THE OREGON LANDSCAPE, whether paradisiacal or punishing, has featured prominently in all of Kelly Reichardt’s four features, beginning with her 2006 breakthrough, Old Joy. Yet never has it loomed quite as solemnly as in her latest, Night Moves, co-scripted with her regular collaborator Jon Raymond. Like many of the director’s films, Night Moves, which tracks a trio of eco-terrorists who detonate a hydraulic dam, is firmly rooted in the present, though the ideals—and abandoned hopes—of the past are still being sifted through. (The inverse is true in Reichardt’s previous movie, Meek’s Cutoff, from 2010: Set in 1845, this minimalist western about the folly of Manifest Destiny doubles as a cogent commentary on the imperialist overreach and failed leadership of the Bush II administration.) Reichardt’s films smartly anatomize the snags in the social fabric without trumpeting a position.
“People are gonna start thinking; they have to,” Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) says to his extremist collaborators, Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), framing the destruction they are planning as a public-service announcement—a wakeup call to those who’ve been “killing all the salmon just so you can run your fucking iPod every second of your life.” The grandstanding is a rare moment of self-righteous zeal from the normally taciturn organic farmer, and in the film as a whole; Night Moves, as with its predecessors, emphasizes process over easy polemics. Just enough detail accrues about Josh and the other members of the cell—Dena, who works at a luxury spa/hot-springs resort, comes from a wealthy family in the East and bankrolls the operation; Harmon’s mastery of blowing things up was honed in the Marine Corps—and the dynamics of the triangle to ground the film. Character specifics exist in tandem with the technicalities of executing action: how to acquire five hundred pounds of ammonia-nitrate fertilizer, say, or politely ignore a garrulous hiker who intrudes during a crucial moment of downtime before the act of sabotage commences.
These incidents—not to mention the final minutes leading up to the bombing itself—are breathtakingly tense and dominate the film’s first half. If the second, which centers primarily on Josh’s icy unraveling after the attack has a grave, unintended consequence, is less successful, what remains constant is Reichardt’s ability to coolly present thorny sociopolitical and moral issues. As shot by Christopher Blauvelt (also the cinematographer for Meek’s Cutoff), the sheer Edenic splendor of the Pacific Northwest makes clear what these radicals are fighting for, just as denuded trees in a popular lake resort, populated by Price Is Right–blaring RVs, remind them—and us—of the irreparable harm already done. Yet just as irretrievable is the collateral damage wrought by the enviro-jihadis.
Taking its name from the motorboat Josh and Dena purchase for the operation, Reichardt’s film, surely not coincidentally, shares a title with Arthur Penn’s neo-noir from 1975, the earlier feature imbued with a distinct post-Watergate malaise. But another movie from that year, Milestones, Robert Kramer and John Douglas’s epic dirge on the failed dreams of 1960s radicals, would seem to be a lodestar for Reichardt’s project. “I think one of the things we figured out was that a revolution was not just a series of incidents but a whole life,” a character in Milestones says—a rueful statement that the protagonists of Night Moves begin to grapple with too late.
Night Moves opens in limited release on Friday, May 30.
Marcel Hanoun, The Authentic Trial of Carl Emmanuel Jung, 1967, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 65 minutes.
A WOMAN newly-arrived from Lille (Micheline Bezançon) tows her young daughter through the Paris suburbs in a vain quest for work, increasingly broke, increasingly hungry, finally reduced to sleeping on a patch of waste ground in the banlieue, where she looks up to a single lit window in an HLM building, shining like the Star of Bethlehem. This chain of anecdotal incidents that leads to this moment comprises Une simple histoire (A Simple Story)—not really so simple, for the soundtrack consists of the woman’s past-tense recollection of the events being shown, overlapped with the synch sound present-tense dialogue. Reviewing the film in Arts magazine, a young Jean-Luc Godard cited Neorealists Roberto Rossellini and Cesare Zavattini, as well as the ascetic formalism of Robert Bresson—but even if you know all of the aforementioned names, you could be forgiven for never having heard of the director of Une simple histoire, Marcel Hanoun.
Une simple histoire won the Gran Prix Eurovision at Cannes in 1959 and, when it belatedly played at the 1970 New York Film Festival, earned Hanoun the fervent admiration of Jonas Mekas, the avant-garde filmmaker and cofounder of Anthology Film Archives, where a retrospective of Hanoun’s work begins tonight. New 35- and 16-mm prints were struck when Cinémathèque Française likewise honored Hanoun in 2010 and, still near-mint condition, these are what will be playing at Anthology’s retro, which consists of twelve short features—the longest, Autoportrait (1985), runs an atypical 104 minutes, and most are pared-down to nearer the hour mark—as well as a handful of shorts.
Hanoun was born into a Jewish-Algerian family in Tunis in 1929, when Tunisia was still a French protectorate. Escaping the worst of World War II, he came to Paris to stay after the Liberation, and worked there as a journalist and a photographer. (His father had been an avid amateur camera buff, influencing his son’s vocation.) Hanoun directed his first film for television in 1956, about refugees from that year’s Soviet-suppressed Hungarian Uprising. This was also the year of Bresson’s A Man Escaped, a film which was a revelation to the young Hanoun—and the inextricable ideas of displacement and freedom would be key to the future work of this self-styled Wandering Jew. Like Bresson, Hanoun the filmmaker would be a theoretician as well as practitioner, his films the conscious workings-through of his ideas about cinema. To the end of his life he continued to write copiously, and even edited two revues: First Cinéthique, which began its brief run in 1969, and then Change cinema, in 1977. (You can see Jean De Gaspary reading a copy in that year’s Gaze.)
Hanoun had been present at the Lexington and Concord moment of the French Nouvelle Vague, his Une simple histoire showing at Cannes with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, but he didn’t have the temperament of a joiner, and subsequently established the pattern of stubborn independence that he would continue to pursue for five decades. The success of Une simple histoire allowed Hanoun to make The Eighth Day (1960), his first and last big-budget film, with Félix Marten and Hiroshima star Emmanuelle Riva. The experience disillusioned Hanoun with the industrial moviemaking process, and so he decamped for Spain, where he shot bullfights and the sets of Samuel Bronston’s runaway epic The Fall of the Roman Empire, a film whose toga budget was bigger than that of Hanoun’s entire filmography. This Spanish retreat produced several documentaries and Hanoun’s 1964 October in Madrid, a film about floundering for the means to make a film, indicative of the direction that his work was to take in years to come. The productions would be stripped down, with Hanoun acting as cinematographer, editor, cameraman, and the process of their own making would become their subject.
Peripatetic through his life, Hanoun was at home only in contradiction. For example: After the title card of The Authentic Trial of Carl Emmanuel Jung (1966)—a staged tribunal for a Nazi war criminal (Maurice Poullenot) played out against a black-box theatrical background—the voice of a narrator bluntly informs us that “This trial is imaginary.” Carl Emmanuel Jung was Hanoun’s first film featuring the burly Anglo-French actor Michael Londale, only one of his more famous collaborators here: Godard lent funding, and there is a cameo by Jean Eustache, then just starting out, whose cinema would seek out the No Man’s Land between fiction and documentary in years to come, working along parallel lines to Hanoun. (The title of Eustache’s 1977 doc-recreation diptych Une sale histoire [A Dirty Story], starring Lonsdale, is a play on Hanoun’s Une simple histoire, while Eustache’s 1980 Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delights, like many of Hanoun’s works, revolves around the detailed exegesis of a painting.)
A bridge between the New Wavers (Godard, Resnais) and the generation that followed (Eustache, Pialat, Garrel), Hanoun doesn’t strictly belonging to either—and his films dwell in neither/nor interstices. Like Une simple histoire, Carl Emmanuel Jung addresses one of Hanoun’s principle preoccupations, the dislocation between spoken language and what it represents—in the former case, the narration of the story which we see on-screen, in the latter, the dry recounting of atrocities that remain unseen. This, and other dialectics—subject and representation, reflected and reflection, performance and presence, black-and-white and color—are further explored in the quartet of seasonally-themed films that Hanoun completed between 1968 and 1972, films which represent the highest attainment of his art. These are works so richly ornamented with ideas, and so ripe with sensorial pleasure, that I can only hope to set down the basic facts about them here.
Marcel Hanoun, Une simple histoire (A Simple Story), 1958, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 68 minutes.
