Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 118 minutes.
FORCE MAJEURE, the Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s fourth feature, was along with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida one of 2014’s handful of breakout foreign art-house successes. They are both movies whose qualities are on the surface self-evident, and Östlund’s puts its themes and roiling inner turmoil before a viewer with crystalline clarity. Force Majeure begins with a family on a ski holiday posing as a perfect unit for a photographer, and proceeds to reveal them as anything but, as their experience of a controlled physical avalanche induces an uncontrolled emotional one.
Force Majeure is a concise, relatively accessible arrangement of the same component themes which Östlund has been reworking for years now, a fact attested to by Film Society of Lincoln Center’s overview of his brief filmography. In his late teens and early twenties, Östlund distinguished himself with skiing videos, two of which, Free Radicals (1997) and Free Radicals 2 (1998), will play FSLC. Setting footage of headlong, sheer downhill dives to an adrenaline-pumping punk sound track, the Free Radicals tapes make foolhardy, death-defying heroes of his subjects, and heroism—or, more often, its failure to appear in high-pressure situations—will be the topic that Östlund returns to time and again.
A stint at the University of Gothenburg seems to have tamped down the joyousness evident in his ski videos, and Östlund emerged from school with The Guitar Mongoloid (2004), a collection of vignettes set on the grotty fringes of the city featuring nonprofessional performers held in framings that are unobtrusive to the point of seeming surreptitious. Vandalism and other antisocial behavior runs through the film, contextualized by scenes of boys egging one another on, though the real instigator is offscreen—the camera. Peer pressure is also the subject of Östlund’s intriguingly titled 2005 short Autobiographical Scene Number 6882, which enacts a double-dog-dare scenario playing on the old “If everyone else jumped off a bridge…” saying. By 2008’s sophomore effort, Involuntary, Östlund’s clinical behaviorist style is fully formed. The film is a succession of discreet fishbowl compositions in which group dynamics are observable in several disparate, intercut scenarios, connected only thematically: the misadventures of two sexually precocious tween girlfriends; a family gathering at which the patriarch, injured by a firework, refuses medical attention; a new teacher cold-shouldered by colleagues after standing up for a disruptive student.
The proximity between Östlund’s “detached” approach and surveillance camera mise-en-scčne is made clear in his Golden Bear–winning 2009 short Incident by a Bank. It reenacts a failed bank robbery which occurred in Stockholm in 2006, filmed in a single ten-minute shot, panning and scanning from a fixed position above street level, observing the reactions of passersby and participants. It’s the immediate precedent for the opening shot of Play (2011), which looks out over the courtyard of a Gothenburg mall, where five black adolescents are preparing to ply a cell phone away from some younger white boys. It’s a scam that they’ve evidently practiced many times before, drawing on good cop/bad cop head games, anxiety about class and race, and old-fashioned physical intimidation.
As in Force Majeure, which depicts the craven loss and ceremonial recovery of manhood, Play is concerned with the process of constructing and maintaining roles. The additional element of race in this earlier film makes it an altogether chewier piece of work, Östlund’s most interesting to date, depicting his countrymen as hidebound by manners and liberal conscientiousness, reserved to the point of being incapacitated by “Don’t get involved” skittishness. Ever-so-slightly softening the austerity of Play, the popular success of Force Majeure makes it an undeniable benchmark for Östlund, though I wonder where he can go next—a behaviorist whose “studies” are foregone conclusions can only have so many breakthroughs.
IN THE SUMMER OF 2013, the Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh took a dangerous journey from the rebel-held city of Douma to his hometown of Raqqa, now the headquarters of the so-called Islamic State, across the border to southern Turkey and on to Istanbul. One of the foremost intellectuals of his generation and widely considered the sage of the Syrian revolution (hakim al-thawra), Haj Saleh had been in hiding for two years. When he won a Prince Claus Award in 2012, he delivered his acceptance speech—an eloquent response to the twinned questions: why revolt and why write—from an undisclosed location in Damascus. “I am trying to pay back the debt I owe to the books I read in prison,” he said.
