Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Rio, 40 graus (Rio, 100 Degrees), 1955, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 100 minutes.
THERE ARE FEW wider-sung songs than Brazilian composer Tom Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema,” myriad versions of which are performed in The Music According to Antonio Carlos Jobim (2012). The documentary, codirected by Nelson Pereira dos Santos and the late composer’s granddaughter Dora Jobim, almost entirely consists of archival concert and studio footage of musicians (among them Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Gal Costa, and Chico Buarque) rendering Jobim tunes like “Girl,” “Desafinado,” and “Waters of March” across a wide span of languages and decades. Occasionally performing is the Rio de Janeiro–raised Jobim himself who, in chronicling Brazilian culture through his work, acts as both artist and witness.
An April 9 screening of Music will open the Museum of Modern Art’s film series “Nelson Pereira dos Santos: Politics and Passion.” The still-active eighty-six-year-old Pereira—who will introduce screenings during the series’ first weekend and whose archive is providing its 35-mm prints—has devoted much of his life to finding ways to represent Brazil’s many faces onscreen. While MoMA’s eight-film tribute comprises less than a third of his output, it still offers a strong gathering of views.
Pereira was born into a cinephilic working-class family in São Paulo, studied law, and worked as a journalist before pursuing filmmaking. The Brazilian cinema of the late 1940s and early 1950s was dominated by studio films made in imitation of Hollywood models; Pereira, dissatisfied, instead drew inspiration from Italian Neorealism for his first feature, Rio, 100 Degrees (1955) (screening April 10 and 14). He shot on streets and enlisted a large cast of nonprofessional actors to portray a Sunday in modern Rio de Janeiro, evincing the class, race, and gender inequities that shape the lives of cariocas from all backgrounds. The film’s stories are linked by scenes of five impoverished young black peanut vendors traversing town in search of customers, and are resolved with the hope of Rio’s residents—like their city—outlasting their present-day struggles.
Rio, 100 Degrees and its like-minded follow-up, Rio, Northern Zone (1957) (screening April 11 and 15)—a tragic portrait of a black lower-class samba composer (Grande Otelo) striving to gain recognition for his work—are often considered catalyzing films in the Cinema Novo movement. They also indicate the career-long thrust of Pereira’s humanist art. His main characters, both in these films and in subsequent ones, are outwardly fragile human archetypes that endure through inner strength.
Pereira’s first film to gain international acclaim was Barren Lives (1963) (April 10 and 15), an outraged and compassionate adaptation of Graciliano Ramos’s novel about a nomadic family searching Brazil’s northeastern desert in the early ’40s for a place to settle. As they find shelter, lose it, and set out again, each member seems trapped by the need to rely upon others: The illiterate, uneducated patriarch is at the mercy of his employers; the matriarch and two children are unable to earn their own livings. The arid landscape in which the family moves beneath strong, clear light gradually turns into a blinding hell, one that the film suggests these people will survive for their descendants to continue to wander.
The military coup that occurred a few weeks before Barren Lives’s Cannes screenings led to a dictatorship whose rule over Brazil lasted until 1985. Pereira escaped censorship during these years partly by shifting further toward allegory. A Very Crazy Asylum (1970) (April 11 and 16), for instance, adapted Machado de Assis’s 1882 satirical novella The Alienist into a tale of townspeople who respond to being institutionalized at a scientifically minded priest’s behest by compelling their jailer to join their mad ranks. How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971) (April 12 and 16) satirically uses colonial explorers’ texts to show a sixteenth-century indigenous tribe that resolves to feed on Europeans and, in so doing, potentially dooms itself to extinction. In The Amulet of Ogum (1974) (April 12 and 17), a blind street troubadour sings of a young man combating gangsters through outlawed Afro-Brazilian religious rites, whose power the singer seems to knows firsthand.
As the dictatorship’s hold weakened, Pereira made the epic Memoirs of Prison (1984) (April 13 and 17), a docudrama based on Graciliano Ramos’s unfinished nonfiction book. The author was imprisoned in the 1930s during an earlier era of authoritarian governance in Brazil for having ostensible Communist sympathies. Despite a lack of formal charges, he chose to remain in prison without initially protesting his arrest, an experience from which his first-person narrative emerged. In Pereira’s self-reflexive film, the gaunt, hawklike Ramos (Carlos Vereza) appears as an ambivalent figure. Several scenes show him sitting apart from his cellmates and writing in faithful observation of them. He feels driven to expose their conditions, without laying claim to a political cause.