Summer is a plein air idyll featuring a young woman (Graziella Buci) in retreat at the home of family friends in Normandy, recouping from personal and political heartbreak. The film’s closing credits state that it was shot between August 19th and 25th, 1968, which is in keeping with Hanoun’s tendency to put the circumstances under which his films were made before the viewer, but also emphasizes the proximity of the project to May ’68. (The subject’s transistor radio brings news of the Warsaw Pact nations invading Czechoslovakia, and the end of Prague Spring.) Winter (1969) is even more a behind-the-scenes documentary of its own making: Lonsdale stars as Julien, a director employed to shoot a film of the famous art and canals of Bruges, Belgium. Hanoun cuts between the footage that Julien shoots, which is in color, and footage of Julien shooting, in black-and-white, the effect something like the “Camera one, camera two” of closing one eye, then another. We next find Lonsdale at the center of one of the two distinct narrative threads that make up Spring (1970), playing a fugitive crossing the countryside on foot, hiding in the woods by day. Scenes from his furtive, hunted existence are cross-cut with vignettes of domestic life in a rural home whose only residents are a girl at the edge of puberty and her grandmother. One anticipates that the fugitive must eventually show up at the farm but, as in Agnès Varda’s 1955 La Pointe Courte, the film’s two parts are never brought to a traditional confrontation. (An early shot of a rifle over the mantle suggests Chekhov’s famous formulation, but the climactic bloodshed is menstrual.) Finally, the Lonsdale-as-filmmaker character from Winter returns in Autumn (1972), though here his director (Julien, again), is plunked in front of an editing console with an assistant, Anne (Tamia), scrutinizing footage and working through scenes. They face out at the spectator, oblivious to the presence of an audience, as though the screen of the editing table were a two-way-mirror. We can hear soundtrack selections, but until the end of the film we aren’t privy to what they are looking at, only to what they think about it, and the air is thick with Hanoun’s epigrams: “The scene denounces itself to acquire its own authenticity,” says Julien. “That must be the cinema.”
While Hanoun’s strategies are strikingly different in each of his films, they recognizably belong to a single universe. Visible on the wall behind the principals of Autumn are shots of actresses from other Hanoun films—and a calendar for Anthology Film Archives!—while the dialogue seems to refer to past and future Hanoun projects. Talking of a film that she would like to make, Anne says she’d “like to recount the cruelty of a little girl, for example,” and here she might be describing the motive behind a scene in Spring in which the girl snips a goldfish in two with a rusty pair of shears. Later, Julien notes that “political cinema tends to resemble pornographic cinema,” continuing that “Politics and pornography must be lived, not shown.”
This anticipates 1977’s Gaze, Hanoun’s crack at solving the problem of screen sex, funded by a porno producer. A couple, Jean and Anne (De Gaspary and Anne Bellec), awake in a Brussels hotel room. After announcing that she’s dreamed of two men making love to her, Anne departs for the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. While she stares in rapt attention at Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, her narrated musings on the canvas carry into scenes of Jean and another woman (Juliette Le Clerc) wrapped together in connubial bliss, their unstimulated coupling viewed from every angle, including the typical ones. Both gifted with magnificent curly manes, De Gaspary and Le Clerc resemble the figures depicted in Gustav Klimt’s Adam and Eve, a postcard reproduction of which hangs on the hotel room wall, which Jean and Anne had discussed before she left. Just as Lonsdale’s fugitive in Spring may be only a figment of the little girl’s imagination—or vice-versa—it seems entirely possible that the sex in Gaze is a fantasy, either Anne’s, Jean’s… or Marcel Hanoun’s?
Like the vagabond characters in Une simple histoire and Spring, Hanoun kept on the move—this includes a stint in New York City—usually broke, though always generous with his time for the young and curious. He died at age eighty-two in 2012, only a couple of months after Chris Marker, whom Julien, in Autumn, calls “an overlooked filmmaker,” although compared to Hanoun, Marker was a household name. Like Marker, Hanoun remained abreast of everything new in both world events and technology, producing work on digital video—Cello (2010), made with the assistance of a cadre of admirers “Produisez Marcel Hanoun,” is playing Anthology—and, in a rather forward-thinking move, making his filmography available for free online, albeit without English subtitles. Even Francophones should make the pilgrimage to Anthology, however—for Hanoun’s finest works are marked by a rare combination of philosophical rigor and enveloping carnality, and they are best surrendered to in the movie theater.
Andrew T. Betzer, Young Bodies Heal Quickly, 2014, Super 16, color, sound, 102 minutes.
IN ITS SIXTEEN YEARS OF EXISTENCE, the Maryland Film Festival has become something of a destination festival for independent filmmakers, distributors, and exhibitors—though this year, the destination was itself couch-surfing. For the first time, the MDFF was proceeding without its traditional base, the Charles Theatre, whose five theaters provided the vast majority of the festival’s screens. The show has gone on, but with screenings scattered amid seven different venues, many of them converted classrooms belonging to the University of Baltimore or the Maryland Institute College of Art. In every case, the new venues weren’t an improvement over the Charles. The change was prompted not by expansion, but by bad blood between theater management and the MDFF, almost certainly to do with the festival’s purchase of the c. 1915 Parkway Theater building around the corner from the Charles, which they are planning to renovate into the fest headquarters and a year-round multipurpose venue—that is, competition. (The completion of this project would still appear to be some years off.) Such short-sighted territorial pissings are all too common in the film world, where decisions are made with the jealous presumption of a finite and ever-shrinking audience, rather than with an eye toward expansion, cooperation, and outreach.
The Charles was sorely missed in some cases—shortly after the third amateur hour foul-up in the projection booth, I joined a flotilla of defectors from a 35-mm screening of Liquid Sky (1982). In others, despite technical limitations or the slapdash quality of the setup, the screenings gained something from their setting. For example, my enjoyment of Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker’s Art and Craft, a documentary about the gifted art forger and serial philanthropist Mark Landis, who has been gifting fake masterpieces to institutions for years, probably gained something from the fact that I saw it at the Walters Art Museum. Landis, who lives alone in Laurel, Mississippi, is a compelling subject, a bent, gray little bat-eared Egon Schiele sketch of a man whose slow, pharmaceutical drawl hides a droll sense of humor. Following on Landis’s trail, Art and Craft gives a glimpse into the workings of America’s small-to-medium-sized cultural institutions before narrowing its focus to their self-appointed avenging angel, ex-museum bursar Matthew Leininger. An OCD personality in his own right, Leininger has a one-sided “relationship” with Landis, having tracked his movements for years—and their built-up confrontation is as satisfying an anticlimax as any I’ve seen in years.
Art and Craft was picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope ahead of its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, though such stories are the exceptions that prove the rule of a rather grim state of affairs for American indies. It’s appalling that two of the most consummately professional narrative features that I saw at MDFF, David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries are, at the time of this writing, still without US distribution. (New York audiences will be able to see both films in a theater, as well as much of the MDFF bill-of-fare, as part of June’s BAMcinemaFest.)
Kumiko looks at what happens when a woman takes her devotion to a fantastic idea of the world, at first a shelter from an unendurable reality, to its furthest extreme. Appropriately, the material has its basis in a modern folk story. In 2003, the body of Takako Konishi, a Japanese office worker, was discovered in a field in rural Minnesota. Her death was a run-of-the-mill lovelorn suicide, but papers seized on the story that Konishi was on a search for the buried suitcase full of money seen in the movie Fargo—which begins with the legend “This is a True Story”—and the Internet perpetuated this misinformation. Rinko Kikuchi stars as “Kumiko,” the put-upon Tokyo office girl who’s disdained by co-workers and a disappointment to her mother. Kumiko needs secrets to preserve her fragile sense of self, and so convinces herself that she is a modern conquistador destined to find untold treasure in the New World. Heading for the wintery wastes of the American North, where Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox are part of the everyday scenery, Kumiko passes through a series of roadside encounters, including one with a rural sheriff (Zellner himself), everyone she meets a paragon of well-meaning but clueless politeness. (The film could be taken as a feature-length rejoinder to the “Mike Yanagita” scene in the Coens’ Fargo, and it features a bunny rabbit who rivals Llewyn Davis’s cat as a supporting player.) Scene to scene the film keeps Kumiko’s inner life lucidly before you, and any movie that gets in a joke about the ubiquity of James Clavell’s doorstop bestseller Shogun in middle-American homes of a certain vintage is all right in my book.