Haj Saleh’s texts on criminality, corruption, and the meaning of real freedom speak to the ability of books to bring history, experience, and imagination to the remotest corners of a repressive state. In 1980, when Haj Saleh was twenty and studying medicine in Aleppo, he was arrested for being a young communist and imprisoned for sixteen years. Released in 1996, he was never allowed to apply for a passport. In 2004, he was barred from leaving the country (until then, he had been able to enter Lebanon and spend time in Beirut). Now living in exile, Haj Saleh is one of the founding members of Hamisch (Arabic for margin or fringe), a new initiative in Istanbul using art, film, and literature—among other cultural effects—to debate the finer points of living an active, magnanimous political life.
Yassin al Haj Saleh accepts the 2012 Prince Claus Award.
Our Terrible Country, by Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi, tells the tale of Haj Saleh’s dramatic escape from Syria. The film, which won the grand prize at FIDMarseille last summer and is now part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2015, pieces together a rueful portrait of a once-hopeful uprising, which began with nonviolent demands for reform and regime change before devolving into a grotesque, mercenary, multifactional civil war. It captures the moment when a man of words and ideas is propelled into a series of life-changing actions and events. And it offers a terrible early glimpse of the destruction wrought by four years of barrel bombs, gas attacks, and jihadi madness, all seen in the slow, panning shots of wrecked apartment blocks, a mangled chandelier, and a children’s swing set, blasted away.
Homsi, a photojournalist who fought for a time with the Free Syrian Army, catches up with Haj Saleh, on the run, and accompanies him into an exile he emphatically does not want. (“I wanted to stay not because my work was indispensable,” Haj Saleh says, “but rather because this is my place, and it is indispensable to me.”) Atassi, a documentary filmmaker known for his work on the elder Syrian activist Riad al-Turk and the Egyptian religious scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, joins them in Raqqa. Soon after Atassi asks him he’s ever killed anyone (he hasn’t), Homsi makes the sudden, reckless decision to turn back and return to Douma. Along the way, he is kidnapped by ISIS. A month later, he is freed, makes his way to Istanbul, and finds Haj Saleh and Atassi on Taksim Square. Together they retire to a teahouse, where they drink and tell stories and cry.
Epic in more ways than one, Our Terrible Country borrows as much from the poetic conventions of ancient Greece as from the ease and ubiquity of smart phones, selfies, and Skype. A prologue drops in on a battle unfolding in the heart of Ghouta, a wasted landscape, emptied of inhabitants, where only snipers remain. Homsi carries a gun, then a camera. A battalion of fighters poses, as if for a portrait, but instead of gathering, pausing, and dispersing, one of them begins narrating the story of the battle just passed, a Homeric account for the digital age.
In Douma, Haj Saleh plays a round of indoor badminton, remarks on the life-and-death proximity of a morgue and a vegetable garden, and tries, with limited success, to organize a municipal cleanup campaign: “Collect the rubbish voluntarily and I swear you’ll gain legitimacy,” he says to a group of listless young men. When Homsi asks him: “Is this the freedom you want?” Haj Saleh replies: “If we were free to choose, then no. I would have preferred a more chic and less costly freedom. However, it seems this is the price we’re forced to pay.”
Haj Saleh was smuggled from Damascus into Ghouta through a network of tunnels. When the next escape route opens, we see him fleeing on foot, in the back of one truck, and in the cab of another. In the extreme heat of August, we see him sleeping under a tarp pinned down by rocks to an unrelenting desert. We see him alone, among fighters, in the dark, without water, ground down, and exhausted.
In Raqqa, Haj Saleh spends two and a half months in hiding. ISIS has taken two of his brothers. “Daesh,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for the group. “A fitting name for a monster from one of the tales we were told as children.” Across the border in Turkey, he seeks out a friend, who tells him that compared with their counterparts in Eastern Europe, Syrian intellectuals have no place in their revolution. “We are outside the movement,” the friend says. Using his brother’s passport, Haj Saleh takes a short flight to Istanbul. He’s never been on an airplane before.
