NICOLAS ROEG WAS ALMOST FORTY in 1968 when he got his big break. After kicking around the British film industry for ages—shooting dazzling second-unit footage for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but fired by David Lean from Doctor Zhivago (1965); at last getting a foothold by photographing Julie Christie’s next three films, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), and Richard Lester’s kook-descending-a-staircase Petulia (1968)—he suddenly was the hottest, hippest London cinematographer around. Elevated to codirector alongside writer–novice filmmaker Donald Cammell to shepherd Performance, the pair delivered an exhilaratingly disorienting, viscerally suggestive fin-de-’60s classic. (It wouldn’t be released until 1970, because it freaked out and/or disgusted the brass at Warner Bros.)
Roeg had plugged-in instincts, atavistic reflexes, and a flair for the visually outré. He translated the whole imploding, exhausted sex-and-drugs-rock-and-role-playing aspect of Swinging London into a pictorial language of splintered cuts, cavernous mossy spaces, and a wraparound immersion that made it feel like you were inside of a bloodshot fish-eye lens looking out. With a genius for pastiche and designer alienation, he impudently raided the closets of Alain Resnais, Godard, Antonioni, and Marco Bellocchio to assemble his anxious, indolent, sexy-paranoid style. This was what the hero of Blow-Up would have gotten up to if he had dropped acid with the Rolling Stones and become a movie director.
Performance put Roeg on the celluloid map; Walkabout (1971) established his singular command of preapocalyptic psychogeography, at once sensual, spaced-out, and abstractly urgent. Melding the faithful archetype of the noble savage with countercultural pieties about how petty suburban materialism had made white people lose touch with nature and spirituality, it mystically conflated the solitary lost-in-the-desert portion of Lawrence with the back-to-the-stoned-age ecopolitics of Weekend (1967). It had a head-butting poetic authority that made something like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) look as dated as a matron in a miniskirt.
And then came Don’t Look Now (1973). Superimposing intricate, baroquely subliminal symbol-patterns and glazed death-masque motifs on hoary gothic thriller conventions, it feels like a Hitchcock film that went missing in Venice and whose remains were dredged up by divers from the canals. Newly available in a gorgeous Blu-ray edition (including some bare-bones but agreeable making-of interviews), if there were an award for the eeriest, clammiest atmosphere ever committed to film, Don’t Look Now would belong on the shortlist. Boasting a peculiarly triumphal sense of spectral desolation and displaced grief, the film explores a wintery, skeletal Venice: a dying city or living ghost town composed of ruined candlelit churches, serpentine alleys, elegantly moldy rooms, funereal waterways, cracked gargoyles, and human apparitions.
Don’t Look Now begins with a shattering, almost perfectly calibrated sequence that serves as précis for Roeg’s technique: a small child at play by a placid pond, the parents working and idly conversing inside their country cottage, miniscule omens flashing up in fleeting glimpses (an image of breaking glass, a glass of water spilled over a slide, a spreading red stain matching the girl’s red raincoat). John, the father (Donald Sutherland), sixth-senses something’s wrong, but he’s too late to save her; mother Laura (Julie Christie) casually steps outside and sees her husband emerging from the pond, cradling their dead daughter. She screams in animal panic.
Roeg balefully cuts to a disintegrating Venice: Months have passed, the husband is working as an architectural restorer on a sixteenth-century church, with his wife assisting/accompanying him in a preoccupied manner. Sutherland and Christie here had something more pertinent and unusual than chemistry: They have the symbiotic familiarity of a genuine married couple, one of those unions where the two start to resemble each other even as they could be growing apart. Their famous lovemaking scene, the physical intimacy intercut with them bemusedly dressing afterwards, is notable not for body heat but uninflected normalcy: great tenderness mixed with routine.
Transplanted to this torpid landscape, the nightmare of a child’s death gets entangled with loads of Venetian bad karma. A pair of elderly English sisters, one a proper fusspot and the other a blind psychic with cloudy marbles for eyes, informs Laura that the psychic one has “seen” their daughter. Laura is elated, then collapses; John is predictably skeptical. Soon the sisters are popping up everywhere John and Laura go. Warnings and suspicious accidents, premonitions and occult stirrings, reports of a serial killer on the prowl, a bishop who skulks as if he were part mafiosi, part Illuminati—Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford tricked the movie out with so many red herrings and mirrors and subconscious intimations, it’s as if the universe itself were conspiring against our attractively besieged couple.
