a detailed study of half a dozen women working in a brothel called “Dreamland”—a law banning prostitution was finally passed.
Kenji Mizoguchi, Sisters of the Gion, 1936, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 96 minutes.
Though Mizoguchi’s style favors long shots and camera movements over close-ups and shot-countershot (in contrast, for example, to Ozu’s use of the latter within immobile compositions), the films just discussed use more medium shots and medium close-ups than is usually noted. The extended tracking shots in Oharu and Sansho, by contrast, are sublime complements to the grander, epic arcs of their narratives, highlighting the choreography of body gestures and character movements inspired by Mizoguchi’s deployment of such Japanese traditions as noh and bunraku theater. The glacial pace of the opening tracks in Oharu, bestowing dignity on the protagonist and compassion for the tortured trajectory of her life, are poignantly echoed in one of the final tracks, barely permitting her a fleeting glimpse of the child she bore as a concubine, now heir to an imperial clan.
At their most evocative, Mizoguchi’s camera movements embody a profound perspective on the world. Carving figural coherences out of a space that extends beyond the frame, they impose meaning and value on the actions of his characters, linking them to a wider compass, and etching them indelibly on an historical canvas freighted with consequence. Even before Oharu and Sansho, there are exquisite examples in The Forty-Seven Ronin (aka Chushingura). Following the credits of Part I of the saga (1941), the camera moves slowly from left to right across what seems a deserted courtyard of the Shogun’s palace, pauses on a heated exchange between the Shogun and another man, then suddenly reverts to a rapid, near-reckless track back, disrupting the composure of the scene, in response to the actions provoked by an impulsive attack by Lord Asano on the Shogun. This act results in Asano’s hara-kiri, the collapse of his house and vassals, the humiliation of his wife, and ultimately—in Part II (1942)—the deaths of the forty-seven samurai who avenge their lord only to suffer the same fate. While the first track is from an omniscient perspective, the second is propelled by a human gesture causing deadly, irreversible effects. Together, they speak to Mizoguchi’s view of history, in which the emotions and psychological reactions aroused by a desire for justice and revenge are ultimately consumed by the established order.
While Mizoguchi’s style appealed to auteur critics in the West, reacting against Eisensteinian montage in favor of deep-focus long takes, he insisted that his compositions and editing were motivated by respect for the actor: The shot-countershot method tended to insulate actors and the characters they portrayed, he claimed, while long shots allowed them to convincingly interact within an integrated, minimally edited space—thereby facilitating a more palpable social context for the story.
Among the series’ highlights: a lecture by film scholar David Bordwell preceding the screening of Sansho the Bailiff (May 3), and the print of the silent film Cascading White Threads (1933) comes with a benshi narration (May 10 and 11).
“Mizoguchi” runs May 2–June 8, 2014 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.
“THE HARDBOILED OLD MEN with hearts of stone must die,” Lars von Trier declared in his first manifesto, twenty years ago, fresh from film school and ready to launch a Nordic nouvelle vague by killing the Father—or fathers, Ingmar Bergman in particular. Among the ancients the enfant terrible had in mind to vanquish was perhaps his professor and mentor, Danish icon Jørgen Leth, a poet, novelist, diplomat, and filmmaker whose poetic documentaries form the antonym of von Trier’s aggressive aesthetic. Nursing a grudge for two decades after Leth supposedly snubbed him in the hallway of the Danish Film Institute, von Trier recently got his revenge with The Five Obstructions (which received its US premiere at Sundance in January). Though they sound like a digestive disorder or Maoist economic plan, the “Obstructions”—a perverse variation on Dogme—are a program designed to test the elder director and reveal the limitations of his precisionist vision and technique.