MDFF’s big crowd-pleaser was Wild Canaries, a neo-screwball bauble concerning a couple (writer/ director Levine and his wife/collaborator Sophia Takal) who look into strange goings-on in their Brooklyn triple-decker and become embroiled in a convoluted murder mystery, their investigation further complicated by a four-way romantic tangle involving his ex- (Eleonore Hendricks) and their lesbian roommate (Alia Shawkat). Levine’s film owes an obvious debt to Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), but it boasts considerably better timing and more worked-out set-pieces than any Allen comedy in the past decade.
Given that Wild Canaries keeps its leads acidly bickering through much of its runtime and Kumiko concerns a subject in the grips of suicidal delusion, maybe my definition of “crowd-pleaser” is a little off from the norm. Nevertheless, the question remains: If a thoroughly professional, buoyantly-paced movie like Wild Canaries can’t catch a break, what hope is there for some of the really hard-sell fare out there? In this category I’m including certain scattered MDFF films which include individually fascinating fragments, like Andrew T. Betzer’s Young Bodies Heal Quickly, a rough triptych involving a young man and adolescent sidekick (Gabriel Croft and Hale Lytle) who go on the lam after an accidental homicide, a film in a state of perpetual transmogrification, consistently frustrating but impossible to discount, for there’s always a gorgeous digression lurking just around the corner.
Scott Cummings, Buffalo Juggalos, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 30 minutes.
The film-as-journey template was much in evidence at MDFF, with Young Bodies…, Kumiko, and Buzzard, Joel Potrykus’s follow-up to his 2012 Ape, in which the writer-director appears opposite Ape star Joshua Burge. Burge plays Marty Jackitansky, a wiseacre metalhead who augments his cubicle gig income with petty scams, his shameless audacity a combination of naiveté and sheer ballsy contempt. The interplay between Potrykus and Burge could be more sharply-written but, as with Kumiko and Wild Canaries, it’s heartening to see a filmmaker thinking about comedy cinematically, devising actual honest-to-God gags. (The most memorable involves a treadmill and Bugles snacks being used to create a kind of live-action Asteroids game.)
Buzzard ceases to try for laughs when Marty dangerously overreaches with his scheming, and is forced to flee his workaday life. Shot in Potrykus’s home state of Michigan, the film follows its protagonist’s descent from white-collar hell into the lower depths of Rust Belt street life—while Scott Cummings’s half-hour short Buffalo Juggalos, shot in similarly economically depredated Upstate New York, explores a youth culture that makes desolation into a kind of blank canvas. In a series of tableaux, Cummings takes the portraits of young men and women in pancake makeup and the costume of the Juggalos, who live their lives inside the mythology created by the crap-rap duo Insane Clown Posse. The Juggalo is an alluring subject, for they remain a resolutely separate subculture in a pop culture that is increasingly melting pot. They listen to literally the worst music imaginable, and their aesthetic could be described as blacklight puke, but they have a certain ingenuity born of poverty. You can’t exploit the Juggalos as a sideshow, because they preemptively style themselves as freaks—a point that Buffalo Juggalos, participating in its subjects’ role-play, absolutely gets. Another short of note, far less sinister in character, was Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person, illustrating a Brooklyn record store owner’s story of trying to get a hung-over young woman out of his apartment on the day after a party, the part played with sad-eyed, affable incredulity by Defa’s former roommate, Bene Coopersmith, whose presence anchors this perfect, pocket-sized comic character study in harassed decency.
While the goals and degrees of success vary, the unifying feature of the MDFF films may be the close-to-home touch. Like many film festivals, MDFF exists in a sort of bathysphere, immune to the impersonal economic exigencies of The Biz, if not from economics themselves. (See for example the festival’s tussle with the Charles, or the fact that independent filmmaking remains largely a luxury pastime.) Still, the idea of American movies presented at MDFF is a fantasy at odds with The Way Things Are—like the Dark Carnival that the Juggalos reimagine Buffalo as, or Kumiko’s world of buried treasure. It is foolhardy, as independent moviemaking has even been, and this gives it a sort of grandeur.
The sixteenth Maryland Film Festival ran May 7–11.
Manoel de Oliveira, Gebo and the Shadow, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes.
AS IF BEING the oldest living filmmaker in the world were not distinction enough, Manoel de Oliveira may also be the canniest at wresting cinematic gold from the barest of means. Give him a text, a few actors, and a place to set up his camera, and watch the mundane metamorphose into art. His new film, based on a play by Raul Brandao and set in a small Portuguese village in the late nineteenth century, is as minimalist as the situation it depicts. Embracing rather than masking his theatrical source, Oliveira even cuts to an exterior view of the modest house where the action takes place to mark the end of each “act.”
The action occurs in a single room where three people sit at an all-purpose table every day, living out their near-impoverished, unadventurous existences, consumed by anxious, endless exchanges over the fate and whereabouts of a prodigal son. Gebo (Michel Lonsdale), an underpaid bookkeeper, strives unceasingly to prevent his wife Dorotea (Claudia Cardinale) from learning that their wandering offspring Joao (Ricardo Trepa) is a common thief, if not worse. Despite their daughter-in-law Sophia’s (Leonor Silveira) awareness of Joao’s character, she helps Gebo sustain Dorotea’s illusions. Just as we wonder whether Joao will actually materialize, he makes a dramatic appearance at the end of act one, laughing contemptuously as his father stares in amazement.
Throughout the second act the callous Joao mocks what he calls the pathetic lives of his parents who “know nothing about the world.” Even the presence of visitors (Jeanne Moreau and Luis Miguel Cintra) fails to deter him from relating his misadventures, including the possibility that he’s committed murder. (The film’s prelude opens with this enigmatically shot encounter, framed in shadows, with the as yet unidentified figure of Joao running off, shouting “It wasn’t me!”) All the while, Joao eyes the huge briefcase of money that his father holds for his clients, which, predictably, he steals at the climax of act two, before running off once again.
Not even this development impels Gebo to tell his wife the truth. As he composes an explanation to his clients about the stolen money without naming his son, Sophia tries to persuade him otherwise. Finally, Gebo makes the ultimate decision: In the presence of his wife and Sophia, he declares to the police and the accusers that accompany them that he is the thief. Ironically, this sacrificial gesture, a reversal of Joao’s disavowal of guilt in the prelude, is, of course, another lie.
Simple and parabolic as it may seem, the tale makes us wonder: Is it a subtle parody of the untenable extremes to which one might go to protect loved ones and perpetuate a lie? Or is it an account of the unbearable reality of ordinary lives, enslaved to given conditions, expecting nothing and awaiting the end? The dialogue is laced with both insinuations—each character voicing a different facet of the question—and is delivered with unimpeachable conviction by Oliveira’s first-rate cast. Lonsdale is the epitome of the resigned, long-suffering Everyman, dutifully balancing his account books only slightly more exactingly than he does the ethical options he weighs in accordance with established moral laws. If he suffers any conflict over his choices, they are offset by his wife’s naïve, monotonic inquiries about their son.
Oliveira’s option to avoid shot/countershot editing in favor of long takes and frontal compositions is flawless, complementing the inherently undramatic tensions between character perspectives while muting contrived standoffs. I was reminded of Dreyer’s final film Gertrud (1964)—another masterful transformation of a theater piece. As often with such a controlled style, a singular instance of a filmic convention carries great weight. In this case, it is Oliveira’s sparing use of off-screen space and sound: Joao’s entrance at the end of act one is first hinted at by a shadow that passes outside of the house, and then is mirrored on Lonsdale’s face as he stares ahead, the noise of the front door heard opening as his eyes follow what could be an off-screen specter. “You!” he says, just before Joao enters from frame right. The strategy registers both surprise and terror. Suddenly, the shadowy reality that Gebo has carefully constructed and precariously sustained is threatened by the ominous presence of the unexpected.
Gebo and the Shadow opens at Anthology Film Archives on Wednesday, May 28.
WHOLLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL and entirely polemical, Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart, about the first years of the AIDS pandemic, opened at the Public Theater in 1985. I’ve read but never seen this seminal tirade but can easily imagine how bracing the play’s fury must seem when performed live, particularly during its long, initial off-Broadway run, when the piece was especially urgent, and even during its 2011 Broadway revival. In Ryan Murphy’s TV-movie adaptation of The Normal Heart, which Kramer himself scripted, new scenes and lines of dialogues have been added, others trimmed or excised. What’s lost in the transition from stage to HBO appointment viewing is the soaring ferocity, even though most of the original’s screed-like passages remain intact.