Asgar Farhadi, About Elly, 2009, 35 mm, color, sound, 119 minutes. Sepideh and Elly (Golshifteh Farahani and Taraneh Alidousti).
WITH THEIR WIVES and young children in tow, three old friends drive from Tehran to a weekend rental on the Caspian Sea. Almost from the vacation’s first moment, things go wrong, and tiny lies snowball into matters of life and death. Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (2009) is finally being released six years after it won the Silver Bear in Berlin and Best Film at the Tribeca Film Festival. In the interim, Farhadi made two lauded movies, the foreign-language Oscar winner A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013). About Elly is looser, less self-serious, and more provocative morally and politically.
My reservations about A Separation have to do with a sense that beneath Farhadi’s putative even-handedness toward his male and female characters the film blames the wife more than the husband for their irreconcilable differences; her desire to get away from the systemic oppression of women in Iran comes across as selfish compared to the husband’s obligation to stay with his ailing father. A Separation exploits an ideology, not limited to conservative societies, that women’s value is predicated on self-sacrifice. The depiction of women in The Past only confirmed that gender bias. In About Elly, however, men and women are similarly careless, self-interested, deceptive, and quick to blame anyone other than themselves.
In addition to the three married couples, About Elly’s weekend party includes the titular Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), who teaches in the children’s primary school, and the recently divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). Elly has ostensibly been invited to help with the children, but Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) is trying to set up a romance between Elly and Ahmad. To defuse a potential problem with their landlady, who might object to having two single adults in her rental, Sepideh impulsively tells her that they are newlyweds. This white lie will come back to haunt everyone, as will their total disregard for Elly’s life history, needs, and desires. When she goes missing, they realize that no one even knows her surname.
Shot entirely with a handheld camera, About Elly opens with a burst of energy as the vacationing adults scream and wave out the windows of their car, like children on their way to summer camp. The pace slows as Farhadi sets up characters and relationships. About halfway through the film, we see Elly on the beach with the children flying a kite. In a stunning sequence, the camera moves closer and closer to her near ecstatic face. And then she’s gone. Two of the children run to the house to tell the adults that the third child is drowning. It’s not until after the child is rescued that anyone realizes that Elly is missing. Has she drowned or has she simply returned to Tehran without announcing her departure? From this point, the pace accelerates and the web of evasions and lies becomes as compelling as in any great suspense movie. We might not care about any of the characters—it’s doubtful that Farhadi wants us to—but it’s difficult to escape the implication that their situation reflects that of their entire society and, in many ways, our own.
About Elly runs Wednesday, April 8–Tuesday, April 21 at Film Forum in New York.
Walerian Borowczyk, A Private Collection, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 12 minutes.
THE FILMS OF WALERIAN BOROWCZYK, now receiving a weeklong retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, are among the purest instances of fetishist cinema that I know. Although “Boro”’s movies certainly abound with erotic fixations and substitute phalluses—the altar candlesticks and zucchinis in the “Thérése Philosophe” episode of Immoral Tales (1973), the bedpost in The Beast (1975), the catalogue of verboten vintage erotic paraphernalia in A Private Collection (1973)—I use this phrase not with a solely sexual connotation, but with the broader meaning of fetish: the imbuing of inanimate objects with human or extrahuman power and presence.
In Borowczyk’s live-action films, objects vie for attention with subjects to a degree which is unusual and disconcerting. It would be tempting to call this a failure, a case of production design rushing into the void left by absence of direction, were it not so clearly a part of Borowczyk’s undertaking to confound the division between people and things, portrait and landscape. I specify “live-action” films because Borowczyk’s first film work was in the field of animation, and it was as an animator that he gained notoriety outside of his native Poland. Like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, and Frank Tashlin, Borowczyk belongs to the exclusive company of animators turned live-action filmmakers. While it is difficult to find any common linkage among such disparate company, in imagining how the transition might have influenced Borowczyk, we can point to a deliberate shallowness that marks both his animated and live-action works, in the latter instance best exemplified in the medieval-set Blanche (1971), which approximates the flatness of Western painting before the innovation of perspective. Another Borowczyk hallmark is an intimate and irreverent relationship with art history, particularly but not exclusively as it relates to sexual behavior. His 1964 Renaissance is one oblique example. It opens on a roomful of unidentifiable detritus which is then seen to spontaneously recompose itself through the use of ingenious and painstaking stop-motion photography, until finally forming a still-life scene, which then explodes and returns to the state of primordial chaos. In a recent piece for Film Comment magazine, the critic Kent Jones notes that “[Federico] Fellini and [Sam] Fuller both expressed a desire to make a film without people, just objects. Tellingly, neither of them ever did anything about it.” Well, Borowczyk did.