Extreme topicality is a potential liability. The temptation to call Our Terrible Country an important document more readily than an amazing film is symptomatic of that, faint praise holding a place for the critique of poor form or impatient storytelling. This is a common enough conundrum for contemporary art, where there is often the worry that war-torn material—all bombed-out, tragic, and besieged—will bulldoze over the aesthetic riddles and critical faculties that exist in a work to make it art, or not. Homsi and Atassi have an interview style that at times veers toward bullying and badgering. Major twists in the plot are mentioned in passing with little to no explanation. One has to be a very close observer of Syrian affairs to grasp the significance of certain details. Despite making terrific use of the fighters’ videos and Haj Saleh’s intricate voice-over, Atassi blurts out the premise of his film—to portray the vulnerabilities and contradictions of a man better known as a thinker—but never really pulls together the strands of the incredible story he is holding in his hands.
And there is something uneasy, maybe even undignified, about seeing a man of Haj Saleh’s stature in pain, in tears, in his underwear. He’s the Vaclav Havel of Syria, except that where the dissident Czech playwright became the respected president of a democratic republic, in Our Terrible Country, Haj Saleh is left to quibble over a bill in a café run by refugees, arguing with a man deranged by grief and debt over the price of a plate of broad beans. When a voice offscreen says: “When [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad goes, everything will be fine,” the man growls in reply: “Assad is merely an illusion. The disaster is inside us.”
Perhaps what’s happening in Syria, and to Syria, with more than 200,000 dead and the country in ruins, is too devastating to be squeezed into a coherent storyline. Our Terrible Country is flawed, fractured, volatile, overwhelming, and unresolved because Syria today is all of those things. The film shows the phases of Syria’s revolution—keyed to the stages of Haj Saleh’s journey—and raises crucial questions about authorship, cinema, art, the secular left, and the failure of democracy movements in the Middle East’s most despotic states. It delves into the dilemmas of a writer, his relationship to a place, and his role in a conflict that is much larger and harder than his work. Most critically, the film illuminates how sidelined intellectuals have become, not only in Syria but throughout the Arab world. Perhaps it does so harshly so that we, as viewers, might do something about that fact.
The problem with Our Terrible Country is that it offers so little context. In Douma, Haj Saleh was working alongside his wife, Samira Khalil, and a colleague, Razan Zaitouneh, both of whom are major figures of the Syrian opposition. We learn only from a postscript that they disappeared before the film was complete, presumably kidnapped by Islamic militants. A year later, they are still missing. Atassi tells Haj Saleh that his ideas are known; they can be found in his books. But in fact Haj Saleh is less known than he should be. Few of his books have been translated into English. None are widely available. Looking back at Syria, Haj Saleh is himself bewildered by “the extremely modest place for culture in the lives of the people. There is no culture,” he says. “There are no books.”
In Istanbul, a youngster with wild curls and a Hand of Fatima pendant around her neck says of Haj Saleh’s exile: “Isn’t this a form of surrender?” He is baffled but clearly impressed. He blusters through a response about the priorities of culture, literature, and knowledge. She cuts him off. “You told us, anyone over fifty, don’t listen to what they say about the revolution.” He laughs. He smiles. He is fifty-four. “Apart from me,” he says.
Our Terrible Country plays Saturday, January 17 at 7 PM at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.
THERE’S PLENTY OF GENUINELY UNUSUAL FARE at this year’s First Look series at the Museum of the Moving Image. In addition to new works by American stalwarts Jon Jost and Ken Jacobs (whose 3-D venture The Guests is not to be missed) and the final film of the formidable Russian filmmaker Aleksei German, the series, as it has in the past, will premiere a number of offbeat narratives and documentaries.
Take Alone with My Horse in the Snow, Axel Bogousslavsky (France, 2014), Alexandre Barry’s singular portrait of a poet, actor, and artist who once collaborated with Marguerite Duras but who now lives like a hermit in a forest. Even ritual tasks to sustain existence seem preternatural, as does his drawing and music. Perhaps in response to an offscreen question about his choices, he exclaims that he does not care to be understoodthings that are understood no longer existbetter to remain mysterious and unknown. So eerily intense and yet recessive is the man and so self-effacing the film’s director that it seems we are witness to an unmediated vision with nary a camera on site.