Part of that softening, of course, is the inevitable result of the passing of time: AIDS is still a scourge worldwide, as closing intertitles of the small-screen version remind us, though we are eons away from the terror and ignorance that dominated 1981–84, when the disease was known as “gay cancer” or GRID. Murphy’s production is an earnest tribute to that era, or, more specifically, to Kramer’s tribute to himself and to some of his colleagues during these anni horribiles, written while they were still unfolding. But its protagonist—Ned Weeks, the Kramer surrogate—is badly miscast; Mark Ruffalo never quite accesses the depth of rage and sadness (and occasional self-loathing) required to play the part. Also bungled is Julia Roberts’s take on an important secondary role, Ned’s physician ally, the intrepid, wheelchair-bound Emma Brookner. Previously directed by Murphy in his 2010 adaptation of the wealthy-white-woman walkabout Eat Pray Love, the actress conceives of her latest role as an exceptionally narrow interpretation of shout, fume, boss.
Ruffalo as Ned as Kramer suffers even more when one considers the searing impact the actual firebrand had on screen not too long ago. The Normal Heart, which tracks the development of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis—founded by Kramer and his comrades, some closeted, in the writer’s living room in 1982—is a prequel of sorts to David France’s 2012 documentary, How to Survive a Plague. This time-toggling chronicle about ACT UP—which Kramer was instrumental in forming in 1987—consists of present-day interviews with the direct-action group’s former members and archival footage depicting the coalition’s infamous demonstrations and fractious meetings. During one of these decades-old, prolonged exchanges between nasty, unseen cavilers, Kramer, caught on camcorder in extreme close-up, erupts: “Plague! We’re in the middle of a fucking plague, and you behave like this! ACT UP has been taken over by a lunatic fringe!”
The outburst is electrifying, and just one instance of Kramer’s inexhaustible ability to shame and motivate—a quality that has made him, in his own (well, Ned’s) words, an “asshole,” but one whose zeal has been crucial in saving and prolonging untold numbers of lives. His self-righteousness, particularly regarding promiscuity, has also made him a pariah more than once in the gay community. One of the best scenes in The Normal Heart features a fellow GMHC member named Mickey (Joe Mantello, who played Ned Weeks on Broadway three years ago) unraveling amid so much death and sharply taking his peer to task for his virulent condemnation of licentiousness: “We have been so oppressed. Don’t you remember?” Despite its flaws, this iteration of The Normal Heart also exhorts us to remember: As an act of commemoration, Murphy’s TV movie is at the very least an important corrective to the sidelining of gays in last year’s abominable AIDS docudrama Dallas Buyers Club.
The Normal Heart airs on HBO Sunday, May 25.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes.
RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER died a little over thirty years ago, aged thirty-seven, with—conservative estimate—something like a zillion films, telefilms, and TV serials to his name. The frenetic pace that Fassbinder set for himself, kept up through a diet of booze, cocaine, and pharmaceuticals, didn’t help to prolong his life, and when he finally OD’d, he dropped dead with the bit between his teeth, his bulk splayed across notes about a projected film on Polish-German Marxist philosopher Rosa Luxemburg.
The market value of Fassbinder’s brand has not diminished since. At Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Fassbinder retrospective, “Romantic Anarchist,” a preshow slide advises you to “Go on a Fassbinder Bender”—a shopping spree, that is, to celebrate a trenchant critic of consumer society. You can go home with a Fassbinder limited-edition tote bag—it accessorizes nicely with the Cinemetal T-shirt emblazoned with the word FASSBINDER in the Metallica logo—and at the adjacent Indie Food and Wine café, you can get a “Satan’s Brew” craft cocktail, named after a 1976 Fassbinder movie which was dedicated to Antonin Artaud, and which featured Volker Spengler as a halfwit with a passion for fucking houseflies.
Part of Fassbinder’s enduring appeal is certainly the cult of personality. In slouch hat, soiled leather, and what looks like a pasted on beard, he has the deportment of a butch beer-and-pretzels brawler from Bavaria, while his films betray the feminine soul of an aesthete. (Wearing drag, former Fassbinder actress Eva Mattes plays a thinly-disguised version of the director in Radu Gabrea’s 1984 A Man Like EVA, which postulates his hermaphroditic nature.) Fassbinder’s style is both florid and austere; his outsized oeuvre is surly, rowdy, uncouth; his gauche death entirely of a piece with his fatalistic work. But if the Fassbinder brand survives, it’s because his art is exactly that: a brand; one that sears to the touch, and leaves its mark on you. Who can see The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) or Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), for example, and think about sex, love, and class in precisely the same way afterwards?
The first part of FSLC’s bifurcated Fassbinder retro opened last Friday, and it will continue through June 1st. The second part, covering the period from 1975 to 1982’s swansong Querelle, is incoming for November. The lineup for Part One includes seventeen films by Fassbinder, most presented on 35 or 16 mm, beginning chronologically with his 1969 Love Is Colder than Death, and ending with 1974’s Effi Briest, the only noteworthy works made in-between that are missing from the lineup being his TV miniseries Eight Hours are Not a Day and his 1973 telefilm Jail Bait. (MoMA played a print in 2007—maybe if you ask nicely they’ll screen it for you.)
Love Is Colder… is a menage-a-trois between ex-con lowlifes, quite at home in the grotty suburbs of Munich. It features Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel, and the director’s frequent muse Hanna Schygulla. She and Lommel also star in Effi Briest, a tony period piece adaptation of Theodor Fontane’s fin-de-siècle novel which, due to its subject matter and stature, has been called a German-language Anna Karenina. Effi Briest took the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival only five years after Love Is Colder… had debuted to jeers. Fassbinder had come very far very fast, and he would go further still, but the period covered in the first part of “Romantic Anarchist” shows the years of his most remarkable, sustained development.
Fassbinder had the aspect and soul of a peasant, but was born into a cultured family in Bad Wörishofen, Bavaria, in 1945, shortly after the unconditional surrender of Germany. He would later speak of a neglectful upbringing, claiming that he came up “almost without parents,” growing on his own “like a little flower.” (His mother, billed as Lilo Pempeit, would later appear in a number of his films—she’s Effi’s mother in the Fontane adaptation.) Twenty-year-old Fassbinder’s 1966 application to the newly-founded German Film and Television Academy in Berlin reveals that he had been a remarkably busy autodidact, hip to Proust, Brecht, Beckett, and Godard, whose influence on Fassbinder’s early work is highly apparent. (The schematically-tracked shoplifting cruise through the ultramodern supermarket in Love Is Colder… scored to Der Rosenkavalier comes to mind.) Fassbinder’s application was nevertheless rejected, and so he instead took a backdoor approach to filmmaking, joining the experimental Munich action-theater and, in a matter of months, imposing his leadership on the group, which was rechristened as Anti-Theater (antiteater). Throughout his life, Fassbinder found it remarkably easy to impress his will on both people and organizations, and the operation of intrapersonal power dynamics, in which larger societal patterns of repression are reproduced privately, is a crucial factor in every film that he made.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Effi Briest, 1974, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 141 minutes.
Anti-Theater members provided the core personnel for Fassbinder’s early films, including Schygulla, his peerless composer Peer Raben, and Kurt Raab, who starred in 1970’s domestic torture chamber-drama Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? Like the same year’s The Niklashausen Journey, Herr R. is credited as being co-directed by Michael Fengler, for at this point there was still some pretext of Anti-Theater being a collectively rather than despotically-run organization. But Fassbinder played the lead in 1969’s wrenching breakthrough Katzelmacher, from his own coup de théâtre play, and the communal ideal couldn’t long endure the domineering personality of its most famous member. The clash between counterculture Utopianism and the practical exigencies of the picture business is at the center of Fassbinder’s 1971 backstage comedy Beware of a Holy Whore, a retelling of the making of his Whity (also playing) earlier in the year, with a tantrum-throwing Lou Castel as Fassbinder’s on-screen stand-in.