Borowczyk’s background offers some clues to his unique mise-en-scene. He was born in the village of Kwilcz in 1923. Unlike his rough contemporaries (Morgenstern, Munk, Wajda), he didn’t come to filmmaking through the newly formed Łódź Film School, but studied painting instead, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Upon graduation, he became a much in-demand designer of film posters, a crucial figure in the so-called Polish School of Poster—a dozen instances of his craftwork from this period are on display in the Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery, adjacent to the lobby of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Borowczyk’s first animations began to play out around the time that he was thirty, and with 1958’s Dom (Home), codirected by Jan Lenica, he can be found exhibiting a mastery of the full range of techniques—stop-motion, integrated drawing and live-action, and decoupage, including an Eadweard Muybridge pastiche, in a style that would later greatly influence Gilliam—to approximate the fantasy life of an idle housewife (played by Borowczyk’s own wife and muse, Ligia Branice).
Dom, along with Renaissance, will play as part of a showcase of Borowczyk’s key short works included in “Obscure Pleasures: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk.” The retro follows a similar event last year at London’s BFI Southbank, occasioned by UK-based Arrow Films’ restorations of Borowczyk’s canonical works, all undertakings marked by the participation of Daniel Bird, an expert in Polish fantastic films and literature generally, and Borowczyk specifically. (The series’ title comes from a 2013 documentary on Borowczyk codirected by Bird, which screens in a program called, rather unimaginatively, “A Dazzling Imagination.”)
Walerian Borowczyk, Goto, Island of Love, 1968, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 93 minutes.
Dom was the work that announced Borowczyk to the rest of Europe. It won the Grand Prix at the Brussels Experimental Film Festival, running concurrent to the Expo 58 World’s Fair, and along with the awarding of countryman Roman Polanski’s short Two Men and a Wardrobe, its success signified the dawn of a new day for Polish cinema—soon to be Polish expatriate cinema. Borowczyk, emboldened, left the following year for Paris, where he would spend the vast majority of his working life. (Story of Sin  is his lone feature made in his homeland.) It was there that he met producer Anatole Dauman, whose Argos Films underwrote the careers of the Left Bank contingent of New Wave filmmakers, including Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, with whom Borowczyk collaborated on The Astronauts (1959).
In fact Marker’s sole contribution was the loan of his pet owl, Anabase, and his established name, which it was hoped would help to launch Borowczyk in his new home. And launched he was—the 1960s were the period in which Borowczyk was held in the greatest critical esteem, producing praised works like Renaissance and the austere live-action short Rosalie (1966) before his perhaps inevitable leap into long-form filmmaking. Within the space of a year, Borowczyk released his first (and only) feature animation, Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal (1967), and his first live-action feature, Goto, Island of Love (1968). Set on an isolated, inescapable island nation where a natural disaster has retarded progress for nearly a century—the metaphor for life in Communist Poland, where the film was banned, was there for anyone who cared to pick it up—Goto focuses on a lowly subaltern (Guy Saint-John) who fixes his sights on the wife (Branice) of the island’s third-generation military dictator (Pierre Brasseur), and schemes his ways through the ranks to get to her while polishing her boots with unusual relish. (In Mr. and Mrs. Kabal, the mechanism of fascism is re-created on the smaller plane of the domestic sphere.)
Borowczyk’s basic conviction of the centrality of eroticism and fantasy in all human endeavor didn’t change greatly from Goto onward, though, beginning with the appearance of Immoral Tales, the response to his films did. Working in animation was a way for a generation of artists living in Communist countries to circumnavigate the censorious dictates of socialist realism, but now, in the West, Borowczyk had a new set of taboos to tackle, and he plunged into bestiality, blasphemy, and incest with gusto. For some, with Immoral Tales and the films that followed, the artist had reduced himself to the status of pornographer. And while it is difficult to deny that it is a significant step down from Dom and Goto to the likes of Emmanuelle 5 (1986) and highbrow soft-core for French television, the sort of thing that Borowczyk was doing at the end of his career, his output from the mid-1970s onward has been unfairly lassoed together and labeled as undifferentiated Eurosleaze, while in fact these films offer flashes of his original compositional eye, hypnotic contrapuntal editing rhythms, and disquieting tonal gifts.