Equally eccentric but existing on the impoverished margins of society, Charlie, the protagonist of Charlie’s Country (Australia), is an aged aborigine living in a predominantly white community, far from the bush country where he was born. Dependent on public aid, he lives in a hovel, roams the countryside, and hobnobs with others like him, protesting mildly against laws that inhibit his old habits. Eventually, he loses his cool, attacks a police car, goes to prison, and in the endinspired by memories of performing for the Queen at the opening of the Opera House decades earlieragrees to teach aborigine children to dance. The film’s tone and pace suit Charlie’s demeanor, which, as persuasively and unpredictably conveyed by David Gulpilil, keeps it from falling into mere sermonizing.
Denis Côté’s ironically titled Joy of Man’s Desiring (Canada) is a subtly corrosive gaze at the soul-defeating nature of labor, which is personified here as a seductive woman (Emilie Sigouin) who promises everything in exchange for devotion, only to turn into a vengeful ogress if she is not efficiently served. The exchanges among factory workers bear out the underlying malaise of those locked into a bargain that requires they keep up the perennial dance between bosses and labor lest they risk expulsion.
Sanaz Azari’s I for Iran (Belgium) and Marie Voignier’s International Tourism (France) are documents about countries whose revolutions have led to tyrannical regimes. In the former, set in Brussels, the format is simple: A teacher (played by actor Behrouz Majidi) stands before a blackboard and instructs director Azari (who remains offscreen) in Persian, her mother tongue, using an illustrated textbook dating from the Islamic revolution. As they proceed, it becomes clear how and why the definitions of certain words were dictated by cultural and religious principles. The charm of the instructor and the quiet but determined efforts of the “student” create an exchange that is both moving and illuminating.
Voices and language undergo a transformation in International Tourism, in which the disastrous consequences of the communist revolution in North Korea are embedded in the very form of the film. Tourists are led across squares, around monuments, and into museums and film studios by guides whose lips move but whose voices we never hear. “The official line,” thus suppressed, is replaced by paraphrased generalities in intertitles. A wall of texts goes untranslated as a title innocuously summarizes, “the text and diagrams are painted by hand.” To preserve the controlling myths of the regime, photographs are replaced by garish paintings illustrating the atrocities of the prerevolutionary state. Presidential portraits are not offered to visitors, but we are told that a huge painting of “the home where Kim II-sung was born is a tourist site.” In a film studio, actors dub approved dialogue for banal imitations of Hollywood melodramas—the same unctuous schmaltz produced by the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. In effect, Voignier has turned the censoring propaganda machine against itself, silencing its all-encompassing lies while retaining a resonant sound ambience that renders the tourist guides robotic mutes.
Aleksei German, Hard to Be a God, 2014, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 170 minutes.
Before We Go (Jorge Leon, Belgium), a documentary-like meditation on imminent death, follows three elderly people as they interact with younger dancers and singers of the Theatre Royale de Monnale in Brussels, a company, we assume, to which they once belonged. Ghostly reminders of age and the inevitable infirmities of the body, they move about, observe rehearsals, examine props, and even get a chance to dance with those still in their prime. Dialogue is minimal and would only overdo what is enacted in the piece’s pantomimic encounters and incidental touches: An HIV-positive man listens to a mordant account of an old colleague’s final moments in a hospital bed; one old man weaves throughout the building with a young figure dressed as death; a lovely rendition of Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament underlines the point.
A quite different focus on death is found in Jon Jost’s Coming to Terms, as a terminally ill old man (played by the filmmaker James Benning) asks the largely estranged members of his family, two ex-wives and two sons—one gay and one a Jesus freak—to help him die before unbearable pain sets in. They do so and debate the consequences afterward. Jost, who has conjured a number of unusual visions of Americana since the 1970s, manifests the same straightforward, unadorned cinematic style—static shots, long takes, no camera movement—alternating impressive vistas of the Montana landscape with intimate, though dissociatively framed and edited, encounters between mothers and sons. All of this is characterized by Jost’s predilection for deafening silence that allows the natural world to speak and suits the subject all too well. However stark and somber the film seems, one discerns an underlying bleak wit in the filmmaker’s farewell to a world he no longer recognizes and seems somewhat relieved to depart. As Benning, close in age and cut from the same cloth as his director, dissolves into the landscape near the end, a doubly resonant experience comes to a close in this paean to the American pastoral filmmaking tradition.