The collaborative documentary that Leth and von Trier made about this undertaking makes one cringe, and then cry. It begins as wicked comedy, von Trier selecting his favorite Leth film, the classic 1967 experimental documentary The Perfect Human, which he claims to have seen over twenty times, as the material to be subjected to his “five obstructions.” A malevolent taskmaster, von Trier challenges the curiously game Leth to remake the film five times, under a prescribed set of “diabolical” impediments that deliberately cut against the grain of Leth’s sensibility. Fond of the long, observational take, he is first assigned to make the film in shots lasting no longer than twelve frames. (“It’ll be a spastic film!” Leth moans.) Leth’s liberal, anthropological decency is tested when the booze-swilling imp von Trier assigns him to stage the film’s famous dinner scene—fish and Chablis served at a lavish table—in the “most miserable place” he can find on earth. And, repelled by the very idea of cartoons, Leth is forced to refashion his beautiful little film as “a crap cartoon.”
In skull cut and stubble, von Trier comes off as a puffy monk, ensconced in cozy Danish digs while the imperturbable, silver-maned Leth trots the globe from Bombay to Brussels, determined to overcome the escalating obstacles and maintain his dignity. The aesthetic duel is played out as oedipal revenge play; as witty “deconstruction” of the filmmaking process; and as psychodrama, with Leth in the masochistic role of He Who Gets Slapped. Each time Leth triumphs, returning with a sexily syncopated remake from Havana that uses the twelve-frame rule to its staccato advantage, for instance, or a hauntingly animated version that combines Kentridge-style tracings with the rotoscoping of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life.
In the film’s final sequence and ultimate obstruction, the opposite roles the two melancholy Danes have played throughout—sadist/masochist; observer/participant; teacher/student; analyst/analysand—collapse into one as von Trier attempts a last gambit to skewer Leth’s cautious nature and ends up exposing his own vulnerability instead. “Look how he falls. This is how he falls,” the narration from The Perfect Human intones, but just who is falling, has fallen, is the riddle with which this suddenly sad, inexplicably moving film leaves us.
This piece originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of Artforum.
“THE MACHINE CANNOT LIE,” the businessman and former California governor Leland Stanford said, explaining his hire of an experimental photographer named Eadweard Muybridge to create a study of a horse in motion. It was to be made of stills shot in rapid succession which, seen all together, would capture every aspect of the horse’s trot, and so settle the question of whether or not all four of a trotting horse’s feet ever left the ground. Stanford claimed they did. Muybridge’s plates proved him right. This happened in 1872, more than two decades before the Lumière brothers or Edison’s inventions, making Muybridge the grandfather of the motion picture and—in his using photographic process to study matter in motion toward the pursuit of pinning down an essential truth—the first documentarian.
The above Stanford quote comes from Thom Andersen’s 1975 essay film Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, which Andersen will be presenting—along with his 1996 Red Hollywood and catchily titled new short Hey, Asshole!—at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, as part of the inaugural edition of a new annual series called “Art of the Real.” The program is made up of thirty-four features—for our purposes, this means films exceeding or around the hour mark—and numerous shorts, many new, some a few years old, and about a third, like Zoopraxographer, made before the turn of the millennium and the digital-video revolution. The bill of fare, co-programmed by Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes, is “founded on the most expansive possible view of documentary film,” providing “a platform for filmmakers and artists who have given us a wider view of nonfiction cinema.”
This “wider view” annexes a great deal of filmmaking that might not traditionally be thought of as the property of nonfiction, by merit of self-conscious collaboration or formal boundary busting. By establishing a beachhead for such works in New York City, “Art of the Real” isn’t sparking off a revolution but rather continuing a process that’s been underway for years. While “animated” films—another increasingly problematic designation—take up an ever-larger percentage of the fiction market share, and much live-action fiction has been stuck in the cul-de-sac of “based on a true story” BS and sham immediacy, an unexpected bastion for photographic beauty and disciplined craftsmanship has emerged in dowdy old documentary, where a search for poetic truth has begun to eclipse the bureaucratic hang-up on facts. (If docs seem to be “where it’s at” right now, it doesn’t hurt that the low-overhead circumstances of production allow for the participation of parties—women, people who aren’t scions of wealth—often excluded from fiction filmmaking.)