In more than one respect, the opportunity to see the rarely screened work from Borowczyk’s “decline” is the highlight of Film Society’s series. In what is, unfortunately, an increasingly commonplace occurrence, the restorations afforded to Borowczyk’s best-known works (Goto, Blanche, Immoral Tales, The Beast) have not been accompanied by the striking of new 35-mm prints, and they will be shown on DCP. His latter-days filmography, however, will be shown on 35 mm, including The Streetwalker (1976), Behind Convent Walls (1977), his entry in 1978 omnibus film Private Collections, Immoral Women (1979), Lulu (1980), and Love Rites (1987). It is on account of the appearance of such rarities that “Obscure Pleasures” is among the most anticipated series of this year for cinephiles and perverts, two Venn diagram circles that have significant overlap.
TRUE/FALSE, A FOUR-NIGHT, three-day documentary film festival which takes place annually in the central Missouri university town of Columbia, has since its humble beginnings in 2004 acquired a reputation for its curatorial excellence, as well as for the fervid, quasi-mystic loyalty that it inspires in regular attendees—journalists, filmmakers, and most anyone involved in the distribution and exhibition of docs. True/False is scheduled immediately before South by Southwest, where many films and filmmakers decamped to immediately after the party in Columbia ended, and with praise for True/False now so universal, at this point it only remains to wait for it to jump the proverbial shark and begin its downhill tumble, as the festival in Austin did many years before. “I just know it,” one longtime attendee said to me a couple of weeks before True/False, “This is going to be the year when it all goes to hell.”
Doomy prognostications aside, in True/False’s eleventh year, the beat went on. Due to renovations to some regular venues, screenings were spread between eleven locations, including churches and University of Missouri lecture halls repurposed to temporarily serve as movie houses, and the flagship Ragtag theater, specially equipped with 35-mm projection to accommodate archival prints imported for critic-curated Neither/Nor film series. A retro sidebar now in its third year, this year’s Neither/Nor, organized by the Warsaw-born, São Paolo–based writer Ela Bittencourt, was dedicated to Polish cinema from the 1970s to the 1990s, with several filmmakers present in person. Particular standouts in the shorts selection included Andrezej Czarnecki’s Rat Catcher (1986) and the works of Bogdan Dziworski, also cinematographer on Grzegorz Królikiewicz’s Through and Through (1973), an at times exhaustingly virtuoso reenactment of a famous 1930s murder case.
The defining feature of True/False’s programming is the pronounced emphasis on heterodox, formally ambitious documentaries, a broadly encompassing mission statement shared by the likes of FIDMarseilles and Lincoln Center’s newly introduced The Art of the Real. The historical perspective provided by Neither/Nor establishes that work in this vein doesn’t constitute any new, revolutionary development, but is rather rooted in the history of documentary since its very inception—that in fact it’s the doctivist tract and the info-dump op-ed films that are the historical aberrations.
True/False’s catholic definition of “documentary” encompasses films which many programming committees wouldn’t generally categorize as such. Last year’s closing night film, for example, was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, eligible for inclusion for the documentary impulse implicit in its time-spanning conceptual framework. This year, one film on the program which wouldn’t pass the strictest nonfiction scratch test was Benny and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, a staged and scripted film about junkies living around Manhattan’s Riverside Park, based on the memoirs of its ex-addict star, Arielle Holmes. Field Niggas, positioned ever so slightly nearer to meeting the traditional criterion for documentary, issues its dispatch from the margins from uptown—posted on the corner of Lexington and 125th Street, in the heart of Harlem, filmmaker Khalik Allah collects testimony from winos, the philosophical homeless, and self-styled stickup men in the months after Eric Garner died at the hands of NYPD officers in Staten Island. Shooting entirely at night, Allah captures his subjects in ultrasaturated slow-motion portraits, accompanied by the out-of-sync audio of their testimonials, his own booming interlocution making him very much a character in the proceedings.
