“NEW FRONTIER,” the mini–art fair component of the Sundance Film Festival, was headquartered this year in and around the building where casual or well-heeled festivalgoers buy movie tickets. (Industry professionals register for passes and “packages” in advance.) Between the ticket buyers and the not inconsiderable numbers of viewers who are excited by the promise of expanded and interactive media, “New Frontier” drew crowds every day to its primary location—between Park City’s Main Street and its free bus depot.
With the exception of jury members and the rich and famous who have their own cars and drivers, almost everyone at the festival gets from theater to theater via Sundance shuttles or Park City buses, mingling on the latter with skiers. “New Frontier”’s location, therefore, also worked in favor of the installations that at night spilled onto the streets near the stairs to the depot. From there, one could be lured toward James Nares’s Street (2011), projected on a large, freestanding screen surrounded by benches and heat lamps, its extreme slow-motion images of New York in summer rendered surreal by the subfreezing temperatures and patches of ice and snow. A half-block in the opposite direction from the depot put you in front of David Adjaye’s circular, two-thousand-square-foot pavilion designed to house Doug Aitken’s The Source (evolving), an open-ended series of video conversations between Aitken and “pioneers” of various creative disciplines (among them Paolo Soleri, Tilda Swinton, and James Turrell) about art in the contemporary world. As bland and vaguely nauseating as Pablum (a throwback to the early years of Sundance where “granola” was the favored descriptive adjective for far too many of the film selections), the videos were omnipresent at the festival, projected outside and inside the dedicated pavilion and shown as short clips before feature films screened in the theaters. (You can find many of them here and on the New York Times website.)
Much livelier, the Klip Collective celebrated the festival’s thirtieth anniversary with high-speed multiple projections of images from Sundance hits (and some misses). These covered the facade of the Egyptian Theater, the Main Street movie minipalace that used to be the festival’s most important venue and which is now used largely for foreign-language film premieres and repeat screenings. It remains my favorite venue—not too big, as are the Eccles and the Marc theaters, not too small like the screens in the Holiday Village four-plex. The work, awkwardly titled What’s He Projecting in There?, was also used as a teaser for the film screenings, a better choice than excerpts from the lugubrious Aitken interviews.
Inside the “New Frontier” exhibition space, crowded with new media work, viewers queued for a chance to don virtual reality headsets designed by Oculus Rift. The headsets are basically a gaming device that will hit consumer stores this year, but here they were used to best advantage by Chris Milk to put you “virtually” onstage with Beck in concert, as the musician covers David Bowie’s 1977 single “Sound and Vision.” The Oculus fans, hanging out on disco-like settees, were face to face with the most subtle and haunting piece in the exhibition, Marina Zurkow’s Mesocosm (Wink, TX) (2012), a hand-drawn animation of a sinkhole around which insufficiently wary birds, coyotes, butterflies, and occasionally humans circle. The animation, which captures the fragility of the threatened ecosystem, develops and changes over time in response to software-driven data inputs, recombining in condensed, seemingly slowed motion (twenty minutes equal one day; 144 hours, one year). The piece is part of Zurkow’s “Mesocosm” series, which can be seen in full on her website. I doubt that the VR enthusiasts paid the piece much attention, but its canny placement in the room (a decision by “New Frontier” curator Shari Frilot) perhaps allowed it to be absorbed into their collective unconscious.
The thirtieth Sundance Film Festival ran January 16–26 in Park City, Utah.
ON FIRST SEEING Paul Schrader’s Cat People in 1982, my reaction was a wave of almost nauseated confusion: What was Schrader up to with this hodgepodge? Why did these voluptuous, neo-gothic jigsaw pieces sometimes feel like they had been soldered together by a blind monk in shop class? Precisely what the fuck was he thinking? I could barely sort out my own responses to what was thrashing around on-screen. It was as though the director, writer, actors, and designers had set out to make a perfectly respectable shocker, overlaying the sex, horror, patriarchal gore, and New Orleans juju with a nice ironic sheen of self-consciousness. (Cat People was a remake of the 1942 Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton cult talisman, albeit in name only.) But like an artificial entity that develops a twisted mind of its own, the movie had other ideas.