“Art of the Real” builds on the groundwork laid by “hybrid” documentary fests like France’s FIDMarseille, whose scope has become particularly far-reaching under the directorship of Jean-Pierre Rehm; CPH:DOX in Copenhagen; and True/ False in Columbia, Missouri, whose closing night film this year was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, hardly untutored amateurs. But then, it’s worth noting that two of the most talked-about films in “Art of the Real,” which have already made some of the abovementioned rounds, are Mati Diop’s Mille Soleils and Robert Greene’s Actress, documentaries in which performers are seen living their real lives, so-called, made in collaboration with their star-subjects.
Robert Greene, Actress, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 86 minutes. Brandy Burre.
Once the barriers of what constitutes documentary have been breached, the application of the “documentary” tag becomes increasingly discretionary. After all: The machine cannot lie! To paraphrase Animal Farm, all movies are nonfiction, but some movies are more nonfiction than others. Even the burden of photographic proof isn’t a requirement at “Art of the Real.” Derek Jarman’s 1993 Blue abjures the image altogether—made when AIDS-related complications had destroyed the filmmaker’s sight, Blue is a bittersweet sickbed rhapsody, an aural collage delivered over a field of blue which does not waver or change in seventy-nine minutes. On one hand, Jarman is dealing with the ultimate veracity of death, a truth from which no one escapes—yet while speaking of “a sense of reality lost in theater,” he is consciously playing the Dying Artist, making us very aware of the performance, and from this curtain-call quality the film derives much of its power.
The suppression of the visual in order to bring out the intimacy of the aural is key to Blue, and is also at work in Jane Gilloly’s devastating Suitcase of Love and Shame, which premiered at last year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival. Gilloly’s basic materials are a collection of reel-to-reel tape recordings, purchased via eBay, that a couple having an extramarital affair created as a sort of automemorialization of their stolen time together. (Or, perhaps, as a documentation of their private performance of a coauthored two-person fantasy-play called “Forbidden Love.”) The couple, Tom and Jeanne, are “seen” only through their pillow-talk voices, sometimes personified as his-and-hers vintage tape players. (Elsewhere, Gilloly’s invented images don’t quite come up to the level of her discovered material.) The affair carries on through the mid-1960s, skirting the sexual revolution, though the voices of Tom and Jeanne—both not in first youth, he seemingly middle-aged—identify them as residents of the southern Midwest, where the social taboo of divorce still very much remains in place. It’s sordid and sad in a way you might not like to recognize yourself in, but if you do, it’ll break your heart.
Repurposed artifacts also figure in the strong program of shorts, including Benjamin Pearson’s 2011 Former Models, a cheeky video-essay on pop authenticity which incorporates footage of Milli Vanilli at peak fame and testimony from Auto-Tune creator Andy Hildebrand, and Eric Baudelaire’s 2009 The Makes, in which film critic Philippe Azouzy, using a pile of production stills from Japanese films, imagines an alternate-universe career for Michelangelo Antonioni. Baudelaire is particularly well represented, with his 2013 The Ugly One and its sort-of prequel, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images (2011), a patchwork of landscapes shot in Tokyo and Beirut, accompanied by the testimonies of two speakers whose lives and identities have been divided between both places. May Sigenobu, the daughter of on-the-lam Japanese Red Army founder Fusaku and a Palestinian guerrilla, was raised in Lebanon; Masao Adachi is a former associate of Nagisa Oshima and Kōji Wakamatsu whose revolutionary zeal took him to the Middle East in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Adachi, who also figures in The Ugly One, compares filmmaking to military tactics—“Observing your environment before carrying out operations”—and clearly inspires Baudelaire’s own landscape-sensitive tactics.
Eric Baudelaire, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, 2011, color, sound, 66 minutes.
The counterpoising of landscape and human elements is at the center of Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s all-transit-no-destination Manakamana (2013), which accompanies pilgrims on the gondola lift ride to and from the eponymous mountaintop temple in Nepal, a film which uses a monotonous setup to create vignettes of startling individuality. Spray’s 2009 video work As Long as There’s Breath is also on the schedule, part of “Art of the Real’s” “Focus on the Sensory Ethnography Lab” sidebar, presented in collaboration with the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Now in its eighth year, the SEL, a liaison between Harvard University’s anthropology and visual and environmental studies departments devoted to “innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography” whose greatest hit to date is 2012’s Leviathan, has established itself at the forefront of the very loose confederation of documentarian-aesthetes whose growing numbers support a showcase like “Art of the Real.”