Another fraternal team were represented at True/False—this was Bill and Turner Ross, then fresh from Sundance with their well-received Western. New Yorkers have since had a chance to see Western as part of New Directors/New Films, in which it has been included by a curious logic known only to that festival’s programmers, being as it is the Rosses’ third film, preceded by 45365 (2009) and Tchoupitoulas (2012), set respectively in their hometown of Sidney, Ohio, and New Orleans. Like the Rosses’ previous films, Western is a sort of ambient portrait of a place, in this case straddling the Rio Grande. The twin cities of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, have largely been spared the epidemic cartel violence which has afflicted other border towns, but Western documents the alienation of these longtime good neighbors through skittish, overcautious policy imposed by Washington. The Rosses’ intimate technique creates a mosaic of offhand impressions, details for which they have a marvelous eye, though the story is loosely tethered to two protagonists: Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster, who speaks Spanish with a native fluency and steadfastly opposes federal closed-border policy, and Martin Wall, a doting father and profane cattleman whose business is in buying beef south of the border and bringing it north.
The central importance of characters to documentary is a point stressed by two new French films screened at the fest. The first, Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard’s rather audaciously titled Rules of the Game, concerns goings-on in a private HR firm subcontracted by the French government to find placement for the unemployed. The movie’s use of “chapter head” intertitles, with coy descriptions of the contents in the fashion of nineteenth-century novels, adds little, but it is blessed with the presence of a genuine star in the form of Lolita, a brusque, sullen teenager whose flagrant disregard for social niceties makes for ripping comedy. Ioanis Nuguet’s Spartacus & Cassandra likewise deals with recalcitrant outsiders being dragged kicking and screaming into the role of citizens of the French Republic, in this case an immigrant family of Romani. The eponymous adolescent siblings, through court order, are gradually separated from their parents—their father is a feckless alcoholic; their mother a madwoman with a regal, ruined face—placed in the care of a circus performer who lives a responsible, sanitized version of the Romani’s real hand-to-mouth bohemianism.
In Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)ERROR, one can view another itinerant lifestyle heretofore hidden from cameras. The film is an “embedded” ride-along with Saeed Torres, an American Muslim and former Black Panther turned FBI antiterror informant, seen here attempting to collect damning evidence against a homegrown suspect in Pittsburgh—it’s a startling exposé of just how unglamorous, morally dicey, and frankly janky our domestic spy game is. Which leads me to the most undefinable and engrossing work that I encountered in Columbia this year, another mission-driven movie: Adirley Queirós’s White Out, Black In. (Set to play New York as part of Art of the Real.) A lo-fi sci-fi piece in which past and future overlap in the liminal zone of dystopian present-day Brasilia, Queirós’s film stars a handful of handicapped middle-aged men, self-sufficient and isolated, yet united by the common past that they share—a memory of the club scene of the mid-1980s, of its music and its dancing, and of the night whose scars they will bear forever, left crippled by a police raid. The survivors’ compulsion to relive their trauma isn’t a matter of self-pity but a crucial act of keeping historical memory alive, providing vital, damning testimony to help a visiting emissary from a tribunal in the far-flung future collect evidence to redress the past injustice. It’s a too-rare instance in which a filmmaker can be found using pop music cues not just to siphon the emotional effect of a song but to signal their function as vessels for collective cultural memory. Here, in this this film with a most fantastic premise, we find a compelling case for the historical necessity of the documentary project.
The True/False Film Festival ran March 5–8 in Columbia, Missouri.
ABEL FERRARA’S WELCOME TO NEW YORK—a thinly veiled recounting of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s infamous May 2011 stay at midtown Manhattan’s Sofitel Hotel in which only the names have been changed—begins with a lengthy disclaimer, and so will this review. The version of the film set for theatrical and VOD release this Friday—and the only one I’ve seen—is not the one that made its world premiere last year at Cannes (where it was conspicuously not part of the festival’s official selection). More to the point, the most recent iteration of the movie—which, ostensibly to secure an R rating, shaves off seventeen of the original’s reportedly more orgy-filled 125 minutes—is the one that Ferrara emphatically doesn’t want you to see. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Ferrara “issued a cease and desist letter [on March 13] addressed to [the movie’s US distributor] IFC Films in New York and to the film’s global distributor Wild Bunch in Paris”; the latter company made the trims to Welcome to New York after the director refused to do so.