Excitement, disgust, humor, and ennui had all been locked together in this perverse, ungainly ritual of control and release. And so Cat People took on a clanking, lurching, irrational momentum that dragged everyone involved along for a ride down into the unconscious. The signposts of a standard horror film were tangled with a cerebral romanticism that seemed to be trying to wrestle those generic elements into submission, or repurpose them as votive art. Unless secretly, sadomasochistically, Cat People wished to submit to that primitive pulpy grip of myth-smeared mumbo jumbo, the pagan dance of splattered viscera and a beautiful child-woman who turns into a big man-eating cat during the witching hour and/or the sex act.
Much as I might have wanted to dismiss it as an orgy of hopeless cross-purposes, its discomfiting images, performances, sounds, and even imaginary smells stuck in my head the same way the David Bowie/Giorgio Moroder theme from Cat People—aka “Putting out fire with gasoline”—did. You could make fun of it, disdain it, sneer, giggle, throw the reels under the bus of aesthetic propriety: It knew something the viewer didn’t and yet maddeningly refused to disclose exactly what that knowledge consisted of. You could resist it, but the movie would win out eventually: It possessed the luster of sin, Eros as incurable disease.
Watching the movie again, on Blu-ray, in a new edition that beautifully reproduces the film grain as it looked when I originally saw it, I could not resist feeling a jolt of awe. Schrader, even more than his pals Scorsese and De Palma, tried to fully reconcile mainstream commercial work with the rigors of art cinema—in other words, to live the impossible dream. In Cat People, with an intensely visceral yet peculiarly ascetic voyeurism that nods to Vertigo (1958) and Cocteau and Dante’s Beatrice (the zookeeper hero plays a cassette audio translation of La vita nuova while reading the original), Schrader projects a rapturous obsessiveness onto twenty-year-old star Nastassja Kinski. That he was also having an affair with her during shooting will not come as a surprise: Of all the cinematic valentines of directors to an actress, this is among the most absolutely prurient and the most detached. She was at the pinnacle of her run as an international sex symbol. (Everyone who was sentient in the 1980s remembers the infamous Richard Avedon photo of her naked on a concrete floor with a boa constrictor wrapped around her like a bulging ribbon on a Christmas present.) Radiant, super vulnerable, otherworldly—the sex symbol presented as stained-glass icon.
I don’t want to slight the rest of the cast: Annette O’Toole is a marvel as the sensible, all-American woman eventually stalked by Kinki’s cat persona; John Heard does his best playing in essence Schrader’s stand-in (the role’s conception as a Jimmy Stewart–type straight arrow seems to have gotten muddied with the addition of the director’s fixations, or else Schrader felt he was just getting in the way of the camera’s undiluted gaze on his beloved); Ruby Dee is surprisingly credible as the voodoo housekeeper; and Malcolm McDowell’s sourly hammy brother-monster fulfills the film’s horror-cliché quotient. (He’s window dressing to reassure you that this is just a movie, while slowly the picture’s morphing into another beast behind his back.)