One of the most winning aspects of this current documentary movement—if anything so diffuse, defined by a rejection of the hegemony of doctivist didacticism rather than united by any common cause, can indeed be called a movement—is the scrupulous attention to its own history. Like Renaissance artists, these filmmakers are eager to establish themselves as part of a lineage which, taken altogether, forms an alternate history of documentary cinema. So the “Focus on the Sensory Ethnographic Lab” sidebar offers Forest of Bliss (1986), in which Robert Gardner, longtime director of Harvard’s Film Study Center, recorded death rites in the sacred city of Benares, India, along the ghats of the Ganges, all when most of the SEL directors were still in short pants. As in Manakamana, there is a focus on ritual, though unconstrained Gardner emphasizes the extravagantly wasteful, the florid and fetid. His film is the ravishing record of an American observer abroad, in its eye for atmospheric detail, the cinematic equivalent of one of Whistler’s Venetian notebooks. (This comparison is more than apt, for Gardner is the grandson of the Gilded Age art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner and would’ve grown up steeped in the stuff.)
From Gardner, one can draw a straight line to Jean Rouch. One of the great ethnographic filmmakers of all time, Rouch commuted easily between the realms of anthropology and art. (Literally, that is—his office in the Musée de l’Homme was in the same building as the Cinémathèque française.) Rouch is represented here by his Jaguar, completed in 1967 but shot in 1954–55, when he filmed three friends, Lam, Illo, and Damouré, as they traveled in search of fortune from their native village in Niger to the Gold Coast, then a British holding. Years later, Lam and Damouré returned to record sound for the film, a combination of lip-synch and wisecracking home-movie commentary.
The recording-booth improvisations give Jaguar an insouciant bounce as Damouré, a full-of-himself cutup, narrates his transformation into a big-city swell. Both men are openly flabbergasted by the diversity of humanity and terrain to be found in one corner of their native continent, a rebuke to the ignorance that consigns “Africa” to be thought of as one monolithic, monotonous mass. As, indeed, “documentary” is still too often thought to be—though in “Art of the Real,” one can see landmarks which indicate a vast, undiscovered country.
“Art of the Real” runs April 11–26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.
Alain Guiraudie, The King of Escape, 2009, 35 mm, color, sound, 93 minutes.
A SEXUALLY ANARCHIC romp filled with gerontophilia and quite literal chubby-chasing, Alain Guiraudie’s adventurous 2009 comedy, The King of Escape, is finally receiving a belated week-long run thanks to the high profile of the director’s follow-up feature, the taut cruising-ground thriller Stranger by the Lake. The success of the later film, a prizewinner at Cannes last year and the first of his movies to receive a stateside release, occasioned a complete Guiraudie retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in January. The series confirmed that Guiraudie, who began his career in 1990, remains unrivaled in deftly depicting desires that upend convention, whether homo or hetero—libidinous fluidity most exuberantly on display in The King of Escape.
Unlike his fellow openly gay directors in France, such as François Ozon, André Téchiné, Jacques Nolot, and the recently departed Patrice Chéreau, Guiraudie has focused almost exclusively on working-class characters, setting all of his films in rural southern France, usually in the Midi-Pyrenees region, where he lives. The lowing of cows can be heard in King’s first scene, as portly Armand (Ludovic Berthillot), a tractor salesman, patiently endures his client’s indecision about whether to purchase a blue or yellow farm vehicle. After this meeting, the middle-aged agri-retailer stops by the local meat rack, kibitzing with Jean-Jacques (Bruno Valayer), a friend and sometime bedmate, who upbraids him for being too picky. Armand, who favors white-haired, wrinkly gentlemen, doesn’t want Mr. Right, as he corrects his pal, but “Mr. Not So Bad.” While continuing his same-sexing, though, Armand falls for Ms. Barely Legal: sixteen-year-old Curly (Hafsia Herzi), a business competitor’s daughter, whom he had saved from being assaulted by four teenage creeps.