With this caveat now out of the way, I’ll say this: Despite the troubling violence done to Ferrara’s movie, it’s difficult to imagine that the original is a vast improvement over the expurgated version. Welcome to New York begins unpromisingly: A fourth-wall-obliterating scene features Gérard Depardieu, who plays the DSK surrogate Devereaux, participating in a staged press conference, where a “journalist” asks, in heavily French-accented English, “Why did you accept to play this part?” The superfluous gambit may be an epigraph of sorts but plays more as a hedge for the actor, who was also the subject of a fairly recent scandal, if one not as sordid as that which brought down the one-time head of the IMF: Depardieu’s stature as beloved pillar of French cinema was tarnished in 2013, the year he became a citizen of Russia, where he enjoys significantly lower taxes—and Putin’s friendship. More wearying still is the opening-credits sequence that follows, a dully ironic montage that features twenty-dollar bills being printed and bundled, and is scored to a lethargic C&W version of “America the Beautiful.”
That bluntness never ceases in Welcome to New York, which, after this prologue, essentially recapitulates the chronology of Strauss-Kahn’s flameout after he was accused of sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a housekeeper at the Sofitel. (Here played by the Carlton, whose branch in Lille, in northern France, was central to the trials that concluded just last month in which DSK and thirteen others were charged with “pimping and abetting prostitution”; a verdict is expected later this spring.) But that isn’t to say that Ferrara, who wrote WTNY’s script with Chris Zois, wields his cudgel wholly unadmirably. Devereaux is consistently presented as a pig: His grunts during a three-way in the bedroom of his VIP suite are indistinguishable from those uttered when, held by the NYPD after the alleged attack on the hotel maid, he must submit to a strip search—the denuding also forcing the viewer to submit to Depardieu’s obscenely massive gut. Though the case against DSK was soon dropped by the prosecution owing to Diallo’s lack of credibility—Ferrara includes obviously Internet-sourced footage of Kenneth P. Thompson, Diallo’s lawyer at the time, stating as much—it’s never in doubt whose side Ferrara takes.
But the director’s bracing fury is weakened during much of the second half of the film, when Simone—the analogue for Anne Sinclair, DSK’s billionaire (now ex-) wife, played by Jacqueline Bisset, who replaced Isabelle Adjani—posts her debauched spouse’s one-million-dollar bail and secures a sixty-thousand-dollar-a-month rental in TriBeCa, where the couple hole up while Devereaux is under house arrest. The ferocious fights between the couple, which, puzzlingly, are carried out mostly in English—even though the UK-born Bisset is fluent in French, a bilingualism that her costar hasn’t quite yet attained—often come perilously close to farce. Depardieu’s untamable vowels (“I don’t need your monay!”) and elision of prepositions (“I jerk on that lady. On her mouth”) are almost as bad as the truisms that Bisset must deliver: “The other side of love isn’t hate—it’s indifference.” In the end, Ferrara’s fact-based film fails to leave the scalding imprint of one that more obliquely treats the Sadean excesses of DSK and other French operators: Claire Denis’s Bastards (2013), which stages its scenes of unspeakable depravity not in high-end resorts but in corncob-strewn barns just outside Paris.
Welcome to New York opens in San Francisco and will be available nationwide on VOD on March 27.
Sam Gorski and Niko Pueringer, Superman with a GoPro, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 2 minutes 53 seconds.
“THE QUESTION is not who are you wearing, but what were you flying?” my neighbor in the press corral floated his drone joke for the nth time.
“Turbo Ace Matrix.”
“Uh, the cameras?”
Yes, of course the cameras—why else would you be one of thirty-five teams of filmmakers standing there on the red carpet, boom mic stuffed in your face, speaking to your fans before a backdrop patterned with the logos of NBC News, DJI Global, something called Yeah Drones, and the six-rotored emblem of the first-ever New York City Drone Film Festival?
“I was just a little kid flying a drone around, you know?” said Randy Scott Slavin, the festival’s manic founder, crossing the step-and-repeat. “The footage was…OK.” Today, according to the DFF program, Slavin is “an award-winning director, aerial cinematographer, and surrealist photographer”—one of the lucky few living out his drone-lofted passion at the cutting edge of dronespace. “It’s like everyone’s got a drone now, man!” he said.
Drones—some more threatening than others—are in the air. John Cale performed a “drone opera” at the Barbican in London. The current Nora Schultz show at Reena Spaulings includes drone-based videos. Fans in Los Angeles celebrated the Kings’ Stanley Cup win by taking down a quadrocopter with championship T-shirts. The list goes on. Hollywood, too, has drones pretty well in its toolkit. Harry Potter, The Expendables 3, and The Wolf of Wall Street all use drone footage. There’s even a drone moment in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. If Kubrick had made The Shining in 2015, instead of a tricycle, Danny would run circles through the hotel by drone.
