THOUGH BASED on James M. Cain’s first novel, published in 1934, Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) was the last of the original page-to-screen transfers of the exalted crime writer’s most celebrated books, following Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945). More precisely, Garnett’s film was the last Hollywood adaptation; Cain’s slim pulp classic had already been the inspiration for a French drama, Pierre Chenal’s Le Dernier Tournant (The Last Turning, 1939), and Luchino Visconti’s first feature, Ossessione (1943). Cain’s Depression-era, SoCal-set story, in fact, has traveled widely outside not just US borders—German director Christian Petzold’s Jerichow (2008) is the most recent Postman rethink—but also genres, having inspired a play and an opera.
Yet of all these iterations, Garnett’s rendition of Cain’s tale of torrid triangulation—involving a drifter, Frank, the book’s first-person narrator who both cuckolds and murders his boss, Nick, with Cora, his employer’s wife—remains the best known, even though this film noir is a heavily bowdlerized version of the original. No official tasked with upholding the sanctimonious standards of the era’s Motion Picture Production Code could ever have allowed the dramatization of passages like this one in Cain’s novel, indelibly laying out the woozy s/m dynamic between Frank (played in the film by John Garfield) and Cora (Lana Turner): “I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.” The censors, however, did permit this imperative from Frank to Cora, delivered after they’ve tried to kill Nick the first time—and crucially softened by Garfield’s grin—to stay in the script: “You gimme a big kiss before…I sock ya.” (The Bob Rafelson–directed, David Mamet–scripted 1981 remake of Postman, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, could honor the book’s savage lust, but, unlike Garnett’s film, it strays wildly from Cain’s ending.)
More puzzling, though, is the utter deracination of Nick, whose original surname, Papadakis, is anglicized to Smith (Cora’s maiden name in Cain’s novel); the diner owner is played by the jowly, rotund, South African–born character actor Cecil Kellaway with an accent that betrays his many years in England and Australia. Forgoing the pivotal ethnic anxiety that Cora, who cooks and waits tables at her husband’s eatery, displays in the book—“It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white,” Frank says—Garnett’s monochrome film instead makes Lana Turner a near-blinding vision of alabaster. Turner is first introduced in the movie via a slow tilt up from her white heels to her snowy turban, the camera lingering on her likewise luminous short-shorts and halter top. The dazzlingly peroxided actress, one of MGM’s biggest stars at the time, looks as if she’s just emerged poolside from the Beverly Hills Hotel rather than taking a breather from making enchiladas on the griddle. (Cain’s original title for Postman was Bar-B-Que.)
With such radical surgery done to the source material in its transition to the screen, it’s no wonder that Turner’s temptress is the least enthralling of the Cain-based femme-fatale movie trio; her predecessors—Barbara Stanwyck’s “rotten to the heart” Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (especially) and Joan Crawford’s pathologically daughter-devoted mother of the title in Mildred Pierce—are modeled more closely on Cain’s originals and endure as noir paradigms. Yet twelve years after Postman’s release, Turner’s life offscreen was consumed by an episode tawdrier than any Cain plot: the fatal stabbing of her thug boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, by her fourteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, an act quickly ruled a justifiable homicide. Turner’s histrionics on the witness stand during the murder trial and the reams of publicity surrounding her private life after this scandal helped her secure the lead in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), in which she, an actress of limited talents, gives the greatest performance of her career.
The Postman Always Rings Twice screens at Film Forum July 18 and 19 as part of the series “Femmes Noirs,” which runs July 18–August 7.
THEY ARE A SUMMER STAPLE—geezer road movies—as attractive as a humidity-inspired influx of giant water bugs. Though it follows many rules of the genre, Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s Land Ho! is a movie of a different order; its scenic wonders, off-kilter humor and pathos, and the unforced chemistry between its two central characters and the actors who play them will appeal to an audience broader than the senior-ticket set (of which I am a member).
Former brothers-in-law, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) have been out of touch since Colin’s wife died and Mitch’s wife divorced him. Now Mitch, regretfully retired from his medical practice, shows up on Colin’s doorstep with a vacation package for two in Iceland. As generous as he is emotionally needy, Mitch won’t take no for an answer, and although Colin claims he’d rather stay home, the two soon are ensconced in an elegant Reykjavik hotel, eating four-star cuisine, drinking good wine, and smoking pot a lot more potent than Colin remembers from forty years ago.