Peopled with shrill adult adolescents, Beware of a Holy Whore is a wholly mature work—but not to be satisfied by repeating his early successes, the little flower kept sprouting. FSLC’s four-film “Fassbinder and his Friends” sidebar highlights a key catalyst to his development—alongside works by Fassbinder’s followers (Lommel, Todd Haynes, François Ozon), Lincoln Center will screen All That Heaven Allows (1955), a representatively coruscating melodrama by the German-American émigré director Douglas Sirk, and a film which Fassbinder drew heavily from for his Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Fassbinder credited his encounter with Sirk, during a rare lapse in filmmaking activity after the completion of Beware of a Holy Whore, as the inspiration for a new approach to his work. Fassbinder belonged to an orphaned generation of German filmmakers, their artistic “fathers” largely discredited by collaboration with Hitler’s regime, and in Sirk (née Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg), Fassbinder found the role model he’d been looking for. With Sirk’s influence in mind, Fassbinder would force a confrontation between the catalog of twentieth-century European modernist theatrical conventions and their cinematic parallels, which he had heretofore been working through, and the unabashed emotional appeal of the Hollywood melo. “I think I go further than [Brecht] did,” Fassbinder would tell an interviewer in 1977, “in that I let that audience feel and think.” Self-evident as this formula may seem, dissolving (rather than solving) that still-prevalent false dichotomy is among the most revolutionary acts of a career that was almost entirely ornery and uncooperative. (By the release of 1979’s The Third Generation, the Communists may have come to loathe Fassbinder more than the capitalists—but that’s another story.)
Fassbinder’s “new” style debuted with 1971’s The Merchant of Four Seasons, and continued through such works as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a five-act bout from a Fassbinder stage play written contemporary to his Sirk conversion, in which an under-my-thumb arrangement between a haughty lesbian fashion designer (Margit Carstensen) and her grifter girlfriend (Schygulla) is gradually inverted. The break between early and middle periods isn’t so clean as convenience would have it, however, and what we “know” about Fassbinder can only be further complicated by FSLC’s screening of scarcely-seen works, such as 1972’s Bremen Freedom and 1974’s Nora Helmer. The brittle-but-unbreakable Carstensen stars in both: In the former, an adaptation of Fassbinder’s play about an eighteenth-century Bremen housewife who poisons her extended family and friends in order to liberate them, she plays the murderess Geesche; in the latter, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, she has the title role. With Herr R., they share a vision of hearth and home as a nest of vipers, while both incorporate alienation effects which we might not associate with Fassbinder’s middle-period work: Bremen Freedom’s rear-projection backdrop, a dream of escape, or the textured lap dissolve close-ups that climax Nora Helmer.
“Rest,” says Geesche, “that is death”—and so it was for Fassbinder. His films outlined the invisible prisons in which all of us live, while he locked himself up in his own maximum-security model, and threw away the key. Fassbinder toiled incessantly to gain a modicum of freedom, and in doing so was yoked to his work. Of his ferocious productivity, the director famously said that he would like to build a house with his films, but his effect on film culture was more like that of a wrecking ball. We will be sorting through the debris for a long time to come.
“Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist: Part One” runs through Sunday, June 1st at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.
Sam Fleischer, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, 2013, color, sound, 102 minutes. Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez).
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE to watch Sam Fleischner’s richly textured, fully engaging Stand Clear of the Closing Doors without thinking of the terrible story of Avonte Oquendo, the autistic teenager who ran through an open door in his high school—he was always attracted to light, his mother said—and vanished. His remains were discovered three months later in the waters off College Point, New York. Stand Clear premiered in the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, almost half a year before the photos of Oquendo with the words MISSING BOY appeared in every New York subway station. At Tribeca, Fleischner said that he had been inspired by many stories of kids on the autism spectrum who wandered off from school or their homes. Some of those stories ended badly, some didn’t. Without giving the ending of the film away, I can say that although I often feared for the life of the protagonist, a thirteen-year-old Mexican boy named Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), I also believed throughout that he would survive. Wah Do Dem (2009), the brilliant debut feature which Fleischner codirected with Ben Chace, is about a guy who gets lost in Jamaica without a cent or a cell phone and emerges with a recalibrated consciousness from his dangerous Odyssey.
The axiom that Richard Linklater wrote in the diary he kept during the making of Slacker (1991)—that he wanted his films to be “locked in with the time and place of their making”—applies to Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, which is set in the eclectic community of Rockaway, New York, where Fleischner lives, and in the New York City subway system, which, depicted partly through the eyes of an imaginative, differently abled boy, is both ordinary and surreal. Ricky follows a man whose jacket is decorated with what the boy believes is a magical symbol—a water serpent swallowing its tail—up the stairs to the A train, and, because he doesn’t know the name of his stop, gets lost for a week, growing increasingly despondent and even delusional from thirst and hunger. His fellow passengers for the most part seem perfectly nice, but they either fail to notice his plight or don’t want to get involved or, if they are homeless, assume he is too.
Ricky’s journey is crosscut with that of his mother Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz), who at first searches for him alone. Mariana is afraid to tell the police because the family is undocumented. Her husband, Ricardo Sr. (Tenoch Huerta) is a day laborer, working “upstate”; if he leaves his job, he’ll never get it back. Ricky’s older sister Carla (Azul Zorilla) is so consumed with guilt—she left Ricky alone because she wanted to hang with her friends—that she’s almost useless. The only support Mariana gets is from Carmen (Marsha Stephanie Blake), the manager of the local sneaker store, who helps her make LOST BOY posters and then convinces her to go to the police.
The performances in the lead roles are all so good that I hesitate to single anyone out, but Suarez Paz, an aspiring actor whom Fleischer discovered in the neighborhood, is exceptionally strong and nuanced, and Sanchez-Velez, a thirteen-year-old with Asperger syndrome, uses his own experience to evoke Ricky’s unpredictable emotional changes and the mystery of his inner life. Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg’s script gives the film an excellent spine, strong enough to allow Fleischner to fill it with wonderful cameo performances, some planned in advance, some improvised, and some simply found objects. Large-format cameras were used throughout so that everyone in the subways and on the street knew that they were being filmed. (Fleischner believes it is unethical to use hidden cameras to “steal” shots of people.)
What makes Stand Clear of the Closing Doors an exceptional film was what movie contracts term an “act of God.” During what was meant to be the last week of shooting, Hurricane Sandy struck, flooding the Rockaway neighborhood and destroying Fleischner’s own house. Production was suspended and the movie had to be rejiggered. But in the days leading up to the storm, Fleischner got some amazing footage of the beach and the turbulent surf and menacing sky. There is a chilling moment in the subway when we hear the announcement over the loudspeaker that the MTA is suspending service and everyone must leave the trains by 7 PM. Ricky sits alone on the suddenly emptied platform. In the distance he sees the apparition-like figure of the man with the water serpent symbol on his jacket. The man walks to the end of the platform and disappears into the tunnel. Ricky follows him into the darkness, toward the sound of the rushing water, and toward the light.
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors opens Friday, May 23 in New York.
A DORSAL VIEW of the Statue of Liberty dominates the first shot of James Gray’s The Immigrant: Her back turned, the Lady of the Harbor is already forsaking the just-arrived huddled masses before they’ve even been processed at Ellis Island. The image is blunt and potent, like much of this fable set in New York during the winter of 1921.
One of those Atlantic-crossing refugees is crossed the Atlantic is Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard). She has fled Poland with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), who is pulled out of the inspection line by officials alarmed by her incessant cough and wan pallor. Told that her sibling will have to spend at least six months in the island’s tuberculosis ward, Ewa, made even more vulnerable by this sudden separation, is befriended by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix, in his fourth film with Gray), an unctuous fellow in a derby presenting himself as a member of the Travelers Aid Society. He is, in fact, the very type of sordid creature that the TAS was formed to combat: a two-bit burlesque impresario and pimp, who is soon selling Ewa’s services in the Lower East Side tenement where he houses his other whores.
Gray’s fifth film, which he cowrote with Richard Menello, plunges further into melodrama, expanding the emotional extravagance that the director explored in earnest in his previous movie, the romantic tragedy Two Lovers (2008)—though his first three features, all outer-borough crime sagas, are also unabashedly operatic. Inspired by a production he saw in 2009 of Puccini’s Il Trittico, particularly the triptych’s second installment, Suor Angelica, about a nun’s redemption, Gray has said that with The Immigrant, he wanted to make “an opera translated to a movie.” While it is both epic and exalted—qualities enhanced by cinematographer Darius Khondji’s sepia-rich palette—The Immigrant is also the rare period piece that never seems embalmed. The film’s vitality emerges from its intimate observations—like Ewa’s first experience eating a banana—many of which were informed by the memories of the director’s own grandparents, Russian émigrés who arrived at Ellis Island in 1923.