Kinski, though, with that amazing innocence-meets-experience bearing, little-girl voice (which could drop an octave into an ominous purr when required), and young-boy haircut/physique, allows Cat People to go into truly unsettling areas. Schrader likes to tell the story of going to a preview screening, sitting behind a couple of teenage girls: “And it came to that scene where he is tying her to the bed…it was shot as a religious ceremony but it was a zoophilic bondage scene, and I remember this girl in front of me going, ‘Oh my God,’ and I turned to [producer Jerry Bruckheimer] and said, ‘I think we went a little too far here.’ ”
Let’s not kid ourselves. The operative word here is not the demurely exotic zoophilic; it is the more old-fashioned, taboo-saturated, terror-stricken pedophilic. Kinski is playing a character who not only is symbolically underage (a virgin, “sheltered” in the extreme, yet coming from a family where incest is practiced, as it were, religiously), but who, in this scene, naked and bound spread-eagle on a bed, looks perhaps fourteen years old. No wonder the girl in the audience gasped: That could be her little sister up there. The zookeeper has stripped his Beatrice bare and found—Lolita. Schrader speaks of how “cool” the movie is, but cool is what Quentin Tarantino achieved when he lovingly appropriated “Putting Out Fire” in Inglourious Basterds. Cat People definitely wades straight into uh-oh, it’s-too-late-to-stop-now territory; smart folks like to bandy around concepts like “transgression,” but leave it to an erstwhile Calvinist to really hit the self-crucifying nail on the head.
The cat nymphet presents her suitor with a stark choice: You can save me or you can have sex with me, but you can’t do both. Being a man as sure of his own righteousness as he is helpless before his own unleashed desires, he seeks to do both—to finesse damnation into some pretzel-shaped approximation of redemption. Which results in a staggering final sequence that is simultaneously romantic, tragic, and genuinely, existentially horrifying. If there is a kind of wondrous buried joke here, it is that the critic turned director Schrader took his mentor-cum-adversary-cum-friend Pauline Kael’s idea of movie “trash” and managed to use it as a springboard to the most purely transcendental ending in all his movies.
Cat People is now available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory.
Chantal Akerman, Un Jour Pina m’a demandé (One Day Pina Asked..., 1983), color, sound, 57 minutes.
A BEAT, and then, of course: Who better to make a documentary about Pina Bausch than Chantal Akerman? Her 1976 classic Jeanne Dielman is not just a film but a choreography of the everyday, made manic through the stringency of its rehearsal. Screening at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the long-running “Dance on Camera” series, Akerman’s 1983 Un Jour Pina m’a demandé (released in the US as One Day Pina Asked...), follows Bausch’s Wuppertal, Germany–based troupe as they bring their compound of dance and theater, Tanztheater, to venues in Milan, Venice, and Avignon, France. The two make a fortuitous couple, their collaboration a pared instance of the art-and-dance world crossovers that epitomized New York’s Judson moment of two decades prior.
Bausch is typically figured as an expressionist, heir to the modernist tradition of Ausdruckstanz (literally, “dance of expression”) pioneered by Rudolf von Laban on the cusp of World War I. Analogizing Bausch to Judson might thus seem strained, as Laban’s variety of angular, operatic indulgence sits poorly with the “ordinary” affect often attributed to Judson. Yet the strength of Akerman’s treatment is to reveal how tenuous this binarization is: how Ausdruckstanz’s premium on involvement need not preclude Judson’s particular mode of distancing. Captured by cinematographer Babette Mangolte, a frequent Akerman collaborator and key documenter of New York’s downtown dance scene, Bausch’s work reads as equally about emotion—about “moving or being moved,” to invert Yvonne Rainer’s famous proscription—and its blockage: ineffability, estrangement, and the occlusion produced by cliché. Thus positioned, Bausch’s project both shadows and challenges humanism, comprising works at once “about a kind of humanity” (in Bausch’s words) and critical of humanism’s ideal of unfettered self-expressivity, of the self fully transparent to itself.
Consider one of the film’s first shots: a close-up on a female dancer’s face, its contours sharpened by a spotlight. Fixed at a downward diagonal, her eyes gaze inward as her hands slide slowly from her forehead to her cheeks, stretching her skin like so much putty as they descend. In the background, a recording of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” plays, the singer’s clotted tremor suffusing the scene with vague melancholy. Later, in a fragment from Nelken (Carnations), a man dressed in a backless evening gown excerpts ballet’s repertoire of forms in hysteric succession. “Là! Là! Là! Là! Là!” he intones as he executes jétés en tournant, ending the sequence with a sweep of the arms and an exasperated scream. “What else do you want to see? What do I have to show you now?” he entreats in French.