As an odd couple, Colin and Mitch are better than the sum of their parts. It’s Colin’s empathy for Mitch that allows us to see him as more than a compulsively profane old man, desperate to prove that he’s still a sexual being. It’s an empathy that’s tested almost every hour, even in the middle of the night. Mitch simply can’t bear to be left alone. As for Colin, it’s easy to imagine that if Mitch hadn’t come back into his life, he might have retreated into his shell forever. Instead, here he is eating, drinking, toking, hiking, swimming, dancing a jig on the beach, and talking not only to his old friend but to perfect strangers—most of them women.
By chance, Mitch’s cousin-once-removed and her girlfriend, both doctoral candidates at Columbia, are passing through Reykjavik. Within minutes of their meeting we see what a dinosaur Mitch is in his attitudes about women and can suspect why, even though he’s all bark and no bite, he was forcibly retired. Colin, on the other hand, is simply a lovely man, and, much later, it’s no surprise that he, not Mitch, has a brief fling with a Canadian tourist, with whom the two men luxuriate in a hot spring. What’s unexpected is that Mitch discreetly withdraws, happy to let his friend enjoy the moment.
The idea for Land Ho! originated with Stephens, who proposed to Katz that they take Nelson, her distant cousin and a natural performer, to Iceland and build a film around him. Nelson had played a miniscule role in Stephens’s second feature Pilgrim Song (2012), but was holding on to his day job as an oculoplastic surgeon. Eenhoorn, a professional actor for four decades in Australia and the US, won the attention he long deserved playing the titular role in Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner (2013). That Nelson, an enthusiastic, even reckless amateur, and Eenhoorn, a nuanced, controlled straight man, could jell into an inspired comedy team is one of the joys of the film. The director/writer collaboration of Stephens and Katz, longtime friends who met in the University of North Carolina’s film department, is more difficult to parse. One of the most talented young American independent filmmakers, Katz has a distinct lyrical style that is punctuated by sweetly strange humor. His Dance Party, USA (2006) is a coming-of-age classic, and his more expansive, Portland-based Cold Weather (2010) bends the mystery/thriller genre every which way. Land Ho! seems very much like an Aaron Katz movie, barring that without Stephens, he never would have made it.
Never sentimental, except perhaps for a brief coda that panders to the comedy audience’s desire for a big-joke ending, Land Ho! juxtaposes two intimate character studies—and the overwhelming desire for intimacy on the part of those characters—with the gorgeously rugged, grand-scaled landscape of Iceland. Shooting with the Red camera, Katz’s longtime cinematographer Andrew Reed fashions images of rough beauty. One of them—a startled, upward tilt when a geyser suddenly erupts—is the best visual joke in a movie where great timing—that of the actors and of Katz’s editing—not only belies the seeming casualness of the plot, but proves to be the source of immense pleasure on-screen and in life.
Land Ho! opens on Friday, July 11th at select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
THE JOURNAL ENTRY ABOVE, dated October 4, 1969, was written during the second week of shooting Tristana (1970), Catherine Deneuve’s second—and final—collaboration with Luis Buñuel after the enormous success of Belle de Jour (1967). Abounding in bizarre detail, the jotting succinctly captures Tristana’s impeccable balance of precision and perversion.
As in Belle de Jour—in which Deneuve’s character, Séverine, a YSL-clad haute bourgeoise, finds erotic liberation through byzantine psychosexual fantasies and part-time work at a boutique bordello, where she is christened with the nom de pute of the title—Tristana hinges on the defilement of its eponymous character. When the film opens, Tristana is all in black, still in mourning for her recently deceased mother. The innocent, timid, orphaned teenager becomes the ward of Don Lope (Buñuel regular Fernando Rey), a lecherous, hypocritical, overweening Manchegan aristocrat who wastes no time in seducing her. “I’m your father and your husband,” the Vandyked grandee crows to his charge, who remains a virtual prisoner in the Toledo home they share despite Lope’s professed beliefs in personal freedom and other ostensibly progressive views.