But the beating heart of the movie is Cotillard, whose saucer eyes recall those of imperiled silent-screen legends like Lillian Gish. (“We’ve got to compete with the motion pictures,” Bruno’s boss at the burlesque house tells him, their salacious entertainment contrasting greatly with the tales of female purity Gish was making with D. W. Griffith at the time the film takes place.) The French actress has the distinction of being the first female protagonist in Gray’s films, her character occupying the vertex of the director’s favorite configuration, the triangle: Ewa is desired by both Bruno and his charming magician cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner). Watching Cotillard, I often thought of her performance in another recent intervention in melodrama, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (2012). In that film, characters never break out of molds; they exist only to push a preposterous, sentimental scenario along. Coincidences sometimes pile up in The Immigrant, and a final-act confrontation between Ewa and Bruno occasionally strains credibility with its confessions. But Gray, unlike Audiard, evinces such genuine feeling for his characters that it’s hard not to be moved even during these weaker moments. As Fassbinder once said of the melodramatist he admired most, “Sirk has made the most tender [films] I know, films by a man who loves human beings and doesn’t despise them as we do.”
The Immigrant opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 16.
Danny Garcia, Looking for Johnny, 2014, color, sound, 90 minutes.
“BEST REVERSE Keith Richards I’ve ever seen.” This is how Television’s Richard Lloyd, who knows something about the subject, describes the inverse trajectories of junk and (in)fame lived out by doomed New York Dolls/Heartbreakers guitarist Johnny Thunders in Danny Garcia’s comprehensive new documentary Looking for Johnny (2014), the story of how a Richards manqué from Queens grew up to consume exponentially more heroin (with exponentially less money) than the smacked-out Stone while midwifing glam, punk, and hair metal simply by being himself.
While there are a million junkies in the naked city, there’s a reason why, beyond his mercurial musical talents, Thunders remains uniquely iconic: As the film reminds us, he was a strangely beautiful man—all nose, cheekbones, and bulging, soulful eyes, a love child of Adrien Brody and Thom Yorke—with an effortless, sui generis sense of style and charisma to burn. There’s also a touch of Robert Blake in Thunders—the moody, Brando-ish punk of In Cold Blood (1967) and the blanched-out, bug-eyed ghoul of Lost Highway (1997). Both compact men of Italian descent, Blake and Thunders were haunted by demons far larger than themselves and had thousand-yard stares to prove it.
Born John Genzale Jr. in 1952, Thunders was fatherless almost immediately, his rakish dad having left to pursue other women when he was still an infant. In the film, numerous friends, colleagues, and exes attribute the guitarist’s attention-seeking performativity, lost-boy persona, and retreat into the warm embrace of dope to this loss, which left him love-starved and rudderless for most of his life. He showed an early aptitude for baseball, and was encouraged by his high-school coach to cut his hair and aim for the major leagues. It being the ’60s and Johnny being Johnny, hair and music won out, first in the band the Reign, and later Actress, which with a few personnel changes became the absurdly influential New York Dolls, a foundational inspiration for such disparate acts as Kiss, the Sex Pistols, the Replacements, the Smiths, Mötley Crüe, and many others in between.
The Dolls were the talk of downtown New York in 1972 and 1973, with a residency at the Mercer Arts Center that established their reputation as an outrageous, shambolic live act and eventually earned them a deal with Mercury Records. With their trashy camp aesthetic and sloppy musicianship, the band polarized the industry and audiences, earning the titles of Best and Worst Band of the Year in a 1973 Creem magazine readers poll. In some ways they were the fulcrum point of ’70s rock, pointing a way out of the gilded bowels of prog with a focus on unhinged fun, attitude, and Brill Building songcraft—all propelled by Thunders’s unholy squalling on his Les Paul Junior, which one reviewer compared to the sound of a lawnmower.
Thunders was the perfect foil for frontman David Johansen’s draggy Jagger parody, out-Keefing Keith at his own game and amping it up to 11. While Richards was known to stand fairly still onstage at that point, Thunders was an electrified Muppet, likely an inspiration for Animal on Sesame Street, with his hair—the hair that launched a thousand rockers—extremely long, thick, and in his face, but also teased up tall and spiky on top. Surely this hairstyle could still be obtained at some junkie barber’s on Sunset Strip. Countless hard rock/metal bands from the area have availed themselves of it over the years. It’s actually embarrassing today to look at an early Dolls performance, with Johnny in full pomp, and then call up a Guns & Roses, Mötley Crüe, or Poison video from the ’80s. They all have Johnny’s hair, but none of his taste.
After two albums and several tours, the Dolls fell apart, drugs and egos having taken their toll, but not before Malcolm McLaren briefly got involved as their last manager, dressing them in red patent leather with a communist flag backdrop, sending them on a five-borough mini-tour, and taking notes for what would become the Sex Pistols. We have the Dolls to thank, indirectly, for Nancy Spungen, a fan who followed drummer Jerry Nolan to England but ended up with Sid Vicious instead. After the breakup, Thunders and Nolan hooked up with punk scenesters Richard Hell and Walter Lure to form the Heartbreakers, an even more shambolic group with a repertoire primarily concerned with heroin and failure. Hell’s ego soon clashed with Thunders’s, and the former left to form the Voidoids. He was replaced in the Heartbreakers by Billy Rath, and this quartet joined the legendary 1977 Anarchy Tour, playing on bills around the UK as punk godfathers of sorts with the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned.
By this point, Thunders was as infamous for his junk habit as he was famous for his music. While the Heartbreakers could be an exhilarating band on a good night, often at Max’s Kansas City, half the audience was there to see whether Johnny would keel over and expire onstage, mid-lick. A Replacements song from their debut LP in 1981 captured this period succinctly: “Johnny’s Gonna Die.” Thunders craved the audience’s love, and he wanted them to love his music, but he had become a freak show of his own devising, a sad spectacle, more of a “candle in the wind” than Marilyn Monroe could ever be, with less light and more wind.
This would go on, to varying degrees, for the rest of his relatively short life. He lived in England, Paris, and for years, Sweden, where he married and had children. He made several solo records, toured sporadically, usually when he needed money, and even dabbled in reggae and acoustic singer-songwriter material (Bob Dylan has said that he wished he’d written “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” the best of Thunders’s “quiet” songs).
He died in New Orleans in suspicious circumstances. Found under a table in his hotel room, which had been ransacked and his possessions stolen, his body was contorted like a pretzel from rigor mortis. While there were traces of methadone and other substances in his system, it wasn’t enough to kill a toxic waste dump like Johnny Thunders. The New Orleans police closed the books on the case without investigation, despite the periodic efforts of his sister and others. They suspect he was murdered and rolled for money by some local drug kids. “Nobody knows who I am,” Thunders says quietly but purposefully in a relatively early post-Dolls interview cut into Looking for Johnny. He may not have known himself. But by presenting Thunders’s living social network in cinematic form, as Garcia has done here, the film leaves us with a finely detailed matrix of a fragile, fatherless man who in some small way changed the world.
Looking for Johnny is currently playing various film festivals and venues worldwide.
WATCHING ST. CLAIR BOURNE’S aptly-titled 1983 “videowork” Amiri Baraka: In Motion, you’re struck by the manner in which the film’s subject, while presenting a calm and collected demeanor to the camera, is forever at the center of a maelstrom of activity, an octopus whose tentacles are constantly occupied with their independent tasks. Baraka, here nearing fifty, is seen tending to household affairs from his study, addressing protesters outside of South African Airlines, reading poetry at Saint Mark’s Church, and hosting a jazz radio program on WBAI, where he notes that his play Boy and Tarzan Appear in a Clearing is opening at the Henry Street Settlement’s New Federal Theater. All of this, I should add, is going on while Baraka is in the process of appealing a ninety-day sentence at Riker’s Island for resisting arrest.