Though Guiraudie presents this unlikely pair’s vigorous alfresco rutting admiringly, he also playfully sends up these scenes of carnal abandon on occasion, a strategy he also deploys in the exclusively man-on-man Stranger by the Lake. Mid-coitus—and while on the lam from Curly’s rifle-toting father, with helicopters and hounds on their trail—Armand can’t resist telling his adolescent lover the price and provenance of the tube of Cool Sensations lube they’re about to put to use. Other aspects in King also anticipate details in Stranger: Both films feature inspectors who show up at the most awkwardly intimate moments and are prone to gnomic pronouncements. (“What if liking older men leads me to believe you like young girls?” the besuited police commissioner equably asks Armand.) And both prominently showcase corpulent bodies, the stocky build of Armand, frequently shown in nothing more than ill-fitting undies, closely resembling that of one of Stranger’s main characters.
Yet King stands alone for its welcome detonation of the unsophisticated argument that gays are “born this way” (a position that has become even more popular in the five years since the film premiered). “Don’t tell me you’re gay for the fun of it—just for the freedom, the parties,” an incredulous Jean-Jacques tells Armand after he learns of his latest romance. “I chose to live this way,” he responds. “I had a choice and, even at forty, I still want one. That life used to be a blast; now it’s a drag.” In Guiraudie’s arcadian, sexually lawless universe, there’s nothing gayer than intergenerational, Kinsey-scale-obliterating lust.
The King of Escape plays at Anthology Film Archives April 11–17.
AMBIVALENCE IS A HARD CONDITION to pinpoint in a film. Is a movie sending out cross-purposed signals or are you and I simply projecting our own conflicted feelings? Even encountered as a movie-mad kid, Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957) struck me as somehow off—what was supposed to be a carefree, blithe romp felt oddly ponderous and stilted, unlike the beautifully unified song-and-dance-and-comedy stylization of Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953), or even Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat (1935). It presented a bright public face laden (burdened?) with gaiety and brashness—Fred Astaire glides! Audrey Hepburn glows! Paris sizzles! And then there was a private, inward-looking one that seemed apprehensive about its own insistent veneer.
Split between attempts to generate a buzz of chic sophistication and a trite provincialism meant to make all this high fashion glitz ’n’ pizazz palatable to the folks back in Oklahoma, Funny Face regularly rains on its own parade. Framing bohemianism (beatnik clichés are already present and set in cement), female consciousness, intellectuality, and Parisian worldliness with the sort of jocular American condescension that makes you want to plonk screenwriter Leonard Gershe on the head with a bust of Voltaire, the movie leaves a slight aftertaste of curdled crème brûlée. Inspired by Richard Avedon—who also designed some striking photographic sequences and effects—Funny Face has moments that could pass for proto–Pop art. Retrograde attitudes keep asserting themselves, though, until it starts to feel like an Aqua-Marine Boot Camp for Feminizing Wayward Young Women: Stand Up Straight! “Think Pink!” Apply Your Eyeliner! Hup-Two-Three-Four, Show ’Em What Those Gowns Are For!
Yet as steadily as the movie pokes fun at Audrey Hepburn’s freethinking philosophy student–bookstore clerk Jo Stockton—all the while reprogramming her as a pliable clothes rack—it’s difficult to believe the film (or at least Donen) isn’t enamored of the character’s independence and candor. Like the Vogue-ish magazine run by Kay Thompson’s imperious editor (as if there were any other kind in movies), the film hungers for a new look, a new kind of representative woman. (“One cannot deny that she is…unusual.”) Introduce this year’s model, but first process all the freshness out of her and replace it with a socially approved, streamlined facsimile.
That’s the formula, but as determined as the film can be to play enforcer of some catatonic ideal (see the Hepburn-Thompson duet “On How to Be Lovely”), its musical numbers keep slipping the bonds of their own intentions (see the way Hepburn and Thompson inject a tart angularity that undermines the sap-happiness of “Lovely”). Hepburn’s human corkscrew-scissor-bottle-opener dance solo is presented as a satire of boho-yoyo affectations, but her folding Swiss Army knife in a black turtleneck and skinny jeans is so captivating that the joke backfires: This scene makes egghead nonsense look bloody marvelous and super fun! I can picture a young Twyla Tharp seeing this routine at her parents’ drive-in alongside Route 66 and having her whole future pass before her.