Yet Tristana, all too aware of her life “as a slave,” is not entirely without agency. On one of the surreptitious constitutionals she takes with Lope’s maid, Saturna (Lola Gaos), she meets, and later runs off with, Horacio (Franco Nero), a handsome young painter. But two years later, after a tumor has been discovered in her leg, Tristana demands to be returned to the address of her parent/lover/jailer. “She still thinks of you as her father,” the abased Horacio explains to Lope. This reunion, though, signals a complete shift in power: After the amputation of her afflicted limb, Tristana has the senescent Lope, now all too eager to minister to her, fully under her control.
Tristana, one of the greatest films from Buñuel’s extremely rich late period, bookended by Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and his final movie, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), exemplifies the director’s skill in skewering the entitled classes. Lope is especially pathetic whenever his false virtue is exposed: Smugly spouting, “Down with work that you have to do to survive,” like some second-rate Oscar Wilde, the nobleman is soon accosting his sister for ten thousand pesetas during a chance encounter in a park.
The mordancy of this project—which Buñuel, cowriting with Julio Alejandro, adapted from Benito Pérez Galdos’s 1892 novel (they set the film roughly three decades later)—is further heightened by the tarnishing of Deneuve’s porcelain perfection. As soon as the actress (who, twenty-six during Tristana’s filming, was already five years into her superstardom) speaks, she is already estranged from us, the Castilian lisp she affects obviously not her own: “This will be a proper Spanish film, I’ll be dubbed, which I sometimes find hard to accept,” Deneuve writes in her Diaries. Playing an amputee was even harder; on the penultimate day of shooting, the actress recorded, “Problems with my artificial leg: it has to be fixed on, turning is disastrous, and we’ve rehearsed so much today that the crutches are hurting my armpits.” But as she prepares to shoot the final scene—when Tristana, now an imperious doña, reveals her capacity for utmost cruelty— Deneuve happily reports a victory: “[Buñuel’s] compliment of the day, and it is one: ‘You’d be great in a vampire film.’ ” Thirteen years later, Tony Scott’s The Hunger would prove how accurate the Spanish master’s prediction was.
Tristana screens at BAMcinématek July 19 and 20 as part of the series “Buñuel,” which runs July 11–31.
Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell, 1995, 35 mm, color, sound, 83 minutes.
THERE MAY BE no historical evidence to support the veracity of the strange tale of René Descartes’s robot daughter, but the story remains compelling for anyone who’s ever been troubled by the emotional currents that run between humans and their handiwork. According to one version, Descartes was so devastated when his daughter Francine died of scarlet fever at the age of five that he used his expertise as a physician to construct a life-size mechanical doll in her likeness. The philosopher was so attached to this surrogate that he brought it with him everywhere—at least until it was discovered during a sea voyage by a ship’s captain, who was sufficiently horrified to throw it overboard.
It’s not surprising that the anecdote is a favorite of Mamoru Oshii, especially in light of the director’s ongoing fascination with technologically enhanced humans and their synthetic peers, who often ponder whether their newly acquired sentience means they get to have souls too. The Japanese filmmaker includes the Descartes myth among the array of references that add a pensive air to the ultra-stylized gun battles and explosions in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (2005), one of five anime features by Oshii screening this week and next in a series at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Oshii’s futuristic visions are infused with his unique brand of dualism, one that freely pursues heady ruminations about technology’s transformative effects on human consciousness while continuing to indulge the visceral thrills and visual panache expected by anime’s traditional fanboy constituency. First released in 1995, just as audiences in the west were discovering the more adult-themed varieties of Japanese animation, Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga Ghost in the Shell remains the most famous and accomplished example of this tricky synthesis.
In the year 2029, Major Motoko Kusanagi—a cyborg cop with a shapely feminine form—pursues the Puppet Master, a mysterious criminal that has been hijacking the cybernetic bodies that are used as downloadable surrogate selves by much of humanity. Though much pilfered by The Matrix—and just about every other Hollywood science-fiction blockbuster in which minds and bodies roam free from each other in spaces both actual and virtual—Oshii’s film retains its power to startle and seduce. It helps that the film got a gorgeous upgrade in 2008, when Oshii released a revised and re-edited version with the cheeky title Ghost in the Shell 2.0. Most provocative was Oshii’s decision to change the Puppet Master’s gender, a move that further complicates the film’s take on sexual identity and the possible futures for our bodily forms and reproductive urges once the usual strictures of the flesh become irrelevant.