Nicolas Roeg, Don’t Look Now, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes.
But to purloin a phrase: Don’t look now, but this universe’s right hand doesn’t know what its bloody left hand is doing. God and the Devil both abandoned Roeg’s Venice—they must have been otherwise engaged with The Exorcist—and so we’re left with a junk drawer full of Victorian superstitions and heretical knick-knacks. (My favorite item is the open copy, on John Baxter’s nightstand, of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, a dramatization of the collusion between the Pope and the Nazis: The nebulous collectivization of guilt is one subtext of the film.)
Rejecting “mumbo jumbo” but progressively becoming more besotted with the supernatural, Roeg’s film isn’t really about its declared theme: “Things are not what they seem.” Any work that hinges on a case of mistaken identity with a homicidal dwarf is not fated to conjure any Henry (or William) Jamesian mysteries. It is really about the power of film grammar to override rational objections, and how film presences can mesmerize away our misgivings.
Christie was Roeg’s perfect subject, open-faced yet movingly enigmatic—the fusion of pristine surface and fiercely camouflaged distress. And there haven’t been enough chances to see her in surroundings this evocative. Since the mid-1970s, there’s been a touch of Whatever-Happened-To… aura around her, working erratically and without focus, but every five or seven years doing something that stops you in your tracks. You might expect to view her career in the past tense, but in 2012 she tore into her first honest-to-God femme fatale role in Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep: At seventy, she drew on reserves of determination and beauty and black magic that are in themselves more supernatural than Don’t Look Now’s earnest manipulations.
Roeg had a fine run in the ’70s—in a savvier, way sexier world, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) would eclipse that rattletrap contraption Star Wars as the decisive science fiction film of the twentieth century—but fell out of favor as movies turned into toy stores, butcher shops, and candy machines. Like its peeling Venice, Don’t Look Now remains unforgettable, possessed of solemn immortality even tacky-touristy paraphernalia can’t kill. However, the ending can still make a punchy spectator realize that had Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov defected, we could have had a Wolfman film for the ages or Shirley Temple in a highly unorthodox fusion of two horror classics: Frankenstein Meets M.
Don’t Look Now is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
Sam Taylor-Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 125 minutes. Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey (Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan).
THE STAGGERING POPULARITY of E. L. James’s 2011 erotic novel and BDSM primer, Fifty Shades of Grey, particularly among a certain female demographic, gave rise to the condescending genre tag “mommy porn.” However disdainful the label might be, my own anecdotal experience on various modes of transportation suggests that the book’s most conspicuous readers—those who preferred actual paper products, with emblazoned covers, to anonymity-ensuring Kindles or Nooks—were indeed mothers: On the subway I’ve spotted several moms, their kids next to them and absorbed in their own distractions, lost in James’s prose; on a Paris-bound Eurostar two years ago, I looked up to see a woman, whose husband and two young children were playing cards, turning the pages of Cinquante Nuances de Grey.
The brazen spirit of those readers is entirely absent in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of James’s best seller, whose central couple is twenty-one-year-old virgin Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson, charming and sleepy-eyed) and a dom six years her senior, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, an Irishman whose strenuous attempt to effect a flat American voice seems to have left him too tired to wield the flogger with much authority). Yet through her largely sanitized retelling of Anastasia’s deepening thralldom to a billionaire telecommunications entrepreneur with an extensively kitted-out playroom, Taylor-Johnson spares viewers from the source material’s greatest liability: James’s own voice and writing tics, which suggest nothing so much as a non-lubed and nonconsensual fist fuck of the English language. Told from Anastasia’s first-person point of view, the novel bafflingly anthropomorphizes its heroine’s psyche, split into her “inner goddess” (“My inner goddess has her pom-poms in hand—she’s in cheerleading mode”) and “subconscious” (“My subconscious has found her Nikes, and she’s on the starting blocks”); equally appalling are James’s similes (“Anticipation hangs heavy and portentous over my head like a dark tropical storm cloud”).