Yet another, wildly different, take on willed death, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is liberally based on a double suicide pact between the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, a bourgeois housewife of the early 1800s. A stately period piece, the film is laced with subtle wit and a slightly sardonic tone befitting the dementedness of its premise. Far from a biopic, its absurdly one-note Kleist, obsessed with finding a woman willing to die with him, is a convenient vessel to explode Romantic myths. When his cousin opts out, he convinces poor Henriette, who, to avoid a painful death from a tumor diagnosed (incorrectly, it turns out) by the medical wise men of the day takes Heinrich up on his offer, in a sense killing two birds with one stone. Too passive, and far too hesitant to voice last-minute doubt brought on by a cure her husband learns of, she is about to speak when Heinrich’s pistol blows her away (the staging and editing of which is either lifted from or an allusion to the arranged suicide in Bresson’s 1977 The Devil, Probably). With its abundance of self-absorbed male characters of varying patriarchal stripes, the film could have been a unidimensional feminist tract, but Hausner, whose Lourdes (2009) was a similar blend of spiritual mystery and intelligent skepticism, has created another haunting work of labile, ambiguous beauty.
There’s no mistaking that Aleksei German, director of Hard to Be a God, is the same man who made Khrustalyov, My Car!, one of the masterpieces of the 1990s. Both films share a teeming, frenetic, often grotesque mise-en-scčne, peppered with sly looks at the camera and allegorical political bite. At once in-your-face and close to unfathomable, the new film is more wild vision than coherent narrative. A narrator tells us in the first minute that the cluttered snow scene in front of us is not the Earth but another planet, eight hundred years behind ours. I’ll take his word for it. But, given the twelfth-century “you are there,” mud-and-rain-riddled look of the next 170 minutes, he could simply be joking. The film wallows in such reeking physicality that it’s a wonder we don’t smell every defecation, fart, urination, bloodletting, and intestinal spill that generously fills every frame. We might think we’re in Bruegel territory, but the canvas teeters at times toward a Bosch-like image of hell. Through it all, we glimpse political figures, armies, religious leaders, all indistinguishable from your average peasant, whose functions seem interchangeable and nebulous. Last but not least is God—or rather the son of God, or rather a strong, good-looking dude named Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) who doubles as God—dispensing swift justice, and sometimes what seems the opposite, and who in the end sits wearily with his feet in a pond, declaring that everything that happens is really man’s fault, because it’s tough to be a God. It’s a bizarre, exasperating, exhausting experience of strenuously earned reward, and I can’t wait to see it again.
Toby Ashraf and Telemachos Alexiou at a screening of Ebo Hill's Bonking Berlin Bastards, 2001.
ONE OF THE TAWDRIER ENTRIES on the schedule of this year’s inaugural Berlin Art Film Festival was a screening of Ebo Hill’s Bonking Berlin Bastards, with live dubbing by a duo (critic-programmer Toby Ashraf and filmmaker Telemachos Alexiou) calling itself “White Boys in Crisis.” In the universe of gay porn, a strong argument could be made for Bonking Berlin Bastards’s status as a millennial cult classic. When it came out in 2001, it put Berlin on the map for gay sex tourism and endowed the city with a reputation as a place where you could do nearly anything and get away with it—a bit like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels for the interwar gays, only Bonking aimed at Gen-Y sluts. And they came in droves—or buckets, depending on your perspective. Set to a hard techno sound track, the tattooed, mohawked, dick-pierced cast of Bonking Berlin Bastards engage in the kinkiest shenanigans right out in public—who needs a bed when you have a rooftop, a bridge, or a couch in some filthy sex club? Uncompromising in many ways, Bonking isn’t to everyone’s taste; one of the film’s earliest scenes serves as a warning for the fun to come, as the Kreuzberg punk protagonist rips a piercing out of his ear and proceeds to jerk off while bleeding all over himself.