More of a companion piece than a sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence trades in many of the same themes with similarly vivid if more lugubrious effect. (Conversations are riddled with quotes from Nietzsche and Milton.) Here, the partner of the former film’s cyborg heroine investigates a string of deaths involving “sexaroid” units with an unfortunate tendency to blow themselves up. Never particularly interested in the demands of narrative, Oshii uses the noirish plotline as a framework for more idiosyncratic strategies, like a hallucinatory sequence that’s as jarring as anything conceived by the late Satoshi Kon, the fellow anime maverick whose films Perfect Blue (1996) and Paprika (2006) are unparalleled exercises in self-destructing storytelling. Oshii also finds ample opportunity to display his savvy about the ways that technology amplifies an age-old human desire to create real-world vessels for our desires. Thus do the pleasure-bots of our future (and present, for that matter) represent “the ancient dream of artificial life” just as strongly as that mechanical daughter did for Descartes. But whereas the corporeal characters in Spike Jonze’s similarly speculative Her (2013) may despair over the inevitability with which our creations will surpass us, Oshii’s visions of things to come are enlivened by a sense of awe and curiosity about these imminent unions between human and artifice, these mergers whose states and shapes we’re just beginning to imagine.
IN THE YEARS of its rise to prominence, Columbia Pictures was famous for a couple of things, neither of them having anything to do with crime thrillers. The first was its possession of the most horrible studio chief in Hollywood, Harry Cohn, an ardent admirer of Mussolini and a serviceable noir heavy. The second was the one employee who Cohn needed and hated for needing him, the studio’s superstar director, Frank Capra.
Not surprisingly, there isn’t a single film by Capra among the twenty-five titles that make up the Museum of Modern Art’s “Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures” series, which runs for three and a half weeks beginning this Friday. The lady in question is Columbia herself, the torch-bearing female personification of these United States who appears on the studio logo. (That, in this case, most of the films that follow her appearance contain some pretty scurrilous material and an unflattering picture of our national life can be mined for some cheap irony.)
MoMA is screening two samples of Columbia’s output from the early- to mid-1930s, when the studio had successfully clawed its way tooth-and-nail out of Poverty Row. Both are heavily indebted to the classical detective group-of-strangers-gathered-at-an-isolated-location model of storytelling. By Whose Hand? (1932) takes place on a night train to San Francisco, while The Ninth Guest (1934) is confined almost entirely to a queer party in a Deco dream apartment where the gathered company are knocked off one by one. The film is generally credited as the progenitor of the boy-count thriller, predating Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939). Proposed alternate title: It Happened One Night.
The ’30s were the decade when Capra put Columbia on the map, but “Lady in the Dark” is squarely centered on the ’40s, the decade that belonged to Margarita Carmen Cansino, reinvented (and anglicized) by the studio as Rita Hayworth. MoMA has Gilda (1946), Hayworth’s most popular teaming with fellow contract player Glenn Ford, and Lady from Shanghai (1947), directed by Hayworth’s estranged husband, Orson Welles, who took brattish glee in undoing the studio’s star-making efforts by chopping and dyeing his wife’s famous locks. (She is ravishingly photographed in both films by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who must receive some credit for Lady’s surreal visual effects, including the famous aquarium rendezvous and funhouse climax.)
Charles Vidor, Gilda, 1946, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 110 minutes. Gilda (Rita Hayworth).
Alongside Welles we find fellow canonical directors Max Ophuls (1949’s The Reckless Moment) and Nicholas Ray (1950’s In a Lonely Place) in MoMA’s series, but their films, which I trust will live to be projected another day, aren’t necessarily the chief inducement to head for Fifty-Third Street. The program was organized by Joshua Siegel and Dave Kehr, the former New York Times critic who joined MoMA’s curatorial staff in fall of last year, and it’s the first series that shows the fingerprints of carry-me-out-in-a-box auteurist Kehr, who specializes in distinguishing the individual idiosyncrasies of gigging directors who never had high distinction conferred upon them in their lifetimes. When the notes for the series refer to the “crisp impersonality” of Seymour Friedman’s direction of Chinatown at Midnight (1949), for example, this is not meant as a slander. While Capra famously billed himself as The Name Above the Title, here we have names that were happy enough to appear on the paycheck, though in some cases talent exceeds reputation.