With Funny Face, there’s no escaping the sense that the ancien régime of the movie musical is crumbling: Astaire was fifty-eight, almost old enough to be Hepburn’s grandfather. He had become a dapper dinosaur, albeit the most graceful and sly Jurassic Hoofer you could ask for. (And Hepburn did: Having him costar was her condition for doing the picture.) Donen brought a good portion of the MGM production team over to Paramount to make it, but the magic started slipping away. His previous film, codirected (and starring) Gene Kelly, was It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), which gets my vote for the most underrated of the era’s musicals. It’s also the most ironic, melancholic, and modern—a prospective New Wave in search of a beachhead it never reached. (Entangled in personal and professional differences, it ended Donen’s association with both Kelly and MGM.)
Flashes of that moody prescience enlarge the milieu of Funny Face: Hepburn’s luminosity poised against a saturnine, untidy bookshop interior for “How Long Has This Been Going On?”; the startlingly claustrophobic and supple Astaire-Hepburn darkroom dance to “Funny Face,” where the negative image of her features hangs on the wall like an African mask; the freeze-framed all-over-town photo shoot (“That’s a killer!”). If Hepburn plays the game of conventionality here and lends herself to the prevailing “chi-chi” fantasy, it feels like she maintains a dry, amused detachment through every predictable beat and permutation.
Perhaps her background had something to do with the backbone she displays in spite of all those glamour trappings. She had grown up under the Nazi Occupation of the Netherlands, clandestinely dancing to raise money for the resistance and even occasionally serving as a courier; during the Dutch famine after D-Day, she nearly starved to death. After that, Funny Face must have been a total piece of cake. Hepburn had no aspirations to be Hollywood’s new Marie Antoinette, but in a few years she would cultivate just the right balance of mischief and sadness to make a really seamless Holly Golightly: an escort who leaves a trail of men to take care of themselves.
Funny Face is available on Blu-ray on Tuesday, April 8th.
THINGS THAT COME IN SEVENS: continents, deadly sins, wonders of the ancient world, and—as epic, depraved, and breathtaking as the preceding—the films Marlene Dietrich made with Josef von Sternberg. This unsurpassable septet comprises The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). All will be screened at BAMcinématek on 35 mm, and all endure not only as the apex of the director’s lush, sumptuous, delirious style but also as cinema’s most fruitful episode of thralldom, though who was absorbed by—and obeisant to—whom was never quite fixed. This madness was hinted at when Sternberg declared, à la Flaubert on Emma Bovary, “Miss Dietrich is me—I am Miss Dietrich.” Apparently, the star didn’t mind this grandiose claim by her director, telling Peter Bogdanovich in 1972, “I didn’t know what I was doing—I just tried to do what he told me.” But by the time of Maximilian Schell’s Marlene, his 1984 documentary on the actress (and a crucial footnote to this series), in which she refused to be filmed, she is much less self-abnegating, saying of Sternberg, “He was deliberately making life difficult for me.”
Singling out this director-actress collaboration in her landmark 1964 essay, Susan Sontag claims that “[c]amp is the outrageous aestheticism of Sternberg’s six American movies with Dietrich, all six, but especially the last, The Devil Is a Woman.” (The Blue Angel was shot in Berlin in German- and English-language versions; BAM is presenting both.) In Devil, the name of Dietrich’s character—Concha Pérez, “the toast of Spain”—is made all the more incongruous by her trademark husky Teutonic delivery; yet by film’s end, when she announces herself pseudonymously as “Manuela García” to customs officials, Dietrich clearly revels in the Castilian lisp required to pronounce the surname. As in The Blue Angel, Morocco, and Blonde Venus, Dietrich in Devil plays a singer who is obsessively lusted after by at least two men: “She’s the most dangerous woman you’ll ever meet,” one spurned suitor—to whom Concha had said, “If you had loved me enough, you would have killed yourself last night”—warns her latest conquest.