Bausch’s choreography comes as a critique of such displays of balletic virtuosity and their compulsion to pictorialize: to interrupt movement with moments of suspension, wherein the dancer’s body is offered, frontal and stilled, to the observer’s eye. The body as presented to the audience—its status as “a thing to be viewed,” to borrow a phrase from art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty—is here problematized. In Kontakthof, the German term for a place where prostitutes pick up clients, a mass of men in suits surround a woman, her eyes closed and her face heavily powdered. They proceed to perform a litany of stock gestures, of the sort which one expects from a grandmother or schoolyard crush: They tussle her hair, pinch her cheeks, tickle her ears, nuzzle her stomach, flick her skin. Iterated at an increasing clip, their caresses devolve into an assault, and the woman, limp limbed, grows more and more distraught.
Such slides of the mundane into the manic are an Akerman specialty. Her camera renders the scene in a single shot trained on the female victim’s face. Such focused framing is typical of Akerman’s approach. While recent attempts to document Bausch’s choreography indulge an impulse to visualize in full—Wim Wenders’s 2011 Pina being a case in point—Akerman’s effort resists the same. Selections from Walzer (Waltzes), Nelken, and 1980 gesture toward a multiplicity of onstage actions while withholding the whole from vision. A woman devours, then spits out an apple; a man extends and retracts a cigarette from a waiting female mouth; a line of seated dancers cross and uncross their legs in a sendup of the revue’s synchronized spectacle. In each instance, our view is partial. Full disclosure is far from the point.
Denying its viewer the idealized vantage of Wenders’s sinuous tracking shots, Un Jour reproduces the pull between meaning and its impasse that structures Bausch’s dances. Focused under Akerman’s lens, Bausch’s oeuvre resolves as a matter of the quotidian, pathologized, its order deranged not through an absence but an acceleration of some underlying logic: something, in other words, like the readymade subject of an Akerman film.
The 42nd “Dance on Camera” festival is copresented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Dance Films Association and runs January 31–February 4 at the Walter Reade Theater. Akerman’s Un Jour Pina m’a demandé (One Day Pina Asked...) screens Saturday, February 1, at 11 AM.
Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson, Charlie Victor Romeo, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 80 minutes.
IN 1965, Susan Sontag wrote of the perverse appeal of the science fiction film, which allows viewers to “participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death.” In the entirely fact-based Charlie Victor Romeo, whose script consists solely of transcripts of black-box recordings from six aviation disasters, the audience member vicariously experiences the horror of the final minutes before catastrophe.
A collaboration between Collective: Unconscious, which originated the stage play of the same name in 1999, and 3LD Art & Technology Center, where the movie was shot (to little heightened effect) in 3-D in front of a live audience in August 2012, Charlie Victor Romeo is most compelling as a showcase for the incongruous effect of hearing jargon deployed in dire situations. The title itself—the military phonetic-alphabet rendering of CVR, an acronym for “cockpit voice recorder”—immediately suggests words as detached, bureaucratic code. Set in the narrow confines of the flight deck, with fleeting scenes of air-traffic controllers (rendered as extreme close-ups of mouths speaking impassively into microphones) interspersed, this filmed documentary theater unfolds as a torrent of words at once terrifyingly impenetrable and stupefyingly banal.
The crew on Charlie Victor Romeo’s six technically bedeviled flights—which occurred between 1985 and 1995, all but one on a commercial airline—are performed by six actors (four men, two women), who rotate playing pilot, copilot, flight attendant, flight engineer, etc. The tempo and duration of each scenario varies, yet all begin and end the same way: slides of the aircraft and its particulars, including make and model name and number of crew and passengers onboard as introduction; a concluding slide with the number of injuries and/or fatalities and the official cause of accident. This cluster of cold, hard data is matched by the impersonal-sounding questions, declarations, and commands uttered, in differing levels of volume and panic, by the crew as equipment horribly malfunctions: “You want flaps fifteen?,” “Will you hit the quick dump?,” “It’s fictitious! It’s fictitious!,” “We have no controllability at all,” “Hold it down, buddy, hold it down.”