“Lady in the Dark” offers a couple of opportunities to sample the somewhat-less-crisp impersonality of Lew Landers—including Man in the Dark (1953), his eleven-day-wonder 3-D noir—as well the early works of William Castle, known more for later experiments in ballyhoo than his workmanlike direction. (Both Landers and Castle contributed to the film franchise created from CBS radio hit “The Whistler,” a whopping four entries of which are playing MoMA, each starring Richard Dix in a different role.)
Let Us Live (1939) is a good introduction to the work of one undeservedly forgotten director, John Brahm, a German émigré who made several ingenious, somewhat baroque films over the decade to come before shrinking into television. Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Sullivan’s engagement is rudely broken when he goes up for murder charges surrounding a stick-up at a movie house, its flashlight-lit staging one of several conspicuous set pieces. Subsequent events contrive to smother the “Aw, Shucks, Gee Whiz” Fonda character’s faith in the American system, and Let Us Live may have an even more dejected ending than the film it most recalls, Fritz Lang’s 1937 Depression-era downer You Only Live Once. (It should be noted that Lang’s particularly vicious 1953 Glenn Ford vehicle, The Big Heat, is also playing MoMA.) Brahm’s visual invention is only equaled here by Joseph H. Lewis, whose Gun Crazy (1950) would later make him a cult property, and who is represented in “Lady in the Dark” by two early, watershed works: My Name is Julia Ross (1945) is a gothic melodrama that offers kidnapping and brainwashing as a metaphor for marriage, while So Dark the Night, from the following year, is a corker of a mystery set in the French countryside.
Edward Dmytryk, The Sniper, 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes.
Lewis’s mature talent is evident in both films, while Oscar Boetticher, Jr. shows little enough promise in 1945’s B-thriller Escape in the Fog. Rechristened as “Budd,” however, Boetticher would later direct a renowned cycle of Westerns for Columbia—if there was, per Thomas Schatz, a genius to the studio system, it was in keeping its workers busy enough to develop their talents. Escape in the Fog, which has Nina Foch and William Wright busting up a ring of Axis spies with the help of clairvoyant visions, was released a few months before V-J Day. The designation film noir is inextricable from the end of the war and, more specifically, its immediate aftermath. This is the setting of John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947), a curio sodden with tropical showers and unnecessary voice-over which stars Humphrey Bogart as Capt. “Rip” Murdoch, an ex-paratrooper who returns from the European front only to find more insidious enemies in “Gulf City,” a Floridian pastiche. Dead Reckoning seems like an attempt to return to the Gilda well with its mildly exotic setting, gambling tables, and even a musical number for the female lead, here Lizabeth Scott’s femme fatale, which wholly fails to eclipse the memory of Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame.” (The film is an interesting showcase for Scott, she of the extraterrestrially planar features and subterranean-deep line readings.)
One foreign menace vanquished, another rose to take its place, and Columbia, like the rest of Hollywood, got a case of the Red Scare jitters. The results were films like Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), a patently silly piece of Cold War skullduggery done with a bit of dash by Gordon Douglas, who would go on to do a brisk business in anti-Communist fare in the next few years. This stretch was not so kind to Hollywood Ten member Edward Dmytryk, who dutifully named his names and returned from blacklist purgatory to the director’s chair with The Sniper (1952), thanks to the intervention of producer Stanley Kramer, who’d recently entered into an ultimately star-crossed agreement to set up his own production unit at Columbia, which meant much butting heads with Cohn.
Dmytryk had helped to invent the hate-crime noir with Crossfire, his 1947 film about an anti-Semitic killing, and The Sniper seems intended to reproduce the success. The issue examined here, however, is woman-hate—not standard-issue film noir “Can’t trust them dames” woman-hate, as found in Dead Reckoning, but the homicidal rage of Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), a blue-collar San Francisco man who does target practice on local ladies using his Army issue M1 carbine. The Sniper is held up by the presence of a much-too-old Adolphe Menjou—Dmytryk had to use the blowhard red-baiter as proof of his rehabilitation—and psychiatrist speechifying, but Dmytryk quite effectively plays out his sensationalistic story against an uncommented-on background of everyday misogyny, and the film’s last shot is positively chilling. (’Frisco becomes a gridwork of slashing, perilous diagonals thanks to the great DP Burnett Guffey, who also shot In a Lonely Place and both of the Lewis films, and who may be the secret star of “Lady in the Dark.”) Franz’s all-American psycho proves a vital point as regards the crime thriller: While Nazis and Commies have their place, nothing’s so disturbing as the evil we find at home and within.
“Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932–57” plays July 11–August 4, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes.
NOW IN ITS SIXTIETH YEAR, the Flaherty Film Seminar is an annual occupation of the Colgate University campus that gathers around 170 filmmakers, scholars, critics, programmers, artists, and cinephiles in an unlikely, weeklong cohabitation devoted to an exploration of nonfiction filmmaking. Not quite so free-wheeling as a film festival nor quite so focused as an academic conference, the seminar is named for Robert Flaherty, whose own place and stature within the institution of documentary has ebbed and flowed just as documentary practice itself has migrated among different media: from cinema (independent, experimental, and commercial) to television, contemporary art, interactive media, and beyond.
This year’s programmers, the artists Caspar Stracke and Gabriela Monroy, marked this trend in their opening remarks, addressing the increasing incorporation of documentary practice into the art world following Catherine David’s Documenta X in 1997 and Manifesta 5 in 2004, directed by Massimiliano Gioni and Marta Kuzma. Fittingly, two alumni of these events, Johan Grimonprez and Hito Steyerl, initiated the week’s programming with two complementary works: Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997), and Steyerl’s In Free Fall (2010). Both works concern hijacking as a trope of midcentury terrorism and political action, and both draw upon similar compulsions, scavenging in the audiovisual junkyard. Grimonprez named his film for the archival process he engaged in when making the film, dialing into history via metadata and keywords, and Steyerl—appearing, appropriately enough, as a Skyped-in image—noted that their films arose on either side of a historical shift in the circulation, even inescapability, of moving images.
With this inescapability in mind, Monroy and Stracke laid out a particular set of concern about the contexts and forms of the moving image, emphasizing in their programming hybrid, essayistic, and collectively made work, including forty films and a half-dozen installations. One persistent theme during the week was the notion of the image as an object to be shaped, collected, and curated by the archivist/artist. Duncan Campbell’s latest film, It for Others, continues his project of collaging archival media, reenactment, and poetic narration, but is still more discursive, polemical, and off-kilter than his earlier work. Departing from Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s 1953 film Statues Also Die, which critiques an imperialism of objects formed around the European market for African statuary, Campbell’s film constructs a theory of value around the use of images, their extraction, reuse, and recirculation. The Marker and Resnais film, Campbell noted, functions like an artifact in his own film, suggesting the many roles that found or appropriated footage takes on in contemporary cinema: as property, commodity, raw material, or waste product.
Of course, no engagement with found or appropriated media would be complete without addressing the intensification, and even standardization, that digital media and the Internet have afforded in recent years, and here again, Steyerl offered characteristically insightful work. How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (also on view through August 15 at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York) conflates the imagistic and the human in provocative and playful ways. Here, humanity appears as either a pixel or a nonperson in an architectural rendering, each struggling for recognition. But Steyerl’s work also revels in this anonymization of subjecthood, and the artist herself appears modeling the gestures of digitalization by performing grandiose swipes, pinches, and double-taps, as if operating (or inhabiting) a giant invisible iPad.
If Steyerl’s works are winning mostly in their exuberant play of ideas, Jesse McLean’s works are still more convincing in their rigorous composition and canny balance of irony and sincerity. The Invisible World matches the commodity fetishism of hoarder videos with the artist’s own compilation of science films and Hollywood spectaculars. Both cosmic and colloquial in scope, the work earns its apocalyptic ending through a quiet engagement of the senses. Similarly, in Just Like Us, McLean uses deadpan subtitling to relate the memoir of a former Hollywood body double against images of parking lots and big-box stores. But here again, the once empty posteverything world is mined for surprising emotional resonance, and the insertion of an erotic interlude from Top Gun serves as one part kitsch object and two parts affective release.