Taylor-Johnson, the former YBA whose only feature prior to this one is the wan John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy (2009), and screenwriter Kelly Marcel do, however, retain much of the dialogue from the original, such as Christian’s avowal “I don’t make love. I fuck…hard”—the repeated demonstration of which in James’s novel is what made it a publishing phenomenon in the first place. In the film, though, the tech magnate’s boast largely has to be taken on faith: Rapid edits during the sex scenes—whether vanilla or those involving spanking, blindfolds, restraints, etc.—fragment the body, Johnson’s curled toes or agape mouth serving as semaphore for carnal abandon. Further lulled by the movie’s redundant sound track (“I Put a Spell on You,” “Beast of Burden,” and so on), I remained alert by comparing Fifty Shades of Grey with some of its predecessors, R-rated movies that also prominently feature role-playing and/or its virginal protagonist tied spread-eagle to a bed like, to name just two titles from the same decade, Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982) and Adrian Lyne’s 9 1/2 Weeks (1986). If Fifty Shades of Grey the movie has anything to teach us, it’s that today’s MPAA appears to be reverting not just to the Hays Code but to the Old Covenant.
Then again, heterosexual, “transgressively” erotic entertainments from thirty years ago weren’t subject to the demands of brand management and corporate synergy. A visit to fiftyshadesmovie.com invites potential ticket buyers to “share your girls night out plans” (coupled, Valentine’s Day–celebrating spectators have a separate slide on the site); the New York Times recently noted that Target has been selling an official movie tie-in “vibrating love ring.” And so, in the interest of consumer reporting, I’ll say this: The book isn’t better than the movie, and the film isn’t better than the book. Both are inferior to the tableaux I imagined playing out in the heads of my fellow rail passengers as they took in—willingly and avidly, with no safewords needed—James’s more successful sentences.
Fifty Shades of Grey opens February 13.
WITH NEW FILMS from Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Terrence Malick, Guy Maddin, Peter Greenaway, Margarethe von Trotta, and brand new documentaries on Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jia Zhang-ke, it would seem that one of the central theses of the sixty-fifth edition of the Berlin International Film Festival is that auteur filmmaking is far from dead. Of course, a close look reveals that some of these filmmaking giants are in better form than others. What’s more, the numerous glances into the margins afforded by the festival’s megalithic program—with several hundred films from all over the globe on offer—reveals that many of today’s and tomorrow’s visionaries are neither coming from nor going to predictable places.
It has traditionally been the Berlinale’s Forum section that illuminates those margins. It is therefore fitting that one of its openers was The Forbidden Room, codirected by Maddin and Evan Johnson. Hilarious, absurd, and lots of fun throughout its 130 minutes, The Forbidden Room is a cinephile’s wettest dream, employing a surrealist collage technique to mash up reconstructions of lost D-movie would-be cult classics.
Another Forum highlight thus far has been Seashore—also a collaboration between two directors, Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon. Seashore’s subtlety marks a decidedly different kind of filmmaking from the wildness of The Forbidden Room: Studious close-ups and long takes relay the story of two teenage friends traveling alone to a family holiday home to carry out a piece of unpleasant business on behalf of one’s father. The filmmakers’ reliance on the visual aspects of cinema, rather than traditional narrative pursuits like intricate plotting, means that much is left out. Yet this only adds to the film’s underlying psychological realism and the tension between the two main characters, one that finally resolves in sexual climax.
Relationship tensions—i.e., love stories—recur more often as a theme in the Berlinale’s main competition. Typical of this is 45 Years from Andrew Haigh, a director obsessed with romantic relationships in all their phases. Known for his depiction of an extended gay hook-up, the 2011 indie sleeper hit Weekend, and the HBO series Looking, Haigh this time turns his gaze on aged hetero couple Kate and Geoff (played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay). The couple are on the verge of celebrating their forty-fifth anniversary when Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his first love, who tragically fell to her death into a snowy lake some fifty years prior, has been recovered frozen in ice and perfectly preserved. This news throws both of them into a state—for Geoff one of obsessive nostalgia, for Kate one of intense jealousy—yet all comes together in a too-precious climax. While deploying considerable restraint in displaying his characters’ psychological complexity, 45 Years is perhaps too rote an instance of British social-realist filmmaking.