The press materials for Charlie Victor Romeo note that “the aviation community embraced the production, and the Pentagon has used it for pilot training.” Yet though I don’t consider myself an aerophobe, CVR seems to suggest, intentionally or not, just how unnatural the whole enterprise of flying is—or, at the very least, how estranging and very rarely comforting the practices and rites of its personnel are. Witnessing CVR’s bizarre cockpit exchanges about averting calamity reminded me of the uneasy feeling I’ve had when, sitting in the back of a plane, I’ve overheard the downtime chitchat of flight attendants, conversations that have made me profoundly uneasy because of how strenuously they seem to be about nothing. It is this void of meaning that unpleasantly reminds me of the void I am traveling through at considerable altitude, puncturing my willing suspension of disbelief of my own midair suspension.
Charlie Victor Romeo plays at Film Forum in New York January 29–February 11.
RINGER (1965) one of German artist Peter Roehr’s final films, spotlights a pair of jockstrapped wrestlers locked in an acrobatic embrace. Posed in front of a heady nowhere of puffy clouds and high-density sky, one figure slips off the other and slams slowly toward the frame’s bottom—then again, and again, mechanically, eleven times. William E. Jones departs from this piece—the only in Roehr’s oeuvre with homoerotic overtones, among dozens of traffic jams, gas stations, and female hair models—for his own video Film Montages (For Peter Roehr), 2006, imagining a kind of alternate continuation of Roehr’s career, cut short by cancer, which would have embraced the “physique” sexuality that coded midcentury gay pornography.
Content didn’t matter to Roehr, except as material for relentless repetition—yet here he and Jones part ways. Film Montages compiles—repeating in a structuralist manner four, six, or eight times—clips from vintage gay porn films, stressing the same charged bodily contact, yet withholding, relentlessly, four, six, or eight times, the money shot. A bondage sequence in a warehouse repeats a pan down a man’s torso, a cut to a second man chained to a crate, then back to the first man zipping up his jeans and then buttoning closed the mouth of the bound man’s mask. Eight times each. In Roehr, a then-unknown young artist deeply invested in pushing mathematical precision to its logical conclusion, Jones finds the pleasures of modernism’s sadistic repetitions.
Film Montages opens, though, with a throbbing Roehr homage of a different sort. The white holes of streetlights glide by above a freeway; a 1970s synth noir sound track loops four times into a sludgy beat; pornography, in this moment, is an art form. This stark peripheral image, like those Roehr drew from 1960s television advertisements, exerts its own poetry on the absent sex, like the absent products, that were the “point” of both artists’ source films. There’s pleasure, Jones argues, in watching, again, then again, the awkwardness of what you’re not supposed to notice: men draped across a couch, boots on a hardwood floor. Particularly charmed is a tangle of nude bodies in a boxcar; the faces are bare of the perfunctory intensity that has come to characterize the genre, and instead the men are playful, played-with, almost innocent.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, between screenings of Jones’s Film Montages and Roehr’s 1965 Film-Montagen on January 9, Jones read two letters. “March 15, 2013. Dear Peter,” begins the first. Jones addresses Roehr with a “work of fiction,” partly as biographer, partly to, as he writes, “figure out why you have such a hold on my imagination.” The letter laces Jones’s infatuation with certain romantic details—such as how a close friend of Roehr’s, the sculptor Charlotte Posenenske, gave up art in 1968 in favor of more direct social engagement; or that Roehr himself stopped making work in 1967, a year before his death, to run a head shop with his lover, the gallerist Paul Maenz. “Your idealism remains intact,” writes Jones, “because the dead cannot accumulate personal wealth.” Again, Jones finds most endearing, most powerful, those moments surrounding the supposed “core” of the work at hand; his personal address punctures an art context with real feeling. The second letter is archival, from Roehr to Maenz. Roehr touches on Sol LeWitt, New York, his illness, their meeting in a mailroom, with an optimism that turns art into something unfamiliar—something like love. Jones’s presentation, continuing a project begun in 1993, bends his excavation of Roehr’s brief life into an autobiographical fragment: Jones’s entanglement with his young, dead, idealized subject, four…six…eight times.