The image doubling suggested by McLean’s video was just one instance of many hauntings and correspondences in the program. In one discussion, featured artist Karen Mirza spoke of exorcizing the “ectoplasm of neoliberalism,” but there were more salutary forms of possession, too. Jill Godmilow’s What Farocki Taught (1998), in which she attempts a shot-for-shot remake of the German director’s The Inexhaustible Fire, is a peculiar kind of channeling, once again bringing home the Vietnam War, the manufacture of napalm, and the deep and extensive modes of involvement of a country’s citizens in the atrocities its governments commit.
Flaherty’s ghost, too, is always present at the seminar—often in discussions about representational politics and the ethics of othering—but actually very little in this year’s edition could be described as traditionally anthropological. The closest came in Cao Guimarães’s The Soul of the Bone, which begins reassuringly as a deadpan vérité portrait of Dominguinhos, a seventy-two-year-old cave-dwelling hermit, then veers into psychedelic ethnography, with the old man, wizard-like, summoning a ring of fire and strumming an eerie Jandek-like dirge on a detuned guitar. Situated in a program alongside Patiño’s In Landscape’s Movement, an HD upgrade of Caspar David Friedrich, Guimarães’s film inspired conversations about images of Man in Nature, but there’s something more anthropocenic about Guimarães’s dense, fragmented images, which find Dominguinhos collecting rainwater in Coke bottles, using the ends of plastic bottles as finger-bowls, and expounding visions to gawking tourists arriving by bus.
Still more works effected a certain polyphony by means of collaboration, splintered perspectives, and hybrid authorships. All of Eric Baudelaire’s films serve as correspondences—often literal ones—between the filmmaker and his collaborators, giving his work a wayward epistolary form. In Letters to Max, a new work previewed here in a presentation with brief excerpts, Baudelaire engages in a sustained correspondence with the ambassador of Abkhazia, a country on the Black Sea that, without official statehood, effectively does not exist. Three of the featured artists were explicit partnerships, such as Brad Butler and Karen Mirza of the organization no.w.here. Their project The Museum of Non-Participation suggests a degree of institutional critique in their work, but also a desire to engage beyond such circuits, forming new networks and ley lines from Karachi to Zuccotti Park to Tahrir to Bethnal Green. With its dizzying mixture of textures and media—film and video, performance, writing, and curation—their work seems more the result of their participatory practice than of a particular formal program. Indeed, Deep State, a collaboration among Mirza, Butler, the writer China Miéville, and many others—a history of revolutionary struggle from Occupy into the distant future—is formally and tonally all over the place, but the obvious collective fever in which the film was made seems more its point than its crazed hybrid construction.
By contrast, the works of Raqs Media Collective (here represented by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, but also including Monica Narula and Jeebesh Bagchi) suggest a more coherent aesthetic program—for better or worse. The Capital of Accumulation, an oblique, unstable diptych compiling Rosa Luxembourg’s missing body, talking animals, and a forensic analysis of global capital, suggests a consistent compositional logic at work: the structure of accumulation itself as an organizing principle, often overwhelming and exhausting the viewer with logorrheic overload. If this proved frustrating for the Flaherty audience, there was perhaps a lesson about accumulation nonetheless: Saturation is a process of accumulation whereby nothing ultimately is retained.
The work of the collaborative studio CAMP, represented here by Shaina Anand, seems by comparison to strive for a much tidier organizational logic. Rather than modeling accumulation, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf opts for seriality and the structural logic of the supply chain, mapping images sourced from the cellphones and Bluetooth networks of sailors and traders navigating the “free trade zone” from India to Dubai to Somalia and back. In all their work, CAMP’s response to the ubiquity of images seems first to be concerned with their origin and circulation beyond the commodities market. In The Neighbor Before the House (2009–12), eight evicted Palestinian families in various neighborhoods in the city of Jerusalem/Al-Quds are given access to CCTV cameras so that they can spy on the Jewish settlers currently occupying their homes. The result is, perhaps inevitably, an unnerving exploration of issues of surveillance, control, and the position of the camera, but there’s something comforting about the film, too: As kids yell orders to “zoom in!” and family members fill in details of local history, the project becomes a kind of joyous collective imagemaking.
The sixtieth Flaherty Film Seminar ran June 14–20, 2014, at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.