To be fair, Haigh’s film is no disappointment when measured next to Queen of the Desert, a tragic instance of a legendary director’s collaboration with Hollywood. Of course, you would be excused for not recognizing it as a Herzog film; none of the director’s stylistic tics are visible. Instead, we are treated to a biopic/love story about Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), a British explorer of the Middle East who became one of the West’s earliest experts of the area, known as the “female Lawrence of Arabia.” Revealing how uncertain he is with his material, Herzog reverts to melodrama, producing what may be the twenty-first century’s first major cinematic example of high camp.
On the other hand, Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups showed what a film made within the Hollywood system—and even about the Hollywood system—looks like when held to an idiosyncratic director’s own terms. While I intensely disliked his previous two films Tree of Life and To the Wonder—Knight of Cups demonstrates an apotheosis of his new style. It uses similar devices—a constantly moving camera and a soundscaped collage of voices and music—as it follows its successful screenwriter protagonist (Christian Bale) through a Hollywood wastescape, detached from—nay, dead to—all the tragedies and absurdities surrounding him. A rare and eloquent example of poetry on screen, Knight of Cups’s greatness was further evidenced by the numerous walkouts during the press screening as well as the shouts of derision at the closing credits.
The sixty-fifth Berlin International Film Festival runs February 5–15.
Gregory La Cava, Stage Door, 1937, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 92 minutes.
WISECRACKS RICOCHET at breakneck speed at the Footlights Club, the women-only theatrical boardinghouse in Midtown Manhattan that is the center of Gregory La Cava’s brilliant sober comedy Stage Door (1937). (A typical exchange: “Is the show closing?” “Like a tired clam.”) During many of his productions, La Cava, whose screwball paradigm My Man Godfrey was released the year before, drove studio heads nuts, pledging no fealty to the script and often encouraging overlapping dialogue and improvisation; Stage Door was no exception to this practice. Based, if only marginally so, on the 1936 play of the same name by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman (the latter of whom carped that La Cava’s adaptation, bearing little resemblance to the source material, should have been called “Screen Door”), Stage Door crackles with zingers ad-libbed by a cast that includes Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden, and Lucille Ball.
That La Cava incorporated into Stage Door’s script (which was written by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller) the banter that his actresses—some of the finest comic talents of the era—shared during the film’s rehearsals only enhances the verbal pyrotechnics. The movie’s distaff ensemble provides not only a trove of 1930s slang, show-biz argot, and one-upping insults but also an invaluable lesson in sentence rhythm, as when the more seasoned housemates instruct a newbie on where the stress should fall in her sole line in her stage debut: “Let’s go UP to Westchester.”
Beyond the film’s deep empathy for this passel of aspiring but all too often dispirited performers—the Footlighters commiserate over demoralizing roles, sleazy agents, and the slop served in the dining hall—Stage Door scrutinizes class clash, a specialty of La Cava’s. Here the director pits Rogers, whose various shopgirl and assembly-line-worker roles gave her a kind of prole glamour, against Hepburn, a real-life Connecticut Brahmin. Playing world-weary hoofer Jean Maitland, Rogers—along with other Footlights tenants who often have trouble coming up with the thirteen-dollar weekly rent—ruthlessly mocks the lockjaw enunciation of her new roommate, Hepburn’s Terry Randall. The scioness (her father is the “wheat king” of the Midwest) tries to pass as a nobody, forswearing Dad’s dollars—but making no attempt to hide her ermine-coat-stuffed steamer trunks or curtail her habit of quoting Shakespeare. Yet Terry proves just as quick-witted as her cash-strapped housemates, calling Jean out for “that insolence generated by an inferior upbringing.”