The parameters here, though—entries to the NYCDFF had to be under five minutes, and more than half shot by drone—mostly exclude high-budget efforts. High-concept efforts, too, were few. If aliens landed at the NYCDFF, they might think the state-of-the-art of drone cinematography was limited to high-end vacation footage—circling around cruise ships anchored in azure bays or across a tropical patio, threading tiki bars and beach umbrellas—or (truly stunning) feats of extreme sport: for example, in Danny MacAskill’s The Ridge, a guy rock-hopping his bicycle on the pinnacles of the Isle of Skye. The sound tracks had two speeds: cheesy dubstep and overwrought opera. The FPV/Proximity/Technical category mostly consisted of people flying their drones really close to things without hitting them. Watch any UAV blooper reel to get an idea of how hard this is—and how much editing went into these crashless entries. Though to his credit, after weaving his rig at high speed around banyan trees and collapsing warehouses, pilot Carlos Puertola ends his clip with a wipeout.
Danny MacAskill, The Ridge, 2014.
Films in the Narrative and X-Factor categories took greater advantage of the drones’ conceptual mobility. A music video by Los Angeles–based band OK Go, directed by Morihiro Harano, definitively outclassed the field—perhaps unsurprising, given that the quartet is known for their avant production. Over the course of an intensely choreographed, long single shot, the drone cameraman pulls back from the band’s routine on gyroscopic stools, through Busby Berkeley–like swirls and worms of umbrella-toting Japanese schoolgirls, up into the lower atmosphere as hundreds of opening, shutting umbrellas form the pixels of a Jumbotron. Then, something truly artistic happens: The camera drifts up, into the clouds, executing a slow pan across the now tiny city, and, with a nod to Antonioni’s The Passenger, the drone loses interest in human drama...
But wait, aren’t drones supposed to be the deathless, lustless, sleepless avatars of our dystopian controllers? The darkest vision by far at the NYCDFF came courtesy of Alex Cornell’s Our Drone Future, in which a bloodthirsty security bot is kept in check by its human operator. (“Am I weapons free?” “Uh, negative…”) When the drone ends up disobeying orders, descending into a warehouse district to investigate a robbery, some kind of cyberpunk vigilante quickly guns it down. Even bearing in mind that the whole festival could be considered pro-drone propaganda, Future seems eager to put our fears to rest—by force, if necessary—as if, when the tool flies amok, we might still have a chance to stop it.
Yet the message was largely upbeat. For every flyover of Chernobyl, there were three life-affirming sweeps across rock faces and a pass by Mont Saint-Michel. Late in the long evening, the festival presented Patrick Meier of UAViators.org—an organization dedicated to promoting the humanitarian potential of drones “before disasters, during disasters, and after disasters.” One slide, for example, showed villagers cobbling together an RC airfoil out of scrap plastic. In another, a drone snaps a photo of the word HELP roughed out in wreckage in a Philippine slum. “What if to solve our problems,” goes the group’s slogan, “we simply have to rise above them?”
Between each group of films, Randy Slavin took the stage to raffle off his sponsors’ pro-grade drones. Walk in liking drones, walk out owning one. Each winner a convert.
“Always use your drone in a positive way,” said Slavin.
Which is slightly more evangelical than what drone maker DJI’s Jon Resnick said shortly before the screening as we stood outside the venerable Directors Guild Theater on Fifty-Seventh Street—a venue that, it was mentioned more than once, lent the night’s proceedings an air of legitimacy.
“We fought it at first,” he said. “We called them UAVs, flying cameras, but nothing caught on. Finally we just said ‘Uncle’ and called them drones.” Still, something chilling about every shot of smiling children running on a crumbling jetty or a clay-colored rooftop after—you know—a drone.
“I mean there are planes,” said Resnick. “There are F-14s and there are Cessnas.” And with any luck, people are smart enough to know the difference.
Under the theater’s red awning, folks formed a line in the bitter cold hoping for spare tickets to the sold-out screening. Behind us, mounted to the building’s black granite cladding, was the Guild’s bronze seal: an eagle, wings spread, talons gripping a banner, either taking flight or landing.
The first New York City Drone Film Festival took place Saturday, March 7, 2015 at the Directors Guild Theater.