Baraka, who died in January of this year, was an activist, novelist, poet, playwright, and critic—his Blues People and Black Music being extraordinarily influential collections of writing on blues and jazz. He was also, as Anthology Film Archives four-day weekend program proves, a filmmaker. This is true only incidentally in the traditional sense of being a writer-director, in which capacity he is credited on the 1968 short The New-Ark, recently rediscovered by Harvard Film Archive, and premiered only a few weeks ago by Rutgers University in Baraka’s hometown and longtime residence of Newark. Beyond this, Baraka was the director of his own ongoing drama, and one of the most colorful repertory players to appear in the historical spectaculars that go by such familiar titles as The 1960s, The Counterculture, and Black Power.
Per the poet A. B. Spellman in In Motion, Baraka’s is “A personal history that may be marked by events […] A history of fairly radical breaks.” The dishonorably discharged Air Force Sergeant Everett LeRoi Jones from New Jersey became an up-and-coming Greenwich Village poet, with a Jewish wife and Beatnik friends, and in turn LeRoi Jones took an African name and became the black nationalist separatist Amiri Baraka, who in due course became the feted academic, repentant ex-anti-Semite, Man of Letters and, briefly, the poet laureate of New Jersey.
“Semper, Roi, Semper” offers brief glimpses of the young Village poet Jones, mixing with mostly-white crowds, in Marie Menken’s Lita’s Party (1964) and Jonas Mekas’s Lost Lost Lost (completed 1976). By 1966, however, when Jones was appearing on an episode of the chat show Open End, discussing “Negro revolution” with Norman Mailer, he had dug in his heels as a black nationalist. Introduced by host David Susskind as author of “sometimes scathingly anti-white works,” Jones swats away Mailer’s conciliatory gestures, and his attempts to disassociate himself from the white power structure, leaving Mailer to practically bounce in his chair while Jones coolly asks him not to “include black people in this kind of mystical ‘we’ ”—that is, the American “we.” (Along with the Open End episode, Anthology will also show Baraka’s appearance on a 1972 episode of black community–oriented program Soul!, which aired on New York’s WNET.)
Open End is a relic from the storied and undoubtedly much-embellished heyday of the public intellectual, those universal men and women who involved themselves in everything all at once, and in making films above all else. (Believe it or not, this was once considered a very hip activity.) In short order there were such pure on-screen expressions of authorial personality as Beyond the Law (1968) from Mailer, Duet for Cannibals (1969) from Susan Sontag, and Myra Breckinridge (1970) from Gore Vidal—but in a sense Baraka got there first, with 1967’s Dutchman. The film was directed by Anthony Harvey, who went on to filmed-theater megaproduction The Lion in Winter, but the text is all Baraka, from his 1964 Obie-award winning play. The action is limited to a single subway car: Clay (Al Freeman, Jr.), a middle-class black man on his way to a party, is cornered and picked up by Lula (Shirley Knight), a white girl in a go-go dress who, munching apples and slinging her long legs into his lap, comes across like Eve in heat. As the express train thunders along, filling imperceptibly with silent observers, Lula mocks Clay’s suck-up attempts to join the bourgeoisie until he finally cracks. This gives Lula the pretext to fatally stab Clay, a killing with no consequences, which leaves her free to slink toward the next train car and the next black man on whom to work her succubus charms. Baraka is here laying bare his own hostility, and the hostility between sexes and races, and you know where you can stick your Great Society olive branch. It’s Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner.
The conflagration that Dutchman prophesied had become reality as the film made the rounds in the year of the Newark riots. In fall of 1968, Jean-Luc Godard touched down in New York City, hoping to capture on film the full flower of the coup that was so obviously forthcoming in America, with the help of D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock. Like the revolution, the project was left unfinished, but the resulting footage was assembled as One P.M. (1972), and in it one can see a monologue by Eldridge Cleaver, followed by a street performance from Baraka and the Spirit House Movers, their incantations and exhortations (“Black Art, black magic, the perfection of the earth turning…”) performed for a perplexed and intimidated white audience.
The Spirit House, at 33 Stirling Street in Newark’s Central Ward, was the headquarters of Baraka’s Black Arts Movement after his Blacks Arts Repertory Theater-School had foundered in Harlem. Baraka’s The New-Ark is a showcase for the multifold Black Arts activities centered at the Spirit House, political activities not least of these. Vidal had his 1960 congressional run, Mailer his attempt at the 1969 New York City mayoral preliminaries, while Baraka devoted himself to politics in an organizational capacity—ultimately with a greater success in the short-term. “Any large concentration of black people in the world constitutes a nation,” Baraka says on Open End, and in The New-Ark he can be seen at work towards turning Newark into a revolutionary commonwealth. Opening with the proclamation “We are in charge of building a nation. We are the new princes of the earth,” the film shows the work of organizing the majority black-and–Puerto Rican city to back a ticket of candidates unaffiliated with the major parties. (The only white face we see belongs to a policeman, briefly glimpsed.) Baraka’s narration accompanies a collection of vignettes showing a variety of Black Arts–sponsored activities: Anti–Vietnam War street theater performed on the back of a flatbed truck, a Kenpo demonstration, a classroom of children reciting the “black alphabet,” and a meeting of Sisters for Black Culture. (The contemporary feminist will perhaps find their proscribed role in this new world rather retrograde.)
It may be argued that in the case of Baraka, as in the case of Godard, the artist was overshadowed at times by the propagandist. In the case of both men, the recalcitrant personalities remained irreconcilable to society at large. In time, Baraka would gain something like institutional respectability, but he was constitutionally incapable of being assimilated. His post as New Jersey poet laureate was cut short thanks to controversy surrounding “Somebody Blew Up America?”, his poem in response to the destruction of the World Trade Center, which includes the line “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day?” (A video of Baraka reading the poem is part of Friday’s program.)
“Semper, Roi, Semper” is a memorial of sorts, but Baraka is an unquiet, heckling ghost, one who steadfastly refuses to Rest in Peace. To gently exhort a new audience to appreciate a talent as assaultive as his is absurd—as absurd as Baraka would very probably have found this white critic’s attempt to talk about work that speaks of an experience so far beyond his ken. I will give the last word, then, to Dutchman’s Clay, goaded to going on the offensive: “Bald-head four-eyed ofays, popping they fingers, don’t know yet what they doing. They say ‘I love Bessie Smith.’ They don’t know yet that Bessie Smith is saying ‘Kiss my ass. Kiss my black, unruly ass.’ ”
“Semper, Roi, Semper: Amiri Baraka (1934–2014)” runs May 15–18 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
A STRAWBERRY SHAKE splattering on the ground, brightly colored fridge magnets spelling out COCK 4 DAYZ, a babysitter and her charge donning cat and tiger masks: Many images in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto seize the viewer’s attention even if characters, ideas, and point of view prove elusive.
This first film by a member of the third generation of the Coppola dynasty (Gia is Francis’s granddaughter) begs comparison with the debut feature of the most prominent director from the second. At twenty-seven, Gia is a year younger than her aunt Sofia was when The Virgin Suicides was released in 2000. Like the earlier film, a page-to-screen transfer of Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 novel, Palo Alto both centers on adolescents and is sourced from a debut work of fiction: the eponymous 2010 collection of short stories by James Franco, who has a small but pivotal role as a high-school-girls’ soccer coach. Significantly, both Coppolas also wrote the screenplays for their inaugural films. Yet The Virgin Suicides, set in 1974 and imbued with melancholy, suggests a caress; Palo Alto, adrift in twenty-first-century Bay Area whatever-ness, gives off no more than a shrug.
In Palo Alto, the younger Coppola, who got her start as a fashion photographer and director of fashion shorts, also explores the recurring theme of her aunt’s work: the listlessness of the privileged. Three central characters emerge from the pot haze—clouds created not only by the kids but their ineffectual, equally solipsistic guardians—that wafts throughout the film: April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), and Fred (Nat Wolff), high schoolers who in an early party scene resemble the central trio in Rebel Without a Cause; this triangle quickly splinters off, only to be unconvincingly reconfigured by film’s end. Of this troika, Teddy, similar to the eager, curious actor who plays him, is the most compelling. (Kilmer, making his screen debut, is, like his two costars, the child of a well-known performer.) Cardigan-clad Teddy is the sole character shown negotiating the outside world, interactions necessitated by the community-service jobs at a public library and a senior citizens’ home he must fulfill after a DUI.