Bob Fosse, All That Jazz, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 123 minutes. Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider).
BY THE 1970S, the movie musical was almost dead and so was Bob Fosse. The ticker of the prodigiously talented choreographer, dancer, director, screenwriter, and actor, then forty-seven, was under severe strain in 1974, the result of an unyielding, self-imposed, toxic-substance-fueled work schedule: He was both editing Lenny, his Lenny Bruce biopic, and beginning preparations for Chicago, all the while gobbling pills and smoking obscene numbers of cigarettes. From Fosse’s near-death experience in the fall of that year—while still recovering from open-heart surgery, he had a heart attack—was born the largely autobiographical All That Jazz, which he directed, cowrote (with Robert Alan Aurthur, who actually did die before the film’s premiere), and choreographed.
This phenomenal 1979 film, a work of “depressive exhilaration,” in the astute words of Sam Wasson, author of the excellent, recently published biography Fosse, was the director’s third (and final) Hollywood musical, following Sweet Charity (1969), an adaptation of Fosse’s 1966 stage production of the same name, and Cabaret (1972). All three movies are obsidian prisms reflecting the darker, seamier aspects of show business, informed by the desperate ambience that Fosse observed first-hand as a teenage dancer in the burlesque halls of his native Chicago. Those formative, often scarring years as an entertainer are re-presented in All That Jazz, in which Fosse’s self-regard is no match for his self-excoriation.
Fosse’s surrogate, Joe Gideon, is played by a sexy, vulpine, Vandyked Roy Scheider, clad all in black and never without a ciggie between his lips, whether in the shower or a hospital bed. Joe’s day begins with varying doses of Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, and Visine, this morning ritual accompanied by a cassette tape of Vivaldi and concluding with a jazz-handsy, though weary, exhortation into the bathroom mirror: “It’s showtime, folks.”
Always on, even during attacks of angina, Joe has an enormous show to orchestrate, NY to LA, a transparent Chicago analogue. Lasting about six minutes, the cattle-call audition for this production, nondiegetically scored to George Benson’s funky cover of “On Broadway,” highlights not only Fosse’s tremendous skills in arranging and filming bodies—whether en masse or solo—in motion but also his eagerness to reveal, via Joe, his own unseemly business practices. “Victoria Porter—is this your home number?” he asks one NY to LA hopeful, who will make an appearance in his bed later that night.
Fosse is not above settling scores: The moneymen behind NY to LA are a particularly unimaginative, mercenary lot, and the character Lucas Sergeant (John Lithgow), partially inspired by Fosse’s archrival, A Chorus Line’s Michael Bennett, is humiliated in a restaurant. But he saves his most stinging disdain for his own incorrigible philandering. His infidelities ended both his marriage to Gwen Verdon, here recast as Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer), though she, in real life as in the film, remained his muse and most important collaborator, and his relationship with another key lover/dancer, Ann Reinking—who, as Katie Jagger, essentially plays herself in All That Jazz. (According to Wasson, Fosse made her audition for the part.) “At least I won’t have to lie to you anymore,” Joe tells Audrey in the final number, “Bye Bye Life,” before the EKG flatlines. This spectacular, morbid scene, the very epitome of “depressive exhilaration,” was a dress rehearsal of sorts: Eight years later, Fosse, with Verdon at his side, died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., where he was mounting a revival of Sweet Charity.
All That Jazz screens January 24 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens as part of the series “See It Big! Musicals.”