The evening’s “expanded cinema” program kicked off with the world premiere of Please Relax Now, a short by Berlin favorite Vika Kirchenbauer’s, in which the filmmaker’s on-screen likeness coaches the audience through an in-cinema masturbation session while getting off herself. Okay, so it was all a bit more tongue-in-cheek than tool-in-hand, though most Berlin denizens are oversexed as it is and probably exhausted by the early winter. Once it gets to be that time of year, there is very little else to do. Except drink.
Thankfully, Ashraf was clever enough to secure the sponsorship of Partisan vodka. As the Bonking began, trays of free shots made their way around the cinema, and as the evening progressed, all pretensions to decorum were abandoned in favor of a classic camaraderie (and a touch of saliva swoppery), as the audience began swigging from full bottles being passed back and forth.
To begin, Ashraf introduced Jürgen Brüning, who was one of the founders of Cazzo, the gay porn company that produced the film. In the midst of the introduction, two assistants appeared, who commenced removing articles of Ashraf and Alexiu’s clothing while the former continued chatting away, until in the end both were in their undies. Brüning, who is perhaps best known as Bruce La Bruce’s producer, left Cazzo midway through the production to start a rival porn company. Understandably, then, he was somewhat ambivalent about the night. “I just want to say that I have very mixed feelings about this, because I think the film is a masterpiece and doesn’t need any ‘live dubbing,’ ” Brüning concluded, before taking his seat in the audience. And I guess he wasn’t lying, since he vacated it less than halfway through the performance.
Those who remained were treated to something that resembled a cross between a happening, a makeshift orgy, an early Iggy Pop show, and an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The White Boys crawled over the cinema seats, their dubbing—occasionally more like a metacommentary on the on-screen action—resonated throughout the cinema on top of those sleazy late-’90s techno beats. In one memorable scene, a bottom raises a bottle of poppers to his nose, and the screen fragments into psychedelic shards—very early aughts! Almost on cue and IRL, the gentlemen seated in front of us produced their own bottle of poppers, which they promptly passed back to us. A young art student seated on my row eventually had to be removed—not for taking off his clothes, which everyone was fine with, but for continuously relighting his cigarette each time the manager asked him to put it out; the fire alarm kept fucking up the sound system.
“Oh, isn’t it a strange coincidence how we all are shaved and have piercings and wound up on this rooftop at the same time?” moaned Ashraf into the microphone as, on screen, a group of punked-out pole-smokers enjoyed themselves beneath the summer sun after a night out at some leathery hellhole. Juggling the poppers, vodka, cigarettes, and various other cylindrical objects being passed my way throughout the evening, I hardly had a hand free to take more detailed notes. Still, flashes of Bonking embedded themselves in my memory, leaving me nostalgic for a time when porn had plots, homos had safe sex, and Berlin was maybe a tiny bit wilder than it is today. (I still can’t decide whether the film’s best scene is when a gang of drag queens kidnaps some punk and rapes him with a dildo in the park, or when the drunk punk gang breaks into an indoor swimming pool at night and naked chaos ensues.) In the end, maybe no one in the audience physically got off. But at least most of us got drunk, high, and horny. And isn’t that what art’s all about?
The first Berlin Art Film Festival ran December 4–7, 2014 at fsk am Oranienplatz.
A FILM OF GRIPPING IMMEDIACY, Ava DuVernay’s Selma opens with moments of intimacy and pageantry quickly followed by terrorism and carnage. Hours before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo), standing in an Oslo hotel room, is softly, playfully grumbling to his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), about having to wear an ascot for the ceremony. Shortly after King is welcomed onstage by a Norwegian dignitary, four girls are shown making their way down a flight of church stairs, bantering and laughing one second, dead and buried under rubble the next.
This jolting achronological prologue—King received the Nobel in December 1964; the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing occurred in September 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama—brilliantly establishes that Selma will be as forthright in its portrayal of the man once called “the moral leader of our nation” as in its depiction of the barbarity that the reverend and his followers confronted. In its focus on the three Selma-to-Montgomery marches from March 1965—held to protest voting discrimination against blacks—DuVernay’s film lays bare not only the public and private struggles of a great leader but also the machinations of state-sanctioned hate—a legacy that this country seems doomed never to escape.