As for Teddy’s classmates, they largely remain ciphers or one-dimensional. Fred is a charmless sociopath; Teddy’s query to his friend “Why do you have to try so fucking hard to seem crazy?” is equally applicable to Wolff’s acting style. April must untangle herself from the illicit relationship instigated by Franco’s soccer coach (as in last year’s Spring Breakers, the actor is extremely convincing as an ephebophile), but, other than a crying spell in the bathroom, evinces little emotion about anything. “I care about everything too much,” she tells Teddy in the film’s final fifteen minutes, despite all evidence to the contrary.
One misty night in northern California (played by SoCal’s San Fernando Valley) bleeds into another in Palo Alto, our grasp on these characters just as tenuous in the end as it was in the beginning. Are kids in the wealthier ZIP codes really this dull and opaque? Much lower on the socioeconomic scale are the teen protagonists of Terri and Pariah, both from 2011, and those of It Felt Like Love, released in March, and the upcoming Boyhood—all films that honor their subjects by paying close attention to them.
Palo Alto opens in limited release on May 9.
IF YOU WANT a panoramic view of what constitutes experimental film today, there are few more all-encompassing vantage points than the Images Festival in Toronto. Surveying the broad expanse, one may feel tempted to say that the defining dichotomy that emerged from the twenty-seventh edition of Images was between futurist virtual singularity and a backward-looking analog-bucolic ideal—though trying to corral such a vast program into convenient categories is a fool’s errand.
“The largest festival in North America for experimental and independent moving image culture” took place this year over ten days in mid-April. Introducing the nightly programs, executive director Scott Miller Berry proudly ID’d Images as “the second oldest film festival in Toronto”—it was first held in 1987, when Hot Docs was but a glimmer in its founders’ eyes, and what is today the behemoth Toronto Film Festival was a humble affair with the endearingly dorky moniker the Festival of Festivals. Aside from theatrical screenings, Images also includes an Off Screen section of gallery and installation works, many centralized at 401 Richmond Street, an industrial building turned arts hub, though others are in such varied locations as the basement of a Chinatown mall. The locus of the festival, however, is the Jackman Hall theater at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the site of the Cinematheque Ontario before the construction of the shiny new TIFF Bell Lightbox, and a space imbued with many fond memories for Torontonian cinephiles.
Miller Berry’s introductory notes in the Images catalogue are an indictment of the fetishization of festival premiere status, and at the Jackman Hall ticket counter one could pick up a button reading KILL FILM FESTIVAL PREMIERE POLICIES. By casting off the fetters of premiere policy, curatorial freedom should thereby be maximized in, for example, the numerous shorts programs, arranged around conceptual or thematic unities. One such program, self-explanatorily titled “Two Hours Two Minutes” and compiled by Tirdad Zolghadr of Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, included Jean Eustache’s 1977 Une Sale Histoire diptych on 35 mm and Sarah Morris’s well-traveled 2008 film 1972, a coolly observed inquiry into the failure to negotiate for hostages at the Munich Olympics and, incidentally, contemporary German anti-Semitism. (Zolghadr also led one of Images’ multiple scheduled talks—I arrived a day late to catch one called “Is Art School Killing Art?,” but considering that the late Eustache was one of the only people in the catalogue’s Artist Index who didn’t list a university affiliation, it’s hard to imagine an impartial affirmative decision was reached.)
Zolghadr’s stated intention was something to do with the cinema’s intrinsic ability to keep the viewer “stuck in your seat vis-à-vis the screen”—though as works invoking theatrical claustrophobia go, I was most impressed by a piece in another program, Joshua Gen Solondz’s Prisoner’s Cinema. Named after the hallucinated “movies” that are reported to appear to people confined in solitary, dark spaces, Solondz’s video begins with black-and-white strobing in which patterns are fleetingly visible, then suddenly gives ways to a riot of ornate, writhing concentric circles, a consuming and altogether narcotic experience. (Sophie Michael’s fine Atticacomprising images of rotating Greek ceramics set to a selection of traditional Greek music, their spinning motion evoking both potter’s wheel and turntable, wobbling patterns meshing together like gearsis a neatly complementary work.)
Prisoner’s Cinema was included in a program called “A Conjuring, A Slow Acting Poison,” composed of various pieces of cinematic sorcery, while the program “Another Country” was billed as “made up of movements and journeys.” Judging by duration of applause, the big hit of “Another Country”—and rightly so—was Off-White Tulips, Aykan Safoğlu’s personal essay film which ties together photographic records and anecdotes from author James Baldwin’s time in Istanbul in the 1960s with recollections of the Turkish popular culture of the filmmaker’s youth, musing on matters of expatriation, identity, and color, all with a crisp timing and humor. I was also impressed with Carly Short’s maritime reverie She Look Good, a collection of vignettes shot in the coastal town of Scituate, Massachusetts. The film concludes with a sailor deftly plaiting a little girl’s hair, an image rhymed to earlier scenes of nets being mended at sea, which encapsulates the film’s overall theme—how in the life of a fishing village the strong polarities of sea and land, harbor and hearth, define themselves through the other’s absence.
Short’s film was one of a handful to be projected on old-fashioned celluloid, in this case 16 mm. The format—and specifically its deterioration—is essential to Creme 21, a new assemblage by Austrian-American Eve Heller, which repurposes pieces of a Three Stooges short and a 1970s educational film called Time: Measurement & Meaning. The didactic narration is gouged by popping sound track breaks, frayed speech sutured together to create entirely new sentences which occasionally coalesce into something teasingly coherent—“In the process / but / in time / the nature of / physics / begins traveling towards the past…”—the entire thing done with an tricky, stuttering rhythm. Heller’s work was one of several pieces based on repurposed footage: Among the “Live Images: Performances + Projections” shows was a program called Violent X, a collage of overlaid still images taken from ’70s Italian polizieschi (police) films by writer-artist Evan Calder Williams, who live-reads the text over a synth score by Japanese musician Taku Unami. Riffing on the resemblance between polizieschi regulars Maurizio Merli and Franco Nero, Williams develops a William Wilson–esque doppelgänger story, in which a police inspector is credited for the vigilante justice being meted out by his double. The ingenuity of the thing is impressive, while the experience is never more than mock-harrowing—though some of the layered images did manage to multiply the beauty of the originals.
The only programming misstep that was a bona fide faceplant was magnified in impact for coming on closing night. The fest’s semiannual Canadian Artist Spotlight was shined on the work of Jennifer Chan, an artist working in new-media, Web-culture idioms. Chan arranged a program of eight of her own works, as well as shorts by other artists working along parallel lines, and “non-art pieces” like “Cats Morph Into Croissants.” (This was the day after the Internet Cat Video Film Festival had touched down at the nearby TIFF Bell Lightbox, presented by no less a personage than Prime Minister Harper’s wife, an event that sounded altogether more avant-garde.) The Chan material is a pileup of Seapunk dolphins, PornTube provocation, and sham tween naïveté, all “complicated” by crawling, spinning GeoCities, Angelfire chic logos which offer peekaboo suggestions of a depth that’s borne out nowhere else in the material. Then, after the Raptors had been downed by the Brooklyn Nets 87-94 at the Air Canada Centre that Sunday, there was further heartbreak with the selection of Images closing screening, Brett Kashmere’s From Deep, a documentary about the history of professional basketball in America which shows minimal interest in the sport as anything other than malleable material to be molded into sociological generalizations, a pedantic student paper of a movie.
The features selection was lackluster overall, if not risible—there’s not much more to say of the Opening Night film Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, by the Indian collective CAMP, than that it doesn’t sustain its length. There’s more glory and ink to be got by going long, but a word should be said for the short short, for a crackling ninety seconds like Rhayne Vermette’s fusillade of 16-mm scraps called Black Rectangle. Of other honorable mentions, it was a pleasure to catch up with Belgian Manon DeBoer’s One, two, many, made of three distinct meditations on the subject of voice, beginning with a transfixing solo performance by a circular-breathing flautist caught in a single take that lasts just beyond the duration of a very, very long exhale—about as long as it takes to comprehend that just one man is creating all of this cacophony. A word should also be said for the uncanny effects of Jesse McLean’s Just Like Us, in which subtitles for a mute narration describe an upbringing that has disappeared beneath the foundations of a collection of big-box stores, seen standing melancholy and alone in the gloaming: “My house is now a Best Buy,” the text reads, “I made love in a Target parking lot once.” With encroaching cultural blacktop ever threatening to smooth film culture into uniformity, it is a relief to see such work flourishing in the pasture provided by Images.
The twenty-seventh Images Festival ran April 10–19, 2014 in Toronto.