It is in Devil, perhaps more than in any other Dietrich-Sternberg film, that Kenneth Tynan’s observation that the actress “stormed the senses, looking always tangible but at the same time untouchable” is most clearly borne out. Though she was always besottedly photographed—whether in soft-focus extreme close-up or in full body shots that showcased her iconic stockings and garters (The Blue Angel), tuxes and top hats (Morocco and Blonde Venus), and furs and panniers (The Scarlet Empress)—Dietrich never appears as simultaneously corporeal and remote as she does in her final project with Sternberg. Her visage suggests an ever-changing canvas of punctuation and diacritical marks. Her extremely plucked eyebrows evoke two parentheses pushed over. A spit curl on her forehead recalls a cedilla; spiraling in the other direction, this coil of hair looks like an upside-down question mark—the ringlet attached to an enigma never to be solved.
“Blonde Venus: The Films of Dietrich and von Sternberg” runs April 4–10 at BAMcinématek.
JONATHAN GLAZER’S first film since the majestic Birth (2004), Under the Skin also concerns the emergence of a new being, if a sinister one. A nameless alien, played by Scarlett Johansson in a black shag wig, lands in Scotland, where, with the help of a motocross-rider adjutant, she dons the togs of a woman found dead along the highway. The extraterrestrial expands her bare wardrobe of denim miniskirt and torn fishnets by making a trip to the mall, purchasing a fuchsia pullover with a plunging neckline, acid-wash jeans, a ratty fur jacket, and makeup. Thus attired in low-rent French Connection chic, she takes to the road in a white van, pulling over to ask random men for directions, then offering them a lift. The flirtation culminates in the disappearance—and later, complete disintegration—of her lustful prey, as they, naked and fully erect, follow this pneumatic beauty, herself in various states of undress, into a fathomless inky pool.
As a sensory experience, Under the Skin often astounds, its opening scene surpassing that of Birth (in which a jogger, his back to us, collapses under a bridge in a snow-blanketed Central Park, a shot immediately followed by a newborn, umbilical cord still attached). In the first few minutes of Glazer’s latest, a pinprick of light slowly expands, a nearly blinding whiteout accompanied by the sound of dissonant, furious strings. (The superb score is by Mica Levi.) This big bang ends with an extreme close-up of an eyeball filling the screen, recalling not only Keir Dullea’s orb (and his terrifying intergalactic travel) during the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey but also Catherine Deneuve’s at the start of Repulsion, another film in which lascivious men meet bad ends.
In fact, Under the Skin, whose script was cowritten by Glazer and Walter Campbell, freely adapting Michael Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, works best conceptually not as a sci-fi parable but as a tweak of Johansson’s celebrity—specifically, of the talents of the twenty-nine-year-old actress that have been wolfishly dissected by Maxim and FHM for the past decade. Glazer had his lead, under that slatternly mop of dark hair, mingle among actual Glaswegians, few of whom—including the hapless fellows she solicits, in a Mayfair-ish accent, on the motorway—recognized Johansson. (Only two of these pickups were scripted and cast, as were two other men, one benevolent, one not; all of the nonprofessionals who appear in the film signed release forms.)
Purposely avoiding all coverage of Under the Skin (including Anthony Lane’s recent laddish, giddy profile of Johansson in the New Yorker) before viewing it, I wasn’t aware of this guerrilla gambit, carried out through a network of specially made, hidden cameras, until I read the press notes on the subway ride home. Initially, the strategy struck me as a bit cheap, but then I remembered my own chance encounter with the actress, seven years ago at the Whitney Museum. Wearing a fedora pulled down low—not unlike the one David Bowie sports at the end of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, another touchstone for Glazer’s film—and clutching the hand of Ryan Reynolds, her boyfriend at the time, Johansson barely camouflaged herself, taking the risk that she would not be swarmed. (She wasn’t, at least among those of us checking out the Lorna Simpson exhibition, though we all gawked at her surreptitiously.) With minimal disguise, she takes a similar gamble for Glazer’s film, but this time, her allure is no longer presupposed but has to be proven. And in this, Johansson does some of her finest acting yet.
Under the Skin opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 4.