The incognito aristo’s ease with ripostes—and her willingness to stand up to a thoughtless producer on behalf of her sistren—earn her the begrudging respect of some Footlighters. But Terry will become suspect once again when she, a neophyte, lands the lead in a play called Enchanted April, a part desperately wanted by Kay (Andrea Leeds), a beloved housemate who, buffeted by the vagaries of the profession, is slowly slipping into madness. A tragic incident leads Terry to cry in her dressing room on opening night, “Does someone have to die to create an actress?” Uncannily, the line echoes another I had read—in an ingenious article by George Toles about David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive that ran in the fall 2004 issue of Film Quarterly—just the night before I revisited Stage Door: “The only earthly identity that might be strong enough to undo death is that of an actress on the verge of stardom.” Made sixty-four years apart, La Cava’s film and Lynch’s are highly dissimilar in style and sensibility. But they share a star—Ann Miller, who was only a teenager in Stage Door and who made her final screen appearance in Mulholland Drive—and a boundless compassion for women in the cruelest of vocations.
John Carpenter, Big Trouble in Little China, 1986, 35 mm, color, sound, 99 minutes. Gracie Law and Jack Burton (Kim Cattrall and Kurt Russell).
IN TRYING TO PINPOINT what made John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween a cultural flashpoint, you’ll hit a wall if you’re just looking at the subject matter. Knife-wielding psychos were not unknown to cinema since well before, say, Hitchcock’s Psycho—to which the film owes a certain debt. What Halloween has (and Carpenter’s 1976 Assault on Precinct 13, too) is a very particular combination of flourish and minimalism—that is to say, it’s a matter of style.
The flourish is in the insidious stalking Steadicam, the fact that, as perspicacious Village Voice critic Tom Allen observed, the film “owes more to the expressive possibilities raised by Vincente Minnelli in the Halloween sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis than to any films in the realistic school.” The minimalism in the neutral, clay-colored mask of Michael Myers, the eerie calmness with which Myers observes his would-be victims (Carpenter took the effect from Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents, and used it again in his 1987 Prince of Darkness), and of course that theme music, a brittle cluster of notes played in 5/4 time over an anxious, tinny tick. Carpenter wrote the theme and performed it himself, along with much of the rest of the sound track, on a Moog III synthesizer. He has to date directed eighteen theatrically released feature films, having commanded a firm grip on the pop imagination with works like Escape from New York (1981), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and They Live (1988), then gradually losing his audience, if never his touch. Carpenter made music for all but three of his films, and if he hadn’t directed any of them, he would still be a crucial figure in film history for his contributions to the art of the sound track.
Carpenter’s most recent film, The Ward (2010), was treated to an undeservedly chilly reception, and he now seems content to spend a semiretirement in marathon video-gaming sessions and convention appearances. Though perhaps done with moviemaking altogether, as of February 3 he has a new album, Lost Themes, out on the Brooklyn-based label Sacred Bones, and this is the occasion for a complete retrospective of Carpenter’s films at BAMcinématek. (A personal appearance was canceled, but will hopefully be rescheduled.) The sound-track-without-a-film is a phenomenon that has ramped up in recent years. Sacred Bones has released work from another polymath auteur, David Lynch’s The Air is On Fire and The Big Dream, while groups like Pittsburgh’s Zombi (named for a Lucio Fulci film) specialize in invoking the work of Italian sound track composers like Fabio Frizzi, Riz Ortolani, and Goblin, the last of which is best known for the heavy-breathing “La la la” theme in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
Carpenter broke out as a director while the synthesizer was still being established as a sound track instrument, though electronic scores were then nothing new—Dimitri Tiomkin had used a theremin in his score for Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World, which Carpenter would freely remake in 1982, while Forbidden Planet (1956) was scored entirely by Louis and Bebe Barron, formerly collaborators with John Cage. (Forbidden Planet will play BAMcinématek in a “Carpenter Selects” sidebar, along with William Friedkin’s 1977 Sorcerer, sound tracked by the pioneering Berlin electronic group Tangerine Dream.) The Moog, the first commercially available synth, had gone on the market ten years before Sorcerer—Bernard Herrmann had used one to score Brian De Palma’s Sisters in 1973—and the synth gained ground in film scoring through the 1970s. In 1978, the year of Halloween, Italo-German Giorgio Moroder, who’d already recorded hits under his own name and for Donna Summer, composed the breakout sound track to Alan Parker’s Midnight Express. The contrasting styles of Carpenter and Moroder—Carpenter skeletal, sinister, pared-down; Moroder driving, danceable, brawny—defined the twin poles of electronic scoring for years to come.