A large part of Selma’s success is rooted in Oyelowo’s superb, nuanced portrayal of a figure held to be a near deity who, over the past four decades, has been played on screens big and small by actors ranging from Paul Winfield to LeVar Burton. This King is a man not immune to despair or remorse: The scene in which Coretta asks her husband about past infidelities stands among the most honest explorations of marriage I’ve seen all year. (Ejogo, though in a much smaller role, is just as excellent as her costar, restoring another martyr to full, wrenching life.) Oyelowo also brings out the cunningness of the complex statesman, one who sees in every instance of conflict with Alabama’s peckerwoods an opportunity for maximum media exposure. “The Selma courthouse—the perfect stage,” King tells his lieutenants; the reporters and photographers who capture the clubbings ordered by Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) of peaceful African American demonstrators will raise the “white consciousness” of the nation.
The white man whose awareness matters most, of course, is President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). The scenes of LBJ’s foot-dragging—“This votin’ thing is just gonna have to wait,” he barks at King during one of several meetings in the Oval Office—and of his tęte-ŕ-tętes with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and George Wallace (Tim Roth) don’t entirely avoid the cartoonishness that sunk Lee Daniels’s 2013 civil rights melodrama, The Butler. And there are a few too many moments when acronyms are needlessly spelled out (“We’re the SCLC—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”), or when characters utter expressions that clang as anachronisms: “Let’s do this,” says Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) before the marchers attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the second time. (Selma’s script is by first-time screenwriter Paul Webb; DuVernay reportedly did some rewriting.)
These occasional blunders, however, do not vitiate Selma’s urgency. It is by now wholly self-evident that the events depicted in Alabama—and the White House—from fifty years ago are not sealed in the benighted past. (I saw DuVernay’s film six days after a grand jury failed to indict a police officer in the killing of Michael Brown and three days before the same ruling was issued in Eric Garner’s death.) “How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever,” King proclaimed from the steps of the state capitol on March 25, 1965, after the march’s completion. A half-century later, the lie still thrives.
Selma opens in limited release on December 25.
John Huston, Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1967, 35 mm, color, sound, 108 minutes. Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor).
JOHN HUSTON doesn’t have a flawless track record as a film director, but few have so perfectly embodied the idea of what a film director ought to be. With his deliciously drawn-out, folksy baritone and those long, eloquent hands, Huston exuded authority—a quality which other directors were happy to take advantage of. When Otto Preminger needed someone to play a Boston prelate in The Cardinal (1963), he tapped Huston for the job, and so launched his parallel career as an actor. Orson Welles, whom Huston had employed in his 1956 Moby Dick among other films, invited Huston to star in his The Other Side of the Wind as Jake Hannaford, an aging film director who shares Huston’s initials and many of his personality traits. (Never finished in Welles’s lifetime, the film is slated for a believe-it-when-I-see-it release next May.) Huston’s most famous role would be that of Noah Cross, the venal and corrupt overlord of Los Angeles’s water supply, in Chinatown (1974). The film is the work of Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne, though Cross’s “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything” would seem to square with the pessimistic worldview visible in Huston’s films.
Chinatown is among the non-Huston-directed works playing in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Let There Be Light: The Films of John Huston,” a three-week retrospective made up of a whopping forty-six programs, shown mostly on 35- and 16-mm celluloid, and including Huston’s innovative documentaries for the Army Signal Corps produced during World War II. (The program’s title refers to one of these, which deals with PTSD cases among returning veterans, among the finest documentaries ever made.) You can also see Huston, never one to turn down work, in the Italian creature-feature Tentacles (1977), or Clint Eastwood consciously impersonating someone other than Clint Eastwood for the only time in his entire career, playing Huston surrogate “John Wilson” in White Hunter, Black Heart (1990).