Carpenter had learned the 5/4 time signature he used on the Halloween score from his father, Howard Ralph Carpenter, a music professor who taught at the university in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Carpenter was raised. The sound track is credited, facetiously, to the “Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra,” though it’s really just Carpenter and Dr. Dan Wyman, a professor of film scoring at San Jose State University whom Carpenter had met when he was in the film program at the University of Southern California, and who programmed the Moog for Carpenter starting with Assault on Precinct 13. That film’s fuzzy tattoo of notes punched over a nattering metronomic click-clack presaged their work on Halloween, while their next collaboration, on The Fog (1980), a rising tide of apocalyptic premonition, looked toward future studies in Armageddon.
From Escape from New York on, another collaborator helped to shape the music of Carpenter’s 1980s output. This was Alan Howarth, a Clevelander who’d gigged around in prog/jazz-fusion/cock-rock circles through the ’70s before breaking into Hollywood, doing sound effects work on sci-fi movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It can’t be overstated that the music of Carpenter’s films isn’t limited to the score, but is also in the musique concrete soundscapes: the breaking glass in Precinct 13; the under-the-hood growl in killer-car classic Christine (1983); the ambient rumble in Prince of Darkness. Perhaps the strangest relic of Carpenter’s ’80s is a music video for the Big Trouble in Little China theme, credited to “John Carpenter’s Coup de Villes,” which has the director seated at a Moviola console, plunking a Paul McCartney Höfner 500, and doing his best Jim Morrison croon while menaced by the film’s Fu Manchu–esque villain, Lo Pan. Big Trouble… was a big-budget attempt to establish Carpenter on a Spielberg/Lucas level, though it’s a far more sympathetic reckoning with Hollywood’s history of exoticism than any Indiana Jones adventure. The bluff bravado and cluelessness of its white “hero” (Kurt Russell, impersonating John Wayne) is played up for laughs, while it’s one of the only American movies of the period in dialogue with what was then happening in Hong Kong action. Naturally, it failed to break even.
Though Carpenter worked happily within the constraints of popular genres, it was increasingly clear that he was consigned to be a cult director—a fact reflected in the odd contortions of his career through the 1990s. During these years Carpenter’s key musical collaborator was Kinks guitarist Dave Davies: Village of the Damned (1995) isn’t up to the level of their mesmeric and martial “March of the Children,” though In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is the most perfect (and overt) expression of the director’s career-long conversation with the weird tales of H. P. Lovecraft. (As in Prince of Darkness, which Carpenter wrote under a pseudonym, the film gains a great deal from a sense of conviction—you get the feeling Carpenter actually believes in ancient evil active in the modern world.) Carpenter next teamed with Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T. & the MGs to lay down the bluesy swagger that backs John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), a soundtrack that picks up where that of They Live left off. Vampires is the movie in which Carpenter’s often-verging-on-parody machismo turns plain ugly—a profane splatterfest, it seems an attempt to out-Tarantino Tarantino, a zero-sum game if ever there was one. And while Ghosts of Mars (2001), set in a matriarchy-run future, was a high-concept return to form, the box-office receipts failed to reflect this fact. The Ward showed Carpenter’s attention to the pleasures of ensemble acting undiminished, but he hasn’t worked on as large a scale since.
This brings us to Lost Themes, sixty-seven-year-old Carpenter’s first standalone, non–sound track album, born out of improvisations with Davies’s son, Daniel, and Carpenter’s own son, Cody, who records under the name Ludrium. It’s made up of nine tracks with sinister single-word titles—“Mystery,” “Abyss,” “Night”—and six remixes by the likes of Zola Jesus and J. G. Thirlwell. “Vortex” is night-prowl music, sleek, virile drive broken up by introspective passages; the eight-and-a-half-minute “Obsidian” combines pounding, full-throttle runs with lulls of lunar calm; “Fallen” builds to a magisterial, triumph-of-death quality; “Wraith” is the sinister glisten from an unknown object in the dark of space; “Purgatory” begins as a slow stroll through a world reduced to ash, then erupts into anthemic strut. Without a narrative arc to work around, Carpenter tends too much toward closing-credits culmination—the album is altogether too heavy on climax, lacking in the incipient or coaxing gesture. Per Carpenter, these are sound tracks “for the movies that are playing in your mind,” and this is the cold comfort that Lost Themes offers. If there isn’t a “next” Carpenter film to look forward to, at least you can imagine what it might be.