Eastwood’s film is based on a novel by screenwriter Peter Viertel, a thinly veiled account of his experience going on location with Huston in the Congo to shoot The African Queen (1951), one of the director’s most beloved pictures. It depicts Huston’s off-the-cuff shooting style, which may seem like the caprice of genius or, if you were the one putting up money, simply irresponsible. Eastwood’s sullen, easily distracted Huston makes a useful counterbalance to the portrait of the Prometheus Bound who appears in the book Picture, Lillian Ross’s account of every stage of the production of Huston’s 1951 adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. In it, Ross diligently documents every piece of hypocritical kowtowing through which a personal vision—in this case, Huston’s—is gradually whittled down by committee compromise.
Huston was born forty-three years before the events depicted in Picture, in Nevada, Missouri. His father, Walter Huston, whom he later directed to an Oscar in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), was then but a lowly vaudevillian. His mother, Rhea Gore Huston, may have been even more interesting—she was a newspaper sportswriter who would later work with young director-to-be Sam Fuller at the tabloid New York Evening Graphic. Knocking about the country, Huston accumulated one of those eclectic resumes particular to footloose, adventuresome young men who read too much Jack London. He entered the picture business eventually, distinguished himself as a screenwriter, and made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon (1941), the film credited with establishing Humphrey Bogart as a leading man and with anticipating the loosely defined cycle of film noir to come.
Ross’s depiction of Huston as an eagle-with-clipped-wings in Picture might seem a bit much, were it not for the fact that, in due time, he proved her thesis—that he knew better than anyone else how to put his talents to work on a film. In a rare turn of events, Huston’s “late” period—comprising, let’s say, the movies he made from the age of sixty onward—is also his greatest. It is a case of the American industry catching up with a man who was long at odds with its standards, in subject matter and technique, and in the process giving him a new lease on life. This renaissance begins shortly after Andrew Sarris evaluated Huston as “coasting on his reputation as a wronged individualist with an alibi with every bad movie” in his The American Cinema, a judgment almost as damning in auteurist circles as Pauline Kael’s enthusiasm for him.
Huston began to sparingly integrate the handheld camerawork of his WWII documentaries into his fiction films. He tested the new license made possible in light of a weakened Production Code, putting a bare-assed Adam and Eve in The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), then going the whole hog in the following year’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, his adaptation of Carson McCullers’s novella of the seething hidden life of a southern military base, with Brando as Major Weldon Penderton, a glum closet case forever wary of being betrayed by his dainty bulkiness.
Huston’s Fat City (1972), a cult item which had the benefit of a two-week run at Film Forum in 2009, has increasingly been recognized for what it is, one of the greatest films of a great decade for American movies, and the purest distillation of Huston’s career-long engagement with doomed, hubristic personal quests and pyrrhic victories. A onetime amateur lightweight boxing champion of California, Huston took his crew to the armpit of the San Joaquin Valley to capture the texture of the sour side of the sweet science. In the scenes between Stacy Keach’s washed-up middleweight and Susan Tyrrell’s slatternly barfly, Fat City becomes a terrifically funny-sad movie—a quality also evident in Huston’s robustly bleak The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Wise Blood (1979).
The last-named is a return to what we may broadly call the “southern gothic” terrain of Reflections, this time working from source material by Flannery O’Conner. In Huston’s hands it becomes a rollicking cornpone farce, a film of relentless, surging energy, dragged hither and thither by Brad Dourif’s Hazel Motes, a cracked veteran—shades of Let There Be Light—who comes home a self-styled prophet. To this haul we can add The Kremlin Letter (1970) and The Mackintosh Man (1973), among the finest of Cold War espionage films, both notable for their laconic, affectless tone, the latter a reunion with Paul Newman, star of Huston’s last and finest western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972).
Huston plucked his source material from all over, but one overarching theme emerges before all others in his work: that of the death drive that lies coiled within (mostly masculine) ambition. This theme hardly begins with Huston, but it stems from his engagement with literary history—his Moby Dick is a key work. For nearly fifty years, Huston, in his films, told and retold the tale of the fatal, inexorable mission, a story older than Melville which, in due time, would be carried on by others. Mackintosh Man and Judge Roy Bean were respectively written by Walter Hill and John Milius, two soon-to-be directors whose work would show Huston’s influence, while another Melville, Jean-Pierre, praised The Kremlin Letter. Failure is Huston’s theme, but in his fecund run of the late 1960s and 1970s, you will find anything but.