“John Carpenter: Master of Fear” runs February 5–22 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. Lost Themes is now available from Sacred Bones Records.
Kathleen Collins, Losing Ground, 1982, 35 mm, color, sound, 86 minutes.
“B.C. PICTURES and five other major studios announced mainly through the columns that they were not planning to produce any more Black Pictures. There are a few in production, they will be finished. ‘It was discovered that as many ‘Blacks’ went to see Jaws as went to see Sounder?’ […] The industry will of course continue its effort to integrate what has unfortunately been referred to as the white film until an acceptable racial balance has been achieved to the satisfaction of the community at large. ‘In other words, we’re out of work,’ I said.”
This comes from Rhinestone Sharecropping, a 1981 roman à clef exorcizing the creative frustration of the unclassifiable multihyphenate artist Bill Gunn, who’d seen the studio gates shut in his face, and is a fair assessment of “the Biz” after a brief experiment in studio-financed Black Pictures ended. But film history isn’t entirely written with studio money, and some recent repertory programs have been filling in the lacuna. The touring “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” originated by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, showcased the work of the artistically ambitious black filmmakers, both African-born and African-American, who emerged from the UCLA film school from the late 1960s to the 1980s. Now, covering approximately the same period on the East Coast, we have “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986,” comprising twenty-four individual programs, including features and packaged shorts, beginning today at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
“Tell It Like It Is” opens with a screening of Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground, which will be preceded on opening night by comments from New York City first lady Chirlane McCray, and will stay on at Lincoln Center for a weeklong theatrical run, its first and only official release since being completed in 1982. (The movie comes courtesy of Milestone Films, which had a considerable hit with its long-belated release of LA Rebellion figure Charles Burnett’s 1978 Killer of Sheep.)
The only feature completed by Collins, Losing Ground observes the widening of an emotional breach between a middle-class couple. Sarah (Seret Scott) is a philosophy professor; her husband, Victor (Gunn), a painter and larger-than-life raconteur who prods her to move upstate for the summer so he can work en plein air. While she’s a tightly wound black bluestocking, researching a paper on “ecstatic experience,” he’s a committed bohemian who researches in the arms of a Puerto Rican girl (Maritza Rivera). This leaves Sarah open to the charms of a suave actor (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones) who she winds up acting opposite when, with uncharacteristic impetuousness, she decides to appear in one of her students’ thesis films, described as an “archetypal interpretation of the Frankie and Johnny myth.” The film is a silent “musical,” danced in the language of shim-sham and cakewalk by Scott and Jones, who also gets to mouth one of the finest pick-up lines in all of cinema: “Christianity has had a devastating effect on man as an intuitive creature, don’t you think?” Collins, a film professor at City College of New York, left a small but distinguished legacy when she died at age forty-six in 1988—her fifty-four-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), which shows her and DP Ronald K. Gray beginning experiments with subjective camerawork that they’ll continue in Losing Ground, will also have a revival.
Religious ecstasy, the effect of Christianity on intuitive man, and the interplay between folkloric and philosophic Euro-African influences are all at play in another film featuring both Gunn and Jones which can be seen at FSLC, Ganja & Hess (1973), an utterly original vampire film which Gunn wrote and directed. Gunn had broken into studio filmmaking directing the unreleased Stop and scripting Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (both 1970), then spent the remainder of his creative career spiraling further and further out into his own different-drummer creative orbit. Extracts from the Gunn-directed television experiment Personal Problems (1980) will also screen. Scripted by the novelist Ishmael Reed, Personal Problems has for lack of a better description been dubbed a “soap opera,” but what I’ve seen is nearer to Cassavetes than The Young and the Restless, a showcase for Gunn’s idiosyncratic compositional eye and loose, rangy, tumultuous ensemble performances. (The night before the opening of “Tell It Like It Is,” Reed will appear at Maysles Cinema in Harlem to present his short film The Only Language She Knows.)
In Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, a prick from an ancient African ceremonial dagger activates an atavistic bloodlust in Jones’s imperious Dr. Hess, who eventually destroys himself after attending a raucous service at the church where his chauffeur acts as minister. (The almost documentary quality of the church scenes contrasts with the sensual, baroque atmospherics that Gunn develops elsewhere.) The central role of the church, for good or ill, is on display throughout works in “Tell It Like It Is”—One Last Look (1969), a sixty-minute film made by Charles Hobson for New York’s WABC-TV from a play by Steve Carver, is largely shot from a behind-the-pulpit POV. Hobson’s film concerns two families—one official, the other illegitimate—gathered to grieve their dead patriarch at his open-casket funeral, as one after another family member takes their turn confronting his unquiet spirit, which talks (and winks) back. Hobson will be on hand to present the little-seen One Last Look, as well as a selection of clips from Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, the community-oriented television show which aired on New York’s W-NEW from 1968 to 1970, on which he got his start as a TV producer. (Included are interviews with Harry Belafonte and a performance by LeRoi Jones’s Young Spirit House Movers.)
Camille Billops and James Hatch’s Suzanne Suzanne (1982), like One Last Look, interrogates the wreckage left behind in the absence of a dead parent. The subject is Billops’s niece, Suzanne, a recovering heroin addict who discusses the abuse that she suffered at the hands of her deceased father. The film’s arresting climax has Suzanne and her mother, an elegant sometimes-model, arranged together against a black backdrop in a composition reminiscent of Bergman, breaking down as they share together the memory of the beatings that they’d suffered alone. Suzanne Suzanne plays as part of a “Women’s Work Program,” along with two shorts by Ayoka Chenzira: _Syvilla–They Dance to Her Drum (1979), a documentary about the last months of Syvilla Fort, who taught a blend of Dunham technique and other modern influences at her studio on Forty-Fourth Street, and HAIR PIECE: a film for nappyheaded people (1985), a history of hair-straightening torments told through cut-out construction paper animation.
While “Tell It Like It Is” might be taken as an East Coast answer to the “L.A. Rebellion” program, in truth it is a difficult proposition to designate coastal “schools” of black independent filmmaking. Daughters of the Dust filmmaker Julie Dash, a key LA Rebellion figure, was born in Queens, while Billops, though based in New York when she made Suzanne Suzanne, is a USC-educated Californian. More to the point, the African-American diaspora leads back, in a great many cases, to the South and its “peculiar institution,” a past found very present a century or more after Abolition. A program of films by Madeline Anderson, who will be introducing her works in person, begins with her I Am Somebody (1970), a retelling of a 1969 strike by mostly black hospital workers of the Medical College Hospital of the University of South Carolina, Charleston. That integration has done little-to-nothing toward correcting gross economic disparity is the through line of I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982), made by the married team of Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley, which follows Harlem-born author James Baldwin as he tours the land of his ancestors and of past political struggles, while interposed archival footage allows older subjects to interact with their younger selves. On the eve of the Reagan election, Baldwin revisits the battlefields of the civil rights movement, from Birmingham to Selma to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to the “enlightened” North, where the author Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) takes him on a guided tour of the gutted slums of his native Newark. (Baraka is the subject of a program of his own which includes his 1968 short The New-Ark.)
The dates bracketing Film Society’s program are not chosen at random: 1968 is the year of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, of the Newark Spirit House and The New-Ark, and of the epochal Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One by William Greaves. The significance of 1986 can be summarized in a single title: Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, which will play FSLC, as will Lee’s thesis film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barber Shop: We Cut Heads. The success of She’s Gotta Have It was understood to have ushered in a new era for black American filmmaking, though Lee, no less (and probably more) than most filmmakers, is only as good as his last movie. The director has turned to Kickstarter to finance his most recent work, which will open in New York while “Tell It Like It Is” is still under way. Titled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, it’s a contemporary remake of Ganja & Hess, a choice which may be taken as a sign of stalled creativity, or of refreshing his practice by returning to history. One may think of Lee when watching the motormouth student filmmaker in Losing Ground rhapsodizing on “Pearl McCormack in Scar of Shame, Philadelphia Colored Players, 1927” and “Dorothy Dandridge, Bright Road, Gerald Mayer, MGM, 1953,” and acutely aware of his place in a grand tradition.
“Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986” plays February 6–19 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.